Backlog: Juegos Over Easy Edition

juegos-header One of my favorite things about living in Austin is the awesome indie game development scene that's sprung up all around town. Awesome developers like Tiger Style, Semi Secret Software and White Whale Games call Austin home, and they're just a small sampling of the talented and friendly folks who make up this tight-knit community. And at the center of all these positive creative vibes is an indie game collective called Juegos Rancheros.

Besides sporting an awesome pun behind the name, Juegos Rancheros is an open-to-all monthly meetup where developers and enthusiasts come together to demo their new games, discuss their favorites and -- of course -- network like madmen. I've been lucky enough to attend a few awesome Juegos events since I moved to Austin a couple years ago, and each time there's been something new and fascinating to see -- for example, a Q&A session with Derek Yu after his rogue-like platformer, Spelunky, launched on Xbox Live Arcade.

This Thursday, June 6th, Juegos Rancheros is hosting another meetup. This month's theme: South by No Quarter 2013, featuring four fascinating multiplayer games from indie developers. It should be a great time, so if you're in Austin come check it out -- just make sure you RSVP on Facebook beforehand. And if you do go, feel to say hi!

Anyway, we've got some games to talk about in this week's Backlog. Doug's brawling to his heart's content in the gritty, gnarly streets of Hong Kong (seriously, videogames excel at making cities look like garbage when they want to) and Nick's delaying the inevitable after spending seven months and 100 hours with one of the most unexpectedly affecting game he's ever played.  -- Nick Cummings



I know May is a strange time to think about Game of the Year discussion, but bear with me. Whenever we have done our Game of the Year feature, there always seems to be a game that slips through the cracks -- that by all accounts should be on the list but just doesn’t make it. We even talked about it before our 2012 feature.

I know we’re not even halfway into 2013, but I think I’ve found our candidate from 2012. Sleeping Dogs may get knocked from that illustrious “Sorry we didn’t play you last year!” perch, but it would take something truly special to change my mind. For another matter, Sleeping Dogs may well be the best value Sony’s released on PlayStation Plus.

To be super reductive, you can say “Sleeping Dogs is just Grand Theft Auto: Hong Kong.” And that’s true -- it’s an open-world action game with plenty of driving and shooting in an open world. But that’s not all the game is. The combat system lifts from the Batman Arkham games while adding just enough Bruce Lee to make it fit the setting. The storyline, the dualistic cop/triad nature, and the Cantonese-tinged voice acting all adds a great layer to improve on the boiler-plate action game.

Really, Sleeping Dogs is an achievement in the way that the Rockstar games are: The world is a character. Is it to the level of GTA IV or Red Dead Redemption? Maybe not. But it comes damned close, and all the peculiarities of Hong Kong -- the British and Chinese history coming out in gangsters named Winston and sections of town called Aberdeen -- set the scene well, and the allusions to Hong Kong cinema history are appreciated. More importantly, the game has a playful sense of humor. While the GTA games go for razor-sharp satire, Sleeping Dogs plays it a touch straighter; where the Saints Row franchise breaks the fourth wall with a wrecking ball, Sleeping Dogs is more a subtle wink and nod when appropriate. It’s an appreciated balance.

Despite receiving the game and a decent amount of DLC as part of its PS+ pack, I’m probably going to pick up some of the other DLC to support the game. I’m almost finished, but I’m already looking forward to the next time we see Hong Kong.


Smarter than the average high schooler

The teenage years are often the most inconsistent and vulnerable you ever have to experience, so you survive the only way you can: by latching onto whatever solidarity you can find. You work, you study, you play, you relax; you do whatever it takes to survive. But at the core of everything you do -- the glue that holds everything together -- are your friends.

Being a teenager is tough, but there's a good reason it's so heavily romanticized in stories: there's a universal cultural touchstone we all share in recalling the bonds that carried us through adolescence and into adulthood. But out of all the challenges any teenager faces, learning to let go is one of the most difficult.

I just hit the 100-hour mark in Persona 4 Golden but, more importantly, I've arrived at the final day on the calendar: March 20, 2012. There's nowhere left to go after I conclude the game's last bit of unfinished business. I'm fine with the prospect of taking down one last boss enemy and closing the book on the central conflict of the game for good, but I'm not ready to leave the characters and world of this game behind just yet -- even after six months of relatively consistent play.

What the hell is it about this game? You'd think the cheesy anime veneer and sometimes-hokey voice acting would've left a sour taste in my mouth, but there's a real maturity in the way the game's narrative and central drama are structured around this pivotal and universally relatable period of adolescence. I never went to school in rural Japan, but I now feel like I really understand what made it tough and what made it tolerable, at least on a thematic level.

Ultimately, it's the characters that the main character bonds with -- his social links, in the parlance of the game -- that enrich and propel this game forward. They are literally the source of his strength in both the game's social and combat dimensions. It's a pretty potent metaphor.

I've played a lot of rich, lengthy role-playing games, but I don't think I've felt as bittersweet about concluding my story since Dragon Age: Origins, a game that offers considerably more room for character customization and divergent narratives. In short, Persona 4's a hell of a game -- one of the best I've ever played -- and it delivers a singular experience that's sincere, nostalgic and genuinely touching. In my opinion, it's an essential experience with broad appeal -- and really, it's the best reason to own a Vita I can think of. Don't miss it.