Friday 27 February 2015

Titan Attacks Review (3DS)

Puppy Games has been making its neon-styled retro shooters for a while now and it always seemed only a matter of time before they took the step onto console. Titan Attacks was the first game to make the jump and serves up its own take on the Space Invaders theme.

Set across five worlds the player controls their tank at the bottom of the screen as enemies approach from the top. It may remind you of Space Invaders but aside from the obvious nods there is much more going on here than simply trying to produce a clone. The first thing to take into account is the scoring mechanic. A multiplier continually increases through the levels and when you take a hit it returns to zero.

You can also gain points and money by achieving skill shots. This occurs when you shoot an enemy and instead of it exploding it begins to fall to the ground. Shooting the careering vehicle may also see an alien jump out in a parachute, collecting these little guys will give you a further bonus, while letting them drift off the bottom of the screen will result in a penalty.
Any money you gain during a round can be spent before the next one starts. You’ll start off buying extra shields and smart bombs but the power-ups are extensive and you can add bits to your tank to fire rockets and lasers as well as giving yourself multiple shots or reducing the recharge time between firing. In truth, it can make the game a little easy towards the end but it’s always a fun way to spend a few minutes. The game also seems to have been slightly rebalanced to present more of a challenge in this 3DS version.
The game is set across five worlds, starting on Earth, moving onto the Moon, through Mars and Saturn before finishing on the alien home world. Every few levels you get a chance to get bonus points and prizes by shooting down special flying saucers and the end of each world sees you square off against a mother ship. The enemy types and patterns continually change and the later levels are hectic which helps to keep everything fresh and moving. The lack of 3D though is a bit of an issue as it makes the port seem less polished than it otherwise could have been.
There’s no denying this is a fun game while it lasts but there are a few things which hold it back from being a classic. Though the bosses a bit tougher now the game is still a little on the easy side and you'll likely blast through in a couple of the attempts. It’s certainly fun and you do get to start again on harder versions of the levels but we were expecting a bit more of a challenge. 
The second problem is the scoring mechanic isn’t really intricate enough to cause the massive adrenaline rushes you can get from other games. There’s very little you can do if you’ve been building a multiplier and get hit other than slowly build it up again. That’s fine for anyone who wants an enjoyable arcade shooter but for those looking for a game to master this will let you down.
Slight issues aside, the question that matters is are you going to enjoy playing the game? The answer to which is yes you will, it’s a blast with a fun style that cleverly evokes just enough of Space Invaders to hit the nostalgia button while producing something fresh. It won’t last you forever or put up that much of a challenge but for a fun few minutes of blasting it certainly ticks all the right boxes. It’s also especially suited to handhelds. Overall, this is a good if not great game that everyone will enjoy. It’s a promising start from Puppy Games and we look forward to their next project.

Overall 7/10

Wednesday 25 February 2015

Portal Review (Xbox 360)

Not too long ago a game named Nebula Drop arrived on the PC. It contained a number of very good ideas and with a bit more play testing could have been refined into a nice little gem of a title. Portal is the spiritual successor to this game.

Portal is an odd little game. Imagine if you will (and it may be difficult) a first person shooter crossed with a puzzle game without anyone to actually shoot. Odd yes but that is indeed what Portal is, a very strange mix that holds together exceptionally well due to its strong design and originality.

Starting with your character awaking in some kind of scientific laboratory you are then told by a computer voice where to go and what to do. It seems somehow you have found yourself in a strange facility and must undergo a number of tests. All is not as it seems however as there is no one else around and the computer seems to be malfunctioning. This adds a very uneasy tension to proceedings. You are never sure if what the computer is telling you is the truth or something to try and see how you react under pressure.

Portal remains somewhat of an enigma throughout and certain things such as who you are and why you are here are never really explained. It all helps to add to the atmosphere though as you try to work out some wonderfully designed puzzles. The main trick Portal employs is the use of the portal gun. The gun can be used to fire both entry and exit portals onto any suitable surface. You must use this gun to work your way through nineteen puzzle orientated areas.

Though the concept is simple there is a lot of depth involved. Far from being about sticking an entry door on a low level and then an exit door on a high level you are often asked to think and act quickly to change portal placement and your own momentum. Yes forward motion is a very important thing here. Quite often you will have to fall through a portal a number of times to build up your forward motion, this requires expert placement of both portals. It sounds a little odd but once you have the concept understood it becomes highly addictive.

The title has a nice clean clinical look that fits the setting perfectly. There are also little hints as to what is actually going on and how the game relates to the half life universe subtly tucked away. The main game itself lasts around four hours but once completed a number of additional challenges and advanced maps open up which may well have you pulling your hair out.

Portal itself is a very nice package of invention and innovative game design which apart from a slightly overcooked last section is remarkably clever and fun to play. You can not help but think that the portal gun will be making a more prominent appearance in the half life world at some point. Right now we not sure if this is a good thing as the whole concept works so well in its current format- given the choice we would probably take more portal puzzles than puzzles based on application to the ‘real’ world.

To sum up, Portal is more than worthy of being a part of the Orange box and may well surprise a few people not expecting much from it. It is focused and great fun to play with lots of moments that require clever thinking to overcome. Even if it was released on its own we would highly recommend it.

Overall 8/10

Monday 23 February 2015

Team Fortress 2 Review (Xbox 360)

Look to the far right of the Orange Box menu and you will see the one game that does not quite fit with the rest of the Half-Life-based goings on. Team Fortress 2 is the follow-up to the real grand-daddy of the class-based team shooter. Now, after what seems like an everlasting wait, it has made its way onto the Xbox 360.

Looks can certainly be deceiving; in the case of Team Fortress 2, the graphical style is a cross between Wacky Races and a cartoon version of Predator. However, the unique appearance is somewhat misleading as the gameplay that underpins this facade is very much aimed at the hardcore.

Team Fortress 2, more so than almost any other game, needs players to work as teams. The breadth of classes and options available means players must be aware of who on their team is playing as what type of character in order to evenly balance out offence, defence and support. It is good that classes are visibly distinct in battle due to the big and bold designs.

There are nine classes in all, three in each category. For the player wanting to just jump in and blast away, there is the Soldier, who uses a bazooka and can rocket jump around the place, or the Heavy, who wields a huge mini-gun. The battles are won and lost with the more specialist support classes, though; there is a medic, who heals players by shooting them with a ‘healing gun’, and the spy, who can cloak or disguise himself as any enemy unit (once the enemy is fooled, he can sneak up behind them and stab them in the back!).

Each class has three weapons: generally one specialist weapon, a close range gun and a melee weapon. The classes also have a unique taunt that can be called upon to really rub it into the enemies’ faces when you take them down. Adding to the spirit of competition, the game will soon tell you if a player is ‘dominating’ you by placing the word “nemesis” above them. This leads to highly competitive grudge matches starting up.

There are six maps in total to choose from, many with different sections that are played through over different rounds. On the face of it, the map selection would seem to be somewhat small, but in practice, the multi-section approach goes some way to alleviating repetition. The only real gripe some may have is that each map is designed with a certain play type in mind and this cannot be changed. ‘2Forts’, for instance, is a capture-the-flag map, so if that is not your cup of tea, you will have to stay clear of it.

This idea is actually more plausible than in many other titles. When searching for a game to join, a list of every host available will present itself, showing the amount of players currently in the game lobby and which map the game is based on. This means players can easily avoid or play the game of their choice, something more games should take account of.

Many players may find they do not take to Team Fortress 2 right away, and we found it took a few matches to really get into the right frame of mind to play it properly. Once it clicks, however, the game is immense fun. Matches will often last well over an hour but rarely become tiresome due to the chaos going on and the brilliant humour woven throughout.

Team Fortress 2 represents the Orange Box’s attempt at multiplayer online gaming and, although some may have preferred see Counter-Strike, this really has a chance to make an impact on Xbox Live. TF2 is different from the current kings of the online FPS and may well carve itself out a market. What can we say? It is yet another reason to recommend the Orange Box and something that could so easily have been added as twenty pounds of downloadable content later in Half-Life 2’s life span. Well done to Valve for including it. Now just make sure you all give it the time it deserves.


Friday 20 February 2015

The Escapists Review (PC)

We first became aware of Mouldy Toof studios when we looked at Spud’s Quest a little while ago. It was a charming, Adventure's of Dizzy-like, game that showed some good potential. Now the one man studio is back with what should prove to be a break through title. There’s still an emphasis on moving items around to the correct place but The Escapists is a very different game.

The basic premise is that you are an inmate at a prison and have to find time in your daily routine to plan and execute an escape plan. There are a number of ways to do this and different prisons act as sandbox playgrounds for budding escapists to play around in. There is no one way to escape and everything from impersonating a guard to digging a good old fashioned tunnel can be attempted. You can even take over the prison if you find enough rope.

Viewed from a top down perspective you move your little dude around the prison as a clock ticks away. Different prisons have different routines but you will need to attend roll calls, meal times and things like exercise and shower sessions. You can also get work which earns you money (as well as possibly getting you closer to much needed supplies). Money can then be used to buy things from other prisoners, 

The other prisoners will also ask you to do favours for them. Completing these normally involves creating distractions, finding objects or beating someone up. Carrying out their requests will bring more money and also make them like you a bit more. Upset a prisoner and they will come looking for you and beat you up. The same can be said of the guards that patrol the place and it’s best to keep an eye on exactly who you are upsetting.

The key to the game is finding contraband items such as wood and metal and then crafting them into tools which can help you escape. Hiding these tools is one of the biggest challenges as your cells are given regular shake downs and the discovery of a banned item leads to solitary confinement and effectively a reset in your progress. This can be very frustrating when you have spent months digging a tunnel only to get found out and have to start again.

While the joy of seeing a well-executed plan come together is great the frustration of seeing a small mistake set back hours of progress will be too much for many players. It does seem a little unbalanced in this respect and we can’t work out why a discovery of tools somewhere results in every fake wall, vent or tool stash being removed around the entire prison.  You can reload to the start of each day but even that can seem to set back progress in a game where it comes slowly and every square of dirt dug needs to be done so incredibly carefully.

The game can also be a little repetitive. This is fine for your daily routine as it allows you to understand patterns and the movement of the prison. It’s not so great when you have been stuck in the place for months and the other inmates and guards don’t really offer you up much in the way of character or conversation. At times it can feel like you’re just waiting around for an inmate to have a certain type of item for sale and when this happened we really weren’t having fun.

That said, when you begin to make progress it can be a very special game world to be a part of. The problem with sandbox games by nature is that they don’t really have structure to progress and while your days inside certainly do, to finally get hold of an item after months of waiting and then have it quickly taken away with a small mistake just feels very unfair at times and we can see this putting some gamers off. If something was added to make the acquisition of items more proactive a lot of this problem would be solved very quickly.

Overall, despite its faults, The Escapists is a highly ambitious and clever title in a lot of ways and we simply have to recognise and applaud that. It’s also quite original and despite our frustrations we spend a good ten hours with the game in our first few days which show its ability to draw you into its daily routine. If you like free-form puzzle solving and have a high tolerance for pain then this could be the game for you. With a touch more polishing it could also be the game for everyone else as well.

Overall 7/10

Wednesday 18 February 2015

Harold Review (PC)

Written by Thomas G.J. Sharpe

Strictly speaking, I get frustrated very quickly with reaction games, nimble controller gymnastics and pin-point plat-forming. I never finished Limbo or Super Meat Boy, despite loving them, for this reason. Hell, I think the only platformer I ever finished was Super Mario 2 on the Game Boy. Harold occupies a space somewhere in this ball-park of controller flinging angst, but manages to calm me down enough to enjoy the experience.

It goes like this: you play a guardian angel proving thine worth at a sort of Elysian polytechnic. You demonstrate your guardian abilities by guiding a runner who is competing on courses full of traps and devices. Strictly controller managed, you flick between platforms, moving them into the appropriate position, bash down barricades, knock out creatures and cut ropes that opponents are swinging on, to name a few. The obstacles are varied, but follow a sort of modular set-up in well planned tracks that take an unexpectedly leisurely pace. Upon booting up the game I was waiting for relentless twitch reactions and seizure inducing speed, but most of the time you are guiding Harold (the hapless runner) over one event at a time. The balance between preparation and execution of movements is pretty spot-on. Harold has to traverse a pit, you have to nudge him to jump. Fair enough. The next screen will slide in and you have a more complex track to traverse. The races scale nicely, adding in new vocabulary of traps and events.

The slower pace not only allows the core mechanics to really shine, but gives you much more time to enjoy the stunning aesthetics. Being a spawn of a certain era, I was raised on John Kricfalusi's joyfully demented Ren & Stimpy, but concurrently, a certain era of cartoon style ranging from Disney's Aladdin in 1992 to Dreamwork's The Road To El Dorado in 2000. The in-game backgrounds, characters and atmospheric effects feel like a blend of this era of cartoons. And I adore it. So much love and care has been put into the presentation of this game, I simply cannot fault it in it's current state. It seems almost churlish to say “could do with a bit more background movement” as if more studios put this much attention into their design, the world of gaming would be a much richer place. Kudos to the developers.

Where the presentation is a blend, the gameplay itself feels like a joyful mixture. Through the quite solid and simple premise, I get hints of Ignition (the spunky top-down racer), Abe's Oddysee and, eternally praised, Micro Machines. The 'god' element is a reasonably familiar trope in games, but it's nice to see it implemented in a way that means I don't possess someone to tear body parts away. There is a gentleness and an intrinsic joy to Harold that has largely won me over, despite it really not being a game-type that I would go for.

I do have one big irk though at this point, but would hope to see this ironed out somewhat on it's full release, is the excessive loading times. I enjoy the cut-scenes, but after having one before practising new actions, then the load for the tutorials, then another cut-scene and then a load for the race, I was just gagging to play the damn thing. The races themselves are fun and engaging, but I wanted to play much more quickly than I was being allowed. Sadly, this would stop me from clocking in more time on Harold if this is still the situation on release, and would be a real shame if it put people off.

Harold is an all-round, totally solid game, with exceptional presentation, sound (gosh darn the music is superb) and core gameplay. Just get me to the gameplay, Moon Spider, 'cos what you got is gorgeous.

Overall 7/10

Monday 16 February 2015

Jet Set Radio Review (Dreamcast)

Set in the city of Tokyo-to the plots revolves around gang warfare and corrupt police and government institutions. In an attempt to stop the freedom of expression of its citizens just about everything that kids do has been outlawed, including skating. In an attempt to fight back against the powers that be rebel groups of skating gangs have sprung up to try and claim back areas of the city.

Starting with one character you must build up the gang known as the ‘GGs’ in order to battle both the other gangs and the police department and what better way to lay down chaos and anarchy than by covering everything in graffiti? The game works by presenting you with a number of small missions to undertake, these missions involve skating around areas while avoiding the police and painting over the marks left on walls and other structures by rival gang members. It sounds simple but in reality the police department will do everything from using run of the mill foot troops, to calling in tanks and the odd apache gunship in order to stop you.

What sets the game apart is undoubtedly the visual style. By using the cel-shading technique Sega has managed to create something completely unique and fresh. While at first the new graphical style may seem nothing more than just a cosmetic touch, without it the game would feel extremely flat. What the Cel-shaded look does is make the game a sort of living comic book, excellent considering the Japanese setting. Everything just seems to feel right about the look adding huge amounts of charm and really making Jet Set Radio one of the leading titles on the Dreamcast.

The quirky atmosphere developed by the visuals is further enveloped into the mind by the excellent Japanese techno-cyber pop soundtrack. Again being much more than just a cosmetic touch, if it was not there the game would be seriously lacking in the heavy levels of fun and charm brought by the music, all of which is of an excellent standard and not annoying in the least, something that cannot be said about the Xbox version.

However the game is far from perfect and the controls have to take the main blame for this. Your characters jump, grind, perform tricks and paint with relative ease. The problem comes when you are trying to turn to jump onto a rail. When you need to do this the camera is incredible awkward and more often than not you will completely miss the jump and have to try again. Not a problem most of the time but when the last few seconds of the clock are ticking away and you miss the rail for about the fifth time it can be very frustrating. Saying that though, with practice the problem soon disappears.

While the game has you doing more or less the same thing throughout, the variety of locations is excellent. Meaning you never find yourself getting bored with the constant spraying action. Some levels are set in sewers while others are abandoned train yards, neon heavy high streets or old junkyards each portrayed with their own unique and personality. Complete all the missions in one area and you get a boss section where you have to drive out a rival gang once and for all by ‘tagging’ them ten times each before the timer runs out.

Another problem with Jet Set Radio is that it really is to short, and accomplished skaters will not have too much trouble racing through the game. Once you manage to work out where all the areas to spray are the levels can be finished without much trouble. That is not to say the game does not offer up a challenge, it certainly does as finding all the areas that have to be sprayed can prove tricky, it just wont take you forever to finish it.

Overall, Jet Set Radio is inspired, mixing skating with the Japanese influences has created a beautiful and charming game that every Dreamcast owner should have, and the rest of us should get a Dreamcast to play. While short lived the game offers enough charm and incentives to keep you coming back to it even when it has been finished, and customisable graffiti and a large amount of playable skaters help keep the action fresh throughout the madcap levels. 

With a bit more attention spent on how the camera works and a rethink about using the time limit as a way to push up difficulty this would be up there with the all-time classics. As it is though it's an enjoyable experience that really should not be overlooked.

Overall 8 

Wednesday 11 February 2015

Shantae and the Pirate's Curse Review (Wii U)

The third game in the Shantae series has our half-genie hero starting out without her genie powers and living as a normal human after losing them at the end of the last game. But when pirates attack her home town and her old nemesis Risky Boots appears to tell her about a mysterious Pirate Master she has little choice but to try and save the day with nothing but her Kabuki Ninja-esque hair attack and ability to leap around.

This sets Shantae off on an adventure that takes her to a number of different islands looking for dens of evil which much be purged to stop the evil Pirate Master from returning. Each island and environment is beautifully presented with some of the most colourful and vibrant 2D platform artwork seen in a very long time. They also contain different themed environments and enemies so there is always something new and varied to see.

Unlike previous games, instead of Shantae using her magic powers to transform into different forms, she now has to collect various pirate artefacts which then grant her the ability to progress. It follows a template similar to Metroid in that you collect an object like a gun which then allows you to operate a switch to open a door to then allow you to move to a new section of the level. There is also a fair amount of wandering back and forth between the different islands and levels but as they are so much fun to explore and revisit this isn’t an issue. 

Level design remains strong throughout with the islands and dungeons giving different challenges and puzzles to solve. The game is always challenging but never unfair or too harsh to stop progression for long. Finding heart squids will also increase your life and Shantae can buy upgrade shampoo and conditioner to level up her hair’s attack power and speed. The learning curve is set just about perfectly and players should feel like they are always prepared for what they come up against without it being a complete walkover. 

One of the highlights of the game is the colourful collection of characters and ever-so-slightly twisted humour that runs through the game. Early on for instance you’ll meet a former giant squid boss who is bemoaning the fact he feels he’ll only be used as a returning reference to the previous game so is planning to retire (Naturally you’ll have to find him a travel brochure so he can start traveling the world for the just the right spot).

There are a host of well-known characters from the series to touch base with and it adds just the right amount of fan service for players of series. The writing is also sharp and entertaining – if a little uncomfortable at times. Weirdly, there is a slight sexual undercurrent throughout. An early puzzle requires light to reflect off two untanned girls who won’t strip to their bikinis, while later Shantae acquires x-ray glasses from a disappointed character that has moved to a beach resort out of season so there are no girls to look at. It’s not overly dodgy, but something that parents of younger gamers will probably want to know about.

Some of the character design is also questionably. There are Mermaid characters that are topless (just without nipples), and what can only be described as a giant rolling ball orgy of naked women as boss to contend with. While Shantae can be forgiven for her attire as she is both a Genie and dancer, both she and a few other characters seem to have ‘developed’ a little since last the last game as well.

Pixelated cleavage aside, the game is an absolute joy to play and an experience that will keep you smiling throughout. Shantae controls very well and always responds how she should. The different objects you pick up always add something new to mess around with and there are plenty of extra side quests and collectables to hunt around for. It all gives you an excuse to spend a bit more time with the game and when something is as joyful as this then it’s likely you’ll be happy to oblige it.

Overall, this is another top draw entry in the Shantae series. Shantae game are always more expensive than other digital games but they are also of a much more accomplished quality than almost everything else in the same genre. It’s a colourful, fun and inventive game and feels right at home on the Wii U. It would be great for the series to build up more of a fan base as they offer some of the best Metroidvania action out there. If you love your retro inspired platformers then you really need to own this.

Overall 9/10

Monday 9 February 2015

Grim Fandango Remastered Review (PS4)

It’s been a very long time since we last delved in the circle of the underworld inhabited by Manny and his Noire inspired friends. For those new to the game, Grim Fandango follows a simple salesman as he tries to sell the recently deceased travel packages to Heaven and thus work off his own purgatorial debt. However, all is not as it seems in the land of the dead. Why does Manny never get the good clients? And why when he gets a saint do they not qualify for the best packages? In line with all the best Noir stories something is rotten and Manny has decided to find out what it is.

Grim Fandango was the first Lucas Arts adventure to move away from the more traditional 2D point and click interface. Instead, players moved Manny around on a tank track system in 3D environments. Left and right would spin him around while pushing up or down would move forward or back. It was awkward at the time and we’re very glad to see it has been replaced with a more sensible system where the left analogue stick is used to move. For those that want to experience the old style you can always switch back in the options menu but you really don’t want to.

Aside from the controls the games characters, objects and movable parts have been given a bit of a facelift and smoothed out. It’s nothing dramatic or drastic but it does help to make things look that little bit more like a macabre cartoon than before. The static environments haven’t really had much done to them though so those expecting a super full-on HD remake will be disappointed. 

As Manny wanders around he will move his head to look at objects of interest which can then be examined, used or picked up. The ‘look’ system can be a little tricky to use as it’s not always obvious if there are objects around to pick up that you can’t really see. This can end up in an inch by inch movement and button press-athon but for the most part you shouldn’t be stopped too often by it.

You will however be stopped by the puzzles you come up against. Things start out fairly well with progress not that difficult to make once you get your head around the strange logic required. Indeed, there is little here players who have experienced other point and click series’ will find that taxing. But as you progress things start to get very odd and some solutions will leave you in disbelief as to how you were ever supposed to work them out. Tie this in with some objects being fairly difficult to spot and it can end up with players wandering around aimlessly for far too long before they eventually give up and head to a guide.

The real star of Grim Fandango is the writing. The script and story are excellent with an intriguing and engaging tale filled with excellent characters and excellent voice acting. From the sneaky sales men to the downtrodden residents and the strange elemental creatures left looking for purpose after they become obsolete, every character has something about them and they remain far more memorable than many other games.

It sets up an interesting and unique world that is difficult to find anywhere else and in this respect the game still stands head and shoulders above most others out there. The mix of Noir iconography and surreal fantasy also mix very well and shows how imaginative games can be when left in the right hands.

Overall, the decision as to whether you are going to enjoy Grim Fandango will come down to how much patience you have. There will be frustrating moments that stop you in your tracks but they are well worth persevering with in order to engage with one of the best tales that has been told through a video game. It’s a slow burning game of depth and invention and it may not be perfect but it’s certainly still well worth sorting through the mystery of what’s rotten in the land in of the dead.

Overall 8/10

Wednesday 4 February 2015

Ninja Gaiden Review (Master System)

There is no doubt that Ninja's are cool. There is just something about them that lends itself to walking around speaking in some of the worst accents known to man. You see, Ninja's are mysterious and magical, almost superhuman (which makes them ideal for videogames). Indeed, back in the days where every other film going straight to video was one where some American bloke would train to be a ninja and defeat some evil Japanese master, the gaming market was filled with endless Ninja games. A large amount of these titles were utter rubbish. Think back - how many can you remember? Shinobi? Probably. Last Ninja? Maybe. And of course Ninja Gaiden.

To start with, the plot seems rather straightforward - after all, this was the time before games really needed such things. The story goes that the Dragon Ninja village has been completely destroyed and a magical scroll taken. Enter Ryu Hayabusa, the last surviving ninja who must get the scroll back before it destroys the world. After each level the plot is updated and although the old 8-bit system manages to add a few twists and turns that engage the player (and make you want to push on to see how it all turns out), clearly this title appears to be more than just a rushed ninja cash-in. 

Being on the Master System, graphics are a touch small but that doesn't take away from the action. Characters are always clear, and there is no slowdown or other nasty graphical glitches to spoil the fun - it's just you against them, and whoever can react the fastest will win. Ninja Gaiden is not really about the graphics, and although the backdrops and locations are all nicely done, it is the gameplay at the core of the title that proves Ninja games - when programmed well - positively shine.

The levels in the title scroll from left to right, with the occasional bit of climbing from time to time. Each area is a good blend of action and platform-jumping precision - all carried out with a huge injection of style. Okay, so in terms of fighting, you haven't really got that many moves (limited as you are to sword slashes and a few special weapons) but that is arguably all you need - as once the initial levels have been cleared, the focus is very much on working out how to reach platforms that seem just out of reach. 

Our nimble hero can hang under ledges, rebound off walls, and jump a fair distance in order to make his way safely through the levels. Though only given a few moves, it is the way in which you must use everything at your disposal to progress that impresses (and even reminds one of how the 'basics' have been adapted for newer releases like Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time).

Making your way across a screen can involve any number of jumps and bounces while flipping between different levels of the platforms; at the same time having to take out enemies mid-movement to avoid being knocked to your doom. Luckily, the controls are responsive enough to cope - meaning every death is fair. 

Ninja Gaiden holds up remarkably well against newer titles. It may seem a little bit restricted by the screen, but the challenge is perfectly-balanced and ultimately requires pure skill and dexterity to get through. It comes highly recommended.

Overall 8/10

Monday 2 February 2015

The Rise of Neo-Punk in the Playstation Generation

In every era of gaming, there are always titles with a discernible and definable style. Once a new look or ethos becomes flavour of the month, many companies look for ways to capitalise on this, taking the easy option of appealing to the most common denominator by using elements from something that is popular in the mainstream and filtering them into a new title (look at EA's recent output for evidence of this).

On the other hand, there are companies who seek to push things forward and find something that adds a unique edge to their output and make their products feel more fresh and vibrant, even when it remains very much niche (such as the much underused sub-genre of Cyberpunk). While the Playstation generation of gaming may well be remembered as the time when everything became 'street', there was also something much more encouraging beginning to filter through and press its own unique stamp on the market and that something was Neopunk.

Neopunk derived from Cyberpunk and the two share many similarities: the main difference is Neopunk's focus on a much lighter tone. On the whole, the theme of Cyberpunk occupies run-down worlds with groups executing secret operations to try to bring down powerful and corrupt organisations against a dystopian background. Neopunk has a different stylistic approach: here we find individuals who tend to be either superhuman or incredibly skilled, fighting against a more pure form of evil; this is especially apparent where it has infiltrated gaming.

The Neopunk look is somewhat more stylised than its Cyberpunk predecessor. Neopunk is as much about the look of the hero as it is about any driving ethic behind the fighting of evil. As such, Neopunk characters tend to stand out from the crowd, often looking out of place with their surroundings, and forming a lasting impression in the mind - flamboyance is the ruler of this realm.

At present there are three main companies who are using the Neopunk theme with regularity in their products: Japan-based companies Capcom, Konami and Square-Enix. The most obvious example of Capcom's would be the highly flamboyant Dante; here we have a character with superhuman abilities battling the forces of evil. He himself may not be a clear-cut hero, and the reason he fights evil may not be as simple as wanting to save the world, but that is of little importance. The setting of the Devil May Cry titles juxtaposes images of the medieval and the futuristic (something else which is beginning to form as a defining characteristic of the genre).

When Devil May Cry first appeared on the scene, it was hailed from all corners as something exhilarating and exciting. Many years later and with Capcom's clever development of the character, we see the series with the image of Dante being the closest thing gaming has to a cultural and fashion icon this side of Lara Croft. Other examples of Capcom's new-found foray into the Neopunk world can be found in P.N.03 and the hard-edged killer7. Even Leon from Resident Evil 4 has felt the slight tinge of influence on his dress sense - never let it be said that Capcom underuses an idea that works.

In comparison, Konami and Square-Enix's moves to bring the genre into their titles is relatively low-key. Konami's main focus of attention is Castlevania's (Aria and Dawn of Sorrow) star, Soma Cruz. The story of both titles is set in the near future and has Soma searching his way around large gothic castles in order to stop Dracula from being resurrected. The titles mark a subtle departure in graphical style from the previous Castlevania games: a lighter colour scheme has been introduced and much of the black and grey has been replaced with blues and purples. Soma himself is a striking figure wearing a long white coat and having bright white hair. He looks for all the world as if he should be at the top of a megacorporation in Tokyo fighting off robots, yet here he is fighting vampire bats and zombies with a sword in a castle dungeon - more out of place one could never be.

Square-Enix has been making small steps into the Neopunk genre for some time. The Final Fantasy series was tentatively pushed vaguely in this direction with Final Fantasy VIII, but a less than warm reception from gamers made Square change their strategy. In truth there are only small signs of Neopunk in the title as most of it holds with a sterile utopian approach lacking in the necessary character and setting. Recently, though, Star Ocean: Till The End Of Time has been used to develop Square's understanding of the Japanese phenomenon: again, here we have a character completely out of place with his surroundings, fighting against what seems a 'pure' evil.

A checklist seems to be emerging with regards to setting up Neopunk adventures. We nearly always get the future crashing together with the past and occupying an uneasy juxtaposition where nothing quite fits as it should, yet the protagonists carry on anyway. Maybe it is down to this anarchic charm that gamers are picking up on titles which are beginning to use this style. In most industries, when something bland, soulless and predictable becomes the norm, a movement begins to try and refresh, overthrow or otherwise demonstrate there is more to come. It happens in film and music regularly, and it also happens in gaming as demonstrated though this generation.