Video Game Review: Torchlight [XBLA]

Torchlight [XBLA]

Torchlight
System: Xbox Live Arcade (also on PC and Mac OS X)
Genre: Action RPG
Publisher: Runic Games
Developer: Runic Games
Release Date: March 9, 2011

With the recent non-stop releases of major video game blockbusters, sometimes it’s nice to go to a mindless diversion — one that is fun to play, but doesn’t require any serious thought. Enter Torchlight, a 2011 XBLA dungeon crawler, to fill that void.

Essentially a spiritual sibling to the Diablo series (developer Runic Games is composed of ex-Diablo designers), Torchlight is a fantasy game that is all about hacking, slashing and looting. The plot is entirely irrelevant — that is to say, there is one, but it basically boils down to someone telling the main character to just keep working through a 35-floor dungeon in order to save a town from impending doom. Throw in some cheesy voice acting, and yeah, it’s ultimately rather laughable.

Torchlight [XBLA]

Regardless, Torchlight delivers the goods in terms of gameplay. After creating a main character (male or female), selecting their class (Destroyer, Alchemist or Vanquisher), and determining an animal companion (wolf, lynx or “Chakawary”), you are sent to a small village and given free reign to pick up new quests.

The main adventure sends you into a huge dungeon where you must work your way through floor-by-floor, battling countless enemies and the occasional bosses. The floor themes change at regular intervals, offering some new visuals to break up the monotony. Completing the main quest takes roughly ten hours, but additional sidequests and random exploration can easily stretch the game into a much higher number.

How much you will get out of Torchlight depends on how much you like looting dungeons and leveling up your character. The XP system is well-developed, as you can boost attributes in a number of areas, as well as learn new skills to help in combat. The battle system is particularly brilliant, as each button of the controller can be used for a different, monster-bashing spell. It’s all fluid and easy to learn.

Torchlight [XBLA]

Torchlight is great at what it sets out to accomplish, but it could be even better with a few adjustments. My biggest complaint is a lack of multiplayer. This dungeon crawler has the perfect setting for a co-op mode, but it is nowhere to be found. The upcoming Torchlight II rectifies this, but it should have been included in the original anyway. Also, the game has a bad habit of using small text in the menus. I have a good-sized TV but still had to squint to be able to read some of the items in the menu. Finally, some showdowns with multiple enemies on screen can lead to occasional slowdown. Nothing too terrible, but it can be a tad bothersome.

Still, if you’re in the market for a fun Diablo-esque adventure, Torchlight comes highly recommended. Ignore the weak story and just dig into the addictive hack ‘n slash gameplay. Keep an eye out for any future deals because the game does go on sale on XBLA from time to time (I bought mine half off for $7.50), but this isn’t a bad deal at full price either.

8/10

Video Game Review: The Baconing [XBLA, 2011]

The Baconing [XBLA, 2011]

The Baconing
System: Xbox 360 (also available on PS3, PC and Mac)
Publisher: Valcon Games
Developer: Hothead Games
Release Date: August 31, 2011

Mmm… bacon.

Hothead Games have quietly released a trilogy of fantasy action/RPG spoofs that are humorously epic in nature. All three titles revolve around the loud and boisterous superhero DeathSpank, whose name is oddly lacking in the third game’s title, The Baconing. I played through the first DeathSpank last year and had a blast. I sadly missed out on the second adventure, DeathSpank: Thongs of Virtue, but I am happy to pick the series back up.

This time around our macho-yet-frivolous hero, DeathSpank, is bored. After his efforts in the first two games, he has conquered all of his enemies and now sits inattentive on his throne. Somehow he gets the bright idea to wear all six of his recently attained Thongs of Virtue at once, and this sets off a catastrophic series of events that creates an evil version of himself: AntiSpank. In order to fix his latest problem, DeathSpank must destroy the thongs one by one in the Fires of Bacon. And so begins the journey of our Hero to the Downtrodden.

The DeathSpank trilogy’s claim to fame has always been its sense of humor, and The Baconing’s story certainly reflects that. This is the first entry in the series not to have input from Ron Gilbert, the famed Monkey Island creator, but the jokes don’t miss a beat without him. There were many times where I got a good laugh out of DeathSpank’s witty retorts, as well as some of the downright bizarre characters he meets along the way. This game takes pride in its jocular approach, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Baconing: Forest of Tomorrow

The Baconing offers the same tried and true hack ‘n slash gameplay DeathSpank is known for. Our hero has access to all sorts of weapons — clubs, swords, crossbows, grenades and the like — and can upgrade them as he levels up. The same goes for armor and magic potions. All of these can be obtained through frequent looting, and it is rare to have to actually purchase anything in the game because of this.

There is one noticeable difference in combat this time: it is a hell of a lot more difficult than before. It’s rare that I have to turn a game down to “Easy” to make real progress, but I had to with The Baconing. Even then, fighting foes could be brutal. My favorite method from before — running in and hacking away — does not work so well here, as that is a surefire way to get killed fast. Combat now requires a certain amount of strategy. There are more barrels scattered around that can be used to damage or temporarily stun enemies, and it is generally a good idea to take full advantage of them.

DeathSpank’s shield is also revitalized for this game, and he can now charge up and perform a bash move to hit the enemy and push them back out of melee range. It took me a little while to get the hang of this new function, but it certainly helped with combat after doing so.

DeathSpank’s adventure is fairly linear, there is still a lot to do. This game has more than 100 new quests in total, and there is a fun Arena feature where you can battle through waves of enemies in order to gain access to a massive treasure chest. Occasionally the quests provide puzzles, some of which can be challenging. Thankfully DeathSpank can collect fortune cookies which are used to obtain hints, if ever needed.

The Baconing [XBLA, 2011]

If there’s one general complaint that could be made about The Baconing, it’s that the game is almost identical to its past efforts. This is both a blessing and a curse. The style of gameplay works just fine for the most part, but I can see how some will be disappointed that The Baconing doesn’t really try anything new. It helps to come into this with the mindset that this is more of the same DeathSpank that was so well-executed before.

Visually, The Baconing doesn’t look any different, which is certainly a good thing. The art style is whimsical and full of color, and some of the locations are an absolute riot. I got a huge kick out of Z.I.M.O.N., a supercomputer from the 1980s, and his TRON-like area looks unlike any other found in the game. There’s even an amusing little mini-game that riffs on his name. Little things like that are what make The Baconing worth playing, and the impressive character voice acting helps as well. DeathSpank reminds me a little of The Tick, and he is played to perfection. Hothead Games really nailed the audio/visual aspects.

You will know right away if you are going to like The Baconing or not, as this type of game isn’t for everywhere. You don’t need to have played a previous DeathSpank title to play this one, although it certainly helps since a handful of past characters make amusing cameos. While the difficulty levels could have been evened out a little better, and it would have been nice to see more changes to the general gameplay, I still had a blast with The Baconing. The same hilarious sense of humor is present, and the action/RPG elements are fun as ever. Hopefully we haven’t seen the last of our testosterone-filled hero.

8/10

Video Game Review: Castlevania: Lords of Shadow [Xbox 360, 2010]

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow
System: Xbox 360
Publisher: Konami
Developer: Mercury Steam/Kojima Productions
Release Date: October 5, 2010

It’s no secret that I love the Castlevania series. I got hooked thanks to the PSOne classic, Symphony of the Night, and had a blast digging into the older titles (not to mention the later SOTN-like handheld sequels). I even enjoyed their first 3D offering, Castlevania 64. So naturally, I was excited to play Castlevania: Lords of Shadow (LOS), last year’s title that Konami went all out on — sparing no expense in terms of presentation. While LOS certainly looks good, the problem is that this is a generic adventure game masquerading as a Castlevania title.

You play as Gabriel Belmont, a member of the Brotherhood of Light, a group of holy knights who protect citizens from supernatural creatures. After his wife is murdered by one of them, Gabriel embarks on a journey to bring back his wife while subsequently saving the world from evil. This storyline is a complete reboot of the franchise, but it still doesn’t feel like anything new. I never played the Castlevania games for their stories, but Lords of Shadow just feels like a generic fantasy plot that is anything but interesting. This wouldn’t be a huge deal if the game didn’t feel the need to shove cutscene after cutscene down your throat, almost begging you to acknowledge it as a respectable story. I couldn’t get into it, but this wouldn’t bother me if the gameplay were solid. Unfortunately, it’s not.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

The game plays out like a poor man’s hybrid of God of War and Uncharted. Combat is typical hack ‘n slash fare (using a chain whip), with buttons for both “light” and “heavy” attacks. As you kill more enemies, you can unlock new, more powerful combinations, and you are given a helpful handbook to remember all of them. The game also uses the same type of magic/health systems found in God of War, even going so far as to require collecting six cogs to upgrade your meters. If you have played God of War or any other hack ‘n slasher from this generation, you will feel right at home here. There’s nothing new to see.

The Uncharted influence comes in the way of its handling of platforming elements. Gabriel often has to jump from ledge to ledge while hanging around on the side of a building, occasionally using his chain to rappel him to distant areas. Rappelling is actually a bit of a problem — there were several instances where I was rappelling down the side of a building then immediately died after reaching some sort of imaginary boundary line. Apparently the rappel can only work at various distances depending on whatever the game feels like at that particular moment. This leads to obnoxiously cheap deaths. Thankfully, checkpoints are generous, but this is still an annoyance that could have been easily fixed.

A tried and true staple of the hack ‘n slash genre are epic boss battles. Lords of Shadow tries its hand at this in the form of Titan battles. By all means, fighting these Titans should be badass. They are HUGE, not dissimilar from some of the gods in God of War. LOS’s problem is that these boss fights are painfully boring. It doesn’t take long to figure out the pattern to take them down one limb at a time, and winning ultimately amounts to climbing up them, hitting some relics and dodging their attacks. This wouldn’t be so bad if the entire sequence wasn’t horrendously slow. These fights go on far too long since the Titans take their sweet time doing anything, and every time something happens the game feels the need to show a pointless cutscene. Thankfully, there are only a handful of these segments in the game, but I can’t help but feel there was a lot of potential wasted with them.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

That’s really the story of Lords of Shadow: wasted potential. It all starts with the new envisioning of Belmont — this kid is devoid of any personality, has poor voice acting and looks like Generic Video Game Hero #3999573. The game’s environments, while absolutely beautiful, feel hollow and uninviting. The game attempts to create the feel of a wide open world, but it actually comes across as boxed in. Only narrow sections of the massive environments are open for use, which makes the gameplay feel like it is stuck a generation behind. LOS also uses a fixed camera, and it is absolutely horrible. The camera angles have a habit of changing at the most inopportune times, causing more cheap deaths and hiding crucial game elements.

Simple tweaks here and there would have led to an infinitely more rewarding experience. It’s not that Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is necessarily a bad game, it’s just that it doesn’t do anything particularly well. Everything here has been done before, and the total sum of all parts is merely average. It’s a shame that Konami felt the need to add the Castlevania name to this title because Lords of Shadow simply represents another failed effort to “upgrade” the series.

5/10 – average

Hero of Sparta [PS3/PSP Mini, 2009]

Hero of Sparta [PS3/PSP Mini]

Hero of Sparta
System: PS3/PSP Mini
Developer: Gameloft
Release Date: October 1, 2009

Hero of Sparta is a hack ‘n slash game that is clearly inspired by the popular God of War series. OK, I am wording that far too nicely — this is a blatant ripoff of God of War. Hero of Sparta is essentially GOW stripped down to its most basic core, and unfortunately it just doesn’t work out that well.

All of the familiar gameplay mechanics are here. You work your way from room to room, killing boatloads of enemies (complete with painfully easy quick time events), and solving the occasional “puzzle” before heading off to an “epic” boss battle. The use of quotations is deserved here because the puzzles require little effort, and the boss battles are laughable. Another similarity is that you even absorb orbs when enemies are slaughtered, which in turn provide power-ups to your health and magic meters.

With its rough polygonal graphics, Hero of Sparta looks and feels like a Playstation One game. I imagine this is what God of War would have been like if it were released a good ten years prior. It’s not bad, per se, but it has basically stripped out all of the elements that made GOW so fun, and turned the game into a series of dull and repetitive combat sequences. Considering there are several actual GOW games to play on both the PS3 and PSP, it is completely unnecessary to acquire this via the Playstation Network. There are far better ways to spend that $5. I can possibly see the appeal of a game like this on the iPhone, but for a PS3/PSP Mini, this is not worth your time.

5/10

God of War III [Playstation 3, 2010]

God of War III [2010]

God of War III
System: Playstaton 3
Publisher: SCEA
Release Date: March 16, 2010

God of War III is the grand finale to Sony’s hack ‘n slash trilogy, and it is the first venture using the PS3 and all of its technical prowess. GOW3 makes full use of its new system — this is easily one of the best-looking video games I have ever seen! It really is quite amazing to play through this trilogy in order, just to see how much it has improved over time, especially in the graphics department. The attention to detail is phenomenal. There were times when I was watching a cutscene in the game, didn’t realize the scene was over, and stood there for a good minute before realizing that I was now in control. Seriously, this game looks THAT good. Kratos has never looked meaner, and the violence is gorier than ever before.

As always, God of War III opens with a huge fucking bang. Picking up right after the second game’s cliffhanger ending, GOW3 starts with Kratos climbing up Mount Olympus in order to slay Zeus. This introduction is just unbelievable, as Kratos is fighting off enemies while riding on top of the giant Gaia, who in turn is slowly climbing up the mountain. Throw in a massive boss battle during this opening segment, and it rivals the insane boss fight with Colossus that opened GOW2. The game doesn’t let up from this point either. There are epic bosses all over the place, including another batshit crazy battle against a Titan.

The core gameplay remains the same other than some small tweaks to the presentation. A handful of new weapons are introduced, including the ever-brutal Cestus which is acquired from one-tough-mother of a boss. The puzzles this time around are improved, and do not feel as out of place as the ones found in previous games occasionally did. Kratos’s journey is full of action and literally takes him into the depths of Hell.

If I were to have a complaint about the game, it’s that this is the shortest entry in the series. I finished the game in just over 8 hours, which is less than I spent playing the first two games. Still, I can’t complain too much because the overall experience was just amazing. This is a game that I am proud to have in my collection, and it is one that I plan on replaying at some point in the future.

Sony really went all out with God of War III (even going so far as to have Kevin F’N Sorbo do the voice of Hercules), and the result is that this is one of the best games of 2010. If this really is the end of the trilogy, GOW3 is one hell of a note to go out on. Simply an excellent game from beginning to end. Highly, highly recommended!

9.5/10

God of War Collection [Playstation 3, 2009]

God of War Collection [PS3]

God of War Collection
System: Playstaton 3
Publisher: SCEA
Release Date: November 17, 2009

God of War Collection is a compilation of the PS2 hack ‘n slash games God of War & God of War II. Both games were updated specifically for the PS3, meaning that they now play in HD resolution. Other noteworthy improvements are being able to run the games at a consistent 60 frames-per-second (instead of a variable FPS rate on the PS2), less jagged edges via anti-aliasing, and sharpened textures. The PS2 graphics were no slouch to begin with, but this collection puts these games on a whole ‘nother level.

If you’re into trophies, this collection allows you to earn them individually for both games. Another added bonus is the inclusion of God of War II “bonus content,” which is basically a dozen or so videos about the making of the game, hidden levels, character development, etc. You really get a lot of bang for your buck with this package.

If you have never played either God of War game before, you absolutely must get this set! Being able to play through both games in HD for the first time is an absolute privilege. Even those who experienced the PS2 originals should give this a look — the sharp graphics and addition of trophies almost make the games feel brand new. Individually, the games are both great, but as a collection this is nothing short of amazing. Two great games at a budget price = gold.

10/10

For more information on each game, please visit my individual reviews:

God of War
God of War II

God of War II [Playstation 2, 2007]

God of War II

God of War II
System: Playstaton 2
Publisher: SCEA
Release Date: March 13, 2007

WOW, now THIS is how you do a sequel! God of War II takes everything from its predecessor and increases it tenfold. After conquering Atlas in the first game, Kratos has taken over as the new God of War. Kratos’s bloodthirsty ways have not been kindly looked upon by the other gods, and the almighty Zeus has finally had enough and strips Kratos of his power. Now a down-and-broken man, Kratos sets off on the ultimate quest: to murder Zeus. A lofty task, to be sure, and the journey along the way is nothing short of incredible.

The original God of War is a great-looking game, but GOW2 is just beautiful (well, as beautiful as gory non-stop violence can be). The textures have been cleaned up admirably, and everything looks sharper as a whole. While I was impressed with the original GOW’s visuals, this is easily one of the best-looking games ever created for the PS2.

The game’s mechanics are largely the same. This is still a prominent hack ‘n slash brawler with platforming, puzzle and RPG elements. There are a handful of new traits that Kratos can acquire, such as the ability to glide and to fly atop the famed horse Pegasus, but the same principles remain. One of my biggest concerns with God of War was its lack of boss battles. This issue has been dramatically improved in GOW2. At the very beginning of the game, you are inserted into an epic battle against the massive Colossus, a boss fight that was forever immortalized by Penny Arcade. Boss battles are everywhere in this game, and some of them rank among the most memorable fights I have ever experienced in a video game. Some people complained about the first God of War’s length (about 8-10 hours). This has also been improved in GOW2, as now a typical campaign will last closer to 12+ hours. These enhancements really show that SCE Santa Monica listened to their fanbase, and you have to respect that.

God of War 2 has accomplished what sequels should do in the first place, and that is to improve upon as many aspects as possible. While I hesitate to say the game is “perfect” (there are still occasional camera issues, and some of the puzzles are absolutely frustrating), I would still consider GOW2 one of the best action/adventure games I have ever played, and it is easily among the best in the PS2’s gigantic library. Highly, highly recommended!

9/10

God of War [Playstation 2, 2005]

God of War [PS2]

God of War
System: Playstaton 2
Publisher: SCEA
Release Date: March 22, 2005

God of War is widely considered one of the best games on the now-hanging-on-a-thread Playstation 2 system. As a third-person action adventure game, God of War is certainly a strong offering. The game combines elements from all sorts of genres, including platform, puzzle and, to a lesser extent, RPGs. At its core, however, GoW is a hack ‘n slash brawler.

Users play as Kratos, a blood-thirsty Greek warrior with unbelievable strength who is on a revenge mission to kill Ares, the god of war. The story is simple, but as the game progresses it is easy to get behind the revenge plotine. The Greek mythological setting allows the game to provide some truly epic moments. Boss battles, although few and far in between, are incredibly intense, as there is nothing like taking on an opponent far bigger than Kratos. In order to slay bosses and some other tough enemies, users have to input certain buttons/joystick movements to match what is shown on screen. While some oppose these quick-time events, I found them to be satisfying since they help create a frantic atmosphere in the key moments of the game. There are dozens of memorable events in the game, and with an impressive soundtrack in the background, it truly feels as if you are partaking in something epic.

While God of War is a well-polished game (and easily one of the best-looking on the PS2), it does have a couple flaws that hold it back from being a masterpiece. As mentioned earlier, the boss battles are incredible yet there are only a few in the game. It would be nice to see more of them to break up the occasional monotony of entering a room, clearing it of enemies, and then repeating this over and over. Also, while the stationary camera angles are usually good enough, there are moments where they switch over at the most inopportune times. This doesn’t happen too often, but when it does it is frustrating. Overall, however, God of War is definitely an enjoyable experience and is one of the strongest hack ‘n slash games available on the PS2.

8/10