Aragami Review (PS4/X1): “Embrace the Shadows”


Lince Works takes us back a step in the stealth genre with Aragami. With many so-called stealth games to dilute the pool (Dishonored, Thief, Styx), it would have appeared as though the formula was set in place. Luckily for us, that’s where Aragami comes in and shakes things up a bit. By forcing the player to use their wits and plan accordingly, Aragami takes a well-needed step back. So does it succeed? Or does Aragami sulk in the shadows? 

Story: 4/5

You play as Aragami, a vengeful spirit summoned by a sorceress, Yamiko, who is being held captive by the pillaging “Warriors of Light”, Kaiho, who have been at war with the “Shadow Warriors”. Beyond what you are, Aragami starts off as a mystery that slowly unfolds as you meticulously make your way through the game’s 8 chapters, for a total completion time of around 12-15 hours. You are told that in order to free the sorceress and allow her clan to take vengeance upon Kaiho, you need to collect 6 talismans, each of which are heavily guarded. As you reclaim the talismans, you are reunited with lost memories; some of which belong to the sorceress, while some belong to the person you were before your death, and consequently your resurrection. Uncovering these memories is key to the story of Aragami, but so is paying careful attention throughout each chapter. Enemies talk amongst one another and provide valuable information that can sway your perspective as to what is going on with the mysterious sorceress and where you come in as the deadly assassin (or ghostly shadow depending on your preference). 

After paying attention to enemy NPC’s conversations, I was sure I had the story figured out way before I thought I was supposed to. And then Aragami did something… mischievous. It kept me guessing. Not enough to definitively change my mind, but just enough to ensure I wasn’t sure. This was achieved by playing with the child-parent-like bond between Yamiko and Aragami in the main cutscenes. Aragami, really not sure of anything, knows he can only trust one person – Yamiko, who gave him life. However, as Aragami discovered more memories of both himself and Yamiko, he begins to become troubled and confused. Nonetheless, his faith in his creator and the knowledge of his only living purpose, revenge, keeps him moving forward. While Aragami did end how I anticipated, I thoroughly enjoyed the character development and the slight toying with my emotions throughout the story. Through the main cutscenes and small gems riddled in the gameplay through AI conversations, you are able to see all sides of this feud and you come to an understanding of how everyone got to where they are. It was almost poetic how at the last scene unfolds. And just when you think you know how it all will end, the developers throw one line – two words – to make you sit back and truly understand the struggles of these warring factions.

Gameplay: 5/5

Aragami is not like the stealth games we’ve come to know. In fact, after playing Aragami it is difficult to consider most other games as actual “stealth games”. Aragami himself has actually no combat capabilities, meaning once you are discovered you must run and hide, or carefully remove your opponents with finesse. This sort of limitation is not seen in many stealth games, as many of them offer you a chance to fight back and then flee if necessary. You are however given a small set of skills that are carefully designed for different scenarios.

You start out with the basics: shadow teleportation. It’s a simple concept to start, you can only move quickly between shadows, using up a small amount of shadow power that is displayed on your cape. This shadow power is the basis for all of your abilities. It restores in shadows and gets quickly removed when standing in light sources. You soon gain the ability to create shadows to teleport into, albeit at the hefty cost of shadow power. After this however, you are on your own to develop Aragami as you see fit. You discover cleverly (and frustratingly) placed scrolls which offer skill points that can be spent on different shadow powers. There are six of these powers in total, three are deemed as defensive, while the other three are offensive. It is an interesting classification as I personally would not consider many of them offensive (save for the kunai, which when thrown instantly kills a single opponent). A better nomenclature for all of the skills would simply be “strategic”, and that is definitely the theme of the game and I believe what the developers were trying to drive home. Almost any of the abilities can be used in a number of different ways, something that was truly a pleasure to explore and trial! My personal favorite was a shadow vortex trap, that when placed could be triggered from any location and instantly (and silently) move any number of nearby enemies into another realm. I found that in order to progress through certain situations, some skills were more useful than others. By the last chapter, I discovered uses for all skills that I hadn’t thought of before and was using each of them frequently! Some might consider these abilities overpowered but luckily there is a limitation to them. You are allowed only two uses per ability. However, shrines that restore all abilities are located throughout each level, and a particularly badass stealth kill skill can restore one use to the equipped ability. 

Like most stealth games, you are provided the option of killing everyone, no one, or somewhere in the morally unsound grey area. Unlike most stealth games, you are given natural tools to aid you in your endeavors as well. The first two talismans you acquire offer you a marking ability, which upon upgrading can track enemies through walls, and something I feel every true stealth game should have: a noise maker. Previous games we’ve seen whistling or banging your sword on objects to distract nearby guards, in this game it is a simple bangle. This small tool is revolutionary in stealth games and has a huge impact on gameplay, so I was thrilled to see it included. 

Aragami gets something else right that honestly was completely unanticipated: boss fights. Besides a rather fast-paced technical section, there were in fact three distinct boss fights and each of them were expertly handled and impressively varied. Considering the limited nature of most stealth games, it is often difficult to incorporate mechanics outside of the normal gameplay. However, Aragami’s clever abilities payed off well here. By thinking outside of the box, I was able to use my abilities in ways I didn’t even think of before in order to overcome a more challenging threat. This was truly a unique experience as many previous games that attempt this often result in an awkward encounter for the player.

Boss fights aren’t the only thing Aragami does different than its “not-so-stealthy-anymore” predecessors; it also does co-op. You can play through the entire campaign with a friend on a separate console and vanquish your enemies (or not) in all-new and exciting ways! Tag teaming using different abilities in conjunction actually works very well, and having two sets of eyes on the playing field can result in a much smoother run – so long as you’re both on the same page!

Completion of the main story allows your character’s progression to persist so there is plenty of replay value in Aragami. Whether it’s going back to collect all of the scrolls; completing missions with different objectives; or simply going through it cooperatively, this is by far not a single playthrough game.

Graphics: 3/5

Aragami’s simple nature of shadow-versus-light is an easy contrast to play with, and the developers at Lince Works executed it very well. Aragami himself takes on a very satisfying form, changing from tones of black, grey and vibrant red when in the light, to a terrifying all-black when in shadows to let you know when you’re in better hiding. Environments are well decorated but sometimes can feel un-blended depending on the level. There were frequent instances when upon moving the camera, the point of view would jump out of bounds and then suddenly back in; and quite frequently the framerate would drop massively. This led to experiences of stuttering or input lag that in more than one instance resulted in death. Unfortunately, all the careful timing and planning in the world cannot hold up to random spikes and dips in framerate, and in a game where timing can be everything, this can be quite an issue. Luckily the game didn’t seem to suffer any additional consquences of playing online and most deaths are easily recoverable. The animations of various abilities were well thoughtout, smooth and satisfying. I could watch Aragami’s shadow snake coil an enemy and bring him to the shadow realm over and over again and never tire! There was only a handful of clipping cases and overall I felt it was a smooth experience playing through each of the levels, save for a few light intensive ones.

Sound: 4/5

Not only do you have to watch your surroundings and enemies’ movements, you also need to listen to them and the environment. Something that can be overlooked at times in stealth games is carefully handled in Aragami and that is the ambience of the game. The soft and delicate soundtrack plays lightly in the background of each mission. If you didn’t focus on it, you wouldn’t know it was there – and that is exactly how it needs to be to allow your complete, undivided attention to the matter at hand. Only when you are discovered does the music quickly escalate to the heart-pumping chase track that will ensure you’re filled with panic as you realize your mistakes. Footsteps from all sources project well; small light fire sources glisten in your ear and conversations from enemies are clearly heard. Interestingly, the main characters are not completely voiced, relying on text to comprehend any dialogue, but the emotion is there. Regardless, Aragami succeeds in the delicate addition of important sound balancing.

Overall Score: 16/20 = 8.0 out of 10

Aragami is a unique and enjoyable stealth game that succeeds in the minimalistic inclusion of its core elements. Its story was somewhat predictable, but it did a decent job of keeping me interested through a carefully crafted relationship, along with addicting skill and planning-based gameplay. While some graphical issues would occasionally remove me from the full experience, I was pleasantly surprised by the addition of actual boss fights and a well-functioning co-operative mode. With great replay value for those who enjoy proving themselves, it is well worth at least a single playthrough for those who enjoy taking their time in a game.

Pros:

+ Simplistic stealth mechanics that create a true stealth game
+ Creative abilities to aid in problem solving
+ Clever and original boss fights
+ Functioning co-operative mode

Cons:

– Some graphical issues
– Story shows its hand very soon

A special thank you to the publisher for providing us a review copy for Aragami! Copy reviewed on PS4.

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Bladestorm: Nightmare Review (PS4/X1/PS3/360) – “A Nightmare Worth Conquering”

Bladestorm Nightmare Wallpaper

In 2007, Tecmo Koei and developer Omega Force brought a new IP to the PS3 and Xbox 360, Bladestorm: The Hundred Years’ War. With the current generation currently running amok with remasters and definitive editions of game, Tecmo Koei and Omega Force decided to actually revitalize their IP in more of an expansion than a port called Bladestorm: Nightmare. Is this game worth the revitalization or is it a nightmare to steer clear away from?

Story: 4/5

Bladestorm: Nightmare contains two full-fledged story modes to experience. The first is Hundred Years’ War mode, which tells a fairly accurate historical rendition of, you guessed it, the Hundred Years’ War. Here you will create a mercenary that will take on contracts that work with either the English or French. You will aid famous characters such as Joan of Arc and Edward the Black Prince. You will see events unfold through the battlefield, as well as through diaries and conversations with soldiers in the main pub.

In the second and brand new mode, Nightmare, the developers decided to provide an alternate history with fantasy elements in place. Instead of a war between England and France, demons and mythological creatures are running rampant across the lands. The twist is that Joan of Arc, whom is known to be quite the heroine, is now the villainess commanding these demonic armies. Controlling the mercenary you created, you and Magnus (another mercenary) are both imbued with a sword that can take control of hordes of the demonic army. With this, you and Magnus are what actually stands a chance against the ever-growing army. You will be tasked with getting key characters to join your cause. Throughout Nightmare mode, you will see the events unfold in a familiar storytelling method that’s akin to Warriors Orochi 3 (Ultimate).

The stories in both modes are intriguing and promises something for those looking for a historical aspect or those looking for a fun, fantasy take on the history. In all honestly, it’s quite easy to get hooked into the game’s story and it’s cool seeing these characters care about the events unfolding.

 

Joan of Arc went through a bit of a change...

Joan of Arc went through a bit of a change…

Gameplay: 3/5

Bladestorm: Nightmare is an interesting game to describe genre-wise. It takes elements from various games where it’s part RPG, part strategy, and part action hack-and-slash. Seeing as how there are two games included with Bladestorm: Nightmare (Hundred Years’ War and Nightmare), each plays mostly similar with a few notable differences that will be mentioned. Let’s start with Hundred Years’ War.

You’ll start off by creating your own mercenary. Creating a character is fairly in-depth, allowing you to customize practically every single feature from body weight, facial structure, voice tone and pitch, skin color, etc. From there, you will enter the story and begin learning some basics to battle, such as how to command your squads, how the battle system works, and a few other elements to ensure you are off to a good start. Before actually partaking in battles, you will select your contract to accept at the local pub. This area provides to be the main area where you’ll take a break from battle to upgrade your character, buy and sell items, talk to other NPCs with information about the events unfolding on the battlefield, read diaries, and save your game. Upon taking a contract, you will begin your mission. Whichever side you choose to aide will not have any dramatic changes in the storyline, but how you play may change how missions will pan out.

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When out on the battlefield, you will have a squad follow you and listen to you on command. The type of squad varies, whether it is sword, bow, axe, etc. There’s an insane amount to choose from. Each can level up their stats so that more units follow your squad, and that their traits can improve as well. In terms of combat, if you are expecting to be a one-man army and just decimate your foes single-handedly, good luck because that most certainly isn’t happening. Combat is primarily handled by holding down the R1 button. Doing so will have you command your units to attack while your character will do the same to the nearest enemy automatically upon holding the button down. Depending on what you unit you have, they will either have an upper hand or lower hand to the opposing unit. This means that essentially certain units can deal more damage to the opposing specified unit. The game actually has a chart in-game to highlight which units go up against others best. When you form an army of squads, you can even unleash a “mass attack” to obliterate enemies with dramatic results.

Depending on the unit you control, the game’s dynamics will vary a bit. For example, if you’re part of a spear unit, you’ll most likely have a horse to ride on, which will make traversal a little faster than foot but will make you more prone to missing attacks. If you utilize the bow unit, you’ll be able to manually aim your well-placed arrows but shouldn’t take a chance leading a unit into close-quarter combat. The strategy plays a deep element into the overall gameplay in a satisfying way. Now in Hundred Years’ War, the more bases you take over on the battlefield, the more of advantage you will have overall. This will actually affect the next contract you take because the bases you took over will actually carry over. The battlefields are massive, with each feeling almost the size of an open-world in a separate game. Although, as cool and grand in scale as these battlefields look, traversing them takes forever…almost painfully so. Unfortunately, with these battlefields being massive, you’ll find yourself traversing more so than not with no enemies or NPCs in the area, leading to dull traversal.

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In Nightmare, the gameplay is essentially the same concept but is handled differently. Instead of being at a local pub to tackle contracts as a mercenary, you will progress in a straightforward chapter system. Throughout the game’s nine-chapter story (which can take between 6-12 hours depending on the difficulty you choose), you will work alongside Magnus and other key characters to form a united army to take down the demonic forces. Unlike Hundred Years’ War though, no matter how many bases you conquer on the battlefield, it will not stay that way should you return in a later chapter.

In terms of combat, it remains exactly the same but now with one key difference, you can control an army of monsters. Whether it is goblins, griffins, Cyclops, or even dragons, the dynamic switches up a bit with this. For example, you can actually ride a griffin, cyclops and dragon, which makes the scale of the battles even more grand. Actually leading a squad of these is just plain cool. It must be said that out of the two modes (Hundred Years’ War and Nightmare), Nightmare had me hooked a bit more since the progression was paced better.

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A cool feature is that both Hundred Years’ War and Nightmare are transferable amongst each other. Upon completing Nightmare mode, you can summon monster armies in areas that allow you to in Hundred Years’ War. Also, your character progression is seamlessly integrated between both games/modes. The entire game can be played in co-op, both local and online. However, if you’re playing the PS4 version, the infamously awesome Share Play feature is shockingly blocked.

As enjoyable as Bladestorm: Nightmare is, there were a decent amount of issues that hurt the experience a bit. First off, there are some bugs in the game. There have been several instances where my characters would run at a fraction of their speed and then revert to normal for absolutely no reason. I would be in the middle of an empty battlefield and this would occur, so I knew it wasn’t from some sort of enemy attack. While I understand that in reality they wouldn’t be moving that fast out on the battlefield, in a game, it can be daunting. Second, some missions have you protecting a key character who must traverse from point A to point B. The movement speed for this character is ludicrously slow that it becomes a real chore to complete these missions. Third, the final boss fight in Nightmare completely stopped at a halt during the final phase, where animations were frozen and AI wasn’t responding properly. I even accidentally broke apart my formed army and the controls wouldn’t respond at all to reform them; it wasn’t even showing the sub-menu to do so. Navigating menus can also be a bit convoluted to go through. Another issue was invisible walls. There were several times on the battlefield where my squad and I couldn’t advance at a certain point in town for no explicable reason. Despite the gripes that held back the experience a bit, I still found myself enjoying Bladestorm: Nightmare to return to it and keep taking over the battlefields.

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Graphics: 3/5

Visually, Bladestorm: Nightmare isn’t the flashiest looking game. After all, it is a revamp of a 2007 game but without a lot of effort focused on the graphics. Yes, the game is now in 1080p and depending on whether you play on the PS4 or X1, the framerate will vary. While the developers stated the PS4 version runs at 30 fps, I found several instances more so where it dropped below that. However, that’s not to say Bladestorm is a poor looking game. The lighting and environmental designs are done quite well, breathing some life into the battlefields. Trees sway in the background and grass blades lend to that extra terrain effect. Characters look fairly detailed with flashy pieces of armor. The game showcases hundreds of characters on-screen at once which lends to that “battlefield” feel. Omega Force games are notorious for displaying a ton of enemies on-screen but with tons of pop-up within the environments. Thankfully with the power of these consoles, draw distance has been dramatically improved and can continue to do so with future installments released specifically for this generation. Animations are also fairly smooth considering the amount of characters on-screen, without any animation frames dropped for characters out in a further distance. It’s not exactly a game that will showcase the PS4/X1’s prowess, but it’s not a poor looking game either. It hovers that line of solid, but not overly impressive.

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Sound: 4/5

Bladestorm’s best element may very well be its audio department. The sound of the armies advancing, the swords clashing, and enemies cries while they meet their doom all meet together to form a great audio experience. All the characters have English and Japanese voice acting that’s pretty serviceable and never quite reached “cringe worthy”. However, the real star here is the soundtrack. The orchestrated soundtrack that accompanies Bladestorm perfectly captures the game’s essence and setting. Whether you’re at the main menu, preparing for battle, or storming the battlefield, the music will go along superbly with the action at hand. It’s so memorable that I found myself thinking of the music whenever I’d leave the game and go about my daily life. The main gripe with the audio were the drop-out bugs. There were times where the sound effects completely dropped when entering a base and then would cue back in after taking it over. It wasn’t very often, but happened on a few instances where it was noticeable. Other than that, crank up the audio because this has one superb soundtrack.

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Overall Score: 14/20 = 7.0 out of 10

Bladestorm: Nightmare is a game that truly surprised me. While it has some issues that hurt the experience, it’s still a good game that people who like strategy infused with RPG and hack-and-slash mechanics should certainly give a go. While there is a learning curve, I found myself easily captivated to keep returning once grasped. There’s something about commanding your own squads to form an army, then work together to decimate anything that stands in your way that is immensely satisfying. Couple the fact that there are two games packaged in one, with progression seamlessly carried between the two, and you have a pretty solid package. It may not be for everyone, and it may not have garnered a big audience in 2007, but Bladestorm: Nightmare is a game that should be experienced by any strategy and/or RPG enthusiast.

 

Pros:

+ The original 2007 Bladestorm is included
+ Seamless progression between both games packaged
+ Enticing gameplay
+ Fun storyline
+ Outstanding soundtrack

 

Cons:

– Several gameplay bugs
– Slow environment traversal
– Average visuals
– Overwhelming menu navigation

A special thank you to the publisher for providing us a review copy for Bladestorm: Nightmare! Copy reviewed on PS4.

Enjoy our review? Be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter: @GamersXTREME for the latest in gaming news and reviews.

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Cloudberry Kingdom Review (PS3/360/Wii U): “The Most Sadistically Awesome Platformer”

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Over the course of gaming history, 2D platformers have really become a staple genre that gamers of all kinds can enjoy. Ever since the days of Super Mario Bros. gracing the NES and Sonic the Hedgehog on the Sega Genesis, we’ve seen a plethora of platformers impact the industry. Within the last half-decade, we’ve seen some stellar 2D platformers made by indie developers, such as Braid, Limbo and Outland. Pwnee Studios, an indie developer created by childhood friends Jordan Fisher and TJ Lutz, have worked together to bring about a 2D platformer that’s for the masochist called Cloudberry Kingdom. Is this a kingdom worth venturing?

When you start off the game’s story, you’ll be treated to a cutscene of the hero, Bob, trying to rescue the princess (where have we heard this before). However, instead of the cheery tone we’re accustomed to in Super Mario, we’re seeing that Bob is a tired, frustrated hero and that the Princess could care less that she’s being rescued from the evil king. Naturally, things aren’t so simple for Bob, as he’s thrown off a cliff by the evil king and forced to continue his tireless journey of rescuing the princess. From here, the game’s story mode begins. Cloudberry Kingdom plays precisely like you would expect a 2D platformer, with a few twists. You’ll have to traverse your way through deadly obstacles to reach the next level, with each ramping up in difficulty obstacle-wise, and each level takes only 15-40 seconds to complete. Controls are standard fare and nothing complicated by any means, with the A button used for jumping and Y button to use the exit door at the end of a level. Sounds pretty simple and straightforward enough, right? Well, here’s the thing. Bob dies in a single hit and has no weaponry to defend himself. If any obstacle or enemy hits Bob, he’s dead and it’s either back to the beginning or checkpoint. Levels are all cleverly designed to have a specific line that you can do that avoids death entirely, but I’ll touch more on that in a bit.

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Over the game’s eight chapters, there will be 40 levels of hardcore platforming action in each chapter (320 levels total). The obstacles all range from spinning fireballs, swinging spike balls, spikes that pop from the ground, lasers, etc. You’ll start off simple, just acclimating to the controls and feel of the game. However, things will quickly spin out of control when you play as various phases of Bob that change the mechanics and physics entirely. Every set of 10 levels, you’ll play as a new phase of Bob, such as Wheelie, Double Jump, Jetpack, Phase Bob, Tiny Bob, Fat Bob, Gravity Bob or even a Spaceship! For example, playing as Wheelie has Bob strapped to a stone wheel and will have the physics of a heavy wheel. Tiny Bob will make Bob gain more height, while Fat Bob makes him get less height than normal and is more prone to getting hit by an obstacle. Phase Bob will actually have Bob constantly morphing from Fat to Tiny, making traversing through levels a true challenge of timing. Playing as a Spaceship is really cool too, bringing back that feeling of playing something like R-Type or Gradius (granted you can’t shoot anything, but maneuvering it is fun).

As you traverse each level, you’ll notice there are blue crystals that can be collected. If you collect all of them in a level, you’ll get a “Perfect” status and earn an additional 10 crystals on top of what you collected. So what are the purpose of crystals you ask? Well, by pressing the X button, you’ll open up a Powerup Menu, which allows you to purchase a specific item to help you out with completing a level. The first item, which looks like “Terminator” Bob has you watch a video of the level to see the perfect path and timing you need to complete the level. The second item (which costs the most amount of crystals) will actually show you the exact path you need to take, as well as a dark object that goes along it to show you the exact timing of the path you should take. This item proved to be immensely helpful, especially with the precision required in later levels. The last item is a time clock that enables slow-motion, making everything except Bob move at a crawl. These items definitely help in their own respects and I never felt the need to be stingy with cashing in crystals for them since you keep collecting them.

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Aside from the game’s Story Mode, you will have access to Arcade and Free Play modes as well. In Arcade, you can choose between four different modes: Escalation, Time Crisis, Hero Rush, and Hybrid Rush. Escalation is essentially endurance, where you’re given 15 lives to start with and must get through as many levels as possible. You can get extra lives by collecting set amounts of crystals during the run. Time Crisis starts you off with 15 seconds to last before Bob explodes. As you race to the exit of each level (which are much shorter than usual), you must collect crystals to add precious time to the clock. Hero Rush and Hybrid Rush are much like Time Crisis mode, but both with distinct ways to play. Hero Rush has Bob changing his phase type in every level, while Hybrid Rush has Bob shifting into a combination of phases per level (such as being Wheelie and Phase Bob at the same time).

Free Play has a more customizable aspect to it. You’ll be able to choose a location, game type, hero style, difficulty, length of the level and how many checkpoints you’d like. The difficulty can not only be adjusted for players of any level, but can be completely customized to your liking. Want an incredibly simple level that has not a single obstacle? You can do it. Want a level that has more objects on screen that seems like there’s almost no room to move through? You can most certainly have that as well. The game’s AI has been designed to randomly generate a level that’s 100% beatable, which is incredibly impressive. Another customizable feature that’s really fun to play around with is Hero Factory. Here, you will actually customize the base, jump type and shape of Bob, while also tweaking every attribute to a tee, such as the acceleration, max speed, size, gravity, falling speed, jump length, number of jumps, etc. You can even fine tune your settings by testing it before going into the actual level. The options are simply endless.

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Cloudberry Kingdom is a vicious game in terms of difficulty, but why play it alone? You can have up to 4 people playing at once, all racing their way to the exit of these challenging stages. Each player can even customize Bob the way they want him to look. Whether they change the color of his suit, what kind of beard he has, his cape color (or no cape at all), and even the lining of his cape, there’s a solid amount to customize. I came across someone’s screenshot on the Miiverse where they practically replicated the look of Dr. Robotnik (sorry, his name is not Dr. Eggman in my book) from Sonic the Hedgehog. Playing in multiplayer makes this already chaotic game even more chaotic, but is an absolute blast. There’s even a co-op mode in Free Play where all the players are tethered together and must coordinate with each other to reach the end of the level. This alone will provide plenty of good laughs amongst friends.

Visually, Cloudberry Kingdom has a “flash” look to it, with very clean and vivid colors, as well as fluid animations. Environments and characters are nicely designed and the game itself runs incredibly smooth, never dropping the frame rate at all. The only odd animation that seems unpolished was Bob’s double jump, which had zero animation to it and was simply a “standing” animation while moving up. Cutscenes have a different visual style, representing a paper mache look. It’s actually pretty cool and works quite well for the visual aesthetic. Audio wise, this game has a bumpin’ soundtrack that’ll definitely engage the player further into the game. The soundtrack was composed by Blind Digital and Peacemaker…and damn is it a sweet soundtrack. They provide techno tunes that really get you pumped for wanting to complete a level. As I type this review, I’m listening to “Evidence” by Blind Digital (my favorite track in the game)…it’s that’s good. Although, I wish there was a way to change the song with a simple button press. On the flipside, the sound effects are pretty generic, but nothing bad by any means. Oh, and voice acting wise, Kevin Sorbo plays Bob…yes, the dude from the live-action Hercules TV show back from the 90s.

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Cloudberry Kingdom is an excellent 2D platformer that’s so sadistic, it makes the hacked Mario games look easy at points. However, the game’s stages are all designed to be 100% beatable thanks to the AI designed for the game. It’s an endless platformer alright, and one that you’ll be endlessly returning to, whether by yourself or with friends. The clean visuals, bumpin’ soundtrack and just downright addictive gameplay make Cloudberry Kingdom a must-own for any platformer fan.

Overall Score: 9.0 out of 10 = BUY IT!

Copy purchased by author for review purposes. Game tested on the Wii U.

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Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage 2 Review (PS3/Wii U/360): “Strictly For Fans Only”

Fist of the North Star Ken's Rage 2 Wallpaper

In 1983, a Japanese manga called “Fist of the North Star” (also known as “Hokuto no Ken”) was created. The series took off and became a huge hit in Japan, which then received an English localization a few years later. Since then, the series has received a TV series, film and video games to reach out to other audiences. In 2010, the popular manga series got its first game for the current gen consoles known as “Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage”. While it wasn’t exactly a big success, fans of the series found it to still be an enjoyable experience. Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage 2 is now out for the PS3, Xbox 360 and Wii U, published by Tecmo Koei and developed by Koei/Omega Force. However, is this a sequel that improves upon its predecessor or is this game already dead?

This review is based on the Wii U version of the game.

Story: 4/5

Let’s get this out of the way: The extent of my knowledge to “Fist of the North Star” was that it was a popular anime series that started in the 80s. However, upon receiving this review copy, I researched a bit more on the series to get a better understanding on the universe of this much beloved Manga. As I got into the storyline, I started to also watch the anime and compare how the story is told there compared to here in the game…and can say they’ve done a very good job.

Fist of the North Star has a pretty intricate storyline, taking place in a post-apocalyptic world in the year 199X. The story revolves around Kenshiro, a warrior who’s the successor to the assassination arts style “Hokuto Shinken”. Venturing through the barren wastelands, Kenshiro stumbles upon groups that seem to be terrorizing civilians in villages. As a civil warrior, Kenshiro does anything he can to help those in need, whether it be a friend or stranger. As the story progresses, you begin to learn more about Kenshiro’s past and what his motivation is exactly.

The story relies entirely on the manga series, replicating the scenes as authentic as possible. It’s told quite well, using cinematic cutscenes and comic-style panels. The characters are pretty engaging and you’ll feel for the fate of many of them. Honestly, the story is the best thing to be found in Ken’s Rage 2.

Fist of the North Star Ken's Rage 2 Gameplay 1

Gameplay: 3/5

Like I stated in the story section, I didn’t really follow the series before this game. I knew of it, I just never got around to actually watching the anime. With this being said, I also never played the first Ken’s Rage aside from its demo. For this sequel, the developers decided to tweak a bit of the gameplay style of Ken’s Rage. This time around, the game feels a bit more like a Dynasty Warriors/Warriors Orochi type of hack-and-slash, or in this case, beat-em-up. There are two main modes to tackle: Legend Mode and Dream Mode. Legend Mode will let you experience the entire manga of Fist of the North Star throughout the game’s 36 episodes. Dream Mode lets players explore the storyline of various characters from the series. However, each mode does play a bit differently.

Legend Mode will let players assume control of the main protagonist, Kenshiro. The format of Legend Mode will have you fighting waves of enemies scattered throughout the environments. Combat is handled with light and strong attacks, formulating combos that will pulverize enemies into a bloody pulp. As you give your enemies the beat down, you will build up your Aura Meter. When filled up, you can unleash an Aura attack that will unleash a devastating move to clear out a group of enemies or severely damage stronger opponents. As you move through the level, there will be moments where the game will transition to a cutscene to help flesh out the story a bit more and tie in the reason why you’re going to the next location. There are also moments where the game will try to change up the pacing a bit by having you play as other characters involved in Kenshiro’s quest. Depending on the scenario, you can even choose which character you’d like to play as for the mission. Platforming has been completely removed from Ken’s Rage, replaced now with a dash button. You’ll rely on this during boss battles in particular as it’ll help you dodge and counter their attacks. Boss battles provide to be more entertaining as they are much more challenging than the foes you’ll normally face. You’ll usually end off a boss by initiating a quick-time event. QTEs will occasionally pop-up mid-fight that will let you counter the boss’s attack and dish out some major damage. Watching Kenshiro finish off bosses is pretty sweet, especially with the quips he’ll say when finishing off his opponent. Legend Mode starts off a bit slow at first, but as you keep playing, you’ll find yourself getting more into it. While the combat may get monotonous at times, I still found myself coming back to keeping playing through this mode.

Fist of the North Star Ken's Rage 2 Gameplay 7

Dream Mode changes up the game a bit. Instead of simply fighting enemies to advance the storyline, you’ll approach this with a bit more “Dynasty Warriors” style. You’ll have bases that you need to capture before you can face off against the level’s boss. I found myself enjoying this mode a bit more than Legend Mode, mainly because I felt more at home with the “Warriors” gameplay premise. Also, this mode allows for two-player co-op, both local and online. While the online servers were barren, local co-op was quite enjoyable, especially on the Wii U version thanks to GamePad/TV split-screen. There are a ton of quests and missions you can experience in Dream Mode, which feels like a separate game in itself that will take many hours to complete.

Ken’s Rage 2 features an upgrading system, but is not intuitive or fun to fiddle with at all. You’ll collect scrolls that have three slots on them. A specific ability will be placed in a certain spot on the scroll. The further in the game you get, the more abilities that will be placed on a single scroll. However, when you’re equipping these, you have five lines you can choose to place a scroll in. You need to try and match scrolls with ability icons to really have them increase your effects dramatically. There are five parameters: Life, Damage, Aura, Defense and Technique. Sometimes the scrolls may also have a special perk that allows you to link combos faster together or increase your attack speed when successfully countering. You can also permanently level up the character’s parameter by collecting blue experience orbs from enemies during combat.

Fist of the North Star Ken's Rage 2 Gameplay 2

There are some issues that plague the game though. I already mentioned the “scroll” system feels a bit too complex and simply not fun to deal with. While the Legend Mode contains an engrossing story, the way it’s incorporated into the levels bogs down the gameplay. I mentioned earlier that cutscenes will initiate mid-mission, but it actually ruins the flow of combat. You’ll go from fighting hundreds of enemies within 1-2 minutes, to then watching a 7-10 minute cutscene. Then you’ll finally jump back in, fight enemies for about less than five minutes and watch another somewhat lengthy cutscene. This can drag on missions to take upwards to 30 minutes to complete, sometimes longer. It’s almost like driving at 100 mph, then unexpectedly slamming the brakes and pulling the e-brake immediately to come to a complete stop…then repeat. Also in Legend Mode, missions may have Caryatids that you can activate. When activated, you can access your scrolls, as well as do an “interim save”. While an interim save is nice to have for those lengthier missions, the odd thing is the place for some of these Caryatids. Sometimes, you’ll enter an area littered with enemies that contains a Caryatid but the game forbids you from saving when you’re “in battle”. So you would think, “ok, I can save right after I take these enemies out”, to only then watch a lengthy cutscene immediately after and end up in a totally different area with no Caryatid. While you can still access your scrolls, it’s bizarre to see the option to save and meanwhile, you actually can’t. Meanwhile, in Dream Mode, you can do an interim save at anytime by simply pausing the game and accessing it from there…and that mode doesn’t necessarily “need” it as those are faster missions. Another issue lies within the camera, you’ll find yourself adjusting the camera pretty often to face in the direction of the action. While this isn’t too detracting, the moments where it’s becomes the worst is during boss battles. The lock-on boss camera never follows the action fast enough, so if you kick the enemy all the way across the area, it’ll take some time to pan the camera in the right direction.

Issues aside, Ken’s Rage 2 is still an enjoyable game. Playing as different characters changes things up with different move sets pertaining to their styles. For example, if you play as Mamiya, she’ll be able to utilize an automatic crossbow instead of grabbing an enemy like Kenshiro would do. Also, it’s always fun to experiment with Aura attacks for each character as numerous become unlocked as you progress through the game. There’s an indicator near the Aura attack of your choice that shows the radius and direction the attack goes so that you know if the best used for large groups of enemies or strong, yet smaller groups of enemies. Overall, the amount of time you’ll get out of the game is staggering. The Legend Mode alone will take 15-20 hours, and the Dream Mode adds even more to that.

Fist of the North Star Ken's Rage 2 Gameplay 3

Graphics: 2/5

Fist of the North Star’s visuals are quite subpar for today’s standards, but are passable. Character models are nicely detailed, with some decent animations. Enemies explode into pulps of blood as you beat the crap out of them, and you’ll also see their bodies deform prior to that (just like you’d see in the anime). The deformed animation looks a bit weak, and at times jarring. Environmental texture work is pretty solid, but still comes off as bland. While the game may be a bit drab to see in action, it is replicating the style of the manga series. However, the framerate seems to be really inconsistent. The less enemies on screen, the smoother the game will run, at times reaching 60 fps. However, once waves of enemies come in, the game’s framerate can dip well below 30 fps…at times even 20 fps. It’s a bit inexcusable for a game that’s not exactly showcasing anything overly impressive. The game doesn’t look awful, but it’s certainly not an attractive game either.

Fist of the North Star Ken's Rage 2 Gameplay 6

Sound: 3/5

Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage 2’s audio direction is serviceable, but nothing more than that. The voice acting is solely done in Japanese, but is very effective. Sound effects are appropriate and gets the job done, making the game sound like it’s straight out of the anime. The soundtrack consists of metal rock tunes that appropriately convey the setting, if a bit generic. Some tracks are catchy, others not so much. While there are good amount of tracks in the game, they do tend to repeat a lot. The overall audio is good, just not great.

Fist of the North Star Ken's Rage 2 Gameplay 4

Overall Score: 12/20 = 6.0 out of 10

Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage 2 is a game for a very specific audience and certainly not for everyone. While it’s faster paced than the first installment, the question of spending $60 on this game is something that’s hard to recommend to the average gamer. For fans of the series, anime, or “Warriors” games, then you may find a pretty enjoyable game here. If none of those apply to you, it’s impossible for me to recommend the game. It’s nothing great, but it’s a solid title that I found myself enjoying more than I expected. While the game carries a full retail value price tag for a digital only title, the game’s content and length can back it up. It’s not a very good game, but it’s certainly a guilty pleasure of a title that you’ll enjoy despite its issues.

PROs:

+ Faithfully recreates the series’ story

+ Dream Mode is fun, especially in co-op

+ Character models are nicely detailed

+ Some catchy tunes

CONs:

– Visuals are a bit bland; Framerate dips

– Scroll/Upgrade system is not intuitive

– Legend Mode’s mid-mission cutscene bog down action

– Strictly for fans of the series

– More of an update than a sequel to the original…and it’s retailing for $60

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Warlords Review (PSN / XBLA)

Warlords is the remake of Atari’s 1980 Breakout / Quadrapong arcade classic, available for download from the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade. Reboots of older, more dated franchises is becoming quite the trend these days, and in the wake of the Warlords 3D re-make for Xbox Live Arcade released in 2008, one may wonder if the game is worth bringing back again. Is this a re-imagining worth delving into?

The original Warlords has a simple gameplay concept: combine the best elements of Pong and Breakout to create an exciting new experience. Each player (up to 4) controls a shield to deflect fireballs away from their castle’s walls while trying to destroy their opponents’. While Warlords may not score points for originality (even though Atari copied themselves), it was a successful, fresh take on Atari’s previous two tried-and-true games.

Fast-forward to the modern day. A good game re-make needs to take the core elements of a classic and rejuvenate them with fresh concepts to meet the needs of the modern gamer. There’s two main concepts a good remake needs to meet to excel: solid gameplay and engaging audio-visual design. Let’s tackle these concepts one-at-a-time and see how Warlords stacks up.

The beautiful thing about Warlord’s gameplay is that it stands up to today’s strict standards on its own. A standard match of Warlords follows as such: Opponents take their places on the opposite sides (or in a four-player game, the corners) while a dragon flies by, dropping a fireball on the field. The fireball propels itself around the board, with each player controlling their shields (paddles) to deflect the fireball towards their opponents’ walls. Each wall is made of several pieces and layers that must be broken through before an opponent can be eliminated by shooting a fireball into the castle’s interior, and these pieces change color as they are damaged until they are destroyed.

That’s the simplicity behind the core gameplay, but thankfully, Atari didn’t stop there. A lot of depth was added to make the game engaging to today’s more discerning gamer. For one, the dragon will continue to drop additional fireballs onto the field, up to a total of five, until a player is knocked out, after which it will reset back to 1. It serves as a sort of “sudden death” mechanic, and also adds a difficulty curve to the gameplay that players will have to adjust to over and over again. It’s a nice way to keep the gameplay from getting too easy without being cheap.

Further, the modern Warlords take includes a Real-Time Strategy element in the form of Snoots, tiny minions you can issue orders to. Your right analog stick controls your Rally Snoot, and wherever he goes, your Snoot army will follow. They’re produced at a constant rate from your castle, and can attack other players’ walls, repair your own walls, and capture power-ups (which I’ll go into further detail about soon). Whenever your Snoots run into those of your opponent(s), they’ll fight, eliminating each other in a one-for-one ratio, so the larger army will always win. Controlling a small army while trying to deflect multiple fireballs can be very demanding, so the game includes simple commands you can issue with the D-Pad that will automatically tell your Snoots to do a certain task so you can focus on the action. A more skilled player can always manually control his snoots for finer control, but similar to the increase in fireballs, it creates an accessible difficulty curve.

There’s a few final pieces of the gameplay puzzle; one of them is the previously-mentioned power-up system. During gameplay, three panels will illuminate with a power-up’s symbol. Moving your Snoots onto these panels will fill up the panel’s border. Once it fills, a power-up will activate immediately, with a wide variety of effects, from the nigh-invulnerability granted by Iron Walls to the ever-frustrating Reverse Shields, which swaps your enemies’ controls for a period of time. Then there’s the bigger x-factor in the match, the Black Knight. At regular intervals, he’ll drop in and begin wrecking Snoots and castle walls alike. The only way to banish him is to capture all three power-up panels, leading to a slight cooperative element in an otherwise competitive game, but a White Knight Emblem will drop at this time as well, which will render a player’s Snoots immune to the Black Knight’s attacks if they pick it up.

All in all, Warlords’ gameplay is incredibly deep and complex, but works out being a type of controlled chaos, not mass confusion, and is sure to draw you in game after game. Warlords can be played in several modes: an excellent tutorial mode, an 8-level campaign mode, single-player against CPU opponents, or in local and online multiplayer with other human players. The campaign really just serves to slap some semblance of a narrative to the gameplay, but honestly, Atari could have left it out and it would have taken nothing away from the overall package. The real draw is the game’s online multiplayer – once you get used to facing CPU opponents, humans will provide the next level of challenge. Glacier928 and I can attest to it – once you start playing, you’ll find it hard to put down. It has that “just one more game” quality that satisfies and rarely gets old.

The other side of the equation is Warlords’ awesome audio and visual style. The art direction is whimsical, exaggerated, and flashy, and the game sports a hilarious sense of humor. Every round is dominated by a deep, resonating narrator who keeps everyone updated on the action. The game sports a heavy metal soundtrack that fits surprisingly well with the game’s medieval theme, and will have you head-banging along to the action. However, the game falls down in the technical areas – namely, the game’s frame rate drops very low on the main menu, and texture loading is noticeable. Frame rates aren’t consistent either – during some scenes you may be treated to a fluid 60 FPS, while the gameplay itself runs at around 20-25 FPS – still playable, but not as responsive as I’d like. Finally, the game’s tip system, as it’s currently implemented, is nearly useless. The game shows you tools and explains game concepts like power-ups during loading screens, but these screens only last for a second or two at a time. A simple “press x to continue” would have been an easy and very helpful addition.

All in all, Warlords proves to be a successful revival of a classic hit. More than a shiny coat of paint, the game builds on its predecessor’s gameplay while adding new elements to keep you coming back for more. The online multiplayer is a huge hook and will give you more than your money’s worth. The game’s technical flaws and unnecessary campaign are really all that keep it from gaming perfection. Warlords is available now on the PlayStation Network for $9.99 and Xbox Live Arcade for 800 MS Points on November 14th.

Overall Score: 8.5 out of 10 = BUY IT!

Double Dragon: Neon Review (PSN/XBLA): “An Old-School Revival Done Right”

The 80s, one of the greatest decades that comes to mind. Great music, awesome cartoons and the start of certain game franchises that, to this day, still stand tall. Double Dragon was one of those franchises born in 1987 via Arcade and then made its way to the NES. For years, the series had continued to grow, but by the mid-90s, it slowly faded away. Fast forward to 2012 and the series returns to the PSN/XBLA as Double Dragon: Neon, courtesy of WayForward Technologies, for its 25th anniversary. Is this 80s revival the proper homage to series/brawler fans or are you better off dusting your NES carts?

Upon booting up the game, you’ll be treated to the Double Dragon remixed theme song and if you’re a fan of the series, you’ll definitely be cracking a smile at the pure sense of nostalgia. As you initiate a new game, you’ll find a similar intro to the original Double Dragon. Marian, your girlfriend and damsel in distress, gets nailed right in the chest by a thug and then kidnaps her. Ironically, Billy and Jimmy will actually say, “Oh man…not this again!” when she’s taken away, somewhat breaking the fourth wall. From here, let the beat downs commence.

WayForward Technologies definitely studied the history of the franchise as it shows in the game’s mechanics. The characters control very similar to their 8 and 16-bit days, stiff movement and all. Normally something like that sounds more negative than positive in today’s standards but let me assure you, it’s not. It gives the game that same “feel” to the originals that fans will truly appreciate while newcomers will still be able to grasp after a few minutes. Combat is handled with your light and strong attacks, as well as grabs and special attacks. Light attacks mainly resort to your fists while strong attacks will focus on your kicks. Every time you critically damage an opponent into a stun state, the screen will freeze for a split second, giving you a sense of the damage you’re dealing. It’s a nice little touch but one that’s gratifying and effective. You’ll be able to pick up weapons such as baseball bats, 2x4s, switchblades, explosive canisters, and of course the most badass weapon in the game, the hair pick. You can switch up the button presses to mix up your combos, but to further add some complexity, there’s a duck/dodge mechanic that can change up your moves as well. Ducking and dodging is one mechanic that you better get used to…a lot. The game reeks of old-school mechanics and the only way to complete that “feel” is to make the game tough-as-hell. While nowhere near as difficult as Double Dragon III on the NES (you know, the one where you only get a single life to get through the entire game), this game will definitely test your skills. You’ll get three lives at the start of every level but once you run out of those, it’s back to the very beginning of the stage, no checkpoints here. To be honest, the only time you’ll ever get a checkpoint is at the final boss…and thank goodness for that because the final level is lengthy and the final boss poses a steep challenge.

While the game is a brawler at heart, you’ll have to do a slight bit of platforming. While it’s not the smoothest platforming, Double Dragon always felt stiff when jumping over chasms, and the case remains the same here. Again, purely a design decision to make the game feel as close to the originals as possible. At the end of certain levels, there’ll be a boss battle awaiting you and these are cleverly designed. Every boss will have a specific strategy for you to learn so that you can find the right moment to rush in, attack and dodge. Oh, and Mega Man fans, there’s a boss that pays an homage to that franchise as well and you’ll chuckle when you witness it.

As you progress through the levels, you’ll earn cash which can be used at the shop you’ll find in a few levels. The shop allows you to buy extra Cassette Tapes (which I’ll explain their use soon), health and energy, and extra lives. Strangely, if you buy a ton of lives, none of them will carry over into the next level so just keep that in mind when spending the dough on that. There’s also a “Tapesmith” that allows you to upgrade your Cassette Tape capacity, which will enable your abilities to keep increasing in the particular stats that it pertains to. Cash won’t be your currency for these upgrades however. Instead, you’ll need to trade in Mythril that you earn after boss fights. You won’t upgrade much on your first playthrough but it definitely gives the game some replay value to go back and keep upgrading.

Now I mentioned about Cassette Tapes, which really helps change up the game’s mechanics and strategic approach. Cassette Tapes will be broken up into two categories, one particularly for Sosetsitsu (specials), the other for Stances (stat enhancements). Sosetsitsus will range from shooting fireballs and lightning, to the infamous Spin Kick that was a staple in the series. Stance cassettes will vary from increased offense but decreased defense, recover health from every hit but have a smaller health bar, or even an all-around stat setup so that everything is balanced. The Cassette Tapes add a good amount of depth to the game’s mechanics that can make all the difference in succeeding in a level. By simply pressing Select/Back, you’ll access the menu and will be able to switch up your tapes at any time. Tapes are easily obtainable from enemies as they’ll be dropping them often.

When it comes to brawlers, co-op (or “Bro-Op” as they call it) is always essential and naturally, Double Dragon is synonymous for it. That feature is fully intact here, with a drop-in/drop-out feature incorporated. WayForward went the extra mile and added an option to shut off “Friendly Fire”  so that you and your buddy aren’t getting in the way of each other. However, if you’re hardcore, you can always stick to the old fashion style of dealing damage to each other. Unfortunately, the one odd omission is the lack of online co-op. While I understand WayForward may have chosen this direction to truly retain the game’s old-school style, it’s still a bummer to not have the feature here.

When it comes to visuals, WayForward really has an amazing art style and their talent still stands here. Combining their astonishing 2D artwork with solid 3D models, all full of colorful detail, Double Dragon Neon is just a nice looking game. The game runs at a silky smooth 60fps the whole time, never stuttering at any moment no matter how intense the action gets. Jake Kaufman (known for his BloodRayne: Betrayal composition) returns once again to give Double Dragon a proper soundtrack and fires on all cylinders. Double Dragon has an energetic, pumping soundtrack filled with remixes of classic tunes from the original installments. Interestingly, the names of the Cassette Tapes are actual songs from the 80s that will play when highlighting them in the menu. Sound effects are exactly what you’d expect from a brawler and gets the job done. The voice acting on the other hand is incredibly laughable, intentionally so, making it reach that “so bad it’s good” quality. It’s incredibly cheesy dialogue but completely fits the nature of the game.

WayForward Technologies has continued to provide something that very few developers have achieved; a nostalgic experience that brings me back to why I got into gaming in the first place. The game isn’t perfect, but it’s a great game that must be played by any Double Dragon fan, as well as anyone who digs a solid brawler. If you never dug the Double Dragon series before, there may not be too much here to convince you. This game is clearly a love letter to fans of the originals and it clearly shows. Double Dragon Neon is a great example of an old-school revival done right.

Overall Score: 8.5 out of 10 = BUY IT!

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD Review (PSN/XBLA): A Return to Former Glory?

Back in 1999, the gaming community was pleasantly surprised by a certain title that set a standard for the extreme sports genre, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. With the success of the first installment, we’ve seen numerous sequels released over time but the series’ started to lose its appeal. While they went as far as trying to change-up the once successful formula by making two installments that required an actual board to stand on, it didn’t exactly win over the original fans or many of the newcomers. Robomodo looked back at what made the franchise successful and decided to rebuild portions of the original two Tony Hawk titles with a brand new engine, while keeping the “feel” of those intact. Released on the XBLA back in July and now also on the PSN (coming later this year for PC), Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD aims to provide that nostalgic feel that won over the fans in the first place. Is this that proper form to glory…or is it just an antiquated franchise that needs to rest?

First off, upon booting up Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD, music from the game’s soundtrack will start playing and you’ll most likely be treated to one of the classic songs from THPS 1 or 2. Being a massive fan of the earlier installments, it really brought back a sense of nostalgia as the first two THPS titles had excellent soundtracks. Once you actually get into the game, you’ll choose from fan favorites like Eric Koston, Andrew Reynolds, Rodney Mullen and of course, Tony Hawk; while introducing some newer skaters like Chris Cole and Riley Hawk (Tony Hawk’s son). The game’s career mode takes place over the span of seven classic levels from both THPS and THPS2: Warehouse, School II, Hangar, Mall, Venice Beach, Downhill Jam and Marseille. Each level will contain 10 objectives to complete (like in the originals) that span from getting High/Pro/Sick Score, collect S-K-A-T-E letters, trick off a certain line/gap, etc. You’ll earn cash for every objective you complete, which can then be spent on upgrading your skater’s stats, as well as buying new Specials and boards. Fans of the originals will reminisce on the nostalgia of the game.

For newcomers, if you’ve never played an old-school Tony Hawk game, let me briefly explain how it works. You’ve got a 2-minute run to complete as many of the 10 objectives in a level as possible. Once the objective is complete, you don’t have to complete it again on another run. Tricks are handled simply with the face buttons on the controller consisting of ollie, grind, flip and grab tricks. Depending on the input or direction you press on the analog stick/d-pad results in more varied tricks. Grinds are pulled off with the press of a button and from there, you’ll balance your meter by pressing left or right on the analog stick to avoid it reaching the entire end. To further extend your combos, utilizing the Manual feature is absolutely key so that you can reach your next closest spot to keep tricking while holding your combo. After successfully pulling off a few tricks without bailing, you’ll have your Special meter filled up and with the correct input, you’ll pull off much more flashier tricks. Robomodo added a “Quick Retry” feature so that instead of pausing the game to restart your run, you can simply hit Select/Back button to retry your run. Thankfully, you’re prompted about starting over when you press the button so should you accidentally press it while you’re having a killer run, you won’t lose your progress. Also, they added a “map” in the pause menu that shows off where all the objectives are, as well as where all the gaps are. It’s a nice addition for those having a hard time accomplishing goals or have no idea where a certain gap tied into an objective is.

Aside from the Career mode, you can still take on Single Session and Free Skate but Robomodo has added a few modes of their own to switch it up: Hawkman, Big Head Survival and Projectives. Hawkman is basically a slight jab at Pac-Man, where you’ll have to collect all the “pellets” in the area as fast as possible. Pellets are specifically colored so that you know if you need to grind, ollie or manual your way into them to collect them. It’s an interesting new mode that can certainly test the most skilled THPS players, in particular if you’re trying to get all the pellets in a single combo (which is a trophy/achievement in the Hangar level). Big Head Survival is all about avoiding your skater’s head from exploding. Your skater’s head begins to inflate the moment you start and the only way to deflate it is by tricking as much as possible. The bigger your trick combos, the more your head will deflate. The longer you stay alive though, the faster your head will start to inflate and once your head explodes, it’s game over. It’s an incredibly addictive mode, especially when played against friends online, as it makes matches very tense and exciting. The last new mode is Projectives, which is essentially a harder Career mode. Once you complete the career, you’ll unlock this mode and you’ll have a single minute to complete five specific objectives. Again, not all the objectives have to be completed within that single minute. This mode will definitely demand for greater skill, which hardcore fans will appreciate.

Visually, THPS HD looks pretty good. There’s nothing here that looks mind-blowing but it’s entirely serviceable. Characters animate pretty well when pulling off tricks and the environments are very nicely replicated. The sound effects are exactly what you would expect from a Tony Hawk title and that’s a good thing. All those iconic sound effects from the original two games are found here and help flesh out that “old-school” vibe. However, one of the best parts about the game…it’s soundtrack. Robomodo has actually secured the licensing rights for some of the original tracks from THPS 1 and 2, including “Bring the Noise”, “When Worlds Collide”, “Superman”, “Heavy Metal Winner”, “No Cigar” and “May 16”. There’s also some new tracks to be found that definitely match the experience but there’s one or two that really didn’t suit me personally.

However, there are a few issues I had with THPS HD. First off, while the game doesn’t run at 60 fps (like THPS3, THPS4, THUG, THUG2, THAW), but rather 30 fps, there are some screen-tearing and frame-rate issues. With a game like this, where every trick counts for your combo and is sensitive to even the slightest mistake, a frame-rate issue can result in a lack of button input. There were a few times where I tried to manual but the frame-rate skipped and didn’t register my input, resulting in me losing my combo. It doesn’t happen too often, but when it does, it’s noticeable. Secondly, as awesome as the soundtrack is, there’s no “Skip Track” or “Playlist” feature and you’re forced to listen to the current song. Granted, you can utilize custom soundtracks if you want (yes, the PS3 version has that feature via XMB) but sometimes there’s a certain song you need to listen to that gets you going. Another gripe I had was the game’s lack of the classic multiplayer mode, HORSE. While it’s much more effective as a local multiplayer experience, it still would’ve been great to see it brought back. Now, my biggest questionable omission that I still can’t wrap my head around is the lack of a Split-Screen Multiplayer mode. THPS is one of those titles that when you have buddies over, you’d all gather up around the couch and go head-to-head with each other. That’s completely gone in this version. While I like the fact that the game is online, it’s just odd that there’s no local multiplayer to be found here.

Gripes aside, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD is a great title that brings “The Birdman” back to his glory days. Even after earning the Platinum Trophy in the game, it’s a game that easily demands more of your time and with the inclusion of online play, you can certainly get some mileage out of it. For $14.99/1200 MS Points, any Tony Hawk fan should definitely give it a go. It plays safe-ground by returning to its roots but still feels great over a decade later. While Robomodo’s first two Tony Hawk installments (Ride and Shred) weren’t very well received, the developer is certainly on the right track after this, and I have confidence that they can continue to maintain the franchise in this direction.

Overall Score: 8.0 out of 10 = BUY IT!

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Jeremy McGrath’s Offroad Review (PSN/XBLA)

Arcade-style racers are a dime a dozen nowadays, with many companies trying to provide a “realistic” experience. However, there’s still hope for arcade racing games. Jeremy McGrath may have had an unfortunate collaboration with his first outed title, Jeremy McGrath’s Supercross World (GameCube/PS2), but thankfully, his latest title isn’t a train wreck. Developed by 2XL Games, the studio behind 2XL Supercross on the iOS, Jeremy McGrath’s Offroad aims to provide an arcade-style experience that’s ideal for pickup-and-play sessions. Is it worth your time and investment to get muddied up or is it best to stay clean and steer clear of this game?

Throughout the career mode’s 23 events you’ll compete in, it’ll be all about speeding, jumping and power sliding your way to the finish line. As you progress through the career, you’ll earn XP so that you can upgrade your vehicle’s handling, acceleration, top speed and brakes. XP is earned by doing several different actions such as power sliding, passing cars (pass multiple within a 1-2 second gap to earn a multiplier effect), knocking down fences and signs, reaching high speeds, nailing long jumps and of course, completing the race in a certain place (1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc). For every 1000 XP you earn, you’ll earn an upgrade point to apply. Each category contains five levels to upgrade to, making your events easier to tackle. Also, depending on the difficulty you tackle an event on, you’ll receive more XP percentage for each action completed. If an event becomes too difficult to achieve a 1st place rank, you can always return to it with the upgrades you’ve earned which is a nice feature that gives the game a more “forgiving” approach.

As far as the game’s mechanics go, it’s really solid and surprisingly addictive as well. Vehicle handling feels arcade-ish, allowing you to easily whip the car around corners, no matter how fast you’re going. Also, if you time it just right, you can hit the clutch during a turn so that you can give your vehicle a nice boost at the end of the corner, giving you the edge on your opponents. The developers also achieved a good sense of speed and the 60 fps, 1080p visuals certainly helps with nailing that immersion. While tearing up the terrain, you’ll have to keep an eye out for environmental hazards such as falling trees and rock slides. It doesn’t happen often, nor do they dramatically affect the outcome of a race (unless you’re playing online) but it’s a neat little effect to have added in here. The game’s difficulty isn’t strenuous by any means but it’s an acceptable challenge that thankfully doesn’t have any rubber-banding AI. Again, the nature of the game is to provide a pickup-and-play experience and it does just that.

Aside from the game’s career mode, you also have an Arcade mode and Online mode. Arcade is essentially your “quick play”, allowing you to just quickly choose a track and vehicle class (five vehicle classes in total) so you can get right into the game. You’ll be able to choose between Race, Point to Point (basically just a Point A to Point B race) and Time Trial events. The same goes for the Online mode, which runs very smooth with barely any noticeable lag. The only problem here is that there’s hardly a community playing this online and it’s a shame because the game plays quite well.

However, with the good must come the…well, not so good. While the game runs at a silky smooth 60 fps, the environment textures look a bit bland at times and the bushes and trees have that PS2-quality “paper effect” look to them where they turn alongside where you turn. Also, aside from the menu music, there’s not a single song played during races, which is odd. Thankfully though, this issue can be rectified with custom soundtracks (yes, the PS3 version has this feature). While the sound effects of the engines and environment are fine, there’s an audio glitch that tends to get a bit annoying. While going off of jumps, you’ll hear the car make a “clunk” sound as if it was hitting the ground, except the audio goes off for it while it’s still very much in mid-air, completely throwing off the immersion. Jeremy McGrath’s Offroad also shockingly lacks a split-screen mode, which is a game that begs for it…especially considering the lack of an online community at the moment. Lastly, even on the Pro difficulty, you can blast through the career mode in between 2-3 hours.

While the short career is a complaint, I mean that in a positive way in the sense that the game is still a solid, competent racing title. It’s a surprisingly addictive game that has you sitting with it until you complete the career. Even then, you can add some longevity by tackling the Arcade and Online modes (if there’s anyone playing).

While it’s probably not a racing game that you’ll stick with for an extensive amount of time, I can’t stress enough that it’s an ideal pickup-and-play arcade racer. If you’re looking for a simple, fun racing title for $9.99 (800 Microsoft Points), then by all means give it a shot. Even upon the game’s completion, I can see myself coming back to it to clean up some trophies/achievements and only hope that the online community expands a bit. Jeremy McGrath’s Offroad may have the illusion of sounding like a so-so or below average title, but thankfully, we’ve got a surprisingly solid racing title that deserves a chance.

Overall Score: 7.0 out of 10 = BUY IT!

A special thank you to Reverb Communications for providing us a review code for Jeremy McGrath’s Offroad!

Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown Review (PSN/XBLA)

A lot of us have fond memories of playing Virtua Fighter in the arcades; the visuals, environments, and cutting-edge, tight controls made it one of the most enjoyable arcade titles of its time. Nowadays, with arcade sticks and the widespread release of arcade titles on home consoles, developers are bringing the arcade experience to your living room. The most recent iteration of Virtua Fighter 5, Final Showdown, is a massive tweak to the original Virtua Fighter 5, bringing about tons of character balance changes, extra costumes, and some solid online multiplayer. There’s no question that this is the best Virtua Fighter to date, but at just $15 (or $30 if you want some extra customization options), is it worth the price tag?

Gameplay: 5/5

Virtua Fighter has long been considered one of the tighest, most technically proficient fighters on the market, with its precise controls and deep, yet approachable combat system. The latest iteration of the series refines this even further, with massive character balance changes to set everyone on even footing. The system is fairly simple, and moves are composed of punches, kicks, and combinations thereof to deliver a wide range of attacks. In fact, most characters have an average of 30 moves they can perform with various combinations of the D-Pad and punches and kicks. These moves can be chained together into combos, rewarding players with ways to deal massive damage if they can set up their opponents properly. It’s not all about the attacks though – characters can block, jump, and dodge attacks to interrupt combos, and a well-placed strike after a dodge can completely turn the tables on your opponent. Players can also throw opponents (great against heavy blockers) and perform a few heavy blows that can absolutely wreck an opponent if timed correctly. Similar to other games in Sega’s “Virtua” series, the game plays itself off as a fighting simulator, and it works – no fireballs or 20-foot jumps here. Every character practices a real fighting style and the whole experience feels authentic. Speaking of characters, the roster is made up of 20 characters, including returning vet Taka-Arashi and newcomer Jean Kujo.

Arenas are composed of square or rectangular 3-dimensional areas of varying sizes and locations. Some arenas are open, leaving the opportunity to defeat your opponent by knocking them out of the ring. Others have walls surrounding the edges of the arena, allowing for some wicked wall combos if you can knock your opponent into them. Finally, some arenas feature new half-walls which allow for special moves, like El Blaze’s take on the Hurricanrana. You can also do wall combos on characters knocked low on half walls, or throw them over them with high strikes.

Half walls provide a whole new angle to your combat strategy.

The single-player package is a bit limited, and includes standard Arcade and Score Attack modes. The game’s Training option is very robust, however, and does a great job of teaching players the ins and outs of not only the standard controls, but each character’s moves and combos as well. A game as technical as this demands a complete training option, and Virtua Fighter 5 certainly doesn’t disappoint. After getting your feet wet in the single-player modes, you can take your fighter online to fight one-on-one against other players in your region or around the world. This is where Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown truly shines, with near-flawless netcode and a balanced metagame, as well as the ability to make private rooms or use the game’s built-in matchmaking service. If you bought Virtua Fighter 5 for the PS3, you may have felt left out with no online multiplayer mode. Its addition alone makes Final Showdown worth buying for PS3 owners. For Xbox 360 owners, this is less of a compelling reason, since the original version had this feature (it even has it in the title).

Finally, while more of an additional feature than a selling point, Final Showdown supports additional customization options for your fighters’ costumes, available through DLC. It’s a fun feature, but nothing to write home about compared to the excellent gameplay jam-packed into the core game.

Graphics: 5/5

When Virtua Fighter 5 was first released nearly 5 years ago to date, it was hailed as the best-looking fighter on the market. Amazingly, the game still holds up to today’s standards, and in some ways still surpasses them. First, the characters. Each of the 20 fighters are incredibly life-like, sport fluid animations and realistic physics, and are proportioned well. Character models are smooth and sport sharp textures and realistic hair physics. The environments look amazing as well, with intricate attention to detail and wonderful special effects. Water splashes in response to footsteps, snow and sand are brushed aside as characters move through them, and even interact with the fighters themselves. Expect skin to glisten and clothes to get dark and damp when fighting in a watery arena, for example. Perhaps one of the best aspects of the game’s graphics are the excellent lighting. Sunlight gleams through openings in one stage’s windows, producing a beautiful glow effect and reflecting on surfaces, including the fighters. Another arena sees fighters battling on a lit-up dance floor, and shadows dance off the characters as they perform their movements. The best part? The game runs at 60 FPS the whole time. It’s truly amazing to see a game engine from 5 years past hold up to today’s standards – or perhaps developers nowadays have a goal to surpass.

The lighting effects are absolutely phenomenal, even by today’s standards.

Sound: 3/5

Sound in Final Showdown is something of a mixed bag. On the one hand, the soundtrack is somewhat generic and in-line with other Virtua titles, but well-done enough to get you pumped for a fight. Some, in fact, may stick in your head after you stop playing, such as the training theme (my personal favorite). The game has an all-new soundtrack as compared to Virtua Fighter 5, and all-in-all, it does what it’s supposed to and does it well. The game’s sound effects are generally well-done as well, and all the classic hit sounds from previous Virtua Fighter titles return, adding a nice sense of nostalgia to each and every fight. The main area that Final Showdown falls flat is the characters’ voices. Characters from Asian regions, such as China, Japan, etc. will speak Japanese, and it sounds fine. But other characters speak English, and it sounds extremely corny and stilted. I’m looking at you Vanessa! Jeffry may be the only exception to this rule, if only because his loud, aggressive demeanor is so outrageous that you have to laugh anyway. Even worse, the character voices are compressed, so the lack of sound quality will be readily apparent, especially when the game’s soundtrack is playing immediately behind it. It’s a shame, because the awful voice quality is a large detraction from an otherwise well-done sound direction.

Replay Value: 4/5

Nowadays, a fighting game lives and dies by its online capabilities. One can only play through arcade mode on the highest difficulty so many times before they get utterly bored and shelve the game for a while. Thankfully, as previously mentioned, Final Showdown sports an excellent online mode. There’s just something addictive about hopping on each day, showing off what you practiced, and seeing how you stack up against other players around the world. The matchmaking service is generally good, and will try to match you with other players of similar rank. At times, you will be matched with other players who are significantly higher- or lower-ranked than you, but due to the game’s nature, you still have at least a small chance in each match. The online system tracks your Battle Points, which are tallied like Experience Points in an RPG to determine when you rank up. There are only two things I take issue with – the game includes a measure of how often you disconnect from a game, like in most modern fighters. This would be a great feature, except the game can’t seem to tell whether you or your opponent disconnected from the game. Thus, you can be thrashing an opponent, and just before you can get the final round win, he can disconnect and not only rob you of Battle Points, but lower your disconnect rating as well, making others less likely to want to play you. Why the developers didn’t implement some algorithm to tell who disconnects baffles me, and leaves the door open for sore losers to grief their opponent hard. Other than that, it would have been nice to see some sort of Tournament mode, where players can participate in an elimination tournament. Aside from these gripes, the online multiplayer is where players will find the most replay value in the game, unless they set out to master every character in the game and run them through the Dojo and Arcade modes. This is only recommended for the most hardcore fighter fans, however, as that could take quite a bit of time.

Overall Score: 17/20 = 8.5 out of 10

Virtua Fighter 5: Final Showdown proves to be the most definitive version of the fighting simulator to date, and boasts some nice improvements over the base game, especially for PS3 owners who have been clamoring for online play. Some could argue that Final Showdown doesn’t boast the flash and flare of Street Fighter or Marvel vs. Capcom, and other technical fighters like Dead or Alive and Soul Calibur could threaten it, but the bottom line is, Final Showdown is a solid fighter that’s both approachable to new players and rewarding to master by fighting veterans. At $30 (or currently free for PlayStation Plus members), it’s a full-featured fighter at a reasonable price, but owners of Virtua Fighter 5 Online on the 360 may want to pass this up, as it’ll feel like more of the same.

PROS:

+ Excellently-balanced fighter action

+ Online play is addictive and fun

+ Graphics are excellent, even by today’s standards

CONS:

– Voice work is laughable and corny, and voice files are compressed

– Disconnect score is calculated inefficiently, leading to griefing

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode II Review (PSN/XBLA)

Fans of Sonic the Hedgehog have waited patiently for Sonic 4: Episode II, and the wait is finally over! This game does a nice job of connecting past Sonic games in both story and style, as many familiar faces and locales return. The story revolves around Metal Sonic being reborn by Dr. Eggman after his defeat in Sonic CD (originally released on the Sega CD and now also available on PSN/XBLA). During the events of Episode I, Dr. Eggman revived Metal Sonic to locate Sonic while he planned to build a new Death Egg (mk. II). Sonic and Tails race to stop Dr. Eggman and Metal Sonic before the new Death Egg can be completed.

Episode II plays similar to the first episode, yet with some enhancements to the gameplay. This time around, Sonic is no longer solo in Episode II, as Tails returns to aid the blue hedgehog. Tails can either be controlled by the computer in single-player, or in multiplayer in local or online co-op play. With the inclusion of Tails, Sonic can now perform new combo moves, such as the Tail Lift and Power Spin Attack. Tail Lift gives Sonic a temporary chopper lift that he can use to hover in order to reach elevated areas. It also serves as a quick escape from death during certain levels in the game. Meanwhile, the Power Spin Attack combo grants Sonic and Tails a powerful roll (similar to Sonic’s regular spin attack) that can destroy mostly anything in their path. This combo move definitely comes in handy during some of the boss fights.

Special stages also return in Episode II. Similar to how Episode I revived the special stages from the original Sonic, Episode 2 borrows from Sonic 2’s special stages. These special stages are based on a half-pipe race showing a rear view of Sonic and Tails as they try to collect a certain number of rings. If you succeed in acquiring all the rings during a special stage, then Sonic is able to retrieve a Chaos Emerald. Also returning are the Red Star Rings (which were last seen in Sonic Colors and Sonic Generations). One Red Ring is hidden per act, and an achievement/trophy is unlocked after collecting them all.

Also, a nice addition to owning both Episode I and Episode II will unlock you the Episode Metal bonus stages. These stages explore how Metal Sonic survived his battle with Sonic after the events of Sonic CD. During these levels, you take control of Metal Sonic as he races his way through reworked zones from Episode I. Not only are these zones a little different from the first Episode, but there are short segments that show how Metal Sonic received the power he now has in Episode 2, and how he caught up with Sonic and Tails at the beginning of this game.

The old school challenge of Sonic the Hedgehog is still apparent, with creative boss battles and reworked levels from previous Sonic games. It would have been nice to see newer zones rather than older ones retooled for Sonic 4, but the level designs are engaging and fun, and they are reminiscent of past Sonic games. Sonic’s movements are still a little sluggish compared to the originals, but you easily get used to it and the controls don’t detract from the gameplay experience (except for the “flying” stage as Sonic and Tails head for the Sky Fortress in their Tornado plane. This segment was difficult and somewhat boring in its length). The boss battles were well crafted as well, as they gave the player an old school strategy feel. At times, these bosses could prove frustrating, but once you were able to figure out each strategy, the feeling of accomplishment overcame the frustration.

Sonic 4: Episode II is a great DLC game that all Sonic fans (as well as new fans to the series) should play. I’m hopeful that we’ll see an Episode III, but from what’s been said, that would depend on the sales of Episode II. Sonic deserves to remain in 2D form, so I hope to see more DLC episodes down the line.

VERDICT: BUY IT!