Archive for May, 2010

Densha de Go! + Train Simulator – “Eastern Love”

Densha de GO!” (roughly meaning “Let’s GO! by Train”) is a quirky train simulator Japanese series. Its game design reeks of distilled arcade elegance – players can only accelerate or brake using a single lever, the goal being to drive the train at an appropriate pace, passing checkpoints below established speed-limits, while keeping schedule and avoiding abrupt stops. Its apparent simplicity betrays its overwhelming depth: as you progress you’ll find yourself nervously changing acceleration almost on a second-by-second basis, hopelessly trying to maximize your train speed as the game continuously harasses you with new constraints. Gameplay presents that delightful addiction which only pure games possess, as one feels motivated to always struggle to improve in that fine art of train conducting.

But, however well designed the game may be, especially when compared to its byzantine western counterparts, its essence only emerges in the obvious care which was placed in the simulation of the train ride experience. Train’s rhythmic humdrum, sirens signaling arrivals and departures, conductors’ announcements, the hustle and bustle of  daily-life as people enter and leave the train, the changing weather conditions across the vividly portrayed landscape – everything is emulated for you to feel as if inside a train. This is where “Densha de Go!” creators show off their national obsession with trains, a sociocultural passion born from the intimate relationship that arises from working class men’s need to travel each day to and from work by train. And so, just as westerners admire the elegant lines of a red Ferrari, so do Japanese admire the slick lines of the bullet train. See, their intimacy brew love, and from that love transpires the game’s almost absurd reverence for all things train – their brands and models, technical features, design, specific routes and stops – all constantly mentioned for the delight of the passionate train fans.

This heartfelt desire to homage train rides as some sort of quasi-mystical experience, lead to some of the most interesting titles in the genre: those that employ live audio/video feed of actual train rides as substitute for computer graphics and sound, the “Train Simulator” series (of which the PS3 “Railfan” titles are the most recent incarnations). In these, immersion is downright perfect as you actually witness the train ride as you play, overcoming the reality wall in which so many video games stumble upon. If you’ve ever travelled by train and basked in its view, you will appreciate the possibility of doing so by means of a console, braving through sights and sounds that you’ll probably never gaze your eyes and ears upon, while enjoying a thoroughly entertaining  game. Japanese infatuation with trains will surely find a bonding connection with you, therefore achieving the game’s noblest goal – to take you to that special place from whence all love for train stems, in the process serving as an enticing vehicle of cultural expression. And what hidden wonders and lost memories lie in wait, hoping to be evoked by the sweet lulling of the train, as it whistles away through glorious landscapes in its tantalizing, nervous craving for a destination?

Mass Effect 2 – “Another for the Masses”

Gears keep turning.  Four years after its launch, “Gears of War” remains the template, the archetype, the defining game by which all  revolve around. In this mere second in video-games’ development time, there have been dozens of video-games that have borrowed, stolen, or downright mimicked the original “Gears of War”. One would think it was high time someone said enough, but no, the Gears keep turning. What originally seemed like an innocent, pleasing, ostensively dumb military action game, has now become one of the most harmful influences on the industry. When even a critically acclaimed and commercially successful company such as Bioware has to adapt its own model and genre to fit the conceptions of what is now deemed popular… you start wondering where this is all gonna lead the industry. Point being: “Mass Effect 2”, like so many others, is a straight up “Gears of War” clone. Worse even, one that adds nothing to that tiresome template. And it’s not just Gear’s combat that was appropriated, but also the comic-book aesthetic, that gray smudge of shattered beauty. Most of the “Mass Effect” universe now feels drab and life-less, lacking color and contrast, as if the whole thing had been attacked by a de-coloration ray.  It doesn’t help that the ambient space-music soundtrack reads like a desperate, uninspired attempt to emulate Jarre and Vangelis: a flat succession of ominous  keyboard choruses with no climax or fanfarre. Admittedly, the idea was to make the mood darker and more somber, “The Empire strikes Back” of videogames as they say, but “Mass Effect 2” has none of the heart or aesthetic beauty of the one good “Star Wars” episode.


Sure, beneath the frantic shooting and the insipid sight-seeing there is still a Bioware roleplay to be found, but even that seems a poor repetition of things of gone by. There is simply nothing in the game’s architecture that wasn’t present in the original “Knights of the Old Republic”…  a 7-year-old game. It’s all cleaner and streamlined, denoting a heavy investment (by EA) in terms of polish and user-friendliness, but we couldn’t care less whether a dreary old game is polished or not… it is still a dreary old game. Which is what “Mass Effect 2” really feels like: a has-been trying to look cool for the younger crowd, by wearing trendy new garments. And whilst we appreciate “Mass Effect’s”  new tricks – especially the cinematic aesthetic in character interaction – it’s depressing to see it come to no avail. The plot and characters promise intrigue and plot-twists, delving into cool sci-fi pop-references left and right, but (saving minor episodes) all they can deliver is a never-ending no-thrills ride, with no dramatic insight or thematic depth to speak of. Even “Mass Effect’s” sole redeeming factor – the notion of scale of its universe, brought upon by exploration of each planet – has been duped for a ridiculously boring mini-game which you’re constantly forced to play. All in all, the only minute pleasure to be had in “Mass Effect 2” lies precisely in its “Gears of War” combat… and we’ve all played that many many many times before. It’s not even fun anymore.

score: 2/5

Final Fantasy XIII – “Heartbreaking Nostalgia”

All it took for was one brief look at the Yoshitaka Amano title screen in a local megastore for a scream to build up inside. “Final Fantasy”. We grew up with the series and for that they will always hold a special place in our hearts. Despite we being old enough to acknowledge that they do not represent the epitome of video games’ expression (nor have ever represented), they still come out as great examples of the specific realm of their genre or aesthetic. Like those wonderful storybooks you read when you were younger or the fantasy films of yesteryear, we look past their ever-lasting naivete and ingenuity, and welcome their heart-warming fantasy. It helps that they were crafted by some of the most gifted artists and story-tellers that were present in the medium: Sakaguchi, Kitase, Amano, Naora, Minaba, Uematsu. These authors breathed life into these childish incantations, making adolescents’ imagination soar high with those beautiful, magical sceneries that the world could never see unless for the power of digital art. But though our hearts cry with joy at the sights and sounds of many old chapters, they shriek in horror when faced with the XIIIth! Why is this?

Some think we are too old to indulge in such infantile musings [like our dear friend dieubussy or Carless]. Such an idea seems puzzling, not just because older J-RPG’s still click today with many of us, but also because other mediums have consistently shown that family entertainment directed at children is possible. So much literature, film and music is non-age specific, despite apparently being directed at young ones, that one must question why such a reality is not possible in video games. Are we really that old not to appreciate a light fantasy story? We aren’t, and yet “Final Fantasy XIII” makes us squirm. Why? Is it the clear-cut plot? The plastic theatricality of anime aesthetics? The combat system, high on acrobatic thrills, yet devoid of meaningful strategy and, in a clear step backwards from “XII”, also absent of naturalistic control and animation, drowned in decades of turn-based prejudice? Are these elements worse than they were 10 years ago? Somehow the memory of past titles, however tainted by nostalgia, inclines us to say: these are worse in every possible way.

Perhaps it is just the fact that technology has opened doors that current age video-game creators still are not adept at exploring. Just as “Final Fantasy X” botched the expressive potential of adding voice-acting, maybe “Final Fantasy XIII’s” creators just didn’t know how to fill with detail that which once bloomed with mystery and so powerfully ignited the hidden corners of our imagination. But even that doesn’t explain everything. Because, not only does “Final Fantasy” avoid and even contradict welcome evolutions to basic video-game language – such as a predominance of spatial metaphors and real-time dynamics – as it seems crafted for audiences far less demanding than those of past titles. Impoverished storyline and characters, gun-crazy action sequences, fast beat soundtrack and sugar-caned visuals are all elements that mar the experience of a proper fantasy tale, making it only fully digestible by those with short attention spans, spoiled by the frantic plethora of inputs that governs this information age. Nonetheless, we remain in doubt. We know not why “Final Fantasy XIII” does not resonate with us. Perhaps for all the aforementioned reasons, or perhaps for none at all. But one thing we take for certain in the midst of these questions: “Final Fantasy XIII” isn’t good. Despite the big budget and technical finesse we’ve come to associate with Square’s productions, the game simply lacks the fine artistic craftsmanship of the past, and thus it no longer represents the standard by which all J-RPG’s should be measured. And of that, let no doubts remain.