Welcome to the inaugural installment of Portable Project, a new monthly feature here at GameCritics devoted to handheld gaming. Since many portable titles aren’t quite in-depth enough to warrant a full-length review at the site, this column will allow the site’s critics to comment on some games in a shorter, but no less incisive, format.

So, without further ado, let’s begin.

Broken Sword: Shadow Of The Templars

Developer: Revolution Software
Publisher: BAM! Entertainment
Plaftorm: Game Boy Advance
ERSB: Teen (13+) Mild Violence, Suggestive Themes

Portable Project Product Shot - Broken Sword: Shadow Of The Templars
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Rating: 7.0
by Mike Bracken

Broken Sword: Shadow Of The Templars is a port of a PlayStation game from a few years ago, but even more interesting is that it’s a ‘point-and-click’ styled adventure game sort of like Myst. These games are all but dead as a genre, but it’s nice to see at least one or two still around—some of us oldtimers actually like them.

Broken Sword: Shadow Of The Templars

While the game lacks the intense action of today’s adrenaline-driven games, it makes up for it by offering an engrossing story that’s sure to suck in anyone with enough patience to put up with the title’s languid pace. The game weaves a tale of mystery and intrigue that really is quite entertaining.

Unlike earlier games in the genre, the point and click interface has been modified for this game. Rather than moving a cursor around the screen, players have direct control of the main character and can navigate him through the game’s environments. Almost every object can be examined, but only items that are vital to advancing the game can actually be picked up or utilized. Picking up items is advisable, since many of them will be required later in the story to move the plot along. Unfortunately, there’s little in the way of mystery about the items and how to use them in this game. Broken Sword is rather simple with its puzzles—sort of a dumbed down version of the titles normally found in this field.

Graphically, the game is quite impressive. Broken Sword features a rich and varied color palette as well as animated backgrounds. It’s nowhere near as static as the earlier games in this field, which is a good thing since most of today’s gamers wouldn’t have the patience required for a game like Myst.

However, the sheer amount of text, coupled with the lack of real action for much of the game is sure to turn off the vast majority of gamers. Broken Sword is a throwback game, a title that harkens back to another era of gaming history. While the time of the point and click adventure may have passed, there’s no denying that this game is a fine trip down memory lane for those of us who are old enough to remember when Myst was all the rage.

Dark Arena

Developer: Graphic State
Publisher: Majesco Sales
Plaftorm: Game Boy Advance
ERSB: Teen (13+) Violence

Portable Project Product Shot - Dark Arena
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Rating: 5.0
by Mike Bracken

If I had to sum up Dark Arena in one phrase, it would ‘Doom clone’.

This first-person shooter doesn’t bring much in the way of innovation to the table, instead simply content to recycle the ideas and execution of countless other games in the genre. Players will traverse a seemingly endless series of corridors while Dark Arena picking up weapons and ammo, blasting an assortment of genetically altered monsters, and looking for keys to open up new areas.

Dark Arena foists 20 levels of this on the player, and while the game is mildly entertaining at first, it quickly becomes tedious. The problem is that as a genre, the first-person shooter has advanced dramatically from the days of Doom. In this day and age where games like Halo offer up cinematic experiences, blasting poorly animated sprites isn’t quite the buzz it used to be. However, is it fair to compare a GameBoy Advance title to a game on a next gen console? Probably not.

It’s much more fair to compare the game to its obvious inspiration—the original Doom. Fans of that game will find a lot to like in Dark Arena as the game is essentially a carbon copy of the original. Everything, from the endless corridors and hideous monsters right on through to the information display at the bottom of the screen, looks as though it were lifted right out of Id’s classic game. If you’re going to imitate something, you might as well imitate the best, right?

Unfortunately, that’s all Dark Arena can manage. It never builds on the gameplay or aesthetic qualities of Doom in any meaningful way—it’s merely content to cover the same old ground and hope no one notices.

If the game does have one plus, it’s the inclusion of a link cable feature that will allow four players to connect their GBAs and play together. Too bad this requires that each player have a cartridge as well…the odds of finding four friends who own a copy of Dark Arena seem pretty slim from where I’m standing.

Gradius Galaxies

Developer: Mobile 21
Publisher: Konami
Plaftorm: Game Boy Advance
ERSB: Everyone Mild Violence

Portable Project Product Shot - Gradius Galaxies
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Rating: 8.0
by Chi Kong Lui

Does cutting-edge 3D graphics and realistic physics make a videogame more entertaining? While it may seem logical that today’s jazzed up games are superior in every Gradius Galaxies way than their primitive ancestors, a recent rash of Game Boy Advance games caused me to question and reevaluate my thinking. Portable titles like Gradius Galaxies that eschews new fangled techno wizardry and portrays itself as a celebration of the long-running Gradius series and classic 2D side-scrolling shooting gameplay, seem to measure up fine when compared to their larger and more modern console competition.

Like many Game Boy Advance titles, Gradius Galaxies plays like a game that picks up right where the 16-bit Super NES generation of games left off. The beauty of the hand-drawn graphics created a stir of creative wonderment and admiration in me. The music, while not as complex as some of today’s soundtracks, still manages to create catchy beats and memorable hooks. And the design of the gameplay still manages to maintain a well-tuned flow, an addictive quality (must grab one more power-up), and an intense experience (feel the palms getting sweaty).

The best thing about Gradius Galaxies is that its not repackaging of an older title from yesteryear that mainly tries to capitalize on the nostalgia of older gamers familiar with the franchise. The main concept of the game remains unchanged, but the developers demonstrate wisdom in updating the gameplay conventions with modern touches like a larger variety is weapon’s arsenal selection, a continue-at-any-level option, and special effects-driven surprises to keep a players' senses peeled to the tiny screen.

If anything, Gradius Galaxies proves that old-school gameplay isn’t dead and may still be able to teach a trick or two to the next generation.

Mike Bracken
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