Heroes of Mana – NDS

Heroes_of_ManaMy latest foray into addictive time-killers is Angry Birds: Fight, which has glued me to my phone every time I get two minutes not immediately filled with something stimulating and exciting. Like many free-to-play games, it offers me rewards and bonuses if I consent to watching ads that try to pitch more free-to-play games which will inevitably offer me more chances to watch videos pitching more free-to-play games until they’ve saturated my time so badly that we repeat the 1983 video game crash while everyone on earth stares at their phones in wonderment of games that could be way more awesome than the games they’re currently playing. Alas, as much as I’d love to bemoan the commercialized state of affairs of modern gaming, the game industry has historically been as all-about-the-art as Donald Trump’s hair stylist. (Low-hanging comedy fruit, I know.) If you don’t believe me, pick out your favorite franchise, and ask yourself how reasonable it is that the in-game world undergoes drastic geological cosmetic surgery from one installment to the next. Sadly, the evidence that developers slap franchise names on games to help them sell stacks up like a life-sized Jenga tower, ready to crumble under its own weight and concuss you with its logs of disappointment.

 

If I could brand any game as such a “log,” Heroes of Mana would be a prime candidate. The game brands itself as an RTS, and while I have no qualms with the “RT,” I have one or two suspicions about the accuracy of the “S.” Set in the Seiken Densetsu…category on amazon…Heroes of Mana uses monster design from Secret of Mana and themes from other Squenix failures in development at the same time. Otherwise, the game plays less like a Mana game and more like a (very) rough draft of Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings using Mana artwork.

 

Heroes 2The story…well, they say if you put a bunch of monkeys in a room hacking on typewriters, they’ll eventually produce the complete works of William Shakespeare. Assuming that’s true, the monkeys will produce the Heroes of Mana story long before they ever crank out something mildly resembling a sonnet. Roget, first mate of the Night Swan, his captain Yurchael, and an assortment of poorly written anime stock characters (including such favorites as eternally optimistic cutsey girl and grim mercenary with a conflicted past) crash in the wilderness after realizing their own leaders set them up. Why they villains fitted the Night Swan with a mafia-esque car bomb, the game never really explains, but that fear becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as our intrepid heroes vow to halt the evil they suddenly assume must exist. Blah blah blah, plot lines in and out, a character who gets his ass creamed like chicken soup every time he shows up but somehow manages to inspire fear in the heroes, convolution at its finest, more characters than a story really needs to follow over the course of 27 battles…and one of the monkeys writing this thing must love cliches, because near the end they pull a Luke-I-am-your-father moment, which Roget (and the players) shrug off with a hearty disinterest. In the end, nothing is accomplished. Evil may have retreated, but no one knows or cares why, and the player moves on to story that makes more sense, like Moby Dick, or the United States Tax Code.

 

Heroes 5

This RTS game gives you multiple ways to strategically send all of the same type of monster at your enemies.

The gameplay follows a typical real-time strategy format, as long as that strategy is “select characters, attack enemy.” Units have a four-way rock-paper-scissors (rock-paper-scissors-lizard?) relationship going on, with a handful of units existing outside that structure. Ranged deals double damage to flying, flying deals double to heavy ground units which deal double to light ground units, and each time they introduce a new type of unit, the game puts you through the entire explanation again because when it comes to rock-paper-scissors, you have the brain of a goldfish, but when it comes to following the story, you are Albert Einstein performing a Vulcan mind-meld with Sherlock Holmes. Disregarding tutorials more repetitive than the ones from Dora the Explorer, I initially thought the four-way relationship sounded interesting. Unfortunately that all falls apart when trying to decide which units to purchase with your finite resources, as there’s no way of determining what type of unit your enemies are; just because they don’t stand on the ground doesn’t mean they’re flying units, and the fact that they can hit you from three squares away doesn’t qualify them as ranged. Heroes of Mana is just a dimmed DS screen away from being both literally and figuratively a stab in the dark.

 

Like Revenant Wings, you summon monsters to do your dirty work for you. The monsters don’t level up, but you get stronger ones as the game progresses. You also have a separate party of “leader” units, consisting of the fifteen characters seen in the story, all of which interact with Roget for a battle or two, then join your party and shut the hell up like a good subordinate tag-along. These characters don’t level up either, but you can win equipment in battle to boost their stats (naturally giving all of it to the same five characters who seem mildly more interesting than all the rest),  which makes as much difference in the long run as giving yourself a concussion to raise ALS awareness, because you’ll never take them anywhere near the fighting, since losing the main character results in an instant game over.

 

But even holding back characters like that is not a guarantee that they won’t charge headlong into the melee with their lone hit point ablazing. Of all the virtues of the NDS, screen size is not one of them, and trying to select characters, pathways or enemies to attack has all the finesse of a figure skater with the motor skills of an infant. Furthermore, since friendly characters refuse to step to one side of their square or to do that awkward thing people do in movie theatres and on airplanes where they try to make themselves as skinny and flat as possible to let people through, pathways get blocked easily, leaving the AI to take the scenic route around the battlefield, detouring right through the enemy camp. Even without clogged roadways, the AI has the IQ of George W. Bush with his head stuck in a plastic bag, often sending peaceful resource-gathering monsters on roundabout ways past hostile enemies, or telling dying characters to get three or four more parting shots in before retreating from the enemy currently making haggis out of your bowels.

 

Heroes 4

Precision tuned to let you follow all the action with only moderate permanent damage to your visual accuity.

There is one more feature to combat, summoning benevodons (the latest in asinine wordplay added to the World of Mana) to damage every enemy on the map. These are impressive attacks with exciting animated cutscenes that you will never use nor see (respectively) because they take up so much of your resources that in most battles you’ll never collect enough for the summoning. I pulled them off once or twice, mostly out of necessity rather than choice, and they all have pretty much the same effect, making them another nice attempt, but ultimately pointless addition to the game.

 

As usual, I like to include a “but the game’s not worthless!” section here. I did enjoy the game for all its flaws, and preferred in infinitely over Children of Mana, released at roughly the same time (and featuring the lame benevodon and malevodon wordplay…which mean “good tooth” and “bad tooth” respectively). As mentioned before, it reminded me of a draft version of Final Fantasy: Revenant Wings, so if you liked Revenant Wings…go replay that game instead of Heroes of Mana.

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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.

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

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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.