Review: Nier (PS3, 2010)

I know it’s cliche to say, “Never judge a book by its cover,” but in the case of Cavia and Square Enix’s action RPG Nier, that phrase has rarely been so applicable. Originally released in April of 2010, Nier was met with lukewarm review scores in the 60-70% range, and for the most part, flew under the radar of most gamers. After I’d come off a rather bitter first encounter with Square Enix’s own Final Fantasy XIII the month prior (that game has yet to win me over), Nier simply didn’t register any interest from me. One look at the game case and I thought, “Here’s another generic action game with bad-looking art.”

Fast-forward to July of 2012, and by that point, I had been seeing a lot of people online referring to Nier as their favorite game of the PS3 generation, and I had friends at work who suggested I play it. That certainly piqued my interest, as these were a the same folks who had championed titles like Advent Rising, God Hand, and Psychonauts, and although I still wasn’t all that interested in it, I decided to pick it up. It was only about $17 at the time, so the risk was low. However, as is the case with many of my purchases, it sat on my shelf in the shrinkwrap, and it wouldn’t be until two years later in July of 2014 that I would finally crack it open and give it a shot.

20150106_nier_2Initially, I didn’t really get it. I thought the graphics were dull, with washed-out colors and too much bloom. World geometry seemed simplistic, in-game animation was rough, and the story, at least at first, seemed like every other “father trying to save their daughter” plot. The controls and combat, while serviceable, weren’t anything special either, and certainly weren’t at the refined level I was used to with other action games like God of War, The Legend of Zelda, or Bayonetta.

Quests were of the basic fetch and collect-a-thon varieties, complete with annoying, time-consuming rare drops and a repetitive — but easy to master — fishing minigame. About the only thing I did love right out the gate was Nier‘s soundtrack, which is arguably one of the best ever created. Anyway, I played it for several hours, reached the ocean town of Seafront, and once again shelved it.


After receiving a steady stream of encouragement from one of my friends to keep on playing it, I finally returned to it 4 months later in November. It took me some time to get back into it, and although I found myself enjoying the game’s characters, story, and music, the game itself just wasn’t doing much for me. It’s good, but far from great. Nier is a game that’s difficult to define, but I’d say at its core, it’s a single-player MMO with action RPG gameplay. There are many other genre and series influences throughout, most notably those from bullet hell shoot-’em-ups, which plays a big part of Nier‘s combat and excellent boss encounters. I found myself smiling on many an occasion as I was reminded of games like Resident Evil and the classic text adventure games from Infocom.

The action is pretty stiff, and Nier himself has one of the most bizarrely awkward jumping animation cycles I’ve ever seen. He puts his all into it, that’s for sure! Combat feels simplistic and not all the fluid, but experimentation over time yields a system that is adequately diverse, with a good mix of melee and magical attacks, combos, different weapons that can be upgraded and augmented with a unique stat-boosting word system, cancels, deflections, and evasion techniques. While I was getting destroyed early on by enemy mobs, by the end of the game, I was getting through most encounters without taking a single hit. Taking down larger enemies is also quite satisfying. Nier‘s combat won’t win any awards, but for the most part, it feels good, and you’ll likely seek out combat more often than avoiding it.

20150106_nier_3The world of Nier is a rather hazy place. Most locations employ a foggy, dream-like overexposure effect that is meant to make areas feel more atmospheric, but this instead comes across as a technique meant to obscure the game’s mediocre graphics. While the world art and detail are decent, Cavia did a particularly nice job on the characters and the menacingly intimidating bosses you fight throughout the game. These designs are unique, beautifully animated, intuitive to engage, and very memorable.

As mentioned earlier, Nier‘s soundtrack is amazing. Although I haven’t played a lot of RPGs over the past decade, I’d say this is easily one of the best I’ve heard since Yasunori Mitsuda’s stirring compositions in Chrono Cross. The tracks are melancholy, haunting, ethereal, easy to listen to outside of the game, and are as close to perfect as can be. Music is truly one of Nier‘s standout features, elevating the overall experience, and should not be missed if you’re a fan of high quality music.


Voice acting in Nier is also surprisingly good. While there are some characters that do a better job than others, I think that for the most part, lines are delivered with the right amount of emotion and realism. Although the story and world tend to be pretty bleak — as most post-apocalyptic environments tend to be — the dialogue is peppered with excellent humor, fantastic banter while exploring and going on quests, and most importantly, lots of heart. Characters treat others like real people, their actions are consistent, and you quickly fall in love with the entire cast, which is a commendable feat in a sea of games where most characters are expendable or boring shells designed to push forward superficial, contrived narratives. As a result of Cavia’s careful writing and scenario planning, the inhabitants of Nier feel completely three-dimensional, giving their actions and fates true weight and consequence.

As a result, Nier‘s overarching story truly separates it from most other games, and in my opinion, is what makes this an absolute must-play. Employing a uniquely abbreviated New Game+ system, multiple playthroughs are not just there to allow the player to complete unfinished quests and collect Trophies, but they expand upon the core story in ways that will change the way you view all of Nier‘s events, both past and present. Giving the player these new, different perspectives blur the lines between good and bad, right and wrong, and even accepted gameplay and genre conventions that we take for granted. The first playthrough is a solid and memorable one, but subsequent playthroughs make Nier lasting and unforgettable.


In closing, Nier is definitely a game that is greater than the sum of its parts. While its visuals and gameplay are rough around the edges, it is all tied together by a story and soundtrack that are without a doubt among the best I have ever encountered in my 35 years of gaming. Highly recommended.

  • Visuals: B-
    A competently realized world with lots of unique landmarks, nice character art, and smooth cutscene animation. World geometry is pretty simple, and in-game animation is stiff. Framerate frequently drops below its 30fps cap.
  • Sound: A+
    One of the best soundtracks I’ve ever heard, with very good voice acting. The audio side of Nier is one of its highlights and isn’t to be missed.
  • Story: A+
    What starts off as a seemingly straightforward plot turns into one of the most memorable and original stories to grace a video game. Getting all of Nier‘s endings is worth it, no matter what the cost.
  • Gameplay: B-
    Decent combat and typical MMO-style quests abound. Lots of running back and forth going through the same areas to collect materials, deliver messages, get items, and complete different quests. A good variety of game genres are represented, but if you don’t like oldschool shoot-’em-up style dodging, some areas and encounters could prove frustrating. Lots of distractions for those who seek them, including weapon collecting, forging, crop harvesting, fishing, and time attack challenges.
  • Controls: B
    The controls are responsive and can be customized, but there are some quirks with hit detection, slow ladder climbing, awkward jumping, and some frustrating camera angles.
  • Value: A
    It takes about 25-30 hours to complete a first playthrough, with subsequent New Game+ sessions taking a few additional hours a piece. Platinum chasers will have their hands full with some extremely time-consuming requirements, which can boost total playtime to over 70 hours.

Overall: A-



Review: Sony DualShock 4 Wireless Controller (PC)


This generation has been a strange one for me. I’m typically the kind of person who will buy new consoles at or near launch, regardless of what titles are available. Case in point? I paid an ungodly amount of money for an import PlayStation 2 in early 2000, and the only game I bought it for? Konami’s Gradius III & IV. Don’t ask. It’s not my proudest moment.

The only current-generation console I own is a Nintendo Wii U, and even with that, I waited almost a year before taking the plunge. With nothing really pulling me towards either an Xbox One or PlayStation 4 at the moment, and with most of my time being spent playing games on PC, I thought now would be the perfect time to compare how each of the current-generation console controllers perform on my rig.

I reviewed the Xbox One Wireless Controller last month, and I came away very impressed with it. It’s easily the best controller Microsoft has ever produced, with thoughtful, even inspired design. It has some areas where it could be improved, but overall, it’s become my go-to PC controller.

Although the Xbox One controller is the preferred way to go on the gaming forums I visit, as a reviewer, I felt the need to give the other manufacturers a fair shake, including Nintendo’s Wii U Pro Controller, which I’ll be reviewing soon. So with that, I picked up a DualShock 4 on Amazon last week and put it through its paces.


To begin with, the packaging on the DualShock 4 is pretty good. It’s not as premium as Microsoft’s, but it’s not a cheap blister pack either.

The front features a molded, clear plastic insert so that you can see the actual controller.


Turning the box over, the back highlights some of the DualShock 4’s updated and new features, including the touchpad, Share button, integrated light bar, built-in speaker, and standard 3.5mm headphone jack.

It also notes that a USB cable is not included with the controller. The Xbox One controller came the same way: sans USB cable. They’re so cheap that I wish manufacturers would just include one to save customers the extra hassle of buying one.


The packaging itself it easy to open. Included inside along with the controller is a small instruction manual. Since pairing is done differently on the PS4, note that for PC you put the controller into Bluetooth pairing mode by holding down Share (The Button Formerly Known as Select) and the PS button at the same time until the light bar flashes rapidly.

Other things you’ll want to have if you’re using this on a PC:

As I alluded to earlier, you’ll need a micro USB cable — like this one — for charging and playing with a wired connection, which is how I prefer to play.

Alternately, if you want to play wirelessly, you will need a compatible Bluetooth receiver. I tried a Kinivo BTD-300 Bluetooth 3.0 USB adapter with Windows 7 SP1, and I had no problems pairing.


You’ll also need the DS4Windows software, which you can learn more about and download HERE.

If you don’t use this software or something similar to it, the DualShock 4 will still function as a HID-compatible device, but you will not be able to utilize any of the controller’s additional benefits — including a number of XInput features — so it is recommended that you do so unless you have a game or application that has legacy compatibility problems.

This software also allows you to customize the controller, record macros, create per-application profiles, and use the touchpad for mouse input. It’s a terrific program that once again shows what talented, independent developers can create.

Once everything is installed, the DualShock 4 will be automatically mapped and function exactly like an Xbox 360 or Xbox One controller. Pretty nifty!


Focusing on the controller itself, it’s worth noting that this is the first significant shape change for the DualShock line since the original PlayStation. While the layout and overall design is familiar, just about everything has been updated, and mostly for the better.

The grips are thicker, rounder, and extend further than they did on the DualShock 3, giving the controller a much more comfortable and sturdy feel. The shoulder buttons now sit more flush with the controller housing instead of being set on top of the old “Black Mesas”, as I like to call them.


The most significant update is the touchpad, which didn’t make much sense to me until I actually used it. It functions just like a notebook touchpad, it can be left- or right-clicked, and supports multi-touch for smooth page scrolling.

This makes using it on a PC a fantastic experience, where many games and applications tend to work better if you have a mouse handy. It’s nice to be able to navigate menus and other Windows-specific tasks without having to put the controller down.


Underneath the analog sticks are two ports: an extension port and a standard 3.5mm headphone jack. I don’t believe audio output it supported on PC at this time, but I’m very happy to see Sony not using a proprietary connector for this or the USB charging port.

The PS button remains in approximately the same place as it was on the DualShock 3, and above it is now a built-in speaker, similar to what is found on the Nintendo Wii Remote. Like the headphone jack, however, it doesn’t look like this feature is supported on PC yet.


The infamous light bar also illuminates by default when using it on a PC to communicate charging level and power, but thankfully you can disable this function via DS4Windows’ profile settings, as well as fully customize its colors.

Personally, I leave it off except when I’m using it wirelessly. This way there’s no second-guessing whether it’s on or off.


The analog sticks have been redesigned, sitting a little lower than they did before, with a smoother feel and slightly higher resistance. The classic convex tops of past DualShocks have been replaced with a thinner, more recessed design, but to me, they feel cheaper in quality and less comfortable to use than the Xbox One’s superb design, and to a certain degree, even the DualShock 3.

However, the redesigned d-pad is absolutely a winner. As much as I have loved every PlayStation console over the past two decades, I’ve never been a fan of their d-pads. They’re small, somewhat mushy, and the split design can wreak havoc on your thumb.

While the split design is still present here, it is now flared and slightly larger, possessing better curvature too. It is a joy to use, both with its crisper feel and better tactile feedback. Whether you go with this, an Xbox One controller, or the Wii U Pro Controller, d-pad fans won’t be disappointed.


The Square, Triangle, X, and O face buttons have also undergone some minor changes. They’re similarly sized as before, but are arranged in a slightly tighter cluster. It’s only noticeable when you stack a DualShock 3 directly on top.

The buttons themselves are now flatter, and I’m not entirely sure if it’s just because the controller is brand-new, but they feel snappier and quicker than the DualShock 3’s.

The Share and Options buttons, though, which used to be Select and Start on past consoles, are a disappointment. Their location is good, but they sit flush with the controller housing, and don’t really have much of a feel to them.

They share a similar design with those found on the original Vita, but they don’t click nicely like they do on Sony’s handheld. As a result, I found myself pressing the Options button overly hard to pause games. A slightly raised or convex design would do wonders in making these buttons feel more confident during play.


The L1/L2/R1/R2 triggers are also an improvement over the DualShock 3. I’m not sure what Sony was thinking when they made the PS3 analog triggers convex, but it spawned an entire accessories market for plastic trigger covers to fix them. Heck, I even bought a couple sets!

The L1/R1 buttons feel great, and I much prefer them over the Xbox One bumpers, which are loud and clicky. Most significantly, the L2/R2 triggers are now concave like they always should have been, but they don’t feel as nice as the Xbox One triggers, which are larger, quieter, and ultra-smooth to operate.


The vibration motors in the DualShock 4 are virtually silent, which is an area where it excels over the Xbox One’s, which are surprisingly loud if you’re playing in a quiet environment.

Compared to the Xbox One controller, the DualShock 4 looks more taut, but their footprints are very similar. Both controllers feel great, and either way you go, you really can’t lose in the ergonomics and comfort departments.


It will come down to personal preference for most people. I’ve always loved the asymmetrical design of the Xbox analog sticks, but I prefer the d-pad placement on the DualShock.

The housing material feels more premium on Sony’s controller, but the analog sticks and triggers are superior on Microsoft’s.

Face buttons are equally responsive on both, but the View/Menu (aka Select/Start) buttons on the XBO controller trump the Share/Options buttons on the PS4’s.


The DualShock 4 wins when it comes to its feature set on PC, though, thanks to the DS4Windows software, which gives it convenient mouse support via its touchpad, simple Bluetooth syncing (the Xbox One’s wireless communication is proprietary, and is neither Wi-Fi or Bluetooth), and the extent to which it can be customized.

The Xbox One controller, on the other hand, is superior to the 360 controller in just about every way, so if you’re used to that setup on PC, it could be a more attractive option.

In closing, the DualShock 4 is a massive improvement over the DualShock 3, and apart from a few minor quibbles, this should be at or near the top of the list when the time comes to invest in a great controller for PC gaming. Highly recommended.

Overall: A-



Progress Report: Nier (PS3)

It’s been pretty slow-going with Nier. I’ve been on a platforming and oldschool tear lately with Shovel Knight, Electronic Super Joy, DuckTales, and the NES Remix games all occupying most of my time. Despite all that, I find myself thinking about this game a lot, and have become quite addicted to it as I’ve gotten back into it this week.


It’s not a looker, though. Full of weird visual glitches like the one above, the overall image quality looks like an up-resolutioned PlayStation 2 game.

The world of Nier is designed well, however, with large, sprawling towns that feel alive. NPCs have interesting things to say more often than not. I like that quest givers are clearly highlighted throughout each area, which makes them easy to find when you’re focusing on that aspect of the game. What I don’t like is that once you’ve taken on a quest, finding that NPC again can be more difficult than it needs to be since they’re no longer marked. You have to refer back to your quest log for hints on who assigned them. For me, at least, they’re easy to forget.


I really like the loading screens. They’re simplistic, but are full of character, and I look forward to seeing all the different ones that Cavia put in the game, including the journal entries from Yonah.


While I haven’t discovered any methods of fast travel yet — I’m still early, heading to the Junk Heap — I like that I can roll around Nier‘s overworld like Link in the Zelda games, making the long back-and-forth journeys less boring.

These outdoor areas between towns can be huge, and the draw distance is impressive. Again, they might not be the most detailed, but they are still pretty good and support the somber tone of the narrative. They also give you lots of space to plan out and execute attacks on individuals and mobs.

I don’t like that digging up items and harvesting materials from fallen creatures require a slow animation cycle to play every time, though. Maybe this is a given in titles like this, and I know it’s more realistic, but it gets a little old when there are so many things in the world to gather. Ladders and pushing/pulling blocks also have an overly slow feel to them.


You can (and have to at least once) fish in Nier, and while the mechanics are almost insultingly simple, it’s not implemented very well. It’s annoyingly easy to lose bait and fish even when you think you’re doing everything correctly. Most recently, I enjoyed the fishing mini-game in Persona 4 Golden. It had a good visual feedback system, but Nier‘s is vague. As a result, I’ve lost a good number of lures on what should have been simple catches, and above all else, it comes across as wasted time.

One area of Nier that I can’t fault at all is its audio. It contains some very good voice acting, and the soundtrack in particular is of the highest quality. One listen to “Song of the Ancients (Devola)” is enough to seal the deal. Nier‘s compositions get mentioned quite often when Favorite Soundtrack lists are discussed, and for good reason. It’s one of the most beautifully consistent, stirring, and memorable ones I’ve heard in quite some time.


I’m also digging the gameplay. At first I wasn’t really sure what to make of it. Combat felt repetitive and not very clear, but I’ve gotten comfortable with it, and I’m also gaining a sixth sense on what to avoid this early on in my adventure. Those one-hit deaths will make you a fast learner!

I haven’t really gone too deep with some of the customization systems, like the word-related one. I just do the auto-equip for now, but I’m sure later as I amass a good collection of them, I’ll be scouring the internet to find the best and most effective combos. The metagame was one of my favorite aspects of 2010’s Dragon Quest IX on the Nintendo DS, and I get the feeling I’ll be enjoying those same qualities in Nier as well.

So despite the various nags and quibbles I have with this game, it’s one where I feel the whole is going to be greater than the sum of its parts. I’m very much enjoying Nier so far, and I’m glad my friend encouraged me to start playing it.


Happy Fourth of July!

GHG will be back on Monday, but I just wanted to wish everyone a fun and safe holiday weekend. We’ll be checking out the fireworks show here during the Fort Dalles Fourth, the first in over 25 years!

I plan on getting caught up on a few games over the weekend as well, including Pokemon X (3DS), Nier (PS3), and Shovel Knight (PC).



I’m about 15 hours into Game Freak’s Pokemon X — this being one of the first games in the series I’ve ever put any time into — and I’m enjoying it.

There’s something irresistible about these cute and unique monsters, figuring out what skills to keep or replace, seeing what each monster evolves into, and understanding the various characteristics of all the Pokemon in this world. As a relative newbie, I’m still rather overwhelmed by the complexity and variety on display here. Just keeping tabs on what Pokemon I’ve caught and organizing them feels like a game in and of itself. The satisfaction of whittling down a Pokemon’s health and capturing it in a Poke Ball is also pretty great.

I’m particularly impressed with Pokemon X‘s soundtrack. I was expecting a standard and light set of tunes, but there have been many times where I’ve just sat there and listened to the catchy music found all over Kalos, like the “Gate Theme”, which is just so good.

Some things about the game annoy me, like how it can be a bit difficult to position your character to speak to NPCs, or the slow pace of battles even with the animations turned off. On the flipside, the game is very pretty, and small touches — like how you physically bend down to talk to children — show great attention to detail that give the game its unique charm.

Even though I’ve put a decent amount of time into Pokemon X, I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. This is the kind of game I could easily see myself sinking many, many hours into, like I did with one of my favorite Nintendo DS RPGs several years ago, Dragon Quest IX.



I just started Cavia’s Nier a few days ago, and only have a couple hours logged. It’s a game I’ve had in my backlog since 2012, and after being urged by a friend to play it for at least the past year, I decided to finally give it a shot.

From the beginning, I didn’t think I’d make it past the intro. The game suffers from sub-par visuals and a combat system that — at least initially — feels simplistic and repetitive. The first battle in Nier seems to take forever, and for a moment, I thought I was doing something wrong.

I wasn’t feeling much better a little later, as the game’s inhabitants were perfectly happy to send me on countless, mindless fetch quests. However, after I played through and finished the first dungeon — including the first boss — I started feeling differently.

There’s a lot going on in Nier, with many ideas borrowed from genres you wouldn’t think have any place in an action RPG like this, but nevertheless, they’re in here and they work quite well. The story is interesting, which is elevated by some pretty good voice acting. It was certainly better than I was expecting, with the title character Nier and your early sidekick Grimoire Weiss having solid performances.

So far, Nier is proving to be better than I was expecting, and even though it has numerous flaws that can’t be ignored, I find myself compelled to play it, and that’s what’s most important: that a game be fun.



Finally, there’s Yacht Club Games’ Shovel Knight, which I just wrote about yesterday. Having put around 4 hours into it so far, I’m about halfway through. It’s just a fantastic platforming adventure with so much to do.

Challenge and difficulty feel just right, although if you are not used to playing side-scrolling games like this that have limited continue points and other consequences for dying, it might initially feel punishing. It’s not Mega Man or Ninja Gaiden levels of punishing, but players just wanting to quickly fly through the game to see its ending will be met with a quick demise. In fact, many rooms are designed in such a way that you’ll take a hit and usually fall to your death — or at least get knocked back to the previous screen — if you just run in blind.

I can’t say enough about how good the game looks and sounds. Art and animation are of the highest quality, backgrounds have a ton of detail, and the music gets in your head and stays there. Jake Kaufman, with some contributions by original Mega Man composer Manami Matsumae, outdoes himself here. “La Danse Macabre”, a song that will bring to mind a very popular vampire-slaying series on the NES, is one of many standout musical pieces in what is already an amazing soundtrack.

Shovel Knight would have to seriously pull the rug out from under me at this point to fail. What a game!


Backlog Blitz: The games of May 2014


I stopped the bleeding (somewhat) in May. I bought 7 games and finished 6, so I was pretty happy about that. June is not looking pretty by any stretch of the imagination though — 9 bought and 2 finished with only 3 days left this month! — but I’ll hopefully be able to squeeze in one or two more before the year’s half over. Do or do not, there is no try, right? Anyway, the format, like before, is Game Title (Platform, Purchase Price, Play Time).

Games purchased (-7, $108.25 spent):

  1. 20140627_ghg_child_of_light_wallpaperChild of Light (PC, $12.00)
    Developed with the UbiArt Framework engine, I’ve been looking forward to this RPG ever since I first saw it. Getting around to actually playing it is proving to be a bit challenging, but it’s one of those games I know will be a wonderful experience, and wanted to make sure I bought it at launch.
  2. Tales of Symphonia Chronicles (PS3, $10.00)
    Sony had a good 50% off sale on PSN this month, and since I read that the original Tales of Symphonia was one of the better ones in the series, I picked this up. I haven’t played or finished a Tales game since Tales of Destiny on the original PlayStation, so I’m sure I’m in for a surprise!
  3. Sonic Hits Collection (PC, $7.50)
    Normally $30, I couldn’t pass up this nice discount on the Humble Store. It includes more Sonic games than you can shake a stick at: Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing, Sonic 3 and Knuckles, Sonic 3D Blast, Sonic Adventure 2, Sonic Adventure 2: Battle,  Sonic Adventure DX, Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed: Metal Sonic & Outrun DLC, Sonic CD, Sonic Generations, Sonic Generations – Casino Nights DLC, Sonic Spinball, Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Sonic the Hedgehog 4 – Episode 1, and Sonic the Hedgehog 4 – Episode 2. Whew!
  4. Saints Row IV (PC, $10.00)
    Another 75% off title during May’s Humble Store sale. I never did get around to picking this up when it first came out — perhaps I was still feeling bitter about THQ’s demise — but I still have friends at Volition, so this one’s for them. If I remember right, IV was originally supposed to be DLC for Saints Row: The Third, so I’m curious to see how it holds up as a standalone product.
  5. 20140627_ghg_rogue_legacyRogue Legacy (PC, $3.75)
    75% off seems to be the sweet spot for me and most digital PC games. I remember my friends talking about this one last year, and I finally got around to buying it. It looks like just the kind of game I’m going to love and sink many, many hours into. Crazy-good animation and good, tight controls.
  6. The Humble Bundle: PC & Android 10 (PC/Android, $5.00)
    Another solid bundle to help build up my Steam and mobile gaming library. Good games, good cause. This one includes: Breach & Clear, Draw a Stickman: EPIC, Fieldrunners, Fieldrunners 2, Frozen Synapse, Galcon Fusion, Galcon Legends, Ittle Dew, METAL SLUG 3, Skulls of the Shogun, and Symphony.
  7. Mario Kart 8 (Wii U, $60.00)
    I don’t buy too many games full-price at retail, but in this case, I couldn’t help it. I started playing it immediately, and it’s easily the best Mario Kart game since the original SNES version, particularly after my disappointment with Mario Kart 7 on the 3DS. I still have a lot to do and unlock in the game, but it’s been so much fun, and getting the free game (I selected Pikmin 3) was a very generous 2-for-1 gesture by Nintendo.

Games finished (+6, $83.00 value):

  1. Persona 4 Golden (Vita, $40.00, 60 hrs.)
    This was the main reason — perhaps the only reason — why I originally wanted a Vita. I loved
    Persona 3 Portable on the PSP, and wanted to play its sequel in handheld form. I had some problems with it, even starting over on the easiest difficulty, and it still took a very long time to finish. I think these games are just a bit too long for their own good, but they’re still a lot of fun with great style, music, and gameplay. Overall: B+ (Review Link)
  2. 20140627_ghg_tearaway_wallpaperTearaway (Vita, $40.00, 10 hrs.)
    I’m about to throw in the towel for the second time on
    LittleBigPlanet because of its awful controls, but Media Molecule got that part right with Tearaway. The camera isn’t very good when it needs to be, but the total experience is just beautiful and very original. It’s my favorite game on the Vita. Overall: A (Review Link)
  3. Monument Valley (Android, Free, 2 hrs.)
    Criminally short, but a totally essential game on mobile. Wonderful use of color, an atmosphere that will remind you of
    Journey on the PS3, and mind-bending design all combine to deliver one of the best games I’ve played this year on Android. Overall: A- (Review Link)
  4. The Room Two (Android, $3.00, 5 hrs.)
    The Room was a fantastic game, and its sequel is at least its equal, doing some things better and some things worse. I liked that it’s bigger, scarier, and of the same high quality that made the first game so memorable. However, making the game bigger means you have to move around more and get out of that zen-like dive into these puzzles that was so darn cool in the original. This makes puzzles more elaborate, but in a way, less intimate. Overall: A- (Review Link)
  5. 20140627_ghg_castle_of_illusion_1990Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse 1990 (PS3, Free, 3 hrs.)
    Just as good as I remember from the Sega Genesis days. Inspired animation, a classic soundtrack, and lots of gameplay variety. The game is short, and the controls feel a little too rigid, but at least they’re accurate. Overall: B+ (Review Link)
  6. Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse 2013 (PS3, Free, 3 hrs.)
    They had the right idea with this one, and I think in the hands of a better developer, it could have been something truly special, proudly standing next to the original. It has nice art, music, and level design, but the atrocious controls, lousy hit detection, and mediocre performance make it an average experience at best. Overall: C (Review Link)

A -1 finish overall for the month, and I ended up $25.25 in the hole, which isn’t too bad. If I just had to pick one or two games to recommend to my readers, it’d be Tearaway and Monument Valley, two very unique gaming experiences that you won’t soon forget.


A glimpse inside GHG HQ

Since I enjoy checking out other folks’ gaming setups, I thought it might be fun to quickly show you where I sit to play games and write here at GHG. Most setups out there are so much more robust than mine, and it’s just really cool to see the pride and effort that goes into them. I used to be heavily into home audio and video, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve downsized. Not sure what that’s all about, and chances are good I’ll get that urge again to go big.


Anyway, this is my view throughout most of the day. I do everything on a single Dell U2711 27″ monitor, which can definitely be challenging, especially when you’re trying to play, type, research, and capture video all at once. Although I had issues with its on-screen display controls a few years ago, it’s easily one of the best monitors I’ve ever owned. Great color accuracy, and with a resolution of 2560 x 1440, PC gaming and image editing on it is great.

My mouse is a SteelSeries Sensei Raw, which my good friend from Phoenix recommended. Since I’m left-handed, finding good, ambidextrous mice can be tough, but this one’s perfect. Good feel, excellent tracking, and zero issues so far. It replaced a Razer Lachesis that started giving me trouble within a year, and I don’t see myself going back anytime soon. The mousepad is a SteelSeries QcK Mass, which is large — but not too large at 12.6″ x 11.2″ — and that hasn’t let me down either.

My keyboard is less interesting — a  standard Microsoft Ergonomic 4000 — but since I type far more than I game on my PC these days, it’s my preferred way to click away. I have a CM Storm QuickFire Pro keyboard with Cherry MX Red switches in storage, and that thing’s super-responsive and built like a tank, but I don’t like typing on it, and perhaps more importantly, my wife can’t stand the loud noise.

The speakers hiding behind the monitor stand are part of a compact Onkyo 2.1 system, but I game almost exclusively via headphones, so they don’t get much use. The mains are small, though, so they don’t get in the way and take up minimal desk real estate.

The wired 360 Controller on the right is what I use for most modern PC games, and it’s what I played all three Batman: Arkham games with earlier this year. I use mouse and keyboard for first-person games, but even with those, if a controller option is offered, I’ll generally pick that. I know, PC sacrilege!


In terms of classic gaming, these are my weapons of choice.  Via import, Sega offers this great official Saturn-based USB controller, and it’s perfect for all of those old Sega games. The 6-button layout makes it a good choice for a lot of other fighting games as well, in case you don’t have a traditional joystick. I consider the Saturn directional pad one of the best ever made, so it’s nice being able to use it on PC.

While there is no official Nintendo USB controller, the Buffalo Classic USB Gamepad is about as close to perfect as you can get if you don’t have an adapter and want that Super Nintendo feel. The directional pad sits slightly higher than it does on an official controller, but everything’s responsive and very solid. I definitely recommend it over the more common Tomee knock-offs, which are cheap and of inconsistent quality.


My console stack is pretty light, and only includes the PS3, Xbox 360, and Wii U. Nothing too exciting there. They all go through the Pioneer receiver below, and are then sent out to the Elgato Game Capture HD, where it’s split once again between the monitor and my PC for recording. Which reminds me: I still owe you a review of the Elgato. Soon, I promise!

So there you have it. It’s not the most luxurious setup in the world, but it gets the job done.


Backlog Blitz: The games of March 2014

It’s been a rough week. Even though every fiber of my being wants to just rest and resume business as usual on Monday, I think it’s important to keep things going here at GHG. Taking a break can make it that much harder to get back into it, and I know me: I’ve tried and quit a lot of things, so I can’t let that happen again.

Anyway, March was a good month. With only 5 purchases and a decent completion tally of 7 games, I pushed my total upwards a bit. The format, like January and February, is Game Title (Platform, Purchase Price, Play Time).

20140529_marchblitzGames purchased (-5, $67.50 spent):

  1. 20140529_pokemonxPokemon X (3DS, $20.00)
    Tough to resist a good 50% off sale, and so even though I have never really played or finished a single Pokemon title, starting with the latest one is probably an OK place to begin. My friends told me to get X instead of Y, so get X I did.
  2. The Humble Mobile Bundle 4 (Android, $3.00)
    Although I’m getting to the point where I have most of the games offered by current Humble Bundles, I’ll still pick them up. This bundle included BADLAND Premium, Breach & Clear, Catan, Color Sheep, Gunslugs, OLO, Riptide GP2, Vector, and Zombie Gunship.
  3. The Humble Weekly Sale: PopCap (PC, $6.00)
    I bought the vast majority of these in a PopCap bundle for my wife years ago, but decided to add some of them to my library as well. Pretty good selection: Peggle Deluxe, Bejeweled 3, Bookworm Deluxe, Escape Rosecliff Island, Feeding Frenzy 2 Deluxe, Plants vs. Zombies GOTY Edition, Peggle Nights, and Zuma’s Revenge.
  4. 20140529_psplusPlayStation Plus (12-month, PS3/Vita/PS4, $35.00)
    It took me a long time to finally sign up, but a 30% off sale made me pull the trigger. This is only my second month with the service, but the free games alone across all three of Sony’s platforms makes this one of the best deals in gaming. It’s no wonder Microsoft had to bring out Games With Gold, to which Sony has already countered by increasing the number of PS4 games per month to 2 instead of 1 starting in June. How long this kind of great value can be sustained in anyone’s guess, so you’ll never see me complain about it.
  5. Thomas Was Alone: Benjamin’s Flight DLC (Vita, $3.50)
    As part of PlayStation Plus, I finished Thomas Was Alone (see below), and immediately had to purchase its follow-up DLC.

Games finished (+7, $44.50 value):

  1. SpellTower (Android, $1.00, 2 hrs.)
    This one’s a nice cross between Tetris and Bookworm. It’s a fun diversion that I still find myself playing while out and about, waiting for a table at a restaurant, or any instance where I need to kill a few minutes. While word games aren’t my favorite, it’s still very well-made with a number of different modes, multiplayer, intuitive touch control, style, and challenge. Overall: B
  2. Grand Theft Auto V (PS3, Free, 40 hrs.)20140529_gta5
    This is the first Grand Theft Auto game I’ve ever finished, and it’s easily one of the best games I’ve ever played. I was at first overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff you can do, but Rockstar has designed it in such a way that you almost always feel naturally led to the next activity. A wealth of variety, entertainment, and quality is in no short supply here, and each subsequent mission continued to blow me away. I have a feeling I’m going to be completely ruined on most other open-world titles from this point forward. Great characters, expertly designed missions, hilarious lowbrow gags, and the underlying technology driving everything in this game is impressive. It’s crazy to think that this is running on hardware that’s nearly 8 years old. Overall: A+
  3. Batman: Arkham Asylum (PC, $7.50, 30 hrs.)
    I had previously tried to play this two times, but for different reasons that weren’t related to the game itself, I stopped playing. After enjoying the open world of GTA5 so much, I wanted to go back and play this one before tackling the bigger Arkham City. I loved everything about it, especially the hand-to-hand combat, which is just so fluid and intuitive. I’m no Batman expert, but outside of the comics, this series is the best treatment of the license I’ve ever experienced. The in-game dialogue scenes are comically amateurish, which is too bad since the rest of the game is so good, but they don’t detract from what is an otherwise perfectly crafted action game with tons of collectibles and things to do. Rocksteady’s treatment of The Joker and Scarecrow are particularly memorable, too. Overall: A+
  4. 20140529_brokenageBroken Age: Act 1 (PC, $25.00, 5 hrs.)
    I hopped aboard the Broken Age train really late because for some reason, my Kickstarter backing didn’t take initially. No matter, though — this is a charming adventure game that leaves the player with one heck of a cliffhanger ending. It’s almost unfair. I remember reading about how backers thought it was too short and easy, but since I’m not the biggest adventure game purist and I can’t stand obscure puzzles, I found it to be just right. Most of the puzzles are pretty simple, but they’re also intuitive, and they’re not all easy: there were a couple that almost pushed me to look at a FAQ. Yes, it’s a short game, but not if you take your time and enjoy everything the designers put into it. It’s at its best when you’re left to just experiment with item combos and usage to see what the characters will say. They all have great dialogue that must have been a lot of fun to write.  The soundtrack is terrific, the art and animation are well-crafted, and it’s just a cool throwback to the type PC adventure games so many of us played in the ’90s. Overall: A-
  5. 20140529_batman_acBatman: Arkham City (PC, $7.50, 60 hrs.)
    I loved Arkham Asylum, and Arkham City delivered on the promise of a bigger world to explore, more gadgets, and lots of things to do. It had a nice Legend of Zelda vibe to its world structure and game flow. Its depiction of the Penguin, Ra’s al Ghul, and Mr. Freeze were fantastic, and although the story takes a Batman-like nosedive into predictable cliches at the end, I enjoyed the game itself just as much as its predecessor. Side missions were fun, and some of the Riddler trophies were downright diabolical. I loved that they were turned into puzzles themselves, taking some good timing and ingenuity to collect. Traversal in Gotham City was painless, and I really liked all the refinements made since Asylum, particularly to the combat. Keeping Riddler informants alive adds a nice layer of strategy to the mob fights, and it’s addicting grabbing all the subsequent collectibles. Although the size and length of the game inherently makes the story feel less refined and focused as Asylum‘s, I still thought this was as good a game as the first. Overall: A+
  6. Thomas Was Alone (Vita, Free, 6 hrs.)
    What a surprise. Included for free as part of March’s PlayStation Plus offerings, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I thought it was just going to be your typical minimalist platformer with some indie quirkiness thrown in for good measure, but what I got was one of the most charming and memorable games I’ve played in a long time. While it’s not the most challenging platformer — this isn’t Super Meat Boy — it’s still fun and provides a lot of rewarding gameplay. I found myself compelled to complete it primarily for its wonderful story and characters. It’s pretty short, even after going through it twice to listen to the Developer Commentary, but it’s worth every minute. I think that anyone who has even a passing interest in game design should play this twice. Overall: A
  7. Thomas Was Alone: Benjamin’s Flight DLC (Vita, $3.50, 1 hr.)
    The follow-up DLC for Thomas Was Alone adds some new characters, play control, and good narrative, but it is extremely short, and unfortunately (for now), doesn’t include Developer Commentary, which was one of my favorite features of the original game. It gave such valuable insight into Mike Bithell’s approach to both game and character design that it almost feels like the DLC is missing a limb. Still worth the cost of entry, despite its lack of length and features. Overall:

So that was March in a nutshell. It was thankfully a very light month in terms of how much I spent, and I was rewarded with some of the best games I’ve ever played. It will certainly be a tough month to beat!


Elgato Game Capture HD: Sample images

This will be a very short weekend update, but here are a few screenshots I took today with the Elgato Game Capture HD. I’m pretty happy with the results, even though you have no choice but to grab them after they’ve been processed automatically via H.264 compression. I’ll be writing a full review on the device, setup, software, and image quality later this week.



Unboxing the Elgato Game Capture HD

Over the weekend, I debated whether I should buy a PlayStation 4 or not, even going so far as to write a rather pathetic justification for one here on GHG last week. Well, self-control won, and for the time being, I’m sans a PS4. If I don’t have one before Batman: Arkham Knight comes out, I certainly will. That game looks amazing, and likely Game of the Year material.

Instead, with the blog now in full-swing, I decided to get something that would help make it better. At least visually, anyway. Taking screenshots in PC, Wii U, and most Vita games is a snap, but doing the same thing in Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 games is less elegant. I’ve been using my phone and bulky camera to take off-screen pictures of games I’m playing, which is a difficult and tedious process. Having to quickly take my hands off the controller to snap pictures is a pain, and limits the types of shots I can get. They usually involve an in-game character standing around doing nothing.

After doing a great deal of research on the various HD capture devices on the market, the Elgato Game Capture HD was the near-unanimous choice for video capturing and streaming enthusiasts. I pulled the trigger this past Monday, and received it today. You gotta love Amazon Prime.

For those who care about packaging quality, you won’t be disappointed here. The device and its accessories come in a nice, full-color slipcase with a clamshell insert made out of the same material. 4 sets of cables are included: HDMI, Mini-to-Standard USB, Component/Stereo adapter, and PS3.

The device itself comes wrapped in clear protective tape to prevent in-transit damage, and is finished in a classic gloss black with rubberized feet to keep it from sliding around. All input and output terminals are clearly marked.

The only documentation included is a single Quick Start card, which is par for the course these days with small electronics. I know it saves on paper and weight, but I do prefer something a little more informative with my purchases. No CD software is included either, and has to be downloaded directly from Elgato’s website.

However, one thing I really do like is that the Game Capture HD doesn’t require any external power supply, so that helps keep your gaming area clear of one more cable and potential power brick. It’s a small touch, but a welcome one.

For now, here are some pictures I took today, which let you see everything close-up. I’ll report back on how the device actually works after I give it a thorough workout.

Pictures taken with a Canon EOS 40D DSLR, EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens, and 1 580EX II on-camera flash.


Review: Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse (PS3, 1990 & 2013 Versions)

20140520_coi_gen_1I remember Sega’s Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse like it was yesterday. I played it for the first time at my cousins’ house around Christmas of 1990, and I sat there completely blown away by what I was seeing and hearing coming out of their Genesis. Its animation, music, and colorful levels made a huge impression on me, possessing all the qualities of a Disney animated feature. It was one of the first examples of a licensed videogame done the right way.

Last month, Sony released both this and the updated PS3 version from 2013 via their PlayStation Plus service. Today, I decided to play through each of them to see how they compared (and to relive my youth).

The original game is considered one of the standouts from the early Genesis years, following some of my favorites from 1989, including Ghouls’n Ghosts, Thunder Force II, and The Revenge of Shinobi. Sega and its developers got good at developing for it quickly, and Castle of Illusion is no exception.

20140520_coi_gen_2Playing through it in its entirety again today, I was reminded of all the things I loved about it, most notably the lovely animation found on Mickey Mouse himself. He is so full of life, and I was immediately transported back 1991, where I would obsessively study his various animation cycles and perfect sprite work. His walk is particularly good, and so different from the more mechanical walking animations in games back then. His overall look remains one of my all-time favorites, and it brought a big smile to my face today.

I forgot how big these levels were too, with lots of hidden areas and multiple paths to explore. My memory of it was that of a simple, linear game, but there is a surprising amount of variety to be had here. Each level is distinct, full of gorgeous color, parallax scrolling, and the soundtrack is one of the all-time greats, with bright, original instrumentation and melodies.

I struggled with the controls at first, which is a common problem for games that old, even the historically infallible Super Mario World. I got used to them by the end of the first level, but I still died a lot later in the game, where certain levels require precision platforming, else Mickey falls to his doom.

Overall, this is still as fun today as it was nearly 24 years ago. I also need to give proper respect to M2 here, who did an excellent job porting the game to PS3, with perfect emulation and a decent range of tweaks and options.

1990 Sega Genesis Version:
Graphics: A
Audio: A
Gameplay & Controls: B
Presentation: A
Value: C
Overall: B+



On the other hand, the 2013 version developed by the late Sega Studios Australia, is more of a mixed bag.

I enjoyed how it stayed true to its vision of re-imagining the 1990 classic on modern hardware. The characters are animated well, and the levels are beautifully constructed and painted. Many of them are sprawling, and like the original, have hidden paths to explore and hidden items to find. Their new 3D structure means that Mickey can now move in and out of the backgrounds, with some stages switching from side-scrolling to fully 3D on the fly.

The music — which includes both classic and modern soundtracks — is very familiar, and made me feel right at home. The game also has plentiful, context-based narration, which adds to its movie-like feel, as well as good voice acting throughout. These are nice touches that one would expect of a game starring one of the world’s most recognizable icons. Some key story segments are presented through semi-animated, storyboard-like sequences, which have nice art, but I think those would have been better fully animated via the game’s engine.

Unfortunately, this update suffers from a very average framerate. Running at about 30 fps, Castle of Illusion simply doesn’t look as polished as it should. The framerate drops even more when there are lots of objects on-screen, which is a big hit to its perceived quality, reflecting on its overall lack of optimization.

20140520_coi_ps3_2Controls are also borderline awful, with loose jumping physics, vague hit detection, near-nonexistent feedback when you take damage, and movement that makes it difficult to tell where you are in 3D space. This all makes traversal and precision jumping much more difficult than it should be.

The game provides a middling level of challenge and length, similar to the Genesis original. The new version adds collectibles, unlockables, and a decent set of Trophies for completionists, so replay value is better here.

As a free game included with PlayStation Plus, it’s passable, but I would have a very difficult time recommending its purchase.

2013 PS3 Version:
Graphics: A-
Audio: A
Gameplay & Controls: C-
Presentation: B
Value: B-
Overall: C