Writing this review proved to be a great deal harder than I'd imagined. I think there are two reasons why: First, Oblivion is a huge and multifaceted game. There's a lot of ground to cover and it's easy to concentrate on the few negatives while skipping over a lot of the positives. Second, it's really hard to talk about the game without referencing Morrowind regularly. The games are obviously from the same universe, but to call Oblivion something as trite as "the next installment in the Elder Scrolls series" doesn't even begin to do the game justice. So, with all that being said, settle in for a lengthy review. Let's get the few negatives out of the way first and then I'll regale you with just how great this game is despite a few flaws.

I'll be the first to admit I had a love/hate relationship with Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, which was the last installment in this series. On one hand, the game was pretty (for its time), massive, lushly detailed, and almost never-ending in terms of what a player could do. I loved these things. On the other hand, it was also buggy, prone to crashing (there was one part of the continent that crashed my Xbox every time I set foot there—no matter how many copies of the game I tried), and it was massive. Yes, the immense size of Morrowind was both a positive and a negative. In many ways, I have the same loves when it comes to Oblivion. Fortunately, most of the complaints have been eliminated—or at least occur with far less frequency than they did in the last game.

Say what you will about developer Bethesda Softworks, but one thing is for sure—these guys are ambitious. Morrowind was a gigantic game with hundreds of quests to undertake and places to explore, and Oblivion seems to have doubled that in most regards. This is an offline Role-Playing Game (RPG) that rivals many of the Massively Multiplayer Online games in terms of sheer content and things to do. When the game's advertising trumpets the fact that players could spend 200 hours exploring the world of Tamriel, it's not just marketing hyperbole—it's genuine truth. If one were to try to see and do everything that's available in this title, they wouldn't have to purchase another game for weeks. Just finding all the dungeons, caves, and mines is an undertaking that would have made Vasco de Gama flinch.

The problem, though, is that occasionally Oblivion is simply too big and too ambitious for its own good. While I certainly can understand people disliking games with excessively linear pathing that guides players from point A to point B by the hand, the Elder Scrolls games have always gone a bit too far in the opposite direction for my taste—there's so much freedom in the games it becomes overwhelming. This was particularly true in Morrowind—a game that I spent over a hundred hours on and never finished the main quest (nor came close to finishing it for that matter). Bethesda seems to have realized this flaw from Morrowind and attempted to tone down the number of miscellaneous quests floating around in the game's world, but it's still simply overwhelming. There are a million stories at work in Oblivion—but the real tragedy is that the main one is often treated with the same amount of significance as "generic fetch quest #608."

This cursory treatment becomes even more disappointing when one realizes that the game's main quest (wherein an Emperor is assassinated in the first few minutes and a cult called The Mythic Dawn is opening Oblivion portals that spew forth Daedric demons all over the countryside) is filled with so much potential. The main quest features a compelling tale with some interesting gameplay (the Kvatch segments in particular) and some excellent characters, but far too often it all takes a backseat to doing series after series of more mundane quests in order to snag loot and level up. Yes, the player has a certain amount of freedom in regards to how he tackles the game—but this is one of those rare times where a little more forcefulness on the part of the developers might have been in order. Simply put, a game should require the player to do the main quest at some point. Oblivion never does.

The game's other flaws are more traditional—the title's combat engine (at least as far as melee fighting is concerned) is still somewhat clunky, there's the occasional bit of slowdown, glitches and bugs lurk around almost every corner, and the game crashes more than every other Xbox 360 game I've played…combined. It's a testament to just how great and gorgeous the game is in all its other facets that it can have these problems and still inspire praise.

The most obvious upgrade Oblivion has to offer is a visual one. Running on the beefed up Xbox 360 hardware, this is arguably the most beautiful console RPG ever released. From sharply detailed cities to lush forests, to spooky dungeons, Oblivion will wow you at almost every turn. Character models are well-drawn and animate with a surprising amount of grace and fluidity. Lips move in synch with speech. Eyes blink, facial expressions change, clothes move—all in all, the characters look strikingly real (save for the fact that most of them look like they have no teeth when they talk…a minor quibble). If that weren't enough, trees sway in the breeze, flowers and plants litter the countryside, lakes of realistic looking water are everywhere, and the sky is an ever-changing tableau. Truthfully, if not for Dead or Alive 4, this game would be the hands down winner of the best 360 graphics award to date. If someone put a gun to my head and made me choose, I'd take Oblivion—if only because it has so much more to animate and does it smoothly and with one of the longest in-game draw distances I've seen.

The second thing most gamers will notice out of the gate is that the game is extremely customizable. Character creation can take an hour or more, depending on how in-depth the person making their avatar wants to be. Aside from numerous races and sexes, almost every facial feature is tweakable. Factor that in with the numerous class choices (and the ability to create custom classes from scratch), birth signs to be born under, and other assorted odds and ends, and the options are almost endless. This is one game where no one can complain they couldn't find a character that suited their play style.

Once the character has been created, the game plops players into the world with little in the way of direction or money. Unlike Morrowind (where it was entirely possible to take a low level character to a place where he'd be slaughtered in seconds), Oblivion features enemies that are leveled to your character. So, when I wander into the first dungeon right outside the Imperial sewers, the enemies inside can be as simple as rats or as evolved as high level Daedra—it all depends on what level I am. This is one of the areaswhere Bethesda has listened to the fans— Morrowind could be beaten simply by power leveling your character to God-like status. This time out, that just makes the enemies encountered harder to kill.

The other great improvement involves travel and travel time. Morrowind had a large world to explore, and while there were mage guild teleports, most of the land had to be traversed on foot. Oblivion deals with this issue in two ways: the game features horses a character can buy and ride across the countryside and it's implemented an instant travel system called "fast travel." Horses are a great addition to the game—particularly for when a character wants to explore the countryside and find new camps, dungeons, and mines. Thanks to their speed, the horses make getting around fast, and they can outrun most enemies the player will encounter in the wild—meaning you won't have to stop to kill every single wolf who happens to notice your passing. Fast travel essentially allows you to warp to any place you've discovered previously. Players simply open the map, select the location, and click a button to be whisked away. While using fast travel, time passes as normal in the game—but players won't be forced to make long journeys across this massive world just to get from point A to point B anymore.

Aurally, Oblivion is very reminiscent of Morrowind. Composer Jeremy Soule once again handles the scoring duties and he's recycled a lot of pieces from the previous game. This isn't a major issue, though, because the last game's score was excellent. There are newer pieces here as well, and they're very classical in structure and almost understated in their execution. The music never overwhelms the action—instead, it's content to serve as a complement to what's happening onscreen.

The other half of the aural coin features the game's extensive voice acting. Morrowind had some spoken dialogue, but a lot of text as well. Oblivion has upped the ante by having all the dialogue voiced—and voiced well. There's a mixture of professional actors (Patrick Stewart) and lesser known but no less talented performers on display here. The end result is a rarity amongst console RPGs—a game wherein the voice acting is actually great and doesn't make players want to mangle the mute button on their television remote.

Honestly, I could sit here all day and talk about this game. Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion has so many things to see, do, and experience that it's impossible to cover them all in a simple review. Fans of epic RPGs with deep and involving plots will eat this up—and the time spent here reading about the game could be better used in actually playing it. It's not a perfect game (but I've yet to see a game that is), but if this is the direction next generation RPGs are headed in, then fans of the genre should rejoice. Oblivion is a game people will still be calling a classic a decade from now—and in the fickle world of gaming, that's high praise indeed. Rating: 9.0 out of 10

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken is a 43-year-old writer and bohemian living in Florida with a mountain of movies, books, and video games.

A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.

Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.

In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.
Mike Bracken

Latest posts by Mike Bracken (see all)

Leave a Reply

avatar
  Subscribe  
Notify of

In the hierarchy of videogame fighting titles, Team Ninja's Dead or Alive series (DoA) has always languished somewhere near the middle of the pack. Known more for its jaw-dropping visuals, scantily-clad female combatants, and the phenomena of "breast physics" than its fighting engine, the games have always been looked down upon by fans of loftier fighting series like Virtua Fighter, Soul Calibur, and even Tekken. However, that hasn't stopped the franchise from developing a loyal following. The striking graphics and the simplistic pick-up-and-play fighting mechanics (which have always been a button-masher's dream) had long been enough to make sure the titles sold—and sold well.

The first reaction I had after popping the disc into my Xbox 360 was that this looked a lot like Dead or Alive 3—only with sharper graphics. I'll admit, I was concerned by the revelation—particularly since I'd already splurged on a DoA expansion pack in the form of Dead or Alive Ultimate on the Xbox. Undaunted, and never one to judge a book solely by its cover, I played on. In doing so, I discovered that this isn't your father's Dead or Alive.

Sure, it looks like the same old thing on the surface (albeit with the aforementioned improved graphics). The game is gorgeous to look at, moves with the fluidity of water running down a hill, features all your favorite scantily-clad masturbatory fantasies, and has taken the art of bouncy videogame breasts to an entirely new level. Where it differs, however, is where it matters most: the fighting engine.

Long decried by the hardcore fighting game fans as overly simplistic, Team Ninja has taken a serious look at the core of the Dead or Alive series. The result is a complete overhaul of the game's fighting mechanics—so complete that even masters of the last iteration of the series will have to relearn their favorite characters to be effective in this new setting. While DoA 3 was mainly a gigantic counter-fest (thanks to the most generous counter window ever—blind monkeys with two fingers could have effectively hit the counter buttons in the time allowed in DoA 3), Dead or Alive 4 strips the game down to its most basic components and rebuilds it from scratch. The end result is a much deeper and far more satisfying combat experience.

This is not to say that button mashers can't pick up the game and have success with it—they can. In fact, countering is still a gigantic part of the game—so large that failing to learn to counter (yet playing a strategically sound mixture of offensive and defensive moves without just flailing on the controller blindly) will still often leave you with a loss against players who have no idea what they're doing. I know this from firsthand experience. However, button mashing isn't rewarded for long—the computer's artificial intelligence will put up with it for the first three or four matches in story mode or survival, then will pummel the button masher mercilessly from that point forward. Anyone who wants to experience the true depth of the game will be forced to learn the intricacies of this tweaked combat system.

Not only are the new counters harder to pull off, they've had their effectiveness reduced as well. In the previous game, counters flew fast and furious and could turn the tide of a battle that appeared to be all but over in the span of seconds. The counters can still turn the tide of a fight, but not quite as dramatically as they used to. Learning to use them will be essential, but to truly master the game players must also master combos, throws, ground attacks, and the various cancel moves. Each character's move-set has been upgraded dramatically—to the point where just mastering a few basic combo strings will keep the player going early on, but figuring out the more complex and arcane movements will be necessary to really excel at the combat. Anyone who goes into the game playing it like DoA 3 or Ultimate is in for a very rude awakening.

Graphically, the game is pretty. Character models have been updated and feature more polygons and visual flourishes than ever before—thanks to the 360's hardware—but they take a definite backseat to the game's environments. Yet, while the visuals have been improved (and the game blazes at a robust 60 frames per second), the characters still have a few problems. The most notable is that even with all this graphical horsepower, no one has yet mastered the art of making realistic looking human hair. This problem is particularly noticeable on the long-haired female characters—the ends of their silky locks fall like waterfalls, if the waterfalls were all brown or blonde and clumped together in odd chunks. It's a minor complaint, but it's worth noting. Everything else, though, is excellent on the visual front. Combos flow together seamlessly in their animations, and throws and grabs are free from any sort of graphical clipping. DoA 4 is certainly the first game to hint at what the next-gen graphics will be all about—and it's pretty exciting stuff.

For a simple fighting game, DoA 4 features a lot of things for players to do and see before they shelve it once and for all. Keeping with the 360 mantra of "gamer achievements," the title has 45 things for players to unlock to add points to their gamer score.

When players get tired of offline, they can take the game online and play head-to-head against other DoA fans around the globe through Xbox Live. DoA Ultimate was the first title in the series to take the game online, but the internet element was ultimately lacking. In keeping with the "upgrade everything" credo that Team Ninja has applied to this outing, a new online system has been implemented—for the better. Players can hang out in virtual lobbies and then make games with up to 16 people. It's sort of like a virtual arcade—two combatants go at it while others wait their turn, quarters lined up on the cabinet to denote who goes next. Winners stay, losers go to the back of the line. The online component is fast, fun, and had little to no lag. It can be customized in a number of different ways to suit each individual player's needs. It even has a ranking system based on player performance so you can tell at a glance if someone is an even match or way out of your league.

Simply put, Team Ninja deserves a truckload of praise for their work on this game. I've no doubt they could have pasted the DoA 3 engine into a game with sharper graphics and sold millions of copies. Rather than do that, they took a serious look at their game and committed themselves to making it better. The end result is not only the first next-gen fighting game, but one that has set the bar for everything that will come in its wake. No longer can gamers look at Dead or Alive as a series more interested in cheesecake characters and bouncing boobs (although, they're definitely still interested in that—some of the ending movies have to be seen to be believed…). While the game may not be as deep as Virtua Fighter 4, there's no denying it's a lot more involved and deep than previous iterations. Dead or Alive 4 isn't just another pretty face in the crowd—there's some depth lurking beneath the lovely veneer. Rating: 9.0 out of 10

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken is a 43-year-old writer and bohemian living in Florida with a mountain of movies, books, and video games.

A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.

Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.

In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.
Mike Bracken

Latest posts by Mike Bracken (see all)

Leave a Reply

avatar
  Subscribe  
Notify of

Before I sat down to write this review, I spent some time thinking about Kameo and what I wanted to say about it. I came to one conclusion right off the bat—but it was something I didn't want to say: I didn't want to make a big deal out of just how long this game has been in development. I swear that every review I've read or heard of the game makes some point about how long this game was in coming out, how many platforms it was supposed to be on, and how Rare is now a shadow of its former self. I didn't want to dwell on any of this…but I was being naïve, I think. It's all but impossible to look at Kameo as a finished product and not consider the long and winding road it followed to its Xbox 360 release. I mean, let's face it—this is the Duke Nukem Forever of console games. Anyone who thinks that the long development cycle (and the switch from multiple platforms) didn't impact the final product is kidding themselves.

For proof, one need look no further than at the very first level of the game. It's been widely reported that Rare wanted to open the game one way, while Microsoft felt a more action-oriented beginning was the way to go. The result is that Kameo opens up with an action sequence so dreadful and cumbersome I actually know people who threw down the controller right then and there and never played again.

While there's nothing technically wrong with this opening segment, it does a great job of highlighting everything that's wrong with Kameo. To call this a schizophrenic game doesn't even begin to do it justice—Kameo is a title with an identity crisis so severe it never really gets a handle on what it's supposed to be about. It flits from being an action RPG to a platformer, to a collect-a-thon, to three other types of games, often in the span of several minutes. Its constantly changing identity serves to satisfy no one, as each gaming element comes into play and then is instantly whisked away for another element a few seconds later. The end result was often me feeling like my head was going to explode.

Kameo has the ability to transform into various monsters in her quest to protect the kingdom and surrounding lands. Players will spend roughly the next ten hours trying to regain their powers and save the world. Unfortunately, most of that ten hours is spent doing the same few things over and over again. A typical segment of Kameo proceeds like this: Travel to the area where your power is hidden, open a gate, go in, fight a mini-boss, advance to a second dungeon area, use the newly acquired spirit power to solve some puzzles, beat the boss, and go to the next area where the game asks players to do the same tasks again.

The game makes a failed attempt to hide its linearity with the Badlands—a segment of land that Kameo can travel through on her way to other places. In the Badlands, war is always being waged. Hundreds of combatants crowd the screen (in one of the few moments where people will actually say, "Oh! So this is why I needed a 360!") and Kameo and her trusty steed can partake in the battles…or she can just ride right past them. Kameo can explore this area to find a bunch of mini-games and collectable fruits (which earn "gamer points"), but there's not really much incentive for doing so. Strengthening the elementals isn't a real priority since the game is already easy enough without doing it. As far as gamer points go, I still don't really understand the allure of them, unless they're just for people who want to show off how cool they are for finding everything in a game. I lost the desire to be that guy when I turned eleven, though.

In the game's defense, some of the puzzles are pretty decent (although the in-game help guy will often ruin them for players with his chattering help—turn him off if you'd like to solve the puzzles on your own), and the gameplay is solid (if repetitive). Players expecting to spend a lot of time in Elf form will be disappointed—most of Kameo centers around the players staying in the elemental forms for long stretches of time.

Graphically, the game is a looker Yet as nice as the graphics are, they're outdone by the score. The game's music was the highlight of the Kameo experience for me—trumping gameplay and everything else by a wide margin. Voice acting doesn't fare quite as well as the orchestral scores, but it's not terrible either. Playing the title with a 5.1 surround sound system is quite a treat.

Perhaps the most unique thing about Kameo as a whole is the control scheme. Personally, I found the controls bothersome since they're so awkward in comparison to what gamers are used to. Rather than use the face buttons, almost every sort of action that can be done in the game is mapped to the triggers. This means players will jump, attack, and do other things without ever touching a face button. Face buttons are reserved for the transformation into various elemental forms. The bizarre scheme does become manageable with time, but it still felt wrong to me even at the end of the game. I think Kameo would have been a lot more accessible with a traditional control scheme wherein the face buttons were used for the actions and the triggers for the elementals. As its set up now, it just feels really backwards.

Ultimately, when I think back to my time with Kameo I'm more sad than anything. There was a good game buried in there, and I think Rare would have found it if they hadn't had to develop and redevelop the title for different platforms over a number of years. It's also a shame that a title like Kameo (which looks to me like it was going to be sort of a midlist game from a reputable developer) got so much press that expectations went way beyond what the intended final product could have ever fulfilled anyway. Don't get me wrong—I'm not a Rare fanboy, but I do think some of the flak they've taken in recent years has been unfair. That being said, Kameo is a slightly better than average launch game. It's not a system seller and not a game that people will be looking back at with reverence in ten years—nor is it a complete failure and abomination. All in all, it's just a game that works some of the time but doesn't have enough drive and ambition behind it to vault it to the upper echelon of must play experiences. 360 owners should check it out (it's not like there's a hundred games coming out a month anyway), but go in with reasonable expectations. Rating 6 out of 10

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken is a 43-year-old writer and bohemian living in Florida with a mountain of movies, books, and video games.

A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.

Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.

In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.
Mike Bracken

Latest posts by Mike Bracken (see all)

Leave a Reply

avatar
  Subscribe  
Notify of

Mention Shining Force to gamers who came of age in the 16-bit era and you're likely to see them smile fondly as they recall memories of two of the best strategy RPGs ever to grace a home console. In an age where RPGs (Role-Playing Games) were a niche genre at best, the Strategy RPG was like the kid in your class who ate the paste—even the other nerds didn't want to hang out with him. That's all changed now, as the RPG has become a dominant genre in the industry, and the strategy RPG enjoys a major renaissance as well. What better time for a new Shining Force title, right?

In theory, it's the perfect time for a new Shining Force game,which means Sega will offer up two games with the Shining title this year—Neo and the previously released Shining Tears—and that neither of them will be strategy RPGs. Instead, both will be Diablo-styled hack-and-slashers. Way to go Sega! And one wonders why this company was on the verge of financial ruin just a few short years ago…

To be fair, once the initial disappointment dissipates, Shining Force Neo is a damn good game—it's just hard for an old guy like me to get past the whole Shining Force not being a strategy RPG thing. Why call it Shining Force? Why must Sega continually toy with my emotions? What's next? A Nights RPG? A Phantasy Star card battle game…oh, wait, they actually did that. My bad.

Anyway, much of my dismay was eradicated when I realized that while this wasn't the Shining Force of my youth, it was a hack-and-slash game made by the guys responsible for the criminally underrated Record of Lodoss War on the Sega Dreamcast. I, and about twenty other people, played that game, and let me tell you, you guys missed out. Sure, you could almost count the individual polygons in each character model, but when it came to free-roaming hack-and-slash gameplay with larger than life monsters and tons of cool loot, Lodoss War was consoledom's answer to Diablo.

The Lodoss War influence is readily apparent throughout Shining Force Neo—the little sound and animation for when players warp home to their base are pretty much identical, for example—and that's a good thing. Yes, the game features a long-winded and trite story about young Max and his quest to save the world with his band of friends, but none of that matters. What really matters is that the game is easy to pick up and play and deceptively addictive.

Being a hack-and-slash title, there's not a whole lot of depth to the combat. In fact, most of the combat revolves around mashing a single button on the Dualshock 2 repeatedly. The game puts you in an area, lines up 100 monsters, and then turns you loose like a lumberjack on a three-day meth bender with a forest of trees in front of you and a nagging deadline to beat. Hacking up the monsters earns the player experience, which levels up the character making them stronger and able to kill more monsters in less time. Killing enemies also leads to new items (monsters always carry good loot in these games), money, and "force energy"—a material Max uses to upgrade his passive character attributes.

The game is simplistic and repetitive. My stepdaughter watched it for five minutes one night and said "so, all you do is kill monsters with your sword?" Believe me, there's nothing quite like having something you're really enjoying as a 33-year-old so casually dismissed by someone who isn't even 11 yet. Of course, since I know guys who're still playing Diablo II religiously, there's apparently something to be said for the joys of hacking-and-slashing through hordes of palette-swapped monsters.

I'm not sure what that is—but it's probably something to do with our compulsive need to level up our characters until they're demi-gods who can smite down the most difficult of foes with a single blow. The guys at Amusement Vision understand this implicitly, which is why a character in Shining Force Neo can break the standard level 99 cap of most games and keep on going like that stupid rabbit in the battery commercials. My Max is currently level 143—and hits some monsters for over a million points of damage a swing. Yes, I'm a geek for getting excited about this. No, I don't care.

One area where the guys at Amusement Vision tweak the formula is in the game's party system. Games like Record of Lodoss War were single-player experiences. If you wanted helpers in Diablo, you had to find actual real-life friends to play with you (no small feat, for sure). Shining Force eliminates the need for human interaction by allowing Max to have two A.I. controlled cohorts assist him in battle. Diligent players will eventually have eight characters to choose from, each with different strengths and weaknesses. Like in standard strat RPGs, the helper characters are centaurs, bird people, a baby dragon, a robot, etc.—this is one of the nods to the original Shining games, and it's definitely appreciated.

The artificial intelligence is mostly impressive. Pathing is decent (although players will lose characters in the maze-like dungeons from time to time due to all the twists and turns), and the command scripts seem spot on. Healers actually heal when they need to and the other spell-casters generally cast the right thing for the situation at hand. My only real beef is that on occasion the mages wander into melee range and get stomped out with a single blow. The game features a "stay" command, but I didn't find it all that useful.

Another thing gamers will want to consider before plunking down their hard-earned greenbacks is that this is a long game—especially for one in this subgenre. Recruiting all the characters, getting their class changes, and destroying the optional (but almost necessary) Legion Hive dungeons will have most players killing the final boss past the fifty-hour mark. Granted, players can skip some of this stuff if they're more interested in just getting to the end credits, but even then, expect to spend in excess of thirty hours with this game. Even at thirty hours, it's a long game when one considers most of the time is spent mashing one button repeatedly.

Players who still haven't had their fill after the final battle can start a new game with their old game characters and tackle the optional dungeon—fifty floors of randomly generated mayhem that makes most of the regular game's bosses seem like pansies. Expect this dungeon to add at least another five hours to the final gameplay tally.

If it's not apparent already, the gameplay in Shining Force Neo is rock solid. The aesthetic elements, however, are more of a toss up.

The game utilizes cel-shaded characters that are nicely detailed and placed on top of some lush (although often repetitive) environments. Enemies are diverse and nicely drawn as well, and the game manages to mash 100 of them on the screen at a time. This, of course, leads to some ugly slowdown, particularly when there's a lot of spell-casting happening. This slowdown doesn't kill the game, but it can be a distraction.

The game's biggest flaw, though, is the voice acting. I thought we'd finally reached the point where developers hired real actors to voice their game characters instead of just grabbing the building janitor and any of the winos hanging out around the dumpster behind the office, but apparently I was wrong. Shining Force Neo has some genuinely terrible voice acting—it's like cat claws on a chalkboard. Fortunately, during the static dialogue scenes (which make up the bulk of the game), you can mute them or skip over the offending voices before they make your ears bleed. This isn't true during the CG cutscenes—which are rare, but still feature no subtitles at all. Gamers are stuck listening to the voices in those instances. Worst of all is that each character has an in-battle cry that they repeat like a thousand times per encounter. There's no way to stop these, and they will drive everyone within earshot totally insane.

Despite those few minor flaws, Shining Force Neo is a rock-solid game. While it's not the Shining game I would have asked for, it's definitely one of the better hack-and-slash titles out there for the console market. It's longer than it needs to be and it's definitely a bit repetitive (as are all games in this subgenre), but it's also a game worthy of bearing the Shining Force moniker. Sega may not have given us the strategy RPG we all long for, but this is a decent stand-in until they get around to making a genuine Shining Force game. Rating: 8 out of 10

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken is a 43-year-old writer and bohemian living in Florida with a mountain of movies, books, and video games.

A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.

Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.

In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.
Mike Bracken

Latest posts by Mike Bracken (see all)

Leave a Reply

avatar
  Subscribe  
Notify of

Odds are, if you could suck the DNA out of an Onimusha game and splice it with the genetic code you lifted from Sega's Shinobi, the resultant offspring would look a lot like Genji: Dawn of the Samurai. Yet, in the same way that two average human beings can combine to create a Tiger Woods or Mario Lemieux, Genji takes the gifts of both parents and turns them into something transcendent—something that resembles its parents, but exceeds them in a lot of really important ways.

At its core, Genji is proof that a game doesn't have to do something new to be great—instead, it can take elements from other titles, refine them to near perfection, and create an experience that is at once familiar but at the same time uniquely satisfying. In this case, the game takes the fluid combat mechanics of Bujingai, the samurai aesthetics of Onimusha and the bullet-time effect made popular by Max Payne and melds them into a gaming mélange that is more satisfying than any of the original games that provided the inspiration. In this regard, the guys at Game Republic are a modern day Dr. Victor Frankenstein—only instead of creating a monster, they've crafted one of the most satisfyingly playable action games to come along in quite awhile.

The game, which drew inspiration from an 11th century Japanese romance novel, has players taking charge of Yoshitsune and Benkei—two heroic warriors who can control the power of a set of mystical stones called Amahagane. The Japanese countryside has been besieged by the evil Hieshi clan, who can also use the Amahagane, and it's up to the two heroes to become legends and free the land.

The story itself isn't anything special, but the presentation is top-notch. Like a novel, the game is broken down into chapters—each opening with an overview. The rest of each segment's tale is told through in-game dialogue (which is presented in the original Japanese with English subs throughout) and some truly beautiful CGI cut-scenes. I've seen my fair share of cut-scenes in the day—to the point where they rarely impress me anymore—but believe me when I say the work on display in Genji is truly impressive.

More impressive, though, is the in-game graphics engine. Genji is, quite honestly, one of the prettiest PlayStation 2 games I've ever seen. The environments are lush and gorgeous featuring cherry blossoms that seem to literally float right off the tree, babbling brooks, atmospheric temples, and numerous other locations that all add to the game's impressive immersion factor. This is one of those games wherein gamers will often stop just to admire the scenery in each area—and it certainly adds credence to the argument that the next gen machines are coming too soon. If a game can still look this good on the "antiquated" PS2 hardware, then the full potential of this generation of consoles has not been truly tapped.

Yet, for all the beauty on display in Genji, what really makes the game so compelling is the gameplay. As mentioned earlier, players can switch between Yoshitsune and Benkei for most of the game. The two characters are night-and-day in terms of mechanics, meaning gamers can choose the one that best suits their style or particular situation and go from there.

Of the two, Yoshitsune seems to be the one the game was designed for. Like the lead characters in the Onimusha and Shinobi games, the character is fast, lithe, and lethal with his swords. Acrobatic moves abound and can be linked into a series of satisfying combos with a few presses of the button and a flick of the analog stick.

Benkei, on the other hand, is a brute. He's slow and lumbering and can't jump over even the smallest of obstacles, but what he lacks in mobility he more than makes up for in raw power. Whereas Yoshitsune might require multiple hits to dispatch a foe, Benkei can often kill guys with a single swing. With his high attack and defense, this is the character for those players who want a tank to take into battle.

However, this is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to the combat mechanics—the real meat of the system lies in the Kamui gauge and using it effectively.

The Kamui system is basically Genji's answer to bullet-time. When a gauge is filled (players will have up to four gauges by the end of the adventure), the onscreen character can enter "Kamui mode". In this state, time slows down and enemies attack only with a preset move—as the enemy attacks, a square icon appears onscreen. Hit the square button at the proper time and the character does a major counter move that kills regular enemies in one hit and devastates bosses as well. Linking attacks and Kamui moves without getting hit increases a multiplier that gives an experience bonus for each enemy killed, making it easier to level up in short order.

The real beauty of the whole Kamui thing is that it's just totally cool. The slow-motion animations are stunning and the feeling of power as Yoshitsune slaughters horde after horde of enemies without taking a single hit is intoxicating. It takes what is a fairly average action game and bumps it up to the next level. It is possible for a skilled player to go through the game without ever taking a hit with proper management of the Kamui power—which is one of those things that strikes me as really cool about the system.

All that being said, the game is not without some flaws—one of which involves the Kamui set-up that I just gushed over. Yes, the Kamui system is powerful, but at times it's also too easy. Since enemies only do one specific attack while the gauge is active, it's easy to figure out the pattern of the attack and counter it every time. A little more variety in the number of attacks that had to be countered would have been nice. This is particularly true of the game's boss battles, which tend to rely on the gauge to the exclusion of all else—making what could have been some truly epic struggles a lot less fun than just slaughtering the hordes of nameless foes the game throws in the player's path.

The other flaw is that the game is incredibly short—like Danny DeVito sitting on a beanbag short. Players will run through Genji in under eight hours, even with the backtracking to look for extra Amahagane essence and other hidden goodies. I've been pretty vocal in my appreciation for shorter games that end on a high note and don't wear out their welcome, but paying the full price for an experience that ends so abruptly is sure to annoy gamers who expect a longer experience for their $40. The title does offer a new game + feature that carries over stats, weapons, and items into a new game (wherein some unlockable challenges are now available) and a "difficult mode", but honestly it's not the kind of game you'll want to run through numerous times. Players will pull it back out to goof off with the cool combat system, but once the game is beaten it's essentially going to be shelved.

How much these particular issues bother the average gamer remains to be seen, but they were relatively minor to me. I would have liked a longer game with a little more challenge to it, but at the end of the day Genji does so many things well that I found myself willing to live with the flaws. Ironically, many of these complaints were leveled at the original Onimusha as well—and the second game in that franchise wound up being pretty close to classic. Here's to hoping Genji follows that same trajectory. Rating: 8 out of 10

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken is a 43-year-old writer and bohemian living in Florida with a mountain of movies, books, and video games.

A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.

Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.

In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.
Mike Bracken

Latest posts by Mike Bracken (see all)

Leave a Reply

avatar
  Subscribe  
Notify of

By now, we all know that licensed properties rarely make good games, particularly movies. However, given that videogames and anime seem to have so much in common in terms of their fanbase and aesthetic presentation, one might assume that a game based on a cartoon would be exempt from the licensed product curse…and they'd be wrong. Despite the similarities between games and anime, most games based on an animated series are just as bad as their cinematic counterparts. For proof of this theory in action, one need look no further than Fullmetal Alchemist and the Broken Angel (FMA) , a title based on a popular anime series and a pretty mediocre gaming experience all rolled into one.

Edward and Alphonse Elric are young alchemists who get into trouble when they try to resurrect their dead mother. The experiment is a failure and leaves the two lads forever changed: Ed now has a metal arm and leg, and Al has lost his physical form completely and is bound to a suit of armor. Together, our two heroes set out to claim the Philosopher's Stone, an alchemical artifact that can restore them to their normal human forms. Of course, along the way they'll meet a cast of characters both good and bad, take some sidetrips, uncover an insidious plot that only they can thwart, and set themselves up for the inevitable sequel.

I've never seen the anime that inspired the game, but maybe it answers the ever-nagging question that plagued me during the 11 hours I spent playing FMA: Why is Edward called the "Fullmetal Alchemist"? Shouldn't he be the "Halfmetal Alchemist" or something? He's got a metal arm and a metal leg—which leaves two appendages completely normal—hardly the "fullmetal" of his name. If anyone is the "Fullmetal Alchemist," shouldn't it be Al, who's actually confined inside a metal suit of armor? Why did they call it "Fullmetal" to begin with? Were they fans of Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (which seems unlikely since that was a war film and had no alchemy in it that I can recall), or maybe the developers really dug Takashi Miike's Full Metal Yakuza? At any rate, none of these questions are answered anywhere in the game, which bugged me to no end.

What's most tragic about the experience of Fullmetal Alchemist is that the characters of Ed and Al are really good. I liked them so much I'd almost watch the anime that inspired the game (which is no small feat;I hate anime). It's a shame that such interesting and potentially likeable characters are trapped in such a boring game.And believe me, Fullmetal Alchemist is the very definition of boring. It starts out interestingly enough with a two-man battle system (players control Ed and can give Al some basic commands to assist in battle), some decent hacking and slashing, and the nifty ability of being able to use alchemy to turn everyday objects into weapons and items. However, by the end of the first area, players have seen everything FMA has to offer. They'll spend the next ten hours doing these same things over and over (and over).

If that weren't bad enough, the game is slow. Ed runs in slow motion and Al is a slug struggling to keep up. Add in some truly floaty jump physics and weapons that are really hard to aim and the whole game becomes more than a bit frustrating. This is particularly true in boss battles, where standard attacks are generally not an option (or do one point of damage per hit). Some of the boss battles in FMA took upwards of ten minutes to win, not because they were hard, but because there was no quick way to kill the enemy, so players are forced to chip away at it instead. Alchemy-created cannons are nice, but if the player runs out of reloaders (which is certainly easy to do in the late stages of the game, particularly since FMA features no shops; everything is found in chests or grabbed from defeated enemies) then a boss fight can stretch on for eternity.

The other problem centers around the fact that most of the game's skills and abilities are useless. Ed has two alchemy attacks—a defensive one that allows him to erect stone walls and an offensive one that makes stone spikes that damage enemies. Neither is particularly useful since players can just hack-and-slash their way through any of the game's situations. Al is equally ineffective. He's so slow that by the time gamers call him and he arrives, they'll have moved to somewhere else entirely. His tackle attack is mostly a waste and even his frenzy mode combos with Ed are underwhelming. Worse still is that his pathfinding artificial intelligence is terrible, a fact that becomes readily apparent any time Ed runs up a set of stairs.

Fortunately enough, since the enemy artificial intelligence is no better, the problems the player faces with Ed and Al aren't totally handicapping. Enemies are passive—they just stand around waiting for Ed and Al to run up to them and hack away. They rarely ever charge the heroes or utilize any kind of strategy at all. They're just there for the player to slaughter and gain some experience.

The game's one saving grace is the anime cut-scenes. Created specifically for the game, they look quite nice and do a fantastic job of bringing Al and Ed to life. My only complaint here is that there are so few of them in the game (FMA prefers to rely on static character portraits with text to tell most of the story, and voice work is rare here) that it's easy to miss out on just how interesting the two lead characters are. Racjin really missed an opportunity here since more exposure to the main characters would have certainly made up for some of the lackluster gameplay elements.

And here we are, a thousand words later, and I've really only scratched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to problems with this game. I could go on, regaling you with tales of the boring world map that ferries players automatically from one location to another, or tell gamers how they'll be backtracking through the same convoluted environments on multiple occasions, or how the game cheaply re-uses the same few bosses over and over instead of creating anything new…but you get the picture already. Despite my complaints, I genuinely believe that Fullmetal Alchemist could turn into a good franchise. The characters are there—now someone just needs to figure out how to create some gameplay that makes the experience fun and not a chore. Perhaps the sequel, which is already in the works, will remedy most of the problems in this game. Rating: 4.5 out of 10

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken is a 43-year-old writer and bohemian living in Florida with a mountain of movies, books, and video games.

A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.

Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.

In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.
Mike Bracken

Latest posts by Mike Bracken (see all)

Leave a Reply

avatar
  Subscribe  
Notify of

It doesn't seem possible, but it's been 20 years since Gradius first showed up on the arcade scene, becoming an instant classic and one of the defining shoot-em-ups (aka, shmups) of all time. Over the years, the Vic Viper has turned up in a plethora of ports, sequels, and side stories, and while some of them have been better than others (Gradius IV has always seemed like the series lowpoint for me, personally), Gradius V may well be the best of them all. This is shmupping in its purest form, a melding of Zen aesthetics and lightning-fast reflexes that becomes poetry in motion when in the hands of a master. In a crowded gaming landscape where genuine challenge is harder to find than a Democrat in middle America, Gradius V is a welcome throwback to the days when a game could hand you your ass on a regular basis, and players were likely to respond with, "Thank you, sir. May I have another?"

If I were forced to pick one reason for this sudden Gradius renaissance, I'd invariably go with the fact that this is the first Gradius game to be developed in conjunction with Treasure. It's become almost something of a fad to champion Treasure over the past few years, but let's be honest-their games are, for the most part (I'm looking at you, Stretch Panic) brilliant. Their shooters, in particular, have this almost sublime quality to them that allows them to compete with far more narratively and technologically advanced games. Treasure's titles are often games in their purest form. There's no involved story, no need for a 12-button controller, and anyone can pick them up and play. This simplicity in design is countered by the fact that a player may be able to pick up the gist of how to play in mere minutes, but mastering the games is another matter entirely. Gradius V is a shining example of this design philosophy in action.

What's most apparent when firing up this newest incarnation of the series is how Gradius has gotten back to its roots. Gradius IV went overboard in terms of weapons, taking what was in essence a perfectly refined shooter and cluttering it up with a lot of unnecessary contraptions that complicated the gameplay. Shmupping is ultimately about the simplistic act of killing everything on the screen while dodging impossible amounts of return fire and environmental objects. To achieve this goal, a game doesn't need ten-thousand weapons; it needs a ship and a few upgrades. Gradius V is a return to form in this regard, offering players a few ships to choose from, a small but effective set of upgrades, and the series staple options (those little satellite guns that circle the main ship). Rather than offer up countless number of ship variants (like R-Type Final) or the ship-flipping puzzle game elements of Ikaruga, Gradius V offers a far more traditional experience. The game's biggest innovation comes in the fact that players now have an unprecedented amount of control over their options. With several different settings (implemented through the R1 button) players can customize their options depending on the situation. Mastering this system is essential to mastering Gradius V.

Long heralded for its difficulty, this iteration of the series doesn't disappoint. However, in a bid to remain accessible to a new generation of gamers (who haven't experienced the masochistic joy of dying and being returned to an earlier checkpoint—minus their options), ships can be set to respawn instantly at the point of death, and can chase down ghost options to make continuing to advance easier than it used to be. Purists will be pleased to know that the old style of Gradius gameplay can be chosen as well, so the classic aggravation factor can still be experienced first-hand.

Like all shmups, the gameplay here revolves around reflexes, pattern memorization, and a whole lot of try-and-die game mechanics. Gradius V will frustrate even the most patient gamers at some point, but there's no denying the exhilaration one feels after finally making it through a particularly daunting stage. Today's games, with their seemingly requisite hand-holding and low difficulty curve (so low, in some instances, that it ought to be called a difficulty slope—and that's being generous), rarely offer up that kind of thrill, which is a big part of why these older games endure.

Another reason is because they still look pretty. While none of the new era of shmups feature full 3D environments (which would almost be blasphemy, to be honest), they do a wonderful job of blending quasi-3D graphics with some gorgeous 2D backdrops. The end result is the best of both worlds—the illusion of 3D is ever-present while the 2D gameplay mechanics are faithfully recreated. The level designs are beautiful—particularly the asteroid level, which features so many rocks on screen at once (without even a hint of slowdown) passing from one side of the screen to other—that it seems all but impossible. Factor in the stunning laser effects, a rotating level, and several other equally impressive stages, and the whole game becomes one of the prettiest shmups around.

Games like Gradius V are niche titles, and if you're reading this review then it's highly likely you already know what this series is about. It's a sad truth that the shmup is something of a dying genre in gaming, but with titles like this one, it's too soon to sound the final death knell for these classic games. Gradius V may not reinvent the wheel that is the space shooter, but it refines it to near perfection. This is a title that no serious gamer should miss. Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken is a 43-year-old writer and bohemian living in Florida with a mountain of movies, books, and video games.

A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.

Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.

In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.
Mike Bracken

Latest posts by Mike Bracken (see all)

Leave a Reply

avatar
  Subscribe  
Notify of

When Tak 2: The Staff of Dreams showed up on my doorstep recently, I gave the game a quick once-over. Platformer…funny-looking characters, graphics on the screenshots on the back look decent…wait…what's this? A Nickelodeon logo?

Seeing that little orange splotch almost immediately killed any interest I had in the title. I know—you can't judge a book by its cover—but a Nickelodeon logo assured me that I was about to play a kid's game—one no doubt dumbed-down for a younger audience. Oh well, I thought to myself—at least I should be able to breeze through it in short order.

I was wrong on so many levels.

While Tak 2 may be a Nickelodeon property, this is most assuredly not a dumbed-down kid's game. In fact, it's one of the most entertaining pure platformers (and I use that term to sort of delineate this game from titles like Ratchet & Clank and Jak and Daxter—games that have moved away from traditional platforming in their popular sequels) I've played in ages. The beauty of Tak 2 is almost sublime—it manages to strike the perfect balance between being accessible to children yet entertaining for adults. Kids will love the characters and the silly humor (as will adults—the writing cleverly mixes in some jokes that work for multiple age groups) while grown-up gamers will appreciate the title's varied and challenging gameplay. This is, quite honestly, one of those games that people of all ages will enjoy.

In typical sequel fashion, everything in Tak 2 is bigger than its predecessor. Areas are larger, graphics are nicer, the gameplay is more nuanced, and the adventure itself seems much more epic. What's nice, though, is that developer Avalanche hasn't simply gone with the old "bigger is better" mantra. Each of the enhancements in Tak 2 seem like organic parts of the game, not just something grafted on to make the title longer or cooler.

When not platforming, Tak will be driving a mobilized catapult (and catching big air with it), dodging branches and rocks in river rapids, using the indigenous fauna to solve puzzles, and thwapping hordes of enemies with his club-like thwark. As he advances, he'll gain more and more juju powers to aid him in his quest. Like everything else, these powers are seamlessly woven into the very fabric of the gameplay. Take, for instance, Tak's speed boost. Some chasms will be impossible to clear even with the double jump and float techniques at Tak's disposal. However, running with a juju boost will provide just enough extra oomph to reach the next ledge. Moments like this abound in the game.

The graphics are impressive. Lush backgrounds are extremely reminiscent of games in the Rayman franchise while the character models themselves are nicely detailed. The only disappointment here is that a bit of clipping (wherein one object will seemingly pass through another solid object) turns up from time to time as does the occasional polygon seam. Still, though, these problems are minor and happen rarely throughout the 15 hour adventure.

My only other gripe with the game is that the camera can still be a real beast at times, jittering wildly or getting caught on obstructions around the characters. This invariably makes the game's platforming elements all the more challenging as players are occasionally forced to make jumps with the camera situated in a less than optimal position. It doesn't ruin the game, but one hopes it will be tweaked some more before a Tak 3 hits the market.

Any other problems are much more subjective. Some will complain the game is hard—and it is. I've been platforming since the dawn of the genre and there were moments in this game that tested my skills in ways I hadn't seen since the 8-bit days. Sweaty palms will be a regular occurrence as players advance through the game.

However, while it's difficult in spots, it never feels cheap. There is a reliance on the old "try-and-die" game mechanic (meaning players reach an area and die several times before figuring out the proper way to advance) but most of the game's puzzles are really quite clever, and the challenge allows the gamer to feel a genuine sense of satisfaction as each obstacle is overcome. Being stuck generally means the player is just focused in on the wrong part of the area. Stepping back and re-examining the surroundings will almost always reveal the proper path to take. Personally, anyone who whines about this game being too tough is doing just that: whining.

Perhaps the game's greatest element is its writing. While the gameplay, presentation, and graphics are all nice, what really makes Tak 2 stand out for me is the wonderful cast of characters and the often hilarious dialogue in the game's numerous cutscenes. Tak's bumbling buddy Lok is particularly funny throughout the adventure, and I hope he gets his own game at some point soon.

If nothing else, Tak 2: The Staff of Dreams serves as a solid reminder that you can't always judge a book by its cover. While the Nickelodeon tie-in hints at a game that's marketed toward children, dismissing it on that ground alone guarantees that gamers would be missing out on one of the most charming and challenging platformers to come along in recent years. It's not a perfect game, but it does so many things well that missing out on it would be a crime. Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken is a 43-year-old writer and bohemian living in Florida with a mountain of movies, books, and video games.

A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.

Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.

In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.
Mike Bracken

Latest posts by Mike Bracken (see all)

Leave a Reply

avatar
  Subscribe  
Notify of

Normally, the reviews here at GameCritics.com start with what I like to call a preamble—Chi and Dale like it when we find a theme or an idea that resonates outside of the gaming industry and tie it into the game review itself. However, sometimes one must just cut to the chase, and the chase here is that Gungrave: Overdose is a bad game. Oh, it's technically proficient—it won't crash or lock up a PlayStation 2—but it's so bland and uninspired that one has to wonder how it ever got released. At its worst, it's a vampire in CD form, sucking all the joy out of any gamer unfortunate enough to put it in their PS2. At best, it's a thinly veiled "commercial" for the anime series that spawned in the wake of the first title. What it is not, however, is fun.

I was pretty lenient with the first Gungrave game. It was a mindless shooter that went for aesthetics over substance, but it was beaten in a few hours—basically before it wore out its welcome. Gungrave: Overdose is more of the same. In fact, its biggest sin is arguably that it does nothing to expand on the first game in any meaningful way. The core gameplay is just as repetitive as it was the first time around, the controls still blow, and the game is actually a little uglier in terms of graphical presentation. The game's "innovations" are the inclusion of two new characters to play as (neither makes the game even remotely enjoyable) and a few new special attacks…that's it. The big selling point is that publisher Mastiff has released the game at an obscenely low $15 price point. Yet, even at $15 this game is a rip off.

Players take control of Grave, the returning undead main character of the first game. Grave follows the credo of "don't speak at all and carry two really big guns and a huge freaking coffin." He's a shoot first and ask questions never kind of guy—which is just what this game needs since there's not a single person to actually speak to in Gungrave: Overdose, nor is there ever anything onscreen that shouldn't be shot into a million tiny pieces as quickly as possible.

In this regard, Overdose is eerily reminiscent of the old 8-bit shooters—games like Contra, which put a single good guy up against nearly insurmountable odds. And had Gungrave: Overdose appeared on consoles roughly twenty years ago, it might have actually been fun. Unfortunately, the past two decades have seen gaming advance in innumerable ways, and the "shoot everything that moves" genre has grown. There are still third person shooters around, but in 2004 they need a little more nuance than just "shoot the hell out of everything on the screen" to appeal to today's gamer.

The original Gungrave, as mentioned earlier, was smart enough to realize that this style of game was one that would wear out its welcome in short order. As such, the game was beaten in roughly three hours the first time through, and even at the end of three hours it was getting tedious. For some odd reason, someone decided that Overdose—which features the exact same game mechanics—would be better served by being nearly twice as long as the original. If you thought Gungrave was getting tedious at the three hour mark, imagine just how much fun hour five is…six hours of mindlessly blasting bad guys and destroying everything on the screen (albeit with no background music other than the sound effects of my guns) had me questioning why I even play videogames. Games are supposed to be fun, and Overdose is the veritable antithesis of that.

The problem is that the game never changes. From the first stage to the last it's the same thing repeated over and over again. Characters may learn a few new demolition attacks as they advance, but it doesn't change anything in how players approach the game. This is a button masher of the first order, and even then, players will only be mashing two buttons over and over. There are no cool combos, no upgraded weaponry, no character advancement…nothing. It's all just walk and shoot.

One would think that when a game is as simple as walk and shoot that the developers could get the controls right. Unfortunately, the controls in this game are about as responsive as someone in a coma. Grave still lumbers along like a dumb lug, making trying to dodge any of the insane amounts of incoming fire absolutely pointless. He can still jump and dive, and just like the last time out, he'll dive when you want to jump and jump when you want to dive. Cheap death abounds as players advance and the controls become more of a hindrance than a help. And don't even get me started on the auto-targeting system—a system that makes the auto-targeting in Grand Theft Auto 3 look absolutely brilliant in comparison.

Overdose has a whopping total of two positives going for it: the anime cutscenes are still nice (which is to be expected since the game's spawned an anime series of its own) and the main theme of the game (which returns from the first title) still kicks butt. It's a shame that such a badass theme is wasted on such a mediocre title. Neither of these positives can outweigh the mindless button mashing, the crappy level design (one stage has players walking through a casino destroying slot machines armed with machine guns…another takes place in a grocery store…), bland graphics, and nonsensical story (I'll not even bother trying to explain that…).

It's been awhile since I've played a game this bad (Aquaman was the last one that left me this bitter), and while I'm certainly okay with suffering through stuff like this so others don't have to, I know someone out there is still gonna get suckered into picking this game up. "Oh, it's only $15—it can't be that bad" they'll think—but believe me, it is. Gungrave wasn't a good enough game to spawn a sequel, and this one is even less inspired than the first. Trust me, there are far better things to blow $15 on. Rating: 3 out of 10

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken is a 43-year-old writer and bohemian living in Florida with a mountain of movies, books, and video games.

A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.

Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.

In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.
Mike Bracken

Latest posts by Mike Bracken (see all)

Leave a Reply

avatar
  Subscribe  
Notify of

About a year or so ago, someone suggested labeling massively multi-player online role-playing games (MMORPGs) with a warning sticker not all that different from the one found on cigarettes. The games, these people argued, were as addictive as nicotine and had sucked in countless millions around the world-leading some to choose whatever the game du jour was over their loved ones, jobs, and other social activities. As proof of just how addictive and influential these games are, reporters and game opponents have latched onto stories of an Asian teen who died after an extended gaming session, and an American who committed suicide after some apparently bad days in EverQuest (which has the dubious distinction of being dubbed EverCrack by many players).

I scoffed at this idea when it was first launched-I'd played several MMORPGs and never found them particularly interesting. The games are designed to be time sinks for power-hungry gamers who don't mind spending hours grinding out a single level just so they can wear new equipment or cast a new spell. However, after spending some time with Square-Enix's first foray into the MMORPG world, Final Fantasy XI, I'm starting to see just how addictive and life-altering these games can be. Maybe that warning label isn't such a bad idea after all

FFXI casts players into the fictional world of Vana'diel, a land where three kingdoms and six different races co-exist peacefully. However, the beastmen in the outlands are up to something, and it's time for brave adventurers to band together and figure out just what it is and how to stop them.

One of the first things that stands out about FFXI is that there's an actual story involved in the game. Granted, it's not a major story, and it's not essential to enjoying the title, but for those gamers who like a reason for their missions and quests, it's pretty decent. Rather than simply wondering around on rather arbitrary fetch quests (something this game does have), FFXI also sends players on numerous quests where huge chunks of the main plotline are revealed during cutscenes after completion. Depending on what city players start in (there are three choices-players can choose whichever one appeals to them), things progress differently. However, by roughly level 30 everything merges into one main plotline as everyone works together to save the world from war and a reign of darkness.

Perhaps the greatest thing about FFXI is also its Achilles heel-the game is simply massive. I've never played a game where I could spend 12 hours playing it, then quit, and feel like I'd accomplished next to nothing. This game is loaded to the gills with things to do-when taking out hordes of monsters for levels gets old, players can craft items, fish, explore the world, complete menial tasks for non-playable characters, furnish their mog house, and do any number of other things. Anyone who says the game is boring because they can't find something to do is lying-seemingly everyone and everything can lead to something else. The real challenge is deciding what to do and when-the game throws so many options at the player it's overwhelming in the same way that Bethesda's Morrowind kept players multitasking for days. The difference is, FFXI may keep players engrossed for a year or more.

The game features the usual assortment of classes-mages (black, white, and red), warriors, thieves, and monks. Once players hit level 30, they can quest for advanced jobs like ninja, samurai, summoner, ranger, and more. In this regard, players can hit level 30 and pick a new trade-meaning the game essentially starts over. Add in subjobs (which come into play at level 18) and Square's ensured that players spend time trying out a variety of different roles. In fact, early on, it's advisable to try out everything-if one job doesn't suit the player, there's almost assuredly something else that will.

Aside from the jobs, the game features six unique races. Each race has advantages and disadvantages for certain classes-for example, the Taru Taru make great mages, but trying to warrior with one will be a challenge. Fortunately, the game's balanced enough that with the right equipment and a little skill any race can successfully play any class. Yes, some races are preferable to others for certain jobs, but players can be an effective Galkan mage despite the lack of magic points the Galkans receive.

Despite the game's depth and seemingly limitless number of things to do, there are some problems-some of them by design, some not.

First and foremost, for a game of this magnitude, there's simply not enough distinct facial and body choices for the characters. Seeing your "twin" in the game is a common occurrence, and while many people will assure you that armor will make a character unique, this isn't true at the lower levels where everyone wears the same stuff. A game like Phantasy Star Online has at least three times as many customization options for character creation-a fact that is unforgivable for a massive game like FFXI. Compounding the problem is that while armor and equipment shows up on the character as it's equipped, most of it looks the same. Visually, there's no difference between slacks and black slacks-despite being different items.

Another problem is that the game forces players into partying. While the heart of any MMORPG involves meeting up with a group and slaying stuff as a team, there are times when getting a party isn't feasible and soloing for a while would be the way to go. Unfortunately, Square's made it impossible to solo for experience past level 18 unless the player chooses to be a beastmaster. Since some jobs have a harder time getting a party than others (low level thieves, monks, etc.) this can lead to players spending more time looking for a group than actually playing. Making matters worse is that Square decided to remove power-leveling from the game (power-leveling being when a low level player teams up with a high level one who then kills tough monsters to get the low level player huge amounts of experience). This isn't a bad thing in and of itself-however, the way they removed it is troubling. To combat power-leveling, experience gains are determined by the highest member in the group-so, if a level 20 kills something that's too weak to be worthwhile, the lower players get no experience at all. Because of this, players must group together in a range for everyone to gain enough experience to make grouping worthwhile. The range early on is at most three levels-meaning a level 14 player can group with a 15 or 16 (or a 13 or 12) without screwing up the experience curve. This makes the arduous process of getting a group even more difficult. Not only does one have to find people who want to play, but they must also find people in the right level range.

The PlayStation 2 version of the game, while infinitely prettier than either console EverQuest, still isn't nearly as pretty as the PC version. The PS2 release suffers from a lot of graininess in terms of the graphics, and pop-up and draw in on the horizon are fairly frequent occurrences. These aren't game breakers, and it really is commendable that such a massive game looks as good as it does on the PS2 hardware and capped at a 56K running speed. However, players with an option between the two formats might want to consider playing on the PC.

FFXI is going to be a new experience for most console gamers-many of whom have never experienced an MMORPG before. Because of this, I found it troubling that Square sort of just throws players right into the game with little or no help at all. There's a cruddy little tutorial you can read before logging on, but really-who's going to read that when a massive new gaming world filled with thousands of people is waiting with the click of a button? Even those who do read it won't find much in the way of useful information. This is why players see so many "newbs" (slang for new players) running around clueless, getting killed regularly, and messing up some of the game's finely tuned balance. Complicating this even more is an absolutely awful menu system that makes navigating through the player's options even more daunting than it should be. Players will get used to everything in the game, but realize there's a learning curve.

And that learning curve brings us back to the whole "time sink" thing. FFXI isn't a game for the casual gamer. To get anything good, players have to commit literally hundreds of hours to leveling their characters, farming materials, working on craft skills, and doing quests. The first 200 hours of the game can be a chore, but those who stick with it are eventually rewarded with better gear, better forms of transportation, and a much larger world to play in. Perseverance is rewarded in this game-those who don't have it need not apply.

Since FFXI features a persistent world, things are constantly evolving-a fact that makes reviewing any MMORPG difficult. In fact, as I write this, a new update is being installed that will tweak some jobs, add new areas, new items, and more. In other words, tomorrow's FFXI will be a different game than today's. However, that doesn't change the fact that some of the jobs now are not nearly as useful as they should be. While only one is truly broken (the summoner-which should be a battle caster type mage but has instead been relegated to being a healer in most parties) many of the classes are in desperate need of some tweaking. However, Square has been very on the ball with listening to the community thus far, and I do believe that as FFXI ages things will continually improve.

Honestly, I could spend all day talking about Final Fantasy XI and never even scratch the surface of the experience. I've never had an interest in MMORPGs until now, and since this game has released, I've got a full-fledged addiction (witnessed by my 14 full days of playtime since the PlayStation 2 launch last month). While this game is probably not for everyone and still has room for numerous improvements, there's really no denying its charm. In a gaming community where critics like to throw around words like "immersive" this title truly is a world of its own. Just be prepared to kiss your loved ones, your job, and your social life goodbye when you boot it up for the first time. Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken is a 43-year-old writer and bohemian living in Florida with a mountain of movies, books, and video games.

A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.

Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.

In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.
Mike Bracken

Latest posts by Mike Bracken (see all)

Leave a Reply

avatar
  Subscribe  
Notify of

One of the biggest ideological challenges currently facing game developers is a conundrum almost as big as the old chicken or the egg argument: should franchise games play it safe and continue to do what's worked in the past, or should they be bold and strive to cover new ground at the risk of alienating the core fanbase in the process? For years now, my personal response has always been in favor of the latter option. Lord knows there are enough stale and derivative games out there coasting by on mere name recognition when the flame of creativity was extinguished long ago.

However, after spending time with a game like Yu-Gi-Oh!: The Falsebound Kingdom, I can almost see why developers stick with the tried and true-there's a veritable minefield of potential pitfalls in attempting to take a franchise in a new direction, and unfortunately, this latest Yu-Gi-Oh! title manages to trip over most of them. What starts out as an interesting idea for a strategy role-playing game (RPG) soon crumbles under the weight of poor design decisions, unintuitive gameplay, and an aesthetic presentation that would have been more at home on the Nintendo Entertainment System than the powerful GameCube.

For those gamers who don't keep up with the latest kid fads, Yu-Gi-Oh! is a collectable card game. In the grand scheme of the games, the little kids play Pokémon, the teens play Magic: The Gathering, and the middle school kids play Yu-Gi-Oh!. The game centers on (as far as I understand it—I'm not a fan of collectable card games, personally) building decks of monster cards, which players then use in battles against another player's cards. Most of the fun isn't in winning—it's in building a killer deck (or set of decks—most players seem to like to have a variety of decks at their disposal).

The previous games in the Yu-Gi-Oh! series have been based on the collectable card game. Players collect virtual cards, make decks, and enter tournaments to advance the plot. This formula has been pretty successful, as the games have appeared on a multitude of platforms in the past few years.

Apparently, though, someone thought this approach was getting old. So, rather than craft another collectable card game, the makers of The Falsebound Kingdom decided to create an RPG instead. While the ambition was admirable, the results are not.

Players can take control of either Yugi or Kaiba—each character has a different campaign scenario, although the main crux of the story is generally the same. It seems that Yugi, Kaiba, and their friends have been invited to test out a new virtual reality dueling game. As luck would have it, the machine malfunctions during the test, and Yugi and crew wind up inside the game's world. Their only way out is to try to "win" the game.

For a next generation game, the presentation of the plot is terrible. The whole thing is presented in still screens with text. That's right—there are no cutscenes, nor is there any dialogue. It's like a sad trip back to the 8-bit era

The graphics aren't a whole lot better. While playing The Falsebound Kingdom, I couldn't help but be reminded of another less-than-stellar Konami RPG, Ephemeral Fantasia. Visually, the games look pretty similar—they're bland, low resolution, and everything seems to be made up of as few polygons as possible. Character animations in battle are stiff, and on the world map they're painfully bad. Needless to say, this game isn't going to be winning any awards for visual excellence.

It's a good thing that there's more to a game than graphics, though. Well, it would be if The Falsebound Kingdom could make up for its shortcomings with some brilliant gameplay. Unfortunately, this isn't meant to be.

Konami Japan has attempted to take the traditional card-based battles of the Yu-Gi-Oh! card game and hybridize them into a variation of your standard turn-based RPG with strategy RPG elements. While the idea is an intriguing one, the execution just never quite gels in any meaningful way.

As Yugi or Kaiba, players take control of various monsters along with several other marshals (marshals are monster masters in the game world—sort of like the duelists in the card game). Each marshal can control three monsters, which do battle against enemy forces. Battles feature a sort of tweaked turn-based approach—it's definitely turn-based, but the timing seems reminiscent of the active time battle system in various Final Fantasy titles. After a certain amount of damage has been done (even if both sides are still alive), the fight ends and experience is gained for the monsters and the marshal. If either side is still alive, the battle can be rejoined moments later.

The game makes a feeble attempt to infuse strategy elements into its approach by allowing the player to control several marshals. These marshals can be given different orders—players might send two groups out to attack an enemy fort while leaving a third behind to protect one that was already won, or they may send all their forces out in an attempt to overrun the enemy hordes. It's too bad most of the game's battles are simply wars of attrition wherein the guy with the better numbers wins because he has a stronger force. Players may pull off the occasional upset victory, but it often feels more like luck (landing a series of critical blows, which are seemingly random) than through any deft military maneuvering.

I'm not an expert on the Yu-Gi-Oh! universe by any stretch of the imagination, but I've played enough games to know when a title was thrown together just to capitalize on the appeal of its name (yes, I'm looking at you, Dragonball Z: Legacy of Goku). While I can certainly admire the attempt by Konami to do something new and different with this series, I have to wonder why they'd even bother if they were just going turn out a mediocre game. I'm all for taking established franchises in new directions, but if the developer's heart isn't in it, then what's the point? That's the question that still lingers with me after playing through Yu-Gi-Oh!: The Falsebound Kingdom. Rating: 3.5 out of 10

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken is a 43-year-old writer and bohemian living in Florida with a mountain of movies, books, and video games.

A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.

Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.

In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.
Mike Bracken

Latest posts by Mike Bracken (see all)

Leave a Reply

avatar
  Subscribe  
Notify of

After the surprising success of Ridley Scott's Gladiator, games set in the coliseum seem to be all the rage. A look back in the past year or so will reveal not only the lame chariot racer Circus Maximus, but also the forthcoming title Gladiator. And while two games with an ancient Roman theme might not seem like a flood, compare it to how many ancient Roman empire games there were last generation–yeah, not too many, eh?

LucasArts has decided to jump on the Julius Caesar bandwagon with its latest release, Gladius. Gladius is an ambitious title that attempts to take the arena-inspired games beyond hack-and-slash or chariot racing—by crafting a title that's a strategy role-playing game (RPG). Interestingly enough, for the most part the approach works. While Gladius doesn't do anything to redefine the strategy RPG subgenre, it does do just enough things well to keep players interested for the duration.

Players tackling this title will be treated to two intertwining story arcs. The beginning arc has gamers taking control of Ursula, the daughter of the king of Nordagh. Ursula and her brother Urlan (think Conan wannabe and you're on the right track) set out to become masters of the arena. They're also attempting to avoid some witches, who prophesized Ursula's birth and the dark things that would come with it.

The more advanced storyline will have players taking control of a young man whose father has been mysteriously murdered. Not only must the player work to solve the mystery, but they'll also have to help bring the dead father's school of warriors back to glory. Of course, the two story arcs eventually cross and there's some stuff about the rift between Nordagh and Imperia, ancient evil, yadda yadda yadda. All in all, it's a serviceable tale, but it isn't exactly breaking new narrative ground.

That's not the only place where the game isn't breaking new ground either. Visually speaking, Gladius is a real hit-or-miss affair. There are moments when the game looks great (the static paintings that are featured in various narrative interludes) and times when it looks horrific (any time you see Ursula up close in a cutscene—who scalped a chick with pigtails and plopped them on this girl's head?). It's really hard to get excited about the game's look, particularly once you see what passes for a world map. Here, players will watch their avatar from an overhead view as he or she runs from one town to the next. To call the world map graphics Dreamcast quality does a grave disservice to the Dreamcast.

However, things do improve in battle—and since most of the game is spent fighting in the arenas, this is a good thing. The character models still aren't as good as they could be, and they could certainly use a few more animations for when they're idle, but at least they look much more natural than they do during the story interludes. Each attack and block animation is nicely done and looks fairly realistic. Granted, it's hard to imagine it taking three blows with a giant axe to kill a man, but this is a game, after all.

The gameplay rarely deviates from the standard strategy RPG formula. Players move their characters around the arena (sans an isometric grid, which is one of the few areas where the title breaks from tradition) hoping to encounter enemies. Attacking from a higher position is good, getting attacked from a higher position is bad; side and back attacks are good, getting attacked from there is bad, and so forth.

Perhaps the most disappointing element about the gameplay is the enemy artificial intelligence (AI). The enemies in Gladius often make the average block of cheese look like Einstein in comparison. In one battle, I placed two of my characters in a bottleneck where they were unable to be flanked and could only be attacked by one enemy at a time from the front. I then stood by and watched as all the enemies on the field marched over in single file and let me slaughter them one at a time. There are numerous battles like this littered throughout the game, and the player who takes a few minutes to think about the situation and study the terrain will find the game terribly easy.

Gamers shouldn't let that put them off, though, because when the enemy AI stops being challenging, they can always call a friend over and play head-to-head.

The one on one mode of the game is nice and certainly adds some depth to the experience. While the AI controlled enemies may be dumber than a box of rocks, playing with a buddy breathes new life into the game. This addition to the core gameplay ensures that even after the single player campaign has been bested, gamers will still pull this out for head-to-head action.

Unfortunately, things once again pendulum to the bad side when one sees just how many loading screens Gladius forces gamers to sit through. Even on the mighty Xbox, this game loads constantly, and for extended periods of time. Just about anything and everything a player does while in the game will lead to a loading screen and a waiting time right up there with some of the PlayStation era games. This is, quite simply, unforgivable.

There are two things that make this different from your father's strategy RPG: the ability to command your characters to move beyond their single-turn range and the inclusion of a Hot Shots Golf-esque swing gauge that determines how effective an attack is.

The ability to give the soldiers detailed marching orders is pretty good. While characters can still only move so far in a single turn, this eliminates the need to constantly come back to them during each turn and give them new commands.

The downside to this is that from time to time the characters will get stuck on things in the environment, thereby not moving during their turn. Because of this, the player would be advised to keep an eye on the troops. It didn't happen with regularity in my game, but it did happen a few times.

The second problem is much less significant. If one of the player's other characters gets into the path of the character who's been assigned to go for several turns, that character generally gets boxed in—meaning the player will have to go back and re-issue new commands. This isn't particularly problematic, but it is worth pointing out.

The swing gauge is a significant innovation to the core gameplay and, like just about everything else with Gladius, the results are mixed.

There's no denying that the gauge gets the player more involved in the action than the traditional menu-driven strategy RPG. Just about every action taken on the battlefield requires using the meter. Hit it early and players will land a regular attack. Hit it in the sweet spot and it's a critical, go past that point and players may miss entirely. This gets even more involved during the game's combo attacks, which can require players to hit pre-marked spots on the gauge in three or more areas—meaning quick reflexes are at a premium.

Gladius throws in lots of other little wrinkles in an attempt to keep things fresh, and they're generally successful. Instead of every battle being a "kill everyone" affair, some have goals like seeing who can be king-of-the-hill the longest, break the most barrels, earn the most crowd approval, or dole out the most damage. These events are interesting the first few times players do them, but since each and every league seems to feature the same games, they do get a bit stale as the game progresses.

This air of repetition also affects the music featured in Gladius. While I enjoyed the score for the game and thought it suited the mood well, there's just not quite enough variety to make the soundtrack truly stand out. Even different tunes tend to sound similar as the game moves along.

The voice acting, on the other hand, is pretty decent—but again, a little more variety would have been nice. In battle, characters have a tendency to say the same things over and over and over, like Urlan screaming "for Nordagh!" ten times in the average battle.

Gladius is an ambitious game that attempts to breathe new life into the genre. It's not entirely successful, but it is the best gladiator game I've played. Sure, it's the only one I've ever played in depth, but I really did have a decent time with it. At any rate, I'd much rather play this than sit through Ridley Scott's film again. Rating: 6.5 out of 10

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

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken is a 43-year-old writer and bohemian living in Florida with a mountain of movies, books, and video games.

A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.

Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.

In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.
Mike Bracken

Latest posts by Mike Bracken (see all)

Leave a Reply

avatar
  Subscribe  
Notify of

Our own Jimmie Robinson (who pens the Import Horizons feature here at GameCritics.com) described Nippon Ichi's strategy role-playing game (RPG) Disgaea best—he called it an evil game. I must wholeheartedly concur with that assessment.

Sure, Disgaea: Hour of Darkness isn't evil in that horror film way—there are no monsters that pop out of your TV set like in The Ring or The Video Dead, nor will watching it lead to you getting strange phone calls and dying within seven days. No, Disgaea is a much more insidious evil—the kind that creeps into your life under the simple guise of a game and soon dominates your every waking (and occasionally sleeping) moment. It's like being possessed in The Exorcist or like a pod person in Invasion of the Body Snatchers—you still look like you, but you're sort of a shell of your former self because all of your faculties are focused on the game. While in the grip of Disgaea, nothing else matters.

So, what makes the game so compulsive? Subliminal messages hidden in the game text? LSD-dipped game discs? How about engaging and open-ended gameplay? I think choice three is the winner there.

The beauty of Disgaea is that it's many different things to many different gamers. Disgaea allows the player to determine how much he wants to experience of the game. With 150 different separate character classes, the ability to take characters to level 9,999, and a never-ending set of randomly generated battlefields, Disgaea is a game that can last for hundreds of hours. However, before all of the gamers who are pressed for time dash for the back button on their browser, keep in mind you don't have to partake in any of this stuff to actually finish the game. As one non-playable character mentions in your castle, you can beat the game without getting into any of its finer nuances. I like this—a game that appeals to both those who just want to run through and move on and hardcore players who want to spend ages mastering everything. In this regard, Disgaea is something of an achievement in the field of game design.

To get into all the nooks and crannies of Disgaea would require thousands upon thousands of words, and no one would want to read a review like that (why would they when they could be playing the game instead?), so, in the spirit of brevity, let's just hit the highlights.

The major selling point of the game is the gameplay itself. While Disgaea may look like a traditional isometric strategy RPG on the surface, it does manage to bring a few new things to the table. The ability to enter any item in the game (from the lowliest healing item to the most powerful sword) in order to capture stat-enhancing residents who dwell in the items and make the item itself stronger is an ingenious decision. The game's item world is where the hardcore players will hang out—buffing up their weapons, capturing residents to make their characters stronger, gain more experience, find more money, etc. The item world of Disgaea is an entire game in and of itself. I personally spent days in the item world without once fighting a story battle to advance the plot. Even now, with the main quest bested, I still return to the item world with great regularity—it's that much fun.

Why is it fun? Because the combat system works so well. On the surface, Disgaea isn't really any different than games like Final Fantasy Tactics Advance or Tactics Ogre. Players choose a party, move them about an isometric grid, and attack the enemies. Attacking from the side or behind gets the attacker a bonus, as does attacking from abovepretty traditional.

What isn't so traditional are the combo attacks and the ability to throw characters around the map. Lining up characters with similar weapons will generally lead to team attack. Here, up to four characters can join in to do massive damage to one enemy. Hoshigami: Ruining Blue Earth attempted to include a similar system, but it was nowhere near as simple to use as the one found in Disgaea.

Even more fun is making totem-pole stacks of characters. It's possible to make a stack of characters ten people high, then have the bottom person throw the stack repeatedly. This means that players can reach opposite ends of the map or areas well off the beaten path in a single turn. Players can also throw enemies—so if that Jack-O'-Lantern demon is too far from a strong character, have a weaker character throw him over and pound on him at will.

Another cool new wrinkle is found in the item world—geo panels and geo stones. Think the Law System from Final Fantasy Tactics Advance—only better—and players will have the basic idea.

Essentially, the maps in the item world can be covered with colored panels. Each panel (depending on what kind of stone is on that color somewhere on the map) has a status effect attached to it. These effects run the gamut—from invincibility to causing any character who lands on them major damage. Some of them will even clone the character on them—and believe me, players will definitely want to avoid having their high level characters cloned and having to fight against them.

If a player finds that he doesn't like the effects on a map, he can move to the geo stones and destroy them—thereby eliminating the effect. The kicker is that eliminating a stone sets off chain reactions that can damage both the good guys and the bad guys if they're standing on a panel of that color. Better still, if another color geo stone is on the panel, it sets off another reaction—meaning players who plan ahead can wipe out an entire board of enemies by destroying a single stone. As an incentive for doing this, each battle has a set of bonus prizes—and the higher the bonus gauge goes (and setting off long strings of geo panels fills it up fast), the more prizes the player gets.

It's pretty safe to say that the gameplay is Disgaea's strongest point, but what about the rest of the product? That's all impressive, too.

Unlike many of the other strategy RPGs on the market, Disgaea eschews the convoluted, melodramatic, and heavily political storylines that are so popular in the subgenre. Instead, Disgaea goes for a lighthearted feel with a tale of a demon prince named Laharl and his quest to become the overlord of Hell. Hey, wait a minutethat sounds political and melodramaticbut it's not. The narrative is presented in episodic format with quirky characters, funny dialogue, and even a bit of risqué humor thrown into the mix. There's nothing at all heavy about Disgaea, and that's a welcome change of pace.

The graphics, while hardly cutting edge, fit the tone of the story quite nicely. There's a decided anime influence at work in the game, adding to the ambience of the title. While it lacks the next-gen graphics of a game like Gladius, there's a lot of charm in these old sprites and still character portraits. Fans of 2D era gaming should be more than impressed.

If Disgaea has one flaw, it's that it's almost too ambitious for its own good. This is a massive game, and it's easy to become a little overwhelmed while playing. The game eats up hours like Rush Limbaugh at a buffet, and the options for what to tackle next can be daunting. In this day and age, where gamers are treated to over 20 new titles a month, having something as involved as Disgaea is a little intimidating. However, since the game essentially allows the player to decide how much (or how little) of the sidequests he wants to see, this can't really be used as a negative against the game. Disgaea does a fine job of remaining accessible to the casual player while still offering all of the bonus stuff that the hardcore crowd goes nuts for.

In the end, Jimmie was right—Disgaea is an evil game that will take over a gamer's life if they're not careful. With so much to do, so much to see, and so much to unlock, the completists out there will be spending hundreds upon hundreds of hours with this game. That's not necessarily a bad thing, though, because when a game's as good as Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, it deserves to be played. Rating: 9.0 out of 10

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken is a 43-year-old writer and bohemian living in Florida with a mountain of movies, books, and video games.

A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.

Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.

In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.
Mike Bracken

Latest posts by Mike Bracken (see all)

Leave a Reply

avatar
  Subscribe  
Notify of

I had my first exposure to Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) on Christmas morning when I was 11 years old. Hidden amongst the veritable treasure trove of gifts Santa had left me was the official D&D starter kit. While it certainly wasn't the most high-profile present of the year, it was the one that intrigued me the most.

Unfortunately, living in a rural area where I was the only boy around for a number of miles, meant my D&D career would go on permanent hiatus. I kept the starter kit, though (and still have it somewherenow in my parents' house in Florida), always hoping I'd one day find an opportunity to actually play.

In the intervening years, I've still never found a D&D group. I stumbled across a few during my college years, but they seemed far too "socially challenged" for me to get involved with them. Luckily, I've not missed out on the D&D phenomenon entirely—thanks to the fact they've been making videogames based on the Dungeons & Dragons license for quite a few years now. Granted, these games aren't quite the same as sitting in a room with a group of guys and a flesh-and-blood dungeon master, but as Jean Paul Sartre once pointed out, "Hell is other people"—and the videogame incarnations of D&D have certainly eliminated this particular brand of torture.

The latest D&D game to grace a console is Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes, another hack-and-slash game in the same vein as last year's Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance and more a D&D game in name than actual execution. In other words, Heroes plays more like Diablo than Neverwinter Nights. Rather than having an involved combat interface that demands at least a modicum of strategy is employed in order to survive, Heroes simply asks the player to run into an area, hack the holy hell out of everything in sight, and move on. It may not be a "true" D&D experience, but it is at least somewhat cathartic—sending limbs flying about the room can certainly alleviate some of the pressures of a rough day at the office.

For those who don't mind that the game isn't a perfect recreation of the table-top D&D experience, Heroes offers up an interesting (if somewhat limited and repetitive) gaming experience.

In a move guaranteed to disappoint everyone, the game once again forces players to choose from one of four preset character avatars. The choices (with one exception) are painfully standard—the human warrior, the female wizard, the female rogueand in the one odd twist, the dwarven cleric. Why was the dwarf a cleric and not a warrior? I've no idea. That's just the way it played out apparently.

After selecting a character, players are treated to a brief explanation of the game's story—and it ain't Tolkien. Basically, four heroes fought an evil wizard 150 years ago. They were victorious, but in his last moment of life, the evil wizard unleashed a terrible spell that killed everyone around himmainly, the four heroes. Now, 150 years later, some group of clerics has attempted to raise the wizard in hopes of harnessing his power (when will they learn this never works?). To combat the evil wizard's return, another group has resurrected the four heroes of the past—although, for some odd reason, they don't possess any of their old skills. Players must take control of the four heroes and set out to thwart the evil wizardstop me if you've heard this before.

While the story isn't going to be winning any awards for narrative brilliance, the gameplay isn't a whole lot more inspiring. As mentioned earlier, this is a hack-and-slash affair, with a few minor tweaks thrown in to try and keep it interesting.

The major tweak (and the only one really worth talking about) is the inclusion of a "finishing move." Players string together combos, which in turn fill up a little gauge under the health and magic meters. As long as at least part of the gauge is lit, the player can use one of his finishing moves in the combo (these are mapped to a button on the Controller S). Depending on how full the meter is, the attack's power will vary. It's not much, but it does add a bit to the game's combat-heavy experience. To keep things even fresher, players can unlock several different finishing moves from the feats menu when they level up. Variety is, after all, the spice of life.

If variety is indeed the spice of life, then I'd hoped someone in the graphics department would have received the memo. Heroes does everything right in terms of the varied locales you'd expect to find in a D&D game (meaning there's an ice level, a fire level, a bunch of dungeon-esque caves, and so forth), but the enemy models are fairly repetitive. One can only slaughter so many trolls and giant flying things in a day, and Heroes often comes dangerously close to exceeding that quota.

The rest of the graphics can essentially be summed up as "poor man's Dark Alliance." While the water effects are generally as good as they are in that earlier game, the rest of the graphics seem to have been toned down a notch or two. Heroes isn't an ugly game, it's just not as striking as Dark Alliance, which is a bit of a downer since that game is both older and was originally designed for the less powerful PlayStation 2.

However, before everyone out there writes off Heroes as a simple retread of Dark Alliance, allow me to regale you with the one feature wherein this game is actually better than its inspiration: multiplayer mode.

Dark Alliance had an entertaining multiplayer mode that allowed for two players to tackle the main plot's story together. Heroes ups the ante by featuring a four player mode—easily the best way to experience the game. Getting three friends together to help in the quest to crush the evil wizard adds an extra dimension to the experience, one missing from the single player campaign. The four player mode works well, evoking memories of games like Gauntlet as everyone makes a mad dash for all of the money, healing items, and equipment that drops. It's in this mode that the game seems most like the table-top D&Dwhen several people are sitting around partaking in the adventure as a unit.

Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes may get flack from the hardcore D&D crowd for simply being a Diablo clone set in the D&D universe, but it's still hard to deny the simple joy in teaming up with three friends to kick the crap out a Beholder. Ultimately, the pen-and-paper game was designed to bring people together—and in this regard, Heroes is as true to the D&D experience as just about anything else out there. Rating: 7.0 out of 10

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken is a 43-year-old writer and bohemian living in Florida with a mountain of movies, books, and video games.

A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.

Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.

In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.
Mike Bracken

Latest posts by Mike Bracken (see all)

Leave a Reply

avatar
  Subscribe  
Notify of

Whenever people discover I'm a game reviewer, the result is almost always the same. Their eyes light up and they tend to respond with something along the lines of: "Oh, wow, that's great! You get to sit around and play games for a living." My response to this is usually just to smile and nod in agreement.

What the majority of people don't realize is that most of us don't make much of anything for reviewing games—it's a labor of love. We review games because we love to play them, talk about them, and occasionally help people find something they'd have otherwise missed. The money thing has never really been an issue—yeah, it would be cool to make a ton of dough doing this, but I'm not quitting now just because there's no cash involved.

What bothers me more is the assumption that I get to live the good life, sitting around all day playing games. While I do spend a significant portion of each day playing, I also spend time reading about other games, talking with other gamers, researching stuff for reviews, editing and uploading my reviews, and so forth. It's not just a case of sit down, play, and write. That's not the worst part of it, though. The worst part is everyone assumes that because you're a game reviewer you're sitting around playing really great games. I'd love to put this false notion to bed once and for all. I've been reviewing games for over four years now, and in that time I've played more bad games than good ones. During that span, I've missed out on the opportunity to play things I was really looking forward to when they were released because I had other things that had to be reviewed. This is why I've spent maybe 15 minutes with Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, or why I had to set aside games like Legaia: Duel Saga so I could play dreck like Fellowship Of The Ring; it's why there are more than 45 games in my collection still in shrinkwrap

Not only does reviewing occasionally keep the reviewer from playing games he'd enjoy playing, but the average reviewer spends a lot of time playing games that aren't very good. Imagine all the games released in the average month—now imagine how many of those are actually worth playingyet, all of those games are supposed to be reviewed at some point. Even being lucky enough to pick and choose my titles for the most part means I still spend more time than I'd like playing games I have little interest in. Invariably, you have to take one for the team. Besides, playing only games that one likes can lead to both an inflated average score for reviews (making the critic a "yes man" on some level) and allows the reviewer to miss out on vital learning opportunities. Bad games, after all, have almost as much to teach us as good ones.

All of which brings me to Aquaman: Battle For Atlantis. Aquaman is a shining example of why being a game critic can really suck. It's a bad game that needs to be reviewed so other gamers out there can avoid being sucked into the whirlpool of uninspired gameplay, bland graphics, and generalized mediocrity that colors the entirety of the title. Despite doing this public service, I can't help but feel a little bitter toward TDK Mediactive for foisting this game on me—I'd have much rather spent the past few days with something like Disgaea or Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes.

Perhaps the best thing going for Aquaman is that it's rather short. The game is broken up into just over 20 chapters—although, by the time the player has reached chapter 7 they'll have experienced all of the variety the game has to offer in terms of gameplay. The next 14 chapters will be spent essentially re-living the gameplay experiences of the first third of the game. This is not a good thing.

The gameplay can be broken down like this: some levels have Aquaman swimming around beating up a predetermined number of bad guys, some have him trying to complete specific goals in a time limit or before an object is destroyed, and some have him driving around in his little submarine. At some points, the game will create missions that mix in variations of all three game mechanics, meaning Aquaman might have to pilot his sub while trying to save something before the bad guys destroy it. That's about as inspired as it gets in terms of gameplay.

What's most perplexing about the game is Aquaman himself. I'm sure most gamers remember Aquaman as the short-haired, orange-shirt-wearing fishman featured on the old SuperFriends cartoon in the '70s. That Aquaman was always part of the B team of superheroes—he wasn't as cool as Superman or Batman, and instead he had to spend most of his time with those two annoying Wonder Twins, or guys like Hawkman.

Still, there could be at least some camp value in seeing the Aquaman of old return in his own game—which is why the decision to go with the newer Aquaman in this game is so puzzling. Gone is the "classic Aquaman" (although he can be unlocked after beating the game), replaced by some guy who looks like Greg Allman of the Allman Brothers on steroids. The new Aquaman is nothing if not hirsute. Granted, I can't tell if that's a mullet he's sporting or not, but thanks to the graphical engine (which is roughly on par with a first generation Dreamcast game), he's always got a good case of helmet hair happening.

At its core, Aquaman is a beat-'em-up like Final Fight or Double Dragon. Players take control of the king of Atlantis and guide him through a bunch of underwater cityscapes (that are surprisingly devoid of people—I thought Atlantis was a metropolis, not a ghost town). Along the way, you'll encounter the same few groups of enemies—over and over. When this happens, Aquaman engages them in combat-and the game's mediocrity is highlighted once more. While Aquaman may have a plethora of moves he can use involving combinations of the Controller S's face buttons, players will be able to beat the game by simply mashing A repeatedly. The combos are decent looking, but when a player can just do the regular old punch, what's the point with doing the complex finger gymnastics required to pull of the more difficult maneuvers? During the entirety of the game, I was reminded of IGN's Kabuki Warriors review, wherein the reviewer told a tale of a guy winning fights by doing nothing but mashing the buttons against his rear end. I didn't go the scientific route and try it out here, but I've little doubt the stratagem would have worked had I tried it.

When players get tired of mashing the A button, they can employ Aquaman's one super-power—his ability to call undersea animals to aid him in battle. Generally, doing this will call forth either a shark or a dolphin, both of which will grab the enemy and swim off with him before allowing battle to resume. It's sort of cool the first time you do it, but after that it loses its appeal.

As mentioned earlier, the graphics would look right at home on the Dreamcast circa 1999, but that's not the only place this title is failing to "unleash the power of X." In one of the cheapest and most boneheaded design decisions I've seen in a long time, Aquaman presents all of its cutscenes in comic-styled stillscomplete with dialogue bubbles. TDK couldn't even be bothered to make a few cutscenes using the in-game graphics engine—instead, players are forced to look at some ugly artwork complete with uber lame dialogue between each chapter. This is most assuredly not a good thing.

The game features a few extras, mainly the ability to play as classic Aquaman, Tempest, or Black Manta after beating the game. Classic Aquaman is unlocked after beating the game the first time through. I'm not sure what one must do to unlock the other characters, but if it involves playing through this putrid mess two more times, then I doubt many people will ever be playing as these characters. They're hardly incentive to suffer through the numerous deficiencies that plague Aquaman at every turn. Although, to be fair, there's no real extra I can think of that would make Aquaman worth playing through again anyway—not even large sums of money.

In their defense, TDK seems to realize they had a clunker on their hands and as such have released Aquaman: Battle For Atlantis at the discounted price of $20. I'm a fan of this new $20 price point for lesser titles—it made a game like Evil Dead: A Fistful Of Boomstick a lot more worthwhile since it was so much cheaper than a regular game. Aquaman, however, is overpriced at $20. This feels like an unfinished game that got rushed out the door—filled with half-formed ideas, simplistic gameplay mechanics, and graphics that need at least a good polishing if not an outright revamping. Paying $20 for this game might not sting quite as much as shelling out half a C-note, but it's still going to hurt.

See? Being a game critic isn't all wine and roses after all. At least you can avoid the suffering I've already endured. Rating: 3.0 out of 10

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

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken is a 43-year-old writer and bohemian living in Florida with a mountain of movies, books, and video games.

A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.

Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.

In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.
Mike Bracken

Latest posts by Mike Bracken (see all)

Leave a Reply

avatar
  Subscribe  
Notify of

Ever since noted horror author HP Lovecraft first mentioned the infamous "book of the dead' aka The Necronomicon, the book has become a staple element of horror fiction and cinema.

Perhaps the most famous series to use the infamous tome as a plot device is Sam Raimi's Evil Dead movies. The Evil Dead trilogy has become a cult favorite, thanks to a humorous storyline involving lovable doofus Ash (played by the inimitable Bruce Campbell) and his seemingly never-ending battle against the Deadite hordes who are resurrected when The Necronomicon's incantations are read aloud. Gory, funny, and wildly entertaining despite their low-budget origins, the Evil Dead films are certifiable classics in the field of horror cinema.

It's no surprise then that THQ appropriated the rights to the series in order to create videogames based on the license. The first, Evil Dead: Hail To The King, was a miserable flop that appeared both on the Dreamcast and the PlayStation. With a mixture of Resident Evil-styled gameplay and shoddy graphics, the game tanked. However, the Evil Dead license was just too good to be dumped after one poor game. So, THQ and developer VIS (the guys responsible for the mega-hyped failure State Of Emergency) began work on a new Evil Dead game: Evil Dead: A Fistful Of Boomstick. While not a great game on any level, the game does at least improve upon its predecessor.

In the simplest of terms, Boomstick plays a lot like State Of Emergency and Hunter: The Reckoning. Players take control of Ash and travel through Dearborn, Michigan dispatching Deadites with extreme prejudice and trying to seal some sort of inter-dimensional doorway that's been opened when a local occult expert reads from The Necronomicon while on live television.

To accomplish this task, Ash will have to make full use of a variety of weapons. Some, such as the infamous chainsaw that has taken the place of his right hand and the "boomstick' shotgun of the title, will be familiar to long time fans of the films. Other items, like dynamite, are solely inventions included to increase the gameplay mechanics of the title.

Armed with these new toys, players will guide Ash through the city, completing various mission-like objectives that are assigned by the non-playable characters he encounters. The missions are all relatively simple, and involve fetching an item (or in some cases, items) to complete an objective. Like many of the other games in the survival horror genre (which this game is sort of tenuously linked to), the fetching often involves backtracking all the way across an area to find said item.

Fortunately, slaughtering the evil dead is pretty fun. Ash can equip two weapons at once, with each one assigned its own face button on the dualshock controller. This allows players to get a little creative in terms of dispatching the undead around them. Combos can be achieved through some experimentation, although none of them are essential to getting through the game. In other words, hacking and slashing will get the player through—but if he wants to look cool, he'll have to experiment a bit. It's this experimentation that keeps the game's tedious gameplay from becoming completely overwhelming.

To keep things from being totally hack-and-slash, the title attempts to work in some spells for Ash to use to aid him on his quest. It's a shame that none of the spells are very useful outside of a few very plot-specific situations. Sure, players can use them all whenever they choose, but they never really serve much purpose.

Visually, the game is ugly—there's just no other way to say it. Sporting some low-res graphics, weak character models, one of the blandest (and darkest) color schemes to come along in awhile, and some really lame texture work, Boomstick isn't going to be collecting any awards for its graphical prowess. The Ash character model looks okay (well, except for his face—which sort of looks like he ate too many prunes before starting the adventure), but it's the one life preserver in a sea of visual mediocrity.

Of course, the cheap visual look almost fits in a way. The Evil Dead films were all low-budget affairs that got by primarily on the hyper-kinetic directorial work of Sam Raimi. Unfortunately, none of Raimi's visual tricks make the transition to the game (with the one exception of some neat 'you are there' camerawork when Ash casts the possess deadite spell), which is unfortunate.

Luckily, the game is redeemed thanks to Bruce Campbell's presence as Ash. Campbell's dialogue work is nothing short of entertaining and should please anyone who's loved him in the films. The smarmy intonations, wry asides, and one-liners that make Ash such a beloved character are all brought into the game. Fans of Bruce Campbell and the films will find the game worth playing merely for Ash's various comments on the events transpiring around him.

Ultimately, though, Boomstick is a pretty mediocre game that works almost exclusively because of the license. It's more fun than State Of Emergency (but then, what isn't?) and more interesting than Hunter: The Reckoning (if only because Ash is a more identifiable character than anyone featured in that game), but most gamers will have to ask themselves if that actually means anything since neither of those games were classics to begin with. Rating:5 out of 10

Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken is a 43-year-old writer and bohemian living in Florida with a mountain of movies, books, and video games.

A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.

Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.

In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.
Mike Bracken

Latest posts by Mike Bracken (see all)

Leave a Reply

avatar
  Subscribe  
Notify of

"Hi, my name is Mike, and I'm a shmup fan."

Acknowledging that you're a fan of the shoot-'em-up (or shmup, as they're lovingly referred to by the hardcore crowd) in this day and age of 3D graphics and epic games is sort of like admitting you're an alcoholic at the local AA meeting. You're bound to find a few folks who share and understand your affliction, but most of the time your proclamation will be met with blank stares or worse, looks of pity. The majority of today's gamers are simply incapable of fathoming how someone could actually enjoy playing games with 2D graphics and gameplay mechanics that essentially involve shooting everything on the screen.

Ah, but forgive them Father, for they know not what they do. The inherent beauty of the shmup is that while it appears to be a relatively simple affair at first glance (involving shooting hordes of enemies and dodging insane amounts of return fire), that couldn't be further from the truth. To become a true shmup master, one must enter a Zen-like state wherein the gamer becomes one with the controller and his onscreen avatar. Shmups, sort of like the old arcade fighters, are gaming in its purest form—contests where victory depends on practice, skill, and reflexes.

Unfortunately, the shmup (which once dominated the videogame market both on consoles and in the arcades) has become a niche genre. Longtime fans of these games still play them (as witnessed by the active shmup community online), but the casual gamer generally has little interest in playing titles that seem so archaic—or don't generate the requisite amount of hype.

Enter Ikaruga.

Ikargua is legendary developer Treasure's (who also gave us the brilliant Radiant Silvergun for the Sega Saturn) latest attempt to breathe new life into this once proud category of games. The good news for shmup fans is that it's a complete success.

Striving for innovation in the shmup genre is almost counterproductive since part of what makes these games so intriguing (and so much fun) is their accessibility. Every shmup out there is essentially a 'pick up and play' experience, meaning that anyone can give it a shot with minimal training. Mastering the games, though, is a different matter entirely.

Ikargua is at least somewhat different in this regard. It features all the shmup staples: hordes of enemies, insane amounts of bullets to dodge, larger than life bosses, and so on. Its one innovation comes in the form of a color system that Treasure seems to have borrowed from their earlier release, Silhouette Mirage.

The color system works like this: your ship and enemy ships are either black or white. Black ships shoot black bullets and can be absorbed if your ship is also black (which powers up your special attack meter). Black bullets from your gun do double damage to white ships. The opposite of all this is true for white. So, rather than just fly through the game blasting everything in sight, one must constantly adjust the color of their ship in order to navigate the insane amounts of enemy fire and to do maximum damage when possible.

Making things even more interesting is a color-based combo system. In order to rack up legendary scores on the game, one must shoot enemies in a specific order to build up chains. For example, hit three white ships in a row, and it's a chain—hit three more (or three black ships) and the multiplier increases again. Each stage is laid out in a way where the player can achieve huge chains with a little self-restraint (those who shoot first and look later will be doomed to low scores throughout) and a touch of skill. Pretty much anyone can complete Ikaruga's five stages—few people will actually master them.

What makes Ikaruga so intriguing from a game development standpoint is that while the title is a straight up shooter at first glance, it's only after one plays for a period that they come to realize just how much the game has in common with titles in the puzzle genre. Ikaruga's patterns of alternating colors and the constant flipping of the ship are not unlike Tetris at its most complex levels (at least in terms of being forced to concentrate fully, react as quickly as possible with complete precision, and plan a few moves ahead). This really brings an extra dimension to the game in terms of mechanics as the title asks gamers to not only shoot and dodge, but also focus on finding the best path through each stage.

Visually, the game is stunning. I've long been a fan of 2D games, and Ikaruga is one of the most beautiful I've ever seen. While it's not quite as colorful as a lot of the other shmups on the market, it more than compensates with the overall cohesiveness of its aesthetic design. The game strives for a sort of cyberpunk appearance throughout, and the browns, grays, and other muted colors only add to the feel of the title.

One of the main complaints leveled against shmups is that they're short, and Ikaruga is no exception. In this era of 40-hour games, a game with a mere five areas to conquer doesn't seem to offer much bang for the buck, and if players simply continue over and over the experience will indeed be a short one. However, one doesn't play a game like Ikaruga to simply reach the end—one plays it to master it. In this regard, Ikaruga offers up tons of gameplay through multiple modes, different difficulty settings, and the challenges of getting a high score (which the player can then post on the game's official ranking board). Those who strive to get good at the game will be spending a lot of time with this title.

Ultimately, this review only scratches the surface of the Ikaruga experience—and the game is indeed an experience, something better played than read about. No review will ever accurately convey the tension in navigating through a sea of multiple colored bullets that fill every inch of the screen or the joy in finally nailing a 100+ chain combo because Ikaruga, like all good shmups, is visceral. In an age where it seems like gamers spend more time reading about games than actually playing them, Ikaruga is almost an anachronism—a title that begs be experienced in person. Rating: 9 out of 10

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken is a 43-year-old writer and bohemian living in Florida with a mountain of movies, books, and video games.

A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.

Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.

In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.
Mike Bracken

Latest posts by Mike Bracken (see all)

Leave a Reply

avatar
  Subscribe  
Notify of

In Chi's recent review of The Getaway, he raises some interesting questions about the importance of gameplay. Chi wonders if perhaps too much emphasis is put on the gameplay component of certain titles, to the point where it overshadows everything, including innovation.

And while I certainly think that innovation is an important piece of the videogame experience (otherwise, we'd all still be playing games like Pac-Man and Space Invaders), I often find myself wondering if we as gamers don't put too much onus on the evolution of games. This is particularly true of critics, who've been known to give mediocre games good scores simply because the game strives for something different than the norm.

All of which (in a very roundabout way) brings me to Breath Of Fire: Dragon Quarter, the fifth installment in Capcom's venerable role-playing game (RPG) series. RPGs are notorious for not embracing innovation, clinging desperately to the mantra of 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it'. Innovation in RPGs comes in baby steps—because anything too radical could very well upset the hardcore fans. And since the hardcore fans kept this niche genre alive before it gained mainstream acceptance with the release of Final Fantasy VII, developers seem to go out of their way to please them.

Dragon Quarter is an exception to that rule—and a title guaranteed to divide RPG fans along lines similar to those of politics and religion.

A brief listing of all the ways that Dragon Quarter differs from the earlier Breath Of Fire incarnations would include the omission of random encounters, the lack of an overworld, the inclusion of an Active Point battle system, an emphasis on replayability, and a running time of approximately 10 hours. Any one of these changes would be enough to upset the traditionalists, but all of them at once is essentially overwhelming.

In fact, the only familiar concepts to returning Breath Of Fire fans are the blue-haired hero named Ryu, the young girl Nina, and the dragon transformation ability (and even that has been tinkered with to make it different from the earlier titles). Simply put, Dragon Quarter is a Breath Of Fire game in name only.

Most critics have been pleased with the departure from the standard RPG formula, scoring the game highly in many publications. But again, one has to wonder if they're doing so simply because the game tries to do something new, because the core gameplay of Dragon Quarter features more than a few significant flaws.

The first (and perhaps most daunting) is a fairly steep learning curve. Dragon Quarter thrusts you into the world of Deep Earth with little in the way of guidance. Players quickly learn that the game is essentially a combat-intensive dungeon crawl with a combo-based fighting system that requires a lot of strategizing. This wouldn't be so bad if the game included a short tutorial or something of that nature, but it doesn't (aside from a few brief sets of instructions on the screen before your first fight). Instead, players are left to their own devices, wandering the floors of the first dungeon with nary a clue as to what they should be doing. I've no doubt many players have quit the game in the first hour because they're hopelessly lost, which is a shame.

Of course a learning curve of more than an hour in a game that lasts only 10 is a bit much—which brings us to the second problem with the title. Dragon Quarter is a radical departure from today's RPGs in that the whole game can be experienced in a day or two. The real meat of the game comes from subsequent playthroughs (wherein the player can keep his skills and abilities—not unlike Chrono Trigger). Depending on how one beats the game the first time through (number of saves, number of treasure chests opened, etc.) the player gets a new D-Rank (which is essentially Ryu's social standing in his world). This new rank will allow Ryu to open previously unavailable areas on the second journey through the game. Continually playing through Dragon Quarter and raising the D-Rank will enable the player to see everything the game has to offer—but the question is, does anyone really want to play through the same game four or more times just to see a few different areas?

Battle is yet another area where Capcom attempted to tweak the traditional RPG formula and achieved mixed results.

Dragon Quarter utilizes an active point system (similar to the one used in games like Xenogears and Chrono Cross) that attempts to bring a more strategic element to the traditional turn-based battles. Any action (save for using an item) uses active points. Moving, attacking, casting spells, etc. all deplete the gauge. When the gauge hits zero, the character's turn is over. While this certainly makes the battles more involved than your traditional 'stand on one side of the screen and press X to select an action from the menu' set-up of standard console RPGs, it still gets rather tedious as you progress. Unfortunately, the game just never achieves the dynamic feel of the Grandia battle systems.

Weirder yet is the experience system, which can be absolutely confounding at first.

After battles, players earn experience for their victory. Earn enough, and the character will level—this is all very traditional. What isn't traditional is the inclusion of party experience. Party experience goes into a separate fund and can be used at any time to enhance the characters. How much party experience a fight earns is dependent upon a number of factors, including number of enemies, number of turns to beat them, etc.

Party experience is extremely important, since Dragon Quarter essentially requires that you give up in the middle of the game. And by give up I don't mean you resort to a walkthrough—I mean you literally quit the game and re-start. Doing this will make you return to the start of the game, once again at level 1. However, your party experience is still there, meaning you can use it to level your characters automatically to make getting through those early stages of the game a snap and making it so you can earn even more party experience as you go. Since enemies don't respawn, this is the only way a player can get his characters to high levels. To say that quitting in the middle of the game and restarting is an odd concept is an understatement of epic proportions, and I wasn't particularly thrilled with the idea as a gameplay element.

Despite the flaws, there are some things that Dragon Quarter does well. The cel-shaded graphics are extremely appealing and fit quite nicely with the game's steampunk setting. If not for Dark Cloud 2, these might have been the nicest cel-shaded graphics to grace the PlayStation 2—but instead, they'll have to settle for second best.

Battle itself may be a mixed bag, but the inclusion of a clever trap system falls clearly on the positive side of the ledger. Players can carry a multitude of different traps, which can be used to injure the enemies or distract them before the real battle begins. Tossing a piece of meat will send the bad guys scurrying for the food, thereby allowing Ryu to walk up and strike first, earning a pre-emptive strike when the battle starts. Other traps will damage or confuse enemies as well.

The dragon transformation system has also been radically changed, and for the better. Earlier games allowed Ryu to transform into a powerful dragon almost at will, lowering the challenge of many encounters. Dragon Quarter remedies this in a number of ways. First, there's only one dragon form. Gone are the days of multiple dragons with a form for any given situation. Second, players must use the ability sparingly. Each transformation adds points to a gauge, and if the gauge fills, the game ends. There are no items to lower the gauge, either, so using the dragon becomes a last resort.

And that brings us to Dragon Quarter's greatest strength: its atmosphere. Many reviews have heralded the game as a 'survival RPG', and it's a fairly accurate description. In this age of interactive movies masquerading as role-playing games, Dragon Quarter harkens back to an earlier time—when games were hard.

Given the fact that there are no healing spells in the game and money can be difficult to come by (thereby making the conservation of healing items important), it's very easy to wind up dead. In fact, I died more in this game than I did in the previous five RPGs I played combined. Every fight is a tension-filled affair, because even a simple mistake can easily be fatal. The tension permeates the entire game from beginning to end, and it's honestly unlike anything I've ever experienced in an RPG.

Ultimately, though, Breath Of Fire: Dragon Quarter is a slightly better than average game that coasts along on the fact that it tweaks the traditional RPG formula. The innovations in the title are a hit-and-miss affair that generally obfuscate the fact that the game is little more than a traditional dungeon crawler with a few new wrinkles. Innovation is always welcome in games, but just because something is different from the norm doesn't automatically make it a great game. Dragon Quarter must be content with merely being a good, but flawed, game. Rating: 7.0 out of 10

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken is a 43-year-old writer and bohemian living in Florida with a mountain of movies, books, and video games.

A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.

Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.

In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.
Mike Bracken

Latest posts by Mike Bracken (see all)

Leave a Reply

avatar
  Subscribe  
Notify of

Four skilled strangers join forces to save the world from an ancient and unspeakable evil. Along the way, theyll learn to work together, respect each other, and grow into better warriors and better people. Sound familiar? It should—its the basic plotline of every console role-playing game (RPG) ever released.

Wild Arms 3 is no exception. Traditional to a fault, the third installment in this series sticks to convention like a stamp to an envelope. The series one daring design decision—to set the game in an alternate version of the Wild West instead of the fantasy realms or steampunk settings of most titles in the genre—remains the only break from conventional RPG structure and presentation.

How one views this is largely a matter of opinion. RPG fans dont mind traditional plotlines filled with archetypal characters doing things that theyve seen a thousand times before. These gamers will enjoy Wild Arms 3 because its a good, if not overly original, RPG.

Gamers expecting something more dynamic and involving will most likely find Wild Arms 3 to be a rather trite and staid gaming experience. How much enjoyment a player will get out of the game depends largely on how they feel about the genre in general.

Graphically, Wild Arms 3 is fairly impressive. The move to a cel-shaded 3D look comes off much better than the many screenshots would have you believe. For some reason, seeing the characters in motion is a much more impressive experience than gawking at a still.

The game has a distinctive aesthetic at work in it visually—sort of a cross between the spaghetti westerns of the 1970s filtered through Japanese anime. Wild Arms 3 never looks as gritty as the films of men like Sergio Leone, but the influence is there, subtly, in almost every scene.

Dungeons dont fare quite as well, featuring some rather bland architecture and simplistic design (particularly in comparison to the recent crop of PlayStation 2 RPGs), but Wild Arms has never really been about jaw-dropping graphics anyway.

What it has been about is gameplay, and this installment in the series is quite possibly the high point.

Featuring a traditional turn-based battle system complete with random encounters, the game borrows a page from the Grandia series by implementing a battle system thats never static despite being turn-based. Characters move about the battlefield, and a bit of strategy is involved in figuring out whom to attack and when. Add in the fact that the characters guns (thats rightno swords or staffs here) have to be reloaded (which takes up an attack turn) and the battles become very dynamic.

The other interesting twist to the battle system is the addition of force points in place of traditional magic points. Characters build force points through actions in battle and then can use them for support or attack spells. Successfully dodging attacks and things of that nature will earn the player more force points.

As mentioned before, battles are encountered randomly—and the encounter rate in Wild Arms 3 is high. Fortunately, the game features an Encounter Gauge, which can be used to skip some of the random encounters (at a cost). Using the feature depletes the gauge, and players will eventually be forced to fight.

When that happens, one can simply employ the auto-battle feature instead of duking it out manually with easy opponents. The auto system features a nice range of artificial intelligence options that should be useful in any given situation.

Like most RPGs, the game follows a town-dungeon-town pattern in the gameplay. The dungeons feature lots of enemies as well as numerous puzzles not unlike the Zelda games. Each of the four characters will receive three tools, and using these tools is often the key to solving the many puzzles littered throughout the dungeons. There arent any major brainteasers, but it is nice to see that the series is moving beyond the simple block pushing puzzles of the earlier games.

Wild Arms 3 is a traditional RPG with a few minor innovations. It does everything an RPG should do and does it pretty well, but the lack of innovation is a bit disappointing. This is a genre that has become so mired in predictability that its possible to sum up most of the games in brief, Hollywood-style logline. Wild Arms 3 doesnt do anything to break the RPG mold, but whether thats a good or bad thing is a matter of perspective. Rating: 7 out of 10

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken is a 43-year-old writer and bohemian living in Florida with a mountain of movies, books, and video games.

A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.

Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.

In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.
Mike Bracken

Latest posts by Mike Bracken (see all)

Leave a Reply

avatar
  Subscribe  
Notify of

Anyone who's been reading critical analysis of the arts over the years is no doubt familiar with the phrase style over substance. The terminology denotes an aesthetic at work in the piece of art being critiqued—the intentional or accidental creation of something that is breathtaking in its presentation, but rather empty beneath the surface. In many ways, the phrase is almost a backhanded compliment; it acknowledges that the artist created something that appeals to the senses, but only got it half right.

The whole style over substance thing tends to get bandied about a lot in film criticism. There's no shortage of filmmakers out there with a clear understanding of how to compose a shot or light a scene for maximum effect. Finding one who knows how to do this while also crafting an experience that gets beneath the surface of the subject matter is a more difficult undertaking. When asked to point out examples of style over substance in cinema, many people will point to the Italian horror directors, particularly Dario Argento and Mario Bava (which isn't an accurate depiction of their work, in my opinion). My own personal example is usually Takashi Ishii's 1998 film Gonin. Ishii's film is breathtaking in its execution—the scene compositions are captivating, the camera movements assured, and the overall visual presentation is striking. However, once you get past that, Gonin is simply another predictable heist film—all surface veneer but no engine under the hood.

Video games can also fall prey to the whole style over substance thing. There have been numerous titles over the past few years that attempt to cover up mediocre and unrefined gameplay with cool graphics. Perhaps no game in recent memory serves as a better example of style over substance than Sega's latest release, Gungrave.

When you get right down to it, Gungrave is a title with next-generation graphics used to cover up a gameplay engine that was showing its age back in the 16-bit era.

Players will take control of Grave, an undead assassin brought back from the dead by a mad scientist in order to take on the criminal organization that had Grave killed. Armed with his twin pistols and a huge coffin strapped to his back, Grave sets out to seek revenge in a neo-noir cyberpunk Tokyo. This mission for vengeance will take Grave all across the futuristic city and bring him face to face with about a bazillion bad guys, all of whom Grave must eliminate with extreme prejudice.

The game's visuals are nothing short of mesmerizing. With character designs from Yasuhiro Nightow (the man behind the anime series Trigun), Gungrave is certainly easy on the eyes. Grave is particularly well animated, featuring a cel-shaded look that meshes with the games backgrounds almost flawlessly. However, once one gets past the impressive look of the game, they're likely to discover that the gameplay mechanics of Gungrave simply aren't on par with the visual presentation.

The game is broken up into levels, each level set in a different area. Mission objectives for each level never change; the game admonishes the player to kick their ass! at each and every turn. Its in doing all this ass kicking that the game's flaws become readily apparent.

For all its visual splendor, Gungrave is really just a mindless shooter not unlike those from the Super Nintendo and Genesis era. The gameplay boils down to nothing more than shoot everything in sight and keep advancing. Grave is a big, lumbering lug, so trying to avoid the barrage of enemy bullets is essentially pointless. Thankfully, his resurrection from the dead seems to have made him abnormally strong, meaning he can take quite a bit of punishment before dying.

Players will maneuver Grave through each of the game's relatively non-descript levels blasting both the bad guys and any piece of destructible furniture in the environment. The more stuff Grave hits in a row, the higher his beat counter will go. This is the one innovation the game brings to the table, and its not really much of an innovation at all (its sort of like the combo system in Mars Matrix, only with a guy instead of a spaceship). To keep the beat count spiraling ever higher, players will have to plan ahead, figuring out how to get from one area to the next without losing all the beats they've accumulated along the way.

Grave can dispatch enemies in several different ways. He can use the twin pistols for the Chow Yun Fat effect, he can swing the coffin as a melee weapon if hes surrounded, or he can use one of the coffin's special attacks. The special attacks run the gamut from using the coffin as a rocket launcher (a la Robert Rodriguez's Desperado) or using it to restore health. Each level generally has an objective for Grave to complete. Sometimes its beating a boss, other times its killing one specific person. Any way you slice it, its nothing we haven't seen or done before.

After completing a stage, Grave is scored on his performance—the time it took to complete the level, the percentage of bad guys killed, Grave's style points (awarded for eliminating enemies in stylish ways), how much health he has left, etc. When the player scores highly enough, he can purchase upgraded special attacks for the coffin. Pretty exciting, eh?

This formulaic approach highlights another problem with the game: its incredibly repetitive. The first level of Gungrave isn't much different than the last one—and the mission objectives never change in any meaningful way. Sure, players will encounter some different enemies as they advance, but the shoot everything gameplay remains constant throughout. Luckily, Gungrave can be finished in around three hours—so it never really wears out its welcome.

It's a real shame that developers Red Company didn't spend as much time on the gameplay in Gungrave as they did on the graphics. Gungrave isn't without its charms—the mindless destruction of everything in the game's environments can be almost cathartic in some instances—but it becomes painfully obvious early on that this game is a one trick pony—using a trick that was showing its age five years ago. Rating: 6 out of 10

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken is a 43-year-old writer and bohemian living in Florida with a mountain of movies, books, and video games.

A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.

Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.

In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.
Mike Bracken

Latest posts by Mike Bracken (see all)

Leave a Reply

avatar
  Subscribe  
Notify of

Back when I was a wee lad (which was quite a few years back) my buddies and I began to rate games. There were classics (which is self-explanatory), dogs (games that werent very good), average, and avoid at all costs. We also had another distinction—it wasnt a rating so much as it was an addendum to our score. The distinction was controller breaker, and anyone whos been gaming since the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) era is probably familiar with it.

A game that was given the dreaded controller breaker rating could be one of two things—a game with a severe difficulty level implemented through ingenious game design (Ninja Gaiden, for example) or a game that was an exercise in aggravation thanks to cheap death, flawed controls, or some other technical deficiency. It should be noted that for every Ninja Gaiden, there were literally ten other games that were controller breakers for all the wrong reasons.

Games have gotten easier since the early days of the NES, and because of that, I havent seen an old school controller breaker in quite awhile—until I bought Enclave for the Xbox.

Enclave is a shining example of the original controller breaker games—a title so aggravating due to its poor design that its all but guaranteed to have gamers chucking controllers across the room with frightening regularity. I love a hard game as much as the next guy (maybe even more so—Ive been pretty vocal in my disappointment with overly simplistic games), but when the difficulty springs from cheap death, a shoddy combat system, and one of the worst save systems Ive seen since the 8-bit days, I think its safe to say we have a game thats a controller breaker for all the wrong reasons.

The shame of this is that Enclave is a beautiful game to look at. The level of detail in the graphics is often stunning, with a variety of different areas to wage battle in and explore. Unfortunately, once the game goes in motion the major flaws (and there are many) become all too noticeable.

The titles gameplay is of the standard hack-and-slash variety. The player chooses a character (more characters become available as the player advances through the games stages), equips him, and sets out for battle. All the attacking is handled through the right trigger on the controller, while the left analog stick moves the player, and the right turns. This set-up can take a bit of getting used to—having to use both analog sticks in unison is a bit disconcerting at first. However, once the player gets the hang of it, it becomes almost second nature.

While the control scheme isnt anything spectacular (nor as difficult or ultimately rewarding as the one in Gunvalkryrie), its one of the few areas where the game rises above mediocrity.

Once the player gets off the set-up screen and into the game proper, the problems rear their ugly heads—repeatedly. The combat in Enclave is simplistic even by hack-and-slash standards. Much like The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, the player rushes in, hacks away, then pulls back to avoid taking damage. This works for much of the game—at least until the player encounters multiple enemies. Once that happens (or until the gamer runs into someone with projectile magic), prepare to die—often.

If the enemies dont kill you with a frightening amount of regularity, then the games booby-trapped floors and falling structures will. The world of Enclave is apparently in need of an architectural overhaul because at nearly every turn, something is collapsing on top of the player. Rushing around corners is an ill-advised tactic, as in many instances something will wind up falling and killing the player instantly.

Of course, all of this death wouldnt be so bad if the game had a fairer save system. Enclave doesnt believe in saving during a level, and as such, only one or two levels actually has a save point. For the vast majority of the game, the player must survive the entire level to advance—with each death causing the whole level to be started from scratch. Fight the boss of a level and die? Its back to the very beginning. Just remember how much those controllers cost before tossing it in frustration

The paradox of Enclave is that if it didnt have such a shoddy save system, the game would almost be too easy. The combat mechanics are so simplistic that getting through the levels would be fairly simple if the player were allowed to save at various points as he/she progresses. To counter this, Starbreeze Studios has made each stage an all or nothing affair—which certainly increases the difficulty, but not in a way thats fair to the player. I have little trouble imagining players picking up Enclave, playing a bit, then getting to a mission where they continually die, and putting the game away out of aggravation. No one wants to run through an entire stage ten or more times, but thats exactly what youll have to do at various points in this game.

I really wanted to like Enclave. Im a big fan of hack-and-slash games, and the promise of lots of hack-and-slash gameplay coupled with the games beautiful graphics had me salivating in anticipation. Unfortunately, Enclave proves the old maxim that beauty is only skin deep—because once the player gets past the rich graphics, theyll find a deeply flawed game with a difficulty level that can best be described as masochistic. Games are supposed to be fun—and Enclave isnt. Rating: 3.0 out of 10

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken is a 43-year-old writer and bohemian living in Florida with a mountain of movies, books, and video games.

A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.

Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.

In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.
Mike Bracken

Latest posts by Mike Bracken (see all)

Leave a Reply

avatar
  Subscribe  
Notify of

It's one of gaming's great truths that titles based on films, television series, or comic books are almost always awfulso why do companies keep making them? My own cynical worldview says they keep churning them out because they're easy money. Unlike regular games, which have to win over an audience with solid gameplay, a good story and interesting characters, licensed titles already have a built in audience: fans of the source material. Because of this, developers tend to take the original characters and story arc, slap in some generic gameplay, then ship it to market, where fans will buy it, play it, and usually wind up not liking it.

One of the greatest examples of this theory is Dragon Ball Z: The Legacy Of Goku (DBZ) for the Game Boy Advance. Based on Akira Toriyama's insanely popular anime series, DBZ is an awful game that exists solely to make money off fans of the anime. Just how bad is it? It's so bad that my girlfriend's ten-year-old son, a huge Dragon Ball Z fan, spent 15 minutes playing it before putting it down in frustration. Fortunately for him, he didn't have to play through the whole game and write a review…

I'm almost certain that DBZ sounded like a good idea in theory. Take several plot lines from the anime series, give everyone their favorite characters from the show, add in some action role-playing game elements, stir generously, and voila! You've got a hit game. Unfortunately, developers Webfoot Technologies really skimped on the gameplay and design.

Players will take control of Goku, one of the Dragon Ball universe's most powerful characters. Goku's son, Gohan, is kidnapped by Goku's evil brother and our hero must set out to rescue him and save the Earth from some Super Saiyans sent to destroy it. While that story isn't going to be winning any awards for originality, it's a decent enough premise for a game (sure to please the Dragon Ball Z fans who've always wanted to live out the adventure on their own).

Where the title falters is when the player takes control of Goku. While the game's graphics seem indicative of a 16-bit era title, the controls and gameplay mechanics are from the 8-bit era at best.

Navigating Goku around the world is a nightmare of incredible proportions. The first thing a player will discover is that Goku cannot walk in diagonals. Instead, he must walk in the old forward, over, forward, over staircase style of games from the Nintendo Entertainment System era. While this might have been acceptable in 1985, it's not in 2002.

After that, the player will learn that Goku walks at only one speedthat speed being comparable to a man trying to run with cement shoes. Goku slogs around the game's screens like a drunken sailor (particularly when you factor in that he can't walk in a straight diagonal line) who's trying to get his land legs back after a year at sea. He's slow, he's unresponsive, and the whopping three frames of animation for his character sprite doesn't help things either. It's a shame no one thought to implement a dash feature.

But wait, it gets better! Not only is Goku slow and clumsy, he also has an annoying tendency to get stuck on the objects around him. This is particularly noticeable in combat situations since Goku will invariably get stuck on some part of the environment while trying to flee an enemy, giving the enemy several free shots at Goku in the process.

Collision detection in the game is poor, both in the environments and in the battles. Being off by a pixel or two often results in Goku's attack completely missing, which is humorous because he's generally standing right on top of the enemy anyway. Trying to traverse narrow passageways is an exercise in aggravation, as the character sprite will get caught on objects around him time and time again. I have a hard time believing none of the play testers noticed these serious problems.

While controlling Goku is an unpleasant experience at best, it's not nearly as odious as DBZ's battle system.

Utilizing a real-time combat system (meaning the player attacks at will, not in turns) with hack-and-slash mechanics, this is, hands down, the worst part of the entire game. Goku has several options when encountering an enemy: he can run away (which never works because he's slow), he can attack with his fists (which necessitates getting up close and personal) or he can use one of his three Ki attacks.

Since the collision detection is so shoddy, battling it out by hand will lead to Goku's death in most instances. The bad guys can always hit Goku, he just can't always hit them. Because of this, the Ki attacks are the safest approach. Goku will gain access to more Ki attacks as the game progresses. After earning the second one, the game goes from incredibly frustrating to incredibly easy, since every enemy can be defeated by using the same attack pattern over and over again. It's just one more example of how poor the game design in this title truly is.

Dragon Ball Z: The Legacy Of Goku is a bad game. In fact, it may well be the worst game of the year 2002. About the only redeeming quality it possesses is that it can be finished in well under five hours, making it so that the torture of playing the game itself is relatively short-lived. Goku, and Dragon Ball Z fans in general, certainly deserve a better legacy than this. Rating: 2.5 out of 10

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken is a 43-year-old writer and bohemian living in Florida with a mountain of movies, books, and video games.

A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.

Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.

In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.
Mike Bracken

Latest posts by Mike Bracken (see all)

Leave a Reply

avatar
  Subscribe  
Notify of

Back in the day, Final Fight was easily one of my favorite arcade games. My local theater had a copy, and I remember many a Friday night spent with a roll of quarters and a few buddies as we brawled our way through Metro City, the game's fictitious setting.

Soon after, the game made the jump to Super Nintendo, and I could get my beat-em-up fix at home. Unfortunately, the home version was never quite as good as the arcade original (which was a common thing at the time). As time passed, Final Fight was slowly pushed aside, first by the 2D brawlers like Street Fighter and then by even more advanced fighting games. Final Fight's time had passed, and it seemed destined to be little more than another footnote in the encyclopedia of gaming history.

Luckily, though, with the arrival of the Game Boy Advance (GBA) and the trend toward re-examining our gaming roots, Final Fight is once again backthis time on the GBA—and looking better than ever.

Not much has changed since Capcom's initial release of the game over a decade ago. The story, wherein a street gang kidnaps Metro Citys newly elected Mayor Mike Haggar's daughter, is unchanged. Players will initially choose from one of three characters: Haggar, who's formidable strength makes up for his slow speed; Guy, the martial arts master; and Cody, who's probably the most balanced of the three. As the player kills more enemies, other characters become available as well.

After that, the player hits the streets of Metro City, a crime-infested urban wasteland if ever there was one. You'll battle an endless stream of street scum before fighting each area's boss in order to advance the laughably simplistic story. Play with enough skill and eventually you'll fight the big boss himself, save Haggar's daughter and bring peace to the city. Ah, the good old days of gaming—when simplistic stories were the norm.

Final Fight One is sure to inspire a wave of nostalgia in those of us old enough to remember when it was a cutting edge game, but younger gamers, weaned on the more action-oriented and graphically intensive games of today, might be let down. The game is essentially a side scrolling beat-em-up. The characters move from left to right across the screen, attacking a horde of bad guys who'd just as soon see them pushing up daisies. One button handles the majority of the offense, which mostly consists of one combo repeated ad nauseum. In addition, each character also possesses one super move, which is activated by pressing the shoulder button. The gameplay might have been impressive back in its day, but its incredibly basic by today's standards.

Another aspect that really dates the game are the enemies the player will encounter. There's very little variety in the thugs in Metro City, and most of them are just palette-swapped versions of other bad guys. No wonder the cops can't do anything about crime in the city—everyone looks alike.

In Final Fight One's defense, this is supposed to be a retro title, not a remake or an updating. Because of this, most gamers go into it knowing what to expect. As far as staying true to the original goes, the game does an excellent job of bringing the arcade experience to the GBA.

In many ways, this handheld version of the game is superior to the old SNES cartridge. The controls are tight and responsive, the graphics nicely drawn and detailed, and theres none of the slowdown that marred the original cart. A few minor tweaks have been made (one of the female gang members has been replaced by a male counterpart), but other than that, its a faithful rendition of the arcade version.

While the gameplay and set-up are the same, Capcom has added some things to the cartridge to increase replay value and bring the game into the 21st century. The GBA version has a nice save feature, which saves automatically after each level. Thanks to this, one doesnt have to play through the entire game in a single sitting.

In that same vein, two players can play simultaneously thanks to the cart's link cable compatibility. The old SNES cart was a single-player game only, so this is a nice addition.

Also, killing certain numbers of enemies can unlock secrets hidden in the game, including the optional characters. Because of this, hardcore fans will want to keep playing even after the game is beaten.

Its been over a decade since Final Fight was originally released. Games have changed immensely during that time span as technology has increased. Despite this, the game is still fun. It may not be flashy, the gameplay might be incredibly unsophisticated and repetitive, and the whole game is certainly showing its age—but its still fun. And, no matter what anyone says, I still think it's light years better than Square's The Bouncer. Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken is a 43-year-old writer and bohemian living in Florida with a mountain of movies, books, and video games.

A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.

Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.

In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.
Mike Bracken

Latest posts by Mike Bracken (see all)

Leave a Reply

avatar
  Subscribe  
Notify of

Konami's Castlevania series is one of gaming's most venerable and enduring titles. Spanning years, innumerable sequels, and appearing on nearly every major platform, you'd be hard pressed to find a gamer who hadn't played at least one of the games at some point in his life. From the early NES incarnations on through to the PlayStation's classic Symphony Of The Night, Castlevania has thrilled gamers with its rock-solid platform gameplay, horror aesthetics, and in many cases, wonderful 2D graphics and amazing music. As a series, its managed to tweak the core elements that made it successful (adding RPG elements to Symphony Of The Night and Circle Of The Moon, for example) without compromising the things the fans love. Aside from a disastrous attempt to make the game 3D for the N64, this is a title that's always stayed true to its roots.

This desire to stay true to its roots, coupled with the fact that the game itself is roughly 8 years old, is what makes Konamis newest release, Castlevania Chronicles, such an interesting anachronism in this age of 3D polygon worlds and nearly lifelike character models. Chronicles is a game that the kids would christen old skool the graphics, the gameplay mechanics, and just about everything else to do with the game harkens back to another era, an era that many of us look back on with nostalgia.

Castlevania Chronicles features the US debut of Akumajo Dracula, one of two Castlevania games that had never seen a stateside release (the other being the much lauded Dracula X: The Rondo Of Blood). Akumajo Dracula originally appeared in Japan on the X68000 PC, an early personal computer. While many look at Rondo Of Blood as the best of the Castlevania games (often even edging out Symphony Of The Night), most look at Akumajo Draculaa's one of the lesser entries in the series, notable for one reason its insane difficulty level.

To say that the original version of Akumajo Dracula featured in Castlevania Chroniclesis hard would qualify as a severe understatement. Hard doesn't begin to describe the difficulty of this game in its original form. The phrase so difficult it could cause you to hurl your controller across the room before ripping your hair out at the roots is probably a better description of the difficulty level. Fortunately, Konami has been kind enough to offer two versions of the game the original X68000 version, with the extreme difficulty intact, and an arrange mode which offers the less masochistic amongst us the option of adjusting the difficulty level. Even with the difficulty lowered, the game is still pretty tough. Gamers often wonder if new games have gotten easier or if they've just gotten to be better gamers. Chronicles proves the former true.

The inclusion of the arrange mode not only makes it so you can adjust the difficulty of the game, but it also offers up graphical and musical enhancements to keep those of us who need eye and ear candy at least somewhat satisfied. The character sprites in arrange mode are more detailed (Simon Belmont is larger and has a flowing mane of red hair), the bosses better looking, the backgrounds sharper, and the music remixed. While the graphical enhancements are noticeable, they're not going to convince anyone they're playing Symphony Of The Night. The graphics in the arrange mode are serviceable, but not likely to blow you away (although there are a few nice parallax effects featured in some levels). The music fares better, with the remixed versions of classic Castlevania tunes like Bloody Tears and Vampire Killer sure to please longtime fans of the series.

The games plot is essentially the same as its always been. You control Simon Belmont of the vampire-killing Belmont clan as he infiltrates Castle Dracula in order to destroy the newly resurrected lord of the vampires. Armed with your trusty whip, you'll journey from the outer edges of the castle through to the interior where Dracula himself awaits you. You'll encounter many enemies along the way, including bats, zombies, floating eyes, flying heads, and more. In some ways, Castlevania could be viewed as one of the progenitors of the entire survival horror genre of games.

Gameplay is platform-based, with lots of jumping and climbing. Simon will acquire hearts by whipping candles and enemies. He can also use a number of special weapons, including holy water, boomerangs, throwing knives, and so forth. These weapons have been around since the first Castlevania games, so everyone should be familiar with them by now. Unfortunately, Super Castlevania IV's multi-directional whip isn't featured in this game, nor is the ability to jump while on the stairs, two more facts that add to the games already high difficulty level.

The game is broken up into a number of levels (8 in total) with each one comprised of several stages. Moving through the levels is a very linear affair. Unlike some of the other games in the series, Castlevania Chronicles offers no branching paths to explore or necessitate a replay. The progression from start to finish is extremely straightforward and a bit of a disappointment overall. Within each level, you'll fight a multitude of enemies before finally encountering a boss then moving on. The bosses are challenging, well-animated, and one of the better parts of the game most are based on archetypal horror monsters, which adds to the mood of the game. And, just like everything else, they can be difficul teven at the lower settings.

Aside from the arrange mode, Chronicles also offers up some extra goodies for fans of the series. The most interesting of the bunch is the interview with the games producer, wherein he discusses the series in general and hints that Rondo Of Bloodis the next game they'd like to release. That news is good news as far as I'm concerned I only wish they'd have released that game first.

Other extras include an art gallery that's unlocked as you progress through the game, and the option of playing a time mode after you've beaten the adventure. Unfortunately, the lack of branching paths hurts the replay value of the game significantly, and only the truly hardcore Castlevania fans will be interested in seeing how fast they can beat certain stages.

In the end, Castlevania Chronicles is a solid game. While younger gamers who've only experienced the more recent incarnations of the series (Symphony Of The Night and Circle Of The Moon) might find the game too plain looking and the gameplay mechanics too limiting, those who've been around since the series started will no doubt find Chronicles to be something of worth. The enhancements offered in the arrange mode keep the game from looking too dated, and the adjustable difficulty setting alleviates some of the problem with the games challenge level. If nothing else, Castlevania Chronicles demonstrates that while rich, 3D polygon worlds may be nice, there's still something to be said for great gameplay and 2D sprites. Castlevania Chronicles is a satisfying trip down memory lane. Rating: 7 out of 10

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken is a 43-year-old writer and bohemian living in Florida with a mountain of movies, books, and video games.

A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.

Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.

In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.
Mike Bracken

Latest posts by Mike Bracken (see all)

Leave a Reply

avatar
  Subscribe  
Notify of