Monday, January 25, 2010

Game store numpties: a rant

While I was in town doing my weekly food shop yesterday, I decided to pop into my local branch of GAME on the off chance that they may have a copy of Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions for the PSP. This is a game that I've been meaning to pick up for some time. I do own an imported Greatest Hits version of the PS1 original, but it has a shocking translation, and the PSP has all new CG cut scenes and other extra content.

Anyway, I managed to find one in the pre owned section for £10, which I thought was very reasonable, so I went to pay for it. After about 2 minutes of searching I was then told by the member of staff serving me that they couldn't find the game and therefore couldn't sell it to me. Was I interested in anything else? Um, no, just the game I went in for in the first place. Now there aren't exactly hundreds of PSP games on sale in GAME these days so it wouldn't have taken an incredibly long time to thumb through the whole draw of games to see if it was in the wrong place, but that was obviously too difficult.

This isn't the first time I have had problems with GAME. They've been unable to find the game I have tried to purchase on several occasions before this one, and back on Boxing Day they put a copy of the first Marvel Ultimate Alliance in the box instead of the sequel. Every time something like this happens I wonder why I bother to give them my money (or try to) at all. If it weren't for the fact that I have a gift card and some credit on my reward card I definitely wouldn't be buying Mass Effect 2 from them next weekend, but as it will save me half of the cost of the game it will be silly not to in this case. After that however, I think I shall be sticking to Gamestation until they disappoint me as well, then I guess I shall look exclusively to the Internet to purchase my games.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen review

My first experience with the Dragon Quest series was the excellent 8th installment in the series, Journey of the Cursed King for the PS2 (check out my review here). Since then I have been keen to play through some of the earlier games in the series, and Square-Enix's decision to re release the "Zenithia trilogy" - IV, V and VI - has given me the perfect opportunity. Does the game play still match up to modern day RPG's, or is this one too old school for its own good?

Format: Nintendo DS
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: ArtePiazza
Genre: Turn based RPG
Expect to pay: £10 - £15

Graphics: 6 out of 10
When I first fired up my cartridge of Chapters of the Chosen, my initial thought was "God, that's ugly!" The graphics for towns and dungeons are quite blocky, and the NPC's wandering are incredibly pixellated sprites. There are a few instances that actually look quite nice, especially when the game makes a feature of the dungeons and spreads them across both screens, but for the most part the graphics are decidedly average.

Fortunately things do improve somewhat once you get into battle with the many monsters. Akira Toriyamas classic designs are both well drawn and witty, and the animations are pretty good too. So on the whole the game won't exactly blow you away with its visuals like Dragon Quest VIII did, but it is running on a DS rather than a PS2, after all. Don't be off put by the rather crude visuals, as the game more than makes up for it in other key areas.

Sound and Music: 8 out of 10
The soundtrack composed by series regular Koichi Sugiyama is extremely catchy - particularly the upbeat town theme. Most of the music of the game sounds a little synthy, with the exception of the Dragon Quest main theme that plays on the title screen which is the symphonic version.

The same classic sound effects for spells, slime attacks and the like that have featured in every single entry in the series since the first one are all present and correct. For DQ fans, that comfy sense of nostalgia that the game creates is all down to little details like this remaining constant so you can't really knock the developers too much for sticking to a long standing tradition.

This shot demonstrates how the game uses both screens to show you more of the scenery. The sprites don't look too bad here but their blurriness is exacerbated by movement.

Game Mechanics: 7 out of 10
At its core, this is about as traditional an RPG as you're ever likely to play, with random encounters, turn based battles and plenty of grinding, but within the framework of the series Enix did play around with the formula a little for this entry. After a fairly brief prologue as a hero that you get to name yourself, you are whisked off to take control of the first of many characters, Ragnar McRyan, a heroic old knight with a Scottish accent who has been tasked with tracking down some missing children. Eventually, this chapter will end, and the focus will shift to another character for the next 8 or so hours. This happens four times until you eventually regain control of the character from the prologue again in chapter 5, and track down all of the others to create one big party in order to take down the main baddy of the game.

The highlight of the whole game for me was the chapter centred around the character of Torneko Taloon. He starts of working behind the counter in a small town shop for a thankless boss but he harbours aspirations of setting up his own business. Eventually he/you get to do just that, and you can take any excess armour or weaponry dropped from random encounters back to your loyal wife to sell off. This actually gives the grinding that you have to do a purpose and makes it addictive to boot. Eventually Torneko earns enough gold to build a tunnel through to the neighbouring kingdom, where he decides to travel onwards, and his wife converts the shop into a bank, but for that brief section of the game it's fun to do something a little outside of the norm for an RPG. Torneko has become such a beloved character to fans of the series that he was given several spin off games of his own.

Dragon Quest is often regarded as quite an old fashioned RPG franchise, and it is in many ways, but in a few key areas the designers really were ahead of their time. Should your entire party be wiped out you don't get sent to a Game Over screen for example, instead you lose half of whatever gold your currently carrying, your main character is resurrected at the nearest church and you have to pay to bring back your fallen comrades. There are also spells such as Evac that quickly transports you to the start of a dungeon, and Zoom which lets you instantly travel to major towns that you've visited before, and you can avoid having your funds slashed in half but putting any excess cash in the bank before setting off to whatever dungeon you have to visit next. All of these aids combined meant that I never felt afraid to go off and explore even if I was under levelled.

There are several places throughout the game where the next boss will be a significantly higher level than you, however, especially towards the end of the game, so inevitably you will have to grind for experience and gold so that you can buy better equipment for your party. In every Dragon Quest game you can find rare metal slimes though, that dish out much higher amounts of experience than any other monster, and it's possible to seek out a weapon that can kill them fairly easily, so at least there are a handful of areas in the game that you can stick around in and farm them for levels much quicker than you would be able to otherwise.

Here he is, ladies and gentlemen - Torneko Taloon

Innovation and Cleverness: 5 out of 10
I'm going to give Chapters of the Chosen a few points here because of Torneko's chapter that I have just mentioned, as it really is different than anything I've experienced in an RPG before (I expect somebody somewhere has ripped off the idea but I haven't discovered it yet).

For the most part though DQ's battle mechanics, atmosphere and style had been established long before this entry... but to fans that's where a lot of the charm lies - the simplicity, the familiarity, the pure addictive gameplay - so I can't bring myself to be too harsh to the game in this regard.

Value and Replayability: 7 out of 10
I don't think Dragon Quest has really caught on in Europe, which is a shame, but on the other hand it does mean that you can pick up the DS games fairly cheaply. This one cost me a £10 brand new when I bought it in the summer, and for that price I got almost 40 hours of gameplay from it - which is an awful lot for a handheld game.

I doubt you will replay the game once done with it, especially considering how many amazing new games are constantly being released, not to mention that there are many other game in the same franchise to try out as well.

Overall: 8 out of 10When I was really into this game I couldn't stop playing it, and my other consoles including the Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii remained unplayed while I worked my way through the story. The rather large amount of grinding before facing the final boss and the bonus content put me off a little bit and I stopped playing for a while, but I always intended to come back and finish the game off (which I have done just recently). I've already started on the next game in the series, Hand of the Heavenly Bride, and I also look forward to the release of part VI: Realms of Reverie and the all new part IX: Defender of the Starry Sky later on this year. It's a very good time to get into the Dragon Quest series!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Torchlight review

A new year sees the first of hopefully many new reviews for 2010, with Runic Games Torchlight being the subject of scrutiny this time around. This has been hailed by many as the spiritual successor of Diablo 2, and it's fairly easy to see why just by glancing at screen shots of the game. Several members of Runic even worked on Blizzard's highly regarded series. That's not to say that this game doesn't bring anything new to the table, however...

Publisher: Runic Games
Developer: Runic Games
Genre: Action RPG
Expect to pay: $19.95 (about £16)

Graphics: 8 out 0f 10

Torchlight boasts a bright, cartoony visual style somewhat similar to World of Warcraft, and it manages to look good while being able to run on even the most modest of PC's. My laptop with it's integrated graphics chipset can run the game with all the settings turned to maximum - a fairly rare event these days, and there's even a "Netbook mode" check box in the options menu to help out those with underpowered systems.

Technical aspects aside though, Torchlight also boasts great design, from the monsters to the various different layers of the dungeon. Every 4 or so floors (after a boss battle) the tileset shifts to a different style, moving through such environments as a mine, a tropical jungle (not quite sure how this got underground or how it's raining, but never mind), a dwarven fortress complete with moats of lava and more. New areas mean new monster types as well, from ratlings and spiders, through to pygmies (annoying little bastards) and a legion of undead dwarves. You will also randomly encounter named boss monsters which are much bigger than the regular type and sport a glowing aura, as well as being stronger and dishing out more damage than your standard fodder, as you would expect.

The game also features some very nice atmospheric lighting and particle effects - monsters often explode in a hugely satisfying shower of gore. All in all it just goes to show that you can deliver a very good looking game without insisting that players upgrade to the latest behemoth of a PC first.

Sound and Music: 7 out of 10
The composer of the Diablo and Diablo 2 soundtracks, Matt Uelman, returns to write the music for Torchlight the moment you hear the town theme you will absolutely know it is him, as he has used exactly the same style and instruments to invoke memories of Tristram. That's not to say that the whle soundtrack is a clone of the Diablo games - the music starts to diversify once you get deeper down into the dungeon, but the town theme is that main piece that sticks in the memory.

Voice work is competent but not amazing - as you would expect for a fairly low budget game. Aside from the storyline voice overs, you are also prompted by your character when your health or mana is running low (which has saved my life a fair few times as I've been too engrossed in the battle to notice I'm almost dead) and when your pet is fleeing (more on that in a moment). Spot effects for monsters and spells are decent enough but nothing to make you go "wow"!

Here you can see the Destroyer class squishing some enemies with his stomp attack

Game Mechanics: 8 out of 10
For the most part the underlying mechanics of Torchlight are the same as the venerable Diablo games, but with a few notable additions. Basically, your character is freshly arrived in the town at the beginning of the game, having been drawn there by the promise of riches thanks to the thriving Ember mines underneath the town. Little does anyone realise however, that the mines hide terrible secrets, and the townsfolk have begun to dig too deep, and too greedily. It soon falls to you to venture into the Ember mines and beyond in order to free the town of its terrible curse.

At the start of the game, the player can choose from 3 classes - the Destroyer, Alchemist or Vanquisher, which basically boil down to the age old archetypes of warrior, mage and rogue. Once you've chosen your class and name, you also get to choose a pet - either a dog or a cat - that will a big help to you throughout the game. They will help you in combat, you can load them up with with excess loot and send them back to town, you can feed them various fish to transform them into other temporary forms, and they can equip their own spells. I chose a cat for my Vanquisher character who was equipped with a Haste spell so he could run at double speed, and a Summon Zombies spell so I always had my own posse of undead helping me out.

As you level up, you can add points into various stats such as magic, defense etc - your equipment often relies on you having a certain number of points in these stats, so when an amazing new gun drops you may not have the skills to equip it straight way. Not to worry, you can put it in the stash in town and increase the required stat as you level up, though you might find an even better weapon along the way, such is the random nature of the game. Not only are the loot drops randomised, but so are the dungeon layouts). Levelling happens fairly frequently - usually at least once a floor, so it's a fairly fast paced game, and your always being enticed to play just a little bit longer to see if another even better piece of weaponry or armour drops. Those who can't afford to spend hours at a time playing the game can still dip in for a while and then leave again thanks to the tried and true Town Portal system and the fact that the game remembers exactly where you were when you shut it down.

Your character has two types of experience meter - normal experience and fame. Fame is only gained when you defeat a random or end of area boss. Upon each level up (character level and fame level) you get the opportunity to spend one point on your talents - these range from powerful attack spells, temporary buffs, the ability to have various minions (in addition to your pet) or passive skills that for example reduce the amount of time that your pet takes to get to town and back. There are skills that only apply to each class, and others that are open to all classes but at different times (the alchemist for example gets access to the pet skill I just mentioned much sooner than the Vanquisher).

I recommend that you skip the Normal difficulty setting and go straight to Hard, because Normal offers almost no challenge at all until you get to the final boss. Hard is much more enjoyable because it offers more of a challenge, plus the loot is better as a result. Should you happen to die in battle you have several options - either be transported back to town for no penalty and make your own way back to where you were, take a cash penalty and start at the beginning of the current floor, or take an experience and fame penalty and go back exactly where you died. I almost always took the second option, as I had tons of spare cash thanks to picking up every single bit of loot and sending my pet back to sell it. There is also the Hardcore option - should you tick this box death is permanent and your character will be erased. It can be fun just to see how far you can get before biting the dust.

Upon completing the main story of the game (about 36 floors of the dungeon) you are given several options. You can carry on levelling and doing random quests in the Shadow Vault - a never ending series of randomly generated dungeons, or you can retire your character. Doing so allows you to choose one item as an heirloom to hand down to your next character, and it also boosts the stats of said item slightly.

A Vanquisher, facing off against a horde of Dwarven Wights.

Innovation and Cleverness: 6 out of 10
Torchlight does bring some nice ideas to the table such as the multiple options for the player upon death. I would say that the pet idea was a big innovation - were it not for the fact that it was actually implemented in the previous game by the game team - Mythos. For the most part though Torchlight is a great example of a Diablo style game, and it truer to its inspiration than many of the games that have come since such as Titan Quest.

Value and Replayability: 8 out of 10
The amount that you can replay Torchlight really depends on how repetitive you find the game. It can start to get a little samey after a while, but played in small doses it remains fun. Think of it as a light RPG snack between main meals like Dragon Age and Mass Effect 2, if you will. The price of the game is a big factor in this category of course - at £16 the game is well worth the money.

Overall: 7 out of 10
If you've been eagerly awaiting Diablo 3 then Torchlight should serve to placate your need for a hack and slash RPG, for a little while at least. If there was a multi player mode then the game would be even more enjoyable of course, but at present there is nothing. A full on MMO sequel to the game is in the works but we're not likely to see it until around 2012. A powerful editing/modding tool has been made available to the community, and it will be interesting to see what type of thing that people manage to come up with. So far I've only downloaded a few additional quest givers for the Shadow Vault, but given time I expect some enterprising soul with too much time on their hands will come up with a total conversion.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

My top 5 films of 2009

I'll be getting to my top 5 games a little later on, after I've written a couple of reviews. In the meantime, here's what I consider to be the best 5 films of 2009 (don't expect to see any Transformers or GI Joe here!).

5. Slumdog Millionaire
It seems like a long time ago now that Danny Boyle released his latest project to the world and blew everyone away. It was billed by some as "the feel good film of the year" but it actually contained some rather harrowing scenes. Yes it got an awful lot of hype and awards but they are largely justified. Definitely his best film since Trainspotting.

4. Up
For me, Wall E lacked a certain something. The silent opening sans humans was brilliant, but as soon as they arrived at the spaceship the film was missing that Pixar magic. This was not a problem with Up however, from the bitter sweet opening to the comedy talking dogs, the company was firing on all cylinders.

3. Avatar
James Cameron ably demonstrates that he is still able to deliver a true, high quality event movie. Yes everyone is making a big deal of the 3D and it does indeed impress, but more impressive still is the level that they have taken motion capture to, and the amount of detail put into the world of Pandora. The action is never less than entertaining too, and while some might baulk at the close to 3 hour running time, I'm of the opinion that more is better as long as it's done well.

2. (500) Days of Summer
The kid from 3rd Rock from the Sun and Zooey Deschanel star in this, funny, sad, charming and captivating romantic comedy, which is full of quirky twists. The Blu Ray is out soon and I can't wait to get hold of it and watch it again. Yes, yes, poke fun of me for liking a "girly" film if you must, and then go back to watching whatever bullshit Michael Bay happens to serve up next.

1. Inglourious Basterds
While I loved the two Kill Bill films, this is Tarantino at his best right here. Yes, even better than Pulp Fiction in my opinion. Those expecting wall to wall action may be disappointed by the long dialogue heavy scenes, but to me they were amazing. The opening scene in particular, and one that takes place in a bar about half way through the film, are so loaded with tension. The actors do an amazing job, in particular Christoph Waltz as the creepy Jew Hunter Hans Landa, who switches from English to French, German and Italian with ease. Melanie Laurent and Diane Kruger were also brilliant, but I wasn't so keen on Brad Pitt. Luckily the film isn't centred around his character anywhere near as much as the trailers would have you believe. A stunning piece of work and my film of the year.

5 films to watch out for in 2010

Studio Ghibli's latest is sure to be just as captivating as their previous output. English voice overs delivered by Cate Blanchett, Noah Lindsey (sister of Miley) Cyrus and Matt Damon among others.

Alice in Wonderland
A combination of a classic Lewis Carroll tale, directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp surely can't fail?

Clash of the Titans
Remake of the classic Ray Harryhausen stop motion laden film. Could yet turn out to be shite, but the trailer looks promising.

Iron Man 2
I thought the final act of the first Iron Man fell into comic book film cliche but other than that I really enjoyed it, so if John Favreau manages to up the ante and Don Cheadle avoids dodgy cockney accents this could be one the key films of 2010.

Scott Pilgrim vs the World
Another comic book/graphic novel adaptation - not one I've read, mind you. The involvement of Edgar Wright suggests that this could be something special though.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

What I got for Christmas and plans for this ol' blog

Happy new year to everyone who reads this!

I continued my tradition of taking a long time off over the Christmas period, with 18 days off including weekends and bank holidays. Even though I was off work for such a long time, I still had plenty to do. First off was my birthday on the 21st of December, where I received copies of Star Trek, Terminator Salvation and Inglourious Basterds. As for games, I received Sonic Adventure DX for the Gamecube, a £15 gift card for iTunes which was mostly spent on games, and I also bought Need for Speed Shift (Xbox 360) and Batman: Arkham Asylum (PS3) with £50 I was given.

Christmas day began with me unwrapping another couple of Gamecube games - The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and Return of the King. Then, later in day I also received Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince on Blu Ray and £200 from my dad. Now, as there's no gadgets that I especially want at this moment in time, I went out on Boxing Day and spent it on games. Here's the full run down of what I bought: Forza Motorsport 3 Limited Edition, Assassin's Creed II, Halo 3: ODST Special Edition (with controller), Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2, Red Faction Guerrilla and Far Cry 2 (all Xbox 360), inFAMOUS (PS3) and a Blu Ray remote for the PS3.

I'm now working my way through all these games, in particular Forza Motorsport 3. Hopefully I will manage to get reviews posted for most of them over the next few months. My new years resolution is to put up at least one post a week (more if I can manage it), include more retro coverage and also more of this type of diary style post, rather than wall to wall reviews like it has been recently. The first few posts will likely include reviews of Torchlight and Dragon Age: Origins, and my top 5 games and films of 2009.

In other news, I have signed up as a driver with RCOM (the Racing Charity for Online Motorsports) and created my own Forza Motorsport 3 team - RMG (Retro Modern Gaming, in honour of the blog). My first race, assuming I manage to sign up on Sunday before all the places are filled, is an endurance race - 1 hour of Sunset Peninsula Raceway (Full Circuit). I am quite nervous but the field should be made up of rookies like me so maybe I'll be alright. I have just put together the livery for the team, which you can see below.

Here's a link to the teaser video!