What I’ve Been Playing

After a July full of PC gaming, I returned last month to the comfortable embrace of my Xbox and Nintendo 3DS. Let’s look at some of the titles I checked out during August.

Dark Souls (Xbox 360)

With no new titles immediately demanding my attention, I began last month’s gaming by returning to an older title, one that I lovingly refer to as “my Waterloo”. As I imagine is true for a lot of folks who’ve played it, Dark Souls is a perpetually ongoing and highly ambitious undertaking, like that novel you’ve been writing on since college or that growth you keep meaning to ask a doctor about. However, despite receiving pretty much universal critical acclaim and garnering a zealously devoted fan base, I’m still surprised how many casual gamers haven’t yet heard of Dark Souls.

Yeah, you’re going to see this screen a lot.

If you’re not familiar with the game, I’ll try to describe briefly what makes it such a big deal. At first glance, Dark Souls appears to be a drably gothic third-person action RPG with a middling combat system and an uninspiring plot. Once you start playing it, though, you quickly realize its appeal: it’s brutally difficult, but in a rigorously fair-handed way. In each new area, you will die repeatedly at first, and it will probably depress you. However, by gaining equipment and levels, by learning your way around the environment and its many fiendish traps, and by becoming attuned to the patterns and weaknesses of your adversaries, eventually you will progress (albeit to the next crushingly difficult area of the game). It’s the kind of difficult that is much less characterized by controller-throwing frustration, and much more about terrified, crippling paranoia interspersed with occasional bouts of cautious jubilation.

One of the most engaging aspects of the game (other than its innovative twist on multiplayer, which I won’t get into here) is the checkpoint system. Whenever you die, you are revived at the last “bonfire” you camped at, but without all of your souls (which serve as both experience points and currency) and humanity (another important commodity in the game). Moreover, resting at a bonfire refills your health, spells, and stock of healing potions, but also revives any non-boss enemies you have slain in the area. This system works in concert with the game’s merciless difficulty to present some difficult choices to the player. If I’m forging a path through an unknown new dungeon, but I’m running low on health and have accumulated a hefty cache of souls, should I try to make my way back to a previous bonfire, or try to tough it out to the next one… knowing that if I fail, all my efforts will have been for nothing? (For an added dose of sweaty-palmed intensity, note that it is possible to reclaim your lost souls and humanity after you die, but only if you make it back to the location of your demise without dying again.)

Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance (Nintendo 3DS)

I recall playing the original Kingdom Hearts on the Playstation 2 as being quite a magical experience. Thrust into a bizarre world where Disney cartoons, Final Fantasy characters, and Haley Joel Osment somehow coexisted, I raced through the game in about a week, desperately anxious to find what treasured memories from my youth I would uncover in each new world. And even though Kingdom Hearts was covered in a layer of nostalgia so thick that it bordered on exploitation, underneath was a solid action-RPG with a rich story, engaging environments, and genuinely fun gameplay.

Nearly 10 years and several confusingly named sequels later (most of which I didn’t play), I decided it was time to revisit this idiosyncratic franchise with Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance for the Nintendo 3DS. Unfortunately, while this newest Kingdom Hearts has a mountain of new and complex battle systems big enough to get an A for effort, it manages to capture very little of the magic of the original. The worlds and characters are limited primarily to Disney’s more obscure and/or disregarded properties, and the Final Fantasy influence is practically nonexistent. After about 20 hours I have yet to beat it, but at this point I’m almost ready to put it to bed anyway and pick up Tales of the Abyss for the 3DS instead.

10000000 (iOS)

Finally, a compelling reason to match
three arbitrary pictures of things.

Ever since I bought a Nintendo 3DS, I’ve largely ignored my iPhone as a game platform, except during particularly boring technical seminars or at unusually long traffic stops. However, after hearing about 10000000 (i.e. “ten million”) on the Gamers With Jobs podcast last month (which featured a great interview with the creator), I decided to give the game a shot. After about five minutes I was hooked, to the extent that for a few bizarre days last month, my iPhone was my go-to gaming platform.

10000000 is a typical match-three game (like Columns or Bejeweled), except that matching items affects the progression of your avatar as he crawls through a linear dungeon at the top of the screen. For example, matching swords performs a melee attack, matching shields bolsters your defense, and matching keys opens locks on chests and doors. During each run you collect gold, experience, and resources, which can later be used to upgrade your character in various ways. The uninspired name “10000000”—and wow, it really is an awful, awful name—refers to the high score you must reach in a single run to beat the game.

10000000 is rendered in a pixel art style accompanied by chiptune audio tracks, and its tutorials and menu interfaces suggest a lack of polish that one might expect from a homebrewed title like this. However, don’t let these rough edges fool you; the gameplay itself is actually quite refined. The sliding controls are smooth and responsive, and the block animations, combo notifications, and sound effects are fluid and well-timed. Take it from someone who isn’t a die-hard puzzle game fan: 10000000 is well worth $1.99 and 6-8 hours of your time.

Darksiders II (Xbox 360)

Most of what I needed to say about this game I said in my recent review. However, looking back over what I wrote, I realize that I may have understated how disappointed I was with this game. For me, the first Darksiders was one of those rare games I really fell in love with, the kind of game that you start over again from the beginning the moment you beat it, or that you lend to your friends so that you can talk to them about how awesome you think it is. Darksiders II isn’t a bad game by any metric, but it certainly hasn’t inspired me the way its predecessor did, causing me to proselytize to my friends until they started blocking my phone calls. If the franchise continues, I’ll be interested to see if Darksiders really was lightning in a bottle, or if somehow Vigil Games manages to recapture the magic of the original.

Dust: An Elysian Tail (Xbox LIVE Arcade)

After putting Darksiders II to rest in peace (see what I did there?), I moved on to my other most-anticipated game of the summer: Dust: An Elysian Tail. I first heard about Dust at PAX East this spring, when I got a chance to speak with the game’s developer, Dean Dodrill. (Note the singular noun “developer”, as in one single dude.)

Dust shows me that even in today’s 3D-dominated world, there’s still plenty of room to be amazed in two dimensions.

With its beautifully animated graphics, rich environments, and engaging gameplay, Dust turned out to be everything I hoped it would be. Even its characters were well-acted and charming enough for me to look past their excessively cutesy appearance an occasionally cloying dialogue. I’ll save the rest of my analysis for my review, but for now you can know that Dust gets my seal of approval.

So that about wraps up my recent gaming experiences, as well as another New England summer. Soon it will be time for fall jackets, changing leaves, pumpkin-spice lattes, and most excitingly, Borderlands 2.

What Do You Think?