Wednesday 28 October 2015

PixelJunk Shooter Ultimate Review (PC)

A few years ago PixelJunk Shooter first appeared on the PS3. Still one of the best games on the Playstation network it is finally now available on the PC. The first game had already been released but now the team have and combined Shooter 1 and 2 and spruced it up a bit to create Pixeljunk Shooter Ultimate.

The plot, such as it is, has you sent in to rescue your crew mates after mysterious goings on while mining on the planet of Apoxus Prime. To do this you have to fly your craft around tight underground caverns while using water, lava and magnetic black liquids to your advantage. It’s reminiscent of Thrust with its inertia and gravity based gameplay but your craft will stay still if left alone. You also won’t die from hitting walls (which is a good thing or it would have been nigh on impossible).

The game is a 2D styled shooter where you manoeuvre your ship around a section of an enclosed map. Normally you will have to get water to turn lava to rock or lava to melt ice or some other combination of dropping one liquid onto another. You’re doing this because you need to get to and rescue all the lost crew members in each area. If too many of them die you have to start the level again. It’s wonderfully inventive and a whole lot of fun and there are hidden areas and diamonds to collect along the way as well.

The level design is nigh on perfect throughout the game and the difficulty curve is just about right. The huge boss monsters found at the end of each world may cause some frustration but they provide tense and heroic showdowns of David and Goliath proportions and once you work them out shouldn’t take too long to get past. The difficulty level ramps up considerably once you enter the second part of the game (Shooter 2), but it’s all still achievable.

Shooter Ultimate is now split into six main areas each consisting of five levels. There are the initial outer rocky areas, the ice caves and then the mine. After the mine something happens which we won’t spoil but you’ll be dealing with a host of new gases and liquids.  Each individual level is split into sections which require everyone to be rescued before a bulk head opens to the next.  Each has its own tricks and traps and will keep you on your toes throughout. If it gets too much you can always call a friend in for co-op action.

You’ll also need to think quickly as the game has a wonderful way of getting you to forget what you’ve just learnt. For instance, for the first area you are trying to keep away from lava (overheating causes you to crash), but then in the ice caves you’ll come across an inversion suit which makes lava cool you down and water heat you up.

It’s a game that keeps throwing new ideas and things at you to keep you interested. The water suit and lava suit are just the start and you’ll soon be switching around and dealing with freezing lakes and clouds of gas as well as the usual lava and water. The key thing is that everything stays fun and creative throughout. Once you’ve completed the game you’ll probably want to dive back in to further explore the levels and find all the missing diamonds and any crew you missed along the way. There’s even a hidden level to try and unlock and online combat.

PixelJunk Shooter is a game we’re still playing on the PS3 to this day. The fact a whole new audience can now pick it up is great and this really is one of the best games of its type. Q-Games have crafted something special here and the years have done nothing to diminish its appeal. With PixelJunk Shooter 2 included as well it becomes an essential purchase for PC owners. We’ll be playing it through for yet another time and we would recommend everyone else do the same.

This was always going to be a certified hit with us as long as nothing had gone wrong in the conversion and from our experience this offers all the fun of the original. PC gamers really need to play this as it’s simply a masterfully executed, great little game packed with more invention and ideas than most massive AAA releases can even come close to.

Overall 9/10


Monday 26 October 2015

Blazblue Chronophantasma Extend Review (PS4/ PS Vita)

Over the years Blazblue has taken up the position of the hardcore alternative to Capcoms Street Fighter IV. Most of the characters require hours of dedication to get to grips with and the crazy plot that includes time travel, magic, science, civil wars and alternate worlds can baffle anyone. Now the series is back with it's PS4 debut and the extended version of the third chapter of the story.

Chronophantasma takes place after the first two games and follows the characters as they move to the ruins of Ikaruga in search of the next magical McGuffin. We aren’t going to try and some up what’s happened so far or what's next as it’ll only confuse everyone. Just know that bad things are going to happen and some people want it to and others don’t. There is of course a puppet master behind the scenes as well trying to put everything into place.

This isn’t an easy game to get into for newcomers to the series. There’s a ton of things to take in and trying to tie up the story will take a serious investment. There’s a helpful ‘Teach Me Miss Litchi’ section which recaps the lore and events but the handy summation of the first two games from vampire Rachel Alucard will set you up nicely.

The game comes jam packed with different game modes and there’s almost limitless hours that can be put into it. Aside from the Arcade and survival modes there is Abyss mode which has your character working their way through ever increasingly difficult maps containing opponents set at different computer AI levels. There is also the Blazblue version of score attack which pits you against some of the hardest encounters known to man for bragging rights and a host of other things. There’s even a manga to get through called Remix Heart which follows Mai Natsume at the military academy.

The story mode continues in the style of the vanilla version of Chronophantasma with three main branches that need to be completed with characters aligned to different factions in each. There are also sections featuring the new characters which came as DLC in the last version of the game. There is still too much talking and not enough fighting to start but once it gets going it’s a good tale and enjoyable, especially for fans of the series. The wealth of training modes also return with everything you need to teach you the basic mechanics and then take you into ridiculous depth with your chosen characters. 

On the Vita The story mode does need to be downloaded so make sure you have the space and bandwidth. That decision may seem strange but the fidelity of the Vita version to its big brother is such that it seems there may well have simply been no more room on the card of the physical versions to fit it. We would go as far as to say as this is the best looking Vita game and it's an outstanding achievement from the development team to get it onto the handheld like this. The only real issue is that the Vita controls can be tricky to use to execute the more complex moves.

The original cast have been rebalanced and in some cases retooled with moves and special moves and this is still a bone of contention for some fans. Jin is the most notably different with the range and speed of certain moves changed and the removal of his mass-hitting spam everything quickly with the sword move (much to the relief of everyone who uses other characters). Things soon begin to click again but we got absolutely hammered just diving into arcade mode and then wondering why nothing was working.

The previously new characters are now joined by those available as downloadable content to give an impressive cast of fighters. The previous version of the game was hardly light on content and now it is bursting at the seams.

The game holds true with its previous changes such as the implementation of the 'Overdrive' meter which replaces the ‘Gold Burst’ move. When activated this it allows for more damaging distortion drive techniques as well as stopping the match timer. The lower your health, the longer the effect lasts. Guards have also been changed but the drive is still the new big thing and players will have to drastically change their game plan in close matches.

The main thing is that after you get to grips with the changes everything flows as beautifully as before. This is still one of the most spectacularly intense fighting games on the market and this version of the game is a very strong showing in an ever increasingly crowded genre.

Overall, Blazblue Chronophantasma Extend is a must for anyone who is into their fighting games and this is right up there with anything on the PS4. Fans will be desperate to see the new additions to the story but anyone who’s up for a challenge will appreciate what the game has to offer as well. It may not be the easiest title to get into but once you do there is little else out there as rewarding or satisfying.

Overall 9/10

Wednesday 21 October 2015

3D Sonic the Hedgehog 2 Review (3DS)

The Sega 3D classics range has proved popular so far and it was only a matter of time before its number one mascot returned to the 3DS with what is arguably the blue speedster’s best game. Sonic 2 has long been heralded as one of the greatest platformers and though we personally never got on with it that well we were more than happy to give it another go.

The 3D version of the game comes with the now standard features we have come to expect. You can run the Japanese or world versions, emulate it on the Megadrive or Megadrive 2 and set the 3D effect to pop in or pop out of the screen. Along with this you can save and load at any time- even when your last continue has been used.

You can now also put the game into a level select mode where you can simply try out any stage you want at any time. This includes the pseudo 3D bonus stage which will run through its various rounds as you zoom down a tunnel collecting rings. The only thing really missing is being able to access the Sonic and Knuckles content which is unlocked when adding the game to the aforementioned cartridge. This is a shame but we wait to see what happens with the classics series in the future and what Sega has up their sleeves in this respect. The restored level from the iOS version is also missing.

As Sonic 2 is mainly a 2D side scrolling the game the 3D effect doesn’t really add much to it. We quickly turned it off and felt it was more a novelty than something that has elevated other classics such as Space Harrier and Out Run. Even the 3D bonus stage didn’t really come alive with the effect on which is a bit of a missed opportunity. The other minor grumble is that the colours seem a little bit off from the original version. At times some of the stages look a little washed out with the graphics not as vibrant as before.

That said, this is the most fun we have had with Sonic 2. This time around the tight level design and well balanced challenge seemed to fit the 3DS perfectly and we were more than happy to zoom through it in one setting. 

There are quite a lot of zones to get into and each one has its own thing that makes it unique and different from the last. One minute you’ll be bouncing around a giant pinball machine while another stage will see you trying not to drown in a forest or avoiding oil spills on a giant rig. It has the right amount of challenge while still remaining fun and inventive and the boss fights are also set just about right. There’s plenty to see as well as most levels have multiple routes through and contain more than enough secrets to keep you occupied and returning for another play through.

Minor issues aside what you effectively have here is the definitive version of a 16-bit classic platformer. There’s nothing here to convert people who never really got into Sonic but if you have never played it before or are a returning fan then you are going to love it as all the magic remains. In a world of indie 2D platformers this still stands head and shoulders above pretty much all of them.

Overall 9/10

Monday 19 October 2015

F-Zero X Review (N64)

One of Nintendo’s best loves franchises F-Zero has had surprisingly few games developed over the years. Three home console versions, two handheld, one arcade game and an add-on for a device that failed almost immediately are all to show for some of the most iconic characters, locations and music in the Nintendo arsenal. F-Zero X is the second game in the series but does it still hold up?

We’ll get the negativity out of the way right from the off. The biggest criticism you can level at F-Zero X is how bland it looks. Though this is the first time the series moved into 3D it lacks detail on both tracks and crafts but when you spend a bit of time with it that quickly begins to become an irrelevance.

There is arguably a very good reason for the lack of graphical detail and that is that you have thirty unique craft hurtling around roller coaster like tracks without the framerate dropping. Thirty unique vehicles was (and still is), a very impressive number to race against and they each have their own driver, strengths and weakness. This means there is more than enough choice for any gamer to find their perfect match which makes losing that little bit harder to deal with.

The game also has a large amount of tracks to get to grips with. You get four standard cups containing six tracks each and then the X cup which actually randomly generates tracks for you each time you play it. Some of the most iconic versions of F-Zero tracks are found in the game with Big Blue and Mute City among the highlights. 

There isn’t a bad track here and each will test your driving skills to the max. There are giant cylinders, upside down sections, half-pipes and loops to get your head around. Once you finally think you’ve got it mastered you’ll then come up against tracks like the dreaded ‘Big Hand’ (a track shaped like a hand full of open curves), and then watch as you fly off the track at 780mph. 

F-Zero X is not easy and venturing past the Novice setting will require good concentration and an understanding of the track design. The learning curve is steep (though not as tough as F-Zero GX), and players may well have to spend time trying out different craft to succeed. Crossing the line ahead of twenty-nine other racers is a tough thrill to beat though and it’s well worth the effort.

As well as the standard single player mode you get Time Attack and Practice mode to sharpen your skills and the Death Race mode which has you trying to wreck the other vehicles in as quickly a time as possible.  The VS mode allows for four player split screen (and good luck seeing the corners in that), where any player who has wrecked gets a continually spinning slot machine to play with that adds penalties to the racers still in the race.

Unlike racers such as Wipeout and Mario Kart there aren’t any weapons to pick up and use in the. Though you can perform a spinning attack the core experience is about the thrill and speed of pure racing. Using the left and right air brake and hitting the speed boosts on the track is the key to success as is setting up your acceleration to high speed ratio before each race starts. Once a lap has been completed you get access to boost power but this needs to be used sensibly as it uses up the same meter that acts as your health bar and when you blow up it is race over.

Overall, F-Zero X may not be pretty to look at but the simple graphical style at least keeps things clear on the track. It’s in the playing that the game still shines and the thrill of zooming around as the music blares is still hard to find in other games. The track set is one of the best ever and there is still so much to love about the game after all this time. It remains a classic and a game that every N64 owner should hunt out.

Overall 8/10

Wednesday 14 October 2015

Lost Dimension Review (PS Vita)

Written by Natalie Houghton

The world now faces total destruction... after being suddenly attacked from out of the blue with half of it being destroyed in an instant. An agent of the coming apocalypse appears issuing an ultimatum "kill me within 13 days or die". The only ones who are capable of stopping this are the 'gifted' - a group of teens with special powers who swiftly have the fate of the world thrust into their hands. In all honesty it sounds like the typical anime 'teens with super powers' trope but it really does manage to transcend that stereotype as not one character is over powered in any way - they are relatively normal humans that each have a gift. Their powers range from levitation, pyrokinesis, precognition, super strength and the ability to copy anyone else's abilities.

You awake at the bottom of a tower, with no memories of how you got there... the only thing that you do know is that 11 other supposed comrades surround you and that you must climb to the top of the tower and stop the man otherwise known as 'the end' from firing his arsenal of nukes and destroying the rest of the world. Sounds simple, right? Wrong... the caveat is that there are traitors amongst your ranks.

Overall, this serves as the primary plot device and I have to admit that the traitor system is quite innovative and the way in which you have to sniff out the traitors is engaging but not impossible - the main character, Sho has the premonition ability and he can also hear other team member's most private and deepest thoughts, by utilising this and diving into the inner depths of a character's psyche. This means he can figure out who the traitor is and influence the rest of the team on who they should vote for in one of the many judgement rounds that you are besieged with at the end of each floor. 

This involves the team voting for one of them to effectively be killed off where they will be erased from this world, dissolving into absolute nothingness, leaving behind only their 'will' - a usable item, so for example if your healer turns out to be the traitor and you vaporise them, then one of the other characters can equip their ‘will’ and use their abilities so you won't be without healing for the rest of the game. Interspersed throughout the dungeon climbing, it is possible to bolster the trust of each team member by raising their camaraderie level as you talk with them and learn more about their situation, the way they feel about things and what they plan to do in the future (if they survive.. that is).

The plot had me hooked. Who is 'the end'? Why is he doing this? And who is the traitor this round? I hurriedly played the game until its conclusion as I so desperately wanted to know... only to find out that it does require a couple of play-throughs to reveal the true ending. Second play-throughs are much easier however, as you carry across your already existing camaraderie and you are automatically given gift exp so you can start with some abilities.
Lost Dimension itself is half a visual novel and half a tactical RPG. From a visual novel standpoint, the animation is rendered in a way which makes it appear almost 3D, it is sublimely crisp and clear and the transitions between each character are smooth although the dialogue can be slightly jarring at times when you start losing characters.

The other main half of the game is the tactical battles, they are simple in appearance but are quite challenging as they have a tendency to occasionally throw you straight into the deep end. The battles are taken in turns between your team of 6 and however many enemies are present. Your team can each move within a set radius of their original starting point, if any enemies are in range they can then attack - but beware the enemies will usually retaliate with a counter-attack if they can. The main tactic that you'll need to both equally utilise and beware of in order to win is the assist mechanic where any characters that are within range of each other will assist their ally in their attack.  For example: If Sho attacks an enemy and two other characters are nearby, not only will Sho attack the enemy - but his two allies will as well. This can lead to some incredibly powerful combos that will allow you to pound the enemy into oblivion. 

Sound during the battles is superb and I thought that the song which played during the final boss battle was quite pleasing as well as being motivational - I'd definitely want to put it on my MP3 player. There is no Japanese voice over available, although the English voice acting is not too bad for once. There are a few slightly strange quirks with this though. for example one of the characters speaks with a fake English accent which is slightly odd as she can't seem to work out if she's pretending to be in the middle of a Victorian tea party or in the east end of London "Care for some tea, mate?". She speaks like this because she thinks it sounds cute which is a bit hmm... I'll just scratch my non-existent beard on that one.

Overall, this is an excellent tactical J-RPG let down only by a slightly anti-climactic ending. But it still has its charms and is well worth playing so go on... get lost in another dimension!


Monday 12 October 2015

Armikrog Review (PC)

Funded via Kickstarter and much delayed, the spiritual successor to the Neverhood and Skull Monkeys has now finally made it’s on the PC. Whether it’s actually in a state to have been released at this stage is another thing entirely.

It all starts out very well with a beautiful claymation style that is simply breath taking. It looks gorgeous and our two protagonists Tommynaught and his pet talking dog thing Beak-Beak are likable and voiced with humour and a lot of character. After an impressive cut scene where you are chased by a fluffy monster thing the game begins properly and quickly it begin to unravel.

The game is a point and click adventure but lacks most of what we have come to expect from the genre. The first major issue is the mouse cursor. Normally the cursor in these sorts of games changes in some way to indicate that you can look or interact with things. Not here, it just stays like a mouse cursor with no feedback given to the player about what you can do.

This in itself wouldn’t necessarily be a problem but clicking on things results in nothing at all. Yes, no description of the object, no text, nothing. You have absolutely no feedback at all with regards to what is an interactable object and what isn’t. If you can pick up an object you walk over and grab it but no indication is given to what you have actually got and you can’t access an inventory either. There’s no way of telling what you are carrying around or examining it. If you happen to click on the thing the object goes with you will automatically take it out and use it.

It’s a baffling decision and must have been brought about through time and budget issues. There is clearly no way it could have been originally envisaged like this. We endeavoured to adventure on hoping we would get used to the game and for a few rooms it did seem to improve. We managed to get some fluffy thing moved to act as a ladder and Beak-Beak went through a little hole which sent everything all trippy but sadly, the fun didn’t last long.

Time and time again we came up against irritating puzzles which required panels to be moved, or thing to be slid or turned. The sort of puzzles that turn up about once a game in other point and click adventures and end up being the bit everyone hates. The puzzles arrive with no explanation as how to complete them and no context as to how they relate to anything. It makes the game incredibly disjointed and frustrating and after even an hour we were tiring very quickly of it.

Even the options menu is poor with the ability to save, load and change the sound level. That’s it. There’s also very little confirmation that you’ve actually saved your game. When you return to the game you can’t continue from the main menu screen either and have to go into the options menu again to load. 

The fact it grew tiresome so quickly despite looking so amazing is a real shame. It is clear that a lot of care and attention has gone into the look of the game and it’s one of the most unique aesthetics we’ve ever seen. But you can’t hide the fact the rest of it is frustrating, seemingly unfinished and even a bit broken in places. Though patches have been put in place we still found some issues with things not working how and when they should.

Overall, it’s a harsh thing to say but this reminded us of Rise of Robots. It’s all style over substance and beyond that it is does its very best to annoy and irritate the player. It may well be a case of over ambition but in its current state we can’t recommend Armikrog to anyone. It’s just not up to the standard we expect of point and click adventures.

Overall 3/10

Wednesday 7 October 2015

Blood Bowl 2 Review (PS4)

Blood Bowl in one form or another has been around for a very long time. It started out as an incredibly lengthy and complex board game and then moved to something with much more pace to it around the third edition of the games rule revision. It was here in 1994 that we at Retro 101 first really fell in love with the game as it required much less commitment in terms of time and money than many of Games Workshop's other releases. The last digital version of the game was excellent (on PC at least), so we were more than ready to dive right into the sequel.

In truth not that much has changed from the first version of the game on the PC. There are strong graphical improvements and the commentator characters are nice (even if they do repeat themselves a little too often).  But the rules and way the games play out isn’t much different. This is actually a good thing as the last thing you want is to start mucking around with the rule set for the sake of it. It does mean that Blood Bowl is still a turn based strategy game much in the same way as Space Hulk: Ascension or Talisman.

The graphical improvements are very noticeable as well with every crunch and thud drawing quick intakes of breath from players. The stadiums and crowds are also much more detailed and it really does help to draw you into the fantasy world of blood and touchdowns.

The main addition is the campaign mode which has players take hold of the Human team – the Reikland Reavers, who have fallen on hard times and had their star player disappear after building up a sizable debt with a group of ogres. The campaign acts to introduce you to all the basics of how the game flows as well as showing how hiring and firing staff and players works and sorting out the stadium and other matters away from the pitch. For newcomers it’s a much more approachable introduction than in the first game and it’s both sizable and fun to play through.

For those not familiar with Blood Bowl it’s basically a fantasy version of American football where different races of creatures square off against each other. The aim is to score touchdowns but more often than not it just turns into a massive fight. Different races have different strengths and weaknesses (with Elves being quick and agile while Orcs are strong and slow for instance), and it’s about working your strategy to play to your strengths while anticipating how your opponent is going to approach you. 

Everything is carried out via dice rolls with blocking, throwing, catching and even picking up the ball at the mercy of the specially designed blood bowl dice. When players are tackled they can also be stunned, injured or killed for added drama and there are numerous events such as pitch invasion or players being pushed into the crowd never to be seen again. It’s wonderfully crazy and chaotic while also being deep in terms of strategy needed to succeed.

This version comes with eight races available from the start with the Humans, Orcs, Dwarves, Chaos, High Elves, Dark Elves, Skaven and newcomers the Bretonnians ready for action. It’s considerably less teams than the last game ended with and with Lizard Men and Wood Elves already available as DLC it’s fairly obvious that the others will be making an appearance in the same way later on. It would have been nice to see more teams added from the start though as eight really isn’t enough.

Aside from the single player campaign there are leagues you can set up and play against the AI with pre-made teams or you can start your own. There is also a small amount of team management involved with the buying and selling of players and the development of the team’s stadium and it should keep you occupied for a while. There are of course online options and this is where Blood Bowl should really shine as players test out their plans against each other. How long the community lasts for on the PS4 remains to be seen.

Overall, this is undoubtedly the best version of Blood Bowl to appear in console form. It’s far superior to the previous console version of the original game and it kept us more than happy for far too many hours. It’s a more difficult sell to PC gamers who may have the Chaos edition of the older game with almost all the races included. Aside from the limited races though there is very little to dislike and it will keep both strategy and Games Workshop fans occupied for weeks. It’s also decidedly cheaper than trying to track down the board game and teams.

Overall 8/10

Monday 5 October 2015

Arcana Heart 3: love Max!!!! Review (PC)

The Arcana Heart series has been largely ignored by western audiences over the years. Even the first version of Arcana Heart 3 did little to make an impact on the established brands of Street fighter and BlazBlue. Arcana Heart 3: Love Max!!!! has taken the 2011 version of the game and reworked it to try and build on a solid template and make one more attempt to hit the sweet spot for fight game fans.

The unique selling point of the series is that it contains an all-girl cast. Don’t worry though, this isn’t one of the highly questionable Japanese titles that are borderline pornographic. Characters here are for the most part treated in a much better way than female characters can sometimes be. The other key gimmick is that the base characters can be combined with a large range of magical ‘Arcana’ spirits to give staggering depth and flexibility in how you want fight.

Arcanas are basically huge magical beings that give extra powers, attack and defence options (Think of them like the summon or guardian force creatures in the final fantasy series). A defensively weak character could choose a defence orientated Arcana to boost that area of their skills for instance or emphasise one of their abilities even more. As well as boosting attack and defence they also each have unique special moves and abilities and getting the balance right is the key to success.

The biggest problems fight fans will face is that there is no introduction to the game mechanics or characters. It has become fairly standard practice now for character related trials and tutorials to be introduced in fighting games. Here there is nothing of the sort with just a standard training option to go into and play around with moves. Unless you dig through to the digital manual it is highly unlikely you’ll ever work out what half the meters and bars do in the game. This is a pretty major oversight and it’s likely to greatly impact how you get on with the game as it’s not something that is easy to just pick up and play.

This isn’t helped by the fact that hardly any of the characters are newcomer friendly either. There are no real Ryu or Ken a-likes and with so many characters to choose from it becomes a case of picking one and seeing what comes of it. For those that persevere there is a highly entertaining and complex fighting game underneath but unless you’re willing to put in the hours it’s questionable if you ever really know what you are doing. This coupled with some ridiculous pad inputs which are near impossible to pull off without some kind of fight stick means casual fight fans are likely to want to look elsewhere.

When it’s in full flow Arcana Heart certainly looks lovely and the speed never lets up. You’ll have special moves flying everywhere with the backgrounds changing from summer to winter as characters initiate time lapsing moves and Arcanas crash into the arena. It’s unlike pretty much any other fighting game and once you get to grips with it, it offers something unique in an ever growing genre.

Overall, Arcana Heart 3 Love Max!!!! is certainly an improvement other the base version of the game with more polish, balance and flexibility added to the battles. That said, it is still far too impenetrable for newcomers to the series and the last boss remains a terrible encounter on a multi levelled arena that we could have really done without. Once you know how everything works it’s a real joy to play but we can’t see anyone but the hard core fight fan even getting close to that level without the addition of some kind of tutorial system.

Overall 7/10