Monday, 28 November 2016

Castlevainia: Circle of the Moon Review (GBA)

Written by Dan Gill

Launch games play an important role in selling a console on release day; Super Mario World, Halo, Sonic Adventure, Tetris, Wipeout – all great games, all big successes.  By its launch in 2001, the Game Boy Advance would’ve sold if the only game released was a tarted-up port of Super Mario Bros. 2 (OK, that was released, and was pretty good to be fair), but the GBA was blessed with a handful of great titles to choose from on day one (certainly in Europe), but probably the biggest and most “home console”-like game on offer was Castlevania.

Following on from the critically successful Symphony of the Night rather than the N64’s 3D titles, CotM has you taking protagonist Nathan Graves through a labyrinthine castle in the hunt for his mentor, Morris Baldwin.  Morris is captured by Dracula in the opening scene, so the player needs to make their way through the castle, exploring all its nooks and crannies for items, magic and abilities to aid in their quest to rescue Morris and destroy Dracula.

The items in question range from new abilities to access previously unavailable areas, spells, clothing and armour, and your standard secondary weapons.  This is the big draw of the title; the exploration aspect firmly puts CotM in the “Metroidvania” section of Castlevania’s history. Seeing unreachable areas and returning to them at a later point once the relevant ability has been required. 

The series’ staple whip (although not the “Vampire Killer” from earlier games) and secondary weapons return, but this time they’re joined by new abilities which are acquired from boss fights.  These expand Nathan’s move set, giving access to more of the castle.  Standard stuff, but the real addition to the game comes in the form of the Dual Set-up System (DSS).  The system utilises cards randomly (and rarely) dropped by enemies.  Each card is either an action or attribute, and takes its name from gods and goddesses from Roman myth.  When one action and one attribute card are combined and triggered by pressing R2, they’ll take effect.  These effects range from increasing attack to offering a protective poison cloud to summoning creatures.  The combinations are varied, and can only be discovered by trying them out (in the case of summoning, a button combination needs to be used).  It adds real variety to the game, and can help out in some tricky moments (namely the boss battles).

The difficulty throughout is pitched pretty well; you level up as you beat enemies RPG style, so there’s a real sense of progression when you return to weaker enemies later on.  The only point at which you may run into issues is when fighting the bosses of the castle.  While they start off being reasonably challenging but beatable, the challenge quickly ramps up a few bosses in (damn you, Adramelech!), and requires either amazing dexterity, a high character level or a good DSS combination (or any amalgamation of the above) to overcome each one, but as tough as the bosses are, they’re never unfair.  There are attack patterns, there’s always a window of opportunity for retaliation, and finally overcoming one of these behemoths grants a great sense of achievement.

An ever-expanding map, hidden areas, backtracking, this has it all; it’s fun to navigate and looks nice with it.  It’s just a shame that the colour palette is so dark. While playing this on a GBA SP or Game Boy Player avoids this issue, remember that this came out at a time before Nintendo included any built in lighting as standard for its handhelds (Game Boy Pocket Light being the only exception at the time).  If playing on an original GBA you’ll struggle to see some of the enemies, and will really struggle to see doorways on the Castle map.  It’s a shame, as some of the gloomy artwork is very atmospheric and fitting for the title, but it seems that it wasn’t designed with that dark screen in mind.  The only upshot of this is that you won’t quite be able to make out the few frames of animation used for the player character.  Nathan often looks like a two page flick book animation when walking. It’s a shame, as most of the animation for the enemies is much better.

Where the title really stands out is in its presentation is the music; a wonderful soundtrack pops out of the GBA’s little speaker, harking back to the 16 bit tunes of Castlevania IV and The New Generation.  It’s a catchy score which is most likely to encourage you to pop in headphones and show it some appreciation. This is due in no small amount to using a combination of old tunes with new. Personally, I never tire of hearing “Vampire Killer”.

So, is CotM as good today as it was fifteen years ago? In short, yes.  The exploration remains enjoyable, and you can normally find where you’re supposed to go next.  If you’re collecting the cards for DSS combinations you may grow weary of the low drop rate, even if you have equipped Nathan so that his luck stat is through the roof.  There’s also a fair bit of level grinding required to take on some of the game’s bosses (many a save game was re-loaded after losing to the Zombie Dragon), but no more that you’d find in a JRPG.  It’s a game that brought the gameplay style of Symphony of the Night to a handheld, which was a pretty big thing at the time, and it’s a game well worth revisiting if you never beat it the first time around.  Even if you have, there’s the option to reply through the game as a magician, fighter or thief version of Nathan, forcing you to change your tactics through each play through.

Sure, it’s been bettered by a few of its successors, but some of its traits remain unique to the title, and it’s worth a few more hours of your time; especially as you now have the option of playing it on a backlit screen, just prepare yourself for those boss battles.

Overall 8/10

Friday, 5 August 2016

Homefront: The Revolution Review (PS4)

Written by Bradley Marsh

So hear me out for a moment. At the back end of 2015 I came to a decision that I wanted to step down from Gamestyle. Life got in the way and I couldn’t dedicate the time I felt the site deserved. There was another reason though.

I just didn’t enjoy writing about games any longer, or to be more precise, I didn’t enjoy reviewing games and having to give an arbitrary score at the end of a review. How you see a game is personal to you and witnessing the reaction to not only some of my review scores, but those of fellow writers, I felt it just wasn’t worth it.

So why am I writing about Homefront: The Revolution?

Simple really, it is the exact sort of game that, in my mind at least, sums up my issues with reviews. I know if I had to score this objectively, it would have to be a low score, but for other reasons, I’d want to give it a much higher score and therein lies the problem.

From a technical standpoint this iteration of Homefront is bad, it is a broken, buggy mess of a game, highlighted by a few years of development hell. Had it have been cancelled I honestly don’t think it would have been a huge loss to the wider gaming world. It’s not like we’d be losing out on seeing the next Half Life, Halo, Metal Gear Solid or the likes.

It would be simple to list off the things that are broken with this game, such as sound issues when using the game’s ‘phone camera’. The shocking A.I that just seems to have no cohesion, the lack of graphical polish for a 2016 current gen only title, the awful story, the made up racial slur used to describe your enemy and so much more.

However you have likely read or listened to other reviews that have covered this in detail as have I and I can’t argue against those. Many of them are fact and can be seen for yourself as clean as day.

One special mention thought to the use of ‘Norks’ for the made up racial slur, because as a British person, norks means something else entirely and just makes me laugh every time I hear it used in the way the game intends.

Anyway, for all the bad in the game, there are some decent ideas too. Rather than follow the linear path the original Homefront went for, this has more of a Far Cry feel to proceedings and in my opinion does the open world things rather well.

The idea of having a large map, with areas you need to take over by completing objectives works well and drives things forward in a way that give the whole game a decent flow.

Now it doesn’t live up to the gameplay of a Far Cry, not by any stretch of the imagination, but I have to say, I wasn’t looking for reasons to quit out and move on to something else. The opposite was in fact true.

I would complete an objective, spend my various upgrade points and look for what to do next, as on the whole, each objective is fairly well paced, not outstaying its welcome or becoming tedious by making me try and do too much.

There are some really nice touches too, with the way you can upgrade and switch weapons. Using a base model, you find and purchase upgradable parts, which you then just attach to the base section, consisting of essentially just the trigger mechanism, allowing to create a decent number of variations to different types of weapon.

Some of these are pretty well out of place to the tone of the game, such as one which allows you to fire pyrotechnics at enemies and a very patriotic red, white and blue. Honestly, this is so stupid and out of place it shouldn’t work, but it brought a smile to my face.

That is the thing with Homefront: The Revolution. If I was to go through and bullet point all the things wrong with the game, it should be awful and in all honesty it is, yet for some reason I found myself enjoying my time with it. Occasionally I got to a point where I felt I had enough and should move on, but I actually looked forward to booting the game up for my next session.

For me, it is like one of those awful, straight to TV movies you’d see on the Syfy channel in the middle of the afternoon. You know the ones, with bad acting, bad writing, really awful special effects and in general from an objective point of view should never have been made. Yet you suddenly realise, you are at the end of the film and despite knowing it is bad, you have watched the entire thing, wasted 90 minutes of your day, but not come out of it any worse than what you started.

It is the same there. I know it is a bad game, but the time did just pass and I got to a point where the problems, well, they just didn’t matter. I was happy to finish it off before moving on to something else.

I honestly can’t recommend this game as one to buy, especially at full price, but I can say that should you happen to find a copy in your possession, then do give it a go, you might surprise yourself.

It is a game that I cannot also give a score to, because I feel by giving it a very low score, I am lying to myself, because I enjoyed it on the whole, but then I can’t give it a higher score, because it really doesn’t deserve it. 

So maybe I give it a Shark vs Volcano, out of Titanic

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Phantom Brave PC Review

While Disgaea has gone from strength to strength in terms of releases, Phantom Brave has remained fairly dormant aside from a PSP and Japanese only Wii release since it first arrived on the PS2 back in 2004. With Nippon Ichi looking to test its franchises in the PC market the game has been given another lease of life and if anything it’s even more complex and hardcore than Disgaea. 

It follows the story of a 13 year old girl named Marona who is protected by a phantom named Ash after losing both her parents to an evil spirit some years before. Marona is a young Chroma – a sort of sword for hire, and your initial goal is for her to earn enough money to buy the island she lives on. 

The humour and art style is very much in keeping with other Nippon Ichi games though it is perhaps a little less full on than when Etna appears in Disgaea. This is a PS2 game at heart and there is little chance of disguising that. There is a blurring filter and the menus now look lovely and HD but you are still going to be stretching and scaling the picture with effects to fit modern displays rather than the game being rebuilt from the ground up. Level textures look decidedly muddy, Sprites are pixelated and it is hardly a graphical tour de force. 

The interface is also clunky. If you’re not using a controller there is a quite counter initiative mouse and keyboard system in place. You may be able to move characters with the mouse but you can’t for instance then use a scroll wheel to cycle through options. It took a while to get used to. Save yourself the hassle and just use a controller.

Clunkyiness aside there is a really good game here and the depth of the thing begins to come to light quite early on. It shares a fair bit with Disgaea in terms of it being a turn based RPG and in terms of classes and skills levelling but there are key differences that the game is built around. The most obvious is the fact that you no longer have the grid system and instead everything is done with range circles. This really took us some time to get used to and to be honest it seems an odd design decision that doesn’t really add anything. 

A more significant and important difference is the summoning system which is the games whole ‘thing’. Instead of lining up characters to take into battle your game will revolve around Marona summoning phantoms to aid her. Marona confines phantoms to objects which then come to life for a set period of time. For instance, if you want a tough fighter then confine them to a rock to give them strength and defence bonuses. Mages are best confined to plants as that boosts their magic ability. The options are long, complex and incredibly deep. The catch is that after a set number of turns the phantom will turn back into the original object and not be summonable again. This means that if you aren’t careful you won’t be strong enough to down the enemies and complete the level.

The range of classes you can summon is huge and then you can give them all sorts of weapons and objects as well. You can also give phantoms bonuses by confining them to objects which are receiving environmental bonuses. There’s the whole being able to pick up and throw things off the map as well but we suspect your head is already spinning enough.

Overall, Phantom Brave is showing a bit of age in its presentation and its mechanics in terms of controls are a little clunky. That aside this has got to be one of the deepest and most rewarding games out there. It’s a massive level grinding dream which is easy enough to get into but will take hundreds of hours to master. There is also a stupid amount of secrets in here and if you had this and Disgaea PC you’ll probably not have time to play anything else in your lifetime (You get all the PSP and Wii content as well so get ready for the long haul). Even if a lifetime of grinding doesn’t sound like you it’s well worth giving this a try as it remains unique and how many games can say that?

Overall 9/10

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Lumo Review (PS4)

Written by Bradley Marsh

Back in my early days, I had a ZX Spectrum, both the 48k rubber key and 128k at different times. I loved those machines, I had great times with them. One game that stuck in the old memory banks was Head Over Heels.

This was a game that had an isometric view and was split across different rooms, which you had to solve to progress, using a lot of logical thinking. It also didn’t hold your hand much, leaving you to work it out yourself, which in fairness, I remember a lot of games doing back then.

It is a game that I have always wanted to see make a comeback, but over the 29 years since its original release I have yet to see anything, bar being able to play it on emulators.

I want to go back a few months though, when I saw Lumo for the very first time. I watched the footage and immediately my memory was taken back to Head Over Heels and whilst there is one fundamental difference I could see a Head Over Heels for a new generation.

Lumo looks in every way to be a re-imagining of that wonderful game, using the isometric single room puzzle style and basically dumping you in the world and leaving you to your own devices.

Nostalgia made me interested in Lumo, yet everything about the game itself kept me involved.

You start the game in an empty room with nothing but a door, no instructions, no tutorial and no guide. The game just asks you to start exploring, it doesn’t use any kind of narrator to fill you in on backstory, nor does it give you any clear indication as to what you are expected to do to progress.

So there I go, heading towards this door into discovery, wandering around the map, room by room, blindly, working out what I am to do and what is to come next. There are a few indicators that make it clear I will need to seek some kind of upgrade to reach new areas, but no real indication as to what these are or where to find them.

This isn’t a Dark Souls style learn as you go, where you will die many, many times and adapt, this is a slow meticulous game, where you stop and take stock of the situation. You look over a room and work out the best approach to get through.

I clearly cannot get to this part, as I cannot jump high enough, but this box over there doesn’t seem to fit with layouts I have seen in previous rooms. What happens if I approach it? Oh it moves! I can move it to here and use it to reach this higher area.

It is a simple logic, but knowing you have worked that out for yourself is very satisfying, you then build on that discovery to move forward even further. Eventually guiding you to a new powerup that allows you to reach previously inaccessible areas.

There isn’t a map for you to follow either, you need to remember where you have been and plot it yourself, until such a point you find a room that has a map in it. Which is great, but by then you have already covered a lot of the area already, this should be annoying, but it serves as a really nice reward for your exploration.

Whilst most of the rooms you encounter are pure logic based, there are some that require timing, such as using moving platforms to navigate to the right part of the room to find the exit. The one part that for me at least doesn’t sit well are rooms with giant boulders that you must jump on and move by walking on them.

There is on specific room fairly early on, where you must move across the room on the boulder, but only on a very thin ledge, before jumping from the boulder to a platform and then to safety. This would be fine, but the isometric viewpoint and the controls make this very fiddly, to the point where it just doesn’t feel like it belongs with the spirit of the game.

I won’t lie, I very nearly gave up at this specific room, because it went from simply using logic and exploration to solve, to something very different indeed and unfairly so.

Thankfully this kind of thing is very few and far between, seeing the rest of the game sticking to the formula that makes it as satisfying as it is. For me this is the only real blip on an otherwise flawless game.

The game itself looks stunning too, with some amazing lighting effects that really show off the game’s beautifully crafted world. That is mixed with a score that whilst not in your face, does a wonderful job of drawing you in and immersing you.

The main game may well be about making your way through this amazing world and you are fine to do just that. However, there are also a ton of collectables dotted around. Some are easy to spot, such as the rubber ducks, though they may not always be easy to get. But others are cleverly hidden away for you to discover.

This again shows how well thought out every inch of Lumo is. Shelves, for example aren’t just there for decoration, if you can reach it, then it may well be the window to a hidden room. There are tons of tiny visual clues that highlight where you may be able to reach, but they aren’t signposted, you really do need to take in the environment and remember what you have already learned.

It is the game’s ability to grow with you that keeps it feeling fresh from start to the very end. Yet it doesn’t do this in clear moments, it does it in a subtle way that feels organic and it works wonderfully.

Had it not been for one or two puzzle elements that felt out of place, this would be getting a perfect score. But don’t let that stop you from picking up and enjoying one of the best and freshest indie titles in quite some time.