Monday, December 22, 2008

Tomb Raider The Last Revelation

Tomb Raider The Last Revelation
Puzzle Platform - Dreamcast
Battery Backup - 10 saves
1 player

The Last Revelation is the fourth game of the series. Tomb Raider II sort of took the title in a different direction, by having more human enemies to shoot and more ordinary settings to interact with. I didn't play much of II, but I distinctly recall a stage set in Venice, where you jumped on balconies and rooftops. The Last Revelation mostly goes back to its roots, with the bulk of the time spent in exotic locales. It feels very ambitious, with interconnecting stages that offer a long adventure for explorers. It's just too bad that when I think of this game, I can't help but utter obscenities. The Last Revelation is the only game reviewed here I have not completed.

Let's get this out of the way. The Last Revelation has some programming glitches that completely ruin the game. I know I said this with my last review of Bionic Commando Elite Forces, but this is much worse. Once you trigger the bug, your game is stuck forever. Worse yet, they are situated towards the end of the game, so if you trigger one of the bugs, and are left without a fresh save, you have only two options: 1) Quit the game, and start over from the beginning. 2) Quit the game, curse its existence, and expose its shoddy quality to any would-be player. Guess which category I'm in? After clocking in about 20 hours, I encountered a puzzle which requires pushing three stone blocks in specific sequences to open up several gates. But if you push the blocks in the wrong order, you almost always trigger a bug that prevents you from resetting the blocks, so you're unable to ever push them again. In fact, even if you push the blocks in the correct sequence, the bug could still occur, thus locking you out of some passageways that are required to finish the stage. I've read that it's been patched for the PC versions, but Playstation and Dreamcast owners are completely out of luck. The only workaround is having multiple save files, and hope that at least one of them doesn't have the bug triggered. Even then, you won't always know immediately that you've triggered the bug. Since I didn't have any uncorrupted saves, I was completely screwed and consequently, gave up playing it.

I did, however, go through most of the game, so I can discuss those items. A friend of mine mentioned that Tomb Raider is best in tombs. Given that developer CORE went further and further away from tomb exploration with TRII and TRIII, it's not as obvious as you might think. The Last Revelation thrusts you into an ancient tomb right from the get-go, and it's better for it. The sense of discovery and wonder from the first game is very much intact. The added bonus is that The Last Revelation ends up being a lot more creepy. Whereas the first TR had booby traps to guard treasures, The Last Revelation adds ancient curses to the mix. The atmosphere is much darker as a result. But, as a nod to the previous games, The Last Revelation still tries its hand at being an action game. There ends up being a fair amount of shooting. In addition to the animals, there are enemy ninjas, soldiers, and automated gun turrets to keep Lara busy.

At its center, The Last Revelation offers much of what the series has always offered. It's focused primarily on discovery and puzzle-solving. The puzzles in this outing generally require more logic than the original. That's one aspect I enjoyed. Many times, your next step may not be obvious, but if you took a moment to observe your surroundings, the answer will become clear. Tomb Raider excels at building subtle clues to the solutions into the environment. For the most part, you just have to pay attention. Many of the stages are connected to one another. This gives the game a less linear feel, as sometimes you'll need to backtrack through a previous stage to access your next destination. The upside is that you can utilize the level boundaries to regain all your health - each time you enter a stage, you start with a full bar. But one thing that is lost from previous games, are the summaries of stage results, such as number of secrets found, how long it took you to complete the stage, etc. Instead, you only have a cumulative count of those statistics. So if you discovered only 40 of the 70 game's secrets, you have no indication of which stages you're missing secrets in.

Other than the horrible QA, there are plenty of other issues that make The Last Revelation a drag to play. The biggest problem of all is that the game is way too dark. Unlike the previous games which had a brightness adjustment in the options menu, it has been removed here. Sure I could adjust my TV brightness for one stupid game. Or maybe the game shouldn't have been designed this way in the first place. The game is so dark, that half of the time all you see is a Lara in pitch darkness. To compensate, Lara can light flares, which emit a small radius of light for 20 seconds. But since they're of such limited quantity, you can't really use them every 20 seconds. Another option is to fire your pistols. When you fire your pistols, it lights up the immediate area around Lara for half a second. Since you have unlimited ammo, it works as a cheap-man's light source. But the area of light is much smaller than the flares, so it's easy to miss item pick-ups and clues to your next location. So what's the other workaround? You have binoculars in your inventory. Luckily, the binoculars have an illuminated view when using them. This is probably the preferred method, because you can always reuse your binoculars. But what this means is that every time you enter an unfamiliar area, you will bring up the Options menu, select Inventory, select the binoculars, then wave the camera around while holding the light button to see what's around you. Then you unequip the binoculars, face a different direction, call up the options menu, select inventory, select binoculars and do it again so you can finally get a good look at what is around you. Remember, observation is -everything- in this game. Making everything ridiculously dark was obviously an intentional decision by the developers. But it's obviously also such a horrible decision, that it makes playing the game a chore. Some other sore spots include rope swinging and motorcycle levels. There are a few segments in the game where you need to swing on one rope, jump off it, and grab onto another rope during your descent. If you're misaligned even a little bit, you will plummet to your death. Turns out... at least one rope jump segment will kill you if you line your trajectory up correctly. You have to be off to the side by a centimeter in order to correctly grab the next rope. What on earth was Core thinking? Core also thought it'd be fun to include a motorcycle to ride. So there are a series of stages in the second half of the game where you are forced to ride a bike around. It's not enough that the motorcycle handles like a pig, and has the turning radius of a plane. No, sirree. The developers thought it would be fun to have Lara pilot a motorcycle IN PITCH DARKNESS. To be fair, the bike has a headlight, and that automatically makes it a little better than the pathetic options Lara has on foot. But it exemplifies exactly what's wrong with the game.

Tomb Raider The Last Revelation tries so hard to be the epic Tomb Raider. It features huge levels that interconnect, unique puzzles to solve, a creepy atmosphere and a dramatic story. The glitch that ultimately ruined the game for me is one thing. But the poor judgment in making the game as dark as possible was already grounds for dismissing this game entirely. I tried to like The Last Revelation. Occasional glimpses of the original Tomb Raider shown through. But ultimately, every positive attribute was obscured by darkness.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Bionic Commando Elite Forces

Bionic Commando Elite Forces
Action - Gameboy Color
Battery Backup - 3 saves
1 player

Not to be confused with the Gameboy Bionic Commando, the Gameboy Color Elite Forces is the third entry for this series. Capcom hasn't really utilized this property much over the years, until they suddenly revived it by announcing titles for the HD systems out now. So what's a better way to celebrate than to go through the older titles?

Despite being in the same series, Elite Forces has a very different feel than the NES and Gameboy Bionic Commando games. Sure it's still got the same basic elements. You still choose a weapon, accessory, communicator and armor prior to entering stages. You still use your grappling arm to swing across chasms and scale heights. And you still can run into enemy trucks on the map to collect extra lives. But the visuals have changed dramatically. The character designs and backgrounds have been totally transformed to have sort of a cartoon-ish look. To complement the cartoon visuals, the developers gave your character much more fluid animation that's almost as nice as Prince of Persia and Flashback. But the overall effect of the new look is a turnoff for me. The architecture of the buildings and things you can grapple onto aren't very recognizable. It's almost like as if everything is just blobs with different colors. That might seem harsh, but the objects in the game don't really resemble anything. Compared to the detailed visuals of its Gameboy predecessor, Elite Forces is a giant step backwards, animation excluded.

Capcom introduces a couple of new elements to spice things up, but they are of dubious value. Now you can actually choose between two characters. This might sound like a cool option, but the male and female heroes don't seem to differ at all, other than one having longer hair. They both have the same abilities, are the same height and everything. No. I don't get the point either. Another addition to the game is sniping. In a handful of stages, you can interact with specific buildings and initiate a sniper event. The screen will switch to a first-person zoomed view, and you just point the camera around and shoot when an enemy is within the crosshairs. The enemy never notices you even if you miss, so the sniper segments are more about finding enemies with the lousy camera rather than the sniping itself. These sniping sequences aren't particularly interesting, and they break up the flow of the rest of the game.

Luckily, Capcom left the grappling gameplay intact. The Gameboy BC had some really tough segments at the end of the game, but was too easy for the bulk of it. Elite Forces, on the other hand, has you swinging around, letting go, extending your grapple hook at the right time and grabbing another object for the bulk of the game. There are challenging segments from early on, and despite the fluid animation of your character, your grapple arm is plenty responsive and quick. Looking only at this component, Elite Forces might be my favorite of the three games.

But Elite Forces is also riddled with problems that make it my least favorite game overall. First of all, there is a game destroying bug. I've heard it happens whenever you play Elite Forces on GBA or the GB Player. I've heard that it even occurs sometimes when you play it on the GBC! Basically the game will freeze whenever you complete an enemy truck encounter, and start a mission afterwards (ie. all the time). It doesn't matter if you reset the game. The bug will continue to lock-up the game. Someone found an odd workaround that works: Basically, every time you turn on the game, start a New Game, kill yourself until you get Game Over, then you can Load your Saved game without encountering the bug. I'm glad that there is a fix at all - the game is virtually unplayable otherwise - but having to do this trick every time you want to play, gets old.

Some of the other poor design issues do little to alleviate my irritation. Your character sprite is rather huge, and it affects the game a lot. For instance, when you swing around with your grappling arm, it's very easy to crash into enemies because of the sheer size of your character. I've also noticed that when you pull yourself up to a ledge, one of the frames of animation forces you to stand up, even if you're holding down to duck immediately after climbing up. I've been hit by bullets on a few occasions just because the pull-up animation forces me to stand for a split second. And just like the Gameboy Bionic Commando, Elite Forces makes the power reactor segments more difficult by adding more bosses to fight and requiring more shots to destroy the core, compared to the original NES game. But the boss fights here are extremely annoying. It seems as if you are forced to take hits from them, because they move at such a faster speed that they wind up bumping into you and causing you damage. I like that bosses generally have a window of timing in order to damage them, but I really oppose games where I'm forced to take damage no matter what. Finally, the audio is just plain bad. From the horrible quality of the voice and music sampling to the limited tracklist of 3 songs that loop over and over, this is one game that is better with the volume turned all the way off.

For all its fluid animation and spot-on grappling, Bionic Commando Elite Forces manages to bungle some of the simpler aspects of making a video game. Couple that with the game crashing each time you turn on the system, and you've got an unpolished, underdeveloped product. It almost feels unfinished at times. The one saving grace is the core underlying game, using your grappling arm physics to navigate stages, is pretty solid. Still, it's hard to recommend Elite Forces when you could simply be playing the vastly superior Gameboy or NES versions.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


First Person Stealth? - PC
Hard Drive
1 player

I've been itching to play a FPS for the longest time, and then I recalled a recommendation from years back. My favorite FPS is Goldeneye007 on the N64, and someone mentioned I might want to look into Thief since I liked the more stealthy aspects of GE007. I guess what I didn't realize was that Thief wasn't so much a shooter at all, with very limited bow & arrow use. Still, the thought of a first person game with stealth mechanics appealed to me so I decided to give it a go. Thief won several gaming awards when it was first released back in 1998, and it's not hard to see why.

As the title suggests, you play the role of a thief. The first stage acts as both a tutorial and the setup for the game's premise. You begin by being trained by a Master of a Thief Society. With that kind of training, you acquire a bit of self-awareness about how adept you are at being hidden. The two primary elements are sight and sound. When you move into the shadows, you will be completely undetected unless an enemy bumps into you. Stepping out into the light will give you various gradients of visibility. In addition to using the dark to cloak you, you have to be careful about sound. As you interact with objects laid around, you may end up dropping an item, which will alert guards to a presence. Your footsteps also play a huge role, with the type of ground you walk on having a huge effect on the loudness. Luckily you can simply walk slower to deafen a lot of the footsteps, but some floor surfaces require more care than others. Since your thief character is pretty mindful of sight and sound, the game gives the player an indicator of how visible and audible you are to the people around you.

The game is structured as a series of missions with particular objectives. An example might be: 1) Find a way to get into the building. 2) Steal the master gem. 3) Loot as much as you can (Min. 500 gold). 4) Get back to the city streets. Occasionally objectives may change or be added as you go through a mission, but it doesn't really alter the game all that much. You still pretty much will pursue whatever the mission objectives say at the time.

What works:

The stealth action is done pretty well. Using the shadows to hide your presence and moving slowly on tiled floors is very intuitive and realistic. Your character cannot take a whole lot of physical damage, so although you could go the brute strength method and fight everyone you meet, chances are that you won't get very far. But there is an option. Similar to MGS, if you manage to sneak up behind enemies undetected, you can take them out with little fuss. In Thief, you can use your sword and hit them from behind and it counts as a backstab. Unfortunately, using your sword leaves blood stains and that alerts guards to a problem. You also have a mace that will knock enemies completely unconscious, so that's a great alternative. In both cases, you have to be mindful to carry the fallen bodies to areas where an enemy won't discover. But sight and sound don't only apply to yourself. You can detect nearby enemies by listening for their footsteps approaching (or departing). So it's neat how your senses are critical to your in-game success.

In addition to being mindful of lighting and the sounds your character makes, you possess some useful tools. My favorite tool is the rope arrow. If you aim and shoot a rope arrow at a wooden or clay surface, a rope will dangle down from it, allowing you to scale heights that were previously inaccessible. This causes you to be observant to your surroundings, and often times you'll be rewarded with the next step of your path, or some optional loot. There are also other tools like water arrows that you can use to douse torches, and thus create more darkness or lockpicks that help you unlock doors. There's a little bit of creativity in using these tools to suit your needs, and that's one of the strongest aspects.

Thief also excels in its exploration aspects. In each stage, you are thrust into a completely unfamiliar environment. It can be tense when you are sneaking around, not knowing where you're headed. There will be times when you are seemingly stuck, and some deliberate observation of your surroundings is necessary. In these aspects, Thief reminds me a lot of Tomb Raider. You really do feel as if you are this character, trying to make it through your unknown surroundings. Thief even has you exploring tombs for loot, so the comparison isn't that far off. Both games have you forming a mental map of your area, that gets more elaborate and focused as you explore and discover. Thief offers that kind of immersive experience.

What doesn't:

This might be a personal complaint, but I often felt as if the level layouts were at times too overwhelming to figure out. The exploration is a positive attribute overall, but sometimes you'll hit a crossroads with several branching pathways, and if you take any of those, it'll lead to more branching pathways. It can be confusing, and with little aid in the form of a map, the game occasionally feels bigger than it should be.

A bigger annoyance comes from the setting. I think Thief would have worked better if it were more focused on thieving from people. Instead, the developers have incorporated tombs, zombies, poison-breathing dinosaurs, demons, balls of fire and lobster men into the mix. It clashes with the realism presented elsewhere in the game, and frankly, it's just plain silly. Tomb Raider works on the mystical level, simply because we think of ancient tombs having booby traps. Plus most of the enemies in Tomb Raider are actually natural (bats, wolves, and male stalkers). Thief has LOBSTER MEN. I can't tell whether Thief wants to present an immersive experience or shove a hokey game in your face. It ends up straddling both sides, and this is probably my biggest problem with the game.

Some other problems occur due to some design decisions. One thing I didn't like is that there's no quicksave or quickload. You have to go to the option screen, select a file, then select save/load. It's a three step process, which is kind of annoying. But more importantly, I think some of the stealth parts are a bit wonky. You are free to play Thief in super stealth mode, trying to be unnoticed by anyone. Or you can try to take people out from the back, still in stealth mode, but you eliminate the opposition. Or you can simply fight people head-to-head. The problem is, if you are detected, the game often treats it as an all-or-nothing situation. An enemy might spot you, raise an alarm, and then the rest of the 50 guards in the stage will be on the lookout for you. In that heightened state of awareness, many of your stealth tricks no longer work. You can't do one-hit knockouts from behind, and even moving quietly seems to provoke them. In MGS, the enemies cool off after maybe two minutes of not detecting you. Here in Thief, once you piss them off, they're pissed off forever, and they tell their buddies to be pissed off too. You could always restart the mission, but it's not always fun when this happens 45 minutes in.

I do think Thief is a clever game for the most part. The stealth aspects are pretty sophisticated, making you aware of your movements and those around you. But its problems are too significant for me to simply ignore. I feel as if the stupid zombie and demonic crap ruins what would otherwise be a solid, focused game. I also enjoyed the actual stage layouts more when it was a mansion to explore, rather than cursed ruins. Perhaps what Thief is, is inconsistent. It has all the right elements to be good. But as an entire package, it falls short of the mark.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Advance Wars

Advance Wars
Strategy - Gameboy Advance
Battery Backup - 1 Saves
1 player / 2-4 player versus

The world of handhelds is an interesting one. There are some who love portable gaming, and others who absolutely loathe it. I confess to sympathizing with both sides of the spectrum. I enjoy what portable gaming has to offer (2d visuals, ability to play in bed, and usually a quicksave feature), but acknowledge that often times, developers take shortcuts and don't aim to make the best possible product like they do with console games. Developer Intelligent Systems refused to go that route and in 2001, released Advance Wars to the GBA. Although this is a long running series, Advance Wars is the first one to come out in English. Luckily, it was worth the wait.

Advance Wars is a tactical grid-based war game. During your turn, you move individual units around a rectangular map, and attack an enemy if possible. Each unit has ten health, and when reduced to zero, the unit is destroyed. Although the fundamentals are very simple, there's quite a bit of depth to it. First of all, there are a bunch of different units. There are troops, tanks, long distance artillery, ships, planes, and different types of models within those categories. Each unit type has its own strengths, weaknesses, movement and weapon range. For instance, the helicopter can fly a great distance, drop missiles on ground forces, and has moderate success gunning down other helicopters. But they're completely useless against fighter planes and bombers. It's mostly set up like rock-paper-scissors, where units have specific strengths against a particular unit, but may have a severe weakness versus another. In general, the goal of each map is to either defeat all of the opponent's units or to capture their base.

The combat itself is pretty standard for the genre. The most important factors to consider are unit types and health. Because of the rock-paper-scissors hierarchy, it's best to only attack with units that are strong against the enemy's units. Enemies will counterattack after you've dealt damage, so it's usually not beneficial to attack with weaker units. But health is also very important. You inflict twice as much damage at 10 health, than you do at 5 health. One other thing that influences combat is terrain. Depending on where your unit is located, you may get defensive bonuses to offset damage taken. It may seem like there's a lot of variables to keep track of, but the game is very helpful about that. Whenever you initiate an attack, it shows you exactly how much damage you will inflict, so you can plan your moves accordingly. One final item that can turn the tide of battle are the COs (commanding officers). In this game, you select a CO before entering a map, and each CO has a special power in addition to some inherent unit bonuses. Once their special meter is charged up through dealing and receiving damage, you can utilize their special ability. One example of a CO power is Grit's ability to increase all the long-distance units' range for that turn. It can be a game-changer if the enemy isn't prepared for it.

One of the more interesting components of the game is that infantry troops can capture buildings. They'll need at least two turns to capture a neutral or an enemy building, but once they do, the benefits are plentiful. A normal building that you own will heal any units sitting there 2 health per turn. Buildings will boost your defense because of the terrain bonus, so they act as safe havens to retreat to. You can also capture production buildings such as shipdocks, which will allow you to build submarines and ships. You accrue money every turn proportional to the number of buildings under your control, so there's plenty of incentive to capture buildings. Also recall that one possible victory condition is capturing your enemy's headquarters building. With this sort of system implemented, it ensures that you'll want to keep a mixed army of both vehicles and normal infantry.

What impresses most about Advance Wars is the wealth of resources. There are a lot of variables to consider in the game, such as what unit is good vs what, and how far an enemy is able to move. But the game documents all the information you need. Hit one button and you bring up information on a unit such as its weapons, its weaknesses, and its stats. Hit another button, and you'll have a grid representation of the unit's movement capability. The game is just so incredibly user-friendly, and manages to cram all the information in such a small space. But more than just the practical help menus, Advance Wars offers something even greater - a 14 stage tutorial. The game walks you through all of the units and game systems through the tutorial. Each tutorial stage is a real stage with objectives. The only difference is that the tutorial stages are designed so that you get familiar with certain aspects of the game with each new stage. If the entire game were just the Tutorial, Advance Wars would have been a great game. But it doesn't stop there. There's an entirely separate Campaign mode and a War Room of individual challenges for a total of over 50 stages! It's just amazing how much content it offers.

There are a few annoyances though. I can't say I care for the music. It's not bad, but when you have to hear the music loop for the length of a stage (sometimes an hour or more), the best thing I could say is that it's forgettable. Another thing I'm not particular fond of is Fog of War. Advance Wars employs this RTS pillar, yet I don't know if I really like the idea in a turn-based game where precision positioning is of the utmost importance. I suppose in some ways, it makes the battleground more realistic. Luckily, Fog of War is only utilized in a small fraction of the stages. Most of the stages are laid out like a typical wargame, where you'd be able to see all the pieces and possible locations on the map. One other annoyance is the last mission. It's quite a nightmare. The layout of the stage is such that even if you dominate the map, you'll can only make incremental progress towards winning the actual stage. I think it took me roughly 3 hours. Thank goodness for quicksave.

Irritations aside, if strategy games are your cup of tea, Advance Wars is one of the finest examples out there. In many ways, I much prefer this style of tactical play over SRPGs. In a game like this, it may not be optimal to put an infantry unit in front of an enemy tank. Due to the rock-paper-scissors hierarchy, it's just plain suicide. But that's also the beauty of it. It can be a completely valid strategy to sacrifice a unit either as bait, or to prevent enemy movement. In SRPGs, some games implement permanent death so you'd want to keep all your characters alive as long as possible. It's a bit tricky to say which style is more challenging, since SRPGs also have characters that level and improve over time. But I would say that Advance Wars does have more strategic depth simply because sacrifice is integral to tactical planning. The fact that Advance Wars comes full of strategic options and longevity in the stages is quite an achievement. I would have respected it regardless of whether it was on a portable or a console. Nevertheless, despite my glowing compliments, there was a slight disconnect with my actual feelings. I think it's an incredible game, but I don't love it. I finally figured it out. Advance Wars is merely a great take on the strategy war game. No more, no less. It doesn't push the envelope in any way, and that sort of dulls my emotions for it. While that might not matter as much to other people, for me, it's what keeps Advance Wars from reaching excellence.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen

Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen
RPG - Nintendo DS
Battery Backup - 3 Saves
1 player / WLAN Town Building

While not the first, Dragon Quest is the influence of what we now recognize as the traditional Japanese RPG. I played the first back in the 80s when it was released. And I hated it. It was completely tedious and dull, so much in fact, that I hadn't played another DQ title since. But because of the cult following, I felt like I should give the series another shot. Enter DQIV. I wasn't really sure what I was expecting going into this DS remake of a NES game, but I definitely developed an appreciation for what the series has to offer.

Dragon Quest IV is actually quite an interesting case study for me. It answers the question: "How would I feel about an RPG that does EVERYTHING right, except for one thing I care about most?" I adore the visual style, with traditional sprites over 3D polygonal rotatable buildings and backgrounds. It reminds me a lot of Grandia's style, and I am completely in love with it. Just like Grandia, the rotating backgrounds makes exploration really fun. In addition to treasure chests, there are plenty of medals to collect, in exchange for rare items. The added bonus of dual screens is very convenient in helping you see what is ahead too. In traditional Enix fashion, the orchestral soundtrack is also very nicely done. And the story? Ok... well... it's as generic cookie cutter fodder as they come (and what RPG isn't?), but I definitely enjoyed the story structure. The game is broken into chapters, hence the title, and makes the plot unfold more like a book, which is neat. One of the series' charms is actually specific to the English localization. Each kingdom has its own style of speech, which adds a lot of personality. One kingdom speaks with a heavy Russian accented English. Another parades its French influences. All of it just adds up to a world brimming with life.

Unfortunately, the best thing I can say about the combat engine is that it's tolerable. It all comes down to this - DQIV's battle mechanics are too simplistic for my tastes. The menu options are tried and true: Fight, Magic, Item, Flee - nothing more, nothing less. It's hard for me to be excited by the limited options, because I really enjoy tactical planning. With DQ, there's little to go on. To its credit, DQIV is the best implementation of this style of gameplay. This is a game in which party buffs and enemy debuffs, in addition to the usual arsenal of attacks and offensive spells, are essential against bosses and even some of the normal enemies. I like that each spell in the game is an integral part of the experience. I also like that DQIV implements enemy groupings so that there is effectively a difference between single-target spells and ones with an area-of-effect. Finally, I'm glad to report that DQIV allows your non-party members to share in experience, circumventing the tedium of rotating members in and out like a lot of other games. DQ may be simple, but at least it offers a focused battle experience. So while other games with similar mechanics drive me mad, Dragon Quest IV manages to be unoffensive.

Maybe that's the key to my overall opinion. DQIV hit all the right notes on everything, except combat. I place such a high value on combat because it is the only aspect of Japanese RPGs that differentiate it from adventure games. It comprises most of the playtime. Hence combat makes or breaks RPGs for me. I couldn't ever say I liked DQIV's combat. Nor could I say I hated it. Dragon Quest IV somehow manages to not offend. In the end, I rather enjoyed the adventure. There's just so much to love. I ultimately wish the fights had more depth to them, but when it comes down to it, I'm eagerly anticipating DQV. Maybe that's all that matters.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Sonic Chronicles

Sonic Chronicles The Dark Brotherhood
RPG - Nintendo DS
Battery Backup - 3 Saves
1 player / WLAN Chao Trading

Any mention of Sonic these days, and you'll be met with sighs and groans. Sega has done a wonderful job of degrading and stomping on this once respected franchise. With such atrocities as Shadow the Hedgehog and to a lesser extent the Sonic Adventure games, the announcement of a Sonic RPG was met with sharp criticism and skepticism. Then Bioware announced they were developing it. Mass confusion followed. Would this be a return to glory, or simply another swing at the equine's corpse? Well, it depends how you look at it.

Bioware has stated that one of their challenges was getting people excited for Sonic's friends again. On that, they're completely correct. Gamers have not really warmed towards Big the Cat, Cream, Rouge the Bat, etc. When interviewed, Bioware stated that they "think [Sonic Chronicles] is going to revitalize the love of Sonic's friends." Uh... not quite. Although they pulled most of the characters from the Sonic universe into this story, the dialog hardly goes beyond their one-dimensional personalities we've seen thus far. But because of the RPG structure, Bioware has successfully made Sonic's friends an integral part of the game. You need to include certain characters to utilize their strengths in party-based combat. You need to use certain characters to use their special abilities on the world map. You didn't expect to fly around with Knuckles looking for randomly generated gems to hiphop music in Sonic Adventure 2. But in Sonic Chronicles, you expect party travel. It fits and makes perfect sense.

Sonic Chronicles is pretty much what you would expect from a "Sonic RPG". It has a hokey story. It has action-y gameplay. It has its own style. And it's got bursts of speed (amidst a few lengthy fights). For a Bioware game, it is strange that the biggest weakness is the dialog. Perhaps they didn't have much freedom with the material, but the story comes off being simplistic and childish. I guess it's a Sonic game after all. Gems are stolen. Sonic and friends have to get them back. Blah blah blah. What was a little odd was how much sci-fi was thrown into the story. There are space ships and laser cannons and aliens - quite a departure from Sonic's early days of animal-controlled robots. Oh wait, I guess it was always a bit sci-fi. Known for their dialog trees, Bioware does little with conversation here. Instead of having multi-branching paths, most of response options are there to clarify and provide additional information rather than affect the story. The only thing I could see was that at one point, Amy Rose came up to me and thanked me for being so nice to her, which I presume she wouldn't do if I had chosen otherwise.

The game operates almost entirely off of stylus controls. Wandering around the overworld simply requires you directing your character with a stylus. Press down on the touchscreen and your character will start heading that same direction. Sometimes you'll encounter objects that you can interact with, such as talking with a NPC, opening a treasure box, or doing a spin-dash through a loop. In these situations, an icon will pop up and you can perform that action with L or R - the only buttons you can utilize in the game. You're holding onto the DS with your other hand anyway, so the L/R shoulders make the perfect action button. Although Sonic has never been stylus-controlled before, it actually manages to feel natural. Just like how most of 2D Sonic is moving in a direction and jumping at key times, Chronicles' movement mirrors that kind of flow. The game also offers quite a bit to explore. There are rings to find and chao to acquire in each world. There are also puzzles which require input from each of your characters to solve. And in true Bioware fashion, you'll be able to trigger quests, and a log is provided to keep track of them and your progress.

Combat, on the other hand, is as non-Sonic as you can get. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. For the most part, the visible encounters, menus and options resemble that of a Japanese RPG. You select commands for party members, and the turns will play out according to Agility/Speed attributes. Instead of magic spells, Sonic and friends have POW moves which require POW Points. When you execute a POW move, you have to do some work. The mechanics resemble Ouendan/Elite Beat Agents where circles will appear on-screen, and you'll have to tap them and follow their motions to a specific timing. On the flip side, your enemies will also perform POW moves that you can defend with the same types of motions. This type of system encourages more interaction in the battles, and I welcome it. True, having this system can slow the game down and force battles to be long. But as a player, I'm now a participant in what would otherwise be a monotonous endeavor. Another interesting aspect of battles are the escape sequences. If you flee from battle, or an enemy does, your party members will begin a side-scrolling running stage. Obstacles and speed-ups will be scattered along the ground to impede or aid your running. Your interact by tapping on characters to make them jump. The running is automatic. This resembles the forced-scrolling stages seen in the Sonic Advance games.

There are definitely some downsides though. Chronicles has the weakest music of any Sonic game. The original Sonic the Hedgehog had amazing tunes. And Naganuma re-imagined Sonic music with his take on Rush. I was not a fan of the Sonic Adventure soundtracks. But in Chronicles, it's so generic and forgettable that I don't even have an opinion. That's even worse, in my book. Also, for some reason, there is lag when pulling up the option menu. You'll face it whenever you want to use an item, equip a Chao for its special abilities, check you quest log or save your game. Another irritation is in the way the game is structured. Sometimes you'll accidentally trigger a story advance, with no way to go back, robbing you of exploration opportunities. Finally, the game manual and in-game help menus are inadequate. There's no documentation anywhere of what the status icons/effects do. Despite finishing the game, I still have no clue what some of the attacks are.

In the end, Sonic Chronicles feels very different from other RPGs I've played. I didn't really care that it wasn't the pinnacle of storytelling or user interface. I didn't care that some of the battles dragged on and on, as I alternated between using POW attacks which broke through enemy defenses, and defending to fill my POW Points back up. I didn't care that the ending was a complete tease. Flawed or not, Sonic Chronicles was completely entertaining to play. It's been a long time since anyone could say that about a Sonic game.

Friday, August 22, 2008

New Super Mario Bros.

New Super Mario Bros.
Platformer - Nintendo DS
Battery Backup - 3 Saves
1 player / 4 player WLAN

The original Super Mario Bros. was always my favorite of the series. Yes, subsequent entries had more variety to the stages, new power ups, and different enemies, but they just didn't resonate with me very well. So when Nintendo set out to make a sequel of the original for the DS, I was ecstatic. That is... until it came out. I absolutely hated it.

Where to begin... Let's start with the stages. Imagine my disappointment when I started up the game, hit a few blocks, jumped on a few goombas, and hit the end flag in about 20 seconds. The original SMB never had such short stages, and it certainly was a lot more challenging. Thankfully, the stages grow in length as the game progresses, but the difficulty level remains pretty easy overall.

The gameplay remains relatively intact. Your main weapon is still your feet. Jumping on enemies will get rid of most of them, including bosses. But this time you have some new jumping tricks. The coolest addition is the wall jump. It allows you to use your surrounding environment to scale higher heights. There is also a Ground Pound attack, in which you jump, and then stomp straight down. This creates a more powerful attack, and can break blocks as well. The style of the game is most reminiscent of the first Super Mario Bros., but you will see heavy influences of Mario 3 and World in the maps and stage design. But the limited musical tracks, classic swimming stages, and lack of flight definitely make it a tribute to the first.

Like the original Super Mario Bros., you've got your Mushroom, your fireball plant, and the invincibility star as power-ups. But this time they've added a Mega Mushroom, Mini Mushroom, and Turtle Shell. The Mega Mushroom lasts temporarily, but increases Mario's size to almost the height of the screen. He's invulnerable in this state, and depending on how much he destroys, he'll get some 1ups out of it too. The Mini Mushroom turns Mario extremely small. In exchange for the risk of a one-hit kill, Mini Mario can enter tiny passageways, run on water, and have floatier jumps. Finally, Shell Mario can hide in his shell to avoid taking hits. In addition, he'll be able to slide around in turtle shell form to attack enemies and hit blocks. The problem with these powerups is that they have limited usage. The Mega Mushroom is not well integrated into the game, and seems to be only useful for grabbing some extra lives. There's no stages that make use of his gigantic size, making it feel like an afterthought. Mini and Shell Mario are both a blessing and a curse. Sometimes the floaty physics of Mini Mario actually make stages much harder, if not impossible, to play. And the problem with Shell Mario is that the shell slide will activate while you're running, so if you're caught unprepared, you could slide right off a ledge. The thing is, although some stage areas are designed with those power-ups in mind, the power-up is often unavailable in that stage or makes it a random drop. That means you will have to replay a previous stage to get the necessary power-up, clear it, and then head back to the stage where you needed the power-up for entry. If you die, you'll have to do it all again. There's a lot of back-and-forth. It creates a tedious loop. Perhaps to alleviate this situation, you're also able to store one power-up on the touchscreen. But often, these power-ups are put into storage by a random drop, so chances are you won't have what you want in inventory. Overall, these new power-ups proved to be more aggravating than delightful.

Another aspect that is totally inexcusable is its save system. Being a portable game, you would think that Nintendo would add some sort of save anywhere feature, such as a temporary quicksave. There is no such thing. Instead, if you want to save, you have to either clear a tower/fort stage, or unlock an optional path on the map screen. When I'm playing on-the-go, I don't have time to dedicate playing 5 stages all at once. The solution according to the manual? Close the DS lid and put it in Sleep Mode. How is that a solution? What if your battery runs out while you're living your real life? What if you happen to forget that your DS is in sleep mode, and you leave it on for 2 weeks without playing? Why all games, especially portable, don't have a temporary quicksave feature is beyond me. If the game simply erases the quicksave after you've loaded it, then the game is just as challenging, but infinitely more convenient. It's ridiculous that NSMB only offers hardsaves in a select few save-points.

But for all that is wrong with the game, I finally "get" it. If you're just trying to beat the game, New Super Mario Bros. is a pretty mediocre experience. But NSMB incorporates a collectathon element, which ends up being its saving grace. Every stage of the game has 3 Star Coins to find. Some of them are out in the open, and may take some work to get. Others are a little more hidden and require logic and deduction to find. They'll test your timing and ability to make precision jumps. They'll also test your resourcefulness in using what the stage offers you. This is where NSMB shines. The design annoyances are still present for the Star Coins, but there are also some really creative locations for them as well. In addition, several stages have more than one exit. Find them, and you'll be able to access new paths on the world map. These new elements make NSMB play more like a puzzle game, and that actually changes the game considerably.

With design mishaps like poorly integrated power-ups, needing to replay previous stages, and lack of a quicksave, New Super Mario Bros. is full of irritation. Play the game to the end and you're likely to be bored by the lack of difficulty. But the inclusion of alternate exits and out-of-the-way coins transform the game into more of a thinking man's platformer. Pursue these extras, and you'll find that the bulk of the challenge lies here. Try as I may, I could hate it no longer. NSMB is flawed, but fun.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Bionic Commando

Bionic Commando
Action - Gameboy
1 player

Things you can do with a grappling arm:

- Scale new heights
- Swing over chasms
- Stun enemies
- Grab items

While everyone else is playing Bionic Commando Rearmed, I thought about revisiting the classic. Only, my NES is nearly impossible to get working nowadays, even with the "blow trick", and my Bionic Commando cart is MIA. I knew there was a Gameboy Bionic Commando, so I decided to do some research on it to find out if it was worth playing. What I discovered was that 1) There was also another Bionic Commando released for GBC called Elite Forces and 2) The original GB one is a remix of the NES Bionic Commando. Thanks to an Amazon Marketplace seller, I got the chance to experience the GB version for myself.

The game is very much an action platformer, with a twist. Unlike most platformers where you have options like wall jumping and double jumping to reach the next platform, Bionic Commando has no jumping at all. Instead, the gameplay centers around a grappling arm. Oh. You'll need to use plenty of weapons to dispatch of enemies as well, but the star of the show is the arm. You can shoot your grappling arm out horizontally, vertically or diagonally. Latch onto a platform, and you can propel yourself up to it. Latch onto a ceiling, and you can use your grappling arm as a rope to swing across. But the horizontal distance you swing depends on how much your arm is extended. And your arm extension depends on the distance between your character and the object your arm is clinging to. The control demands precision in positioning your character, as well as timing of the grappling arm. Luckily, the controls are very tight and rewarding. The design of the stages is such that you absolutely have to get comfortable utilizing the mechanics of the arm, or you cannot advance. You can choose what stages you want to play on the map. But every time you move, enemies will move as well. If you and an enemy contact, you'll enter an encounter stage where you can pick up some much needed continues.

Being a remix of the NES game, the grappling arm, weapons, armor and radio are mostly identical. The map and stages are also similar to the original as well. Visuals take a noticeable hit - everything is far less detailed. Maybe as a consolation, both the sound quality and musical composition are vastly improved. It also seems as if the action is much more fast paced in this version. But there are some noteable differences. Capcom rebalanced the grenade launcher/rocket launcher so that it's not nearly as powerful as before. In the NES version, taking down the power reactors took 3 hits of the launcher to finish a stage. Not so in the GB version. It takes about 10 hits, which forces you to engage enemies in the power room. This is another area in which the Gameboy differs. The power room encounters in the NES version were relatively uniform. But on the GB, they introduce new bosses in the power room segments. Couple that with the reduced effectiveness of the launcher, and you've got a higher difficulty end encounters. The swinging segments are generally easier on the GB version, except the difficulty ramps up considerably by the end. One major change is that the Albatross vehicle is a boss in the NES version, but is an entire stage in the GB version. It will put your grappling skills to the test. Finally, the last major change is that map encounters with the enemy are now horizontally scrolling action stages. In the NES version, they were vertical scrolling, reminiscent of Ikari Warriors. But in the GB version, its style is more consistent with the rest of the game.

Overall, the Gameboy Bionic Commando recreates the experience of the NES version. Bionic Commando on Gameboy certainly makes some changes - sometimes making the game easier, other times making it harder, and sometimes making it just plain different. Nevertheless, the two versions share the same game mechanics, familiar stages, and essence. But the problem with a remix/remake is that it will inevitably be compared to the original. You expect certain things because the original had them, and when they're not duplicated exactly or at all, it's hard not to be disappointed. And so I find myself conflicted. Bionic Commando GB is unquestionably a good game, and reminds me of exactly what I miss about old school gaming - tight controls and level design that revolves around mastery of the gameplay mechanics. But I can't shake the feeling that something was missing from it all. Maybe what I really want in a Bionic Commando game isn't the swinging, isn't the grappling, but merely a face explosion.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Meccha! Taiko no Tatsujin DS - 7tsu no Shima no Daibouken

Meccha! Taiko no Tatsujin DS - 7tsu no Shima no Daibouken
Rhythm - Nintendo DS
Battery Backup
1 player / 4 player WLAN

Not much to say really. It's Namco's rhythm game, Taiko no Tatsujin, but on the DS. This is the 2nd Taiko game for the DS, and like the first, it comes with two drumstick stylii to be used for the game. It also comes with a set of stickers. Who can resist free stuff?

The coolest thing about the game is the touchscreen interface. Of course nothing can compare to beating on the taiko prop in the arcades, but tapping the screen with your two stylii drumsticks is pretty intuitive. You can play the game with the normal Dpad/buttons too, but what's the point? The game is similar in style to most other rhythm games. "Notes" will scroll across the screen and when it hits a certain point, you tap the screen to time it exactly. On the DS version, there is a picture of a giant taiko drum on the touchscreen. If the note is red, you hit the drum with your stylus. If the note is blue, you hit a space outside of the drum. There are some special freestyle segments too, where you drum as fast as you can to rack up more points, and some other parts where you're forced to alternate your red and blue hits. All in all, it's a simple system, but it works pretty well.

The songs themselves are a mix of Jpop, classical music, folk songs, anime themes and namco video game music. The game sports a total of 50 songs, which ain't too shabby. And there are several difficulties for each song, so there's plenty of material here.

There's some interesting things about the game's structure. There are a lot of hidden events, akin to achievements. So when you hit certain milestones, you'll get emails, bonuses and congratulation screens. The in-game email system is full of personality. You'll receive messages from the game's cast of characters, each with their own unique writing style. They'll sometimes "attach" rewards, such as clothes for your drum to wear or additional instrument sounds to play with. Definitely the game's audience is more geared towards kids, but it's still very charming. The email system acts as a mark of progress, so it's kinda cool. There's also a story mode in the game that lets you unlock some new songs. It's kind of strange in that they won't let you fight bosses unless you've unlocked the proper clothing and wear them for the encounter. But the story mode has unique challenges to them including:

- Finish song at 100% rating
- Hit notes to damage bosses, as they send obstacles to block your vision of the note charts
- Play vs 3 computer opponents for highest score, as they use powerups and send little creatures to block where you can hit on the drum

Aside from the story mode, the general free play mode lets you play any song at whatever difficulty you want. Included is also a 2x/3x scroll speed option. The one thing I noticed is that compared to a Konami Bemani game, Taiko no Tatsujin is more mainstream-friendly. By that, I mean it's easy. In Bemani games, lots of times you are struggling to even pass a song and that's a big challenge in of itself. When passing that 9 foot song in DDR or 11 rated song in Beatmania IIDX, you feel a great sense of accomplishment. That type of feeling is lost in Taiko no Tatsujin (at least... until you unlock Oni mode). Instead, Taiko has a very lenient system. Even if you are messing up like crazy, chances are that you'll pass it. But there is still challenge to be found in precision. Like other rhythm games, playing for score is a big thing, so while it may be easy to pass a song, it is difficult to get 100% Good notes. So depending on what type of game player you are, the lack of difficulty in passing songs may or may not affect you. Finally there's a multiplayer versus mode, where you can even play 4 players off of one cart. The only drawback is that if you're the only one with the game, you'd be the only one with the two drumstick stylii and your friends would need to find additional props (fingers possibly?) or use the button controls.

Overall, the game works. The touchscreen interface allows for a more tactile experience than simply hitting buttons. Sure it can't match holding real drumsticks on the console and arcade versions, but it's a workable substitute. Plus I'm a sucker for unique accessories like the bundled drumstick stylii. With plenty of different modes offered and a sizeable songlist, Meccha! Taiko no Tatsujin DS is a whole lot of game.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Action Adventure - Nintendo 64
Battery - 3 saves
1 player

If this reads a bit like my take on FFX, it's unintentional. I've always respected the care that went into the Zelda games, particularly the first one. But I never really thought they were any good, aside from the more action-oriented The Adventure of Link. Traditional Zelda was a mixture of action, adventure, and puzzle. The problem is, it did not excel in any of those areas. Simply fusing elements from different genres doesn't really cut it for me. But Ocarina of Time has historical significance. Being the first game to receive a perfect review score in Famitsu, it generated a lot of buzz. Now that I've come around to playing it, I went into it with lots of skepticism. Turns out, Ocarina of Time is so much more better than the old Zelda games that I actually enjoyed it.

Ocarina of Time is the first 3D Zelda, and it's much better for it. First of all, the combat is much deeper than ever before. In 2D Zelda, it was just a simplistic hack 'n slash type of affair. Just point Link in the direction of the enemy and jam on the A-button. Not so in Ocarina. The 3rd dimension allows for consideration of height. Some enemies will be slightly higher or lower than you when they toss projectiles. But to compensate, you have fine control over your shield angle with the analog stick, so you can reflect projectiles wherever you want. The 3rd dimension also allows for more interesting enemy patterns. Some of the enemies have shields and will only lower when they attack you. They'll even do some jumping attacks that do more damage. This could get disorienting in 3D, so Ocarina employs a lock-on system that has influenced 3D action design today (DMC3, ZOE2, etc). While locked on, you now have a lot of evasive maneuvers in the form of a side-stepping, rolling, and hopping backwards, etc. It makes the fighting much more engaging than the older games. One negative aspect is that the controls feel a little bit clunky. The Z-trigger activates lock-on and if there's an enemy in your view, it will snap the camera to them. But the Z-trigger is also the same button for recentering the camera. So sometimes you are trying to do a camera reset so you can see what's ahead of you. But if the game picks up an enemy, it'll snap to them instead, which is not what you want. Some of your commands are available when locked-on, and another set of commands are available when lock is not activated which complicates this matter further. There have been many times in which I want to camera-reset, then roll, to escape an attack. But then the game picks up an enemy in my field of view and then because now it's locked onto the enemy instead of camera reset, I do a jumping attack instead of a roll. The game has an option to change default Z-trigger behavior from LOCK to HOLD, which means lock-on only happens when you hold down Z. But because the option screen is only available before you start up a game, not during a play session, I keep forgetting to change it and am reminded only after I've started the game and become frustrated with the controls. Aside from that, the combat is much improved from the older Zeldas.

One area in which Ocarina of Time really shines is its puzzles. Because of its transition to 3D, Nintendo got very creative with its puzzle design. Many puzzles require using projectiles to trigger events, so the 1st person view when wielding a slingshot, for instance, is very natural and accurate. The game also takes full advantage of height differences of crates and platforms, so box puzzles and minor platforming segments are well integrated. I never thought much of the old Zelda puzzles, but here in Ocarina, I've had to stop and observe my surroundings, consider what's in my inventory, talk to characters for hints, and logically deduce my next step. I've been stumped. But usually, when I figure out the solution, I end up appreciating its cleverness. I'm also glad they kept the "Puzzle solved!" chime from the old Zeldas, as it adds a touch of personality. The puzzles also extend somewhat to towns too. There's just a lot of optional things to do in the game, and some of these tasks require experimentation and thinking, just like the dungeon puzzles. The puzzles are very much the highlight.

Some of the minor things I didn't like were mostly related to the dialog. First of all, the text scrolls at an abnormally slow pace. Your only options are to bear with it, or hit the text fast-forward button, which is so fast that it doesn't allow you to read any of it. The other thing is, the actual dialog is pretty bad too. Girls will add "teehee" at the end of their sentences, there are some awkward transitions from a tragic event that just occurs to a character being immediately super happy afterwards, etc. It just seems childish and not very well thought out. Finally, it does the Dragon Quest thing where the game will ask you to do something? Yes/No. No. "Oh! But you must! Can you do this for me? Yes/No" No. "Oh! But you must! Can you do this for me?" Why do they even give you a dialog option at all if you're forced into a decision anyway? It's really stupid, and Ocarina does this at many points in the game.

Despite the annoyances I have with the dialog and the clunkiness associated with having camera-reset and enemy lock-on be the same button, The Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time has much to offer. Its combat system has influenced modern 3D action games. The puzzles are really well done - probably the best of any game I've played yet. And it offers a ton of things to do besides the main quest. I would hardly call Ocarina perfect, but I can definitely see its appeal. It's a well constructed game that ultimately impressed me, despite initial reservations.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Final Fantasy X

Final Fantasy X
Role Playing Game - Playstation 2
Memory Card - 99 saves
1 player

Final Fantasy and I don't go well together. The first one was great, and actually got me interested in the genre after the original Dragon Warrior bored me to tears. Then I noticed that as I completed IV, V, VI, and IX, not a whole lot had changed. Yes, Square added ATB, job systems, weapon/item customization, melodrama and awful minigames. But they were all built on the same type of basic structure that the original followed. It had the same repetitive, brainless fights it always did. The extent of strategic depth was limited primarily to casting LIT on a water enemy. While other developers were making strides, FF remained essentially faithful to its simple roots. Given that history, I wasn't looking forward to playing FFX at all. Well. Color me surprised.

Final Fantasy X is Square's most progressive FF yet. As far as the actual fights themselves, there's a bunch of new systems. The first is that ATB is out, and a new graphical representation of turns is on display, a la Grandia. It definitely helps in planning out a strategy, because it will show you how many turns you have until an enemy gets a turn. It will also show you the effects on turn order if you use agility effects. In addition, you can swap party members in and out mid-turn. What this means is that if your party member is low on hp, you can swap in a fresh character. More significant than the systems themselves is that Square actually built the entire game around these systems. There are basically six types of attacks you can do - physical, fire, water, lightning, ice, and non-elemental magic. Every single enemy in the game has strengths and weaknesses. For example, one enemy may be weak in fire, but ice heals them, water does 0 damage, lightning does 1/2 damage, physical does normal damage. Every enemy is unique. Equipped items or spells will allow you to see these strengths/weaknesses. Because of this entirely new concept, you will be switching characters in and out, as well as switching weapons and armor mid-battle to maximize your opportunities. You absolutely cannot play FFX with just "Fight", like you could in previous FFs. To also facilitate this strengths/weaknesses concept, you will find stations in towns that will teach you about some of the monsters in the areas. The last thing you want to do is it be face-to-face with a new monster, with no idea what tricks they have up their sleeves. This is a FF where you can easily die, as a lot of monsters have special attacks and counterattacks. Boss battles are also far more interesting than FFs of old. Sometimes bosses will have different body parts, like Grandia, and will do devastating combos if those body parts are allowed to go in sequence. Other times, you will have special options called Trigger commands, that incorporate positioning. It reminds me a lot of Panzer Dragoon Saga in that regard. It's as if Square FINALLY realized how to make combat fun.

A lot of mention usually goes to its Sphere Grid system. When you level up, you don't necessarily gain any stats or skills. A level up merely gives you some traveling power on the grid. Think of it as a boardgame, with multibranching paths. Each character starts in a certain part of the grid that leads to their "natural" path, ie. Yuuna's section has stats and spells that are beneficial for a white mage. But there are junctures where you can leave that path. The advantage of the Sphere Grid is that it allows you to customize a character to your liking. But if you wander around aimlessly, your character could be pretty disadvantaged vs a dedicated path.

Outside of game systems, there's some pretty cool stuff as well. FFX features some of the best puzzles I've encountered in a traditional jRPG. Most of them involve taking a sphere here, inserting it there, push a stone tablet over there, and experimenting with all these things to unlock doors. The best part is they designed these puzzle sequences without any enemies to disrupt you. They are pretty challenging in of themselves, so it's better that they're focused experiences. I also enjoy the attention to detail throughout the game. Townsfolk will walk around, sit down, get back up, and walk in a different direction. The spontaneous behavior of the people brings about a sort of realism and livelihood to the towns. There is a foreign people in the game world, and the way FFX handles their foreign language and your learning of it is really cool too. FFX is also the first FF to feature voice, and there's lots of it. It is somewhat controversial, but I really like its addition. It accentuates dramatic scenes, and makes comedic scenes funnier, infamous laughing scene excluded. But a huge irritation for me is that character lips are not synched with the voice. It causes a disconnect, and I played the game in its original language! It's an unfortunate oversight on Square's part, because they payed attention to other details in the game.

Still, for all that FFX did right, there are many aspects of the game that are worst-in-series. I understand that Final Fantasy has been striving to be the de facto cinematic RPG out there. But FFX really goes overboard. For instance, the first 10 or so hours of the game, you play very little of it. It's all walk here, 5 minute cutscene, walk there 2 minute cutscene, fight a 1 minute battle, watch a 10 minute cutscene. That sort of pretentious crap pissed me off in Kojima games, but FFX is even worse. One time, the game shifted to a cutscene where a character said 2 lines of dialog. Then it switched back to the overworld. Not every piece of dialog deserves its own cutscene, Square. It's like they finally make a FF that's fun to play, but they won't let you play it. It does get better in that regard, but FFX is still saturated with cutscenes overall.

Even though I really like the battle engine, there are some poor design flaws. First of all, unless a party member performs an action in battle, they will not receive exp. So what that means is that you will be trying to fight each enemy, rotating your 7 members in and out so that they can all share the experience. It doesn't make the game any more fun or challenging - simply tedious. But most frustrating of all are the cheap deaths. Sometimes an enemy will ambush you, get first strike, do a special attack that immobilizes all your party members, and then it's game over before you can perform a single action. Once again, this doesn't mean the game is hard. It means it's cheap. If you don't have the right party members or equipment when a battle starts, you could be caught in that situation. Even if you have the right equipment, many defensive options only increase your chances of resisting those attacks but do not guarantee it. So you can still be in a no-opportunity, insta-death situation even if you have proper equipment. It has pissed me off on more than a few occasions, causing me to shelf the game for a time.

Finally, there are some general game problems that also detract from the experience. For one, equipment management is awful. Imagine you can hold up to 200 weapons/armor. The list fills up in the order you obtain them (via purchase, discovery, or enemy drops). There is no auto-sort, but you can manually sort if you'd like. Now imagine you've picked up your 201'st piece of equipment. Do you keep it? Well. First you look at what the weapon offers. Then you look through your list, scrolling down 200 entries to see if the weapon you picked up is better or not than what you have. Now repeat that every time you pick up another piece of equipment. Or what about selling items? How do you know which piece of equipment is crappy enough that you wanna get rid of it? Same thing. Is weapon #25 better than 26-200? You have to manually scroll back and forth through the list to compare your items. It's horribly implemented to the point where I would spend an hour of my time every now and then to manually sort all the items to group them by character. The game is also broken in its customization. You can fuse abilities to weapons/armor, and the summon creatures at the cost of certain items. Problem is... those items are generally only obtainable via Rikku's Steal command or Bribe. If you use Steal, you can only get 1-2 items per fight. Most of the items, especially rare ones, are a lot more accessible via the Bribe command. But even at the very end of the game, to bribe a single enemy, I would lose my entire savings built up in the last 60 hours. It is utterly ridiculous. Oh, there are ways of farming lots of money, by perhaps bribing the right monster and selling the proceeds to bribe some more. But unless you cheat and use a FAQ, no sane person is going to use all their money to bribe a random enemy, get the proceeds and then see if they're worth it to use/sell, document it, then reset the game, reload from save, and repeat for the 500 types of enemies in the game. (I tried it a couple times and then promptly gave up.) The design decisions in the game are baffling.

So in the end, I come away with mixed feelings. Without question, Final Fantasy X is the only FF I really enjoyed playing. The challenging enemies, wealth of strategic combat options, and sphere puzzles all make X stand out from its generic predecessors. But the constant interruptions via cutscenes, poor equipment management, and ridiculously cheap game-overs are absolutely infuriating. Still, I'd much rather play another FFX than another FF I-IX, which says a lot about FFX's progress. Or maybe it says a lot about the others' lack-of.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Guitar Hero On Tour

Guitar Hero On Tour
Rhythm - Nintendo DS
Battery Backup - 3 saves
1 player / 2 player WLAN

With the widespread success of Guitar Hero and Rock Band in the US, it was only a matter of time before someone set their sights on the portable market. Activision & Vicarious Visions became that someone. And the DS became their platform of choice. The story goes that Guitar Hero On Tour was an experiment for Activision. Would they be able to reproduce the console experience on a portable? I'd say: very little. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.

First of all, Guitar Hero On Tour comes with a Guitar Grip that fits in the GBA slot. By default, it fits the DSlite, but the package also comes with a converter for DSfat owners like me. The guitar grip is designed to mimic pressing fingers on the fret buttons a la the console guitar controllers, and aside from dropping the 5th button, it works really well. Tactile feel of the buttons is good. The grip also comes with an adjustable velcro strap for your hand, so you can simultaneously hold the DS and play notes at the same time. Although the guitar grip controller allows you to play notes as intuitively as the console versions, there is a major problem. Ergonomics are a sour point. Up until you find a hand position that works comfortably, you will likely be in a lot of pain. Between the fast fingerwork required to play higher level songs, supporting the weight of the DS on the same hand, and angling the DS so that you can actually see the note charts, the game puts a lot of stress on your weaker hand. Immediately after a couple of songs, I felt sharp pains shooting through my left wrist. It's a system of trial and error to find a playable position, and that's a big let down on a game like this.

But things aren't all wrong. The biggest selling point for me was that the game also comes with a pick-stylus. Since the DS has a touchscreen, it's only natural that they utilize it. With a pick in hand, it feels more like real strumming than that silly guitar controller flap. Just stroke the touchscreen with the pick left or right, and it plays the notes you've fingered. It's intuitive and has the right sensitivity. To use the whammy bar for long notes, you simply slide the pick left and right rapidly. Your touchscreen might not like the scratches, but it sure does feel natural. And when you're not using the pick, you just slide it into the guitar grip, where it has its own storage space. It's details like that where you realize that Activision and VV were serious about making a quality product.

The audio and visuals are also very high quality. The game contains 25 songs, and the bulk of them are exclusive to On Tour. The songs are a mix of genres, from Pat Benatar to Nirvana to Santana - mostly from the last decade though. As expected, many of the songs are covers, but I was surprised to hear Maroon 5 blasting from the speakers fully intact. The game sports four difficulties, with Easy being for the truly rhythmless, and Expert for ... well... experts. The song pattens I've gone through in Normal and Hard have been pretty fun, and are pretty much in line with all other RedOctane/Harmonix releases. No complaints there.

The game also offers 2 player modes, assuming you have a friend with the guitar grip. There's competitive play, where you can actually attack your opponent with DS specific options... and the normal co-op from the console versions. I don't know anyone with the game, so I did not get a chance to test out these features.

If the goal of the game is to simply duplicate the feeling of left hand/fret buttons - right hand/strum to rhythm and music, On Tour is a decent attempt. The addition of the pick/touchscreen for the DS actually makes it better than the console versions for the strumming experience. But if the goal of the game is to feel like a guitar player, On Tour falls completely short. Having to balance the DS with your palm while frantically hitting buttons with fingers from the same hand is not the challenge Activision aimed for. In addition, even though Star Power can be activated in three different ways, all the methods interrupt the flow of rocking out, versus the guitar lift in the console versions. Make no mistake. Guitar Hero On Tour is a unique and fun rhythm game that takes full advantage of the DS' capabilities. But it does not at all emulate the feel of performing. For me, it doesn't have to. The cool guitar grip peripheral and being able to strum are reasons enough to warrant its existence. It's a Guitar Hero that offers not a lesser, but a different experience altogether than any of its console counterparts.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Yggdra Union

Yggdra Union
SRPG - Gameboy Advance
Battery Backup - 3 saves, 1 quicksave
1 player

Developer Sting is one to look out for. The last time they made a game, they created a different interpretation than others in its class. Riviera was that game. And what Riviera did for RPGs, Yggdra Union aims to do with SRPGs.

Like other SRPGs, Yggdra Union has many of the same basics. There's grid movement, the usual rock-paper-scissors unit types (knights, archers, mages, swordsmen, axemen, etc), and stat progression via experience points. In most turn-based combat, a viable strategy is to attack an opponent with multiple units. While the units trade blows, the assumed end result is that the opponent's health is chipped away until one of your units finally kills them. Not so in Yggdra Union. The entire philosophy of combat is completely changed in this title. Here, each turn consists of one or more fights. To damage an opponent, you have to win that fight. That means that in the typical 6-vs-6 fight, if you kill 4 of their soldiers, and they kill all 6 of yours, you are the only one to lose health (morale in Yggdra). It also means that if you attack that enemy on a subsequent turn, you face another 6-vs-6 fight. With this battle system philosophy in place, you should ONLY attack an enemy if you know you will win. Simply throwing all your units at an enemy usually won't work. That means that you absolutely need to take every opportunity to gain an advantage - terrain bonuses, weapon affinity bonuses, aggressive attacks, and card powers.

Wait, card powers? Nope, it's not what you think. There are cards in the game, but there's no deck, and no randomness in drawing cards. Instead, the cards serve 4 purposes:

1. They determine your number of turns. Before each scenario, the game will tell you to choose 4 or 12 or 14 or however many cards Sting thought you would need for the stage. When the battle begins, you choose a card each turn. Once you use that card, you can't use it for the rest of the battle (unless it's a multi-part battle).

2. They determine your movement for the turn. Each card has a number on it indicating how many boxes your units can move on a grid. Some of the more powerful cards allow up to movement 12, which you can split among any or all of your units.

3. They determine your attack power. Each card has another number indicating how well you'll fight with the card and how much morale damage inflicted. This number increases as you win fights.

4. Finally, each card has an ability associated with it. Some of these cards are good in the right context, ie elemental magic, but others are tide-shifters. Use them correctly, and you can turn your attack that was sure to lose, into a win.

This interesting card system is only the beginning of Sting's bag of tricks. Not only are you allowed one card per turn, but you're only allowed one attack per turn. That's where the concept of "unions" come in. If you arrange your squad into specific shapes with respect to your attacker, they form a union and attack the enemy together. Each unit in the union will face off sequentially against the enemy. If the enemy is isolated, they will experience "battle fatigue" and will start each subsequent battle with one less unit. That means if you have a 5-unit union vs 1 enemy, the first fight will be 6-vs-6, the second 6-vs-5, and so on until the fifth fight you will be battling 6-vs-2. Manage your formation units well, and you can easily stack the odds in your favor. But be aware that the enemy can form unions too. Therein lies the core mechanic of the game. Since each stage has a limited number of turns, you have to make the most of your opportunities. Attacking with unions is the quickest way to progress through a scenario, but sometimes it's better to fight as smaller unions or individual units if you risk losing a fight, and hence unit morale. The choice of strategy is up to you.

The last thing to mention are the battles themselves. Once you enter a fight, as I mentioned earlier, usually it's 6 soldiers against 6 enemy soldiers. The fight takes place in real-time, and without any input, they will play out mathematically based on weapon affinities (sword > axe > spears), unit attack strength, land bonuses, etc. It's sort of like Dragon Force's 100-vs-100 battles. But even as you watch the fights play out, you have quite a bit of interaction in the form of an aggression meter. If you drain your aggression meter, your unit will inflict more damage than normal for as long as you drain it. If your unit has any elemental bonuses (ie fire damage), they will added in. If you charge your aggression meter, your unit will be more passive and hence weaker than normal. In addition to charging the meter to go aggro later, if you charge your meter to 100%, you can use your card's ability. Both aggressive tactics and using card abilities can sway the fight in your favor, so interaction with the aggression meter is a huge role. The enemy has a Rage meter that acts in a similar fashion.

That's the entire battle engine in a nutshell. There's so many different elements to it that it's hard to be concise, but it comes together quite nicely. Yggdra Union also has a little bit of interaction outside of the battles too. On each battlefield, there's a grid of possible locations. Sometimes if you stop on a particular square, you'll find a hidden item. Items are also very important because they can boost your unit stats and grant additional abilities. Alternatively, they can be used to heal morale of your units. Units can only equip one item at a time, and items only last for 1 to 3 stages. So item management is a critical planning aspect of the game. That's not all. The battlefield will also contain towns and castles. Sometimes, depending on the character, what items you have in possession, and what time of the day it is, you can obtain items from townsfolk by landing on these icons. Some will give you items freely, while others will only give you an item in exchange for another. Because all of these item discoveries are hidden, they're either a pleasant surprise or a completionist's worst nightmare. In addition, items can also drop from defeated enemies, or can be stolen during battle.

I absolutely love that Sting consistently tries out new ideas. Although the elements vary in their degrees of success, you have to commend a company that will not succumb to laziness and status quo. Here in Yggdra Union, the game systems are actually quite innovative and well implemented. The game is difficult, and - unless you utilize the wealth of items, weapon and elemental affinities, terrain, the aggression meter and card powers, basically everything available to you - Game Overs are not uncommon. That's quite a fresh breath of air compared to the stale "surround and pound" tactics of other SRPGs. There definitely are some design flaws here and there : the in-game tutorial is inadequate, causing confusion early-on; there are no help menus like Riviera; you cannot view enemy units prior to choosing your characters for a stage; battle conditions will change without warning ie. sudden appearance of enemy back-up; questionable pacing; the script has typos and is a bit hokey despite its serious content. But these things do not diminish what Sting has accomplished. Yggdra Union dares to shove past its stagnant peers. It's totally my type of game.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Grandia Xtreme

Grandia Xtreme
Memory Card - 8 save slots
1 player

Do you ever get the feeling that some games were made just for you? The art, the characterization, the gameplay - everything about it seems perfect. Grandia was that game. And Grandia this is not.

Although this is the third game, they chose not to call this Grandia III. If you came expecting it to follow the same conventions as the main series, you'd be in for a shock. What we have here is a blend of RPG and dungeon crawler. Sadly, many of the things I liked about the Grandia series are removed. There is a bare-bones story to give GX a framework. It's hardly as ambitious as the other Grandias, but it's workable. What is a loss is the lack of characterization. There are 8 characters this time, and none of them are ever fleshed out. You never really end up caring for their causes. Grandia has always been character-driven, but Xtreme de-emphasizes that. Grandia also sported really nice locales - dungeons & towns had very unique and imaginative designs. I always looked forward to finding the next place to go because the locations were so creative. In GX, there is a total of two towns. Two. But one of them doesn't even have shops. That's where the dungeon crawler aspects intrude on my enjoyment.

Everything centers on a single town. There you have the only shops and the only save point in the game. Think about that for a moment. That means that even if you've been in a dungeon for two hours (which is minimal for GX), you cannot save your progress until you head back to town. There is no quicksave offered. This is probably GameArts/Enix's idea of pushing the survival aspect of the game. But it ends up being impractical. A quicksave wouldn't compromise their vision of difficulty, but it would make GX a lot more playable. Instead, they limit sessions only to those times where you can dedicate 3 hour blocks to it.

Their attempt to alleviate this is pretty irritating. Scattered throughout dungeons are Geo Points that allow your party to warp back to town. Some Geo Points allow only a one way trip. Others allow you to go back to town, and then warp back. The problem is, everytime you re-enter a dungeon via Geo Point or otherwise, all the enemies respawn. So using the Geo Point allows you to save. But the penalty is you have to wade through another hour or so of fighting again. There are no Geo Points right before a boss.

Ultimately this type of design drags down Grandia's greatest selling point - its battle engine. First, the good. Xtreme has the most sophisticated iteration of it yet. It's still as strategic as the previous entries, where everything plays out in semi-real time. The action pauses everytime it's a party-members turn, but timing and position heavily influence your attack effectiveness. Some interesting changes are all related to your SP attacks. In previous Grandias, everytime you enter a dungeon, you would get HP, MP, and SP. In Xtreme, your SP starts at 0 every time you enter a dungeon. But it builds up with time, and also whenever you hit or get hit. This is nice because it allows you to use your SP attacks frequently, and believe me, you'll need it. In addition to the way it builds up, you're also able to do combination SP attacks. Similar to Chrono Trigger, there are double SP attacks and triple SP attacks. Once you initiate the attack, it needs to wait until all members involved in the attack are ready (ie all members have to have their turn available) before it executes. And finally, you learn SP attacks mid-battle. When you use your SP attacks, you build levels for that attack. When you hit a certain threshold, you'll execute (and thus learn) a new attack. You'll be fighting an enemy and executing an attack in your arsenal, and then suddenly, you'll be doing something completely new and usually more powerful. It's a pleasant surprise, and you'll be able to use the special attack thereafter.

Xtreme also takes skills and mana eggs to the next level. Similar to Final Fantasy IX, you need to equip skills in order to build their levels. Skills range from getting attack bonuses toward certain creatures, to boosting your agility rating to being able to counterattack when hit. Skills play a critical role and can decide life and death. In GX, enemies actually drop skill scrolls, so they are plentiful. The key is in leveling up those skills so that they can be useful. On the magic side, I really did not like how mana eggs were simplified in Grandia II. Luckily, Grandia Xtreme is a step in the right direction. Just like skills, mana eggs are relatively plentiful. But instead of leveling the eggs through fights, eggs are leveled by fusion. Mix a Level 1 Stone Egg with a Level 1 Fire Egg and you create a Level 2 Burst Egg. Mix a Level 2 Burst Egg with a Level 1 Fire Egg and you create a Level 3 Bomb Egg. Each type of egg has its own set of spells, so you may want to keep a lower level egg around for what it can cast. When you fuse eggs, sometimes you get random bonuses such as 1/2 casting cost, extra damage, etc. Conveniently, the game keeps a log of what types of eggs are required to make other eggs.

But as great as these systems are in improving Grandia's gameplay, it's the overall design decisions that bog the game down. There will be times where you will need to leave the dungeon in order to save. And as I said, all the enemies respawn when you go back to where you left off. So you're constantly fighting over and over again. To make matters worse, some bosses are unfair in that if you have the right equipment, you'll do fine. But if you don't, you'll only last a couple of turns. You'll probably know what to do the next time, but that means going through the dungeon again (or Geo Point, if you saved) and fighting an hour or three's worth of battles again.

To top it all off is what I believe to be the game-breaking flaw. Consider this: You can choose your party. Evann has to stay constant, but you can choose 3 of the remaining 8. In certain parts of the story, you are forced to use certain characters. But characters that are not in your party do not gain experience. So if you want to keep your party balanced, you have to go back to town and keep switching characters. If that wasn't bad enough, the enemies are scaled to be at a level around your highest party member. Since Evann is always in your party, he is easily 10 levels above your other party members. That means that although he can fight normal enemies ok, your other members are struggling. Some of them can only hit enemies for 1 point of damage. Sure it keeps the game challenging at all times, but battles end up taking a long time to fight. But when you consider that bosses can also slaughter your underleveled party members, it forces you to level grind. But wait, even the weakest enemies take 5 minutes to fight, and give you minimal experience... and if you eventually level your underpowered members, Evann ends up leveling in the midst of it as well, which makes the enemies more powerful and the whole cycle repeats. Absolutely tedious.

And that's what Grandia Xtreme is. It turned what would otherwise be a great system against the player. Consider this: I've owned Grandia Xtreme since its Japanese launch date. That's 6.5 years before I could finish it. The boredom of going through the same dungeons over and over, as well as the irritation of fighting the same enemies over and over drove me absolutely mad. Many have wondered if Grandia could stand alone on its fun battle mechanics. Grandia Xtreme proves that it cannot.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Earth Defense Force 2

Simple 2000 Vol. 81: THE Chikyuu Boueigun 2
Action - Playstation 2
Memory Card - 8 slots
2 Players

As part of the SIMPLE 2000 Japanese budget game series, expectations are generally pretty low. But out of nowhere, THE Chikyuu Boueigun (Earth Defense Force/EDF) was released for the PS2, and gamers took notice. First thing you should know: It was developed by Sandlot, who also made Gigantic Drive/Robot Alchemic Drive for the PS2. Also, even if some aspects scream budget, it was a solid game through and through. EDF2 is its bigger and better sequel.

Imagine a massive alien invasion, hostile beings with an expansive mothership, huge hulking robotic machines, and a fleet of space ships that block out the sky. You are pretty much earth's last hope against swarms of incoming aliens. First choose a character, and then pick 2 weapons from an arsenal of 100+ to tackle its assortment of stages. The two characters available each come with their own set of weaponry. The captain is very straight forward, but choose the Pale Wing character, and her flying ability completely changes the way you play.

EDF2 is a pure blastathon. It's a 3rd person shooter with full directional movement. You can jump, roll, and shoot. And you can board vehicles if they're available. While that might sound simplistic, it actually works in the game's favor. The game overwhelms you with a horde of enemies on-screen. You'll be attacked from everywhich direction, to your side, from the back, and even from above. It's not uncommon for there to be 50+ enemies surrounding you. As you can imagine, the action is absolutely intense. While the beginning enemies die in 1-2 hits, later stages feature a flood of enemies that can absorb tons of damage. You need to experiment with the weapons you have, and use the terrain of the stage to make it through.
EDF2 is a game that rewards quick reflexes, precision in making the most of your shots, and strategy for survival.

But the game is hardly perfect. Being a budget title, it lacks visual polish and a great soundtrack. The biggest complaint heard is regarding the framerate. When the screen gets busy and action gets chaotic, the framerate slows to a crawl - sometimes even to 1 fps. The hardware just isn't able to handle everything that's going on. I would argue that it's part of EDF2's charm, because I've never played a game before that attempted to have enemies on this large of a scale. It's so ambitious that the framerate stutter is like a proud reminder. Still, there are some nagging problems. First, the default control is garbage. It is set to auto-aim, which handicaps the game a lot. Not only does it make playing less interactive, but not being able to choose who to shoot can be a game-ender. To alleviate that, you need to set your controls to Technical, where it will function more like a console FPS - one analog stick to move, the other to aim. Second, some of the other default settings are annoying too. Cut scenes are done in real time, but as the camera shifts to focus in on the action, your character is running around blind. It's fixable, via the option screen, but I question these design decisions. While these are seemingly minor, the biggest problem of the game was that it's too long. There are over 70 stages, and not all of them are good. Some stages are really monotonous and simply a repeat of stuff you did before. I would get bored and stop playing for weeks, sometimes months, before picking it back up. The erratic pacing definitely had an effect on my enthusiasm.

Still, what EDF2 does right always won me back. The stages themselves vary in location and objective. Sometimes you'll fight masses of enemies through hills and valleys. Other times, you'll be exploring narrow caves in search of an alien nest. You'll even get to duel against a Godzilla-alike in a crowded city! One neat aspect of the game is that pretty much everything can be destroyed. The skyscraper blocking your aim of the spider monster? Fire some grenades and level it. That bridge the enemies are walking across? Take it down with a rocket. Destruction is fun! But what I loved most of all about EDF2 is that it captures the feeling of an alien invasion. When you see a swarm of enemies all around, it paints a bleak picture, and leaves you terrified. When you see UFOs dropping bombs and wreaking havoc on towns as the citizens flee, there's a sensation of urgency. It is an epic battle for survival. Some of the scenes look like inspired by War of the Worlds. It's just everything you envision an alien invasion to be.

Earth Defense Force 2 is largely regarded as one of the must-have import titles for the PS2. Its fans obsessively praise it, and consider it a mindblowing experience. While I do not share the same enthusiasm (I'd weed out maybe half of the stages), EDF2 is not doubt a good game. There aren't too many third person shooters out there, much less ones that are worth playing. But EDF2 manages to carve a unique identity for itself, and creates a convincing atmosphere. The alien invasion action game is without equal. Did I mention 2 player co-op?

Friday, May 09, 2008

Professor Layton and the Curious Village

Professor Layton and the Curious Village
Puzzle Adventure - Nintendo DS
Battery Backup - 3 saves
1 player

Curious indeed. Known for its classy quasi-artstyle, Professor Layton is a stylus driven adventure game. The premise is that Professor Layton and his assistant are seeking the treasure of a wealthy Baron that has passed on. The Baron issued a public challenge offering the treasure to anyone who could find it. Thus the story begins.

Professor Layton and the Curious Village definitely plays like a traditional adventure game. You navigate through the different parts of town, talk to people and investigate items simply by poking at things with your stylus. But mostly, Layton is a puzzle game. The puzzles are very much what you might find in a brain teaser puzzle book. Among them, they'll test your knowledge of algebra, your spatial abilities, your logic, and even your reading comprehension. There's a bit of variety so it's hard to get bored. That all adds up to a game you can play for long stretches of time, or in short bursts depending on your mood. Since there's over 100 puzzles to rack your brains over, it'll last you a long time regardless.

Some of the nice touches that I enjoyed were some of the puzzle-y mini-games in addition to the normal puzzles you'll find. You'll be collecting items along the way, and even manipulating those items will be a puzzle in of themselves. Many of the puzzles are completely optional. For me, that just gave me more incentive to explore the city and talk to villagers to find them all. But in case you missed any, the game will archive them for you. The puzzles start out pretty easy, but quickly become challenging. Some are downright frustrating. Luckily, the game has a system where you can get up to 3 hints to solve a puzzle. During the exploration segments, you can discover coins to help you purchase these hints. Although the hints won't spell out the answer for you, they can be extremely helpful in determining a solution. The touchscreen itself is also quite an asset. For a lot of the puzzles, you can use your stylus as a "pencil" and write your notes on-screen. It acts very much like scratch paper. Unfortunately, I wish they had allowed that option on all the puzzles, but it is there on most of the math-y ones.

Although the puzzles are definitely a focal point, there are some cool things done for the adventure portions as well. In addition to the collectathon and exploration aspects, one thing that stood out for me was the animated FMV. Even though the DS and PSP are more than capable of doing FMV, I'm so used to seeing static images, so its inclusion is a pleasant surprise. There's a fair amount of animation here to progress the plot. With its unique art and fluid animation, it really complements the game's style very well, as does the British English voice acting. Plus, whenever you continue your game, the game will give you a "Story thus far..." recap of your present situation. There's a lot of nice touches like that.

If you couldn't tell, I found Professor Layton and the Curious Village an enjoyable romp. But despite my positive gushing, I couldn't help but think that Layton did not offer much that a brain teaser book couldn't. The fact that the DS touchscreen mimics scratch paper is a definite plus for gaming purposes, but if its best feature is to emulate 5th century practices, then perhaps all the tech isn't needed. Then again, if you enjoy the exploration offered by adventure games, Layton offers both worlds. And is far more polished than most.