Monday, 20 October 2014

The Sacred Tears TRUE Review (PC)

Sacred Tears is a traditional styled JPG that follows the story of two friends as they work their way to becoming master thieves. Styled like a 16-bit RPG of old there is a bit of magic around it and it certainly tries to do a few things differently. 

The look of the game suits the source material well and the pixel styled graphics catapults you back to the golden age of 16-bit RPGS. However, there is a distinct lack of graphical options and throwing the game into full screen mode makes everything seem horrible blurry. This isn’t great and is something that really should have been considered as not many people are going to want to use the tiny windowed mode that is available.

The way the game plays will also take a lot of getting used to. Combat is resolved around a card system with the player picking cards to represent attacking, defending, magic and special attacks. The higher the number of the card the better, as if it is stronger than the opponents then that is what will happen in the turn. The problem is it all seems a bit random and levelling up doesn’t really seem to do much to alter your card hand. When you get a hand full of ones it does make you wonder exactly what you are meant to do. If you die in combat it’s straight back to the menu screen as well which only compounds the frustration.

You can save anywhere which helps and levels are broken up in chapters but we felt very little progress with regard to the development of our character in terms of their combat abilities and everything just felt too random to be fun. That isn’t to say we didn’t enjoy any of our time with the game as the general adventure is a good one and the tale engaging- it’s just there is so much to put up with in order to enjoy it.

There are a whole host of systems at work within Sacred Tear to engage with as well. There are alchemy sections and the aim of saving up money is a key goal. There’s also a ton of side quests and extra things to do to gain more treasure and level up. So for those that do make a breakthrough in the game there is more than enough to keep you busy for a fair old while.

The real strength of the game is in the script and storytelling. Characters are charming and they interact well together. The world they inhabit is also interesting and filled with engaging characters. If you can get past some of the games problems there is certainly a tale of daring adventure to be experienced but it’s going to take some dedication to see it. 

Overall, The Sacred Tear TRUE certainly has some charm but we found it far too difficult to get into and make progress with. You’ll likely stick with it for a while due to the high standard of writing and characterisation but the core mechanics left us cold. With the combat system being such a chore it’s likely only a matter of time before you throw in the towel and look to something else to get your adventuring kicks from. A real shame as there is undoubted potential here.

Overall 6/10

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Pix the Cat Review (PS Vita)

The Vita has become a home for quirky and fun arcade experiences over the last few years but we’re not sure we’ve seen anything quite like Pix the Cat before. A sort of strange hybrid of Chu Chu Rocket, Snake and Pacman during his neon phase, it’s one odd cookie of a game and all the better for it.

The game has a simple premise – that being to get Pix the Cat to crack open eggs by moving around the squares of an enclosed arena and thus collect the ducklings within. The ducklings then follow in your footsteps and act like your tail would in Snake. You have to lead the ducklings to safe spots on the grid while avoiding dangers or getting yourself trapped in corners. It’s a simple premise but one that works very well.

If you can get all the chicks in a stage following you around you get a bonus. This also acts to speed up your cat. Your cat also speeds up every time he makes a sharp turn meaning that the game is constantly getting faster and faster. Once all the chicks in an area have been delivered home you can dive through a door to the next area and continue the hunt for points. Ever deeper you go with points stacking up, neon pulsing and music blaring away, all the while with a clock continually counting down to the end of your run.

Hitting your tail, an enemy or getting trapped in a corner doesn’t kill you but instead means you lose your points for the ducklings you are carrying and your combo meter drops. If you can keep the combo going long enough you’ll see the screen change to a sort of x-ray state and this allows Pix to crash into enemies for big points (like eating a super pill in Pacman).

As well as the arcade part of the game there is also the lab mode which is more of a puzzle type of thing. Here you have a par number of moves to try and aim for to solve a self-contained puzzle. It’s a change of pace from the normal pulsating action but one that is a more than welcome addition to the core formulae. 

As you progress and gain higher scores more and more options become available to you. You can play with both your and your friend’s ghosts on the screen from their best runs, alter the voices and drop into a number of additional modes. It all adds up to a nice package of bite sized arcade action. Our only really gripe is that there isn’t much here that going to appeal to people who don’t want to chase high scores as the level layout of the stages doesn’t really change apart from occasionally mirroring itself.

Overall, Pix the Cat is an unexpected and delightful addition to the Vita library. It’s taken the core elements from a few classic games and managed to create something fun and exciting from them. It’s not going to appeal to everyone but for those of you looking for a score attack game this could be the one to have you hooked for a very long time to come.

Overall 8/10         

Monday, 13 October 2014

Point and Click adventures - One Temptress, Some Broken Swords and a Home Made Robot

 The genre known as the 'point and click adventure' has all but died out in recent years - sadly, companies no longer consider them to be valid or profitable. But once upon a time many a computer owner knew the names of Lucasarts and Sierra who, along with many other companies, brought some of the most unique game worlds to life... worlds where players would wander around in order to collect sacred and ridiculous objects and swear at their monitors as characters blocked their quests (with the phrases like "that wouldnt work" and "I dont think that's a good idea"). Let us now take you back in time to the land of pockets the size of valleys, surreal humour and fiendish plots.

Lure of the Temptress

We start our journey into the world of pointing and clicking by stopping off at UK based Revolution Studios to see what they have added to an overflowing genre. Needless to say the developer's reputation is outstanding. It all started many years ago with Lure of the Temptress. Started in 1989 and released in 1992 on PC, Amiga and Atari ST, Lure of the Temptress is Revolution's first point and click adventure.

The plot revolves around the character of Diermot who somehow finds himself trying to save the town of Turnvale from an evil sorceress and her minions. The dialogue is very laboured and the it lacks the humour of later Revolution titles, however it is not without its charm and the surroundings are truly sublime for an ageing computer title.

Puzzles are a mixture of the extremely simple (get knife, cut bag) and the bizarrely obscure. It does have a number of nice features, such as being able to construct sentences to give orders out to NPCs, which helps to add a more unique feel to the proceedings. Overall, the title has not aged that well and newcomers may not see the appeal- although for its time this was a rather excellent adventure game and is fondly remembered by many people.

Beneath a Steel Sky

 A defining moment for both Revolution as a studio and the genre as a whole. Beneath a Steel Sky (BASS), follows the story of Robert Foster who is abducted and finds himself inside a huge city of tower blocks overseen by a super computer. Alone, apart from 'Joey' (a personality on a circuit board who can be placed into any available robot shell), you must find out why you where kidnapped and try to escape the polluted city and return home to the 'Gap' the wasteland outside the city where you where brought up by a wild tribe.

Beneath a Steel Sky is remembered for many things and most people find a conversation early on in the game provides the high point; three simple sentences delivered so well that it is even rumoured the production team lost weeks of work because of them (as they were too busy rolling on the floor with laughter). Those lines are simply:

Technician: "Where did you get that robot?"

Foster: "I built him, you like it?"

Technician: "It's crap son!"(Maybe you had to be there?)

Needless to say BASS is full of style and the unique humour of Revolution. The cityscape is a mixture of industrial smoke, rust and general grime subtly realised through the use of various tones of brown, green and grey. Backgrounds are mainly static but do the job well. The colour palette and static backdrops do mean the title looks drab a little too often, but then that is the point.The main injections of life come from the many brilliantly voiced characters you come across in your travels.

As has become one of the studio's strengths, the use of local dialects from around the British Isles is used to full effect to turn people into comic caricatures which makes every conversation a joy. Whether it be brummy police officers or the hard-faced, beaver skin coat-wearing factory boss, things are always made that little bit more over-the-top and hilarious by their accents complimenting a nigh on perfect script. It means, even if you do get stuck trying to work out the puzzle elements, the humour value of what would otherwise be a mundane conversation keeps frustration levels low and the will to progress strong.

This is advantageous as, although BASS is a classic title, it does contain a number of illogical puzzles, and finding small objects on the screen can prove near impossible (the putty on the floor, anyone?). Still, though there are faults, BASS is one of the best examples of point and click adventuring around, and any fan of the genre should have made their way through this gem of a title a long time ago.

The Broken Sword Series

 The humour and vocal style set down in Beneath a Steel Sky was then refined, polished and placed into one of the genre's defining moments - Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars. Taking the role of George Stobart (a sarcastic American tourist in Paris, who gets caught up in a hit-and-run bombing undertaken by an assassin dressed as a clown), players are flown all over the world to solve puzzles and get drawn ever deeper into a very dangerous web.

Bright, easy to negotiate screens and sharp graphics meant that even the smallest items were always easy to see, and the few animations in each screen gave the whole game much more vibrancy than any of the Revolution games that had come before it. The graphical style is much more like a comic and the excellent humour and high quality of the script meant players were left in awe of the game's subtle stylistic brilliance time after time. Another sign of growth and development in the Revolution camp is the structuring of the puzzles in the title. While previous titles had a number of either too simple or too obscure puzzle elements, Broken Sword's puzzles were complicated but could always be solved logically - a tone that remained throughout the entire series.

Truly Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars is a pinnacle in puzzle creation, as never have more devious, yet logically-constructed, problems been set down in a video game (causing more than one player to utter the words "of course! It was so obvious, why didnt I see it!" on numerous occasions) - except, of course, for the goat.

Perfect scripting, humour and puzzles aside, the thing that really keeps you hooked on the title is the plot, which is genuinely interesting. Even today, it is rare to have such an epic and splendid tale in a video game. It has everything and rightly ranks among the all time greats in the video game hall of fame. Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars proved so successful it spawned two sequels before a long wait until installment 4 arrived.

Broken Sword 2: The Smoking Mirror was set in the same style as the first game and while it contained the same excellent level of dialogue, the puzzles where not quite up to the exceptional standard of the first, and the plot was considerably less engaging. The introduction of George's partner Nico soured the experience for many players as her section lacked the sparky dialogue of George. While enjoyable, the game did nothing to move the genre forward.

Third time around, Revolution set out to - excuse the pun - revolutionise the genre by implementing new play mechanics into the core of the classic franchise. The point and click element had almost completely disappeared, replaced with a highly effective system to cope with 3D environments. Objects were easily seen and interacted with. However, like the previous title, the touch of genius surrounding the original game's puzzles was missing and controlling Nico's sections again proved to be something of a chore. This, coupled with an over-use of box moving puzzles, meant that, while the title remained good fun, humourous and a good continuation of the story, the revolution hoped for by the gaming public was sadly lacking.

Installments 4 and 5 followed some time after but neither did much to reignite the spark found in the early games. Enjoyable for fans, they just don't quite have the same level of quality as the rest of the series.

Friday, 10 October 2014

A Discussion of Cyber Punk in Video Games

'Any sufficiently advanced form of technology is indistinguishable from magic...' (Arthur C. Clarke)

'Cyberpunk' emerged as a sub-genre of sci-fi, and can be traced back to the early 1980s. Author William Gibson penned a series of novels (including Neuromancer) which narratively placed individuals in a new world of technology; where information became the new currency.

Thematically, the international settings of Japan, Los Angeles, London and Paris were linked through a hidden network of computers. With period films such as Tron, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, and Videodrome, the cyberpunk ethos was complete.Within such fertile space - be it novels, films or games - we are often presented with things that are not commonplace to us. These sometimes take the form of advanced mechanical devices, or different realms in which to explore and live. Humans themselves can even reach a higher stage of evolution - possibly developing new skills and abilities in the process - and thus be classified as 'cyberpunk'. It is these aspects that appeal to a global audience, but can also isolate them: because cyberpunk generally looks at the isolation of individuals in worlds where they do not seem to blend seamlessly with society.

As with texts which deal in pure fantasy, containing characters that may well be able to cast 'real magic' (or mythological creatures of enormous power such as dragons, vampires and demons etc.), cyberpunk can also be read in terms of theorist Todorov's idea of the "marvellous, uncanny and fantastic". This suggests that the two are more closely linked than would initially seem the case. For instance, when confronted by a flying car or hoverbike in Flashback or bionic implant in Deus Ex, it can be said that these create or instil such feelings of the "fantastic" as a flying carpet would. Because these things do not exist in our 'real' world, we may therefore question the reality on a literal level; indeed we may "marvel" at the depiction of something so obviously outside our frame of reference.

Games dealing with cyberpunk themes may well offer up mythological creatures within their narratives; however they are normally shown to us in terms of some form of technological monstrosity - as opposed to more traditional fantasy-themed or magically-endowed creatures. This can be called, as Todorov puts it, the "scientific marvellous": where the supernatural is explained in a rational manner but according to laws which contemporary science does not acknowledge - thus taking us away from the established repertoire of fantasy games where the 'marvellous' is characterised by the mere presence of supernatural events.Therefore, if such a close link exists between what we perceive as 'classic' fantasy (Zelda et al, swords 'n' sorcery, a distinct lack of guns), sci-fi and cyberpunk, why is it that cyberpunk has all but disappeared from the gaming world (notwithstanding a small surge of interest in the '90s - as evidenced by Flashback and Shadowrun)? Indeed, it appears that the sub-genre never fully realised its potential.

When we look back upon gaming's past we can pinpoint specific moments where cyberpunk was ushered forth as an 'alternative' - and somewhat ironically where the sub-genre met its match. One game, or perhaps more accurately, one series which was sublimated by Final Fantasy VII, hit the western market quite unexpectedly - and was filled with the decay and feel that runs central to the core dynamic of any cyberpunk-themed adventure; fusing 'real' elemental magic with the heavy overtones of industrial-strength monsters, leaking reactors and extracted energy (which also compressed into 'magical materia'). The problem with cyberpunk is that it is always a subdivision of two main genres - ie, fantasy and sci-fi - and when marketing a title it needs to be securely 'pigeon-holed' (or at least the games industry supposes it should be). One could thus imagine a conflict of interest when trying to 'sell' a game on the basis of its neo-magical theme - where commercially it is far easier to frame such games in more recognisable or traditional settings.

With Final Fantasy VII proving a runaway success, Squaresoft could either consolidate the genre or attempt to break from it. They gambled upon the latter, providing an almost 'Utopian' world for the character-driven sequel. By moving away from the dark and gloomy undertones so prevalent in films such as Blade Runner, and opting for a clean and sanitised aesthetic for the futuristic cities and environs (perhaps more reminiscent of Minority Report), Squaresoft effectively killed off - or forever shifted the focus from - the cyberpunk influence in mainstream culture. And then a final, devastating blow: FFVIII was not accepted in the same way as its predecessors - while it has a fanbase, it is notably the most despised Final Fantasy title on the market; criticised for (among other things), straying too far from the 'feel' of the series... What irony then, that this sterile 'real' world should cause a public outcry.From this point on there was only one way to proceed; the masses had spoken and realism was not on the agenda.

Unsurprisingly the next Final Fantasy title reverted to its classic fantasy-themed roots and was once again hailed by the public. It seemed there was no available niche in the gaming market where sci-fi and fantasy could happily coalesce and/or foster longevity, as the audience for both genres wanted different things. Sci-fi fans wanted more realistic-looking environments, bigger weapons, aliens, robots etc. and the fantasy fans wanted swords 'n' sorcery et al. So the inevitable happened, and developers decided to play it safe (perhaps nestling in their preferred pigeon-holes).

The moral of our tale: with any predominantly-themed 'Cyberpunk' game you are never really sure what you are getting; and if there is one thing publishers and developers do not like it's uncertainty from the buying public. Hence the reason the sub-genre has never really established itself - apart from Final Fantasy VII and Deus Ex, there are very few 'successful' cyberpunk titles. Why bother trying to unite two seemingly disparate genres in the hopes of an underground hit, when you can safely 'secure' your title in either of the alternate markets and almost guarantee success with a corresponding chunk of the public? Perhaps someday someone will take another chance with cyberpunk... let's hope so, because the brief history of the sub-genre has historically been responsible for some of gaming's - and contemporary culture's - best moments.

References: Butler, Andrew M, (2000) Cyberpunk (Harpenden: Pocket Essentials), Springer, Claudia (1999) Psycho-Cybernetics in the Films of the 1990s, Alien Zone II (London and New York: Verso), Landsberg, Alison (1995) Prosthetic Memory: Total Recall and Blade Runner (Body and Society Volume 1), Todorov, T. (1975) The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre