Friday, November 17, 2006

Anubis Zone of the Enders Special Edition

Anubis Zone of Enders Special Edition
Action - PS2
Memory Card - 5 save slots
1-2 player

I've never played the first ZOE. But maybe that's a good thing, because no one really talked about it aside from the MGS2 demo bundled with it. That all changed with ZOE2. I'm not sure what Kojima changed in the sequel, but people began to take notice. I had the chance to finally play through Anubis ZOE Special Edition. Anubis ZOE is the Japanese name of the title (US: ZOE the 2nd Runner), and the Special Edition refers to the bonus content, extra difficulty levels, extra missions, versus mode, etc that was added to the budget rerelease. This is one cool game! But being a cool game and being a good game are totally different things.

Anubis has some of the slickest visuals I've seen in a game. The CG mecha cut scenes are action-packed and meticulously directed. The actual game visuals are no less impressive, with explosions, laser showers and enemies surrounding you. The craziest weapon in the game forms in real-time around your mecha as you charge it for 20 or so seconds. Everything oozes style.

The actual game ain't too shabby either. It's advertised as high speed mecha action, and that's exactly what it is. You have full freedom to fly in any direction - left analog to position, R2 to dash/fly, and ascend/descend buttons. The controls are fluid and very intuitive. There is a lock-on cursor that directs your attacks to specific enemies, so that your camera is directed toward where the enemies are. This is extremely helpful because fast moving enemies will fly all over the place and you need to be able to locate them quickly if you're taking them down. You're also able to grab objects in the environment - sometimes even enemies - and use them as shields or weapons! It's all very cool. Boss battles play out in clever fashion. Most of them require deciphering patterns and figuring out weaknesses. This is just the way I love my boss fights.

With all these things going for it, what went wrong?

It all comes down to the core of the gameplay. It really isn't particularly interesting. Maybe it's because I haven't played too many 3D action games, but I can't help comparing ZOE2 to Ninja Gaiden Black. I get a similar vibe from both of them. Problem is, ZOE2 is vastly inferior. The action in Anubis is limited mostly to a single attack button. There is a sub-weapon button too, but those aren't usually used in conjunction with your main attack. For ranged combat, your choices are a homing laser or a energy shot. For melee combat, you have a sword that's good for a combo consisting of button mashing the attack button 4x. The gameplay is too simple for its own good. In fact, there's not a whole lot to do in the game aside from button-mash the attack & dash buttons all the way through.

Some other irritations come with the camera. Because of the lock-on system, your camera is always centered on an enemy. It's helpful when you're actively unleashing an offensive attack to kill an enemy. But there were instances where I wished to have my free camera back so I could avoid flying into traps. There are some parts of game where you could get killed by the environment. But if your camera is locked in on an enemy, you're not able to fly correctly. That is, your controller motions only navigate your mech with respect to your enemy. Not with respect to your physical coordinates, so while taking down an enemy, you could end up being crushed by enclosing walls and not see it coming. Another annoyance is when you first start playing the game, there are cut scenes every 10 seconds. I like cut scenes and all but come on! Let me play the game! These little issues aren't game-breakers. Just annoyances.

Still, Anubis Zone of Enders is a well-executed game overall. My main concern is the gameplay isn't all that great. With the lack of depth in the action, there isn't much to do but push the same two buttons over and over again. The bosses are definitely the highlight of the game. I thoroughly enjoyed those battles, and am curious to see how things change on higher difficulties. But even fun boss fights and nice visuals can't save Anubis from being a (well-executed) mediocre experience.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Zero Shisei no Koe/Fatal Frame 3

Zero: Shisei no Koe
Survival Horror - PS2
Memory Card - 5 save slots
1 player

Here comes the finale to Tecmo's Zero/Fatal Frame series. As a finale, Shisei no Koe brings together both story & gameplay elements from the first two games, while trying to maintain its own identity. To that end, the 3rd entry pulls it off pretty well. But it's in this new identity that the game completely trips over itself.

Rei is the new protagonist for this outing. The story begins with an auto accident that leaves Rei alive, but her fiance, Yuu, dead. As she tries to return to a life of normalcy, on one photographer assignment she sees Yuu and takes a picture. Sure enough, when the photo is developed, he is in it. What's going on here? And why does she find herself in a freaky mansion when she sleeps? Soon her assistant, Miku (heroine of the first game) begins to dream of the same world. When Kei, a friend of Yuu and coincidentally a relative of the twins in the second game, gets involved, then he's dragged into it too. As you can already see, everything seems a little too far-fetched and contrived.

The overall game structure is quite different from the first two games. Since the manor takes place in dreams, you have to sleep in order to visit the nightmare realm. Each day, you'll be in Rei's apartment triggering events so that it'll become evening. Occasionally some of the dream oddities will seep into reality, so even her apartment is not necessarily a safe haven. Sleeping enters you into the dream world, and usually at the start of a new chapter. Finish its objectives, and you'll wake up in reality the next day - sometimes very abruptly. It's very cyclical.

It's the cyclical nature that makes Zero 3 feel like a chore. Whenever you're in Rei's apartment, you make the exact same paths to every location to make sure you haven't missed a new item that has sprung up or a trigger point. It's completely repetitive, and you have to do it every day and night. The feeling isn't much different even when you're in the dream manor. You'll come to see that little thought was given to item locations because 95% of the items are in the same location every night. The game becomes too predictable for its own good.

Related to the respawning items is Shisei no Koe's general lack of difficulty. I've found most of the enemies to be easier than ghosts in the previous two games. But what makes it worse is that you start each dream with 3 medicine bottles, with chance of collecting 7 more each night. So there's no penalty for using medicines since you always get them. If you should happen to run out, you could even leave the dream and come back to have it reset to 3 without having to redo all the events over again. This is the finale! Why are they suddenly being so lenient? There are a couple of ghosts that will give you trouble, but they are almost too hard (cheap?) for their own good.

Then the latter quarter of the game, they have this stupid gimmick where you have to collect these "Purifying Light" candles to keep the main ghost away. The designers probably thought it would create tension, but in a game like this where you may have to figure out your next destination, it creates irritation instead. Why should I be penalized for exploring the mansion the game gives me? Luckily there are enough purifying light items scattered throughout, that you probably won't ever be stuck without it for too long. But if they're readily available, then why have it as a system in the first place? The whole thing just reeks of a last-minute addition.

Despite my barrage of criticism, it's a Zero game so it's still doing something right. The scares are still present, although it's a little less psychological. And the combat is still fun - the best aspects from the previous games made it. I found Crimson Butterfly to be too slow in its battles, so I'm very grateful to see that they made it as fast-paced as the first game, with the technical aspects from the second. You still need to wait for openings, and chain fatal frame opportunities accurately, but without those annoying 5 second reload times. The powerful film is much more sparse this time, so that improvement is much needed.

I found myself liking Zero Shisei no Koe less because it's a good game, and more because it's a Zero game. Throughout the entire time, I did not feel all that connected to it. The combination of lazy repetitive design & jarring transitions from dream world to real world kept me from being immersed in the dream manor. The story did not tie up some of the bigger questions (although, I do know there is an alternate ending at higher difficulty). The framerate stuttered so badly at times, that the action slowed to a crawl. It also lacked variety in enemies. Get 70% through, and you've seen all the ghosts you're going to fight. It just seemed like the game was poorly planned and rushed to market without a clear focus. It's also unfortunate that it wasn't ported to the XBox, because 5.1 audio makes a game like this so much more atmospheric. But if it's of any consolation, they packed a lot of extras (costumes, photo & video galleries, mission mode, etc) into this one.

There was just nothing special about Zero 3 - the first two games one-upped it on pretty much everything. The only exception would be the last boss. Now that was an intense challenge! It's just a shame that the rest of the game couldn't match up.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Rhythm Tengoku

Rhythm Tengoku
Rhythm - Gameboy Advance
Battery Backup - 1 save
1 player

From the makers of Wario Ware, Inc. comes another quirky compilation. This time it's a collection of rhythm games. Perhaps due to the success of the Brain Training games, Rhythm Tengoku emulates that kind of structure. The game starts out with a preliminary assessment of your rhythm ability. From there, you'll be playing a variety of rhythm minigames. Depending on how well you do, your rhythm ability rating will go up or down.

The minigames themselves are all totally random and quite ... unorthodox. One minigame has these two characters bouncing on a trampoline. Press the buttons according to the rhythm and the trampoliners will turn into foxes. Then back into humans. Then foxes. Yeah. I don't get it either. My favorite minigame is a set of four girls dancing to Ondo music. As the singer sings the lyrics, you just have to clap whenever the word "Pan" is sung. It's very cute and can be quite funny too. Whenever you mess up, the other girls glare at you. Some of the cooler stages are what's called "Remix" stages. Remix stages basically take the last 6 stages and "remix" them into a single minigame. It's pretty awesome in tying all the stages together to test what you've learned.

The way the overall game works is that you play a minigame. If you fail, then you can't move on. Once you pass it, you'll unlock the next minigame. If you do especially well, you'll be awarded a medal for that minigame. Medals help unlock extras in the game, such as bonus stages or options. And finally, as you progress, sometimes a previous minigame will be highlighted with a Perfect Challenge. If you then pass that minigame without any mistakes, you'll earn a Perfect rating on it. One neat extra is the chance to jam with a band as a drum player. You're not graded on your performance, so there's no challenge in it. But it's just a free-form session of just being able to mess around and create your own beats to the songs. It's a great inclusion just for the ability to let loose and be free.

Rhythm Tengoku isn't particularly lengthy, although it does have a plentiful amount of minigames. But there's a lot of replay value in first passing all the stages, then medaling all the stages, and finally getting a perfect on all the stages. I haven't quite accomplished getting 100% perfect, but I'm working on it. The minigames can be pretty challenging, and the timing is far less forgiving than most rhythm games I've played. But that's also what makes Rhythm Tengoku fun. Practice makes perfect.

The Gameboy Advance is pretty much on its last legs. But with games like Rhythm Tengoku, it's going out with a huge bang. This is definitely a treat for rhythm lovers everywhere.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan

Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan
Rhythm - Nintendo DS
Battery Backup - 1 save
1-2 players

Funny thing. Ouendan may be more well known in the West than it is in Japan. In Japan, sales were absolutely dismal, among the worst selling DS games in its library. Yet, on certain internet English gaming boards, Ouendan has gotten a lot of buzz. Its supporters claim it's the best game on the DS. Apparently the buzz must have been something, because Japanese developer INiS is creating an English version from the ground-up just so that it can come out in the West.

The concept is simple. Use your stylus to touch circles on the screen on-beat, follow the paths of those circles, and make spinning motions as fast as you can as directed. It's very similar to most rhythm games where the key is to follow the beat. A score of 300 is given for exact timing. Being slightly off results in a score of 100. A bigger deviation achieves a score of 50. Anything outside of that is a miss. But Ouendan makes this rhythm game its own by utilizing the DS' features. Not only do you have to be on-beat, but you must tap the exact position of the circles on the touch screen. This adds a dimension of accurate positioning on top of accurate timing. Ouendan also features really nice "choreography" in its positioning of its tap circles. It will feel like you're dancing using the stylus. It's in this connection that makes Ouendan stand out in its genre. There's no other game like it.

Presentation is also top-notch, with a total wacky-jappy feel to it. The whole basis of the game stems from a "cheering squad" of men. Each stage has its own story told manga-style. The story usually presents a difficulty, and then in a cry of desperation, they'll call out for this cheering squad. So your rhythmic and choreographed actions will help the male cheerleaders cheer on the scenario character. Playing two players (requires two carts) gives you the option of cooperative play or competitive. Cooperative play just splits the notes between both users. Either way, you'll get an entirely new set of stories specific to multiplayer. It's a neat bonus. As far as the songs, most are famous jRock songs, but there's a little pop and hip hop thrown in there too. Technically the songs are covers, but they tried to find singers that emulate the original material and it works pretty well.

All of this adds up to a package that is unforgettable and irresistable. With several difficulty options and a rank given to you based on overall score, you'll have a blast playing your way through all the stages again and again for improvement. You're not really give anything extra for it, but the game is so fun that you'll want to replay it anyway. Ouendan isn't my favorite DS game - that title still belongs to Daigassou Band Brothers, but it's a definitely a must-buy. It's one of the few games that could only be done on the DS. It's truly a unique experience.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney

Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney / Gyakuten Saiban Yomigaeru Gyakuten
Adventure - Nintendo DS
Battery Backup - 1 save, 1 quicksave
1 player

Capcom's Gyakuten Saiban is a series that started out on the GBA and has an enormous following. It's an adventure game in lawyer's clothing. Your role is a defense attourney and not only will you be conducting investigations outside of the courtroom, but you'll have to poke holes into witness testimony in the courtroom to win cases. This DS outing is a port of the first game, with the inclusion of a 5th case specific to the DS. A fourth GyakuSai game will be released soon for the DS as well. An interesting thing to note is that the Japanese version of the DS game comes with an English option, so importers actually get both languages.

But is the game any good? I'd say it depends on whether you could enjoy a text adventure game. You can't get around that structure. Sometimes you'll have the option to examine a crime scene using a point and click interface. Sometimes you'll need to figure out what to show people in order to get them to help you. But by and large, you'll be reading tons of text with little interactivity. If you can get past that, Phoenix Wright is quite an interesting game.

What I like most about it is that there's a logical component. In the courtroom, you are presented with testimonies from witnesses and using only what they say, you have to find ways to disprove their version of events. You'll have to know every piece of evidence you have inside-out and point out contradictions. Many are not immediately obvious, but the clues are there. You just have to pay attention to detail. It's in this logical aspect that differentiates Phoenix Wright from other games of the genre.

What's also great about the game is its continuity of story and depth of characterization. There are 5 total cases here and while they could easily be 5 unconnected court cases in the life of an attourney, Phoenix Wright takes great care in its characters. Characters are affected by outcomes of previous court cases. There are consequences to each case that shape who the main characters become. The characters are not simply static roles, but rather people with their own motivations, their own goals, their own beliefs, and all of these things change as time progresses. Care was also taken in its English translation, which is much appreciated. It's obvious from the references that they did not literally translate the dialog from the Japanese version. All of the important bits, yes, but all the names are changed, and many of the jokes were also changed to read more fluidly. The dialog made me laugh on many an occasion.

The entire time I was playing it, I couldn't put the game down. It's not perfect - the second case was kinda hokey, the game structure is really strict as to when you present evidence to advance the story, there are typos and spelling errors throughout the fifth case, etc - but Phoenix Wright stands out for its use of logic, its great translation, and its realistic portrayal of characters. At about 35 hrs length, it's pretty meaty for an adventure game. I can't wait to see what's next. With that, I couldn't be happier that a port of GyakuSai 2 was recently announced for the English DS audience.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Riviera ~ The Promised Land

Riviera ~ The Promised Land
RPG - Gameboy Advance
Battery Backup - 3 saves, 1 quicksave
1 player

While developer Sting has experience with RPG-like games, they have never made a traditional jRPG - until Riviera. But for a jRPG, Riviera is as non-traditional as they come. Whether that's a good or bad thing is up for debate. Opinions for Riviera span the spectrum. Some find it incredibly dull and limiting. Others enjoy the streamlined structure and the strategic battles. They will all agree on one thing though. The game is slow. I found it to be all of those things. A mish-mash of different ideas, Riviera tries but succeeds in part.

Let's talk streamlining. Riviera feels almost SRPG-like in structure because of the lack of free movement. In both towns and dungeons, you move one room at a time. In each "room", you can look at the surroundings, interact with objects, talk to people or move to the next room via menus or controller inputs. You do not physically move your character around with the D-pad like other traditional jRPGs. It's more comparable to old games like Deja Vu/Uninvited/Shadowgate. But unlike those games, whenever you investigate objects, it will cost you Trigger Points (TP). If you don't have any TP, you can't open the treasure chests you find or discover any special items. TP is acquired through high scoring battles or clearing a previous chapter with a high score. This adds a cap to what you're able to investigate so you have to weigh your options. But, if you do well in your fights, you'll never really be short of TP. You'll also encounter various QTEs. Chests will have traps on them or you'll need to jump over large gaps or whatever the situation, so you'll be challenged to enter button combinations in a short time interval or to time button-presses to navigate these parts. This just adds some variety to these segments.

The battles also keep with the theme of choosing wisely. Every weapon has a limited number of uses, and you can only carry 15 different items at any given time. This makes those treasure chests you find all the more valuable. But it's not as bad as it sounds. Chests are pretty frequent and enemies will also drop weapons. It's just that the 15-item carrying capacity forces you to balance out your arsenal. What's neat is that although every character can pretty much use every weapon/item, the actual attacks and effects are character-specific. Weapon attacks can be multi-hit, can have elemental properties, can target specific enemies, or can allow you to do an OverDrive attack. Overdrive attacks function much like the special attack meter in Street Fighter. Whenever you hit an enemy, or they hit you, your overdrive meter rises from level 0-3. Overdrive attacks generally dish out more damage and can be fight-winners. They can also vary on how much of the Overdrive meter is required for usage. Since only 3 party members and 4 weapons/items can be selected per battle, this causes you to weigh out what you think is needed for each fight. Luckily, it's not a blind guess because you are given information on the strengths/weaknesses of each enemy during party and item selection. So there's a bit of pre-battle strategy to consider. But it doesn't stop there.

The actual battles themselves are also very strategic. While you're monitoring your own OverDrive bar, your opponent has a Rage bar. It functions very similarly to yours, but there are some differences. The Rage bar is raised whenever you hit the enemy. But the Rage bar drops between turns. Whenever the rage bar is below the Rage level, your opponents will do normal attacks. When it is above the Rage level, they will do special attacks. And if it hits the Max level, they will do their ultimate attacks. A Max attack will drain the Rage bar back to its lowest point. Killing an enemy will raise the rage bar's lowest point, so it may not be possible to drop the Rage bar to zero. In effect, fights become balancing acts where you may opt to heal your fully-healed character in order to waste your turn. Why? Because you want to drop the enemy's Rage bar. Attacking would only piss off the enemies more and bring them closer to unleashing a huge barrage of attacks against you. Or maybe the best strategy would be to attack the enemy with everything you've got and hope they die before they do their Max move. There are many possibilities. It's a unique fighting system, and it's fun too.

Each battle has a place in the story. There are no random battles. I really like that each battle felt like its own challenge, and strayed from the monotony of most RPGs. Leveling up your characters is based on weapon usage. As mentioned earlier, some weapons allow their user to do OverDrive specials. But to obtain these specials in the first place, you must use that weapon with each specific character an X amount of times. When you fulfill that requirement, you not only gain the OverDrive special, but the character also levels up. So using different items is encouraged by this system. To help you with this process, you can enter a Practice battle anytime. The beauty of practice battles is that using weapons/items does not decrease their quantity. So everytime you come across a new weapon or item, you can use practice battles to acquire those OverDrive attacks and level up your characters without fear of wasting resources. It's a neat system, because it protects against level grinding. Your characters can only level up to a specific point determined by the items you collect.

All of this adds up to a very interesting game. You can see that Riviera is based around the concept of limitation. You always make some decisions in the game at the expense of other options. You can't keep all the items you come across. You can't examine every nook and cranny. On the other hand, it does challenge you to make decisions that would benefit your playing style. And in that sense, it works quite well. There is a loss of freedom compared to other games, but the game is built around that. I still would prefer the traditional exploration of jRPGs rather than room-navigation, but it works for what it is. The fights sometimes do get to be cumbersome because of the slow pace, but it's in the strategy that I enjoy Riviera the most. The OverDrive and Rage gauges turn a fairly normal RPG system into an insane see-saw balancing act that you need to make work for you. I haven't even begun to mention the incredible portrait and cutscene art, the interesting puzzles that you actually have to scribble on paper to figure out, the convenience of being able to quicksave even during a battle, or the character-specific endings, but this 20-ish hour adventure has a lot going for it. Riviera probably isn't for everyone, but I cannot wait to see what else Sting has up its sleeve.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Klonoa Empire of Dreams

Klonoa Empire of Dreams
Puzzle Platformer - Gameboy Advance
Battery Backup - 3 saves
1 player

Platform games have been around for a long time. In fact, it might even be said that platformers are the basis of the modern gaming movement. Super Mario Bros. set the world afire and things haven't been the same since. Platform games are thus called for the primary game mechanic of jumping on "platforms". Sometimes they're stationary. Other times, they move. Most of the time, they're not even platforms but simply ground. Regardless, there's an element of position & timing involved in jumping toward the next required "platform". In a world of me toos and property cash-ins, Namco retains the same basic platforming elements, but forges a new path with Klonoa.

Not to be confused with "Door to Phantomile", the first of the Klonoa games, "Empire of Dreams" is an entirely new game for the GBA. While Door to Phantomile was probably more of a traditional platformer, Empire has a larger emphasis on puzzles. The stages are designed so that more often than not, logic is required to complete. Sure there's the usual elements of enemies and much jumping. But it doesn't end there. You will have to use all the elements around you to reach items, unlock doors, and open passages. There are box puzzles, wind tunnels, enemies that detonate, and switches to utilize. Some of the puzzles are pretty straight forward. Others require taking a step back to analyze what you're given, looking at what you need to accomplish, and then planning your solution accordingly. It's all very clever design and gets progressively more complex as the game goes on.

But that's not to say that the rest of the game is a cakewalk. In fact, there are some sections of the game that require a lot of skill and reflexes to navigate through. For instance, each world has forced scrolling stages mixed in with the stages that are more puzzle-oriented. I played one such stage about 50 times to get a perfect run. Admittedly, most of these sections are completely optional and do not affect being able to finish the game. Nevertheless, I was really impressed by the challenge offered for those who prefer skill-based gameplay. For those of you who accept the challenge of trying to find everything, there's a few extra stages that will really test your platforming and puzzle abilities. Again, it's completely optional, but a nice reward for the patient.

Namco has succeeded in its interpretation of the modern platformer. By infusing it with puzzles to solve, Klonoa Empire of Dreams is quite an intellectual game. It's as if Namco realized that most platform games these days aren't very engaging and sought to change up the formula. With well-designed levels that will test both your dexterity and mental capacity, this has easily become one of best platform games I've played.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Astro Boy Omega Factor

Tetsuwan Atom: Atom Heart no Himitsu / Astro Boy Omega Factor
Action - Gameboy Advance
Battery Backup - 3 saves
1 player

When it comes to Astro Boy GBA, the critics are unanimous about its praise. Developed by Treasure, it's hard to imagine they'd drop the ball. Most companies try to sell on the license itself. Astro Boy oozes with personality in that department. Not satisfied to simply use the title character, Treasure sought to incorporate characters from all of Osamu Tezuka's works. Maybe they were trying to do a tribute to the late Tezuka. Or maybe they got their chance to do a megacrossover. Whatever the case, they show that even when they're dealing with licensed material, they can make a good game.

This one's all action. You'll punch, kick, dash and laserbeam your way through the entire game. Along the way, you'll meet characters that will allow you to upgrade your stats. Not all of these characters are easily accessible, so a little exploration is required. On top of this, for each attack you land, your special meter will charge. Once it's full, you're able to perform one of three special attacks. You can store up to 3, 10 or 99 specials depending on what difficulty you play. Much of the game is played like a beat 'em up. You'll be able to combo-punch enemies, and kick them into others, even shoot their falling bodies with a laser beam if you'd like. Simple but effective. Other parts of the game play out like a space shooter. You'll be flying around a forced horizontal scrolling screen, shooting enemies, and dodging like mad. It's in this mix of game styles that keeps Astro Boy fresh. Both styles are very well done, and I especially had fun with the shooter bosses.

But in the end, I'm really ho-hum about it.

I've played and finished the game. I've played most of the game on Hard difficulty. And although the game is entertaining, it's not exactly thrilling. I have no doubt in my mind that Astro Boy is well-made. The problem is it's just that. It seems like it strives for little other than being a decent Tezuka tribute. The actual game is nothing special. It's fun, but for beat 'em ups, Treasure has done better. For shooters, they've done better as well. It lacks the creativity and cleverness that Treasure is usually known for. It just seems like they simply wanted to make it playable instead of phenomenal. It's in that, where I find Astro Boy to be a big let down. All in all, I don't think it's a bad game at all. I simply find it... unnecessary.

* Note: I played the Japanese version of the game that only has "Easy" and "Hard" difficulties. I understand the US version is improved not only in adding a "Normal" difficulty, but adds some enemies as well. If the US version is THAT much better, I'd like to play it someday. But I doubt it would change my overall opinion.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Ninja Five-0

Ninja Five-0
Action - Gameboy Advance
Battery Backup - 1 save
1 player

Also known as Ninja Cop in Europe, although this Hudson-developed Konami-published game was made in Japan, it was never released there and is available only in the West. Strange how that works. But it does work, because Ninja Five-0 is without a doubt one of the crown jewels of the GBA library.

As the name suggests, you control a ninja that's also a cop. That means that in addition to killing bad guys, you'll also be rescuing hostages. Some missions have people you must save before you can clear them. Luckily, that doesn't slow down the pace at all. Armed with a sword and upgradeable shurikens, you'll make quick work of the enemy. But the coolest part of the game is the grappling hook. A mix of Bionic Commando and Umihara Kawase, your grappling hook can grab any wall. You can pull yourself up toward the wall with it, extend it to drop you down further, or swing on it 360 degrees to reach higher ground. Mastering the grappling hook is an absolute necessity, and transforms a standard action game into an awesome one.

The difficulty is also well balanced. It is a challenging game, but not to the point where it's frustrating. A stage might take several tries before you clear it, but that's exactly what I love about it. You'll learn to see the patterns. You'll learn to use the layout of the stage to assist you. It's pure old school feel, and I'm loving it.

But perhaps it's in that old school feel, that I wonder if Ninja Five-0 could be more. Don't get me wrong. It's a very well made game and is a blast to play through. Yet, it doesn't pioneer any new territory and that's where I feel it falls short. The grappling hook is certainly fun and contributes a lot to game design. But it's something we have seen before. What's worse is that level design follows a cookie cutter formula that reminds me of DOOM: kill enemy, get the yellow key, backtrack, open yellow door, break box, get the the red key, backtrack, go through red door, stage clear. It got a bit repetitive and predictable. It's also not very long, with only about 15 or so stages.

Still, despite its shortcomings (which probably sound worse than they actually are), Ninja Five-0 is an excellent game. It's got tons of polish all around, and it's pretty fun to play. For pure 2d action games, it doesn't get much better than this. There's still one thing that confuses me though. Why was this never released in Japan?

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Breath of Fire V Dragon Quarter

Breath of Fire V Dragon Quarter
Role Playing Game - Playstation 2
Memory Card - 1 save, 1 quicksave
1 player

Once in a long while, you come across a game that is so far ahead of the pack that you can't help gush with praise. It aims so high and succeeds so well that you wonder why other games are content on pushing status quo. Breath of Fire V Dragon Quarter is such a game. It is phenomenal, intelligent, challenging, innovative, cleverly designed, and engaging from its FMV intro to Onitsuka Chihiro's "Castle imitation" credits. There aren't enough superlatives to describe it.

Although this is a RPG, I say that loosely. Dragon Quarter takes a completely different direction than the previous 4 Breath of Fire games. It is actually difficult to classify. Most of its structure hails from dungeon crawler design. Just like dungeon crawlers, you'll be challenged to push further and further into the game with few opportunities to save your progress. The emphasis is on survival, and your rewards for doing so is better equipment. Yet, it retains traditional jRPG cues like an overarching story, "towns", and character development. Fights are inspired by SRPGs. It's an ecclectic mix of everything, but is more than the sum of its parts.

The flow of the game is relatively linear. Your end goal is 1000 meters(?) away from the starting point. Getting there requires exploring a series of passageways and areas. All enemies are visible, so you can choose to fight them or avoid them. There will be treasure chests and item boxes along the way to help you in your quest. Some of these can only be opened by special keys obtained by killing all the enemies in an enclosed area. The cool thing is that you can throw things at enemies before encountering them. This is called PETS. If you toss a bomb at them and it hits, they'll be damaged prior to the battle. If you throw meat, you can lure them to you, or away from you. You also can attack them prior to a battle to initiate a battle. This will give your attacking character an extra turn. These are neat systems to keep the game engaging before and within fights.

When you're in a battle, the intensity is turned up even more. Like SRPGs, positioning plays a crucial role. You have to be aware of weapon range, areas of effect, walking distances and things like that. But what's cool is that there is an Action Point system where you can do as much as you want within your turn as long as your Action Points allow. It is reminiscent of Sakura Taisen 3's ARMS system, which was also released around the same time. There are 3 tiers of weapon attacks, each with varying AP values and each mapped to different buttons. You can chain them into a string of attacks. It not only looks cool, but combos get higher attack bonuses too. In addition, any AP remaining from a previous turn is added to your next turn so a valid strategy could be to pass on this turn so that you can do much more on your next. One of the neatest things is how Nina, your spellcaster, can cast magical traps. By placing them on the ground, you can use them to block off routes between the enemy and you. If the enemy wants to get to you, they will have to trigger the trap thus causing them major damage. You also have attacks that could push or pull enemies into traps you place too. Because of all these factors, Dragon Quarter is actually a leap above most strategy games, and a lot more fun too.

In Breath of Fire tradition, one of the cool things that your main character Ryu can do is transform into a dragon. It allows you to do heavily beefed up attacks. But if you could constantly do that, the game would be far too easy. So the designers capped its usage. Specifically, there is a meter called the D-gauge. Everytime you use your dragon powers, your D-gauge goes up. After every turn in dragon form, your gauge goes up. And even when you're in human form, it goes up. When it hits 100, your game is over. Completely finished. You lose. But it's not as bad as it sounds. When you're in human form, the gauge goes up extremely slowly, probably 1% every half an hour. So there's no way you can die from that. But over-reliance on the dragon form during battles can get you killed.

While the survival structure is initially overwhelming, there are game systems that help to alleviate that. The first is PETS, because it allows you to damage & effect enemies prior to a battle, so that the actual battle will be easier. Next is the SOL (Scenario Overlay) system. In essence, the SOL allows you to restart the game from a previous point (ie your save, or start of game). The difference being that SOL allows you to keep your equipment, money, skills, and "party experience" since you last saved. So if you die in a fight that was too hard for you to handle, you could always just SOL instead of a normal restart to make the game easier. It also resets your D-gauge to the last save. The game encourages SOL because certain story sequences occur only when you do it. Using SOL and the dragon powers are not required though. I finished the game pretty much without using either, so you can tailor the game systems to your style of strategy. And although some might not like that there are too few saving opportunities - a common complaint - you can quicksave anywhere (except battles) if you need to take a break.

When you play through the game the first time, there are certain areas that are locked out. But if you decide to replay it, those areas become accessible, depending on your previous game's score, and allow you to face new enemies as well as gain additional abilities and items. It's a nice bonus to an already outstanding game.

Breath of Fire V came out of nowhere. The four games before it are the very definition of generic RPG. But Dragon Quarter strove to not only surpass them, but the genre as a whole. Kudos to Capcom. This is without a doubt, the RPG of its generation.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Vagrant Story

Vagrant Story
Role Playing Adventure - Playstation
Memory Card - 10 slots (2 required)
1 player

I had been avoiding Vagrant Story for quite some time now. I read a little bit about it, and it didn't seem like my cup of tea. But having played Matsuno's other game Tactics Ogre Let Us Cling Together, I was impressed by its brilliance and wanted to try his other titles. I'm always up for a game that does things differently. Vagrant Story is definitely that.

The problem is... I was right about the game. I had been avoiding VS because I heard that pre-battle preparation was key. To me. preparation didn't equate to strategy. I want my strategy in the battles, not before them. Vagrant Story has a crazy complex affinity system where your weapons and armor are strong against specific types of weapons (Piercing, Edge, Blunt), specific types of classes (Dragons, Humans, Evil, etc), and specific types of realms (earth, fire, holy, etc). When you fight against Human enemies, you grow stronger against Humans. When enemies of the Earth realm attack you, your armor's defense against Earth grows. This replaces the traditional level up system. Your weapons and armor grow with usage. Every enemy you come across will have specific weaknesses. Maybe an Undead enemy is weak against Edged weapons and the Fire realm. Then the best weapon to use against him is one that is strong in Fire, Edge, and strong against Undead. Chances are, you won't have a weapon that meets all three criteria. In fact, it's very likely that for most battles, you may only meet one or two. You are only allowed 8 weapons in your inventory, so you're constantly compromising. Having the wrong combination against an enemy means you will deal close to zero damage. But if you have the best combination, bosses can go down in a few hits. Most of the time, you will be in the middle.

I am unsure of the intended purpose of this 3-fold affinity system. It seems like it's complex just to be complex. Because of the limited inventory slots, there is no possible way you can prepare for all scenarios. So you just have to make trade offs here and there and hope it's good enough for an enemy. I don't think the system added anything to the game, and in some ways just made it more tedious. If you don't have a weapon that works against a boss, you may actually have to start from square one and go off and build it up. Speaking of unnecessary complexities, Vagrant Story also allows the player to fuse weapons and armor together to make new items. While it's nice to be able to create your own items, the problem is that in execution, you're playing the guess and check game. Line up two items, look at their stats individually, and compare to the stats of the newly created item... if it's not a good match, then cancel... and line up the next pair. Repeat until you've gone through every possible combination. Again... I don't think this added to the game, and like the affinity system, made playing a little more tedious.

Luckily, I was also wrong about Vagrant Story. While battle preparation isn't my favorite type of mechanic, VS also allows for plenty of strategy within the battles. Battles take place in real-time, but action stops whenever you pull up the command menu. You can see Matsuno's experience with TO/FFT because terrain plays a role. You can position yourself so that walls or even other enemies are between you and an incoming threat. Enemies can end up hitting their own men if you position yourself right, and cause an internal brawl. It's very cool to be able to use your surroundings for you. Height also plays a role. The battles are also incredibly engaging because there is a timing system. In a single turn, you can chain multiple attacks together if you time it right. You can theoretically do it infinitely until an enemy dies, but the timing is very precise and there's a few tenths of a second in which you can chain. The same applies for defense. If an enemy attacks you, you can set up different defensive arts that have different effects: heal 50% of the damage, reflect 40% of the damage back to the enemy, or many others. For both chaining and defensive arts, an exclamation point appears briefly at the exact moment when you need to press a button. The drawback is that the more chains and defensive arts you use, the higher your RISK meter goes. RISK lowers your accuracy and raises the damage you sustain from attacks. It's a very cool concept and makes the game that much more thoughful and fun. There were several boss battles where I utilized defensive arts as my primary strategy. There were others where giving myself attack bonuses for an all-out offensive was my best plan. There's so much variety offered in the fight scenarios that I was never bored.

In addition to fighting, Vagrant Story plays very much like a 3D platformer. You explore areas, jump over giant chasms, cling to ledges, hop on blocks, and all that. The control is very good too, which makes the platforming integral and not a half-hearted inclusion. One of the more unique things about Vagrant Story is the nature of its puzzles. Unlike most RPGs where it's go one place, pull a switch here, go to another, pull a switch there, Vagrant Story has single-room puzzles. Usually you'll need to get to higher ground to access a doorway, but there's no immediate way to get there. Scattered on the ground are a variety of blocks that you can arrange and stack toward your goal. There are a bunch of these puzzles scattered throughout the game. Some are pretty straightforward. Others require quite a bit of brainwork to figure out. It's absolutely refreshing to see this in a RPG, and it was one of the most enjoyable aspects.

Vagrant Story is quite an interesting game. There isn't quite anything else like it out there. Between the platforming, block puzzles, and intense battles, I couldn't put it down. Nevertheless, the complexity of some of the systems felt too much like experimentation than thought-out game design. For the equipment affinities, sure I coped with the limitations. But I am not convinced that the system was a good idea to start with. The same can be said about the equipment fusion. Nevertheless despite its weaknesses, I have already started to play it again. That speaks volumes about the quality of what's contained within.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Tales of Phantasia

Tales of Phantasia
RPG - Playstation
Backup memory - 10 save slots
1 Player

Love-hate. That's the feeling I get from ToP. As the first entry to Namco's popular Tales series, I can definitely see how it sets itself apart from other RPG series. Yet, that doesn't make this title impervious to complaint. For every step of progress, there's a wall holding it back too.

I was immediately drawn into the game by its dark story. Maybe I don't play enough RPGs, but I can't remember any that began as tragic as ToP. Somehow, it pulled me in. As an anime-ish story, there are definitely a bunch of light hearted moments too. But the tone of the game remains grim throughout. Nevertheless, sometimes I felt like the situations were forced to keep that grim tone. What was initially refreshing became excessive.

I felt the same with the battle system. At the time of its release on the Super Famicom, ToP was cutting edge. The fights happen in real time on a 2D plane, where you have almost full control over one character, and can direct AI or manually use items/cast spells for your party members. I say "almost full control" because things still happen in "turns". They're extremely quick so it's -almost- like playing a hack 'n slash, but there are some slight delays that remind you it's an RPG. The unfortunate drawback is, this is a party-based game and you need to be able to manage your other party members while you're actively controlling your leader. Luckily, most of your party members will be magic users so it's easy to have them cast whatever you want via a menu. What's nice is they even allow you to queue up the next spell for the following turn too. Since it plays out in real time, characters need time to attack & cast spells. If they get hit within that animation, their turn is cancelled. So there's an urgency of hitting your enemies as fast and as much as you can so that their attacks/spells are cancelled, while not allowing them to be close enough to cancel your attacks/spells.

While all of this was fascinating at first, it quickly becomes a chore as you're thrown random battle after random battle after random battle. True to old school RPG form, you'll be facing random encounters as you walk around the overworld and dungeons. The nice thing is ToP does have a few enemies you see on screen. But random encounters are unfortunately the norm. Battles become extremely repetitive. Most require little other than mashing the attack button with your team leader, Cless. Even the boss strategies are easily reduced to: "Hit them over and over so they don't have a chance to attack." The later battles are ridiculously brutal to the point where if you let them get off a single attack, they will have you in a trap until your entire party dies. It's extremely frustrating to be juggled over and over with no hope of getting out. And that's the kind of game ToP ends up being: Juggle or be juggled. Neither of which are that interesting to me.

One area where Phantasia shined is in exploration. Most of the dungeons are layed out well, with some interesting puzzles that require some logic to it. There are a couple that I couldn't figure out without a FAQ, but they're generally clever. There are also a lot of secrets and optional quests you can do, including a multi-floor dungeon with some of the hardest enemies in the game. They are far more difficult than the enemies you face in the last dungeon, so seasoned RPGers should have a blast.

I come out of Tales of Phantasia with mixed feelings. I can see how during its time of release, it was a bold step to change how combat was done. I can also appreciate how Namco put a lot of effort into refining standard elements of the genre. But ToP retains too much of the old jRPG conventions for me to truly enjoy. My feelings toward the game shifted from amused to annoyed to satisfied to bored to frustrated. In the end, I'm somewhat glad I saw it through, but I'd definitely never want to touch it again. The amusement wears off quickly.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Metroid Fusion

Metroid Fusion
Action - Gameboy Advance
Backup memory - 3 save slots
1 Player

I've heard the complaints of Metroid Fusion before going into it: Too linear, too short. But my favorite Metroid game is actually Metroid II, which is also linear and short. So I'm not bothered by it. In fact, it may have been those "complaints" that attracted me to Fusion in the first place. As the first Metroid game in a long while, Fusion has a lot to live up to.

Let it be said: Metroid Fusion is not a bad game. But as far as Metroids go, it's at the bottom.

It has a lot of the external qualities of Metroids: maze-like environments, lots of hidden items that encourage experimentation and exploration, classic weapons and abilities, energy tanks, missile tanks, endings that depend on speed-runs, etc. Everything feels very familiar, and the map is layed out quite cleverly.

But some of the additions to the engine do a lot more harm than good. For starters, the hand-holding is awful. There are a lot of "Navigation Stations" spread throughout. When you encounter one, the computer terminal gives you your next immediate goal. The problem is, not only do they give you the map of the entire area, they also limit your routes so that you can only go through with your objective. Both things kill the exploration that was so integral to previous Metroid games. Metroid II also limited your progress in a way, but it wasn't as blatant. In fact, Metroid Fusion not only limits where you can go, but it also closes off routes that you came from. So if you missed an item in the past, there's a chance that you may never again be able to back to acquire it. It's pretty frustrating because you never know how much freedom you'll be given. The fact that they give you a full layout map also makes the game incredibly easy and takes the thrill out of it. It doesn't always show the secret routes, but it already spoils most of the game by telling you where things are. Another irritation is the lack of skippable dialog. It just bogs down a game that is all about running, jumping, and shooting the crap out of enemies.

That being said, it's not all bad. I like how the game automaps and displays a piece of it in the upper right hand corner so you are always aware of your current positioning. It just makes the experience more user-friendly. I also enjoy the challenge of the enemies and bosses. It seems like even with a lot of Energy Tanks, boss battles are always intense and downright difficult. I've had to continue multiple times, and even then, most of the time I barely defeat them with a fragment of my lifebar.

I finished the game with just under six hours on the clock, with a 55% item completion rating. I took my time trying to find all the secrets I could, so I'm surprised I missed so much. Speed runs are supposed to take closer to 2 hrs, so the replay value depends on how much you're willing to invest on finishing it faster and faster. If the lack of length scares you, then you probably should avoid all Metroid games.

Ultimately, Metroid Fusion was an enjoyable romp, but there are definitely changes to the game that hinder it from being much, much better.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Ever17 -out of infinity-

Ever17 -out of infinity-
Visual Novel - PC
Hard Drive - 40 save slots
1 Player

I've heard a lot about this game from a friend who absolutely adores it. I'm usually really big on gameplay, and the last visual novel I played (Kanon) turned me off to the genre. But Hirameki International translated the PC version for the English market, kept Japanese language intact, and was on sale so I took a chance.

I'll be honest. When I finished it, I wasn't impressed. It wasn't particularly special. The characters didn't stand out. The story moved at a snail's pace. It was... well, boring. But since it's one of those games that you only get a piece of the puzzle each playthrough, I resolved to understand why my friend loved it so much. So I played. And replayed. And replayed. And replayed. I became obsessed. I actually began writing down questions that came up - things that didn't make sense, things that were unexplained. I was shocked at the revelations and puzzled at new riddles. But after clearing the final ending, I was pretty amazed at how many loose ends were tied up.

E17 is quite subtle. It's a mystery, except you don't even know what the mystery is. In fact, you don't even know it's a mystery in the first place, at least until you've played it several times. You don't know why the characters are in the situation they're in. Only how they react. Slowly, as you play through each of the endings, only then will you be able to formulate the right questions. And finally when you clear the last scenario, they become answered.

While I don't really consider it much of a "game", I have a huge amount of respect for the way the story and pieces thereof, unfolded. I've never encountered anything like it, and aside from the first playthrough, I was glued to the game. Highly recommended with a caveat... the game can only be fully appreciated when all endings are cleared. So if you're not willing to invest the time to play it to death, you won't really "get" it at all. But if you're willing to put in the time, I'm sure you'll be thoroughly captivated like I was from start to end.

Unfortunately, the English version is not without its pitfalls. Some of the lines are adapted into very colloquial English expressions. While not a literal translation, they give the intended meaning of the Japanese lines, so care was taken there. However, you'll also encounter some broken English that detracts from the rest of the game. It's like they had multiple people doing the translation with various levels of English fluency. And even more than that, are some serious quality control issues. There are typos, incorrect spacings, and even undecipherable words that make me wonder if the script was proofread at all. Generally though, these errors, while annoying, are not game breaking and you can pretty much figure out what they're trying to say. However, there was one subtlety in the game that was completely lost in the conversion from Japanese to English which affects one of the revelations. Aside from that though, the poor English is little more than an annoyance, and not enough to detract from the overall storytelling experience.

Me loving a visual novel. Who would have thought?

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Drill Dozer

Drill Dozer
Action - Gameboy Advance
Backup memory - 3 save slots
1 Player

Also known as Screw Breaker in Japan, this is Game Freak's return to form. It's the first non-Pokemon game they've made in the past 6 years! And if this is what they can do when they're not tied up, I'm all for it killing Pokemon entirely.

Drill Dozer is completely awesome in every way. I knew it looked interesting the moment I saw it, but that didn't prepare me for the incredible ride that was ahead. Screw Breaker is very simple. You can jump. And you can drill. But what's completely unexpected is the many different ways you can use your drill so that every new stage is fresh with challenges.

The unique thing about the drill is that the strength is variable. You start every stage with the weakest setting - first gear. Along the way you'll find upgrades to acquire 2nd & 3rd gear. Whenever you drill, a meter will go up and then down. When the meter drops to zero, your drilling stops. But if you have upgrades, you can shift up to the next gear which elongates your drilling time and makes it more powerful. You have to manually shift gears much like you would in a car: Wait til the meter goes near the max ("redline") and then shift. It's a very cool system and makes drilling that much more engaging.

Another neat property of the drill is that the L trigger drills counterclockwise and R, clockwise. For most of the game, it doesn't matter which way you drill. But there are some obstacles that require specific drill-rotation. So you'll have to do some quick thinking at times to distinguish when to use what.

Bosses are designed so that you need to figure out patterns. You'll get hints as to how to defeat many of the earlier ones, but at the later stages, you'll have to figure out weakpoints yourself. The fights are very clever, very reminiscent of Treasure's better efforts.

All of this adds up to a game that's a joy to play. There's plenty of challenges to be had in the course of Drill Dozer. For those gamers who might find the obstacles a little difficult, you can always continue at the last screen with full-heal for a small price. So it's very accessible for gamers of all skill levels. For expert gamers, I'm happy to say that once you finish the game, new areas open up with tricky spots that require skillful mastery of the controls to access. The normal game isn't really "easy" either, especially if you don't use the continue feature.

The amazing thing about Drill Dozer is that it's so simple... yet GameFreak manages to make every stage seem fresh and totally different from the last. You would think that a game that only involves jumping and drilling would get old fast. But just when you think you've seen it all, Drill Dozer introduces a new way of using your drill that you'll have to adapt to. The game is very well designed.

Without a doubt, Drill Dozer is the best game on the GBA. It's simplicity and brilliance all in one. The joy of gaming is back!

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Densetsu no Starfi 1 & 2

Densetsu no Starfi / Densetsu no Starfi 2
Marine Action - Gameboy Advance
Backup memory - 2 save slots (DnS) / 3 save slots (DnS2)
1 Player

What it is: 50% platformer, 50% underwater swimming action game, Starfi has a handy spinning attack to destroy enemies and blocks. In addition to completing stages, there are subquests along the way that make it play more like an adventure game than most action games, so there's a bit of dialog to it. But that's also what kinda separates Starfi from other games. You're in this world with lots of characters under the sea and each of them have their own stories, mostly told via flashback sequences. It brings out a bit of personality to the backdrop you're in. In addition to basic elements, there are minigames and sections where characters allow you to ride them as "vehicles" for variety.

What works:
* The plentiful spheres you collect in the game are for something tangible. In Starfi, the more you collect, the more characters show up on this eye-catch picture. In Starfi 2, the spheres act as currency to purchase tons of extras.
* The plentiful dialog brings out the personality of the characters and brings a better connection to the areas you traverse.
* Levels are designed for replay in that many of the levels have places that are inaccessible the first time you play them. As you gain powers and finish the game, you can revisit old areas and find new treasures and even entirely new levels.

What doesn't:
* The game itself is absolutely dull because...
* It's too simplistic. There are very few moves in the game and it doesn't take much of a gamer to figure out all there is to the game after 10 minutes of play.
* It's too easy. There is never any tension in the game because everything contributes to you refilling your life. When you collect 5 spheres, you gain 20% of your life back. When you hit a save point, you automatically full-heal. Even bosses do not pose a threat.

Bottom Line:
While the games offer a lot, it's hard to appreciate because the core gameplay is so boring. Yes there are a variety of minigames with adjustable difficulty levels. Yes there are tons of unlockables including brand new stages and many things to collect for the obsessive-compulsive type. But at no point do the games ever become exciting. Personally, although Starfi 2 is much lengthier, I like Starfi 1 more just because at the end of each level you can look forward to a boss encounter. Starfi 2 breaks each world into multiple stages, a la Super Mario Brothers 3, with a boss in the final stage of the act. The lack of bosses in some of those acts just contributed to the boredom.

Starfi is definitely a kids game, but I wonder if even they could be captivated by its non-existent challenge.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Fatal Frame 2

Fatal Frame 2: Crimson Butterfly
Survival Horror - Xbox
Backup memory - 8 save slots
1 player

Coming off the awesomeness that was the first game, I had high expectations of the second. And they were met. Sort of.

Going through the game, I can see they improved a lot. The only real complaint I had about the first is specific to the English versions - voice acting. Thankfully the acting in Crimson Butterfly is much better than the awful performances in the first. However, the male characters could still use more emotion. Their monotone lines sound like they were just read off a paper. Nevertheless, it's a marked improvement. It matters because it makes the whole environment more authentically spooky.

Speaking of spooky, the production values of Crimson Butterfly are much higher than the first. I love the Japanese directing style of flashing disturbing imagery in between footage and you can definitely tell Tecmo went all the way, making it just short of a full-fledged horror film. Creepy scratchy audio in full 5.1 Dolby Digital surround further accentuates it.

FF2 begins with two sisters, Mio and Mayu, visiting a spot in the wilderness where they used to play. Mayu gets distracted by something and wanders off. Mio follows and they find themselves at a forsaken village, which had vanished in one evening. Why did all the townspeople disappear and why is Mayu always going off on her own?

The game pretty much follows the same conventions as the first game. You unravel the mysteries in typical survival horror fashion by retrieving items, backtracking, finding documents that give more backstory, and by solving puzzles. What's new with this outing is that you can also find stones that you can listen to, for some audio backstory. And what's survival horror without things to scare you?

The ghosts are back and this time, they are more likely to travel in groups. But Tecmo has tweaked the camera-weapon to be much more complex and engaging to handle the situations. Whereas in Fatal Frame, spirit stones were one-time use items to use special shots, FF2 incorporates special shots into the core gameplay. This is done by adding a meter which charges up whenever you snap pictures. It's a great change because now I actually use Slow, Stun, etc. FF2 adds a few new abilities that weren't present in the first as well.

Finally, perhaps the most dramatic change is the addition of the Fatal Frame. When fighting ghosts, there is the most vulnerable moment for them. And if you shoot them at this time, you will get a Fatal Frame. Not only do Fatal Frames do more damage, but it automatically gives you a chance to shoot again. Time it right and you can do 2 or 3 shot combos. This gives Crimson Butterfly far more involvement in the combat than the previous game.

But there are downsides to it too. Because FF2 is about waiting for Fatal Frame chances, fights are slowed down dramatically compared to the first. It involves patience and sometimes requires an enemy to appear and disappear multiple times before it gives you an opportunity for a Fatal Frame. Enemies also travel in packs more often too, which slows it down even further. But for all it's worth, the changes to the camera system are fun.

I come away with FF2 less impressed than I was with the first. Even though it has nicer visuals, more convincing audio, and better directing, I felt kind of immune to the scares because I had already played the first game and knew what to expect. The gameplay changes definitely make Fatal Frame 2 enjoyable. However, I don't necessarily think they make FF2 better. Just different. FF1 had more of an action-y feel to the whole game, and as such, has more intense and more difficult battles. FF2 has a more strategic approach, and its slower pace suits it very well. Both are great for what they try to accomplish.

Fatal Frame 2 ends up being a worthy sequel.