Welcome back to the thirteenth installment of a semi-regular feature here at GameCritics.com—the Bargain Basement. The Basement has been on hiatus for a long time, so a brief reintroduction might be in order.
In a nutshell, it's as sure as death or taxes that anyone who takes up videogaming will find themselves rooting through a bargain bin at one point or another. 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 shop with a selection of used games, often for $20 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 graphics aren't bleeding-edge. The final scores for each title are based on a modified scale taking this into account, and do not compare them to today's visual standards—gameplay is what we're talking about here.
Developer: Blue 52
by Daniel Weissenberger
Stolen needed a better title. It doesn't seem like having a good title should be restricted to A-level games, but something about the name Stolen just screams budget title. Sure, the game's graphics, control scheme, and general presentation also give that same message, but it's really the title that puts the final nail in the coffin.
The graphics aren't anything special and it's buggy for a released title, but Stolen is a surprisingly good game despite its flaws. This is due entirely to the game's concept, which is unique, or close to it: it's a completely dedicated 3rd person stealth game. Now, stealth is nothing new, but the fact that Stolen basically offers nothing but stealth makes it something of an oddity, and a worthwhile one at that.
The mix of gadget-assisted stealth and dramatic platform jumping make the game play like a mixture of Splinter Cell and Prince of Persia—without any of the combat. There's also a few well-designed minigames to simulate the nuts and bolts of the thieving lifestyle, such as picking locks and bypassing alarm systems. Everything works well when the game sticks to this formula—a few chase sequences and an ill-conceived boss fight stop the flow of gameplay dead in its tracks. Even when the gameplay gets a little shaky, Stolen manages to maintain a palpable sense of tension throughout the entire length of the game—which is the other thing that puts a definite budget spin on things: the game only has four missions, each of which takes roughly an hour to beat.
Stolen seems like more of an experiment than an actual game. It's like a tech demo intended to see if the pacifist thief concept could work well enough to build an entire game around it. On that level, it succeeds, and makes me wish it had been big enough and polished enough to work as something other than a budget title. Yes, people are essentially being asked to pay for an unfinished product, but these days, they're not being asked to pay all that much, and it's worth it to try out a new, if underdeveloped, genre.
It also contains my favorite cutscene of all time—it's just three seconds long, and it's absolutely hilarious.
Developer: Arkane Studios
by Brad Gallaway
Arx Fatalis is a first-person RPG that takes place entirely in a world made up of underground cities. It has much in common with many Western-style PC adventures, but can best be described as being in the same ballpark as King's Field and Morrowind—the only difference being that it has a better story and more focused gameplay than either of those titles.
Being open-ended while managing to avoid being overwhelming is a neat trick, and one that Arx Fatalis pulls off nicely. Although it had enough cutscenes and characters to keep me actively interested in the story, the game's strong suit is actually exploration and insane levels of detail and interactivity. Starting small, I was gradually introduced to the many layers that make up the subterranean civilizations of the game's world. There is a strong sense of personality and history to each area, and at all times the level of immersion is quite high. It's a very unique sensation to enter a cavern and see evidence of previous inhabitants convincing enough to make you keep looking over your shoulder.
Going further, it's possible to pick up or use just about anything you can see. I was literally shocked at the amount of things I discovered I could do, and experimentation is richly rewarded. Finding out that weeds growing in a pond can serve a purpose, or that casting a fireball on a chicken wandering through town actually cooked the bird and gave me a useful item was like opening a suitcase and finding it packed with small bills—I didn't expect it, but I was overjoyed to see it.
Following these lines of development, the game asks that players pay close attention to conversations and small details, and be willing to think outside the box. I got stuck several times, but mostly due to my own forgetfulness or withered powers of creativity. I suppose my brain was lulled into passivity by too many games that require thumbs more than neurons. However, let me be clear in saying that the puzzles here are almost all excellent, and I hold no grudge for being snookered by them—they bested me honestly. Bring your thinking cap, a notepad, and a strong cup of coffee and you'll be in good shape.
For gamers who like to be completely submerged in believable fantasy worlds, Arx Fatalis does an outstanding job. Oh sure, it's a little rough in some areas… the map system could be improved, some of the graphics aren't too impressive, and the merchandise and shopping system could do with a revamp, but none of that stuff really matters when compared with everything the game gets right—and that's a lot.
Special Forces: Nemesis Strike
Developer: Asobo Studio
by Daniel Weissenberger
Special Forces: Nemesis Strike belongs to my favorite genre of low-budget game: the mid-range rip-off. For every hit game there's always a flood of knock-off attempting to cash in on the success of the trailblazer. What about the great games that never sell as many titles as they should have? Where's the low budget version of ICO, the Shenmue done on the cheap? For everyone out there who loved kill.switch and was depressed to hear there wasn't going to be a sequel, Nemesis Strike is here to answer your prayers.
There's no point in discussing the game's mechanics, as Brad covered them more than adequately in his kill.switch review, and the plot is certainly nothing to write home about—it offers none of kill.switch's cleverness or originality. So why am I recommending the game? Because if you squint just a little while you run and gun through the levels, you can pretend you're still playing kill.switch.
While console games have basically taken over the gaming market, their self-contained nature keeps them from matching PC games in one aspect: The expansion set. When a PC game is extremely popular, the publisher can hire a small studio to crank out a few more levels to keep the fans interested until they can make a proper sequel. No one expects these new levels to be as good as the original, they just want the recreate the experience of playing a game they loved for the first time. The fact that these expansion sets are generally priced considerably lower than the original makes the whole thing quite a good deal for gamers.
Nemesis Strike is kill.switch's expansion set. It makes a few token stabs at originality, such as a skydiving mini-game and a couple of drivable vehicles, but on the whole, it's just a rehash of its source material with new graphics and level layouts. It's not an exceptional game by any means, and it seems only to exist as a service to die-hard kill.switch fans. What's wrong with that?
by Brad Gallaway
Closing out this edition of the Basement is Capcom's Haunting Ground. Appearing on shelves with little fanfare and disappearing the way it came, it's actually an interesting title worthy of a closer look, but especially so to those who are devotees of the Survival Horror genre.
Starring the absurdly buxom Fiona Belli and her canine companion Hewie, Haunting Ground is the ultimate evolution of Capcom's standard backtracking and keyfetching formula. Normally I'm left cold by this sort of gameplay, but the story and setting in this case were enough to draw me in. With elements of alchemy and the supernatural woven into a mystery that begs to be solved, finding keys shaped like art and a castle full of puzzles and locked doors makes a lot more sense in this context given than they usually do in something like Resident Evil.
However, the other element to gameplay isn't conserving bullets, but rather, running and hiding. Having much in common with the unsung PlayStation classic Clock Tower and its decent PlayStation 2 sequel Clock Tower 3, Fiona
must evade her enemies instead of taking them head on. With Hewie running interference, refuge is taken under couches, in cabinets, and basically anywhere that resembles a safe haven when being chased by the game's main bogeyman, a deformed giant with the mental capacity of a small child. (See Of Mice and Men for more details.)
While it's true that Haunting Ground doesn't explore much new territory, the interplay between Fiona and Hewie for defense and puzzle-solving is charming, especially with the game's impressively lifelike canine animations and graphics that are truly phenomenal. I can honestly say that I would not have expected the PlayStation 2 to be capable of a no-loadtime presentation like the one here. That said, this game earns its rating of 6.5 for a number of reasons.
Primarily, the evasion system (a core concept) needed more work. The castle in which the game is set is huge, so it struck me as odd that there were hardly any good places to hide. It's not very entertaining to run in circles and keep returning to places that have already been used as hideouts, especially since Fiona is never guaranteed to go unnoticed.
Also, Fiona's inability to fight back is just a bit unbelievable. In the Clock Tower games, the heroes could at least throw an object or knock a stack of boxes over onto the bad guy in a pinch, much like you'd see a scared teen doing in a slasher flick. Any sort of offense happens so infrequently in Haunting Ground that it's never realistically an option. In this case, a little could have gone a long way.
Finally, the flow of the game is thickly slow and dense, with most of the puzzles being aggressively obscure and significantly challenging. Gamers who love being stuck and don't mind backtracking while trying to figure out what to do next will be in love. Personally, I felt that the developers should have given out more clues and been more open and accessible. To top it off, the game is about twice as long as is warranted by the material, so the puzzles make the long haul even longer. I strongly recommend an FAQ to anyone who is thinking of taking this game on. If you're able to get through to the end on brain power and persistence alone, my hat is off to you.
The visuals are beautiful and I really admire the premise, but Haunting Ground goes too far down a few paths of game design that I don't enjoy. Still, this is an underappreciated title that might have won a bigger audience if it had only come along a few years earlier. As it stands, Resident Evil fans who can live without gunplay and people with fond memories of Clock Tower would be very wise to track it down.
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