Welcome to the twentieth installment of a semi-regular feature here at GameCritics.com—the Bargain Basement.
It’s as sure as death or taxes that anyone who takes up videogaming will find themselves rooting through a bargain bin or scouring pre-owned shelves sooner or later. For those that do, few things feel as satisfying as saving hard-earned cash and getting a gem of a game at the same time. The titles covered below can usually be found online or in any brick-and-mortar shop, often for $20.00 or less. Keep in mind that the selections in this feature may be older and not on the latest hardware, so it’s assumed that the technology isn’t bleeding-edge. The final scores for each title are based on a modified scale taking this into account, and doesn’t compare them to today’s visual standards—gameplay is what we’re talking about here. Happy hunting!
Billed as a major RPG for the PlayStation 3 and positioned to be something of a system-selling blockbuster, the reality of what Folklore turned out to be makes it quite an unusual and surprising title.
In essence, it's more real-time action than RPG. There are only a few tiny areas to explore, the critical path is extremely linear, and although leveling-up does play a small role, there's none of the depth or customization inherent to most games in the role-playing genre. Calling Folklore an RPG is a gross mischaracterization, does a disservice to what the game actually brings to the table: solid action mechanics and creature-collection akin to Pokémon, only with a much darker, more mature slant.
Split into two halves, Folklore touts dual protagonists Ellen and Keats. The former is a young girl who comes to the mysterious village of Doolin to find her mother, the latter a skeptical journalist investigating Doolin's reputation as a place to speak to the dead. They both soon discover a fantastically beautiful Netherworld populated with ethereal and monstrous Faeries, and together unravel the struggles of the dwellers within.
Although the developers seem quite sincere and their Rashomon-lite approach to the plot is appreciated, I'm quite sad to report that the story never comes together. Keats' side chronicling his investigations is fairly compelling, but Ellen's amnesiac-discovering-her-own-past bits are murky and total cliché. It's a shame because the game often feels like it almost makes sense of the supernatural setting, but the dialogue is quite stiff and there's no real dramatic tension to be had. A better set of writers could have fashioned something quite respectable out of the elements present.
Although the story isn't much to talk about, the gameplay is. Once inside the Netherworld, both heroes have the ability to "capture" any of the Faeries they come across. Once caught, these creatures are used as special attacks with attributes that provide a paper-rock-scissors theme to the combat.
An interesting aspect of the system is that the Faeries work differently for each of the characters—a creature that delivers a sweeping punch for Keats becomes a fiery freight train for Ellen, or a potent attacker for Ellen grants an unbreachable defense for Keats, and so on. The sheer number of Faeries keeps the fighting fresh as the player constantly shuffles through their repertoire, and the addictive "gotta catch ‘em all" element is hard to ignore.
While it's true that Folklore was hardly the success Sony expected it to be in the states, it must have been much more welcome in other markets since there's a substantial amount of downloadable add-on content available (and even more in Europe and Japan that US gamers didn't get.) In fact, I'd say that the best missions are download-only. Some of the retail game's plot holes get filled in, extra backstory is given to peripheral characters, puzzles that didn't exist in the main game use the Faeries in new ways, and there are more bizarre creatures to collect.
It's unfortunate that expectations for Folklore were skewed from the get-go. Billing it as an RPG downplays the engaging mechanics and will likely leave anyone expecting a grand, large-scale adventure feeling unsatisfied—people wanting something a little different are sure to appreciate the lush visuals, intimate setting and rich character design that enhance its solidly designed core. I can't say that it deserves higher marks as a critic, but I had great affection for Folklore on a personal level.
(Special note: fans of the GameCube's obscure Lost Kingdoms should go out of their way to track down Folklore... the two titles have more than a little in common.)
Original release date: October 2007.
The concept of switching at-will between characters or teammates in a story-driven title has been batted around for quite a while in the videogame world, but no one's been able to nail it completely. There have been many attempts, such as the sci-fi Brute Force or the quasi-supernatural Geist for example, but for one reason or another developers keep stumbling. It's frustrating, because this concept is one that fascinates me, and seems like a can't-miss in terms of gameplay. Clive Barker's Jericho is the latest attempt that I'm aware of, and although it's not everything it could be, it gets less wrong than others.
An evil supernatural force is intent on wreaking havoc on earth (what else can an evil supernatural force do? Needlepoint?) So a top-secret supernatural warfare unit is sent in by the government to keep a lid on things. Each character packs a different weapon and has access to a unique magical ability. Soon after the game begins, the team's leader is killed, but lives on as a specter able to possess each member of the squad at the player's discretion.
Playing through Jericho just proves to me (again) that the basic idea of the "switch" mechanic is a good one. Being able to have a different load-out and special power depending on the immediate situation works well, and it's always a good thing to be able to jump back and forth across a battlefield to get the drop on the opposition. Luring enemies towards the heavy gunner out in the open left their backs completely exposed to the ninja behind them, and with just a few button presses, I was orchestrating both roles.
Unfortunately, as much as I enjoyed Jericho for its attempt at "the formula that won't crystallize" I can't wholeheartedly recommend it.
For example, despite having master horror author Clive Barker involved, the story elements felt limp, and the voice acting was horribly miscast in some instances. The level designs are fairly boring thanks to their studies at the school of linear run-and-gun, not to mention the drab colors and uninspired architecture. Enemy types are very limited (way too many exploding baddies), and although the visual design of the characters is strong, some of the powers were too weak or useful only in very specific circumstances. The entire experience felt perched on the verge of being a great adventure, but it never crossed the crucial make-or-break line.
Despite being weak in key areas, Clive Barker's Jericho isn't a terrible title by any means, and other fans of the team-switch concept (like me) will find it to be a worthwhile weekender. However, this title seems to have quite a bit of potential for a superior sequel and I'd love to see where the franchise could go if given another chance. Hopefully the developers (and Clive) will get one.
Original Release date: October, 2007.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Microsoft Xbox 360 version.
More Grand Theft Auto than the latest incarnation itself, Saints Row is basically an unabashed love letter to GTA: San Andreas. Is this a bad thing? Not in my view... I awarded San Andreas my first-ever 10, so if you're going to copy from someone, copy from the best.
Saints Row is set in the fictional town of Stilwater; a city split up into four areas, each controlled by a gang. After being jumped in to the Third-Street Saints (and bonus points for that little scene) the player is tasked with taking down the three rival factions: the Vice Kings, the Carnales, and the Rollerz.
Each of these groups sports its own complete storyline, and can be taken down in any order. Unlike some other open-world games, the core mission variety is superb, with each scenario offering something a little (or a lot) different. Killing enemies is a part of every level, but Saints Row will have you tagging, hijacking, bombing, sniping, parking buses on train tracks, and a hundred other things that keep the entire experience feeling fresh and surprising. The characters in these scenarios are instantly relatable (if perhaps a little stereotypical), and the game never loses sight of its plot.
For players with ADD, exploring the city at will is always an option, and there are tons of interesting and inventive sidequests throughout. Taking the concept of sandbox gameplay to heart, I was impressed with the wealth of content Saints Row brought to the table—my personal favorite was probably liberating prostitutes from rival pimps and delivering them to new employment, but the demolition derby was a nice surprise, escorting a suburban soccer mom on her dope-slinging route was clever, and the insurance fraud scenario (yes, insurance fraud) was the most absurdly funny thing I've seen in some time.
Technically, the game has got its priorities in order with tight controls that feel instantly accessible and lots of small touches like sensible ‘retry' options for failed missions and the ability to set waypoints on a map for quick navigation. The audio portion of the game is no slouch either, with solid voice acting and a top-quality soundtrack. Character customization is always welcome and Saints Row has very respectable options in this regard, though being a female (or shemale) isn't a choice—yet. That's coming soon in Saints Row 2.
As rosy as this all is, there are a few downsides to be aware of. For starters, requiring a player to earn "respect" by doing side missions before unlocking the next step in the critical path can be an unwelcome distraction from the gangland drama, and I encountered more than a few bugs (cars disappearing, falling "under" the city, etc.) that necessitated some restarts. None of it was game-ruining... just irritating. Oh, and the game's M rating? Absolutely deserved, and then some. Not kidding on this one.
Though some may see it as a me-too effort on the coattails of GTA's success, there's no denying that Saints Row knows what it wants to do, and does it well. The T's are crossed, the I's are dotted, and everything feels just like it should. I can't think of a current sandbox game that tops the amount of content and sheer diversity of gameplay to be found in Stilwater, presenting the total crime-life package for one low, low price.
Original release date: August, 2006.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Microsoft Xbox 360 version.