Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Diary Entry #27: Batman and Robin > Arkham Asylum and Budget Nancy Drew

               I recently bought my girlfriend a copy of Arkham Asylum. It sort of looks fun, but I can't quite figure out what's so compelling about the gameplay. Obviously people love all things Batman, but the game mechanics are pretty simplistic. Aside from beating people up and running to the next story point, there's little that makes Arkham Asylum better than classics like Die Hard Arcade.

Batman sprays one of his many, many, many tools at a
Golum in Batman and Robin for the PS1.

               Batman and Robin for PS1 had more depth. The large, open-world Gotham city is a treat to explore despite the game's wonky play controls. While combat and driving take some getting used to, the game's strength is how it borrows concepts from classic NES titles. Batman can visit most areas from the start of the game, but you have to find clues around Gotham to find out where to go next. If you miss or misinterpret these clues, you can end up wandering around forever with little direction. Even when you reach the next area, there are no cutscenes, the only real sign you're supposed to be there being that Mr. Freeze or other bosses are there. This obfuscated design reflects games like Metroid, Rygar, and Castlevania 2, thrusting the player into a large game world with little direction. Even by 1998 standards, obscured design was largely foregone for cinematic storytelling. Batman and Robin: A+. Arkham Asylum: rental material written all over it.

               Actually, I don't know why I feel that way about so many things. Batman and Robin PS1 is better than Arkham Asylum, Dio Sabbath is better than Ozzy Sabbath, etc. Such heretical comments might have me burned at the stake one day, but until then, I'm just going to give A+'s to games that deserve them. 

               Rather than playing important things like all of those ZX Spectrum games or X-Com on PS3, I got hooked on some crappy Nancy Drew game I picked up at the thrift store. Subtitled the Haunting of Castle Malloy, it's the nineteenth Her Interactive's Nancy Drew series, which come May 20th will have reached it's thirtieth entry. I was expecting it to be total garbage shovelware, but it's surprisingly decent.

               After learning that her friend Kyler is being married, Nancy Drew hops on a plane Indiana Jones style to Ireland for the ceremony. I figured that this was going to be a hidden object snoozefest, but instead, I'm greeted with a lengthy intro and some nice point-and-clickery. Very cool. En route to the castle, Nancy is driven off course by what appears to be a ghost!

               The game is split up into two perspectives: an overhead view of a large castle area that acts as a hub for first-person Myst-like zones. 

               The first real puzzle is hardly a puzzle at a all, more of an introduction to the game's play with convention than anything else. After finding Kyler's home, an austere if decrepit Irish castle, the groundskeeper won't let me in. To get in, I have to throw some rocks at the window...

...to get Kyler's attention. She fills Nancy in on some troubling news: her fiance, Matt, is nowhere to be found. Evidently he's quite a prankster, so Kyler's shrugging it off, expecting him to randomly return.

               The puzzles range from pretty clever to mundane fun. Latter puzzles like the one pictured are pretty obvious, probably featured in countless video and computer games since the dawn of the adventure genre, but at least they yield some form of pleasure. 

               This gnome puzzle's solution can be ascertained from reading a book, which is how you end up solving over half of the game. Some book or letter gives you a few clues and you use those to find the answer.

               Interestingly, some puzzles don't really give you an obvious sense of progression. There's a drink mixing game in which you have to make the right drinks and send them off. You have to do this at least once, but after that, you can play the game continuously in order to buy coins. Coins are used to play arcade games or to use the mostly pointless fortune telling machine. 

               At several points throughout the game, this ghost appears and spooks Nancy. It looks good by 1999 standards, but keep in mind this was developed and published in 2008.

               Some sections of the game are downright dreadful, forcing you to collect herbs and play drums. This tells me two things: collecting the stuff is rarely fun and 2008 was the perfect year for semi-casual adventure games to get their DDR on. 

               One portion of the game barely requires any thinking at all. When shearing sheep, you need to add together a number associated with the "family", color, and demeanor of sheep. The game literally tells you the family and color, and all you have to do is determined if the sheep looks mad or not. The result: punk rock sheeps and other puffy things.

               Eventually, Nancy Drew finds a jetpack that allows her to fly over the castle entirely and out into the ocean. I had way too much fun with this. It doesn't take a Nancy Drew buff to realize this is absolutely ridiculous, awful, lame, awesome, unnecessary, and utterly essential. 

               The ghost winds up being a really old woman with a jetpack. She pushes Nancy into a hole, where she finds...

...Matt, who looks like a total tool. Matt tells me I'm in an underground bunker filled with rockets. This small room features four puzzles on a paltry nine screens, a tightly designed finale for the game.

               This chemistry puzzle is easily the most obnoxious. With a little grappling claw, the player has to move around various elements into different little repositories. If the chemical is accidentally touched, grabbed wrong, or dropped before the receptacle, Nancy instantly blows up. The game allows you to immediately continue where you last left off, which makes the entire explosion thing feel gratuitous.

               I don't intend to discuss the game's story or ending at length, but I was amazed at how terrible the ending stills looked. Matt has some serious problems.

               I'm about ninety-nine percent sure the character on the right is CG and the left one is taken from a photo. Before this moment, I never thought about how disturbing a human and Pixar character relationship would actually look. I will never be the same again.

               Two posts back, I really wanted to play Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom, Knights Contract, and Cross Edge. I'm glad I didn't buy them, because I've already lost interest in all three. There's something funny about post-fifth generation console games that makes them seem like mandatory acquisitions one minute and a piece of garbage the next. A perfect example is Virtua Quest, a game I felt like I absolutely needed to play. I bought it, played it for an hour, then threw it to the side. Three years later, no progress. Darksiders, Rage, Bioshock 2, all of these games have collected more dust than gameplay hours. 

               Yet for some reason, I've been really interested in picking up Record of Agarest War 2. The limited edition version featured on eBay, for the same price as it costs at GameStop, features an inflatable doll, an art book, and a towel. The towel is labeled "a wonderful towel experience". Frankly, I'm excited about it. It'll be the first non-stolen towel I've acquired since moving out on my own. I plan on dedicating a post to this whenever I get the set.

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