Why the NES Zapper is One of the Greatest Things in the History of Videogames

Nintendo wanted to draw on a broader range of human experiences.  With its motion controls and sensor bar the Wii created a new sort of shared space between our living rooms and the dimension implied by the glowing screen. The revolution was that anyone now knew how to play a videogame.

But here’s the thing, Nintendo already did this, without lasers or gyroscopes or accelerometers or even more than eight bits of memory. I’m talking about Nintendo’s 1984 creation: the NES Zapper.

You can read my full article at Unwinnable.

Game Review: Ninja Gaiden 3: The Razor’s Edge

The long-running Ninja Gaiden series dates back to the eight-bit era, but the franchise’s 3D reboot began in 2004. All three titles in the modern series have been released for both Microsoft and Sony’s platforms, while this most recent title is also available on the WiiU.

I picked up Sigma, the PS3 port of the critically-acclaimed Ninja Gaiden, a number of years ago. Along with the excellent production values, the game brought a number of new innovations to the hack-and-slash genre, and was widely praised for its depth and even its difficulty, forcing the player to really master the controls rather than sleepwalking through the game as in some button-mashers. I remember pushing stubbornly onward, ignoring the game’s helpful queries as to whether, after one more embarrassing defeat, I wouldn’t perhaps like to switch to easy mode.

This latest release was made without the input of director Tomonobu Itagaki, who was behind the previous two titles. The story does follow closely on previous events however, and has much the same feel of the previous games, including defaulting to the kind of difficulty normally reserved for a hard or super-hard mode on a comparable game.

Combat is based on a combination of light and strong attacks, with certain combinations resulting in special moves. There are at least 50 combos for each and every weapon available, some requiring strings of close to a dozen successful button presses. The player can also guard, jump, and dash out of harm’s way.

Carried over from Ninja Gaiden 2 is a dismemberment mechanic. No, it’s not like the zandatsu technique found in Metal Gear Rising.  Here, you just wail on an enemy and eventually a limb randomly falls off. At this point the enemy is near death, which means two things: a) you can kill with either a few more hits or an instant kill execution technique, and b) if you fail to do so, they’ll make a crazed suicide attack on you that does heavy damage.

The story involves an end-of-the-world plot and at least one fairly iconic villain that is a highlight of the game for me. The whole game is pretty over-the-top. The story deals with a futuristic world wherein ninja and magicians co-exist uneasily with military and intelligence organizations.  Here, Master Ryu finds himself on black-op missions, slicing through armoured helicopters and wizards and cloned tyrannosaurs with his magic sword.

Technology and mysticism are both accepted at face value, in a universe that reminds me of another Japanese game franchise, Strider, as much as the classic American animated television series, Gargoyles. I kinda like this world. I like that a villain can appear from nowhere slinging Slavic curses and investigating the genetics of dead gods. In this reality, it would be rather surprising if the odd nut-job didn’t manage to become a supervillain.

In fact, I have no issues with the story, whatever. It is fun even when it’s forgettable. But this is a 100-percent action game, with the levels being so linear they’re practically on rails, and nothing to do but fight through wave after wave of enemies. And the practically unvaried gameplay quickly grows tedious.

Bosses provide a welcome break in the routine, with unique battle patterns that tend to require near-perfect executions to outmatch them, but it’s easy to lose patience. Defeating the T-Rex requires the player dodge and attack, dodge and attack, for what feels like 50 repetitions without a mistake. Cheap deaths from a damage box that doesn’t quite match up properly is the icing on the cake.

I managed to make it about halfway through the game before switching to easy mode simply for the sake of getting it over with.

To be fair, I didn’t spend any time practicing the enormous list of specialized combo attacks, partly because so many can’t be executed without an average enemy dying or blocking before they’re complete, and partly because there’s no in-game pressure or assistance to do so. Maybe if I’d gone out of my way to better engage with some of the more advanced attacks, I would have found the gameplay more interesting. But with the combat already feeling clunky, repetitive, and outdated, I suspect few players will be inclined to play around with 13-step combos.

Additionally, I would have liked to see Team Ninja acknowledge some of the innovations made in the genre over the last 10 years. Consider the Metal Gear Solid and Devil May Cry series, the latter for its fluid battle-mechanics and combo system, and the former for its stealth action (Tenchu: Stealth Assassins might make an even better point of comparison). Ninja Gaiden 3 actually does introduce stealth kills, in the very first level, then abandons it, almost never letting the player do it again.

The rapid-fire button combinations used for customized actions during boss fights, utilized heavily in God of War and borrowed by everybody else since (including Metal Gear Rising),  are fitted in here.  However, they’re done in such a pointless and half-assed way I again wonder at the point. It rarely goes beyond rapidly tapping the square button for two seconds.

Ryu can wall-climb and ninja jump up narrow crevices. This is a cursory exercise of pressing the jump button a few times. Platforming is out; free-roaming environments are out. I think of the fact that we have an actual ninja running through cities and leaping from building to building and how it’s no different than pressing X to open a door and it seems like a huge missed opportunity.

Have the developers never heard of Mirror’s Edge? Or Prince of Persia? They give Ryu a wall run ability, but it’s pointless since the level design isn’t there to make it needed. The odd impossible-to-screw-up jump seems like lip-service to the platforming other games have done so well, and it basically amounts to a tease. Add it to the list of half-implemented ideas done better elsewhere.

Team Ninja’s error is not Icarus’ — they have not reached too high only to plummet. Quite the opposite, this game suggests a profound lack of ambition. The result is a decent weekend distraction and nothing more.

Article first published as PlayStation 3 Review: Ninja Gaiden 3: The Razor’s Edge on Blogcritics.

Gaming Review: Disgaea 2: Cursed Memories

Disgaea 2 was released in North America for the PlayStation 2 in 2006. Its predecessor was published by Atlus, three years prior, but since then, Nippon Ichi Software had established a forward camp stateside, and so it was NIS America that handled localization and publishing on the sophomore game of what’s become their flagship RPG series.

Previous to 2003, this developer would probably have been best known for Rhapsody, their critically well-received and very cute musical RPG (the only one of the series to be released outside of Japan). But with four titles in the main Disgaea series thus far, multiple re-releases of most of them (Disgaea 2 has itself been ported to the PSP in an enhanced version prior to this PlayStation Network port of the PS2 original), plus several spin-offs (the Prinny side-scrollers, for example), this wonderfully weird developer is gaining some real traction here.

As well they should. The gameplay in this title is unusual and deep, following the best tactical RPG tradition while putting some unique spins on it; the story is wacky, but not without an emotional core that allows for some real player engagement. The localization is top-notch. The voice actors are great, and I can’t find any fault with the translation.

The story involves a young man, Adell, who is the last human being in his world, the rest having been turned into demons by the Overlord’s curse. Set in one of many Netherworlds in interconnected dimensions, our hero’s goal is to defeat the all-powerful demon and turn everyone back to normal. To this end, he ends up kidnapping/escorting the Overlord’s daughter, who leads him grudgingly to her father while plotting to kill Adell, though her feelings towards him become more complex, over time.

The whole world has something of the feel of InuYasha, with a bit of Rama 1/2 thrown in for good measure. The characters are frequently morally ambiguous, though not irredeemable, and the whole thing is light-hearted and cartoony enough that what might otherwise be considered black humour is fairly innocent. Jokey things, like explicitly referring to an enemy’s in-game stats (I think Etna was at level 10, 000), push at the fourth-wall without puncturing it.

The gameplay is almost entirely comprised of battle tactics. There are a finite number of battles in the game, each a carefully orchestrated puzzle with multiple solutions. There is no world map and there are no dungeons, thus, no random battles. So this game is essentially chapter-based, and thus very linear (though the player can replay any previous battle at any time for bonus points, prizes, and cash).

At first I missed the world map. The inability to explore freely seemed both constraining, and to take away from the sense of a larger world that our story takes place in. Over time, though, it didn’t bother me much. The break from repetitive random battles, at least, is a plus to me.

In-between battles, the player’s party is (usually) in the main character’s hometown. This is the hub through which every other aspect of the game is accessed. There are a few NPCs wandering about who will simply chat with you, but almost everybody else has a specific function.

There’s the tutorial guy, there’s the item shop guy, the armor guy, the hospital (like an inn, you pay them money to heal your party), and there’s the travel guide, to whom you speak when you’re ready to go to the next level.

There are also two interesting side-quests that the player can dump, potentially, much more time into than the main game itself. The Item World allows one to literally jump into their own items, fighting their way through one randomly-created level after another, with the aim of powering up the item itself.

These levels are randomly generated each time you enter, and sometimes are not actually beatable (i.e., sheer cliffs or large gaps might prevent your party from either reaching the enemies they need to defeat, or the exit to the next level), which means you should never play the Item World without taking with you an emergency exit pass.

The other potential time-sucker is the Dark Assembly. All kinds of character upgrades can be done there. Mana earned in battles (which is tied to each individual character and is non-transferable) can be spent on reincarnation, allowing the same character to be reborn at level 1, but with a higher base potential, or even as a better character class (of which several can be unlocked). Mana can also be used to create new characters.

Depending on what you want to do at the Dark Assembly, you may need to win a vote from the senators there (all monsters), by bribery or brute force. It’s all very complicated and, for the purposes of the main game, not necessary, but there’s plenty of opportunity for party customization if you want to sink in the time.

In fact, you can generally get by without supplementary characters at all. Over the course of the game, enough actual story characters will join your party, that the addition of additional character classes isn’t strictly necessary, though it might be helpful.

The core of this game is still the battles themselves. You can take out up to ten characters per fight, and they don’t need to be decided in advance. The battlefield is grid-based, but includes a height dimension. Depending on weapons and attacks, your characters can damage one or more enemies at various distances. Enemies can also be reached via a lift and throw option that the stronger characters can manage.

It’s possible to stack up all ten characters on top of each other, like a totem pole, and to rapidly move characters across the field of battle in a single turn, via repeated lifts and throws. This can be critical when beating an enemy to the punch, or taking a key position early, can wildly change the tide of battle.

Enemies, too, can be lifted and thrown, perhaps directly into the path of another character’s area attack. And piggy-backing characters can also combo attack a single enemy, reaching further and hitting harder, while combination attacks also occur in other formations, with flanking characters jumping in to help a main attacker, offering free hits that don’t actually count as their own turn.

I haven’t even talked about geo effects, about which there is too much to say here.

Everything in the game, from weapons to special attacks to character types, is so customizable, no two people will set up their party or fight a battle in quite the same way. Perhaps it’s a little too customizable: since characters level up by defeating enemies and successfully performing actions, it’s possible to power up your party unevenly and hurt your long-term fighting power as a result.

But on the whole, this game is well-realized, polished, and simply fun to play. Though the depth is there, if you just want to complete the main game, Disgaea 2 can be tackled in a (relatively) casual fashion, which means I can recommend it for hardcore and more casual RPGers alike.

Article first published as PlayStation 3 Review: Disgaea 2: Cursed Memories on Blogcritics.

Gaming Review: The Cave

The game opens with a brief monologue, delivered by none other than the living spirit of a magical cave. Yes, a talking cave. It makes dating hell.

The Cave doesn’t take itself too seriously, and neither should you. Booming proclamations and self-aware melodrama are used to good effect in this entertaining adventure/puzzler. There’s also more than a little bit of black humour.

Choose three of the seven characters hanging around at the title screen to begin the game. I don’t know if archetype is the correct word for this motley crew. We have “the time traveller”, “the hillbilly”, and “the monk”, for a start. But though each has their own quest to fulfill — true love, enlightenment, that sort of thing — what they all have in common is a willingness to lie, cheat, steal, and worse things, in order to get what they want.

The control scheme isn’t terribly important. This isn’t a game of reflexes, by and large, but of finding the right item and taking the correct actions at the appropriate time. The game’s available on every system and it should make no particular difference what console you decide to download it to.

The game is ultimately in the tradition of the old text adventure games of the ’80s, though updated with a graphical interface, much like Windows updated the user experience for PC operating systems. Actually, creator Ron Gilbert previously brought this type of gaming to consoles with the NES-era title, Maniac Mansion, and guess what? It still works.

It’s also pretty cool to see Sega, which has been exclusively a software publisher since getting out of the hardware game in 2001, getting some buzz on an IP that didn’t originate in the ’90s. Sonic the Hedgehog is great and all, but I like seeing something fresh from some of the old guard.

Each character has a special ability, required for their own quests but otherwise mostly irrelevant. Some of them allow you to cheat at the non-character specific quests, shortening aspects of certain puzzles depending on who you have. But for the most part, the game is one of switching between characters, collecting special items, and using them appropriately.

The puzzles are fun, challenging without being maddening, with the solutions making sense in retrospect, although they may not be obvious at first. There’s no dying, although the cave is full of dangers. Characters immediately respawn if eaten, blown up, or squashed, with no major time penalty to the player.

The Cave’s biggest flaw is that they designed the game for replay but hampered their own replay value. Having finished the game with three characters, you’ll want to select another three, so you can see their special levels. But now you have to redo all those generic levels again along the way.

Doing a second or third run-through is fine for sidescrollers, platformers, action adventure titles and the like. But not the tedious steps of “solving” a puzzle you’ve previously completed. That’s boring.

The developers would have been better off having all seven characters available (though only three per section), and making the game longer so that each level could be completed without repetition. Alternately, replays with new characters should allow the opportunity of skipping previously completed sections.

Another possibility suggests itself. If the characters’ special abilities played a greater role in level completion beyond collectibles and achievements, a replay might take on new meaning. The same level might have had to be played in an entirely different way based on the characters available, essentially meaning entirely different puzzles would be solved depending on who you play with.

Alas, it is not so. The choice of characters has little effect on how you play the game, which strikes me as a missed opportunity. That’s a shame, since going through the game the first time was such great fun, I wish I could enjoy playing it again.

Make no mistake, though. That first playthrough is just enchanting. I think everyone should check this one out just once.

 Article first published as PlayStation 3 Review: The Cave on Blogcritics.

Game Review: Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two

In the last months of 2012, a well-known but failing department store chain called Zellers was acquired by Target. The inventory of Zellers’ stores had to be liquidated by their shutdown date, and I strolled its aisles with the other vultures, thinking to pick at the bones.

I went not once, but twice, each time seeing a pile of heavily discounted special edition boxes of Epic Mickey, for the Wii. Twice before I had almost bought a copy of the game, but for whatever reason hadn’t.  Here, once again I walked away, empty-handed. I had a few unfinished games at home already, and though I was intrigued, it wasn’t a must-play (if there still is such a thing for me).

The game’s been somewhat polarizing, and I think I have an idea why. Long-standing Disney properties bring a certain caché that can’t be whipped up out of thin air, and the company is careful how they leverage that. Putting Mickey in a mediocre game would be like making a bad sequel to a brilliant film. It’s pop-culture sacrilege.

Fan hatred is a scary thing. The mixed response to that first game meant that a sequel needed to fix everything that didn’t work, or replace it with something better.

I like the idea of this series a lot. I like that Walt Disney’s first cartoon creation, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, is Mickey’s bitter doppelganger, existing in a “Wasteland” of forgotten cartoon characters. There’s a very meta, self-aware quality to the whole idea of a real-life legal battle resulting in the fictional abandonment of a living intellectual property.

This surreal, self-referential conceit continues into the basic game mechanic. Mickey, a cartoon, wields both a magic paintbrush and a bucket of thinner, giving him the power to create or destroy the very fabric of reality as he knows it. Obviously this works well with the Wii, though you can also play the PS3 version with an ordinary controller (it’s Move-compatible).

This unique gameplay mechanic carries over into the sequel, but is paired with the abilities of Oswald, who has switched from antagonist to partner. He gets a magic remote, with vague electrical/machine-controlling powers.

I love the idea of this world. It includes familiar as well as little-known characters and half-remembered cartoons from the ’30s that I remember seeing as a kid, all transformed into black-and-white 2D sidescrollers. Unfortunately, they tend to be rather tedious.

The game is two-player co-op, whether you want it or not. Oswald and Mickey must work together to progress, combining their powers to solve any number of puzzles. If you don’t find a friend to play with you, the AI will take over, but there’s no solo version of the game.

The upshot of this is that your partner switches between making the game tediously easy and frustratingly difficult. With the AI in control, you will sometimes bumble your way through poorly-designed puzzles without even understanding how you did it simply because one half of it was automatically completed for you. Of course, at other times you will want Oswald to do your bidding and get no help at all.

Either way, it can be frustrating to be left out of the driver’s seat.

There is a binary, morality-based system as in Knights of the Old Republic or Infamous.  Enemies can be defeated (and puzzles solved) through the use of constructive paint (good) or destructive thinner (bad), which I found frankly annoying, because it encouraged me to not make use of my full range of abilities.

They really upped the ante by adding more and more new ideas — more than they were able to deliver. The game is supposed to be a musical. In reality, it’s only the demented scientist (an enemy from the first game), who sings. Story scenes switch from being fully-voiced to text halfway through, as if they ran out of time or money.

I know they are trying to create a gameplay experience that is truly different, and a world that is completely immersive, but it doesn’t always come through. Ambitious is the word.  Ultimately, however, whatever difficulties there may have been behind the scenes, the result for the end user should feel finished and effortless, and instead, the whole thing feels unpolished and bland.

It is easy to make mediocre games by playing it safe. Here, they made a mediocre game that failed at greatness, and I think they perhaps deserve some credit for that, along with the blame.

Article first published as PlayStation 3 Review: Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two on Blogcritics.

Game Review: Pokémon White Version 2

It’s hard to believe the Pokémon series is still going strong when all logic suggests it should have completely saturated its own market position. The series began when I was 14, and has now been running long enough that I could have gotten married, had kids, and bought them their own brand-new Pokémon games by now.

Pokémon Black and White marked the fifth generation of Pokémon games, and as was the case with every previous generation, the games make up a duo. Released together, they are essentially the same game with some minor changes in the Pokémon type availability or frequencies, and a single in-game area unique to each version.

Unlike previous games, Black and White provided a sense of “back to basics”, perhaps in a bid to introduce a whole new generation that had grown up since the start of the franchise. Like the very first games in the series, the available Pokémon have not appeared previously. Now, with the release of Black Version 2 and White Version 2, this generation has offered another first for the series: a direct sequel to a previous game.

While previous series have always seen an enhanced follow-up or deluxe edition a year or two later on the same handheld (from the original Game Boy all the way to the current DS/3DS titles), not to mention a flurry of spin-offs and tie-ins on other systems, both iterations of Version 2 provide a whole new story set in the same Unova region as the first Black and White, but with new characters and towns, a brand new main character (which, as a stand in for the player, has no defining characteristics whatsoever; not even a default name), and some new mini-games.

The basic gameplay is unchanged and includes the same features introduced with this generation of the series. However, the availability of Pokémon is different. While 151 new species were introduced with Black and White at the expense of seeing any old favourites (series mascot Pikachu, for example), Version 2 includes a selection of previous Pokémon mainstays along with the new set introduced for this generation.

The basic story is two-fold. As always, the player character (who could be either eighteen or eight) is sent out by his mother to travel the world and become a Pokémon master. To do this he has to capture and train up Pokémon (through the usual RPG expedient of battling, levelling-up, and learning special moves in multiple ways), defeat eight different gym leaders for their badges, and then enter a major tournament in order to battle and best the greatest Pokémon trainers around.

As a parallel and interweaving plot, the player, through no fault of his own, will find himself constantly battling against an organization of supervillains, the remnants of Team Plasma from the previous games, ultimately stopping their nefarious world-dominating plots while en route to Pokémon mastery.

The player eventually has the opportunity of encountering one of the two legendary Pokémon of the Black and White games. In Pokémon White Version 2, it’s the Vast White Pokémon, Reshiram. His anti-thesis, Zekrom, the Deep Black Pokémon, was capturable in Pokémon White, where Reshiram appeared as a boss battle, but was not obtainable by the player. So players of both the original and this sequel can get the matching set of legendaries. The same end may be achieved by trading, or by playing Black Version 2 along with this game.

I find the battle strategy in Pokémon is not as deep as other RPGs. Though the sheer numbers of Pokémon available, not to mention the potential for move customization in each one, mean there are many, many ways to skin a Meowth, it’s also true that, by simple weight of variables, the results of a given match-up can be a bit of a crap-shoot.

Not all Pokémon are created equal, and while it would be nice to pull out one’s fire-type Pokémon to wipe the floor with an opponent’s grass-type choice, the player is probably better served pumping up the all-around fighters with few weaknesses. I have a Genesect who never loses to anybody, and a little Sunkern who can’t win against opponents 15 levels lower than him. Que sera sera.

Of course the theme song of the uber-popular anime series is “gotta catch ‘em all”, and indeed, the collection of pocket monsters and completion of the Pokédex is what plays on the obsessive-compulsive personalities old-school gamers are known for. The battles aren’t particularly interesting because most any match-up is one-sided, and the story is pretty bland. The world-building has reached a point after so many games where credulity is nearing the breaking point.

(Is every non-human living thing a Pokémon? What do people eat? How does an economy function where anything and everything has something to do with Pokémon? What about basic things like farming and manufacturing? And if every ten-year-old goes out to capture weird monsters for glorified cock-fighting instead of attending school, where do nurses, engineers, and other professionals come from?)

The battle animations, though revamped already for the first Black and White, are still basically NES-era Dragon Warrior. The sprites move slightly, an effect happens. I know Nintendo’s handhelds have always striven for gameplay over power, but this pseudo-animation is a bit weak for a 2012 RPG on any system.

But with the main game finished, will I still pick up my DSi for a few more rare Pokémon hunts, some online trading, and a more complete Pokédex? You better believe it. Despite my nitpicks, this series is still quicksand for completionists. Stay far away if you don’t have forty-plus hours to spare in the near future.

Article first published as Nintendo DS Review: Pokémon White Version 2 on Blogcritics.

Game Review: JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure HD Ver.

Even after Sega officially stopped production of the Dreamcast system, the console continued to sell steadily, used Dreamcasts quickly being gobbled up from second-hand store shelves. It became, for a short time, the gaming equivalent of Latin: a dead interface that would never see any new works, the beauty of it and the quality of its existing library drew gaming aficionados to it.

As I contemplated reviewing this particular title, I wondered if this manga-based port might be one of the ill-fated console’s many hidden gems. Only one way to find out, of course.

JoJo‘s Bizarre Adventure is a Street Fighter-era 2D brawler with a cast of characters that, excepting the chihuahua, seems no more bizarre than any other fighting game of its time. The fighting system seems fairly typical at first, with various types of punches, kicks, and projectile attacks, depending on the character. What sets this title apart is the “Stand” ability–a second fighter–possessed by each character.

A sort of inner spirit or projection of the fighter, both the appearance and behaviour of this second self varies wildly from character to character. Some will hang back and let their Stand do the work, allowing the player to control it directly. Others manifest the stand as a shadow that mirrors their movements, allowing every attack to, potentially, hit twice.

Others are in-between. Jotaro, for example, can send his Stand forward as a type of projectile attack. A certain attack calls up the Stand to rush forward and let off a flurry of punches before fading away. One useful strategy therefore is to have the Stand perform its one-off as either an opener or a distraction, while simultaneously diving in after it with a follow-up attack.

The strategic possibilities of this tag-team style fighting are intriguing, though they’re also very different from character to character and Stand to Stand. And, of course, there’s a defensive side as well. A character takes damage either from direct attack or attacks on his Stand.

Use of the Stand can leave the main character wide open to attack, especially for those characters who stay still while the player controls the Stand remotely. Too much damage on the Stand itself also has its risks: the Stand will fade and the character will be left dizzy and open to further punishment.

The game is 2D sprite-based so the HD aspect of this re-release is less important than it might otherwise be. Some parts of the game are a bit dated. The gameplay is perhaps a little less fluid than Street Fighter and other series would become, but the Stand system is also unique, even today. Somehow the idea hasn’t (to my knowledge) been copied and appropriated into other game franchises.

Perhaps the most notable quirk of the game (I hesitate to call it a weakness) is its high learning curve. No effort is made to ease the player into it’s fighting system. There is no tutorial, no in-game hints, no move lists, nothing. You have to experiment and play around if you want to master your character. This is old-school 2D brawling, arcade style: play, lose, get frustrated, experiment, and make joyous discoveries.

Since many likely missed it the first time around, this might just be a chance for classic fighter enthusiasts to experience a new game like it’s 1999 all over again.

Article first published as PS3 Review: JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure HD Ver. on Blogcritics.

Game Review: Growlanser IV

Originally a Japan-only PS2 release way back in 2003, Growlanser IV was remade with expanded content and new characters for the PSP system in Japan last year. This time around, they opted for an English-language release to follow.

And it’s actually a little surprising we didn’t see this title in North America after its initial release nine years ago. The story isn’t too far “out there” — one of those untranslateables which, in the old days, just didn’t seem like they could flourish outside the Japanese milieu. In fact, after a slow start, the characters and storyline are entirely decent in this very playable, though admittedly, high-difficulty TRPG.

Marketing mysteries aside, the sprite-based, classic gameplay is the sort that ages well in the bottle. With the updated content, there’s no sense that this is a decade-old game, nor that it was ever intended for anything other than than a Playstation Portable system, as is the case sometimes with simple ports.

Despite the fact that this game is fourth in a series, the story and characters appear to stand entirely alone. The narrative revolves around a character named Creville, the archetypical “silent protagonist” of RPG convention, whose only dialogue is selected by the player in a multiple-choice fashion. We find out early on that he is a so-called “Ruin Child”, individuals found in a technological stasis in the few remaining structures from an ancient civilization.

The same threat that wiped out this advanced ancestral culture, some 2000 years before the events of the game, may be arising again. However, these mysterious forces, in the guise of city-destroying angels, almost fall to the background for much of the game, as no less than four different countries wage war against each other.

Starting out as members of a mercenary band, the characters fighting both on and alongside your team shift allegiances several times, ultmately battling with and against the members of several nations’ armies. The discovery of ancient magical spells are treated as a major tactical advantage, since initially, only one nation has access to them.

(The player also has the option of unlocking better and more powerful spell abilities of his own by performing sidequests and putting supporting members of the team to work on magical research.)

Combat-wise, tactics overshadow level-grinding as the big timesuck in this title. Rather than spending hours clicking “attack” in dungeon runs, the player can expect to put in the same hours going through the same boss battles until the trick to undoing the enemy defense becomes clear. This is particularly true with extra-challenging clear conditions that vary from rescuing hostages, defending strategic routes, and guarding VIPs.

A plethora of special abilities and accessories (everything from stealth skills which allow Creville to more closely approach an enemy before beginning a battle, to random chances of inflicting or resisting status effects) make preparations before a big battle as important as commands in the fight itself. Side missions and non-battle activities at the home base, including business ventures, weapons research, and, oddly, city planning, all ultimately feed into supporting the player’s fighting power. It’s a sort of “supply lines” strategy aspect to the game that I found unusual and interesting.

Atypically for a TRPG, battles are active time rather than strictly turn-based, and movement is analog instead of based on a grid. More typically for a TRPG, boss battles (which usually feature tough odds against overwhelming numbers of enemy soldiers) are usually an affair of 30 minutes to over an hour. Never get complacent. Much like a game of chess, it’s not over until it’s over. Victory can be snatched away, even in the final minutes of a campaign.

On the whole, I found the game often frustrating, but remarkably addictive, and ultimately rewarding. The story and characters aren’t going down in gaming history for me, but the gameplay is interesting and challenging, and the engaging and plausible way the non-battle elements of the game tie in with field tactics put this one over the top for me. Recommended.

Article first published as PSP Review: Growlanswer IV: Wayfarer of Time on Blogcritics.

Game Review: Shank 2

In a nameless, war-torn Latin American country, a group of brutal state militia pull over a bus and start waving guns and knives at the frightened people aboard. One approaches a solitary, hulking figure in back who has failed to evacuate the vehicle. The soldier draws a bead with his gun, and promptly loses his hand at the wrist.

This is the opening of the first level of Shank 2. By the end of it, Shank, the main playable character, will have gutted a hundred or more anonymous soldiers, using only a pair of machetes, an endless supply of throwing knives, and a pair of smaller, shiv-like blades. In the glow of the burning enemy base, the bus driver returns, and asks the blood-covered figure if he is part of the rebellion. “What rebellion?”

Yep. Don’t look for deep story here, though the melodrama in this 2-D brawler does have a way of sucking you in. This is a melee version of Metal Slug or Contra, with the violence ratcheted up a couple notches, and the battle system a bit deeper and more challenging. This is the game for the adolescent boy in all of us, and it fills him with glee.

The gameplay includes three main attack buttons, a quick blade attack good for starting off combos, a heavy attack (which varies between selected weapons: machetes, chainsaws, or a sword, for example), and a ranged attack (throwing knives; pistols). Besides this, Shank can grab and throw, pounce, take hostages, juggle enemies in the air.

Boss fights hold to the same core gameplay style but are sufficiently unique to keep things interesting. On the second or third level, I felt briefly overwhelmed by the number of different moves (a rolling attack I thought was oddly placed on the R3 analog stick). Every single button has an assigned function, and more than once I’ve thrown a grenade (R1) when I meant to pounce (R2).

Keeping track of so many unique moves and still managing to perform combos takes a bit of practice. I wouldn’t mind seeing the options slimmed down just a little bit, but I appreciate the potential for better and more advanced techniques for anyone who wants to put the time in.

I also appreciate the near-seamless integration of cut-scenes with gameplay. Each boss fight will allow for one super-attack (with a custom cut-scene) when you do enough damage. But it still feels like part of the fight; the damage bar still stays on-screen.

It’s mindless, gory, over-the-top fun. Way more to it and way more fun than I expected for a 10 dollar download title. If you’re into this sort of thing, I’d say it’s worth a look.

Article first published as PlayStation Network Review: Shank 2 on Blogcritics.