Retrospective: Freelancer

Hey, I guess this series is going to be a regular thing. So read up and be enlightened.

freelancer cover

When I was younger, I loved games set in space. I played the hell out of Alpha Centauri and Homeworld. So I was excited when, in 2003, Freelancer came out. This title billed itself as an open-ended sandbox sort of space shooter. As the box says, YOU DECIDE what kind of guy the player character (freelance pilot Edison Trent, the blonde guy on the box) gets to be. You can run escort missions and take out enemy ships. You can ship legit goods or make way more money smuggling contraband at the risk of discovery and death at the hands of one of the game’s state military or police forces.

This game must have had pretty high production values. It looked great in 2003, and even today, 11 years later, it holds up pretty well in that department. It featured plenty of voice acting talent, including John Rhys-Davies and George Takei. It has some cutscenes that are pretty clearly just in-game action and not pre-rendered, but that’s okay with me because I’m not a big fan of pre-rendered cutscenes anyway.

Excitement!

Excitement!

Without giving too much away, Trent is thrown into the middle of a growing interstellar war. The four empires that dominate Freelancer‘s star systems have been kept from the brink by a shaky system of alliances and truces, but at the beginning of the game this system is about to fall apart. It’s World War I in space, pretty much. And you’re in the center of the action, jumping from system to system, fighting pitched battles and running tense escort missions (SPOILER: every time you run an escort mission in this game you will get attacked along the way.)

This game features plenty of dogfights with small fighters and battles against larger cruiser and battleship-type craft.

This game features plenty of dogfights with small fighters and battles against larger cruiser and battleship-type craft.

The combat is fun and the controls are great. The basic gameplay in Freelancer is just really good. It’s also fun to jet around Trent’s corner of the galaxy and discover new star systems and visit their planets and stations as they open up. The universe of Freelancer isn’t all that big, but it is interesting – if you fly off the paths established by the empires of the game, you’ll find tight asteroid fields and thick clouds of gas that are home to rebel and “criminal” factions and their bases.

The reputation system this game uses was also pretty cool at the time. As a freelance pilot, Trent has a certain level of standing with each faction in the game. He can increase his rep with a faction by running missions for them and lower his rep with a faction by running missions for a rival faction. Missions can be found in the bars located on planets and stations. In a practical sense, though, all this reputation and mission stuff only really comes into play at the end of the story mode, when you get the freedom to roam all the systems without worrying about dramatic betrayals and sudden outbreaks of war. Scripted game events will mess up your rep with certain factions anyway, and it’s near impossible to maintain good rep with certain factions given the requirements of the story missions, so it’s not much use worrying about rep until after you’ve finished the main section of the game.

The warp gate ahead is a way for the player to move long distances in a short time.  The star systems in Freelancer also feature warp gates that carry your ship from system to system.

The warp gate ahead is a way for the player to move long distances in a short time. The star systems in Freelancer also feature warp gates that carry your ship from system to system.

Plotwise, Freelancer has a decent enough space adventure storyline, though the writers didn’t bother coming up with too many original ideas: the empires I mentioned above are basically Space America, Space Britain, Space Germany and Space Japan. That’s not really a big deal. What does kind of suck about Freelancer is that Trent, your player character, isn’t that interesting. He’s a tough pilot guy, and that’s all you can say about him. Part of this probably has to do with the fact that you can choose whether Trent is a lawful kind of guy who works with the police and military, a smuggler who trades with rebel groups or a straight up opportunist. This would be fine if he were a silent protagonist, but he’s not. Trent does talk and emote, and it seems like he’s trying to have something interesting about him.

Still, he’s just not interesting at all. This does hurt the game’s story and playability a bit because it means I don’t care all that much when Trent’s ship gets shot apart by a Rhineland cruiser. It’s frustrating, but I’m not crying for the guy or anything. By contrast, when I get Garrett killed in Thief II I apologize to him personally. Yes, I say “I’m sorry” to my screen.

This isn’t the main issue with Freelancer, though. The greatest problem with the game is that singleplayer mode gets old after a while. While the story is going, everything’s fine, but every single mission afterwards is a slight variation on “go to X and shoot Y until it explodes.” Whether it’s a straightforward “wipe out all the enemies” mission, a capture mission or an escort mission, it all boils down to the same thing. And while the combat in Freelancer is fun, it can get grating after a while. That’s a pretty serious problem as far as replayability goes.

Like every pilot in the world, you spend a lot of your Freelancer time in bars.  These are featured on every planet and dockable station and allow you to gather info and the same old boring jobs from the bartender and other bar patrons.  The most amusing thing about these scenes is that sometimes the bartender is a robot.

Like every pilot in the world, you spend a lot of your Freelancer time in bars. These are featured on every planet and dockable station and allow you to gather info and the same old boring jobs from the bartender and other bar patrons. The most amusing thing about these scenes is that sometimes the bartender is a robot.

That leaves multiplayer, which is… pretty much multiplayer. Not much to say about that, except that it adds a lot of value to the game by letting you strategize with friends and engage in dogfights with real players instead of the same old AI. There’s just one problem here – I’m pretty sure nobody plays Freelancer anymore. If you want space shooting PvP action, you’ll have to turn to EVE Online or a newer game instead.

If you’re going to play Freelancer today, the best way to make it interesting is by adding a bunch of mods. Modders have included hundreds of new ship types and even new systems to Freelancer‘s maps. The game might be worth playing just to fly around a behemoth and kill everything in your path.

freelancer enterprise

Its several flaws aside, I still have a soft spot for Freelancer, probably because I played it a whole lot when it came out. It is legitimately a good game, though. There are certainly a dozen other similar games that have surpassed it, but if you can get Freelancer for a dollar or two it’s well worth it.

Retrospective: The 7th Guest

Have you ever replayed a game that you remember loving as a kid but that, in retrospect, wasn’t really that good?

For me, that game was The 7th Guest. To be fair, it isn’t a bad game at all. In fact, it’s pretty fun at points and has a creepy and sometimes goofy atmosphere that somehow works. It was also on the cutting edge in terms of graphics when it was released in 1993. Unlike its more mellow puzzle-adventure game cousin Myst, however, The 7th Guest hasn’t aged well at all.

2spooky

2spooky

The story of The 7th Guest is confusing at best. From what I could tell, a crazy murderer named Henry Stauf had a dream of a doll and then made that doll and sold it and eventually became an extremely successful dollmaker. Then he expanded into sliding block puzzle games. Then he went even more crazy and shut himself in a creepy horror movie mansion he also dreamed about (and then designed and built, I guess?) Finally, he invited six seemingly random guests to a dinner party at said creepy mansion full of his dolls and sliding block puzzles, promising them stuff that each wanted desperately if they attended. All of this is explained in the opening cutscene, but it still doesn’t make much sense.

Speaking of cutscenes, boy are there some fucking cutscenes. They’re really grainy and badly recorded and their sound is nearly impossible to make out. Then again, this was 1993, and FMV games were still pretty new, so maybe The 7th Guest can be given a break. The contents of the cutscenes, though, aren’t excusable, because they often make even less sense than the opening video and feature extremely bad acting. But hey, I couldn’t do any better myself, and I can’t imagine Trilobyte had a huge budget for acting talent, so whatever.

Stauf's guests, minus one.

Stauf’s guests, minus one.

So, the story. It’s kind of a mess. It’s not really clear why Stauf is doing what he’s doing, except that he’s crazy and possibly sold his soul to the Devil (Stauf = Faust?) His six guests are all assholes in their own special ways, which makes them pretty much unsympathetic victims to Stauf’s death trap of a house. I won’t spoil anything except to say that it’s weird as hell this game was given to me, because as stated above I played this when I was seven and there are some sexual references in it. Really weird, goofy references that are played for laughs more than anything else, but still. There are also loads of skulls and spiders, and Stauf’s voice makes fun of you sometimes if you can’t figure out his puzzles. By the way, Stauf isn’t anywhere to be seen in person at his own party. Not a very good party host, is he.

Stauf as the subject of one of his own puzzles.  Yeah, this guy seems pretty stable.

Stauf as the subject of one of his own puzzles. Yeah, this guy seems pretty stable.

And yeah, there are puzzles in this game. In fact, The 7th Guest can be fairly described as a puzzle game, because they’re about 98 percent of the whole experience: certain puzzles must be solved before some doors in the mansion can be unlocked and the story can progress. Some of the puzzles were pretty difficult to complete when I was a kid, but most of them are really just straightforward trial-and-error deals that aren’t too hard to work out. And of course, most of the puzzles have some kind of creepy skull/blood/spider theme to them. Oh Stauf, you wacky guy.

A few of the puzzles were especially frustrating (for example the Reversi blood cell game you played against the computer. That one sucked.) Also, some of the results of the completed puzzles were, well, puzzling.

I won't spoil the answer to this canned goods word puzzle, but it's pretty stupid.

I won’t spoil the answer to this canned goods word puzzle, but it’s pretty stupid.

One problem with The 7th Guest is that Trilobyte, the developer, clearly didn’t have enough interesting puzzle ideas in its stock to fill a whole game. Some of the puzzles were fun and interesting to work out, some were all right and a few were kind of dumb. Puzzle themes are also sometimes repeated, which can be annoying.

1 of 3 chess puzzles in the game.  Stauf was running out of ideas for puzzles at this point.

1 of 3 chess puzzles in the game. Stauf was running out of ideas for puzzles at this point.

Despite its problems, The 7th Guest was a fresh experience in the early 90s. It also stood up well against its competition and sold a lot of copies, which makes sense when you consider the typical quality of FMV games (shit.) This success spurred Trilobyte on to make a sequel, The 11th Hour, which like most other people I’ve never played. I hear it’s pretty bad, though. It was also a commercial flop. The success of the original probably couldn’t have been repeated anyway. By 1995, people were getting a lot more used to playing good games on their PCs, and I imagine Trilobyte’s stuff looked pretty poor with all its pockmarks by comparison.

What with the resurgence of gaming nostalgia, however, The 7th Guest recently returned from the grave. It’s been on Steam for a few months. Getting The 7th Guest on Steam is probably the only way to play the game today without using a virtual machine program to run Windows 95 and buying a probably expensive as hell original copy of the game, so it’s the best way to play it by far. Just keep in mind that The 7th Guest is 20 years old when you’re playing it. I’d recommend waiting for a Steam sale – a few dollars is well worth the cost of experiencing an essential part of PC game history.

Persona 4 Golden: a pretty good reason to buy a PS Vita

p4g-2

If you have money to burn and feel like buying a system for just one game, consider getting a Vita for Persona 4 Golden.

That’s not really an accurate statement, to be honest. There are quite a few good titles on the Vita right now. Last year, though, there weren’t. One of the few that I was at all interested in was this port of the popular 2008 JRPG title Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4. I’m a massive SMT fan and loved Persona 4, but that wouldn’t have been enough to get me to buy a Vita.

But Golden isn’t just a port – it actually adds content and hours of gameplay to the PS2 original. There’s a whole new dungeon. There are more Personas to fuse. There are new Arcana that Persona 4 Golden makes up to shove these Personas into. There are a bunch of new costumes your characters can wear in battle (including a few slightly creepy ultra-fanservice outfits for the girls in your party.) There’s a new battle theme, meaning now there are two of them instead of just one (thanks Atlus!) There are several new story events and some new activities for your character to experience. There are two new social links.

One of the two is kind of irritating.  Thanks, Atlus.

One of the two is kind of irritating. Thanks, Atlus.

P4G includes a bunch of extras outside of the game itself. You can now replay cutscenes, watch Persona-related videos like a live concert by whoever brought you those Persona battle themes and background music and a quiz show starring the MC, Yosuke, Chie and Yukiko, naturally hosted by Teddie. What fun!

Another extra: philosophy lectures!

Another extra: philosophy lectures!

Newcomers to Persona 4 aren’t going to understand what the hell any of this is about, so here’s a primer: Persona 4 is a half-dungeon crawler half-social sim. Your player character has to fight shadows in a magical world with his high school friends through their Personas, magical manifestations of their inner beings that can beat up monsters. At the same time, he still has to attend school, establish relationships with his non-Persona-using classmates and townspeople and hide everything he’s doing from his detective uncle. It makes more sense when you play the game, believe me.

Don’t worry about picking up the original if you’re planning on getting P4G. If you have a choice between P4 and P4G, this is the one to get. The original game is all here and then some – it doesn’t take away anything from the old Persona 4. The gameplay is the same, albeit with a few tweaks to the all-important Persona fusion system that make it easier to use. Unfortunately, this means it also retains the few genuinely annoying parts of the game.

Seriously, Teddie.  Fuck you and your bear puns.

Seriously, Teddie. Fuck you and your bear puns.

If you want to know why Persona 4 is a 10 out of 10 game and one of the best JRPGs to come out in the past ten years, go look for a P4 review. The game is simply well-made and a lot of fun. Moreover, it brings together “hardcore” Shin Megami Tensei fans and gamers who can’t stomach the harsh and sometimes cheap difficulty of main line SMT games. It pretty much made SMT’s reputation in the West, and for an American fan of slightly obscure/weird JRPGs (meaning ones that aren’t Final Fantasy) this is enough reason to love it.

The only sticking point is whether P4G is worth buying a Vita for if you don’t have one already. I know a few people who would say yes, but I’m not so sure. If money is no object, or if you’re big on mobile gaming and don’t want to or can’t sit in front of a TV screen for hours on end, then I’d say go for it. If it is and you’ve already got a PS2, though, I’d go with the original P4. You’ll get essentially the same experience, only without the extras that P4G adds.

All in all, though, I don’t regret my decision to buy a Vita. P4G adds a lot to the original Persona 4, and it allows you to play it on the bus/train (I never did this, but if you don’t mind people wondering what the hell you’re doing this should be a benefit for you.) And anyway, the Vita’s got plenty of other good games out. Really it has.

Retrospective: Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne

smt3

Shin Megami Tensei III (alt title: Nocturne in North America, Lucifer’s Call in Europe) is my favorite SMT title and one of my favorite games of all time. This 2004 RPG for the PS2 is moody, atmospheric, expansive and a whole lot of fun to play. It’s also tough as nails and occasionally cheap.

The Megami Tensei series started on the NES as a first-person view dungeon crawling RPG based upon a fanatsy/sci-fi novel about demons being released into Tokyo by the protagonist, who then has to stop them from destroying the city (or something, I never read more than a synopsis and I don’t think it’s translated anyway.) Ever since, every SMT game and spinoff has dealt with the border between the real world of humans and the supernatural world of demons and what happens where they intersect.

SMT: Nocturne was originally titled SMT3 because it’s the third in the line from the first Shin Megami Tensei on the SNES. Why the two Megami Tensei games on the NES aren’t included in this line I have no idea, but that’s how it is. Actually, the numbering system the SMT series uses is stupidly complicated considering all the many spinoffs the series has produced (Persona, Digital Devil Saga, Devil Summoner, Devil Survivor, the list goes on.) Nocturne counts as a main line SMT game, though, because it follows the old “demons break through a rift into Tokyo and the apocalypse happens” scenario. This time, those events are reversed in order, but the effect is pretty much the same: Tokyo has become a demon-filled wasteland closed off to the rest of the world and it’s up to our hero, a surviving human who has been turned part-demon himself by a mysterious young boy, to take control of that world and shape it according to his desires.

This is your protagonist in Nocturne, the guy in the middle.  Official art by Kazuma Kaneko.

This is your protagonist in Nocturne, the guy in the middle. Official art by Kazuma Kaneko.

Nocturne is a typical JRPG in that you spend most of your time running around fields and dungeon areas fighting enemies. Combat is pretty standard in that sense. You can hit your opponents with elemental attacks, physical attacks or INSTANT DEATH attacks (both light and dark) that never seem to work when you use them, but that always seem to work when your enemies use them against you. Both you, your allies and your enemies have strengths and weaknesses to certain elements that can spell the difference between a clean victory and a bloody defeat, so it’s important to have a good lineup of demons ready to swap into your party to cover all circumstances.

One of Demifiend's party using a curse spell against some angel-type demons.  This will probably kill all of them instantly, since they're weak to dark.

One of Demifiend’s party using a curse spell against some angel-type demons. This will probably kill all of them instantly, since they’re weak to dark.

However, you don’t always have to fight your enemies. You can usually try to recruit them. Demon negotiation is one of the most interesting parts of Nocturne. Taken from older SMT games, the negotiation system here starts when you (or one of your demon allies, assuming it has a Talk skill) approach a demon on the enemy side and engage it in conversation. This process includes lots of back-and-forth exchanges and negotiations for money, items and the drawing of the player character’s HP and MP in exchange for the demon’s support. Sometimes the demon will instead give you advice, money or an item for free. Sometimes the demon will run off with all your shit, and you usually won’t be able to stop it. Demon negotiation can be frustrating, but it’s mostly fun. Fortunately, the game tosses an automatic ally your way at the beginning of the game to make the whole thing a little smoother.

You can also fuse your demons to create new demon allies. This is the only way to turn out really good demons to place into your ranks. Sacrificial fusion, in which a third demon is sacrificed and gives up its own skills to the resulting demon, is also an option.

Pixie, that automatic ally I was talking about.  Protip: DON'T GET RID OF PIXIE.  You'll meet her near the beginning of the game.  You can let her evolve or fuse her, but don't sacrifice her or kick her out.  This is extremely important.

Pixie, that automatic ally I was talking about. Protip: DON’T GET RID OF PIXIE. You’ll meet her near the beginning of the game. You can let her evolve or fuse her, but don’t sacrifice her or kick her out. This is extremely important for the very late game.

It might just be me, but Nocturne has a wonderful atmosphere that really envelops you as you play. I’ve gone through this game seven times since first playing it in 2006 or so, and it hasn’t gotten old somehow. I still enjoy it, I think in part because of that very atmosphere. The empty hospital, the ruined malls and office buildings, the weirdly desolate parks, the bizarre, mutated Diet building that leads you down wrong turns and tricks you with false doors, all of these environments really make an impression on you. Okay, what I just wrote made no sense at all, but I’m not sure how to put this into words. Just play the game and you’ll see what I mean.

You'll get real sick of seeing this place, I guarantee it.

You’ll get real sick of seeing this place, I guarantee it.

The game’s feel also owes a lot to the work of artist Kazuma Kaneko, who designed this game’s characters and demons. His designs are fascinating and sometimes offer interesting takes on mythical creatures from traditions that span the entire world. Graphically, Nocturne itself doesn’t look extremely impressive from today’s standards, but the look of the characters and the environments is really nice. It all comes together very well. Again, you’ll have to play the game to really know what I mean.

Speaking of, the game itself can span from 60 to well over 100 hours depending on how expansive your playthrough is – whether you finish the optional long-ass Labyrinth of Amala, complete the Compendium of demons, max out your player character, complete the relatively few sidequests this game offers, etc. I won’t spoil anything, but if you want the game’s true ending you’ll have to invest some time and finish the Amala Labyrinth.

Baphomet doing some good old-fashioned demon-summoning ritual chanting during one of those sidequests.  This can only go well.

Baphomet doing some good old-fashioned demon-summoning ritual chanting during one of those sidequests. This can only go well.

In the end, I can’t really say why this is one of my favorite games. It just is. It’s tough in an old-school sort of way that’s not afraid to throw some cheap shots at you, but I think that makes getting past the game’s obstacles all the more rewarding.

Buying Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne is a pretty simple matter. If you own a PS2, you can get a copy of SMT Nocturne on Amazon or probably most anywhere else for right around $20-30. This price is more than worth the many hours of enjoyment you’ll get out of playing this classic gem. If all of the above stuff sounds appealing to you, you should order this game right away. Hell, if you don’t own a PS2, buy one along with a copy of Nocturne – they’re pretty cheap these days. You won’t regret it (or maybe you will, but I disclaim all responsibility if you’re not satisfied.)

A review of Piggly Wiggly’s fried chicken and cole slaw

Now I guess it’s no secret that I live in the South, because that’s the only place where Piggly Wiggly exists. If you don’t know about this grocery store chain, you don’t live in this part of the US or haven’t been here very often. It’s a southern staple. It’s also not… great. Not an excellent selection of groceries. If you live in this part of the country, places like Publix, Kroger’s and Harris Teeter are a lot better in terms of service and selection.

Nevertheless, Piggly Wiggly is the only grocery store in my neighborhood – brand new, in fact. I went a couple of days ago and got fried chicken with cole slaw. Fried chicken is another southern staple, and if you’re going to have fried chicken it’s best to at least have cole slaw alongside it. Fried chicken isn’t health food or anything, but it’s not too bad to have occasionally.

The cold leftovers.

The cold leftovers.

In most parts of the country/world, people seem to believe that the best non-homemade fried chicken comes from chains like KFC and Popeye’s. It doesn’t. Assuming you can’t get it at home, the best fried chicken, both in terms of value and quality, comes from grocery stores. But how does Piggly Wiggly stack up to the competition?

As it turns out, Piggly’s fried chicken is all right. Not great, but all right. I tried it both hot right away and cold the day after (good fried chicken should make for a good meal either way) and it was passable in both states. You can get 8 pieces for 7 dollars, too, which is a pretty good deal, and this stuff is at least as good as anything you’ll find at KFC. As for the cole slaw, it doesn’t fare quite as well – I think it has way too much cabbage or something in it. Not too good. Then again, cole slaw is easy to make at home if you’re so inclined.

There’s a problem for Piggly Wiggly, however: Publix. Its fried chicken is a lot better – crisper and there seems to be more meat on the bone, though that might just be the particular pieces I got. It’s also just as cheap as Piggly’s chicken. So Publix wins hands-down. If you’re in the South and you want take-home fried chicken, Publix is the place you should go.

Anyway, Piggly Wiggly’s fried chicken is okay. I might have it again in a pinch. Before I finish this review, though, let’s have a look at the label on the fried chicken container. Maybe it will shed some light on this chicken’s just okay-ish quality.

...

Fine. It’s breaded frying chicken and it’s injected with up to… what?

Injected? Injected with what? And how much of it was injected?

injected

When and how was the chicken I just ate injected? And why? What isn’t Piggly Wiggly telling me about their fried chicken?

Okay, maybe I won’t have their chicken again. At least not until I know what the hell it is they’re injecting into the stuff. I’ll ask them next time I’m over there. In the meantime, maybe avoid Piggly Wiggly’s fried chicken counter unless you don’t mind eating food that’s possibly injected with an unknown substance.

New year’s resolution: Finish Disgaea D2 before the year ends

I’m five years behind everyone else. After the PS4 was released, I decided it was finally time to get a PS3. I don’t have a whole lot of money to spend on games – the greatest part of it has to go to my education, food, rent, etc. Whatever games I buy I buy with a part of the writing income I make. Which isn’t all that much.

But I decided I had to have a PS3. One of the reasons for this decision was Disgaea D2, the direct sequel to 2003’s Disgaea: Hour of Darkness.

Disgaea-D2-1

I’ve played about 10 hours of D2 so far. Since I’m on vacation right now, I finally have some time away to play games, read books (that I want to read – i.e. not cases and treatises) and play music. This isn’t a review because I haven’t actually gotten anywhere near finishing D2 yet, but I can say that I haven’t regretted using my scant downtime to play this thing. Part of it is the great cast – Laharl, Etna and Flonne return with all their wacky antics etc. There are some new characters as well, most notably Laharl’s little sister, who may or may not be lying about the fact that she’s his little sister. She wants to take his place as Overlord, you see.

It sure is, Flonne.

It sure is, Flonne.

Notice the new HD sprites – D2 looks great, especially when compared to Disgaea 3, released just a few years ago on the same system.

The gameplay seems to be the same as always – grind-based SRPG action, crazy special abilities, a massively addictive Item World to play in and so on. Everything is here. I’d say it’s more of the same – the Polygon review gives D2 a low rating for this very reason (along with the fact that it has “over-the-top characters” and “eye-rolling jokes” – yeah, this is a Disgaea game; of course it’s got those. What did you expect, dear Polygon reviewer?)

But I heartily disagree with the Polygon review so far. Maybe I just enjoy more of the same. Maybe I enjoy it as long as it’s NIS producing the same high-quality, high-entertainment work they always have. Or maybe I’m just a fanboy (this is probably the truest statement in this post.) If you’re also an NIS fanboy too (or fangirl – I know at least a few of you exist) you probably already have this game, so I don’t actually need to do any convincing here, do I? Anyway, this is a new year’s resolution that I might really keep.