Archive for January, 2008

Headhunter – “Metal Gear Arcade”

Headhunter 1

SEGA is probably one of the best and most influential software designer companies. However, its genesis lies in arcade-style videogames, and because of that, it’s a company that never made a successful transition into modern day videogames; yet nobody can say they didn’t try. When Sega was supporting the Dreamcast (which is probably the most underrated console ever), it tried to develop and publish modern games like “Headhunter” (developed by Amuze), but failed in the end to convince the blind Sony fans.

Much has been said about “Headhunter” being a copy of the famous “Metal Gear Solid”; though the comparison is inevitable, due to the Hollywood-like plot and stealth mechanics of both games, “Headhunter” is a sufficiently different game to be held on his own merits. Actually, if there is a game that resembles “Headhunter” is “Syphon Filter”, and not “Metal Gear Solid”. Why? Because “Metal Gear” has always been a more cerebral game, where every step requires careful consideration. Now, “Headhunter” is more of a shooter with stealth elements, than an actual stealth game, which, when you think about it makes perfect sense, considering Sega’s roots; it’s like an arcade take on “Metal Gear”.

Controls are simple and clean, allowing the player to easily choose between silently killing each of his enemies one by one without alerting them, or to simply blast his way through a level. Everything works pretty well, except for the stealth kill that is pulled off by pressing the shoot button… which means shooting a stray bullet instead of choking your adversary. Apart from that, the game handles action pretty well, with a straightforward level design keeping things direct. To avoid monotony, there are a few action-adventure elements, like “Resident Evil” style puzzles, and even a bike riding mini-game, that allows the player to travel to different missions.

Headhunter 2

“Headhunter’s” plot, while not exactly breaking the mold, leaves little to desire. In the near future, American society is overwhelmed with crime and corruption (which is kind of like the present); a business man named Christopher Stern designs a solution: create a network of headhunters that track down and kill wanted criminals, offering bounties for their organs. You play as Jack Wade, Stern’s protégé, who is the number one headhunter that for some unknown reason becomes amnesiac after the death of his protector. He then embarks, with the help of Stern’s sexy daughter, on a journey to unveil a plot to take over the world (how original), which unfortunately, means you’ll predict most of the twists, way before they happen. There are two reasons that make the somewhat silly script stick. First, voice acting: the actors that play the parts are right on, even if Jack Wade sounds too much like a Clint Eastwood rip-off, which adds a much needed degree of credibility to the fairly obtuse narrative. And two, the tone: instead of going for the ol’ classic Hollywood realism that plagues so many videogames, “Headhunter” doesn’t take itself too seriously, adding intelligent humor whenever possible. Moreover, the script is filled with satire and irony, ending up creating this aura of criticism to certain aspects of USA’s politics and its surrounding media circus. It’s not by any means a shallow plot, and the fact that it is reminiscent of Paul Verhoeven’s classic movies, like “Robocop” and “Starship Troopers” only helps.

The surrounding package is not very exciting: there’s little if any interesting work on the art department (everything looks realistic and “normal”), and sound design is okay; on the upside, there are some james bondesque orchestrations that are really catchy. It’s not a remarkable game in any way, but it manages to achieve what can be expected of a sega classic: well executed straightforward entertainment.

Overall: 3/5

The Witcher – “… for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” [Hamlet Act 2, scene 2]

Witcher - 1

What defines right or wrong? Good and Evil? Justice and Lawlessness? Is it the act, or its observer? Whichever the answer you believe in, it is fair to say that morality is a tricky business. Games are the ideal medium to convey these questions, for one simple reason: they give the possibility of choice. Unlike a book or a movie, where you are stuck with perceiving the decisions (and consequences) a character makes, in games you can actually do it for them – your moral compass can actually be tested. That is not to say, that the morality of the authors is absent; the consequences that derive from these choices, and the moral weight they carry, are entirely defined by the creators. And that opens a whole new world of possibilities from a narrative standpoint. Should the player be rewarded for a good deed and punished by an evil one? Or should he be reminded, that in the real world, good deeds are hard choices, with no real compensation to speak of, and that the crime, sometimes actually does pay? That law is not always just? That to achieve great things, compromises must be made? Should the gamer even be aware of the morality of his choice, or should he make his own judgment?

Just the fact that so many issues can be discussed is a testament to the importance of interactive narratives. For many years, western rpg’s have been the genre in which the gamer is actually provoked by the kind of tricky questions mentioned before. This is in no small part, thanks to Bioware and its writers, especially Drew Karpyshyn (“Knights of the Old Republic”, “Mass Effect”) and to Black Isle/Obsidian’s lead designer, Chris Avellone (“Planescape – Torment”, “Knights of the Old Republic II”); the whole morality issue in interactive narrative was introduced by these authors. But in their games, morality has been dealt in an almost absolute way, with good and evil separated by well defined, glowing white lines. Not that the worlds they depict are black and white, mind you, they are grey and dark, but the decisions players can take are undoubtedly polarized into good and evil (and sometimes, lawful and chaotic). The direction they are taking, however, is in the sense of introducing more ambiguity and relativity into moral choices (and both “KotOR II” and “Mass Effect” tread in that same direction). Nonetheless, it is a path they have only begun to embrace.

The Witcher - 2

In comes “The Witcher”, an RPG by the newborn polish company “CD Projekt Red” (sister to CD Projekt, a polish games translator company). “The Witcher” is an adaptation of the world created by Andrzej Sapkowski, in a series of dark fantasy novels centered round a monster-slaying mutant with magical powers, i.e. “The Witcher” Geralt. Sapkowski’s work is very reminiscent of high fantasy classics like Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”, but, as is common in dark fantasy narratives, twists its classical and mythological nature in favor of a more cynic and realistic tone. Racism, segregation, social struggles, political and law corruption are just some of the themes that manage to squeeze into his universe, transforming it into less of a fantasy world, and more to an allegorical version of our own decaying human society. The game’s narrative borrows this tone, and in the same way that Sapkowskis twists Tolkien, CD project twists Bioware.

The Witcher 5

The tale of the witcher Geralt starts with an attack on the witchers’ citadel, carried out by an evil mage who seeks to steal the magic and arcane secrets hidden by the witchers. After failing to repel the attack, Geralt and his witcher brothers start out on a quest to recover those secrets and have revenge. As poor as the start of this tale might sound, it develops in a series of unpredictable and interesting ways: on his journey for vengeance, Geralt will be caught in the middle of a conflict between humans and non-humans. Elves, dwarfs and other species have been the focus of prejudice throughout the development of human civilization, and so have decided to take up arms against them. On the other hand, humans see these “freedom fighters” as terrorists that are not afraid to kill women or children. Throughout the game, Geralt will have to make difficult choices in a war that he does not understand and that has nothing to do with him. Does he help the non-humans, that have a noble cause, but are so filled with hate and anger that will not stop at any means to fulfill their objectives? Or does he side with the humans, that are merely defending themselves against terrorists, and whose society, though decadent and filled with corruption, is a synonym of order and stability? He can also stay neutral, letting both sides destroy each other, and thus bringing a whole nation to shambles. So which is it? Many, many choices the player will have, and none right or wrong. In most of them, the player will only acknowledge their consequences much later in the game, when his overall perception of characters and events has changed. More than once, good-hearted decisions will have horrible consequences, and cold and difficult judgments will bring good in the end… a bit like real life, if you ask me. This simple substitution of black and white decisions with gray ones, joined with the butterfly effect, transforms binary selections into conundrums of unpredictable consequences, and gives a whole new meaning to the word: “choice”. If you let yourself immerse in this Universe, you will no doubt spend many minutes before making decisions, calculating carefully what might happen in either case. And since the consequences are only known much further in the game, there is no point in doing the save-load routine: once you make a choice, there’s no turning back.

The Witcher 3

The script of the game is not only interesting from the interactive point, as it is a testament to the creativity and quality of its author’s writings. Dialogs are rich and mature, characters are usually intelligent and filled with ulterior motives… rarely can they be judged at first sight. As standard, a number of unpredictable twists will turn the whole world upside down near the end of the game. The only downfall in this department is the somewhat lack of quality in some small game aspects, like the character animations, which are simply abominable, and the absence of certain narrative bridges, that make the game’s plot somewhat confusing at times.

The presentation of the game is almost as good as its narrative. [As you can see from the pictures] Art design department had a lot of work in conjuring up this dark-themed world, half way between Earth and Middle Earth, without falling in the temptation to transform it into either of them. Scenarios could have been taken from a historical-background game like “Assassin’s Creed”, as cities are usually places of decadence and poverty filled with anglo-saxonic architectural details, and have little, if anything, of a magical nature. Even forests and lakes, places typically associated with magic, have a down-to-earth feel, with somewhat drab color palettes. The game manages to feel idyllic, thanks to a good use of lighting and weather effects, but never surreal or magic, like most fantasy-themed games. Sometimes, it does feel a bit too drab and gloomy, lacking some contrast in colors, but overall it is an extremely beautiful game. On the sound department, nothing out of the normal to report: the soundtrack is mostly epic and medieval sounding, with one or two great tracks, but fails to harness the emotional power of, say, Jeremy Soule’s compositions (“Oblivion”).

The Witcher 4

On the subject of gameplay, “The Witcher” stands as most western RPG’s – In each chapter, you’ll have to enter a town hub, talk to villagers to fetch some quests and make money (that go from the “slay 1500 monsters and bring back proof” quest, to the “get the item that ***** bastard stole from me” quest). Once you’ve fed up with those trifle matters, you can do the main quests and enjoy the unveiling of the plot. On the good side of things, most quests have something to say about the game’s setting, so, no matter how boring they might seem, expect them always to manage unveiling some dark little secret. Combat is a bit of a hack and slash, with the player only having to click on their enemies at the right time for Geralt to release massive sword swinging combos (a bit like rhythm based games or “Legend of Dragoon”). There are also some magic spells Geralt can invoke, and 6 different combat styles, each of them with a typical usage scenario, which brings some tactical planning into play. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it manages to keep the player captivated.

And so, what seemed like an intangible possibility was accomplished by a new company: a truly interesting and morally ambiguous choice-driven RPG. Few games can even brag about having meaningful stories, let alone about having meaningful possibilities in them. The questions posed in this review’s first paragraph were definitely thought of during the game’s design and subtly inserted in the plot. By taking the best out of the “Good vs Evil” rpg’s (which were, by all means, brilliant) and adding a morally confusing tale, the authors ended up creating an epic and thought-provoking fantasy world. It has the writing quality of a book, and the endless possibilities of a game; it is, in every aspect, the new landmark in interactive storytelling.

Overall: 5/5

Max Payne – “A Noir Love Letter”

Max Payne - Title

Like in many other forms of art, videogame creators look up to other mediums as a means of finding inspiration. Classical themes and codes are often replicated in videogames, whether in terms of story, art or cut-scene direction, or even gameplay. Not always have these transitions been successful, but sometimes, they work, they really, really work; “Max Payne” is one of those cases. Now, “Max Payne” is not an adaptation “per se”, but it’s a clever homage to a number of art forms, and especially to a genre: the Noir. “Max Payne” can be described as an interactive cinematic action noir graphic novel. Sounds complicated, right? Let me Explain.

From the get-go any player will understand that “Max Payne” isn’t an ordinary game: the initial cut-scene renders a dark NY, stricken with the storm of the century, wind and snow ablaze; behind a cacophony of helicopters, ambulances and police-sirens, a low-toned, hoarse voice slowly mutters the words: “They were all dead. The final gunshot was an exclamation mark on everything that had led to this point. I released my finger from the trigger, and it was over.” Meet “Max Payne”, a worn-out, gloomy police-officer whose wife and daughter were murdered by a group of over-drugged junkies; his purpose in life? To kill everyone connected to that murder. Like any hard boiled novel cop, he is a man stricken with guilt and regret, his past a mystery, and his objectives are not pure. Max’s journey will unveil a corrupt society, where crime and power go hand in hand, where love and hate go side by side and where vengeance and justice are two faces of the same coin. As he himself puts it… “I had taken on the role of the mythic detective: Bogart as Marlowe, or as Sam Spade going after the Maltese Falcon. To unravel all the mysteries, following a path of clues to that final revelation, even if it would take me down to the cold, cavernous depths of a grave.”

Max Payne Im in a Graphic Novel

The plot develops through a series of live-action stills, with hand drawn coloring and drawings on top to resemble graphic novel vignettes. Speech bubbles show the dialogs, while at the same time voice actors read them, with that over the top, fatalist tone that so well complements noir stories. These dialogs are extremely well written, filled with metaphors, hyperboles, allegories and a cynical overtone that engulfs nearly all sentences… even that creepy post-modern humor makes an appearance [See Images]. The moody and sad undertone of the soundtrack is the icing of the cake: the cold sound of a bleeding cello gives a whole new level to Max’s emotional pain. Everything in “Max Payne” feels like a tribute to “Noir” films and novels, a tribute to Eisner, Miller, Wilder and Ellroy; its dark aesthetic and literary influences leave no doubt: “Max Payne” is the first interactive Film-Noir.

But, a good narrative isn’t enough to make a good game, gameplay is also a factor, and even there “Max Payne” is brilliant. The action bulk of the game is perceived in the 3rd person shooter angle, with a “bullet-time” mechanic (Matrix style) allowing the player to slow down time, dodging incoming bullets while aiming at the opponents’ heads to blast them to kingdom come. Even from a technical point of view this was revolutionary at the time, for the bullets’ trajectories were calculated in real time, with the shooter’s momentum interfering on the path they took. But the level-design is what truly made this shine; levels were correctly paced, with action sequences followed by adventure and plot elements in the right proportion, thus avoiding the shooting-overload-sickness most action games go for. Max Payne’s formula is so downright perfect, that no game to this day has nailed the “bullet-time” style gameplay on the same level (except its sequel); “Enter the Matrix” was shallow at best, and the recent “Stranglehold” is absent of any thought level design choices, making it the shooter equivalent of a “hack and slash”.

Max Payne I’m in a Videogame

Games don’t get any better than “Max Payne”, its smart narrative, audacious aesthetic and its perfect gameplay all come together in one solid game. Its so damn good, I would never have imagined there would ever be a sequel, let alone, one that actually improves on its predecessor… but that is a tale for another time. “Max Payne” is a beautifully told noir novel that could have been written in any other medium, and still be brilliant; a novel that demands the rightful statute of Art.

Overall: 5/5

And the winner is… “Mario Galaxy”?

Mario Galaxy

“Mario Galaxy” was voted by a vast majority of game sites as 2007’s Game of the Year (Gamespot, Gametrailers, 1Up, IGN, etc). Personally I found it disturbing. Not because I consider it a bad game, mind you. [Though I must admit, “Mario Galaxy” is the only game-of-the-year nominee I haven’t played from start to finish. I have however played and seen enough footage to know what the game is about…] The thing that bothers me, is not the actual award, but its justification. The main reason why “Mario Galaxy” allegedly gained the award over games like “Bioshock”, “Mass Effect” or “Call of Duty 4” was because it was considered to be “more fun” than any other game.

Now this really reminded me how immature the industry and its media really can be. Imagine, if you will, that during the next Oscars “Pirates of the Caribbean” won the award for best movie; that the Grammy for overall best record went to Shakira’s latest album… and imagine the Nobel Prize in literature given to JK Rowling. All, because that was the best entertainment of the year; all because those were the most “fun”. Forget about everything else: THEY WERE FUN.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: games are supposed to be “fun”, right? Hey, movies too. Music, books, paintings… they’re all supposed to deliver on some sort of entertainment. Whether in the form of contemplating aesthetic beauty, the conveying of powerful feelings, the telling of stories, or even the provoking of laughter, amusement and pure pleasure. Whatever the form, all art has one purpose: to entertain an audience. Now, the key thing is: there are many forms of entertainment, and many types of audience, and any medium has an infinite array of ways in which it can deliver entertainment… to an equally large number of different audiences. Think about the differences between a “Da Vinci” and a “Pollock” painting; think about what sets Mozart and Shostokovich apart; think about the work of Kubrick vs. that of Spielberg. Are they the same? No, they’re different; they all have different notions of entertainment, audience… and Art.

So, why is “Mario Galaxy” Game of the Year a problem? Because critics in the videogame industry only contemplate entertainment in one simple way: the amusement one gets from actually playing the game. Everything else: all the complexities, all the variety of possibilities a game offers, all the beauty… falls secondary. This year, the artistry of the graphics, the weaving of the narrative, the message games convey, were forgotten. Only “fun” was rewarded with the Game of the Year award. Now, this doesn’t happen this consistently in other mediums: magazines, websites and festivals consider many aspects beyond this abstract “fun” factor, when reviewing and criticizing art/entertainment. More so, the majority of awards go to works that challenge the audience into feeling or thinking about some issue or message; not the ones that are just more “fun”.

Bioshock - No gods or Kings. Only Man

Not that there is anything wrong with fun. I love playing games that excite me, that challenge me, that entertain me at a more basic level. But a game can, and (in my opinion) should deliver much more. Books, movies, comics, music, tv… all those mediums deliver on so many levels, so why should games be any different? Are they inferior? No, but I guess they are more recent, more immature, and as such, are still seen as “toys”. Because “toys” are the only objects that are all about being “fun”, nothing more, nothing less. Now think a bit: is “Mario Galaxy” just a “toy”? Is “Bioshock” a “toy”? Think about the games you liked the most: were they just “Toys”? Or were they something far more powerful? Something we usually call… Art?

The conclusion one can achieve from the justification of the “Mario Galaxy” award is that the majority of the game media still regard games as some sort of fancy “toys”; the same media that, supposedly, should be enlightening and uplifting people’s perceptions about videogames. And if they regard games as these “toys”, and not as something more, then who will?

[I will come back to the issue of what defines art (and games as art), as well as the lack of maturity most game journalists show, in weeks to come…]

The Darkness – “Chiaroscuro”

Darkness-Cover

The first thing one notices when playing “The Darkness” is the incredibly stylized visual aspect of the game. It seems fair to assume that a game called “The Darkness” would be dark… but the game isn’t just dark, it’s pure darkness. The game starts of in New York City and it’s a shock to see every street, corner and alley so gloomy and absent of light, with only a few lamps bursting small, but bright, rays of light. But even those are not warm pleasant lights; they’re cold, dry white lights that contrast perfectly with the blackness that surrounds them. The result is similar to the “chiaroscuro” (“lightdark”) style photography that will reminisce with anyone who has ever seen a “Film-Noir” or a German expressionist film like “Nosferatu”. Though it’s a common technique in cinema, this is the first game that actually was able to emulate it on a game (and so many have tried), and for that fact it must be commended. The way the lighting shapes objects and scenarios is superb, thanks to the quality of the volumetric lighting engine and the sheer detail of the sets. Whether it’s the New York subways, with its grayish and slab tones, or the hellish land of the Darkness, engulfed in its dead brown and fiery red, every environment of the game feels unique and organic, pulsating with life and death.

The dark visuals fit perfectly as the counterpart to a story of corruption that transpires in the soul of one man: Jackie Estacado. Jackie is a “wise guy” from a crime family ruled by his Uncle Paulie, and on his 21st birthday, he’s possessed by a demon-like being called “The Darkness”. Coincidentally, on the same day, his uncle decides to have Jackie killed. “The Darkness” will agree to save Jackie by giving him power, but in return, will demand a significant price to pay. The story is beautifully crafted, filled with fatalism and dread; in a nutshell: it’s “The Godfather” meets “Faust”. Not a bad combination, is it? And though it’s based on a comic book, don’t expect a cookie-cutter plot; it’s not revolutionary, but it’s engaging and deep. Narrative develops through dialogs and cut-scenes where the player has control of the character (“a la” Half-Life 2); and this is where “The Darkness” shines really brightly, with character animations bordering life-like, thanks to one of the best motion capturing ever seen in games. Add great voice-acting, and the result is a series of emotionally powerful sequences that actually resonate with the player, and thus give a whole new level of dramatic impact to the plot.

As a FPS, “The Darkness” fares well: it’s not groundbreaking, it’s not perfect, but it is enjoyable. The main character can use a lot of guns, which feel extremely powerful, thanks to the care given to model and sound design. But apart from the ability to use of some cool finishing moves, gun use feels a bit formulaic and shallow. Adding spice into the mix, are the “darkness” powers that allow the disposal of enemies in a number of “unpleasant” ways. Stick a huge tentacle through your enemies’ bowels? Check. Summon a kamikaze imp to blow everything to smithereens? Check. Darkness powers are fun, and do a nice job of adding a touch of dark-humor to the otherwise serious tale. The downfall is that most powers don’t seem well implemented, and more than once in a while, their effect will be unpredictable, either because the controls aren’t responsive enough, or because the AI just doesn’t cut it.

Darkness-Middle

Level Design is ok. Action sequences are balanced and straight-forward, allowing the game to flow smoothly. But, “The Darkness”, like the companies’ predecessor (“Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay”) also has a few RPG/adventure elements that add variety: speaking to characters, finding collectible items, and performing small quests are just a few of the possibilities. The problem here is that, unlike “Riddick”, levels are enormous in size, and usually, have little going on in most of their areas. This means, the aforementioned elements become long and somewhat boring fetch games filled with backtracking . So unlike “Riddick”, instead of helping the game, these elements end up hurting it.

Like its “Chiaroscuro”, “The Darkness” is game of contrast; on one hand, there’s a powerful and moving story, beautifully told through the sights and sounds of the game, and on the other, an uninspired game, that doesn’t show the same amount of care and production value as the rest of the package. All in all, it’s a great game for those who don’t mind suffering some uninspired shooting to appreciate some great artistic design and a cinematic narrative. So if you don’t belong in this group, then forget about “The Darkness”, but if you do… embrace it.

Overall: 4/5

Deus Ex – “A question of choices”

Deus Ex cover

Warren Spector. Though many may not immediately recognize the name, Warren Spector is one of the most important game directors in the industry. His name has become a synonym of openness and liberty when it comes to gameplay and narrative elements. When games were still trying to grasp linear narratives and straight-forward gameplay design, Warren Spector was already going one step ahead and trying non-linearity. And though he hasn’t been very active in the past years, the influence of his games can still be felt as of today, whether in the decision making of “Bioshock” (“to harvest or not to harvest… that is the question”) or the variety of action approaches games like “Crysis” permit.

The philosophy behind “Deus Ex”, as in all Warren Spector games is: “Freedom of Choice”. Whether one fancies stealth, vent-crawling or mindless shooting, the game allows any tactic of choice. Of course, more often than not, one approach might be harder to pull off than others, and in some cases, choosing one or the other bears little change in the end result. However, such boldness in game design is commendable, as every level can be navigated in many, many different ways.

Level design is standard fare for a 1999 game, with little information on how to navigate a level, apart from a confusing map and a number of objectives. Especially considering the open-choice structure of the game (which adds to the complexity of the maps), there really aren’t enough hints to guide the player. Adding to that, scenarios aren’t intuitive enough: cities either have huge expansive environments or borderline claustrophobic ones; different floors of the same building have different room configurations; structures have locked doors all around, with open entrances and stairs poping-up where you’d least expect; and equipment lies almost everywhere, from bathrooms to venting ducks. Most times, map design just looks plain random. It’s not bad, but it certainly isn’t “Half-life” or “Quake 2”. And though “Deus Ex” might seem like a normal day FPS on the surface, the only thing it borrows from the genre is the perspective. In its core, “Deus Ex” is a run of the mill western-RPG: players’ reflexes and dexterity with a mouse are seldom needed, because what dictates a hit or miss with a gun is the experience points each player has invested in pistol training. The use of weapons, special powers and items are all dictated by choices he makes.

On top of everything, as usual in an RPG, there is a plot to wrap everything up. In the future depicted by “Deus Ex”, the whole world is governed by a single entity: the UN. The main character is JC Denton, a UN special ops soldier with a body full of cybernetic upgrades. He’s the lead weapon against a group of anarchist terrorists that are trying to overthrow the UN regime. Of course, nothing is as it seems, and a number of plot twists will repeatedly shatter players’ beliefs. There are many conspiracies to be unraveled, but unfortunately, as is common in ambitious game-plots, it promises more than it can deliver, with later revelations appearing out of place and being too reminiscent of certain books not to call them “clichés”.

Deus Ex screen

Most dialogues are bland, but once in a while, out of the blue, some well written political and philosophical discussions emerge; too bad they don’t last longer. Characters are usually linear and predictable; Denton, however, seems schizophrenic, jumping from capitalist to anarchist (and vice-versa) faster than a blink of an eye. Unlike the action, there are few choices to make when it comes to narrative; dialog trees have mostly informative purposes and are of little consequence, which ends up distancing the player from the otherwise engrossing narrative. The ending is the exception, and one of the highlights of the game, proposing a tough choice to the player: decide the fate of the world. And believe it or not, there’s no easy choice… and no happy ending. Unlike Bioware’s “good vs. evil” decisions, each of the choices in “Deus Ex” is completely amoral and has little to do with right and wrong. If the story is in fact a mirror of its creator’s soul, then Warren Spector is definitely a cynic, thinking little of Man or its Civilization.

Like the plot, art design and soundtrack provide a moody, gritty and dark ambience, mixing soft techno-like music with poorly lighted environments, adding a distinct flavor to this pessimistic view of the future. It provides a similar background to that of movie aesthetics like “The Matrix” or even “Blade Runner”, it’s just a shame the plot isn’t nearly as well conceived as in those movies.

All in all, “Deus Ex” is a wonderful game. Although ahead of its time, it lacks a certain layer of polish in nearly all of its aspects. Gameplay could have used tweaking, and better level design would have taken the game into a whole new league. Nevertheless, it is easy to apologize most of its flaws considering its revolutionary nature, and the impact it continues to have on gaming today.

Overall: 3/5

Eternal Sonata – “A symphony to remember”

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Originality is sparse in game concepts. Most follow standard formulas and are easily categorized in terms of plot and gameplay. “Eternal Sonata” is one of those rare games that risk everything with an original concept. Alas, like many others, “Eternal Sonata” is in many ways refreshing, but is also filled with a huge array of worn out clichés, that just like bad music, never allow the game to reach its “crescendo”.

Frederic Chopin is dying. While he lies on his deathbed, he starts to dream of a magical world where every note, song and symphony he ever wrote come to life in the form of characters and locations. The game can be depicted as his inner journey throughout this dream, where a dense plot lies, filled with the classic themes of love, betrayal and death. Since Chopin was a real life character, realism would have been the way to go in terms of art design. But strangely, the only speck of reality in this game lies in slideshows that recount Chopin’s Biography, through captioned live-action pictures accompanied by the sound of Chopin’s greatest music.

But apart from those memorable sequences, the aesthetic of the game is very anime-like… actually, it’s pure anime. Cutscenes have dialogue, action, comedy and directing that follow anime’s principles. And they’re actually pretty good, filled with cinematic camera angles and great use of soundtrack. Characters are young, cute, act like silly “j-pop” kids, and have the unusual tendency to start digressing about the meaning of life and death. That might’ve been a downside, but the truth is that the dialogues in these philosophical sequences are sharply written, in the tradition of animes like “Evangelion” or “Ghost in the Shell”. However, like the “animes” it resembles, most of the hidden meanings of the narrative only become clear after the game-over screen, and even then, they are never fully explained. Unveiling the hidden meanings of the plot requires some thought, since many actions and dialogues are of an allegorical or metaphorical nature, bursting with spiritual meaning. Art usually lends itself to be open for interpretation, and though games rarely do so, “Eternal Sonata” clearly wants to stand out, and thus become like one of Chopin’s melodies: enigmatic and beautiful.

And beautiful is certainly the right word to describe the visuals of “Eternal Sonata”. Lush environments, filled with vibrant colors and lighting schemes, merge to form crisp, awe inspiring imagery, with some impressionist references. This aesthetic choice fits perfectly with the game’s theme, as Chopin lived roughly around the same time as when the impressionist movement emerged. There’s also a rare amount of detail in every game element: buildings’ architecture, characters’ wardrobe and accessories are portrayed with surgical-like precision and show a great deal of creativity, even by “japanimation” standards. Even the best “Final Fantasies” may look a bit shady when compared to this game’s bright color palettes.

“Tri-Crescendo” has been the sound designer of “Tri-Ace” (“Star Ocean” and “Tales” series), and was behind the “Baten Kaitos” games and it shows. Soundtrack (among other things) will feel familiar to those who played any of these games, but, since the subject matter is Chopin, Composer Motoi Sakuraba’s music is heavily influenced by his work, which results in one of his best soundtracks so far.

Where “Eternal Sonata” does hit a bad note is in gameplay elements. Hiroya Hatsushiba’s creativity appears to have run out after designing the plot and art aspects, something that curiously didn’t happen in his previous works (“Baten Kaitos”and “Baten Kaitos II”). The actual game inside “Eternal Sonata” is extremely formulaic, as if it was an afterthought in the creative process. Probably, the designers thought that there was enough innovation in other aspects to risk breaking any more conventions in gameplay. And, looking at the rant “Final Fantasy XII” got for trying to break the mold, maybe they weren’t so far off. Action is therefore, business as usual, with towns and dungeon-like areas to explore in the same tiring way as every other J-RPG (talk to very villager, get items in small wooden boxes), and combat is turn-based (with one or two gimmicks that try to cover it up). Battles are somewhat fun (for the first hours anyway) and relatively easy, which is a plus, since that means you don’t have to tire yourself too much with the repetition of the attack-attack-heal strategy, which is basically everything you can actually do during combat. On the other hand, dungeons are too elaborate for a game with no map whatsoever, which means consistently exploring every nut and crack of the scenarios, which also means… more dull and insipid combat.

If it wasn’t for the blandness of the gameplay aspects of the game, “Eternal Sonata” would probably be one of the greatest RPG’s ever made, period. But as it stands, it manages only to achieve one of its goals: create an “artsy” audio-visual interpretation of Chopin’s works. The game sees itself as fine art, and fine art it is… it’s just not interactive fine art.

Overall: 4/5