Fun Factor

A lot of games get better reviews from me the better I am able to connect with the characters and world. And what better way to connect than humor. Here are some fun videos to give a little insight as to why I find the last two games I reviewed (Saints Row IV, Dragon Age:Inquisition) so enjoyable.

[Warning: These videos contain minor spoilers and mature content.]

 


Dragon Age: Inquisition: Your War, Your Will

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This third installment of the Dragon Age series by Bioware presented it’s series’s  beautifully complex charm of strategy in battle and in storyline interactions as always, but this time it stepped up the features that make it so appealing.  The hit fantasy role-playing adventure game offers new open-world setup along with a larger spectrum of moral choices to make, as well as adding more to pre-existing mechanics to add even more customization and immersion to the story. On top of that, this game finally took the time to really put the dragons in Dragon Age.

Key Features

Writing

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The World: As always with the DA series, you are located in the continent of Thedas, this time with a playing ground consisting of regions of the countries Orlais and Ferelden, with your bases being located in the Frostback Mountains between the two lands.

Continuing Conflict: Political tensions are high among the kingdoms of Thedas, as mages have risen up against the oppression of the Chantry, the primary religious organization of Thedas, since the last game. As negotiations are being made between the two sides at the Conclave, a new problem surfaces. A giant rift and a series of smaller rifts connected to the Fade, the world of magic, open across Thedas, releasing chaotic spirits and monsters, and further disrupting the state of political affairs through the destruction of the Conclave. This imposes a world-ending threat that only you can try to conquer.

The Inquisitor: As the sole survivor the destruction of the Conclave caused by “The Breach”, the player character, called the Inquisitor, is forced to lead an inquisition to close the rifts across Thedas and repair the political state with choices of their own. The player can make their Inquisitor be virtuous, sarcastic, or harsh in their interactions with other characters.

Characters: DA:I keeps up the series’s traditional appeal of providing a diverse range of characters to meet and interact with. Each character has their own beliefs and walk of life to show for, and it’s not always going to be something to bond over. Even so, the fact that you have to work with characters who have their own stances gives them roundness and makes them feel more real.

Making Friends and Enemies: As always in the Dragon Age games, you can make the choices you want, but people in the game’s world will have a say on it. Whole allied groups may turn against you for you beliefs. Your travelling companions have an approval/disapproval scale that changes with your choices in war and personal issues. Watch your mouth, saying too much against someone’s beliefs can make them leave your company permanently.

Romance: In compliance with approval/disapproval scales are romance options. 6 of your travelling companions, and 2 of your non-travelling companions are eligible to romance if you flirt and haven’t earned too much disapproval. Romances are for the most part entirely limited to interactions without rewards, and is simply a bonus aspect to forming your own story.

Thoughts on Writing

Just when I thought Dragon Age couldn’t make me have to sit and think about what to say and what actions to take anymore than Origins and II did, it did. Often times I’d sit for 10 minutes just balancing the pros and cons of in-game choices. Who would I lose, gain, or piss off? To get to have a voice in this colorful fantasy world, receiving that world’s response, and then having to negotiate and fight around that is exciting. Frustrating at times, especially in cases where outcomes aren’t what you expect (This can be frequent, especially if you don’t listen to the characters’ opinions), but having to make do and fix up what you can is what keeps you drawn in. This, along with the ability to explore and and learn about a giant world, it’s lore, and the people really makes you feel like you’re a part of it all.

Gameplay

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Keeping Continuity: Using the online Dragon Age Keep service, you can rebuild your world-state created in previous games, and implement it into DA:I, changing some interactions, appearances, and assets throughout the game.

Stats and Skills: Like most role-playing games, when you level up, you are rewarded a limited amount of points to spend on skills (New spells, new attacks, etc.) and attributes (Strength, dextering, constitution, etc.) to make your character and companions proficient in certain aspects of battle. Skills earned are limited based on class and class specialization. Certain attributes may need more attention than others based on class.

Customization: Once again in accordance with past DA games, the player character has many options for customization of appearance. There is a newly added race, qunari, and instead of sliders, alterations are made on a square grid spectrum, and there’s more allowance on hair, eye, and makeup colors.

Armors and Weapons: On top of the usual routine of buying and finding armor, armor can now be modified to buff certain attributes and magic/element resistance, as well as be “dyed”. Materials and pieces for modifications must be collected throughout the open-world.

Party Control: When out in the open-world, you can control your Inquisitor and you travelling companions in battle. You can fight live with one character at a time, or for those who like to pace and plan attacks, tactical view mode allows you stop time, place your team and attacks, and then gradually keep progressing and stopping the battle as you wish.

Questing: Every time you go out into the open-world regions of Ferelden and Orlais, you will be on a quest. Quests can be a variety of things; finding someone and recruiting them, collecting supplies for war assets that produce power and influence, retrieving an item for a reward, the very obvious elimination of enemies, and more.

War Table: As you go out and station the Inquisition through out the world and help others so they join it, you gain Power Points, which are required to perform “scoutings” progress the game’s path, unlock missions, and earn you assets to help you. There’s also war table “missions” where you send one of 3 advisors out for a real-time period, and when the time is up, they will produce influence, assets, or rewards, which can change depending on which advisor you send.

Thoughts on Gameplay

The basics of the gameplay mechanics feel just about the same as they do in past games. There’s just this sort fun charm from managing a team trained and equipped to your liking, especially in big boss battles where you have to strategize attacks. (Cough, dragons, cough) The armor and weapon modifications do make you feel a bit more in-charge of what comes out of my battle experiences, though. The new open-world setup does wonders for the immersion though, letting you get to know and explore the world yourself. It’s certainly better than linear, confined paths of past games. Also, there’s something satisfying in war table scoutings and missions being complete, as well, as you gain more assets by your will. There’s not much else to say, besides I’m thrilled you can finally revive team members without magic.

Bones to Pick

DLC Don’ts: What I’m especially not a fan of is having to buy a proper ending or plothole-filler DLC. Trespasser DLC, I’m looking at you. I don’t want to pay for this extra gameplay and world exploration that gives the game more closure and understandability. What would’ve been better would be to make me try to work for it by getting the specific end results and certain assets in the base game.

Micromanaging Maces: If you liked the simpler set up for equipment and weapons in the past DA games, and you don’t like spending time collecting upgrade materials in an open world, you might not be a fan of having to assemble and upgrade weapons and armor to prevent getting wrecked in battle. I wasn’t too pleased with this aspect at first, but I inevitably had to get over it if I wanted to relieve myself of losing dragons almost instantly.

Time Table: Don’t like games that make you wait real time for progress? Then you’re really going to hate the War Table. The wait times start get out of hand past the first big decision in the game. 15-30 minutes? No problem. 45 minutes to an hour? I can find something to do. 3 hours? You’re kind of pushing it but alright. 6 hours, this better be something important. But alas, the wait times reach a maximum of 24 hours for a several missions. Absolutely bonkers. It should’ve been 6-8 hours maximum, in my opinion. The only positive is the time still passes when the game is closed and the system it’s on is turned off.

Storage Sooner: Watch what you pick up and drop during the first portion of the game. There’s no storage unit until after the first major decision-based event in the game. I accidentally lost some valuables forever.

Gathering Galore: You know those flower-picking-type quests you get in every medeival/fantasy game? To put it short, there’s a lot of them. Hope you like them, because it will get tiring, but they give you points to help you out on the War Table.

Conclusion

Want get lost in a magical world, fight monsters, and run that world’s political scene?  Or perhaps want a role-playing game with lots of features to play around with? Then Dragon Age: Inquisition might be right game to pick up. If your computer can handle big games with high quality graphics, you can find it on sale frequently on the Origins game client. A word of warning for new players who haven’t played the first two Dragon Age games; you may feel lost at times storywise due to lack of prior knowledge of the world and the pre-established events and groups through out the lore. Even if you’re lost, you may still find yourself drawn in with the depth of Thedas’s troubled story and people. That’s what gives Dragon Age it’s individualized flare.

Dragon Age: Inquisition © Bioware
Official Cover Art © Bioware
Images provided by Origins, Dragon Age Wiki, and IGN

Saints Row 4: Pixelized Presidency

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The Saints Row series, a comedic action-adventure shooter by Volition, has always been criticized for being too close in concept to Grand Theft Auto, with the street gangs and organized crime quests in a city setting. In it’s 4th installment though, Saints Row finally decided to really step away from what causes it to be called a GTA clone by adding…aliens, of all things.  Saints Row 4 then becomes a comedy-riddled, superpower-fueled turf war against fiends from space.

Key Features

Writing

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The Boss: As the player character, you are the self-proclaimed “puckish rogue” Boss of the international sensation street gang, the Third Street Saints. The Boss does whatever they put their minds to, even if everyone else tell them it’s horribly stupid. The Boss wings the most outrageous acts of organized crime consistently without hesitation, and it’s this attitude on top of being king (or queen depending on customization) of hilarious dialogue and memorable one-liners that helps make them so fun to play as. Being in the shoes of such a bombastic embodiment of chaos really adds to the games appeal.

Homies: Through the game’s cutscenes and missions, your Boss interacts with your fellow gang members, as well as recruiting them to help in missions. Saints Row 4’s basic gang is a myriad of characters from across all the Saints Row games. We have enemies turned friends like Benjamin King and Matt Miller, the classic Pierce and Shaundi, and the newly returning Kinzie. There’s newcomers as well, such as the gracefully strong MI6 agent Asha Odekar, and, well, actual actor Keith David. This diverse team meshes and clashes to add whimsy and absurdly hilarious conflict to the game’s story. Alongside this main set of members, there’s a variety of unlockable companions as the game progresses.

World: After the player character, the Boss of the Third Street Saints gang, goes from international sensation to the U.S. President, aliens come and begin to destroy Earth. The Saints, forced into space by the debacle, can only defeat the aliens’ overlord by destroying the virtual simulation he forces kidnapped humans into from the inside out. For the most part, you’re in a familiar setting if you’ve played Saints Row 3, you’re in Steelport, but a little more alien-infested with some weird space tech lying around, as well as some pixelly graphical glitches because it’s all virtual. There’s also a bit of time on spaceships outside the simulation as well.

Story & Missions: Saints Row 4 takes some time in it’s story to address the Saints members’ personal problems, especially since we haven’t got to know all the team members as well in past games. The simulation traps built based on member’s memories and in several missions, you often have to confront embodiments of past problems or current feelings.This includes subjects such as grief over lost friends, losing control of oneself, the fear of betrayal, and disappointment in the past.

Thoughts on Writing

Despite the story being mostly a bunch of tough people up to work that’s straight out of action and sci-fi movies in a comedic fashion, with a nice side dish of getting to learn about the characters personally, the story is well-balanced with the gameplay. It doesn’t overpower it, and compliments the high-paced fights and the silly schemes you perform in order to take back the world from aliens. There’s enough story to help keep you engaged in the Saints’ world if the reclamation of virtual Steelport starts feeling like a chore, and it helps progress your missions in a exciting yet neat manner.

Gameplay

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Customization: The ability to change your character’s appearance in SR4 feels almost limitless. After the game’s tutorial mission, you design your boss of any race or sex you please. The facial sliders, body shaper, face details, tattoo, and makeup options give a lot of room for an individualized character. Clothing has to be bought with in-game currency earned while you play, but even so, as shown in my screenshot above, there’s lots of choices to make the ultimate badass, freak, or joke out of your character.

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Weapons: The silliness and power of the weapons went out the window in comparison to your average shooter, and one-upped the joke weapons from SR3. You’ve got your basic guns, then your high-end explosives, but SR4 takes it a whole league further with a gun that shoots knives, a superpowered bouncy-ball gun, a lazer sword, and more. After all, it is a modifiable virtual world you’re set in, you and your team make the limits.

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Superpowers: Since, as mentioned above, your team can modify the world you’re in, Saints Row 4 introduces superpowers to help you tear up and navigate the virtual world to make it yours. Super-speed, super-strength, and other explosive and world-bending powers are granted to you as you surpass the missions the game gives you.

Activities: Throughout the game, you have to do more than just finding the bad guys and killing them. In both main quests and side quests, your team mates send you out to perform activities, which help you regain control areas of fake Steelport. Activities are minigame-esque timed set-ups where you use your superpowers or weapons to disrupt the peace in an assigned neighborhood through certain methods. These methods could include blowing up a million dollars worth of things with a certain weapon, getting hit by as many cars as you can to meet a certain insurance money goal, or something weird like telekinetic categorized basketball.

Thoughts on Gameplay

Saints Row 4 took that sandbox gameplay feel that it’s predecessors and GTA, and practically blew it out of the water. While there’s a structure and missions that tell you what you need to do, you’re often given the ability to complete a task with violent creative freedom. You have to take out an alien patrol with just fireballs and bodyslams? You have to go up against a gang of glitched-out NPCs but want to use just a spiked bat with help from 3 strippers? Go right ahead. Want to steal a glowy sci-fi motorcycle and ride it to your next mission location? Consider it done. The gameplay keeps you drawn in as you gradually unlock wilder means of destruction, and every time you’re given a goal, you may  decide to test to see what is the strangest, most absurd way you can achieve it.

This time, because of a lack of spoilers, the Bones to Pick section will not be under a cut!

Bones To Pick

Too Easy Too Fast: Playing on Casual or Normal difficulty can sometimes result in the game getting to a point where some missions and activities feel like a knife through butter quickly, specifically if you know how to navigate open-world shooters. The game gives you weapons and superpowers at a rather consistent pace of after almost every mission has been completed and turned in to who assigned it, and the pushback of the difficulty might not be enough to overcome how you use your new powers and weapons. Due to this, you can end up often blowing your way out of big attacks or activities in little time.

Chores: As mentioned before, steps in the reclamation of Steelport neighborhoods, specifically the repetition of certain activities, can feel tedious. You hack a store so it’s your property, you fight a patrol, then you blow up the city with some wacky gun or superpower to disrupt peace, rinse, repeat. The only thing that really keeps you invested is the introduction of new activities, the rewards, and the story progression. It can turn into a droning cycle if you’re not fitting it main progression quests enough.

DLC For What?: Let me start this by saying I’m okay with the Christmas and Dominatrix DLC. Unlike some games these days, they’re just extra content, not pieces the game needs to complete it’s experience as best as possible. (I’m looking at you, Bioware.) But the weapons and clothing DLC packages that cost actual money are kind of stupid and unnecessary. You really want me to pay you an extra dollar or two for 2 pieces of 3d clothing or 2 weird guns?  No thanks, make them difficult unlockables next time.Worst part is, they implement these overpowered DLC weapons into your inventory from the start, you don’t have to go find and earn them. Once again possibly making the game too easy to get through.

Conclusion

Want an open-world, action-packed shooter game with the creativity and silliness factor turned up to 11? Like to have a virtual destruction playground? Like Grand Theft Auto but wish it was funnier? Then Saints Row 4 is your guy, especially if you already played past Saints Row games. If you haven’t played any of the Saints Row series before but are okay with getting dropped into the middle of a game series, SR4 does a pretty good job of moving you in without leaving you too lost on what happened in games past.

That’s it for this review! Thank you for reading Pond Reviews! Please follow for more content like this!

Saints Row 4 © Volition Inc.
Official Art © Volition Inc.
All ingame screenshots collected by me.

Life is Strange: Time Travel and Teens

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From the moment I saw the artistic style in the previews for Life is Strange, the 2015 hit graphic adventure game from Dontnod Entertainment and Square Enix, I was drawn in to what the game could offer on the basis of design. When I got around to playing the game myself, I found a new type of strategy game setup mixed with aspects of morality-factor games I enjoy. On top of this was lovely frosting of a colorful, fleshed-out world with an engaging plot. Let’s get into the key features of this lovingly-crafted work.

Key Features:

Writing Basics

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The Protagonist: Maxine “Max” Caulfield, a withdrawn, nerdy photography student, is one day struck with the power to turn back time a small amount, upon the day of her reunion with her childhood best friend, Chloe Price. Max is given her very neutral, reserved nature so the player’s choices can help determine how she develops through out the game. Despite her moments of nerdy pretentiousness that some players may find annoying or unnecessary, Max’s concern for the world around her is endearing.

The World: While limited, the 2013 setting of the small Oregon town of Arcadia Bay and the vocational high school Blackwell Academy is very vivid and full of life. There’s hardly an empty site or moment in each environment of these locations. Every passing NPC you interact with has their own unique sliver of background and personality.

Character Writing: As mentioned before, even minor characters have their own roundness to their writing. The students of Blackwell fight and gossip realistically, each having their own degree of grit or softness. Max, despite her flexibility for actions, has her own diverse set of opinions that are voiced in her interactions with other NPCs, as does our main supporting character, Chloe, acting as the storm to Max’s calm. The other supporting characters have opinions that the player must make choices around as well, and it often times can factor how the plot plays out.

Thoughts on Writing

My only complaint for the writing is despite having the right attitude for 2013 teenagers, their choice of words can often feel like a forced, cheesy attempt at modern teenage slang and vulgarities, and it’s very off-putting for players such as me who are well-versed in teen lingo of that time. Often times, characters will resist your choices, and it can be frustrating to try and micro-manage their feelings while trying to move through the story, but that’s part of what makes the game unique; sometimes the little things you have to toy with change the experience with the story. Overall, the detail and complexity of the environments and characters makes it feel like you’re really getting to know the places and people, and it gives you a sense being in that world itself. That itself is a strong appeal point for the game, which can hold players in if they’re not enjoying the simple gameplay mechanics.

Gameplay

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Difficulty: All the strategy in Life is Strange is mostly dependent on player choice and observation of environments. Just about any player of any skill can play LiS, as it is very similar to point-and-click adventure set ups, in the sense that progression occurs based on simply choosing to interact with something or leaving it alone, or picking one thing over another.

Making Choices: As mentioned before, the game’s progression, environment, and NPC change based on the actions you take. Comfort someone to help them out of a possible later drastic state, ask a question that gives you an answer you’ll need later, take an object from one place to another to help resolve a fight. Sometimes you are given definitive choices you can’t back out of once you pick them and move to the next environment, and they’ll permanently change something major in the game.

Rewinding Time: The whole game and plot revolves around this power mechanic. Max is able rewind time a select amount. This can be used to manipulate NPC conversation outcomes, prevent events from happening, getting yourself out situations you shouldn’t be in, undoing choices, or gathering information you could’ve needed before rewinding. Despite being able to undo most choices, there’s points where you can’t turn back. After most major choices, you can rewind to undo them, but once you leave the environment you’re in, you can’t take it back. There’s also the simple matter of the rewind’s span. Spending too much time doing something else after performing an action often results in that action simply being too far back in time to rewind to.

Exploration: Observing the ever-interesting world of Blackwell and Arcadia Bay can serve as a game-changer. You can learn more about the characters you meet or find something useful for later use. Some of these exploratory pieces aren’t in plain site and take time to seek out. The things you can find can often serve to influence an NPC in your favor, whether if be finding information a character needs, or discussing something you learned from a character’s belongings to make them happier. Other times, the things you find can serve you alone, whether it’s evidence against a rival or an item that can benefit your interaction with other characters.

Consequences: This game loooves to remind players that almost every action you do has consequences. As seen in the screenshot above, there’s a marker in game for it. There’s some actions in the game where you obviously know it will have some consequential influence, and there’s other times where you’ll do the most minor thing to set off the marker and you’re left befuddled as to what chain of events you might have set off.

Thoughts on Gameplay 

In all honesty, the game mechanic setup can either be very satisfactory with it’s sense of control and exploration, or feel very tedious with having too many options of things to pry into things that keep you from the most direct game path. It felt good to play a laid-back game where you have to think critically about chain reactions and the behaviors in the world around you in order to achieve the outcome you want.

Conclusion

If you’re more into story-heavy games, light gameplay that encourages a bit of critical thinking and giving an outlet for your thoughts of how the story plays out, or the “slice of life” story genre, Life is Strange might be just the right game for you.

That’s enough of our surface-level review, and I’d advise stopping here and not reading below the cut if you don’t wish to be spoiled, as the “Bones to Pick” section is not off-limits to spoilers. If this is where you wish to stop, thank you for reading my review! If not, proceed below the cut for a bit of complaining and spoilers.

Life is Strange © Dontnod Entertainment
Screenshots provided by Steam, Dontnod Entertainment Wiki, Square Enix Forums, Kotaku, and Redbubble.

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Welcome!

Greetings, readers! I’m Carlisle Pond, the author behind Pond Reviews. Pond Reviews is for reviews of video games of the adventure genre! My reviews are to be informational and fun. To help keep reviews like this, each game will be reviewed by it’s key features.

Some reviews to expect the coming week include: Mass Effect 3, Saints Row 4, Life is Strange, Tomb Raider 2013, and a “Special Feature” review on the difference between the vanilla Skyrim from 2011, and Skyrim: Special Edition in 2016.

I hope you enjoy the upcoming installments of Pond Reviews!