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Thursday, October 12, 2017

Minecraft Story Mode Season 2: Jailhouse Block review!

Is there such a thing as too much Minecraft Story Mode? Telltale doesn't think so, since they released episode three of Season 2 a lot quicker than most people were expecting But now comes my little predicament. At this point, it's safe to say we'll be covering inevitable spoilers. My review, as always, will keep spoilers to a minimum, but if you do care about spoilers, rest assured that this review will not contain spoilers for this episode in particular, but it's going to be difficult to not spoil previous episodes, so if you haven't played Minecraft Story Mode Season 2 and have been thinking about getting it, go for the gold.

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This episode of the point-and-click BLOCK-busting (geddit?) adventure, titled Jailhouse Block, picks up right where the previous episode left off. After revealing his true identity, the Admin (who will be your villain for this season) sends the main hero Jesse and his/her Friends to a prison known as the Sunshine Institute, which is literally at the bottom of the world (wouldn't be the center of the world though? #StoryModeLogic) filled with people who have opposed the Admin in the past... And Bob Ross.

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The entire episode is spent trying to escape this prison, and before anyone puts on the Captain Obvious cap and say "But it's Minecraft! They can just punch/mine their way to freedom!" They can't. Not only is the entire prison inside the center of a labyrinth made of Obsidian, which in the Minecraft universe can only be destroyed by a Diamond Pickaxe (or better, if you take fan made mods into account since literally every fan made mod adds something better than Diamond), but the entire facility has permanent Mining Fatigue (a kind of spell that makes blocks harder to destroy) AND the ground is made of Bedrock, which is completely indestructible. Something that I think is kind of a missed opportunity is how despite the fact that Minecraft Story Mode is a game where your moral choices have a butterfly effect and permanently alter the story, you don't have any choice in your escape plan. I mean, how you pull it off is up to you, but it stays largely the same regardless of what kind of playthrough you're doing.

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But all in all, the story was good. It had decent pacing, and seeing a Minecraft-ized prison is oddly humorous. This prison here is also surprisingly sadistic, to say the least. In one cell block, the inmates are literally forced to fight over a small handful of mushrooms or risk starving starve to death. In another, the inmates are have no choice but to kill (and EAT!!!) endless hordes of zombies every few minutes. That second one is definitely disturbing both in the context of the Minecraft universe and out. Seriously, it's like something out of a psychological horror film, but cleverly disguised as a kids' game.

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The gameplay here is again, near identical to that of the previous episodes. Or literally any game made by TellTale. It's divided into three segments, the first and most frequently used of the three are interactive cutscenes where you can pick and choose what Jesse says/does during cutscenes. They're nice for immersion, though on subsequent playthroughs some of the choices's consequences felt anticlimactic. The most egregious example is when MILD SPOILER ALERT! Jesse's adorable secretary Radar (aka YURI LOWENTHAL!!!!) is being tortured as leverage to convince Jesse to join the "Dark Side" so to speak. On my first playthrough I was under the impression that Radar would die if you chose not to comply, and being the nice guy that I am, I decided to comply so that Radar wouldn't die. Then I did a second playthrough and out of curiosity I decided not to comply, and turns out Radar survives the torture no matter what, but his glasses will remain broken for the rest of the season (which is kind of mundane given he was being tortured). One of my biggest pet peeves with Story Mode is how some choices are drastic, but others have near-identical outcomes. It kind of kills the immersion a little when your choices don't have as much of an impact. Then again, it's entirely possible that these seemingly miniscule choices do have more pronounced consequences once Episodes 4 and 5 are released. Plus, I can only imagine the nightmares TellTale has when scripting possible outcomes.

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The other two segments I found more enjoyable this time around. The action sequences, while chock full of Quick Time Events, are incredibly fun to watch. Performing well at the action sequences results in Jesse being as acrobatic as a Matrix character with swordplay rivaling that of a Jedi Knight. That is very high praise in case you don't speak nerd. It's also true with the previous two episodes, but I never brought it up until now. It's definitely a step up from when Jesse was a clumsy novice back in Season 1 and really shows that TellTale has been sure to keep him/her in top shape. I also liked the one-vs-one (sometimes one-vs-three) sword duels where you control Jesse directly, especially a climatic duel that I won't spoil here.

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Cool Minecrafters don't look at explosions

And finally, the tried'n'true point-and-click adventure format that makes up the last segment of the gameplay. During these segments, Jesse is free to roam around as s/he pleases, click on objects to examine/interact with them, solve puzzles, and talk to NPC's. New to this season however is the ability to freely build whatever you desire within certain spaces, and some objectives require you to build SOMETHING. These segments are the rarest of them all (in this episode they are used literally three times total) but are still enjoyable. I know some folks despise them due to being comparatively "boring", but they break up the pace rather fluidly and give you, the player, a breather.

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Also, this episode has some plot revelations that are intriguing to say the least. The Admin, as a villain, is still a fantastic villain, thanks to his charmingly flamboyant personality and some amazing voice-work. My only real concern with the Admin is at the present moment, he seems a little too powerful. I mean, yeah, he's the closest thing the Minecraft universe has to a god. But seriously, he can shape-shift, warp reality, use telekinesis, has an immunity to most weapons, and can build entire structures in a fraction of a second (one power that every Minecraft player wished they had). In other words, he is by far the most powerful villain Jesse and Friends have faced. This is similar to a problem that the Pokemon franchise as well as the Dragon Ball franchise have, they keep trying to make their villains grander and more powerful than the previous one. At least Pokemon solved their problem by having the most recent villains (Team Skull!) be significantly less imposing than their predecessors to "reset" the cycle. In the event we get a season 3, or heck, an Adventure Pass (Adventure Passes are things TellTale makes for their particularly successful games that extends the season by an additional three episodes), the only way for them to continue is to "reset" the cycle as well. My point is, it's going to be EXTREMELY difficult to make a Story Mode villain as good as the Admin.

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And of course, I have to talk about the moment towards the final act of this episode. If you don't want spoilers, skip on ahead. Basically, later on in this episode, you will be forced to make a sadistic choice of impeccable scale. Without ruining it too much, I can say that this choice alone is part of why I consider this episode to be better than the previous episode. It literally made me pause the game, put my controller down, think real hard about the decision, make the decision after ten minutes of mentally battling myself, feel incredibly guilty about it afterwards, play through the game on my backup save file, make the opposite choice, and STILL feel guilty about it. You know how I griped about them giving Radar Plot Armor during the torture scene? This decision has the kind of depth I wanted from the torture scene. It's the kind of choice that will have very dramatic consequences, and I love it when games make choices actually matter. Basically, that choice is a "story altering" decision done right.

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As for the presentation, the artstyle is still the same old "world is made out of cubes" aesthetic that the original Minecraft became famous for. The set-pieces are nice, as the Sunshine Institute looks like a stereotypical maximum security prison but in Minecraft form. But other than that, it's fairly average. The music is slower and more atmospheric than the norm, which fits the whole, "trapped at the bottom/center of the world in a nigh-inescapable prison" motif. It's also heavy on the percussions, now that I'm thinking about it.

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Giiiiiiii!!!!!!!

This episode might be my favorite of this season so far, thanks to the prison motif and having a gut-wrenching choice towards the end, but it has yet to top Episode 5 of Season 1, which remains to this day my favorite thanks to not only canonizing the popular fan-made Minecraft minigame/self-imposed challenge known as Skyblock (where a group of Minecraft players are trapped on a floating island and have to micromanage limited resources while completing as many tasks given to them as humanly possible) but also being by far the most self-contained episode without being a pointless filler episode (looking at you, Episode 8). I give this episode a 9/10.

P.S. Before you ask, yes, Bob Ross is actually in this episode. Sort of. There's an NPC called Rob that looks like a Minecraft-ized version of Bob Ross.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate review!

You know, in anticipation of Monster Hunter: World, I decided to play through one of my oldest and favorite video games, Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate, a second time. And you know what? I never reviewed it. So today I have decided to review Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate.

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"But wait!" you ask. "If this is the third entry to the franchise then you should cover Monster Hunters 1 and 2 first!". I actually can't. The first two Monster Hunter games were released on the PS2 and this game is on the Wii U and 3DS. Plus, technically speaking, this isn't the third entry at all. It's an HD remake of Monster Hunter Tri. And in the time span between Monster Hunter 2 and Monster Hunter Tri the "real" third entry was released, Monster Hunter Freedom. Which also got a remake in the form of Monster Hunter Freedom Unite. So technically speaking, Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate is the SIXTH installment in the franchise. If I did my math correctly. I could be wrong. Math has never been my strong point (I've always been good at writing and English though!). But it doesn't really matter what order you play the game's in because the story is basically nonexistent!

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In case you don't know what Monster Hunter is, it's an Action-Adventure franchise (made by Capcom!) with mild RPG elements starring the Monster Hunters, elite warriors trained to fight basically anything from brightly colored raptors, to giant sand-whales, to fire-breathing dragons. The core gameplay normally involves fighting increasingly powerful monsters and using the loot you get for defeating them to make weapons and armor to make yourself more powerful, which in turns let's you stand a chance against even stronger monsters, and the cycle repeats until you beat the game. However! There's no EXP or leveling up at all. The idea being that making armor and weapons is the only way to improve your stats, in addition to being prepared for anything. And when I say anything, I mean ANYTHING. Need a moment to heal? Bring a Flash Bomb to blind the monster so you can have a breather. Need to repair your weapon? Bring a Whetstone. Need to capture the monster alive? Bring a trap and some means of tranquilizing the monster.

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If you never played a Monster Hunter game before, know this. This is a franchise that demands patience, preparation, and skill. There's no "dodge stats" or anything similar. The only way to avoid damage is to memorize the monster in question's attack patterns and position yourself accordingly. That said, it's a decent starting point into the franchise, thanks to a very thorough tutorial, and introducing the Great Jaggi, a very weak boss monster that is commonly used as target practice.

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Up to four players can take on hunts together.

The story of Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate kind of takes a back-seat to the gameplay. Which is unfortunate, since there's a surprising amount of lore in the Monster Hunter universe. Basically, after creating your character, you are sent to a place known as Moga Village to serve as that town's Monster Hunter, which is equal parts guardian and protector as well as a big-game hunter. Moga Village has recently been plagued by supernatural earthquakes and a good chunk of the story revolves around finding the cause of the earthquakes and putting a stop to them. It's simple and mostly exists to give you a goal besides beating up dragons, dinosaurs, werewolves, and whatever the heck Gigginox is to become stronger. Oh, and the whole time you'll be accompanied by Cha-Cha and Kayamba, a pair of tiki-men-like creatures that can support you by using healing/buffing spells and distracting monsters.

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But as any decent Monster Hunter fan will tell you, do not play Monster Hunter for the story. They rarely differ from that style I just described (however, Monster Hunter 4 and Monster Hunter Stories put a heavier focus on the story than the rest of the franchise). Play it for the addicting, but somewhat repetitive gameplay. With that said, I do have to voice my opinions concerning the story progress method. You see, the way progression works is you select Quests from a menu, which sends you to one of six different locations to complete a task. These tasks can be as mundane as collecting a certain type of mushroom or as intense as fighting multiple giant monsters simultaneously while on a time limit. It can get repetitive easily, but it works. Unfortunately, some story moments are tied to Villager Requests, where have to gather specific materials and a form of currency known as Resource Points (rewarded for slaying monsters while in Free Hunt mode) to upgrade Moga Village. In retrospect, the Villager Requests feel like padding to lengthen the main campaign.

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Now something important to note is that there are no less than twelve weapon types in the game. And the first rule of a Monster Hunter game is try out all twelve weapon types at least once. Each weapon type comes with it's own unique strengths and weaknesses as well as different combos to perform. And some weapon types, once you learn how to use them properly, can cream certain monsters more easily than others. Example, once you're decent at the Hammer, (which sacrifices range in exchange for the unique ability to literally knockout enemies/bosses with successive attacks), the Rathian boss becomes a cakewalk (especially a Thunder element Hammer, but more on that later). Likewise, using the Gun-Lance against the Barroth boss is ideal, thanks to the Gun-Lance's shotgun-esque burst attacks shredding through Barroth's armor. Or you could just stick with the weapon you feel most comfortable with. That's normally what I do (Switch Axes for Life!). After all, while some weapon types have an easier time with certain opponents, it is POSSIBLE to defeat just about any monster with just about ANY weapon type. As long as you know what you are doing.

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Which leads me to a gripe I've had with the entire franchise, at least up until Monster Hunter: World since Capcom basically removed the problem in that game (apparently). The Armor needed to use Melee weapons, and the Armor needed to use Long-Range weapons, are separated. This basically means that if you stick with one category, but want to try out the other category, you're going to need to make a whole other armor set just so you have decent stats to support the other category. This system has always annoyed me, as it made some weapons excessively difficult to use. And if you want to keep both categories up to date you're going to need to do twice the amount of material grinding!

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Speaking of grinding, something that might turn some people off is the amount of grinding you have to do. Mostly because A) some materials are obnoxiously rare. And B) You will never get every material from a monster in one go. So chances are if there's a weapon or armor set you want, you're going to have to fight the same monster repeatedly until you have enough materials to make those weapons and armor. Thankfully, Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate's main campaign is pretty forgiving when compared to other campaigns in the franchise, so newcomers shouldn't too much of a problem. What I mean when I say that is you can go a ludicrously long time without updating your gear.

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Speaking of Armor, another thing to note. In addition to providing stat boosts, each set of armor comes with Skills, passive abilities that further enhance your character. However! The Skills only activate if you are wearing entire set. So no, you can't mix-and-match armor pieces to look cool. Example, The Wroggi Armor has the skills Razor Sharp and Poison Immunity, which increase the power of cutting weapons like Greatswords and Dual Blades and give you a complete immunity to poison respectively, but only if you wear all five pieces of the Wroggi Armor (Helmet, Chestplate, Belt/Faulds, Gloves, and Boots!) at the same time.

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Anyway, on to the highlight of Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate... The boss battles! Now, something you must know about the franchise as a whole is that they are most well-known for having fantastic boss battles, and this game is no slouch in that department. First of all, if you think you can just hit a boss a couple (hundred) times and kill it like that, that's not going to happen. Most, if not all of the monsters can only be (safely) damaged when you see an opening in their attack patterns. And you have to be prepared for just about anything. After all, some bosses can paralyze you, cut your stats in half, poison you, set you on fire, and *hip check you across time and space. Plus, while most bosses are really fun to fight, there is definitely going to be a "White Whale" moment for you. In my experience and learning about other people's experiences, there's always going to be that one monster that you despise for creaming you but that same monster will inadvertently teach you how to get better at the game. Or you get so mad you give up and trade in the game, which is really childish of you to do so. Besides, I live with the philosophy that "challenging" does not mean "bad". Of course, a good video game has to strike a balance between being rewardingly challenging and downright unfair, which I think Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate does rather well.

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Just a quick note, you can eat/drink at the Canteen (which is literally a glorified bar) to receive special buffs at the beginning of a hunt. Some buffs are basically mandatory for some Quests, most notably Gathering Quests. But if there's one thing that always grinds my gears, it's the underwater combat... *shudders*

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To get a full grasp of the underwater combat, we must understand the history of Monster Hunter Tri When Monster Hunter Tri was being developed, Capcom wanted a way to add verticality so hunts didn't always take place on a series of platforms. Underwater combat was born, and became a major selling point of Tri, as it was the first game in the franchise that allowed the Hunters to go in deep bodies of water. Unfortunately, many players, myself included, found it to be clunky and awkward to control, as well as shortening almost every weapon type's combos, which render the more combo-focused weapons like the Sword'n'Shield kind of useless. That's not even mentioning how difficult it is to see underwater, as for some inexplicable reason, the camera has a bad habit of getting stuck at awkward angles, obscuring your vision. Especially in the Flooded Forest area. Understandably, Capcom has never included underwater combat ever again, and in it's place came a parkour system that lets you climb up walls and do all sorts of crazy stunts.

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As for the presentation, the graphics aren't the best in the world. There's some wonky texture pop on some early-game weapons and some areas. Something that I don't see a lot of people talk about much are the region designs. I really like this even with the sub-par graphics. The amount of detail put in these areas is kind of overlooked, in my opinion. Special mention goes to the Misty Peaks region, which isn't unlocked until you unlock the High Rank difficulty. Some of the later weapons and armor also look really cool, if a little over-the-top. The bosses themselves have some impressive and memorable designs, and are beautifully animated as well.

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But the music? Oh man, the MUSIC!!! Oh, you have no idea how much I LOVE the music in Monster Hunter! The music, by itself, is more than enough reason to play this game (at least until Monster Hunter: World comes out). I am dead serious when I say that. Most of the soundtrack is orchestral and grand, but there are exceptions, like how "Moonquake" is very tribal in nature and features ominous chanting in a mysterious (albeit fictional) language (then again, it plays when you fight the final boss, and the first rule of any final boss in a Monster Hunter game is that their battle theme must include ominous chanting in a mysterious-but-fictional language), or how the Zinogre Battle Theme uses electric guitar during the main chorus.

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Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate is a pretty great game in it's own right, in addition to being a solid remake of the original Monster Hunter Tri. If you can get past the sub-par graphics, clumsy underwater combat and repetitive nature of the game, it's worth a Tri. Geddit? Of course, there's basically no reason to play this once Monster Hunter: World releases this January, unless they leave out some fan-favorite monsters from this game like Deviljho (aka G.I. Jho, aka JhoJho's Bizarre Adventure, aka the Pickle-Saurus). Why Deviljho has so many nicknames is a mystery. I give Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate a 8/10.

*-For those of you who don't get the joke, there's a very entertaining and/or frustrating (depending on who you ask) glitch with the Plesioth boss. You see, one of it's attacks involves hip-checking you. The glitch here is because of Plesioth's unusual hitboxes, it's possible to get hit by the hip-check even if you are nowhere near it, or even behind it. Hence, Plesioth became the Jar Jar Binks of Monster Hunter, being almost universally hated by the player community because of this glitch. In fact, Plesioth's infamy is so great that Capcom included a fishing minigame in Monster Hunter 4 where you can fish up Plesioths and they die the moment they leave the water. Poetic Justice at it's finest.

P.S. I just now realized that all of the gripes I have with Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate are fixed in Monster Hunter: World.

EDIT: It just now occurred to me I never explained what I meant when I said " Example, once you're decent at the Hammer, (which sacrifices range in exchange for the unique ability to literally knockout enemies/bosses with successive attacks), the Rathian boss becomes a cakewalk (especially a Thunder element Hammer, but more on that later)". Basically, every individual weapon (NOT weapon TYPE, but the weapon itself) normally comes with an element attached to it. And adding even more to the "be prepared for anything" mentality Monster Hunter has, certain monsters take extra damage from certain elements. Example, Rathian is weak to Thunder, hence why I said that a Thunder element Hammer would essentially curb-stomp it. Some monsters might have multiple weaknesses as well, or possess the ability to change their weaknesses on the fly (Barroth is the most infamous example of this, being weak to Water when it has Armor on, and weak to Fire when it's Armor is destroyed). Unfortunately, since monsters don't have health bars, and the only way to see how much health they have left is to check their body language (limping means 25% health left, for example), the only way to tell what a monster is weak to is to either A) fight the monster with weapons that have the same base damage but each have a different element and time yourself, B) Google it, or C) check the armor you get from the loot of that monster, as the elemental weaknesses on the armor will mirror that of the monster you got the materials from (in other words, Rathian Armor will be just as weak to Thunder as a real Rathian). Sorry for not remembering this info earlier.