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Skylanders Giants in Review

Given my penchant for toys, it shouldn’t be any surprise that I wanted to take Skylanders Giants for a spin. I successfully ignored the game/toy combination the first time around, knowing full well that heading down that path would lead to a Trigger Happy sized hole in my wallet. Alas, the pull of plastic figures that were now giant sized and also lit up was too much to resist and the game was mine.

Amazingly enough, not only is this a well done action game, but it’s also surprisingly easy to ignore the fundamental purpose of the game, namely to fill your home with oodles and oodles of toys.

The central premise behind Skylanders is the ability to take a real life toy, or in this case, an incredibly detailed and colorful plastic statue, and make it come to life in a video game. As kids, we’ve all dreamed of our toys coming to life and having grand adventures, and this is exactly what the Skylanders series allows you to do. Place a toy on the Portal of Power and like magic, it comes to life in the game, complete with it’s own voice, statistics, attack moves and upgrade path.

As I mentioned before, the game comes with everything you need to play the game from start to finish, consisting of a portal, two regular characters and a giant. If you already have a portal, a separate version of the game is available with only a giant. I expected the game to shove advertisements for additional toys in my face like crazy, but Toys for Bob shows an incredible amount of restraint in this regard, presumably understanding that not every household can buy into the “gotta catch ’em all” mentality, especially when the figures start at ten bucks and go up to fifteen for giants. Sure, there are preview movies available for the characters, so you can see what you’re missing, but the fact that you can go through the entire game with what comes in the package should be commended.

Granted, if you do have a Skylander of each elemental type, there’s more content, and more opportunities to level up your characters, so you’ll probably end up wanting to pick up additional figures at some point. As you travel throughout the Skylands in your quest to defeat Kaos and stop him from resurrecting an army of robotic overlords, you’ll come across areas that require a Skylander of a particular elemental type to access. Once opened, any Skylander of any elemental type can traverse the puzzles and obtain the treasure, or stat boosting hat contained within, but seeing how Skylanders of the corresponding elemental type do extra damage and heal while in these areas, I found myself more than happy to let my lesser known figures stretch their legs in these areas.

Similar areas are sprinkled throughout the game’s branching levels, allowing you to level up individual figures as well as give lower leveled figures a better chance of surviving. Choosing to stick with a particular figure until they reach the level 15 cap is certainly an option, however I found that switching figures as I moved through these zones ended up being a better use of my time. For one, if you use a Skylander that corresponds to the current elemental type, they get more experience, allowing them to level up more quickly, but also, the move sets and statistics of the various figures are all different enough to make you change your play style and come up with different strategies for facing the increasingly powerful enemies.

On a practical note, as the figures act as extra lives, having as many figures leveled up as possible gives you the best chance of surviving the late game levels. Of course, you can always drop the difficulty level if need be, but seeing how there are no mid-level checkpoints, running out of figures means doing the entire level all over again, an incentive to having the best army of plastic if ever there was one.

Unfortunately, the time spent leveling figures and the lack of any real incentive to having more than one figure of each elemental type works against the game’s purpose of selling you toys. Unlike in a Pokemon game, where catching them all requires a combination of timing, patience and in-game currency for Pokeballs, catching them all in Skylanders requires actual, real life money. Sure, each figures comes with a heroic challenge that any Skylander can take part in, but as these are usually timed challenges and not full levels, the main draw is the figure itself and the corresponding character. Seeing how your only option for leveling up your new figure is to play through the story all over again, or take part in battle arenas that you’ve no doubt already conquered, it may not be worth it to buy a new figure just to own it.

The only way the game encourages you to buy more toys than necessary to unlock everything is with the accolade system. Some accolades are earned through completing the story or defeating the battle arenas, but a good chunk are earned for buying more figures and placing them on the portal. At least the accolades earned through real life purchases give an experience boost to all figures, which should make leveling up your new Shroom Boom a little easier.

Then again, this is a game for kids and if kids are capable of anything, it’s repetition. The game supports local, two player co-op, and in a nice touch, everything about the characters, including their current hat, experience level, attack powers and bankroll is saved to the figure itself, so you can bring your figures over to a friend’s house, slap ’em on the portal and get to playing. It reminds me of when I used to bring my Star Wars figures over to my friend’s house to replay the epic battles of the movies, only now Han Solo is a anthropomorphic eagle with an air blaster.

As much as I was interested in the game for the toys, the game itself is genuinely good. Kaos reminds me of the Saturday morning cartoon villains of my youth, all bluster and incompetence and the rest of the game’s characters are all well done, including an elderly British elf with a crippling fear of clouds. The various character models for the different Skylanders are distinctive, as are the attack moves and voices. Double Trouble plays completely differently from Drobot and once you start slapping turbans and bronze top hats atop their heads, the personality factor only goes up. The levels are well designed and encourage multiple runs in order to get all of the collectibles, find all of the areas and complete the level under a certain time limit to get three gold stars per level.

Activision knows it has a gold mine here, hence the newly unveiled iOS games, all of which allow you to use your physical Skylanders collection and the free, web based Skylanders Universe game. It certainly helps knowing that buying a new figure will allow you to bring it into other properties aside from the console game, but seeing how some of these other games also cost money, it’s also clear that the gold mine Activision is plumbing is located deep within your wallet. Still, if the game is well done, the toys are fun and their cheap enough to be purchased with allowance money, or money earned from doing chores, what’s to complain about? I’ve spent plenty of money on DLC over the years with nary to show for it but some achievement points. At least with this game I have a shelf of cool figures. That’s well worth ten bucks.

Pokemon White 2 First Impressions

Pokemon needs to die. Seriously.

I’m not saying the franchise in its entirety needs to die, but the rigidly inflexible presentation of the core games needs to die and be reborn, much like some phoenix-esque Pokemon that I’m sure exists but I’m too burned out to research properly.

Now, part of my irritation is with myself, something I readily admit to and apologize up front for allowing to color my initial impressions of Pokemon White 2. I read the reviews ahead of time. I’ve played my fair share of Pokemon. I knew that the game would start the same way that all of the others have. I thought to myself that the best thing would be to rent it, because maybe I didn’t want to do that beginning stuff all over again. Maybe I didn’t want to grind stupid, bug eyed rat guys and dumb, little cat Pokemon until I leveled up my own stupid, bug eyed rat guy and dumb little cat Pokemon into something less, stupid and less dumb.

Then again, it had been some time since I played Pokemon and honestly, I burned myself out on completing the Pokewalker more than I did playing Pokemon Black, so maybe I’d be OK with it. Besides, I had some credit at the GameStop, credit I would never use and credit that would minimize my out of pocket expense. It was these arguments that finally made me venture out to the GameStop on Sunday morning and plunk my money down on Pokemon White 2. When the guy behind the counter asked which one I wanted, the fact that I didn’t care, and his response to the fact that I didn’t care, probably should have been a sign that I should turn around and leave. I mean, who doesn’t care about which version to get? You can’t get the same Pokemon between versions. Knowing which version to get is essential, and here I was, not giving a damn about it. Madness, I tell you. Madness!

Sunday was a big day, what with preparing the kitchen for painting and watching RGIII get concussed, so I didn’t have time to boot up the game until the evening. It was late. I was tired. I was still depressed over the whole RGIII concussion thing, so I wasn’t in the best frame of mind to play the game. Nevertheless, I did. I started it up and here’s Professor Juniper telling me all about Pokemon. Fine. OK, just, wrap it up there Poindexter, I got animals to enslave.

Next, I pick my Pokemon. Same starters as Black/White. Fine. Tepig, you’re with me. Sure, I could change it up and make things different, but things wouldn’t be different. Yes, your rival has a Pokemon of the opposite type, but early in the game, you don’t know any elemental moves, so it’s all tackles and leers and tail whips, the same generic crap that all of those low level numbskulls have. Then I set out into the bushes, getting attacked by Pokemon so pedestrian and commonplace that when I captured my first patrat, I named him Trashmob.

It was at this time that I realized that as much as I’d like things to be different, they’re not and they’re never going to be. There are twice as many Pokemon in this game than the last one, but here I am, finding the same low level scrubs as in the last game. The first Gym Leader is still a ham-fisted moron, incapable of devising a strategy any more complicated than tackle-tackle-tackle-potion-tackle, mostly because his Pokemon suck too. It’s like watching two inept tennis players knock a ball back and forth at each other, but never able to put together a decent volley.

The most frustrating thing isn’t that I shouldn’t be surprised, because I shouldn’t, but that it doesn’t have to be like this. I understand that Nintendo wants to hook new kids with every Pokemon release, but Jesus tapdancing Christ, how many Pokemon games are currently available for the DS? Seven, not counting the newest ones. I’m pretty sure that if you released a new Pokemon game that changed things up, or needed some back story in order to be fully explained, there are plenty of options for newcomers to get on board. Look at the Mass Effect series. More people bought ME2 than ME and more people bought ME3 than ME2. There is a case to be made that folks will jump on board sequels without having played previous versions, especially children who have the common sense of a dead squirrel.

Or, hell, if you don’t want to abandon your precious structure that much, make it a little more interesting for people who have played all of your games already. Remember how at the beginning of Baldur’s Gate II, you created a level seven or level eight character if you didn’t have a character to import? Remember how awesome it was to have a set of usable skills and not deal with that 1d4 bullshit while running away from wolves that would straight up kill you in one shot? If you don’t, trust me, it was pretty cool, not only because you felt like you had a chance, but it fit the narrative for you to be a level seven or level six character and not be some wet behind the ears pissant who cries at the sight of a kobold.

Granted, at the beginning of these games you are a wet behind the ears pissant who wouldn’t know a squirtle from a squeegee, but you don’t have to be. That’s just the way they write it. They could make it so that you’re a somewhat experienced trainer who gets to pick a team of six Pokemon from a set of already leveled up Pokemon. Then, they could give you some choice as to where you wanted to go next, rather than lead you by the nose to your next destination. A little freedom can be a good thing.

And that’s just one idea from a guy who doesn’t do this for a living. Imagine what could be designed from people who know things about game design. I bet it would be pretty rad. Until then, though, I’ll still spend time in Unova, waiting for things to unfurl like a flower, but I think my career as a Pokemon trainer ends with this one. I thought that might be the case, and now it’s been confirmed. For a game about evolution, it’s just too damned stuck in a rut to be worth it.

The Great Pokemon Extinction Event

Pokemon Black/White 2 comes out on Sunday and while I will most likely pick it up, I fear that it will confirm something that I’ve known for quite some time now, namely that I don’t really give a crap about handheld gaming any more.

It’s a difficult realization to come to. Handheld gaming has been a big part of my life for years now, but over the past 18 months or so, things have shifted and I find myself less and less enthused about the hobby’s diminutive offerings. Pokemon Black/White 2 may end up being the last handheld game I ever buy.

Cue the hyperbole machine!

I’ve gone to two E3s now where I have been absolutely and completely unimpressed with the handheld offerings for the 3DS. The first E3 that showed off 3DS games displayed mostly remakes of existing N64 titles, with a smattering of new games that still haven’t seen the light of day. Luigi’s Mansion 2, I’m looking at you. Hell, this past E3, they didn’t even have a set place to see 3DS games. You had to flag down a Nintendo rep and play the 3DS attached to her belt. Let me tell you how much that’s not going to happen.

Sony’s booth fared much better when it came to presenting Vita games, but at the same time, did I see anything there that really made me get excited for the platform? Not really. Sure, Sly 4 looks cool, and the cross play feature is a nice sell, but nice enough to hold on to the unit, especially after Barnes put that bug in my ear about selling it? Probably not.

Sure, you can blame the iPad, my go to source for mobile gaming at the moment, but just like in any situation, if you point one finger at something, there are four fingers pointing back at you. Only in this case, the four fingers are pointing back at Sony and Nintendo. Yes, iPad games look better than the 3DS, but they’re not better than the Vita. Sure, they’re cheaper, but sometimes, wading through which games are actually cheaper and which ones are just cheap storefronts for in-app purchases makes the cost comparison moot.

The reality is this: the latest and future offerings for both handheld systems interest me only barely. Pokemon Black/White 2 is a slam dunk, as is the new Professor Layton, but what beyond that? Assassins Creed: Liberation could be good, but good enough to pay $40 for? I doubt it. What beyond that? I read the list of upcoming games for both platforms and not only do I not see anything that strikes my fancy, but I’m not really bothered by the fact, something which speaks more to my state of mind than anything else.

There was a time where I would look forward to the upcoming handheld releases, planning out my time with the games so that I always had something to play. Nintendo and Sony both saw to making that impossible, with such a cruddy trickle of releases for both systems, and as a result, I stopped playing and stopped caring. Now, I couldn’t tell you when things are coming out and furthermore, I have on interest in looking. Hell, it took me by surprise that Pokemon Black/White 2 comes out on Sunday.

In the space vacated by Nintendo and Sony, I find myself playing games on my iPad, reading digital comics and, surprise of surprises, playing games on my PC. I don’t see the PC replacing my 3DS or Vita to the same degree that my iPad has, simply because of the portability factor, but more often these days, when I want something to play at night, I turn to Steam and the small collection of inexpensive, indie RPGs and adventure games I’ve amassed over the past few months. Hell, I’m seriously considering buying Torchlight 2, with the excessive heat generated by my laptop as the only limiting factor. $20 may be a lot for a game I’m not sure of (although I’m finding the demo to be delightful) but it’s half the price of games for the Vita or the 3DS and it’s on a platform that isn’t going anywhere.

It’s possible that things will change, but I would be surprised if they did. I think I’ve been away from traditional handhelds too long and as a result, I can no longer see the wisdom in paying $40 for something that isn’t that much better than games to be had at a fraction of the price. I’m still looking forward to revisiting Unova and playing the new Layton later in the fall, but these games may end up being the final notes of a song that’s been over a decade in the making. They look to be pretty good games to go out to, but at the same time, I can’t help but be a little sad. It’s been a long, great relationship. I just wish Sony and Nintendo had been as interested in keeping it going as I was.

Heroes of Ruin in Review

Maybe someone with more critical training can successfully answer why some dungeon crawlers, a genre based on a repeating “kill-collect-equip-sell” loop, are joyful romps through subterranean depths, while others eventually spiral into boredom. Lord knows I certainly can’t.

What I can tell you is that Heroes of Ruin is firmly in Camp Boring, squandering away its early appeal with tedious fetch quests, a broken economy and more backtracking than a presidential campaign.

In the interest of full disclosure, I still haven’t finished the game. I’ve played it since I bought it on release date, and I’d say I’m about 80% finished. Eventually, I got to a boss fight that wore down my patience, and the idea of revisiting three more areas, albeit in new dungeons, lost all appeal. The game’s generic fantasy story certainly doesn’t help. There’s a sphinx looking guy and he’s sick. This makes it somewhat difficult for him to protect the land so it’s up to you to find the cosmic MacGuffin that’s going to heal him. Along the way there’s something about elves and elven ghosts and oh hell, who cares?

When you’re not following quests to save Mr. Sphinx, you’ll be taking on a seemingly endless number of Verb Number Noun quests. Rescue seven sailors. Kill twenty undead. Collect five crystals. Pick a verb, a number and a noun and there’s a pretty good chance that you’ve created a quest in the game. It’s like MadLibs for adventurers. I understand that this isn’t anything new for dungeon crawlers, but what makes it all the more tedious here is how annoying the game makes completing some of these quests. Dungeons are littered with hallways that lead to dead ends, requiring you to wade through hordes of the enemies on your way to a hallway to nowhere, only to then wade through another group on your way back. Sometimes you’ll collect a thing only to then go back through half of the dungeon to then collect the next thing. Sometimes the items of your quest show up with blue sparkles, sometimes they don’t. All of the backtracking results in zero sense of progression. You’re not moving forward, you’re just mapping terrain, terrain to be covered and then recovered in pursuit of the next bauble.

Sure, there’s loot and experience to gain from all of this questing and killing but even those two RPG staples are poorly implemented. Upon starting the game you pick from one of four classes, two melee and two ranged, and there are four save slots should you want to tinker with the various classes. At first, everything looks good. As you level up you use skill points to buy new powers, new, exciting ways to kill things. It isn’t long though before you run up against the fact that there are more powers than there are buttons to activate them. PC games get around this by allowing you to use all the keys at your keyboard’s disposal, consoles have used rings and triggers and other less elegant solutions, but at least they let you access every power, every time. Not this game. If you want that new power, prepare to get rid of something else. While I can certainly understand that the 3DS has a finite number of buttons, it also has a touchscreen. Sure, the touchscreen is used to navigate menus and the see the minimap, a map that can’t be scrolled, to my eternal torment, I would have gladly put up with more layers of menus if it meant I could use more than three powers at a time.

Then again, I played a Savage, the game’s version of a barbarian and honestly, I couldn’t tell the difference between this buff and that buff, between this multiple move attack and that one. All of the powers boiled down to places I put skill points, or things I used to unlock other powers, not meaningful additions to the character or skill set of Beaners, Son of Beaners.

Ditto for the loot. If most of the stat numbers were green, the loot was good. If they were red, the loot was bad. Half of the stats had no appreciable affect on gameplay. As I got stronger and my loot got more loot-tastic, the enemies also got stronger. Hour ten felt the same as hour one, green numbers be damned. Sure, some of my new equipment had buffs which gave a chance for certain affects, but they never seemed to fire, or if they did, they didn’t do anything. Technically, 1% is a chance, so I can’t claim that the game was lying.

Worse though, is how quickly the loot becomes superfluous. In a good dungeon crawler, the great loot is extremely expensive or very hard to find. It gives you a reason to keep grinding swamp rats, or horny toads, or whatever. Killing things gets you more loot. More loot can be sold. More money gets you even better loot. In this game, the really good loot is either relatively cheap (5k of your wallet maxing 99,999) or given at the end of a major quest. Finding excellent loot doesn’t often happen and once your wallet maxes out, you can’t sell anything you pick up, so mowing down enemies becomes an exercise in getting from A to B, not something done to gain a material advantage. If you do stumble across something that actually puts a dent in your wallet, give it five minutes and you’ll quickly be back up to full coffers from selling loot that you either can’t equip or is worse than that you already have.

On the plus side, the game allows four random people to connect wirelessly and all play in the same game, using the system’s microphone for chatting. Loading times are a little long when joining, but nothing that makes you think that the game is busted. Playing a dungeon crawler with random people is like watching a family that hates each other go to the mall: every person heads off in a different direction, looking for fame, fortune or hot pretzels. The online mode doesn’t offer anything all that better than playing the single player game, other than a chance to knock off some of the weekly or daily quests, so I’m not sure why you’d do it. Speaking of those quests, I’m fairly certain Square/Enix was tracking my location in the game so that every day they could offer up a daily challenge in an area I had no hopes of getting to based on where I was in the story. Given that Square allows you to link your Square/Enix login to the game and track your stats online, similar to Rockstar’s Social Club, I think my suspicions have merit. It’s all about me, people.

It’s possible that if I were to get past this boss, the ending of the game would blow me away, but I’m fairly certain that I don’t care. The fact that the game looks like an iPad game, but at eight times the cost, certainly doesn’t help. The bottom line though, is that the game hasn’t given me much of a reason to come back other than it being a dungeon crawler on the 3DS. There was a time I thought that’d be enough. Unfortunately, that time has passed.

Jumping the Shark Episode #133

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Image: Filomena Scalise /

For Jumping the Shark #133, Brandon and Bill celebrate the coming of Summoner Wars on the iOS. (I’m sure I’ll join the jubilee soon. Took the time to figure it out over the weekend and am starting to feel its draw.) There’s also some Amazing Spider-Man discussion and a Bill tangent about not liking fun murderers. And really, who does? Leading off this week, though, Brandon and I wax poetic about the revised Mass Effect 3 ending and he gets me to say something that, in a righteous universe, ought to never ever happen – “Brandon, you’re right.”

And even now a chill goes down my spine.

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(The embedded feed is after the break.)