Saturday, January 21, 2012

Level Up: Freedom Force vs the Third Riech

Some of you may remember that a few years ago, I reviewed Freedom Force, one of my favorite games, for my birthday. Well guess what? There’s a sequel! (singing) Happy birthday to me, here’s Freedom Force vs the Third Reich for the PC.

As some of you may remember, Freedom Force was heavily inspired by the silver age of comic books. So, what was the logical direction for Irrational Games (now both the developers and producers here) to go in to make this game even better? The golden age of comics! The plan was basically to have Minute Man bust open some Nazi skulls just like his obvious inspirations of Superman and Captain America to have a better tale. So does this game succeed in its goal? Weeeeelllll… Let me explain the plot first.

The game starts off some time after the events of the last game. With Time Master disabled and no immediate threat, most of the members of Freedom Force have disbanded. But suddenly, they learn that one of their old foes, Nuclear Winter, has taken advantage of the Time Master powers from his inert body to steal some missiles during the Cuba missile crisis in order to start a nuclear war. His plan is that he would not only survive this, but be powered by it and be able to take over the world (“OF COURSE!”). Not much of a spoiler here, but the good guys win; Nuclear Winter is taken into custody and Time Master’s body is returned. Or so our heroes think. Once they leave, we see they have been deceived by a new villain; Blitzkrieg. While on their way back to the Freedom Fortress, he uses Time Master’s powers to change the events of history. Once they get back, they see that they now live in a world where the Axis Powers won the second world war. Mentor informs the Freedom Force that they must travel back in time and correct the time stream.

The story is… alright. But see, part of what I liked most about the original Freedom Force is that it was rather episodic; sure there was an overarching plot, but you could just play individual levels and enjoy them on their own. Here, most of the game is concentrated on just the one story and villain. It’s well done, but it’s just not what I liked about Freedom Force. Simply put, it tries to be too serious when the first game concentrated on the fun parts of the super hero genre and it lacks personality because of this.

The game play is pretty much the same as the previous game, but tweaked here and there. For those of you who missed my review of the first game, Freedom Force is a real-time RPG; all actions happen in real time, but each character has individual stats that will affect the battle and they will level up if they gain enough experience. Attacks will use part of your Energy X meter, and when you’re too low, it can stun you. You’re given missions to accomplish on each level and you’ll receive prestige points depending on how well you did (these go towards recruiting more heroes). For more in-depth details and critiques, you’ll have to listen to the review of the first game, but I think I just about covered it there.

So, what’s changed? Well, some of the new super powers are really different; now you get moves where you can change people into potted plants, possess baddies and other pretty cool abilities. Also, the Energy X meters have been sectioned off into 3, which allows you to see more precisely how much of it an attack will use. Some of the attributes have also been balanced out, so now anyone with a “flesh” base (which is 90% of the characters you’re given) won’t be super weak against poison. Other than that and maybe a few other small things, I can’t think of too much they changed; I guess if it’s not broken, why fix it?

Freedom Force vs the Third Reich had the big disadvantage of following up a game with very minimal plot in it; how do continue on that without just repeating yourselves? The things to like about this game are what returns and what’s been improved. The things that fall flat though are what’s been added, namely the new villains, heroes and setting: it’s just a bit too serious and plays it very straight, like it’s just not having as much fun anymore. Still, this is a great game and I think it can be found new very easily. I recommend playing Freedom Force beforehand, and if you like it, playing this one, but like I said, they’re both great. I give Freedom Force vs the Third Reich for the PC 9 levels out of 10.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Level Up: My favorite video game

For those of you following along with how many reviews I've done, today, that number reaches 100! I can't think of a better way to celebrate than to talk about my favorite video game. And here it is:

I’m sorry folks, during that extended holiday; I seemed to have lost my place in my review schedule. *Papers rustle* Just let me find myself and- wait a minute, what number episode is this? *Slot machine boop and victory fanfare* Oh my word, it’s episode 100!!!! *Happy celebration video game music stars, possibly from Donkey Kong or Mega Man). Now, of course, I have to talk about something big for this occasion. In the past, I have told you about big games in my life: the first game to make me realize I was a gamer, the game that started my collecting, etc… But have I mentioned what my favorite game is? Oh yeah, that’s today’s topic. And like with some subjects I have a lot to say about this game, but because this is such a big event, I don’t want to cut any of it out. I could make this a 2 part episode, but that would cheapen the big celebration. So, get ready for an extended Level Up as I talk about my favorite video game Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System.

To pay a proper tribute to this game, I guess I have to go way back to its development. See, Mario had established himself as the mascot of Nintendo and a worldwide icon. This was not only due to his enormous success in his main adventuring series, but spin-off titles as well, in games such as Dr. Mario and Super Mario Kart. Now, in the mid-nineties, a certain unexpected game genre started to gain popularity: the turn based RPGs. With games like the Dragon Quests, Final Fantasy and (to a lesser extent) Breath of Fire series hitting it big, Nintendo wanted Mario to be a part of this action. And so, they went to Square (makers of Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger) for their help on this one. Of course, this game not only had the advantage of being backed by one of the biggest names in the genre and one of the biggest names in video games in general, but it also the advantage of timing. This game came out very late in the SNES life; in fact a few sources state it was just 4 months before Super Mario 64 hit the shelves. Though, this affected the games sales negatively, the quality was only improved, as it pushed the SNES to limits in its hardware that only a few other games did, in terms of processing ability and memory. Do I already have you believing this game is awesome? And I haven’t even started talking about the actual content yet.

I’ve talked before about games that take the familiar and make it original. I’ve talked before about game series that just made themselves more complex and engaging. This game does both for the Mario series. We start of (as usual for a Mario game) with princess Toadstool (since that’s the only way she’s referred to in the game, it’s the only way I will refer to her) being kidnapped by Bowser. However, this game seems to skip right to the end, with Mario entering Bowser’s castle. After fighting his way to the King of Koopas, Mario will give him the thrashing he always seems to merit and saving Toadstool is within our plumber’s reach. However, something unexpected happens; the clouds open up and a terrible rumble is heard. Suddenly, a giant sword appears and crashes down in Bowser’s castle, sending Mario flying back to his home. Once he comes back to, Mario tries to enter Bowser’s keep again, but he is stopped at the front door by the sword. Mario is then informed that the castle (with Toadstool still presumed to be inside) has been claimed in the name of “The Smithy Gang”. The earth then shakes, as the bridge collapses under Mario’s feet and his only direct path to the castle is completely lost. Without many other options, Mario heads off for the nearby Mushroom Kingdom for help. After seeking some advice, Mario runs into Mallow, an odd looking “frog” who just got robbed by a guy named Croco. Once Mario and Mallow recover the stolen goods, Mario returns to Mushroom Kingdom to find it over run by bouncing baddies. After having to clean up the town and fight his way back up the Mushroom Kingdom Castle, Mario encounters Mack Big Knife, one of the boss members of the Smithy Gang. Upon defeating him, an odd star, once guarded by Mack, is discovered. Having no idea what this all means, Mallow suggests that they seek out his father, Frogfucius, who is said to know everything.

And I’ll stop now, as this only represents barely 15% of the game’s story, and I could go on in detail for a very long time. Honestly, as the game progresses, the plot continues to developed, like a good story should. There are very few “down” moments as you adventure; something is ALWAYS happening. Characters are added, motives are revealed, twists happen along the way, the mysteries are uncovered and all that jazz. Once again, this is very impressive when you consider it was all developed starting with the story of a plumber saving a princess.

This method of keeping things familiar, but unique and new is also show in the various settings (which as you should know by one, is one thing I always look for in a game). Every area looks like a level from a Mario game, yet still organic to a new world. And this isn’t to say that the settings ever get repetitious: this is one of the games I’ve played with the most diverse settings while all giving them an organic flow. I mean, Spyro 2 had a lot of different levels, but you’d just enter one with no rhyme or reason. The story here makes it so getting from one place to another all makes sense, but you’ll still adventure through a sewer system, in a forest maze, down to the bottom of the sea and in a volcano, just name a few.

Graphically speaking, this game BLEW MY MIND! When I first saw this game, I thought it was 3D (now I know better, but this is just to put you in perspective here). The same could be said for Donkey Kong Country, but here is the big difference: DKC is played from the perspective of viewing him straight on, Super Mario RPG is played at a three-quarter perspective. This gives the game whole new life in terms of how it looks. To use an analogy, most 2D can look, feel and work as if you’re moving a paper doll across a flat surface; even if the doll looks really nice. This game, it’s as if you’re playing with figurines in a model house. Beyond just that, the graphics were made in a manner similar to Donkey Kong Country, but possibly with more detail, since the environments are more interactive and complex. Other than that, same story; everyone looks like they’re supposed to, but with new life brought into them to fit into this marvelous world.

While I’m talking about the superficial aspects, I have to mention the soundtrack. Yeah, the sound effects are good, I mean, I wouldn’t change a single one for any reason, but it’s the music you’ll be listening for. This game is full of great music. As you’ve probably noticed by now, I’ve made a music medley of tracks from this game, which is something I always reserve for the games I think really deserve it. Well, this game does deserve it, as every track is memorable, fitting to the moment and evokes the proper emotion. There’s this sad little number that comes a lot, and I have come to associate dramatically depressing moment with that little number. Then there are the fun tracks of a city that’s been saved and is joyful for it, the wacky music of a mini-game and the fantastic sounds of being on the celestial Star Hill. The best might be the battle music though. The one for the regular battles are fun, as the average battle should be. The ones for the bosses however take on a much more serious and less distracting tone (and don’t get me started on the final boss music). And I’ll admit, a lot of games can fit their music to their moments, but few of them get it so right every time, and even less make them all this memorable.

So if it isn’t obvious enough, Super Mario RPG is an RPG (turn based style to be exact). For you fanatics out there who need all the details on the battle system, here it is: the enemies are seen on the field instead of being invisible and random, and a fight only initiates when Mario walks into one of them. There are three hero characters on the battle field (out of 5 you’ll eventually have available, though Mario always needs to be one). The character with the highest speed will get the first choice for an action, and execute it right away. You have the choice to do a simple attack, defend, run away, use an item or use a spell. Spells run on FP (Flower Power) and though some spells are stronger against some enemies, I wouldn’t say they have a “type” (like in Pokemon and all that). The menus while battling are all easy to understand and based on which button you press; A is attack, X opens the items menu, Y opens spells and B gives you the “defend” and “run away” options. All simple enough that anyone new to the genre will understand it and is very user friendly. Fighting enemies gives you XP and coins. Once you hit a certain amount of XP, you’ll go up a level where your stats will improve and you’re given the choice to give an extra boost to Attack and Defense, your Hit Points or your Special Attack and Special Defense. Coins are of course use to buy things at shops; either items to help you out in various, general ways, or equipment to boost your stats for the battles. And at this point I think I covered everything the hardcore RPG fans would want to know about this game’s system.

Now here’s where things take a twist. See, this regular turn based fighting style is a little boring and out dated with games like the new Final Fantasy games of that time getting the player more involved in the battles. That is where the “Timed Attacks” come in (this would be a staple and trademark for the Mario RPG series). As one of your heroes is attacking, press the A button at the right time and the attack will become stronger, and press the button as an enemy is attack and you’ll defend against it. The catch is, you’re not always sure when that time is: it could be as your attack is hitting the enemy or it could be as your hero is taking out the weapon. Eventually, if you’re into the game enough, you’ll just “feel” the moment, but some can still be hard to figure out. Trust me when I say this though, it’s worth it to figure out and really does get you more engaged into the game.

Of course, the game play of Super Mario RPG goes well beyond the battles. The way I look at an RPG is that it can be divided into 3 sections: the battles, the story (or text) and the field. Some RPGs fall into the trap that, while the battles are good and the story is engaging, the field is boring as it’s just means to help get to the next battle or story element. Super Mario RPG does not forget to be fun here; being on the field is as fun (if not more) than fighting. There are so many puzzles and hidden treasures to find that, with all the time I’ve spend playing this game and the amount of times I’ve beaten it, I’m sure that I haven’t found everything yet. But more than that, there actually is a good selection of mini-games throughout, including a “whack-a-mole” clone, a race using Yoshi and a whole casino to find and play with. Now, I’m not saying this game is the first to have mini-games (and by far, it’s not the first to make good use of its field), but the amount and concentration on them is just great. Like I said before, it feels like you’re always doing something. I think this is heavily due to its “Mario is a platforming game” roots, but I think it pulls a little inspiration from the Zelda series too.

And there it is; finally I can share with you guys my thoughts on Super Mario RPG, possibly my definition of a perfect game. The graphics are amazing for the time, the soundtrack is flawless, the story is a perfect mix of nostalgia and ingenuity, the battles are engaging and you always feel like you’re doing something in this game with not a boring moment to be had. And of course, I’m not the only one who agrees with this idea, as there are tons of reviewers out there who say this game is one of the best available for the Super Nintendo. As a matter of fact, once Nintendo started rereleasing all their Super Nintendo games on the Game Boy Advance, this was one of most requested games. However, due to Square merging with Enix and going on to work more closely with Sony, that wouldn’t happen; the only rerelease of this game would be on the Wii virtual console (which is good, because buying a real copy can be a little pricey). On the same subject, this would be why there was never a direct sequel, but two series would come out in the form of spiritual sequels, both of which I have already talked about: Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi. Now don’t get me wrong, those series are also really good, but I never quite thought they were as good as the original Super Mario RPG. I will admit, nostalgia probably plays a big part in how I feel about this game as I’ve owned it for so long, play it periodically and have beaten it more than any other game I own, but the fact that I still enjoy every moment of it today has to be a testament to the quality and replay value. Because this is my favorite game, I honestly can’t say I put it on the same level as games like Freedom Force or Soul Calibur 2: those games are some of my favorites, but Super Mario RPG still beats them all. I can’t give this game 10 out of 10. Heck, 11 out of 10 still seems too close for me. I give Super Mario RPG: Legend of the seven stars 12 levels out of 10