Tuesday, December 28, 2010


Developer: 2K Boston/2K Australia (Irrational Games)
Publisher: 2K Games
First Person Shooter - PS3
1 player

I remember my old roommate being really excited about a game trailer he had seen for this upcoming game called BioShock. It was the first and only time he called me to watch a game trailer. The footage was all FMV, but it showed off water-themed environments, and this hulking menace with a huge drill as an arm. It certainly piqued my roommate's interest. Fast forward to three years ago, when BioShock was finally released to the world to unanimous praise. I didn't (and still don't) have a PC capable of playing it, but I knew I had to try it. Thanks to my succumbing to the current generation of consoles, now I can.

Lauded for its portrayal of an alternate reality, BioShock begins fairly normal. You start the game in the ocean, having just crash landed. There's little explanation for what has just occurred, but you know one thing: you must survive. You come upon a lighthouse. But things are not what they seem. The moment you board a bathysphere, you are brought into an underwater city you had no idea existed. It is modern, technologically-advanced, and is vastly developed. The only problem is, the environment is eerily deserted for the most part. And the life that you do find is quite unexpected...

BioShock is a pseudo-horror First Person Shooter. Just like any FPS, shooting action is a priority. You'll have your assortment of weapons - even different bullet types to fit the occasion. You'll also have an assortment of plasmids, special powers that allow you to do some cool things like freeze an enemy or use telekinesis (think Half-Life gravity gun). There's flexibility in using different plasmids with your standard weapons, as they tend to complement each other.

But BioShock also has elements typically found in the survival horror genre. Since the environments are sparse, most of the storytelling is told in audio logs spread throughout the universe. By listening to them, you can piece together the back-story of all the events. The backdrops of the stages themselves also contribute to the feeling of dread. The first stage, for instance, takes place in a medical clinic. Some of the wards are pretty gruesome, with disfigured bodies and blood spilled all over. It's similar in feel to the horrific scenes in Silent Hill. Creepy stuff.

The thing is, after that first stage, things go downhill fast. A game like this is about the atmosphere, but apart from the medical clinic and maybe one other stage in the game, most of the scenes come off as generic, underwater city or not. The bulk of the game just feels like any other FPS, but quieter. It feels like the game wants to be horror, but is hesitant to take it all the way.

The story? Dreadful. And not because it lacks scares. The plot has its own logic that's equal parts convoluted and just plain ridiculous. Not that the story has to be grand, because I'd just as well have any paper-thin excuse to go out and shoot things. But with all the praise lopped onto BioShock, you'd think it won a Pulitzer.

But the worst sin of all is that BioShock is just plain boring.

First of all, the game is guilty of lacking "design". Sure the stage design is fairly solid, but enemies are haphazardly placed - especially since they respawn randomly. My number one complaint about Western developers is how they focus their talents on the big picture - creating a world. It then becomes up to that world and the player to generate a game. But it just doesn't work for me. In that kind of "design", enemies are merely filler, set up as random obstacles between you and your goal. This contrasts what I play video games for, where every scene is a specific challenge to overcome, and enemies are integral to that experience. Needless to say, BioShock generally follows convention, and comes up short in this area aside from boss fights.

Secondly, there are only five enemies in the game. Five.

Third, you have the ability to hack into machines and locked safes. When you do so manually, it'll bring up a water puzzle, where you must flip and exchange tiles to connect the pipes so that it will flow properly. While it was an amusing diversion initially, by your 10th hack (and 20th and 50th and 100th), you're so annoyed by it that you simply just pay the hack cost so you don't have to do that stupid puzzle anymore.

And that brings us to the totality: BioShock is full of repetitive tasks. You fight the same enemies over and over. You solve the same water puzzles over and over. And if that wasn't bad enough, the game makes you do it for 10 more hours than it should have. The pacing is painfully slow, with no reward.

I'm surprised - Shocked even - that sequels were made of this tepid game. Funny enough, when I last talked to my old roommate, he thought that BioShock sucked too.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Shantae: Risky's Revenge

Shantae: Risky's Revenge
Developer: Wayforward
Publisher: Nintendo
Action Platformer - DSi Ware
1 player
Risky's Revenge

I never got a chance to play the original Shantae - partly because I never owned a Gameboy Color, and partly because I'm skeptical about western developers taking on the 2D action platformer - a genre that has largely been dominated by the Japanese. But Shantae nevertheless had a cult following and is highly regarded as being a fine contribution to the genre. Developer Wayforward was supposed to release a follow-up on the Gameboy Advance, but because of the length of development and the timing of the GBA's demise, the project was scrapped. It wasn't until the DSi debuted a downloadable network that Wayforward decided to continue and finish the project. Thankfully they did, because this is without question, the quintessential DSi Ware title.

In Risky's Revenge, you take up the role of Shantae, a half-genie. You walk around in a free environment, talking to people you meet, jumping over bottomless pits, and facing off against enemies. Your primary weapon in the game is actually your hair, which is pretty effective at whacking all enemies from start to finish. There are some magic spells that you can purchase too, that expand your arsenal and give you access to projectile attacks, but they drain your magic meter so you can't proceed by magic alone. The structure of the game very much follows the Metroid / Igarushi Castlevania / Haggleman 3 style, where you are given freedom to go anywhere in the game from the get-go, but certain barriers will prevent you from progressing unless you have the right skill.

Here lies one of the more amusing parts. As a half-genie, you can discover powers along the way that allow you to transform. For instance, the very first form is that of a monkey. Because of the monkey's ability to grip walls and climb surfaces, it allows you to scale new heights, giving you access to areas you couldn't go to before. You'll pick up other forms along the way, and upgrades to those forms. So a lot of the fun is seeing what options are open to you at any stage of the game, exploring where you can go, and switching between the different forms to progress. It's apparent that a lot of polish went into level-design, and integrating the different acquired abilities into it.

Did I mention that the game is gorgeous? The visuals are sprite-actular and colorful, just like the best of the SNES era. Shantae's animations are really fluid and there's a lot of personality even in the way she walks around. The backgrounds are also really neat, because of the way you can shift planes. Enemies that are in your plane suddenly become part of the background when you leave that plane, giving a bit of depth to your 2D gaming. The surroundings are pretty detailed besides that too.

The adventure lasted 8 hours for me, which is quite reasonable for a platforming game, especially one that costs $12 retail. It might be the most expensive download on DSi Ware, but believe me, it's the most complete package. I loved the game from start to finish as it's truly one of the finest maze games out there. If there's any complaint to be had, it's that just like Haggleman 3, I'm left wanting more.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Fat Princess

Fat Princess
Developer: Titan Studios
Publisher: SCEA
Action / Capture the Flag - Playstation 3
1 - 32 players
Fat Princess

Fat Princess has gotten a lot of press in the PSN shows like Pulse and Qore. I knew it was an online multiplayer game, but BECAUSE it was an online multiplayer game, didn't think I'd get much mileage out of it. I barely touch my consoles as is. But who could resist a 50% off sale?

The gist of the game is simple:

Capture the enemy princess
Protect/retrieve your princess

All in all, very much like your standard capture the flag game. But there's a twist. Fat Princess so gets its name from one fact: You can stuff the princesses with cake, making them fatter and heavier, and consequently much more difficult to move. You control one of 16 characters on your team, and you are free to change classes similar to a game like Battlefield. The nice thing is, you don't need to die in order to change classes. You just need to pick up a hat of the class you want to change into. Your base generates all of the class types, so you can immediately pick your role there. On the battlefield, you can pick up the hats of fallen allies and enemies. This allows class-changes to be seamless and instantaneous, so you can focus on the action. There's 5-6 standard classes and an additional 3 available via DLC, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Some units are better at front-line combat, while others are better as support.

Fat Princess isn't just action. Unlike a FPS capture the flag, Fat Princess has some RTS elements to it, where you can farm resources to upgrade buildings, ultimately upgrading the units. You can also use resources to construct shortcuts (ladders, bridges, etc) and build barriers to block out the enemy. This aspect gives Fat Princess a little more depth than the standard CTF.

Contrary to what I first believed, there are decent single player options where you play against AI-controlled opponents. There is a brief story mode with different objectives that allow you to understand the different modes and get familiarized with the classes and maps. There's also an arena mode where you pick a class and try to survive through a series of combative challenges. So there's a bit to play around with if you're not as interested in jumping online.

But of course, if you want to play online, it's very easy to jump in. You can host a game and set things up if you want to play a game with specific settings. Or you can just Join a Game and it'll drop you into an existing game going on, where you just replace one of the AI-controlled team members. It all happens automatically, so you don't need to go to any lobbies, or pick a game from a list. And because the game substitutes you in for an AI-team member, if you need to go, you can quit without really disrupting your teammates. It'll just sub an AI teammember back in when you leave. Once an online game is finished, all the human players can vote for the next map. The way the online component was designed makes it incredibly easy to play for just a few minutes or a few hours.

My only complaint about the experience is that the documentation is pretty poor. Yes, the in-game manual gives you some direction into class abilities, upgrading buildings, the available game modes, etc. But many of the finer details are not explained, so even though I've played the game for hours, there are gameplay elements I don't quite understand - particularly with using resources towards upgrades.

Nevertheless, if it's a solid, fast-paced, user-friendly multiplayer game you're after, Fat Princess delivers. Whether you have just a few minutes to spare or want to devote an entire afternoon, you'll be thoroughly entertained.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Half Minute Hero

Half Minute Hero
Developer: Marvelous Entertainment
Publisher: XSEED Games
RPG / Variety - Playstation Portable
1 player
Half Minute Hero

First thing you need to know is that PSN hosts a decent number of PSP demos, and for the most part, made me NOT want to purchase the full game. Half Minute Hero was the exception. It was quirky, brilliant, and most of all entertaining. I was sold after, well... 30 seconds.

Half Minute Hero isn't really -a- game, and more of a collection of games tied together with an overall storyline. The games themselves are all quite different, but they all have the recurring motif of a 30 second time limit.

Hero 30

This fast-paced RPG is the principle mode. The premise is that an evil lord is casting an apocalyptic spell which requires 30 seconds to complete. So your job as the Hero of the story is to race to defeat the lord.

Just like a "real" RPG, you can purchase items, talk to townsfolk for advice, recruit party members, grind for levels, solve puzzles, and explore dungeons. Of course, these activities are much more basic and streamlined than the typical RPG (battles are largely automatic and average 1.5 seconds, purchasing EQ automatically equips, etc), but the content is there.

That begs the question... how can you do all of that in 30 seconds? For the first few scenarios, it's all a matter of speed and efficiency. You have to figure out how much to fight / level up and balance that with the ticking clock. Luckily time stops when you're in towns, so you can take a breather, talk to citizens, heal and improve your equipment. On the world map, you can make mad-dashes which eliminates random battles for the duration, but costs you HP. So there's a time management aspect to making a beeline to your intended destinations, stopping only to fight when it's necessary, and balancing that with how much HP your hero has.

Later scenarios have the same balancing act, but gives you ways to extend your 30 second time limit. There's a time goddess that will reset the clock to 30:00 at the cost of gold. The catch is that the cost of gold increases everytime you use it, so it becomes economically unfeasible past a certain point. But what it does is present you with larger and more complex game scenarios. In fact, this little game has "achievements" that trigger when you meet certain criteria (2 per scenario) and even multi-branching paths that introduce new scenarios. An amusing touch is that each scenario is considered a game in of itself and has its own set of credits once cleared.

Evil Lord 30

From what I gathered, this "real time strategy" game isn't a particular favorite among players. Although it's billed as a RTS, I actually feel it's more accurately described as a summon action game. Basically it's like an ARPG where your character, the Evil Lord, cannot attack directly, but needs to summon monsters to fight for you. You can summon 3 types of monsters, with rock-paper-scissors affinities. That's where the strategy component comes in.

You can summon as many monsters you want and as often as you want, but the faster you summon them, the weaker they are. The monster strength is determined by the size of your summon circle. Once you summon one monster, it shrinks and then grows over time. As you defeat enemies, you do gain experience points. Once you level, your max summon circle expands, allowing you to make bigger monsters. Get hit by an enemy, and your circle shrinks.

The premise of this game is that the Evil Lord is trying to save his beloved Millenia, who has been turned into a bat. But after 30 seconds, daylight breaks and they are doomed. Just like Hero 30, you can find the Time Goddess and turn back the clock. This is a necessity since later stages are all about throwing you in mazes full of enemies, so you'll need every second you can get.

Princess 30

Princess 30 is absolute silliness. The story is that the King has fallen ill, and the naive Princess ventures outside of the castle in attempts to get help. Naturally, this worries her parents, so they give her a strict 30 second curfew.

The actual gameplay is closest to a shoot-em-up. The screen will autoscroll in a predetermined direction, but you can influence its speed based on the path your princess takes. Surrounding the princess is 30 bodyguards which has a dual purpose: more bodyguards = more offensive strength, but more bodyguards = larger hitbox. Enemies will come from all four directions, so you have directional fire mapped to the buttons. But the essential goal of each stage is to collect a person / item, and then race back to the castle before the 30 second limit runs out. The time-extenders here are red-carpets, which turn the clock back a little for as long as the princess is on it.

Guard 30

As you may have guessed, Guard 30 is a protection game. This time, it's your group that is casting the spell of destruction. A Sage is being targeted by all sorts of monsters, and has asked you to provide protection until the spell of destruction has been cast. So within those 30 seconds, a flood of monsters, demons, and bosses will try to thwart the Sage's plans.

You have a few resources at your disposal that can help. You can choose some one-time use tools before a stage begins. These items range from bombs to barriers. You can also pick up weapons on the field. And foregoing that, you can ram your body into monsters to push them away. Unfortunately, monsters don't "die". They only get knocked out for a few seconds, before they start coming for the Sage again. So you'll have your hands full here.

Unlike the other games, there's no time-extender because you actually want the clock to run out. But since the Sage just stands there chanting the spell, it will often put your group in peril. So another valuable tool is being able to pick up the Sage and relocate. The cost of doing this is that the Sage cannot chant while you're in motion, and so the clock is not progressing. But considering the layout of the stages, you pretty much have to move around to avoid the masses of enemies. Luckily, there's another benefit to moving the Sage around. There are hotspots on most stages which double the speed at which the spell can be cast. So there's another positive incentive to move around.


The games in Half Minute Hero are all quite distinct. I don't think any of them are bad. Hero 30 has the most meat and is the most fun by far. But there were really good moments in each of the games, where the gameplay elements came together in a entertaining, this-is-awesome way. I know that the gamer community was not as enthusiastic about Dark Lord 30, Princess 30 and Guard 30 and to be fair, they are uneven experiences. There generally isn't a progression of difficulty or complexity, so the challenge and design feels unbalanced. They're also really quick to blast through, compared to Hero 30. But as a whole package, it offers variety, a lot of content, brilliant fun and never takes itself too seriously. It resembles nothing else on the market. This is my favorite PSP game thus far.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Killzone Liberation

Killzone Liberation
Developer: Guerilla
Publisher: SCEA
Action - Playstation Portable
1 player / 2-6 player Ad-Hoc & Infrastructure
Killzone Liberation

Killzone Liberation was one of the first titles recommended to me when I purchased my PSP. I didn't know much about the KZ series, other than the fact that it was an exclusive that Sony fans praised. Unlike the first-person perspective of the PS3 series, Killzone Liberation took a different path by being presented top-down. I'm always down for a hearty action game, and because of the view, I was looking forward to something that distinguishes itself from the pack.

Indeed, KZL sets itself apart for a few reasons.
- The top-down perspective did make it play very differently than other shooters. For one thing, there's no jumping. You can still crouch behind objects to gain a defensive advantage, but because there isn't much of a vertical axis to the camera, height isn't emphasized much.
- The game is hard. The enemies are pretty accurate with their bullets, and aren't afraid to spray you. The few bosses that are here are also throw-your-PSP-out-the-window hard, which while frustrating, is quite respectable.
- Although there are some segments with allied AI, which I hate, you have some control by being able to designate your partner to specific locations on the screen or to follow you. The great thing is your allied AI partner listens to you, so if you tell them to protect themselves behind a barricade, they will remain there, even if you wander away from their area. You can also command your partner to do certain things, such as setting up bombs and clearing the way. It's nice to be able to exert some control over the computer controlled characters.
- The game shipped incomplete, so you can only receive the final 20% of the game and the ability to play online through DLC. Luckily, the DLC is free, but when I "finished" the game, I thought it was weird that it ended on a cliffhanger. It was then that I learned that the DLC wasn't a bonus, but a fix for what really ought to have been there in the first place.

Ultimately it comes down to whether the game is fun, and I think this is where Killzone Liberation slips. I never got the sense that it was anything more than clinical and generic. There isn't much variety in the types of foes you face. They only come in a handful of flavors. For the most part, I felt that the waves of enemies were only there to keep you occupied, rather than an integral part of the game design. A common scenario is that you'll face 3 enemies. So you kill them, and out comes another wave of the same enemies. It gets repetitive. That's what made the challenge harder to deal with too. It seemed like it was hard for the sake of being hard, and left me with no satisfaction when I overcame those challenges. It was a soul-less experience.

Probably the biggest complaint of mine is the lock-on targeting system. Theoretically you kinda point your character towards an enemy and then your gun is locked onto that individual. Since you don't have the precision of a 1st person shooter, the lock-on certainly helps a game like this. And this totally works when there's one enemy on the screen. Where things go bad is when there are several enemies in the same direction. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get your gun to lock onto specific enemies in these situations. Worse yet, even if you're targeting one enemy, once you knock them to the ground, your auto-aim will then lock on to another enemy. It is extremely annoying when you want to finish off an opponent, but the game sometimes decides to just shift targets on you. And this is where most of the frustration came in. Your auto-aim goes wherever it wants to. Yes, the game is hard, but a large part of that hard is because you are at the mercy of the finicky targeting system. If the mediocrity in design wasn't enough to ruin the game, the lock-on targeting system definitely did.

On paper, Killzone Liberation is a great game. It's intense, fast-paced, challenging, and relentless - all very good things for an action game. It's got a bunch of challenge stages that make it feel very different from the regular campaign mode too - and more content is always a good thing. But no matter what the game offered, I never quite enjoyed playing it. If the rest of the Killzone series is like this, Sony fans can just keep it.

Friday, May 28, 2010

PixelJunk Shooter

PixelJunk Shooter
Developer: Q Games
Publisher: SCEA
Action - Playstation 3
1-2 players
PixelJunk Shooter

When I got a PS3, several people recommended that I get all the PixelJunk titles. I'm not entirely sure what the PJ branding indicates, but they seem to be simple 2D games with High Definition visuals. Seems like a fine combination to me. PixelJunk Shooter is the most recent PJ game from Q Games and well... it's a shooter. Sorta.

Although it has bullet dodging and shmup'ing elements, Shooter is more like one of those classic rescue games. Each stage has a certain number of people that you have to fly around and save before the exit is opened. Then you move onto the next stage and you do the same. Although this might seem basic, there's a lot of modern tweaks to make it interesting. The first thing you notice about Shooter is the fluid physics. There are three primary elements you'll encounter: water, lava and oil. All of them have their own attributes to them, but their motion is very realistic in their fluidity. The liquids flow and drip rather than a constant pour, making for some interesting interaction. These fluids are very critical to the game. Lava is a destructive element, and touching it not only harms you, but it can kill people you're trying to save if you don't get to them in time. But lava can be neutralized with water, thus forming molten rock, that you can also use to your advantage or disadvantage.

Therein lies the simplicity, and yet the brilliance of Shooter. You have your classic shooter elements with enemies that try to shoot you down and bosses at the end of each area, but it is ultimately a puzzle game where you have to figure out how to save everyone without losing any of them. Enemy locations, gates you can interact with, the natural flow of lava and water, and various suits your ship can "wear" for special abilities - all of these things are meticulously designed as puzzle tools. And like most modern games, saving people is just a form of collectathon. You don't have to save everyone to move onto the next stage (they could also die, which also accomplishes that goal), but it is far more rewarding to. There are also tons of crystals that you can collect too - many of which are hidden or somewhat obscured until you trigger some events.

I personally loved PixelJunk Shooter more than any other PS3 game I've played. Maybe my love of 2D is hard to quench, but Shooter has that kind of clever gameplay that feels familiar, yet completely fresh. Perhaps more than anything else, that's the kind of game that resonates best with me. Some may complain that the game only has 3 areas (15 stages), but if you actually 100% everything, it'll take some time to get through all of that. Plus, PixelJunk Shooter 2 is already in the works, promising new ideas and a lengthier run-time, so I couldn't be happier.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Syphon Filter Dark Mirror

Syphon Filter Dark Mirror
Developer: Sony Bend
Publisher: SCEA
Action - Playstation Portable
1 player / 2-8 player Ad-Hoc & Infrastructure
Syphon Filter Dark Mirror

I'll be honest. I've never played Syphon Filter, but I always got the impression that it was a sub-par knockoff of the stealth-action genre that Metal Gear Solid created. But the PSP versions were said to be different. They were said to be good. IGN gave Dark Mirror the 2006 PSP Game of the Year award - a dubious source, I know, but it's worth noting. And since I was craving a shooter at the time, it was reason enough to check it out.

From what I can tell, Syphon Filter Dark Mirror is a 3rd person shooter, with some stealth elements at times. MGS has a higher emphasis on stealth, because it's designed to be able to go through each stage undetected, and that aspect of gameplay is fleshed out better. Instead, SFDM might be more like Goldeneye 007 in that certain parts, you are automatically detected and other parts, you have a choice to use stealth techniques or go with guns blazing. Unlike First-Person Shooters though, there's some elements of climbing, shimmying, grappling, etc that you can do which helps for area exploration.

As an action game, Dark Mirror is competent, and generally varied enough to be entertaining. There's a host of different weapons you can collect and use. There is a decent amount of interactivity with the environments that you can use to your advantage, like the typical oil canisters that explode if you shoot them or activating switches that electricute enemies. Scoped weapons allow you to zoom in and make one-hit-kill headshots, or cripple enemies by shooting their legs. All the necessary ingredients are there, but it feels like it lacks something to make it truly special.

Perhaps the defining feature of the game is its use of goggles. You can equip one of 3 different types of goggles and knowing when and where to use them will be monumental in how you approach a stage. The "EDSU Goggles" generally help you figure out what items you can interact with, and can reveal things that are hidden. The "IR Goggles" help you to sense heat, and thus makes enemies visible even behind solid objects. This is very handy for scouting out the next room before you even open the door. Finally there's Night Vision, which helps to see in dark areas. There's also a flashlight, which doesn't illuminate as well as the NV goggles, and alerts enemies that you're there, so I'm not really sure why it's in the game. At first I found the goggles cumbersome, but once I figured out the nuances, strengths and limitations of each pair, I realize they are pretty integral to the gameplay, particularly if you want to use stealth techniques.

One of the things I had to get used to was its mix of stealth and action. On one hand, I feel Dark Mirror doesn't know what it wants to be. It's ok to give the player a choice on how to approach each situation. But there are segments where the game forces an action sequence, so it is inconsistent. On the other hand, what makes everything work together are the "achievements". I really feel like this is the one area where the game shines brightest. For each stage in the game, there are the same six goals. They require you to do things like get 20 stealth kills, or kill 30 people with headshots, or kill 15 people with a knife. If you're obsessive about this stuff like me, it'll force you to play stages over and over but the upside is that you get to fully understand the design of each stage. It is only then that you come to really appreciate each situation. Particularly for the stealth sections, it's almost like a puzzle to figure out how to kill X number of people without being detected. Fulfilling these goals will net you some unlockable weapons and bonus stages, but for me, fulfilling these goals made the game that much deeper in of itself.

The other major triumph of Dark Mirror is its control scheme. It has historical significance on the PSP because it was a huge step forward for having intuitive controls on the awkward PSP. With the standard configuration, the nub controls movement, the face buttons control your aim, and holding the D-pad brings up a subscreen where you can easily pick an item or weapon with the face buttons. It is a control scheme that would be adopted and become the standard for all such games on the system, including the Metal Gear Solid series. And it works. It feels just as intuitive as a dual analog setup, and the D-pad inventory management allows you quick and easy access to what you need, when you need it.

If you play the game strictly for its story mode, Syphon Filter Dark Mirror is a decent diversion. It has its cool moments, but mostly feels like you're going through the motions. But if you take the time to pursue all of the available goals, you will develop a greater appreciation for what the game has to offer. There's a ton of unlockable content to be had, including 5 bonus stages, early development videos, etc. While I'm convinced that SFDM falls short of brilliance, no one could accuse Sony Bend of skimping out on the details.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Miles Edgeworth Ace Attorney Investigations

Miles Edgeworth Ace Attorney Investigations
Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom
Adventure - Nintendo DS
1 player
Miles Edgeworth Ace Attorney Investigations

I admit it. I'm a sucker for this game series. Ever since I first heard about it (a courtroom drama video game? really?!), I've been intrigued. Oh sure, the games have had their ups and downs. But through it all, it generally maintained a certain charm. Miles Edgeworth marks a departure from the previous entries, and even has a different title than the other games (Gyakuten Kenji, instead of Gyakuten Saiban). But if this Miles Edgeworth Ace Attorney Investigations is anything to go by, the original Ace Attorney series is officially irrelevant.

Miles Edgeworth somehow kept everything I ever loved about the series, but ditched everything I hated.

Gone are...
- Mysticism (psychic powers, channeling spirits and the like, magatama)
- Gimmicky touch screen garbage (having to simulate forensic work is NOT gameplay)
- Perceive system in Ace Attorney 4 which has no logic whatsover

Still contained within are...
- Distinct (and sometimes outrageous) character personalities
- Using logic to connect evidence to refute / confirm testimonies
- Plot continuity not only between cases, but entire games

Unlike the regular Ace Attorney games, Miles Edgeworth does not take place in a courtroom at all. Instead, the scenarios in this game focus on detective-work and apprehending criminals, but the techniques you use are very similar to what Phoenix Wright uses in court. You still talk to people, convince them into telling you their alibis, and point out problems in their arguments with evidence. So it's still very thought-based. The investigative parts resemble those in Phoenix Wright, but they're much more streamlined. First of all, movement is now done in third-person. You can see your character visually on-screen and move him around. It doesn't make for a huge change, but some might appreciate the increase in interactivity. To alleviate some of the irritations of previous games, Capcom got rid of the clunky navigation between areas by keeping investigations focused. If you're in a room, the game generally won't let you leave until you've gathered everything you need. Phoenix Wright would allow you to wander through 8 different locations, until you trigger an event that lets you get back to court. In Miles Edgeworth, though, the investigations are contained.

If it stopped here, it would already have the best gameplay in the series, but Ace Attorney Investigations adds a couple of new systems that reinforce the concept of making logical connections. The first is aptly named, "Logic". "Evidence" is the physical clues gathered and documented that you use to point out flaws in testimonies, etc. But new to this game are ideas and thoughts. As you find interesting tidbits or things that don't quite make sense, you keep track of your thoughts. At any time, you can connect two thoughts if there's a link, and it can reveal a new truth. It is may be an extension of what's already in place, but it makes for a great addition. Similarly, the second new addition isn't a completely new game system, but rather a twist on what you already do in the game. In a select few situations, you're able to evaluate simulations of past events and point out inconsistencies. The overall end result is a very focused experience of piecing together logic.

The only slight letdown to it all is that it seemed easier to me than the previous games. Part of it is because the main character is so much more competent than either Phoenix or Apollo, and as such, points out hints, whenever you need to present something. But even without those hints, I generally thought that connections between evidence and testimonies were much more obvious than the older games. I suppose it could just mean I've played too many of these games, so that the formula has become predictable.

Still, I hope Miles Edgeworth Ace Attorney Investigations is the future of the brand. It takes all the stuff I liked from the Ace Attorney games, expands on it, and dumps the junk I wasn't crazy about. The eclectic character personalities are still there, with a mix of old faces and several new ones. And the gameplay is by far the most sophisticated of the series. Even though the overall story wasn't as satisfying as some of the previous entries, it was nevertheless a complete joy to play. I want more.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Dark Void Zero

Dark Void Zero
Developer: Other Ocean
Publisher: Capcom
Action - DSi Ware
1 player
Dark Void Zero

Dark Void Zero is sort of a weird title. Capcom's marketing team calls it an unreleased game from the 80s, that they are releasing at long last on the DSi Ware store. Wikipedia calls it a publicity teaser to generate buzz for Dark Void, a 3D game for the PC, Playstation 3 and XBox360. Whatever it is, people seem to be agreement about one thing: Dark Void Zero is a much better game than Dark Void is.

Dark Void Zero is a NES-inspired action game, and that's a good thing. Visuals and music are decidedly 8-bit, as well as the gameplay. Sorta. Just like Retro Game Challenge, DVZ takes 8-bit conventions, but mixes it up with some modern elements for a slight twist. They don't go overboard with the modernization, and it mostly plays like a classic NES game. And frankly, the result is quite awesome.

You control a character named Rusty, and you're pretty much Earth's last hope. But who cares what the story is about? The game wastes little time and throws you into the action from the get-go. For the most part, this plays like your standard 2D action platformer. You pick up weapons, kill enemies, watch for cannons, jump over chasms, etc. You can fire in 8 directions, which is a definite necessity, given the aggressive nature of the enemies. The level structure is somewhat similar to Metroid in that you have freedom to explore areas, find that you can't proceed initially, grab crucial items, and backtrack to those points once you've found the right item. Luckily it doesn't have any leveling up garbage that plagues modern titles, so it's a pure action game. As a consequence, DVZ offers a decent challenge - quite the surprise for a fogey like me. If you don't utilize your situations right, enemies can easily overwhelm you.

For you collectathon gamers out there, you can search out 100 orbs in each stage and 5 special items for bonus points and extra lives. They're not necessary, but they certainly add a bit of flair to an already solid game.

The twist? You can fly. Scattered throughout the stages are jetpacks that grant you the ability to ascend heights and hover. Considering there are a bunch of aerial enemies and ground hazards, flight is a must. Your 8-way firing ability is even more crucial, as you're trying to position yourself not only to hit enemies, but to avoid colliding into danger. Flight makes the game that much more intense and turns up the action even more. But if you can fly, then what is the point of the platforming? DVZ answers that question with no hesitation.

Dark Void Zero is set up so that there are certain sections of a stage that cannot be traversed just by walking and jumping. But other sections will not allow you to fly. Stages contain antigravity fields that destroy your jetpack, forcing you to walk. So the game walks a fine rope between the two styles of play, and you have to adapt to each style and figure out which is right for each situation. But it succeeds marvelously because of how tight the stage design is. You get the feeling that every situation is very intentional, and all the enemies, barriers, and tools (weapons/powerups) are placed where they are for a purpose. Your goal as a player, then, is to use analyze your options and utilize what's available to overcome whatever scenario is presented. It's brilliant.

With its healthy challenge, two distinct styles of play, and well-designed stages that complement each and integrate both, Dark Void Zero is a surprising gem. It grabbed me from the beginning and was entertaining throughout. Complaints? Personally, I have none, but it should be mentioned that there are only three stages. It probably amounts to about 3-4 hours of trying and retrying to get through the stages. Although that doesn't sound like much in this era of 40-hour games, it's an appropriate length for no-nonsense action games of old. Plus, at 500 points for the download, it's hardly much of an investment. It may be shorter than a lot of games, but for me, it's also that much sweeter.

Sunday, February 21, 2010


Developer: KCET
Publisher: Konami
RPG - Playstation / PSN
1 player

I believe Suikoden may have been Konami's first foray into RPGs, and in several respects, it feels like it. Suikoden isn't particularly noteworthy for its visuals nor does it introduce any revolutionary game mechanics for its time. But that doesn't mean it was without its charms.

The one distinguishing thing about Suikoden is the ability to recruit a ton of characters into your army, with a maximum of 108. This is based off a classic Chinese novel, where there are 108 Stars of Destiny. For a RPG, this ability to recruit is a key component to its gameplay. Although most characters will join you when asked, many will not unless certain criteria are met. Depending on how much of a collectathon-ist you are, you can spend a bit of time traveling the world, looking for items, and having key characters in your group in order to collect them all.

I personally never liked having party choice in RPGs simply because managing them can be a pain. Especially since a lot of party-choice RPGs force certain characters to be in your party for story purposes, if you somehow don't balance all the possible members properly, some games will completely screw you over. Although Suikoden does do that too, the nice thing is that balancing 108 characters isn't needed because it has a sophisticated leveling up system. I don't entirely understand how leveling up works in Suikoden but it seems to give tons more experience points to your underleveled people. So if you have a party of level 50 characters, and then the story forces you to have a level 10 character in your party, your level 10 character will probably be level 47 by the time your other members reach 51. That removes that complaint I usually have about RPGs that don't automatically distribute experience to those not in your immediate party. Managing equipment between the 108 ... well, that can be a little clunky, but nothing game-breaking.

The biggest problem with Suikoden is that it's a bare-bones game. The overworld is pretty sparse, with only a handful of areas of interest. Dungeons are especially straight-forward, with little in the way of branching paths or areas to explore. Almost all of them funnel you towards the boss. While there is some merit in cutting out the extraneous stuff, the result was that I didn't care for any place I visited in the entire game. They were just a means to get to the next story point.

The combat is perhaps the simplest turn based RPG system I've experienced, with little more than Attack as an option. There is magic in this game too, but it doesn't work like other RPGs. Instead, each character can be equipped with a maximum of one spell type. And depending on the makeup of the character and their level, can have a maximum of four spells. The game does not use MP, and instead has a limited number of usage per spell. Once you use your spells, you can no longer use them unless you rest at an inn. What this means in practice is that physical combat takes center stage, and simply commanding ATTACK does not make for an exciting game.

But the game does offer different kinds of combat, depending on the situation. In addition to the standard RPG fights, Suikoden simulates epic battles by using a Dragon Force-like view. You'll see enemy troops on one side of the screen, and yours on the other. Then each side issues a command, troops charge each other, and casualties are recorded. It has a rock-paper-scissors system where offensive charges > archers > magic > offensive charges, but you have some additional tricks up your sleeve. There are also 1v1 battles against major enemies, which follows a similar rock-paper-scissors type of format too.

Where Suikoden really excels is in its narrative. Suikoden has a mature story in that tragedy propels it. This is not a fairy tale story. Neither is it an overdramatic emo story. Instead it's a story about war, duty, friendship (and betrayal), and sacrifice. The cost of the war is high, and many people die along the way. It kind of reminds me of Tales of Phantasia in that regard, where the severity of the events compels me to keep playing. It's interesting to see that despite having a whopping number of characters in your party, there's a reasonable amount of back-story to many of the characters, so they're reasonably fleshed out.

What I also love is the way the plot is told. Suikoden bucks the popular trends at the time and does not use FMV other than the movie that plays before the title screen. Instead, scenes play out using the same 3/4 top-down perspective that the game is normally presented in. The character sprites will animate depending on what's occurring at the time. Characters unsheathe their swords, fall on their knees, embrace, all using real-time sprites. Grandia is the only other game I know that relies heavily on that method.

Overall, Suikoden isn't my kind of game. It has an interesting story, and the characters are spot-on. But on its merits as a game, it's merely passable. There's some neat things, such as the clever leveling-up system that helps to lower level characters catch up to higher level characters, and the different types of battles that provide some variety. But the simplistic nature of the overall game design is hard to connect with. If story is all you want in a video game, then Suikoden is fine. I personally prefer more.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Bayonetta (demo)

Bayonetta you're mystery
Jerky cutscenes tell a bad story
The camera lags on the battlefield, I can't tell where you are
Bayonetta you're DMC
With your long hair and nudity
Your combos are long, witch time drags on, it's mashing, it's mashing

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Assassin's Creed Bloodlines

Assassin's Creed Bloodlines
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal & Griptonite
Publisher: Ubisoft
Action - Playstation Portable
1 player
Assassin's Creed Bloodlines

Assassin's Creed Bloodlines was released just a week before Assassin's Creed II to present a side story that takes place between the events of the first and second game. I'm told that the game mechanics are also somewhere in between the first and second game. As my first entry into the Assassin's Creed series, I came away with some appreciation of what people enjoyed. Yet, I couldn't shake the feeling that it's not the type of game to appeal to me as a whole.

Let's start with the basics. You assume the role of Altair the assassin. Here the story focuses on his clashes with the Templars in Cyprus. Similar to the main AC games, you will be exploring large cities, climbing buildings, sneaking around and killing as needed. If you manage to get up close to an opponent without being noticed, you can do a quick assassination. If you are detected, you have several combat options as well.

In terms of structure, the game basically has you follow a linear plot line. You are confined to a specific area because of the story, but otherwise you're free to explore the area as needed, move the plot along, or trigger subquests. Bloodlines offers some breaks from the main plot by allowing you to interact with some NPCs scattered throughout. Their tasks generally revolve around making deliveries (generally timed), defending innocent people, and assassinating specific targets. After playing Grand Theft Auto Chinatown Wars and reinforcing my thoughts with this game, I realize that sandbox gaming bores me. There's an illusion of freedom where you can do a lot of side goals, but ultimately what you actually can do is very limited. Here in this game you can walk and you can kill. Every quest is a some iteration of that.

The exploration aspect of the game is really nicely done though. I imagine that each city in the console/PC Assassin games is one complete entity, but here in Assassin's Creed Bloodlines city areas are sectioned off by districts. Nevertheless, each district has plenty to see, places to climb, and coins to find. Most 3D games with platforming elements have incorporated a form of collect-a-thon and ACB is no different. Here they are coins. Gold and silver coins can be found spread throughout the world. Collecting these coins means more game currency to buy upgrades to Altair's abilities, such as higher damage or more throwing knives. But they also count towards "Accomplishments". Yep, in going with the fads of XBL, there are now Achievements in portable gaming. But what this means is that you have an incentive to explore every nook and cranny of each location. You really get a sense of scale of the environment, as you jump across roof gaps and ascend on vertical towers.

One major downside in this portable version is that while the big city feel is intact, the streets don't feel as lively. Compared to the multitudes of people coming and going in the console versions, usually you'll only see up to 4-5 people on the screen at once here. Where this really comes into play is when you meet other Templars. They show up as a yellow dot on your map, to give you an indicator of when to be more discrete with your actions. But as the game is loading these people into memory as you walk through the city, the Templars seem to appear out of nowhere. You still have enough warning for the most part, but it is a little disorienting and matters a lot when you fight.

The combat is in of itself a high point. It's a very simple system: one button to attack, one button to block. Time the attack correctly and you can chain up to 3 hits. Hold block and hit attack right when the enemy is striking and you'll perform a counter. This timing-based system is very reminiscent of Vagrant Story. It's simple, yet very interactive because of the timing aspects. But where ACB missteps is that each enemy is more or less a carbon copy of the other. They may look different - some with helmets, others hold shields. But the all act alike. That makes the combat really repetitive. For example, once you've attracted attention, all Templars in the area will rush towards you. So then it's just combo combo combo / counter until they're all dead. And because of the memory issue, once you've killed the 4 Templars on your screen, all of a sudden another 3 will instantly warp in. It's really irritating because it disrupts your experience, and you pretty much dispose of all of them in the same way. In a game like this, fighting is supposed to be secondary, because you can assassinate people stealthily and avoid conflict. But in this PSP outing, there are definitely a lot of situations where you are forced to fight.

As a consequence, Assassin's Creed Bloodlines does have a more combat-oriented experience than other games of the series. The major manifestation of this is in boss battles. Unlike the other games, there is a boss to each area that has a health bar. You cannot assassinate bosses in this game. You are forced to fight them. But that's also when the battle system comes to life. The boss patterns are infinitely more interesting than what the regular Templar grunts do, and some of the later ones will present quite a nice challenge. I found myself continuing a bunch of times on certain fights. I just wish the regular encounters were as interesting.

Assassin's Creed Bloodlines is not a bad game at all. I can see glimpses of why people might like it and the main games from the series. There is charm in being dropped in a massive city, getting familiarized with it, exploring it, and taking it all in. The combat too is deeper than I would have thought a game like this would be. But for me, it's less than the sum of its parts. There's not much you can do other than explore and fight the same enemy over and over. That might be fine for some, but the game ultimately left me empty.