Thursday, December 31, 2015

Indie-Cember 2: Undertale

Previously on the SDP, I reviewed Freedom Fall, with which I noted similarities to Portal for its simple but deep gameplay, and its simple but deep storytelling. Let's go for two.

Undertale
  • Publisher/Developer: tobyfox 
  • Lead Designer: Toby Fox 
  • Release: PC, 15 September 2015 
  • Genre: Role-Playing 
  • Players: 1 
Violence in video games is one of those things we take for granted. For most genres, there are conflicts between characters in the stories, and obstacles the player must overcome themselves. And I'm not some stop-having-fun-guy who doesn't want anybody exposed to such fictional harmful acts. Otherwise, I wouldn't have reviewed so many games over the years. But every so often, you stop and think about this sort of thing. We don't treat our real-world problems by blasting away at them or whatever -- at least I hope we don't -- so is there some way this could work in a game? To answer that question, developer and composer Toby Fox has blessed us with Undertale. Undertale bills itself as "The Friendly RPG Where Nobody Has To Die". Let's see how that turned out.

You play as a gender-neutral child who one day fell down a hole and into a world of monsters. There are all kinds of monsters to be found here: some will just want to talk to you, or even help you, but most would rather fight you instead. It is within these random encounters that we see our "combat" system, which is unique among turn-based RPGs. You attack by pressing a button in time with a meter, and you avoid damage by taking control of a heart icon and dodging white objects, as in a bullet-hell shoot-em-up game. Just as there are many varieties of creatures you'll face off against, there are even more types of projectiles you'll have to steer yourself clear of.
You must dodge random objects to defend yourself.
Already this "combat" system should interest you more than the average RPG. But I said "combat" in quotes because you are never forced to fight your enemies. Instead, you can use various other commands to interact with your enemies in other ways. Each enemy has their own pattern of actions to be employed against them, when triggered, lets you spare them instead. Sparing your enemies rewards you with money but not experience points, and as such you won't be able to level up and increase your health if you do so. As such, killing your foes and not killing them provide two different experiences of the same story.

If you want this game to surprise you as much as possible, please disregard the rest of this paragraph. There are also separate endings based on whether you've killed all, some, or none of the monsters you encounter. I'm not too keen on this in theory, since it boils down to a binary moral choice system. I would And I must warn you, that attempting a "genocide" play-through may leave you with some unsettling moments. For example, early on in the game, a goat-mother thing named Toriel takes you in, gives you a room of your own, and even leaves a slice of pie out for you. It's a warm and fuzzy feeling, I tell you what. But then when you try to leave, she becomes a boss fight, and killing her just because I was attempting the "genocide" run made me feel like an awful person. Besides, if you only stick to fighting, you won't get the full taste of the "battle" system, so at least Undertale manages to persuade you to stick to the virtuous path by gameplay mechanics alone.
The game has a quirky sense of humour.
Fortunately, Undertale isn't completely downbeat in tone, as there is plenty of comedy to be had. Much of it relies on misdirection, on setting up a scenario one way and then surprising you with an unexpected outcome. For example, there are plenty of puzzles to keep you occupied in-between battles and text boxes, but the game has a bad habit of setting up some of the more intricate puzzles, only to change its mind and either solve them for you or make them ridiculously easy. Anticlimactic, yes, but I suppose it's part of the humour. I'm reminded of the Earthbound (or Mother, if you are so inclined) games because of their shared quirky nature.

This connection also extends to the graphical style of Undertale, which has a simplistic approach to it, hovering somewhere in the realm of 8-bit. As I've said time and time again, I can live with simplistic artwork, as too much detail to the visuals would distract game designers from other, more important things they could be working on. I wish the soundtrack would make up its mind as to whether it wants to be completely chiptune-based or not, although the songs themselves are properly ambient and/or melodic at the appropriate moments. Also, Undertale isn't terribly long, as I finished my first play-through in two to three hours. But it didn't feel that short, as it gave me enough distinct settings to feel like a grand journey. Besides, as much as I like JRPGs on an aesthetic level, I can't seem to get into them anymore for how tortuously padded and drawn-out they can get. So in the end, I would describe Undertale as the RPGs for people who hate RPGs, but really I'd recommend it to everyone just to show the potential of what video games can be and do.

Positives:
+ Innovative "battle" system.
+ Many funny and bitersweet moments.
+ Not long, but just the right length for an RPG.

Negatives:
- The fight/act "battle" system is a binary moral-choice structure in disguise.
- The art and music styles are a bit inconsistent.

Control: 5 out of 5
Design: 5 out of 5
Writing: 5 out of 5
Graphics: 4 out of 5
Sound: 4 out of 5
Value: 4 out of 5
The Call: 95% (A)


So, it appears we've reached the end of Indie-Cember 2. Sorry I didn't manage to get out all the reviews I wanted. Apparently the holidays make me less productive than I anticipated beforehand. No seriously, most of my SDP-related productivity was working to update my old James Bond reviews for YouTube. But as for the stuff I didn't get to during Indie-Cember 2, I was thinking, why should I confine them to just one month out of the year? I have my desires and fears for the game industry, so why not bring these smaller titles to your attention throughout the rest of the year? After all, as I like to say, we must be the change we wish to see in the world. In other words,

This is IchigoRyu.

You are the resistance.

Oh, and Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Indie-Cember 2: Freedom Planet

Previously on the SDP, I reviewed Freedom Fall, a 2D platform with an innovative form of storytelling and the word "freedom" in the title. Let's go for two.


Freedom Planet
  • Publisher/Developer: Galaxy Trail 
  • Lead Designer: Stephen "Strife" DiDuro 
  • Release: 
    • PC, 21 July 2014 
    • Wii U, 1 October 2015 
  • Genre: 2D Action 
  • Players: 1
But before I get to Freedom Planet, let's talk about fan-games. A lot of the great series of old have had people make their own installments of them. Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Mega Man, and Sonic the Hedgehog are some of the big names with even bigger fan-game libraries. Even I used to dabble in the stuff back in the day, although nothing I've worked on survives to this day. If you need examples of fan-games, some of the big-name ones are Street Fighter X Mega Man, and Super Mario Bros. Crossover, so apparently the more intellectual properties you can roll into your project, the the better it becomes. The reason I diverted your attention with this intro is because our current subject, Freedom Planet, started life as a Sonic fan-game, but replaced the "licence" with original characters and setting, and evolved from there, and was all the better for it.

Freedom Planet offers three characters to play as: Lilac, a purple water dragon, Carol, a green wildcat, and (unlocked after the second level) Milla, a white basset hound. It turns out that these characters started life as drawings by Ziyo Ling, a Chinese deviantART user, who gave permission for the team at Galaxy Trail to user her "fursonae". Each of them have their own slightly unique styles of play. Lilac and Carol have a faster flow to their experiences, although never quite as fast as the real Sonic, since instead of just jumping into enemies to clear them, you have to use dedicated attacks instead. Milla is the odd dog out, since her system of defence revolves around generating green globby blocks to serve as shields and attacks. Other than that, Freedom Planet plays just like any other 2D Sonic: you run around rampy, loopy paths, jump off platforms and springs, pick up rings crystal shards for extra lives, and break TV monitors larger crystals for various flavours of shields. I should note that even though the game purports to have a lives system, if you do run out and continue, you just return to the last checkpoint with your progress otherwise intact, so they needn't have bothered.
Instead of jumping into enemies, you must use one of several attacks to clear them.
Freedom Planet also hearkens back to the 16-bit era by not having any story to speak of -- if you so choose. See, when you start up a game, you get to choose between "Classic" and "Adventure" mode, the only difference being that Adventure Mode inserts additional cutscenes in between each level, all of which are done in the same art engine as the rest of the game. And let me tell you -- unless you absolutely want to know what is going on, stick to Classic Mode, for the following reasons. 1) These cutscenes are way too long for this type of game; some can reach five minutes in length. 2) The writing is hokey as all get-out, often falling back on snarky joking for the heroes and dastardly boasting for the villains. 3) The voice acting is hit-or-miss. Some actors seem to have had more fun with their performances than others. Still other characters' sound quality is all muffled and lo-fi; I'm singling out Torque in that aspect. And 4) This could have all been done without the traditional notions of cutscenes.

To help explain myself, take a look at what passed for cutscenes in, say, Sonic the Hedgehog 3. That game had zero voice acting, and not even any text boxes at all, but got its story across purely through the characters' actions. It was clear how Knuckles was stealing your Chaos Emeralds, or dropping you down a trap door, and you didn't need any quips from Sonic or Tails to punctuate those moments. Freedom Planet does this as well, even in Classic Mode, and if you ask me, this is the best storytelling method this game has to offer. Why couldn't they have just stuck to that? So yeah, the story's there if you want to check it out, but you don't have to -- and that's the important part.
The game world has a heavy Chinese influence, almost like a modern-day Legend of Korra.
But voices aside, Freedom Planet is a joy to look at and listen to. The environments are colourful, just shy of Knuckles Chaotix's epileptic palette, and bear a clear Chinese influence. There are levels ranging from bamboo groves and crystal caves to a giant shopping mall and a fleet of airships. It's like if the world from The Legend of Korra existed in the present day and got taken over by furries. Graphical performance is also top-notch for what it tries to do; sprites speed about the place and rotate smoothly when running over hills and through loops. The controls are alright, although there's a little too much forward momentum when trying to make precision jumps or spring-bounces, and some of the attacks feel unnecessary. The soundtrack, composed by Leila "Woofle" Wilson, is also a knockout. The melodies are emotive and, given time, catchy, and the sounds selected to portray those melodies match the setting of the level they're presented in. Of course, the graphics and music have always been the most consistently good things about Sonic the Hedgehog, even after the "golden age", so it's nice that Freedom Planet takes that approach to heart, if nothing else (not that it doesn't do anything else).

Freedom Planet does for Sega Genesis games (read: Sonic the Hedgehog) what Shovel Knight did for the NES (read: Mega Man). (I probably should have reviewed Shovel Knight first, but oh well. It's great. Take my word for it.) It picks up where Sonic Team left off from, after they discovered 3D and everything went to pot. But most importantly, it doesn't steal all of Sonic's trappings, but instead creates a new world with both new and familiar mechanics. Moving to a new IP was a wise move on Galaxy Trail's part indeed. But even if it were a new Sonic game, it would still be a thumpin' good one. Just be sure to stick to skip all those cutscenes, okay?

Positives:
+ Tight, fast-paced gameplay.
+ Multiple characters with distinct play styles.
+ Gorgeous artwork and music.

Negatives:
- The voice-acting quality is inconsistent, but mostly poor.
- The story bits are too long -- good thing you can skip them!

Controls: 4 skipped cutscenes out of 5
Design: 4 skipped cutscenes out of 5
Writing: 3 skipped cutscenes out of 5
Graphics: 5 skipped cutscenes out of 5
Sound: 4 skipped cutscenes out of 5
Value: 3 skipped cutscenes out of 5
The Call: 85% (B+)


[1] GalaxyTrail (August 12, 2012). "The Evolution of Freedom Planet". ModDB. http://www.moddb.com/games/freedom-planet/features/the-evolution-of-freedom-planet

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Indie-Cember 2: Freedom Fall


Freedom Fall
  • Publisher/Developer: Stirfire Studios 
  • Lead Designer: Lisa Rye 
  • Release: PC, 10 January 2014 
  • Genre: 2D Action 
  • Players: 1 
  • Cost: US$10


Previously on Indie-Cember 2, I reviewed Go! Go! Nippon!, an example of the visual novel, a genre of gaming that revolves entirely around reading text. And that's not a diss to the genre, since any type of game can be great at what it does. For example, a game revolving entirely around reading text can be great for having a good story and/or writing. But man, wouldn't it be neat if a game could have a good story and/or writing without sacrificing gameplay in the traditional sense? There may be multiple ways of accomplishing this feat, and I am about to review one of them: Freedom Fall.

In Freedom Fall, you play as Marsh, a thief who has been arrested, tried in front of the local king, and locked away in a cell atop a tower that is so tall it makes the Burj Khalifa look like a puny molehill. But wouldn't you know it, somebody left a neat little hole in the floor for our hero to escape through! So the game is all about you falling to freedom, hence the title, but it's not the fall that kills you, as they say. As you make your way down the labyrinthine tower, you'll have to dodge many different forms of traps including spikes, spikes on walls, spikes on balls, cauldrons of fire, dragon statues that blow jets of fire, other dragon statues that shoot fireballs, electric fields, acid pools, and so much more. And yet there is absolutely no falling damage in this game, go figs. I'm not complaining or anything, but doesn't this mean that he could just find an open window and bypass the rest of the tower, along with all the traps therein? And why does everyone go around barefoot? Wouldn't that hurt Marsh when he's sliding down walls all the time? (For the record, this last question has been addressed by the creator herself: "The prisoners have their shoes taken away to make it harder for them to escape, and the princess isn't one for giving herself a handicap. =)" [1])
All of the game's exposition is delivered by writings on the wall.
Don't fret about all the hazards you'll be facing, as you have infinite lives and a series of checkpoints which are fairly common. Success in this game more or less relies on memorising a sequence of maneouvers, so it's nice that they're broken up just enough so as not to become overwhelming. To help yourself out, you can collect and throw bombs to break away most of the traps you come across, and you can collect nuts, bolts, and gears (the game's form of "coins") to build equipment with. There are only three things you can build, and whilst two of them are functionally identical (the parachute and hoverboard, both of which let you fall more slowly), the set of wings offers a double-jump, and in doing so does the most to change up the feel of gameplay.


Throughout the game, you'll read messages on the walls written by the princess, a bratty half-pint named Empheria. Some of these serve as tutorials, introducing controls and new mechanics in a way that doesn't metaphorically hold your head underwater, which is great if you're replaying levels for whatever reason. At points where the path splits into two temporary branches, she is also nice enough to have marked which way is the easier option and which is harder. But mostly these markings are just the musings of our princess, which are entertaining in their own right. She apparently takes a sadistic form of glee in letting prisoners get impaled on various pointy bits and what-not. But as you move on through the game, her painted comments get more personal, detailing the issues of being a princess and the troubled relationship with her mum, as well as unraveling the mystery of why you were arrested in the first place. What's amazing is that it builds and develops her character without breaking the flow of gameplay, which is especially notable as nobody in the game ever speaks, and you don't even see the princess that often, apart from impromptu races with her at the end of certain levels. (Although granted, if you're not English-literate, you're stuck out of luck, but then again the same could be said of this very blog too.)
The way down diverges into easy and hard paths at many points.
I don't know about you, but I first discovered Freedom Fall through its lead artist Lisa Rye, an Australian sheila known on deviantART as risachantag. I wouldn't put it past you if the game's art style sold you on the darn thing. Many art assets in this game have a hand-painted look, including the characters themselves, whose anime-styled faces manage to be expressive but still fit into the rest of the game's aesthetic. As for the animation, it isn't bad, per se, it's more... economical. There are few organic characters or objects that require distinct frames of animation, and so most other things (i.e. traps) get by with moving and/or rotating still art assets to simulate motion. And as for actual animation, some of the characters' animation cycles aren't as smoothly animated as others. It's not a deal-breaker; after all, Japanese anime also tends to place the emphasis on the still image as opposed to the motion, and I love it for it.

If I had to criticise this game (and I do, or otherwise I'd be a very short-sighted critic), I would make two observations. One, your character seems to stick to walls a little too easily. In a game demanding such precise movements, trying to jump off of walls can become a liability. And my second complaint is that the game is a little short. A single run-through should only take you an hour or two; my current record is around forty-five minutes. (And I did that without buying any equipment, too!) There is some actual replay value, however, as you can try to break time, score, and death count targets for each level as part of the game's Achievements. Each level also has their own online leaderboard, but that's just a load of bollocks because you know someone, somewhere, has found a way to exploit the game's mechanics to produce a score that no one could ever duplicate by all the conventional practice in the world. Face it, all online rankings are like that.

But you know what other game was short but had really interesting and non-invasive storytelling? Portal. Yeah, I said it. Any game that can swim even close to Portal's wake is deserving of high honours. In terms of what it does to the concept of 2D platforming, Freedom Fall may not have any mechanics as original or innovative as the portal gun, but like Portal, it does introduce new elements at just the right pace to get you properly acclimated to them, and of course the writing's at least as sharp or witty than anything involving cake or companion cubes (okay, bad examples). It may be a little insubstantial, but it seems most indie games are depending on your expectations. Pick it up when it goes on sale (or don't wait, what do I care?), and you'll be glad you did.

Positives:
+ A brilliant, effective, perhaps innovative, method of storytelling.
+ A sensible amount of challenge.
+ A gorgeous art style.

Negatives:
- It's a little short.
- A few shortcuts were taken in the animation.

Controls: 4 spikes out of 5
Design: 4 spikes out of 5
Writing: 5 spikes out of 5
Graphics: 5 spikes out of 5
Value: 2 spikes out of 5
The Call: 90% (A-)

[1] Rye, Lisa (23 January 2014). "Comment on Freedom Fall: The Princess character sheet by Risachantag". deviantART. http://comments.deviantart.com/1/311039028/3350745343

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Indie-Cember 2: Never Alone


Never Alone (Kisima Inŋitchuŋa)
  • Publisher: E-Line Media 
  • Developer: Upper One Games 
  • Release: 
    • PC / PlayStation 4 / XBox One, 18 November 2014 
    • Wii U, 25 June 2015 
  • Genre: 2D Action/Puzzle 
  • Players: 1-2 Co-op 
  • Cost: US$15

Previously on Indie-Cember, I reviewed Go! Go! Nippon!, a dating-sim visual novel which would totally have been a generic addition to its genre were it not for the context of exploring a foreign culture. And because I have suddenly decided to arrange my reviews this month in some sort of narrative flow, I shall take on Never Alone, which does the same thing in the context of a platform-puzzler. ...Well, shoot, that seems to have given away my opinion on the game right off the bat, but stick around and I'll try to explain myself.

Never Alone takes place in the world of the Iñupiat, an Inuit society living in northern Alaska. The heroine of this story is a young Iñupiat lady named Nuna, who goes out hunting one day and gets chased by a polar bear, only to be saved by a white arctic fox, with whom she goes out on adventures of some sort. As you play through their adventures of some sort, you switch control between Nuna and Fox on the fly, as you utilize their differring abilities to solve platforming puzzles and move forward. Nuna can push blocks and, once acquired, throw her bola to hit distant targets, whereas Fox can climb certain walls and call on spirits to serve as platforms. The puzzles are no more complex than in, say, the Lego Star Wars games. A co-operative mode is also available if you have a friend handy.
Some passages require the abilities of both characters,
such as Fox making rope spirits appear for Nuna to swing on.
I'm not sure the controls are firing on all cylinders, however. Whichever character happens to be controlled by the computer can be a little sluggish in following your character's movements. It's almost as if the game was trying to coerce you into playing co-op, eh? Another specific gripe I have is how you throw Nuna's bola by holding the right control stick opposite the direction you want to aim in, and flick it across to throw. I found this a very imprecise mechanic at all but the shortest ranges. Honestly, it's at least as bad as the aiming controls in Yoshi's Island, admit it. And sometimes, you have to do so while you're being chased by someone or something, and given that you'll only have one or two spare attempts to hit your target, the aiming becomes a severe liability at all but the shortest ranges. At least you have infinite lives, checkpoints are frequent, and the overall pace of gameplay is quite leisurely, so it never feels too stressful. Also, as I was playing the PC version, I got stuck with a bug where I ended up controlling both characters at once, rendering the game impassable early on. This bug has been acknowledged by the developers, who have posted a solution here. I don't know if this is true for everyone, but considering the persnickety nature of PC gaming, I feel I should bring this to your attention.

Never Alone is based on lands in the real-world Arctic, so naturally the setting is going to deal with a lot of ice and snow. But, as we learned from Frozen, it is easy to make that sort of thing look pretty. And despite it all, some of the chapters nonetheless manage to stand out in terms of the sites and sights they present. For example, one takes place inside a giant ice whale, and another takes place on a cliffside village during an aurora borealis. Granted, part of the notability of these levels comes from the mechanics they introduce. The ice whale part introduces swimming (in which Nuna and Fox can never drown, as commented on by the narrator... I'm serious), whereas the other level I mentioned features aurora monsters which follow looping paths and must be avoided, lest Nuna and/or Fox suffer death by snatching. So it looks like I've solved the mystery of why each of these levels were memorable despite all of them taking place in the same biome. The soundtrack is ambient and, together with the setting and the relaxed pace of gameplay, does a great job of building the feeling that you are... well, not alone, because that would make a lie out of the title.
The game's setting is pretty much all ice and snow,
but some chapters mix things up visually.
The story is narrated at certain points by a storyteller in the Iñupiaq language (subtitled in English, of course), sometimes without breaking the flow of play. There are cutscenes, of course, but most of them are presented in a quasi-animated, leather scrimshaw style, as if to mimic styles of art that are popular up there. But those aren't the only cultural ties that Never Alone boasts. Throughout the game, you can find owls which will unlock video clips, called Insights, to play at your leisure. These Insights are mini-documentaries, only a couple of minutes each, about some Iñupiat cultural feature. These range from their unique beliefs to facets of their everyday lives, and all of them have to do with something that happens in the game. Indeed, members of the Iñupiat community helped write this game, and as such it really feels like those people are sharing themselves with the gaming world. It is for that reason that for all its insubstantiality, I can't stay mad at the game.

At first I was going to liken Never Alone to DLC Quest, in that it's an ordinary 2D platformer buoyed only by its context. But upon further reflection, I think Papo y Yo would be a more fitting comparison. It's simple, relying on just a few mechanics for most of its puzzles, and it's heavily steeped in a foreign culture and presented with great imagination. Either way, it's amazing the difference a little context makes. Without any of the trimmings of its setting, Never Alone would just be another puzzle-platformer with no replay value and not even a lot of first-play value. Also, US$15 is a bit much for an indie game, especially one this short. But if you could take just a couple of hours out of your time to breeze through this game and watch all the Insights, you might just walk away feeling enriched.

Positives:
+ Puzzle platforming with a patient pace.
+ Unique and distinct level designs, even within the confines of an ice/snow theme.
+ Wonderfully ambient and emotive.
+ The cultural insight videos enrich the story.

Negatives:
- Clumsy controls, especially with computer-controlled characters.
- Only about two hours long, with almost no replay value.

Controls: 2 bolas out of 5
Design: 3 bolas out of 5
Writing: 5 bolas out of 5
Graphics: 4 bolas out of 5
Value: 2 bolas out of 5
The Call: 70% (C+)

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Indie-Cember 2: Go! Go! Nippon!


Go! Go! Nippon! ~My First Trip to Japan~
  • Publisher: MangaGamer 
  • Developer: Overdrive 
  • Release: PC, 30 September 2011 
  • Genre: Visual Novel 
  • Players: 1 
  • Price: US$10
After reviewing two Roguelikes back-to-back, even if they are really good Roguelikes, I feel like I need a break. Or, perhaps a vacation. And me being the egregious otaku I am, if I could go anywhere in the world on holiday, it would be Japan. What can I say, it is relevant to my interests. Well, realistically speaking, that would require so much preparation that Indie-Cember would be long over by the time I'd get going. So in the meantime, I've come up with a solution to address both my wishes. I'm going to review Go! Go! Nippon! ~My First Trip to Japan~, a visual novel about taking a vacation in said country.

Now, this review will be tricky as I'm nowhere near being an expert on the genre. I haven't even played any visual novels before this, unless you count the Ace Attorney series, which I don't because A) there's more to the gameplay than just scrolling through text boxes, and B) the underage girls in those games never whip their jugs out (thank God). But in terms of how we in the West associate with that genre, namely the "dating sim" type of visual novel, then Go! Go! Nippon! was what took away my metaphorical virginity.

In Go! Go! Nippon!, you, the player character, are off on a week's holiday in Tokyo, Japan, escorted by two sisters named Makoto and Akira. Makoto is the gentle, voluptuous older sister, and Akira is the tempermental, flat-chested younger sister. They stick rigidly close to the "yamato nadeshiko" and "tsundere" character types respectively. Although, if you stick around you might get to learn some secrets about them which, without wishing to spoil, bring in the feels like a... Well, I was going to say "tsunami" but that would've been tasteless. I'll get back to you on that comparison.
Makoto (left) and Akira (right) stick close to their character archetypes... at first. (ver. 2015 shown.)
So if Go! Go! Nippon! can't innovate on its characters, what does it do to stand out amongst so many dating sims? Context, context, context. As I stated before, this game is about exploring various real-world sites around Tokyo and abroad, with Makoto and/or Akira as your tour guides (they even made little uniforms for themselves, how cute). How it works is for each of the first three days, you get to pick from six (eleven in the 2015 version, more on that later) destinations to visit for that day. Your guide(s) will describe the various sites and sights of Tokyo districts like Ginza, Akihabara, Shibuya, Shinjuku, et cetera. They take you to different landmarks and restaurants, and spout tidbits of trivia about them all along the way. As somebody who has already been around Japan more than once, I may not have learned all that much from this game alone, but you probably will.

Apart from choosing your destination for each day, there's nothing much in the way of answering multiple-choice questions or anything like that, which would give you a chance to project your personality for the virtual characters. If I may be permitted to use my imagination for a bit, I would have put in a handful of multiple-choice questions, where the answer you choose would elicit a different reaction from whom you were speaking to, but not immediately trigger a different scenario to play. But each response would build up an invisible counter, or set of counters, resulting in a nuanced picture of your personality that the characters can respond differently to. Again, I don't know if this a standard trend in this genre, so I don't know how valid it is for me to be complaining about its absence.

Then, after three days of free-wheeling fun, the plot gets a bit railroad-y as the girls take you on an overnight excursion to Kyoto. The same tourism approach is still in place for this chapter, and it's fun to see both Makoto and Akira play off each other, but my problem is that the Kyoto part is always the same for every game you start. There are many other places in Japan they could've done in Kyoto's place, so why couldn't they have done that like they did with the Tokyo chapter? After that, you get one of two endings based on which sister you ended up taking with you during the first three days. At the very least, these endings reveal hidden depths of the girls, and with them bringing down the feels like a... ton of bricks, that's what I wanted to say before! Yeah, that'll work.
This game depicts numerous real-world locations around Japan. (ver. 2015 shown.)
Visual-novels are some of the most bare-bones games in terms of graphical presentation, but Go! Go! Nippon! is even more deficient in this arena (I assume). It has a nasty habit of breaking the "show, don't tell" rule of storytelling, as sometimes the characters will talk about something specific in the area that isn't shown in the background art. And some places don't even have background art, but just cut to a picture of the sky! The character portraits don't move at all either (unless you're running the 2015 version) There are little touches I do like, such as the fast-forward button and the two language tracks displayed at once. Having both English and Japanese text together means that you could even learn bits of the language if you'd care to study it, isn't that cool? (The 2015 version adds more language options, namely Chinese and romanized Japanese as of this article.) The translation is fine, apart from a few instances of "om nom nom", because... funny?

Before I end this review, I wish to inform you that there was recently a major update made to this game. So I shall. *ahem* There was recently a major update made to this game. Called Go! Go! Nippon! ver. 2015, this downloadable upgrade adds five Tokyo excursions to the 6 from the base game, effectively doubling the content. They also added widescreen display support, as well as "animations" which "morph" the character portraits to simulate the characters' chests rising and falling with their breath, or their hair waving in the wind. Now, this is paid DLC, and I said before, it's pretty sad when you have to pay extra for a decent experience. But I'm not mad, because both the base game and the expansion are cheap enough (you can get a bundle of both for US$15). It's not like some $60 multiplayer-only FPS with only, like, four maps and a $50 season pass on top of that! Because that would just be stupid! ...Right?

So, has Go! Go! Nippon! sold me on the visual novel genre? Eh, not really. In terms of its characters, it doesn't evolve much beyond the standard archetypes, but that's not to say I didn't develop some sort of emotional connection to a degree. The real reason to try this game, if any, is for its Japanese tourism trivia, so if you're planning to go there yourself or it's just an interest, it won't hurt to check it out. It would have been stronger, though, if I had more say in how my player-character acted with them. I do see a lot of potential in this genre, however, that wasn't realised by Go! Go! Nippon!. If you readers know of any better ones out there, I'd be willing to check them out.

Positives:
+ Lots of interesting facts to learn about Japan.
+ A satisfactory Japanese-to-English translation.
+ Give it time, and you can form a real attachment to these virtual girls.

Negatives:
- Breaks the "show, don't tell" rule on numerous occasions.
- Not much in the way of player choice.
- Too little content (unless you buy the 2015 upgrade).

Design: 3 tours out of 5 (Base game) / 4 tours out of 5 (ver. 2015)
Writing: 4 tours out of 5
Graphics: 2 tours out of 5 (Base game) / 4 tours out of 5 (ver. 2015)
Value: 2 tours out of 5 (Base game) / 3 tours out of 5 (ver. 2015)
The Call: 60% (C-) (Base game) / 75% (B-) (ver. 2015)

Monday, December 7, 2015

Indie-Cember 2: Crypt of the Necrodancer


Crypt of the Necrodancer
  • Publisher: Klei Interactive 
  • Developer: Brace Yourself Games 
  • Lead Designer: Ryan Clark 
  • Release: PC, 23 April 2015 
  • Genre: 2D Action / Rhythm 
  • Players: 1

Here we go again, another bloody Roguelike for another bloody Indie-Cember. Oh, but of course I wouldn't even be bothering with it if it didn't bring something new to the table. Today's subject, Crypt of the Necrodancer, doesn't involve a drastically different genre, but it still does its own thing and is all the more unique, engaging, and memorable for it. Read on.

There are multiple playable characters that can be unlocked in Crypt of the Necrodancer, but the default character, and the one you'll be spending the most time with is, a young woman named Cadence. In the opening cutscene, she went out digging in a graveyard one night, when she fell into some catacombs and nearly died. She comes to and discovers that she was kept alive by a curse which keeps her heart beating at a steady rhythm and forces her to move in time with it. In gameplay terms, this means you must move from space to space within the various dungeon levels in time with the background music. You must overcome this handicap and struggle your way through four zones, conquering the miniboss on each floor before you can move onto the next one. Thankfully, you can start a new game from any of the zones you have unlocked, instead of being forced to start from zone 1 all the time (which is still an option for really skilled players).

Indeed, just about everything in Crypt of the Necrodancer follows the beat of the background music. There are many types of monsters to be found, and they all have their own movement patterns. Some monsters move in a set pattern, some follow you, and some may even move more or less randomly. And while you're trying to work out their patterns, you have to keep moving to the beat as well. If you stand still for a beat, you lose the coin multiplier you build up by killing monsters. It's not a huge penalty, more of a mental conditioning to keep you playing by its rules. Still, having to keep moving and processing where all the enemies are going to move is a bit much for some players to handle. And sure, one of the unlockable characters ditches the rhythm aspect altogether and just has the enemies move when you do, which is great for practicing the game, but where's the fun in that?
The many enemy types can be hard to keep track of,
especially when you have to keep moving yourself.
Despite having only four zones, Necrodancer makes up for its short length not just by the difficulty, but by the many unlockable items, characters, and modes. You are armed with a basic dagger to attack monsters with, and a shovel to dig through walls with. The starting dagger only deals one point of damage to one space in front of you, so you would do well to find a new weapon. There are many, many types of weapons and items as well. You may find them in treasure chests, or buy them from the shops that are found on every floor. You can also pick up diamonds during your travels, and spend them in the post-game lobby for permanent upgrades, such as more heart containers to start with, or new kinds of items to find or buy in-game. (And no, there are no microtransactions for buying diamonds with real money, thank God.)

Necrodancer is a rhythm game, to a certain degree, so naturally the music will make or break the experience. I am pleased to report that the soundtrack, composed by Danny Baranowsky, fits the bill with flying colours. One bit that stood out was the third zone, where all the floors are split in half between a fire theme and an ice theme. The music in the fire half is a more intense rock/metal piece, whereas the ice half uses the same song arranged in a chill electronic style, and the two songs seamlessly transition from one to the other depending on where you are in the level. Now, if that's not originality, then I'll be a Green Slime. You can also stream and buy it from his page on Bandcamp. Still, if that's not enough for you, you can also set up your own MP3s to play in the background, and the game will automatically detect the tempo for you. Graphically, the game uses a pseudo 16-bit art style which doesn't appear all that special at first. It's the animations that pull this game's look together, whether it's the tells that inform you of an enemy's imminent action, or just the dance-y idle animations of some monsters. Every moving object in this game seems to have a bounce to it, adding a much-needed visual reinforcement of the rhythm that drives this game.
Collect diamonds to permanently unlock additional items.
One last extra I'd like to bring up is the Dance Pad Mode, available from the beginning. Basically, it's an easier version of the first zone, so as to accommodate players who wish to use a dance pad. I've tried it, and well... it didn't exactly work out for me. Maybe it's because of the way I've trained myself to play Dance Dance Revolution, to alternate my feet as much as possible, or maybe it was this style of game forcing me to think on the fly, but I was pretty much two left feet here, pardon the pun. Still, think about it this way: it is 2015 as I write this, and there has not been a new DDR game made for home consoles in four years (seven in Japan!). So if Konami's not gonna play ball, what other use will there be for your dance pads? And even if they were, where else can you break it out for a genre other than simple beat-matching? Basically what I'm saying is, it's the thought that counts.

Despite all my hangups about Necrodancer being a Roguelike, I somehow found myself playing round after round after round. Maybe it's the vain hope that what little mental experience I've gained from previous failed attempts will give me the luck I need to conquer that one zone. Or, maybe it's just fun. I think I'll go with that. You might not have thought about the flavours of dungeon crawlers and rhythm-based gameplay going together, but they do indeed work, and with any luck will open the possibilities of other such melanges. Be it on a keyboard, controller, or dance pad, there is simply nothing like Crypt of the Necrodancer.

Positives:
+ A unique and compelling concept.
+ Awesome soundtrack that fits the gameplay perfectly.
+ Loads of extra content.

Negatives:
- It's a Roguelike, so it can be tough to make progress.
- The many enemy types are hard to keep track of.

Control: 4 diamonds out of 5
Design: 4 diamonds out of 5
Graphics: 5 diamonds out of 5
Audio: 5 diamonds out of 5
Value: 4 diamonds out of 5
The Call: 90% (A-)

Friday, December 4, 2015

Indie-Cember 2: Heavy Bullets


Heavy Bullets
  • Publisher: Devolver Digital 
  • Developer/Lead Designer: Terri Vellmann 
  • Release: PC, 18 September 2014 
  • Genre: 3D Action (First-person shooter) 
  • Players: 1

Previously on the SDP, I reviewed Receiver, a first-person shooter with Roguelike design and primitive 3D graphics. This being the case, I think I've got the perfect game to kick off Indie-Cember 2 with. Heavy Bullets, not to be confused with the preferred ammunition of the Heavy class from Team Fortress 2, is a first-person shooter with Roguelike design and primitive 3D graphics. This is where we've come in the last two years, people -- naught but full-circle. ...Just kidding; Heavy Bullets is quite original among first-person shooters. It may not have the detailed gun mechanics of Receiver, but how does it managed to stand out?

Each game starts with a quick page of exposition, where you learn that something bad has gone down at the hunting grounds where your character works at, and the two people speaking decide to send down employees (read: you) to sort it out, regardless of the high chance of them dying. Not yet having beaten the game yet, I can't say the story amounts to much, and it's probably not why you're playing Heavy Bullets anyway. You're here for a first-person romp through eight levels. As the game starts for real, and you find yourself with a gun and only six bullets. However, these bullets may be picked up and used again, ad infinitum. You'll use your bullets against monsters like floating imps, snakes camouflaged amongst plants, and various flavours of automated turrets. Upon finding you, they make distinct sounds which help you to tell them apart, although this isn't always enough; the pink bomb-bugs gave me very little warning before dashing up to inflict massive damage. I dare say, even, that said bomb-bugs are this game's equivalent of the hover-drones from Receiver, although they thankfully won't necessarily take away all your life if they get you. The monsters still can give you a brief scare if they chance upon you undetected, epsecially the aforementioned flower-snakes. It's no Five Nights at Freddie's, and the shock can be conquered as you practice hunting down those enemies, but it's that period of practice which is the killer. It helps if you take it slowly and carefully as you walk into new areas, which is easier said than done given your character's zippy walking speed.
Enemies can sneak up on and even scare you until you learn to look out for them.
I let slip this was a Roguelike game, which means the levels, enemies, and items are randomly generated, and if you die, you lose all your possessions and have to start a new game. Yeah, I've fallen out of favour with Roguelikes since my last Indie-Cember for some reason. I suppose that reason is that it is impossible to retry levels you failed at, and without the chance to learn from your specific mistakes, it can seem like you're not making any progress. And unfortunately for me, there have been many, many indie titles which incorporate Roguelike structure into multiple genres, including first-person shooters like the aforementioned Receiver. If nothing else, the random structure better suits a linear level-based layout as is the case here, as opposed to Receiver's open world approach. There's no searching countless empty rooms in vain, is what I'm trying to say.

To survive your quest, you may chance upon items out in the open, but more likely you'll rely on three types of vending machines: one selling spare bullets and other weapons, one selling health refills and other boosts, and the aforementioned storage banks. The array of findable and purchaseable items is decently vast, although some will help you more than others. I don't know about your play style, but I prefer to stock up on health potions, carry and reload upgrades, and the Backpack, which lets you hold a second type of item. The problem is, since everything in the game is randomised, you can't count on your favourite items showing up when you need them most. Here we go again, me taking another stand against Roguelikes, you might say. Still, amongst the recent trends in Roguelikes, I've also seen some of them make token nods towards carrying over some form of the progress you make. To that effect, in Heavy Bullets you can store your money at one of the bank machines you may encounter on your journey. Any money or items you have stored up in the bank will remain for you to use in future playthroughs.
The two bosses are the only things which remain constant from game to game.
The other connection I made between Heavy Bullets and Receiver are their graphics, which go for a low-polygon approach, but it works better here for a number of reasons. First, unlike Receiver, which managed to chug even on my improved graphics card, Heavy Bullets runs fine. Second, unlike Receiver, which relies on a more realistically drab colour scheme, Heavy Bullets is filled with highly-saturated pinks, blues, and greens. These two facts make the lack of graphical definition come across less as a shortcut and more as a stylistic choice. Building upon its 80s/early-90s aesthetic is the synthtacular soundtrack, composed by independent rapper Doseone. Why the background tunes keep fading in and out, however, I can't quite say. On the subject, I'd also like to give a tip of the hat to the sound effects. Each type of monster has their own cry which helps you tell them apart and react accordingly, even if you can't see them when they spot you. The pulsing sounds and screen flashes when you're low on health, however, not so much. It was unwelcome way back in The Legend of Zelda, and it's unwelcome here too.

If you've tried Roguelikes before and decided to hate them, Heavy Bullets will not change your mind. But as far as Roguelikes go, this is a good one. The action is fast-paced, the reusable bullets mechanic is a welcome twist on first-person shooter conventions, and the random level generation never gets too much in the way of your fun. Basically all you need to take from this review is that, for all the strengths of both games, I liked Heavy Bullets more than Receiver. It's a unique game that I wouldn't mind playing over and over in a vain attempt to make it to the ending.

Positives:
+ The reusable bullets mechanic is a twist on FPS conventions.
+ The random level generation is integrated well.
+ A unique audiovisual style.

Negatives:
- Randomised items and shops are hard to rely on.
- A few jump scares.
- Not much of a story.

Control: 4 bullets out of 5
Design: 4 bullets out of 5
Graphics: 5 bullets out of 5
Audio: 4 bullets out of 5
Value: 3 bullets out of 5
The Call: 80% (B)

You might also like: Receiver, Tower of Guns, Strafe

Monday, November 30, 2015

Announcements: December 2015

Ladies and gentlemen, I have a few announcements to make regarding future projects for the SDP.
  • On this blog, my next big project is another installment of Indie-Cember.  As was the case in 2013, most of my reviews for the month of December 2015 will be devoted to independent video games I've discovered over the past few years.  Possible reviews for "Indie-Cember 2" include Heavy Bullets, Tower of Guns, Crypt of the NecrodancerMercenary Kings, Freedom Planet, Five Nights at Freddy's, and Undertale.
    • If there's time, I'll also do first-impression reviews on the demos for Mighty No.9 and, assuming it gets funded, Indivisible.  As of me posting this article, Indivisible needs to raise US$200,000 (to a total of $1,500,000) in just three days.  They can do it, but they need your help!  Visit their page on Indiegogo here.  Edit 3 Dec 2015: Hooray, they made it to $1.5 million!  Indivisible is a go!  Now let's go for those stretch goals, people!
  • Once that's done, it'll be time for my usual year-end round up of the year's hit music, but I thought I would do something a little different this year.  Instead of straight up top-ten and bottom-ten lists, I'm going to do something like an awards show, where I think up a bunch of semi-arbitrary categories, find some songs to fill them with, and pick the "best" one for each category.  I shall call it the first annual SDP Music Awards.  Planned categories include:
    • Worst Sample or Interpolation
    • Most Boring Song
    • Most Generic Hip-Hop/Rap Song
    • Most Generic Country Song
    • Most Generic EDM Song
    • Biggest Guilty Pleasure
    • Surprisingly Best Song
    • Worst New Artist
    • Worst Lyric
    • Overall Worst Song
    • Overall Best Song
  • I am pleased to report that I shall be going back to making videos for a third season!  Among the episodes I have lined up are Frozen, The Wind Rises, and Neon Genesis Evangelion.  As of writing this article, I have already filmed the first two episodes.  Those episodes were chosen because of the Academy Awards controversy I've been obsessing off and on with.  I know it's been almost two years since those fateful Oscars, but this is something I have to get off my chest before it's too late.
  • I do have some format changes in mind, however.  I haven't included Ichigo, my animated co-host character in any of the new episodes, and at the rate this is going, he may end up gone from my show for good.  It's pretty much a case of not having enough, or any, material for his character.  If nothing else, it should help me, and you the viewers, focus on the reviews themselves.
  • Earlier this year, I had filmed another episode to serve as a finale for season 2, based on my review of Zelda II.  This episode would also have closed out the Strawberry Dragon Gamer arc.  However, since then I've had a change of heart.  The whole point of the SD Gamer was to make fun of the real Irate Gamer, which I kind of don't feel like doing any more.  Sure, you can make the case that the Irate Gamer is a complete wasteoid of a human being who fails epically at everything he does, but the key word is "human being".  I'm worried about descending into the realm of bullying, so I'm gonna lay off the guy.  Besides, that's what the "Irate Gamer Sucks" blog is for. :-)
  • In February 2016, I'll devote a short series of videos to reviews of video games made by the studio Rare, which I'm calling "Febru-Rare-y".  Planned episodes for "Febru-Rare-y" include RC Pro-Am, Blast Corps, and Jet Force Gemini.
  • When the new James Bond film, Spectre, comes out on home video in this country, which should be around March 2016, I'll give it its own review in the style of the ones I did for the 007 Golden Jubilee a couple of years ago.  Around that time I'll also do a video on the top ten dumbest James Bond moments, which I've updated recently, in fact.
  • The 25th anniversary of Sonic the Hedgehog will be rolling up in June 2016, so as I did for the 20th anniversary before, I'll kick off another Sonic Month, filled with reviews and possibly more videos dedicated to the Blue Blur.  This time around, I'll try to focus on the Genesis games that made him famous, and see if they still hold up today... er, tomorrow.
As for Indigo Children, the novel-turned-comic book I had intended to devote this past year to, things apparently hadn't gone as smoothly as I had hoped.  I got through ten pages of one chapter before A) I grew overwhelmed at the kinds of work I had to do, and B) I also grew dissatisfied at how the story was developing.  So I decided to scrap it and start over.  Alas, I suppose my new year's resolution of finishing something to some capacity will have to be recycled for 2016.  But can I balance that out with everything I have planned for the SDP?  We'll see what happens, I guess.  Until then...

This is IchigoRyu.

You are the resistance.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Game Review: Super Star Wars


Super Star Wars
  • Publisher: JVC / Lucasarts 
  • Developer: Sculptured Software 
  • Release: 
    • Super Nintendo, November 1992 
    • PlayStation 4 / PS Vita, 17 November 2015 
  • Genre: 2D Action (Platformer, Run & Gun)
  • Players: 1 
  • Save: None (SNES) 
America has come down once again with a case of Star Wars fever this year, owing no doubt to the upcoming release of the new movie, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Therefore, in terms of video games, the talk of the town is on the new Star Wars Battlefront for the PlayStation 2 and XBox... sorry, I meant the other Star Wars Battlefront for the PlayStation 4 and XBox One. DO YOU SEE HOW ANNOYING THIS GETS!? Title aside, Star Wars Battlefront (the new one, that is) is yet another of those multiplayer-only shooters in the vein of Titanfall and Evolve, which thought they could get away without any single-player story content but still sell at full price. On its own, it's simply bound to get old fast. In comparison to the old Battlefront duology, each of those games being stuffed with enough features to choke a Sarlacc, it is unforgivable. I haven't played EA's Battlefront yet, nor do I ever plan to, but I'll end this rant by saying the game can go take a proton torpedo up its exhaust port, if you see what I mean.

Fortunately, I have something else to fall back on, as the powers that be saw fit to release ports of Super Star Wars for the PS4 and PS Vita. I'm a bit curious as to this decision, as the original game came out in 1992 for the Super NES, a non-Sony console. Indeed, it used to be available on the Wii's Virtual Console shop, along with its sequels based on The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, but those have since been taken down due to an expired licence or something. Well, whatever you're playing it on, you're getting more or less a straight adaptation of the original Star Wars film. A young man, Luke Skywalker, comes across a pair of droids carrying plans for the Death Star, a planet-destroying space station built by the Galactic Empire, and he must bring them safely to the Rebel Alliance. But you already knew that.

Much of the game is played as a jump-and-shoot platformer, similar to the Contra series. Super Star Wars makes some welcome evolutions to Contra's formula, however. Your blaster fires automatically when you hold down the fire button, and while doing so, you stay locked in place so you can aim in multiple directions without also moving around. And perhaps most importantly, you can take more than one hit per life! Yes, you have a health meter in this game, and not only are health pickups plentiful, with little ones coming out of nearly every enemy you kill, but you can extend it with "Health Sword" powerups (because the health meter is drawn like a lightsaber, I guess...). Other pickups include blaster upgrades, invincibility shields, thermal detonator bombs, and Darth Vader heads which doubles the points you earn for a limited time. Over the course of the game, Luke gains a lightsaber in addition to his blaster, and later on you can choose to play as Han Solo or Chewbacca instead of Luke, who lack the lightsaber (and the awesome, almost overpowered spinny-jump slice that comes with it), but start off with a blaster upgrade and/or a longer health bar.
By holding the fire button, you can aim in multiple directions.
But don't think for a second that this is an easy game. It may look like you have a long health bar even without upgrades, and enemies don't seem to do much damage, but there are a lot of enemies. And if you do lose all your health, all your upgrades go along with it. I do hate when games do this, because it makes it that much harder to get back on track. Furthermore, enemies can push you around easily, which makes what few spots of precision platforming all the more treacherous and unfair. Not helping is the semi-isometric perspective the walls and floors are drawn in, making it a bit tough to determine where each platform begins and ends. Oh yeah, and there's no mercy invincibility, either. That seems to be a running theme with 2D platformer games I've chosen to review. Also, there's a timer counting down as you play each level, but before you start panicking, you don't die when it expires (cf. Mario and Sonic), you just don't get a time bonus at the end. Granted, points are important in this game, as you're given extra lives at certain milestones (cf. Sonic again), and trust me, you'll need them.

And then the levels themselves offer their own flavours of unnecessary challenge. The first major wall of difficulty comes in the form of the fourth level, where you're inside the Sandcrawler searching for R2-D2. About half-way through, just after the only checkpoint in the level, you have to get past these laser grids which block you when you get close. You're supposed to get past these by sliding (hold Down and press the jump button), but it's more of an art than a science, and you're liable to get hurt by at least one, if not all of them. And then there's a surprise waiting for you when you get down to the final floor: instant-kill lava, or sand, or something. Normally you can make longer and higher jumps by holding Up and pressing the jump button, but don't do it here or you'll just hit the ceiling and lose distance instead of gaining it. And you're expected to fight a boss over the stuff. And if you do die here, you go all the way back to the middle of the level, just before the aforementioned laser gates. The Sandcrawler scene is not the only tough level in the game -- the one right afterwards has some precision platforming which has claimed many of my lives -- but it does set the tone for the rest of the game.
Vehicle sections punctuate the gameplay experience.
That's not exactly true, however, as some levels break up the side-scrolling action by way of 3D vehicle sections. In these levels, you pilot a landspeeder or X-Wing fighter and gun down a specific number of targets before you're allowed to move on. They use the same perspective-scrolling technology (a.k.a. Mode 7) seen in games like Pilotwings, F-Zero, and Super Mario Kart. It shows effort, which I like, and if I'm in a good mood I would call it fun. But the vehicle controls are a bit too floaty for me to really get into it. It's almost as if these things ride on air or something! (It's funny because that's exactly the case.) And riddle me this: how come we can only change direction by spending jet fuel? The L and R buttons go unused during these levels; if you felt you had no other options, surely they could've been used to turn or strafe, right? Super Star Wars only offers three of these levels, but it's nice to have that variety. I'd say you'll never get bored playing this game, but then I reflect upon how long and monotonous the other levels are and I'm forced to retract that statement.

The soundtrack is appropriately John Williams-y, and the opening cutscene recreates the movie's famous text-scroll admirably. Unfortunately, all the other cutscenes are just scrolling pictures and text; given what the Super Nintendo can do with manipulating images, I felt that more could've been done in this regard. As for in-game storytelling, the levels are all based on events from the movie, albeit expanded for action's sake. As I said with GoldenEye 007, it's always nice to add content to a story you're adapting. So for simply being an adaptation of the source material, Super Star Wars does its job well, and for being a jump-and-shoot platformer, it also does its job well. I can understand if its tough, but mostly fair, difficulty gets to you and prevents you from enjoying it in full. In the end, it's a pretty good game, but play through it again? I'd rather kiss a wookie!

Positives:
+ Subtle improvements to the jump-and-shoot formula.
+ A faithful adaptation of the source material.
+ Occasional vehicle stages.

Negatives:
- Generally intense difficulty.
- Overly long and repetitive levels.
- Floaty controls in the occasional vehicle stages.

Controls: 3 Health Swords out of 5
Design: 3 Health Swords out of 5
Graphics: 4 Health Swords out of 5
Sound: 4 Health Swords out of 5
Value: 3 Health Swords out of 5
The Call: 70% (C+)

You might also like: Contra 3: The Alien Wars, Mega Man X, Super Metroid

Super Star Wars was followed by two sequels: Super Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back in 1993, and Super Star Wars: Return of the Jedi in 1994, both based on the films they were named after, obviously. There aren't enough differences in those games to warrant their own reviews, but I would like to say a few words on them now while I have the opportunity. All those sequels are equally as hard as the original Super Star Wars, but add a password system for saving progress, which is good, and ditch the timer system, which doesn't really matter. Also, Super Empire Strikes Back introduces Force powers, but they're integrated in a pretty stupid way. You can only get them in one level, during the Dagobah swamp scene, and you can only find them by using the "flying" Force power, which you have to pick up in the previous stage! At least you start out with the lot in Super Return of the Jedi, but why bother when you can play as Chewie, who has a spin attack which refuels automatically and keeps you invincible while it's active?  Remember: let the wookie win.  Either way, if you got through the first Super Star Wars intact and found it fun, try these games out as well. But not Battlefront; that game can go deep-throat a lightsaber for all I care.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Game Review: Time Crisis 3


Time Crisis 3
  • Publisher: Namco 
  • Developer: Namco 
  • Release: 
  • Arcade, 2003 
  • PlayStation 2, 21 October 2003 
  • Genre: 3D Action (Rail Shooter) 
  • Players: 1-2 
  • Save: Memory Card (212KB) 
Previously on the SDP, I reviewed Time Crisis II, which codified many well-received conventions which stuck with the rest of the series -- the "Growing the Beard" entry, if you will. So, how do you follow that up? With Time Crisis 3, obviously. It follows much of TCII's example, sharing the same two-player setup and its improvements to the life mechanics, but does it do anything on top of that to set itself apart? Oh, it finds a way.

In TC3, you play as yet another pair of colour-coded VSSE agents, but the circumstances they're dropped into are a bit different from the usual fare. The setting is Astigos Island, a place heavily inspired by Greek islands such as Mykonos and Santorini, and it is currently under invasion by the army of the neighbouring Zagorias Federation, and its general (and the game's final boss), Giorgio Zott. In terms of writing a believable story, that's already a step up from the megalomaniacal villain of, say, TCII. In the various cutscenes, your player-characters also interact with a resistance fighter named Alicia Winston. While she doesn't have any effect on gameplay, this is an improvement from a storytelling perspective, considering that the usual role of women in Time Crisis games is that of the damsel in distress. As arcade-based light-gun rail-shooters go, being a genre filled with excuse plots, I was not expecting the story in TC3 to be as juicy as it was, but there you go. Granted, the voice- and motion-acting don't take themselves seriously enough to match the story, but baby-steps, people!
Shoot soldiers in yellow outfits for special weapon ammo.
Story aside, TC3's unique selling point is its multiple-weapon system. How it works is while you're hiding behind cover, you can pull the trigger on your light-gun to toggle between one of four weapons: the Handgun, the Machine Gun, the Shotgun, and the Grenade Launcher. The catch is that, with the exception of the Handgun, ammo for these weapons is finite, and must be replenished by shooting yellow-garbed enemies (the same ones who gave you bonus time or points in previous games). This is no quick gimmick, fortunately, but rather the game is designed around this additional functionality. On the upside, the ammo-bearing mooks are just frequent enough that you should seldom run into shortages. On the downside, there are also a lot of armoured enemies which take four or five regular shots to dispatch, not to mention all the bosses. Yeah, I get the sneaking suspicion that the game wants me to use all those extra weapons. You can still use your handgun for the whole game if you're a veteran raised on the old games, but your trigger finger will hate you for it.

In addition from the extra efforts put into the story and gameplay, the content has been buffed up considerably, too. Both the arcade and Rescue Mission stories take around 30 minutes to clear, which doesn't sound like much, but is still an improvement for this series. It feels like a longer journey, too, because each stage within each act takes place in a different setting. In act one, for example, you go from a beach, to a wrecked ship, to fighting the boss on a moving Jeep. That said, TC3 seems to have copied its action setpieces from the last game. The first act's boss takes place on a set of moving vehicles, the second act takes place on a train, and the third act includes a mini-boss battle with, of course, Wild Dog. As with the home port of TCII, TC3 lets you unlock unlimited continues and ammo for both your main and sub-weapons through repeated playthroughs and other achievements.
The Rescue Mission mode adds weapon upgrades and sniper levels into the mix.
Previous Time Crisis home ports experimented with either a second story campaign or a set of extra challenges, but the PlayStation 2 version of TC3 has both. In service of the former, beating the game once unlocks the Rescue Mission, a second story starring Alicia, the aforementioned resistance fighter. Much of her story runs parallel to that of the arcade mode, so you get to experience some of the same setpieces from a different angle, but there are new experiences thrown in as well. Every couple of stages, the format switches to a sniper-based setup, where you point your scope at distant targets and move on when they're all gone. These bits finally make use of the GunCon 2's extra functions: whilst zoomed in, you can use the D-pad on the back of the gun to move your field of view around without going back into hiding. The multi-weapon system from the arcade mode also shows up in Rescue Mission, but with a twist. Each of your three sub-weapons has their own experience meter which fills up with use, and when filled, increases that weapon's damage, fire rate, and/or ammo capacity. It's a neat addition which even further encourages the use of your alternate weapons, but I wonder why they couldn't have patched it into the arcade mode as an unlockable extra.

Time Crisis 3 is yet another example of how to do a sequel right. Now that Namco knew what they were doing, they were free to experiment with new mechanics. And not only did they do so, but they managed to design the game around them, for better or worse, so they come across as less a tacked-on gimmick and more an integral part of gameplay. Having a more intriguing story than the usual arcade shooter fare is a bonus, as well. Is it the best light-gun shooter around? I'd love to say so, but there's one other game which makes a strong case for that title, and you'll find out about it soon on the SDP!

Positives:
+ The multi-weapon system.
+ A longer run-time compared to the rest of the series.
+ The "Rescue Mission" mode in the PS2 edition.
+ Probably the best story the series has ever had and will have.

Negatives:
- An over-reliance on armoured enemies.
- The action setpieces seem recycled from Time Crisis II.
- Motion and voice-acting is still a little campy.

Control: 3 special weapons out of 5
Design: 5 special weapons out of 5
Writing: 4 special weapons out of 5
Graphics: 4 special weapons out of 5
Audio: 3 special weapons out of 5
Value: 4 special weapons out of 5
The Call: 85% (B+)

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Game Review: James Bond 007: The Duel


James Bond 007: The Duel
  • Publisher: Domark / Tengen (NA) 
  • Developer: Domark 
  • Release: Sega Genesis/Game Gear, 1993 
  • Genre: 2D Action 
  • Players: 1 
  • Save: None 
Previously on the SDP, I reviewed 007 Legends, which apparently performed so badly in retail that it killed off Activision's license to kill -- I mean, make James Bond video games. So my dreams of the second coming of GoldenEye were killed off -- until I brought up the Google Play store one day, and chanced upon the latest 007-licensed "game" called James Bond: World of Espionage (not worth linking), and my dreams of the second coming of GoldenEye were killed off once again. Glu Mobile, whomever they are, have turned this once-mighty brand into naught but a Clash of Clans clone. Let me guess, does it trade off actual gameplay in favour of micro-transactions? Well, pardon my French, but [verb] that [noun]! ...Oh sorry, I did that wrong.

But as bad as times may seem now, you know what time really sucked for James Bond fans? The early 1990s. The film series was in the midst of a record six-year hiatus, due to a legal battle which I touched upon in my Licence to Kill review. As for what we did get during that time period, well, it wasn't pretty. There was that awful cartoon show James Bond Jr., and the subject of today's article: the video game James Bond 007: The Duel for Sega Genesis. Released in 1993, The Duel is not tied into any one James Bond film or novel, despite the likeness of Timothy Dalton on the box art. Oh, but he does also show up in the title screen below, except...
Dear goodness, Timmy, what have they done to you!? ...Anyway, title screen abominations aside, Mr. Bond's in-game sprite lacks sufficient detail to specifically resemble Timothy Dalton or any of the other actors. For all you know... hold on, let me think of somebody random... got it! For all you know, you could be playing as Andrew Lloyd Webber in this game. But on the subject of graphics, I do appreciate the animations in this game. For example, you can make a little dance out of the animation of Bond passing his gun from one hand to the other (by tapping left or right on the D-pad). The music's kind of cool, too, in a Jan Hammer Miami Vice kind of way. The title screens and pre-game demo use a Genesis-friendly rendition of the James Bond theme, but thankfully it isn't recycled by the rest of the soundtrack, as is the case with GoldenEye, for example. The sound effects do not reach the same high notes, pardon the pun. The most annoying examples are the loud and hollow footfalls and Bond's grunting, which reminds me of the Frankenstein monster grunt Master P makes in his song "I Miss My Homies".

So graphics are one thing, but what is the gameplay like? Well, The Duel is a side-scrolling shooter/platformer. Mechanically, The Duel reminds me most of Rolling Thunder, an arcade side-scrolling shooter made by Namco in 1986. You walk, jump, shoot, and duck to avoid enemy shots. They even share a mechanic where you can hide in doorways, in the (vain) hope of letting an enemy forget about you and pass by. But while Rolling Thunder's control was far too stiff, The Duel goes a bit too far in the opposite direction. It's a little hard to describe, but there are lots of little things that feel off about the controls. Bond has only one jump height, and the horizontal distance is often either too short or too long for the precision platforming you need at the moment. As for walking speed, he's slow for about half a second when you press and hold a direction, but fairly zippy afterwards. And here I thought the Genesis's "blast processing" was just a meaningless marketing boast, but what do I know? Seriously, folks, if you're used to better physics engines like in Super Mario Bros. or Sonic the Hedgehog, you're going to have a bad time.

Gameplay revolves around rescuing hostages.
Your objective in The Duel is to explore each map searching for hostages to free, who all take the form of blonde ladies in little blue dresses. And feminism marches on... without them. Once you've found them all, you're not done yet. You have to find a time bomb, set it, and reach the exit before time runs out. Along the way, you are hounded by guards who will respawn if you take so much as a few steps away after killing them. With the high speed of the gameplay, it can get annoying to be walking along and keep taking damage from enemies you don't have the time to react to. In order to stay alive, you'll most likely take to firing blindly every few steps, which renders the flow of play as smooth as a rollercoaster on the fritz. While you do have limited ammunition, the game is very generous with it, at least. Enemies will always drop spare magazines until you're maxed out, and although there's no indicator of how many rounds you have left in your gun, each mag can last you quite a while.

As it turns out, there are only four levels to this game, not including the final boss arena: a ship, a jungle, a volcano, and a rocket launch site. In other words, the settings of a generic "spy" adventure. If I were feeling generous I would say they are rather sprawling levels for a 16-bit platformer, but either way it's still bloody short by any reasonable standards. And just as you're getting the hang of things on your journey across the island of Dr. No-One In Particular, the third level presents you with a wall of difficulty. For starters, getting around much of the place revolves around waiting for elevator platforms, side-to-side moving platforms, and side-to-side moving platforms that you hang from, which all take so long to get from one end to the other that you may very well assume you've reached a dead end at some point. Some of these platforms add irregularly-timed flame jets which are virtually impossible to avoid, and you have to go through at least one of these gauntlets in order to find all the hostages! And of course, this being a volcano-themed level, most of those scrolling platforms hover over magma pools, which of course results in instant death upon contact by 00 agents. But the third level aside, this game is still unforgiving. You get five lives and five hit points per life, but only one continue. And even those life points can leave you quickly due to the aforementioned steady stream of soldiers. Enemy shots can knock you quite far back, and there's falling damage to deal with, too; even a couple of stories down results in, you guessed it, an instant death. Also, mercy invincibility apparently was one luxury which slipped the programmer's mind. The lack thereof ruined Milon's Secret Castle before, and it ruins The Duel in turn.
Most bosses have a spot you can stand in where they won't hit you.
Every so often you'll come across a level boss plucked from one of James Bond's earlier adventures, like Jaws, Baron Samedi, Mayday, etc. because "Canon? What canon?". There are two problems with these bosses, however. One: they are optional, as it turns out. For example, you can easily skip Baron Samedi in the second level by going through the base instead of over it. And two: with one exception, each and every one of these bosses can be bested without breaking a sweat, by standing in a certain spot where they won't bother to reach you. For example, in the first level you fight Jaws, but if you stand on the left-side stairway in just the right spot, he'll just turn around as if you weren't there. Even the final boss (it's Jaws again) can be conquered in such a manner.

I should mention that there is a Game Gear port of The Duel out there as well, so I will. I don't feel it's worth devoting another full review to, however, so I'll describe it in brief. It's longer than the Genesis version, both in the sense that it has more levels (that's good), but also that the action runs incredibly slowly (that's bad). And for some reason, you can choose to have either music or sound effects play in-game but not both. What? I've played a bundle of Game Gear titles in my days and never once before has being able to play both music and sound effects been an issue! So yeah, don't bother with this version unless you consider yourself a man or woman of patience.

As for the Genesis version, you might need just as much patience to make it through this one. It's got that old-school difficulty schema where they instead of making more levels, they just made it harder to get through them. Still, it's the kind of difficulty where you can still conquer it once you've had practice, and you know where to find the hostages, and where to encounter enemies as they respawn ad nauseum. But still, four levels is still anemic for a 16-bit video game. And I did praise the animations and music a few paragraphs ago, but they do just about nothing to build up the context of being James Bond. As it stands, it's just another licenced hack-job of the side-scroller age, and one best left ignored.

Positives:
+ Fluid character animation.
+ Cool music.

Negatives:
- Generally unforgiving difficulty.
- Awkward motion physics.
- No story to speak of.
- Overly short length.

Control: 1 hostages out of 5
Design: 2 hostages out of 5
Graphics: 3 hostages out of 5
Audio: 4 hostages out of 5
Value: 1 hostage out of 5
The Call: 35% (F)

You might like instead: Rolling Thunder 2, Contra: Hard Corps, Vectorman