Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Review: Impossible Road

Who knew hell could be so beautiful? Impossible Road may look serene and minimal, but in practice it is anything but. The extreme twists, turns and cambers you have to negotiate by guiding the ball or "Vessel" ensure you won't have a moment to stop and stare. Control is very simple; press the corresponding side of the screen to make The Vessel turn right or left. The goal is simply to make it through markers in order to increase your score. Fall off though, and it isn't game over. You can still steer The Vessel while the screen will slowly fade to white but if you touch any part of the track it goes back to normal. This mechanic, if used correctly, allows you to skip through huge segments. The genius of the design is that whatever marker you go through counts as your score. This sort of risk/reward mechanic is nothing new, but rarely has it felt so nerve-wracking.

Once I started getting good I very luckily managed to get a decent score of 80. Beating it has been incredibly difficult because the track gets progressively harder. I would get past the 76th gate and fall off, trying desperately to bounce back on to the track and regain control, only to bounce back off again. I'm pretty sure that at one point if I had just made it through a gate I would have a score of something like 100. Well, that's what I keep telling myself and it keeps bringing me back; only to see that soul-destroying screen white-out and the words AGAIN? appear in front of me.

Perseverance has paid off in the end though and I have made it to 85! My main gripe is that there are points where it is impossible to get back onto the track if you fall off. Sometimes that can feel unfair, because one of the best parts of the design is that it gives you the opportunity to correct your mistakes. It is particularly annoying if it happens when you are about to beat your high score! This is definitely a game of slow progress, but that gameplay is satisfying enough on its own to not get in the way. In that sense it reminds me of Super Hexagon. Both games are infuriatingly difficult, share the same control scheme, look amazing and have cool soundtracks. They are also the two best games on iOS, so download them now.

Find it on iTunes

Developer: Kevin Ng

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Can the 3DS Replace Your Smartphone?

Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of Mario, Zelda, and more, was recently seen using his 3DS as a tour guide at the Louvre in France. Most people would rely on their smartphones for virtual tours like this.
Luxury comes at a price. This especially applies to the greatest hit of the 21st century: smartphones. Not only will you have to pay an initial price of $200+ for a high end smartphone, but you will then also have to pay expensive monthly fees. What if the 3DS could fill your need for a pocketable media device, allowing you to save money and switch back to using a basic phone?

Alright, I'll reason with you, at its current state the 3DS is incapable of replacing a smart phone in terms of functionality. However, with hardware updates in the future, Nintendo has the opportunity to snag a bit more market share. With later iterations of the original DS we saw downloadable DSi apps, a camera, a better screen, and more. Who's to say the same hardware advances will not also affect the 3DS in the coming years. It is very likely the next model 3DS will include 3G connectivity and can be purchased from wireless carriers such as Verizon as AT&T. This would not be unheard of, as Sony was even more daring with their launch of the Xperia Play in 2011. Not only did Sony offer 3G connectivity with this device, but it was a fully functional smartphone with the ability to play PSP games out of the box. Considering Nintendo's history of fearlessly innovating for better or for worse (let's please forget about the N64 controller, Wii Fit pad, and pretty much everything involving the Wii U so far), they could easily make such a breakthrough with the next 3DS.
If Sony was bold enough to merge a smartphone with a PSP in 2011, Nintendo should be bold enough to do the same two years later. 
Online connection anytime and anywhere will not be enough for your 3DS to kill your smartphone however. The Miiverse is a fantastic online community that exists solely on the Wii U, though it seems even more logical on the 3DS. Socializing with friends on the go has become a major appeal of smartphones, just look at the amount of downloads on the official Facebook app for any of the mobile platforms. Integrating Miiverse into the 3DS firmware would be a giant leap forward from the current state of the handheld console, which frankly lacks any easy way to communicate with friends. Bringing a wider audience to the 3DS with the introduction of a mobile Miiverse would give Nintendo the install base it needs to bring other social networking apps to the eShop. Third party apps, most importantly social networking apps, are an essential part to Nintendo's war on the smartphone. If one cannot tweet about every time he or she eats a meal, why would he or she bother buying a dedicated handheld console.

Though this brings us to our biggest problem, which branches from Nintendo's infamous stubbornness the gamers yearning for next-gen experiences since 1995 have come to hate. The fact that the 3DS is designed and marketed to be a dedicated handheld gaming device is easily its biggest downfall. Even the PS Vita, despite the fact that it is an utter failure of a gaming machine, can run applications such as Skype and also smoothly runs a capable and modern web browser. Of course the PS Vita also has 3G. If the Vita were also a great game console, which it is not, it would be selling much better than the 3DS because it would be more than just a system specific games can be played on. To survive in a hostile mobile tech market, Nintendo needs to do more than innovate. They need to "wow," something they unfortunately have not done since the launch of the Wii. Nintendo seems to lack aggression when they need it most, but perhaps one day the 3DS will have what it takes to put your smartphone to sleep for good, however unlikely it may be.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Review: Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate

This game is the most recent in a long line of Castlevania titles for Nintendo platforms. However, it shares very little in common with what has come before it. The previous games were helmed by Koji Igarashi and developed by Konami. They followed the Metroidvania formula of platforming, backtracking and exploration on a large map and using items to unlock new areas. This is a separate story and part of a trilogy created by Spanish developer MercurySteam. The first title was released on Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, being one of the first 3D Castlevania games not to be critically panned. It was a more action-oriented game, resembling God of War but added in some backtracking to later levels in order to find power-ups. Moving to 3DS has prompted a change to a 2.5D side-scrolling presentation, while keeping the gameplay from the original Lords of Shadow. If you go into the game knowing that it is a combat-heavy action game, then I don't think you will be disappointed.

The story consists of a prologue and three acts, each from the point of view of a different character. The prologue is a short tutorial and has you controlling Gabriel, the main character of the trilogy. The other three characters are all out to find and defeat Gabriel, for revenge on what he has done in the past. Each act takes place at a different time and from a new character's perspective. It is interesting to see how Dracula's Castle changes over time. Each character also has different abilities which can be used to unlock new areas. This ensures that while you may be exploring the same place in each act, it doesn't get dull from a visual or gameplay standpoint. The pacing is also complemented by this three act structure. Each act gets better, with the third being really quite impressive. The level of spectacle is dramatically higher and the character you use is very adept, granting the player a satisfying sense of empowerment.

Gameplay is standard hack and slash fare. You use a combination direct and area attacks in conjunction with projectiles and magic. Beat down an enemy and if they start flashing you can do a cool finishing move. One element I have always liked about the Lords of Shadow games is the dark and light magic system. Each can be activated during battle and they serve different purposes. Using light magic while you fight will add health absorption to every hit you land, while dark magic grants increased damage. The light magic can be really helpful if you are in a tight spot and have low health while dark magic can make boss fights a lot less arduous. Each magic  also has spells that can do a lot of damage, but I never found myself using them to be honest. The defensive component of the combat system also has a useful feature: While blocking and dodging are both viable options, countering gives you the best chance of obliterating your opponent. Countering is triggered by blocking an attack right before it lands. When done right, your character will push the enemy back and the game will go into slow-motion which gives you the opportunity to use your best combos. It doesn't have the same depth as Ninja Gaiden or Metal Gear Rising, but it is very competent and satisfying.

I don't want to go into story or character details, because it is one of the reasons to play the game. Suffice to say that while you will probably guess the ending twist before it is revealed, it is entertaining. This narrative doesn't break any new ground, but I think it is presented very well and will keep you motivated to its conclusion. A combination of in-engine cinematics, readable scrolls and cel-shaded cut-scenes are used. I found the cel-shaded videos quite charming and they make the 3D screen really pop.

In fact, I think this is the best use of 3D by a third-party developer on the system so far. I personally love 3D, but for those that don't it is worth pushing the slider up for this game. The 2.5D graphics allow for some great layering and MercurySteam haven't missed the opportunity to use it in interesting ways. During cut-scenes and finishers the camera will dynamically zoom in or pan around. The economical use of these flourishes keep them surprising and fun.

The game is incredibly detailed and really makes use of the power this system has. The amount of detail in the game's graphics make sense when when you consider that the assets were all made in HD and scaled down to 3DS resolution. Therein lies a problem though, playing the game on a 3DS XL I was greatly impressed. However, the resolution and pixel density on the screen actually do a disservice to the effort MercurySteam has put into the graphics. During the moments where the game zooms in, you can see how much is lost in normal gameplay. This is an issue with the 3DS more than the game, but it does make me hope that the next handheld from Nintendo will a very high resolution display to go with its impressive 3D tech. The only other issue with this game from a visual standpoint is occasional slowdown, it can be annoying but it never gets in the way of gameplay.

The Castlevania games are very well known for their use of sound to convey atmosphere. They have some of the best soundtracks in video games. I wouldn't say this soundtrack is up there with the series' best, but it is enjoyable. The voice acting and sound effects are decent but don't seem to have the same effort put into them as the console games. For example, in the trailer for Lords of Shadow 2, Robert Carlisle's monologue as Gabriel is amazing. You won't find anything as impressive as that here. It's a shame because as portable machines get more and more powerful, their games shouldn't be treated as any less important than home console ones.

Overall, I really enjoyed the game. It has been quite a critically divisive title, but I like that it is trying something new with the Castlevania franchise. I know people love the classic formula, but MercurySteam have never made that kind of game and I would rather they make a good 2.5D action game than a bad Metroidvania one. It also doesn't suffer from being overly long like the original Lords of Shadow, I finished the game in about 12 hours which is perfect for this kind of action game.

Find Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate on ebay | Amazon

Released: 2013-03-05
Publisher: Konami
Developer: MercurySteam

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Demo the new Ace Attorney game in your browser

Pheonix Wright: Ace Attorney  - Dual Destinies is the next installment in the Pheonix Wright series, and will be coming to Europe and the States on the eShop. Capcom have put up a demo on the web on their Japanese site. I have no idea what the hell is going on, but it looks good! Here's hoping we get an English demo soon. 

Ace Attorney - Dual Destines gets a Japanese web demo [Destructoid]

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Review: New Super Mario Bros. 2

Inevitable - Certain to happen; unavoidable

Many aspects of New Super Mario Bros. 2 were inevitable. The fact that the game was released was inevitable following the success of previous New Super Mario Bros. titles. Of course, gamers are often quick to forget the things they liked, so it was also inevitable that the series' 3DS entry would be met with skepticism. The question had never been whether or not New Super Mario Bros. 2 would be a good game, but rather if it was the right time for it to be released. The world certainly did not and still does not need any more 2D Mario side-scrollers, especially with the words "super", "mario", or "bros." in the titles, but sometimes it is not a matter of what you need, but what will supplement your life.

Any notion of New Super Mario Bros. 2 being a lazy cash-in by Nintendo should be shot down immediately. Again, considering making such a notion is inevitable given the circumstances. However, this game, against preemptive belief, is a welcome addition to the series that brings "new enough" gameplay to keep things fresh. Interestingly, the thing that makes New Super Mario Bros. 2 feel like a new game is not new at all. Coins are now everywhere, and I mean everywhere. Each level in the game must have at least 100 coins, enough for a single 1-up. While many coins are well hidden and the game does a great job of keeping track of how many coins you have collected in each level as well as how many you have collected in total, more coins means more lives, and more lives means a much easier game. Not getting a game over in a Mario game is not that unheard of these days -- in fact it is pretty normal -- but finishing the game with over 250 lives is not normal and never should be. Simply put, NSMB 2 is just way too easy to recommend to anyone looking for even the most basic of challenges. The levels themselves can be difficult at times, especially the infamous ghost houses, a staple of 2D Mario games for years, but the assurance that you will never actually fail means you can retry as much as you would like without penalty.

Beyond difficulty, there is not much to complain about in regards to New Super Mario Bros. 2. Nintendo continues to be the go-to developer and publisher for fans of the platformer genre. Platforming veterans and traditionalists will certainly not be disappointed by NSMB2. Video game newbies will also love this game due to its charm and pick-up-and-play gameplay. Level design is spot on as well. Few Mario games have as many secrets, power-ups, and hidden levels. Playing through the game without replaying levels for secrets would not be getting your money's worth. Gameplay in general is very reminiscent of Super Mario World, the SNES classic, which is obviously a great thing. Everything just works in a way only a Nintendo game could, giving the game infinite re-playability and a steady pace. It is very possible to master every level and then replay the game in the form of a speed run. When every level in the game can be mastered to the extent in which it can be finished in an extremely quick amount of time, you know it is a good game because the levels are not too easy but not too hard and also give the player the ability to progress at his/her own rate. Of course each level still has a timer, but rather than detracting from the game it encourages the player to work harder to win and manage how much time they spend collecting coins.

It's clear that the one thing New Super Mario Bros. 2 really has going for it is coins, and the new game mode, Coin Rush, capitalizes in this. In fact Coin Rush may offer a better experience than the regular single player mode. Levels from specified worlds are chosen at random and the time limit is very, well... limiting. You can put more time on the clock by reaching the checkpoint mid-way through each level. All the levels that appear in Coin Rush are slightly edited to produce even more coins than they do in the single player game. Because the levels are randomized, this leads to almost endless fun and replay value.

New Super Mario Bros. 2 is not the most interesting or innovative game you will play by any means. What it is though is pure fun that only Nintendo seems to be able to deliver in this modern era of gaming. Forget everything; controversy in the game industry, good storylines, EA DRM nonsense, etc., and just sit back and enjoy a stinking game for once! This is what NSMB2 is about, so please do not try to fool yourself into thinking a game is not good unless it has an ultra complex narrative or in depth-character customization, because Nintendo has done what seemed to be the impossible once again and made us not only buy, but enjoy, yet another Mario game.

Find New Super Mario Bros 2 on ebay | Amazon

Released: 2012-08-19
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Nintendo 

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Review: Exit

If I were given only two words with which to describe Exit, they would be "wasted potential."  The platform puzzler from developer Moss builds its mechanic around a setup and basic control scheme that we've seen before many times over.  In fact, the platform level may well be among the most well-recognized, beloved, and historically ubiquitous tropes of gaming.  However, the "puzzle" aspect, the core conceit, is designed less around the construction of unique obstacles for our player character to thwart, and more around taking what would under normal circumstances be a series of straightforward platforming levels and making them as frustrating and cumbersome as possible.

Most effective games take an established form or medium and attempt to build on it; to do new things with it which could only be accomplished within the context of interactivity.  Tetris, for example, sans the essential entrapments of motion and control, would be just a simple geometric puzzle, suitable for mucus-laden children to play with in the doctor's office waiting room.  Bejweled would be a matching game, similarly slow-paced and tedious.  The movement, the animation, the ticking clock to race against, and of course, the player's ability to manipulate objects (in ways with which normal, physical objects wouldn't and couldn’t cooperate) make all the difference.

The theme here is that an effective game, especially an effective puzzle game, works by adding things to a simplistic core, not by taking away.  And it seems like Exit does very little but take.
Before I get into that, though, I'd like to take a moment to explore what the game is trying to be, and perhaps could have been:  Exit puts the player in the snazzy comic-art shoes of Mr. ESC, a noir-style silhouette of a dashing hero, complete with extra-pointy fedora and a penchant for striking angular poses.  Along with his sidekick, a cat, he rescues people from burning buildings and precariously tall objects and such on a regular basis. (Because, you know, who ever heard of the fire department?)  His objective in each level of the game is to save the civilians and make his way to the titular endgoal in as little time as possible.

The presentation tries for a slick, anime-inspired cartoon vibe, kind of like a Carmen Bebop or Cowboy Sandiego or something.  All hats and trenchcoats and snarky catchphrases and Bad...butt (It's for kids!) raised eyebrows. It's a style that works well in a very active setting; perfectly suited, really, to the daring, cliched heroic rescue scenario into which Exit would have us delve.

So, here's the problem.  Moss failed to match style with content.  Exit is slow, slow, slow.  Yeah sure, you can run, while holding down a button, but good luck trying to interact with the environment while doing so (the game requires you to interface with an awfully lot of switches and ropes to ascend and descend stories, like a BDSM Chutes and Ladders).  You can jump, but the jump’s negligible duration and the truncated height and angle of each bound keep it from being an efficacious method of traversal.  In order to move objects, pick up items, or rescue a person so they can follow you around and never shut up (seriously, each of the dozen or so characters you must rescue multiple times has about one phrase each for six or seven different situations; it gets really grating way too quickly), you need to be perfectly still, standing right next to the target object.  And I do mean exactly next to it.  One step too close or too far, and you miss the object, which can sometimes spell the difference between success and failure in a given scenario.

Complexifying the tedium is the relentlessly arcane control mapping.  Whereas many games, platformers in particular, strive to make the player-to-character connection as elegant and simple as possible, Exit’s control scheme serves as an obstruction to the ideal 1:1 relationship between Human in Human World and Character in Game World.  In many similarly-designed platformers and adventure games, one button is used to interact with the environment, talk to people and pick up items.  Sometimes that same button is even used to perform traveling motions like the (herein cumbersome) jumps.
Not in Exit, however.  It's like the Apple store in a game – there's a button for everything.  A single button for almost every conceivable action.  There's a button for running, another for jumping, another for picking up objects, another for using those objects, and yet another for interacting with the survivors you rescue.  As if that weren't enough, there's a secondary mode you can switch into using the analog stick (nope, you're not able to use that sucker to move your character - I guess that would have lent too much speed and mobility to a game about, you know, escaping from emergency situations with lives on the line), with its own control scheme.  These are used for directing your followers around the screen.  Some of them are able to lift or move things you can't, some of them can crouch lower, some can jump higher, etc.  You need to use this mode, and your extremely slow, incompetent, and chatty fellow escapees to move forward, which only serves to underscore the frustration at playing a platform puzzler which has created a false difficulty by crippling your means of interacting with it.

In short, Exit writes a check it may originally have been quite capable of cashing, right before overdrawing its account on a 24-pack of Steel Reserve.  There are glimmers of something unique, something flashy, creative, and just overall "cool," but the execution makes the gimmicks, no matter how promising, more irritating than potentially mimetic.  I can't recommend playing Exit unless you really like being frustrated, and you enjoy doing things you've known how to do your whole life (in this case, playing a platformer) except in a more difficult, roundabout, and inconvenient fashion.

I'm having trouble imagining that there are those of you out there who like to put mittens on before tying your shoes, because that's the level of masochism it would take to really get into Exit.  Then again, Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle had like a million sequels, so it’s possible that for some of you, Exit is just the ticket.  But it certainly isn't mine.

Find Exit on ebay | Amazon

Released: 2006-02-14
Publisher: Ubisoft, Taito
Developer: Moss

Monday, May 6, 2013

Get 3D Classics: Excitebike and Art Syle: Aquia on Club Nintendo Until 6/2

From now until June 2nd, Club Nintendo members can redeem their coins for 3D Classics: Excitebike and Art Style: Aquia for 150 and 100 coins, respectively. Most everyone should be familiar with Excitebike, and for anyone that didn't get it free with their 3DS, it's a lot of fun and looks great in stereoscopic 3D. The lesser known Aquia is a puzzler with a pretty unique mechanic that fans of the genre might want to check out.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Review: Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance

Okay, this is really one of those games that I have been holding off on, and for too long I might add.  Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance is the next installment in the Kingdom Hearts franchise, and is the first game in a while that actually advances the story after Kingdom Hearts 2 for the PS2.   For ten years we have seen the adventures of Sora, Donald, Goofy, and Riku.  After all these years, you would think Square Enix could come up with something new for once (not that this is such a bad thing).  For the most part, Kingdom Hearts is still Kingdom Hearts, yet they did try to do things differently; some things for the better, some for worse.

The story takes place after the events of Kingdom Hearts 2, and Dream Drop Distance is the game that advances the story and begins to set up the stage for, possibly, Kingdom Hearts 3.  Players do not need to have any previous experience playing the Kingdom Hearts franchise to understand what is going on, since the game does provide summaries and character bios that do help ease newcomers into the whole complicated plot, but I recommend playing as many of the previous entries to truly understand what is going on.  KH1, KH2, and KH: Birth by Sleep are the games that newcomers will want to at least play to get the most out of the story.

Xehanort is the main villain of the whole franchise, but our heroes do not stand a chance against him, so Master Yen Sid (did you know that Yen Sid is Disney spelled backwards?) prepares a set of trials for Sora and Riku, called the Mark of Mastery.  If they pass this test, Sora and Riku will obtain power that could stand a chance to this new threat.  So, our heroes set off on a journey to prepare themselves for the danger that lurks ahead.

The game plays very similar to Birth by Sleep.  The command list is now just a list of actions that you can activate by scrolling through them with the D-Pad.  Considering how small the D-Pad on the 3DS is, this can be a little awkward at times, and can lead to some complications in the middle of battle.  Luckily, you can set one of your actions to a shortcut so that you can quickly heal yourself in the middle of battle.  There are some differences to battles now:  With the push of a button, you can perform moves that are called Flowmotion.  Sora and Riku use the environment, and sometimes enemies, to perform powerful moves that are great for crowd control.  This gives combat a breath of fresh air, which was something that was needed for the franchise.

Normally in the Kingdom Hearts universe, our heroes are accompanied by partners of some kind. While Donald and Goofy previously assisted Sora, now we have the Dream Eaters.  Think of Dream Eaters as a pet of some kind.  These pets can be leveled up so that they can give new abilities to Sora and Riku.  They can help you out in a pinch in combat as well.  As your Dream Eaters land hits, they will build up a meter, which, once maxed out, can give a random attack to Sora, or a complete change in fighting style for Riku.  If you have both Dream Eaters' meters at max, you can unleash even more powerful versions of these abilities, with different combinations doing different things.  Because they aren't exactly majorly significant to the gameplay, it doesn't welcome experimentation, and players might use the same group of Dream Eaters for the entire journey. (Even though I got the Mark of Mastery edition of the game that came with some powerful Dream Eaters via AR cards, I had the same Dream Eaters throughout the whole game).

I am going to touch on this next point really briefly.  Everytime you go to a new world as either hero, you need to complete a mini-game called a Dream Drop.  These mini-games are extremely easy if you just need to collect a certain amount of points before time is up, but sometimes you have to fight a boss.  Sometimes, this can be annoying to do, considering at how poor these segments are.  You have to dodge a series of attacks, and then the boss lowers its guard so that you can attack it.  In order to attack, you need to lock on, and then lunge to attack.  Sadly, the lunge has a habit of missing its mark, wasting valuable time needed to whittle down the boss's health.

One final bit of gameplay that I must cover is the Drop system, which is where the "Drop" in Dream Drop Distance comes from.  To put it simply, this is a sort of timer that shows how long our heroes can stay in the world for.  If time runs out, time freezes around you, and your character goes to sleep.  You then play as the other character, and this cycle repeats itself.  While switching between characters, you can purchase upgrades such as Attack Up, Defense Up, etc. with the points you earned while playing through runs.  These upgrades are only active on the run they were purchased for, and any unused point get converted to Muny.  This mechanic is annoying at first, but I believe this exists so that you can play as both heroes evenly, and advance the plot evenly as well.  You need to play as both Riku and Sora and complete the various worlds in order to unlock additional worlds.  The good news is that you can extend your time in worlds by using an item that replenishes your Drop meter, or you by purchasing an upgrade in between Drops to make the Drop rate go down, extending your playtime as that character for a good while.  It takes me about two Drops to complete a world, but it is possible to complete a world in just one Drop.

In conclusion, Dream Drop Distance was not a bad game, but it was not as spectacular as other Kingdom Hearts games.  Then again, maybe it is just me getting older and losing interest in the franchise as a whole.  Either way, despite the hiccups along the way, this game was not that bad.  It certainly did the 10-year-old franchise some justice.  Let us just hope that the future holds much brighter things that focus less on gimmicks.

Find Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance on ebay | Amazon

Released: 2012-07-31
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Square Enix

The Angry Video Game Nerd Adventures will be on 3DS

Holy Fuckballs. The Angry Video Game Nerd Adventures was recently approved for Steam Greenlight, and according to the official Facebook page, it will also grace modern Nintendo consoles. The game is perfectly suited for 3DS/WiiU, seeing as it's based heavily on other games released on Nintendo systems that the Nerd has previously reviewed. Check out the trailer below; it speaks for itself. And for anyone unfamiliar with the Nerd himself, head on over to Cinemassacre and get yourselves caught up!