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.