Wednesday 30 January 2013

Rad Gravity Review (NES)

Let me introduce our hero, Rad Gravity a promising space cadet with Elvis hair and a chin the size of a small continent. The plot of Rad Gravity is very weird and basically involves an evil guy stopping three planets communicating with each other. He has also buried some computers named Compuminds on planets around the galaxy, and it is up to you to go and find them and restore peace to the universe.

Set across a number of planets and other space orientated levels, ‘Rad Gravity’ is a sort of comic book style platform adventure game. You have to transport down to planets where Rad must explore and find clues and information on where the compuminds are being held. While most of this takes place in standard platform territory there are a number of nice touches. Occasionally gravity goes mad and you find the level turned upside down meaning you have to stand on your head or turn the television over to get to grips with what's going on. A section in the asteroid belt where you need to use your gun to propel you in different directions is also a lot of fun.

Graphically, the game is nothing special, areas look a little plain and enemies are not overly detailed or colourful. Rad on the other hand is presented as a guy with a small body and a huge head, which seems to suite him somehow. Though the graphics are not great they are good enough, meaning you don'y lose enemies in the background or get confused where platforms are. Unfortunately there is a lot of slowdown present and flickering is also a problem, meaning it can be a touch frustrating at times.

In terms of gameplay, again the game is nothing special. While you get a lot of different gadgets to play around with and certain levels are a lot of fun, Rad himself can be a bit awkward to control especially when jumping. Though the controls are a touch unpolished the game is in no way a bad one. The level design is great with each of the planets being distinctly different from one another and each containing its own unique set of obstacles and enemies.

Overall, there is a lot to like about ‘Rad Gravity’, with the lead character being extremely likable and some clever level design apparent. If you can look past the faults, of which there are many, what remains is a charming, funny game that given a little bit more polish would have been an excellent one. As long as you are of a forgiving nature you should get along just fine with the large chinned Rad.


Monday 28 January 2013

The Secret of Monkey Island Review (PC)

Back in 1990, the point and click adventure had a cult following, mostly fuelled by Sierra's Quest series and a few oddball adventures from Lucasfilm Games (now Lucasarts). Ron Gilbert's Maniac Mansion had captured the imagination of gamers with its oddball approach to the graphic adventure by offering a dose of comedy, strange characters and exploding hamsters. But Gilbert had an idea that would make Lucasfilm Games a major player in the genre. Along with Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman he would conjure a story of a wannabe pirate, a spectral villain, a beautiful Governor and a rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle all combined to make one of the finest games of all time.

The title screen, showing the Island in its entirety, is combined with a fantastic MIDI score that lets you know you're in for something special. It's like the opening sequence of a movie (something rarely seen in games of its time), and when you are first handed control of Guybrush Threepwood, the comedic tone is set instantly as you talk to the island's blind lookout. Straight away the player is sucked in, and wants to see how the story plays out.

The plot concerns the aforementioned Guybrush on his quest to become a pirate. He has a lot going for him (not least his ability to hold his breath for ten minutes), and almost every line that comes from his mouth is a classic. But it's the other citizens you encounter that really make the game. The hook handed Meathook with his talking tattoos, used ship salesman Stan, the swashbuckling Governor Marley, ghost Pirate LeChuck, the fruit-headed cannibals, I could go on. You want to talk to everybody, explore every conversation tree until all dialogue is exhausted, afraid that you'll be missing out on another golden comedy nugget.

Dialogue is not only used for the purpose of characterisation and story, it's also used for the legendary insult sword fighting. By learning insults and their responses, Guybrush is able to build up a dialogue tree of putdowns in order to take on the sword master of the Island, offering a refreshing and hilarious alternative to violence seen in many games (even Mario kills his enemies, you know). It fits in so well with the feel good vibe of the game, and even today, many fans will trade gibes with each other ("You fight like a dairy farmer", "How appropriate, you fight like a cow" being a particular favourite).

Of course, a large part of the graphic adventure is the puzzles, and Monkey Island's range from something as simple as using a cooking pot as a crash helmet to cooking a dish that'll knock Guybrush out for several days. The inventory is full of McGuffins and puns (the red herring being an early example) and each is worth looking at (such as the compass Stan gives you. It always points to his showroom). Even with such a bizarre miscellany, the puzzles remain fairly logical (something the second game would often stray from), but you may still find yourself a little perplexed at times.

All this gushing praise may smack of a reviewer overcome with a nostalgic buzz, misleading potential newcomers into a game that will be of little interest to them. That assumption would be wrong. Despite the game approaching its nineteenth anniversary, it still holds up today. The limited colour palette and low resolution may seem a little quaint, but still retains its charm and makes the world feel genuine.

The linear path progression that runs through all point and click adventures may seem the polar opposite of what gamers of today want, but to dismiss anything so well constructed and fun to play, for that reason, would be foolish. Ron Gilbert and his team (including many who would go on to create their own classics such as Tim Schafer) made a title so fresh, clever and laugh out loud funny that anybody who considers themselves a gamer simply must play it. It's as essential as a rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle.


Written by Dan Gill

Wednesday 23 January 2013

Retro City Rampage Review (PS3/PS Vita)

Starting life a long, long time ago as Grand Theftendo, an 8 bit remake of Grand Theft Auto 3, Retro City Rampage has changed and developed into a parody of both gaming and popular culture from the eighties and nineties. Developed by an incredibly small team, the fact it exists at all is an example of the fighting spirit taken from the bedroom coders of old. 

Retro City Rampage starts in a hail of references and fast paced action and very rarely let’s up through its fairly brief play time. Before completing the first mission you’ll have run over, or gunned down, many a group of crime fighters from years of television gone by and been reminded of a number of classic games as well. And that’s pretty much how the game continues.

Each mission normally involves you driving around the 8 bit style GTA city before heading off to a short mini game which is based on classics such as Gauntlet, Smash TV, Contra and many others. It all handles well and keeps the humour throughout. Driving around is fun, though it is perhaps a little too easy to get the cops chasing after you. 

The mission games vary in quality from excellent through to tolerable with the ones focusing on shooting working out the best. Some mechanics simply don’t come off though. The ability to take cover is rendered almost useless by it being difficult to tell if you are crouched or not and hand to hand combat can be frustrating due to the small sprite size. This is especially noticeable when playing on the PS Vita’s smaller screen but at least you can cross-save onto the PS3 instead of getting out a magnifying glass.

Aside from the missions there is a ton of content here. There are different filters to apply and the main character can be customised with haircuts and clothes like in many a GTA game. There is also a section which drops into old style 3D (if you have the glasses). All the games missions can be selected individually to challenge for high scores and there are numerous side quests and arcade challenges to seek out.

There is even an old school arcade containing versions of Bit Trip Runner and a weird Virtual Meat Boy game designed to look in the style of Nintendo’s much maligned, head ache generating, Virtual Boy.

It’s difficult to give an overall impression of the levels as they change so much. What can be said is that they always retain their sense of humour and none of them are long enough to cause lasting frustration. This is also one of the problems the game has. There is, if anything, a lack of identity apparent due to so many different things thrown into the mix.  Almost every line of dialogue or encounter showers you with references. Some only last a line of speech or fly past on a billboard as you drive by.  Often there is so much going on that it’s just a bit hard to take in. 

The other problem is that while it will give gamers a nostalgic memory or two there is nothing here doing anything better than before. So there’s a level based on Smash TV or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but they aren’t as strong as the source material and many retro gaming fans may well decide they would prefer to play the originals, while newcomers simply won’t get the reference.

That said it certainly is an enjoyable and chaotic ride from start to finish. It’s like a greatest hits album of nostalgia, only performed by a cover band. You can happily sing along for a while but after that you’ll likely want something a bit more substantial.

It’s very clear that the developers really do care about the project and all the sources which are parodied and that helps most of the games faults to be forgiven. Retro City Rampage is certainly a game that fans of retro gaming should play and you should have a great time - it’s just not likely you’ll return after finishing it. 


Monday 21 January 2013

Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars Review (Playstation)

In the mid 90's Revolution released Broken Sword with little hype or press attention. By the time the game came to be converted onto the Playstation it was being acknowledged as one of the most astounding adventures ever made. To this day it remains at the peek of the point and click genre.

The plot follows unsuspecting tourist George finds himself caught up in a murder at a small Paris cafe. After a bomb blast George raises himself from beneath a crushed umbrella, brushes himself off and unwisely decides to investigate. The story takes you all around the world as countries such as Ireland, France and Syria give up their parts of the mystery.

What makes the game so great is the care and attention to the script. Every conversation contains humour and charm and you never feel bored while the characters speak their piece. It helps that everyone you meet is brilliantly over the top (the mad kebab seller using the toilet brush for basting springs to mind). The skill of the writers to make sure the characters are funny as well as informative is to be commended. If a single character were removed the game would almost fall apart.

Apart from the great characters, the puzzles are among the finest to be found in the genre. Broken Sword gently eases you in to the way you need to think. Most puzzles are logical but do require you to really understand the objects you have. For instance, a blood pressure gauge found in the hospital can be used to stop the flow of water in a hose. The player really must think as inventively as the programmers to get through.

Turning the second nature PC controls into something workable on the Playstation was always going to be a challenge. But fear not as the game has about as good an interface as you can get on a console. You use the controller like a mouse to move the cursor around the screen. This can be slow, but there are a few tricks that make the process friendlier. The shoulder buttons will move the cursor to the top of the screen instantly, which allows quick access to items when you really need it. Secondly, holding down another button allows the cursor to move around a lot faster. The controls remain a bit clunky but are about as good as they could be given the platform.

Broken Sword is an exceptional game and remains a high point of the genre. Apart from the slight problem with the controls it's faultless. This is one of the best adventure stories you will ever encounter and is perfectly scripted and perfectly executed in just about every way.


Thursday 17 January 2013

Soul Blade Review (Playstation)

During 1995 Namco unleashed upon an unsuspecting public the gaming monster that was Soul Blade. Later to become Soul Calibur on Dreamcast. The move into smooth flowing weapon based combat was something fight fanatics had been dreaming of for many a year and now it seemed we would finally get a game to meet expectations. 

Following the quest of ten fighters to find the elusive Soul Blade, the game comes in two main parts. In the arcade mode you follow the normal procedure of beating one opponent after another, until you fight the big bad guy at the end. No prizes here for originality, but even this however is given a nice twist with each character having different endings. One ending showing them  taken over by the evil sword and a second ending where they either leave it or go on to turn it to a good use.

Aside from the arcade aspect, the game offers an ‘Edge master mode’. This has your chosen character searching different lands around the world for sacred weapons. Each character takes their own unique journey around the map with some interlinking at certain sections and others avoiding characters completely. The conditions for victory also changes with each fight. For instance, on one stage you may find your character has been poisoned, while on another you must defeat your opponent before the next ship leaves for the mainland. It proves to be an excellent addition to an already sublime game. 

The combat itself is just about perfect and shows a level of fluidity to equal its Dreamcast sequel. This allows anyone to be able to pick up and get to grips with the basic concept of the game almost straight away. While more experienced players can go on practicing to find numerous combinations of moves to destroy all that stand before them. With the ease of the control system comes the games only real fault - that being you can hammer away at the buttons and you're more or less guaranteed something spectacular will come out of it. However, this is just a minor gripe as once you get to know what you are doing any such shenanigans from other players can be quickly countered and turned to your own advantage. 

Something Soul Blade has over Soul Calibur is the variations of weapons that each character can wield, eight for each character, as opposed to the single weapon characters of the sequel. This allows for much more flexibility in the way that you play. Are you the type of player who hides out waiting for people to make mistakes? Then use a quick weapon. Or do you prefer to wade in all guns blazing? Then use a stronger, slower weapon. A brilliant idea that works flawlessly. 

It feels a little slow now but still holds together well and much better than the early Tekken games. The graphics still look solid, and the introduction is as  jaw droopingly fantastic as it always was. Yes, it has aged but fans wills till find plenty to get excited about.


Watch our Soul Blade video review. 

Tuesday 15 January 2013

Chiki Chiki Boys Review (Mega Drive)

With a title like Chiki Chiki Boys, deep down you realise that this is going to be a little strange. The story goes that as one night after king Chiki Chiki’s wife had given birth (to twin boys), a group of nasty creatures decide to end all the love and joy flowing throughout the land. The principality is soon home to various monsters, and the only hope is offered by the king's twins, who must now save the day. 

The game is a side scrolling platform/beat’em with the player having the option of controlling either of the boys, as they make their way through eight action packed levels. The diet of action is fairly straightforward and in classic Capcom arcade style requires the player to continuously hammer the attack button, as endless waves of enemies fly at you from every angle imaginable. 

Graphically, the title has a style filled with charm and humour. On display are huge, brightly coloured, sprites which are animated with simple, but effective movements that help to make the action seem fresh and good-natured throughout. Each of the Levels enjoys a distinctive look - with varying location themes such as being set underwater, high amidst the clouds or the more grounded earth based levels.

The enemy creatures are quite repetitive but with so many sprites on screen at once you don't really notice as you are keep hacking through the conveyor belt of monsters. At the end of each level you face the boss monster. These huge beasts possess wonderful expressions on their face when hit, often wincing from the pain or in some instances crying. Furthermore, though the screen is constantly filled, there is no visable slow down or flickering present, which is quite impressive as many other games with similar levels of detail slowdown horribly. 

 In terms of play mechanics this is classic old school style arcade action. One attack button and one jump button are complimented by the obligatory ‘magic’ attack that we have seen in Golden Axe and Shinobi just to name a few. But with thistype of game that’s all that's really needed, as the emphasis is set heavily on pure enjoyment rather than any claim to be the next big thing in gaming.

The twins move well and are extremely responsive and can attack fast enough to plough through wave after wave of monsters without taking a hit. So while not being particuarly inventive what the game does, it does well.

Overall, Chiki Chiki Boys is a great little title from the vaults of Capcom and one that remains fairly unknown to this day. For pure enjoyment this pushes all the right buttons. It may not be particularly long or hard but it really isn't and issue as you come back to it once completed. This is everything an old arcade game should be - big, colourful and fun.

Thursday 10 January 2013

New Super Mario Bros. U Review (Wii U)

A new Mario game released with the launch of a new Nintendo console is always something to look forward to. However, though solid and enjoyable the ‘New Super Mario’ brand has been somewhat tired of late. Both New Super Mario Bros Wii and New Super Mario Bros 2 were largely forgettable and 'by the numbers' in terms of the quality we have come to expect from the heroic plumber.

With this in mind we approached New Super Mario Bros. U with hesitation. We are delighted to say that what we found was a game with all the charm and style of the best in the series. This really is a game worthy of the Mario name. 

Right from the first level you can tell something is different. It just feels so much better than other games in the NSMB series. Everything seems to have had just that little bit more attention paid to it. The mechanics feel tighter, the music seems stronger and it looks absolutely beautiful - all little things that add up to something which just feels so much better than before.

It all starts with the world map which is now in the more traditional style of Super Mario Bros 3 or Super Mario World instead of the line of levels running from left to right. It helps makes the multiple routes feel more like an exploration and the secret levels see paths winding off into unknown parts with islands popping up and rainbows forming. What is on display shows the imagination of classic Mario and this is also present in the level designs.

Many of the NSMB levels before this felt generic and tired. Here, levels are fast and devious and contain tricks and gimmicks that may only appear in a handful of places, or even just once. This means that players will come away with levels that they remember and love playing. Nothing is overdone and some of what is here is equals the very best of Super Mario Bros level design.

One level in particular is set out in a spooky illustration style, a graphical effect which is present nowhere else in the game. One water level might have you dodging a continually circling dragon, while the next will see you climbing up through a series of water bubbles trapped in the air. Everyone will have their own favourites.

The bosses are also much better than NSMB2. The Koopa kids return along with Bowser Jnr and a few others. But this time they take more than five seconds to defeat. Still not as difficult as some of the bosses of old but at least now you feel a sense of achievement for toppling them. 

In terms of power ups there are the usual suspects of the fire flower and invincibility star. The ice flower also returns (but is now much better implemented), and the mini mushroom makes very fleeting appearances.  Yoshi is also here in both adult and baby form, though he will leave you at the end of a level. The new addition is the flying squirrel suit. This allows you to float over large distances and gives you one extra jump while in the air. This subtle difference to the Racoon, Cape and Tanooki costumes of the past allows for some excellent and clever use through the levels – something you’ll have to make good use of to find all the hidden coins.

The game is likely to last you a while as well. You can race through the main levels in three or four days but there are many secret routes to find and getting all three star coins will take a long time. Once all the coins in a land have been found it unlocks a Star Road level which will put your reflexes and brain to an even tougher test. Even with all the levels finished and secrets found we find it hard to believe any gamer would put it away and never play it again. It manages to capture that retro ethos of running through the levels you already know just for the sheer fun of it.

The social and multiplayer aspects of the game also work well. Whenever you do something such as collect all three star coins or get through a level without taking damage, the game invites you to post a message. This message can then be read by your friends and other gamers on the world map. The game also invites you to post if you have found a level particularly tough. This allows for gamers to give hints to each other or post warnings in a kind of friendly version of Dark Souls savage system.

Challenges are available such as time trials and the coin attack mode found in NSMB2. There are also specific special challenges such as dodging fireballs or staying in the air for as long as you can by bouncing off Goomba heads. There is also a special boost mode which allows one player to play while the other adds platforms to help them through the level.  

Multiplayer takes the form of Coin battle mode as players fight to gain the most coins. The four player story mode in the previous Wii game is also here and still proves as awkward and chaotic as ever. A fifth player can now join in to add platforms via the Wii U pad.  The levels of the main game certainly seem to have been designed with single players in mind and it’s fair to say there’s nothing amazing here but they prove fun additions and distractions from the single player story game.

There may not be anything as revolutionary here as Super Mario galaxy but New Super Mario Bros U shows that the old 2D Mario still has the magic when the property is treated with care and affection. In truth this is a fine successor to Super Mario World and could have held the title of something closer to Super Mario World 5 (if we don’t count Yoshi’s Island). That alone should be enough to convince you to own a copy. It’s close but not quite strong enough to warrant a purchase of a Wii U on its own. However, it certainly is a game that every Wii U owner needs to have and by far the most fun Wii U game we’ve played so far.


Monday 7 January 2013

Blade Runner Review (PC)

Arriving about twelve years after Blade Runner came out in cinemas this always seemed like somewhat of an odd project from Westwood studios. The story runs parallel to the movie and follows detective McCoy as he investigates as number of crimes that may be related to an as yet unknown group of replicants. McCoy must gather clues and interrogate suspects as he searches for the truth, whatever that may be.

Blade Runner is a massively ambitious game and a lot of care and attention has been spent on it to keep everything in synch with the world portrayed by Ridley Scott and written about by Philippe K Dick. Voice actors from the original film such as Sean Young, James Hong and Joe Turkel return to add presence to their characters that feature again here. Choice cuts from the original Blade Runner soundtrack are present as well.

The cinematic quality of the movie is also replicated with a number of sweeping shots similar to its on screen counter part. Locations from the film, as well as small scenes, such as the bicycles riding through the rain, are further used to make players feel they are inside the real Blade Runner world. As far as authenticity goes this game really cannot be faulted.

The game itself is a little removed from what we consider to be a traditional point and click adventure. There are very few actual puzzles to solve and even a few shooting sequences thrown in. Players make their way through the story by collecting clues, using the ESPER photo analysis machine (just like in the film) and talking to suspects. The game has six different endings and your clues can draw you in a number of very different directions.

Unfortunately, the titles ambition isn't executed quite as well as it could have been. On quite a few occasions you can be staring at a pile of clues and not really knowing where you should be heading. It is also far too easy to stumble onto a certain path without really knowing, or agreeing, with what your character may end up doing. It can all be just a bit too confusing at times. The title is also fairly short and just when you feel you are stacking up a decent set of clues you suddenly and abruptly arrive at the end of the game anyway.

We would have liked to have seen a little bit more patience from the developers to let players fully develop their opinion about what is going on. Far too often events happen too quickly and you end up thrust into a situation that seems to force the narrative along rather than letting the player do it. Certain sections of the game are also very hard and frustrating.

Criticism aside, the investigation you undertake really is interesting. All the characters are well acted and intriguing to interrogate and McCoy is convincing as the confused detective. The control system also works very well and looking through your clues and piecing together bits of information is satisfying. The combat is reasonable as well and more than adequate for the amount of shooting you end up doing.

Fans of the film and book should definitely check this out. Sections of the novel that didn't make it into the movie are worked into the story here and the general polish and fan service is really worth appreciating. The game may not be perfect but it never stops being interesting and those six endings are going to take a real amount of brain power to track down. Any adventure game fan up for a challenge and something a little different shouldn't be disappointed.