Review – Guitar Hero Live

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Guitar Hero Live is a fantastic music rhythm game. Guitar Hero Live totally reinvigorated my love of music rhythm games with plastic guitars. Guitar Hero Live got me emotionally invested in the outcome of my performances in a way that felt new and addictive.

I don’t like the idea of recommending that people buy Guitar Hero Live.

So, let’s start off with all the positives. Guitar Hero live does for me what Rock Band 4 failed to manage, it changes up the plastic instrument music rhythm in ways that feel new and unique, fresh and exciting, and that all starts with the new guitar controller.

Gone is the old five-button single row layout, replaced with two rows of three buttons placed next to each other. On screen you’ve got three note tracks scrolling, which will either show a white pick pointing down or a black pick pointing up to denote if you should play that note on the top or bottom row. It’s a switch up that slightly more closely resembles guitar fingerings, and it feels like a new, manageable challenge to learn. Starting with three button difficulty modes and ramping up gradually, it feels like both an accessible entry point for new players, and a fresh challenge for plastic guitar veterans.

Oh, and thank goodness there’s no getting your pinky finger involved or sliding your hand around any more.

Using a combination of vertical and split chords, alongside open strums, the new layout feels far more like you’re showcasing skill, even if it still barely resembles the actual act of playing a real guitar.

Unlike past Guitar Hero games or Rock Band 4, the focus in Guitar Hero Live is clearly on playing lead guitar. You can play either solo, or two player, but both players will be playing the same lead guitar role in the song. There’s still some very basic vocal implementation, but gone are the bass, the drums, the keyboard or any other instrument options.

While vocal support is available to add a third player, the difficulty of their role and the detail with which they are scored feels lacking. Vocals definately feel like an afterthought compared to the Guitars.

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Since Guitar Hero Live was first revealed, a lot of people have been interested in how the FMV crowds would turn out in practice. Honestly, I was surprised at how well they held up throughout my time with the game. In the single player story mode you play a number of three song sets, starting backstage with some band discussion, walking out onto stage, playing through your set and experiencing the aftermath. From the begining to the end transitions between footage based on performance is handled in a subtle and smooth manner. Fast camera pans are clearly designed to mask these transitions, but it certain does what it’s intended to.

When I was doing well at Guitar Hero Live, I felt like a guitar shredding legend. The crowd went wild, the pit jumped, the crowd fought to lock eyes with me and everything felt amazing. It’s amazing how much difference the switch from computer animated crowds to real human faces can make, but seeing actual people respond well to your performance felt awesome.

When I messed up, my god things got uncomfortable.

First the audience began to look mildly confused. Then, they looked upset, personally let down by me. I glance at the bassist and he’s trying to ask what’s going wrong.

I do worse.

The audience grows upset, confused and angry. I glance at the drummer and she’s freaking out. Mascara is running down her face as she mouths obscenities at me. The singer motions to have the stage hands pull me off stage.

While the story mode is only playable in single player, all 42 songs are available in free play at any time for pairs of players.

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Right, let’s get to the bit of the review where things go a little down hill. Let’s talk about GHTV.

So, GHTV is where the you’ll find any Guitar Hero Live song that’s not in the main 42 track set list. You’ll have two “channels” available to you at any time, which switch out every thirty minutes. You’ll stream songs from the internet and play the same songs as everyone else in the world. No choice, play what you’re given.

These tracks feature music videos rather than reactionary FMV crowds and my results here were mixed. While there was some benefit to being encouraged to try songs I would normally not have bothered with, this was completely overwhelmed by my frustration at finding a song I liked and wanted to nail. I’m a bit obsessive by nature, and when I find a song in these games I like I want to perfect it.

There is no option for players to purchase an individual song they enjoy to play permanently, only a series of options to temporarily grasp a light grip upon it.

You can unlock “on demand play tokens” through playing randomly selected songs on GHTV. Typically, depending on your performance, it’ll take between three and five randomly selected songs to earn one selectable play of a song. This means having a good two hour play session with your friends where you can play anything you want is going to take you between six and ten hours of random song play to unlock. That’s less than ideal for a game that seems set up for playing with friends.

If you don’t want to spend that time unlocking free play tokens, you can purchase a 24 hour pass to play all the songs you like. That 24 hour pass will cost you roughly the same price as half a month of Netflix. For a full price retail game, at an elevated price point as it requires new plastic instruments, charging the same amount for 24 hours of song as two weeks of Netflix is ridiculous.

I pay for a Netflix subscription because that fee covers my open access to all available content with no upfront additional cost. Here I’m being charged a considerable amount upfront, to then also pay a subscription fee if I want to chose when I enjoy that content and which content I have access to. I bought Guitar Hero Live already, I don’t want to have to spend money to temporarily chose which tracks I want to play. I want to buy songs, or chose which I stream.

Seriously, I love Guitar Hero Live as a 42 song game. It refreshed the genre in a way that got me incredibly excited about plastic instrument games again.

But GHTV makes the game hard for me to recommend. It really soured me on an otherwise stunning video game.

Review – Tales of Zestiria

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Broadly speaking, Tales of Zestiria feels a lot like any other “Tales Of” game that came before it. A young man discovers he is destined to save a beautiful world from certain destruction, but he’s mostly interested in finding out more about a mysterious girl who acts as the catalyst for his heroic journey. The start is slow, filled with exposition, peppered with poorly paced dialogue and generally doesn’t get interesting for several hours, before suddenly showing it’s hand.

Tales of Zestiria is unlikely to convert people into new fans of the series if they have previously disliked it. It’s unlikely to scare away any existing fans. It’s a new “Tales Of” game, and that is in many ways exactly what it needs to be.

Fear not, there are some pleasant changes to the formula that should help get you invested if you’re feeling at all burned out on the series.

So, much like any other Tales game, there’s a bit of a grind at the start where nothing really happens at any notable speed. Little hints at narrative and gameplay, but mostly running around and talking to NPCs who you’ll never see again.

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Once you really get into the bulk of the game and past the lengthy tutorial exposition segment, Tales of Zestiria has a pretty interesting plot. While Our player character himself remains fairly bland for a long time, the tackled themes of relationships, politics, religion and how they all interact with day to day life within a world all felt fleshed out and interesting to explore. There are some grand themes being tackled, and the execution is pretty strong.

The plot also investigates the protagonist’s interactions with a race of creatures who are invisible to the majority of the world. As well as providing fuel for some interesting character interactions within your playable cast, there’s also interesting interplay with the protagonists in the world. Like many JRPGs most of your team isn’t visible running around the map from moment to moment, and Zestiria uses this knowledge at times to amusing effect.

In terms of notable improvements to the Tales series formula, the first obvious improvement is that the game’s corridoring of the player is far less obvious. Much like Xenoblade Chronicles your RPG experience is still linear, but environments are large and widespread enough, with room to explore, that the fact you’re travelling a set path isn’t immediately obvious.

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For the most part, Zestiria’s combat system is the same as the Tales games that game before it. It’s the same action battle system with timed cooldowns on abilities, with one big addition to the combat mechanics that plays in to the narrative in interesting ways. Zestiria allows you to fuse in combat with your team members.

The benefit to fusing with other team members in battle is that you get a boost to your attributes, but also get an additional and distinct set of new abilities to use. The downside is that if the fused character falls in battle, both party members that fused will fall. It provides an interesting risk and reward dynamic that lead to some very intense ends to boss fights and larger encounters.

Ultimately, Tales of Zestiria is in many ways another Tales game. The pacing is inconsistent, with narrative high points often followed by slow periods where nothing terribly exciting happens for extended periods of time. Once it hits a stride it’s a solid JRPG, with an interesting if inconsistent plot and unique twists on its battle mechanic. If you like Tales games it’s a good Tales game. If not, this won’t win you over. If you’re feeling burned out on the series, there’s enough tweaks to the combat, environment scope and narrative to leave it feeling new again.

Review – Dragon Ball Z: Extreme Butoden

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When it comes to Dragon Ball Z fighting games, I am one of those people who loves them for the over the top spectacle more than the technical fighting specifics involved. I know when a fighting game feels responsive and plays nicely, but the technical nitty gritty isn’t a huge factor in my love of the game. What I want is to control a bunch of super powerful fighters, blast my enemies into visually spectacular dust and recapture some of that childhood excitement that coarsed through my veins when I first watched the show growing up.

Dragon Ball Z: Extreme Butoden on 3DS is a solid fighting game, but somewhat unimpressive in this regard. It’s a competent, responsive fighter, but it plays everything about it’s design a little too safe and bland.

So, let’s get the core info out the way. Dragon Ball Z: Extreme Butoden is a 2D sprite brawler for 3DS set in the world of Dragon Ball Z. All playable characters have the same core controls, similar to games like Smash Bros. where the inputs don’t vary, but the moves produced do. Dashes double as teleports into counter positions if timed correctly, while characters string together basic combo strings, ranged projectiles and launchers.

You fight each match with a team of characters, built up of mains and non playable assists, with the player able to switch between team characters at any time. Characters mainly vary in terms of plot specific special attacks, power and speed.

If all this sounds a bit dry and by the numbers, that’s because that’s how it feels in game. It’s by no means an incompetent fighting game, far from it, but it just plays everything very by the numbers. There’s nothing about the combat that feels particularly new for fighting game fans, or particularly exciting for Dragon Ball Z fans.

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Visually, Dragon Ball Z: Extreme Butoden has turned out pretty nicely. While not the peak of 2D sprite work, they certainly hold their own with some of the better examples of 2D sprites on the system. Sprites are crisp, expressive and fluid in their animations, which leaves little room for complaint. It is worth noting that with 3D on the system switched on, some of the special attacks do look rather spectacular, with a lot of work clearly put into effective 3D layering.

In terms of a story mode, Dragon Ball Z: Extreme Butoden’s initially available story mode sees you play through a truncated version of the events of Dragon Ball Z. Events are skipped over and dialogue is shortened in such a way that a lot of the drama, emotion and investment is stripped away. Much of the engagement with Dragon Ball Z comes from the over the top nature of long, drawn out exposition screams, and that isn’t really replicated here.

Imagine the plot of Dragon Ball Z, heavily abridged, and told through mostly still character portraits, lifeless dialogue text and the occasional brief plot related battle that doesn’t go on nearly long enough to justify its build up. It’s a bit of a disappointment.

After completing the main story, you do unlock some alternative storylines to play through that offer interessting spins on the narrative, as well as an additional adventure mode that sees Goku face off against many of the enemies from the main story in a slightly contrived narrative. It’s fun to do fight bosses in new combinations, but the narrative attempting to string that together feels like an afterthought developed to excuse the gameplay content.

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One of the more dissapointing aspects of the game for me was the limited playable roster. While many of your bigger name characters are playable, most of the supporting cast of fighters is relagated to support assit roles. Past Dragon Ball Z games have allowed a very wide selection of characters, down to some of the most useless, to be playable, so this feels like an unfortunate step back.

Unlocking these additional assist characters is also a bit of a lengthy chore, as they have to be unlocked by attaining high ranks throughout other modes. Many of these character unlock requirements do not feel like the reward unlocked is really worth the effort put in.

Dragon Ball Z: Extreme Butoden does feature a local multiplayer mode, but unfortunately no online multiplayer.

Yeah, if you couldn’t tell from my less than enthused review, I really couldn’t muster up feelings either way on this game. It’s a competent fighter with nice sprite work, but it also does very little interesting with narrative presentation, combat mechanics or gameplay modes. It all feels very safe, and I didn’t really feel much by the ime I was done.

Time to scratch my Dragon Ball Z itch with some Budokai Tenkaichi 3.

Review – Minecraft: Story Mode – Episode One: The Order of The Stone

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Minecraft: Story Mode is the newest game from episodic adventure game specialists Telltale Games and is a mixture of some of the better parts of Minecraft and the choose your own adventure gameplay of Telltale games, wrapped up in a pre teen friendly wrapping. Gone are some of the heavier and more adult themes, situations and language of Telltale’s more recent releases, replaced with a tense but family friendly adventure. The items, crafting, environments and characters all feel familiar, but with a level of polished narrative presentation that rivals that of The Lego Movie.

In short, there is a lot to be excited about here, for Minecraft and Telltale fans alike.

The plot of Telltale’s first Minecraft episode is pretty simple. In the past there was a group of heroes who did a bunch of Minecraft style things, like crafting, mining and eventually slaying an Ender Dragon. Meanwhile a group of friends are entering a giant crafting competition for a convention within the world. Things do not go as hoped and the group of friends find themselves going off on an adventure much like the heroes they admired did before them. It’s a fairly basic plot, but it’s solid in it’s execution.

It is worth noting that certain plot points were fairly obviously signposted, and some plot twists badly hidden. This is likely a result of the game being aimed at a younger adventure game audience, the bread crumb trail to these plot twists can at times be made up of more frequent and slightly more obvious clues than in other Telltale games, at least in this first episode.

The script itself is very well written and manages to get the best possible performance out of every voice actor involved. The script generally is very amusing, with moments of mild peril punctuated with the right level of subtle emotion they need to be scary, but without risking causing nightmares for younger players. This, paired with the impressive use of cinematic camera angles and dramatic pacing make Minecraft: Story Mode’s first episode a real technical treat. The presentation is spot on, and feels of a very high level of quality.

The first episode touches on some very human and relatable young adult and pre teen themes largely centered on aspects of self discovery, nervous self assertion and awkwardly fumbling through encounters trying to come across cool. I know I for one can relate to a lot of that.

In terms of the family friendly nature of the script, at it’s worst the script for episode one uses the phrase “holy crap” twice. If you’re okay with that, the language use in the game should not be a problem to introduce to younger Minecraft fans in the family.

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While initially much of the mining and crafting gameplay in Minecraft: Story Mode is done by repeatedly tapping buttons during quick time events, as the episode goes on you are offered opportunities to craft, which seasoned Minecraft players will have a distinct advantage with. You’re provided a set of materials, an optional book that shows how to lay materials out for various crafting recipes, and are told to lay out your resources to craft classic Minecraft items. While episode one focused on fairly basic recipes, the base is certainly there to allow seasoned players to craft complex items as the series progresses.

One aspect of the game that caught me off guard playing this first episode of Minecraft: Story Mode was the presence of real time combat and a persistent health bar. You start out with a plentiful supply of hearts which get depleted when you take damage from enemies, fail quick time events or generally fail to avoid harm. Combat with enemies involves walking around in real time and swinging your weapon when in range. Weapons follow the rules established in Minecraft, so a wooden sword for example with break in combat fairly quickly.

I’m personally very interested to see if the level of depletion of my health bar carries over from episode to episode, or how heavy the penalties are going forward for poor performance.

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Perhaps most interesting aspect of the game to seasoned Telltale fans is how much it appears to be opening up divergent narratives to players. Episode One of Minecraft: Story Mode gives the player a fairly large choice regarding which of two distinct locations to visit in the second episode and with who. The preview for the second episode seems to diverge wildly depending on which path you choose, which is really exciting to me. The idea of a Telltale game that branches out further episode to episode has me really interested in seeing how much content there is certain players may just not experience first time around.

Another very interesting aspect of the first episode of Minecraft: Story Mode, if a fairly small design detail, is the layout of the character selection screen. Where almost every single video I have ever played places male character options at the top of the screens as a pre selected default and has female playable characters as a secondary option, Minecraft: Story Mode places it’s female playable character option at the top of the screen, pre selected when you open the creation screen. It may not seem like much, but seeing female as the character select default is something I can’t say I have ever seen before in a video game, and something I have been waiting to see for a couple of years now.

It is however worth noting that white is still the default player skin tone, with other races as secondary choices you can switch too. While my praise for female being the default still stands, I think it’s interesting that while a conversation was likely had about character defaults with regard to gender, default race assumptions never seemingly came up.

Ultimately, I have very high hopes for Minecraft: Story Mode after playing this first episode. It’s family friendly adventure that still has something to offer adult players, and features a larger amount of real time gameplay than I had expected. The narrative was well presented and paced, the characters were all well acted and I generally came away from my time with the game pleasantly pleased.

Telltale’s run of solid adventure games looks like it’s not going to be coming to a halt any time soon.

Review – Undertale

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Undertale is a JRPG that manages to simultaneously hit several of my favorite things about video games in a single game. As a huge fan of sprawling JRPGs who rarely has the free time left to play them for fun, Undertale managed to provide me with a full scale JRPG adventure in under ten hours, mixing it in with a player choice system that ties into the narrative, a unique combat system that kept me engage, a branching plot that caught me off guard and encouraged multiple playthroughs and a sense of visual and written humor rivaling that of Earthbound. In short, Undertale was right up my alley.

So, what actually is Undertale? In undertale, you play a young human child who, while walking alone in the woods, fell down into a world of monsters. These monsters apparently used to roam the surface of earth, before humanity pushed them deep underground and created a barrier trapping them below the surface. Your mission is to make your way through this world of monsters and back home.

What makes Undertale somewhat unique as a JRPG is that you as the player can in theory get through the entire game without killing a single enemy. As well as your standard battle commands, you have a set of act commands which are unique to each enemy you fight and offer options to non violently interact with them. From flirting with a skeleton to rolling around on the floor and petting a dog, each fight can be played like a puzzle where perseverance can lead to a non violent path through the game.

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That said, a non violent path through the game isn’t easy. As well as the perseverance required to escape battles without engaging in combat, you also do not gain experience points or level up if you don’t kill enemies. This means you’ll potentially play the entire game as a level one hero, with minimal health and left wildly open to the threat of enemy attacks wiping you out.

During enemy combat turns, you are potentially able to remain completely unhurt by taking part in a series of bullet hell shooter mini games. A heart is placed in the center of a small square and you use the arrow keys to move around, avoiding projectile patterns unique to each enemy type you fight. If you can avoid being hit by these complete bullet hell patterns, you don’t sustain damage in battle.

Where it’s usually easy to switch off mentally while grinding in JRPGs, button mashing the attack button as you go, in Undertale you need to pay much more attention during encounters.

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What particularly interested me about Undertale was the way that minor choices made during gameplay really felt like they made a difference to the world I was exploring. Slaughter everything in your path and an unsettled parent may send their kids inside the house, unsure of what is looming in the distance. Pet a dog enough times and he may become obsessed with building sculptures of dogs with elongated necks. Little choices you do have small impacts on the world, which gradually build into greater changes in the way the world reacts to you. These shifts in the world feel small, gradual and cumulative, they all gently built up to make a very understandable and gradual change in the world that is fascinating to watch.

In terms of the game’s wacky visual design, tone, pacing and writing, I was often reminded of Earthbound. After I completed Earthbound for the first time a couple of years ago, there was a certain hole left in my gaming life that nothing else seemed able to fill. I’m really pleased to report that Undertale really scratched that earthbound itch for me, which is pretty high praise. The writing knows when to be silly and when to be serious. The cast is over the top, until the moments where they need to step up and give a subtle, emotionally charged speech. It was an absolute joy to play through, as well as making me feel a cathartic sadness that few video games can elicit from me.

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Having now finished three separate playthroughs of Undertale I feel like the game still has things to show me. The gradual changes depending on how you play it, the multiple endings that all feel nuanced and impacted by your actions, they all left me feeling like the game still has so much for me to find.

Undertale is a truly fantastic short JRPG, and I really recommend everyone go and check it out as soon as possible. It has an endearing cast of memorable characters, a beautifully written plot and a truly unique set of combat mechanics. It has been a while since a JRPG has captured my heart this overwhelmingly and I have come away with it with nothing but great things to say. Undertale is amazing, end of.

Now to go back to replaying it and having my heart stomped on repeatedly.

Spoiler Free Review – The Beginner’s Guide

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So, about an hour ago I finished playing The Beginner’s Guide. A ninety minute long autobiographical exploration, the game was easily the most personally resonant, raw, cathartic video game I have ever played.

I tried to say thank you to the creator on Twitter when I finished. Thank you didn’t feel appropriate. No response to the creator felt appropriate. The only response that feels right for this game is silence.

I wrote notes while playing about all of the emotional touch stones that were resonating with me. I wrote notes about all of the things I personally felt so alone in that this game seemed to mirror. I planned to write a review about the ways the game personally resonated with me like no other piece of media before has.

I scrapped them all.

Words don’t feel justified right now.

Words would only cheapen what I experienced.

The Beginner’s Guide is a game you need to go into completely blind. If anyone wants to know what emotional themes in the game resonated with me so strongly, email Laura@Destructoid.com. I don’t feel I can talk about those details in the review. It just doesn’t feel right after playing the game to its conclusion.

Seriously, I know I’ve told you very little about the game, but please just this once take me on my word. The Beginner’s Guide is ninety mins you owe it to yourself to play.