2064: Read Only Memories

Here’s an interesting point-and-click investigation game. Ace Attorney isn’t a terrible thing to liken it to, but also stuff like Policenauts, given a couple clunky shooting segments. I liked it: the characters are endearing (the voice acting varies but it’s surprising work for such a small development team), there’s some good music, and the drama–while not totally gut-wrenching or unpredictable–managed to draw me in. But to be clear, this is not a challenge or a puzzle game. You have a path to follow.

There are quite a few funny throwaway lines, but you have to do some digging through the noise to find them. For any inventory object listed in an interaction with someone or something else, there are at minimum two lines of text in response to that interaction. That means that rather than a generic “I can’t use those things together!” when you try to use your ID card on a shrub in the park, they encourage you to use your ID card on that shrub twice–and then to use your carton of milk on the shrub, and then to use the ID card on the bench next to the shrub, and… well, suddenly the game takes twice as long to finish as it would have otherwise. Luckily–and this is something I’d like to see for all games in this genre, Ace Attorney included–if there’s nothing unique written about using an object in a certain situation, it won’t appear in the list when you try. Rather, the problem is that too much is written. It’s anyone’s choice not to participate in all these shrub interactions if they just want to move forward in the game, but I don’t want to miss something, y’know? I think in the end, much of it is a waste of both the writer’s and my own time. Especially the ones that just scold me for trying to use an item on something. You’re the ones who put the button there, man.

Since there are often more than two interactions when looking at or touching some object, it may have been helpful for completionists if buttons became greyed out once a player had cycled back around to the first response again. This is a nitpick, of course, but when you’re talking about UI and experience, a lot comes down to nitpicking. I also would have moved through the game with less frustration if, say, clicks were properly detected in times where my mouse was already over an icon before it appeared. A hold-and-release approach might have been better for this mode of interaction, too; I’ll say without complete certainty that Full Throttle worked like this. You tend to click a lot more in sequence than is honestly necessary. As a final design criticism, a dedicated text skip button would have been great.

I had a pretty annoying save bug where my game wasn’t overwriting an old save reliably, which is a pretty scary thing to get wrong. Once I discovered this problem, I just decided to beat the rest of the game in one stretch so I wouldn’t lose any more progress, but I also noticed that the devs have still been patching this game over a year and half after its initial release. I’m uncertain whether to be pleased that it’s still being given care, or to be disturbed that 2064 still can’t save reliably despite that care. At the very least, I’ll send my save file in to help with the debug, if they want it.

The futuristic setting is very Shadowrun, which is alright, but it’s that kind of sci-fi that assumes the word “otaku” will be used by more people in fifty years. (I would assume, optimistically, that there will be fewer.) There are parallels with DXMD, given the mistreatment of cyborgs and people with hybrid DNA by conservative groups, but I’m generally more aligned with 2064’s political slant: they reveal who this game is made for right away, when the destitute player character is getting email offers to do freelance writing “for exposure”. And while the game doesn’t really put Silicon Valley directly in its sights any more than DXMD does, there is a small element of dystopia in the world lore when it comes to the pretty scary privatization of public infrastructure. The social politics of gender identity, pro-choice, and so on are less subtle.

It’s probably better not to delve too deeply into the story, but I didn’t have a terribly hard time figuring where I stood with the characters, or otherwise tend to be wrong when going with my gut. For instance, I found it an awfully big coincidence that Fairlight was just put in the same hospital room as the player character by chance, although that hardly gives anyone the whole picture. While distrusting Fairlight was allowed in dialogue, it did feel a bit contrived that I was forced to continue to communicate with him as the story developed anyway. The scenario might’ve better accommodated this demand by making me feel more deeply in need of his help.

I probably liked what was done with Jess the most, although that’s not quite the same as liking her personality. Her help is needed at a few points in the story, but since she’s initially rude to the player, it’s normal to respond in kind, thus making her aid a little more awkward to come by. To me, her rudeness wasn’t so much my problem as her inability to dish it out but not take it, and it was only when she started treating me like a bigot that I actually felt we’d gotten off on the wrong foot. I thought it played out well in the chapters that followed.

There’s a little bit of reactivity in these character choices as well, as some characters decide to lend their support to you, or won’t, in your final objective. Few of these differences seem to affect the outcome beyond a few friends/not friends achievements, but there are some shallow plot forks for bad ends. I only played through once–and won’t likely do so again for a long time while there’s no means of skipping text quickly–but I failed to recruit Starfucker & Oli on the basis of calling for police backup in an earlier chapter, and it seemed apparent from their dialogue that it didn’t distinguish between doing that or just frequently being an asshole in conversation, which I never did. I suspect having their full friendship doesn’t terrifically affect things either.

On the other hand, I discovered some interesting variations in how to progress through a quest at one point when I reloaded a save: I could knock a security guard out with a stun gun, or talk my way past him. There’s still only one story, but you can definitely leave your fingerprints on it. It’s not a bad story, either.

The reviewer finds this game hard to get excited about, but still has a positive opinion of it. It may be somewhat fun, having good features or ideas counterbalanced by a few boring parts, bad design or other fundamentally irritating qualities that can’t easily be overlooked. Alternatively, it could be pleasant, but with nothing new to offer. Worth a little money if you’ve got the time for it.

Deadly Premonition: The Director’s Cut

I don’t want to spend a lot of time criticizing the technical issues in Deadly Premonition, as there are many, but they ultimately don’t prevail over the charms. (Issues in design will make for a longer conversation.) So: the controls are terrible and can’t be rebound properly, the resolution can’t be changed without mods, menus will get stuck, forcing you to quit without saving under certain circumstances, and there are crash bugs that I wasted many hours trying to fix.

It got bad enough that after a couple hours of play I almost considered giving up and just finding a Let’s Play of the game instead, but I ultimately got it stable enough by undoing all the various other “fixes” I’d applied and getting through a tricky cutscene with the game in fullscreen. No crash ever set me back more than a few minutes–usually it would crash while loading after a cutscene, and I could just skip the cutscene when I tried again–but even into the epilogue I was getting the crashes. You can imagine how eager I was to save after the boss rush.

Anyone who has paid money for the game ought to feel owed another patch from its PC developers, and will probably never get it. That said, the game is fantastic as it is, and absolutely worth buying. Look into the console versions if you can–they might be safer.

Deadly Premonition is very unusual. A Japanese shooting & driving sandbox game is unusual enough, but the game can’t be described so simply. At the start it plays and feels like a bad Resident Evil clone (Deadly Premonition originally came out in 2010; Resident Evil 5 came out in 2009) but then the sandbox and Harvest Moon elements get introduced (the NPC stuff, not the farming), where you’re dealing with a small town’s cast of characters on their own schedules, waiting until the hour the grocery store opens so you can do a sidequest. The casual pacing and relaxed atmosphere are totally wrong for survival horror, which has a lot to do with why I actually enjoyed playing it. You can’t run out of bullets or get stuck somewhere with no bed or food and starve to death, which is not at all the best practice if you actually intend to stress players out. The Director’s Cut even gives the player an infinite-use golden flare item “for emergencies” which spawns a new car with a fresh tank of gas. Are we babied? Yes, but I’d rather be babied than killed over and over by a bad game, which is probably what they were thinking when they stripped out higher difficulty settings for the Director’s Cut. It’s also probably why I never had to use the “Hold Breath” stealth option outside of a cutscene, despite it being bound to Right Trigger of all things, which should’ve been my shoot button.

It’s certainly not Harvest Moon, though. It’s quite surreal, and sad. I loved the characters and cutscenes, and saw the “actual gameplay” as irritating obstacles keeping me from what I wanted to do (pretty much just running around and talking to people). Not only is the shooting bad, but also the driving: cars are either slow or they flip over when you try to turn, yet the developers incorporated turn signals and windshield wiper controls–for charm in the absence of quality, I suppose. (I’ve been there.) There are lengthy QTE sequences and those are terrible too. Even the puzzles are bad: the typical puzzle has the player slowly, tediously push blocks into obvious positions. Mentally solve them in seconds, physically solve them in minutes–that’s the opposite of how a puzzle should be.

If I could have zoomed the map out twice as far as the game had been willing to let me, it still wouldn’t have been nearly far enough. Also, I personally need a sense of North to figure out where anything is, so I was constantly confused by the map rotating as I turned around–not only on the mini-map, but also on the pause menu. There were several times that I actually turned my car to the North before pausing in order to actually figure out where the hell I was, which made me feel ridiculous. Of course there was also nothing like GPS routes, but I kind of enjoyed having to think in terms of “turn left at the gas station”–or at least I would have, if the other elements worked better. The environment was somewhat crude, but I learned Greenvale a lot better than I ever learned, say, Steelport, and oddly enough I think I enjoyed navigating it more, too.

Of course, in practice, the gameplay of even my favorite parts can be a pain, when you have to track down NPCs at specific hours, wait 24 hours for the next stage of a quest, and then have that messed up for you when it’s randomly decided to be raining that day and the stores are closed. If an NPC is roaming and you have to use the map to find them, good luck with that. If the pause menu had been reworked with a cool interface for identifying peoples’ schedules and store hours, and you had a weather forecast for the next few days, that might’ve done as much for the game as fixing combat would’ve.

There’s item collection to be done, but it consists of a set of trading cards each with its own little story, and a few infinite ammo guns and unbreakable melee weapons. (I had a little joke in my head where at the end of the game, back in the framing device, the old man turns to his granddaughter and says “And that concludes the story of how I got my lightsaber.”) The comparison between collecting 65 trading cards by talking to NPCs or doing little item-trade sidequests, and collecting 1255 little glowing orbs by jumping on every rooftop, is one that puts Saints Row IV at a profound disadvantage. That said, I disliked grabbing cards from the Other World replays, where you traipse through a streamlined version of a level you already beat to get a card that wasn’t placed there before. I think these pad the game out pointlessly with recycled environments, although thankfully it’s only 7 or 8 cards and it only takes 5 minutes to run through and grab them. No matter how they’re found, though, it remains the case that there isn’t an overwhelming number of them, and each collectible is a little charming piece of the game’s world, instead of a glowing orb or coin or banana or whatever that’s no different from the last. In that respect, Deadly Premonition represents the gold standard of item collection.

The story and characters, the dialogue, and the feel are the things that make this game appealing, though also unmistakably Japanese. York is one of the most interesting protagonists in video games–he’s definitely a little crazy, often a ridiculous Mary Sue, and routinely insufferable to everyone but himself and the player. The female characters tended to be a lot less interesting and I sometimes confused them with each other, with the exception of Emily. There were some cliches, but also subverted tropes, and without getting into specifics, I really enjoyed the vast majority of what I saw.

I have to mention one thing: York speaks to an invisible friend of sorts, largely indistinguishable from the player, whom he calls “Zach”. Right from the beginning, he asks if “Zach” can hear him, and the player gets to respond with controller input. From then on, whether he’s alone in his car, or with others in the middle of a cutscene, York often talks to “me”, about our favorite movies, about our taste of women… in a game that is already quite surreal, playing it when your name is Zach or Zack is on a whole other level, let me tell you.

While I certainly recommend the game, I think “director’s cuts” are rare opportunities to come back to a game for more than just a simple patch: opportunities which most publishers will never give to developers. But in the case of this one, as with The Witcher 2, Bravely Default, and Tactics Ogre’s enhanced PSP port (and for all I know and expect, Human Revolution and Shadowrun: Dragonfall), the director’s cut hardly gets deep into most fundamental issues in the design. It’s actually harder to name a Director’s Cut that really does address a game’s problems. But were there ever a Deadly Premonition Director’s Cut Super Ultra Enhanced Edition Turbo Revival, I can think of dozens of things I’d change–things that should’ve already been changed. But it’s obvious now that this will forever be the oddball’s game, and should be approached fondly and comfortably in that territory, rather than within the terms of what a perfect version would look like. Like a flawed old movie you still keep the VHS copy of, despite not having a VCR… something like that. This isn’t a way I’m accustomed to thinking about things, so it’s hard for me to prepare a better analogy that I can really get behind. A friend of mine might say that there there’s no need to watch Wayne’s World in 4K. That one doesn’t apply for me, because I say there’s no need to watch Wayne’s World at all. If you still laugh at Wayne’s World, you’re a simpleton and a bad person, and you’ll probably die content, and I have no respect for happy people.

This game was thoroughly enjoyed by the reviewer. It is an excellent game that may be too simple or not ambitious enough to be a 5, or there are design flaws meaningful enough to prevent it from enduring as something truly beloved. Highly recommended.

Gone Home

This was a very sweet, beautiful game. I missed a thing or two, and was left with a few lingering questions, which a bit of googling connected to interesting comments and answers.

I enjoyed the little things–Sam being a better writer than her dad; their shared taste in “men’s magazines”. It’s a non-trivial craft, to be able to write and act out these fragments and make them really endearing, but they did it. All the little school notes felt real. The riot grrrl soundtrack was another highlight for me; it helps to break away from the tried and typical sets of influences in games.

I liked how the the feeling of the house changed as you “conquered” it room by room. I had qualms at first, given that I’m a complete baby and there were some early atmospheric scares. But while those things get explained or otherwise diminished, I think they pushed too hard on the sound design. I understood intuitively from the engine/presentation style that I would never run into another living, moving thing in that house, but there was still clearly the sounds of someone dragging shit around or opening squeaky cabinets or whatever in distant rooms–Katie’s imagination getting a little carried away, maybe, but not mine; that sort of distinction shouldn’t and otherwise doesn’t exist.

Game of the Year 2013, as some have said? No. Games where you walk around in empty spaces and listen to recordings, like this and Dear Esther, are interesting experiences. Especially when the empty spaces are made with love and care and the recordings are wonderfully written and voiced. But what these types of interactions can actually accomplish is limited, at least in any way that’s useful to games and interactivity specifically, and I’m not convinced that it shows us the next big step forward for video games.

But there’s one other detail I think I can relate to demonstrate the fondness that I felt for Gone Home: it’s the only time I saw myself get a Steam trading card when I finished and quit the game–“Kicking Against the Patriarchy”–and for a second, actually entertained the notion of keeping it around in my inventory, for sentiment, instead of just selling it for a cold 16 cents, as trading cards are stupid and for babies. I sold it anyway–I don’t really care for clutter, or for badges. But even the hesitation there was new.

This game was thoroughly enjoyed by the reviewer. It is an excellent game that may be too simple or not ambitious enough to be a 5, or there are design flaws meaningful enough to prevent it from enduring as something truly beloved. Highly recommended.

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Dual Destinies

Ace Attorney 5, a cheap eShop-exclusive, shows off some of the sharpest presentation in the series to date. The music and narrative highs of Trials and Tribulations might still reign, with Godot and Dahlia and everything else that game put on the table, but in all the other various little details, Dual Destinies takes the cake, even while I wouldn’t call it an especially ambitious title.

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Structuring and mechanics
While it offers nothing quite as ingenious as the recorded, colored, sortable testimonies seen in Umineko No Naku Koro Ni Chiru – Episode 8, and while to some people the return to the simple Visual Novel presentation style might be seen as a step back from the adventure sprites of Edgeworth’s spinoff games, the cases themselves are structured better than they historically have been. I didn’t find myself thinking that my evidence was ambiguous in its relevance to whatever conundrum was currently attacking my health bar, and I rarely felt like my opinions were underrepresented, which is the greatest risk of all in debate-based gameplay (see Deus Ex: Human Revolution).

While I occasionally still felt like the little prodding hints in Phoenix’s own mind were stealing my thunder before I got to present a piece of evidence for myself, I didn’t find it especially patronizing or babying, which is another common hazard in an interactive mystery. While I could be middling out because I’ve grown more accustomed to the behaviors of Ace Attorney’s writers while my mind also isn’t as quick on the draw as it was when I was 17, I’d sooner believe that they were just more careful this time around–whether it was an extra pass of QA, or something else, it seems to have worked.

Overall the game felt easier, partly because you can save anywhere and health bars aren’t a big deal, but that’s overwhelmingly a positive change: getting rid of artificial difficulty only. Applying a bit of Knox’s Decalogue and some good faith, I was even able to predict the culprit of the final case just slightly before the game started dropping the less subtle hints and asking me to identify that person. That felt good, especially given how absurd it was–it felt like the way a victory over a mystery novel is supposed to go. Sometimes guessing the culprit was pretty easy, but the whodunnit was clearly meant to be a lot more obvious than the specifics of the howdunnit, and I found myself impressed and thrown for a loop by the twists and absurd conceits of the cases, even when I immediately knew who to blame.

There’s a new attorney working under Wright, named Athena, and she comes with her own special power: the mood matrix, allowing you to try to empathize with how angry, distressed, happy, or surprised a person should be at a given moment and to identify contradictions, and I think this meshes pretty well with the existing mechanics, given how loose the Ace Attorney world has always been with real courtroom procedure anyway. In addition to this power and Apollo’s returning ability to identify a person’s tells when they lie, Phoenix himself is back in business, and it would be both difficult and embarrassing to overstate just how excited I was when I saw my first Psyche Lock (Psyche Locks!!). They might have been made too easy, though–in earlier games, you might start breaking one and end up not even having the evidence to finish it off.

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The new argument-forming segments at the conclusion of each trial are somewhat reminiscent of the flashier Dangan Ronpa games that have since appeared in our post-Ace Attorney world, and I like them as a relatively risk-free way of allowing the player to state things for themselves.

While there are more cases than ever before (6 including the DLC), investigations have been streamlined a bit. You only closely examine one or two rooms in a given case now, rather than everywhere, but with the shift to 3D, you get to turn the crime scenes around and see more of them. There’s less filler text about random objects in the scenery, but worry not; they don’t forget to work in a stepladder, and a higher concentration has been moved into regular dialogue–like Athena commenting on the signage outside of the Cosmos Space Center–so I’ve got nothing to complain about. If that’s not comforting enough, you can always present random evidence. I’d say you get a unique remark out of 90% of the people you show your attorney’s badge to, no matter which of the three lawyers is your acting protagonist.

I’ve always wanted the ability to keep my own notes in-game, so when I saw a “Notes” section in the court record during the first investigation segment, I was pleased, but in clicking it I realized that it was just an automatic To-Do List with some pointlessly sparse case background info, and not something I could write in or otherwise keep up to date with every theory and loose end I had in court. It might reduce guesswork slightly in presenting random pieces of evidence to every character (not that I would stop doing it, because there’s always an easily missable joke every now and again) in order to advance through those segments as quickly as possible, but I thought it was hastily implemented and generally useless.

Presentation, plot, etc.
Ace Attorney has transitioned from sprites into 3D about as wonderfully as Pokemon did, although Pokemon didn’t have nearly as much to lose. As a big fan of pixel art, I’m a little sad to see it go, but the change means that the new game animates better than ever, as Klavier’s beautiful air-guitaring in Ace Attorney 4 was way above what the games could be realistically expected to look like with any regularity. If this helps secure a budget for more games in the series, I’m all for it–the fantastic visual quirks of characters haven’t gone anywhere, and even the DLC case doesn’t let up.

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Some of the bigger moments get anime cutscenes, and I found these irritating, mainly because of the awkward voice acting, which is thankfully limited to “Objection!” elsewhere. If cutscenes were absolutely necessary, I would’ve much preferred something like what Fire Emblem Awakening did with its pre-rendered cel shaded stuff, or even something with the in-engine models, given how much I like what they’ve done with them already. And wouldn’t that be cheaper, anyway? The cutscenes didn’t detract from my enjoyment for more than 30 seconds at a time, but I’m hoping Ace Attorney 6 will drop them.

Text speed is deliberately timed, and its speed varies depending on the mood and action of the scene, but it felt torturously slow at times, and I say this as an already slow reader. You can manually skip to the end of a line, which is good when the game is punching out “10:30 AM – Courtroom No. 4” or whatever for the millionth time, but it can otherwise cut an animation short. There are also a large number of typos, so if wasn’t already obvious from the digital-only release that the English localization was on a tight budget, the lack of an additional proofreading pass makes it abundantly clear. The font was also a bit big for my tastes, and the backlog occasionally glitched up (fixed with a save & quit), but these are nitpicks.

As always, there were little oddities here and there in the story–the in media res opening was a bizarre choice, given how long it took to be resolved, and it meant that at the start of the game, relevant details from chronologically earlier cases were inexplicably ignored. I had trouble swallowing a twist at the end of the DLC case, although I certainly enjoyed it otherwise. There was also an element in the third case that I thought Apollo should’ve been able to warn Athena about, although I’m sure there are all sorts of bigger issues I never even considered, and if there’s a list of Ace Attorney plot holes somewhere, these probably barely make the cut.

The legal system is insane in its tolerance with contempt of court, perjury, and bias in favor of prosecution, as usual, and I find these things hilarious and welcome. The defense and prosecution end up both overtly against the game’s big villain in court, and while I wouldn’t ever shed a tear for an Ace Attorney villain, it was pretty ludicrous of a legal system claiming to be impartial. More importantly, I’m a bit surprised that there was no mention of the jury system that was attempted at the end of Ace Attorney 4. Maybe with all the fake evidence and trumped up charges going around, and faith in the system at an all-time low, it became unfeasible to convince participation in anything like a jury, but that’s just a wild guess.

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They did great work putting the ridiculous cases together. The prosecution tends to keep a pretty strong case against the defendant going right up until the end, which means there’s not going to be a point where you can effectively clear your client’s name but still see them go to jail by losing to a penalty (when the real culprit hasn’t been identified). In fact, as far as I remember, this is the first Ace Attorney where you might get a client acquitted before the end of a chapter, and I thought that was cool.

The music is cool as always. It’s not on the level of the Jazz Soul album or anything, but there’s some rad stuff in there. A few stand out for me when skimming through the soundtrack on youtube: as always, the new Court Begins (and this dark fanfare), the new Pursuit, and one of the Reminiscence tracks (Tragic Memories). A few good old themes also return with a few good old characters. But I still think the best stuff I’ve heard out of the series is some stuff from the GBA era: AA3’s buzzy, bass-heavy Court Begins as well as this track, something of an obscurity, but one which always stood out for me.

Closing statements
This may have been my favorite experience so far on the 3DS, or at least approximately on the level of Etrian Odyssey IV, but far less of a time investment. I shouldn’t be too surprised. I was barking out the laughs and getting drawn into the characters, their animations and stories, just like I always have with this series–if not more than usual. Although I felt at a few points that the developers might’ve done better by distancing themselves more from the formula, the Ace Attorney Investigations games did exactly that, and from the one of those that I was able to play, those changes had very little effect on what made the series beautiful anyway. So they can do whatever they want.

This game was thoroughly enjoyed by the reviewer. It is an excellent game that may be too simple or not ambitious enough to be a 5, or there are design flaws meaningful enough to prevent it from enduring as something truly beloved. Highly recommended.