Al is feeling all the emotions.

The Last of Us: Left Behind
Naughty Dog
Released: February 14, 2014
PS3, PS4

 I have finally gotten around to playing The Last of Us’s prequel. And I am in love. Spending a lot of time with Ellie will really get the onions chopping. This dlc acts as a prequel to the already amazing Last of Us. The player gets to see Ellie and Riley together, playing games, goofing around, loving each other, before the inevitable turn for the worse. There isn’t as much action in this installation, but there are enough feels to make the game seem whole and lovely.

Megan P. is building cities on her phone.

SimCity BuildIt
EA/ Track 20
Soft-launched in CA for Android on October 22, 2014,
For iOS in CA, AUS, and NZ on October 24, 2014
Worldwide release December 16, 2014.[4]
Megan’s platform: iPhone

Literally everyone hates this game… except for all the people who keep downloading it and giving it five star reviews. Also me. After settling into the game, I poked around for game tips and instead I found fountains of hate and betrayal. (I’m still looking for game tips, guys, so if you have some, hit me up!) SimCity BuildIt has been variously described as “the latest attempt to destroy SimCity” and everything wrong with free-to-play. Harsh. But like most free-to-play games, SimCity BuildIt is designed to frustrate you into micro-transactions. Unlike most f2p games, though, there’s no firm paywall. You have a choice: play smartly, play patiently, and walk away when you’re tempted to pay for advancement, or pay your way through every obstacle. Walk away, ok? It’s a phone game and your tired eyes will thank me.

 SimCity BuildIt combines the mechanics of previous Sim games, with f2p micro-management. The first steps of building your new city are familiar: you draw a few roads, lay out some residential zones, and build your first factory. As more Sims move in, you level up and unlock civil services and new elements of urban planning, including police, water, sewage, and entertainment. The game is stripped down and Sim veterans will miss some things: you don’t manage the city’s operating budget, just development; you don’t zone industry and commercial, you earn and construct individual buildings. But the logic of the game is the same: your city must be built step by step, with every element in place, or your Sims will revolt. First a factory, then some steel, then nails, then a building upgrade, and then — simoleans! Because the game is so dependent on your having things in order, it’s an ideal transit game. It takes time, planning, and strategy to get your city growing steadily, and with every level throwing new service categories at you, there’s no coasting in SimCity BuildIt. Success means new challenges means constantly rethinking and redesigning your city.

SimCity BuildIt won’t satisfy Sim purists — period. But it will satisfy those looking for a complicated, long term gaming experience. On the bus. Or in the bathroom. Or wherever you game for short periods of time. While not giving money to EA Games.

Wendy drops a teaser for the next Gaming Diaries

Valkyria Chronicles
November 2014 (PC)
Platform: PC

Welp. It’s twelve minutes after midnight. Two hours after I said I would just play the first two chapters of this game. Not that the chapters are long. In fact, I’ve played this game before, so I know exactly what I’m doing. But me, the girl who doesn’t care much for strategy games and perfect scores had to redo that second battle over three times because dammit, I want that ace enemy’s gun but the bastard keeps ducking my pointbank range headshots. What am I talking about? Find out soon in my next gaming diaries….

Jamie is summoning monsters.

Summoners War
Released December 2014
Jamie’s playing it on Android
Free to play with premium content

I saw an ad for Summoners War while playing Happy Street (see last month’s “What We’re Playing”), and it looked interesting.  Battle engine in realtime. Camera work that followed the action.  Anime-inspired character work.  For an app you can download for your mobile device, it looked amazing.   And it does.  The characters are diverse in design (and even race – I have seen some characters whose skin color makes them look like black people), costume and special effects.

The premise is simple.  The player character (who never gets represented on screen) is a newly empowered summoner — which is to say that they can magically summon monsters to serve them and fight for them, much in the same way a Final Fantasy summoner would in that line of games.  The RPG aspect that goes with that is minimal, though.  You have an old friend, Durand, who’s arrogant and tends to get you into stuff without checking with you first. You have an assistant, Ellie, who reads all the messages from Durand, and the Council. You have a magic student, whose name is escaping me at the moment, who, in contrast to Durand, asks your help against growing problems in the world.

The gameplay beyond that is kind of Pokemon-esque.  Summon monsters, make them fight, get them to level so they’re stronger, get currency to be able to summon better monsters, improve the ones you have, and advance the little bit of plot there is.

The main currency are “mana stones” — these are the basic currency. You can shop with them, upgrade the runes which make your monsters more powerful.  The premium currency are crystals.  You can build up or refresh your energy (their anti-poopsocking method is that you have a limited amount of energy you can use to get from your magical floating island to the world you need to explore and the arena, where disagreements are settled with other summoners), or buy better summoning gear.  The game is nice about these things, though. You can randomly find energy or crystals in small amounts as the result of fights in any of the game’s places.

The game also offers you multiple, generous opportunities to keep your mana stone level up: you get some at the end of every fight, even if you didn’t survive to beat the boss.  And there are daily challenges that are fairly easily met.   The game is also generous with experience points.  If you have a four monster battle, and win with two monsters having died, they still get experience.  If you want to play in the arena against NPC aggressors or against other players, the game offers rewards for that as well.

There are also multiple events to make things more fun.  There was a Thanksgiving event in which players got to “eat a piece of pie” and get prizes to use in-game.  There was a “light the Christmas Tree” event which required meeting criteria to light a light, but each light lit gave a prize.  For the new year, there was a Fortune Cookie event, which meant that each cookie resulted in a prize.

The game can be a timesuck if you let it, but you can also set the battle mode on auto and let it run a fight at a time while you do other things.

The major drawbacks are:

  • the chatrooms are full of typical MMORPG blabber: trash talk, misogyny, racism, and unsolicited sex invitations.
  • The game is very invested in monetization.  It is constantly making offers to sell you various packages, and warns you that if you close the window you won’t be able to get the deal again.
  • Com2Us is clumsy in their response to cheating, and their overseas customer service is brusque at best.  I have been trying to create a Hive account to make sure my game data is safe, and repeatedly getting an error message. When I reported this to Com2Us, they told me it was because I’d been blocked for having multiple accounts — which I don’t have.  I use Titanium Backup instead to backup my game, but they consider Titanium Backup a cheat program and my access gets blocked until I turn the app off again, even though I’m playing honestly.  Their approach seems to be “any apps we don’t like are cheating”.

  Jo is returning to Pandora.

Tales from the Borderlands
Telltale Games
November 25, 2014

I have an ongoing love affair with Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel!, but it was a true pleasure to return to Pandora, the setting for the rest of the Borderlands franchise. Tales from the Borderlands, unlike its sister series, is a point-and-click adventure game, in the vein of other Telltale properties. But despite only giving you a single bullet (and no weapons chests to loot), Tales does a fine job of capturing the Wild West-in-space vibe of the franchise, which includes robot shootouts, bravado, and the stress-inducing decisions that the developer is known for.

The story has two protagonists: Rhys, an ambitious middle-manager with a daring streak, and Fiona, half of a team of orphaned sister con artists. You experience the narrative from each of their points of view, but both are after the one thing Pandora is known for: the big score. The dual narrative is supported by an excellent voice cast and some elegant art direction, little nuances that show the differences between Rhys’ and Fiona’s experiences.

Keen-eared players will certainly recognize some familiar voice talent. The NPC cast features Patrick Warburton, Chris Hardwick, and video games darling Nolan North. Combined with the beautiful animation and writing, the whole game feels like a love letter to the setting of Pandora, rather than a canonical Borderlands entry. Action is conveyed almost exclusively through quick-time events, but most of these are well-telegraphed (meaning, you won’t miss a beat if you’ve got a drink in hand.)

 Like other Telltale games that we’ve gotten excited for, Tales from the Borderlands defies narrative expectations, and the final act of chapter one introduces a doozy of a plot twist that fans of the franchise and newcomers will both appreciate. I personally can’t wait to rejoin Rhys, Fiona, and hopefully some more Borderlands cameos, in chapter two!

Jules is infiltrating Soviet consulates.

Necrophone Games
February 7, 2014

It’s already been nearly a year since this game first came out, but I’m finally getting around to trying this out and I love it so much. Jazzpunk is this surreal, brightly lit, neon cyberpunk adventure game that takes place in the cyberspace of this very off-kilter Cold War-era alternate universe. It involves a lot of free-roaming and exploration, and that’s handled so well because nearly everything you can interact with. This game is just jam-packed full of content and humour.

You play from the first-person perspective of some anonymous character who is sent on missions into the digital landscapes of this world, infiltrating Soviet consulates, decoding encrypted messages, and picking up mysterious packages. However the game focuses more on the exploration and humour, with the puzzle-solving element being minimal. This works in its favour, as you never really get frustrated or worked-up over riddles you can’t figure out, and it means you get to breathe in more of this fascinating and frankly ludicrous environment.

The humour as well is something else. Many games just aren’t that funny, they try too hard to ape off of the styles of Double Fine and Valve’s Portal series, but never quite stick the landing or their references are much too transparent. Either that, or games are unintentionally funny, with weird glitches and bugs making for humourous gifs and image sets, or sometimes they’re so bad they’re more akin to schlock movies that we derive enjoyment from. Jazzpunk is different though. It’s absurd, and very off-beat, and while it may reference certain aspects of various cultural touchstones, it never relies too heavily on that. It knows exactly what brand of weird it is, and it goes straight for that without abandon.

It’s definitely something you have to see for yourself, and I highly recommend people who are into extraordinarily odd things to check it out. Even if you’re not, watch the opening cinematic or even the live-action launch trailer and that will aptly sum up just exactly what Jazzpunk is going for. It’s so hard to put into words, and for that I love it.


Read the rest of the What We’re Playing series.