[I love games, but the older and busier I get, the less time I have to play them. Being as book-minded as I am, I’m mostly drawn to games with compelling and intricate stories. In this column I share some of my game playing experiences that I think might be of interest to fellow book nerds. You can read previous installments here.]
I’m finding myself increasingly tired of most video games. In recent months I’ve found myself less and less willing to sit in front of a TV with a controller in my hand. I can’t remember the last time I turned on my Xbox, and if it weren’t for the Virtual Console and today’s re-release of the excellent Wind Waker, my Wii U would be in the same dusty boat.
I still do carve out some play time during my commute to school, or while watching football or listening to podcasts before bed. For many, the iPad (or some other tablet) has filled this space nicely, but I’m sticking with my 3DS.
I have an iPad and I love it; I hate playing games on it. Sure, there are a handful of outstanding games on iOS (some favorites: Superbrothers: Sword & Sorcery EP; Year Walk, the overpriced Final Fantasy Dimensions), but for the most part, it’s full of shovelware garbage. With few exceptions, I don’t find seeing how long I can keep a dude from running into a wall, or constantly tapping little buildings to collect one kind of money to buy other little buildings that the little guy in the corner constantly reminds me I can get with less taps if I pony up my real money on some second in-game currency to be even remotely fun after about 5 minutes. (And yes, I admit I fell down a Tiny Tower hole a couple years back, until I realized playing it was closer to ant farming than actually doing something fun.)
I’m not usually one to evangelize, but if you spend more than an hour or so a week mind-rotting with these sort of apps, you should really considering getting a Nintendo 3DS. It’s the one device I still use with any sort of regularity for playing games, and has come to rival the Super Nintendo in my mind as the best video game device I’ve ever owned.
Yes, for the the first year or so it was overpriced and there was a real dearth of things to play on the damn thing, but the price has dropped the two models (I prefer the XL) to the sub-$200 range and a third, budget-cost, non-3D model is coming in October; the eShop has built up a respectable selection of bit-sized, above average downloadable games unrivaled on iOS; and so far in 2013 it’s delivered not one, but three of the best RPGs (my bread and butter) that I’ve played in a very long time–as well as a growing library of pretty darn good games.
Fire Emblem: Awakening
2013, Intelligent Systems
Available for: Nintendo 3DS
If you’re not familiar with this sort of strategy RPG: it’s a bit like ‘roided out chess with a backstory for all the pieces. Everything I like about this type of game, this title has by the yard: charts, skill trees, oodles of classes and systems to experiment and tinker with and keep me occupied long after I’d have lost interest in other games, and that one-more-ability carrot is always dangled at just the right distance. But despite all that, what really, really grabs me about this game is the way it treats its characters.
In Fire Emblem, if a character is killed on the battlefield he or she is dead, forever. You can’t revive them, and you can’t even really replace them adequately. These are characters you’ve literally spent hours building and watching interact with others. It’s almost heartbreaking. But more than just weakening my team’s battle capabilities, I don’t want my characters to die because those interactions are so interesting. The game is chock-full of well-written cutscenes and intermissions–some of which are quite funny.
There are nearly 50 characters to be recruited (or sired) all of whom meet together face-to-face between battles. What conversations they have with whom is predicated on how you use your characters in battle. The conversations and relationships in my second playthrough were totally different than my first. It’s interactive storytelling in fine form.
On top of that, the relationships you build through having your characters interact both boosts your army’s effectiveness, and branches out new side stories (somewhat) unique to your game. When two characters’ relationship progresses to a certain point, they will wed. This results in not only them becoming a powerhouse duo, but they’ll have a kid, who grows to adulthood and joins your team as well.
I’ve beat it twice over on two difficulties, and have a team basically comprised of gods, which, thanks to the awesome StreetPass tagging feature that automatically pings other people I pass on the train or wherever (sending my team to their map, and theirs to mine–it’s awesome), crushes pretty much anything that comes before them.
I literally can’t get enough. It’s easily already one of my favorite games of all time.
Etrian Odyssey IV
Available for Nintendo 3DS
Then there’s Etrian Odyssey. This is another series that has a fairly devout following, but is known for being punishingly difficult. Indeed I’ve tried a few of the former entries in the series, and given up before completing the opening sections, sick of dying constantly. This one, while certainly no cakewalk, tones down the difficulty significantly. I’m about halfway through, and while I find myself constantly challenged, have never felt stymied or frustrated as I had with its predecessors.
This game has barely any story at all, which is a slight peccadillo for me. But it makes up for it with its maps. The basic gist of the game is you are a set of generic (swordsman, archer, wizard, etc.) adventurers, and you need to explore the game’s many sprawling, grid-based labyrinths. The top screen features a first-person view so you can look around and move, peer down hallways etc. On the bottom screen, you basically have graph paper. You need to map out the mazes as you explore them, making notes of dead ends and passages, dangers and treasure.
It’s a wonderfully immersive feeling, and ends up giving you the feeling that you are in a way literally writing the story as you go, even though the characters say very little.
A new entry in the series (Etrian Odyssey: Untold) which actually does present more meaty storytelling comes out in October, and the demo is pretty darn good. So if fighting monsters and drawing maps is your thing, you’ll get a lot of leg out of these games.
Shin Megami Tensei IV
Available for Nintendo 3DS
I’ve never played any of the Shin Megami Tensei games before (there’s actually a lot more than 3 predecessors, though many/most never left Japan), and this game has got me wondering why that is.
Constructed almost like an R-rated Pokemon, Shin Megami Tensei tasks you with exploring a post-apocalyptic Tokyo, collecting, training, inter-breeding, and fighting demons you enslave in a smartphone app. It sounds incredibly dumb I know, but in execution the gameplay is gripping and addictive.
The story is pretty darn good too, featuring plenty of player choice in a war waged between angels and demons that will determine the fate of humanity. Violent, bloody, and crass, Shin Megami Tensei never takes itself too seriously or falls trap to being goofy or silly. The writing is sharp and interesting, and the presentation and music are innovative and attractive.
So yeah–3DS, man. There’s still a bunch of great software slated to come out between now and the end of the year (new Zelda and Phoenix Wright entries for two), so stay tuned in December for my yearly list of games for book nerds.