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Alundra 2 (2000)
It ain't pretty, but it's one of the better 3D action RPGs on the PlayStation
(www.plasticpals.com) Alundra 2 ditches the 2D visuals and dark subject matter of the original in favor of 3D graphics and a comical adventure story. However, the action RPG game play of the original is largely kept intact, including Alundra's heavy focus on platforming. In this game, a pirate hunter named Flint becomes embroiled in a conspiracy masterminded by Baron Diaz, who is attempting to usurp the throne a neighboring kingdom and steal its legendary treasures.
Gone are the various sub-weapons and most of the secondary items, but you'll upgrade your basic sword and shield and gain access to elemental rings which can be used on enemies and traps as well as summon powerful screen-filling attacks. For example, you may need to pick up and place bombs and then shoot one with the fire elemental to cause a series of chained explosions. You'll also find puzzle pieces scattered throughout the game world. These can be traded with a swordsman who teaches Flint how to add extra moves to his regular one-hit attack.
The transition to 3D works OK for the most part, since the designers kept things simple by using an overhead perspective, rather than going with the more ambitious style of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. The biggest issue is that the collision boxes on enemies and bosses seem a bit too big, and as a result you'll often get hurt when you move in close to score a hit even if the enemy is simply standing still. This can feel a bit cheap at times, especially since enemies deal much more damage to you than you do to them. The game balances this out by allowing you to carry tons of healing items, but it's not ideal.
Unlike most PlayStation RPGs, this game doesn't have any flashy animated video sequences. Instead, all the cut-scenes are presented using the in-game graphics engine. This wouldn't be a problem (and can even be preferable, as it ensures visual consistency), except the character models look pretty bad when seen up close, and the animation is also very choppy. That said, the characters and enemies look OK from a distance and are more detailed than the ones in Brave Fencer Musashi.
The cut-scenes are mildly amusing, with a light-hearted Saturday morning cartoon vibe throughout the adventure, helped by voices that suit the characters. The music is about average, though it can get repetitive since there aren't that many tracks.
Alundra 2 fixes many of the issues I had with the first game. There are some tricky puzzles in this game, but they usually don't require expert jumping or timing, and they never throw randomness into the mix. And, unlike the first game, most switches automatically reset if you fail so you don't have to leave the room to reset them.
There are a couple of areas where the game does feel a bit unfair, though. The chase sequence in the Giant Bull, for example, has you racing down a winding path while avoiding pitfalls. Similar to levels in Crash Bandicoot, Flint runs towards the camera, preventing you from seeing what is ahead of him until the last second. The camera should have been positioned further away from him to give the player more time to react. Luckily the game gives you frequent checkpoints in this section, which mitigates the problem.
Many fans of the original Alundra really hated this game, mainly because it has nothing to do with the events or characters of the first game, but I came away enjoying it much more. Alundra 2 may be rough around the edges, but it's nowhere near as frustrating as the original. Sure, it doesn't make a very good first impression, but if you stick with it there are some surprisingly good dungeons and puzzles in the latter half of the game that are worth completing.
The polygonal graphics are serviceable at best and as I mentioned there are issues with the collision detection on enemies, but considering this was Matrix Software's first attempt at 3D, it certainly could have been a lot worse. If judged as its own entity, Alundra 2 can easily hold its own against other PS1 3D Action RPGs like Brave Fencer Musashi and Threads of Fate, but it's certainly no Zelda-killer.
Frequently becomes more frustrating than fun to play
(www.plasticpals.com) On the surface Alundra looks like a garden-variety Zelda clone, but at heart it shares more in common with Landstalker (SEGA Genesis), featuring challenging jumping puzzles not found in the Zelda franchise. That's no surprise as many of Alundra's development team came from Climax Entertainment, the company behind Landstalker and several other classic 16-bit RPGs. It's known for its above-average difficulty and its beautiful 2D graphics.
Alundra, an adventurer with the ability to enter people's dreams, washes up on shore near a small town. It turns out the townspeople are afflicted with strange nightmares that can kill them, so Alundra enters their dreams to fend off a mysterious evil power. As an outsider the townspeople don't always trust him, but later he is joined by a fellow Dreamwalker named Meia who helps him fight off the demon.
While it may not have the most sophisticated characters or storyline, the narrative thread it weaves is commendable given typical genre fare. As usual the localization by Working Designs attempts to throw some humour in here and there, but thankfully doesn't go too far.
Alundra is fairly typical of the genre: he can move in eight directions, and fights primarily with a sword (and several other weapons, items, and magic spells). Genre staples such as bombs and health upgrades are also present and accounted for, but bombs and arrows are unlimited and aren't terribly useful outside of a few specific situations. Instead the game play focuses primarily on tricky jumping and switch puzzles. While you'll explore several nightmares (which function like dungeons), the rest of the game takes place within the typical overworld / dungeon layout.
Standard enemies are a bit tougher than in most other games, often defending themselves using shells or shields and taking multiple hits to die. On the other hand the bosses tend to be fairly easy, usually relying on simple and repetitive patterns and large area-of-effect attacks, and can be killed with a few well-timed spells. Some of the bosses are even recycled multiple times, which feels a bit cheap, but at least they look fairly impressive for the most part. Presentation
This is probably one of the best looking 2D games of the 32-bit generation, with lots of gorgeous detail in the environments and characters. However, the game does fall a bit short in the animation department, especially when compared to the likes of The Legend of Oasis on the Sega Saturn. There isn't much in the way of 32-bit flair other than the animated videos which bookend the game, but what's here has aged gracefully over the last 17 years. The game's soundtrack is about average.
Challenge & Replay Value
Jumping is often the most challenging part of Alundra's puzzles, and the root cause of much frustration. Unlike Landstalker, which had an isometric perspective, Alundra has a more traditional top-down view that makes judging your footing a bit easier, but you still have to be extremely precise.
The game also gives you the feeling of being too strict with regards to its collision detection and timing, and it can feel outright unfair in some situations such as puzzles that rely on random chance or that have ridiculously opaque solutions. There's a room in the game, for example, where you have to dislodge swinging wrecking balls from their supports to be used as platforms. Unfortunately for the player, this requires extremely precise timing and a lot of luck, as the wrecking balls roll in wildly different directions and cannot be pushed or moved after they have come loose.
In another room the game literally throws chance at the player to catch a barrel dropped randomly from one of four hatches, three of which are traps that will hurt you. You need to catch three barrels to complete the puzzle, but after a certain number of tries the trap stops dropping them (forcing you to leave the room to reset the puzzle). Since you'll be taking damage from failed attempts, it feels like a war of attrition.
In these situations the game simply isn't much fun to play, and the traps feel like a cheap way to force the player into using up their healing items. If this was limited to just one or two areas in the game it would be excusable, but this sadistic design sensibility rears its ugly head on a regular basis. Unfortunately many players won't have the patience to see the game through to the end, and it does little to entice a second play through. This is a shame, as there are some very cleverly designed areas and puzzles sprinkled here and there that help to balance out the experience, if you can suffer through it. Conclusion
If Alundra's difficulty and general design was a bit more fair and balanced, it would qualify as a genuine classic. Sadly, this is simply not the case: where it ought to be challenging and fun, it is borderline unfair and frustrating. I wouldn't go so far as to say it is a bad game, it just has its priorities mixed up. The fun part of solving a puzzle is figuring out what needs to be done, but Alundra's designers preferred making it as hard as possible to execute what are often immediately obvious solutions. You'll catch glimpses of brilliance here and there throughout its 30 hour quest, but doing so will require an awful lot of patience.
You may be surprised to learn I would still recommend it. For one thing, it'll give you an even better appreciation for just how incredibly balanced the Zelda games are, and it's a good back-up if you're running out of the better traditional 2D action RPGs.
Tail Concerto (1998)
This tail is a bit short
(www.plasticpals.com) CyberConnect's Tail Concerto is a cute little 3D action platformer for the original PlayStation starring anthropomorphic dogs and cats designed by Nobuteru Yuki (probably most famous for his character designs in the television series Escaflowne). It's the first game in the company's imaginative Little Tail Bronx series, set in a steam-punk world of floating islands.
Story & Game Play The Black Cats Gang is causing havoc amongst the floating island cities of Prairie, so police-dog Waffle is called to the rescue. Along the way he'll help to uncover the mystery of the Iron Giant, a mysterious artifact from an ancient civilization.
Piloting his robot suit, Waffle can jump, shoot bubbles, and grab objects around him. In later stages he'll hover using a jet pack, cling to mesh ceilings, and climb on pipes to get around. Unfortunately most of these mechanics aren't fully explored, as the game is simply too short to get the most out of them.
There's also a bit of an RPG feel as you can enter buildings and talk to people in the various locations. However, you can't upgrade your character's abilities or robot suit, and aside from optional red boxes which can be collected to complete a photo album, there are basically no side-quests or puzzles.
The grabbing move is mainly used to pick up items, and you can also grab and toss bombs back at enemies, but that's about it. Most of the time, you damage foes by shooting them with your bubble gun, which doesn't deal much damage.
Presentation Tail Concerto is a decent looking PlayStation game, benefiting from simple cartoony graphics. Cut scenes usually feature full voice acting, and there are frequent animated videos to punctuate major plot points (about 20 minutes in total). It's a well rounded package but nothing extraordinary compared to other games that were released around the same time.
Challenge Each of the areas you'll explore are pretty basic, so the main challenge comes from the poorly programmed camera. Sadly camera control was not mapped to the secondary joystick, and tilting the camera up and down with the L1 and L2 buttons doesn't help much. As a result, you'll end up making mistakes that should be easy to avoid, which may get a little annoying.
There were a few bosses and platforming sections which gave me some trouble, mainly due to the poor camera and somewhat sluggish controls. The game gives you plenty of opportunities to pick up continues though, so you never have to replay too much of any given segment.
Conclusion Tail Concerto isn't as fleshed out or as polished as it probably should have been, which is a real shame as the characters and world could easily support a much larger game. And while it may be aimed primarily at young children, the clunky camera will probably make it too frustrating for that demographic. Meanwhile more experienced gamers will find the game is too short and simple, clocking in at just five hours. If you can get past the problematic camera, there is an enjoyable little adventure with a big heart to be found, with little to no filler. I would still recommend you skip it and play the sequel, Solatorobo, instead.
Mawaru meido in Wario (2004)
Ranks highly amongst the available WarioWare titles
(www.plasticpals.com) The Wario Ware series turned a new leaf with Twisted!, featuring a built-in gyro sensor that detected the orientation of the cartridge. You play most of the included 200 micro games by tilting the GameBoy Advance, and in some cases you'll have to fully rotate the system in your hands to win. The cartridge also comes with a rumble feature, which gives you satisfying tactile feedback for every degree you tilt the system. The gyro sensor calibrates when the game is turned on (and after each micro game) so it can be played regardless of whether it is plugged into the top of a GameBoy Advance or the bottom of a Nintendo DS.
Like the other games in the series, Twisted! modifies the successful formula from the old Game & Watch portables: each micro-game has a short time limit and is designed to test your reflexes, and they get progressively faster the longer you survive (gradually making them more difficult). You can only mess up four times before it's game over, but there are boss stages every 10-15 rounds that offer you a chance to earn a 1-up. The 200 games are divided amongst characters living in Wario's funky city, each with their own little stories and micro-game themes.
Although tilting left and right is at its core a very simple interaction, there is no shortage of unique game designs. Whether you're tilting the screen to cause a ball to drop through an obstacle course, flying a plane through a tight corridor, or simply shaving the stubble from a chin, each micro-game is fun and intuitive. And they have to be, since most of the time you only have a few seconds to figure out what to do and how to do it. Even with the hints that pop up before each one, it can be quite disorienting as the speed increases. Unfortunately this means some micro-games are a bit too simple, requiring a quick left-right-left-right tilt combination to win, but they do mix things up with three or four variations of each game.
New to Twisted! are the addition of souvenirs, which are randomly unlocked as you pass boss stages. These are mostly little time wasters that take advantage of the tilt sensor from music records that you can scratch like a DJ to extended versions of micro-games you've already played. It will take quite awhile to unlock them all, and simple though they may be, they add incentive to return to characters you have only beaten once. Some of the optional challenge modes, which only give you one life or that toss micro-games to you at top speed will certainly put your memory and reflexes to the test.
The Wario Ware series can be a bit hit-or-miss, but Twisted! is up there with the best of them its tilt mechanic is both fun and original. It's sort of amazing to me that modern devices like smart phones, that come with gyro sensors built into them don't have more apps that take advantage of this functionality. The only problem with Twisted! is that you can't play it on the GameBoy Player for the GameCube, which allows you to play GameBoy Advance games on your television, because you'd have to physically tilt the entire GameCube to get it to work.
Better than the last one, Portrait of Ruin
(www.plasticpals.com) Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia is the third and final instalment in the Castlevania series on the Nintendo DS, following Dawn of Sorrow (2005) and Portrait of Ruin (2006). This time the secretive Order of Ecclesia, unconnected to the Belmont clan, is attempting to prevent Dracula's centennial resurrection by collecting the fragments of his scattered soul. These glyphs can only be controlled by Shanoa, a raven haired beauty who has sacrificed her memory to serve as an empty vessel for their power. However, before Drac can be sealed, another member of the order named Albus runs away with the glyphs. Shanoa will have to hunt him down before he is consumed by Dracula's power.
Shanoa can absorb glyphs left by enemies, and these can then be equipped to serve as offensive weapons and spells. Her magic power is drained with every attack, preventing you from spamming but it quickly replenishes when not attacking. If you press UP and both attack buttons, you can combine the glyphs to perform a more powerful attack that uses up hearts. She'll also gain support glyphs that bestow special abilities, like summoning helpful familiars or activating special moves. Only some enemies will leave behind glyphs and they drop them randomly so you'll have to kill a lot of them to obtain each one. In practise, the glyph system isn't much different from the soul system seen in Aria of Sorrow.
The typical Metroidvania level design has become a bit of a slog, but thankfully Order of Ecclesia doesn't adhere to the same structure as the past six games. Instead of exploring one large castle, Shanoa chases after Albus through several smaller areas for the first half of the game. Like the paintings in Portrait of Ruin, these are basically bite-sized maps there's nothing particularly difficult about them besides the local monsters. You'll find plenty of save points, warp points, and you can even return to town instantly using magical tickets sold in the shop. It's a shame they didn't take the opportunity to create more traditional platforming levels, where one missed jump could lead to instant death.
In between areas, Shanoa can return to the village where she can buy items and upgrade her armour. There, she can take on requests from villagers (that she has rescued) to earn money and items but most of them are just fetch quests. Again, it feels like a missed opportunity when they could have easily added more varied challenges to the game such as time trials, perfect boss runs, etc..
Unlike the rest of the game the bosses can be quite tough, but it's mainly because Shanoa is a such fragile heroine. It seems like regardless of the armour you equip, she dies after just a few hits from their attacks, so you'll probably expire before you can learn (let alone memorize) their attack patterns. And because healing items are ridiculously expensive, you'll have to fight losing battles repeatedly until you sort them out. It's frustrating, but it actually makes the game more enjoyable because you'll feel a sense of accomplishment when you finally do succeed. There are also two optional areas in the game designed specifically to test your skills, and naturally they're pretty difficult. Once you've completed the game, you will unlock a Boss Rush mode and harder difficulty settings.
Order of Ecclesia's difficulty seems a bit unbalanced, with fairly easy exploration contrasting with the merciless boss fights. It's nice that the designers have broadened the scope of the adventure by dividing it into several smaller maps, but these don't contain any real platforming challenges. And again, collecting glyphs and the villager requests amount to nothing more than tiresome fetch quests. However, for the most part this is an enjoyable 2D action game, with good graphics and a great soundtrack, which is becoming increasingly rare these days. I also appreciate that the character designs have returned to a more detailed style than the anime look of the last two instalments.
More of that punk style and dice-em-up action
(www.plasticpals.com) Travis Touchdown returns to the seedy town of Santa Destroy after his friend, the owner of a local video store, is brutally murdered. Little did he know that there would be a laundry list of twisted assassins itching for a chance to match swords with him. When he left three years earlier Travis was the top-ranked assassin in the United Assassins Association (UAA), but in his absence dropped all the way down to #51. He'll have to climb his way back to the top on a mountain of corpses if he wants a shot at avenging his friend.
Reviewers took issue with certain aspects of the first game, and these criticisms weren't ignored. Originally players had to do a lot of boring driving around town just to get to each destination. Now players warp directly from one location to the next on a map screen.
And before, Travis had to pay an entry fee to take on each new mission which meant taking on odd jobs to earn cash. In this game those entry fees have been axed, meaning you can get right to the action if that's what you want. You can still take on side jobs to earn money, but that's mainly if you want to purchase optional stuff like a couple extra weapons or beef up your stats by training at the gym. When compared to the first game, these cuts reduce the total play time by about 2-3 hours.
The side jobs and gym training are also a real treat, because they're designed to look and play like classic retro arcade games. There's eight side jobs, which range from exterminating bugs in a maze, to delivering pizza on your motorcycle. They're simple but well designed mini-games in their own right, with most having four levels of increasing difficulty. Training is much more basic, but will test your reflexes. Finally, you can also play a modern vertically-scrolling shoot-em-up in your motel room, which has three levels of difficulty. These all provide fun diversions from the main game.
The battle system hasn't changed much from the first game, with simple two-button combat. You can lock onto enemies and tap the "A" button to swing your beam sabre, and press "B" to throw punches and kicks. You can easily button-mash to string together combos, and perform satisfying finishing blows by swinging the Wii remote as directed by on-screen prompts that freeze the action for a second. If you're enemy is dizzy, you can grab them and perform a suplex for an insta-kill by swinging both the Wii remote and nunchuk at the same time. If your beam sabre's battery gets low, you'll have to pause fighting momentarily to recharge it which leaves you vulnerable.
Rather than having to hold the Wii remote at different angles to change up your combat stance, in this game the power and speed of your attacks is determined by what beam sabre you have equipped. Eventually you'll have access to four different types, with some offering quick but weak attacks and others that are slow but powerful.
Similar in style to the Metal Gear Solid series, each boss encounter is pretty unique and features flashy cinematic story sequences to introduce them. They're definitely an odd bunch, but you won't have to fight all 51 assassins ranked ahead of you (there's actually only 15 boss fights in the game). These goons are typically protected by hired thugs and the closer you get to the end of the game, the more thugs you'll have to take out. In truth, it can get a bit tiresome in some of the later stages, but thankfully there are a few missions where you practically jump right into the boss fight. You'll also play as a couple of Travis's friends, which adds further variety.
No More Heroes 2 is a fairly simple action game that corrects many of the issues found in the first game. The designers clearly know their target audience and pander to our nostalgia for 8-bit games and giant robot cartoons. While there isn't much depth on offer here, the combat is dumb fun and the outlandish characters and funky style should keep your interest throughout its 8~10 hours.
A Diamond In The Rough
(www.plasticpals.com) It doesn't happen all that often, but now and then the Wii has gotten some truly exceptional original titles. Little King's Story is one of them. Developed by some of the veterans responsible for hits like Harvest Moon, it has a hint of that game's obsessive compulsive game design, mixed with the simple but fun strategy elements of Nintendo's Pikmin series. It's all presented in a cute and charming graphical style, with music almost entirely from the catalogues of classical composers (which proves quite fitting). As you survey your land buzzing with inhabitants, it's hard not to believe there is a small world living inside your television.
The game puts you in the role of a small boy named Corobo, the would-be ruler of the kingdom of Alpoko. At first your realm consists of a dusty shack and a few peasants, but with a little elbow grease you'll quickly expand to the nearby river and beyond. Villagers begin as layabouts called carefree adults, but by summoning them with a twirl of your sceptre, you can send them into buildings where they'll take on specific job classes. Building stuff takes money so at first you'll need to dig up some treasure to pay for things, but eventually the loot from quests will be your bread and butter. Then you can build farmer's huts for faster diggers, soldiers' barracks to get some grunts, and carpenters for building bridges and stairways.
Conquering the monstrous guardians in the lands just beyond the protection of your borders (which include silly giant frogs, musky mushrooms, monstrous ambling sunflowers, demonic cows and chickens, turnip-headed mandagoras, and little imps called Onis), you expand your territory and new job classes become available. The game ramps up in complexity at a good pace, which allows players to familiarize themselves with its nuances. Hunters can pick off enemies from afar with their bows; lumberjacks clear away gigantic tree stumps blocking your path; and miners break down rocks standing in your way. Specialty classes like gourmet chefs can take out pesky giant chickens with ease, while savvy merchants can unlock hidden treasures. Once recruited, your units will jog along behind you in selectable formations to hell and back.
The trick is bringing the right combination of units with you into the great unknown. You'll need a farmer to dig up holes, which can yield health-restoring hot springs or valuable treasure. A handful of soldiers are a must to take down the many foes you'll encounter; and one of each of the specialty classes could come in handy. Individual citizens aren't nameless units; they can be upgraded with more life and power, and can each carry one special item which boosts their stats or makes them invulnerable to certain status effects. Later, you'll get upgraded classes that are stronger and faster than some of the initial ones.
Thankfully, unlike most strategy RPGs (such as Pikmin), if a unit bites the dust on the battlefield, there is a strong chance they'll wash up on the local beach the next day good as new. Even so, they don't feel quite as expendable as units in similar games, since there is a chance of permanent death (citizens will hold a funeral). This unhappy event can and should be avoided by resetting and reconsidering your strategy. Most of the time, beating a hasty retreat to regroup when an enemy is steaming mad (an indication they are about to attack) will prevent your units from taking damage. New citizens can be generated by sending two units who have fallen in love into the local church, who will promptly wed and have a kid. The kid can be turned into an adult by sending them to school, at which point you can assign them any class.
You can spend hours just monster hunting (via the suggestion box), but to make headway you'll have to venture into enemy territory and conquer their ruling kings. There are seven kingdoms in all, and each features a different theme and wildly unique boss encounters. One plays like a pinball game; another like a round of trivia; yet another tests your knowledge of real-world geography. It's all incredibly well done and can be quite challenging, and always entertainingly book-ended by cinematic movies. And if you happen to fall victim to their unusual attack patterns, the game lets you continue to try again as many times as you'd like.
For every kingdom you conquer, you'll rescue a princess who will give you some side quests to fulfil, which result in a special scene upon completion. Earthquakes threaten the safety of your growing population, which means a special airship must be built, requiring special parts. Paintings artwork by gamers who entered an online contest are scattered around the world and are rewarding to collect. These objectives, along with the aforementioned suggestion box mail, mean you'll easily spend between 30~40 hours playing the game. Most of it is completely optional, which means players can spend as much or as little time as they want doing the extras.
I thoroughly enjoyed Little King's Story, but it does have its share of frustrations. The game doesn't make use of the Wii remote's pointer functionality, which could have made sending troops at specific enemies much easier. You'll have to do some backtracking in the beginning, before you are able to set up warp points. The bosses feel a bit unbalanced in their difficulty, even on the "normal" difficulty setting. The storyline isn't as developed as other RPGs. These are all pretty minor issues in the long run, and shouldn't prevent you from enjoying the game. To be honest, in the first hour or so I wasn't sure if I was going to like it, but when the game clicked with me there was no turning back. If any of the above sounds like fun to you, you should take up the crown and sceptre and get the game.
Oboro Muramasa (2009)
Unrivaled 2D excellence & Blistering Action!
(www.plasticpals.com) Muramasa: The Demon Blade is a side-scrolling action game developed by Vanillaware, known for director George Kamitani's absurdly detailed graphical style and fluid animation. I live for this kind of stuff. In the majority of games today, the quest for realism blots out all traces of the artist's individuality and expression. Colors become desaturated as 3d models rely more and more on photographic textures. Muramasa is the antithesis of this movement; it's style is detailed but clean, crisp, and colourful. Some of the characters and monsters have gnarled anatomy reminiscent of old Japanese ink drawings, and the layered settings are dutifully rendered interpretations of unspoiled landscapes. The game propels you forward simply to see what visual splendour lies just around the corner. In a nutshell, games like this simply don't get made very often, so when they do I'm chomping at the bit to play them.
There were three major issues with Odin Sphere, the game's predecessor: loading times between areas; slow-down during busy battles; and repeated use of the same areas and monsters. Muramasa corrects these issues thanks mainly to the Wii's better hardware, which means you won't see any loading screens or slow-down whatsoever. And unlike Odin Sphere's five selectable characters that trekked through the same areas fighting the same bosses, Muramasa has only two characters which visit plenty of unique locales and fight entirely different bosses.
The battle system is relatively complex, but once learned is incredibly flexible. You can equip three swords and swap between them at any time. Short swords deal quick but light damage, while long swords are slow but powerful. Each blade has a unique special attack that deals added damage. However, during the course of using a blade's special attack or blocking enemy blows, a sword will lose its durability and shatter. A broken sword is useless for attacking and defending, but will slowly reforge itself when sheathed. Knowing when to sheathe and unsheathe your swords adds to the strategy, since unsheathing a powered-up blade unleashes damage to every enemy in your vicinity. Different types of attacks, such as combos, upper cuts, downward stabs, charging stabs, somersaulting whirlwinds, and ninja-style dashes are possible. You can also equip a set of perishable items to use during battle that will replenish your strength, heal status (such as poison), or sharpen your blade.
There's a few slight hiccoughs in an otherwise great game. For starters, you can't go wherever you please due to multi-coloured barriers. These along with the optional side quests (available later) mean you'll do quite a bit of back-tracking throughout the game. Another issue I had was the difficulty settings make the game either too easy or too difficult, without much middle ground. Finally, the game is best played with the Classic Controller add-on, which some people may not own or feel compelled to buy.
Muramasa: The Demon Blade is an exceptional game that has corrected the major flaws tarnishing its predecessor. The main draw is undoubtedly its presentation, which is second to none. The graphics defy belief imagine Hokusai's classic wood print "The Wave", but moving that's in this game. And there's so many incredible set pieces to explore, and mythological demons to slay.
Vanillaware's blistering 2D action game is truly one-of-a-kind on the Wii, and is just begging to be played. If you own a Wii, you'd be doing yourself a disservice not to.
Odin Sphere (2007)
Beautiful, but it has its issues
(www.plasticpals.com) Back when the battle for 32-bit supremacy was all but over, there was a Japanese-only Saturn game called Princess Crown that caught my eye in the pages of GameFan magazine. It was the most beautiful 2D game of its time; never to be translated into English what with the Saturn gasping its final breath. Luckily Vanillaware's follow- up to Princess Crown, Odin Sphere and Muramasa: The Demon Blade didn't suffer the same fate. As its name suggests, it's an homage to Norse mythology stringing together the stories of 5 characters: a Valkyrie, a Fairy, a Cursed Prince, a Witch, and a Black Knight. Each character gets their own "book" lasting between 5~10 hours apiece, with their stories intertwining in interesting ways.
Unlike conventional sprites seen in most 2D games, all of Odin Sphere's characters are built up of several pieces,similar to certain bosses in the Castlevania games. This allows standard characters to be much larger and bosses can take up most of the screen! The backgrounds have multiple layers which move independently like a glorious pop-up book, with foreground elements like leaves gently swaying in the breeze. It truly is a sight to behold.
It bears mentioning that the presentation is rounded out by a great musical score courtesy of Hitoshi Sakimoto (of Final Fantasy Tactics, Vagrant Story, and FF12 fame), and is some of his most original work to date. His old colleague Masaharu Iwata is also credited.
Each character has their own way of moving and attacking. Most of the them are close-range fighters, while a couple have ranged attacks. Each has their own strengths and weaknesses, which helps to spice things up.
Best described as a brawler-RPG, Odin Sphere is a button masher book- ended by story scenes. All of your main attacks are done with the SQUARE button, and you can aim attacks by pressing up or down. Using magic or items mid-battle pauses the action while you select what to use. Unlike in Muramasa, there is no platforming besides one or two battles late in the game.
Attacking relentlessly drains your POW meter, which will leave your character in a defenceless dizzy spell if it runs out completely. Certain characters can use up the POW meter to perform signature attacks, adding a bit of strategy. Meanwhile, enemies can leave you with a number of status ailments, such as poison. You'll need to work out strategies to not only win, but win quickly (to earn better spoils). The battle system is quite fast-paced and fun, but is a little on the simple side because the real meat of the game lies in its alchemy system.
Unlike in most RPGs, you don't gain experience directly from killing foes. Instead, you gain levels by eating food. You'll collect seeds which can be planted anywhere and will grow by absorbing phozons that appear from dead enemies. Once the seed has enough phozons it will produce a fruit which can be harvested and eaten immediately (to regain HP and earn a little experience) or taken to a restaurant with other ingredients to cook a meal (which gives you much more experience).
But growing plants for food requires phozons that can otherwise be absorbed by your character's weapon: the psypher. Psyphers gain levels independently from your HP, and the stronger it gets, the more spells you can use. Casting spells uses up phozons that are stored in your psypher (sort of like MP), so you'll want to collect them whenever possible to keep your MP up and raise pyspher levels. It becomes a balancing act between growing plants and restoring MP.
Some items, such as vegetables and potions, need to be combined before you can get much use out of them. You'll find a wide assortment of alchemy recipes for all sorts of potions; from standard heals and antidotes, to more rare and complicated mixes which will produce all sorts of effects. Simply put, the alchemy system ranges from simple to complex depending on how much effort you want to put into it.
2D graphics are notorious for taking up large amounts of memory, so this is to be expected, but the major drawback to this game is its loading time. It's annoying, but it's just one those things you have to deal with. It's worst when you go to the restaurant & café. Since these two areas require about 10-15 seconds to load, and you visit them often, it does begin to wear on you.
Also, when there are many enemies on screen at once, especially during certain boss battles, you will encounter some serious slow-down. Slow- down like you have never seen before. The whole screen will come to a screeching halt, and you can count the animation frames as they tick away. It usually isn't too bad, and it's not a game-breaker, but it will happen.
Another problem is the game gets quite repetitive. Each of the five main characters will visit the same eight or so "worlds" in the game. Each world is distinct, but they only have half a dozen monster types per world, so you will end up seeing the same places and monsters quite a few times over the course of the game.
As one of the most technically advanced and beautiful 2D games ever made, Odin Sphere is an awesome sight to behold. The game may not be for everyone, but if you like RPGs and action titles, or just want to see some amazing artwork, you should check it out. It's successor, Muramasa, fixes most of the issues with this game but ditches the complexity too.
Bokura no taiyô (2003)
The Sun is Friend & Foe in this Vampire-slaying Adventure
(www.plasticpals.com) Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand is the brainchild of master game designer Hideo Kojima (creator of Metal Gear): a vampire- slaying quest-adventure in the vein of Zelda with the hide-and-sneak shooting action of Metal Gear. This alone makes Boktai fun but what makes it great (as the title suggests) is the added unpredictable element of the sun.
Inside the cartridge a solar sensor detects sunlight, which affects the game world. The sensor only works with genuine UV rays, resulting in the first GameBoy game to force the player to make use of its portability! When playing you must be outdoors, or at least near a window. While it is possible to play portions of the game at night by storing the sun's energy ahead of time in "Solar Stations", you need the power of the sun to destroy the bosses. Therefore, the player starts to organize their schedule around the game, to think like the Immortal- hunter "Django" who must hunt by the light of day.
The power of the sun is most evident in the Gun-del-Sol, Django's weapon of choice, which is powered by sunlight. As you shoot the gun, its power becomes depleted, but gradually recharges as the solar sensor picks up sunlight. You can also charge it quickly by pressing and holding the A button (when the sun is shining), or by refilling at a Solar Station (after sundown). The Gun-del-Sol is highly customizable, with 4 separate categories for various add-ons and power-ups (elemental lenses, grenades, extra solar batteries, and shot-modifying frames), adding an RPG element to the game.
When Django is indoors, the only way to charge his gun is by standing under rare skylights, which appear only when the solar sensor is detecting sunlight. In rooms with windows, the room will be pitch black until some sunlight is detected, at which point it brightens up allowing you to explore without fear of what lurks around the corner. The Vampires themselves must be destroyed using sunlight via the "Solar Piledriver". And (as any seasoned vampire hunter will tell you) it's best to sneak in during daylight hours when it's reasonably safe, than to go bustling through when the dark slimy things start stalking about. The game's internal clock allows natural passage of time from day to night, providing the exact time of sunrise to sunset through your timezone. There's just something cool about entering a creepy castle and being told: 1 hour, 14 minutes to sunset
With the guidance of the wise Otenko, a floating sunflower with a face, Django must venture through undead catacombs and spooky forests to reach a number of evil lairs, where the Immortals sleep in coffins by day. Sneaking inside the castles, even by day, will not be easy. The halls are often haunted by throngs of undead servants; drones easily provoked should you pass within their line of sight or make too much noise. And like in Metal Gear, rooms are often mazes filled with drones who must be distracted by making tapping noises against walls. Traps reminiscent of Metal Gear's VR Missions will also put your stealth skills to the test.
And if all the ferocious monsters and booby-traps infesting each area don't get him, Django must also put on his thinking cap to solve infuriating puzzles, from downright evil block-pushing exercises to mischievous riddles. Once he's found the Immortal, often a boss battle ensues. If by some miracle he survives, Django must physically drag the unconscious demon's coffin all the way back outside! Along the way, the coffin might become restless, and if you leave the coffin alone for too long (to fend off poisonous spiders for example) it will start nudging its way back to its original resting place! Monsters that come in close contact with the coffin become more active, and will try to steal the coffin and take it back to its crypt.
When the coffin has been successfully dragged out into the daylight, it's time to power up the Solar Piledriver! Massive mirrors flip to reflect and focus the sun's rays at the coffin, awakening the Immortal inside. Immediately the evil presence leaps out, engulfing the battlefield with its shadow! Each individual mirror must be maintained at full power, or the Vampire's dark energy may physically flip the mirror away. If you can keep the mirrors pointed at the Immortal long enough, the sun's rays will incinerate it for good.
After all is said and done, nothing the game throws at you can compare to the unpredictable and unreliable nature of the sun itself (not to mention bad weather, which can really put a damper on your slayer schedule). Even with the skill of ten Belmonts, if the sun ain't on your side, then you can't progress. Therein lies the game's charm and its vice for though it can often be an impediment to progress and therefore annoying, the solar sensor is the key to new and unique game play ideas. Luckily, playing the game at night is equally fun, since you must strategically conserve solar power when facing even tougher challenges. And, old lairs often have areas which are only accessible once you have an item from later in the game meaning you can go back and complete them with or without the sun.
All in all, an excellent package Konami shows there is more to vampire hunting than their own Castlevania a lot more. Boktai ranks among the top of the GBA's extensive library, and is one game you have to track down and play. It really is that good.