The fifth and final. We’ve delivered our verdict of many of the games present at EB Expo 2013 over this past week, with yesterday giving an idea of the action-centric titles. What that effectively leaves us with are the leftovers; those games that didn’t have enough contemporaries present to bundle them into a group of four.
As such, it necessarily lacks the comparison factor that the earlier articles had. Dark Souls 2 and Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII were the only two major RPGs on the show floor, so they’ll be covered here, alongside action-platformer Knack and the only unreleased fighter on offer: Killer Instinct. Before delving in to it, we’d like to take this opportunity to express hope that you this series has been informative for you.
Dark Souls 2
I love me some Dark Souls. Give me that punishing difficulty and player training any day of the week and I’ll be happy. So when I saw that Dark Souls 2 was playable and that few people were playing it, I eagerly jumped in line.
Starting at a bonfire before a long corridor lined with statues, I quickly (slowly) came to grips with the unfamiliar PlayStation controller and the unknown character class. I promptly entered the corridor and got murdered by a sorcerer and some armed guards.
Respawning at the bonfire, and this time I was slightly more cautious. I noticed that some of the statues were animating and turning into guards. I tried luring them back to the tiny bonfire room, but the sorcerer at the end sending out magic arrows proved to be too much of an obstacle, killing me again.
Respawning at the bonfire, and this time I swore I’d be even more cautious. I snuck forward, slowly, slowly, slowly. I managed to best the first statue guard by hitting it before it animated. I started working my way through the second guard, remembering which button was block, before again being brought down by that pesky sorcerer.
I gave up here, figuring I’d rather not embarrass myself in front of the growing line behind me and that I’d let someone else have a go. Suffice to say, I felt the same frustration and need to continue that the original Dark Souls imparted upon me during my first trip through the twisted torture chamber/game world.
I didn’t notice much change from the first Dark Souls in my brief time with Dark Souls 2. Aside from new enemies and new areas, Souls is as punishing as ever before. I didn’t spend nearly enough time with it to give the justice this game deserves, but in my brief time with it everything felt familiar. Dark Souls 2 definitely builds on the first game, and fears that it will be too easy should be quelled. It won’t appeal to everyone, but it will appeal to fans of the series.
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII
The Lightning Saga, once known as Fabula Nova Crystallis, has been widely criticised by long-term Final Fantasy fans and held as a blight to the revered name. But that hasn’t stopped Square-Enix from trying to exploit it and 2014 will see the release of the final entry in the subseries: Lightning Returns. It takes place 500 years on from the end of XIII-2, in the last thirteen days of a world that has been fundamentally altered from the Gran Pulse of the first two games, now known as Nova Chrysalia. Lightning has become The Saviour, a figure tasked with saving the souls of the people in Nova Chrysalia that they may be reborn in a new world. Frankly, it’s all a bit confusing, but let’s not focus on that aspect. I picked up the demo from where another Expo-goer left off, in a dungeon and on the trail of Snow, a main character from the previous games.
The first thing that must be said is that this is unmistakeably an evolution of the concepts and ideas held by the XIII saga, rather than reverting to a feeling more akin to the earlier games. It puts a stronger focus on the immediacy of action, in both exploration and combat. Many have expressed concern about the implementation of platforming elements but the reality is that these don’t have any real impact on the moment-to-moment gameplay being almost completely automated in the demo. You only needed to push a button to perform the necessary action, and the simplicity of it makes one wonder why it even has a place in the game. It does add another layer of interactivity, but it doesn’t feel necessary in any way.
The evolution of the combat system, however, is keenly felt as a positive. Enemies in the demo were at a considerably lower level than Lightning, making dealing with them a simple and straightforward affair that offered little challenge until the final one, against a dragon-like boss, which showed off the strength that the marriage between the turn-based ATB and real-time movement offers. Being free to roam about the arena at will gives you the ability to stay well out of the reach of enemy attacks, though you have to close the gap if you want to deliver a physical strike. It also seemed as though your position relative to the enemy affected the damage dealt, as getting behind the dragon resulted in more powerful hits on a consistent basis when compared to tackling it head-on. This time around, your attacks are mapped to the face buttons, with three different loadouts at your disposal, each with its own ATB bar that you switch between with the bumpers. It encourages quick and frequent switching, as well as strategic awareness about the current state of the battle.
Unlike the evolutionary changes, the technical elements have seen little, if any, real improvement. The graphics remain very similar from both a stylistic and detailing standpoint, though the UI does seem sleeker and more readable. Voice acting remains among the best that localised Japanese games have to offer, though the musical accompaniment doesn’t seem to stand out as much as it does in other games. And the writing hasn’t lost any of its sense of melodrama. What little dialogue I was privy to was almost self-parodically corny. But you know what, Lightning Returns was an absolute delight to actually play.
It was Knack that offered us our first glimpse of PS4 gameplay way back in February when the system was unveiled. Developed by the creative folks at Sony Japan it is an action-platformer in the vein of the earliest titles in the Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon franchises. And that is fitting, as Knack’s design is led by Mark Cerny, a consultant on both of those franchises, along with numerous others in Sony’s stable. The story of Knack centres on a war between humans and Goblins with the eponymous character being the creation of a human doctor who discovered a way to bring together the relics of an ancient civilisation and give them consciousness. Knack, the character, is able to absorb different elements of his environment into himself to make larger, as well as give him additional abilities and these unique properties promise to be a powerful weapon in the war. We only took about ten minutes with the game and got a glimpse of both combat and platforming, though little of any real consequence.
The best thing that can be said about Knack is that it is unmistakably a Mark Cerny game, with a child-like charm standing out and providing an intangible sense of fun simply from looking at it in action. It’s an even greater shame, then, that the gameplay doesn’t feel in any way inspired. It may aim to mimic the ideals of Jak and Daxter or Crash Bandicoot, but it should still find a way to show off what a decade of technological advancements offer. Combat is a relatively straightforward affair, offering a few basic combos to deal damage or break an enemy’s guard. It fits the nature of the game well, but I found myself wanting more from it. Hopefully it will be the case that you unlock a greater array of abilities as you progress through the game, because it’s easy to envision the game losing its lustre otherwise.
The platforming segments were more promising, requiring a sense of timing and precision – a trait that has been shunted into the background for many games that position themselves in the same genre as Knack. Although the perspectives offered by the fixed camera in the platforming areas I made my way through were fine, I thought that the directional controls were, perhaps, a little too loose. Again, it was good, but I find myself hoping that it becomes more nuanced and multi-layered as you progress through the game.
With the family market in its crosshairs, Knack adopts an blocky, cartoon-ish art style that reminds me of Wreck-It Ralph more than aught else. It presents a very clean image, though the level of detail doesn’t really mark it out as one of the flag bearers for the next console generation. Knack’s dodge animation is one of the highlights of the game, as his component pieces move and rejoin, rather than having him sidestep, but that isn’t going to add much to the game. The demo offered the foundations of a great game, but it’s hard to recommend it based on what we actually got to play.
For the Xbox One’s launch, Microsoft is reviving Rare’s classic Killer Instinct fighting series as a free-to-play title primarily developed by Double Helix (Silent Hill: Homecoming, Front Mission Evolved). It is expected to be expanded over several years, with eight characters being released within the first four months of availability, and another eight by the end of 2014. The build that we played offered series stalwarts Jago, Thunder, Sabrewulf and Glacius. Lachlan and I went head-to-head playing as Glacius and Sabrewulf, respectively, in a best-of-three series, which I won 2-0.
We could have played longer, but we wanted to keep our time with the game brief in order to give other people a chance to play, especially after we had to wait for a five round bout between the pair before us, which was won 5-0. Because of this, we didn’t take a gander at the move lists, instead preferring to learn what we could through application. No doubt this led to a lack of understanding of the complexities of the systems. Bearing this in mind, it must be said that the game lacked a certain fluidity that is present in the best fighters, even for those unfamiliar with them. Perhaps it was the characters we chose, in concert with our experience, but the battles felt slow-paced.
I know, for myself, this was in part because of the controller. Despite the advertised improvements, the Xbox One controller still doesn’t feel well suited for fighting games. The D-Pad feels too hard and unresponsive to allow cross-screen movement to flow well. We’re fully aware that we should have dedicated more time to understanding the fundamentals of the gameplay, but based on what we can speak of, it is difficult to name Killer Instinct as a good fighter. This makes it all the more unfortunate that is one of very few currently announced for the next-gen systems.
Despite the gameplay feeling slow, the 60 frame-per-second refresh rate was clearly evidenced by the smoothness of the image and the cleanliness of it makes it difficult to spot that this is running at 720p if you didn’t already know. That being said, it doesn’t seem to tax the hardware in any way, though the particle effects are nice. It’s difficult to see this one picking up much of a following outside of genre die-hards, though the ability to play as one of the characters before committing any money may attract some people.