Monthly Archives: April 2012

Ghost Trick Goodness

In 2011, IGN gave Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective the award for Best Game No One Played, which gives you an idea of the game’s commercial success (or lack of it). Despite positive reviews, the Nintendo DS game quickly dropped out of the Japanese charts just weeks after its release in June 2010, and Capcom cited the game’s disappointing sales as contributing to the developer’s 90% fall in income in the first fiscal quarter of 2010. Capcom have obviously decided to see whether they can claw a bit of their money back by re-releasing Ghost Trick on iPhone, and considering the price they’re charging for it, they obviously rate the game extremely highly (or they just really need the money). The initial two chapters are free, but then you hit the paywall:

  1. All Chapters: £6.99
  2. Ch. 3 – Ch. 7: £2.99
  3. Ch. 8 – Ch. 13: £2.99
  4. Ch. 14 – End: £2.99

Yowch. This seems particularly expensive when you consider that most games on the App Store are between 69p and £1.99, and it seems even more extortionate when you consider that Capcom’s own Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – which is of a similar length and is even designed by the same team – is priced at £2.99. It seems Capcom are really struggling to bite the bullet and just charge sensible prices for their games, even though the increased sales volumes should actually create more profit overall – witness this article by Stuart Campbell where he reveals what happened when Capcom slashed the price of Street Fighter IV from £5.99 to 69p. Of course, compared to the price of a new DS game, £6.99 is pretty cheap, but in the impulse-buy world of the App Store, it’s an aberration.

But despite all this moaning about Capcom’s pricing structure, I have to say that Ghost Trick was worth every penny. In fact, I would have paid even more for it, it’s that good.

The basic gameplay is similar to the Ace Attorney games in that there are long sections of dialogue interspersed with puzzle sections. The set-up is that your character has recently been murdered, but the trauma of death has caused your spirirt to lose its memory, and the game sees you pursuing clues in an attempt to find out who you are (or rather, were). A woman finds your body, but soon afterwards she’s killed by an assassin, and it’s at this point you find out you have the ability to rewind time to 4 minutes before a person’s death in an attempt to change their fate. Unfortunately, you have no physical presence and can only manipulate certain objects in certain ways in your attempt to prevent the murder, so the game basically comes down to choosing the right objects to move at the right time (for example, causing a heavy weight to fall on the assassin’s head just as he walks under it). As the game goes on, the situations become more and more elaborate, and the solutions begin to take on a real Heath Robinson-esque feel as you set off series of chain reactions.

The big difference between this game and the Ace Attorney series is that there’s no wandering around from location to location in an attempt to find a use for the objects in your possession: everything is already there laid out for you to use, and it’s just a case of working out how. This makes for some brilliant ‘eureka’ moments when you finally work out how to solve the puzzles, and I’m pleased they’ve managed to eliminate tedious back and forth wandering from the formula.

But the main draw is the brilliantly bizarre characters and twisting, cliffhanger driven plot – like the Ace Attorney games, the designers have gleefully ignored realism and just gone with the craziest ideas they could think of, and it all works beautifully. The plot kept me hooked in right up to the satisfying denouement, which incidentally doesn’t disappoint. After experiencing so many lacklustre game endings, it’s wonderful to come across a game that really delivers. Buy this game, you won’t regret it.

One last thing though: special mention also has to go to the animation, which is astonishingly fluid – have a look at the video below to see what I mean. Disney, eat your heart out.

Penned in admiration by Lucius Merriweather

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Pokémon and On and On and On…

Pokémon SoulSilver has been driving me to madness. I’ve just failed in my fourth attempt to beat Lance, the Champion of the Johto region, and I’m now officially giving up. After 45 hours of playing time (I know, 45 hours, I could have built a small boat in that time), I realised I’m still only halfway through the game, and I just don’t have the will to carry on.

It all started off happily enough. There’s a reason that the Pokémon games are so successful, and that’s because they’re so goddamn addictive and well made. There’s always that feeling that there’s something new around the corner – a new town to see or a new monster to fight – and it has that ‘just one more go’ factor in spades.

When I started the game, I told myself I wasn’t going to get sucked in by the whole ‘gotta catch ’em all’ mentality: instead I would play through to the end as linearly as possible, without traipsing in circles through the long grass in an attempt to collect as many Pokémon as I could. But the damn game just sucks you in by throwing new and interesting monsters in your path at every turn, and suddenly you’re thinking, ‘Oooh, I definitely want that one, maybe if I just hang out in this cave long enough, it’ll pop up again…’, and before you know it, you’ve spent an hour wandering around in circles.

You are going DOWN, Bellsprout.

It is fun though – the battles with newly encountered wild Pokémon require a surprising amount of strategy as you gradually work out their weaknesses and carefully whittle down their energy until they’re weak enough to be caught. And the elation at capturing a new Pokémon after a hard fought battle! As I said, there’s a reason these games are so successful.

But the trouble is, there’s really very little to differentiate one Pokémon game from another. Don’t get me wrong, I very much enjoyed Pokémon SoulSilver (or at least the first three quarters of it, more on that in a minute), but there’s very little to differentiate this from the only other Pokémon game I’ve played, Pokémon Ruby. I suppose you could argue that ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, but I couldn’t help the feeling that I’ve already played this same game before.

And while I’m moaning, I have to say that the absolute weakest part of the game is the story, or rather, the lack of it. Aside from an anaemic subplot involving the nefarious Team Rocket, there’s really no story whatsoever, presumably with the idea that collecting new Pokémon and levelling up your existing Pokémon is motivation enough to continue playing. Which it is for the most part, until you hit the grind wall…

Sigh. Time to head back into the cave for some more grinding...

For most of the game, I found it easy enough to get through all the various gym challenges in each city, only having to actually retry a challenge battle once or twice. Then you hit the Pokémon League at the end of the Johto region, and the gentle difficulty curve suddenly becomes a difficulty cliff. The League forces you to fight 5 intense battles in a row, and it quickly became apparent that my Pokémon were nowhere near strong enough. After my first failure, I dutifully went back into the fields and caves of Johto and sought out as many random battles as I could in an effort to raise the levels of my team. After an hour or so of grinding, I felt I was ready to face the League once more. I wasn’t.

On my fourth attempt, and my fourth failure, I was so hacked off with the whole thing I switched off the 3DS in disgust and vowed never to play the game again.

I know that after the League there’s a whole new region to explore that’s just as big as the first, but the thought of grinding my way through Kanto for another 45 hours just makes my heart sink. Less grinding, more fun please.

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Metroid Cut Down In Its Prime

I just finished Metroid Prime 3: Corruption and I’m sad. I’m sad because it was brilliant and now it’s over, and, to cap it all off, this is the last game in the Metroid Prime series. Sure, I’ll probably enjoy Metroid: Other M when I eventually get round to playing it, but will it reach the heights of the Prime series? I doubt it somehow – those games are a hard act to follow, and Metroid Prime 3 is, in my humble opinion, the best Metroid game so far.

There. I said it. Yep, it’s better than Metroid Prime, better than Metroid Fusion, even better than, dare I say it, Super Metroid. In a nutshell, this game is ace.

When it came out, Metroid Prime 3 was criticised for introducing too many other characters into the mix when one of the joys of Metroid games is the feeling of isolation, the sense that you’re alone on a hostile and unexplored planet. A similar criticism was rightly levelled at the Tomb Raider games, which gradually introduced more and more unnecessary characters as the series went on, and it was only after the Anniversary remake that we realised what we’d missed: the sense of being alone against the forces of evil, exploring long-forgotten ruins for the first time.

Having read the reviews, I was a little wary of the course the designers had chosen for the third game in the Prime series, but I was pleasantly surprised. You’re thrown in with the Galactic Federation at the beginning, tasked with helping to defend a Federation planet against a rogue asteroid called a ‘Leviathan Seed’, and this part of the game helps to set up the characters that you encounter later on. After that first episode is over though, you’re pretty much left on your own for the rest of the game until the climactic finale, so the move towards introducing more characters wasn’t as disruptive as I thought: in fact, it gave the game a real boost that sets it apart from the previous games in the series.

I loved the first Metroid Prime, but I was left slightly disappointed by the second game in the series: Metroid Prime 2: Echoes. It wasn’t a bad game by any means, but it felt very similar to its predecessor, with only the light world/dark world mechanic really setting it apart. Metroid Prime 3, however, feels like a whole new beast, thanks mostly to the new focus on plot and developing the world that Samus Aran inhabits. For the first time in a Metroid game, you’re given the chance to actually leave the planet you’re on and travel between several different planets in the same system, which provides some pleasing variety in scenery and a new and welcome sense of freedom. You can even use your ship to solve certain puzzles, which is a brilliant idea that sadly isn’t used enough in the game, but it shows the effort the designers have put in to making Metroid Prime 3 stand out from its predecessors.

I should also mention the controls, which are some of the best I’ve ever used. It took a few minutes to get used to aiming with the Wii remote, but after that the controls became second nature. In fact, it was like a revelation. Suddenly I was wondering why all first person shooters don’t use motion controls – it just makes sense. It even had me contemplating buying one of the Call of Duty games for the Wii, although my lukewarm reaction to Modern Warfare eventually made me decide against it.

Speaking of Call of Duty, probably the weakest segment of the game seems to be influenced by it – namely the sequence where you have to guide some demolition troopers through enemy territory. It’s a dull and frustrating segment that doesn’t really fit the atmosphere of the rest of the game, but apart from this tiny blip, the game was an absolute joy. In fact, it’s one of the few games that I can say I absolutely loved from start to finish – which is why I’m so sad it’s over.

Thanks Retro Studios, it was a blast.

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GAME Still Up To Their Old Tricks…

The beautiful(?) Exchange Shopping Centre.

So, has GAME learned anything since its recent brush with annihilation?

For various reasons I happened to be in Ilford on Saturday, and whilst looking round the soul-sapping Exchange Shopping Centre I noticed that the Ilford GAME had managed to survive the cull of 277 GAME stores last month. Curious to see what lessons had been learned after the company’s brief sojourn into administration, I had a quick look round, only to find that GAME’s extortionate prices remain stubbornly intact. Of note, a preowned copy of the lacklustre Wii game Disaster: Day of Crisis was on sale for £14.99, whereas just a few weeks previously the price had been slashed to £1.98. Obviously, I expect the prices to have risen again after GAME’s apocalyptic pre-administration fire sale, but their preowned prices are just ridiculous, and smack of the money-grabbing culture that’s become so indelibly associated with the brand. I mean, at the time of writing, the same game could be bought on Amazon BRAND NEW for just £9.78. Naturally, I’d expect store prices to be slightly higher than online because of the higher overheads associated with running a shop, but GAME’s prices seem to be in cloud cuckoo land – and they’re not even competitive with other stores on the high street.

How much?!?

Take Assassin’s Creed: Revelations for example. GAME Ilford had a preowned copy on sale for £32.99, but a few hundred metres away in CeX, the same game was on sale for just £18. And GAME Ilford were charging an astonishing £44.99 for a PREOWNED copy of Silent Hill: Downpour. Who on earth in their right mind is going to pay £44.99 for a second-hand game they could easily pick up for much less brand new? (Incidentally, I just checked the CeX website, and it’s selling Disaster: Day of Crisis for £4.)

I realise that it’s very early days for the newly arisen GAME Group, and it will take a while for any changes made at the top to filter down to the store level – I’m sure that for the time being, all anyone cares about is shoring up the brand and avoiding any further job losses. However, GAME’s management are going to have to do something pretty drastic to turn around the fortunes of the company, because at the moment GAME is associated with exorbitant prices, poor customer service and limited game selections. If there’s a future for specialist game stores on the high street, they need to undertake a radical re-think about the kinds of services a game store should provide.

If GAME have any hope of surviving against the might of the internet retailers, they need to provide gamers with a reason to visit a store rather than just buy online. One way they could do this is to build on the social aspect of playing games by setting up the stores as a kind of social hub where gamers could meet and exchange news, as well as competing against each other in tournaments. In the world of D&D-style role playing, Games Workshop have been doing this successfully for years, and there’s no reason why GAME couldn’t try something similar. Kids and adults alike hang out for hours on end, week after week in Games Workshop stores – imagine if GAME could do the same thing. They could set up a coffee/juice bar and perhaps give free drinks to people who pay a membership fee, and all the while there would be rolling tournaments of the lastest first person shooters or driving games. Sure, not everyone will make a purchase, but if they’re given the incentive to come back week after week, they eventually will, and if they bring their friends too, there’s even more chance that one of them will buy something. Sadly, when I worked for GAME in Watford many years ago, my store manager seemed to do everything he could to STOP the store being a pleasant place for young people to hang out in – in fact, he actually unplugged the controllers for the PS2 demo pod to stop kids from “loitering” in the shop. That kind of mentality needs to change.

A shop with people in it: what GAME needs.

Second, GAME need to work on their back catalogue – there’s no point just peddling the biggest new releases at the recommended retail price, as they will always be undercut by the supermarkets and online giants like Amazon. If each GAME had a huge library of older games, there would be more reason to visit the store in the first place and, importantly, more reason to linger. It’s like book shops – I know that I can find the best sellers at cheap prices in WH Smith, but I’d much prefer to browse among the curios in a Foyles bookshop, even if they’re more expensive. And, like Foyles, why not have a display carrying staff recommendations or something along the lines of ‘If You Like That, Try This…’. For example, if someone came in to buy the latest Final Fantasy, staff could pick out a related game, like Dragon Quest, and display them together – chances are the customer might walk out with two games rather than just the one they originally came in to buy.

And speaking of staff, GAME need to capitalise on the specialist knowledge of their employees rather than just encourage them to peddle Reward Cards like a broken record. It used to be that all staff members could borrow games to play at home so that they could increase their knowledge of the products on offer, but this was axed several years ago. But how are staff supposed to give advice on which games to buy if they haven’t even played them? The management need to bring back the option for staff to play the latest games, even if it’s just a weekly after-work games night, and staff should be rewarded for their subject knowledge.

All of these suggestions are pretty basic, but they’d make a huge difference if they were implemented. GAME needs to reinvent its stores as social ‘destinations’ rather than just anodyne environments in which to purchase overpriced new releases. If the management don’t do something fast, I’ve no doubt they’ll be heading into administration again within a year, and this time they might not re-emerge.

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Gaelic Games Football is an indictment on the reach of video games

Sometimes the reach of video games surprises me.  The fact that you could pretty much take any small cultural or sporting phenomenon and there is probably a game based on it somewhere in the world is pretty amazing.   So I really shouldn’t have been surprised when I was casually browsing in a nearby second hand game store when I stumbled upon a Gaelic Football game for the PS2.  Upon further research I was, again, surprised to find that there isn’t just one Gaelic football game in the wild, but also a sequel, both developed by the now defunct Australian-based developer IR Gurus and both released for the PS2.

If you aren’t sure what Gaelic Football (unsurprisingly) it is a game that has it’s origins in Ireland, and alongside Rugby Union, is one of the most popular sports on the Irish island.  It is played on a rectangular pitch similar to that of a Rugby with goals at either end that are basically a combination between goal posts used in rugby straddling a conventional soccer net.  However unlike Rugby and most other possession based football codes, gaelic football is played with a round ball, with the objective of the game being to either punch or kick the ball over the cross bar, or kicking the ball into the net.  It is a relatively physical sport, with full contact tackling allowed.  And with that I have written more about Gaelic Football than I have ever spoken, written or signed combined to date.  Before this, I didn’t really know how Gaelic Football worked either.

Gaelic Games Football, PS2 (IR Gurus 2005)

The above sounds like it has the makings for a pretty decent video game – I mean people made games out of worse.  And people were pretty pumped about it, in Ireland.

Interestingly enough, IR Gurus were also the developers of the official video games of the Australian Football League (AFL) licence from 2003 to 2007, another niche sport thats popularity is almost entirely confined to a single country. Conveniently, AFL has a relatively large amount in common with Gaelic Football, so much so that a hybrid of the two games called ‘International Rules Football’ is played between the two nations, comprising of one national team each made up of the best players from both countries’ respective leagues.  You can’t make this stuff up.

Also conveniently given that the games play similarly in the real world, it wouldn’t have been too much effort to develop an AFL game and Gaelic Football game in tandem.  The wonders of economic efficiency.

And for the record I am not even a fan of either code of football, let alone an expert.  But in my humble uneducated opinion, Electronic Arts’ AFL 99 for the PS1 was an awesomely fun bad game.

AFL Live 2006, PS2 (IR Gurus)

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Duke Nukem Forever: Time to Kill?

I finished Duke Nukem Forever, but there isn’t a lot I can say about it that hasn’t already been said.  There were a lot of missteps, some misguided design decisions, and a general unpolished feel to the whole experience.  This has all been said ad-nauseum across the internet, so I’m not going to bother.

What I will say though is in spite of all that, and acknowledging that the game just isn’t very good, I found myself enjoying it more than I should have.  The crass humour didn’t hit the mark, the mechanics weren’t great, and by jove did the game go for about four hours longer than it should have, but in spite of this I found myself admitting in a conversation with a friend who had also played the game that I was actually having a good time with good old Duke’s latest adventure.

Of course don’t mistake this for thinking in any way that DNF is any more than a disappointment.

But the reasons for DNF being unsuccessful at what it attempts to do lay almost completely in it’s inability to decide what it wants to be.    The quest for relevancy and Duke’s ability to shape shift in order to stay relevant isn’t new.  In fact it is arguably what has helped Duke to become such an enduring franchise in the first place, remarkably at a time where some of it’s kin were fading into obscurity.  Duke was always a malleable character, someone who could move from a 2D side scroller into a first person shooter and still be as popular as ever.  In 1998, this ability to morph culminated in Time to Kill, a very successful attempt  by developer N-Space to cash in on the popularity of the third person action genre, popularised by the Tomb Raider franchise.  Time to Kill  took the essence of what Duke is, and fused it with the biggest thing in gaming at the time, a decision that resulted in what I consider to be the best Duke Nukem game, period.  The developer had committed to moving Duke on, and move Duke on it did.

But even within the first hour or so of DNF, it never seems like the developer committed to what the game was going to be.  The gameplay of DNF screams throwback, a throwback to when Duke was relevant at the release of the phenomenally popular Duke Nukem 3D.  But the design choices thereafter seem to scream an emulation of a post-halo era game.  Having only a handful of enemies to fight at a time whose AI is clearly designed to be fought en masse just makes the game uneventful.  Combine this with the fact that the range of weapons (which was lifted almost straight from Duke 3D) is designed to carry them all at once, rather than the two at a time that the game enables, and you’ve got combat that just doesn’t feel like it belongs in the game that it’s stuck in.   And it really is this misalignment of seemingly simple development objectives that spoils  what could’ve been an adequate, if crass, distraction from the sheer volumes of shooters that take themselves way too seriously.

After all is said and done, in pursuit of relevancy, the DNF has become an utterly in-cohesive experience that just doesn’t live up to any of the expectations people had of it after 15 years.  The sad part is that Duke himself, an enduring character from a bygone era may have reached the end of his shelf life.  There will no doubt be a sequel to DNF, but perhaps it is – to quote the last good game in the long and storied history of this bleached blonde hero – Time to Kill the franchise.

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Ninja Blade: FromSoftware’s flawed gem

Sometimes silliness is okay.  If the relatively universal praise for Asura’s Wrath and its over the top action and anime influenced storyline is anything to go by, people are at the point where a bit of fun is really okay.  And if anyone knows how to do silly it’s the japanese.

Unfortunately they also know how to do long-winded and convoluted, but I’ll get to that a bit later on.

Ninja Blade is the epitome of silly, fusing over the top quick time event driven action sequences with simple yet mostly serviceable melee combat, to tell the tale of a modern day ninja slicing his way through parasite infested Tokyo to save the world from infection.  At least I think that’s what was going on.  I couldn’t see for all the explosions and viscera.

And what grand explosions and viscera the game has.  But not being content with just settling for copious amounts of blood drawn from the blade of a sword, Ninja Blade outdoes the competition with some of the most ridiculous sequences I’ve ever seen in a video game.  Flying through the air, running down (or up) buildings while turning enemies into nondescript piles of blood and bones, and seemingly defying gravity while swinging around with a grappling hook is just the beginning of what the game presents to you throughout the course of the game. At one point you throw a building.  Yes, a building.  These moments alone are worth enduring a trip through Ninja Blade.

And I say that because other than these moments, the game is rather unremarkable.  The moment to moment hack and slashing is derivative and shallow and the story may as well not exist for all the convoluted attempts to evoke an emotional response from the player in spite of the fact that the setting itself is basically just a vehicle to drive a whole lot of killing and whacky set pieces.  In addition to this the main character, Ken Ogawa,  is just not that cool, which is a problem when your main point of reference is the too good for words Ryu Hayabusa from the Ninja Gaiden series.  And this basically sums up the entire game. When compared to other games of its type, Ninja Blade just comes off as over-thought and under-developed in many places.

Despite these shortcomings though the game is redeemed by the way in which is presents a modern ninja tale in a satisfying and interesting way.  Sure, Quick time events are no longer cool, and we’ve had better action games before and after the release of Ninja Blade.  But the point isn’t that it is better or worse than it’s competition, but more that it’s different and interesting enough to warrant the interest of anyone who is remotely interested in either ninjas, or the choreography of a good action movie.  Either way, despite the frustration and boredom you may experience at times, you’ll come away from Ninja Blade at least satisfied that you’ve seen some of the cooler things that video games as a medium have to offer.

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