Tuesday, 19 August 2014

The Last Ninja Review (C64)


Think back in time to when music was going through that New Romantic thing, people thought shell suits were the height of fashion and Ninjas were very cool. In the eighties there were many titles featuring everyone's favourite import from the East. Most of these titles were terrible but a few managed to capture the Ninja spirit, such as System 3's The Last Ninja series.

The story goes that during a secret ritual the evil 'Shogun' sprung a trap and killed all of the Ninjas except for one. The Shogun's aim was to steal a scroll that contained the secret of Ninjitsu. Now you must go into the warlords land and reclaim the scroll. Yes indeed, ladies and gentleman, welcome to a much simpler time where plots were made up on the bus to work.

The title is played from an isometric perspective. Everything on screen is clear thanks to a simple colour palette and clearly drawn graphics. This means that even going back to the game now it still looks passable. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the sound. The C64 is not really up to the task and we are left with a combination of irritating high pitched noises trying to pass themselves of as a soundtrack. This is a shame but something you have to expect from many retro titles.

What is truly remarkable about The Last Ninja is the sheer amount of weapons and moves available. The Ninja can kick, punch and block as well as being able to somersault along a full three-hundred and sixty degree axis. You will need to use all the ninja's versatility as there are many tricky and unforgiving jumping sections ready to put your skills to the test. Just mentioning the swamp and river sections to many will see them start to shake uncontrollable with fear.

In terms of weapons there are (among other things), a Katana, Long Staff, Nunchucks, Shurikens and Smoke Bombs. Each weapon acts in a different way allowing players to change their style depending upon what their opponent is armed with. There are also numerous items to pick up to help aid puzzle solving. The best part of it is you get almost everything in the first section of the game, meaning you truly feel prepared for what may lie ahead.

Though level design is generally of a high standard they do get less enjoyable the further into the game you get. It never completely spoils the experience however. Each area is different from the last in both design and graphical representation and range from the outskirts of the Shogun lands to the dungeons and court yard of the highly fortified palace.

What raises the title up an extra level are the little touches that have been lavished upon it. The whole experience of finding the weapons and items is highly enjoyable. Getting certain objects really makes players think - taking a claw from a stone lion statue to help climbing for instance, or taking a large Bamboo cane to use as your staff are just a few moments of invention shown by the development team.

Overall, The Last Ninja achieves something very special. Due to the great control system and solid graphical style it still feels great and fresh today. If the control system was given a slight tweak to make it more flexible, and the graphics given an overhaul, the title could be released on a hand held system quite easily. It is very hard in places, but then that goes with the territory for the time of release. The Last Ninja is a classic game that deserves to be played by everyone

Overall  9/10

Monday, 21 July 2014

Ape Escape 3 Review (PS2)


Monkeys, there is just something about them that makes people laugh. If ordinary monkeys can entertain then adding a silly costume, a hat with a flashing light and using them to parody Hollywood can only be a recipe for success.

Ape Escape 3 works on the same premise as the first two titles in the series. Taking control of either a male or female character you must search around the levels catching a set amount of monkeys before being able to move on. This time around the levels are themed around various films ranging from Beauty and the Beast and Titanic to Howls Moving Castle and Star Wars. Only now monkeys play all the roles.

All the levels throughout the game are well designed and creative. There may not be strictly speaking anything truly ground breaking on show but what is here is highly enjoyable, with all the film set styled levels being well thought out. The difficulty is set fairly low, but even though you may not find yourself faced with death too often there are so many monkeys to catch and locations to get see that it hardly matters.

Playing through the title for the first time will probably take somewhere between six and eight hours depending on if you commit to catching all the monkeys from each stage. Once completed however more monkeys become available to catch along with the mini game ‘Mesal Gear’ which is more than enough to keep the players interest for a fair amount longer.

As the name suggests ‘Mesal gear’ is a parody of everyone’s favourite ageing stealth hero. Here we find that Snake has been captured and the only one who can save him is a highly trained monkey in a silly hat. What follows is a selection of sections taken from the regular Metal Gear titles re-made with monkeys. It sounds like the most stupid idea in the world but somehow it works.

Mountains of extras aside, the only major addition to the main gameplay comes in the form of the many themed personas that the player can take on. These allow your character to use special powers for a limited time such as wall running or firing pistols. Unfortunately, though it is a decent idea, in execution most places where the special powers need to be used are heavily signposted.

The main idea behind the Ape Escape series has always revolved around the use of the dual analogue sticks. The original playstation version of the game pioneered the approach and the gadgets on display here are still operated by using the sticks in a number of different ways (such as rotating through three-hundred and sixty degrees to hover for instance). However, the selection of gadgets available has hardly changed since the first title which is disappointing. This means that veterans of the series may find things a little too familiar for their liking.

Ape Escape 3 may not be about to set the platforming world alight but to dismiss the game (or indeed the series as a whole) would be incredibly short sighted. Although over familiar at times the title is always a highly enjoyable and imaginative affair. It may not be seen as an essential purchase by many but it certainly is a lot more fun than many other games. Ape Escape 3 is a good game filled with several tons of extras, three very good mini games and comes at a fairly cheap price. For those looking for some stress free monkey catching antics it is hard to think of a better place to turn to.

Overall 7/10

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Dragon Fantasy: Book 1 Review (PS3/Vita)


Dragon Fantasy has taken a very long time to come to the EU Playstation store. Launching on iOS in 2011 and in the US around a year or so ago, we’d pretty much given up on it ever seeing the light of day over here until it suddenly appeared without warning. It’s a game based heavily in the 8-bit RPG genre and takes us back to the days of a more simple adventure. 

The game it split into three chapters, each of which follows the story of a different person. There’s Ogden, an aging knight looking to prove his worth and protect the kingdom, Prince Anders and the thieving pair of Jerald and Ramona. Any chapter can be played from the off but starting with Ogden is the best idea as they more or less run in chronological order.

The biggest influence on the game is very clearly the Dragon’s Quest series and this could easily be mistaken for one of the early games. The churches where you save are pretty much the same and some of the same mechanics are also in place. The general graphical style is also much closer to Dragon’s quest than other RPG’s.

The combat and systems are very basic compared to what we have come to expect. Combat is turn based and you can attack and cast spells but that is about it. You can change weapons and armour and explore a world map but there is nothing particularly fresh or innovative going on. That isn’t of course a bad thing as such as it allows for a stripped down game which is easily accessible and certainly fits mobile gaming fairly well.

The writing and story are also pretty decent. The characters are likable and there are some nice touches of humour going on. The problem comes when you hit a grinding wall. The system follows Dragon’s Quest in that when you die you are returned to the last church you saved at (losing half your gold). However, unlike most of Dragon’s Quest games we found ourselves getting bored very quickly when we couldn’t progress. 

The main reason for this is that you seem to move forward at a snail’s pace sometimes. It can take a while to level up and if you are saving up for armour or weapons and get beaten you have to start over again. Combat also takes a bit too long with far too many button presses required to move text forward. It all ends up becoming a bit tired and the urge to progress soon begins to disappear.

The other major problem the game has is that for the same price you can pick up a host of PS1 and PSP RPG’s which are deeper and generally a bit more spectacular to play. That isn’t to take away from the development team here- it’s not realistic to expect a small studio to be developing titles to rival Final Fantasy VII. But the fact remains you could be playing that for around the same price.

We did start out having fun with the game but sadly it didn’t really hold our attention for more than a few hours. It’s too samey and the design of dungeons and enemies just doesn’t quite cut it on the PS3 and Vita. On iOS we can certainly see why it’s had success but it’s going to take a lot more than this to draw gamers away from the likes of Persona 4 or one of the many PS1 games on offer.

Overall, Dragon Fantasy tries to recreate a nostalgic buzz around early RPG’s, the problem is can you think of any truly iconic ones in terms of how they played? The great games tended to come in the sixteen bit era when the likes of Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy and Breath of Fire really found their feet. What that means is that Dragon Fantasy is an interesting look back at the history of the genre but not one you want to spend any great amount of time with.

Overall 5/10

Monday, 14 July 2014

Shovel Knight Review (PC)


Shovel Knight has been looking like a good game for a very long time. Another in the long line of retro styled platformers, it always seemed to have something a little bit special about it. It’s taken a while to get here and we are delighted to say that it seems to have been very much worth the wait. 

The game follows the tale of Shovel Knight who used to act as one of the champions of the land, defending it from evil along with his companion Shield Knight. One day the two knights fall fowl of a cursed amulet in a magic tower. Shovel Knight awakens to find Shield Knight has been sealed in the tower and the entrance is now impassable. While Shovel Knight hides away from the world the evil forces of the enchantress take hold. In doing so she unseals the magic tower and Shovel Knight sets off to rescue Shield Knight and stop the evil.

Shovel Knight is a platform game that wears its influences very plainly on its sleeve.  There’s a  bit of Mega Man in there, (though you don’t take powers from fallen bosses), Some Duck Tales style bouncing, a bit of Castlevania 2 and 3 with the sub weapons and even a touch of Dark Souls. The thing that sets it all apart though is while all these elements are identifiable the game feels like something unique. It’s not just a trip down memory lane but a game that has taken key elements and forged its own identity with them.

The graphics and music are 8-bit themed and it certainly feels like the sort of thing you could be playing on a NES or Master System. Despite the potential limitations of the style each level is filled with detail and they each have their own clear identity. This is where the main Mega Man influence comes and it keeps things fresh as you never really know how an enemy boss knight’s stage is going to have to be approached until you get into it.

The adventure is set across a map screen with locks at the edge of it. Defeating the correct enemy boss knights releases the locks and allows you to move to the next section. As well as the enemy castles there are villages where you can get new gear and special levels which offer up gems or unique adventures for our hero to conquer (You can also go and speak to a big fish thing which fills up empty chalices with magic). You’ll need all the gems you can find as it acts as the in game currency and allows you to buy a whole host of secondary weapons and shovel and armour upgrades.

It should be pointed out that though the game is called Shovel Knight, this is not a title in the same vein as Steam World: Dig or Spelunky. It’s very much a platformer in the Mega Man or Castlevania style with skilful jumping and boss fights on the menu for intrepid explorers. The game is challenging but it has a very well balanced difficulty curve and we never felt completely out of our depth. Levels also have a large amount of checkpoints and there is no lives system in place so you can keep continuing. The main penalty for death is losing a chunk of your money. When this occurs it hangs around the area you died and must be reclaimed. If you die again then it’s gone, much like Dark Souls.

It’s a game wants you to keep playing it. The constant supply of gems and available upgrades, the gradual revealing of the map, the extra levels – it all just keeps you wanting to see what else is out there and what’s going to be next and there is always something more to see. You’ll get random monsters and bosses roaming the map like in Mario 3 or pick up a new weapon and be able to complete a level you couldn’t before. You’ll just keep going and going until the end and then there’s always new game +.

Overall, Shovel Knight is a brilliant game. Everything is does it does well and everything works. It’s balanced and challenging and constantly offers up new surprises. The controls work perfectly, the levels and enemies are well designed and there’s a nice chunk of humour in there as well. This probably is it for the 8-bit retro styled platformer as to beat this would really take something. We tried and tried but it simply cannot be faulted. It’s just a magnificent game.

Overall 10/10