Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon – Nintendo DS

Fire Emblem Box

I have never played a Fire Emblem game before, which surprises me, considering how much I enjoy games that let me order people to run around a field while enemy soldiers patiently stand there to get slaughtered as they await their turn. As a guy who gets about as much exercise as it takes to find a charger for my DS and then subsequently lifting the DS, I often like to pretend that I could take charge of Medieval combat and not immediately find myself impaled on the tusk of an any elephant in lederhosen, and what better way to learn strategy than by moving units one at a time across a perfectly ordered grid while everyone else on the field waits patiently for you to calculate risks that you can easily erase by loading your last save file?

Fire 4Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon tells the story of Marth, a young prince forced from his kingdom when an evil sorcerer, known as the Shadow Dragon, murders his father to steal his throne and his magical sword, Falchion. Fortunately, his pursuers allow him to bring one thing with him into exile: a well-equipped army of highly trained soldiers willing to stop at nothing to restore him to the throne. So Marth launches his campaign which consists of a series of macguffins and convoluted excuses for tactical medieval combat. After a handful of victories, Marth is awarded the titular Fire Emblem, which I assumed must have been pretty important to lend its name to the series. What could this be? Is it a supreme magical macguffin like the Triforce? Perhaps it grants Marth hero powers, such as in Age of Empires? Nope. It lets our hero open up treasure chests, thus allowing a single unit on the battlefield the ability to do what any standard RPG protagonist can do automatically and free of consequence in any dragon’s cave, king’s castle or stranger’s living room.

Fire 3Bearing a strong Shining Force vibe, Fire Emblem presents a simple, no-frills strategy game with everything you’d expect to find and very little else. Noteworthy features include an insane difficulty and a perma-death system rivaled only by the real world. It is a video game, so it does include some healing magic after all, but there’s only one resurrection item. In the penultimate level. That can only be used by a single character. Once. (Which by the time this entry posts is likely to be the Republican healthcare policy) This is, I gather, supposed to make me more considerate of my actions, more mindful of the risks and more hesitant to throw away lives on crazy maneuvers like I was shooting craps with someone else’s money. However, in practice it only makes me frustrated that there’s no option to re-load save files from the battle menu. At least they had the consideration to give me two opportunities per battle to save progress, lest the dozen or so hours I wasted on resets blossom into two dozen.

The series is known for its difficulty, and Shadow Dragon sticks to that reputation like a tube of epoxy impaled on a porcupine. But the game is organically difficult. It doesn’t take cheap shots. Fire Emblem’s challenge level is being a frustrated parent trying to resolve a fight between toddlers, while other games I’ve played are more like being a bathroom attendant trying to negotiate peace between Israel and Palestine. Often times the challenge stems from trying to hold yourself back rather than charging in, mages a-blazing. Knights, which have the same offensive and defensive stats as a refrigerator, make good bait, luring enemies into your attack zone, then sweeping forward with all your characters in a slow, methodical, buffet-line style of combat.

Fire 2The problem with this, though, is that much like a buffet line, some characters tend to pull more weight than others, and they tend to get rather large, while your other combatants whither away by comparison. Early on, the units who dealt more damage began to gather more experience than the defensive units, and the gap between them grew until the endgame when I waged war with one seasoned soldier, a dozen accountants, and three nuclear bear robots with Ginsu claws and laser eyes. Later stages often became a handful of heroes pushing their way through a crowd of people milling about in the middle of a freeway. It got rather tiresome trying to stash characters in safe places, but the mages generally had the firepower of a toaster cranked up to 3, and as far as I could tell the archers were just lobbing plates of wet spaghetti at the enemies.

Fire 1While mostly just a serving of vanilla strategy game, Fire Emblem has an interesting sugar cone underneath. All chests must be opened during battle, and of course those who are easily distracted by shiny objects while under assault will necessarily need to change their strategy. Furthermore, most characters must be obtained by fulfilling certain conditions in battle, such as rescuing them from death, schmoozing with villagers, or simply not killing key enemies. Unfortunately, if you’re anything like me, approaching people for conversation tends to be far more difficult than setting them on fire from a safe distance and hoping they die before expecting you to make small talk, so my ranks tended to grow slowly. Of course, there were also the moments when the game took pity on me as I stood shoulder deep in the corpses of my loyal followers, when it conveniently sent a ragtag group of scrappy fighters to help fill out my ranks without the least bit of concern for why Marth never bothered to learn their names.

In all, I arrived at the end of the game with literally nothing that could harm one of the primary antagonists, and the wise old sage just stared at me like I should probably wear a safety helmet with my cape instead of a crown. Fortunately, my complete incompetence didn’t forever kill any hope of progress like every date I went on in high school. It just changed how I fought the last few battles. Considering, I think I’d have a lot to gain and a completely different experience if I played the game a second time, which I think is a mark of a good game. I’m still not going to play it again, but the point stands that I could if I wanted to.

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Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings – NDS

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Penelo seems to have gained some fashion sense in discarding her rubber onesie.

I’ve spoken before on how video game sequencing looks less like a chronological order and more like a dyslexic sudoku written over a calculus textbook at Jet Propulsion Laboratories, and Final Fantasy certainly commits more numbering atrocities than any other series I can name. With at least 100 games among its main series, sequels both direct and indirect, ports, remakes, revamps, spoofs, spin-offs, spunk, special editions, not to mention animated features, Advent Children, that one with Alec Baldwin and Donald Southerland, and possibly the entire Seiken Densetsu (Secret of Mana) series (if you count that in the way that bonobos count as spin-offs of the human species), then…wait, where was I going with this sentence? Eh. Who cares? As long as a big, long, rambling list keeps me from getting to Final Fantasy XIII, a game which could have only been the result of a seizure in the middle of a hand job, all the better for it! If we can call games like FFVI, VII or X “strokes of genius,” then XIII shows us what a regular stroke looks like. Sadly, if Square had gotten to the hospital in time, they may not have gotten stuck in the brain-loop that made them produce two sequels. But today we’re talking about Square-Enix’s last-ditch attempt at dieting and exercise before they sank back into their couch, downed a gallon of whiskey, and puffed up a big fat cigar.

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Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings serves as a direct sequel to Barney and Friends. Seriously, what do you think it serves as the direct sequel to? For once, Square did a remarkably good job (re: coincidence) of taking all the criticisms from the original (er…XII, rather) and building a game that addressed them all. The result just happened to be a game that resembled its predecessor as much as Gene Simmons resembles Richard Simmons, but unlike either Gene or Richard, it ended up being entertaining and well worth the time.

The game centers, more or less, around Vaan, who’s been given a total character overhaul as people tend not to enjoy protagonists with the personality of a teenage barnacle. Once again teamed up with Penelo—who’s been given a costume overhaul so as not to spend another game dressed in a rubber onesie—the pair go gallivanting around Ivalice, leading their younger friends Filo and Kytes into a life of plunder and piracy, a life which tends to lose its luster when one ends up murdered by colleagues. To be fair, Vaan spends the entire game insisting that he’s’ one of the good and moral pirates, and that all those other pirates who are in it for the looting, plundering, pillaging and—we can only assume—raping and whoring—have it all wrong and probably just need to watch an after school special or two on the true meaning of sky pirating. Generally, this attitude is a moral luxury one can afford only if they happen to be close friends with the reigning monarchs of two world superpowers (and at least acquainted with a third). Since Ashe clearly has no intention of executing the people who personally handed her throne to her, this sets up Vaan as sort of an entitled 1-percenter among criminals, making him more of a stock broker with a heart of gold.

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But to be fair, he does spend the game doing the right thing. After stealing a self-driving airship that takes them to a previously undiscovered sky continent—which is now full of pirates who are discovering the living daylights out of it—Vaan befriends one of the locals and spends a good chunk of the game trying to kick out the occupying forces. So he’s kind of like the Gandhi of medieval fantasy combat. (I think Gandhi always played as a barbarian, if I’m correct.) But what kind of epic would this be if none of the villains were supernatural? So Vaan and Company eventually stumbles across a god doing some douchebag thing or another, and pull a Taken-style vendetta against him to steal back the emotions of people on the sky continent.

About a year and a half ago, I played Heroes of Mana, which I noted played like Revenant Wings with only mild brain damage. Well guess what? If you guessed that political tensions between North and South Korea will likely come to a head within the next decade, you’re probably right! But if you guessed that Revenant Wings plays like a more developed Heroes of Mana, you’re both right AND relevant to the conversation. The game is a fairly simple and straightforward RTS. The rock-paper-scissors relationship from Heroes of Mana has been stripped down so as not to throw in a lizard or a Spock to muck up the works. Units are grouped into melee, ranged and flying, where melee is weak to flying, ranged is weak to melee, and flying is weak to ranged. Most battles require you to use all three. In addition, you can assign monsters to fight alongside you, turning the game into a battle royale in Michael Vick’s back yard.

Monsters come in three tiers, and you can take five monsters into battle with you: one at tier three or less, two at tier two or less, and two at tier one. Tier three tend to be the espers from FFXII or the mainstay Final Fantasy summons who have seniority or tenure or something and therefore have to be part of every game. Fortunately, these tier three monsters no longer come into the world like a mad scientist’s first attempt at creating life from the emaciated corpse of a heroine addict with a heart condition. The bad news is that using one takes up the tier three slot, meaning either your melee, ranged, or flying units will have to rely mostly on a tier one monster. But honestly, you could still intimidate foes if you charge into battle with an army of mages, a seasoned cavalry, Godzilla, and a troop of boy scouts on unicycles, right?

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The game balances out quite well, actually, even if the good monsters get put away in the cabinet with your mom’s china. Battles play out nicely, yet provide realistic challenge that takes thought to overcome, and they have a number of win conditions from your standard “kill the leader” and “complete monster genocide” to more unique ones like “steal all the treasure before the enemies squash the bangaa out of you” and even a capture-the-flag type scenario. The one thing, if any, that I don’t like about the game is the characters. Although given ten playable characters, one ditches your party permanently the first chance he gets, which leaves you with one healing unit, two melee units, two flying units and four ranged units. Since flying enemies are neither more powerful nor more abundant than anything else, I can only feel there’s some racial discrimination going on, and in FFXII-3 we’re going to be dealing with “winged lives matter” movements to protest the excessive force used against anything with two feet off the ground. Really, though, while Fran, Balthier, and Ashe are interesting characters, there’s rarely any reason to use them, as Kytes is the only ranged unit that can use black magic attacks.

Revenant Wings is well worth the play through, especially if you enjoyed tactics games. I really appreciated such novel concepts as “using a plot that isn’t as confused over its identity as a gay transgender child of a Southern Baptist preacher.” Plus, clocking in at under 30 hours—if you play all of the side quests—it almost feels like it’s apologizing for FFXII devouring months of your life.

Lego Lord of the Rings – Wii, 3DS, NDS, PS3, PS Vita, XBox 360

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They’ve reigned in Legolas’ showboating. A little.

By now, these Lego game reviews are becoming somewhat of a crisis for me. What do I talk about? A licensed game? A corporate tie-in? A movie parody? A series of games so identical they make the Republican National Convention look like a celebration of diversity and globalism? A chance to play with Legos as a grown-up without having to worry about cleaning them up when I’m done? A series of relatively short games I can play when I need to write about something quickly? Probably a combination of all of those. The Lego Games are a lot like Will Ferrel DVDs in that respect—short, easy to get through, with a few humorous parts here and there, and something I’ll put on my shelf without looking at the extras and knowing that I’ll more likely than not never have the urge to come back to it.

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Let’s mow down some motherfuckin’ orcs!

What then, if they adapted the best movie of all time? No, not Revenge of the Nerds IV. Not Ghostbusters either. Nope, not Cool Runnings. Or Back to the Future (although…). Or Star Wars…wait, yes on Star Wars, but no on this game. I’m talking about Peter Jackson’s epic take on J.R.R. Tolkien’s the Lord of the Rings, the beautiful modern-Medieval epic metaphor about the loss of our relationship with the natural world due to the effects of ambition, politics, and the desire for control over others. Yeah, it turns out it makes a pretty good game about plastic toy blocks.

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So if the lava is 1300 degrees, how hot does the air have to be to melt plastic?

Lego games are starting to remind me of my time among in Korea. If you spend enough time with them and give them the proper attention, you start to wonder how people have trouble telling them apart. The earlier games were more combat-intensive, if you can consider a hunk of plastic the size of a ping-pong ball to be capable of combat. These games, most notably the Lego Star Wars games, had boss fights reminiscent of a poorly lubricated rock-em-sock-em robot set, whereas the boss fights became somewhat more complicated as the gameplay shifted more toward puzzle solving. At the extreme other end of the spectrum is Lego Jurassic World, a thrilling man-v-nature fight for survival against vicious predators in which the dinosaurs calmly stand by as you set up convoluted Rube Goldberg contraptions that will lead to their untimely re-extinction, sufficing to snarl kindly if you get off-track from your mission.

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No, I am your father.

Lego Lord of the Rings meets these halfway, with perhaps a bit more emphasis on puzzle-solving than is healthy for a story that lists “Medieval Combat” at the top of its resume. Characters have skills and abilities which help you solve logical, intuitive puzzles such as catch-a-fish-to-throw-at-the-bird-to-distract-the-nazgul, catch-fish-to-throw-at-gollum-so-Sam-can-tie-the-rope-around-his-neck-so-Frodo-can-stab-him-with-Sting, and gather-fish-to-throw-at-the-wall-to-open-the-gate. And if you’re not into piscine-themed puzzles, enjoy such classics from the movie like Galadriel’s gift to Frodo. “I give you the light of Earendil, our most beloved star. May it be a light to you when quest items are hidden where other characters cannot access and need your help to get to.”

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You know what protects your ring better than a smooth, unguarded pathway leading to a ledge over the only thing hot enough to destroy the One Ring? ANYTHING!

One think I thought novel of this game was that it told a more fluid rendition of its source material, rather than the Greatest Hits parade of other Lego games. You begin in the prologue, fighting against a Sauron that makes 300’s Xerxes look like a member of the Lollipop Guild. Once completed, you begin a long, arduous climb up Mt. Doom realizing that Sauron, the Ancient and Most Powerful of the Maiar, Lieutenant to Morgoth the Valar of All Things Corrupt, Fell or otherwise Evil, Etc, actually did very little to protect the One Weapon of All-Power and item that housed his mortal essence, and was easily outdone for security by a Dutch toy company. From there, each film seems to play about six levels to the usual five, and the traditional hub world for Lego games is replaced by a completely open map of Middle Earth that the player can travel to go from level to level, receive side quests, buy characters and items, and get completely turned around in despite the trail of phantom Lego studs leading you to your next destination. Levels are segmented and shorter than in other games, and often give you the choice between groups of characters, offering a timeline with a little more control and reason than the books give you.

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That still only counts as one!

Puzzle-solving aspects alternate between the overly simplistic “stand here and push Z” (and during a handful of boss battles, just “stand here”) and “Throw fish at the wall to move forward,” which is about as intuitive as scraping a hedgehog across your keyboard to restart your computer. For those of you hoping for clunky, plastic Medieval warfare, there’s still a fair amount of that in the game, although it handles like old men swinging their walkers at each other, Legolas’ arrows have all the force behind them of an old Nerf dart blown out of the end of a wrapping-paper tube, and most of the battles come down to puzzle solving anyway. The humor starts out strong, but withers up like a dead orc near the end, and the game is riddled with glitches. So what reason, if any, remains to play the game?

It’s a scenery smasher. And in the end, don’t we all just want to hulk out and take revenge against all those Legos that refused to separate, even when we had the special separator tool? Take that, Lego environment! When I’m finished with you, you’re going to wish Climate Change had gotten to you first!

Lego Indiana Jones – PS2, PS3, Wii, XBox 360, NDS, PSP, PC

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I enjoy playing Lego games once in a while, but I could work with a metal detector, a team of bloodhounds, and ground-penetrating radar strong enough to take lewd photos of the earth’s core and I couldn’t find anything new to say about them. Indiana Jones would have trouble uncovering details that I’ve lost, and this review primarily focuses on him. Developer Traveler’s Tales found a formula that works. They recreate famous movie scenes with Legos. The player runs around collecting enough cash from dismantling the scenery to be dubbed “True something-or-other,” and throw in a fair dose of humor since they realize you can’t draw Picasso’s Guernica on a place mat with a box of Crayolas and expect art historians to publish articles about it for years to come. So for years they’ve been churning out the same products, a little bit stale, a little bit funny, but it’s something to do in the evening that hasn’t made me too sick yet. In that respect, the Lego series has much in common with McDonald’s.

Lego Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures attempts to send the player through poverty-stricken areas of India, Somalia and Texas for a sobering look at the economic crimes of the rich. Just kidding! It lets you play through Indiana Jones’ original adventures! Although I don’t know why they have to specify “original” adventures as, thank Kali, they never made any more than the three. I suppose they could be comparing it with the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, but that pretty much faded into obscurity during the mid 90s, gone the way of Surge, Jncos, and those shoes with the lights that flashed every time you moved.

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To digress a bit, I’ve always wondered why, exactly, the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull failed badly enough that South Park accused George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg of raping Indy. It has pretty much the same formula as the other films. Indy’s on a search for a magical macguffin with some divine significance—yes, maybe with so many legitimate, respectable religions in the world, picking the gods of anal probes and hallucinating rednecks may have somewhat detracted from the air of importance—and there are bad guys to beat to the chase, slightly comical action scenes, and a girl to win over in a way that looks James Bond look as charming as the guy who waits until last call to pick up the women everyone else rejected over the night. But maybe it is about the air of importance. Most Americans will understand the Ark of the Covenant, even if they’re not Christian, and the Holy Grail has literally become synonymous with something you desperately want to find. Maybe we don’t really know what a Sankara stone is, but rescuing enslaved children makes sense. Plus as soon as you see the cult leader rip out that dude’s heart and hold it up high as it bursts into flames (…while blaspheming the name of one of those legitimate gods I mentioned earlier), I think we pretty much establish he’s the bad guy and we want to take him down. Same thing with Nazis. Indy hates Nazis. Jake and Elwood Blues hate Illinois Nazis. Pretty much any person with an ounce of decency hates Nazis, so you don’t have to explain anything to people. Soviets, on the other hand…not as evil in retrospect. At this point in Indy’s life, it makes more sense for him to be fighting arthritis. And the skull of Beldar Conehead doesn’t seem like something that matters whether or not it falls into the wrong hands. Also, we never got a movie about an aging James Bond reuniting with the mother of one of doubtless dozens of children he’s fathered along his swath of destruction through the Cold War.

But back to the game…you punch things. As usual, the real objective in the game is to collect enough money to unlock characters to help find all the hidden items that, quite honestly, I stop caring about once the movie plots end. To be fair, you can punch them or whip them. Either way, when the scenery explodes and all that cash falls out, it feels pretty good. Not to mention the explosion sound it makes pretty much sums up the force required to separate Lego bricks. Other Lego games give certain characters innate abilities that help them progress through levels. While to some extent this game does that as well, you also have the option of picking up tools, like shovels, wrenches, guns, or books, and using them to interact with the environment. Or to launch a rocket at a Nazi. The problem in this mechanic lies in the fact that the button to pick up these items is the same as the one to use innate abilities. And Willie Scott’s innate ability is screaming to shatter glass. Often during The Temple of Doom, I found I simply had to switch characters if I needed to grab something or else I’d have to listen to Willie shrieking like a 12-year-old girl at a Justing Bieber concert while she ran around looking for just the right spot to pick up the item.

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Boss fights, as usual for Lego games, are so lame I feel comfortable diagnosing the game with advanced stages of muscular dystrophy. Since Lego combat tends to be as threatening and authentic as a trip to Taco Bell, nearly every major villain in the game seems to have attended the Monty Python school of battle. So each fight plays out like any girl I asked out in high school; they run safely out of reach, leaving me nothing to interact with but the room around me. Since most of the game consists of finding pieces and building things to progress, boss fights don’t really change up game play. The only difference is you have some prick standing by to laugh at you when you screw up. So yeah, exactly like dating in high school.

But really, whatever. It’s a Lego game. If you like Indiana Jones and other Lego games, you’ll get pretty much the same experience here. It’s fun. It’s cute. There are also a number of Star Wars cameos hidden throughout the game, including Luke frozen upside down in a wampa cave in Nepal. Which is good. Like I said before, you don’t want to take yourself too seriously

Disgaea: Hour/Afternoon of Darkness – PS2, PSP, NDS

GH_PS2CoverSheet10_06Despite only two weeks passing since my last entry, I haven’t written anything for nearly two months. Instead of spending my time playing video games like a good, responsible 32-year-old, I’ve been working backstage at our local production of 42nd Street, a show so bad that it literally tries to justify its lack of plot by telling the audience ”At least the girls are hot!” And while yes, they were, I’m not yet sure it makes up for working a 20+ hour a week job for no pay, being forced to listen to the same misogynistic songs with no relevance to the story. Really. The only character with any internal conflict in the whole show is the antagonist, who eventually decides that having an accomplished career on Broadway was simply holding her back from what she really wanted in life: a husband. Still, there’s a sunny side to every situation, and sitting through hour after thrilling hour of watching people exercise with metal shoes provides an excellent counterpoint to make a horrible, tedious, level-grinding RPG not seem as bad.

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Okay…so maybe it was a *little* worth it for the backstage costume changes.

Thankfully, there’s a PSP port of Disgaea, Nippon Ichi Software’s magnum opus, their lightning bolt of inspiration, which after it struck, they sequestered themselves in a rubber-lined mine shaft hoping for that lightning to strike again. Disgaea tells the story of Laharl, prince of the Netherworld, who wakes up after a short two-year nap to find out that his father, the Demon Overlord, has died, and that all his vassals are as eager to swear fealty to Laharl as if the ring they had to kiss had a raging case of herpes. Together with Etna, the one vassal who remains faithful to him only because she can’t double-cross him if he’s her enemy, they set off on a quest to build power and overcome all the rivals for the throne. But when he foils an assassination attempt by angel trainee Flonne, a character straight out of a remake of It’s a Wonderful Life written by Seth MacFarlane, she introduces the concept of love into his black heart and textbook creative writing class scenarios ensue. The story is simple. Character goes on quest, learns something about himself. No twists or turns. But it’s well written, has a cartoonishly dark sense of humor done in an anime inspired episodic format, and next to the plot of 42nd Street, Disgaea is Citizen Fucking Kane.

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NIS is so good at cramming things into small spaces, they’re permanently banned from Old Country Buffet

However, NIS seems to have interpreted the “Less is More” philosophy as meaning “Less story is more room for piling on additional, confusing gameplay mechanics.” In what has become NIS’s trademark move, they have patched together ideas from at least a dozen other games, resulting in something convoluted, yet intriguing. It’s sort of like buying a car with a lighthouse on the top—you don’t really understand it, but it gives you some options you wouldn’t have had otherwise. Unfortunately, none of these are thoroughly explained unless you buy the strategy guide, and you can’t even look them up on the Internet since the game doesn’t mention them at all, so you wouldn’t know about anything you could. For developers who want people to think their games are fun, tutorials should not require top-level governmental security clearances. Although for reference, even the American government managed to let information about Watergate, Monica Lewinsky and WMDs slip, and none of those existed for the purpose of enhancing an enjoyable experience (Well…maybe Lewinsky). Maybe NIS could give the government a few pointers..

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…I tried. I can’t come up with anything to say about this that’s funnier than anything anyone said about George Bush’s snack food assassination attempt.

That isn’t to say they’re bad features. In fact, for the most part, they bring a lot to the tactical RPG genre. Take geocrystals, for instance. Regions of tiles on battle maps are sometimes color-coded, and any crystal growing on that color tile imbues every tile of that color with its properties—sort of like “The floor is hot lava,” if certain regions could also be “the floor is bubbling acid,” “the floor is delicious ice cream” or “the floor will increase the chance that your masseuse will give you a happy ending.” This reminded me fairly strongly of the battle judges from Final Fantasy Tactics Advanced, except I had the ability to change and manipulate the rules, if I went and stood on the hot lava anyway, I could just take the 20% damage without bringing the game to a halt, and I didn’t hate them more than the dog from Duck Hunt.

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I know my candidates have to have at least level 500 before I’ll vote for them.

Also, gone are the days of wandering from node to node hoping for a random battle encounter. In Disgaea, players can fight monsters in Item World, a randomly generated dungeon within items. Players can use this to upgrade item stats, collect stat bonuses to move freely from item to item, or simply to grind levels. Because why stop at level 99, when you could stop at level 9999? And why stop there when you could reset your characters to level 1 and do it all over again? I did have fun with Disgaea, but you might be able to guess that it’s a rather time-consuming game. In fact, I’ve put more hours into this than I have Fallout or Skyrim. My game timer is on 140 hours with only a small amount of the extra content touched. That’s almost six straight days—that’s enough to kill two Korean kids back-to-back! I don’t care what you’re doing for six straight days, it’ll get old. Ever go camping for six days straight? Once the moss takes root, you end up looking like Treebeard. For the less active readers, six days of sitting on the couch eating ice cream and…well, it’s not moss, but something will take root. Hell, you can’t have six days of sex. I’ve tried…you start to get sore after about an hour or two.

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When you need a full gross of characters to pick from. Because that one point of difference in attack will make or break the game.

Every thing in the game is designed for the purpose of raising your stats, which makes it easier to level up, which in turn allows you to raise your stats. It’s a mobius strip of grinding. And having so much variation in level just means you’re as evenly matched with the enemies as a rhinoceros on steroids versus a freshly baked apple turnover. Unfortunately, near the beginning of the game, Etna managed to strike a lucky shot against a supposedly unkillable monster, thus bumping her up about thirty levels (at which point, she rightly could have slain Laharl and spent the rest of the game as the overlord). From that point on, the game simply alternated between tedium of leveling up and the boredom of mowing through enemies. I haven’t even touched on some of the more interesting features of the game, like making proposals to the Netherworld senate, which allows you to bribe the senators—much like the American senate—and to “persuade by force” when they reject your proposals. There’s also a weird infusion of 1950s sci-fi about two-thirds of the way through the story. All of that was fun, but when I realized that I was really just having fun with a colorful GUI for Algebra, I thought I should move on to a new game.

Give it a shot, though, if you’ve got a week.

Getting back into the swing of this comedy thing after a few weeks off. Working on a book review, since those seem to be popular, and maybe one of these days I’ll get around to finishing my post on Luigi’s Mansion.

New Super Mario Bros. – NDS

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Sometimes I get tired of posting the box cover art. Here’s the back cover. Maybe it’ll tell you more than the backs of PS3 games.

If any video game character has become like a bad house guest, it’s Mario. He’s long overstayed his welcome, keeps showing up when no one asked, always tells the exact same story, abuses your pets, and spends all day either doing mushrooms or digging up your potted plants because he suspects you planted pot (a.k.a. “Fire flowers”). But even though he gets fiercely competitive every time your old pal, Sonic, comes over, and none of the Smash Brothers really want to play with him, we all give him a pass and humor him every time he shouts, “Hey, watch me jump on this turtle,” and the turtle dies, and he finishes up with his catch phrase, “It’s a-me, Mario!” like we’re all supposed to look up with sparkling eyes as though we’re not tired of his shit and still want to be seen in public with him. Wouldn’t it be great if we could all forget the mess he’s become, all his tiresome celebrity cameos, and the fact that he totally sold out and is practically the only non-Minecraft video game with his own line of merchandise? (*Outside of Japan, of course) Thankfully, about ten years back (Holy piranha plants; am I old!) Nintendo released a nostalgic game that brings Mario back to his glory days, giving him the chance to relive his teenage heartthrob days all over again.

Bowser

After fighting the same boss eight times in the original, NSMB trusts you enough to think you only need one more go at it.

New Super Mario Bros for the DS strips Mario of all that dead weight he’s picked up over the years: gimmicky play mechanics, 3-dimensional controls, and any attempts at developing a plot around the original scenario that clearly failed to learn from the Super Mario Bros. movie. Gameplay resembles the original 1985 NES game with updated 2.5-D graphics and borrows lightly enough from Mario 3 and Super Mario World that, with any luck, the other games won’t notice their stuff missing and NSMB won’t have to return any of it. Mario runs and jump and ya-hoos his way through mostly horizontal side-scrolling levels, wandering into every fortress, castle and ghost house along the way, hoping to find Peach like Rick Grimes hoping to find Carl, or like a Jehovah’s Witness hoping that they’ll finally convince someone to convert. Standard power-ups join you along the way, like the traditional mushroom Mario takes to get high–sorry, I meant “tall”–and the flower that leaves him with a curious burning sensation. There’s also a mini-mushroom that shrinks Mario down to the size of his Italian cultural respect, which mostly allows him to access hidden areas, but also gives him the ability to walk on water as if he didn’t have enough of a Jesus complex to begin with.

Map

Eight worlds, but you only have to play through six. Good thing they made a Mario game for people who hate Mario games!

The story is simple; Bowser Jr. kidnaps Peach, and Mario has to get her back. Done. No need to present King Koopa’s tragic back story, develop a psychological analysis of Mario, or to reveal any shocking, Darth Vader-style twists. As much as I play games for the stories, Mario, much like black jack and prostitution, was created solely for fun and profit. These characters are as psychologically real as Veggie Tales fan fiction. They’re two-dimensional, and the best way to show that is to, well…make them two-dimensional.

Jelly Mushroom

The Mushrooms are tired of Mario walking all over them. Today, they fight for their independence.

Level exploration takes center stage in New Super Mario Bros. While some have criticized the game for being too easy, I actually appreciate the fact that they’ve shifted the emphasis back away from precariously hopping from platform to platform over an endless series of bottomless pits as though the only way to Bowser’s castle was over a convention of plate-spinners. Levels aren’t too difficult, so the adventure feels like a merry romp through the Magical Mushroom Kingdom rather than a test of skill and endurance of spirit that would break most U.S. Marine Corps members. Power-ups add an additional level of exploration. The mini-mushroom, as mentioned, allows access to tighter areas (insert your own Princess Peach joke here), while the mega-mushroom gives Mario the ability to enact his monster truck fantasies of smashing everything in his path–bricks, enemies, pipes that lead to vital areas in the level–into tiny bits. By far, though, my favorite power-up has to be the blue turtle shell, which gives him stylish new duds, allows him to hide from most attacks, and to spin along the ground bouncing off objects like a rogue bumper car fueled with Red Bull and Mountain Dew.

And….that’s it. The game is nostalgic, but not exactly a good subject for a dissertation. It’s fun. It’s easy. And it’s the perfect game to play to kill time while backstage at a play or when listening to your father-in-law read “A Christmas Carol” for the gazillionth year in a row. But beyond that, it’s not exactly as interesting as, say, a retro-style Final Fantasy game, or a pangolin that fires lasers.

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.