Sunday, October 30, 2011

Level Up: Manhunt 2

Video game sequels can sometimes be tricky story wise, especially if it’s unplanned. Normally a game will be self-contained. Sequels then create a problem; do you continue with the old story, or do you do something new? Going with the old familiar can seem repetitive and create plot holes, but something new has a risk. Now taking the second option to the extreme would be completely starting anew: keeping relatively the same game play elements and the feel of the first game, but disregarding all previous characters, settings, plots, etc (as if the series was more like an anthology). I bring this up because a review last year, Manhunt, would demonstrate this. At the end, everything is pretty much resolved, but a sequel was indeed made. So let’s book end October with follow up reviews as I now look at Manhunt 2, released on the PS2 and PSP, but I’ll be playing the Nintendo Wii version.

Now in case I wasn’t clear enough, I’m just going to say this directly; the story in Manhunt 2 does not pick-up after Manhunt. There is no mention of James Earl Cash, the director or Pigsy. Their story was pretty much resolved in the last game, so you can play either Manhunt or Manhunt 2 and not miss out.

The game starts off in an insane asylum during an (ominous) lightning storm, when the power goes out. The player character Daniel Lamb wakes up having no memory for why he’s in there. We are then introduced to Leo Kasper, who tells Daniel they’re busting out and guides him to the exit (and for most of the game). Remembering little details and locations, Daniel starts trying to piece together what has happened, but really creates more questions than answers. And… that’s all I really want to say about this plot. The main drive of the game is figuring out what happened to Daniel before the game, who’s involved and how it all went down. We end up having to delve into secret locations of scientific experiments, the murder of Daniel’s family and mind control (hopefully not giving too much away there). The plot twists will drive you to play the next level just to figure out what is going on.

This is a much better plot than Manhunt’s of just being forced to kill for a movie. Here we are shown that Danny has to murder people to get answers, but doesn’t really want to. Also, there is significant symbolism, such as Daniel’s last name being Lamb, a gentle creature, and the name “Leo” is almost synonymous with “Lion”, which is considered a violent animal. All this makes for a well written game.

The gameplay is relatively the same; you’ll spend most of the time sneaking in the shadows waiting for someone to creep in front of you. Once they turn their back, you hold the A button and depending on how long you held the button, you’ll do one of three kinds of death with whatever weapon you choose (each more violent than the next). I have noticed some changes in this though. The most obvious would be the Wii-motion controls; here they make you do the action of whatever kill you’re committing (yeah, I take it some people weren’t happy about this). Also, the motion controls are used to make Daniel swing the respective fist in combat (but with no lefty flip, it’s a kick in the balls to lefties once promised that the Nun-chuck style controller would let them play with the control stick on either side). To end on the subject of the hand to hand combats, I noticed they were a lot easier this time. In the first Manhunt, I would go down if I ever had to go mano a mano, but in this one, I won most of those fights. My theory is they made it easy because 1) it comes up often, and 2) because it makes you just get on with plot.

Manhunt 2 took all the violence and improvised murders that were the main element in Manhunt and wrapped it in a much better story. However, this means that the game play might be a little overshadowed, since in the first game the plot was simple enough it made the deaths the main element, so fans of the first game might bit a little disappointed. To make it even worse, every execution is censored by a red, blurry filter (it represents the madness of the moment, but still annoying when that’s one of the main focuses of the game). Also, the graphics are really bad, as I’ve said for Rockstar Games in the past. But still, the suspense and mystery of it all just made me enjoy this game a lot more than its predecessor (though I admit, it could be because I played this one first). I give Manhunt 2 for the Nintendo Wii 9.5 levels out 10.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Level Up: Zombie Revenge

I love zombies. I love all the zombie movies I’ve seen, I got the full Marvel Zombies collection, I’ve been in a couple of zombie walks across town and I even did my final project in college on zombies. Safe to say, if you want me to pay attention, just mention zombies. The ferocity and relentlessness of these creatures as well as their personification of a living virus or conformist society or whatever metaphor you want just makes them all around interesting. And then, there are times where the point is utterly missed. Today’s subject is sadly one of those cases: enter Zombie Revenge (the name is even kind of boring), originally for the Arcades, but I’ll be playing the Dreamcast version.

One of the first things you’ll notice about this game (and may have just noticed with the clip I played) is that this voice acting is BAAAAAD. I know I said Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days had bad voice acting, but while they at least had talented voice actors; nothing saves THESE cut scenes. The voice actors portray the wrong emotions or are emotionless, they have awkward timing and just emphasis some WORDS oddly. I don’t know if it all stems from being translated, but to me, that’s never been an excuse, especially for a game produced and developed by Sega. As a matter of fact, the quality of the voice acting might actually be considered “so bad its good” for those of you into that.

The bad voice acting (mixed with the sub-par Dreamcast graphics) all made it so I just wasn’t able to concentrate on the plot, but from what I was able to get, it was pretty stupid. The hero characters are members of a government agency sent to track down “Zed” *clip from Power Ranger’s Zed*. Sadly, not related to Lord Zed. He’s been making zombies rise and challenging our heroes with tasks. We later learn that his parents died and this has to do with the zombies somehow. Really I just wasn’t emotionally interested in the plot at all since it was all just done with horrible dialog.

Zombie Revenge is described as many as a mix of two Sega series: House of the Dead and Streets of Rage. While it gets most of its story and setting elements from being a planned House of the Dead spin-off (to the point where it contains a level called “House of the Dead” with scenes directly lifted from it), most of the game play would be Streets of Rage inspired. For those of you who don’t remember my review of Streets of Rage 2, it was your basic brawler game, where you walk around and punch enemies, and you could occasionally use weapons. Zombie Revenge also gives you the ability to dash (having removed jumping) and use a gun. The gun automatically aims for nearby enemies and if you wait for it to fully target it does more damage. You also have an “infection” meter that can kill you of you’re bitten too many times without acquiring an “herb”.

Now all of this sounds fine, except that you’re character moves so freakin slow. Unless you’re dashing, the only thing some of the characters can do rapidly is punch (and shoot if you want weak shots and to waste bullets). This wouldn’t be bad in another game, but this is a 3D zombie game; you will be constantly surrounded and outnumbered. Most of the time, you’ll be reliant on a dash punch to knock them down over and over again.

Zombie Revenge is full of good intentions met with poor executions. The game play should be classic by concept, but is poorly pulled off because the characters are way too slow for the situation they’re in. This makes trying to use items (something normally fun) a handicap, quick enemies seem cheap and the game play just feels repetitive. The occasional boss fights were fun however, as the creature would always look interesting and presented challenge. The atmosphere and references to House of the Dead were also pretty cool and the secrets were fun to find. But the nail in this game’s coffin was the poor voice acting making me completely uninterested in what was going on. The extra Dreamcast features also did nothing for me. I didn’t completely hate this game though: in short burst it can be fun and I did want to see it through to the end, but it’s more frustrating than anything. This is one zombie title that kind of bites. I give Zombie Revenge for the Sega Dreamcast 5 levels out of 10.

Level Up: Castlevania: Circle of the Moon

2011 seems to be THE YEAR for video game anniversaries. In big names just celebrating a 25th birthday, we got Metroid, The Legend of Zelda, Metal Gear, Dragon Quest and today’s subject, Konami’s Castlevania. Sadly, I missed out on a lot of it growing up (it just never really caught my eye). Now, when this happens, I don’t like to admit it, but because this is such a big series, with many additions, I feel like I need to make this disclaimer: this game is, so far, the only Castlevania game I have played. I am aware that in some big game series, some titles will seem lame compared to others or it might get repetitive. Again I don’t know if Castlevania is one of them. Now that I think I cleared all that up, let’s talk about Castlevania Circle of the Moon for the Game Boy Advance.

The game starts off in Austria circa 1830, where a woman named Camilla has successfully revived Dracula when 3 vampire hunters come in, the mentor, Morris Baldwin, his son, Hugh Baldwin and the player character Nathan Graves, successor to Morris who has nothing to do with Tombstone from Freedom Force. Before actually doing anything, Dracula simply caves in the floor under Nathan and Hugh, leaving Morris out numbered. Once the two students land safely, Hugh runs off, talking about how he’s going to prove his worth to his father. This becomes a sub-plot and really gets interesting, as we learn about Hugh’s attempts to please his father and why Nathan was chosen over him. This actually over shadows the main plot a bit, as all we learn about that is the fact that Dracula and Camilla plan on using Morris’ soul to give Dracula back his full power. But really, the whole game is well written, with believable characters, the theme of father-son relationships well used and the “black magic” tone of it all fitting well into this game and never letting up.

This game is a platformer, but it’s a non-linear one. From the start, you’ll notice you’re allowed to go into any room you can reach. However, you can’t go everywhere as you need certain abilities and items to access areas. This means your freedom of movement is pretty much limited at any given time in the game, but exploring is really part of the fun. Once you find the right places to go to, you’ll fight a boss, get a new item and more places will be accessible. Basically, even though it’s not obvious, there is only one way you can advance, but you’re never prevented from roaming around. (Note: This is what many gamers refer to as the “Metroid-vania” game style, since it’s also common in the Metroid series, in case I ever reference it again).

You also get RPG elements with this game, as every enemy you kill will give you experience to level up and you’ll also collect different items that you can equip. Personally, I think it adds much to the game, but it plays a big role, as I clearly remember having to grind before a boss. But the last thing I really want to talk about is the magic skills. On occasion, a monster will drop a card that will fall in one of two categories: Action and Attribute. You’ll select one of each, then upon pressing the L button, you’ll pretty much change the conditions of the game (often by changing your weapon). According to a Wikipedia article, this is unique to Circle of the Moon, which honestly surprises me because it’s so cool. With 100 different combinations, it was exciting every time a monster dropped a card for me.

As a first impression to the series, Castlevania: Circle of the Moon was great. The non-linear game play was fun and the cards and RPG elements added a whole other layer to it. The story was really cool and its dark atmosphere was handled really well. It also doesn’t hurt that the game looks pretty good on the Game Boy Advance and the music also helps. I only have some minor problems, mostly with getting from one end of the map to the other being annoying and happening often. Also, the subplot of the game definitely outshines the main plot, which I don’t think should happen, but it’s all good enough I didn’t care. If you have the ability to play GBA games, you probably won’t regret playing this title, unless you’re looking for something direct and laid out for you, or a simple platform game (due to the RPG elements). I give Castlevania: Circle of the Moon 9 levels out of 10.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Level Up: Gargoyle's Quest

You’ll remember last year, I started October with a review of Super Ghouls n’ Ghosts. At one point, I noticed an enemy that looked familiar… (*reel effect, flashback to mentioning Firebrand.*) Those of you more familiar with classic Capcom series might have known that I was talking about the main character from Gargoyle’s Quest. So, October once again starts with *Capcom time*as I review Gargoyle’s Quest for the Game Boy.

The game will start off with a rolling text telling you the story about a warrior of long past named the Red Blaze who stopped an invading army of creatures from another universe. You then start the game playing as Firebrand when a few other guys come in to tell you the king of the Ghoul Realm has been attacked by an army (why 3 people are needed for this is beyond me). They ask Firebrand to return to the Ghoul Realm (from where, I don’t quite know) to save them all since he see is pre-determined to be the new Red Blaze (probably because, despite what the North American cover art says, he’s RED).

So yeah, the story is pretty straight forward and honestly has very little impact on the game. You’ll basically just have to get from start to finish with very little interruptions for plot except for the occasional dialog explaining the history of the villain and Red Blaze. It does feel like it’s been put on the back burner, yeah, but anything more would feel like they’re trying too hard and ill-fitting for this game.

The game play is an interesting mix. It obviously has an RPG inspiration; you have an overhead view of most of the cities, where you move around, talk to people and unlock your next quest. You also have a monetary system in place and you’ll find additional weapons and upgrades to help you out. However, the game also has a strong concentration on platforming. The actual “meat” of the levels consists of side scrolling stages with spikes, waterfalls, pits and enemies, including ghouls, bugs, odd eyeballs, fish bones and ghosts who look like KKK clan members. You have a great arsenal of abilities to get past these areas though. Let’s start with the fire breath: a straight forward projectile attack. Then there are Firebrand’s wings, they aren’t just for show; press the jump button again and you can suspend yourself in air and float around for a limited time. Landing or sticking to a wall completely recharges this, which gets me to my next point. Firebrand can cling onto walls, and once again, that’s an awesome ability, but in here, it’s essential and even better than usual. On a wall, Firebrand can shoot at enemies, his fly meter gets recharged and you can jump off, but pressing jump and up can make you climb a wall.

Now, at the start of the game you might think “Is this it? Friebrand is weak and he doesn’t move well…” But as I’ve said, you get upgrades which will let you jump higher, fly farther and the fire breath gets upgraded in too cool a way to spoil for you (it really kicks the platforming up a notch). That is really where the RPG elements kick in too. Think of it like a more basic version of Zelda 2: you can’t really get very far with just platforming, as you need to uncover certain secrets and talk to the right people, but the real levels are in the platforming areas. As a matter of fact, this game has similar random encouters on the field too… Coincidence?

Gargoyle’s Quest is a really good game, but not for everyone. It suffers from kind of a slow start honestly, and Firebrand moves rather slowly too. The RPG elements might also be of a nuisance to people just looking for a Ghost n’ Goblins style platform game. The music doesn’t add much really either (it feels stock, which is surprising for Capcom) and the story is really flat and basic. However, this is still a bit of an overlooked title, though it’s been rereleased on the 3DS Virtual Console, so maybe new gamers will pick it up. The platforming stages are great; despite not being as smooth and fast as, let’s say, Jackie Chan’s Action Kung-Fu, all the elements and game mechanics make it fun to figure out and play. Also the graphics are all really good, especially for this 8-bit system (Firebrand looks bad ass!). If you’re into platformers that really try to be different, then I’d say this game is for you. I give Gargoyle’s Quest for the Game Boy 8 levels out of 10.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Level Up: Earthworm Jim 3D

Here’s a little history and context lesson before we start with our 3rd Earthworm Jim review. The first Earthworm Jim was made in 1994 and many ports and remakes would continue to come out in most of 1995. Earthworm Jim2 was then released in 1996 with the same Developer and publisher; Shiny Entertainment and Playmates (respectively). (This of course all changes depending on your region and version). After that it would take three years before Jim would return for his own game. However, the trip would apparently be bumpy. The game ended up getting developed by VIS Entertainment and published by Rock-Star Games (pre-GTA 3 of course). What I’m getting at is that most of the original team didn’t seem to work on this game and because of the development complication, this game had a lot cut out and was rushed. But, we still got our third game, so let’s dig into Earthworm Jim 3D.

Get it? Earthworm? DIG into!?*rimshot*

The game’s plot is just great. Instead of being a parody this time around, the game decided to be original and wacky. As the opening credits roll, we see Jim get crushed by a cow. Once he wakes up, he finds he’s trapped in his own mind. Peter Puppy tells him that he’s gone insane and lost his marbles. Literally, you spend the game collecting them back along with golden cow udders (more on that later). Jim will travel in all 4 of his brains and deal with representations of his memories, fears, fantasies and happiness (yet sadly, Princess What’s-her-name is in neither of the last two; guess they were really trying for something different). The characters, settings and tasks all add to this wackiness. I don’t know how else to put it other that I just loved this game’s story and how it was pulled off: it is fun!

This game is all about collecting. I haven’t gotten into many free roaming 3D platformers (other than Spyro 2), but when 3D adventuring was still relatively new, the easiest way to make one was to make you collect things by both finding them lying around the levels and collecting others by completing tasks. In this one, you’ll find up to 100 Marbles lying per stage and normally 5 or 6 Golden Udders of lucidity to collect. Both of these, Jim is told, will restore his sanity and allow him to wake up from his coma.

And as fun as the collecting style is (with games like Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie), this one has a major problem; the camera. The camera is always looking down at Jim, which lets you see the floor nicely, but nearby enemies; not so much. Or platforms you want to jump on either. I am surprised that this comes up as an issue after two really smooth platformers, but half of the jumps I made, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it. This made me land into a lot of pits, which drain your health stupidly fast (25% a hit and no recovery time). It’s also not intuitive at all, meaning you’ll be adjusting it all the time, but it unlike Spider-man Shattered Dimension, adjusting in the camera is jarring, sudden and hurt my eyes.

Also using your gun makes you stop and the boss levels are just frustrating but let’s move on.

Earthworm Jim was not one of the series successfully converted to 3D, but with the amount of changes it apparently had in developers, that doesn’t surprise me. The camera beyond irritated me and I’m sure I’m not the only one. That said, this game did charm me enough to like it. Sure, I like collecting-based 3D platform games, but I love the new plot. It’s so different they avoid Princess What’s-her-name, and the direction they go in is used to its full potential with fantastic, wacky lands that never takes itself seriously. Looking at the information I dug up, this game was more modeled after the TV show (which makes it a video game, based on a TV show, based on a video game?) and that shows, especially with the voice acting including Dan Castellaneta (better known for voicing Homer Simpson) once again voicing the worm. If it’s more like a tie-in game (for a show off the air three years prior) it would explain the lacking game play. But like I said, the plot and great setting just made this game for me and I could put up with every other flaw just for the joy of Jim; it captures it at least better than Earthworm Jim 2. I suggest you give it a shot if you’re a fan of the series and enjoy games like Banjo-Kazooie. I give Earthworm Jim 3D for the Nintendo 64 7.5 levels out of 10.