Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Blood Bowl 2 Review (PS4)

Blood Bowl in one form or another has been around for a very long time. It started out as an incredibly lengthy and complex board game and then moved to something with much more pace to it around the third edition of the games rule revision. It was here in 1994 that we at Retro 101 first really fell in love with the game as it required much less commitment in terms of time and money than many of Games Workshop's other releases. The last digital version of the game was excellent (on PC at least), so we were more than ready to dive right into the sequel.

In truth not that much has changed from the first version of the game on the PC. There are strong graphical improvements and the commentator characters are nice (even if they do repeat themselves a little too often).  But the rules and way the games play out isn’t much different. This is actually a good thing as the last thing you want is to start mucking around with the rule set for the sake of it. It does mean that Blood Bowl is still a turn based strategy game much in the same way as Space Hulk: Ascension or Talisman.

The graphical improvements are very noticeable as well with every crunch and thud drawing quick intakes of breath from players. The stadiums and crowds are also much more detailed and it really does help to draw you into the fantasy world of blood and touchdowns.

The main addition is the campaign mode which has players take hold of the Human team – the Reikland Reavers, who have fallen on hard times and had their star player disappear after building up a sizable debt with a group of ogres. The campaign acts to introduce you to all the basics of how the game flows as well as showing how hiring and firing staff and players works and sorting out the stadium and other matters away from the pitch. For newcomers it’s a much more approachable introduction than in the first game and it’s both sizable and fun to play through.

For those not familiar with Blood Bowl it’s basically a fantasy version of American football where different races of creatures square off against each other. The aim is to score touchdowns but more often than not it just turns into a massive fight. Different races have different strengths and weaknesses (with Elves being quick and agile while Orcs are strong and slow for instance), and it’s about working your strategy to play to your strengths while anticipating how your opponent is going to approach you. 

Everything is carried out via dice rolls with blocking, throwing, catching and even picking up the ball at the mercy of the specially designed blood bowl dice. When players are tackled they can also be stunned, injured or killed for added drama and there are numerous events such as pitch invasion or players being pushed into the crowd never to be seen again. It’s wonderfully crazy and chaotic while also being deep in terms of strategy needed to succeed.

This version comes with eight races available from the start with the Humans, Orcs, Dwarves, Chaos, High Elves, Dark Elves, Skaven and newcomers the Bretonnians ready for action. It’s considerably less teams than the last game ended with and with Lizard Men and Wood Elves already available as DLC it’s fairly obvious that the others will be making an appearance in the same way later on. It would have been nice to see more teams added from the start though as eight really isn’t enough.

Aside from the single player campaign there are leagues you can set up and play against the AI with pre-made teams or you can start your own. There is also a small amount of team management involved with the buying and selling of players and the development of the team’s stadium and it should keep you occupied for a while. There are of course online options and this is where Blood Bowl should really shine as players test out their plans against each other. How long the community lasts for on the PS4 remains to be seen.

Overall, this is undoubtedly the best version of Blood Bowl to appear in console form. It’s far superior to the previous console version of the original game and it kept us more than happy for far too many hours. It’s a more difficult sell to PC gamers who may have the Chaos edition of the older game with almost all the races included. Aside from the limited races though there is very little to dislike and it will keep both strategy and Games Workshop fans occupied for weeks. It’s also decidedly cheaper than trying to track down the board game and teams.

Overall 8/10

Monday, 5 October 2015

Arcana Heart 3: love Max!!!! Review (PC)

The Arcana Heart series has been largely ignored by western audiences over the years. Even the first version of Arcana Heart 3 did little to make an impact on the established brands of Street fighter and BlazBlue. Arcana Heart 3: Love Max!!!! has taken the 2011 version of the game and reworked it to try and build on a solid template and make one more attempt to hit the sweet spot for fight game fans.

The unique selling point of the series is that it contains an all-girl cast. Don’t worry though, this isn’t one of the highly questionable Japanese titles that are borderline pornographic. Characters here are for the most part treated in a much better way than female characters can sometimes be. The other key gimmick is that the base characters can be combined with a large range of magical ‘Arcana’ spirits to give staggering depth and flexibility in how you want fight.

Arcanas are basically huge magical beings that give extra powers, attack and defence options (Think of them like the summon or guardian force creatures in the final fantasy series). A defensively weak character could choose a defence orientated Arcana to boost that area of their skills for instance or emphasise one of their abilities even more. As well as boosting attack and defence they also each have unique special moves and abilities and getting the balance right is the key to success.

The biggest problems fight fans will face is that there is no introduction to the game mechanics or characters. It has become fairly standard practice now for character related trials and tutorials to be introduced in fighting games. Here there is nothing of the sort with just a standard training option to go into and play around with moves. Unless you dig through to the digital manual it is highly unlikely you’ll ever work out what half the meters and bars do in the game. This is a pretty major oversight and it’s likely to greatly impact how you get on with the game as it’s not something that is easy to just pick up and play.

This isn’t helped by the fact that hardly any of the characters are newcomer friendly either. There are no real Ryu or Ken a-likes and with so many characters to choose from it becomes a case of picking one and seeing what comes of it. For those that persevere there is a highly entertaining and complex fighting game underneath but unless you’re willing to put in the hours it’s questionable if you ever really know what you are doing. This coupled with some ridiculous pad inputs which are near impossible to pull off without some kind of fight stick means casual fight fans are likely to want to look elsewhere.

When it’s in full flow Arcana Heart certainly looks lovely and the speed never lets up. You’ll have special moves flying everywhere with the backgrounds changing from summer to winter as characters initiate time lapsing moves and Arcanas crash into the arena. It’s unlike pretty much any other fighting game and once you get to grips with it, it offers something unique in an ever growing genre.

Overall, Arcana Heart 3 Love Max!!!! is certainly an improvement other the base version of the game with more polish, balance and flexibility added to the battles. That said, it is still far too impenetrable for newcomers to the series and the last boss remains a terrible encounter on a multi levelled arena that we could have really done without. Once you know how everything works it’s a real joy to play but we can’t see anyone but the hard core fight fan even getting close to that level without the addition of some kind of tutorial system.

Overall 7/10

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

No Mercy Review (N64)

Retro wrestling games can be a strange thing to go back to. Most consist of simply picking wrestlers with identikit sets of moves and then hammering away at which ever button makes moves happen until the controller breaks or someone wins. There are of course exceptions to the rule such as Fire Pro and also some of the Playstation and N64 wrestlers such as No Mercy. As a newcomer to the game we dived in to see if it still holds up today.

The final game from Acclaim’s Nintendo series built on the excellent foundations laid down in Wrestlemania 2000 and pushed the concept just about as far it could go on the hardware at the time. There’s no button bashing in sight either as the unique grapple system is based on timing and single button presses. A simple system is in place with the A button being used for grapples and B for strikes. Holding down the buttons then allows for stronger but slower moves. Once you have grappled you can then press a direction with A or B to perform different moves.

As a system it works well with the left and right shoulder buttons being used to counter moves and block strikes respectively. Pulling off moves and taunts gradually fills your attitude meter which will eventually start to pulse. When this happens you need to perform a taunt which then turns the pulsing bar into the ‘Special’ bar for a short period of time. When ‘Special’ is flashing you then have access to your superstar’s trademark moves. This includes their finisher but also any other unique turnbuckle or grapple techniques as well.

Though each superstar can carry out a fairly wide range of moves many of them are repeated through the roster. This can make the game feel a little samey after long periods of play but certainly doesn’t derail the experience. The other issue the game has is that it moves at a much slower pace than many grapple fans will be used to. You’ll also have to get your timing right as superstars need to complete their animation cycles in order to do their next move. This means pressing grapple slightly too early will result in nothing happening. 

The biggest thing which shows up the game is when you need to take part in handicap matches. Slamming one opponent and then trying to focus on the next opponent will almost always be too slow and thus allow the remaining wrestler to grab you first. It was the only really frustrating match type we found with all the others (including Ladder Matches, Royal Rumble and Hardcore Matches) working excellently.

The main draw of the game is the excellent single player mode on offer. Each belt has its own set of storylines assigned to it for you to complete. Most belts have a set of around six to eight sections with different branches to take on depending how you get on in each match. Completing a belt storyline allows that belt to be defended in exhibition modes and can then also be defended as the champion’s storyline in the campaign. You also get to see how much of the belt’s storyline has been experienced with a single run through normally resulting in around fifteen to twenty-five percent completion.

There are also a whole host of things to unlock as you play. As well as new moves and costume parts you can also buy a few superstars in the Smackdown shop with the in game currency acquired while playing the single player mode. Most can be unlocked in the game as well and they range from Referee Earl Hebner and Jim Ross to Jerry Lawler and Legend Andre the Giant (though you’ll have to survive a very long and tough survival mode to have any chance of getting him). 

Another real strength of the game is the excellent roster of superstars available. As well as the high profile stars from the era such as The Rock, Steve Austin and HHH you also get pretty much all the rest of the roster at the time. This is important as there are storylines for the Light Heavy Weight, European and Hardcore titles so having a sizable roster of wrestlers who were active in those divisions adds an excellent level of authenticity. It also acts as a snap shot in time of the WWE as you can play as wrestlers such as Crash Holly and Essay Rios who only ever really worked on the lower card. It’s a great way of experiencing the ‘attitude’ era and matching up many peoples favourite wrestlers. The fact that a handful of the superstars have passed away (such as The Big Bossman, Crash Holly, Eddie Guerrero etc.) means this is likely the best way to remember your favourites.

Overall, No Mercy still holds up as an excellent wrestling game and we would recommend any grapple fan to seek it out. It’s a little slow and is obviously not going to look great on huge HD televisions but once you get used to it there is a fun and rewarding game here. The grapple system still works and the story mode is one of the best ever seen, it’s full of things to unlock and play with and it’ll keep you occupied for hours.

Overall 8/10

Monday, 28 September 2015

Disgaea 5: Alliance of Vengeance Review (PS4)

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 the first for the PS4 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.

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.

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 PS4 and you can’t really give a game much higher praise than that. 

Overall 9/10