Oct 172012

Silent Hill: Book of Memories Review (based on the first couple hours)
Available now for the Playstation Vita. $40.

Picked up Silent Hill: Book of Memories off the PSN last night and completed 3 zones, the 1st boss, and started the 4th zone (the demo only had the first 2 zones & the 1st boss). I don’t think there are any full reviews for the game yet (I don’t think anyone got an advance copy so everyone’s scrabbling to play through it now) so here’s my early review of the first couple hours of the game. I’ll post again later if my opinion changes after playing through the whole thing.

First things first, Silent Hill: Book of Memories is VERY different than other games in the series. Instead of being a survival-horror game, Silent Hill: Book of Memories is a top-down Action/RPG. My initial expectation was that it was going to be like the Diablo series but with a Silent Hill coat, but in actuality, it feels much more like an old-school rogue-like RPG. You explore dark trap-filled rooms with your flashlight, you can only hold a limited number of items at a time (backpack space can be upgraded), and you’re constantly low on resources.

The weapon system is particularly interesting. There are a few dozen weapons that you can find, purchase, or win from quests. Each weapon type handles differently and they may have various elemental modifiers as well. What makes things interesting IMO is that since melee weapons tend to have low durability, firearms are limited by ammo, and your backpack is small, you’re constantly scavenging for new weapons, repair kits, and ammo. It gives it a very survival horror feel rather than the typical “I’m awesome” feel you get out of your standard Diablo-style game. Also, weapons slowly gain XP & LVs through repeated use and this XP carries over for all weapons of that type so there’s also an incentive to try to figure out how to use your favorite weapons as much as possible to make them more powerful.

Besides your weapons, you can gain character XP which gives you stat points which you can freely distribute between 6 different stats to customize your strengths. There are also artifacts that you can find and equip that will give various stat boosts. Depending on which class you pick at the beginning of the game, you can get small bonuses when equipping certain types of artifacts but for the most part, it feels like most of your customization depends on your in-game choices rather than your class choice. There are a handful of special moves you can buy from the store like switching enemy alignments (enemies come in blood & light forms as well as the stronger steel form) and power attacks which can be used with the game’s equivalent of MP (one special move = 1 MP). There are also 6 super karma attacks (3 for light, 3 for blood) that you can use if you fill up your karma meter in one direction or the other (which you do primarily by killing enemies of the opposite alignment); so far I have the rank 1 light karma move which drains health from an enemy and gives it to you.

The levels are randomly generated and though they’re not as well done as the randomly generated levels in Torchlight 2, they’re pretty good. The game gives you a special goal in each zone you enter (like find a certain item or kill special mini-boss enemies) and some rooms have challenge crystals which typically give you a wave of enemies to defeat although sometimes they have other goals (like don’t take very much damage) which helps to keep things interesting. I’ve also run into a few special rooms like one that gives you a temporary buff and another room that gives you a little story/puzzle that you can get 1 of 3 results depending on your actions (Good, Evil, Neutral). You periodically find notes & audio logs (ala every old-school horror game ever) that fill you in on the story and at the end of each zone, you’re given a puzzle (so far, they’ve just been lame “Put these things in the right order” puzzles) which you gain bonus money if you manage to complete it with no help (if you get stuck, you can ask for hints which lowers the reward). In short, there’s more to the gameplay than just fighting.

So far, enemies haven’t been very dangerous (typically taking 1-5% of your life bar with each hit) but I imagine this will change as I get further into the game. If you’ve played the demo, know that the full game has a much bigger bestiary than the demo did. Also the 3rd zone was a lot bigger (at least in my game) than any of the zones in the demo. The environment in zone 4 switched so you won’t just be playing through typical Silent Hill rust & blood industrial settings. Between the various weapons, artifacts, monsters, zones, and randomized elements, there’s a lot of content here. And from what I’ve heard, although the game does have several possible endings, you can keep playing it indefinitely to try to get all of the endings and see how high of a zone you can reach.

The controls deserve special mention for their excellence. I love how it mixes traditional controls with touch controls. Movement, exploration, and combat are handled with traditional controls but the UI doubles as touch controls for things like reloading firearms, swapping stuff in and out of your backpack, and using health packs. It works really well and I hope to see similar setups in other Action/RPGs on the Vita.

The graphics in Silent Hill: Book of Memories aren’t amazing but the game does look a lot better in motion than it does in screenshots (due to the lighting). I’d say it looks like a really good PSP game rather than a full-fledged Vita game. Music & audio have been excellent so far and very Silent Hill-esque. Load times are long and annoying but at least they’re infrequent – it takes about 30-40 seconds to load a zone but once you’re in a zone, there are no load times and it’s been taking me about half an hour to fully explore each zone. Haven’t tried the multiplayer (and to be honest, I have no desire to do so since I rarely play multiplayer games).

All in all, I’m really enjoying the game so far and can’t wait to play more. Silent Hill: Book of Memories provides a very entertaining & unique survival-horror take on the traditional Action/RPG genre and comes highly recommended.

EDIT: Zone 4 is definitely harder than the previous zones. It starts throwing out modified versions of monsters (like ones that explode soon after they die) as well as a few new types that are more difficult to deal with. Actually died once.

 Posted by at 11:14 am
Mar 222012

Sine Mora Review
Xbox Live Arcade (1200 MS points = $15)

Sine Mora is now my favorite horizontal shmup (Treasure’s excellent Gradius V held that spot previously).

How is Sine Mora so good? Let’s see…

Gameplay that takes the best elements from bullet hell shmups and more traditional shmups.

A unique health system where you can be hit multiple times but each time you’re hit, you lose time and if you run out of time (and don’t have a backup time extension power-up), you’re dead.

Wonderful 3D graphics (but played in 2D) filled with creative landscapes and impressive enemies.

Music and sound overseen by legendary Silent Hill composer, Akira Yamaoka.

3 playable ships (main gun), several playable pilots (secondary attack), and 3 time control abilities (slow down, reverse, and reflect).

A fast-forward button to skip through unplayable story parts on repeat playings.

It’s really long for the genre. There are 6 main stages (plus a final boss stage & tutorial stage) but each stage is made up of 2 different levels, each of which is about as long as a typical shmup level and ends with an impressive multi-step boss.

More variety (both gameplay and setting) than you find in most shmups. Tons of memorable moments.

A creative achievement system where most of the Xbox achievement are ranks and each rank requires several smaller achievements to gain.

Plenty of leaderboards to compete on.

An actually well-written story (although confusing at first) with many interesting characters.

Four difficulty levels (Casual, Challenging, Hard, Insane) and difficulty modifiers based on how well you’re playing make the game accommodating to both the experience and unexperienced shmup fan.

Sine Mora feels like Digital Reality and Grasshopper Manufacture never got the memo that shmups are a niche genre these days so instead they decided to go all out with an AAA production. I would wholeheartedly recommend Sine Mora as a $60 retail game. That it is available for $15 as an XBLA title makes it one of the best gaming deals of the year.

Download the demo or purchase the game here.

 Posted by at 8:17 am
Jan 252012

“And so we have prototypes of the character walking and running, and we try the prototype, and if you feel good just walking in the game, and running in the game, then you know that’s a go sign for you to move forward.” – Toshihiro Kondo, President of Falcom, in an interview with Gamasutra

Dustforce is a game where it feels good just walking and running. Then you throw in air jumps, sliding down slopes for bursts of speed, samurai-style ultimate attacks, and running upside down on ceilings and it feels amazing.

Dustforce is a platformer with dozens of beautiful levels. There’s no story that I can see other than “The world’s a mess and as a super-powered janitor, it’s your job to clean it up!” The music is incredible (reminiscent of the water stages in the original Donkey Kong Country games) and just the thing to calm the player after they’ve messed up on a hard spot yet again. The character animations of the four playable characters (each of which has slightly different attributes) is fluid and enjoyable.

Dustforce is a score attack game. Merely reaching the ending of a level doesn’t accomplish much. To gain the keys necessary to unlock additional laters in the game requires a SS rank in each level. This is gained by cleaning everything that needs to be cleaned and maintaining the combo counter (it resets to zero if you take too long between cleaning or attacking something). Beyond gaining SS ranks, the game also features online leaderboards for each level where your completion time is taken into account as well.

Dustforce isn’t a hugely varied game. There are no boss fights and level gimmicks are rare. It’s a focused game and too much variety would ruin that focus.

Dustforce is the time trials of Mirror’s Edge turned into a 2D game.

Dustforce is a solid contender for Best Platformer of 2012 and it’s only January.

Dustforce is glorious.

Dustforce is available on Steam for a mere $10.

 Posted by at 4:19 pm

Cubixx HD Review

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Nov 082011

Cubixx HD Review

As the name implies, Cubixx is basically the classic arcade game, Qix, but in 3D (aka a cube). For those unfamiliar with Qix, it’s a simple game where you try to capture areas of the board by creating shapes. Once a shape is drawn, you’re safe, but if an enemy touches a shape while you’re creating it, you die.

I didn’t expect a whole lot from Cubixx but I was surprised at just how much the basic Qix-style gameplay has benefited by the addition of a 3D board with multiple sides. In Qix, the basic strategy was to make a tower of little shapes until you were close enough to finish off a much larger shape. Effective? Yes. Boring? Also yes.

In Cubixx, this strategy has been completely nullified by the scoring system. By starting a line on one side of the cube and continuing it onto multiple sides, you gain a multiplier that drastically increases your score. This small addition completely changes the dynamic of the game – rather than being a slow game of attrition, Cubixx is a fast paced score attack game.

Throw in a a bunch of enemy types (the meteor showers being my favorite), lots of power-ups, several different gameplay modes, various challenges, and leaderboards galore and you have a very intelligent and fun reworking of one of gaming’s less popular old classics. Highly recommended.

Cubixx HD is available for the PS3 via the PSN for $10.

 Posted by at 4:50 pm

Serious Sam: The Random Encounter Review

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Nov 042011

Serious Sam: The Random Encounter

Sometimes there is truth in advertising. Serious Sam: The Random Encounter (SS:TRE) is a Serious Sam game – backpedaling while shooting at ridiculously large groups of enemies is the norm. And there are a whole lot of random encounters – you spend most of your time in them.

Although Serious Sam: The Random Encounter is an RPG parody, it’s not an RPG. There are no stats. No XP. No LV-Ups. No detailed equipment system. Next to no story. Very little dialogue.

What Serious Sam: The Random Encounter does have is a very original, very fun battle system. Your team of 1-3 heroes backpedals on the right side of the screen while hordes of enemies approach from the left. Every 5 seconds, the action pauses allowing the player to enter in commands for each hero – aiming weapons, switching weapons, or using an expendable item. After all commands have been entered, combat resumes and the player can move up and down to dodge attacks and better aim their attacks. Repeat until one side is defeated.

The battle system is one part shmup, one part strategy game and is a complete blast. Each weapon has its own strengths and weakness and often its own aiming system so learning how best to use each weapon and when to use them is key to the game’s strategy.

On the downside, Serious Sam: The Random Encounter is incredibly short. The entire campaign took me a little less than 90 minutes to complete and that’s with having to restart a couple levels a few times because I ran out of lives. After completing the campaign, there’s a score-focused endless mode to play where you can see how many battles you can win before running out of lives, but even with that bonus, most players are unlikely to play the game for much more than a couple hours.

Still, I’d rather have a short and fun game than a long and tedious one. Here’s hoping that someone takes the wonderful framework than Vlambeer has created here and expands it out to a bigger, more complex game. In the meantime, enjoy your backpedaling carnage.

Serious Sam: The Random Encounter can be bought on Steam for $5.

 Posted by at 4:01 pm
Oct 122011

I received a copy of Jamestown to review several months ago and I’ve been at a lost as to how to review it ever since. Jamestown is a vertical shmup with 5 main levels, 4 ship types, several difficulty levels, leaderboards, a challenge mode with stuff like “Dodge a million bullets for X seconds,” local co-op, and various unlockables. There aren’t really any gimmicks or unusual game mechanics to talk about. The strangest thing about the game is its setting which is a mismash of American Colonial and OUTER SPAAAACE! There are no major flaws to complain about. There really isn’t a whole lot to say about the game except this…

It’s awesome.

The levels are expertly crafted, the graphics feature intricately detailed 2D art that reminds me of SNK at their height, the music is fantastic, and it’s just a whole lot of fun.

If Jamestown had been released in the 90’s as an arcade game, it would have been considered one of the classics of the era. It’s one of the best vertical shmups I’ve had the pleasure of playing.

Jamestown is available on Steam for $10.

 Posted by at 4:29 pm

OMG-Z Review

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Sep 262011

OMG-Z Review

OMG-Z is a zombie puzzle game. The player is given a level full of the walking dead and tasked with clearing the level using only a handful of bullets. Luckily, zombie friendly fire is the order of the day and killing one zombie will often result in the deaths of many more. When killed, regular zombies create small explosions, fat zombies create large explosions, cops shoot a penetrating bullet in one direction, soldiers fire a spray of ricocheting bullets in several directions, and corrosive zombies leave behind puddles of acid that harm anyone that walks into it. Some levels also feature explosive barrels that set nearby zombies on fire, slowly draining their stamina away. The goal is to create the most magnificent chain reaction of zombie death possible using a limited number of bullets.

The game features 81 levels and although some of the levels are repeats just with different zombie layouts, there’s still plenty of content for a PSP mini. Between levels, the player can exchange points for upgrades like additional bullets and more destructive zombies. Trying to unlock each level, get higher scores, gain every upgrade, and see the best ending makes for one addictive game.

OMG-Z is not without its problems. The game uses a minimal color palette to give the visuals great style, but unfortunately this also makes it very difficult to distinguish the zombie types on the PSP’s small screen. Luckily, there’s a button that gives a different color to each zombie type making them easier to distinguish, but I wish they had just designed the graphics for better usability in the first place.

However, the biggest issue that I can see some people having problems with is how the zombies move in a mostly random fashion after the first few seconds of each level. This means that there aren’t really any true “answers” to the game’s puzzles. You fire at the zombie that you think will start the biggest chain reaction, all the while hoping that the other zombies won’t decide that now is the moment to walk out of harm’s way. Players who aren’t too worried about skill and just want to how many zombies they can make explode shouldn’t be too bothered by this, but the random factor is likely to cause frustration to perfectionists. On the other hand, the levels are short and restarting is a quick and painless process so they shouldn’t be that frustrated.

Lack of depth aside, there’s a lot to be said for the spectacle of shooting one zombie, having it explode and cause the death of 3 nearby zombies, which in turn start shooting bullets all over the place which cause the deaths of several more zombies, and before you know it, you’ve wiped out every zombie on screen with a single attack. I’m a fan of fun chain reaction games (like Every Extend and Hexothermic) and OMG-Z is a fun chain reaction game.

OMG-Z is available as a PSP Mini for the PSP and PS3 for $3.49 (£2.49 in EU).

 Posted by at 4:11 pm
Aug 232011

Avadon: The Black Fortress Review

Although I’ve only played Avadon: The Black Fortress for about 15 hours which by estimate puts me at about the halfway point (maybe even less), I’m going to review it anyway.  This is not because I’m tired of the game (I look forward to finishing it) but because I’d like to post my review for the game while it’s still relatively new on Steam in the hopes of drumming up a few extra sales for a game that deserves them. If my opinion of the game changes after I’ve finished it, I’ll be sure to post an update.

Avadon takes an hour to get going but once it does, it’s an engaging game. The setting is generic D&D fantasy (albeit with you working for the morally ambiguous fantasy equivalent of the UN) but the world is well crafted, the characters have personality, the individual scenarios are interesting, and the writing is solid. I especially enjoyed how the game gives out different dialogue depending on who is in your party. It strikes a happy medium between linear (the main plot) and non-linear (plenty of optional quests and dungeons to explore). The LV-Up system isn’t too complex (each level you get 1 stat point and 2 skill points and occasionally you get a specialization point) but it’s fun and lets the player customize their character’s stats & abilities nicely. Combat is turn-based on a grid and has depth without sacrificing pacing. Oh and there’s ton of loot along with tons of equipment slots to equip said loot on.

I did have a few issues with the game here and there though. I would have preferred more party slots (you can only have 3 characters in your party at a time), more class options (only 4 classes which basically correspond to Warrior, Ninja, Mage, and Druid), and some sort of innate difference between the main character and the characters you can recruit (whatever class you pick for your main character is exactly the same as the character of that class you can recruit as far as I can tell). Difficulty can feel a bit unbalanced at times – playing on Normal mode, I found the boss fights to be well designed and offer a good challenge but I was able to breeze through most non-boss fights just by spamming basic attacks. The interface can be a little clunky at times – for example, “I” opens up the inventory page but pressing “I” again won’t close it. And though I eventually got used to it, the presentation was more old-school than I would have liked (90s graphics and no music, just ambient noises).

Still, these are relatively minor complaints. If you’re tired of all the FPS/RPG hybrids that we’ve been getting lately and want a good old-fashioned RPG with a well-crafted story, a host of quests, plenty of stats, and fun turn-based grid combat, Avadon is a great choice. Even though I’m not finished with my first playthrough, I’m already anticipating replaying the game on a higher difficulty level to try out different story choices and new combat strategies.

Avadon: The Black Fortress can be purchased on Steam for $10.

 Posted by at 4:20 pm

Kyuiin Review

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Aug 122011

Kyuiin Review

If you’re like me, you’ve long awaited the day when you could live out your dream of flying around on a magical vacuum cleaner. Well, your wait is at an end thanks to MonkeyPaw’s import PS1 release of Kyuiin for the PSN (playable on the PS3 and PSP).

At its heart, Kyuiin is a pretty standard horizontally scrolling shmup with cutesy graphics and typical power-ups but your unique magical vacuum powers help to set the game apart. Your most basic power is a vacuum hose which waves around in front of you like a hungry snake and will suck up certain enemies and bullets. Sucking up things charges up your blast bar which when activated makes you invincible for a few seconds and will destroy most enemies with ease but prevents you from gaining points while it’s in use. Finally, you have a back attack involving the vacuum’s power cord which has really short range but deals a ton of damage and gives a score bonus on enemies that it destroys.

You might think that your magical vacuum’s power to suck up bullets and enemies would make the game really easy but you would be wrong. Despite the game’s cutesy appearance, Kyuiin is tough, even on Easy mode (there’s also a Hard mode). Not impossibly tough, mind you – this isn’t Ikaruga by any stretch – but even experienced shmup fans will need a fair bit of practice before they’re able to maximize their scores since the best methods for increasing your score (vacuum hose and extension cord) both have a rather limited range.

The graphics in Kyuiin are a mixed bag. The 2D art is good but the 3D rendered art (ala the early Donkey Kong Country games) isn’t the best. This is really brought home with the game’s opening. Kyuiin begins with a charming old-school anime sequence reminiscent of Doraemon. This is then followed by some horrendous 3D animation which serves as a reminder of just how far 3D animation has come in the past 15 years. Although I got some chuckles out of just how bad the 3D animation was, I wish they had stuck completely with 2D art for both gameplay and the movies.

The music is quality stuff, but what I really enjoyed about Kyuiin were the boss fights. They’re frequent, well designed, and generally made me laugh. Most of the bosses are based on classic fairy tales which works a lot better than you might think it would – The Musicians of Bremen and Snow White & the Seven Dwarves are surprisingly worthy adversaries. And when I finally managed to beat the final boss after having learned his many attack patterns, I felt very pleased with myself.

Kyuiin isn’t the best horizontal shmup I’ve ever played (that honor goes to Gradius V), but it’s definitely a fun one and the vacuum powers and unusual cutesy fantasy setting help to set it apart from other games in the genre. If you’re a fan of the genre, it’s well worth the measly $6 that is its asking price.

 Posted by at 4:29 pm
Jul 262011

From Dust Review

From Dust is the first game that Eric Chahi has designed in over 10 years. As a huge fan of his past work (Out of this World/Another World and Heart of Darkness), I was very eager to give From Dust a try. What I found was very different than what I had expected.

In From Dust, you control a disembodied force that is trying to help and protect various aborigine tribes. In the story mode, your goal is to help the tribes create villages at set points on the map which will eventually unlock a gateway that permits travel to the next map.  You also have the secondary goals of spreading vegetation across the land and finding secret points.  You do all this by telling the villagers to travel to set locations on the map, absorbing elements like sand and water and depositing them elsewhere, and by using various spells. For example, if a river blocks your path, you might grab a big chunk of sand and place it at a specific point so as to redirect the river and allow safe passage.

From Dust features what is quite possibly the best depiction of water in any video game to date. The water looks amazing and behaves just like you would expect it to. It’s very fun to just mess around with the maps and see how the water reacts as you change the face of the landscape. And when a typhoon approaches a village and the villagers use the Repel Water spell, the results are breathtaking.

Unfortunately, just messing around with the landscape was the source of most of my enjoyment in the story mode. Simply put, the story mode isn’t very good. It walks an uncomfortable line between sandbox game and strategy game and doesn’t really do either justice. There aren’t enough options to make for a truly compelling sandbox game and the tasks that need to be accomplished in order to proceed aren’t interesting enough to make for a rewarding strategy game. Not only that, but the controls can be annoying at times – like trying to grab some water but grabbing sand instead because your cursor was slightly off.

To make matters worse, the game subscribes to the Braid philosophy of story design of “Tell, don’t show.” Most of the story is locked away in hidden paragraphs of text, with very little of the story coming up while actually playing game. Given that Eric Chahi has shown himself to be quite capable of telling moving stories without words in his past games, the fact that From Dust relies so heavily on exposition from outside the game itself is highly disappointing.

However, all is not lost! Though I found the story mode to be a disappointment, the challenge mode is a different matter all together. This mode contains a number of puzzle levels – maps where you are given a limited set of powers and a time limit and asked to complete a certain task. The first few levels in Challenge mode aren’t too exciting, but the difficulty and cleverness of the levels quickly increases as you go on. There were a number of moments where I thought I had the right solution but it wasn’t working out. Then I had an “Aha!” moment where I realized that doing something drastically different would provide a much more elegant solution to the problem. If that’s not the sign of a great puzzle game, I don’t know what is.

Whether or not you enjoy From Dust will depend on what you expect out of it. As a story-based strategy game, it is a failure. As a sandbox God game, it’s somewhat fun but lacks depth but as a puzzle game, it’s unique and even has moments of brilliance. Score accordingly.

From Dust come out tomorrow on XBLA.

 Posted by at 10:51 am