Friday, 3 November 2017

Thimbleweed Park Review (Nintendo Switch)

In recent years the classic point and click adventure has had a bit of a revival. We’ve had very welcome remasters of Day of the Tentacle and Grim Fandango and new properties such as Broken Age. This along with the rise of rise of the various Telltale Games series’, The Longest Journey’s long awaited third episode and Broken Sword 5 shows the genre is certainly back on the map.

Thimbleweed Park is perhaps the highest profile throwback to the idea of old school point and click games to appear in many a year. Whereas many of the other games have embraced new systems or at least worked on the systems from the later era Lucas Arts games, Thimbleweed harks way back to the early output of the aforementioned company with a system closer to that of Maniac Mansion - Only this time it’s designed to be far more user friendly.

The game initially follows two FBI agents who are drawn to the small town of Thimbleweed to investigate a murder. As the adventure progresses you are placed in control of a further three characters who are introduced via flashbacks. All five have their own motivations and goals as well as inevitably coming together as the plot thickens about the strange goings on in the town. The whole thing is presented in an older pixel style and carries a heavy Twin Peaks/X Files kind of vibe that works well with the odd-ball inhabitants and feeling of the town.

For the uninitiated, Thimbleweed follows the tried and test point and click adventure model. As you explore the town you will come across items which you collect. These items are then normally combined with other items or used in order to solve puzzles. For instance, at the very start of the game you need to find a stone to smash a light so you can move forward unseen. Moving your character is done by dragging a cursor around the screen and clicking or holding down one of the buttons to direct your character to wherever the cursor is moving. You also have a list of commands such as ‘Give’ or ‘Pick Up’ which can be accessed via button pushes or the cursor which need to be combined to complete certain actions. For instance, you would click ‘Pick up the rock’ then click ‘Use the rock on the light’ to smash it.

The puzzles themselves are fairly logical once you get your head around the way the game wants you to think. There’s certainly nothing here as bizarre and crazy as seen in many other games such as Monkey Island or Day of the Tentacle. For those new to the genre there is also a casual mode which removes a lot of the puzzles (and even some locations), while still allowing you to experience the story. If you want the full experience but still get stuck there is an in game help line that can be called from the phones dotted around town that will keep you on track. It helps keep things moving but some may find the temptation too much when they find themselves facing a frustrating puzzle. If there is one major criticism, it’s that there is a little bit of overreliance on using the towns phonebook to solve problems by calling up specified numbers.

The characters are for the most part fairly standard fair but there are a few that leave a lasting impression such as the town Sheriff and the five main characters themselves. The plot holds up well for the most part providing an interesting tale and one that always hints at something more just beneath the surface. It’s hard to say much without giving it away but the whole thing goes a bit too meta for our personal taste towards the end and a few too many questions are left unanswered but it’s certainly a game we’ll return to in the future.

Overall, we found Thimbleweed park to be an enjoyable throwback to the days and style of early point and click adventures. We really like the fact it has gone down the Manic Mansion route as it sets itself apart both visually and in tone from the many other new games in the genre. The story kept us entertained (even if we were a bit disappointed by the conclusion), and the characters are fun to mess around with. There have also been just enough concessions made in terms of hints and moving around the place to keep things low on frustration. Thimbleweed succeeds at being both a love letter to games from the past and something relevant for gamers today and is certainly a game not likely to be forgotten by any who play it.

Overall 8/10

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Disgaea 5: Alliance of Vengeance Complete Review (Switch)

It seems like a life time ago that Etna erupted onto the scene in the first Disgaea game. From that moment massive number crunching became a way of life for many console gamers and there have been few games since that are so humorously twisted and crazy. Disgaea 5: Alliance of Vengeance is the sixth console game in the series and first appeared on the PS4. The complete addition has now its way to Switch and as you might expect it has more than enough packed into it to keep you occupied for hundreds of hours.

As usual the plot revolves around an overlord trying to take power. This time it is Seraphina who is the daughter of the king of the Gorgeous Underworld. Along with a host of other odd overlords she bands together with the mysterious Killia to try and destroy the evil demon emperor Void Dark who has decided to take over the entire universe. There are also Prinnies.

It’s another mad cap adventure with Seraphina fascinated by the fact she can’t use her magic to charm Killia and the two jet around the universe on a giant space ship which is used as your hub between levels. Instead of different regions for each episode you are now going to different realms which adds a nice epic feel to the game as you try and repel Void Dark.

We could spend pages talking about all the systems in Disgaea by now and this version adds even more into the mix. All the previous systems such as the geo-panels and skill levelling return and work much in the same way as the last version of the game. There is a new revenge mechanic which raises damage given and reduces damage taken when a bar is filled by your team being attacked. Overlords also get special attacks when in the revenge state – these are wide ranging and include skills like turning into a giant or charming the enemy.

Later in the game there is also a squad system which allows your team to be split into different groups and differing effects then being added to the leaders of the group who take the battle field. The item world is now more ridiculously packed with things than ever with copious amounts of random events and encounters that you’ll need more than one lifetime to uncover. There are also side quests to complete and extra levels that stretch way off into the distance after the main campaign has ended. This game could literally last you forever and it’s highly unlikely you are going to see all it has to offer and now you have all the DLC to get through as well.

Despite all the systems we found this fairly friendly for newcomers to the series. Each new element is explained well (and also quite quickly), and there is the option to skip tutorials for anyone who already knows how they work. It’ll certainly take a while to get to grips with things but there isn’t an assumption that gamers will have followed the series all the way to this point so if you’ve ever wondered about Disgaea this is as good a place as any to start.

One very good change is a slight adjustment to the geo-panels. As well as being slightly textured now they also display more information when highlighted. This information includes what colour the panel is which means colour blind gamers no longer have to see their best strategies scuppered by a light green block sitting in amongst the yellow ones. The item world has also had a slight shift with an emphasis now placed on winning each level rather than just charging to the exit.

If there is one slight criticism we have it is that the dialogue doesn’t seem as on the mark as in the best of the previous games. The exchanges between Seraphina and Killia never really reach that of Etna and Laharl or Adell and Rozaline. It’s still very solid and entertaining but just lacking a bit of magic and chaos and nothing that made as chuckle as much as Valvatorez and his continual battle cry of SARDINES!

Overall, Disgaea 5: Alliance of Vengeance keeps the series’ trademark high standard of quality going. This has to be among the deepest strategy games ever and if there’s anything with more content outside of an MMO we’ll be amazed. If you like Disgaea then this is a justification to own a Switch and you can’t really give a game much higher praise than that and with the ability to now take it everywhere you go this could become all life consuming in a way little else can.

Overall 9/10

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap Review (Nintendo Switch)

Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap, is one of the most iconic and sort after games on Sega’s Master System. As such, a great deal of care needed to be taken in order to make sure that the new version of the game lived up to fans expectations. We are happy to report that right from the off it is clear that pretty much everything is right from a retro fans point of view and very little of the core magic has changed from the original. 

For those who are unfamiliar ‘The Dragon’s Trap’ starts at the end of Wonder Boy in Monster Land where, as you deal the final blow to that games end boss, you are cursed to take the form of a lizard. You then spend the game exploring the world trying to return yourself to human form. As you explore you pick up other forms which grant abilities that allow you to explore previously unreachable places in a kind of Metroidvania lite way.

As you progress you can also pick up new armour, shields and swords that enhance your attack and defence stats. This along with extra hearts and perishable special weapons such as fireballs, arrows and whirlwinds form the basis of your offense against the many beasties you encounter along the way. As a concession to modern audiences equipment can now be purchased at any time rather than requiring magical stones to be found first. This certainly streamlines the experience for the better.

The game has been reversed engineered using the code from the original Master System game and so remains pretty much identical in terms of how it plays. This means Wonder Boy handles much the same in terms of leaping around platforms and the difficulty remains challenging. This may take some getting used to for those unaccustomed with 8-bit games but it’s certainly fair and beatable by most people. The one thing that is a very welcome removal is the flickering and slow down that haunted the original in places. The lack of other changes is a relief as the game holds up remarkably well in terms of core platform/adventure gameplay. 

The one thing it really is crying out for is some kind of quick save function as newcomers may soon tire of having to repeat sections over and over when they die. While you can save in the main village you will need to go on your adventure to a part of the world, defeat the enemy, and return in one piece in order to make sure you don’t lose and progress. The individual areas of the world aren’t huge so after practice it should be fairly straightforward but having to battle back to end of area bosses is something we’ve never been particularly fond of. As an added bonus the game accepts original passwords from the Master System version of the game. (As a side note – the developer didn’t have the rights to use assets from the Turbo Grafx version)

With the core experience the same the major new addition is the gorgeous graphical face lift the game has been given. Environments now look highly detailed and full of character and help to enhance the strengths of the game. There are options present to switch between the new and old graphics and music so you can play with any combination you like at the touch of a button. It also allows for a quick comparison between the old and new look of the game and the difference is unsurprisingly staggering. 

Overall, Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap is a considered and excellent remake of a classic game. A few slight changes to stream line the experience and a graphical overhaul were all that was really needed and the developer has taken great care to make sure the game is as faithful to the original as possible. The structure of the game is undeniably 8-bit but then that is no bad thing when the original is one of the most iconic games of the era. This does everything it sets out to do excellently and both fans and newcomers should have great fun exploring the world and taking on a game of rare quality.

Overall 8/10

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