Tuesday, April 29, 2008

My true life GTA IV experience

Dimwitted Girl 1: Oooo, is that it? Grand Theft Auto.
Dimwitted Girl 2: Is this it?
Dimwitted Girl 3: Yeah, it says here GTA five, yeah.
Dimwitted Girl 1: What does he want?
Dimwitted Girl 3: Call him, yeah.
Dimwitted Girl 2: (calls) I've got Grand Theft Auto here yeah. (pause) GTA five. (pause) Uh, oh, GTA four? (pause - picks up another copy) It says here yeah, GTA one five.
Dimwitted Girl 1: This says GTA 'i' five, yeah.
Dimwitted Girl 3: Is this for PlayStation 2?
Dimwitted Girl 2: GTA six innit.

That's it for my GTA IV experience. Note, that this is my first and last GTA IV related post. No amount of hyped 10s will make me cave, ever! Not even when the inevitable superior PC version gets released!

Monday, April 28, 2008

flOw review

First, anyone who has never played the free flash version of flOw should do yourself a favour and give it a go now. It is a small flavour of what you get in the PSN exclusive version of flOw, available for either PS3 and PSP.

I've never played the PS3 version, but judging from online videos and screenshots, flOw for PSP is almost identical to it - save for the lack of 1080p high definition visuals and SIXAXIS controller support. Even with the lower processing capability of the PSP, the results are nothing short of spectacular. Despite being more aliased, the game plays well though it does suffer from very slight frame rate niggles when the screen gets too crowded. Particle effects are handled well, though it is evident that some of them were downgraded from the PS3 version. Despite that the simplistic visuals lend well with the experience.

In flOw you control an aquatic organism via the analogue pad. Objectives or goals do exists, though it is entirely up to you whether you want to participate in them. After 'winning' each level, you will gain the ability to control other organisms. Each of these organisms has their own special skills invoked through either the shoulder button or one of the face buttons.

Your organism can evolve by preying on food. Levels are divided through planes that you access through eating either blue or red orbs. The deeper you go, the more perilous the level becomes. Larger organisms requires you to strategies by hunting down its weak areas. Hunt a food that your organism can't handle and it will get hurt in return. While there are no game overs in flOw, being attacked would usually cause your organism to return to a previous safer plane.

flOw has a unique and serene soundtrack (relative to video gaming) that changes depending on the creature you use and the depth your organism is exploring in. Whenever your organism chomps down its food, tones will ring out, providing the player with a rather euphoric-like chill-out and tranquil audio experience. It is best to play this with a good pair of cans.

This title takes advantage of the PSP's WiFi hardware by supporting local ad-hoc wireless multiplayer. It is very simple, just switch on the WiFi and while at the creature select level, the PSP will automatically connect to other local PSPs. The seamless connectivity is very well done, though unfortunately the game suffers from atrocious frame rate during multiplayer.

flOw isn't by all means perfect but for the cost of a McDonalds 'meal' does provide, in my very honest opinion, a great deal of amount of gameplay that can last anywhere between 1-3 hours to finish depending on how persistent you are. flOw isn't really classifiable as a video game within its traditional definition as it is more of an experience than a conventional game, though it is more of a game than Electroplankton ever was. Some of its fault can be easily be ignored, wile some like the local multiplayer which sounds fun in theory, it is so blighted by problems that should not be shunned. As such I can only recommend flOw as a single player title, one best experienced at the end of each day.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Second time at Highgate Cemetery

Glorious sunny day yesterday. Images from my second visit to Highgate Cemetery (East). You know, to give Karl Marx and Douglas Adams a nod. No silly Highgate Vampires stopping us.

So simple, and yet so fitting...

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Prinny mocks me to learn to cross stitch, dood!

If this and Etna of Disgaea doesn't get me to learn how to cross stitch I don't know what will. But I do know that I would pay good money for one based on Flonne, dood! Check out Jenni Lada's blog for more video gaming cross stitches including the Samba Pig from It's a Wonderful World.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The World Ends With You mini-review

After all the hype, I finally decided to cave in and play The World Ends With You (It's a Wonderful World), the second game this year with characters designed by Tetsuya Nomura (shocker!) after Crisis Core. So does it live up to its hype, or is this another example of a over-hyped game? So what is the appeal of The World Ends With You? For one, it is a new I.P. risk by Square-Enix (another shocker there). Then there is this new real time battle system that is very different. I will come to that later but let's get the storyline out of the way first.

You play as Neku (an"emo" teenager with an awful fashion sense, who hates people in general) who one day finds himself in the Shibuya shopping district (based on the famous shopping district in Tokyo, Japan) in possession of a rather odd and alien looking black pin/badge. Neku is a generic RPG hero, whose spiky hair and short term memory loss does nothing to prove otherwise. With the pin, he has the ability to sense the thoughts of people around him, but the thought of being surrounded by people disgusted him. But for reasons unknown to em, he is not allowed to leave. Neko later finds out that he is part of the 'Reaper's Game', a game that spans seven days. If he or other participants fail - they would be erased. To survive, Neku and his companion pact, Shiki Misaki, has to defeat 'Noise', which are physical manifestations of people's ill feelings, and complete mission objectives issued by the Reapers within seven days.

The gameplay revolves around searching for clues from people wondering around Shibuya, and fighting 'Noise'. Touching the black pin on the bottom screen will allow Neku to read people's thoughts and locate Noise. The game also has an innovative adjustable difficulty level for players who wants to take greater risk. The increased in difficulty is off-set through rewarding the player's risk with higher quality item drops. Customisation isn't a problem here, as Shibuya shopping district proves to be big enough to cater to the average cliché RPG hero, and then some. New techniques can be discovered during the course of the game, which allows Neku and his companion to unleash special attacks and combos depending on the pins (which can be stat boosted) equipped. Foods and clothings can be bought to augment Neku and his partner's stats.

Combat takes place across two screens, with Neku on the bottom controlled by the player via the touchscreen, and Neku's partner on the top screen. Controlling Neku is a fairly obvious process, with the player controlling his movements and attacks using a stylus, like slashing upwards on an enemy to perform an uppercut. Because battles takes place simultaneously, the player has the option to control the top character via the d-pad (lefties can use the face buttons). This takes some getting used, and for the first hour I did think it was a mess and often surrendered the controls to the A.I. (you can select how quick before the A.I. takes control back in the options). But once the initial first few combats, you will likely to get used to it and find a very deep and compelling battle system buried here, often trying to create combos and chaining battles.

The visuals aren't the most impressive technically, but the player is constantly showered in colourful and often psychedelic design giving the game a rather unique look, reminiscent Jet Set Radio. Character designs are generic enough, though more often than not, their vibrant fashion sense does liven up the screens. A bit like Viewtiful Joe and Persona 3. It is too bad that the developers has paid very little attention into creating an intuitive UI, as everything seems to be cluttered. It doesn't help that the colourful menu sometimes distract the player more than it assist them. The soundtrack on the other hand is a mixture of licensed J-pop, again reminiscent of Jet Set Radio. We should be thankful that a global company like Square Enix has decided not to dumb down the soundtrack (like Nintendo did with Elite Beat Agents) to cater for 'local musical taste', as the music provided here is infectiously addictive and catchy.

The World Ends With You does not live up to its hyperbole, but it is still a wonderful game. The imprecise stylus usage may annoy people seeking for a portable experience and the dual screen battle may scare people away, but the learning curve is there to be exploited. One thing I loved about the title is how 'unwesternised' the title is. It is refreshing to play a game infused with a foreign culture - something that is originally intended by the developers. With great style, wonderful soundtrack and a new innovative, fresh and deep immersing gameplay that actually takes advantage of the touchscreen (unlike gimmicky tacked on controls in games like Phantom Hourglass), I believe you will likely to enjoy your trip to Shibuya.

Get it now at Amazon UK or Play-Asia.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Top five racing games

Yay for another filler post! This time the top five racing games that I've played. No, not the top five ever released, top five that I've never played or even the top five that you liked. It is my top five that I've played and like. A celebratory post of sort, to a genre that introduced me to gaming and continues to excite me.

OutRun 2006 Coast 2 Coast (2006, PS2)
Developed by Sumo Digital
- OutRun series is unlike any other racing games considering it has its own proper definition of fun, fluidity and style. The updated OutRun 2006 Coast 2 Coast plays and still looks stunning despite running on last-gen hardware, and plays much like the original arcade game. Personally, and I am very serious here, I believe that this is the ultimate arcade style racing game. The PSP and PS2 versions can also share save files via USB link.up giving the player the chance to advance the game whether at home or away on one of the 15 Ferraris. As a bonus an arcade port of OutRun 2 SP is also included within the title, making OutRun 2006 an amazing value racing title for those still racing on the PS2, Xbox and PSP consoles.

WipEout Pulse (2007, PSP)
Developed by Sony Liverpool Studio
- Pulse was one of my first purchases when I finally got hold of a PSP. It serves as a reminder that the WipEout franchise is still relevant. The sequel to WipEout Pure, Pulse introduced the Grid system of unlocking stages, the ability to playback custom music as well as the reintroduction to the fantastic and engrossingly addictive Eliminator mode. Online play makes the whole thing even sweeter, however it does lack free downloadable tracks that Pure had. Even better for PS3 owners is that the upcoming PSN exclusive WipEout HD is based on the gameplay perfected in Pure and Pulse.

Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed (2000, PC)
Developed by EA Canada
- Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed on PC was the most beautiful racing game I have ever played on my second Dell Inspiron (with GeForce 2). Everything I knew of playing tons of NFS III: Hot Pursuit and High Stakes was thrown out the window. The physics were awfully realistic and the gameplay designed to mimic the unpredictable handling of difficult to handle rear engine Porches. At that moment, the sole spin-off NFS game was no longer an arcade racer, but a driving simulation. Visually it was a stunning game (back then) with 14 tracks of beautiful European locales such as the Alps and Normandy. This was the last Need for Speed game that was enjoyable and fun, before the series gone all crap.

Colin McRae Rally 2.0 (2001, PC)
Developed by Codemasters
- DiRT may be the latest and greatest Colin McRae Rally game, but 2.0 is best remembered as my first foray into the world of rally driving (semi) simulation. Much like Gran Turismo series, the gameplay is engineered to force the player to learn how to brake. Coming from someone who loved playing SEGA Rally 2 on his Dreamcast, the realistic handling, damage physics and braking took some getting used to. So while I still enjoyed SEGA Rally's arcady racing from time to time, 2.0 was a revelation in that the game was (then) the closest you could get into simulating a proper rally.

Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit (1998, PC)
Developed by EA Canada
- The first Need For Speed game I ever played was NFS II. It was a mixture of bland 3D graphics and good arcady fun. But it was NFS III that really brought the franchise into the limelight. The refocusing of police pursuits in Hot Pursuit gave the series plenty of reason to keep revisiting it. Spike strips and road blocks were introduced requiring the player to approach each racing differently. The graphics were also revamped giving my Direct3D enabled Dell Inspiron 7000 a chance to show off its impressive ATi power. It had none of the modding bullshit and faux-graffiti "kewlness" that blighted the franchise, it was all about racing.

Honourable mentions:

Daytona USA (1992, Arcade)
Developed by SEGA-AM2

F-Zero (1991, SNES)
Developed by Nintendo EAD

Gran Turismo 4 (2005, PS2)
Developed by Polyphony Digital

Grand Prix 4 by Geoff Crammond (2002, PC)
Developed by MicroProse

Mario Kart DS (2005, NDS)
Developed by Nintendo EAD

OutRun (1986, Arcade)
Developed by SEGA-AM2

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Richard & Judy

Richard & Judy will no longer grace mainstream telly from November. Sweet justice!

(b^_^)b d(^_^d)

Buy Okami (not an ad by Capcom, serious)

Now that the Wii port of Okami has been released in the US, there really is no more excuse not to play this especially if you are a hardcore Nintendo fanboy who's never owned a PS2. Obviously my suggestion is to get the original made by Clover Studio version (shakes fist at Capcom). Especially since impressions of the Ready at Dawn port indicates that waggle control does not suit the game much and that despite progressive and widescreen support, some of the special effects were absent (paper filter for example is almost missing). But hey, whatever rocks your boat. Just go play the game. Then buy Beyond Good & Evil (please Michel Ancel, no more ruined classic IPs by Peter Jackson) and Psychonauts and ICO.

Pre-order the Wii version here. And yes I will repost this again when the PAL version arrives. This is better than Twilight Princess, and therefore deserves more hype.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

J. K. Rowling

... please please please stop acting like a neurotic idiot. Seriously, go to Portugal and find Madeleine McCann instead of trying to court sympathy here like the raving lunatic you are trying to portray yourself as. Your books are fine, but to think that by breaking down in court because you may lose sales is absurd. May I suggest a visit to the library or book store, where you will find countless of fair use books on other books and other third party derivatives of other books. If other authors (who are probably not as successful as you are) don't bitch about it (in fact most authors would be delighted if the same attention is given to them), I can't see why you should. Or is being richer than the Queen not enough?

I don't deny it. I enjoy Harry Potter books, but I classify them in the same section as Da Vince Code. They are entertaining, but as far as literary skills goes - are pretty damn poor. It's not like Harry Potter was an original concept anyway. The next time I read Harry Potter again, I will try to imagine it was written by a well behaved, respected and likeable literacy genius. Like Terry Pratchett, but that would be too insulting to Mr. Pratchett. Hell, I think I am going to celebrate this blog article by re-reading The Colour of Magic. Who's with me?

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Weak dollar + import PSN cards = win for all

Sony Computer Entertainment America will soon be rolling out PlayStation Cards this spring. These cards, redeemable on the PlayStation Store, will be available in denominations of US$20 and $50. Why does this matter for people like me? Well with the weak American dollar, none North American based gamers will benefit most by importing this card (or even better, getting a US contact to do so - like what I will be doing) and through accessing the US PSN store. Wonderful for those without a US credit or debit card. And even more wonderful since Sony does not enforce region locking on PSN titles.

The greater number of selections of games do help too (take that SCEE for not releasing portable flOw yet). PS3 owners here will also no doubt be aiming to download cheaper PSN titles like WipEout HD and PixelJunk Monsters where as PSP owners may want to check out some of the classic PS1 titles available, like Insomniac's Spyro the Dragon and Konami's Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, all in their original 60hz glory.

Monday, April 14, 2008

DS redesign wish list

Rumours of a new DS redesign is spreading. Who knows if it is true, but personally I would rather wait for a proper DS successor than yet another DS redesign. Even then I can't help but create a wish list of sort for possible improvements that Nintendo can implement over its wonderful but flawed DS Lite.

1. No more glossy case please. Seriously, the DS Lite's glossy case is the worst thing about the DS Lite. It looks flashy in photographs, but the moment you touch one you can never clean it. Not only is it a fingerprint magnet, it also scratches easily. I will take matte or brushed metal over glossy plastic, even if I have to pay more.

2. Stronger hinge. The multiple reports on the web indicates that the DS Lite's hinge design is flawed. I've never dropped my first DS Lite ever, and the hinge still came one year later.

3. Proper OS. Nintendo can mutter how much they want the DS Lite to be a pure gaming breed, but their software and peripheral line up says otherwise. So please create a proper and flexible OS that gives people the choice to listen to music, surf the web and do pretty much anything a £20 throw away phone can do.

4. Built-in storage and/or memory card support. If Nintendo wishes to allow DS owners to download games and demos via the Wii, this is a must.

5. Mini USB port. If only so we have an industrial standard port that we can charge with. The PSP supports it and even Nokia dropped their ubiquitous pop-port to support it, so I expect nothing less from Nintendo.

6. TV-out. PSP Slim style, not Game Boy Player style.

7. Better integration between Wii and DS. Where are the DS demos as promised? Just take a look of the expanding PSP-PS3 connectivity features that SCE are implementing.

8. Support for WPA2. This should have been standard when Mario Kart DS came out.

9. Proper volume control. Nothing fancy like the PSP's soft buttons, but an old style jog dial is still a hundred times better than the 3mm dial on the DS Lite.

10. Brightness control. The DS Lite has an awesomely bright screen that made playing over the summer months tolerable. But to change the brightness you are required to exit the game (restart the DS)! And people complained that we are forced to restart Windows to install security patches...

I am sure there are other improvements that can be made, though I am not in the mood to think of anything else. Maybe I should write another one regarding the PSP Slim's inevitable successor, PSP-3000 or rant about why the Wii should come with more than a paltry 512MB. If you guys have anything to add, feel free to abuse the comment system away.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

No More Heroes review

The Wii, as much as I loved it, so far has been exactly like the GameCube - in that its core audience disappoints me. Gamers demand more original games, but when something like Zack and Wiki comes they ignore them. I blame the none-gamers and hardcore Nintendo folks, but that would be too easy. So here we have No More Heroes, a unique Wii game that isn't a port that has bombed because nobody knows about it. I've yet to see a single promotion for this title on telly or in print, but I've already seen twenty commercials of a couple of models playing Mario Kart Wii - a game that is guaranteed to sell out anyway because the mass media thinks that bolting a controller to a plastic toy is innovative, and Ian fucking Wright.

No More Heroes is generally a pretty good game and has a similar style to Suda 51's previous title Killer7. Unfortunately it also doesn't provide you with a substantial amount of content. Here you play as Travis Touchdown, an otaku kid living in a fictional city of Santa Destroy, California. He is a stereotypical video game addict, therefore is blood thirsty for violence. And he moonlights as an assassin killing people with his light sabre rip-off which he won in an online auction, all part of his plan to buy more video games as well as gaining the number one position within the United Assassins Association, a trade body of sorts for all kinds of hitmans.

Despite the similar visuals to Killer7, No More Heroes is an open-world free roaming sandbox game. You can get around the town by foot or through his motorcycle. In between assassinations, Travis can earn cash in numerous available part time jobs such as mowing lawns, collecting coconuts and picking the garbage. Yes, more mini-games for the Wii - we just can't get enough... Money earned can be used to buy weapons, clothes and more video tapes. You can watch videos or change clothings at Travis's apartment as well as saving the game when Travis takes a dump. Despite the seemingly sandbox style, No More Heroes is a very linear experience. Complete the odd job, kill some generic enemies, kill assassin to rise up the rank, rinse & repeat.

Combat is naturally via the use of the Wii remote and Nunchuk attachment. You control Travis movement via the Nunchuk controller, using the analog stick to move him and pressing the 'Z' button to block or lock-on the target. Travis's beam katana is controlled via pressing the 'A' button on the Wiimote. Here is where the disappointment comes in. You can't perform 1:1 sword movements with the Wii remote. The only concession to this is the ability to tilt the waggle slightly to adjust the beam katana attack to low or high. You can hold down the 'A' button to charge Travis's katana attack, of which the result will depend on which stance you are on. Travis can also perform melee attacks ('B' button) as well as displaying his wrestling moves on his stunned opponents. Overall I felt more could have been given to showcase the Wii's innovative potential as it seems to be a waste when many of the moves can easily be replicated on a traditional gamepad.

Ignoring the bland environment (with less than stellar frame rate) and some fairly annoying glitches (e.g. collision detection, ugh); No More Heroes oozes great overall style, wonderful production value and more importantly does not take itself too seriously. The voice acting is top notch and the soundtrack mixed with a variety of different modern genre. Media savvy gamers would be delighted with the plentiful of contemporary pop culture references that pokes fun at our hobbies, yet we play it because we connect with the central character. However there is a sense that despite all these, the title deserves just a bit more than a collection of mini-games - though I would not completely dismiss the title as a style over substance game. Despite that I highly recommend Wii owners to pick up No More Heroes. Don't you go disappointing yourself by picking up something like Sonic & Mario.


Friday, April 11, 2008

Some Final Fantasy IV DS info

A little late to post this, but fuck it. Here's some intriguing localisation news regarding the DS remake of Final Fantasy IV. These info comes from Tomoya Asano, producer of FF III and FF IV DS remakes as well as Takashi Tokita, lead game designer and scenario writer of the original FF IV as well as co-director of Chrono Trigger and director of this remake.

The story has not been tinkered much, so as not to upset picky fanboys. This despite the original game being only 25% of what they intended. Some of these discarded scripts were reworked into the remake in the form of flashbacks.

FF IV DS will have new story scenes that will flesh out Golbez's character.

Problems that plagued Final Fantasy III DS will be addressed. This includes improved loading, character development, more abilities, elaborate summoning cut scenes etc. I am not too sure whether I would welcome a more elaborate summoning sequences. Hope they are skipable.

In FF III DS, one of the screen is switched off during dungeon crawling and combat, but in FF IV DS, the lower screen will be used to display enemy info, status conditions etc. during battle. Nice.

As I mentioned in my impression of the Japanese version, the lower screen contains a map percentage feature where if you explore 100% of the dungeon you will get a reward.

The Augment Ability System (Decant ability) replaces the system in FF IV Advance where the characters that were temporary in the original version are playable again later on. They didn't like it because it messes with the story.

The Augment system will allow characters to permanently learn new abilities. This was originally meant to allow leaving characters to transfer their skills, but is now expanded out to allow you to learn new abilities by furthering story sub plots.

The weird creature that was with Rydia will be called Whytkin. Which doesn't sound as cute as Pochika...

Some of Edward's abilities which were near useless in the original game will be made more useful. Thank god.

It was acknowledge that they didn't want to lower the difficulty to appease to casual gamers. Makes sense, but I remember even hardcore gamers were complaining about FF III DS's difficulty. Man up people! Stop complaining that we need save points just before boss fights!

This is important. FF IV DS won't be an easytype. Instead difficulty is increased as bosses were rebalanced to stop people from memorising boss strategies from earlier versions. I hope we will get a Hard mode like the none-Japanese version of Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, but right now nothing has been confirmed.

Auto battle mode similar to gambit where you assign a single action for each character. In the Japanese version this can be turned off during battle if you wish.

The bonus Lunar Ruins from FF IV Advance won't be making it here. Nothing was mentioned about the new dungeon on Mt. Ruins.

Instead we will getting New Game+. ^_^

Summons are called Eidolons for IX fanboys. I have no idea why they would do that...

Totally ripped-off from GAF

The English version of Final Fantasy IV DS remake will arrive 22nd July this year. Take advantage of the low dollar and import.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Some none news

Quote of the day

"But don't worry. I'm not about to create Wii Fit. As for Snake, though... that's it. It's over."
Hideo Kojima (EDGE 188), assuring his admirers that despite MGS4 being his last Metal Gear game as a director, he won't be making none-games just yet. It gives me great hope that we will one day see Zone of the Enders 3.


A poll by parents to find out what kind of material they find offensive in video games revealed some not too surprising results. Perhaps as an affirmation on their religious values or merely current taboos, 37% responded stating that they find scenes of heterosexuals having sex to be offensive and 27% who hated the idea of two men kissing, compared to the 26% who would squirm at the sight of a severed human head. Can't say I am surprised though. The date might read 2008, but many are still living in their own little Victorian paradise.

via Wired

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Miles Edgeworth to star in spin-off title

Miles Edgeworth the prosecutor extraordinary of the Gyakuten Saiban series, is finally getting his own spin-off game. About time! Gyakuten Kenji (codenamed as New Gyakuten, Not Saiban)will apparently be a law adventure game and so far the two main characters confirmed are Edgeworth and Dick Gumshoe. Gumshoe as our bumbling sidekick? Even more awesome. The game will feature a sprite-based third person gameplay with a new point & click search and deduction system.

(spoilers for GS3-less Europeans - just import the damn game)

That is great news. Ever since we were given the chance to play as Edgeworth in GS3, I have been itching for Capcom to create a game that solely revolves around him.

(spoiler ends)

Hell, back when I first played the first Ace Attorney I've already started hoping for an Edgeworth spin-off. Now if only Capcom get of their arses and confirm Franziska von Karma and Godot's own spin-offs. Especially von Karma. Because playing as a hot prosecutor with her own whip is made of win.

via GAF

Updated with scans!

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII review

Despite the millions of gamers who adores it, I have always found Final Fantasy VII to be a decent but ultimately average title. But for many, Final Fantasy VII was the first Japanese RPG they ever played. And for many others, the only! It is difficult to dismiss the title's significance in introducing a once obscure genre to the mainstream, and for that alone I tip my hat to Final Fantasy VII.

Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII is the latest instalment in the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII series of Square-Enix quick cash-in of taking advantage of desperate buyers. Surprisingly and more importantly, luckily, it is one of the better spin-off titles in Square-Enix's Final Fantasy VII portfolio (Advent Children being an incredibly forgetful experience, and Dirge of Cerberus apparently a turd - I haven't tried it but YouTube videos advised me not to). One reason being is that Crisis Core isn't really a spin-off, but a direct prequel to Final Fantasy VII, which explains among other things why Cloud is so mind fucked in Final Fantasy VII. So shocking as it is, you do get a glimpse of a happier laughing Cloud before he started brooding 99.99% of the time. Spoilers ahoy throughout!

Crisis Core evolves around Zack Fair, a 2nd class SOLDIER under the employment of the Shinra Electric Power Company, a multi-conglomerate dictator. Cocky as he usually is, his ambition is to become a 1st class SOLDIER and to be a hero of Midgar - to live his dreams so to speak. The game begins with Zack and his mentor Angeal sent to infiltrate and destroy enemies in Wutai., only to be attacked by clones of a missing 1st class SOLDIER Genesis. Saved by Sephiroth, Zack later learns that Angeal has gone renegade joining ranks with Genesis. Throughout the game (which spans a couple of years), Zack retains his belief to guide Angeal back to the right path. We also get to see Zack's first meeting Aerith, as well as their eventual romancing; and becoming best friends with Shinra infantryman Cloud. There are a couple of story arcs in Crisis Core, one that surrounds the main antagonist Genesis, as well as the infamous Nibelheim incident where Sephiroth went insane.

A couple of supporting characters from the previous (sequel) game is here, all connected through Zack's interaction with them. The human side of Sephiroth is of particular interest here as he showed himself to be a kind and funny fellow, and of someone who once recognised friendship above all. It is interesting as I've always thought him of a two dimensional villain, so I was thankful that we finally get to visit a side of him when he was sane and smiling before his mental breakdown. Yuffie also makes an appearance, constantly stalking Zack via e-mail; as well as Tifa, who appears as a guide to Zack and Sephiroth while in Nibelheim. There are quite a number of boss battles to be dealt with, but none were particularly difficult or memorable, especially those 'mid-bosses'. Sadly, the final boss was a joke, but this is Genesis we are talking about. His constant citing of LOVELESS poetries is truly video gaming irritation on a huge scale.

While the story begins excruciatingly slowly, the plot eventually did gradually built up. To be honest, I found the multiple story arcs here far more enjoyable than the one in Final Fantasy VII. It must have something to do with playing with what seems to be a very likeable and funny protagonist, unlike what Cloud came to be in Final Fantasy VII and its subsequent sequel Advent Children. Seriously, Zack is now one of my favourite Final Fantasy characters next to Balthier (Final Fantasy XII) and Rydia & Kain (Final Fantasy IV), though it did take a couple of chapters before his do-gooder personality rises. It is sad that the manner of his death was so tragic, but if you are really into Final Fantasy VII lore, you would have known of it by now (I did, but not the manner). Basically, Zack Fair is a genuine Mr. Nice Guy whose optimism is a rarity among modern Final Fantasy characters these days. For all intent and purpose, I believe that Square-Enix succeeded in creating an extremely likeable centre character.

Unlike most Final Fantasy games, there is no world map for the player to traverse. Instead the player is automatically transported to each location through cut scenes. It does suit the portable nature of the game so I won't complain of the lack of airships and Chocobo riding, though it does make the main mission a very linear experience. Even side missions are only accessible through the menu when Zack is standing on a save spot, which I found to be extremely weird but useful for quick missions. Later on when Zack is escaping the Shinra forces, you can still access missions of Zack working for Shinra, which I found to be rather silly.

Unlike its predecessor, Crisis Core is an Action RPG title featuring a real time combat system not too dissimilar to those found in tri-Ace's Star Ocean and Level-5's Rogue Galaxy. Battles are still random (annoyingly sometimes every 3-5 seconds) but only in open areas, and though there is no transition to a new battle screen you will still have to wait as Zack readies his sword. When in combat mode, the bottom left displays the HP, MP and AP stats and the top left features a slot machine-like spinning reel. This is called the Digital Mind Wave that randomly giving the player helpful boost (such as the limit break-like Power Surge!), levelling up equipped Materias. The DMW also sometimes shows unseen cut scenes revolving around Zack, which is fortunately skip able (it does repeat these cut scenes rather a lot). Summons are also evoked through the DMW.

The player controls Zack using the analogue pad and cycles through the equipped commands using the shoulder 'L' and 'R' trigger. Pressing 'X' will confirm Zack's action, though you can also evade and defend using the other face buttons. If you can run or dodge around to the back of the enemy and attack, you will earn a critical hit. Bizarrely the EXP counter is not visible in any portion of the game, and you will only level-up if the DMW reel shows 7-7-7. Personally while I feel that the DMW is a welcomed addition to the game, it does become monotonous after a while - particularly when you can't skip the Power Surge attack animations. But it was used brilliantly in Zack's final battle. The learning curve is easy.

Visually Crisis Core is a very pretty PSP game. But it isn't as close to the new high benchmark set by God of War: Chains of Olympus game. Environments aren't as detailed as it could have been and the geometries are very simple. Pathways are wide to accommodate the real time gameplay, giving the player room to manoeuvre, but are unsightly. Some locations are downright awful with constant grey walls or brown deserts. It gets boring awfully quickly, which is why I tend to skip most side missions. Texture quality is good and the cut scenes are told in both pre-rendered videos of varying quality and in-game cut scene engine. Facial animations (in both pre-rendered and real time cut scenes) are excellent - far better than most games I have seen and equal to that of Final Fantasy XII on the PS2. Loading is quick too, though no where near as seamless as Chains of Olympus. Overall, environments are a bit meh, but character and enemy models were brilliant.

The soundtrack mainly consists of 'remixed' versions of those in Final Fantasy VII, which consists of tracks that I enjoyed and hated. The "heavy metal" piece during certain fights were bloody annoying back then, and is equally annoying here. I am normally a fan of all sorts of heavy metal (bar nu), but the pseudo-metal soundtrack does not suit the game at all. Having said that, the majority of the soundtrack was particularly memorable, especially the western-style string. Voice acting was okay. When I first listed my pros and cons for this review, I did dislike the English voice acting at first, but towards the end I found that I eventually did warmed up to them. Sound quality is excellent.

Crisis Core is rather light on its content. The main campaign I reckon could be completed in around 15-20 hours. I myself took around 23 hours to complete the main game with around 20% of the side quests done, most of which were done during my daily tube commutes. Most of the hundreds of available side missions are pretty standard repetitive fillers with no plot sense, though they do give the player an opportunity to harvest rare Materia. Grinding isn't a requirement though, as the game is pretty easy. Some enemies are capable of instantly killing you, though if you have the status Raise (you can get it for free in the Shinra lobby or from a dash of Phoenix Down) you will automatically be revived. Not all side missions are fillers though, as some do advance the back story of certain characters like Yuffie. There are also optional quests like building Aerith better flower wagons and helping out a hapless 3rd class SOLDIER.

The Materia Fusion mentioned earlier is similar to Alchemy in Dragon Quest VIII and Skill Binding in Jeanne d'Arc, where you can combine different Materias to either attach stat boosts to it or to create new Materias. The amount of Materia that can be equipped is limited. For example, rather than wasting two slots by equipping Firaga and a HP boost Materia, you can combine both to create Firaga + (HP+). Playing around with the Materia allows you to achieve very high stats earlier in the game instead of relying on levelling-up. By the time I reached the quarter of the game, my Zack already had his HP boosted from 3000 to 9999, even when his level was around 30. The same applies to boosting MP and AP, as well as boosting Zack's attributes like his physical attacks and magic defence.

Overall I am surprised to have found myself genuinely enjoying Crisis Core. I avoided the hype, and at the end my expectations were more or less met. It doesn't matter if you, like me, didn't like Final Fantasy VII or Advent Children; Crisis Core is still worthy of a title in its own right. So forget about your love or hatred about the original sourced title, Crisis Core deserved to be played despite its well documented short comings.

Things I like about Crisis Core:
  • Story is engrossing.
  • Portable friendly bite-sized missions, with well spaced save points.
  • Character model are detailed, with good facial and body animations.
  • Real time combat with menu based element is intuitive, though not as polished as Final Fantasy XII's.
  • High production value and polished presentation.
  • Quick loading.
  • Plenty of side quests, some which provides back story.
  • Random battles happens without transition screen.
  • Material Fusion.
  • New Game+ (finally!), and hard mode included.
  • Zack is a likeable protagonist.
Things I dislike about Crisis Core:
  • Hidden EXP counter.
  • Normal mode is too easy.
  • I don't mind random battles, but having one every 3-5 seconds is taking the cake.
  • Very linear storyline, no world map.
  • Lack of challenging puzzles.
  • DMW gets too repetitive.
  • Dull environments.
  • "Heavy metal" battle theme.

You can preorder the Euro exclusive special edition from Amazon UK. Or get them from Amazon.com.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Everybody's Golf: my new favourite everyday game

I can't believe that I have missed out on Sony's Everybody's Golf (Minna no Golf) series for so long, but after reading tons of good impressions on the new PS3 version I decided it was time to check it out. Obviously since I do not have a PS3 yet, the next best option would be the PS2 or PSP - so I got the PSP version instead, since golf + portable = obvious fun. And I am indeed having so much fun with it, so much so I have been ignoring some 'main games' lately. ^_^

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

We get it, you still hate video games

The Times, continuing their assault on video games, has invited guest columnist Giles Whittell to post a rant listing his reasons on why he hates video games. This after The Times lied about video games box receiving health warning labels and whose two other hacks have no will to be responsible for their children's actions. His main reason: that video gaming is a waste of time.
I hate video games, on or offline. I hate the way they suck real people into fake worlds and hold on to them for decades at a time. I hate being made to feel hateful for saying so, and I hate being told to immerse myself in them before passing judgment, because it feels like being told to immerse myself in smack and teenage pregnancy before passing judgment on them.
This was written by a book author. What do authors do? Suck real people into fake worlds. I see no difference from people who take comfort in immersing themselves in films, books, music, musicals or indeed video gaming. To single out a medium specifically for his attack says a lot of this hypocritical old man, whose books are no where near as influential as those by authors like J.R.R. Tolkein, Terry Pratchet and J.K. Rowling.
This is not because of anything wrong or bad about video games or heroin or teenage parents. It's not even because of game-induced homicide or web-grooming of little girls by perverts - serious problems, but statistically low-risk. It's because, compared with everything else on offer in a kid's life, video games and heroin and teenage pregnancy are a colossal waste of time.
Silly argument. What do we do in this world that isn't a waste of time? Sudoku? Fishing? Hiking? Reading travel books written by the same hack who posted the above diatribe? All these are equally a waste of time. Writing the article itself for all intent and purpose was ultimately a waste of time, as was writing this reply. I know what isn't a waste of time. Giving birth to a beautiful baby, even if it was the result of teen pregnancy.
Dr Byron says a third of ten-year-olds in England spend more than three hours per school day playing video games. In England, maybe. In my house, only when I'm dead. Meanwhile, I want my kids to overdose on wind, rain, mud, gravy, tents, mountains and overcooked bacon. (Oh, and do their homework.) Why is that suddenly so weird?
I see you also enjoy time wasting. What is the difference of wasting time standing under the rain to wasting time playing video games or reading proper books? Is it because you are a bitter technophobic? Whose inability to connect with young people makes you angry? At the end of the day eating overcooked bacon or playing video games still results in the same thing - wasting time. But at least I had fun playing games. Overcooked bacons are not that great.

You could do worse than wasting your time with video gaming fun. You could be a Times reader.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Witchblade anime review

It took some time, but I finally got through my backlog of Witchblade anime. Now I have heard awful stuff about the anime, mainly from fans of the original American comic who decried the Anime-sation of their favourite comic. I can't blame them, the art direction for one is completely different - being anime and all. But one pet complaint I heard from them is pretty unsubstantiated, that being that the anime series somehow borders on softcore. Which is all bollocks if they actually watched the anime in the first place. Sure, fan service do occur plenty, but I would consider Witchblade to be pretty mild. At most I would compare Witchblade's ecchi level to that of a censored Ghost in the Shell. And it isn't like the American Witchblade had no boobies. Regardless, what is it with people who hates skins but loves violence?

The anime does start out rather slowly. We are introduced to Masane Amaha and her daughter Rihoku, who are running away from a child welfare organisation who are seeking to remove Rihoku from Masane's custody because she does not have the capabilities to raise a daughter. Eventually succeeding in keeping her daughter, Masane is hired by Reiji Takayama of Douji Group Industries, a weapons manufacture, to combat malfunctioned 'Ex-cons', a group of weapons made of human corpse. This is because she has the power of the Witchblade, whom she came to possess some six years earlier when an earthquake destroyed Tokyo. The Wicthblade has the power to provide the bearer with superhuman abilities, and Masane's reappearance has ignited a rivalry between the Douji Group and NSFW, an origination researching into creating Witchblade clones dubbed the Cloneblades wielder.

A number of important characters were established early on, but their back story weren't explained much. Many came off as two-dimensional particularly Yuusuke Tozawa, a freelance photographer, whom initially came off as someone who would do anything for a scoop, including exposing the Witchblade project. As the series progress eventually he is shown to have a deeper understanding with Masane and her daughter. The producers of the series seems to realise that the time spent working on Masane's relationship with secondary characters would do well and even dedicated an entire episode for the purpose when Masane gets a day off. Masane's relationship with her daughter is also tested when Rihoku is proven to be not her biological son and that her real mother was revealed to be a rival Cloneblade.

Disappointing to a series like this however are the action sequences themselves. Typically of any Japanese anime, these are bland and as a result we are not accustomed to seeing fast action. Fortunately fight scenes rarely occur, and even then those that do occur brief. Most of the time, the anime focuses on a number of storyline like Masane's relationship with Rihoku, Douji's internal office politics and NSFW's research into human cloning. This is why I actually continued watching Witchblade because the story keeps getting better as back story of important characters are explored further and new plotlines emerging. Towards the end it would be challenging not to feel sorry for some of the main characters. Even Masane's enemies are often portrayed in a kindly way and their deaths are usually a form of release from a terrible burden.

The quality of the animations isn't the best. I would rate it as pretty average, certainly no where near on par with The Melancholy of Haruhi Suziyama or Nana. But as a TV anime, I would say it is good enough to enjoy, though no where near the details of Top Cow's Witchblade comics and Witchblade Takeru mangas. Voice over are another matter though with the cast of Japanese voice actors giving their absolute finest here.

You can preorder a limited edition Witchblade boxset here or get the first volume here.