No Longer Innuendo

At some point, sexual innuendo ceases to be innuendo and instead becomes something else. In Shadows of the Damned, we reach that point before the end of the prologue.

In Shadows of the Damned you take on the roll of Garcia “Fucking” Hotspur. Hotspur is a demon hunter by trade. Having irritated the legions of hell, the head demon decides to attack his home, kidnap his girl, and make disparaging remarks about Hotspur’s “endowments”. Of course, Hotspur won’t take this lying down and chases after the head demon into the underworld.

Gameplay wise, Shadows of the Damned is probably most reminiscent of the Dead Space series. It has mostly melee enemies with a gun wielding, third-person protagonist. They also crib a bit from Alan Wake in that enemies can sometimes get covered in darkness that needs to be cleared before they can be hurt. There’s nothing terribly revolutionary in the gameplay and nothing terribly bad either. Mediocre is the word of the day.

Of course the plot is end to end sexual innuendo or whatever innuendo becomes when it ceases to have any subtlety. Your main weapon is a sentient skull named Johnson. He can take the forms of various weapons–the main of which is the “Boner”. Of course, it fires bones, so that makes it OK, right? At first, it is mildly humorous, but it quickly becomes tired and almost sad. Constant innuendo is not a substitute for humor.

Ultimately, even if you take the best view of the game it is mediocre and mediocre is never worth your time.

Shadows of the Damned: 0

Not Sure Where the Diary Comes In

I’ve never really been a fan of either the Visual Novel or its sub-genre the Dating Sim. Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that the game I bought on a whim during the Linux Steam sale was just such a game. Nevertheless, it was a game that purportedly worked on Linux, so I gave Magical Diary a try.

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The default character name is “Mary Sue”. I’m not sure if the creators were trying to be self-aware and ironic or if someone just gave up.

The premise of Magical Diary is that you’re a “wildseed” magic user–born to normal parents and then whisked away to learn the ways of magic once you reach the appropriate age. The game opens at the beginning of the freshman year of high school for your main character. You have two roommates (the studious one and the sporty/carefree one) and are thrust into the life of a high school magician with very little guidance.

The game progresses in three parts. Firstly, you decide your character’s actions for each week–which classes you’ll go to (or not) each day. In between (and sometimes during) your activities, you might run into the second part which is your standard visual novel type interactions with other students and teachers at the school. The last bit are the periodic “practical exams” wherein your character is dumped into a first-person dungeon and must use their magic to escape.

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Its tough being a beginner–having no skills and all…

Unfortunately, though, each of these bits is rather lackluster. Doing activities during the week grant you a random zero to three point bonus to a relevant skill. The problem is the random bit. Since the game allows saving at any point, the best course of action quickly becomes scumming each week until you get an average or better result. This makes one of the other core mechanics–stress increasing failure rates–into a non-mechanic. If you’re already scumming the random number generator, why not do it a bit more?

The visual novel bits suffer from two main problems. Firstly, there are a large number of characters who seem interesting introduced near the beginning of the game. Of them, almost none can be interacted with. In fact, the number of pursue-able characters in the game is about six. And two of those are incredibly grating. The second is the classic problem of this sort of game–completely unclued events. If you go and look at a calendar of events for this game, there are dozens of missable events which are triggered by going to certain places on certain days. The vast majority of these have no clues to suggest that doing them is any better than doing anything else. These are both classic problems in the genre and new games shouldn’t still be making the same mistakes.

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Maybe I should light this door on fire…
Fire solves many problems…

The dungeons/practical exams are probably the most interesting part of the game. As your character levels up her magic, she gains spells. Mostly, these are useless items kept in a list. Periodically, they might provide an additional option during a visual novel scene. In dungeons, though, you can finally make use of them. The first real exam, for instance, puts you at one end of an empty chasm. If you’ve focused on force magic, you can push a bridge over to fill the gap. If you’ve done teleportation magic and some scrying magic you can just zip across. This does suffer a bit from the Deus Ex Problem: if every school of magic needs a way to succeed then any school of magic can succeed. For instance, it also turns out that having about 30 points to the teleportation school of magic can get you successfully through every single exam, by itself.

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Every Mary Sue character should have cat ear, right? Too bad I couldn’t afford the fairy wings, too. You can see my whole character here.

Perhaps worst of all, though, is that the game lacks real meat. The plot is short, and, because it only covers a single year of school, it lacks anything like finality or resolution. It simply ends. Couple this with its other, more concrete flaws, and it becomes a game that I cannot recommend.

Magical Diary: 0

Evolutionary Optimization

Mobile gaming on phones (and similar devices) is a field that is still trying to gain legitimacy. Though there are many puzzle games and many games which are nothing more than glorified time sinks, some people are trying to bring more substantive gaming experiences to phones. Chaos Rings (Android, iOS) is one of Square-Enix’s forays into this space.

At its core, Chaos Rings is a Japanese-style RPG. It uses a turn-based battle system and random encounters–features common for over a decade. The main unique feature of its battle system is its idea of “pair/solo” actions. When you spend a turn doing solo actions, the system plays identically to most other JRPGs. When you chose to do a pair action, though, both of your characters perform the same action–even if that action isn’t usually available to both characters. For instance both characters could use a multi-attack power that is usually only available to Screenshot_2013-01-09-10-39-20one of the characters. The downside to using pair attacks is that, when pair, the two characters also take damage together and are both hit by attacks that are normally single target.

The real judge of a JRPG’s system, though, is less about what it does and more about the amount of grinding necessary to play the game. It is a greatly unfortunate thing that Japanese-style RPGs far too often substitute grinding for gameplay. While there Screenshot_2013-01-11-10-28-13are cases where grinding is necessary, these cases do seem to be mercifully few and well separated in time. In fact, I believe there were only two bosses in the first scenario that I played that required any grinding at all, and, aside from the super-secret optional boss, there were no other bosses that required grinding in any of the other scenarios.

Screenshot_2013-01-09-06-56-20Of course, the scenarios are what really makes the game. The general premise of each of the scenarios is the same–a group of four couples has been pulled into the Ark Arena tournament. The winning couple will gain eternal life and eternal youth. The losing couples will find only death. What changes in each of the game’s four scenarios is two-fold. First, and most obviously, the characters that you control change. The same four couples are always involved, but the pair the player controls slides about. Second, and more important, the details of plots in the scenarios Screenshot_2013-01-09-06-49-01change: back stories change subtly, personalities shift, and motivations cloud.

While the games areas, monsters, and other assets are mostly unchanged, these changes in the plot slowly unravel the mysteries surrounding the Ark Arena. In fact, the game doesn’t really begin to take shape until you’ve cleared at least one of the scenarios and have a good understanding of the motivations of the Arena’s masters. And that is where the game really begins to shine. Piecing together the motivations, back stories, and tragedies of the characters across the various scenarios makes completing Screenshot_2013-01-13-16-38-03later scenarios more rewarding in some ways than completing the first scenario. As you become more familiar with the characters, there becomes a real desire to see each of their stories to the close.

Chaos Rings is by no means the best game nor the best RPG or even the best JRPG that I’ve ever played. It is, however, one of the best games I’ve yet played on my telephone and perhaps one sign that not every mobile game will be a micro-payment infested grindfest. And for that, it is certainly a game worth playing.

Chaos Rings: 1