Friday, August 30, 2013

Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World Review - Well, Since I Don't Have Xillia...

As the gaming industry has marched on, the JRPG genre has become a somewhat divisive one for sticking to a lot of its established traditions. And, apparently, “traditions” often translates to “dated elements” and “clichés” in the eyes of the gaming public. But it’s hardly fair to insinuate that there’s an inherent lack of creativity in JRPG’s when we like to revel in some common tropes and “clichés” of our own – just compare two or more war shooters and count all the similarities. But in the end, maybe it’s only natural that we’d more easily accept the commonalities of our own culture’s media than those of another. Perhaps JRPG’s were only destined to become slightly niche to begin with, but it’s a niche I’m perfectly happy with. Personally, the folks across the pond have always done a better job of capturing my imagination than our home-grown high fantasy open-worlds or sci-fi space operas, no doubt thanks to my being raised on a healthy dose of such like Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy (although I can hardly claim to having finished even half of the games in the series).
Hey, speaking of, this is the worst thing ever.
Naturally,Tales of Symphonia found its way into my heart somewhere down the line, introducing me to an entirely new and wonderful series with a battle system that I found no less than ingenious. Never mind, of course, the great storyline, lovable characters, and fun level design. Later on, I played Abyss – which had an excellent story, by the way – and Tales of Graces F, which is now one of my favorite RPG’s of all time. So, while I can’t say I’m the biggest buff on the series, I certainly enjoy it quite a bit, and I really want to get my hands on Tales of Xillia. It's...really too bad that I'm broke and Christmas is a ways off. So instead, I had to find another way to scratch the itch, and that’s what led me to the game I’m reviewing right now. See, I picked this game up in 2009, not long after I had finished the first game. I mean, hey, I enjoyed the original, so buying the direct sequel seemed like the next logical step. I was aware of the polarized-at-best reaction, but that’s the thing with divisive games like this: you’ve got to play it for yourself and see if it works for you. In my case, I played it for about fifteen hours, and I remember enjoying it, if not as much as the first game. Of course, at age 13, I also enjoyed freaking Nickelback; not to mention I didn’t actually finish it. So with little better to do as summer came to a close, I decided to play it through to the end and see what this low-budget spinoff was really about. In the end, did I like it?

Well…yes, I…kind of did. Don’t get me wrong, I have a laundry list of complaints, but…well…maybe it would be better just to get started.

So, let’s talk story, since that’s pretty important in a game like this. Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World takes place two years after the original Tales of Symphonia, where the joining of the two worlds, Sylvarant and Tethe’alla, has led to political unrest. In response to the bigotry and power of the Tehe’allan civilization, whose strength has only grown after gaining the Church of Martel’s favor, a group of Sylvaranti has formed the Vanguard, dedicated to liberating Sylvarant from its oppression. The Church of Martel responds by declaring war on the Vanguard, resulting in a Blood Purge taking place in the town of Palmacosta. It’s during this Blood Purge that the parents of our main character, Emil Castagnier, are killed by none other than Tales of Symphonia protagonist Lloyd Irving, and he is sent off to Luin to live with his aunt and uncle. Emil soon finds life difficult due to his distaste for Lloyd, who is viewed by the population as a hero, as well as his unfathomably timid personality.

But right on time, he meets Richter Abend, who imparts upon him the most poignant piece of poeticism to ever receive utterance from the human mouth. Now armed with the knowledge that courage is the mystical force by which his aspirations shall be made tangible, he ventures down into the bed of the dried Lake Sinoa to investigate a strange noise. After a rather complicated series of events, our spineless annoyance becomes a knight in service of a monster lord known as Ratatosk, whose dormant state is the reason for the world’s rather screwy climate. His core has attached itself to the forehead of Marta Lualdi and will not regain power until all of the world’s Centurions have awoken. To do this, Marta has to hatch the core of each. However, Lloyd seems to be trying to get the cores for his own mysterious reasons, and the Vanguard is after Ratatosk’s core as well. Drawing on some of Ratatosk’s power and accompanied by a Centurion named Tenebrae, Marta and Emil set out on a quest of much grandiosity to find all of the Centurion’s Cores and reawaken Lord Ratatosk, having occasional run-ins with the original Symphonia cast and some close calls with the Vanguard along the way. However, while Ratatosk turns Emil into a competent fighter, it also seems to bring out a darker side to his personality, and he has to come to terms with the fact that the Richter he respects so much might not quite be on his side.
Here, have some Google Images screenshots.
So if you can't tell by that lengthy string of what may be run-on sentences, it's pretty complicated stuff. But I have to say, I ended up enjoying the story quite a bit. After Symphonia’s rather optimistic ending, it’s actually pretty interesting to see how rejoining the worlds had some unprecedented consequences. The conflict between the two countries is well-thought-out and makes a lot of sense. Marta’s position as a former member of the Vanguard also leads to some nice development, and there ends up being more to the Vanguard's motivation than we see at the beginning. Lloyd’s transformation into a villain was also pretty interesting. Where Emil and Marta only know him as the murderer who carried out the Blood Purge, everyone else sees him as a hero thanks to the first game’s events. Throughout the story, we're left to wonder what provoked this change in character. Why is he after the Centurion’s cores, and is he really responsible for what amounts to mass murder? Admittedly, the explanation is just a little anticlimactic, but it does make sense by the end. 

Emil’s character arc, however, is probably the most fascinating part of the whole thing. It starts out kind of clichéd, but his split personality gets delved into a lot after it drives him to some morally questionable actions and affects his relationship with Marta. And then, in true Tales fashion, the twists start pouring in, plot bombs are dropped, and he is sent through heaps upon heaps of character development. This development extends to his romance with Marta, as well; what starts out as a rather childish, one-sided affection eventually becomes something sweet and genuinely believable. And while I won’t say much for spoilers, the villain is pretty good, too. Some players might find the story a bit too complicated – and even I have to admit that some plot points felt just a tad contrived – but the overall offering is pretty strong...even if it doesn't start out very promising.
Red Eyes, Take Warning
So, it’s a mostly well-constructed story that has some very well-executed character development. But…is the story delivered well? The answer is yes and no. To make my first major point, I’d like to turn our attention to a certain notable RPG that came out in 2001:

Final Fantasy X, alternately acclaimed as one of the best and worst games in its series, is polarizing partly due to having a whiny, angst-ridden teenager as its main protagonist. Tidus is a rather divisive main character for his boisterous behavior, constant dissatisfaction and childish ignorance. Personally, I can’t say I loved him, but I thought he was okay. He served his purpose in the story, had a decently executed romance with the much more likable leading lady, and received some development by the end of the game. But perhaps the most infamous thing about his character is how he drove James Arnold Taylor, an otherwise highly talented voice actor, to deliver a hilariously cringe worthy performance in several scenes. Yes, whether due to bad direction or the admittedly questionable quality of some of the material, one of the better voice actors in the biz completely botched his performance, leaving the gaming community with scenes it would mock for years to come:

So, how does this connect to Dawn of the New World? Well, here we have Emil Castagnier, a timid, spineless little wuss who will be serving as our main protagonist today. He is voiced by Johnny Yong Bosch, one of the greatest talents in the English dubbing industry period, and…I’m sorry, but his performance is just bad.

I don’t mean to say it’s his fault – I’m sure the direction he got was just awful, not to mention that he has to raise his pitch so high just to get the tone. But pretty much everything that comes out of this kid’s mouth just sounds awkward. He rushes out nearly every line and sentence while at the same time delivering everything with weird, strained pauses that make him sound almost constipated.  Even when he gets possessed by Ratatosk and Johnny can use a much more natural tone of voice…it still just sounds off. Now, as a character, Emil has gotten some pretty severe criticism as well for his pathetically meek personality. He’s so weak that he can’t even hold his own in a battle unless he’s possessed by a monster lord. And, well…yeah, I’ve got to admit, before his character arc really kicked off in the game’s second half, I couldn’t stand him myself.  The lame vocal performance was only salt on the wound – for half the game, this kid is just terrible. He apologizes all the time, is constantly whining, and most of the time you just want him to shut up. Now, you could say that that’s kind of the point – he starts off as an annoying milquetoast and gains some strength of his own over the course of the game. While that’s certainly true, I feel like other Tales games have executed this better, mostly Tales of the Abyss. Luke was an unlikable, whiny jerk before his development started, but he was still entertaining because the game’s writing made it work. Dawn of the New World’s writing is…
(sorry, it's the best one I could find that Blogger would let me use)
…Not. That. Good.

Yes, and I’ll have you know that it repeats that most powerful phrase approximately fifty different times throughout the story, often accompanied by a flashback. Other common proverbs of unadulterated brilliance include “Come on, you’re a man, speak up!” and “Are you a man or a dog?” And then there are some things that just seem poorly translated, and others that just sound cheesy, and…yeah, that’s something you’ve kind of got to put up with.

But with that said…it’s not completely terrible. In fact, when it comes to the character interaction, it’s honestly pretty good. The interaction between the new characters Emil, Marta and Tenebrae with the old Symphonia cast is actually pretty dang well done throughout, and while some of the humor is a bit…odd, the series famous skits are just as amusing as you would expect. In fact, aside from Emil early on, I can’t say I had any problem with the game's cast. Apparently, some fans find Marta pretty annoying, too. Personally, she took some time to grow on me, but I soon grew to find her quite lovable. Then again, I’m almost guaranteed to adore any character voiced by Laura Bailey…unless…her name is…Serah Faron. (Deep breaths…deep…breaths….) And like I said, while her infatuation with Emil starts out pretty childish, if cute, it does develop very well. Tenebrae’s snark and constant trolling made him quite the awesome companion, and the Symphonia cast was about as good as I remember. While the game does seem to exaggerate a few of their quirks for humor's sake, they all remain very true to their original personalities and play off the new characters pretty well. Noteworthy, though, is that Colette and Presea are the only characters who keep their original English voices. On that note, while I hated it at first, I’d have to say that the voice acting is…okay (Emil notwithstanding). It’s far from one the series’ best dubs, but it works. The bottom line is that if you can put up with an annoying main character for the first fifteen hours and some iffy dialogue throughout, the overall deal turns out to be very enjoyable.

However, there is one other thing that kind of drove me crazy during the first four chapters, and that is the pret-ty poor pacing. There are times the story would literally flat-out stop to send me on some sort of aggravating fetch quest. Actually, though it’s been a few years, this is a problem I remember sort of having with the original game. But the thing about Symphonia was that even when its story was slowing down, the game was still fun, an important ingredient to competent game design that Dawn of the New World sometimes just…forgets.

Well, while this is a given, I suppose I’ll first point out the big positive to the gameplay: the battle system. The thing the series is probably best known for is its excellent, beat-em-up style real-time battle system. Aside from retaining the usual structure, New World borrows elements from both Symphonia and Abyss. Unison Attacks return from the former game, though they’re handled a bit differently, and from Abyss, it takes the Arcane and Mystic Artes as well as Free Run. While Free Run in this game is unlimited, any hit you take while using it is automatically critical, so you can't use it all the time. Dawn of the New World’s main addition is a monster catching and training system, in which you form pacts with the various monsters you fight throughout the game and then use them to fill out the party when you’re short on characters. It’s not the most captivating system, but at least it works, unlike a certain other RPG direct sequel. (DEEP…BREATHS…GAH…) The controls feel a bit floatier than before, but in return, you can move a bit faster and you can also pull off some flashy aerial combat moves. Once you get used to it, it works out quite well. I also liked how the battle situation could be affected depending on how you enter the battle – if an enemy runs into you from behind, you start out dazed and have some nasty debuffs, while it’s the other way around if you ambush an enemy. On the whole, the battle system is just as fun and addictive as ever, and the game brings some nice, if small, tweaks of its own.

But that’s really the only good thing I can say for the gameplay. I’ll pull no punches here: aside from that, it’s honestly kind of crap. Well, maybe “crap” is a bit strong, but a lot of things about this game just feel lazy. I can understand some decisions such as a lack of a full overworld, or all the towns being the same as in the first game. After all, it is the same world and nothing could have changed that drastically over two short years, so why bore veterans by making them traverse the whole thing all over again? I can respect that, but what I can’t respect is literally copying almost all of the original game’s major dungeons, room for room, puzzle for puzzle, maybe changing one or two things to better fit the game’s play style (and believe me, I have a few choice things to say about that, too). And if the designers were feeling really crazy that day, they might put an arbitrary restriction on an old puzzle, add one or two extra rooms with some pointless mechanism you have to operate, or perhaps force you through an extremely irritating mini-game. This comprises most of the dungeons in the game, and the few truly new dungeons hardly fare better.

See, the main thing that made Symphonia’s dungeon design so clever was how it used the Sorcerer’s Ring, an item you get early on in the game. It was your main conduit for interacting with the environment and solving puzzles in the dungeons. The great thing about it was that it would receive different elemental attributes or even different functions depending on the dungeon’s needs. One of my problems with Tales of the Abyss, in fact, was that it only gave the Sorcerer’s Ring two different abilities that weren’t always used in especially interesting ways, but that game at least had a handful of decent puzzles here and there. In Dawn of the New World…you hold “Z”, you point, you click, you’re done! I’m not kidding. It doesn’t matter what element the ring has – that’s all you have to do. It’s so stupid and banal that you could literally take it out of the game and it would be no worse off for it. As for the more complex “puzzles”, at best, they just force you to memorize a bunch of crap, and at worst, they’re like this:

Confusing, frustrating, slow, dull, annoying, and painful. Some of the dungeons also like to pile on the tedium with our good friends “Backtracking”, “Where Do I Go”, and my personal favorite, “What Do I Do”. Gameplay-wise, there’s nothing else to cover: the battle system is great, everything else is bleh.

Lastly, there’s the presentation, and it’s…eh. The soundtrack mostly comprises of remixes from the original game, most of which I enjoyed, and the few new tracks that are there – a new battle theme and some character motifs – are fairly solid as well. The visuals, on the other hand are…honestly kind of bad. On one hand, it has actual full motion cutscenes, which are pretty well done.  On the other hand, the character models are cheaper than a game released in 2008 has any business being and the facial animations are just so shoddy it’s almost laughable. You can tell the game was made on a very low budget. That's fair enough, since most of the money was going to Tales of Vesperia at the time, a game I’ve heard some really good things about. But even with that said, Symphonia itself had some pretty mediocre production values. However, it at least had an appealing art style. Dawn of the New World is just really, really bland and ugly. Then again, so was Abyss, and that’s the art style they apparently liked and thought would suit this game. Yeah, uh…why? Why?!
Okay, yeah, this is the ugly 3DS port, but still, WHY?!

But really, graphics are just graphics. What’s really important in an RPG is how well the story and gameplay come together to make something of the experience. Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World has some big and obvious flaws on both fronts - gameplay more so than story - but at the end of the day, I thought the whole package was pretty all right. Is it a great game? Well…no, not by a long shot, but there are much worse RPG’s you could be spending your time with.

So, if you think you can put up with some of its crap, you might find it worthwhile for its engaging, if flawed, storyline and great battle system. One thing, though, is that this game was definitely made for fans of the original game more than anyone else. Still, an HD collection featuring both games is coming out early next year. I’d suggest buying that for Symphonia, and if that floats your boat the way it did mine, you might as well give New World a try. Bear with it in the early moments and it might just surprise you.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Sonic Colors Review - How it Saved the Series (and why it's still awesome)

Hey, guys?

i love sonic
In the not-so-distant days of my early teenhood, I would spend hours almost weekly with my copy of Sonic Unleashed, tearing through the same levels over and over again as if it were some sort of platforming messiah. For all of the other, better games I could have been spending my time with, Sonic Unleashed ate up unreasonable amounts of it. Looking back at it, for all of the problems that made it such a bittersweet experience, I can still see how it left me so entranced. There are many who would argue that even the good half of the game was just mindless garbage with sloppy controls, but Lord, was it fun. The combination of thrilling speed, reaction-based obstacles, an excellent sense of atmosphere, gorgeous visuals and blood-pumping music managed to sell it so well despite how automated it might have been. Playing it was almost therapeutic, relaxing in a way, and it gave me a glimpse of a brighter future for a series that seemed to have lost all hope. With such a solid base, everything seemed so easy to fix if you got rid of all the awful fluff that surrounded it. With more polish and more intricate level designs, you could turn this into something absolutely fantastic. Finally, the dream came true, as 2011’s Sonic Generations saw this gameplay fully refined into the awesome blend of thrilling speed, solid platforming and awesome exploration that made the Genesis classics…ehm…classics, all in a 3-D environment. Unleashed was style over substance. Generations said…

But now, that era has passed, and it’s time to break new ground. Thus was announced Sonic Lost World, for the Wii U and 3DS. And holy crap, wow, I have never been so immediately blown away by a Sonic game since…eh, since Generations, so it hasn’t been that long. BUT, that notwithstanding, it looks like it could bring a massive evolutionary leap to the series, and a well-earned one now that it’s regained its stride. The innovative style of level design lends itself to so many creative possibilities, and what’s been shown is already very cool. The levels are already promised to have tons of exploration, and for Sonic, that’s always great. The proposed refinements to Sonic’s controls could seriously improve the experience, as well, and...the parkour. The freaking parkour. It just sends fanboy shivers up my spine to see something this innovative, this bold to come out of the series. But one of the more curious elements to the game is the return of the central mechanic of 2010’s Sonic Colors, the Wisps.
i literally just put in the first Lost World video that came up

Ah, yes, Sonic Colors. In the midst of all this, it seems that the game that was perhaps most crucial in rebuilding Sonic’s reputation has almost drifted out of the public consciousness. Sonic Colors was downright revered when it came out for Wii that year, heralded as the game that would finally end the so-called “dark ages”. Being the first main console Sonic game in years to receive legitimate critical praise, it really seemed like, yes, this was the one. The funniest part is that it came completely out of left field. When it was first announced with a simple little trailer, no one expected that it would amount to anything. It was a lower budget title developed by the same team as the “Sonic Storybook Series”, and…well, those game were not that great, to say the least. Some laughably off-the-mark news reports from fan-based sources, which stated that this would be a game made specifically to cater to young children and no one else, didn’t help matters, either. Meanwhile, everyone was waiting with baited breath for the 2-D return to form that would surely get rid of all the franchise’s troubles and rescue it from the ever-growing dung heap it into which it had sunk. Eh, yeah, we all kinda know how that turned out.
But then, E3 came and along with it, gameplay footage. And…that was it. Suddenly, this was the next big game. It looked like the fabled “Unleashed minus the Werehog” that so many had wanted, and the game’s new gimmick actually looked…fun. And when it finally came out, it was proclaimed the best 3-D Sonic game since 2001, if not the best of all time. The fandom rejoiced, critics announced that Sonic was back, and I was a happy, happy boy.  But then, once Generations came out, the public just…forgot Colors existed. Okay, well, maybe they didn't "forget" it, but I don't see this game being acknowledged as much as it should be. Yes, many will still dwell on past failures like Sonic 06 and the Werehog, perhaps giving a passing mention to Generations while still prefacing each piece of gaming journalism with some variation on the phrase “Sonic has sucked for a very long time.” On one hand, I don’t mean to say that Colors is somehow objectively amazing or anything, but on the other…this is a pretty significant game to be forgetting when many critics themselves conceded that it was, indeed, good. But not only is it a landmark in the series’ history, being the first game in years that was actually legitimately great; it’s also an excellent piece of Sonicy, platforming goodness that’s still well worth anyone’s time. Let’s take a closer look at exactly how this game turned out to be the series’ fabled savior, and why you should still play it.

In the story of Sonic Colors, Dr. Eggrobomanik has chained together several planets in order to create Eggman’s Interstellar Amusement Park, a supposed apology for his past transgressions. Sonic and Tails are unconvinced and decide to pay the place a visit. Not long after arriving, they find that Eggman is capturing local aliens known as the Wisps and harvesting their Hyper-go-on energy to power a mass mind control weapon that’s being concealed by the park. Sonic and Tails must now stop him and…that’s…it. No horrifying eldritch abomination as a final boss. No annoying fairies fluttering around Sonic’s head trying to act “cute”. No time-traveling recolors. No senselessly dark twists. Just Sonic and Tails foiling Eggman’s plot for the hundredth time. “It’s like it’s our job or something,” comments the blue blur, and that, it most certainly is. It’s basically the plot of a classic Sonic game applied to a modern one. The charming simplicity of this story was very refreshing at the time, but the end result is a lot of fun even now, thanks in no small part to the then-new writers.  Up until the surprisingly big climax, the whole thing carries itself with a laid-back and lighthearted tone comparable to a Saturday morning cartoon, and we spend most of the story watching Sonic and Tails interact. There’s really just something inherently endearing about watching the two goof around like the good friends they are, which owes itself to the excellent characterization.

After Sonic Adventure 2, pretty much every character devolved into a horrific, unlikable flanderization of their personality archetypes thanks to the crippling hand of absolute writing failure. In this game, Sonic and Tails talk and behave like actual, legitimate, multi-faceted characters. Sonic isn’t just a boring, heart-of-gold hero-person who loves to run and stuff. He’s cocky, he’s arrogant, he likes to gloat and be a wiseacre. You know, kinda like how he was before he was drained of all personality. Tails, on the other hand, rather than being a boring genius sidekick, is actually Sonic’s friend. He’s still obsessed with mechanics and technological stuff, but he has a bit of a sense of humor now and likes to joke around with his good buddy. Oho, and Eggman, of course, is just perfect. It’s not just in the story, either; his PA announcements play throughout all of the levels, commenting on various things pertaining to the park in a humorously dark, sarcastic manner. It’s just gold.

Of course, stellar characterization is best delivered with stellar voice acting, something the series is known specifically for not having. But, Colors introduces new voice actors for Sonic and Tails, and they do so well. Roger’s voice may not fit the character as well as Drummond, but as an actor, he blows any previous portrayals completely out of the water. For once, the character actually sounds believable. Kate Higgins also does an excellent job as Tails and Mike Pollock, the one really good actor out of the previous bunch, is still an absolutely fantastic Eggman. When it comes to the script itself, the game has received both praise and criticism for its cartoony sense of humor, which takes a lot of prominence in this entry. Some people find it charming and others find it groan-inducing. Personally, I think it’s just a bit hit or miss. I could really do without jokes about “underwear being worn by salad” or…uh…Eggman’s burps, but there are some chuckle-worthy moments in there. Some of it admittedly devolves into late-2000’s Dreamworks-level “annoying equals comedy” humor, mostly with the designated comic relief characters named Orbot and Cubot. Yeah, the joke involving Cubot getting mixed-up voice chips was “cute” at first, but it got old really quickly. Still, thanks to strong characterization and character interaction, the writing is surprisingly good overall and makes this very simple storyline a very fun one to watch.

Gorgeous visuals are a hallmark of the series, and Colors is…howhoa. Colors offers some of the greatest visual creativity you will find in the entire series, comparable only to the likes of Sonic CD. You’d expect a game called Sonic “Colors” to be pretty colorful, and yeah, it gives you a lot of colorful things to look at. But that’s not the only thing impressive about it. The art design for every location in the game is stunningly inspired.  It takes the abstract ridiculousness of the classics up to 11 while at the same time making every location feel deliberately structured for some purpose. The amusement park theme remains consistent, but isn’t a hindrance in providing some of the most original and even quirky level ideas the series has seen yet. The soundtrack, similarly, is one of the absolute best you’ll hear in the series, and each track compliments every level’s atmosphere brilliantly. Take Sweet Mountain, for example. Worlds made entirely out of candy and other such confections are nothing new for the platforming genre. However, Sonic’s first take on “Level Ate” is awesomely ridiculous when you realize that it’s not just a planet inexplicably made up of food, but was built to be one. (insert painfully obvious joke about Eggman’s weight here) Despite all the massive food items that make up the very ground you stand on, the whole thing has a very industrial feel to it. This is reflected in the level’s soundtrack, full of blaring horns and loud drums alongside an upbeat guitar.

Speaking of industrial, Planet Wisp is another level with a very interesting atmosphere.  It’s the planet from which the Wisps hail, and as Eggman has started using them for his evil purposes, so too has he begun to convert the planet into another part of his ever-growing amusement park. The result is a beautifully surreal landscape slowly being overtaken by Eggman’s ugly technology. Gigantic industrial equipment is littered everywhere, and most of the level takes place on metal scaffolding and glowing platforms that heavily clash with the natural environment. Eggman’s dirty work can also be seen through the massive lakes of chemical sludge pooling in the level’s lower areas. The music’s instrumentation evokes something hauntingly beautiful, but the composition gives a feeling of harsh urgency. There’s an ugliness underneath all the beauty, and the way this level uses aesthetics to reflect the circumstances of the story is something that seriously hearkens back to the classics. But those are only two of those games six worlds. I could go on and on about the bustling atmosphere of Tropical Resort, the utter whimsy of Starlight Carnival, the fantastic aquatic feel of Aquarium Park, or the awesome extremeness of Asteroid Coaster, but that’d take up an unreasonable chunk of the review. Of course, on the subject of the music, it doesn’t just compliment the visuals, but the gameplay as well. Faster-paced levels with bigger setpieces are frequently accompanied by appropriate compositions, while slower, more laid-back remixes accompany the more platform-based ones.

Which gives us a smooth transition to the part where I talk about the gameplay, and believe me, it is good. The vast majority of 3-D Sonic games from Sonic Adventure up to Unleashed used some form of alternate gameplay to spice things up a bit, most notably in Unleashed with the…egh…Werehog. Yeah, there were times when it worked better than others. Colors, on the other hand, sticks to a single gameplay style throughout: a tweaked version of the fast, boosting-based gameplay with constant switching between 2-D and 3-D perspectives that defined Unleashed’s better half, with a heavy focus on a new power-up gimmick. The game is much better off for it not only because it avoids problems of inconsistency that plagued some earlier titles, but also because it allows Colors’ gameplay to be developed to its full potential. One thing many noticed at the time, coming straight off of Unleashed, was that Unleashed’s more speed-based play style was traded in for a more platforming-based one.  Sonic’s trademark speed is still very much here, but big setpieces and fast moments are often broken up by moments of slower-paced platforming. This was later worked into the speedier stuff through 2011’s Generations, but Colors’ focus on platforming is nonetheless a very welcome one that contributes to its aversion of Unleashed’s arguable mindlessness. That said, some would complain that the platforming is a bit too simplistic. It’s certainly true that Colors has a buttload of “block platforming”, but personally, I think Colors executes it pretty well if only because of how well put-together it is. The platforming does start out quite basic in early levels, but the designs grow more fun and interesting as you go on. And while it doesn’t have that sense of constant innovation or mind-blowing originality you might find in a typical Mario platformer or, say, Donkey Kong Country Returns, the diversity present in Colors’ levels doesn’t fail to please.

Each world in the game is separated into six Acts. Some of them are filler, but most of them do offer something fun. Of course, the worlds do have their inherent differences from each other. Tropical Resort is generally the most generic, being the first level. Sweet Mountain offers surprisingly few sweets-based gimmicks in regards to gameplay, but gives enough clever platforming to make up for it. Starlight Carnival is where you’ll find some of the game’s most automated segments, but the sheer spectacle of it all makes it fun nonetheless. Planet Wisp has a lot of rail-grinding and some more complex platforming designs, while Aquatic Park is a water level with an excellent sense of scale and much to explore. And Asteroid Coaster, naturally, has a lot of rollercoasters in it as well as some more unique platforming ideas, such as gravity switching and platforms that slowly move in and out of walls. Taking a look more at the individual levels, however, the game still finds a lot of ways to keep the gameplay feeling fresh. Sweet Mountain 4 has some unique button-based mechanisms that require you to wait for the right moment to proceed, giving it a nice ebb and flow for skilled players. Sweet Mountain 5, on the other hand, has somewhat momentum-based lollipop swings that you have to use to progress at certain points. Starlight Carnival 3 is an auto-scrolling level that introduces a moving yellow spring that you have to stay on in order to make it through, while Act 5 ends with a segment in which you climb a giant tower in 3-D. In Planet Wisp 4, you’re actually running through a level that wraps around an industrial tower to get to the goal, while Act 5 has Egg Pawns destroying the very platforms you have to run on to proceed.

Those are just a few examples, and while the game does recycle elements of its own design at points, the way each Act is constructed usually differs enough to make each one feel adequately new. But by far, the biggest factor in giving a sense of variety to Colors is its primary gimmick: the Wisps. Yes, while the use of gimmickry in Sonic games is often derided, the one Colors gives us to play with is a hugely positive addition that compliments what’s there rather than taking away from it. The way it works is simple: as you go through the levels you will find a Wisp of a certain color trapped in a capsule. By walking into the capsule, you’ll open it and the Wisp will fly into Sonic, giving him its power, which you can use at any time just by shaking the Wii Remote. Some are timed while others are one-use-only. What’s really impressive is that their integration feels so seamless – it hardly slows the game down at all and using them just becomes second nature. These Wisps could easily have been broken or overused, but while some levels use them more than others, they never feel the least bit intrusive. Wisp sections are balanced out really well with straight-up Sonic platforming, and when the Wisps do come into play, it always works. There’s a great variety of Wisps powers, all equally inventive both in their functions and in the way the affect the game’s design.
Here are some generic white Wisps. D'aww.
You’ve got the CYAN LASER, which you aim to blast Sonic in the direction you’re aiming, often used to traverse great distances or ricochet from wall to wall. There’s the YELLOW DRILL, which allows you to traverse underground areas to find new paths and secrets or easily travel underwater. There’s also the PINK SPIKES, which gives Sonic the ability to cling to and travel along any surface while also allowing him to use the signature Spin Dash and plow through certain crates. We’ve got the GREEN HOVER, allowing you to float gracefully through the air as well as perform the Light Dash from previous 3-D outings. And then there’s ORANGE ROCKET, propelling you to massive heights before gently skydiving downwards when the sequence is over. The BLUE CUBE is a unique one that does a ground pound move, not only eliminating any on-screen enemies, but also causing a special kind of blue block to alternate between collectable Rings and vice versa, leading to some of the game’s most fun and creative platforming sections. My personal favorite, however, would have to be PURPLE FRENZY, turning Sonic into a giant set of chomping teeth that eats up everything in its path.  The amount of originality used in designing these power-ups is impressive enough, and it makes me happy to say that the layouts built for them are every bit as fun. While it’s true that each Wisp has only one real application, the way the levels are built around that ability never fails to impress or to entertain. It’s in this way that Colors brought a lot of creativity to the series without tripping over its own ambition. And while ambition is certainly great – Lost World seems to have a lot of it – sometimes, I think it can serve a game better just to play it safe.

Oh, but did I mention the amount of exploration this leads to? Yes, thanks to the Wisps, this game offers a lot of possibilities when it comes to exploring the levels, and many of them do have quite a bit to explore. Encouraging this are the Red Rings, which unlock extra Sonic Simulator stages, which, in turn, give you Chaos Emeralds, which, in turn, give you the ability to play as Super Sonic.  Yeah, it’s pretty neat, but that aside, many of the level layouts tend to be quite complex, which is the main reason why I feel that the “block platforming” works for this game. The platforming is generally simpler to make for more complex setups utilizing the Wisps, and personally, I think it’s great. However…this is where the game’s faults come into play.
Oh yeah, white Wisps fill your boost meter instead of Rings in this game. Kinda forgot to mention that.
Sonic Colors is an awesome game, but three years removed from the hype, it’s easier to look at it a bit more critically and see some flaws. When I first reviewed Colors only a few months after it came out, I gave passing mention to some minor faults and concluded by giving the game a 9/10. My view on the game hasn’t grown any less positive, make no mistake about that, but there are some things about it I’ve grown less fond of. Mostly…it’s a bit sad to say that what was, at the time, probably the best 3-D Sonic game to date…doesn’t have much 3-D gameplay at all. Only about 20 or 30% of your time spent playing the game is spent in 3-D, and honestly, the 3-D sections that are there, for the most part, really aren’t that great. Most of them are pretty restrictive and bland, offering little of the actual platforming or exploration you’d find in the game’s 2-D areas. The absolute worst ones reek even more of “hold forward to win” than Unleashed, and while quick-stepping segments usually fare a bit better, they still lack the intensity and thrill that make Unleashed’s and Generation’s takes on them fun. Control, sadly enough, is a bit sloppier in these segments as well.  This isn’t to say there aren’t any good ones to be found; Starlight Carnival 5 has a really cool one and Asteroid Coaster has some unique homing attack sections. But the unfortunate truth is that, in Colors, these sections usually work best when their main purpose is to show off a really cool setpiece. Generations thoroughly fixed this, but it’s a pretty big fault on Colors’ part.

And when it comes to the 2-D level designs, they’re great, don’t get me wrong, but…in many cases, the level design feels almost disconnected from the world it’s in, like the game isn’t using all of its tropes very effectively. Tropical Resort, Aquarium Park and Asteroid Coaster use their ideas well, but when I look at Sweet Mountain, Planet Wisp and, in some ways, even Starlight Carnival, I just feel like there’s a bit of missed potential here. You see all of this cool, amazing stuff in the background that could have made for some awesome levels on their own, but the parts you actually get to play through, with some big exceptions, don’t feel like they have all that much to do with what you’re seeing. Again, the levels are still great, but more could have been done with the ideas here.

The only other problem is the bosses. There are two big issues that plague the game’s boss design: easiness and rehashing. Even the ones that are quite fun, such as Sweet Mountain’s boss or Asteroid Coaster’s, tend to lack an honest challenge. What’s pretty ridiculous is that the game actually recycles the first three bosses for the last three worlds, and while Asteroid Coaster’s boss is certainly an improvement over Starlight Carnival’s, Planet Wisp’s might as well be the same as Tropical Resort’s and Aquatic Park’s turns Sweet Mountain’s otherwise decent boss into something quite unfun and awkward. Aside from that, it generally feels really lazy. Fortunately, though, the final boss is really awesome and thus kind of makes up for the preceding bosses’ lameness.
"BEST. BOSS. BEATING. EVER." - Sonic the Hedgehog
But while its flaws may not be as easy to overlook now that the “holy crap it’s a new Sonic game and it’s good” feeling has worn off, Sonic Colors still really holds up. Generations may have improved upon its core, but Colors is still a pretty dang unique Sonic game that’s a lot of fun in its own way. It’s pretty short, but there’s some really good replay value here. This is game with a lot of creativity and heart, and it desperately wants to find a place in yours. My advice is to give it a go and see if you can let it in. If nothing else, you’ll have fun just seeing what it has to offer.  While Lost World is bringing enough innovation to the table already, I am very glad that it’s bringing the Wisp powers back, and I can’t wait to see how it expands upon them.  They’re a big part of what makes Colors what it is, so it’ll be fun to see what they can add to the new entry. Perhaps some still don't want to shut up about all the Sonic games that sucked, but personally, I prefer to focus on the recent games that don't. I'm seriously hyped for Sonic Lost World not as the game that will redeem the series, but as yet another high-quality title in an ever-flowing stream.
Oh, but also, it has more Level Ate. EEEE~

Oh, forgot one thing, though.

Stay away from the DS version of Colors.

It's poop.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Let's Talk About Max Payne, Last Part: Max Payne 3

Honestly, even before I had played the first two games, I was a bit skeptical about Max Payne 3. I suppose I’d be lying if I said most of that skepticism had little to do with the fact that it was developed by Rockstar instead of Remedy Entertainment. I mean, come on, that’s like making a Star Wars sequel without George Lucas – okay, uh, bad example, baaaad example. It’s like…it’s like making a Sonic 4 without having the actual Sonic Team develop it.
My skepticism increased as I learned that, indeed, this game doesn’t bear much stylistic resemblance to the two games I had spent the better part of last month falling in love with, and brings some changes to the gameplay that…may or may not have worked out. Sirens went blaring in my head when I looked at the box, lacking any of the monochromatic, angst-ridden art I’d seen plastered on the front covers of the previous two outings, replaced by blandness and a complete lack of any sort of unique stylization.
Artistic representation of an angry dude with a gun.
Bears vague resemblance to the cover of a My Chemical Romance album.


And when I played it...yeah, well…yeah, no, honestly, I don’t…I don’t like this game nearly as much.

Now, don’t get me wrong, Max Payne 3 is not a bad a game. In fact, it’s pretty good, but you really get the impression that Rockstar hardly even tried to make a good follow-up. It barely plays like Max Payne, it barely looks like Max Payne, and, well…Max Payne hardly even acts like Max Payne! It’s obviously the product of a very different vision as to what Max Payne should be, and if the end result had been just as good in its own way, I’d have been off-put but nonetheless pleased. The thing is, though, it…it’s…really not.

Okay, well, let’s talk gameplay first. The first two games were exciting, adrenaline-pumped action fests that didn’t slow down for a solitary moment, except for when you were using your awesome Bullet Time moves, anyway. Payne 3 is…a cover-shooter. Yes, that utter tension and barrage of enemies that required you to constantly be reacting to everything around you is mostly gone, replaced with slowly, meticulously sidling along walls and railings, peeking out occasionally to kill an enemy before ducking back down to avoid getting shot yourself. Now, I can see the logic behind adding in cover and free aiming mechanics. A lot of time has passed since the second game and gamers are used to that stuff now. I, myself, mentioned in my review of the first game that the lack of these features was quite off-putting for me at first, but the more I played, the more I realized…it was kind of better off without it. Back on the subject of Max Payne 3, it’s one thing to give the player the option of using cover and free aim, but a completely different thing entirely to design the game around it to the point that playing it like the first two Paynes becomes nigh-on impossible. Yeah, I tried. It didn’t work out.

So, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, as they say, and, well...I have to admit, Max Payne 3 is a really good cover-shooter, even kind of addictive. You’ve got a good variety of weapons at your disposal, while the fact that it only lets you carry so many at a time (as opposed to the way the first two games handled weapons) demands that you think more about what weapon you want. You can also use a combination of any two one-handed firearms that you pick up along the way. You have four different weapon setups: using your right-hand weapon, left-hand weapon, two-handed weapon, or using both the right and left hand weapons at the same time, causing you to drop any two-handed weapon you’re carrying. The fact that the game is a bit stingy with ammo forces you to switch often, and so the gameplay is pretty balanced. When it comes to the cover-shooting itself, the design of most areas in the game leads to a lot of open space between and around you and your enemies. Combine that with the fact that the game still retains the same health system as the first two games, and it still ends up demanding a greater awareness of your surroundings than most other cover-shooters I’ve played, at least. One thing I really liked, actually, was the “Last Man Standing” sequence. If you run out of health with at least one bottle of painkillers left, you still have a chance to kill the enemy who just shot you dead, giving you a second wind at the expense of your Bullet Time gauge.

Yes, Bullet Time, which is the only thing about the first two games that anyone at Rockstar actually cared about, apparently, makes its glorious return and, unlike most of what this game has to offer, it’s about as awesome as it ever was. I have to admit, there’s something inherently satisfying about bursting out from behind cover in slow-motion and spraying bullets into several enemies’ lined-up faces, and the game even gives you Bullet Cams for particularly good shots. It works really well with the new gameplay mechanics, and the more realistic physics in this installment also make you think more about exactly where you should use it. See, Max actually goes crashing into walls in this game rather than gracefully floating downwards while gently rubbing up against them. Unfortunately, despite the greater realism, this game still fails to explain how Max’s painkillers somehow save him from dying of blood loss or organ failure from the constant punishment he takes. Oh, well.

Now, while it's a lot of fun, Max Payne 3 does have a few problems that don't have much to do with its namesake, even if they're not really game breaking. See, part of what makes the first two Max Payne games fun and, indeed, the majority of this one, too, is the amount of freedom Bullet Time gives you in approaching a situation. There are a lot of ways to misuse it, yes, which will waste some of your gauge or perhaps even get you killed, but using it properly to do something cool makes you feel pretty awesome. But then, curiously enough, Payne 3 has these weird moments where it traps you in a narrow corridor of some sort, preventing you from taking any sort of cover, pretty much making you fair game. The only way to avoid getting killed is to use Bullet Time to slow things down. Not only is this cheap, but forcing the move on the player really undermines the awesomeness. And then, though few and far between, the game has these moments where things just get kind of…over stimulating. Enemies start pouring in from seemingly every crevice in the room, there’s basically nowhere to hide, shots are coming from literally everywhere, and if you get killed, it’s less because you were doing badly and more because you had no idea what the heck was going on. A combination of these two flaws turns Chapter III into an awful mess, which is another thing that created a very negative first impression of the game for me.

But probably the dumbest moments in the game are these glorified quick-time events it has peppered throughout its campaign. The game loves to “seamlessly” make the transition from cutscene to gameplay by suddenly forcing you to shoot something or someone within a limited amount of time, either to keep from getting killed or to keep someone else from being killed. When it doesn’t devolve into someone’s demented idea of trial and error gameplay, it just feels kind of insipid. This adds nothing to the game, it’s not fun, it’s not interesting, it’s not even empowering. It’s just brainless fluff that someone thought would be cool when it’s very clearly not.

But...honestly, the biggest problem I have with this game is its story. On one hand, a good story is less important than good gameplay, which this game does have. On the other, this is a pretty story-driven game. Besides that, this is a follow-up to a game with a great story that it fails in succeeding not only by dropping any of the noir atmosphere and awesome stylistic elements that defined the series, but also by just being poorly-written and...flat-out uninteresting. It has some good themes to it, but the problem is that deep, compelling themes are best delivered with deep, compelling characters. Eh, yeah, you won’t find any of those here. I will admit, I did get a bit more interested around Chapter 12 when the plot finally thickened, but the complete lack of any sort of real soul or character still left me feeling like something was missing. Literally the only character I had any sort of sympathy for got killed off within the game's first half, and probably the most offensive thing of all is that Max Payne's own portrayal in this game is just wrong.

Yes, it’s pretty obvious that Dan Houser, who wrote the game’s story, really didn't how to write for the character. The sad part is that they did have some good ideas here. I can see what they were going for, making him an alcoholic: they wanted to turn him into a darker, more tragic character.  I’d say he was already pretty tragic before, but a lot of time has passed and they wanted to show that he’s washed up and pathetic now. The character arc they gave him, focusing on his personal morality, also could have been something legitimately intriguing and could have led to some seriously awesome character development. Unfortunately, the execution is way off. I mean, never mind the fact that it completely disregards any of the major, significant development Sam Lake put the character through in the utterly brilliant second game. Max Payne just…doesn’t act like Max Payne. At all.
Also, he looks like this.
Dan Houser has completely disregarded the poetic monologues, twisted angst and hard-boiled attitude that defined him before, instead making him an unlikable, unsympathetic mish-mash of the most generic Hollywood archetypes possible. He’s the worldly, washed-up alcoholic who desperately needs to find himself. He’s the retired, “too old for this crap” former cop being thrown into an action-packed situation he wants nothing to do with. He’s the sarcastic antihero when interacting with other people, lacking any of his former witty snark, and perhaps most of all, he’s the seemingly pathetic, constantly down on his luck whiner, whose personal failures have him convinced that he’s a complete monster incapable of any sort of good. Yes, this game loves to remind you how much Max hates himself, and it's kinda hard for me to sympathize with a character when he’s constantly reminding me how much he sucks. Oho, and it loves loves loves to remind you that Max is just a slave to the bottle. The very first cutscene of the game is literally an extended sequence of him downing glass after glass of whiskey, a sequence that is repeated twice throughout the first half of the game. The concept of “subtlety” is completely lost on this game, which is the main reason why the writing is just bad. I jokingly compared Max Payne 2’s box art to the cover for an album by My Chemical Romance, but Payne’s monologues in this game sound more like lyrics from a different band I was quite fanatical for at age 12: Three Days Grace.
 Literally. Guh.

And on the subject of cutscenes for a moment, remember the really cool graphic novel cutscenes from the first two games? Weren’t those great? Well, instead of that, this game gives you normal cutscenes. Well…okay, fine, I guess I can live with that. That has its advantages, after all. Unfortunately...this game's "normal" cutscenes aren't quite "normal". No, Max Payne 3 still pursues its own messed up and pointless idea of “stylization”, which apparently consists of attempting to induce an epileptic fit in the player by having the screen filter every five seconds while at the same time having bits of spoken dialogue flash across the screen for no reason like an incredibly pretentious JonTron video. Out of all the problems I have with this game, this is the most baffling and, honestly, the most angering. Why would you do this? What reason did you have? It’s an assault on the eyes that serves no valid “stylistic” purpose. At. All. Now, you could say this is supposed to give the story sort of a drunken and disoriented feel, since Max has a drinking problem. Well, okay, I’d say there are better, much less eye-bleeding ways to go about that, but fine…except there’s a point not far into the story where Max officially gives up alcohol, and the game still does it. It’s dumb. I'm sorry, I...I know I'm making it sound like I hate this game right now - I really don't - but this just...confuses me. I guess it's not really a big deal. It's something you get used to, but you just have to wonder what they were thinking.

Much as I wonder what they were thinking when they advertise the multiplayer on the game disc and then make me pay for it separately. Yeah, no, Rockstar, sorry, I'll pass. I mean...honestly. Uncharted 3 kind of did that, but at least it gave you a code on the instruction manual if you bought it new. I mean, if you're buying it used, you're probably paying less for the game anyway, and I'd say it's worth it, personally, because Uncharted 3's multiplayer is fan-freaking tastic. Max Payne 3, though...yeah, no, not paying for that.
- Rockstar Games

It's a decent game, I suppose, but coming straight off of Max Payne 1 and 2, liking the former quite a bit and loving the latter, this was just...disappointing for me. For the most part, the gameplay isn't better or worse, I guess - just different, though its flaws do stand out a bit. I could see why someone would perhaps prefer the way this game plays, though I certainly think the game should have remained more true to its origins.  It's the storyline that's the biggest disappointment, and the more I played, the more I felt like Max doesn't even belong in this game's scenario. It has so little to do with the series outside of featuring a character by the name of "Max Payne" that you could basically write another character in his place and you really wouldn't have to change too much. Most of what I loved about the other two games is either different or outright gone, replaced with soulless vapidity and seizure-inducing visual effects. 

By its own right, it's pretty good, and if you're not a fan of the series, you'll probably enjoy it more than I did. It's a mostly self-contained storyline that doesn't require you to be too familiar with the previous entries. If you're looking for a proper sequel to Max Payne 2, this is not what you're looking for, but if you're just looking for a new third-person shooter to spend some time with, you can have some fun here. Wouldn't pay too much for it, but it's kind of worth playing.

So now that I've played through all three games, I think it would be appropriate to conclude by summarizing their quality both individually and as they relate to each other. Unlike in most of my reviews as of late, I'll be using a scoring system here, since I think that's the most effective and easiest way to compare games.

--The Breakdown--

Max Payne gets a 7/10. Still very fun to play. Story is cheesy, but endearing in its cheesiness and fairly interesting in its own right. Has a nice noir atmosphere and unique times hilariously awkward cutscenes. Though there are some moments where it throws something at you that you wouldn't have seen coming, the challenge is generally legitimate. Level design can at times be a bit too vague, controls are a bit unpolished by modern standards, and the nightmare sequences are downright horrendous.

Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne gets a 9/10. Polish, level variety, atmosphere, art direction, and general design have all improved tremendously and the game is a joy to play. Story is very involving, voice acting is fantastic, graphic novel cutscenes look prettier and more professional, and the writing, while slightly jarring at times, is for the most part very good. Nightmare sequences are no longer torturous, either. Easily the series' magnum opus. Only problem is that it's a bit short.

Max Payne 3 gets two scores: first as a game on its own and then as a sequel. First score is a 6/10. Gameplay is quite solid in spite of its imperfections and Bullet Time is mostly well-integrated into the cover-shooting gameplay. However, flaws such as the subpar storyline that could have been much better, the baffling cutscene direction, and the fact that multiplayer is sold separately are very hard to excuse. As a sequel, I'll have to drop this score down to a 4/10 for dropping all of the series' trademark stylistic elements, changing the gameplay into a cover-shooter rather than further refining what made the first two games so cool, and completely ruining the main character.

And that's that. that I've played all of the games, what can I say? Well, it was a fun, if at times bittersweet journey. I've certainly grown to respect Remedy Entertainment even more through my experiences with the first two games, and if Quantum Break turns out to be amazing, I may just be able to call them one of my all-time favorite developers. After one game that was great for its time, one that's still awesome even today, and a nigh-on perfect masterpiece, I'm more than eager to see what they have in store. At the same time...Max Payne 3, for as much fun as I had with it at times, left a pretty bitter taste in my mouth. I really hope that if they make a fourth game, they look a bit harder at what made the first two games so unique and cool, and hopefully, bring back the character I enjoyed so much before. In the meantime, I'd say the series is worth checking out. At the very least, you owe it to yourself to play the second game, which recaps the events of the first for new players. 

Anyway, I guess that's it. See you next time on this blog that almost no one could ever be bothered to read.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Let's Talk About Max Payne, Part 2: The Fall of Max Payne

Even at a young age, when all I was allowed to see of these games was the artsy box art, I got a very…different vibe from Max Payne 2.  A subtitle like “The Fall of Max Payne” suggests something far more serious in tone, and looking at the art plastered on the box, perhaps even more…sophisticated.

Artistic representation of an angry dude with a gun.
Bears vague resemblance to the cover of a My Chemical Romance album.

Actually, if there’s any memory I have associated with Payne 2, it’s being slightly bitter over the fact that my dad only had to wait two years for the sequel to his stupid “MACHUR” game while I had to sit through three to play Kingdom Freaking Hearts II.

No, excuse me, four. Idiots.
But hey, everything worked out in the end. I got Kingdom Hearts II and now here I am seven years later, graphically dissecting Max Payne 2 as if it’s some disgusting alien creature that just crash landed into a scientific laboratory for which I am the only personnel. So, Payne 1 is a decent game, awesome for its time. Does the first of two sequels do its part to provide an improved gaming experience?

Oh, yes. Oh, yes, it most certainly does.

From the moment I started the game, I could already tell Remedy had really done their homework since the first outing. Presentation on this one is excellent.  I mean, on a visual level, you still have to remember that it’s an “old game” to fully appreciate it, but the technical improvements go quite a long way. It may be shallow to say this, but Payne 1’s noir-inspired art design was kind of hard for me to appreciate when everything looked so…hideous. In Payne 2, this was not the case – in fact, despite a handful of blurry textures rearing their ugly heads every now and then, I found myself seriously enjoying the game’s aesthetic. The environments you see here are also a lot more visually varied than what was seen in the first game. The snowy city districts, seedy buildings and government laboratories can only go on for so long before I start to get a bit tired of what I’m looking at. Here, we also get some disturbing mobster funhouses, dingy and cheap apartment buildings, creepy hospitals, and a handful of decent set pieces to go along with them. Smoother character animation also leads to a few more in-engine cutscenes every now and then, and in two short years, the characters have evolved actual faces rather than jumbled masses of painted polygons.


Other nice visual flourishes include the screen changing to sepia tone when slowing down time and more cinematic camera angles for the Bullet Time move, making pulling off those stylish shoot-dodges that much more fun and satisfying.  Also, reloading while slowing down time makes you do this really cool spinning thing, which sometimes gives you a cinematic camera, too, if you’re being awesome enough. I enjoyed that. Sound design in Payne 2 is also much more polished and realistic than the first game and also makes greater use of music to enhance the atmosphere. The potential interaction with the smaller elements in the environment, which is something that was already found impressive about the first game at the time, also feels a bit more expanded and realistic. It’s certainly not on the level of environmental interaction you’d see in such a game today and it’s a little thing besides, but it’s just one more element that went toward making Payne 2 a more immersive experience.

Max Payne 2 still makes use of comic book cinematics with digitally colored live-action photographs for all of its major scenes. I enjoyed these in the original game, but I couldn’t help but feel like some of them looked more than a little awkward. Payne 2 even fixes this. On top of the prettier, more stylized coloring, the actions and facial expressions are a lot more believable and free of those mind-boggling “Wait, what?” moments peppered throughout Payne 1’s story. And speaking of the story, ho-ly crap, is it good.

Whereas the first Payne’s story was a semi-cheesy but nonetheless somewhat elaborate revenge story, Payne 2 is exactly what it says on the cover: a film noir love story, and it is quite the film noir love story. Naturally, it’s a lot more character-driven than Payne 1, going far deeper into the relationships of the characters and the kinds of situations those relationships land our main character in. It paints each one in a much more complicated light, none more so than Payne himself. Not only that, but it goes into a bit more detail on the secret organization introduced in the first game called the Inner Circle, and how the events transpiring within affect those with connections to the group. In my review of the first game, I called its story “complex”, but this deals with some much more serious stuff. The first game had a few twists and revelations, but the ones here feel a lot bigger and a lot more game-changing.

Of course, a more serious storyline is going to need some more serious voice acting, and an improvement in the writing department would be pretty appreciated, too. Believe me, Payne 2 delivers here as well. All of the actors reprise their roles, but…they just do a much better job. James McCaffrey’s performance as the main character especially stood out – what was once the voice of a stereotypical hard-boiled cop has become something far more believable, far more human, and that’s pretty necessary, since Payne is the story’s main focus. But perhaps this significant improvement in acting quality owes less to the improved skill of the actors and more to the improvement of the script. Payne 2’s script effectively pulls off what I can’t help but think Payne 1’s was trying to do with its confused metaphors and ham-fisted “fauxetry” – it brings me into Max Payne’s mind and helps me to get invested in his story arc. In the first game, I grew somewhat attached to the character based less on how much I actually liked him and more on how endearingly strange he seemed to me based on the ridiculous stuff that kept coming out of his mouth. In this game, I really liked the guy and I even felt pretty sorry for him at a lot of times. The script has some hammy moments, believe me, it does – “I wanted to reach inside my skull and scrape out the pain” was one *ahem* memorable line, but for the most part, it’s pretty freaking good. More often than not, when I found myself laughing at something that was said, it was because it was actually funny. Yeah, don’t worry; Payne 2 may take itself more seriously than the first, but it’s not at all pretentious.

Now, how has the gameplay evolved since Payne 1? Well, it hasn’t really changed fundamentally, but the various tweaks that have been made go a long way in improving the experience. One somewhat minor, yet nonetheless noteworthy change is that doing a Bullet Time dodge doesn’t decrease the hourglass meter anymore, basically allowing you to use it as much as you want. At the same time, it’s become less of a dodge roll and more of a dive. Using it will leave you lying on the ground until you pick yourself back up, leaving you vulnerable and defenseless for several precious seconds. It’s more empowering without being broken! I approve.

One of the biggest and most important evolutions in Max Payne 2 is the more polished controls. One of my problems with Max Payne was that the controls felt too oversensitive, which made any sort of precise aiming very nearly an impossibility. Max Payne 2 feels so much better by comparison. Aiming is for the most part silky smooth, the sniper rifle actually works, and the game just feels a lot better to play. Aside from that, the game design is just generally better. Enemies are encountered in a much wider variety of environmental situations than what were essentially narrow corridors, boxed rooms and wide open spaces in Max Payne. Level design also feels a bit more meticulous, providing more cover spots for you and your enemies, making each confrontation a bit more interesting as well as getting rid of those occasional cheap moments the first game had. Those frustrating moments of confusing “where do I go, what do I do” game design are also (mostly) gone, too. The gameplay also capitalizes on the love story aspect by switching control to the leading lady at certain points and even having a segment where you provide Max with cover from above, thus skillfully tying gameplay and narrative together – much better than the original Payne did with its stupid nightmare sequences, at least.

Actually…the game still has the playable nightmare sequences that annoyed me oh so much the first time around. I can see what they were going for with them: they wanted to draw us deeper into Max Payne’s tortured psyche, make us feel more connected to the character. Unfortunately, they chose to go about that by shoving in a clunky and forced gameplay change. However, in Max Payne 2, they’re actually what they should have been in the first place: simple, straightforward and not chock-full of awkward and out-of-place game mechanics. Not only that, but I actually found some of them genuinely unsettling rather than so over-the-top as to be ridiculous, and like the greatly improved writing, they really did help me to feel more connected to Max Payne.
That's right, no more of this.
Really, if there’s one complaint I have with The Fall of Max Payne, it’s that it’s…really just too short. I mean, Max Payne wasn’t really the longest game out there, but it lasted at least about fifteen hours. This is more like ten, and while action games don’t really need to be that long, this game kind of left me wanting more. But maybe that speaks less for how short the experience was and more for how sweet. Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne is an outstanding game while it lasts. Every little tweak and improvement does its part to make this a more polished, more thoughtful, more involving, more fun experience than the first game in every way. I still say that Alan Wake is currently Remedy’s masterpiece, but if it weren’t for the short length, Payne 2 really wouldn’t be that far behind.

And now, Remedy Entertainment is working on a new game called Quantum Break. Not much has been shown, but judging by the trailer, it looks like it’s going to be something big. They say they’re using everything they learned from making both the Max Payne series and Wake, and I’m definitely interested in it, whatever it is. But yeah, that was Max Payne 2. Pretty fantastic game. But it was actually the last game in the series for almost ten years, until Rockstar Games developed the sequel themselves and finally released it last year. Were they able to recapture what made the first two games so cool without the help of Remedy? We’ll find out next time.