January 2010


Last time I discussed Ghost Stories, a cooperative struggle against the evil spirit Wu Feng and his seemingly endless hordes of ghostly minions. There is only one way to win Ghost Stories, and three ways to lose. The game is hindered by a reliance on randomness, especially as more players become involved, which can turn some players against it. Fortunately, the recent expansion, White Moon, addresses some of these problems.

There is still only one way to win, although there are even more possible incarnations of Wu Feng that might turn up. White Moon even adds one more way to lose, but it makes one of the previous loss conditions a little less likely and — more importantly — adds a bunch of new tricks to help the taoists in their struggle. Finally, it also adds new ghosts and one new village tile; one random tile will not be included in the village when you set up), and ten (additional) cards are randomly removed from the Ghost Deck prior to adding the Incarnation(s) in order to keep the numbers consistent. Which ghosts are — and are not — included can have a dramatic impact on how the game plays, which keeps the game fresh.

The main addition to the game are two dozen villagers inhabiting the previously mostly-empty hamlet. Eight stacks of three villager tiles are placed on the shop tiles (only the top villager is face-up), with the ninth tile (recommended to be the center tile for most plays) housing a Portal through which villagers can be sent in order to rescue them. The villagers come in families that range from one to three members; rescuing an entire family bestows that family’s boon to the active player. Many of these boons are powerful artifacts that grant additional abilities (some of them one-shot, others continuous), while additional Qi, Tao Tokens, or other benefits are also possible. Unfortunately, each villager that dies inflicts a curse on the poor taoists, some of which can be very nasty — including immediately calling forth one of the unused incarnations of Wu Feng (this is the curse of the Wu family, appropriately)! If twelve villagers are killed, then the players lose the game.

Villagers die in one of several ways. The most direct is via a new ability of the ghosts that “devours” one every time it happens. If a tile that would become haunted contains villagers, then all of those villagers are killed instead (and each of their curses applied) and the Haunter re-sets as normal; villagers are aware of the threat posed by Haunters and the closest revealed villager to a Haunter will run away the first time it advances… but if they can not run (because the tile they would run to is haunted, non-existent, or already containing its limit of three villagers), then they die. Finally, one of the villagers’ curses it to kill another villager (not to mention one family that haunts their tile upon death). When not running away from Haunters, villagers can move along with taoists as long as the destination tile is not already full. Taoists on the Portal’s tile can use their action to rescue the top villager of that tile’s stack. Finally, the Graveyard tile (if present and not containing three villagers already) can resurrect a slain villager.

One other villager who assists the taoists is the spirit of Su-Ling, who gave her life to secure the ashes of Wu Feng so long ago. Whenever something bad happens to the players — a villager dies, a tile becomes haunted, or the Curse Die is rolled (even if it yields a blank result), then Su-Ling may be placed at the end of that turn. Su-Ling neutralizes the center ability of whichever ghost she is placed in front of: Haunters do not advance, Tormentors do not force the Curse Die to be rolled, etc.. While she cannot be placed in front of the mighty Wu Feng, this is still an incredible ability that can buy the players a ton of time, but that’s not the limit of Su-Ling’s powers. If she is placed next to a corner tile and there is no Moon Crystal on the pedestal next to her, she can place one there from the reserve.

Moon Crystals can also be obtained via the Herbalist village tile (if present), defeating certain ghosts, or via one of the family rewards. Players can place them on the pedestals if they end their turn on an appropriate corner tile or spend them as if they were Tao of any color (although they cannot be shared on other players’ turns like actual Tao). If all four pedestals contain Moon Crystals, then after the active player’s turn there is a special Mystic Barrier phase.

Starting with the player (or board) to the left of the active player, the Mystic Barrier can either consume a Moon Crystal to rescue a villager (if none are present at the Portal then the player may choose any revealed villager to rescue) or roll all four Tao dice (including the grey die normally only rolled by one of the powers of the green taoist) against all of the ghosts on that board; remaining Moon Crystals can be spent as if they were wild Tao, but regular Tao and any reroll abilities of the taoist (including artifacts) are not applied — and nor are the curse/rewards of any ghost exorcised in this manner. Once all four boards have had their Mystic Barrier phase, any unspent crystals and Su-Ling are returned to the reserve. My group has dubbed this the “spirit bomb,” and the destruction it can wreak on the ghosts is significant — and if along the way you happen to rescue the family whose boon is to erect the Mystic Barrier, you get to do it again! 

It’s amazing how much more I appreciate Ghost Stories when played with the White Moon expansion. Su-Ling is invaluable in containing threats while you deal with more pressing matters, and rescuing villagers isn’t as much of a distraction as it would seem at first glance. Being able to “sacrifice” three (or fewer) villagers to delay a haunting is also surprisingly effective in buying you more time to deal with threats, although you do run the risk of a nasty backlash from the curses. Without the expansion, Ghost Stories is a game of attrition and heavily luck-dependent; with it, strategy takes a much stronger role in determining the outcome, although a nightmarish shuffle can still smack you around. I won’t go so far as to say you shouldn’t play without White Moon under any circumstances (you should at least do it once, if only to have a “before” frame of reference), but I know I’m never going back to playing without it.

ModNation Racers, set for release this Spring, has been called “LittleBigRacer” for its similarity to Media Molecule’s customizable platformer. Shawn Vermette and Graham Russell spent a lot of time with the beta so they could give you a preview of the upcoming title.

Shawn Vermette: I went into ModNation Racers without high expectations. I love kart racers, mainly because of Mario Kart, but the big focus of the game seemed to be on customization, which I’m not a big fan of. I love the idea of customization…I just rarely put the time or effort into customizing things. So consider me impressed when I tell you that I believe ModNation Racers could be the closest anyone has gotten to creating a kart racing game that is as fun and addictive as Mario Kart Wii.  READ MORE


January 31, 2010


Bayonetta has become the topic of so much attention due to its over-sexualized, sassy main character.  Regardless, Bayonetta is an incredibly well-crafted action game with technical combat, responsive controls, and a memorable main character oozing with personality.  Director Hideki Kamiya has successfully created a game so fluid and subtly complex that it will channel memories not only of great action games but also of the most technical fighting games.

Bayonetta’s story is based around the idea of two clans, the Umbra Witches (dark clan) and the Lumen Sages (light clan).  There was a big war and all the Umbra Witches were killed off, except for Bayonetta herself.  The story is so insane and ridiculous I almost can’t explain it with real human words.  Absurd story aside, the characters inside it are wonderful, most especially Bayonetta herself who has a never-ending supply of personality and fantastic on liners. 

Honestly, you aren’t going to sit down and play this game for its deep and interesting story.  Instead, the reason this game needs to be experienced is a deep and satisfying combat system that feels really refreshing for the third-person action game genre. The action is fast, constant and satisfying, making the story a means to transition the action from one interesting environment to another.  The game is simultaneously simple to pick up and start playing and complex to really master.  It makes the combat in games like Devil May Cry and God of War seem boring and trivial by comparison.  Combos and dodging are among your most important initial concerns with more advanced techniques like interrupting a combo to dodge and moving back into that combo (dodge offsetting) offering a higher level of complexity for the dedicated player. 

Dedication is key here, because this game is not meant to simply be played once and set aside.  Your first trip through Bayonetta’s world will be difficult and filled with terrible scores at the end of each chapter.  The game is begging you to play it again for better times and higher scores.  It gives the player that old arcade feeling of wanting to get in and play a chapter again and again to increase that final score.  With a sentiment of “on to the next one” in games now it feels good to be presented with a title that screams to be played over and over again.  At first the game feels a bit punishing (even on normal difficulty), but as you spend time with Bayonetta, you quickly realize the adjustments you need to make to perform better.  The action never feels unfair and offers a slew of difficulty levels to allow the player to adjust the experience. 

It has been quite some time since I’ve felt this much satisfaction completing a game.  Not since Devil May Cry 3 has an action game brought a smile to my face like Bayonetta has.  The story may be a throwaway but the action and main character more than make up for a subpar narrative experience.  If you enjoy action games you owe it to yourself to spend some time with my favorite hair witch.

Pros: Satisfying, complex combat system, fun and witty main character.

Cons: The narrative is terrible. You won’t like this if you already hate action games.



Twin Sector

January 31, 2010

Twin Sector will seem immediately familiar to anybody that plays it. Ashley, the player character, has two powers, one blue and one orange, that she must use to traverse levels seemingly designed for no purpose other than to kill her. And the force pushing you from room to room and task to task? A sentient AI. Everything takes place in first-person, and physics puzzles are the game’s selling point. If you didn’t know better you’d think I was describing Portal. Unfortunately, Twin Sector does its best to replicate Valve’s hit game and comes up short in every regard.

The story is forgettable and serves as nothing more than an excuse to run level after level of physics puzzles. This wouldn’t be too bad if the puzzles were interesting, but OSCAR kills any sense of accomplishment by telegraphing the solution to puzzles while describing them. This turns what should be a cerebral experience into a precision one. I feel much better about completing a challenge when the point is figuring out the solution and not figuring out exactly how to implement the solution. Loose control and jumpy physics don’t help matters any. If you ever need to stack boxes on one another be prepared to try and retry what should be an exceedingly simple task.

Instead of creating a matches pair of portals, Ashley wears a matched set of glove. One attracts object while the other repulses them. This makes travel a breeze as you can just charge up the attract glove, aim at a glove, and be zipped across the room. You will spend a fair amount of time grabbing barrels and then throwing them at buttons across a chasm or grabbing crates and throwing them at turrets. Well, that’s what you’re supposed to do anyway, but aiming is made difficult by the size of the crates and how much they block your view. The crates are near-indestructible though so they make good shields so all you really need to do is grab a crate, walk in the general direction of a turret, and wait until you hear it fall over to win. 

What is truly aggravating about the whole experience is that there is a good idea underneath the sub-par gameplay and lackluster presentation. The puzzles need to be more about thought that execution. OSCAR, the AI, could have been an interesting character, but the voice acting leaves him feeling flat, uninspired, and boring. I understand that OSCAR is a computer, but SHODAN, Cortana, and GLaDOS have shown us that AI doesn’t have to mean boring. Twin Sector is the culmination of many good but poorly implemented ideas. I can’t recommend it to you, but I am eagerly awaiting the sequel because it could be great with the kinks worked out.

Pros: Interesting ideas

Cons: Doesn’t live up to its obvious inspiration (Portal)

Plays Like: Portal


Drawn to Life: The Next Chapter is the next in a unique series from an up-and-coming studio. It’s the first Wii game made by 5th Cell, so it was interesting to see how they would continue their history of unique games while adapting to a new console. 

Drawn to Life: The Next Chapter’s story begins with the Raposa, the inhabitants of the world of Drawn to Life, noticing that one of their number is missing along with a number of objects from around town. A Hero is required to help track down the person responsible for the thefts and this is where your drawing first comes in.

Of course, the biggest feature of Drawn to Life: The Next Chapter is drawing your own hero and drawing various other parts of the world. If you are a good artist, then you’ll enjoy having your creations populating the world and watching your masterpiece of a hero travel through the levels. If you aren’t, well, then I hope you enjoy watching grotesque caricatures of animals travel around the levels. I fit into the latter category, and none of the things I drew looked anything like what they were supposed to look like. Luckily, you’ll often have the option of just using a model, if you aren’t a good artist.

The actual gameplay is fairly standard for a side-scrolling game; you’ll beat enemies, jump across platforms, and collect coins and various other objects until you finish the level.

The graphics are all 3-D despite this essentially being a 2-D platforming game, which is a really nice touch. However, all the objects you draw into the world are 2-D. This tends to make them stand out from the rest of the graphics, and not necessarily in a pleasant way. The music is catchy, though none of it is overwhelmingly good.

A couple other things of note is that the production values are clearly present in the game. It is obvious from the get-go that this isn’t just another Wii game, it had real effort put into it. On the other hand, the loading times are ridiculous. Loading between levels makes sense to me, but having to reload the level every time you draw some new creation or object is just silly.

Overall, this is a worthwhile sequel to the original. It is well-made and an enjoyable side-scroller. If you enjoyed the original on the DS, you’ll enjoy Drawn to Life: The Next Chapter. If you didn’t enjoy it, then there’s no reason to consider this one either. 

Plays Like:  Previous Drawn to Life games

Pros: Can draw many things in the game

Cons: Have to draw many things in the game; Loading times are tedious and far too common