Wednesday 27 February 2013

Interview: 8-bit Synthtown

The retro gaming community is vast and diverse. Something never better illustrated than by Ravern haired princess of synth music Sam D'Uva - otherwise known as 8-bit Synthtown. Not only is she a dedicated collector and player of retro games but she also writes and produces retro styled 8-bit synth music.

Sam very kindly allowed us to use some of her songs on our YouTube vidoes and has since gone on to some real success with her first EP - Chip Bit Bleep, releasing recently. With such a dedicated and creative retrobate around we thought it our duty to sit down and ask her some questions.

Why 8-bit synth music?

My background has been predominantly in synths. Across 23 years I've studied classical, contemporary and jazz fusion. Believe it or not, retro tunes are very much involved. If you break down the melodies, synth bass lines and concepts, they are rooted in musical principals, not just random notes or basic chord progressions. The average person couldn't sit down and play something from Sonic the Hedgehog or Landstalker!

My love in music and my degree, lies in fusion, which is a mesh of musical genres with jazz voicings and theories to create some wacky electro goodness tunes! Badass! Once you have this understanding, that the old retro music was made with a purpose by people that understand complex music principles, you see the 8 bit music in a new light with a new respect. I love the complexity of some melodies, and the groove and just laying down a simple but catchy tune.

Everything I love in music, can be found in 8 Bit tunes. The old school synths and created waveforms to make a sound so unique. Coming up with melodies that are so original yet people feel they remind them of a particular game that they once played and loved. To me, it was a clear decision and smooth transition from playing covers, to writing and performing 8 Bit Music.

Literally, the creation of 8 Bit Synthtown was like a light bulb going on. Almost as if, say, you eat vanilla ice-cream all the time, but have never actually thought, "hey, I really like vanilla ice-cream", and one day you realise that you just do love it because you eat it all the time!

When did it all start?

As for when it started, i fell in love with music when I was 3 and started playing the piano. For me, it was a way of expressing a lot I felt and didn't want to verbally communicate. Many people don't know this about me. I am actually dyslexic. There are different forms. For me, it takes me a while to both read something, and also to communicate something fluently without thinking it through first. Music was always so wonderful, because from an early age, I could read music like a book. If I could think of a song, or I wanted to play something, I could, without struggling. 

I suppose it may seem a bit weird. People think that great musicians are all intellectuals. But many creative people are musicians. I am always learning, always growing, always discovering new things in music. I feel the piano is an extension of me personally, almost like a second voice. Last year, it occurred to me, that I love retro music, love playing it, and wanted to start writing something original, use my piano voice to say something different that people haven't heard before.

How important do you think music is in video games?

If you think of Super Mario, you think of the theme song. And if your mind goes to a particular level, you would associate that with the music in that level. New gen games rely on music and use it as just one tool to create a feeling at different points. To build upon the story line. It is rarely repetitive and highly orchestral in a lot of cases. The retro music was repetitive, catchy and almost jingle like. In a retro game, you are wanting that music you can sing along to. It plays a completely different role to the music in new gen games, though it is equally as important.

What games do you think really use music effectively?

If we're talking about retro games, the classic is Super Mario Bros.. The theme music from the original SMB for NES, has been built upon, remixed, altered, for many games over the years in developing the series and seeing it mature. How can there be an example more effective than this? A classic and simple chiptune in the most simple of musical keys has stayed in the series which continue to be highly successful, though if you play the classic tune, you would never hear people say they didn't like it, or new versions were "better". They are just different, but the theme is the key to the evolution of the music in the series.

Is there a certain routine or process you go through when coming up with a new tune?

There's a few different ways I come up with tunes, depending on the purpose. When I write for a client, i'll check out as much as I can about their site/podcast/videos, to get the general vibe. That's the best starting point. I'll sit down in the studio at a synth and play with sounds and match them to the feel of their brand. I'm hugely influenced by the sounds I use. Most of the time, a melody will come to me while I'm using sound. From there I record basic ideas and play over them with other sounds, bass lines, beats, until I have a definite idea of what I want for the tune. I then compose the tune, starting with the beat a lot of the time.

Other tunes come to me in strange places. I'll be driving and start singing a riff, bass line or melody, and grab out my phone and record me singing the idea. I've had plenty of people look at me strange for singing into my phone! Then when I do get to the studio and around to workshopping the tune, I have a basis and starting point. the rest evolves from there, similar to the last process I mentioned.

What are some of your favourite games?

My favourite games are Landstalker: the treasures of King Nole for SEGA, and Faxanadu for NES. I enjoy so many games so could never list them all, but these two are my stand out favourites. They aren't well known, both adventure RPGs, and both incredible! The music in them, is simply amazing. Faxanadu is authentic chiptunes. Very fusion based compositions and created using a program called LSDJ. I would love to do an orchestral piece of some of the tunes from the game at some stage. Landstalker has one of the best OSTs i can think of for a game. Synth heavy tunes again with a fusion background in terms of melodies and voicings. I'm currently doing some covers of them. Ive done some test recordings, but It's so important to do compositions like this justice, so it takes time.

Why take the retro route? 

Simply because I like  retro! I'm an 80s child and grew up with retro music and games, and I suppose it just wasn't a phase. I'm in love with and work with a lot of vintage and analog synths, and sound synthesizers. There's just something nostalgic and beautiful about retro for me. I still enjoy playing other genres, composing in orchestral styles, but for me, retro is where my heart is.

If someone is interested where would you recommend they start?

I'll say this for anything music related including writing gaming tunes, follow the style you enjoy and love. Just because you listen to chiptunes, doesn't mean you'll enjoy creating them. Just because you listen to orchestral scores, doesn't mean you'll like creating them either!! experiment, and see what genre in music really excites you! Of course, then you'll need some gear to play the tunes. Some people take the rock/heavy metal route in gaming music. Live band, guitars, drums. That often requires a band. 

For me, I play everything on real instruments and hardware. i don't use plugins. They say when you use hardware, the only thing that can break it is an axe, and when you use plugins, you'll want to take an axe to it!! Plugins will never replicate the real deal. But they are affordable and can get you into writing your own tunes. The best thing you can do, is check out different types of music. Listen to what people before you have offered up in history, and take from the music ideas you like. Then get playing. You can only know if you like writing a style if you play it. maybe start with copying tunes you like, then branch out to original music. It's such a personal subject because people have different reasons for playing. The best way to start, is to START!

If you would like to find out more about 8-bit Synthtown head over to the official website - Here 

You can also follow on twitter - @8_bit_Synthtown

Monday 25 February 2013

Broken Sword 2: The Smoking Mirror Review (Playstation)

Broken Sword 2 follows the story of a Mayan god trapped inside a mystical Smoking Mirror. George Stobbart and his journalist girlfriend Nico once again find themselves tied up in a plot of murder, intrigue and mystery that could bring about the end of the world.

Graphically, the game remains much the same as the previous installment, no bad thing as the cartoon graphics compliment its style well. The interface hasn't changed much since the Shadow of the Templars either. Now however, there is the added bonus of being able to use the Playstation mouse.
Unlike in the previous title you now take control of both George and Nico. This may sound like a good thing, but in actuality tends to drag the game down. The problem comes because playing Nico is just so dull and players will be desperate to get back to George's much funnier dialogue.

While the story cannot hope to live up to the partially fact based account of its prequel, it nevertheless does create an interesting tale full of twists and turns. Unfortunately, the puzzles can range in quality. Certain sections more than live up to the design perfection of Shadow of the Templars, but others feel tired and lack invention.

Furthermore, certain chapters seem to have no direct purpose in moving the plot forward. These sections, while they don't appear often, drag an enjoyable story into the realms of the dull. There is also too much reliance on characters from the previous game showing up. While this allows for some light relief, it also highlights what is lacking in other parts of the title.

To sum up, what you get is basically more of the same in terms of puzzles and gameplay. If you loved the first Broken Sword, there is a lot of charm to be found in this second installment. It’s just a shame that genuinely excellent sections of the game act to show up other poorer areas. Nico's sections are particularly uninspired. Despite its faults, Broken Sword 2 remains a charming and intelligent game that will keep you interested until you uncover the mystery. With a bit more inspiration though, it could have become another all time classic.


Wednesday 20 February 2013

Metal Gear Review (NES)

Ever wondered what ‘Outer Heaven’ was and why Snake and the rest of the characters kept talking about in Metal Gear Solid? Well, this is where it all started in  the first adventure for Snake way back in 1987 when Konami tried to add stealth into the modern gaming language, and as you may gather due to the franchise missing the sixteen-bit era it was not an entirely successful venture. 

The story goes that Snake is dropped behind enemy lines and must infiltrate Outer Heaven before killing comedy named leader of the opposition forces ‘Vermon Ca Taffy’ and taking down the deadly Metal Gear. Vermon who was a once ‘tranquil shepherd boy’, has outlawed democracy and forced homeless villagers to become terrorists - a more evil blighter surely does not exist! 

Stealth is still very much the order of the day, although implementing it on the NES means there are many limitations. Forget about the tricks of the later games (no strangling guards or wall hugging) and don’t even think about hanging from a ledge either. However, certain elements are in place. For instance, the silencer must be found before firing any of the guns you come across or the whole place will come down on you, and they will not stop after a certain time either, they just keep coming. The Codec also has a key part to play with the conversations being as long-winded as ever. 

Graphically, the game takes a top down approach. Though the animation is poor, the characters, vehicles and different locations are all detailed and at least mean that you have a clear understanding of your surroundings - essential when sneaking around. There is a touch of flickering present at times but it only happens on occasion and though it can complicate matters by making enemy soldiers nearly invisible it doesn't take away too much from the title as a whole.

Gameplay is problematic, the idea of the game is very good, but really this is not the format to implement it on. Snake moves around well, but there just are not enough moves available to make sneaking about as fun as it should be, furthermore combat is reduced to punching or shooting. This is made worse by the fact that both are too awkward to be affective when you are trying to take someone out quickly. What really makes the game fail though is the difficulty, it's so hard that on your first couple of goes you'll likely not get past the first four or so screens, which is simply ridiculous. 

Hardcore is not the word as you even get a complete map, a players guide and a chart of what does damage to what with the boxed version of the game. Yet you will still will not be able to get anywhere. This could be the hardest game ever made and it would not have taken that much work to sort it out, as it is though it remains frustrating and impenetrable with an unfinished feel. 

Overall, Metal Gear is not a great game, anyone who played this originally would never guess in a million years that is would become such a landmark title on the Playstation. There are nice ideas to be found, but they are implemented without flair or consideration of how they are meant to be achieved. It's all well and good telling a player to be stealthy but at least give them the moves to have a fighting chance. All in all it's a real shame how the game turned out, while not awful it's just too hard to be worth seeking out. If you must have the origins of the series it would be wiser to find the MSX version.



Friday 15 February 2013

3DS EU Release Schedule

We don't normally do news but with so many 3DS games and dates announced we though you might appreciate somewhere where everything was grouped together. Below are the dates we know about for major 3DS releases so far this year. All dates are of course subject to change.

Castlevania: Mirror of Fate 08/03/2013

Monster Hunter Tri 22/03/2013

Fire Emblem 19/04/2013

Luigi's Mansion 2 17/05/2013

Animal Crossing New Leaf 14/06/2013

Code of Princess (Download only)  - Spring

Mario Golf - Summer

Mario and Luigi 4 - Summer

Donkey Kong Returns 3D TBA

Wednesday 13 February 2013

Trine 2: Directors Cut Review (Wii U)

We’ll admit here at Retro 101 that we hadn’t really been paying much attention to the Trine series until it arrived on the Wii U eshop. As such, this review comes at you from a newcomer to the series point of view. This review also takes into account the recent update which improved graphical performance and added voice chat and pro controller support. As this the director’s cut you also get the expansion pack and an exclusive Wii U level as well.

Trine follows the adventures of a mage, knight and thief bound together by a magical artefact known as the Trine. A 2D puzzle platform game, Trine 2 tries to do something new with a genre more typically found back in the 16-bit era. Indeed, we found our thoughts drifting to The Lost Vikings as we began utilising the three hero’s unique abilities.

The knight is best at fighting and can use his shield to reflect light beams and deflect objects. The thief shoots arrows and can use a grappling hook and the mage can conjure and move objects. Each character can be upgraded by seeking out experience points in the form of magic bubbles. This unlocks further abilities such as exploding arrows, stealth abilities and a number of other things which help fight off the many Goblins and giant spiders you'll encounter along the way.

With the different abilities on offer and different ways to play the developers have given the players multiple options in how to solve the puzzles. Playing single player has one character on screen which can be changed at any time, while multiplayer has all characters on screen at once. This means that certain puzzles would by default need a number of different ways to get through them.

The great thing is that the Trine world and physics are very tactile and effectively sets up a big toy box for you play around with to accomplish your task. Players who prefer the mage will be able to upgrade his abilities to summon large numbers of boxes and ramps to get around. While those using a mixture of the characters will find the need to use a combination of grappling hook swings, magical platforms and brute strength. 

You could for instance spend time re-arranging pipes to get the water level right to reach a high ledge. Alternatively you could use an ice arrow to freeze the pool and then stack some mage created boxes on it, while in multiplayer there would be much more opportunity for cooperative lever pulling . The choice is yours. We found this flexible approach refreshing and it meant that progression was always steady as you weren’t left searching for the one way the developer intended you to get through an area. 

The first thing that strikes you about the game is just how jaw droopingly gorgeous the whole thing is. The backdrops and landscapes are beyond stunning. We have never seen a 2D game that looks so good. Sunbeams shine through leaves, ice glistens and everything looks as magical and enchanting as seems humanly possible. The attention to detail is staggering and this combined with the physics engine creates a solid and immersive world that you never tire looking at.

The music is also suitably epic with bold fantasy themed tunes subtly underscoring your adventure. Even better news is that Trine 2 has an excellent script and group of voice actors. As the heroes adventure their comments and conversation can’t help to raise a smile. Everything seems to have been done with just the right amount of tongue in cheek humour. 

Graphics and sound are all good but don’t mean anything if the game doesn’t play well. For the first hour or so we were a little worried that the controls wouldn’t gel. But after that the gamepad controls feel like second nature. The only slight issue is having the action button just above the character change button. Initially we were swapping characters when we wanted to fight and this did cause a problem. However, you soon get used to it and after the first few levels it never posed an issue again. An option to configure controls would have been useful though.

The Wiimote and Nunchuck and Pro controller can be used but we found the gamepad the best. It’s worth noting that the old Wii classic controller is useless as the button used to change characters is miles away from anything else. You can play it solely on the gamepad as well.

The game itself is very smooth with everything acting as it should and combat working well. The only slight issues is that after years of playing games like Flashback and Prince of Persia we instinctively expect the edge of a platform to be in a certain part of the graphic. Trine 2’s is a little deeper and this left us missing jumps a number of times. Again, once you get used to it there is very little here to complain about, and if you get really stuck you can just head to the Miiverse and post a screenshot in the community area and await help.

This is a good thing as the game is pretty sizeable with the normal quest taking around ten hours and the add-on content pushing that up by another five to eight depending how good you are. Searching out all the hidden chests to get paintings, poems and the maps pieces needed to access the Wii U exclusive area will also take a fair amount of time.

Every level is strong and there was never a time when we found ourselves wanting the game to be over. It’s one of those titles that eats up your free time without you really realising it. When it ends you just wish there was more of it and we can honestly say this is the most pure fun we've had with a video game for years. Everything about Trine 2 just makes us smile and anyone slightly put off by the price tag really shouldn’t worry. The amount of value and enjoyment present here is to be commended and it’s clear the developers really have gone that extra effort to make something that deserves to be held up with the very best in the genre. In fact, we are a little disappointed this hasn't been made a full retail release and the amount of content and quality on show certainly justifies it.

If you haven’t guessed by now we like this game a lot. It takes players on a magical and beautiful adventure while always remaining enjoyable and throwing in some absolutely stunning design. If you own a Wii U this game is as essential as anything else you can buy. This is definitive version of one of the best games to come out in an absolute age. There really is no excuse not to own it. 


Monday 11 February 2013

Spy vs Spy Review (PS2)

Many many years ago Spy VS Spy first appeared on home computer systems and consoles in the age of 8 bit entertainment. Offering a charming and amusing distraction as players tried to out wit one another. The premise was to steal a select number of objects and make you way to the level exit before the opposing spy. In order to hinder your opponent’s progress you could employ a number of trap devices to catch out the unaware and send them to a grizzly death. Now Spy Vs Spy has been dragged out of the cupboard and stuck on the shelves for a whole new generation. But on this evidence it really is a shame they bothered.

The single player aspect of Spy Vs Spy has our chosen agent making their way through a number of bland levels searching out objects, causing chaos, and engaging in 3D platforming antics. Why oh why was this ever made? The PS2 of all consoles really did not need yet another mind numbingly dull 3D platform-come-adventure game, even though the console is saturated with bland titles dare we say Spy Vs Spy sinks to even more uninteresting depths than most before it.

After playing the game for ten minutes we had already seen more than enough to make us fall asleep as wave upon wave of complete dullness battered against our heads in an ever repeating motion. After pressing through ever more dreary levels it was clear there is absolutely no enjoyment to be found. To make matters worse, not only are the levels dull but without a proper map you are sometimes left wandering around looking for where to go next (although there are helpful arrows that appear at times). Truly the feeling of wandering around a level with no clue where to go, just wishing you could find the exit, save the game and turn the thing off is one of the most depressing and desperate things the human mind is capable of feeling.

At least the controls are decent enough with characters being easy to move and the task of setting traps and weapons never feeling tricky. In game graphics, though uninspired, are fairly solid and colourful - if a little generic. As such, the game does not suffer from being ‘broken’, which in a way is even more shocking. If a game is over ambitious and suffers because an aspect is not implemented at least then you can have some idea as to where the vision was heading. Here everything seems to have been implemented competently from a basic perspective. The problem is that there is absolutely no imagination in anything. It's almost as if the developers really could not be bothered to make the game in the first place.

Multiplayer fairs little better, indeed when returning to the title and tossing a coin to see whether to play single or multiplayer all we could hope for was that the coin would somehow explode in mid air and kill us. Along with the new locations a selection of the original games rooms are available now in bland 3D. The action could be taken online or via a system link but trust us- you really won't want to. This title has to be in the running for the least enjoyable multiplayer experience of all time- wander around open something, put trap in, wander around, open something, put trap in, repeat until you die of boredom. Every aspect is just so bone crushingly soul destroying its enough to bring you to tears at times. There are a few modes such as death match, last man standing etc but when every thing is so mind numbing it hardly matters.

In conclusion there is absolutely nothing to recommend about this game. Even the Twenty pound price tag at launch is not enough to justify interest in it. There are certainly far better platform titles available (even Vexx pushes it close) and there are certainly far better multiplayer titles available as well. We advises never going near this uninspired dullard of a game, no matter how cheap you may find it in coming months. In closing all we can say is that this could well be one of the most truly awful games of the generation.


Friday 8 February 2013

Retro 101's Favourite Beat'em Ups Part 4: The Best of the Rest

We all know that SNK and Capcom are the undisputed kings when it comes to creating beat'em ups, but over the years many other companies have tried and failed to make an impact on gamers. Among the piles of trash (Rise of the Robots, Shaq Fu), and the exceedingly average (Primal Rage, Brutal: Paws of Fury), are a handful of games that are actually pretty good.

Waku Waku 7

Waku Waku 7 is one of the weirdest and most wonderful games we have ever come across. The game itself is a polished title from sunsoft that bases itself on the classic SNK four button template. What sets it apart is the mad cast of characters and super bright colour scheme. This title, you see, is a completely crazy parody of Japanese anime.

The bizarre combatants include a giant Totoro style Japanese soft toy creature and a walking tank with a gun for a head. The moves are over the top and it all rolls along at a lively pace. It's unlikely that Waku Waku 7 will hold players attention for as long as something like Street Fighter Alpha 3 but it is undeniable fun and anarchic.

Waku Waku 7 is pretty difficult to find. The home version will need to be imported on the Saturn or Neo Geo and neither is cheap.

Guilty Gear X2

Guilty Gear X2 is a thing of true beauty and genius which looks amazing and plays even better. All the characters are remarkably different and players need to spend some time trying them out to find someone suitable to their style. The thing that really sets it apart from every other fighting game is the absolutely phenomenal level of depth it has.

We could list all the different features and techniques but it would take all day. It can be intimidating for newcomers but once you get your head around multiple special bars and different types of counters and cancels it all blurs into some heavenly stream of consciousness. Watching two Guilty Gear masters at work is mesmerising and the game is so engaging that you may well want to stick with it long enough to become one yourself.

Mortal Kombat 2

Mortal Kombat is by far Midways best known and most successful franchise. The original game is fairly archaic and only stuck around thanks to a wave of media attention and later games always seemed to lack something. However, despite not being the most technical game in the world, Mortal Kombat 2 is still really good fun.

The overall feel has been improved and characters are much easier to control than in its predecessor. The mass of different special moves, distinctive character designs and imaginative arenas also helps to hide the fact that most of the fighters core moves are all the same.

You can't deny the game has personality in buckets and there is more than enough here to occupy players in both single and multiplayer. There are decent versions of Mortal Kombat 2 on the SNES, Megadrive and, surprisingly, the original Gameboy. There is also an arcade version available on one of the Midway Arcade Treasures compilations but it feels a bit lose to us. The Mortal Kombat Anthology, which contains all the characters from the first three games, on the Playstation, is also well worth a look and there are also compendiums on Xbox Live and the Playstation Network.

Killer Instinct

Rare's combo heavy fighter made a massive impact upon release but returning to it now it's clear it can no longer hold it's own with the big boys and can feel a little clunky. However, Killer Instinct is still a very playable and enjoyable game and acts as a kind of middle ground between Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat with a few of it's own tricks added.

One difference is that it isn't split into rounds. Players each have two health bars, when one is depleted the character falls to the ground for a second and then gets back up. This makes scoring a perfect on your opponent even more humiliating.

The other big thing the game brought was the combo system. Killer Instinct was the first game that really focused on the idea of certain moves linking into other moves and executed it well. The game takes the concept to an extreme and players can set off massive successions of blows heading towards the hundred mark.

Killer Instinct is available on the SNES and there is also a decent version for the old Gameboy. There is a sequel on the N64 but the pad isn't really up to it.

The one-on-one beat'em up didn't really get into its stride until the 16-bit machines came about. However, there are a few games that did the genre justice before then. Barbarian and Fist of the North Star are worth a look but IK+ is by far the best of them. It is also unique in the fact that you are fighting against two other opponents.

This idea of having three fighters on screen was later used in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story and in co-op modes in some of the later Street Fighter games. Players also don't have an energy bar but need to score a set number of points to the win the round.

You have a wide range of martial arts moves to take down your opponents and you need to move quickly as the other two fighters can score points off each other as well. The now legendary feature of IK+ is that you can make the players trousers fall down by pressing a certain button. It may not be revolutionary but it can't help but raise a smile.

IK+ is available on just about every 8-bit computer system known to man. It is also available on the Wii Virtual Console in the UK and is a must buy at 500 points.

Wednesday 6 February 2013

Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles (PSP)

The recent retro revival has thrown many great games and collections in our direction. Rez has hit XBLA, Contra is back on top form on the DS, and collections from the likes of Capcom, Taito and Sega have put a smile back on many a face. Konami's announcement of a PSP remake of the Japan only Rondo of Blood was good news for Castlevania fans (well, the ones who shy from imports and emulation, at least).

If you're reading this, chances are you know the original game was released on the PC Engine CD in Japan. You might even know it was the last title to play in a linear fashion, being followed by the Metroid style Symphony of the Night. Rondo of Blood is considered a classic game, and is one of the most rare and sought after titles in the series.

As is the trend for remakes on shiny new consoles, the graphics have had a polygon facelift. All characters are 3D, as are the backgrounds, yet the game sticks to its 2D plane. Other titles have tried this (XBLA's fantastic Prince of Persia remake, for example), but Castlevania seems to suffer. The collision detection is often ropey which makes dodging spikes and enemies awkward and jumps tricky.

The re-recorded soundtrack is a welcome addition, with a great orchestral score and English voice acting which gives the game more grandeur than other, lazier remakes. Even the cut scenes are a nice touch. Short and sweet, they usually indicate a boss battle, and look lovely on the PSP's gorgeous screen. In terms of presentation, Konami really has put the effort in.

As a collection, the Dracula X Chronicles is a good buy – the original Rondo of Blood and Symphony of the Night are essential titles for any self respecting gamer. Yet judged alone, the remake seems a bit pointless. It's essentially a flawed version of a much loved game, and considering that game is included on the same UMD, it makes the whole idea a little redundant. It won't win Konami any new fans for the franchise and its likely most people will be playing through the first three or four levels with the sole purpose of unlocking the two classic titles.

So we come to the score. It is great to finally have both Symphony of the Night and Rondo of Blood available on the move. But you can’t disguise the fact that the main game is flawed and average at best. This leaves you paying for a Playstation and PC Engine Port and that really isn’t good enough for a full price game


Written by Dan Gill

Monday 4 February 2013

Dragon Quest: Journey of the Cursed King Review (PS2)

Dragon Quest was Enix's signature series before they merged with Squaresoft some time ago. This is the first Dragon Quest game after that merger and sticks with the theme of having funky anime style character design with a Dragon Ball Z twist to it. At the time, Dragon Quest games had never made it to the UK before - even though it rivals the Final Fantasy series in Japan for popularity - and so we were a little surprised to see this one being heavily promoted with television spots and poster and magazine adverts.

The distinct graphical style will be immediately apparent and if you're opposed to all things brightly-coloured, it may not be for you. Both the game world and the characters are 3D, but their cel-shading hides this somewhat, There is plenty of treasure to be found around corners and under shadows with the landscapes being well thought out to capitalise of the art style. In contrast, Towns all look very similar and there aren't too many locations in the game that stand out as different. Whereas Final Fantasy sends you to many locations with their own distinct look, these do not really have that charm.

The protagonist of this RPG, surprisingly, does not have spiky hair; he also never speaks throughout the game. Simply put, the hero of the piece is meant to be the player. Our unnamed Hero is a knight to the king and is helping him on his quest to return himself and his daughter back in humans (they have had a curse put on them, transforming the king into a strange Yoda look-alike and the Princess into a horse). To start with, Hero is joined by Yangus, a short, fat, straight-to-the-point cockney, who follows Hero wherever he goes... for reasons we find out later in the game.

The plot starts fairly simply, and through flashbacks you see what has brought us to this point and that our travelling band are searching for an evil Jester named Dhoulmagus. The basic premise is that our group must travel around the world looking for people who can help them in locating the said evil jester, who can then be swiftly dispatched so the King and Princess can return to normal. Later in your travels, two other companions will join you. Of course, this being an RPG, things are never exactly as they first appear.

Plot exposition and dialogue do not dominate as heavily as some may fear and Dragon Quest is not a game that will bore you to death with 30 minute cut scenes. It quickly swings into action by giving you a good hard slap in the face as soon as you try to fight anything. In battle, the initial learning curve is quite steep; though there are not too many level-up 'walls' in the game (i.e. difficulty barriers requiring extra training to pass). Unfortunately, the first one appears right at the start and you'll just have to brave the few hours needed to progress. Furthermore, whenever you die, you are returned to the nearest village with any experience points you earned still intact - meaning, if you are willing to put some time into the title, anyone can finish it.

The battle system is quite simple - you have a standard attack, a power up, magic and items. Power up uses that turn to empower your character by tensing them up with the pay off being in the next turn they can unleash this tension and send the enemy flying! Do this quite a few times and they will get super-charged and hit insanely hard. You can win quite easily by repeatedly pressing X and remembering to heal occasionally, so battles can be a bit boring. Boss battles aren't that much different either. If you get stuck, it's often more effective to just level-up than it is to try a different fighting strategy.

The customisation aspect of your characters affects what weapon they specialise in. When characters level-up, they gain points that can be spent on a specialist skill. For example, if one character specialises in swords, they will do more damage with swords, hit more often, critical hit more often and learn special sword-only abilities.

The music is absolutely mad, and we have never heard anything so happy and constantly upbeat throughout a game before. It is so ludicrously joyful, prepare to be rolling around in happy fits of laughter. There are virtually no serious tones in the game, apart from big boss battles. While you would think that being battered with tunes that make the Sound of Music look miserable would be some kind of hell, somehow it all just manages to stay on the right side of horribly cute.

In terms of longevity, Dragon Quest is a decent-sized adventure. It will probably take you forty hours for a basic run through, though the side quests will add another ten or so on top. Then, when you have completed the game, you get the option to start from the point right before you kill the last boss. Doing this unlocks a new dungeon which allows players to find out more about Hero as well as allowing you to find all the weapons you missed out on, master your weapon skills and complete the monster arena - an arena where you can capture monsters from the world and then pit them against other monsters.

Dragon Quest is good fun and a well put together game, although it seems to have a slightly mixed target audience. The team have gone to the trouble to include 'teleport' spells and spells that clear areas of monsters to stop frustrating back tracking and exploration of areas you have already visited which encourages newcomers. However, there are those level-up 'walls' where the only thing you can do is go and get experience points for a few hours in order to proceed. Luckily, these only pop up on two or three occasions and rarely spoil things. The best way to sum it up would be to say that Dragon Quest is a casual RPG for the hardcore gamer. If that sounds like you, or you've enjoyed other Dragon Quest games, then chances are you'll love it.