Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Death Count - 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors

The genres for video games are vast. Most are aware of First Person Shooters. Real Time Strategy is less common but hardly unheard of. But then there's the Visual Novel; a genre only really paid attention to by a much more marginalised audience. They are what the name suggests - games that are interactive books - focusing on the story depth and characters rather than action sequences.
Games of this type vary in quality; the Ace Attorney series is the best example released in the West, but Japan has its own special sub-genre of risqué Visual Novels that creep me out.

9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors (herein referred to as 999 for my sanity) is very much its own beast. An easy way to describe it would be "The cast of Ace Attorney in a Saw film", but that doesn't quite do it justice. You play through the eyes of Junpei - a teenager who has woken up in an abandoned bedroom on a ship. The only thing in his possession is an irremovable metal bracelet with a '5' on it. Then inexplicably, the room starts to flood with water, and Junpei must find a way to unlock the door, or die trying. He finds that he and eight others are playing the 'Nonary Game', where success means escape, failure means drowning, and breaking the rules means a bomb in your stomach going off.

The game's puzzles all function similarly, each room you enter contains a set of puzzles resulting in an escape route unlocking. None of the tasks are straightforward, but they're all based in sensible leaps of logic, solved with patient thinking. So while there is a sense of atmosphere and tension in solving the puzzles (though there's no time limit), it's not frustrating - a lesson that the Professor Layton series could learn from.

With the puzzle sections so short, the bulk of 999 is instead taken up with narrative; and damn is there a lot of it. There can be hours worth of dialogue in between each interactive element, sometimes even within the room escape sections. This would be unbearable under most circumstances, but the story is strangely compelling. Of course, it doesn't exactly stand up to a quality ink-and-paper novel, but the subject matter and quality of the translation from Japanese is impressive. While there is no on-screen gore, descriptions of violence and of any 'rule breakers' you come across are done creepily well.

The character depth is what made the game for me. While the room puzzles are enjoyable, they're brief. This game survives entirely on the strength of its narrative; so thank goodness it's such a good one. In the early stages of the story, the characters feel like numbered narrative devices, but as you progress, all the characters become fleshed-out and empathetic; you'll definitely find a favourite. This is coupled with a quality soundtrack done by Shinji Hosoe, previously known for the high-octane techno tracks he creates; this is first foray into ambient and atmospheric tunes, and it works incredibly well.

999 has multiple endings, depending on which puzzle rooms you decide to tackle. Each ending explains more about the characters and nature of the Nonary Game, so repeat plays are necessary to understand everything. On subsequent runs, you're able to fast-forward through text that you've already seen; which makes the process much quicker - sitting through some of the longer cut scenes again would be maddening.

999 rewards the open-minded gamer. A game consisting of 'pulp novel' dialogue will be a huge turn-off for some, but the execution is so well done, I implore the adventurous to check it out. Be prepared to use an importing website, though - while the American release has been available for a few months, there is no sign of an EU release as of yet.

This review has also been hosted on The Yorker and can be found here.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Lupe Fiasco - Lasers

I'm a firm believer in giving new albums a chance. Maybe it's because there are enough annoyingly vocal people on the Internet yelling "This new album is different to the others so it SUCKS." Or maybe it's because I get funny looks from my friends when I say I like Muse's The Resistance as much as their earlier stuff. But I am compelled to keep an open mind when new tunes are released by the artists I like.

And I won't front in that regard; I love Lupe Fiasco. When I heard that his new album (and potentially final one, if his desire to only release his mixtape and 3 albums holds true) was in production, I decided to not spoil myself until it was released. I eventually caved, and listened to his single, 'The Show Goes On' and...
It was different, so I kind of hated it. And then felt bad for my sentiment. But no matter how I sliced it, the more 'top 40 rap song' beat wasn't what I looked for in Lupe, and it disappointed me. But on the other hand, it increased my hope that the album would be really varied in style.

As it turned out, that turned out to be exactly the truth. Lasers has been split neatly in two - almost to the degree where I'm starting wonder if it's intentional. The first half boasts almost all the musical tropes I can't stand: a male, boorish backing of "Oh oh ohs" on ‘Letting Go’, the flat, half-singing on ‘Till I Get There’ (though the lyrics for the verses are incredibly clever), and upon listening to a few forgettable others and getting to ‘Beautiful Lasers’, you're pelted with a full-on auto-tune chorus.

But then, ‘Coming Up’ happened. Leading in with a neat and simple piano riff, the beat dropped with a big helping of synth strings, and suddenly everything flashed back to early 2000s R&B. The sudden change was incredibly relieving, but my pessimistic side expected it to be a fluke. This was followed up with ‘State Run Radio’, which solidly proved me wrong. The cute radio-tuning sound effects and cheesy rock guitar melody made me think of a more mature-sounding Gym Class Heroes (that's not a bad thing, I promise).

‘BREAK THE CHAIN’ (capitalisation theirs) goes on a '90s club bent with a drum loop that almost made me fall out of my chair. Sway features as a guest rapper, and part of me was happy to know that the British lyricist hadn't entirely faded into obscurity.

‘Never Forget You’ and ‘Shining Down’ are somewhat weaker, not quite demonstrating the musical or lyrical style of the tracks preceding them; but ‘All Black Everything’ and ‘I'm Beamin’’ shine through as the best tracks on the album, delivering some incredible lines. They're great concepts; and exactly what I love about Lupe.

Lasers may be bifurcated in its musical quality, but Lupe Fiasco's rapping skills and meaningful lyrics definitely haven't dulled. And in time, I can grow to accept, maybe even enjoy the more mainstream first half. Though I'll never grow to like auto-tune. Jay-Z was pretty off in his predictions.

This article has also been hosted on The Yorker. You can find it here.

The Happiest Game on Earth - Kirby's Epic Yarn

Yes, I know the US got this game months before we did, but this is new and fresh to me at least!
The Kirby series has something of a reputation. The design has always been cute and endearing; and the game play undemanding, but fluid and enjoyable.

Over time, the games have varied in quality and difficulty, but we just can't hate the little guy, nor the games he appears in. Kirby's Epic Yarn doesn't buck that trend, but instead refines what makes Kirby games so charming and enjoyable, with a unique difference.

Everything is made from yarn. Or felt. Or cotton wool. Justified through a somewhat contrived plot line of Kirby being turned into yarn and whisked away to Patch Land by the wicked Yin Yarn (groan), the developers have gone wild with the art direction, and seamlessly blended it with how the game plays. The levels themselves scrunch up, unzip and unravel as Kirby progresses through each stage, accompanied by the angry looking Prince Fluff as a second player. Each stage is scored by the number of beads you collect, awarding bonuses for not taking damage and collecting items, with a bonus roulette of beads at the end. The score goes towards a ranking at the end of the stage.

Kirby's Epic Yarn is essentially one giant bedtime story - and that goes beyond the alternate interpretation of the game title. The pastel colour scheme, the light-hearted and whimsical concept and a soft spoken narrator for the cutscenes gives the entire package a feel like you're acting out the next Gruffalo or Very Hungry Caterpillar.

This stylistic choice seeps into the game play too. It's impossible to fail a stage in Epic Yarn. While all the staple platforming hazards are present and correct - enemies (adorably animated), crushing ceilings (denim constructed), rising lava (orange silk) - if Kirby collides with them, he'll reel back as his hard earned collectables go scattering. This means that Kirby's story will always end as intended; stages will be completed and bosses beaten. The effect of this is twofold - players who aren't much used to platformers will eventually finish their quest without much frustration, and more experienced gamers can pursue 'perfect runs' of each stage, racking up the highest scores.

As I played, I found that the game provided far more challenge than I had expected. Simply beating the game was a fun, but undemanding experience, so I felt compelled to try something that I almost never do with my games - a 100% completion. The check list of items heading to full completion was a lengthy one - unlocking all the stages, getting a Gold rank on every stage, collecting all the hidden items, beating the bonus challenge levels, filling in the encyclopedias of characters, enemies, and music tracks...

Playing the game in co-op feels like a much more rewarding experience than playing alone. Picking up your ally and throwing them up to new areas or into enemies can make some areas a lot more fluid; though you could argue it makes an already easy experience even easier. Then again, as both players can be damaged, some stages will rob you of all you hard-earned beads as Kirby and Prince Fluff get crushed, burned or battered. If there's a gap in skill between the two players, it can get a bit heated, as one player lags behind, or drops gems often. Go in with a relaxed attitude, or let the soothing piano soundtrack do it for you.

Kirby's Epic Yarn is a very different way of handing a 2D Platformer, but by no means a bad one. The experience may be too cheerful or too unchallenging for some; but hating this game is equivocal to hating fun. Fact.

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

Monday, 7 March 2011

Let's Build a Computer!

Note: This article has been hosted at The Yorker in two parts. This version is edited to be a full piece, and be less specific to the Societies and shops in York. This version has also been mirrored on the VG Resource's blog. Check it out!

Computers are complicated. For the most part, there's a general assumption that building your own computer, especially one designed for gaming, is a task that can only be performed by the Computer Science students with a huge budget (or those who don't mind spending their student loan). In a way, that's true – a lot of self-professed 'PC Gamers' spend a lot of money on their rig - but I knew that building my own machine would save me a lot of money compared to going to the nearest PC World or Currys and being given an overpriced machine with added bells and whistles that I neither wanted nor needed.
So with my Christmas, birthday, and part-time job money saved up, I took to the Internet to shop for parts. This was by far the most complicated part of the process. While I had an idea of what parts I needed (a motherboard would be obvious, a power supply unit incredibly necessary), what specifications and what brand gave a ridiculous number of options. Looking at the UK computer sales sites and, they had an uncanny knack of not letting me compare different items for cost or performance. Against all personal standards, I would have killed for a computer nerd equivalent of Go Compare.
In the end, I found a website dedicated to building computers that gave clear indicators of what items I would need to put together a cost effective machine. It didn't take long to search for those, and result in the following:

(In addition to this, necessary accessories like a monitor, a wireless adaptor, and a keyboard and mouse.)
Factoring in delivery costs, the total of it all came to £411.

Waiting eagerly over the weekend, the parts finally arrived in two separate deliveries. The disadvantage to shopping from multiple sites was my goods not all arriving at once. A bit skittish about going into building my computer entirely blind, I nagged my housemate doing a Computer Science degree to help me out.
As it turned out, there wasn't much that I couldn't do solo. While all the parts were from different companies, the instructions that came with them all were simple to understand, and didn't conflict with each other; everything fitting into place with screws, wires plugged in with satisfying clicks. Following each instruction correctly with no problems gives a slight feeling of pride and achievement; as if I was building an IKEA flat-pack bookshelf, but one I could play video games on.
About an hour later, I had finished. Hooking up the monitor and keyboard, it all turned on just fine. And then I realised.

I didn't buy a DVD drive! How on earth was I supposed to install my copy of Windows without one? My progress was put on hold as I made another trip to Scan:

The DVD drive arrived the next Tuesday, and I excitedly wired it up to my machine. Like before, plugging in all the cables was a snap, but another problem arose; it was just a few millimetres too big to fit into the computer case. This was less of an issue; once Windows was installed and my computer was up and running, I disconnected the DVD drive, and everything still ran smoothly.

The final step was to buy a graphics card. Without one, playing any recent games on my computer would be a huge struggle for the motherboard's weedy integrated graphics - definitely not what I'd want. The high-end Graphics Cards are incredibly expensive, the biggest and best going for almost £300 a pop and are as large as a DS Lite. That was definitely not the kind of money I was looking to spend; so I turned to second-hand sales. It didn't take me long to find an American selling his old PC parts:

The card arrived faster than expected, but there was one final issue. Computer monitors can use multiple types of connection plugs, the two common ones being the blue VGA, and the white DVI. The graphics card had a DVI socket, but my monitor had a VGA cable. Fortunately, this problem was both simple and inexpensive to fix – there are adaptors that can convert a plug from VGA to DVI. Currys was threatening to charge me £21 for this relatively simple lump of metal and plastic, but checking out an independent computer hardware store, I was able to get an adaptor for just £4.

Fitting in the graphics card and using the new monitor connection was the final step, and a huge relief. The computer searched for and installed the correct drivers with minimal fuss, and a little tinkering and testing to make sure everything was working the way it should, my £460-odd project was complete. The specifications were undemanding – not a patch on the really high-end gaming machines, but the ability to run Borderlands without the slowdown and choppy frame rate my laptop offered made me sigh with satisfaction. Mission complete.

Want to build your own PC? Here are a few hints:
  • Don't be put off by the technobabble. While all of the numbers and codes will be useful to some people, try and focus on the basics. If it's RAM or a Hard Drive, what's the memory size? Are the case and motherboard size compatible? Is your processor designed for your motherboard? All this information should be easy to find.
  • Look everywhere! I purchased most of my parts from big retailers, but looking on eBay, trading websites, or even asking your friends for their old PC they keep in the attic might yield useful bits and pieces.
  • Be Prepared to Build! While the actual building phase can be straightforward if you're good at following instructions; having a second pair of hands will make referring to instructions and getting the pieces ready a lot faster. Don't be a loner! It's also a good idea to have your own screwdrivers and cable ties to hand, the parts don't always come with them.
  • Measure, measure, measure! While most computer parts are built to a standard size, and should fit perfectly into your case, there's still a chance something might be build to an odd size. Double check the measurements just in case something might not fit snugly. You can make alterations by yourself if need be, but not recommended. If something snaps in half, don't say I didn't warn you.