Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean


System(s): Gamecube

Genre: Turn-Based RPG

Developer: tri-Crescendo/Monolith Soft
Publisher: Namco

Release Dates:
Japan - December 2003
North America - November 2004
Europe - April 2005
Australia - May 2005




Baten Kaitos was a title released in 2004, published by Namco and co-developed by Monolith Soft, the company behind the critically acclaimed Xenosaga, Xenogears and Chrono Cross series of JRPG’s; and tri-Crescendo, the company that developed the visually stunning Eternal Sonata. As one of the few RPG’s (and one of the last) on the Gamecube, it was met with much anticipation by fans.

For a long time, story has been the benchmark for which all great JRPG’s are measured. Well, on the story front, Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean is merely adequate. Evil emperor with a superior military force wants to revive a dark God to satiate his increasing megalomanial lust for power and conquest, blah blah blah. It’s pretty standard stuff and it’s been seen many times before. There is a shocking plot twist involving the main character, but that’s to be expected, as that too has become a staple of the JRPG genre. Having said that, the plot twist is quite a significant one, which changes entirely how you view the earliest parts of the game and gives you food for thought. The game is a good 45 hours long, not counting side quests. This means that, although there isn’t much replay value, it will take you a while to finish it the first time and give you plenty of entertainment.

As far as the characters go, besides the vengeful protagonist Kalas, mercilessly teased from childhood because he has only one wing, most appear very one dimensional at the beginning. It takes them some time to really grow, although they largely fit standard JRPG archetypes i.e. rebellious villager, mercenary with a dark past, unwilling soldier and hot-headed young guy. The one character that truly stands out is the enigmatic Mizuti, a diminutive wizard who wears something resembling an Aztec mask and refers to herself in third person (as the “Great” Mizuti much to the bemusement of the other characters, especially Kalas). Mizuti serves as the comic foil. This is in spite of her being a kind of Deus Ex Machina, saving the party and advancing the plot on many occasions. In addition, Mizuti’s dialogue is delivered excellently. The rest of the characters do grow and develop somewhat later into the game, so it is forgivable that they start off a bit flat and uninspiring.

Although the story doesn’t particularly stand out, and the characters are slow to develop, one thing does make Baten Kaitos stand out, and that is the setting. The legend goes that long ago, there was a war among gods that evaporated the oceans, leaving behind a toxic miasma on the earth. For some unspecified reason the game never explains, the land floated into the air, and the inhabitants evolved wings, called “Wings of the Heart.“ These are not strong enough for them to fly great distances, however, and characters rely on large creatures somewhat similar to whales for transport between islands.

To make things more complicated, you play the role of a “guardian spirit” that bonded to Kalas, and is thus always with him. This involves you more directly in the story but without breaking the fourth wall, as characters will not only directly address you by name, but occasionally ask you for a response. Sometimes this works, and other times it feels a bit jarring. The setting of floating islands paves the way for some great design by the developers and some interesting locations. An entire land made from islands floating among the clouds with winged inhabitants sounds pretty intriguing in itself but that’s nothing compared to a fairytale inspired village made of confectionary. There is even a dungeon that serves as an homage to classic pixelated masterpieces such as Namco’s own Pacman. There were obviously some very creative minds at work on this game and it shows.

Or perhaps eccentric is the word. The game introduces a few radical ideas, some of which work, some of which don’t. The ideas that occupy the middle ground here include interesting side quests and a card based battle system (before you hardened JRPG veterans recoil in horror, it works surprisingly well). The side quests are interesting, although they are few and far between. Some of those you receive last the duration of the game. Highlights include collecting star constellations for display on a church roof and gathering a dying man’s extremely large extended family. As for the card battles, card games themselves are not overly popular except with a specific demographic, which lessens the game’s appeal to a broad audience; simply put, many people won‘t appreciate using cards to fight, although there’s not much to separate it from many Final Fantasy games in how much control you ultimately have over your character. This shouldn’t take anything away from the game, as Baten Kaitos combat is mostly simple and quite engaging.

Since card games are based on a great deal of luck however, the lack of control over your allies during battles can be made more frustrating, particularly during some very tense boss fights. Paying attention to the cards you have been dealt at least mitigates the time you spend watching long, drawn-out cut scenes during battle, as your character moves to attack while you are still selecting more cards to use. This means battles are not quite the slow, grinding chore they can be in other turn-based games. You also need to think quickly, as you have limited time to pick cards before your enemies physically attack you. However, you can customise your deck in the inventory screens like you would equipment in any other turn-based JRPG, so as long as you are well prepared, most enemies other than bosses shouldn’t pose a huge problem.

There is elemental damage infused in certain offensive cards, as well as special attacks. Oddly, unlike traditional water-beats-fire elemental systems in JRPG’s, elements beat those that are directly opposite to them i.e. light beats dark but dark, in turn, also beats light. This increases the strategic element and makes it all the more satisfying when you land a good combo of elemental hits on a foe weak to that type and finish with a special move. There is one strategic idea linked to the use of cards that is quite confusing though, and the game never really adequately explains it. Each card has a number in the corner, and stringing together combinations of numbers nets you bonus damage. That part is easy enough. Where is gets confusing is there are over a hundred unique combos to discover by using certain items in battle along with weapons and armour in a particular order. The game never tells you what these items are or what order they should be used in and, in theory, you could have fun discovering this, but the combination of items appear random and the game never really encourages you to find out. Sometimes you’ll do it by accident, which just increases the sense of frustration.

On the plus side, the special attacks are fun to watch and the dark elemental specials look particularly stunning when unleashed. Cards do play a reasonably important part in the plot (which the game refers to as ‘Magnus’). Five special cards called “End Magnus” when brought together, are what releases the dark god that forms the main antagonist later in the game. But even more importantly, what is truly innovative about cards is that they are used in-game to store items.

Not only are all healing items and equipment stored on Magnus, but special quest items. You can store up to five items at a time, and these, as well as regular cards, can change depending on the circumstances. This means that your fruit can rot, water become stagnant etc. and quite literally this brings an extra dimension to the gameplay. This change also affects their use in battle. What used to be a healing item such as an apple, becomes a good means of poisoning your enemy once it has rotted, although quite how hurling raw pork ribs or blackened bananas at your enemy causes them decent damage is a mystery. There are no monetary rewards for finishing battles in Baten Kaitos, which is instead earned by placing a camera in your deck and taking photos of monsters. This can sometimes up the ante in boss fights, as you will want a photo of the boss to sell for a significantly high price, but will need to spend a character’s turn doing so. One of the more frustrating decisions made by the developer was to only allow levelling up from churches. These are located in towns far from dungeons, so if you aren’t careful, you can end up going into dungeons weaker than you intended.

The sound is perhaps the weakest component of Baten Kaitos. All main characters relevant to the story are fully voiced, as well as numerous minor characters. In short, if they are given a name by the developers, they speak, which is fairly impressive considering the number of characters. It’s worth noting that the voice acting was purposely made to sound slightly distant because of the player‘s role as an incorporeal being, which many reviewers and players alike failed to pick up on at the time of release. However, the game does not explain this, but rather leaves the player to figure this out themselves, so the negative press given to the sound is not surprising. It was an interesting idea but perhaps a bit too clever, and affects the voice acting in a way that is difficult to ignore. Not to say the voice acting is terrific, but for a game originally released in 2004, it isn’t as painful as it could have been, so long as you can handle the aforementioned surrealism of hearing all the characters sound like they have a bucket on their heads.

The dialogue is excellently written, but the quality of the voiceovers can vary. If it starts to grate, though, there is always the option to turn it off. By contrast, the rest of the sound is excellent. JRPG’s frequently sell soundtrack CD’s, and it’s not hard to see why, as the music is beautifully composed by Motoi Sakuraba and lives up to great JRPG standards. Again, the land of Mira is a particular highlight. The cleft between dimensions, where the characters get somewhat lost, is musically scored so as to invoke a sense of wonder and eeriness.

Presentation wise, there are some great C.G.I cut scenes in the game at key moments, and the character status screen has some nicely drawn character art. Aside from that, presentation is largely standard for a JRPG. What makes Baten Kaitos impressive, graphically speaking, is the beautiful pre-rendered backgrounds. This game looks gorgeous, and really shows off what the Gamecube is capable of. This skilful use of pre-rendering is similar to what Capcom accomplished with their remake of Resident Evil, only with much more vibrant colour and detail (and less flesh eating zombies, obviously). It’s not so much the technical side of the graphics that really stand out but the art style. The setting really comes to life thanks to the gorgeous artwork. This game is like a fairytale picture book come to life, despite being a little rough around the edges. Character models are well drawn, and having character art pop up on screen in dialogue boxes to accompany the spoken dialogue is a nice touch, particularly as each piece of artwork changes based on the emotions of the character. The character animations when running are pretty comical and exaggerated, almost cartoon-like, but you can forgive this because most players will be too busy picking their jaw up from the floor after viewing the stunning scenery.

Overall, Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean is a fairly lengthy JRPG that tries to do something radical in certain areas. Due to this, the voice acting sounds off and some characters are wooden or unlikeable to begin with, but they don’t ultimately detract from what is a great 45 hour experience. Assuming you are undeterred by the thought of card-based combat mechanics, I would highly recommend giving the game a look if you like JRPG’s. When so many games in the genre struggle to set themselves apart from Final Fantasy, it is refreshing to see one so boldly set out to do things differently. Despite the fact that the gamble the developers made with the game’s design doesn’t always pay off, the unique setting, colourful scenery, graphical presentation and solid, if somewhat quirky gameplay make this arguably the best JRPG's on the Gamecube, and one of the best of it's console generation.


Summary
+ Beautiful graphics, especially the pre-rendered backgrounds
+ Unique card battle system brings plenty of strategic thought
+ Radically new gameplay ideas that implement a fresh, strategic element
+ Great soundtrack
+ Creative & unique level design

- Apart from the odd plot twist, story is pretty standard fare and characters are slow to develop
- Voice acting sounds odd
- Boss fights can be frustratingly difficult

Overall Score
8/10

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Singularity



System(s): Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC

Genre: First Person Shooter

Developer:  Raven Software
Publisher: Activision

Release Date: June 2010





Note: Review is of the Xbox 360 version only

Developed by Raven Software, the company behind the first reboot of the Wolfenstein series and published by parent company Activision, Singularity is a Sci-Fi First Person Shooter. The story of Singularity begins when an electromagnetic surge from a fictional island called Katorga-12, once belonging to the Soviet Union, damages an American spy satellite. A group of American soldiers, which includes the protagonist, Captain Nate Renko, go to investigate, when another surge causes their helicopter’s engine to fail. Renko is cut off from the outside and under attack by citizens who have been mutated by an element found only on the island. Renko is forced to battle his way through the abandoned island armed with the TMD (Time Manipulation Device) – a time altering weapon created over 50 years ago by a brilliant researcher.

The first thing to be said about Singularity is how well it makes use of setting to draw the player in. The first level sees the protagonist wander through an abandoned village. The narrative uses recorded messages, propaganda videos and written messages scattered around the various locations to enhance the feeling that something terrible has happened on Katorga-12. The films found in projectors and the propaganda posters in particular are nicely designed, and have an air of socialist realism about them, in addition to the statues of Soviet leaders. Taken together, it evokes memories of Bioshock‘s initial scenes. If we cast aside the cheesy, stereotyped Russian accents and the cliché’ Cold War “what if?” scenario, Singularity has an interesting, though not quite revolutionary plot. It serves as yet another warning for how badly things can go wrong should time travel technology be abused, with the bespectacled Dr. Barisov serving as a Doc Brown of sorts, attempting to prevent his creation from wreaking havoc on the world.

Singularity is about silly fun, which the time travel plot allows you to indulge in. The TMD is the main focus of the gameplay, and with this handy little toy, you can perform all sorts of neat tricks. This is what makes the game so ridiculously fun. You can use the TMD to age enemies and reduce them to dust at the press of a button, create a time bubble that slows down anything inside it and more. The most hilariously juvenile ability that the TMD grants you though is turning soldiers into ‘Reverts’, horrible creatures that have been distorted by the rapid fluctuation of time. You can even use the TMD a second time to turn them into walking bombs as they attack their former AI squad mates.

Again, there are inevitable comparisons with Bioshock and it’s creative use of combining plasmids for different effects. In addition to cruelly dispatching foes, you will also need the TMD to solve puzzles. Use your TMD on the blackboards you find scattered around the environments to reveal the message they once contained, which can be hints for solving puzzles or revelations about the plot. Other uses for the TMD include repairing crumbling staircases or restoring crates to grab items or even to use them to wedge shutters open. The puzzles are not outrageously challenging or memorable, but they do provide a nice break from the shooting segments.


But as fun as the TMD is, it doesn’t exactly run on batteries. You need to pick up energy to replenish the TMD’s power bar, much like you do for health. In addition, you need to upgrade your TMD in order to unleash the full potential of it’s powers. You do this by picking up E-99 technology scattered around the levels, which encourages you to explore every nook and cranny to get the best out of your upgrades.

Upgrade stations you find along the way let you upgrade health or the amount of oxygen while swimming in addition to the more funky powers and abilities. This also applies to weapons, as you find upgrade kits to make them stronger. Speaking of weapons – it’s not just the TMD that is fun to play with, which is just as well, as you can’t solely rely on the TMD to get you out of a tight spot. The weapons in Singularity feel powerful and are fun to shoot. You get your basic pistols, rifles and shotguns, but some weapons have unique abilities. For example, there is a sniper rifle that lets you slow down time, allowing you to easily get a headshot. Another weapon lets you guide your bullet to its target manually. If this sounds somewhat overpowered, it is. Sometimes it does too good a job of making you feel like an overpowered badass, and one section even gives you unlimited TMD energy (although I won’t lie - I had a blast during this part of the game).

Like in the F.E.A.R series you will come up against enemy squads geared up to take you down, and only on rare occasions come up against monsters and soldiers in the same area. The monster enemies are interesting and the alternation of gunplay against human and monster enemies mixes up the action nicely between straight up blasting everything that moves and using cover to fight waves of soldiers. Boss fights are breathtaking, with bosses that take up the size of the screen and more. They are very well designed, imaginative and the arenas are well thought out. One fight sees you shooting at a gigantic mantis-like mutant on a collapsing train. Luckily, the powers don’t make the boss fights too easy, which mostly rely on classic shoot-the-weak point mechanics. It may not be cutting edge, but it’s no less enjoyable for it. You might notice I have name-dropped a couple of obvious influences here, but although derivative, Singularity never feels worse off for it. If anything, this game is worth more than the sum of it’s parts, and few games can so blatantly rip-off the competition in different areas and yet make everything fit together so well.

Singularity doesn’t have the most fantastical visuals you’ve ever seen. There is a nice amount of detail, and the art style is a particular visual strength, but the graphics are not the most cutting edge you will find. In addition, there are moments when you will encounter some texture pop-in and some blurred textures here and there. With that said, you will likely be too busy blasting monsters to notice, and when you do take note of the graphics, it will most likely be the disgusting monster designs or the eerie orange glow of E-99 in the mining areas. The main highlights from the graphics are the time distortion effects. The wormholes look amazing, as does the singularity itself, which you can see in the featured review picture above. Watching a chalkboard hanging on a wall straighten up and the rubbed out chalk re-form words is also a nice visual effect.

In fact it highlights the excellent production values of Singularity, which is surprising despite the fact it’s a title with modest ambitions. Singularity is all about outrageous, juvenile fun, and is certainly not going to make the case for video games as art, but it’s in a nicely presented package. In terms of the sound, Singularity has a nice up tempo soundtrack, perfect for blasting ugly mutants. In one tense scene, Phase Ticks, small insects that explode on contact with the player, swarm the room. You have limited time to fight them off before they blow you to smithereens, and the music during this section ramps the tension up considerably. Most of the time the music will be fairly mellow and won’t come into play much, but it’s during these action sequences that it really comes to life and it does add to the atmosphere and gives a sense of urgency to proceedings.

The campaign is fun – while it lasts. Sadly it’s over all too quickly, clocking in at around 6 or 7 hours, with not much beyond the strengths of it’s gameplay to keep you going back. Fortunately, there is a multiplayer mode to keep you going for a while longer. This takes the form of class-based warfare, with monsters taking on TMD-armed super soldiers. Unfortunately it only features two modes, Creatures vs. Soldiers, which is a basic team death match mode, and Extermination. Extermination is like a ‘conquest’ mode, where soldiers need to repair, capture and hold beacons to progress through the map, with the creatures fighting them off.


I found it easy to get a game going for Extermination, but not so much for Creatures vs. Soldiers, and sometimes the play just degenerates into mindless point scoring rather than opponents or team-mates sticking to the objectives. Not that this isn't sadly a common problem in multiplayer games in general. Playing as the creatures is tremendous fun, and the powers are great to mess round with. Reverts heal allies and hurt enemies by puking on them, Phase Ticks take over enemy soldiers bodies, Radions are like huge ranged tanks and Zeks have a cloaking ability. All in all, the classes are fairly well balanced, and even the soldier classes can be fun to play as. It’s not like, say, Left 4 Dead‘s multiplayer, where players regularly quit and spoil the fun because they want to be the monsters. You will genuinely enjoy playing both sides of the conflict.

Singularity is definitely a game to check out if you want some mindless fun. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, the plot is over the top, the accents are corny, the monsters are crazy, but it’s all about having a blast – literally. Ultimately it wont last you long, and the multiplayer may or may not be enough to keep you going. There are some graphical hitches, but the art style keeps the game looking good, and the good pacing of the action combined with a fun gimmick in the TMD will keep you enthralled. Raven Software has shown that you don’t need to be original to make a game that promises a damn good time and delivers.

 
Summary


+ Weapons feel powerful to use and the TMD is great fun to play with
+ Well paced action with a good mix of gameplay
+ Beautiful art style makes the setting come alive
+ Terrific boss fights
+ Multiplayer keeps you coming back

- Small number of multiplayer modes
- Short game, only lasts 6-7 hours

- Derivative, much of it's better ideas came from elsewhere

 
Overall Score
8/10



WCW/NWO Thunder

System(s): Playstation

Genre: Wrestling

Developer:  Inland Productions
Publisher: THQ


Release Dates:
North America - December 1998
Europe - January 1999


It's an unfortunate truth that some games publishers simply try to take advantage of licenses at the height of their popularity to sell copies. A famous example of this is E.T, which, as urban legend tells us, resulted in a million Atari tapes being buried in a desert because the quality was so poor. Often, when a game is based on popular films, toys etc. it’s unlikely be made with any other thought in mind but to cynically exploit that popularity. No game is more guilty of this heinous crime than WCW/NWO Thunder.

Thunder was released in 1999 as the sequel to WCW Nitro, quite late in the life of the Playstation, and developed by Inland Productions. As with many other wrestling titles of the time, it was also, unsurprisingly, published by none other than THQ. Despite theoretically being a new game, Thunder does very little to distinguish itself from its predecessor. In a move that foreshadows their later franchise SmackDown vs. Raw, the biggest, most noticeable changes were the roster, which was updated from Nitro, and the presentation.

Thunder is by no means a carbon copy, despite the apparent lack of improvements. There are aspects that could be considered a reasonable improvement, namely it does on occasion take advantage of the WCW license in order to give enhanced presentation. In an era when wrestler entrances looked nothing like their real-life counterparts, WCW/NWO Thunder features recorded entrances taken straight from the show itself. These look fantastic and take full advantage of the Playstation’s hardware. Ever wanted to see an entrance of the colourful parody gimmick La Parka playing electric guitar with a steel chair? Or WCW Heavyweight Champion Goldberg snarling and shaking on the way to the ring? Well it’s here in all it’s glory. Presentation is one area where Thunder significantly improves on Nitro. The downside is that there is a limited number of entrance songs, with many superstars (especially the lesser known ones) having their themes replaced by generic WCW or NWO themes.

The crowd also plays a part in the presentation, attempting to successfully re-create the atmosphere of a wrestling event. Crowds will shout abuse or cheer, and on occasion, depending on the character’s affiliation, will throw garbage into the ring. There is limited commentary in the game too, but this is so limited it becomes tedious. The commentary is restricted to shouting the names of moves or announcing the winner, which, when you are only able to pull off a handful of attacks, results in repeated cries of “Powerbomb!” that will prompt you to just turn it off. The rest of the game’s sound fares much better, with pulsating music charging the action, Unfortunately, like the commentary, there are too few tracks to keep this interesting throughout.

Perhaps the most interesting alteration made to Thunder was the ability to change a wrestler’s stable. Let’s say you were a fan of the Four Horsemen, but you always thought it should be made up of classic WWF wrestlers. Well Thunder would allow you to change their affiliation to say, NWO or Raven’s Flock; and instead put Bret Hart, Macho Man, Hogan and Kevin Nash in the Horseman. This is a common feature in modern wrestling games, and the only other game of the era that did this was WWF No Mercy. In fact, this was the first game to have such a feature, although it was still quite limited. It seems like quite a minor gameplay mechanic, but the ability to customise the roster itself was a godsend for die-hard fans that had their own ideas about who should be feuding with who. A nice cosmetic addition is the change of outfit that occurs when you alter a wrestler’s stable. Which is commendable considering the size of the roster.

The roster has been greatly expanded since Nitro. You begin with 32 wrestlers and unlock more, up to a total of 64, after winning a title with each character (including announcers and one of the Nitro girls, admittedly). This is a very good size of roster for it’s time. After your triumph, you also have the option to alter the strength or weakness of specific body parts of every wrestler you have won belts with. As with Nitro, Thunder also contains skits in the wrestler select screen. The downside is that none of the unlockable wrestlers feature introductions like the original 32. This is quite a shame, as these skits can be amusing, and it seems like a missed opportunity to explore some of the lesser known wrestlers. Kevin Nash telling the player they haven’t the skill to use him, suggesting they pick a fan favourite like Hogan or Sting, is a particular highlight of these skits. Rowdy Roddy Piper references this in his own rant and begs you to pick him. This brings an authentic WCW feel to the game, which is just as well, as the action is anything but authentic.

Have you ever thought that it would be amusing to see The Giant attempt a Hurracanrana? Well in this game, you can. In Thunder, sadly, the stables and ability of wrestlers is as far as the customisation goes, and all movesets are exactly the same, bar special finishers. This leads to some odd situations as gigantic wrestlers perform moves worthy of the most athletic high-flyer, and others such as Rey Mysterio Jr. attempt gorilla presses. Oddly, the wrestlers are all the same size too, so although The Giant and Rey Mysterio are vastly different in real life, they share the same eye level in this game. Much like older wrestling games from the 16 bit era, the game does not give you a move list for either regular moves or finishers (although regular moves are listed in the instruction manual). This has the effect of making Thunder feel a bit out of date with many other wrestling games even of its time. To make things worse, the controls can be very unintuitive and unresponsive and pulling off moves is a hit or a miss. The AI will counter your grapple by flinging you over their shoulder after just a few seconds. However, there also appears to be no method of countering an AI grapple, making the game seem very one sided.

This makes Thunder sound quite difficult; on the contrary, the game is surprisingly easy in single player. Most matches boil down to mashing buttons to spam moves through sheer luck. There is also a move called Test of Strength, in which both wrestlers do some kind of double arm wrestle. This is a ridiculously easy way to drain an opponents health by button mashing. The Test of Strength is also easy to pull off by mistake, especially when you are trying to put your opponent on the mat for a pin, resulting in a tedious battle with the controls. Furthermore, there is no create a wrestler mode, no special PPV modes and only a handful of match modes. Of these, new ones include a Cage match and Battle Royale.

Sadly, the Cage matches do not involve climbing over the cage and exiting to win, but rather you can merely use the side of the cage like the turnbuckle, making the mode seem rather pointless. You get what you might expect from the Battle Royale, but there is very little motivation to play it, as the frame-rate, controls and commentary will test your nerves. At least in that sense it provides a considerable challenge compared with the other single player modes. Considering what other wrestling games of the time were offering (including other games published by THQ) the small number of game modes is disappointing, and leaves Thunder feeling more comparable to a wrestling game from the 16 bit era, or like an arcade title without the simplicity. On the plus side, you do have to unlock the extra wrestlers, but you will most likely get bored or frustrated with the controls long before you can accomplish this. The only other gameplay mode that had potential to increase replay value is multiplayer. But nope. No luck there. Frame-rates take their biggest dip in multiplayer, especially in a two on two Tag Team match. Tagging is also quite finicky, and I had trouble getting it to work properly.

Graphically, the game is not quite on a par with other wrestling games of the time. It was released in 1999, yet looks like a very early Playstation title. There are some very rough edges, and the crowd look like cardboard cut outs (although, admittedly, this was what most crowds looked like in wrestling games at the time). Given the graphics are not spectacular, you would think that at least the frame-rate would keep steady, but unfortunately slowdown is common, and particularly bad with more than two wrestlers in the ring at any one time. Wrestlers at least look somewhat like their counterparts despite the roughness of the character models.

All things considered, WCW/NWO Thunder does get some things right. The presentation is astounding, with amusing character rants, fully recorded entrances from the show, fans who chant abuse and throw stuff, and the ability to change stables. There are a huge number of wrestlers in the roster and the game captures the show it’s based on perfectly. Thunder is in some respects a fan tribute. Unfortunately, a game is there to be played, and no game is capable of holding a player’s attention on flashy presentation and an official license alone. Thunder falls well flat in the gameplay and graphics department, and the poor frame-rate and frustrating controls will put you off what appears to be a throwback to arcade style wrestling, yet without the simplicity or playability of those games. It does add a little to what Nitro offered last time around, but it should be considered as the definitive edition of Nitro rather than a genuine sequel. If you are particularly nostalgic for WCW, perhaps Thunder will entertain you for a few hours, but don’t expect anything more.

 
Summary

+ Excellent presentation captures the spirit of the show perfectly
+ A die-hard fan’s dream - huge roster and stable changing for the first time ever

- Poor graphics and frame-rate problems
- Lack of match options makes it feel outdated compared with other wrestling games
- Dull gameplay
- Frustrating and awkward controls
- Plays a lot like the previous game

Overall Score

3/10

ActRaiser

System(s): Super Nintendo, Wii Virtual Console, Mobile

Genre: Action RPG

Developer: Quintet

Publisher: Enix


Release Dates:
Japan - December 1990
North America - November 1992
Europe - March 1993

ActRaiser is an Action RPG released in 1990, developed by Quintet and published by Enix.  One of a number of games that took some time being released outside Japan, ActRaiser is definitely not a game that relies on a single genre to direct it’s gameplay. Even calling it an 'Action RPG' doesn't really explain adequately what the game is about. What makes ActRaiser unique is in the way it takes two completely separate gameplay styles and manages to weld them together with surprisingly positive results. On the one hand, there are platforming levels pitting players against a variety of monsters and culminating in epic boss fights. On the other, Sim City or Populous inspired strategy sections.

To this day, I’m not entirely sure what the game means by an “act”, or how one might go about "raising" one. But the odd title certainly didn’t stop the game from being a minor hit upon release. Things didn’t stop in 1990, however; it received a sequel in 1993, the imaginatively titled ActRaiser 2 (unfortunately shedding the strategy elements), the original was re-released in a watered down, three-level port for mobile phones in 2004 and in it’s entirety for the Wii’s Virtual Console in 2007. Furthermore, Quintet carried on many of the themes from the game to their later games, Soul Blazer, Illusion of Gaia and Terranigma.

ActRaiser doesn’t really provide you with a whole lot of context at the beginning. You begin the game awoken by an angel who informs you that, during your lengthy slumber, the demon Tanzra’s minions have taken over the earth. It’s up to you to saunter on down there from your palace and shoo the monsters away to make the land habitable again. Why the silly flunky didn’t wake you up earlier, before the demons wiped out humanity, always puzzled me, but I digress. You are able to move a large cloud containing your 'sky palace' over the land you want to interact with.

This sets up the platforming sections of the game. During these sections, there is a stereotypical theme, such as dark forests, swamp, desert etc. These levels are initially not that tricky, but steadily get tougher at a reasonable pace. There are a variety of traps to overcome, not just monsters, and at times they are quite creative and keep you on your toes. Combat is simple, you do slashes, jump slashes, and crouch slashes. That’s mostly all there is to hand-to-hand fighting in this game. Unfortunately, when you jump you do have to be careful, as unlike most platformers there is very little mid-air control, at least in the longer jumps. Short jumps are not an issue, but jumping large distances locks you into one direction. Although you can work around it, it can be frustrating knowing you are hurtling to your death through several frames of animation and can do very little to stop it.

Some enemies are tougher and will take multiple hits, requiring you to think about other ways to dispatch them than simply stand in front and hack away. In addition, every so often you will find magic powers which you can choose before battle, along with scrolls which increase the number of times you can use your spells. You can only take a single spell into a level with you, but that increases the strategic element, as some are better suited for particular bosses or situations, and they are fairly overpowered against normal enemies. There are some creative spells in the mix, like a white light that exits your body and moves across the screen, destroying everything in it’s path. Or the shooting stars that rain death on the enemy. Although nicely designed, the platforming feels more like a means to an end. In addition, the controls can occasionally feel stickier than half melted toffee, as there seems to be a slight delay in movement.

Bosses in AcRaiser often take the shape of mythical creatures, such as the Manticore or Minotaur .While I wouldn’t say the designs were quite on a par with Super Castlevania IV‘s bosses, they are creative. Some of them, like the giant pharaoh head or the wheel of fortune monster, are a bit strange and funky and were probably designed from scratch. Other fights, like the sorcerer who turns into a werewolf mid-fight bring a little extra strategy (and more of an awesome factor) to boss fights beyond the laborious tactic of jumping out of range and then spamming the attack button. Overall, a mixed bag design-wise, but the mechanics of defeating them are interesting and challenging.

After the boss is defeated, the game changes to a city building mode. The objective here is to seal the monster lairs dotted around by directing the citizens to build houses in that area. In the meantime, you can control your cupid-like angel follower on the map, killing enemies that want to hinder your land’s growth. This is easy enough to begin with, but by the time you get to later lands, you will screaming at the TV, getting bombarded with enemies with increasingly high HP from all corners of the land. Suffice to say, there is just enough challenge in these sections to keep things from getting stale. Much of this is because your angel, rather than dying, is momentarily unable to shoot arrows when his life is drained, which will only return the next time your population increases.

You will also have to use powers such as earthquakes, rain, lightening etc. to remove obstacles to continue progress, or in some instances, further the story. As you would expect, this uses spell power, which you also regain through population growth. Sealing monster lairs sometimes results in your worshippers discovering items, which will aid you in killing the monsters. Eventually, the sophistication of the people will increase and they will change from straw huts to wooden houses, and eventually stone buildings. These differ based on region, so you might as an example get farms and houses in most regions, but mountainous Aitos will instead get windmills or ranches, and the desert region Kasandora will get tents. As the population and civilisation level increases, so does your own level. This not only increases your HP in the platforming and strategy sections, it also allows to progress to new lands. This ensures you don’t try to rush ahead too early.

But that’s not all. Certain scripted events occur, many of which require your intervention to solve, such as creating an earthquake to bring a far off island to the mainland and allow building there. Others will only be solved by using items or skills learned in other lands. One early example of this is the people of Bloodpool learning bridge building from their neighbours in Fillmore. This invokes a sense that the people across the continent are dynamic communities which learn from one another. Random events like these mix things up and keep you on your toes. Eventually, though, you will destroy all the monster lairs and will have stockpiled some magic scrolls or obtained new types of magic. When all lairs are destroyed, an event occurs that slows or stops further population growth and reveals more monsters, marshalled by a more powerful foe that requires your intervention again. This will lead to another platforming section and the second boss of the stage. You can go back after and increase population to maximum so you improve your HP. but beyond a final scripted event, there is usually little else to go back for after all monsters are gone.

All in all, ActRaiser does a good job of setting up scenarios for the platforming sections, and they are seamlessly integrated with the story. In fact, some people might enjoy the strategy sections so much that they put off killing all monsters, like I did. But sooner or later, your population growth will stagnate and you will need to move on. When all lands are freed, you will face a gruelling challenge, a boss gauntlet, culminating in a final battle. This seems to be a regular feature of Quintet's games, as I recall something similar in Illusion of Time. This gauntlet is enormously frustrating at times, as dying puts you back to the start again and you can't heal between fights. The final boss in particular can be intimidating, with a health bar that takes up the entire length of the screen. That said, this is by no means a bad thing despite the frustration. In a way, it’s the absolutely perfect, epic final battle, and one that players will remember. The challenge the boss run provides gives a real sense of accomplishment. You could probably finish the game in 12 hours at most, a decent length for a game like this.

ActRaiser is fairly impressive visually considering it was released in 1991. The monster design is excellent, and although there are some sprites that are re-used, this is very minimal compared with how this was handled further back in the 8-bit era. The backgrounds in particular are a highlight,:marshy bogs, vast deserts and arctic wastelands are nicely rendered. Scrolling around the map is aided by mode 7, which was cutting edge at the time, and one of the SNES’s big hardware features. The music is catchy while observing towns, although there could have been more than two scores. Moody or sombre music sometimes plays during some of the platforming sections, and at other times the score can be more frantic, giving plenty of variety. If you can get your hands on the orchestrated version of the soundtrack, I would recommend it, as it is some of the best music for an action game on the SNES. Some of the music sounds like it could have been composed by John Williams for Star Wars. The highlight, undoubtedly, is the boss music, which is suitably epic for the kind of action the game produces. This makes up for the poor sound effects - some sounds have an odd, tinny echo to them.

The SNES and Wii versions, as you would expect, are identical. Which is unfortunate; many of the names and objects found in the Japanese version were removed due to Nintendo of America and Europe’s strong stance against religious symbolism. It would have been interesting to be able to see what was changed in 1991, as Nintendo have somewhat relaxed their stance since then. Version wise though, the real differences are in the mobile version. In order to make the game translate into a handheld game better, they removed the strategy sections and just used three platform levels from the SNES version. Unfortunately, this also removes much of the charm from the game. The mobile version just feels too stripped down, although you can appreciate what they were going for. You can also choose to play the game in ‘Action mode’ in the SNES and Wii versions if you just want some hack n’ slash, which can be unlocked by completing story mode.

ActRaiser was very much a game that showcased very early on what the SNES was capable of. The sprites look good and the music is very impressive. The soundtrack is outstanding. But more importantly, it took a risk merging two gameplay styles into a single game seamlessly in an era where such things were rare. This makes ActRaiser stand out, and it’s gameplay is compelling. It’s too bad that the developers saw fit to remove the strategy for the sequel, as without it’s city building, the original ActRaiser at least would be merely a decent platformer with well-designed bosses as opposed to a great game with plenty of variety.

 
Summary
+ Great variety of gameplay
+ Fantastic music
+ Each land has a personality of its own
+ Final battle is intense, challenging and a perfect way to end the game
+ Levels are well designed

- Poor sound effects
- Strategy is much more compelling than the platforming
- Controls feel a bit stiff

 
Overall Score
8/10

Monday, 15 October 2012

Pierre le Chef is...Out to Lunch


System(s): Super Nintendo, Amiga, Amiga CD32, Game Boy

Genre: Platfomer

Developer: Mindscape
Publisher: Mindscape

Release Dates:
North America - November 1993
Europe - September 1993


Note: Review is for the SNES version only

The early 1990’s, games were still growing as a medium and were beginning to evolve to become more complex. Many games in the 80's had been simple, arcade style shooters, beat em’ ups or platformers. The legacy of arcade cabinets and their domination of the games industry in the 1980’s left a lasting impression on games in the early 90’s. Some of the more successful of these earlier games were designed to be easy to pick up and play, with short levels and timers so as to encourage people to keep pumping coins into the slot. Out to Lunch (Or Pierre le Chef is: Out to Lunch, to give it it’s full title) is one of many that kept this style of gameplay well into the 1990's, but with the added focus of being an educational game. Out to Lunch was released on the SNES in 1993 by recently defunct UK developer and publisher Mindscape, before being ported to the Amiga the following year. It’s interesting to note that the developer is known for it’s educational games. It’s likely this was the purpose of Out to Lunch, as the game is simple, colourful, and features a variety of areas based on real-life places and types of food.

Pierre le Chef is touring the world preparing his dishes, but his ingredients have escaped and he must capture them. Pierre must watch out for bacteria, insects, and his arch-rival, Le Chef Noir. Noir, an evil chef jealous of Pierre’s success, wants to ruin his career by releasing all of his gathered ingredients. It certainly won’t win any prizes for best plot, but it was broadly representative of games of the time, where plot and narrative take a back seat in favour of gameplay.

In any case, within each of the regions in the game, Pierre goes running off to in order to track down his food. There is a critter based on the speciality of each stage area - for example, in Switzerland, the first stage, it’s a piece of Swiss cheese; in the West Indies it’s Pineapples. The sprites are nicely drawn and imaginative, and the game is very bright and colourful. Lumbering, slow witted potatoes, eggs that sprout helicopter blades for flying down from ledges, and tomatoes that bounce around – the game has a certain cartoonish, adorable charm to it. The animation looks good too; ingredients will have birds flying around their head when stunned and Pierre’s arch nemesis visibly lets out a mean snigger as he releases your food. There are also some fairly nice backgrounds.

The platforming action consists of multiple short levels, spread over the individual stages. The basic premise is simple: you guide Pierre around the levels, capturing cartoon ingredients and depositing them in a cage in order to progress. To do this, the game gives you multiple tools such as bags of flour you can throw that stun enemies. When Pierre is hit by his escaped food, they temporarily stun him and release any others he is currently holding, which generally means you want to be careful not to bump into any enemies or other food when taking them to the cage. When you do capture enough critters, a warp door appears to the next level, although if you want extra points added to your score you can capture more ingredients.

It also provides some interesting obstacles. Bacteria and bees show up later in the game, and turn the ingredients they touch hostile. If any of the infected food touches Pierre, he loses a life. Fortunately, the evil ingredients can be turned back into normal ingredients by stunning them, but if they are jumped on before they change back, they are removed from the level. Unfortunately, enough can be removed to make it impossible to beat the level, which can be very frustrating. The real challenge in this game comes from the time limit, as opposed to the enemies. The time limit is quite severe at times, and it might take several attempts early on to get to grips with it.

Players can pick up cakes and other collectables in order to boost their points total, which also increases based on how quickly you complete the level and how many ingredients you capture beyond the required number. Between certain stages, if the right goals are met, there will be bonus a stage where Pierre tries to collect as many bonus items as he can before time runs out. The game gives you a high score based on these points when the game is finished, either by losing all your lives or by completing it. It will give you a rank based on your score as well. The game also has the standard two player alternating mode that was common for games at the time.

Platforms are arranged in such a way that you need to find a path, usually up above, to reach many of the ingredients. Then there is of course Pierre’s aforementioned arch-rival to look out for. Le Chef Noir is generally not too tough to deal with, more of an inconvenience at best. You will get a brief dastardly chime to inform you of his appearance, after which he will attempt to open your cage and re-release your food. This does become considerably tougher to deal with in the later levels. Springs will help or hinder your ascent to a higher platform – having an ingredient jumping up and down on one can be tricky to deal with if your timing is poor with the net. Out to Lunch is not an easy game, but it's just easy enough to appeal to a large audience, particularly children. That’s not to say the game isn’t fun for adults too. But be aware that Out to Lunch is not a particularly deep game. In fact, the lack of depth and variety in the gameplay hurts it to an extent, and older players are more susceptible to losing interest. It’s definitely a game you want to play in short bursts.

The music in Out to Lunch is catchy in the extreme. The title music in particular is so happy you could play it during a funeral and everyone would stop crying and start bobbing their heads side to side. The sound design is definitely one of the better elements in the game, with every jump, capture and teleportation sounding fantastic. Swishing nets, zapping noises etc. all add to the ultra cuteness. Also, there is nothing is more satisfying than jumping on a tomato or mushroom and hearing it splat. Sometimes you feel tempted just to bounce on an enemy like a trampoline to hear that sound and forget that you’re supposed to be playing the game. Or at least I did, but that might just be my own tendency not to stick strictly to objectives!

Overall, Out to Lunch is not the deepest of titles, gameplay wise, but then it’s not really intended to be. Clearly, as with much of Mindscape’s other titles, Out to Lunch was made with a younger audience in mind, but is easy for anyone to pick up. The colourful graphics, hand-drawn sprites and upbeat, catchy tunes will keep younger gamers entertained. The gameplay is fun and can at times be challenging in the later stages, especially for younger players. However, if you are looking for anything other than a couple of hours of boredom relief, needless to say you won’t find it from this game.


Summary
+ Charming, colourful sprites and backgrounds add character to the game
+ Great sound design and catchy, upbeat music
+ Easy to pick up and play

- Can be a bit too challenging for it’s target audience
- Gameplay is not particularly deep
- Time limit can be quite frustrating


Overall Score
6/10

Sunday, 7 October 2012

River City Ransom

System(s): Nintendo, Game Boy Advance

Genre: Beat em' up

Developer: Technos Japan
Publisher: Technos Japan

Release Dates:
Japan - April 1989
North America - January 1990
Europe - August 1993






River City Ransom may not be the most well known NES game, but it has inspired many other games since it's release. It was made and published by Technos Japan, a now bankrupt developer noted for it’s beat em’ ups, including the legendary and hugely popular Double Dragon series. They also developed Nintendo World Cup and Super Spike V'Ball, among others. River City Ransom became something of a cult hit among NES gamers, and a remake was released for the GBA many years later by Million Co. Ltd who had purchased the rights to the franchise. There is now also a version available on the Wii's Virtual Console. However, if you are expecting a game with the difficulty and serious tone of Double Dragon, think again........

Also known in PAL territories as Street Gangs, River City Ransom is a side scrolling beat em’ up. The plot follows high school students Alex and Ryan as they fight their way across rival gang territory in River City in an attempt to rescue Ryan’s girlfriend Cyndi from the clutches of a villain called Slick. Suffice to say, the North American title neatly sums up what the game is about. And it gets bonus points for the use of alliteration.

The gameplay in River City Ransom is what you would expect from a side-scrolling fighter. Players move from left to right around the city, fighting enemies. Basic attacks are a kick, punch and jumping attack. You can also pick up enemies and throw them, although depending on how powerful the enemy you are facing is, they may just repeatedly land on their feet like a ninja feline. There are a large variety of weapons in River City Ransom, from two-by-fours, to trashcans, to cinder blocks and more. Of course, enemies can also use weapons, and you will want to dodge often as many AI opponents will frequently throw things at you from off screen before they engage you directly. If you double tap the control pad you can run, which also allows for a much higher jump. Using this jump and utilising fences in the background can give your enemies a nasty surprise, although dropping down on to unsuspecting opponents feels a bit cheap given the inability of the AI to follow you up there most of the time. If you are defeated, you will lose half your money and be returned to the last shopping district you bought something in.

Depending on the area of the game you are in, various gangs of assorted meanness will attack you, with alternate coloured shirts being the way to differentiate between them. They will also drop more money relative to their strength. In addition, you will need to beat a string of bosses in order to progress, and these bosses are not only much tougher by themselves than a group of regular enemies, but drop a lot more cash. Depending on your defence stat, attacks can be automatically blocked by hammering the attack buttons. It goes without saying that this applies to enemies, and this can make boss fights quite tense. Needless to say, combat is great fun, so fighting to earn cash rarely becomes tedious. It’s even more fun when you bring a friend along, as you can accidentally hit each other, which makes co-op exciting to play – if for the wrong reasons. If you manage to avoid hitting each other though, it makes the game easier, as it doesn’t add extra enemies to compensate for the extra player.

There are also some RPG elements to play around with. You can enter shops and buy food and magazines to spend your money, which is a particularly unique feature for a NES game. There is a huge variety of shops and shopping centres between fighting sections in this game, and each type of item you buy will have a different effect. There are burger joints, sushi takeaways, French restaurants; it really makes it feel like it was modelled on a genuine place. This is enhanced by the fact that River City Ransom is one of the first ’sandbox’ games with an open world you can explore (although there is a limited amount to actually do besides fight and shop). You can backtrack at any time to previous areas, and at certain points the game does require it. You can not only regain health by buying items, but also level up your stats. Although this makes the game much more fun and gives it some replay value, it is quite frustrating not knowing what stat increases you will receive, as the game does not tell you in the menu screen. To be fair, it probably needs the extra challenge of paying to increase stats without knowing what you're getting. Aside from the bosses, River City Ransom is unfortunately a fairly short and easy game game. Special power ups, which you can pick up from specialist retailers, will hone your punches, kicks etc. with extra techniques like a triple kick or enhanced throws or jumps. One even lets you stomp on foes. These factors make the game dramatically easier, especially in co-op.

Its not just the RPG elements and sandbox style that make River City Ransom stand out on the NES though. The real charm from this game is the sense of humour, which is rare for most games to be able to pull off well. The super deformed sprites will make hilarious anime style faces when struck by the player. Even more funny, when defeated, they have a bizarre tendency to scream “BARF!” and “Mamaa!”, which still makes me laugh after hours of play.

Some gameplay elements allow for elements of humour to arise. You can pick up enemies and even your co-op partner and use them like any weapon, bashing with them, or throwing them at foes. Weapons can also bounce off of walls, so you can strategically throw something off a wall and entice the enemy to stand in the way, resulting in a devious and rather comical little trap. Although this can easily backfire, it never fails to amuse. Also, don’t make the mistake I did and run around too much – you can run into walls and comically injure yourself by mistake. And when you finally do rescue Cyndi before fighting Slick, you won’t exactly earn her gratitude….she berates your tardiness before rushing off to go shopping. Pfft, women. Can’t live with em’……

Graphically, the sprites look good, and there are a large variety of enemy sprites considering the limitations of pixellated graphics. If you have played any of Technos Japan’s other titles, such as Nintendo World Cup, you will probably be familiar with many of the character faces. Not only are the characters varied, but the locations really feel unique. Whether you are under the bridge fighting the twins or battling through the corridors of River City High, everything has it’s own style. This is a refreshing break, as many games of the era were notorious for rehashing backgrounds, much like older cartoons did. There are some very noticeable, periodic episodes of slowdown though, even though the game only allows two enemies on screen at a time. This is most often triggered when the screen has quite a few weapons, and since many enemies carry weapons from off-screen, this is likely what causes it to happen, as there is no limit to how many weapons are on screen like there is with enemies.

Sound effects are mostly good. Punches, kicks etc. sound like you would expect from a game inspired by anime cartoons. Lots of smacks and cracks going on, even when someone is hit by crates or dust bins. The music is the aspect of the sound design that really shines though, The main theme is a groovy 12 bar blues theme that goes with the whole 50's vibe of burger joints and teddy boys with slicked hair and white t-shirts. The boss themes are also pretty epic, up tempo tunes. Really, the weakest element of the sound design comes from the shopping; the music isn’t as interesting as the rest of the soundtrack and the sound affects are extremely grating.

All in all, River City Ransom is one of the NES’s best games. It's even better, if too easy, with a friend along for the adventure in co-op mode. Although it is possible finish the game in less than 3 hours, the RPG elements, comical style and sandbox world make the game well worth it, and will likely keep you coming back every so often. The music is infectious, particularly the main theme and despite the game being very short, it will take you a long time to tire of making enemies “BARF!” If you are looking for a co-op game on the NES or just to punch some dudes in the face, play River City Ransom, you won’t regret it.


Summary
+ Gameplay is advanced for a NES title
+ Excellent music
+ Manages to pull off a terrific sense of humour
+ Co-op is tremendous fun
+ Boss battles provide a decent challenge

- Very short
- Some jittery frame rates


Overall Score
9/10