Monday, August 12, 2013

Game Diary: Xillia Rating

It's game diary time again already! Anyways, for about a week I've had "Zone of the Enders HD Collection review" listed in the Content Coming Soon sidebar widget, but I've now decided that I'm not going to review it.  The main reason is I got bored part way through ZOE 2 and sent it back to the rental company I got it from.  I have already completed both the games in their original PS2 incarnations though, and while I enjoyed playing through them the first time back then, replaying them was actually a bit of a chore. Despite both games only taking around five hours to complete, then can still feel pretty repetitive.  I supposed if you were to play them on a higher difficulty setting where you couldn't win by simply meleeing every enemy to death then it may be a bit more enjoyable, but... meh, life's too short.

Don't get me wrong, it's not that they don't have anything to offer, and if you're a Kojima fan who for whatever reason has never played them before then I recommend checking them out.  The soundtrack for both games is amazing and the design of the orbital frames is pretty damn good also.  The Metal Gear Solid series could also learn a thing or two about pacing from this series - cut scenes do not ramble on for what seems like forever and the story moves at a decent pace.  It's a shame that the first game takes place almost entirely in the one environment - just as you feel that the game is about to get going, it ends.  The second game has a lot more variety and is just better all round - you may even start to like Leo Stenbuck! Putting him the Vic Viper complete with the Gradius music is also a very nice touch for Konami fans.

This past weekend was largely taken up by Tales of Xillia, despite my intention not to get into it until I'd finished one or two other games. I haven't even completed Tales of Graces f that came out last year yet! Oh well... It is by and large what you would expect from a Tales game - well written characters, extremely anime style graphics, and fast paced battles - but it does shake things up a little bit.  The world feels a lot more open than previous instalments, and the line between the world map and dungeons is somewhat blurred, so everything feels like one world instead of a video game with discrete sections. 

There is a nice amount of side quests to take on, both large and small, though some of these are basically simple fetch quests.  Also, I don't really like the shop expansion system where you trade in materials dropped by monsters or found in the field, as you never really know if you've got the right equipment for where you are in the game.  I haven't really found it particularly challenging so far though, so I guess I'm doing alright in that regard.  Finally, Milla is one of the most interesting characters in the series to date, being the Lord of Spirits who has taken mortal form and then been stripped of her powers.  She is very forthright and wise on certain topics, yet knows little of human customs or day to day life. As you can imagine this set up has plenty of comedic potential.

Finally, I picked up Gran Turismo and Untold Legends on the PSP for £5 - just the UMD's though. I played a little of both last night, and had a good time doing so.  As it was a launch game, I was expecting Untold Legends to be showing its age, but it has held up fairly well.  It basically follows the same hack and slash template as Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance or Champions of Norrath, so if you liked those games I would say definitely check it or its sequel out.  Gran Turismo works surprisingly well on the PSP - the graphics are more or less on par with Gran Turismo 4 on the PS2, the great handling model is still present, and there are a ton of tracks to race on.  The absence of a properly structured career mode is a bit of a shame, but if you can get past this then the game offers plenty of quality racing action on the go.

I'm hoping to get a review of Animal Crossing: New Leaf put together soon.  I've already started writing it once and have given up, as it's a surprisingly hard game to review!  My second rental game from my Boomerang free trial should also be here in a couple of days, and if their priority system does its job, it should be either Luigi's Mansion 2, Pikmin 3 or The Last of Us.  All games I have wanted to play for a while, yet haven't picked up for cash flow reasons.  I'll be back with another update once I've had a chance to play the game for a while, and I should have a review of Lunar: Silver Star Harmony in a few weeks time. I also need to bring back the Commodore Classics, PS2 Tuesdays and Random Retro Round Up series!

Friday, August 09, 2013

Golden Sun: Dark Dawn review

I have a confession to make going into this review: I never completed either of the first two games in the Golden Sun series.  I did get a fair old way into the first one - about 20 or so hours, and then as so often happened I got distracted by some other new and shiny game and it got left by the wayside.  Even though I never saw how the story played out in the end, I know enough to recognise who all the returning characters are in Dark Dawn, and it's fairly easy to piece together how things went down in the end. The Golden Sun series is not the most original of creations, after all - being made up of mostly generic parts. That's not to say that these games don't have anything of their own to offer, however...

Developer: Camelot Software Planning
Expect to pay: £6

At the opening of Golden Sun: Dark Dawn, some time has passed since the events of The Lost Age.  Isaac and the other Warriors of Vale successfully managed to activate all of the Elemental Lighthouses, restoring life to the dying land. Yet there was a side effect to this... the Golden Sun event caused catastrophic levels of destruction to the world of Weyard... many lives were lost, save for those who were directly bathed in the light, whose lives were extended way beyond their usual span.  All of the Warriors and their companion Kraden were affected.  The world was saved at great cost, and would never be the same again.

Isaac and Garret continue to investigate anomalies that are occurring throughout the world as a result of triggering the Golden Sun - dangerous Psyenergy vortexes.  They are assisted in this task by their children. One day, Garrets son Tyrell gets himself into grave danger after taking a flying contraption invented by Ivan for a joyride.  Thus the game begins with you taking control of the son of Isaac, on a quest to rescue Tyrell before he gets himself killed.  Things spin off from there and eventually a new threat to the world presents itself.  It's up to the descendants of the Warriors of Vale to set things right.

Graphics: 8 out of 10
The visuals of Golden Sun: Dark Dawn are very well done, with nice bright colours, a cool cell shaded look and some very pretty water effects.  They are held back a bit by the usual limitations of the DS system such as a relatively low polygon count which makes the characters look a little angular, but that is hard the fault of the game.  As such, this is one of the better looking titles available for the system, easily on par with something like Dragon Quest IX.

Sound and Music: 7 out of 10
Firstly, the music.  Whilst the compositions of Motoi Sakuraba are of high quality, his work can get quite repetitive.  His music is certainly quite distinctive - chances are you will be able to tell one of his pieces just from the instrumentation and motifs used - but because is also quite prolific chances are the player is already quite fatigued concerning his work.

Also, I have to say I really really hate the noise that your characters make by default while they are talking.  Although it can be turned off, you have to get through the first portion of the game before you can get into a menu and switch it off.  It's a really grating squeaky noise which becomes absolutely maddening during the short time you are forced to be exposed to it, so thank the sweet furry king of the kittens that you can disable it or I would never have got through to the end of the game.  The rest of the sound effects are competently done though really nothing special - they do their job but do not stick in the memory.

Some puzzle solving early on in the adventure.
Game Mechanics: 8 out of 10
The fundamental mechanics behind Golden Sun: Dark Dawn are well established by this point - it is your typical RPG with random encounters, an overworld map, and towns - that sort of thing.  The random encounters are at least well balanced though, and you don't really need to go out of your way in order to level grind, at least until towards the end of the story and beyond.

There are a few unique aspects to the game though.  The first is the Djinn - these little creatures are hidden around the game world, and can be obtained either by defeating them in combat (which is never particularly hard) or by solving a puzzle within the environment in order to reach them.  Once in your party you can assign these Djinn to your characters, which both boost your stats and grant you access to Psyenergy (magic).  You can also select these Djinn in combat which gives some kind of benefit to your party (such as protection against physical attacks, or preventing your enemies from using magic against you for several turns) and also changes their status to "Set".  By setting multiple Djinn of the same type, you can then use summons - extremely powerful attacks by mythical gods and monsters that come with elaborate animations.  After using a summon, the Djinn that were "Set" then go into "Standby" status for a few turns, before returning to their default "Ready" state.

The types of Djinn that you equip on each character also have an impact on your character class - though I have to admit the intricacies of this system are beyond me and I simply matched Djinn of a given element to characters of the same type (Earth, Wind, Fire or Water). My main criticism of the Djinn system is that it makes the vast majority of standard offensive magic somewhat redundant, as you can simply spam the Djinn and summons over and over again at very little cost.

The other thing that sets this game apart (although similar things have been done in Lufia and Wild Arms) are the environmental puzzles.  Some of your psyenergy can be used outside of battle in order for you to interact with certain objects strewn throughout the various dungeons.  For example you can freeze puddles of water so that they become pillars of ice, you can make vines grow so that you can climb them, or you can use a whirlwind to propel yourself across a lake on an oversized lily leaf.  These puzzles are by far the best thing about this game and the Golden Sun series overall.  A couple of the dungeons were incredibly imaginative and fun to solve, and therefore will stick in the memory for a long time to come.

Innovation and Cleverness: 6 out of 10
Golden Sun: Dark Dawn scores most of its points here because of the aforementioned clever and fun puzzle design, because it certainly isn't especially innovative.  It is at heart a very traditional Japanese console RPG, and a fine example of one.

Value and Replayability: 8 out of 10
This rating is based on a combination of how long it will take you to complete the game, whether there's any reason for you to come back to it once finished, and how cheaply you can purchase a copy of your own. Some professional gaming review sites would baulk at the idea of factoring the price of a game into a review, but we live in the real world, money is hard to come by for many of us, and price can make the difference on whether a game is a worthwhile investment or not.  As Golden Sun: Dark Dawn came out a while ago now, it won't cost you very much to pick up a copy - roughly £6 when I checked.  I bought my copy a year ago for £15, and the game is a good deal at that price, so £6 is an absolute bargain.  Upon completion of the game, there are four additional optional dungeons for you to complete.  For me, the incentive for doing so wasn't really there, as all you gain from these dungeons are additional summons.  Given the fact that you already have access to many overpowered summons in the game, and the bosses of the extra dungeons are considerably tougher to beat than actual final boss of the story, I didn't see the point.

Overall: 8 out of 10
If you are clamouring for a high quality, traditional RPG experience to play on the go, then you can do far worse than Golden Sun: Dark Dawn.  Admittedly you can also do better (I would suggest playing any of the Dragon Quest games for the DS before this - especially Dragon Quest IX), but you would be hard pushed to find a better game for less money (the best RPG's on the DS are usually at least £10, and this is steadily starting to rise as collectors snap them up and they become scarcer). For the money, you can't really go wrong this game.  One thing’s for sure, now I have finished it I do want to go back and play the first two games on the GBA that are languishing in my collection!

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Game Diary: Silly Season

I have come to the conclusion that I will not be picking up an Xbox One or PlayStation 4 when they are released later this year.  This is partly for financial reasons, as there is just no way I will have around £1000 to splurge on gaming that close to Christmas and the harsh, long month that is January.

However, I will not be too sad as I get reports from my friends who do take the plunge (probably more than a little jealous, but I'll just have to cope).  The reason is, there is an ABSOLUTELY INSANE amount of games still to play on the current platforms.  The lists below contain all the games that I want to play, from earlier this year, for the rest of the year still to come, and then a selection from my backlog.

I have a tendency to hop from game to game, sampling little bits of each but never truly settling or finishing anything.  I am trying to change that habit, as it means I never truly appreciate each game.  Things are off to a good start with the completion of Golden Sun: Dark Dawn recently, and now I am focusing on Zone of the Enders HD Collection and Lunar: Silver Star Harmony.  Luckily, neither of the two ZOE games will take that long to complete, and with my two hour daily commute, Lunar will only take a week or two as well.

I can only really afford one full price game a month right now, and the next few months are already accounted for.  For August, my game of choice is Tales of Xillia for the the PS3, which has just shipped!  I will sample it (I can't help myself), but I must finish one of the other games I'm playing first before getting properly stuck in.   Then in September, it is GTA 5 that will be taking up all my time.  This game promises to be amazing - who knows, it may even be the first GTA game that I actually complete!

October is already secured by Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, though I haven't decided which platform to buy it on just yet.  I would like to get the Wii U version, though if it is £50 and the 360 version can be had for £30, then Nintendo will lose out yet again.  In November, I think I may finally get around to buying Luigi's Mansion 2 that I've been dying to play since it came out.  December may give me an opportunity to buy several games as my dad is usually pretty generous with the financial gifts, though it's too early for me to decide what I'm going to get just yet.

All this will be supported by a subscription to Boomerang.  As LoveFilm are dropping game rentals, I have had to find somewhere new, and I'm currently in my 21 day free trial period.  So far so good, though I have only received one game thus far (the previously mentioned Zone of the Enders HD Collection).  This rental service will be off great help in playing through some of the many other games that I wish to play... check out the huge list below!

From earlier in the year:

Persona 4 Golden
Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance
The Last of Us
Luigi's Mansion 2
Fire Emblem Awakening
Mario & Luigi Dream Team
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger
Grid 2

Recent or coming later in 2013:

Game & Wario
Project X Zone
Dragon's Crown
Shin Megami Tensei IV
Rogue Legacy
Shadowrun Returns
Pikmin 3
The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing
Tales of Xillia
Etrian Odyssey IV
Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner - Soul Hackers
Rayman Legends
The Bureau: X-Com Declassified
The Wonderful 101
Beyond: Two Souls
Assassin's Creed IV
Watch Dogs
Batman: Arkham Origins
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII

Old games I still want to play:
Shadow Hearts Covenant
Shadow Hearts From the New World
Wild Arms 5
Xenoblade Chronicles (need to finish it)
The Last Story
Pandora's Tower
Final Fantasy Tactics A2
The Witcher 2
Odin Sphere

+ literally dozens of others!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Lego City Undercover review

Up until this point, I think it is fair to say that the Lego games that began with Lego Star Wars in 2005 have not really evolved all that much.  They found a formula that worked and stuck to it, simply swapping out one high profile licence after another.  For me, they were starting to get a little stale, but then Lego Batman 2 came along and shook things up a bit by giving the characters voices and a more open ended hub area to explore.  Traveller's Tales, or rather a sub studio named TT Fusion, have taken this to it's logical conclusion and created a fully open ended world to explore in Lego City Undercover, and freed from the restrictions of a movie licence have really gone to town with the creative mission design and humorous script.   The result is the best game in the series so far and a serious contender for the best game on the Wii-U, so lets explore just what makes it so good.

Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: TT Fusion
Expect to pay: £40

The premise the game sees you taking control of Chase McCain, a cop who has been away from Lego City for quite some time after credit for the arrest of master criminal Rex Fury was stolen from him by Dunby, who happens to be the chief of police at the start of the game.  Fury has escaped and the major, realising who was really responsible for busting him previously, has persuaded McCain to help with the investigation.   Tracking him down will be no easy task though and will see McCain taking on a variety of undercover roles so that he can become chummy with the criminal element in an attempt to learn where Fury may be hiding.

Graphics: 8 out of 10
The graphics in Lego City Undercover are on par with previous HD entries in the series and though they probably won't impress Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 owners, they prove that the Wii-U can indeed handle large scale open environments without coming to a stuttering crawl.  The Wii-U versions of Arkham Asylum and Assassin's Creed 3 were something of a mess in this regard and left many doubting whether the Wii-U was truly up to the task.   Thankfully, the poor performance of those launch games was down to the rush to get them ready in time and the resulting lack of optimisation.

The game does actually look quite pretty with a nice draw distance and a day/night cycle, though when the action heats up it does still drop a frame here and there.  It's nothing serious though and shouldn't mar your enjoyment of the game overall.

Sound and Music: 8 out of 10
First of all, the voice work can come across somewhat cartoonish and cheesy at times, but this is in keeping with the overall tone of game.  There are actually a few minor celebreties lending their voices to the game, such as Adam Buxton of Adam & Joe fame and Peter "voice of Darth Maul" Serafinowicz.  I could swear that the guy doing the voice of Forrest Blackwell is Matt Berry who played the sleazy Douglas Reynhom in The IT Crowd too, though I have been unable to find any conformation of this online.

Throughout the course of the story you will meet Lego versions of Morgan Freeman in his role from The Shawshank Redemption and Joe Pesci to name just a couple.  To reveal all the characters that are spoofed in this game would be to spoil it, because for adults at least that's where a lot of the appeal lies.  TT Fusion have been extremely clever in making this game appealing to both adults and children - they're likely to sell more copies after all!

The music is made up mainly of 70's style cop show funk, though there are a couple of other decent tunes in the game such as the wild west sounding music when you're rounding up a runaway pig, or the action movie inspired composition featured in the final mission and the credits sequence.  On the whole I believe the sound deserves a solid 8, it is suits the game and is well put together.

Eventually you will get access to choppers, speeding up transport across the city and opening up even more optional challenges.
Game Mechanics: 7 out of 10
The game play in Lego City Undercover is broken up into three styles (in my opinion) - open world story missions, linear story missions, and optional content.  Now the reason why the score is not as high as it could have been here is that should you decide to try and complete some of the optional mini games without advancing the story very far you will find that you simply won't be able to because you won't have the disguises and therefore the skills required to access them.  Even if for example you have the Miner disguise and the dynamite ability, you may then find out that you also need the farmer disguise afterwards and have to give up on that gold brick or other optional doodad that you're trying to unlock.  I would recommend trying to ignore the side missions in the game for as long as possible to avoid such frustration.   When you do finally complete the story mode then the whole city is the mollusk of your choosing.

There are a staggering 450 gold bricks to be earned by exploring off the beaten path and completing many different types of side quest or mini game.  These can include such tasks as rescuing poor stuck kitties with the help of the Fireman disguise, stealing cars and dropping them off as the Robber, or taking tea breaks as the Construction Worker.  In addition to the gold bricks there are also tons of hidden characters, vehicles and special red bricks to be found as well, all of which count towards your 100% completion tally. Finding and doing everything will take quite some time indeed, but doing so is great fun.  Don't rush yourself, play in short bursts regularly and you won't tire of the experience.  Play for too long and you may find it start to get a bit repetitive.

Innovation and Cleverness: 6 out of 10
The game may still play like many of the other Lego games but the combination of the open world peanut butter and the linear chocolate is quite delicious.  The fact that there is an absolute shit ton of optional stuff to do is the frosting on the... peanut butter and chocolate sandwich?  I don't think that analogy quite worked out how I wanted it to!

Value and Replayability: 8 out of 10
I don't think the scope for replaying the game is all that great, but that doesn't really matter too much to me because doing everything will take many many enjoyable hours.  I took 16 hours just to get through the story, still with the vast majority of the game in front of me.  I reckon you're looking at at least 40 hours for the whole shebang, most likely longer.

Overall: 8 out of 10
The lack of two player co op in this one is a bit of a shame, but there's still an epic game for lonely types to enjoy. The game works for adults because of all the film and parodies in the game, and for kids because they get to romp around in a world full of Lego, doing cool stuff like stealing an animatronic T-Rex skeleton from the natural history museum or exploring an arch villains base on the moon.  It's great to see that the top quality releases have finally started arriving on the Wii-U - long may the continue!

Monday, July 08, 2013

My favourite YouTube gaming channels

During the 90's, TV shows based on video games were in their prime.  They may not have been the highest quality, but programs like Games Master, Bad Influence, Games World and Thumb Bandits were better than nothing, which is pretty much what we have now.  Luckily though, the rise of YouTube has made the lack of programming about our favourite pastime completely irrelevant, as we have as much quality video content as we could ever want, on demand.  Here is a list of my favourite gaming channels, followed by a few that are not entirely focused on games, yet probably of interest to people who are likely to be reading this.


The great thing about TheBitBlock is just how much passion and enthusiasm host Josh Thomas shows towards Nintendo across all his videos. It's getting a bit depressing to be a Nintendo fan, but watching him enjoy a multiplayer challenge on The Fold with his friend Nick, one of his excellently crafted video reviews, his great Animal Crossing video diaries or other coverage of Nintendo games will surely turn your frown upside down.  Below you can sample one of my favourite episodes of The Fold.


Host Andre offers a variety of gaming content including trailer analysis videos, overviews going under the "Game and Watch" moniker, hidden secrets as well as extremely elaborate and complete video guides. Again, he produces an Animal Crossing New Leaf video diary, though these can be a bit repetitive compared to Josh's because his town isn't nearly as developed. It is daily though! A lot of work goes into his channel - especially with the analysis videos and guides - so you should definitely give his content a watch.


Though I frequently find that my own opinion differs from that of Jeff and Ryan in particular, there's no denying that Giant Bomb make some great videos that are often hilarious.  My Friday evenings are often spent catching up with the Quick Look videos that they have put up during the week, and their fantastic mailbag videos are often the entertainment of choice for my lunch hour.  The video below is one of the most memorable videos they've put up in recent times, where a fan sends in a huge folder of classic PC games.
Edit: RIP Ryan Davis - you will live on in the videos and the hearts of your many fans.


This is the official channel of The Completionist, aka Jirard "DragonRider" Khalil. His videos serve a triple fold purpose - to offer a summary of the challenge and reward a particular game offers from completing it 100%, as an overall review of the game, and as an extremely well written and humorous piece of entertainment.  It is hard to pick out just one episode to highlight in this article, but this one for Catherine is a great place to start.


Joe and Dave from the Game Sack channel really know their stuff about retro gaming.  Their videos are a constant source of information about various genres and consoles including the Master System, the Neo Geo, the PC Engine and many more.  Their collections are almost as expansive as their gaming knowledge, with frequent comparisons of games across multiple platforms.  To give you a taste of their content, I have picked a recent episode about rare and valuable games.


Continue is a weekly web show where the three hosts, Paul, Nick and Josh play a retro game for about 30 minutes before making a judgment on whether they would Continue or declare Game Over.  The videos are frequently full of foul language of a sexual nature so if that is likely to offend you then maybe give it a miss.  If you're not a prude and find it as funny as I do, though then be sure to check out this episode about Total Recall on the NES as an example.


This guy (sorry, I don't know his name) has some great gaming videos on his channel, and my favourites are those where he focuses on hidden gems for a given system.  He recently put up a three part series dedicated to overlooked Wii games, and you can check out part one right here.


Also known as Classic Game Room, this channel shows off both games and hardware that is old and new.  I sometimes don't agree with host Mark - he didn't have a clue about Game Center CX when they reviewed Retro Game Challenge on the DS for example, yet just as often I do find his advice valuable before making a purchase.  I have selected a review of Golden Axe: Beast Rider to share with you here.


If you are as fond of the Wii as I am, then this channel is a great place to find out if a particular game is worth buying for the system.  There is now over 5 years’ worth of Wii reviews archived here, which covers both retail and downloadable titles.  Check out one of his videos below.

Matt Barton

Matt Chat is a fantastic place to go for coverage of classic PC games and interviews with key people that made them happen.  Earlier episodes feature game footage with Matt explaining what exactly what made them great, whereas later episodes have tended to focus on the interviews.  I have selected an episode about Planescape Torment to show you here.

John R. Gibson

John's channel is the home of his Videos Masters TV program, which combines gaming, comic books and other geek related paraphernalia into a regular show.  New episodes come out on a roughly monthly schedule, though he does take a break for a while between "seasons".  Definitely a must watch!

JonTronShow and PeanutButterGamer

These two channels seem to have had a dearth of new content over the last six months or so, which is a shame because when they were producing stuff regularly it was great.  I enjoyed PBGamer's Harvest Moon videos in particular, and JonTron had a great rant about the Sonic series a while back.


If you are a movie lover as well as a gamer, then FilmState is a great place to catch up on rumours, news, trailers, theatre and DVD releases.

The Ben Heck Show

Ben Heck is something of a genius when it comes to creating gadgets and technological doodads.  He has created his own pinball table, has taken the Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii U and put them together as one monstrous uber console, to name just two of his amazing feats.  I would never have the skill or the patience to make the things he does on his show, yet it remains fascination to watch.


Ro is the host of Nerdy Nummies, which is a baking show with a difference.  Each week she invents her own nerd themed edible treats based on a game, a film, comics or anything else the target audience would be interested in.  By far my favourite is the Donkey Kong cake that she made, which also happens to feature The Completionist and be the first episode of Nerdy Nummies that I watched.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The eShop Minute - Mario and Donkey Kong: Minis on the Move (3DS)

The Nintendo eShop is overflowing with affordable, top quality releases, especially on the 3DS.  The Wii U equivalent has some catching up to do but it is getting there with a steady stream of Virtual Console titles coming out each Thursday.  However, my first entry in this new semi regular series is a a portable one...

Mario and Donkey Kong: Minis on the Move
Nintendo 3DS eShop | £8.99

Mario is back yet again in this latest entry in his puzzle game series.  Unlike the previous Mario vs Donkey Kong games though, Minis on the Move does not use platforming as its foundation as is instead similar to the classic Pipemania (or Pipe Dreams).  At least on the surface - in fact, Nintendo brings quite a few new elements to the template.

The main game is made up of four different modes, each with their own rulesets.  First up is Mario's main event, where your task is to take the little wind up Mario figure to the exit whilst collecting 3 coins on the way.  In this mode, the track that you lay out to guide Mario is random, and should the green pipe fill up with puzzle pieces or Mario fall off along the way it's game over.  In theory the 3 coins are optional goals, but you will really want to get them on every level because only then will you earn a star, which unlocks more mini games and options as you go along.

The second game mode is Puzzle Palace, and for me at least this is the easiest and mode laid back of the four. This time the track pieces are pre defined, and the time limit is much more relaxed. As long as you don't lay down a track piece next to your mini Mario (or one of the unlockable characters), then they won't start advancing towards the goal, so it is a good idea to work backwards from the goal.

Third up is Many Mini Mayhem, where like the title implies, you have multiple mini characters to manage at once.  The track is all placed on the board already this time, and it's up to you to slide it around so that the minis don't fall off.  As their paths criss cross regularly, this is easier said than done, and this mode quickly gets quite challenging!

The difficulty of Many Mini Mayhem is nothing compared to the challenged offered by the final main mode though: Giant Jungle.  These are huge puzzle boards, and each one is home to 10 stars to collect on the way to the goal.  Your main enemy in this mode will be the time limit though, and you will constantly have to collect clocks to top it up along the way.  I don't advise trying to pick up all 10 stars in one go - just aim for a few on each run.  You have to reach the goal before these stars are banked anyway.

There are over 160 levels in total over these modes, but the game is bolstered even further by a selection of unlockable mini games.  These are fun diversions but nothing particularly advanced.  It is nice to have something to do when the puzzle modes have you stumped though.  Finally there is Create & Share mode, where you can create your own puzzles and download those thought up by other people on the Nintendo Network.

If you're a fan of puzzlers then this is an easy recommendation.  For a small price you get a lot of game play - in fact this sort of title could quite easily have been a full priced retail release in the past. I have no hesitation in saying that you should definitely pay the £8.99 asking price for this one.

Here's a great video overview of the game from one of the many YouTube channels I subscribe to, GameXplain:

Friday, May 17, 2013

Commodore Classics #2: Little Computer People

This time I would like to ramble on for a few paragraphs about Little Computer People, which is a piece of software I used to load up on a fairly regular basis and just basically enjoy an hour or so mucking about with it. The basic concept is that upon loading, the little computer person himself moves into a virtual house that is displayed on the screen. It comes complete with all the rooms and amenties that you would expect of a standard abode from the 1980's - kitchen, bathroom, living room, bedroom, a little office with a computer of some kind, and a mysterious door at the top of the house that the little chappy is always going in and out of for some reason. Maybe it's a magical portal to the land of Narnia, maybe it's where our tiny serial killer hides the dismembered body parts of his victims? Who knows.

It is not really accurate to describe LCP as a game, as there is no objective or what you could consider to be game play. Instead, you enter instructions via the keyboard which the resident of the house may or may not decide to listen to, and you can also issue keyboard commands that cause food, books or records to be delivered to the door of the house. The main draw of the game is simply watching the little digital chap go about his daily life. He may decide to do some star jumps, he may pop a record on and do the funky chicken, or he might just write you a letter and either thank you for keeping him well supplied in food and water, or complain that you aren't taking care of him.

Will Wright has said that LCP was an influence on The Sims, and you can certainly see the likeness. While it may not keep you entertained for long periods of time, it is packed full of charm and is worth firing up from on the odd occaision. I have many fond memories of coming home from school and mucking about with the software before moving on to something more "hardcore" (cringe).

That's it for another edition of Commodore Classics! I hope that I will manage to get the next one up a bit quicker. I am also toying with the idea of doing similar videos/articles for NES, SNES, Mega Drive and Master System games, as well as having some more Wii Hidden Gems for you. Until then, happy gaming!

You can download the Little Computer People game files here, or the VICE C64 emulator here.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Commodore Classics #1: Dragon Breed

Welcome to the very first entry in a brand new series of articles.  I decided that the blog having retro right there in the title in all, could do with a greater amount of genuine retro content.  The Commodore 64 is probably my most favourite gaming platform of all time (with the SNES and Game Boy close behind) and I would spend many an hour in my childhood playing various games on my trusting machine.  There are going to be a few different types of article within this series – some will be favourite games of mine that I am extremely familiar with, some will be taking a look at games that I never played back in the day, and some will be having a nostalgic look at the contents of classic Zzap and Commodore Force cover tapes.  I would eagerly await the arrival of each new issue of these magazines, and the first thing I would do when they arrived is remove the cover tape and load it up.  These tapes would often include complete games or interesting utilities, often just as good or better than anything I had paid money for!

So as you can see from the title, the focus of this first edition of Commodore Classics is Dragon Breed, a horizontal shoot ‘em up that was released in arcades in 1989 and then ported to the home computers.  It was originally conceived by Irem, the company most people know for the excellent R-Type series.  Their knowledge of the side scrolling shooter genre helped them make Dragon Breed a really fun game, and the twist of you controlling a little man riding a dragon was genius.  The dragon itself was really large on the screen, and the tail could be used both defensively to protect the vulnerable rider and offensively to destroy enemies and gun emplacements.  In the transition from coin-op to C64, a few corners have had to be cut obviously, but overall it remains very faithful to the original game.  One thing that is quite obvious when you first see the C64 version moving is the sprite flicker on the dragons tail.  It is a little distracting to say the least, but it is unfortunately unavoidable in order to allow that many sprites to be on the screen at the same time.

Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about the conversion though is the soundtrack.  Martin Walker has done an amazing job of taking the tunes from the arcade cabinet and adapting them into SID equivalents.  Because of the unique sound of the C64’s custom chip, the music is actually an improvement in my opinion.  But enough of the graphics and the sound, how does the game play?  I am pleased to say that despite being slightly easier than the original version aside from a lack of continues, it plays very closely indeed.  All of the stages are intact, and their various set pieces including giant dragon dreadnoughts are represented.  The various power ups in Dragon Breed – red for a flame attack, orange for curling into a defensive position, silver for homing rockets, and blue for lightning – are all present and correct.  The most useful of these by far is the orange one though, as it can be used effectively in every situation.

Dragon Breed was a whopping £9.99 back when it was published by Activision, and the child version of myself took quite a risk with his pocket money, because he bought it solely because it looked cool, and he recognised the Irem name.  Luckily the risk paid off and Dragon Breed became one of those games I would return to time and time again.  I eventually became familiar enough and skilled enough to be able to complete it, though those skills have unfortunately deteriorated over the years because I only managed to get to stage 3 whilst replaying it for the purposes of this article.  The companion video above contains footage of those first three stages.  The next edition of Commodore Classics will be a random selection of three games that are completely new to me, chosen at random.  Catch you next time!

You can download the Dragon Breed game files here, or the VICE C64 emulator here.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Star Ocean: First Departure review

Star Ocean is a long running series that dates back to 1996 on the SNES, where it was developed by Tri-Ace and published by Enix. I believe what happened is that key members of Wolfteam who were responsible for Tales of Phantasia were dissatisfied with the way they were treated by Namco on that project, so they split off and formed Tri-Ace in order to create a new series.

Compared to the likes of Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy or even the Tales series, the humble Star Ocean series has had very few releases over the years, with just four main titles and a Game Boy Color spin off called Blue Sphere to date.  The PSP remake of the first game that I am reviewing today is also the first time that it has officially been available in English, and having played all the way through the main story I think it is a good thing that those of us who aren’t fluent in Japanese can enjoy this game in an enhanced form. 

Publisher: Square-Enix
Developer: Tri-Ace
Expect to pay: £10 - £15

The game sees you take control of Roddick Farrence, a young denizen of the planet Roak and member of the Fellpool race (humanoids who have tails).  This begins fairly slowly as Roddick patrols the sleepy town of Kratus with his two friends, the pink haired girl Millie and best friend Dorne.  After taking care of a few bandits that are causing trouble for the residents, word arrives of a disease that is turning residents of a neighbouring town to stone.  While trying to figure out what is going on, Millie’s father and then Dorne both contract the disease. 

Roddick and Millie then travel to Mount Metorx to try and find a herb that will cure everyone, when they encounter two tail less strangers who appear from out of thin air.  They are Ronyx J Kenny and Ilia Silvestri of the starship Calnus, also here to try and save the population of Roak.  After informing Roddick and Millie that the herb will not cure their loved ones, they end up beaming about the Calnus and set off on a journey through space and time to set things right.

Graphics: 8 out of 10
While Star Ocean won’t blow anyone away with amazing looking 3D graphics, the 2D work displayed here is really pretty.  What you have for the most part is a combination of highly detailed painted backgrounds and well animated character sprites.  The 3D that is in the game is saved for the world map and the battles, and is not great looking but is serviceable.  All of this is backed up by some excellent animated video by acclaimed animation house Production I.G.

Sound and Music: 8 out of 10
First things first – the voice work in Star Ocean: First Departure is extremely high quality stuff.  It is both well written and acted.  The cast includes some industry veterans such as Yuri Lowenthal in the lead role, but also plenty of names that I’m not familiar with.  My favourite has to be Ronyx J Kenny, performed by Sam Gold.  He does the job of starship captain well, being both serious in tone yet kindly in nature.

The soundtrack was put together by Motoi Sakuraba, an incredibly prolific composer whose distinctive sound can be heard throughout the Tales and Golden Sun series as well as many other RPG’s. My only problem with his work is that often one piece of his music can sound very much like another, and this problem also applies here.  There are a few stand out tracks in the game, but most of it sounds like it could have been transplanted directly from something like Tales of Eternia.  Still, when you have to come up with music for as many games as Sakuraba does, I suppose it would be inevitable that similar themes would emerge.  That’s not to say his stuff is bad – it’s just… samey.

While the Star Trek influences at the start of the game are cool, they are not developed nearly enough and most of the game plays like a standard fantasy RPG.  A shame.
Game Mechanics: 7 out of 10
The Star Ocean games are action RPG’s as such they do fall into the trap of degenerating into button mashers fairly easily, unless you happen to face a group of monsters that can inflict status ailments on your party or a powerful boss that keeps you on your toes.  The majority of the game is pretty easy if you keep pace with levelling up however, so most encounters will consist of you mindless spamming the X button until everything dies.  Battles are still triggered randomly on the world map and throughout dungeons, and I’m afraid to say that they can be infuriatingly frequent.

Another problem I have with the game is that eventually you will have to backtrack halfway across the world map to places you’ve been before, yet the same old enemies remain.  You will trigger battle after battle that serve little point other than to slow you down, because by the point you start revisiting locations you will be so over levelled that the amount of XP you receive from enemies is pathetic.

Luckily there is more to the game than just a fairly standard battle system.  Should you get into the intricacies of the skill and crafting systems you will find there are dozens of options available, including cooking, customization of equipment… even writing books and composing music are options.  Again though, while taking the time and trouble with these systems can certainly help against with the optional post game content, the main game itself is so easy that you don’t need to bother much.

Finally there is the Personal Action system, which allows you to view optional scenes between the different characters and build up a hidden PA value.  Increasing this value can have an effect on the ending that you see upon completion of the game.  I should also say that there are many recruitable characters throughout the game, and bringing some into your party locks you out from recruiting others.  This also affects the scenes that you will see at the end of the game and helps the replay value.  As the story is quite brief at around 20 hours I could possibly see myself playing through a second time at some point and taking an entirely different group of characters through to the end game.

I do also have to commend the game for its incredibly quick loading times.  It can be quite easy to overlook this aspect of PSP games but it is an important one.  If you have a spare 30 minutes to fill and you choose to do so by playing a game on your handheld, if a third of that time is spent waiting for the game it can be infuriating.  I speak from experience… much as I like Kingdom Hearts, playing it on the PSP can be rather painful even with the game installed to a memory stick!  Star Ocean takes seconds to get in and out of battles however, which is fantastic.

Innovation and Cleverness:
5 out of 10
I can’t really be too generous in this regard I’m afraid because despite the extensive skill system and multiple endings when it comes down to it this is a fairly rudimentary action RPG.

Value and Replayability: 7 out of 10
As already mentioned the game can be completed in 20 hours, which is not many at all for the RPG genre.  However this doesn’t take into account a sizeable optional dungeon that can be taken on afterwards.  I don’t know how many hours exactly that this would add on to the overall experience as I have not attempted it myself yet.  You do take your character from around level 80 to 160 though so I can see that it would take a while!

Then there are all the optional characters and the effect that different parties have on the ending.  This goes a long way to making playing through a second time both viable and appealing.  Even if the story itself is not exactly the most amazing work of literature, the likeable and well written characters make up for this weakness.

Overall: 8 out of 10
Despite the fairly mundane battle system and overall lack of challenge, Star Ocean: First Departure was a great way to spend the journey home every day.  Hopefully the weaker aspects of the game have been tweaked for the sequel Second Evolution, as I am about to begin playing that.

The presentation and the likeable characters are a big part of what makes this game fun. The brief length of play is also to the games credit, as it would probably have grown tiresome if stretched out much further.  I also hope later games in the series do a better job of making good on the whole “Star Trek RPG” concept, as this game very quickly goes from sci fi to your bog standard fantasy fare.  I mean… it’s a universe where space travel is both possible and prevalent, and yet the designers have you stuck on the same planet for 95% of the game? Let me explore other worlds next time, Tri-Ace!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Mini Review Round Up

I promised that I would have some mini reviews of several games that missed out on getting the full treatment, and here they are!  I had every intention of writing full length reviews of each and every one of these, but didn’t quite get around to it.

I know it is quite fashionable to bash Assassin's Creed III right now, but for the most part I really enjoyed it.  There were just a few aspects that were irritating and felt like holdovers from the very first game in the series – namely, stupid missions that were way too easy to fail by accidentally stumbling off the rigid path that the designers wanted you to take.  This problem applies to a mission where you have to stay undetected and overhear a conversation that the young George Washington is having with another officer and the final chase sequence in particular.

My other main problem with the game is the stupid side quest where you chase down pages from Ben Franklin’s diary.  Now, running around rooftops and collecting feathers and what not was never the most exciting part of these games, and now they’ve made the bloody things run away from you! After getting enough of these to earn the associated achievement, I stopped doing them, as they are no fun whatsoever.

Other than these gripes though, the rest of the game was great fun. I loved exploring the frontier and gliding through the trees, the naval combat missions were quite possibly the single best part of the game (and thus I am really excited about Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag), and if you took the time to do all of the Homestead missions, you got a more personal and relaxed story.  Only by doing this optional content did you really get to know Connor and the other characters brought into his growing village.

So while it’s true that AC III is the weakest entry in the series so far, it still has a lot to offer fans of the franchise, and shouldn’t be skipped.

Overall: 7 out of 10

By now everyone should be well aware of the main failing of Mass Effect 3 – that ending.  While I too was left disappointed by it I strongly felt (and still do) that Bioware should not have bowed to pressure from fans and changed it, even if the changes they made turned out to be not all that drastic.

However, the ending was not the only problem with the game – the other main one was the incredibly poor way that side quests were implemented.  Almost all of them involved Shepard eavesdropping on random persons dotted around the Citadel moaning that they’d lost something or needed something collected from the darkest depths of space, and for you to then present said interstellar doohicky to them for some credits and/or XP.  Hardly inspired stuff.

Look past these aspects though and you will find combat mechanics that are much improved over the previous game and some truly great character moments with your crew.  Up until that fateful meeting with the Starchild I was gripped by the storyline, it’s only in the last half an hour or so that things start to fall apart.

On the whole I think the main problem with Mass Effect 3 is that its predecessor was just so damn perfect it was almost impossible to improve upon it, and whatever end Bioware had chosen for Shepard and crew wouldn’t be good enough to please all.

Overall: 8 out of 10

While I have bought every entry in the Forza Motorsport series and spent many an hour racing around the real world tracks, I have never “completed” a single one of them.  Part of this is because they cram so much content into each one, and release them on a yearly basis, but it is also partly due to the clinical nature of the driving.  While certainly not as stuffy as the Gran Turismo series, the Forza games do still take themselves rather seriously.  There’s nothing wrong with this, as it’s exactly what hardcore racing fans would want, but those who prefer their racers on the slightly arcade side may be a bit turned off by the whole thing.

This is where Forza Horizon comes in.  Turn 10 and Playground Games wisely decided to introduce a more relaxed, playful offshoot that they could release on alternate years with the Motorsport line.  This first attempt sees you taking part in a race festival set around Colorado.  No I’ve never been there myself but this seems like a great place to set a racing game, as there are miles of beautiful countryside to tear around in.

The handling model feels a lot like the Project Gotham series, and likewise you earn respect points by drifting, overtaking etc., slowly rising in the ranks from 100 to 1.  This rank unlocks optional Showcase races that pit you against a biplane for example, and I think they are also the trigger for the Barn Finds.  Every so often the DJ on the radio will mention that people have spotted a certain derelict vehicle stashed in a barn somewhere, and then it’s up to you to search the highlighted area on the map until you find it.  Then your mechanic will take it away and fix it up. After a short period of time, it’s yours to drive.

The main single player mode of the game will not take you very long to finish, as you don’t have to win every event to progress.  However, you probably will want to spend the extra time getting first place in all races as there are achievements to earn for doing so, and it’s just good fun.  All things considered, Forza Horizon is a slickly produced, arcade style racing game – a commodity that’s becoming increasingly rare due to the closure of studios like Black Rock and Bizarre Creations.  If you enjoy tearing up the tarmac to a variety of great tunes, then look no further.

Overall: 8 out of 10

After taking the reins of the Need for Speed series with their interpretation of Hot Pursuit, Criterion have returned once again with an update of what may be considered to be the best entry in the series: Most Wanted.  However, the cheesy FMV exploits of Razor Callohan and Sargeant Cross are long gone, and just the basic structure remains.

There are 10 Most Wanted drivers tearing around the streets of Fairport and it’s up to you to take them down one by one and get to the top of the list.  You do this by earning a fixed amount of points to earn the right to face them in a race.  Beating them is only the first step though – once you do you then have to chase them and shut them down (by ramming them at high speed, of course).

At the start of the game you only have one vehicle and no upgrades.  Taking part in a few easy races and beating them will earn you better tires, nitrous oxide, a strengthened frame and more aerodynamic body – all things that you will need if you are to stand a chance at taking down the best drivers.  You can upgrade all of these standard car parts to their “Pro” equivalents simple by using them a certain amount, something I really recommend doing as it will make your life easier.

You will find other driveable cars dotted around the city with the manufacturers badge hovering over them.  Changing into a new car resets all of your upgrades and gives you a different five race events to take part in.  Thus the flow of the game sees you constantly jumping from car to car and starting the whole upgrade process over again until the last of the Most Wanted 10 is taken out.  This won’t take you all that long – 10 or so hours I would say – but if you’re a completionist then you will spend a lot longer finding all the “jack spots” and upgrading all the cars.

In addition to the single player, Most Wanted 2012 also features an amazing multiplayer mode which is fantastic fun to mess around it.  When you join a lobby of other players you are given a playlist of five events, which could be races or other types like who can pull off the biggest drift or jump in the next three minutes.  As well as trying to win yourself, you can also mess with other players by taking them out as they try to compete.  There are even races to the next event, and should you be facing in the wrong direction when a race starts, then tough!  This mad scramble to be the first to a meet up spot just adds to the fun.

Criterion have managed to deliver a fantastic arcade racer yet again – their years of collective experience putting together this type of game really shines through.  One not to be missed!

Overall: 9 out of 10

There we are then! I will probably do this again sometime, when there are some games that either don’t merit the full review treatment or I’m just too lazy to write something in a timely manner as was the case here.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

RC Revenge Pro: PlayStation 2 Tuesdays #3

RC Revenge Pro, while being and immediate sequel to PS1 title RC Revenge, is also a successor to a fairly popular Dreamcast game by the name of Re-Volt. It shares many similarities with its parent game yet manages to refine things slightly to make for a more enjoyable experience.

The game was published in Acclaim in the year 2000, and for such an early PS2 release the graphics hold up reasonably well today but won't blow you away by any means. The main single player mode is split over four cups, with tracks set in environments such as a dinosaur populated jungle, a creepy mansion, a futuristic lab, an area inspired by ACME style cartoons and a pirate themed area.  Some more unique environments would have been nice as you do revisit the same ones multiple times, and even the same tracks with slightly altered routes.

The tracks themselves are fairly well designed for the most part but a few of them are pretty confusing and there's a good chance you will lose your way the first time you drive them.  This can be mitigated slightly by an option to turn on a pulsing light that shows you where you're supposed to go, but this doesn't always show up very well against the backgrounds.  I like the fact that some of the tracks have multiple routes, and Acclaim even did the whole transforming vehicles thing long before Sumo Digital used a very similar mechanic in Sonic Racing Transformed.

This merman guy is lurking in the sewer, generally getting in the way. 
The graphics may look incredibly blocky here but they don't look so bad when the game is in action.
One of my main gripes about the original Re-Volt is that the handling of the cars was very tricky.  This may be quite realistic as RC cars can indeed be a bugger to control, but it doesn't make for a very entertaining video game.  Thankfully they have learnt their lesson and there are plenty of cars to choose from in RC Revenge Pro with a good handling stat.  More are unlocked as you progress first through the four main cups and then their reversed equivalents, including military vehicles cop cars and even a UFO.

While definitely not in the top tier of arcade racers published for the PlayStation 2, for the few quid it would cost to pick up these days I would recommend trying out RC Revenge Pro.  If you enjoy the likes of Mario Kart or Micro Machines you are sure to find enough here to keep yo busy for several hours, so you will definitely get your monies worth.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Game Diary: Reviews Snooze

It's now been about a year since my last proper review.  There are a few reasons for this - I don't like to review games that I haven't finished, and I don't like to leave it too long between finishing a game and typing up my thoughts.  There have been a fair few instances where I had intended to review a game and not quite got around to it - this happened with Mass Effect 3 and Assassin's Creed 3 to name just two examples.  However I've been thinking about this and I intend to write up my thoughts on both of these and more in an article I will put up soon.

There are also several games that I am currently in the process of playing through that I would like to do full reviews for.  These include Star Ocean: First Departure for the PSP, Ni No Kuni for the PS3, as well as Digital Devil Saga and Shadow Hearts: Covenant for the PS2.  I am quite far along with all four of these, and would probably have been done with Ni No Kuni had I not come down with a nasty case of the flu.  I didn't want to play the game (or any game really) with a pounding headache so I'm afraid it's been a bit neglected ever since.

My huge backlog of games only gets bigger, as I purchased 12 or so cheap PS2 games last month, and then copies of Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey and Henry Hatsworth on the DS, Devil Summoner on the PS2 and Gungnir for the PSP.  It really is a great time to pick up games for these slightly older systems as they are fairly easy to find yet easy on the wallet.  Looking back at them now, both the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP had a great library of RPG's which suit my current lifestyle of lengthy commutes to and from work very well.

I estimate that Star Ocean: First Departure has roughly one more weeks worth of journeys left before I finish the main campaign, so I would hope to get a review up some time during the week after.  I also have a long weekend coming up as I'm taking Monday as holiday, so I plan to spend some time with a PS2 game or two and come back with some more entries in the PS2 Tuesdays series.  Finally, my MAME cabinet and GP2X Canoo have been a bit neglected of late, so it's about time I fired them up and covered some true retro titles here on the blog.

One last idea that I'm toying with is a YouTube Community Spotlight, where I cover some of my favourite channels that I watch regularly for my gaming fix.  There are some extremely talented individuals out there, and with the advent of YouTube apps on conoles like the Xbox 360 and PS3, I find that I no longer watch standard television any more and would rather turn to the likes of The Completionist or Continue? to watch while chilling out of the sofa.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Everybody's Tennis: PlayStation 2 Tuesdays #2

Clap Hanz has a long history of developing fun, accessible golf games with their Everybody's Golf series (aka Hot Shots Golf in the US).  They date back to the original PlayStation, and the franchise is still going strong today with the latest release on the Vita.  Back in 2007, they decided they would also take a stab at the tennis genre.  For whatever reason, this never caught on and the PS2 version of Everybody's Tennis (along wth a slightly updated PSP port) remains the only one so far.  This a bit of a shame, because while it's not the deepest tennis game out there, it certainly is a whole long of fun and offers a decent amount of gameplay. I remember picking this game up a few years ago when I saw a copy in my local supermarket.  I had no idea it existed before seeing in there on the shelf, but I decided to buy it based on the strength of the golf franchise.

The structure of the single player mode sees you starting off in the novice league, with four courts and two characters unlocked. You are told that you will advance to the amateur class once you've won four matches, and each of these matches also unlock other items along the way.  These could be courts, characters, clothing or different umpires. The courts in Everybody's Tennis are all very nicely designed, being full of colour and rich in little details like trains passing by in the background or a rogue football bouncing across the court in Sakuragoaka Park.   All the different court surfaces such as grass, clay, hard and wood are all represented in the game.

Sound is a either OK or awful depending on your tolerance for whimsical music and bad voice overs.  It does suit the nature of the game but I can see how it would definitely start to grate on the nerves of some before too long. This biggest problem is probably the umpires.  These are of various nationalities but the poor acting makes them sound like bad racial stereotypes and could be potentially offensive, which is definitely not the intent!

Get past this though and you do have a solid and responsive tennis game, thankfully. As I said before it's not the deepest on the market - if you want that I recommend Sega's Virtua Tennis series for the World Tour mode.  What is on offer here is a lot of fun though and the PS2 version can be found easily for just a few quid (the PSP goes for considerably more) so I would say give it a go if you enjoy tennis games.  Oh, and besides the aforementioned single player mode there are also training and multiplayer options, with the game supporting the Multi Tap for four player fun.   Hopefully Clap Hanz and Sony will decide to revisit the franchise again (maybe on the Vita?) - it deserves another shot.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Splashdown & Splashdown 2 Rides Gone Wild: PlayStation 2 Tuesdays #1

The last PlayStation 2 recently left the production line, and so to celebrate the life of this truly fantastic console I present to you the first in a new regular series: PlayStation 2 Tuesdays.  There are literally hundreds of fantastic games to be scooped up for the system, often at a very reasonable price.  Each week, I will be focusing on one or more games to try and highlight why you should consider picking them up.  First up, the Splashdown series.

The Jet Ski / Sea Doo racing genre has been somewhat under utilised in video gaming over the years, with the most notable series being Wave Race on the N64 and Gamecube.  The Splashdown series is less well known amongst gamers in general, yet it gives Nintendo’s franchise a serious challenge in terms of quality and playability.  Both games were developed by Rainbow Studios, who had already gained something of a following thanks to their high quality ATV Offroad Fury franchise.

The first game features 21 tracks (20 unlocked over the course of three different difficulty settings, and one secret track).  The majority of these are fairly realistic circuits set in locations around the globe such as the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, Nice harbour in France and around the coast of Bali. There are also four or so other tracks that are based inside man made arenas, and these are used for one on one challenges with other racers in single player.  By beating characters that are locked to begin with you then earn the right to play as them.  Each track features ramps to jump off of, buoys to slalom through, and more often than not multiple routes to take.

The water looks wet... which is nice.
The easy mode gives you 12 races to complete, and as the name of the mode would suggest it is fairly straightforward to beat it.  Stepping up to Normal gives you the full 20 normal courses to complete and the opposition is notably tougher.  You have to make sure you execute tricks and built up your performance meter, which in turn increases your top speed.  Basic level tricks are pretty easy to pull off, but in this first game the mid tricks are quite difficulty to remember, and the high level ones involve a long and complicated string of button presses that are unique for each character.  I am always pretty hopeless at remembering moves in fighting games and it’s the same deal here as well.

The handling is nice and responsive, though this does vary depending on the character you choose.  You can push up on the left stick as you go round tricky turns to take them at a tighter angle, or you can dip the front of your personal water craft under the water and then quickly pull back to hop over small obstacles. You also need to take advantage of straight areas of track by pulling back on the left stick to hydroplane, and avoid wiping out.  One collision is enough to lose you the race even on the normal difficulty, though you can restart as many times as you need to.  Before each race you will be told the minimum position that you need to finish it to be allowed to move on to the next event, based on your current standings in the tournament, and again I didn’t have too many problems on the first two difficulty settings but Hard definitely lives up to it’s name.

Moving on to Splashdown 2: Rides Gone Wild, things are taking to all new levels of craziness as the subtitle would suggest.  The World Tour mode takes place on up to 12 tracks set in theme park rides.  These include a track that is quite obviously based on Jurassic Park, one that is pirate themed, a Bermuda triangle circuit that goes from calm seas and sunny skies one minute to a storm the next, with sinking ships and world war 2 biplanes in the background.  I do like the imaginative track design and the way the route changes slightly on each lap, but on the whole I think I prefer the normal tracks from the first game.  The difficulty of the game is noticeably harder this time as well, I had trouble progressing far on the normal setting with the characters you start the game with.  Unlocking stuff in Splashdown 2 is done by spending points you earn based on your performance in each race.  As well as more characters there are additional Sea Doos with different statistics, various wetsuits that I believe are merely cosmetic, and more tracks to unlock.  The trick system has been refined a bit in the sequel, with the high level tricks now being easier to pull off and remember.

On the third lap of the pirate themed level, the ship explodes and you can take a short cut through the wreckage.
In addition to World Tour there is also another huge championship set in the indoor arenas similar to the first game, and there are also technical time trials to attempt set on unique tracks. All of these game modes and unlockables mean that there is plenty to see and do in both games, so considering that they should only cost you a few quid to pick up they are both bargains.  Whether you prefer the realistic approach taken by the first game or the wacky fantasy of the sequel is all a matter of taste really – I would say try both games out and decide for yourself, as they are both definitely worth adding to your collection.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Game of the Year Awards 2012

Here we are ladies and gentlemen, with the ten games that I consider to be the best of the year...

10. Mass Effect 3
In the end, this barely scraped its way into my top ten list because of some small yet significant flaws that just hold it back and make it a disappointing sequel to the almost perfect Mass Effect 2.  This include the controversial ending that was released in the game, the decision to make one of the best playable characters paid DLC and the incredibly poor way that side quests are implemented. However, it is rescued by the best combat yet in the series and some truly great moments with some of my favourite video game characters ever.

9. Forza Horizon
Though Playground games were made up of a talented group of people with prior experience in the racing genre, they still had a lot of prove with this Forza spin off and so I didn't really know what to expect prior to playing the Xbox Live demo. What they actually delivered is a fun, vibrant and more accessible cousin of Turn 10's track based driving simulator.  In many ways it feels like a Project Gotham game, and as that series appears to have stagnated it is a very welcome alternative.

8. Assassin's Creed 3
Much like Mass Effect 3, the latest entry in the Assassin's Creed franchise had some pretty significant flaws holding it back from the top half of my games of the year list.  Some incredibly frustrating missions with fail states that are far too easy to trigger and a WTF ending are chief among these, but the joy of exploring Boston, New York, the building of your homestead and the absolutely amazing naval battles make this one of the top games of 2012 for me.

7. Torchlight 2
I played Diablo III a lot when it was released, only giving up when the highest difficulty setting proved too much for me.  Then a few months later Torchlight 2 came out, and it managed to eclipse Blizzard's offering.  The fast pace, the excellent range of character classes and the amount of game you get for a low price meant that I was addicted to it for a good few months, and I still intend to back and play some more in the future.

6. Tales of Graces f
Excellent examples of the Japanese RPG genre on home consoles are pretty hard to come by these days, yet Tales Studio managed to deliver one on the PlayStation 3 this year.  Though it's a port of a Wii game, it still looks absolutely fantastic with the vibrant colours and anime style that fans of the series have come to expect. There are some new twists to the mechanics of the game compared to other in the series too, with the the way you obtain new skills from earning titles for your character proving to be extremely addictive.

5. X-Com: Enemy Unknown
For a long time strategy games like X-Com weren't being made, especially for consoles. Then Firaxis came along and proved that this type of game could work with a controller when they released the excellent Civilisation Revolution.  Fans of the original X-Com were very worried when video of the proposed FPS reboot were circulated, but in the end that project was shelved and we got this instead.  It is by an large a complete update of the game we knew and loved back in the 90's, just made more accessible to newcomers with a gentler difficulty curve.  Those who crave the toughness of the original can always crank the game up to the hardest setting and switch on iron man mode.  The rest of us can stick to Easy or Normal, kick back on the sofa and enjoy an incredibly addictive strategy game on our consoles, with incredibly slick presentation to boot.

4. Xenoblade Chronicles
I am cheating a bit to get this game on my list as it actually came out in Europe during 2011.  It was released in the US in 2012 though. Xenoblade Chronicles is an absolutely gargantuan RPG for the Nintendo Wii, with some of the best graphics and music you will witness for that system (apart from the Super Mario Galaxy games).  You can easily spend 80 hours or more exploring every corner of the huge game world, completing dozens of quests and enjoying the combat system.  From a gameplay perspective, I would compare it to Final Fantasy XII - it has a similar "offline MMO" type of feel to it. Together with The Last Story and Pandora's Tower, it gave the Wii one hell of a send off before it's successor was released.

3. Sleeping Dogs
Sleeping Dogs doesn't really do anything radically new - it is a super slick spin on the GTA template with a counter based combat system that is quite similar to that seen in Batman: Arkham Asylum.  The game looks great and plays even better, however, with a ton of optional tasks that are actually fun to do.  These include a Karaoke mini game, a whole series of race events, martial arts tournaments and lots of collectibles. For a game that I was quite dismissive about for a long time, it has turned out to be one of my favourites.

2. The Walking Dead
I am a big fan of the Walking Dead TV show, though I have never read the comics that it is based on.  However, that was enough to make me interested in trying the first episode in Telltale's latest downloadable adventure series, and after that I was hooked.  I eagerly awaited the next part in the story, enjoyed every twist and turn no matter how dark and brutal it was, and was emotionally involved every step of the way.  It feels like your choices are really impacting the direction of the story, even if a lot of that turned out to be smoke and mirrors in the end. You really don't find stories as hard hitting and as risk taking any other video game - though this series may have changed that.

1. Far Cry 3
Far Cry 3 feels like this years Skyrim to me. It is a joy to step out into this fully realised world, exploring and seeing just what random events take place.  Such as a group of pirates having a gun battle with the native Raykyat on the road, until three very angry Komodo Dragons walk out of the jungle and start chowing down on fools.  Levelling up, activating guard towers, clearing out pirate camps, completing optional races, sharpshooter challenges and hunting tasks are all incredibly addictive.  Even if the story ultimately doesn't fulfil the potential it showed in the early stages of the game, the rest of the experience is enough to make this my favourite game of 2012.

Honourable mentions
There were far too many other noteworthy games released in 2012 for me to go into specifics about each and every one of them here, though hopefully I will revisit some of them in more detail at a later date.  Here is the complete list of games that I think you really should play.

Need for Speed: Most Wanted, Kingdoms of Amalur Reckoning, The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings, Dragon's Dogma, The Last Story, Halo 4, Theaterhythm, The Darkness II, Rhythm Heaven Fever, Binary Domain, Tropico 4 Gold Edition, Diabo III, Darksiders II, Dust: An Elysian Tale, Borderlands 2, Resident Evil 6, Paper Mario: Sticker Star, LittleBigPlanet Karting, F1 Race Stars, New Super Mario Bros. U, Zombi U, Nintendo Land, Sonic Racing Transformed, Spelunky, Pandora's Tower

Notably Missing
The following games aren't part of my top ten list because I haven't got around to playing them yet... sorry about that!

Dishonored, Journey, Guild Wars 2, Mark of the Ninja, Fez, FTL: Faster than Light, Dyad, Sound Shapes, The Secret World

Best game I played in 2012 that came out earlier:

Dragon Quest VI: Realms of Reverie
I have to give a shout out to this excellent RPG in the classic series because it made my two hour commute home from work every day that much easier, and lasted several months.  Very traditional, but fans of the series will love it.  I look forward to the 3DS remake of Dragon Quest VII!