Tuesday, December 27, 2016

PS4 - Dark Souls 3

I wrote a review for From Software's latest and possibly final entry in the Dark Souls series.

It can be found here.

PS4 Look - Ratchet & Clank

I wrote a review for the game, based on the movie, based on the game.

Check it out over here.

Monday, November 7, 2016


Since I started writing for Cubed3, I've gotten my own page on Opencritic. You can find all of my latest reviews here.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Xbox One Look - The Bug Butcher

Here's a review of The Bug Butcher, an Xbox One shooter that's supposed to be out tomorrow.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Steam Look - Mantis Burn Racing

Here's a review of the fresh-out-of-early-access racing game Mantis Burn Racing.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Steam Look - Crimson Room Decade

Short review of a puzzle game. Check it out here.

Stay safe during this hurricane weekend.

Steam Look - Assault Suit Leynos

I wrote a review for the recent Assault Suit Leynos remake. Check it out over here.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Steam look - RIVE

Yeah I'm just cranking these out.
RIVE is a really good shootemup, give the review a look over here.

Steam Look - Blade Arcus

Another Steam review. This time it's the 2D Fighter Blade Arcus from Shining: Battle Arena. Check it out over here.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Steam Look - Zenith

I posted a review of the recently-released Action RPG known as Zenith.

You can read it on Cubed3.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Steam Look - Copy Kitty

Wrote up a little something about the Degica / Nuclear Strawberry action-platformer Copy Kitty. Check it out on Cubed3.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Xbox One Look - Dear Esther

This is another game review for Cubed3. Dear Esther is a really intriguing exploration game, and the just-released console port is great. Read the full review here.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

WiiU Look - Run Run and Die

I've started writing for the website cubed3.com. My first review has been published, and it's the WiiU downloadable game Run Run and Die.

AA Look - Sand Scorpion

For those of you visiting this blog for the first time, the AA in the title stands for Arcade Appreciation. Arcade games are awesome, and there are a ton of them that never really get any love. Sand Scorpion? It deserves zero love. At best, I can muster up some slight apathy towards it, but most of the time it just fills me with hate.

What we have here is another STG that's loaded with bad ideas. Although, I won't discount the possibility that maybe the ideas were sound, but the implementation was just...balls. Yep, barely into the second paragraph, and I'm already referencing genitalia. What else can I say? This game is a joke. There are three main-weapons that can be picked up. However, if you grab the green one, you're in for a bad time. If you grab the red one? You'll have better luck surviving, if you put down the controller, and walk away. If you grab any weapon besides the blue one, then it's a life-costing mistake.

Sand Scorpion has destructible bullets. This was done with the intention of padding out boss-fights, I won't accept any other answer. These bullets are surprisingly durable, and will block shots meant for the boss that's firing them. After a long enough time, you're bound to get impatient, and then a little sloppy. This game also has the always-lovely enemies that fly in from behind. Why? Because of course it does.

Then there's the slowdown, which is some of the worst I've seen in an arcade shooter. At least the average Cave release has an excuse for everything moving at the speed of crawl. Sure, having the slowdown is helpful, but it seems more a result of bad programming than anything else. It's not really the game-changer that it could be, because the most devastating deaths, are going to come from collisions, or that one stray bullet.

Above all else, this is a shooter that really isn't all that challenging, but you simply aren't allowed to die. It's Darius 2 all over again. Look, all I'm saying is that if a game is going to give players a stock of lives, let alone extends/hidden 1ups, then allow them to be used. If you want players to beat the game without dying, give them an incentive, like a bonus trillion points or whatever. If you die in the second half of this game, you're finished. The enemy forces become overwhelming after a certain point, and your piddly level 1 cannons, they aren't going to make a difference. The bombs are generous, but dropping one has a slight delay to it (like Raiden or Twin Cobra). Sometimes you can grab an "S" power-up when you die, but all it adds is one level to your main-weapon and some missiles.

Sometimes I make the mistake of writing about a game, shortly after playing it. If I'm feeling especially heated, then I might find myself unfairly piling on the criticisms. The thing is, every time I think about this game, I get a little pissed off. A random person could hand me $10 million in cash, but if somebody in the vicinity just happens to say Sand Scorpion, then it's going to ruin my day.

AA Look - Final Star Force

Okay so this game, Final Star Force, I don't understand the deal with it. Things just sort of happen, and then it ends. Usually I use the intro part of the review to ask inane questions such as: "If this is the Final Star Force, then where's the First or Second Star Force?" Instead, I simply don't care. This is a nonsense shmup. There are several stages, each capped with a boss, but it's not their bullets that kill you, it's the stupidity of it all.

Death is just a much a part of STGs as yin is to yang. Before you succeed, you have to fail, sometimes constantly. With enough persistence and skill, you reach beyond your limits, and achieve greatness. Final Star Force is a really easy game, so clearing it isn't satisfying. However, you're still guaranteed to die several times, just because of ridiculous crap.

First off, let's look at dodging. Normally it's an essential tool in order to survive 2D shooters. In Final Star Force, it's kind-of helpful, but you're probably better off just throwing out a bomb. Even something as simple as a five-bullet "wave" pattern is cause for alarm. If you focus on dodging, you might collide into another enemy. Besides, this game doles bombs out at a constant rate. It's so ridiculous that if I play another shmup after this game, I toss around bombs like I'm expecting to get more within the next second. Granted, you get points for grabbing them, when you have a full-stock, but you won't miss a mere 2000 points.

Enemies appear in standard formations, and generally don't change too much, over the course of the game. It's a good idea to memorize their behavior - a better idea is to ignore this game entirely - and focus on destroying them quickly. However, it's much more of a hassle to memorize what enemies appear when. Typically what happens is that you don't know what to expect, so you get blindsided by an enemy appearing from the corners. Even your awesome weapons can miss one or two tiny enemies.

Recovering from a death isn't too bad, in terms of the actual game. The default cannon (which you should almost never have) is awful, and its bomb isn't much good outside of escaping bad situations, but you can get a power-up after a brief moment. However, you as a person are less likely to recover, simply because the death was to something dumb. I don't know whether it can be attributed to the massive slowdown during bosses, auto-fire, or the weather in Ohio, but this game will eat your bomb inputs. I've had to button-mash just to guarantee the bomb will come out, and it's frustrating as all hell.

The difficulty of this game is very inconsistent. A lot can go wrong over the course of each stage, thanks to a combination of fast moving enemies, and their hard to gauge appearances. The bosses on the other hand are large, slow, cause absurd amounts of slowdown, and can be pitifully easy, or completely dumb. The third-to-last boss has a first "form" where four large foes drown the screen in bullets. If you don't have a couple bombs here, you're probably doomed. However, the second "form" of this boss is probably easier than the first boss. The second-to-last boss does nothing but fire a huge circle of bullets every few seconds. The final boss is a laugh, as long as you don't get trapped by its fire. There's another boss (I forget which), that drops its bottom half after being dealt so much damage, this can kill.

When you die in this game, you're probably not going to think "I've got to do better." You'll probably just think (or yell) "Bullshit!" That's how this game beats you. It can't really do it with enemies or bullets, so it sits and waits for opportunities. All Final Star Force needs is 3-5 moments to dick you over, and then it wins. I wouldn't bother with giving it the satisfaction.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

AA Look - Storm Blade

Picture the blandest arcade imaginable. It would have a boring title like Coin-up Games or Pixels. Nestled in-between classics such as Alleyway Battler and Ninja Stab, there would be Storm Blade. This is one of those games that is equal parts decent and forgettable. It has all of the necessary elements that make up a 2D shootemup, and doesn't make any attempt to wear out its welcome. It's also very shallow and not all that challenging.

The world is being threatened by nuclear weapons, so four nations come together to save the day. Everything from the plot to the level-design & bullet patterns are reminiscent of Aero Fighters. Unfortunately, the cast of this game isn't nearly as charming. There are four pilots to choose from, but they're a bunch of dorks that make goofy anime faces. It's hard to choose the best pilot, since they all seem equally overpowered, but Lucky should be everyone's favorite. No, not because he's flying for the USA. Lucky just happens to be the perfect name for making hilarious puns.

"Better Luck next time." "It was all Luck." "I'm feeling Lucky." "They were Lucky that I'm...oh..nevermind"

Anyway, there are six stages of vertically-scrolling action. The average play-through should take about 11 minutes. That's a little short for the genre, and other games tend to have more depth to them. Storm Blade offers bonus points for not using bombs, and destroying every enemy in the stage, but it's nothing out of the ordinary. To some gamers, that's a plus, especially if they're tired of memorizing complex scoring systems, while navigating a sea of neon-pink death. Although, there is a second loop, so that's something to look forward to.

There's not much else to say about this game. Expert STG-players will probably 1CC this game the very first time they play it. They'll say something like "Well, it wasn't horrible.", which is liable to be the extent of their thoughts on the game. This is not a game that will stick around for too long in somebody's memory. It's a shmup that serves a purpose. If someone time-traveled back to 1996, and they visited a movie theater, they'd probably play this game, while waiting for the flick to start.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Sunday, September 11, 2016

XBLA Look - Guardian Heroes

Note: This is another old review. If this game ever gets another re-release (Steam perhaps?) I'll try to write up something that's less than 2,000(!!) words. Oh and maybe a little less gushing.

No promises though.

Would you ever be able to understand just how difficult is for me, to write a review of Guardian Heroes? This is a game that is so wrapped up in nostalgia and history that I don’t think I’d ever be able to give it a review that even remotely approaches objectivity. All of the times I have purchased and re-purchased Guardian Heroes are chance encounters, like the kind you’d see in a poorly written romantic-comedy. Choosing to go to the mall instead of dealing with a mouse, a random trip to the local game store, likely prompted by some other bit of reality I was in the midst of escaping. Growing up I always thought games like Super Mario Bros. 3 or the original Sonic the Hedgehog were going to be what defines me, but it has turned out to be Guardian Heroes. It is by no means the perfect game, but I hold it above all others.

I assure you all however that Guardian Heroes will not disappoint, no matter how over-hyped I may make it out to be. Treasure has always walked the fine line between creating games that are solely for the hardcore, and for those who enjoy the occasional mindless entertainment. In many cases Guardian Heroes is the latter, an unbalanced brawler where a lot of the fun comes from exploiting its systems, breaking all of one’s opponents in half, and then shattering the remains like a cheap desk. Still there is that element of finesse, of refinement, the kind that can only be found in some of the best beatemups. While this game is a bit dated, and it can't compete with a competent fighting game, it has a certain appeal to it that is impossible to ignore. It’s a game that tries everything, and even its failings can be considered successful, depending on how you look at them. Treasure has saw fit to give this game new life, in what I think is the best HD remake this generation has produced.

A mysterious sword, a long-dead but still standing warrior, the eternal struggle between the Spirits of the sky and the underworld, and a small band of could-be heroes are caught in the middle of it all. The story to Guardian Heroes is well-developed and has a good cast of characters, but you’ll get sick of it after several play-throughs. There are multiple paths that will lead to encounters with five different final bosses, though there are all sorts of other characters to engage, some more wacky than dangerous. Some paths are easier while others are a better fit for certain characters. One of the most welcome aspects of this remake is that cutscenes can be skipped through very quickly, including Kanon’s ridiculous history lesson. Anyway, your goal is to defeat all of the enemies that accost you, punish a handful of villains, and maybe you’ll break the chains that bind humanity, stop the robot menace, or you’ll simply die in obscurity. With five playable characters, each accompanied by their pet Undead Hero, you have more than enough variety, and plenty of play-throughs are required to unlock all of the playable characters for the other modes.

The basis for Guardian Heroes’ combat system can be traced back to the Mega-drive fighting game, Yū Yū Hakusho: Makyō Tōitsusen. In this licensed fighter, up to four-players could fight one another, and they could switch between two planes to dodge attacks or out-maneuver their opponents. Guardian Heroes offers up three planes, six players, weapon-based fighting, and all sorts of other differences. Around a decade later Treasure put out the first of two Bleach games, which offered their own changes to the formula they’ve created. I bring this up because aside from the original and almost unchanged version of the original 1996 Guardian Heroes, there is the new remix version, which includes a number of changes and additions. Whatever the case, Guardian Heroes features a large cast with diverse move-sets and moves to handle every situation. This includes abilities such as air-blocking, back-dashing, and others that were a rare sight a long time ago. Admittedly many of these features aren’t so fresh today, but aside from some of Capcom’s best efforts, and a handful of other games I can’t recall the names of, Guardian Heroes has little in the way of competition as far as its systems are concerned. In short, a good beatemup is built on the foundation of a good fighting game, and vice-versa. Guardian Heroes also employs a leveling system to give it a bit of an RPG flavor. Level-ups allow the player to raise stats between each stage, though it’s best to focus on the strengths of the character. Raising Han’s intelligence is not going to make him very effective, since he’s the guy with the big sword.

For a game that I’ve been playing off and on for almost fifteen years, I’m not exactly receptive to change. Thankfully, the port of the original game is flawless. As far as I can tell the mechanics are absolutely solid, the classic graphics are translated well (if you don’t mind retina-scarring pixels), and Treasure has done an all-around excellent job. Now as concerns the remix edition, all I have to say is: phenomenal. The new graphic mode features characters that make some impressive usage of shading, giving them a look that reminds me of the SNES game Kirby’s Dream Land 3. The backgrounds have been touched up to give a slight water-color effect. To top it off there is zero slowdown, none, no matter what is happening on-screen. Sure the Xbox 360 is slightly more powerful than the Saturn, but I was expecting at least a little slowdown, when dozens of huge sprites toss explosions at each other. This isn’t the case here, because the game performs like a dream.

Where the remix really shines is in what matters most, the game itself. One of the most noticeable changes is the cap on the character’s MP. MP in Guardian Heroes is used to cast spells, and for a number of characters is the biggest source of damage. What the MP cap in Remix mode does is makes certain characters a bit weaker, but also makes everyone far more viable, whether it’s early in the game or towards the end. While I miss out on Nicole having a massive pool of MP to heal herself at every opportunity, she has more chances to make use of her ultra-powerful barrier spell. Randy can toss out high-powered spells as early as the first stage, and as long as you have the combinations memorized you can fill every hole in the enemy’s defenses with tornadoes, lightning, or whatever other destructive force tickles your special place. This makes for a much more dynamic game. This dynamism is matched by more aggressive behavior by the enemies. Rushing into a bad situation is a fine way to get rocked, because enemies have no problem doing combos and surrounding anyone playing the fool. If there’s enough MP available you can break out of even the worst situations with a push-back move, but if you expended it all trying to do a big move that fell flat, well... you’re dead. Expect to spend a bit of time finding the zone and maneuvering the battlefield to get enemies into position. Oh and don’t forget to block, unlike most other beatemups, none of the Heroes are going to find a cooked turkey in a barrel to get their health back.

Further rounding out this remix mode is a revised offensive system. Air-dashing is now possible and is a good way to follow upper-cut specials and other moves that throw the enemy into the skies. Also there are three attack buttons instead of two, and the strongest attack button doubles as a spell button when the proper controller motions are performed. Normal attacks can be strung together into chains, and this makes for greater combo potential, especially if crouching attacks are mixed in. The back-dash has also been given its own button. While repeated use drains MP it is has more evasive properties, making it an effective tool to consider when dealing with opponents. The main thing to take away from all these changes; is that they make a great game even better. There are more buttons to keep track of, which can be a pain depending on your controller preference. You’ll figure out a way around it, just because the remix mode is that good.

While the story mode is fantastic, the bulk of my time playing Guardian Heroes has always been spent in the Versus mode. Now the thing to keep in mind here is I’ve never been huge on fighting games. What makes the Versus mode stand out are the customization options, and the possibilities they create. Whether I want to have a bunch of wolves and orcs battle it out, or the heroes turning against each other, this mode is where it’s at. Actively participating in these battles is a lot of fun but it’s also entertaining to experiment with combinations and see how the results play out. The remake heavily expands on the feature-set by allowing all sorts of editable rules and the aforementioned support for up to twelve participants. Six-player Guardian Heroes is already total chaos, so twice that number creates something I can’t even think of a word for. It will be interesting to see how this game works out when players start going against each other online. I get the feeling that everything is still in the testing phase, and even with the changes remix brings to the table there are still some unbalanced aspects to the affair. I’m not all that concerned about this game being taken seriously, especially when I like to play all random match-ups. Random teams, random experience levels, random characters, needless to say my most heroic playing won’t stand up to Lady Luck. Still it’s definitely worth looking into. The newly-added training mode is also quite nice for familiarizing oneself with the basics and practicing.

The arcade mode strikes me as the sort of addition that was approved solely to meet Microsoft’s XBLA guidelines. In this mode one player stands alone against a deluge of foes. More than twenty enemies on-screen is a frequent occurrence, and one or two hits will lead to death. Survival is obviously out of question so all that can be done is to take down as many as possible. Every character is playable in this mode and there are separate leaderboards for all of them, though you probably deserve a medal if you get any kills with characters like the old man, who attacks solely with a coughing fit. Again, the Spirits are most likely to control this mode since almost all of their moves are screen-filling and high-damaging, though I’ve had a bit of success with certain characters thanks to some very useful moves. Given the choice I’d rather have seen leaderboards being used for the story-mode, but that’d probably require a substantial effort that could just as easily not pan out.

This is the ultimate package for fans of Guardian Heroes. At a mere $10 this is an absolute steal, a required buy for anyone who owns an Xbox 360 and has at worst a remote interest in the concept. I’m one of if not the biggest fan of the game and nothing short of a perfect port would be enough to satisfy me. This remake not only knocks it out of the park; it also makes me wonder just what the heck other remake-developers out there have been doing. Guardian Heroes is little more than a cult hit and yet it has gotten a remake so stellar that it shames almost everything else out there. Treasure and Sega ought to be proud of themselves for putting out such an incredible package. Hopefully their hard work is rewarded appropriately because as far I’m concerned they deserve it.

Friday, September 9, 2016

X360 Look - Darksiders 2

Note: This is a review from back around the launch of the game, so some complaints are likely to be really outdated.

If a concept sounds good on paper there should be no reason for the execution to turn out poorly. With close to thirty years experience with videogames I should know full well that the last sentence is pure and absolute fantasy. Still that didn’t dissuade me from picking up Darksiders 2. I never played the first game but I have a fair bit of experience with The Legend of Zelda and many similar titles. Also I have spent an inhuman amount of time with Diablo, Phantasy Star Online; and other games where hundreds of hours are spent amassing a collection of blues, yellows, and golds. Darksiders 2 marries both genres, and the dream is that it will have the best of them, or at least the good. Unfortunately reality crushes like a mace.

The story starts off promising enough. The Four Horsemen are bros to the end. The end in this case refers to humanity, and War is being held accountable. In order to clear War’s name, Death must seek out a way to resurrect humanity. This involves traversing through four worlds, several dungeons, and dealing with the legions of corrupted adversaries that inhabit them. Despite playing through the game I admittedly don’t remember anything else about the storyline. Somewhere in-between the collecting of the second piece of a mystical shard that belonged to a mighty scepter I stopped caring about Death, War, and the fate of the many worlds outside of Earth.

Collecting objects of importance is expected of the action-adventure genre. Whether it is pieces of the Tri-force, the spirits of the world, or even a bunch of furry animals with superpowers, the quest can be boiled down to collecting between three and eight objects. This opens the way to the final dungeon, and then the final battle that decides the fate of blah blah blah. The most important function of these games is to keep the pace interesting, to make each dungeon that houses these trinkets worthwhile, in ways beyond being able to continue with the game. Players should be able to go into a dungeon with the expectation that they’ll be rewarded in terms of stimulation by the combat and puzzles they’ll have to deal with. They expect monetary rewards, such as currency or equipment. Yes, even the story should be well-provided to maintain the player’s interest in the plot. These three motivating factors should make the gamer want to continue with the game because they enjoy it, not because of some obligation that they have placed on themselves.

Where Darksiders 2 fails is that most of the dungeons only provide in terms of length of time required to complete them. A common element is that three tokens of progress are required, or three switches have to be pulled, or three other things have to happen before you can move on. There are some clever puzzles late in the game but early on you’re going to be rolling boulders onto switches, throwing bombs at destructible crystals, and performing tasks that have long worn out their welcome in other games. There are many treasure chests found throughout each dungeon, most of which contain random pieces of equipment. While far more valuable than the rupees that you can’t fit into your bulging wallet, the equipment you find has faults that I’ll go into later in this review. At the end of each dungeon you’ll face a boss. Some of these bosses are more than just a very large target, and require a second action for them to show their weak-point. More than likely, all you’ll be caring about is that they’ll drop a nice weapon when they’re killed, not if they were entertaining and challenging to do battle with. There are a couple exceptional boss-battles, but they are cut short by the other problems this game suffers from.

If I wrote for some other review websites you can bet that I’d petition for the category “loot” under graphics and sound when reviewing titles like Diablo. As much as I hate to admit it, the quality of loot can impact my enjoyment of a game, and Darksiders 2 is no different. Death can equip a multitude of armor pieces, as well as one primary and one secondary weapon. He always wields his trademark scythes, and he can back it up with something slow and powerful like a hammer, or something fast and weak like claws. All equipment is color-coded by usefulness and rarity as per genre tradition. Possessed weapons are the best and worst items to find in this game. They’re the best in terms of capabilities but it is those capabilities that will allow you to grind whatever challenge this game has into dust.

Possessed weapons demand the sacrifice of other lesser weapons and armors so that they can become stronger. If for example you find a pair of scythes with +15% to health steal, you’re going to want to feed them to a possessed weapon, so you can acquire that ability upon its next level-up. These very rare weapons can be leveled up to five times and typically far outclass anything else you’re likely to find. With a little bit of diligence and some luck, you’ll have a tool so powerful, that you’d have to close your eyes and drop your controller to have a chance at dying in battle. That is being a tad hyperbolic, but when you’re hitting for tens of thousands of damage, and recovering your entire life-bar in the process, you start to wonder how Death managed to lose so many fights to the Belmonts.

It’s too bad because the combat system shows a lot of…promise. There are a strong variety of moves, and when you learn the ins and outs of fighting, you’re rewarded with more damaging attacks that also look pretty stylish. It’s a vast improvement over “click-to-kill” games, or the kind where you just bump into monsters, until whoever has the lower numbers falls over. Death also has two different trees from which to attain skills from. The Harbringer focuses on meaty attacks to mash enemies into a very nasty paste. The Necromancer relies on the arcane to destroy foes. You can mix and match however you like, but it’s best to rely on skills that coincide with your equipment. Certain armor sets boost arcane damage over strength and vice-versa. As I said though, once your weapons outmatch your opponents you won’t need to do much of anything to win. I got through the entire game just using Death’s teleport slash and unstoppable skills.

What really tears this game apart are all the bugs, glitches, and design-decisions that do everything possible to impede the enjoyment I’m trying to derive from it. While usually I’d be quick to recommend looking into the PC version of games such as this one I’m hesitant to do so after reading all the problems other gamers have had with it. The console versions don’t fare much better either, and some players have even been hit with game-killing bugs where they’re unable to progress. Hopefully, those cases are just exceptionally rare as I was able to complete the game without seeing anything of that sort. Still, there was an instance where a golem I was riding disappeared back to his spawn-point when I walked away for a bit to collect a treasure. Then there is a frame-rate that’s prone to drops and screen-tearing, which helps to round out the technical deficiencies of this product. It’s very apparent that this game was rushed to beat the juggernauts arriving this fall.

At least the bugs and glitches are expected to be fixed over time; the same probably can’t be said about other problems that this game has. In open-field areas Death can summon his horse to cover ground more quickly, and this is done by pressing RB and LB together. These two buttons are tied to evade and skill-usage as well. So in the midst of the battle I will hear Death lamenting that there’s no room for his horse. Also the lock-on camera uses the 3D Zelda effect of letterboxing the screen while pulling the camera in much closer. It kind-of works in those games because the combat isn’t nearly as involved, but in Darksiders 2 you have to know what’s going on around you, and it makes for a camera that’s only useful for some boss-fights. The overall structure of this game is also very frontloaded. The first couple worlds are pretty massive with multiple optional areas to explore while the latter two are basically a straight line.

The most un-gratifying aspect of Darksiders 2 is the same as what I believe a number of games this generation suffer from: the automation. While I do not miss the early days of 3D platforming I feel like we really could be doing better than jumping from marked ledge to marked ledge with a next to 0% probability of error. This game involves quite a bit of platform-navigating, but it is done mostly because a series of one-floor dungeons would look absolutely horrible. It is like game-designers have given up and that’s the worst thing I can ever say. “We can’t do platforming right, so let’s just make it so impossible to screw up that it won’t really bother anyone.” Is that the thought-process we want to see today when it comes to videogames? Take the platforming out and replace it with any other aspect. That is not a future I want to be a part of. I can’t lay the blame entirely on Darksiders 2 for this because they’re just performing to expectations, but when a sizable percentage of the game is spent doing something that offers absolutely no challenge, it makes me wonder why I haven’t given up as well.

These days promises couldn’t pay for a used napkin but as long as it shares ties with hope I find that I’m stuck in the cycle. Darksiders 2 has a lot of good ideas but most of the time they don’t follow through, and the times they do deliver it involves things that nobody would ever ask for. This game might be worth a look if you’re a fan of the first and want to see how the story progresses but I’d wager that you’ll be really disappointed when all is said and done. Between extras such as the new-game + mode, and the various side-quests like the 100 waves of fighting in the Crucible you’ll have the more than enough content to last you quite awhile. Dollar-wise you may get enough value but time-wise…eh…it’s not like death will wait for you.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

AA Look - Darius 2 - I hate this freakin' game

Darius 2...
Darius 2, Darius 2, DARIUS 2!

This freakin' game really boils my potatoes. Just thinking about it makes me want to fill this blog-post with expletives. Taito always delivers whenever it comes to presentation. Their arcade games have great art, intriguing stories, and fantastic soundtracks. However, when it comes to game-design, there are some rare times where I have to question their decision-making. This is one of them.

If you've played Darius 2, then you're already aware of its biggest issue: all power-ups are lost upon death. When you play this game, you either have to clear it in one life, or walk away from the machine. What if a power-up flies off-screen? The result is the same. Unlike nearly every other shooter, there isn't a surplus of power-ups. There are also a couple 1ups that drop, but you can just pass them by, because they're useless.

In all fairness, if the Silver Hawk didn't lose all of its weapons after getting blown up, Darius 2 would probably be one of the easiest STGs ever. Nothing has a chance at getting close to a fully-powered ship, players can collect a fairly generous stack of lives, and each shield is worth three hits (they also stack). Rather than attempt to balance the difficulty to compensate, Taito went with the nuclear option. This makes for a very unforgiving game.

But that's not the only reason why I hate it. Darius 2 also employs baffling stage designs. Zone E has a horrendous orange background that does an impressive job of hiding enemy bullets. Zone L places laser cannons directly behind rock-outcroppings, which block your "travel across the ground" missiles. There are other locations specifically designed to screw you out of that all-important first life. In the average play-through, there are maybe three or four spots where the player's game can end. I'm not sure whether to call it unbalanced or unfair. Theoretically, the only time you're allowed to die is before the first power-up appears (fly into the lava less than 2 seconds into the game), or at one or two of the final bosses. 

Another thing that bothers me about the 1-life system is that it takes away so much meaning from everything. Whenever I play Zone L, I tend to die before the boss, lost a few other lives due to the relentless and overwhelming regular enemies, but then kill the boss without dying in a very thrilling battle. If I managed to hold onto my power-ups, I wouldn't have had to work nearly as hard. Earlier, I worked out a strategy for dealing with Grand Octopus. Normally his mini-octopuses are too frequent and durable for a weak Silver Hawk to survive. However, by sitting just NW of Grand Octopus's and moving in a circle, I can safely lure away all those troublesome enemies. This is a strategy I probably wouldn't even need, if I hadn't lost my power-ups. I'm going to game-over anyway in the very next stage, because there's far too much for an under-powered ship to deal with.

Whenever I play Darius 2, I just can't seem to enjoy it. All I have to look forward to are the parts where the game screws me over, and then it laughs in my face. There's nothing I can do to make things more entertaining. I just shoot a few things while waiting, praying, and then cursing.

What it all comes down to is that Darius 2 doesn't allow mistakes, and I really don't think that's good game-design. Darius Gaiden got it right by making deaths not nearly as punishing, and also giving players a lot of bonus points for every life (and bomb) they hold onto. Deaths are as much a part of videogames as anything else. Giving players an opportunity to move past the mistakes they make is very important. I really enjoy those thrilling moments where I have to clutch out a close victory, simply because I don't have anymore resources. 

AA Look - Gekirindan

Gekirindan is one of those games that has a neat concept, is visually interesting, plays well, but it isn't good.

It's the all-too familiar case of style over substance. This is a criticism that isn't limited to high-budget AAA art-pieces or random indie obscurities. While arcade games are short, they tend to be difficult, and/or have a lot of depth. Gekirindan is definitely short. It's perhaps the shortest shmup that comes to mind. It's also extremely shallow, dull, and poorly-paced.

Part of what makes for good pacing is actually establishing it in the first place. From the first stage of a game like Dodonpachi, players have an idea of what to expect in the future. Gekirindan's time-travel concept allows for entirely new enemies in each of the five stages. Stage 1 takes place far in the future, but then stage 2 is set during WW2, with stage 3 taking place in 1999, and so on. In a way, it's impossible to really set a pace. The player goes through an entire stage with certain expectations, but then the next stage does a 180, and then everything becomes confusing.

So what does Taito do about this conundrum? Well, practically nothing. The first few stages are absolutely boring. Things start to pick up around stage 4, and then 5 is just a slog. Every now and then, there's a little uneven tension, but players are more likely to be shocked than anything. They suddenly realize that they're playing a 2D shooter, and that maybe they should be dodging bullets or something.

Speaking for myself, if I'm playing a shootemup, I would prefer to have very few breaks. In-between stages? That's expected. Sometimes during a stage, there's a brief moment where I can catch my breath. Stage 3 of Ketsui, right before the battleship, that's exactly what I'm talking about. Gekirindan never establishes its pacing, so it's almost entirely a break, with slight pockets of action. When the pacing is non-existent, I can't get into a rhythm. Whenever I see enemy bullets on-screen, I freak out.

Honestly, it's pretty embarrassing. As easy as this game is, I still haven't cleared it without continuing. I've reached the last boss once or twice, but I usually make a critical error in stage 4. While deaths aren't nearly as punishing as they are in Darius 2, they do just enough to put players in a bad place. Next thing I know, my ship isn't strong enough to destroy the stage 5 mid-boss (for the 1up), and eventually I fall apart.

I've 1CCed more difficult games. This isn't a brag (ok...maybe a little), it's more of an observation. Why am I clearing those games and not Gekirindan? It's because those games are appropriately paced. There's a clear trajectory when it comes to difficulty, instead of peaks and valleys. These games are simply more fun and satisfying to play, so beating them feels like an accomplishment.

I suspect that if I finally 1CC this game, there won't be any fist pumps, yelling, or exuberant cheers. Instead, this will be my exact reaction.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Sunday, September 4, 2016

PS1 Look - Vagrant Story

Note: Fair warning, this was written back before I started editing my own work.

When talking about re-released games I can’t help but show my nostalgic side. I’m aware that this isn’t the greatest aspect to take with me into a review and I must judge every game as if it came out just recently instead of many years ago. Still I do the best I can by giving these games a fresh play-through, and looking out for flaws I may have glossed over. This goes both ways as at times I’ll find an appreciation for aspects of the game that I never noticed before or that I was going about them the wrong way and considered them to be issues. With all of that said I still can’t help but think “What in the world happened to Squaresoft?” when I play absolutely brilliant games like Vagrant Story. Don’t tell me you’ve never thought about the same thing at one time or another, whether it’s the most recent Final Fantasy games, the lack of flawed yet ambitious projects like Xenogears, and the complete disappearance of the Mana franchise. I imagine for at least some of you out there it doesn’t look like a promising future for what was your favorite RPG publisher. There have been inklings of the Squaresoft I remember thanks to games such as The World Ends With You but for the most part I think they’re becoming something I no longer want to be a part of.

The entirety of Vagrant Story revolves around the enigmatic Leá Monde, a once thriving city that has been reduced to ruins and is now the home of the Müllenkamp cultists and the denizens of the dark. A power beyond understanding also makes its home here and Ashley Riot has been given the mission to insure it doesn’t fall in the wrong hands. The storyline is exceptionally focused, relying only on a handful of characters and minimal dialogue to keep the pacing strong. The story is bolstered ever further due to well-directed cut-scenes done entirely in the game’s engine. It’s seamless as well as stylish and somehow the graphics have aged quite well despite being late generation 3D on the Playstation. What ties everything together is the city itself, a city that haunts as well as it enamors, and does everything in its power to produce an atmosphere unlike any game out there. With the limitations of the console in mind the game relies on simple things like giving every room its own name, using and withholding music when necessary, and implementing just the right touches to breathe life into everything. Even after a decade this game is still quite an experience. On the other hand while fans of this game might agree wholeheartedly those who are new to Vagrant Story might be taken aback by these words. It’s completely understandable because time has nicked and weathered this game away quite a bit. There are times when everything doesn’t look as polished as it should, the game has that early 3D feel where even the most static of objects seems to be in motion, and in short there are a few things that one has to look past to appreciate this game.

The game itself denies my meager attempts at summation. Sometimes I’m not even sure if I can call it an RPG. There is a lot of fighting as well as a number of block-pushing and jumping puzzles, but that description sounds as enticing as a spoiled eggplant sandwich. What will eke away at this game’s classic status more than anything is its usage of puzzles. This game isn’t anything like Landstalker, an adventure game that understood the perfect balance between combat and puzzles. Vagrant Story’s greatest strength is in the battle-system and it’s so far above almost every other aspect of the game so any deviation sticks out like something analogous to a blemish on a work of art. The most grating example involves the Snowfly forest, a confusing area that is best solved by looking up a map on gamefaqs. Still there is something to be said about the times the game gets it right when they throw a puzzle the player’s way in lieu of a fight. It certainly helps that this game is a very lean affair as the first playthrough will likely take less than twenty hours, with subsequent play-throughs going as low as the one hour mark.

Now that I’ve mentioned it, twenty hours to one hour is a heck of a disparity isn’t it? This is simply because it can take a long time to develop the weapon-set and abilities the player will focus on until they’re done playing Vagrant Story. This game’s depth is in its options and it is designed in such a way that unless the player extends a certain amount of effort their game is going to be play out differently than everyone else’s. To start with while there are set equipment pieces awarded through certain battles or by opening chests many encounters can award the player with other weapons or armor. It is their discretion as to what to focus on but the most important guideline is that they carry at least one weapon of each type. This is where much of the time in the first play-through is spent as it takes quite a while to develop one’s arsenal properly. Even with these three weapon types one has to account the class of foe they’re facing as well as elemental affinities.

While there’s a phonebook’s worth of help available in the option menu there’s not much of anything resembling a tutorial in the game. Along with all of the weapons the player is liable to acquire they will also be buried in spell-books. Magick is a difficult beast to tame as the player’s MP is very limited and most of the time it’s probably more effective to stick to healing as well as spells that raise and lower stats. Veterans of the game will likely find magic to be more useful as they have a greater understanding of the mechanics and the knowledge of how to make their MP last. Early on however it can become frustrating when a spell that takes away over half the player’s MP completely misses the enemy they target.

Obviously I can’t review Vagrant Story without mentioning the chaining system as well as risk management. While it’s perfectly acceptable to stick to attacks that hit the enemy once at times or to suit differing play-styles one can focus on chaining to bring their foes down. Excessive chaining is balanced by the fact that as the chain increases the timing differs ever so slightly in an attempt to throw the player off as well as a dramatic drop in accuracy. Furthermore this leads to a massive bump in risk, which leaves the player at the mercy of their opponent. This system should not be considered a punishment though, it’s something that can be worked around and catered to the player’s way of getting through the game. For example I tend to focus on Crimson Pain and Raging Ache, chaining skills that require me to be at low health to maximize their effect. At high risk I take more damage so that my offensive skills can be even more effective. Another factor to consider is that the healing spell is more effective at high risk, which balances everything nicely.

There are many other factors that go into each encounter. The position of both the player and enemy can affect which attacks are viable as well as the move the enemy is most likely to perform. If for example the player is carrying a spear and the enemy has a short-sword then the player can keep their distance and stab the enemy as they won’t be able to get close enough to attack. At its core Vagrant Story is a turn-based game so every advantage the player can get through positioning and movement is worth considering. It should also be pointed out that encounters never last very long. Even the bosses tend to have a small amount of hit-points so even when it seems hopeless the player can win a battle of attrition if need be. This will require a better understanding of defensive abilities which all hinge on the player’s ability to time button-presses.

Considering all of the variables that go into each encounter it seems fitting that the player can change almost everything about their setup even in the middle of battle. If the player uses two-handed weapons they can still jump into the menu to throw on a shield just before the enemy attacks. The player is also free to equip whatever accessories and gems that’ll give them an advantage even when they are caught unprepared. This system was also used in Final Fantasy XII. It’s a very useful system and the only real limits are inventory space and the player’s patience, as going through menus gets old before long.

I wouldn’t be surprised if some play-throughs of Vagrant Story are done in such a way as to spend as little time in menus as possible. This isn’t limited to inventory management and item usage either as there’s an entire forging system to account for. With every attack the player gives or receives various stats can rise and fall. Unlike what some may say this aspect isn’t completely necessary to winning the game as it’s just a bonus. The three weapons the player focuses on can also be used towards the six classes of monsters. Unfortunately this isn’t properly documented and it would be a good idea to consult a guide as to what types of weapons are most effective with each class. Other variances like elemental affinity can be mitigated through the use of accessories and gems. In any case through the use of a forge the player can carry these bonuses to stronger weapons. The game helpfully points out the result of each forge before the player finishes the job but until that perfect combination is found it can be a long time spent in menus or worse, seeking out foes to defeat again and again before they drop the much-needed blade to strengthen their weapon further.

Despite my best attempts there is no easy way to summarize the battle-system in Vagrant Story. It is really the most involving factor of the game and the player must grasp at least a basic understanding of it to complete their initial play-through. The second time around will be much easier as the player has access to New Game +. This feature allows the player to start a new game with all of their acquired equipment and stats, giving them the opportunity to pursue a different route and try new abilities, come up with ways to challenge themselves further, explore the optional dungeon for a chance at some game-destroying equipment, or continue to build their stats up until they’re bored of being an unstoppable behemoth. Some will even opt to start a fresh new game as the additional stats and equipment might be too much of an advantage. The most brilliant aspect of Vagrant Story is how well it handles all of these options. More importantly the game is of an appropriate length and isn’t involving to the point where it takes dozens of hours to get wherever the player wants to be. It’s all about manipulating the system to make everything go the player’s way and when it all clicks it becomes a remarkable experience.

The completionists are a strange breed I’ll admit. They’re the types that open every chest, explore every room, and do just about everything in their power to find every last item in the game no matter how useless it probably is. Vagrant Story is well aware of the existence of completionists and offers a set of titles that can be acquired for mastering every aspect of the game. As if Vagrant Story wasn’t daunting enough it offers several ways of playing through the game with the only reward being a mere title. Frankly I couldn’t care less if a game says I’m the best box-pusher around so let the completionists have fun with that sort of fluff.

As I said my experience with Vagrant Story is colored because I’ve spent a lot of time with it in the past as well as the present. It becomes especially apparent when I compare the game to similar titles released more recently. I have to say I’m really disappointed not that these newer games don’t have any depth, it’s that they require so much time spent on them to get to that depth it becomes exhausting. In less than twenty hours Vagrant Story can provide an entirely rich experience with both its depth and story, and the door is left wide open for the player to pursue further if they feel if they haven’t gotten enough out of the game. All of its faults lie in a cumbersome interface and the handful of puzzles that simply don’t work, which in light of everything feels like mere nitpicks. Still do not be alarmed by the walls of text I used to describe the various systems of the game, I’ve done the same for Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter and that is one of my other all-time favorite games. All of this is said as a fair warning as dedication and perseverance is what makes both of these games work and I would not have them any other way. Still don’t be the type of person who feels that their manhood is going to be questioned if they look up strategies. If nothing else at least get a map for the Snowfly Forest, that place is awful.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Steam look - Wolflame

Another Steam review, this time it's the ASTRO PORT shootemup Wolflame.
Check it out over here.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Thursday, September 1, 2016

XBLA Look - Trouble Witches Neo

2D shooters used to be about giant battleships, laser cannons, and a bunch of other sci-fi hoopdedoo. These days you’re probably no longer the lone surviving pilot in an experimental space-craft about to face down an entire alien armada. For example in Trouble Witches Neo you’re one of eight different maid-witches out to stop other witches from…causing trouble? I’m not even sure what maid-witches are supposed to be. Maids with magical powers I can assume sure but if everyone has magic then who needs maids? It’s better to simply use your own magic to keep the house clean yourself. They’re probably expensive to hire anyway and if this game is any indication they’ll just fly off and destroy entire countries over the most minor of squabbles. This is what I get for trying to make sense of a videogame.

The conflict facing our heroines involves mysterious shards that are the key to some ultimate power that is actually pure evil. This original storyline is backed by an equally original cast of characters. Expect to take the fight to evil schoolgirls, a boy who dresses like a girl, identical twins, and practically everyone we commonly associate the term “moe” with. It’s all good though because like any competent shooter you can expect to do lots of bullet-dodging and coin-collecting as you obliterate enemy armies with heavy firepower.

Each maid-witch is backed by a familiar that assists by offering support fire or summoning a magic barrier. This magic barrier is the key to the various scoring systems in this game as it will collect any enemy bullets and said enemies that are destroyed will cause their bullets to turn into precious money. This cash can then be used to buy magic cards which serve as temporary weapons. Destroying enemies with these weapons leads to more money as well as additional bonus points so they’re best saved for large numbers of foes. It’s nice to have a 2D shooter where the scoring system is relatively easy to understand. Then again I probably shouldn’t talk because my highest score is still less than a third of the current top-score in the leaderboards.

The action is generally quite entertaining although some of the boss-fights can be a bit annoying. The weapon cards are very necessary for destroying bosses quickly and for best results the player should be as close as possible while fighting as it seems to do the most damage. It’s not always guaranteed that I’ll have cards handy and this can make for some really frustrating fights. The second form of the fourth boss for example has a weak-point that is only open for a couple seconds at a time. With a good weapon-card and an opening this fight can end almost immediately but if I don’t have access to either it means I’m stuck literally wandering in circles as there are too many bullets for me to risk a continued assault for very long.

The regular weapons the maid-witches have access to also feel a bit too weak at times and I end up getting overwhelmed. I guess this situation could have been averted if I had the right weapon-card at the right time but I kind-of wish that more than three cards could be carried at a time. They can be a little over-powered though so it’s in the best interest of game balance that they’re as limited as they are. Maybe I should consider sucking less when I play the game.

This game is certainly not lacking for content. Aside from the aforementioned leaderboards and eight playable characters Trouble Witches Neo also features four difficulty settings, a full story-mode, a handful of challenge modes, replay-saving, and even the original PC version of Trouble Witches is playable. Co-op both online and off is also supported and that’s always good. It’s a tremendous value for a tenner although I have to wonder what SNK/Playmore was smoking when they localized the game.

The English voice-acting is amazing. I’d go as far to say it’s the best in a 2D shooter since the legendary Castle Shikigami 2 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jLE7cM2ZI7w&feature=related). Many of the lines are spoken as if SNK/Playmore found random people on the street and said “Hey! I’ll give you $5 if you can read the lines on this piece of paper!” The voice-actors frequently sound like they’re either confused or sarcastic and the ones that actually put effort into their work stand out with hilarious results. The voice-acting coupled with the numerous grammatical errors in the text make for quite an interesting experience. Still if you’re not into that sort of thing you can always roll with the Japanese voices.

There’s really not much else to say about Trouble Witches Neo. It’s a perfectly fine way to spend an afternoon or several. The magic barriers and weapon systems provide a satisfying experience for those who like to see enemies explode like gold-filled piñatas as their cutesy yet in-offensive magical maid-witch-girl effortlessly darts around. This game isn’t anything truly exceptional let alone a required play for shooter aficionados but it is fun and you’ll get your moneys worth I bet.

PS1 Look - Rapid Angel

For me at least one of the greatest selling points the Playstation 3 has to offer is the PSone Classics service. Even with just the respectable library that is offered in the U.S it’s a great value, especially when the only alternative is ebay and who wants to pay $50 when you could pay $6? In Japan it is something else entirely. I can only assume there are literally no restrictions for posting a PS1 game on the service because the selection is phenomenal bordering on absurd. Aside from covering just about every genre imaginable the Japanese PSN has a habit of picking up a ton of niche games that either nobody has talked about them or they’re so out there that nobody can figure them out (even those who can understand Japanese).

Monkey Paw Games (monkeypawgames.com) has put out a number of these obscure Japanese games on our PSN and I’m here to talk about their latest release, Rapid Angel. Rapid Angel is known as a “High Tension Comical Action Game”.  It’s nice to have a subtitle that explains the game and saves me the trouble. This is also one of the very few instances of English in the entirety of the game so that’s about all I have to on for the rest of this review.

Rapid Angel is the story of three young women who own a shop. Maybe they’re bounty hunters and this is their office, assumptions are all I have and they don’t seem to be selling anything. After a conversation between the three of them that painfully reminds me of back when I watched Sailor Moon, the Angel I decide to play as takes a trip halfway across the country to get an envelope from a strange man. This is where things turn south and pretty soon the military, a nun, a couple of priests, maids, robots, cyborgs, and who knows what else wants to see some dead Angels. When it comes to videogames the question is never “Why?” it is “Why not?”

I have to say that it’s rare and pleasant when the main female characters of a videogame are dressed appropriately. It also helps that they can handle their own for whatever their insane world decides to throw at them. Natsumi is all about punching and kicking until things stop moving. Ayane has a sword so I’m pretty sure she cuts everyone to pieces. Haruna is the token shrine maiden who uses magic to destroy her foes. She’s a bit of an interesting case in that many of her moves take a long time to perform but they can be devastating. There are two bonus characters, one of them spits in the face of appropriate attire and the other is a guy with a sword. The game is split into over a dozen levels which can take anywhere from several minutes to several seconds to complete.

Alright then, "High Tension Comical Action Game", let me see if I can’t break this down. High is all about the ladies getting height from making those big jumps. This is important because a portion of your end of level score tally is going to come from how much air-time you get. There is quite a bit of platforming to be done and the controls are very well-done. All of the playable characters are more than capable of making these jumps and can even perform some long jumps to skip a bunch of pesky platforms.

Tension is well let’s just say the tension comes from the scoring system in this game. If you’re not too concerned about your score this is a pretty easy ride. You have an unlimited stock of continues and checkpoints are pretty frequent. However if you care about your score those continues have to go in the trash. Furthermore to get a high score you’ll have to move faster, be more aggressive, and do whatever is necessary to get some hot combos.

If I had my way no videogame would be allowed to take itself too seriously. Needless to say I’m all about the Comical aspects. Rapid Angel knows nothing of subtlety and that’s okay because the game relies on its increasing levels of weirdness to keep things amusing. In fact having no idea where the story is heading makes everything better I think. It really feels like the developer behind this game didn’t know where to go next and just threw together something. It’s entirely nonsensical and I like it.

Action, yes there is enough action to be had here. The enemies tend to be armed with weapons of their own and you’ll have to deal with them quickly or dodge their attacks until an opening presents itself. Some of the bosses could have used a bit more help though. By that I mean that they should have considered taking along some minions to assist in the battle. With Natsumi all I had to do most of the time was get in with a jump-kick, do a combo, and repeat until the boss died a pathetic and shameful death. There are a handful of bosses that double-team the Angel which makes things very interesting. Look Techno Soleil, I understand you guys have been defunct for over a decade now but I have a suggestion. Give the bosses more options for dealing with vertical assaults. Maybe throw in some flying uppercuts, some more jumping attacks, anything to keep me grounded and guessing. Most of the time I die either because I don’t know what’s coming next or I haven’t been able to find some health-replenishing food for quite awhile.

Rapid Angel is quite a good Game for what it is; a throwback to those days when action-platformers were like grains of sand in the desert. Admittedly it doesn’t do all that much to stand out and the visuals are barely a step above what I’ve been playing lately on the XBLIG but everything works and makes for an entertaining game. Aside from the five playable characters there are also three difficulty settings and even a two-player mode that you’ll likely never play. All around this is a solid package and certainly worth your $6. 

PS1 Look - Legend of Mana

At one point in Legend of Mana I visit a city where all of the students have boycotted school. The professors continued to teach an empty classroom while all of the children wandered the city, each having their own reasons for truancy. One student in particular put it the most succinctly by saying “When I have a good dream I like to skip school and go for a walk.” Legend of Mana is one of those games where I feel it is better to let the game lead you along, leaving yourself free to make your own adventure.

All too often when somebody picks up an older game (especially an RPG) they feel obligated to sift through mountains of guides in order to get every last side-quest, piece of equipment, and master every ability and tactic. At this point the player is probably better off making a shopping list or finding tasks around the house they can put that surplus of productivity towards. I shouldn’t dare mention the possibility that the player will miss some item or bit of dialogue that would render their game “incomplete”. This nature of gaming is ultimately self-destructive as videogames somehow become ruined because the player wasn’t following a guide to the letter.

Legend of Mana is a challenging case because the storyline is not something we have come to expect. In any good adventure it is all about the journey and not the destination so it is little wonder that players will find themselves disappointed if all they want to know is what happens in the end. In the beginning the Mana tree, the source of all power and emotion, is destroyed and its remnants lost to time and war. As a hero or heroine the player re-creates the world and eventually restores the Mana tree to its former glory. That’s the extent of it really. In fact it’s fair to say I just spoiled the ending for everyone who hasn’t played the game. The motives of the hero are never explained, there are no discussions involving the heroine’s past or how much she loved her daddy, and you can bet that the protagonists will play third-party to almost every situation. They’re also not very talkative so don’t expect much in the way of conversation.

The storylines in Legend of Mana are found in the 67 quests that the player can accept over the course of the game. New quests are commonly discovered when new lands have been created. These new lands are created through the usage of artifacts, which are typically awarded upon completion of quests. It’s a cycle that has been a part of the RPG genre since the dawn of time but it’s not usually so blatant. In other games killing all of the monsters in a cave would likely cause the guard at the bridge to move away, leaving the path open for the player to reach a new land with new tasks. In this game somebody hands you an object, you place it on the world-map, and suddenly you have a new town or dungeon to explore. The stories can be commonly described as poignant. Some are sweet, others bittersweet, and some are even just plain sour. There are those times when a quest is resolved and all that is gained is a feeling of emptiness. “Why did things go this way? Did it really matter? Should I have even bothered?” Chances are good that you’ll find yourself dissatisfied with the results of a number of quests and in a way it adds to the appeal of this game. Some quests are part of a larger storyline and it’s up to the player whether they want to continue forward or leave things as they are. There are three main storyline paths to follow and once at least one of those is finished the way opens to the final dungeon.

The game itself is an action-RPG which…well…let me just break it down. All you really need to do is hit the X button until the enemy you’re hitting keels over and coughs up experience gems or items. It’s perfectly acceptable to beat this game with the absolute bare minimum of strategy, even if that means ignoring the hundreds of skills and weapons that can be attained. If you want to read a guide there’s probably some explanations on how to attain the best weapon or which abilities are the most useful but that sort of thing is likely only necessary for the two harder difficulties that unlock upon completion of the game. The default setting of this game is so easy that the player should have no problems experimenting with every weapon and ability to find something that suits their style of play, or to just mess around and maybe have a bit of fun.

I can’t stress this enough. This game will become a lot less entertaining if the player spends their first play-through buried in a guide to figure out the tons of sub-systems that go into this game. The combat is exceedingly simplistic but weapon-creation, animal-raising, golem-building, tree-farming, and even the placement of artifacts on the world-map have a guide or three tied to them. A playthrough that doesn’t involve any of the optional aspects of the game will probably run just north of ten hours. At this point the only difference that comes from a guide-based playthrough will be that all of the numbers will be higher.

This is all tempered by the chance that the player can easily miss some important quests. Legend of Mana isn’t very good at pointing out when quests are available and sometimes giving the wrong answer in certain situations will lock the player out of a world-changing event. This is a very bad thing as it means the player is all but required to consult a guide as the potential for getting stuck is fairly high. Furthermore this is like sneaking a peak inside Pandora’s Box. In the worst-case scenario the spoiler-free guide that tells the player where to go next to trigger a quest will lead to a complete explanation of the weapon-building system and before long the entire game is laid bare. Underneath the gorgeous hand-painted backgrounds and the whimsical and surreal characters lies one of the most infuriatingly complex games in Squaresoft’s library and the people who tamed this beast and lived to write a guide about it probably climbed mountains in their spare time. I can not stress this enough. Use this first playthrough to ignore the machinations that hold the game together and do your best to enjoy what lies on the surface.

There is satisfaction to be found in exploring the depths of Legend of Mana but it’s wholly unnecessary. There is the New Game + feature which will make for an easy jump into an advanced game so I wouldn’t worry so much about whether or not you’re adequately prepared. One thing to keep in mind is that there is a Little Cactus sitting by your bed. Be sure to talk to him after finishing each quest so he can update his diary. As while his notes won’t lead to the discovery of an ultimate weapon every now and then the little green guy will have something remarkable to say.

AA / XBLA Look - Daytona USA

Sometimes I don’t even know why I bother sitting down to write a review of an older game. There are times when my opinion changes on the game but if that circumstance never comes about it seems all too pointless. For nearly twenty years I’ve considered Daytona USA to be one of the finest arcade-racing games out there, and that includes today, tomorrow, and possibly up until I’m fitted into a coffin and buried. So for me to sit down and attempt to write something even remotely interesting would be a waste of time. Also I’m sure all of you out there who are also big fans of Daytona USA expect to see a high rating, that’s just the nature of the videogame-“critiquing” beast.

So let’s start by trying to put together how I’ve gotten myself into this mess, I was raised by arcades. While I didn’t sit around studying these games with a notepad and a chemistry set, I still spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about them and what makes them work so well. What makes a great arcade game is simple. The game should be easy to pick up, hard to master, and offer enough challenge to get you to keep putting tokens in, but also balanced enough so that you’re not just paying to see an ending. Arcade games should also have a certain style that is approachable and entertaining. Other genres are allowed the liberty of having long drawn-out intros or huge stretches of time where absolutely nothing happens, that’s a huge no-no for an arcade game. These philosophies are what I grew up with and I’ve applied them to everything, even the games that shouldn’t be considered arcade.

As a writer I originally planned to focus solely on arcade games. There are a lot of things I never really had the chance to write about, a number of ideas that I didn’t think were fully fledged out. Keeping in tune with this review I’ve always thought that a lot of the art behind a good arcade racing game was lost over the past few years. I’m not just talking about presentation but also the focus. Nowadays there are some people, who consider something an arcade-racer because it has a lot of explosions, and crashes. To me it’s not really about that. All of the style is in avoiding the crashes and being one with the machine to the point that all turns are handled with absolute precision. It’s the eternal quest to find that perfect run, which is something far too many videogames are taking for granted. It has all become rather binary as control is continually taken from the player in exchange for positive feedback. A good arcade-racer has to continue being challenging, without relying on cheap methods such as “rubber-band AI” or failing the player because they didn’t hit enough magic pixies while power-sliding.

Daytona USA is a clinic when it comes to exemplary arcade-racing. It’s the standard-bearer because it does most everything right. An entire generation may look at this game, scratch their collective heads, and wonder why this was ever a huge deal in the first place. There’s really not a whole lot I can say to that, and it’s not even worth the time for me to shake my head in disbelief and shame. It is a game where the entirety of its content can be thumbed through in less than ten minutes and there are no experience bars to fill, no garages full of additional cars to collect, and barely any unlockables. In fact one of the additions to this port is a rewind mode so you can go back to your last mistake and correct it. It’s like Sega is giving this game away, but for a price.

So I, who has close to two decade worth of history tied to this game, and for all intents and purposes is beyond clouded by nostalgia, am now tasked with recommending this game. That “A” rating is certainly not enough. The only way I know how to recommend this game is that you must play it. You have to go into Daytona USA knowing all of its rules and intricacies, which should only take you seconds to figure out. Winning races all depends on how you handle its turns, whether you can take advantage of slip-streaming to pass rivals, and how you deal with bad situations like multi-car pileups. This is a game you will pick up on in no time and it will be endlessly rewarding and satisfying.

As far as ports are concerned this edition is undoubtedly as good as it is going to get. The frame-rate is perfect, the controls are excellent. Even the online-play is very solid, although it definitely helps to stick with players who have decent connections. The Karaoke mode is an amusing diversion but the Survival and Challenge modes deserve special mention. The Challenge mode is basically a guide to getting down some of the more complicated aspects of Daytona USA. This can include details such as the shortcut on the beginner’s track, how to perform a rocket-start, and keeping a high speed during the most difficult turns. Learning all of this will help you when it comes time to shoot for the leaderboards and staying competitive in multiplayer. Survival has you trying to go for as long as possible while the handling of your car rapidly deteriorates. You have to make the right call on making those pit-stops as well as learning all of the ways in which you can add bonus time (which can even include things such as hitting cones and signs).

All of these modes take place over the same three tracks and your choice in car never moves beyond Automatic or Manual but the game still changes as your skill-level rises. You will start finding yourself in more delicate situations, and putting yourself at greater risks just for incremental gains. I believe if you can make it to this point then you understand perfectly why this game is so great. Daytona USA does so much with so little and part of the reason why it has held up for so long is due to its quality as just being a well-rounded and fantastic-playing game. We’ve been long overdue for a port that can match such a standard and I’m more than glad that it’s finally here. Sega’s AM Port team has done an incredible job here and I’m confident that their next project will turn out as flawless as this one. Unfortunately this is one of the last games I’d ever be able to approach without biasness. I’m really not sure if this can even make for a worthwhile review but here we are.

Blog plans

After doing a little soul-searching, I'm starting to think that maybe this blog is worth revisiting.
For now, I'm going to post all of my reviews that were lost when Extraguy went down. I haven't thought too far ahead, but I'd like to get back into writing reviews of arcade games. September is the unofficial month of Taito, and there are more than enough classics to discuss.

Also, any game that I play on the PC is getting steamed on twitch. It's nothing special, but it might be worth checking out, if you don't mind mediocre video-quality and no commentary. I'll try to stream at 9 am to 12 pm EST, and from 11 pm to 1 am (or later). No guarantees.

XBLA Look - Radiant Silvergun

As a Saturn owner I’m quite familiar with Radiant Silvergun. Next to Psychic Assassin Taromaru and Panzer Dragoon Saga it’s one of the most expensive and sought after games on the system. Well, that really doesn’t matter now does it? What this XBLA release brings to the table is that it shatters the mystique that has surrounded Radiant Silvergun for so long. I consider myself guilty in some cases for propagating many of the myths that surround the game, such as it being too complicated, too boring, and so on and so forth. The high price-tag certainly didn’t help as it made it easier for people like me to speak ill of the game, claiming it’s not worth the money. Honestly I can’t think of any game that’s worth $150 or more but I’ll chalk it up under the follies of youth. What is important now is that finally people without the deepest pockets and those who are unwilling to jump through a few hoops can get a version of one of Treasure’s most important games. Aside from a few changes and some very minor complaints this is a more than competent remake and I couldn’t be happier.

Radiant Silvergun tells the tale of humanity’s last stand. A mysterious stone is excavated from somewhere and before long this triggers a worldwide catastrophe as all of the weapons humans have produced turn against them. All that remains are a handful of pilots and their hyper-advanced Silverguns. They can move in any direction, have access to seven different weapons, and are destroyed in a single hit. This is a 2D shooter after-all; nobody ever got the bright idea to use all of the advanced technology to slap a shield on their ship.

The game itself is something that has to be played to be truly understood. I could sit here and describe aspects such as stage-progression and the weapon-systems in agonizingly dull detail but that isn’t going to help you get any better. Unlike more recent shooters like the average Cave offering, Radiant Silvergun does not overwhelm the player in curtains of bullets. There are a few times where it gets close but it’s not like some games where it seems like there’s a guy shaking all of the contents from a box of cereal in front of your screen. This game tosses you over a half a dozen weapons, throws you into seemingly impossible situations every minute, and acts of mercy are tossed anywhere but to you. This game was not designed to be approachable. This game is only for the hardcore.

Ooh it just stings doesn’t it? This “not for everyone” description sounds like the perfect excuse for a bad game to hide behind. It’s the truth though, because you need to be a very dedicated individual and willing to accept failure. The important thing to keep in mind is that it’s not always your fault. Yes you probably could have dodged that and maybe you should have seen that coming. A lot of times you died because you simply didn’t know what to do. Eventually you’ll figure it out and what took you a dozen lives to get through an hour ago may take only one or two now. This is a just plain difficult game that wants to break you, and if you have any faith in your abilities as a gamer you will not back down.

It’s here where some aspects of the game’s progression really shine. Extra continues in the arcade mode and extra lives in the story mode are given for each hour of play-time in the respective mode. Now it’s perfectly alright if you start a game, pause it, and then leave the Xbox 360 alone while you go out and do other things. All those extra lives and continues aren’t going to make you any better at the game but at least they give you some breathing room to experiment and see how everything works. The story-mode also has the added incentive of letting you save your weapon-levels. Weapon-levels are tied to your score so it works in multiple ways. Inevitably you’ll find yourself replaying the game and will be able to use the skills you’ve honed in the later stages to make the earlier stages easier and accumulate more points. It’s cyclical and rewarding, and provides the necessary preparation if you’re willing to take your game to the next level.

The next level is of course going back to the Arcade mode. The basis of high-scoring is in the chains and aside from watching some readily available replays you’ll have to memorize the what, when, and where of the weapon system. Radiant Silvergun is a very methodical and deliberate game, and once you’ve established how you handle a situation you’re golden. Like the story, your progress in the game is cyclical and between every life and death you learn just a little bit more as long as you’re persistent.

If the time ever comes that you’re attaining the maximum possible score in every section, can milk the most troublesome stage 5 for every last point, and can’t remember the last time you actually died. You should probably consider that you are either a robot or have evolved just a little bit faster than the rest of humanity. It’s been well over a decade and masters of Radiant Silvergun are still few and far between. This either speaks well of the depth this game holds or it speaks ill of just how convoluted and frustrating it can be.

As I said before this is a hardcore game and you’re pretty much stuck playing it the way the game asks. Thanks to the weapon-level system your survival is tied to your score, which means if you aren’t chaining properly, not getting the secret bonuses, and not going for the 100% destruction rate on bosses, you’re going to have a very rough time. It’s certainly not impossible but you can expect bosses to perform new attacks that are more creative and punishing than their last as long as they’re alive. Most of them self-destruct before too long but that will cost you dearly in terms of points. The score requirements for level-ups have been loosened a bit for this remake which is a welcome change. However thanks to the slight increase in power the 360 holds over the Saturn, the slowdown is pretty much gone. As any shooter fan knows, slowdown is actually welcome. The Radiant Silvergun veterans will notice that their timings have changed when it comes to completing chains, everyone else will have a bit more difficulty surviving when things become hectic.

If you own the 360 version of Ikaruga you’re granted access to the Ikaruga mode in this game. This changes the chain settings so that you don’t have to constantly destroy three of the same-color enemy to get higher bonuses. The added flexibility comes at a price as the weapon-bonuses and secret-chains have been done away with, also the maximum chain bonus drops to 25,600. To add to this I’m not so sure Radiant Silvergun was designed with this system in mind. Yes enemies have a habit of appearing in triplets but the Silvergun is a pretty slow ship and its weapon system was designed with the old-chaining system in mind. Plus if you’re serious about this game you pretty much have to re-learn a sizable portion of it, which is either a new and exciting challenge or a reason to despair.

Online-play is supported but as far as my end goes it’s untested. I’m really curious to see how this works out but I think like Ikaruga, you’re going to have to seek out somebody locally and form an unbreakable bond of brotherhood. Radiant Silvergun is one of those games where lag is the last thing you want to be a factor. Furthermore your partner has to be tuned to the same mental wavelength as yourself and I think proximity has a lot to do with it. Still the option is available so I guess if you just have to chew some stuff up with a partner then you can go crazy and/or get nuts. Otherwise all I predict is a lot of aimless meandering as both players destroy everything all out of order and then get aced by the bosses because their pitiful weapons can’t even get a dent in.

This remake also boasts a cache of video options and extras. My preferred setup is hi-res but without the special effects. The bloom effects are a bit too pronounced so when the entire screen is practically glowing it can make bullets difficult to see. Also for whatever reason only the story mode arranged soundtrack is included. This is a minor but still regrettable omission. Replay saving and downloading is supported and as always, quite welcome.

One thing I have to point out is that Radiant Silvergun is saddled with possibly the worst demo around. In all frankness a section from towards the middle of the game that has a bit of a gimmick going on isn’t going to sell no matter how legendary the game is considered to be. If you’re at all interested in what this game has to offer all you can really do is…well…jump in? Okay maybe that’s not the best way to say it. Radiant Silvergun is an immensely satisfying and rewarding game and as far as 2D shooters go it’s an experience worth spending some time with. You should do as I did and look beyond the myths, the half-truths, and the biases. Radiant Silvergun is and always will be a classic.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

(OLD) Asteroid Bounty Hunter review

Like a lot of people who grew up in the 80s, Asteroids was one of my first videogames. Also, as if my avatar didn't make it readily apparent, I'm a huge fan of 2D shooters. Asteroid Bounty Hunter is a videogame that combines shmup elements with rock-shooting. How could I not recommend it? 

Let's start off the review by discussing the controls. The player's ship suffers from inertia. 2D shooters with inertia are very few and far-between, and for good reason. In games that involve dodging hundreds (or even thousands) of objects, all with differing sizes, shapes, and patterns, the littlest quirks become extremely noticeable. When I move in a direction, I expect to stop immediately, once I let go of the joystick, d-pad, or arrow key. Instead, the ship slides around as if space was actually just the biggest ice-level in existence. 

Another problem with the controls is that they're inconsistent. During the game I found myself "testing" movement. I'd tap the arrow keys, establish a steady rhythm, and try to determine exactly how much the ship moves with every tap. Every time I tried this, my results varied wildly. Sometimes I'd move a millimeter, a centimeter, 2 millimeters, or even 1 and a 1/2 centimeters. It might not sound like much, but not being able to get the distance I wanted from my key-presses, has resulted in a lot of damage. This is why I'm not a fan of inertia in shooters, it can lead to more issues.

If being able to accurately control the ship wasn't enough of a hassle, the hit-box is very poor. In 2D shooters, the hit-box is typically smaller than the actual ship. With this game however, it almost feels like I'm dealing with the reverse. I've seen asteroids and enemy bullets inflict damage on my ship, even though all they did was hit the space outside the tips of my wings. Even with the generous recharging shields, I can't overlook those moments where I'm taking hits just because my personal space is being violated. Another unfortunate aspect of Asteroid Bounty Hunter, is that it's just not much fun. I'll give it credit for its leveling system. Grinding out weapon-upgrades and improved abilities will forever be compelling to me. Your ship is outfitted with four weapons, three of which operate on cool-down timers. This lends a strategic element to the game, as you have to carefully manage your weapons. Failure to do so could lead to you being faced with a wall of asteroids, but without a weapon to cut through them. However, the process that is actually playing through the stages is sorely lacking. In each stage, you have to destroy a certain number of asteroids. Frequently, the rocks stop appearing, and then you're accosted by bounty hunters. Once they're destroyed, the asteroids resume. Aside from tougher rocks, the later stages boast new hunters with different weapons, and there are five bosses to contend with.

At this point, I'd like to mention that there is a glitch in this version of the game. Usually, the asteroids and hunters take their turn assaulting the player. It's very organized and also very dull. However, there are those rare times where the hunters attack alongside the asteroids. This not only makes the stages go by faster, but they also become more dynamic, challenging, and fun. Granted, sometimes the hunters spawn too quickly, and this creates impossible-to-survive situations. Still, I can't help but think: "This is interesting." "I like this." "Why won't this happen more often?" Instead, the game feels a little too rote, and the constant hunter appearances only serve to drag the stages out. 

The bosses mix things up with a variety of attack-patterns, but they can also be really cheap. While fighting the second and third bosses, you're bound to get sucked into a lot of insta-death black-holes and laser-walls. Most of the boss-attacks can also block your weapons, which wastes time. The finicky controls and lousy hit-box add to the frustration. 

Asteroid Bounty Hunter could be a pretty solid game, but it's lacking in all of the attributes that matter. The interesting concept, great soundtrack and compelling level/upgrade-systems are undone by poor controls, boring stages, and cheap boss-fights. In its current state, I simply can't recommend it.

Note: Since this review was published, the developer has issued a patch that addresses these complaints. Expect an updated review in the future.