Lego Star Wars – GBA, NDS, PS2, Game Cube, XBox, PC

Featuring the stars of Lego Schindler's List and Lego Moulin Rouge.

Featuring the stars of Lego Schindler’s List and Lego Moulin Rouge.

Months ago I played Grand Theft Auto III, and hated it so much that I didn’t finish. At the time I had another GTA game on my shelf, which you may have noticed never made it to this blog. I didn’t just set the disc on fire out of hatred for the series–although in an Odyssey of the Mind style hallucination, I did consider re-purposing it as a coaster, a wall decoration, a tiny stage for pet mice to perform on, a projectile to hurl at my neighbor’s overly-excitable dog, or a shim to level out my wobbly kitchen table. No, instead, I put it in my PS2, which immediately responded, “Ha, ha. Funny joke. Now put a real PS2 game in my tray, would you?” I tried repairing the disc, but apparently someone before me had re-purposed the game as a nail file. “Fine by me!” I thought. I didn’t want to play it anyway! And I moved on to a more interesting looking game: Lego Batman. Which promptly seized up at the beginning of the Penguin’s story arc. Moral of the story: don’t buy used games at Savers. But what can you expect from a store that would chuck Mega Man 2 in the trash for its age, but then try to sell six dozen Madden games for $4 each? Yesterday, I actually found high school sports trophies, engraved with the names of the winner. But Conker’s Bad Fur Day? Burn it! Damn cartridge!

I want a good clean fight. No severing arms. No blasters. No Force grabs below the belt. Oh, and your droids. They'll have to wait outside.

I want a good clean fight. No severing arms. No blasters. No Force grabs below the belt. Oh, and your droids. They’ll have to wait outside.

So to reign in my tirade, when I pulled out the Lego Star Wars disc and could not even with a generous heart refer to it as “round,” I didn’t have high hopes of finishing the game. But as you can see, God does have a sense of humor, and he chose to perform his miraculous Hanukkah Game Technique to keep the disc spinning for as long as it took me to finish, thus forcing me to write about a game virtually identical to Lego Star Wars II, which I reviewed only a few months ago. So here it goes…

Lego Star Wars covers the prequel trilogy, but otherwise bears no differences to Lego Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy.

Pretty good, huh? One of my best reviews yet. Oh! Wait! I’ll do it as a haiku!

Lego Star Wars has
No major differences from
Lego Star Wars II.

Special Ed...momma dropped him on his head...now he's not so bright, instead...he stars in the Phantom Menace.

Special Ed…momma dropped him on his head…now he’s not so bright, instead…he stars in the Phantom Menace.

But seriously, I should probably at least pretend to have some journalistic integrity (I’ll get it when someone starts paying me to write, damn it!) and try to say something worthwhile about it. Lego Star Wars marks the first of the licensed Lego games developed by Traveler’s Tales. Oddly enough, this rookie attempt actually makes it easier to write about, since it lacks a number of things that have become staples for the Lego licensed series. Characters can’t assemble bricks into objects to interact with. The Jedi sort of can, but only as part of their Force powers.  Also, you’ll notice that none of the levels have Free Play areas, places you can access only by bringing other characters into the level using Free Play mode. And now, a limerick:

Uh, Obi-Wan...maybe not use the Force on me for a while. That light looks like it might cause cancer.

Uh, Obi-Wan…maybe not use the Force on me for a while. That light looks like it might cause cancer.

When playing a Star Wars with bricks
the Jedi all play Pick-up-Sticks
The blasters shoot bolts
The Gungans are dolts
While the enemies all act like pricks.

While the other Lego games don’t exactly force you to look up walkthroughs, this attempt eliminates the need entirely.  It doesn’t really employ puzzles or more than a few secrets, instead focusing on a run-and-gun, Mega Man style of gameplay. The vehicle levels control well, surprisingly welcome from Lego Star Wars II’s underwater-shark-rodeo vehicle handling. It does result in a slightly too easy game, but they don’t exactly market these games to the World of Warcraft or the competitive Smash Bros. crowds. Beating the game in two days actually made the experience rather pleasant.

A 900-year-old arthritic ninja muppet and an 8-foot tall Wookiee, pissed off that he missed Life Day. I think we have either the makings of a buddy road comedy or an action cop drama here.

A 900-year-old arthritic ninja muppet and an 8-foot tall Wookiee, pissed off that he missed Life Day. I think we have either the makings of a buddy road comedy or an action cop drama here.

For licensed games, the Lego series don’t suck. I know that describing them like that equates to calling someone the world’s tallest leprechaun, or naming someone hacky sack champion of the hospital’s paraplegia ward, but unlike most game licensing, Traveler’s Tales doesn’t seem to do it for a quick cash grab, hiring three people to code the game and twenty-five to design the box and marketing material. Instead, they aim for humor, for ease of gameplay, and amusing moments like when Yoda, who hobbles at a snail’s pace, opens his lightsaber and becomes the God of All Ninjutsu. I know they all play pretty much identically, but look for a few other Lego articles in the future, since I can probably repair my Batman disc. And I bought Anne Lego Lord of the Rings for her birthday. And Lego Jurassic World looks fun…

Nope. I checked. Still no one wants cares about the pod race.

Nope. I checked. Still no one cares about the pod race.

…yeah, I just make my job harder for myself. Maybe I’ll have something to say six months from now. Oh, and Pod Racing? Still stupid.

Advertisements

Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow – NDS

CastlevaniaHere at RetroCookie, I like to keep October dedicated to the Halloween spirit. I do this mostly because Anne has such an obsession with horror that if you wrote “Boo!” on a cardboard box she’d watch it for ninety minutes (two hours if you tell her you found it in an alley and try to pass it off as a true story), but I also recognize that video games, generally science-fiction or fantasy by design, also host a plethora of inspiring, interactive horror, that can inflict sensations and emotions via the interactive medium that movies simply can’t. So realizing I’ve given the Nintendo DS about as much attention lately as I’ve given my 10,000-steps-a-day exercise regimen, I thought I’d pick from the magnificent library it has to offer, and since I can’t let a Halloween season go by without writing about Castlevania (a tradition that dates all the way back to last year…as soon as this article posts), I thought, “What game could better embody all things horror and create the mood for ghosts and goblins and monsters and republicans than Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow?” As it turns out, many. Many other games.

Right next to the Evil Petting Zoo.

Right next to the Evil Petting Zoo.

Dawn of Sorrow picks up where the GBA installment, Aria of Sorrow, left off. Apparently, Konami liked the idea of sorrow. Because I can’t think of any emotion I’d rather feel when playing a game than crippling, unyielding sadness. If you missed that one, it took all the gloomy atmosphere, classic horror monsters, creepy crumbling castles and all things Transylvania, and replaced it with a flying labyrinth over a very Anime-esque Japan and Soma Cruz, a protagonist who dresses as though shopping for a European Men’s Carry-All. Soma discovers he carries the reincarnated soul of Count Dracula, and evil wants it back. Dawn of Sorrow begins as the leader of a bizarre cult accosts him on the streets of Japan.  This post-modern Jim Jones doesn’t take kindly to the fact that Soma doesn’t want to share the evil with everyone else (Quick: What do you get when you combine a Democrat and a Republican?), and she brought two candidates for the position of Dark Lord who intend to murder him and take back the evil by force. But not until they give him the chance to gallivant through the castle, equipping himself with top-notch weapons and armor, leveling-up by slaying monsters, and recruiting the souls of his fallen enemies to invest him with their power. Because reasons.

MonsterRight from the get-go, Dawn of Sorrow gives off a Blues Brothers vibe, a sort of “Let’s get the gang back together for one last adventure” scenario.  Immediately after the first monster rushes all the characters from Aria of Sorrow show up to let us know they haven’t gone anywhere.  Hammer arrives to profit on impending doom, Julius Belmont pokes his head in trying not to look like the game should star him instead of Soma, and Arikado appears, pretending that by not wearing a cape and pronouncing his name with a Japanese accent, no one will know his true identity. Then the characters appear here and there throughout the game contributing bits of dialogue to what passes for a story.

That may sum up Dawn of Sorrow’s major flaw, right there; it tried to have a story.  The original Castlevania games didn’t need any more plot than “Let’s go kill us some vampire!” And when Dracula’s Curse started introducing rudimentary dialogue, it only gave us enough to suggest an interesting back story behind the characters. All the charm in those games came from using familiar monsters as enemies and bosses. While the original game pit you against Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy, Medusa, and Dracula, Dawn of Sorrow gives you…some guys. Just some dudes. They have some minor powers, but nothing really interesting, and they go down fairly easily. Hardly something you’d expect from a candidate for the position of Supreme Vampiric Evil.

When zombie T-rex starts crawling out of his skin, even Chris Pratt runs away.

When zombie T-rex starts crawling out of his skin, even Chris Pratt runs away.

I might come off as overly harsh toward the game, but I actually really enjoyed it. Unfortunately, the aspects I enjoy make it play exactly like Aria of Sorrow, Symphony of the Night, and all other Metroid-vania games. You still romp through the same castle, looking for the same abilities, fighting the same generic monsters…in a way, Castlevania resembles porn. New material doesn’t necessarily make it better, and we still look for all the same parts we looked for before, but everything has a slightly different layout and position that keeps it interesting enough to spend three hours every night on it. So even though the story flounders like a school of mackerel dumped into a Taco Bell parking lot, the idea of dashing through the castle slaughtering monsters like Abraham Van Helsing turned into the Incredible Hulk still makes the game well worth playing.

Connect the dots. La, la, la-la!

Connect the dots. La, la, la-la!

I should note, though, that as a DS game, Konami felt obligated to include a touch mechanic. Every time you defeat a boss, you have to draw out a magical seal on the screen or the enemy will regenerate a set amount of HP and you’ll have to whittle it down again. This doesn’t really detract from the game, but I can’t honestly say it adds anything to game play either. It more feels like a token gesture, a feeble attempt at striving for praise from game developers, who just may end up humoring Konami like a child who brings home a picture that looks like the creation of a blind elephant with a crayon and suddenly wants to become a professional artist.

alucardscreenDawn of Sorrow has one really cool aspect–which, apparently, they also included in Aria of Sorrow and I just missed–that lets you play as Julius Belmont if you meet the right conditions at the end of the game. Almost like Zelda’s second quest, this opens up access to an entire game with different mechanics. You control Belmont, the rightful protagonist of a Castlevania game, as he hunts down Soma, who has given in to his hate and joined the Dark Side of the Force. Rather than equipping souls, Julius has access to the traditional sub-weapons from the NES Castlevania games, and much like Dracula’s Curse, he can recruit sidekicks, including Alucard, who retains the same abilities he had in Castlevania 3. As soon as you find all the playable characters, you have access to all areas of the castle, and since you presumably learned the secrets and layout the first time through the game, you don’t have to spend as much time squinting over the tiny map with a high powered magnifying glass, looking for every spot you may have missed a door or a branching path. To balance this out, however, they removed all healing items, so it becomes a major grind, especially near the end of the game.

If you get lost, just look closely at the map for the one span not fully enclosed by the white border.

If you get lost, just look closely at the map for the one span not fully enclosed by the white border.

So maybe it doesn’t play as an homage to classic horror, and maybe it does just rehash an old Castlevania formula…which in turn rehashes the classic Metroid formula…which attempted to combine Mario and Zelda…and maybe I can’t say anything both original and positive about it. But…I forgot where I was going with this. Just enjoy the game. And happy October…I have a special edition planned in a few weeks, so look forward to that.

Lego Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy – PS2, NDS

Lswii_pcfrontBy a show of hands, how many of you played with Legos? I did. I had birthdays where I wouldn’t get anything except Legos. I’d combine base plates with a friend of mine and we’d construct entire cities of little plastic bricks. My fascination with Legos shaped my career path, helping me decide that, for the safety of anyone who ever drove a car or went into a building, I should not go into architecture or engineering. But for all the failed mechanisms I’d contrive and all the magnificent buildings that collapsed under the weight of my genius–or the more likely culprit, physics–I still loved to build. And do you know what else I loved? Star Wars.

Who doesn’t, though, right? Well, besides my ex-girlfriend, but she has a soul cold enough to freeze over and dampen the spirits of even the great Boba Fett himself, so she doesn’t count. The popularity of Legos makes them the natural choice to compliment the epic space-fantasy masterpiece, so what could possibly go wrong with Lego Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy. It already has a leg up over the first Lego Star Wars insomuch as it does not demand you play through the prequel trilogy.

Note how Lego Men make perfect--and geographically customizable--Risk pieces. They already have horses and cannons. Also, notice how maps installed on the floors at UMD make perfect Risk boards.

Note how Lego Men make perfect–and geographically customizable–Risk pieces. They already have horses and cannons. Also, notice how maps installed on the floors at UMD make perfect Risk boards.

Like other licensed Lego games, you play through the plot of the film(s) as Lego versions of your favorite characters. By itself, that pays for the cost of the game. I spent $2 at my local Savers to buy this, and another $2 to get the prequel trilogy (after someone else had taken the prerequisite number of chunks out of the disc before passing on ownership). The combined $4 I spent could have covered a physical–and generic–Lego man at the same store. Granted, you can’t, for example, take the characters out of the game and use them as pieces in a giant game of Risk, but you can still play with them with even a little more control than the real things.

The novel idea that, in retrospect, seems obvious: Darth Vader as a playable character in the fight against Palpatine. Duh.

The novel idea that, in retrospect, seems obvious: Darth Vader as a playable character in the fight against Palpatine. Duh.

The game tasks Luke Skywalker and his friends not so much with getting through levels based on the films, but with collecting shit along their way, namely money. Each level hides a cache of red Lego bricks, “minikits,” and Lego studs of various colors which like poker, kids, denote different values. These studs serve as the game’s money, allowing you to buy characters, vehicles, hints, and other trinkets at the central hub, the Mos Eisley Cantina. Only by collecting enough studs in each level can you achieve the “True Jedi” status–and thus unlock more useless collectibles. This gives Lego Star Wars a feeling not unlike poker, asking you to build up more and more stuff merely for the purpose of using that stuff to collect even more stuff.

The stages don’t exactly innovate game design, nor do they really show a departure from typical Star Wars games. Characters progress in a mostly linear direction. In Story Mode, you take control of a small group of characters who might reasonably find themselves within the vicinity at whatever point in time, and in Free Play Mode, you get to choose two of your own, while the game assigns additional characters to make sure you have whatever individual skills you need to actually finish the level. To reach the goal, characters use the Force, grappling beams on blasters, and that little stick that R2-D2 uses as a Deus Literally Ex-Machina (or in the case of C-3PO on Endor, Literally Deus Ex-Machina). Furthermore, you have to build stuff. Lots of stuff. Sometimes you need to destroy something for parts, but it usually comes down to building. Characters can build by walking up to a twitching pile of parts and holding in the circle button. And waiting. Sometimes you have to fight off a hoard of enemies first, but then feel free to go up to that pile and hold in circle. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, play Lego Star Wars if you’ve always wanted to play with Legos, but without any of the actual fun of building things for yourself. Funny, though, how they managed to include the tedium of searching for parts.

Slave Leia! Nice! Although I didn't expect her to be quite so flat-chested...

Slave Leia! Nice! Although I didn’t expect her to be quite so flat-chested…

Anyone who has ever woken up in the middle of the night to pee and had to cross a minefield of Legos can attest to the damage they can inflict, but combat in the game feels a little clunky and awkward. Lightsaber swings pay off at low odds, most often striking a jaunty pose in an irrelevant direction, sometimes managing to deflect blaster bolts, and very rarely slicing through enemies. The design of the blasters seems inspired by Obi-Wan’s description of them as clumsy and random, as about 50% of the time I hit my own characters instead of stormtroopers. I found it far more effective to use Chewie, walk right up to the enemies, and use the melee attack to rip their arms out of their sockets. Like other Star Wars games, you also take control of vehicles on a regular basis. These vehicles control about as well as a drunken condor trying to land on a bicycle seat in a hurricane. Even by the end of the game I found myself flipping, spinning, doing somersaults, U-turns and barrel rolls at the drop of a Lego hat.

A quirk of the game that you might find interesting–no wait, the other thing…obnoxious–the credits, which you have to sit through three times–one at the end of each film adaptation. Not the glorious 45-second credits from NES games, or even the standard five- to eight-minute credits of standard PS2 games. No, Lego Star Wars goes full-on Arkham Asylum, making you sit through an extended credit sequence while they name off not just programmers and artistic designers, but their office staff, from the Assistant to the Vice President of Global Sales and Marketing to the Assistant to the Janitor of Mopping up Puke at the Lego Employee’s Day Care. At the risk of sounding offensive and preachy, credits should offer recognition, a chance for the skilled workers and artists to sign their work. Instead, these credits read like an Occupy Wall Street hit list.

This guy put in nearly 35 hours into collecting all that stuff. . . I hope he enjoyed the search.

This guy put in nearly 35 hours into collecting all that stuff. . . I hope he enjoyed the search.

But hey, you can go make a sandwich or play with your cat or something, right? The valuable part to you as a player comes after the credits, in the post game. Now you can finally play through the game on free play mode, using all those characters you unlocked along the way! I want Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi! Yeah! All right! Now what do I do in free play mode? Uh, go through the levels and collect more stuff…to unlock more characters…to use in free play mode…to collect more stuff… In all fairness, I never did collect all the mini-kits in any given level. Maybe something really cool happens when you do. I don’t know–the game didn’t really motivate me to seek them out. Even in the early stages, they tucked away these things so well that I rarely got more than two per level. If they made these things easier to get in even just the first level, I might know why I want to collect them everywhere else.

Come on...be honest...you wanted this to happen. We hate this guy just as much as Jar-Jar.

Come on…be honest…you wanted this to happen. We hate this guy just as much as Jar-Jar.

Honestly, though, I did have fun while it lasted, even in light of super-easy game play (you can’t actually die, you just spill your coin purse a little every time you lose a few hearts) and some obnoxiously obscure puzzles to solve. The games display a characteristic sense of humor, adding a delightful irreverence to a story that everyone–except for my ysalamir of an ex–already knows. Without additional dicking around in free play, the game runs under ten hours, which doesn’t exactly commit you to a Bethesda-level commitment. Speaking of which…I just got Oblivion for Christmas. Expect a week off here and there because in addition to working on RPG Maker for the last few months, I just took on a Bethesda-level commitment.

Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo Tales – NDS

This Thanksgiving, enjoy a bird and a story that won't put you to sleep.

This Thanksgiving, enjoy a bird and a story that won’t put you to sleep.

Give any television show long enough and one of two things will happen. Either they’ll make a Rashomon-style episode where every character gives a different recounting of a certain event, or they’ll parody a famous story using their own characters in place of the original. The latter usually only happens with cartoons and almost exclusively with comedy, but apparently it doesn’t require anything more than a long-running series running out of ideas, because that basically sums up Square Enix’s Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo Tales. And in their eternal struggle to out-epic everyone else on the planet, they have redone not just one story, but sixteen, rewriting classic fables and fairy tales around their main series summon monsters and recurring fauna.

After turning on the game, the title screen greets you with two eyes, a beak, and the questionably euphemistic command to “touch the chocobo,” without giving you a doll to show you where to touch it. Touching said chocobo launches it upward into the title, bringing you to the main menu. A new game opens on a small farm where the young priestess, Shirma, has gathered three or four of her favorite chocobos to read them a story, which they apparently appreciate more than when I perform Shakespeare for my cats. Soon the black mage, Croma, arrives with a wagon full of newly acquired tomes, including one special-looking one that locks with a tile sliding puzzle. Having dexterous, prehensile digits, the humans naturally request help opening the lock from one of the giant birds with only wings incapable of flight. Enter the player-character, a young, silent, yellow chocobo. You undo the book, naturally unleashing all hell upon the world because, after all…Final Fantasy. The book eats all your chocobo friends leaving you alone with the mammals, and the villainess, Irma, struts out with her chocobo lackeys to taunt everyone about restoring the book to its true form….yada yada.

Who needs a hungry, big bad wolf when you have an angry little tonberry with a knife and a grudge?

Who needs a hungry, big bad wolf when you have an angry little tonberry with a knife and a grudge?

None of that really matters. The real game lies in three areas: pop-up book mini-games, microgames, and of course, Square wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to design an addictive yet time-consuming card game that wouldn’t actually work if you played it outside of the game. The main story only carts you between these games like a rickshaw with plot. The chocobo enters pop-up storybooks scattered around a small world like a Raccoon City library. Each one consists of a story loosely based off a real-life fable or fairy tale. Depending on the difficulty setting, winning the mini-game based on the story will earn you either one of three epilogues, a card that rescues a chocobo from the book that ate it, or a summon card for the card game. The epilogues offer some of the most bizarre prizes in the game. In re-writing these classic stories, Square may have missed the point. While some still sound moralistic, other resolutions wander so far off from the original plots so quickly that I wonder if the game shouldn’t go out to refill its Ritalin prescription instead of telling me stories. Others yet just offer tragedy, such as tonberries who cut off, stomp, and burn the three little pigs’ tails, or how the ugliest chocoling left home to live with the blind mole people and never became a beautiful phoenix. Each epilogue effects one change in the natural world–in addition to effecting a depression in the player–which tends to progress the story, open access to a card, or give the player access to a microgame. Rescuing chocobos will usually open a microgame or the grateful bird will give you a card. Beating the microgames will always give you a card.

Three-star rarity! That would impress me more if every single card didn't have only one copy in the entire game.

Three-star rarity! That would impress me more if every single card didn’t have only one copy in the entire game.

So really, the game should come to a head at the card game, right? You’d expect plenty of clever card duels with clever designs and challenging deck building strategies, right? You’d also recognize the sarcastic tone and have figured out by now that you shouldn’t expect those things, right? The card game works depressingly simply, but not simple and brilliant like the card game in Final Fantasy VIII and IX. More just plain-old simple. Each card has four zones, each one representing one of the four elements, Fire, Water, Earth and Cobalt-Thorium G. Each zone might attack, defend, or just sit with a gaping opening hoping someone will impale it. During each round, each player selects a card, which summons a classic Final Fantasy monster, and the game compares zones. An attack zone needs to match with an empty zone of the same element to hit, a guard zone of the same element to miss, and an attack zone of the same element for half damage. For successful attacks or blocks, instructions on the card determine damage and effects. The first player to reach zero HP wins the shame of losing the duel.

Yeah, I've spent a lot of time on newer systems, but this one tries to look retro!

Yeah, I’ve spent a lot of time on newer systems, but this one tries to look retro!

While the card game has addicting qualities, the simplicity often means that several rounds will pass with no damage. Occasionally I suspect a video game at cheating. Here, it seems like your opponents know what cards you’ve selected and will adjust their selection accordingly, a luxury you don’t have. Add to that unskippable animations for summoning, attacking, guarding, counterattacking, and unsummoning, and you can sometimes spend twenty minutes or more in a duel you know you won’t win. Moments like that made me wonder why Square included a “quit game” feature for the pop-up books, but not the microgames or the card game. Also, one pop-up book offers the option to skip the opening animation, but not the other fifteen or the card game. So while the game takes about 16 hours to finish and complete, you can use a good chunk of that time for reading, homework, preparing dinner, and telling those people from the congressman’s office that no, you don’t want to help out his campaign by calling people and trying to persuade them. The card game, though, doesn’t actually head the game; Square just needed some seemingly useful prize to give for the mini- and micro-games, and they just happened to have a plentiful supply of cards.

Whack-a-Malboro. Easily the most addicting, and surprisingly the least likely to inspire violence.

Whack-a-Malboro. Easily the most addicting, and surprisingly the least likely to inspire violence.

I found that I enjoyed the micro-games more than pop-up games or the card games. These games work like flash games or iPhone games–simple objective, simple rules, fast-paced game play, and difficult enough that you should probably pad your walls with rubber so as not to smash your DS when you chuck it away in frustration. Fortunately, unlike flash games, they offer prizes–cards, of course–which may not benefit you at all, but at least provide a point at which you can say, “Fuck this! I never want to play this game again!” with at least a modicum of dignity still intact. Getting that prize puts a reasonable limit on your need to sit there for hours because you think you can do just a little bit better next time.

Some games make use of the DS microphone, like this one simulating a blow gun. When I regained consciousness, I found I had won the gold prize!

Some games make use of the DS microphone, like this one simulating a blow gun. When I regained consciousness, I found I had won the gold prize!

This light-hearted spinoff doesn’t take much time, and it doesn’t pile on heavy themes of death and sacrifice and identity that the main series does with enough melodrama to sicken even the most self-absorbed teenage girls. The plot never really twists or complicates, and only thickens like a mild curry sauce. It pretty much consists of the humans sending you to the front lines, while they hang back and work as dialogue-spewing machines every so often. Most of the game recycles main series music in a move done either to reminisce on familiar series elements or to capitalize off having a Nobuo Uematsu score years after he left Square-Enix for greener pastures and blacker mages. The chocobo fights card battles to either the FF1 battle music or the FFVI boss music. The boss fight plays “The Battle on the Big Bridge,” one of my all-time favorite battle themes…unfortunately the modified air-hockey game doesn’t quite live up to the music. Still though, the game works, works well, and feels like all those addicting minigames you play when you know you should read or prepare for class instead…except, with more of a point. Other than getting out of work….I have to go play Whack-a-Malboro now.

Age of Empires: Age of Kings – NDS

_-Age-of-Empires-The-Age-of-Kings-DS-DSi-_
If you’ve kept up with me for even a few months, you’ve probably noticed a pattern. I play a game, like it, and jump immediately to another game in the series. Or, perhaps, I hate the game and want to play something better. Either way, you can expect another Onimusha entry soon. Maybe another Castlevania, too. But not this week. This week I’ll jump back into the past and re-create historical battles without the need to tolerate people who truly believe the South will rise again. You may recall a few weeks ago when I wrote about Age of Empires: Age of Kings. I felt that between juggling the tasks of deforestation, trading resources like a gambling addict at the New York Stock Exchange, whipping lazy peasants like a plantation overseer, and constantly buffing out the hoof dents in and removing arrows from the skulls of my soldiers, I didn’t feel like I had any time to enjoy the game.  So when I finished–yes, and I also read all the way through Moby Dick. I abuse myself that way–I did what I could to rectify my frustration; I played through the turn-based Age of Kings on the Nintendo DS.

Yes, “turn-based.” The words reviewers always spit out like an angry dilophosaurus, meant to imply something infantile, unrealistic and boring, while still gives them an opening for lavishing praises on Mario, which really does play as infantile, unrealistic and boring.  Reviewers use the term “turn-based” to justify abandoning a Final Fantasy game after playing for thirty minutes and not getting a Call-of-Duty-esque rush of testosterone and a story premise they can sum up into ten words or less. If you haven’t yet picked up on the tone here, I don’t necessarily think games where the enemy patiently waits for you to bash in their teeth before they do unto you actually suffer directly because of that feature. Consider this retribution for panning Assassin’s Creed; now I have to defend something no one else likes. For starters, people who play chess and go take turns, and we commonly believe that geniuses play those games. Now think back to some of the real-time games you’ve played. Kingdom Hearts–do you ever use any strategy other than mashing the X button and occasionally healing? How about Smash Brothers or other fighting games. Do you actually know how to pull off the special moves, or do you just hit buttons and hope to get lucky?

Yup. Grid-based strategy. Like chess, but with trees and rivers.

Yup. Grid-based strategy. Like chess, but with trees and rivers.

See, players will usually do the simplest, easiest thing that accomplishes their goals. Real-time games usually give you a swift, basic attack that you can execute in a pinch. Think about it this way; a spider falls on you while taking a shower. Do you rationally think out a plan to improve the situation, or do you freak the hell out? Real-time games make players freak out. I don’t like that. I constantly have to explain to friends that button-mashing never works better than actually knowing how to play the game, and they never believe me, and then they play as Gannondorf and I play as Jigglypuff and I beat them into submission within moments. The PC version of Age of Kings employed the freak-out strategy, where building a proper economy, scoping out the terrain and developing a strategy often took a back seat to giving a sword to any man, woman, child, horse or hedgehog within sight and pushing them out one at a time to get slaughtered by the hoards of enemy Rohirrim Riding into my village, smashing and hacking and destroying everything in their path.

Wait...doesn't my advisor's name mean "Toilet" in Japanese?

Wait…doesn’t my advisor’s name mean “Toilet” in Japanese?

The DS game, however (to actually discuss today’s topic), gives you both the time to plan out a strategy and the need to do so. In addition to campaigns where you build towns and mine resources to support your army, this game gives you missions with a set number of non-renewable troops and tells you, “Go get ‘em, tiger!” And of course, attacking your enemy directly inevitably results in a wall of bodies–and not the useful kind, like in “300“–and a serious reflection as to your career choice of famous historical warlord. Different missions offer different objectives–destroy a town center, defeat an enemy hero, capture relics, build a tent for Genghis Kahn and make sure no one sets it on fire–and a number of ways to accomplish those tasks.

Hero units make the game. While in the PC version, you only ever took control of Joan of Arc, every mission in the DS game gives you control of a hero, and gives those heroes a number of special powers that effect game play. Joan of Arc can heal, Richard the Lionhearted can make his archers shoot farther, and Saladin will occasionally chip in a few coins to help you save up for that camel you’ve always wanted. Regular units, while only the monks and villagers have special commands, each have their own characteristics or abilities that tailor their uses to specific strategies. Archers can attack from a distance, preventing a counterattack, but if attacked at close range they have very low defense. Pikemen have less attack power than swordsmen, but deal more damage to cavalry. Cavalry deals a lot of damage to most things, but loses strength against buildings. This keeps the gameplay variable, and the bonuses and handicaps mostly feel intuitive, but sometimes come off a little weird. While I appreciate the challenges in ripping down a castle with your bare hands from the back of a camel, I find it difficult to understand how a rock hurled from a trebuchet can rip through that castle like tin foil, but an infantry unit can take the same blow and walk it off with only minor bleeding.

The game, of course, retains its titular feature, “Aging Up.” In campaigns that require economy building, your production lines turn out shabby, brand X fighters, and only by sinking money–and for some reason, food–into research each day can you expect to give them better weapons, stronger armor, or more efficient training. With enough research, a player can advance to the next “age,” beginning in the dark age, then progressing through the feudal, castle, and into the imperial age. With each new age, new buildings become available and new research opportunities along with them. In the feudal age, for example, you can build a blacksmith, which doesn’t create any units, but can improve weapons and armor for your existing soldiers. Likewise, by the time you reach the castle age, you can found–and underfund–your very own university, just like a real national governor.

Uhh...yep. More screenshots. Unfortunately, you don't often see much action.

Uhh…yep. More screenshots. Unfortunately, you don’t often see much action.

Age of Kings follows a historical path–sort of–for the five main heroes; Saladin, Minamoto Yoshitsune, Genghis Kahn, Joan of Arc, and Richard the Lionhearted. Occasionally it has to include a note here and there stating that Minamoto never actually fought the Mongols, that Richard never took Jerusalem, or that Joan of Arc didn’t really win all that many battles. I understand that not a lot of people out there nerd out over Medieval history, but I do, and as much as I appreciate science fiction and fantasy, game developers rarely realize that their products don’t have to fall into one of the two default categories. Unfortunately, it doesn’t include all that many historical re-creations, and the post-game falls short of expectations so hard I think I heard all its bones shatter. By accomplishing challenge goals in the main game, you can unlock extra maps and a few scenario battles to set up hypothetical and partially randomized campaigns to play through. However, all the heroes must have suffered a few too many blows to the head in the main game because even on the hardest settings, enemies often forget to build, research, age up, or attack. Not so much battles anymore, these campaigns have all the difficulty of erasing low-quality chalk off a chalkboard (you young ‘uns should think “dried up ink on a white board.” But then go find some chalk.) These additional campaigns serve only to wean me off the game while simultaneously looking toward Age of Empires: Mythologies, but in the interest of getting through this stack of games I bought by never played, you don’t have to worry for a while.

Sands of Destruction – NDS

Title

If I had to list off the best games ever made, of course Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI would sit near the top. Every list of best RPGs or best SNES games and even a bunch of best-game-ever lists pick one or the other. Still, an often overlooked gem for the Playstation wins out over both of them: Xenogears. But I played it recently, and with 75 or so hours of game play, I doubt I’ll come back to it soon. Plus, while I can play Chrono Trigger over and over without getting bored with the story (and watch Back to the Future for days straight…must have something to do with time travel), overplaying a finely crafted drama like Xenogears tends to devalue the story. Fortunately, the list of people who love the game begins with the team who designed it, and thanks to their endless quest to make lightning strike as often as possible, they’ve hoisted the same battered rod used for Xenogears and Xenosaga, and enough metal remained that it channeled a trickle of electrons into an NDS game called “Sands of Destruction.”

The player can rotate the map like in Xenogears. Except in about half the areas. Because fuck that!

The player can rotate the map like in Xenogears. Except in about half the areas. Because fuck that!

From the beginning, the story clearly strives to lead the same life as big brother Xenogears; both games focus on the exploits of a twat with a personality often found only among the most noble and kind-hearted sacks of flour, who accidentally annihilates his entire village and everyone in it. Both protagonists learn they have the chosen power to do something that generally sounds like a bad idea; Xenogears’ Fei has the strength and technology to slay god, while in Sands of Destruction, a clutter of fliers reveals to Kyrie (Greek for “Lord”) that he has the power to destroy the world and should promptly join the World Annihilation Front and get on that. Then both Kyrie and Fei get taken prisoner on a sea of sand by a kind-hearted, whip-wielding pirate, et cetera, et cetera, then they kill god.

Unfortunately, Sands of Destruction doesn’t come close to the 75 hours that Xenogears had to develop their story. As much as I surrounded myself in rosaries and doused myself in holy water when I learned I had to slay god, by the end of Xenogears, I knew I needed to exterminate the sick bastard and started combing eBay for a cheap Ghostbuster proton pack. In Sands of Destruction, the WAF distributes orders like it desperately wants you to see its band perform, but for all the confetti you pick up by the end of the game, no one has given you a single reason why you need to put the world down. It certainly doesn’t feel like an impending apocalypse; no one points out frogs going extinct, polar bears balancing on ice floes, the dead rising from the grave and the virtuous ascending into heaven, or polar vortexes ruining an already cold Minnesota summer.

"In a game so bland they couldn't figure out what to do with the second screen half the time."

“In a game so bland they couldn’t figure out what to do with the second screen half the time.”

Rather than spending time developing character, conflict, or even asking the pretty young girl who rescues you from jail why the world sucks so much, the game sends you on one pointless task after another so that you run into the beast lords, twelve anthropomorphic rejects from Winnie the Pooh, mowing them down one after another without any real idea of what they’ve done to oppress the human population or ruin the world. In addition to the beast lords, Kyrie crosses paths with primal lords, titanic gods who appear to govern the whims of nature. These primal lords accept the inevitable apocalypse with a positive spirit and a chipper attitude, but still attempt to re-decorate their houses with his bowels to show the ungrateful brat a lesson about what happens to him if he ignores his chores to go gallivanting around not destroying the world. That’ll teach him! The story plays out entirely without any motivation for or investment in the quest at hand, and in the ending sequence after you kill god and find out that “creating your own world” means making everything exactly the same except for replacing all the sand with water, I couldn’t help but wonder why anyone really had to do anything. I mean, no one really seemed all that thirsty before, and the sand ships seemed to work just fine. Any mystique or meaningful interpretation behind the story becomes flimsy and transparent to anyone with a few weeks of Beginning Latin under their belt. Only one character kept my attention for any length of time, mostly out of the novelty of a teddy-bear bounty hunter with a gruff, middle-aged, man’s man voice. He joins the party because he wants to take in one of the characters for her bounty, then just sort of goes along with all their plans and quests without any real explanation. Also more of a novelty interest, one of the early villains speaks in the angriest, most self-absorbed gay lisp I have ever heard. I might suggest playing the game simply for the voice acting, except for the long, unskippable pauses between lines of dialogue.

The game really likes to make you wait. Much like in Xenosaga, characters get two attacks per turn, sometimes earning an extra attack through–as far as I can tell–pure fucking chance. Enemies, however, can chain together about as many attacks as they feel like, often not quitting until at least one character dies. Factor in useless animations where they spasm like a raver in the advanced stages of Parkinson’s, and enemy turns become useful moments to get stuff done around the house. Go make a sandwich. Vacuum the floor. Do your taxes. Eat that sandwich. Don’t worry. Your characters won’t take their turns any time soon. You won’t miss anything. The battles display a turn order like in Final Fantasy X or Xenosaga, but not with enough accuracy that it lets you plan out a strategy or anything. Nope. Enemies can cut their way into the sequence whenever they like, certain characters will forget about their turns entirely, and every so often they’ll even trade order, making the display more of an annoying distraction than useful information.

Taupy dealt about 10 times the damage as Kyrie. I used him often.

Taupy dealt about 10 times the damage as Kyrie. I used him often.

It feels like Sega developed and published this game at gun point; as if they pounded out a rough draft and never bothered fixing any of the problems with it. Kyrie attacks as if I equipped him with a pair of used chopsticks, while a few of the other characters can deal about 100x the damage that creatures can take. They try to balance this out by giving enemies obnoxiously high evade rates, which I’ve said before only turns battles into endless sessions of watching battle animations like you have to remember them for a test. Similar to Xenosaga and Xenogears, attacks correspond directly to buttons, with X delivering a single hard-hitting attack, and Y dealing a flurry of blows, each one dealing as much as a single X attack, and a system of magic attacks, fully powered up, allows characters to expend SP to almost deal as much damage as a single X attack. I advise you to tape down the Y button and open up a bag of chips to eat with the sandwich you made during the boss fight.

Teddy bear kicking the shit out of someone.

Teddy bear kicking the shit out of someone.

Character customization had potential, allowing the player to power up attacks at the expense of accuracy or accuracy at the expense of attacks. Magic attacks traded off power and SP cost. Still, only ever using the one attack, I didn’t feel any sense of urgency in strategizing how I’d level them up. I hit the attacks I used and then just dicked around with the rest of my customizing points to keep them from piling up. Furthermore, by the time I got to advanced magic spells, I started noticing that players simply can’t use certain attacks that they learn. At various points during the game, players learn “quips,” short phrases that they can repeat in battle. Unlike most useless battle cries, these have effects, usually support statuses, that can actually make a difference. Each character learns a total of five, and can equip…four. Again, the game doesn’t really press you to make the difficult choices.

Most dungeons consist of only a few screens, padded out with all the tedious puzzles they could think of and enemy encounters so frequent that the Toyko metro system during rush hour has more breathing room. And that serves as a good metaphor for this game. It has a lot of good things in it, but not enough elbow room to use it for anything constructive. Most of this game only exists to pad out a handful of interesting ideas into a full-length (about 20~25 hours), marketable product for the NDS, and tedious methods for making a game feel longer without actually giving us a reason to play it tend to amount to an Asian train ride; you may have gotten somewhere, but only at the expense of an unpleasant journey, and you get off feeling like someone either owes you an apology or dinner.

Final Fantasy IV – NDS

A beatifully animated, fully-rendered 3D opening sequence, the style of which you never see again. Why does Rosa look like she has swine flu?

A beatifully animated, fully-rendered 3D opening sequence, the style of which you never see again. Why does Rosa look like she has swine flu?

I you will permit me, I’d like to start on a serious note, preferably without discourse as to whether or not my usual candor qualifies as humorous. I just finished Final Fantasy IV, something I claim to have done no more than twenty or thirty times in the past, and suddenly I can put my finger on why I appreciate Japanese storytelling more than Western writing. That whole dichotomy between good and evil and the struggle there between, falls a little flat, and as people have a pesky habit of applying fiction to moral decisions (for which I recommend reading Kurt Vonnegut or Charles Dickens) rather than, you know, just treating people well, such a dichotomy tends to screw up society.

ffiv-infernoHow so? Start with Beowulf. The draugr Grendel came from the lineage of Cain. And if that doesn’t earn him his own private hell, he also killed people and ate them. Then Beowulf shows up and slays him to punish evil. Excellent, right? Well, let’s take a jaunt over to this week’s game and look at Kain, who came from a noble lineage of dragoons. Golbez manipulates him into committing evil acts on his behalf. Then Cecil shows up, decides not to kill him, and you get a wonderful exception to normal RPG party limits that lets you fight with a fifth member. Now skip on over to Star Wars where we find Darth Vader, the Father of all Incarnations of Pure Evil. Except George Lucas wanted to show him redeem himself at the end, atone for his crimes and bring balance to the Force. But no one took it that way and we all talk about Vader as a badass so evil that he makes Satan sith his pants in terror; this pisses off Lucas, so he makes us sit through a crappy prequel trilogy to show us how badly we misunderstood this character. Then in Final Fantasy, Golbez pulls the classic Vader twist, Cecil struggles with the news, but eventually forgives Golbez, who goes on to clear out the first form of the big bad Zemus for you, then goes into self-imposed exile out of remorse. And this trend runs throughout Asian religion and literature from Journey to the West to Dragonball; no one possesses absolute good or evil, and everyone can atone. Full disclosure: Cecil’s atonement on Mt. Ordeals *always* gives me chills, and I’ve played the game forty or fifty times.

They put enough thought into the new translation so as to actually appear as though they put thought into the translation.

They put enough thought into the new translation so as to actually appear as though they put thought into the translation.

Despite everyone’s praise for FFVII, this installment changed the world of electronic RPGs more than anything else, having introduced novel ideas such as actually giving a character a personality and a conflict to resolve, and introducing thematic congruity throughout the story. Also, having a story. And dear god, music so good that Japanese schools instituted it as mandatory curriculum. I might even confess that I played the FF Main Theme, which played during Rosa and Cecil’s wedding, as the opening to my own wedding. While I have a special relationship with FFVI as the first RPG I ever played (and played and played…), I find myself playing FFIV about once per year, and only in part because they port and remake the game with a regularity that anyone over the age of 70 would envy. (Seriously…FFIV (Japan), FFII (USA), FFIV Easy Type, FF Chronicles, FFIV for the Wonderswan, the GBA, a few systems I probably missed, and then this version.) So when I found out that the game would receive such a drastic makeover as they gave FFIII, building it up in three dimensions with voice-acted cut scenes, I actually played the game in Japanese because I didn’t want to wait for the North American release (and thankfully, I lived in Korea at the time). Also I intend to argue that that qualifies me as bilingual and that I don’t have to pass a language proficiency test ever again.

A more appropriate representation of in-game cut scenes, the character design obviously symbolises that neither Cecil nor Kain can see the path before them. Because of their helmets.

A more appropriate representation of in-game cut scenes, the character design obviously symbolises that neither Cecil nor Kain can see the path before them. Because of their helmets.

So other than the aesthetic makeover, why should I waste my time on yet another release of a game I’ve already played sixty or seventy times? Square decided that simply milking it for cash wouldn’t cut it in the long run, so they added some chocolate to that milk. Many enemies have different attack patterns, and certain attacks and spells function differently; for example, if you expect simply to bounce Bahamut’s megaflare back at him, you’ll soon discover the reflect spell has all the defensive capabilities of a burlap sack soaked in gasoline. These changes tailor the game to develop strategies, without which you will pass through the game with the ease of a golf-ball sized kidney stone. To help ease said passing, characters now can augment their abilities using items mostly looted from the corpses of their dead friends. As the name suggests, these augments will give characters extra commands to use in battle or enhance their qualities akin to the relics in FFVI. Unfortunately, the game explains this system with all the clarity of Sylvester Stallone explaining quantum physics while running a garbage disposal at 6:00 in the morning. It fails to tell anyone who’s played the game before that you won’t waste your augments by giving them to characters who won’t stay in your party. Instead, it’ll let you loot even more powerful abilities from them. Thanks, game. I could have used that information during the early game when I usually drudge through the road from Damcyan to Fabul, ruing Squaresoft for giving me a bard and wondering why anyone in their right mind would ever choose to play as a bard.

And while discussing the merits–or lack thereof–of things no one ever uses, they’ve added an entire garage sale full of assorted junk to the roster of items. You know those too-pointless-to-use magic items that Square seems to love handing out? The ones that cast low-level spells at a fraction of the stats that their black mage counterparts have available? And you usually get them when you’ve had their upgraded version in your regular magic menu for hours? Yeah, the game chucks them at you like a Double Dare physical challenge. And they’ve added a mapping feature to make use of the dual screens–any time you complete drawing a map of a dungeon floor, you get an item. Or five or ten. I’ve found uses for some of them; they’ve added items that permanently upgrade HP or MP, while helped keep Rydia and Rosa alive and not useless in battle. But usually you’ll get an antarctic wind or a bomb core or–my personal favorite–items that cast status spells that never work anyway. You no longer have to replenish arrows–each one gives you an infinite set, which takes a bit of the fear out of using Rosa, lest she run out of anything useful to do and end up tossing pebbles, but now Cecil can’t equip bows, making him all but a burden in the Lodestone Cavern.

ffiv_battleUnfortunately, for all the clever re-figuring that they did when assembling the DS version, even with augments and strategies and piles of crap looted from caves, eventually (and often) you will run into an enemy–not even necessarily bosses–that hits your entire party for more damage than you can take in a single blow, or that spams an attack faster than you can keep up with it, and you only have the option of leveling up in order to resist. Having played the game once before, I knew this and kept a steady pace of leveling up through the game. I did all right in most places, but the final dungeon clearly took offense at my presumption that I could fight through basic battles at a paltry level 65. So thank you, Square-Enix, for taking one of my favorite games of all time and adding just the right dose of tedium to turn it into a fucking level grinder.

FFIV DS group shot

I can only really recommend this game for the die-hard FFIV fans who have played the other versions eighty or ninety times, like me. I liked it. Mostly. The voice acting impressed me when I heard it in Japanese, and it only got better when I listened to it in English and actually understood it. Also, I appreciate the recognition that people still want to play certain games even twenty years after their first release. But it requires a certain level of patience and know-how to both grind and solve strategic puzzles (the only kind that actually belong in non-puzzle based video games!), and it might turn off first-time players (as well as some second-, third-, and tenth-time players). Still, the dramatic points in the game still awe me after a hundred times through the game, and finishing the game rewarded me with the realization that Yang, our blonde-mustachioed Asian Fabio, can attend a wedding bare-chested without the slightest sense of impropriety.