30 January 2012

Living the next rabbit hole to Alice

Alice Liddell, a tormented young woman, punishing herself for the demise of her family, is under a psychiatrist's care. He in his infinite wisdom has encouraged Alice just to forget. "Forget is good." The Victorian London Alice lives in is a dank, dark, ugly place. And just so happens, following a stray cat, Alice escapes the smog and misery and descends into her fevered imagination, the wonderland. Instead of lush meadows and eternal sunshine though, this wonderland is a messed up, twisted place where rules of mundane life don't apply, with the infernal train corrupting the wonderland the further it steams away, waking up sickening creatures in its wake. It's up to Alice to stop the train, that is, to save herself from descending so deep into madness there can be no return. Someone would be very happy for that to happen...

This girl comes up to me, her dress red like a rose on a thorn bush, like all the colors of a royal flush... Alice gets to wear different garments for every domain in the game while in London between the levels she's gray little mousy.

Alice: Madness Returns takes place about a decade after American McGee's Alice, published for PC equally some decade ago. Mr. McGee and his Shanghai-based studio Spicy Horse, "built around artists", have taken some bold decisions, both in visuals and gameplay. Instead of some flashy, easy to digest genres which are such a riot today, the game takes place in a form of a 3D platformer with weapon-based action thrown in. And there comes the challenge, visually presented in such a bravado and dark beauty the art team must have themselves visited the wonderland they have created!

Oh, it's a straight flush! Soon a dead straight flush!

If you fumble and meet thy doom, it's always your own fault, not the controls or the game being unfair. Yes, it's hard at times, very, very hard, and the good ol' trial & error method is sometimes the rule of overcoming tougher parts. But never is Alice unfair. I understand some reviewers have mixed up challenge and unfair... Oh well, I blame it on how easy most of the modern games are. In this time and age where games practically play themselves through, a game which roots itself so much in the old school of 3D platformers comes as fresh as a nice cup of darjeeling tea served from a steaming teapot cannon.

Leaps over vast emptiness of, er, nothingness. Yes, everyday in the wonderland Alice Liddell has conjured up. 

The story which unfolds bit by bit and is written in a manner that is as funny as it's creepy and doesn't shy away from touchy subjects either, keeps you playing the vast and huge levels and overcome their deviously laid out platforms and traps. Alice, a laconic, very slightly mad girl, is voiced over perfectly, giving her pretty - in a vorpal blade wielding, psychotic kind of way - 3D image a soul.

Come closer, I promise, I won't hurt you... Oh, this knife? Well, it's for... chopping you into pieces!

I wish I had played Alice: Madness Return in the last year as I would have chosen the game as the runner-up for the game of the year as well as the best platformer, action game and best visuals. And of course the award for the best very slightly mad girl heroine. Yes. I liked the game so much. I can't recommend this to everyone though, it's almost a case of taking an artist to appreciate this art of a game. If you really want to see and feel something very different though, be free to descend into the mouth of madness of Alice: Madness Returns.


21 January 2012

Demo Watch - Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is the much touted "genre re-defining" RPG from the combined, er, talents of R. A. Salvatore, Todd McFarlane and someone who had something to do with Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and whose name I already forgot. Yes, they actually think they can better Bioware at their own game. Oh dear. I remember all too well when was the last time someone tried to re-invent the wheel in terms of epic computer-RPG's. The result was Legends of Valour by the infamous Kevin Bulmer, back in the early 1990's for PC and Amiga. The game was a complete disaster in every thinkable (and unthinkable) way.

I'm not calling Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning a complete disaster. It's just... so completely tiresome, cliched and unremarkable in every thinkable way. There is nothing which hasn't been seen before in the genre and at some levels it even turns the wheel of time counter-clockwise, like how the inventory and menus are clumsy, scrollable lists written in a crude font instead of nicely laid-out templates. As for adventuring, I can't imagine anyone taking on side quests. It's the old routine of "I'll help you if you help me". Main quest seems intriguing even though the idea of fateweavers are a laugh (and the first fateweaver you'll run into is laughably badly written and even worse acted). And may I ask, how many adventures start with a hero/heroine who has lost any trace of memory and whose fate will dictate the world? Somehow, the game feels like anti-TOR (The Old Republic, mind you), which was an offline-RPG forced into a MMORPG. This is like a MMORPG forced into an offline-RPG.

Hello, my name is Rei and I have lost my memory after being resurrected in the well of... souls, was it? Oh, and my fate will dictate also the fate of the world. But then again I met a fateweaver who told me I have no fate, so... what will that make out of the world? Maybe they should have called the game Kingdom of Amalur Has No Fate.

Let me give you an example how the world mechanics work here; at one point the whole village, guards, villagers and even quest givers, started attacking me, rendering any progress impossible. What was the heinous crime I had committed? Had I murdered someone, eaten someone's baby or burned down a house? Or... perhaps stole a candy from a child? Almost. You see, I confiscated a greater healing potion needed for one quest. And this terrible act made me public enemy #1. Yes, in Fallouts you can get on someone's bad side but you need more than a petty theft for that to happen. No wonder I was haunted by the memories of Legends of Valour...

The visuals, no doubt dabbled together on a concept table by Todd McFarlane himself (nah, more like his assistants), fail to convey anything that even resembles a shadow of an epic adventure. Colors splashed everywhere, lacklustre character models, unimaginative settings stolen from any RPG out there... And the music must come from some "epic RPG music" CD library with every note and theme heard so many times before.

Anything good? Oh yes. Rogue, my choice of class for every RPG, is fun to play. But so it was in Dragon Age II. And Kingdoms of Amalur is nothing like DAII even though it so hard tries to be. The demo wasn't a complete waste of time though. By starting it and enduring it all the way through (after finishing the opening quest and entering the world you get 45 minutes to play) I unlocked an armor and a weapon for Mass Effect 3. And some stuff for the final release of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning as well...

Woo, a conversation wheel! So... unique! What? It isn't? Yes, it isn't.