First Impressions: Okami HD

By Michael Mendis

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One of the recent trends in gaming is for the bigger game companies to look back into their portfolio of old games and re-release some of them on new consoles.  This gives old games a chance to gain new audiences, and in the process these classics often get a fresh coat of paint thanks to the power of new hardware.  One of the latest games to receive this treatment is Okami, a classic PS2 action-adventure game from 2006.  Directed by famed developer Hideki Kamiya (best known for having directed the critically acclaimed Devil May Cry series), Okami became a cult hit among gamers for its colorful artstyle and clever implementation of Japanese culture.  I never played it back when it first came out, but now that it has been re-released on current generation consoles, I’ve picked up a copy and played a couple hours into the game.

In Okami, you play as the Japanese sun goddess Amaterasu, who has taken the form of a white wolf in order to protect the world from the evil god Orochi.  After a somewhat long-winded intro, you are set free into the game world, restoring the local village and surrounding region that has been attacked by demonic forces.  As you go about your task you encounter a variety of characters, including other divine spirits as well as the simple human residents of the village.  The story being told here (at least at this early point in the game) is fairly light-hearted; your wise-cracking, bug-like companion is a consistent source of comedic relief, and many of the other characters are goofballs in their own ways.

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One of the first things you’ll notice about Okami is its beautiful artwork.   The game’s cel-shaded graphics highlight the vibrant colors filling the screen, and the thick black outlines around the characters and other objects in the environment give the game a cartoony look.  The influence of Japanese culture and art is everywhere, from the pagoda style buildings, to the cherry blossom trees that dot the landscape, to the interesting use of Japanese calligraphy in the gameplay (which I’ll talk more about in a moment).  Putting it all together, it’s a treat for the eyes, and it holds up well despite originally being made over a decade ago.

Not only does the artwork translate well over the years, but the gameplay does, too (though not quite flawlessly).  You spend most of your time roaming through the game world, solving puzzles and engaging in brief skirmishes against monsters.  The controls are smooth and responsive, and the puzzles prove to be simple, yet still quirky and satisfying.  Combat gets a bit repetitive at times, though; new weapons can be equipped to mix up the gameplay, but I have yet to see how much of an impact that will have in the long run.  The lack of an autosave system, while hardly a dealbreaker, does also betray this game’s age.

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Probably the most interesting aspect of gameplay is the paintbrush that you can use to alter the game world.  At any point you can hold down a button that pauses the action and allows you to draw on things in the environment with your paintbrush; through the course of the game you unlock new ways that your brush can affect the world, such as damaging enemies, restoring cursed trees, and accessing new areas.  It’s an integral part of gameplay, and easily the most unique and memorable aspect of the game so far.

All things considered, these first few hours with the game have been quite fun; the colorful artwork, slick controls, and the unique ways it incorporates Japanese culture have rightfully made this game a cult classic, one that holds up fairly well over the years.  It’s awesome that a game like this now has a chance to find new audiences (like me) on new consoles.

First Impressions: Legion TD 2

By Michael Mendis

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While most of my gaming time is spent delving into story-driven single-player games, every now and then I find a multiplayer game that sucks me in and offers me a different way to enjoy gaming.  One such game that has done this for me lately is Legion TD 2, a competitive tower defense game that originated as a mod for Warcraft 3.  This new, standalone title was recently introduced to me by one of my supporters, and it’s a fascinating game that has taken me by surprise with how addicting it is.

In Legion TD 2, two teams of four players defend against waves of enemies that are trying to attack each team’s king.  Each player creates units to defend a single path in which computer controlled monsters will spawn.  If the monsters defeat the player’s units, they proceed downward toward the king; if the player’s units beat the monsters, they teleport down to the king to defend against any monster that made it past your teammates.  The competitive aspect of the game is that you can hire special monsters called Mercenaries to spawn on the opposing team’s side.  Victory in the game requires coordinating with your teammates to decide when you are going to send big Mercenaries to the other side, and managing your resources so that you can both hire units defend your lane and hire Mercs.  Fail to walk those lines, and you'll find yourself falling behind pretty quickly.

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When starting a match, there are five character classes that you can choose from; each class has its own strengths and weaknesses, which provides depth to the gameplay but also means it takes a while to get used to each class.  As you play more matches with each class, you'll gain a better understanding of how to place and upgrade your units in order to maximize their strengths.  I've seen different players use the same class in different ways to defend against the waves of enemies, which indicates that there is a lot of replay value to the game.

At this point in time, there is only a limited tutorial for the game (although this could change, as the game is in Early Access and thus is not yet complete), which means that new players could find it rather unforgiving at first; fortunately, the game forces you to play only against AI opponents for the first few matches, which is easier than fighting other humans.  Playing against AI is also a good way to experiment with classes that you aren’t familiar with.  Once you get past the learning curve, though, the game is a ton of fun; there’s a subtle satisfaction in perfecting your use of a particular class, and seeing your units come out on top against particularly tough monsters.  Even though I’ve logged over 30 hours playing the game, I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface, and that there’s a lot more for me to learn and improve upon as I experiment with new strategies.  Legion TD 2 is a fascinating fusion of competition and cooperation in a genre that could use some fresh ideas, and it’s well worth checking out.

First Impressions: Dungeons & Dragons

By Ben Kieffer

As I began to stumble into dungeons and marvel at the dragons, I spent 5 hours trying to make a character on my own. I knew there was a great depth and variety; as a beginner I wanted a character that was not too complex, and ideally easy for me to understand and utilize.

I set out to read about the types of characters in the Player handbook, but when I was about 5 pages into the first description with all of the attributes, advantages, and added abilities depending on level attained, I gave up. I resolved to find a dwarf fighter that could work without too much complication. For whatever reason a dwarf fighter seemed to make the most sense because I’m not that tall and in my mind the goal is to fight the dragons or whatever type of villain I’d come across.

After the grueling hours of looking over the handbook and searching for tips online I asked my friend/Dungeon Master for help. I would soon relearn the lesson I had learned and forgotten so many times: NEVER underestimate the variety of material that the gaming community produces. My Dungeon Master quickly found a base model dwarf fighter pre-made. PRE-MADE!! It was exactly what I was looking for! But was just one turn beyond my grasp (if only I had dark vision).

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Once the character was ready I joined the group for the first night of adventure in the collective imagination. I introduced myself with the first cool potentially dwarf sounding name I could think of: “Wolfgang.” I was met with laughs and one of my new comrades asked if my character’s last name was Hasselhoff. So, I obliged, not sure if I needed a last name, but sure that I wanted to be on the good side of the people I’d be adventuring with.

It took me a while to understand that there was a planning phase and acting (or fighting) phase. I was ready to take my battle axe at anything that moved, but spent a lot of the first few turns just following people around and agreeing with their assertions.

The ghoulish zombie things in the village quickly became an issue and that is where the game came alive for me. I found great pleasure in describing how I would lift my battle axe up over my head, swinging it down in an arc and aiming to sever the left knee of the zombie ghoul from its already stinking leg. Then, with the roll of a die, I would find out if my efforts were effective and the bad guy was playing hopscotch, or if I rolled a two and for some reason, with all my vivid description, my axe took an inexplicable turn for the ground near his foot, leaving me (a small, yet strong dwarf) axe in the ground looking up at the thing and wishing I could have rolled a 19.

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I soon learned that my action was just one in a string of the actions of my teammates. I also found that not all of them wanted to be called my teammates and share my virtual orange slices and juice boxes after the round. For a moment, I thought “well this guy’s kind of a jerk and isn’t in the spirit of the game.” But then I realized he was just playing his character, and his character was really cool and didn’t like oranges.

It was pretty easy for me to do the planning stages because as a dwarf; I generally went along with the group and was ready to fight when necessary. It turned out to my advantage to be a player that was kind of predictable to the group and reliable in that I would just keep swinging just keep swinging at anything that bothered us. It didn’t hurt that as a dwarf fighter I had some numerical help in getting critical hits with the dice.

After the weekly adventures came to a close I reflected on how amazing it was to have the various online services that handle the game play, the conversations, the rule book, everything. But I did come away thinking it would have been fun to do in person, to see the facial expressions of each player as they make their moves and describe their actions. However, being in different geographical places made this impossible.

If I had the opportunity to play again, I would probably go along with the group, then rush headlong into the night, forgetting the dark vision, axe in hand, ready to swing for the knees of anyone who wants to mess with my friends, because I am Wolfgang Hasselhoff the dwarf fighter.