Thursday, 22 December 2011

Alice: Madness Returns - 360/PS3/PC

There's a lot to like about Alice: Madness Returns. From the beautifully presented waif-like protagonist and her constantly changing sense of style, to the cast of grotesque characters who litter a decaying vision of Lewis Carroll's dreamlike Wonderland.

It's a spellbinding visual treat throughout and whether Alice is stumbling through the grimy streets of Victorian London, exploring the clockwork innards of the Mad Hatter's lair or making her way through the faded grandeur of the Queen of Hearts' castle, the art direction is inspired.

But despite the visual flair, Alice's journey through her rotten mind descends into a standard third-person romp, with a raft of gameplay ideas as old as the hills.

Armed with a twisted assortment of weapons - including a chain gun-style pepper grinder, a teapot cannon and white rabbit time bombs - Alice fights, jumps, runs and twirls through long, drawn-out levels in a bid to save her sanity.

The combat is initially a thrill, with Alice cutting a swathe through Studio Ghibli-like enemies. However, respawning gothic creatures and a dodgy in-game camera soon temper that initial rush and these arena style brawls soon become something to be tolerated rather than enjoyed.

The platform-heavy antics are a throwback in many ways. Leaping from invisible platforms, riding on steam vents, trampolining off neon-tinged mushrooms and sliding down Mario 64-inspired chutes is decent enough fun, but we've been here hundreds of times before.

And while the game does its best to mix up gameplay styles with the inclusion of environmental puzzles, 2D papercraft sections and a side-scrolling shooter level, much of Alice's adventure feels hastily pieced together. It's as if developer Spicy Horse couldn't decide on a plain course of action and instead decided to throw everything at the title to see what would stick.

But despite its flaws, I was captivated by the adventure from start to finish. The art direction certainly helped and wanting to know what lay around the next corner kept me ploughing through the madness.

The storyline also does its best to tug the player through the experience and Alice is constantly reminded of the cause of her fading sanity - the house fire which killed her family. As the story plays out, snippets of her memories spring to life in the shape of collectable audio logs, while other hidden treasures await those who wish to scuffle about the darker recesses of Alice's warped mind.

Once Alice's adventure is over, fans can skip back though her painful memories and replay chapters to sweep up missed collectables - and Spicy Horse have added an extra treat for Alice fans.

The original PC title from 11 years ago, American McGee's Alice, is also included on the disc. While this cult classic hasn't aged particularly well, it's a nice bonus and completes the Alice collection.

Spicy Horse have played it safe on many levels and regurgitated tried and tested gameplay ideas throughout in a desperate attempt to make Alice: Madness Returns a macabre masterpiece. But it falls somewhat short of its lofty ambitions, leaving the player wishing for something more.

It can be fun and at times it is a visually splendid experience, but too many quirks and flaws make this trip to Wonderland entirely optional rather than essential.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Let's Go Island 3D - arcade

2011 was predicted to be the year in which 3D games made their big breakthrough. Nintendo launched the 3DS back in March, while several big-name titles on 360 and PS3 also incorporated 3D modes.

But as the year draws to a close, only a couple of titles have really impressed me - Super Mario Land 3D and Pushblox on 3DS - two games which showed how thoughtful use of the new tech can enhance gameplay.

Another game which has piqued my interest is Sega's Let's Go Island - a shooter which features glasses-free 3D on a far bigger scale than Nintendo's hand-held. This arcade game - complete with 52" screen - looks glorious, with bold colours and sumptuous Sega blue skies really catching the eye.

The over-the-top shooting action is frenetic but Sega have also added a generous helping of humour in the shape of lobster golf, high flying stunts, underwater escapades and a section where you are forced to defend yourself from snapping sea creatures with bottles of soda. Even boring old QTE prompts have been given added spice due to the fact the arcade cabinet is mounted on a motion sensitive base.

This is the kind of game I would love to see on home consoles. Let's face it, it would be a significant step-up from the majority of frankly awful software currently available for Move and Kinect.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Yakuza 4 - Tourist snaps

Back in March I blogged about the joys of wandering around Yakuza 4's Kamurocho, taking in the sights and sounds of this fictional Tokyo district. Sadly, a peaceful stroll is something I can only dream about, with the game's roguish cast of characters constantly assaulted by gangs of knuckle dragging goons in puffer jackets.

But when I'm not smashing bikes over heads or battering thugs with huge ice cream cones, I've been taking snaps of the wonderful environment Sega have created on my iPhone. Take the time to look around Kamurocho and you'll be constantly surprised at what's on show. Here are a few of my favourites taken from my most recent late night adventure:

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love - Wii

This title from the makers of PS3 classic Valkyria Chronicles isn't your typical role-playing game.

Where most Japanese RPGs focus on a po-faced, spiky-haired protagonist suffering from amnesia, this 2010 release takes great delight in dispensing with this tried and tested formula, resulting in a refreshing take on the genre.

Part turn-based strategy game, part social interaction/dating sim, Sakura Wars is full of chirpy anime characters, giant robots, animated cut scenes and a nonsensical plot which twists and turns through an alternative 1920's New York.

Taking control of Shinjiro Taiga, the son of a Japanese general, you are sent to the Big Apple to assist the New York Combat Revue in their battle against an evil force.

The first three hours or so are spent ploughing through a multitude of conversation topics, with only one battle tutorial to break up a slideshow of anime stills and crude 3D free-roaming sections. Persevere, though, and Sakura Wars blossoms into an engaging and highly entertaining game.

The story runs over a series of chapters, which are delivered in a similar style to a TV series. Each chapter throws up the usual assortment of dialogue trees, but Sakura Wars shakes the formula up by giving the player a limited time to make their conversation choice.

This quick-fire approach means you sometimes have to skim over the choices, leading to a variety of outcomes.

Where the system doesn't work so well is when you are tasked with manually twisting the left analogue stick and the D-Pad on the Wiimote within a tight time frame to achieve objectives. The controls here are less than responsive and lead to moments of frustration.

However, despite some control wobbles, underneath the sugary-sweet anime coating lies a robust and enjoyable strategic battle system.

Here, much like Valkyria Chronicles, the player has a limited range of movement before they can choose to attack. It's a deep and absorbing chess-like experience, with each move running the risk of leaving a squad member exposed.

The battles don't occur every five minutes, either. Instead these epic fights end the chapter, meaning if you don't warm to the story or the friendship building, you could find yourself extremely bored.

While each character has their own range of special moves, links can be created between two units, which increases your firepower. These start off relatively weak, but can be beefed up by interacting with your squad mates between skirmishes.

Forging relationships with the rest of your squad echoes Atlus's Persona games, but it never feels quite as complete. It certainly doesn't detract from the experience, but it just fails to match these PS2 classics.

Sakura Wars' visuals are a mixed bag, with the clean-cut character portraits and epic battles taking most of the plaudits. The blurry backgrounds and rough-looking free-roaming sections unfortunately don't fare quite so well, especially as the game doesn't run in progressive scan mode.

The biggest surprise of all, however, is the fact the game has been released in Europe at all. For years, games such as Sakura Wars were destined only for the Japanese market, so it's refreshing to see NIS America take a chance on such a niche title in the West.

You should be able to find Sakura Wars at a low price these days, so if you see it, snap it up.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Legend of Grimrock - update

Back in September, I blogged about Almost Human Ltd's spectacular looking dungeon crawler Legend of Grimrock. The small team have been beavering away over the last few months and have just announced the game has now entered its beta phase.

Everything is now in place and the team will spend the next few months polishing Grimrock and a release is pencilled in for early next year.

They have also released a new video of the beta build and it's looking quite special.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Muramasa: The Demon Blade - a look back

With its bold colours and gorgeous art style, Muramasa was a breath of fresh air when it was released in Europe two years ago today.

A 2D hack and slasher, developer Vanillaware expanded on ideas set out in their previous game, Odin Sphere on PS2 and delivered a wonderful game which remains one of my favourites on Wii.

Taking control of either Momohime - a princess possessed by a malevolent spirit - or Kisuke - a young ninja - the player embarks on a supernatural quest through the heart of feudal Japan.

The gameplay centers on the use of blades - which can be found or forged - and using them to slice your way through groups of enemies and visually splendid bosses.

While the fighting is entertaining, it's not the most refined system in the world. Button mashing can be relied upon during some battles, although diligent use of blocking is vital as the difficulty ramps up.

Muramasa is far from perfect, though and feels a little rushed in places. Bosses can turn into laborious wars of attrition, while the player is forced to backtrack through dozens of empty screens to unlock new areas.

However, despite its shortcomings, the magical art style and sumptuous soundtrack pull you through the 15-hour experience.

While games such as Uncharted 3 and Skyrim have had us gawping at our TVs recently thanks to their incredible level of detail, the hand-painted artwork on display here still manages to delight.

Corn fields gently ripple in the wind, cherry blossom falls from trees, waves crash upon the shore and shadows of clouds drift over sun-drenched fields. It really is a spectacular looking game.

So while Muramasa is rough in places and could have benefited with a little more finesse in the way it plays, it's still well worth a closer look if you haven't played it before.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

A Valley Without Wind - Windows/Mac OS

Over the last few days, I've been getting to grips with A Valley Without Wind by the team at Arcen Games and even though it's still in beta, this side-scrolling adventure is shaping up nicely.

The world is procedurally-generated and allows the player to explore the dangerous land of Environ at their leisure, while resource gathering, crafting, spell-slinging, city building and turn-based strategy elements also feature in this ambitious project.

A tutorial guides you through the basics before the game proper starts, but everything is neatly laid out and is streamlined to avoid a slog through long-winded menus.

Once these basics are out of the way, A Valley Without Wind throws the covers back to reveal a huge game with almost endless possibilities.

New regions open up for you to explore as your colony expands, bosses must be vanquished in order to grab valuable supplies and the rising threat of enemy forces must be quelled as you attempt to keep your civilisation safe - and that's just the tip of the iceberg.

It's a huge undertaking by the small team at Arcen but with a bustling community, regular patches adding new content and the promise of multiplayer and co-op play, A Valley Without Wind is definitely one to watch.

You can download the base game or purchase a license key - with 50 per cent off - from the Arcen Games website.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

SilverQuest - PC

Although Dark Souls and Skyrim have devoured huge chunks of my life over the last few months, I've also given some of my time over to exploring online multiplayer Roguelike SilverQuest on PC.

Created by Wolfgang Wozniak, this open world romp allows players to team-up with friends, undertake epic quests, explore dungeons for shiny loot, creep through haunted valleys and skewer rats with sharp, pointy sticks.

New armour and weapons can be acquired as you progress and there's a decent selection of characters to interact with as you tramp through the land of Melandor. Unfortunately, as entertaining as SilverQuest is, it desperately needs more players.

Much of my time has been spent adventuring alone which doesn't throw up too many problems, but the game has been designed with an online community in mind. It really would be wonderful to see more people populate the server and give SilverQuest a welcome boost.

Two versions of the game are available via Desura - free and premium. The latter costs £4.49 and includes mod tools, a new graphics pack, development art and unused music. But even if you don't want to throw money at SilverQuest, it's still well worth exploring the brilliant free version to experience a cracking slice of old school action.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

8-Bit Halloween - PC

Although dooking for apples, stuffing your cheeks with monkey nuts, carving videogame characters' fizzogs into pumpkins and dressing up in ill-fitting costumes are now a fading memory, there's a spooky little game out which encapsulates Halloween perfectly.

It might not be as terrifying as watching Strictly Come Dancing's cast of hideous characters shuffle about on the night, but a quick dash through Lionsoft's 8-Bit Halloween is a lot more entertaining.

Presented in the style of an old monochrome GameBoy title, this neat little platformer borrows ideas from Mario and Ghosts and Goblins, while throwing a little Green Beret into the mix for good measure.

It's free and you can grab it from Lionsoft's site HERE

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Road Rash - PS1/3DO

Since finding an old shoe box full of PS1 games in the back of a cupboard a few weeks ago, much of my recent gaming time has been spent revisiting forgotten classics.

While games such as Lemmings 3D, Tomb Raider, Jumping Flash, Croc 2, Crash Bandicoot and Kula World have been dusted off, I've spent most of my time with Road Rash.

This mid-Nineties port of the wonderful 3DO version has always been one of my favourite games and it's still entertaining 17 years after it was released.

The madcap dashes through The City, Pacific Coast, Napa Valley, Peninsula and Sierra Nevada might be a bit blockier than you remember but the presentation and racing action still holds up.

Sure, the menus are clunky and unresponsive but what makes Road Rash great is the fact that no two races are ever the same.

Other bikers crash into traffic and pedestrians, a swift truncheon to an opponent's head changes the nature of the race, bumps and corners on the road send the player skidding into the unknown, while the appearance of police at unpredictable times leads to tense moments, as one small mistake will see your hapless biker busted by the boys in blue.

The racing action is wonderfully entertaining, but it's the inclusion of acts such as Monster Magnet, Swervedriver and Paw on the soundtrack which adds a huge amount to the experience. Even now, when I hear Rusty Cage by Soundgarden, I immediately think of the game's opening scene - something I doubt will ever go away.

Road Rash also features a hefty chunk of FMV which, although a little cheesy, still raises a smile, while the art style which punctuates the racing action is quite brilliant with an off-beat sense of humour used in every slide.

Since this release, other Road Rash games have taken to the streets but none have come close to matching the brilliance of this great version, with the sloppy Road Rash: Jail Break being a particular low point in the series.

So while I patiently wait for Skyrim to arrive on Friday, I'll be causing chaos on the roads with my fellow bikers on my battered old PlayStation.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Minecraft - Lord of the Rings

I've been playing Minecraft for quite a while now - messing about with fire, carts, boats, ore, glass and getting killed by a variety of creatures of the night.

While I could tweak the settings to make everything lovely and tranquil, I'm always up for a challenge and I like the feeling of blind panic when darkness falls and I'm miles from home.

But while my creative spark is limited to smaller structures, I take inspiration from others and I always love seeing what players are up to. Well this is without doubt the most ambitious project I've come across and I'm eager to get involved.

A group of dedicated Minecrafters are recreating Middle Earth - quite a task, I'm sure you'll agree. I've been trying to join their ranks for a while now but their website won't let me in.

Still, at least they have this jaw-dropping video which is quite incredible. So grab a brew, get a plate of biscuits and watch Middle Earth unfold in all its blocky glory. Oh, and if you think The Shire is impressive, just wait until you see Rivendell and the Mines of Moria!

PS: If anyone can help me get involved, please let me know.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

The Gunstringer - 360 Kinect

While it's true The Gunstringer would have been perfectly playable with a standard controller, it definitely wouldn't be as much fun as it is with Kinect.

This on-rails shooter lets you pull the strings of an undead puppet as he sets out on a quest for revenge in the dusty Wild West.

The left hand is used to guide The Gunstringer, while the right hand is used to glide a cursor over enemies before unleashing bullets by flicking your wrist - and it works well for the most part.

While problems do crop up - getting our blue-boned hero back behind cover can be fiddly and boss battles are repetitive - the presentation and humour pull The Gunstringer through.

The decision to present the action as a theatre production - with a real audience and bric-a-brac set - is inspired and adds a unique flavour to the shooting action.

It might be too simplistic for some, but with plenty of unlockables and gold medals to snaffle, The Gunstringer is light-hearted fun with wide appeal.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Toren: A beautiful puzzle adventure

Although the team at Swordtales are currently keeping many of Toren's gameplay details under wraps, it has already won a place in my heart thanks to its vivid colours, dreamy setting and gorgeous art style.

Toren is a puzzle adventure and is built around a poem about the meaning of life and deals with the concepts of time and mortality.

Judging by the snippets of text scattered on the game's website - and the beautiful screen grabs - Toren features a princess who is attempting to escape the confines of a magical tower by scrambling her way to the top.

The team say they have been infliuenced by games such as Zelda and indie darling Braid, while the work of Hayao Miyazaki - co-founder of animation company Studio Ghibli - has also left its mark on the Brazilian developers.

If you would like to know more about the game and keep up with its progress, bookmark the official blog and follow the game on Twitter.

Here's a video of Toren in all its over-saturated glory, complete with depth of field filters and subtle use of tilt shift. Beautiful.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

One you might have missed: Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon - Wii

Rising Star Games released this atmospheric action adventure in March 2010 and while it has its flaws, it's a charming adventure that is definitely worth a closer look.
Created by the team at Tri-Crescendo - the developer behind 360 and PS3 RPG Eternal Sonata - the story features Seto, a young boy who lives with his grandfather in a world that has been ravaged by disaster. When Seto's grandfather dies, the lonely lad packs up his belongings and sets out to try and find other survivors of the cataclysm.
The first couple of hours are a joy thanks to the game's wonderful atmosphere and beautiful visuals. Control, too, is excellent with Seto moved by the nunchuck, while the Wiimote doubles as his torch. Illuminating dark and dusty corners of this nocturnal world reveals objects which Seto can interact with. However, after those initial opening hours, cracks begin to show in Fragile's glossy casing.
Combat is basic and clumsy, with stabs of the A button swinging Seto's weapon of choice. It's hard to judge distances between you and an enemy, while the camera angle often gets in the way.
The inventory system is equally antiquated, with Seto initially having only a minuscule item carrying capacity. Objects can be switched in and out at the game's save points but going back and forth between them is a chore due to respawning enemies.
Seto can wield a variety of weapons, but as each can break, he is often left facing a room full of enemies with nothing to defend himself with. Fortunately, the wonderfully eccentric Collector makes regular appearances at the game's save points selling weapons, health buffs and other useful trinkets.
Seto's world may be crumbling, but it's still a beautiful place to explore. An abandoned shopping mall, a dilapidated train station, a rusting theme park, a run-down hotel - each location is a visual treat.
Of course, the player can run through these areas to get to the next point in the story, but it pays to wander off the beaten track in search of treasures.
Unlike most games, the loot that can be found isn't shiny coins. Instead, objects such as torn photographs and mementos are waiting to be found.
Each item is linked with its owner's memories and every object has its own background story. These narrated snippets can be quite moving and give the player an insight into the victims of Seto's ravaged world. They add a tremendous amount to the feel of the game and are well worth hunting down.
The audio, too, is well matched to the action, with lovely melodies and eerie effects adding another layer to the game. Voice work is pretty good, and the option to switch between English and Japanese is a welcome addition.
It may not be perfect, but Fragile Dreams is still a beautiful and haunting experience. Its slow pace and clunky combat may put some off, but thanks to its inspired art design and original touches, it's an adventure you should definitely consider taking.

Monday, 19 September 2011

El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron - 360/PS3

A game based on ancient religious texts, it’s safe to say that El Shaddai doesn't exactly follow a traditional videogame script. However, the quest to round-up seven fallen angels and return them to Heaven at the behest of God makes for a thoroughly engaging yarn.

You play Enoch, a heavenly scribe clad in designer jeans and brilliant white armour, who ploughs through beautifully surreal locations to fulfil his quest.

At the heart of El Shaddai is a robust and enjoyable combat system, with Enoch mixing up styles and weapons to take down the game's colourful cast of foes. But rather than switch between them at will, he has to steal them from enemies to gain the upper hand - a system which encourages creative play.

Slashing sword attacks, ranged fire and a heavy-hitting punch and shield combo are the choices available and with bosses requiring the player to be adept at all three, it pays to experiment with what's available.

On easier difficulty settings it's possible to button mash your way through encounters, but crank it up a notch and blocks, dodges and timely attacks are the only way to make progress.

Visually, El Shaddai is quite incredible, with some stunning locations to romp around in. Grainy monochrome worlds, fizzing neon environments, sprawling futuristic cityscapes and organic watery levels are just some of the spectacular sights. But the visual treats don't stop there, with the game constantly flipping between 3D and 2D. El Shaddai isn't afraid to chuck convention out of the window, either and adds a smattering of jaw-dropping moments which surprise and delight.

Enhancing the atmosphere is the eclectic and quite brilliant soundtrack, which successfully infuses ambient soundscapes and harmonic tribal melodies to create a spellbinding score.

It's not a perfect game, though, with several problems cropping up regularly. Enoch's platforming antics are sloppy at times, with the swirling backdrops making it difficult to judge distances, while constant and repetitive battles in the game's final third sour some of the enjoyment.

Some will find it hard to live with these problems, but as an experience, there's nothing quite like El Shaddai.

One of the most refreshing and beautiful adventures I've undertaken in some time.

PS3 version tested

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Mari0 - PC

I love Portal. I also love Mario. So what better way to celebrate two of gaming's finest experiences than by combining them and producing a cracking 2D platform game? Well, that's exactly what the team at Stabyourself are doing with Mari0 and it looks great.

Check out this video to see the game in all its space-shifting glory

Friday, 16 September 2011

Rock of Ages - 360/PC

Last night, I finally got round to putting some time into Rock of Ages on 360 - a title I've been looking forward to since last summer.

I'm glad to say this latest game by ACE Team - the minds behind mental brawler Zeno Clash - plays just as good as it looks, with players hurtling their moon-like boulder down obstacle-strewn slopes in a bid to smash their opponent's stronghold.

But that's only half the story, as Rock Of Ages takes the player on a twisted and extremely funny trip through history, complete with angry bovines, pissed-off elephants and projectiles galore.

The game is split into two parts: the attacking stage - where the player guides their boulder down a twisting slope, smashing defences on the way to break open their opponent's gate - and a defensive stage - where the player erects defences in a bid to halt their foe's march to glory.

Every time your boulder collides with an object, money is dropped into your coffers, which in turn can be used to either construct a weird and wonderful array of traps and obstacles, or poured into your boulder to give it extra ramming powers.

It's a frantic game of cat and mouse as both sides desperately try and place defences before trundling their boulder to its destructive conclusion and it's heart-breaking when your rock tumbles off the edge of the course, giving your opponent a slight time advantage.

The art style and sound effects have a distinct whiff of Monty Python about them, with paper cut-out armies scattered around the sloping worlds, while historic figures leap excitedly around in full cardboard cut-out glory.

The humour runs through to the game's playful cut scenes, with plenty of pop culture references thrown in for good measure which adds to the off-the-wall flavour.

Rock of Ages is a delicious mix of tower defence and Marble Madness and a game which plays beautifully. And with multiplayer options to explore and a decent single player campaign to roll through, this is yet another unmissable game to add to your download queue.

Rock of Ages is currently available from the Xbox 360's marketplace for 800 points, while PC users can grab it from Steam for £6.99. A PS3 version is on its way, but no release date has been set.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

To The Moon - PC

It's not often I pre-order a game. However, after clapping eyes on Freebird Games' forthcoming title, To The Moon, I parted with my cash immediately.

The story is woven around two doctors, who travel through the mind of a dying man in the hope of fulfilling his final wish - to go to the moon.

Presented in a glorious 16-bit style, the game initially looks similar to an old Super Nintendo-era RPG. However, with no battles or level grinding, the game will play out in an altogether different fashion to those great mid-Nineties adventures.

It's a refreshing twist for an RPG, but if you've experienced any of Freebird's previous games, you'll know they are no stranger to doing things differently.

The company's three previous titles have provided short but compelling tales, with brilliant storytelling fused with magical sounds to create unforgettable experiences.

The games: The Mirror Lied, Quintessence - The Blighted Venom and Do You Remember My Lullaby are free to download from their website and they are all definitely worth a closer look and give you a taster of what you can expect from To The Moon.

If you like what you see, then throw a couple of quid in Freebird's direction in advance of their new title's release. To the Moon costs £6.63 to pre-order via the Desura website and will become available to play on October 15.

Oh, and this trailer is quite brilliant, too.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Dead Island - 360/PS3/PC

With a four-player co-op option and masses of drooling zombies to slaughter, Dead Island initially appears to be nothing more than a Left 4 Dead rip-off. But while it's clear Valve's survival horror has been a huge influence, Dead Island also tips its hat to modern Western RPGs such as Oblivion and Borderlands.

The flimsy storyline revolves around four individuals who find themselves stranded on the holiday resort island of Banoi in the middle of a hideous zombie outbreak. You choose one of these characters and using blunt weapons, blades and firearms, you fight your way through this tropical nightmare in the hope of finding some way to escape the holiday hell.

RPG elements run through the game, with the player levelling up and delving into tech trees to gain an advantage over the slack-jawed hordes.

These abominations come in various guises, including shuffling Walkers, fast-paced Infected, hulking, straitjacket-wearing Rams and horribly mutated Suiciders, who induce moments of blind panic whenever they appear.

Luckily, the player has access to a wide range of weapons to deal with these horrors, which either lie scattered about the island, or can be created at workbenches - similar to those in Capcom's Dead Rising series. Creating or repairing them is an expensive business, though, so concentrating on a few at a time is definitely the way to go. There's also a Borderlands-style thrill when stumbling across a powerful colour-coded item or when attaching an electrical modification to a weapon.

While guns are available, it's the melee weapons which pack the most punch - allowing the player to lop heads, arms and legs off at will or bash skulls into the ground. It's not the most refined system in the world, but it is deeply satisfying to kick a zombie into a wall and then pummel them with your choice of weapon.

Quests are dished out regularly by the island's survivors - who seem to be incapable of doing anything for themselves - but unfortunately they are repetitive fetch quests which usually involve finding lost items or powering up creaking power generators.

It's also incredibly annoying that respawning zombies level up with the player, which means even a trip back over old ground is never an easy task. This element also works against solo play - especially after the opening act - as it's easy to become overwhelmed by foes, resulting in constant and frustrating deaths.

That's not Dead Island's only fault - clumsy character models, broken quests, graphical glitches and poor texture pop-in show the game could have done with a bit more polish. There are also some bewildering missions, such as finding water for one survivor who is dying of thirst, when soft drinks lie only an arm's reach away.

But for all its faults and rough edges, Dead Island is still a hugely enjoyable experience, especially when played with a few friends. It might not win any awards for originality, but those willing to put up with its flaws are in for a bloody good time.

360 version tested

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

DenGo Yamanote Line - iOS

Regular readers of this blog will be aware of my love for the Densha de Go! series. I can't get enough of speeding through Tokyo and surrounding areas, trying to reach the next station on time with a carriage full of happy passengers.

Well there's a new addition to the series - this time on iPhone and iPad - called DenGo! Yamanote Line. Yes, once again Taito have based their neat little game on Japan's most famous rail line - but unfortunately, this is a half-baked version which fails to match the fun of previous titles.

Initially, DenGo! Yamanote Line looks to have everything in place - both inner and outer loops of the Yamanote line are here - complete with 29 stations - and all the familiar sounds from the series are present, including the announcements which are read out in Japanese and English.

The touch screen controls work extremely well, with vertical swipes used to control the train and the framerate is smooth, with no sign of the graphical pop-up which has blighted the series in the past.

The Arcade mode breaks the line into small chunks, challenging the player to reach a series of stations on time, while the Free Run feature lets players pick and choose their starting points. Even the menu's pop-rock track fits the bill perfectly but unfortunately, it doesn't take long for things to derail.

Part of the joy of previous games in the series was travelling at different times of the day and night in varying weather conditions. Sadly, you only ever seem to travel in the morning under blue skies - a real shame as the subtle lighting effects gave the game some much-needed cosmetic flair, while rainy conditions affected stopping distances and speeds.

Another problem is the lack of action on the tracks. All the games so far have featured other trains going about their business, something which helped liven things up a bit. But here, the tracks are always empty - especially strange as you are driving on Japan's busiest line.

The workmen from Densha de Go! Final are also sadly absent. A quick blast of the horn when approaching these white-suited gents rewarded the player with bonus points, but as they are now nowhere to be found, the inclusion of a horn seems largely redundant.

External views have also been scrapped, leaving the player with the default bumper camera. Again, this is another cosmetic change, but it's unfortunate that Taito saw fit to scrap this extra feature.

Densha De Go! Final - and the PSP series of games - featured the chain point scoring system, which rewarded the player for hitting target speeds along the route. Sadly, since then, this system has been scrapped and Railfan (PS3), Densha de Go! Showa Yamanote Line (DS) and now this version all suffer because of its absence.

DenGo! Yamanote Line costs 800yen (£6.45) and it's possible to buy extra trains via in-app purchases. There are also 30 Game Center achievements to grab but the whole experience simply feels rushed.

Trundling between stations is fun in short bursts but those looking for portable Densha de Go! fun would be much better off hunting down any of the PSP games or taking the plunge with last year's fab DS title.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Bodycount - PS3/360

With Bodycount, Codemasters have stripped back the first-person shooter, dispensed with needless frills and delivered an explosive - but flawed - shooter.

You won't find hidden collectables, audio logs or intel documents lying about the game's levels, nor will you find the usual smattering of driving sections found in other titles. Instead, the development team have focused on gunplay, environmental damage and huge explosions, with the player tasked with taking out covert organisation Target who are stirring up trouble throughout Africa and Asia.

But while the guns on offer feel great, with the majority of the 10 varieties packing a punch, the rest of Bodycount is a mixed bag, with the game consistently struggling to deliver fresh ideas.

The open-plan exterior levels set in shanty towns, dockyards and rain-soaked city streets are a great setting for the game's explosive battles. Concrete pillars are chipped away under sustained fire, while windows are smashed and wooden walls turn to kindling as spectacular explosions rip through buildings.

But in direct contrast, the Tron-like clinical interiors of Target's bases are disappointingly similar. Essentially a series of corridors, stairwells and large rooms teeming with enemies, they lack the creative spark of the outdoor locations.

These levels also provide some of Bodycount's most frustrating moments, as mass battles kick-off, with sharp-angled - and scarily accurate - foes swarming the player, making success something of a lottery.

Luckily, downed enemies drop orbs which are used to fuel upgrade powers and careful use of these is essential if you want to survive these frantic episodes.

Although the action can be spectacular, a half-baked attempt at a combo system falls flat on its face. It's an insipid system which was presumably tacked on to try and add an extra dimension to the firefights by encouraging skillful play. However, it fails to engage or reward the player and comes up short when compared to the blistering point scoring fun of Bulletstorm.

Unfortunately, Bodycount’s issues don't stop there - the game is full of generic FPS staples, such as flicking switches, defending key points, backtracking, negotiating levels stuffed full of explosive barrels and enemy AI which is erratic at best.

Bodycount isn't a long game, either, with the closing credits rolling after 5-6 hours, but online play, a co-op option and replayable levels at least flesh out the experience.

Bodycount might be generic but there is still fun to be had shooting your way through the game’s saturated environments. It's just a shame it never reaches its true potential, leaving the player wondering what could have been.

PS3 version tested

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Legend of Grimrock - Windows, Mac, iOS

I love a good old-fashioned first-person dungeon crawl. I spent my formative years ploughing through games such as Eye of the Beholder 2, Stonekeep and Ishar, while the King's Field series - despite its stodgy controls - is one of my all-time favourites.

With a pad of graph paper by my side, I would tramp around gloomy interiors looking for lost treasure while fighting denizens of the dark. I quaffed strange-coloured potions, was rude to innkeepers, kept merchants happy by buying rusty loot and generally had a good old lark about.

So when I saw what Almost Human Ltd were up to, my jaw hit the floor and I've not stopped drooling at the prospect of losing dozens of hours to a modern take on my favourite genre since I clapped eyes on Legend of Grimrock.

Almost Human are a Finnish indie studio comprised of four veteran developers, who have previously worked on titles such as Alan Wake and Shattered Horizon. Their goal with Legend of Grimrock is to get back to basics and deliver an experience that "brings back the charm of simple dungeon crawl games".

I'll raise a foaming mug of ale to that!

The team are hoping to release Legend of Grimrock before the turn of the year but they are making no promises. However, even at this stage in development, the game is looking polished and quite fabulous.

If you want to try out some older dungeon crawlers, I recommend at visit to the Good Old Games website, which is choc full of cracking titles. I've just bought Might & Magic 7: For Blood and Honor which I'll write about in due course. However, if you're after some free fun, then Undercroft on iPhone is brilliant.

For more info on Legend of Grimrock, check out the official blog.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Vanessa Saint-Pierre Delacroix and Her Nightmare - PC

Vanessa Saint-Pierre Delacroix & Her Nightmare isn't a chapter in Professor Layton's forthcoming game, The Last Specter - it is in fact a fiendishly addictive puzzler from the team at Bad Pilcrow.

The flimsy tale involves little Vanessa - who is mercilessly bullied by her schoolmates - finding a strangely carved box in her father's antique shop. When the box is accidentally cracked open, it promptly sucks up Vanessa, the bullies and her whole town, leaving the little girl with the task of rescuing everyone trapped inside the creepy box.

It's not deep, meaningful or really that important - as the story is simply a framework on which to hang the game's ingenious take on puzzle solving.

The aim is to get Vanessa to the exit on every level but because the game takes place on the sides of a cube, interesting gravity-shifting conundrums come thick and fast.

While Vanessa can move left, right and jump, the player can give her a helping hand by rotating the cube in 90 degree increments. This causes Vanessa to fall through gaps and reach different sides of the box.

Because Vanessa sticks to the original surface for a second before falling, the player is given a brief sliver of time to make adjustments.

Added complexity comes when required to flip the screen to place red blocks in set areas. It's fine at first when shifting a single block on one side of the cube, but later puzzles require the player to move multiple blocks between sides, which requires a fair amount of mental gymnastics and a wee bit of patience.

Add to that the threat of marauding spiders and deadly spikes and even the process of moving one block to the other side of the room - while keeping Vanessa safe - is enough to melt your brain.

With dozens of levels to work through, plenty of incentive to revisit areas to improve times and turns taken and full Xbox 360 controller support, Vanessa Saint-Pierre Delacroix & Her Nightmare is a neat little package.

It costs £5.39 and it should last you a few hours. There's also a generous demo available if you want to try before you buy. To grab a copy of Vanessa's adventure and see videos of the game in action, head over to the Bad Pilcrow website.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

One you might have missed - ilomilo - 360

With so many games released every week, some smaller titles unfortunately slip beneath the waves. One game which deserves a bit more recognition is Southend Interactive's ilomilo - a lovely puzzle platformer on Xbox Live Arcade.

Ilo and milo are friends, who enjoy munching on maple leaf-flavoured biscuits and sipping apple tea. Unfortunately, the two pals get separated and it's up to the player to reunite the pair by traversing the levels, manipulating the environment and solving mind-bending puzzles.

The player can flick between both ilo and milo at any point and teamwork lies at the heart of the game. Things start off at a fairly sedate pace, with the player simply asked to place blocks to reunite the chums.

However, as the game skips along, new gameplay twists are introduced to the player by pirate hat-wearing dandy, Sebastian. These include extendable blocks, spring-loaded cubes, switches, moving platforms and trapdoors, while the game regularly likes to throw a curve ball at the player by messing around with gravity.

It might look like a cute children's game, but ilomilo turns into a wicked and quite brilliant head-scratcher. However, unlike many other puzzle games, ilomilo rarely gets frustrating, thanks in large to the simple control set-up and the adorable presentation.

Ilomilo's bric-a-brac world is reminiscent of LittleBigPlanet's home-made environments, with levels constructed with felt, wooden and carpeted blocks, while the colours are vivid and awash with splurges of marmalade orange and midnight blue.

The soundtrack is just as special, infusing trumpets, flutes, xylophone, harmonica and accordion to give ilomilo the feel of a 70's children TV programme.

The puzzle solving is brilliantly paced, but there is also a generous amount of collectables scattered throughout the levels to snaffle up.

Three ragdoll characters called safkas can be found on every level, photographs unlock artwork, old vinyl records reveal musical tracks - with glorious titles such as Cozy Sofa and Tingly Seaweed - and clusters of little flowers pepper the walkways just waiting to be gathered.

Add to that dozens of delightful and challenging levels for a mere 800 Microsoft points, and ilomilo represents tremendous value for money. So if you haven't experienced this wonderful game yet, I would urge you to at least play the demo to get a flavour of ilomilo's patchwork charms.

Monday, 29 August 2011

The Last Rocket - iPad/iPhone

I stumbled across Shaun Inman's The Last Rocket when I was having a good old rummage through the App Store looking for some tasty morsels.

One glance at the glorious old school visuals and I handed my £1.99 over without a second thought. I've been playing it since last weekend and I can safely say it's a little slice of brilliance.

With the intergalactic war now over, mass production of rockets is due to cease, leaving Flip - the last rocket - on board a starship. Fortunately for the squidgy yellow warhead, he's not redundant quite yet, as a solar flare hits his ship, sending it spinning towards the heart of a nearby star.

By collecting gears for the ship's main computer, our little rocket chum hopes to avert potential disaster - but it's not going to be easy.

The ship is a maze of spikes, fans, flames, moving platforms, switches and conveyor belts. Luckily, the controls are simple and Flip is a dab hand at gravity-defying antics.

A tap on the screen launches him and he’ll stick to any surface he comes into contact with, while a second tap reverses his direction mid-flight. He can also ride air currents, hover, inch along surfaces and crouch to avoid incoming dangers.

Snaffling the spinning gears might be Flip’s main mission, but he doesn't have to collect them all to leave the level - just as well, too, as many of them are perched in precarious positions which could turn Flip into scrap with one false move. In fact, sometimes it is challenge enough simply making it to the exit in one piece.

There are 64 levels to figure out, each one taking up a single screen. And although frustration can creep in occasionally, The Last Rocket has enough charm to pull the player through.

Beautifully presented and a thrill to play, it's a wonderful arcade puzzler. It features lovely retro visuals, an excellent chiptune soundtrack and an adorable new star in the shape of Flip.

So go on, take The Last Rocket on a journey to the stars - it's an adventure that is simply out of this world.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Little King's Story marches on to PS Vita

Perhaps the best news of the week comes from the pages of Japanese magazine Famitsu, which has revealed that brilliant Wii title Little King's Story is to be resurrected on Sony's PS Vita.

The original is one of my favourite games on Wii and tells the story of Corobo, a young lad who inherits the crown to the ramshackle land of Alpoko.

The player guides the pint-sized monarch around beautiful pastoral landscapes, giving villagers jobs, battling creatures and rebuilding his dilapidated kingdom.

It's an epic game which was sadly overlooked when it was released back in 2009. But in a brilliant turn of fortunes, Corobo and the gang will be tramping around Sony's new hand-held thanks to Marvelous Entertainment and Konami.

Titled The King, the Demon King and the Seven Princesses, the new game features spruced-up visuals and touch-screen functionality - more details are expected to emerge at next month's Tokyo Games Show.

A word of caution, though. Original developer CiNG have gone bankrupt since the original's release and the core group of talent who worked on the game are now scattered across Japan representing different companies.

Let's hope Marvelous do the game justice and release a game which will be as good, if not better, than the wonderful original.