What does the counter say about his emo level?

The culprit: Prince of Persia: Warrior Within (GameCube, Xbox, PlayStation 2 and PlayStation 3 (as part of the Prince of Persia Trilogy), PlayStation Portable, PC via Steam)

You know how superhero film reboots sometimes think that grittier is better (e.g. Man of Steel, Batman vs Superman)? Well, video games sometimes fall prey to the same misconception. Case in point: Warrior Within, the second game in the Prince of Persia trilogy. It’s like Ubisoft looked at The Sands of Time and went “You know what this charming Middle Eastern fairytale is missing? Heavy metal, blood and boobs, YEAH!”. Excuse me while I roll my eyes. Even the introductory logo forms from a trickle of blood.

The game is set seven years after the end of The Sands of Time. The Prince is now being pursued by a large demon called the Dahaka and is told by an old man that this is because whoever unleashes the Sands of Time must die. As the Prince conspicuously failed to do so, it’s now the Dahaka’s job as guardian of the timeline to rectify that and erase him from existence. The old man also tells the Prince about the Island of Time, where the Empress of Time created the Sands (of Time), and where it is said that it’s possible to travel back through…time. So the Prince decides to go there to prevent the Sands from ever being created. Along the way, his ship is caught in a storm and attacked by what can only be described as a dominatrix in a metal harness with giant knives (Shahdee, although no one ever calls her by name in the game) and her crew of sand monsters, hellbent on preventing the Prince from reaching his destination. He tries to fend her off, but she kicks him into the sea and sinks the ship, leaving him stranded…on the Island of Time. Talk about being counterproductive.

The Island of Time is home to a Fortress, which features a locked central chamber, where the Empress presumably resides. The Prince’s goal is to unlock said chamber, but that’s much easier said than done. You see, the locking mechanism is controlled from two large towers situated at opposite ends of the Fortress. To make matters worse, the Fortress is currently in a rather dilapidated state, meaning that parts of the mechanism are broken or otherwise inaccessible. Fortunately, the Fortress also contains several Time Portals, which allow the Prince to travel back in time to the period where the Sands were created (again, how convenient!). Unfortunately, the Dahaka has followed him and will chase him several times over the course of the story. These sequences are easily the most exciting part of the game. They only stop because the Dahaka is apparently afraid of water, and the Fortress conveniently (…) features curtains of water falling over several doorways…Which begs the question of how the Dahaka ever made it to the Island, given that it is, y’know, an island. Is it only afraid of fresh water? Did any of the writers think this through?

Anyway, let’s try to find something positive here. The combat has been spruced up and is often considered to be the best out of all Prince of Persia games. Some things have been kept from The Sands of Time, such as the Prince drinking water to replenish his health, water fountains as save points or health upgrades in hidden locations. Although the latter are now obtained from wall panels, rather than a fountain, and are guarded by a plethora of traps. The Prince is still an accomplished acrobat, and he now has two new moves: sliding down walls by planting his sword into a tapestry (and he can do this repeatedly, even when the tapestry is already shredded…) and using ropes hanging from walls to gain momentum. He no longer has the Dagger of Time, but is wearing Farah’s Medallion, which has similar sand-related properties. Thus, he can still use time-manipulating powers, such as the ever-useful Rewind ability, or Eye of the Storm, which slows down time around him. These abilities are learned by opening Time Portals and require full sand tanks to use. The Prince starts out with three and will eventually unlock three more, also by opening the aforementioned Time Portals. He also no longer needs to absorb sand from fallen enemies: the Medallion will automatically do that for him, which helps to streamline combat.

Speaking of streamlining, the Prince now has flashier, more fluid moves and more creative ways of killing stuff, such as spinning around pillars or launching himself from walls. His main weapon is a sword, but he can also use various other types of weapons in his off hand by picking them up from slain enemies or weapon racks. These weapons will deteriorate quite quickly, however, so he will constantly need to find replacements, which is rather annoying. A good way of getting rid of a badly damaged secondary weapon is to throw it at an enemy. The prince can also block attacks and vault over enemies while attacking them, which results in shiny acrobatic combos, the game sometimes going into slow motion of its own accord to showcase them. This is probably the developers addressing the criticism that the combat in The Sands of Time was boring. Apparently, they also decided that “less boring” meant “more blood”, so enemies will now bleed when struck. Despite the fact that most, if not all, of them are supposed to be made of sand. You’ll also get to see decapitations and the Prince literally slicing creatures in half, either vertically or horizontally. Can you feel the grittiness yet?

In case your answer was no, the game’s soundtrack has also undergone a radical change. Gone are the Arabic-inspired melodies of The Sands of Time, replaced by thumping heavy metal. Enemies yell and screech like hyenas (Shahdee is a particularly notorious offender in this category), and some of the Prince’s battle cries are really annoying as well. The game’s overall look is darker too, and there are semi-hidden breakable chests containing official artwork strewn about the Fortress, just to hammer that in. Talk about a lame, self-congratulatory collectible. Mind you, this probably fits the fact that the Prince has devolved from a jerk with a heart of gold into an angry, floppy-haired emo loner, out to save his own skin. Instead of having a partner to interact and grow with, like in The Sands of Time, he is now on his own and stewing in his misery (and probably hitting the comfort food, given that he looks distinctly…pudgier than before in cutscenes). Granted, the Dahaka has, presumably, been chasing him for several years (inexplicably, but conveniently waiting until The Forgotten Sands happened), which would make anyone a little grumpy. But it doesn’t change the fact that he’s now a thoroughly unpleasant fellow, and the game makes a big deal of him using the word “bitch”. Oooh, the grittiness!

Let me qualify my statement about the Prince having no partner: he does get some assistance from a mysterious woman wearing strips of cloth meant to resemble a dress named Kaileena (modelled after Monica Bellucci), whom he saves from a stomping by Shahdee (but only after she asks him to). However, her aid is perfunctory at best, she never actually accompanies the Prince and has no personality or character development to speak of either. Come to think of it, neither does Shahdee, who gets dispatched very early on. What they do have are massive, gravity-defying racks and minimal clothing. Because that’s gritty and grown-up too, right? This lack of character development really becomes jarring come the true ending of the game. Because yes, there are two different endings. One where the Prince defeats the Empress of Time, and one where he defeats the Dahaka. Only the latter is canon, and you need to obtain the Prince’s best sword (after getting all health upgrades) to trigger it, but what happens after the battle felt really forced and awkward, bordering on the uncomfortable. Not to mention that the developers either have some very weird notions about biology, or the Prince has some…interesting tastes. Or Kaileena is not what she seems.

The game is also plagued by sloppiness. The graphics are less cartoonish than in The Sands of Time, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. There’s a lot of clipping, whether it be hair through faces or clothing through limbs. Kaileena is a big offender in this department, her dress often going straight through her legs. Some of the facial textures are also bad: the Prince sometimes gets a black patch at the corner of his mouth, while Kaileena’s green irises bleed over her eyelids. The controls are also sometimes sloppy, especially when the camera decides to change angles mid-jump, and I had several instances where the Prince launched off a wall to his death into a bottomless pit because the game’s engine misinterpreted my commands. And if that weren’t enough, there’s a lot of backtracking, which just smacks of sloppy level design. What’s more, the game features several major, game-breaking glitches. The cherry on the cake? One of them can happen if the Prince has to reuse a Time Portal that he’s already used before…and the game forces you to do this to escape the Dahaka for the first time.

Ultimately, there’s little more I can say about this debacle. The impression I get is that the developers completely misunderstood what made The Sands of Time successful and focussed excessively on the one major point of criticism it received. Yes, the combat is better. But when everything else is worse, you’ve kinda shot yourself in the foot. Or even both feet. And the kneecaps too, while we’re at it. The pain, so gritty!

Crisis Bore

The culprit: Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII (PlayStation Portable)

I’ve always viewed the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII with some suspicion, as it mostly seemed like a string of games (and a film) entirely aimed at milking fans of Final Fantasy VII for cash. Maybe I’m just cynical about sequels and prequels in general, maybe it’s because the Compilation came out several years after the original game, or maybe it’s because I was never a die-hard FFVII fan. Either way, I purchased Crisis Core with a dose of wariness, which, unfortunately, proved to be well-founded.

The game was a commercial success, and I’ve seen a lot of FFVII fans gushing about how great it is and how the ending made them cry, but that was not my experience at all. If you’ve played FFVII before, you’ll know exactly why the game is meant to make you cry, but knowing the outcome beforehand greatly reduced its impact in my eyes. I also felt that the game was trying too hard to tug at the audience’s heartstrings, rather than simply trusting the inherent tragedy of the moment. It’s like the developers decided to throw every emotional gimmick they could think of at the player, figuring that at least some of it might stick. None of it did, at least for me. It felt cheesy and overblown (angels! feathers! premonitions! rain!), and not even in a “so-bad-it’s-good” way, when it could have been truly impactful if they’d just kept it simple.

I also fully understand the game’s desire to pay homage to FFVII, given its popularity among the fanbase. But homage alone does not a good game make: it has to be able to stand on its own two feet and have its own basis for appeal. And that just isn’t the case with Crisis Core. The storyline felt like an odd rehash of the original game, with people being injected with extraneous cells and sprouting wings left, right and centre, to the extent that I started wondering whether everyone would end up with wings by the end. The single wing was Sephiroth’s trademark and made him unique. Reusing that on lesser villains does not automatically make them better, it just trivialises the attraction of the original villain.

Plot points were recycled and then developed in a confusing, disjointed and sometimes very bizarre way (c.f. a moment late in the game where an enemy mook decides to eat some of Zack’s hair because he thinks it will cure him). Aside from Zack, who came across as an upstanding, friendly guy, and the fact that we were able to see Cloud’s true persona and some of Sephiroth’s more humane traits before he went insane, most of the new characters were either forgettable, one-dimensional or downright annoying. The latter category includes the main villain, Genesis, which is a significant flaw. His name sounds pretentious, and he spends his time desperately trying to be as cool as Sephiroth. This is an actual plot point and comes across as painfully ironic. There’s also the fact that his design is based on a Japanese rock star (one of the developers is a fan), which just smacked of cheap fanboyism to me.

It also felt strange that events and people presented as significant in this game would then receive no mention at all in future instalments. It’s understandable for FFVII, since it’s an older game, but you’d think that there would be more references than a brief secret ending in Dirge of Cerberus. It also shows that Crisis Core was not part of a coherent narrative to begin with. Unlike, say, FFX-2 or the FFXIII saga: whatever you might think of their overall quality, they were at least designed with continuity in mind.

I didn’t particularly enjoy the gameplay or the music either. The latter was utterly forgettable, with one or two exceptions, and while the former included some interesting ideas on paper, I felt that the execution was lacking. There was notably too much randomness involved both in the DMW system and the materia fusion mechanics.

To sum it up, my overall impression of Crisis Core was ‘bland and messy’. However, I realise that this is probably a minority opinion, and if you love FFVII, you might well love this too. It depends on whether you see it as a worthy homage or a lame ripoff. If you’re not particularly keen on FFVII, I would give this a miss. And if you’ve never played FFVII before, I would encourage you to do that instead. It’s a better game.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

A-faffin’s Creed

The culprit: Assassin’s Creed: Revelations (PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC and Mac via Steam)

*sigh* Here we go again…As I don’t particularly like Ezio, I already felt that Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood was one Ezio game too many in the series. So why did I decide to play Revelations, you may ask? It was advertised as featuring sequences with Altaïr. I also wanted to put this part of the saga to rest once and for all.

The story picks up right where Brotherhood left off. Having dispatched Cesare Borgia, Ezio discovers a letter from his late father informing him that Altaïr had a secret library in Masyaf housing all of his accumulated knowledge. So off to Masyaf Ezio goes, gets into some trouble with the Templars, but escapes and learns that he needs five seals to be able to access the library. The seals are located in Constantinople, so Ezio’s next jaunt is to Turkey. There he meets up with the local Assassin branch, stumbles into a war of succession for the throne…and finds love with a business-savvy Venetian bookseller called Sophia.

If that sounds like a flimsy excuse for a story, it’s because it is. Brotherhood already felt like filler, but at least it was a direct consequence of the second game’s plot and stuff, y’know, happened in it, mostly courtesy of Cesare. Revelations, however, is completely tangential. Sure, the Templars just so happen to also be involved in the war of succession in Constantinople, but it’s not like Ezio knew about it beforehand or specifically went there to prevent it. It sort of just happens in the background while he, once again, does what he does best: faffing about. Heck, even the love story is dull, as Ezio and Sophia have zero chemistry between them. Fortunately, however, I’m happy to report that the series continues its trend of great supporting characters by introducing us to Yusuf, the charismatic, roguish (and very easy on the eyes) leader of the Turkish Assassins. From his infamous first greeting to Ezio, he stole the show and was the game’s main highlight to me. I was more interested in what happened to him than in anything Ezio got involved in, with the notable exception of the episode where they had to pose as minstrels to infiltrate Topkapi Palace, and Ezio hilariously imitated the nonsense-singing minstrels from Assassin’s Creed II (e.g. “I sing in Italiano,/You understand no word,/But my Greek is non-existent,/And my Turkish is absurd.”). Unfortunately, Ezio’s proclivity for colossal cockups had also not diminished between games and made me very angry at him by the end of the story.

Every time Ezio finds a seal for the Masyaf library, he experiences a vision of Altaïr’s life, as the seals somehow have his memories imprinted on them. Unfortunately, those sequences turned out to be pitifully short and far between, a far cry from what I was expecting, even given the fact that Ezio is the main protagonist. Perhaps the developers didn’t like Altaïr very much? But then why make the “dual storyline” your main advertising hook? Heck, I’m pretty sure you spend more time with Desmond than you do with Altaïr in this game.

Because yes, Desmond’s story continues, thanks to the shocker ending that they gave him in Brotherhood. He is now comatose and stuck inside the Animus. There, he meets the consciousness of Clay, Subject 16, who tells him that he has to put his mind back together to be able to wake up. That’s achieved through weird first-person puzzle platforming sections in featureless minimalistic environments, which can be thoroughly frustrating and felt decidedly odd by comparison with the main storyline. It’s like you’re in a different game altogether, and a boring one at that.

In terms of gameplay, the series continues its trend of building on existing bases. Many things are retained from Brotherhood, such as the kill streaks, which enable Ezio to plough through his opposition with ease. The full synchronisation requirements for missions are also still here: achieving Ezio’s goal is not enough on its own, you have to perform an additional requirement, such as not being seen, or not falling into water, for example. As the game takes place outside Europe, the Courtesans have been replaced by Romanies, but they serve the same purpose of distracting potential targets. Other than that, each helper guild (Romanies, Thieves and Mercenaries) still has its own set of (pointless) challenges that Ezio can perform for additional rewards. Parachutes are still around as well. You also (unfortunately) spend most of the game in Constantinople, just as you spent most of Brotherhood in Rome. Not that I dislike Constantinople, but I was starting to miss the variety of the first two games by this point. Multiplayer is also still a thing, but I was still completely uninterested in it.

Then there are things that have been expanded upon. For some reason, bombs seem to be this game’s favourite weapon, as there are loads of different varieties on offer. The in-game explanation is that the Turkish Assassins have just discovered gunpowder. Yusuf also upgrades one of Ezio’s hidden blades into a hook. Thus, the hookblade. With which he can travel along ziplines to get around faster. Or hook onto targets and flip over them. Or use it to destroy merchants’ stalls to create obstructions for pursuers. Nevermind the fact that having a hook instead of a blade is completely inconvenient for an Assassin’s main activity: stabbing.

Assassin recruitment is also still a major feature and has been expanded upon in several ways. First of all, there are six unique recruits with their own short backstories, on top of the more generic ones. You can now also participate in Mediterranean Defence, which involves sending recruits to different cities around the Mediterranean to establish bases there, rather than simply perform missions, although each city requires an Assassin proficient in a specific weapon type as its branch’s founding member. Then you have the Templar Dens. Much like in Brotherhood, once Ezio arrives in Constantinople, he takes it upon himself to liberate it from Templar influence, which requires clearing out Templar strongholds. These then become Assassin Dens, but until the recruits you put in charge of these become Master Assassins, they’re vulnerable to Templar attacks if Ezio’s notoriety rises too high. You must then participate in a tower defence minigame to protect them. As someone who takes great care with notoriety, my experience of Den Defence was very limited, because I only ever did four, and of those the first one was compulsory, and the three others were required to fulfil a guild challenge.

Ultimately, I can only describe this as “Ezio’s Big Faffabout: The Game”. The war of succession storyline is dull, Ezio’s main objective is pointless (especially given the ending), Desmond’s sequences are jarringly out of place, and there’s not even a memorable villain to salvage proceedings. If what you enjoy the most about the AC series is the gameplay and combat, you probably won’t mind all that much, but it’s not all that different from Brotherhood, which is the better game of the two. As for me, I came for Altaïr and stayed for Yusuf, so to speak. Other than that, utterly forgettable. Unless you’re a big Ezio fan or a completionist, don’t throw your money away.

Can I skip to the dessert?

The culprit: Neverwinter Nights (PC, Mac)

Boob attack!Neverwinter Nights, released in 2002, was BioWare’s follow-up to the hugely popular Baldur’s Gate series, and the question was whether they could replicate their success. While the game is also based on Dungeons & Dragons rules – 3rd Edition this time – the focus is very different, emphasising the multiplayer aspect, as well as encouraging players to create their own content via the Aurora toolset (shipped with the game). The latter was probably a result of all the mods that flourished for BG, ensuring a robust following for the game over the years and a lot of fan-made content, but also diverting time and resources from the single-player campaign. Three official expansion packs were released, of which only the first two – Shadows of Undrentide and Hordes of the Underdark (2003) – constitute a whole with the original game. The third one, Kingmaker (2004), consists of three standalone stories, or premium modules, that BioWare released as a way to milk more cash get more mileage out of the game.

So what’s the verdict? Well, despite its popularity, NWN was a disappointment for me, partly because I’m not interested in multiplayer, but mostly because I just found it boring. It was the first WRPG I tried, but it didn’t spark my interest in the genre. Good thing I gave Mass Effect and Dragon Age a try a few years later, or I might have missed out on WRPGs completely. NWN is unique in two ways in my eyes: it’s the only game I know where the original campaign (OC) and the expansions deliberately star two distinct protagonists, and the only one where the expansions are more interesting than the OC. In fact, I have a hard time remembering the OC’s storyline or characters, who cut a poor figure by comparison with BG (with a small handful of exceptions).

There are several other significant steps back from BG, such as a dramatically reduced party size, minimal control over companions or a clunky inventory system. Moreover, She really likes swordsdespite the effort to up the ante on graphics, I would much rather have kept the tiny character models from BG than the deformed bunches of polygons on display here. Voice acting is generally poor, and both protagonists are even more of a blank slate than in BG. And then there’s Aribeth, who, while not being a step back per se, is just incredibly annoying. Clearly a pet character designed by one of the developers – complete with over-sexualised armour and lascivious poses –, she’s presented as such a big deal that it becomes aggravating. Everybody loves her and pities her when trouble comes calling. She even monopolises the game’s promotional artwork.

So why should you play NWN? Well, perhaps you value combat or multiplayer above storyline and character development, in which case you will likely enjoy it a lot more than I did. Or maybe you’re curious about player-created content. Or perhaps you’ll genuinely like Aribeth and sympathise with her issues. More importantly, the game just gets better in the expansions: while SoU is a bit pedestrian, it does introduce chattier companions, including the lovable dork known as Deekin. HotU finishes things off with a bang, as you finally get the ability to form an actual party and proper interaction with interesting characters (Valen and Nathyrra), including romances that amount to more than just “I like you, but we’ve got more important stuff to sort out right now”. You also get interesting options for dealing with the final boss. All in all, think of it as a dinner with a lacklustre main course, a tolerable cheese platter and a tasty dessert. This isn’t BioWare’s strongest effort, and it shows, but it does have some redeeming qualities.

A remake entitled Neverwinter Nights: Enhanced Edition was released by Beamdog in 2018. It includes both expansions, as well as all of the premium modules released over the years, as well as the usual bug fixes and graphical improvements. It also makes multiplayer easier, as the old servers have now been shut down. So if you’re interested in the multiplayer aspects of the game and want as much content as possible, this is the version to go for.

Detailed review available! Read more here.