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.