Monday 21 July 2014

Ape Escape 3 Review (PS2)

Monkeys, there is just something about them that makes people laugh. If ordinary monkeys can entertain then adding a silly costume, a hat with a flashing light and using them to parody Hollywood can only be a recipe for success.

Ape Escape 3 works on the same premise as the first two titles in the series. Taking control of either a male or female character you must search around the levels catching a set amount of monkeys before being able to move on. This time around the levels are themed around various films ranging from Beauty and the Beast and Titanic to Howls Moving Castle and Star Wars. Only now monkeys play all the roles.

All the levels throughout the game are well designed and creative. There may not be strictly speaking anything truly ground breaking on show but what is here is highly enjoyable, with all the film set styled levels being well thought out. The difficulty is set fairly low, but even though you may not find yourself faced with death too often there are so many monkeys to catch and locations to get see that it hardly matters.

Playing through the title for the first time will probably take somewhere between six and eight hours depending on if you commit to catching all the monkeys from each stage. Once completed however more monkeys become available to catch along with the mini game ‘Mesal Gear’ which is more than enough to keep the players interest for a fair amount longer.

As the name suggests ‘Mesal gear’ is a parody of everyone’s favourite ageing stealth hero. Here we find that Snake has been captured and the only one who can save him is a highly trained monkey in a silly hat. What follows is a selection of sections taken from the regular Metal Gear titles re-made with monkeys. It sounds like the most stupid idea in the world but somehow it works.

Mountains of extras aside, the only major addition to the main gameplay comes in the form of the many themed personas that the player can take on. These allow your character to use special powers for a limited time such as wall running or firing pistols. Unfortunately, though it is a decent idea, in execution most places where the special powers need to be used are heavily signposted.

The main idea behind the Ape Escape series has always revolved around the use of the dual analogue sticks. The original playstation version of the game pioneered the approach and the gadgets on display here are still operated by using the sticks in a number of different ways (such as rotating through three-hundred and sixty degrees to hover for instance). However, the selection of gadgets available has hardly changed since the first title which is disappointing. This means that veterans of the series may find things a little too familiar for their liking.

Ape Escape 3 may not be about to set the platforming world alight but to dismiss the game (or indeed the series as a whole) would be incredibly short sighted. Although over familiar at times the title is always a highly enjoyable and imaginative affair. It may not be seen as an essential purchase by many but it certainly is a lot more fun than many other games. Ape Escape 3 is a good game filled with several tons of extras, three very good mini games and comes at a fairly cheap price. For those looking for some stress free monkey catching antics it is hard to think of a better place to turn to.

Overall 7/10

Wednesday 16 July 2014

Dragon Fantasy: Book 1 Review (PS3/Vita)

Dragon Fantasy has taken a very long time to come to the EU Playstation store. Launching on iOS in 2011 and in the US around a year or so ago, we’d pretty much given up on it ever seeing the light of day over here until it suddenly appeared without warning. It’s a game based heavily in the 8-bit RPG genre and takes us back to the days of a more simple adventure. 

The game it split into three chapters, each of which follows the story of a different person. There’s Ogden, an aging knight looking to prove his worth and protect the kingdom, Prince Anders and the thieving pair of Jerald and Ramona. Any chapter can be played from the off but starting with Ogden is the best idea as they more or less run in chronological order.

The biggest influence on the game is very clearly the Dragon’s Quest series and this could easily be mistaken for one of the early games. The churches where you save are pretty much the same and some of the same mechanics are also in place. The general graphical style is also much closer to Dragon’s quest than other RPG’s.

The combat and systems are very basic compared to what we have come to expect. Combat is turn based and you can attack and cast spells but that is about it. You can change weapons and armour and explore a world map but there is nothing particularly fresh or innovative going on. That isn’t of course a bad thing as such as it allows for a stripped down game which is easily accessible and certainly fits mobile gaming fairly well.

The writing and story are also pretty decent. The characters are likable and there are some nice touches of humour going on. The problem comes when you hit a grinding wall. The system follows Dragon’s Quest in that when you die you are returned to the last church you saved at (losing half your gold). However, unlike most of Dragon’s Quest games we found ourselves getting bored very quickly when we couldn’t progress. 

The main reason for this is that you seem to move forward at a snail’s pace sometimes. It can take a while to level up and if you are saving up for armour or weapons and get beaten you have to start over again. Combat also takes a bit too long with far too many button presses required to move text forward. It all ends up becoming a bit tired and the urge to progress soon begins to disappear.

The other major problem the game has is that for the same price you can pick up a host of PS1 and PSP RPG’s which are deeper and generally a bit more spectacular to play. That isn’t to take away from the development team here- it’s not realistic to expect a small studio to be developing titles to rival Final Fantasy VII. But the fact remains you could be playing that for around the same price.

We did start out having fun with the game but sadly it didn’t really hold our attention for more than a few hours. It’s too samey and the design of dungeons and enemies just doesn’t quite cut it on the PS3 and Vita. On iOS we can certainly see why it’s had success but it’s going to take a lot more than this to draw gamers away from the likes of Persona 4 or one of the many PS1 games on offer.

Overall, Dragon Fantasy tries to recreate a nostalgic buzz around early RPG’s, the problem is can you think of any truly iconic ones in terms of how they played? The great games tended to come in the sixteen bit era when the likes of Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy and Breath of Fire really found their feet. What that means is that Dragon Fantasy is an interesting look back at the history of the genre but not one you want to spend any great amount of time with.

Overall 5/10

Monday 14 July 2014

Shovel Knight Review (PC)

Shovel Knight has been looking like a good game for a very long time. Another in the long line of retro styled platformers, it always seemed to have something a little bit special about it. It’s taken a while to get here and we are delighted to say that it seems to have been very much worth the wait. 

The game follows the tale of Shovel Knight who used to act as one of the champions of the land, defending it from evil along with his companion Shield Knight. One day the two knights fall fowl of a cursed amulet in a magic tower. Shovel Knight awakens to find Shield Knight has been sealed in the tower and the entrance is now impassable. While Shovel Knight hides away from the world the evil forces of the enchantress take hold. In doing so she unseals the magic tower and Shovel Knight sets off to rescue Shield Knight and stop the evil.

Shovel Knight is a platform game that wears its influences very plainly on its sleeve.  There’s a  bit of Mega Man in there, (though you don’t take powers from fallen bosses), Some Duck Tales style bouncing, a bit of Castlevania 2 and 3 with the sub weapons and even a touch of Dark Souls. The thing that sets it all apart though is while all these elements are identifiable the game feels like something unique. It’s not just a trip down memory lane but a game that has taken key elements and forged its own identity with them.

The graphics and music are 8-bit themed and it certainly feels like the sort of thing you could be playing on a NES or Master System. Despite the potential limitations of the style each level is filled with detail and they each have their own clear identity. This is where the main Mega Man influence comes and it keeps things fresh as you never really know how an enemy boss knight’s stage is going to have to be approached until you get into it.

The adventure is set across a map screen with locks at the edge of it. Defeating the correct enemy boss knights releases the locks and allows you to move to the next section. As well as the enemy castles there are villages where you can get new gear and special levels which offer up gems or unique adventures for our hero to conquer (You can also go and speak to a big fish thing which fills up empty chalices with magic). You’ll need all the gems you can find as it acts as the in game currency and allows you to buy a whole host of secondary weapons and shovel and armour upgrades.

It should be pointed out that though the game is called Shovel Knight, this is not a title in the same vein as Steam World: Dig or Spelunky. It’s very much a platformer in the Mega Man or Castlevania style with skilful jumping and boss fights on the menu for intrepid explorers. The game is challenging but it has a very well balanced difficulty curve and we never felt completely out of our depth. Levels also have a large amount of checkpoints and there is no lives system in place so you can keep continuing. The main penalty for death is losing a chunk of your money. When this occurs it hangs around the area you died and must be reclaimed. If you die again then it’s gone, much like Dark Souls.

It’s a game wants you to keep playing it. The constant supply of gems and available upgrades, the gradual revealing of the map, the extra levels – it all just keeps you wanting to see what else is out there and what’s going to be next and there is always something more to see. You’ll get random monsters and bosses roaming the map like in Mario 3 or pick up a new weapon and be able to complete a level you couldn’t before. You’ll just keep going and going until the end and then there’s always new game +.

Overall, Shovel Knight is a brilliant game. Everything is does it does well and everything works. It’s balanced and challenging and constantly offers up new surprises. The controls work perfectly, the levels and enemies are well designed and there’s a nice chunk of humour in there as well. This probably is it for the 8-bit retro styled platformer as to beat this would really take something. We tried and tried but it simply cannot be faulted. It’s just a magnificent game.

Overall 10/10

Wednesday 9 July 2014

Putty Squad Review (PS Vita)

It’s certainly taken a while for Putty Squad to make its way onto multiple systems. Aside from the Super Nintendo the game never originally made the light of day – even on its main platform of the Amiga. Now, many years later, the Amiga version has been released for free and Putty has made his way onto the current generation of consoles. Even this version has certainly taken its time as it was originally planned for release on the PS3.

In truth, very little has changed from the original version. The graphics have been given a bit of an overhaul and a few minor changes have been added such as Putty auto-absorbing things, but on the whole the game is the same one you may or may not remember. This fact hasn’t seemed to play well with a number of PS4 reviewers but then we here at Retro 101 are probably closer to the core target audience.

In terms of how the game plays you have to move Putty around a level collecting all the other Putty creatures on the stage. Once this has been done a door will appear which allows you to exit to the next level. It screams Amiga and anyone familiar with the system will instantly remember how platformers used to be on it upon playing this.

Our little blue hero is remarkably flexible and has a host of things he can do. As well as jumping he can stretch up or along, inflate himself to float around and absorb enemies and objects. Absorbing objects gives Putty different weapons to use which take over from his standard punch attack. Putty can also despatch some enemies by jumping on them.

The game is full of little touches that games of the time were noted for. For instance - If you knock over one of the cats you can use their stomach as a trampoline, while jumping on the top of the cat soldiers with helmets squashes them and allows the hat to be punched at other enemies like a Mario-style turtle shell.

The main issue with the game are graphics. While it’s not ugly as such it certainly is bordering on the garish in places. It’s also very busy in levels which will certainly cause some confusion until you get used to it. It’s a situation not  helped by how the backgrounds are layered. It can be very difficult to tell if a ledge is a solid platform or simply a piece of background art. Some of the smaller enemies are also difficult to see and tend to blend in with things. It’s a shame as the Vita screen is about as good a display as you’re going to get, but it certainly isn’t anything that can’t be coped with.

The other issue is the price of the thing. There’s no way the game should be asking you for around £20 of your hard earned cash. We don’t normally look at price too much but it’s so off the mark here that it needs to be mentioned. The price will surely drop but you’d have to be a real die hard Putty fan to bite at the minute, even with cross-buy.

Issues aside we certainly feel Putty Squad still has something to offer. Yes, it is a certain type of platformer that certainly feels like it was made for the Amiga. But then that is kind of the point and because of this it’s actually quite different to most of the other games in the genre currently available. It’s good fun in small chunks and suits the Vita much better than thePS4 in terms of how it looks and plays. If you are looking for some retro platform fun then this could well be the game you want. Just hold out for a price drop first.


Monday 7 July 2014

Valiant Hearts: The Great War Review (PS3)

Valiant Hearts is the fourth game from Ubisoft to use its UbiArt Framework. Before it Rayman Origins, Legends and Child of Light were also built using the system that creates beautiful 2D games. Valiant Hearts is the story of four characters set against the backdrop of the First World War. Their story runs throughout the conflict as they are thrown together and pulled apart. Above all else it’s really a story about love and friendship.

The real draw of the game is its style. It look absolutely stunning and though presented in a comic book way really brings home the suffering and horror of the situation. This is done through very subtle touches and often in the background of scenes. The one that sticks most in our mind is a small boy crying over the body of his parent in a pile of rubble after the assault on a French town. The depiction of chemical warfare certainly has an impact as well.

These subtle images are underscored with a sensitive and gorgeous musical score which really helps to build emotion as you play. You’ll really begin to care about your characters and understand just how horrific the conflict was. It also does a good job of showing how families were pulled apart and how people living near the borders of different nationalities were separated during the conflict.

One of the characters you will play as is Karl, a German man married to a French women named Marie. He is drafted into the German army at the outbreak of the war and much of the story revolves around him trying to get back home to be with his wife and child. Another character is Karl’s father in-law Emilie who is drafted into the French army where he meets our third character –an American soldier serving in the French army named Freddie. The last character is Anna, a Belgium woman who becomes a battlefield nurse. You also quickly pick up a dog companion who can be used to pull switches, distract soldiers and gather objects from hard to reach places.

The game itself plays out like a 2D adventure game. Most of the time you’ll need to find an item and take it to the place where that item needs to be used. There are also sections where you’ll have to get past enemy gunfire and the odd very whimsical bit where you try and outrun something in a car while a crazy tune plays. There are puzzles to solve as well. These normally involve making pipes fit together or throwing something at something else at a particular angle. There’s a bit of stealth also as you hide behind barrels or bushes to avoid guards and searchlights. It’s certainly not the most difficult game in the world but it certainly flows well and it’s also quite a sizable game, clocking in at around six hours.

Exploring the levels is important as it helps to give you an overall picture of what you are trying to do. There is no speech in the game world with everything being done via thought bubbles.  Unless you look around it’s highly likely you’ll have no idea what to do with those braces you just found or that lump of coal. There are also a number of artefacts littering each level which unlock facts and information about the war.

Now, we don’t claim to be great historians on World War 1 so we can’t lay claim to how accurate the game itself is. That said, the facts and pictures unlocked are usually referenced and if nothing else it certainly awakened a curiosity in us to try and find out more about the subject matter at hand and that can only be a good thing.

It may sound a little simple but it’s amazing how well it all works together. You really do care about the characters and we had the urge to keep going to find out what was going to happen next to them. You could perhaps argue that the tone is a little inconsistent with the car missions but for the most part it hits the correct notes and carries a sombre feeling of people doing what must be done even though the situation is horrendous. 

Overall, we can say that we haven’t played anything quite like this before. The setting and style are unique and it reminded us a bit of the Ralph Bakshi film Wizards. A lot is going to come down to if you invest in the characters and story. We did and we feel Ubisoft has done everything they can to make players feel genuine emotion while playing. It’s a touching, heartfelt story that someone clearly cared about when making. It’s crafted beautifully and told poignantly and we really can’t ask for any more than that.

Overall 9/10

Wednesday 2 July 2014

Guacamelee! Super Turbo Championship Edition Review (Wii U)

After having success with Mutant Blobs Attack, Drinkbox Studios is back with this Mexican wrestling themed Metroid style platform adventure. Those who lack imagination may not see the obvious potential of this mix of styles but it helps to create a unique take on a genre dominated by both Samus and the Castlevania games.

Starting out as a Mexican villager named Juan, players are soon caught up in a strange tale of the supernatural when a long dead Mexican wrestler tricks the devil into turning into a chicken. He then returns to merge the real and super natural worlds together. Killed while trying to save the girl he loves, Juan is resurrected thanks to a magical luchadore mask and heads off to rescue the girl and save the world.

Graphically, the game does a good job of putting across the Mexican theme with a heavy Cinco de Mayo influence giving it its own unique and macabre atmosphere. The villages look straight out of a western and are coloured to look sun scorched and dirty in the way they do in all the best Western movies. There are also numerous references for gamers to find with our favourite being the 'missing' poster on one building featuring a picture of Manny from Grim Fandango. As you explore the world an enthusiastic mariachi band plays over the adventure, though it might have been nice if they had learned a few more songs. It all ends up creating a world that feels vibrant and new and is likely to draw players in quickly.

In classic Metroid style our hero starts out with only a handful of moves and then gradually acquires more as he progresses. These moves can then be used to access more areas and continue the quest. Most of these are given out by breaking statues placed around the world (which themselves reference Metroid). Most are standard things such as granting a double jump or the ability to break a certain colour block. The one which raised the biggest smile was when we were granted the power to turn into a chicken. In effect this grants the same power as the morph ball in Metroid, but that never allowed you to peck enemies to death.

You are also granted the ability to shift between the real and super natural realms at will. This becomes an intricate part to solving problems as pillars may exist in one realm but not the other. Things like water can also often turn to lava in one of the realms and the switching offers up some satisfyingly complex puzzles to negotiate.

Away from the platforming the other big focus of the game is the combat. Our hero being a wrestler means he has to grapple and punch his way through enemies. Some of the powers granted to reach new areas also act as new moves and a selection of throws and grapples can also be purchased with gold coins found around the world.

Moves can be strung together to create big combos and it feels tactile and satisfying throughout. Pummel on a monster enough and you can then press triangle to execute a throw which can be aimed at other enemies to continue the chain. As the game progresses enemies become covered in different colour shields which need specific moves used to break. It can be difficult to remember which move breaks what (and not the easiest if you are colour blind), but we rarely came up against anything that stopped us dead because of this.
The enemies may not be that tough but some of platforming certainly is. 

Even early on players not used to super quick button presses and timing may become stuck. Often you are required to link at least three special moves together to reach a platform and it only gets tougher. At one point we had to jump block through spikes, double jump, uppercut and then dash to reach a small platform with only tiny margins for error. We didn’t come up against anything insurmountable but more casual players may well struggle in places. 

Luckily there are plenty of save points so large areas don’t need to be repeated. The game asks players to pull off short bursts of skill and is very reminiscent of titles like indie darling Within a Deep Forest - in that once you have done the difficult bit it saves soon after to try and counteract frustration.

The Wii U version seems even more vibrant and colourful and the pad is surprisingly robust when it comes to those super-fast controls. You still have the onscreen co-op action as well off TV play as well. The difficulty may put some off but we would highly recommend you give it a go as it is undoubtedly one of the best games available on the Nintendo eshop. This is also a decent sized adventure clocking in at around five to six hours with further scope for finishing side quests and searching out hidden chests should you so wish. The Wii u version also comes with extra levels, all current DLC and extra moves for the playable characters.

In summary, Guacamelee! Comes highly recommended by us. It manages to take elements that should be well worn by now but turns them into something that seems fresh and new. It’s a great example of the type of creative flair being shown by indie developers and can proudly stand next to the Metroids and Castlevanias of this world.