Friday 31 October 2014

Mortal Kombat Review (Mega Drive)

Launching in 1992 amidst huge amount of hype and outrage, Midway’s Mortal Kombat went on to become a landmark title. The main selling point was of course blood in vast quantities, which set a trend for future video games. During matches the combination of punches, knives, spears and much more besides causes your opponent to shed pints of blood. 

Such oozing was on a scale never before seen and the levels of violence apparent were topped off with a brutal ‘finishing’ manoeuvre. Subzero, on reflection, was perhaps the main culprit with a move which had the Ninja removing the head of his victim with the moving spinal cord still attached. Surprisingly perhaps, Mortal Kombat was not all style over substance, as beneath the blood lay a decent (if not spectacular), game in its own right. 

As a simple one-on-one 2D fighting game, Mortal Kombat implements the usual contrived story often found in the genre. This time around the greatest warriors from earth have to face off against the creatures of ‘Outworld’ in a battle that will decide the future of the planet. A selection of seven cliched warriors range from the usual Bruce Lee rip off to more obscure characters like the God of thunder 'Raiden' and a dead Ninja from hell. 

Mortal Kombat is an American series, developed in a genre dominated by Japanese heavyweights. However, to its credit it maintains a unique flavour, partially due to the character designs. Mortal Kombat managed to set itself apart at the time of release through digitised visuals for the fights. The characters were incredibly realistic, something that stands up quite well even today- at least until they move. 

While characters are digitised the backdrops are drab by comparison and static - creating an uneasy juxtaposition between the two. Each character has sufficient animation but a few more frames whilst walking would have been appreciated, but overall it's acceptable and the blood is lavishly red. 

Blood and hype cast aside, the foundation of the game relied on a decent engine. It's certainly not up to the standards of the Street Fighter series, but good enough to avoid frustration for the player. However, matches can become a mass of projectile moves at times, as normal punches and kicks seem to lack something in the heat of battle. This over-the-top opera of violence and bizzare finishing moves set Mortal Kombat apart - even today. With the blood activated it actually helps the gameplay as when attacking everything seems to be more solid, giving the graphical illusion that punches are connecting with the other character something that was sadly lacking in the Super Nintendo version of the game. 

If there is a criticism to be found with the game it would have to be that apart from special moves the characters on offer are not dramatically different from one another. This is especially noticeable with the Ninja characters. This is only a minor gripe in a surprisingly enjoyable and playable title though. 

Overall, despite the hype, Mortal Kombat is well designed and implemented and certainly put Midway on the map. It offers a welcome experience, different from those offered by the Fatal Fury and Street Fighter series'. The inclusion blood and fatalities helps to make it really stand out from the crowd. With so many versions released on multiple platforms it is worth noting that the Mega Drive version is really the only one worth owning and is a worthy addition to any Sega owner’s collection. 

Overall 7/10

(Enter Blood Code at 'Code of the Warrior' Screen - ABACABB)

Wednesday 29 October 2014

Stealth Inc. 2: A Game of Clones Review (Wii U)

The first Stealth Inc game was a very taxing, very inventive platform/puzzle game that had players trying to lead their little clone through a series of test chambers with the aim being to get to the exit door of each stage. Stealth Inc. 2 is much the same but the production values, writing and story have all been upped and the fact it’s currently a Wii U exclusive gives Nintendo’s indie game library quite a boost.

The story isn’t exactly in-depth but it allows a dark edge of humour to subtly be placed throughout the game. It revolves around a lab employee who sits in second place in his companies productivity scores. Sitting just one point above him is his rival. It would all be fine if it weren’t for the fact that the clones keep escaping and not doing quite what they should.

You play the role of the helpless clone trying to escape the institute but finding yourself continually unable to resist the draw of taking on the test chambers. The new hub world acts to channel you around the institute with each completed test chamber opening new areas and giving the brief glimmer of hope that you might be getting close to finally escaping once and for all. It’s not dissimilar to the atmosphere created by Portal and that is certainly not a bad thing.

The levels themselves can only be described as devious. We certainly wouldn’t have thought you could have created so much with the basic tool set of trip switches, lasers and moving blocks. The original Stealth Inc. displayed some stunning level design and Stealth Inc. 2 seems to take it to a level beyond even that. The fact your unseen overseer keeps leaving you sarcastic comments as you go only adds to the atmosphere.

The hub world itself is one huge puzzle that gradually unlocks and needs to be traversed as you proceed. It really helps to pull the game together and adds much more charm to the game than the simple listed level approach of the first game. Little touches of design such as robot vacuums cleaning deserted corridors and employees going about their business help to create the illusion of the facility and also really differentiate the hub world from the self-contained levels.

The big addition is that some of the puzzles now involve other rescued clones helping you out. This can also be done through local co-op which adds yet another little treat into the mix. A few pieces of equipment are also on hand to shake things up a bit and the different ways these are used demonstrates yet more design genius from the developers. For instance – an inflatable buddy is seemingly there to act as a weight on switches. Soon though you will realise you can use it to propel yourself like a trampoline from it or use it to strand enemy robots. 

Though the original game was excellent we just found ourselves having even more fun with this one. The extra touches of humour, the even more inventive level design and the perfectly judged learning curve make this a real joy to play. There aren’t many games that make you feel so elated working your way through a level solving little pieces of puzzles that add up to a bigger solution.
As before there is a level editor included and players can then share their sadistic creations with the rest of the gaming community. This could well mean that there will be new levels for fans to play for many years to come. 

Overall, this really is an exclusive Nintendo should be shouting about. It takes all the elements from the excellent original and levels everything out while adding a big dollop of humour and some nice additional modes. It’s one of the most pure platform/puzzle experiences we’ve played for many a year and there is absolutely no reason for you not to buy it.

Overall 10/10

Monday 27 October 2014

Iron Fisticle Review (PC)

Written by Tom Sharpe.

The days when you can sit next to a friend and JOIN IN are certainly back. The ease of controller-PC action has ushered in a good, hearty trend of pure local co-op experiences (see Risk of Rain for a golden example). And so, Iron Fisticle appears with those now familiar words, procedurally-generated etched across it's bow. But is it tempting enough to keep you coming back run after run?

Well simply, Iron Fisticle is a charming game, that has only just started to wear thin on us after four hours of play. You play a (or two if you're lucky enough to have a friend) knight who loses a bunch of food while napping on guard duty when an esurient eye appears from a vortex, taking lunch and yourself into a procedurally-generated dungeon nightmare. The premise is absolutely enough to justify your role in the game and all the better for it being playfully odd. The designers have keenly tapped into the simple and bizarre story setups that old coin-ops so often had.

In each Zelda-esque room, waves of enemies spawn, dropping aforementioned snacks (providing a fruit machine aesthetic) when dispatched. Other typical symbols appear in the arena, such as letters tablets, gems, health hearts and character buffs. Your standard weapon is a throwing axe which you wield in an 8-axis manner, but better tools become available to you in chests. A large part of the tension of this game is the weapon balancing, as your axe dispensing is only just quick enough to keep the hordes at bay, but tactical use of the extra gear clears a room in seconds. This provides moments of mob-carnage so multitudinous that you can't help but be pleased with yourself.

Aside from the weapons, you can dash to gain a movement advantage and also use your iron fist (icle) as a big hit “special” move, like those crazy bazooka cops in Streets of Rage. The game is as simple as that. You move through the dungeon-grid, clearing waves of enemies, gathering points and buffs, grabbing the key, moving on to the boss room. It is a simple, retro game at heart, but with an important alteration of persistent character improvement. Speed, health, damage buffs can be purchased which pertain to subsequent play-throughs, however I find any changes to be so subtle, I could not tell the difference. It does not have the gravitas of the similar persistent-item-gathering system in The Binding of Isaac, for example.

Iron Fisticle, however, rollicks along with tongue-in-cheek style, great design and effective, but slightly limited, soundtrack. A glaring problem needing to be fixed is the bonus rounds which work like the worst platformer this side of Pickle Wars. These sections are sometimes impossible to skip and provide so little benefit that they became a thorn in the fun, a real shame.

The rooms are, sadly, repetitive, undermining the great design work on show. The enemies are brash, colourful and varied, some parodies of classic mob types. Lighting effects on the special graveyard arenas add a touch of atmosphere lacking in the standard rooms. The procedurally-generated boast is somewhat weak, and perhaps with more elements to give greater variety, our interest may have been held for longer.

So, does Iron Fisticle stand as a roguelike that we will return to again and again for run after run? It certainly keept us playing and I’m sure will continue to do so, testament to the developers nailing the addictive factor much needed for this style of play. Sadly, however, it is not always a fulfilling run, due to slightly restricted freedom of path and the few niggles previously mentioned. We would, however, recommend Iron Fisticle to anyone who enjoys slaying some creatures with a buddy of an evening without pretension and with heaps of passion and fun for retro styling evident in the developers minds.

Overall 7/10

Saturday 25 October 2014

Gabriel Knight :Sins of the Father 20th Anniversary Review (PC)

Back in the golden age of adventure games Sierra and Lucas Arts where at their creative peaks and produced numerous point and click classics. One of the best loved of these series’ was Gabriel Knight, a franchise that has stayed dormant since the third game in released way back in 1999. Now, one of best mysteries ever committed to code has had a facelift to bring it up to date for a new generation.

Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Father introduces us to the charismatic lead of the piece and his assistant Grace as they struggle to make Gabriel’s rare bookshop turn a profit. Gabriel is plagued by nightmares of a hanging man and also struggling to write a new fiction book centred on voodoo. As Gabriel investigates for the book he gradually becomes drawn into something more dangerous than he can possibly imagine.

The biggest change from the original game is the graphics. Environments are now 3D and everything has had a redesign and overhaul. On the whole the new locations look very good and it certainly doesn’t break the atmosphere of the original. There’s a bit more of a Noir influence going on as well which adds to feeling of danger and mystery. New voice actors have  been cast which means the game loses the talents of Mark Hamill and Tim Curry, a shame, but we soon got used to it.

The only other real shame is that certain fine details have been lost from the transition to the new look. New players won’t notice but the odd creative flourish like the repair man trying to fix the thermostat in the police station or being able to go up the ladder in the book shop have been removed. While this doesn’t really effect how the game plays it does take out some of the character at times.

The game is still point and click and has resisted the urge to move to the style that Broken Sword 3 and 4 have taken on. Most of the time you will be scanning the environments with the mouse for items and talking to characters to uncover clues. Finding things has been made easier thanks to a highlight button which shows up any onscreen areas of interested. This makes finding those pixel perfect objects much friendlier and the game is all the better for it. There is also a button which jumps you straight to the world map which speeds things up quite considerably.

As well as the new look the game has a selection of bonus content in the form of artwork and design comparisons. It’s quite interesting for the most part but could really have done with being put in a separate place. At the minute you can only access things from within individual locations. This means if you don’t look at the content right away and a place becomes unavailable then you’ve missed it. It also doesn’t help with the pacing and immersion when you have to keep breaking from the game to look at the stuff.

The game has had a few sections added as well. Some puzzles are made a little longer and certain items have moved around. The addition of block sliding puzzles is something we could have really done without though and it’s a blessing there are so few instances when things like this crop up. There’s also a slight change of pace with Gabriel only able to visit locations when they become relevant to what he needs to do in that day. It streamlines the experience a bit without taking away from it and does help to eliminate a fair bit of the aimless wandering while you work out what to do.

Any issue are very minor though and for the most part we really enjoyed getting back into the Gabriel Knight world and seeing how it had been changed and brought up to date. The strength of the story and characters holds true and it really is a tale that draws the player in and makes you need to find out how the mystery ends. 

The original game is certainly a classic and it’s still fully playable but we still have to recommend both fans and newcomers to try the remake. It doesn’t feel dated in terms of look or mechanics and that is a big compliment to both the original designers and writers and the team who have taken on the job of creating the new 3D world.

Overall, Gabriel Knight: The Sins of the Father is a game we are more than happy to see back in the limelight. It’s an excellently imagined tale that deserves to be experienced by a new generation and one that has more than enough to offer to keep you entertained. Those who like a good mystery or want to step back into Sierra’s voodoo tale won’t be disappointed.

Overall 8/10

Friday 24 October 2014

Qora Review (PC)

Written by - Thomas G.J Sharpe

It sounds like a popular meat substitute brand, Qora, and after the two hours it took me to complete, I am none-the-wiser as to the reason for it. I’ll tell you something from the off, though, Qora is a superb example of what can get lost in the (for want of a better made-up word) cinematographising of video games (yeah, that's right, use that one on your grandmother); writer's voice.

As Qora is a interactive story/adventure, with a dusting of light platforming, the dialogue, pacing and overall narrative should be the most developed. Further than that, the now familiar home-spun pixel vibe, will serve the usual love-it-hate-it division, so the cracking writing from Holden Boyles is thankfully present and correct. On your curious adventure, from a village to a mysterious temple and to more abstract settings, the characters you meet are snappy and exciting. At times it reminded me of the great old point-and-click dialogue from Simon The Sorcerer or the usual Lucasarts suspects. Though not a long experience, Qora is worth the purchase for this aspect alone.

The game centres around a silent protagonist, who has moved to a quaint mountain village. Strange events occur leading you to discover the secrets of the temple nearby, all the while meeting bizarre characters, using a sort of past-vision to catch glimpses of history and a bunch of odd deities and ghosts. The backgrounds are incredible, especially in the darker settings. The situations of high contrast environments play to the strengths of the design, whereas sometimes the outside, daylight situations can fall a tad flat. I ached for a little more character-scenery interaction at times, dust or particles would have really made it sparkle, but the aesthetic ties itself together consistently and effectively. The sound design is at times clunky, but generally good - where as the music is nicely pitched and serves the entire experience well.

The gameplay itself will either numb and infuriate you into considering this “not a game” or an “interactive story”, a place filled with other such titles that confused consumers, or it will service a quaint story. I felt the latter, and never once felt like I was pushing a button for more narrative pellets, even though it is essentially what you do. The platforming is mild, the movement mechanics are primitive, yet the world created touched me in a way only great games can. Thoughtful, absurd and charming, Qora is soaked in one man's humour and occult-lite. One moment depicting an execution had me laughing out loud, the comic timing was spot on.

Don't be put off by what may seem yet another DIY pixel-art adventure, this feels more sincere than most. I'd expect to see this fitting very nicely in a Humble Bundle at some point, in the company of other games like this, perhaps Thirty Flights of Loving or To The Moon. If you are at all a fan of story heavy, pixel-art heavy or the absurd, then you could do several tonnes worse than pick up Qora, but the challenge may be convincing your friends when you excitedly recommend it. Its a personal, short, but pleasingly strange title.


Wednesday 22 October 2014

Lone Survivor Review (Wii U)

The horror genre has been on a downward spiral in recent times. The series stalwarts of Resident Evil and Silent Hill have seemingly passed their best and what we are left with is an ever increasing amount of creatures to gun down or cheap shocks we have seen before. Lone Survivor aims to change that by taking a different approach. 

Presented in a side on, 2D, 8-bit style, Lone Survivor is the story of a man trying to escape a disease ridden city where monstrous creatures roam the streets and corridors. It’s very much set in the psychological horror mould and uses a subtle script and clever use of music to try to get inside your head. You might wonder how a game with 8-bit graphics can be scary but when it works it certainly does make you feel decidedly uneasy.

Before starting the game it asks you to set up your playing environment. If you can, you need to be in a dark place and to also use headphones. We would say that it’s also much better to play it via the Wii U game pad, as when it’s running on a large high definition screen it really doesn’t work as well. You can change the size of the game window but this is clearly a game more suited to a smaller screen. It’s also worth working out the best gamma settings as if you get it wrong you are not going to be able to make out much of what is on screen. The settings can be adjusted mid game as well to find the right sweet spot. The 8-bit graphics have their charm but they can be a total nightmare in trying to work out exactly what it is you are looking at.

The game itself plays out like a point and click adventure game where you actually move around. You’ll be looking for items to take to somewhere else, normally to unlock a route or door to the next area. There is also combat and stealth mechanics to get past the monsters. As you might expect, ammo is limited and firing the gun makes all the monsters in the screen come charging after you so it’s often wise to try and sneak past them.

There are also a number of different systems working away under the surface of the game. The main one of these is your characters sanity. At the end of the game you’ll get one of a number of different endings based on how high or low it is. It goes up or down depending on certain actions you take such as eating and resting properly, or taking the different pills that you find around the world.
Food and sleep are also key components in your adventure. If your character doesn’t eat regularly he gets hungry, which can lead him to not sleep properly or collapse. When you sleep you save your game but doing it when you are not tired also affects your sanity meter so there is a constant risk reward systems at play. If you go on a long trek and discover a load of things but aren’t tired you risk either losing sanity or dying in an upcoming encounter and having to retrace your steps.

Luckily for players there are mirrors, which act as teleport points spread throughout the world. This makes moving around a little easier but having to retrace steps to find items lost after death is still a frustration which doesn’t do much to enhance the flow of the game. This frustration also increases when you get stuck in an area you simply can’t get out of without dying. 

The other main issue with the game is simply the environment. You are effectively, continually walking up and down dark corridors for the whole game. There are only a couple of enemy types and the game gets more difficult by pretty much just giving you a longer corridor with more monsters in to avoid.  This isn’t a major issue until you get stuck and repeatedly die somewhere, then the feeling of repetition can kick in and this takes away from the overall experience.

Faults aside, when it works (and it does most of the time), this is the closest you’re going to get to the feeling of dread and unease found in the early Silent Hill games. It’s creepy and you never for one moment feel safe. There’s a lot to juggle with food, sleep, ammo, batteries and sanity and a number of side quests and different endings to experience. If you’re looking for something different then this is the game for you. Just make sure you play it on the gamepad as it’s much more effective in the dark with the headphones on.

Overall  8/10

Monday 20 October 2014

The Sacred Tears TRUE Review (PC)

Sacred Tears is a traditional styled JPG that follows the story of two friends as they work their way to becoming master thieves. Styled like a 16-bit RPG of old there is a bit of magic around it and it certainly tries to do a few things differently. 

The look of the game suits the source material well and the pixel styled graphics catapults you back to the golden age of 16-bit RPGS. However, there is a distinct lack of graphical options and throwing the game into full screen mode makes everything seem horrible blurry. This isn’t great and is something that really should have been considered as not many people are going to want to use the tiny windowed mode that is available.

The way the game plays will also take a lot of getting used to. Combat is resolved around a card system with the player picking cards to represent attacking, defending, magic and special attacks. The higher the number of the card the better, as if it is stronger than the opponents then that is what will happen in the turn. The problem is it all seems a bit random and levelling up doesn’t really seem to do much to alter your card hand. When you get a hand full of ones it does make you wonder exactly what you are meant to do. If you die in combat it’s straight back to the menu screen as well which only compounds the frustration.

You can save anywhere which helps and levels are broken up in chapters but we felt very little progress with regard to the development of our character in terms of their combat abilities and everything just felt too random to be fun. That isn’t to say we didn’t enjoy any of our time with the game as the general adventure is a good one and the tale engaging- it’s just there is so much to put up with in order to enjoy it.

There are a whole host of systems at work within Sacred Tear to engage with as well. There are alchemy sections and the aim of saving up money is a key goal. There’s also a ton of side quests and extra things to do to gain more treasure and level up. So for those that do make a breakthrough in the game there is more than enough to keep you busy for a fair old while.

The real strength of the game is in the script and storytelling. Characters are charming and they interact well together. The world they inhabit is also interesting and filled with engaging characters. If you can get past some of the games problems there is certainly a tale of daring adventure to be experienced but it’s going to take some dedication to see it. 

Overall, The Sacred Tear TRUE certainly has some charm but we found it far too difficult to get into and make progress with. You’ll likely stick with it for a while due to the high standard of writing and characterisation but the core mechanics left us cold. With the combat system being such a chore it’s likely only a matter of time before you throw in the towel and look to something else to get your adventuring kicks from. A real shame as there is undoubted potential here.

Overall 6/10

Wednesday 15 October 2014

Pix the Cat Review (PS Vita)

The Vita has become a home for quirky and fun arcade experiences over the last few years but we’re not sure we’ve seen anything quite like Pix the Cat before. A sort of strange hybrid of Chu Chu Rocket, Snake and Pacman during his neon phase, it’s one odd cookie of a game and all the better for it.

The game has a simple premise – that being to get Pix the Cat to crack open eggs by moving around the squares of an enclosed arena and thus collect the ducklings within. The ducklings then follow in your footsteps and act like your tail would in Snake. You have to lead the ducklings to safe spots on the grid while avoiding dangers or getting yourself trapped in corners. It’s a simple premise but one that works very well.

If you can get all the chicks in a stage following you around you get a bonus. This also acts to speed up your cat. Your cat also speeds up every time he makes a sharp turn meaning that the game is constantly getting faster and faster. Once all the chicks in an area have been delivered home you can dive through a door to the next area and continue the hunt for points. Ever deeper you go with points stacking up, neon pulsing and music blaring away, all the while with a clock continually counting down to the end of your run.

Hitting your tail, an enemy or getting trapped in a corner doesn’t kill you but instead means you lose your points for the ducklings you are carrying and your combo meter drops. If you can keep the combo going long enough you’ll see the screen change to a sort of x-ray state and this allows Pix to crash into enemies for big points (like eating a super pill in Pacman).

As well as the arcade part of the game there is also the lab mode which is more of a puzzle type of thing. Here you have a par number of moves to try and aim for to solve a self-contained puzzle. It’s a change of pace from the normal pulsating action but one that is a more than welcome addition to the core formulae. 

As you progress and gain higher scores more and more options become available to you. You can play with both your and your friend’s ghosts on the screen from their best runs, alter the voices and drop into a number of additional modes. It all adds up to a nice package of bite sized arcade action. Our only really gripe is that there isn’t much here that going to appeal to people who don’t want to chase high scores as the level layout of the stages doesn’t really change apart from occasionally mirroring itself.

Overall, Pix the Cat is an unexpected and delightful addition to the Vita library. It’s taken the core elements from a few classic games and managed to create something fun and exciting from them. It’s not going to appeal to everyone but for those of you looking for a score attack game this could be the one to have you hooked for a very long time to come.

Overall 8/10         

Monday 13 October 2014

Point and Click adventures - One Temptress, Some Broken Swords and a Home Made Robot

 The genre known as the 'point and click adventure' has all but died out in recent years - sadly, companies no longer consider them to be valid or profitable. But once upon a time many a computer owner knew the names of Lucasarts and Sierra who, along with many other companies, brought some of the most unique game worlds to life... worlds where players would wander around in order to collect sacred and ridiculous objects and swear at their monitors as characters blocked their quests (with the phrases like "that wouldnt work" and "I dont think that's a good idea"). Let us now take you back in time to the land of pockets the size of valleys, surreal humour and fiendish plots.

Lure of the Temptress

We start our journey into the world of pointing and clicking by stopping off at UK based Revolution Studios to see what they have added to an overflowing genre. Needless to say the developer's reputation is outstanding. It all started many years ago with Lure of the Temptress. Started in 1989 and released in 1992 on PC, Amiga and Atari ST, Lure of the Temptress is Revolution's first point and click adventure.

The plot revolves around the character of Diermot who somehow finds himself trying to save the town of Turnvale from an evil sorceress and her minions. The dialogue is very laboured and the it lacks the humour of later Revolution titles, however it is not without its charm and the surroundings are truly sublime for an ageing computer title.

Puzzles are a mixture of the extremely simple (get knife, cut bag) and the bizarrely obscure. It does have a number of nice features, such as being able to construct sentences to give orders out to NPCs, which helps to add a more unique feel to the proceedings. Overall, the title has not aged that well and newcomers may not see the appeal- although for its time this was a rather excellent adventure game and is fondly remembered by many people.

Beneath a Steel Sky

 A defining moment for both Revolution as a studio and the genre as a whole. Beneath a Steel Sky (BASS), follows the story of Robert Foster who is abducted and finds himself inside a huge city of tower blocks overseen by a super computer. Alone, apart from 'Joey' (a personality on a circuit board who can be placed into any available robot shell), you must find out why you where kidnapped and try to escape the polluted city and return home to the 'Gap' the wasteland outside the city where you where brought up by a wild tribe.

Beneath a Steel Sky is remembered for many things and most people find a conversation early on in the game provides the high point; three simple sentences delivered so well that it is even rumoured the production team lost weeks of work because of them (as they were too busy rolling on the floor with laughter). Those lines are simply:

Technician: "Where did you get that robot?"

Foster: "I built him, you like it?"

Technician: "It's crap son!"(Maybe you had to be there?)

Needless to say BASS is full of style and the unique humour of Revolution. The cityscape is a mixture of industrial smoke, rust and general grime subtly realised through the use of various tones of brown, green and grey. Backgrounds are mainly static but do the job well. The colour palette and static backdrops do mean the title looks drab a little too often, but then that is the point.The main injections of life come from the many brilliantly voiced characters you come across in your travels.

As has become one of the studio's strengths, the use of local dialects from around the British Isles is used to full effect to turn people into comic caricatures which makes every conversation a joy. Whether it be brummy police officers or the hard-faced, beaver skin coat-wearing factory boss, things are always made that little bit more over-the-top and hilarious by their accents complimenting a nigh on perfect script. It means, even if you do get stuck trying to work out the puzzle elements, the humour value of what would otherwise be a mundane conversation keeps frustration levels low and the will to progress strong.

This is advantageous as, although BASS is a classic title, it does contain a number of illogical puzzles, and finding small objects on the screen can prove near impossible (the putty on the floor, anyone?). Still, though there are faults, BASS is one of the best examples of point and click adventuring around, and any fan of the genre should have made their way through this gem of a title a long time ago.

The Broken Sword Series

 The humour and vocal style set down in Beneath a Steel Sky was then refined, polished and placed into one of the genre's defining moments - Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars. Taking the role of George Stobart (a sarcastic American tourist in Paris, who gets caught up in a hit-and-run bombing undertaken by an assassin dressed as a clown), players are flown all over the world to solve puzzles and get drawn ever deeper into a very dangerous web.

Bright, easy to negotiate screens and sharp graphics meant that even the smallest items were always easy to see, and the few animations in each screen gave the whole game much more vibrancy than any of the Revolution games that had come before it. The graphical style is much more like a comic and the excellent humour and high quality of the script meant players were left in awe of the game's subtle stylistic brilliance time after time. Another sign of growth and development in the Revolution camp is the structuring of the puzzles in the title. While previous titles had a number of either too simple or too obscure puzzle elements, Broken Sword's puzzles were complicated but could always be solved logically - a tone that remained throughout the entire series.

Truly Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars is a pinnacle in puzzle creation, as never have more devious, yet logically-constructed, problems been set down in a video game (causing more than one player to utter the words "of course! It was so obvious, why didnt I see it!" on numerous occasions) - except, of course, for the goat.

Perfect scripting, humour and puzzles aside, the thing that really keeps you hooked on the title is the plot, which is genuinely interesting. Even today, it is rare to have such an epic and splendid tale in a video game. It has everything and rightly ranks among the all time greats in the video game hall of fame. Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars proved so successful it spawned two sequels before a long wait until installment 4 arrived.

Broken Sword 2: The Smoking Mirror was set in the same style as the first game and while it contained the same excellent level of dialogue, the puzzles where not quite up to the exceptional standard of the first, and the plot was considerably less engaging. The introduction of George's partner Nico soured the experience for many players as her section lacked the sparky dialogue of George. While enjoyable, the game did nothing to move the genre forward.

Third time around, Revolution set out to - excuse the pun - revolutionise the genre by implementing new play mechanics into the core of the classic franchise. The point and click element had almost completely disappeared, replaced with a highly effective system to cope with 3D environments. Objects were easily seen and interacted with. However, like the previous title, the touch of genius surrounding the original game's puzzles was missing and controlling Nico's sections again proved to be something of a chore. This, coupled with an over-use of box moving puzzles, meant that, while the title remained good fun, humourous and a good continuation of the story, the revolution hoped for by the gaming public was sadly lacking.

Installments 4 and 5 followed some time after but neither did much to reignite the spark found in the early games. Enjoyable for fans, they just don't quite have the same level of quality as the rest of the series.

Friday 10 October 2014

A Discussion of Cyber Punk in Video Games

'Any sufficiently advanced form of technology is indistinguishable from magic...' (Arthur C. Clarke)

'Cyberpunk' emerged as a sub-genre of sci-fi, and can be traced back to the early 1980s. Author William Gibson penned a series of novels (including Neuromancer) which narratively placed individuals in a new world of technology; where information became the new currency.

Thematically, the international settings of Japan, Los Angeles, London and Paris were linked through a hidden network of computers. With period films such as Tron, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, and Videodrome, the cyberpunk ethos was complete.Within such fertile space - be it novels, films or games - we are often presented with things that are not commonplace to us. These sometimes take the form of advanced mechanical devices, or different realms in which to explore and live. Humans themselves can even reach a higher stage of evolution - possibly developing new skills and abilities in the process - and thus be classified as 'cyberpunk'. It is these aspects that appeal to a global audience, but can also isolate them: because cyberpunk generally looks at the isolation of individuals in worlds where they do not seem to blend seamlessly with society.

As with texts which deal in pure fantasy, containing characters that may well be able to cast 'real magic' (or mythological creatures of enormous power such as dragons, vampires and demons etc.), cyberpunk can also be read in terms of theorist Todorov's idea of the "marvellous, uncanny and fantastic". This suggests that the two are more closely linked than would initially seem the case. For instance, when confronted by a flying car or hoverbike in Flashback or bionic implant in Deus Ex, it can be said that these create or instil such feelings of the "fantastic" as a flying carpet would. Because these things do not exist in our 'real' world, we may therefore question the reality on a literal level; indeed we may "marvel" at the depiction of something so obviously outside our frame of reference.

Games dealing with cyberpunk themes may well offer up mythological creatures within their narratives; however they are normally shown to us in terms of some form of technological monstrosity - as opposed to more traditional fantasy-themed or magically-endowed creatures. This can be called, as Todorov puts it, the "scientific marvellous": where the supernatural is explained in a rational manner but according to laws which contemporary science does not acknowledge - thus taking us away from the established repertoire of fantasy games where the 'marvellous' is characterised by the mere presence of supernatural events.Therefore, if such a close link exists between what we perceive as 'classic' fantasy (Zelda et al, swords 'n' sorcery, a distinct lack of guns), sci-fi and cyberpunk, why is it that cyberpunk has all but disappeared from the gaming world (notwithstanding a small surge of interest in the '90s - as evidenced by Flashback and Shadowrun)? Indeed, it appears that the sub-genre never fully realised its potential.

When we look back upon gaming's past we can pinpoint specific moments where cyberpunk was ushered forth as an 'alternative' - and somewhat ironically where the sub-genre met its match. One game, or perhaps more accurately, one series which was sublimated by Final Fantasy VII, hit the western market quite unexpectedly - and was filled with the decay and feel that runs central to the core dynamic of any cyberpunk-themed adventure; fusing 'real' elemental magic with the heavy overtones of industrial-strength monsters, leaking reactors and extracted energy (which also compressed into 'magical materia'). The problem with cyberpunk is that it is always a subdivision of two main genres - ie, fantasy and sci-fi - and when marketing a title it needs to be securely 'pigeon-holed' (or at least the games industry supposes it should be). One could thus imagine a conflict of interest when trying to 'sell' a game on the basis of its neo-magical theme - where commercially it is far easier to frame such games in more recognisable or traditional settings.

With Final Fantasy VII proving a runaway success, Squaresoft could either consolidate the genre or attempt to break from it. They gambled upon the latter, providing an almost 'Utopian' world for the character-driven sequel. By moving away from the dark and gloomy undertones so prevalent in films such as Blade Runner, and opting for a clean and sanitised aesthetic for the futuristic cities and environs (perhaps more reminiscent of Minority Report), Squaresoft effectively killed off - or forever shifted the focus from - the cyberpunk influence in mainstream culture. And then a final, devastating blow: FFVIII was not accepted in the same way as its predecessors - while it has a fanbase, it is notably the most despised Final Fantasy title on the market; criticised for (among other things), straying too far from the 'feel' of the series... What irony then, that this sterile 'real' world should cause a public outcry.From this point on there was only one way to proceed; the masses had spoken and realism was not on the agenda.

Unsurprisingly the next Final Fantasy title reverted to its classic fantasy-themed roots and was once again hailed by the public. It seemed there was no available niche in the gaming market where sci-fi and fantasy could happily coalesce and/or foster longevity, as the audience for both genres wanted different things. Sci-fi fans wanted more realistic-looking environments, bigger weapons, aliens, robots etc. and the fantasy fans wanted swords 'n' sorcery et al. So the inevitable happened, and developers decided to play it safe (perhaps nestling in their preferred pigeon-holes).

The moral of our tale: with any predominantly-themed 'Cyberpunk' game you are never really sure what you are getting; and if there is one thing publishers and developers do not like it's uncertainty from the buying public. Hence the reason the sub-genre has never really established itself - apart from Final Fantasy VII and Deus Ex, there are very few 'successful' cyberpunk titles. Why bother trying to unite two seemingly disparate genres in the hopes of an underground hit, when you can safely 'secure' your title in either of the alternate markets and almost guarantee success with a corresponding chunk of the public? Perhaps someday someone will take another chance with cyberpunk... let's hope so, because the brief history of the sub-genre has historically been responsible for some of gaming's - and contemporary culture's - best moments.

References: Butler, Andrew M, (2000) Cyberpunk (Harpenden: Pocket Essentials), Springer, Claudia (1999) Psycho-Cybernetics in the Films of the 1990s, Alien Zone II (London and New York: Verso), Landsberg, Alison (1995) Prosthetic Memory: Total Recall and Blade Runner (Body and Society Volume 1), Todorov, T. (1975) The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre

Wednesday 8 October 2014

Final Fantasy IX Review (Playstation)

After the good, but disappointing for many Final Fantasy VIII the next instalment of the series had a lot of work to do. Many fans felt the ecstasy produced by the monumental seventh instalment had been taken away. Unsure what was about to spring from the minds of Square Soft many approached Final Fantasy IX with both caution and a romanticist hope that all would be set right in the world of gaming once more.

Taking a more traditional fantasy setting than the previous two games, FFIX is firmly based in the realms of the medieval. Huge castles, magic swords, enchanted towers and the odd dragon are very much the order of the day. A big change from the Neo-punk and technologically advanced societies presented in FFVII and FFVIII. 

The setting proves an inspired touch showing an awful lot can be done without guns and mechanical creations, somehow it just seems to make the whole escapade more of a magical fairy tale adventure than ever before. The plot, (deep breath everyone), revolves around a monkey-tailed thief named Zidane. Starting with a band of thieves including the said hero trying to kidnap the princess of Alexandria. 

Simple enough you may think, however the reason for the kidnap is that the queen of Alexandria has become evil and planes to take over the entire world using huge magically summoned beasts named Eidolons. In order to do this the Eidolons must be drawn out of the Princess, killing her in the process. After many twists and turns we find that the queen is being controlled by another evil character named Kuja, the Princess is in fact not the real Princess at all but in fact from a lost village of summoners and then everything really gets complicated. 

The story effectively puts across the idea buried deep within the Final Fantasy subconscious; those being the notions of love, friendship, hope and individuality. The idea that no matter how small and insignificant someone may be able to make a historic difference. A very clich├ęd tale, but one rarely told so beautifully and enigmatically. 

Graphically, the game is absolutely stunning from start to finish. If the PSOne ever produced anything more jaw dropping than this game, then we have yet to witness it. The locations you find yourself exploring are created excellently and act to add whole new levels of atmosphere to the story. Characters and monsters are equally stunning, huge beast towering over our diminutive heroes making the player believe they truly are in for a fight. The real showstopper though is the CGI; it is simply breath taking what the cut scenes look like and really makes you understand why the game comes on four discs. The CGI puts almost every other game of the era to shame.

Luckily the gameplay system has been brilliantly overhauled since the last episode as well. Skills are now learned from wearing different items and using different weapons. As characters fight and progress the skills become permanent additions to their arsenals allowing new equipment to be used to gain yet more power and skills. A very good system that allows a lot of flexibility, allowing players to give characters whichever skills they prefer, meaning you can play the game how you want to. 

Furthermore, the summoning of Eidolons, previously Guardian forces has been changed back to the way of Final Fantasy VII meaning battles are more tactical and fun no longer relying on the same old moves to get you through. Now everything is governed by how many magic points a character has, a much more sensible way of doing things, showing Square Soft clearly realise when they have got something wrong. 

Everything in the game is just about perfect with controls, story, characters and setting all of the very highest order. In typical Final Fantasy style the game will take the best part of a lifetime to get through, and the rest of that lifetime to find all of the thousands of secrets hidden away.

So a perfect ten out of ten? Well no, but it does come very close. We realise how tiresome it is to keep referring back to FFVII but it is still the best example of the genre to found on the planet, with a story that never lets up and the odd mini game to break up the more traditional action. While the story is good in FFIX we found ourselves getting bored during sections of the third disc, Admittedly not very often but enough to sour the experience a little. Furthermore, as with FFVIII there are very few mini games and certainly nothing in the league of the bike chase from FFVII. This ever so slight lack just makes the game fall short. 

Final Fantasy IX is a masterpiece of an adventure game. For anyone not to fall in love with it would truly amaze us. Everything is set just right and you are drawn into the story right from the very offset. It really is hard to pick fault with it, and even harder to think what could have been done to make it better. However you cannot get away from the fact it is still not as amazing as FFVII, although I doubt anything ever will be. As it is FFIX is leagues ahead of FFVIII and beats FFX for sheer magic as well, but still has to settle for being a very close runner up to what was and is a landmark in the Role-play genre.

Overall 9/10