Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Sky Odyssey: PlayStation 2 Tuesdays #4

PlayStation 2 Tuesdays are officially back!  The plan is come up with one of these every week (or almost every week) until we have twelve.  Then that will be the end of Season One.  I will then switch my attention back to Commodore Classics until we have twelve of those as well.  From there, I will then continue either with Random Retro Round Up, or Nintendo Night.  Other new "series" may be added as well.  We will then come around to PlayStation 2 Tuesdays Season Two! There's a long way to go before we get there though, so let's get started.

First of all, before I say anything else about Sky Odyssey, I must begin by saying that it is amongst my very favourite games for the PS2.  It was a fairly early release in the life time of the system, so there weren't many other games competing for my attention.  I don't remember exactly how I heard about the game - I vaguely recall that the official PS2 magazine put a demo of the first level on their cover disc, and I was hooked.  Sky Odyssey is like no other game I have ever played.  Pilotwings comes close, but as it shifts it's focus across various modes of air transportation, it's not the same.

So what do you do in Sky Odyssey?  Well, you play the role of an aviator and explorer, who sets off to an island chain to discover four parts of a lost map, which will in turn lead you to a hidden treasure.  These map pieces are always found in ancient ruins, one on each of the four major islands in the archipelago.  The only way to get to each one is by flying, so you set off either in your trusty biplane or jet plane, and traverse many varied environments including severe stormy weather, underground caves full of hazardous stalactites and stalagmites, a huge mountain range and much more.

The main aspect that Sky Odyssey absolutely nails is the handling of your aircraft.  It feels tricky at first, yet as you gradually become acclimated with the sensitivity of the controls and how fast you need to be going in order to avoid stalling, flying starts to feel like second nature.  As you grow more confident you can throw in acrobatic manoeuvres like barrel rolls or flying at low altitude, which will give you extra points at the end of a mission.

Another area the game excels in is atmosphere.  The graphics may look rather basic nowadays, but the wind, particle effects and lighting still do a great job of immersing you in the game and making you feel like you are really flying.  The music is exciting as well, helping the sense of adventure immensely. Finally, we have the sheer variety of situations that the game designers have come up for you to cope with - from having to refuel from a moving train because your tank has sprung a leak, to riding currents of air in order to greatly increase your top speed and make it to your destination on time, to dumping your fuel at the foot of a mountain range in order to make sure your craft is light enough to make it to the summit.  The developers really have crafted a great game here, one that I keep coming back to time and time again.

Sky Odyssey is a game that I rarely, if ever, hear anyone talk about. It is a genuine Hidden Gem on the PS2, and definitely deserves more attention.  Taking a look at Amazon Marketplace and eBay, you can pick the game up for between £5 and £10, so it hasn't really changed in value since I bought myself another copy about five years ago.  If you still own your PS2, or are thinking of picking one up with a bunch of old games, then a copy of this game should definitely be a part of your collection - especially if you want to play something a little different.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Beyond: Two Souls review

Before I get on with the main review of Beyond: Two Souls, the latest game by David Cage and his development studio Quantic Dream, I would like to briefly summarise what I thought of their previous two games.  First up was Fahrenheit (aka Indigo Prophecy) - a game that had a truly amazing beginning and maintained this for at least the first half.  The game lost me, however, when the plot got weird.  Now, I have no problem with science fiction or fantasy plots, quite the opposite, but I feel that I was led to believe that the game was one thing (a psychological crime drama) and it became something quite different.  That's not to say it's a bad game - it isn't.  It's also certainly a good deal more interesting than most games that came out around that time.  You can read my full review here

Next up was Heavy Rain, which I enjoyed quite a bit more. The story was quite thrilling, with you taking control of a distraught father trying to free his kidnapped son from a serial killer, amongst several other characters.  It was by no means perfect, being quite linear and limited in actual game play despite the illusions of choice presented to the player.  It looked quite stunning, being a new benchmark in what could be achieved in mo cap.  Now, can their latest offering push things even further?  Time to get on with the review!

Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Developer: Quantic Dream
Expect to pay: £20

Beyond: Two Souls sees you in control of two main characters.  Firstly we have Jodie, played by Ellen Page.  She has a spirit companion with her at all times that goes by the name of Aiden, the other character that you will be controlling at key points during the game.  The narrative jumps back and forth throughout various key points in Jodie's life, highlighting her connection with Aiden, the "Infraworld" where the spirits hang out, and various attempts by the CIA and the military to interfere with her life.  She doesn't have an easy time of it, that's for sure, as her "gift" makes her a loner and a target for scientific study.  The other big name actor supporting Ellen Page is Willem Dafoe, well known to members of the geek community for playing Norman "Green Goblin" Osborn in the first of Sam Raimi's Spiderman trilogy.  He plays Nathan, a scientist who has long been studying the paranormal, who ends up essentially playing the role of her father, after her adoptive parents freak the hell out and give her up.

The main plot of the game follows a very nonlinear path, jumping backwards and forwards in time to various important events in Jodie's life.  One minute she may be around her mid twenties, then the game may leap all the way back to when she was a small child, or somewhere in her teenage years.  I quite like this structure personally, as it keeps an air of mystery to the whole thing, with you slowly piecing things together until you finally get a clear picture of what has transpired throughout her life by the time everything is over and done with.  In most of the chapters, you're given a choice in which direction to take the story.  I'm going to give an example from fairly early in the game now, so if you don't want to be spoiled at all I suggest you skip the rest of this paragraph.  So, there's a chapter where Jodie goes to the birthday party of a girl she barely knows, with a hideous dress and a musty old book of Edgar Allen Poe poetry as a present - so you just know that things aren't going to go well.  Sure enough, these arsehole teenagers end up pressuring Jodie into demonstrating her powers.  You can either agree, freak them all out, and get stuffed in a cupboard.  Or you can refuse, and get stuffed in a cupboard.  So for most of the game your choices don't actually change the outcome much at all, with the exception of the ending.

Graphics: 8 out of 10
When Heavy Rain came out, the graphics were something of a leap forward for the PlayStation 3 and motion capture.  Things haven't moved on all that much in the interim though, and while the digital representations of Page and Dafoe are impressive, they still have that tell tale waxwork quality that is incredibly hard to overcome.  Also, while the rest of the graphics are by no means poor, for most of the time you are playing what is basically an interactive movie, so the hardware isn't being pushed all that hard.  There is one chapter that stands out from the rest because of the fairly large, open, area in which it's set, and it's here that pop up rears it's head.  It's nothing serious, but it is noticeable.

Sound and Music: 9 out of 10
You would hope that professional actors like Dafoe could turn in a decent voice over performance for a video game, and this is indeed the case.  The rest of the cast also do a good job as well.  However the real stand out in this category is the music, which is a fantastic score composed by Lorne Balfe and produced by Hans Zimmer.  Balfe has previously composed one of my favourite video game soundtracks ever - that of Assassin's Creed Revelations - and his work on Beyond: Two Souls comes close to matching it.  Zimmer is very well known these days having worked on many big movies including Gladiator and Inception.  The main theme that plays on the title screen and his reprised in various configurations throughout the story is incredibly strong, with a female vocalist providing an extremely memorable central melody - an earworm indeed!

Welcome to the Ellen and Will show!
Game Mechanics: 7 out of 10
This is where some may find issue with the game.  Despite giving the illusion of choice, as I indicated earlier your actions really have very little impact on the outcome of the game.  In addition to this, if you have come to hate "Quick Time Events" (pressing a button indicated on screen within a time limit) then you won't get on with Beyond: Two Souls at all, as I would say that's what at least 80% of the game is.  However if you get into the story and just want to go along for the ride, you will probably really enjoy this.  It probably comes down to whether you just like to play action games, or if you're not against sitting back and enjoying a good adventure title once in a while.

Innovation and Cleverness: 5 out of 10
I'm going to give the game some props for the way the story is told in a non linear fashion, though to be honest, most of the things that Beyond: Two Souls is doing were established in Heavy Rain, and they haven't really moved the medium on very far.  Again, if you're coming this game to be told an entertaining story, then that's fine.  Just don't go expecting anything radically different from Quantic Dream's last game.

Overall: 8 out of 10
I went into Beyond: Two Souls without having much knowledge about it at all - just the fact that there were famous actors involved, and that it was the next game from the people who made Fahrenheit and Heavy Rain.  An hour or so in, I still wasn't too sure whether I liked it.   After spending another hour or so getting to know the characters of Jodie and Nathan, I was hooked and really wanted to see how the story resolved itself.  I was quite satisfied with the game as whole, and when all is said and done I would say it's just as good as Heavy Rain, though with quite a different storyline.  As the game has been out for a little while now, you can pick it up for a decent price.  If you haven't played it yet, I would definitely recommend it - after all, you need something to keep you entertained while you're waiting for Xbox One and PS4 titles to start coming out, don't you?

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

PS2 Tuesdays | New Videos Online | New Articles Coming Soon

I have put together video versions of my first three PlayStation 2 Tuesdays articles from last year.  Please make sure you check out the playlist below.  Next week I will be posting an all new article with a companion video, so be sure to come back then!