Welcome to the first installment of a new feature here at GameCritics.com—the Bargain Basement. It’s as sure as death or taxes that anyone who takes up videogaming as a hobby or profession will find themselves eventually rooting through a bargain bin at one point or another. Few things feel as satisfying or rewarding as saving hard-earned cash AND getting a game fix at the same time by picking up some half-price gems or an overlooked sleeper hit. In order to help you uncover some low-priced and previously played diamonds in the rough (and also to avoid those titles which look promising but are actually just lumps of worthless zirconium), this feature is aimed at giving you a heads up on some titles you may have missed during their runs on the new release racks.
The discs covered below can all be purchased nearly anywhere that has a selection of discount or used games—usually for $20 or less, in stores or on the Web. In my experience, they are easily located with a minimum of effort by doing a search or digging deep in the picked-over sale racks. Please keep in mind that since the games recommended in this feature are older and aren’t on the latest hardware, it’s generally assumed that the graphics aren’t going to be bleeding-edge. The final scores for each title are based on a rating that takes that into account and does not penalize them by comparing them to today’s standards. Gameplay is what we’re talking about here. Happy hunting, and more importantly, happy gaming!
The Unholy Wars
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
The Unholy War is a turn-based strategy game featuring the struggle for survival between a technologically based alien invasion force and the native species of their target planet. Action takes place on hex-based battlefields with various terrain obstacles such as crystal formations, crags or rivers. The player directly controls the combat, arcade-style. When two units clash, the game goes to a small battlefield where the player-controlled forces use their fangs, launch missiles or slice with razor-sharp appendages rather than having the computer automatically assign damage like most other strategy games.
The best part of the disc is that there are a large number of well-designed units to choose from (14 in story mode, two hidden in multiplayer), and in general the units are balanced quite nicely. Although I did find that the native Arcanes as a whole had a slight advantage over the invading Teknos, it’s nothing that mars the game significantly. Each unit is particularly effective against certain types of opponents, and weak against others. With a little bit of careful planning and some good hand-eye coordination, one of your lowly Prana Devils can take out a string of mechanized opponents and turn the tide of a seemingly unwinnable battle to your favor.
Another aspect of strategy the game offers is that certain hexes on the field provide energy units with which to create or summon additional creatures. The larger and slower units can generate more energy while occupying those hexes, but they may not be the units that are most effective in the particular battle you’re in. Smaller units or flying units may win you the battle, but if you lose some warriors in a skirmish gone sour you may not be able to accumulate enough energy in time to create more. To the game’s credit, there is also a two-player melee mode and a good amount of variety and challenge in the single-player missions since you get a different experience playing as each side. For example, some battlefields have no resources and force you to be effective with what you start off with or limit you to certain troop types and make you creatively rethink some strategies by necessity. This game is a real sleeper hit, in my opinion.
Speaking of sleeper hits, Silent Bomber is the ultimate example of a high-class game that both arrived and disappeared from shelves in total anonymity.
Gameplay here consists of the player taking on the role of interstellar mercenary Jutah "the J is silent" Fate. Jutah’s weapons consist of four different types of bombs which can be placed and detonated remotely, or which can be shot like a projectile to adhere to a target. Jutah is also quite agile, being able to jump and dash both on the ground and in the air. If you took the essence of Hudson’s classic Bomberman, added a strong emphasis on platform and action elements and topped it off with a cool sci-fi theme and plot, Silent Bomber is what you’d get.
The thing that makes the game worthy of mention and attention is the extremely tight gameplay and the way the character, story and graphical elements blend together perfectly without disrupting the fast-action frenetic feel. Juking enemies, blowing bombs and jumping for your life is what this game is all about. Silent Bomber is exactly the right blend of old-school action enhanced by 32-bit technology.
Adding replay to the package are a two-player arena battle mode using Jutah and most of the major enemies from the story mode, as well as a high-score ranking option for the levels after you complete the game. The only (and I do mean ONLY) black mark against Silent Bomber is that the final boss is staggeringly difficult and can only be faced after getting through an incredibly grueling sequence involving some sadistic chess pieces. While that wouldn’t ordinarily be enough to discourage, the lack of a crucial save point between the chess pieces and the boss will prevent most players from ever completing the game. Despite that, Silent Bomber is a real class act, and one that most people will never know about.
The last game in this feature, Vandal Hearts, wasn’t exactly an unknown title on shelves or crippled by a lack of advertising the way the other two were. However, considering what an overlooked masterpiece it is, it’s a crime that it didn’t get the widespread acclaim I feel it so richly deserves.
The game is a strategy-RPG along the lines of Final Fantasy Tactics or Shining Force, though it outdoes them both in my opinion. While it seems like just one more random addition to the genre, the level design is absolutely genius. Nearly every battle has a distinct goal and very few of them consist of something as mindless as "kill all enemies." Examples of this are when the hero of the game, Ash, is trying to infiltrate into an enemy area. You have a limited number of turns for your team to intercept the guard dogs before they escape and alert the opposing forces. In another mission, you have to get your team from one end of a town to the other without killing the peasants who have been turned into zombies. Creative thinking and unique tactics are the order of the day, and the game maintains a fresh feeling from start to finish.
Other highlights include a very strong storyline, characters who can be promoted to different classes (usually a choice between two or three per type) according to the player’s tastes and best of all—there are secret items and levels hidden throughout the regular game. Uncovering all of them rewards you with the strongest character in the game, the Vandalier, who is able to take on entire missions by himself. From where I stand, everything about this game was done to perfection, and it remains my number one pick out of the entire strategy-RPG genre. If you played the more recent Vandal Hearts 2 and didn’t like it, don’t worry—Vandal Hearts is 10 times the game its sequel was.