Wednesday 31 December 2014

Rock 'N' Roll Racing Review (Gameboy Advance)

Rock N Roll Racing started life back in the 16-bit days of the Super Nintendo and Mega Drive. At the time it was a breath of fresh air across a very arid landscape of numerous Mario Kart clones. Indeed, with tongue firmly placed in cheek, it seems once again it is time to drop into the world of mullets and nitros... Now come on, with a combination like that, how could you go wrong?

The story goes that in 2833, intelligent life was found on the planet of Bogmire. The inhabitants of this strange world became addicted to the art of racing and started using souped-up cars to bomb around the planet. Something else that caught on quickly was Earth's rock music and thus from these strange beginnings the Rock N Roll Racing Commission was created. Set across six planets each with a whole host of tracks, Rock N Roll Racing is good over-the-top racing fun.

After selecting your racer of choice players must battle against three other opponents with the aim of collecting enough points at the end of the season to qualify for the next planet. Far from being a simple case of racing around the circuit, tracks are often reminiscent of a battleground with both cars and terrain capable of blowing an opponent into a different universe. Cars come in four different types, starting with a sand buggy-type contraption and working up to a full-on battle hovercraft.

Each vehicle can have numerous things added to it in order to help you through - these include mines, missiles, nitros, better tyres, and thicker armour. But the real skill comes in being able to take on opponents with as little as possible, as when you reach a new planet one of the opponents will have a new car meaning you need to upgrade - and rest assured these contraptions do not come cheap.

In terms of cosmetic issues everything is faithful to the original game. In fact this title is more or less identical in every way to the Rock N Roll Racing of years gone by, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. Different planets are varied and contain a fair amount of detail both on and around the track and the isometric racing viewpoint acts well to keep players going where they should be. Cars look rockin' enough to fit in with the premise of the title and it all moves along at a breakneck speed without any problem.

Of course, the gimmick of the game is the soundtrack and though only a minor point it really helps to make the game seem that little bit more over-the-top. While jamming round the track with missiles flying and parts of cars littering the corners, the tunes of "Born To Be wild" and "Paranoid" (among others) blast out over the action. Obviously, the Gameboy can't cope with complete songs, so instead we get an instrumental version, but it's effective nonetheless.

Along with the music comes an incredible enthusiastic commentary that runs through each race. Coming out with phrases such as "Let the carnage begin!" and "Tarquinn lights him up!", it is undoubtedly cheesy but then again if you buy a game called Rock N Roll Racing, what exactly were you expecting? The commentary helps keep the fun in the title along with many other little touches that create something which endeavours to make you smile more often than not.

Accompanying the decent graphics and sound is a solid handling model and responsive control setup. The cars are a joy to drive and very easy to get to grips with. After your first race you should be able to grasp the controls enough to be able to fire well-aimed shots at your opponents while taking a ninety-degree corner. Indeed after a few races - as well as fighting off the other racers - you will find yourself trying to grab all the extra money packages laid around the courses as well and while the action can become a touch samey due to the fact certain tracks must be raced upon more than once, nothing really takes away from the feeling that you are having a lot of fun.

In conclusion, Rock N Roll Racing gets away with being a straight port of a fun, over-the-top and cheese-filled experience. It will not change the world but if you are after a game that offers nothing but pure enjoyment then you cannot really go wrong with this reincarnation.

Monday 29 December 2014

Low G Man Review (NES)

You are low gravity man! The instruction book shouts at you as if it was a statement of fact. What a way to promote a game we thought, and what is a low gravity man anyway? Well, that’s something that’s never really explained, but this is the NES after all and epic plot driven stories did not come into fashion until the sixteen bit generation.

The story, and we use the term loosely, consists of having to capture a robot producing planet from evil aliens. Normally used for exploration, these aliens are trying to reprogram all the robots so that they will hunt down and destroy the whole human race.

Graphically, the game is nothing special, on screen characters are very small and made out of a limited range of colours. Backgrounds fare a little better with at least five different colours at one point. What exists though is clearly defined and moves smoothly with slowdown hardly ever occurring.

What is impressive for a game developed early on in the days of the NES is that it manages to scroll not only left to right, but up and down as well, Indeed as the back of the box says ‘Jump one and three quarter screens high’. What makes the game stand out though is the amount of invention to be found in the gameplay. Instead of just shooting enemies in the tried and tested fashion the player must first freeze the enemies with an ice gun, then jump at them stabbing them with a lance.

On top of this you have the usual power ups for the ice gun that create multiple and stronger bullets as well as four collectible weapons, boomerang, mine, shock wave and a fireball making it all add up to being an incredibly enjoyable experience. There are also a host of different vehicles you can use, one of which allows you to climb up walls like a giant spider, Innovation all the way and an enjoyable game because of it.

Controlling little Low G Man is an absolute joy. Jumping is easy to control, meaning you can shoot, turn in mid air and spear something all in one go, pretty essential to the enjoyment of the game with the monsters you have to defeat not giving an inch. The game is split into four worlds made out of three parts with a boss that must be defeated at the end of each. Most bosses are the standard fair and offer nothing new. One or two though require you to scale about two screens in height, climbing up their gigantic bodies until you reach a part that you can happily hack away at kind if like a 2D shadow of the Collosus.

Overall Low G Man offers eight bit platform gaming at its finest. Apart from the Mario games it's hard to find anything that plays as well as this on the NES. You'll find yourself coming back to the game again and again as it's incredible addictive and so much fun to play. Gaming gold, cheap and not that hard to find, snap it up quick.

Overall 8/10

Wednesday 24 December 2014

ICO Review (PS2)

Ico is a simple story of a cursed boy banished to ancient castle, and a strange girl who is the castles prisoner. Together the two must find a way to overcome the many traps and dangers and escape the giant citadel.

Ico is so simple it’s brilliant, you control the boy and must aid the girl as both of you explore the castle. Your character can climb and hang off ledges and do all the things you have come to expect from any game post Prince of Persia. To defend himself the boy has a simple stick, sometimes exchanged for a sword, but most of the time a stick. That is how you start the game and it is how you finish with no powering up, no magic spells, and no health packages lying around. Just a boy, a stick and a girl against all the huge overshadowing castle has to offer and this is a large part of what makes the game so sublime.

Everything graphically makes you feel very small, the colours are beautiful yet reserved, focusing on light and shadow, creating towering gothic environments of stone, each as picturesque as the last. The graphics could not have been more perfect if they had been hand painted by the greatest artist who ever lived, like the game they are beautiful and simple, Ico is a game of simplicity and subtlety and everything in it gently reinforces that fact.

Simplicity to the point where the girl is completely white and the monsters who appear to drag her back to her prison are just black shadowy silhouettes. You can’t get much more clear cut good and evil than that. Sound acts much in the same way, no constant techno in the background, just the faint whispering of wind as it swirls around the towers, and the occasional haunting melody as the shadow creatures rise from the ground.

The game itself sees you solving puzzle after puzzle in the castle, until you realise the castle itself is one big problem to solve, each puzzle completed acting to make the castle fall together until the whole thing is conquered. You find yourself bewitched into wanting to see the whole thing unfold but you won’t know why. That’s the thing about Ico you know you want to keep going, you know you can’t let the shadows have the girl, but you don’t know why, you can’t put your finger on it but it’s definitely there and it’s beautiful.

Ico is amazing, at times it sort of lulls you into a trance, you just become controlled by its magic. In the day and age of endless sequels this shines as an original piece of genius, more of a work of art than a game, it feels like someone’s private project that has been put together through a labour of love, I just can’t fault it.

Its not too long, or too short, its got exactly the right difficulty level and everything is perfect. When you do finish the game after the credits role you get the moment that makes the game a true grade A title, what that is you’ll just have to find out for yourself.A  pure perfection, a master class in games programming

Overall 10/10


Monday 22 December 2014

Metal Slug X Review (Playstation)

Containing just about the shortest plot in videogame history, Metal Slug X sends the player on a mission to eliminate an individual who is causing a lot of upheaval in the world. Rumours suggesting the plot was written on the bus by an SNK employee on their way to work remain unconfirmed, but then the Metal Slug series has never been about epic plot-lines. Indeed, shooting things is all that matters in this title - a lot of things - and it makes a nice change to see a game concentrating on the action rather than some pointless plot that nobody cares about anyway.

For those unaware, the Metal Slug series follows the tradition of classic side-scrolling shoot 'em up action. One or two players are directed across screen blasting absolutely everything in sight, devouring power-ups and rescuing the odd hostage who is (conveniently) scattered about the levels.

Metal Slug X is set across six stages of high-octane bliss, and even though you are granted unlimited continues, the blasting never gets old for anyone starved of mindless destruction. What truly places the series apart from others in the genre is the absolutely astounding artwork and character direction. Each of the six central stages is a smorgasbord of detail, with lashings of colour and digestible moments. Indeed it truly is one of the most sumptuous-looking 2D shoot 'em ups ever to exist. As well as the terrific backdrops, all the enemies and characters in the game are coated with equal dollops of care with small touches such as soldiers laughing when they kill you, only to then almost jump out of their skins when you reappear with your next credit - sometimes even legging it into the distance.

Boss battles are something to marvel at as well, with each new mechanical monstrosity being both bizarre and intimidating at the same time and it is clear so much thought has gone into every detail that you can only marvel at the end result. Coupled with the graphical excess are some of the best sound effects the PSone has to offer. At all times the sheer amount of explosions and gunfire plays out to a fever pitch of excitement and, when you throw in the screams of soldiers who have been shot with some obligatory arcade-style speech samples, you find yet another level of depth added to this otherwise 2D experience.

Your characters are controllable to the Nth Degree and move about at a fair notch, which at least gives you half a chance of avoiding all the incoming fire. While superficially the nuts 'n bolts of gameplay are hardly revolutionary, they do fill the requirements which means you can shoot and jump, throw bombs, and use a number of different vehicles to despatch your foe. Simple, but very effective.

Furthermore, to top off this excellent feast of graphics, sound and controls, stage layout is dramatic and different all the way through - containing enough new features and small touches of brilliance to keep players occupied at all times. Given the unlimited continues it's fairly certain you will complete the game each time you play it, but everything seems so full-on and engaging that you'll want to return for the sheer chaos. (once completed a number of extra missions do become available, and while most only consist of simple tasks - such as staying alive for as long as possible or seeing how long you can protect a baby from marauding aliens - they do serve to spike interest, as players aim for those ever-increasing high scores.)

Overall, Metal Slug X takes its place on the Throne of Unmissable Experiences. We have no reservation in saying that if you own a PSone this is the best thing that has happened to it in years. A masterclass in the way that all action games should be made, grab yourselves a copy and get blasting.

Overall 9/10

Wednesday 17 December 2014

Super Castlevania IV Review (SNES)

Following much the same story as the first NES Castlevania, the first SNES outing for the Belmont family has Simon Belmont heading off into the depths of evil in order to save the world from the dark engulfing shadow of Dracula’s cruel hand. The story is that an evil group of people hold a ceremony in an old destroyed abbey outside a small town. As the ritual is performed dark clouds begin to form then just as the group reach a crescendo of chanting, lightning strikes the ground splits it in two and once again Dracula rises from the confines of his tomb.

Following in the foot steps of previous releases, Castlevania IV has the heroic Simon Belmont storming through a number of vertical and horizontal scrolling hack n' slash levels, as he makes his way towards Dracula’s castle. Most levels involve a fair few precision jumps, a bit of stair climbing, swinging from skyhooks with the whip and the general destruction of all things evil. Most (but not all), levels are rounded off with an impressive boss creature. 

The launch of the Super Nintendo heralded much hype about the capabilities of the machine in terms of something known as Mode 7. What Mode 7 amounts to is that the machine can set things in a seemingly three dimensional world when it is actually only two dimensional. It can also scale sprites differently and a number of other dull technical things that are of little interest. Castlevania IV uses this strategically through certain key areas forming a stunning showcase for Nintendo’s new found trickery. 

Most notable are two sections of level four. First of all the player finds themselves inside a giant spinning tube, even now the graphics are good enough to make you feel dizzy meaning you really have to concentrate to stop from falling to your doom. Next comes a huge rock monsters at the end of level, upon striking said monster it gradually shrinks before finally expanding to fill the whole screen and disappearing into the distance, not as impressive as it once was, but back in the day this truly was as good as it got. 

Mode 7 aside, the rest of the graphical content of the title is of an exceptionally high standard. Each level offers something new to be impressed by. Level one sees a huge metal fence come out of the ground at the start of one section then as our hero progresses through, vines and leaves begin to sneak slowly up it. Level two has some beautiful running water effects, and the small droplets that fall from the stalactites in level three have a subtle beauty all of their own. 

Each level looks different from the last, ranging from the expected castle environments to marshes, underground caverns and murky dungeons to name a few. Inhabiting each area are unique monsters as well as the standard bats and skeletons that appear throughout the game. All creatures are well animated and surprisingly detailed for a sixteen-bit title and it all adds to the games a very distinctive look and atmosphere. 

Along with exceptional graphics comes an even more impressive use of music. This is easily one of the most sonically impressive title ever to be released on any format. The sheer range and depth of sound present is outstanding withsound gradually building in each level before erupting into a full on gothic/classical experience. At times you may find yourself listening to the music instead of concentrating on what you are doing as the amount of layers each work contains is staggering, a truly exceptional achievement which gives the game so much atmosphere that even now certain parts can seem quite sinister. 

While at first appearing to contain fairly standard and uninspiring gameplay, playing the game for more than five minutes soon reveals an astonishing amount of flexibility and depth in the control system. As well as the standard jumping and straightforward monster slaying action, all of which can be carried out with ease due to responsive controls, comes the new addition of Simon's whip. The whip can be used to attack in a three hundred and sixty degree field. 

Furthermore, after the initial attack with the whip is made, if the attack button is kept held down the whip looses its rigidity and can be flicked around, something that proves useful if you miss a small target with your initial strike. Apart from attacking, the whip can also be used to swing from hooks located around the levels, while most of the time the player is required simply to swing from one side of a drop to another, on the odd occasion more skill is needed and this helps to keep levels varied and the action constantly surprising. 

Overall, it is plain to see that Super Castlevania IV is one of finest titles ever to appear in the gaming market. Very rarely does a game come as a complete package of graphics, sound and gameplay. Add to that a very well developed learning curve and the sheer variety to be found in level design and you are looking at an ageless classic that every single Super Nintendo owner walking the earths surface should own. With only Symphony of the Night and the PC-Engine version of Dracula X possibly being in the same league, for Castlevania fans the series has never really got any better than this. 

Overall 9/10 

Monday 15 December 2014

Breath of Fire 3 Review (Playstation)

After disappearing from the world for what seemed like an eternity, the Breath of Fire series looked to lay buried with its own history. With Final Fantasy VII a massive global success Capcom decided to reintroduce the 'Dragon Clan' once more - and we should all be grateful that they did.

Breath of Fire III follows the path of a boy named Ryu and his incredible power. The story goes that an ancient legend speaks of a powerful Dragon Clan that suddenly vanished without explanation. Far from having disappeared completely, the remains of the Dragon people have formed into ore that can be used as energy. One day, while miners were excavating such ore, they come across a small dragon imprisoned in the mine - thus a new legend was forged. 

While the story and world of Breath of Fire III are reminiscent of the titles that preceded it, most other things have changed. Battles are still turn-based but the interface now comes in the form of a "+" shape - simply press left, right, up or down to select from the options available - something that really helps the flow of battles no end, and a work of genius by the development team. Furthermore, a number of other unique underlying features have been put into place, most notable of these is the way random battles occur. 

Wandering around dungeons or other areas holds to the tried and true formula visited by other RPGs (ie - your characters meet with encounters at random intervals). However, while working your way around the BoF III map screen there are no random battles whatsoever. This allows you to explore the map without fear of being attacked every two and a half seconds. Should you wish to level up characters on the map screen, exclamation marks appear from time to time, and by pressing the attack button you will be placed in a small area of land containing an item that prefigures a number of random battles before you can acquire it. 

In graphical terms, the game isn't really anything to shout about - characters are a touch flat and lacking in colour though they are consistent with the series style. While the graphics aren't the best, they are entirely serviceable and keep Ryu and his compatriots anchored firmly in the Breath of Fire world. Ditto for magic attacks - while basically 'by-the-numbers', there are certainly some nice flourishes, especially when our hero transforms into one of many huge dragons. 

What infuses a good RPG is normally the constituent elements of plot and the right control system (to allow you to explore said plot through to its conclusion). It is here where Breath of Fire III truly excels. The story unfolds before you at a breakneck pace and only when you stop to save do you realise that you've been playing for around twenty odd hours, or that the seasons have changed. That's not to say the game's a breeze, indeed there are a number of situations which require players to swallow their pride and beat a formal retreat, or instances where your party will be wiped out completely.

It is hard to know whether it's the inspired plot, the endearing and differing characters, or the minor milieu of genius that really helps to push Breath of Fire III toward the highest rung of gaming. In truth, it is no doubt the delicate marriage of a number of flawless and well-realised situations, coupled with the above high points, that will see players continually rushing through the game wanting - indeed needing - to know what comes next. In conclusion, Breath of Fire III is one of the finest role-playing games ever made, and absolutely essential for those wanting to lose themselves in a different world - a different reality - for weeks.

Overall 10/10 

Friday 12 December 2014

Persona Q Review (3DS)

Persona Q is a very strange thing indeed. This is the first time a Persona title has appeared on the 3DS and it’s a strange mix of Persona 3 and 4 and the Etrian Odyssey series. These are all things we like a lot but mixing them all in together has created something with some very strange influences.

Choosing either the protagonist from Persona 3 or 4 your adventure will then be focused around the characters and experiences from the selected series. The two groups occasionally cross paths and events change depending on who you are playing so there is also some extra replay value to a game that is very long anyway.

The basic plot follows an event which occurs at Yasogami High School during a cultural festival. Suddenly a strange bell is heard to be ringing and the two groups find themselves trapped inside the high school. Upon finding a strange labyrinth underneath the school they must enter and investigate to try and find out what is going on.

The game plays out much in the same way as the Etrian Odyssey series with the dungeons being explored from a first person view and traversed via moving from one square on a grid to the next. The map drawing mechanic has also been brought over with players required to add their own details to the grid with the stylus on the touch screen in order to develop a detailed map and understanding of the labyrinth.

Combat remains turn based (as in both series’), with the front and back row system also employed. Players can pick a team of five from a list of different pre-made characters and then decide if they will be safer attacking from the front row or sitting back and supporting with magic and ranged weapons. The elements system from persona is also in full effect with learning the weaknesses of various enemies the key to progressing.

This certainly isn’t going to be a game for everyone as not only is it more impenetrable to newcomers than either Persona series, it’s also absolutely rock hard. It requires even more strategy and depth than the Etrian Series which was already way out on the ‘aimed at hard core video gamer’ scale. That said, when you get the hang of things it does begin to come together in a wholly satisfying way.

For those that can break through the barriers there is a healthy blend of fan service and satisfying adventure to discover. The labyrinths are well constructed, interesting and beg to be explored. Enemies are varied and diverse and even the generic fodder put up just enough of a fight that they need to be approached cautiously. There is also enough of a draw to keep you playing and to get you to retry when your party is defeated. The story continues to draw you in through a mixture of mystery and outright weirdness and it’s clear a lot of thought has gone into just about every area. 

Persona Q is a crazy experiment that works for a specific target audience. It’s hard to recommend to people who aren’t Persona fans as everything is very much styled in that way. It will also help if you have knowledge of the Etrian series but even if you don't this could certainly act as a gateway for Persona fans to discover a new series. It isn’t something for players who have never played either of those series’ to jump into though as there’s just too much to get your head around. 

Overall, this is the sort of game that will be someone’s favourite game of all time while others won’t get it at all. We love the fact that someone was crazy enough to try and make this work and it has turned out very well. It’s a hard core dungeon crawler with solid mechanics which requires a bit of franchise knowledge andthat’s filled with fan service. If that sounds good then something special awaits.

Overall 8/10

Wednesday 10 December 2014

Teslagrad Review (PS4)

Teslagrad is a game we first came across at the recent Eurogamer expo in London. We were drawn to it by its unique look and the fact it seemed to be full of clever play mechanics and traps. It’s now finally with us and we can explore the mystery of a small boy with magnetic powers escaping into a castle after being chased by some Rasputin-esque looking pursuers.

The game has a style that though familiar we haven’t really seen before. The Soviet influence reminds us of steam punk animations and fairy tales from the Eastern Bloc and it works perfectly to set up a mysterious and unique atmosphere. There is also very little text with the story and controls explained via drawings and animated theatre puppets. The silence further intensifies the mystery (even if the lack of tutorial is a little confusing).

There is gamepad support but you’ll have to set it up manually. Again, this can be a little odd at the beginning of the game as you don’t really know what half of the commands are. Once you get it sorted out though it’s a much easier way to play as you’re going to need very quick reflexes to get through.

Teslagrad is a difficult game and it requires sustained amounts of quick thinking, jumping and precision placement to get through most sections. Most of the time you are trying to avoid dropping onto spikes or electricity but there are also some shadowy beasts and mechanical enemies to avoid from time to time. You don’t really have any offense so you’ll be darting past them and running away a lot.

Our little hero is far from powerless though and you’ll soon find the equipment that gives you the use of a unique set of powers. First off you’ll get the positive and negative magnetism glove. This allows you to change the charge of magnetic services and blocks. This means you can get blocks to move or fall, or use opposite charges to propel yourself up tunnels or across chasms. The next thing you’ll find is the ability to ‘blink’ or teleport a short distance. This is vital for passing barriers or dodging enemies and moving electrical fields. Before long you’re having to bounce around and blink all at once in sequences that require constant movement. It’s tough and challenging and certain sections will be repeated over and over and over.

Dying is perhaps where the biggest weakness in the game lies. The controls can feel a little twitchy at times and I don’t think we’ve ever been so frustrated by a character auto-climbing up a ledge they’ve grabbed onto. Death can also feel unfair with the blink ability very difficult to judge while in motion. What compounds the issue is that if you miss a jump or die, there are times you’ll have to repeat quite a large section to get back to where you were. Don’t even get us started on some of the bosses that just never seem to die either.

Frustration aside this is a very clever and well crafter game. You do get used to the controls and both the level and graphical design is of a standard that makes you want to persevere and get to the next section. The constant climb up the castle and gradual revelation of the mystery within it are engaging and will likely keep you striving until you reach the end. There will be some gamers who just won’t be able to cut it though and that’s a shame as this is a beautiful fairy tale that you really should try.

Overall 8/10

Monday 8 December 2014

Breath of Fire 2 Review (GBA)

Following on from the excellent first instalment in the Breath of Fire series, Breath of Fire II has a lot to live up to. Set in the same world as the first title but five hundred years later, the second installment continues the story.

Though there may not seem to be too many similarities between the stories of the two titles, certain things remain the same - you still control the hero Ryu who will learn he has the power to turn into a dragon, and at the end of all the twists and turns there will still be a showdown with a mysterious goddess.

The story goes that, after the destruction of the evil Milia, the warriors hid themselves away from the world in such a way that they could never be found - as with their great power they had exposed the world to danger. Five hundred years later, after the memory of the eight brave fighters has drifted away like a gentle snowflake on the wind, a small boy in a tiny village is leading a humble existence with his father and sister. The boy's name is Ryu and he will shortly learn that his fate is entwined with the fate of the world around him.

Certain things have changed since the first game in the series: now you can no longer tell how much energy the enemy has left, healing is not always the first action that happens each turn in a battle, and a new town-building feature has been added. Breath of Fire had a large amount of features that meant the story kept progressing at a decent pace, with a smart player being able to gain the upper hand most of the time.

With the removal of some of these, the second title really makes it hard for you to achieve your goal. While some may welcome the dramatic increase in difficulty, the balance of the original seems to have vanished completely. This means that you may well end up doing the same section of the game at least fifteen or twenty times before getting through. This does not help the flow of an otherwise brilliant story - in fact, after you've heard the same part of the plot regurgitated time and again, you become indifferent to the detail; the broken narrative.

Cosmetically, the second instalment is much improved from the original. Characters and landscapes are bigger and contain a lot more detail - bringing the game closer to being a sort of Anime comic strip, though not quite making it. The world around you is depicted beautifully, with clouds passing overhead and a lot more variation in the terrain than before and all holding true to the established style of the series. Every aspect from a graphical point of view is bigger, more detailed and generally more charming.

Breath of Fire II truly is a gaming conundrum: you are presented with a beautifully detailed world, underpinned with interesting characters and a brilliantly developed plot, but you cannot progress anywhere because the difficulty level is so ridiculous. It just seems stupid - why make almost every section of the game so tough that you have to level up your characters for a couple of hours just to get through? And then, when reaching the next section, you have to do the same thing again. Surely it would have been better to simply reduce the difficulty of the sections to keep the story flowing and the player interested?

What we are left with is an RPG that is screaming out for 'essential' status, but due to the complete lack of a learning gradient ends up being unnecessarily difficult and frustrating to play. The title is still very good, and the story so engaging that some players will do whatever it takes to advance the plot, but for RPG fans in general, this amounts to little more than a failure to expand upon an exceptional first instalment. Breath of Fire II is good - but it could and should have been a lot better. Disappointing.

Overall 7/10

Friday 5 December 2014

The Dig Review (PC)

Written by Dan Gill

The Secret of Monkey Island. Maniac Mansion. Sam and Max Hit the Road. Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. Full Throttle. Grim Fandango.  These titles – and indeed their sequels and prequels – are regarded by many as stone-cold classics; absolute pinnacles of the point-and-click adventure genre, and they gained LucasArts a reputation as one of the finest developers of the era, offering a friendlier alternative to the player-killing Sierra titles of the time.  While the aforementioned titles are well known by many, there are a few others which are often overlooked; Zak McKraken and the Alien Mindbenders and Loom tend to have a smaller yet dedicated following, but one title which is considered by some as the black sheep of the LucasArts flock is The Dig – but why?

Beginning as an idea by Steven Spielberg for his Amazing Stories TV series, The Dig famously had a protracted development.  Deemed too expensive to film for TV, the idea was passed to LucasArts as a pitch for an adventure game, development on the title starting in 1989.  The game went through a drawn out process of adding and scrapping ideas, and staff leaving and joining the project throughout its six year creation.  Alongside Spielberg, the story was developed by interactive fiction author Brian Moriarty (whose previous gig with LucasArts was Loom), and dialogue was written by sci-fi author Orson Scott-Card.  The pedigree was certainly there for a solidly written adventure game, but looking back it's clear to see how the game was to differ from its stable mates; who's writing the jokes?  This is The Dig's first issue.  The house that brought us Guybrush Threepwood and Purple Tentacle has developed a more serious tone, and fans at the time perhaps weren't expecting this.

The story involves three astronauts being sent to a potentially earth smashing asteroid in order to alter its trajectory.  As the game progresses the player discovers there's more to the asteroid than there seems, sending the team across the universe to another world.  There's no doubting the engrossing nature of the story, and that is one of the game's strongest assets.  Each development compels the player to make progress in order to see what will happen to the intrepid explorers next, and there's a desire to open up more of the alien landscape.  As expected from LucasArts, the background art and characters look great (for the time), and the 2D and 3D animated cutscenes have a distinct mid-nineties allure with their grainy, low resolution charm.

As expected, gameplay centres on exploration and puzzle solving.  Perhaps due to the game's setting, the puzzles differ slightly from the rest of the LucasArts catalogue, preferring to take inspiration from somewhere between the “use X with Y” approach of its peers, and the abstract headscratchers from aesthetically pleasing slideshow puzzler Myst.  This is a refreshing approach, but may dissatisfy those who didn't get along with Cyan's game.  The puzzles can sometimes be a little obtuse, but no more so than those of Monkey Island 2.

So far a mixed bag then, but I found my biggest problem with the game to be its voice acting.  A shame, since Robert Patrick and Stephen Blum are involved.  While Blum (a seasoned voice actor) plays astronaut Ludgar Brink well, Patrick's Boston Low and Mari Weiss's Maggie Robbins lack any kind of emotion in response to the game's events, really taking the shine off the title's presentation.  One can imagine the two of them stood in the recording booth reading the script verbatim whilst thinking of what they'll spend their fee on.  As such I'd recommend turning off the vocal track and sticking to the text.  The soundtrack's rather lovely and otherwordly, so it's certainly a decent alternative to the dull reading of Scott-Card's script, which itself is pretty good, but peppered with a dusting of awkward, stilted lines.

So, not one of LucasArt's finest (although it was their biggest selling title at time of release in 1995), but not worth missing out on.  I think it's fair to say that if The Dig were released by another developer it would have had much more critical recognition and praise.  It's a solid game that offers a good few hours of adventuring, a decent story, some reasonable (and slightly obscure) puzzles, a good musical score and some great environments and ideas.  If it passed you by first time round I'd certainly recommend playing through it now.  It deserves a place in your LucasArts point-and-click collection alongside those classics, just don't expect too many jokes.


Wednesday 3 December 2014

Never Alone Review (PC)

In Never Alone you play as a small Inupiaq girl named Nuna as she sets out from her village one day and finds herself lost in a terrible blizzard. She stumbles upon a small arctic fox and together the two set out to return home. Along the way they become swept along in various stories from the folklore of the Inupiaq people in what is a puzzle/platform game that has a heavy dose of storytelling and a magical atmosphere not like anything else we’ve played before. The relationship between the two builds throughout as they simply can’t survive the environment without one another.

The game is a 2D platformer much in the mould of something like Limbo. Imagine Limbo with a more natural looking design and the black replaced with white and you wouldn’t be far off. As the pair of Nuna and the fox you must work together to make your way across the harsh landscape of Alaska. Nuna can run and jump and eventually gets access to an ice smashing bolas. The fox can scramble up walls and also talk to the many natural spirits that inhabit the world.

Many of the puzzles involve getting the fox into areas where he can then draw spirits back to help Nuna. Spirits generally take the form of birds that can be used as platforms or creatures that can be used to climb walls. The fox can also control trees and fish. It’s a nice mechanic and one that normally works well. You switch between the two characters with the press of a button or a second player can be brought in to help out. Together you need to overcome everything from polar bears and strong winds to breaking ice and even the odd menacing and magical creature.

Occasionally the computer AI will let you down and your partner will do something stupid and die but on the whole it didn’t stop our progress and there isn’t anything here that should cause you too much frustration in that respect. We also had a few technical issues during our play through like ice not smashing but there wasn’t anything major enough to ruin our experience and a simple checkpoint reset always fixed the problem. The fact checkpoints are fairly generous also helped to keep the frustration low.

It’s hard to talk about the game without giving away much of its magic and surprises but we will say that you are constantly faced with something new to play with or overcome. Each chapter is distinctly different from the last and almost all of them introduce a new mechanic or toy to play with. This means that the game always remains fresh and is all the better for it. It has a fairly brief run time at about three and a half hours but it’s an experience that is far richer than the run time would suggest.

The whole thing is underpinned with some beautiful graphics and a haunting score and these combined with the howling winds make a perfect setting for the story and fill the whole game with a unique and wonderful atmosphere. The narrator of the story also does an incredible job of drawing you in and making you feel real empathy for a little girl and fox lost in the snow. The narration is done in the indigenous language which is a very clever choice as we don’t feel narrating in English would have had anywhere near the same impact. You can just imagine everyone huddled around a fire in the snow listening to him tell the tale.

Overall, Never Alone is a wonderful piece of storytelling tied to a very good platform/puzzle game. It’s an original take on a well-trodden genre that draws inspiration from a rich culture that many of us will know very little about. As such, it creates something unique and new for audiences to enjoy. It creates a world filled with magic and wonder and isn’t that something we all want in our lives a little more?

Overall 8/10

Monday 1 December 2014

Frozen Synapse Prime Review (PC)

Written by Thomas G.J. Sharpe

I have a bit of a love hate relationship with Frozen Synapse. In equal measures frustrating and exciting, but I cannot hold the former condition as a fault in the game. It was always my impatience and my lack of forethought that caused me to lose games. Arguably, this is a sign of a thorough game, a formidable design and a ruthless challenge. Indeed, the original game posed one of the most interesting multiplayer situations I've recently encountered.

Frozen Synapse Prime is a ground-up remake of the original Frozen Synapse. A squad-based, tactical, cyberpunk themed chin scratcher. With a varied squad of combatants, you direct their movements, aiming, engaging and so forth, using an intuitive waypoint system. It is devilishly easy to learn and with Prime, The developers have refined the interface. The use of a radial, key-bound menu is better than what was a clumsy list. This is a significant point, as the ease of ordering the squad around the arenas should be as elegant as possible, as underneath is a game of precision, preparation and consideration.

The twist is the ability to plan and waypoint enemy squad members, to predict the outcome of your movements. If your machine-gunner moves here, does he get brained by a shotgunner? Slight adjustments can save lives, allowing you to get the jump on your enemy. This is where Frozen Synapse as a concept really shines. You can agonize over decisions, as most of the time, one careless move is enough to tilt the advantage toward your opponent in a critical way.

For me, the original was all about the multiplayer, although the single player campaign is nothing to sniff at. The dialogue is fantastic, the story classically cyberpunk, tongue in cheek and full of character. I however find the missions and A.I underwhelming after the excitement of peer-to-peer, and this is where I predict most of my time will be spent with the game. Honestly, I lose most of my games, but it keeps me coming back. It is similar to X-COM. It doesn't give an inch, brutal but it is never the game.

Aesthetically, this sequel is a huge advancement, however much the Tron-esque futurist-minimalism was both atmospheric and playful. Where before the neon walls were devoid of humanity (fitting for the context of the story), the new arenas are steel-panelled joylessness, functional and brutalist. It looks great, and they've kept the battlegrounds uncluttered. The music is, as before, a slick blend of tense ambient classiness. Sound design in general is subtle, well-placed and sparse.

Overall, a worthy successor to a game that now looks like proof-of-concept. I am confident that veterans will on the whole welcome the update, and certainly the accessibility of this tough game has been increased for the newcomer. Not a lot is really new, but it was pretty much spot on before, and I look forward to being dispatched by my tactical and intellectual betters over and over again.