Should I Buy? – Batman: Arkham City


Unless you’re some kind of DC hating Marvel fanboy that gets violent every time they hear the word “Kryptonite”, then yes. Arkham City is the sequel to Rocksteady’s surprise critical and commercial stunner Arkham Asylum from a few years back, and is a good example of a sequel done right. Instead of coasting by and making no real attempt to improve on things, City is bigger and better, with more stuff to do and more ways to do it.

Basically, Quincy Sharp, head of Arkham Asylum in the last game, took credit for your work stopping Joker and got himself elected Mayor of Gotham. Then he walled off an entire district of Gotham, dumped all criminals (insane or otherwise) inside, hired heavily armed mercenaries to police it and put relatively unknown psychiatrist  Hugo Strange in charge. A bit suspicious, no? Well, Batman thinks so. Unable to do anything as the Dark Knight, he tries to campaign against it as Bruce Wayne, which results in his incarceration as a political prisoner.

Inside the city, Joker, Two-Face and Penguin have carved out their own criminal empires and  there’s a host of other villains running about like Zsasz and Mister Freeze. And you’ll track them down through both the wide open cityscapes and the more familiar claustrophobic building interiors. The cityscape adds a whole new dimension to the game, and I must say is very well designed. See, in the last game you basically guided Bats from one challenge room to another. There were no alternate routes. Even when outside, the enemies were in scripted locations and the spaces too small for more than a handful of viable approaches.

But with the city full of randomly spawning enemies and with no set paths to traverse, the precision artifice of the encounters from the original isn’t present. Not that traversing the cities is a chore, the layout has obviously been carefully designed for both getting around and for you to do your Goddamn Bat-thing when push comes to punch. There’s also a host of new techniques Bats has for getting around in the big wide open, though on foot travel is pretty much irrelevant in the streets.

The interior sections aren’t as tight as the original, nor as long or prominent. With so many new additions to Batman’s arsenal, it’d be difficult to design encounters to compliment this. For example, much is made of the fact that enemies start laying mines. There’s even a short sidequest that gives you a gadget to counter them. But I can only recall one encounter where enemies will actually use them, and even then the explosions are so small and undamaging that *if* you do run over one the most it’ll do is alert the baddies and make you drop a smoke pellet.

Speaking of which! That’s a major change. Now when gun toting enemies see you, you can drop a smoke pellet to instantly become lost and untargetable. Then, you can safely grapple away or use that Bat-Grapple disarm move on all of them and be in a better position than you started in. Relying on it will make most encounters with gun thugs laughably easy.

Of course, you can choose whether or not to use these balance…unbalancers and  it’s handy to have them when things turn Bat-shaped. The only real problem with Bat’s expanded arsenal of tricks and little things that go buzz and hurt bad men is that there’s so many you’ll often forget you have them. When you’re up on that ledge, do you do an inverted takedown, Sonic Shock Batarang, sneak up on them, rig some explosive gel, attack through a crumbling wall, shock him by charging the surprisingly prevalent electromagnets, glide kick him, Batarang him, Remote Batarang him, Reverse Remote Batarang him,  use a cryo grenade, use a cluster cryo grenade, disable his gun, remote detonate his mine, remote electric shock him, use a Sonic Shockwave, Glide Boost or throw a smoke grenade at him? Your choice.  Yeah.

The main story is longer, and doesn’t get tired. It won’t (and indeed, hasn’t) win any awards but it’s solid fare for a Batman tale. It mostly takes leads from Knightfall and No Man’s Land, though isn’t afraid to mix up established continuity points when it wants to. The villains are integrated well, and the attention to detail with the Batman mythos is fantastic. The boss battles are particularly intense, especially given how lacklustre they were in the last game. Mister Freeze might qualify for both cleverest and most frustrating for years. In the best possible way.

Riddler’s challenges are back. There’s obviously a lot more of them, and now getting a lot of the trophies is a matter of solving a small puzzle. These also tie into a bigger sidequest that involves saving people from Saw-style rooms and tracking down Riddler’s goons to interrogate. It’d take ages to track it all down and complete. Even longer if for some weird reason you don’t Google the solutions.

Adding into ways to extend your playtime are New Game Plus, the additional Challenge Maps & campaigns, not to mention there’s DLC that makes Catwoman, Robin and Nightwing. I haven’t played any of it, so I can’t vouch for it.

But yes, this game is bigger and, in most ways, better than the original. Go buy it. Get hunting for those tantalising hints for a sequel.

The Dr Who MMO Preview is live!


Hello Whovians! The guys who made the free to play Puzzle Pirates have just launched the playable preview for the new Dr Who MMO, Worlds in Time! I’ve been playing it the two days since it’s launch, and you’re all free to do likewise. Find it here at http://www.doctorwhowit.com

It’s pretty fun, and looks great. Basically, the Doctor recruits a whole bunch of people to help him repair time. Somebody broke it. To do so, you have to run around a lot and sonic things. Each different type of action has a different minigame attached that you have to complete to progress. To make them easier, you craft upgrades for your screwdriver.

Unfortunately, doing missions, unlocking the shards for rewards, crafting advanced upgrades and even buying expensive clothes requires energy costs. Currently you get 50 a day for free, that recover at a rate of about one every half hour. Getting more costs money. The lowest bundle is 600 of such Chronons for $3, so it’s value for money at least. Still, 600 energy would last about a week I reckon, so if you really get into playing it, it’ll be a regular purchase.

Much as I like the game, I’m not entirely happy with this method of making their money. I don’t begrudge them for making it, I just know I’ll be regularly paying these small amounts for a long time.

But seriously, try it out anyway. And if you see a Silurian who looks like a space cowboy called Nemo, say hi, he’s one of the devs. And if you see a Catman called Pho, say hi cause that’s me!

Super Special Awesome Retro Review! – Vandal Hearts


Alright, this is the one I really wanted to write. It’s possibly the game from my childhood that means more to me than any other. Even Final Fantasy VII, a game which started a lifelong love tale between me and that series.

Vandal Hearts is a PS1 Turn Based Strategy game from the Before Times. It was a barren, mostly internet-less time. I hadn’t even heard of it when I played this with my dad. Well, I say with my dad. It was more me watching over his shoulder and offering up suggestions.

It tells the story of Ash Lambert, a policeman in the capital of a corrupted democracy that was built on the back of a meaningful revolution to depose the corrupt Empire that used to exist. Yeah, basically governments are shit in this game. Through a series of events, Ash and co. end up in a half political, half magical battle to help determine the fate of the land. Along the way you’ll conveniently recruit four swordsmen, four archers, two black mages and two white mages from whom to build your party.

See, unlike games of this ilk where you’re able to rotate your characters through a bunch of classes or equip them with a bunch of different things to give them different skills and such each of your characters has a class that they can start in, and then choose one of two wildly different classes to change into once they reach Level 10. The interplay of these different classes forms the strategic depth of the game. To quoth the game itself:

“Sword defeats Bow,

Bow defeats Air,

And Air defeats Sword.

Armour is strong but slow,

Mages are weak but wise,

And Monks use word and claw.”

 Thus, you have to choose which balance of classes to make a team that can handle all situations. At least, that’s the theory. See, as hefty as punch as the Armour Class packs, it’s way too slow to serve on the front lines, can’t scale high jumps and gets torn apart by mages, which are a huge late game threat. And while monks have no weaknesses, they’re also not good at anything either. Weaker than Swordsmen, who’re the average fighters, and worse mages than the mages, they’re completely pointless.

No, there’s really only one or two combos that “work”, but applying the rock-paper-scissors while also keeping note of other, standard tactical challenges of this type of game makes for an enjoyable experience. It’s also a lot better balanced, as the limited combinations for both you and the enemy, plus the narrative driven nature meaning you can never play the same map twice means that everything from the terrain to the enemy variety can be much better designed to offer up an interesting challenge.

The downside? There’s exactly one sidequest. The half a dozen challenge maps it opens up are the only battles available outside of the main story. The structure of the game means that all your characters should always be at just the right level, so nobody’s in danger of getting left behind. And the six fairly meaty chapters should keep you interested in the challenge if not the story (which is pretty damn decent for what it is). Then again, when you do finish it Ash becomes a unique class that may as well be known as the “You Win” class, though you’ll only be able to use it in the final few battles.

One thing I love about the story is you know how the political intrigue in a Japanese strategy and/or role-playing game inevitably gives way to world ending eldritch horrors? Not here. Though magic certainly has a role to play in the story, and some of the political stuff breaks down towards the end, they actually form quite a good interplay with magic being subservient.

So yeah, that’s Vandal Hearts. A fun little rare strategy title that’s still my favourite of the genre. What it lacks in quantity of content is makes up for in quality. It seems others agree, because it’s like £100 on eBay.
Of course, I do have a copy. Two, actually. My dad keeps the original (still kinda working) disc we played together safe at his (the original case and booklet long since lost and broken) while I have a working copy that I just can’t resist replaying from time to time.

This holds a honoured in both my memories and on my shelf. It’s an experience I’d love to share with more people. Someday maybe.

Super Special Awesome Retro Review! – Mystic Quest


Time for part two. Another review of something I love but you haven’t got any reasonable chance of ever buying!

Mystic Quest is technically part of the venerable Final Fantasy series. An entry for the SNES, it was meant as a kind of “baby’s first JRPG”  and you know what, it was my very first JRPG. Not that I knew that’s what it was at the time. It was a game I played through with my dad when I was a wee babe of about five.

It’s a very simple story, the Dark King wants to conquer the world by sending a different monster to each of the four elemental Crystals that keep the land running and draining their power dry. So yeah, it stole the plot of Final Fantasy I. You play as Benjamin (renameable), a boy who’s village doesn’t even hang around for a cameo in the intro before getting destroyed so he can have his origin story before a mysterious old man tells you to go sort shit out. Things never get complicated, and it never takes itself seriously.

Along the way, you travel four different areas, one for each of the Crystals, and meet a new companion for each area. Then there’s a mini dungeon and a proper one to wade through, as well as a companion to journey with and some equipment to find.

Instead of having huge equipment lists or spells, everything’s simplified down into a few groups and almost all your new gear is found. Spells are White, Black or Wizard magic, and weapons are Ranged, Sword, Bomb, Claw or Axe type (though you can’t get ranged weapons). Each enemy is weak to at least one of these, so battles are mostly about finding the right tool to take out the enemies before you. It’s not a challenging game, it was meant for stupid Americans (no, literally).

That’s not to say it’s not fun. The game goes with an exploration route. Each of your weapon types has a special ability outside of battle. Swords can hit switches in statues, axes chop down trees, bombs blow things up and claws climb and grab things. This lets dungeons be more than just walking through corridors and breaks things up a lot more than you’d think it would.

There’s not much to hold the interest of an adult that’s got any kind of experience with games, except for nostalgia. Well, if it were released as an iOS App, I reckon it’d do pretty well. It had some great music, and it’s light enough to be enjoyable on the go, especially if they added a quicksave system. Hm. Or maybe as a downloadable game for the 3DS. Yeah. Nintendo, Square Enix, bring back Mystic Quest!

And you see my blogroll over there, click on Type A Little Faster. It’s a weekly writing/fantasy/sci-fi/film/videogame/whatever nerdy stuff the author has in mind blog. Do it. Do it now. This I command!

Super Special Awesome Retro Review! – Guardian’s Crusade


Hi there all you wonderful, wonderful people and Geoff Albertson. I’ve decided that as something a bit special for Christmas, I’m going to write three reviews for games I loved as a kid that you pretty much can’t get these days. What does this do for you guys? Absolutely nothing! Unless you like the sound of them so much you buy them for ridiculous amounts of money online, I suppose.

The first of them is an old child’s JRPG I had back when I were a lad in ye olden days o’ the original Playstation. Guardian’s Crusade, known as Knight & Baby in Japan is about a knight and a pink baby monster. Maybe the Japanese has a more helpful name. Basically, you’re a young man in your home village who finds a baby pink monster and what is supposed to be some kind of God, but looks more like a rabbit-man decrees that YOU, young Knight, must take the creature to the Tower of the Gods.

To be honest, it’s never really more complex than that. When the plot proper kicks in, it does have some fun subverting what a kid might expect. But this is on the level of having the guy with opposite armour colours, a sword slung upside down, and a giant monster that you have to duel be called Darkbeat and actually be another hero you just had the misfortune to meet on the battlefield first. Not that he ever joins you, you only get Knight and Baby on your team (though your fairy friend Nehani occasionally pitches in and there are the Living Toys), and you only get direct control of Knight.

The battling is turn based JRPG stuff. Baby acts based on how much it likes you and a few vague commands you can give him. The only thing you can do other than attacking and using items is deploying your Living Toys. These little clockwork critters have different effects, like attacks, healing buffs and a few special ones like one that serves as a world map, a thief and even one that only exists to give a running commentary of the match when summoned. Collecting these forms one of the game’s few sidequests, which is actually a pretty fun one, one that spans the whole game and has a super special awesome secret toy hidden away, but the lack of endgame side content’s pretty noticeable.

This thing looked dated even back when I was playing it, but it’s serviceable. You can at least tell what things are. What it may lack in graphical fidelity it makes up for in a nice variety of locations. From tiny towns and bustling ports to underground caves and spooky swamps, Dwarven cities and abandoned castle, ridiculously stereotyped “primitive islanders” to an arctic town of talking penguins living in igloos. Yeah. That’s a thing. Talking penguins. Sounds cooler now, doesn’t it?

The game isn’t really challenging. At all. Well, the final boss is a three parter that might trip you up a bit. Maybe. First time through.

Overall, Crusade is a pretty fun, if shallow JRPG with a sense of humour. There’s not really too much to say about it, though I do remember there being an otherwise useless item called the Crucifix that you could use on the tomb of a legendary hero, only to cause the game to freeze. It always fascinated me, and I do wonder what that cut content was.

The next review will probably go up tomorrow, next time for a SNES game.

 

 

 

Oooh…Ebay says the game’s pretty readily available for under £20….hmm…

Should I Buy? – Shadow Hearts Covenant


Er, pft. Maybe? Alright, settle in folks.

Actually, before we get started there are some insights that the guys over to Penny Arcade have on this game: http://penny-arcade.com/comic/2004/10/04

Covenant is the sequel to the PS2 JRPG Shadow Hearts. It’s not a direct continuation of the original game’s story, thankfully, because that was a rather neat little narrative with no need for expansion.

It does take some of the mythology and concepts from the original game, as well as lead hero Yuri, to create a new tale all of its own. And yeah, it’s longer, there’s more characters, the combat’s expanded and better refined, there’s a decent amount of content outside of the main plot, but it’s a bit too sequel-y.

So the new tale sees German military officer Karen called on by Nicolai of the Catholic Church to help defeat a “demon” that’s been defending a town the German Army’s trying to capture. Turns out, said demon is actually Yuri. Nicolai curses him with the Holy Mistletoe, which seals his godly powers and will slowly kill him. Karen decides Nicolai’s not very nice and abandons her position, family and country to help out Yuri. Who has also made friends with an aging puppeteer with a living doll and an intelligent white wolf who also travel with him. No, they never explain how or why.

Probably my biggest disagreement with this game is its shift in tone. By the time you were half an hour into the first game, you were trapped in a village of demon cats, trying to find items for a magical rituals amongst human remains and it set a pretty consistent thematic through-line for the game. This one abandons a lot of the Cthuloid horror for a mix of kitsch comedy and more traditional world domination plots.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the superhero/overmuscled wrestling vampire guy and the hard gay shopkeeper/tailor twins that follow you everywhere, but the game never has great atmosphere. Which is weird, considering that the first half of the game consists of Grigori Rasputin (yes, that Rasputin) leading an ancient cult and seeking Godly power. This would have been perfect for the old Shadow Hearts aesthetic.

And I say first half, because the second disc basically starts up a whole new plot in Japan that spends a lot of time having a much vaguer connection to the first half than when the original game pulled off the continent switching thing.

Alright, on to gameplay. The Judgement Ring is back, now much more easy to customise and it even comes with a variety of modes to suit beginners or more confident players. Instead of only some guys learning preset spells, now there’s a bunch of Materia-like Crests. These also link into a side challenge where you try to arrange them in a grid based on passages from The Book of Solomon for reduced casting costs which is a neat idea if a lot of trial and consulting GameFAQS.

Each character’s unique skills are now gained through character specific sidequests. It’s a nice mix up, but it’s never made clear when or where the item you need is or when the challenge for it is open. Several times, the thing you need to do appears in a dungeon you’ve just cleared out with no clues. It can be a real Guide Dang It to be looking up a puzzle solution on GameFAQS only to realise you’ve now got to load up a save from two hours ago because you’ve missed out on a Wolf Bout for Blanca.

There’s a new combo system in place, where you make several characters act one after the other to rack up bonus damage. Though this is always the best way to handle a tough enemy, I could only ever be bothered to use it to take down bosses (where the added damage can be really substantial). Unfortunately, enemies can do it too, to devastating effect.

The characters are pretty cool, though it’s almost a shame you can only have four in combat. Do you want another reliable physical fighter that can take another few hits? Well then watch Gepetto try to be your primary healer, buffer and black mage! See how your party disintegrates when the boss takes him out!

That said, it’s not too big a complaint and nowhere near as limiting as the three character parties from the original.

The graphics are better and voice acted cutscenes are now standard, though the acting leaves a fair bit to be desired. Also, Yuri was much more interesting when he was a pervy, apathetic bruiser that only cared about fighting that was evolving into a dim but well meaning hero. Here, he doesn’t have a real character arc.

I don’t really think of this game as negatively as I’ve made it sound. It’s still fun, it’s just a different kind of fun. This is ‘solidly made but unspectacular’ rather than ‘flawed gem’. It’s Aliens to Alien. Same universe, different approach, bigger in scope, but somehow loses something in the transition. Not enough to break the deal, but enough to make you pine the simpler days when the attack animations were ridiculously stilted and there were creepy orphanages involved in unholy experimentations.

A simpler time, yes. A better time? Perhaps. Time for tea? Always. And a toast sandwich too? Oh, you’ve twisted my arm.

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