The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing 1 Critique: Almost Perfect

If there’s a genre I specialize in, it’d be dungeon crawlers. My first PC “game” was the Diablo Battle Chest, which is still sold for some reason. The PS2 game I put the most time into was Dark Cloud, with one file actually going longer than the save file could display correctly, which would be over 100 hours on a single file. The only game I’ve been hyped for was Diablo III, which paid off for me quite well. So when I say that, aside from a single thing, this game is pretty much dungeon crawler perfection, I have some idea of what I’m talking about.

The name in the title might make you think you’re playing the Hugh Jackman Van Helsing, the popular one in movies and books.

You’d be wrong. You’re playing that Van Helsing’s son, who gets even more difficult moral decisions than the original found himself in. You assistant is a ghost, Lady Katarina, who plays the role of Snark 1 to Van Helsing’s Snark 2. The only game with this much sarcastic banter was The Bard’s Tale, also for PS2, which was pretty much based on that.

In terms of mechanics, this takes a more complex route to what amount to the same mechanics as Diablo III, with the single companion gaining similar stats and skills with a much deeper development than any other game in this subgenre I know of. Part of the problem with describing this game is that the phrase “Diablo III, but better and offline” describes pretty much the entire game. The only thing that’s simpler in this game is the crafting, which wasn’t that complex to begin with, but is mostly just combining items and getting a random result…sort of like the Horadric Cube in Diablo II, but with fewer and simpler recipes. It’s enough to get you through the game, to the single part, repeated twice, that infuriates me to no end. That will be later, though.

In the meantime, stats. The stats in this game are effectively RPG-standard Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, and Constitution, which probably have some different names but the same meaning. The skill system is well-designed for the main class (two are available as DLC and offer different playstyles entirely, but I’m excluding those since I don’t have them) allowing a vast difference between melee and ranged characters, along with a Torchlight II sense of all four stats being useful. What makes this game different than most dungeon crawlers is the reputation system. Most people probably know it from Torchlight, but it was actually introduced in Fate, which was oddly designed by WildTangent, mostly known for casual games. It defined a number of mechanics now used, like consistent companions with inventory space, reputation gained by killing champion/named monsters, and a secondary system designed to use levels gained from reputation. Fate had it give you just skill points instead of both stat and skill points, Torchlight continued that, but this adds in a Fallout-like Perk system, which can do everything from add damage to you or Katarina to increasing your inventory size to even my personal favorite, Second Chance, which acts like an improved version of the ability of the same name from Kingdom Hearts, turning you ethereal when you take fatal damage and letting you get out of the mess you were in and heal up every few minutes…which on that note, the biggest problem this game has…

Infinite spawns during boss fights. Boss fights that would otherwise be a battle of attrition due to extreme armor or a Borderlands-style shield that needs to be broken. Both of the fights with this plague have ways of evening the odds with an achievement for not doing so at all…which wouldn’t be a problem without the infinite spawns. The first boss with this was the reason I took the difficulty down from Hard to Easy, which annoyed me quite a bit. The second boss has enemy generators instead, which again, have an achievement for not destroying them. Thankfully, the second game used this mechanic in a much better way during a pitched battle between two enemies, but even then there was a clear end to the waves of enemies, something this game lacks. If it hadn’t happened here, this game would have probably been the best dungeon crawler on the market aside from Path of Exile, but that mechanic cripples it, taking it down quite a few pegs.

It’s not perfect, but as it stands, it’s still a really good entry into the subgenre. I just wish that the infinite spawns were left at home for this game, since that’s what keeps this from being effectively perfect for what it tries to be.

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Marlow Briggs Critique: Everything Everywhere Explodes

It’d been a really long time since I’d played something that kept me coming back to it because of how much fun I was having. Then I started playing Marlow Briggs, and it was some of the most fun I’ve had gaming ever. Created as a God of War-like game with a hint of Borderlands-style over-the-top action and atmosphere, it was a package of everything stupid I enjoy playing. This is one of the few games I’d say really deserves to exist. If any single thing defines the game perfectly, it’s that enemies with rocket launchers are fought early, and you can easily deflect the rockets.

That’s right, you deflect rockets, about as easily as dodging an attack.

This is probably one of the most efficiently-designed games since Portal; virtually nothing that doesn’t need to be in the game is in it, with the sole exception being the journals left behind by the main character’s kidnapped girlfriend, which hopefully will not become a common theme in the games I write about. This takes place after an extremely-hammy villain murders Marlow with a scythe relic, imbued with the power of the Mask of Death, which brings him back to life and turns him, a black smokejumper (think firefighter, but much more badass) who was already fairly awesome, into a modern-day Kratos with a much more relatable persona, along with a much better goal; save your girlfriend from a villain voiced by someone extremely well-known: James Hong, who voiced Uncle Po from Sleeping Dogs, Covetous Shen from Diablo III, and my personal favorite, Cassandra’s father Jeff in Wayne’s World II. If there’s anything surprising about that, it’s more the lines he says in the game than him actually being in said game, including a line about how Marlow makes everything explode, which is usually while you leave each area.

The environments are interesting enough, but not that varied, mostly being jungle, a jungle temple, or various industrial locations that then explode. The combat is simple, but in the best way that can be applied, in that there’s a handful of basic combos that work well based on the enemies you fight and not much else, something God of War could have learned early. There’s also only 4 weapons and a few spells, about as many as the first God of War but with a much smoother flow to it. Each weapon is the scythe that killed you in a different form, and each spell is elemental (fire, earth, air, and water) in nature, with enough distance between accessing them to get you used to each one. The combat itself is pretty much as good as one can hope, with just enough over-the-top action included to keep you entertained and wanting more. Getting back to my comment about efficient design, the experience system is where that really shines through. Each upgrade costs an increasing amount, but it’s both covering every skill and easily predictable since it start at 1,000 XP for a level and increases by another 1,000 each level, so the second upgrade is 2,000 XP; the third is 3,000, and so on. It’s also the only game in this subgenre I’ve played where there was enough experience to fully unlock every skill, which is rather satisfying to see.

The plot is simple, the combat is simple for the subgenre, and everything is exactly where it needs to be to be fun from start to finish. It’s stupid, yes, but the kind of stupid that Dynasty Warriors is, the kind of stupid that makes you want to keep playing it to see what explodes next, which in this game, is pretty much everything everywhere.

Two Worlds Critique: “Say Hello to DEATH”

Two Worlds is a game that I didn’t really like at first. The combat was stiff, not to the levels of Risen but still not fluid, the overall mechanics were iffy, and the alchemy was really just confusing. I let it sit in my library for a while until a few weeks ago, when I started replaying it, helped by the fact that in the time between, several people had finally figured out the alchemy rules.

The game is kind of hard to take seriously, mostly because of the voice acting, which seems mostly silly even when it should be serious, along with the feeling of starting In media res but without context, with you being a somehow-important mercenary with a sister that’s been kidnapped for…reasons…and the only logical motivation being that you’re trying to rescue her. It doesn’t explain who’s taken her besides a name, you don’t find out the faction until about 10 hours in, and the best part? You can become friendly with that same faction quickly, almost entirely by collecting a single item spread like Nirnroot that apparently spawns undead enemies every night, usually in graveyards. The factions play out like Morrowind meets every MMO with more than one player faction ever, with every two factions being against each other…not that this stops you from playing both sides, which is lent some backing by you being a merc and mostly being about the money.

The plot device you’re after is a relic your family had until it was broken up into pieces which can apparently resurrect the deceased Orc god. This is generally considered to be a bad thing, although if you find an NPC with one of the “good” factions, The Society, the conversations makes it seem like they’re less like the standard Orcs and more like the Kerrigan-led Zerg at the end of StarCraft II…it’s really bad when the outcome most people don’t want to happen in the game actually sounds like a good thing because of an external threat to the world.

The actual mechanics, aside from questionable combat, are actually pretty decent, feeling like someone took the best parts of Morrowind and Diablo and mushed them up. There’s four main stats, following the Diablo pattern, along with the inventory system which goes based a number of squares. Where it splits with Diablo is the amount of inventory space and the size. The physical size of the inventory is a great deal higher than any other dungeon crawler, matching only a modded Torchlight II with 10 inventory tabs. There’s also a weight limit that increases with added Strength, which is where the game starts looking like the Elder Scrolls clone it’s commonly charged with being. That, along with the numerous skills are the major Morrowind-style mechanics with a hint of Risen, since in order to learn skills you don’t start with you need to find the right trainers. Unlike Risen, however, these actually make sense, like one of the last skills I learned was how to break enemy weapons with a certain type of dagger, something quite specialized. I’m not sure if the skills you start with are randomized, since there were trainers early on that couldn’t teach me anything since I already knew what they taught, but even so, the starting skills are an excellent pool of basics, including the required lockpicking, vital for any mass looter.

The most important skill, however, is the aforementioned Alchemy. You find a vast amount of materials throughout the large game world, many of them offering temporary effects…but some offer a permanent effect. Each level of alchemy gets you a higher percentage of the potential effects from the potion ingredients, which means for the permanent potions, you want to wait until you max out the skill…which can lead to some borderline game-breaking potions, such as this one I personally made. Keep in mind, this game gives you 5 stat points per level, and that single potion adds 49 of those points permanently, sort of like the late-game stat potions in Diablo but with a much stronger effect. The only really unique mechanic this game has is item-stacking, which lets you take multiple copies of the same item and stack them to improve their power. Aside from rare instances, this is only useful at the start of the game due to the variety of items dropped later.

The main question that should be asked is if this is a good game. It’s certainly not the worst RPG I’ve played, that dishonor belonging to the first Risen, but it’s not all that good of a game overall. The mechanics are solid, but the story and characters are a bit too silly and complex in the wrong ways to be taken seriously, which holds this game back from really being good. The sequel, on the other hand…

Darksiders II Critique: Death, the Obsessively-Looting Horseman

The first Darksiders game was mechanically well-designed, but the generic story and the breadth and variety of those mechanics made it feel like a Frankenstein’d combination of a number of other games. Somehow, by adding mechanics from a genre untouched by the first game, Darksiders II also finds an identity of its own.

Personally, I think the reason the first game felt so disjointed was because of how the game was framed; it looked and felt more like a God of War ripoff with a bland story because that’s how everything was framed, and the lack of a self-created frame caused all the problems that game had. However, Darksiders II instead chooses the framing of a dungeon crawler like Diablo II or Torchlight, which gives a much clearer sense of progression, somewhat more variety in the combat that makes up the game, along with giving multiple playstyles room to work. The bonus is that many of the features and mechanics from the first game, like looting chests for items to increase your health, find a better-designed purpose here, that being the standard loot dump that a chest usually signifies. The dungeons are still Legend of Zelda-esque, but the added loot mechanics make exploration more entertaining and worth more than 1/4 of a health upgrade. The other mechanics, like the platforming and wallclimbing are about as well-designed as they can be without going full Mirror’s Edge and just parkouring everything. As a side note, it wasn’t until I played this that I figured out I could shoot portals through the other portal, which would have made the first game much easier if it told you that.

The additional RPG mechanics separating the God of War-style game and the dungeon crawler help this game immensely. The skill trees give a much greater sense of variety along with more active skills than the first game had. You also start out with a horse, but that’s just icing. The secondary weapon variety would normally also add some variety, but it seems that there’s only two classes of them: faster than the primary scythes, or slower. That being said, the gauntlets feel somewhat overpowered, since the increased attack speed lets you hit more than any other weapon.

Like the first game in the series, there are also puzzles, but none of them are harder than one during the tutorial…figuring out how to jump backwards during the wall-climbing sections while using a controller. Honestly, it seems the controls for a controller while playing the PC version aren’t well-designed…the health potions are activated with the 360 D-Pad, which apparently is about as responsive as a dead parrot for most people. That wouldn’t be so much of a problem if the dodge button wasn’t the right bumper, which is unintuitive at best and likely to get you killed at worst. If it and the action button, that being B, had been switched, it would have felt better because combat is more common than opening a chest or pulling a lever…which is exacerbated by the lack of a block ability, which works well for me but probably not for others. The only problem the base PC controls have is that the radial menu that accesses potions and abilities is opened with Tab and flows about as well as a pile of bricks. There might be hotkey options with the PC controls, but that wouldn’t really fix the flow issue.

Aside from control issues, this is essentially what a sequel should be; it expands upon the original, fleshes out the world more, and improves the current mechanics while adding new mechanics that make the game feel less like a ripoff and more like its own game.

Dragon’s Prophet Critique: Who Knew Capturing Dragons Could Be Boring?

You would think that a game where you run around capturing dragons, use them as both mounts and assistants to help you fight, and have the ones you aren’t currently running around with gather various crafting materials would be interesting, right?

With this game, you’d be quite wrong.

Dragon’s Prophet is brought to you by Daybreak, which you might recognize as the company who published the first two Everquest games and, based on a staggering amount of Steam reviews, is apparently dropping the ball so hard on Landmark, they kicked it down a canyon onto a massive pile of C4 which then blew the ball directly into orbit. (the first Recommended is about 50 reviews down, and even then it’s barely a Recommended)

Thankfully, this game has been handled somewhat better, although considering the story and mechanics, it’s hard to do it wrong. You start out having dropped from the sky for reasons mostly unexplained (the only hint of anything special about you is presented without context in a cutscene that could easily be assumed to mean a group of people, not just your character) and doesn’t really get any meaning until you find out soon after that you can capture dragons…and this is actually extremely boring. The tutorial itself, on the other hand, is handled quite well, showing off the three major types of enemies in the game (normal, strong, and boss) which generally just differ in attacks and HP pools. The bosses apparently have weak points you can exploit to incapacitate them for a few seconds and you can deal more damage, but the first non-tutorial boss I fought in the first dungeon seemed to not have one at all, along with area-of-effect attacks that kept me drinking the numerous health potions the story quests had given me…almost to Echo of Soul levels, and selling healing items to merchants in that game was the best way to get money without auctioning gems.

The major problems with the dragon-capturing mechanic are rather striking: the first dragon you capture as part of a story mission can do everything but swim…which includes flying, something usually given much later, if at all…not right after a few quests past the tutorial. As I said earlier, the dragons can also be used in combat, which takes a Tera-like approach with action-y combat focusing on active skills and using the mouse for basic attacks. The problem here is that until you level a dragon by either sending it to train with another dragon you capture or having it gather crafting materials, you have no active skills to speak of. The ability tree, called Mastery in this game, does offer some abilities beyond stat increases. Unfortunately, the first one just replaces one of the right-click attacks with another, stronger effect. I don’t really care much for active skills in most games since that’s less I have to consider in terms of tactics, but here, they’re sorely missed. There are two other skills trees to unlock over leveling, but neither of them are accessible until you reach the right level, meaning any planning must be done externally.

Aside from the combat, which is actually well-done overall, minus the lack of active skills, dragons are also used for gathering crafting materials, which is done better than similar games that involve sending a companion to gather materials such as Neverwinter and Star Wars: The Old Republic, mostly because the actual crafting of the items is done by the player themselves. Where it falls apart is right at the beginning; in order to craft anything useful, you need to have multiple resource types, which requires multiple dragons, otherwise your only source of crafting XP is (for most types of crafting) by breaking down useful materials into rocks, course cloth, or other materials that can be used to craft other materials used to make some actually useful stuff. Aside from being slightly too complex to really be great, it’s more functional than most of the game’s other features. There are more mechanics that could be covered, but none of them are really that well-done, being either poorly balanced or generally irrelevant to anyone not interested in min-maxing both their character and the maximum of 12 dragons you can have per character.

Another problem is that there’s barely anyone playing, but considering all of this, can you really blame people for wanting to play something else?

Aliens: Colonial Marines Critique: ET Phones It In

If there was any game that made me want to care about the IP when I didn’t already, this is the game that does it, but not for any good reason. It makes me want to care about Aliens so there’s actually something for me to care about in this game. I didn’t really pay much attention to it during the demo that got all kinds of rage due to the differences between that and this pile of mediocrity nor did I have any previous interest in the IP, so most of the well-deserved anger is mostly lost on me. Due to when I played it, however, most of the bugs that might have been interesting, like the Michigan J. Frog dancing bug that’s better than the game itself, had been removed by patches. Unfortunately, those patches couldn’t give the weapons more impact, a movement speed faster than “plodding,” or an actually interesting story hook to draw non-fans in.

The story is manageable, barely enough to keep the player going along their first playthrough. The gunplay is average overall, with the guns having the animations that would give them some of the aforementioned impact if they actually dealt any damage worth bothering with without needing to spend about 2-5 times as much ammo as you should need to defeat the middling enemy AI. The enemies themselves vary between the aliens that honestly should be annoyed that they’re associated with this game and the Weyland-Yutani mercenaries, which were the least-annoying enemy group to fight since they were predictable. Upon reflection, one could be forgiven for thinking that picking one enemy group and concentrating on that would have led to better enemies overall, but considering that this was a collaboration project between Gearbox and the deceased TimeGate Studios, (which considering the latter was the designer for the expansions for the first FEAR, may not have been much of a loss) picking one of anything and sticking to it might have been impossible.  If what I’d heard about what this game looked like before Gearbox got it from TimeGate is true, then the fault of the end product lies entirely with Gearbox, since the main reason it was taken from what was in the demo to what was “released” (that being a kind word) was that the game required too much hardware for the consoles at the time to handle…apparently when trying to scale the graphics and programming back to work on the PS3/360, they also scaled back the quality of gameplay, story, AI, and pretty much everything else.

If there’s one good thing about this game, it’s the leveling system, which in what I think is a first, is consistent between both the single-player and multiplayer modes, and requires you to perform Call of Duty-like challenges in gameplay to level up and unlock more weapon parts. Sad to say that a side-mechanic is the best thing about this game, but even considering the post-patch product, it’s amazing there’s anything good about this game at all.