Rants and raves about all the latest in video games and other forms of mindless entertainment.

April 25, 2005

PSP Launch Lineup: Reviewed...Finally!

After a long and ardous week, the PSP launch lineup has finally been given it's dues with a full on barrage of reviews. Clearly some games stand above the rest, and some just plain suck, but then again nothing can take away from the awesome pleasure pond that is Lumines. It's an insatiable hunger that I have for Lumines, and I'll be damned if I stop playing barring purgatory or the Apocalypse. This week will be slow. Nothing too much to mention, but probably an occasional rant.

April 24, 2005

Review: Metal Gear AC!D (PSP) - Like a glass of ice cold Awesome...

Where would we be without Metal Gear? Probably playing Pac-Man, that's what I say. I'm right, so just concede to that and move on. Metal Gear has been on the leading edge of stealth action/adventure games. It's plowed the road for games like Splinter Cell and Spy Ops. Though there have been imitators, no game has managed to pull it off as well as the Metal Gear series. No game has ever offered cutting edge story lines as deep and intimate as the MG games. I think it's safe to say the entire series, as a whole is among the best videogame series ever. It's just a mind blowing experience to pick up and play a Metal Gear game. Cut-scenes that appear to be directed by full on film studios, mixed with a few innovative gameplay elements, tossed with a light dressing of stealth, and you have Metal Gear in a nut shell...or salad bowl. While Metal Gear AC!D isn't really going to change your mind one way or the other if you're a lover or a hater of the Metal Gear series, it's still a stand alone gem.

Rather than rehash the old "infiltrate and murder it up yall" attitude that Kojima has gone for in his other games, MGA is a turn based card battler. I know...I know. You're thinking: "Yoo-Gi-Oh! Sux! OMG! STUPID fruity kiddies yu-gi-oh cards, OMG liek POkemon, lol!". I stay stop now. Stop while you're behind, far far behind. While the idea of selecting cards as abilities is reminiscent of card based monster games like Yu-Gi-Oh! Duelist of the Roses, or Pokemon the card game, MGA offers up a wholely different experience. Rather than summon monsters to move and attack on the field, you play as Snake (and later his temporary side kick Teliko). You're armed to the teeth with a deck of cards (RAZOR SHARP cards!). Sacrificing a card, or using movement cards let Snake traverse the playing field which is divided up into blocks. Movements range from 3 - 8 blocks, dependant on the card chosen, and you're also given the option to stand or crawl (in case any dastardly vents happen to impede traffic). You can equip weapon cards, and load them with ammo, or you can simply whip out a FAMAS or SOCOM card which requires no "ammunition loading", and fires on use. Damage to the enemies varies whether your positioned in front, to the side of or behind the enemy. The name of the game though is stealth. Avoiding conflict together is the prefered method, but when push comes to shove, some of them terrorists just have to be put down. Which is why you can also play specific "character" cards, which often come with a unique clip of the character on the card from whichever game they happened to have starred in. Effects range from increasing your attack stat, knocking out enemies, to lowering their attack, to just plain ol' killing them. There are other cards that heal Snake, make him invisible (via handy dandy stealth camo), increase the amount of turns he can take or draw new cards, and while integral to the strategy of MGA, aren't nearly as wow-ful as the special character cards. All cool factors aside, MGA is a very deep strategy game.

The cards you play are associated with a "cost". The larger the cost, the longer it takes for you to play another card. At the end of a set of turns, the player with the least amount of cost goes next, and the queue works itself out until it makes it's way back to you (assuming you aren't killed in the process). High cost is usually associated with powerful cards, but the effects and results are generally worth it. The cards range from a variety of games (95% of which are Metal Gear related), and are all offered in their own unique booster packs. At intermission - the state in between missions - you have the choice of editing your deck or purchasing new booster packs of cards. Initially, only the Metal Gear Solid pack is available, generally yielding cards related to Metal Gear Solid (suprise suprise), like Revolver Ocelot, Liquid Snake or Metal Gear REX. You'll later unlock Metal Gear Solid 2, Metal Gear Chronicles, and the super sexy, and super powerful Metal Gear Solid 3 decks. Each offering up to 50 different and unique cards each. While it's hard to pin point why Konami went through with this method of play, it's not hard to see that it works. There are no kinks to work out here. This is solid turn based tactics style gameplay, and at it's core MGA is a FFT, Tactics Ogre and Bahamut Lagoon wannabe; only instead of fiant axes of serpentine dragons, Snake fights you with cards (a la Gambit?!). You can equip Reaction cards, which include the likes of guns, armour, and special character cards, which activate when an enemy attacks you. Snake or Teliko promptly retaliate with the equipped weapon, equip armour to reduce damage, or activate the character card to do either of the two plus some. The reaction is dependant on the percentage of activation which throws in some randomness to the battles, which can make or break you in some instances. There are roughly 200 cards and some change, so there is no shortage on possible strategies here.

All gameplay aside, the plotline woven through MGA is not unlike any other Metal Gear game: convulted and complicated enough to warrant at least 2 playthroughs. Snake has to infiltrate laboratories with an uncanny amount of acronyms, and recover "Pythagoras" data, which is also known as the new Metal Gear. The story plays out with the classic back stabbing, obligatory "Oh my god, you were really that guy all along!", and "What the hell?!" moments. No MG game would be complete without a healthy portion of codec conversations, and copious military jargon. The downer here is that the cut-scenes are simple illustrations with captions, and there is no voice work to speak of. While it doesn't really make the game any worse, you just don't get that involved with the story without that humanization of Snake and his compatriots.

To make things worse, the gameplay tends to be on the slow side in the beginning (later picking up momentum as your deck builds power). To solve that though, you can replay missions with specific objectives like "Get to point 'BLAH' without getting spotted", or "Kill everyone! Mwahahahahahaha!" (maniac laughter added for dramatic effect). Completing missions yields points, points are traded for cards, and cards kill people. Rinse and repeat. Metal Gear AC!D also comes equipped with WiFi multiplayer battle modes, where you can pit two decks against each other. This isn't really that great of a feature, as it's more monotonous than anything, and really drags down the game speed, as players wait out each others moves.

MGA ends up being a very solid strategy game. With special cards available from all Metal Gear games, and even some non-MG games (like Zone of the Enders The 2nd Runner), this game encourages the collection of all special cards, as their effects are longed for, and special video clips are fun to watch at least a couple times over. No voice acting, shallow dialogue, and unimaginative cut-scenes really drag down the experience. Overall, Metal Gear AC!D is one hell of an experience. The story IS interesting, albeit plainly portrayed, and the gameplay IS fun, albeit stomachable in small doses. There is quite a lot of potential here to create one of the first cohesive card battlers, I just hope Konami realizes it, and creates a sequel worthy of being held in the same regard as the Metal Gear Solid series.



Review: Lumines (PSP) - Saviour of a dying breed...

Not often do new puzzle games arrive that offer up a platter of good old fashion fun. Far too often the games are overly difficult, or just poorly designed, such that the game offers no challenge and ends up being on the uber side of boring. When I say Lumines, you won't care. Well, probably not anyway. Should you care? You better believe it. Lumines is a solid puzzler that flew under the radar at launch. The PSP's library is chalk full of sports, racing and adventure titles, but the main game that no one wanted to play was Lumines. I say you're a fool. A damn fool. Lumines is a wholely new and innovative experience, akin to the origins of Tetris, and does so by synthesizing music and a block building rhythm game.

Needless to say, when it comes down to having shock value for visuals, this game doesn't have it. It has a very simplistic interface, and nothing really stands out, other than that the screen and lightning fast sparkles are briskly crisp, chiming in with a few bleeps and bloops here and there. That's essentially all there is to say about the visual appeal of Lumines. It's there, but you have to walk into this game with an open mind. The atypical 50 bajillion polygons aren't going to pop up and suprise you, as Lumines tends to walk on the mild side. The meat of the game lies in the gameplay.

The objective of Lumines is to lay out bi-modal coloured blocks into a pattern that forms a 2 X 2 sqaure. Any dimension above 2 X 2 will warrant more blocks included in the quadrilateral concoction, but 2 X 2 is the minimum. Keep in mind that it isn't that simple. Planning a few moves in advance will warrant some bigger block deletions, by creating larger and larger squares, also rewarding you with more points. In the same manner as Tetris, the longer you play, the faster the blocks move, until you run out space to place blocks, and then it's game over. While it sounds deceivingly a lot like Tetris (I'm sure it borrows somethings from it), just the fundamental method of success is not similar in either game, so you're looking at two distinctly different pieces of meat (albeit both still just meat in the end).

The hitch is that while this is going on, a techno beat music mix is spinning in the background, and a tempo meter dancing across the top counts out the measure of the song in sections of 8 beats per round. It's your job to place blocks down to form squares or rectangles, so this meter can count the square and delete it once it completes one full cycle of beats. The neat thing is, that as you move, shift and contort you block into different congfigurations, synthetic noises will play to the beat of the song, creating a personalized riff exclusive to you and your play style. While it's entirely an aesthetic tack on, it makes Lumines that much more immersive. No other puzzle game pulls you in better than Lumines. The strategy in Lumines is stupendously deep too. Half cell deletions (only deleting half a sqaure) and block stacking are only the price of admission if you wish to unlock the latter stages in the game. Which leads me to the next feature of Lumines...game modes.

The standard one player mode is there, but it's quite different. You begin with a single song to play with, and as you delete more and more squares, aquire more points and ascend through the levels, a seemless transition from skin to skin, and song to song occurs, and you're now playing with a wholely new song, with a brand new beat, and new tunes. Not to mention, this skin (skin is a "level" in Lumines) is now playable in single play, which lets you play non-stop on a single skin with no change in music. The down side here is that if you fail in the run of the mill single player mode, you must begin from the very beginning, making unlocking all of the stages a mighty difficult challenge. Checkpoints, or "marker" skins would have been a nice additions, since making your way to the 6th skin only to have to restart from ground zero just to unlock a few more skins is aggrivating. All that aside, the game manages to remain addicting and compelling regardless of the amount of retries you must endure. Battle mode is an interesting edition as you face off against a computer (or wirelessly with a friend), and face-off in the battle to end all puzzle battlers. While Fatalities and finishing moves are absent, the battle remains one of the most challenging aspects of Lumines. Each round, the player with the most sqaure deletions gains an extra column to place blocks while the opposing player loses one. The victory is given to the person who manages to widdle the opponent down to only 2 columns making it impossible for him to keep playing. You also lose if you manage to run out of room to place blocks at any point during the match up.

The last mode is puzzle mode, which forces the player to create patterns or shapes in the blocks with single colours. While challenging at first, you can easily plan out the blocks required on paper in advance. While fun and exciting, it's only used a segue to opening more levels and skins. It's again, deviously addicting, but nothing more challenging than one player challenge mode.

All things said, there isn't a heck of a lot to say about Lumines without sounding like an FAQ. The game is fiendishly addicting. Keep in mind that only those with the patients to think moves through are going to make any headway in this game, yet it still keeps things fresh by constantly changing songs and offering new unlockable skins and music. The music synthesizer aspect, in conjuction with the innovative rhythmic block deletion method, makes Lumines one of (if not) THE best games available at PSP launch time. You won't be able to put it down, and it certainly keeps the mind entertained, and musically fulfilled. It's a meaty game that lacks any forgiveness, which will turn off some. Though hardcore gamers should have no problem chewing this one up and playing through all hours of the night.



Review: Spider Man 2 (PSP) - Cure for the itch...

Spider Man 2 comes hot off the tail feathers of both the blockbuster movie, and the critically acclaimed and defamed Spider Man 2 game for all of the major consoles. With a pedegree of quality movie based games behind it, and incredibly successful movies, does the PSP version of Spider Man 2 make the grade?

There are two major thorns that stick out of Spider Man 2. The first is the wonky camera; it rarely does anything properly. Constantly portraying the front or side of Spider Man in an attempt to try and show you what you want to see (which you never do) prevents the player from actually seeing whats in front of them, be it doors, enemies or switches. This weighs very heavily as a distinctly glaring flaw. The camera is movable, but you'll find yourself fiddling with the camera more often than you're battling henchmen. There's just too many closed corridors, obstusely angled stairwells, and corners to turn for the camera to be this wonky. Never is it useful, and never have I experienced a camera quite as bad as this. It's atrocious, and if I had the mysticism to teleport through time, I'd find every last programmer at Vicarious Visions and give them each a Prince Albert and circumchain them into a very public mess. Why do I have to suffer for your ineptitude? Get it right next time, this is unacceptable.

The last major flaw in Spider Man 2 - not so much a flaw, as it is just a major annoyance - is game length. I don't mean God of War 10 hours game length, or even Katamari Damacy 8 hours length...I mean 4 - 6 hours (if you just plain suck at this type of game) game length. You may very well finish this entire game on a single charge of the PSP. Never have I played a game that required such small time investments to complete. Now, such short gamelengths are not unheard of. Hardcore gaming experts have been completing games like Metal Gear Solid in under one and a half hours for years; though the preface to that statement is that the first time through the game required upwards of 20 hours to complete. There is no learning curve here. It's non-existent. The game is laughably easy, even on the normal difficulty setting, and since the missions are so short, there's nothing here that will tantalize you like sex vixen sirens of myth. Now, what this does do for the game however, is make it very replayable, and a seemless experience. You truly are fighting your way through the game non-stop, without pause for breath. Which in it's own way is fantastic.

What this boils down to though, is how it captures the essence of Spider Man. In Spider Man and Spider Man 2 (console version), the player is given the opportunity to explore and discover secrets and unlockables throughout the cityscape (especially in Spider Man 2's photorealistic virtual clone of Manhattan). No such exploration exists. The game encourages exploration even though you're given minimal chances to websling between skyscrapers and above helipads, and gives you no time to do so. You're constantly under the clock, whether it's disarming bombs, chasing Doc Oc or the Vulture, there's never a moments reprieve to just take everything in and find these secrets the game flaunts so heavily in their rather short load screens.

Regardless, Spider Man 2 is a solid actioner. Combat is fluid, (though combo selection has been minimzed from the monstrous list of super moves in the console version) and the targeting system is spot on. Level design is actually very well done, as there's never anything too perplexing about where and what your objectives are; then again the game is not entirely linear, which is great also. There are 20 missions to swing through, yet the action just moves so fast, and so furiously, the missions end almost as soon as they start. Which again, allows for some quick replay action, which is fairly desirable in this case since we are talking about a handheld machine, and time is of the (battery's) essence. Your ability set is upgradable, not unlike the Spider Man 2 RPG-ish system of character progression. You can increase health, strength, web, special abilities, and unlock some pretty neat gallery art and movie cinematics.

Graphically Spider Man 2 is no slouch. Clearly borrowing the renderware from Spider Man's second outing on the consoles, and the web slinging mechanics from his first, this game is a very efficient blend of both multi console Spider Man games. You no longer need an anchor to web your way through the city, though the charge jumping and combat system of Spider Man 2 pop their little heads in just for good measure. On top of the real-time brawl fests, the cinematics are completely redone. No revamping of the console counterpart's FMV sequences, these are home grown original, and they're beautiful. Often capturing the exact parts of the movie that best segue one moment to another (and some not even present in the movie). I'd go as far as to say the cinematic presentation of the FMV's in this game, rival if not surpass and exceed those of it's console brethren. That says a lot, and should be a huge selling point for early adopters of the PSP. Aurally the game succeeds to the same extent as the visuals. Great voice acting for just as great cut-scenes, and the breath taking score of the movie, really capture the look and feel of Sam Raimi's work.

In the end, Spider Man 2 is one hell of an action game. It's fun, it's fast, and captures the movies life as good as any other game to try. The only things wrong with the game is the fact that camera is atrocious (making some moments unbearably difficult), and the game length is unusually short (though understandable in the sense that pick-up and play is a desireable trait in any handheld game). If you're not turned off by crummy cameras, you'll find something to love in Spider Man 2. It's a guilty pleasure worth every penny.



Review: Untold Legends Brotherhood of the Blade (PSP) - Getting down with Diablo clones of lore...

When one imagines what the perfect Diablo clone would be like, they would never imagine it showing up on the PSP. Everything from the inventory system, to the stats building, the ability learning, quest journal, and even the multiplayer. Now, while it's safe to say that nothing about Untold Legends is wholely original, it does a damn good job at being the game everyone loved, but spinning it in a different way. By different I mean it's a little rough around the edges, and potential sequels could easily turn into sleeper hits. You're the hero of Aven, a city in peril, ransacked by the arachnid species called the Praetox. Your job is to rescue some important familiars, and become the one man army that everyone gladly asks to perform the impossible, while they huddle back in their warm and safe huts. Shame on you I say, shame on you who dare not send your army of thousands, but send man with giant axe into battle. Whatever gets you off I guess.

You begin by creating a character entirely characterized by you. While options are somewhat limited, only offering two or three hair colours, skin tones and hair styles, the options are still there; that still counts for something. You get to name your character, and you even get to chose between the four job classes. Again, four choices is somewhat limited, but they still accomplish the goal in the long run. Berserkers are the buff and burly strength oriented characters, who specialize in up front melee combat. Knights are in the same field except they can use some special magic abilities (apart from the standard fare partial stat increasing ability). Alchemists are probably the most well rounded job having a healthy upper hand in magic and physical attributes, but still overpowered by the specified job classes. Lastly, the Druids have supreme mystical prowess, but you'll often find that only a few of their magic spells are worth using. Your character is limited to only two macro presets for special abilities, which really blows. Meaning you have to wage war with hudreds of baddies with only two spells during each brawl. You can change them with the D-Pad, but it would be more economical if you could assign an ability macro to each direction on the D-pad, and set them in the main menu. While it's easy to take a glance and see why this wasn't so (prevention of too much menu browsing), it's easy to see that you'd be better equipped if you could program 6 macros rather than the paltry 2; seeing as the D-pad has no functional purpose anyway.

In terms of mechanical execution, Untold Legends tends to be on the shallow side. Slash slash, block. Slash, block, heal. Heal, block, block. It's very repetitive. The hack and slash nature is only digestible in small amounts, however those small amounts don't have too much delay in between since the entire game is a tad on the addicting side. The dungeons you explore are randomized, meaning no two experiences are ever the same. I find this to be the greatest attribute to Untold Legends. While this isn't anything new, it's something that all simple hack and slash games need to keep things fresh. Rather than include challenging enemies in these random dungeons however, SOE decided that simply placing more enemies in a given area would be all the challenge people need. While true, this is indeed more challenging, it's artificially so. The enemies are never tough to begin with, so ultimately you're just being attacked by more enemies, while you fend off each individually with the same skill and derring do as previous efforts. It isn't so much challenging as it is just cheap. Speaking of cheap, unblockable and unavoidable kamikaze enemies litter the streets...err, catacombs of some of the dungeons. Not only are they annoying, but no amount of blocking or running can stop them. There are ways to make them hit something else, however they attack before you even know they're there, defeating the purpose altogether. A highly unoriginal nomanclature system in place really doesn't make the enemies any more enjoyable. It would seem the developers ran out of actual names for the enemies and bosses, just decided throwing in the letter "X" would make them "X-treme!". It's common to run into an enemy of the name "Xxoaqxdexix" and then encounter another enemy dubbed "Xixgxufhx" (not really, but you get the idea).

With all that said, Untold Legends still manages to be an addicting game. The dungeons are surmountable, the enemies are never overly difficult, and you're given plenty of healing and restorative potions in the process. Despite it's simplicity and cheap challenge design, it's nothing you'll never get over (though some bosses offer some of the worst boss battles in recent memory with cheap and unavoidable attacks that render you paralyzed and motionless). This is coupled with the superb inventory system, akin to that of Diablo II, with separate item chests for weapons, armour and items. Equipping items is a snap, and a nifty compare feature lets you compare an item's statistical properities with ones you're already wearing, saving some time consuming menu switching and browsing. The obligatory "combine" system lets you upgrade and personalize armour with runes, relics and mystic gems that increase the properties of the armour/weapon by giving you stat, health or resistance boosts. Also giving weapons special elemental effects and status effect inducing abilities. Over and above the dungeon and combat design, the customization process is something that I'd like to see mirrored, and expanded upon more often. While not better than the Diablos of out time, Untold Legends offers great character creation.

Aurally and visually, Untold Legends is a tad on the average side. The music is crystal clear, and the graphics are pristinely sharp. Though nothing ever changes about them. You'll hear the same 4 or 5 melodies over and over, and the dungeons never really alter in appearance. If you've seen one underground cavern dungeon, you've seen them all. While not bad, the variety is missing. As a plus (lol, punnay) to counter this, Untold Legends supports the "plus" game feature, though it never really calls it that. You can restart the game at any point with the buffed up character you've managed to train through thick and thin in the 20+ hour journey. Doing so amounts to new items, stronger enemies (scaled to your power level), and the possibility of playing through with all different character classes, since each has unique offerings for each quest.

While it would be foolish to call Untold Legends some sort of superb launch title, it gets the job done nicely, and manages to fulfill the role of "RPG" for the time being. RPG fans will have no choice but to play this if their cravings must be satisfied, but again I don't think they'll be disappointed. All around, this game is a solid hack and slash, borrowing a lot from Diablo II and the Champions of Norrath games. It has well rounded character development, great dungeon randomization, and an okay (sometimes clunky) combat engine. Having no cut-scenes or story driven cinematics don't really help immerse the player at all(as all plot is portrayed through bland "word boxes"). Overall, I would recommend this game, if simplicity if stomachable.



Review: Archer McLean's Mercury (PSP) - Like Hg, it flops...

When I first imagined my experience with Mercury, I had envisioned a complex puzzle game where my cognitive strings would be twisted and pulled in every which way. I was looking forward to a deep and engaging puzzler, that lets innovation run free, and fun run wild. I was deceived. Archer McLean needs to learn a lesson or two in game design. Mercury is barely stomachable as a game, and is more of a universal patience test than anything. The entire notion of manipulating a ball of liquid Mercury with realistic fluid dymanics was thrilling. Being a huge fan of Marbel Madness (click if you're ignorant) I was extatic to see the entire genre redesigned with an innovative new mechanic. No more solid rolling newtonian Physics, NO, this was going to be something new, something different, something the industry needs. The silver blob of goo which is affectionately labeled "Mercury" (despite the fact that Mercury is possibly the deadliest substance on earth), will cause you more grief than pleasure in the long run. Mr McLean, if you're reading this...learn how to make games in this day and age before you list your resume bullet points as some sort of means to make a game seem desirable.

The premise of the game is simple. You use the analog nub to tilt the arena which promptly causes gravity to start the blob a rollin'. First let me iterate that the physical way in which the mercury moves and splits, and squashes against surfaces is realistic to the n'th degree. While there are no actual real-time reflections on the shiny Mercury blob itself (merely a single image pasted on to appear that way), the fluid dynamics of the motion of the goo is uncanny. Also, the idea of using this new dynamic in the physical world of games, specifically in this game, is truly innovative. Nothing like this has ever been seen or attempted before. It's a breath of fresh air, as in this day and age, where everything is a "me too" game or movie. Everyone wants to be like the latest Grand Theft Auto, Final Fantasy, Legend of Zelda, or Super Mario. It's heart warming to see some developers still find merit in making it on their own steam, and creating whole new ideas born of the imagination and not the financial success of competing games.

Aurally the game manages to please, if only for a moment. The soundtrack is crisp and clear, and often times soothing depending on the level of play. The "blooerb"s and "plish"s as the Mercury comes into contact with other surfaces and other blobs of mercury are comically enjoyable, and pull off the effect of actual mercury nicely. There isn't much to the sound and sountrack of this game, but what is there is pleasing. Small sound snippets that accompany obscurely original and odd cut-scenes that introduce new "worlds" as you manage to unlock them are played up to make the game seem more worth purchase, and to a degree it succeeeds. Yes, there are indeed cut-scenes in this game. No plot follows them, and they don't make much sense, but it's fun to watch if not just for kicks. The worlds are divided into about 12 stages each, where completing a task, or making it to the finish line with a certain percentage of mercury remaining comprise the majority of the levels, with the latter stages featuring combinations of task/time trials, and inevitably leading to a "boss" stage, which is a combination of every type of stage in the game (time/percentage/task).

That's where the quality ends however. There isn't much to say about the gameplay itself. It sucks. Plain and simple. While the premonition of mercury manipulation is desirable as an idea, the execution is something different. While fine for the simplistically designed levels, the method of play is just plain useless for the harder and more difficult missions. You'll find yourself dropping more than the allowed amount of Mercury over the edge of the arena (thus failing the mission) more times than you can count (literally). This is because of one of many reasons: A) The pathways to move the Mercury are far too narrow. Requiring more than perfect and precise aiming and tilting skills. Though passable, are far too unforgiving. B) The analog nub which you use to manipulate and tilt the arena to move the mercury, is far too touchy and jittery. The extensive sensitivty makes the screen shake and shutter as you snap the analog stick over and over again, just to make sure your glob of silvery goodness doesn't flop over the edge of the pathway which is already too narrow. C) The camera, though adjustable, never actually shows you the perspective you'll need. This is a major piss-off, since 100% of the time, you're under the clock to get finished, and wasting valuable seconds just shifting and angling the camera is not enjoyable in the slightest. D) Stage design: The levels, most of them, are poorly conceived. You'll find yourself fighting the levels atrocious set up rather than figuring out how to solve certain puzzles or activate certain switches. The time alotted is often never enough either. It's also insulting to see the game developers peep in with a text box taunting you with "We can finish the level in 12 seconds, can you?". God damned insulting, and I wish divine punishment upon those who put them into the game.

Tutorials on how to operate the tilt function when the mercury is upside down would have been helpful, and a little more leeway in the forgiving end of the difficulty spectrum would have been a blessing. There is no redeeming value in playing Mercury. Though, these things don't all apply at once to each level exclusively nor does one only apply at a time. It's a mixed bag. Sometimes the stage design is so horrific, just entertaining the idea of continuing play makes you wish Archer McLean were dead. Other times, you'll come out of a level with a smile of determination on your face, as some parts of the game offer up true challenge without cheap failures via crummy game design. You can trudge through the levels over and over again to acheive a high score, but most will test your patience to their limits; to the point where just thinking about such inane ideas is nauseating. The recommendation here is to just rent Mercury. It's appeal is to that of the gamer with hardcore gaming skill, yet even that is a bit of stretch. Even the hardcore gamers will find something to bitch about in Mercury. It's far from enjoyable, it's just entertaining to see such a brilliant idea fail so miserable in execution. To say Archer McLean's Mercury is without merit would be asinine. It has it's moments, but they're so scarce, that they're practically forgettable. It's a sad day when such an innovative concept is lost in execution due to an antiquated game designer striving off the notion that the old school still applies to the new school.



Review: Darkstalkers Chronicle (PSP) - Animated grief...

Darkstalkers has a very intricate pedigree of fighting game brethren. The Darkstalkers series has reached North America once or twice, but the majority of the games have remained in homeland Japan, due to the fact that games like Street Fighter and X-Men have ecclipsed it with their flashy 2 jillion hit combos, and mainstream appeal. Darkstalkers has (and probably always will be) the underdog in the world of 2-D fighters. The previous games have all had some cult following, but the games have just never lived up to the expectations of Street Fighter vets and 2-D fighter extremists. Moves are far more difficult to pull off, and thus performing the flashy finishing moves required too much thought. The games never caught on for good reason, they were just plain mediochre.

The PSP version, Darkstalkers Chronicle: The Chaos Tower, is no different. The style of Darkstalkers is all around unique. Nothing rehashed or reused from other Capcom 2-D fighting games, and the method of gameplay is slightly different. Darkstalkers Chronicle, is a hodge podge of previous Darkstalker games, ranging from Darkstalkers 1 through 3, and allows you to chose their move sets and special abilities according to each game. The abilities don't really vary that much, other than in the special finishing moves you can perform. The moves themselves aren't exactly easy to pull off, and more of a nuisance than anything. Simple low, medium and high punches and kicks are fair game in any fighting game, and it doesn't get much deeper then that. Though Darkstalkers' appeal is more in it's characters than anything. While there is no spoken dialogue to match any sort of cut-scene, small clips of each character can be unlocked, and a healthy dose of concept art is waiting to be discovered. While all small pittence when described in words, they make the characters infinitely more enjoyable. It's strange to see such a heavy attachment to characters, but they're so unique, and animate so fluidly, it's almost as if you're constantly craving another injection of your favourite anime drug.

The modes of play really aren't that intriguing. The WiFi multiplayer mode is great, but should have been accompanied by an online infrastructure mode, since the game is already barely worth the ticket price as is, for being such a barebones game. Standard Arcade mode where you chop your way through the thicket of opponent after opponent is present, and shouldn't come as a suprise to anyone. The meat of the game comes in the form of the Chaos Tower mode. Where you chose 3 individual characters, and battle your way up the tower, fighting enemy after enemy, each getting progessively harder as you ascend it's levels. Completing certain tasks in a match like defeating an enemy with a counter attack, or a certain kind of special attack, will let you climb to a higher level after that match. Completing it in bland and boring fasion, allows for passage of one more level, whereas fulfilling the task requirement can boost you up 4 or 5 levels in one go.

While I'd like to go on about the audio quality and smooth control scheme, I cannot. Neither are any good. The music is rough and filled with background static, and is often times reminiscent of MIDI type files with their mundane monotone scales and simplistic (lame) style. While varied, you'll want to play with the volume down low in order to avoid brain shattering ear aches. The voice work ends up being what it should be: just there. There is nothing special about it, as anything important worth hearing is either "Kyaaa!", "Hiii---YA!" or "Blarrrgh!". Something to note, that all the characters retain their Japanese voice actors, and often go through entire sentences of Nihon-go jargon before moving on to the fight. While wholesome and original, I'd like to know what exactly they're saying, as I proceed to wipe the floor with my opponents cartoony blood and/or ichor. It just makes the game feel rushed and sloppy.

Not helping matters either, the controls manage to bollocks the whole deal. While the D-pad is functional, performing moves with the analog stick would have been much smoother. Performing the half and quarter turn directional movements that are associated with special attacks (a la Street Fighter) are often difficult or even painful to pull off. A simple flick of the analog nub would have been many times more efficient and useful to execute these commands. This makes combat clunky, and often times choppy with sudden jolts of movement. It also doesn't bode well for the special attacks which require many of these types of directional inputs. All in all, the battle is stomachable, but barely.

When all is said and done, and you're fed up with Darkstalkers (at least for one session of play), you'll find yourself drawn back to it again and again. It's the kind of game you can play on and off, and really requires no thought to play. I wouldn't suggest playing for any longer than an hour at a time (tops), though I don't think most will make it that far in the first place. Darkstalkers is enjoyable, but marginally. It oozes with mediochrity, and sometimes just falls flat on it's face. It's a decent attempt at the 2-D fighting genre (which most will agree is almost cast from the same mold as handheld gaming). Darkstalkers just can't seem to keep up with itself. Being known for fast and furious combat on the Playstation and in the arcade, the combat is slowed to a turtle's pace with the absence of the analog stick. Colour me conflicted, but Darkstalkers is a love or hate experience, that is almost always either unusually addicting, or disgustingly awful. It squats firmly on the fence between good and bad.



April 21, 2005

PSP UMD: House of Flying Daggers - The film Hero should have been...

Off the heels of the PSP buzz, UMD videos are beginning to pop their heads out into the mainstream market, along side DVDs. As a personal gift to myself, I recently purchased both the DVD and UMD versions of the film House of Flying Daggers. First let me tell you that while the quality of the picture and sound of the UMD disc almost surpasses that of the DVD version, the UMD is not without it's drawbacks. While both films have great video, the interface of the DVD version is by far the smoothest, though the UMD version is still fluid in it's own right. Adding insult to injury, the UMD version costs about 5 bucks more than the DVD version, yet the DVD version yeilds it's own share of extras while the UMD version does not. All that aside, I can easily see UMD movies being an occasional purchase for long treks across the province/country. In my own monthly routine, I take frequent bus rides which end up being 3 to 4 hours on occasion. This is the perfect opportunity for me to pop in the UMD and watch a flick before the bus pulls into it's destination port. Is the UMD version good? Hell yes. Is the DVD better? You bet your bottom dollar.

As for the movie itself, it's far and away the best foreign film released in North America, well, ever. It's a spectacle from start to finish. The preliminary 10 minute introduction to the main character Mei (played by the delicious Zhang Ziyi) is worth the price of admission alone. Not only does the movie take the theme of colours and patterns to an all new level, lush scenery encapsulating articulate fight (dance) sequences, are all above every standard ever set. Mei plays a blind dancer who is also a behind the scenes member of the Flying Daggers; a group of freelance mercenaries in opposition to the government. In this film however, the government is corrupt, and we as the viewer want to see the Flying Daggers flourish and live on. As countless battles ensue, you can't help but just sit back and take everything in. Everything is woven together perfectly, and the acting is top notch. Fight sequences are choreographed to the point where they appear to be ancient chinese ballets, yet manage to still appear natural and as some form of martial art. It's everything Hero was, and more...

Hero tried to be different, and terminate the creative juices there. With no real deep or engaging plot, you ended up with a solid 2 hours worth of fight scenes between Moon, Sky, Snow, and Hero (prompting me to shout "Go Captain Planet" every time a fight took off). As confusing as it was, and awe inspiring as it most definitely was, it ended up being a 2 hour bore fest, as there was no real plot to follow. It was an afterthought. This movie tends to amend that problem by offering an intimately deep and provocative story, that follows the fleeing of Mei and her escort Jin/Wind (Jin played by none other than Onimusha 3's Takeshi Kaneshiro, also starring in the recent "Returner"). Hearts flutter, and potential nudity follows suit, and the love triangle between Mei, Jin and a character who will remain nameless is woven together with the fate of the Flying Daggers clan, and the climatic battle that brings the movie to a close. There's no question as to why so many critics called this move the best of the year. It's a masterpiece. Not just cinematically, but artistically, musically, and literally.

April 20, 2005

Review: PSP - It's the new black...

What's black, ovular, sexy, and smells like plastic? No, sorry it isn't an overweight hooker fresh from the boobie maintenance upgradery; it's the PSP. Sony's new handheld, poised to take the world by storm, with new hardware, new functionality, and overall a product never seen before. In few words, Sony has succeeded. From primortial conception, to full blown production, PSP has been under the watchful eye of analysts and fanboys everywhere. Many people threw up there arms in a cry of happiness as Sony finally decided to set things right in the handheld market. Things were getting stale, software is becoming evermore simplistic, and the hardware just wasn't cutting it for the pricetag you were glaring at. For the longest while, Nintendo went unopposed with it's Gameboy Advanced lineup, destroying the shit-tacular N-Gage, and managing to scrape by the GameGear and demolish the Nomad. Things were looking up. Nintendo had a fall guy; a place they could call home and no one could touch them. Until E3 2003 that is. The PSP was shown to an international audience of millions of people, and everything went black.

Nintendo no longer held the world in it's hands. Nintendo now had to start trying. Their rebuttal was the DS, and while being no slouch, is dwarfed by the sheer power of the PSP. Gargantuan screen, paramount processing power and tantamount multimedia functionality. It was the Jack of All Trades (master of some), and it was great. Perhaps God owns a PSP. I mean, his omnipotent rule would only be multiplied ten fold with a PSP in his possession. Assuming the almighty can create Memory Sticks the size of Uranus (infinity), there's no limit to how many sinners the Lord can track and smite. Heck, the PSP might just be able to do it for him assuming (again) He is a 1337 HaxXoR with godly mod talents. What would God do with a DS? Touch and fondle people into glory? I'm pretty sure that's against the ten commandments or Bible or Upanishads or something.

The interface of the PSP is slick. Upon boot up, you're welcomed by a softly toned "Home" interface, that lets you utilize and navigate through all of the PSP's functions. It's as easy as clicking the D-Pad in the direction you want, and using the Playstation Gamer's Intuition to access them (X for confirm, O deny, and Triangle info). It would be nice if the background colour was changeable, since it only displays the "monthly" colour, which just so happens to be pink for April, which just so happens to make my man berries that much smaller. Regardless, the PSP is not a difficult device to operate, and is very user friendly. Which makes for a great start since in the end, with a multi-function device like the PSP, the last thing you want to be doing is be fiddling around with useless menus and tacky toolbars to find just what you want. Everything is laid in plain english for you to sift through and engage in at your own whim.

What it all comes down to is talent though. The PSP drives a hard bargain. In exchange for lofty chunk of cash, PSP in return gives you full-on completance. For the low high price of 300 Canucks (250 Uncle Sams), the PSP gives you every imaginable portable media function in the palm of your hand. It's a perfect place to store digital photos, that you can not only load onto another computer, but can also display in a slideshow (via sexy sexy screen) if said computerbox is not available/not eating your children. Secondly, it plays Mp3's. Yes, sure it can play ATRAC3, but the quality is slightly less (albeit unnoticeable unless you're packing a decent set of headphones). Depend on the size of your...card, you can store anywhere from 6 (standard 32 MB card) to 100 (256 MB) songs on the PSP's flash memory stick Pro. Now, any higher than 128 MB, and you're delving into "Pro DUO" territory, which for some reason forbids the play of ATRAC. Which doesn't really matter, since up and above 256 MB, you have the extra storage space to house a hundred songs and still have movable space left over.

Third up is the movie playback. First and foremost on this touchy matter, is the screen. It's frickin' huge. In the widescreen 16:9 ration aspect, the PSP delivers a fully cinematic experience just by making the screen that much bigger than the normal DS and Gameboy fare. The resolution is great, if not better than most high end PC monitors and televisions (CRT of course). While the PSP only allows for MPEG4 playback, free video converters are not hard to come by, and certainly do not add any extra greif to the technologically illiterate. While uploading of movies to the PSP is not difficult, the obscure (and manditory) file names like "MNV100134imaconfusingfilename" don't really make too much sense. Why not just let us make our own filenames? I'm completely aware that it's for the PSP to be able to recognize it, but there should be firmware in place that makes that job a tranquil one. It's a learning curve, and that's going to be a bit off putting at first, but it's not something that will eternally be a neural tease. It's an easy process in the end. The PSP also plays UMD movies, which while great and offer video quality matching that of the DVD phenomenon, don't offer any special features, and actually cost more than DVDs (despite their smaller size and storage capacity). As of now, the UMD format is not something you're going to begin replacing your DVD collection with, and is not a viable movie format. It's good for a few kicks or if you want something you're going to watch on the road or on long trips, but it's versatility ends there. Stick to DVD's if you're only into movies for at home use.

As for the machine itself, it uses state of the art technology that easily matches that of the Playstation 2, making the Nintendo DS look like an aged and crochety old fart. Internally, the PSP does things that must be programmed into software on the Ps2. Though the power is never truly tapped since doing so would drain the battery. More efficient ways of programming and more battery R&D are needed before we can truly realize the monstrous muscle of the PSP. Graphically it delivers some of the same experiences you've had on the Ps2, but what makes the PSP interesting is it's appeal to mobile gamers. Puzzle games are common ground now in the realm of handheld gaming, and as such new software designed around puzzle solving can take advantage of that power. The real kicker, is that in the launch lineup alone, the PSP manages to score two completely innovative and genre defining/redefining games; which is something Nintendo promised to deliver with the DS, but dropped the bomb on, and still struggles to pick itself back up from. (For the curious, the two games in question are Mercury and Lumines).

While quality standardization of software will have to wait until respective reviews are posted, one thing can be said: there is no shortage of games in the PSP launch lineup. Launching with only 6 games on launch day (later increasing to 12 over a week), the DS' library is ecclipsed by the 13 games available on launch day (24 by weeks end, and 25 by fortnight termination) of the PSP. Tidbit: The PSP after two weeks on the market, has amassed a larger library than the DS could manage to muster in 4 months. While I can say that the majority of launch titles for PSP are actually very good (which is amazing, since launch software is most always fit for the shitter), just the sheer number of titles available makes for a warranted purchase by any type of gamer.

While the downside to the PSP is that the battery life is about 6 - 8 hours for gaming, depending on the game and the screen brightness, music playback lasts for 12 hours, and movie playback for about 4 hours. The battery is a competent component despite the power leeching the PSP undergoes just to perfom basic tasks. Granted that the PSP comes equipped with a memory card (standard 32 MB), you'll want to upgrade to a 128 MB or 256 MB if you plan on any heavy music or video playback (keeping in mind that loading your PSP with video files will brim the capacity right quick). With these things aside, the PSP manages to pull off what Nintendo could never do: create a handheld worth the pricetag. For too long Nintendo has charged upwards of 100 bucks for a handheld only equivalent to the SNES, and now 200 bucks for the DS; not nearly as powerful as an N64, indcidentally only bringing you down 20 dollars these days. You pay a lot, but you get that back in product value ten fold.

In the end, the PSP is the best thing to happen to gaming in the longest time. Nintendo has some serious competition, and we no longer live in 1995. Coasing off of the axion "Rehash to get cash" won't work this time around. Sony has created a beastly device that ecclipses every effort made by Nintendo in memory, combined. It's inch for inch the sexiest handheld device around , and anyone who says otherwise is either blind or Nintendosexual. It's an uphill battle, and for once we're seeing competition in handheld gaming, which can only lead to bigger and better things. The PSP is in and of itself the bigger and better product on the market, let's see if it can stay that way.

+ Screen: 16:9 LCD screen, crystal clear
+ Power: 333 MHz processor, graphical superiority of any handheld
+ Functionality: Photo, Music, Video file, Movie and Game playback. The ultimate 5 in 1 device.
+ Launch lineup of 25 games (quality is undecided)
+ Design: No longer than the average GBA or DS, and is actually thinner. Sleak black and glossy finish make PSP the most visually appealing device on the market without sacrificing mobile sizability.
+ Uses the inutitive standard PlayStation control scheme
+ The inclusion of an analog nub (best idea since the Konami code)
+ UMD: Viable gaming format offering 1.8 GB of storage (or the equivalent of 14 DS flash cards)

- Battery life: While competitively competent, the battery life is outdone by the DS'.
- Upload: Learning curve in uploading movies (does not apply to music or photos)
- UMD: Pricey movie format, good for a kick here and there, but not viable.
- Memory: Stick upgrades required for heavy multimedia usage (not a big deal, but a 64/128 card pack-in would have been nicer).



April 19, 2005

DS Update Addendum

The webmaster of DS Update an I had an interesting conversation tonight regarding his article and the reasoning behind it. All questions were left unanswered, and all I came away with was that DS Update and their staff are content with bad publicity as long as they get hits, and that the Administrator of the site posted the article to garner attention from others; in essence: a publicity stunt. His name is Matt Shellder, and my AIM is xAuron244x thanks to my good friend Alex Phoenix for giving me that AIM account since I never used AIM until he gave it to me.

xAuron244x: Why post such an article?

mattshellder: well, its an editorial, read for its opinion and not facts

mattshellder: the disclaimer is there

xAuron244x: The disclaimer isn't good enough. You're still promoting non-facts.

xAuron244x: The disclaimer should also read "The information contained here is all inaccurate".

mattshellder: i really dont care if you found some half wit blog that said sony is the be all and end all, but it is not all inaccruate

xAuron244x: You may not promote the person who uses non-facts, but your site is promoting the content if you post it. And yes it is all inaccurate. Not a single thing said is accurate in the least.

mattshellder: are you arguing that the systems came out at different times?

mattshellder: are you arguing that the systems were called different names?

xAuron244x: I'm strictly referring to the whole issue of "Playstation 3 being Sony's swan song". There are many inaccuracies in the history, but that is hardly the point of the article and the opinion being expressed.

mattshellder: well dont say all if they're not all

xAuron244x: There is enough there that "all" is an accurate enough hyperbole. So what you're saying is you support people who use non-facts to support an invalid argument?

mattshellder: its an editorial, read for opinion and not facts

mattshellder: get over it

xAuron244x: Then perhaps the opinion should be there and not made up facts. As an editorial, it would require some amount of self-editing, and if it's meant to be read as an opinion, it would only consist of the opinion. The writer clearly had the intent of slighting against Sony and hoping people would believe the "facts" he jotted down. I'm over it, I even efficiently proved it all wrong in a matter of minutes. I'm just wondering why you'd support someone who wrote it? It clearly isn't the interest of journalistic integrity to support it, because doing so would have quite the opposite effect. So why so much support for something that doesn't deserve it?

xAuron244x: By the way, that half-wit blog entry was written by yours truly so what ever you have to say about it can be directed over here.

mattshellder: thats nice, the article is attracting attention thats what it is meant to do

xAuron244x: So it's a publicity stunt?

mattshellder: lol, its the opinion of the writer, and I like the writing style

mattshellder: do you expect me to take it down because of this?

xAuron244x: You like the style of making big claims based on information that is totally false?

xAuron244x: No, I expect you to disclaim to your readership that the information contained in the article is mostly false.

mattshellder: hes a talented writer, his articles are read for opinion and not facts. there is a disclaimer, you run your site the way you want to ill run mine the way i want to

xAuron244x: How can you call that talent? If I said I could juggle 12 chainsaws but could only fumble three tennis balls, you'd call that talent?

mattshellder: why would you juggle chainsaws?

xAuron244x: Why would you post an editorial composed entirely of false information?

mattshellder: lol, like i said before it was written for the opinion and not the facts

mattshellder: calm down and stop asking questions you already know the answers too

xAuron244x: But the opinion is malformed. In essence, it's an opinion that is
actually wrong.

xAuron244x: Why support something that can only give your site bad publicity, since this is afterall just a publicity stunt right?

xAuron244x: Eh?

mattshellder: no

mattshellder: never

xAuron244x: Then why support it. The opinion is malformed, why let the credibility of DS Update diminish so easily?

mattshellder: if you want to write an article for me that is well written id be glad to post it on my site

xAuron244x: I may take you up on that offer one day.

mattshellder: hey if your postin anywhere else let them know that offer is open to anyone in the public

xAuron244x: Will do.

xAuron244x: I don't suppose you'd consider posting my rebuttal sans finishing insult?

xAuron244x: And censored words.

mattshellder: if there is a post with swears i delete it, no exception

mattshellder: i am fine with opinions, but there is never any need to be vulgar

xAuron244x: So you'd be fine with censorship?

mattshellder: no

xAuron244x: So as long as I remove the "swears", you'd post it?

mattshellder: no, change the words

xAuron244x: You'd rather me change than remove them?

mattshellder: yes

xAuron244x: Will do. Expect it in your inbox in a matter of minutes.

mattshellder: this better not only be a paragraph long and attacking anyone

xAuron244x: It isn't. I'm suprised you haven't read it yet

xAuron244x: I'll even mock the HTML with all relevant links for you so all you have to do is copy and paste.

xAuron244x: Actually, here, accept it over AIM

mattshellder: if this is a virus i will be severly disappointed lol

xAuron244x: Don't worry, I'm not that kind of person.

xAuron244x wants to send file playstation3rebutal.txt.

mattshellder received playstation3rebutal.txt.

mattshellder: no

xAuron244x: You'll find all the insults have been removed, and swears changed from the original at vgpundit.blogspot.com

xAuron244x: No what?

xAuron244x: Eh?

mattshellder: no im not posting that

mattshellder: its aimed at another article

mattshellder: aim at the issue

xAuron244x: It's aimed at the "End of the Playstation Generation".

xAuron244x: That was the rebuttal.

mattshellder: aim at the issue

xAuron244x: You're pathetic. I see now that you're just another biased fanboy willing
to defend your ow ignorant kin. It's aimed at the issue and it's going right through your POS article.

mattshellder: you can aim at how nintendo will fail, how microsoft will fail, or how any of them will succeed regardless, but you're just aiming at the article itsself and not the issue

mattshellder: rewrite it and give me a shout

xAuron244x: Then post it as a suppliment to the article as a foot not at the end of the "editorial".

xAuron244x: It wouldn't be a rebuttal if I wrote it in that fashion my friend.

mattshellder: you shouldnt have to rebuttal just say your opinion

xAuron244x: My opinion is the rebuttal, hence the reason why it's called a "rebuttal".

mattshellder: im not going to post a flame war between argueable fanboys

xAuron244x: A counterpoint to an opposing opinion.

mattshellder: post it without mentioning the other article

xAuron244x: O

xAuron244x: Then I'll just post it in the comments section...

mattshellder: w/e you feel you need to do to get w/e attention you desire

mattshellder: all this arguing makes me happy i posted it

xAuron244x: So the discrediting of your site excites you?

mattshellder: hehe, im not worried

xAuron244x: That's great, because I would be.

mattshellder: lol

mattshellder: get over it

xAuron244x: Already did. If you don't mind, I'll be posting this conversation as an addendum to the rebuttal, so the public can see you endorce publicity stunts, support erroenous opinions so long as they support your ideals, and have no grasp on what an "editorial" is?

mattshellder: lol

mattshellder: whatever makes you feel big

xAuron244x: It doesn't make me feel big, I'm merely doing my job as an industry pundit.

mattshellder: lol i always believed sites in our industry should aim at the vg indutry and not opinions of other writers, but do what you think you must

xAuron244x: Then you believe in something that is entirely wrong. The opinion of other writers, as long as they're advertising false informations, reflects on every other writer. Taking them to task is how us credible writers rectify that. I assume you don't understand this however, since you continually support such non-sense from amateur writers.

mattshellder: lol ok

mattshellder: i dont mind, im such a small site. any extra hits we get arent hurting

xAuron244x: Right.

mattshellder: i mean that as you posting your things about my site

xAuron244x: That's the perfect attitude to have...bad publicity is okay as long as you get hits. On that note, I bid you farewell.

mattshellder: lol

mattshellder: later man

mattshellder: remember my offer is always open if you dont aim at the article

xAuron244x: Yes well, I haven't forgotten.

What can I say? He's a piece of work, not unlike the articles he posts.

Review: Devil May Cry 3 - Dante's Awakening - Devilishly cool!

I'm in love with Dante. Not in any sexual or intimate capacity, but just as a person. Capcom has created a truly novel character in Dante, and have fully fleshed him out in this incredibly amazing game. Neck-snapping, spine busting, and demon demolishing karate, Kung-fu, and tai-kwon-do are just par for the course. Dante takes the term badass, and elevates it to all new levels. Balls; something Dante has a lot of. It takes a man like Dante to stare a rocket head on, only to lasso it into a jet propelled hoverboard, merely to let it loose into a stone ceiling, causing rubble to sprinkle down like rain. If there is one word for Dante, it'd be Badass. Not the badass that simply just turns his shoulder to every nay-sayer in the world, but the kind that turns his shoulder while doing a mid-air 360, dodging a tornado of bullets and sickle blades. Devil May Cry 3 is the prequel to the acclaimed Devil May Cry, and Devil May Cry 2 (though not so acclaimed). The goal from the start-up was to recreate a true successor to DMC, and not only give fans the sequel they wanted for so long, but to surpass their expectations, and offer a truly fluid, and malleable game to suit any gamer that happens to glance their way at DMC3's sexy box-art. In few word: Mission Complete.

Devil May Cry 3 begins with Dante starting up his demon-slaying business he later titles "Devil May Cry", in the game creatively enough called Devil May Cry. Even though the whole "Devil May Cry" thing is a little overplayed, the name has meaning. To keep it short, devils shouldn't cry, Dante cries, therefore Devils may cry, but usually don't, because they're too busy being evil, bad ass, and getting all heavy metal on demonic heiny. Busy dismissing premature callers, Dante is approached by the tall, dark and not so handsome Arkham, inviting him to reunite with his twin brother Vergil. Inevitably leading to one of the most kick-ass action sequences in history, Dante is jumped by Arkham, only to be ambushed by a swarm of Hell spawns. Piercing his muscle ripped torso, causing him to drop his beloved pepperoni and cheese pizza on the floor, Dante retaliates by shrugging off the demons like miniscule specs of dust. Leaving their scythe blades protruding out of his body, Dante promptly picks up his pizza, and plays himself some fightin' music, directly kicking the asses of the demons who ambushed him with the very same blades they pierced him with, still residing inside his arms and legs. The fight that follows while ultimately cool, is only icing on the cake.

Renowned japanese cinema legend Riyuhei Kitamura (Versus, MGS TTS), directs all of the cut-scenes in this game, and as usual, he doesn't disappoint. The situations, camera angles, and ability set Kitamura gives Dante, is most befitting. Bullet-time and crazy martial-arts styles are only the price of admission. He goes above and beyond, expanding on those things by creating some truly remarkable, and memorable fight scenes. Dante VS Vergil is a great example: Dante firing 5 bullets straight for Vergil, Vergil capturing the bullets via twirling sword (a la Grey Fox), and returning fire with his whiplash like reflexes, only to have Dante sever all 5 bullets in half, deflecting each half away from him. Words cannot do these situations justice. Seeing is believing in this case.

As for the game itself, it appears as though the original rendering engine is used, only tacked together with some cool anti-aliasing abilities, and incredible water effects. Whether or not Capcom claims it's a new rendering engine or not, the game is polished to a highly reflective, glossy finish. The character models of Dante, Lady, Vergil and Arkham are very well done, and animate with life-like dynamics (most likely due to the fact that mo-cap was done for nearly every blink and twitch in every single cut-scene). The environments are a little more compact, allowing for a broader range of details and decals to be painted and plastered onto the textures, with visible effectiveness. Cracked brimstone wreckage of a colossal tower emerging from the underworld, the auric glow of candle light in an underground theatre, and the crystalline shimmer of ice furnished gateways really pull the gamer into this world that Capcom has created. Even though there are games that graphically outclass this game on the Playstation 2, the game itself glimmers in the action game hall of fame.

While beautiful, and pleasant to look at, the primary draw of Devil May Cry 3 is the combat. Most of the moves you witness in the cut-scenes are entirely reenactable during real-time combat. First, let me start by saying this game is difficult. In some cases, it's an exercise in frustration, and will have you throwing the controller directly at the screen, followed by the obligatory cursing and middle fingers that only you yourself actually end up taking anything away from. In the majority of these cases however, your death is caused by a mere lack of skill on your part. I'm man enough to admit, at first I sucked at this game. I openly admit I just wasn't good enough. Admittedly, there are 3 or 4 instances in this 20 hour game, where camera angles cause some unwanted discord; though these instance are so rare I can't really recall any specific cases that stand out to any significant degree. Your ass will be handed to you again and again, but you will eventually get better. Every enemy in this game emits warning sounds or actions, that spell out disaster if you stay too close for too much longer, or don't prepare an evasive maneuver immediately. Every attack is announced, and once you learn the visual and aural cues from the enemies, achieving SSStylish combat ranking and taking zero damage become not so impossible feats. I firmly believe this is action-packed game design at it's finest.

The combo system of Devil May Cry 3 is also a feat in game design. The ability to switch melee weapons at the touch of a button, is a welcome addition. Chain whipping a group of enemies with Dante's triple-ice-chuks, followed up with a high time from Dante's sword Rebellion, switching back to ice chucks to give them a mid-air lashing, only to switch right back to the blade to send them hurling back down to the ground, is common ground in DMC3's combat. There are a total of 5 melee weapons, and since most combos are customizable to each gamers taste, the fighting engine behind this game is in essence, a "build-your-own-combo" system. The 5 total melee weapons too are very different from one another.

If long-range combat is your thing, then combination of the electrified guitar-scythe Nevan, and Dante's default sword Rebellion is perfect for you. For close range, the combination of the holy empowered gauntlets Beowolf, and the triple-ice-chuks, Cerberus are your best bet. Any combination in between however, is fair game, and result in some truly spectacular combo creations. From there, you decide how complicated and elaborate your combos are. Keeping in mind that the game grades you on how well you create your combos. Mashing away at the attack button with a single weapon won't yield a very high rank, though switching up the the melee weapons, changing things up by adding direction and rhythmic timing to your sword slashes, mixing it around with the occasional gunplay, will more than likely launch you straight for the S, SS and SSS ranks.

It would seem that to Capcom, simply allowing the player to customize the game to each and every play style wasn't enough, they went and added the "Style" system. Though not nearly as deep and complex as the combat engine, choosing a play style has unique effects on each players experience. Choosing the trickster style for example, allows you to perform quick dashes to and from enemies, mid-air dashes, and run up and along the corridors of this games many and varied environments. This allows the player to cover a lot of ground whilst dodging every imagineable attack that comes your way. Chosing the Gunslinger style enables the player to make effective use of their guns, by letting the gamer perform tricks and charge shots with them. For example, using this style with the handguns, Ebony and Ivory, allows Dante to shoot in two simultaneous directions and perform the "Rain Storm" technique, where he launches himself straight up, inverting himself to relenquish a cyclonic flurry of raining bullets upon the enemies below. Similarly, with the Shotgun, using this style allows Dante to wrap himself with his Shotgun in a nun-chuk-ular fashion, which many gamers have intimately nicknamed "Gun-Chuks". These are but 2 of the 6 total styles to chose from, and each offering a very unique experience.

Swordmaster; the ability to master melee weapons and combos, Royal Guard: the attack-reversal and counter-attack style, Quicksilver; the ability to slow time to a crawl, and Doppleganger; the essential style allowing two players to play simultaneously, comprise the rest of the available and unlockable styles. Choosing one of these styles, upgrading it, and combining it with the stylish combo system, make a gaming experience unique to each and every person who plays. Even further, warranting multiple playthroughs since each style and melee combination lend themselves to completely different and useful strategies during common combat and boss fights.

On the topic of bosses, this games gives them to you in spades. While most of them have simple attack and retreat tactics, there are a handful that surpass most other boss fights in all other games. Bosses like Cerberus and Nevan simply repeat an attack pattern, which you memorize and simply evade from, moving in for a few quick strikes, or wait for their moment of vulnerability, and chop away at their health bar. Other bosses, such as Beowolf, Agni and Rudra and Virgil, have predictable attacks, though charge at you, attack, defend, and pincer attack you in such a random fashion, that they create some of the purest forms of strategic and skillful combat in recent memory.

Not only is getting into that position where they're vulnerable difficult, you'll need to employ some deep and complicated combos if you're going to attain that S or SSS rank while fighting them, as bosses attack often, and hard; the proper mixture of evasion, dodging and complex combo craziness, will in no time yield the coveted SSStylish rank, and an overall S rank in the mission. The game rewards you for these ranks as well. If you sit back and cowardly grenade, snipe or shoot every enemy on screen, your ranking stays down, and in the end, your bonus orb reward is pittance (orbs being your only currency/trade item). Striving to become better, and wanting to be skillful melee master, is reward in an of itself, though the game showers you with orbs if your skill can hold up through the arduous and ball busting mission difficulty.

Devil May Cry 3, though home to some of the craziest and most insane combat seen in any action game to date, is also home to a killer soundtrack. Mixing symphonic melodies and harmonies, hybridized with heavy and death metal hardcore clash fests, the audio in DMC3 redefines what a fitting soundtrack should be. These songs spiritually embody what DMC3 is all about: being hardcore *insert Jack Black "No you're not hardcore..." jam session*. At the core, DMC3 is a deep and complex fighter/action/adventure game. On the surface, Devil May Cry 3 is the perfect personification and exemplification of the entire genre of heavy metal music, cult classic martial arts, and head-to-toe arrogance (Dante being the primary fountain of arrogance). On top of that, the dialogue is delivered with pristine clarity, and the plotline is markedly deeper than any of the two previous installments. Though nothing near RPG standards, DMC3 sets new bars for competition to reach for.

Overall, the presentation of the game is adequate, as the interface while perusing menus and data files is oftentimes oversimplified, the feel of the game gets two thumbs up. The prologue and epilogue of each of mission are reason enough to understand that garnish goes a long way. As for the obligatory Ninja Gaiden comparison: there is none. Ninja Gaiden is a vastly different experience from this game. Where Ninja Gaiden captures the look of hardcore gamer-hood, DMC3 pulls it off in practice. Where Ninja Gaiden is challenging due primarily to poor camera angles, and some challenging AI, DMC3 is tens times more challenging, though only sometimes due to poor camera angles, and more often then not, true challenge. DMC3 ends up forcing the gamer to hone their gaming skills. Whether or not you are as hardcore as this game wishes you to be, the game does offer several difficulty modes, even the traditional easy-auto, where the game performs stylish combos for you. Though the best combos are reserved for those who can synthesize them themselves.

With a smorgasbord of unlockable costumes and characters, a gallery of extras, artwork, behind the scenes footage and special trailers and videos, this game has more than enough reason to replay this game, and easily attain a playtime of above 50 hours. Upgradable weapons and skills, great characterization (especially the remarkable recreation of Vergil and his polar oppositeness of Dante), and gameplay that shoots to kill, Devil May Cry 3 is what no other action could be. It's the most innovative action game to date, and the cut-scene direction is just damn impressive. I would say Devil May Cry is easily one of the best contenders for Game of the Year thus far, and you'd be hard pressed to find a sizable game worthy of even being called "similar to" Devil May Cry 3. The sequel to surpass the original, and make apologetic amends for it's successor, DMC3 will rock your ****ing socks off.



Review: Final Fantasy X - An old flame aging well...

Final Fantasy is revered as being one the best selling, and most popular video game franchises to date. Its gameplay is usually top notch, and the graphical appeal is matched by none. Every Final Fantasy fan has their personal favourite in the on going series, and each installment has its own cult following, and the tenth iteration is no exception. Final Fantasy X is quite possibly the best game released in 2001. The dawn of the Ps2 has brought several imitators along for the ride, but no single company has mastered the art of the RPG like Squaresoft has. Not only is it the first Final Fantasy on the Ps2, it’s possibly one of the first Final Fantasy games to move away from leveling system, and all the other "norm" aspects of RPGs, and moved into something so new and unique, that all other games pale in comparison to this wonderfully etched work of art. The kinks have been fine tuned, and the characters have been fleshed out beyond words. If for no other reason, you should pick this game up just to witness high the production values.

The game's story begins simple. Life is simple, life is good. Not 1 hour into the game, you're thrown into a vat of confusion and distortion as you must learn to decipher just what the heck is going on. The world is plagued by the monstrosity known as Sin, created out of the fear, hatred and war embedded into man. You are Tidus, the young, fun loving, Blitzball player, who is somehow involved in the convoluted plot twist that throws him 1000 years into the future, where he meets Yuna the Summoner, who is on pilgrimage to do battle with Sin, and bring forth the Calm (a period without Sin). Yuna is accompanied by her guardians; Wakka the Blitzball player extraordinaire, Lulu the mystical mage, and Kimarhi the blue haired beast, known as a Ronso. Together, you set out on a long voyage to meet and pray to the fayth, to earn their assistance in obtaining the final aeon, which will be used to destroy Sin. As far as the plot goes, twisted fathers, ancient guardians, undead villains, and the potential destruction of Spira via Sin's massive overwhelming power, this game will have you glued to your seat. This game becomes so addicting that you could easily throw away 10 to 12 hours just playing this game in one sitting.

The game itself is fantastic. This is the first Final Fantasy to employ fully 3-D environments, with little to no prerendered backgrounds. I must say, it works out beautifully. The game presents such an encapsulating feel, its hard to put into words. To match these perfectly upgraded environments, the character models have been upped in the polygon department, and brilliant facial expressions and character motion capture have increased one hundred fold. There are probably more polygons per character in this game, then there would have been in the entire cast of characters from any other Final Fantasy rendition on the PSX. With the revamped graphics, comes an even more stunning attention to detail. The shading, colouring, lighting, blurring, shine, glimmer and wave motion is just absolutely astounding. Perhaps these aren't THE best graphics to grace the Ps2 console, but is definitely a treat, since this game is released so early on the Ps2's life cycle, its palpable to think about what will happen in the future of the Ps2 and Final Fantasy, and how their roads will cross paths once again. There is one thing that is for certain though: Square has always been the master of creating engaging and gorgeous full motion video
sequences, and this game is definitely no exception. These are THE best FMV cut-scenes seen to date. They beat out every game on every platform, and the attention to the subtle detail is great. Whether it be the flutter of a single strand of hair, or the ambient environmental sounds, it's almost as if you're watching a full length motion picture.

Accompanying these fantastic visuals, is the introduction of superb voice actors to replace the copious amounts of text boxes that protrude from the character heads in the previous FF games. Even though some prefer the text-base dialogue, the addition of voices is a welcome one, as it blows a breath of fresh air into the soon to dull long winded read-a-thons that were present in past installments (not that they are bad, it’s just good to see change). Note though, that not every single NPC character speak to will have a voice, and the dialogue is displayed through sub titles, all the main characters, and characters crucial to the storyline, are voiced with interesting detail. The other audio department, music, is again, raised to new heights with Final Fantasy X.

Nobuo Uematsu has once again taken the helm of the FF soundtrack, and mixed some fairly decent tracks, to match every mood, and accommodate every character and locale. With well over 40 orchestrated tracks to accompany this game, it makes even some of the greatest arranged symphonies look down in shame. Some of the more catchy songs include Suteki Da Ne, which is strung together with excellent vocals, and the Zanarkand theme song, are some of more memorable jingles in the Final Fantasy series. Once again, Nobuo has hit a grand slam, it hopefully it won't stop here.

Final Fantasy X incorporates new gameplay mechanics into the battle system. Now, its possible to change the characters in your party, on the fly, mid battle. There are a total of 7 playable characters in your party, and switching them up is probably the most significant addition to the over all tactical change and mechanical change in the battle system. Each character has their own role to play in each battle, and learning how to effectively use each characters designed role is what will allow you to master the strategical elements in this game. The main character Tidus is a basic warrior type hero,
with no real power-house qualities, but a hefty supply of support magic and basic attacks. Yuna is your white mage/summoner. Her white magic abilities are priceless in the early stages of the game, and her nul-spells are fundamentally useful against strong magic user type enemies. Her best attribute is her summon ability. Even though, all the characters can learn white magic and every other type of ability, summon is exclusive to Yuna, but more on that mater. Wakka is equipped with a blitzball for a weapon, and his special abilities allow him to power it up with status inflicting damage qualities. These become especially useful if you want to silence a fast magic user, or the blind a heavy hitter. His arsenal of abilities increases as the game goes on, but his status attacks are definitely the most appreciated early on the game. Lulu is your typical mage. She plays on the enemies elemental weaknesses, and exploits them. Casting thundara onto a strong water type enemy will dispatch them in no time. Her focus ability allows her to increase the strength of her magic, for the sacrifice of waiting one full to turn to cast a spell. Kimarhi is a strong attacker, but his main area of expertise is learning the enemy’s special abilities, which he can redirect using his Ronso Rage overdrive. Auron is probably the strongest fighter you have early on, and his Break attacks are what make him an intricate part of battle strategy. If an enemy has incredibly high defense, Auron should attack with his Armour Break technique, which significantly lowers the enemy’s defense, which allows light attackers like Tidus, to deal twice as much damage. Last but not least, is the adorable Rikku. A thief by nature, Rikku's abilities are an enigma, as using them requires a bit of trial and error. Her steal and mug abilities will allow you to steal items from the enemy, and her ability to throw gil at the enemy, and her luck enhancing skills are somewhat useful. In the end, each characters designed roles play on 1/7 of the strategy needed to defeat the biggest bosses, so utilizing
all 7 characters are crucial in the success of your battles.

Speaking of battles, the level up system is no more. The enemies no longer wield any experience, and the party do not gain levels, well not in the sense previously illustrated in other Final Fantasy games. Character growth is determined by the characters movement on the Sphere Grid, a labyrinthine game board, with nodes that when activated, increase a characters stats. The stats are common place RPG material, with strength, HP, MP, magic, defense, magic defense, luck, etc. The only way a character can move along the sphere grid is to gain sphere levels, which are gained after obtaining enough AP from fighting random encounters. Once a character gains a sphere level, he/she can move along the sphere grid one node. Using special activation spheres, you can activate the node, thusly increasing that characters respective stat. It's new, it's innovative, and it's definitely something we needed in the long history of the exp/lvl system of Final Fantasy past.

The ATB is also no more, and is replaced by the CTB, which stands for Controlled Turn Based battle system. Each character has a set pattern of turns which they are allowed to take, in a predesigned sequence, displayed to the right of the screen during battle. Casting spells like Haste and Slow will increase and decrease the number of turns the given character is allowed to take and when they can take them. The same applies to the enemies, as you can see when an enemy is going to get an attack in, since they are also displayed in the CTB queue to the right on the screen. This plays an intristic role in the commanding strategy involved in the battle system. You must make your moves accordingly before the enemy gets to take his/her turn, so it again, ampliphies the emphasis on strategy in battle.

The two final, and possibly most interesting aspects of the battle system is the return of character specific special moves and the summons. Each character has their own Overdrive gauge, which when full, allows the character pull off an extra powerful attack, often capable of defeating the enemy, or severely damaging it and causing some helpful status illness. The gauge can be filled in many different ways, depending on what you have your "Overdrive Mode" set to. If it is set to Stoic, the gauge will increase when you take damage of any kind. If it is set to something like Solo, the gauge will fill each turn when the character is alone in battle. Also, setting it to Daredevil, will allow you to increase the Overdrive gauge, so long as you keep your character weak and near death. This is but one more thing that adds to the immersiveness of the battle system and character growth. Each characters attacks are special and unique to them. Tidus uses his Swordplay technique which lets him plow through enemies with extremely powerful sword attacks. Wakka's allows him to charge his blitzball with elemental or status inflicting power, and can allow him to target one or all of the enemies on the field. These are just examples, as you'll have to play the game to see just what the other special abilities are, and how to use them.

Last, but certainly the best aspect, is the ability to summon Aeons in Final Fantasy X. The way of past Final Fantasy games, was to call upon the summon monster for a quick swift attack, which inevitably cost vast amounts of MP, but the results were devastating. This time around, the aeons are full fledged characters, with their own Overdrives, their own stats, and their own list of commands. Once Yuna summons an aeon though, all the characters leave the field, and the aeon stays and fights the enemy mano-a-mano. The summon sequence is something to behold in itself, as each aeon has their very own call animation, and each time it's all awe inspiring, and it's clear that Square went all out in this endeavour. Even though the Summon monsters have the same vulnerabilities as the normal cast of characters, their overdrive attacks and ability to cast elemental magic make up for it.

Final Fantasy X's battle system, is quite possibly the grey poupon of RPG mustard, and requires the employment of a coup of sorts. This game has it all, and Squaresoft decided to go full tilt in the first Ps2 Final Fantasy. Something to marvel at, this game's battle system, will be talked about for generations to come.

Even though this game doesn't offer much in terms of unlockables, it gives you secrets out the wazoo, and gives em' to you in spades. With the ability to take on uncountable side quests, some of which taking up to and over 10 hours of game time, and a horde of secret weapons, aeons and goodies, this game offers so much to the gamer looking for so much more than just a story and few good characters.

Rent or buy, this game deserves every RPG fan's attention, and this game should be heralded as one of the greatest moments in gaming this generation of console gaming.



The best character progession system to date, combined with mind blowing graphics and an amazing audience appeal, FFX will be the personal favourite of many, and another cat in the bag for Squaresoft.

Review: Tales of Symphonia - Harmonic discourse

Tales of Symphonia is an enigma of sorts. It really doesn't excel in any of it's aspects, but what it does with them, it does fairly well. Though, the "fairly well" part of it, is simply the mean of the entire game. The game tends to teeter on the brink of crap and masterpiece quite often, which in the end, leaves the average of the game, to be fairly well done. I most certainly wouldn't call Tales of Symphonia a stellar game, but I wouldn't call it below average either. It's simply, just another RPG, that you wouldn't be any different, for having, or having not played. And no, you still won't know what a "symphonia" is. In fact, I'm still trying to grasp the bigger picture with what exactly symphonia means. I believe it's spun off from the word symphony, but even that has me puzzled. As far as I can tell, the "Symphony" of this Tales game, is the orchestration of multiple instruments, strung together to accomplish one sound. In a similar fashion, the characters of Tales, are the multiple instruments, who work together to meet at a common end. If you don't like my interpretation, make your own, because what a "Symphonia" is, is clear as mud.

For the most part, the game is gorgeous. The characters are reminiscent of anime characters, and are articulated in such a manner, most of the time. This artistic style, also goes hand in hand with what Namco boasts as "a story told through anime cut-scenes". The pluralization of "scene", though technically correct, is incredibly misleading. The story is not told through anime cut-scenes. There are a grand total of 3 animated scenes, which do nothing to drive the plot forward, except emphasize points that could otherwise, not be accomplished with the simplistic "chibi" graphics Tales of Symphonia utilizes. The first is simply the intro, which plays before the title menu, and does nothing for the game, except show you what every playable character looks like. Though beautiful, it isn't game related in anyway. The second occurs at the end of the first disc, which is actually only about 30 seconds in length. The final scene, is a few minutes in length and occurs after game completion. Are they pretty? Hell yeah, but it isn't enough, as the games run of the mill cut-scenes, aren't in any way dramatic enough give the story the life it so desperately needs. I feel like I've been lied to, and cheaped out of something that could have had so much potential. Needless to say, the story is told through in-game events, which use the same graphics engine and character models as the rest of the game.

While on the topic of being cheaped out by this game, Namco also boasts an "80 hours playtime". Needless to say, every time a developer gives an estimated playtime for their game, it goes without saying that they're overshooting by at least 10 - 15 hours. Squaresoft said FFX would take 50 hours to complete the main story arch, whereas most fans did in just under 40. The problem with Tales of Symphonia, is that Namco overshoots the game time, and keeps on shooting. The entire game, at least the main story arch, can be completed in under 40 hours. My time specifically, was 36:22. After reloading my save game before the final battle, I decided to complete all the sidequests to see if that made any significant difference in playtime. Upon completing the final quest (defeating the secret boss Abyssion...don't ask), I looked at the clock, and I was running just over 55 hours. Needless to say, there is no way you can get 80 hours out of this game, with the paltry amount of tasks and sidequests this game offers. One more lie, but then again, 55 hours is an okay time, I just wish I was expecting it.

One thing that needs to be discussed immediately however, is Tales' strange and convoluted storyline. It's a mess. To put it nicely, I've been less confused reading Clockwork Orange. Tales takes you so far away from the main storyline with redundant banter and incredibly annoying filler, that you will literally lose yourself, as you would lose your spot in a novel, were someone to walk up to you, and whack it out of your hands, upon landing, fold in and close on itself. It gets rather annoying indeed. The plot is also very.....very.....slow. Did you get that? It's....s...lo...w. It does nothing to keep the player interested. The plot twists and turns happen so frequently, and plot holes pour so vigorously out of the confusion, that you may want to bring a pen and paper along, to keep track of the absurd amount of criss-crossing plots, as some are true, some are not, and others are seemingly banished as fast as they're introduced. The very basic plot of Tales, involves Lloyd, and his best friend Genis, trying to protect their "chosen" friend Collette, who will inevitably become an Angel one day. Praying to the deity Martel, Collette, is somehow supposed to bring "world regeneration" to a world, that is by all means, no where near degenerated. It's an odd premise, and occasionally hokey, cheesy and corny, but it's not THAT bad; though as mentioned earlier, the game will distract you from this rudiment plot axis with so many side plots, filler, and crap, that you won't be able to keep track of it well enough to fully comprehend. Tales of Symphonia gets tied and caught up in it's own dialogue far too often, and the main storyline is just plain ol' average. I won't say it's bad, because I've definitely experienced worse, but it's definitely not going to wow anyone.

Frankly, I stopped caring about the plot, and started getting right into the characters. Most of them are well articulated, and some are pretty much forgotten later on in the game. Our main man Lloyd, is boring. Yep, that's right boring. So is his friend Genis, Collette and Genis' sister Raine. Not that their histories and characters aren't explored in any detail, because they are. Rather in-depth actually. On the contrary, the voice actors for these characters are so mediochre, and their allure is pretty much absent. On the other hand, the secondary characters (which are damn near forgotten in the latter half of the game), Regal, Presea, Kratos, and Zelos are extremely meritable characters. Their histories aren't explored nearly as much as the four main characters, though I wish to God they were, but their character is novel. The most prominent, is Regal. The man with the iron-cuffs. His hands are bound by unbreakable shackles, and he uses only his legs in battle. Immediately, you'll think he's as strange as they come. Later, you learn of his past, and the reasons for these bindings. His past is haunted with a self-convicted crime, and his punishment to himself, is binding his hands, never to use them again as a tool of evil. It's simple, but it goes much deeper. His hands are bound. The bindings speak metaphorically, showing how he is also bound emotionally to the crime he committed, and his victim. If he learns to forgive himself, his bindings are severed, both physically, and mentally. Though most of this is never explicitly explained in the game, it's more than implied through excellent character portrayal...at least for this uniquely crafted character. Good suff for sure, but it can't help but be spoiled by the few sour apples in the lot. On a related note, the voice actors are pretty pedestrian. Some of the voice work for the NPC's, as well as Lloyd, Genis, Collette and Raine, are down right 'blech'! However, voice actors Jennifer Hale, Tara Strong, and James Arnold Taylor from MGS2 and Final Fantasy X fame, come to aide this game in it's greatest hour of need. Though definitely not their greatest vocal achievements, they raise this game higher than it would be without them, which makes for only a passable voice cast, and nothing I'd particularly drool over.

All lies aside, the game plays really smooth. The battle system is a real time, active battle system, where you can perform ground and aerial combos, dodge, block and move at your whim. The battle system also lends itself to some serious strategy, especially since combo-ing your attacks together is what will make or break you in the end. When fighting some of the toughest boss battles, your only chance of dealing serious damage, comes at the cost of utilizing your attacks, tech skills and unison attacks in concert. Not to give much away about the game, but there is a boss later in the game, who will never stagger when hit, no matter how strong your attack is, so the best bet is to combo using magic and unison attacks. Instead of pulling off 3 or 4 hit combos, which may or may not deal just over 1000 damage, combo-ing the attacks, and using the "Unison Attack" (a special attack where the characters attack, coincidentally enough, in unison), can allow for upwards of 75 hit combos, which could deal up to 20 000 damage. It's not a simple task either. As I mentioned earlier, it takes great strategy and timing to pull off these extreme combos. It's even possible to pull off well over 200 hit's per combo, but that's something you won't be doing on your first outing in Tales.

Tales' shtick, is to place the character in disorienting dungeons, and force the character to solve vast amount of puzzles and mind games, in order to progress to the predictable boss fights (the game throws them at you like they were candy). Some of the puzzles are actually very involving, and easily solved using a little brain power, which is always welcome, since the majority of today's games remove the player's mind entirely from the experience. For the most part, the puzzles increase in difficulty as the game progresses (no brainer, huh?), although the game will throw a few curve balls, and give you some seriously cruel punishment with damn-near-unsolvable puzzles. I often found myself running to check online FAQs for the lot of final dungeons. Now, although the game throws some wicked puzzles your way, it comes at the cost of repetition. The game gets old fast, since it's forumla is never really altered at any point in the game. Visit a city, go to a dungeon, fight a boss, get a chunk of the story. The cycle momentarily stalls in order to give you your next objective, and then begins the recycle. City, Dungeon, Boss, Story. Not much to it. It's a shame really, since the puzzle solving is one of the best things this game has going for it, right next to the addictive gameplay.

Speaking of addictive, the character progression in this game, is worse than crack. Every playable character (there are 9 in total), is customizable, and has their own set of unique abilities. This is honest to goodness, plain ol' RPG fare, but it's brilliantly put together. Add this, to an already stellar battle system, where the action never stops, and the challenge always tough, but never too tough, and your fixation with this game will never end.

Needless to say, Tales has a lot going against it. Plain voice acting, with average plot, and a mediocre gameplay formula, Tales seems to be on track to being another RPG failure. Amazingly, this is not the case. The battle system and gameplay save this game from becoming deadpan, and really breathe life into what would otherwise be an empty shell of a game. Even though Tales of Symphonia by no means excels at anything, it's downright addictive, and the characters, and character articulation are some of the best this year. For 2004, Tales of Symphonia is a good addition to any GameCuber's RPG collection, and hopefully, leads to better things. Not to mention, inflating what is already a minuscule RPG lineup for Nintendo's console.