Thursday, November 29, 2012

I Aten't Dead!

So it's been quite some time since my last post - sorry about that.  I am still here though, and I do still play games.  I've recently finished some, in fact, so some reviews may indeed be imminent.  These include: Assassin's Creed 3, Dragon Quest VI: Realms of Reverie (not Realms of Revelation - that is the US title, and the European one makes more sense) and Forza Horizon.  Short version: I enjoyed them all quite a bit.

My current play list now includes Sonic All Stars Racing Transformed, and as of today Nintendo Land, New Super Mario Bros U and Zombi U.  I have just received my shiny new Wii-U from Amazon, and in about 6 hours I will get home with it and start exploring the features of the system and its software.  My commuting game of choice is currently Assassin's Creed Liberation for the Vita, and that will probably see me through until the Christmas holidays.  In the new year I will probably start another handheld RPG from my backlog - the favourite is Final Fantasy V Advance - it will be good to see how they handled the whole job system compare to Dragon Quest.

So there we go - a bit short and sweet.  Keep an eye out for some actual noteworthy content over the next few weeks.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Game Diary: Everybody's got one

The world is full of arseholes.  Arseholes who insult a random passer by just because they happened to cross their path.  Arseholes who start ranting at the conductor on the train home to turn the air conditioning off and then start swearing and ranting at the other passengers when they don't get their own way.  Arseholes at work who try and place the blame on you when it is very clear that they are the root of the problem. Arseholes on the internet who send game directors death threats when they announce their game is going to be a Wii-U exclusive.

Yes folks, this week has been quite a week.  You know, many people claim that video games promote and encourage violent behaviour - actually, if I didn't have them as an outlet for all the pent up anger and hatred that these arseholes have engendered throughout the day, I would probably have resorted to murder and/or suicide by now.  Games like the wonderful Torchlight 2 and Borderlands 2, which are the focus of this weeks article.

Firstly, Torchlight 2.  I have long been a champion of this game for several reasons.  Firstly, I loved the original both on the PC and on XBLA because it neatly filled a Diablo 3 shaped hole at the time, and was a good game with plenty of its own good ideas to boot.  Secondly, it was only $15. A few things held it back from being a top tier game - the lack of multiplayer and the difficulty level which was too easy even on the toughest setting. Both of these things have been addressed, with the sequel now supporting up to 6 players, and multiple difficulty settings each more demanding than the last.  I initially went for Normal, but after a few hours it wasn't really doing it for me so I started a new character on Veteran.  This offers a satisfying challenge throughout Act I of the game and then proceeds to ramp up significantly throughout Act II to the point where I was dying dozens of times in a particular dungeon.

This isn't really an issue though because there is no wear and tear on equipment to worry about, and with smart use of Waypoint Portals you can negate any death penalty completely. Bosses also retain the same amount of health if you die and return, which means you can win simply by whittling away at their health bar with each life.  This is probably my one main complaint with the game so far, because this takes away any need for skill from the boss battles. In Diablo 3, if you die during a boss fight you will have to do the whole thing again, so you need to stay on your toes, use your skills properly and stay alive. As a result, when you do finally defeat them it feels extremely satisfying.  The way Torchlight 2 is designed means it's more of a war of attrition and the only thing you're likely to be thinking is "thank god that fight is over".

I do like the character classes though - of which there are four - and you can play them in several different ways, too.  For example as an Outlander you can choose to dual wield pistols, pack a shotgun, carry a cannon or wield a bow.  Each of these have their own abilities on the skill tree. Myself, I went for the shotgun option, because although it has a short range and slow firing rate it packs a punch and damages multiple enemies at once.  Plus it's just so satisfying to blow the shit out of a bunch of skeletons or annoying little rat guys!

Now for Borderlands 2.  I only completed the original game about a month ago so it is still fairly fresh in my mind.  You get a bit set in your ways towards the end of the game and used to being incredibly overpowered, so going back to a weak character and coming up against far smarter enemies is something of a shock initially. You can't help but notice how great the game looks though, much much prettier than the first game.

I think the writer of the game thinks he is much funnier than he actually is - or maybe my sense of humour just doesn't match up to his.  I found the opening sections of the game with a lot of dialogue from Clap Trap and Handsome Jack to be more annoying than laugh out loud funny.  Most of the funny bits in the first game were quite subtle - things that quests had you doing or the odd one liner from an NPC.  This time everything is much more in your face, and I find it all a little bit overdone.

The game is still fun regardless, and of course laying waste to dozens of bandits or bullymongs with the ludicrous weapon of your choice is the perfect antidote when the many arseholes of the world start to get you down!  I will hopefully be back soon with the second part of my promised Level-5 developer profile.  In the meantime, I have people to shoot, weapons to loot!

Monday, September 03, 2012

Level-5 Developer Overview: Part 1 of 3

Since making their debut in 1998, Level-5 has had great success both with their own franchises and also by partnering with companies such as Square-Enix and Studio Ghibli. Based in Fukuoka, Japan, they are primarily known for their excellently crafted RPG's, but have also launched amazingly popular puzzle and football franchises. In 2010, they became one of the ten biggest companies in Japan, where they hold a 2.9% market share.

Akihiro Hino
Akihiro Hino is the company President and CEO, who also amazingly finds the time to design, plan and produce all of Level-5's major releases.  He started his tenure in the video game industry with the developer Riverhillsoft where he worked on the Overblood series, before leaving to found Level-5.  More recently, he was approached by Bandai to create a Gundam game, which morphed into a full blown anime series called Mobile Suit Gundam AGE, with Hino in charge of the scripts.

Personally speaking, Level-5 has become one of the most consistent and exciting developers for me. Throughout the rest of this article, I am going to touch on each of their games, in particular their RPG's and go into just why I regard them so highly. I have to say though, I have only spent a very limited amount of time playing the Professor Layton games as the puzzles are a little too hard for me, and my complete lack of football accounts for the reason why I have never played any of the Inazuma Eleven games.

 Year released: 2001  |  Format: PlayStation 2  |  Genre: RPG

Dark Cloud is one of the earliest RPG's I can remember playing on the PS2, and it is still a highly memorable experience for me. You explore floor after floor of randomly generated dungeons, hacking and slashing monsters with a very action oriented battle system, while finding loot and unlocking "georama" pieces.  The georama system is the reason why the game was so addictive to me - it's basically a whole town building game within the main RPG.  As you unlock pieces, be they buildings, scenery or people, you can put them down where you see fit and gradually recreate the town.

At any time, you could go from an overhead town planning view, to full control of your character, where you could then explore what you'd been creating mere seconds before.  Talking to the residents of your village would often give you rewards, and they sometimes had special requests for you which made things even more interesting and compelling.  For example, one person may wish to live near a lake, but perhaps they can't stand a certain individual and don't want to live near them.  If you manage to factor this into your design, then you would be suitably rewarded for your troubles.

Dark Cloud is by no means a perfect game: the graphics were somewhat basic, even at the time of its release. However, as there were so few other RPG's available at the time, and the georama system was both addictive and fun, I still spent many an hour playing it and enjoying it.

Dark Cloud - boxy, but good!

Year released: 2003  |  Format: PlayStation 2  |  Genre: RPG

Dark Chronicle as most of the world knows it, or Dark Cloud 2 to those in the US & Canada, fixes everything that was not quite right about the original game and introduces quite a few new elements besides.  What is most evident upon playing the game for the first time is that the graphics have been completely overhauled.  This is the first time Level-5 used their cel shaded graphics engine, but by no means the last.  It really does look good even today, especially if you are playing the game through an old fashioned tube television and not a modern HDTV.  Georama and the randomly generated dungeons also return, and this game is absolutely huge.  There are many dungeons to explore and villages to rebuild, and combined with the many optional mini games this game should take you around the region of 100 hours to complete.

Those mini games include photography: you are given a camera pretty early on in the game and can take pictures of enemies and objects dotted around the world.  You can then use these pictures, or “ideas” to come up with new inventions.  This can actually be a bit of a pain as you are not really sure what you are supposed to be taking pictures of most of the time, and you often only have one chance to snap a boss.  Actually taking a picture of some hellish creature or infernal machine as it is rearing up to kill you is easier said than done!  Next comes Spheda, which is the Dark Chronicle version of golf.  This takes place within the dungeons, and your objective is to get the ball into the hole within a certain number of shots.  It can be pretty addictive if you get into it, but it is entirely optional. Then there is fishing, which is similar to fishing in many other games, and Finny Frenzy – where you pit the fish you have captured against others in a race. 

Besides all this there are also multiple characters to control this time around, each with their own abilities, and the main character Max gets his very own Ridepod (mech suit) to stomp around and lay waste to monsters in.  If you install the voice box for it, it will even talk!  His name is Steve, by the way.  All of this content adds up to make Dark Chronicle a superior sequel and an RPG well worth picking up for the PS2. Many fans have been clamouring for a sequel, but as yet Level-5 would appear to have laid the series to rest for good.  The georama system did make a return in a future game however, albeit in a slightly modified form.

The two heroes of Dark Chronicle - Max and Monica

Year released: 2005  |  Format: PlayStation 2  |  Genre: RPG

This is the first entry in the Dragon Quest series that I played, and it converted me into a fan.  Two things lured me into trying it in the first place: the fact that Level-5 had developed it, and that it was publish by Square-Enix.  These two things were surely indicators of a high quality RPG experience? I wasn't wrong, this turned out to be my favourite game released that year.

The game begins in the fairy tale realm of Trodain, with the evil jester Dhoulmagus cursing King Trode and the Princess, so that he becomes an ugly toad-like creature and she turns into a horse.  The rest of the kingdom has been put to sleep and entwined in vines, with the exception the mute hero that you control throughout the game.

The presentation of this game is simply sublime, with the same cel shaded style introduced in Dark Chronicle working here to full effect, and backed up by a fully symphonic score.  Gameplay is somewhat traditional turned based fare, although this is true to the roots of the series.  A lot of the boss battles hinge on your ability to buff you party, cast debuffs on the enemy, and then increase the tension of your character.  As your tension gauge increases the amount of damage you can does likewise, though there is always a chance you will miss.

The main adventure takes place across a sprawling open world, where high level monsters roam amongst their regular cousins.  Eventually you will meet Morrie, and then you will be able to tame these monsters once you defeat them.  You can then take part in a monster tournament and eventually should you proceed far enough in that, earn the ability to summon your monsters in regular battles.  No doubt about it, Dragon Quest VIII is one of the best RPG's available for the PS2, and should be considered a must by for fans of the genre.

Just look at the fantastic level of detail in these graphics - brilliant!

Year released: 2006  |  Format: PlayStation Portable | 
Genre: Tactical RPG

Time for a small confession - I have yet to finish playing Jeanne D'Arc.  In fact I am playing it on my way home from work every day.  Nevertheless, I have played enough of it to share some early impressions of it here.  It belongs to a sub genre of RPG's known as the TRPG - the T standing for Tactical of course.  These games are often immensely complicated and challenging - see Tactics Ogre and Final Fantasy Tactics for evidence of that.

Jeanne D'Arc manages to both be accessible and still provide a fun challenge, however.  It eases you in gradually, getting you used to the systems and intricacies of the genre as well as its own unique features - such as the the ability for Jeanne and certain other characters to transform into powerful armoured forms for a fixed amount of time, and later the ability to fuse abilities using your magical frog pal, Cuisses.  That's right - I said magical frog.

The story itself is an interesting fusion of real life history and fantasy - what if the English summoned demons to help them win their war against the French? Now you get to find out.   The graphics are once again cel shaded, and are reminiscent of the more recent Dragon Quest IX for the DS (which I will be covering in part 2 of this article).  They look great, especially given that this game is now six years old.  They are also backed up by a sizable number of animated sequences that are of extremely high quality.  So overall, I would recommend Jeanne D'Arc to any PSP owners looking for an entertaining game to play, be they old hands or newbies to the TRPG genre.

Jeanne at the start of her journey, receiving her magical girl transformation powers!

That is all for part one - join me again in part 2 where I cover Rogue Galaxy, White Knight Chronicles, Dragon Quest IX, and the Professor Layton series.  Then in part 3 I will look at Inazuma Eleven, Ni No Kuni, Guild 01, and the Xbox 360 MMO that never was - True Fantasy Live Online.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Game Diary: Dirty Vampires

Just a quick update today as it has been quite some time since my last post.  I felt the need to play a driving game recently, and ended up choosing Dirt 2.  I completed the singe player campaign last weekend and thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it, so I hope to get a review up very soon.  Now I'm playing Dirt 3, and I'm not too far in but there are certain things that just aren't as well done as the predecessor in my opinion.  After that I have Dirt Showdown to play.  When I first saw what they'd done to the franchise I was horrified - an extremely simplified handling model, even more emphasis on Gymkhana and less on actual racing than ever before.  Now however I have started to appreciate the game for what it is rather than what it's not - a fun arcade style driving game, rather than a semi serious off road racer.  As long as this isn't the direction that Codemasters intend to take the series permanently, I'm fine with it.

I am also playing my way through the Dawnguard expansion for Skyrim, and it has added a new lease of life to that game. Around the new year I was started to tire of the main game, mainly because it seemed every quest that I tried was bugged, but the new content has got my hooked again.  This time around I am playing as one of the good guys, albeit a werewolf version that tears the throats out of bandits and devours they corpses in order the level up the new perk tree.  I may start new character so I can experience being a vampire lord as well, it really depends how distracted I get by new games.

I have a few things that I would like to pick up in future.  First there's Theatrhythm Final Fantasy, a rhythm action game featuring 90 or so tracks from the Final Fantasy series.  It looks great - definitely not everyone's cup of tea but the sort of game I enjoy playing.  To go along with this I may just buy the new 3DS XL.  I know a lot of people are against Nintendo's decision to release this new version of their handheld, especially without adding a second stick -  but after experiencing the DSi XL and how it breathes new life into old games with its big and beautiful screens I think it will be a sexy bit of kit to add to my portable pantheon.

Finally, I have been meaning to do this for absolutely ages, but I think that July 2012 will be the month that I actually buy myself a new Dreamcast.  Mine hasn't functioned properly for years now, and I've missed it. So once pay day comes around once more, I will be scouring eBay for a bargain console and dusting of my collection of classic Sega games.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Random Retro Round Up #2: Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins (Game Boy)


Another week, another edition of the Random Retro Roundup!  This time, it is the turn of Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins for the original Game Boy.  For some reason, while I was growing up I never really gave this game a fair chance.  A friend of mine got it and was very eager to show me how awesome it was, yet after playing it for a bit I still felt that the original had more charm.  I have picked the game back up again several times over the years yet never really made any headway - until this past week where I finally played the whole thing from beginning to end. Whilst you could hardly call any of the Mario platform games obscure, this is probably the least well known of all them.  It delivers everything you would hope and expect to be in a first party developed Nintendo game – tight controls, impressive graphics, no technical flaws and imaginative level designs.

Title: Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins
Developer: Nintendo
Year Released: 1993

This time the story sees Mario being thrown out of his mansion by the evil Wario, and locked out with a mechanism that requires 6 golden coins to unlock.  Each coin can be obtained by visiting a different world around the map, each with its own gimmick.  These range from zones where you are inside a huge mechanical Mario, a spooky zone and one where everything is supersized, and each one contains 2 – 4 stages with the last one culminating in a boss for you to defeat.  Overall the levels aren’t that challenging to get through with a bit of practice, but they are never less than fun.  The bosses are pretty simple for the most part and follow the tried and true Nintendo formula of 3 hits to kill them.

Power ups in this game include the familiar fire flower and a carrot that gives you bunny ears.  This allows you to glide by flapping said ears – it’s not true flight but it does prove handy throughout the levels by letting you extend the length of your jumps.  Each stage has a bell at the end of it and should you manage to reach and ring it you get to play a mini game where you can earn extra lives or power ups.  Also, in this game collecting coins don’t give you an extra life automatically upon collecting 100 of them – instead there is another mini game on the world map where you can pay 50, 200, 500 or 1000 coins to play.  The more you pay out, the higher the chance of receiving multiple extra lives.

Once you get all of the golden coins from the bosses you can then open the front door to the mansion and confront Wario, but only after getting through a very tricky final stage.  Should you run out of lives all of the golden coins that you’ve retrieved will be taken away and you will have to go and get them back again from the bosses.  This can be annoying, but is also fairly easily avoided by keeping your supply of extra lives stocked up through the mini games.  You can replay levels you’ve already completed to earn more coinage so this is the best way to avoid a game over.

Overall the game isn’t very long – I managed to finish the whole thing during one train ride which takes about 1 hour 45 minutes.  The final stage was quite challenging but a little persistence and skill will see you through to the end.  Mario has no shortage of classic platformers in his back catalogue – games which are still worshipped by those intelligent enough to appreciate their brilliance.  Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins may not quite live up to the majesty of the likes of Super Mario Bros 3, Super Mario World, Super Mario 64 or Super Mario Galaxy, but it is still a fantastic game in its own right and deserves to be in anybody’s Game Boy collection.

Verdict: If you have never played it and you love Mario games, you really owe it to yourself to track down a copy.

The video below was not produced by me, but by a chap who goes by the name of PeanutButterGamer - he has a ton of excellent content on his YouTube channel so if you like the SML2 vid below please make sure to head over to his channel and subscribe!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Random Retro Round Up #1: The Bugs Bunny Birthday Blowout (NES)


Welcome to the first in a brand new series of articles - the Random Retro Round Up.  This first "season" will be covering games on the 8-bit consoles, so the NES, Master System, Game Boy, Lynx, Game Gear and TurboGrafx-16 will each have their time in the spotlight.  I may even extend this to include computers as well, I haven't quite decided yet.

Anyway, the format is this: every week I will play a game from a particular format chosen at random with the help of and a list of all the games that were released for that system. First up is the NES, a console that I am not all that familiar with due to the fact that when it was at its height of popularity I was into the Commodore 64 for my gaming needs.  I played the obvious titles like the Super Mario trilogy and a few others such as Duck Tales at a friends house after school, but there are hundreds of games that I literally know nothing about.  As such I am really looking forward to unearthing some classic games (or perhaps the complete opposite).  So without further ado, let's take a look at the first game...

Title: The Bugs Bunny Birthday Blowout
Developer: Kemco
Year Released: 1990

Upon first firing up this game my initial thoughts were "oh no, not another platformer".  After all these were all over the place during the 8 and 16 bit eras, and many of them were of questionable quality.  Everybody was desperate to get a piece of Mario's action, yet most developers lack the skill to design something that even approaches the brilliance of a Miyamoto game. Thankfully though, B4 (as I'm going to refer to it) isn't too far off the mark.

Taking control of WB's famous rabbit, you hop your way across many different worlds, each made up of around 4 levels.  Scattered around these levels are carrots, which can be spent on playing a bonus game between the levels (basically bingo).  When these carrots are collected, they become WB blocks and can then be walked on. Many of the level layouts involve collecting carrots first and then using said blocks to accesss higher areas.  This game has its own equivalent of warp pipes too, the form of which changes from world to world (in world 1 they are tree stumps).  A typical stage is made up of multiple areas and some of them end with a boss fight against another famous Looney Toons character (who are all pissed off that they didn't get an invite to Bug's 50th birthday party).  Most of these fights are fairly trivial except for Tweety Pie who hides in a bush and can't be it until he pops out, the little bastard.

As well as the standard jump, Bugs has a mallet that he can use against the weird and wonderful enemies that roam the stages.  I'm not even sure what some of these things are supposed to be - I can definitely recognise a sentient alarm clock when I see one, but what the hell are some of the other things supposed to be? Walking luggage?  There is no duck in this game (well, apart from Daffy) which is a bit jarring at first but you get used to it after a few levels. Overall the difficulty is pretty good, it does spike a bit during level 1-2 but once I got past that I made fairly easy progress up to 2-4.  When you use all your lives you are given the option to continue which allows you to carry on from the level you got to.  That means with a little perserverence it should be possible to get to the end without too many problems.

Overall I was pleasantly surprised just how well designed and fun B4 turned out to be.  A very good start to my little random retro experiment to be sure.  Hopefully I will continue to get good games to play!

Verdict: Check it out

For more information on this game, check out the gameplay video below and be sure to visit, an excellent resource for all things NES!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Game Diary: Metal Gear!? (Minor Spoilers)

The recent release of the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection has finally given me the impetus to play Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater.  I bought the game upon it's original release in 2005, where it has languished in my backlog to this very day.  Part of the reason for this is the bitter taste that Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty left after finishing it.  There are so many things I didn't like with that game - Raiden and his insipid Codec conversations with annoying girlfriend Rose, the bland setting of the Big Shell, the ludicrous possessed arm plot twist, and the whole "Solid Snake Simulation" reveal in the games final act.

Replaying the game recently however, I have come to appreciate it a whole lot more, and see how ahead of its time it was in terms of the minor details.  There are tons of incidental Easter eggs that Kojima has playfully left for you to find or completely ignore, and technically the weather effects, shadows and other details easily hold up to any modern game you could name.  What hasn't aged well on the other hand is the control scheme - it was already feeling clumsy by the time MGS2 got a PAL release, and having been indoctrinated in the "left trigger to aim, right trigger to fire" control scheme of practically every first and third person shooter you could care to mention, it feels positively archaic nowadays. I still hate all the bullshit about AI and the Patriots as well. Kojima was trying to be clever, but he just ends up producing absolute nonsense.  Which leaves MGS2 with the dubious honour of being a flawed masterpiece.

Some seven hours into MGS3 however, I am happy to say that the plot is much more sensible - at least so far.  You still have the usually range of over the top bosses, granted - but I can accept that little quirk of the series.  We are playing a video game, after all.  Of course the highlight of these is the sniper battle against The End - a long, tense dual to the death across three separate areas of the map, where your stamina gauge plays an all important role.  At least it would be, if I hadn't save the game a short way into the battle, adjusted the 360's internal clock two weeks into the future, and killed him from old age.  This is just one of many genius game play ideas that have spawned from the mind of Kojima, that really make these games worth checking out.

Boss vs Boss

I don't think any of the sequels have quite matched up to the first Metal Gear Solid - maybe it's because it all felt so new back then, but the conversations didn't seem to go on and on and on like to do in the later game.  The pacing felt spot on.  I have yet to experience MGS4, Peace Walker or any of the other spin offs, however - though I intend to get to them in time.  Whether you love or hate the Metal Gear series, there's no denying that they have raised the bar in terms of clever ways to immerse the player within the game.  If only Kojima could reign in his penchant for ridiculous stories and over long stretches without any player interactivity, he may one day recapture what made the PlayStation game so amazing in the first place.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Wii Hidden Gems #3: Kororinpa

When I was a wee lad, children still played with physical toys (as opposed to electronic) on a regular basis. On school trips I would often bring along my mercury maze, slide puzzle, Rubiks cube or whatever else was in vogue, and it was common to swap these amongst my fellow classmates for the duration of the journey.  One of my favourites was a maze carved out of wood, with a small indentation at the end for the goal, and many holes along the way to lose your ball down.  What made this even cooler is that it was actually hand made by my own grandfather. I am not sure what became of it in the end, but I do know that the rise in popularity of first the Nintendo Game & Watch and later their Game Boy led to this sort of old fashioned entertainment declining in popularity.  However, in 2006 Hudson released the subject of today's Hidden Gems - Kororinpa, which is directly inspired by old marble mazes.  I don't think this game ever gained that much popularity, probably because of the title which means very little to the average person (but apparently is a Japanese onomatopoeic word for the sound a rolling marble makes).  However for fans of puzzle games, it is well worth the trouble of seeking it out. Let's get the ball rolling...

Publisher: Hudson
Developer: Hudson
Expect to pay: £15 - £20

Graphics: 6 out of 10
The actual in game assets are mostly fine, albeit starting to show their age a bit.  The main problem I have with this game (at least the version that was released in PAL territories) are the horrifically large borders and the squashed looking aspect ratio.  I find this really off putting.  If you TV has some kind of zoom mode you can circumvent this to a certain degree, but it is a shame Hudson didn't take the time to optimise the game.

Other than that issue, the game features some nice colourful graphics in a range of settings, including a world where which is entirely made of cakes, biscuits and chocolate, as well as one set in a garden.  Think Micro Machines, but with marbles.  As for the ball, it is an accurate representation of a small glass sphere - but this is not your only option.  As you progress through the levels, you will unlock a whole slew of alternative balls, including a panda head, a pig and a frog.  All of these have an effect on the physics and the way the ball behaves - some making what is already a fairly challenging game even tougher, and others slowing the pace down a little. Don't expect Kororinpa to really blow you away with its visuals, they are functional at best.

Sound and Music: 7 out of 10
Music in Kororinpa consists of tunes of a whimsical, cheerful nature.  They are, I have to say, somewhat on the cheesy side, but mostly suit the overall tone of the game.  Besides this, if you choose one of the alternative balls - the frog for example - you can expect comedy ribbits as you collide with obstacles.  This will probably raise a few smiles, especially from younger players.

Game Mechanics: 8 out of 10
This is the best thing about the game. It is entirely controlled by tilting the maze using the Wii remote.  This takes some getting used to at first as it doesn't take much movement of your wrist to send the ball flying off into the stratosphere, but with a bit of patience and prudence you will start to get the hang of things.  The overall object of the game is to collect a certain number of of orange crystals from around the maze, then get to the goal.  There isn't really a fail state - falling off just sends you back to the start.  There is the fun addition of a two player split screen mode, where you race each other to be the first to get to the end - again this suffers from the stupidly large black borders that encroach on the real estate of the game. A real shame.

Levels start off fairly easy to deal with but increase in complexity and challenge as you move through the various worlds.  By the second world you will have to deal with moving lifts, obstacles that either just get in the way or actively try and push your ball off the stage, and maze layouts that see you having to flip the whole level 90 degrees.  It is great fun, and the lack of a game over screen prevents things from getting too frustrating.


Innovation and Cleverness: 7 out of 10
Marble maze based video games have been done before - most famously with Marble Madness - but Kororinpa successfully implements the tilt controls of the Wii remote and contains many cleverly designed stages.

Value and Replayability: 7 out of 10
Kororinpa won't take you all that long to finish if you are persistant, but the addition of the two player mode adds some life to the game.  The game can actually fetch prices of up to £20 on eBay, which does show that it is in demand by those who are aware of what it is.  A sequel with the title of Marbles! Balance Challenge was released in 2009, and is even pricier - frequently selling for £25 - £30.  I haven't played the sequel as of yet, mainly because of the price, though I would like to pick it up one day.

Overall: 8 out of 10
Kororinpa is still a game that occasionally gets dusted off and booted up when I visit my brother, as he is also a fan of this sort of game and the multi player mode is a lot of fun.  If you are in the mood for a fun and colourful puzzle game, or you were a fan of marble mazes, then you should definitely think about adding it to your Wii collection!

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Hidden Gems 2012: The Horde

Title: The Horde
Format: PC, 3DO, Sega Saturn
Genre: Action/Strategy
Expect to pay: £5 - £15

It has been quite some time since my last Hidden Gems entry, but I wanted to highlight this game in particular because I spent many enjoyable hours playing it over and over on my PC circa 1994 when the game was released.  The game, developed by Toys For Bob, who have most recently had great success with Skylanders, is a kind of fusion of the strategy and action genres.  Your character is tasked with protecting his farm from the titular Horde, and you do so by first setting down barricades and traps, as well as planting trees and crops and expanding your land.  You only have a fixed amount of time to prepare for the inevitable onslaught of ugly purple monsters, at which point you have to race around and killing them all.  Should all your livestock, buildings and crops be decimated, it's game over.  Then the whole process repeats again, only the Horde gets tougher, with more varied enemy types and in higher numbers.

The game had great graphics and sound for its day, and sure it is showing its age today but the gameplay still holds up.  In many ways this is the precursor to the Horde mode featured in Gears of War 2 and adopted by pretty much every shooter that has come out since.  Unfortunately getting the game to run on a PC may take a bit of effort at the moment as you have to use DOS Box - it hasn't been released on Good Old Games or Steam as of yet.  If you happen to have a 3DO or Sega Saturn you may want to consider picking up this title for one of those systems - a quick glance on eBay reveals that the game is not that hard to come by and shouldn't set you back more than £15 at the very most.  If you do get the chance to try The Horde, make sure you don't pass it up - and if this post has piqued your interest you can watch a brief clip of the game running below.  I hope to have more Hidden Gems for you in the not too distant future.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Game Diary - Besieged by RPG's

I went on something of an RPG spending spree recently, picking up a whole bunch for the Xbox 360 that have been out for a while and are now nice and affordable.  I had played some of this a fair amount beforehand via my Lovefilm subscription but never got around to purchasing a copy for myself.  The full list is as follows: Blue Dragon, Infinite Undiscovery, The Last Remnant, Lost Odyssey, The First Templar, Venetica and Two Worlds II: Royal Edition.

This last one cost a bit more than the others, but the luxury Royal Edition from Amazon actually cost £5 less than the standard version.  It turned up in a huge box which contained a large plastic figurine of one of the characters, and a drawer containing a map, art book, mouse mat, playing cards, some codes for extra content, a bonus DVD and of course the game itself.  I've been playing around with the game for around 5 hours now and despite being a little hard to get into to start with due to the overwhelming size of the Savannah you get to explore and the large amount of hostile wildlife, I have to say I am quite impressed.  Obviously console RPG players have been somewhat spoiled over the last few months by Skyrim, but I have put that game on hold until patch 1.4 is rolled out (should be any day now) and all the quests that I am having issues with are fixed.  In the meantime Two Worlds II and a couple of other titles will tide me over quite nicely.

The other titles I'm referring to are Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2, and the upcoming Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. I have recently picked up FFXIII again after getting distracted by other things during the busy Autumn/Winter season, and this time I plan to see it through to the end.  I have also just received my copy of the sequel, and I can't leave a new game unplayed even if I haven't finished the previous game.  I did get the gist of what happens at the end of XIII but not the finer details, so I will still enjoying seeing how things play out for the l'cie. This may be a fairly controversial thing to say, but I think FFXIII is my second favourite Final Fantasy after XII.  I love the stunning visuals, the amazing soundtrack, the cast of characters and the story.  It is very compelling and has kept me coming back for more, despite taking a fairly lengthy break.  My first impressions of the follow up are very favourable as well - the time travel conceit and monster training aspect both add a nice new twist to the mechanics despite being used many times before in other games, and I'm starting to like the new character Noel.  I have to put the game aside now until I finish the first part, but I am looking forward to playing more of it.

I'm also really looking to the release of Kingdoms of Amalur this Friday - this game has been on my radar for quite some time and after checking out the demo about a month ago I am confident it will deliver a unique RPG experience different enough in style and game play from Skyrim, so that fantasy fatigue does not become an issue. The way the demo played reminds me of Fable, in a good way, but looking at the range of options on offer in the various skill trees shows it to have rather more depth. I will do my best to return soon with reviews of at least some, if not all of the games I've mentioned here.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Batman: Arkham Asylum review

With the recent release of Batman: Arkham City I thought it was about time I finished the previous game.  I am really not sure why I hadn't already, it's had members of the press and gamers raving about it ever since it was released.  I will also be reviewing the sequel at a later date as I bought and completed it within a week of it going on sale. I think whether or not this game is any good or not doesn't need much clarification, but here are my thoughts anyway.

 Publisher: Warner Interactive
Developer: Rocksteady Games
Expect to pay: £10 - £15

Graphics: 9 out of 10
The only criticism that that I really level at the visuals of Batman: Arkham Asylum is the same grotesque gigantism that effects other games that use the Unreal engine (most noticeably the Gears trilogy).  Most characters are really strangely proportioned, and look like they have quite the steroid problem.  In some cases like Bane and Killer Croc this works, but Batman himself is a bit too much of a beefcake for my liking.  Other than this though the graphics are excellent. The game really does do an excellent job of bringing the comic book world to life and making Arkham feel like a real place.  Don't go thinking that the Asylum is just one building - a short way into the game the whole of Arkham island opens up to you, with many different places including a medical wing, penitentiary, a mansion and even botanical gardens to explore. 

The whole game takes place at night which is in keeping with the setting and characters that we're dealing with, but none of the game is overly dark.  A lot of atmosphere is added by having the large full moon looming in the night sky and recognisable buildings such as Wayne Enterprises viewable from certain places on the island.  The environments that you will be sneaking and fighting your way throughout are quite nice and varied, and even though you end up backtracking to several areas a second time they have been changed significantly your next time through.

Sound and Music: 9 out of 10
I am going to touch on the voice acting first because Rocksteady Games have absolutely nailed it by managing to hire most if not all of the people most well known for playing the different characters from the Batman universe.  First of all we have Mark Hamill as the Joker, a role that he wears like a glove and seems to have great fun doing so (even though he keeps saying that he'll never play the character again).  All thoughts of Luke Skywalker disappear the moment the Joker starts to speak, and Hamill has many lines throughout the game as he will frequently make comments or order his henchmen over the tannoy system. I think overall, besides the addictive and well designed game play, it was wanting to find out what the Joker would say and do next that kept me playing just that little bit more each session.

Backing up Hamill are two highly experienced voice actors that play Batman/Bruce Wayne and Harley Quinn respectively - Kevin Conroy and Arleen Sorkin. If you have watched the animated series you will know instantly that these are the same people reprising the roles here. I can't really imagine what the game would have been like if they hadn't manage get these people in the roles as they fit them so perfectly.  It also helps of course that the overall story of the game and the writer of the dialogue for these characters is none other than Paul Dini, a writer who is well versed in these characters and the universe already.

Supporting the voice work is the soundtrack, and the duo of Nick Arundel and Ron Fish have done a very good job of composing an original score that fits the Batman mythos.  DC and Warner could have been lazy here and just used the Danny Elfman or Hans Zimmer music from either of their movie franchises (like they did with LEGO Batman), but they have done a proper job instead by hiring Arundel and Fish and it has paid off.  Sound effects play their part too of course and the Batarang, Bat Claw and other gadgets all sound spot on. Also, punches and kicks sound really weighty and painful as you beat the crap out of dozens of poor henchmen over the course of the game.

Game Mechanics: 9 out of 10
Rocksteady Games have done a truly outstanding job of making you feel like you actually are Batman.  Firstly, the hand to hand combat: you can string moves together with ease and flow from one move to the next taking out up to 12 bad guys in the same fight (they do tend to stand around patiently and wait to get beaten up, but whatever).  Then there is the array of gadgets that you gradually get access to, which both allows you to access new areas of the Asylum and take out bad guys in new an interesting ways.  Stealth plays a part in this game, as many of the enemies carry machine guns and tough as Batman is, he can’t survive a full clip being shot into him.  Instead, you must make use of the conveniently place gargoyles around the grounds, watch the movements of the guards and then glide down and give them a boot in the face.  Or perhaps hang upside down from the gargoyle and wait for an unsuspecting goon to walk underneath, before descending upon him and stringing him up.

The developers shake things up to keep you on your toes throughout the game, by adding explosives to the gargoyles for example, so that you can’t stay on one for more than a few seconds – or by putting alarms on the Joker’s henchmen that go off if they are knocked out, sending another, tougher wave after you.  Every so often you will face off against a boss, who is usually one of Batman’s famous foes like Bane, Poison Ivy or Killer Croc.  These boss fights have come under a fair bit of criticism in reviews, mainly because they all boil down to the same thing – you look for the bosses weakness, exploit it, they retreat and send in a wave of standard goons, you defeat them, repeat twice more, you win.  While they are a little repetitive they didn’t really get on my nerves that much, and the quality of the rest of the game more than makes up for this small quibble.

Innovation and Cleverness: 8 out of 10
There are things that happen in this game that rival the Psycho Mantis encounter in the original Metal Gear Solid for sheer creativity and spot on understanding of the Batman license.  To go into details here would be to totally spoil the impact for anyone who hasn’t yet played the game, and I’m not going to do that.  Suffice to say though that the unique talents of some of Batman’s arch enemies come into play throughout the story in some very interesting ways.  Aside from this, I also like how the usual boring old things like collectables actually give you more insight into the background of the characters, because they take the form of patient interview tapes.

Value and Replayability: 7 out of 10
The main story will take a decent enough chunk of time to play through, say a dozen hours at least, but the game is so good that you will probably find yourself powering through the game faster than you realise.  Bolstering the length of this title somewhat are 300 Riddler Challenges, which vary from simply finding trophies throughout the world, solving actual riddles and targeting the item that makes up the solution, or destroying a certain amount of Joker teeth.  I didn’t really go out of my way to find and complete these when I played the game, and at the end I had completed 80 of them, so there’s still plenty of scope for completionists to get many more hours out of the game.

Overall: 9 out of 10
Not only is this one of the best super hero games ever made, it is one of the best action games full stop.  Fans of the Bat are going to absolutely love it, and those that haven’t really got into his comics or movies before may well end up converted after spending a night in his cape trying to thwart the latest evil scheme of the Joker and his cronies.  The sequel promises to deliver all that this game has done and more so, by expanding upon the confined space of the Asylum and giving you the whole city as your playground.  Batman will have to go up against many more famous foes such as the Penguin, Mr Freeze and Dr Strange, but he will be helped by Robin and possibly by Catwoman, depending whose she she’s on this time.  It promises to be one of the highlights of this year in gaming despite being surrounded by so many other amazing titles in the schedule.  If the original has passed you buy though, it is still worth picking up as it is an excellently designed game full of atmosphere and fun gameplay.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

RMGB Awards 2011: Part One

Welcome to my selection of the best games that were released during 2011, broken down by format, genre and then some overall awards. It's been a few years since I last did this, mostly because I normally don't play enough new games within a given year to be able to make an informed choice. This year though I was able to buy all the games that I wanted, due to having a nice redundancy payout from my previous employer. However I still didn't have enough time to play all the big games that were released, especially those towards the end of the year, so instead I will just have to include them in the honourable mentions category at the end and try to come back and review them in future.  The awards will be split over two days, with the first covering each individual format plus a few other categories such as Most Disappointing Game, and the second covering the various gaming genre, Most Anticipated Game of 2012, and my actual game of the year. So without further ado, let's get on with the show...

Best Xbox 360 Exclusive
Winner - Forza Motorsport 4
Where Gran Turismo was once the undisputed king of realistic driving games, now the Forza series has stolen the crown without a doubt. Forza 3 was really the game that pushed the series to the heights that it now enjoys, but the fourth entry in the series adds further refinements to the gameplay and the presentation.  Forget the worthless Kinect modes - instead, enjoy a lengthy single player career mode, a gargantuan range of events to race in, and a true online community of racers, tuners and painters. Where in the third game you could progress to level 50 fairly quickly, this time the cap is a massive 150.  What's more you have a separate level for each car manufacturer, which goes up to 50.

Runner Up - Gears of War 3
Whilst the two previous entries in the Gears trilogy were certainly good games, Epic Games raised the bar considerably with the final part of the Marcus Fenix saga.  The single player campaign is much more diverse in both location and colour palette, and each of the major characters from Delta Squad get their own moment in the spotlight before the curtain falls.  The Horde and competitive multiplayer modes have also been significantly overhauled, and a persistent levelling mechanic added across all the various modes. With the promise of significant single player DLC recently coming to fruition with the release of the Raam's Shadow pack, Gears of War 3 cements its place as one of the finest Xbox 360 releases from 2011.

Best PS3 Exclusive

Winner - Uncharted 3
Whilst Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is a very hard act to follow, Naughty Dog have almost but not quite bettered it with their third instalment in the series. This time things get rather personal as we get a glimpse into Nathan Drake's past and his friendship with Sully, before racing an ancient organisation to be the first to discover the mythical Iram of the Pillars. Drakes pride may just cause him or one of his friends their lives, as he journeys around the world, finding clues, solving puzzles and getting into many life threatening situations. This game once again shows the developers technical and storytelling prowess, and not only a fantastic single player campaign, but also a in depth mutliplayer mode and a co-op mode.

Best Wii Exclusive

Winner: Xenoblade Chronicles
The outcry from US gamers who believed that they would never see this game released in their territory was well deserved, as this is a truly remarkable RPG and one of the best games ever released on the Wii. Playing rather like an offline MMO, and delivering hundreds of hours of gameplay, Xenoblade Chronicles also pushes the hardware to the limits of its performance with its huge breathtaking vistas and epic score. Thankfully Nintendo have recently announced that the game will indeed get a US release later in 2012, thus serving as a fitting swansong for the Wii before it is usurped by its successor, the Wii-U.

Runner Up: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
It may have taken until the Wii is on the way out as a viable gaming platform, but Nintendo has finally captured the full potential of motion control with the release of the latest in the Zelda franchise.  Though the graphics are beautiful for the most part, the Wii does occasionally start to show its age, and the MotionPlus controller does have to be recalibrated just often enough to make it become a minor annoyance.  These issues are just enough to knock Skyward Sword down to the runner up position.

Best DS Exclusive

Winner: Solatorobo
Solatorobo is actually the sequel to a much loved yet little played PS1 game called Tail Concerto.  Both games take place in world populated by anthropomorphic heroic canines and antagonistic (or just plain naughty) felines as the travel amongst a chain of floating islands in their airships and robotic walkers.  These games have all the charm of a classic Miyazaki animation such as Castle in the Sky, and are essentially action RPG's that also feature flying sections quite heavily.

Runner Up:  Okami-den
The original Okami was one of the most beautiful games to be released on the PS2, and this DS follow up does a brilliant job of shrinking everything down whilst maintaining same style.  Quite literally, in the case of the wolf god main character Chibiterasu, who is the smaller, cutesified son of Amaterasu from the first game.  The controls are not quite perfect which prevented Okami-den from stealing the top spot, but in every every aspect this is a great action adventure game and easily rivals the Zelda games available for the DS.

Best PSP Exclusive

Winner: Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky
I reviewed a game in the Legend of Heroes series in the early days of this blog and gave it quite a high score. In hindsight it wasn't quite as good as I said at the time because it has an appalling translation, mediocre story and unremarkable mechanics.  When you compare this latest entry to that one, the difference is quite astounding. You can still tell they share the same lineage, but XSEED have spent much more care in localising Trails in the Sky, and combined with the charming graphics and excellent soundtrack it all adds up to a fantastic package for fans of playing RPG's on the go. The battles are still a little traditional, but you probably wont care as the rest of the package is just so much fun.

Most Disappointing Game

Winner: Fable III
Compared to Fable II, it just felt that Molyneux and Lionhead Studios had basically phoned in this entry to the series.  Most of the enemies you encounter are reused from the previous game - in fact the whole experience feels like a hand-me-down and not the least bit fresh. I did still quite enjoy playing through it but compared after all the excellent new mechanics of the second game in the series it just didn't do enough to stand out in a year that has seen a staggering amount of top class games released.

Runner Up: L.A. Noire
The new facial animation technology developed by Team Bondi and implemented in L.A. Noire is extremely impressive, and the grimy setting is also a fascinating place to explore, but mechanically this game was not without it's problems.  The main one was the interrogation scenes - you would often press the button to challenge a suspect and expect protagonist Cole Phelps to say one thing, only for him to completely go off on one without warning and basically accuse whoever happens to be in the hot seat of murder.  The other issue I have is the the pacing - the game is entertaining up to a certain point and then it feels like it should have ended, only it keeps going for many hours past this point.  A briefer game would have actually been more enjoyable in my opinion.

Worst Game of the Year

Winner: Hyperdimension Neptunia
I am always keen to try out as many RPG's as I can that are released throughout the year as it is my favourite genre, but boy do I wish I had never tried this one.  Stupid anime characters that barely feature any animation whatsoever explore the most boring random dungeons ever seen, or star in barely animated cut scenes that contain some of the worst dialogue and misguided attempts at humour ever to be included in a video game.  Whatever you do, do not buy this game!

That's it for part one, come back soon for part two which will include genre awards, the most pleasant surprise of the year, and my overall game of the year!