Monday, March 25, 2013

Commodore Classics #1: Dragon Breed

Welcome to the very first entry in a brand new series of articles.  I decided that the blog having retro right there in the title in all, could do with a greater amount of genuine retro content.  The Commodore 64 is probably my most favourite gaming platform of all time (with the SNES and Game Boy close behind) and I would spend many an hour in my childhood playing various games on my trusting machine.  There are going to be a few different types of article within this series – some will be favourite games of mine that I am extremely familiar with, some will be taking a look at games that I never played back in the day, and some will be having a nostalgic look at the contents of classic Zzap and Commodore Force cover tapes.  I would eagerly await the arrival of each new issue of these magazines, and the first thing I would do when they arrived is remove the cover tape and load it up.  These tapes would often include complete games or interesting utilities, often just as good or better than anything I had paid money for!

So as you can see from the title, the focus of this first edition of Commodore Classics is Dragon Breed, a horizontal shoot ‘em up that was released in arcades in 1989 and then ported to the home computers.  It was originally conceived by Irem, the company most people know for the excellent R-Type series.  Their knowledge of the side scrolling shooter genre helped them make Dragon Breed a really fun game, and the twist of you controlling a little man riding a dragon was genius.  The dragon itself was really large on the screen, and the tail could be used both defensively to protect the vulnerable rider and offensively to destroy enemies and gun emplacements.  In the transition from coin-op to C64, a few corners have had to be cut obviously, but overall it remains very faithful to the original game.  One thing that is quite obvious when you first see the C64 version moving is the sprite flicker on the dragons tail.  It is a little distracting to say the least, but it is unfortunately unavoidable in order to allow that many sprites to be on the screen at the same time.

Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about the conversion though is the soundtrack.  Martin Walker has done an amazing job of taking the tunes from the arcade cabinet and adapting them into SID equivalents.  Because of the unique sound of the C64’s custom chip, the music is actually an improvement in my opinion.  But enough of the graphics and the sound, how does the game play?  I am pleased to say that despite being slightly easier than the original version aside from a lack of continues, it plays very closely indeed.  All of the stages are intact, and their various set pieces including giant dragon dreadnoughts are represented.  The various power ups in Dragon Breed – red for a flame attack, orange for curling into a defensive position, silver for homing rockets, and blue for lightning – are all present and correct.  The most useful of these by far is the orange one though, as it can be used effectively in every situation.

Dragon Breed was a whopping £9.99 back when it was published by Activision, and the child version of myself took quite a risk with his pocket money, because he bought it solely because it looked cool, and he recognised the Irem name.  Luckily the risk paid off and Dragon Breed became one of those games I would return to time and time again.  I eventually became familiar enough and skilled enough to be able to complete it, though those skills have unfortunately deteriorated over the years because I only managed to get to stage 3 whilst replaying it for the purposes of this article.  The companion video above contains footage of those first three stages.  The next edition of Commodore Classics will be a random selection of three games that are completely new to me, chosen at random.  Catch you next time!

You can download the Dragon Breed game files here, or the VICE C64 emulator here.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Star Ocean: First Departure review

Star Ocean is a long running series that dates back to 1996 on the SNES, where it was developed by Tri-Ace and published by Enix. I believe what happened is that key members of Wolfteam who were responsible for Tales of Phantasia were dissatisfied with the way they were treated by Namco on that project, so they split off and formed Tri-Ace in order to create a new series.

Compared to the likes of Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy or even the Tales series, the humble Star Ocean series has had very few releases over the years, with just four main titles and a Game Boy Color spin off called Blue Sphere to date.  The PSP remake of the first game that I am reviewing today is also the first time that it has officially been available in English, and having played all the way through the main story I think it is a good thing that those of us who aren’t fluent in Japanese can enjoy this game in an enhanced form. 

Publisher: Square-Enix
Developer: Tri-Ace
Expect to pay: £10 - £15

The game sees you take control of Roddick Farrence, a young denizen of the planet Roak and member of the Fellpool race (humanoids who have tails).  This begins fairly slowly as Roddick patrols the sleepy town of Kratus with his two friends, the pink haired girl Millie and best friend Dorne.  After taking care of a few bandits that are causing trouble for the residents, word arrives of a disease that is turning residents of a neighbouring town to stone.  While trying to figure out what is going on, Millie’s father and then Dorne both contract the disease. 

Roddick and Millie then travel to Mount Metorx to try and find a herb that will cure everyone, when they encounter two tail less strangers who appear from out of thin air.  They are Ronyx J Kenny and Ilia Silvestri of the starship Calnus, also here to try and save the population of Roak.  After informing Roddick and Millie that the herb will not cure their loved ones, they end up beaming about the Calnus and set off on a journey through space and time to set things right.

Graphics: 8 out of 10
While Star Ocean won’t blow anyone away with amazing looking 3D graphics, the 2D work displayed here is really pretty.  What you have for the most part is a combination of highly detailed painted backgrounds and well animated character sprites.  The 3D that is in the game is saved for the world map and the battles, and is not great looking but is serviceable.  All of this is backed up by some excellent animated video by acclaimed animation house Production I.G.

Sound and Music: 8 out of 10
First things first – the voice work in Star Ocean: First Departure is extremely high quality stuff.  It is both well written and acted.  The cast includes some industry veterans such as Yuri Lowenthal in the lead role, but also plenty of names that I’m not familiar with.  My favourite has to be Ronyx J Kenny, performed by Sam Gold.  He does the job of starship captain well, being both serious in tone yet kindly in nature.

The soundtrack was put together by Motoi Sakuraba, an incredibly prolific composer whose distinctive sound can be heard throughout the Tales and Golden Sun series as well as many other RPG’s. My only problem with his work is that often one piece of his music can sound very much like another, and this problem also applies here.  There are a few stand out tracks in the game, but most of it sounds like it could have been transplanted directly from something like Tales of Eternia.  Still, when you have to come up with music for as many games as Sakuraba does, I suppose it would be inevitable that similar themes would emerge.  That’s not to say his stuff is bad – it’s just… samey.

While the Star Trek influences at the start of the game are cool, they are not developed nearly enough and most of the game plays like a standard fantasy RPG.  A shame.
Game Mechanics: 7 out of 10
The Star Ocean games are action RPG’s as such they do fall into the trap of degenerating into button mashers fairly easily, unless you happen to face a group of monsters that can inflict status ailments on your party or a powerful boss that keeps you on your toes.  The majority of the game is pretty easy if you keep pace with levelling up however, so most encounters will consist of you mindless spamming the X button until everything dies.  Battles are still triggered randomly on the world map and throughout dungeons, and I’m afraid to say that they can be infuriatingly frequent.

Another problem I have with the game is that eventually you will have to backtrack halfway across the world map to places you’ve been before, yet the same old enemies remain.  You will trigger battle after battle that serve little point other than to slow you down, because by the point you start revisiting locations you will be so over levelled that the amount of XP you receive from enemies is pathetic.

Luckily there is more to the game than just a fairly standard battle system.  Should you get into the intricacies of the skill and crafting systems you will find there are dozens of options available, including cooking, customization of equipment… even writing books and composing music are options.  Again though, while taking the time and trouble with these systems can certainly help against with the optional post game content, the main game itself is so easy that you don’t need to bother much.

Finally there is the Personal Action system, which allows you to view optional scenes between the different characters and build up a hidden PA value.  Increasing this value can have an effect on the ending that you see upon completion of the game.  I should also say that there are many recruitable characters throughout the game, and bringing some into your party locks you out from recruiting others.  This also affects the scenes that you will see at the end of the game and helps the replay value.  As the story is quite brief at around 20 hours I could possibly see myself playing through a second time at some point and taking an entirely different group of characters through to the end game.

I do also have to commend the game for its incredibly quick loading times.  It can be quite easy to overlook this aspect of PSP games but it is an important one.  If you have a spare 30 minutes to fill and you choose to do so by playing a game on your handheld, if a third of that time is spent waiting for the game it can be infuriating.  I speak from experience… much as I like Kingdom Hearts, playing it on the PSP can be rather painful even with the game installed to a memory stick!  Star Ocean takes seconds to get in and out of battles however, which is fantastic.

Innovation and Cleverness:
5 out of 10
I can’t really be too generous in this regard I’m afraid because despite the extensive skill system and multiple endings when it comes down to it this is a fairly rudimentary action RPG.

Value and Replayability: 7 out of 10
As already mentioned the game can be completed in 20 hours, which is not many at all for the RPG genre.  However this doesn’t take into account a sizeable optional dungeon that can be taken on afterwards.  I don’t know how many hours exactly that this would add on to the overall experience as I have not attempted it myself yet.  You do take your character from around level 80 to 160 though so I can see that it would take a while!

Then there are all the optional characters and the effect that different parties have on the ending.  This goes a long way to making playing through a second time both viable and appealing.  Even if the story itself is not exactly the most amazing work of literature, the likeable and well written characters make up for this weakness.

Overall: 8 out of 10
Despite the fairly mundane battle system and overall lack of challenge, Star Ocean: First Departure was a great way to spend the journey home every day.  Hopefully the weaker aspects of the game have been tweaked for the sequel Second Evolution, as I am about to begin playing that.

The presentation and the likeable characters are a big part of what makes this game fun. The brief length of play is also to the games credit, as it would probably have grown tiresome if stretched out much further.  I also hope later games in the series do a better job of making good on the whole “Star Trek RPG” concept, as this game very quickly goes from sci fi to your bog standard fantasy fare.  I mean… it’s a universe where space travel is both possible and prevalent, and yet the designers have you stuck on the same planet for 95% of the game? Let me explore other worlds next time, Tri-Ace!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Mini Review Round Up

I promised that I would have some mini reviews of several games that missed out on getting the full treatment, and here they are!  I had every intention of writing full length reviews of each and every one of these, but didn’t quite get around to it.

I know it is quite fashionable to bash Assassin's Creed III right now, but for the most part I really enjoyed it.  There were just a few aspects that were irritating and felt like holdovers from the very first game in the series – namely, stupid missions that were way too easy to fail by accidentally stumbling off the rigid path that the designers wanted you to take.  This problem applies to a mission where you have to stay undetected and overhear a conversation that the young George Washington is having with another officer and the final chase sequence in particular.

My other main problem with the game is the stupid side quest where you chase down pages from Ben Franklin’s diary.  Now, running around rooftops and collecting feathers and what not was never the most exciting part of these games, and now they’ve made the bloody things run away from you! After getting enough of these to earn the associated achievement, I stopped doing them, as they are no fun whatsoever.

Other than these gripes though, the rest of the game was great fun. I loved exploring the frontier and gliding through the trees, the naval combat missions were quite possibly the single best part of the game (and thus I am really excited about Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag), and if you took the time to do all of the Homestead missions, you got a more personal and relaxed story.  Only by doing this optional content did you really get to know Connor and the other characters brought into his growing village.

So while it’s true that AC III is the weakest entry in the series so far, it still has a lot to offer fans of the franchise, and shouldn’t be skipped.

Overall: 7 out of 10

By now everyone should be well aware of the main failing of Mass Effect 3 – that ending.  While I too was left disappointed by it I strongly felt (and still do) that Bioware should not have bowed to pressure from fans and changed it, even if the changes they made turned out to be not all that drastic.

However, the ending was not the only problem with the game – the other main one was the incredibly poor way that side quests were implemented.  Almost all of them involved Shepard eavesdropping on random persons dotted around the Citadel moaning that they’d lost something or needed something collected from the darkest depths of space, and for you to then present said interstellar doohicky to them for some credits and/or XP.  Hardly inspired stuff.

Look past these aspects though and you will find combat mechanics that are much improved over the previous game and some truly great character moments with your crew.  Up until that fateful meeting with the Starchild I was gripped by the storyline, it’s only in the last half an hour or so that things start to fall apart.

On the whole I think the main problem with Mass Effect 3 is that its predecessor was just so damn perfect it was almost impossible to improve upon it, and whatever end Bioware had chosen for Shepard and crew wouldn’t be good enough to please all.

Overall: 8 out of 10

While I have bought every entry in the Forza Motorsport series and spent many an hour racing around the real world tracks, I have never “completed” a single one of them.  Part of this is because they cram so much content into each one, and release them on a yearly basis, but it is also partly due to the clinical nature of the driving.  While certainly not as stuffy as the Gran Turismo series, the Forza games do still take themselves rather seriously.  There’s nothing wrong with this, as it’s exactly what hardcore racing fans would want, but those who prefer their racers on the slightly arcade side may be a bit turned off by the whole thing.

This is where Forza Horizon comes in.  Turn 10 and Playground Games wisely decided to introduce a more relaxed, playful offshoot that they could release on alternate years with the Motorsport line.  This first attempt sees you taking part in a race festival set around Colorado.  No I’ve never been there myself but this seems like a great place to set a racing game, as there are miles of beautiful countryside to tear around in.

The handling model feels a lot like the Project Gotham series, and likewise you earn respect points by drifting, overtaking etc., slowly rising in the ranks from 100 to 1.  This rank unlocks optional Showcase races that pit you against a biplane for example, and I think they are also the trigger for the Barn Finds.  Every so often the DJ on the radio will mention that people have spotted a certain derelict vehicle stashed in a barn somewhere, and then it’s up to you to search the highlighted area on the map until you find it.  Then your mechanic will take it away and fix it up. After a short period of time, it’s yours to drive.

The main single player mode of the game will not take you very long to finish, as you don’t have to win every event to progress.  However, you probably will want to spend the extra time getting first place in all races as there are achievements to earn for doing so, and it’s just good fun.  All things considered, Forza Horizon is a slickly produced, arcade style racing game – a commodity that’s becoming increasingly rare due to the closure of studios like Black Rock and Bizarre Creations.  If you enjoy tearing up the tarmac to a variety of great tunes, then look no further.

Overall: 8 out of 10

After taking the reins of the Need for Speed series with their interpretation of Hot Pursuit, Criterion have returned once again with an update of what may be considered to be the best entry in the series: Most Wanted.  However, the cheesy FMV exploits of Razor Callohan and Sargeant Cross are long gone, and just the basic structure remains.

There are 10 Most Wanted drivers tearing around the streets of Fairport and it’s up to you to take them down one by one and get to the top of the list.  You do this by earning a fixed amount of points to earn the right to face them in a race.  Beating them is only the first step though – once you do you then have to chase them and shut them down (by ramming them at high speed, of course).

At the start of the game you only have one vehicle and no upgrades.  Taking part in a few easy races and beating them will earn you better tires, nitrous oxide, a strengthened frame and more aerodynamic body – all things that you will need if you are to stand a chance at taking down the best drivers.  You can upgrade all of these standard car parts to their “Pro” equivalents simple by using them a certain amount, something I really recommend doing as it will make your life easier.

You will find other driveable cars dotted around the city with the manufacturers badge hovering over them.  Changing into a new car resets all of your upgrades and gives you a different five race events to take part in.  Thus the flow of the game sees you constantly jumping from car to car and starting the whole upgrade process over again until the last of the Most Wanted 10 is taken out.  This won’t take you all that long – 10 or so hours I would say – but if you’re a completionist then you will spend a lot longer finding all the “jack spots” and upgrading all the cars.

In addition to the single player, Most Wanted 2012 also features an amazing multiplayer mode which is fantastic fun to mess around it.  When you join a lobby of other players you are given a playlist of five events, which could be races or other types like who can pull off the biggest drift or jump in the next three minutes.  As well as trying to win yourself, you can also mess with other players by taking them out as they try to compete.  There are even races to the next event, and should you be facing in the wrong direction when a race starts, then tough!  This mad scramble to be the first to a meet up spot just adds to the fun.

Criterion have managed to deliver a fantastic arcade racer yet again – their years of collective experience putting together this type of game really shines through.  One not to be missed!

Overall: 9 out of 10

There we are then! I will probably do this again sometime, when there are some games that either don’t merit the full review treatment or I’m just too lazy to write something in a timely manner as was the case here.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

RC Revenge Pro: PlayStation 2 Tuesdays #3

RC Revenge Pro, while being and immediate sequel to PS1 title RC Revenge, is also a successor to a fairly popular Dreamcast game by the name of Re-Volt. It shares many similarities with its parent game yet manages to refine things slightly to make for a more enjoyable experience.

The game was published in Acclaim in the year 2000, and for such an early PS2 release the graphics hold up reasonably well today but won't blow you away by any means. The main single player mode is split over four cups, with tracks set in environments such as a dinosaur populated jungle, a creepy mansion, a futuristic lab, an area inspired by ACME style cartoons and a pirate themed area.  Some more unique environments would have been nice as you do revisit the same ones multiple times, and even the same tracks with slightly altered routes.

The tracks themselves are fairly well designed for the most part but a few of them are pretty confusing and there's a good chance you will lose your way the first time you drive them.  This can be mitigated slightly by an option to turn on a pulsing light that shows you where you're supposed to go, but this doesn't always show up very well against the backgrounds.  I like the fact that some of the tracks have multiple routes, and Acclaim even did the whole transforming vehicles thing long before Sumo Digital used a very similar mechanic in Sonic Racing Transformed.

This merman guy is lurking in the sewer, generally getting in the way. 
The graphics may look incredibly blocky here but they don't look so bad when the game is in action.
One of my main gripes about the original Re-Volt is that the handling of the cars was very tricky.  This may be quite realistic as RC cars can indeed be a bugger to control, but it doesn't make for a very entertaining video game.  Thankfully they have learnt their lesson and there are plenty of cars to choose from in RC Revenge Pro with a good handling stat.  More are unlocked as you progress first through the four main cups and then their reversed equivalents, including military vehicles cop cars and even a UFO.

While definitely not in the top tier of arcade racers published for the PlayStation 2, for the few quid it would cost to pick up these days I would recommend trying out RC Revenge Pro.  If you enjoy the likes of Mario Kart or Micro Machines you are sure to find enough here to keep yo busy for several hours, so you will definitely get your monies worth.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Game Diary: Reviews Snooze

It's now been about a year since my last proper review.  There are a few reasons for this - I don't like to review games that I haven't finished, and I don't like to leave it too long between finishing a game and typing up my thoughts.  There have been a fair few instances where I had intended to review a game and not quite got around to it - this happened with Mass Effect 3 and Assassin's Creed 3 to name just two examples.  However I've been thinking about this and I intend to write up my thoughts on both of these and more in an article I will put up soon.

There are also several games that I am currently in the process of playing through that I would like to do full reviews for.  These include Star Ocean: First Departure for the PSP, Ni No Kuni for the PS3, as well as Digital Devil Saga and Shadow Hearts: Covenant for the PS2.  I am quite far along with all four of these, and would probably have been done with Ni No Kuni had I not come down with a nasty case of the flu.  I didn't want to play the game (or any game really) with a pounding headache so I'm afraid it's been a bit neglected ever since.

My huge backlog of games only gets bigger, as I purchased 12 or so cheap PS2 games last month, and then copies of Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey and Henry Hatsworth on the DS, Devil Summoner on the PS2 and Gungnir for the PSP.  It really is a great time to pick up games for these slightly older systems as they are fairly easy to find yet easy on the wallet.  Looking back at them now, both the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP had a great library of RPG's which suit my current lifestyle of lengthy commutes to and from work very well.

I estimate that Star Ocean: First Departure has roughly one more weeks worth of journeys left before I finish the main campaign, so I would hope to get a review up some time during the week after.  I also have a long weekend coming up as I'm taking Monday as holiday, so I plan to spend some time with a PS2 game or two and come back with some more entries in the PS2 Tuesdays series.  Finally, my MAME cabinet and GP2X Canoo have been a bit neglected of late, so it's about time I fired them up and covered some true retro titles here on the blog.

One last idea that I'm toying with is a YouTube Community Spotlight, where I cover some of my favourite channels that I watch regularly for my gaming fix.  There are some extremely talented individuals out there, and with the advent of YouTube apps on conoles like the Xbox 360 and PS3, I find that I no longer watch standard television any more and would rather turn to the likes of The Completionist or Continue? to watch while chilling out of the sofa.