Now Playing: Tomb Raider (2013)

I have a complicated relationship with the term “gamer.” Specifically, referring to myself as one.

I am quite confident in my geek bona fides, but gaming is another thing. I grew up playing PC games like Oregon Trail and Carmen Sandiego, but I never owned a console until I got a used N64 in college. (This was mainly used to play drunk MarioKart with my roommate.) I would never have considered myself a “gamer.”

It was my husband who really got me into gaming. He showed me the Star Wars RPG Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR), he bought me a Wii, he let me play his account for the beta of my first MMO, SW:TOR, and we watched the Overwatch World Cup together.

So, now I’m a gamer, I guess. Except…I don’t think I’ve ever played a game that he hasn’t played first, or with me. That still makes me feel lacking, like I’m just…borrowing his hobbies, or something.

In my inane desire to change this, I somehow became fixated on Tomb Raider. The original game is a classic, and the 2013 reboot has the dual benefit of being both more feminist than the original and getting good reviews. Also, we already owned the game, and my husband never got around to playing it. I would be on my own.

So, I set the difficulty to “easy” and gave it a shot.

Tomb Raider follows a young Lara Croft on an expedition to find the lost kingdom of Yamatai, but her ship is wrecked and her crew is stranded on a mysterious island with a creepy cult and a strange reluctance to let anyone leave. Lara must crawl through gross caves, explore dark tombs, and go down a lot of zip lines in order to find her crew and get them all off the island.

Lara is exactly the kind of female main character I’ve been waiting for. She’s tough and scrappy, yet fiercely loyal to her crew, especially her best friend Sam. (Sam is a girl; there’s no romance here.) Lara’s got brains, brawn, and heart. Plus her costume redesign is spot on.

The gameplay is fun, and has plenty of assists like auto aim and copious checkpoints to keep it from getting frustrating for n00bs like me. The puzzle-type challenges are my favorite, figuring out how to get from once place to another. Lara gets to use several different weapons and tools, so you can kind of figure out a combat style that best for you as well as best for the situation.

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Yeah, I’ve hit a couple spots I’ve had trouble with. I’m really bad at timing button presses. I also have a tendency to start combat by rushing in and just shooting at stuff without considering options. Usually I’ll hit a “tough combat” and die five times before I realize I was supposed to sneak around, or shoot an explosive to kill all enemies at once, or some other strategy that was obvious once I thought about it for two seconds. This gives me the strange feeling of both chagrin for having to die at least five times before I catch on, but also pride for catching on in the end.

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I’ve enjoyed the story so much that I’m really looking forward to the new Tomb Raider movie coming out this year, which seems like it inspired by this game. Action movies with females leads are still relatively rare, and it would be really great to see this iteration of Lara on the big screen.

So, has playing Tomb Raider made me feel like a real gamer? Actually, kinda. As stupid as it sounds, I do feel more confident in my gaming abilities. Once or twice my husband has actually watched me play a video game for a change, instead of the other way around. I’m never going to play ranked PvP in a first person shooter or anything, but that’s not required and it’s not something I want to do anyways.

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Now Playing: Final Fantasy VII

If you play video games at all, especially RPGs, you’ve probably heard of Final Fantasy VII.  It released in 1997 for the PlayStation and has come to be known as one of the greatest games of all time.

It is certainly one of my husband’s favorite games ever, and he is greatly anticipating the upcoming high-definition remake of the game.  He’s been wanting me to play the game for years; I’ve started it multiple times and never progressed very far (I didn’t even get to the open world map).

So we’re taking a staycation this week and playing FFVII.  Or more accurately, he’s watching me play it (the reverse of what usually happens).

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I’m playing on this actual PS1 and a tiny TV that B first used to play the game in the 90s.

The game follows soldier-turned-rebel Cloud Strife and his party on their quest to save their planet from the evil Shinra corporation and the godlike Sephiroth.  I already know the basic story, and “spoilers” for a 20-year-old game is kind of a silly concept.  I’ve also already seen Advent Children, a movie set after the game.  So I know all the characters, and I know who dies.

My goal for Monday was simply to get farther in the game than I had before (aka, leave the Shinra building), and I was successful!  B gave me a mod that started me with tons of XP and money, so combat is super easy and I don’t have to grind.  This is speeding up the game a lot, and I might actually be able to finish it this week.

As I said, B is watching me play so he can give me advice and help me when I get stuck.  He knows exactly what to do to get specific outcomes.  This is really helpful, because I’m used to relying on game journals in RPGs to remember what I’m supposed to be doing, but FFVII doesn’t have one, and I’d be wasting so much time just wandering around.

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B told me to get the one that shimmers so I get picked by the Don.  But then B fell asleep, and I couldn’t figure out how to get the tiara or makeup.  Aeris got picked.  Oh well.

My biggest challenge starting out was figuring out how to walk in a straight line, and where the paths go.  In my defense, the graphics are not what I’m used to haha.  But I’m getting better.

I’m about 14 hours into the game now, and I’ve gotten out to Midgar onto the world map, crossed an ocean, and learned more about Cloud, Barret, and Red XIII’s backstories.  Red XIII in particular is a favorite of mine; I call him “Red Shii” because of this video.

I’m really enjoying way the story is told, with lots of unfolding mystery and flashbacks.  I also already loved the music, which I’ve seen performed live, and I find myself humming along.

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Shiva, my first summon.  Aren’t the pixels great? >_<

My party is generally either Cloud/Tifa/Aeris or Cloud/RedXIII/Aeris.  Basically, a fighter, a thief, and a magic user.  The materia system is also really fun and I’m trying lots of combos with different characters.

I can already see a little why this game had such a big impact on so many young gamers, including my husband, in the 90s.  Maybe I’ll be playing the remake when it comes out, too!

Now Playing: Life is Strange

After spending last year re-playing KOTOR II, this year my goal is to play some more contemporary games.  I’ve picked up Life is Strange, a light fantasy, graphic adventure game for PC and console; I’m playing it through Steam.

My husband has been bugging me to play this since it came out last year.  He loved it, and our taste in story-based games usually aligns pretty well, so I’ve been looking forward to playing it as well.  (Also, it’s published by Square Enix, which is a recommendation in itself.)

2016-02-07_00001Our protagonist, the doe-eyed Max, has just moved back to her old hometown to attend the prestigious Blackwell Academy with its excellent photography program.

While she may have anticipated the cliques of Mean Girls there, she did not anticipate reuniting with her old best friend Chloe under bizarre circumstances, or a school mystery involving drugs, surveillance, and a missing girl…or suddenly getting a supernatural power that lets her rewind time.

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Max testing out her time control power in the junkyard.

 While the first episode is mainly about Max figuring how to use her new power, the answers to how and why she got it in the first place are slowly building over the series.

I actually watched my husband play the first episode last year, so I already knew the essence of the game.  I’m up to the third episode now.  The gameplay is pretty easy (I’m playing without a mouse, even), and the story and characters are very interesting.

Player choice is another interesting component of the game.  It appears that many different actions and dialogue choices affect the storyline of the game.  It’s even a little ominous when something as simple as watering a plant pops up a little icon at the top of the screen saying “This action with have consequences.”

DUN DUN DUN.

Of course, because Max can rewind a limited amount of time, you can go back and re-do most decisions.  In fact, sometimes you have to try things multiple times, simply to gain more information.  It’s kind of a fun safety net.  I feel like I’m still learning how to use Max’s powers to best advantage, like there’s more I can get out of the game if I apply them better.

I like that there are a small amount of cinematic scenes, but most of the time the player is in control.  And the shift between them is pretty seamless.

I do find the voice acting to be a little awkward at times, trying too hard to make the teenage slang sound natural.  But the scenery and character design are wonderful, and the soundtrack really fits nicely and adds another level to the mood and tone of the story.

Max is a good protagonist, and she’s surrounded by a wonderful supporting cast.  The game does a decent job with diversity of characters, too, especially for being set in an elite boarding school.  In particular, there are many rounded female characters with different personalities and body types, from the science teacher Ms. Grant to the punk, blue-haired Chloe.

I also like that there’s not too much romance going on, and what there is, is subtle.  Max is friends with an adorably geeky boy named Warren, who clearly likes Max but is stuck in the friend zone.  I’m doing my best to get him out, but Max is kinda oblivious.  (Well, she does have a lot on her plate right now…)

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TEAM WARREN

So in short, this is a fun game I’d recommend.  I’m looking forward to finishing it soon and seeing how all my decisions throughout the game turn out in the end.

The cats want me to finish, too, so they can have their lap back.

 

LEGO LOTR

Stack of Christmas video games begging to be played!Just got LEGO Lord of the Rings for Christmas, and I have already played through the “Fellowship” storyline.  (Disturbingly, however, it tells me I have only finished 12.9% of the total gameplay.)  I have played LEGO Star Wars and Harry Potter previously, so I am not new to the series, and I found this to be a really enjoyable addition to the LEGO game line.  And great timing, given that The Hobbit is still in theaters.

The story follows the LOTR movies (including voice clips), a fact which can actually be helpful if you ever get stuck on one of the puzzles and don’t know what it wants you to do next.  Just think about what happens next in the movie and what you can do to approximate that!  I found this game less frustrating in that respect than the first Harry Potter one, where I got stuck on puzzles a lot.

The gameplay is very similar to the other LEGO games.  Different characters have different abilities and items that are needed in different places, and it’s usually pretty clear who needs to do what.  Sam and Legolas are undoubtedly the most useful characters so far.  Sam can plant and dig with his spade, cook with his frying pan, start fires with his tinderbox, climb through tiny hobbit holes, and pull things with his Elvish rope.  (And I love Sam, so I play as him all the time.)  As an elf, Legolas can jump and swing really well, and he fires arrows with his bow.  Frodo is totally useless (and Ring mode is annoying), and frankly so are Pippin, Aragorn, and Boromir, and even Gandalf mostly so far.  Merry can at least fish.

I’ve only hit one real glitch so far.  On Amon Hen, Aragorn and Boromir are fighting an Uruk-hai.  After you attack him while his shield is stuck, you have to let him run away.  If you keep attacking him, it apparently glitches and then the Uruk-hai just stands there, not attacking and not taking damage.  Luckily, there’s a save point there, so it wasn’t too frustrating to have to go back and replay it if it does mess up.

The game is fun with 1 or 2 players.  Combat and coin collection are a little easier with 2 players, but the split screen has not improved from the previous games and I find it a little annoying as the screen splits too easily and can be distracting.    Also, sometimes they have each player as a character in a different location, working on a totally different task, like Gandalf fighting Saruman while Frodo and the hobbits escape the Riders.  This can be really frustrating because when one player makes a move that continues the story, it pulls up a full screen cut-scene, so the other player gets interrupted in what he was doing.  To avoid this, you can sometimes switch characters to be back in the same party again, for example Gandalf changing to be one of the other hobbits, by holding down Y and selecting Sam, etc.

Where this game really shines is the world and environment.  There are lots of free areas that you can just roam around, collecting studs and finding hidden “mithril bricks.”  The scenery is actually really beautiful, and with the music (also from the movies), it really puts you in the Middle Earth mood.

The game is also full of wonderful little details:

  • Tom Bombadil is an unlockable playable character.  He is a “strong” character, and he sings to grow plants!!
  • If you play Weathertop twice, you get an acheivement called “What about second breakfast?” because you made the food twice.
  • When you wear the Mithril Music Boots (which you can craft), it plays the LOTR movie music theme as you walk around.
  • To hit cracked LEGO blocks on the side of walls, one of the taller characters must pick up Gimli and throw him.  So much for “Nobody tosses a dwarf.”  (You can pick up the hobbits, too.)
  • Typical LEGO humor in the cut scenes: Merry and Pippin infiltrate the Rivendell council by wearing fake moustaches, and Celeborn has to go sweep Lothlorien while Galadriel stands around being awesome.

All in all, a big thumbs up from me so far, especially for kids, families, and non-hardcore gamers.  I like it better than Harry Potter, but not as much as Star Wars (but that’s true of the original source material as well as the games, so it makes sense).

Distant Worlds

My husband and I just found out that Distant Worlds is coming to Columbus this weekend!! (And the composer Nobuo Uematsu will be there also.)  We’ve already been once this year, when it came to Pittsburgh.  Here’s what I wrote about the experience back in February:

Last weekend, my husband and I headed to Pittsburgh, just a couple of hours’ drive for us, for the Distant Worlds concert there.  For the non-Maria and Draco obsessed, Distant Worlds is a touring philharmonic featuring music from the Final Fantasy video games.  My husband has been wanting to go for years (and trying to get me to finish playing FFVII for just as long), so when I heard it was coming to Pittsburgh, I bought tickets for us.

I had never been to Pittsburgh before, and I was really pleasantly surprised by the downtown Cultural District.  We easily found cheap parking, everything was very walkable (indeed there were lots of people out and about), and I had trouble choosing where to eat dinner from so many tasty-sounding options.  We had a great dinner at India Palace on 6th St. (good food, not at all crowded) and then walked over to the Benedum Center for the show.

The Benedum is totally elegant and a beautiful concert hall and a great venue for a symphony, but it was a little at odds with the audience, most of whom looked like they were going to a con.  I haven’t seen that much dyed hair all in one place in a while!  Some people even cosplayed; there were several Marias.

All the fandom was actually very refreshing; I am all for getting people who aren’t traditional “classical music fans” into a symphony.  I did have to laugh a little at the two guys next to us who bought a third seat (~$60)for their coats; apparently their world view did not include a coat check.  On our other side was a couple that brought the average age up a bit, and they only looked about 35; they were just some of the few dozen people there that looked like they might not have seen a chocobo before.  I wonder if they were secret FF fans, or simply trying to use season tickets.

The concert itself was great.  The orchestra was composed of mostly local musicians, with Arnie Roth conducting.  The program included lots of old favorites, opening with the Bombing Mission from FFVII.  I LOVED the Chocobo Medley, and Vamo’ alla Flamenco with guest guitarist Shota Nakama was great.  We also got to hear the North American premiere of “Eyes on Me” from FFVIII, performed by Susan Calloway (although my husband prefers this artist for FF vocals), as well as “Blinded by Light” from the new FFXIII.  And we ended by all singing SEPH-I-ROTH! together in “One Winged Angel.”

Overall, it was a totally awesome experience and I would highly recommend seeing Distant Worlds if you are a FF fan, or even just a fan of great orchestral music.  They are visiting lots of cities all across the US and around the world.  And next year will be the 25th anniversary tour, as well.