Video Game Review: Mutant Mudds Deluxe [PS Vita/PS3]

Mutant Mudds Deluxe [PS Vita/PS3]

Mutant Mudds Deluxe
System: PS Vita/PS3 (also on PC, Wii U and 3DS)
Genre: Platformer
Developer: Renegade Kid
Publisher: Renegade Kid
Price: $9.99 (cross-buy on PSN)
Release Date: December 17, 2013

Everything about Mutant Mudds Deluxe, the latest game from Renegade Kid, screams “retro”. The delightfully pixelated graphics, the pitch-perfect chiptune soundtrack and the old school platforming gameplay all look, sound and feel familiar. Yet Mutant Mudds Deluxe is so well-refined that it can hold its own against some of the classics that it is so clearly inspired by.

Originally a Nintendo eShop release, this “12-bit” title stands out thanks to its unique three-plane approach. While the core of the game still revolves around the traditional 2D side-scrolling format, the main protagonist, a courageous young fellow named Max, can leap from one layer to the next. Through jump points scattered within each level, Max can maneuever between the foreground and background of the screen. Each layer has its own items and enemies, making this type of inter-dimensional traveling critical to maxing out each area.

Mutant Mudds Deluxe [PS Vita/PS3]

Since this is the deluxe edition, there are a whopping 80 levels included. Each level has exactly 100 objects to collect, as well as a four-minute time limit. The objects in turn are used as a form of currency in order to get new upgrades for Max. Originally armed with just a meager water gun and a short-burst jetpack, he can eventually acquire additions that allow for increased capacities for both. The best upgrade, however, is the ability to perform super jumps, which makes it a bit easier to maneuver past tricky enemies and/or spike deathtraps.

Each level requires strong dexterity and a bit of patience. Max doesn’t handle as fast as most platforming characters, so his jumping and floating need to be especially well-timed. There are a plethora of evil enemies out there, including some who cannot be wiped out by Max’s water gun. As the levels progress, so do their difficulties; many of the later ones pack quite the challenge. Thankfully, each level does contain a checkpoint, making the frequent deaths somewhat less painful. For all of the masochists out there, rest easy: there is an option to get rid of the checkpoints as well.

Mutant Mudds Deluxe [PS Vita/PS3]

The levels are all brilliantly designed, and each one has an alternate path that can only be found by using specific upgrades. There’s also a particularly challenging batch of ghost levels with unhittable enemies that can be unlocked over time. There is no shortage of content here — you’ll certainly get your money’s worth for $9.99.

Every now and then I get the itch to play an old school platformer, and Mutant Mudds Deluxe absolutely satisfied this desire. This version has the advantage of being a cross-buy and cross-save title, but I found it to work best in short bursts on the PS Vita. No matter which platform you prefer, this is a top-notch throwback to the challenging days of yore.

8/10

 
(A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review.)

Advertisements

Video Game Review: Stick It to The Man! [PS Vita/PS3]

Stick It to The Man! [PS Vita/PS3]

Stick It to The Man!
System: PS Vita/PS3
Genre: Adventure/Platformer
Developer: Zoink Games
Publisher: Ripstone
Price: $12.99 (cross-buy on PSN)
Release Date: December 3, 2013

It seems like every Tuesday there is a fun, new indie title that hits the Playstation Vita. Last week was especially fruitful, as it brought about the strategy RPG, Rainbow Moon, and Stick It to The Man!, a bizarre and oftentimes hilarious adventure from Ripstone.

In the aptly titled Stick It to The Man!, you play as Ray Doewood, a hard hat tester who gets knocked into a coma thanks to a freak accident. His world is turned upside down when he awakens to find a large, 16-foot pink spaghetti arm sticking out of his head. To make matters even stranger, his newfound appendage allows Ray to read people’s minds. This new talent becomes especially useful when Ray finds himself on the run from a mysterious chain-smoking figure known only as The Man. It’s your job to “stick it” to The Man while also saving your girlfriend from his evil clutches.

With dialogue penned by Adventure Time writer, Ryan North, the game’s wacky storyline never ceases to amuse. During my playthrough, I ran across all sorts of people — a pregnant man, a zombie jazz band, a woman with a white teeth fetish, and even Santa Claus himself. Best of all, every single one of these characters can have their minds read. In the creative world of Stick It to The Man!, anything seems possible.

Stick It to The Man! [2013, PS Vita]

The gameplay is a mix of platforming and point-and-click adventure. The platforming parts aren’t all that difficult, although there are a few tricky bits where Ray has to swing past enemies (usually The Man’s henchmen) in order to get to the next area. The adventure elements come into play when Ray needs to use his pink spaghetti arm. The Vita version takes advantage of the system’s touch controls by allowing you to physically touch the areas where you want to use this arm. This is much easier than using the right analog stick, especially since you will be using Ray’s spaghetti arm quite a bit.

Each of the game’s ten chapters are loaded with puzzles, most of which require some sly mind reading to solve. Occasionally, after hearing someone’s thoughts, a sticker will pop up in their thought bubble. Ray can then grab this sticker with his giant arm and apply it somewhere else that might make sense. Certain buildings and other parts of the screen can also be pulled back (again by using the touch screen), revealing more characters and objects that can be used to solve puzzles.

The solutions aren’t immediately obvious, especially since so much of the game’s demeanor is offbeat with seemingly random situations, but they do make sense in the end. There is also a helpful map that points out possible areas of interest, thereby lowering the chances of getting stuck. There were still a few areas where I was seriously scratching my head as to what to do, but a little bit of trial-and-error was usually enough to get me by.

Stick It to The Man! [PS Vita/PS3]

One area where Stick It to The Man! really excels is its overall presentation. The world is set in a beautiful 2D paper environment that has an almost Burton-esque aesthetic. On the audio side, a great deal of attention was put into the voice acting — every single one of the 100+ characters has their own dialogue, all of which is well done. The game’s snazzy jazz soundtrack is also a good fit for the overall style, as is the title screen’s inclusion of the 60s psychedelic jam, “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)“.

Now, for all of its positives, there are a couple of minor issues worth noting. For one, on the Vita’s smaller screen it can be occasionally difficult to see the small white outline where a sticker can be placed. There were times where I would waltz right on past an object that I could have used to solve a puzzle, unbeknownst to me. I also noticed some sporadic drops in audio, where the dialogue would cut out for a split second, thereby creating a slight delay. Hardly anything game-breaking, but issues nonetheless.

Since Stick It to The Man! is a cross-buy title, one purchase nets both the Vita and PS3 versions. For fans of adventure titles or just quirky humor in general, this is well worth a look. The 5-6 hour campaign is the perfect length for a title of this nature, and it’s quite easy to pick up and play. There really isn’t anything like it on the Playstation Network.

8/10

 
(A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review.)

Video Game Review: Stick It to The Man! [PS Vita/PS3]

Stick It to The Man! [PS Vita/PS3]

Stick It to The Man!
System: PS Vita/PS3
Genre: Adventure/Platformer
Developer: Zoink Games
Publisher: Ripstone
Price: $12.99 (cross-buy on PSN)
Release Date: December 3, 2013

It seems like every Tuesday there is a fun, new indie title that hits the Playstation Vita. Last week was especially fruitful, as it brought about the strategy RPG, Rainbow Moon, and Stick It to The Man!, a bizarre and oftentimes hilarious adventure from Ripstone.

In the aptly titled Stick It to The Man!, you play as Ray Doewood, a hard hat tester who gets knocked into a coma thanks to a freak accident. His world is turned upside down when he awakens to find a large, 16-foot pink spaghetti arm sticking out of his head. To make matters even stranger, his newfound appendage allows Ray to read people’s minds. This new talent becomes especially useful when Ray finds himself on the run from a mysterious chain-smoking figure known only as The Man. It’s your job to “stick it” to The Man while also saving your girlfriend from his evil clutches.

With dialogue penned by Adventure Time writer, Ryan North, the game’s wacky storyline never ceases to amuse. During my playthrough, I ran across all sorts of people — a pregnant man, a zombie jazz band, a woman with a white teeth fetish, and even Santa Claus himself. Best of all, every single one of these characters can have their minds read. In the creative world of Stick It to The Man!, anything seems possible.

Stick It to The Man! [2013, PS Vita]

The gameplay is a mix of platforming and point-and-click adventure. The platforming parts aren’t all that difficult, although there are a few tricky bits where Ray has to swing past enemies (usually The Man’s henchmen) in order to get to the next area. The adventure elements come into play when Ray needs to use his pink spaghetti arm. The Vita version takes advantage of the system’s touch controls by allowing you to physically touch the areas where you want to use this arm. This is much easier than using the right analog stick, especially since you will be using Ray’s spaghetti arm quite a bit.

Each of the game’s ten chapters are loaded with puzzles, most of which require some sly mind reading to solve. Occasionally, after hearing someone’s thoughts, a sticker will pop up in their thought bubble. Ray can then grab this sticker with his giant arm and apply it somewhere else that might make sense. Certain buildings and other parts of the screen can also be pulled back (again by using the touch screen), revealing more characters and objects that can be used to solve puzzles.

The solutions aren’t immediately obvious, especially since so much of the game’s demeanor is offbeat with seemingly random situations, but they do make sense in the end. There is also a helpful map that points out possible areas of interest, thereby lowering the chances of getting stuck. There were still a few areas where I was seriously scratching my head as to what to do, but a little bit of trial-and-error was usually enough to get me by.

Stick It to The Man! [PS Vita/PS3]

One area where Stick It to The Man! really excels is its overall presentation. The world is set in a beautiful 2D paper environment that has an almost Burton-esque aesthetic. On the audio side, a great deal of attention was put into the voice acting — every single one of the 100+ characters has their own dialogue, all of which is well done. The game’s snazzy jazz soundtrack is also a good fit for the overall style, as is the title screen’s inclusion of the 60s psychedelic jam, “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)“.

Now, for all of its positives, there are a couple of minor issues worth noting. For one, on the Vita’s smaller screen it can be occasionally difficult to see the small white outline where a sticker can be placed. There were times where I would waltz right on past an object that I could have used to solve a puzzle, unbeknownst to me. I also noticed some sporadic drops in audio, where the dialogue would cut out for a split second, thereby creating a slight delay. Hardly anything game-breaking, but issues nonetheless.

Since Stick It to The Man! is a cross-buy title, one purchase nets both the Vita and PS3 versions. For fans of adventure titles or just quirky humor in general, this is well worth a look. The 5-6 hour campaign is the perfect length for a title of this nature, and it’s quite easy to pick up and play. There really isn’t anything like it on the Playstation Network.

8/10

 
(A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review.)

Video Game Review: Proteus [PS Vita/PS3]

Proteus [PS Vita/PS3]

Proteus
System: PS Vita/PS3 (also on PC and Mac OS)
Genre: Open World
Developer: Ed Key, David Kanaga, Curve Studios
Publisher: Curve Studios
Price: $13.99 (cross-buy on PSN)
Release Date: October 29, 2013

Labeling Proteus as a video game is a bit of a misnomer. Sure, it is playable on gaming systems (the PSN release is cross-buy for both PS3 and Vita) and there are a handful of trophies to obtain, but that’s about where the familiarity ends. This is more of an experience, one completely unique in the world of gaming.

Proteus is all about exploration from a first-person perspective. Every new “campaign” places you near a randomly-generated island, and your only task is to explore it as you see fit. There is no proper end goal or set destination — what you get out of your experience is entirely up to you.

Proteus [PS Vita/PS3]

Every island is filled with hills, trees and mountains. Leaves float through the air, flowers sway in the wind, the sun rises, the sun sets. It rains, it snows. Small animals — which resemble frogs and rabbits — hop through the forest, hitting musical notes every time they hit the ground. You can’t really interact with them, but you can chase them until something else catches your eye.

Walking throughout the vast, colorful island produces new sounds with nearly every step. Ambient music plays in the background, creating a beautifully tranquil atmosphere, and different areas change the tune in ways that only enhance the mood. It’s as if you are traveling through your very own musical forest in which even random objects alter the soundscape.

Proteus [PS Vita/PS3]

The pixel art style used for the graphics provides a surprisingly lush environment. The visuals, while decidely retro in appearance, actually work quite well in creating alluring scenery. The vibrant colorscape certainly helps in this regard, as do the changes in weather and seasons. Watching the snow fall during winter is especially serene.

A single trip through the island and its seasons can be completed in an hour or less. However, each visit provides an entirely new experience, so this isn’t exactly a one-and-done endeavor. For the Playstation Network release, the inclusion of cryptic trophies strengthens each playthrough, as the descriptions are vague enough that it can take some serious thinking to figure out what to do.

Proteus [PS Vita/PS3]

All of this culminates in a truly special, fantasy-like adventure. The $13.99 price point is a bit steep, but if you have a good imagination and are willing to step outside the boundaries of conventional gaming, Proteus may be just what you’re looking for.

8/10

 
(A copy of this game was provided for review.)

Video Game Review: Lone Survivor: The Director’s Cut [PS Vita/PS3]

Lone Survivor: The Director's Cut [PS Vita/PS3]

Lone Survivor: The Director’s Cut
System: PS Vita/PS3 (also on PC, Mac OS X and Linux)
Genre: Survival Horror
Developer: Superflat Games, Curve Studios
Publisher: Superflat Games
Price: $12.99 (cross-buy on PSN)
Release Date: September 24, 2013

In a world where most modern horror games rely heavily on action and frantic combat, Lone Survivor: The Director’s Cut is a breath of fresh air. This is a game that manages to crank up the suspense while providing an intense, creepy atmosphere, all while being presented in a pixelated 2D environment.

The game tells the story of You, an unnamed protagonist (in his words, his name “doesn’t really matter anymore”) who is seemingly the lone survivor after a disease wiped out the rest of the population. Tired of being stranded in his apartment, he decides to head out in hopes of finding someone, anyone, who might still be alive in this post-apocalyptic world.

Lone Survivor: The Director's Cut [PS Vita/PS3]

Of course, our hero isn’t really alone. Just outside of his apartment, he finds a truly repulsive, faceless monster whose presence is punctuated by piercing static and muted screams. Initially armed with nothing but a flashlight, the only way to get past this ghastly creature is to hide in the shadows and attempt to sneak past it. This is a common occurrence, as the monsters become more and more frequent in their appearances. Eventually, you’re able to get a gun, providing an alternate method to deal with enemies, but ammo is so scarce that it is often best to be as stealthy as possible.

Much of Lone Survivor takes place in the dark, and strategic use of the flashlight is necessary in order to find your way around. Again, supplies are scarce, so it’s best to conserve the battery. This can make it tricky when scoping out an unfamiliar location, as even the slightest glimpse of light will cast the creatures into a frenzy, chasing you until you reach a new room.

Lone Survivor: The Director's Cut [PS Vita/PS3]

Perhaps even more frightening than the relentless enemies is the rapidly deteriorating mental health of the protagonist. In order to stay in good (or at least acceptable) shape, you must eat often while also getting a proper amount of sleep. There are food items scattered throughout the in-game world, some good (fruit salad), some bad (squid on a stick), but all are beneficial for keeping your stomach full. There are no health bars or other HUD reminders — the only way to know if you need to sleep or eat is through random text prompts. Wait too long to do either and you will begin to hallucinate, which is never a good thing. You can also talk to plants and stuffed animals to keep your sanity, and if you play your cards right, you might even be able to befriend a *real* cat.

The frequent reminders to eat and get some rest only add to the already riveting tension, and with a possibly insane protagonist, it’s difficult to tell what’s real and what’s merely in his head. As such, the game has an intriguing cerebral element, becoming something of a psychological thriller in its own right.

Lone Survivor: The Director's Cut [PS Vita/PS3]

Now, while the game absolutely succeeds in providing a haunting atmosphere, it does have some noticeable issues with its core gameplay. For one, there is a lot of backtracking. In order to save progress, you have to frequently go back to your apartment and rest, although this is helped somewhat by teleporting mirrors scattered throughout the building. Many of the doors are also locked at first, requiring you to explore and find their keys in order to get through them. This can be a tedious affair at times, especially when you find yourself going back and forth between the same two locations. There are also concerns with the game’s combat, as using the gun feels clunky and occasionally unresponsive. The gun can be aimed in three directions, but it’s difficult to actually fire off a good shot in the way you want to. This does make enemy encounters even more disturbing, though it feels like kind of a cheap tactic to do so.

Still, flaws aside, this is a very unique horror experience that is an especially excellent fit for the PS Vita. As the Director’s Cut, this is the definitive edition of Lone Survivor, and it includes new locations, dialogue, music, endings and even a New Game+ mode. The campaign can be finished in just 3-5 hours, but multiple playthroughs are warranted in order to discover new endings and learn more about the game’s narrative. As such, there is a solid amount of value here for horror buffs. Just make sure to play this in the dark and with headphones on… if you dare.

8/10

 
(A copy of this game was provided for review.)

Video Game Review: Spelunky [PS Vita/PS3]

Spelunky [PS Vita/PS3]

Spelunky
System: PS Vita/PS3 (also on PC and Xbox 360)
Genre: Action/Adventure, Platformer
Developer: Derek Yu, Blitworks (PSN)
Publisher: Mossmouth
Price: $14.99 (cross-buy on PSN)
Release Date: August 27, 2013

Spelunky is one of the most infuriating games I have played all year.

It’s also ridiculously fun and insanely addicting.

Originally a 2009 PC game, the 2D cave-exploring sensation known as Spelunky received an enhanced release on the Xbox 360 last summer. Last month this upgraded edition made its way back to PC while also hitting the Playstation Network for the first time. The PSN release happens to be a cross-buy title, meaning one purchase nets you both the PS3 and Vita versions. For the sake of this review, I focused on the Vita, and for good reason: Spelunky is especially efficient in bite-sized gaming sessions (and it’s only ~100 MB!).

The game’s general concept revolves around you, an unnamed adventurer, who must make his way from top-to-bottom in a series of randomized dungeons, all while collecting loot and upgrades along the way. Each level is full of a wide variety of dangers. The first world, the mines, is filled with snakes, spiders and spikes, just to name a few obstacles. Falling into the spikes results in instant death, forcing you to start all the way back from the beginning. Later worlds, such as the jungle and an ice cave, present even graver difficulties.

Spelunky [PS Vita/PS3]

Every new game starts you off with four hearts (touching an enemy = loss of one heart), four bombs and four ropes. The bombs are incredibly helpful for paving your own way through each area, and they can be used to wipe out enemies and find hidden treasure. The ropes are used to get to locations unreachable by jumping, or to descend lower without having to take a huge fall. More of these items can be found within each level, and occasionally a shopkeeper even shows up with new upgrades for sale. His items are random, and they range from machetes to jetpacks to cameras, all of which can be crucial survival tools.

Each level has its own little quirks and secrets, and because of its randomized nature, you never know what you’re going to get. There is one constant, however; hidden somewhere in each level is a damsel in distress (which can amusingly be turned into a pug in the game’s settings). Rescue her and you’ll get one extra heart added to your life — these are critical to your success, and it is almost always worth the effort to save her.

Spelunky [PS Vita/PS3]

Spelunky has so many secrets, such as hidden rooms and characters, that there is *always* something new to discover. I’ll never forget the first time I stumbled upon the black market — a new room where seemingly every item in the game can be purchased. Too bad I didn’t have much gold on me at the time.

Now, as this is a roguelike title, the permanent deaths and constant restarts can be an exercise in patience. The obscene difficulty can be a huge turn off at first, but if you stick with it, the game is immensely rewarding. I can’t say I have ever played a game that made me jump for joy just for being able to reach the second world! It takes time to learn the behavior of every enemy, as while as how to avoid booby traps, but with every game you will get better. The game never feels cheap, as everything acts as it is supposed to. Enemies can fall to their death onto a bed of spikes just like you. It’s because of these consistencies that Spelunky truly works — it doesn’t resort to cheap tactics to raise its difficulty.

Outside of the main adventure mode, there is an option to play deathmatches. This throws four characters into a cramped environment where they fight to the death by throwing bombs, using powerups, etc. It’s basically a throwaway addition to the game, but it can be a fun diversion with friends.

Spelunky [PS Vita/PS3]

One nice perk about the PSN edition is that the game can be played LAN-style between the Vita and PS3. This means that two players can do a co-op campaign with one person using the Vita, and the other playing on the PS3. It’s an incredibly cool addition, and it’s something I would love to see other games do. There is no online multiplayer, unfortunately, but that’s not a huge loss given the game’s splendid local options.

In the end, Spelunky is a clever little title that works perfectly on the Vita. Its addictive exploration gameplay and randomized dungeons offer seemingly endless replay value, and its small download size means it will earn a permanent place on my memory card. There is a demo available so you can try this for yourself, but chances are you will get hooked just like I did.

9/10

 
(A copy of this game was provided for review.)

Video Game Review: Divekick [PS3, Vita, PC]

Divekick [PS3, Vita, PC]

Divekick
System: PS Vita/PS3 (also on PC)
Genre: 2D Fighting
Developer: One True Game Studios & Iron Galaxy Studios
Publisher: Iron Galaxy Studios
Price: $9.99 (cross-buy on PSN)
Release Date: August 20, 2013

Divekick is simultaneously a parody and an homage to the fighting game genre. What started as an innocent joke — what if there was a fighting game where all you could do is dive and kick? — quickly grew legs and became a sensation on its own. Now this “minimalist” fighter has been unleashed onto the PC, PS3 and Vita, giving the general gaming public a chance to see what all the fuss is about.

The result? A bona fide cult hit.

Divekick‘s concept is kind of genius, really. While there is a good-sized community of hardcore fighting game fans, there are even more who steer away from the genre due to the overwhelming complexity of many modern titles (myself included). By stripping away the gameplay to its absolute purest form, Iron Galaxy Studios have created an immediately accessible game that anyone and everyone can play.

Divekick [PS3, Vita, PC]

There are only two buttons to memorize: dive and kick. Essentially, dive is a jump button, causing the player to ascend vertically on the screen. While in the air, he can perform a kick. There are also special moves that can be used by pressing the two buttons together. Hitting your opponent with any kick variation will end the round. The first player to win five rounds is the winner of the match. That’s basically all you need to know.

What’s amazing is that there is a startling amount of depth to these seemingly simple encounters. An example of this is the game’s versions of “headshots”. If you manage to kick an opponent in the head, they become concussed for the next round, causing them to move incredibly slower than usual. This potentially creates a huge disadvantage for your opponent, making them easier targets for your next devastating kick (or headshot).

By only allowing for two moves, everyone is on the same level. In a way, each round feels like a poker game. You are constantly watching your opponent, learning their mannerisms and trying to outsmart them. Sure, some matter of luck is involved, but there will likely never be a situation where you feel you are outmanned from the start. That can’t be said for other fighting games.

Divekick [PS3, Vita, PC]

Divekick has a total of thirteen characters, each one with their own style of play. Fighting game buffs will recognize most of these options as spoofs of characters from other titles. In fact, there are countless in-jokes scattered throughout the game, most of which will go over the heads of those not in the know. That’s not to say this is only funny to fans of the genre; that’s not the case at all. Some bits are just generally amusing, such as Uncle Sensei’s “pro tips” that display on loading screens. This is a game that does not take itself seriously at all, and it’s all the better for it.

As far as modes go, Divekick is incredibly basic. There are brief, nonsensical story modes for each character, but they grow tedious after finishing one or two of them. The real heart of the game comes in the form of its versus and online modes. Nothing compares to playing against friends locally or against random people online. Each match, when paired against someone else, is a tense, adrenaline-filled affair. Best yet, they are over relatively quickly, working perfectly as a quick go-to party option. Divekick + friends + booze = one hell of a gaming night.

Divekick [PS3, Vita, PC]

The PSN version of the game is cross-buy, meaning one purchase nets you both the PS3 and Vita versions. I played both extensively for this review, and I noticed no differences in terms of content. The Vita even has a unique way to play local versus matches — one player uses the d-pad for their two buttons, whereas the other uses the right buttons (i.e. square and X). I had a harder time finding ranked matches on the Vita, but that could have been an aberration.

Divekick is an incredibly addictive little game, and it gets my vote for the best party title this year. While some may scoff at the notion of a two-button fighting game, I am willing to bet that most will get hooked when they actually sit down to play it. That’s what happened to me. Absolutely worth a look for everyone, not just fighting game fans.

8/10

 
(A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review.)

Video Game Review: Dragon’s Crown [PS3/PS Vita]

Dragon's Crown [PS3/PS Vita]

Dragon’s Crown
System: PS Vita/PS3
Genre: Action RPG beat ’em up
Developer: Vanillaware & Atlus
Publisher: Atlus
Price: $49.99 (PS3), $39.99 (Vita)
Release Date: August 6, 2013

Dragon’s Crown is a stylish throwback to the old school beat ’em ups that once ruled the gaming world (think Golden Axe). In a genre that has struggled to maintain relevance in recent years, this latest offering from Vanillaware & Atlus feels like a breath of fresh air. By adding RPG elements to the classic brawler gameplay, the end result is one of the most enjoyable (and surprisingly in-depth) gaming experiences of the year.

The core of the game consists of side-scrolling hack ‘n slash action. There are six different characters — Fighter, Amazon, Wizard, Elf, Dwarf and Sorceress — to choose from, all of which are completely unique and offer their own brand of gameplay. The most popular choices seem to be the Amazon and Sorceress, but I opted for the Dwarf for my first playthrough. What can I say — I was feeling nostalgic for Gilius Thunderhead from the Golden Axe series.

The Dwarf’s biggest asset is his massive strength, and he has the ability to pick up enemies and throw them across the screen. These traits are quite useful, and they work especially well when paired with some of the other characters. The game is at its best when four players, all of different classes, are working together to annihilate whatever is on screen.

Dragon's Crown [PS Vita/PS3, 2013]

Each character can be upgraded with new combat techniques, increased health, etc. by gaining XP through the game’s campaign. There are a total of nine stages that can eventually be unlocked to play through at your whim. This may not sound like much, but each level has alternate routes, hidden rooms and diverse enemies, making each trip feel different than the last.

The stages are also wildly distinct from each other in terms of design. Underground caves, abandoned temples and fortresses are just a handful of locations you will come across. These areas always have randomized content in the form of both loot and enemies, and they culminate with some truly epic boss battles. These big fights are a major highlight, and they make each playthrough immensely rewarding.

Another addition meant to encourage multiple romps through each level comes in the form of side quests. These can be anything from killing a certain amount of an enemy type to finding a specific hidden room that is only accessible via rune magic. These are all completely optional missions, but they deliver huge XP bonuses and are usually quite fun to seek out.

Dragon's Crown [PS Vita/PS3, 2013]

As mentioned before, the levels can be played through at your discretion, but only after clearing the initial run through the first half of the game’s storyline. Once this is complete, however, the game really opens up, and it unlocks the ability to play online. This is where Dragon’s Crown positively shines.

While the game can be played — and enjoyed — solo, it’s even better when playing with others. The AI partners are decent, but nothing beats working together with a few friends. When connected online, other players can jump in and out of your campaign, immediately taking over control of an AI character. You also have the ability to join a random room and help others. The transition to online play is seamless, and it’s incredibly easy to sync up with friends.

Now, this wouldn’t be a proper Dragon’s Crown review without discussing its controversial art style. Ever since the game was announced two years ago, there has been a bit of an uproar in some circles about the hyper-sexualized visuals. This is an understandable concern, especially since the Amazon and Sorceress characters in particular both constantly seem on the verge of busting out of their tops. On the flip side, the men are mostly covered from head-to-toe, aside from the beefy, bare-chested Dwarf. Although I agree that some of the women are ridiculously designed, the overall art style is absolutely gorgeous. The hand-drawn visuals are stunning with smooth animations, and they remind me a lot of classic fantasy illustrations. I do not have a problem with this artwork — in fact, this is easily one of the most beautiful beat ’em ups I have ever come across — but of course, your mileage may vary.

Dragon's Crown [PS Vita/PS3, 2013]

Dragon’s Crown is available for both PS3 and PS Vita, and the two versions are nearly identical. The Vita version suffers from occasional slowdown during some of the more intense battles, but this is outweighed by the nifty touch screen features. The PS3 requires using the right analog stick to point a cursor on screen, whereas the Vita only requires a simple touch. The bite-sized levels are also perfect for the handheld, and I found myself playing on the Vita more often. However, the PS3 does have an advantage in that offers local co-op. Unfortunately, this isn’t a Cross Buy (or Cross Play) title, but characters can still be shared between the two systems using the cloud save function. You can’t go wrong with either version, so it comes down to a matter of preference (and convenience).

Dragon’s Crown isn’t exactly re-inventing the wheel here, but it is offering a refreshing and incredibly well-executed spin on one of the classic gaming genres. With so many quests and ways to play each stage, there is plenty of replay value. Completing a campaign with one character unlocks a brand new one at an increased difficulty — all things considered, there are upwards of 120 hours of potential gaming here if you were to play through every difficulty level with every character. And with such infectious, easy to pick up and play gameplay, that is certainly possible for any dedicated gamer. Don’t be surprised if this shows up in my Top 5 list at the end of the year.

9/10

 
(A copy of this game was provided for review.)

Video Game Review: Stealth Inc. [PS Vita/PS3]

Stealth Inc. [PS Vita/PS3]

Stealth Inc.: A Clone in the Dark
System: PS Vita/PS3 (crossbuy) [also on PC, Mac, Linux and Android as Stealth Bastard Deluxe]
Genre: Stealth puzzle platformer
Developer: Curve Studios
Distributor: Curve Studios
Release Date: July 23, 2013

Stealth Inc has the distinction of being a stealth game that doesn’t really play like one. Most stealth games move at a laborious pace that requires sneaking around, waiting for guards to turn their backs, and hiding until the coast is clear. In Stealth Inc, there is still a lot of lurking in the shadows, but the game moves at a much brisker rate than you might have come to expect.

It’s also one tough bastard.

Stealth Inc scraps the idea of having a plot in favor of just throwing you — an unnamed “clone” — into action. This clone, with an appearance not unlike a South Park character, is forced to undergo a series of tests presented by an unknown overseer. This mysterious figure mocks the test subject when he dies by writing words of belittlement on the walls, but he also shares the occasional helpful tip to get through a tough area. These random blurbs help lighten the mood, a much-welcomed diversion from the difficult gameplay.

Stealth Inc. [PS Vita, 2013]

Split into eight chapters of ten levels each, the main campaign offers bite-sized puzzle-platforming action. In theory, each level can be completed in anywhere from 30 seconds to just a couple minutes. In reality, these can take much, much longer, as a lot of trial-and-error is required to solve the myriad of puzzles thrown in your direction.

In order to progress through an area, the clone must hack computers and push switches, all while dodging security cameras, lasers, patrolling enemies and other hellish contraptions. Each level is well-designed and offers generous checkpoints, but many of the puzzles are real head-scratchers. Certain areas can be incredibly frustrating — there were multiple times where I needed to step away just to clear my head — but there is a huge sense of accomplishment in solving some of the trickier bits. In other words, patience is required, but those elusive “Eureka!” moments make the grievances worth it.

In many ways, Stealth Inc reminds me of the highly-regarded indie title, Super Meat Boy. The fast-paced platforming action is very similar, right down to finding hard-to-reach optional items in clever locations. The stealth aspect adds a refreshing twist to this tried-and-true formula, and the brief levels make this an easy game to pick up and play.

Stealth Inc. [PS Vita/PS3]

One major plus is that there is a lot of potential for replay value here. For the extra-adventurous, each level can be replayed in hopes of getting the desired S-Rank high score. These in turn can unlock new levels and bonus suits, the latter of which can help shave off precious seconds in a time trial. There is also a nifty level editor, though unfortunately user-created levels cannot be shared at this time (the developers have stated that this feature will be patched in soon).

This game also has the benefit of being a Cross Buy title, meaning that one $9.99 purchase grants you access to both the PS3 and PS Vita versions. For this review, I focused entirely on the Vita experience, and this type of game is perfect for on-the-go action.

Stealth Inc offers plenty of bang for its buck, and its stealth-tinged gameplay is unique enough to make it stand out in the ever-expanding indie market. It helps to be a glutton for punishment with this one, but those who stick with it will find this to be a very gratifying experience.

8/10

 
(A copy of this game was provided for review.)

Video Game Review: The Last of Us [PS3]

The Last of Us [PS3]

The Last of Us
System: Playstation 3
Genre: Action-Adventure/Survival Horror
Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Release Date: June 14, 2013

The Last of Us is the type of game that seemingly comes around only once per console cycle. Naughty Dog, creators of Crash Bandicoot, Jak & Daxter and Uncharted, have perfected their craft over the years, and this is their most mature effort yet.

It is also their magnum opus.

Set in a post-apocalyptic United States in 2033, the game revolves around two central characters: a grizzled Texan named Joel, and a 14-year-old girl named Ellie. A nasty disease (similar to the real-life cordyceps fungi) has spread across the country, turning humans into Infected. The two of them are brought together by forces outside of their control, and Joel is given the responsibility of protecting young Ellie as they attempt to survive amidst the chaos of the wasteland.

The game shares many tropes with those of post-apocalyptic films and books (Cormac McCarthy’s work in particular is a big influence), but everything is brought together in a way that makes the overall experience still feel fresh and engaging.

The Last of Us [PS3]

It starts with the Infected.

These aren’t your average “zombies”, however. They run through four stages of infection, with each one getting progressively worse. Some attack in bunches, while others stalk you in the dark, waiting for the right moment to attack.

It’s stage three where the Infected — called Clickers at this point — get *really* sickening. This is when the fungus completely take over the human face, rendering them blind while also extremely sensitive to sound. One hit from them is insta-death. Their grotesque appearance is only enhanced by their constant “clicking” sounds — this is the stuff of nightmares.

Stage four is even more horrifying. I won’t ruin the surprise there.

The Last of Us [PS3]

Coming across a large area filled with various stages of Infected is often downright scary. I found myself dying — a lot — and would frequently have to re-think my strategy for surviving that section. Should I take out one or two Clickers and then run like hell? Should I throw a couple of nail bombs on the ground and then try to lure a large group into the subsequent explosion? Or should I just avoid combat altogether and try to sneak past everyone?

The latter quickly became my preferred method of fighting. Combat is not easy, especially since ammo and other tools are scarce. This game is all about survival, and there will be many times that require improvisation in order to get to the next area. This becomes especially important once non-infected human enemies enter the picture — they are arguably even more dangerous since many carry shotguns and other lethal weapons. On multiple occasions (when I was unable to sneak past), I would run out of ammo only to frantically attempt to craft a nail bomb or other device to help even the odds. This really makes you maximize all potential resources.

The Last of Us [PS3]

I suspect that avoiding most combat will be the preferred method of some gamers simply because of the ghastly displays of violence that ensue. Finishing off an enemy can be absolutely brutal, and the violence is very matter-of-fact. There were countless times when my jaw would drop simply because I could not believe the game got that graphic.

Then again, it’s in this brutality that some of Naughty Dog’s attention to detail shines through. There are a number of little things that impressed me throughout the campaign, such as Ellie’s teenage ramblings or her random whistling, or the subtle Southern terminology from Joel.

Perhaps most impressive is just how immersive The Last of Us truly is. There is minimal loading, and the transitions between cutscenes and actual gameplay are seamless. There are also no obnoxious trophy pop-ups to remind you that you’re playing a game — most of them are related to finishing the campaign, and they pop up after the credits. This, in particular, was an excellent touch.

This is a game that relies heavily on its narrative, and its characters are incredibly well-written — an impressive achievement, considering how much dialogue there is in the game. The voice acting (with Troy Baker as Joel, and Ashley Johnson as Ellie) is fantastic, and when the game is at its peak, this feels like a high quality TV show or movie. At the very least, this is a frank reminder that video games sure have come a hell of a long way over the years.

The Last of Us [PS3]

The single player campaign — which lasts around 15 hours, give or take a couple depending on how much you explore — is one of the best in years, but as an added bonus there is also a surprisingly enticing multiplayer feature. Rather than feeling tacked-on like many, many other like-minded games, it seems a significant amount of effort was put into this.

The multiplayer mode has you pick from one of two factions — Hunters or Fireflies (both of whom are integral to the single player campaign) — and then forces you to stay in that group until you either finish the multiplayer story or have your clan entirely wiped out. Clans can be built up by winning matches (in variations of Team Deathmatch), collecting supplies and completing objectives.

Teamwork is imperative to success online. Attempting to “run and gun” your way to the top of the leaderboards is a recipe for disaster. Just like in the single player campaign, ammo and supplies are scarce. It is important to work together as a team, especially since everyone shares the same goal: to improve their faction.

But really, the multiplayer is just the icing on the cake. It’s a fun little diversion, but the single player campaign is where the game truly shines.

Simply put, The Last of Us is a major accomplishment in the world of gaming, and it has effectively set a benchmark for all games to come. When people look back at this console cycle, this is one of the select few games that will be labeled as the best of its generation.

10/10