Friday, September 11, 2009

Confidence from Winning

If there is one genre that I feel most attached to, that would be "survival horror." So, when had a contest to write about your first survival horror experience, I whipped on my nostalgia mode and got to writing. And then Wednesday I get e-mail telling me I won, which is something I can hardly believe because I never won anything other then a couple of bucks on stratch tickets and a piece of paper that says, "student of the month" that I got in high school. But I actually won a copy of Cursed Mountain and a ton of "swag" (as they call it). And while free games and "swag" is awesome, what I find even more important about winning the contest was that I had earned it with my writing abilities. There were one hundred and seventy people who posted entries and only twelve prizes. I'm just so astonished that I was able to write something that stood out among so many and that curtainly gives me a lot of confidence in what I love to do. I have always feared that people wouldn't be interested in anything I write (as the comment section of my blog seems to indicate) and that my writing was to be religated to personal indulgence. It still might be but at least I know that I can write something worth reading.

Below I have attached a copy of my entry, I hope others can enjoy it too.

Losing My (Survival Horror) Virginity
By David A. R├Ącker

The pawn shop had little flare to it. It was dirty, paint on the walls was chipping, and everything under the florescent lighting was doused in earthen colors. There was only a loose sense of order here, things like musical instruments had their corner, guns behind the shelf, but mostly it was just junk piled on junk. In one center glass case was their minimal collection of movies and games, the reason we were here. At the time the woman next door was taking care of me while my mother and step-father were away. She had a daughter named Christina, who was several grades behind me and who was several generations behind in gaming. When everyone else wanted an N64, she had just gotten her first NES (which was, in fact, my NES that my step-father had given her because he assumed I didn’t use it anymore). It was the late 1990s, so NES cartridges were becoming quite a rarity and could only be found in trade-a-game stores and pawn shops. It was really on a whim that I bought Resident Evil while I was there. Resident Evil 2 had come out recently, I think, so when I saw that name I felt like I recognized it, although I couldn’t really place it at the time. I probably was subconsciously remembering an advertisement I’d seen–through a younger version of my eyes that commercial looked pretty cool…Not so much anymore…

The disc came in a clear jewel case with scratches all over it which made it look frosted. The disc itself wasn’t any better, and when I tried to play through it, it would freeze at the loading door just before the Hunter’s arrival. I didn’t want to waste too many of my ink ribbons that the game rationed out to me and I felt confident before this, like a man who believes that his empty tank of gas can still get him to the next station even if he just passed one. With the game frozen I’m torn between turning the PSX off and losing the data or maybe, I hope without much conviction, it will work itself out if I let it. It doesn’t and, of course, there is no pre-owned guarantee from Joe Smoe’s Pawn Shop.

It took me forever to discover scratch remover.

By then, I’d played the sequel and, after a peek of Silent Hill in the January 1999 issue of OPM, I’d found true love. Resident Evil was like a first kiss, an introduction, something that I’ll never forget, but then at the same time it’s overshadowed by Silent Hill, which was like the first time making love (although maybe less awkward).

I first played through Silent Hill with my best friend, Zack, and his father. I was in control, but it was a group effort as we tried to navigate the town—the old fashioned way of playing co-op. Zack’s house always seemed naturally dark, with thick shades covering the windows, dark fake wooden paneling spread over the walls and brown shag carpeting on the floor. There was a matching set of beige chairs and overstuffed couches that we were all spread out on, which surrounded the big screen TV (the only source of light). It was late at night and, other than the immature laughter at making Harry look like he was peeing when you ready the pipe, we were a bit jumpy. At one point, on the 2nd floor of the alternate school, we stopped to figure out the next move, because we’d thought we had gone through all of the rooms. The walkthrough that we had been using occasionally when we’d become stuck, read, “Go to the locker room. I'm sorry but you will have to deal with THE STUPIDLY LARGE MONSTER MUTANT CAT inside the locker by yourself :p.” At the time it seemed plausible…a cat was in there before, right…and after the knife wielding ‘zombie babies’ I wasn’t about to deny the possibility, although none of us seemed to have a clear mind at the time. We get to the locker and open it. It’s a bloody mess, but I’m thinking, at least it’s not a “mutant cat.” Ha, ha, very funny Mr. Gunsmith. I felt a little more relaxed, then, of course, this happens! I fumbled the controller and had to clutch my pounding heart which was being injected with a large amount of adrenaline. I heard Zack’s father, say, “Jesus!” and I realized I wasn’t the only one. I think we would have lasted longer if we weren’t so freaked out, but after we got to the next save point we decided it was time for bed. What they say is right. Your first time is the most memorable.

Since then, I’ve played Silent Hill beginning to end a dozen times, but it doesn’t have that same effect on me. I’ve found it to be a rarity to stimulate the sensation of fear twice with the same movie and video game scares. Only three survival horror series have been able to maintain tension for me, Fatal Frame, Condemned, and Haunting Ground (although, I think, that has more to do with their respective combat systems, or with the last example, the lack thereof). I’ve kind of been a fear-monger my whole life, so I’d say what initially attracted me to survival horror, and in particular, Silent Hill, was its atmosphere and cinematic style—Resident Evil series didn’t really get it down until the remake on Gamecube. But what really drives its meat hooks into my skin and drags me back to games like Silent Hill are the narratives. I grew up sometime after American horror movies had become liberated by the MPAA rating system, losing their family-oriented nature, and when mindless slasher flicks were all the rage. Horror was just blood and gore, convoluted deaths, one after another till the hero or heroine defeated the villain. I lapped it all up, but it was all child’s play. As I grew up, the visceral nature of slasher films began to lose their edge. I wanted something more by way of stories, something that was complex and meaningful, which is where survival horror fit into my life. While I can’t underestimate the importance of atmosphere and, in part, gameplay mechanics, narratives are the real life-blood of the genre. I am partial to ghost stories and psychological horror, but if it’s a good story I’ll play anything. Every survival horror game becomes a multi-layered journey for me. After I have been able to make my way through a game emotionally (scared shitless), I can then look at it intellectually and see just how beautiful it is from every perspective.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Path Review

Title: The Path
Developer/Publisher: Tale of Tales
Genre: Indie Horror/Game-as-Art
Release Date: March 18, 2009
Platform: PC
ESRB: Not Yet Rated
Price: $9.99

In 1914 Marcel Duchamp walked into a local department store in Paris where he purchased a bottle rack. He then turned around and displayed this same piece (completely unaltered) as a work of art in his studio. Since the beginning of the twentieth century our ideas of what exactly fine art is have changed, incorporating not only the technically superior arts of Da Vinci or Michelangelo, but also intellectually-based arts such as Pollock’s action paintings, Warhol’s pop art, or even Duchamp’s “readymades,” things that have not been considered in prior centuries. The Modernist mode of fine arts is to develop works that are new, and new technologies have factored into this mode. Video installations have been a common form of art since the 1960s, and more recently video games have demonstrated their place in the art world. The just-released indie horror game The Path by Auriea Harvey and Michael Samyn is one of the few games that make the link between gaming and fine art apparent. Similar to the approach of duchamp’s “readymades,” The Path takes what we assume as non-art and makes it into art by really limiting, and almost eliminating, the functionality of a game, in both interaction and storytelling.

The Path is an interactive experience with a loose narrative based on the older versions of Little Red Riding Hood (the one without the male savior). The player takes the role of six sisters who live in an apartment in the city. One by one, they are sent to grandma’s house on an errand to deliver a bottle of wine. They are given the explicit instructions not to wander off the path, because the forest outside of the city is full of danger. You can abide by this instruction, but the straight shot to grandma’s house will only create a lack-luster play-through; this should show the players that there is no explicit goals set for them.

The purpose of the game is not to obey the instructions, as the Tale of Tales blurb states, “young women are not exactly known for their obedience, are they?” Once you understand this, you can really begin this game, stepping out of the warm glow of the sun beaming down on the beaten dirt path and into the dark and mysterious overgrowth of the surrounding woods. Many gamers may be deterred by the game’s lack of challenge; the game has no enemies, puzzles, or time constraints in it. The Path is wholly about the fear and excitement of getting lost in the woods, the discovery and exploration of human refuse that litter the area.

Its loose tale is told through brief, understated text-based monologues as you find certain objects in the woods. The subtle interaction with them is open to interpretation, and the story has no one correct understanding. Each girl’s journey, however, has character-specific items that only she can interact with, which reflect her character and develop a somewhat grounded base. What each character discovers will determine what type of ending they will receive once they reach grandma’s house, none of which are particularly happy. The house becomes increasing abstract and terrifying the more you find out. It can be assumed that each girl is killed in the end (or possibly just before the end), but since the ending is played from a first-person point of view, it is only implied by sickening sounds and a darkening screen.

It calls each girl’s journey a level but the map remains the same, having you explore the same area of woods over and over. It’s a relatively small map to repeat so many times, which allows for only a limited amount of continued interest; therefore, the re-playability is extremely limited. But for a low budget indie game, the aesthetics of this patch of land and the unique HUD come out beautifully; it is an immersive experience that pulls players in. If you are looking to find every item in the game (including the 144 flowers to pick), you can spend several hours on just one play-through.

The pacing of the game is slow, but not noticeably so till you run into the “wolves,” a metaphorical term for the antagonistic characters that are not always literal wolves. This is similar in some of the older versions of Little Red Riding Hood where wolves were instead ogres, werewolves, etc. Although in this they also take the shape of humans as well. In these segments, after you’ve gone through the cutscenes where the girls meet the wolves, it fades into a night scene; it’s rainy, and the girls wake up lying on the ground in front of grandma’s house. They seem despondent as they rise and lethargically shuffle down the last few feet toward the house. While it sets up a powerful ending to the level, this part seemingly takes forever to get through and having to repeat it six times becomes obnoxious.

Art is often about subjectivity; the viewer is as much a participant in the storytelling or idea presented as the artist is. The Path, while minimalistic, provides a magical setting in which the player’s mind blooms with imagination as they discover the beauty and terror that encircles the safety of the beaten path.

8 ‘Big Bad Wolves’ out of 10

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Been Away

It's been a while since I gotten to blogging. It's not like I had a lot on my plate but it took a while to want to write reviews again. I have a few in my back log that I never posted yet. I'll be adding them in the next few weeks as I continue some new reviews as well.

I just got a new computer, and I've been really interested in the indie PC games that have come out so I'm plan on doing a series of indie game reviews that I've found quite exceptional in the next few weeks: The Path from Tale of Tales, Cryostasis: Sleep of Reason from Action Forums, Zeno Clash from Ace Team, and Penumbra Collection from Frictional Games. Most of these are horror (except for Zeno Clash), which seem to have taken on the genre's traditions rather uniquely. My inital impressions is that I like them and their prices were all extremely agreeable ($9.99 each), but come back for the full reviews later in the coming weeks.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Onichanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad Review

Title: Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad
Developers: Tamsoft
Publishers: D3 Publisher
Genre: Hack and Slash
Platform: Xbox 360
Release Date: February 10, 2009
Price: $39.99
ESRB: M (for Mature)

Bikini Samurai Squad? Yes, you heard right, folks, and now that the city has become infested with zombies these provocatively dressed beauties are donning their cowboy hats and katana in preparation to save the world. The story of Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad revolves…Wait, wait, this can’t be said with a straight face. Since Japanese porn scriptwriters were the most predominant writers for decades in an otherwise dead film industry and have now become the geniuses behind some of the best horror movies, I’d hate to belittle them; Bikini Samurai Squad, however, comes out just as lousy as any typical porn scenario you can think of, but without the added bonus of a climax. The scenario depicts two sisters, Aya and Saki, who see a television report of zombies unleashed on the city and find themselves going up against an evil organization bent on world domination. What may surprise people is that this is actually a sequel to a long line of games in the Onechanbara series, many of which have not been released in the States. But despite its irreverent, semi-humorous anime aesthetics, this isn’t a hidden treasure of Japan like Katamari Damacy or even Bullet Witch.

Onechanbara plays as a hack and slash game similar to the Dynasty Warriors series, where in most battles it’s you against hundreds of zombies that act more like cannon fodder than a challenge. The characters’ moves are somewhat limited by the lack of combos, although you do have several attack modes to use, which offer some variety. Aya, the protagonist, has the option of using one blade with shurikens or two blades in tandem. Saki, Aya’s little sister, can use a katana or taijitsu (“body arts” or hand-to-hand combat). Both sisters also can go into “rage mode” from being splashed with too much blood; rage makes you faster and stronger, but also has the adverse side effect of draining your health. You don’t really need these enhancements for the most part, but the game forces you to use them occasionally with specific enemy types that cannot be killed otherwise.

Additionally, a third playable character is revealed a few chapters in, named Anna, who’s a part of an American Special Forces unit called ZPF (Zombie Prevention Force). Anna diverges from the melee gameplay by letting players use two kinds of ranged weapons, dual pistols and an (unlikely but fun) pairing of a tactical shotgun and Uzi. These weapons seem to further simplify an already simple game by distancing the “threat.” Although eventually zombies in police uniforms start showing up brandishing pistols and rifles. Their slow movements, however, still make an uneven playing field.

With a horde so massive, the shortage of enemy character models becomes overwhelmingly repetitive. For the most part, enemies are composed of normal zombies that amble toward you with only their bare hands or a melee weapon (chainsaw, knife, etc.). Things start to get mixed up as you go along and new species are introduced—many of them seem like cheap rip-offs of better games—but variety only seems to drip in a little at a time. The more “advance” zombies include the gun-toting types, dogs, troll-like zombies, mutant frogs, and something that looks like it was spawned from a liaison between Swamp Thing and the creature from Alien.

The boss battles that come at the end of almost every chapter are a welcome variation that requires a slightly more tactical approach. While most of the bosses are almost easy as their underlings, a few of them present a sharp spike in the difficulty level of the game, and sometimes frustratingly so. For instance with Reiko, at one time a friend of Aya’s but now a member of the evil organization: She was obnoxiously strong in the first phase, but then in a Matrix: Reloaded-esque sequence you’re bombarded with hundreds of clones equally as strong.

The graphics in general are very dated considering this is on the Xbox 360, which is most apparent when you look at the environments used in the game. Much like the plot and the character models, the level design lacks complexity and presents a rather angular rendition of a Japanese cityscape. It really doesn’t seem like Tamsoft took much time formulating these levels, which come out clearly as just a maze and not a real setting. Decorative objects, a bit of texturing, and even sizing down the corridors would have gone a long way in this department. Additionally, levels repeat themselves— you have to pointlessly backtrack quite often.

Other than the story campaign, the game also features “Free Play Mode” and “Survival Mode.” The former allows you to play through the story levels without any real goals except to dismember as many walking corpses as you can. The other challenges you to stay alive in a confined space as long as possible through wave after wave of zombies. The game also touts a “Dress Mode” where you get to change the characters’ clothing, but it only comes with three sets of clothes and a very finite set of makeup and hair colors, severely limiting character customization. Post-release downloadable content expands the options slightly (as well as gives you three new characters to choose from), but it seems like this stuff should have been in the game already instead of asking people to shell out more money.

Maybe this game’s only saving grace is that it’s $20 cheaper than other games for this console. (Well, that and the massive amounts of T&A, which seems to be a big sell to fans online.) But while $20 less might seem like a bargain, you could definitely find a better deal by just buying a used game.

3 ‘Xs’ out of 10