Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Paper Mario: Color Splash [Review]

This product was provided to me by Nintendo. Opinions are my own.
It's the game hated by the masses as early as its first reveal trailer, and now it's here to make those conclusion jumpers eat their words. Well, partially at least.

Color Splash is indeed reminiscent of Sticker Star in many ways, but it improves on the Sticker Star formula almost everywhere. It ought to go without saying (but clearly it doesn't) that one's enjoyment of Paper Mario: Color Splash is likely to come down to personal taste. Therefore, as you should with every game review, you should be reading this review to understand what the game is like in order to make your own prediction about whether you'll like it based on your tastes in games.

The Story
Our story begins with Mario and Princess Peach receiving a letter which actually turns out to be a paper Toad, cruelly folded up into an envelope and drained of its color. With their detective-like deduction skills (of checking the postmark), Mario and Peach head off to Port Prisma to investigate, only to find the town vacant and filled with spots drained of color. To make a short story shorter, Mario gets a floating paint bucket companion who imbues his hammer with the ability to splash paint and restore color to the world, and the two of them go on a quest to retrieve the Big (and mini) Paint Stars and stop whoever is behind the army of color-slurping Shy Guys (gee, I wonder who it could be). That's the plot, and although the game takes a good 25 hours or more to finish, the story only slightly develops beyond that point for the entire game. Even though Peach periodically sends letters and the Big Paint Stars show you their memories after you save them, these all end up being just a tease at a plot that could have been, and rarely actually provide any new information.
This is where I'd put my plot... IF I HAD ONE!
However, while the main story is rather thin, the game's structure of being divided up into many levels on a map screen results in many shorter stories that span one to four areas a piece. They're all just arbitrary objectives that happen to get you to the next Paint Star for one reason or another, but they're also all quite charming and filled with unique characters (well, pretty much they're all Toads, but these Toads have more personality than ever). It also can't be overstated how well done the game's writing is. The English translators did a fantastic job of giving everyone memorable personalities and filling the dialogue to the brim with humor that'll appeal to a variety of players. Not only is the writing laugh-out-loud funny, but there are many situations, puzzles, and animations that serve no other purpose than to add humor to the game. It's the sort of thing that you wouldn't expect the designers to put the time and effort into, but the fact that the setups for humor are more elaborate than usual from a game design standpoint makes them all the more unexpected and amusing.

The Overworld & Gameplay
Compared to the first two Paper Mario games, Color Splash's focus lies more in overworld exploration and puzzle solving, than in strategic RPG-style battling (more on battles later). Each of the game's many areas is accessed via an expansive map screen, and new areas are revealed and linked together on the map whenever you acquire a mini Paint Star. Sometimes getting these Paint Stars is as easy as getting to the end of the level as you would in a typical 2D Mario game, but usually you'll need to solve puzzles, talk to NPCs, and battle enemies along the way. You'll have to use all of the moves at your disposal to progress... but unfortunately, there aren't actually that many moves at your disposal.
Click to enlarge
Mario can jump, hammer, paint with his hammer, and cut out chunks of the background on the GamePad in specific locations. Jumping and hammering are exactly what you'd expect, though there is one variation thanks to "Unfurl Blocks" which, when hammered, start a countdown during which you have to find and hit a marked object to make it unfold into some useful structure. Painting with the hammer can be used to fill in the many colorless spots to reveal coins and extra cards (for battling and/or collecting), and to restore the function of an object (for example, coloring a pipe to make it work or a box to make it destructible - these are usually the only objects you're actually required to paint). For completionists, each level tracks the percentage of colorless spots you've filled in; get 100% on a level, and you'll be rewarded with some music in the museum back in Port Prisma. Mario's final ability is cutting stuff out. At certain points, the edges of objects and terrain will shift in perspective to make perfect lines, or there may be card-shaped boxes in the background. In these cases, pressing the Y button will reveal a dotted line which matches up with the suspicious spots and transfers the view to the GamePad where you can trace along the line to temporarily cut out that chunk of the scene. Doing so can allow you to place "Thing" cards to solve puzzles or to walk on top of the background to traverse otherwise impossible gaps or climb to unreachable heights.
Cut out a chunk of the screen, make stairs.
Unfortunately though, these are all of Mario's abilities for the entire game (though there are a couple level specific gameplay variations, such as riding a dragon or pirate ship). The overworld gameplay is solid and entertaining, but unlike previous games in the series which rewarded Mario with at least one new ability per chapter in the form of a partner or new equipment, in Color Splash, you'll pretty much see all of the gameplay the game has to offer in the first couple hours. The rest of the game, while well designed, merely uses the same simple abilities in different variations. Arguably, this is the game's greatest flaw; you'll master Mario's handful of skills almost immediately and for the rest of the game, nothing new is added to keep the gameplay fresh. Everything is still beautifully colored, filled with fantastic music, artistically built with the paper aesthetic, and designed with some decent puzzles and level design, but by the end of the game it all starts to feel a bit stale, like the same old things over and over, just with a new coat of... uh... paint.
Well, it's later in the game now and we're still painting pipes to activate them.
Before moving on to explaining how the battle system works, there are a couple other things worth mentioning about the overworld puzzles in Color Splash. The first of which is "Things". These are rarer, three-dimensional objects which you can squeeze the color from and turn into cards for later use. They'll act as cinematic special attacks in battle (and major bosses typically require a specific Thing card to beat) and they can be placed in certain places outside of battle to solve puzzles (using a fan to blow a ship's sails, for example). Unfortunately, placing a Thing card uses it up, so if you make a mistake, you'll have to backtrack to find another. Fortunately, the puzzles which use Things are far more obvious than they were in Sticker Star, Things you've found in the past can be easily bought in Port Prisma, and better yet, there's a Toad nearby the Thing shop who will give very clear hints as to which Things you'll be needing next and which level you can find them in if you missed them somehow.
Click to find hot grills in your area!
The other thing to mention is that progressing the story in one area sometimes has an effect in another area (for example, a train moving from one level to the next). The most notable recurring form of this is the Toad Rescue Squads, each of which are made up of varying numbers of colored Toads who are scattered across each area and who must be found and told to return to their leader in order to make more progress in their leader's area. Finding them all feels like the sort of thing that might be a side quest, but it turns out that it's required in every case. This could have turned into a nightmare of replaying every area over and over to try to find the Toad you missed, but once again there's a helpful Toad in Port Prisma who will tell you how many lost Toads are in which areas, just in case you miss them on your first time through. The main map also has helpful icons to mark unfinished business in each area, including Toad Squad leaders who are waiting for their team. Overall, what could have turned into a backtracking nightmare is generally not a problem thanks to very clear hints and hard to miss essential Things and Toads..

Battles
Click to enlarge (hah, that pun was accidental!)
The combat in Color Splash is fairly unique and different from most RPGs, though very similar to that in Sticker Star. Essentially, every action that Mario can perform in battle is represented as a single use card, and these cards are scattered around everywhere in the world, or can be bought at the shop in Port Prisma. As was the case in every other Mario RPG, each attack has a certain timing-based press of the A button which determines the damage output. Damage output is also determined by the card itself (a large hammer vs. a broken hammer) and by how much paint is applied to the card. You can tell how much damage you've dealt, not by numbered hit points, but by seeing how much paint you've drained from the enemy's body. Many cards come fully colored, but others are blank and are far more effective when colored in with Mario's paint supply. Paint is limited, but defeated enemies drop more, as does hitting environmental objects with your hammer, so running out of paint is rarely an issue. Running out of cards, however, can be an issue if you decide to fight every enemy in your path. But Color Splash is not a game that encourages level grinding; the only useful things that defeated enemies drop are hammer tokens which gradually level up your max paint. Since there's little reward for fighting unnecessary enemies, it's more accurate to look at them as environmental hazards which are there to be dodged in order to not waste resources which would be better spent on mandatory battles. You may be tempted to run from unnecessary battles to save cards, but this is a gamble between wasting health and wasting cards, since the success rate for escape is random. It's better to avoid optional fights in the first place - or, later, to hit weaker enemies with a preemptive strike to defeat them in one hit and skip the fight entirely. Though if you do run out of cards, you can either try to escape or pay ten or more coins to get a single extra card per turn.
There are several categories of cards which each have many variations and stronger versions that can be found more commonly as the game progresses. The card categories basically come down to: hammers, jumps, fire/ice flowers, restoration items, enemy cards, Thing cards, and a few miscellaneous cards like POW blocks and defensive abilities. Regardless of the specific variation of card in each of these categories, the timing is basically the same. For example, one jump might hit three times, another might hit more, and another may hit all enemies in a line, but the timing for each is the same. You'll find something from each card category pretty early on, so once again, even though its appearance may vary, the battle gameplay remains largely unchanged throughout the game, once again causing it to grow stale by the end. Compare this to other games in the series which kept battles fresh by adding special moves after each chapter and new partner characters who each had different kinds of attacks, and you can see how important adding new fresh variations on gameplay throughout the game can be. (I should note, however, that enemy cards are pretty unique, and can summon an enemy to your aid which stays with you until it falls in battle, somewhat reminiscent of the partners in earlier games.)

While Mario's battle actions don't vary much over the course of the game, the enemies you'll encounter do vary a fair bit, and are pretty much the only things that keep the battles from becoming a mindless grind. Some enemies come in stacks and are better dealt with by using many weak hits, other enemies have spikes, making jumps ineffective, still others can be flipped over, or have other weaknesses. Since Mario always attacks each enemy in the order that they're lined up, there's a bit of strategy involved in choosing the order of your action cards according to enemy weaknesses and your own ability so that the appropriate card is used on the appropriate enemy. Another thing that keeps the battles at least somewhat fresh, is the seemingly random appearance of Kamek, who will block you from running from the battle and curse you with some kind of gimmick like limiting your cards or flipping them all over.
Things come with their own humorous animations when used in battle too.
Boss battles were a bit odd in Sticker Star because they were essentially impossible without using the correct Thing. Well, that's back, but only for a handful of battles, and, once again, the Toad in Port Prisma will tell you which Thing you'll be needing ahead of time. The issue then comes with knowing when in the battle to use that Thing card. It's usually obvious and follows the same format in each boss, with a normal battle segment followed by a Thing segment, but if you do use your Thing at the wrong time, it'll be wasted and you'll have no choice but to run from the battle to get another one or reset the game. Furthermore, there are "Replica" Thing cards which can only be used in battles and not for solving puzzles, but for some reason have no effect on bosses even if they're the correct Thing. So that's not very intuitive.
Click to enlarge
The enemy variety helps to keep the battles at least somewhat fresh.
Also, just a couple minor, miscellaneous things to mention:
There are a few control options to enable buttons to be usable in battle rather than touch controls, though I'm not sure why they aren't just both enabled by default.
Secondly, cards are kept in one long line, simulating how Mario holds them like playing cards while deciding his next move. Cards can be manually re-ordered, or instantly sorted by type with the press of a button. It's a minor complaint, but card organization could have been better with the addition of different sorting options and if cards were displayed in multiple rows so that you didn't have to scroll through as many as 99 cards to get to the Thing object you want at the bottom of the stack.

Miscellaneous Other Stuff
The world of Paper Mario: Color Splash is surprisingly big, and there's a lot to find and do, but almost everything there is to find and do ends up being a required part of the main story at some point. However, there are a few optional goals for the player to pursue.
Click to enlarge
Firstly, there's a museum in Port Prisma that you can donate cards to in order to unlock some pretty spiffy concept art. The museum also contains a sound test room where you can listen to music from each area, which is unlocked for filling in 100% of that area's colorless spots.

Secondly, there are Roshambo Temples, where you compete in a series of three Rock-Paper-Scissors battles, using clues and a bit of luck to win tons of easy coins and exclusive cards.

Third, there are some hidden cut-out spots with secrets in them which award coins, though finding each of them is tracked.

And finally, the main plaza of Port Prisma has some flags with achievement goals written on them. Fulfilling these requirements will unfurl the banners and... seemingly have no effect beyond that (but I haven't gotten them all, so I can't say for sure).

...And that's pretty much every optional side quest in the game. It's not much, but it does mean that the main quest feels extra long thanks to everything else being required.

By the way, for those who want to play on the Gamepad only, yes, you can do that and it works just fine.

The Final Word
Paper Mario: Color Splash is arguably the most visually and musically beautiful game in the series so far. Its main plot may be thinner than usual, but the characters and their smaller, individual stories are put together with hilarious, top notch writing and animation that goes above and beyond the call of duty, giving Toads more personality than ever. I found both overworld and in-battle gameplay to be enjoyable as well, albeit a bit simplistic. However, although everything is great from the start, both the plot and gameplay introduce almost no new innovations for the entire rest of the game, causing it to get a bit stale by the end of the 25 hour adventure. You could say that Color Splash shows its entire hand to the player too early, and that the game's hand consists of only a few very colorful cards. But, complaints aside, Paper Mario: Color Splash is still a rather good game overall, is worth playing, and is something that I think fans of the series and new players alike will enjoy.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Who likes grinding in RPGs? [Survey Results]

I like RPGs. My friend also likes RPGs. But the other day we got to talking about the common practice of level grinding in the genre, something which I considered to be a tiresome chore, poor game design, and something that potentially robbed a game of its fun by decreasing its difficulty and the amount of strategy required. My friend, on the other hand, disagreed and said that he actually enjoys level grinding; and he's not the only friend of mine who does. In fact, it seems that among my friends, I'm in the minority in my hatred of grinding.

And so, to settle the debate, I asked the people internet about their play styles, specifically in regards to optional level grinding in offline, single-player RPGs. To make sure everyone was on the same page, I (and Wikipedia) defined "level grinding" as "engaging in repetitive tasks (e.g. fighting enemies repeatedly) in order to increase the strength of the player's character or party members".

It's also worth noting that the vast majority of responses were given by users from the /r/SampleSize Reddit community who I asked only to participate if they had completed at least one RPG.

Here are the results:
No, I'm not trying to be deceptive by splitting the "Yes" answers into two categories. I trust my readers to be able to add and see that 61.4% of people do in fact go out of their way to level grind. What is with you people? ...Well, I asked that too:

Respondents who admitted to preferred grinding were allowed to select as many of these generously understanding reasons which I supplied and even write in their own. In retrospect, perhaps I should not have included the "I want to see optional content that can only be reached at a high level" option because it arguably goes against the original stipulation of this being about grinding when the game doesn't require it. But since it was possible to select multiple answers, there was no harm done. A couple of the "Other" answers include wanting to get one's money's worth out of the game, and enjoying optimizing characters in general or using naturally weaker characters that would be unusable without some grinding. One person wrote in "sometimes it's necessary", willfully defying my "when the game doesn't require it" clause.

As for my brethren, the non-grinders, they were also asked for their reasons in the same way:
I don't think these results are too surprising. Almost everyone who doesn't grind thinks it's boring and around 40% don't have the time to put into it. Most of the "Other" submissions on this one came down to players not finding it necessary to level grind because their completionist play styles, which often included doing side-quests, resulting in them getting plenty of experience already. One person wrote in "don't want to waste time", because presumably they have the time and just think it would be better spent on something else.

And, well, that's that.

If you'd like to see all the raw data for yourself, here it is. (Note that additional responses may be recorded after the date of this posting and these were not referenced above, obviously.)

If you'd like to take the survey, you can do it here, though I won't be updating this post with future results.

Friday, July 1, 2016

E3 2016 Impressions - Additional Game Coverage

I've already organized my impressions into my favorites, indie games, toys to life, and VR, which left me with a handful of others that didn't fit into any particular group. And so, here is my final E3 2016 coverage article, with no organization at all.

ReCore (XB1, PC)
After Zelda, ReCore was my second favorite game that I tried at E3 this year. It's a blast to play in every way. The presentation is full of color and full of action - explosions are everywhere, the main character looks awesome, and enemies are unique and color-coded based on their weakness. The controls are wonderfully smooth, even while being complex enough for an experienced gamer. While running around, double jumping, gliding, and dodging, you also have to manage targeting and shooting enemies, which can be done with bursts of shots, charge shots, special attacks from your partner, and constant quick switching of your gun color to match the enemy's color. I loved how fast-paced ReCore was and how nicely it combined platforming and shooting. And it was actually fairly challenging as well; it was nearly impossible to actually finish the demo on your first try. According to the demo attendant, ReCore is a story driven game of sequential levels rather than another open world exploration game like so many games on the market these days.

This is definitely a game to pay attention to. It felt like a 3D interpretation of a crazy SNES run-and-gun game mixed with Metroid Prime with better controls, and I loved it.

Final Fantasy XV (PS4, XB1)
Anyone following this game probably already knows more about it than I do. ...But I did play the demo. It mostly felt like a battle tutorial, with a few simple enemies to beat up in a linear canyon, and then a boss battle against an enormous giant. I barely had a feel for all the controls by the end of the demo, but basically, you use magic, switch between melee weapons while you wait for others to regain their power, guard, and fly through the air to hang onto terrain with your weapon. The boss fight developed slightly over the course of the demo with a few different mission objectives which mostly just told you to guard and counter the giant's huge hands that would try to crush you, or to run away, or to attack while flying through the air, or finally to attack with Blizzara and finish it off. Even though the demo mostly just amounted to following a series of on-screen instructions, it still felt pretty epic.

One random thing I took note of and which I was impressed by was how using Blizzara would actually make the nearby terrain look frozen and cover your characters in frost. At one point, I used Blizzara before a cutscene by chance and was pleased to see that my characters remained covered in frost even during the cutscene. Neat.

Bound (PS4)
(Official Trailer)
It remains to be seen how fun Bound will actually be, since the demo pretty much just consisted of very simple 3D platforming and wall jumping. However, while the gameplay was nothing special, the super creative and mesmerizing art style blew me away. I keep thinking that I've seen everything when it comes to stylish and unique art in games, but once again I was shown something new and different in Bound. The world is built out of paper-like walls that fold and unfold as you approach them, ladders with rungs that spin oddly into position, polygons flipping into existence under your feet, and distant views of waves of oscillating cubes. It's bizarre, but it's a visual delight, and I'm curious to play more if only to see what crazy abstract 3D art they came up with next.

Steep (PS4, XB1, PC)
Remember SSX Blur on Wii? ...yeah, I didn't think so. But Steep is a whole lot like it; you pick a spot on one of a few perfect snowboarding/skiing mountains and then go. Or you can use a glide suit and parachute. Anyway, as you go down the mountain, you can simply screw around and have fun or you can find one of many challenges, usually races or score attacks. Races are straightforward, but I found score attacks to be particularly interesting because they weren't simply about doing tricks (the only tricks I learned to do were rotations and grabs anyway), but you'd also get points in the style of Burnout or Excite Truck for nearly missing trees or gliding dangerously close to the ground. Also, there's multiplayer, but you can't collide with the other player it seems, so it's more just simultaneously competing in the same challenge for a higher score or faster time with a live opponent. Steep was fun and satisfying, and there were challenges with fairly high difficulty, but unless there are more movement options and tricks that I wasn't informed of, I could see it getting old after not too long. It felt more like a good $20-$30 game to me than the $60 they'll probably be asking for on release.

Gravity Rush 2 (PS4)
I never did get around to playing the original Gravity Rush, but it always looked like fun. Unfortunately, since I don't know much about the original, it's hard for me to tell what is new and different in Gravity Rush 2. You still switch the position of gravity for yourself and basically fly all over the place and kick enemies out of the air. The controls certainly took some getting used to for me and this was perhaps the only game for which that was the case, but the main reason for that was simply not bothering to set my preferred camera invert settings. Don't get the wrong idea and think that I'm complaining about the controls though; I'm sure they can be learned in no time and that it's very satisfying to fly around when you have the hang of it.

This was also the second of three games where I encountered a major glitch preventing me from progressing (a soft lock), but it appeared that the glitch was likely due to having abilities in the demo which wouldn't have been available at this point in the final release. It happened because, at the demo attendant's suggestion, I did some kind of transformation coincidentally right into a cutscene trigger, causing my character to stand and wait for a cutscene that never came. It was kind of a bummer, but I wouldn't worry about it happening in the final product.

Hatsune Miku: Project Diva X (PS4, Vita)
(Japanese version gameplay, not from the English E3 demo)
I needed to play two Atlus demos to get a free hat, and Project Diva X was the first one I saw. I'm a decently big fan of Project Diva f 2nd, so I was already familiar with the gameplay, which hasn't changed much in X. The game has already been out in Japan for a while, so you probably don't need me to tell you much about it. The menu and song/item unlocking system seems different, though I don't know the details. I do know that songs are divided into categories like "Cute" and "Cool" now. Also, the gameplay now has "Rush" icons which require you to mash the corresponding button. And the score calculation might be different now, judging from the percentage thing in the bottom left. Whatever. You probably already know more than I do. I just like pushing buttons to overly happy Japanese music.

Kingdom Hearts II.8 Final Chapter Prologue (PS4)
It's not Kingdom Hearts 3, but it has some new content in the form of two new stories, in addition to an HD version of Dream Drop Distance. It plays like a typical Kingdom Hearts game. What did you expect? The Dream Drop Distance remaster looks pretty nice, but isn't mindblowing since it's just a remaster. The original content, on the other hand, is very very pretty. The fractured world shown in the video above had lots of detail and every attack had a rain of particle effects that flew off. Admittedly, I'm not a huge fan of the series, but this seemed good enough to help tide over fans for yet another unknown length of time until the next KH3 announcement and eventual release.

Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness (PS4, PS3)
(Official Gameplay Trailer)
It's hard to get a feel for an RPG from a demo, but the feel I got from the new Star Ocean is that it's pretty, but has fairly mindless and repetitive combat. I just explored a nice looking outdoor dungeon and fought a bunch of enemies by mostly mashing a couple attack buttons and moving out of the way of their attacks when possible. I didn't dislike it, but it didn't feel like anything special either. Still, with just a demo, I can't say for sure how the combat might develop over the course of the game or whether there's a good enough story to keep the player motivated through what could end up as a grind. At least the graphics are fairly pretty though.

Just Cause 3: Mech Land Assault
This is DLC, I guess? I've never played a Just Cause game, but I've seen some neat gifs on Reddit. My experience was basically those gifs: hopping into vehicles and driving them into other vehicles or off cliffs to watch the explosions, and grappling onto everything (like a windmill!). And also throwing grenades and everything. So, uh, no idea what the Mech Land Assault DLC adds (I didn't see any mechs, but I did see land), but I get the feeling that I've been missing out on Just Cause 3 in general. I couldn't wipe the grin off my face every time I succeeded (or failed) in an attempted epic maneuver.

LEGO Worlds (PC)
LEGO Worlds is already available in Early Access on Steam (which I would never recommend), but for just jumping on this demo because it had no line, I actually enjoyed it a good deal. It looks like a Minecraft clone at a glance, but it's more of a Lego-building sandbox of pre-built terrain, structures, and NPCs that you can screw around with and mold to your liking. (I realize that still sounds exactly like Minecraft, but it's different, I swear!) There are a surprising number of options for quick terrain editing (adding or deleting large cubes, sphere, etc.) and laying down bricks of all shapes and sizes. You can play as lots of different Lego characters, which tend to have cute unique animations (like a werewolf running on all fours) and attacks (like a guy that attacked with a camera or bagpipes).
After I sat down for the demo, two others soon joined me on my right and left. On my right, the guy had quickly spawned armies of werewolves and cavemen which he was going to pit against each other. On my left, someone else had spawned a digging machine with giant drills on it and was plowing through the terrain and even making an "impossible" shelf of water out of the ocean's edge. Meanwhile, I was playing with a grappling hook and flinging myself from tree to tree, until I encountered a glitch which got me stuck in an infinite jump, but hey, early access. Anyway, LEGO Worlds seems a tad rough around the edges at the moment, but I had a lot of fun with it, so it may be worth checking out when the final version is released.
Additional E3 2016 Coverage

Friday, June 24, 2016

E3 2016 - What They Call Games' Top Pick

Disclaimer: I received a free 3-day pass to E3 from Nintendo, but my opinions written here are still my own.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Wii U, NX)

There's no reason to beat around the bush (they don't drop rupees or hearts any more anyway) - Zelda: Breath of the Wild was easily my favorite game that I played at E3 this year. It's a bit hard to write about it because so much more was already shown off during the Nintendo Treehouse stream. Even with the generous 25 minutes of gameplay split between two demos that I got to play, there was so much that I didn't see and which already has been revealed to the internet by Nintendo and others who have played the demos. But, nonetheless, here are my impressions and perhaps there will be something new for you.

My E3 Zelda experience backstory:
So, for a bit of context, while waiting for the doors to open to the E3 show floor, I was able to catch the new trailer for Zelda as it was streamed, and just a bit of additional gameplay from between the obscuring heads of the crowd. I've actually avoided watching further gameplay and coverage to keep spoilers for myself to a minimum - probably not the best move for a blogger, but I'm sure some readers would also prefer to be mostly unspoiled as well.
After a long, but worthwhile wait, full of things you couldn't possibly want to hear about (meeting Charles Martinet, interviewing the translator of Zero Time Dilemma, etc.), I entered Nintendo's E3 area, checked out the upcoming amiibo, and was seated in a small room that was decked out to look like a dungeon from Breath of the Wild (shown above). There, we were introduced to the game with a brief gameplay trailer which showed many of the things that could be done in the game. We may have just been giddy about finally getting to play, but the trailer elicited a laugh from the audience on more than one occasion when Link did silly things; most memorably his soup gobbling and under-equipped shivering animations which I can only describe as adorable. The gameplay trailer ended with an animation of the wall rising up like an ancient, magical, dungeon doorway to reveal that the wall it was projected on had actually risen in real life as well, allowing us a path into the large and impressively decorated demo area.
(Additional demo area photos on the What They Call Games Facebook page)
Demo Impressions (10 Minute Exploration Demo + 15 Minute Story Demo):
Clearly, since this was my top pick, I thought it was extremely fun to say the least. The biggest reason for that was the huge variety of different gameplay mechanics and options available in combat and exploration. You've more than likely already seen what I saw in the trailer and streamed gameplay, but I had a blast with simply defeating enemies with each new kind of weapon I discovered: a sword, a stick, a spear, an axe, bombs of multiple kinds, the bow, and my proudest discovery, a fire rod. The fighting controls were gloriously responsive and smooth (the speed at which you can swap equipment also comes to mind as a highlight), and I quickly felt right at home with the combination of gameplay from classic 3D Zelda games (side hops, targeting, backflips, etc.) and the new additions in Breath of the Wild. I particularly enjoyed setting fires and watching it spread with the wind, as well as making apparently difficult head shots with the bow with relative ease thanks to the GamePad's motion controls. And then there are the environmental kills from pushing boulders or cutting down trees. For exploration you have gliding, using trees to make bridges, swimming, tons of different items to collect (though I wonder if some might be the sort of thing you come to ignore quickly), equipment that helps with particular environments, lots of cooking recipes, and, of course, climbing on everything. (I didn't actually try all of those things during my demo, by the way.) I can't wait to see all the new options even beyond those that will become available with the new items that are surely hidden later in the game.

Although the weapons degrade and eventually break, their variety in stats and type gave me the idea that challenge runs would be fun in this game (i.e. beat the game only with sticks, spears, etc.). I also found that sitting at a campfire could be used to change the time of day in-game, so I wouldn't be surprised if different things became available at different times.
I found a fire rod!
One of my biggest fears for the game when hearing rumors of it being more open world was that it would be an empty world with little to do, but my concerns were quickly alleviated. There are plenty of items to find, things to fight, and places to discover that are worth the journey just for the view alone (although they do tend to hide treasures as well).
The area available in the demo is only a small part of the game's world.
(Click to enlarge)
And, ah, what views there are. I've enjoyed games primarily for their artistic, eye-pleasing scenery on many occasions (for example, in Journey, Xenoblade Chronicles, Abzu, and Shadow of the Colossus) and been equally bored by worlds of muddy-colored, "normal" designs. Certainly, one's enjoyment of art will largely come down to personal taste, but I could tell that, personally, Breath of the Wild's art direction would be right up my alley. It's bright and colorful, enormous in scale, lonely (but peaceful) in mood, and filled with fantastic terrain and structures. There are story-related goals in the game, as I was shown in my second demo, but even if there were no goals at all, I would be fully entertained in simply exploring and taking screenshots of the beautiful world, as if inside an interactive painting. And, as I said before, the animations are equally stylish and often add bits of humor to the adventure. The visual art can't be talked about without also mentioning the audio... except, I honestly didn't notice the audio enough to say much about it. From what I recall, mellow mood-setting music faded in and out while exploring, which is certainly a change from the Zelda series' usual melodic earworms, but it did succeed in setting the mood and not being annoying with repetitiveness.
I discovered a familiar statue from Skyward Sword.
Also in this area, I found a bow with no arrows, while the person next to me found arrows with no bow somewhere else.
As for the story, I can't claim to know a whole lot. Link wakes up in the mysterious Shrine of Resurrection, which seems to have magical technology that's more futuristic (or ancient) than usual. As Link, the player quickly makes their way out with the occasional guidance from a GamePad-like item, the Sheikah Slate. If the final game is like the demo, this opening tutorial is quite short and upon exiting the shrine, you'll have immediate freedom to explore or pursue the next plot points by talking to a nearby old man and traveling to a distant location marked on the map. For the extra impatient, the cutscenes were even skippable. Since I figured everyone would be following the story on the "story demo", I just continued playing around and going in other directions for the entire time I played. It's great to feel in control of your own gameplay choices for once, rather than being pushed through a series of story hoops before finally being allowed to explore.

Finally, since I am a critic, I have to criticize just a little bit. Actually, since the game isn't out yet, this is the best time to make suggestions, when there's still time for things to change. (Being able to make suggestions to developers and demo attendants who seemed to actually care and take note, was one of the coolest things about playing games at E3, though I rarely had any complaints to make - usually just questions.) With Zelda, there were really only two small issues that I noticed: the frame rate and the movement controls in certain situations. Frame rate complaints are pretty self-explanatory; Breath of the Wild did not run at a steady frame rate, which did unfortunately detract from its visual appeal a bit. Considering how long it's been in development, I doubt this is something that can or will be fixed before launch, but I wouldn't doubt that a steadier frame rate will be one benefit of the NX version over the Wii U version. Most casual players don't even seem to notice frame rates though, so I suppose this isn't a huge deal for most.
The default (only?) controls in Zelda: Breath of the Wild
The somewhat bigger deal is that the demo did not have re-mappable controls, something which should be standard in every game. I said earlier that the controls for combat and equipment switching were fluid and fantastic, and this is true, however general movement controls leave something to be desired as a side effect of having so many actions mapped to so many buttons. Here's the problem: you can't run and jump (and move the camera) simultaneously without awkwardly putting a second finger up on the face buttons to press two at once. In most cases, you won't need to do this, but there will be times that you will, and it would be incredibly helpful for there to be an option to remap buttons to one's personal preference. This was just a demo though, so it's entirely possible that these kind of control options are already in the full game (the attendant I asked didn't know, but said that I wasn't the first to ask).
Screenshot via Nintendo.com
The Final Word:
All things considered, my gripes about the frame rate and control options are minor compared to how fun and beautiful this new Zelda seems overall. Whether or not you will enjoy this return to the series' open world roots will be up to personal taste, but it certainly has me excited. I rarely get hyped over new games these days when I already have so many great old games to play, but Breath of the Wild is a rare exception that has me genuinely excited to try more as soon as I can. There's so much to explore and so much to do while exploring and I can't wait to do it all.


Additional E3 2016 Coverage

Monday, June 20, 2016

E3 2016 Impressions - Toys to Life

The fad of on-disc physical DLC... I mean... the brilliant business move of... er... cool figurines of characters that you can collect and display on your shelf (yeah, there we go) that are "Toys to Life" were still going strong at E3 this year. (Don't hate; I have like fifteen amiibo myself.) While I didn't notice any Skylanders or Disney Infinity displays this time around, there were still some nifty Toys to Life representatives in the form of amiibo, LEGO Dimensions figures, a children's plush and storybook combo called Octobo, and an NFC-reading touch pad of board games for any figurine.


Amiibo
The making of an amiibo
(Click to enlarge)
It seems like there are times when Nintendo's amiibo are more popular than the games they're actually used in. And perhaps rightly so; their quality is surprisingly high and they often represent characters who have very few other products based on them, so they're a good way to show off your fandom (or play with them) for a relatively low price compared to high quality figurines.
(Click to enlarge)
While I don't know their use at this point (and it's usually not very exciting anyway), my best guess is that the newly announced Super Mario series amiibo will be primarily used in the upcoming Mario Party: Star Rush on 3DS. Against all odds, fan favorites Waluigi and Daisy finally get their own amiibo figures, in addition to Boo and new versions of Diddy Kong, Donkey Kong, Wario, and Rosalina.
(Click to enlarge)
Even cooler, in my opinion, are the three highly detailed Zelda: Breath of the Wild amiibo: Archer Link, Rider Link, and the Guardian, which can be used in the upcoming game. As before, click to enlarge the pictures.

LEGO Dimensions
A LEGO Dimensions portal
(Click to enlarge)
This was my first time trying LEGO Dimensions, but both the story adventures and the new competitive multiplayer modes seemed to be quite enjoyable for gamers of any age, albeit seemingly cost prohibitive and a bit obnoxious because of the frequency of the multiplayer announcer's quips. I played a Capture the Flag mode in a large Adventure Time-themed arena with characters scanned in from the new Ghostbusters, Green Arrow (an E3-exclusive character figure), and The A-Team. Basically, the goal was to capture any of the opponents' flags and either carry it back to your own base for big points or simply hold onto it for a gradual increase in points. You could also attack other players, collect powerups, and upgrade your defenses by spending collectible Lego studs. From what I understood, different characters also had somewhat different abilities. It was indeed quite fun and I could see that there was potential for strategic gameplay for those who played the mode often.

All of this was to showcase the upcoming Year 2 figures for LEGO Dimensions which will work with existing Starter Packs. I had to look this up from comingsoon.net to refresh my memory since there are so many new ones coming, but...

"The new packs will begin launching on September 27, 2016 and include the Ghostbusters Story Pack, Adventure Time and Mission: Impossible Level Packs, Harry Potter and Adventure Time Team Packs, and The A-Team Fun Pack. Additional expansion packs based on other highly-anticipated films Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and The LEGO Batman Movie and wildly popular properties The Goonies, Sonic The Hedgehog, Teen Titans Go!, LEGO City Undercover, Knight Rider, The Powerpuff Girls, Gremlins, Beetlejuice and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial will be released in product waves stretching into summer of next year."
Upcoming Adventure Time Team Pack
(Click to enlarge)
There are a lot of new series being added and it makes for a ridiculous mashup of characters that should be fun for kids and parents alike (well, maybe not the parents' wallets), thanks to a combination of old and new properties. Admittedly, it's all one huge brilliant advertisement feeding into itself for Legos, games, movies, and TV shows, but at least the game itself is actually good.

Additional LEGO Dimensions photos start here in the WhatTheyCallGames Facebook page album.

Prizm Labs' Play Table
(Click to enlarge)
Pitched as a "Board Game Console", the Play Table is a large touch screen which is designed to play apps of popular and original board games. You can drag virtual cards and pieces around with your finger to place them, simply use the board to set up a digital version of a game you already own so you can use your own pieces on top of it, or, cooler still, use the Toys to Life figures you already own which can be scanned for both ID and board position. Although not officially partnered with Nintendo or Disney, the Play Table demo included one board game that actually recognized that a Mewtwo amiibo and Plant from Plants vs. Zombies had been placed on one team and that a Disney Infinity Elsa and Pikachu had been placed on the other team; each with its own matching graphics, audio, attacks, and stats (although the Plant was demonstrated to be made to recognized as a Pikachu for me). In addition to existing figures from other companies, Play Table has its own scan-able cards and stickers which can turn any object you want into a readable game piece. According to the trailer on its website, Play Table is also spill proof and usable in combination with smart phones, so that's nice too. I didn't spend too much time trying the Play Table myself, but it's a neat concept at any rate. With enough compatible games, it has the potential to cut down on a lot of setup time and board game storage space.

Octobo
(Includes a short developer interview and explanation)
One of the most unique things I saw at E3 was Octobo, an interactive plush toy and story book combo for young children and parents. The adorable octopus has sensors in it to detect when you hug it, shake or wiggle its arms, and place story book tokens in the little basket in front of it. Its face is displayed on an iPad which slides into a pouch on the front and runs an app that comes free with the plush and book (additional books would also be available for separate purchase) and its facial expression changes according to what you do with it. Behind the iPad is a cute sleeping face, so it's not necessary to have it inserted when you aren't playing with it. The book that was demonstrated for me was primarily what you'd expect from a typical children's picture book, but it was also designed to teach pattern recognition and name writing. To do this, one page tells us that Octobo likes fish with stripes more than the rest, and so when given the option of a fish token to put in the basket, Octobo reacts best when the striped fish is given. Impressively, another token allows you to write your name on it and will cause Octobo to wish you a good night by name when you give it to him.
Octobo is still in the prototyping phase and a final price isn't yet determined, but the person I talked to said that they were expecting it to be in the price range of other interactive toys. Personally, I just like to see game theory and interactivity used in new and interesting ways, as Octobo does for early childhood education and family bonding. So even though I wouldn't have a need for something like this myself, just seeing the concept in action put a smile on my face.

Additional E3 2016 Coverage

    Sunday, June 19, 2016

    E3 2016 Impressions - Indie Games

    I'm a big fan of indie games because, compared to big budget games by huge companies, they tend to be shorter, cheaper, and more unique. That's why I spent a decent amount of time at E3 trying out some of these lesser-known, but no less fun games. They also tended to have much shorter lines for the demos, so I was able to try more of them because of that.

    Not all of these are technically indie games, but they're the sort of games that feel like indie games or are at least developed by relatively small studios even though they may be published by larger companies.

    Inversus (PC, Multiplatform consoles)
    It's a fast paced strategic competitive arena shooter game... with a twist! Essentially, you're trying to shoot your opponent, but really what you're trying to do is flip the tile they're on with your shots. One team (or player) is black and the other is white, and each team can only move on one color. However, the path of each player's shot will flip the tiles to their own preferred color to create paths which act as walls for the opposition. You can't just spam shots forever or you'll run out and have to wait for them to recharge, so it's all about the strategy of creating paths while simultaneously trapping your opponents and avoiding being trapped yourself. Shots can also be charged to clear three tiles in a direction, but you need to plan this in advance since you can't change the direction of your charge once you begin charging. There are also powerup items which appear and can either be collected if you can get to them, or destroyed to prevent the other guy from getting them. It's all relatively simple in concept, but it's just complex enough to open up the potential for quite a lot of strategy and skill. Some of the levels make things more complicated as well by having certain edges wrap around to the other side. Inversus is an absolutely brilliant design idea for a multiplayer game and its strategic trap-your-opponent gameplay reminds me a lot of Bomberman's, which I also love. I definitely recommend this one for people who have friends to play with.

    Everything (PS4, PC, Mac)
    Everything is mostly a sandbox universe filled with the objects you'd expect to find in a normal universe - grass, rocks, buildings, galaxies, frogs, fire hydrants, dust, shipping containers, etc.. The gimmick here though, is that every single object and creature and thing is a playable character. It's like Goat Simulator in that you mostly just wander around and try things, and then laugh at all the unexpected stuff that happens (although it appears this way by design rather than apparent glitchiness as in Goat Simulator). For example, becoming a building will let you slide around and interact with other buildings as if they were living creatures. Another amusing thing was the rudimentary animations of some things; rather than running, a wolf would simply tumble over itself like a frame-deficient Sonic the Hedgehog. You can also sort of mate with other things of the same kind by dancing with them in order to create more of yourself (yes, even buildings). The world is divided into levels of size, so eventually you'll have to scale up to view planet-sized things or scale down for microscopic things, though it is possible to get any sized object into any sized environment for maximum amusement. (I became a literally microscopic baby seal.)

    If there is a goal to the game, it's to pursue thought bubbles that randomly appear over other things' heads and interact with them in order to display humorous messages, helpful notes, and unlockable cheat-code-like options. Another goal would be to fill up the library in the pause menu with all of the many different things in the universe, each separated alphabetically in categories. Objects you've played as can be transformed into instantly from this menu or you can choose to randomly transform into anything you've been. It's just a whole lot of silliness, but I found myself being entertained by it for a decent amount of time. No doubt Everything will be a Youtuber meme game, but at least it's a pretty good one with some effort put into it.

    Rain World (PC, PS4)
    (Bad gameplay with good developer interview!)

    Apparently Rain World has been in development for a quite a while and it's incredible that I hadn't heard of it before now. It's sort of a Metroidvania, but rather than ability upgrades, your exploration is limited only by your knowledge and skill with the game. If you know what you're doing, you can make your way anywhere from the beginning of the game. But you won't, because you're bad and the game is hard. It's set in a treacherous world of hungry predators and horrifically torrential downpours (seriously, the rain effect is amazing and scary; like visual static ripping apart the fabric of space).

    Your goal is survival and exploration. Dodge or pit violent creatures against each other to avoid being killed by them. Find shelter before the cycle of rain begins again. Eat enough food to not starve. All the while, climb and jump through tricky tunnels, platforms, and obstacles to explore a massive and visually appealing (if you like pixel art) world. According to the developer, the design goal was to avoid the situation in games where they get easier as you power up and become an unstoppable tool of destruction. In Rain World, you are forever vulnerable, and the environment and creatures can be assumed to only get more challenging. My only concern is that without new abilities, the gameplay may get stale after a while, as was the case in Knytt Underground. But all I could tell from the demo was that Rain World was great and worth keeping an eye on for fans of platforming and exploration.

    Shantae: ½ Genie Hero (PS4, PS3, Wii U, XB1, 360, Vita, PC)
    Fans of the Shantae games will know what to expect with this sequel / re-imagining of the series' origin story. It's challenging hair whipping, magic using, animal transforming, platforming action, but there are some differences from the norm. You may have noticed that the Shantae games are gradually having less back tracking and Metroidvania elements and are turning more into a sequence of levels. Half-Genie Hero makes no attempt to hide this and actually is a series of generally linear levels, although it will be possible to go back with new abilities to find secrets and upgrades. In the demo, Shantae was able to quickly transform into a monkey or spider in order to climb walls and jump high, or shoot web up to platforms above. These transformations also had hidden ability upgrades, like one that let the monkey launch off of walls or one that gave the spider form a poison shot attack. In the final version of the game, all these upgrades probably wouldn't be in the same level, but it was cool that there were still difficult to access hidden areas with rewards in them, even though the game is more linear now overall.

    Also, the graphic style is now a combination of really nice 2D sprite work and backgrounds and environments that look 2D in screenshots but are actually revealed to be 3D objects as the camera pans across the level with the player. It looks very nice and, as usual, the music and gameplay are great as well.

    Abz├╗ (PS4, PC)
    (Normally I'd put in my own off-screen gameplay video, but you're better off watching the trailer for something this pretty.)

    I've had my eye on this one pretty much since it was announced. It's been described as being like an underwater version of Journey, but it was always unclear to me whether it was like Journey in that it was merely a pretty game, or if the similarity extended to its gameplay as well. Now that I've finally been able to play it, I realized that Abzu really is very much like Journey in almost every way. It doesn't seem to have much for puzzles or platforming, so it's even easier and more relaxing, but you basically explore your way down a path to progress through a series of beautiful environments. You can even "chirp" like in Journey. I actually played the demo twice, and the first time I thought that I was still primarily exploring and simply stumbling upon the "correct" way, but on my second playthrough I realized that there really wasn't much more than one way to go, apart from a few hidden objects. Not that this is bad necessarily, since it does feel like each new beautiful area is your own discovery rather than something the game has forced you into. This game won't be for everyone, but if you appreciate playing through beautiful art with a soundtrack of beautiful music (even the composer is the same as Journey's - Austin Wintory), you'll want to give Abzu a try. It's a relaxing and pleasant treat.

    Touhou: Scarlet Curiosity (PS4)
    (When I played, I found a cave area to the north and then a boss. Too bad I couldn't record my own gameplay...)

    Who would have thought that Touhou would end up with a fan game on PS4 at E3! To be honest, it's pretty much just a standard hack-n-slash dungeon crawler with Touhou characters in it. You've got leveling, abilities, and equipment, and you make your way through a maze of corridors and simple top-down 3D platforming to progress to a boss at the end of the area. Apart from the characters, Scarlet Curiosity retains the series' iconic "bullet hell" attack patterns in some of your own and your enemies' bullet spray attacks. Especially thanks to the boss's arena-covering pattern of bullets, it did end up feeling like a bit like a regular Touhou game, or like The Binding of Isaac. Overall, Scarlet Curiosity didn't feel all that special overall, but it wasn't bad either. If I know fans of the series, they'll take anything that has the cute Touhou girls in it anyway, so it should be good enough to be worth playing for those fans at least.

    Wild Guns Reloaded (PS4)
    (Official Trailer)

    I had never played the original Wild Guns on SNES, but I knew about it. It's a challenging Wild West game of shooting tons of bad guys in the background while avoiding their attacks with your character in the foreground. Reloaded is a remake of the original, with beefed up graphics, more content, and four-player multiplayer support. It's chaotic, challenging, and fun, though I think it'd be more fun with a light gun of some kind rather than a joystick for aiming. Unless you're experienced with the original, you and your friends will certainly lose until you practice and improve your skills - just like the old days.

    River City Tokyo Rumble (3DS)
    (Gameplay footage by GameXplain)

    Another blast from the past - it's a new River City Ransom game! It heavily resembles the original in style, but now it has somewhat more 3D environments, real areas from Japan, and a helpful map on the 3DS's bottom screen. It's a pretty big world, so you can travel quickly with train stations as you find them around the map. I never played too much of the original since I was always getting lost and wasn't a huge fan of beat-em-ups, but the gist is that you explore the city, buy upgrades for yourself, and take down enemy gangs in each region. Tokyo Rumble still feels like the retro original, but has the presentation and conveniences of modern gaming. I'm no expert on this one, but it seems like something that fans of the original will enjoy.

    I am Setuna (PS4, Vita, PC)
    (Official Trailer)

    I am Setsuna has been out in Japan for several months now, so I'm sure everything is already revealed about it. It plays like a standard old-school Japanese RPG and has a battle system that's extremely similar to Chrono Trigger's (a meter fills up before you can act in turns, and attacks take enemy position into account so you may be able to hit multiple enemies in a line or circle, depending on the technique). What apparently makes this game more unique is its reportedly serious and sad story, accompanied by a matching melancholy piano score. It's the sort of game that's hard to get a feel for from a demo, but by all reports, it should scratch that itch that many gamers have for old school turn-based RPGs since every other developer seems to be switching to action-based combat.

    Kingdom: New Lands(?) (PC)
    (From Kingdom's Steam page)

    Somehow I forgot to add this to this article the first time through! After two seconds of research, I found that Kingdom is already out, but after a few more seconds, I found that the "New Lands" DLC is coming soon and may have been what I played at E3. Having not played the original, I didn't really know the difference, but apparently it adds more content.

    Anyway, Kingdom is a unique side-scrolling resource-management defense game. Basically, you walk back and forth collecting gold coins, and then choose how to spend those coins in order to best upgrade your kingdom and protect it from waves of monsters. You can pay peasants to work for you, upgrade your defenses, build things that will earn you more money, and more. Also, since you're on a horse, you have to manage taking time to feed the horse so it's able to run as well. I didn't play it for all that long since it didn't seem like the kind of game I'd personally enjoy, but it did seem like a good game nonetheless.


    I also watched, but didn't play Just Shapes and Beats and Zombies Shall Not Pass.

    Additional E3 2016 Coverage

    Saturday, June 18, 2016

    E3 2016 Impressions - Virtual Reality

    In spite of the fact that far more booths had VR demos available than last year, I only ended up trying a couple of them this time. Since I missed out on the Oculus Rift booth last year, I rushed there first and had the opportunity to try the upcoming Touch controllers. The game I got to play was random, so I ended up with...

    Sports VR Experience - Hockey (Oculus Rift Touch)
    Launching at the same time as the Oculus Rift Touch, Sports VR Experience appeared to have a handful of different sports which could be selected from the main menu. This "menu" was presented as a curved desk around the player with an object from each sport displayed, along with a start button (or something to that effect). I unfortunately don't remember which sports were available besides American football and hockey. This demo was for hockey, and to begin, I picked up the hockey puck on the desk by moving my motion-tracked hand, grabbing with the Touch controller's triggers, and then placing the puck inside a hovering hologram which held it in place. I was then instructed to punch the start button by my real life attendant. I briefly considered that I would hurt my hand punching a table before remembering that I was actually in an empty room, so I bopped it with no small amount of satisfaction.

    The game itself was primarily goalkeeping. With one hand you could control your hockey stick and, with the other, your big goalie glove thing (I'm not a sports fan, clearly). The player's movement is limited to turning their head and moving their hands, and so you're mostly just sitting in the goal and watching the other team approach and pass with the puck so that you can block with either hand when they shoot. One minor feature was that the right controller would rumble slightly when your stick made contact with the ice, making it a bit more immersive and easy to tell when your stick was low enough to block pucks on the ground.

    After enough successful saves, you/the camera fly down to the other end of the rink to go for a timed shot against the other team's goal. Each time, the puck flies at you slowly down a colored meter and you have to swing the stick with good timing and force to make a shot attempt.

    Another part of the gameplay is trying to be the first to slap the puck when the ref drops it. For some reason, I had a lot of trouble with the timing on this. The game instructed me to swing as soon as the puck hit the ground, but I always ended up hitting straight through it and then hitting it backwards as I moved the stick back to try again. After doing this, control went back to the goalie and it didn't really seem to make much difference whether I hit the puck first or not (perhaps it gave me points at the end of the game?).

    After a timed match finishes, the score is displayed and unlockables may be unlocked. In the case of the demo, the ability to start fights in hockey was unlocked. At certain points, this could be done by making the motion to throw down your gloves and then swinging at your opponent with closed fists (pressing the triggers on the controllers). It was possible to do jabs, uppercuts, and punches from the side, as well as to block the opponent's punches. However, I found that if you punched fast enough, the other guy would never even get the chance to attack (but it's worth noting that demos are often made easier for the sake of demonstration).

    I also experienced one game crash while playing this demo, and it was at a time when nothing in particular was happening. It seemed that this was a known glitch though and I was assured that it would be fixed by launch, of course.

    Overall, I wasn't blown away by the demo by any means; the graphics and controls were functional, but it felt like merely a sequel to Wii Sports more than anything. That said, it was still fun enough to play a few times and the unlockables and other modes would extend the replay value somewhat. It seemed more like the sort of game you'd download to try a few times and then have your friends play, rather than spend lots of time on it yourself. So, Sports VR Experience - Not bad, kinda fun, but not outstanding.

    Guided Meditation VR (Gear VR) (Free download)
    The last thing I did at E3 was wander around the smaller booths on the fringes of each hall. As I did, I was lured in by a woman promising me a virtual vacation with guided relaxation and only a five minute wait. I actually do have generalized anxiety (though I wasn't feeling so bad at that moment) and I was looking for a comfy place to rest my feet, so it seemed like the perfect thing to try.

    Guided Meditation VR featured four different relaxing locations: a Japanese shrine, a tropical beach, a snowy mountain, an "enchanted" forest, and a desert. Each location also had options for the kind of relaxation to try (I chose the one for anxiety, which was the first one I happened to select) and whether or not to have music. The time each session would take was also listed. I chose the forest environment and, after a short introduction, I was seated in scenic area where I was able to look around at the scenery on all sides. Although I didn't try it because I was afraid it would interrupt my relaxation, each of the four environments also had multiple meditation locations that could be switched to with a tap to the side button on the headset. Apparently, if I had done this, I may have been able to see a small Easter egg: a rabbit hopping by. Obviously, since this is for Gear VR, the device isn't powerful enough to handle incredible graphics, but you're supposed to be meditating and relaxing, not focusing on the graphics anyway. I actually found myself wanting to close my eyes to relax even further, which would have made the whole VR thing kind of pointless, but I stuck with it and watched the scenery instead.

    My meditation session was led by a soothing female voice which briefly talked about anxiety and then led me through tried and true meditation methods such as 4-4-4 breathing (inhale for four seconds, hold for four seconds, and exhale for four seconds). There was also a bit about repeating an uplifting phrase to myself: "I deserve to live a happy life." The voice gave me permission to push away any other thoughts for the moment while I repeated that sentence to myself. This amused me somewhat, because I didn't know who this voice was or why their permission should matter, but anyway... deserving to live a happy life is a nice thought and I was able to relax fairly well during the VR session. I'd be interested to try the other environments and other kinds of guided meditations. Unfortunately, I did find myself having a bit of an existential crisis afterward when I no longer had the voice's permission to push away negative thoughts. Why did I deserve to live a happy life? What must one do to live a happy life? A happy life won't simply come without effort. Unfortunately, the app did not present an answer to the quest for the meaning of life or an actual method for living a happy life, so my final review is that it was total garbage. (I'm kidding. It was pretty relaxing and worth trying out.)

    Oh, also, the app and device could measure your heart rate before and after the session to see if it helped you relax at all. My heart rate actually went up slightly, but it wasn't really a significant amount and it was only because my heart rate was fairly low to begin with.


    Other E3 2016 Coverage
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