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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Chrono Trigger DS (9.5/10)

I purchased a Nintendo 3DS not too long ago. It's the first handheld gaming device I've owned since the original GameBoy... yeah, it's been a while. But the reason I shelled out the money wasn't solely for the shiny new glasses-less 3D, but rather for the huge number of excellent games I've missed out on over the years. I never played The Legend of Zelda or Kingdom Hearts games on the DS, not to mention series like Professor Layton or any of the Pokemon games. But I'm a big fan of old style J-RPG's, and there are a bunch of great titles on the DS that are worth playing... or playing again. Porting early Final Fantasy games to the DS is all well and good, but the one that I was most excited for was Chrono Trigger. Talk about a blast from the past! Chrono Trigger was one of my favorite games growing up. The fact that it's available on the DS is the icing on the cake. It gives older gamers a chance to replay a truly great game while exposing a whole new generation to Crono and his adventures across time.  

For my money, Chrono Trigger has one of the best stories ever. Upon replaying it after so many years it's funny how it still stands tall. Our young hero Crono visits a fair during which one of his friends (the brainy one named Lucca) has a teleportation device that buggers up, sending Crono on a trip through time and space to recover a lost princess (isn't that always the way?). Portals serve as gates, some of which open in the same place, but in an altogether different time. You'll visit the past and learn what set things in motion as well as visiting the distant future, all the while helping out those in need.

However, (minor spoiler alert) the future ain't so bright. At some point the evil Lavos (a world ending cataclysm in the form of a giant porcupine... or something like that) destroys the world. As Crono travels, he gain allies from different periods to aid in his quest. These include the aforementioned lost princess Marle, a cave woman named Anya, a robot known as Robo, and a frog... called Frog. Our young adventurers agree to take it upon themselves to save the world by traveling through time to undo the past. But what makes the tale so memorable is how it ties together across time. The idea of causality playing out over multiple variances in time is nothing new, but rarely done on the scale of Chrono Trigger. The scope and scale of the narrative is surprisingly detailed. It's worth exploring each land in time, especially after you reach the half way point in the game. Paradoxes run rampant, and it literally becomes a race against time to save the world from the terrible calamity. 

This was also one of the first games to introduce the idea of side quests... without actually calling them side quests. Of course, just talking to people in the past can have dramatic consequences in the future (something we know as fact from... well, every sci-fi time travel movie ever). It's the idea that you don't have to do these things in any particular order, or do them at all for that matter, that broke the mold. Sure, if you want to get all the best stuff you need to do everything, complete every side mission and every optional boss, but it's really up to you. In other words, what you get out of Chrono Trigger depends on what you put in. 

Chrono Trigger was also one of the first games to have an active battle system. It's still technically turn-based, but each character has a corresponding action meter which, when full, allows you to attack, access your inventory, or cast magic. It's a clever system, if straightforward. However, having said that, you need to be paying attention and know where all your choices are in the menu. If you dawdle, you'll give the enemy time to refill their meter. It takes some time and practice to get used to, but I have to say that after all these years it still stands up pretty well.

But what really makes the battle system in Chrono Trigger so cool is that as your characters level up together you unlock several techniques. Each character has their own special "tech" attacks. These are basically super moves... but here's the kicker: you can use multiple characters in tandem! Combining Crono's Cyclone with Lucca's Flamethrower leads to a devastating attack with a flaming sword that can pulverize multiple targets. On the other hand, combining Cyclone with Marle's Aura healing power means Crono spins in a circle, radiating health for everyone in the team. That's just a couple of examples; there are loads. The more you keep characters together and use them in the party, the more affinity they develop, and as a result, the more dual and even triple (using all three party members) techniques they will learn. Eventually, you'll be able to switch out members as your party grows so you can experiment with all the different combinations and powers.

One of the bigger revolutions of Chrono Trigger was that the enemies actually appeared on the screen as you were on a map... in other words, enemy encounters are not wholly random. This was new at the time. Basically, it means you can avoid fights if you so desire, although to be frank that is easier said than done as a lot of enemies tend to want to pick fights at bottleneck areas on the map. Still, it was a huge change, and one that would affect the landscape of a great many games that followed.

Speaking of enemies, I love level grinding... and you need to be prepared to grind a lot in Chrono Trigger. Each new time period you travel to will require a certain amount of grinding to get up to speed as it were, but this becomes especially important towards the end of the game. Before taking on the final boss, you'll need to be suitably capable. This feeds into the side quests as well, as you'll want the best gear.

Boss fights are a big part of every J-RPG, and Chrono Trigger boasts some of the best. They are well designed, requiring strategy and brains to survive. Sometimes the answers are simple, but for the most part the important battles in Chrono Trigger are mini-puzzles in and of themselves. They require thought, timing, preparation, and strategy to survive.

Chrono Trigger was also one of the first games to have multiple endings. It's easy to see why; after all, this is a time travel game. The choices you make, or don't make, actually affect the outcome. There are something like thirteen different endings you can see. Some differ only slightly from others, but it's clever nonetheless. I admit I've only seen two of the endings, but then I've never gone through and played New Game + mode, another innovation that can be traced back to Chrono Trigger. By giving you access to all the "end game" equipment at the beginning, you can drastically alter how some key events play out... ones that you were probably woefully unprepared for the first time out.

I feel the need to mention the menu system, pretty much because of the way it has been changed to function on the DS. Menus can be accessed at any time from the touch screen on the bottom. This applies to combat as well. You can either use the stylus or the buttons to navigate your options in menu. It works fairly well, although I often felt like I was missing out on the action because I was consistently focused on the bottom screen. Having said that, I love the fact that you can equip items while in the shop screen instead of needlessly mucking about in menus. This is something that sadly isn't as commonplace as it should be in these sorts of games. I find it amusing that after the better part of thirty years one of the most frequent complaints (even in modern, western-style RPG's) is still poorly designed menu interfaces.

There isn't really much to comment on regarding the graphics and sound seeing as this is essentially an 8-bit game. Classic look, classic feel, classic music... it's all good! Having said that, this is one of those rare games that actually deserves a reboot in my opinion, and not just on the DS. If given the proper attention, remaking such a classic with modern technology could be spectacular.

I know I've come across as a gushing fan boy here, but that's not to say that Chrono Trigger isn't without a few flaws. Like most RPG's from this era, it does get overly repetitive. There is a lot of backtracking, not just through time, but also through areas you've previously searched. To actually find everything takes a major time commitment, not to mention a lot of patience simply because there isn't a lot of direction beyond the main story cues. There are some pretty hefty difficulty spikes, especially towards the end of your first playthrough, which can make things more frustrating than fun.

Chrono Trigger is, and probably always will be, one of my favorite games. Final Fantasy may be a more well known quantity, but few games have affected the landscape of an entire genre the way Chrono Trigger did. A lot of RPG mechanics, staples of the genre is you will, either come directly from this game or were honed by it. Having the chance to play it again has been special!


Score = 9.5 / 10

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Resistance 3 (7.6/10)


The Resistance series was Sony's answer to Microsoft's hugely popular Gears of War franchise. The original Resistance: Fall of Man was a launch title for the Playstation 3, and while it was an impressive effort (especially considering the time it came out), it paled like a Chimera in his skivvies when compared to the other marquee titles it was up against. Two sequels later and the score hasn't changed, but that's not to say that Resistance 3 isn't worth your time... provided you've already played all those aforementioned (better) titles that are out there. 

This time around the story focuses on Joseph Capelli... famous now for busting a cap in the face of the interesting protagonist. While the alternate history narrative of this series is mildly clever, I did find Nathan Hale's story at least sympathetic. Joe's story, on the other hand, is wholly predictable. Something about protecting his family and dying son... I can't really remember... what does that tell you? The basic thrust of the narrative is that he needs to get across the entire country that is crawling with alien troops, make it all the way to New York, and destroy a tower that is somehow pivotal to the Chimeran invasion... all on his lonesome.

It's almost silly really... I would have loved a little cutscene whenever you die that shows your wife and son crying as the Chimeran forces eradicate humanity and your corpse bloats in some roadside ditch... you know, just to drive home the point that you are the only possible person who can take on an entire alien invasion force. It's bland, isn't remotely engaging, and worst of all, it's boring.

In fact, the story is without a doubt Resistance 3's biggest fault. It's a fairly functional first person shooter with some fun guns to play with. But what surprised me most about Resistance 3 is the great pacing. This isn't normally something I pay much attention to (unless, of course, it's poor pacing, then I'll bitch about it), but with Resistance 3, each battle was intense and harrowing. Picking and choosing the right weapon for the right situation becomes increasingly important. Ammo is nearly always at a premium, and as a result, ammo conservation is something to consider. Sticking with just one weapon isn't a viable strategy as you will undoubtedly run out of bullets. While the battles are predictably scripted I found they were well balanced, striking that happy chord between being too challenging and just challenging enough.

However, there are some pretty major changes to the series apart from adding a protagonist with all the personality of Swiss cheese that was left out on the counter. Firstly, there is no regenerating health system this time around, so you need to keep your eyes peeled for health packs. They are common enough that it's not usually too much of a worry. However, considering that nearly every shooter has gone the unfortunate route of allowing us to magically recover from multiple gunshot wounds by awkwardly crouching behind the nearest row of petunias, Resistance 3's health system feels almost nostalgic... and for me that's a good thing. Of course, that's not to say I didn't find myself wishing for some extra health or more cover from time to time.

The other big change from Resistance 2 is the return of the weapon wheel... that's right folks, it's back! Without a doubt the main draw of this series are the cool weapons you get to choose from. Both the alien and human arsenal (introduced in the first game) are fun and easy to use, not to mention having practical applications on the battlefield. As you found a new weapon it was added to the now infamous "weapon wheel," and you could pick and choose your weapon based on ammo availability and context. In a rather bizarre choice (possibly brought on by the idea of a single soldier carrying enough weapons to occupy Paris without suffering from the worst shin splints imaginable), this was removed from the sequel. Enough people bitched about this that it was brought back (sound the trumpets!) for the third installment, and I, for one, am grateful.

I encountered some odd glitches with Resistance 3. There was one level where the water effects got messed up. It kept rising and falling in an underground corridor. It was very weird, like watching the tide come in while pushing fast-forward. There were also some progression issues. At one point I actually had to re-load a previous save because the door I was supposed to go through wouldn't open. From what I've read, other people have had to deal with similar problems. It's disappointing; it sure seems like a lot of these technical flaws should have been ironed out during the test phase.

There are some other minor, nit-picky complaints. The boss fights aren't nearly as good as they were in Resistance 2. There is a weird dichotomy with some of the level design. Some of it is good, but at other times, it's terrible. The checkpoints attempt to straddle that border between saving too often (and making the game too easy) and too far apart (making repeating long stretches increasingly frustrating).

I played a bit of the multiplayer for Resistance 3, and it's pretty straightforward as these things go. Of course, after the debacle that was Resistance 2's multiplayer, going back to the industry standard formula seemed like the safe bet. For those who didn't play it there were three different classes you could use, but you really needed all three to be able to do much... so if you only have one friend (like me) that you were kind of out of luck. However, while they fixed that glaring (and stupid) mistake from the last game, the simple fact of the matter is that Resistance 3's multiplayer is cloned directly from the more popular shooter franchises. When I tried to play the online, others had apparently realized this as well... no one was playing Resistance 3! After a couple of matches I came to the same conclusion that apparently everyone else already had... so I went and played Halo and Battlefield 3 online instead. That speaks volumes right there.

The truth is I actually enjoyed Resistance 3 more than I thought I would. The previous titles in the series were decent, but to be honest there were far better games out there. Sadly, Resistance 3 chose to release at the same time as the plethora of other top notch games and sequels that came out last fall. As a result, it kind of got lost in the shuffle. When held up against the likes of Call of Duty, Battlefield, and it's main rival, Gears of War, well... Resistance 3 is the worst of the bunch. But when taken on its own merits, this latest (and last?) installment is worth checking out, especially if you played (and at all enjoyed) the rest of the series.


Score = 7.6 / 10

Sunday, January 15, 2012

God of War: Collection (9.7/10)

Due to the current renaissance of gaming classics being re-released on modern consoles, we have been given a wonderful opportunity to relive some of gaming's greatest moments. For me personally, no series epitomizes this more so than the God of War games, now available again for the first time on PS3 in the God of War: Collection. You get the first two games in one handy HD package. For those of you who haven't played these extraordinary games this is your chance to go back and see how it all began for Kratos. For those of you who have... well, here's your opportunity to replay two of the all time greats!

The tale of Kratos and his quest for vengeance against the gods who wronged him is truly legendary, but it's also a fairly well woven story. Fans of Greek mythology will love the constant references, especially some of the clever re-imaginings of ancient beasts and deities. A misguided warrior, a man of legend, sells his soul to the god of war to grant him favor in battle... but as is always the case, he gets more than he bargains for. From his initial trek to take down the original god of war Ares and obtain the Blades of Chaos, to his introduction to the titans and their immortal struggle against the gods on Olympus, Kratos maintains an aura of a complete sociopath. His rage is unquenchable and no one, be they man or god, will stand in his path. I'm not gonna bother breaking down each game individually as far as the stories go (again, if you haven't played these by now....), but these are rare titles where the story serves to move the game along rather than simply providing a vehicle for the ultra-violence that the series is famous for.

And that, in a nutshell, is why we are all here. Kratos is the definition of bad ass. The game plays from a third person action perspective. Using a mix of light and heavy attacks with a small group of well crafted and useful weapons, Kratos slices and dices his way through Greek gods and mythical beasts like a fat couple at Old Country Buffet. Combine his physical prowess with upgradable magic, and he becomes truly formidable.

Of course, you'll need all that when you are up against the gods of Olympus, the armies of Hades, and the massive titans themselves. You collect red orbs from fallen foes and chests to upgrade your arsenal. There are also well hidden gorgon eyes and phoenix feathers that upgrade Kratos' health and magic respectively. Finding all the hidden goodies are fun, but what keeps the game moving is its wonderful pacing. Small arena battles are mixed in with mini-boss fights, sections of platforming and exploration, and of course, puzzles. Without preamble, I can say that one of my favorite moments in my gaming career comes from the first God of War and the Cronos Temple. Layers upon layers of clever and challenging puzzles unlock the deepest recesses of the massive structure. But it's the sense of scale you get from climbing all over a temple on the back of a titan that was so eye opening for me... I'd never seen anything like it.

Now, if you've read my review of God of War III, you know that quick-time events are an integral part of the gameplay. It can be argued that QTE's really came into prominence because of this series. It's true that some people really hate these button press sequences, but frankly the haven't bothered me... too much. They can be frustrating at times when you don't get it right on the first try, but when you do get the sequence right the graphical interludes are totally worth it! Watching Kratos impale the Hydra never gets old, and that's nothing compared to some of the puzzles!

To be honest, I think that the only thing holding this collection back is the fact that it's impossible not to compare them to God of War 3. It's difficult to look back over what was admittedly one of the best games to come from the last generation of consoles when it's bigger, shinier brother is stealing all the limelight. Just because it doesn't look as nice as it's modern counterpart shouldn't be of concern. However, the original God of War is one of those games that was just plain ground breaking. At the time, it's graphics were virtually unparalleled (especially the cutscenes). Sure, the dialogue is stilted at its best, but the sound track and effects are top notch.

I know I'm not really saying anything here that hasn't already been said, so I thought I'd try to break down my score mathematically. God of War III was the only game that I had given a perfect "10/10" to... however, I changed that after too many people bitched about how perfect scores were supposedly unattainable. As a result, I altered my scoring system to tenths (hence the fact that GoW3 gets a 9.9/10). As for the originals, while both games are brilliant, I think the edge definitely goes to the original God of War, simply because it was the first. I'd give God of War a 9.8/10. So many of the mechanics from that game have found their way into a plethora of other games in multiple genres, becoming commonplace. God of War II, while awesome in its own special ways, doesn't have the innovation of the first nor the detail and graphical quality of the third. As a result, I'd score it the worst of the three, although still awarding it an impressive 9.6/10. Average those two scores and you get 9.7/10. But all in all, this series shouldn't be missed if you are a fan of action games. In my opinion, there are very few titles that can compare, and there are few moments in gaming that can compare to Kratos taking up the mantle of the God of War.


Score = 9.7 / 10

Monday, January 9, 2012

Aliens: Infestation (7.7/10)

Whenever a console reaches the end of its life there are usually a couple of games that come out right at the eleventh hour, a last "hurrah" if you will. However, Nintendo seems content leaving their immensely popular DS/DSi to fade into memory with barely a whimper, instead focusing all their energy on the 3DS (which, to be fair, had a less than stellar launch). But there was one game that just came out for the older models that I had my eye on: Aliens: Infestation. I've written before about being wary of licensed products, and especially after the disaster that was Aliens vs. Predator, I was worrying about encountering a similar debacle. In the end I decided to give it a shot, and while there are some noticeable flaws, I found it quite fun.

The premise is pretty straightforward... after the events of the film Aliens another attachment of space marines are sent in to check out the Sulaco (the massive ship from the movie) and try to figure out what the bloody hell happened. The game plays in the old school 2D fashion reminiscent of the older Metroid titles. You'll find yourself crawling around various locales from the films while monsters jump out of the shadows and try to eat you. Naturally, you're given a wide range of weaponry to dispose of the xenomorphic threat. And like Metroid, you'll immediately notice there are a lot of areas you can't access immediately. Seek out access cards to move elevators, keys to loaders to move debris, and even a wrench to turn off steam vents that block your progress. Your search will take you to all levels of the Sulaco, as well as down onto the infamous planet LV-426 and other areas as well.

The development teams at Gearbox and WayForward have set up an intriguing squad system that serves as the basis for the game. You start with four marines at your disposal. However, you'll only use one at a time, and each plays the exact same way. Everyone has access to whatever you've unlocked so far; there is no class based system here. So why bother, one wonders? Well, if a Marine dies in combat... they die. As in dead dead. The game ends when you run out of marines. As you explore various areas from the movies, you'll find other soldiers (usually well hidden in out of the way areas) you can recruit to replace your fallen comrades. If you have a full complement at the time, the newly discovered soldiers will wait patiently in the spot you found them in case you need them later.

However, the xenomorphs of this particular franchise have an annoying habit of keeping their victims alive for future impregnation. On occasion, if a marine falls you'll be told they are still alive and it's a race to get to them before the unthinkable happens. To be honest, each time I tried to mount a valiant rescue it ended in tears... I never got there in time, only finding a mangled corpse for my efforts. Apparently, if your timing is just off, you can actually put them out of their misery... or watch an alien birth before your eyes.

This is an interesting system that works surprisingly well on multiple levels. Firstly, each squad member has their own preset responses to dialogue prompts, which lends them a small amount of personality. On its own, this isn't a big deal, but I found myself becoming strangely superstitious about my squad, or rather the survivors. While I never felt a connection to individual marines (something other reviewers have espoused), I certainly had my "favorites." Because boss battles are so difficult, being down to your last marine is a common occurrence. There were a couple of times I remember thinking "Boy, it's a good thing I've got three in the squad at the moment or that queen would never die!" But what I find intriguing is that you really start to pay attention to save-rooms and the like... is it wise to not save if you're down to your last marine?

Exploration is key, but also what makes the game so fun. I like the map, which appears on the bottom of your screen. For each new locale you explore, your first task is to download schematics early. Shaded areas show where you haven't been. You'll find yourself making mental notes, dropping flares to remind yourself which areas you need to return to, the location of Marines to supplement your squad, or which areas are still blocked. There are also a lot of hidden areas, access tunnels and the like, that you can explore. These don't appear on the map, and can lead to alternative routes and hidden goodies, as well as lots of bloody aliens.

I like the fact that the developers clearly tried to pay homage to the movies. Even with these graphics it's still possible to see recognizable locations (including a surprising but very welcome moment with the infamous "Elephant Man" from the derelict ship on LV-426). Other than that, the graphics are perfectly functional and that's that. However, seemingly all of the effects are ripped straight from the movies and sound great. The screams of dying aliens mixed with the distinct chatter of a marine issue pulse rifle while a motion tracker is "beep beep beep"ing in the background is classic.

However, as clever as some of the design is, there are some curious choices that detract from the experience. I mentioned earlier how you can drop flares. However, I really don't like how when you transfer between the Sulaco and LV-426 those flares disappear. As a result, you're forced to re-find everything (and everyone) all over again. This is annoying when you're down to your last marine and you can't remember where the hell the others were!

For the most part the controls work well. Aiming at angles can be a little difficult, but I think that's more a limitation of the 3DS controls set up than anything. It is easy to get turned around though, especially with aliens and face huggers jumping all over the place. Just keep in mind that you can't take a lot of damage before winding up KIA. Exercise caution!

Another minor issue is that enemies respawn immediately upon leaving an area. This can be a pain when you have a marine who is on his/her last legs. You have to be very careful and remember from where the baddies pop out. Paying attention to the motion tracker is important! Also, multiple save slots would have been nice. I get what they are trying to do by allowing characters to die, but getting down to your last marine is more than a little harrowing.

But my biggest complaint about Aliens: Infestation is the story... or lack thereof. It's relatively straightforward as these stories go (see every movie since the first). The problem lies in the fact that everything is text-based. A lot of the marines are overly stereotypical characters, and as you roll them into your squad, you'll learn just a glimpse at what their personalities are. But for me this never evolved into any sort of compassionate relationship, a connection with the soldier in question. I know this is par for the course for DS games (and admittedly I haven't played a ton of DS titles to this point) but the dialogue is worse than awful, and every single plot point is predictable to the point that you can set your watch to it. It's not bad as such, just... boring.

It's nice to see developers putting in the time and effort (especially for a system that has reached the end of its lifespan) to not only pay adequate homage to a beloved series, but create an intriguing gameplay mechanic that drastically increases the replay value of the game. I want to find all the marines, and see how each responds to the increasingly desperate circumstances! Sure, I may not feel the emotional investment others have felt, and the story disappoints beyond serving as a vehicle to shoot space bugs, but despite some flaws I find myself recommending this game. It's something different (with just enough old school panache) for a wider audience to enjoy beyond fan-boys of the franchise.


Score = 7.7 / 10

P.S. Oh, and I have to channel Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons briefly... this game has the WORST ENDING THEME MUSIC Eh-VER! Honestly, it's insulting.