Friday, March 16, 2007

New Releases - 16/03/07

Before I get started with my regular release update, I have a quick note to say that as soon as my R4 Revolution flash cartridge arrives, I shall be delving into the wonderful world of Nintendo DS homebrew and I will most likely report my findings here. There's some very exciting stuff out there and new developments come up on a regular basis.

Without further ado, let's see if there's anything worth spending your cash on this week...

Nintendo DS

Phoenix Wright: Justice For All

Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords
Rayman Raving Rabbids

Some interesting stuff for Nintendo's handheld this week. For me, Puzzle Quest is probably the most intriguing of the three because it promises to meld a Tetris style puzzler with RPG elements such as a storyline and levelling up. It could be good, it could blow goats, we'll have to wait and see. Raving Rayman Rabbids isn't the same game as the Wii mini game frenzy. Instead we have a return to the classic 2D platform genre that made him famous in the first place. While a mini game orientated package probably would have worked quite well, I welcome this more traditional game and look forward to giving it a try.

Finally, the original Phoenix Wright passed me by, which I plan to rectify some day as I keep hearing great things about the franchise. They've been likened to the classic graphic adventure games of yesteryear, which has always been one of my favourite types of game, but of course they also incorporate the unique strengths of the DS such as the touch screen and microphone.

PlayStation 2

Pac Man World Rally
Test Drive Unlimited

I do love a good kart racing game, but it has to be said most pretenders don't manage to beat Mario Kart in any of its guises when it comes down to it. I watched some video clips of Pac Man World Rally a while back and it has potential but whether it can live up to Nintendo's benchmark series remains in doubt.

Test Drive Unlimited gets released today on several formats, a few months after the original Xbox 360 version. It's a very ambitious game to try and port over to such comparatively under powered hardware as the PS2 and PSP, so I'm very curious to find out how good it's turned out.

Nintendo Wii

SSX Blur

Several weeks after appearing in the Import Corner, SSX Blur gets a European release this week. It looks like a rather stripped down version of SSX Out of Bounds, so if you already own that you may want to think twice about purchasing this as well. Perhaps the motion based controls will push it to another level?

Import Corner

Cooking Mama: Cook Off (Wii)

Wing Island (Wii)

A couple of cool looking games for the Wii this week. Cooking Mama is another one of those clever little games that originated on the DS (see also Trauma Center) being given a new lease of life. It features over 300 recipes and requires you to hold the remote in various poses, such as like a rolling pin to make pastry, or like a wooden spoon to stir a stew.

Wing Island could be the game that fans of Pilotwings and Pilotwings 64 have been waiting for, although it looks rather different from the screenshots I've seen. Holding the Wii remote like a paper airplane, it's your job to steer a formation of planes through hoops while performing various stunts. Looking good!

The RetroModern Gaming blog Pick of the Week
Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords
This game sounds different enough to be worth a look!

Monday, March 12, 2007

Hidden Gems 2007 Volume 1

Time for another series of Hidden Gems! As before, each game featured here was overlooked in some way on its original release and is actually well worth checking out. They can often be found nice and cheap to, which makes them extremely good value for money. The more open-mined gamers out there could pick up quite a few bargains if they're willing to look past the crap that regularly appears in the sales charts.

This week I'm looking at a double pack of racing games for the PC which are available via the Steam online distribution service for the equivalent of £10. They are Xpand Rally and GTI Racing, and while not perfect by any means, both offer plenty of game to get your teeth into.

Despite being a few years old, the Chromed engine that powers both games is capable of producing some impressive graphics.

Of the two games on offer here, Xpand Rally is perhaps the more famous of the two, but that's not really saying much. It aims to offer PC rally fans an alernative to the big name Colin McRae franchise, and almost pulls it off. It's actually a very solidly made game, with crisp clean graphics (though not quite as detailed as Colin McRae), a sizeable career mode and a nice range of well designed tracks. However, the cars in the game are not officially licenced, but it's pretty obvious what they're supposed to be. Mini Coopers are renamed Tiny Hoopers, and Peugeots are replaced by Lions. It doesn't really matter that much that they're not the real deal, they still look good.

The game is not quite perfect however. It is let down slightly both by the controls and the game structure. When you first create your profile, you can choose between an Arcade or a Simulation style control model. While you'd expect it to be much easier to chuck the car around the bends in Arcade mode, I actually found Simulation easier as Arcade was too floaty and unpredictable. The cars still start of rather twitchy in Simulation mode as well, but it's much less pronounced and gets better once you replace the stock suspension and steering parts that come with your new car.

This brings up the next problem I have wit the game. Each race in the career mode gets a little harder to beat, but rather than using pure skill, victory is largely dependant on how much you've upgraded your car. This results in you having to basically replay the first four races until you've got enough money to buy a car in the next class up and start over again upgrading that car. This is the same problem I have with the Gran Turismo games - it feels like you're not really racing but merely repeating the same process over and over again until your car is good enough to move on. Despite this however, driving around the many environments, such as the Grand Canyon, Poland, and Sweden is good fun and the rather challenging handling makes victory all the sweeter. The replay function is well done too with many different cameras and visual effects such as saturation, blur and black & white filters.

GTI Racing takes the same sort of structure, but this time the handling is pure arcade style through and through and feels spot on. Progress is also much easier as well, because you can make your first car last for a good 8-10 racers before you need to start thinking about changing up to the next class. The cost of repairs is also much less than in Xpand Rally, so you won't have to spend out so much off your valuable prize fund on fixing up your car after every race.

GTI Racing also has a full Volkswagen licence, which means you'll be driving Beetles, Baha Bugs and Golfs to name but a few. The game has a very European flavour which is represented by the track selection. You will be racing around areas in Bavaria, Sicily, and the UK, and not just in straight circuit races. There are also drift challenges and off road events where you race your rivals to be the first to a selection of checkpoints.

Both games also feature online player, and you can choose to either switch collisions on or have everyone as ghosts. If you do decide to switch the collisions on, you may notice a bit of lag unless everyone has a powerful PC and a fast internet connection.

So while the games have their little quirks, they're still well worth a look at the price that they're on offer for. Personally I thought GTI Racing was the better game of the two due to being more accessible and forgiving.

If you don't own a joypad for the PC (which helps immensely with driving games) but you do own a PlayStation 2, there are a variety of PS2 to PC adaptors on the market. I own a Joytech one which only cost me £7 and has worked with every game I've tested it with (it even supports rumble if the game in question also supports it, which Xpand Rally and GTI Racing do).

Whereas Xpand Rally is quite a solitary affair, GTI Racing features pack racing with a fair amount of jostling for position.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

New Releases - 09/03/07

Here I am again with this weeks new releases. Let's see if there's anything exciting in store this time...

Nintendo DS

Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin
Mario vs Donkey Kong 2: March of the Minis

It's a pretty good week for DS fans if you're a fan of platform puzzlers. Personally I'm starting to get a little tired of the Metroid style Castlevania games as Konami seemingly chuck another one out every year, and they've been doing it since Symphony of the Night (which has never been bettered). A return of the original straight platforming instead of the RPG hybrid would be a nice change of pace. MvDK2 has been compared to Lemmings, but it has plenty of original ideas of its own and is well worth a look.


Trackmania United

has potential - it's a new action RPG and you just can't get enough of those in my opinion. Will it go down the Diablo-esque route that so many others have or manage to bring something new to the table? Trackmania United is a "best of" compilation of all the games in the series so far (Original, Power Up, Sunrise, Extreme and Nations) brought together under one interface and given a visual update. There's also new building blocks and a more organised multiplayer mode that makes it easier to find clans and teams divided by country.

Nintendo Wii

SSX Blur

I've been a fan of the SSX games ever since the original came out at the launch of the PS2, but I didn't enjoy the last game, SSX On Tour quite so much. SSX Blur looks like it has more in common with Tricky and Out of Bounds which is no bad thing as they were the best games in the series. As long as the controls don't let the side down we should be in for another quality snow racer with a stonking soundtrack.

Import Corner

God of War II - PS2
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 07 - Wii

I wasn't that keen of the original God of War really, I found it a bit boring. Not because of the setting, I love Greek mythology, but the gameplay didn't really grab me. I know an awful lot of people thought it was fantastic though, so they should definitely check out the sequel. If anything, it definitely shows of the power of the PS2.

I would really like to try Tiger Woods on the Wii just to see how well they've carried off the controls. If it plays well I would probably buy it, as the previous games in the franchise have been absolutely rammed with content.

The RetroModern Gaming blog Pick of the Week

I do love my RPG's and Silverfall looks extremely promising.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Final Fantasy XII review

Just like the year before, for me the winter months were spent mostly playing an epic RPG by genre powerhouse Square-Enix. Instead of Dragon Quest VIII however, this time it was the turn of Final Fantasy XII. While arguably not as popular as the Dragon Quest series in its native country of Japan, if the whole world is taken into account then the Final Fantasy series is the leader, ever since Final Fantasy VII wowed RPG addicts and non fans alike some 10 years ago. Yet, some fans were not pleased by the changes made in FFXII, which are most radical changes the series has seen in its history. Which way do I lean? Read on to find out...

Format: PlayStation 2
Publisher: Square-Enix
Developer: Square-Enix
Genre: RPG
Region: NTSC (USA)
Price: Around £30

How does one even begin to review a game as huge as Final Fantasy XII, which has already won countless awards, including Game of the Year from Edge Magazine? Well, firstly I will try not to be biased by what other people have said, and to be as honest as I possibly can. I will go through each area of the game and try and come to a sensible conclusion.

Firstly though, you have to respect just what Square-Enix has achieved here. Last year I found it remarkable exactly how much they managed to fit on one DVD Rom for DQVIII, and yet FFXII outstrips even that game by a considerable margin, content wise. When I had finished the game, I had almost 110 hours on the clock, and I hadn't even seen and done everything. I might go back and finish off the last few optional quests some time but other games have already enticed me with their siren calls, so it's difficult. Don't go into Final Fantasy XII unprepared however, you have to be willing to lose yourself in the game. Yes, you can finish the main plot in about 40 hours if you really want to, but to me the most enjoyable parts were the optional extras. I'll get back to those later. In the meantime here's what I think about each aspect of FFXII in turn.

Graphics: 10 out of 10
The visuals of Final Fantasy XII are easily some of the most impressive that the PS2 has ever produced, easily rivalling anything that the next generation machines have to offer. A lot of this is down to the age of the PS2 and the power that has slowly been drawn out and exploited by the more expert development teams over the years. You will explore vast deserts, gargantuan tombs and mighty aerial fortresses, all in real time 3D. There's no prerendered backgrounds (as in the PS1 games) or being locked to a particular path through an area (ala FFX), you are free to roam wherever you want, as long as you are either strong enough to withstand the attacks of the monsters or fast enough to avoid them. A lot of the cut scenes are actually powered by the 3D engine as well, and the close up shots of the characters really give you the chance to appreciate how much detail there is in the character models and how high res the textures look. Everybody looks incredibly crisp and clean instead of suffering from aliasing (jaggies) like in the early days on the PS2.

Of course it wouldn't be a Final Fantasy game without plenty of FMV sequences, and these do make a return as well. They're nowhere near as prominent as in say, FFVII and personally I think this is a good thing. The story in FFXII has been rather simplified and pared down compared to the last few games in the series, something I think it needed. That's not to say that what's there isn't good, but the changes are refreshing.

Sound and Music: 10 out of 10
First of all think the music in FFXII is absolutely amazing. As the drama unfolded during the opening FMV and the main theme of the game came in, I had goosebumps go up my arms and back, it was that exciting. The same thing happened throughout the game, mainly during boss battles, and I also remember the Phon Coast having some outstanding music. This is definitely one game I would consider buying the soundtrack for. Even though Hironobu Sakaguchi has taken Nobuo Uematsu with him to Mistwalker, Hitoshi Sakimoto has managed to fill his shoes brilliantly and is just as good, if not better in my opinion.

The voiceovers are also some of the best I heard in a game, and for once most of the performances are nice and understated, rather than being overacted to the point of being annoying which so often happens in the RPG genre. Of course it helps that the actors have such a good script to work with. The localisation for FFXII is easily one of the best jobs that Square-Enix has ever done (along with DQVIII of course). It wasn't so long ago that Square-Enix were regularly critiscised for their localisation efforts, for games such as Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy IV. It appears that they are finally taking the western fans seriously and giving them the attention they deserve. Some may find the style of the dialogue a little "flowery" for their tastes, but I found it suited the medieval/industrial fusion of the world of Ivalice. At time it reminded me of something like Gladiator, where the characters would talk to each other with an air of polite menace.

The voice actors include Cat Taber as Penelo, who should be familiar to Knights of the Old Republic fans as the voice of Mission Vao. Phil Lamarr who has played many videogame roles including Vamp in Metal Gear Solid 2 is also in the supporting cast, along with Dwight "Mad Murdoc" Schultz who returns from a successful stint in Final Fantasy X in a number of small roles throughout the game.

The sound effects are the icing on the cake and they do their job well, from the typical sounds of battle (weapon hits, magical explosions and so forth) to the background noise of the city (your characters foosteps, the sound of market traders promoting their wares). It all adds to ensure that FFXII gets another perfect mark.

Fran is not your typical bunny girl.

Plot and Character:
8 out of 10
For the most part, the main characters and those that support them are a pretty likeable bunch, with as mentioned elsewhere well written dialogue and skillfully delivered lines. We have Fran, the exotic looking Viera (rabbit creatures, seemingly all women) with an accent to match. I can't quite place where the actress is from but it may be a Scandinavian country. Sounds cute anyway.

Then there's Balthier, a scoundrel of a sky pirate who seems to be in the quest only for fortune and glory but really has a heart of gold. People have compared the plot and characters to the Star Wars trilogy and it's not really hard to see the resemblance. Balthier would definitely play the part of Han Solo, which would make Fran Chewbacca... except rather less hairy and certainly more attractive (unless you have some strange fetish I'd prefer not to know about).

Accompanying those two are Princess Ashe, who has witnessed her kingdom become the victim of a powerplay between to rival nations, not to mention seeing her own father and husband killed in acts of battle and betrayal respectively. Joining the party a short way into the game is Basch, formally a captain of the Rabanastran army, but stripped of his rank and imprisoned for killing Ashe's father and a young recruit by the name of Reks.

Finishing off the main cast are Vaan, who is the elder brother of Reks, and his childhood friend Penelo, who get swept along in the quest and are motivated by feelings of hatred towards the Empire which has occupied their home city by force. They long for the day that their people can walk freely again and not have to suffer the suspicious gaze of an imperial soldier on every street corner.

There are also many supporting characters that frequently fill the fourth guest spot in your active party roster, and you don't have direct control over them. These include Larsa, the youngest member of the house Solidor, which also includes the old Emperor and Vayne, his evil, scheming son. Larsa doesn't agree with the tactics that his family have put into play, and longs for peaceful cohabitation between the various countries.

No, any problems in this category aren't the fault of the characters, but rather the plot that carries them along. Everything starts off extremely well with the promise of political intrigue, betrayal, heroic deeds (dare I say "derring-do"? Perhaps not), and an epic quest. Many plot threads dangle but rather than coming together neatly at the end, everything starts to unravel because things that were started are never followed up on. This could well be deliberate, because Final Fantasy XII is just one part of the "Ivalice Alliance" series that Square-Enix has got planned, which also include Revenant Wings on the DS, Final Fantasy Tactics: The Lion War on the PSP and Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 2, also for the DS. The plot also isn't as spectacular as past games in the series, but to me that was actually a plus. It makes things seem more believable in a way, and the amount of background detail that Square has piled in to the environments and the bestiary keep you interested enough to keep exploring the world.

Vaan and Penelo are the young whippersnappers of the story.

Game Mechanics:
8 out of 10
The basic design of the Final Fantasy series has stayed more or less the same through its history, with the odd tweak here and there for each new game. Final Fantasy XII is the first truly radical change in over 20 years. The turn based, random nature of the battles has been replaced with monsters roaming in the field and a more hectic battle system. Those of you brave enough to attempt the game with the battles set to Active instead of Wait can expect to have quite a tough time of it.

You take control of one of the party (you get to decide who) and any other party members including your guest follow along behind you. Most enemies will be hostile from the moment they detect you and you will see a red arc of light from the enemy to the party member they are targeting. This also works in reverse when you are targeting a monster, with a blue arc denoting an attack and a green arc denoting magic or items. For those that have played an MMORPG such as World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy XI or Dark Age of Camelot, combat works in much the same way.

Pressing the X button on the joypad brings up your menu of available attacks, spells and specials. There are quite a few different options here, which grow as you buy more spells (divided into White, Black, Green, Arcane and Time), technicks (special skills which are free to use), Quickenings (basically this games Limit Breaks), Espers (Summons). Being able to use anything in the game isn't quite as simple as just buying it and equipping it however, each character also has a licence board and you have to buy a licence for anything you want to use, including weapons, armour, magic, espers (once you've defeated them) and augments (which permanently give your character a boost in a certain area, such as blocking). This can be a bit of a pain at times, and in the long run it doesn't really aid character customisation that much because you can easily obtain everything on the grid with every character, meaning they become facsimiles of themselves towards the end of the game.

Another aspect to Final Fantasy XII is the Gambit system. This basically acts like a very simple programming language for your characters, letting you set up various rules and conditions. So for example you could tell your characters to buff themselves up with Protect, Shell, Regen and many other spells in a quiet moment, or cast Curaga on undead creatures (who are extremely weak to White magic). You can chop and change Gambits at any time, even in the middle of a battle, and at times you will have to because one set of rules may be completely unsuited to that particular battle. It all works extremely well, and you can set up your characters to basically do most of the fighting for you, with you only stepping in in an emergency. The only major downside to the Gambit system is that for some reason beyond my comprehension Square-Enix decided to dole out new conditions (e.g. Ally HP is less than 20% or, Enemy = Undead) gradually throughout the game and they are unlocked depending on how far you are through the story.

Most of the battles against standard creatures can be fought and won without having to use the Gambits all that much as long as you are at a sensible level, but some of the optional bosses are much easier to finish off with their help. It's just a bit of a shame that on one hand Square-Enix give you this great tool to customise your characters, but on the other hand limit what you can do with it.

Innovation & Cleverness: 9 out of 10
Square-Enix should be applauded for the way that they've shaken up their oldest and most important franchise. The battle system, while not completely new to MMO fan, is at least new to players offline RPG's, and while elements like the Gambits and the Espers (which are a bit of a waste of time) don't quite work out, it's a very valiant attempt to inject some life in the flagging series. I also applaud their decision to veer away from adolescent whiny male main characters and feature a much more cheerful bunch where no one can really be considered the lead character. While a couple are left in the shadows for a lot of the time (Penelo being a good example), others such as Vaan, Ashe and Balthier all get equal time in the spotlight.

Personally, I think Final Fantasy XII is just what the series needed, but Square-Enix had better be careful because they're in danger of reaching saturation point with the amount of FF related games they're releasing. We've already had 4 games in the last 6 months, with another 6 or so on the way. Even if all of them are great games, that's still too many considering the time commitment you have to give to each one.

Value & Replayability: 9 out of 10
While it is questionable whether you'd replay such a long game, it has be said that Final Fantasy XII is phenomenal value for money. The main quest itself takes around 40 hours to finish. If you add on the major side quests, which include going on dozens of monster hunts for Clan Centurio and then tracking down another 60 rare monsters for the Hunter Club late in the game, that number can easily be pushed over 100 hours. There's even more to see though, because a good half of the Espers you can add to your party are optional and they have to be found and defeated first. I haven't even mentioned all the other little quests throughout the game yet, including hunting for lost Cluckatrice chicks and delivering a letter to every sister who each work on a different airship route.

Then we have the bestiary, which is extremely well written and will take even the most thorough player a considerable time to complete. When you defeat a monster you get a page of information about them, but when you defeat a monster a particular number of times a second page is unlocked which contains a variety of things including details on the various areas of Ivalice, hints as to what the monster may drop or other random tidbits.

While the game is enjoyable for most of the time, I must admit on occasion it began to feel like hard work as you have to level grind in order to be able to defeat some of the tougher monsters. At least Square-Enix has taken that into consideration as you are rewarded with better and better loot depending on how many monsters of the same type you can chain together. Personally I found the monster hunts to be the most enjoyable part of the game and I felt compelled to try and beat them all (which I haven't quite done yet, as the final beastie has around 5 million hit points).

Other races first introduced in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, such as the Bangraa, also make an appearance. These guys are particularly nasty bounty hunters that are after Balthiers head.

9 out of 10
While I have absolutely no hesitation in recommending Final Fantasy XII, I don't think it's a perfect as Edge magazine or Eurogamer did. When you've played for over 100 hours, the small flaws start to show themselves. I'd much rather play a game that's a fresh feeling and exciting as this rather than the same sort of thing all over again though (see Final Fantasy VII-X). Apparently, at least one of the three(!) announced Final Fantasy XIII games will be an action RPG, which has caused a bit of a stir among die hard fans. I have faith that Square-Enix can pull it off though after what they've managed to achieve here.

Note: The PAL version has only just come out, and I have no experience with it, so I don't know if Square-Enix have learnt their lesson from FFX and FX-2 and actually taken the time to optimise the game for PAL TV's. I would certainly hope so. If you have played the PAL version, add a comment and let me know.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

New Releases: 02/03/07

I'm going to try and bring back an old feature this week where I comment on the new releases in time for each Friday. Instead of listing everything coming out for every format however, I'm just going to stick to the games that I think are worth your attention and money.

Nintendo DS

Elite Beat Agents

To those that haven't imported Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan! already, then I urge you to give Elite Beat Agents a try. It's much more than a simple translation however, as all of the music and levels are brand new. In fact, even if you have already played the original game, it's still worth picking up this pseudo sequel.


Resident Evil 4
Jade Empire: SE
Titan Quest: Immortal Throne

A couple of oldies but goodies finally get released on the PC this week. Resident Evil 4 remains one of the best games of the last decade. Jade Empire isn't quite in the same league but is a fun little game in its own right. Finally we have the new expansion pack to the recently reviewed Titan Quest, which I hope to get my hands on soon.

Nintendo Wii

Sonic & The Secret Rings

Sonic has never really impressed much when he's appeared in 3D, except for in the original Sonic Adventure for the Dreamcast. Sonic & The Secret Rings promises to be a return to form however, as Sega have stripped things back and concentrated on what makes a Sonic game special - speed.

Import Watch

Burnout Dominator

North American gamers get a brand new Burnout this week in the shape of Dominator. There's no radical changes to the formula this time around (those are being saved for the next generation Burnout 5). Does a new range of tracks and challenges merit a purchase for the fifth time in a row? Personally, I thought the formula was starting to get a little tired in Burnout Revenge so I have my doubts about this one.

The RetroModern G
aming Blog Pick of the Week
Elite Beat Agents

Go on, don't let the fact that it's a Rhythm Action game put you off, EBA is well worth it.