Postcards from the Abyss–Part 6: Oh, Manus

Having made it through Oolacile Township and the Chasm of the Abyss, it was time for me and my two anonymous compatriots to face off against the big boss of the’ Artorias of the Abyss DLC–Manus, Father of the Abyss.

Manus is an absolute beast of a boss, and maybe the best boss fight of the entire Dark Souls game. As you enter his lair, a cut scene triggers that is creepy as heck, as you are grabbed by a giant ghostly hand and thrown down into his arena, where he slowly steps out of the shadows. He’s got one giant ghostly hand that he uses for long-range melee attacks, and he wields a staff in the other that he uses to rain dark magic down upon you with. For me, the first key to this battle was staying alive until my colleagues arrived, as there is a slight delay due to them having to go through the fog gate as well.

The battle begins with a lot of melee attacks, and the key for me was trying to stay out of range early, until I figured out the attack patterns. While the two other players distracted him, I was able to summon in Sif the wolf to aid us. Bringing Sif in is more of a novelty, as he doesn’t do a lot of damage and his main purpose is to distract Manus so you can attack.

I don’t have great ranged attacks, so I had to get in there with my Black Knight Great Axe and try to do some damage without getting caught in Manus’ sweep attacks. One of the players with me was a spellcaster, so they hung back and slung spells from afar while the other player and I whittled away at Manus’ health.

When his health dropped to about half, Manus changed tactics and started using magic primarily. One particularly nasty spell is Dark Rain, where he showers part of the arena with dark magic meteorites that are tough to dodge. luckily, I had gotten an artifact called the Silver Pendant earlier in Oolacile, which creates a temporary shield against dark magic. My strategy then became using the shield during magic attacks, and then running in to get a few hits in on Manus. My colleagues used pretty much the same strategy, and we eventually took Manus down. I was rewarded with 10 Humanity and 60,000 souls for the victory.

Overall, Manus is a blast to fight (if you have a friend or two along), and is easily one of the best bosses in the game. In fact, Artorias of the Abyss as a whole might be the best area in the entire Dark Souls game, which is high praise. It’s rare for DLC to live up to the quality of the main game, and even rarer for it to surpass the main game, but Artorias of the Abyss is some of the best add-on content I’ve ever played. if you’re a Dark Souls player, don’t hesitate to shell out the $15 for this content.

Side Note: There and Back Again
After spending so much time with Artorias of the Abyss, I was once again completely hooked on Dark Souls. I needed to finish the rest of the game with my character, and so I did.

After beating Manus, I went to New Londo Ruins, battling through the ghosts that inhabit the lace and then on down into The Abyss to take down The Four Kings. From there, it was back to the Duke’s Archives and the Crystal Cave to fight the white dragon Seath the Scaleless. From there, I trekked back to the Catacombs (via Firelink Shrine) and onto the Tomb of Giants to face Gravelord Nito. Finally, I traversed the Demon Ruins, taking down the Ceaseless Discharge and the Demon Firesage on my way to Lost Izaltih.

After defeating the Bed of Chaos, I had all of the Lord Souls I needed to unlock the patch to the final boss–Lord Gwynn. I took him down as well, finishing the game for the second time, and I immediately started on New Game+ with the same character.

As of right now, I have over 200 hours logged into Dark Souls. I just started a third character, a faith build this time, and I’ll be discussing that playthrough in a new series entitled Defenders of the Faith. Stay tuned!


Gaming Stories: Why I Couldn’t Emotionally Invest in Fire Emblem

It’s been almost a month since I last loaded Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon on my Nintendo DS. When my warriors last saw me, Marth had just received the Fire Emblem, and they were in the middle of a pitched battle against a band of pirates who really should have known better. My army was growing, and we had avoided casualties so far. Perhaps I was heart sick and heavy with worry about my warriors falling through the course of our righteous war to gather allies and reclaim my birthright. Perhaps I despaired at how selfish this quest was; we only had anecdotal evidence that the people lived in fear and despair the last time the Shadow Dragon Medeus conquered Archanea. Perhaps I just couldn’t muster the energy to invest in this army when I had already fought so many other wars in other lands and other times. No matter the reason, I turned to my troops and said, “Go now; you are forgiven.”

I tried to avoid the accusing reflective glare that emanated from Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon‘s box’s shiny plastic wrap when I swapped that game’s cartridge for Radiant Historia‘s cartridge. “I’m a game from a storied franchise and one of the best games on the DS. Why wouldn’t you finish me?” Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon asked me. After playing more than 40 hours of Radiant Historia, I avoided the same glare from Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon‘s box when I swapped Radiant Historia for Picross 3D and again when I swapped Picross 3D after 2 weeks for Tetris DS. Thankfully, I was able to avoid the glare from Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon, Picross 3D, and Tetris DS when I brought Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia out of storage and into my DS.

I’m a good game! Why won’t you play me?

Still, the accusatory question remained. Picross 3D, Tetris DS, and Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon are all good games that are frequently on lists of the best games on the DS. Radiant Historia is a good game that is rarely on those same lists, but I invested more time into Radiant Historia than my time with Picross 3DTetris DS, and Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon combined. Why did this happen?

The answers are parts of the the root reason why I have such difficulty finding games to play on the DS.

Let’s start with Tetris DS first. It’s a great version of Tetris, and it has a number of interesting modes. I spent countless hours playing Tetris on my Windows 95 PC in my youth, and Tetris is almost built for the pick-up and play philosophy behind mobile gaming devices like the DS. But Tetris DS lasted barely 2 hours in my DS before I was bored with it and moved on to a different game. The problem was familiarity; despite the new game modes in Tetris DS, it was still Tetris, and my quick trigger to pull Tetris DS proved that I may have played enough Tetris in my youth to last me a lifetime. I thought I could recapture at least the same level of satisfaction that I had gotten from Tetris in the past. I knew how well I could play Tetris, at least in the past. There didn’t seem to be a point to revisiting this challenge anymore. In this case, familiarity was the enemy of emotional investment.

Six different game modes, 84 on Metacritic, barely 2 weeks in my DS.

Familiarity shouldn’t have been a problem with Picross 3D. I was never a fan of Minesweeper, and I hadn’t played any other Picross games in the past. Picross 3D seemed like the perfect puzzle game for me. It barely lasted two weeks in my DS. Like Tetris DS, it was built for mobile gaming’s central design philosophy of pick-up and play. The problem here was lack of sustainable challenge. The puzzles become more complicated; the time limit can grow shorter; the number of mistakes allowed by the game could decrease. The fact remained that there were no serious punishments for failure since I could blunder through brute trial and error my way to each puzzle’s ideal solution. To me, there was almost no risk in the game; without risk, there are no stakes by which I could plant emotional investment. In this case, the problem was not familiarity, but how casual the experience felt.

Fun puzzles, but lack of risk led to lack of emotional investment.

Risk should not have been a problem with Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon. One of the game’s main selling points is character permadeath, which in reality we would probably just call “death.” I resolved to not reset the game if one of my characters died, which ran against my tendency to play along a game’s critical path design. Permadeath should have created heightened emotional investment in the characters I controlled; if nothing else, the idea that I would lose the character’s enhanced abilities and skills if they died after gaining a few levels would force me to play more carefully, and time and exposure would mean that I would invest emotionally on at least some of the characters. I didn’t expect to invest emotionally in all of the characters, but there were characters who were my army’s backbone, and I expected to care about at least the main characters’ stories.

Six chapters and about five hours into the game, I found that I didn’t care about any of it. I didn’t care if my characters lived to fight another battle. I didn’t care about progressing the game’s plot. I didn’t care about the stats that my characters accrued as they gained levels. Oddly enough, permadeath was at the heart of this inability to invest.

Combat and character growth in Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon are ruled by the game’s Random Number Generator; there are video tutorials on how to abuse the Random Number Generator in Fire Emblem games and tales of improbable successes and unbelievable failures because of the Random Number Generator. I think the Random Number Generator is meant to replicate uncertainty on the battlefield; after all, it is said that no battle plans ever survives first contact with the enemy. But the Random Number Generator also limits my control over the game, which lowers my ability to invest emotionally in the characters and my actions. After all, even if I played the game perfectly, I could still lose because the Random Number Generator will determine that the odds are not in my favor for that battle. In that case, I would feel like the outcome was not my fault. And if it’s not my fault, why wouldn’t I be justified to reload that battle and try again? But if I reloaded the battle, I’ve broken my pledge to play the game as it was and not to reset the game if any characters died. I was stuck, and there was no way out of this problem. So I stopped caring about the game, which meant that I stopped playing the game.

I hadn’t expected one of the game’s core features to play against my enthusiasm to play the game. But Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon still sits unloved in its box at home while I cruise eBay and Gamestops for other games to play on my DS. And I feel fine about this.


Will Saints Row IV be the Greatest Game of All Time?

Perhaps not, but the folks at Volition and Deep Silver have certainly put together one hell of an announce trailer.

I unabashedly love the Saints Row series, and would name both Saints Row 2 and Saints Row: The Third among my favorite games of this generation. For me, Saints Row began with the template set forth by GTA, but then took all the boring parts out, and allowed players to have chaotic fun within the sandbox they created. With each entry, the story has gotten crazier, and this time around, it seems the Third Street Saints have made their way to the White House, which is a perfectly logical extension of the series storyline if you ask me.

I am beyond excited for Saints Row IV, especially since it looks like the game has a little bit of Crackdown infused into it, which is another of my favorite games this generation. Either way, I’ll be watching this new trailer once a day until the game arrives in August. I’m also considering labeling Saints Row 2 and 3  “B-Games” just so I can write a bunch about them in my “Year of B-Games” series.


The Year of B-Games–Binary Domain

I’m kicking off the Year of B-Games with a game that should not be on this list, because it’s too damn good–Binary Domain.

What is it?
Binary Domain is a third-person sci-fi shooter developed by the Yakuza team and published by SEGA. It debuted on the XBox 360 and PS3 in February of 2012, and made its way to PC in April of 2012. The game takes place in a future where robotics have advanced to the point of being able to pass for human beings. You play as part of a “Rust Crew,” a team that is sent into Japan to investigate a corporation thought to have breached international laws regarding the creation of human-like robots. Things go downhill from there.

Why Does It Make the B-Game List?
While it has a Metacritic score of 72 (considered “good” on most review scales), Binary Domain is primarily on this list because it sold very poorly when it came out. In the month it debuted in the US, Binary Domain sold a total of 20,000 copies on the XBox 360 and PS3 combined. This game was completely overshadowed by the juggernaut that was Mass Effect 3, and it didn’t help that SEGA did very little in the way of marketing for it. This game came and went very quickly.in the US, although it fared better in Japan. On a slightly positive note, it does look like lifetime sales of the game are around 360,000 (according to VGChartz), which doesn’t seen too bad, but what do I know?

Why It’s Worth Playing 
Let’s start with the story. Granted, I’m biased, as I know writer Antony Johnston, who worked on the story. But the story is a lot of fun, with nods to classics like Blade Runner as well as a few of John Carpenter’s movies (They Live, Big Trouble in Little China) along the way. The dialogue is well written and genuinely funny in a places. There’s an interesting love story woven into the game as well, and in general, all the characters are pretty well defined, if archetypal.

That leads me to the second reason this game is worth playing–the squad dynamic. On a basic level, you usually move through the game with a squad of three characters, which you can choose from a roster of several as the game goes on. In combat, you can either use voice or button commands to give order like “Charge,” “Fire,” “Retreat” and a bunch more. I found the voice controls to work surprisingly well, and because you can use them in dialogue as well, there are times where the interaction between you and the characters has a great flow to it.

You also get to manage your squad in terms of gear upgrades, improving both weapon performance as well s offensive and defensive capabilities. It’s not very deep, but it adds another layer to the squad management.

Finally, there’s a trust system with the other characters on your roster, and it’s based on how you respond to dialogue as well as your actions in combat. As you progress through the game, you can build trust with your teammates, which can alter how parts of the game play out, especially near the end.

Where does it stumble?
My only major knock against the game is that the squad AI is not great at times. Because the trust system is affected by how well you do in combat, when a squad member walks across your line of fire in the middle of a fight, they get upset at you and you actually lose trust. Granted, it’s not hard to get it back, but there were times that I had to work to get teammates back on my side because I accidentally shot them when they blindly ran in between me and an enemy. It happened enough times over the course of the game to be mildly annoying.

Other than that though, I really have no knocks against this game, It’s well put together all around.

Closing Thoughts
Just one: This game was criminally overlooked. It’s a blast from start to finish.

You can grab Binary Domain for $20 brand new on XBox 360 and PS3, and for $25 on Steam right now. It’s well worth your time and money.

NOTE: If you’re interested, check out this interview I did with Antony Johnston about the game when it launched last year.


Let the Year of “B-Games” Begin!!

A couple weeks ago I posted about how I just don’t have the time in my life anymore to play games as much as I’d like to. As a result, I’m buying fewer games, but spending more time with those games, trying to get as much out of the experience as I can. One of the byproducts of this approach is that it has largely freed me from the “new release” cycle of gaming, where I needed to play all the new games when everyone else was playing them, just to feel connected to the conversations of the moment. Now I pick and choose, buying games that I am really interested in, and often buying them months after release, when the price has dropped, or picking them up during digital sales on Steam, PSN or XBox Live.

One of the things I’ve noticed recently is that my gaming tastes have changed over the past few years as well, and they now resemble my taste in movies more than ever. Specifically, I find myself more interested in low-budget and overlooked games than in big budget, AAA releases. And I’m not necessarily talking about indie games. I’m talking about console games that, if they were movies, would be put in the “B-Movie” category. They could fall into this category for a variety of reasons. The most common reason is that they were made on a small budget compared to their more high-profile brethren. But, they also could have had a rocky development cycle, or a really short development cycle (as a lot of licensed games have). Or maybe they’re a port of a game that was put out on another platform. Whatever the reason, I want to play these games.

But wait, you might say, you don’t even have time to play all the “good” games. Why would you spend time with games that are, in many cases, not very good at all?

I will answer that by going back to my movie analogy. My favorite genre is low-budget horror movies. The reason I love these movies so much is that I’m always fascinated to see what the director, the cast, and the special effects team do with the limitations they have. Do they set the movie in one location? Do they overly rely on digital effects, or do they invest in practical effects at the cost of something else? What things does the movie prioritize, and what does it compromise? Does the story rely on a bunch of tropes, or really try to do something different? And if it does use tropes, how well does it execute on them?

I think the same way about low-budget or “B-category” games. What did the devs decide to prioritize versus compromise? Does the game have some really interesting systems but really bad visuals? Is the story the strong point, but the mechanics are bad? What’s the game’s strongest quality? What did the developer decide to build around? What are the interesting qualities of this game, despite the fact that it might not be very good overall?

In many ways, as someone who enjoys thinking about the process behind the product, “B-games” are so much more interesting to play than most big-budget games.

Don’t get me wrong, I still play a lot of big-budget games, and many of them are awesome and very interesting. But there is something about those mid to lower-tier games that fascinates me. And the reasons I’ve been thinking about this issue now are twofold. First, I am fascinated by the discussion around Aliens: Colonial Marines, and I will be grabbing it as soon as it drops in price. Second, since we are entering the end of this console generation, there is a whole library of games that are available on the cheap. Games you would never think of paying $60 for can be gotten for under $10 in most cases.

So, over the next year I’m going to revisit some of the “B-games” I’ve played, trying to finish the ones I can and figure out why I left the ones I didn’t finish. I’m looking forward to writing about them.

I’m sure everyone out there has their own definition of a “B-game,” but here’s a list of some that I’ve played that fit my definition:

Velvet Assassin                                                          The Saboteur
Legendary                                                                   Alone in the Dark
Alpha Protocol                                                            Dark Sector
Binary Domain                                                            Brink
Clive Barker’s Jericho                                                 Damnation
Deadly Premonition                                                    Far Cry Vengeance (Wii)
GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra                                          Hellboy: The Science of Evil
X-Blades                                                                     Rise of Nightmares
Section 8: Prejudice                                                   Shadowrun
Two Worlds I & II                                                        The Conduit
Wanted: Weapons of Fate                                         Wet
Raven Squad: Operation Hidden Dagger                   The Club


Gaming Stories: Magic: The Gathering

I was surprised to see that my opponent was a married, bearded man my age from Williamsburg. I had prepared myself for the worst kind of loud, know-it-all teenager who had too much time but too little patience for an old guy like me. Instead, my opponent was a friendly guy who was seated to my left when I constructed my deck. We both asked for the same colored deck from the tournament organizer, so I knew that this would be almost a mirror match. We shook hands, and he was patient when he pointed out that the card I just played would come into the battlefield tapped, which meant that I had to turn it sideways on that turn and that I couldn’t use the resource it contained to do what I was trying to do. When he beat me two games to none and eliminated me from the tournament, we shook hands again and talked about how our respective wives would react to our tentative re-entries into this addiction called Magic: The Gathering. He said that she was fine as long as he didn’t play more than once a week; I said that I have to get rid of my cards at the end of the tournament because there was no way I could bring them home. We shared a laugh, played a friendly match (he beat me again), and we moved on, him to his next match, me to my wife and kid at home. And that was the summation of my very brief return to Magic: The Gathering, except it wasn’t.

Games on my iPad tend to have very short life spans. I haven’t loaded Civilization Revolution after a torrid three-month affair; even the promise of new buildings and units for various civilizations has not enticed me to return. 10000000 was a beloved game for the month it took me to escape the castle; I loaded it recently and could not find the emotional investment to play it with any seriousness. Puzzles and Dragons kept me up for hours past a decent bedtime and had my iPad glued to my hand for weeks until I decided that I was sick of grinding out money and experience points for my creatures and deleted the game. The only game that has had any success in keeping my attention has been the one with the most unwieldy title, Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013. 
Thinking about Wizards of the Coast’s Magic: The Gathering brings me back to my days in junior high school when my friends and I would go to a nearby comic book store, head to a windowless and starkly lit second story room, and try out our latest decks. I was not a serious Magic: The Gathering player; instead, my game of choice was Decipher’s Star Trek: The Next Generation Customizable Card Game, which is now known by a slightly less cumbersome and more accurate name, Star Trek Customizable Card Game (and which I’m going to call Star Trek CCG from here). I drifted away from Star Trek CCG for the same reason I was never willing to invest myself into Magic: The Gathering: the barrier to entry to being “good” was too high. Unlike some of my friends who also played Star Trek CCG, I was not able or willing to pay $125 for a copy of the Future Enterprise card or even more than that for the rare collection of deluxe cards, The Fajo Collection. So my interest tapered off as Decipher released more expansion card collections to Star Trek CCG and I eventually boxed my cards up or gave them to friends.
The object of my intense adolescent desire.
If I were unwilling or unable to pay what was to an adolescent a significant amount of money for some playing cards in a game that I was emotionally invested in, I certainly wasn’t going to invest a lot of money in order to play Magic: The Gathering with my friends. So I tried my best to create decks with their cast-off cards; I settled on a deck that utilized white and black knights as my creatures. I had some moderate success with it against other surface level players, but there was no way I could compete against players who were willing to spend thousands of dollars to obtain powerful cards like the infamous Black Lotus or Demonic Tutor. So, there was no reason to invest myself emotionally in Magic: The Gathering, and the interest faded away almost completely by the time I moved on to college.
Black Lotus: the world’s most expensive Magic: The Gathering card.
Except, as a recent article in New York pointed out, no one ever really leaves adolescence. This isn’t a case of arrested development, of “man-babies” or “man-children” who have been the subject of articles and posts in male-oriented magazines and Websites for years. Instead, we’re all traumatized on some level by our experiences in high school. While I wouldn’t say that my brief teenage forays into competitive Magic: The Gathering traumatized me, they certainly left their mark. Thanks to running head first against the financial barriers to entry in Magic: The Gathering and Star Trek CCG, I was (and continue to be) skeptical about paying to play massive multiplayer online role-playing games, to start collecting anything, or to even play free to play games, such as Puzzles and Dragons or Kingdom Rush, on my iPad that have In App Purchases. In those cases, I can see the appeal directly conflict with the need to pay more to either keep having fun or to have more fun. The process of learning to leave Magic: The Gathering and Star Trek CCG taught me that fun is a disposable commodity.
Years later, I thought that the original Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers on Xbox Live Arcade would be a good compromise between that ember of desire to play Magic: The Gathering and my unwillingness to significantly invest my money, time, or emotion into the game. For a while, it was a fine substitute; I even got all the achievements in the main version and one of the expansion packs. But the announcement that there would be a sequel with minor improvements a year after the original game’s release soured me again. It was a stark reminder that Wizards of the Coast was more than happy to make an annualized product that wouldn’t address some of my concerns about the player’s inability to modify the decks much, the slow pace of the game, and the game’s general instability. So I bailed on Magic: The Gathering a second time.
By the time I got an iPad and saw that Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 (which I’m going to refer to as DotP 2013) was available, I could price my willingness to even try the game at about $10. I downloaded the free version, and since the price to upgrade to a full version was less than $10, the satisfaction to investment ratio seemed to be in my favor. And it did pay itself off when I was able to spawn a gigantic creature to crush my opponents.
A Primordial Hydra grown to 128 power and 128 health splattered my opponents across the battlefield.
The satisfaction of growing a creature that large was almost primal.
Since my interest in Magic: The Gathering was rekindled by by DotP 2013, I wondered if there was a way I could dabble in the actual card game again. The recent release of the latest Magic: The Gathering expansion, Gatecrash, meant that there would be special events catered to old players like me who would come back to the game, even if it was for only a little while. A sealed deck tournament, where every player gets an unopened box of cards with which he or she could construct a deck, seemed like the friendliest format for a player who has been away from the game for almost a decade. 
While we were constructing our decks, some of the other players at the table asked me how long I had been away. When they heard that I had stopped playing after the fourth edition of Magic: The Gathering was released, they asked me why I came back. I’m still not quite sure. Perhaps I was inspired by Steve Heisler‘s article about his own brief return to Magic: The Gathering for The AV Club. Perhaps I was tired of playing against the AI in DotP 2013. Perhaps I wanted to recapture that little piece of my adolescence that I never had, of winning an actual Magic: The Gathering tournament, just so I could say that I had done such a thing. 
Unfortunately, my bearded, also married opponent put a quick end to that idea. I’ll admit that the ease by which he dispatched me was a little demoralizing, but he at least told me that I could take comfort in the fact that the last match would have been more competitive if I had one more turn to play one of the cards in my hand. I was treated well by all of the other players; while the crowd was predominantly male, it wasn’t aggressively macho. I wish I had an opportunity to speak with some of the women who also played in that tournament, but it seemed like everyone was at least cordial and well-behaved. At the very least, the experience was pleasant enough that I would consider going back to play one more tournament at some point.
Yesterday, my wife asked me what I was doing on my iPad, so I showed her DotP 2013. She was interested in playing, so I walked her through a match against the computer and tried to explain concepts like mana cost and creature abilities. She seemed interested in playing some more, and I mentioned offhand that I still have some physical cards somewhere if she ever wanted to play an actual game of Magic: The Gathering. (I never did manage to get rid of those cards from that sealed deck tournament.) In the meantime, I can still play DotP 2013, where I can create absurd scenarios that lead to my opponent’s defeat like this:
That’s a lot of very powerful creatures on my side.

Postcards from the Abyss–Part 5: Oolacile and Chasm of the Abyss

The primary boss of the Artorias of the Abyss DLC is arguably the best boss fight in the entire game. Before I could even face off against him, however, I had to get to him. And that was no easy journey.

One of the primary tenets of Dark Souls is that you will die–a lot. So, you want to make sure that each trek into an area has a purpose, so you’re not just wasting time. Scouting runs are common. There are also times when you know you will die in a certain area, but you’re trying to get a particular item, so it’s worth the suicide run. Items stay with you after you die, so running into certain death to grab that weapon you want is worth the extra time you’ll spend retreading through an area later.

The other reason to go on a suicide run is to unlock a shortcut that can be used later to bypass most of the level. That was my primary purpose in heading into the Oolacile Dungeon. I used up most of my Estus Flasks (healing) and a good bunch of pyromancy spells along the way to unlocking the shortcut, because I knew I wouldn’t be going on to fight the boss right afterward.

The enemies in Oolacile Township and in the dungeon are pretty tough, and also some of the more interesting in the game. The main grunts are called Bloatheads, twisted former citizens of Oolacile that have been warped into creatures with eye-filled heads and oversized arms. Their arm swipes can break your guard, so taking them one at a time is preferable. There are also Bloathead Sorcerers, who fire ranged attacks at you while the the others try to beat you to a pulp.

I fought through several pockets of the Bloatheads before coming to the shortcut area, which allows you to take an elevator down from a point right near the bonfire you spawn at. Once I’d done that, I had to fight through another half dozen Bloatheads and then face off against an enemy called the Chained Prisoner–a brute that carries a ball and chain, as well as the pole he was chained to. He uses sweep and charging attacks, so evasion and ranged attacks work best against him. I blasted away with fireballs while trying to stay out of his way (sometimes unsuccessfully), and I managed to take him down. From there, it was a short trip to another bonfire, and then the final part of the level, the Chasm of the Abyss.

Chasm of the Abyss, is a fantastic and challenging area. For one, it’s steeped in darkness. Visibility is limited, and the initial part of the level is crawling with Bloatheads. There are also a ton of ghostly creatures called Humanity Phantoms lurking throughout the level, and their touch drains life from you pretty quickly. They cannot be blocked, so I avoided the ones I could, and tried to dispatch the others quickly. They attack in groups though, so I died a couple of times just trying to get through them.

As is often the case, I made a few exploratory runs into the level, learning and dying along the way. When I thought that I had a pretty good understanding of the layout, I became human and summoned a couple of players into my game. Things started out great, as my two guardian angels started making short work of the Bloatheads and most of the Humanity Phantoms. We even rescued the soul of Sif, the Great Wolf, which then allows him to be summoned for the final boss battle. As we were doing so though, I got the message that I had been invaded. What followed was one of the most surprising deaths I’ve had in the game.

I kept waiting for the invader to appear, but he didn’t–until just the right moment. We had made it almost to the end of the level, and we had to descend a fallen pillar, balancing on the thin pathway to get down to the fog gate and the Manus fight. Out of nowhere, the invader snuck up behind me on the pathway and blasted me with a magic attack from behind, knocking me off the pillar and sending me to my death. I screamed and laughed the same time, as I was so close, yet that was such a great kill on his or her part.

Lucky for me, when I respawned at the bonfire, I was able to summon two other players into my game again, one of whom had just been with me when I got ambushed. We moved through the level pretty quickly and made it to the fog gate for the showdown with Manus, which I’ll talk about next time.


How Will Microsoft Counter Sony’s Social Strategy?

So the PS4 was announced last week, and it’s clear that Sony’s strategy with their new console revolves around the social aspects of gaming. From the dedicated “Share” button on the controller, to the partnership with UStream for video sharing, to the ability to let your friends assume control of your game from afar, Sony has built social aspects into every part of the new PlayStation experience.

Now, as we await Microsoft’s big announcement, I have to wonder what the central theme of their new strategy will be . Whatever it is, they will need to include social features in their new console as well, and there are plenty of possibilities out there.

This is just me spitballing, but I would love to see Microsoft enter into a partnership with Google to use Google Plus and YouTube as the main social sharing features of the next XBox. Google Plus already includes a strong video conferencing suite with Hangouts, and allowing users to post videos directly to YouTube would trump Sony’s UStream partnership.

The main challenge I see to something like this is Bing. Microsoft’s search engine is gaining popularity and is in direct competition with Google. That rivalry may make a partnership around the new XBox difficult. But, if Google could stomach Bing being the XBox search engine, it stands to gain a lot of new Google Plus users.


Gaming Stories: Cook, Serve, Delicious! Restaurant Check-In

Well, I thought keeping a diary while running a restaurant would be easier, but it turns out that there just aren’t enough hours in a day to write a daily diary entry after cooking and serving delicious food all day, dealing with suppliers, handling the chores of running a restaurant, and making connections with my customers so I can create repeat, sustainable business. As it turns out, there aren’t enough hours for love either.

The business is running well at this point. For the first month or so, I was earning about $500 a day. Since my expenses are fairly stable, this wasn’t an issue. Things picked up when I earned a 2-star review in this year’s Michelin Guide; with the extra business, I started earning about $700 a day.

A two-star restaurant!

That review was informative, and I used the data from that review to drive some changes in my menu. I had focused on serving wine and beer, but the review pointed out that this was hardly appropriate in a mixed use building like SherriSoda Tower. I took that feedback and focused more on serving hearty foods, such as burgers, my grilled chicken plate, and salads. I experimented with serving lasagna, ice cream, French fries, and sopapillas, but they couldn’t stick to my menu. There were too many complaints about the smell produced by French fries and sopapillas; ice cream just wouldn’t sell enough, even on rainy days; lasagnas didn’t have the returns on investment I wanted from such a complicated dish. Furthermore, the likelihood of messing up a lasagna was too high.

Speaking of lasagna, I’m still astonished by the dietary habits of my customers. When I still served wine, I would regularly sell entire bottles of our cheapest house wine and the more expensive Cazu Marzu aged cheese wine to customers, and they would drink the entire bottle in one sitting. When I served lasagna, customers would order a full sized tray of lasagna and finish that in one sitting too. I hate to think that I’m contributing to health problems in SherriSoda tower, so I feel better about taking lasagna off my menu. Of course, people still ask for the Ryan Davis Special and the Heartstopper on days when I serve burgers, so I won’t be able to claim that I’m offering a completely healthy menu.

Thankfully, no one’s had a heart attack as a result of eating one of these yet.
One of my favorite burgers to make.

I’m not sure who this Crazy Dave fellow is, but I enjoy taking his money whenever he approaches me via e-mail with another of his asinine bets. He bets against my success, and I have proven to him time and again that he should not underestimate my talents. He can challenge me to put items on my menu that I would normally never serve and maintain my standard of excellent service, and I will answer the call. More importantly, I will continue to take his money.

A lot of my food preparation relies on sound. I can tell how many burger patties I put on the grill based on the sound of patties hitting the grill. I can tell if a chicken breast has been properly prepared based on the sound of mallet hitting meat. That’s another reason I don’t like serving lasagna; it doesn’t sound right from dish to dish when I prepare a lasagna tray.

Since my last entry, I’ve celebrated my 1000th and my 2000th customers. I can remember vividly what the 1000th customer ordered (a salad with thousand island dressing, cheese, carrots, and greens), but I can’t remember what my 2000th customer ordered. Time just flies by.

Like all new businesses, my restaurant faces peculiar challenges, but I have determined that I have a significant competitive advantage that defies economic theory. Simply stated, my customers are very insensitive to pricing. When I upgraded my chicken plate to use a higher quality meat, I raised the price of my plate. However, demand does not seem to have suffered as a result of this price increase. Instead, the clientele that I had when my restaurant was unrated in the Michelin Guide and paid for a lower quality but cheaper chicken dish continue to come to my renovated and Michelin-rated restaurant to buy a more expensive chicken dish. Even stranger, my customers are willing to pay as much for a small cup of water with ice as they will for a jumbo-sized cup of grape soda with a flavor blast. I’m not complaining about this unusual customer behavior, and I’m afraid of jinxing it by even thinking about it.

Frank, an old regular, rubbing elbows with Dwyght, one of my new regulars.  I enjoy my diverse clientele.

I received another review recently, and I was promoted to a 3-star restaurant, which was very exciting.

A three-star restaurant!

I now make about $1000 a day thanks to my slightly revamped menu, which offers a high quality chicken breast plate, coffee, soda, burgers, salad, and steak. I also started to cater parties in SherriSoda tower, which has provided another source of revenue.

I get the burgers, but who eats whole trays of lasagna at a party?

This improved review also brought me back to my mentor’s attention, and he surprised me with an invitation to appear on a test episode of Iron Cook at the Iron Cook Studio. Walking into that battlefield was a dream come true; I hope to make it back as a full-fledged competitor soon.

I completed the Iron Cook burger and ice cream challenge without a hitch.

Unfortunately, though I have found some measure of professional success, I have been unable to find romantic success. I recently signed on with an online dating service at the behest of my friends, and I’ve been set up on a couple of dates. Because running this restaurant is so demanding, I’ve had to hold my dates at my own restaurant. Though I try to schedule these dates on days where I don’t have to run the business by myself, I inevitably have to help cook, serve, and clean, which makes these dates rather tense. It’s especially annoying when I get the sense that these women are only dating me because I can make a certain dish; one woman would only agree to a date at my restaurant if I served lasagna. I tried to explain that I had very good reasons for taking lasagna off my menu, but she insisted. So I indulged her and invited her to sample my restaurant’s lasagna. Word must have gotten out because almost everyone ordered lasagna that day, which made the whole experience much more stressful than it should have been. The worst part was her insistence on texting me after the so-called date. While I was answering her texts, I couldn’t run my restaurant. We went on a couple more of these so-called dates, and then she e-mailed me that she was leaving the country.

At that point, I decided that I have to focus on the restaurant for now and have to stop dating.

Bad romance.

I continue to work to improve my restaurant. I’m facing another restaurant review soon, and I hope to at least maintain my 3-star rating, if not increase it to a 4-star rating. We have a pretty good rotation of dishes now to keep my menu fresh, and I’ve started exploring a third revenue stream by investing in some products that any restaurateur would appreciate, such as improved toilets and dish washers. Hopefully, things continue to hold. I’m really enjoying the experience of running this restaurant.


What 1UP Meant to Me

I was very saddened this week to hear that one of my all-time favorite gaming sites, 1UP, was shut down by it’s parent company, Ziff Davis. As I mentioned in some recent blogs, 1UP was one of the few sites out there that was providing unique discussions on gaming, as opposed to the press-release driven news cycle that a lot of other sites are stuck in. I feared that they wouldn’t be able to sustain their approach, and sadly I was right.

But rather than dwell on the fact that 1UP has come to end, I want to focus on their legacy. I am not at all exaggerating when I say that this blog, the Secret Identity podcast, and my own time as a gaming journalist would never have happened if it weren’t for 1UP. Allow me to explain.

I started Secret Identity with my podcast co-host Matt Herring in March of 2006. At that point in time, there were two podcasts that I listened to religiously–1UP Yours and This Week in Tech (TWiT). It was because of these two shows that I had been thinking for some time about starting a podcast of my own, and I eventually convinced Matt, who didn’t even know what a podcast was at the time) that we could start our own show focused around comics and other areas of our geeky hobbies. The driving factor for me was that I enjoyed listening to discussion about things I was passionate about. These kinds of discussion reminded me of the way I used to talk about games and comics with my friends at the arcade, the comic shop, the game store, etc. I wanted to create a podcast that felt to our listeners like they were hanging out with us every week at the comic shop. And so, Secret Identity was born. We will be recording our 500th episode next week, and we’ve been going strong for seven years.

In 2008, my love of 1UP had been at a fever pitch for years. In addition to the stellar 1UP Yours podcast, I was listening to CGW/GFW weekly as well, and devouring the 1UP Show videos that are still today considered the standard for visual discussions on gaming. I wanted to try my hand at being a game journalist, as I was exploring different avenues to take with my writing. Through a friend I had made through Secret Identity (Dan Evans), I reached out to Jonah Weiland at Comic Book Resources, arguably the most respected comic news site on the web, and pitched the idea of covering comic-related games to him. He accepted, and what followed was a two-year stint as the coordinator and primary content creator of gaming coverage for CBR. That was a once in a lifetime opportunity, as I was given freedoms at CBR in terms of our approach that I never would have had as a freelancer for a gaming-centirc site. Getting to cover some of today’s major franchises like Dead Space and Batman: Arkham Asylum from both gaming and comic perspectives was exactly the kind of coverage I wanted to be a part of. When I left in 2010, it was for no other reason than I simply could no longer keep working for CBR in addition to some of the other commitments in my life. I still hope to return someday.

Which brings us to Co-Op Critics. It’s no secret (no pun intended) that I would love to do more gaming coverage on Secret Identity, but our audience is largely comic readers, and a good portion of them aren’t gamers. So, I decided to start doing “special episodes” of the podcast dedicated to gaming, where those who were interested could enjoy them, but those who just wanted comics could listen to the regular weekly shows. Because the Co-Op Critics podcasts are infrequent though, I was still itching for more games discussion, and so the blog was born. And although it’s taken a good year to really get up and running, I am loving where Co-Op Critics is at right now. The discussions are exactly what I hoped they would be–about our experiences with the games we put so much time into. Old games, new games, console games, mobile games–it doesn’t matter. Whatever we’re playing, if we have something to share about it, we can do that here. This approach is both in response to what I don’t like about a lot of current games coverage, as well as inspiration I took from the recent incarnation of 1UP, and their wonderful Cover Stories series.

Which is why it’s such a bummer that 1UP is closing its doors. I fear for the direction that game journalism and gaming sites are heading right now, and every time we lose a unique voice, it makes me a little more afraid. However, all I have to do is look at the legacy and the years worth of content that 1UP leaves behind to be reminded of what great games discussion looks and sounds like. I hope that in the wake of 1UP’s closure, people start going back and revisiting what came out of that site, and that what they learn helps shape what we see moving forward.

It may be cliche, but it fits–1UP, you are gone, but not forgotten. Thanks for the memories, the inspiration, and the countless hours of enjoyment you’ve provided me over the past several years.

NOTE: I’m not sure how much longer the content on the 1UP site will be available, so you might want to download whatever content you plan on checking out ASAP.