300 Words or Less – Soundodger+

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The whole point of Soundodger+ is to steer your tiny sphere around colored arrows that pop out with the beat of a song, much like an old bullet-hell SHUMP.

It sounds simple, but there’s something pretty special about Soundodger+, something that didn’t show itself until I was pretty deep into the game’s 23 song long tracklist. It was in the level set to Austin Wintory’s Lost Age, a sweeping classical tune that’s only slightly reminiscent of his work on the Journey soundtrack.

Everything faded away and, for a brief moment, I was dancing. The aggressive little triangles arced around my fragile little dot as the music soared, pirouetting and looping about like a trained ballerina. All I could do was keep up, following their lead and doing my best to not to step on any toes.

And just like that, everything clicked. I started to see the patterns underlying every seemingly random expulsion of arrows, my frantic dart replaced with a calm sway. I cracked the code, learned the rules, and suddenly I was swooping about the tiny playing field without a care. I was like Neo in the Matrix. I knew kung-fu, and it felt great.

I know a game has me when I catch myself smiling while playing it. Super Hexagon did it, and I’ve put over 20 hours into that game as a result. Practically every song in Soundodger+ has dredged up a primal grin from me, the kind of look that makes you lean forward in your chair and stop blinking for the duration of the level.

It’s not a game for everybody, and I heartily recommend you try out the free version before buying it, but even if you barely know your right foot from your left, Soundodger+ is a fascinating and unique way to experience music.

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300 Words or Less – The Wolf Among Us

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There’s only one mistake you can make in Telltale’s The Wolf Among Us, one tragic error that can completely invalidate the whole neon-drenched noir experience:

Compare it to The Walking Dead.

It’s an easy comparison to make. Both are heavily IP-based, both are cel-shaded, and both start with that same cryptic warning that the game will change based on your choices. Shit, odds are good you even bought Wolf purely on the strength of their undead opus.

But if you try and bring Lee and Clem into Fabletown, you’ll just disappoint yourself. The two titles are fundamentally different in a way that you can easily miss if you’re not paying attention. It’s all about the main character.

While Lee was a cipher for the player, Bigby is a character of his own.

Wolf is Bigby’s story, one that’s told in the Fables comics, one that exists outside the whims of the player. It’s there in his perpetually gruff demeanor, regardless of your off-the-cuff dialogue choice. While you might assist as a navigator, pointing out clues and helping him solve the mystery underlying the first episode, his course is very much his own.

Personally, I love it. It’s Telltale taking all the lessons they learned from Dead and applying them to a much more traditional adventure game full of clues and questions. The visual style is amazing, the setting is interesting, and the plot is as thick as congealed plasma.

Sure, there will always be a place in my heart for Lee, Clem, Kenny, and the rest of them, but until Season 2, I’ll be happy skulking about the back alleys of Fabletown with Bigby, making friends and enemies alike.

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300 Words or Less – Outlast

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H.P. Lovecraft, the foremost creepy racist shut-in of our time, once said that “the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” It’s evident in his stories, about vast unknowable terrors from beyond the stars blindly crushing humanity.

His point is that something is the scariest when you don’t understand it, can’t see it, and stand no chance against it. Horror is about returning you to that moment where, hunched under your blankets, all you can do is wait for the serial killer’s machete to fall.

There are moments in Outlast’s opening hour which trade heavily in this kind of mind melting madness. Creeping along the hallways of the ruined Mount Massive (what?) Hospital, it’s hard to not be overcome by the oppressively stagnant atmosphere that developer Red Barrels has meticulously crafted. Patients stalk the shadows, doing terrible things to each other, their beady eyes highlighted by the blurry nightvision filter on the handheld video camera that frames your experience.

Then you’re hiding in the dark, waiting for the same fat ugly naked psychopath you’ve seen for the last hour to patrol by again so you can go hit another switch. Eventually you just start to run past enemies, getting punched in the face but hey, that’s better than sitting in the dark for another twenty minutes. And look, there’s another head in another toilet.

Suddenly, it’s just not scary anymore. You’re no longer that kid under the blankets, desperate and terrified. No, you’re the crafty victor, darting from shadow to shadow, using your cunning to conquer your previously unstoppable foes. It’s like Splinter Cell, just without guns. Your camera even makes that annoying bwueeeeee noise.

But when you’re creeping through the dark, your ragged breathing your only companion, Outlast is great.

Screenshot gallery after the bump.

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300 Words or Less – Castlevania: Lords of Shadow Ultimate Edition

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Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is an aspirational title, a lofty attempt to pull the Castlevania franchise out of it’s Metroid shaped rut and into the third dimension. Sure, there had been attempts in the past, but they were mediocre at best (Curse of Darkness) and hilariously bizarre at worst (Castlevania 64).

It was Mercury Steam, a relatively untested Spanish studio, who managed to pull it off, with LoS becoming the best selling title in the franchise despite the outcry of series stalwarts. Best described as God of War meets Uncharted meets Shadow of the Colossus, it’s a sweeping epic with tight combat mechanics and an amazing soundtrack by Oscar Araujo. A slightly more traditional “Metroidvania” sequel, Mirror of Fate, was released for the 3DS, with the forthcoming Lords of Shadow 2 bucking the trend even more with a transition to an open-world.

Ultimate Edition is the best way to experience this game before Lords of Shadow 2’s October release. The PC port includes the two DLC packs and while it features a modest suite of advanced tweaking options, even on a mid-range rig it can pull 60fps at 1080p and maximum settings. Mercury Steam is putting its best foot forward on the PC, a good sign for Lords of Shadow 2, which runs on the same engine and will be launching on the PC alongside consoles. The only place where LoS:UE falls down is the pre-recorded cutscenes, which are still at a low enough resolution to be quite jaggy at 1080p.

All of these improvements, plus the addition of the middling story-based DLC, make Ultimate Edition the best way to experience Lords of Shadow for both new players and returning fans. It’s the way the game was meant to be played, without the subpar framerate of the console original.

Screenshot gallery after the bump.

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Aiming In The Right Direction – Killzone Mercenary Beta Impressions

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The idea of putting a traditional first-person shooter on a handheld has been one of the golden geese of the last few years, desperately sought after but practically mythological. Prior to the launch of the Vita, the biggest challenge was mimicing the dual-stick control system players are used to on systems with only one stick, leading to a hilarious series of confused and hand-cramping ordeals on both the PSP and Nintendo DS (Metroid Prime: Hunters anyone?) The inclusion of two sticks on the Vita seemed like a shaft of light from the heavens. Would gamers finally be able to play Call of Duty on the toilet?

Well, no. Both of the early attempts, Resistance: Burning Skies and Call of Duty: Declassified, were sub-par attempts, with Declassified being a straight-up embarassment.

It’s onto this dirty stage that Sony has trotted Killzone: Mercenary, hoping that this new take on the same old song and dance might sate the jaded and rowdy audience of Vita owners clammoring for a good shooter to take on-the-go.

On August 20th, Sony opened up the multiplayer beta of Mercenary for PS+ users, with everybody else getting folded in on the 28th, ahead of the official North American release on September 10th. Having finally freed up some space on my stupidly small 8gb memory card, I downloaded it and gave it a whirl. Here are some of my impressions.

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Dildo Bats, Mixtapes, and the Future of Gaming

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In the last seven days, I’ve played and completed two games that, despite being polar opposites of each other, will almost assuredly end up alongside each other in my Top 5 Games of the Year. If they were people, they would be the sullen dramatist in the back of the classroom and the puckish rogue shooting spitwads at the teacher, the quintessential gaming Odd Couple.

The two games are Gone Home and Saints Row IV.

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Origin Adds 24-hour Return Policy

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If you haven’t heard yet, Origin is going to start offering free refunds of EA games, as long as you contact them within 24 hours of launching it or seven days of purchasing it. They’re even giving you seven days from release in the case of pre-orders.

Is this a message that EA is willing to put their money where their mouth is and back up the value of their titles in a very real way? They’re going all-in on gamers wanting to keep their games after the first 24 hours, something that no company has ever done in such an overt way before. Sure, you could get the odd refund here and there from a kind indie dev or smaller studio, but good luck getting Valve or Square Enix to respond to your pleas.

Hopefully this is a sign that the days of the 5-8 hour singleplayer title with tacked-on multiplayer features are finally behind us. While this might lead to more robust campaigns, this could also signal the killing blow for the singleplayer portion of games like Battlefield, whose solo sections are already hanging on by a thread. What this says about the future of more focused titles with the publisher is hard to say though. Could an amazing, yet short, game like Gone Home have existed with such a system in place?

That said, it’s not as crazy as you may think. Those in the know are probably already familiar with the infamous “GameStop rental” system wherein you can return a used game for exchange within seven days of purchase, effectively chaining games for as long as you can keep up the marathon pace. It’s a dirty trick, one that can very easily earn you a store ban from the rare manager who cares enough to look, but it’s the bastion of many a broke teen gamer. Got me through some lean times during the PS2 era, that’s for sure.

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