Video Game Review: Lumines [PSP, 2005]

Lumines [PSP, 2005]

Lumines
System: PSP (later on mobile, PC, XBLA, PSN, PS2, iOS)
Genre: Puzzle
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Q Entertainment
Release Date: March 22, 2005

Here I am, seven years late to this party. Seven years where I did not have Lumines in my life. Seven years where I had one less addiction than I do now.

Every major handheld system seems to have a wildly popular puzzle game tied to its release, starting all the way back with the original GameBoy and its top seller, Tetris. In 2005, the PSP’s claim to fame was Lumines, a psychedelic title influenced mostly by Tetris and Columns.

Lumines is a falling block game that uses 4×4 pieces of two different colors. The goal is to line up these blocks so 4×4 squares of the same color are pieced together and removed from the board. If a block is placed on an uneven structure, half will remain on top while the other half falls to the remaining pieces below. This adds an additional element of strategy to what is an otherwise very simple game.

Lumines [PSP, 2005]

What sets Lumines apart from the rest is its heavy emphasis on light and sound. An integral part of the gameplay is the use of a “timer” — a line that moves across the screen at intervals based on the beat of the music. This timer wipes out the same-colored blocks and removes them from the screen. The kicker here is that you must wait until the timer clears them before you can put new blocks in their place. This gets increasingly more difficult as the timer slows down and passes by less frequently. On the flip side, this can also be used to create massive bonuses by linking several squares together, if done correctly.

After passing through four levels (reached by hitting a certain amount of points), the music and the entire “skin” of the game will change. This means that the colors of the blocks, the background, and the tempo of the timer will all change at the same time, all while you are in the middle of playing. The transitions can sometimes be jarring, but they are a lot of fun and help keep the game fresh.

Music is a major part of the game, which is to be expected since this comes from Tetsuya Mizuguchi, the mastermind of the cult hit Rez. While psychedelic colors flash on screen, various blends of electronica play through the speakers, creating a thoroughly engrossing audio/visual experience. Plugging in a set of headphones really takes the game to another level — seriously, it makes everything even better.

Lumines [PSP, 2005]

While falling block puzzle games aren’t anything new, Lumines adds a fresh coat of hallucinogenic paint to a classic concept. This is one of those games that must be played to truly appreciate it, and it’s also one that is easy to learn yet difficult to master. It’s not perfect — I wish there were a way to start the challenge mode with random song selections instead of the same one every time, for example — but complaints are minor overall. The bottom line is that Lumines is addictive as all hell, and that’s all you can ask from a puzzle game. With several game modes and the ability to play multiplayer, there is a staggering amount of replay value. This title will not be leaving my PSP anytime soon, and I can’t wait to try out its sequels.

If, somehow, you are like me and slept on Lumines all these years, do yourself a favor and try it out. This is a bargain bin title now, and there really is no reason to skip out on it.

8.5/10

Video Game Review: Silent Hill: Shattered Memories [PSP, 2009]

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories [PSP, 2009]

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories
System: PSP
Developer: Climax Studios
Publisher: Konami Digital Entertainment
Release Date: December 8, 2009

Let me begin by saying that I haven’t played a Silent Hill game since the original PSOne classic came out in 1999. Apparently I am missing out because I have heard nothing but rave reviews for most of the PS2 games. As a way for me to get back into the series, I picked up Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. Some will say that this is a bit of an odd choice to begin with since the game labels itself as a “revisioning” of the first game, and it is quite a bit different from the the rest of the series. Still, I got sucked into the psychological side of Shattered Memories, and that’s what maintained my interest throughout.

Right from the start, the game opens with a red “Psychology Warning” screen similar to the FBI warnings that preface movie DVDs. The message claims that “it gets to know who you really are” and that “the game plays you as much as you play it.” Bold statements to be sure, but I have to admit I was intrigued by this idea.

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories [PSP, 2009]

The game uses psychology in the form of therapy sequences in which you answer a series of personal questions. Your answers to these questions ultimately shape the game around you, and there will be several differences in the game depending on your responses. Some are subtle, such as a tavern turning into either a sports bar or an Irish pub, but others are significant and can lead to some pretty wild endings. It’s a neat feature, and I would love to see more games do something like this.

Just like the original Silent Hill, you play as Harry Mason as he searches for his missing daughter in the eponymous town. Some familiar faces pop up but they are completely different than you may remember. This is a brand new adventure, and the story is a fresh take on the original concept.

The game is decidely split into two styles of gameplay. The main portion revolves around Harry searching frantically for signs of his daughter, finding clues and asking people for help. These segments are completely devoid of combat, which takes some getting used to. Whereas typical survival horror games rely on the unknown and keeping an eye out for unwanted surprises, Shattered Memories has none of this. In the main segments, there are no enemies and it is impossible to get hurt. Instead, occasional puzzles are thrown in the mix to keep interest while Harry is exploring the town. This could get pretty boring actually, but Climax keeps the suspense in tact by throwing a bunch of plot curveballs your way while focusing on some interesting character development.

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories [PSP, 2009]

The other style of gameplay comes in the form of nightmares. In these scenes, nearly everything in the world turns to ice, and Harry has to escape these environments to get things back to normal. The catch is that there are enemies in these areas, and they can kill you. You can’t fight back other than to throw them off your back. This can lead to some frantic situations when a bunch of them hunt you down and jump you at the same time. Unfortunately, while these segments are meant to provide some sense of thrills in the game, they are very poorly executed. The nightmares essentially turn into a series of trial and error sequences where you quickly run from door to door with no clear idea of where to go next. There’s nothing you can do other than keep trying to find the exit while hoping the enemies don’t catch up to you. After a while, I began to dread these moments. Not because they were scary, but because they were just not fun.

It’s a shame that the nightmare gameplay is so tedious because I really enjoyed the rest of the game, even with its lack of real combat. The story kept me interested throughout, and the ending was just phenomenal. Seriously, the end made me glad I stuck around for the entire game (which admittedly is very short). Shattered Memories is a good effort that utilizes unique psychological aspects, but it will surely alienate some gamers since it isn’t a proper survival horror title. Still, it’s worth a shot if nothing other than to see “how the game plays you.”

7/10

Video Game Review: 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa [PSP, 2010]

2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa [PSP, 2010]

2010 FIFA World Cup
System: PSP
Developer: HB Studios
Publisher: EA Sports
Release Date: April 27, 2010

Last year’s World Cup tournament is what finally made me a full-fledged soccer fan. Team USA’s improbable draw with England, England’s subsequent collapse, Landon Donovan’s unbelievable goal… I got sucked into World Cup hysteria. Capitalizing on the event, EA Sports released a special FIFA edition specifically for the tournament. Craving some portable soccer action, I picked up the game for the PSP.

2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa provides 199 of the 204 national teams that entered qualification, and it offers several different modes of play. Beyond the standard “pick a team and play a single game” option, there are modes to play through the full World Cup tournament (including the various qualifiers), a “Captain Your Country” feature, and a “Story of Qualifying” option.

2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa [PSP, 2010]

Captain Your Country is intriguing, as it is basically a spin off of the “Be a Pro” modes that are all the rage in sports games these days. In this, you create a low-level player who is promptly placed on their national team. Your goal is to build up this player to greatness while leading his country to victory.

My personal favorite is Story of Qualifying, which allows you to relive a lot of great moments inspired by the road to the World Cup. There are some truly memorable scenarios presented here, such as the Luxembourg/Switzerland encounter where Luxembourg shocked the world by winning 2-1. In this particular example, you play as Luxembourg in the 76th minute with the match tied 1-1. You get points for winning the match, conceding no more goals and/or by winning by two goals. There are dozens of scenarios like these from all over the world, and it’s a lot of fun trying to get maximum points in each one.

2010 FIFA World Cup [PSP, 2010]

The core gameplay is easy to pick up and play, as the controls are standard for the FIFA series. Players move around effortlessly, and each team has their own unique style which comes across surprisingly well on the pitch. I did have some occasional problems with manually switching the players, and sometimes the AI determined I wanted to pass to a different player than I intended, but for the most part the on-the-field experience is more than satisfactory.

EA also succeeded in bringing the South African experience into video game form. The infamous vuvuzelas are ever-present (though they can be removed via the in-game options), and the soundtrack is a pretty diverse collection of music from all over the world. Clyde Tyldesley and Andy Townsend are competent on commentary, although they do tend to repeat themselves during the actual tournament. The country’s stadiums are brought to life, and a helpful map shows all of their locations. The graphics are typical PSP fare. It can be hard to see some of the players on the top half of the screen, but for the most part the game looks good enough.

As far as portable soccer games go, I can’t really compare this to anything else. However, I have greatly enjoyed 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa since it does an admirable job of maintaining the crazy atmosphere while also providing a surprising amount of depth in terms of gameplay. While there are occasional quibbles with the control, these are not major disturbances and they do not disrupt what is an otherwise fun experience. For those looking to relive last year’s memorable Cup, this is a great gaming option.

8/10

Video Game Review: WTF: Work Time Fun [PSP, 2006]

WTF: Work Time Fun [PSP, 2006]

WTF: Work Time Fun
System: PSP
Developer: SCEI
Publisher: D3, Sony
Release Date: October 23, 2006

It takes just one glance at WTF: Work Time Fun’s title to realize that it is going to be a bizarre and eccentric game. A quirky Japanese title, WTF is a compilation of minigames that are all over the place with randomness and unusual concepts.

In the game, you play as an oddjob worker who just so happens to be in Hell. Your goal is to make money by performing random tasks. I’m not kidding when I say “random” — tasks range from everything to putting caps on pens to kicking out of a pro wrestling pin at the last possible moment. The money earned from these projects is used for vending machines that give out completely random prizes: more tasks/minigames, useless trinkets and mostly unhelpful “tools” such as a mobile bingo machine. In essence, there is no point to the game other than to work tedious jobs and earn money to purchase meaningless items. Doesn’t sound like fun, does it?

WTF: Work Time Fun [PSP, 2006]

For all of its wackiness, WTF struggles with one major problem: most of the minigames just aren’t fun. The aforementioned Pendamonium game is probably the worst offender. In this “game” your job is to put caps on pens, occasionally taking the time to flip them over so the cap is placed in the right spot. That’s it. There is no definitive end to this task; you just keep doing this over and over again until you get tired of it. Another futile minigame has you separate baby chicks by their sex by simply hitting a different button for male and female. This goes on for a full TEN MINUTES. Whereas other minigame compilations work because they keep the games quick and to the point, WTF sometimes pushes them ad nauseum.

It should be noted that not all tasks are bad, though all are incredibly simple. I enjoyed testing my ability with the lumberjack minigame. In this one, an old lady throws out pieces of wood for you to chop — the catch is that she will occasionally toss in stuffed animals, and if you chop those you lose. Another tolerable minigame is a simple race where you have to hit the brakes at the right time in order to pass your opponent while also avoiding running off the cliff. Again, these are nothing special and actually could pass as simple Flash games, but they work in the context of WTF.

WTF: Work Time Fun [PSP, 2006]

Without its off-the-wall Japanese presentation, Work Time Fun would have nothing going for it. The games come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and have varying aesthetic appeals. Some games look like they belong in the Atari era, whereas others use real-life images to make them stand out. It’s always interesting to see what games you can unlock, although it’s not always fun getting there.

It’s hard to recommend Work Time Fun unless you have a soft spot for weird Japanese humor and/or you enjoy performing lots of tedious work to unlock worthless collectibles. Chalk this one up as an interesting experiment that belongs to a very niche audience.

5/10

Hero of Sparta [PS3/PSP Mini, 2009]

Hero of Sparta [PS3/PSP Mini]

Hero of Sparta
System: PS3/PSP Mini
Developer: Gameloft
Release Date: October 1, 2009

Hero of Sparta is a hack ‘n slash game that is clearly inspired by the popular God of War series. OK, I am wording that far too nicely — this is a blatant ripoff of God of War. Hero of Sparta is essentially GOW stripped down to its most basic core, and unfortunately it just doesn’t work out that well.

All of the familiar gameplay mechanics are here. You work your way from room to room, killing boatloads of enemies (complete with painfully easy quick time events), and solving the occasional “puzzle” before heading off to an “epic” boss battle. The use of quotations is deserved here because the puzzles require little effort, and the boss battles are laughable. Another similarity is that you even absorb orbs when enemies are slaughtered, which in turn provide power-ups to your health and magic meters.

With its rough polygonal graphics, Hero of Sparta looks and feels like a Playstation One game. I imagine this is what God of War would have been like if it were released a good ten years prior. It’s not bad, per se, but it has basically stripped out all of the elements that made GOW so fun, and turned the game into a series of dull and repetitive combat sequences. Considering there are several actual GOW games to play on both the PS3 and PSP, it is completely unnecessary to acquire this via the Playstation Network. There are far better ways to spend that $5. I can possibly see the appeal of a game like this on the iPhone, but for a PS3/PSP Mini, this is not worth your time.

5/10

Star Ocean: First Departure [PSP, 2008]

Star Ocean: First Departure [PSP, 2008]

Star Ocean: First Departure
System: PSP
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: October 21, 2008

One of my favorite role-playing games from my “youth” was Star Ocean: The Second Story for the Playstation. I put countless hours into that game, exploring alternate storylines, recruiting different characters and so on. That was my first foray into the SO franchise, and naturally I was incredibly curious about the elusive first Star Ocean game that was made for the SNES but never released in the USA. This Japanese-only game finally got released in the U.S. just two years ago, this time in PSP form and with a number of major changes.

The first thing I noticed right away was First Departure’s striking similarity to the PSX game I knew and loved. The game looks absolutely identical to its sequel, with the same style of character models and pre-rendered backgrounds (which are admittedly gorgeous). The battle system is also the same as SO2, and it is free-roaming real-time combat still holds up quite well. A lot of the same extra features are also here, such as an extensive item creation and customization system, and the ability to perform “private actions” to allow your party’s characters to interact with each other individually. The most notable upgrade is the usage of anime cutscenes, which are beautiful and give the game an extra bit of flair.

The story this time around is fairly basic and leaves something to be desired. You play as Roddick, a young village guard who is searching for a cure for a stone paralysis plague that is crippling the country. Roddick meets two Earthlings who suddenly appeared on this planet, and they decide to go back in time to find the cure. Basic stuff to be sure, but the gameplay is proficient enough to keep you playing even when the story lacks.

While the game offers some great variety in the form of its many optional bonus features (i.e. the aforementioned item customization, private actions, etc), it does have a handful of disappointing flaws. For one, navigating on the world map is painfully slow and boring. This becomes an exceptionally large problem when forced to backtrack to other worlds, which is a common occurrence during the game’s later stages. Another issue is the obnoxious voice acting during random battles where the characters yell the same things over and over again. Finally, while I found the degree of difficulty to be satisfactory, it could be potentially dismissed as “too easy” to some gamers.

There is a lot to like with Star Ocean: First Departure despite these few issues. I am exceptionally grateful that I even got the chance to play this game since I never believed it would be available for U.S. gamers. Basically, it comes down to this: if you played Star Ocean 2 and enjoyed it then you really ought to seek out First Departure. If you are just a fan of RPGs in general and are not going to readily dismiss a title just because of its age, then I do not hesitate to recommend Star Ocean. This is a good game, not a great one, but it packs enough of a punch to justify playing it for 20 hours.

7/10

Star Ocean: First Departure (screenshot)