In the first part of our initial PlayStation Vita impressions pieces, Matt Kaplan put his Vita through its paces and gives his thoughts on the hardware.
Here Michael Cunningham, lifelong gamer and fountain of wisdom currently on loan from RPGamer.com, gives his thoughts on some of the Vita launch titles. Michael has been burning through a stack of titles, spending between one and three hours with each.
To be clear, these are not final, scored reviews, they're thoughts and impressions from extremely sharp gamers meant to give a little guidance and share some knowledge.
If you have already taken the plunge and purchased a Vita and games, we'd love to hear what you thought of the system and the launch titles. (Please leave a comment below.)
Touch My Katamari
The Katamari series has always been an amalgamation of disturbingly weird content and insanely addictive gameplay, and Touch My Katamari does not break that trend. Players once again control the little green Prince as he carries out ridiculous requests for the King of All Cosmos. The core concept for the Vita version remains unchanged from prior releases, as players are still tasked with rolling their katamari ball around cluttered stages, gathering up items.
The key change in Touch is the ability to flatten out the katamari to gather more items at once or to fit it into tight spaces. It's a natural addition to the formula and it makes the game more accessible to newcomers—on the other hand, it can make things a little too simple for series vets. Difficulty aside, this is one of the smoothest Katamari games to control and the best portable version to date thanks to the option of using dual stick controls or the touch screen.
For anyone yet to try the Katamari series, this is a great entry point. It features everything that makes the games fun, and is extremely accessible thanks to the new mechanics. Long time fans will enjoy this as well, but they should be aware that it doesn't offer much that's new. The stages, goals, and extras are more or less the same as they have been over the past few games. Katamari was a blindingly original game idea when it debuted, but it's been sad to see that the developers have been hesitant to move it into new territory.
Verdict: The best portable Katamari, but it doesn't offer much for long-time fans.
Lumines: Electronic Symphony
Lumines was one of the most popular games for the PSP, and Q Entertainment is attempting to recapture that success on the Vita with Lumines: Electronic Symphony.
A puzzle game with a strong emphasis on the electronica music that plays in the background, the concept of Lumines is rather straightforward. Squares consisting of four colored blocks drop, and players must match or stack four blocks of the same color to remove them from the board. There are only two different colors to work with, so the gameplay isn't extremely complex and it's also worth noting that both standard and touch controls are supported. However, regardless of which control type a player prefers, it's easy to learn but difficult to master.
As players progress through the game, different background skins (think of them as stages) are unlocked. Electronic Symphony features an XP system where players can unlock these skins, as well as new avatars, by simply building up points over time instead of having to be skilled enough to obtain them in a single playthrough.
Making this an even deeper experience than the original is the addition of new block types. The chain block helps clear areas quickly, and the wildcard shuffle block might help or harm depending on how it's used. In addition, avatars also possess a special ability to use during play, such as creating a chain block. There's also World Block mode, where players can work toward a united goal of clearing a set number of blocks for bonus experience.
Verdict: It's a great pick-up-and-play puzzler, and works best as a digital download so that it's always available as a backup on the Vita without needing to carry the game card around.
Michael Jackson: The Experience
Like many of Ubisoft's Vita launch titles, Michael Jackson: The Experience is already available on other platforms. The console versions have players dancing along with the videos of classic Michael Jackson songs while the portable versions have players using touch screen controls instead. The Vita version is no exception, as it uses a similar formula to what the DS, 3DS, and iOS releases offer.
In Elite Beat Agents-style, players are injected into a Michael Jackson music video where they must perform screen-swiping actions along with the beat of the song to score points. This could mean tapping a certain part of the screen, swiping a line, or tracing a swirl. The controls are intuitive, but due to the size of the Vita, it can often be difficult to complete these actions while holding the system. Tapping the top and bottom of the screen and then quickly moving to clockwise swipes can also be difficult due to hands obstructing the view of the screen. Placing the Vita on a surface makes this much more manageable, but obviously, this hinders its portability.
Control issues aside, Michael Jackson: The Experience is shockingly fun, assuming you're a fan of the King of Pop's music. I found myself often coming back for a quick session of "Smooth Criminal" or "Billie Jean" when I only had a few minutes of downtime.
Considering this is available in other, less expensive portable forms, it's hard to say this is a great investment for gamers with other options despite the Vita version looking sharp, visually. It's also important to note that there doesn't seem to be a lot of depth, simply harder versions of the same songs. It's difficult to say how long it will stay fresh, but it should be an enjoyable experience for Michael Jackson fans.
Verdict: Surprisingly fun for fans of MJ's music, but don't expect depth.
Tales from Space: Mutant Blobs Attack
In my opinion, Tales from Space: Mutant Blobs Attack is the most enjoyable title to hit the PlayStation Vita at launch. It follows the same format as 2011's PSN release Tales from Space: About a Blob— players control a blob in a 2D environment as it has to continuously eat items in order to grow larger. Imagine 2D Katamari Damacy with a platforming twist, and you'll get a good idea what it is.
For example, the game's first area is a college, so players will take their blob through the frat house and other collegiate areas. The blob will eat his way through all the items in a dorm room, devouring every small objects in its way until it's large enough to move on to the next area. Some sections are quite challenging and will likely require many attempts to pass, but the game is so full of variety and crazy stages that any hard work is worth it.
Though only available as a digital download, it's easily worth the purchase, especially compared to the other full-priced, packaged titles available at launch. Mutant Blobs Attack is a fantastic addition to the Vita library, and a great game to wave the banner for smaller digital releases on the system.
Verdict: If you like fun, don't miss this one. It's simple, challenging, affordable, and enjoyable.
Dungeon Hunter: Alliance
If you have an iOS device or a PlayStation 3, you've already had an opportunity to play Dungeon Hunter: Alliance, and for much less than the asking price of this version.
The PSN release last year brought multiplayer to what was initially a single player iOS release, but offered little additional content. The Vita release offers the exact same experience on the go. It supports four-player Wi-Fi, local co-op, but features the same tedium found in the other versions. The worst part about this situation is that Gameloft has released other iterations of Dungeon Hunter on iOS which show that the studio has new ideas, but Ubisoft instead opted to bring out the original game again.
Anyone playing Dungeon Hunter better not be playing for the story, as there's little interesting going on in that area. While it can be somewhat enjoyable in the drop-in, drop-out multiplayer mode, the monotony sets in pretty quickly. It's nothing more than a simple loot-grinding game with characters that are too small to tell whether they're wearing the new gear you just picked up, which eliminates half the fun of gathering loot in the first place.
While I've yet to play Sony's upcoming Warrior's Lair, I can't help but recommend that people wait to see if it contains more depth than this. At least that's an original game, not a port of a port of a shoddy iOS title. There was very little effort put into Alliance beyond simply making it technically sound on the Vita—it played smoothly and I was able to join and host games with no problems, but I can't say I had fun during any of those sessions.
Verdict: Do not waste your time, but if you cannot help yourself, try a cheaper version first.
The other Gameloft offering for the Vita launch, Asphalt: Injection is (believe it or not) the lesser of the pair. The Asphalt series on iOS is on its sixth release, the most recent of which actually looks nicer than Injection does and likely offers just as many options—not that I'd recommend the iOS version, but like with Dungeon Hunter: Alliance, it shows how little energy Gameloft put into these Vita releases.
Despite having thumbsticks and buttons to work with, the starting cars don't control very well, often feeling loose and awkward to steer. The courses are dull, uninspired, and offer little motivation to replay them. The opponents are never far behind regardless of how much boost is used or how far ahead the player gets. Knocking other cars out of the race is always an option, but that's easier said than done, and make sure to avoid crashing if you don't want to wind up in last place pretty quickly. In spite of my best efforts to give Asphalt a chance, the game did nothing to make me care.
Injection does offer both online and local multiplayer modes along with a variety of single player options, but despite that, the game is lacking at its core, and offers not even a bit of entertainment.
Verdict: Lacking in quality, content, and doesn't even look all that good.
Hot Shots Golf: World Invitational
Since the Vita launched, Hot Shots Gold: World Invitational is easily the game I've spent the most time with—it's a very solid golf game, offering local and Wi-Fi tournaments. Players can also choose to play alone, scoring points to access more characters, courses, and equipment.
The game's wacky cast of characters each have different skills they excel in, but unfortunately, there are no options for a player to create their own. While a custom character option would have been fantastic, having to unlock content does add a carrot to keep players going. Unlocking a new character or a new outfit can sometimes give a reason to keep going in what would be a rather short experience otherwise. Even with its anime-style characters, Hot Shots is a fairly straightforward golf title; nothing more, nothing less.
Technically, the online modes I mentioned are a welcome addition, even if they are somewhat confusing to get started. Ad hoc mode is merely a local match, but the online features both an asynchronous tournament and a course to download, play through, and then upload to the leaderboards. It's nice to have multiplayer options that don't require any specific time commitment, and it works perfectly here.
Verdict: A great golf game with robust multiplayer options, but lacking in customization.
Dynasty Warriors Next
While I can't speak with authority about the Dynasty Warriors series, my time with Dynasty Warriors Next was interesting. Next offers little in the way of easing players in, so I dove head first into the campaign to see what it had to offer. What I found was a lot of action, a great deal of assuming that I understood the plot (I didn't), and then more action.
I'd heard stories that the Dynasty Warriors games were all about slicing and dicing hundreds and hundreds of foes, and Next does not disappoint on that end. After a brief cinematic where three warriors vow to fight together until death, that promise was quickly put to the test as they were tossed into a battle against an army of easily defeated foes. The game handled well and ran smoothly, even if enemies did seem to pop in out of nowhere. That said, it was simple to cut through wave after wave of attackers, and thanks to a touch screen feature, I was able to send an additional squad across the map to conquer other areas. Everything was streamlined, including the touch screen and motion-controlled attacks.
My enjoyment continued over into the conquest mode where I created my own soldier and once again attempted to clear a map. I had no issues vanquishing all who opposed me until I got to the end and had to go one-on-one against an enemy commander using only the touch screen to fight. This showdown reminded me of Infinity Blade on iOS, and I found only frustration. The controls were slow and inaccurate, and I would up losing my patience after multiple losses. While the rest of the game was rather enjoyable, the required touch screen duels felt clumsy, forced, and ruined the enjoyment I was having with the rest of game.
Verdict: Fun, mindless combat marred by horrible required touch screen sections.
Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus
Team Ninja's action title Ninja Gaiden has really gotten around. Initially released on the Xbox in 2004, it was then remade as Ninja Gaiden Black for the 360 in 2005, then again in 2007 as Ninja Gaiden Sigma on the PlayStation 3. Now in 2012, gamers get yet another chance to play the same game as Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus for the Vita. There may be some tweaks to content and gameplay, but all versions are the same retelling of Ryu and the Dark Dragon Blade, and everything fundamental remains unchanged.
This is the first portable version of Team Ninja's well-known Ninja Gaiden, and it looks and runs wonderfully on the Vita. The controls are smooth and the camera handles (for good or for ill) almost exactly as it did on the console versions. Enemies are sneaky and relentless, often hidden more by odd camera angles than by an environmental obstacle. Even on the new easier option, there's still a decent difficulty.
While it brings nothing new to the table, Ninja Gaiden is still an interesting, over-the-top, challenging game, and seeing a console game port this well to the Vita is impressive, and the fact that this is built off the PlayStation 3 version's engine is highly encouraging for future multiplatform titles.
Verdict: If you can't get enough Ninja Gaiden or haven't played the original, it's worth a try.
Army Corps of Hell
Army Corps of Hell has been described by many as Pikmin with demons, but having never played Pikmin, I can't completely verify that statement. What I can say is that Army Corps is a neat little action game that is best played in short bursts because its long-term appeal seems to be lacking.
Players take up the mantle of the Real King of Hell as he gathers an army of minions to prove his might. The story is completely ignorable, because it's all about the gameplay. Controlling the King, players launch their squad into action, swarming and stomping on foes until they're smashed to pieces. This continues over and over until a stage is completed.
While a bout or two of this can be fun, the spark fades rather quickly since there's not a lot of depth. That said, when played a little at a time, it takes longer to wear out its welcome. It can even be rather enjoyable. Playing for any long amount of time shows the game's weaknesses and lack of variety, but doing it in chunks makes the thinness of the content harder to notice.
Verdict: Smashing demons is fun for a bit, but quickly loses its luster during prolonged sessions.
Uncharted: Golden Abyss
While Uncharted: Golden Abyss was not developed by series creators Naughty Dog, sub studio Sony Bend still managed to bring a lot of the series staples to the Vita. However, it seems that for every one thing the devs did right, they also took one wrong turn. Golden Abyss sports high production values and looks fantastic, but it's mixed up when it comes to the core gameplay.
The perfect example of this right/wrong dichotomy are the newly implemented touch screen features—they're both quite handy and fairly annoying. It's great to have an option to take down enemies by merely tapping the screen, but having to wipe all over the screen to do a charcoal rubbing is the game serving the technology, and not the technology enhancing the game. That's the thing about Golden Abyss; it's not the optional touch controls that are the problem, it's the forced use of them that sours the experience.
Unfortunately, the new supporting characters aren't that interesting, and the game appears to be heavier on combat. Having action is great, but it doesn't all have to be combat. Shooting and melee sequences have never been the strongest aspect of Uncharted, so taking the focus off of those areas would have been helpful. I hate to sound too negative though, because despite its failings, I'm actually enjoying Golden Abyss.
Basically, players need to go in expecting Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, and not the superior Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. Fans of the series will love being able to play as Drake on the go, and it's fantastic that Nolan North is reprising his role. That said, if the series has yet to appeal to you, Golden Abyss is not likely to change your mind.
Verdict: It's more Uncharted, but a regression to the original, rather than a progression to something new.
—By Michael A. Cunningham
After graduating and getting a real job, Michael decided to fill his free time with game criticism, a shock to those who knew him and his weak writing skills. He persevered, practiced, and slowly worked his way up the ranks at RPGamer.com. After a few years, Michael took over as Editor-in-Chief of the site and still manages it today. In that capacity, he manages a staff from all over the world, organizes review schedules, plans features, and coordinates awards.
All of that wasn't enough for Michael, though. He couldn't say enough about video games, so he branched out to other areas. He started his own portable gaming blog, Pocket-Console.com, to share his love of handheld gaming and to ward off the casual push of the iOS market. He also wrote his first print piece for the now defunct PlayStation: The Official Magazine shortly afterward. Michael has now joined the fantastic crew at GameCritics.com in an effort to continue the crusade of "8 not being average" by providing fair and unbiased critcism.