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.