Counterspy – Review

Before saying anything actually of critical value, I just need to ask: Why does this appetizer small indie game have a 20 minute update? It couldn’t have been any sort of actual patch work, right? Because that update was way too large to be just glitch and bug prevention. Was it just the actual game put into patch form even after the game had supposedly been downloaded and installed? Anyway, it was a relatively minor quibble. Just push that to the back of your head alongside the other forgotten thoughts, “huh, this chicken I’m eating probably died in the dark, slathered in its own excrement” and “If this plane went down right now, this oxygen mask isn’t going to do anything.” Transitioning lube smooth into the actual warm, moist substance of Counterspy, I’ll start off by saying that this game is fun. (<Pulitzer prize winning segue right there) You play as a spy working for the neutrally aligned C.O.U.N.T.E.R. agency, performing covert operations of military espionage on both the Socialist (USSR) and Imperialist (USA) nations, infiltrating their bases to steal launch plans, in order to prevent nuclear armageddon. Counterspy employs 2.5D gameplay, a very jazz trumpet-heavy, mood-setting soundtrack, fluid gameplay that’s easy to comprehend, a decent amount of variety in its randomly generated levels, and lots and lots of style. I applaud the unique choice in aesthetics. The art style is comprised largely of bold, polygonal 50’s and 60’s design. Rooms are often massive multi-tiered chambers with grandiose flags and missiles on display in the background, emphasizing the inflated egos and hubris of each nation. It’s not surprising that the game looks great considering the fact that Dynamighty, although technically an independent developer, is comprised of former members of Pixar and LucasArts. Hence, the reason why you’ll occasionally get the  feeling you’re playing in the world of The Incredibles. The vibe often verges into the realm of stereotype, but the game executes nearly perfectly the cool, James Bond feel of being a spy at the height of the Cold War.Counterspy, like other indie games I’ve reviewed on this site (Spelunky, Titan Attacks), is light on story. To be honest, Counterspy’s wafer thin plot is a little anemic. It would be untrue (a dirty, stinkin’ lie!), and rather dismissive, to say Counterspy doesn’t have anything to say about patriotism, conflicting ideologies, and the arms race, but these themes are generally found in-game. The extent of the story in Counterspy is literally comprised of 4 or 5 instances of text blurbs between yourself, the nameless Spider-Man Noir lookalike, and C.O.U.N.T.E.R HQ. More often than not, these  are little more than the game’s way of saying, “good job; keep going; you’re getting closer.”  The game is also extremely short, relying mostly on your own desire to continue playing on all three of the game’s difficulties. Gameplay transitions between 2D stealth and 3D shooting galleries. You traverse levels in a side scrolling fashion, but levels have z-axis depth to them, as well. If a room has too many guards to get away with simple neck snaps, then going into cover will switch the perspective of the game and allow you to shoot to your violent heart’s content.Before embarking on any mission in Counterspy, it’s important to properly equip yourself for the job. Cash can be acquired by completing missions and finding intel within lockers. You’ll then be able to spend this cash on ammunition in addition to new weapons and formulas; blueprints for which are found in special safes hidden in the levels. Weapons are relatively straightforward – as you progress, you will have the opportunity to purchase more powerful and unique firearms to take on the increasingly difficult levels. Any new game will start with an initial purchase of the suppressed Diplomatic Pistol, but eventually you’ll have access to some more exciting armaments such as the golden Luger that can one-shot tough enemies (appropriately named the Golden Girl), a launcher that fires globules of explosive gel, and a dart gun that can turn a soldier against his comrades. Similarly, Formulas are abilities that can be purchased but only once per mission.  Endurance can boost your ability to sustain gunfire, Persuasion lowers the starting alertness level (DEFCON), Silent Running does the obvious, etc. The player is only allowed to have three of these gameplay modifiers in play at once, though. This restriction sounds annoying, but in the end, it keeps the game from losing its challenge, since it is entirely possible to eventually have more than enough money to fully load your favorite guns as well as purchase more than three formulas.Counterspy is marred by a small handful of imperfections. The most likely one to negatively affect gameplay is the game’s random level generator. 95% of the time, it manages to create an engaging and unique mission for you. The other 5% is when it sometimes creates rooms that will be absolutely infested with guards that notice you the second you enter. However, these roaches don’t scatter, they fire assault rifles at you and your cover is blown. Being forced into unintentional scenarios like this is exactly what you don’t want in a stealth game. I also had plenty of great times <sarcasm> trying to make out where the hell security cameras were pointed at. I’m not really sure if it was a conscious design decision to have the advanced cameras emit a hard-to-distinguish, faint orange color that can’t be told apart from the white floors, or if it was just a questionable choice in color. Perhaps it’s just my eyes that got bothered by it, (you know, because i rinse them in lye), but getting unnecessary Defcon level rises was reason enough for me to always allocate camera destruction in one of my formula slots. Furthermore, the O button is used for both rolling and getting to cover. If you’ve played a 3rd person shooter, you know where this is going. Trying to roll out of cover is an impossibility for the spy. Like some sort of weeaboo and his waifu anime girl poster, he can’t seem to find it within himself to stop sniffing the wall. It ruined the smooth flow of my ninja-like spy and eventually just had to give up on the idea of rolling around cover. Finally, the ending is abrupt. There’s a short cutscene with no dialogue whatsoever, that was more or less the picture book version of a mission accomplished. The game has a little bit of a “well, that happened” feeling upon completion. Then again, the developers were looking to make a fun, downloadable game and not The Last of Us, so it’s to be expected.Overall, Counterspy is a fine option to blow away a lazy Sunday. It’s not a deep well, but it’s far from shallow. The lack of more unique rooms to slink through eventually gives way to the feeling of repetition despite the rogue like level assortment. At its goal of creating an enjoyable, cartoony Cold War stealth game, Dynamighty did succeed. But, I would add the caveat that this is a game you’re going to want to pick up for $0, while it’s free on PSN. I had a good time with Counterspy, but it’s really not a game I would spend more than a few bucks on. If there were any sort of special recommendation I could make, it would be to definitely get it if you’re a PS Vita owner. The game’s mechanics and pick-up-and-play quality make it a perfect fit for mobile players. “Timewaster” can often be a bad, unhealthy descriptor for a game like World of Warcraft or League of Legends, but in Counterspy’s case, it’s exactly the right niche.Obligatory Number at the End: 8/10

South Park: The Stick of Truth – Review

The Stick of Truth is a special game. No, not like that guy who’s dream car is a forklift and showers in his socks. And not necessarily special in the endearing way that Mario 64 or any Zelda is to so many gamers. Nah, it’s special in that it is the only game that has allowed me to fling human fecal matter at Al Gore, and where doing so was actually a viable strategy at winning that boss battle. The game is laden with these sorts of crude, lewd, and otherwise unthinkable acts, often to the point that it gave me that feeling many probably did when watching Bigger, Longer, and Uncut so long ago – that there would be no way in hell this wouldn’t get an Adults Only ESRB rating if it wasn’t just a bunch of cartoons. There is a gratuitous amount of, ahem, “rectal exploration” throughout the game, and in more ways than one. In fact, South Park’s typically satirical commentary is kind of cluttered away under the grade school poop and sex jokes, as well as a lot of references to the show that are somewhat hit and miss. There were plenty of times I found myself laughing out loud, especially at the hilarious character reveals toward the end, as well as by the Mister Hanky cameo and David Hasselhoff easter egg, but don’t expect too much high brow shit here. Rehashed gags and referential humor aside, South Park: The Stick of Truth is an entertaining, if somewhat slow starting, RPG that will appease both fans of the show and those who enjoy shock humor. Stick of Truth behaves like a D and D parody right from the start. The game establishes the initial fantasy plot of elves vs humans through an expository, and realistically drawn, opening cutscene (narrated by Cartman, of course). The two factions are at war over whom should rightly control the titular stick, which endows whomever wields it with the ability to basically have whatever they say, go. From there, you create your mute fourth grader and then battle with yourself on whether or not you want to play the Jew character class. Because you know you want to, but you’re not sure since you made your fourth grader look like you in the fourth grade, and since of course you’re not Jewish, (because why would you do that to yourself?), you kinda don’t want to be a Jew, but then you tell yourself it’s just a game, and the idea of having Jew power sounds hilarious to you, though in the end you just decide to go ahead and pick Thief and resolve to play as Jew in your second playthrough… (If your experience wasn’t word-for-word like this, then you did it wrong, try again) From there, you’re free to roam through pretty much all of South Park, picking up quests and adding all the characters as Facebook friends. Facebook is the all-in-one menu that you’ll be spending a lot of time in, further upgrading and customizing your character. You’d think Matt Stone and Trey Parker were actually just trying to make 2D Skyrim, considering all the time you’ll spend going through all the minutia in those menu screens. 2014-03-01_00010You’ll also come to meet the true villain of the game despairingly early in the game. No, not Clyde. I’m talking about slow-down and load screens. This game’s subtitle should be Load Screens Galore, it’s so bad. At least in Skyrim you could play around a dozen or more hours before the load times started to creep up. The Stick of Truth goes in to Waiting Room mode nearly every time you go in or out of a building. Adding to that, the game also stutters like it’s trying to imitate Jimmy’s speech impediment whenever it autosaves in the town. Again unlike Skyrim, there was no way to turn off the unnecessarily constant stream of game saves, which meant I would have to just not move for 10 some odd seconds every now and then lest I risk the game looking like the original stop motion pilot of the show. How a game this graphically simple could be that hard to run is beyond me. This potentially could have been because the copy I played for this review was the downloadable version, but even then, it’s still poorly optimized. If the Stick of Truth’s experience could be compared to the experience of an episode, then this is like trying to stream “Cartman Gets an Anal Probe” over a  dial-up internet connection, complete with all the buffering that brings. It eventually came to the point where I was more surprised when there WASN’T a loading screen between rooms, and because of that, real immersion was something I never ascertained. If that sounds sad in this day and age, that’s because it is. (If it sounds “chad,” invest in a Q-tip)One nice thing about The Stick of Truth is that, aside from those times you’re forced to just twiddle your thumbs and play the waiting game, is that the time spent in the 15 to 20 hour campaign never feels wasted. The game isn’t padded with dozens of fetch quests, and there’s none of that JRPG “dude, you gotta wait til the 50 hour mark for it to get good hurr durr” bullshit to give nerds a falsely inflated sense of value for their dollar. The game packs in as much politically incorrect shenanigans as it can within its play time. From the first tutorials, it’s made clear that a lot of the action you’ll be engaged in is turn-based combat. These instances usually pits you and one interchangeable ally against 1-5 enemies whom you must vanquish using your repetoire of melee and ranged attacks, Power moves, “Magic” spells, and one-use-per-day Summon abilities. A few fights against boss characters can prove challenging if you’re unaware of their weaknesses,  but most battles were easy enough to be won on the first try simply by relying on a few favorite Power moves to clear your path.  Magic spells (i.e.: farts) were something i used rarely outside what i needed to do with them to get Trophies. To keep things interesting, your attacks and blocks are determined by your ability to perform timed button presses. Precision timing is required for the most effective strikes and to reduce damage. Comparisons to Paper Mario have been made regarding the combat, so at least they’re ripping off a lesser known, quality game. South Park: The Stick of Truth - Ass of FireWhat I ended up doing more often than not though, is trying to limit the amount of time you’ll spend in combat at all. Opportunities to do this are represented by obvious glinting in the environment. Before engaging in combat, by interacting with objects near certain enemies, like dropping something that was precariously dangling over their head on to them, you can eliminate multiple enemies from a fight or the fight altogether. It’s not necessarily that the combat isn’t fun or that it’s boring, it’s that in a game where the big draw is the jokes, you want to get back to them fairly quickly. The combat is serviceable and not broken in any way, and often times enemies (like ManBearPig) will be the joke themselves, but you’ll generally want to dispatch foes quickly. There’s tons of weapons and equipment to experiment with to help you do this, as well as stat-buffing Badges that can quickly turn you into an overpowered god amongst mortals given the right setup. For instance, equipping the new ninja stars you bought with the Ginger Pubes badge for Gross-Out effect, is a good way to make yourself OP AF OMG WTF BBQ. Being thorough in scouring the game world, and returning to previously unreachable areas because you didn’t have the right Dragonshout (i.e.: fart) for the job, is rewarded and recommended. If deriving laughter from jokes about abortion, rape, pedophilia, and AIDS is something you’re uncomfortable with, or you can’t appreciate a massive “Nagasaki” fart power simply “for teh lolz” alone, then South Park: The Stick of Truth should probably not be the next game you play with your grandma, who just wanted to do a little Wii bowling but is now crying for having let you expose her to this. If you don’t like the show, then this isn’t going to change anything. It’s weird, really. The game is so dense with shit that any parent with half a brain wouldn’t let their kid play (like all the atrocious slow down, oooh burn), yet at the same time, I feel like I would have enjoyed this game 10x more if I was still a 13 year old with an incredibly immature sense of humor. Its most receptive audience is that tween demographic who can’t even purchase the game without a parent there with them. As I said before, a lot of the satire is rehashed. A bit of it is unoriginal or isn’t timely anymore (seriously, a Matrix reference?), while other portions are exchanged wholesale in favor of “easy” comedy (i.e.: farts). It wasn’t particularly all that clever or surprising for instance, that after so many characters  have told you no less than 76,831 times throughout the game to “never ever fart on another man’s balls,” that lo and behold, you defeat the final boss by releasing pootchus gas on their crotch region. In fact, it was more anti-climactic than epic. The phrase, “Sooo… was that it?” best sums up the ending of SoT. (why they would tell you to not do this one thing when it solved every problem all at once doesn’t make a whole lot of logical sense, either) That being said, without the South Park coating, this game would seriously be in need of some work. The gameplay is decent enough, but really only serves as a means to an end. It’s the videogames equivalent of Saltine Crackers; eat it with a soup or salad, you cretin. If you can put up with that, and with a purgatory of loading screens so draining you’ll need to pull your phone out to save you from losing your soul to boredom, then Stick of Truth is well worth playing. To quote the late, great Rosa Parks: “Go now, and embrace your farts.” Obligatory Number at the End: 7.25/10

Remember: Nagasaki.

Lone Survivor – Review

So somewhere towards the end of last year, on a whim, I downloaded a game I found for cheap on a PSN sale. As with most indie games, I didn’t hear much pre-release buzz about it. Post-release, I think I might’ve heard someone somewhere say that they liked it, but aside from that in-passing nod of approval, and the creepy trailer I watched right before clicking “Buy,” I had little to nothing to go on. And that intrigued the hell out of me. Especially since “side-scrolling horror game” sounded so strange. Like the phrase “financially-irresponsible goat,” or “eco-friendly oil corporation,” it’s comprised of two ideas that sort of just make your brain go “wait, that’s not right… stop touching me there, can I please just go home now?” And here I am today to tell all you fine and not-so-fine people that this is a game that you should definitely let touch you. Just do it. In the dark. Preferably with no pants on, because this game will make you shit yourself constantly. And in the best way too. Jasper Byrne, creator of Lone Survivor, clearly put a lot of dedication into crafting this story of one man’s struggle with sanity and isolation. From the ever-present creepiness that lingers throughout the game’s environments, to the fear-inducing sight of the game’s shambling, twitching “Thinmen”,  Lone Survivor provides dread on the level of any good 3D horror game. The plot is so wrapped in ambiguous mysteries and open-ended threads that for the majority of the game, you’ll be kept curious as to what has happened to this world and this nameless man. Towards the end, it does wrap up in a somewhat predictable way, but the journey provided more than enough thrills to make up for the somewhat expected destination.As soon as the game starts, the game goes over “the ritual,” of turning out the lights before playing and adjusting the audio for the most spoopity spooks possible. I enjoyed that dedication to the experience, and I also enjoyed the curveball it threw with the opening monologue. (By the way, this game’s dialogue is all text, so I HOPE you’re literate) The protagonist begins with “My name is…” and I assumed it would let me RPG it up and put a name of my choice in, but he instead finishes with “not important anymore.” Which is interesting for two reasons. One, the game isn’t exactly called Lone Survivor because there’s so many friendly NPC’s around to talk and trade with, so a name isn’t really necessary. Secondly, the game’s story is told more or less in second person. For the next 5 to 6 hours, you’ll live vicariously through him. The plot kept my interest, but for some, the way the game relies almost entirely on cryptic notes, moments, and items to tell the story like a jigsaw puzzle that’s still missing a few pieces, (which ultimately lead to some theory digging online), could be a little too disjointed for some players. I enjoyed the sense of only knowing what little I could put together on my own. However, this means the game sacrifices having a distinct narrative identity apart from what ever the player can get out of it. Considering the fact that there’s multiple endings as well, that are affected by your ability to manage resources and whether or not you were violent in your problem solving, means that some players will REALLY not get anything from this. Which is a shame. However, the experience of going through that first hole in the wall, or when you reach the end of the town, or go to Chie’s Place, or any of the multitude of times you are face to face with a thinman, is ample scare value for your dollar. The game starts you off with next to nothing  in your apartment. You’ll soon realize it’s the only place you can actually find respite from the monstrosities that roam the halls and streets. Little is explained to the player either. The “hand-holding” complaint many gamers have of modern games is not present. In fact, maybe more could have been told. I was carrying canned food in my inventory for the longest time, wondering when the hell I would find the can opener, only to realize that it was in an early room I had not checked thoroughly because there was a spastic, white noise-emitting flesh eater the first time I went. If I wouldn’t have been allowed back there, it would have been pretty much a shit to the face for the game to have let me starve like that. But more so, the game would have benefited from an explanation regarding the pills you find. There are Red, Green, and Blue pills. I ingested many in order to try and discern what effect they had. The Red pill, I was able to piece together was a combat or health buff of some sort. But the blue and green ones remained an enigma. Little did I know at the time that they actually were used in conjunction with the bed in your room (where you go to save your game), in order to have one of two dream sequences. An ominous man with a box on his head waits for you in the first dream, and an on-stage interview with a man in blue is in the other. These figures ask questions of you that you cannot rightly answer, before you wake up and find that you have bullets (blue dream) in your backpack. Yep. I guess it’s just an obvious gaming trope that when you find an unnamed pill, that you ought to take it so you can sleep/save in order to have the recurring dream sequence that gives you the resources you were desperately lacking. Totally obvious. It was also totally obvious that my attempts at experimentation with them at the beginning of the game pretty much screwed me out of any chance of the “best” ending. But hey, at least the game gives you an infinite supply of pills, meaning that you are never screwed should you run out batteries for your flashlight. When exploring the world of Lone Survivor, you’re often doing so to accomplish standard videogame goals. Find key. Find object that will work like key. Get power on. Get the things in order to get the other thing. There’s also some hidden side quests that perceptive players can find and subsequently complete, but nothing is really mind blowing objective-wise. There’s a nice side quest related to getting a cat as a pet. The cat doesn’t necessarily do much to alter anything, but  in this eerie game, the moments of mild tranquility between all the harrowing encounters with death are appreciated. You can shoot your way out of those situations, or go non-lethal through the use of flares or good ol’-fashioned sneaking. Personally, I went with the extermination route because there’s a good amount of backtracking in this game, and the unsettling nature of the bizarre zombies was not something I wanted to put up with in areas I’d be crossing through multiple times. Plus, bullets were no concern once I finally figured out the blue pill’s purpose. There are mirrors throughout the game which act as fast travel points back to the safety of your own apartment. The game remains tough but fair in this way. You can’t save anywhere, but it gives you the opportunities. Seeing as you can die from a few thinmen swipes, saving is crucial. There’s no one to blame but yourself when you decide to not save before exploring areas you know will be full of freaks and end up losing 30 minutes of progress. Learn from your old man’s mistakes, kids. Save often. One would think that when a game is just a bunch of blatantly retro pixels, it would lack the capability to capture terror. This game proves that notion wrong. Similar to the way a blurry sepia-toned picture of children in old Halloween costumes or of a man in an Easter bunny outfit is sometimes more fear-inducing than the latest and greatest special effects Hollywood could use in a big-budget film, so to does this indie game trounce traditional AAA. Dead Space is freaky, yes. But after a while, it really does become just a dimly lit shooter. All the weapon and armor upgrades start to butt heads with the design team’s horrific monsters. Resident Evil games lately have all but severed ties to their genre roots, and the Silent Hill sequels have played like ass for a while now too. If you’d like some relatively inexpensive scares that actually required some modicum of effort and respect for game players on behalf of the developer [read: NOT Five Nights at Freddy’s], then this is a good suggestion. It’s ACTUALLY a game. No wandering in the woods waiting for a still Slenderman rendering to show up and send you to the game over screen. No mindlessly opening and closing doors literally just waiting to have an insipid 2-second jump scare of an animatronic you can’t defend yourself from to happen. This is a genuine horror game made by someone who obviously was passionate about the games that influenced him, and wanted to create a quality experience. The game’s excellent sound and music will chill and surprise you. The persistent dread of trying to stay alive will terrify you and warp your mind. The story, or lack there of, might not impress those who don’t like to be confused or those who often think things with symbolism are being “pseudo-intellectual,” but there are worse ways to spend your little money. So, should you play Lone Survivor? Yes. The answer is yes. Pants are optional, but Lone Survivor is yet another welcome addition to the greats of independent game development. Obligatory Number at the End: 8.75/10