Sunday, 28 February 2016

#5: Shadow of the Colossus HD

There's not a great deal to say about Shadow of the Colossus that hasn't already been said, but that won't stop me.

Team ICO are a strange developer that only have three titles to their name: Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, and the as-yet unreleased The Last Guardian. All of them share ideas and visual design elements without explicitly being in a series; there are some small ties between Ico and SotC. I'm sure the same will be true when TLG finally comes out, which has been in development for almost 10 years.

Shadow of the Colossus is one of those games that makes your brow furrow. You're clearly doing some inadvisable, awful thing, yet you want to see it through to completion. You only have the word of a few characters to go on through this; the game has speech, but almost no dialogue. The land you journey through is mostly empty, your closest companion is a horse, the circumstances that brought you here are described only vaguely. Even the creatures you are sent to destroy mainly see you as a curiosity instead of a foe. No matter what you do, something seems off.

Injecting such a feeling into an otherwise very sterile game is an achievement.

It's not perfect, though. The original suffered some horrific frame-rate drops during the colossus fights, but this HD version improves upon that. There's barely anything to actually do once you've beaten the game; exploring the environment is interesting, but it's not gigantic, and the lizard/fruit-shooting isn't exactly fun past the first time. There is a Hard Mode and time trials are available, only offering re-runs of the game you've already experienced. Some of the colossi are infuriating, with tiny windows of opportunity for damage.

I enjoyed this game immensely. Like many of its proponents, I want to see more information about its back-story, the surrounding world, the characters' motivations... but perhaps that would spoil its charm. As an enigma, it continues to interest me even though I don't have the controller in my hand.

This game comes packaged with Ico HD, which I'll get round to eventually.

At this point, Emily started picking really short games from the Sega Mega Drive Ultimate Collection, so I'll write one post which describes them together.

#4: WarioWare: Smooth Moves

It's a Wii, Wario!

The WarioWare games are an odd bunch; essentially, you're repeatedly given very simple tasks to do in a tiny time limit. The task is usually obvious, prompted by a short phrase or perhaps even a single word like 'Unlock' or 'Straighten'. Each instalment has taken advantage of some kind of gimmick. 'Twisted' was a GBA game with an accelerometer in the cartridge, so most of its games revolved around spinning the console in some way.

'Smooth Moves' is the Wii game, so of course it relies on its motion controls. For this reason, it's a frustrating mess! I don't enjoy party games most of the time anyway, but when it feels like my inputs only have a vague relation to what happens on-screen, it's much worse. Still, the main factor in winning each 'microgame' is reaction time, so I was able to get through without too much trouble. However, occasionally Emily had to tell me what I was doing wrong. The samurai microgame is particularly egregious, relying on relatively precise Wiimote placement, decent reaction time and a lack of prompts in the harder version.

This in mind, I didn't enjoy WarioWare: Smooth Moves but I can understand people who do. It seems like a decently fun way of wasting time (especially in groups, which it is obviously meant to be played in) - for me, that's exactly the issue. I want games with more depth.

Friday, 26 February 2016

#3: Kirby: Nightmare in Dream Land

First you draw a circle...

I have a mixed relationship with the Kirby series. I respect the interesting game mechanics, the music and sharp design. However, I also resent the low difficulty, the way every game barely improves on the previous one in the series and how much of an obvious cute pointless mascot Kirby himself is.

The most pressing issue for me is the controls, though. I'm well aware that most people don't have any issue with them, but they vex me to no end. Jump on a button and a d-pad direction? The momentum Kirby generates after pressing a direction for maybe 3 frames? The gust of air he spits out, killing the enemy in front of you that you wanted to swallow? Every tiny thing about his movement has resulted in me rolling my eyes at least once.

This might seem at odds with what I said about the difficulty; that's actually the problem! All of the games are very easy (though they often include challenge modes), so they don't require you to be any good at the game to beat them. Every time I make some kind of input error it annoys me, but the game barely notices, throwing barrels of extra lives and health refills at you almost up until the end boss falls over. While it suits many gamers just fine, I feel like I'm being patronised.

Even with all this, Kirby: Nightmare in Dream Land is excellently put together. I felt frustrated, but not overly so. The levels are interesting and varied, finding secrets is actually fun, the music keeps your spirits up, it's not too long or too short.

I've already beaten the next game because it took me too long to write this post.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

#2: Balloon Fight

Well, I already beat it. Last night, in fact.

For those not in the know, Balloon Fight is a simple action game where you fly around and beat people up. Both you and enemy fighters are held aloft by balloons - you get two, they get one, but they have the luxury of being able to re-inflate them if they land on something solid. At this point you can deliver them a sweet flying kick to remove them from the stage. The other way of killin' dudes is letting them drop into the water, where they will either drown or get eaten by a gigantic fish.

Controls are heavily momentum-based, and there are essentially only three inputs: left, right and flap. The game doesn't give you any time to get used to this, so you'll probably get dunked a few times before you start a decent run through the game. The levels loop after 12, which I got past a number of times, so I call this mode beaten. Two-player play is available, but it's simply a cooperative version of this mode.

There is also another mode, called Balloon Trip. This is a simple side-scroller (which goes to the left, for some reason) with lots of lightning bolts to avoid and balloons to pick up, usually in precarious places. After a couple of tries I managed to grab all the balloons, so there's not much else to do!

Fun, short game. Decent difficulty, not much aggravation. Worth being called a classic.

My next game is Kirby: Nightmare in Dream Land. I've played the original a bit.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

#1: Phantasy Star Portable

Well, one game has fallen to my mighty thumbs so far this year: Phantasy Star Portable. It styles itself as a sequel to Phantasy Star Universe, picking up the plot 3 months later, but it almost exclusively uses resources from that game, so the experience is very similar indeed. The plot is even basically the same, what with a looming threat from SEED and the planetary representatives being jerks about letting the Guardians do their jobs.

Stepping back a bit, PSU is essentially a revisit of Phantasy Star Online, one of the first graphical MMOs. PSO is an offshoot of the long-running Phantasy Star series, the first title being a party-based dungeon crawler on the Master System. From the beginning, it has stood out with its female protagonists, high-tech setting and singular visual style. It has also produced some excellent soundtracks, several of which grace my media library.

The first four games are standard JRPG fare, but Online created full-3D (slightly) randomly generated environments, and also introduced MMO-standard grinding/farming mechanics. Despite this, it can still be played in single-player mode with a definitive 'credit roll' ending; this lets you replay the game on a higher difficulty setting, similar to Diablo II. The fact that you can use the same character off- and on-line meant that hacking was a huge problem, leading to many revisions of the game being released on various consoles. It was probably one of the Dreamcast's most popular games, keeping it going longer than it might have otherwise.

I played as a Newman Hunter at first, giving myself a rather unlikely hair/skin colour combination as is my wont. My experience with PSU so far led me to focusing on melee weapons, as spells and ranged weapons really don't benefit from Universe's (slightly) more complex combat. The different weapon types (of which there many) have reasonably different feels, making the choice meaningful; there is a 'palette' of six weapons you can freely switch between in battle, though if you're quick with the game menu, you could swap in even more during combat if you really wanted to. My favourite part of this system is that you are able to put melee weapons in your right hand and ranged weapons in your left, allowing for quite a bit of customisation. Portable adds (I think?) Mags which fill up the ranged slot, either providing cover fire automatically or being a decent launchpad for spells if you're not otherwise a spell-focused class.

As soon as I hit Hunter level 7, I changed to Fighmaster, which essentially just a better Hunter, able to wield several S-class weapons. Unfortunately, the only one I found was a Mag that only Rangers could equip. This appeared to be a set drop in the final area, because I got several of them.

Difficulty was usually low, though some bosses were much, much harder than their surrounding dungeon. De Rol Le made an appearance (first in PSO) and it fully took an hour to beat him, because this incarnation lets you hit him even less than the original one did. The final boss blew me away so quickly in my initial attempt that I just knew it would be impossible without grinding. Over the next 3 hours I gained 8 levels and a couple of equipment upgrades, and this was JUST enough... the final boss gauntlet (3 forms, essentially) left me with only 6 of 30 healing items, and no Scape Dolls (instant resurrect if you die).

Overall, a decent game, but if you've already played Phantasy Star Universe, there isn't much to see. The soundtrack and graphics are both essentially the same, just of lower quality.

My next game (picked by my beautiful assistant) is, uh... Balloon Fight. Maybe this one won't need 3 hours of grinding.