I liked Metal Gear Ac!d about as much as Brad, but for different reasons. While Brad felt it stumbled out of the gate but gained steam later, I felt like it started out strong and became overwhelming as it got more complex.

I didn't find the initial portions of the game so frustrating. It's true that adapting to the eccentricities of Ac!d's gameplay is an ordeal. The most shocking offender is the weapon system, an opaque cloud of confusion that threatens to break the game in half. However, I disagree on the more mundane "unrealistic" elements, such as not being able to turn and attack in a single turn. These sorts of rules are staples of the turn-based strategy genre, so I don't find them so intrusive. I don't care what the rules are as long as they are clear, and Ac!d's only real crime is failing to present its quirky logic to the player in a coherent way.

Once you grasp the gameplay system of Ac!d it works well, and if you grasp it early, the earlier levels are no less fun than the later ones. In fact, I felt the game was more frustrating towards the end because that's when the system began breaking down in spite of the fact that I understood it. There are so many cards by the end that it didn't seem worth figuring out how to use most of them, since their abilities often involved manual calculation. I enjoy solving complex systems, but the point of a videogame seems to be leaving the math to the program. When I realized that to use most of the cards I had to add up "COST" in my head, I just tuned out and stuck with the simpler cards.

Nonetheless, Ac!d is a fun game. I think Brad and I got about the same level of enjoyment out of the gameplay, even if we differ on pros and cons. I can't say we see eye to eye on the story, though. Acid's plot is certainly cool, but it doesn't have the depth or weight that I was hoping for. It may seem unfair to hold a portable game to the standard of the multi-million dollar cut-scene extravaganzas like Metal Gear Solid 2. But then again, it might not be. The previous portable Metal Gear game, Metal Gear: Ghost Babel for the Gameboy Color, actually managed to import a lot of the tone, depth, and dramatic feeling of the main series into the small screen. It was in its own way as effective a synthesis of gameplay and story as any mainstream Metal Gear. Metal Gear Ac!d, however, doesn't feel like it has story on its mind. Because of the lack of a codec system, you never get to know the characters very well. And the plot, while interesting and full of twists, has too much padding in the first half and resolves itself too quickly at the end. Metal Gear Solid 2 was lambasted for having too many plot twists at the end as well, but it at least had iconic characters in memorable situations. Even if you didn't understand the plot, characters and events lingered in your mind. They don't in Ac!d. Many of the plot twists seem to have no purpose other than confusing the player, and while it all does sort of make sense if you think about it, it lacks the dramatic punch to make you want to untangle its web of conspiracies.

Still, the foundation is very strong. Though uneven, the card-based gameplay is engaging. I spent 30 hours finishing this game, and I don't regret it. I think all of its problems, even the story ones, could easily be smoothed over in the sequel which was just announced. If Metal Gear Ac!d 2 follows the same trajectory as Zone of Enders, another Kojima-produced series that got off to a shaky start, the sequel will realize the dormant potential of the original. Rating: 7 out of 10.

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Chris is right in theory. The EyeToy and EyeToy: Play have the potential to be "the killer app that can draw people who have never played a videogame in their life before towards the PlayStation 2." But in practice, there are still some problems preventing both the peripheral and the game from becoming a revolution in the way we play games.

First off, while the simplicity of EyeToy: Play's games is initially a boon to getting non-gamers to play, it eventually becomes a hindrance to any long-term enjoyment of the game. In my experience showing off the game to my college-aged friends, both hardcore gamer and otherwise, the reactions progressed steadily from skepticism to mild interest to boredom. As soon as the novelty of seeing themselves on screen wore off, everyone in the group seemed to collectively shrug and say, "Is this all there is to it?"

Waving your arms to spin plates and knock out ninjas is all well and good, but after about 10 minutes of straight play, each of the mini-games gets a bit tiresome. The variable difficulty levels don't make up for the fact that washing 100 windows feels a lot like washing one window 100 times only with progressively sagging arms.

In the end, it's a lack of mentally engaging gameplay more than a lack of complexity that really hurts EyeToy: Play. Even the simplest of the classic games from "the early Atari era," that Chris mentions had advanced tactics that separated the pro from the newbie. There was always room to grow: a new ghost clustering pattern in Pac-man or a method to rescue all the family members in a wave of Robotron 2084. That's why they're classics, because they required tight concentration in addition to tight reflexes.

With EyeToy: Play all that really matters are dexterity and muscle strength. Turn off your brain, wave your arms as fast as possible and high score!

What the EyeToy really needs is its own Tetris: a classic, must-own title that's simple to learn but tough to master that incorporates elements of both fast-paced and more thoughtful games that both gamers and the non-gamers will be unable to resist.

EyeToy: Play contains evidence of the potential for such games, but never quite manages to reach that potential. There's something missing that prevents any of the mini-games from becoming more than interesting technology demos. I hope it won't be long before some developer finds that missing piece and makes the EyeToy into the true revolution it could be. Rating: 8 out of 10.

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I admit that I don't play many handheld games. I never really owned the original Game Boy. I do own a Game Boy Color, though, and frankly I prefer that even to the technically superior Game Boy Advance. I suspect it has something to do with the simplicity of the "inferior" graphics. The Game Boy Advance (GBA) is impressive, yes, but I have trouble taking in all that visual information on such a tiny screen, especially when I'm juggling it with the momentary distractions that inevitably come with portable gaming. Of the Game Boy Advance titles I've played, the ones I've felt are truly conducive to the small-screen experience are those which are especially concise in both visuals and gameplay. Games like Chu-Chu Rocket! or WaroWare are perfect examples of this kind of thing. They can be played for mere seconds at a time and only demand comprehension of two or three key bits of information on the screen. To me, that's really when handheld gaming makes the most sense. Otherwise, it's usually something I'd rather be doing at home, with a large screen, where I can actually absorb all the visual information that's been designed to enrich the experience.

Games that are story-oriented, which are usually the kinds of game that try to create evocative and beautiful spaces filled with detail, seem made for admiring in this way. In my experience of playing story-driven games on a portable platform, the only ones that ever really worked for me were ones on Game Boy Color. The ultra simplistic visuals of Dragon Warrior or Metal Gear: Ghost Babel were palatable enough on a small screen that I was never distracted by the fact that I just couldn't focus on everything I was seeing. Thus, I was able to immerse myself in the fictional universe just as I would playing a normal role-playing game (RPG) or Adventure game. Although I respect the technical feats that make it possible to cram so much detail onto the Game Boy Advance screen, I can never totally shake the notion that some types of games just need to be played on a television. Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow is one of those games.

I generally agree with all of Scott's comments. The game is, at best, a diversion rather than an experience. The designers take the tried and true Castlevania formula that worked to beautifully in the now classic Symphony of the Night and make it manageable within the portable format. They do an excellent job of it, in fact. Of the two previous GBA Castlevania titles—Circle of the Moon and Harmony of Dissonance—I confess to playing only bits and pieces. However, it's clear playing just a few minutes of Aria of Sorrow that they finally got it right. Everything from the spot-on play control, to the rich skill system, to the lush graphics, to the fluid animation: they all scream both quality and class. Scott is also right that the general balance and pacing of the game is nicely done. Backtracking isn't very bothersome, and all the areas of the castle are visually interesting and accompanied by memorable music that sets the trademark gothic rock n' roll tone that has been the series hallmark for years.

So then, why I ask myself, was I generally frustrated and impatient to get to the end of the game? Granted, it might have something to do with the fact that I was borrowing someone else's GBA to finish it in time for a review deadline. However, I was under similar constraints when I played Metroid Fusion—a game with an almost identical formula—and I found that a more enjoyable experience. I think it probably has to do with two things: the dull familiarity of the series, and the limitations of the small screen. Unlike Metroid, Aria of Sorrow is, after all, the third game of its kind on GBA, and it is virtually identical to its predecessors in terms of the conventions it follows. The "explore castle, upgrade character, fight Dracula" progression is utterly unchanged. And although it breaks convention in some ways, such as in the protagonist's use of edged weapons and supernatural skills, they are all merely returns to elements that were present in Symphony of the Night in the first place. In other words, while Aria of Sorrow is different from its two predecessors, it only is so by virtue of being even more similar to the original game that inspired the formula. The result, while technically superior, feels even less like an original game that either Circle or Harmony. It feels almost like a point-for-point remake of Symphony, right down to the castle design, weapons, skills, characters, bosses, and even the plot. All it left me thinking was, "Wow. Symphony sure was great. How much longer is this game anyway?"

To be fair, I suppose my main criticism here is predicated on the fact that Symphony of the Night is so familiar to me. I can easily imagine players who haven't experienced its inspiration being more impressed by Aria. However, I think what lingers regardless of familiarity with the series is the tone Aria inescapable inherits from Symphony by copying so completely. Set up as an epic showdown between Good and Evil against a sweeping gothic backdrop, it speaks a language that promises an experience rather than a diversion. It sports a lavishly detailed world, amazing sights and sounds, and enthralling action in a dramatic context. Somehow, all this epicness feels hampered by the tiny screen. There's a reason why we go to the movie theater to see sweeping vistas and epic battles and stay at home to watch short, to the point comedies on television. I think the same logic applies to home games versus portable games. I just can't think of a reason to recommend Aria of Sorrow unless you're a fan who must see what happens in the story. Otherwise, if what you're looking for is a dose of 2D gothic coolness that will blow your mind—Symphony of the Night is absolutely everything Aria of Sorrow is and more. It's the same larger-than-life characters, larger-than-life action, and larger-than-life setting in the only place they make sense: on a large screen. Rating 6 ou tof 10.

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It's odd. The platforming genre hasn't seen much in the way of innovation lately. Super Mario 64 wrote most of the rules of 3D platforming, and just about everything that came after followed those rules rather diligently. But despite this, I think the last couple years have been a renaissance of sorts for the genre. Yes, there was a Mario game that wasn't really groundbreaking, but it was still an impressive piece of work. And we got Jak And Daxter, Ratchet & Clank, and Sly Cooper. Coupled with the release of old classics like the Super Mario Bros. and Sonic The Hedgehog games on the Game Boy, it's really an interesting time period.

Rayman 3: Hoodlum Havoc is one of the many good platformers available right now, and like many good platformers offers a unique and beautiful world for gamers to explore in.

As Kyle mentioned, Hoodlum Havoc has a wonderfully irreverent sense of humor. It gets a little silly at times, but it's also sly. While most people think of platformers as mostly a kid's genre, I think many older gamers will have a hard time not breaking into a grin or two while playing Rayman 3. Especially when it comes to the self-referential gibes, it really does take a pretty experienced platforming junkie to appreciate it.

While much of Rayman's gameplay is fairly standard, it's good to see that the developers were at least able to stretch their imaginations from a visual standpoint. The bonus level Kyle mentioned, which featured the funky disco music, was ridiculously psychedelic. It was sparkly, and neon, and had purple flower things spinning off in the distance, and the music was groovy (apologies, but that really is the best adjective to describe that tune). The game does feature a lot of rehash when it comes to environments, whether it's trudging through snow or trying to out of a dark and dank forest floor covered in mushrooms. But there were many times when I found the visuals quite striking in the course of playing. Most of the levels in Rayman are a little on the linear side, but their visual appeal alone will keep them from seeming boring.

There's not a whole lot I can complain about in Rayman 3. It is in every way a very solid game. The only drawback is that there isn't much that makes it an exceptional platformer. That isn't such a bother for me though, as I really do appreciate good execution. I'm also a genre fan who manages to squeeze a platformer into my console from time to time. And while Rayman had very standard gameplay, I found its unique sense of style and personality made it very appealing.

Perhaps that last thought is the best way to describe platform games these days: it's a genre that's comfortable in its old clothes. After Super Mario 64, the basics are down, so instead of fumbling around with gameplay mechanics, developers can now focus on creating compelling worlds and cultivating a sense of style. Rating 8 out of 10

Disclaimer: This review is based on the GameCube version of the game.

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Ikaruga is like no other shooter I've played. Despite my enjoyment of other excellent games like it, Ikaruga comes out on top. It's unfortunate that to describe why is so impressively difficult.

The challenge of the game and its convention-stretching inventive play combine to create an experience that is tricky to convey outside of its own genre, yet there are many things to say about Ikaruga. One can describe gameplay and give an assessment as Mike did, but I am to explain the game through the mental processes that take place while learning to play because it stimulates in such an interesting way.

At first I just wanted to watch what is the most visually appealing shooter I've seen. This proved lethal. Every time I advanced to a new stage, I quickly went through several lives as I focused on what Mike properly describes as its "[cyberpunk] aesthetic." The art and modeling is tight and focused, with nothing particularly overwrought. While at some points a bit mentally disturbing to consider in the heat of play, the graphics were never distracting. It was easy to concentrate on the game itself without getting overwhelmed by the incidental art once I set myself to the task.

The more insidious change from prior shooters, however, is the color polarity system. Mike's mention of predecessor Silhouette Mirage suggests this is not as original as it seems, but it was new to me. While the concept is quite readily understood, I found that the personal paradigmatic gameplay shift essential for doing well at Ikaruga was not immediately forthcoming. All my instincts and training from previous shooters led to an incessant assault on my conscious thought: AVOID ALL SHOTS! I had moderate success with that tactic until the first boss repeatedly tore me apart. The key, it seems, is to learn when to skirt and when to absorb enemy shots—a drastic retraining of reflexes honed by years of other shooters. Yes, it is in the player's best interest to fly right into enemy bullets!

Ikaruga throws new challenges at the player at every turn. Just as I became accustomed to the constant barrage of multi-colored shots, I was hit with solid walls of alternating color followed immediately by ever-expanding concentric circles, then twisting, zig-zagging streams, and no rest in sight! Being put in the middle of a swirling, rotating maelstrom of colors, interfering interwoven spirals hypnotic in their crossing and reversing mandalic floral patterns nearly drove me mad from disbelief: "How am I supposed to manage this?"

There is most definitely a "zone" that game players, whether video or athletic, can reach. It's a state of unthinking comprehension, action and simultaneous reaction—an almost tantric understanding of the surroundings or task at hand. Reaching this zone is probably the most helpful thing one can do while playing Ikaruga. Those whose problems achieving this state mirror mine will find that the more complex patterns will require a fair amount of practice. As Mike assesses, it is also the need to get into this zone that makes playing Ikaruga feel so much like playing a puzzle game.

Most puzzlers emphasize quick cognitive recognition skills. As new pieces appear on the field, the player must rapidly identify the unique attributes of the new piece as well as how it best fits into the existing layout. The appearance of enemy ships in Ikaruga may never be randomized (as in puzzle games), but unless the player already has an entrenched routine for each level, the same skills are stressed. The flood of black and white shots cause a constant switching between ship colors to stay alive, yet one must still consider how to unctuously dispose of all enemies. Constant action throughout the screen means a holistic view of the field is better than focusing on a single area. This perceptiveness and the corresponding demanding reactions to find the "best fit," are best achieved while in Mike's Zen-like zone, just as in puzzle games. 

Despite my attempted eloquence, I feel that I have not managed to do Ikaruga justice. It is a wonderful, unique game with a stronger unified aesthetic than most and will require the hapless player to achieve a nigh-ascetic level of devotion to fully master. A superb work. Rating: 9 out of 10.

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And indeed, as Erin made clear, there is plenty to marvel at. Graphics and cutscenes alike are jaw-dropping and sweepingly cinematic. Uematsu's music is both eclectic and genuinely affecting. The characters are cute, the story grand. And that loving attention to detail which makes the series so revered is undeniably there—from Steiner's comic relief scenes, to the set designs of the cities (one of which is more mammoth and labyrinthine than any I have seen in a console RPG), to the quietly moving moments where our heroes pause to bond with each other over a few draughts of nostalgic and hopeful reverie.

Yet somehow, none of it succeeds at being more than momentarily involving. As one might glean from the patient tone of Erin's review, the biggest thing to write about here is how a series that once contributed to the success of the first Playstation is finally spinning its wheels.

Here is a game that was mechanically churned out in record time, released only a year after the previous installment, with a selling point of nostalgia—a "return to the series roots"—that was surely intended to camouflage its lack of any risk-taking. The reasons are understandable. By then, the Playstation 2 was already on its way, so no one expected another 32-bit installment in the series anyhow. Also, the poor sales of Final Fantasy VIII were blamed on its aggressive departures from such genre mainstays as a magic point system and the trappings of medieval fantasy. But the thing is, at least Final Fantasy VIII took chances, compelling players to either love or hate its "junction" system (which I personally found versatile and addicting). There is no such riskiness in this ninth installment. Like its bland, smiling mascot Eiko, this game is pure likeability with no depth—as Erin put it, "comfortable."

I do share in Erin's relief over the reinstatement of the four-member battle party. But the battle engine itself suffers from real miscalculations. A new "trance" system subjects the player to a slow, blinding transition to a souped-up battle form where Vivi, for example, obtains the supposedly exciting ability to now—cast two spells per turn instead of one! The enemy encounter rate seems higher than in the past, but the variety of enemies is definitely not, a situation that makes the random battles get unwelcome real fast. The animated summons are more succinct than the infamously sprawling ones of before, but they are also less creative. Whereas the animated summons from Part VIII, for example, at times evoked watching Close Encounters Of The Third Kind on acid, the pyrotechnic sketches this time around recall the uninspired visuals in the Dungeons & Dragons movie. And the fact that an enemy can carry up to three items, each exponentially harder to "steal" than the last, may make this the first RPG in history to teach children the frustrating lesson that sometimes, crime just doesn't pay.

Even plotwise, the nostalgic appeal cannot hide a B-movie thinness. Instead of the manga craziness of Part VII or the haunting unease of Part VIII, Final Fantasy IX is a pastiche of empty references. It reminds me of the story of how two guys in prison, tired of retelling the same jokes, have taken to simply shouting out the number of each joke—"Number 29! Ha, ha! But hey, what about number 63! Ha, ha!"—without any desire to embellish the buildup at all. For example, Zidane has a sudden crisis of conscience where he realizes he is related by blood to his enemy. Shame and angst galore, but for what? He has never caused suffering to anybody, except maybe through his insufferable peppiness. In contrast, earlier Final Fantasy heroes such as Terra, Cloud, or Rinoa had to wrestle with guilt over a frightening loss of control that had led them to endanger their own allies. Another example is the forgettable Kuja. It's bad enough that, as Erin pointed out, he is a villain with no motivation. What I find even worse is that he is precluded from having any tragic stature whatever by a last-minute change of heart, where he suddenly cedes his spotlight to a discontinuous "real final enemy" who is an anticlimactically vapid metaphor for…"evil" itself!

This is not just deus ex machina, where some baffling "act of God" comes to the rescue of a character's life, livelihood, or dignity. It is practically non sequitur: an abrupt change of subject that makes no sense. Why spend four disks building up an epic confrontation, only to replace your final villain with some other entity whose existence has never even been hinted at? The only conceivable reason for this narrative choice is to give Kuja a last-chance redemption. And if that's what's going on here, then Square is basically promoting the old and unfortunate idea that you can indeed win someone over to a different moral point of view if you pummel him into receptiveness first.

Final Fantasy IX is brain-numbingly pleasant, mostly painless, and at times, visually ravishing. But it's also the first installment of the series that I felt little urge to play a second time. Of course, I understand that a newcomer to the Final Fantasy franchise might be quite taken with this one's production values and hints of depth. If you're one of those people, all I can do is look your way, not without envy, and say, 'hey, just wait 'til you play the others.' Rating: 7 out of 10

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Dale Weir
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Dale Weir

This game is like 10 years old. That you haven’t been “spoiled” by now is some sort of miracle. 😀

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Well would you look at that. Major spoilers in a review. Good going there, bro.

There isn't much to add to Mike's review. He pegged all of the major problems and few highpoints Enclave showcases. Whether it's the shoddy save and combat systems or the extreme difficulty, I agree with him. There are a couple things that I feel deserve further attention.

Enclaves graphics, controls, and save system are exactly as Mike described. The character designs are rich and near flawless, and the different environments feel open and rich. The games control scheme is one of the few things this title gets right. The save system is the games worst vice. As Mike pointed out, a few levels offered a save point, but they were too few and far between. Ive come to expect games to take advantage of the Xboxs hard drive; alas Enclave does not.

The only things I feel were missed in the main review were the lack of character development and poor representation of mages in the games combat system. While Enclave does have an interesting and somewhat original story line, the characters involved seem to be nothing more than marionettes. There is no motive or drive for those participating in the story. Characters arent even given a name, just their combat class. This made it impossible for me to feel involved with the story and live this world through my characters eyes.

And while Mike mentioned that the combat system is extremely simplistic, it was not brought to light how overly difficult it is to use the magic wielding characters. I have always enjoyed playing frail but powerful mages in games, but thats not the case this time around. These characters have the absolute worst defense in the game. They use magical barriers that suck down the already limited mana, and adding insult to injury is their projectile magic. Not only is it inept, but very difficult to aim. This makes them the most difficult and disappointing character class to utilize in the game.

Enclave is plagued with numerous flaws and shortcomings. Had their been any enhancement to the save or combat system and characters, I might have enjoyed Enclave a little bitbut I didnt. Rating: 3 out of 10.

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We've all lost people we love. I'm not referring to the spectacular cataclysms of Hollywood fare, but to the more typical losses caused by errors of the heart—mistakes that we were too vain to foresee and too proud to atone. If you could revisit that moment of your past, try to win back that person's trust, would you go?

This is the guiding question of Dragon Warrior VII, the latest installment of an old-school role-playing game (RPG) series which debuted in America in the mid-1980's. In a changed landscape populated by newer RPG series that reek of gorgeous graphics and operatic showdowns between good and evil, Dragon Warrior VII engrosses the player with understated visuals and nuanced characters. There is a "Demon Lord" and even a "God" involved here, but they are not really the point. Matt's observation about story in this game is crucial to understanding why. The main plot, as such, is strictly generic; the real soul of the game lies in the remarkable variety of subplots. Lovers of short fiction anthologies will appreciate how addictive it becomes to enter each forgotten land and piece together how one or another human pettiness doomed it to oblivion. Not all the subquests exude such melancholy, but many do, including the very first one, which skillfully sets the overall tone.

Thus the game is permeated by a down-to-earth sensibility, showing that "good" and "evil" are merely comforting notions upon which to couch our unspoken acknowledgement that suffering is ultimately caused by human follies. Because of this wisdom and humanism, so rare in videogames, I wholeheartedly agree with Matt's recommendation. Dragon Warrior VII is a charming and engrossing experience.

It is also solid as a technical accomplishment. The old-school graphic style has predictably taken some heat, but honestly, the rendered 3D models which are so widespread these days just can't exude quirkiness and personality like the hand-drawn monsters of this game. And then, when the monsters suddenly attack, their animations are both amusing and smooth. I even managed to enjoy the CGI cutscenes more than Matt did. The simple combination of guitar music and graceful dissolves in one particular cinema carries a haunting power that is absent in many of the more flashy-looking cinemas crammed onto demo discs in Official U.S. PlayStation Magazine.

Another subtle graphical advantage, which wouldn't hit you from the screenshots, is dungeon design. Because you can rotate and zoom out the view, the environments feel convincing, especially compared to the baroque wallpaper backgrounds of a lot of the current Final Fantasy games, which can remind one of playing Myst (or worse, simply viewing a Dali exhibit). A couple of mind-boggling dungeons exploit the simple ability to rotate views by messing with your very conceptualization of space, requiring you to maintain your sense of direction while you range buglike all over the outer and inner surfaces of a 3D "maze" (as opposed to simply navigating 2D planes connected by staircases).

Dragon Warrior VII does have its disappointments though. The music themes, while beautiful and plaintive, are noticeably scant in number. The job system could have had some fat trimmed. And the dialogue system, so innovative in principle, is lackluster in execution. The sheer amount of commentary is huge you can "talk" to your party members anytime, even while stopping in front of mirrors to stare at their reflections. But (with a couple of prominent exceptions), they are not fundamentally changed through their adventures; their outlook on the world remains unaltered at the end. It's consistent with the modest courage of these characters for them to deliver detached and sometimes pithy commentary on the action, rather than become irretrievably involved in it. But at times their remarks are so banal that it's hard to tell their characters apart, especially in the in-battle dialogues (though not in the wonderful mirror-staring dialogues).

The battles themselves are quick, tight, and very entertaining, filled with plenty of funny details. But they are also a step down in strategy from the last American installment, Dragon Warrior IV, which I remember a much bigger choice of party members and a greater concentration of skills per job. That, of course, was ten years ago, and nostalgia is far from the main reason to play through this terrific game. But I guess my heart is still in the past, in my memory of how the world looked before I knew it needed saving. Like one of Dragon Warrior VII's central characters, I might be happier if I could just return there for good. Rating 8.5 out of 10.

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For the most part, I agree with a lot of Mike's points regarding Castlevania Chronicles. The game certainly brought back fond memories of earlier Castlevania titles that Ive played in the past. I just wish that I had enjoyed playing it more; unfortunately, the obnoxious difficulty and inconsistent jumping mechanics marred the experience.

The "insane difficulty level" that Mike mentioned cannot be emphasized enough, especially in the games Original Mode. The new Arrange Mode that Mike spoke of allows players to adjust the amount of lives in reserve and the difficulty is slightly more forgiving. There are certain areas of the game in which it is nearly impossible to avoid taking damage, and this usually leads to having too little life left to have a chance at winning the confrontation with the levels boss. The difficulty curve is gradual, thankfully, and getting through the first three stages and bosses is a realistic expectation for players of varying skill levels. Be warned, however, that Chronicles gets much harder as players get closer and closer to the final confrontation with Dracula. One particular level of note, which takes players on an ascending route up a clock tower, will test the patience of most players. I'm not kidding when I say that I came close to physically snapping my controller in half after repeated attempts at clearing this area. Its a lesson in cruelty: after finally making it through all of the obstacles and enemies, I finally made it to the boss with one hit-point left. After the boss eliminated that one hit point, I had to start way back at the beginning of the tower sequence. That's about as frustrating as a game can get.

The poor jumping mechanics in Chronicles really hampered the experience for me. Since the ability to make certain jumps is such a key factor in succeeding in any Castlevania game, I have to wonder why the jumping range is so poor in Chronicles. Its almost too easy to misjudge a jump and not clear a gap, leading to unnecessary loss of life. Since players cannot run and pick up speed to clear a perilously long gap, its almost a matter of trial and error at times to see just where the character needs to be on the screen before attempting that jump. Since lives are at a premium in Original Mode, even one mistake can be the difference between success and having to continue and start a level over from the very beginning. I can understand that Konami wanted to keep the game as close to the original as possible without changing too much, but this flaw certainly detracts from the overall experience and can potentially add even more frustration to an already difficult game.

I really didn't notice a large change in the graphics department between the games Original and Arrange modes. Mike's notes about the slightly more detailed sprites and parallax effects tend to sum up the only noticeable visual differences, and they really didnt seem to be all that much better to me. I did appreciate the games darker symbolism and blood, which is something that the early 8-bit Castlevania titles couldn't get away with outside of Japan (thanks to Nintendo's liberal censorship). After all, this is supposed to be a vampire-hunting adventure, and blood is just par for the course. I agree with Mike's point about Chronicles having "old skool" (as he called it) graphics; however, the visuals weren't all that much better than the 16-bit Castlevania adventures that had previously been released outside of Japan. These earlier games also execute better and have a more forgiving difficulty.

The music in Arrange Mode, as Mike mentioned, has been remixed and sounds quite good. It sounds a bit peppier than traditional Castlevania music, with some tracks that almost sound like dance remixes of classic Castlevania tunes. Its a nice change, but even with the selection of familiar-sounding tracks, there isn't a lot of variety in the tracks and there isn't enough of a selection. Meanwhile, the music in the Original Mode sounds like its coming from a 16-bit console. This isn't a bad thing, in my opinion; in fact, it can inspire some reminiscing about the "good old days". The Time Attack feature is a neat way to test players skills and adds a hint of competition to a game that usually has none. I personally don't see many players using this option, but its nice to see that Konami added it.

I was disappointed with Castlevania Chronicles, despite the fact that the game carries on the Castlevania tradition and cost only $20 (US). After playing through classics like Super Castlevania IV and Symphony Of The Night, its hard not to expect a bit more from a Castlevania effort. The games obscenely high difficulty, questionable jumping mechanics, and limited replay value relegate Chronicles to average status. Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of the Castlevania series, but I just found more to dislike than to like about Chronicles. Rating: 4 out of 10.

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Once upon a time PC (personal computer) gamers had it much better than videogame console gamers. The PC was a more powerful machine, capable of giving users large 3-D game environments and a load of titles console gamers could only dream of having on their 16-bit systems. Times have changed. Now home consoles, like the PlayStation 2, contain power equal to that of the standard computer, if not more. PC-style adventure games like Drakan: The Ancients' Gate just aren't impressive anymore.

Brad's above comment, "If I didn't know that Drakan was specifically made for the PlayStation 2, I'd SWEAR it was a quickie PC port," sums up the general tone of the game. There isn't anything about Drakan that uses the PlayStation 2 graphics capability to full power. The developers seemed to work under the assumption the PlayStation 2 runs Windows '95. Set Drakan up against a game like Jak And Daxter: The Precursor Legacy and the shortcomings in graphics become apparent. Where Jak And Daxter creates a vibrant, moving and colorful landscape, Drakan presents rather bland environments with sparse features. Hills, rivers, caves and towns end up looking similar. Several years ago Drakan's minimalist approach to environments would have impressed console gamers, but today it looks like many other unmemorable PC adventures on sale in stores.

Where Drakan falls short on appearance, it exceeds with a good deal of quality gameplay. Players won't find any revolutionary features in the title. Anyone who has played video or PC games for a while has come across the adventure-style gameplay Drakan employs. The only added twist comes from riding Arokh the dragon, which makes travel much quicker across the vast landscapes. In essence, players will delve into caves, fight monsters with different weapons and collect items all along the way to achieving the ultimate goal of the game, which Brad outlined above. Drakan provides hour after hour of playtime, although the objectives do get a little boring and some of them take far too long to complete.

If Drakan has one major shortfall in game mechanics, then it has to come from the weapons and items menu screen. When a player brings up the menu the action in the game doesn't stop. Worse yet, the main character, Rynn, turns to face the player, turning her back on any potential, charging adversaries. If a player brings up the menu when any enemies are nearby, he or she will be forced to navigate back out of the menu in a panic, weapon readied or not. Fortunately, players can assign certain items to a slot that can be accessed quickly by pressing one of the controller's shoulder buttons. The feature does little to alieviate the problem, since players are still forced to avoid enemies while scrolling for the correct item. As part of Drakan's discretion to never stop the action, healing in the middle of battle also becomes a problem. In one of the early boss encounters, I spent most of the time running away from some troll shaman with a bottle of healing potion in my hand, trying to find a decent chance to take a swig in between dodging magic shots. Rynn look like a manic, compulsive alcoholic, which was comical but made the fight much more difficult than necessary.

Despite these few problems, Drakan: The Ancients' Gate is a decent game. It suffers most from the bane of mediocrity, as it really isn't anything more special than the standard adventure game. Not so long ago videogame consoles had some bragging room if they could run a PC-style adventure game. The newer systems have met and perhaps passed the gaming engines of PCs. Titles like Drakan might give gamers a fair share of fun, but in light of current gaming technology they hardly seem worth the time. Rating 6 out of 10.

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Metal Gear Solid 2:  Sons of Liberty Screenshot

I often wonder when games will be reviewed on TV the way movies are featured on various evening news segments or television magazines such as Access Hollywood. If they were, Kojima's latest would yield mixed feelings. My sentiments about Metal Gear Solid 2 (MGS2) are similar to those when I anticipated some kind of Sixth Sense auteurism in Unbreakable, only to get something completely different.

I agree with Matt that the control orientations, once mastered, make the game even more fun and naturally smoother. Executing more advanced moves such as holding a terrorist hostage or shooting a terrorists radio out (so that he cant communicate with other attack teams) are challenging but add a lot to the already fun experience of the game. It seemed to me, however, that I started to execute new moves and tactics after finishing the game once. Perfecting stealth tactics and some of the more complex moves definitely adds a "coolness" factor to your demeanor, though, and I know quite a few people who have replayed the original Metal Gear Solid and will probably play this title over and over.

While continuing through the game, most of the camera shifts and angles that occurred while making my way through the game were comfortably intuitive, while others were downright difficult to negotiate. For instance, leaning against a wall to peek around corners became a natural practice, while walking down some corridors seemed to be viewed at the least convenient angles. I often stared at the radar on the top-right while I made my way through a room instead of looking at what was happening on-screen. I wish that I didn't have to do this so often so I could instead focus on the action itself.

Like Matt says, the enemy AI is definitely an improvement over the last Metal Gear game and finally gives justice to the "stealth tactics" you'll work on. You may want to blast your way through the game by shooting as many terrorists as possible, but it will only make the game more frustrating as you shoot wave after wave of soldiers until you've wasted all your rations or simply all that time in one place trying to survive. This isn't Deus Ex, where you can tailor your experience by blasting away or finishing the game as a shadow. It's called "Tactical Espionage Action" for a reason.

In addition to the gameplay, MGS2s lengthy cut-scenes are all shot very well with smooth motion-captured performances from start to finish. The mixture of excellent staging along with the more anime-like faces of some of the characters results in a distinct look, combining our perceptions of film viewing along with that of looking at the art style of Japanese animation. Unfortunately, this excellence wasn't escapist enough to keep me from itching to involve myself in the story. For instance, I was ready to get back into the action after one cut scene, only to sit through two more. In addition, the conversations by codec were also very lengthy. As a measurement, while my first run through of the game was almost exactly fifteen hours, I played through the game a second time in five by skipping all cut scenes and codec dialogue. Granted, the second time through was much faster since I knew exactly what to do.

After completing the game twice and learning about the various Easter Eggs throughout the game, I feel that MGS2 certainly has replay value. I usually never play through a single player experience more than once unless there are enough perks, and with MGS2 the incentives include an experience akin to watching a fun action film all over again along with some nice creative scenarios in gameplay. Divulging them would ruin the plot for you, so you'll have to discover them for yourself.

While my expectations after playing the demo (packed with Zone Of The Enders) were high, the game that unfolded satisfied them but introduced surprises that can only bring one word into mind: bittersweet. Plot twists are certainly welcome, but there are so many here that I was jarred and confused near the end of the game. Without saying too much, it feels like Kojima did to this game what breakthrough filmmakers have been pushing into their films: something out of the ordinary, a self-criticism of the medium or a combination of both. Still, if that turns you off, don't let it stop you: the experience of playing this game is definitely worth the full price of admission. Rating: 9.0 out of 10.

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