games

Jedi Knight Bits

jedi knight header Jedi Knight Bits

Jedi Knight came out just a year after the original Quake, and was already showing its age upon release. Its development team was wise enough to include support for hardware acceleration and mouse-look controls (complete with a neat if archaic calibration of the axes that allowed for some very sensitive camera movement), but the low- poly count was much harder to mask.

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Guarded by a force field -- with a rather obvious power source -- this area leads into a twisting maze of vents that all have a different idea of where the gravity source is located. Confusing, but fun.

Jedi Knight still received very positive reviews, though, and rightfully so. It wasn’t perfect, and hasn’t aged particularly well, but I had a blast with it.

Here are some of the points that stuck out upon replaying it:

— The level design in Jedi Knight is fantastic, and probably its biggest strength. Of course level design was a bit of a different beast back then: areas tended to be much larger with fewer scripted events, the player had an inventory of keys and other usable items that facilitated environmental traversal, platforming puzzles were quite common (although usually disliked), movement was much, much quicker, etc.

Within that framework, though, the levels were a treat.

Despite the game’s low-poly count, its geometry was quite complex and varied. Textures were often repeated, but new ones trickled in periodically and every map had its own unique motif. The player was also constantly operating large-scale machinery that dynamically changed the landscape.

It all made for a nice combination of action, exploration and some occasional head-scratching. The only complaint I had with the levels were the large, industrial looking doors that were virtually indistinguishable from walls. Since these had to be opened with a button press, there were too many instances where the player could easily get stuck simply due to dodgy visuals.

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It's actually not as dangerous as it looks, and you can bet there's a secret room underneath...

— In-between level cinematics consisted of live-action actors superimposed over CG backdrops. They were rather silly and pretty low-budget, but did a decent job of conveying the story while showcasing certain visuals that were not possible to render within the game engine.

— The player was able to carry 10 weapons at any one time, and many of them shared the same ammo source. The limited ammo made becoming a Jedi and obtaining a lightsaber all the more rewarding. Visually speaking the lightsaber wasn’t anything fantastic, but it had unlimited power and the added advantage of lighting up dark areas and deflecting smaller enemy shots.

— Jedi powers were earned as the player progressed through the game, and they could be focused on neutral abilities, the light path, or the dark side. The powers themselves were a nice addition to both the singleplayer and the multiplayer, and were sometimes necessary to progress through a level (or at least take a short cut).

Force Pull was a particularly fun one as it allowed you to snatch weapons out of the enemies’ hands or grab healing items from far away.

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It's possible to blow up those barrels from this location, but due to wonky ray-tracing so common in older FPS games, my shots hit the wall.

— All the enemies responded to basic in-world physics, even after death, which made for some cool effects like a dead body sliding along the current of a pipeline.

— A lot of the audio was taken straight from the Star Wars movies, including the iconic sound effects and the famous scores by John Williams. These greatly enhanced the atmosphere and helped Jedi Knight stand out from other FPS titles of the era.

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A TIE/sa Bomber hounding the player mid-way through the game.

— The way the game’s secret rooms were placed was quite clever as they followed a pattern that went against the common funneling/guiding techniques of level design, e.g., a small nook embedded into the wall just above the entrance to a room was very easy to miss if the player ran right in without looking up and behind.

Enemies were often utilized to help the player spot these locations as they would often be placed in seemingly inaccessible locations, but with enough sleuthing, the player could always discover a way to reach his foes. A tally at the end of each level also informed the player as to whether he missed any secrets.

The impetus to discover the secret areas was very good as well. Not only did these locations often contain health, armour and ammo, but finding all the secrets in a level rewarded the player with extra force powers.


Jedi Knight is available for cheap on Steam, although everyone should keep in mind that it’s a very lazy port/re-release. None of the GUI elements have been updated for higher resolutions, the title screen and in-game cinematics must be viewed in a windowed mode, and the game doesn’t come with its original music. There’s a fix for that, but make sure to check out the forums first to get a better idea if it’s worth your money.

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games

Persona 3 Bits

persona 3 header Persona 3 Bits

When Persona 3 came out, it was pretty universally acclaimed. I was skeptical — as I usually am when it comes to dubiously high praises of RPGs — but I was pleasantly surprised.

While definitely a budget title, Persona 3 eschews tired genre staples while successfully mixing dating sim elements with those of a dungeon crawler.

The rest of the notable bits:

Persona 3 is pretty evenly split between its combat and exploration, and its heavily scripted social elements. During the day, the protagonist attends school, hangs out with his peers, goes shopping, participates in various extra-curricular activities, and generally goes through the motions of a typical student’s life.

By night, however, he hunts dangerous demons and explores creepy dungeons.  The two parts are separated conceptually, but tend to bleed into each other: roommates join the protagonist in battle, items purchased during the day are mostly used at night, and the emotional bonds formed with peers enhance combat abilities.

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Igor, a mainstay of the Persona series, in his creepy, blue-velvet room.

The game takes the player through a standard school year, with each day containing at least one unique scripted event. These range anywhere from overhearing a short bit of gossip to attending a lengthy student assembly. Regardless of the events’ scope, the quantity of these sequences is impressive, and they guarnatee that the player will encounter something new every day.

— While in school, the player is occasionally forced to sit through somewhat brief lectures. These usually result with the player being asked to answer a question based on the topic that was discussed. Sometimes it’s just a matter of relaying what was already stated, but at other times the game actually requires the player — not the player character — to be familiar with the subject matter.

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One of the class lectures.

It’s an interesting twist, and answering incorrectly never punishes the player (it simply results in a missed opportunity to upgrade a social statistic).

— A typical school day is divided into various types of events that are mixed around in order to avoid a clear and repetitive pattern. For example, one day the player will sit through a lecture, while the next the lecture will be skipped and various characters will approach the protagonist with offers to hang out after school.

Social invitations also tend to reappear if initially turned down, preventing the player from fearing that rejecting an offer will result in permanently missing out on something.

— The actual progress of time is entirely player controlled, although each day only allows a small number of actions to be performed. Once the day is over, the player has the option to journey into Tartarus, the single dungeon (or rather tower) that encompasses most of the game’s more traditional RPG elements. How much time is spent in Tartarus is also up to the player, although the game will punish lengthy excursions with temporary stat decreases.

This proved somewhat controversial with fans (as did most time-handicapping systems in MMOs), but it does encourage variety in gameplay.

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An optional scene viewed by accessing the dorm's security system.

— Establishing social links with peers, including romantic ones, is nicely slotted into the day-by-day progression. It’s a gradual process that builds over time, and, despite the characters’ relative simplicity, is actually used to great effect for both character progression and development.

— Although the player is only allowed to fully pursue one romantic interest at a time (there’s never any room for non-monogamy, is there?), it never becomes a permanent facet of the game. Once 10 dates go well, the chase is over and the player has “won.” The favoured girl can still be visited from time to time, but no new events are ever introduced, and the player is free — even encouraged — to start dating someone else.

Considering the amount of effort put into these social links, it seems like a bit of a missed chance that the relationships are not extended a step further.

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A storyline event from one of the full-moon sequences.

— Persona 3 contains a plethora of minor but continuous changes that enhance the perceived passage of time. Bystanders are shuffled around in the shopping areas, new stores open up, roommates come and go in the dorm, various holidays are celebrated, etc. A large portion of these tweaks simply involve placing characters in different spots and giving them one or two unique pieces of dialogue, but the combined effect creates a varied and well-paced experience.

— Every 28 days during a full moon, the player must engage in a uniquely structured action sequence complete with a boss battle and linear story progression. Since the player can simply skip fighting in Tartarus, these sequences tend to quickly level-up the party if it’s inadequately prepared for the upcoming encounters.

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Exploring Tartarus.

— Tartarus itself consists of 200+ floors, each one a small, randomly generated map. The tower is also divided into visually distinct zones that are unlocked as the full-moon bosses are defeated.

A neat little touch is that the player can see a preview of the next area before defeating its corresponding boss.

— Sporadic checkpoints allow the player to return to a handful of previously visited floors, and each floor also contains a warp point that can whisk the party back to the base of Tartarus. The uneven placement of checkpoints has the added effect of imbuing the game with a certain sense of risk, i.e., do I return to the base while I still can, or do I keep pressing on so as not to replay the same levels?

— There are no random encounters as all enemies are visible in the exploration portions of the game. The enemies also behave differently based on (mostly) their strength relative to the player’s party — weaker enemies run away, while stronger ones home in on the characters.

Bosses are visible as well, but they don’t move. Instead, they appear on special floors that are devoid of other enemies and contain a checkpoint, and the bosses always block the path to the next floor.

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A summoned Persona casting a spell.

— The player has the ability to split up his group and send out each character to individually explore the map. The goal of the exploration can be manually skewed towards defeating enemies or collecting treasure.

Each character’s HP/MP is always visible in the HUD, so whenever he or she enters combat, his or her display icon changes to signify the event (along with some non game-pausing audio and visual cues). The character and enemy continue to be present on the map as well, so the player has the option to join the fight if deemed necessary. Likewise, if an enemy attacks the player within the vicinity of other solitary characters, they automatically join the melee. Of course if the player doesn’t split up his party, all characters participate in every encounter.

If a separated character finds a treasure, the event is also indicated with an audio/visual cue. The treasures are only collected once the player exits the current floor, though.

Finally, any exploring character will pause the game if they stumble upon an exit point (either a set of stairs leading to the next area, or a warp point). These mechanics all combine to ease the pain of traversing previously explored locations and help to quicken the overall pace.

— One of the later characters provides a manual option to change the background music in Tartarus.

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Scanning enemies reveals their strengths and weaknesses, which is fully utilized by the AI-controlled characters.

— Most enemies — and all the characters, for that matter — have elemental strengths and weaknesses. The first time a character or an enemy gets hit with a potent attack, it becomes stunned and loses a turn while the attacker gains an extra turn. If all the enemies are stunned, the player has the option to unleash a group-attack where all the characters rush in to physically attack the enemies. This wastes the extra turn of the initial attacker, but doesn’t use up the turns of the rest of the party.

— In combat, the player only controls the game’s protagonist (with one small exception mentioned below). Many fans didn’t like this, but the approach definitely made for quicker battles.

The party’s AI is also quite solid, automatically targeting the enemies’ weaknesses while preserving MP and doing a good job of staying alive.

— My personal favourite feature of Persona 3′s battle system is the auto-attack toggle.

The combat menu is circular, surrounding a triangle symbol that corresponds to the button found on the controller. At any time — no matter what’s happening on screen — the player can press this button to toggle a state where all the characters simply use their physical attacks.

The player never needs to wait to queue up this option, nor does he need to scroll through a menu to access it, and the state continues to persist until it’s toggled off. It’s a simple but well executed feature that greatly speeds up the battles, and I found myself using it in virtually every encounter.

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An option to perform an all-in attack on the stunned enemies.

— Whenever a battle is finished, there’s a random chance that a card-shuffling minigame will pop-up. The minigame displays a handful of cards face up, with at least 2 to 3 representing some sort of a reward: a new item, a health recharge, an extra money bonus, or one of the titular Personas. When the player presses a button, the cards are turned over and shuffled around, and the player then picks the card that he thinks holds his desired prize.

As the game progresses, so does the complexity of the shuffling and the value of the rewards. Mysterious skulls also start to appear over some cards, along with the occasional opportunity to “double up,” i.e., gain two rewards at the risk of losing both if the wrong card is selected.

— Sticking around for too long on any floor summons the super boss Death. The player usually has more than enough time to explore the whole map, but drawing a skull-card from the shuffle minigame or entering a floor with no enemies (and only treasure chests, which is a nice bonus) reduces the amount of time it takes for Death to show up.

— Each Persona creature has its own attributes and skills, and the ability to level up. Only the protagonist can equip these, though, and only a single Persona at a time. The other characters possess Personas as well, but they’re permanently stuck with their starting selection.

The Personas tend to have strong links to the entities of various mythologies and religions, and are summoned whenever a character uses a special ability. These creatures are also obtained fairly regularly, and they can be combined to create new types of Personas. To take full advantage of this, the player needs to reference a detailed spread-sheet, but the system is still pretty rewarding. Limited previews of new Personas are shown prior to the fusions taking place, and the sheer quantity of the creatures promises something new around every corner.

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Jack Frost, something of a mascot Persona that's present in many Shin Megami Tensei titles.

Lots more could be said about Persona 3′s aesthetics — its focus on Japanese culture and the bizarre designs of the Personas themselves — but what really stuck out for me were the streamlined dungeon and combat mechanics, and the constantly changing social landscape. These elements made for a lengthy and unique experience, and did a good job of providing lots of variety despite a relatively small amount of assets.

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art, games

Sub-Terrania Bits

sub terrania header Sub Terrania Bits

Sub-Terrania is a physics based, side-view shooter in vein of such titles as Thurst and Gravity Force. It was developed by Zyrinx, a studio composed of demo scene veterans, and was a difficult but enjoyable Genesis title.

Bullets:

  • Sub-Terrania has something of a photo-realistic aesthetic that’s also reflected in its gameplay. The physics require pin-point thrusts due to limited fuel supplies, gravity drags down projectiles, momentum dictates collision damage, attachable items add extra weight and inertia, etc.

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    Sub-Terrania doesn't wait too long before throwing large bosses at the player.

  • Although there are only 3 tile-sets for all the maps, each level contains unique puzzles and visuals. These can vary anywhere from a laser-reflecting mirror to a giant hopping robot. Although the functionality of these elements is reused, none of the assets ever appear twice, and even the enemies and environmental objects are changed up pretty frequently.

    All these concepts make for a very nice, non-repetitive experience where the player knows something new is lurking around every turn.

  • All the destructible elements are man/alien made, and are composed of dozens of tiny tiles. Each one of these tiles has its own collision box and health value, adding granularity and creating a very gradual and satisfying sense to the destruction.
  • The overall game can be quite unforgiving. The ship’s shields are drained whenever it comes in contact with anything on the map (except when landing on flat surfaces which provide a much needed respite), the player’s shots can destroy precious powerups, and — unfortunately — the level maps only are only shown in between stages.

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    This installation will go down one tiny brick at a time.

  • Whenever the player’s ship explodes, it releases a shower of particles. Each one of these obeys collision checks and plays a sound effect whenever it comes in contact with the environment, putting a cacophonous exclamation point on the player’s death.
  • If the player runs out of fuel, his ship begins to billow out smoke and proceeds to plummet to its demise (all the while accounting for its previous trajectory). In this state, the ship blows up as soon as it touches anything, which can happen mercifully quick or last quite a few seconds.

    The small touch creates a dreadful but aesthetically pleasing game death effect.

  • Some of the enemies’ physical attacks carry a tremendous force that can send the player rocketing across the map (often to an almost-instant death). These moments can be quite surprising considering the somewhat plodding pace of the game, and add a menacing touch to the numerous adversaries.
  • As the player journeys further and further underground, satellite data becomes increasingly sparse. At first, key locations on the map stop being pinpointed, but soon the mission-goals themselves become garbled up, and eventually the briefings disappear altogether. Rather organically, this creates a feeling of foreboding and also reinforces a sense of progression.

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    Although pretty, the increased gravity and the underwater sections make the last few levels the most difficult in the game.

  • The last levels of the game increase the pull of gravity, but also introduce underwater areas that constantly drag the player’s buoyant ship to the surface. Although the player can obtain an item that — when manually used — pressurizes the ship and temporarily inverts its underwater handling, it’s only of small aid (especially when the water is eventually replaced by hazardous pools of acid).
  • Early on in the 9th and final stage, the player can obtain an item that grants him unlimited fuel. This is an extremely helpful and empowering upgrade, especially considering the game-wide scarcity of the resource.
  • In something of a twist on punishing the player, the end-game boss battle is not restarted if the player dies. Instead, if there are any lives left, the ship simply respawns right in the middle of the fight.

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games

ROM Hack Goodness

romhackheader ROM Hack Goodness

The practice of editing ROM images has been around for a while, and it’s probably best known for inserting crude sexual jokes or making games much more difficult.

Of course that’s not its full gamut.

There have been plenty of ROM hacks that tweak games in various interesting ways. Some are even complete overhauls, clearly resembling the originals but providing lots of new content.

I find all of these quite interesting as they represent additions and alterations that the games’ fans clearly desired. There’s quite a few of them too, so here are just a few that caught my eye:

mega man 3 hack ROM Hack Goodness

Rockman 3 Endless.

Rockman 3 Endless
Something of a backport, this hack brings Mega Man 9′s Endless Attack mode to Mega Man 3. It’s a standalone patch, not just a small modifier, and it’s a good example of a feature/mechanic of a sequel that the fans wanted to bring back to an earlier incarnation of the series.


mortal kombat 2 hack ROM Hack Goodness

Mortal Kombat II Unlimited

Mortal Kombat II Unlimited
It took ages of EGM posting certain spoofed rumours to convince developers of fighting games that implementing some playable hidden characters in their titles was a good idea. Eventually this became quite common, but not before Mortal Kombat II was released. To make things right, this hack not only allows the player to take control of the secret characters, but also to play as the bosses.


chrono trigger hack ROM Hack Goodness

Chrono Trigger Coliseum

Chrono Trigger Coliseum
New worlds, quests, enemies, spells, etc., are always longed for with beloved RPGs, but realizing a fan-fiction piece in-game is quite a lofty task. Instead, this hack concentrates on providing a varied gameplay experience by creating an arena where the player (and optionally his party) can compete against numerous enemies for prizes.


Like I mentioned above, these are just scratching the surface, so what are some of your favourite ROM hacks?

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games

God of War Bits

god of war header God of War Bits

Yes, the third entry in the God of War series has just come out, but I figured I’d take a quick look at the original and some of the aspects that made it stand out.

The bits:

  • Kratos, the protagonist of God of War, is an ideal lead for the game. He’s vicious and perpetually enraged, but he’s also a broken down soul searching for salvation. Kratos is promised an end to his pain by the gods, and he’ll do anything for that reward. This nicely sets up the game and its plethora of brutality.

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    The swirling carnage of Kratos' Chaos Blades.

  • Kratos’ main weapons are the Blades of Chaos, two large daggers/cleavers fused to this forearms by long chains. The weapons provide an instant fix to short and long-range combat as they can be held by their hilts or swung around by their chains.

    Each swing also produces an orange-tinted trail of energy, masking collision and clipping issues while creating a visually appealing “ballet of violence.”

  • The upgrade system is somewhat interesting as it forces the player to hold a button in order to drain a 2D vial (often multiple times) of its contents. This gives the upgrading process a somewhat kinetic feeling and forces the player to more thoroughly reflect on the collected experience points.
  • Unlike so many of its clones (and sequel(s), from what I understand), the upgrades to the moveset come in batches. I actually prefer this approach as it rewards the players with stronger attacks, new types of offense, and new move combos all in one package.

    The alternative is to let the player purchase upgrades individually, which often results in messages stating that the player can now do a “X, X, X, X” combo instead of a “X, X, X” one. Maybe it’s my background with fighting games, but I personally dislike this. As the player, I always have the ability to push a single button four times in a row, and I somewhat resent a game for not letting me execute that combo until I pay for it.

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    The Sirens in God of War actually occupy a desert area and can be tracked by following their song.

  • Each enemy in the game has a different attack pattern, but their overall abilities and techniques are pretty similar. The main two exceptions are the Gorgons and the Cerberi.

    The gorgons emanate a green beam that automatically follows Kratos, forcing the player to roll out of the way or simply run away. If Kratos is in the beam’s path for too long, he turns into stone. He can shake out of it if given enough time, but while in the stone state, a single hit will shatter his body. A neat little touch is that Kratos will die if turned into stone in mid-air as the fall will instantly break apart his body.
    The Cerberi on the other hand are pretty standard enemies that often start off as little pops. If given enough time, though, they’ll grow into large beasts that are much more dangerous, encouraging the player to focus on eliminating them first in virtually any scenario.

  • The player cannot control the camera, but this is used to set up and frame some pretty dramatic shots. One of the first involves running up the stairway to Athens where two large pieces of cloth are suspended over the city’s gates. The camera pans down to Kratos’ feet, looking up at him as he ascends the steps, and as he finally enters the city, it zooms away to show a gigantic version of Aries laying siege to Athens itself.

    The automated camera works well for the most part, but it does tend to fall apart when backtracking through levels as it can leave Kratos running towards the screen with the player unable to see where he’s actually guiding the character.

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    The temple of the Oracle.

  • The puzzle elements are of the pretty standard block-pushing/lever-pulling variety, but some can be real head scratchers. They also provide periodic breaks from the combat and tend to be action/timing oriented.
  • Some of the puzzles require multiple steps and are deeply tied into the linear level design. A perfect example of this are the concentric Rings of Pandora that need to be individually rotated and aligned. With each successful rotation, a new level opens up that must be completed before moving on to the next step of the puzzle.
  • Since the levels are pretty linear, the incentive to defeat the enemies is often represented by red energy walls that dynamically create mini-arenas where all monsters must be killed in order to proceed.
  • Certain enemies — especially the slow, lumbering ones and the archers far off in the background — tend to hit their own allies during the chaos of battle. This is always fun and entertaining, and provides some unexpected breaks in the combat.

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    Sliding down a rope, not worrying about the archers for a change.

  • Although Kratos is meant to be a ruthless and powerful warrior, he can’t grab or indiscriminately whale on anyone but the weakest enemies. Many will avoid or interrupt his combos, but various cues are used to telegraph these moments.

    The audio hints are especially useful as some of the smaller enemies can be hard to pick out in the midst of battle.

  • Various enemies can be finished off with a quick-time event. These not only serve as a visual reward, but have a bit of strategy associated with them.

    All enemies release experience orbs when defeated the old fashioned way, but some will drop either health or magic recharging orbs when finished off with a unique “fatality.” This approach gives the player an organic way of selecting which reward he’d like to receive.

  • Although Kratos is not an acrobat, there are numerous traversal segments that break up the combat. These include sliding down or shimmying across ropes, scaling vertical walls, balancing on thin walkways, and jumping across various platforms.

    The vertical scaling is particularly fun as it allows Kratos to quickly move around by pressing the jump button while letting him slash at enemies and grapple with them. By pressing the throw button, Kratos can pull down the enemies above him by their ankles, or grab the enemies beside him and slam them face-first into the wall. A neat aftereffect of this is that falling enemies tend to hit and take down their partners, and after the enemies fall off-screen, red orbs fly up to indicate that they’ve been defeated and the player hasn’t been cheated out of a potential reward.

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    The vicious and agile Gorgons.

  • In one section of the game, Kratos must physically move some statues in order to block the spawn points of enemies. It’s a neat puzzle as it happens during combat and must be completed in order to safely walk across the tight-beams leading to the exit.

    Another example of this type of organic combat-puzzle is using the Medusa head to turn an enemy into stone as it steps on a pressure plate.

  • During Poseidon’s trial, Kratos comes across a room full of soldiers suspended in cages. He must first lower one of these still-alive prisoners, then kick the cage down to a small incline and push it up to the temple’s entrance. As Kratos moves the cage, he must occasionally deposit it in front of some rock outcroppings to prevent it from sliding down while he fights the enemies that spawn along the way.

    Upon finally reaching the temple, the cage is placed on a pressure plate that makes two columns extend from the wall and turn to face the cage at either side. Once the setup is complete, a final lever is pulled in order to make the columns spit fire and burn the victim trapped inside, awarding Kratos entrance to the next area.

  • Hades’ very-red underworld has a neat visual effect where countless souls are perpetually falling down from the sky while Kratos jumps from platform to platform.

    god of war 13 God of War Bits

    The Hydra fights ends with Kratos actually diving into its open maw to retrieve a key.

  • The penultimate battle has Kratos facing off against his dopplegangers while trying to protect his family. The enemies attack both Kratos and his wife and child, and the player has the option to hug his family, restoring their health while draining his in the process.
  • The bosses of the game are definitely its highlights, epic in scale and requiring a specific strategy/environmental interaction to defeat. Among many abilities and attributes, the bosses are unique in that they can restore Kratos’ health and magic mid-battle following a particularly successful attack.

    Another common aspect they share are the health bars, although each one is presented with a slight variation. The Hydra has three individual bars for each head, the Minotaur’s healthbar is actually obscured by a metal plates that fall off once his armour is smashed (until the bar is revealed, he cannot be damaged), while Aries himself shares a healthbar with Kratos and each successful hit heals the attacker while damaging his opponent.

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