Soul Sacrifice Review

Soul Sacrifice’s penchant for mindful action distracts from its occasionally repetitive quests.

The Good

  • Forces you to make interesting decisions
  • The original and gloomy visual style stands out
  • A plethora of intriguing characters and side stories.

The Bad

  • Repetitive mission challenges
  • The main storyline falls flat in the middle.

Many games require decision making, but Soul Sacrifice emphasizes choice more than most. Everything, from the abilities you possess to the monsters you battle, is subject to choice: to save or to sacrifice? This notion is ingrained in both story and character progression, presenting you with limitations and dilemmas that make this grim monster-hunting game very appealing. Decision making alone isn’t the only reason to give Soul Sacrifice a try. It’s rich with evocative characters, has creatively fiendish enemy designs, and is coated with an effective layer of gloom and doom. Pleasingly, the captivating presentation and narration overshadow the game’s repetitive tendencies, and the weight of every decision makes the otherwise straightforward action a truly thought-provoking affair.

This flesh-chucking monstrosity is but a taste of the horrors within.

This flesh-chucking monstrosity is but a taste of the horrors within.

Before your journey begins, you’re locked away in a cage made from flesh and bone, awaiting sacrifice at the hand of the ultimate sorcerer, Magusar. A mysterious book, the chatty Librom, emerges from the remains of the sorcerer’s last victim. Part necronomicon and part snarky companion, Librom is your portal to the past of Magusar’s former partner, and through it, you experience Magusar’s rise to power. As the game’s quest hub, customization menu, and glossary, it’s an inventive approach that suits a portable game quite well. The lack of an overworld is odd at first, but since you’re a prisoner, it makes sense in context.

While reliving the life of a sorcerer once sworn to hunt possessed humans and animals, your primary charge is simple: defeat and sacrifice your enemies in order to rid the land of foul beasts. You trudge through rotten wastelands to frozen caves, casting spells, pummeling enemies, and dodging incoming attacks while managing your limited pool of resources. Every mission has clear-cut conditions; you must defeat a set number of common enemies, locate hidden items, or topple horrific archfiend juggernauts. In order to surmount the often difficult campaign missions, you’re often forced to beef up your character by undertaking optional Avalon Pact missions. This is unfortunate, since most Avalon Pact missions lack challenge or variety, especially in the first half of the game. It’s a blessing, then, that there are so many interesting side stories peppered throughout to distract you from the repetition at hand.

You head into every mission with a set of six abilities, or offerings, ranging from melee weapons to summon spells. You start with a small selection, but every mission rewards victory with new offerings based on your performance. An offering can turn your arm to stone, heal your party, trap your enemy, and even stop time. Without a stock of offerings, all you can do is run. Offerings can be used only a certain number of times during the course of a single quest, though sacrificing enemies and tapping into one-time-use environmental pools lets you replenish an individual offering’s cast count. If, however, you get sloppy and sacrifice all of a particular offering during the course of a mission, you must wait until the end before replenishing your ability to use it.

Decisions, decisions.

Decisions, decisions.

Coordinating the relationship between your various offerings is critical during the challenging archfiend battles, and losing access to just one is often enough to tip the scales in your enemies’ favor. You could carry more than one of a particular offering into battle, but it’s better to diversify your capabilities. Thankfully when you possess multiples of a single offering, you can sacrifice the extras to boost the cast count of another. Like most actions in Soul Sacrifice, this action carries ramifications. The decision to boost an offering’s cast count diminishes your resources for fusion, a process that lets you create completely new and advanced offerings. Fusing offerings isn’t critical to success, but it gives you a chance to delve a little deeper into the elemental variations for most of your existing inventory.

Once an enemy is defeated, it’s up to you to choose whether to save or sacrifice its soul, permanently boosting either your stamina or strength stat, respectively. Souls also act as replenishments during battle: sacrifices refill some of your offerings, and saved souls restore a bit of health. The decision usually comes down to your needs at the time, but the smart player will take the time to coordinate their decisions. Since your choices effect skill levels, you may find that too many snap decisions shape your character’s traits in ways you never intended. However, outside of a few pivotal instances, your decision bears little weight on the story at large.

While you don’t have equipment in the traditional sense, you can equip sigils, which are symbols carved into your right arm. When you defeat enemies and absorb their soul shards, new sigils are unlocked. Each sigil has two conditions attached, but the second becomes active only when you’ve struck the proper balance between sacrificing and saving your enemies, reflected by the affinity of your arm, and determined by your tendency to save or sacrifice.

Maybe if I play dead, the centaur-carriage will leave me alone.

Maybe if I play dead, the centaur-carriage will leave me alone.

Like gathering new offerings for fusion, you may find yourself in the unfortunate position of having to grind through old missions to acquire the right ingredients to produce a new sigil. That’s not so bad, but limiting certain abilities to your arm’s affinity seems unfair given how it’s managed. You have to spend resources on lowering your life or magic levels, and then replay missions in order level up the opposite levels. Sacrificing items and resources is one thing, but asking the player to sacrifice hours of hard work takes the notion of sacrifice a bit too far for the game’s own good, especially when you consider the repetitive nature of most missions.

Soul Sacrifice’s penchant for mindful action distracts from its occasionally repetitive quests.

By Peter Brown

Thomas Was Alone Review

Thomas Was Alone humanizes nondescript squares, creating an affecting and satisfying adventure.

The Good

  • Creative storytelling with lifelike characters
  • Inventive obstacles require smart coordination
  • Cohesive soundtrack and visual design.

The Bad

  • Rarely offers challenge.

Human beings suffer from loneliness far too frequently. But whereas such a feeling is all too common for the average person, it’s a profound development when it surfaces in Thomas Was Alone. Artificial intelligence isn’t supposed to exhibit human emotions, so when Thomas is stricken with these desperate pangs, he proves there’s much more to him than lifeless 1s and 0s.This charming adventure heads to the PlayStation Network after debuting on the PC last year, and the puzzling journey of colorful quadrilaterals remains just as fresh and poignant as before.

Thomas is one lonely rectangle.

Thomas is one lonely rectangle.

Everything starts with Thomas. A rogue artificial intelligence in a program gone awry, Thomas unexpectedly gains consciousness in a foreign land. Slowly, he becomes cognizant of his abilities. He can slide across the ground, fall dizzying heights without taking a scratch, and hop over moderate obstacles. It’s not much, but the stages he finds himself in gradually grow more complex, forcing him to jump with more precision or worm his way up foreboding passageways. Once he orients himself with his surroundings, he happens upon a friend, and Thomas is no longer alone.

Every new character you meet in the adventure is either a square or a rectangle, each sporting different abilities you have to harness. Chris is not much use early on. The other characters have to form makeshift bridges, ladders, and barges to get him safely to the exit, but he eventually makes his worth known. That small passage, a mere sliver in a rock face, is too narrow for anyone to fit in but Chris. You might have cursed him earlier for slowing the group down, but you find that he’s indispensable at times. Even the less-abled characters have a purpose, and you want to help them not only to usher them to the next stage, but because you grow attached to them.

Rising water is no match for the buoyant Claire.

Rising water is no match for the buoyant Claire.

Strong writing creates strong bonds. Narration plays out during the action, so you listen to a voice-over explaining the mind-set of one or more of the characters as you jump up platforms and avoid spikes. At times you laugh, such as when the deluded Claire believes her ability to float makes her a superhero, but mostly you get absorbed in their stories. The shapes who yearn for companionship make you appreciate their humanity while the ones who want to be alone have a quiet strength. At certain points, a character is lost in a portal and the desperate cries from his or her companions resonate. There’s a strong narrative foundation that meshes wonderfully with the action, creating a gripping adventure that continually draws you deeper into the tale.

Characters join and leave your party without so much as a goodbye. But you can’t lament their loss for long; you must carry on. Switching between characters is necessary to complete stages because even the surest jumper cannot complete this journey alone. You may have to stack blocks to give a boost to a less athletic character, or pile the whole group on the back of the lone swimmer in your group. Different characters and obstacles do a great job of giving variety to the challenges that stand before you. Eventually, gravity becomes a suggestion rather than a law, spikes become as dangerous as the acidic water, and jet streams prove that blocks are not the slightest bit aerodynamic. If squares had toes, the characters would surely be kept on them.

The inventiveness is always welcomed, but ideas aren’t fully realized before a new one is introduced. Because of that quick transition and the smooth difficulty curve that comes with every new obstacle, there is rarely any genuine challenge to force you to pause and reflect. Thomas Was Alone is a puzzle platformer where you’re rarely stumped. The character traits are so straightforward, and the obstacles present danger in only one way, so you almost always know exactly what you need to do to progress, and it’s just a matter of rounding up the cubes and setting off. This easiness doesn’t detract from the experience while you’re playing, because you care about getting your friends to safety, but their victorious shouts don’t resonate quite as strongly given that it took such little effort to complete these tasks.

Following gravitational laws is for squares.

Following gravitational laws is for squares.

The singular focus of Thomas Was Alone is admirable. Every element ties wonderfully together, creating a cohesive experience that never stumbles. The incisive narration successfully covers a wide range of emotions. From sarcasm to desperation and anger to hopefulness, these diminutive blocks embody a strikingly complex array of personalities. A dynamic musical score further complements this refreshing adventure. The songs effortlessly drift from somber to uplifting, matching the tone set by the steadfast narrator. There is so much life breathed into this simple-looking adventure that you forget that you’ve befriended a group of rectangles rather than fully realized humans.

Thomas Was Alone is a modest adventure that makes great use of its sparse elements to draw you in. In the transition to the Vita, touchscreen functionality has been added that makes swapping between characters much easier. Furthermore, there’s downloadable content for those who don’t want this journey to end. For $2 more, you get 20 new levels, along with new narration and music that’s just as exquisite as what accompanied the main adventure. Dexterity rather than ingenuity is needed to progress, which gives these new levels a more action-heavy slant than Thomas’ cerebral story. Short and sweet without any filler, Thomas Was Alone is a worthwhile experience that rises above its basic mechanics to prove heartfelt and engaging in unexpected ways.

By Tom Mc Shea

MLB 13: The Show Review

A scrunched-down version of its big-brother PlayStation 3 game, MLB 13: The Show for the PS Vita offers good, not great, handheld baseball.

The Good

  • Continues to offer a ton of options
  • Plays a great game of baseball on the diamond, with superb pitcher-batter duels
  • Addictive Road to the Show mode of play
  • Cross-platform support to take your PS3 cloud saves on the road.

The Bad

  • Mechanics like Pulse Pitching not properly scaled down for Vita
  • Long load times and visual slowdown.

Compare the backs of the boxes, and MLB 13: The Show looks pretty much identical on both the PlayStation 3 and PS Vita. Get into the actual games, however, and some substantial differences pop up when it comes to playability. Where the PS3 game is the real deal, another fantastic baseball game that walks the line better than ever between simulation realism and on-the-diamond action, the handheld Vita version falls short in a few key areas. You get a very good game of baseball here, due to the huge number of options and attention to detail in every aspect of hitting, pitching, and fielding. Still, scrunching the big-brother console version down to handheld size causes a few problems that feel like they could have been avoided.

Want to take The Show on the road? The Vita version lets you access PS3 cloud saves.

Want to take The Show on the road? The Vita version lets you access PS3 cloud saves.

For the most part, however, MLB 13 plays pretty similarly on both systems. Virtually all of the modes of play have been shifted to the Vita mostly intact. So you get all of the core experiences that the game has to offer, including franchise and season play, online options, the role-playing Road to the Show, and the new Postseason playoffs and The Show Live (which lets you follow the real 2013 Major League season as it unfolds). Beginner mode is available as well, providing a good if overly simplistic entry to video game baseball for rookies. Ad hoc mode is available for local multiplayer. Just about everything has been cut back, though. Animations aren’t as varied on the field. Broadcast booth commentary is down to the odd line from play-by-play man Matt Vasgersian. Player creation options have been reduced, so you don’t have as many little frills to tweak when crafting your wannabe in Road to the Show.

These cuts don’t initially seem like huge sacrifices to make for the big plus of portability. But the omissions are notable if you’re also playing the PS3 version, and they add up over time to give you the impression that this is something of a cut-rate edition of the game. You might find this perfectly acceptable, especially when you want to link up with the PS3 version of the game and download games from the cloud on the road. (Direct play between the platforms is supported only in Home Run Derby mode.) It is undeniably nifty to catch up on a few games with your Road to the Show guy when away from home or when your main gaming TV in the living room is being occupied by other folks in the household.

The game looks great, but has a tendency to slow down when a lot is happening at once.

The game looks great, but has a tendency to slow down when a lot is happening at once.

In spite of being stripped down in comparison to its big brother, The Show feels as though it still bit off more than it could chew. Load times are quite long, especially when playing Road to the Show with a position player where you’re taking only a few at-bats and fielding attempts in each game. Visual details overload performance, as well. The great-looking graphics and countless animations crammed onto the card slow the frame rate down. There are no big hitches, but the consistent frame slowdown is noticeable, especially in the field.

Getting down on the diamond lets you forget about some of these problems. MLB 13 plays a very good, very addictive game of baseball. Pitching and batting are very challenging and realistic. You have to work your pitches on the mound and pay close attention when in the batter’s box. The pitcher-batter duel is uncannily realistic. You regularly get into wars, trying to fool batters with pitch type, placement, and speed. And then you get into the same battles on the other side of the equation, fighting off enemy hurlers doing the same thing to you when you’re at bat. Ball physics are brilliantly realized. The ball always moves in a realistic fashion, whether coming off the bat, coming out of a shortstop’s hand, or ricocheting off the pitcher’s skull.

A scrunched-down version of its big-brother PlayStation 3 game, MLB 13: The Show for the PS Vita offers good, not great, handheld baseball.

By Brett Todd

Guacamelee! Review

Guacamelee! is so full of personality and challenging gameplay that it’s a shame it ever has to end.

The Good

  • Charming characters and dialogue
  • Flashy and nuanced hand-to-hand combat
  • Fantastic use of color
  • Great balance of comedy and drama.

The Bad

  • Mildly repetitive enemy designs and encounters.

Retro-game-homages are as popular as ever, but too many fail to capture the magic of their inspirations. To call Guacamelee! anything other than an homage is downright uninformed. However, it’s surprising just how well it manages to both cite its source material and use those inspirations to form a game with a fresh and distinct identity. Those in the know will quickly recognize hints of Metroid, The Legend of Zelda, and even Portal, but these references never quite dominate the unlikely setting of a dimensionally disturbed re-creation of rural Mexico. They’ve inspired parts of the world, and to a larger extent, the gameplay, but Guacamelee stands tall thanks to its brilliant art style, witty writing, and a steady pace, of which the biggest flaw is that the fun comes to an end sooner than any game of this caliber should.

No time for tequila; Juan's a man on a mission.

No time for tequila; Juan’s a man on a mission.

Your adventure starts simply enough. As Juan Aquacave, a humble agave farmer and tequila distiller, your rise to luchadore-dom is fueled by the kidnapping of an old acquaintance turned recent love interest, the nameless daughter of El Presidente. The kidnapper from the Land of the Dead, Carlos Calaca, strikes during the Dia de los Muertos festival. Juan is ultimately banished to the Land of the Dead by Calaca; here, he meets the Guardian of the Mask, who bestows the legendary luchadore relic unto the humble farmer. Forthwith, Juan’s resurrected into the Land of the Living as a superpowered luchadore and sets off after his kidnapped love. Apart from the luchadore-themed wrapping, the damsel-in-distress scenario is a tired trope, to be sure, but the trite conflict between hero and kidnapper is merely a catalyst. It gets the game rolling, but the real driving force is Juan’s growth as a superhero.

His 2D crusade sees you ascending mountains, exploring caverns, and platforming among the tree-tops, but you’ll spend a lot of time smacking enemies around and tossing them into blunt objects along the way. From these two types of attacks spring dozens of opportunities for tactical and offensive variety. Combo attacking and juggling enemies in midair are encouraged, and the right approach lets Juan take out a half-dozen enemies before touching the ground. His skill set evolves so rapidly that it’s largely up to you to discover his hidden potential, but the game is good about teaching you the fundamentals of each maneuver by ramping up the challenges accordingly after each acquisition.

Sorry El Bano, you asked for it.

Sorry El Bano, you asked for it.

New moves and abilities are earned by discovering Choozo statues (blatant references to Metroid’s Chozo statues) strewn about the world. They belong to a grumpy yet affable goat shepherd, Juan’s eventual sage-like sensei, who imparts the knowledge of moves such as Olmec’s Headbutt and the Goat Climb, the likes of which expand your ability to explore your environment and manhandle esqueletos. Combat truly shines once you learn to zip up a wall, dash to uppercut an oncoming enemy, and toss their body into encroaching reinforcements, a delight that rarely gets old. Whether it’s the promise of new abilities, a laugh, or Juan’s next rumble, there’s always something in Guacamelee just around the corner that grabs your attention.

Though the progression of locales and challenges are paced well, accented by charming music and expressive colors, there are occasional dips when the action feels uninspired relative to the world around it. These moments are easy to spot: rather than introduce a new type of challenge, the game simply throws more enemies on the screen. Sometimes, it’s the small number of enemy types in a given area that contribute to the sense of repetition. Thankfully, these moments are usually fleeting.

Juan hates skeletons, but he especially hates conquistador skeletons.

Juan hates skeletons, but he especially hates conquistador skeletons.

A few hours into your adventure, in a touch reminiscent of the action platformer Outland, Juan earns the ability to teleport between the lands of the living and the dead. The two worlds bring different moods and experiences to the table, defined by their respective soundtracks and color palettes, but certain enemies and objects are hidden between dimensions as well. The ability to alter your surroundings is an increasingly important component of combat, and it turns already difficult platforming sections into true tests of reflexes and intuition.

Though it demands precision, Guacamelee hardly punishes failure. In fact, it practically encourages you to take chances by being so forgiving. When Juan plummets off a cliff or platform, he’s magically whisked back to safety without penalty. If he happens to run out of health, he’s revived at the last checkpoint, the frequently encountered shops that auto-save your game and refill Juan’s health. Guacamelee’s meager consequences keep the action moving at a steady clip, but considering the exacting nature of the game’s design, you can’t help but feel that there should be some penalty for sloppiness. No game should rely on punishment to determine the length of the experience, but in the case of Guacamelee, the lack of expendable lives or a game-over state contributes to the unfortunate brevity of Juan’s tale.

Up, up, and away, esqueleto scum.

Up, up, and away, esqueleto scum.

Defeating the game once opens the hard difficulty setting, but the lure of collectibles may be reason enough to revisit earlier sections of the game. If it were only to fulfill obsessive-compulsive tendencies, backtracking may not seem particularly important, but by hinting at multiple endings, the underwhelming default conclusion justifiably compels your continued search. Your newfound abilities go a long way toward uncovering all of Guacamelee’s secrets, but it takes a keen eye to find every last item hidden among the caves and treetops alike.

All things considered, Guacamelee is one of the strongest games on the PlayStation Network, period. The responsive controls and a grin-inducing sense of humor make it near impossible to put down, and the expressive use of color will warm the hearts of even the most cynical among us. It’s chock-full of pop-culture references, yet it doesn’t feel patronizing when there’s a nod to your favorite 8-bit game, thanks to the provided twist of the world’s luchadore-obsessed culture. When Guacamelee isn’t trying to make you laugh, occasional moments of drama and intense action fill you with a sense of purpose and emphasize Juan’s triumphant rise to superhero status. After hitting so many high-notes, Guacamelee’s conclusion is a bittersweet farewell, but every adventure, even the best of them, eventually comes to an end.

By Peter Brown

Earth Defense Force 2017 Portable Review

Earth Defense Force 2017 Portable never gets deeper than shooting and looting, but it succeeds because it does it so well.

The Good

  • Simple and fun arcade shooter gameplay with lots of huge monsters and explosions
  • New unlockable Pale Wing character offers significantly different gameplay
  • Five difficulty modes offer plenty of replay value
  • Four-player cooperative mode makes wanton destruction even more fun.

The Bad

  • Simplicity and repetition of core shooting gameplay grow tiresome in long sittings
  • Too pricey at $40.

Earth Defense Force 2017 has a lot of bugs. They rear their ugly heads just seconds after you select one of the five difficulty settings, and they hound you with increasing intensity as you progress through 60 levels. It’s a good thing, then, that they’re not the technical sort. Much as in Earth Defense Force 2017′s original release in 2007, these are bugs of the Japanese monster movie variety, the kind that scamper up tall buildings and inspire campy lines in a nation’s top generals. You spend hours and hours blasting them and the robots and spaceships that follow with bullets, missiles, and the occasional laser, and once the dust clears, you rush in to pick up increasingly beastly weapons amid the rubble of a wounded Earth. Even now, the game retains some of the problems that made it such a flawed classic in 2007, but the portability of the Vita elevates its simple, addictive thrills to new heights.

They might not look like much, but they’re sure fun to shoot.

They might not look like much, but they’re sure fun to shoot.

There’s a story of an interstellar invasion in 2017 buried under that rubble, but even in its best moments it makes cheesy sci-fi movies like Attack of the 50 Foot Woman sound as though they were penned by Nabokov. It’s best when it’s situational, spurred by the arrival of new monstrosities. Soldiers cry out, apparently astonished by the sight of a small enemy saucer even though the Rhode Island-size mothership has been hovering overhead the entire time. A newscaster shrieks as the aliens interrupt her broadcast. In the earliest moments that same newscaster announces that the government has decided to call the cranky visitors the “ravagers,” even though it’s not clear yet if their intentions are hostile or peaceful. Beyond that, though, the repeated yelps of unlucky non-player character comrades assume a regrettable monotony, although the cries of “Exterminate them!” deliver some amusement once you realize that many of the antagonists are giant ants and spiders.

And exterminate them you will. Earth Defense Force 2017 exists merely to celebrate the primal pleasures of looting, triggering explosions, and annihilating alien hordes, and therefore it wastes no time toying with stealth missions or similar undertakings that may have provided some variety. To its credit, it does this job well. You can take two weapons into battle, ranging from predictable assault rifles to non-rechargeable laser guns that cut through stacked colonies of alien ants like butter. Missiles and rocket launchers level entire buildings, whether high-rise offices or soaring skyscrapers reminiscent of Toronto’s CN Tower. Fittingly (considering the whole bug thing), Earth Defense Force 2017 thrives on lobbing swarms of ravagers at you, easing you into the fray with scattered enemies and then making you contend with onslaughts that would look at home in a clip from Starship Troopers. It even keeps you in the thick of it, since wading in among the slaughter is often the only way to pick up the scores of health, armor, and weapon upgrades that drop from your defeated enemies.

Pale Wing and the invaders don't always see eye to eye.

Pale Wing and the invaders don’t always see eye to eye.

All this was true of the 2007 release as well, but the Vita release of 2017 Vita brings with it some welcome surprises. For one, an online multiplayer component that supports up to four players fills the spot of the original’s split-screen cooperative mode, and the resulting camaraderie captures the impression of intense battles better than the original. The morsel-size missions, regarded as a slight drawback in the original, also complement the Vita’s portability by allowing quick bouts of bug slaughter while on the move. The big attraction, however, is the ability to unlock the Pale Wing soldier first seen in 2005′s Global Defense Force, whose use of a jetpack in place of the standard jump lends a welcome verticality that manages to imbue the normally ground-based gameplay with an entirely different feel. It’s a shame, perhaps, that you have to play through all 60 levels to unlock her, but she plays differently enough to keep the gameplay fun on a second playthrough.

That’s important, because that’s when the unrelenting sameness of Earth Defense Force 2017 starts to weigh heavily on the experience. It’s not a pretty game, for one, and its “remastered” graphics mark only a marginal improvement over the original’s visuals. Here, too, you find a lack of visual variety. Aside from minor differences like sunsets and the general layout, every level contains dull urban landscapes that many online teams level into oblivion within minutes anyway. The cast of enemies is frightfully limited, and boss-like encounters usually feature little more than recolored and resized versions of the normal variety of enemies. Other issues mar the experience, such as the way tanks and other vehicles move so ponderously that they encourage remaining on foot. The menus (which you can also use with a finicky touch interface) are cumbersome and outdated. The frame rate still drops when too many bugs crowd the screen at once, although it’s nowhere near as troublesome as it was in the original release.

Advanced alien technology is no match for the indomitable human spirit!

Advanced alien technology is no match for the indomitable human spirit!

And yet, for all that, EDF 2017 manages to remain good, stupid fun for hours as long as it’s not taken in one sitting. The way that stronger weapons drop only on higher difficulties encourages multiple playthroughs of the same levels for better loot, and the basics of shooting and movement take only a few seconds to master with the intuitive control scheme. It’s a pity, then, that it’s so pricey. Forty dollars is a lot to spend for such simplistic and repetitive gameplay, but its position as one of the few shooters on the Vita goes a long way toward making up for this considerable shortcoming. Couple that consideration with its highly enjoyable multiplayer component and its inclusion of a fun new playable character, and Earth Defense Force 2017 Portable emerges as a clear superior to its faulty but beloved predecessor.

By Leif Johnson

Vita Missing Out on the Holidays Doesn’t Worry Sony

PlayStation Vita

Since it became very apparent the 3DS wouldn’t immediately turn into the hit Nintendo expected it to be, the company has been urging investors to allow the system to reach its first holiday shopping season before passing judgment on it. After all, that’s the best time of the year to be selling gaming hardware. Sony, on the other hand, decided not to rush Vita out so it could benefit from the last quarter of 2011; for much of the world, the new handheld will be out in early 2012, a launch window Sony says it’s fine with.

In an interview with All Things Digital, Sony hardware marketing director John Koller called pre-orders for Vita “substantial and” indicated the wait until 2012 is due to a desire to meet demand.

“We’ve increased production materially since E3,” he explained. “We learned our lesson to make sure you have enough product.”

It’s not a guarantee that having a hardware shortage is actually a bad thing from a sales perspective. It was incredibly difficult to find a Wii for a long period of time after launch, yet it continued to sell well despite that. PS3 wasn’t quite so hard to find even though Sony tried to make it seem like it was.

Vita will launch in Japan on December 17. Three months later, on February 22, it’ll be out in North America and Europe — unless you decide to pre-order a First Edition bundle, in which case you’ll be able to get it a week early.

Koller points to the launch of the PlayStation Portable’s North American launch in March 2005, when the system sold one million units in its first week, as evidence that a launch during that part of the year isn’t a major disadvantage.

Of course, the world was much different in 2005 both in terms of the economy and the state of handheld gaming. Many would say smartphones and tablets have taken a permanent chunk out of the handheld gaming market, and it’s partially due to this that the 3DS has struggled in its first year. Koller, as you’d expect, doesn’t think it’s a problem because Vita offers something more.

“This is a larger game experience. We think we are insulated from the competition,” Koller claimed. “We love mobile games. Mobile and tablets games are additive.”

We’ll see if Koller is right once the system launches next year at $249.99 (for the Wi-Fi-only model) and $299.99 (for the 3G model).

By Chris Pereira

Sony’s E3 Press Briefing Goes Heavy on PS3 Games

If Microsoft’s E3 showing was still too entertainment-centric for your liking — despite being a bit more gaming-focused than last year — Sony’s E3 press conference spent the vast majority of its time talking about games, even if the number of games shown favored Microsoft. Like Microsoft’s briefing, there wasn’t a lot in the way of surprise game announcements, although many of the games we already knew about that were shown looked great.

Following a bit of a long-winded pat on the back of gamers, Sony launched into a reveal of Heavy Rain developer Quantic Dream’s next game, entitled Beyond: Two Souls. Aside from being visually impressive, the demo briefly showed off the performance of Ellen Page (she was silent for most of it), who will play the game’s protagonist, Jodie Holmes. It looked a lot like a Heavy Rain-style game with more action and a sci-fi element. The game was undoubtedly one of the highlights of not only the show, but the first day of E3, even if only because it felt like something different among a sea of shooters.

This was followed up with a demo of PlayStation All-Stars: Battle Royale, which is coming to Vita in addition to PlayStation 3 (and features cross-platform play, with progress able to be moved from one platform to the other). New downloadable content for LittleBigPlanet 2 was announced that allows Vita to be used as a controller (and its tilt/touch functions) for the PS3 game. This was referred to as “cross-controller” DLC, and it’s something I expect we’ll be seeing a lot more of as a way of competing with the Wii U and Microsoft’s new SmartGlass.

With 80 percent of PlayStation 3 and Vita systems said to be connected to the Internet, Sony boss Jack Tretton announced that PlayStation Plus will be getting more free games, with the first batch of 12 including Infamous 2, LittleBigPlanet 2, and Saints Row 2. These games will be rotated in “all the time,” giving Plus members an “instant games collection” for $5 per month. What’s even better news is that the PlayStation Vita — which, for whatever reason does not current support PS1 Classics — is finally getting that support, allowing the likes of Final Fantasy VII to be downloaded and played on its gorgeous screen.

Entertainment apps were only briefly mentioned, representing the one non-gaming portion of the briefing. Hulu Plus and Crackle are coming to Vita “soon,” joining the recently announced YouTube app.

Vita was a subject that didn’t receive as much attention as many expected. Aside from the confirmation of a portable version of All-Stars, Call of Duty was again reiterated to be coming to the system and was given a name: Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified. Nothing but a logo was shown — a curious decision for a game said to be coming this holiday season. With the launch coming that soon Call of Duty being as big as it is, you’d think Sony would want to show something to get Vita owners (and, just as importantly, potential Vita owners) excited. What they had to serve that purpose instead was the first of several Ubisoft games, Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation. A new female assassin was shown in New Orleans in the year 1768, a date during the same period that Assassin’s Creed III proper covers. The game has been built from the ground up for the platform, a positive thing to hear for Vita fans looking for more original content they can see for themselves (rather than promises of games that may never happen — I’m looking at you, BioShock Vita).

Other than that, Vita received no attention. With the handheld market having shrunk due to mobile phones and tablets, it’s possible Sony realized the bulk of its potential success is to be experienced in the console market and wanted to focus on those experiences. There was no shortage of great-looking games for PS3, although as a Vita owner I can’t help but feel disappointed in the platform’s showing. It’s a system with a lot of potential, and it would have been nice to hear about a few more games and perhaps some system-level features Sony has in the works.

Following up the brief Liberation showing was Assassin’s Creed III. Following the demonstration at Ubisoft’s briefing earlier in the day, this time we got to see the ability to take control of a large ship that engages in combat with British vessels. Ubisoft’s Sony support continued with the first showing of the four-player co-op mode in Far Cry 3, a game that will receive DLC for free on PlayStation 3. Both games looked good, and this was almost a better showing for Ubisoft than its own briefing because it lacked any of the awkward banter its own conference was filled with. (It bears mentioning that Rayman Legends and Watch Dogs more than made up for that at Ubisoft’s showcase, though.)

Next was one of the longer portions of Sony’s briefing, and one that people are sure to be divided about. Wonderbook is the name of what amounts to an interactive book. Players have a physical book in front of them that, combined with PlayStation Move, allows for a sort of augmented reality experience. Whereas the book in front of you contains nothing, on screen it could display any number of things. A detective story is one project in the works. The more intriguing one is called Book of Spells, a collaboration with Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling. Using PlayStation Move, players learn how to cast spells.

In theory it’s an interesting idea, and the popularity of Harry Potter can’t be underestimated. The live demonstration was imperfect, to say the least, with the game failing to recognize commands several times. The hang up here is that it requires PlayStation Move, an accessory that has not turned out to be the success Sony hoped when it was first launched. It’s entirely possible this turns out to be a unit-seller for Harry Potter fans. Although it may not be of interest to the hardcore gaming audience out there, that was also true of Kinect Star Wars, and that turned out to be the second best-selling game in the U.S. during April.

As the show moved toward its conclusion, we got to see the first gameplay demonstration of God of War: Ascension, which looked tremendous visually, incredibly violent, and undeniably like another God of War game. (Whether or not that is a good thing will be a matter of personal preference. I, for one, am excited.) Toward the end, a particularly brutal sequence saw Kratos stabbing an elephant-like enemy in the head repeatedly in gruesome fashion, something that might help some to understand where our own Bob Mackey was coming from when he discussed the possibility of Ascension’s violence taking things too far.

The violence didn’t go away in the final demo of the show, which featured The Last of Us. It looked a great deal like an Uncharted game with a heavy emphasis on survival and brutal closed-quarters combat; the latter was demonstrated numerous times when we saw Joel, the protagonist, choke an enemy out, beat a man in the head with a gun, and slam another man’s head into a piece of furniture. These are things that don’t sound unusual to see in a videogame, but they felt much more graphic and visceral than they typically do, a feeling reinforced to some degree by there being a young girl (Ellie) in the vicinity as it all takes place.

Like with Microsoft, it’s disappointing we didn’t get some kind of surprise at the end — The Last Guardian, even though we’ve seen it before, would have a delight to see in that spot. Also missing from the show were the supposed cloud game announcement (so much for that providing a new reason to subscribe to PlayStation Plus) and Planetside 2 (or anything at all from Sony Online Entertainment). It is, however, hard to complain about seeing The Last of Us featured in the spot that it was; this is not typically the point in the console cycle that we see a new IP introduced, and Sony is to be praised for supporting not one, but two such games at a time where many other companies are banking almost exclusively on sequels.

By Chris Pereira

An (Admittedly Futile) Cry for Less Annualization And More Breathing Room

Prince of Persia The Forgotten Sands

It is something we see far more often than many of us would like: A game hits it big and the publisher responsible for it proceeds to annualize it or, at the very least, provide each subsequent release with little breathing room before yet another follow-up is released. The short-term rewards for doing so promote a temptation to exploit series in a way that can be harmful to the quality of the games in question and the series as a whole. Not only that, the interest in backing games with this sort of potential can make it more difficult for certain games to be released — just look at the way Activision dumped games like Brutal Legend and Ghostbusters because they didn’t “have the potential to be exploited every year on every platform with clear sequel potential and have the potential to become $100 million dollar franchises.”

Ignoring sports games, the franchises that likely come to mind first when thinking of this sort of thing include Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed. The last time we went a year without a Call of Duty game was 2004, and the last year we didn’t see a new Assassin’s Creed game on consoles was 2008. (It’s no coincidence that, in both cases, that year was the gap in between the first and second entries of the series.) Although it probably doesn’t jump to the top of your list, Prince of Persia is another series to fall victim to this sort of treatment. Though not as extreme an example as CoD or AC, the Sands of Time reboot for Prince of Persia began a six-and-a-half-year stretch that saw five games released, not counting those released for handhelds or the remake of the original. No matter how you slice it, that’s a lot of games for one series to see in a relatively short span of time.

More recently, the series has gone quiet. Since The Forgotten Sands’ release in May 2010, Prince of Persia hasn’t been heard from, save for an alleged screenshot from a new game that surfaced last year but was never confirmed as being real. The lack of news on the PoP front is apparently the result of a conscious decision on the part of Ubisoft, which has said the franchise is, refreshingly enough, on hold for the time being.

“Brand management is a tricky thing,” Ubisoft Montreal CEO Yannis Mallat told IGN. “It needs people’s attention a lot. I think it is fair to say that, right now, Prince of Persia is being paused. But we said the same thing for some other brands that suddenly popped up because a team is willing to do it.”

That qualification makes it seem as if it’s not fixated on keeping PoP on the bench for too long, but what’s important is it’s also not forcing another one out the door. Worrisome as this may be for fans, Mallat said this isn’t something that should trouble them (not that you’d expect him to say otherwise).

“I’m not scared at all for Prince of Persia fans,” he continued. “We’ll find something to entertain them with in the future. Prince of Persia is part of Ubisoft’s portfolio. As a matter of fact, we sometimes iterate on franchises and sometimes we give them time to breathe and time to grow, or time to rest. Prince of Persia is as important as any other franchise for Ubisoft. As soon as we have something to show, we will.”

Guitar Hero

It would be nice to think this move comes purely as a result of Ubisoft wanting to prevent further fatigue of the series, but in reality it’s difficult to imagine anything playing a larger factor in this than The Forgotten Sands’ lackluster sales. It would seem many publishers are unwilling to give a strong-selling series a breather until it’s too late, as was the case with something like Guitar Hero. It remains unknown whether, say, Microsoft would be willing to let Halo sit for long. The games have remained strong, but the pace of new releases in the series has picked up in recent years (as compared with its first six years, during which time only three games were released), and it’s not inconceivable that gamers will need a break at some point.

Regardless of the particulars of what will happen with Halo, Assassin’s Creed, or Call of Duty moving forward, publishers voluntarily increasing the amount of time in between sequels is something I would love to see. There’s no arguing that, in the near-term, getting a game out every year is an easy way to make a lot of money. Looking at the big picture, less frequent releases would help to prevent gamers from becoming fatigued and the series from becoming worn out. Guitar Hero may not be the best example because of the way it was tied to physical accessories, but it does illustrate what can happen even to a sales-chart-topping series if publishers are not thoughtful with the way they order sequels. There have been signs that even Call of Duty might be slowly beginning to face such a scenario despite its increasingly larger launches, and it will be especially interesting to see what ultimately happens to it in light of just how dominant it has been for the last half decade.

A decrease in the frequency franchise’s see sequels churned out wouldn’t even have to mean sacrificing all of the money these series could generate. Downloadable content allows for the life of a game to be extended and, if handled properly, would, in my mind, make for a more acceptable form of monetizing a series than frequent $60 game releases. More than that, what I’m primarily interested in is seeing the release of games and new IPs that could be developed with the time and money that’s not entirely devoted to bringing out the latest game in such a series for the Nth year in a row. The developers of these series had to come up with something great for their respective series to take off in the first place, and seeing them try their hands at something new would be wonderful. That’s part of what makes something like Bungie divorcing itself from Halo and creating something original so exciting.

Of course, this happening on any significant scale seems unlikely. Valve can essentially do what it likes because it has a huge security blanket in Steam, but also because it’s a privately held company. Publishers such as EA, Activision, and Ubisoft all have shareholders to answer to, and ensuring short-term success at the expense of long-term fatigue is sometimes deemed acceptable, particularly when the alternative — taking a chance on new, unproven games and properties — is so risky. Until that changes, something that is highly improbable, this is all wishful thinking, but that doesn’t make the idea of a world with less annualization and more originality sounds any less desirable.

By Chris Pereira

Surprise: Japanese Gamers Want to Buy a Vita

The PlayStation Vita comes out December 17 in Japan (February 22 over here), and while excitement in Japan at this moment is primarily geared toward the new 3DS Monster Hunter, that’s likely to change in a hurry once Saturday rolls around. This week’s issue of Japan’s Famitsu magazine sadly features no reviews of the Vita’s extensive launch lineup (26 games in Japan!), but they did publish a new survey where they polled visitors to their website about their purchase plans.

It’s not a surprise, perhaps, that readers are a bit more interested in the Vita than Japan’s population in general. 73.3% of responders said they intend to purchase a PS Vita on the launch date, with 19.5% saying they’d either avoid the system entirely or take a wait-and-see approach. Of those, the great majority, 68.8%, are intending to purchase the 3G/Wi-Fi version of the system, although how many of those are going to be available to non-preordering gamers on Saturday is anybody’s guess.

Perhaps more interesting is the fact that hardcore gamers seem to be a lot more interested in purchasing the Vita itself on day one as opposed to any games for it. Only 69.4% of Famitsu’s responders stated that they’d buy any games at all out of the Vita’s launch lineup, perhaps an indicator that most gamers want to nab the hardware first and foremost in anticipation of it being scarce for a while to come. Among people who did intend to make some game purchases, Uncharted: Golden Abyss (30.1%) and Hot Shots Gold: World Invitational (25.7%) were by far the preferred choices.

The Vita will feature extensive amounts of software for download out of the box, which may explain some of that. 70.7% of pollees said they would be downloading some of the software available at launch, although 74.4% stated that they’d still prefer purchasing packaged retail software for the Vita over downloading it. On the accessory side, 85.6% said they intended to purchase a memory card, with 45.9% of those aiming for the full 32GB card if they can get their hands on one.

By Kevin Gifford

PSP Game Owners Caught in Crossfire of Sony’s Vita Piracy Fight


One of the biggest problems the PlayStation Portable faced was piracy. It was absolutely rampant on Sony’s debut handheld game system resulting in developers and publishers being scared off who might have otherwise supported it. With PlayStation Vita, Sony has gone to great lengths to avoid having history repeat itself, opting to use proprietary memory cards as opposed to SD cards or the Memory Stick Duos used by PSP. Sony’s Scott Rohde described the solutions it had implemented as helping to protect the company “from piracy for the long term.” But never doubt the ability of the collective hacker/modder community, as Ars Technica reports a way has already been discovered to run software on the system that Sony did not intend — and Sony has not stood idly by while it happened.

Although it did not provide a way to suddenly run the sort of homebrew content you could on PSP, the Vita Half-Byte Loader is an open-source homebrew loader capable of running, among other things, emulators for NES, SNES, and Game Boy. This is done through a vulnerability discovered in certain PSP games which can be played on Vita (remember, not all digital PSP games are compatible with Vita at the moment). The first game announced to work with the exploit was Motorstorm: Arctic Edge; as demonstrated in the video below, it could be used to load up and play a game like Doom for PC.

Word of the game’s identity surfaced at the beginning of March. Rather than wait and release a firmware update, which was the tactic Sony typically employed in the PSP days to combat the latest exploit, the company instead removed Arctic Edge from the PlayStation Store the following day so as to minimize the number of people capable of making use of VHBL. The loader was then released to the public later in the day, and the ensuing week brought with it an explanation for the way news of the exploit was being distributed (the goal being to avoid tipping off Sony any sooner than necessary).

In the process of removing the game, certain individuals who purchased it were reportedly unable to download it and were never given a refund. You may not have a tremendous amount of sympathy for anyone purchasing a game for an exploit it contains (even if that exploit would allow the system to run homebrew content and not pirated Vita or PSP games), but it’s entirely possible someone purchased the game around that time with the intention of playing it and was not allowed to download it. That’s not to mention those who already owned the game and found themselves unable to download it, as they should be able to at their leisure, because of Sony’s war on piracy.

Another PSP game (this one, like Arctic Edge, was also incompatible with Vitas in the U.S.) capable of supporting VHBL was discovered recently and revealed over the weekend. On Sunday it was announced Everybody’s Tennis features a similar exploit allowing VHBL to be loaded up on Vita by those who own the game, with the announcement being accompanied by a facetious statement noting how it “could allow people to run software that would be extremely dangerous for [Sony's] business, such as 20 year-old 8 bit games and 154 different versions of pong.” This game, too, was almost immediately removed from the PlayStation Store in the regions it was available.

The disappearance of a few games from the PlayStation Store — which presumably will only be temporary until the exploit can be patched out — may not sound like a big deal. But there’s no telling where this could stop. Many more games may receive VHBL ports, and if each one has to be removed from PSN for an unknown period of time that could be a real annoyance to gamers, particularly those who simply want to play a game they’ve spent their money on.

It’s not the first time gamers are being affected by Sony’s desire to shut down piracy and homebrew wherever it can. Not every update released was in response to piracy, but the frequency with which the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Portable, especially, have received firmware updates can be blamed at least partially on this fight. Firmware updates were released early and often to stomp out the latest creations of the hacker community, often to only have hackers come right back with yet another workaround Sony would then have to deal with.

I understand the need to combat piracy and the like, but as is the case with DRM, when doing so comes at the expense of impacting your legitimate customers I’m not sure it is always worth it. (One anecdotal example: I know multiple people who now shy away from Sony platforms because of their experience with frequent firmware updates on PS3 and PSP.)

What would be an interesting way of dealing with Vita owners who want homebrew content is to create an official marketplace where that sort of thing could be distributed. (It’s a pipe dream, I know.) If Sony were to set up such a service it would surely have to approve of the content that gets published, making it an unattractive option for those who are most interested in the ability to play SNES games or other things Sony would not allow. But for those who just want to download and play around with others creations of modders, this might cause them to be less likely to turn to hackers who could enable them to illegally download and play Vita games, which is the last thing Sony wants.

It’s a difficult position Sony finds itself in, not wanting to inconvenience its users while also dealing with those who use its hardware to do things it doesn’t want happening. There may not be a perfect answer for how to approach this situation, and unfortunately it looks like even those uninterested in the homebrew community will continue to be affected.

[Image courtesy of Flickr.]

By Chris Pereira

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