Monday, August 31, 2009

PS2 look: Evergrace

I love the Playstation 2. In fact I would go as far to say as it is my favorite videogame console. Even today I'm continuing to find worthwhile games to play on and I'm comfortable in the knowledge that there's many more I still need to get around to. It hasn't always been this great though as like most console launches the PS2's was pretty dire. Sure there were quite a few games but most of them really didn't hold up well beyond the first month let alone several years later. Evergrace just happens to be one of those titles.

It's obvious you know where this is going and I actually apologize for doing this piece as I don't particularly enjoy looking at bad games. Sure some writers enjoy talking about things of poor quality since it allows them the chance to use all of their snarkiest comments and really show off but I'm just not interested in that. I was aware when I bought Evergrace that it wasn't all that great but I chalked it up to people simply being disappointed that at first the PS2's library wasn't all that and a bag of chips. While every game has a chance of reviewing worse now than it did when it came out I was still willing to give this game the benefit of a doubt. 

The second lowest rating I can give a game is "In-offensive". If a game is in-offensive that means it does nothing great, good, or even passable but it's extremely easy and features some compelling idea that makes the player want to stick around despite all faults. These games tend to have a solid concept but something major was lost or never worked out in the design phase so the development team simply glossed over it and made the game so easy that gamers wouldn't have anything to complain about..or so they assume. One of the benefits of this generation is that since development costs are so high most companies can't afford to do any worse than in-offensive. Evergrace however does not qualify for an in-offensive rating.

The game starts off with a man & a woman teleported to some strange new world. You start the game as either one of them and can switch between them at the multitude of savepoints placed around the world. The man is better at close-range combat while the woman has mastery of the bow & arrow. The goal is to solve minor puzzles, kill monsters, move the story along, and maybe fight a few bosses. Most importantly however is the dress-up system. By finding pieces of armor or buying them in the store the player can dress their character up in all kinds of wacky outfits in order to increase their stats. There's no real way to level-up aside from collecting certain fruits so most of the time you'll be killing respawning creatures to raise money to buy/upgrade your outfits as well as weapons. Almost all of the equipment has some sort of elemental affinity applied to it to encourage swapping for whatever encounter that comes next. 

While there is some variety to the settings the world of Evergrace is very tiny and linear. The path to the next area is always very obvious and the only difficulty from the puzzles comes from how obtuse some of them are. Despite the 3D graphics the game doesn't really do anything that couldn't have been pulled off by some older action-rpg like Crystalis on the NES. Aside from the deeper equipment system there's not anything this game does that couldn't be done just as well on much older hardware.

The combat in this game is extremely simple. There are a number of abilities that are unlocked via upgrading equipment but for the most they don't really matter. All you have to do is walk up to an enemy and hit them until they die. This is tempered somewhat by a stamina gauge that fills up in-between strikes. Though you can hit the enemy before the gauge fills up entirely it will result in less damage and possibly the enemy deflecting the blow. Several enemies can guard as well but they fall just as easily if you wait for them to strike(on-screen indicators actually pop up when the enemy is about to attack). While you're just as susceptible to damage you can carry up to 9 healing potions that restore your life entirely. These are cheap, typically found off enemy corpses, and can be bought from any save crystal. All of the elements are in place for an in-offensive game but as I mentioned before Evergrace doesn't fit that criteria.

The biggest failing or falling I could say is the game's usage of instant-death pits. Evergrace was developed by From Software. I'll be talking more about them in future reviews since while their output is all over the place in terms of quality they really shine at providing a unique experience. One standard found in nearly all From titles is the rule that if you fall off a cliff you'll die instantly. This first came up in their breakthrough King's Field series so it's only natural that it would make an appearance in other games. Evergrace handles them terribly however. It's not enough that the characters can't jump but while they're given a hover skill it can't be used to cross any chasms. In fact as soon as you step off a cliff you will drop like a rock...shot out of a cannon. This wouldn't be such a big deal either except as you progress the levels start to include more pits to fall in. My breaking point was this fire area with lava everywhere, monsters that shot projectiles designed solely to knock people into pits, and worst of all not completely clear spots where the player must drop down from a higher place to the ground below to continue.

In-offensive games are really only worthwhile when there are no other games to play. When I mean no other games I literally mean no other games. As you might remember this is how I managed to get through Mazes of Fate not too long ago. Evergrace would have been in the same boat since despite my substantial library of games I would have continued to play it until I finished it. However the prevalence of terribly-designed insta-death sections was more than enough to knock a bit of sense in my head and remind me that it's not always worth the trouble to complete such a game just to give my thoughts on it. I apologize for denying everyone out there a detailed look at a horrendous game but that's just how it goes.

I didn't complete the game and I have no intention of doing so. If you're somebody who feels wronged by my treatment of this game because you played through it then feel free to let me know. It won't change my thoughts on this game but it would be interesting to know when you played through it. 

I paid probably $4 including shipping for this game from somebody off of ebay so in the end it doesn't really matter what I say as Evergrace's time has already passed long ago. There was a sequel but it never saw release outside of Japan so it isn't really on my radar. Sure I could import it if I felt like it but the original is just a bad game. This is an even better reason to consider importing as From probably fixed the biggest problem with the title and improved the other aspects to make at least a better game than the last. In the end though I guess I'm just not in the mood and I've got far too many games as it is.

I just noticed that Evergrace 2 is available in the US under the name Forever Kingdom. I should have figured as such since From Software is behind both games and they both feature equipment sub-systems. Forever Kingdom also introduces a bizarre system where the player controls three people and if one of them takes damage the other two are damaged as well. I'm not sure why but I kind of want to give this a shot even though it's probably due to morbid curiousity more than anything else.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

GBA look: Gunstar Super Heroes

For one reason or another Treasure decided on doing another Gunstar Heroes game. The original as I'm sure you're aware was the game that put Treasure on the map. You're probably also aware that Treasure does not do sequels. Yes there have been titles like Guardian Heroes Advance, Bangaioh DS, and that other title for Ikaruga(which is something like Radiant Silvergun Project 2). All of these games along with Gunstar Super Heroes do things differently enough to not be regarded as a sequel. 

Gunstar Super Heroes is what I would refer to as a re-imagining. This is kind of similar to Smilebit's Jet Set Radio Future which is basically the first game but the stages were redesigned and the game design itself was changed drastically. To start with the game has more or less the exact same story as the first Gunstar and takes place over the same levels. Furthermore quite a few of the memorable bosses return though they've gone through various changes. Although all of the characters themselves are new within minutes you'll figure out everything that's going to happen next. This is also the last time I'll be referring to the original game as this is about all both titles really have in common.

While the game offers two selectable characters there's maybe one or two differences between the both of them. They both have access to three guns which are selectable at any time, a slide, a sort-of flying uppercut, a sword for close-range attacks, three flavors of jump-kicks(side, downward, and straight-down). While the Super Heroes lose the throw, block and weapon combinations the Heroes had access to they're still not hurting for abilities. The guns consist of a regular, homing, and explosive. These guns are self-explanatory and as a bonus special attacks are available. By while firing the player can access an extremely powerful cannon, a homing blast that stays on-screen for a short time, or a large explosion. This requires special energy which fills up by blasting enemies or collecting items. This is a lot to absorb and starting out can be rather tricky thanks to the GBA's limited buttons(the special weapons are accessed by holding down B and double-tapping R for example). 

The purpose of all of these abilities is not in playing around but to destroy everything in a short amount of time. The closest similarity one can grasp from this game is Treasure's classic Alien Soldier. The stages are designed in a linear manner to the point where eventually you grasp which enemies must be destroyed for points while speeding through the ones that are worth nothing. The game uses more of the Contra/Metal Slug style of enemy attacks where instead of dealing with huge waves of bullets to weave between one simply has to be standing(or jumping) in the right spot at the right moment. The bosses are similar in that they have a limited number of attacks but are designed to slow down the player and possibly kill them if they're not paying attention when trying to better their time.

Make no mistake despite the storyline this game is very much designed for Score & Time Attack. Everything to the lack of customizable weapons to the near lack of experimentation points to Treasure going for a game that is pure and streamlined with one goal in mind. Treasure fans expecting elaborate boss battles with dozens of attacks are going to be very disappointed. Even Alien Soldier fans might not be able to get into this as this game simplifies the boss battles to a point where many of them are simply about getting to that spot and opening up a special weapon.

The game further differentiates itself from other titles in the Treasure library by changing up the goals of each stage. Simply running around and shooting enemies is rare in this game. You may find yourself riding on top of a ship while blasting away flying ships, but then you could be rescuing chicks from worms ala Sega's arcade game Flicky. While the goals change the mechanics and controls are for the most part the same so it's a pretty seamless transition.

The mechanics in this game are quite sound though at times it seems painfully obvious where the player should be standing to avoid damage. One moment that particularly stuck out to me was the stage where the Super Heroes face off against Seven Force for the first time. The player rides a vehicle that can jump from the floor to the middle of the screen to the ceiling. Upon reaching a vertical shaft the enemy flings bombs from above. These bombs travel in an arc at first but surprisingly they fall straight down either the floor, middle, or ceiling section(though I guess they're walls at this point but whatever). I guess at times it helps to easily figure out where one is supposed to be standing but c'mon this is just a bit too obvious.

The biggest fault with this game is that it is rushed. Aside from missing numerous things that have shown up in screenshots prior to the game's release(like a boss fight) there are numerous aspects that are either not properly balanced or completely unfinished. Some stages are near completely empty(stage 6 is literally just one long hallway without so much as a platform to jump on), the damage enemies can do varies wildly(many of the final bosses attacks do 1-5 points of damage yet many of the earlier enemies can do 10-30) and most of the bosses just feel unfinished and lacking(even considering the direction the game went).

Chief among these is the awful helicopter stage. I mentioned this earlier but it bears a closer look. This mercifully short stage consists of a huge helicopter through a vertical-scrolling area where the player has to destroy flying enemies while bombing ground-based targets. Hitting the ground targets is enough of an ordeal due to perspective and mechanics but the helicopter is not fit for dodging anything. In fact on the hard difficulty this is the hardest section of the game and yet it can be taken on as early as Stage 2. 

Another unfortunate quality to this game is that too often it feels the need to remind the player that they are in fact playing a game based on Gunstar Heroes. Popular moments in the first game like when Colonel Red throws bots at the Heroes from his train are in this one as well. Although here Red is just standing there and somehow the bots manage to fall out on their own. Was this moment really necessary? It's one thing if Red was actively throwing the bots at the player but here it just looks cheap and pointless. While this game holds more than its fair share of surprises it's still too easy to predict what fans of the first game will see next and it becomes very predictable(it especially doesn't help when these retreads don't offer anything that takes advantage of the new elements, making them little more than interactive cutscenes.

Then again who knows at this point? It's plainly obvious the game was rushed so a large number of issues could have very well been fixed given enough time. Despite the problems it's still a functional and very playable game but it really could have turned out to be something special. Sadly at best it's competent and at worst(the final boss fight) it's just a huge mess that makes one believe that Treasure is overrated and quite possibly hasn't the faintest idea about good game design.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

PS2 look: Under The Skin

Being without internet access did little to dissuade me from purchasing games. Sure any other time I could have gone to gamefaqs or some internet messageboard and found out everything I needed to know about any prospective purchase but all the same I made do without that particular luxury. I say this because if I had internet access I guarantee I never would have purchased Capcom's Under the Skin. 

This game is very different. I can imagine why it did poorly as the back of the box tells basically nothing about what the game is about. In fact even the manual is a bit of a head-scratcher until you actually sit down and play the game. The story is about a young alien who as part of his training(for what I don't know) must undergo a test on an alien planet. This alien planet just happens to be Earth. On earth this alien competes or cooperates with various other aliens to annoy humans and collect coins. 

The genre for this game is not something you can describe very easily. It has some aspects of a competitive game but it's also light enough to be a party game yet also features some elements of action and even puzzle games. When you start your first stage your alien is briefly shown until he takes the form of a human and is given various items. There are many items and they range from cannons to rockets to guns to pies to fireworks to karoake microphones to farts to well you get the idea here. The trick is to go up to humans and use these various items to beat them up/annoy them and collect the coins they drop. Getting hit with a pie or a missile is bound to make people angry though and they'll chase you down. If they hit you you're reduced to a swimsuit(just like Ghosts & Goblins) and one more hit will put you back in alien form and minus a ton of coins(which are strewn about for your rival to collect). In order to recover you have to capture a human and find one of the various UFOs scattered about to change into them. A list of items is shown whenever you target a human and you get whatever they're holding when you get to a UFO. 

Your rival will be out and about trying to cause havoc like yourself and they can goof up and lose their coins as well. Furthermore you can actually target the rival yourself and cause them to drop their coins(though they'll just as likely do the same to you). While you don't know exactly what your rival is carrying different humans tend to carry certain items. 

To further complicate things the various stages the two of you participate in have a little something called "Panic Time!". During Panic time fortunes can be reversed and chaos takes over. In one stage everyone gets a case of road rage and tries to run you over, another stage giant rolling rocks are replaced by golden boulders that drop serious coinage if destroyed, and others offer similar effects. This happens a few times over the course of each match and can be used to turn the tables if need be(or just as likely ruin a great advantage). 

Surprisingly there's a bit of depth and balance to this game. Items can be comboed depending on how many humans are hit and this results in bonus coins. Since a UFO moves to a different spot after being used you can really annoy your rival by "stealing" UFOs that they need to recover a human form. Items like vacuums can gather up coins lying around the entire playfield, thus punishing players that focus merely on grouping lots of humans together to amass combos. Some humans actually carry (?) items that either hand out random items, give an alien-exclusive special item(like one that turns the main character into a superhero), or give out a virus that swallows up their various items and reduces them to alien form if they don't get rid of it or change humans again. There are a lot of variables to keep things fresh but it never gets to the point where things become completely random and the winner almost always turns out to be the one who found that particular item.

The single-player mode uses an actual ranking system that judges players on collecting coins and causing chaos and punishes them for continuing and/or saving their progress. It's a nice feature and really helps to show off the effort Capcom put into making this as functional a game as possible. However like similar titles this game really shines when played with a friend(though a friend within reach willing to sit down with a game like this is definitely a luxury).

Overall this game is a bit of an odd bird and once again it probably isn't for everyone but I like it. On the other hand if I read reviews of this game beforehand(even positive ones) I can guarantee I wouldn't have picked this game up. Whatever genre this game is is really not my type at all.

GBA look: Mazes of Fate

The first dungeon-crawling game I'm going to look at is O3's Mazes of Fate. Some might be more familiar with the DS version but before that came a GBA version that didn't see much of a distribution outside of various online stores. So no matter what I say consider the possibility that the DS version might have improved on the various aspects that I found fault with.

In a world where the threat of Goatmen loom one man or woman can make a difference. The game starts off with character creation as you choose your portrait and skills you want to focus on. Everything from the magic-users spells to the fighter's ability with weapons to the rogue's penchant for unlocking and finding hidden doors is covered here. 

Exploration in towns and the overworld is handled via an overhead perspective like most older J-RPGs and this is where you'll start off, talking with townspeople and recieving quests. Before long you'll enter your first dungeon and be introduced to the view where you spend the bulk of the game. 

As with similar games in the genre the dungeons are grid-based and you take up one square. Movement is handled in steps and there's all manner of switches to pull, doors to open, and treasure to find. This isn't difficult at all to get into especially if you have some familiarity with the genre. Monsters move around in real-time and when they reach you they'll begin their attack and you can respond in kind. This is pretty much how all of the dungeons play out though there's some puzzles, secret doors, and even a few boss encounters to mix things up.

The combat system in this game is unfortunately not any good. It's obvious work has been put into giving the player a lot of options in dealing with their foes such as a large number of spells to various weapons and party combinations to work with. This however is for the most part rendered moot due to an issue with the mechanics. When an enemy approaches they go through a cycle of animations before their attack is registered. If you step away or to the side before an enemy can go through their attack animation they simply won't attack. The enemy will walk up to where you moved and try again but as long as you keep moving they simply can not hurt you. Couple this with the fact that your entire party can perform their actions at least once before an enemy makes their move and you'll soon discover that combat is quite broken.

Thus we're left with the dungeon exploration. This aspect is handled well and while the dungeons can get repetitive(especially the optional ones) some creative ideas are thrown around every now and then. These dungeons are held back by the very poor combat though as not only are the encounters easy but once an enemy is defeated it never respawns or otherwise makes an appearance to hassle the player again. Unless you get stuck on a puzzle you'll quickly discover that these dungeons are extremely easy.

So what's left by this point? Not much at all I'm afraid. The Dungeon-Crawler genre lives and dies by...well...the dungeons. If there's no challenge to them there's no reason to bother yourself with playing through the game. In fact the only reason I managed to finish this game was because it was literally the only game available for me to play. If this situation ever happens to you don't make the same mistake I did by playing through this one. It's a waste of time.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Back again

Okay so I finally have internet access again and instead of posting all of the updates I've fallen behind on I decided to shop on ebay for new games. Don't worry though as I haven't forgotten about this blog as I have a slew of games I'm looking forward to writing about:

Kuon - Survival Horror game by From Software.

Fatal Frame II - Survival Horror Photography game by Tecmo

Silpheed: The Lost Planet - 2D Shooter by Game Arts/Treasure

Shadow of the Colossus - Puzzle Platformer by Sony

The Dark Spire, Wizardry: Tale of the Forsaken Land, Evolution: Worlds - Dungeon Crawlers from a whole mess of people.

King's Field: The Ancient City - from From

Gradius V - Gradius game by Treasure

Raw Danger - Disaster Survival game by Irem

Megaman: Network Transmission - Megaman game by Capcom

Megaman Anniversary Collection - Megaman games by Capcom

Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance - Tactical Espionage Action game by Konami

Metroid: Zero Mission - Metroid game by Nintendo

Yes I admit this is a rather staggering list but do know that I will tackle all of these games eventually(just don't hold your breath). As a bonus if time is on my side I'll look at a handful of more current titles as well. Though unfortunately as of right now all I'm looking forward to in the near future is Raiden IV, Way of the Samurai 3, and Illvello(from the makers of Radilgy, Karous, & Chaos Field). Yeah I dunno how all three games managed to be by the same publisher but eh oh well.

Still eyeing the possibility of purchasing a Japanese Xbox 360. With Mushihime Futari and now ESP Galuda II on the way the pain of going without this console only becomes more unbearable.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Still around

I've just moved into a new place with neither internet access nor TV so as you can imagine there's been a lack of updates. Thankfully both issues should be rectified soon enough and I'll be back to writing about games...yay.

Anyway the plan for my next series of updates is the first-person-dungeon-crawler-RPG genre. If there's a better word for all of that please let me know. Pickings are rather slim at the moment thanks to the lack of a workable PC --I tried to run Quake 1 on this thing and it nearly exploded-- but chances are good I'll be looking at Mazes of Fate, Etrian Odyssey 2, Wizardry: Tale of the Forsaken Land, and The Dark Spire. As more games in the genre come along it's entirely possible I'll look at them as well.

I'll be adopting a different review style for these next few updates. Let me know how they work out if you can.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Currently playing: Tales of the Forsaken Land & The Dark Spire

I'm not exactly sure what prompted this but I've been playing around with the PS2 Wizardry title "Tale of the Forsaken Land" and the DS game "The Dark Spire". They're both olden-style first-person dungeon crawlers with a heavier emphasis on exploration and combat over long-winded cutscenes and anime cliches for party members.

Maybe I'll discuss them at length in the future but for now I can definitely attest that Tale of the Forsaken Land is the easier game to get into while The Dark Spire is definitely tuned more towards fans of older Wizardry games and related titles like The Bard's Tale and so on.