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: Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch [PS3]

Today we have a guest video game review from Max @ Impassionedcinema!

Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch [PS3]

Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch
System: PS3
Genre: JRPG
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Developer: Level-5 and Studio Ghibli
Release Date: January 22, 2013

An English translation for the highly anticipated Level-5 and Studio Ghibli collaboration, Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, has been a long time coming. What more could gamers of JRPGs ask for? Level-5, best known for their work on Professor Layton and Dark Cloud, has been a long-time fan favorite in Japan. While famed anime studio, Studio Ghibli, has been known for their outstanding animated films, taking audiences to worlds we’ve never seen before. On paper it sounds as though failure is not an option. In the end though, how did it hold up?

Ni No Kuni follows the story of a boy named Oliver. Oliver lives with his mom in the quant town of Motorville, where you guessed it, the residents are obsessed with motor vehicles. One fine day, Oliver is asked to sneak out of his house late at night in order to try his friend’s new car that he built. Catastrophe occurs and Oliver’s mother suffers heart complications while trying to save Oliver from an accident. Depressed over the loss of his mother, Oliver locks himself away until he is summoned by his doll, Drippy, to save an alternate world. Saving this parallel universe might allow Oliver to save his mother.

Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch

There’s enough story in Ni No Kuni to fill a novel, but how does it play? Level-5 has imagined the gameplay of Ni No Kuni to be a hybrid of Pokémon and the Tales Of… series of games. Oliver and his companions control familiars in combat that share the same health bar, but have different attributes in attack, defense, magic, etc. Battles are initiated by running into the world map avatar of the enemy and conducted in real-time.

Collecting familiars is still as rewarding as it was in Pokémon all those years ago, but the payoff and percentage of captures are poorly balanced. Most players will be satisfied leveling and grinding their starter familiars till the end game. Most of the world map battles can be summarized as repeatedly tapping the attack prompt to overpower your enemies. If you aren’t powerful enough yet, expect to spend at least an hour grinding up your familiars. Casting spells is also troublesome. If your character is waiting to cast a spell, but another familiar on the battlefield casts before, get ready to enter the queue again. This is especially troublesome in the late game when trying to craft items by stealing from enemies. Most of the time they will be dead before you can even cast the spell.

The other problem is that tougher battles will likely be determined by how fast you can block as opposed to anything else. Most of the villains will have tell-signs before they summon a deadly spell and with those five seconds canceling an attack and setting up a block can be the deciding factor. Blocking has always been an underutilized aspect of JRPGs, but with battles playing out in real-time, it’s a race to set up the block. About twenty hours into the game, your companions are given the ability to set up their block by pressing a button on the controller. This is right after one the most difficult battles in the game. Why couldn’t Level-5 given you that ability far earlier?

Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch

Up until this point, there’s been a lot of focus on the chunky battle system. Rightfully so though, because when the playtime of Ni No Kuni will likely exceed 60 hours, it should be fair and enjoyable. Luckily, the overall presentation should be enough to guide players to the end. Ni No Kuni is simply one of the best looking JRPGs ever created. While actual anime sequences become few and far between after the beginning of the quest, the character design and worlds exemplify the artwork from Studio Ghibli. It’s almost as if Oliver is another hero in the long legacy of Ghibli greats and the story could easily fit into the overall catalog of great films. The score of the game is composed by Studio Ghibli veteran Joe Hisaishi. While Ni No Kuni suffers from having only one piece of music for battle sequences like most JRPGs, it’s always exciting to visit a new town to see the spectacular art design and music come together.

Although the battle system leaves a lot to be desired, Ni No Kuni was the first JRPG I’ve completed this generation of consoles. Whether it was the hope that there would be a satisfying ending (there wasn’t) or seeing what Studio Ghibli had concocted for the next villain or town, Ni No Kuni held my interest to the end. When a game is entertaining enough that the final quest gets put off until the last possible moment, it has done something right. While Ni No Kuni isn’t the masterpiece Western gamers were waiting for, it is the masterpiece they needed. It has proven that JRPGs that don’t bear the name Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest can still be successful outside of Japan. Even more incredible Ni No Kuni is a console-exclusive to PS3. For an exclusive title to sell as well as it has is an incredible achievement. If you can look pass the mechanic problems of the battle system, Ni No Kuni is a recommended play-through for all RPG fans.

4/5 Stars

 
Written by Max Covill of Impassionedcinema.com

Retro Gaming Project #2: Chrono Trigger [DS]

Earlier this year, I announced the creation of a Retro Gaming Project in which I would finally go back and play through all of the classic NES and SNES games I missed over the years. This is a long work in progress with no set end date, but it will be a fun adventure while it lasts.

Chrono Trigger [DS]

Chrono Trigger
System: Nintendo DS (originally on SNES, also available on PSN, mobile devices and Virtual Console)
Genre: Role-Playing
Publisher: Square
Developer: Square
Release Date: November 25, 2008 (originally March 11, 1995)

If there was one game that was glorified more than any other during my youth, it was Chrono Trigger. I seemed to have heard more about this Square RPG than any other, as it was often ranked near or at the very top of all types of “best of” lists. For years I skipped over it, either due to its insane SNES cartridge price or simply because I was worried it wouldn’t live up to the hype. Looking back, it’s kind of amazing how a once-rare game is now available on so many platforms, including Android and iOS devices. For review purposes, I played through the Nintendo DS port.

Chrono Trigger tells the story of Crono (no “h”), a vibrant young lad with spiky red hair, and his efforts to save the world from its impending doom. Crono becomes aware of this future apocalypse after a freak accident with a teleportation device sends him back in time. Now, with the capability of time travel, Crono embarks on an adventure that takes him all the way back to 65,000,000 B.C. and forward to AD 2300. Along the way, he meets a number of interesting characters (including a robot and a talking frog) who help him on his adventure.

Chrono Trigger [DS]

The time travel dynamic takes an otherwise familiar RPG storyline (youth prevent the end of the world) and adds a fresh coat of paint. Being able to travel to the past and the future is fascinating, especially as Crono attempts to keep the course of nature on the right track. In one early moment, his ally Marle is mistaken for her ancestor, a queen in AD 600, so the group has to find a way to bring back the real royal leader. The ability to travel through time at will is much welcomed.

The RPG gameplay is also familiar, but it is so refined that it ranks among the best I have seen in the genre. For one, there are no random battles. This has always been a pet peeve of mine, and Chrono Trigger thankfully provides visible enemies on screen. This means that many of the battles can be avoided if desired, giving the gamer a bit of added flexibility.

The battle system itself is fantastic. The game uses an Active Time Battle system, which allows attacks to be made once a character’s personal timer fills up. Since this is not entirely turn based, this allows for more freedom and requires a bit more strategy. On top of standard attacks, there is an option to use Techs, which allow for powerful spells that can be combined with multiple characters. These use up MP points and drain each character’s timer, but their damage to enemies can often be very rewarding.

Chrono Trigger [DS]

The game’s dungeons and combat areas are all well-designed, and many of them allow for a good amount of exploration without that frustrating feeling of getting lost. There is a quite a bit of loot scattered around, and some of the bonus dungeons in the DS port include some truly powerful weaponry. Side quests also warrant deep expeditions, and they can help with leveling up before the final epic boss battle.

Upon concluding the game, a new mode opens up: “New Game+”. In this, a new game is started but all of the weapons, equipment, etc. from the first game are carried over. This allows for a quicker playthrough in order to get to a different ending, of which there are thirteen. For those who want to see other possible conclusions, there is a surprising amount of replay value to be found.

Chrono Trigger [DS]

In terms of aesthetics, Chrono Trigger holds up remarkably well. The 16-bit sprites are as gorgeous as ever, and the DS port throws in some well-crafted anime cutscenes as well. The real treat here, however, is the astoundingly beautiful musical score. Composed primarily by Yasunori Mitsuda, the game’s music is unforgettable, as it uses a wide variety of instruments and does not focus on any one genre. Every town and locale in the game has its own unmistakable tune, many of which are outright classics. A quick YouTube search will find countless remixes and tributes to Mitsuda’s work in this game — I cannot emphasize enough how beloved this soundtrack is, and it sounds just as impressive today.

So, does Chrono Trigger live up to the hype 15+ years later? Yes, mostly. I loved the style, the music, the battle system and many of the characters. If I were to find any faults, it would be from the handful of moments where I became stuck and wasn’t quite sure what to do. Thankfully, guides are more abundant today than they were in 1995, so it usually didn’t take long for me to figure out where to go next. I’m not ready to crown Chrono Trigger as the best RPG ever as many do, but I can say with confidence that this is a damn good game that will likely be as endearing in another twenty years as it is today.

9/10

Video Game Review: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim [Xbox 360]

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim [Xbox 360]

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
System: Xbox 360 (also on PS3 and PC)
Genre: Role-Playing
Publisher: Bethesda Game Studios
Developer: Bethesda Softworks
Release Date: November 11, 2011

For the last few weeks, Skyrim has been owning my soul. Other video games have taken a backseat to the massive, incomparable world of Bethesda Softworks’ latest RPG. Despite warnings from others, I didn’t expect this to happen. Sure, I had played and enjoyed Oblivion, but I was able to expand my playing time with that one by spreading it out over months. With Skyrim, I was hooked, line and sinker.

I have put about 30 hours into Skyrim so far, and I still feel like I have barely scratched its surface. Better yet, I am still *eager* to play more. This is a rarity with me, especially when it comes to single player games. Usually I will tear through the main campaign or quest line, work on some random side quests here and there, and then move on to something else. I have a habit of trying to maximize my time by playing as many new games as possible. With Skyrim, that all went out the window.

Much of that credit goes to the impressive in-game world that allows for a seemingly infinite amount of possibilities. After starting the game and going through its mandatory opening sequence (in a nutshell, you are about to be beheaded before a dragon appears and wipes out the town), you are then dropped into this world alone with the freedom to do whatever you like. There is a quest to start, sure, but you can just skip this entirely if you wish. I felt obligated to check out the nearby town, as recommended, but after that I just said “screw it” and started wandering around on my own.

One of my favorite aspects of Skyrim, and possibly the biggest curse to some, is that it is so easy to get sidetracked. I tend to start up a quest and head out in that direction, only to find a new enticing path or cave or dungeon or whathaveyou, which I promptly decide is of greater importance to explore. The ability to just get lost in the game world and explore whatever looks appealing is simply amazing. See that mountain in the distance? Go ahead and climb it. Wait, is that a sunken ship in that lake over there? Shit, I need to check that out. Oh wait, there’s a bandit lair on that ridge. I bet they have some good loot.

Skyrim’s countless questlines (divided into main, side and miscellaneous) provide all sorts of opportunities to explore new locations as well. The quests offer a wide variety of stories to go with them, offering you the opportunity to join more “evil” factions if you desire. Two mainstays from Oblivion make welcome reappearances: the Dark Brotherhood (where you act as a hitman/assassin for hire) and the Thieves Guild (where you use stealth capabilities while stealing from others). Throw in all sorts of oddball errands and requests, including many of which that are just bizarre and/or hilarious, and you have all the makings for a game that never gets old.

Perhaps best of all is that your character is entirely customizable, meaning you can play the way that *you* want to regardless of your selected race. Be a warrior, a mage, a necromancer, a thief, a marksman. Whatever you like. There are dozens of perks available to help level up your character in your envisioned mold. You can even find areas scattered around the various in-game towns to create your own potions, weapons and equipment. Hell, if you feel like doing menial labor jobs, there are options to do that as well.

All of this is presented in a beautiful, snowy Nordic environment. No matter where you turn, you are bound to find some sort of eye candy, whether it be breathtaking waterfalls, lakes covered in ice, or blizzardous mountains. Skyrim’s visuals are a huge improvement over Oblivion — just wait until you happen across a late-night aurora borealis. I don’t know if there is a better game that captures the cold, wintry feel present in Skyrim.

If it isn’t clear by now, I love this game. Skyrim holds its own against the last two Fallout games, both of which are personal favorites of mine, and its fantasy setting lends itself to all sorts of possibilities. There are some bugs to be found, such as characters/enemies getting stuck on walls and/or disappearing, as well as issues with graphical draw-ins, but these are to be expected with an in-game world this vast. These problems are incredibly minute in scope, and do not hinder the overall gameplay experience in any way.

Simply put, Skyrim is fantastic. Just be warned: this may consume your life.

10/10

Video Game Review: Costume Quest [PS3, 2010]

Costume Quest [PS3, 2010]

Costume Quest
System: Playstation 3 (also on Xbox 360 and Steam)
Genre: RPG, Adventure
Publisher: THQ
Developer: Double Fine Productions
Release Date: October 19, 2010

So, it’s fall, folks. The leaves have changed color and are falling off the trees, the smell of pumpkin pie is in the air (if you’re lucky), and everyone is trying to figure out what they want to be for Halloween. Considering the season, Sony couldn’t have picked a better time to offer Costume Quest for free to Playstation Plus users.

This Halloween-themed RPG adventure places you in the role of either Reynold or Wren, a young brother/sister tandem who are sent out by their parents to trick-or-treat and make new friends in their suburban neighborhood. Unfortunately for them, as soon as they leave their house, one of the siblings is kidnapped by a monster. It is your goal to go forth and retrieve your sibling from the evildoers, as your parents wouldn’t exactly be keen on just one child returning home.

It’s a simple plot, but perfectly appropriate for what is ultimately a nostalgia-tinged “lite” RPG. Double Fine have taken a basic adventure and stripped it down to its core elements. In place of character classes, you collect costumes that can be worn for different abilities. Some, such as the knight and robot, are simply for attacking, while others like the Statue of Liberty can be used for healing purposes. The turn-based combat is about as bare-bones as you can get: when you choose to attack (either standard or special, the latter of which must be built up over turns) you are then given a button to press at an exact moment, which will yield an added boost if timed correctly. After your characters finish their attacks, the enemies do the same, and it’s lather-rinse-repeat. Outside of choosing different costumes pre-battle, little strategy is required.

Costume Quest [PS3, 2010]

There isn’t a whole lot of depth to the game, which some may find disappointing. However, even though the game is a brief 5-6 hours in length, it is highly enjoyable throughout. Double Fine’s trademark sense of humor — rife with amusing pop culture references — is always present, and the dialogue (all text-based) is often clever. It helps that the game uses a charming, easy-to-love cartoonish visual style, as well.

Costume Quest succeeds in creating a lite RPG that can appeal to all ages, kid to adult. Kids will love the game’s Halloween setting and easy-to-understand combat mechanics, whereas adults will be more into the nostalgia side of things and the sly writing style. There are some issues with combat getting a tad too repetitive near the end, and of course the game’s short length is a bit disconcerting for the $15 price tag, but overall Costume Quest is still a fun adventure that is perfect for the month of October. If you’re looking for a bite-sized adventure to play in between some of this season’s big guns, you can’t do much better than this.

7.5/10

Video Game Review: Deus Ex: Human Revolution [Playstation 3, 2011]

Deus Ex: Human Revolution [Playstation 3, 2011]

Deus Ex: Human Revolution
System: Playstation 3 (also available on Xbox 360, PC, and Mac)
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Eidos Montreal
Release Date: August 23, 2011

Talk about a mashup of genres.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution has elements of stealth games, first person shooters, sci-fi thrillers, RPGs, and tactical espionage. It is a smart and cerebral adventure, one full of conspiracies, twists and turns. Quite frankly, this is one of the most mentally stimulating titles to come out on this current generation of video game systems.

A prequel to the original highly-regarded 2000 PC title, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is set in a dystopian futuristic Detroit. To be exact, the year is 2027, and a major class divide is running rampant. On one side, there are the “Naturals”, normal humans who are against any sort of genetic body modifications. On the other side are “Augs”, humans who are augmented with mechanical implants that push the boundaries of human ability.

Caught in the middle of the escalating war between the two sides is Adam Jensen, a gruff-talking security expert for Sarif Industries, one of the largest augmentation companies in the country. After a rival company attacks Sarif’s headquarters and begins torching the place, Adam becomes gravely injured and is near death before being taken in and, unwillingly, given augmentations. These modifications save his life, and when he gets back to full strength, his boss sends him out to find those who attacked the company. What Adam uncovers goes far beyond his wildest expectations.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution [Playstation 3, 2011]

As a cyberpunk-themed story, Human Revolution is incredibly well written and always intriguing. While the main quests add up to a lengthy adventure, the side quests help flesh out the story more and are oftentimes just as enthralling. Typical playthroughs will last for 20+ hours, even if optional missions are ignored.

There is just so much to see and do in the game, and it helps that the environments are so fascinating. Futuristic Detroit is dark, grimy and full of seedy characters. The city is big enough that it is possible to find new things while just wandering around, but it is scaled to the point where it’s easy to walk from point A to point B without there being lengthy gaps between action. It’s amazing how well-crafted the game’s settings are.

Perhaps the most crucial aspect (and possibly biggest selling point) of Human Revolution is the fact that you can play it any way you want to. While the game prides itself on its stealth capabilities, you don’t have to sneak around. You can go in guns-a-blazin’ and shoot up everyone you see if that’s how you would rather play the game. Adam’s augmentation system allows you to build up his capabilities to suit your style, and upgrades can be earned by gaining experience and finding relevant items scattered throughout the city. While Adam starts off with fairly meager augmentations, he will be spectacularly built up by the end of the game, provided you allow him to be.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution [Playstation 3, 2011]

In my first playthrough, I opted to do a hybrid of stealth and action gameplay. Both styles were a blast to mess around with, and it was easy to switch between the two. Sneaking around was perhaps most fun, which is a bit of a surprise to me since I usually prefer intense action sequences. There’s something to be said about crawling to a side of the room, staying in cover, waiting for an enemy to turn away, then taking him down with a quick knockout punch, all while surrounding enemies are oblivious. I also loved exploring areas to find ventilation shafts, which in turn would take me to previously inaccessible areas.

Exploration is a large part of the game, especially if you want to really dig into the story. Scattered throughout the environment are eBooks, “personal secretary” notes, and private emails, all of which add to the overall story when read. Considering the sheer amount of detail that went into the plot, it’s worth finding as much as you can (especially when you stumble upon some of the many humorous Easter Eggs).

Deus Ex: Human Revolution [Playstation 3, 2011]

One of the most efficient ways of obtaining information is via hacking. This is done through a mini-game that is confusing at first, but easy to get the hang of after a few tries. Basically the idea is to navigate through a series of nodes in order to reach the end target while trying to get it done as fast as possible in order to avoid setting off alarms. This is exciting in its own way, as it is always a race against the clock. As a bonus, there are hacking augmentations that can be used to make things a bit easier if you are having problems.

Flaws are few and far in between. The most glaring issue is one that will only affect those wishing to play the entire game without killing anyone — a handful of boss fights interrupt the game’s flow and can cause great difficulty for those armed with nothing more than a tranquilizer gun and some health packs. I found these battles to be a challenging change of pace for my style of gameplay, but this can certainly be a problem for those going all ninja-like.

Also, while enemy AI is generally rather sharp, there are occasions where adversaries get hung up in certain areas, allowing themselves to be casually picked off one by one. These moments are not that common, however, and do not hinder the overall combat experience.

Visually, Human Revolution succeeds in delivering a gritty and unique cyberpunk-style environment. Character models are well-designed, and animations are generally pretty solid outside of occasional awkward clipping (such as when attempting to drag bodies to another location). The aural experience is nothing short of phenomenal. The game’s soundtrack is hauntingly beautiful, a perfect fit for game’s setting. The voice acting is of the utmost quality, with Adam Jensen’s surly Clint Eastwood/Keanu Reeves imitation leading the way.

In short, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is one of the better single-player experiences you will find today. Sci-fi aficionados will love the story, shooter fans will dig the impressive amount of weapons and slick combat action, and RPG lovers will enjoy crafting Jensen in their own image. There really is something for everyone here, although the game’s slow pace may take some getting used to. Kudos, Square Enix, for delivering such a deep adventure that makes the player really feel like THEY are in control.

9/10

Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, Episode One [PS3, 2008]

Penny Arcade Adventures: Episode 1 [PS3]

Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness Episode One
System: Playstation 3
Developer: Hothead Games
Release Date: October 23, 2008

I am a casual fan of the Penny Arcade web comic, not an avid reader but I still take the time to peruse the site every now and then. I like their brand of video game humor — I will never forget their hilarious God of War comic — so when I saw that the Playstation Network was offering their two video game titles together for a total of $3 I had to pick them up. The first episode of Penny Arcade Adventures, titled On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, is a mashup of old school point-and-click adventure games and modern day RPGs.

After creating your own character, the game begins with a giant freakin’ robot destroying your house. Naturally, this is a total surprise and your character has no clue what is going on. After heading down the street in pursuit of the robot, you encounter Gabe and Tycho (from the web comics) who join you on your adventure to figure out what the hell is going on. Along the way, you meet a number of bizarre characters including “Fruit Fucker” robots, urine-soaked hobos, and devil-worshiping mimes. The sarcastic Penny Arcade humor is always prevalent which is what sets this game apart from other like-minded ventures.

The general gameplay consists of basic point-and-click fare as you wander throughout a mere four locales. Clicking on random objects generally produces a humorous response, and some reward you with bonus items. It is worth taking the time to see what every click-able item has to offer. Every now and then the characters will encounter an enemy (Fruit Fuckers, hobos and the like) that will bring about a turn-based RPG battle.

These RPG battles are where the game drags a bit. Each character has a timer that must get filled up before they are able to perform a standard attack, team attack or use an item. While you plan out your next move, enemies are constantly attacking you, which requires you to conveniently hit R2 at opportune times to either dodge or block their attacks. This element keeps you on your toes during combat and makes sure there is always something going on. The problem with the battle system is that switching between your characters manually is a bit of a chore and can cause some serious issues, such as when you happen to miss hitting the block button during an enemy attack. Also, blocking can be incredibly difficult. Some of the enemy attacks are hard to judge, and I found myself missing blocks by just a split second and not getting any credit for them. Couple all of this in with the fact that battles are often quite lengthy and it is clear that some improvements could be made here.

Still, even with its problematic combat system, Penny Arcade is able to ride its comedic roots to respectability. This is a game that is built on humor, and without it, Episode 1 would be mediocre at best. Hardcore fans of the comic will assuredly grade this game higher than everyone else, and I don’t have a problem with that. I just can’t help but feel that a more polished combat system would have made this game a lot more enjoyable. At a meager $3, I wholeheartedly recommend getting this, but I would never advise picking it up at its original $20 price tag unless you are a diehard fan of the comic.

6.5/10

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)