Tuesday, 22 February 2011

So Now, You're a Crossing Gate: Ghost Trick

When video games as a general rule have the player character avoiding death (or inflicting it); it's an unusual thing when a game starts with the Player Character dead from the get-go. You play as Sissel, a reawakened amnesiac spirit in a junkyard accompanied by only a red-suited corpse, a female detective with a bizarre hairdo, and a blue-skinned assassin in a suit, hefting a large golden shotgun. The detective seems to know something about how and why you died, but meets an untimely death. Fortunately you gain the power of the 'Ghost Trick'; the ability to possess and manipulate small objects, and the ability to rewind time to the 4 minutes before someone else's death. If you can save the detective, maybe you'll get some clues about your past...
Ghost Trick was directed by Shu Takumi, the same director behind the Ace Attorney series, and by God that legacy shines through in this work. That series was packed to the brim with over-the-top memorable characters, great storytelling, and an episodic feel that made it easy to pick-up and play. These design philosophies have been expertly transported into Ghost Trick; Sissel's musings are sarcastic and likeable, Detective Lynne is still worth rescuing every time she meets her end (even after the gunman in the junkyard, she has troubles staying alive), and storyline chapters are just the right length for you to finish one on the train, or before you go to bed.

However, the Ace Attorney series has stagnated over time. The initial three DS releases are actually re-released Japanese-only Game Boy Advance games - and replaying them now, the age shows a little. The more recent games rely mostly on the success of - and cameos from - the previous instalments; and while I am pretty damn excited for Ace Attorney Investigations 2, it won't offer anything in the way of a fresh experience. Ghost Trick is that breath of fresh air, both in terms of how it looks and how it plays.

Game play reminds me of a Rube Goldberg Machine. When rewinding someone's death, you have to manipulate items scattered around the room to alter the path of those in peril. A victim can't hear the assassin approaching due her headphones? Knock them into the nearby fish tank. Large wrecking ball suspended by a fragile clamp? Get the clamp to open, and watch havoc unfold. If you spend too long, or accidentally put the victim in even more danger, you can go back to the start of the 4 minutes at any time, with no penalty. The puzzles are logical and encourage you to tinker around with the pieces for happy successes, and the occasional hilarious failure.

The style of the game is also extremely noteworthy. Where Ace Attorney mostly used mugshots and still images to tell its story, Ghost Trick is an animated wonder. Stylised 3D models waltz across the 2D set with a whole lot of energy and flair. For character Detective Cabanela, just walking downstairs or answering the phone can be turned into a performance. The design of the locations has the gritty Film Noir aesthetic, but rendered in bold colours and anachronistic technology. The same goes for the funky soundtrack - mysterious grooves with an electronic flair.

The story is a gripping one, but it's filled with so many twists, I'd feel bad for sharing it and spoiling the experience. The ending is open enough to have a sequel if Capcom wants more money; and in a way they're fully justified. Ghost Trick is a total gem of a game, and is one of the best Story-Driven puzzlers on the DS to date. And that's no Trick.

A demo of Ghost Trick can be played for free online here! Awesome!

 This article has been hosted on The Yorker, and can be found here.

Thursday, 17 February 2011


I'll admit now that I don't have much patience for the Shooter genre. Both of the first and third person varieties. I've not indulged in many horror games either. So this makes me playing Dead Space 2 a bit of an odd match up. While I had played the first Dead Space, it honestly didn't grab me. Its polish and quality was clear as day, but I just wasn't hooked by its premise.

Dead Space 2, on the other hand, is a mutation of its predecessor. The basics are the same - surviving endless waves of alien parasites popping from air vents and broom cupboards - but Dead Space 2's tone of delivery is different. Very different. Where the prequel prided itself on a silent, creepy atmosphere with a muted palette, protagonist and soundtrack - this game is all about loud, bold action and goofy set pieces; something I enjoy, but struggle to take seriously.

The game opens with protagonist Isaac in a straight jacket, being half-cared for, half-captured by a group looking into the nature of the aliens he'd splattered in the first game. Right on cue, one of these aliens bursts into the scene, violently violates the medic monitoring Isaac, and the player is directed to flee for his life. Restrained by the jacket and with no armour or weapons, Isaac's escape should be a very harrowing experience; but his goofy movement animations, his stomp attack that's heavy enough to shake the screen, and the multiple cut scenes where other survivors are mutilated by aliens while Isaac remains oblivious or just plain uncaring evokes memories of MadWorld, not Silent Hill.

The locations you run through also give an aura of cliché B-Movie horror, relocated to a space station. Take a setting, and add a dramatic "In space!" to the end, and watch it appear in Isaac's jaunt aboard The Sprawl.
Abandoned hospital, in space!
Blood-stained elementary school, IN SPACE!
Ominous church with added foggy graveyard IN SPAAAAAAAACE!

Facetiousness aside, this tone for Dead Space might prove to be a bit of a problem, not because the game isn't taking itself seriously; but because despite the game's pitch-black humour, it still wants to evoke a sense of atmosphere and drama. The decision to give Isaac dialogue and occasional scenes where he's haunted by hallucinations of his dead girlfriend doesn't so much make him human and tormented, but foul-mouthed and cardboard flat. The game tries time and again to get me to care about Isaac, but I'm too busy watching the awesome death cut scenes to notice (Watch Isaac have his arms rather unrealistically removed by an air-lock door without making a Monty Python Black Knight reference. I dare you). The game pulls a page out of Bioshock's book and leaves small video and text files lying around, but they're either unhelpful or uninteresting to read. Isaac's tour of the space station is well-detailed but so incredibly linear, the scare-factor of having to deal with enemies is diminished when you notice that the doors lock behind you whenever there's something in the room you need to tear apart.

So who would I recommend the game to? Fans of the first, definitely. There is a lot of polish to the flow of the game that outshines the original, and most likely other 3rd Person Shooters floating around. But if you're looking for a haunting, atmospheric experience; you're unlikely to find it here. Stomping on corpses to get at the ammo and money hidden within, and flying around with rocket boots is however, a more than satisfying replacement.

This article has been hosted on The Yorker, and can be found here.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

What I learned from working at GAME

I now write for The Yorker, a new media site. You can find the original publish of this article here.

Being a student with a pressing need to pay for rent, groceries, and alcohol, I was pumped to get a job working at a GAME over the winter holidays. Initially it felt great to earn my own money - rather than it being supplied by my parents or the government - but as I worked there, what I learned changed by views on games retail slightly.

1) The market is a lot smaller than I thought. If I want to buy a game online, I have tons of options. Not just eBay and Amazon, but 'digital distribution' systems like Steam, where purchased games are directly downloaded to your computer, no plastic boxes or shipping. High street shopping is a different beast, however. Dedicated games shops will stock a wider range of content than HMV or Tesco, but the success of online shopping has downsized dedicated games retail. Many independent shops have closed, leaving GAME, Gamestation, and CEX the last 3 competing chains. But interestingly, GAME and Gamestation are actually owned by the same company. In fact, every so often we got extra stock of second-hand games from them when we were running low. The pricing and trade-in values are the exact same, too. You have to wonder why they're even separate shops.

2) Game Charts are a bit of a sham. Nearly any store that sells games will have a set of shelves devoted to the 'top games' out at the moment; just like books and CDs. However, while the charts of CDs are heavily monitored, games are less so. The means that in most GAMEs, the charts will be a top list of the games the shop wants to shift or promote, more than what's actually selling. This will result in the new, big-name releases always being in the #1 spot, and terrible games that they want to offload not being that far behind. I don't believe that Hello Kitty: Birthday Adventures is the #3 game at the moment, do you?

3) Customers can be really... weird. The best example I've experienced was one gentleman who came in to trade in a large stack of old Xbox 360 games to trade against a Kinect. Unfortunately the games weren't worth very much, and he was pretty ticked to find out that I could only give him about £37 for his troubles. He then decides to not bother getting a Kinect, and picks up various new games from the shelves - waiting until no one's looking, and leaving the shop with them. The catch? For security reasons, we don't put the games inside the display boxes on the shop floor - he fled the premises with nothing more than a collection of empty boxes, leaving his old 360 games behind in the process.

4) The 'Big Name' releases aren't the best sellers. I was employed during a number of the big Winter releases - Medal of Honor, Call of Duty: Black Ops, Fable 3... but none of them sold in particularly huge numbers. At a guess, I wager that it's down to a mixture of them being available to purchase online, and the target audience for those games coming into the store less and less. The biggest sellers were budget DS games (I've sold more copies of Peppa Pig: Fun and Games and Imagine: Animal Doctor than I can remember), and a bizarre subset of PC games that revolve around 'find the hidden object' game play. If I ever get in to games design, I'm going to make a hidden object game about sick ponies. I'll make a killing.