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TAT Archive – Hyrule Warriors Review

Originally published in 2014, for The Australia Times Games Magazine

Hyrule Warriors

Format: Wii U

Developer: Omega Force/Team Ninja

Publisher: Nintendo

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During an episode of Nintendo Direct in 2013, Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata announced the existence of a strange new game for the Wii U; a game that was seemingly created from a toxic concoction of chalk and cheese. Taking the elegant circle of The Legend of Zelda and cramming it into the square-shaped hole of Dynasty Warriors, the end result was Hyrule Warriors.

Essentially, Hyrule Warriors is a reskinned Dynasty Warriors, with Japanese generals being replaced by screaming elf people. For those unfamiliar with Koei Tecmo’s seminal mass-murdering series, the basic concept is one of base-taking, and slashing every poor thing that moves. In hindsight, such visceral gameplay lends itself well to the swords n’ sorcery universe of Zelda.

Instead of a wide open world, Hyrule Warriors is split into traditional levels, with two (or sometimes three) opposing armies vying for prime, blood-soaked real estate by fighting over key bases and outposts. This is done by… Well, mashing the attack buttons.

It’s an inelegant way of describing it, but this is (quite frankly) an inelegant game.

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First, some exposition. For those concerned about Hyrule Warriors being the ‘Other M’ of the Zelda franchise, don’t fret; this is very much a non-canon game. Which is just as well, as the plot is suitably bonkers. It all begins when a nasty witch named Cia (along with her generals Wizzro and Volga) invades the land of Hyrule, before plunging it into darkness. After a failed attempt at defending her kingdom, Princess Zelda and her cohorts (including Impa, Lana, and some dude named Link) track the villainess down; before said villainess opens a rift in time and space.

It’s this convenient plot device that allows characters and settings from past Zelda games to intermingle, whilst providing an adequate amount of fan-service for Zelda nerds like myself. Yes, during the six or so hours of the main campaign, you’ll come across familiar (and playable) faces such as Sheik, Midna, Darunia, Fi and even a certain big baddie who hails from the sun-blasted Gerudo Desert. It’s a veritable smorgasbord of Zelda history – albeit a smorgasbord that is perhaps a little to lean for my own liking.

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It’s no Smash Bros, that’s for sure. I personally would’ve liked more characters (though DLC is helping to alleviate matters, with the three main baddies now playable), but my biggest gripe is with the variety (or lack thereof) of levels. Truly, the locations on offer range from visually appealing (Skyloft) to downright ugly (uh, pretty much everything else) – and there is very little to do within them, aside from partaking in the mindless Dynasty Warriors fare.

2017 Edit: Post release, Hyrule Warriors has been bolstered by a substantial amount of DLC. Along with Cia, Volga and Wizzro, players willing to shell out extra cash received new characters such as Twili Midna, Tingle, Young Link, Medli, Marin, Ravio and Yuga. There was also a ton of new costumes, maps for Adventure Mode, weapons, challenges, and even a ‘Ganon’s Fury’ boss mode that allowed you to play as the titular pig beast (as well as a giant Cucco!). On top of all this, a 3DS port called Hyrule Warriors: Legends, was released with all of this content.

Honestly, the games graphics are a mixed bag overall. In one sense, it’s incredibly impressive seeing so many enemies being thwacked with nary a hitch in framerate – on more than one occasion, I found myself uttering “damn” in complete reverence. However, this loveliness is counterbalanced by the drab art style seen in the aforementioned levels, as well as the generic ‘anime-ness’ of original characters such as Cia and Lana (and believe me, you will get sick of their screeching and moaning).

Additionally, the game offers local multiplayer in the form of split-screen (one player takes the TV, the other the Game Pad) – which is a genuine selling point for people like me, who can easily find a partner to partake in mass violence (ahem). It’s a shame more Wii U games don’t support this feature, as it is a genuinely awesome experience – one that unfortunately comes with a noticeable downgrade in visual fidelity. Still, that fact that the Wii U can simultaneously stream two separate images never fails to impress.

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Aside from the main campaign, players can engage in the Adventure Mode – a massive… er, mode, that takes the entire map of the first Legend of Zelda game, and separates it into a grid. Within each square of this grid, there is a special challenge that must be beaten, and each successful mission helps open up the map a little more. Additionally, extras such as weapons and even new characters can be unlocked, and combatants can be levelled-up – which gives the game a nice staying power for obsessive completionists.

A bazaar allows characters to be imbued with upgrades like badges (made from items acquired in levels), special potions that increase the likelihood of rare weapon drops, and a smithy which upgrades pre-existing tools of mass destruction. On top of that, golden skulltulas can be hunted in levels, and each successful acquisition will help in unlocking hidden galleries. Not to mention, character galleries enable full 3D viewing, and a music player enables full 3D… erm, listening. Yeah.

So, there’s a lot of stuff in Hyrule Warriors that will keep you busy for a while – and future DLC promises to help bolster the game’s already-plentiful content. Unfortunately, all the content in the world can’t stop my overall feelings of disappointment I have toward the game – and as a massive Zelda fan, that is painful for me to admit.

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You see, aside from the fan service, there is very little that separates Hyrule Warriors from the bazillion other Dynasty Warriors games. Gameplay is woefully one-note, and small design quirks only add fuel to the frustration-fire; it’s that way missions take way too long to complete for a game that asks you to replay them constantly. The way allies are constantly screaming for help as they’re seemingly unable to fend themselves. The way there is no ‘restart’ option for missions. The way it takes forever to grow characters, so that they’re better prepared for harder (and very frustrating) missions.

It’s an innumerable amount of little things that ground my gears, and really highlighted the outdated, Japanese-style of development that seems to pervade Koei Tecmo’s halls – a style that is utterly absent from Nintendo’s own titles. It’s a harsh criticism, sure, but one that originates from the feelings of fatigue I felt as I spent many hours going through the game with a fine-tooth comb – and those feelings were usually accompanied with a desire to play something else.

All in all, Hyrule Warriors is an unusual release for Nintendo. A game that represents the Kyoto-firm’s newfound willingness to hand its valuable IP to third parties – and allowing them to twist and stretch them in new ways, much like a piece of multi-million dollar play dough.

Unfortunately, Zelda’s intermingling with Dynasty Warriors isn’t the major success I hoped it would be; it’s a game that – while comprehensive – far outstays its welcome, due to its refusal to offer more variety to its core gameplay. Still, if you can find it on discount, then I suggest giving it a spin.

6 out of 10

TAT Archive – CounterSpy Review

Originally published in 2014, for The Australia Times Games Magazine

CounterSpy

Format: PS4, PS3, PS Vita

Developer: Dynamighty

Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment

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Since its release in 2012, it’s safe to say PlayStation Vita hasn’t had the smoothest of rides.

Whether due to Nintendo’s popular 3DS – or the even more dominant smartphone market – Sony’s powerful handheld just hasn’t been able to gain a firm foothold within the competitive videogames market.

Still, ask anyone who has gone out and actually purchased a Vita will tell you, its failures aren’t due to a lack of great games. Indeed, with titles such as Uncharted: Golden Abyss, Killzone Mercenary, Tearaway, Gravity Rush and a gamut of fantastic indie titles, the sleek little console has gained a loyal following of fans who relish the quirky library that harkens back to the glorious, Japan-centric days of Sega’s Saturn and Dreamcast hardware.

In this writer’s opinion, one of the most promising new games to come to camp Vita is Dynamighty’s CounterSpy, a peculiar espionage title that harkens back to the days of Splinter Cell on Game Boy Advance – though unlike that game, I’m sure Dynamighty’s effort will be played by more than three people. Ahem.

Set during the paranoid times of the Cold War, CounterSpy places you in the silent shoes of ‘Agent’, a shadowy operative who works for the super-secret organisation known as C.O.U.N.T.E.R. Caught in the middle of a conflict between the ‘Imperialists’ (America) and the ‘Socialists’ (U.S.S.R), Agent must foil the ultimate plan that both nations have – to blow up the moon.

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Possibly just as much a social commentary as it is a tongue-in-cheek concept; CounterSpy is nevertheless a game that does not take itself too seriously – with witty writing that permeates the game’s randomly-generated levels, and bizarre Cold War factoids that litter the loading screens.

Wait… did I just say randomly-generated levels?

Yes, indeed I did! You see, CounterSpy’s stages are set in either the Imperialist or Socialist strongholds. The reason for this is that a balance must be maintained throughout the title’s six hour campaign, thanks to the ‘DEFCON’ level. Each side begins with a DEFCON level of five, and it is in Agent’s best interest that they don’t raise to the maximum level of zero. If that happens, then a mad dash begins to the end of the level – lest nuclear annihilation occurs (and even worse, a game over! Gasp!). DEFCON is raised by basically making mistakes, like getting spotted by soldiers or getting killed in action. However, Agent can help alleviate political tensions by capturing officers in the field, completing levels, and equipping a special upgrade.

As I alluded to earlier, CounterSpy emulates Sam Fisher’s GBA exploits by taking place primarily on a 2D side-scrolling view, with the occasional 3D shooting section. This odd gameplay works surprisingly well; as it gives the whole thing a nice, arcade feel. Despite being a stealth game, I felt capable of speed-running through the latter hours of the game – dispatching foes like some sort of badass ghost. This is because the mechanics are very easy to learn, and as such provide a smooth and satisfying experience that neatly accommodates the score-chasing aspect of the package.

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All this results is a surprisingly addictive title – and those who wish for even more challenge can rise through the online leaderboards, and perform special, no-kill runs that really test Agent’s metal on the field.

Unfortunately, there are some issues I had with the game. Because of the random aspect of the levels, the layouts can get very repetitive, with only two themes throughout the entire game (desert or snow). Additionally, this system can result in poor cover and enemy placement. Too often I had no choice but to blindly walk through a door, only to be greeted by the unpleasant gaze of an enemy or gun camera. Also, I found the load times to be far too long for a game this simple.

Graphically, the game is very appealing. I loved the stylised 007-style aesthetic, as well as the simple polygonal art-style that effectively hides the limitations of the Vita, whilst ensuring a smooth experience all round. In terms of sound though, it’s a mixed bag. The soundtrack is suitably smooth and jazzy, but the SFX leaves a lot to be desired (apparently all American soldiers are name ‘Johnny’).

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Yet overall, I still enjoyed this game while it lasted. CounterSpy is a quality title; though a little lean considering the high price. If it was at least half the cost then I’d highly suggest diving into this espionage world.

6 out of 10

Nintendo Shows Its Feminine Side

Originally published in 2014, for The Australia Times Games Magazine.

With all the talk of the increasing presence of women within the world of videogames, there has recently been a strong scrutinising over the role of Nintendo’s treatment of the fairer sex. In the past, the granddaddy of the industry has been accused of being somewhat conservative regarding the progression of females within gaming (not to mention the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community). It has been seen in some circles that the Kyoto firm has stuck too close to its traditional Japanese ideals, and that it has failed to evolve with the times. In this piece, I will argue that Nintendo is in fact one of the most progressive gaming companies out there, and that criticisms levelled towards its perceived ignorance toward social changes is quite unfounded.

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For 125 years, Nintendo has been a progressive company.

From the firm’s ‘innovate or die’ mantra of the Yamauchi family to Gunpei Yokoi’s ‘lateral thinking of withered technology’, the Hanafuda-cum-videogame peddler has redefined both hardware and software time and time again.

So why the accusations of being ‘behind the times’?

Well, some of it has to do with its stance on online gaming. Others meanwhile, deride the Big-N’s de-emphasis on powerful console specs. Others still shake their heads in dismay over Iwata’s relationship with 3rd parties. However, those are discussions for another time. The particular point of consternation I want to chat about is (you guessed it) the issue of gender equality; both in Nintendo’s titles, and as an overarching theme throughout the corporation’s culture.

Being a multi-billion dollar company run primarily by elder Japanese gentlemen, a cynic would point out that this fact alone would disqualify Nintendo as a forward-thinking, multicultural institution in the vein of younger, hipper companies like Valve or even Microsoft – and honestly, this may have been true once upon a time. After all, the Nintendo of the 1980s and ‘90s was a different beast compared to today’s whimsical fun-lovers; the late Hiroshi Yamauchi was well-known for his ruthless business tactics. However, the Nintendo of today is one that has been humbled by the failure of the Virtual Boy and the underwhelming performance of the Gamecube, as well as the radical changing of the gaming marketplace. The 2014 Nintendo is one of humility and a willingness to engage in silly buggers.

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It’s a fundamental change in attitude that is prevalent in the entertaining Nintendo Direct videos, and the engaging Treehouse videos that dominated this year’s E3. This is a Nintendo where Satoru Iwata engages in an epic brawl with Reggie Fils-Aime, whilst Bill Trinnen awkwardly explains Tomodachi Life, and Masahiro Sakurai trolls his Smash Bros fans. It reflects the mindset of a company that is no longer run by stuffy suits (despite the protestations of whiney shareholders and analysts).

So what does this have to do with the state of females within the industry? Well, in this aspect, its Nintendo’s willingness to change its internal corporate structure that signifies a greater importance placed on non-Japanese/non-male designers. In terms of those ever-lovable ‘Gaijin’, the most famous examples are Texas-based Retro Studios and the Canadian Next Level Games. Even within Nintendo’s own development houses, foreigners such as British born James Turner have created exciting new games like the eShop title HarmoKnight.

But what about the girls? Perhaps the most prominent female designer in Nintendo today is Aya Kyogoku, who is a director of the highly popular Animal Crossing series. In recent years, she has become increasingly prolific within the gaming media when promoting the franchise – particularly in regards to the 3DS’ New Leaf. During an interview at the Game Developer’s Conference a few years ago, Kyogoku revealed her beginnings at her illustrious employer, by stating that:

When I first started [at Nintendo], it wasn’t uncommon to be the only woman on the entire team.”

However, according to Animal Crossing co-director Katsuya Eguchi, by the time New Leaf had completed development, nearly half of the game’s staff was female. Additionally, it was imperative that this diversity amongst the development crew would be reflected in the final product:

We wanted to make sure that the content allowed all the players to express their individuality, that it is was something men and women of all ages would enjoy. So in order to view the project from a variety of perspectives, we made sure the team was made up of people from various backgrounds and life experiences. My experience has been that when you bring people in with a variety of interests beyond just games, that opens you up for the possibility of discovering new ways of playing and new experiences to provide to our users… possibilities for exploration beyond just ‘I want to make games.’”

Kyogoku added:

Having worked on this team where there were almost equal numbers of men and women made me realize that [diversity] can open you up to hearing a greater variety of ideas and sharing a greater diversity of ideas. Only after having working on a project like this, with a team like this one, was I able to realize this… In my years at Nintendo, I have come to discover that when there are women in a variety of roles on the project, you get a wider [range] of ideas.”

Not only that, the audience of the game itself proved to be particularly revelatory, as revealed by Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata:

In the first three weeks of Animal Crossing sales, by the end of November, the largest group was 19- to 24-year-old women. I’ve never seen something like this before.”

Additionally, when the game was bought with a 3DS console, 56% of buyers were women, which left Iwata “speechless.”

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On a wider spectrum, a recent report on Nintendo’s internal Kyoto restructuring revealed that 40 to 50% of the entire company’s graphic artists are women; which is a pretty astounding statistic for a company often lambasted for being ‘behind the times’.

Similarly, a recent update for the new Smash Bros by Masahiro Sakurai displayed an alternative costume for Zero Suit Samus; which he stressed was designed by a female member of the development staff. Sure, this quick note by the Melee Maestro could have been interpreted as a man eager to avoid any angry Miiverse comments accusing him of sexism – but the truth is, Nintendo has been surprisingly vocal about the importance of women within the last 12 months or so.

With the flak the company received over the Tomodachi Life same-sex fiasco – and the accusations of a lack of racial diversity in Mario Kart 8 (really) – one could assume that Nintendo has been on a desperate crusade for good PR. Still, according to Nintendo of Canada spokesman Matt Ryan:

In case you haven’t noticed, [it] is kind of a theme for us; the more recent prominence of female characters. Having female characters playing a role that we haven’t seen often in the past, outside of Samus. And that leads us right back to Hyrule Warriors, seeing Zelda kick some serious ass is pretty impressive. It’s not something that we’ve necessarily seen before from Nintendo. Female Nintendo protagonists are finally stepping into the forefront in their role in the game. Whether it’s all the female heroes in Hyrule Warriors, Bayonetta, the female characters in Super Smash Bros, or Samus in Metroid. Even Splatoon!”

The man’s not wrong. First, we have Bayonetta – a franchise that was bought back for a sequel thanks to Nintendo’s phoenix down-esque check book. As you may remember, the original Bayonetta was critically acclaimed for its intense action gameplay – but also due to the Bayonetta character herself. She was a shining example of a female character; an impressively designed protagonist that wasn’t degrading – but empowering. With Bayonetta 2 on the horizon, Nintendo has chosen to give her a second chance at stardom – to show the games industry that there is ample room for female icons that are not named ‘Lara Croft’.

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Then there is Hyrule Warriors, the Zelda/Dynasty Warriors that has gained lot of buzz because of its female roster that seemingly outnumbers the guys. Princess Zelda, Impa, Lana, Agitha, Midna, Princess Ruto… It usually takes an iffy game like Dead or Alive to see such a major focus on the female form. In an interview, producer Yosuke Hayashi stated:

I personally like strong, fighting women, and we’re happy to say there will be other characters like that, other strong female characters in the game.”

He emphasises the strong design of Zelda herself, and how her regal status means more than just being kidnap-fodder. This is a Zelda who can ‘kick some serious ass’; a Zelda who is a fearsome leader of armies and an able-bodies swordswoman.

Another game mentioned by Ryan – and perhaps the biggest of the lot – is Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS. This is a game that speaks just as much about Nintendo’s legacy of great women in its games as much as it does about its diverse character roster. In truth, Nintendo has always been at the forefront of female progression within videogaming – most notably due to Samus Aran, the protagonist of the revered Metroid series. Detractors like to point out the ‘submissive’ role played by Princess Peach in the Mario games; but in truth, the ruler of the Mushroom Kingdom has always been a diverse character. She’s been Mario’s equal in the franchise’s innumerable amount of spin-off titles, shared the starring role in mainline games such as Super Mario Bros. 2 and Super Mario 3D World, had her own game in the form of Super Princess Peach, and has shown her wiliness in the Paper Mario titles. Likewise, Rosalina has become a very popular personality since her debut in 2007’s Super Mario Galaxy, where players were treated to her surprisingly sad backstory. Aside from Mario, Zelda and Metroid, the Smash Bros roster reveals just how rich Nintendo’s history is in terms of strong female characters. Wii Fit Trainer, Lucina, Palutena, Robin, Animal Crossing Villager, Sheik… And with possibly more to come, it’s evident that Nintendo’s past output has been very female friendly.

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Indeed, Nintendo’s games have always been popular with women – protagonists like Mario and Link are very non-threatening to those who possess double X chromosomes, because they have never been overtly masculine. In fact, it could be seen that Nintendo’s most popular characters are somewhat asexual in nature, due to the firm’s focus on gameplay above all else. Developers such as Shigeru Miyamoto have always viewed their characters as avatars that act as a direct link toward their players – regardless of gender, race or religion. In fact, Link himself was named as such for that very reason!

This ‘everyone included’ philosophy has also extended toward Nintendo’s hardware itself. The Wii and DS consoles helped to shatter the walls between the ‘hardcore’ and the ‘casual’, and helped to make the gaming culture a less inclusive place long before the advent of smartphones. These two consoles made gaming a much more open place for females, with games like Wii Sports, Nintendogs, Dr. Kawashima’s Brain Training and Professor Layton all proving that videogames could be more than testosterone-drenched gore-fests; that there was a wider audience besides 18-34 males and (dare I say it) awkward shut-ins. Nintendo provided a platform which was fully embraced by Apple and its revolutionary iPhone – a device that has made virtually everyone a gamer. And this trend has continued today, as Shigeru Miyamoto stated during the company’s most recent shareholder meeting:

Every year a number of companies exhibit at E3 and Nintendo is compared with other companies, most likely with Sony and Microsoft. This year, the majority of what the other developers exhibited was bloody shooter software that was mainly set in violent surroundings or, in a different sense, realistic and cool worlds. Because so many software developers are competing in that category, it seemed like most of the titles at the show were of that kind. In such circumstances, Nintendo looked very unique and was able to receive such positive reactions as “Nintendo had a variety of different software” and “the company is offering games we can feel safe with.” From this aspect of differentiation with the other companies, we had a great E3 show this year.

In summation, it is clear that Nintendo has made the industry a better place for female gamers – and it continues to do so with a swath of new titles that avoid the industry-wide trend of slapping a gun to a muscle-bound white guy, before letting him loose on a hapless horde of zombies. Whether reflected via its corporate culture, or through its products, Nintendo has shown that the games industry can be a very fertile one for females; both designer and consumer alike.

TAT Archive – Xenoblade Chronicles X Review

Originally published in 2015, for The Australia Times Games Magazine.

Xenoblade Chronicles X

Format: Wii U

Developer: Monolith Soft / Nintendo SPD

Publisher: Nintendo

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When reviewing a videogame, it’s generally expected that the author has at least some grasp of the software in question.

Usually, this is achieved by spending the appropriate amount of time with it – such as delving deep into every feature it offers, or completing the campaign. However, there are those certain games that have us poor wordsmiths nervously chewing our lip as we decide the appropriate course of action. In this case, I’m specifically referring to big games.

You know the ones. The hundred-plus hour epics that threaten to suck away what little social life is left remaining. MMOs. RPGS. In 2015, there have been a few of ‘em; most notably The Witcher 3 and Fallout 4.

It’s these kinds of games that provide a somewhat of an ethical conundrum for us – namely, just when do we decide to submit that review?

You see, these kinds of games are not only long – but sometimes (like Bethesda’s games) they warrant multiple playthroughs. This can take an obscene amount of time, and is completely at odds with the instantaneous mentality of being ‘first’ to publish something. So, a choice has to be made – deliver a timely analysis that probably isn’t all that it could be? Or wait until the game’s depths have been thoroughly plundered, so justice can be done to the hard work put forth by the developers?

For Xenoblade Chronicles X, I chose the latter option.

The long-awaited sequel to the surprise JRPG hit on the Wii (titled, funnily enough, Xenoblade Chronicles), Xenoblade Chronicles X is a massive game – rivalled only by Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate as the most content-stuffed game on Wii U.

First, let’s get that pesky plot out of the way. Unlike its predecessor, Monolith Soft’s latest epic is a sci-fi tale which eschews the fantasy stylings of Shulk’s adventure. Starting in the year 2054, the game opens with a huge battle between two alien forces over our poor Earth. Realising that the planet’s annihilation is imminent, humanity gets the hell out of dodge, and launches interstellar ‘arks’ that contain our best and brightest. Most are destroyed in the crossfire, but one is definitely known to make it out – the American ‘White Whale’. USA! USA!

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After spending a couple of months adrift in space, the ship is accosted by its extra-terrestrial pursuers, before crash landing on the nearby planet of Mira. Lucky, huh?

This is where the game begins, and you play as your own custom character. After creating your own hero, you awaken from a stasis pod, and meet Elma, a soldier who informs you that the White Whale’s denizens have survived, and that they have founded the city of ‘New LA’ in the crashed residential remains of the ship. Conveniently, you have amnesia, so the exposition handily informs you of everything that’s going on – and what happened previously.

After a lengthy introduction, you visit New LA and become a member of the military organisation BLADE (Builders of the Legacy After Earth’s Destruction), and it’s here where everything really kicks off.

The plot is good enough, but if you focus solely on the main story missions, you’ll be disappointed coming in from the fanciful tales of the Bionis and Mechonis. The meat of the game’s world-building is done through side-quests, where relationships are built and Mira is explored in more detail. Many of these are mandatory in order to progress the campaign – but I honestly didn’t mind. I’m the type of gamer that likes to go over everything with a fine-tooth comb, but more impatient players will undoubtedly be frustrated.

So, how does it play? Well, very much like Xenoblade Chronicles, actually. Being a JRPG, the mechanics are quite dense – yet nicely streamlined at the same time. Combat is much like an MMO, which mixes real-time movement with turn-based ability selection (complete with cooldowns). You fight in a maximum party of four, though you’re only responsible for the main hero. Instead of traditional items, healing is done through ‘soul voices’, which is basically a quick-time-event that occasionally pops up on the screen. Do it right, and your crew recovers a bit of health. Additionally, abilities can have an enhanced effect if you choose to wait until a pal bellows for you to use it, and doing so can increase your affinity with said character.

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Still with me? Good, because that only scrapes the surface. Eventually, you gain access to ‘overdrive’, which is essentially Limit Break ala Final Fantasy VII. Doing this increases your power for a limited time, and combos can be racked up depending on the types of attacks you use. You can even extend the duration of overdrive by spending ‘TP’ (which is kind of like an in-battle currency) and many intrepid types online have managed to keep the whole thing going indefinitely by making smart use of TP-gaining abilities.

But I’m stuffed if I can do that.

Battles evolve even further with the introduction of Skells, which are basically mechs. Each party member must equip their own Skell (more in the boxout), and these can take on more fearsome foes. Blimey.

As complicated as all that sounds, Monolith does do a good job of teaching you the fundamentals by not punishing experimentation. Unlike the JRPGs of yore, dying doesn’t send you back to your last save – instead, you are simply teleported to the nearest ‘landmark’ (notable areas you can discover), with all of your experience and items intact. No fuss, no muss. It’s a wonderful exploration system, which makes players unafraid of traversing Mira in wonder. It also helps that you have a sweet jump, and damage can’t be taken from falls – no matter how high.

Diving further into Xenoblade Chronicles X reveals a game that is almost overwhelming in its content – quite literally so.

First, BLADE. When joining the group, you must choose from one of ten different divisions, each of which specialises in things like combat, archaeology or police work. This actually influences the types of missions you can take – though some crossover is allowed. You can change divisions, though there really isn’t any need to – not until you achieve the maximum division rank of 10. Every time you go up a rank, you can choose to upgrade your mechanical, archaeological or biological skills, and these help you find treasures and install probes on the world map.

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Ah yes, the probes. Whatever BLADE job you take, you are still required to expand ‘FrontierNet’, which is a network that aims to gather more information about the strange planet. This is done by planting probes at certain sites, and doing so unlocks more segments of your map, which is split into hexagons on your GamePad. Not only do these probes act as landmarks, but they can also be used to mine valuable resources, or generate revenue. Depending on the probe type (mining or research), you can tap the Wii U’s second screen to set them up, and can even link up the same types in order to achieve a combo, which maximises their productivity. Other info revealed on the hexagons can include special treasures and strong bosses (known as Tryants) that roam Mira, and completing each ‘segment’ will show a gold shield, as well as contributing to the overall survey of the world.

As you level up, your character will unlock new classes, which let him or her carry new weapons, armour, and use new arts. Using points earned in battle, you can upgrade these arts, as well as special skills that can be equipped on every character. These give them further buffs, like increased health or elemental damage.

You want more? You got it! Using the shop terminals located in New LA’s Armory Alley, you can buy new equipment (or course), as well as craft new upgrades that can be inserted in blank armour slots. These provide even further buffs for your characters, and there are even multiple arms companies who will reward you the more you use their own products in the battlefield. This of course, unlocks even more upgrades.

Aside from combat, there’s a lot to take-in in New LA itself. Split into multiple districts, you can converse with NPCs and fellow BLADEs, and build relationships with them (which are archived in the affinity chart). Since this is an RPG, they’re more than happy to dish out quests, or provide hints to interesting stuff that’s going on outside the city walls. Some missions can be taken on the spot, whilst others need to be accepted at the BLADE mission terminal.

Now, this has probably been a lot to take in, dear reader – but trust me when I say I’ve barely scraped the surf—wait, I already said that. Still, it’s true, and Xenoblade Chronicles X’s content is its biggest strength – but also its undeniable weakness.

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Make no mistake; this is not a game for casual players. The entire thing is far from user-friendly, and I myself struggled greatly to understand everything. Indeed, Monolith does a poor job of adequately explaining many of the features found, and as such I had to read up on the manual on more than one occasion. If there’s one thing you need to take from this review – it’s that you should read the manual.

Similarly aggravating are some of the absurd design choices that permeate the game. Too often, it ventures into mindless collectathon territory. You know, ‘collect 20 gumdrops’, ‘slay 45 boogiemen’, that sort of thing. It’s lazy design that only aims to pad out the game’s already-bloated length, and Monolith desperately needs to abandon these tropes in future games. Not to mention, many of the quests are so inanely obtuse, using a guide is pretty much essential – which is a major game design sin, in my books.

Graphically, Xenoblade Chronicles X is one of the most inconsistent titles I’ve played in recent memory. Sometimes, the game is simply too ambitious for the modest Wii U hardware – yet, the fact that it runs as well as it does is a true testament to the programmers. First, the negatives. Characters models are bland and toy-like, and look like they came straight out of a PS2 game. Similarly, pop-in (or fade-in, more technically) is horrendous, with character models often times spawning long after I’ve ran past them. This also happens (to a lesser extent) with enemies, as well as textures when warping from one place to another. Keep in mind, I played this game with the Data Packs downloaded, which are separate pieces of DLC on the eShop that help improve performance (disc version only, the digital copy has it all included), so this is a major bummer.

Now, the positives. Mira is absolutely, undeniably breathtaking. A massive world that is roughly five times bigger than Fallout 4, it is both a technical and artistic achievement. The design of both the creatures and terrain are truly alien, and some of the most imaginative locales I’ve ever seen in a videogame. Additionally, it is completely, 100% open from the very start, and every single thing you can see in the distance is fully traversable. This freeform design is amazing, and probably a big reason why the game looks so average in other places. Nintendo’s console is pushed to breaking-point, and the fact that it runs (mostly) at a smooth 30fps, with virtually no bugs and non-existent load-times (aside from warping) is truly astounding. It gets even more incredible once you gain the power of flight…

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Sound too, is another mixed bag. The scores for Mira’s continents are masterfully produced, yet battles and New LA itself are strangely subjected to barely-there rapping. It’s really weird at first, but it does become a non-issue after an hour or so. Unfortunately, voice acting is a step back from Xenoblade Chronicles (which was localised by Nintendo Europe), with generally bland performances – though there are some highlights, like the alien ‘L’ and drunkard Frye. Written text fares much better, with some truly hilarious lines and translation that almost made me wish the entire game was text-only.

This review has been a big one – probably the biggest I’ve ever written. Just know that Xenoblade Chronicles X is (or was, whatever) one of 2015’s best games. In some aspects, it’s infuriatingly old-fashioned, yet in others, it shows some truly advanced design. Really, it’s a true ‘gamers’ game; one that doesn’t pull any punches in its complexity, yet one that rewards those that are willing to take on the challenge.

8.5 out of 10

 

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Skell-eton Warriors

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As you’ve probably seen in the game’s marketing (hah), Skells play a large role in Xenoblade Chronicles X. Despite this, I didn’t get my first one until about 60 hours into the game. When I finally did, it was pretty damn liberating. Accessing out-of-reach areas that taunted me for so long were now within my grasp. Still, these mechs come with a few frustrating caveats. If you happen to wreck yours in battle, you have a chance to salvage it via a QTE. If you don’t? Well, you end up using a salvage ticket – and when you run out, you have to pay an obscene amount of insurance in order to get it back. On top of that, you need to be a certain level in order to use stronger variations – including that of your comrades. Fortunately, your partners’ Skells are completely free to repair.

 

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Playing on the (Frontier) ‘net

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Yes, Xenoblade Chronicles X has online play. No, you can’t frag n00bs (or whatever it is the young ‘uns say these days). Instead, you play nice with other gamers in a passive way. Whenever you start the game up, you can choose to either join a squad of other peoples’ Xeno protagonists (hence why you create your own hero) and take on monsters for rewards, or simply play on your own and accrue riches automatically. How? Well, even when you play alone, you’re part of a squad, and the screen will highlight tasks that you can choose to do or completely ignore (hunting or collecting). If your entire crew completes all tasks within the time limit, you get materials and reward tickets (which can be traded for hard-to-find items). Yet even if you fail, you’ll still get a few tickets, which is nice. As expected, Miiverse messages can be viewed (or disabled), and you can trade gear.

TAT Archive – Bayonetta 2 Review

Originally published in 2014, for The Australia Times Games Magazine.

Bayonetta 2

Format: Wii U

Developer: Platinum Games/Bee Tribe (Bayonetta port)

Publisher: Nintendo/Sega

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All the way back in the ye olde days of 2010, a little-known Japanese studio released a videogame called Bayonetta.

Bayonetta, you see, was no ordinary videogame. It was the most videogamey videogame that ever videogamed. It starred a sultry witch who had a gun strapped to every limb, and a svelte outfit made from her own hair. She possessed a sharp attitude – and a sharper arsenal; demons, swords, whips, and shotguns were the order of the day, and they were used in creatively gruesome ways against her angelic enemies.

Wait? Angels?

Yes – as if unafraid by its blasé approach toward the very tenants of Christianity itself, this Japanese studio made Bayonetta face off against the very armies of God; divine beings that were both awesome and fearsome in their presences.

Divine beings that were squashed under the high-heels of a half-naked lady.

What game developer would dare to create such blasphemous content? Why, Platinum Games, of course.

Fast forward five years, and we now have Bayonetta 2, the sequel to one of the greatest action games of all time. Its development saga was almost as tumultuous as its Polygon-displeasing content (insider reference, yeah!), with raging fans that frothed at the mouth due to the game’s exclusivity on Nintendo’s Wii U console. However, this game wouldn’t have even existed if not for the House of Mario, who kindly offered to fund its development in return for said exclusivity.

Luckily it did, as Bayonetta 2 is hands-down one of the best games I’ve ever played, and my personal game of the year.

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Where to begin? Well, let’s take a look at the story; things start during Christmas time, when Bayonetta and her best friend Jeanne are doing a little shopping, before all hell (or should I say heaven?) breaks loose, as angels come after our heroines. This is where the game begins, as you are thrust into one of the most insane tutorials I’ve ever seen. How many games plonk you on top of a screaming jet as you battle angelic hoards, before engaging in an aerial battle with a skyscraper-sized demon?

Yeah, not many.

Things go awry, as Jeanne’s soul is ripped from her body, and taken to Inferno (Hell). Not one to let such matters lie, Bayonetta then journeys to the mountain called Fimbulventr, which is said to be home of the gates of Inferno and Paradiso – and the only one who can lead her there is a mysterious, card-wielding kid named Loki.

This is the basic premise, and things get quite a bit more convoluted as you journey throughout the game’s 10 hour campaign. Obviously, I won’t spoil things here, but the plot makes way for some truly crazy set pieces that will leave your jaw permanently stuck to the ground.

The gameplay itself echoes the best of the genre, like Capcom’s Devil May Cry and Sony’s God of War; but with everything turned up to 11. If you played the original Bayonetta (and if you didn’t, now you have no excuse – see the boxout) then you know just how tightly designed everything was. It is no different here, as Platinum once again proves its programming chops.

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As mentioned before, Bayonetta has a gun strapped to each appendage (her default setup), in addition to her main melee weapon. She has two main attack inputs (X and A) that can be mixed much like a fighting game, and this results in some truly spectacular acrobatics – especially combined with ranged (Y) and aerial (B) attacks. Pulling the ZR trigger lets Bayonetta perform a dodge, and pressing this at the right time triggers ‘Witch Time’, which slows time for a few seconds (enabling the Umbra Witch some extra offense).

Occasionally, enemies will drop weapons that can be used against them, and Bayonetta herself has two different weapon setups that can be switched with ZL (I myself am partial to the whip and chainsaw combo). To add to this, a special move called the ‘Umbra Climax’ acts as an overdrive mode, wherein pressing the L shoulder button when the magic gauge is full allows Bayonetta to unleash souped-up attacks. Combine all this with unlockable combos and equippable accessories (that fundamentally change the combat system), and you have a recipe for some deep, deep gameplay.

Structurally, it’s the same as its predecessor. Levels are comprised of fights and secret challenges that are graded from ‘Bronze’ to ‘Pure Platinum’, and performing well gets you more halos (the game’s currency) that can be spent at ‘The Gates of Hell’, a shop that is run by a demon named Rodin. Halos are exchanged for weapons, health, magic, helpful items and even Nintendo-themed costumes!

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So, there’s plenty of stuff to do. There’s even an online multiplayer mode called Tag Climax, which sees you and a partner band together and vanquish foes in the pursuit of tasty halos, which can be wagered, Sakurai-style.

Visually, Bayonetta 2 is simply incredible. The combat scenarios you will find yourself in will take your breath away, as Platinum’s visual designers squeeze every bit of power from the Wii U. I cannot tell you how many times I sat there slack-jawed, as the game bombarded me with insane graphics that accentuated the incredibly creative scenes that would put any anime to shame. I’m talking a boss fight amidst a rising ocean of blood. Chasing a dragon through a city-sized whirlpool. Fighting monstrous angels at the gates of Paradiso. It all hits home just how amazing a videogame can really be, and how they can offer experiences that are totally unlike other media.

Technically, too, the game is a marvel. Colours are a lot richer than the first Bayonetta, and the visual effects really illustrate just how much grunt Nintendo’s little machine is packing. It all runs at 60 frames per second, too (take that, Ubisoft).

I also must give props to the sound design. Bayonetta 2’s soundtrack expands upon the original by including orchestrated pieces that makes the whole thing feel more ‘movie-like’, and the voice acting is suitably cheesy, much like Platinum’s other titles.

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It’s rare when a videogame meets the hype, and even rarer still when it actually exceeds it. Bayonetta 2 is one of those games. I’m not the type of reviewer who likes to give out perfect scores like cheap candy – but in this case, I have absolutely no qualms in doing so, especially considering the free inclusion of the original Bayonetta.

This game is amazing.

10 out of 10
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Season of the Witch

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How does the original Bayonetta fare against its amazing sequel?

So, one of the major selling points (among many) of purchasing Bayonetta 2 is the free inclusion of the 2010 original game; Bayonetta.

Released to great praise four years ago, this was the game that cemented Platinum Games’ place as one of the best developers in the world, and going back, it’s easy to see why.

Bayonetta has aged incredibly well, and its fast-paced action gameplay doesn’t feel a day older than when it was first released. It’s essentially the same deal as the sequel – albeit a deal that feels a tad more difficult overall.

Performing Witch Time was noticeably harder when I revisited this game, and the use of equippable items is much more of a boon in acquiring those elusive Pure Platinum medals.

Visually, Bayonetta is noticeably drabber than numero dos, but it does run incredibly well on the Wii U hardware (the best version of all three available). Everything is silky smooth (totally not a double entendre), and the Pro Controller is equally as wonderful to use (though the Game Pad isn’t too bad, either).

As great as Bayonetta is, it is by no means a perfect game. The insta-death QTE segments are truly aggravating, and I have to wonder why Bee Tribe (the folks behind this port) didn’t just remove them entirely. Additionally, there were some instances of crap game design (one moment involving a jet propeller), a lousy boss (which has you using a turret), and moments where I could have sworn I pressed that button (you know the ones…).

Still, it’s not enough to ruin the experience – and there are some special extras to make the Wii U version just that little bit more attractive. The sultry witch can don outfits based on famous Nintendo characters like Peach, Samus and Link; which look suitably seductive (or ridiculous, take your pick) and even change aspects of the gameplay. For instance, using Peach and Daisy will have her summon giant Bowser fists, and using the Link costume will replace halos with rupees!

So overall, this is a mighty fine port – and one of the best extras in recent gaming history.

Two witches for the price of one? Who’d pass that up?

TAT Archive – Super Smash Bros. for Wii U & 3DS Review

Originally published in 2014, for The Australia Times Games Magazine.

Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and Nintendo 3DS

Format: Wii U and 3DS

Developer: Sora Ltd/Bandai Namco Games

Publisher: Nintendo

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So, Super Smash Bros.

Ever since the 1998 debut of the original N64 game, Nintendo’s seminal fighting series has acted as a cornerstone of the company’s key software output. Aside from Mario, Zelda and Pokémon, Masahiro Sakurai’s mascot brawler is the most important franchise within the hallowed halls of the Kyoto firm; with each sequel met with a fevered anticipation that is simply unmatched by any other fanbase.

After Super Smash Bros. Melee represented a quantum leap from the modest polygonal original – and Super Smash Bros. Brawl further built upon that by stuffing it full of content – Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and Nintendo 3DS is the culmination of everything that has come before; two games that are the products of 16 years of fine-tuning by Sakurai and his motley crew of talented developers.

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Now, let’s get the obvious out of the way first – Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS is one of the best games on Nintendo’s stereoscopic handheld. Heck, it’s probably the best. And Super Smash Bros. for Wii U is one of the best games on Nintendo’s tablet-powered console. Hell, it’s probably the best. Er, Also.

In terms of content, nothing else comes close. It’s incredible just how much stuff Sora and Bandai Namco have managed to cram in such a dinky little cartridge and/or disc; to the point where it shames most other videogames.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. It would be lousy of me to talk about the sweet, sweet features – without first going over the gameplay basics for those unfamiliar.

You see, Super Smash Bros is a fighting game. However, it isn’t a fighter in the conventional sense. Unlike games such as Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat, Smash Bros takes on a more party-based slant, with a greater emphasis on the ‘improvisation’ of fighting – rather than highly technical movesets. Instead of a traditional health bar, fighters possess a percentage meter that represents their stamina. Beginning at 0%, the percentage rises as damage is taken – and the higher the percentage, the easier it is for the fighter to be knocked out of the arena, which is how fights are ultimately won.

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There are no complex button inputs. Indeed, part of the appeal of Smash Bros is its ‘simple to learn, hard to master’ mechanics that are such a trademark of Nintendo games. There are two buttons used to attack; and holding a direction whilst pressing said buttons alters the offensive maneuvers. You can double jump, and use your up+B move to act as a last ditch effort to recover from a fall. Additionally, fighters can block by holding R, grab with L and even perform a few cheeky taunts with the D-Pad. These inputs basically act as the foundation to the surprisingly complex gameplay that can be found in this title, in addition to the alterations of the core fighting mechanics.

What alterations?” I hear you ask, dear reader? Well, this is where the whole ‘content’ thing comes in. You see, the party-based nature of the gameplay leads itself well to manipulation, and this represented in the incredible amount of modes that are on offer; modes that make Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and Nintendo 3DS much more than just a simple brawler.

First, the single player. The most obvious of these modes is the Classic…Er, Mode. This is basically the standard ‘fighting game’ thing, where you select a fighter to take on a bunch of other fighters in order to reach the final boss (the returning Master and Crazy Hands). Even then, this mode is given a Sakurai twist; there are branching pathways, and gold (which is used to buy stuff) can be wagered for higher difficulties, much like Kid Icarus: Uprising. Similarly, All-Star Mode is a fight to the top; however, this is done in a chronological order (older characters toward newer characters – reversed for the Wii U), and it all must be completed with one life. However, players can enlist the help of another player, which greatly helps in acquiring character-specific trophies.

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Stadium Mode takes the core gameplay of Smash, and has fun in creating new ways to play. The ever-popular Home Run Contest returns, which sees you given 10 seconds to bash a sandbag with a baseball bat, before launching it with a final super smash in the hopes of achieving incredible distances. Personally, I was chuffed when I managed to get over a thousand metres… Before seeing the seven thousand-plus that others managed to achieve.

Inadequacy get!

Target Blast is a surprising riff on the Angry Birds formula, which plays similarly to Home Run. However, this time, a bomb must be bashed, before tossing it into a creaky tower full of targets and special items. You get two tries for this, and the bomb can be tossed at different speeds, depending on the damage it receives.

Multi-Man Smash is back too, which pits you (and a friend, if you want) against waves of enemies that can range from pathetic (100 Man Mode) to downright horrifying (Cruel Mode). Besides them, there is also 3-Minute Mode, 15 Minute Mode, 10 Man Mode, and even an Endless Mode.

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Possibly the biggest 3DS exclusive feature is the Smash Run mode; which sees you (and up to three other players) run around in a massive map under a five minute time limit. This environment is littered with enemies, which must be (you guessed it!) smacked around in exchange for power-ups that give boosts to your power, speed, agility, etc. At the end of each round, you must put these abilities to use in a random game against the other players. This entails everything from a traditional smash, to a footrace that is vein-poppingly stressful. Of course, you can set whatever end game you wish to play in the settings, but I personally love the random aspect, as there’s no telling how useful your upgrades will really be.

At first, Smash Run can be particularly frustrating, as enemies will constantly kick your ass – but there is good reason for this. You see, this mode acts as somewhat of a colourful introduction to the biggest feature in this iteration of Smash Bros – and that is character customisation.

Each minute upgrade you gather for your character makes them stronger and better, and grinding the Smash Run mode sees you become noticeably more powerful. In a special menu, each character has room for 10 different custom variations, and each of these variations can be tailored to your own tastes. Not only can you choose a preferred costume, but you can give upgrades (which are found in virtually every mode) that boost power, speed and defence. Not only that, but you can completely change the movesets of every fighter, which results in a hell of a lot of variation.

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On the other side of the fence, the Wii U edition prides itself on Smash Tour, Special Orders, and 8 Player Smash. ‘Smash Tour’ takes the form of a Mario Party-style board game, with players amassing teams and special powers in order to win various battles that litter proceedings. This was designed to be an anarchic (and occasionally, even unfair) mode where anything goes. It’s a startling look into the more ‘lawless’ nature of Smash Bros; a nature that gleefully gives the two-fingered salute to absurd notions of ‘balance’ and ‘fairness’ seen in the pro-gaming community.

Special Orders’ has players take on challenges issued by series baddies Master and Crazy Hand, in exchange for wagered gold (or a free ticket). In each round, you are presented with a choice of three challenges. Every time you complete one, you then have the opportunity to finish the session by fighting whichever omnipresent appendage you have chosen (Crazy is the harder of the two). However, you can also choose to continue with more rounds – which get progressively more difficult. It’s a nice risk/reward element that is more forceful than in any other part of the game; one where you can practically hear Sakurai telling you to ‘put up or shut up’.

Despite all of this, perhaps the Wii U version’s biggest selling-point in the 8-Player Mode, with (you guessed it) eight players duking it out in specially designed stages. It’s quite amazing seeing this in action, as the game doesn’t drop a frame, nor does the visual fidelity take a hit. I’m loathe to constantly point out the flaws of other gaming companies in my reviews – but when I see eight highly-detailed fighters duke it out in 1080p and 60 fps, I can’t help but wonder why the competition has such a tough time with creating stable visuals on more powerful hardware. Sure, Smash Bros isn’t exactly an open-world game… But geez.

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Phew. This has been a lot to take in, isn’t it? Believe it or not, there’s still more!

Now, let’s talk about online. Because of the game’s party roots, the network mode has been split into two; For Fun and For Glory. ‘For Fun’ is basically no holds barred; everything is allowed, and nothing is forbidden. Items, Assist Trophies, stages… It’s all there. In contrast, ‘For Glory’ is for the serious folks; a pure and technical community that shuns gimmicks in favour of fighting prowess. Whichever mode you choose, you’re guaranteed to have a great time, and the network service is superb. Griefers are punished swiftly, and there is very little lag to speak of. It’s a far cry from Brawl’s horrendous service, that’s for sure!

Finally; characters. The main crux of the game, there are 49 fighters in all, and I guarantee you’ll find a favourite in there somewhere. Old stalwarts like Mario, Link, Samus and Donkey Kong return with a vengeance, along with new characters like Wii Fit Trainer, Rosalina, Little Mac and Shulk. Third party folks are back too, as Sonic, Mega Man and Pac-Man are on hand to represent the non-Nintendo (Snake doesn’t make a return, unfortunately). Even Miis are here, with three variations (Brawler, Gunner and Swordfighter) ensuring that anyone can now be a fighter (Hank Hill is bringin’ the pro-pain!). There are still a few clones and palette swaps, but the sheer number of original characters is nothing to sniff at. Also, keep an eye out for the future release of Mewtwo…

There are an incredible 34 stages to play in the 3DS edition, with personal favourites of mine being Spirit Track’s Spirit Train, Pac-Man’s Pac-Maze, and Xenoblade’s Gaur Plains. They all look superb, and are accompanied by one of the 115 (!!!) musical pieces that are included in the game. In contrast, The Wii U version has 47 stages, and 437 musical pieces. I don’t need to tell you that this is an insane amount, and I particularly enjoy the side-scrolling Pac-Land and Game & Wario’s terrifying Gamer (where you must actually hide from 9-Volt’s devil-mum).

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Trophies too, are almost too innumerable to count. Well, to be technical, there are 685 of them on 3DS, and 716 on Wii U – with each one being a viewable 3D model with its own humorous description. It’s simply baffling how they could’ve fit them all in – but they’re there. The aforementioned gold is used to buy them from a store, which contains special discounts and revolving stock. Gold can also be used to ‘buy’ time in the special Trophy Rush mode; for a maximum two and a half minutes. You basically smash boxes that contain gold, badges and trophies, whilst trying to keep a multiplier going. It’s addictive. Just like everything else. Shocker.

2017 Edit: Since its release, Smash Bros. has gotten even bigger. Bolstered by substantial DLC, the final product resulted in a tally of 58 fighters, including shock entries like Cloud Strife, Bayonetta and Ryu. The Wii U version ended up with 55 stages, 743 trophies and 511 music pieces, whilst the 3DS one had 42 stages, 707 trophies and 135 music tracks. Unreal.

So, Super Smash bros. for Wii U and Nintendo 3DS is clearly jam-packed with content – but how does it actually run?

Unbelievably well, of course. The game runs at a silky smooth 60 frames per second on both versions, and characters are incredibly detailed; with hilarious facial expressions and poses that lend themselves well to the screenshot and replay features (I did mention them, right?). Colours are bright and bold, and look truly magnificent on the 3DS XL screen or TV. The 3D effect for the former – while nice- is hardly essential, but it’s impressive that it’s there at all, considering how much grunt the game packs. The music too, is wonderful, with fully orchestrated pieces from 42 different composers. Yes, you read that right.

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In conclusion, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and Nintendo 3DS is a true feat of game development. It displays a loving tribute to Nintendo’s 125 year past whilst also showing-off just how well the development staff can maximise the potential of a relatively weak piece of hardware. In a way, I feel conflicted; my last review was the perfect-scoring Bayonetta 2 – and I hate myself for handing out another 10/10. But… Did you read the review? Do you see why I can’t give it any less than double digits? Because for me – games like Bayonetta 2 and Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and Nintendo 3DS represents videogaming at its absolute best; products that are meticulously polished, a tonne of fun, and are filled to the brim with replayability (I still haven’t mentioned everything that’s included). In today’s age of DRM, buggy messes and penny-pinching DLC, it is wonderful to see gaming design still exist in its absolute finest form.

You’d be doing yourself a massive disservice by missing out.

10 out of 10

 

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Toy Story

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So, customisation is a major part of Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS and Wii U, and Amiibo will play a major role. So, what is Amiibo? Well, it’s Nintendo’s attempt to take a slice of the Skylanders/Disney Infinity pie, with a range of NFC capable figures that are now on the shelves. “Wait…KFC?” I hear you ask, stomach growling in agreement. No, silly, NFC. Or ‘Near Field Communication’, to be precise. Basically, there will eventually be Amiibo versions of all Smash Bros characters, and these figures can be scanned into the 3DS (using an upcoming peripheral), or the Wii U GamePad, in the pursuit of creating your own custom character. You can then write the data into the figure itself, and take it with you to fight with other Smash players on 3DS or Wii U. It’s an ingenious idea, and one that isn’t limited to a single game. The Amiibo figures have been confirmed to work with games like Mario Kart 8, Hyrule Warriors, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker and Yoshi’s Wooly World! Bizarrely though, some toys have been incredibly hard to find – with certain characters supposedly already being discontinued, despite only being two months old. Nintendo, what are you doing?!

TAT Archive – Sleeping Dogs Wii Edition

Originally Published in 2014, for TAT Games

Sleeping Dogs: Bonus Wii Edition

Wait a minute! Wasn’t Sleeping Dogs supposed to be finished? It was after all a perfect trifecta. However, when composing those magnificent pieces, I became aware that the Wii had many other games that were worth your time – so I scoffed a 1-up, and went for one more go. Enjoy!

 

Little King’s Story

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Developer: Cing

Publisher: Rising Star Games

Released: 2009

Ever since the Wii Remote was first unveiled to the salivating masses in 2005, one aspect of Nintendo’s wonder-wand became ripe with opportunity – and that was its pointer controls. Of course, images of shooting games popped-in everyone’s heads – but another genre that would benefit greatly would be the RTS. Traditionally the domain of PC gamers, the Wii played host to one of the best strategy games of the last generation: Little King’s Story.

Designed by Harvest Moon creator Yasuhiro Wada, Little King’s Story is a brilliant and quirky game that mixes civilisation management with hands-on adventure gameplay and army-building. Taking the role of a lonely boy named Corobo, the game begins when he wanders into a strange land after chasing a group of rats from his home. There he finds a crown, which enables him to issue orders that cannot be refused. Like any 10 year old boy who would be suddenly blessed with such an awesome power, he uses it to rule the kingdom of Alpoko – whilst giving his best friends Liam and Verde the positions of ‘Minister of Anything’ and the ‘Record Keeper’. It’s a hilarious opening that sets the tone of the rest of the game – and it only gets crazier from there. Corobo is also accompanied by his trusted adviser, Howser the Bull Knight, who guides him in his ultimate goal of unifying the seven kingdoms by liberating each of them of their bizarre kings.

Essentially, Little King’s Story is split into two different gameplay styles. The first is the strategy aspect, which entails building your land and issuing commands to your subjects. In addition to constructing training facilities and shops, Corobo can walk around and recruit individual villagers to aid him in his quests, whilst also ordering them to perform various actions. Depending on their job classes, they can be more proficient at certain tasks; which opens a layer of strategy to whom you choose to have accompanied Corobo. For example, a soldier would be better at fighting monsters – but would in turn be pretty lousy at cultivating crops.

This ties into the action-based segments of the game. In addition to combating enemies and invading territory, Corobo must ‘fix’ the lands by using builders to construct bridges, miners to dig caves and clear landslides, and farmers to cultivate the fields. Of course, riches can be accrued and sent back to Alpoko, which makes invasion all the more addictive.

Ugh, that sounds horrible.

In a wonderful twist, Alpoko also has a massive parade the day after every ‘liberation’, which renders Corobo unable to complete many missions; simply because every person is too busy partying to listen. There are many other special days like this – holidays and festivals that add some flair to an already-colourful game. I won’t spoil ‘em though.

With a stirring soundtrack by Yutaka Minobe and Kingdom hearts composer Yoko Shimomura, Little King’s Story is an exuberant game that is one of the Wii’s best. It has also been a re-released on the PS Vita (under New Little King’s Story), but for my money, the original is superior.
Tatsunoko vs. Capcom: Ultimate All-Stars

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Developer: Eighting

Publisher: Capcom

Released: 2010

Did you know? Capcom is famous for its fighting games. Yes, it’s true!

All right, so we all know about the legendary Street Fighter II – perhaps the greatest fighting game of all time – as well as the innumerable spin-offs and sequels that have followed in the proceeding 20 years.

But the venerable Japanese publisher is equally famous for its ‘Vs.’ series – most notably, Marvel vs. Capcom. However, there was another lesser known crossover that made an appearance on the Wii in 2010 (2008 in Japan) – but one that was just as frenetic and grand.

Tatsunoko vs. Capcom: Ultimate All-Stars is a celebration of the coming-together of Japan’s most venerable cartoon institution, and Capcom’s most famous faces.

Wait… Tatsu-what? Don’t worry; you’re forgiven for your unfamiliarity of this particular brand. Though relatively obscure in the Western world – you still may recognise some of its cartoons like Battle of the Planets (Science Ninja Team Gatchaman) and… Er… Well.

Okay, so they are really obscure.

Which, it turns out, was one of the main criticisms of the game… After people begged for it to be released in English. You just have to love gamers some times.

But to be honest, I personally believe this is one of the main appeals of the game. Instead from filling the roster with tried-and-tested characters, Capcom took the plunge and introduced a wide range of new colourful fighters in the attempt to introduce us to the Tatsunoko franchise. From the aforementioned Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, we have Ken the Eagle, Jun the Swan, and Joe the Condor – three Power Rangers-esque crusaders that are clad in bird suits. There is also the android Casshan (who was the inspiration for Mega Man’s abilites), lance-equipped space knight Tekkaman, morphing superhero Hurricane Polymar, boy wonder Yatterman-1, his girlfriend Yatterman-2, and their statuesque nemesis Doronjo, the bloody warrior Karas, robo-soldier Ippatsuman, Tekkaman Blade, and the giant golden robot Gold Lightan – who is so big, he is considered two characters.

Phew. That’s a lot of Japanese names. But fear not, because there are an equal amount of recognisable Capcom favourites who are also ready to do battle!

Who, you may ask? Well, how about Ryu, Chun-li, Alex (from Street Fighter III), Morrigan (Darksiders), Batsu Ichimonji (Rival Schools), MegaMan Volnutt (Mega Man Legends), Kaijin no Soki (Onimusha: Dawn of Dreams), Roll (Mega Man), Saki Omokane (Quiz Nanairo Dreams – a Japanese dating sim), Viewtiful Joe, PTX-40A (Lost Planet), Frank West and Zero. Not a bad little list, huh?

In terms of gameplay, it echoes past ‘Vs.’ games, where tag-team fighting is the order of the day. Compared to the technicality of Street Fighter, the controls are relatively simple – with only three attacks at your disposal; light, medium and strong. Directional inputs enable some variety, as do the Hyper and Team Hyper Combos, which are suitably seizure-inducing.

Unfortunately, with the end of the Tatsunoko partnership, Capcom has ceased production of the game – making it a truly monumental task in finding a copy. Fortunately, it’s also available as an arcade unit, which makes it a little easier in experiencing the game. Either way, you should really try and find it. It’s quite good.
Zack and Wiki: Quest for Barbaros’ Treasure

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Developer: Capcom

Publisher: Nintendo of Europe

Released: 2008

Much like first person shooters and real time strategy games, another genre that was ripe for the Wiimote-picking was the classic point n’ click adventure.

Hampered by the traditional d-pad/thumbstick set-up of past home consoles, the pride and joy of the PC crowd was finally allowed to spread its wings and find a wider audience thanks to the Wii. Though acclaimed titles such as Telltale’s Back to the Future, Sam & Max and Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People were all good fun – it was Capcom’s Zack and Wiki that stole the crown.

A stunning, cel-shaded puzzler, Zack and Wiki: Quest for Barbaros’ Treasure was one of the Wii’s first must-have third-party titles. Following wannabe pirate Zack and his flying golden monkey Wiki (so clichéd); the game takes you through a plethora of colourful and imaginative environments as you try to find the bones of Barbaros – a sentient golden skull who promises to lead the duo to the legendary ‘Treasure Island’. Along their journey, they’re accosted by ‘The Rose Rock Pirates’, which are comprised of the brattish Captain Rose and her simpering, love-struck crew. Fortunately, Zack and Wiki are supported by ‘The Sea Rabbits’ – a motley crew of inimitable folks that look like they were ripped straight from a Nintendo game. Truly, the character and art design is one of the best things about Zack and Wiki – and some of the best work to ever emerge from Capcom. The levels too, are incredibly inspired, with wonderful creatures and truly unique puzzles that can be as brain-bending as they are enjoyable.

And when I say ‘unique’, I really mean it. You see, the game doesn’t play like a conventional point ‘n click; you take control of Zack as he wanders around the game world and interacts with a wide variety of objects and enemies. This is where Wiki comes in; by shaking the Wii Remote, the polished primate transforms into a bell, which can be rung in order to turn certain creatures into usable tools. When Zack arrives at the appropriate spot, the game enters a first-person mode as the tool is used.

As you’d probably expect, this is done via the wonder of motion controls. Wait! Don’t go! Come back!

Because believe it or not, this is actually quite brilliantly done. Despite having about 80 different tools throughout the campaign, the designers never make it a tedious chore. In fact, I would say that it perfectly encapsulates the core appeal of the Wii by genuinely improving the traditional gameplay experience. For example, thrusting the Wiimote backwards and forwards will make Zack saw into a tree in order to make a bridge, or twisting it will make a key unlock a door. At one point, you even have to cradle the thing in your arms like a baby, in order to stop it from crying! It really is cool to try out all the different combinations – and though it could be argued that such ‘actions’ is simply a gimmick in the long run – they’re fun nonetheless. Again, it really is a testament to Capcom’s talents that so many options have been squeezed out from such a simple device like the Wii Remote. They really succeeded where so many others have failed.

If I had any criticisms, I would say that Zack and Wiki can suffer from logic lapses, which can lead to unfair deaths (forcing you to restart the level). In order to alleviate this, Platinum Tickets act as an extra life, and Oracle Dolls issue hints for those who are truly stumped.

Unfortunately, Zack and Wiki bombed badly at retail, which put the kibosh on any potential sequels. Maybe you should fix that, eh? Buy a copy or three and let Capcom know that we want more from them besides Super Mega Ultra Super Duper Street Fighter IV EX Alpha Arcade Edition Vol.XXVII.

2017 Edit: It’s on the Wii U eShop!

 

MadWorld

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Developer: Platinum Games

Publisher: Sega

Released: 2009

So once again, we have a Platinum Games title taking a coveted spot within this feature.

Following the awesomeness that was Vanquish and Bayonetta, we now take a look at the company’s most infamous game; MadWorld.

Chastised by family groups for its violence and vulgarity, MadWorld was one of those rarities – a Nintendo-exclusive mature videogame. Though calling it ‘mature’ would be a little too complimentary, because this is as far as ‘mature’ a videogame can possibly get. However, I would say that this is a main reason for its charm, as the title doesn’t pretend to be anything else other than a Grindhouse-inspired piece of schlock.

Basically, the premise of the game is that of a death-laden reality game show. A terrorist group known as ‘The Organisers’ attack an island known as Varrigan City; by eliminating all transport and communications, before unleashing a deadly virus amongst the populace. If those infected wanted a vaccine – then all they had to do was kill. Enter Jack Cayman; a mechanic and ex-military man with a badass robotic chainsaw arm. Sponsored by the mysterious Agent XIII, he enters Varrigan to ‘play’ the game, as well as to rescue the mayor’s daughter.

Though the plot seems simplistic, it’s actually quite interesting and well-told, and Jack himself cuts and interesting figure. Of course, this being a Platinum game, the main selling point is the high intensity gameplay – and MadWorld delivers in spades.

The most immediate striking feature is the game’s graphical style, which riffs on the comic Sin City. Presented in a cel-shaded black and white style, the only colours shown during gameplay are the comic book-style onomatopoeia – and the red, red blood.

And there is a lot of blood.

Compared to the high octane thrills of Bayonetta, MadWorld is relatively simple – though equally as satisfying. Jack will hack and slash though countless goons as he makes his way through the city. On top of his chainsaw, he can grab a wide array of tools and weapons to use, as well as clutch his enemies and toss them around like rag dolls. Combat is accompanied by a score multiplier, which rewards you for stylish kills. There are plenty of context-sensitive areas which can end in a bloodbath, like meat grinders, acid baths, and lawnmowers. Offing foes in this manner results in the environment being drenched in crimson, but higher scores can be obtained if Jack tortures his foes beforehand. For example, throw a bloke (or even a chick) in a buzz-saw may result in a good score – but throwing a rubber tire over them, impaling their head with a metal pole, and then chucking them on the buzz-saw will result in an even better score.

The thing we do for high scores, eh?

That’s not all. Minigames can be found throughout the levels – which are introduced by the foul-mouthed Black Baron. These range from whacking adversaries onto a giant target with a baseball bat, throwing them in front of a moving train, and even shaking a champagne bottle – before jamming it into their heads, and watching them fly away in a cacophony of blood and foam.

So yeah. Not for the faint of heart, then. Bosses are also present, and they’re both very well-designed and great fun to combat. In addition, a commentary team comprised of Howard “Buckshot” Holmes (voiced by Greg Proops) and Kreese Kreeley (John DiMaggio) talk throughout the action – and their observations are both offensive and hilarious.

So check out MadWorld. It’s a somewhat overlooked piece of Platinum’s history, and offers a fascinating glimpse into just what kind of content Nintendo allowed on the Wii.

 

The Last Story

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Developer: Mistwalker/AQ Interactive

Publisher: Nintendo

Released: 2012

In past Sleeping Dogs pieces, I talked about Operation Rainfall titles Xenoblade Chronicles and Pandora’s Tower, and how you should totally buy them.

Since I’m doing this bonus Wii edition, I thought I may as well shine the limelight on The Last Story… And how you should totally buy it.

Designed by Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, The Last Story is an action RPG much like its Moogle-filled forebear – but with some key differences.

The most evident of these differences is the battle system. Presented in a semi real-time manner, The Last Story’s combat has more in common with Final Fantasy XIII or Xenoblade, where Zael (the main character) can freely run around the environments while his partners generally take care of themselves. There are no items to use, and each character has five lives per battle (making the game way too easy). Still, it does have its unique hooks.

Thanks to an early plot twist, Zael gains a mysterious power that allows him to perform a move called ‘Gathering’. Basically, this makes all enemies focus their attention on him, freeing his comrades from being bothered as they try to cast spells and such. Additionally, Zael can ‘Focus’ on key areas, like weak points on bosses, and even bits of scenery that can be destroyed; for example, enemies hanging of chandeliers can be destroyed by a fire spell, or a bridge can be toppled, bringing its denizens down with it. That’s not all – in a neat twist, spells can be ‘combined’, which creates new moves. Each spell has a circle representing its range, and Zael’s own ‘circle’ can be mixed with different results – he can even negate the effect of enemy magic. In an odd design choice, Zael can even take cover behind walls much like a third person shooter, and can take pops at his foes with a crossbow, or stealthily eliminate them by stabbing them in the back.

As I mentioned, The Last Story is very easy – though it is still a fun game nonetheless. The narrative is very well-told, with genuinely likable characters and quality voice acting. Though pretty clichéd, you’ll still find yourself invested in the plot. Zael is a mercenary who dreams of one day becoming a knight, and his dreams eventually come true when he crosses paths with Calista – the princess of Lazulis Island. Eventually, he and his friends become embroiled in the conflict between Lazulis’ ruler, Count Arganon – and the orc-like race of people called the Gurak. Of course, there are plenty of twists and turns throughout the 20 hour story – but there is also a surprising amount of depth to the sidequests littered throughout the game.

The central hub to everything is Lazulis City – a large, medieval-style town that is jam packed with secrets to find and people to interact with. Aside from the obligatory fetch quests and “come find me!” hide and go seek games; there are also plenty of cool distractions that can suck away hours. The centre of the city is home to a battle arena, where cash and equipment can be won. Blacksmiths can craft new items, rare dragon armour can be found by amassing dragon coins, the subterranean depths can be explored, and there’s even a haunted mansion to investigate. The game can be hysterical too, with well-written jokes and slapstick humour aplenty. Just wait ‘till you make people fall over endlessly on banana skins and bits of fruit. Good times.

The Last Story is a majestic game that is well worth dipping into. Though the graphics are jaggy and the framerate can jerk wildly, it more than makes up for it with a wonderful environment and character designs that really makes Lazulis feel like a real place.

TAT Archive – Sleeping Dogs Pt.3

Originally Published in 2014, for TAT Games

Sleeping Dogs

Five more of the best games you’ve never played during the last generation… Again

Hi ho, and welcome one and all to the third and final part of this epic trilogy. Once more, we enter the dust-covered realm of those under-appreciated games of the last generation – under-appreciated games that are worth a second look-in.

Pandora’s Tower

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Format: Wii

Developer: Ganbarion/Nintendo

Publisher: Nintendo

Released: 2012

The third and final game released as part of ‘Operation Rainfall’, Pandora’s Tower is somewhat of a rarity; an original Nintendo IP that doesn’t skimp on the gory details.

An action RPG in the vein of God of War, Ganbarion’s Wii effort places you in the shoes of Aeron – a prototypical silky-haired, boyishly handsome protagonist who is tasked with traversing 13 towers in the ultimate goal of defeating their ‘master beasts’.

Why?

No, it’s not because he wants to save the world – but rather, he desires to prevent his beloved Elena from turning into a giant slug. Yes, you read that right.

For you see, fair Elena is chosen to sing at the Harvest Festival – a sacred custom of her home; the Kingdom of Elyria. During her sterling performance, however, she is cursed and turned into a monstrous creature. Although reverting back to her human form, it is revealed that she will once again undergo the unwelcome metamorphosis – unless she eats the flesh of the 13 master beasts. Yeah.

Coming from a community of vegetarians, this is clearly a harrowing mission for the poor girl. Fortunately, this is where you – Aeron – come in. Meeting a mysterious merchant named Mavda (who carries the corpse of her husband like a backpack), Aeron receives the Oraclos Chain, a whip-like weapon that allows him to rend the flesh of the fearsome beasts.

So, still with me? Good, because this is only the abridged version of the game’s narrative. Truly, it’s to Ganbarion’s credit that they’ve created such a detailed universe, that it would be a massive shame if it was restricted to one game. Likewise, the art and design is simply top-notch, with incredibly detailed architecture, armour and weapon design that really sells the continent of Imperia as a real world.

But what about the game itself? Well, Pandora’s Tower is an intriguing mix of hack n’ slash and time management, with Elena acting as a traumatised virtual pet, who must be fed monster meat at regular intervals, whilst being soothed by regular chats with Aeron.

In terms of the action scenes, the Oraclos Chain is used as a multi-purpose tool. Not only does it rip apart enemies; it can also bind them together, allowing Aeron to slash them with his sword. It opens up a strategic front to combat, as the chain is unusable during these moments. Additionally, it can be used as a Zelda-type hookshot, grabbing distant items, pulling various switches, and allowing Aeron to do his best Indy impression by swinging across gaps. Items themselves can be sold, or used to craft new weapons and armour. When facing the master beasts themselves, Pandora’s Tower echoes the majesty of Shadow of the Colossus, with incredibly designed bosses that lumber about harmlessly. Of course, you’re forced to be a jerk by killing them dead. Jerk.

As I mentioned earlier, there is also a time-limit to proceedings. Basically, it’s up to you how often you visit and feed Elena. As you might expect, showing-up regularly makes her happy, while neglecting her turns her into an anti-social she-slug. Aeron must always be aware of the speed of his progress. He must always know went to press forward, or when to pull-back and fight another day. Either way, his actions will result in differing endings, which goes some way to offer replay value.

Pandora’s Tower is well worth tracking down. It is one of the few games where the Wii Remote + Nunchuk option is the superior set-up – genuinely highlighting how motion controls can actually improve a gaming experience.

2017 Edit: It’s on the Wii U eShop!

 

El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron

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Format: PS3 & Xbox 360

Developer: Ignition Tokyo

Publisher: UTV Ignition Entertainment

Released: 2011

When one tries to think of instances of the successful intermingling of biblical tales and videogaming, thoughts generally turn to oddities such as animal-bothering simulator Super Noah’s Ark – where faithful reinterpretation isn’t exactly high on the priority list.

Props then, to Ignition Tokyo, for having the stones to create El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron.

A stylistic retelling of the story of Enoch and his quest to find Heaven’s seven fallen angels, El Shaddai is a stunning effort by the Japanese developer; an effort that has sadly (albeit somewhat expectedly) gone unrewarded.

In case you need to brush up on your Bible studies (like, er, I did), the game centres around Enoch; a scholar who was allowed to live in paradise amongst the angels. Unfortunately, seven of the blighters decide that Earth is the place to be, so they decide to vamoose – resulting in a pissed-off God who threatens to drown humanity.

That is, unless Enoch can bring them back.

This is done by hacking, slashing, and hopping about on platforms. Yes, El Shaddai does its best Dante’s Inferno impression by becoming an action game; but unlike EA’s abominable effort, Ignition Tokyo handles the subject matter with a poise that is sadly very rare in the gaming industry. Instead of shock value, El Shaddai is an elegant piece of art, where wondrous watercolours and abstract imagery reign supreme. Truly, this is one of the best looking games you’ll ever play, with dreamlike environments and peculiar character design that makes every moment a pure joy for your eyes. Though the majority of the game is set in a giant tower, each ‘floor’ represents a different world that is completely different from the others. One level ‘does’ an Okami by smothering the screen in bold lines and traditional Japanese aesthetic. Another acts as a bright and colourful 2D platformer, complete with blobby little Nephilim characters prancing about. One stage even takes place in a futuristic city-scape, where Enoch gets to cruise around on a badass bike whilst demolishing giant robots.

Despite such a vast array in visual styles, the game still manages to feel cohesive – which is a true testament to the skill of the artists.

In terms of gameplay, proceedings are fairly simple. Enoch only has three different types of weapon at his disposal – and though they’re given fancy names, they pretty much fit the ‘quick > medium > heavy’ template, with combat echoing the tried-and-true rock-paper-scissors dynamic. At regular interval, Enoch must ‘purify’ his weapon by pressing the L button, lest he be corrupted by its energy. It’s basically a good/evil morality system, but it doesn’t make much difference in the long run. This is very much a narrative-focused game; there’s even a super-easy mode that negates the risk of death – and even in the ‘normal’ mode, there is little to fear from expiration.

Still, El Shaddai is still worth experiencing. Sometimes the thrill is in the story – and not the difficulty. It’s still fairly easy to find, so don’t resist snapping-up a copy!

 

Sin and Punishment: Successor of the Skies

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Format: Wii

Developer: Treasure

Publisher: Nintendo

Released: 2010

Remember that N64 game, Sin & Punishment? The one developed by Treasure, where you played as spunky teens Saki Amamiya and Airan Jo as they travelled through incredible environments, as they shot and slashed every living thing around them in the hyper-kinetic pursuit of that almighty high score?

No, of course you don’t.

Despite having full English voice acting, Sin & Punishment was never released outside Japan. For seven long years, we lowly Western gamers lived in abject misery knowing that we would never get such a brilliant title – until the glorious gateway known as the Virtual Console, which saw the game finally release worldwide on the Wii. In glee, we bought the game in droves (well, I hope you did, dear reader), and revelled in its bullet-ridden madness. Clearly, Nintendo noticed this flurry of activity, as it decided to commission Treasure to create a sequel tailor-built for the Wii.

Fast-forward to 2010, and Sin and Punishment: Successor of the Skies was born. Though Australia never got it (outside of one retailer). Typical.

Taking control of Isa Jo (the son of the original protagonists), and a new girl named Kachi, Successor of the Skies is basically the same concept as its forebear – only bigger, badder, and bolder. That concept? An on-rails shooter akin to Sega’s Space Harrier, where countless enemies and enormous bosses flood the TV screen as you madly try to keep your score multiplier alive and kicking. A melee weapon can also be used to slice enemies and deflect projectiles back to their original owners, whilst shifts in perspective ensure that things never get too stale. Furthermore, both Isa and Kachi possess unique traits that mix things up a little; the former can use his backpack to hover, whilst switching between auto and manual aiming; and the latter has a nifty hoverboard and the ability to lock-on the multiple targets at once.

Visually, it’s a stunner too. Much like the N64 version before it, this next-gen – ahem – Successor, pushes its host console to breaking-point. The Wii gasps and grunts as it pushes so many polygons at a blistering pace, whilst flaunting graphical effects like bloom, depth-of-field, and wobbly transparency-o-vision. Enemy design is similarly spectacular, with giant, screen-filling creatures that echo the tried-and-true traditions of the very best Treasure games – and the immense challenge that comes with it.

For a machine that was derided for its ‘casual’ slant, Sin and Punishment: Successor of the Skies is a remarkably hardcore Wii game; and one that should not be missed out on. Maybe if you all buy it, we’ll get a Sin & Punishment 3 on Wii U, eh?

2017 Edit: It’s on the Wii U eShop!

 

Bayonetta

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Format: Xbox 360 & PS3

Developer: Platinum Games

Publisher: Sega

Released: 2010

September 13, 2012 will be a day that will be remembered for a long time to come.

Why? Because it was the day that Bayonetta 2 was announced – and it was coming exclusively to Wii U.

Like a hellish fissure that cracked along the ground, the internet exploded in a great rage that was felt in every digital corner. No one was safe, as vitriol was violently hurled toward Nintendo for ‘stealing’ their beloved Platinum-class franchise right from under their quivering noses.

Of course, anyone with a modicum of sense sees things differently.

Because the bottom line is that we are getting a sequel to one of the best action games ever made. We should be happy.

A foreign concept, I know.

Somewhat ironically, the original Bayonetta was published by Nintendo’s former nemesis, Sega – who also financed the similarly awesome MadWorld and Vanquish. The game puts you in the high (rocket) heels of Bayonetta – a witch packed to the brim with insane weapons, witty double-entendres, and shape-shifting hair that acts as her dominatrix-inspired outfit. The narrative is suitably crazy, when she awakens from a 500 year deep lake slumber, before finding herself suffering from some gnarly amnesia. It’s a bugger when that happens, huh? Anyway, she finds herself owning one half of the ‘Eyes of the World’, before being told by an informant named Enzo that the other half is in the European city of Vigrid. Over the course of the campaign, the plot twists and turns at an alarming rate, with lore about Umbra Witches, Lumen Sages, and Cardinal Virtues all up in your face.

The action is equally remorseless. Bayonetta makes games like Devil May Cry look positively sedate in comparison, with a combat system that is smooth as silk. Aside from the expected inclusion of combos and juggles, the sultry witch can also perform ‘Torture Attacks’, slow down proceedings with ‘Witch Time’, transform into vicious creatures, and steal weapons from her foes. There’s even an arcade shoot em’ up called ‘Angel Attack’, where you can blast angels for points – and then use those points for upgrades. Your ammo is a collectable currency called ‘Arcade Bullets’, which adds a nice dose of strategy to the proceedings. You can also collect ‘Halos’ in order to upgrade weapons and buy techniques, and do something relating to a ‘Climax’.

I’ll let you figure that one out yourself.

Bayonetta is such a smooth, complete package. Its tongue-in-cheek humour is symbolic of a wider design philosophy at work; a design philosophy that hearkens back to the good old days of gaming, where the only thing that mattered was being awesome. There are no pretentious messages or thought-provoking themes, or bare-bones linearity that accommodates only one play-style. Bayonetta is a gamer’s game, with Platinum’s obsession over minute details echoing the very best combat games from Capcom (which is apt, considering the two firms have shared personnel).

It’s says a lot when a game sells two million copies, yet still feels like a snubbed gem. It’s to Nintendo’s credit that it decided to revive the series for a second chance at glory, and I personally can’t wait to once again experience a climax with Bayonetta 2.

That sounded less disgusting in my head.

2017 Edit: It’s on the Wii U and Steam!

 
Metroid Prime: Trilogy

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Format: Wii

Developer: Retro Studios

Publisher: Nintendo

Released: 2009

When composing a list of great videogames that were overlooked, one of the last titles one would expect to see is Metroid – one of the most iconic franchises in the entire industry.

Despite their incredible quality, the adventures of Samus Aran have never been particularly big sellers for Nintendo (relatively speaking), so it’s a shame to see such an amazing product like the Metroid Prime: Trilogy get such a limited release.

Packing Retro Studios’ genre-defining Metroid Prime games onto a single disc, this trifecta is utterly essential for any collector – and gamer – worth their salt.

First, Metroid Prime. Originally released in 2002 for the Gamecube, this was the game that finally bought the series into 3D (after skipping the N64) – and good lord, was it magnificent. Played in a first person perspective, Prime followed Samus as she explored the richly detailed world of Tallon IV in the pursuit of the alien Space Pirates. Much like its predecessors, the plot wasn’t told through cutscenes (*cough*OtherM*cough*), but via the world itself. Journal entries littered Space Pirate computers and terminals, whilst flora, fauna and enemies could be scanned and catalogued. The system really evoked a sense of ‘place’, as did the ‘Metroidvania’ structure that was successfully replicated in the 3D world.

Released in 2004, Metroid Prime 2: Echoes is perhaps seen as the dark horse of the trio (though it is my personal favourite). Travelling to the planet Aether in response to a distress signal sent by Galactic Federation Marines, Samus finds herself trapped between two alternate dimensions; the light of the Luminoth, and the darkness of the Ing. Much like Nintendo’s own The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, this light/dark dynamic is used to its fullest potential, with the duelling gameplay creating mind-bending puzzles, and a reliance on polarising ammunition ensuring that there is a new twist to combat and exploration. It’s also the most difficult game of the collection – though it’s been toned-down a little from the GCN version. Additionally, there is a multi-player mode… But let’s just ignore that, eh?

The final title is the 2007 Wii original, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption. This final chapter takes a more action-oriented approach – though it still contains plenty of exploration and puzzling. Instead of one location, Samus travels to different worlds in order to stop the spread of the deadly substance known as Phazon, as well as to combat a wide array of colourful (albeit poorly-voiced) bounty hunters. This was one of the first Wii titles to show what the console was truly capable of – both graphically, and in terms of the capabilities of the Wii Remote and Nunchuk.

It’s the influence of the third game that has seeped into parts one and two. Now, all games are controlled with the Wii set-up, which works dazzlingly. In addition, the achievement-esque credit awards from Corruption are now incorporated across the whole package, rewarding players with artwork, music, the ability to take screenshots, Samus’ Metroid Fusion suit, and decorative knick-knacks for her ship. Of course, the GCN games also now run in widescreen, and there are various graphical tweaks to make the generational gap less noticeable.

If you can find it cheap (well, relatively cheap, as copies can fetch up to $200), you need to absolutely jump on it, and experience some 50 hours of the best videogames ever made.

2017 Edit: It’s on the Wii U eShop!

TAT Archive – Sleeping Dogs Pt.2

Originally Published in 2014, for TAT Games

Sleeping Dogs

Five more of the best games you never played during the last generation

Welcome, one and all, to part two of Sleeping Dogs. If you’re tired of the ‘mainstream’ videogames clogging up your time – then do yourself a favour, and give these overlooked classics a spin. Cram ‘em into your disc slot, and enjoy the fact that you’re now on the ‘inside’ of obscure gaming culture. You hipster, you.

Deadly Premonition

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Format: Xbox 360, PS3, PC

Developer: Access Games

Publisher: Rising Star Games

Release: 2010

Deadly Premonition is a bad game.

Looking like a forgotten relic of the PS2-era, it was designed by Hidetaka Suehiro – AKA SWERY – and was released to great derision.

Why? Well, there were the awful visuals, with fuzzy objects and muddy textures that made eyes water in disbelief. There were the unintuitive controls that made traversal a chore. The repetitive, plinky-plonky music that sounded like it was ripped straight from a low-budget RPG. The voice overs which reflected how bored-stiff the actors were. The stiff character movements. The useless map which made navigation next to impossible. The repetitive combat scenarios. The cereal-boxes masquerading as cars.

So, then why in the hell is this game included here?

Because, for all of its (many) faults, Deadly Premonition has gained a cult following. For almost every piece of scorn heaped upon it, the game was also showered with praise. Infamously one of the most divisive games ever made, SWERY’s magnum opus was granted review scores from both ends of the spectrum – with verdicts ranging from two to 10 out of 10. It even holds a Guinness World Record for its divisiveness – so it’s official and everything.

Supporters of Deadly Premonition found merits within its open-world (and open-ended) gameplay, which echoed Sega classic Shenmue. Playing as FBI agent Francis York Morgan (but please, just call him York), players find themselves in the enigmatic, Twin Peaks-esque town of Greenvale as they attempt to solve a gruesome murder of a woman. Partnering with the gruff town sheriff George Woodman and token female deputy Emily Wyatt, York gradually uncovers a bunch of gruesome secrets that is emblematic of the murder mystery genre. The plot is infused with a supernatural flair, as York is regularly accosted by murderous ghosts (that can be conveniently shot), suffocating red vines, and a Nemesis-style recurring enemy that wields an axe and sports a stylin’ red raincoat.

But the main ‘appeal’ of Deadly Premonition is Greenvale itself.

Truly, this is a town where one can get lost in (literally, thanks to the crappy map). From dusk ‘till dawn, Greenvale is crammed full of activities that threaten to make York completely forget why he’s there in the first place. Every major character has their own life they attend to; and when they’re not being accosted by the FBI agent, they’re going about their own business – business that even changes depending on the weather.

Although he can sleep in many different places, York has a room at the local hotel. Upon waking every morning, you have the choice of changing outfits (and cleaning dirty ones), shaving, and having breakfast. A coffee aficionado, York can even get his fortune told by his beverage’s swirling milk.

In the town itself, he can drive around in his squad car and search for numerous asides. Side-quests range from the obligatory citizen favour-granting – to things like fishing, racing, collecting rare cards, playing darts at bars, digging-up human bones (yep), and play peeping tom by peeking in windows (double yep). His vehicle can even run out of fuel and break-down – requiring funds to fix the thing up. York even gets hungry and tired, so players must regularly feed him and make sure he gets a nap once in a while.

Get past the slow opening hours, and Deadly Premonition will – at the very least – offer an experience you won’t forget any time soon.

 

Punch-Out!!

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Format: Wii

Developer: Next Level Games

Publisher: Nintendo

Release: 2009

You can be forgiven for not even being aware of this game’s existence. Just blame Nintendo. Shamefully, the company decided that the first Punch-Out!! sequel in nearly 15 years wasn’t worth an Australian-wide release (along with the similarly shunned Wii game Excitebots), leaving only one retail chain to stock limited copies of the game.

With Little Mac’s long-overdue inclusion onto the playable roster of Super Smash Bros, now is the perfect time to dive into this sleeper hit, which takes the all-time classic Punch-Out!! gameplay, and successfully transplants it into the 21st century.

Next Level Games have done a sterling job with this title, which boasts some of the best character animations seen on the Wii. Again under the tutelage of chocolate-scoffing trainer Doc Luis, Little Mac must (surprise) battle some of the world’s best boxers in order to make his way up the ranks and become the champion of the ‘World Video Boxing Association’.

In gameplay terms, this means battling tongue-in-cheek racial stereotypes via the traditional view behind Mac himself – just like it has always been. In truth, almost nothing has changed since Super Punch-Out!!, with Nintendo preferring to stick to the tried-and-true formula of scouting an opponent’s chink in their armour, before capitalising via unrelenting fisticuffs.

As anyone who has played any version of Punch-Out!! will tell you, the game is just as much puzzler as it is a fighting simulation – and the difficulty can be unforgiving as a result.

The Wii sequel is no different – which gives a black-eye to anyone who criticises Nintendo’s waggle box as the haven for ‘casual’ gamers only. Indeed, this is one of the hardest games I’ve personally played – but it can be beaten. Truly, for all of the spiffing visuals and cartoony imagery, Next Level has nailed the old school sense of success by perseverance; of learning every intricate offensive and defensive manoeuvre of rival boxers. Words truly can’t express the feeling of satisfaction when Mac just floors his adversary with one well-timed, accurate punch.

And they are truly some colourful adversaries.

Old favourites such as the weedy Glass Joe, the bulbous King Hippo, and the terrifying Mr. Sandman return, as well as newbies like Disco Kid and Donkey Kong (yes). As I mentioned, each (mildly offensive) character is like a living cartoon, with evocative facial expressions and exaggerated movements that really make them pop from the screen. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Super Macho Man flex his buttocks like a madman.

Er. Yeah.

As expected for a Wii game, there are multiple control options available, including the surprisingly playable combo of Wii Remote and Nunchuk, as well as compatibility with the Wii Balance Board. However, purists would ultimately benefit from the traditional ‘NES’ style input (solo Wii Remote held on its side).

If you can find a cheap deal online, I’d say go for it. You’ll be knocked-out by its quality.

Sorry.

2017 Edit: It’s on the Wii U eShop!

 

 

ICO & Shadow of the Colossus Classics HD

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Format: PS3

Developer: Team Ico/Bluepoint Games

Publisher: Sony

Release: 2011

In the first edition of Sleeping Dogs, I talked about Ōkami, and its seemingly eternal struggle to find the audience it deserved. A continuous cycle of rebirth and negligence, Capcom’s cel-shaded masterpiece was re-released multiple times in an attempt to gain some much-needed attention.

In a way, the same thing has happened to Fumito Ueda.

With not just one – but two – virtually ignored PS2 classics acting as very fluffy feathers in his cap, the Japanese design luminary got a second chance with the Ico & Shadow of the Colossus Classics HD – a PS3 port of, well, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus.

Despite being two different titles, Team Ico’s dual masterworks both share thematically similar aspects. Both are set in a mysterious, unnamed fantasy world. Both are achingly beautiful. And both communicate with the player in a minimalist fashion, where the mantra of ‘show, don’t tell’ reigns supreme.

And what a show.

First; Ico. Released in 2001, this was seen as (arguably) the PlayStation 2’s first killer-app. Set within a dank, gloomy castle, you play as…well, Ico – a young boy with horns, who awakens from a coffin-like prison. As he tries to find his way out, he eventually comes across a ghostly girl named Yorda – who speaks are cryptic language that serves as a communicative barrier between the two. However, this is where the beauty if the game shines through, as Ico and Yorda regardless develops a deep relationship as they manoeuvre their way through the labyrinthine environment. Holding hands in a touching fashion, they scramble, climb and solve puzzles whilst desperately trying to fend-off evil shadows that try to take the girl away. This is done by whacking them with a stick. It’s all so elegantly simple – that even the mere event of escaping in the courtyard and seeing the sunshine is an event in itself.

Now onto Shadow of the Colossus. Unleashed toward the end of the PS2’s life in 2005, this served as a prequel to Ico – but the gameplay itself was really rather different; not just from its forebear, but from anything else at the time. Taking control of a young swordsman named Wander, you find yourself tasked with slaying 16 monolithic colossi in an effort to revive a slain girl named Mono. There are no other enemies in the game besides these roaming giants; and they’re found by – ahem – ‘wandering’ a massive open land on your trusty steed named Agro. Once spotted, each monster must literally be climbed as they try to swat you like a fly, and this is where the main thrill of the game lies. The differing designs of each colossus ensure that every clash is just as much a puzzle as it is a sheer battle of wills, and the feeling of finally slaying each beast is one of euphoria and utter triumph. Shadow of the Colossus is bigger and bolder than Ico – but that feeling of ephemeral ‘otherness’ is still present; and it’s a feeling that is utterly unique to this HD collection.

Ico and Shadow of the Colossus are undisputed works of genius that deserve to be remembered for years to come.

And the story is set to continue with The Last Guardian. Eventually. One day. Maybe before the sun explodes and kills us all.

2017 Edit: Oh my.

2017 Edit 2: It’s being remade for PS4!

 

 

Opoona

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Format: Wii

Developer: ArtePiazza

Publisher: Koei

Release: 2008

Opoona.

That’s a name that just conveys images of an epic adventure. An epic adventure that provides hours upon hours of in-depth gameplay, an involving plot, lush visuals and an intricate battle system.

Right?

Right. At first glance, Opoona is a deceptively simple-looking game. One could be forgiven for thinking its bright, bold colours and unassuming character designs are emblematic of a children’s game; one that belongs in the bottom of the Wii bargain bin.

Unfortunately, this untrue perception ultimately became the reality for this charming title by ArtePiazza, as sluggish sales ensured a swift demise for any potential sequel.

Releasing on the same day as Super Mario Galaxy tends to do that to a game. Sigh.

So, what is Opoona?

Described as a “lifestyle RPG” by the developers, the game follows the main protagonist Opoona (surprise!); an alien who possesses a mystical ‘bonbon’ that serves as his weapon.- a characteristic shared by his ‘Tizian’ race that act as guardian warriors throughout the cosmos. The story begins with Opoona on a vacation with his family, as they travel in a spaceship on their way to Landroll – a planet that has stopped rotating after a dark comet struck it centuries earlier. Humans now live on the world under domed cities, which serve as protection from the ‘rogues’ – monsters that have emerged from the gloomy crater.

After an unknown force strikes their ship, Opoona – along with his siblings, Copoona and Poleena – are placed into escape pods by their parents, and are jettisoned to Landroll. It’s a surprisingly sad scene – and one that makes you feel sorry for the kids, especially after what comes next.

Waking in ‘Tokione’ – the biggest city in Landroll, Opoona leans that his parents have been critically injured, and are hospitalised at the ‘healing’ city of Sanctuary. Whilst they recover, Opoona is forced to undertake a profession and contribute to Landrollian society.

With the core vocation of ‘Ranger’ (basically, a soldier), the young lad is tasked with entering the wilderness and offing monsters with his bonbon, as he makes his way up through the ranks.

The battle system is turn-based, with the player required to toss Opoona’s bonbon at a wide variety of colourful enemies. Speed and trajectory can be manipulated via the analogue stick, with curved throws and spirals essential to defeating enemies whilst bypassing dangerous obstacles (such as bombs).

As he makes his way through the game, Opoona eventually teams with his brother Copoona and sister Poleena, whilst undertaking a wide variety of side-jobs. Illustrating the ‘lifestyle’ moniker of the game’s tagline, Opoona can take advantage of many employment opportunities – such as farmer, miner, seamaster, cleaner, attendant, ukulele player and even TV star. Additionally, he can form relationships with many different NPC’s, watch TV shows, buy a pet, and even get an apartment.

With art design by Shintaro Majima of Dragon Quest fame, and a lovely soundtrack by Final Fantasy XII composer Hitoshi Sakimoto, Opoona is well worth tracking down.

 

3D Dot Game Heroes

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Format: PS3

Developer: Silicon Studio

Publisher: SouthPeak Games

Release: 2010

Ever wanted to play a Zelda game in 3D?

Well, now you can – with 3D Dot Game Heroes! Toss aside that lousy copy of Ocarina of Time, and play Zelda the way it was meant to be played – as if the last 30 years never happened.

Developed by Silicon Studio (the fab folks behind the 3DS game Bravely Default) 3D Dot Game Heroes is a love letter to the action-adventure games of the 8-bit era. Evoking the gameplay and imagery of classic games such as The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy Adventure, and Dragon Quest – 3DDGH takes these digital pioneers, and transplants them on PS3.

Set in the kingdom of Dotnia, you play as a custom created hero, as s/he bravely battles the evil forces of Dark Bishop Fuelle in a quest to rid the land of darkness and to prevent the resurrection of Gan… Er, I mean Dark King Onyx. Obviously, it’s all simple stuff – and that’s exactly the point.

The main appeal is in the 8-bit gameplay that is presented in glorious HD-o-vision. In a nice bit of lore, the King of Dotnia decreed that the land simply looked too tired in 2D – hence its transformation into (you guessed it) 3D. The blocky characters look gorgeous, and the gameplay itself is a smooth as butter.

There are no revelations here. You slay enemies, explore dungeons, gain items, and uncover secrets. But that’s all that’s needed. It’s an awesome nod to times past, and there are a couple of cool new ideas – such as an enormous sword that grows all the way across the screen, and an enemy encyclopaedia that is expanded by literally beating the book on their heads.

Now if that is no reason to buy this game, then I don’t know what is.

TAT Archive – Sleeping Dogs Pt.1

Originally Published in 2014, for TAT Games

Sleeping Dogs

Five of the best games you never played during the last generation

Welcome one and all, to the first of a series of features that will cast the limelight on videogames of the last generation – that is, videogames that were shunted to the side and didn’t attain the success that they so richly deserved. As we enter a new generation of gaming consoles and handhelds, it’s important to remember that there will be great titles; titles that exude imagination and quality in equal measures. Unfortunately, it is a given that many of these will be kicked to the curb. Heck, we’re already seeing it now (Wonderful 101, please stand forward). However, you can rectify those past sins, by following this essential guide.

Xenoblade Chronicles

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Format: Wii

Developer: Monolith Soft

Publisher: Nintendo

Release: 2011

If you were asked the question “what was the best JRPG of the last generation?” what would your answer be? Lost Odyssey? Final Fantasy XIII? Wrong on both counts, boyo. The correct response is “Xenoblade Chronicles, oh benevolent master.”

Such was the game’s quality that a massive fan campaign dubbed ‘Operation Rainfall’ was enacted in a desperate bid to get the game (along with The Last Story and Pandora’s Tower) released on western shores. And luckily it worked, because Xenoblade is the best JRPG of the last decade.

Following a young lad named Shulk – who finds himself wielding the mythical blade known as the Monado in a desperate bid to battle the fearsome Mechon – Xenoblade Chronicles is an epic adventure that is set on the battle-locked corpses of two gods. It’s not as gruesome as it sounds, as one god – the Bionis (where the good guys live) – is actually more like a rocky statue that is covered in mountains, forests, oceans and canyons. Its foe – the Mechonis – is basically a giant robot that is home to millions of smaller robots. Robots that love nothing more than invading the Bionis and slaughtering its denizens, that is.

At its most basic form, the storyline of the game follows Shulk and a bunch of friends who find themselves embroiled within the war of the Mechon, as they journey across (well, up) the Bionis in an attempt to kick ass and take names. Obviously, the plot gets much more complicated than that (what with this being a JRPG and all), but I’d be cruel to spoil it – as it does become genuinely mind-blowing before the end.

Also mind-blowing is the game itself; an epic adventure that pushes the Wii’s humble innards to breaking point as Monolith Soft treats gamers with some of the biggest and most gorgeous worlds ever seen in a videogame. Large cities, grassy plains, glittering oceans, steamy forests, snowy mountains, labyrinthine caverns, futuristic dungeons… This game has it all; and the fact that there are barely any load times is just the icing on this already-heaving cake. What’s even more amazing is that there is a very real sense of ascension as Shulk and his crew make their way ever upwards along the Bionis. The starting town? It’s on the knee. Those grassy plains? On the leg. Snowy mountains? The arm. That ocean? Plonked on the head. It all makes the linear corridors of Final Fantasy XIII look positively embarrassing by comparison.

The battle system, too, is wonderful. A mixture of turn-based and real-time thumping that is so popular these days, what’s really great is that punishment isn’t as arbitrary and frustrating as its genre forebears. Death isn’t met with a trip back to the last save point, but rather the nearest ‘landmark’ – points of interest that also serve as warp-points. You get to keep your experience points and items, which means there is virtually no risk in venturing off the beaten track and coming across a high-level foe – before it proceeds to wipe the floor with your corpse. Still, yay exploration!

EXP is also given out for completing side-quests – of which there are literally hundreds. EXP is also given out for… finding rare items and filling out an addictive stamp book, re-building an entire colony, crafting materia-style gems, finding secret areas, battling legendary creatures, etc, etc. It really is a generous game – one that gave me 112 hours of entertainment – and I still didn’t do everything there was to do!

Lucky there’s also a New Game + eh?

2017 Edit: It’s on the Wii U eShop and New 3DS!

 

Shadows of the Damned

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Format: PS3, Xbox 360

Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture

Publisher: EA

Release: 2011

Ah, Suda 51. Who on this earth can resist the madcap antics of one of Japan’s most eccentric game developers?

A lot of people apparently, judging by the miserly sales of most of his games. To be fair though, Suda-san’s titles aren’t exactly what I’d call ‘accessible’. Killer 7, No More Heroes, Flower Sun and Rain… Honestly, this feature could just as easily be filled with Grasshopper’s output, and there’d still be games to spare.

Still, there’s one in particular that I found to be a righteous good time, and that was the EA-published Shadows of the Damned, an action-horror game developed in conjunction with legendary Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami, and Silent Hill composer Akira Yamaoka.

Following the exploits of Mexican demon hunter Garcia Hotspur (yes), you find yourself descending into the very depths of hell itself, in the pursuit of your girlfriend Paula, who has been kidnapped by the king of hell, Fleming. Along for the ride is Johnson, a regal ex-demon who takes the shape of a skull that can morph into guns for Garcia to use. Guns that shoot bones and teeth.

Did I mention this is a Suda 51 game?

This all basically boils down to an eight hour long, fairly generic third-person shooter. However, the magic isn’t in the gameplay, but the insane, hilarious, and creepy settings. Suda’s version of hell is a unique blend of S&M, meathooks, and pitch black streets that look like they come from Ripper-era London. It’s a place where demons literally live and die under the suffocating shadow of Fleming’s tower. A place where bleating goat heads radiate safe, holy light. A place where wailing baby faces are fed strawberries in order to access secret areas. A place where a demon merchant named Cristopher sounds like a hillbilly. A place where a floating, defecating eyeball with wings acts as a save point. A place where Garcia sporadically screams “taste my big boner!”

Did I mention this was a Suda 51 game?

Fair warning to those who decide to track this cult classic down; it is not for the easily offended or faint of heart. But as a result, it is utterly crass and hilarious. Just the way I like ‘em.

 

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories

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Format: Wii, PS2, PSP

Developer: Climax Studios

Publisher: Konami

Release: 2009

Over the last five years or so, it became a seemingly accepted fact that survival horror games were dead. Unlike the lurching monstrosities that so defined titles like Resident Evil, Clock Tower and Alone in the Dark, creepy games would remain six-feet under; without the opportunity to spring back to life like, well, like the living dead.

However, this isn’t entirely true. PC classics like Amnesia: Dark Descent, Slender Man and (to a lesser extent) Dear Esther proved that eerie experiences were still in abundant supply. Still, there was one home console that gave the PC a run for its money in providing frightful content… And that was the (yep, you guessed it) Wii (oh, PS2 and PSP too).

What? Balls and Poppycock!” I hear you bellow, as you shove a copy of Carnival Games in my face, “The Wii wasn’t even a real, hardcore games console! Everyone knows that!”

First, shhh. Be quiet. You’re embarrassing yourself.

Second. No, I’m quite serious. The Wii had some great horror games. Cursed Mountain, Fatal Frame IV, Project Zero 2, House of the Dead: Overkill, Dead Space: Extraction, Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles and The Darkside Chronicles… Heck, if you want to really stretch the genre’s definition, you could probably add the similarly unnerving Fragile Dreams: Farwell Ruins of the Moon and Deadly Creatures to the list too.

But one game trumps them all – and that is Silent Hill: Shattered Memories; a game that rivals Silent Hill 2 as the best of Konami’s psychological terrors. Yes.

I don’t take that statement lightly, but SH:SM is that good. It is an absolute travesty that it flopped the way it did, because I found the game to be a genuinely unforgettable experience.

A quasi-remake of the first Silent Hill, Shattered Memories casts you in the role of Harry Mason; a bespectacled author who literally loses his seven-year old daughter, Cheryl, after veering his car off the icy road. Harry awakens to find her missing, so he whips his torch out before venturing into the chilly (both literally and figuratively) town of Silent Hill.

But, before you do any of this, the game performs a psychological test on you. It needs to find out if you’re suitable, see. Under the icy gaze of Dr. Kaufmann, you are asked a series of uncomfortable questions that can directly influence aspects of the game. What kind of questions? Well, how about ‘Have you ever cheated on your partner?’ Or how about ‘Did you lose your virginity in high school?’ Or ‘Do you drink more than you should?’

As you give your responses (by literally filling in the papers), aspects of Harry’s journey will alter to reflect your personality. For example, if you like to partake in a little drinky-drinky, then cola bottles at an abandoned playground will turn into beer. Or, if the game thinks you’re a bit of a sex-pest, then female characters will be dressed a little more provocatively.

This is how Shattered Memories works. It’s always judging you. It even notes when your gaze lingers a little too long on a filthy poster, or if you care enough to glance at a missing child sign.

The gameplay itself is similarly hair-raising – and all the more brilliant for it. With his smartphone, Harry can take pictures of ghosts, call various numbers strewn about the place, and receive messages from dead people (that is relayed through the Wiimote’s actual speaker). Speaking of the Wiimote, so many incremental objects can be poked, prodded and fiddled with – giving the world a real sense of tactility. And eventually, when the monsters eventually come out to play, all he can do is run – there is no combat in this game.

An absolute must-play. But nothing beats Ninjabread Man on the scar-o-meter.

 

Vanquish

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Format: PS3, Xbox 360

Developer: Platinum Games

Publisher: Sega

Release: 2010

Ahhh, 3rd person shooters. Where would we be without ‘em? Since Shinji Mikami (yep, him again) reinvented the action-horror genre with the horrifyingly brilliant Resident Evil 4 in 2004, it seems that the genre hasn’t progressed a lot since Leon Kennedy’s foray into Europe. With the now-familiar ‘over the shoulder’ view that crams the protagonist into the foreground, TPS games have doggedly stuck to a tried-and-true formula – with perhaps the most famous recent games being Microsoft’s Gears of War series. After all, if it ain’t broke, why fix it? Suda 51 certainly didn’t with Shadows of the Damned.

But for one man, this wasn’t good enough. In 2010, shooting-action received a major kick up the ass with Vanquish – an unreal, lightning fast, bullet-ridden venture that was like the mental lovechild of Dragon Ball Z and Halo. And we have Shinji Mikami to thank for this sublime piece of software – a piece of software that was made by Platinum Games.

And if Platinum Games made it, then you know it’s good.

Set in the near future where the Americans have ventured into the ‘O’ Neil Cylinder’ – a solar-powered space station that acts as a reprieve from the over-populated and polluted planet known as ‘Earth’ – Vanquish begins when an evil terrorist group known as the ‘Order of the Russian Star’ hijacks the tube-shaped wonder city, before blasting San Francisco off the map with a super sun laser. Playing as nicotine-loving DARPA researcher Sam Gideon, your main ace in the hole is the ‘Augmented Reaction Suit’ (ARS), an awesome piece of armour that allows the magic to happen. Basically, This all boils down to Sam and a bunch of other soldiers being sent to the O’ Neil Cylinder to shoot a whole bunch of Ruskie robots (no human enemies here), whilst shouting obscenities and flipping all over the place. It’s as awesome as it sounds.

To put it bluntly, Vanquish makes every other 3rd person shooter look positively archaic in comparison. The fact that it hasn’t been copied since either speaks a lot about the timidity of other developers – or the sheer brilliance of Platinum’s coders. Probably a bit of both. I know I would be terrified if I ever tried to emulate the sheer intensity on offer here.

Right, so think of a TPS game. Okay? Got it. Now, imagine if your character has had a jetpack strapped to his back and his feet, which allows him to perform backflips, cartwheels, and floor-slides. Because that’s what Sam Gideon does. Not only that, but you can still fire your weapon while doing all of this, which gives a whole new layer to the gameplay. In order to stop players spamming Sam’s acrobatics, his suit’s power can easily overheat, adding a risk/reward dynamic that adds a tinge of strategy to the proceedings. At first, this system is quite complicated, and you’ll probably find yourself dying more often than you’d like. However, if you stick with it, a rewarding piece of software will eventually rear its head – one that really flaunts its intricate system. The fact that Sam doesn’t accrue items or skills at all during the (fairly short) campaign really speaks volumes of the talent of Mikami’s motley crew. The only way he gets better is if you get better.

When everything eventually clicks, there’s a sense of nirvana that very few games can achieve. Find Vanquish. Buy Vanquish. And master Vanquish. And cross your fingers that a sequel may rear its beautiful head one day…

2017 Edit: It’s on Steam!

 

Ōkami

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Format: PS2, Wii, PS3

Developer: Clover Studios/Ready at Dawn/HexaDrive

Publisher: Capcom/Activision

Release: 2006 (PS2), 2008 (Wii), 2012 (PS3)

In case you hadn’t realised, the common theme of this feature is about ‘failure’.

Not in terms of quality, but in terms of sales. I mean sure, underperforming games can still make a profit if they’re lucky – but to see such wonderful, original pieces of (dare I say it) art fall by the wayside can be an upsetting experience. Do you, dear reader, must have a beloved game that was misunderstood?

Well, imagine if you love Ōkami – like many people do – only to see it fail over and over again.

Whether it’s the original PS2 release, the 2008 Wii-make, or even the DS sequel Ōkamiden, it seems that those of us who covet the sun goddess Amaterasu are doomed to watch in agony as the masses relentlessly throw money at Call of Dutys and Assassin’s Creeds of this world. Heck, Capcom seems to think this way too. Why else would they continuously re-release it? Why else would they put the game’s eponymous white wolf in bloody Marvel vs. Capcom 3?

For those of you reading this who still haven’t played this gorgeous, ephemeral game, I’m gonna paraphrase Total Recall (the good one), and demand that you get your ass to PSN, and immediately download Ōkami. You’ll even get to dust-off that neglected PS Move.

Why? Because Ōkami is a living watercolour painting – and your controller is the paintbrush.

Almost out-Zeldaing Zelda, Ōkami is an epic (and I mean epic) adventure set within the world of Nippon – a fantastical Japan, basically. After a creeping darkness threatens to envelope the verdant country in a vile blackness, a tree spirit named Sakuya calls forth Amaterasu (the titular sun goddess) in a last-hope bid in ridding Nippon of the evil menace. This is where you come in. Wielding the ‘Celestial Paintbrush’, Ammy (as she’s fondly dubbed by her feisty, flea-sized friend named Issun) can literally paint onto reality itself.

A horizontal dash of ink will ‘cut’ enemies and obstacles in half. Drawing a circle in the sky will create a sun that will give warming light. A circle on dead plants will bring them (and the surrounding areas) back to life. Dotting the screen will send seeds forth, before sprouting and damaging demons. A circle with a small line through it will materialise a bomb. There are so many of these powers to be gained throughout the story, and it’s brilliant how the developers make the world your playground.

And what a world it is. Much like Xenoblade, you’ll find yourself incredulous in thinking that this game ever ran on such ‘weak’ hardware. Grassy fields, towns, cities, beaches, temples, mountains, oceans, swamps, ghost ships… And all of it coated in the splendid ‘sumi-e’ Japanese style that makes this title look utterly unlike any other.

There’s so much more I want to say about Ōkami, but to do so would spoil the surprises. The story is warm, emotional and sometimes very funny, with fabulous characters that – again – wouldn’t be out of place in a Zelda game. And when it finally ends, you’ll thank Capcom for never letting it die.