Friday, 31 October 2014

Mortal Kombat Review (Mega Drive)

Launching in 1992 amidst huge amount of hype and outrage, Midway’s Mortal Kombat went on to become a landmark title. The main selling point was of course blood in vast quantities, which set a trend for future video games. During matches the combination of punches, knives, spears and much more besides causes your opponent to shed pints of blood. 

Such oozing was on a scale never before seen and the levels of violence apparent were topped off with a brutal ‘finishing’ manoeuvre. Subzero, on reflection, was perhaps the main culprit with a move which had the Ninja removing the head of his victim with the moving spinal cord still attached. Surprisingly perhaps, Mortal Kombat was not all style over substance, as beneath the blood lay a decent (if not spectacular), game in its own right. 

As a simple one-on-one 2D fighting game, Mortal Kombat implements the usual contrived story often found in the genre. This time around the greatest warriors from earth have to face off against the creatures of ‘Outworld’ in a battle that will decide the future of the planet. A selection of seven cliched warriors range from the usual Bruce Lee rip off to more obscure characters like the God of thunder 'Raiden' and a dead Ninja from hell. 

Mortal Kombat is an American series, developed in a genre dominated by Japanese heavyweights. However, to its credit it maintains a unique flavour, partially due to the character designs. Mortal Kombat managed to set itself apart at the time of release through digitised visuals for the fights. The characters were incredibly realistic, something that stands up quite well even today- at least until they move. 

While characters are digitised the backdrops are drab by comparison and static - creating an uneasy juxtaposition between the two. Each character has sufficient animation but a few more frames whilst walking would have been appreciated, but overall it's acceptable and the blood is lavishly red. 

Blood and hype cast aside, the foundation of the game relied on a decent engine. It's certainly not up to the standards of the Street Fighter series, but good enough to avoid frustration for the player. However, matches can become a mass of projectile moves at times, as normal punches and kicks seem to lack something in the heat of battle. This over-the-top opera of violence and bizzare finishing moves set Mortal Kombat apart - even today. With the blood activated it actually helps the gameplay as when attacking everything seems to be more solid, giving the graphical illusion that punches are connecting with the other character something that was sadly lacking in the Super Nintendo version of the game. 

If there is a criticism to be found with the game it would have to be that apart from special moves the characters on offer are not dramatically different from one another. This is especially noticeable with the Ninja characters. This is only a minor gripe in a surprisingly enjoyable and playable title though. 

Overall, despite the hype, Mortal Kombat is well designed and implemented and certainly put Midway on the map. It offers a welcome experience, different from those offered by the Fatal Fury and Street Fighter series'. The inclusion blood and fatalities helps to make it really stand out from the crowd. With so many versions released on multiple platforms it is worth noting that the Mega Drive version is really the only one worth owning and is a worthy addition to any Sega owner’s collection. 

Overall 7/10

(Enter Blood Code at 'Code of the Warrior' Screen - ABACABB)

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Stealth Inc. 2: A Game of Clones Review (Wii U)

The first Stealth Inc game was a very taxing, very inventive platform/puzzle game that had players trying to lead their little clone through a series of test chambers with the aim being to get to the exit door of each stage. Stealth Inc. 2 is much the same but the production values, writing and story have all been upped and the fact it’s currently a Wii U exclusive gives Nintendo’s indie game library quite a boost.

The story isn’t exactly in-depth but it allows a dark edge of humour to subtly be placed throughout the game. It revolves around a lab employee who sits in second place in his companies productivity scores. Sitting just one point above him is his rival. It would all be fine if it weren’t for the fact that the clones keep escaping and not doing quite what they should.

You play the role of the helpless clone trying to escape the institute but finding yourself continually unable to resist the draw of taking on the test chambers. The new hub world acts to channel you around the institute with each completed test chamber opening new areas and giving the brief glimmer of hope that you might be getting close to finally escaping once and for all. It’s not dissimilar to the atmosphere created by Portal and that is certainly not a bad thing.

The levels themselves can only be described as devious. We certainly wouldn’t have thought you could have created so much with the basic tool set of trip switches, lasers and moving blocks. The original Stealth Inc. displayed some stunning level design and Stealth Inc. 2 seems to take it to a level beyond even that. The fact your unseen overseer keeps leaving you sarcastic comments as you go only adds to the atmosphere.

The hub world itself is one huge puzzle that gradually unlocks and needs to be traversed as you proceed. It really helps to pull the game together and adds much more charm to the game than the simple listed level approach of the first game. Little touches of design such as robot vacuums cleaning deserted corridors and employees going about their business help to create the illusion of the facility and also really differentiate the hub world from the self-contained levels.

The big addition is that some of the puzzles now involve other rescued clones helping you out. This can also be done through local co-op which adds yet another little treat into the mix. A few pieces of equipment are also on hand to shake things up a bit and the different ways these are used demonstrates yet more design genius from the developers. For instance – an inflatable buddy is seemingly there to act as a weight on switches. Soon though you will realise you can use it to propel yourself like a trampoline from it or use it to strand enemy robots. 

Though the original game was excellent we just found ourselves having even more fun with this one. The extra touches of humour, the even more inventive level design and the perfectly judged learning curve make this a real joy to play. There aren’t many games that make you feel so elated working your way through a level solving little pieces of puzzles that add up to a bigger solution.
As before there is a level editor included and players can then share their sadistic creations with the rest of the gaming community. This could well mean that there will be new levels for fans to play for many years to come. 

Overall, this really is an exclusive Nintendo should be shouting about. It takes all the elements from the excellent original and levels everything out while adding a big dollop of humour and some nice additional modes. It’s one of the most pure platform/puzzle experiences we’ve played for many a year and there is absolutely no reason for you not to buy it.

Overall 10/10

Monday, 27 October 2014

Iron Fisticle Review (PC)

Written by Tom Sharpe.

The days when you can sit next to a friend and JOIN IN are certainly back. The ease of controller-PC action has ushered in a good, hearty trend of pure local co-op experiences (see Risk of Rain for a golden example). And so, Iron Fisticle appears with those now familiar words, procedurally-generated etched across it's bow. But is it tempting enough to keep you coming back run after run?

Well simply, Iron Fisticle is a charming game, that has only just started to wear thin on us after four hours of play. You play a (or two if you're lucky enough to have a friend) knight who loses a bunch of food while napping on guard duty when an esurient eye appears from a vortex, taking lunch and yourself into a procedurally-generated dungeon nightmare. The premise is absolutely enough to justify your role in the game and all the better for it being playfully odd. The designers have keenly tapped into the simple and bizarre story setups that old coin-ops so often had.

In each Zelda-esque room, waves of enemies spawn, dropping aforementioned snacks (providing a fruit machine aesthetic) when dispatched. Other typical symbols appear in the arena, such as letters tablets, gems, health hearts and character buffs. Your standard weapon is a throwing axe which you wield in an 8-axis manner, but better tools become available to you in chests. A large part of the tension of this game is the weapon balancing, as your axe dispensing is only just quick enough to keep the hordes at bay, but tactical use of the extra gear clears a room in seconds. This provides moments of mob-carnage so multitudinous that you can't help but be pleased with yourself.

Aside from the weapons, you can dash to gain a movement advantage and also use your iron fist (icle) as a big hit “special” move, like those crazy bazooka cops in Streets of Rage. The game is as simple as that. You move through the dungeon-grid, clearing waves of enemies, gathering points and buffs, grabbing the key, moving on to the boss room. It is a simple, retro game at heart, but with an important alteration of persistent character improvement. Speed, health, damage buffs can be purchased which pertain to subsequent play-throughs, however I find any changes to be so subtle, I could not tell the difference. It does not have the gravitas of the similar persistent-item-gathering system in The Binding of Isaac, for example.

Iron Fisticle, however, rollicks along with tongue-in-cheek style, great design and effective, but slightly limited, soundtrack. A glaring problem needing to be fixed is the bonus rounds which work like the worst platformer this side of Pickle Wars. These sections are sometimes impossible to skip and provide so little benefit that they became a thorn in the fun, a real shame.

The rooms are, sadly, repetitive, undermining the great design work on show. The enemies are brash, colourful and varied, some parodies of classic mob types. Lighting effects on the special graveyard arenas add a touch of atmosphere lacking in the standard rooms. The procedurally-generated boast is somewhat weak, and perhaps with more elements to give greater variety, our interest may have been held for longer.

So, does Iron Fisticle stand as a roguelike that we will return to again and again for run after run? It certainly keept us playing and I’m sure will continue to do so, testament to the developers nailing the addictive factor much needed for this style of play. Sadly, however, it is not always a fulfilling run, due to slightly restricted freedom of path and the few niggles previously mentioned. We would, however, recommend Iron Fisticle to anyone who enjoys slaying some creatures with a buddy of an evening without pretension and with heaps of passion and fun for retro styling evident in the developers minds.

Overall 7/10

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Gabriel Knight :Sins of the Father 20th Anniversary Review (PC)

Back in the golden age of adventure games Sierra and Lucas Arts where at their creative peaks and produced numerous point and click classics. One of the best loved of these series’ was Gabriel Knight, a franchise that has stayed dormant since the third game in released way back in 1999. Now, one of best mysteries ever committed to code has had a facelift to bring it up to date for a new generation.

Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Father introduces us to the charismatic lead of the piece and his assistant Grace as they struggle to make Gabriel’s rare bookshop turn a profit. Gabriel is plagued by nightmares of a hanging man and also struggling to write a new fiction book centred on voodoo. As Gabriel investigates for the book he gradually becomes drawn into something more dangerous than he can possibly imagine.

The biggest change from the original game is the graphics. Environments are now 3D and everything has had a redesign and overhaul. On the whole the new locations look very good and it certainly doesn’t break the atmosphere of the original. There’s a bit more of a Noir influence going on as well which adds to feeling of danger and mystery. New voice actors have  been cast which means the game loses the talents of Mark Hamill and Tim Curry, a shame, but we soon got used to it.

The only other real shame is that certain fine details have been lost from the transition to the new look. New players won’t notice but the odd creative flourish like the repair man trying to fix the thermostat in the police station or being able to go up the ladder in the book shop have been removed. While this doesn’t really effect how the game plays it does take out some of the character at times.

The game is still point and click and has resisted the urge to move to the style that Broken Sword 3 and 4 have taken on. Most of the time you will be scanning the environments with the mouse for items and talking to characters to uncover clues. Finding things has been made easier thanks to a highlight button which shows up any onscreen areas of interested. This makes finding those pixel perfect objects much friendlier and the game is all the better for it. There is also a button which jumps you straight to the world map which speeds things up quite considerably.

As well as the new look the game has a selection of bonus content in the form of artwork and design comparisons. It’s quite interesting for the most part but could really have done with being put in a separate place. At the minute you can only access things from within individual locations. This means if you don’t look at the content right away and a place becomes unavailable then you’ve missed it. It also doesn’t help with the pacing and immersion when you have to keep breaking from the game to look at the stuff.

The game has had a few sections added as well. Some puzzles are made a little longer and certain items have moved around. The addition of block sliding puzzles is something we could have really done without though and it’s a blessing there are so few instances when things like this crop up. There’s also a slight change of pace with Gabriel only able to visit locations when they become relevant to what he needs to do in that day. It streamlines the experience a bit without taking away from it and does help to eliminate a fair bit of the aimless wandering while you work out what to do.

Any issue are very minor though and for the most part we really enjoyed getting back into the Gabriel Knight world and seeing how it had been changed and brought up to date. The strength of the story and characters holds true and it really is a tale that draws the player in and makes you need to find out how the mystery ends. 

The original game is certainly a classic and it’s still fully playable but we still have to recommend both fans and newcomers to try the remake. It doesn’t feel dated in terms of look or mechanics and that is a big compliment to both the original designers and writers and the team who have taken on the job of creating the new 3D world.

Overall, Gabriel Knight: The Sins of the Father is a game we are more than happy to see back in the limelight. It’s an excellently imagined tale that deserves to be experienced by a new generation and one that has more than enough to offer to keep you entertained. Those who like a good mystery or want to step back into Sierra’s voodoo tale won’t be disappointed.

Overall 8/10