Wednesday 27 November 2013

Toki Tori Review (Wii U)

Toki Tori was one of the stand out titles on the original Wii eShop and now you can get hold of the HD version on the Wii U for a decent price. However, things have moved on since the little yellow birdie first appeared on the scene so we thought we should take a look and see if the game still has what it takes to impress.

Toki Tori is somewhat different to its sequel. Where that game has you exploring a larger world and using song and some limited abilities, all the levels here are self-contained and introduce different items which you need to use carefully in order to collect eggs and thus complete the stage.

The game is split into different worlds which each have their own style, look and enemy types and this helps to add variety while your grey matter is tested. Stages include forests, spooky, ghost filled, castles and underwater stages to name a few. Each area introduces something new and it all works very well.

Items range from standard things like bridges to freeze rays and traps which cause ghosts to dissolve blocks. They are normally in limited supply so careful planning is always needed and even the early stages can catch you out if you aren’t paying attention. Frustration is kept at bay though by the ability to rewind time. If you’ve made a mistake then simply hit the button and rewind it back to the point when everything was still going fine. You can restart the level from scratch as well but we rarely found ourselves needing to do that.

While you could argue the second Toki Tori game is the more ambitious titles we found ourselves having much more fun with this one. The tight, focused, puzzles really are excellent and it seems to fit perfectly onto the Switch. The game also looks really good and is both a very colourful and fun world to play around in.

It’s the sort of game that will bring both smiles and frustration to your gaming life and there really is very little reason not to dive into the eshop and buy it. It’s the sort of thing you’ll put on for a few minutes and find yourself playing for a few hours. Yes, there will be stages that leave you frustrated, but then this is a puzzle game and the feeling of achievement you get upon suddenly seeing the solution will give a host of eureka moments.

Overall, this is a fun and charming platform puzzle game that does just about everything right. It looks lovely in HD and still offers a sizable amount of fun. If you haven’t picked it up already there really is little reason to hesitate. We much preferred it to the already decent sequel and it seems like a perfect fit for the Wii U.

Overall 8/10

Tuesday 26 November 2013

Super Mario Bros 2 Review (NES)

Once upon a time (like all good tales), Mario had a dream where he climbed to the top of a long stair case before opening a door. On the other side of this door was a world he had never seen before, where a voice was calling out for help. A few days later while Mario was climbing in the nearby hills, he and his friends came across a small cave, where upon entering he was shocked to see the world in his dream spreading out into the distance before him. 

Set in the dream world of Subcon, Mario, along with Luigi, Peach and Toad must lift the evil spell on the land by defeating the evil ‘Wart’. Massively different to the original Super Mario Brothers<, the game mechanics for this title have been completely reworked. Alas Mario 2 did not start out life as a Mario adventure and originally starred several other characters in a game named Doki Doki panic. This means that while the game is indeed very good, it lacks the Mario magic we have come to know and love. 

Enemies can no longer be jumped upon in order to kill them, jumping on various creatures sees one of our heroes balancing on top of the unfortunate enemy, which can then be picked up and thrown. Vegetables now play a huge part as well, with characters picking different varieties from the ground and using them as weapons against the minions of Wart. Furthermore, the power up system has been dramatically altered with the heroes taking up to four hits before they die and the fireball being removed altogether. The invincibility star is still present, requiring you to collect a certain amount of cherries to make it appear.

Players are now presented with a choice of four characters to play with, all of which have their own special characteristics. Mario for instance is a good all round character, while Luigi can jump very high but is weak. Peach can float and Toad although unable to jump too well is very strong. Certain levels are easier with certain characters so it pays to think about who you are going to use before automatically picking Mario every time. 

Graphically, the game is a big improvement from the prequel, with more detail and a distinct cartoon feel to the graphics giving a lot of character to the game, though backgrounds are still bland and uninspiring. Everything moves at a decent pace, with slowdown and flickering not a major issue. While levels look similar there is still enough difference between them to make you realise you are adventuring in different areas as you progress through the game. 

In truth though, this is not up there with other Mario adventures but still a fun game. Unfortunately, it's the game play side of things that lets the second installment down. While competent it never really creates the excitement a Mario game should. Sure, characters are controllable and the thing moves along at a nice pace with the odd bit of innovation here and there, but after a few levels you will find yourself getting a touch bored and wishing for some of the genius present in the original. 

Overall, Mario 2 is a fun platform game that has enough charm and nice touches to keep you amused, However when compared to either the first or third installments of the Mario series it becomes very apparent there is a definite lack. You will not be able to work out exactly what is missing but something definitely is - it's a good game, just not a great one.

Overall 7/10

Monday 25 November 2013

Shadowrun Returns Review (PC)

Shadowrun has been a massively underutilised franchise when it comes to the world of video games. There are countless Dungeons and Dragons titles but only four set in the murky shadows of mega corps and monsters.

Of the four games, one of them was a Japanese only Mega CD title and another is a team based shooter which doesn’t really keep the ethos. The ones fans will remember are the excellent SNES version which saw Jake Armitage taking on a Dragon and the Genesis title that never made it to European shores. To say gamers have been starved of Shadowrun fun is somewhat of an understatement but that could all be about to change.

Shadowrun Returns is a turn based strategy game set in an isometric viewpoint and is about as old school feeling as a new game gets. It’s very close in mood and graphical style to the SNES game and benefits immensely from it. The areas of the city are dank and polluted and neon tinged signs cast light over the many citizens that walk the streets in this imagining of a dystopian future. 

Conversations are carried out via dialogue trees with pictures of the characters face to the side of them. There is no voice acting or animation here but it doesn’t really detract from the game and if anything adds to the retro feel.

The story goes that your friend has been murdered and now it’s up to you find out who the killer is. At first it seems a fairly standard tale but there are a few decent twists to keep you on your toes and what starts out as a neo-noir thriller will soon go off into all sorts of strange and gruesome directions.

You can build your character from scratch from five races and a host of different class types which at least on the surface adds some depth and replay value to the game. In practice we found the classes that deal with robots or computers had their skill sets somewhat underused (especially in the beginning), with the combination of magic and guns often the best way to proceed. We’re hoping future instalments will flesh these classes out a bit more as the basic rule set is solid.

The game is split into three different sections. There’s the part where you run around the area talking to people and looking for clues, the turn based combat sections and parts where you enter the matrix. The first part plays out like a point and click adventure, all be it in a confined area.  Combat can occur quickly and it’s always nest to be prepared and ready. When combat does occur your characters are given a number of action points to move, shoot and cast spells. It’s not ground breaking but it works simply and effectively enough. You also have to keep an eye on characters strengths with Trolls and Orcs better at taking damage than Elves for instance.

Most of the time you’ll have a team of four and you’re missions will generally be to get into somewhere, retrieve a person or object and get out. Sometimes you just have to kill people but it becomes a step by step process of running to cover, concentrating fire and carefully moving forward. Mistakes can be costly and if you die you’ll start the whole sequence again. This is one of the flaws of the game as missions can be around an hour in length and you’ll often have to go through all the dialogue and adventure part of the game again if you die.

A quick save would have been pretty useful as well in case you need to step away from the PC, but as it is we only have the auto save which kicks in at the start of each new area. Just make sure you are sensible with your gear as being auto-saved into a difficult place means there may be no way to get out alive if you haven’t brought the right supplies or team. This can be somewhat frustrating considering you won’t know what you need until you get there.

The matrix sections of the game are also a little dry. They play out in much the same way as normal combat with the Decker moving around a virtual system setting up combat programmes and fighting drones. It would have been nice to distinguish this more from the normal combat but it works.

The game also comes with a detailed level editor and this is what is going to keep it going in the long term. The rule set is solid and there are already a ton of levels available that users have created. There are dedicated projects to bring both the SNES and Genesis games into the game as well. The standard game is a round twelve hours long and it’s likely you’ll be left wanting more so it’s well worth digging into some of the mission packs out there.

Overall, Shadowrun Returns is a positive return to form for the series. It’s not perfect but everything is in place for a bright future. The game as it stands now is solid, well written and will provide a good few hours of gameplay. A few more side quests and a bit more variety wouldn’t have gone a miss but it’s an easy world to get drawn into and any fan shouldn’t be disappointed. It’s a streamlined turn based strategy game set in an interesting world and we can only see it getting better and better in the future.

Overall 7/10

Wednesday 20 November 2013

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past Review (SNES)

The only Zelda game to appear on the Super Nintendo outside of Japan, A Link to the Past improved and developed upon the ideas set down in the first two games, taking the best from each and forging them into a whole new masterpiece. As the story goes, Gannon has escaped from the world of darkness aided by an altogether nasty wizard named Agahnim. Agahnim kidnaps Zelda and dethrones the king, and its up to Link to restore order to the land. 

Taking the top down perspective of the first in preference over the more side on platform action presented in The Adventure of Link the game has you exploring the land of Hyrule locating dungeons and finding the necessary artifacts to banish evil from the land. What takes this adventure onto a different level though is the sheer depth of the quest. Throughout the land you will encounter countless little side quests and sub plots that will have you playing continually until you discover every single thing it has to offer. 

Graphically the game is excellent, with a rich colour palette being used to create your surroundings. Everything is bright and bold, working extremely well to create the right feeling and atmosphere. All the characters, locations and monsters you encounter all fit seamlessly into the landscape, one section leading into another never leaving you confused how you managed to appear in a certain area. 

Dungeon design is also of the highest standard, with the learning curve being set just right. Each Dungeon becomes a little trickier than the last, needing you to use all the items in your possession to progress to the next area. Puzzles are also excellent thought out, with most requiring logical solutions, meaning that you are never stuck in one point for too long working out why a door won't open. 

Overall though, the dungeons form only a small part of the quest you are undertaking. With areas on top of the ground being used to display just as many inspirational touches as those below it. For example, early on in the game you will come across a magic portal. Walk through it and you find yourself transported to the ‘Dark World’. This gives greater scope to the game as a whole needing you to swap from one world to another in order to progress in your quest, with the added incentive of being transformed into a white rabbit.

A Link to the Past is an absolutely exceptional title and one that every Super Nintendo owner should have. Everything about it is just perfect and it's a true gaming masterpiece . Inspired dungeons, brilliant magic items, huge boss monsters and the odd touch of Zelda humour all add up to what is arguably the most magical of all the Zelda titles. Absolutely essential.

Overall 10/10

Monday 18 November 2013

Stick it to the Man Review (PS3)

There have been a number of attempts to get the point and click genre to connect with both modern day gamers and to fit onto consoles in a more natural way. Stick it to the Man is the latest game to try and add a bit more adventure to our lives and does so with some platform elements, a bunch of stickers and a strange alien spaghetti hand.

The somewhat crazy story follows the character of safety helmet tester Ray. One day on his way home a strange canister drops out of the sky and hits him on the head. The canister contains a strange little alien named Ted (Who looks a bit like a cute Krang from the Turtles cartoon). Ted hides inside Ray’s brain and grants him the power to read people’s minds via a giant alien spaghetti arm he now has growing out of his head.

It sounds odd and it is, invoking more than a few memories of Psychonaughts in terms of style and tone. Ray must use his new powers to escape the people who are hunting him and find out what has happened to his girlfriend. This is done via a combination of light platforming sections and using the hand to read people’s minds, find out what they want and then slapping the appropriate sticker into their thought bubble.

The graphical style of the game represents the world in a pop-up book style. Characters are paper thin and everything comes across like a twisted comic book. It’s a style that works really well and it helps to add charm and humour to the already excellent script and characters. Stripping the outside of buildings off like paper to reveal what’s going on inside in a particularly nice touch.

The game is 2D and has Ray move around a set map. Around the map are agents looking to capture him and this is where the platforming comes in. You can use Ray’s alien hand to grab hold of drawing pins and pull him to different places. Using this ability and a combination of stickers that make agents fall asleep or become confused, you have to make your way undetected past the goons to the next area. Being caught results in restarting from a nearby checkpoint so though the controls can be a little bit loose it never caused us any frustration.

The puzzles for the most part are fairly logical (at least within the logic of the world), and we never came across anything that had us stumped or frustrated for a massive amount of time. The only slightly odd puzzles that are likely to stop you dead are when you need to get people to follow you. One in the mental asylum springs to mind where a character repeatedly said that an object would be perfect for her cat but actually needed to be led somewhere else.

Puzzles generally involve reading a characters mind which creates a thought bubble. From here it’s all about grabbing stickers from people’s thoughts and taking them to the appropriate place to use them. This is what you’ll be doing for the bulk of your time and it’s a testament to the design that it doesn’t feel like one giant fetch quest (which effectively all point and click adventures are).  

Stick it to the Man isn’t massively long but it offers up an inventive and fun adventure that you can’t help but like. It came as a nice surprise as we hadn’t really heard much about the game before. What we have here is a combination of a good script and some fun play mechanics which create a fairly unique title. If you’re looking for something a little different or want to test out your puzzle solving skills then this could be the game for you.

Overall 8/10

Friday 15 November 2013

Disgaea 2: Cursed Memories Review (PS2)

Nippon Ichi has unleashed some of the most obsessively addictive Playstation 2 titles the platform has ever seen. Tactical RPG’s of the highest standard and polished in every tiny detail seem to flow from the developer at will. Now the franchise that stated the European love affair with the team returns with what is possibly the most lavish title of them all, and yet it is also arguably the most accessible.

The wonderfully absurd story revolves around a curse placed on the realm ruled by the Overlord Zenon. Zenon has cursed all the inhabitants of the world and now they have all turned into monsters, except for our dashing hero Adell. Adell’s family (now monsters) try and summon the Demon lord to them but instead end up with his Daughter. From this point on the story goes completely insane as Adell sets off to find and kill the Overlord and lift the curse on the land.

On your journey you will encounter creatures and characters that only the wonderful scriptwriters at Nippon Ichi could possibly create. The story is absolutely ridiculous but in a truly wonderful way and there is so much personality in almost everyone you meet you can’t help but push forward to see what awaits. This game at times is hilarious; you have to wonder what sort of strange twisted genius came up with it.

The action follows pretty much the same flow as before with the player’s team being deployed on a map split into squares. The colour coded squares return- these can be used to create various effects by having different nodes dropped on them. Once destroyed these nodes then cause a chain reaction that will destroy all the coloured squares leading to massive combos.

Crucially and helpfully the way characters gain experience has slightly changed. Before characters gained experience by damaging and defeating enemies. This meant that healer characters and characters that use support magic had to be shoe horned into attacking positions and combo’s in order to stop them falling behind as the warriors in the party level up. Now as well as dealing damage characters gain experience from using skills, so support characters level up in a more natural way.

A number of other features have now been streamlined and improved. The Dark assembly where you must go to create new characters and pass new laws that allow new features is much easier to understand and use. Bonus awards from levels now contain more experience meaning there are far fewer level up walls in the title, which is one of the most welcome additions.

Entering the item world (where you battle through up to one hundred maps to level up items) is much the same as before. Only now it contains more features, such as space pirates, seedy bars, more item specialists and the demon court. The demon court is an interesting though not vital new addition. Here characters can go and be sentenced for crimes they have committed. With each crime the character builds up a criminal record and gains new items depending how bad they have been.

There are a number of new character classes and skills available allowing more customisation for players willing to dig into the near endless depths of the title. Players can create a large number of characters to use but as only a limited number can be placed on a map so it pays to keep groups small as anyone not used quickly falls behind in the levelling up stakes, meaning you have to replay levels to get them up to speed.

 The new option of killing and resurrecting your characters in a new class is interesting. The idea is that if you are lucky characters will keep some or all of their skills from their previous incarnation and now be able to gain the new abilities of the new character class. The game even tells you it is possible to create a character with every skill, should you have the time and the obsessive compulsive disorder to do so. However there is always the very real risk that character will forget some or all of their previous skills leaving you with a slightly stronger but unskilled reincarnation.

As far as tactical RPG’s go there is no company to rival the skill level and passion of Nippon Ichi. It is clear they really care about what they are producing and continually polish their titles to the smallest detail. Disgaea 2 is a little easier than the first game due to the welcome omission of so many frustrating level up walls but still contains stupid amounts of extra things to do which those with any kind of life outside of gaming will never see.

Though easier the game is still fairly long, probably setting in at around fifty hours. Putting a time estimate on how many hours you would need to put into the title to complete everything is both pointless and a little scary to imagine, but we dare say that someone out there in a very dimly lit room will be attempting it. Disgaea is a joy to behold, you can dip into it for a short time or lose several years of your life in a sessions and that is one of the many wonderful things about the title. It is both the most complex and most accessible title in the genre and a must for anyone who is looking for something a bit different, an epic adventure or a life long love.

Overall 9/10

Wednesday 13 November 2013

Velocity Ultra Review (PS3)

For a long time the PlayStation minis have represented bite sized chunks of cheap fun, ideally suited to the pick and play mechanics offered by first the PSP and then the PlayStation Vita. However, though fun, many have been nothing more than attempts to replicate games often found on the iOS and Android systems. Velocity represented a departure from this and in doing so created a new standard for what can be achieved with a mini.

With Velocity Ultra, FuturLab have taken the original game and upped the level of the presentation to try and make it a Playstation 3 game in its own right. What they have managed to create is the greatest vertically scrolling shooter from yesteryear that you haven’t yet played. But to merely categorise it as a shooter is doing it a disservice. At its heart there are so many different mechanics going on that it’s something with much more depth than that.

Each of the fifty levels (plus Bonus stages), requires players to juggle with a number of different objectives. First of all, players must blast enemies and simply servive in classic shooter style. Secondly, there are pods spread around the level containing survivors which need to be rescued and last but not least each level is a deadly race to the finish as a clock continually counts down. As you progress the focus changes in each stage with, for example, a static comic book style screen popping up displaying a message to tell you if you can take your time or need to boost through until the end.

It is within the mix of these games mechanics that things become very interesting. Aside from the usual weapon power ups and bombs your ship can also teleport. The levels often descend into crazy scrolling mazes with dead ends, when this happens you need to teleport into a clear section of the level to continue. Holding the right trigger button also speeds up your craft as it moves up the level. This leads to many levels turning into more of a maze race than a shooter, especially when the time limits are set incredibly tightly.

This would be hectic enough but there are even more fiendish things afoot. At a certain point players gain the ability to drop teleport pods. Sometimes these are infinite and sometimes highly limited in use. This allows the player to teleport back to any one of the pods they have dropped and continue the level from there. The reason you need this is because at higher levels there are complex laser shield defence systems that need to be deactivated. This generally consist of anywhere between ten and thirty colour coded nodes that need to be destroyed in numerical order from lowest to highest. Hit one in the wrong order and the whole grid reactivates.

The nodes are of course spread out all over the levels requiring the playing to bounce back and forth around the map to hit them in the right order. There can also be numerous sets of nodes, all in different colours. Couple this with the continued threat of enemies, the time limit and the need to rescue survivors and everything gets incredibly, addictively hectic. Oh and of course hitting any of the laser shields results in instant destruction.

As well as this there are hidden areas spread around the levels that unlock trophies and further bonus missions. This, along with a tough medal grading system based on your performance means there is a staggering about of replay value in the game. Just in case that isn’t enough for you there is also a complete version of mine sweeper and a few takes on classic games such as thrust hidden away in the extras section.

Velocity Ultra has made the transition from handheld to console remarkably well. The visuals spring to life on HD displays and the music has never sounded better. Velocity Ultra is a must have game but there isn’t anything here that wasn’t in the Vita version, so some may well think twice before buying it again. It’s a shame the title isn’t cross buy, but more of a shame that it doesn’t have cross save functionality. Many Playstation network games now offer up these functions as standard so it’s something we can’t ignore.

We’ve said before that if this had been made on the eight or sixteen bit consoles it would be lauded as an all-time classic. This is still about as essential as you can get and shows an imagination, design level and craft that many of the industries big hitters could learn from. For PS3 gamers without a Vita it’s a must buy, the rest of us might be better looking to Velocity 2X though.


Tuesday 12 November 2013

Disgaea 3: Absence of Detention Review (PS Vita)

The Disgaea games are now well known for their massive depth, crazy characters and ability to steal hundreds of hours away from the most dedicated players. Each of the main games has had a version for portable systems and Absence of Detention is the Vita’s debut Disgaea title.

Disgaea 3 follows the story of an Overlord’s son Mao as he tries to overthrow his father. In twisted Disgaea fashion this means that our anti-hero is seeking out how to become a ‘real’ hero as only a real hero could vanquish an Overlord. Queue lots of in-jokes and obscure humour and one very odd script.

The game is set in a demon high school where missing lessons is the right thing to do and anyone who attends class and completes work is treated as the bad kid. Aside from the setting, pretty much everything is here that you would expect. Systems have been changed to fit the high school theme (such as the home room being used to build character relationships and the court to build new characters replaced with the school ‘committee’), but it’s all there and a fair bit of it is now a touch more streamlined.

One of the biggest changes is that you can now buy skills for characters with money rather than wait for them to level up. Characters can also be directly assigned as master and apprentice more easily and relationships can be improved by moving characters chairs together in the home room. It’s a bit strange to start with but does give series veterans something else to play around with and think about.

Battles and levels are pretty much what we have come to expect. You pick your team and fight in a grid based arena until you prevail or the enemy does. It works as well as it always has and the transition to the Vita’s smaller screen doesn’t bring about any noticeable issues. There is a zoom function in place when things get a little small and you can also rotate the battle field which means you can always tell exactly what’s going on.

On initial release on the PS3 there was some criticism of the graphics but we are pleased to say that they look perfectly fine on the smaller Vita screen. There are times when things can be a bit small (especially in the hub areas), but nothing you can’t solve with some simple touch control zooming. Characters and monsters are still easily identifiable and you should always know who is attacking who and with what.

The main draw to go through the Disgaea experience once again is the plot and for those who engage you’ll find a suitably crazy plot with a host of unique and unhinged characters. We wouldn’t say it’s a series highlight but it’s certainly good enough to keep fans going. The biggest problem is that the characters aren’t as likable or interesting as those in other Disgaea games so it becomes more about the battles than the tale being told.

As a starting point for Disagea on the Vita this is a good enough attempt. The few tweaks made to the console game, like the touch zoom, are welcome and the games style fits fairly well onto the system. There are minor issue such as the needing to zoom perhaps a bit more than you should but it’s nothing that derails the experience. If you’re looking for some portable strategy then you won’t find anything with more depth than this. 

Overall 7/10

Monday 11 November 2013

Teleglitch: Die More Edition Review (PC)

Somewhere in the future, on the edge of a particularly dark area of space is an experimental research facility. Said facility is doing some particular nasty military experiments and now you have woken up and realised it’s all gone to hell. Your only chance is to escape but that isn’t going to be easy.

Teleglitch is an action rogue-like come survival horror title viewed from a top down perspective. Controls are similar to Hotline Miami but it shares none of that games neon tone, instead using a rotten and decaying colour palette designed to inspire feelings of dread and despair as you explore the lonely research outpost.

The games visual style is at first jarring but you’ll soon begin to adjust to the haze of greens and blocky characters. It all begins to take on a certain grotesque beauty and certainly adds to the atmosphere. Sound is the other key component of the game and the outpost hums, bangs and clatters as you explore. Noises are designed to keep you on edge and you’re never quite sure if what you’ve just heard is the station or a monster lurking nearby.

The game follows a pattern of shifting momentum as you move from treating it like The Chaos Engine or Smash TV to running for your life from hordes of mutants and zombies. This change is brought about by what weapon you are carrying and how much ammunition you have left. A few monsters on their own aren’t much of a match for a well-equipped player, but having a few bullets left in a weak gun makes you creep around very carefully, even on early stages.

Teleglitch is a difficult game, something emphasised by the semi-random Rogue like elements of it. Level are randomly generated and randomly populated with monsters. This means you can’t just learn the layout of a level and then dash towards the exit.  It also means that on occasion you will be completely swamped by monsters almost from the off and you’ll need to adjust your strategies quickly in order to survive. Death is permanent and results in starting again from the first level so every move is crucial. There are checkpoints at level five and beyond which allow for a restart from those stages but then where’s the adventure in that? 

Much like games like Spelunky the skill required here is being able to understand what you are up against and react accordingly. Doing this is your best route to survival, though it’s highly likely you’ll still be dashing around looking for the exit with hordes chasing you before long.

The important thing is you always want to dive back into the murky and rotten world. It has the same bite as all the best Rogue-like games and you’ll react with the same joy at finding a useful weapon or despair at opening a door to see hordes of monsters in front of you. You’ll die, a lot, but you’ll always want just one more go.

The other problem that a lot of games in this style face is repetition. Teleglitch does have some issues with regards to re-using environments but there are a wealth of different enemies to take on and a whole lot of different firepower to use as well. This, along with some suitably huge boss type monsters later in the game help to keep things fresh.

Overall, Teleglitch tries to bring something a little different to the Rogue-like sub-genre and succeeds. It may well be going through randomly generated dungeons again but this time there are enough twists and more than enough style to set it apart from its competitors. It’s a hard as nails survive-athon than no fan of the genre should be without and in a crowded market that’s very impressive.


Friday 8 November 2013

Knytt Underground Review (PC)

For many years Nifflas has been developing games on the PC. The two most notable of these titles are Within a Deep Forest and Knytt. Within a Deep Forest had players taking control of a sentient bouncing ball that had to save the world from a bomb. The game focused on the bouncing physics of different types of balls of different weights and materials.

Knytt focused on a little hero of the same name needing to find parts to fix a crashed spaceship so that he could get back home. The mechanics here dealt with the notion of climbing and sticking to walls. Both of these games have now been combined to create Knytt Underground which marks Nifflas’ first move into the realm of console gaming.

Split into three chapters, Knytt Underground has players take on the role of the mute Mi Sprocket as she explores a huge environment. Her aim is to look for human artefacts and complete quests in a Metroidvania style. The first two chapters act as short tutorials to help players understand the mechanics of how Mi and then Bob the ball handle. By chapter three the two characters have magically been morphed together allowing players to change from Mi to Bob at will.

This allows for some situations requiring lightning reflexes as you change from Mi to the bouncing ball mid-air to cannon off the landscape at all sorts of weird and wonderful angles in order to reach new areas. As well as the bouncing and climbing there are different coloured plumes of smoke which give temporary abilities. These range from turning Mi invisible, making her jump higher or turning her into a set that can shoot horizontally or vertically.

Everything is designed as a means for you to get to another locations and this is where Knytt Underground really works well. Nifflas games before this have always focused on short bursts of quick reflexes and skill. When Knytt Underground asks players to do the same it comes to life in a flurry of ever changing physics and colourful plumes of smoke. (Note to developer – a colour-blind filter would really help with those plumes of smoke)

However, in Knytt Underground there are often long stretches of exploration through empty screens to reach these areas. Sometimes the beautiful graphics and sound create a haunting and ambient environment which you don’t mind trekking through. At other times it can all be a little dull as you wander through empty screen after empty screen. This was an issue on the PS3 version but strangely, seems to be much less of an issue on the PC. Maybe we’ve mellowed a bit, or maybe it just fits the system a bit better.

When Knytt Underground works it works well but when it doesn’t it can feel a bit  empty. This isn’t helped by the seeming lack of progress you make. There are numerous quests and items to discover but on completing or collecting them it doesn’t seem to mean much. Of course it all adds up in the end but the game could do with tweaking its risk reward system to help players feel a greater sense of achievement after they have overcome some of the incredibly fiendish screens.

It is worth highlighting just how lovely the game looks and sounds. This game is beautiful and the music is of the highest standard. We expect no less from a Nifflas game and in that department Knytt Underground can never be faulted with a stunningly ambient atmosphere created throughout. The spaced out save points also seem less of an issue in the PC version, even though some of them are still some distance away from tricky sections of the game and back tracking is something that can begin to hinder the experience. We lost count of the amount of times we trekked along a tunnel for five or six screens only to reach a character telling us we needed to bring a certain item to them. This then meant trekking back through all the screens again. There really isn’t a need for this and you wonder if the game would have benefitted from a slightly smaller, more focused, map without many of the empty screens - or at least the ability to teleport between save points.

Overall, Knytt Underground is another promising game for Nifflas. The look and sound of the game is gorgeous and easily rivals the best 2D artwork out there. The game itself gives players a huge world to explore but many may well feel that it lacks focus and a real sense of rewards for the skill you need in order to progress. Those looking for an adventure set at a slower pace will love it, while others will be left wanting a bit more excitement.


Wednesday 6 November 2013

Proteus Review (PS3/ PS Vita)

It’s been a busy year for Curve Studios with a number of releases onto Sony’s digital network. The latest of these is Proteus, a largely experimental adventure based on the concepts of colour and sound. Not a game in the traditional sense, it aims to provide a unique, uplifting and immersive experience for players.

The concept is simple, you are dropped at sea overlooking a randomly generated island. You can then wander around the island and experience what it has to offer. The Vita can also generate islands based on the players location, while the PS3 version will do this based on what date it is.

The graphics are highly conceptual with a vibrant colour spectrum used to put across grass, trees and water in a pixelated, retro style form. It reminded us quite a bit of the look of old BBC Micro adventures - just with a wider colour palette. The island goes through a day and night cycle and seasonal change and each is instantly recognisable thanks to clever use of the art style. It goes to show just what can be filled in by the player when colour and shape are used so well.

 A heavy emphasis on sound is what brings the game to life. The islands are alive with creatures, wind and vegetation. Fire flies buzz around at night, owls fly, while monkeys and chickens scurry across the floor. Each of which have their signature sound. In fact, most things have a signature sound and it turns your journey around the island into a concerto of noises and music that often surprises and delights in equal measure.

There are landmarks to find and paths to wander along but there isn’t really any goal to Proteus. There’s even a button that lets you simply sit and watch the sun go down. There are also numerous events to witness (which we won’t spoil here). It’s a strange one, there’s no reason to play the game other than simply the experience of taking in the sights and sounds, but we found ourselves drawn to come back to it again and again.

There are some riddle-like trophies for those that want to try some puzzle solving but in truth we’ve never been a huge fan of such things. Rushing around waiting for little pictures to ping seems to take away from the main experience on offer which is simply to relax and take in what’s around you. 

Although it doesn’t follow the same structure it evokes memories of Journey and Flower, games where there is little risk but it’s all about the experience of playing around and exploring. There’s certainly a fair bit to see here as well, just no reason beyond the curiosity of the player to go and see it.

There is a time frame to exploration and after you’ve gone through your final season it’s all brought to a close with the shutting of a virtual eye. There are a couple of different endings so exploring again is well worth a go. The game also has an interesting feature which allows you to take postcard ‘snap shots’. At first these seem just like screen shots but clicking on one will take you back into the world to further explore.

It’s clear Proteus isn’t going to be for everyone. But if you are fan of games like Flower, Fl0W or Electroplankton then this could be for you. It provides a bite sized chunk of serenity and for Vita owners especially this could be a great distraction through a lunch break or on a long train journey. It’s more of an interactive ‘experience’ than a game as we might define it but it’s certainly a very interesting piece of software that does things differently and thus offers up something fairly unique. For those willing to try Proteus there’s something quite special here.

Overall 8/10

Monday 4 November 2013

Ethan: Meteor Hunter Review (PS3)

There have been a lot of 2D platformers hitting the various download services recently. In order to stand out you need to do something different and do it well. Ethan: Meteor Hunter aims to mix the precision and difficulty of the Super Meatboys of the world with some old fashioned block/tile sliding puzzles (the things that used to drive us mad as kids and when you could never get the last piece in the right place).

You play a mouse named Ethan who needs to navigate a number of platform/puzzle levels while gathering chunks of meteor and eating cheese.  While it might not sound that original it certainly does things a bit differently. The platforming elements are handled in pretty much the same way as a Cloudberry Kingdom or Super Meatboy, that being that they require precision jumps and timing with constant traps and dangers ready to kill you instantly. 

Ethan is more about precision than breakneck speed and your character handles differently than you may expect. Our little mouse is closer to the Little Big Planet style of handling than anything else and this does take some getting used to as you work out how to use momentum and jumping to get around. It’s not something that we ever really overcame while playing, the levels seem to be designed for speed runs and yet your character just feels a little sluggish. There are numerous checkpoints to avoid having to repeat large sections but the handling does seem just a tiny bit off which can cause frustration when you mistime a slide down a hill for the thirtieth time.

The main gimmick is the ability to use telekinetic powers to move blocks around to create platforms and solve puzzles. This, for the most part, works really well and adds variety to the game. Sometimes you’ll be simply moving blocks around to get to the next area, while at others you’ll need to be in a constant flow of jumping and pausing to move blocks to block flames or traps as you pass by. It’s in sections like this that the game really comes to life and the creativity of the development team really shines through.

Levels themselves are designed to the highest standard and just about every conceivable way of twisting the basic mechanics is brought to the table. This means the game is always throwing something new at you or asking you to think about how to use your skills and abilities to reach the next area. 

Players need to stay sharp as this is a tough game from the start. You will die and die often and it’s certainly the type of game to cause controller smashing. Most of the time this is due to the player but there are odd occasions where the controls will let you down. There are also a few minor issues that add to frustration. The main one of these involves small cut scenes or animations, especially when fighting bosses. You really don’t need to see a five second animation sequence over and over every time you die and it can tarnish the experience at times.

Another minor irritation is the timing of some of the sequences. In areas where things drop from the ceiling or roll along it seems that, on occasion, they don’t start quickly enough. This means that after death you then have to wait a few seconds for the object to get moving before you start charging off as otherwise you end up in the wrong place at the wrong time and die again. These are all minor issues but in a game as difficult as this it does add to the frustration when you have to repeat a section a large number of times.

Overall, Ethan: Meteor Hunter is a brash, inventive and challenging platformer. It has strong level design and a lot of imagination through its fifty or so levels. It certainly shows a lot of potential but a few minor issues with timing and controls hold it back from greatness. For those looking for more platforming action this is another must have, just be prepared to smash a few pads on your way to conquering the game.

Overall 7/10

Saturday 2 November 2013

Pirates! Review (NES)

Set between the periods of 1560 and 1680, Pirates! has you terrorising the Spanish Main searching for fortune, fame and a beautiful wife to retire with. Starting out as either a French, Dutch, English or Spanish character you can choose to play it safe and be an upstanding member of your country or simply go around attacking everyone that gets in your way, this however is not advised as you will need somewhere to dock from time to time.

The game contains so many different sections it's hard to know where to start. Most of your time will be spent sailing around the map screen presented from a top down perspective, while sailing you run into other ships which brings up an information screen. From the screen you can then decide if you want to run, attack or hail for news. 

Attack the ship and the game switches to the battle screen, much like the map screen this has both you and the enemies ship battling each other, get close enough and ram into the enemy and it switches to the fencing screen where you must defeat the enemy captain and take control. This is just a fraction of what goes on in Pirates!You can attack towns, both from the sea and land, hunt for buried treasure, visit taverns, trade with merchants, talk to governors, get married and search for missing family members among other things. 

Graphically, everything is nicely done without being amazing. The map screen is fairly small but this does allow for a wide area to be seen at once making it easier to work out where you are, although there is a historically accurate map included with the game to help you out. Business in towns is shown in screens of information but still remains engaging, while battles are well done with different graphic novel style pictures representing a change from one screen to the next, all helping to add to the feel of being a pirate.

In terms of gameplay the title excels itself. For such an old game there is so much depth it's incredible. While raiding towns and ships for gold sounds like a simple affair other factors must be taken into account. Your crew need to be kept fed and in gold or else they will get angry and eventually mutiny against you, this means you have to be careful when taking on new men as if too many arrive the amount of gold and food for the others will be reduced. 

Sailing is easy to master with a wide range of ships being available to suite any players needs. Combat is also very well done with gunnery and fencing being straightforward affairs in terms of controls. Furthermore, there are a number of elements that mean each new game is different from the last. For instance, different skills are available at the start of your adventure meaning you excel in a certain area, there are also six different time periods to choose from giving you a variety of historically accurate periods to adventure in with each offering something different. 

Pirates! is such a good game that it's hard to think what the world would be like without it. Though on the NES, even today it is hard not to get caught up in it and lose days of your life in the hunt for Spanish gold. Everything is a class act and you can even become a Duke or other upstanding member of society as a reward from governors. It outshines the newer console versions in terms of gameplay and challenge as well. Brilliant, fun and innovative in the way all games should be, find it if you can and don't worry if you have lost the map you can get another one on the net fairly easily. 


Friday 1 November 2013

Castlevania: Mirror of Fate HD Review (Xbox 360)

We are massive Castlevania fans at Retro 101 so any release of a game, even an HD overhaul of a portable title is going to get us excited. We quite liked the 3DS version so ventured forth with some intrigue to see if this port holds up as well.

For those unfamiliar with the original, this is not a Metroidvania style Castlevania game. You do explore a castle but it’s in a much more linear fashion than the previous games on the DS and GBA. If you want that style of Castlevania there are currently seven games you can choose from to scratch that itch and looking back, if we’re honest about it, few of them are as perfect as Symphony of the Night.

Instead, Mirror of Fate takes us back to the style of the original games and is much closer to something like Dracula X or Super Castlevania IV. This is a bold move, but from our point of view we are delighted someone has taken a chance and tried to mix things up a bit. Bouncing around rooms is all well and good but sometimes you want to smack something in the face and swing around a bit, and this is something that Mirror of Fate offers up in abundance.

This was an utterly stunning looking game on the 3DS but the transition to the big screen hasn’t quite gone as well. Character models and animations seem a bit stilted at times and brutality seems to have lost some of its impact. The graphic novels tyle cut scenes seem somewhat odd in their new setting and losing the amazing 3D graphics is also a blow that the visuals never fully recover from.
The visuals are boosted by some stunning use of music and sound. Almost all the cut scenes are voice acted and the gruth Scottish accents mix with the forbidding visuals to create an imposingly bleak fairy tale. The grandeur and impact of the music is also of the highest standard. he strong sound is more effective on the big screen and the dramatic orchestral scores add a more serious and  sinister tone to the world.
The graphics and sound create a much more serious and hard edged tone – much like Castlevania: Lord of Shadow. This game looks and sounds brutal and every second of it feels like an epic and bleak life or death struggle. This is something we really like as it adds gravity and an almost Dark Souls like edge to the atmosphere.

Of course all the window dressing in the world can’t make up for a bad game. Mirror of Fate is much more combat orientated than other games in the series and the developers have taken care to instigate a robust and flexible system to fight off Dracula’s hordes. The developers said they were looking to take influence from Street Fighter for their system and it shows. There are numerous combos, dodges, blocks and launchers which can be unlocked as you progress.  This allows players some flexibility in how they fight. Admittedly limited, special powers and sub weapons are also on hand to help you through.

Once you get to grips with the system you’ll soon be despatching monsters with relative ease, and the system is more fluid than seen in previous Castelvania games that follow the hack and slash route. Combat is the emphasis of the game and you will often find yourself locked into arenas or needing to kill monster to progress around the castle. Players used to being able to duck and dodge their way through the metroidvania style games may well get a rude awakening here.

Boss fights are one aspect that lets the game down a little. They simply feel somewhat less inspired than before and often begin to become repetitive, a shame as this could have been addressed from the 3DS version. They can also be fairly merciless which is offset by the fact the game saves what seems like every two minutes. Indeed, the game even saves at checkpoints within boss fights - which may seem stupid until you actually come up against one of the tougher ones. At that point you’ll be glad of them as it stops players hitting bricks walls in their progression. Also, using quick time events really isn’t a good idea.

During your adventure you will play as three different characters but aside from small changes (such as Alucard being able to breath under water without a timer), there is little to distinguish them. In one way this is good as it means any unlocked moves remain throughout, but it would have been nice to see some variation in combat techniques and a more varied way of tackling the castle. Collectibles are also fairly standard with scrolls that expand on the games lore and chests which raise magic and health just about all you are going to find.

Negatives aside this is a bold and risky direction to take the franchise in and in the most part it’s successful. Ok, so the castle isn’t really there to be explored and there isn’t much point in searching out every last corner, but the more combat heavy approach is implemented well and the graphics and sound are incredible. It’s easy to forget that Dawn of Sorrow was merely solid and Order of Ecclesia took half the game to come to life. The Castlevania franchise needed to be shaken up and we are more than happy with the direction.

Overall, this is a game that will likely divide Castlevania fans. It’s still that a dark and forbidding fairy tale told that worked so well on the 3DS. It doesn’t quite fit as well here but it does manage to create some of the same atmospheric, dark and brutal adventure and if more people get a chance to experience it then that can only be a good thing. Its home is clearly on the 3DS though.