Friday, December 09, 2005

Panzer Dragoon Orta

Panzer Dragoon Orta
Action - Xbox
Battery Backup - 1 slot
1 player

When Panzer Dragoon was released for the Sega Saturn, it was an immediate hit. There you flew a dragon with limited mobility on a fixed path, hence the name of the subgenre: "rails shooter" because it's like you're moving on rails. It was unique in that it allowed full 360 degree targeting so enemies could literally come from any direction. Panzer Dragoon Zwei followed it up with more rails action, but this time there were multibranching paths to each level depending on where you pointed your dragon. It also added a berserker attack in which you unleash a barrage of beams when your meter is full. Azel Panzer Dragoon/Panzer Dragoon Saga was the third entry to the system, and although it was a RPG, it still had the same atmosphere, and combat was inspired by its rails shooting roots. In a strange move, Orta is the fourth entry in the series and brings it back to the rails shooter it started off as - but with some major twists.

Let it be said: Orta isn't quite like the old Panzer Dragoons. The elements are still there - flying on rails, multibranching paths, 360 degree shooting. However, two additions to the gameplay change it completely. The first is the ability to change dragon forms on the fly. There are three types with their own strengths and weaknesses. The base form allows you to lock-on to the most enemies. The heavy wing form is slow but dishes out heavy lock-on damage. And glide wing form gives you the most mobility and a automatic-homing-cannon which is best used against incoming projectiles. The way the game is designed, you really need to switch between the three to optimize each situation you come across. The more you play a level, the more you'll get a feel for which is ideal. I like the strategy the forms add to the game, particularly on boss battles. Each form has its own version of the berserker attack as well.

If the form-changes weren't enough, there is another component that is just as important. Your dragon is able to "glide" in both base and glide form. By pushing X, your dragon speeds up for a moment, ramming into any objects along the way. It's a good way to clear an area infested with lots of little enemies. By pushing B, your dragon slows down momentarily. Both the speed up and slow down glides are useful for avoiding gunfire or even attempts of enemies to ram your dragon. Essentially the glide gives you more control over the rail speed for moments at a time. Every use of the glide depletes a notch on your glide meter, which automatically fills up over time. In addition to avoiding damage, there is another use for gliding. Similar to Azel/Saga, many bosses will have weakpoints. By gliding forwards or backwards, you can navigate around a boss to find its weakpoint. By being in the right quadrant, you can dish heavy damage to a boss. By being in the wrong quadrant, you could be on the receiving end of a devastating attack.

All of these new mechanics add up to ... well... an overwhelming experience initially. I remember popping in the game and getting rocked right from the get-go. You can only go so far by using the basic techniques of the old Panzer Dragoon games. But as you get familiar with the stages and the buttons, form-changes and glides become more and more second nature. The moment where it all clicks together, you realize the brilliance of it all.

Panzer Dragoon Orta has ten stages of rails action. Believe me, that's quite lengthy and more than expected. It is by far the most difficult of all the Panzer games. It also includes a Pandora's Box which has additional scenarios with different characters and different vehicles. They're not as elaborate as the main game, but adds an extra touch to the world. But perhaps the greatest inclusion is the original Panzer Dragoon. After finishing Orta, I started playing PD again and realized what was missing in Orta. Simplicity. I adore the original Panzer Dragoon and playing a little of it again reminded me of why. It's simplistic in that there are no meters to charge, no forms to change, no speed boosts to monitor. Your path is already predetermined. So you concentrate on locking on and using your cannon to take out enemies, gun turrets, etc. You can see from the design of the game that it works quite well and is very fun despite lacking all the bells and whistles.

But this is no knock on Orta at all. Orta does not have the same emphasis as PD or PDZwei, but it forges a new path by incorporating Azel/Saga elements. It changes what it is, and there's nothing to be ashamed of. It is an excellent game where the additions are substantial, and level design revolves around those changes. They are not just gimmicks. So hats off to Smilebit for their most polished title to date. With an awesome new type of Panzer game and the inclusion of the original Panzer, this title comes highly recommended. A must-have for all XBox owners.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Gunstar Super Heroes

Gunstar Super Heroes
Action - GBA
Battery Backup
1 player

Treasure is one of the few companies I respect. They have consistently provided game experiences that are unrivaled. Most of this is due to their unorthodox design, usually pioneering mechanics that spice up what would be normally formulaic. Their ticket to fame came in the form of Gunstar Heroes for the Genesis. It is still considered to this day as among the best action games ever made. Since I never owned a Genesis, I'll have to be content with trying this semi-remake/semi-tribute made for the GBA.

Wow. Immediately upon firing the game up, you're thrown into the thick of things with classic run & gun action. You are given three weapons that you can switch between at any time. Each of them come with their own meter for super shots. Enemies come from all sides, machines fly around you, and bullets pour down . Visually this is one of the nicest looking games for the system with no sign of slowdown. It's a grand action-fest with a lot of variety from stage to stage. Unfortunately, it's that variety that is also the game's greatest weakness.

Gunstar Super Heroes never comes together as a complete experience. As you play on, you'll be shooting on top of a rotating ship, freeing hostages, collecting cutesy things in a maze, flying a huge helicopter in a vertical shooting stage, and navigating a board game. It almost seems like Treasure wasn't sure what to do with the game. The quality and enjoyment vary from stage to stage, so it's a very inconsistent experience.

The boss battles are pretty good, though. It's classic pattern-based gaming. Many of them require a few attempts before figuring out how to conquer them. For example, there is one boss, aptly named Seven Force, which shape-shifts between seven forms. It's a total thrill to take down all of them. You pretty much can't go wrong with Treasure boss battles. In fact, I kinda wish there were more of them.

After all that's said and done, Gunstar Super Heroes is a decent action game. It is definitely an uneven experience, but it's interesting enough to play through. The problem is that it's a very short game and the flaws don't come out until you play it again. While I appreciate the new story tidbits on switching characters and higher difficulties, you realize that the game is... well... boring. After the initial novelty has worn off, you come to see that Gunstar Super Heroes is pretty average. Even on Hard mode, not much has changed from Normal to make it feel like a different game worth playing through.

I come away with Gunstar Super Heroes with mixed emotions. On one hand, it is a competent run & gun shooter with interesting boss battles and some great looking sprite graphics. But on the other, it holds no lasting value and ends up being quite forgettable when it comes down to it. At no point did the game wow me. And I'm pretty disappointed that it's not interesting enough to hold up for additional play throughs. It's the epitome of mediocrity. Come on Treasure, you can do better.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Conker Live & Reloaded

Conker Live & Reloaded
Platform - XBox
3 Save Slots
1 player / Multiplayer

Conker L&R is a remake of the N64 game, Conker's Bad Fur Day. I confess that I've never had the opportunity to try it. But that's exactly the reason I picked up Live & Reloaded. A remake with a total graphic overhaul? Sign me up. What I didn't count on was getting a game completely different from what I was expecting. But sometimes that's not a bad thing at all.

I've always thought Conker was a third person shooter. I've seen clips of Conker here and there with references to The Matrix and Saving Private Ryan. Little did I know that these scenes are at the very end of the game, and that for the other 90% of the time, Conker is a 3D platformer. The way it controls reminds me of Rayman 2. Both have loose control. Both have a helicopter-glide move that extends jumping distance. And both have clunky combat. Your main weapon is a bat. If you time your attacks, you can perform a combo to defeat enemies in fewer hits.

By far, most of what you'll be doing is jumping and gliding over a large expansive world. As you progress, you'll be able to go further and deeper into the areas. The thing that impressed me the most is that Conker consists of a series of puzzles. Everything from how to proceed to how to defeat bosses requires some brain-work. I first noticed this on the initial boss fight with an angry bull. There were healing items all over, and even when consumed, they would reappear after a little while. It finally dawned on me that this wasn't a game to be conquered by outlasting the boss, but rather by discovering the opponent's weakness. All bosses seem impenetrable, but as you try different things, the game will alert you when you're getting warm. So the game gives you a few clues, but stops short of holding your hand. It's a nice change of pace and many of the boss battles are quite clever.

One of the most talked about things about Conker is its humor. There's a lot of cursing in the game, mostly bleeped out, and there's a lot of wrongness too. I can't think of any other games where you push a ball of feces which grows bigger as you roll it over the diarrhea-covered ground in hi-res glory. I also appreciate its neverending list of film references. They're really just icing on the cake.

Conker is one of the most original games I've played in a long while. I had a blast going through the game and its variety of playing styles. You'll sneak, jump, push, whack, fly, shoot, pilot, and swim your way through the stages - and what pretty locales they are. The effects and graphical power of the Xbox really make the graphical update worth it. It's one of the nicest looking games on the system. But what I enjoyed most of all really are the puzzles. Some of them are quite a challenge. Once solved, they're rewarding. There's something about having it click that gives you a feeling of accomplishment. Funny how perceptions of what a game is like can be so wrong. This time though, I've been pleasantly surprised.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Mario Kart DS

Mario Kart DS
Racing - Nintendo DS
1-8 players w-lan, 1-4 players wifi

I loved the original Super Mario Kart. It was simple, and it was fun. I didn't really get a chance to play MK64, MKDD or MK Advance, but from what I've heard, MKDS is a return to its roots. From what I can discern, it feels very much like the SMK that I've played, only with new additions.

As a racing game, it's still pretty solid. There are tons of karts to choose from. Each of the characters have their own attributes. Some have faster acceleration, others higher top speed, others are bulkier ie. harder to knock off the road, etc. Not only are there different characters, but each of them has a choice of two vehicles with slightly different charateristics for even more variety. It's all about the choices and Mario Kart DS has it in spades. This is reflected even in the tracks. There are a whopping 24 tracks here. 12 of them are "retro courses" that contain popular tracks spanning the entire series. The other 12 are new. It's a nice blend of old and new, so it's very accessable to old-timers and new-comers alike.

What makes Mario Kart unique is the ability to pick up items for use in the race. Some items give you a boost to help you make up lost ground. Others are purely offensive, where you can launch either forwards or backwards at unsuspecting opponents. Three new items make their appearance in MKDS - a squid will squirt black ink on all opponents ahead of you in the race. Their screens will be partially covered with the ink, so their vision is obscured. That's where the second screen comes in handy. It acts as a map of the course and it's detailed enough so that you could actually navigate your racer fairly easily by just looking at the map screen. Another new item is Bullet Bill. You transform into a bullet for about 5 seconds, and head toward the lead at rocket speed, knocking down any racers in your path. It's pretty destructive, but if the #1 person is pretty far ahead they'll still maintain their lead. Finally, there is a bomb you can toss that causes a small explosion. Anyone within that area will be knocked out for a couple of seconds.

Although most of the game sounds like familiar territory, there have been some tweaks for higher level play. First of all is the draft. When you tailgate an opponent, blue streaks form around your kart like a wind tunnel. If you maintain it for about 5 seconds, there will be a blue glow all around your kart that grants you an instant boost of acceleration. This keeps the game competitive, especially since tailgating could conversely result in a banana peel thrown your way. Also, like the original, there is a hop you can perform by pressing R. However if you hold R in conjunction with a direction, you'll start to drift. Drifting allows you to take corners without a loss of speed. This technique is a must to navigate corners sharply and quickly. And if you drift, rocking from one direction to another, your tires will start burning. Letting go of R will grant you a miniturbo for a temporary burst of speed. These additions reward technique and precision.

One of the main selling points is the multiplayer. You can play up to 8 players using one cart, if other DS owners are in the immediate vicinity. You can race or play battle mode with this method. Even more ambitious than just wireless LAN, Nintendo pushed to have Mario Kart kick off their wifi network. Using your home wireless router, or many wifi access points scattered throughout the world (McDonalds is an official hotspot), you can race against up to 3 others. You can choose to be matched with people in your country, people around the world, people on your friends' list, or even against people with similar win/loss records. The only option with wifi matches is racing the circuit. Battle mode is for 1-player or wireless lan only.

The online component is pretty barebones. You merely choose a category of people you wish to play with and Nintendo will randomly match you with them. In the games I've played, I have not experienced any lag at all. It's pretty amazing at how smooth everything runs. But if you're looking for other online features like communication, you'll be extremely disappointed. There is no dialog between the parties. You only get to be matched, view the opponent's win/loss record, and then race. Nothing else is allowed. Despite the lack of communication, for pure racing competition, MKDS is great. The neat thing is that every participant can choose their courses to drive on. It's a majority-rules system. If there is a tie (most of the time, there is a 4-way tie since everyone chooses a different one), the game selects one at random. So Nintendo has the essentials down. Hopefully as their wifi network expands, we'll see a lot more user-friendly services on their games.

Any way you look at it, Mario Kart DS is a fine game. As a single player experience, it's packed with different modes including 3 difficulties for the normal races, time challenge, and a new mission mode that contains various objectives. There's a lot to do and plenty of things to unlock. The addition of drifting and drafting techniques give the player even more incentive to master them for better times through the courses. Multiplayer and online wifi gaming is really just bonus and ensures that you'll have real people to play against to test your mettle. So if it's racing you're after - with a twist, Mario Kart DS is hard to beat. It delivers the goods.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Halo 2

Halo 2
First Person Shooter - Xbox
1-2 players campaign / 1-4 players deathmatch

As the sequel to one of the most beloved recent franchises, Halo 2 has a lot to live up to. Even though Halo 2 follows most of the conventions of the first game, Halo 2 carves up its own game. Unfortunately, I just don't care for what it has become.

Let's get the good out of the way. Supposedly Halo 2 is awesome on XBox Live. I don't have a subscription so I never tried it out. But from what I hear, Bungie concentrated on making it a blast to play online against other people. The interface, maps, balance patches, etc are all geared toward an awesome competitive experience.

But for all the work they put into the multiplayer, I'm a campaign player. And I just didn't enjoy the experience. Most people bash on Halo 2's ending, but that's a non-issue for me. In fact, I thought the ending was one of the highlights of the game. Not that it was great. It just wasn't that bad.

Halo 2 feels like a totally different game than its predecessor. It's faster paced and more action-focused. I'm sure some people would appreciate the change, but I personally played Halo for its emphasis on strategy and resourcefulness. Halo 2 is more of a blast-a-thon in that the situations are more wild. You have to run around like mad shooting enemies left and right. In Halo, many times you would want to be more discreet and sneak behind enemies to whack them on the back of the head. Halo 2 isn't any more difficult because of the action emphasis. It's just different.

Nevertheless, Halo 2 does have some cool aspects. Vehicles play a bigger role here than in Halo. There are more types of vehicles that you can ride, and you find yourself having many more vehicle-vs-vehicle battles here, distinguishing it from other FPS. Halo 2 also has a lot more weapons to play with, although a lot of them are unnecessary.

The big thing Bungie was plugging for Halo 2 is the ability to double-wield, and I have mixed feelings about it. Basically for the smaller weapon types, you are allowed to hold two guns simultaneously. They don't have to be the same weapon, so you can mix and match at will. And with each gun mapped to the L and R triggers, you have perfect control over them. The nice thing is that dual-wield has a cost. With two guns, you give up the ability to perform melee attacks and the ability to throw grenades. So there will be times in the game where you'll dual-wield, drop a weapon, toss a grenade, pick up another weapon, and starting firing out of both guns again. Nevertheless for all the trouble, it mostly feels gimmicky and propagates the action-oriented experience of Halo 2.

There are other changes to the game that I don't like. The guns have been rebalanced - but not always for the best. Now rocket launchers can shoot homing missiles against vehicles. In Halo, there was a certain sense of satisfaction that I got when I perfectly aimed and timed a rocket to blow up a tank. In Halo 2, you just home in on an enemy and press the trigger for effortless killing. It just makes the game less challenging. Halo 2 also gives up what I was most impressed with in Halo - the scope of the environments. Whereas Halo had these expansive immersive worlds to explore, Halo 2 is very confined. Sure, Halo level design had its issues, but Halo 2 is completely uninteresting.

I admit that I am sorta biased because I played Halo on Normal and Legendary and had a blast. Halo 2 I've only played through on Normal, and didn't find it challenging at all. I'm sure if I turned up the difficulty level, it may force me to be more strategic. But even after finishing Halo on Normal, I knew I wanted to play it on Legendary. The fact that I don't want to play Halo 2 again speaks volumes about the changes implemented in the game. Bungie pointed the series in a direction I don't enjoy. I'm skeptical, but I hope Halo 3 makes Halo proud.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Advance Guardian Heroes

Advance Guardian Heroes
Action - GBA
Battery Backup - 1 slot
2 players

I did not like Guardian Heroes on the Saturn. There I said it. It's nothing more than slapping a beat 'em up together with RPG leveling aspects and street fighter moves. There is no cohesion to the design, and although there's some neat things about it (multibranching paths/stories, crazy sprite fest) you could have just button mashed your way through and it wouldn't have made a difference. But this isn't Guardian Heroes.

And that's a relief.

Advance Guardian Heroes is in many ways a sequel to GH. The storyline continues, albeit at a future timepoint. But other than the mythos, AGH plays quite differently from its older brother.

It's still a frantic beat 'em up with juggling tendencies. But Treasure does something different here and adds a new mechanic - the counter system. The counter system works similar to the parry system of Street Fighter III. You need to time the counter so that it executes right when you are to get hit. If you mistime it, you're generally wide open to get hit. But it's in the details that Treasure distinguishes itself.

Whenever you attempt a counter, your magic bar goes down. So you have a limited amount whether successful or unsuccessful. If you counter a melee attack, the enemy is stunned for a couple seconds so you can unleash a combo. If you counter a projectile, the projectile is reflected back toward its original owner.

This one addition is a rebirth for this stale genre. Now instead of mash mash mash, there are many times where you have to coordinate with countering attacks going around you making it far more thoughtful and engaging. Not only is the counter system an addition, but the entire game is built around it. Bosses will have minions that shoot projectiles at you while you are trying to take him down. And some parts of the game you can only get through with counters. In some ways, it feels very much like parts of Sin & Punishment, except in that game you are shooting at enemies and whacking projectiles back at others with your sword.

AGH is very much like Guardian Heroes in a lot of aspects. You still got the juggle fest going on, the crazy spells, an arsenal of moves to choose from (although, all the Street Fighter moves are gone), and it remains a celebration of sprites. They did away with the 3-plane system, but now give you free Y-axis movement like other beat'em ups. Plus you can still level up at the end of each stage. The multi-branching is gone, however it's not really missed. I much prefer the carefully designed stages of AGH to the random sloppiness of GH.

The dueling is still here too! There are 2-4p battles (only 2 human though) and it's just as crazy as the Saturn version, except throw in counters and it's a whole new game.

There are tons of extras in the game, where you can unlock a slew of characters to play in single player and battle mode. There's multiple difficulty levels that in typical Treasure fashion, mixes up the enemies you fight rather than just increasing damage. Super hard is ridiculously hard, for all you enthusiasts. And finally, there's a time-attack mode that opens up where you take 50 enemies and compete for fastest ranking.

Advance Guardian Heroes is a total-package game. I've been lacking in Treasure love lately, but AGH shows me that they are back to their innovative selves. The English localization is pretty poor - awkward grammar abounds. But since it plays well, who cares? Seriously, this is one of the best games of "this generation". Every GBA owner should have this in their library.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Trace Memory

Trace Memory
Adventure - Nintendo DS
Battery Backup - 2 slots
1 player

Ever since I saw a trailer of Another Code ~ Futatsu no Kioku, I knew I had to get this game. The atmosphere and art seemed captivating right from the trailer. And now it's come to our shores as Trace Memory!

If you've read any reviews regarding this game, there's one consistent comment being made - It's short. Yep. The game will probably take around 5 hours. But that's not a huge deal to me. It comes with the genre. I can't think of many straight-up adventure games that are longer than that anyway.

With that out of the way... Trace Memory's story begins with Ashley Mizuki Robbins heading toward Blood Edward Island to meet her father. Thing is, she thought he had been long dead. Ashley realized that most of her life has been a lie. Why is her father alive? Why did he wait over ten years to contact her? Is her mom alive as well? On top of her confusion, she's been having recurring nightmares of the past. Is there a connection?

The point of the game is to unravel all these mysteries. Trace Memory is a traditional adventure game in that you do nothing but do fetch quests and solve puzzles. As long as you don't have any illusions that it's greater than that, then read on.

The dual screen is put to good use with the top screen typically signifying Ashley's view and the bottom screen is a top-down navigation screen. As you walk around, Ashley's perspective changes to help you figure out what you can examine. It's mostly a point and click adventure in that regard.

But Trace Memory could use some work in the puzzles. There's just not nearly enough. Most of the ones that are present, are easy to solve. There were a few that stumped me. I confess: I had to look up Gamefaqs on a couple of occasions. When I looked them up, I realized that those puzzles were pretty clever - maybe too clever. The cryptic nature of the clues can be a challenge or just plain frustrating. Still, I wish there were more puzzles in the game because it would have made the game a bit more interesting. Too much of Trace Memory is spent on examining surroundings.

Some minor quibbles I have about the game: When I first saw the trailer, I thought the game would be dark in tone. But as you play, it's really light-hearted in nature. For instance, the music is very poppy and doesn't shut up. Even though you're walking through dark corridors with spooky atmosphere around you, you hear this happy bgm playing through the speaker and it kills the mood. It could have been more eerie and immersive if they used BGM more sparingly. I also didn't appreciate that you aren't able to skip text. Granted, this is a text-driven game. But when you're stuck and you examine an item (or accidentally click it) for the umpteenth time, there should be a way to bypass the description or fast-forward it.

As with many other adventure games, there really isn't much incentive to play again when you're done. There is a starred save for subsequent playthroughs. But the differences are so minor that they're not even worth mentioning.

Overall, the Trace Memory was as expected. It wasn't phenomenal. Neither was it garbage. Compared with other $30 games out there, it's hard to recommend a purchase. But if you're ever aching for an adventure game with some pretty neat visuals, it's definitely worth a rental.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Daigassou Band Brothers

Daigassou Band Brothers
Rhythm - Nintendo DS
Battery Backup - 1 slot
1-8 players

Imagine a rhythm game where you get to choose which instrument you want to play. It'd be like how in Japan, they link up a Keyboardmania, Drummania, and Guitar Freaks together so people can synch up for a song. Only a lot more instruments, but also less interactivity since there's no special controllers on the DS. That gives you a picture of what Daigassou is like.

This is a game where rhythm and button presses are stripped down to their bare minimum. There's no fancy visuals... no visuals at all in fact, aside from the notes you're supposed to press. But what lies in its simplicity is what makes it so great. Gameplay is center stage, even if it is a bit generic - 4 D-pad directions, ABXY + LR for a total of 10 different buttons.

On beginner mode, there's really a total of 2 buttons. As long as you touch any direction on the D-pad, that's fine. As long as you hit any of the ABXY buttons, you're fine. As you get into Amateur level, you have access to all ten buttons. There are also times where you'll need to touch the touchpad in rhythm, as that will play a string of notes for you. After that, when you get into Pro, you have to play those note strings manually. You'll also have to hold the L & R shoulders in combination with the other 8 button presses for additional octaves and adding sharps! So quickly you can already see how difficulty can be pumped up as you advance.

The game is set up so that on single player, you can play all the songs right from the beginning, and any instrument. All songs are rated on their difficulty level (Beginner, Amateur, Pro) as well as a difficulty rating between 1-5 stars. Different instruments will have different difficulties.

As you familiarize yourself with the songs, you can then go into Recording mode. That's basically how the game progresses. You'll have to play 3 songs in a row and achieve a certain score, and then the game "levels up". That is to say, when you go back to the songs, you'll notice that certain instruments in certain songs will have increased their difficulty rating. So if you complete the recording the first time around, you will see that the difficulty ratings change. For example, if "Seasons" was full of Beginner level songs, you'll see maybe 1 or 2 of those instruments change to "Amateur level 1" after you complete the recording.

So as you continue to successfully complete the recordings, the game gets progressively harder and harder. It took me quite a bit of practice and luck to finish the game on Pro. The accuracy and speed required to pull off fast notes, some requiring holding L, some requiring holding R... some requiring holding both - is pretty frantic. I'm actually quite shocked that Nintendo put out a difficult game. But the difficulty is quite welcome. If the DS were more ergonomical, I could see myself playing this game several hours a day. Unfortunately, the bulky and boxy design of the DS actually hurts my hand for games like this. Nevertheless, the songs are fun and they're challenging. There is also a near sudden-death difficulty after you finish the game on Pro...

Other features include multiplayer where up to 8 people can take different instruments to play an entire song. I got a chance to play wireless with a couple of friends and it's a blast. There's also an Edit mode where you can compose songs by singing into the DS microphone. It tries to transpose the notes and rhythm for you, but it's not 100% accurate.. There is also a normal composition mode where you can lay out the notes with button presses. And finally, you can trade composed songs with others.

Awesome game. I can't wait to try the expansion.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Megaman Battle Network

Megaman Battle Network
Battery Backup - 1 slot
1 player

Megaman has been in a lot of different games over the years. Of course, he's most recognizable in the action-platform series that spanned most consoles since the late 80s. But he's also been in fighting games, an adventure game, a driving game, and here comes another: role playing. RPGs have been predominantly stale and I was worried that this game would take the same route. But despite retaining some of the usual problems of jRPGs, Megaman Battle Network is a bold move to push RPGs in the right direction.

The story revolves around a boy, Lan, and his portable exploration device (PET) Megaman. While most of the world looks like your everyday settings, once you "jack in" to the network, you're transported to a cyberrealm of internet viruses, hacking programs and net addresses. And it works quite well. The game is full of net jargon and in-jokes. While the actual plot won't win any awards, the environments are fascinating enough to keep you playing. Some of the areas are pretty gimmicky with invisible paths, slippery icy roads, and doors that open up only if you meet certain criteria. It's actually refreshing, because it's something that's more akin to adventure games than RPGs.

The core of the game however, is the battles. They are a flash of Capcom brilliance. I don't know if any written description can do it justice. It's a mix of Megaman, fighting game, and Magic the Gathering, if that makes any sense. The battles occur in real-time on grids. On one side is a 3x3 grid where Megaman can roam. The other side is a 3x3 grid where the enemy can move. It's an all-out action game with limited movement. You can move anywhere within your bounds, all the while firing at the enemy at will. You'll even gain the ability to charge up your shots to do more damage. It's somewhat similar to traditional Megaman games because you still have to learn enemy patterns, and with multiple enemies on screen, it gets pretty intense to dodge all their attacks.

But as adequate as the battles are in its real-time action, Capcom added an additional layer of strategy to it which turns it into something phenomenal. There is a meter that runs in real-time at the top, and when it's filled up, you have the option of pulling up a menu to equip chips. These chips give you special kinds of attacks. Some are good for doing damage to an entire row of enemies. Others are healing items that will boost up your HP in the midst of a fierce battle. And others will affect the board, such as stealing a column from an enemy. It essentially increases your grid to 4x3, and decreases theirs to 2x3. Once you have a chip, you can choose to activate it at any time during the battle so you have to time it for when it'll be beneficial for you. These chips come up 5 at a time and are randomized out of a "deck" you put together. Think of it like a 5 card hand. You can generally only choose one chip per round.

The awesome thing is you can choose to "pass", and when the meter fills up again, you get the original 5 chips and another set of 5. You can do this one more time for a total of a 15-chip hand. This not only increases the opportunity of getting a chip you want, but allows for combos. Most of the time you can only choose one chip per round, but if you have multiple copies of a chip, you can select as many of them as you want. So if you have two cannons that do 120 damage each, you can select both of them and you'll have 2 cannon bursts to be used whenever you feel like unleashing them. But more than that, each chip has a letter. So you can also equip chips that have the same letter. So it doesn't necessarily have to be the same type of chip. One common combo is that the steal chip and the sword chip generally have the same letter. So you'll steal a column from the enemy to increase the area you can move. That brings you closer to the enemy, so you can more easily slice them with a sword. Finally, there's a third dimension with the chips in the form of secret combos. If you get a certain combination of chips, then your secondary weapon may change into something special. The easiest one is probably getting the same chip with letters in succession. If you equip a 120 damage cannon A, a 120 cannon B, and 120 cannon C, then it changes into a special type of 120 cannon. Instead of having 3 maximum bursts of 120 damage, when you activate it, you get 10 seconds to shoot your secondary weapon. Within that 10 seconds, you have the ability to do unlimited bursts of 120 damage. So this chip aspect adds a whole new dimension of discovery and strategy. You can also customize your "deck" to your liking. You don't have to use these chips at all, but it certainly helps make battles more varied and more fun.

As it is a Japanese RPG, it generally sticks to the tried and true formula. There's still random battles... too frequent for my own taste. That's really my one knock against it. The system is fun, but you get dragged into too many of them. Admittedly, it was plentiful enough to make me lose interest in the game. I had to put it down for months, because the frequency really was that irritating. But there's also ways that it breaks free from convention. I really like how leveling up is done through purchases. When you defeat enemies, depending on how well you fought and an element of randomness, you either get chips or money. You don't gain experience points. This keeps the game balanced, and you're never too overpowered for any area. Instead, you can find and/or buy items that will allow you to boost your stats. So it's a welcome change, and a way around the power-leveling that you normally see.

Overall, Megaman Battle Network is a fresh take on the formulamatic jRPG genre. The fantastic battle system shows that an RPG can be fun if gameplay is emphasized. It's really one of the best implemented systems in all of RPGing. It's frantic. It's strategic. It's both! And at 20 hours of gametime, it's at just about the right length too. Unfortunately, it doesn't completely break away from old RPG conventions. The frequent random battles get old fast, and ultimately keep the game from reaching its full potential. But it's not enough to squash out the ingenuity of the battle engine. Congrats, Capcom. You've surprised us all.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Halo Combat Evolved

Halo Combat Evolved
First Person Shooter - Xbox
1-2 players campaign / 1-4 players deathmatch

Yup, I'm quite a few years too late, but that's ok. Bungie's Halo series is well known, and probably THE reason that most people bought an XBox. It's a celebration for console owners, because there's been a great gap since the phenomenal Golden Eye 007 for a quality FPS. Is Halo all it's cracked up to be? Well, yes and no.

Let's get this straight. Halo is pretty darn good. Multiplayer is what everyone talks about and yes, it's an awesome party game. A variety of locales, weapons, and vehicles make each stage unique. The controls are extremely tight, and I especially love the intuitive dual analog control. Makes sniping people an absolute hoot.

But as nice of a deathmatch game it is, I care more about the campaign. What makes Halo noteworthy is the 2p co-op. Yup, 2 players can have at it taking down Covenant scum, and certainly adds a new dimension to the game. But a partner isn't needed. At its heart, it's a fulfilling 1 or 2 player experience. It plays out like modern FPS where there are story cutscenes, but also in-game dialog between your character and NPCs/AI-controlled allies. Sometimes the action going on will impair hearing of this dialog, but perhaps that makes it more realistic.

Where it shines is the environments. The scope is unmatched of any FPS I've played thus far. The outside scenery is absolutely huge, spanning a lot of ground and height. Many of these stages give you ground and air vehicles in order to traverse them quickly. This gives the game a very epic and expansive feel that most other FPSs lack. There is a lot of wide open space for varying tactics. Where it falters though, is the interior environments. Level design for indoors is extremely repetitive and lacks personality. It comes off as a big disappointment because its contrasted by the amazing outside environments. One stage for example has the same floor layout for each of its 10+ rooms, and it made you wonder if you were really getting anywhere. Also it made me wonder if Bungie could be any lazier.

But getting past that one flaw, you'll see why Halo is so highly regarded. It's an excellent multiplayer game, whether campaign or deathmatch. And the amount of effort put into making this a living breathing world is incredible. While the game has lofty goals, the fact that it misses the target on the interior levels drags the game down a bit. Still, it's one of the finer examples of the genre on any game system.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Fatal Frame

Fatal Frame
Survival Horror - Xbox
Backup memory - 8 save slots
1 player

If you told me 5 years ago that a video game could scare the pants off of me, I wouldn't have believed you. Fatal Frame, or Zero, as it's known in Japan, is Tecmo's entry into the crowded Survival Horror genre. And boy does it do its job.

The moment you step into the game world, you live it. The lighting (or lack thereof), silence, camera usage and sparse use of ominous music all make for a perfectly crafted Japanese horror experience. You don't just buy into the world, you feel it. It also helps that the vibration effects in the controller helps to maximize that. It's everything I like about Japanese horror films - suspense, disturbing imagery that lingers in your mind, mysterious vibe, and that unsettling feeling - only extended for many hours. This is a game where you may have to turn the game off for the night. It truly is that creepy. The only sour point is that the English dubbing kinda hinders the serious feel, as there are definitely badly acted parts. I saw the Japanese version, and it's far more convincing. The dubbing is the only minus I can give to the game.

What's incredible is that it's not only the use of artistic direction that makes Fatal Frame scary, but the game mechanics support it too. Normally you walk about in third person, similar to Resident Evil or Silent Hill. It has normal controls meaning that up means walking up, down means walking down, etc, which I'm sure haters of the RE "tank-controls" will be happy about. However, the only weapon in the game is a camera, and when you want to use it, it puts the game in first person. The first person view enhances the claustrophobic feeling because it's not always easy to see where the ghosts are. It totally puts you into the shoes of the main character. The only quirkiness is that in third person, left analog controls movement of your character. But in first person, left analog is for controlling the camera and right analog controls movement of your character. It's a little disorienting at first to have that reversed, but you quickly get used to it.

It's a clever combat system though. It's like a slower-paced FPS, with an emphasis on timing and precision. See, while you can take pictures in rapid succession, you do the most damage when your camera is charged up. Charging requires that you point the lens directly at the ghost. So the longer you wait before you shoot, the more powerful it is. But the longer you wait, the more chance the ghost has to attack you and dish out a lot of damage. On top of that, the more accurate the photo of the ghost, and the closer the ghost is to you, the more points you get to upgrade your camera. So there is this system of maximum risk = maximum reward. It is by far the most sophisticated game system of all the survival horror games.

All of this is contained in nice package. Yes, it does come with more than one ending, an additional difficulty level, a score-based battle mode, and its fair share of unlockables. But at its roots, it's an engaging adventure game where you unravel the plot by searching for clues and solving puzzles. The fact that Tecmo coupled it with a frightening atmosphere and made a genuinely good game out of it puts this at the very top of my list. Definitely one of the greatest games to come out in this generation.