Tuesday, December 29, 2009

DJ Max Portable

DJ Max Portable
Developer: Pentavision
Publisher: Pentavision
Rhythm - Playstation Portable
1 player
DJ Max Portable

I had bought this game when it first came out about 5 years ago, but never had a PSP to play it on until now. I remember it was pretty hyped on Play-Asia because it was a Korea-only import. I often import Japanese games but this was the first time I'd get one from Korea. They have since re-released this game as DJ Max Portable International with English menus, and released a sequel, 2 expansion games, and finally a US release called DJ Max Fever earlier this year. DJ Max Portable is more or less a Beatmania IIDX clone, but with Korean music rather than Japanese. It also sports a different "controller" setup than IIDX, but the game style is still the same:

Notes drop from the top of the screen and when it crosses a threshold, you time button-presses to that exact moment.

There are a couple of things that is different about IIDX/DJMP compared to most rhythm games. First of all, unlike Guitar Hero where you play the guitar parts of the song, these DJ games actually have you playing all the parts of the song. So you might be doing the steady drum rhythm with one hand, and playing the synth melody with another. In easier modes, one button press will set off a string of notes. In harder modes, you may have to play each one of those notes in that same string. The other thing about these games is that they allow for freestyling. In Guitar Hero / Rock Band, the games actively discourage it because if you don't play the right note, your "health" diminishes and you come closer to a game over. Here in IIDX/DJMP, playing a note that isn't on the screen does not affect you in any way and allows you some freedom in creating your own mix to the song. Of course, you need to also hit the required notes too. But there is some creative expression allowed on top of that.

Also like IIDX, DJ Max Portable sports many of the same types of modes. There's your standard "Arcade"-like mode where you play 4 songs sequentially. Only certain songs will be available at each stage. Clear it, and you'll get an overall score for the scoreboard and a Thank You screen. You'll also get a challenge mode where there are certain themes, such as playing a set of Rock songs. Then there's the Unlimited mode where you can choose from any of the songs available and practice them to your heart's content. Finally there's a Gallery mode where unlockable images and goodies go, as you meet certain goals.

Differences? DJ Max Portable is more newbie-friendly in the timing. Beatmania IIDX has a scoring range of MISS, BAD, GOOD, GREAT, JUST GREAT. The DJMP equivalent to these are MISS, MAX 1, MAX 40, MAX 80, MAX 100. IIDX is very strict and nothing other than perfection will give you a "JUST GREAT". But DJMP gives a larger window to achieve its best timing note, "MAX 100". On top of that, a BAD in IIDX breaks your combo and will hurt your "health". DJMP instead allows for MAX 1's to sustain your combo, and as a result, helps you to survive much longer. In a way, this is a necessary step because the PSP controls are not as tactile and intuitive as the turntable controller for IIDX. But it does make DJMP quite a bit easier. You can fudge some of the notes just by pressing everything, whereas IIDX will just fail you.

DJMP does introduce two new things to the mix. They add hold notes, where you must hit a note and hold it down for the duration as shown on the screen. It's intuitive and adds an interesting element to the mix that IIDX doesn't have (but other Konami rhythm games do have). But the other addition is the rotation of the nub during parts of the song. IIDX has a turntable that you turn, so maybe this is their version. Unfortunately, switching from D-pad notes to nub rotation in mere milliseconds isn't as well integrated as it could have been, and I dread these parts as much as I do the spinning wheels in the Ouendan DS games. Luckily I haven't encountered a lot of these. On the other hand, one positive thing about the PSP is that you can vary the scrolling speed of the notes on-the-fly with the L/R buttons, which is very handy. IIDX veterans know that many songs are actually -easier- when the notes scroll by faster. You can change speed on the fly in IIDX too, but it requires a combination of buttons vs. the more intuitive L/R in DJMP.

Perhaps the biggest difference of all is really the controller interface. I don't think the PSP is ergonomically sound and playing a game with such crazy rhythm patterns are probably recipes for Carpal Tunnel. The button pressing is ultimately not as satisfying as the turntable + 7 key setup of IIDX. Still, for a portable, it's the best approximate you can have. In fact, after playing this game, I lost interest in getting Rock Band Unplugged because it just seems so simple in comparison. DJMP sports a beginner 4-button mode that is similar in control scheme to Rock Band Unplugged. It also sports 6-button and 8-button (originally locked) modes for advance play, with harder patterns and more notes to deal with. The interesting thing is that switching to 6/8 button modes totally requires relearning the game and rewiring your brain to recognize which notes go with which buttons. So there's tons of content available.

The songs themselves are a mix of mostly K-pop with some drum & bass, house, soul and techno thrown in. Personally, I prefer both the variety and the compositions of Beatmania because they have some really talented electronic musicians. I miss the trance and more overall synth emphasis from Konami. The music videos are better in IIDX too. In DJMP, they're generally simplistic, partly because the rhythm game part is placed on top of the video, obscuring the middle 50% of it. In IIDX, the videos are never covered. I'm not sure how many songs there are in total, because I'm still unlocking them as I play. One nicety is that there's not only a video view mode, but there's a soundtrack mode where you can just listen to all the songs through like a digital album.

Overall, DJ Max Portable successfully pulls off the IIDX clone. Nothing can truly replicate the turntable controller of Konami's game, but all the other elements are there. Although DJMP is easier than IIDX, it's not an easy game by any means. I think that having my IIDX experience, I was able to easily blast by a lot of the patterns thrown my way. But this is a game that will definitely have learning curves - first as your brain adjusts to figuring out which note is which button, second to process fast strings of notes, and finally, processing simultaneous notes. But a magical thing happens when you practice. Progress will manifest itself. Songs you couldn't possibly imagine ever beating will become easier over time. And once you've learned to adapt, you can't unlearn it. I've found that even when I don't play IIDX for a year, I can get back into it with relative ease. DJMP is no different. So if you're willing to spend the time to learn it, this is one of the most rewarding rhythm games you'll ever come across.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Grand Theft Auto Chinatown Wars

Grand Theft Auto Chinatown Wars
Developer: Rockstar
Publisher: Rockstar
Action - Nintendo DS
2 Memory Slots
1 player
GTA Chinatown Wars Box Art

These days, it's hard to find anyone who hasn't at least heard of Grand Theft Auto. Notorious violence, controversial locked-out sex mini-games, and many an impatient girlfriend guarantee its place in video game history. But is it any good? I vowed to give the series a chance, and it wasn't until the DS game came along, that I finally became interested enough to do it. Somehow, the thought of old school GTA with new school GTA innovations appealed to me. So here I am.

You begin the game as Huang Lee, the son of a murdered Triad boss. As you travel to Liberty City, you are nearly killed yourself. Chinatown Wars follows Huang's life in Liberty City, as he seeks answers. You'll end up participating in the drug trade. It's pretty much the only way to make decent money. You'll be sent on missions of sabotage and theft for shady people. You'll be evading cops. A lot. Outrun them. Take them out by crashing them into walls and other vehicles. Hide in secluded areas. That's Chinatown Wars in a nutshell.

I have to hand it to the developers. The game looks and sounds very cool. The action is mostly from an overhead perspective, which makes navigating the huge city a lot more pleasant than it could have been. The overall look has a bit of an edge to it, with cel shaded polygons, and comic book-like cut scenes. There's not a whole lot of spoken dialog - strangers will randomly mumble sentences, usually when disturbed. But the voice samples and sound effects are of high quality. Music is only played during cutscenes and when you're cruising around in a vehicle, mimicing radio music.

What's really interesting about Grand Theft Auto is that Rockstar builds a virtual city. Independent of you, the player, there is traffic, passage of time, and random acts of violence. Cars will stop at stoplights, causing traffic jams. They'll signal before turning. The sun sets, and rises the next day. Occasionally you'll encounter thunderstorms too. Neighborhoods have their own look and feel. Gangs have their own territories, and you'll occasionally see warfare break out. On the flipside, police will also make busts. It feels like a living, breathing city. Even after finishing the game, I still can't say I have Liberty City quite figured out. The scale is massive.

But as fascinating as a video game representation of city life can be, it doesn't make for a good game. Grand Theft Auto gives you two things to do:

- Drive
- Shoot

All of the various missions in the game boil down to just those two tasks. There isn't anything else. Oh sure, driving can be a nice diversion. There's about 20 cars in the game that you can mess around with, each with their own power/acceleration and handling characteristics. And the damage modeling is more realistic than Gran Turismo. But it often feels like you're playing a dumbed down version of Crazy Taxi all the time. Because of the small screen size, the action takes place in the top screen, but the map remains on the bottom screen. It can be disorienting to sneak glances at the map, while you immediately affix your gaze back on the main screen to avoid colliding with cops. Many of the vehicles end up being totally useless. I did find it amusing that the car called "Stallion" was a go-fast car that couldn't maneuver its way through anything. Just like the typical American muscle car.

And the shooting? That's generally worse than the driving. Most of the game is an auto-aim affair, where you barely have to do anything other than press the button. It's completely uninvolving and hard to derive satisfaction from killing anyone. That's not to say that the game is easy. The missions can be quite challenging. But the gun-play combat is sorely lacking. The sole exception are the Molotov cocktails. You actually throw them out by using the touchscreen, and the length and speed of your stylus strokes determine their trajectory. These are easily the best parts of the game.

But touchscreen controls are also some of the worst parts of the game. You use the touchscreen for everything from stealing stationary cars (disarming their alarms), to trading drugs to searching dumpsters. After a while, the touchscreen gimmicks wore a bit thin. There isn't a whole lot of variety to these "minigames", making them more tedious than fun. Even worse, since most of the game uses standard D-pad and face button controls, you pretty much have to keep your stylus between your fingers just in case, making for awkward and cramped hands. The game will often suddenly shift from standard controls to stylus-only controls with no warning at all.

The GTA series generally gets praised for its "sandbox" style of game, where you have the freedom to make of it what you will. True enough, even if you don't follow the game's story missions, you can push drugs indefinitely, loot rival gangs, etch tattoos and fight crime. But for all the touting of freedom, there's still nothing to do but drive and shoot. I was a little disappointed that you can't influence the story in any way. All the missions point you closer to completing the game. If you want to stay loyal to a specific character in the game instead of doing a mission for a rival, you can't progress. GTA CW may be a box, but there ain't much sand in it.

Grand Theft Auto was a game series I wanted to understand. I knew that behind all the senseless killings of innocents, meeting up with hookers (on console versions), and stealing of cars, there was more to be found. But while I marvel at some of the little details Liberty City tries to emulate, I also realize the game contained within is extremely shallow. The shootouts are dull, and the driving can be cumbersome. The constant recycling of these two tasks make the game far more mundane than the controversy has you believe. It lacks solid game mechanics. The dialog wouldn't even impress an 8th grader either. Nevertheless, despite all these shortcomings, I couldn't stop playing it. There's something to be said about a game that keeps you coming back for more, even though the experience leaves you unsatisfied every time. Or maybe there's something to be said about the battered wife within me.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Silent Hill

Silent Hill
Developer: KCET
Publisher: Konami
Horror - Playstation
Memory Card: Multiple Saves
1 player
Silent Hill Box Art

Aside from the terrible Resident Evil series, the Japanese really have a knack for horror. Creepy lingering imagery and minimalistic sound are their specialty. Silent Hill is no exception. Sometimes cited as the scariest video game around, I vowed to play through it one day. Does it live up to the hype? Mostly.

The story begins with Harry Mason vacationing in a resort town of Silent Hill with his daughter Cheryl. Right off the bat, creepiness shines through. You start the game following a car accident, stranded and lost. Cheryl is missing, and the town seems deserted, contributing to an unnerving feeling of solitude. If that wasn't bad enough, the heat is really turned up only moments later. Pools of blood and body parts lay strewn throughout the world. I had no idea that Silent Hill would be this gory, but the opening scenes set the stage for the rest of the game. This is unsettling stuff. But Harry's search for his daughter must go on.

The crux of the game involves navigating through this nightmare town for any signs of Cheryl. The town is quite massive, and really gives you a sense of scale about how insignificant your character is. It would be easy to get lost walking around town, except the game keeps the scope relatively simple by blocking off certain pathways. As you traverse different areas, you'll encounter survivors, old newspaper clippings, and other miscellaneous clues to help you figure out your daughter's location and the reason for the town's descent to madness.

Like other games of this genre, you'll be fetch-questing, backtracking, puzzle solving and surviving your way through the game. The survival aspects are somewhat similar to Resident Evil - the limited ammunition, awful un-involving combat and minimal save points are staples here too. But Silent Hill is much more streamlined. For instance, the combat really isn't any fun at all, but I believe the developers realized that, and made it so you can simply run away from most encounters in the game. There isn't much in the way of enemy variety. It's much less of an action game than RE is, and is much better for that. The puzzles, on the other hand, are a mixed bag. The good ones are among the best in this genre, with some clever word puzzles to decipher. But the bad ones can be way too cryptic or have hints that lead you to over-think what the solutions should be. Overall though, the decision to emphasize more puzzle / less "action" is a positive.

The audio and visual direction are to be commended for helping to bring out the horror elements. The game has a generally gritty look to it, especially some of the nightmarish interiors. Grates are broken, glass cabinets are shattered, metal is rusted, and blood is splattered. These are all reminders that something is very wrong. Then there's the music. The soundtrack is very sparse. Sometimes it's an eerie ringing. Other times it's a raging pulsing drum. The music convincingly conveys the mood at every point in the game. It is dreadful. It is ominous. It is terrifying.

But for all Silent Hill's successes at creating and sustaining a mood, its story-telling is its weakest link. Maybe it's because I saw the movie first, and maybe because Silent Hill's story is only subtly hinted at here and expanded upon in other games... but I just felt like the connections were too loose, and the details too fleeting for a lot of the subplots. In the end, it was this aspect that was the least satisfying.

As far as horror games go, Silent Hill does the job adequately. I still have to give the nod to the Fatal Frame series, not only because it's the only series that's actually entertaining to play, but to me, it's scarier too. That's not to say that Silent Hill isn't scary. Silent Hill emphasizes its creepiness primarily through the environments themselves, whereas Fatal Frame has many carefully directed cut scenes. Two different ways of doing things, but both will make you uncomfortable and tense while playing. Silent Hill does come up a bit short in making the narrative fit together with all the eerie imagery. To that end, maybe it's not unlike a typical horror film after all.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2x

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2x
Developer: NeverSoft / Treyarch
Publisher: Activision
Extreme Sports / Platformer - XBox
Hard Drive Backup - 3 Saves
1 player
Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2x

I played the original Tony Hawk's Pro Skater back on Dreamcast way back in the 90s, when it was all the rage. I have to admit. I totally didn't understand it. Controls seemed clumsy, and there seemed to be too many moves with no point. Then the owner of the game showed me how the game was supposed to be played and things were never the same again. Playing this game 10 years later only confirmed my feelings back then: This is the greatest 3D platformer ever.

What most people don't know is that THPS is a 3D platformer disguised as an extreme sports game. It has all the elements of 3D platforming I like, and adds the necessary ingredient missing from most: skill. Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2x is an Xbox port of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1 and 2, but adds 3 additional stages. Visuals are slightly upgraded for the Xbox, but it more or less looks and plays like the Dreamcast version.

Like other 3d platforming games, the game puts you through different stages where exploration is encouraged. The structure is sort of free-form, but there are 5-8 goals per stage. Complete a set number of goals (not necessarily all of them), and the next stage opens up. Each stage is timed, but as long as you fulfill a goal within the time frame, it's counted toward your total. Goals are generally of the following types:

  • Obtain a certain score
  • Collect / Find Items
  • Perform a specific trick

The collecting of items is my favorite part of the game. The brilliance of THPS is that often times you'll see the item that you want - maybe in the distance, maybe way up high. But there's no immediate way to get there. Figuring it out requires exploring the stage to the fullest, and experimenting with what you can interact with in order to reach it. Or sometimes you cannot see the item you want at all, which means it's being concealed somewhere. In stage 1 of THPS2, for instance, you have to grind on the helicopter rotor which triggers it to take off and crash through a window, revealing a secret area. In a lot of ways, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater is like a puzzle game. Every stage is a new environment with quirks to discover.

The skill system also keeps things interesting. Being based on extreme sports means that tricks are a major emphasis for scoring. Tricks are pretty easy to initiate, using a direction on the D-pad + one of the face buttons, but executing them requires some delicacy. If you're doing some mid-air trick, you better make sure your skateboard is perpendicular with the ground when you land or else you get docked points for mediocre landings. Even worse, poor landings cause you to fall, making you lose all your points for that trick. Similarly, grinding also requires some precision. If you want to grind, jump and then position yourself in mid-air so that you're aligned with the object you want to grind on. Once you're grinding, you have to maintain your balance, or else you'll fall off. Points are rewarded for pulling off these tricks. The more dangerous the trick, the higher the score. Chain multiple tricks together for multipliers.

Often, performing tricks and exploring a stage go hand-in-hand. There is a secret tape in every stage that is one of the goals. As an example of how to get that secret tape, you may need to perform a couple of tricks to build up speed, launch off a ramp with enough height, land on a set of cables and grind, jump, land on another set of cables and grind until you reach the tape. Doing these kinds of things requires the utmost precision, where a single mistake in a string of maneuvers means failure. That's the sort of thing I love. The game rewards those who master it.

No discussion of THPS is complete without mentioning the gaps. Gaps are optional "discoveries" that are stage-specific. It's hard to explain, but they're basically specific type of tricks such as grinding a particular rail or hopping from one place to another. It's become the series trademark. You'll know when you've triggered a gap, because they're displayed with your tricks and have names like "IT'S COLD OUT HERE" in bold blue font. The game keeps a record of all the gaps you've found for you anal types. They're definitely not required, but they're fun to find, and they contribute to your score multiplier.

If there's any flaw, it's the music. Not that it's bad - most of it rock music, with some hip-hop thrown in. It just plays songs randomly, so you'll be hearing the same stuff in stage 1 as you will at stage 8, so it gets tiresome. They don't even change the music as you play through 2x and 1.

As far as the different games included, THPS2 has larger areas, more goals, and more secrets to discover. It's more challenging too. But the one thing I really like about the original is that there are a few stages that force you in one direction (downhill). That kind of design means that you more or less get one chance to execute what you need to do. I also felt like the overall design (item locations, goals, etc) were better thought out. But 2 definitely offers more of everything, and 1 is so incredibly easy after playing 2. Luckily, with this compilation, you get both, so you don't have to choose. The extra stages are a decent addition, but are quite inferior in quality to the stages in the normal games.

Truly one of the few Western games that I think deserves more recognition than it got. Sure it was popular, but even so, I'm sure it got ignored by a lot of people who couldn't think anything good could come from an extreme sports game. Yet, I can think of no better 3D platformer in existence.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Soul Hackers

Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers
Developer: R&D1
Publisher: Atlus
RPG - Sega Saturn
Hard Drive Backup - 3 Saves
1 player
Devil Summoner Soul Hackers Box Art

My first experience with the long-running Shin Megami Tensei RPG series just happens to be a sequel to one of the spinoffs by the name of Devil Summoner. It's been sitting in my collection for over ten years now and this summer, I was determined to give it a fair shake. Being a spinoff, Soul Hackers take some liberties in the game systems compared to entries in the traditional SMT line. Nevertheless, I've been hearing about the latest title, Shin Megami Tensei Strange Journey, and although it sports some additions to the battle system, a lot of the other stuff seems similar to Soul Hackers. So this is a good of a representation as any.

Soul Hackers takes place in a futurustic cyberpunk city, where a mega corporation is piloting its virtual reality world Paradigm-X on the populace. Meanwhile, the main character of the story, and his girl-next-door friend Hitomi are in a hacker group called "Spookies". As they go about their business, a mysterious entity named Redman keeps showing up, and tries to appeal to the main character. Redman seems to know a lot more about the main character than the main character knows about him. Along the way, Redman puts the Main Character in trances and allows him to experience "Vision Quests", the lives of people who have gone before. What do these vision quests have to do with hacking and where does VR fit into all this?

The style of game is similar to what you'd find in other jRPGs. There's a single city, with multiple areas where you can go shopping, talk to people, and enter dungeon-buildings. Consequently, there is also the virtual reality world, Paradigm-X, which is much smaller, and much uglier. The shops in the game will update their inventory as you reach certain story points, so it's rather efficient.

Visually, Soul Hackers is extremely slick. I personally was in love with the entire art direction, visual effects, and atmosphere. One technique that they pulled off really well was transitioning prerendered backgrounds into FMV and back. It's not completely smooth, as the FMV is at a lower resolution, but the overall effect was something that really complemented the unique look of this game. The first person 3D wasn't as nicely looking, I'll have to admit. Still, the look and feel was one of the biggest draws for me.

Soul Hackers retains many of the integral components that make up a Shin Megami Tensei game. The biggest feature that defines SMT is the interaction with demons. Demons are your random encounter opponent in the game, and there are a lot of different types, with their own sets of skills. But they can be convinced to join your party, and fused together to form new and more powerful demons. It's a very interesting concept, and one that has some critical consequences. First off, there's the negotiation. When you encounter a demon in battle, one of your menu options is TALK. A demon will either ask you a question, or will make a comment and ask you your opinion on it. Depending on how you respond and the demon's disposition towards you, the demon will:

  • Join your party
  • Ask you another question
  • Ask you to give it something
  • Give you something
  • Respond to your answer
  • Leave
  • Leave with all the enemies
  • Become angry, and their entire party will get a free attack on you

Some of the major influencers of outcome depends not only on your response but whether you have any negotiation booster items equipped, the alignment of your current group (a lawful demon will refuse to join your group if you have a chaotic demon in your active party), the level of your main character, and even the phases of the moon! This adds a unique experience to fighting battles because sometimes you may want to simply recruit a specific monster in order to talk your way out of battles with them in the future. It's a completely valid strategy, and one I've used to get out of some tricky situations.

But it doesn't stop there. Because of the fusion system, recruiting takes on a different meaning than simply adding a body to your lineup. Fusing two demons together generally means that you'll get a superior demon, and often the new demon will take on some special skills from the demons you used to fuse. So that means that even if you could recruit the demon later, the fused version could potentially have more abilities. Unfortunately, it isn't as easy as simply selecting the abilities you want to pass down, so if you want a specific ability on your new demon, you have to attempt to fuse to get the preview demon, and check to see if it's in its list of abilities. That guessing and checking isn't a huge burden, but the interface could have been better improved. I have to admit that I'm not really a fan of fusion in general. It's like the tedious version of the alternative, which is simply to get the end result in the first place. A lot of games are worse because of it, but I suppose that due to the skill inheritence, it has some value in Soul Hackers.

One of the liberties that the Devil Summoner series took is by giving each demon a loyalty rating. In Soul Hackers, each demon has a personality. If you command the demon in battle according to its personality (ie ATTACK with an Violent Type), you build their loyalty. But if you command them to do other things, they might just lose loyalty. You can also give a demon gifts outside of battle to raise loyalty. Once they are maxed out, though, you can command them to do anything and they won't lose loyalty. Whether this is a good or bad subsystem is open to debate, but I'm told it's implemented much much better in Soul Hackers versus the original Devil Summoner. Of course, one of the perks of this loyalty system is that when maxed out, enemies will get some bonuses. The Violent demon will hit harder at max loyalty. Friendly demons will take a hit for you when they're maxed out. For some reason the Crafty demon can be transformed into useful and not-so-useful items at maximum loyalty.

What I find most pleasing about the game isn't this demon stuff, but its core combat. It is similar to the basic setup of Dragon Quest where your actions really do matter. Step into a new area with unfamiliar demons and you could see Game Over easily. Even facing off against previously encountered demons could result in the same fate, if you're not paying attention. Buffs and debuffs matter. Elemental affinities matter. Weapon types matter. As I played more of Soul Hackers, I realized that what I enjoyed about having to exploit weaknesses in FFX was done in SMT first. Perhaps the main difference is that in FFX, you yourself did not really have weaknesses, but here in SMT, your demons most certainly do. Just as you can dominate the enemies you face with the right mix of party members and actions, you can most certainly -be- dominated with the wrong mix of members, or wrong decisions. It's a tough lesson to learn in this game, and one I've had to learn many many times.

Another unique aspect in Soul Hackers that wasn't in pre-Strange Journey SMT titles, is the ability to customize your computer. Here, you can load it up with applications that allow you better negotiating skills with demons, to present a full time minimap on the main screen, to help assist with fusions on-the-go, the ability to save anywhere, stuff like that. There are only six slots, and some of the applications cost more than one slot. There's usually only one or two locations within dungeons, where you can switch out these applications, so you have to choose wisely.

I have to cite some faults though. Being a SMT newbie, I felt as if Soul Hackers was really overwhelming in a lot of ways. When you attempt to fuse demons, you are shown a preview of the new demon and their skills. But all you have is the name of their skill, with no description as to what they do. I'm told that this is because most SMT players are familiar with the abilities, but I don't think it could have hurt Atlus to include descriptions. I had to pretty much fuse, rotate the new demon in my party, and then use the ability in battle in order to see what it actually did. Coincidentally, it is also the only time the game gives you any kind of description at all: when you're about to use it. What's also overwhelming is how many ways you can use demons. You can use demons to fuse up to new demons. You can use demons to upgrade the special demon you're given in early game. You can use Crafty-type demons to transform into items once it hits max loyalty. And mid-game, you can transform demons into weapons as well. I imagine if you are a SMT veteran, you know which demons are good to keep, and which ones would be good as one of these other things. But it's a bit much for a first-timer. I suppose that's my fault for starting with Soul Hackers.

Another thing that's really bad is the battle speed. I played almost the entire game with animation turned off, because battles would take forever. But even with animation off, it's still very sluggish. In addition, it seems odd to complain about this because I otherwise love the battle system, but sometimes I find deaths to be really cheap. You enter a new area and this one enemy casts an insta-kill spell or a stone spell on your main character. Game Over. I'm open to challenges but I question some of these situations. Make no mistake, I died, and I died a lot in this game. Most of the time, it was fair - I made poor decisions. Other times, the game was just plain evil. And what's up with those ridiculous 8 hour long end game dungeons?

But I genuinely do love the artistic direction that Soul Hackers employs. The story and atmosphere was so different from anything I'd played in the past, that I was completely captivated through and through. This is also the first and only RPG I can think of where random encounters actually make sense. And the one feature I love from the battles, aside from its awesome weakness exploitation, is the fact that the game remembers which commands you previously inputted. When you start your turn, your cursor is already on the previous command you did for each character. Not only that, but there's an Auto-Battle feature where "REPEAT" is an option. This is genuinely one of the most user-friendly things I wish would be on every turn based RPG.

Solid and intriguing. I'd love to see how newer versions of Shin Megami Tensei turns things up a notch.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Culdcept DS

Culdcept DS
Developer: Omiya Soft
Publisher: SEGA
CCG/Board Game - Nintendo DS
Battery Backup - 1 Save
1 player / 2-4p Nintendo WiFi
Culdcept DS Box Art

Although Culdcept isn't a familiar title to most gamers, it has been growing a faithful fanbase since its original release on the Sega Saturn, and subsequent Playstation port. I was first exposed to the series through the Dreamcast sequel and was completely smitten by its brilliance. A small print run of the PS2 port (of Culdcept II) was the first time that English speakers got the chance to play it. More recently, Culdcept Saga became one of the earlier releases for the XBOX360. Where does that bring us? Back to the beginning.

Culdcept can be best described as Monopoly meets Magic the Gathering. You take turns rolling dice and moving your piece around a board. If you find a vacant space, you can occupy it by summoning a creature. If an enemy lands on it, they pay you a toll. Upgrade your property, and the toll goes up. So the overall structure is very similar to Monopoly. What's unlike Monopoly is that games don't take 12 hours to finish. Although you could win by bankrupting other players, the main objective of each board is reaching a certain mana amount and then "pass Go" to end the game.

The Magic the Gathering part comes in the details. There's deck construction, creature summoning, "sorceries", "instants/interrupts", and even a system comparable to obtaining card packs. You begin the game with a starter pack of 50 cards. But you can gain additional cards just by playing. Regardless of whether you win or lose a match, you will gain new cards. This ensures that even when you've spent an hour on a map, but end up in last place, you wouldn't have wasted your time, because you benefit just from playing the game. I believe you do get more / rarer cards when you win though. All in all, there's over 370 cards contained within. It's important to read and understand all the cards you have and see if there are any card combinations that could maximize to your advantage. The enjoyment comes from creating a workable strategy with the cards you have. It has all the elements of any good Collectable Card Game and that's why I love it so.

What makes the game interesting is the back-and-forth transferring of land. Whereas in Monopoly, you own property until you sell it, here you only own a square on the board if one of your summoned creatures is placed there. Summoning costs gold, and may require other conditions as well. If an opponent lands on your square, they don't immediately pay you the value of the square. They can instead choose to fight your creature by summoning their own creature. That brings up the battle phase where you and your opponent can each play up to 1 skill card from your hand to influence the outcome. Each creature has its own Strength/Hit Point rating, special abilities and casting cost. Skill cards can add bonuses to those stats, or provide additional effects, such as giving attack priority to the defender instead of the attacker. If the attacking player wins the battle, they now become the owner of the square. If the attacking player loses, they pay the toll. So there's an added intensity because the fights make the game much more dynamic.

There's a lot of other components to the game in addition to the basics. For instance, both creatures and land can be neutral or have an element. A water creature on water will gain defensive bonuses. These defensive bonuses will grow when you upgrade the land. Upgrades can be costly, but they're necessary to help you keep possession of your land through the defense bonuses and will drive up the cost of the toll, putting you closer to winning the match. A mismatch of creature element and land element will forfeit all the defense bonuses. So another option is the ability to swap out an existing creature of yours on the board with one from your hand, but it requires some conditions, costs additional gold for summoning the new creature and takes up a turn, which may or may not pay off. That's just scratching the surface of some of the strategic depth in the game.

Since this is the ten year anniversary, Omiya Soft went back to basics for the celebration. Culdcept DS is an enhanced port of the original Saturn game, but with rules from the later games, some new cards, and a rebalancing of the old cards. The developers added in a few extras too, such as art galleries and medals that you get when you achieve certain goals. It pretty much plays exactly like the Culdcept II I have for Dreamcast, but that's a good thing. The DS format is better for this type of game though, because the presentation is simple, the online component costs nothing, and you can play it anywhere. There's a story mode where you face off against 2-3 computer opponents. Of course any story for a board game is pretty silly, and this is no different. But it does give a progressive set of challenges. There's also a versus mode, where you can play against computer or against friends in the area or against random people through Nintendo WiFi. Culdcept is a completely satisfying mesh of board game and CCG that somehow just works.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride

Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride
RPG - Nintendo DS
Battery Backup - 3 Saves
1 player / WLAN Knick-Knack Exchange

Dragon Quest IV-VI make up a trilogy, but the starting point of V occurs a bit in the future compared to the events of IV. The games are tied by having the same worldview and history, rather than an immediate continuity. As the first DQ I've played since the first NES game, Chapters of the Chosen was a pleasant surprise. The actual game was solid, with meaningful battle choices, a healthy dose of exploration, a pleasant story, and charming interactions with townsfolk. I was worried that Hand of the Heavenly Bride would be too similar to enjoy, but were my suspicions unfounded?

As expected, when I first started playing DQV, it was a bit disappointing. It's not that the game was bad, but since DQIV did such a good job of everything already, V seemed completely unnecessary. The story is a bit different, focusing on the adventures of one particular person rather than a variety of heroes. This is handled in a different way than most RPGs, because the main hero is completely central, and will diverge paths from other characters he partners with. So the premise is fresh, and is entertaining in its own right. Other than that though, the games are remarkably similar. The only gameplay difference from DQIV -> V is the addition of the ability to recruit monsters and have them as party members. The spells you can choose and even most of the equipment is carry-over, so I was completely convinced that V was the same as IV.

As I played on, it finally hit me. V isn't the same as IV at all. In fact, there are a few areas where V is clearly -worse- than IV.

Most people seem to notice instantly that the musical composition isn't as good as its predecessor. The tunes are less memorable and aren't interesting enough to listen to apart from the game.

Worse than that is that poor continuity in the story. One of the major things in the game is that you have a choice of a marriage partner. Depending on who you marry, I presume people will talk to you differently and events will play out according to your choice, which is quite nifty and helps you feel like you're a part of the game world. What isn't as cool are the huge gaps in dialog-logic, like when my wife goes missing for years on end, and her family never even talks to me about that? It's those gaps that really ruin the otherwise convincing situations these characters are in.

Worser still are the design decisions that handicap the gameplay. One thing that I loved about DQIV DS, and Grandia for that matter, is that you're able to rotate the camera and designers will hide things so that they're only visible from certain angles. In DQIV, some of the mini-medals and other objects were obscured in the default view, but rotating the camera can reveal their presence. The rotating camera felt integrated into the game. Not so with DQV. You can rotate, but there's no point to it all. To be fair, there are some doors and ladders that can only be seen if you rotate the camera, but other than the 2-3x in the game where that occurs, the rotation feature is simply tacked-on. Because of that, I felt as if the exploration of dungeons and towns was far less interesting.

Also the ability to recruit monsters is completely mangled by its sloppy execution. First of all, it has the same problem as other monster-recruiting RPGs. You get a monster, and you have no idea if that monster is actually any good. Just like regular characters, they will gain spells and skills at certain levels. So maybe a monster sucks at low level, but at a certain point, they acquire this one awesome spell. But how do you know? You don't. So you end up grinding that monster and possibly maxing them out to see just how useful/useless they really are. You might level a char up to 30 and find out you've wasted all your time, since their final stats are weak and they lack good abilities. I fail to see how this adds any enjoyment.

Second, the interface to manage your party is clunky. You can only carry 8 characters with you (and use 4 in battle). So you can have your main hero, and 7 monsters if you'd like. Or 5 characters and 3 monsters. Or whatever combination of people/monsters you want. Only problem is... you can only change people in one town in the game. Monsters are similar, although there are about 3 locations in the game where you can swap them in and out. Unless you go to these specific locations, you are stuck with your current cast, and the other characters left behind will not gain any experience.

Finally, the funniest part of all is how you recruit monsters in the first place. It's essentially random! Whereas in SMT games an enemy might talk with you and your response might convince them to join you or in Pokemon, you beat down on an enemy and then toss a pokeball to capture them, here in DQV, you don't do anything. You simply kill enemies and maybe 1 out of 200 enemies you kill might randomly join your party. I've never seen anything so stupid.

Dragon Quest V confirmed my doubts about the series being able to sustain my interest. While I do respect the balanced core gameplay and the lively towns, DQV does nothing to improve on what DQIV already did. In some cases, the design decisions make it a bit worse. I will likely pick up VI just to finish off the trilogy, but I am absolutely convinced that if I never play another DQ ever again, I wouldn't be missing out.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Etrian Odyssey II: Heroes of Lagaard

Etrian Odyssey II: Heroes of Lagaard
RPG - Nintendo DS
Battery Backup - 3 Saves
1 player

I did not want to try this game. I knew that most of my peers were loving the series, but I have never liked 1st person perspective in RPGs, and do not particularly care for the dungeon crawler / survival RPG genre. And when asking someone whether the only thing cool about the game was that you had to draw your own map, the response was: "Yeah!" I thought that was the dumbest thing ever. Little did I know that it, along with the rest of the game, would be strangely compelling.

The structure of the game is similar to most dungeon crawlers. You have but one town and one multi-tiered "dungeon". The dungeon in question is really a labyrinth within a tree, so instead of drab and worn walls, you encounter lush green forests, autumn leaves, cherry blossoms, and other natural scenery. It's in first person, but there's a really nice level of detail to the environments and their vibrant color schemes. Unlike some other dungeon crawlers, the stages here are not randomly generated. The scenarios are specifically designed, which is a huge plus for me. The game is divided into blocks of 5 floors called strata. Each stratum has its own theme, just like you'd expect from a jRPG. For instance, the ice stages have these frozen tiles where if you walk on them, you slide and are forced along the frozen path until you reach normal ground again. It was the first time I experienced something like that in 1st person.

It's hard to keep focused on your surroundings, though, when there are plenty of hostile beings out there. Most of the enemy encounters occur randomly, but an indicator glows red when one is nearby. There are also visible encounters on every floor with boss/mini-boss type enemies called FOEs. FOE battles are generally extremely tough, to the point where you will want to avoid them at all possible costs. When exploring a floor for the first time, the FOEs can often take you out in a single turn. They can be overcome, as you become more powerful later and revisit, but the first time you see them is typically a death sentence. The majority of the FOEs do not even offer any experience when defeated. The only exception are the bosses in each stratum, who are part of the story. For the non-boss FOEs, the overpowering difficulty and lack of experience points (at least in EO2) means that you'll be intentionally planning your routes so as to avoid them. This is actually an interesting approach because it forces you to watch and monitor FOE movements. Depending on the FOE, they do a lot of different things. Some move in a rote pattern. Others will notice your presence and start following you. Some can move through walls. And others are invisible to your map. Their movements are so varied that even walking around is part of EO2's gameplay.

That's not to say the regular random encounters are a cinch. EO2 proves a challenge from the moment you step into the labyrinth. The enemies do more damage than your typical jRPG. The key to it all is how you configure your party. EO2 gives you a lot of choices. You can create your own roster of characters in one of 12 classes. You can arrange your party to include any five of the characters you create. And then when you level up, you get to choose what skills and/or stat bonuses to level up. You only earn one skill point per level. So if you're investing ten of your skill points in a single skill, that means you.re not investing those ten points in other skills. There is a system of constraints at work. That is both a blessing and a curse. While all the skills are useful in some situations, many are not useful in all situations. So the game could make it very playable or very hard for you depending on what you put your skill points in. The game offers a couple of different ways to alleviate this burden. There is the ability to "Rest" your character, which allows you to redistribute all your skill points. It costs 5 levels, but mid-game, 5 levels is a small price to pay to be able to totally redo your character build. The other option is "Retire", in which you trade in your character for a new character at half your current level. The advantage of retiring is that you will receive both stat and skill point bonuses to your new character, which could make up for essentially losing half your levels. These bonuses depend on how high of a level you were when you retired. A level 99 character receives much nicer bonuses than a character retiring at level 30.

The cool thing about the combat is that because of the skill system and your choice of party members, your actions matter a whole lot. You absolutely cannot mow through the game by simplying selecting FIGHT each round. There is a time for that, and EO2 has an auto-fight command for those easier battles. But a lot of the times, you will be up against enemies that want to slaughter you. So using party buffs, enemy debuffs, elemental weaknesses, binding - anything that will give you an advantage, will be an integral part of winning fights. I find it comparable to Dragon Quest, where your options are simple, but they heavily influence outcomes. The other thing that's nice about the battles are the drops. This being a dungeon crawler, the enemy drops are a key element to the game. When defeated, the enemies will randomly/not-so-randomly drop items depending on how you defeat them. For example, defeating an enemy in the first turn may net you a different type of item than if you defeated them in 5 rounds. Or an enemy may only drop an item if you kill them while they're poisoned. Different situations will net different things. It's not the drops themselves that are noteworthy, but how the game builds its structure around them. You will sell the items you get from defeating enemies to the town store, in exchange for money. Then because the shop now has these new materials, new weapons and armor will be available for purchase. It's a really simple and logical system. So it's always a treat to encounter a new type of enemy, because it means a new kind of item, which'll eventually lead to new types of equipment.

What ties all of the dungeon crawling together is a barebones story about a bunch of guilds attempting to reach this shrine in the sky. So you'll get specific missions sanctioned by the city Duke, all with their own monetary rewards. On the side, you'll get optional quests from the city bar, that'll net you rewards as well. Both the missions and quests have you doing a variety of tasks, such as defeating a certain FOE, investigating a subplot, collecting certain items, or further exploration of the floors. I like that there's a linear structure to it all, and that the quests are based on how far in the dungeon you've gotten.

Then we have the mapping. It sounds odd, but being able to draw your own maps on the touchscreen is quite satisfying. In terms of functionality, having an automap feature would be more efficient. But since EO forces you to draw your own maps, this method is far more interactive. The manual method also has some perks to it, by giving you a variety of icons to utilize, different floor tile colors to use as you wish, and notes you can insert into the map for reference. So while it takes a little more work to set up your map, it pays off because it can contain far more information than an automap could ever produce.

I've come to really appreciate Etrian Odyssey in the way it encourages exploration. The mapping feature is great, but it's only part of the story. Enemies, including FOEs, will drop items, leading to extra money and new equipment. You'll want to explore further just so you can experience the new item drops. Quests will have you looking for a special item, so even though you may have mapped out an entire floor, you'll be exploring the floor again to find the quest item. There will be passageways that are accessible only by certain classes, so if they're not in your party, you will have to revisit. There are special character abilities called Force that builds up like a super meter in fighting games. These abilities are extremely powerful when unleashed, but because they build up slowly, will have you staying in the dungeons longer to build them up. There are things here and there that all push you to hold out a little bit longer, go a little bit further, exactly what a survival RPG should do. Etrian Odyssey excels at luring you into a den of wolves with the promise of cotton candy. While the encounters are difficult, all is not lost if your party does end up getting wiped out. One cool trick is that you're able to save your map progress if you die, so it gives you even more incentive for exploring further and further.

But on the flip side, I'm not as fond of the entire skill system, where your choices determine your fate. With only one additional skill point earned per character level, the way you distribute them among all your skills is of utmost importance. You can't simply throw a point into every available skill, because many skills will not even land until you've maxed them out. For example, if your Poison skill is below level 8, you have like < 50% accuracy. That means you don't really know how good or bad a skill is until you've invested 10 levels into it. You don't build levels quickly in the game, so it's a huge investment. Sure the game offers remedies in the form of Rest and Retire, but it reveals that the skill tree is really unbalanced. I also question some of their character balancing decisions. I haven't found a whole lot of use for the Troubadour class, for instance. Atlus apparently removed the two best abilities from this class from the first EO, and as a result, completely crippled it. You also cannot get around the fact that this game is grindy. Because of your limited choices, you can expand your possibilities by making duplicate versions of the same class to diversify your skills. And you can make characters of different classes as well. But unless you rotate your characters into your main party, they will not gain exp. So the only way to maintain level balance is by constantly switching your characters in and out, and grinding until they're at the appropriate level. I much prefer games where exp is distributed to the entire pool of characters. By making you rotate members, it doesn't make the game any more fun. Just more tedious.

Flaws in the skill system aside, what EO does well, it does better than any other game I've played. Every little aspect encourages you to move forward. Even though difficult enemies threaten every step, traps are scattered throughout the floors and the environments are unknown, you will want to progress. The risk vs. reward is exhilarating. For that reason alone, EO2 is the best example of dungeon crawler I've played to date.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Nintendo DSi

Nintendo DSi
Screen Size: 3.25"
Dimensions: 133mm x 73.9mm x 21.5mm
Weight: 214g
Camera: 0.3 Megapixel (x2)
Photo Quality: 640px x 480px
Inputs: DS games, SD cards

Perhaps the most controversial system launch in modern times, Nintendo answers the questions that no one asked with the DSi. Talking to most people about the system elicits lukewarm responses, or outright anger. The DSi is an "upgrade" to the existing line of dual screen portables that boasts larger screen sizes, the ability to download games and applications off of a new service called DS Ware, 2 cameras, and a SD card slot for storing pictures, music, and DS Ware content. Gone is the GBA hardware slot, which many believe is a crime, and in its place is a bunch of features that actual gamers don't want or need. I sure love controversy, and I've been wanting an excuse to upgrade from the ergonomically painful DS, so here are my thoughts.


The screens are noticeably larger than the old ones. It won't blow anyone away, but they are a nice bonus to the package. Since I didn't own a Lite, the brightness of the display will take a little getting used to. But with five different brightness settings, there's not much worry.


The speakers are supposed to be much improved this time around, from the DSLite. Although the volume is not loud enough if you wanted to blast your music, the sound comes out pretty clear. One issue I had with the old DS is that at low volumes, there was a lot of distortion, which was one irritation of mine. These issues are gone here. With headphones, the audio comes out pretty nicely as well.


The slot for SD cards have an interesting design. You have to first swivel the covering, then pull it out a little bit, before inserting the SD card upside down. It snaps in cleanly. The nice thing is that the DSi supports SDHC format, which means as of now, you can have up to 32 GB of storage. That's a huge amount of space. My laptop's harddrive has less storage. One drawback for the DSi is that the DSi cannot plug into your computer in any way. That means if you want to do any file transfers between PC and DSi, you have to have a SD card reader on your PC, remove SD card from DSi, transfer it to the card reader, make your changes, and then put the card back into the DSi. It's inconvenient to have to do it that way, and if you don't already have a reader, you're going to have to buy one.

If you don't want to bother with SD cards, the system comes with 256MB of internal storage.

Once again, these storage solutions are only for photos, music, and DLC for now.


In the old DS and DSLite, when you turned on the system, you had 3 options: start up DS game, start up GBA game, or go into system settings. They overhauled the bootup menu so that it's now a horizontal scrolling series of icons that include system settings, camera, starting DS game, music player, etc.

Although some items can be easily navigated with the buttons and D-pad, annoyingly, there are quite a few functions that are touch-screen only.

DSi Shop

From now until October 5, Nintendo is giving away 1000 free DSi Points, if you purchase the system.

I haven't taken advantage of it yet, but I may give Wario Ware Snapped a shot. I did try the DS Ware store for downloading the Opera browser. Unlike the DS/DSLite version, this one is a free download.

The store is organized in several categories, like most popular downloads, downloads searchable by first letter, etc. Then it gives you a brief description of the product, followed by the price in DSi Points. It's not unlike the system used by Microsoft's XBL. Once you download an item, it shows up as an icon in the bootup menu.

I got a chance to fiddle with the Opera browser a little bit. Like the old DS one, it does not support Flash, and sites that use it will cripple and sometimes crash it. But on the plus side, it loads websites much faster than the old browser did. Unfortunately, the browser itself is much simpler with one screen used for navigating the webpage, and the other used for a zoomed-in view.


The DSi sports two cameras. The positioning is actually quite clever, with a standard camera, and an internal camera that points back at you for self-portraits. You can switch between the cameras with a button. The major gaffe was only have 0.3 megapixels to work with for both. The pictures look great when displayed on the DS, but transferred to a PC and the picture flaws are glaringly apparent.

On the flipside, I get it. I totally get what Nintendo was aiming at. These gadgets are completely irrelevant to us young adults (or old adults) who have tiny Cybershots and huge hunkering Canon SLRs. What Nintendo has done is brought digital photography to the younger generation. This is pretty evident when you look at the available camera filters on the system. You can add preloaded frames, word bubbles, cat whiskers and ears (thanks to some fancy face-detection tech), coloring, etc. Even though I wouldn't really use these features, I think the wealth of camera options is pretty amazing. It might not be practical to me, but if I were a teen, I'd think it was super-cool.

Example 1 Example 2 Example 3

On the other hand, the cameras may be more crucial than simply taking funny pictures with your teenybopper friends. I've seen videos of Wario Ware Snapped and it uses the face detection features as a method of control. That game tracks your head movements, and your on-screen character reacts accordingly. This opens up a wealth of interactive gaming content, similar to what the Wiimote offers the Wii. Nintendo's Snapped game is just a DLC teaser, but it shows a little bit of the possibilities available to the system. If developers can utilize the camera lens to include motion-detection, can you imagine how amazing a Fatal Frame game could be? I'm really excited at the gameplay possibilities.


The DSi only plays AAC files. It's a mis-step for sure on Nintendo's part. I don't know if they were being cheap or what, but it almost seems backwards for them to offer a music player, but only support a single format that hasn't been universally adopted. I almost think it would have been better to not offer a music player at all.

But after I got over that initial hump, I started to learn more about AACs, and realized they offer better sound quality than mp3, result in smaller file sizes, and require less resources for decoding. So aac is better for players and listeners alike, and totally changed the way I thought about the format. Now I am thinking about ripping all my CDs in aac from now on. But while I've become comfortable with an aac-only player, I still do think it was sheer stupidity (or stubbornness) on Nintendo's part to not support the mp3 standard.

As for the player itself, it recognizes your file folders (up to 7 layers of nesting, in fact!). So you can keep your music organized by artist, by album, all in one folder, however you like. Play options include a host of options like shuffle (folder only), shuffle (all folders, all songs), resume (folder only), resume (song only) etc.

The top screen features the display of the song, showing artist, title, time elapsed, etc. The DSi has support for Japanese tags, which is good for me. There are also a bunch of visualizations available, ranging from standard frequency bars to psychadelic images to Excitebike. The bottom screen has all of the controls, like skip, rewind, play/pause.

The way the DSi handles closing the lid is pretty logical. If you flip it closed, and there are headphones attached, you can continue listening to your songs. If you close it, and there are no headphones attached, ie it's playing audio through speakers, it will enter sleep mode. Unfortunately, Nintendo has not offered any external controls for the music. So if you want to skip a track, you cannot just press L/R. The reason is because L/R is mapped to something else...

Nintendo has added some audio manipulation tools in addition to strict playback. You can add filters like "radio" which adds static and flattens the audio to sound more like mono. My favorite is 8-bit Game which... well... makes your song sound like an 8-bit game. You can also record your own sound effects, and cue up those while a song is playing. And you can change the speed and/or pitch of the song pretty easily with the stylus. But perhaps the most useful of all is the addition of percussion instruments mapped to L and R. While listening to songs, you can tap the L/R buttons to either follow along with the beat or add your own rhythmic freestyle touch. It gives the songs an added layer of interactivity, which can be really cool. L and R are usually different sounds, and you can swap percussion instruments with X/Y, so you have some creative freedom there.

Example 1 Example 2

The only thing about playing music is that it only performs in music player mode. Once you exit, the music stops. That means you cannot listen to music while taking or viewing photos. It also means you can't listen to your music while playing a game.

Odds and Ends

Although Nintendo does not mention this, supposedly some hackers found out that the processor and RAM has been upgraded quite a bit from the DSLite. This could explain why the Opera browser runs so much faster.

Power button functions like modern consoles. That is, you press it, and the system resets. If you want to fully power-down, you have to hold it a few seconds. The advantage of course, is having some sort of reset built-in to the hardware.

The volume used to be handled via a slider in the DS and DSLite. Here, the volume comes in the form of up/down buttons on the side.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Fire Emblem Shadow Dragon

Fire Emblem Shadow Dragon
SRPG - Nintendo DS
Battery Backup - 3 Save
1 player

Funny as it may be, I never played a Fire Emblem game. I missed the entire GBA boat, because I didn't like the fact that only the 2nd and 3rd games were available to an English audience. And I never played the GC/Wii games, because I don't own either system. Luckily, Intelligent Systems thought it was a good idea to remake the very first Fire Emblem, originally on the Famicom. Perfect for someone like me wanting to try out the series.

Intelligent Systems is also very well known for their other strategy series, ____ Wars. I played and enjoyed Advance Wars quite a bit. Although FE could easily be a "RPG" version of Advance Wars, there's quite a few things that make Fire Emblem unique. For one, there is an element of exploration on the grid-based maps. It's not the same type of exploration found in regular RPGs, but there is that sense of mystery. On many of the maps, you'll find shops, towns, and cities. If any of your units enter a town, you'll get some information from the villagers there. Sometimes the information is trivial, and other times, they'll reveal some big hints. If the main character, Marth, enters a city, most of the time, you either acquire an item, or you'll recruit a new character to your party. The only problem is... thieves are able to enter and destroy cities, robbing you of that opportunity. So often times, Marth is racing against the enemy thieves to reach the city first. This definitely adds a new dimension to the standard "destroy the enemy" goals in most RPGs. I see now that FE inspired Yggdra Union in this regard.

Another nicety is the amount of recruiting available. While some games let you go to a tavern and hire/recruit party members for extra help, Fire Emblem integrates the recruiting within the plot. If you're fighting a particular battle, you may be able to acquire new party members by visiting a town with a certain character. There are also times where you're able to recruit an enemy commander if you talk to them with a specific character! There's a logic to it, and it generally involves a relationship with one of the characters. For instance, when you visit a town, the townsperson will say, "I wonder how my brother so-and-so is doing." And if you end up visiting that town with that person, you'll definitely get something out of it. Of course the slight downside to this is that if you don't have a particular character in your present party, you won't be able to gain those benefits. It doesn't bother me, as I consider these interactions a bonus. But there are some anal folk out there that want to be able to do 100% of a game on their playthrough.

As far as the actual tactical gameplay, it's pretty standard stuff. You've got characters in a lot of various classes. FE employs a rock-paper-scissors weapon system with lances > swords > axes > lances. Archers are great against flying creatures. And there are specific weapons that do extra damage against typed units (armored, riders, dragons). Basically there's enough options out there to consider pitting specific units vs opposing units. The weapons in the game have a limited number of uses, which may bother some people. But between the ability to shop for base weapons before battle, being able to find shops on maps with stronger weapons, and acquiring the best weapons through defeating of enemies, the limited nature of weapons never was a problem for me. Plus even with the weaker weapons, you're able to forge bonuses at the armory. I never really utilized forging very much in my playthrough, just because it can be extremely pricey. But if you've got the money, it is a very effective way of obtaining weapon superiority.

One of the things that Fire Emblem is (in?)famous for is perma-death. If any of your characters die, then they don't come back. Ever. I personally kind of like perma-death, because it forces you to be wise in your decision-making. I find that most SRPGs are too easy because it doesn't really matter if a party member dies or not. Them being strict on that helps me to be more careful with how I play. Most players, however, find it to be a frustrating exercise, playing for an hour and then losing a character due to some silly mistake. Don't get me wrong... I get frustrated too. Fire Emblem DS adds several save points within a level to help alleviate the tediousness. I think it's a great feature. I can generally tolerate replaying an hour long level if I made a mistake, but if I keep dying on my replay, things get old really quick. Having the save points reduces the penalty to maybe 15-20 mins of lost time, which is pretty reasonable.

From what I understand, the rock-paper-scissors system and the ability to forge weapons are more recent additions to the Fire Emblem series. So the remake adds these features to the structure of the original game. The remake also sports some slick additions to interface that makes the game easy to work with. For one thing, the game proceeds at a relatively brisk pace. There's no lag time between inputting commands, traversing menus, and executing movement and attacks. You can skip attack animations by hitting the Start button. And you can skip through an entire enemy's turn by hitting Start on the map screen. Another nifty addition is the ability to check an enemy's movement range. You can do that in most SRPGs just by clicking on an enemy unit. But FE DS allows you to select on multiple units to display their combined range, and also the ability to display the range of the entire enemy squad at the press of a button. The game just gives you all the possible options you could want, so you can concentrate on building your strategy.

Thing is... despite all of these positives, I realize that I don't enjoy Fire Emblem. Although I like perma-death, I find that the game is ruined because of the way the game is structured. The only other perma-death game I played is Tactics Ogre Let Us Cling Together. That one is frustrating, but respectably so. I find that when I lose a unit in that game, I deserved it. But here's the key difference. In TO:LUCT, not only does each unit on the map have their turn based on their speed/agility (WT), but because of the WT system, you have some control over when they go. That is, if you move and attack, your next turn will be later than if you simply Defended. In Fire Emblem, it has the "Your entire party moves during your turn. Then the entire enemy party moves during their turn." structure, which I find really stupid in a SRPG. I find that it actually diminishes strategy, because it makes it that much easier to flank and concentrate-fire on an opponent. And it makes it that much easier for them to do the same.

I feel like when I die in FE, it's not really my fault. Here's a good example: I was in a situation where I was within range of a fastly-approaching enemy. I knew my healer would be a sitting duck, so I formed a wall in front of my healer with my buffest units. A wall should be the best line of defense because it only allows a single point of entry for the opponent (vs an open unit, where it can be surrounded by four enemy units). It should have been the best possible strategy. After I positioned all my units carefully, it was "the enemy turn". The first enemy calvary unit attacked my hero. Did a small amount of damage, and then my hero counterattacked. The counterattack was so strong that the enemy died. Then the 2nd calvary unit attacked the same hero. Counterattack, died. By the time the fourth calvary unit got to that same unit, my hero was at 5hp. So of course, I died. Because my unit was TOO GOOD of a counterattacker. This is precisely what I meant by feeling that when I die it's not even my fault. Most would agree that my choice of a wall was the best defense possible. But because FE has this "your entire group goes, then entire enemy group goes" structure, my unit was better off MISSING the counterattack. I don't know what Intelligent Systems was thinking when they designed FE like that. It's ok when you have disposable units like in Advance Wars. Sacrifice is part of the strategy. But when you have characters that are sometimes important to the plot that can be killed off by such a system, then it ceases to be amusing. I'm not complaining about the difficulty at all. TO:LUCT is arguably more difficult, but I love it. I'm complaining about the inability to control your circumstances, and that's the problem with FE.

Another problem with FE DS in particular is that you're able to acquire too many characters. It's an issue for me personally because if I have a cast of characters to choose a party from, I will try to balance their levels out. Since you have like 30 characters in the game, I try to use my weakest members in the fights, and sometimes that's not feasible. The level difference between my units and the opponent's is too large. And because I divide the possible experience points between all 30 of my units, it means my units are not scaling up to the additional difficulty added by later levels. You can argue that I shouldn't balance my characters, but I've been burned by games in the past that forced you to use specific characters in your party as part of the plot OR make you create several teams at the very end. I could not finish Shining Force III because I -didn't- balance out my exp among all members. Finally, another stupid design decision is to have stats go up at random. That means, when you level up with a character, you could end up upgrading 6 of the 8 available stats. Or if you're unlucky, zero. Yes. Zero. You can level up and not have any changes to your character at all. It is the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen in an RPG.

Ultimately, Fire Emblem represents a game that I can appreciate only for historical significance. I can see how it introduced a form of exploration to SRPGs and a cool way of adding party members to your roster. I also enjoy some of the modern improvements, especially to user-interface, that came with this Nintendo DS remake. But I have major misgivings about the core combat engine. From what I've been told, modern FE isn't all that much different. Shadow Dragon is my first, and last, Fire Emblem.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Retro Game Challenge

Retro Game Challenge
Pile of Awesome - Nintendo DS
Battery Backup - 1 Save
1 player

I lucked out with Retro Game Challenge. I just happened to be around when a couple of people mentioned it in passing. I had never even heard of it before, but knew then that I had to have it. Basically, it's a collection of 80s-style parody games. Being raised as a NES-gamer, I couldn't help but be interested. RGC was originally released in late 2007 as Game Center CX Arino no Chousenjou. Thankfully, XSeed Games decided to bring it over, and they made quite the effort to preserve this labor of love.

The setup is a little odd. Some strange fellow is lousy at playing modern games, but absolutely loves the games he played growing up. So he ends up trapping you and forcing you to undergo his retro gaming challenges. Although not the most epic storyline, it does provide the backdrop for this quirky collection. The great thing is that these games play homage to many of the old classics from the 80s. Cosmic Gate is almost identical to Galaga. Robot Ninja Haggleman closely resembles Ninja Jajamarukun and Ninja Gaiden (NES). Guadia Quest is clearly modeled after the early Dragon Quests. But although these games are very retro in their look and feel, they also incorporate some modern twists. For example, Star Prince is a generic vertical shooter, with the ability to collect power-ups to change your weapon. But Star Prince adds the ability to absorb bullets through a shield mechanic and launch a barrage of fire as a counterattack and collectathon elements by uncovering P-R-I-N-C-E tiles scattered throughout the stage. These games successfully blend the tight design of traditional gameplay with newer mechanics to produce familiarity, yet feels fresh at the same time.

The game is structured as a series of challenges. For the most part, these challenges are fairly easy. They are presented to help you learn the basics of each game, rather than mastery of them. When a challenge is met, the game immediately stops and brings you back to the main story. This initially bugged me - you spend your time getting to a new part of the stage, and then the main game kicks you out. But as you complete the four challenges for a single game, you then earn the right to play that game in "Free Play" mode. So I guess the purpose of the main game is to fulfill challenges, and not necessarily to play each individual game to your own liking. In addition to unlocking "Free Play", you also unlock the next game in the compilation by completing a game's four challenges. The final challenge of RGC requires completion of all the games.

It was the little things that stood out most. The first game you play, Cosmic Gate, is very barebones. Being that the game was "released" in 1984, you get a basic title screen, blocky visuals, basic mechanics, poor grammar, and tinny music. But as you unlock additional games spanning "release dates" from 1986 to 1989, you see a progression of all those things. Haggleman 2 has noticeably better visuals and higher quality music than Haggleman 1. Cinematic cut scenes were introduced. Gameplay concepts are evolved. Ending credits became far more elaborate. Retro Game Challenge accurately portrays the 80s era of gaming. In addition to the 80s-esque games themselves, RGC includes a library of magazines with news, tips & tricks. As a kid growing up with an EGM subscription, it's a really nice touch. What's also interesting is the English localization by XSeed games. The RGC magazine is called "Game Fan" and has editors named "Dave H." and "Dan Sock", which are obvious American game culture references. It's details like these which show that both the Japanese developers and the American localization team delivered the game out of a passion for video games.

As far as the games themselves, there are 8 titles included, although perhaps only 6 unique titles.

- Cosmic Gate is the Galaga clone, with the addition of a power-up that can destroy multiple enemies with a single shot and warp zones.
- Robot Ninja Haggleman 1 & 2 are almost identical games. I guess the best way to describe them are 2d action platformers in a confined space. When you destroy all the enemies in the stage (usually by jumping on them), the boss reveals itself. The twist is that the game has a bunch of doors scattered throughout the stage and if you enter one door, all doors of the same color will open, revealing power-ups, damaging enemies, and possibly revealing the stage boss early. Haggleman 2 has larger stages, harder enemies and upgraded visuals.
-Rally King and Rally King SP are overhead perspective racing games. Being a rally game, drifting is of the essence. If you can drift for 1 full second, you'll trigger a "drift boost" which propels your car in the direction of your drift for a few seconds. It's similar to Mario Kart DS snaking, except you simply drift, not drift from side to side. Unlike Mario Kart, you take damage every time you hit a wall or another car, so if you're wreckless with your driving, it's game over. This causes you to be strategic about your drift boosts, because you're penalized for bumping into objects. Rally King SP is really a remix of Rally King, and not a sequel.
- Star Prince is a vertical scrolling shooter. It's a very solid game, with lots of things to shoot and dodge. Interestingly enough, the waves of enemies change randomly, so replaying the same stage will result in a slightly different experience.
- Guadia Quest is very much a take on Dragon Quest. You have a party of 3 characters with similar spells to those offered in DQ. The "Guadias" are special enemies that you can make a pact with. If you defeat one, they will help assist you in future battles. Unlike a party member, Guadias cannot be directly controlled, and they do not help out every turn. Still, their presence is appreciated because Guadia Quest is a surprisingly thorough adventure. Even though the overworld is limited with only a few dungeons, the game makes the most of it. The dungeons themselves are huge, with many branching paths to explore. There are puzzles, a variety of enemy types, difficult bosses, rare equipment, etc. - basically what you'd come to expect of any standalone J-RPG. It may be old-school, but it's old-school well done. My only gripes with it are that it mirrors retro-RPGing too well. You need to go to a submenu to talk to someone or to look at an object. I'm not entirely sure why that couldn't be done with a single button. And although most items and spells are explained in the manual, some are not, which can be frustrating because modern games have descriptions built into the interface. Another pet peeve of mine is how older RPGs had terrible shop interfaces, where you were basically purchasing items blindly, not knowing if the weapon you're buying is better than the one you're wielding. Almost all modern RPGs show you stats increases/decreases so you can easily make informed buying decisions. Guadia, like most early generation RPGs, does not. Still, despite my quips, I enjoyed Guadia Quest more than most RPGs today.
- Finally Robot Ninja Haggleman 3 marks the end of the collection. It is completely different than Haggleman 1 & 2, resembling Ninja Gaiden (NES) more than anything else. In HM 1 & 2, your main weapon was jumping on enemies to defeat them. Here, it's all about slashing them with a sword. Haggleman 3 also resembles Metroid in the way that certain sections of a stage are inaccessible until you acquire specific items.

All in all, it's a good mix of games and genres. Only the latter two have a save feature that allows you resume right where you left off. The first six games are pick-up-and-play so they don't really need it.

My curiosity was piqued when I first heard about this title. Now that I've got it in my hands, I love Retro Game Challenge even more. As a gamer defined by the 1980s myself, RGC hits all the right notes. It is undeniably a product made by gamers, for gamers. Coincidentally, Game Center CX 2 was released in Japan this past week. Here's hoping that RGC sells well enough to pave the way for RGC2. We need more games like these.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Half Life 2

Half Life 2
First Person Shooter - PC
HD Backup
1 player

Let's not beat around the bush. Half Life 2 is one of the few games that I hated playing from start to end. I didn't really like Half Life either, but I could respect it for what it did. I cannot say the same thing for Half Life 2. It is so completely artificial, that I honestly can not see why it was as well-received as it was.

Following the events of Half Life, Half Life 2 dumps you in its world as a fugitive right off the bat. Consequently, the bulk of the game is simply you running away. It plays out mostly like your average FPS, with the one exception of the gravity gun. With it, you can point at certain objects and attract them towards you. Once you've got a lock on the object and it's floating in front of you, you can then launch it out. So everyday objects like boxes and metal debris can be used as weapons.

Let's start with the good. When the game started, I was thrust in an entirely unfamiliar environment. The surroundings were drab. The regular folk were nervous. The people in power were bullies. It was one of the rare times in a game where I felt really tense due to the immersion. I didn't entirely know what was going on, but that was the beauty of it. You're not supposed to. You only have that nagging feeling that something is wrong. It's a feeling I would experience again later on. What's not so great is that the other time is at the very last stage of the game.

I'm not entirely sure what kind of game Half Life 2 is. Is it a FPS? I suppose. But the shooting action is probably the worst I've experienced in the genre. You face more or less the same carbon copy enemies throughout the entire game. Moreover, they're generally stupid and weak, which makes me wonder why they exist at all. I was thoroughly bored with pretty much every single shootout in the game. Is it a puzzle game? The first Half Life had some puzzle elements to it. HL2 does as well, however it seems de-emphasized. There were probably a couple of instances where you had to do something more than hitting a switch. Then is it a dialog FPS? Not really. Like the first Half Life, dialog happens in first person view with no cut-scenes, so you're always a part of the game. I'm not entirely sure this is a good way to present dialog, because it's boring to simply stand there waiting for people to finish talking. But what's worse is that Half Life 2's story isn't even worth listening to. It's cookie-cutter generic and could be elaborated in a single paragraph. Half Life 2 doesn't really succeed at anything.

Another major problem is the filler. HL2 has a definite beginning and end. But everything in between is woefully inadequate. The stages themselves seem like a string of half developed ideas with no real direction. Nothing demonstrates this better than the awful vehicle stages included. For most of the first half of the game, you'll be piloting a boat or a buggy. Both of them handle like molasses, and neither of them contribute to the game in any meaningful way. When you get these vehicles, most of the time you only need them to cover the incredibly long stretches of the map that would be way too cumbersome on foot. The other times, you're simply running away. The stage that takes the cake is "We Don't Go To Ravenholm". The entire stage revolves around fighting creepy, crawly things and zombies. It feels way more at home as a B-horror movie than as an integral part of Half Life 2. It just further cements my feelings that HL2 is nothing more than a bunch of bad concepts thrown together. Even the gravity gun seems like an add-on as opposed to an integral part of the game. Sure there are certain segments where the gravity gun is required to progress, or can assist in a given situation. But for 95% of the game, it's completely irrelevant. The bulk of Half Life 2 is hollow.

Rarely have I felt such disdain towards a game. Usually I can see some value in what a game is trying to accomplish, or I could see an audience it might be catered towards. But I simply cannot make sense out of Half Life 2. There are no redeeming qualities. What a complete waste of time.

Saturday, January 03, 2009


First Person Puzzle? - PC
HD Backup
1 player

Portal was well-received when it appeared on Valve's Orange Box in 2007. Assuming it was just your average FPS, I didn't pay much attention to it. Recently, for whatever reason, I decided to watch the official trailer for the game... and turns out I was dead wrong. Portal wasn't an average FPS. In fact, it didn't resemble a FPS at all. So piqued was my curiosity, that I upgraded my archaic PC components and bought the Orange Box just to play it. I expected Portal to be good. What I didn't expect is that it would completely blow me away.

Portal is a puzzle game. It looks like a first person shooter. It controls like a first person shooter. But instead of bullets, rockets and lasers, the only gun you get creates portals. Left click for a blue portal, right click for an orange portal. Enter one, and you'll exit from the other. It sounds very simple, but it's completely brilliant. You can open a portal underneath an object to transport it. You can use a long fall into a portal to propel yourself out of the opposite portal. Your tools are simple, but the applications are numerous.

The game is generally set up in a series of stages, with one puzzle after another after another. The complexity of the solutions ramps up as the game goes along. In the later levels, the game includes laser-guided bots that are out to kill you. Since Portal is not an action-game in the normal sense, your only methods of taking out the machines come down to tipping them over from behind or knocking them down with objects, courtesy of an overhead portal. In these sections, it reminds me of stealth games in how you think of ways to get to the enemy undetected. The fact that the game is done in a FPS-style enhances the experience. Portal placement requires precise angles and locations, so the first person perspective is much appreciated. For instance, many of the puzzles require you to simply observe your surroundings to see what you need to do, and what you're capable of doing at any given situation. First-person perspective works best here, because you can quickly and easily get a full view of your environments.

Ingenuous. Surprising. Innovative. Breathtaking. Atmospheric. Captivating. Meticulously designed and beautifully executed. Portal just does everything right. Maybe for the first time in my life, I have nothing to complain about. Portal is perfect.