Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak Review

I reviewed Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak over at Tech-Gaming.com

" Players looking for an engaging single-player game with an interesting plot behind and accessible difficulty will be pleased whereas those looking for a challenge will likely be disappointed. "

You can read the full review here.

Final Fantasy is dead. Long Live Final Fantasy

There was once a time in gaming when the Final Fantasy series were synonymous with high quality, there have even been industry professionals who claimed the success of Sony’s Playstation and Playstation 2 consoles were due in part to Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy X. Yet, it seems the series underwent a shift shortly after the series’ tenth main iteration which would slowly cost Square-Enix much of its fanbase.

Spin-offs, online games and experimentation were introduced to Final Fantasy with varying degrees of success and acceptance. It’s natural for a business to try new things for a long-running series, lest it falls into a repetitive slump, though sadly, this franchise seems somewhat directionless for roughly a decade now.

Final Fantasy is hardly a newcomer to experimentation

Perhaps the main reason behind this apparent change stemmed from the fact series creator, Hironobu Sakaguchi and much of his team left shortly after the completition of Final Fantasy X.  However, as I played Final Fantasy Type-0 HD, I made a distinct realization; every Final Fantasy since 13 should have been its own separate series.

Much of the original team is no longer part of Square-Enix. Final Fantasy 13 was directed by Motomu Toriyama and if Wikipedia is to be believed, his work for Square dates as far back as Bahamut Lagoon. However, his role was always one of story or event planning. It wasn’t until the fan-divisive Final Fantasy X-2 that he took on a directing role.

Indeed, this gives us a clear timeline. Final Fantasy X-2 marked an unprecedented management decision for the series; we could now expect sequels to story events. Up to that point, each installment had been its own self-contained world, plotline and narrative rule system, but now, we could learn what happened to our favorite characters after they had saved the world.

Final Fantasy X was something of an odyssey. Players would embark on a journey that conveyed Spira’s lore, religion and society in great detail. Citizens lived in a conservative world heavily ruled by institutionalized religion. Yet, in Final Fantasy X-2, the changes in how people dressed, behaved and acted were like night and day despite only taking place after the events of its predecessor. Suddenly people would wear revealing garbs and Yuna herself, a shy girl who always dressed conservatively, is now a skimpily clad gun-toting mercenary who will occasionally sing at the odd J-pop concert.

This is a jarring experience to say the least, as the drama-heavy dialog this series has accustomed its fanbase gives way in favor of a writing style that seems to have been pulled from the Charlie's Angels remake. Everything and everyone is happy-go-lucky, little detail is put into this world or its changes and the overall plot takes a backseat in favor of comic-relief and the occasional fan-service.

Despite these changes the gameplay was still decidedly Final Fantasy, and it featured one of the best combat and class systems the series has ever seen. Many considered the final product disappointing, but still, it was not without merit.

Yuna, what happened to you?

Jumping 10 years into the future, we see Motomu Toriyama reprise his role of Director for Final Fantasy 13. Back then, Square-Enix had already lost some of its fanbase but it was still considered the gold standard for JRPGs and Final Fantasy 13 seemed like the big one, it was flashy, lofty promises were made and a long development cycle ensured hype was at an all-time high… and then it happened. L’cies, Fal’cies, Pulse, Cocoon, Focus and many other shiny words and terms were thrown around with little time spent on actually explaining what they all meant. Towns were and locations were removed ensuring players had no time to digest all the information as they were forced to go from plot-point to plot-point.

Even the combat was drastically altered, sacrificing the series’ turn-based combat in favor of a real-time affair (though in fairness, Final Fantasy 12 dipped its toes in these waters first).

It seems like apart from a few names there was nothing here that seemed related to a Final Fantasy title, story or gameplay-wise. This was perhaps Square-Enix’s failing, had Final Fantasy 13 been given its own original name and series, no one would bat an eye. It would be seen as its own stand-alone series and it would have been judged by it. Instead, a game that is “okay” was considered one of the worst games of its year by gamers.

As if to add fuel to the fire, two direct sequels were developed, both of which further explored the lore, characters and world of Final Fantasy 13. Never before have so many efforts been made to flesh out the story of main Final Fantasy game. Even Final Fantasy 7’s spin-offs seemed to have been developed on smaller budgets and by back-up teams rather than being given AAA budgets and Square-Enix’s main internal team.

Once the storyline in these sequels was finished most assumed the age of l’cies was finally at an end, but they were wrong. Final Fantasy Type-0 HD uses the exact same language, l’cies are prominent in its story and once again, they’re never properly explained to the player. In fact, the first few hours of Type-0 feel oddly reminiscent of Final Fantasy 13 in how overflowing with information they are, giving you no time to sit down and soak it all.

Luckily, Final Fantasy Type-0 does settle down and gives players the opportunity to explore the world at a leisurely pace, but the dialog and narrative elements introduced make one thing clear; this game is set in the same world as the Final Fantasy 13 series.

Suddenly, there’s a stronger connection between entries, players are required to know what a l’cie is, and the narrative rules by which they abide remain consistent between installments.  The l’cie exist here and like their Final Fantasy 13 counterparts, they too have a focus to complete and will turn to crystal once they do. So with that in mind, we can continue the timeline.

Of course, some may claim that certain elements remain consistent throughout the series. Summons like Ifrit or Shiva are prime examples, but while their presence and powers stay the same, their rules do not. Their names will change from Aeons to summons or GFs depending on which Final Fantasy you’re playing whereas l’cie are still called l’cie. The rules of calling summons would also change between games, in Final Fantasy X it was made clear aeons were made from the souls that were never sent to their final resting place, GFs from Final Fantasy 8 on the other hand are mystical creatures that reside within your own memories. l’cies remain l’cies, their rules remain consistent. Even Final Fantasy Type 0 HD’s subtitle “Fabula Nova Crystallis” hints that it’s a continuation of Motomu Toriyama’s past work.

Reading this one would assume the Final Fantasy formula as we know it came to an end, and in many ways it did, but this isn’t the first time this series underwent a similar transformation. During the NES and SNES days, the plot in every Final Fantasy game centered around crystals which protected the world until they were destroyed in Final Fantasy V. Starting with the sixth entry, the crystals stopped being a focus and thematically, the games shifted more and more from a fantasy to setting to steampunk, futuristic and modern ones. With this in mind, we can craft a full Final Fantasy timeline and how each game connects.

(I advise you click on the image)

With this said, the issue that should be discussed here is not whether recent Final Fantasy entries are good or not, but rather it’s the expectations players have with them. The games we’ve gotten recently should have been their own distinct series, instead Square-Enix ensured the series would continue, but that the product delivered had its own distinct feel.

Finally, the franchise found new life with the Crystallis saga. Perhaps, it would have been better off to view every Final Fantasy game between 13 and Type-0 HD as its own interconnected saga, the Crystallis saga, and separate from its older Final Fantasy brethren. Of course, the question now remains whether the Crystallis saga will continue, if Final Fantasy returns to its roots or if it will evolve into a new, entirely separate affair.

Legacy of Kain Defiance

Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Publisher: Eidos

After a series of highs and lows both sales and quality-wise, the Legacy of Kain franchise had become diluted. No longer were there any discernible traces of its Legend of Zelda gameplay origins, and all Tomb Raider influences had mostly dissipated by this point. The series had also fallen out of favor with critics and gamers alike, as each installment scored and sold progressively less. Perhaps in an attempt to save a dying franchise, efforts were put into re-inventing it once again, this time taking cues from Capcom’s popular Devil May Cry titles. 

Indeed these were trying times for Legacy of Kain fans and the next entry, Legacy of Kain: Defiance would be instrumental in gauging whether or not this was the last we’d hear from our two anti-heroes. Of course, it’s now been 12 years since we’ve journeyed with either Kain or Raziel, so needless to say, Defiance didn’t sway the hearts of naysayers and the franchise now rests in limbo.

Most likely, the order to split the franchise in two series had also been recalled due to the disappointment known as Blood Omen 2. Now, players would be able to play as both Kain and Raziel in a shared game and timeline, though not at will. Rather, as the story progressed, we would be handled control of either one or the other.

Taking place after the events of Soul Reaver 2, players once again take control of the titular Kain, this time finally reunited with his sword, the Soul Reaver. This time however, the sword has yet to be imbued with the power to devour souls, instead, it will drain all blood from Kain’s foes. It may seem like an unnecessary plot point, but in actuality, this serves to explain why even regular Sarafan warriors require several hits before perishing. Raziel also lost the elemental powers gained in the previous game, having to recover them yet again.

Legacy of Kain: Defiance places a greater emphasis on fast-paced combat than its predecessors did. Your characters now move much faster and chain combos similar to Capcom’s Dante. However, your moveset is rather limited and even though new abilities can be earned it never feels as though you have a large array of combinations to pull off. Enemy variety is equally average, providing little challenge or need to perfectly master either of our anti-heroes.

The environmental hazards from Soul Reaver 1 also make a return though their importance is considerably downplayed. You may employ telekinetic attacks to project enemies against spikes, fires or throw them off bridges. In many ways this greatly simplifies battles though I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t immensely satisfying. Better yet, statues and handrails can break off when foes are telekinetically propelled onto them, it almost makes me wish a greater emphasis had been placed on these abilities for both combat and puzzle solving.

Both Kain and Raziel will improve their respective physical and spectral reavers throughout their journey. A far greater emphasis is placed on the fallen angel of death though, as he earns roughly twice as many upgrades as his vampiric counterpart. When upgraded, the reaver can charge whenever a quick succession of strikes is hurled at foes. Once fully charged, all regular attacks will issue a secondary status effect depending on the element chosen ranging from knockback, to slowing foes or even freezing them. Finally, by pressing and holding the attack button, players may release the reaver’s full charge spreading a more powerful version of its status-altering abilities.

In Raziel’s case, reaver upgrades will also add platforming / puzzle-solving abilities including the ability to go invisible, create platforms for which to jump on, scalable walls and more. With Kain, these upgrades are far less pronounced and only some grant non-combat abilities.

Although we take control of both Kain and Raziel throughout this experience, they play almost exactly the same. Both use the same basic and advanced combos, some must be acquired by gaining experience and although each has their own XP bar, they earn the same exact moves.

The game is a mostly linear affair, players may backtrack to previous areas, but save for the occasional health and telekinesis upgrade there’s very little reason to do so. Throughout this journey, either Kain or Raziel will visit previous locations such as Vorador’s Mansion and the Sarafan stronghold, both of which look fairly faithful to their previous incarnations. The same can’t be said for the pillars of Nosgoth though, in many ways their surrounding area seems completely different from what we’ve previously witnessed.

This series has always been known for its strong narrative focus and though Legacy of Kain: Defiance sees the return of Amy henning at the writing helm, the story is not as engaging as it was in Soul Reaver 2. In fact, for the first half Defiance drags on both gameplay and plot-wise. It wasn’t until we begin to approach the climax that it finally became interesting.

On some level it seems the time and/or budget for Legacy of Kain: Defiance seems to have been constrained. For example, rather than discovering ancient vampiric temples, Raziel stumbles upon portals leading him to different parts of the same temple. The issue here being that much of the thrill that comes with exploring and discovering long forgotten temples is now lost. Worse still, the action is now broken up and players are propelled to nearly identical locations time and time again. Oddly enough, the entire adventure makes for a short endeavor as it can be finished in just one day with no replay value added.

In Soul Reaver 2, temples had a theme related to their element, making each location visually unique. Here, they all look the same and carry no theme. Even Raziel’s monologues and lore retrieved from exploring their murals have been severely toned down. 

Legacy of Kain: Defiance also suffers from the occasional bug or glitch. These were mostly fixed for the US release, but if you’re playing on a PAL system like I am, you might run into sections where the camera becomes stuck or Raziel falls through the floor into nothingness.

As the story draws to its conclusion several loose points are eventually addressed though they mostly ignore Blood Omen 2. We also finally witness the showdown between Kain and Raziel though its conclusion is less than satisfying. 

It’s sad to see that series which held so much promise fade away and wither. A succession of questionable decisions on a management level and game design diluted much of the formula and story. Even more egregious is the fact this franchise never reached a proper conclusion, with many of the evils being driven back, but not fully defeated. To this day the Legacy of Kain series still holds a loyal fanbase to which I consider myself a part of it, but sadly, looking at them over a decade later, it’s obvious the games require an overhaul and a focus on what made them so strong both gameplay and narrative-wise.

- Fast paced combat is probably the best in the series
- Telekinetic powers are quite fun
- Despite a slow start, the second half and climax are quite interesting

- Short and repetitive
- Feeling of exploration from past entries is gone
- The first half of the game is terribly uninteresting
- A disappointing ending that opens up room for a sequel that never came.

Final Grade: C+

I can't say I'm a fan of the cover art, it screams generic action game. I also find it odd that Kain and Raziel are staring at two different points, not to mention, we never actually see them fighting together throughout the game.

The manual is probably the best I've seen for the series so far though. It features plenty of full-colored screenshots, accurately condenses the storyline thus far and even features profile descriptions for both Kain and Raziel.

Of course, it also goes into a fairly lengthy detail on how to play Legacy of Kain: Defiance, though it does spoil many of the abilities players will gain as they progress through the main storyline.

Overall, it's a standard packaging, the cover doesn't impress me, but the manual makes up for this. It's sad Eidos didn't include a hologram cover like they did with the original Soul Reaver, but I suppose at this point even the publisher had fallen out of love with the series.

Packaging Grade: B-

Rivers of Alice Review

"It’s likely those who play adventure games to be challenged or engage themselves in a well-written narrative will be disappointed by this release. However, those who value an emotional journey over a cohesive plot will likely be drawn to The Rivers of Alice’s singular visuals and audio while a brief length and accessible difficulty level pose a welcome experience for beginners."

Check out the full review over at Tech-gaming

Poncho review

Poncho is a game filled with beautiful ideas, both in narrative and in concept. Shifting between background planes opens a world of possibilities and fully encourages exploration, but it comes with its own grievances as well. An over-abundance of backtracking, secret paths necessary to progress and challenge repetition will mar the experience somewhat. Regardless, anyone willing to look past these will find a mostly non-intrusive philosophically engaging storyline coupled a retro themed, visually stunning experience. "

Check out the full review over at Tech-Gaming

Legacy of Kain: Blood Omen 2

Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Publisher: Eidos

To say the Legacy of Kain series had an inconsistent output throughout its iterations would be something of an understatement. Soul Reaver featured a brilliant execution on the aging Playstation, but it spawned a disappointing sequel while Blood Omen failed to deliver on its lofty promises. Yet, this vampiric franchise hadn’t truly hit its low point until Blood Omen 2, a title which seems to miss almost every mark set by its predecessors.

Upon Soul Reaver’s critical and commercial success, Eidos mandated that the franchise be split in two; Blood Omen which would be focused on a younger Kain before his rise to power and Soul Reaver which follows Raziel in his quest for vengeance. Sadly, Crystal Dynamics already had its hands full with the Soul Reaver games and so a different team within the studio was tasked with handling Blood Omen 2. However, in a story that is not at all dissimilar with past entries, Blood Omen 2 wasn’t created from scratch; rather, an existing project was adapted into it.

Many retro gamers may be familiar with a Sega Genesis/ Mega Drive action platformer by the name of Chakan: The Forever Man. What they may not know is that a Dreamcast sequel was in development before being canceled due to the console’s demise. In essence, Blood Omen 2 is what became of this project, taking many locations, characters and concepts, combining them with yet another unreleased title known only as Sirens.

This hodgepodge of ideas and game design had to be retrofitted so as to fit the Kain mythos all while being helmed by a different team. It’s true this story is similar to that of Soul Reaver itself and that it proved to a winning formula, but sadly, this was not the case here. Blood Omen 2 ignores almost every convention set by previous entries holding only the most tenuous of connections to the Legacy of Kain franchise.

Taking place between the events set in Blood Omen and Soul Reaver, we learn there was a period when Kain’s conquest of Nosgoth came to a sudden halt as the self-appointed vampiric monarch died by the hand of a newly formed Seraphan crusade. Thankfully, vampiric allies were able to resurrect a weakened and amnesiac Kain 200 years later during a time where this new force controls the entirety of Nosgoth and vampires have once again been driven to near-extinction.

Plot-wise Blood Omen 2 seems unnecessary, the setting doesn’t add value to the series' arching plot, making it seem like the entire adventure is a mere pit stop instead of a grandiose undertaking. Worse still, as the game progresses, many narrative elements raised contradict events in previous games. Characters who were killed off walk amongst the living once more with no explanation as to why. Important developments which should have affected previous (and future) games are raised only to never be heard from again upon Blood Omen 2’s conclusion.

Even the dialogs were massively scaled back, featuring none of the series’ florid monologues or long, theatrical character interactions. Actors who once shared great chemistry together now seem stiff and wooden though one can hardly blame them, even the best performer would struggle to draw any artistic flare from these conversations. In fact, Blood Omen 2 doesn’t have a story so much as it has people giving you orders.

The tone has changed quite a bit as well; if previous game entries felt as though they were written by someone who held extensive Shakespearean knowledge then Blood Omen 2 seems as though it was created while listening to Evanescene or some other edgy band. This isn’t to say there is no artistic value in this approach, but the tonal shift is staggering and not at all positive. Kain is now (even more) needlessly aggressive, spouting cheesy one-liners and generally acting more like an aggressive teenager rather than a centuries old vampiric nobleman.

Changes were not limited to intangible elements as Blood Omen 2 now braves into a more action focused gameplay. The open words of past entries have now been replaced with linear stages, players are expected to go from point A to point B with little to no exploration ever being encouraged or even rewarded. More often than not, veering off the beaten path results in hitting invisible walls. Instead, Kain is expected to force through enemies and guards, most of which will attack on sight.

Battles have little variation to them, as players are only given a handful of possible moves, including a simple three-hit combo, blocking, side-stepping and throwing. Weapons may also be picked up, but these bring no new moves and generally only add incremental damage. This of course means once you’ve weilded a weapon, you’ve weilded them all, adding to the feeling of repetition.

Some light platforming, puzzle and stealth sections are used to diversify gameplay, but these, much like the combat itself, are often unsatisfying. All of them are under-developed and pose no challenge, often employing the same trick countless times between levels. For example, all stealth sections require players to traverse through limited, foggy areas, stand behind their foes and perform a killing blow. Puzzles often require you to either press levers, push blocks or both. Even the platforming sections are overly simplistic and manageable, with the greatest challenge stemming not from level design, but from Blood Omen 2’s stiff controls.

It wasn’t uncommon for me to try to and jump forward only to see Kain jump straight up with no forward momentum. Other times I had trouble walking where I wanted to, dodging strikes or even picking up weapons.

Every couple of levels Kain must face-off against a boss, whose defeat grants the titular character a new ability similar to what we’ve witnessed in Soul Reaver. These can either be powerful combat moves which must be charged by blocking strikes or puzzle/platforming skills. They were my main motivator to progress through the main campaign though towards the later stages frustration and boredom had become a common mainstay.

Unlike previous games, death is a real threat. Should kain fall into water, a bottomless pit or die from combat, all progress will scale back to the last checkpoint, reviving all foes and resetting any puzzles or plot events. Most of these tasks are already monotonous by themselves, but they become truly egregious in later stages due to particularly aggressive and defensive NPCs.

Upon striking a killing blow onto an opponent, Kain may draw their blood to replenish the player’s health. Feeding accumulates ‘lore’, acting as a make-shift experience bar, when filled, players win a permanent health bonus, though anyone hoping for skills points or the ability to improve existing skills will be sorely disappointed.

Adding insult to injury, Blood Omen 2 is not nearly as technically sound as Soul Reaver 2 despite launching a year later. Graphically, character models have taken a step back from their detailed, expressive selves. In Soul Reaver 2, dialog sequences were lovingly adorned with facial expressions for each line, whereas now, those very same characters are as dull and lifeless as the lines they speak. This Playstation 2 version also suffers from persistent framerate stuttering as the console struggles to stream each level without needing to pause the action in order to load. Oddly enough, even the stages and environments seem smaller and claustrophobic when compared to the large open spaces traversed by Raziel.

As a Legacy of Kain title, Blood Omen 2 is a farcry from its predecessors featuring none of their strengths be they narrative, artistic or gameplay-wise. On its own merits, it's still a below average title, suffering from repetitive combat, an overabundance of bland puzzles and uninspired platforming coupled with a barely coherent plot, needlessly edgy dialog, unlikable main character and framerate issues. At the end of the day, Blood Omen 2 bares few redeeming features.

Trivia: Did you know Blood Omen 2 originally began as a sequel to Chakan: The Forever Man? The finished product also threw in elements from another game called Sirens and added the Legacy of Kain lore onto it

- We finally get to play as young Kain in 3D
- Interesting locations
- Good character design

- Framerate issues
- Repetitive combat, uninteresting platforming, puzzle and level design
- Story, characters and voice acting are a farcry from previous games
- Barely feels like a Legacy of Kain game

Final Grade: D

For all my criticisms of the game, I have to say this is a fine cover. Not only is it eye-catching, it manages to properly convey what Bloog Omen 2 was aiming for. My only criticism here is that Kain is weilding the Soul Reaver, something which won't happen until the last few minutes of this title.

Inside you'll find an Eidos catalog, a manual featuring an alternate cover, the disc and a registration card. It's interesting how Eidos was hoping to entice gamers to register by giving away a pair of VR goggles, I can only hazard a guess as to how akward these must have been if we consider the fact this technology still has a long way to go over a decade later.

I was satisfied with the manual, it held a pleasing design that fit with Blood Omen 2's theme. It accurately summarizes events leading up to the game and manages to give detailed instructions on how to play. Sadly, it contains a few minor spoilers by providing bios for characters who will appear in later stages, but considering how Blood Omen 2's plot was never great to begin with, no great loss here.

The catalog features several titles both published and developed by Eidos including Deus Ex, Time Splitters 2, Soul Reaver 2 and of course, Blood Omen 2. Most games shown here include a quote from the media and I couldn't help but chuckle when Power Magazine stated Blood Omen 2 was a "blockbuster in the making", AH! Hardly.

Overall, I was quite pleased with the packaging, it's a step above of Soul Reaver 2's, if only I could say the same for the game.

Final Grade: B+

Primal Carnage: Extinction

" Primal Carnage: Extinction is an interesting experiment in gameplay, balance and theme, but one which ultimately fails to deliver on a compelling, lasting experience. It suffers from limited content, unbalanced factions and little gameplay variation. "

Check out the full review over at Tech-Gaming