Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP - iPad

The point and click genre has enjoyed a resurgence over the last few years, with many great adventures popping up on a variety of platforms.

From the hilarious grog-swilling nonsense of the Monkey Island reboot to the mad-cap episodic antics of Sam & Max, it's been great to see the genre make a stylish comeback.

At its core, Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP is one such title. But because it's tailor made for the iPad - with an iPhone version due in April - full use is made of the platform's crystal clear display and touchscreen functionality.

After the briefest of introductions by a mysterious sharp-suited man known as The Archetype, the player finds themselves in full control of the sword-wielding protagonist - The Scythian.

Control is straightforward and plays to the platform's strengths - a swift double tap moves The Scythian to the desired location, while selecting an object or sign brings up an information box.

The quest initially involves seeking out and procuring the Megatome - an ancient text which contains arcane knowledge - and awakening woodland sprites by singing and manipulating the environment.

There's more to it than that, of course, but explaining further would only dilute your enjoyment of this magical title.

The adventure plays out at a sedate pace, with the game gently nudging the player in the right direction by using visual and audio cues - a move which allows the player to take things at their own pace.

Occasionally, the tranquility is shattered by one-on-one battles but these encounters are thankfully kept to a minimum, with Sword & Sworcery EP's focus very much on exploration and interaction.

In fact the game actively encourages the player to have a good old nose around, with points of interest and secret grottos dotted about the heavily wooded world.

But while many gameplay ideas have been regurgitated from a range of previous videogames, it's the fascinating visuals and captivating audio work which sets Sword & Sworcery EP apart.

The graphical style is immediately striking, with artist Craig Adams utilising chunky pixels and a muted colour palette to create a quite mesmerising world to explore.

Complimenting the striking visuals is Jim Guthrie's stunning musical score. The soundtrack is an astonishing achievement, with layered synths, elastic bass lines and gentle guitar strums rising and falling as the action plays out.

On top of this, the environmental audio effects are just as beautiful, with crackling fires, peals of thunder, water splashes, dog barks and chirping crickets all adding to the game's wonderful atmosphere.

Sword & Sworcery's relaxed pace, ambient atmosphere and focus on exploration and experimentation won't be to everyone's tastes. However, it is a quite incredible experience which leaves the player desperate for more once the adventure has been completed.

The art style is sublime, the music and sound effects are magical and at only £2.99 from the App Store, it's the most uplifting and unforgettable experience you'll have all year.

Monday, 28 March 2011

MMOs: What Does The Future Hold?

In August 2002, my friends built me a PC. Why? Well, they wanted me to experience epic MMO EverQuest. I was reluctant at first, although having seen them play SoE’s online epic, I was beginning to come around to their way of thinking.

Eventually I caved, buying all the parts I needed before they beavered away long into the autumn night crafting the PC which would take me on some memorable journeys across Norrath, the moon of Luclin and on to the fabled Planes of Power.

What started as nothing more than a mere curiosity soon took hold and blossomed into a two year obsession.

From a gamer whose only RPG experiences until that point came from console games such as Zelda and Final Fantasy, EverQuest’s open world freedom simply blew me away.

With my friends at my side and a friendly guild at my back, we explored much of what EverQuest and its subsequent expansions had to offer. It might be the norm now to team up via PC, 360 or PS3 and battle strange beasts and hoover up shiny new trinkets, but eight years ago, it was something of a novelty.

My guild, Twilight Brethren, were then thrown to the wind due to the arrival of EverQuest 2 in 2004. Some people stuck with EverQuest, others - including myself - jumped straight into the sequel on its first day of release.

I loved EverQuest 2, and played it religiously. However, when I received a beta invite for World of Warcraft a few weeks before general release, all other gaming endeavors were hastily shoved to one side.

Eventually, I was playing both EverQuest 2 and World of Warcraft - and as any MMO player will tell you, playing more than one just isn’t possible due to the time demands and costs involved.

Warcraft won out in the end and I’ve been playing it on and off since launch as a strictly casual player. Part of my job revolves around playing games for review, which curtails my MMO time. Not that I particularly mind, as the lure of the MMO has been fading for me in recent years.

Now, a session on Warcraft usually feels more akin to a single player experience, with a distinct lack of chatter on the guild channel, while gold sellers constantly spam the airwaves with their offers.

I’m looking forward to Knights Of The Old Republic and have recently started dabbling with Rift, but the genre needs a hefty kick up the backside.

Evolution and MMOs don’t really go together - even Rift appears to be a 'greatest hits' package of what has gone before. While many have tried to tinker with the tried and tested fetch quest formula, the whole thing is getting a bit long in the tooth.

I only hope that future MMOs at least try and push the boundaries, because the whole genre feels stale and unloved. If things continue to trundle along, I'm sure more and more players will jump across to MMOs which feature a free to play model, leaving many so-called big hitters face down in the dirt. That might be a bold statement given the size of World of Warcraft's player base, but nothing lasts forever.

Players in general don’t have a great deal of time to play games given their other commitments, something which has undoubtedly led to the rise in the casual games market.

Let’s hope developers take a fresh stance and re-invigorate the genre and move away from the usual array of MMO trappings...God knows it needs it.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Yakuza 4: A stroll through Kamurocho

I've been playing a lot of Yakuza 4 recently. First, I had to play it for review, which resulted in me barrelling my way through at break-neck speed, only stopping occasionally to take in the sights and sounds.

After I submitted my review, I decided to start from scratch and explore all the game has to offer at my own pace.

It's a beguiling series and one which has failed to garner the attention it so richly deserves from a gaming public seemingly more keen to feast on the latest glitzy big-budget shooter than explore the delights of the neon-tinged streets of Kamurocho.

This week, Yakuza 4 entered the UK games chart at disappointing No.25, but chances are that by this time next week, the latest entry in the Japanese crime-based series will have slipped beneath the waves and out of the public's consciousness.

It's a terrible shame, as those who have embraced the games have been well rewarded with deliciously over-the-top action, laced with healthy measures of gleeful humour.

Yakuza 3 was an excellent game, but Yakuza 4 trumps it at almost every turn. To the untrained eye, everything seems pretty much like it was before: Shops, restaurants and bars are exactly where you remember them, and you still have to take on random groups of sharp-suited yakuza and mouthy goons in puffer jackets.

But the four main characters have their own distinctive brawling styles, while there is now even more ways to waste your hard-earned yen.

Hostess bars, which were removed by Sega for last year's instalment, are back, while going out for a relaxing spa or massage leads to a series of unexpected - and disturbingly voyeuristic - events.

Darts, pool, table tennis, shogi, karaoke, bowling, mahjong, pachinko, poker, blackjack, golf, fishing and baseball are all open to the player, leading those of us who have gaming OCD down dark alleys and to the front doors of inconspicuous-looking buildings.

As if that wasn't enough to keep you going, the obligatory hunt for dozens of shiny locker keys continues - although this time you can track them with a handy mechanical beeper.

But while it's easy to frown when unleashing a not so brutal combo of fresh air swings thanks to Yakuza 4's stuffy camera, the real Yakuza magic comes from the game's location.

Kamurocho is an intoxicating sandbox which is ripe for exploration. And thanks to spruced up visuals from last year's offering, Yakuza 4 carries an atmosphere quite unlike any other game on the market.

Every street bustles with activity as people go about their daily business. Groups chatter excitedly outside bars, salarymen trudge home with mobiles pressed to their ears, brightly lit shop fronts vie for attention and giant billboards advertise a range of products and highlight doe-eyed Japanese idols.

The feel of being in the heart of Tokyo's fictional entertainment district is enhanced immeasurably by the brilliant use of audio. There's a constant buzz of chatter in the background, while J-Pop, tinfoil rock and funky jazz fusion gently waft from shop doorways as the player strolls by.

It really is a wonderful place to spend time in and you can almost smell the pork bone broth ramen as you saunter past Kyushu No.1 Star on the way back from a lengthy night knocking back strong drinks in the Champion District.

Rockstar can keep their Liberty City - give me a night out in Kamurocho any day.

While I took 52 hours to complete Yakuza 3, my completion percentage made depressing reading. Even after spending such a long time in the game's company, I only uncovered 28 per cent of all that game had to offer.

I'm playing Yakuza 4 as I would enjoy watching episodes of a much-loved DVD collection. A little every night is just the ticket after playing the latest games for review.

I won't get a perfect completion rating this time either, but I'll have a damn good time trying.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Mizzurna Falls - PS1

During my 40+ hours in the company of Deadly Premonition's Agent York and the deliciously eccentric residents of Greenvale, I kept thinking of obscure Japanese PS1 title Mizzurna Falls.

I have never played the game, but I do remember seeing the title in my friend's game store back in the day. Unfortunately, I never picked it up - something I now deeply regret.

The full title is Country of the Wood and Repose Mizzurna Falls and its setting and subject matter will be familiar territory for those who loved David Lynch's masterpiece Twin Peaks.

Set in a small rural American town in Colorado, a girl has been found covered in blood - seemingly attacked by a bear. On the same day she is discovered, another girl is reported missing.

Taking control of the missing girl's friend, the player sets out to investigate the disappearance and help solve the case.

After playing through Deadly Premonition, it's clear that creator SWERY was inspired by Mizzurna Falls in a big way - cars can run out of fuel, there is a bar which bears a striking resemblance to the Galaxy of Terror, while the off-kilter music appears to permeate the whole game.

I think it looks fantastic and I'm desperate to play it. Unfortunately I've tried looking everywhere online to buy a second-hand copy without any luck. Anybody out there know where I could pick up a copy, or perhaps you have this 13 year old Japanese game gathering dust in your attic? If so please let me know.

Here's a clip of the game in action. Looks a little rough, but it still looks great.