Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Super Castlevania IV Review (SNES)

Following much the same story as the first NES Castlevania, the first SNES outing for the Belmont family has Simon Belmont heading off into the depths of evil in order to save the world from the dark engulfing shadow of Dracula’s cruel hand. The story is that an evil group of people hold a ceremony in an old destroyed abbey outside a small town. As the ritual is performed dark clouds begin to form then just as the group reach a crescendo of chanting, lightning strikes the ground splits it in two and once again Dracula rises from the confines of his tomb.

Following in the foot steps of previous releases, Castlevania IV has the heroic Simon Belmont storming through a number of vertical and horizontal scrolling hack n' slash levels, as he makes his way towards Dracula’s castle. Most levels involve a fair few precision jumps, a bit of stair climbing, swinging from skyhooks with the whip and the general destruction of all things evil. Most (but not all), levels are rounded off with an impressive boss creature. 

The launch of the Super Nintendo heralded much hype about the capabilities of the machine in terms of something known as Mode 7. What Mode 7 amounts to is that the machine can set things in a seemingly three dimensional world when it is actually only two dimensional. It can also scale sprites differently and a number of other dull technical things that are of little interest. Castlevania IV uses this strategically through certain key areas forming a stunning showcase for Nintendo’s new found trickery. 

Most notable are two sections of level four. First of all the player finds themselves inside a giant spinning tube, even now the graphics are good enough to make you feel dizzy meaning you really have to concentrate to stop from falling to your doom. Next comes a huge rock monsters at the end of level, upon striking said monster it gradually shrinks before finally expanding to fill the whole screen and disappearing into the distance, not as impressive as it once was, but back in the day this truly was as good as it got. 

Mode 7 aside, the rest of the graphical content of the title is of an exceptionally high standard. Each level offers something new to be impressed by. Level one sees a huge metal fence come out of the ground at the start of one section then as our hero progresses through, vines and leaves begin to sneak slowly up it. Level two has some beautiful running water effects, and the small droplets that fall from the stalactites in level three have a subtle beauty all of their own. 

Each level looks different from the last, ranging from the expected castle environments to marshes, underground caverns and murky dungeons to name a few. Inhabiting each area are unique monsters as well as the standard bats and skeletons that appear throughout the game. All creatures are well animated and surprisingly detailed for a sixteen-bit title and it all adds to the games a very distinctive look and atmosphere. 

Along with exceptional graphics comes an even more impressive use of music. This is easily one of the most sonically impressive title ever to be released on any format. The sheer range and depth of sound present is outstanding withsound gradually building in each level before erupting into a full on gothic/classical experience. At times you may find yourself listening to the music instead of concentrating on what you are doing as the amount of layers each work contains is staggering, a truly exceptional achievement which gives the game so much atmosphere that even now certain parts can seem quite sinister. 

While at first appearing to contain fairly standard and uninspiring gameplay, playing the game for more than five minutes soon reveals an astonishing amount of flexibility and depth in the control system. As well as the standard jumping and straightforward monster slaying action, all of which can be carried out with ease due to responsive controls, comes the new addition of Simon's whip. The whip can be used to attack in a three hundred and sixty degree field. 

Furthermore, after the initial attack with the whip is made, if the attack button is kept held down the whip looses its rigidity and can be flicked around, something that proves useful if you miss a small target with your initial strike. Apart from attacking, the whip can also be used to swing from hooks located around the levels, while most of the time the player is required simply to swing from one side of a drop to another, on the odd occasion more skill is needed and this helps to keep levels varied and the action constantly surprising. 

Overall, it is plain to see that Super Castlevania IV is one of finest titles ever to appear in the gaming market. Very rarely does a game come as a complete package of graphics, sound and gameplay. Add to that a very well developed learning curve and the sheer variety to be found in level design and you are looking at an ageless classic that every single Super Nintendo owner walking the earths surface should own. With only Symphony of the Night and the PC-Engine version of Dracula X possibly being in the same league, for Castlevania fans the series has never really got any better than this. 

Overall 9/10 

Monday, 15 December 2014

Breath of Fire 3 Review (Playstation)

After disappearing from the world for what seemed like an eternity, the Breath of Fire series looked to lay buried with its own history. With Final Fantasy VII a massive global success Capcom decided to reintroduce the 'Dragon Clan' once more - and we should all be grateful that they did.

Breath of Fire III follows the path of a boy named Ryu and his incredible power. The story goes that an ancient legend speaks of a powerful Dragon Clan that suddenly vanished without explanation. Far from having disappeared completely, the remains of the Dragon people have formed into ore that can be used as energy. One day, while miners were excavating such ore, they come across a small dragon imprisoned in the mine - thus a new legend was forged. 

While the story and world of Breath of Fire III are reminiscent of the titles that preceded it, most other things have changed. Battles are still turn-based but the interface now comes in the form of a "+" shape - simply press left, right, up or down to select from the options available - something that really helps the flow of battles no end, and a work of genius by the development team. Furthermore, a number of other unique underlying features have been put into place, most notable of these is the way random battles occur. 

Wandering around dungeons or other areas holds to the tried and true formula visited by other RPGs (ie - your characters meet with encounters at random intervals). However, while working your way around the BoF III map screen there are no random battles whatsoever. This allows you to explore the map without fear of being attacked every two and a half seconds. Should you wish to level up characters on the map screen, exclamation marks appear from time to time, and by pressing the attack button you will be placed in a small area of land containing an item that prefigures a number of random battles before you can acquire it. 

In graphical terms, the game isn't really anything to shout about - characters are a touch flat and lacking in colour though they are consistent with the series style. While the graphics aren't the best, they are entirely serviceable and keep Ryu and his compatriots anchored firmly in the Breath of Fire world. Ditto for magic attacks - while basically 'by-the-numbers', there are certainly some nice flourishes, especially when our hero transforms into one of many huge dragons. 

What infuses a good RPG is normally the constituent elements of plot and the right control system (to allow you to explore said plot through to its conclusion). It is here where Breath of Fire III truly excels. The story unfolds before you at a breakneck pace and only when you stop to save do you realise that you've been playing for around twenty odd hours, or that the seasons have changed. That's not to say the game's a breeze, indeed there are a number of situations which require players to swallow their pride and beat a formal retreat, or instances where your party will be wiped out completely.

It is hard to know whether it's the inspired plot, the endearing and differing characters, or the minor milieu of genius that really helps to push Breath of Fire III toward the highest rung of gaming. In truth, it is no doubt the delicate marriage of a number of flawless and well-realised situations, coupled with the above high points, that will see players continually rushing through the game wanting - indeed needing - to know what comes next. In conclusion, Breath of Fire III is one of the finest role-playing games ever made, and absolutely essential for those wanting to lose themselves in a different world - a different reality - for weeks.

Overall 10/10 

Friday, 12 December 2014

Persona Q Review (3DS)

Persona Q is a very strange thing indeed. This is the first time a Persona title has appeared on the 3DS and it’s a strange mix of Persona 3 and 4 and the Etrian Odyssey series. These are all things we like a lot but mixing them all in together has created something with some very strange influences.

Choosing either the protagonist from Persona 3 or 4 your adventure will then be focused around the characters and experiences from the selected series. The two groups occasionally cross paths and events change depending on who you are playing so there is also some extra replay value to a game that is very long anyway.

The basic plot follows an event which occurs at Yasogami High School during a cultural festival. Suddenly a strange bell is heard to be ringing and the two groups find themselves trapped inside the high school. Upon finding a strange labyrinth underneath the school they must enter and investigate to try and find out what is going on.

The game plays out much in the same way as the Etrian Odyssey series with the dungeons being explored from a first person view and traversed via moving from one square on a grid to the next. The map drawing mechanic has also been brought over with players required to add their own details to the grid with the stylus on the touch screen in order to develop a detailed map and understanding of the labyrinth.

Combat remains turn based (as in both series’), with the front and back row system also employed. Players can pick a team of five from a list of different pre-made characters and then decide if they will be safer attacking from the front row or sitting back and supporting with magic and ranged weapons. The elements system from persona is also in full effect with learning the weaknesses of various enemies the key to progressing.

This certainly isn’t going to be a game for everyone as not only is it more impenetrable to newcomers than either Persona series, it’s also absolutely rock hard. It requires even more strategy and depth than the Etrian Series which was already way out on the ‘aimed at hard core video gamer’ scale. That said, when you get the hang of things it does begin to come together in a wholly satisfying way.

For those that can break through the barriers there is a healthy blend of fan service and satisfying adventure to discover. The labyrinths are well constructed, interesting and beg to be explored. Enemies are varied and diverse and even the generic fodder put up just enough of a fight that they need to be approached cautiously. There is also enough of a draw to keep you playing and to get you to retry when your party is defeated. The story continues to draw you in through a mixture of mystery and outright weirdness and it’s clear a lot of thought has gone into just about every area. 

Persona Q is a crazy experiment that works for a specific target audience. It’s hard to recommend to people who aren’t Persona fans as everything is very much styled in that way. It will also help if you have knowledge of the Etrian series but even if you don't this could certainly act as a gateway for Persona fans to discover a new series. It isn’t something for players who have never played either of those series’ to jump into though as there’s just too much to get your head around. 

Overall, this is the sort of game that will be someone’s favourite game of all time while others won’t get it at all. We love the fact that someone was crazy enough to try and make this work and it has turned out very well. It’s a hard core dungeon crawler with solid mechanics which requires a bit of franchise knowledge andthat’s filled with fan service. If that sounds good then something special awaits.

Overall 8/10

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Teslagrad Review (PS4)

Teslagrad is a game we first came across at the recent Eurogamer expo in London. We were drawn to it by its unique look and the fact it seemed to be full of clever play mechanics and traps. It’s now finally with us and we can explore the mystery of a small boy with magnetic powers escaping into a castle after being chased by some Rasputin-esque looking pursuers.

The game has a style that though familiar we haven’t really seen before. The Soviet influence reminds us of steam punk animations and fairy tales from the Eastern Bloc and it works perfectly to set up a mysterious and unique atmosphere. There is also very little text with the story and controls explained via drawings and animated theatre puppets. The silence further intensifies the mystery (even if the lack of tutorial is a little confusing).

There is gamepad support but you’ll have to set it up manually. Again, this can be a little odd at the beginning of the game as you don’t really know what half of the commands are. Once you get it sorted out though it’s a much easier way to play as you’re going to need very quick reflexes to get through.

Teslagrad is a difficult game and it requires sustained amounts of quick thinking, jumping and precision placement to get through most sections. Most of the time you are trying to avoid dropping onto spikes or electricity but there are also some shadowy beasts and mechanical enemies to avoid from time to time. You don’t really have any offense so you’ll be darting past them and running away a lot.

Our little hero is far from powerless though and you’ll soon find the equipment that gives you the use of a unique set of powers. First off you’ll get the positive and negative magnetism glove. This allows you to change the charge of magnetic services and blocks. This means you can get blocks to move or fall, or use opposite charges to propel yourself up tunnels or across chasms. The next thing you’ll find is the ability to ‘blink’ or teleport a short distance. This is vital for passing barriers or dodging enemies and moving electrical fields. Before long you’re having to bounce around and blink all at once in sequences that require constant movement. It’s tough and challenging and certain sections will be repeated over and over and over.

Dying is perhaps where the biggest weakness in the game lies. The controls can feel a little twitchy at times and I don’t think we’ve ever been so frustrated by a character auto-climbing up a ledge they’ve grabbed onto. Death can also feel unfair with the blink ability very difficult to judge while in motion. What compounds the issue is that if you miss a jump or die, there are times you’ll have to repeat quite a large section to get back to where you were. Don’t even get us started on some of the bosses that just never seem to die either.

Frustration aside this is a very clever and well crafter game. You do get used to the controls and both the level and graphical design is of a standard that makes you want to persevere and get to the next section. The constant climb up the castle and gradual revelation of the mystery within it are engaging and will likely keep you striving until you reach the end. There will be some gamers who just won’t be able to cut it though and that’s a shame as this is a beautiful fairy tale that you really should try.

Overall 8/10