Thursday, 26 February 2009

King's Bounty: The Legend - PC

Set in a whimsical fantasy realm, inhabited by elves, dwarves and orcs, it’s easy to initially dismiss King’s Bounty: The Legend as just another bog-standard RPG. But it doesn’t take long to discover it’s anything but.

Wrapped up in World of Warcraft-inspired graphics, King’s Bounty is a wonderful turn-based strategy game, packed with RPG elements and lots of neat touches.

Choosing to play as a Warrior, Paladin or Mage, you set off on your trusty steed to explore the lush and lively world of Darion, as official treasure hunter of the King. It’s not exactly the strongest of game plots, but you’ll come to realise it really doesn’t matter.

Unlike the majority of strategy games on the market, no one in King’s Bounty is out to invade your country or steal your resources. Instead, the game lets you go about your business at your own pace.

You can travel freely over the countryside, but as soon as you come into contact with an enemy, the game switches to a hex-based grid. Both sides line up at opposite sides of the battlefield and knock lumps out of each other in a turn-based manner.

Aside from the tutorial, the game's main character never appears on the battlefield. Instead, you have to enlist an army to aid you on your travels. And it’s this aspect which proves to be the ace up King’s Bounty’s sleeve.

While there are RPG standards included, such as Knights, Bowmen and Clerics, you can also add giant dragonflies, skeletons, ents, werewolves, vampires, bears, unicorns, zombies and seed-shooting plants to your ranks...and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s an incredibly diverse range of allies to recruit, all with their own strengths and weaknesses.

You can only have control over five classes at any one time, so players can experiment with different set-ups to their heart’s content.

Although there are only five of your characters on screen, each figure represents multiple units. By advancing your leadership skills by undertaking quests and finding banners scattered about the map, you can recruit more units and eventually command a sizeable army.

The gameworld is littered with quests and shiny trinkets, which are usually guarded by an enemy or two. By clicking on an enemy, you can see how they match up against your squad. An even match usually results in a tense and keenly fought affair, while anything higher and you are advised to steer well clear.

You are also able to tweak your squad’s abilities by assigning points to a three-tiered skill tree. By choosing to put points into Might, Mind and Magic, you can fine tune your squad to suit your own personal tastes.

Graphically, the game’s nod to World of Warcraft is an inspired touch and its aesthtically appealing visuals will hopefully draw people in to experience this wonderful game.

It takes an hour or so to get its hooks into you, but once it does, King’s Bounty becomes a daily obsession.

You’ll quickly forget all the overblown fantasy fluff on display, and hours will slip by as you explore the sizeable world, searching every nook and cranny for quests and treasures, and the urge to find new locations and recruits becomes highly addictive.

It’s not all perfect, though. The camera control, while adequate, isn’t perfect, and if you run out of troops, a lot of backtracking must be undertaken in order to swell your ranks. The script’s rough translation can be a hinderance, and occasionally it make no sense, but at least it leads to uninentional laughs.

It’s a game crammed full of memorable moments and because aspects of the game are randomly generated, everyone will have their own stories to tell.

The game is currently enjoying healthy reviews across the board, with 81/100 rating on Metacritic and a 8.7/10 rating on Test Freaks. It may be regarded as something of a niche title, but it's a game everyone should check out.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Flower - PS3

After months of waiting, Flower finally arrived on the PlayStation store a couple of weeks ago, and I've barely stopped playing.

Available for just £6.29, Flower is a beautiful and engaging piece of software by Thatgamecompany, the team behind the excellent Flow on PS3 and PSP.

Calling Flower a game in the traditional sense might be a bit wide of the mark, as although there are gameplay elements included, playing through Flower is more about the visual and aural experience rather than achieving a set objective.

Each of the game’s levels in represented by a potted plant sitting on the windowsill of a city flat. By moving the Sixaxis over the plant and clicking on it, you are taken into the flower’s dream. Here, you will skim through long grass, soar into the sky, create bright bursts of colour on the ground, while breezing over unopened flowers collecting their petals as you go.

The control system is inspired, with gentle movements of the Sixaxis used to control the breeze. Pressing any button causes the wind to gust, making for an exhilarating experience as you fly through the beautifully realised world.

This experience is made complete by the game’s wonderful visuals. Lush, grassy meadows under bright blue skies give way to rocky canyons, sun-drenched amber vistas, midnight blue fields and rain-soaked plains – Flower may not be the most technologically advanced game ever made, but is one of the most beautiful.

The music also adds to the zen-like experience, with gentle acoustic arrangements suiting the mood of the game perfectly. Each petal you pick up on the breeze is also accompanied by a note or a chime, adding to Flower’s dream-like quality.

While you are free to fly about to your heart’s content and make your way to the level exit - a swirling mass of petals - there are optional objectives that can be undertaken. Each level contains three green flower clusters, each cunningly hidden, and discovering them all rewards you with a gold trophy - one of 14 trophies on offer.

Another nice touch is if you leave the controller alone, the game flicks between stunning views of the landscapes. This is particularly nice to have on in the background, and it's very soothing to watch.

It’s not all perfect, though, the gloomy and oppressive fifth level introduces obstacles in the shape of electricity pylons. Clashing with these twisted metal structures makes the Sixaxis shudder and stops you briefly in your tracks. After being able to freely fly around the gameworlds, this addition really jars.

However, all is forgiven after experiencing the epic final level. I won't spoil it for you, but it is an incredible and uplifting experience that will have you grinning like an idiot.

Flower is not a long game, and those who choose to breeze through it will complete it in a couple of hours.

But why would you want to rush? Flower is best played in short bursts late at night and it took me around six hours to see the closing credits - which are the best and most entertaining closing credits I've ever had the pleasure of seeing.

So pour yourself a glass of wine, dim the lights, kick back, relax and enjoy the experience. Bloomin' marvellous.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Noby Noby Boy - PS3

Katamari Damacy creator Keita Takahashi unleashed his new game on the world on Thursday, and Noby Noby Boy is another slice of utterly bonkers fun from the Japanese legend.

So what exactly is Noby Noby Boy? Well, there are no set goals and no real objectives, other than to have fun and play around.

You control BOY, a creature who can stretch, jump and eat. Like Katamari Damacy, both control sticks are used. This time, each analogue stick controls BOY's front and back. Pulling the sticks apart stretches BOY, allowing him to wrap himself around objects.

Each level is randomly generated, from sandy plains inhabited by camels and nomads, to dense forests full of mushrooms, each new map is lively and fun to potter about in. Noby Noby Boy retains Takahashi's weird and wonderful art style and everything in the level can be interacted with.

You can wrap yourself around trees, thread your multi-coloured body through house windows, propel yourself high into the night sky, destroy pyramids with a single bound, and take animals and people for a ride on your back.

Tapping the L2 or R2 triggers make BOY jump, and L2 is also used to eat objects. Pressing R2 when an object has been consumed, causes BOY to squirt it out, accompanied by a nice squelchy noise. Juvenile? Yes. But it's great fun.

While it's strange to play a game with no objectives, it clicks into place after just a few minutes and hours will slip by as you simply mess about.

I spent the best part of an hour trying to thread every donut-shaped object in one level together. Then, I tried wrapping myself around the legs of a giant robot, trying my best to take him down in a scene similar to the AT-AT battle in The Empire Strikes Back.

I also spent longer than I care to mention eating as many people as I could. I managed to get up to 16 before accidentally falling off the edge of the level.

While there are no set goals, everyone who plays Noby Noby Boy online can contribute something to the game. Pulling the camera all the way back into space reveals GIRL, an elongated counterpart to BOY, who stretches from earth into the inky black unknown.

You can pause the game and report your total combined length, which is then added to GIRL's length. Everyone in the world can do this, and the aim is to get GIRL to reach the moon.

It's a novel idea, and one that will keep you playing. After the moon is reached, who knows what Takahashi has in store for us. At the time of writing, I have only contributed 2831 meters, which ranks me at No. 2832 on the high score list! Still a lot of work ahead, then.

Noby Noby Boy is a wonderful little game. It has full Trophy support, you can take your own pictures (the ones here are my own) you can even film your antics to watch later - and all for just £3.19 from the PlayStation store. For that price, you would be mad to miss out.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Yuusha 30 - PSP

Do you love RPGs, but don't have the time to wade through 70+ hour epic adventures? Does the thought of spending hours grinding to level up your characters fill you with dread? Do long-winded boss encounters make you want to cry? Does micro-managing your inventory seem to take forever? If the answer to any of these is yes, then Yuusha 30 might be the answer to your prayers.

Although I've only played the demo - the game isn't out until May in Japan - This Marvelous Entertainment title on PSP is one of the most fun and refreshing games I've played in ages - Basically, it's an RPG which has been reduced to bite-sized 30 second segments.

You are tasked with defeating a demon lord, who is safely ensconced in his castle on the other side of the map. As soon as you start the game, a 30 second timer begins to tick down. If the timer reaches zero, the game will end.

As you cross the map, you can visit towns and villages. When visiting a town, the clock is suspended and here you can buy new weapons, items and heal your wounds.

When out on the world map, battles are random, but don't despair, as these brief encounters are fast-paced fun. There are no long drawn-out turn based battles in Yuusha 30, instead pushing the d-pad to the right takes care of business, and most fights are over in under two seconds.

If a monster is too tough, simply take on a few more enemies and you'll level up in double quick time. Defeating monsters also rewards you with gold, which can be spent in the villages.

Now 30 seconds simply isn't long enough for you to level up and reach the demon lord, so to help you, some towns have statues which replenish your timer. The first time you use a statue it costs 100 gold, but every time after that, the cost goes up in increments of 100, so you have to weigh up the options of fighting for gold to earn more time, or just heading straight to the demon lord in the hope you will be able to beat him.

If you successfully defeat the evil demon, you are given a final result, which charts how long the quest took and what level you were. In many ways Yuusha 30 is more of a time trial than an RPG, and is all the better for it.

Graphics are deliberately blocky and utterly charming, while the bright and breezy music is just wonderful.

The demo only has two levels to play through, but they are incredibly addictive and I can't stop tyring to better my times. Marvelous have already said there will be more modes available, but details are still a bit sketchy. If anyone out there can shed a bit more light on these other modes, please let me know.

Obviously the game is in Japanese, and I very much doubt it will ever be released in the West. However, Yuusha 30 might appear on the Japanese PSN, but no matter what, it's a game I'll be keeping a close eye on in the months to come.

Check out this video for some breathless Yuusha 30 action:

Images courtesy of Marvelous Entertainment

Monday, 16 February 2009

Fallout 3: Operation: Anchorage - 360/PC

Bethesda's sprawling open world epic Fallout 3 arrived late last year to great critical acclaim. Players were given the freedom to explore a vast post-apocalyptic Washington DC, exploring the wasteland, battling mutants and undertaking a series of bizarre and imaginative quests.
    Operation Anchorage is Fallout 3's first expansion pack, and gives the player the opportunity to escape Fallout 3’s muddy, debris-strewn landscape - albeit briefly.
    After downloading Operation Anchorage, you receive a distress call while wandering about the wasteland. Following this quest leads you to an underground bunker, where a military training simulator is based. It's within this simulator that Operation Anchorage takes place, and your job is to explore the snowy Alaskan landscape and take out the Chinese military who have invaded the region.
    The focus of this expansion is heavily based on combat, which doesn't really sit comfortably within the context of Fallout 3. Yes, the game is played in first person and it involves guns, but even the most ardent Fallout fan will tell you it doesn't stand up well alongside more established shooters.
    Fallout's main draw is exploration, and this aspect is sadly lacking in Operation Anchorage. The whole experience – which you should be able to polish off in around 3-4 hours – is extremely linear and lacks any of the main game's sparkle. It is refreshing to escape the russet-coloured devastation of the main game, though, and travelling across Alaska's frozen tundra under steely-blue skies is a welcome diversion from the main game, but it all just feels a little shallow.
    Operation Anchorage isn't terrible, but its linear structure and reliance on average gun mechanics jar slightly. If you love Fallout 3, and have explored everything else the main game has to offer, then by all means go for it. Just don't expect a long-lasting challenge.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Boing! Docomodake - DS

It may have the strangest title you'll see all year, and chances are you've never heard of it, but Boing! Docomodake is actually a fun little game for the DS.

Who is Docomodake? Well it turns out he's the mascot for Japanese phone company NTT docomo, so it is somewhat surprising the little mushroom fella has made his way to these shores. Full credit, then, to Ignition Entertainment for taking a chance on this title and releasing it in the West.

The story goes that the Docomodake family have set off to get ready for the yearly village festival. However, they have mysteriously gone missing and it's up to you - Papa Docomodake - to search for your missing family.

The game takes the shape of a platform puzzler, and incorporates elements from Mario and Donkey Kong's DS adventure March of the Minis. You'll be jumping, digging, rolling about, manipulating blocks, stepping on switches and using weight-based brainteasers to accomplish your task.

Tapping Papa Docomodake's head creates mini mushrooms, which can be turned into ladders and bridges to reach previously unreachable areas. They can also access tiny passageways the full-sized Docomodake can't.

The game is clearly geared towards younger players, and with no time limit, you can spend as much time as you like exploring the levels. There's enough here to keep adults occupied, too, with optional coins and treasure chests scattered about the levels, and grabbing everything in the level becomes compulsive.

The game's clean art style and upbeat music add a lot of charm to Docomodake's adventure and while it won't win any awards, the game is challenging and fun to play.

With a tutorial for younger players and a good price point of £19.99, Docomodake gets the thumbs up from me and is definitely worth picking up.

Images courtesy of Ignition Entertainment

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Dead Space - PS3/360

Taking elements from games such as Resident Evil, BioShock and Doom 3 and fusing them with sci-fi films Alien and Event Horizon, EA's Redwood Shores studio have come up with this belter of a survival horror game.

Dead Space puts you in the boots of Isaac Clarke, a space engineer who, along with a handful of colleagues, travels to the giant mining ship USG Ishimura to investigate why the hulking Planet Cracker-class ship has fallen strangely silent.

Upon docking with the Ishimura, it becomes apparent something has gone horribly wrong and when aliens attack and split up the team, Isaac finds himself all alone.
Utilising the tools of the engineering and mining trade as makeshift weapons, Isaac sets off to discover just what happened to the Ishimura and its crew and attempt to restore power to the ship.

Being a survival horror title, there are lots of dingy corridors, badly lit medical bays and unnerving flashing lights - and of course, aliens hiding in air vents.

The aliens - Necromorphs - are a gruesome bunch and these multi-limbed monstrosities come in many guises, from giant lumbering freaks to fast-moving mutants. The most efficient way of dealing with them is to fire at their limbs. Fortunately, you are equipped with a Stasis tool, which slows time, giving you time to set your aim for a more accurate shot.

As Isaac creeps around the Ishimura he'll find dozens of recorded messages and text logs from the now absent crew. This helps flesh out the background to the fairly generic storyline - and has the added bonus of 360 Achievement points or PS3 Trophies if you find a certain amount.

Workbenches are scattered around the ship, which can be utilised to upgrade Isaac's weapons and spacesuit. There are also a healthy amount of shop portals to find, where you can buy new weapons, ammo, stasis packs, medi packs and new suits.

The journey through the ship is a tense and atmospheric affair thanks to the fantastic graphics and the incredible audio work. Dead Space's visuals are wonderfully polished, and not once did I encounter any graphical gliches or slowdown during my playthrough. There were times, especially on the last level, when I stopped just to look around at the fantastic use of light and colour.

While the graphics are excellent, the audio work is the best I've heard in a game. The metal frame of the ship creaks and groans, scampering footsteps shatter the ghostly silence above you, dead crew members whisper in the background and metal pipes clatter in the distance. It's quite unsettling, especially if your playing through a decent audio set-up.

There are also some wonderful moments when Isaac enters zero gravity. These sections allow you to jump from floor to ceiling in a single bound and are enjoyable interludes from the claustrophobic corridors. The same can be said when Isaac enters the vacuum of space. The sound is muffled and, to add even more tension, your air supply drops at an alarming rate. Add in a few alien attackers, and things can get frantic.

The inventory screen is incredibly well implemented, and there's no need to pause the game. With the press of a button, your items and weapons appear in front of you in hologram form. It's a great system as it doesn't take you out of the experience.

I completed Dead Space in around 12 hours, and I'll definitely go back for more - if I get the chance. It wasn't the hardest of games to complete, but there were challenging moments. For the best experience, I recommend you play late at night with a decent set of headphones plugged in for an unforgettable experience.

Images courtesy of EA

Monday, 9 February 2009

Knight Lore - ZX Spectrum

Now for something a little bit different. I've just managed to get my hands on a pristine copy of Knight Lore on the ZX Spectrum. Yes, I still have a working Spectrum in case you were wondering.

It was one of the first games I ever played on my humble Spectrum back in the Eighties and Ultimate: Play the Game's title has a very special place in my heart.

In 1984, Knight Lore's graphics were considered state of the art, and even today I think they look great. The technique used was called Filmation, and although isometric adventure 3D Ant Attack had appeared before it, Knight Lore's graphics had a solidity to them that hadn't been seen before.

Knight Lore featured Sabreman, Ultimate's hero from other ZX Spectrum classics such as Sabre Wulf and Underwurlde. Unfortunately, Sabreman had picked up a nasty curse on his adventures, which turned him into a werewolf at night.

The player had to explore the castle of the great wizard Melkhior, collecting objects such as bottles, gems and old boots. In the middle of the castle, Melkhior's cauldron bubbled away, and by dropping the relevant object into the cauldron, Sabreman would be one step nearer a cure for his lycanthropy.

As if gingerly picking your way through the castle wasn't a tough enough challenge, the player was also up against a tight time limit to complete the quest. If all the ingredients hadn't been found by the end of 40 days and nights, it would be curtains for Sabreman.

In his werewolf form, some rooms were deadly for Sabreman, which added a nice, if slightly frustrating, touch. Objects in your inventory could also be used as blocks, enabling you to get over previously impassable obstacles.

The castle was filled with deadly traps, spikes, bouncing bubbles, knights and ghosts, and every room was an individual puzzle.

Knight Lore might look crude by today's high standards, but it was incredibly influential, and games such as Ocean's classics Batman and Head Over Heels, Gargoyle's excellent Sweevo's World and the Solstice series - which appeared on the NES and Super Nintendo - would never have appeared if it wasn't for Ultimate's groundbreaking title.

Of course, Ultimate: Play the Game went on to become Rare, who have released other great games in recent years, such as Banjo Kazooie, Jet Force Gemini and Viva Pinata.

So while people gear up to play Killzone 2 and Street Fighter 4, I'm off to explore Melkhior's devious castle once again in the hope of finally completing a quest I started roughly 25 years ago.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Valkyria Chronicles - PS3

Valkyria Chronicles was released a few months ago, and, although it is one of the finest games on the PS3, many people might have missed it due to the insane amount of games released in the run up to Christmas.

Sega's Valkyria Chronicles is an action strategy RPG, a piece of software that is not only visually stunning, but one that offers hours of fantastic though-provoking turn-based action.

Set in an alternative Europe, called Europa, in the mid-Thirties, war rages between the Atlantic Federation and the Imperial Alliance. The neutral country of Gallia is caught between these two military superpowers and eventually comes under attack from the Empire's Imperial Army.

As part of the Gallian Militia, you are thrown into the struggle to defend your homeland, and try and repel the constant attacks from the Empire's forces.

The game features the CANVAS graphics engine, which introduces a breathtaking art style. The game looks as if it has been created using a blend of illustration and splashes of watercolour and the end result is incredible.

The presentation throughout is equally good, with each chapter in the game laid out in picture book form. Each mission is sandwiched between wonderful cut-scenes and although there are many of these to watch, they are thoroughly entertaining.

When it comes time to experience the turn-based conflict, Valkyria Chronicles shines.

Before heading to the battlefield, you have to choose your squad from a list of dozens of characters and classes. And this is where the game begins to show its incredible depth.

Each character has their own unique traits, which affects their performance on the frontline.

For example, a character who is Country Bred gets an accuracy boost when standing on soil, while a Born Leader gets a defensive boost while standing near allies. On the flip side, some characters have weaknesses. Someone with a Pollen Allergy has their health drained when standing near too much foliage, for example. It's a brilliant addition and allows you to pick and choose different squads depending on what type of terrain the mission takes place on.

There's a decent selection of classes to take control of, from the nimble Scouts, to the heavy duty tank-busting Lancers. Who you choose to send out is completely up to you.

The battle phase is split into command mode and action mode. Command mode gives you a top-down map of the battlefield with icons showing your squad and enemy positions. Once you've chosen a unit to move, the camera zooms in on your team and Action Mode begins.

As you move your unit, an action bar depletes, curtailing your range of movement and as each unit can only fire once per turn, it's vital to plan your tactics.

If a squad member is seriously injured, you have thee turns to get to them and call a medic, otherwise they die. Like Fire Emblem, when a character dies, they are gone forever. This makes the player care about their team and can lead to frantic dashes across no man's land to rescue a downed squad mate.

Once you've used up all your turns, the enemy makes its moves, and so it goes until you complete the objective, or die trying.

As there are so many characters to choose from, Sega have decided to do away with character levelling. Instead, classes can be levelled which takes away the chore of grinding individual characters.

Between battles, there's plenty of things to occupy your time. You can return to base, where you can organise your squad, spend cash on beefing up your weapons and armour and make modifications to your tank. There's even a newspaper to read to find out the latest news from the front line.

There's also the welcome addition of taking part in skirmishes. These battlegrounds take place outside the main story and are the perfect place to hone your skills and tinker with formations.

Unfortunately there is no online option, which is a real pity. The chess-like structure of Valkyria Chronicles would be perfect for competitive online matches and its exclusion is disappointing - as is the lack of trophy support.

As someone who loves strategy RPGs, I was worried that Valkyria Chronicles would be all style and no substance. But after playing through the game, I can confirm that is definitely not the case.

An engaging story, great voice work, jaw-dropping visuals, a beautiful soundtrack and rock solid gameplay adds up to a must-buy for all PS3 owners.

This is a game that people will look back on with fondness in years to come. If you miss out now, you'll regret it, so if you see a copy, grab it.

images courtesy of Sega

Friday, 6 February 2009

Skate 2 - 360/PlayStation 3

Before the original Skate was released, the skateboarding market was dominated by the Tony Hawk series - a franchise that had been looking tired and past its best.
So when Skate arrived in 2007, it was a breath of fresh air. It did away with Hawk’s overblown stunts and instead focused on a realistic take on skateboarding, a move which proved to be a stroke of genius. Now EA are back with the sequel, and it’s a game which builds upon the original’s success and cements its place as the definitive skateboarding simulation.
    The control system remains as intuitive as it was before, with player direction mapped to the left stick, while the right stick is utilised to execute stunts. While this might seem restrictive, flicking the right stick in different directions enables the player to pull of flicks and tricks with ease. The shoulder buttons allow the player to execute mid-air grabs, while the controller’s face buttons allow the player to push off from a standing position.
    When a game relies on movement and balance, it’s vital the physics engine is spot on, and as you would expect, Skate 2’s movement is precise allowing the player to skate and pull off a variety of tricks with ease. Just dropping the player in the middle of a skate park and allowing them to experiment with moves would be fine, but the team at EA have given the player the vast city of New San Vanelona to explore. As you would imagine, the city is crammed full of ramps, jumps, ledges and interesting architecture for you to interact with.
    Virtual skaters can also now hop off their board, making it easier than before to navigate the city's stairs and slopes. Find a favourite place, and you can set a marker point, which you can go back to as often as you like – ideal for nailing down the ultimate stunt. There's even an element of customisation available, with the player able to move objects such as ramps on the fly.

    In the original game frustration often crept in when trying to nail a specific trick in order to progress through the game. However, this time around, EA have given the player a bit more freedom, allowing them to go about the challenges at their own pace.
    As you explore your surroundings, you’ll find lots of interesting challenges to undertake, which will test your skills and dexterity. Completing these earns the player cash, which can be spend on new clothes, accessories and boards.
    The online aspect of Skate 2 also shines and adds another dimension to an already fantastic game. Hooking up with your friends and messing around together in this  well crafted virtual world is a blast.
    Visually, Skate 2 can look impressive. The city is huge and players will have fun exploring the areas looking for the perfect place to hang out. That said, character models look a little rough around the edges - although as the camera angle is set close to the ground, it’s not something that will spoil your enjoyment of the game.
    Overall, Skate 2 is a game that will appeal to a broad range of gamers. Skaters will enjoy it for the technical aspect and attention to detail, while those who can’t tell a Nose Stall from a Pop Shuvit will get enjoyment out of the game’s free-roaming gameplay, graphical effects and intuitive controls.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia - DS

The Castlevania franchise has been one of my favourites since the game’s fourth outing appeared on the Super Nintendo in the early Nineties.
    The series highlight thus far was the PlayStation and Xbox Live Arcade smash Symphony of the Night, and while Order of Ecclesia doesn't match that exceptional title, it's still an excellent game.
    Taking control of female lead Shanoa, who has sworn to find and destroy Dracula, the player undertakes another epic action adventure, this time on the DS. The series' iconic weapon, the whip, is gone, replaced instead with a variety of useful weapons. To get your hands on these, Shanoa has to absorb glyphs which in turn grants the player access to these rather special new weapons.
    Instead of being confined to Dracula’s dark castle, you'll get to experience different locations, such as villages and twilight forests. The free-roaming nature of previous titles is also gone, and instead Konami have split Ecclesia into more traditional levels.
    Castlevania has always featured memorable boss fights, and Ecclesia is no different. However, many players will be put off by these extremely difficult encounters, which can be infuriatingly difficult.
    Visually, the game ticks all the right boxes and boasts lovely sprite animation and detailed backgrounds, and in typical Castlevania style, the soundtrack is rousing.
    Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia might not be the best place to start for newcomers to the series, but grizzled old vampire killers are definitely in for a treat.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift - DS

A few years ago, the tactical RPG was regarded as something of an oddity, with only a few titles making their way across to the UK from Japan. However, these days, there are plenty to choose from.

Advance Wars, Fire Emblem and the Disgaea series stand out from the crowd, but I've always had a soft spot for Final Fantasy's take on the genre.

I played an imported copy of Final Fantasy Tactics on the PS1 in 1997, and spent dozens of hours playing through Final Fantasy Tactics Advance on the GBA a few years ago.

After spending months in my DS, I have just completed Final Fantasy Tactics A2 on DS, and it's another great game from the Square Enix team.

In a similar style to the GBA version, A2 begins with your character being magically transported to the land of Ivalice, this time after reading a strange and dusty book in a school library.

You are immediately thrown into a battle tutorial and subsequently invited into a clan of hardy adventurers, who take on quests and defeat the evil spreading through Ivalice.

A2 retains the series' incredible depth, with hundreds of missions to undertake - including optional quests - while you can level up your characters, choose new job classes, find new weapons, armour and magical spells.

Using weapons and wearing armour allows you to master new skills, which can then unlock further job abilities. It's a complex system, but it lets you mix and match your team to suit your play style.

A2 also has a Bazaar - a place where you can trade in the spoils of war and hopefully gain access to shiny new equipment. However, the system isn't perfect and gaining access to certain items can be a long and drawn-out affair.

The on-screen action follows the same formula used in previous games in the series - namely an isometric view. While this looks better than a straight top-down view, it does throw up some problems.

It is sometimes tricky to select members of your team because they are hidden behind an object or character. It's a minor niggle, but one that could have been ironed out by allowing the player to rotate the camera.

Because of A2's turn-based style, the battles play out like a game of chess, with each side trying to outdo each other and claim victory.

Judges, who slightly soured the experience in the GBA title make a return. They set conditions before battle begins. So in some battles ice magic is banned, or long-range attacks are outlawed. Failure to keep within the bounds of the law punishes the player.

However, unlike the previous game, failure to comply with these rules only denies the player bonuses upon completion of the battle. It's a much better - and more forgiving - way of doing things than before.

A2's presentation is splendid. The landscapes are colourful and detailed, while the soundtrack - in typical Final Fantasy style - is fantastic.

It's a long-lasting title, too. Completing the optional quests is essential if you want to level up your squad and gain interesting items. So if you are looking for something on DS to really get stuck in to, Final Fantasy Tactics A2 is certainly worth checking out.

images courtesy of Square Enix