Saint Seiya: Brave Soldiers review

1371840756-saint-seiya-brave-soldiers-7

Lather, rinse, repeat is a mantra that should be kept firmly pasted to the back of shampoo bottles. It’s got no place outside of a bathroom, and certainly no place in a Japanese 3D fighter – but alas Saint Seiya: Brave Soldiers appears to have been built with Herbal Essences in mind.

All its problems are combat-related.[1] A limited repertoire of moves means hours of endlessly stringing together the same two or three combos: dash in to attack, land five hits, knock opponent to opposite end of the arena. Lather, rinse, repeat. Then, with a flick of R1, flt around your opponent and engage a string of counter blows at any time. Or, more accurately, shuffle round the ring waiting for the witless CPU to make a move – like some kind of psychotic pre-pubescent desperately hoping for a school dance partner – just so you can dodge round the back and give them a good slap (on that note I’m sorry for Whitley Bay, Zack.)

Still, a good narrative could have saved Saint Seiya from bargain bin oblivion – after all, it’s based on one of the most popular manga series of all time. So it’s with a sad and shaking head that I say: “Alas, the plot is also a bit pantaloons.” Over 50 characters and three confusing story modes mean that this is a title that can only really be enjoyed by hardcore fans of the original 80’s series.[2]

It all adds up to a game that’s definitely for specialist tastes – something WH Smith would keep behind the counter and you’d have to ask for. And when the cashier gives you a look of scathing disapproval for doing so, don’t say we didn’t warn you.

Rating: 4/10

First published in issue #093 Official PlayStation Magazine UK


[1] Which, when you think about it, is a pretty big problem for a fighting game. [2] The original manga ran from 1986 to 1991 in Japan. In the West it’s known as Knight’s of the Zodiac.

Advertisements

Rainbow Moon Review

1342801530rainbow-moon-screenshot2

To say that Rainbow Moon is addictive is like saying plants photosynthesise because of the sun. Indeed, when yet another celebrity announces their return to rehab, I think “it’s just as well you have never been in Thief Citadel trying to deliver a package of imp wings to Cassar Village. Then, my friend, you would know true craving.”

A retro-style RPG with beautifully modern graphics, Rainbow Moon perfectly combines the old with the new. Our hero, Baldren, is a mute warrior (of course he is) who wakes up on the wrong side of a dimensional portal after having unintentionally released a horde of bloodthirsty monsters into an otherwise peaceful world. The locals are understandably miffed, and Baldren needs to scarper back to his world sharpish.

That’s about as much story as you get, but weak narrative is more than compensated for by the game’s fast-paced tactical combat and addictive stat-based levelling. Battles are turn-based, but well-designed so that the experience becomes more about masterminding strategy than dully waiting for your go to swing a sword. Each defeated enemy drops a pearl that can be used by Baldren’s party to level up, meaning the more battles you enter the quicker you improve and the more you want to whoop some Lvl8 Stone Golem butt.[1]

Attention to detail is a huge strong point of this compelling RPG, with beautiful landscapes, epic music and nuanced customisation ensuring that you stay hooked throughout its endless gameplay[2]. So while you unfortunately won’t find a pot of gold at the end of Rainbow Moon, you’ll be inundated with gems along every step of the adventure towards it.

Rating: 8/10

First printed in Issue #093 of Official Playstation Magazine UK


[1] A nifty feature, however, is that you can choose your encounters, making zubat-esque bombardment a thing of the past.

[2]And I really do mean endless, we’re talking a 100+ hour completion time here.

 

Review: Deadfall Adventures

Deadfall Adventures

Unlike Shackleton, who set off into the arctic armed with nothing more than some tweed and a moustache, fictional adventurers have to contend with significantly more lava and giant rolling boulders than their real-life counterparts.

It’s a sad fact in gaming these days we are less likely to shoot down ravenous bears with a bolt-action rifle than shoot old ladies with an auto-focus camera. James Lee Quartermaine, however, is an adventurer straight from the pages of fiction.

His world, Deadfall Adventures, is a homage to the real nineteenth-century novels of Allan Quartermaine and the pulp action-adventure stories found in the twentieth-century magazines. It’s a classic tale, where a reluctant hero finds himself embroiled in a quest to track down an ancient artefact of terrible power – in this case the Heart of Atlantis – to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands.

Players find themselves transported from the trap-filled catacombs of Egyptian tombs to the snowy wastelands of the arctic, before crashing into the Guatemalan jungle during the game’s eleven hour campaign.

Visually, Deadfall is beautiful. The levels are more like vast arenas, beautifully designed with hidden treasures scattered in locations that the game actively encourages players to seek out. The spirit of adventure is palpable with the soundtrack swapping between the adventurous swell of a John Williams-esque score and the exotic twang of an Egyptian melody when creeping round dark corners.

When Nazis (of course there are Nazis) appear, the tension is irrefutably cinematic and when Mummies (of course there are Mummies) wrench themselves from their sarcophagi, players would be forgiven for playing from behind the cover of their sofas.

On the surface then, Deadfall gets a lot right. The Nazis play perfectly into the traditional lost world tone, with much “zees ees zee end for you Meester Quartermaine!” and occult lunacy, but overall the dialogue is clumsy with the occasional gem of a pithy one-liner as rare as the treasure we’re trying to find. Quartermaine’s relationship with British agent sidekick Jennifer is particularly strained. She exists only to fire the occasional half-hearted shot at homicidal, machine-gun-toting maniacs, get kidnapped or to exchange convoluted banter with Quartermaine.

Deadfall Adventures

The tone of their conversations is teeth-grindingly painful, established early on when a stick of dynamite sends Quartermaine flying, landing between Jennifer’s legs who quips “Comfy, Quartermaine?” The more dodgy lines could have been carried off by more accomplished vocal actors, but their amateurish deliverance strips the characters of any likeability. Instead of being drawn into this lost world of pulp fiction imaginings, we get rom-com clichés and eyewateringly insulting gags like “You had me at ‘well-shaped ass'”. It’s like taking Raiders of the Lost Ark and replacing half the lines with scenes from “When Harry Met Sally”.

Combat is more suited to the point-and-click method of PC gaming than on the console. The crosshair is far too sensitive, making lining up a shot akin to threading a needle. Strangely, it’s also designed so that pressing left trigger to aim is a toggle rather than a snap on and off, resulting in Quartermaine’s gun pitching around the screen as the extreme recoil forces players to painstakingly reposition the camera after each shot. The AI drafted in to help you is also clearly on minimum wage, because they won’t do much apart from hide behind some scenery and occasionally find the time to lob a grenade in the mummy-trying-to-chew-your-face-off’s general direction.

The puzzle sections could have been a real triumph for Deadfall, but the game’s reliance on overly familiar tropes makes them more of a nuisance than intriguing enigmas. Mirrors must be moved, keys picked out of rubble and switches stepped on, but “Press A to pick up Puzzle Piece” prompts are hardly brainteasers.

It seems that, ultimately, despite its best efforts to stand up with the lost world greats, like the pulp magazines that it emulates, Deadfall Adventures is sadly rather disposable.

(First published in  Gamereactor 15/11/2013)

Review : Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider 2013

Lara Croft’s having a bad day. For the old Croft that might mean a broken nail or a failed attempt at locking the Butler in the fridge. For this new Lara, a bad day means kidnap, suspension from the ceiling of a dingy cave, and the uncomfortable experience of being hurled off a cliff before landing in a pool of guts. So take a deep breath and brace yourself because Tomb Raider is an adrenaline shot straight to the heart of Square Enix’s original series.

Normally I would now provide a brief synopsis of the story, but in this case the less players know about the intricacies of the island Lara’s marooned on, the better. Suffice to say, the story begins as a young Lara struggles to escape the sinking ship that was transporting her and her crewmates to an archaeological dig. Washed up on the beach of an island in the South China Sea, Lara is separated from her group and swiftly captured by the island’s current inhabitants: a cult so preoccupied with skewering people on sharp objects they clearly have forgotten basic personal hygiene. As Lara struggles to escape and ventures deeper into the island, the secrets she unearths about its dark history soon prove that men with excessive facial hair are the least of her worries.

Abandoning the traditional structure of swashbuckling adventures punctuated by pithy one liners, Crystal Dynamics have opted for a story of brutality. Seriously, I don’t know what Lara did to upset the developers, but boy she’s paying for it now. In the first eight minutes alone she is knocked unconscious, forced to burn herself alive to escape her captors and chased through a collapsing cave by a cannibal before scrambling up the decaying shell of a WW2 bomber suspended on the side of a cliff as sections of it break away, all with a rusty great nail through her side.

Technically, Tomb Raider’s gameplay is seamless, flowing from area to area with barely any loading screens unless you die – and honestly, you need a couple of seconds to compose yourself because the ways Lara is wiped out are brutal. Saying that though, our stubborn heroine gives as good as she gets and some of the finishing moves players can unlock as Lara progresses in combat would make even Patrick Bateman wince.

Developers have never seemed to nail combat mechanics in the previous Tomb Raider games, but here they’ve finally got it right. Scrounging for scrap metal around the island gives Lara access to a small arsenal of weapons ranging from a bow and arrow to a rifle complete with grenade launcher that can be swiftly switched between in the heat of battle. Hand-to-hand combat is also an option, with timed attacks and dodges often more effective than the traditional bang-bang-you’re-dead-eat-my-bullets technique seen in previous games.

gun lara

While at camp Lara can upgrade her weapons from bits of junk she salvaged around the island – sort of like Duke of Edinburgh meets scrapheap challenge

Still, Tomb Raider is as beautiful as it is bloody. This is a game that’s been five years in the making and it shows. The attention to detail, from fingerprints on the screen of a digital camera to the fact that Lara is programmed to put out a hand to steady herself if you’re running along a narrow cliff ledge, is mind-blowing. Detail tessellation on the island’s surfaces create ultra-realistic environments that players can spend hours exploring, collecting hidden relics and even raiding secret tombs to gain a deeper insight into the island’s history. The only time the game fails in its attention to detail is the time it devotes to Lara’s crew mates. The supporting cast are given very little significant screen time, with the only real attempt to flesh out their backstories coming in the form of scraps of journals scattered around the island that are easily missed.

After the 15 hours of campaign, many have criticised the new multiplayer option designed by Eidos Montreal as an unnecessary addition. Whilst it is significantly weaker than the core campaign, if viewed as an innovative online extra, this new competitive mode is a challenging new add on. Five maps and four match types offer players an entirely new tomb raiding experience, including the ability to manipulate the environment as a weapon against your enemies. For instance, in one map you can ring an ancient bell which conjures up a sandstorm blinding your enemies and revealing to you their locations. It’s a small fish in the big pond of first-person shooters, but a pretty fish nonetheless that’s more than capable of making a few splashes.

The bar has been set high for a Tomb Raider sequel which, if announced, will be launched on the next generation of consoles. The likelihood of it involving actual tomb raiding, though, is slim: it’s more likely to centre in on Lara two months after her adventures on the island, sitting in a hospital bed, feverish from all the diseases she contracted after wading her open wounds through waist deep, festering waters strewn with bloated, rotten corpses.

Still, if you’re anything like me you will finish playing Tomb Raider sleep-deprived and suspicious of anyone with excessive amounts of facial hair. But you’ll also finish it exhilarated and ready to sling a bow over your shoulder, affix a nasty expression of grizzled determination to your face and go scale a cliff. Gripping, gritty and compelling, Lara’s newest adventure really is the cream of the croft.

Review : Hitman Absolution

Hitman

Video games have taught us many things, with “avoid eye contact with a bald man” placing just in front of “always say nice things to people or you’ll get a bad ending” on the Lessons-I-learned-from-my-Console list. Hitman: Absolution is the fifth instalment in IO Interactive’s action-stealth series that follows Agent 47, a man with a penchant for red ties and dropping disco balls on naughty people’s heads. However, after following the Agency’s orders and assassinating his old handler, Diana, 47 has a sudden crisis of conscience. In a scene so full of shower steam, slow mo and emotional staring-into-the-distance that it pans out like an eighties music video, he vows to uphold Diana’s dying wish: protect a young girl, Victoria, from the influence of the Agency who will stop at nothing to get her back.

Once you get past waiting for those Kung-Fu super nuns from the trailer to appear (they really don’t get much screen time), Absolution becomes a darkly engrossing action-thriller as you sneak, strangle and shoot your way through open-ended environments. Some of the best moments of the game occur in levels populated with dense crowds, a particular highlight being a packed Chinatown lit up by hundreds of exploding fireworks. The designers have perfectly mastered the intricacies of rendering a densely populated urban town, at times packing around 1200 NPCs onto the screen of a game that’s running at 30fps on our current-gen consoles. It’s very impressive.

Much of Absolution is open-ended, tense and challenging. When it’s good I have to force myself not to gnaw the edges of my controller in glee, but when it’s bad it makes me want to punch myself in the uterus. 47 can do better. I want to sit him down in front of a whiteboard and projector and demonstrate to him that fondling your forehead and hunching your shoulders is not a socially acceptable way to ”blend in”. I want to send IO Interactive off with notes and ask them to for God’s sake give someone with a vagina more to do than get her tits out then die horribly.

Take Victoria, a young Hit-Girl in the making. Ok, Diana’s last whispered wish is “Don’t let her turn out like you, 47”, and whilst I’m not saying the young Victoria should have her head shaved and sneak around glaring at potential victims with steely blue murder eyes, I am saying she would be a far more interesting character if she pulled a few punches. As it is, she mostly stares poignantly into the distance, bats her eyelashes and occasionally faints when she loses her necklace. Sort of like the old woman from Titanic. But more hot. In a schoolgirl skirt.

HMA-2012-11-25-14-19-55-19-1024x576

Still, two-dimensional characters are an offshoot of the instagram filtered, cartoonish world they inhabit which batters players over the head with giant signs proclaiming “SUSPEND ALL DISBELIEF”. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. When James Bond leaps from a bridge, lands on a train hurtling past at 100mph and nonchalantly straightens up to brush a speck of dust from his unruffled suit no one bats an eyelid. When a 6’4 bald man shuffles past a group of police officers in a Cop uniform and they frown at the barcode on his neck muttering “Who IS that guy?”, an army of eagle-eyed vigilantes get up on their soap boxes of “realism”. A normal cop obviously wouldn’t know the face of every one of his co-workers in a downtown Chicago. Well, I have news for you. Hitman is a video game. Video games are fictional.

So after that clanger, it makes features like the new “unrealistic” instinct ability a bit more palatable. Pressing down on the right shoulder button sends the world into a muffled slow-mo, lighting up areas of interest and key targets in sparkly gold. Similar to Arkham City’s Detective mode, it’s a nifty tool allowing players to map out strategies quickly in environments peppered with multiple possibilities. For Hitman purists it may seem a little like cheating, but those who find it truly offensive can always avoid using it or play the game on a harder difficulty that dispenses with the ability all together.

Absolution gives players a great deal of creative freedom, both in game and in the joyous creation of a Contracts Mode. The Hitman series has always been marked by players boasting about who had the quickest, cleanest or bloodiest kill and here the developers have gifted players with an outlet to establish who releases all their stabbity-stab-kill-kill urges best. Using existing levels, you can design your own assassination challenges, choosing the target, method of kill and constraints yourself before challenging the rest of the big wide world to see if they can match your success. If you get bored of the campaign, this is the perfect anecdote.

With our shelves now stacked full of stealthy assassination games like Dishonoured and the Assassin’s Creed franchise, it is becoming increasingly vital for developers to create something that challenges, entertains and surprises players in equal measure. As part of a successful series, Hitman: Absolution felt the pressure more than most and despite a few lapses in script and plot, it more than delivers in its ability to force players to think on their feet (or sofas) and form a strategy whilst considering multiple angles. At its best, Absolution is a truly brilliant game whose ability to dream up imaginative ways off snuffing bad guys is nothing short of, well… well-executed.

Review : Dishonored

TPCOVERPS3-formockupsIt’s a hard life being an NPC. You wait around for hours for that sanctimonious vigilante whose face has been hogging all the advertising posters to come buy some swanky equipment off you, or examine your dialogue for some nuggets of information about their impending quest, but when they finally show up they ignore your forlorn pre-programmed cries and brush past… Or worse they hack your head off.

Spare a thought then for the NPCs of Arkane Studios’ stealthy assassination game, Dishonored.  Whatever it said in the job description of the soldiers and prison officers of Dunwall City, it clearly failed to mention “Applicants must accept danger of dismemberment by bloodthirsty rats, possession, and be able to whistle at least four bars of ‘what shall we do with the drunken sailor?’”

Then again, maybe it did. The NPCs roaming the dark streets of steampunk city, Dunwall, aren’t the most observant of beings. In one mission, I gravely misjudged the teleporting distance from my cushy patch of shadows to the one just past the loitering guards, and found myself aparating right under their noses. With a panicked shriek I quickly flitted to behind a pillar, looking back in time to see a bemused guard scratching his head, content to disregard the shady masked man who just vanished from under his nose as the mere frolicking of a particularly large and resourceful rat.

Dishonoured follows the plight of Corvo, an assassin who seeks revenge after being framed for the brutal murder of the Empress he was technically meant to be body guarding. The first five-minutes of gameplay taken up with sunshiny skies and innocent games of hide and seek are soon replaced by the dripping walls of a dungeon and the shambling footsteps of zombie-like citizens known as “weepers”.  Turns out it can be a hard life for core characters too.

Undoubtedly, the strength of Dishonored lies in its imaginative gameplay. Each level can be completed in a variety of ways: you can smash your way into a masquerade ball and redecorate the entrance hall with spinal fluid or you can swipe a party invitation off an unsuspecting guest and slip in undercover. Need to infiltrate the hotel your mark is holed up in? Blink across the rooftops and through an open window or possess an unsuspecting fish swimming in the moat to swim through a grate into the hotel’s basement.

Magic really is crucial (there’s a nifty achievement for completing the story with no spells, but what’s the fun in that?). The abilities Corvo wields are a potent mix of explosive combat and creative cunning. When mastered, players are rewarded with complete control of time and space, meaning with a flick of L2 you can stop time, possess the unlucky guard who just fired his pistol in your face, and walk him straight into the path of his own suspended bullet. With the world still in suspended animation around you, you can then blink a safe distance away to the rooftops above, ready to unpause time, grab your popcorn and watch the ensuing chaos. It’s a technical marvel.

Dishonored-1

The beauty of this is the glorious satisfaction of playing a game that actually lets you play it, not just cajoling you down the single track of scripted levels like a reluctant horse bridled with blinkers. The freedom of crafting your own route and set-pieces is one of the game’s main successes, giving the player absolute autonomy and forcing you to pay attention to every scrap of detail in the world around you. You have to work for the answers to complicated predicaments, and each of Dishonored’s nine levels become a playground littered with opportunities for you to build glorious combos with your powers, and ransack hidden rooftops for clues to achieve your goals.

It’s a shame then that with such dynamic skillsets the actual dialogue of Dishonored is so bland. The world is so rich that it screams out for a story to match, but the trouble with a silent protagonist is he becomes the epitome of THAT nightmare guy you’d hate to sit next to at a dinner party. You know, the strong, silent type who can’t hold a conversation and, in the case of Corvo, only seems to want to eat tinned sardines he finds in sewers.

Whilst this lack of character is a deliberate ploy designed to make you project your own personality upon Corvo’s mute canvas, it actually does the opposite, preventing players from immersing themselves fully in the gameplay. What’s more, being dragged back between missions to your allies’ HQ (a rundown pub, because ALL the best plans are hatched over a pint of beer) seriously drags the pacing. It’s a shame that amid such a talented vocal cast as Mad Men’s John Slattery and Lord of the Rings’ Brad Dourif, Corvo himself is unable to find his voice.

Still, the last time we were treated to the sight of a man in an iron mask swashbuckling his way through a corrupted city, it turned out to be the choirboy face of a young Leonardo Di Caprio. Fourteen years on, Dishonored delivers an experience that is far more satisfying, mixing the decadence of Victorian London with the corruption of a dystopian state and a generous helping of arcane magic thrown in for good measure. It has revitalised first-person gaming, breaking away from the generic storm-through-pre-set-levels-and-release-all-those-stabbitty-stab-urges-you’ve-been-bottling-up to create something truly unique, compelling and downright addictive.

Review: Deep Black

7833085902_86c34e74f8_z

 

(First published in Official Playstation Magazine UK 28/09/12)

There’s more gusto in the screams of Deep Black’s harpooned enemies than there is in the shrieks of a skydiving banshee, but fervent voice acting cannot save this flailing third-person shooter. You play as Pierce, a soldier in the midst of infiltrating an underwater facility seemingly designed by Generic Evil Lairs Inc when his run-of-the-mill hostage rescue operation derails into something far more sinister.

Realistic underwater physics are a nifty touch, but fail to mitigate Pierce’s apparent inability to hide behind anything smaller than a scuba-diving mammoth without leaving his derriere floating in the slipstream, ripe for a machine gunning. A game as dead in the water as its protagonist’s bullet-ridden backside.

Rating: 3

Preview : Injustice Gods Among Us

(First published in Official Playstation Magazine UK 28/09/12)

It’s a contentious issue. For years, living rooms the world over have resonated with the shrill cries of the incensed, obstinately defending their heroes as they try to answer the ultimate question.

Who would win in a fight? Batman or Superman?

Finally Netherealm Studios, creator of Mortal Kombat, has devised a solution. Injustice will once and for all settle the dispute, as you’re charged with pitting hero against hero in a brutal battle to claim the title of “most super”. it’s the videogame version of a TV talent show, where everyone’s talent is smashing faces into pulp.

Injustice-Gods-Among-Us-Nightwing-0021

The mechanics are Kombat-esque: a brutal 2D fighter, peppered with meters and subsequent “smash” moves that provide elaborate displays of unrestrained brutality. Each character fires off signature slams in different ways – Bats, for example, parries attacks and counters by smiting rivals under the fiery engine of the Batmobile. Not to be outdone, Flash barrels into his adversary and knocks them flying before embarking on a casual sprint around the Earth’s orbit, then launching into the mother of all uppercuts. If MK celebrates bloody brutality, then Injustice is an ode to visual extravagance.

What truly has us biting our fists in glee, though, are the arenas. A battle between two goliaths of the superhero world was always going to struggle to be contained in a small rectangle of screen. So, if you’re getting bored of one scene, pick your opponent by the scruff of the neck and launch them through the back wall. A few smashed windows and a severe concussion later, you’re in a brand-new area with your rival faceplanted at your feet. It’s a cinematic freedom no other fighting game allows.

Grand Slam

As the battle rages, collateral damage is inevitable. Slam Wonder Woman into the far wall of the Batcave and a weapons cabinet beside her shatters. But this isn’t just a pretty graphical effect of an annoyance for Alfred on cleanup duty. Suddenly grenades spill out, fresh for throwing at your rival’s skull. Every battle stage provides opportunity to rack up killer combos using the world around you as you release all those furious urges you’ve been bottling up.

Unfortunately, self-preservation may wreak havoc with this bombast. Let’s face it, if you know heading over to the right of the screen will lead to a rocket launcher to the face from the big red button Catwoman’s lounging against, you’re going to stay the hell over the left hand side.

Enviromental weaponry devolves into a gimmick when each player dances out of reach, blowing raspberries at the other as electric cables spark forlornly a safe distance away.

Still, with promises of a proper story mode and a choice between power characters (hulking powerhouses such as Solomon Grundy) and gadget characters (weapon-wielding wonders like Nightwing), our fingers are crossed for this game to be the ultimate superhero experience of next year.

And for the record, the answer would totally be Superman. Sadly.