Games of 2012: Virtue’s Last Reward

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2012 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. As I did last year, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2012 posts.

Virtue's Last Reward

Moral choices: so common in real life, so frequently deployed as a game mechanic, and so frequently botched in their execution. We’ve come so far in a short time with gaming being able to tell stories and evoke emotions in the player – but forcing a real and meaningful choice seems impossible.

I think it’s caused by the nature of the medium. We are conditioned to stockpile extra lives, to save frequently, to reload our game if we get a bad break. It’s hard to force a meaningful choice – or at the very least, one with permanence – when the world you are making that choice in is so temporary. And so the choices get watered down (Bioshock‘s “Harvest or Save” mechanic) or don’t really matter (Mass Effect 3’s ending) or come so close to the end of the game they don’t cause much divergence at all (the big decision in Grand Theft Auto IV).

So when I started playing Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward, I wasn’t quite ready for what would unfold in front of me. VLR is a visual novel game, a genre relatively popular in Japan but rarely seeing the light of day in the US. It’s the sequel to the very well regarded 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, which I hadn’t played but had been told was excellent.

Some spoilers are going to follow because part of what I love about the game is intrinsic to the plot:

The game focuses on the running of “the nonary game”, somewhat reminiscent of what you might see in a knockoff of the Saw movies. 9 people are trapped in a strange facility; they are forced to explore it in groups (which are basically a series of Escape The Room puzzles). On occasion, the teams get sent into isolation rooms to vote whether to trust or screw over their partner(s)[1. If this sounds a lot like the Prisoner’s Dilemma, rest assured the game is not trying to hide that. In fact, it provides you a full logical dissertation on how it works and all the strategies that one might implement.]. Points are gained and lost based on those votes; anyone who reaches 9 points can leave the facility, but once the door out closes, it will never open again. And if your points hit 0? That friendly bracelet injects you with drugs and you die.

From the get go, VLR makes what seems like some odd design decisions. It puts the story tree front and center on the menu screen, telegraphing when the choices that matter (largely those votes) are approaching. You can jump around the story tree whenever you see fit. So it seemed straightforward for me to grind through it: play to the bottom of one decision tree, jump myself back to the last decision point, go the other way, and gradually see all the endings.

I barreled down the right-hand side of the tree in a couple of hours, but something odd happened. I neared the bottom, but the game hit a cliffhanger and I was sent back to the tree. Confused why I couldn’t proceed, I went to the previous choice and went the other way – and got completely mind-fucked when a character was confused why I hadn’t made the other choice. The one I had made minutes prior. (And that still didn’t help me get past the roadblock.)

Virtue’s Last Reward is a brilliant game because the temporary nature of your choices is not merely a gameplay mechanic, but also integral to the plot. The game doesn’t just allow you to you skip around the story tree, it demands it if you’re going to see the complete ending. You will repeat events under multiple circumstances, and the information from one distant timeline may help you get past challenges in another. (Of course, your ability to know about things that haven’t happened becomes concerning to the other characters, who all have their own motivations and backstories.)

Working up and down the story tree is time consuming, although a brilliant “skip dialog I’ve already heard” button saved me from deja vu. But I started from a state of knowing nothing, absorbed the world across multiple timelines, and then suddenly understood why I needed to understand all those timelines. Kotaro Uchikoshi’s script twists and turns in ways I’ve never seen a game manage before.

The biggest compliment I can give Virtue’s Last Reward: its unique storytelling and construction hooked me so hard, I ended up with a platinum trophy on PSN for it. (And I can’t wait for the next game.)

Virtue’s Last Reward is available for the 3DS and Vita. My experiences were with the Vita version.

Games of 2012: The World Ends With You Solo Remix

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2012 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. As I did last year, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2012 posts.

The World Ends With You: Solo Remix

I remember getting my hands on The World Ends With You for the first time. It felt like an eternity since the last time I was had my world flipped by a Square RPG. A weird blend of modern Japanese culture and supernatural plots to destroy the world, TWEWY tied together a unique combat system, well-polished art and music, and memorable moody teenagers (this was a Square game, after all). It felt revolutionary, and possibly the start of a great new RPG franchise.

But that was 2008 – and following its release on the DS, nothing more came out of the franchise – until this year. Out of nowhere in August, Square Enix quickly announced and released The World Ends With You: Solo Remix. It didn’t launch on Nintendo’s floundering 3DS, nor was it a near-launch title for Sony’s Playstation Vita. No, it came out solely for iOS, at price points rarely seen on the platform: $18 for the iPhone/iPod Touch version, and $20 for the iPad version. People flipped out.

There are plenty of takeaways from the release – you could spend months trying to break down Square’s pricing strategy, or the effectiveness of reducing a dual screen game to a single screen, or lambasting Square for blocking the iPhone version from running on the iPad and/or not releasing a universal version. But I’d rather focus on the biggest takeaway: it marks the clearest turning point that the mobile gaming landscape has turned away from Nintendo and Sony to instead concentrate on smartphones.

This writing has been on the wall for a while, but it feels inescapable this year. If we’re going off of Metacritic scores to judge quality, there was a single game above 90 on both the 3DS (the eShop re-release of Cave Story) and the Vita (Persona 4 Golden). But somehow, there are 18 games in 2012 that met this threshold on iOS. Many of these are from indie developers; the major studios are represented (EA, Namco, Popcap, Warner Brothers); and the iPad version of TWEWY tops out the list at 95, technically the best reviewed title of the year.

Such a marketplace shift is anathema to long-time mobile gamers, as it seems inconceivable that a platform not dedicated to gaming could provide experiences on par with the big handhelds. But here it is: one of the most lauded, most beloved games in the DS generation, available for the half a billion iOS devices out in the wild.

Some may try to argue the release means little. Isn’t TWEWY:SR just a remake to rake in quick cash? If you’re willing to believe that, then you also have to discount the highest rated game on the Vita (Persona 4 was a Playstation 2 game), and you have to doubly discount the Cave Story release for the 3DS, a veritable remake of a remake! (Cave Story was released for the 3DS as a cartridge in 2011.)

I can’t understate how much of a disruption this is to a handheld market that was rock solid for the last 10 years. It’s almost reminiscent of the gaming market crash of 1983 – although a bit slower, and there’s already a new business model in place to save us waiting a few years for a new savior. If we don’t have dedicated handhelds after this cycle ends, I won’t bother to feign surprise.

(As for TWEWY:SR itself? It’s pricey, but you get what you pay for – a high quality RPG in a unique setting. It doesn’t feel any different compared to the DS version, save the combat – and I actually liked the single screen version better. If you didn’t play through it in 2008, I highly recommend you save up and splurge on it.)

The World Ends With You: Solo Remix is available for iPhone and for iPad, but not in the same app, because Square Enix doesn’t believe in such things.

Games of 2012: Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2012 playing games, but not a lot of time writing about them. As I did last year, I’d like to tell some stories or share some thoughts about the ones that meant the most to me this year. I’ll be posting one a day until Christmas. See all Games of 2012 posts.

Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale

I come before you tonight to disappoint you. Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale is not the sleeper hit of the century, nor is it a bomb that would deserve a Guy Fieri-style takedown. I can’t remember the last time I felt so middle of the road about a game. (Most of this post will compare the game to the Super Smash Brothers series, which PASBR is widely accused of ripping off.)

The roster? It’s fine. There are some logical choices (Kratos, Nathan Drake, PaRappa, Ratchet); some fun outside choices (Noriko from Heavenly Sword, Spike from Ape Escape, and the feline majesty of Toro); some strange outside choices (Sir Daniel from MediEvil, Colonel Radec from Killzone); and some terrible choices (Dante from DMC, but the new one, not the traditional one; Big Daddy from Bioshock, hardly a Playstation classic). Thing is, if you’re comparing this to Smash Brothers, it’s not significantly different, as that roster follows that same range. There’s this weird belief that Smash is immune to bad characters, but the roster there has plenty of hot garbage. (R.O.B.? Wolf? Pokemon Trainer? Meta Knight? Lucario?)

If you are used to Smash play mechanics, the gameplay will probably feel wrong to you. Rather than piling damage onto your enemies and then smacking them off the level, you build your own energy meter – and then smack enemies off the level. This can feel very backwards, but that passes and eventually feels like a reasonable design decision. The game hinges on the risk/reward decision of triggering your super early or waiting for a later (and better) level. It’s not a better or worse decision, it’s just different.

The title does feel pretty skimpy in terms of content, not helped by a poor menu interface. Story mode, challenges, offline/online play – and that’s about it. Story mode are just straight up fights and no “adventure” levels (which suits me fine, as I didn’t really dig them in Smash); the challenges are in the Street Fighter style of executing on your move list. You can customize characters (via a weird per-character experience point unlocking system), but there’s no sense of history to Playstation past as the capsule toys provide in Smash.

There is one unique feature that PASBR does very well, and that is save syncing. Buying the PS3 copy of the game gets you a downloadable Vita copy for free; the games are identical, save some minor control differences to accomodate the Vita. Given the dual-platform nature, this could have easily become obnoxious, but through some very seamless network syncing of the saves, you can bash through challenges on the Vita version and have all your unlocks on the PS3 side. It just works, and works very well at that. It does help fulfill the promise of “console gaming on the go” that seems to be the only pitch of Sony’s that rings true.

Should PASBR exist? It’s hard to say. Sony has never been a company that’s developed any true mascots of its own, something Nintendo never had a problem with. But there are plenty of recognizable characters, and there’s nothing really wrong with pushing them into a strange fighting game. (I shudder to think what a roster would look like if Microsoft tried to do the same style of game.) PABSR sometimes feels like it’s trying too hard – the battlegrounds mash games up, which is fine until a Metal Gear breaks through on the Locoroco stage for no reason at all. Other times, it feels like it’s not trying hard enough – a game with so many fighting game experts in the credits shouldn’t feel so weirdly unbalanced.

It’s a few steps from being an easy recommendation to buy, but also far enough removed from being something I couldn’t recommend at all. It’s fine. Pick it up when it goes Greatest Hits? Or don’t. It’s cool either way.

Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale is available for PS3 and Vita.