Tuesday, November 30, 2010

PS3 Look - Littlebigplanet

It's really difficult to point out exactly what makes Littlebigplanet such a special game. For one there is the "whole is greater than the sum of its parts" aspect. Yes I'm well aware that this is a very trite and overused way to describe a game but all the same it fits. In fact I would go as far to say I would not recommend this game if all someone is going to do on it is play the story-mode. Thankfully that's not really the point of Littlebigplanet as it is a community-driven game where nearly all of its truly great qualities are due to average folk like you and I.

This is not of those games that can merely be reviewed. I can't just put up a checklist and explain the controls, talk about the story, maybe discuss the point of the game. Littlebigplanet is both too simple and too complicated for that sort of nonsense. The fact of the matter is that the player is at the mercy of the world and must abide by its rules. There is a demo available that gives enough of a taste but in all honesty it doesn't sell the game at all.

The story-mode is in many ways a tutorial, a proving ground for one's mind. It may sound like pseudo-babble but trust me when I say that the story-mode serves its purpose well in preparing the player for what the game actually has to offer. Through the story the player will find all sorts of trinkets and gadgets, decorations for the worlds they want to create and the sackboy they control, and an understanding of what makes the Planet work. Like any other game there are rules to follow and breaking them will either lead to sackboy's destruction or worse they will render a level unplayable. As far as the story-mode is concerned, platformer-veterans may find it to be a bit too traditional but for the most part it's pretty solid.

All told it really isn't enough. The campaign offers just enough to get the player started but when it's all over they'll feel left out and disappointed as the game has ended before it has even begun. Thankfully it doesn't end there because the player still has access to over three million levels. These levels are all designed by others who have played through the story-mode and have a basic grasp of the mechanics and ideas this game has to offer.

Obviously with such a large number there isn't the slightest guarantee that even the smallest percentage of those millions of levels are truly great. In fact the results vary so wildly that it's actually rather charming. I've played stages that are quite brilliant and showcase a really talent for level-design. Then I play some stages that just feel a big mess of stuff to play around with and that is appealing as well. The worst stages tend to be the ones where the designer offers some scant reward for hearts. Hearts are basically the currency of LPB. Make a good level and you're bound to get some. Unfortunately hearts are also tied to trophies so players not interested in putting forth the effort think they can just buy them.

This sort of randomness is all due to the "quick-play" function. From the title-screen the player can be thrown into any one of the millions of levels. The surprise aspect of it all makes this function far more addictive than it has any right to be. There's a perfectly done search function as well for those who would rather seek out good levels but for me at least I just like going places and seeing what they have to offer.

The multiplayer is perhaps the most entertaining aspect of this game. Since most players don't have a mic communication is limited to sackboy's various facial expressions and animations as well as a text-message system that is handy but only useful if the player has the time to stand still for awhile. This actually works in favor of the game since many players will just follow along or decide to go their own way on a whim. Since the content of the levels is apparently well-regulated it's highly doubtful that anyone will end up seeing something they didn't want to. I was especially shocked because in all my time playing I've yet to see any penis-shaped objects in levels. Usually that's the first thing somebody makes when they get a game with create-able content but I guess they can only do that on their own.

What's especially fun about playing with others is that while some go through the motions and play respectfully with others there are always those moments where things go downhill. Players can drag or slap each other into pits, some get over-zealous with the paintball-gun and blast everyone nearby off a cliff. While there is a bit of a competitive aspect to the game there's really no reason to do anything to harm another player and thus when it actually does happen it adds a fun little challenge to the level. So while the player jumps around and avoids traps they also have to contend with other players trying to mess things up. It never turns creepy either since a simple command can shut down anyone who attempts to follow somebody.

More than anything however Littlebigplanet believes itself to be something of a vacation. It doesn't demand much of anything from the player except for a willingness to have fun and there's so many ways to customize the experience to the player's liking that while they can't change the rules they can still play along in their own way. The level-creator is a fantastic piece of work as it perfectly adapts to both sides of the player. Some just want to tinker with all of the different objects and experiment while others are looking to build that perfect stage. Since friends are free to join in they can either work together on this stage or they can put their imagination towards something that doesn't make any sense but it's fun all the same.

While Littlebigplanet does not have the finesse and flawless design of a favorite platformer it manages to be something very special in all other aspects. I'll go as far to say that this is a required play for all gamers.

Game Rating - 5 out of 5

My Rating - 5 out of 5

Sunday, November 28, 2010

PS3 Look - Sengoku Basara 3 : Samurai Heroes

The Musou genre is a tough sell these days. Back then titles like Dynasty Warriors 2 on the PS2 were seen as a big deal because they showed off the power of the system. Problem is after a few hundred sequels, several spin-offs, and no shortage of clones it's fair to say that a few people are suffering from burnout. So when a Musou game is announced everyone says "oh good another one of those games where you just hit the X button until you win." and then the reviewers say "don't bother with this. 4/10" and the sales...well they don't say much of anything apparently because these games still keep getting released.

Last generation when the genre was just a bit more fresh, Capcom created the Sengoku Basara series. It's essentially based on Japan's "Warring States" period and features the likes of Nobunaga Oda, Ieyasu Tokugawa, Mitsuhide Akechi, and so on. If those names are familiar to you you've probably either been brushing up on Japan's history or played Samurai Warriors. Though both games have their similarities -- such as being part of the Musou genre -- Sengoku Basara puts more of an emphasis on the fantastical.

To start things off Nobunaga Oda wears a cape that appears to have a mind of its own, destroys his enemies with a shotgun, and laughs himself into hysterical fits at every opportunity. The typical battle consists of just this warlord making short work of an entire army before the climatic battle with whoever pissed him off that day. The grunts that oppose him are peons of the lowest order whose only purpose is to provide amusement. What it usually comes down to is when an army approaches their only purpose is to be juggled endlessly by a constant barrage of attacks. Apparently wicked outfits and crazy special attacks just aren't "Basara". One has to clobber dozens of enemies at once and fling their lifeless corpses around like they're the unluckiest balls in a ping-pong convention.

Then you throw in some trivial commentary about honor, loyalty, and the chaos of war and that is the entirety of the game. Everything about Sengoku Basara is just one notch below total absurdity and that's perfect. The third game takes place during the intense battle between Mitsunari Ishida and Ieyasu Tokugawa. The goal is the unification of Japan and potentially the end to the constant warfare that has claimed so many lives. Since things have a habit of never being easy, many other factions have their own goals in mind.

The colorful cast of characters have been designed around achieving that highest level of basara. Masamune Date is notable for wielding six swords like they were claws, Yukimura Saneda is all about being hot-blooded and carrying two spears, Magoichi Saica carries enough guns on her person to perform a one woman's World War 2, and with any of the other thirteen characters you can bet they're about as extreme as one can imagine. They all have their own techniques for the acquiring of "hits". Sure punching a guy once may count as a hit but in this game the only hits that get the player respect are those that get into the tens of thousands.

Getting these hits may come overnight if the player is diligent enough but for the most part it's a long road to the top. Each character starts off at level 1 and has access to only a couple special attacks. There's the command string of basic attacks, jumping, dodging, and parrying/blocking to help round them out. Over time as the player progresses their characters will gain levels and unlock newer and stronger special attacks. There are also special arts which offer all sorts of nifty uses and through a combination of all of the above a massive number of hits can be attained.

The long road is not a straight path either as each of the sixteen characters have their own story modes. These tales tend to offer multiple paths and even alternate routes that play out events not entirely in tune with history. Each path is broken up into multiple stages where the player goes through an enemy army, takes on some notable generals, and then faces off with the boss. Along the way everything from stats to weapons to money to accessories can be bought, built-up, and in other words upgraded. Fans of carrots and that constant feeling of progress will fall in love with this game.

The stages themselves are very straightforward. The boss is always waiting at the end of the line and along the way there are bases to acquire and sub-missions to engage in. In one stage a heavy mist will roll in where the player will be constantly attacked by tigers. Doing away with this obstacle requires the capturing of enemy bases. Another stage might involve avoiding an exceptionally strong adversary, still others involve racing someone on horseback. Not all of these sub-missions work well as some are just a nuisance and can be more frustrating than fun. Still in the long run they serve their purpose in offering materials, hidden fugitives, and end-of-mission rewards that will eventually lead to hits.

The hit-talk gets annoying I bet but that's what really makes the game fun. Building a character up to the point where they are enveloping their foes in a whirlwind of pure destructive force is just absolute joy. Plus there's a certain skill in finding the right opportunities to trigger abilities like hero-time and the basara attack to keep the combo going. The many accessories that can be crafted or found offer all sorts of different functions that change the way the game is played. While it can get repetitive there are just enough factors that can be changed with every playthrough that the game never feels too much like a grind.

Still the grind is acknowledged as it takes a bit of persistence in the later stages of the game as permanent stat-gains are usually in the hands of fugitives. These jerks love to hide in the corners of the map and while a handful of stages are good for farming them it's still a lot of work for minor upgrade. They're not all that necessary but they make the hardest setting a bit easier. Still unless the player is a trophy-hunter none of this stuff is really necessary. Besides it'll take probably 200 or more hours to complete everything.

Perhaps the best thing about this game is if even with 200 hours the content stays relatively fresh throughout. This isn't Way of the Samurai 3 or some other game that doles out stuff like "more creative name +1" in the 100th hour. A fair number of the late-game accessories make some fairly dramatic changes in the battles and there's all sorts of perfectly acceptable methods of getting that particular level of challenge out of the game. The alternate story routes are entertaining and the characters have enough depth to them that just one of them could take dozens of hours to master. Still all of the best parts of the game tend to involve being showered in gold and enemy bodies as your hero is dishing out hundreds if not thousands of hits a second.

If you haven't been turned off entirely by the Musou genre I highly recommend this game. If you have well that's fine too, but I'd still give the demo a shot.

Game Rating - 4 stars out of 5

Like I said earlier some of the sub-missions don't quite work and the worst of them tend to involve things that don't require hitting bad guys. I mean seriously who thought a horse-race was a good idea? Maybe Capcom should throw in a stealth mission while they're at it. The trophies are also all kinds of ridiculous. Yes they are completely optional but when the average mission can involve the deaths of 500 to over a thousand people, completing a story campaign killing less than 100 people total is just stupid and boring.

My Rating - 4 stars out of 5

A number of characters that were playable in prior Sengoku Basara games for one reason or another didn't make the cut here. I guess it would have been too much effort to develop a story-mode for them but that doesn't mean they should have been dumped out entirely. Speaking of modes this game also cuts back on them. Sengoku Basara 2 had a Survival mode as well as a special campaign where everyone fought each other and rewards were determined by how much of the land the opposing characters controlled. Here it's just story and free-battle which is fine for the game but I think it's lacking. At least there's always room for a sequel/update.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Black Friday Shopping

Don't even try to deny it because you knew it was gonna happen. Oh yeah a couple updates ago I was all "yeah yeah I'm done buying games for awhile" but it's Black Friday bay-bee and you know what that means.

Prototype - Look it was $10..just don't bother me. Plus for some reason I felt compelled to get it along with...

inFamous - Two open-world "superhero" games that came around the same time as one another. I like this sort of stuff so eh why not?

Ratchet & Clank: Tools of Destruction - I'm really liking Crack in Time so I got the prequel.

Sin & Punishment 2 - I probably should have bought this game back when it was full-price because y'know I gotta support the smaller developer. But eh getting the game off of newegg for $16 is more beneficial to me.

Dragon Quest IX - I think I've put at least several hours into every game in the series thus far. Oh and yeah the price was right ($17!) so it was done.

Final Fantasy XIII - I'm going in expecting to dislike or even hate this game. Still I can't let a main-line FF go unplayed.

Crash-Time - Look I really don't know what to make of this one. I got it for a song and from the description it sounds like I just drive around knocking people off the road. If that isn't worth something I dunno what else to say.

Warhawk - I needed a multiplayer game and Warhawk is cheap and apparently still fairly popular.

Recettetear and four other games - There's a great GREAT deal on Steam going on right now featuring this much-praised doujin and a handful of other games that are from what I hear decent to good. It's a really good haul for only $5 so yep yep I made it mine.

VVVVVV, World of Goo, and three other games - Damn Steam! Another great indie bundle for only $5. I just had to buy it.

Torchlight - Wow it's just like Diablo...and it's $5. My PC barely runs it because I don't have a 3D card but oh well it gets bought anyway. *sigh*

Resonance of Fate - The Tri-Ace RPG that hit around the same time as FF13. Features uhhh..absurd gun customization and is likely really good oh and cheap price too. Gosh darn it I can't take it anymore.

I'm done for real this time...I'm serious.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

PS2 Look - Sega Classics Collection

Not much else to say really.
You can read what I think over here.

PSP Look - Half Minute Hero

The concept behind Half-Minute Hero reminds me of the days spent playing RPGs on an emulator. The greatest appeal of playing console RPGs on an emulator is because of the various speed settings. So what would have been hours of grinding exp can be done in minutes and the average dungeon could be completed in seconds if I knew what I was doing. All the while the party power-walks through every encounter at the speed of light.

So with all that in mind we take the core concept, balance it out a bit, and build a storyline entirely around saving the world thirty seconds at a time. The goal of Half-Minute Hero is to travel to various lands, gain exp, find/purchase equipment, and save the day from the evil boss...in thirty second increments. This is all accomplished through the hero's blazing speed and very limited skills. Basically he charges forward and if he's stronger than the monster he wins and moves on. Success in this game does not involve tactics but in choice of equipment, split-second decisions, and refining movement so not a single second is wasted.

Each stage starts off with the basics. A bad-guy has gotten their hands on a world-destruction spell that takes thirty seconds to cast. Half the time these guys aren't even evil but maybe they just had a bad day or somebody insulted them so obviously the best response has to be the most irrational. The Goddess of Time (who happens to be a real jerk) will point out what has to be done (kill the bad-guy) and maybe the hero will get some pointers about what to do next. Sometimes this will involve fixing a bridge, rescuing various townspeople, finding some great weapon, and will eventually involve every console RPG trope.

Since everything takes seconds the pacing is of course pretty excellent. Retrying stages is never an issue since the loss of progress is negligible and it'll be easier the next time around as the player knows what to do. The battles are flawlessly implemented and provide the right amount of feedback to keep the player up to date on what the next move is. This is just an absolutely perfect game for very quick gaming sessions.

Still though the concept does get old after awhile. There's only so many variations for each stage and while there's a constant stream of new bad-guys to conquer and new equipment to snag it all becomes pretty dull after awhile. Rarely are things really changed up so I feel like I'm going through the motions with each new stage. There are additional goals and all sorts of secrets to add extra replay value to the stages but there's no real incentive to go after them. However it's not all bad as the game seems to retain its freshness quite well in five minute spurts.

Outside of the main campaign there are a handful of additional game-modes that use the half-minute concept. It's a nice extra but really they're not fun at all. The half-minute RPG actually pushes the genre a bit by upping the ante and challenge-level properly. These other half-minute games just sort of lull about and don't accomplish much of anything. On the bright side it'll only take less than a minute of playing before you can decide if you like them or not.

The greatest part of this game is the writing which tends to be pretty clever and never takes itself seriously at all. Of course this is also dependent on the player's stomach for dozens of jokes being shoe-horned into every stage at every potential moment. While all of this can be skipped through it does lead to the feeling that something is missing. Sure the story is trivial and irrelevant but the writing adds the necessary flavor to the game that really brings it all together. It does have an effect on the pacing though when there's more text to read than game to play.

All in all I'm not quite sure what I want to say here. Half-Minute Hero is a fresh concept but it may not be for everyone. Part of what I like about RPGs is that they aren't fast-paced and they tend to favor tactics and understanding of various mechanics and design-philosophies in the battle system, things that this game has none of. Sure equipment can be decided on before the stage starts but its all a little simplistic (expecting a lot of bugs? bring a bug-swatter). Still it is different and that's worth checking out on its own.

Game Rating - 3 stars out of 5
The biggest weakness here is the lack of compelling modes outside of the main campaign. That's not to say having no modes at all would be any better. The way I see it extra modes are a good idea as they can offer a nice break from the campaign. Unfortunately these just aren't any fun. The writing is consistently charming at least.

My Rating - 3 stars out of 5
This isn't my strongest recommendation but this game yields some good things. It's not like it takes some massive amount of effort to get into. At least if it turns out you don't like the game you're only out a few minutes and $20. By the way the sequel sounds pretty good, though its unlikely we'll see it in the U.S.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Car problems...

Good news everyone!
It looks like thanks to some car repairs I'm going to have to stop buying games for awhile. I gotta get my priorities in order and all that since I need my car for my real job and since this job doesn't pay I don't need new games.

So consider this the last of the purchase updates for the near-future. No worries though as this means I get to take a crack at the backlog that's been hounding me ever since I started this blog.

Little Big Planet (PS3)- The PSP version is not bad but...well...it's the PSP version. I figured I'd better just go with the real deal instead. Really loving the game I gotta say. While I can understand the complaints about the controls I think they don't really effect the game. Of course I'm still in that period where I'm just overwhelmed by everything. From tinkering with the level-creation tools to wandering random levels to see all sorts of oddities the community has cooked up. I'm sure I'll be on this game for quite awhile.

Oh and just a reminder: Pacman CE DX is excellent.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

XBLA Look - Pacman CE DX

The original Pacman CE was and still is one of the best games to see release on the Xbox Live Arcade service. Anyone who is anyone has played it and to be honest considering how often the game has been given away through various promotions and bundles there's really no excuse for anyone to miss out on it. So what if it is based off of some game that came out over thirty years ago. Like any good update Pacman CE turned everything around with a dynamic maze setup, huge potential for chaining ghosts, and most importantly it made a game that can be completely satisfying in as little as five minutes. There are some that enjoy sitting in front of the same game of Pacman for several hours to get a high-score, I'm not one of them.

Has it really been thirty years? I can't help but get a little poetic here, like I should say something significant about one of the most important games of all time. Unfortunately in front of the computer I just never have the right words to say. It's sort of like how I'll be in my car and I'll come up with some brilliant thought but then the words are lost before I can even so much as write them down. Playing Pacman CE DX gives me that similar feeling. I want to properly explain what makes this such a brilliant sequel and yet I can't quite get it together.

There are more ghosts, more ghosts than originally thought possible. These ghosts are still of the edible sort provided Pacman grabbed a power-pellet but things are different now. The ghosts are usually sleeping, waiting for Pac-man to awaken them. Some of these ghosts even carry power-pellets with them. They are no longer the threat they were thirty years ago. It's like they have given themselves up for a greater cause. They do what they must to make the game fun.

Then there is the maze. As with Pacman CE the player must eat all of the dots and then the fruit to unlock a new half of the maze. Sure it sounds clumsy but as we all know it turned out to be an excellent idea. Obviously this update continues the concept but now with each new section of the maze comes the sleeping ghosts. They along with the lines are arranged in such a way that it is easy to collect all of them in a second or less...for the most part.

The goal is to create a chain of ghosts. Pac-man has ascended to a higher plane of existence just so he can shepherd these lost souls. As the mazes progress he will continue to lead these ghosts until the opportunity arises. There will be times when a maze will appear just filled with ghosts. The addition of power-pellets in these particular spots makes everything obvious. The ghosts then fall by the tens and possibly hundreds as Pac-man cashes in. I believe I've eaten more ghosts in a single game of Pacman CE DX than in twenty-five years of playing the other games in the series. The simple act of eating ghosts has never gotten old in all those years so without a doubt devouring a score of them in seconds triggers feelings I probably shouldn't be having about a videogame.

That's not all there is to it of course. In order to get the most out of a five minute time-limit it is up to the player's maneuverability and quick-thinking. There always tends to be a spare ghost or four floating around attempting to throw the player off and every second off of the track set by the game is wasted time. To keep things moving the game offers a couple new additions. When Pac-man is dangerously close to a ghost the game slows down dramatically. It's a handy tool but only useful in near-death situations, there's nothing slowing Pacman down from wandering off the path of optimal scoring. For those who have really goofed up there are bombs. These are limited in number and put a bit of a damper on the player's score but it does kick the ghost-chain back to their hideout along with any nearby sleeping ghosts. It's useful sure but when the entire purpose of the game is the high-score what's the point? Real men and women jump straight to the select button on the X360 pad, which restarts the game within seconds.

The game itself is split up into multiple map modes. These maps each have their own theme such as highway with its many straight passages or spiral and its all constant turning. From here the player can play the traditional five-minute game, a longer ten-minute one, or take on other challenges such as going for the highest ghost combo or doing time trials. One such map known as Half is entirely time trials as only one half of the screen is used to gather sleeping ghosts to create a safe route for Pac-man to get to the dots. It is a great mode on its own but more importantly it reinforces the concepts of the game and provides excellent practice for the other maps. The original Pacman CE is also playable and includes the bombing as well as death-avoidance systems. Interestingly enough neither of these functions helped me get a better score than in my runs with non-DXified Pacman CE.

Sure anyone can skip one episode of their favorite sitcom to get all of the achievements in this game but it certainly won't end there. There are a ton of leaderboards for friends and strangers alike to compete on and while the interface isn't quite as good as something like Geometry Wars 2 it is still solid and efficient. Obviously that still leaves out the gamers who don't care about scoring but that's their problem.

Even in the process of writing this review I still can't come up with the words to express how this game makes me feel. It's a good feeling but it seems like I can only describe properly it when in the middle of a game. It's probably something that can't be put into words because it would likely lessen the impact, or maybe the meaning isn't interpreted properly. Maybe I'll figure it out one day or maybe I was better off not trying to think about it at all. I mean let's consider what I said earlier. Y'know the part where I said "I believe I've eaten more ghosts in a single game of Pacman CE DX than in twenty-five years of playing the other games in the series". It gets kind of scary when I think about it. Just think, nearly an entire life gone by in as little as five minutes. The only time I really get to reflect on this is the couple seconds of time that elapse as Pac-man engorges on a particularly long ghost-train.

Everything from the faded memories of playing Pac-man on the Atari 2600 to the days spent playing in the local bar are in that one train of ghosts. Those days spent in laundromats playing Ms. Pacman and the early days of the Internet talking about how much Pac-man sucks...all of them are gone with the chain. Then there is all the time spent playing the countless sequels, remakes, updates, and spin-off. Everything up to even the time spent with Pacman CE is just a miniscule portion in the average game of DX. Every game of DX I play is spent trying to recapture these moments and the events that surrounded them. If I beat my high-score well that's wonderful too but more than anything this game gives me precious moments to recall. It's probably all just the same as nostalgia but I guess I want to say "Thank You". As in "Thank you Namco for giving me this opportunity". Aside from producing an excellent game Namco was able to trigger all of these thoughts and emotions despite the game itself having nothing in the way of a storyline. It's probably all just history and nostalgia but I don't care. I've said it and I will stand by it for as long as I myself am standing.

Game rating - 5 out of 5 stars
My rating - 5 out of 5 stars

Monday, November 15, 2010

PS2 Look - Gradius V

Everyone knows Gradius and everyone knows Treasure. Put them together and blammo! a Gradius game by Treasure. Five is a dramatic departure for the series and while it's oft-seen as a quality title there's still been many discussion as to how this game holds up to the rest. I try not to look at Gradius V compared to other Gradius games, but how the game compares to other 2D shooters. Still I have my reservations and I'd like to air them out. If you just want a short answer...well I highly recommend checking the game out, no doubt about that.

Criticism is never easy. It used to be something was either awesome or crap and that was the end of it. Nowadays that junk doesn't fly so I try to put forth the effort to explain why things don't work the way I think they should. Gradius V is a good game in practically every respect so I can't just start going off about whatever since it wouldn't make any sense and admittedly I'd lose a bit of self-respect.

The goal of the game is the same as any other Gradius. As the Vic Viper and/or Lord British the player(s) must navigate 7 and 1/3rd stages filled with hostile life-forms, diabolical traps, and fearsome bosses. Fans of the genre will slip comfortably into this game as all of the additions are seamlessly integrated into the core of it all, making even the more complicated aspects like multiple-manipulation seamless and entertaining.

Multiple-manipulation, Option-handling, whatever phrase fits best for you that's the most important element of this Gradius. Power-ups and thus options are very easy to come by which means the stages have every excuse to test the player's control over their ship as well as the options that help to protect it. It's a very fresh approach to the series since for the most part options were pretty limited in how they could be used. All four option-settings in Gradius V offer different configurations for differing play-styles and skill-levels. Freeze is handy as it locks whatever positions the options are in, leading to some great setups that take advantage of particular locations and enemy weak-points. Rotate is an effective choice for novices as the multiples encircle the ship for solid protection. Spacing is a rather unique setup in that it has many viable methods yet they're not always obvious. Finally direction is perhaps the most difficult and most rewarding to master as it allows constant control over where the multiples are aimed.

Despite all of the multiple-setups there is only one path through the game. This means that situations that might favor one setup will have to be trudged through using another one, and there's no getting around that. Furthermore exceptional players might also opt for no multiples at all, which leads to some creative methods of surviving. Throw in a host of difficulty settings, multiple loops that further increase the level of challenge, and a bunch of extra weapons...and this becomes a game that will take awhile to master.

It's rather strange how Gradius V is setup. Each level revolves around a particular gimmick. This is nothing new for the series but in this game the gimmicks are taken to the extreme. Whereas one Gradius game might have asteroids flying about, this Gradius Game will throw around thousands of asteroids, toss in some different-shaped ones for flavor, and have an entire boss-fight revolving around the importance of the asteroids (as they're pretty handy for stopping enemy-bullets). For the most part this game is all about using whatever option setup that works best to get through situations that continue to ramp up the level of intensity. It's a pretty fresh take on the series and though it lacks some key stalwarts (like a level based around Moai-heads) it is as I've said a quality title.

Now then this leaves me with the job of criticism. The way I see it is that Gradius V is simply too long. It's too long for the series, too long for the genre, and just plain overly long. That sort of thing might be a boon for some but we're talking about a 2D shooter. This is a genre where a single mistake decreases the chances of the player beating the game by as much as a third. Sometimes this mistake is one of those truly awful ones where it takes the player entirely out of "the zone", destroys their rhythm, and before-long they've lost whatever momentum they had and crumble to pieces. This works wonderfully in a game that is about thirty minutes in length...not so much when a game clocks in at over an hour.

This is the part where it gets complicated. Making Gradius V reach an acceptable length means that sections of the game have to be cut out entirely. Treasure put a lot of effort into showing off some very creative and memorable sections into the game. What can be taken out of Gradius V so that the game is leaner, more focused, and better but at the same time none of the best moments from the game will suffer for it? To further complicate things one must also understand that the key to good level design is proper pacing and a steady build-up of intensity. Cutting out a chunk from one section could see the player hitting a massive brick-wall, the sort of thing they'd never expect given what they saw earlier. It doesn't help matters that Treasure is especially fond of "slow-burning" the gimmicks in this game. Condensing things may also ruin the pacing as particular sections would be too close to one another, leading to a confusing and disorganized game.

So again we must turn to the magic of youtube and I'll point out whatever fat that can be trimmed.

Stage 1

For the most part it's pretty standard for the series. The thing is though is that the gimmick really doesn't come into player for over a minute in. It's also a rather boring gimmick as it's been done before in other games, though slightly differently. Unfortunately without a sufficient replacement this level is probably best left as it is. Still at least a minute could be shaved off and it would not affect the game in the slightest. On higher difficulties/loops things become more interesting but it's really not enough to consider leaving things as they are.

Stage 2

From the outset one thing is very noticeable: This stage is apparently over ten minutes length. Is that really at all necessary? Especially considering the fact that about a third or so of this stage must be re-done at the end of the game. Sure it's a very cool twist on the standard "destroy the great evil" at the end of the average Gradius but again it's a pretty slow-burn. The first few minutes are very necessary as they begin to show off the situations the Vic Viper is capable of getting into. Stages will move in all different directions and enemies tend to be placed in hard-to-reach areas. It's a good stage as it introduces elements at a good pace and does not waste anything.

The boss-rush takes nearly as long as the entire stage yet it's an even harder section to cut from. I'd probably drop the second mini-boss. It's a rather unnecessary battle. The more drastic measure would be to lose the boss-rush entirely. Gradius games really only need one of them but on the other hand three pretty good fights would be lost. I can only choose to lose the weakest of the three.

Stage 3

Here we have another stage that ignores the straight-forward nature Gradius is known for. While some of the sections look easy on harder settings they're a bit more complicated. Again changing them would probably ruin the difficulty curve in one way or another. In fact I'd go as far to say that there isn't a single thing I'd change about this stage. It's kind of difficult to accept since the stage is around eight minutes but there's hardly an element out of place.

Stage 4

This level is the standard "bio-themed" stage that tends to crop up in Gradius games. One thing that I should have mentioned early is that these stages are based off of the easier difficulties. On normal and above there are all these creatures that crawl out of the various holes in the stage, making for some serious problems. It's a brilliant stage in my opinion as it effectively uses four different gimmicks. There's the uh...whatever those things are with the arms that attach to the walls, the shifting walls and the crawling guys that accompany them, a giant worm, and regenerating walls. Some of this could have been pared down but stage 4 is so important because it represents an up-tick in challenge.

Stage 5

Here we have my favorite part of the game. When it comes to 2D shooters I like to dodge stuff and blow stuff up and there's an overload of both going on here. There's an absolutely amazing showcase of mechanics going on here as the asteroids are constantly shifting in motion depending on the circumstances. This leads to an almost endless supply of close-calls and situations that cause the sort of rush I can only get from a 2D shooter. This all leads to one of the best boss-fights in Treasure's history, making this an absolutely perfect stage.

Stage 6: part 1

With this one I really get the feeling that it's bloated. Nearly the entire stage revolves around this endless supply of dangerous green goop and the player must carve a path while the stage itself makes all sorts of twists and turns. Treasure really outdid themselves with this one and it's such a creative gimmick that the slow-burn process really works here. The slightest changes in how the level is structured lead to some dramatic effects. It's a great level for at least the first-half.

Stage 6: part 2

The second part starts off with a backwards-section which leaves a number of multiple-configurations and the ship itself practically defenseless. Still it's not impossible as the ship can actually slide in-between the space where the ships and walls connect. It's a clever little piece but ultimately it really has no place in the stage and possibly in the game. The jump to the boss-rush could have been made immediately after the last of the green goop and nothing would have changed. On the other hand the third mini-boss undoes my theory a bit because he can attack the Vic Viper from behind, which means the backwards-section early isn't really a waste. Anyway it's a long rush but the end-boss goes quickly if the player is willing to play risky.

Stage 7: part 1

The final stage like all Gradius titles relies a particular set of gimmicks. This is the part where I get really biased because I hate Gradius last stages. First there's the speed section. I'm always terrible at these and for whatever reason there always has to be this sharp-angled turn towards the end. Earlier Gradius games were less-forgiving when it came to speed-powerups so death was guaranteed if the ship wasn't set at the right level.

Stage 7: part 2

Just watching this video makes me ill. I'm pretty sure I'm claustrophobic and this part of the stage is all about tight spaces filled with enemies. As a bonus another last-stage stalwart in the form of moving walls makes an appearance. I think a lot of this doesn't really need to be there as the only purpose it serves is to remind everyone that this is a Gradius game. The mini-boss here is an exceptionally challenging one and it's pretty much game-over if the player never bothered to figure out how to get past the section with the laser-blocking movable orbs.

Stage 7: part 3

Second only to the completely pathetic final boss is the invincible or nearly invincible mid-boss. These guys attempt to crush the Vic Viper with their legs while various smaller enemies do everything to either kill the player outright or distract them so they get killed. Thankfully this version can be destroyed but depending on how quickly it dies the rest of the time until the final door is spent sitting around waiting for something to happen.

Stage 8 or Stage 2: Alternate

Gradius games are known for their loops but whoa a time loop? That's pretty crazy. Honestly it kind of bothers me because as with past videos the player uses the single-stage mode instead of doing a playthrough of the entire game. So the second Vic-Viper doesn't even appear...what the heck? Anyway this is the final portion of the game and while it is really creative the whole time-traveling aspect is probably the most unnecessary edition to the game. However if that gets taken out stage 2 is going to be a complete mess and it'll probably lead to this paradox that destroys the universe and...well I give up.

So despite everything the most I could actually see getting cut from this game is minimal. Treasure put together a really tight game with excellent presentation, flawless mechanics, and some of the best level and boss designs seen in the genre. The only real argument that can be made (its length) would require drastic changes to the entire game. It really isn't worth the trouble and considering the game had to be balanced for over 250 levels of difficulty I can't really argue much more than that. Although in all fairness around 95% of those extra difficulty settings amount to things such as more bullets. In any case Gradius V is a spectacular game.

Game rating - 5 stars out of 5

Believe me when I say I actually tried to put forth an argument that Gradius V wasn't flawless. Considering the issues are negligible and my arguments amounted to little more than nitpicking there's really nothing that stands out as problematic.

My rating - 4 stars out 5

I really like the game but I still hate stage 7 and stage 1 gets really dull after repeat play-throughs. It is great for picking up and challenging certain stages with differing weapon setups however. In the end this game stands next to Gradius Gaiden as the best the series has to offer.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Whoa where are the reviews?

Yeah I've been away for awhile. I have been writing reviews at least but you gotta go to the Gaming Age Forums(Neogaf) to read them.

You can read about:
Space Invaders: Infinity Gene - here
Lufia: Rise of the Sinistrals - here
Light Crusader - here

I'll have some more updates for this blog later on. I've been playing a lot of Sengoku Basara 3 so there's that to look forward to...hopefully.

Friday, November 5, 2010

PS1 look - Final Fantasy 7

Whoo boy where do I even begin with this one? Aside from being critically acclaimed, arguably one of the most important reasons behind the success of the Playstation, and the jump-starter for a Golden-age in regards to Japanese RPGs, Final Fantasy 7 is still a highly sought-after remake and it's still #1 in the Playstation 1 message-boards at gamefaqs. Huh? Hold on a second. What in the world are people still doing talking about this game? Are they running polls for who would win in a fight between Tifa Lockheart and Cynthia Rothrock? I could have sworn every piece of Cloud/Sephiroth fanart was drawn from epic battles to loving embraces to things that would make any sensible person give up on humanity.

Why exactly is that? The game is a relic and I'm saying that in the nicest way possible. Its storyline has become legendary for its usage of tropes we take for granted in every RPG, most of the characters are laughable and useless, its sitting on enough retcons and side-games that should have tarnished its legacy beyond recognition years ago, and everyone on the internet will be the first to tell you if they dislike it. The legend of how FF7 sucks is almost as big as the legend of FF7 itself.

The only way this piece is going to achieve any sense of normalcy is if I ignore all talk not related to the game itself and that's just what I'm going to do. Final Fantasy 7 is still a game and surprisingly despite everything it has held up rather well, since in the end it is an entry in the Final Fantasy series. These games are notable for the many different ways they can be played through. Back in Final Fantasy 1 there was beating the game with all white mages, using no espers in part six, and seven is no different with no materia runs, no item runs, runs where the player beats the game with Aeris (isn't she supposed to die?), and so on and so forth.

The story is something that I've kind of grown to appreciate. Sure it revolves around tired standards such as amnesiac heroes and ancient civilizations but I can't really fault it because after all this was before that sort of nonsense became really commonplace. I think the main thing to take away from the story of this game is that it never really takes itself too seriously. One of the villains has some hatred for Tifa that is never really explained and at one point she attempts to have her publicly executed. This feud is settled with an epic bout where the two of them reach the point of showdown and proceed to slap each other silly. It's ridiculous sure but I find it to be charming and coupled with the exaggerated animations and little touches like Cloud being able to do stunts while parachuting into Midgar and it's all pretty amusing.

Even when the actual plot and story doesn't hold up I find that the themes it explores are nicely done and despite lacking in subtlety the point comes across well. The ending for example is really interesting as it depicts a rather interesting scenario. If the planet is capable of being saved should humanity be saved as well? They may have been the driving force behind nearly destroying the planet and even the protagonists carry their fair share of flaws but maybe they're deserving of a second chance. I'm not very good at explaining these sorts of thoughts but the way I saw it Aeris' death was less the death of a person and more the death of innocence itself. It sounds cheesy and all but if all hopes of the future rest on the innocent, who spends their lives seeking peace and fall at first sight of the wicked, then how are they able to save the world? It's obviously not the kind of issue that can be solved by some ultimate white magic. Cloud was able to resume the fight because of the memories he shares with others but more importantly it's the hope he shares with everyone including Aeris'. This hope takes the form of the White Materia Holy, the counter to the Black Materia Meteor, and humanity's place in the middle is up to the decision of a higher power (which in the case of FF7 at least would be the planet). But that's just the way I see it, and I'd go further but I'm sure everyone got tired of reading stuff like this over a decade ago.

The game itself is as I said a relic. It represents a time that even Square-enix let alone any other RPG-developer will never revisit. Each location aside from the world-map is designed using pre-rendered art. Sometimes it can look good and even striking but in the context of the game it doesn't really work. There are a lot of locations where it takes a long time for the character to move from one end to the other. This can lead to quite a few boring dungeons as they'll consist of over-long straight lines just to run from one end to the other. Due to all of the pre-rendered assets there are also times where it isn't exactly where the player is supposed to go. Square rectifies this by making most treasures easily visible and offers a toggle setting that slaps red and green indicators on the screen which dictate exits and objects that can be interacted with. Still nothing can really be done about the long walks it takes to reach certain places.

The battle-system is nothing entirely new to Final Fantasy fans but the materia system is very clever. It offers a ton of customization and for those willing to put in the time it can lead to making characters practically invincible or even so incompetent that the game becomes more difficult to beat. It's a very good system as it can even be completely optional for the extra-challenge. Sure this limits the identities of the party-members down to their base-stats and limit-breaks but I can see why it was done. Giving everyone unique abilities would most likely lead to Final Fantasy 6 all over again which means nearly double the number of playable characters. As far as this play-through is concerned though all I really focused on was limit-breaks and enemy-skills and I didn't see a party member die until towards the end (thanks to an instant-death attack). Yeah part seven is definitely one of the easier games in the series but that just leads to more possibilities for a greater challenge.

As far as pacing is concerned the game really didn't pick up for me until the materia started pouring in. That says more about me than anything as I've said it many times before I like numbers and bars. Numbers that get higher and bars that fill up are the strangest addiction to me so quite a bit of the early game wasn't really interesting. Since the very end of the game consists of nothing but top-level materia that are relatively easy to level thanks to a handful of monsters I could very well still be playing it right now but eh I have other things to do. The one section that really threatens the pacing involves a bunch of fetch-quests throughout disc 2. These tend to involve mini-games and I tend to hate them in RPGs. In fact I'd say part seven would definitely have been a better game if there weren't so many forced mini-games. Actually I'd probably do away with chocobo raising/racing if I was given the chance. I've still never forgiven the yellow-feathered bastards for the years they took off of my life in the Final Fantasy 10 mini-game.

Still aside from some glitch that causes the game to crash every time I access Barret's armor menu I've enjoyed this recent playthough of Final Fantasy 7. It's still a pretty class title even if time has numbed its presentation quite a lot. The customization and multiple ways of playing through the game represent the highs, while the dungeon design and pacing represent the lows. I'll also never understand Sephiroth's appeal but whatever.

Game Rating - 3.5 out of 5

It's a good-to-great entry in the series, what more do I really have to say? Yeah there are a few issues that need worked out but considering the time and everything that's been said I expected something much worse when I decided to revisit Final Fantasy 7 after a decade or so.

My Rating - 3.5 out of 5

Again it was a pretty decent ride and I've managed to gain a bit of an appreciation for this game that I didn't have in the past. I'll refrain from comparing it to other Final Fantasy games because for one that's just not my preferred method of discussion and for two it's been so long since I've played through most of these games I can't possibly consider my opinion on any of them to be valid.

So whatever the case if you have a Playstation 3, ten dollars to burn, about thirty to forty hours, and a memory of FF7 almost as bad as Cloud's, you may want to give a revisit some consideration. I guess any other Playstation would work just as well but I wouldn't pay whatever ebay sellers are expecting for this game.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Genesis look - Castlevania: Bloodlines

My initial plan for talking about this game was to discuss everything that makes it different from other Castlevanias. Thing is though is that none of it actually matters. It's just as much a Castlevania as any other title in the classic series so the main point should be what makes this entry special. One of the nice things about this franchise is that even the early games made an effort to stray from would-be conventions at every opportunity. Back in March I suffered some serious burn-out playing through the Megaman games as they're so similar to one another.

Bloodlines follows the tale of John Morris and his good buddy Eric Lecarde. It seems some crazy woman decided to resurrect Dracula and it's up to our heroes to put her and the good Count to rest for awhile (though not for too long as Jonathon Morris takes up the whip in Portrait of Ruin). Rather than the game taking place in Drac's Castle and immediate surroundings there's a bit of country-trotting with each stage taking place in a different part of Europe. It's a nice twist as it gives the developer an excuse to come up with some unique level-designs.

The entire game is a rather cool mix of ultra-traditional Castlevania 1/Chronicles level-design and Super Castlevania 4's gimmick setups for the heck of it. Each section of the game tends to have something unique about it and is bolstered by the enemy placement and proper usage of fiends such as medusa-heads to keep things challenging. It's a great balance and the controls center more around early Vania but with some nice touches like being able to jump on and off of staircases. It's kind of hard to describe but in the game you'll see thing scenarios like a room where all the sections of the screen are out of place and the player has to dodge flying heads while doing some platforming. At times it's pretty creative and since the levels are broken into many of these small sections things stay fresh if a little disjointed.

The disjointedness comes from the variable difficulty each stage seems to have. This means the curve is kind of all over the place with areas being harder or easier than others. It's probably nitpicking since not every game needs some difficulty curve as graceful as a swan's neck but it's still notable as the other games tend to be pretty methodical in their approach to difficulty. This also extends to the boss-fights and other enemy encounters as sometimes foes make an appearance just because they're expected to be there. Again it's nothing major and it serves as more fodder for Konami to throw around a bunch of different ideas.

One aspect of Bloodlines that I think is particularly interesting as to do with Eric. He has a super-jump he can perform that while it can only go straight up he can use it to find all sorts of neat minor shortcuts. While this might not be the sort of thing that is good for the Castlevania series it seemed like something that could have been a really good addition if implemented to a greater extent. Sure a lot of games are designed around this sort of thing but not relatively straight-forward action games like Castlevania. Part 3 had a number of these aspects but it also had a non-linear nature and the abilities Grant and Alucard were capable of only saw real use in the manner of making certain sections easier. The implementation in Bloodlines feels just a bit more subtle and it recalls times during the Metroid games where there would be this power-up for reaching some areas but creative uses for it were to discovered that led to other areas being reached more quickly or by using different routes. It's that sort of game-design where tools are handed to the player with the vaguest of directions that really make for some fascinating games.

I guess it's all for naught at this point as the Castlevania series split into two different directions but eh for what its worth Bloodlines offers a good time and certainly more than enough differences from whatever traditions the series has to make it worthwhile even today.

Game Rating - 4 out of 5
Like I said the game's difficulty balance is a bit off as it can work with or against the player as they progress. The game is still fairly difficult regardless and settings such as Expert add enough to make this game just as solid as any other Vania. I gotta say though that the limited continues was just a dumb idea. Sometimes certain difficult spots have to be tried over and over again and having to ration lives is just annoying. I also don't understand the attempts at developing a scoring model when there's a very easy section in stage 5 where one can rack up some infinite number of points (especially since unlike most early games this one has no time-limit).

My Rating - 4.5 out of 5
I'm quite fond of the game and favor the variable difficulty as it means I see more of the game on a relatively casual play-through. Otherwise I enjoy the slightly more visceral feel this game seems to have over other entries. Attacks carry a little bit more punch and destroying enemies is ever so slightly more satisfying. I still don't understand why Konami never put this game on the Virtual Console. It's such a tremendous waste.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Yeesh what the heck happened?

I'm finally getting some decent internet access within the next couple days(hopefully in time for Guwange XBLA) so hopefully I'll be able to start rolling out the updates with some consistency.

Oh yeah more games bought:

Urban Chaos: Riot Response - An FPS from the guys behind Batman: Arkham Asylum? Sure why not.

Metal Gear Ac!d 2 - I thought I'd give one of these a whirl eventually. It basically plays like an MGS game except turn-based and you choose your next move via a deck of cards. I've never been much for card-games so it'll take awhile for me to get into this one.

Etrian Odyssey 3 - I wasn't the biggest fan of the second one but when has that ever stopped me from buying any other game? Oh and I'm a few hours in and already getting whipped multiple times over.

Singstar: ABBA - I was wandering around Gamestop and boom a set of Singstar mics for $10. I immediately snagged this for another $10 because I love ABBA. It's uh kind of punishing I gotta admit. I have a bit of a problem with my pitch when I sing so my ratings have been terribad on every song (though I got a "hopeful" rating for Does Your Mother Know..hmm.