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Chronological Game Reviews – Majora’s Mask / Perfect Dark

August 31, 2016 Leave a comment

In today’s Chronological Challenge post, I take a look back at two N64 games from that system’s final days. As the Gamecube emerged on the horizon, Nintendo seemed determined to push the best they could out of their cartridges. And these are two of the big hitters of 2000. But how do they hold up? Let me offer up my thoughts.

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask
Publisher: Nintendo | Developer: Nintendo | Released: April 27, 2000 (Japan)
Original System: Nintendo 64
Played on: Wii Virtual Console

Goal: Find all masks and Heart Pieces and then save Termina

Actual Outcome: Defeated Majora as Fierce Deity Link, so you tell me

If I were to suggest a major flaw in the Legend of Zelda franchise, it’d be that it relies a little too much on the same conventions and structure in every single game. There’s always a fight against Ganon, either three or seven McGuffins you must collect in dungeons, or both, and each dungeon always contains a new tool you must use to progress. It’s a good formula that works, but sometimes it’s nice to see the Zelda series play with that structure a little. And that’s where Majora’s Mask comes in.

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Chronological Game Challenge – Kirby 64 / MediEvil 2

August 26, 2016 Leave a comment

Hi! Here’s a surprise update for you all! I’ve been missing a few weeks of updates on challenge reviews, so this week I decided to double up to get back on track. Enjoy!

Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards
Publisher: Nintendo | Developer: HAL Laboratory | Released: March 24, 2000 (Japan)
Original System: Nintendo 64
Played on: Wii Virtual Console

Goal: Defeat Dark Matter and 02

Actual Outcome: Defeated Dark Matter, 02 is more a 100% concern

Kirby can often be seen as Nintendo’s most accessible series. While Mario and Zelda are the popular keystones of their library, the reality is that both provide significant challenge throughout their games that could cause small children playing them for the first time to feel frustrated, with specific jump timing in the former, or knowing when to guard and dodge against a Darknut in the latter.

Kirby, however, is an adorably happy series that rarely offers up significant challenge for veteran players. But it’s kid-friendly in all the right ways, and presents interesting mechanics that could help them graduate up to the big franchises. And nowhere is that more apparent than in Kirby 64, Kirby’s only outing on Nintendo’s 5th gen hardware outside of Super Smash Bros.

Kirby 64 is not a challenging game. In fact, my playthrough consisted of about two hours of breezing through the levels in a game that isn’t particularly long either, with a handful of worlds with about five short levels in each. As I progressed, my life counter kept creeping up and not once did I see a Game Over screen. While this isn’t particularly unusual, it stood out quite heavily in Kirby 64 simply because the game as a whole feels like it’s just going through the motions.

Where Kirby’s Adventure and Kirby Super Star oozed charm and joy, Kirby 64 just kind of meanders. It ticks the boxes set by its predecessors and barely steps outside of them. There’s a mechanic for combining powers that’s fairly interesting, but it never really adds much strategy. Kirby just waddles his way through the levels and that’s about all that really seems to happen. I’m aware that criticising a Kirby game for its simplicity and twee cuteness seems unfair, as that’s exactly what you play a Kirby game for, but the experience as a whole feels bland.

It’s hard to pinpoint where this comes from. Perhaps it’s the graphics, which are chunky and pastel and look like a BBC pre-school show exploded, and lack the cartoony stylings of the NES and SNES outings. As such, it doesn’t quite have the same charm that the series is known for.

That said, as an accessible first game for children, it serves its purpose nicely. It’s vibrant, simple and it has the level of quality you’d expect from a Nintendo game. Just a shame there’s not much here for anyone over the age of 10.

MediEvil 2
Publisher: SCE | Developer: SCE Cambridge Studio | Year: April 19, 2000
Original System: PlayStation
Played on: PS2 (original PS1 disc)

Goal: See how far I can get in a single session

Actual Outcome: Three or four levels in

As we’ve discussed when I reviewed it, I’ve always had a fondness for MediEvil, and while the original game was a little rough in places, it still holds up well for me as a quirky action adventure. Despite having not played it for years, I’d convinced myself that MediEvil 2 was even better, improving on everything the first game got wrong.

I clearly was misremembering.

MediEvil 2 is a sequel to a game that initially appeared to have a conclusive ending. Sir Dan had defeated Zarok and redeemed himself, and returned to his crypt for an eternal rest, and had been welcomed into the Hall of Heroes at last in the afterlife. Surely the story was over, right? Well, fast-forward to the Victorian era, where interest in the occult has re-earthed Zarok’s spellbook which has fallen into the hands of an unscrupulous baron, and who has managed to raise the dead yet again. And guess which also-resurrected corpse has to sort out the mess?

And while this shift in setting is very interesting, placing Dan in more recognisable settings around London town, it doesn’t feel like much of an evolution. If the first game had been spectacular and refined, this wouldn’t be a problem, but in a game like MediEvil, which is good with caveats, the lack of real improvement where it’s needed is a problem.

Let’s focus on the good first though. Start on a positive. The new setting is indeed fantastic. I might be a little biased, as I have a certain fondness for Victorian-era mysteries and ghost stories, which this draws heavily from, but the setting is handled well and twisted just right into the Tim-Burton-esque imagery the series had set out for itself. You visit locations such as the British Museum where Dan is an exhibit, the Greenwich Observatory, Kew Gardens, and Whitechapel where you track down the infamous Jack the Ripper. It all works with MediEvil’s spooky charm, and provides some real variety.

However, there are just too many problems with MediEvil 2 for it to be recommended as highly as its predecessor. Combat remains as jerky and awkward as ever, but this time enemies seem to have gotten tougher, and the game simply hasn’t been rebalanced to address this. Museum guards with muskets have impeccable aim, wacky magician men who raise the dead in the street are alarmingly quick, and boss fights are all pretty much on a par with the Shadow Demon fight from Enchanted Earth in the first game (ie. the worst part of the first game).

This is before we get to the inexplicable boxing mini-game that turns up partway through and requires you to punch the limbs off a Frankenstein’s monster while avoiding getting your own limbs punched off, which had the potential to be a fun Monty Python and the Holy Grail style duel, but instead makes me desperate to get through it and get to the next level.

Also, they ruined Dan’s voice. Originally his guttural mumbling was exactly in line with what you’d expect a skeletal corpse with no lower jaw to sound like, but here he’s got a nasally high-pitched voice that sounds like Skeletor played by Richard Ayoade and filtered through a broken CB radio. And it really doesn’t fit the character, and slightly spoils the mood of the game every time he speaks.

That said, while it’s not as fun as the first MediEvil, there’s still enjoyment to be found here if you enjoyed the first game. Because it’s barely changed mechanically, the experience is largely the same but with a section where Dan wears a top hat and a fake beard. Which is worth the asking price alone, I feel.

So yes, ultimately MediEvil 2 is flawed and doesn’t address the first game’s flaws, but it’s decent enough.

Chronological Game Challenge – Vagrant Story / Fear Effect

August 24, 2016 Leave a comment

This week on the Chronological Challenge, it’s time for two of the most ambitious PS1 games of the final year the PS1 was much of a thing. Yes, we’re continuing through 2000 with two games that would ultimately end up owned by the same company in 2016. That wasn’t intentional, obviously.

Vagrant Story
Publisher: Square | Developer: Squaresoft | Released: February 10, 2000 (Japan)
Original System: PlayStation
Played on: PS2/3 (original PS1 disc)

Goal: Solve the mysteries of Lea Monde

Actual Outcome: Failed to solve the mysteries of the weapon system

Squaresoft were renowned for their extensive JRPG selection in the 90s. During the SNES and PS1 eras in particular, they were putting out great JRPG after great JRPG, both in and out of the Final Fantasy franchise. One of the more intriguing titles, and one with a tenuous link to Square’s big franchise, was Vagrant Story. Supposedly set in the same world as Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy XII (despite having no real story connection to either), Vagrant Story is a complex tactical action RPG that demands your attention.

And that’s both a good and a bad thing. You see, Vagrant Story is intensely complex, which works both for and against it. This is for the hardcore gamer, not one of them filthy casual types as the kids call them. This is a game where management of your inventory, management of your weapon crafting and management of how you’re building your character definitely matter, because putting a foot wrong can severely hinder your progress in later parts of the game.

Vagrant Story is a strange hybrid of different things. Exploration feels a little like Resident Evil or Metroid, where you move from room to room uncovering mysteries, in a linear way in levels that don’t feel linear at all. But built into that is a strange hybrid combat system, where combat happens in real-time with action commands, but also seems to draw influence from traditional strategy RPGs. When you go to attack an enemy, a grid-based orb appears around your character, and you can attack specific body parts on your enemy, while also factoring in the weapons they are weakest to. When you select your chosen body part and attack, you can use button combinations to create a chain of attacks that do more damage and can have special side effects as varied as stealing your enemy’s MP to causing a larger amount of damage.

And it’s a pretty interesting system, right up until the point where, despite your best efforts, you aren’t doing any damage anymore. You see, the game expects you to craft weapons throughout the game, constantly improving your equipment to best tackle the multiple ways enemies can be weak – their type (dragon, phantom, human, etc.), their blade weakness (blunt, edged or piercing), and their elemental weaknesses – while simultaneously trying to use the best materials. But the problem is, the system is so complex, that it can feel very hit and miss that you’re doing things right.

And this was my major problem with Vagrant Story. On my initial playthrough, I failed to sink my teeth into this important crafting system, and ended up facing against a wyvern that was strong to my only weapon. Second time I played, I recognised the need to explore this crafting system…only to reach the final dungeon and find myself in a situation where none of my many weapons were causing damage all of a sudden. Upon reading what I did wrong, it seems that I mixed two weapons in a way that made them weaker somewhere along the way, but had no immediate feedback to tell me this, trudged through the game just fine and then got punished for it hours later.

In short, Vagrant Story has a huge problem with accessibility. I have no problem with the game’s complex inventory and weapon system. What I do have a problem with is how poorly it’s communicated with the player. You’re told about the weapons system when you walk into your first blacksmith, but in the vaguest terms. You’re never given hints about good weapon combinations, or the best practices that lead to the best weapons. I don’t need the game to hold my hand, but a general sense of what my stats will be once I combine two weapons would be nice rather than just slapping two daggers together and hoping for the best, or worse, feeling like I need to look up a spreadsheet online.

And it’s a real shame that this crafting system makes the game less enjoyable than it could be, because Vagrant Story is a fine game in every other way. The battle system is interesting, but there are so many other aspects at play here that are impressive for the system it was on.

Puzzle designs are practically a game in their own right, while the aforementioned exploration-based gameplay keeps up a level of suspense and desire to discover that drives the player through the game. And on top of that, Vagrant Story is possibly one of the best-looking games on the PS1.Often compared to Metal Gear Solid at the time, Vagrant Story is a game that has a lot of care and attention put into its details, and character models, while a little dated now, are some of the best, most realistic models in a game of its era.

But ultimately, the complexities of the game come back to haunt it. It’s clearly aimed at a more hardcore crowd, but this often feels at the expense of general enjoyment, and a little more guidance and feedback in its crafting systems would go a long way towards improving the player’s experience.

Fear Effect
Publisher: Eidos Interactive | Developer: Kronos Digital Entertainment | Released: February 25, 2000 (US)
Original System: PlayStation
Played on: PS3 (PSN release)

Goal: Beat the game

Actual Outcome: Battled the criminal underworld and won

The PS1 era was gaming’s first foray into 3D worlds, although admittedly the technology at the time wasn’t particularly good at rendering a lot of polygons in real-time. So, how exactly do you make your game look as good as a film when you’re forced to render your main cast with jagged edges? Simple, you load it with FMV sequences and that covers up the cracks!

This seems to be the general aesthetic thinking behind Fear Effect, Eidos’ attempt to cash in on the whole Resident Evil thing. And yes, I’m aware I bring up Resident Evil a lot in these reviews these days, but if developers of the 90s would stop aping it, I’d stop bringing it up.

So, Fear Effect, then. This is a cinematic adventure game which is equals parts survival horror, Hong Kong action flick, and influential 80s anime movie Akira. You play as a trio of shady mercenary types – Hana, Glas & Deke – who are tasked with finding a little girl who’s been kidnapped by Triads or something. It’s set in a cyberpunk future, it uses the tank controls and fixed camera angels of everyone’s favourite survival horror franchise, and it’s all made of FMVs.

Yes, that’s right, Fear Effect utilises FMVs as liberally as the average Sega CD game, but rather than presenting itself as a series of vaguely interactive movies, Fear Effect replaces the pre-rendered backdrops of its contemporaries for a series of looping FMV. In theory, this should make the game look superior to many games of the time, but in practice, only serves to highlight its age when playing it now.

So you know those bits in Final Fantasy games where you’re running along and a wild FMV springs up, and you’re still partly in control with the polygonal cast looking rather jarring against the smooth CG in the background, while the framerate goes a bit wonky? Imagine a full game of that, and you just imagined Fear Effect. While the game isn’t horrendous, of course, there are certainly moments where the cracks are so glaringly obvious you need a road crew to fill them in.

Boss fights, for instance, tend to suffer the most. There are a few battles with a helicopter in the initial level, and in this the gunfire is all FMV, and with it comes weird, inconsistent hitboxes, framerate issues and an obvious join where everything goes a bit jerky graphically while the game reloads the sequence. And it tends to happen a lot. These battles are little more than an exercise in remembering where the bullets show up in the background video, and not anything particularly skilful.

And because everything’s built around FMVs, Fear Effect is also a painfully linear game. The game very much has a set sequence of things for you to do, and failure to follow this sequence can lead to a punishing death quite often. Deaths are often a little cheap, in fact, such as when the aforementioned weird hitboxes and path-finding can cause you to take damage even though the danger isn’t visible on the spot you’re standing, or the game just employs good old trial-and-error challenges (usually by having something just spring out on you unexpectedly).

The inventory management is also weird. In the developers’ apparent determination to make everything feel cinematic, there’s no inventory screen in a separate dimension that you can disappear into – instead there’s a really unintuitive inventory you can flick through at any time with the Square and Circle buttons mid-gameplay. But this becomes a massive problem if you need something quickly like, say, a sequence on disc 3 where a cutscene ends and you’re immediately in a gunfight with nothing equipped and you have to frantically hammer Square just to find a decent gun. That’s not cool.

That said, once you get past the shakiness of the FMV concept and the inventory management, Fear Effect becomes oddly intriguing. It has a very strange story, blending cyberpunk, Hong Kong crime thriller and psychological horror in ways that probably shouldn’t work, but do. There’s always a desire to move forward to discover more of what’s going on, and it helps that the main team are pretty well-written for the time (although admittedly a little dated by today’s standards).

The presentation, while dated, is also fairly impressive. Polygon models employ a fake cel-shading technique on hardware that couldn’t actually do cel-shading. Voice acting is generally excellent. The twists and turns of the story are gripping. And there’s also something oddly satisfying about clearing a puzzle or stealth-killing a bunch of guys.

Fear Effect is an interesting experiment that suffers from some severe problems with initial accessibility, but once you’re past them, it’s easy to get drawn into its world and quirky puzzle design to make it a somewhat underrated gem.

Chronological Challenge Reviews – Parasite Eve 2 / RE Code Veronica

August 4, 2016 4 comments

In this week’s second collection of Chronological Challenge reviews, we finally come to the end of 1999 and head into the 21st century at last. Today we look at a Resident Evil title and a game that needlessly tried to be Resident Evil. Enjoy!

Parasite Eve II
Publisher: Square | Developer: Squaresoft | Year: 1999 (Japanese release)
Original System: PlayStation
Played on: PS3 (original PS1 disc)

Goal: Tackle the outbreak of mitochondrial creatures

Actual Outcome: Defeated the mass of cells that became a strange angel creature and beat the game

Square Enix, we need to talk.

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Chronological Challenge Reviews – The Longest Journey / Vib-Ribbon

August 2, 2016 Leave a comment

We are steadily coming up to the end of 1999, and in the first of three updates on the challenge this week, I take a look back at some quirky cult classics of the era. Enjoy!

The Longest Journey
Publisher: Empire Interactive | Developer: Funcom | Year: 1999 (Norwegian release)
Original System: Windows
Played on: Steam

Goal: Restore Balance

Actual Outcome: Restored Balance in Stark and Arcadia, and realised that I want to play the sequels

Just like The Neverending Story before it, The Longest Journey is a bit of a lie, as it certainly isn’t the longest journey in games at all. When games like Xenoblade offer up a journey of at least 100 hours, The Longest Journey’s fairly average point-and-click length of about ten hours is somewhat disappointing.

But of course, that’s being slightly facetious because The Longest Journey is still a fantastic game. I picked this up after hearing from many sources that this was one of the best of all time in its genre, so I had to check it out.

For those who know nothing about The Longest Journey, you are April Ryan, an art student living in the city of Newport in a somewhat dystopian future. After waking from a dream where a dragon talks to her about destiny, she meets a mysterious man named Cortez who informs her that there are two worlds, her world, Stark, and the magical land of Arcadia, and the Balance between the two is being threatened. April must shift between the two solving puzzles and conundrums in order to reach the Guardian and save the whole world.

The story is fantastic. Blending sci-fi and fantasy in a way that doesn’t cause the two to clash in horrible ways, The Longest Journey is, well, a journey through an incredibly well-realised world meeting a cast of interesting characters. The way the world unfolds for the player is fascinating, with a permanent sense of mystery driving everything along. It’s a tricky plot to follow at times, but it holds together and keeps the player engaged.

On top of this, the voice acting is phenomenal. While much of the cast seems to consist of smaller actors with minimal experience, it doesn’t suffer the problems of, say, Resident Evil, and maintains characters that are consistently being interesting and believable. April herself is a standout, of course, and her sassy, jokey nature is endearing and sticks even as she grows as a character.

Gameplay-wise, this is typical point-and-click territory, so don’t expect huge action sequences here. But in terms of puzzle design, The Longest Journey does fairly well. The puzzles don’t feel as complex as they do in other games, although on the flipside they employ less bizarre moon logic when compared to other games of the genre. They’re a nice balance, while still being challenging enough that you might spend a bit of time slightly confused on what was happening.

If I must level criticism at The Longest Journey, and I must, it’s that it’s a very ugly game. Character models are consistently weird-looking, while FMV sequences make this worse. April herself tends to look a little too spindly and oddly-animated in these scenes, and it’s sometimes uncomfortable to look at. This seems to be an issue with the game’s age more than anything else, but it’s still jarring.

Aside from this, The Longest Journey is an excellent game. I can see why it’s so highly praised by fans of the genre and why it’s endured as a cult classic. Needless to say, I may have to look into its sequels – Dreamfall and Dreamfall Chapters – so I can revisit this world again since I miss it already.

Vib-Ribbon
Publisher: SCE | Developer: NanaOn-Sha | Year: 1999 (Japanese release)
Original System: PlayStation
Played on: PS3 (original PS1 disc)

Goal: Play through five CDs’ worth of music

Actual Outcome: Played through about three CDs’ worth of music

Remember a few years ago when Shawn Layden, head of Sony America, walked out on stage at E3 2014 and expressed his love for a quirky little game called Vib-Ribbon? Remember how he forgot that the game had never been released in the US before that point and everyone got immensely confused and thought it was leading to an announcement, and they had to hastily arrange a PSN release? Those were good times.

Europe, however, did get Vib-Ribbon back in 2000 (although I’m counting it as 1999 because of its original Japanese release), and I remember being intrigued by it at the time and picking it up off the back of an interesting demo.

Vib-Ribbon is certainly unique. It’s a rhythm game where you control a wireframe rabbit named Vibri, who happily skips along a line across your screen. On her adventures, she will encounter shapes in her way, and she must hop, roll, skip and twirl her way over them safely. But where this gets interesting is these shapes are determined by music. Not just the in-game soundtrack, but in literally any CD you put in your PlayStation.

It is, essentially, an infinite game that can last as long as you have music CDs lying around. So, in essence, it lasts about five minutes in our modern age of digital releases so you’ll be restricted to the limited selection of in-game songs. No, but seriously, it’s also going to last about this long even if you have a large CD collection because the game isn’t the most engaging thing in the world.

Oh sure, it’s a cute little romp with a cool idea, but it doesn’t have much staying power. My experience with Vib-Ribbon, every time I’ve played it, has been putting in the disc with expectations of having a lot of fun playing my music, and then after a few songs realising that you’re just pushing four buttons periodically over and over. There’s no depth to Vib-Ribbon, no progression, and certainly nothing to help drive you to play it for an extended period of time.

And that’s all there really is to say about it, unfortunately. Graphically, it’s as simple as you could get so the whole game can run entirely off the PS1’s RAM (so you can swap the disc out, obviously). Sound design is entirely dependent on what CDs you put in. Gameplay is limited but an amusing novelty. And…that’s it.

If this had been a little more in-depth somehow, beyond the simple novelty value of the concept, this could have been great. As it is, it’s a mildly entertaining distraction for ten minutes, and then you’ll want to go off and play Parasite Eve II or something. Oh oops, I just gave away what’s coming next…

BTPF Channel Recap 1st August 2016

August 1, 2016 Leave a comment

It’s that time again! Let’s recap what’s been happening over on the YouTube channel in the last week! Lots of cool stuff for you this week. Read more…

Categories: BTPF YouTube Roundup