TAT Archive – Sleeping Dogs Pt.1

Originally Published in 2014, for TAT Games

Sleeping Dogs

Five of the best games you never played during the last generation

Welcome one and all, to the first of a series of features that will cast the limelight on videogames of the last generation – that is, videogames that were shunted to the side and didn’t attain the success that they so richly deserved. As we enter a new generation of gaming consoles and handhelds, it’s important to remember that there will be great titles; titles that exude imagination and quality in equal measures. Unfortunately, it is a given that many of these will be kicked to the curb. Heck, we’re already seeing it now (Wonderful 101, please stand forward). However, you can rectify those past sins, by following this essential guide.

Xenoblade Chronicles

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Format: Wii

Developer: Monolith Soft

Publisher: Nintendo

Release: 2011

If you were asked the question “what was the best JRPG of the last generation?” what would your answer be? Lost Odyssey? Final Fantasy XIII? Wrong on both counts, boyo. The correct response is “Xenoblade Chronicles, oh benevolent master.”

Such was the game’s quality that a massive fan campaign dubbed ‘Operation Rainfall’ was enacted in a desperate bid to get the game (along with The Last Story and Pandora’s Tower) released on western shores. And luckily it worked, because Xenoblade is the best JRPG of the last decade.

Following a young lad named Shulk – who finds himself wielding the mythical blade known as the Monado in a desperate bid to battle the fearsome Mechon – Xenoblade Chronicles is an epic adventure that is set on the battle-locked corpses of two gods. It’s not as gruesome as it sounds, as one god – the Bionis (where the good guys live) – is actually more like a rocky statue that is covered in mountains, forests, oceans and canyons. Its foe – the Mechonis – is basically a giant robot that is home to millions of smaller robots. Robots that love nothing more than invading the Bionis and slaughtering its denizens, that is.

At its most basic form, the storyline of the game follows Shulk and a bunch of friends who find themselves embroiled within the war of the Mechon, as they journey across (well, up) the Bionis in an attempt to kick ass and take names. Obviously, the plot gets much more complicated than that (what with this being a JRPG and all), but I’d be cruel to spoil it – as it does become genuinely mind-blowing before the end.

Also mind-blowing is the game itself; an epic adventure that pushes the Wii’s humble innards to breaking point as Monolith Soft treats gamers with some of the biggest and most gorgeous worlds ever seen in a videogame. Large cities, grassy plains, glittering oceans, steamy forests, snowy mountains, labyrinthine caverns, futuristic dungeons… This game has it all; and the fact that there are barely any load times is just the icing on this already-heaving cake. What’s even more amazing is that there is a very real sense of ascension as Shulk and his crew make their way ever upwards along the Bionis. The starting town? It’s on the knee. Those grassy plains? On the leg. Snowy mountains? The arm. That ocean? Plonked on the head. It all makes the linear corridors of Final Fantasy XIII look positively embarrassing by comparison.

The battle system, too, is wonderful. A mixture of turn-based and real-time thumping that is so popular these days, what’s really great is that punishment isn’t as arbitrary and frustrating as its genre forebears. Death isn’t met with a trip back to the last save point, but rather the nearest ‘landmark’ – points of interest that also serve as warp-points. You get to keep your experience points and items, which means there is virtually no risk in venturing off the beaten track and coming across a high-level foe – before it proceeds to wipe the floor with your corpse. Still, yay exploration!

EXP is also given out for completing side-quests – of which there are literally hundreds. EXP is also given out for… finding rare items and filling out an addictive stamp book, re-building an entire colony, crafting materia-style gems, finding secret areas, battling legendary creatures, etc, etc. It really is a generous game – one that gave me 112 hours of entertainment – and I still didn’t do everything there was to do!

Lucky there’s also a New Game + eh?

2017 Edit: It’s on the Wii U eShop and New 3DS!

 

Shadows of the Damned

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Format: PS3, Xbox 360

Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture

Publisher: EA

Release: 2011

Ah, Suda 51. Who on this earth can resist the madcap antics of one of Japan’s most eccentric game developers?

A lot of people apparently, judging by the miserly sales of most of his games. To be fair though, Suda-san’s titles aren’t exactly what I’d call ‘accessible’. Killer 7, No More Heroes, Flower Sun and Rain… Honestly, this feature could just as easily be filled with Grasshopper’s output, and there’d still be games to spare.

Still, there’s one in particular that I found to be a righteous good time, and that was the EA-published Shadows of the Damned, an action-horror game developed in conjunction with legendary Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami, and Silent Hill composer Akira Yamaoka.

Following the exploits of Mexican demon hunter Garcia Hotspur (yes), you find yourself descending into the very depths of hell itself, in the pursuit of your girlfriend Paula, who has been kidnapped by the king of hell, Fleming. Along for the ride is Johnson, a regal ex-demon who takes the shape of a skull that can morph into guns for Garcia to use. Guns that shoot bones and teeth.

Did I mention this is a Suda 51 game?

This all basically boils down to an eight hour long, fairly generic third-person shooter. However, the magic isn’t in the gameplay, but the insane, hilarious, and creepy settings. Suda’s version of hell is a unique blend of S&M, meathooks, and pitch black streets that look like they come from Ripper-era London. It’s a place where demons literally live and die under the suffocating shadow of Fleming’s tower. A place where bleating goat heads radiate safe, holy light. A place where wailing baby faces are fed strawberries in order to access secret areas. A place where a demon merchant named Cristopher sounds like a hillbilly. A place where a floating, defecating eyeball with wings acts as a save point. A place where Garcia sporadically screams “taste my big boner!”

Did I mention this was a Suda 51 game?

Fair warning to those who decide to track this cult classic down; it is not for the easily offended or faint of heart. But as a result, it is utterly crass and hilarious. Just the way I like ‘em.

 

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories

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Format: Wii, PS2, PSP

Developer: Climax Studios

Publisher: Konami

Release: 2009

Over the last five years or so, it became a seemingly accepted fact that survival horror games were dead. Unlike the lurching monstrosities that so defined titles like Resident Evil, Clock Tower and Alone in the Dark, creepy games would remain six-feet under; without the opportunity to spring back to life like, well, like the living dead.

However, this isn’t entirely true. PC classics like Amnesia: Dark Descent, Slender Man and (to a lesser extent) Dear Esther proved that eerie experiences were still in abundant supply. Still, there was one home console that gave the PC a run for its money in providing frightful content… And that was the (yep, you guessed it) Wii (oh, PS2 and PSP too).

What? Balls and Poppycock!” I hear you bellow, as you shove a copy of Carnival Games in my face, “The Wii wasn’t even a real, hardcore games console! Everyone knows that!”

First, shhh. Be quiet. You’re embarrassing yourself.

Second. No, I’m quite serious. The Wii had some great horror games. Cursed Mountain, Fatal Frame IV, Project Zero 2, House of the Dead: Overkill, Dead Space: Extraction, Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles and The Darkside Chronicles… Heck, if you want to really stretch the genre’s definition, you could probably add the similarly unnerving Fragile Dreams: Farwell Ruins of the Moon and Deadly Creatures to the list too.

But one game trumps them all – and that is Silent Hill: Shattered Memories; a game that rivals Silent Hill 2 as the best of Konami’s psychological terrors. Yes.

I don’t take that statement lightly, but SH:SM is that good. It is an absolute travesty that it flopped the way it did, because I found the game to be a genuinely unforgettable experience.

A quasi-remake of the first Silent Hill, Shattered Memories casts you in the role of Harry Mason; a bespectacled author who literally loses his seven-year old daughter, Cheryl, after veering his car off the icy road. Harry awakens to find her missing, so he whips his torch out before venturing into the chilly (both literally and figuratively) town of Silent Hill.

But, before you do any of this, the game performs a psychological test on you. It needs to find out if you’re suitable, see. Under the icy gaze of Dr. Kaufmann, you are asked a series of uncomfortable questions that can directly influence aspects of the game. What kind of questions? Well, how about ‘Have you ever cheated on your partner?’ Or how about ‘Did you lose your virginity in high school?’ Or ‘Do you drink more than you should?’

As you give your responses (by literally filling in the papers), aspects of Harry’s journey will alter to reflect your personality. For example, if you like to partake in a little drinky-drinky, then cola bottles at an abandoned playground will turn into beer. Or, if the game thinks you’re a bit of a sex-pest, then female characters will be dressed a little more provocatively.

This is how Shattered Memories works. It’s always judging you. It even notes when your gaze lingers a little too long on a filthy poster, or if you care enough to glance at a missing child sign.

The gameplay itself is similarly hair-raising – and all the more brilliant for it. With his smartphone, Harry can take pictures of ghosts, call various numbers strewn about the place, and receive messages from dead people (that is relayed through the Wiimote’s actual speaker). Speaking of the Wiimote, so many incremental objects can be poked, prodded and fiddled with – giving the world a real sense of tactility. And eventually, when the monsters eventually come out to play, all he can do is run – there is no combat in this game.

An absolute must-play. But nothing beats Ninjabread Man on the scar-o-meter.

 

Vanquish

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Format: PS3, Xbox 360

Developer: Platinum Games

Publisher: Sega

Release: 2010

Ahhh, 3rd person shooters. Where would we be without ‘em? Since Shinji Mikami (yep, him again) reinvented the action-horror genre with the horrifyingly brilliant Resident Evil 4 in 2004, it seems that the genre hasn’t progressed a lot since Leon Kennedy’s foray into Europe. With the now-familiar ‘over the shoulder’ view that crams the protagonist into the foreground, TPS games have doggedly stuck to a tried-and-true formula – with perhaps the most famous recent games being Microsoft’s Gears of War series. After all, if it ain’t broke, why fix it? Suda 51 certainly didn’t with Shadows of the Damned.

But for one man, this wasn’t good enough. In 2010, shooting-action received a major kick up the ass with Vanquish – an unreal, lightning fast, bullet-ridden venture that was like the mental lovechild of Dragon Ball Z and Halo. And we have Shinji Mikami to thank for this sublime piece of software – a piece of software that was made by Platinum Games.

And if Platinum Games made it, then you know it’s good.

Set in the near future where the Americans have ventured into the ‘O’ Neil Cylinder’ – a solar-powered space station that acts as a reprieve from the over-populated and polluted planet known as ‘Earth’ – Vanquish begins when an evil terrorist group known as the ‘Order of the Russian Star’ hijacks the tube-shaped wonder city, before blasting San Francisco off the map with a super sun laser. Playing as nicotine-loving DARPA researcher Sam Gideon, your main ace in the hole is the ‘Augmented Reaction Suit’ (ARS), an awesome piece of armour that allows the magic to happen. Basically, This all boils down to Sam and a bunch of other soldiers being sent to the O’ Neil Cylinder to shoot a whole bunch of Ruskie robots (no human enemies here), whilst shouting obscenities and flipping all over the place. It’s as awesome as it sounds.

To put it bluntly, Vanquish makes every other 3rd person shooter look positively archaic in comparison. The fact that it hasn’t been copied since either speaks a lot about the timidity of other developers – or the sheer brilliance of Platinum’s coders. Probably a bit of both. I know I would be terrified if I ever tried to emulate the sheer intensity on offer here.

Right, so think of a TPS game. Okay? Got it. Now, imagine if your character has had a jetpack strapped to his back and his feet, which allows him to perform backflips, cartwheels, and floor-slides. Because that’s what Sam Gideon does. Not only that, but you can still fire your weapon while doing all of this, which gives a whole new layer to the gameplay. In order to stop players spamming Sam’s acrobatics, his suit’s power can easily overheat, adding a risk/reward dynamic that adds a tinge of strategy to the proceedings. At first, this system is quite complicated, and you’ll probably find yourself dying more often than you’d like. However, if you stick with it, a rewarding piece of software will eventually rear its head – one that really flaunts its intricate system. The fact that Sam doesn’t accrue items or skills at all during the (fairly short) campaign really speaks volumes of the talent of Mikami’s motley crew. The only way he gets better is if you get better.

When everything eventually clicks, there’s a sense of nirvana that very few games can achieve. Find Vanquish. Buy Vanquish. And master Vanquish. And cross your fingers that a sequel may rear its beautiful head one day…

2017 Edit: It’s on Steam!

 

Ōkami

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Format: PS2, Wii, PS3

Developer: Clover Studios/Ready at Dawn/HexaDrive

Publisher: Capcom/Activision

Release: 2006 (PS2), 2008 (Wii), 2012 (PS3)

In case you hadn’t realised, the common theme of this feature is about ‘failure’.

Not in terms of quality, but in terms of sales. I mean sure, underperforming games can still make a profit if they’re lucky – but to see such wonderful, original pieces of (dare I say it) art fall by the wayside can be an upsetting experience. Do you, dear reader, must have a beloved game that was misunderstood?

Well, imagine if you love Ōkami – like many people do – only to see it fail over and over again.

Whether it’s the original PS2 release, the 2008 Wii-make, or even the DS sequel Ōkamiden, it seems that those of us who covet the sun goddess Amaterasu are doomed to watch in agony as the masses relentlessly throw money at Call of Dutys and Assassin’s Creeds of this world. Heck, Capcom seems to think this way too. Why else would they continuously re-release it? Why else would they put the game’s eponymous white wolf in bloody Marvel vs. Capcom 3?

For those of you reading this who still haven’t played this gorgeous, ephemeral game, I’m gonna paraphrase Total Recall (the good one), and demand that you get your ass to PSN, and immediately download Ōkami. You’ll even get to dust-off that neglected PS Move.

Why? Because Ōkami is a living watercolour painting – and your controller is the paintbrush.

Almost out-Zeldaing Zelda, Ōkami is an epic (and I mean epic) adventure set within the world of Nippon – a fantastical Japan, basically. After a creeping darkness threatens to envelope the verdant country in a vile blackness, a tree spirit named Sakuya calls forth Amaterasu (the titular sun goddess) in a last-hope bid in ridding Nippon of the evil menace. This is where you come in. Wielding the ‘Celestial Paintbrush’, Ammy (as she’s fondly dubbed by her feisty, flea-sized friend named Issun) can literally paint onto reality itself.

A horizontal dash of ink will ‘cut’ enemies and obstacles in half. Drawing a circle in the sky will create a sun that will give warming light. A circle on dead plants will bring them (and the surrounding areas) back to life. Dotting the screen will send seeds forth, before sprouting and damaging demons. A circle with a small line through it will materialise a bomb. There are so many of these powers to be gained throughout the story, and it’s brilliant how the developers make the world your playground.

And what a world it is. Much like Xenoblade, you’ll find yourself incredulous in thinking that this game ever ran on such ‘weak’ hardware. Grassy fields, towns, cities, beaches, temples, mountains, oceans, swamps, ghost ships… And all of it coated in the splendid ‘sumi-e’ Japanese style that makes this title look utterly unlike any other.

There’s so much more I want to say about Ōkami, but to do so would spoil the surprises. The story is warm, emotional and sometimes very funny, with fabulous characters that – again – wouldn’t be out of place in a Zelda game. And when it finally ends, you’ll thank Capcom for never letting it die.

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