Wednesday 24 September 2014

Disgaea 4: A Promise Revisited Review (PS Vita)

We are big fans of the Disgaea series at Retro 101 but the Vita version of Disgaea 3 never really gave us the levelling bug that other games have in the past. It lacked a bit of personality and was somewhat cumbersome to control (and to see). This port of Disgaea 4 promises to fix all that with some refined graphics, better control and an all-round better storyline.

This time around the plot revolves around a Prinny trainer by the name of Valvatorez, a once powerful tyrant who has renounced much of his power based on a promise he made many centuries ago. A noble demon he never breaks a promise and when a group of Prinnies are taken away by the government for execution he leaps into action to save them. Why you ask? Because he promised them some sardines for tea and they were taken before they could eat them. Yes. Really.

Of course as things progress it gets much more complex than that and before you know it you’re on a mission to overthrow the powers that be with a bunch of rag tag companions, failed demons and several Prinnies. It’s possibly the maddest plot yet and it’s beautifully written and funny throughout with a lot of fourth wall breaking, several of the characters believing they are the main hero and one thinking they are the end of game boss. 

The game is now much easier to see on the Vita screen. Graphics are smoother and while that removes the pixel style it certainly helps out with knowing what is going on. You can also pan and zoom around the battlefield a lot better which gives you all the angles you need. That said, it did takes us a while to work out exactly how you were meant to do it by pressing square and both shoulder buttons together without it just flipping out the camera everywhere (hold square down first).

The standard systems are still in place so if you’ve played Disgaea before you’ll know what to expect. There are new systems as well with tower combat given more flexibility and monsters being able to morph together to create bigger monsters or turn into special weapons for human characters. You can also place special buildings on a game board then place characters around them to gain special effects such as gaining experience from the head of that building. The more levels you complete the bigger the board gets and the more buildings you can place (after senate approval of course).

While it’s not too tricky to pick up for fans of the series it’s not massively newcomer friendly. With a fair few systems added to what was already there it means there is a huge wealth of stuff to take in. There is a very short tutorial section but you’ll have to do a lot of playing around to see how things work if you want to really get into the meat of the game. 

The levels don’t exactly ease you in gently either. While enemies are generally of a manageable level the layout and design of stages is somewhat advanced. Very early on we were taking on intricate patterns of Geo Symbols which in previous games haven’t appeared until quite some way into the game. By world three we were already facing strings of snipers and archers placed out of reach on panels that allowed double shots and health recovery.

There are certainly very few levels where you just rock up with your squad and hit the enemy until they disappear. This isn’t of course a bad thing but we can certainly see how it might be too much for newcomers. While we’re on the subject there really needs to be a colour blind filter implemented in some way as well. Having so many different Geo Symbol colours is fine but it’s impossible to identify what panel is what when it gets so crowded with different colours and characters.

Small issues aside this is the best Disgaea for some time. It has the more flexible difficulty curve of Disgaea 2 while having a sense of humour and quality characters that rival the original game. If number crunching, levelling and bizarre characters are your thing then there isn’t anything out there better than this on Vita. It’s certainly going to last a very long time as well. If you aren’t shouting SARDINES! Within a week of play we’ll be amazed.

Overall 9/10

Monday 22 September 2014

Devil May Cry 3 Review (PS2)

After the disappointment of the second game in the series the Devil May Cry franchise had slipped somewhat from the forefront of the publics mind. With Capcom now aiming at the more hard core demographic of the gaming sector Devil May Cry 3 comes with a somewhat re-designed style than its predecessor, this is a good thing.

The story is set before the first Devil May Cry game and shows us the battle between a young trigger happy Dante and his more controlled, swordsman-like, Brother Virgil. Along the way you will encounter a range of strange characters from a demonic jester to a young Demon Hunter looking for revenge. The plot is ridiculous- but in the best possible way.

This third instalment of the series takes the action back to the more confined spaces of the original game- this allows combat to be faster and more focused. The move away from the more open environments means you cannot just wander around shooting at things off screen. This makes for some of the most intense action set pieces playable on this generation of consoles. Trying to describe the combat ‘in-flow’ is impossible, the words have not been created to accurately describe just how fast and hectic the action is.

With the action full on from the start you need a character capable of the task and Dante is a joy to control. The speed at which our hero can be manoeuvred is breath taking, while in other games such as Ninja Gaiden or Castlevania players need to control there movements so they don’t get ahead of themselves here that is not the case. With Dante being lightning quick you can guarantee as soon as you press the button he will carry out the command, even if he’s in the middle of doing something else at the time, this allows you a ridiculous amount of scope for launching attacks against ever increasing hordes of enemies.

Along with the majestic control system Dante is highly customisable, allowing for the players taste. Players have the choice of (initially) four styles which focus on guns, swords, movement or blocking. Each style can be levelled up unlocking more moves as you go. There are also a wide range or firearms and close combat weapons available, any four of which can be equipped and cycled through during a level. This allows for huge combos as you strike with your sword, then mid combo switch to another close combat weapon, before switching to a firearm and so on. It is truly sublime how everything fits together so effortlessly, it seems there should be a pause or break in the action or flow, but it never gives up. try as you might there is nothing the player can do with the control pad that will break Dante’s whirlwind of destruction as he cuts through the enemy (aside from not moving quickly enough).

The flow of action does cause a problem however and sometimes Devil May Cry 3 can be a painful game. With the continuous hammering of buttons as you jump, shoot, strike, jump, doge shoot, roll, jump strike etc, the game does cause very real physical pain. Be warned the title is best enjoyed in short bursts and prolonged play may well cause you a nasty injury, this is the first game we have played which manages to actually damage the player so much. Combo heavy titles such as Tony Hawk have nothing on this?

There are other issues that may niggle at players as well. While not ‘overly’ difficult on the normal setting for most of the game, Devil May Cry 3 is certainly challenging and the fact that when you die you go back to the beginning of the level can become frustrating. It's not a major issue however as levels can be completed in around ten to fifteen minutes but some foresight in terms of boss battles would have been welcome. Making each boss battle a level in itself would have completely removed the problem for example, as there is nothing worse than fighting through a horde of demons only to be stomped by some huge monster at the end and have to restart.

The only other fault that can be levelled is the fact the camera can be in the wrong place at times due to the fixed angles. Again, as rooms tend to be small, enemies giving audible sounds before they attack, the fact you will be moving around so quickly anyway and Dante always aiming towards an enemy when he fires means it is not normally a problem. But if you are low on health battling a boss it is something that makes it just that little bit more difficult.

What makes the title even more adrenaline fuelled are the stunningly choreographed cut scenes. The graphical power of the PS2 may be surpassed by other consoles but the action contained in some of the cut scenes is awsome. Indeed, one concerning the demon hunter is unbelievable. Fighting your way through the challenging levels is definitely worth it to be rewarded with such visual delights, whoever directed the action in these sequences is a genius, it’s as simple as that.

Players will probably manage to get through the game in around eight to ten hours, but there are huge amounts of reasons to replay it. There are extra difficult settings, unlockable costumes and characters, hidden weapons and many moves to be discovered. You can also replay earlier levels allowing you to level up your styles and gain more orbs to buy items, so anyone who invests enough time in the game will get through it.

Overall, Devil May Cry 3 is a very welcome return to form for Dante. The graphics may be beginning to show their age but the fluidity of the action is something unique for the PS2. A reason to buy a PS2? For adrenaline junkies and combo addicts it just might be.

Overall 8/10

Sunday 21 September 2014

Castlevania: Dracula X Review (SNES)

Set in the year 1792, Dracula rises from the grave wiser from all the years spent being beaten by the Belmont family. Instead of simply going straight after the latest Belmont, he instead waits and observes. The Belmont he discovers is Richter, and after some time spent following his movements Dracula decides he needs a tactical advantage in his latest battle against the forces of good. The master of darkness takes Richter’s girlfriend Annette hostage along with her sister, a Nun and the local Doctor’s daughter. Now Richter must take up arms against Dracula once more, however, one false move could end in the tragic death of one of Dracula’s innocent hostages. 

Castlevania V is a very striped down version of the stunning PC Engine game and sticks to the standard formula laid down in previous instalments, what we get is a fairly standard hack and slash platform adventure game. If anything this instalment in the series is a step backwards from the original Super Nintendo game, levels follow the tried and tested pattern of jumping over tricky gaps, whipping skeletons and defeating a big monster at the end of each stage. While in the prequel levels where significantly different in both look and style throughout, the stages present in this instalment feel a touch too similar for comfort, this unfortunately means that at times things can get a little samey at times.

Graphically, stages are more colourful than the previous title- this however is not always a good thing. The new graphics seem to take the series away from its gothic style and at times almost seem to be making the game like a cartoon. This is not good as the series has always been centred upon a very intense underlying style that bubbles away under the surface. 

Although the stages look a little out of place characters are much bigger and more detailed than before, instead of standard humanoid skeletons that look very fragile, new look skeletons have been added and are now hunchback like hulking embodiments of the dead, much more intimidating and a lot more dangerous. Richter himself looks completely different from Simon, with a blue tunic and more animations replacing Simon’s grey armour. However the inclusion of the mode 7 trickery present in the original is all but a distant memory now, it is hard to understand why it has not been used this time around as it conjured up numerous moments of magic in Castlevania IV. 

Unfortunately, while the graphics of the game have become more detailed the gameplay side of things also seems to have taken a number of backward steps. The three-hundred and sixty degree field of attack has sadly been done away with, in fact Richter can only whip straight in front now, meaning on occasion enemies on ledges above you are stupidly difficult to get rid of. Furthermore the whip can no longer be used after an initial strike, whereas before it would remain active letting the player circle it around if the initial target was missed. Though the gameplay is somewhat basic the game still is a lot of fun to play and if you have not played Castlevania IV for a while it all becomes very forgivable. 

Vampire X also has a few innovations of its own, though nothing as inventive as the prequels whip mechanic. Richter can perform a stylish, if a little pointless, back flip move and a super move that differs depending on what secondary weapon you are carrying. 

Overall, Vampire X is nowhere near close to the greatness of its prequel or the full PC Engine version of the game. however, to overly criticise the title is to miss out on a highly enjoyable instalment in the Castlevania series. The look and music may have changed a little but that is forgivable as games are set centuries apart. What is disappointing is that all the innovations from the previous game have not been built and developed upon as it makes Vampire X seem unfinished in a sense. The loss of levels and characters from the PC Engine game is also a real shame. That said, any Castlevania fan is likely to forgive the faults and once you do there is a lot to like.

Overall 7/10 

Thursday 11 September 2014

Gravity Crash Ultra Review (PS Vita)

Gravity Crash started life on the PS3 before later receiving a PSP port. It’s built up a reputation for being crushingly difficult and remains one of the toughest tests of a gamer’s metal on Sony’s various consoles. This new version see’s the game given a Vita native make over. It may look prettier but it still packs as much of a punch as always.

Heavily inspired by the games Thrust and Solar Jet Man, Gravity Crash has players trying to weave their way through maze-like levels, dealing with gravity and completing objectives such as finding gems and destroying specific targets. You can also land and pick up stranded crew much like in Lunar Lander. All of this is carried out in levels made out of neon -tinged vector styled graphics. 

The game has three control systems and which one you pick will greatly change how difficult your experience with it is going got be. The first option allows you to utilise the dual stick control system often found in games like this. It also takes away the threat of gravity by holding you in place when you aren’t pressing a direction. The second scheme is similar and keeps the ability to move in one direction while shooting in another. However, it does bring gravity back into play and you will fall towards the earth when you aren’t pressing a direction button. 

By far the most difficult scheme is the classic control setup. This is the same as in Thrust and requires players to face the way they are shooting and constantly boost to stop being pulled to earth. It creates a very tense experience as you have to judge getting through the level in a very different way. All the while you’re exploring your fuel also decreases just to make it that bit more challenging.

Needless to say touching anything at all or getting shot destroys you instantly. You do have a shield which you can activate or set to auto to help out. You also have the choice of a number of different special weapons. These have limited usage and recharge via in game pickups. Using them wisely is often the difference between life and death but as they don’t recharge between levels you’ll start out reluctant to use them often.

Level design is consistently excellent and often simple seemingly environments develop into intricate tunnels and caves. Some levels take you under water and alter the gravity mechanic while others throw random meteor storms at you. One level has a massive volcano in the middle that continually throws out rocks and yes, you do have to pick something up from right next to it.

It’s all very positive except for one quite major issue and that’s how you progress through the game. The campaign mode gives you three lives with which to go out and explore the galaxy. The problem is that when you lose those lives you have to either start again from the very beginning or simple press continue and carry on. 

Continuing resets your score but that’s it and you can continue as many times as you wish. This means that much of the tension of the game is removed. It also becomes a bit of a slog because if you want to access the levels in other modes you need to complete them in the campaign first and you know you can just keep continuing until everything is finished. A better approach would have perhaps been to give players a limited number of lives to complete each individual level which then resets upon entering the next.

This progression structure really killed the game for us which is a real shame. Everything about the game in terms of design is packed with quality. The sound, the look, the way the game plays are really something quite special but the progression through it misses the sweet spot quite considerably. 

It puts us in a difficult position because this should be a very high scoring game and we absolutely love the concept and ideas at play here. Anyone who’s a fan of Thrust is also clearly alright in our book. However, we can’t overlook the issue with progression and as it pretty much stopped us from playing after a while it means what should be a classic simply hasn’t quite got there. We can only hope that a patch is put in at a later date as then there will be nothing stopping this from reaching true greatness.

Overall 7/10

Wednesday 3 September 2014

Velocity 2X Review (PS Vita)

It seems like yesterday that a Playstation mini game by the name of Velocity caused a real stir on Sony’s machines. A Vita and PS3 native release followed and garnered even more wide spread praise. Now we have Velocity 2X to dive into with the promise of more intense action and the ability to control our hero Kai in platform levels. 

Remembering back to Urban Strike and the gimmick of being able to get out of the helicopter we initially were nervous about how this would all play out. Needless to say we shouldn’t have worried as Futurlab have certainly done a great job of merging two different genres together (even if they don’t perhaps fit one-hundred percent seamlessly).

For the uninitiated, the original Velocity is a vertically scrolling shooter with some puzzle elements thrown in. The sequel follows the same format and also has the same set of mission styles. Critical urgency missions need to be raced through as quickly as possible, rescue missions require stranded SOS pods to be picked up and combat missions are heavy on the blasting. 

The game has also had a bit of a redesign and visual upgrade. What this boils down to is everything looks much more detailed and colourful and there are lots of pretty neon effects and explosion particles to keep you visually stimulated. The music remains of an excellent quality as well and is the perfect accompaniment to the on screen action. Futurlab certainly does know how to present its games and it really helps to immerse players into the experience.

The ship also controls in pretty much the same way with new abilities being unlocked as you progress. Soon you’ll be flinging bombs with the analogue stick and teleporting all over the screen much like before and all at a thousand miles-per-hour. Most of the later levels require intricate placement of teleport pods which allow you to move back and forth around the map as different switches are often required to be destroyed in numerical order. This then removes force fields which would otherwise fry you to crisp.

The biggest change to the core formula is that you now need to dock your ship and go after certain switches on foot. During these sections you also need to collect energy crystals which are only found on the side scrolling platform levels. Kai handles much like her ship does with the ability to teleport and shoot much in the same way. You can also slide and sprint which turns it into quite a large homage to Amiga games like Zool. Later you’ll get the ability to throw teleport balls around which will be familiar to anyone who has played Flashback. 

It’s important to say that the platforming definitely has an Amiga feel to it. Despite what you might get from the screen shots this is not like a Metroid or Prince of Persia style of game. The levels are, like the outside sections, built for speed and you’ll soon get to grips with the nature of how to approach them.

Adding the on foot sections does make the levels somewhat longer than in the original Velocity. Although you’ll soon be bounding through near the three minute mark a couple of them held us up for over ten minutes. When this happens the magic does begin to wear off a little as the true appeal of the game is blitzing through everything at lightning speed. In short though, the sections do work. They aren’t quite as glorious as the vertical space action but they are an enjoyable and free flowing addition that manages to fit into the core game. 

There are also a few boss battles thrown in now for good measure. Every now and then at the end of a level you’ll have to engage with a big enemy ship filling the screen with bullets. It’s as close to bullet hell as Velocity has ever got and it adds another dimension to the game. The encounters are implemented well and are placed sparingly enough to never become tiresome.

The only real niggle we have is that you need to gain a certain amount of experience to unlock each level. This isn’t an issue until you get up into the forties but having to continually go back and improve scores and times on earlier levels can grind the game to halt. When you have to go and play five or six levels to unlock level 43 and then do it again for level 44 and so on, it can get a bit tiresome. For a game based on fluidity and speed it’s a rare oversight, especially when you consider that most gamers will likely go straight back into the game after finishing it to beat their scores anyway.

Overall, if you liked Velocity then you should like this as well. It does pretty much everything right and provides just as big a buzz as the original. It may not be as pure in terms of its focus but everything works very well and it stands as one of the best games on the network. The original was one of the greatest games of the modern era and this comes pretty damn close to it in just about every way.

Overall 8/10