Friday, August 24, 2012

New Super Mario Bros. 2 (3DS) Review

Capping off the week with a new review, New Super Mario Bros. 2 is here in both digital and retail form, and players around the world have already amassed billions upon billions of coins. It's a veritable gold rush. Should you invest some serious coin into this game? Find out with my review.

Not exactly a rehash, but not exactly the 
gold standard for the Mario series either.


Rehash. That's a popular word for those who don't care for the Mario series and more broadly, Nintendo. Change too little and the game is a rehash. Change too much and the game is ruined. Nintendo constantly has to walk the line between tradition and progress, and their fans will tell them if they stray too far from it. I have mentioned in the past that I considered New Super Mario Bros. 2, the game developed by a team of newcomers who got a crash course on Mario level design, to be the appetizer to New Super Mario Bros. U, the game series veterans are building. Well, after playing New Super Mario Bros. 2 for an extended period of time, if this game is the appetizer, I would love to have seconds.

If you have any experience playing an old school Mario game, the moment you boot up New Super Mario Bros. 2 you get waves of nostalgia and a sharp sense of familiarity. Yes, you are indeed playing an all-new 2D Mario. That understanding might not unleash the same power as it normally would because there is another New Super Mario Bros. game in the pipeline for this very year, New Super Mario Bros. U. But then you realize that Nintendo only pushes out one mainline 2D Mario per system, and thus you feel content and ready to play what you believe will be something special. Though, what isn't so special is the reason for this whole grand platforming adventure to begin with. Once again Princess Peach is kidnapped by the Koopa Kids, and it's up to a pudgy plumber to rescue her. See what I'm talking about with regards to familiarity?

I'm whisked away to the land of Super Mario Bros. 3
with simply this standalone screenshot.
Regardless, New Super Mario Bros. 2 does not stray too far from the tried and true formula in design. There's still an overworld map that players travel across from left to right. There's still the unfaltering array of world tropes to venture through: grasslands, desert, beach, jungle, winter wonderland, and volcano. Nintendo even blatantly recycled most of the music from New Super Mario Bros. Wii for this 3DS iteration. There's a small (very small) sampling of remixed tracks, but there's is an overwhelming feeling of sameness. So for these reasons I could see a soul who doesn't delve too deeply into New Super Mario Bros. 2 saying that the game is but a mere rehash.

Mario is the top man on the totem pole.
However, upon closer inspection of the game, you get bewitched and entranced by the level design. Even with the newcomer team playing through a crash course of Mario games to see how past levels were crafted, they were able to manufacture totally new and fresh ideas into their own designs. One level has you racing on water in Mini Mushroom Mario form as the screen auto-scrolls. You must dodge urchins and use Paratroopas to get big air. Another level has an enormous, behemoth-sized Boo chasing after you through a ghost house. Then there are ones where you are overcome by a current as you quickly adjust your level in the water to dodge hazards; ones where you ride an undulating Dry Bones boat through a sea of lava, evading fireballs, foes dropping in on you, and other obstacles; and ones where you swim through an underwater tower where spiked pillars and boned fish wish to make your journey difficult.

A new level type exclusive to New Super Mario Bros. 2 are short cannon levels. These have Mario constantly running forward with no opportunity to stop, as he uses enemies to leap off of to cross deadly chasms. Think of them as the mach speed sections in Sonic the Hedgehog (2006), except they're in 2D, are less agonizing, much shorter, and they aren't absolutely broken. These levels are found through secret exits scattered around the game (and there's plenty of them to find).

These fast-paced stages require timing, 
precision, and quick thumbs.
You can beat New Super Mario Bros. 2 with just playing through the six standard worlds. However, by finding the secret levels in various levels, you can get to the aforementioned cannon stages which can take you to two special non-themed worlds. There's even a final world after beating New Super Mario Bros. 2 that houses the most challenging levels in the game, making the total worlds of the game nine.

Discovering the quite crafty in location secret exits isn't the only optional task persistent perfectionist players can attempt. No, like the prior two games in the New Super Mario Bros. line, there are three Star Coins per level that are placed in precarious spots and hidden throughout. These will take all your cunning and ability to find them. My only problem with the sites of some is that they require you to hit invisible blocks which grow beanstalks. In fact, the new blood of developers on this title seem to have a penchant and over-reliance on them. Nonetheless, Star Coins not only are a requirement to getting a star on your save file, but they also unlock overworld map paths leading to new areas, Toad Houses, and levels.

Coins come easy in NSMB2:
from pipes, from blocks, from foes, etc.
In the months leading up to the release of New Super Mario Bros. 2, Nintendo hyped up the ability to collect coins and how coins would come out of every orifice, corner, and angle of the game's many levels. Gold coins are everywhere. Gold rings temporarily turn every enemy into a gold version of themselves. Grabbing a golden Koopa shell and tossing it will have it leave a trail of golden goodness for Mario to follow. Jumping off the heads of enemies in golden form will give Mario even more coins. Chucking fireballs as Fire Mario into certain pipes will blast countless coins into the air for Mario to collect. There are even big golden blocks that act as a roulette wheel, and hitting them can earn Mario up to fifty coins. To continue the crazy coin-age, occasionally there are brick blocks that can be jumped into ten times, covering Mario's head in a gold block. As he runs, he amasses a myriad of coins. And along with the return of the awesome Raccoon Mario power-up, Mario can grab a Gold Flower and fire golden fireballs with the ability to give him mad coin-age for every foe he hits and block he busts.

Mario goes for gold with this new power-up.
With all these coins to nab, you can imagine that Mario will be racking up lives. This is indeed the case, making lives feel pretty useless. However, collecting the max amount is one of the requirements for getting five stars on your save file. Even with the threat of losing lives not that big of a concern, you might think that there's no fear at all to be had about dying. Unlike lots of coins giving out lots of lives, that certainly is not the case. If Mario dies five times in a row in a level, a gold block will show up. This block enables you to don a golden raccoon suit, making Mario completely invincible. However, if the block shows up at all, you lose the ability to get all five glittery stars on your save file. That is, you can get five stars but they won't be sparkle. This is a pain in the patootie because even if you don't hit the block, you are still penalized.

Don't worry, Mario. At least you aren't
sleeping with the fishes!
As stated, coins are a big part of the promotion of New Super Mario Bros. 2. They are essentially everywhere in the game. A portion of this shines heavily through the Coin Rush mode. This has you choosing from one of three level packs: Mushroom, Flower, and Star. You then play through a random series of three levels based on which pack you have selected, trying to get the most coins as possible with only one life to live. Your total carries over through each level, and hitting the top of a flagpole doubles your amount completely. This is basically the mode to play for getting to the ever-illusive one million coin objective. Unfortunately, however, the prize for actually doing so is incredibly disappointing and not really worth the effort. Nonetheless, Coin Rush is an absolute blast to play through. I only wish there were SpotPass leaderboards to compare scores with friends, family, and even complete strangers. As it is, you can exchange top scores and challenge other people's runs through StreetPass, a local wireless feature of the Nintendo 3DS. And speaking of local wireless, two players with two 3DS systems and a copy of the game each can play the full game cooperatively. It is not a feature that I could try out myself, but for those with all the necessary provisions, it is there for you to enjoy.

Get two times the brothers when you 
team it up with the co-op mode.
New Super Mario Bros. 2 isn't a graphical showcase of the hardware it is on. It does not look horrible by any means. It is a competent looking game that runs really well. Mario's model compared to New Super Mario Bros. on the DS has been significantly upgraded. Backgrounds are gorgeous (though they blur to create a feeling of depth of field when the 3D slider on the system is turned up). I think the art style of the New Super Mario Bros. series isn't bland at all. It might be sterile, it might be safe (like the game itself), but it is entirely inoffensive. Even the music that has generated a lot of criticism is catchy, regardless of whether or not it reuses melodies and outright steals material from the Wii game.

Some have stated that they are losing hope in Nintendo's ability to craft awesome Mario experiences. However, with the release of New Super Mario Bros. 2 and playing through it, this game just gives me more hope as it was made by newcomers who had never made a 2D Mario in their life. These beginners have shown that they have the brilliant ability to create a Mario game with ingenuity, supremely creative level design, terrifically tight controls, and interesting ideas in such remarkable ways that I feel the future of the Mario franchise is safe, and more importantly, all the brighter. New Super Mario Bros. 2 isn't the definite gold standard for 2D Mario as it doesn't deviate too far from the protected formula (and I wish it would start), but with some more fine-honing of the young men and women behind this game, they could create a generation's Super Mario Bros. 3 or Super Mario World someday.

[SuperPhillip Says: 9.0/10]

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The 50 Best Nintendo DS Games - Part Two

Last week began the five week series of what I perceive to be the 50 best Nintendo DS games of the system's exhaustive library. The first ten can be seen here. This week we delve into ten more top titles for the Nintendo DS, one of the best-selling dedicated gaming platforms of all time, currently at around 150 million units worldwide across all revisions. On these ten titles for this week, we have a menagerie of memorable characters and series like Mario, Mega Man, and Sonic the Hedgehog. Remember that these games must have released in North America to be on this list. With that out of the way, are you ready for round two?

Mario Kart DS


Quite possibly the finest iteration of the highly popular Mario Kart franchise, Mario Kart DS was Nintendo's first dabbling with online play. It was a much hyped title for that reason alone, regardless of how bare bones the online actually was. When played with friends across the world, the game was quite fun online. Otherwise it was mediocre. Regardless, that isn't even what I consider to be an important part of the game. No, the inclusion of four Retro Cups based on tracks from past Mario Karts was an exciting addition to the series and brought back waves of nostalgia. The incredible Mission Mode added boss battles and other challenges, something I wish future Mario Kart games would have implemented. (It was a sad exclusion of Mario Kart 7.) Not only all that, but the track design was impressive and showed off wonderful new ideas and courses such as Luigi's Mansion, Waluigi Pinball, Airship Fortress, and Delfino Square (one of my favorite tracks of all time). If you feel the need for speed, Mario Kart DS is the apt choice to get your motor running.

Tetris DS


While Tetris: Axis on the Nintendo 3DS featured a smorgasbord of modes to choose from, Tetris DS is my preferred means to get my Tetris fix because of the Nintendo NES nostalgia added to the game. Each mode in the game, from Mission to Marathon, has a Nintendo theme from games like Super Mario Bros., Donkey Kong, The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, and Balloon Fight. For players who wish to expand from the single-player fun of the title, there is online play for up to four opponents to outplay one another. The game is out of print as Nintendo lost the Tetris license shortly after the game was manufactured. If you can find a copy, jump on it. This is one of the best versions of Tetris on any platform, and if you get feelings of warmth for anything Nintendo -- especially the NES era, this is the must-have version to acquire. 

Picross 3D


Are you familiar with nonograms? These are clever logic puzzles where you have to work with cells on a grid and color them in based on numbered clues. The end result creates a picture. We've seen Nintendo run with this idea with Mario's Picross on the original Game Boy and with an earlier Nintendo DS title, Picross DS. The idea went fully 3D with Picross 3D. Instead of having a 2D grid containing cells, you had a three-dimensional box which needed to be chipped away at to create a specific shape, creature, or object. The catch here is that numbers on all axes clarify how many blocks are present in a given row or column. Trying to break a block that is a part of the finished puzzle results in a strike. Get three strikes and you fail. I loved this version of Picross more than any other because of how the ending shapes animate once a puzzle is completed. I also adored the complexity of the game and the plethora of puzzles included. With the bonus of downloadable puzzles and the ability to create your own, the fun doesn't end for a long time with Picross 3D.

Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia


The third and final Castlevania game for the Nintendo DS was Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia. It tried some new things with what some were calling a tired and stale formula. Levels weren't all attached to one another. Instead, different areas were split up on a world map. Don't be mistaken, though, as there was plenty of exploration and secrets to be found, and even an immense castle to plunder. Additionally, a new Glyph system was introduced, allowing the heroine of the game, Shanoa, to find and equip over 100 unique Glyphs, or powers, to unleash on foes and get through the game. Outside of the main game there were side quests to complete, each giving the player a prize for helping out a denizen. I consider Order of Ecclesia to be the most arduous of the DS Castlevania trilogy. That damnable crab in the lighthouse will always give me nightmares as a gamer. If you're looking for a challenge, Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia will bring it to you in spades.

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney


Objection! And thus a million GIFs and messages were posted on forums and comment sections everywhere, with each person using the phrase thinking they were more creative than the last. Originally released in Japan on the Game Boy Advance in 2001, Gyakuten Saiban would finally make it to gamers outside of Japan in 2005, but this time with touch screen controls on the Nintendo DS. Us Western gamers known the game and subsequent series as Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. This adventure game follows the cases of the titular lawyer, Phoenix Wright, as players perform two types of gameplay: investigation and trial. Finding the right clues, cross examining witnesses, providing the right evidence at the right time, and yes, objecting when appropriate were all features of this out-there game and series. There is an ardent fan base for the Phoenix Wright series, and the game would spawn numerous sequels and even various spinoffs. If you want a game that is outside the normal realm of what's mainstream, Phoenix Wright may just be "wright" for you.

999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors


From one adventure game to another, 999 is no reference to Herman Cain's presidential campaign tax plan. No, it is more in line with the mature-rated adventure game starring a cast of characters all held against their will aboard a cruise ship which is set to sink within nine hours. By solving puzzles and working together (despite much suspicion of one another), the nine souls must try to survive their kidnapper's gruesome game. 999 is full of puzzles that the player must solve, and choices in dialogue and doors that affect which of the many endings they will see. 999 is a thrill ride and possesses one of the better stories in gaming. Your decisions definitely affect how you play the game, and the twists and turns will keep you guessing till the very end (or ends). With Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward soon coming for Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita, there's no better time to try out 999 if you haven't already.

Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Echoes of Time


If there is one type of game that I immensely enjoy that haven't had much influx on handhelds, that would be the action/loot RPG. I've chosen Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Echoes of Time over its predecessor, Ring of Fates, for two main reasons: 1) Magic is much more easier to use. There are no obnoxious combinations to that are forced on the player to use, and instead of having to use Magicite, there is simple MP to use, and 2) There is the addition of much appreciated online play. There's nothing like jumping around, hacking and slashing enemies, unleashing spells, finding treasure, battling bosses, unfolding the story, and teaming up with friends across the globe for one common goal. Echoes of Time was also made available for the Wii that not only does that version show just how poorly third-parties handled and blew it with the system, but it shows that Echoes of Time is more suited for a handheld than a console. A great pickup for loot lovers and action-RPG fans, Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Echoes of Time shines just like a crystal: bright and majestic.

Solatorobo: Red the Hunter


Solatorobo: Red the Hunter is the type of game that was destined to be overlooked. It was a new IP, it released near the end of the Nintendo DS' life cycle, and it didn't receive much in the way of advertising. It wasn't just one of those things that damned it to oblivion. It was the combination of variables. Regardless, who can resist controlling a bipedal canine in a mech suit which can grab, throw, and destroy opponents, explore islands in the sky, and complete over 80 missions that advance the story (with many more available for download for free)? I'm not even a dog person and I found the cast to be adorable and interesting. Outside of the main character's mech, he can have better mobility in the form of reaching otherwise inaccessible areas via swimming and climbing ladders, he can flip switches, and he can uncover treasure chests full of valuable booty. The North American version came with a soundtrack CD, sporting off the superb music which is just one part of the impressive presentation this DS game has. Pick up a copy if you're in the mood for something new and something reminiscent (at least to me) of Tail Concerto. 

Sonic Rush


You know, Sonic the Hedgehog has received a lot of criticism over the past decade, some just and some unjust. The handheld (at least on the GBA and DS) Sonic games I view as quite competent titles. Some might rely heavily on speed to overshadow their inadequacies (such as too many bottomless pits), but overall, they are titles that I enjoyed. Sonic Rush is but one of these, and it was the first Nintendo DS Sonic game. It featured zones that sprawled across both screens, the ability to play as both Sonic and newcomer Blaze the Cat, fun special stages, and one of the most sensational DS soundtracks I've ever heard. The game is a joy to look at, the 3D bosses and stages are intriguing and enjoyable, and the level design is mostly well done. It seems many of the more punishing pundits for 2D Sonic compare the more recent titles to the classic Genesis ones and judge them off of that. I judge the games based on how fun they are and how well they control, and not so much how close they are to the original Genesis games. For instance, you can keep me away from Episode I and II, but don't start talkin' trash about the Sonic Advance trilogy or the duo of Sonic Rush games.

Mega Man ZX Advent


The final game of this second set of ten best DS games is Mega Man ZX Advent. It completely abolished my main problem with its predecessor in that it had a much more capable and complete map to see where areas were interconnected for easier travel. Also different from the original ZX is that the game features a full English voice cast for its translation. Very nice. The game is somewhat Metroid-like in where receiving new forms and Biometals allow the main protagonists (either Ashe or Grey) to reach new areas, battle new bosses, and uncover hidden routes and pathways. The ability to transform into defeated bosses takes the classic Mega Man approach of simply taking a Robot Master's weapon and kicks it up to the third degree. If you're afraid of a good challenge, there is always the Beginner difficulty to start out with to get your feet wet with the game. As for replay value, over 80 secret disks containing info regarding the cast (main characters and enemies) are available to be found, multiple medals for defeating the game's bosses by accomplishing specific goals, and multiple difficulties make for a Mega Man experience that was built to last.

===

Part Two is now complete, meaning that 20 of the best Nintendo DS games are in the books. Join me for next week when ten more top titles are listed. Will your favorites be among those ten? Only one way to find out, and that's by checking here next Thursday.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

PS3 Games That I'd Like to See Get A Trophy Patch (Which Probably Won't)


Like Uncharted: Drake's Fortune before it, recently Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots received a long-awaited patch, enabling trophies for prospective collectors to obtain. That sparked an interest in me to see what other games in the PlayStation 3 library that came out before Sony and third-parties' implementation of the trophy system. These five following games are ones that I would no doubt be interested in playing through again if such a trophy patch were to be included, though the likelihood is not that high.

Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction


One of my favorite entries in the Ratchet & Clank franchise is Tools of Destruction, the game that brought the furry lombax and wise-cracking robot into high-definition for the first time. I would think a trophy patch for the PS3's first Ratchet & Clank game would be a perfect thing to have for the series's 10th anniversary this year (in addition to the Ratchet & Clank trilogy re-releasing on one Blu-ray disc later this year for North America -- it's already out in PAL territories). Such achievable trophies could have possessing one million bolts at one time, building the R.Y.N.O. IV through obtaining all of the Gadgetron Holo-Plans, nabbing all of the hidden Golden Bolts, trophies for completing five skill points, ten skill points, fifteen skill points, and so forth, and for upgrading all weapons fully. I already love Tools of Destruction, and such a patch would make me fall in love with the title all over again.

Resistance: Fall of Man


Using its love for creating off-the-wall and high-powered weaponry such as seen in the aforementioned Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction, Insomniac Games made a first-person shooter with traditional 1950s firepower as well as a totally original and futuristic arsenal for players to utilize. Resistance: Fall of Man takes players through an alternate history where an alien race known as the Chimera have taken over large portions of the earth, exterminating a significant portion of humanity, and the remaining humans band together to form one last resistance to save mankind. If a trophy patch were implemented into Resistance, I would want the trophies to all be ones that can be obtained via single-player. The problem I have with multiplayer ones is twofold: 1) If the community isn't active or populated, it can make finding matches challenging, and 2) If the wrong type of trophies were in multiplayer, most players would go out of their way to obtain them instead of actively assisting their teammates; they'd be playing selfishly.

Hot Shots Golf: Out of Bounds


While not my favorite Hot Shots Golf game in the series for the main reason that the amount of courses from the fourth installment to the fifth installment decreased pretty notably, Hot Shots Golf: Out of Bounds (known as Minna no Golf 5 in Japan and Everybody's Golf 5 in PAL areas) carried out a brand-new swinging mechanic, brought forth six original courses, and added a story mode where players competed in tournaments and in VS. matches against computer-controlled opponents. PlayStation Move accessibility was added in Japan last year and in other territories this year, but there was no trophy patch that went with it. That's a shame as World Invitational proved, Hot Shots Golf fans find extra incentive to master a game through not only online but through obtaining trophies. Such trophies that could be earned include reaching certain ranks in story mode, achieving special shots like hole-in-ones, albatrosses, and chip-ins, playing on the individual courses a certain number of times, unlocking all Intermediate and then Advanced characters, and other fun achievements.

Heavenly Sword


Often compared to one of Sony's other action-oriented properties, God of War, Heavenly Sword has gameplay that has both a melee attack and ranged attack focus. It stars Nariko, an incredibly capable red-haired vixen full of drive and ambition, wielding the all-powerful titular Heavenly Sword. Nariko can switch between a series of three different stances to unleash holy hell on foes: Speed, Range, and Power. The actual campaign of Heavenly Sword does not drag on for too long. That was one of my complaints with the game. However, the addition of trophies (despite this series being on the back-burner) would make the title all the more appealing and add some much needed replay value. Sniping a certain amount of enemies as Kai, relinquishing a specific number of foes in each of Nariko's three stances, obtaining a given amount of glyphs, and beating bosses without damage could make for intriguing new ways to play an old game.

Saints Row 2


It seemed like a reasonable idea (not quite a sure thing) that third-parties would take games that already had achievements on the Xbox 360 and just turn them into trophies for the PlayStation 3 version. This did not happen most of the time.. Instead, Saints Row 2 came out shortly after Sony implemented trophies for most of their games. However, trophy use was only mandatory as of the beginning of 2009. (Saints Row 2 released in October of 2008, after trophies materialized, but before they were a must-have feature.) Regardless, I can't imagine if it would have been relatively easy to just create a trophy list based off the Xbox 360 achievement list for the PS3 version of Saints Row 2 as I am not a developer. I don't see how it would have been too terribly tough. Even the Greatest Hits release could have been a prime opportunity to execute such a patch.

===

Those are just five examples of games released prior to Sony's trophy system being required for developers to use. Like the article title says, the hope for these games to actually get such a patch is a long shot, but that doesn't mean I can't dream. After all, Metal Gear Solid 4 seemed to be a long shot, too, and a trophy patch finally happened. Who can really say what will happen in the future? As for now, what PS3 games would you like to see get trophies, or get added trophies to collect upon the ones you already have to work on? Speak out in the comments section below.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance (3DS) Review

The second of three promised reviews for this week, Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance released at the tail-end of July for North American Nintendo 3DS owners. Is it a worthy installment for fans of the Kingdom Hearts series? Let's discover that answer for ourselves with this review.

Go With the Flow.


For many years now, fans of Kingdom Hearts have been begging Square Enix to develop the actual third mainline installment of the series in the desire to have the story move forward in a significant manner. Instead, Square Enix has been releasing spinoff games with elements of backstory spanning across multiple platforms with multiple characters, making the Kingdom Hearts fan base nuts. Finally, it seems we are getting somewhere with the Nintendo 3DS exclusive, Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance. This game does not hide the fact that it directly ties into Kingdom Hearts III. With a story that expands on the Kingdom Hearts lore and brand-new Disney worlds to explore, does Kingdom Hearts 3D go the distance, or should perspective buyers simply drop out?

As stated, the story of Dream Drop Distance is intended to lead right into Kingdom Hearts III. The tale follows Sora and Riku. Both young men are tasked with completing a special Mark of Mastery exam by Yen Sid to determine who will be designated as a true Keyblade Master. The exam dictates that the two will have to unlock seven worlds from their deep slumbers. After accomplishing this task, the title of Keyblade Masters will be theirs. Unfortunately, evil Dream Eaters, the enemies of Kingdom Hearts 3D, stand in the way as do other bothersome beings.

After the original Kingdom Hearts, the plot of the series became quite convoluted with the introduction of Organization XIII, Roxas, and the Nobodies. For the most part throughout the game's seven worlds, the plot is somewhat simple to understand -- a Disney villain is doing something sinister or a character needs Sora or Riku's assistance. But when the true antagonists enter the fray, things get particularly murky and confusion will no doubt flood your mind. Thankfully, if you haven't played previous games in the series, you can take a look at summaries of past games that will show up as you play through Dream Drop Distance. Whether they make any sense to you is another story.

All for one, and three for five!
Even though Sora and Riku are visiting the same worlds, they are never together. In a sense, they are in parallel universes, but the game doesn't really refer to this idea as such. Regardless, you will be switching between Sora and Riku throughout the game and usually after a set period of time. There is a mechanic in the game known as Drops. You have a gauge that slowly decreases as time goes by -- at least when you are exploring or in an encounter with enemies. When it reaches near the end, Bonus Time activates, a thirty second period where enemies drop more rewards than usual before you automatically get dropped out of whatever you were doing and take control of the other character. When you resume taking control of the character that was dropped, you will be in the exact same area that you were when you originally dropped out.

Spells can help even the odds rather quickly.
Drop Points (or DP), earned by defeating foes and successfully completing Link Portals (found around the various worlds where you defeat all the spawned enemies and satisfy an objective), are tallied up when a character is dropped out of the action, and they can be spent to give the next character an advantage. These can be attack and/or defense increases, making the drop gauge decrease at a slower pace, or exchanged to get a rare item. Any DP that is not spent will be converted into Munny, the currency of Kingdom Hearts. You can opt to manually drop out to change characters if you so choose to do so. The only problem I have with this mechanic is that you can be dropped out of boss battles when the gauge is fully depleted. This is especially annoying if you have whittled the health of an excruciatingly difficult adversary to near defeat, and then you run out of time on your drop gauge and are dropped out. When you return to the battle, you must start it all over again with the boss at full HP. That is absolutely maddening on the off chance that this happens.

Like every other game in the series, Kingdom Hearts 3D is an action-RPG with plenty of chances for platforming and discovering treasures. In fact, spread across both Sora and Riku's campaigns and through all seven worlds are over 400 treasure chests to find and open. Thankfully, the game records all treasure chests that have been found, as well as what Dream Eaters you've encountered, trophies you've obtained through accomplishing specific in-game goals, and plenty of other information such as tutorials and glossaries for the uninitiated.

An example of a Dream Eater.
Speaking of Dream Eaters, these aren't just ferocious nightmares threatening to disrupt the worlds they inhabit. No, there are friendly varieties that can join Sora or Riku's side in the many fights of the game. These creatures known as Dream Eater Spirits (I'll refer to them mostly as Spirits from now on to avoid confusion) which essentially replace Donald and Goofy's roles of past mainline Kingdom Hearts titles. Through obtaining recipes and utilizing materials found in treasure chests, bought at a Moogle's shop, or dropped by defeated foes, you can create new Spirits to add to your team. From a frog to a T-rex, the spectrum of animal archetypes the Spirits are based off of is bound for you to have a favorite.

You can hold three Spirits in a party, two to duke it out alongside you and one in reserve if one were to perish. Just like Sora and Riku, Spirits gain levels. By nurturing your collection of Spirits, they gain points that can be used to get new commands (like spells and offensive maneuvers) and stat boosts (HP increases and elemental resistances) for Sora and Riku. However, the stat-boosting effects only last as long as the Spirit who gives them to you stay in your party. Spirits fight, defend, and battle along Sora or Riku against baddies and bosses alike. As they fight, their Link Gauge increases. Once full, they can be used to unleash a special attack on opponents. If both Spirits in your party have their Link Gauge full, a devastating attack known as a Dual Link occurs.

Riku reeks havoc on those silly enough to challenge him.
Outside of traditional combat, Spirits can even be used in a coliseum-type mini-game where two teams of three Dream Eaters battle it out in a game called Flick Rush. This is completely optional, but earning medals from playing the mode does reward you with items that are hard to come by anywhere else in Dream Drop Distance.

As for Sora and Riku, their combat consists of striking Dream Eaters with their Keyblades, using attacks, items, and spells from their command lists (cycled through with the d-pad), correctly timing blocks to counter baddies, rolling out of the way to avoid hazardous assaults, and the new gameplay mechanic-- one that I absolutely adore-- Flowmotion. Flowmotion allows Sora and Riku to slide into a wall, surrounding them in an aura, and giving them the ability to dash at high speeds, jump from wall to wall, swing fast from lampposts and poles, and strike enemies with powerful chains of offensive wonder. In some worlds it can be easy to abuse Flowmotion, making some skirmishes particularly with large numbers of enemies to be a breeze. It can also make platforming irrelevant as you can just keep boosting into a wall to jump higher and higher. Regardless of these potential issues some players may have, I found the increased speed and mobility to be a blast. Kingdom Hearts 3D has one of my favorite battle systems in the series, and Flowmotion is an important part as to why.

Can you even tell what's going on in this screen?
Other than Flowmotion, Kingdom Hearts 3D separates itself from other games in the series by using the 3DS's touch screen for Reality Shift maneuvers. Reality Shifts are all touch-based, and they vary from world to world. A pink arrow on the bottom screen flashes, signaling you to swipe or hit a button to initiate the Reality Shift. For instance, in Traverse Town, the opening world of the game, you pull back on the barrel on the touch screen like a slingshot to chuck it into a foe or series of foes, successfully eliminating them. Reality Shifts can seem like mere gimmickry, the necessity to always need to have your stylus close in hand for them is annoying, and the abundance of them is off-putting, but... where was I going with this to say something positive about them? Oh, I know! Reality Shifts can occasionally be considered fun.

It's prudent of me to note that Kingdom Hearts 3D allows for the Circle Pad Pro attachment to be utilized. However, I did not feel or have the need to use it throughout my Dream Drop Distance experience at all. Manually turning the camera with the shoulder buttons is simple and practical enough, locking onto Dream Eaters and bosses through tapping both at the same time is non-problematic, and other functions came easily to me. There is just no need for the attachment. It's totally not required.

All potential Keyblade Masters know that
sometimes the best way to fight is to run.
As touched upon earlier in this review, there are seven worlds for Sora and Riku to fully explore. The majority of these are entirely never-before-seen from such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame's La Cité des Cloches, Pinocchio's Prankster's Paradise, and Fantasia's Symphony of Sorcery. My main beef with the worlds, however, regardless of how fun they are, is how empty most of them feel. Where are the NPCs to look at? Why is everything so barren?

Even though Sora and Riku visit the same worlds, most of the time they are journeying through different areas, though there is some overlap. The benefit of a map on the bottom screen helps so much in finding where you entered an area at and all possible exits. Getting lost is a thing of the past.

But before Sora and Riku can visit a given world, they must dive into it, hence Dive Mode. This takes the place of the Gummi Ship segments from Kingdom Hearts I and II. You control Sora or Riku and must accomplish a given objective before time runs out. Such objectives include collecting a set number of prize points or beating a boss. After the objective is clear, the goal ring opens, unveiling the way to the actual world. The faster the time, the better your score, the better your letter grade (with an A giving you a special prize). These segments break up the action, but they seem forced and unnecessary.

You won't get this kind of ride at Disneyworld!
An initial run of Dream Drop Distance lasted me approximately twenty hours, and that was without finding and opening all of the treasure chests or beating the secret boss. (Unfortunately, the secret boss automatically occurs in a certain place of the game, making opening the treasure chests in that area to be impossible unless you beat the immensely tough boss.) Even after the main game is completed, you have the option of starting a New Game+, where all of your Dream Eater Spirits, recipes, and trophies carry over. There are multiple difficulties to try to master, making for a game that can last quite a while. The added benefit of cutscenes allowing themselves to be paused and skipped at any time makes repeated play-throughs quicker and much more manageable.

Kingdom Hearts 3D shines in its presentation. Disney and Square Enix have created colorful and crisp worlds and characters, all sporting impressive geometry and animation. I found the effort for the mouths of the characters to sync somewhat with the words being said to be alluring, as was the top-notch cast of all-star voice actors, all performing their parts tremendously. The game runs steady for the most part, but things can get a little rocky when there's multiple creatures and effects on the screen. I've had bouts of slowdown at sporadic periods during my time with the game.

Yoko Shimomura returns to scribe the sensational score of the game. Takeharu Ishimoto also provides some remixes of songs from The World Ends With You (like Calling and Someday) to the game as the main cast of that game shows up on several occasions throughout Traverse Town. If there is one flaw I have towards the music of Kingdom Hearts 3D, it is that Sanctuary is once again a prominent tune. We couldn't get Utada Hikari to come up with an all-new theme after all of these years? I digress. The package as a whole is delightful.

How many botched drug deals 
started with this line?
Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance is without a doubt the best Kingdom Hearts game on a Nintendo platform. (Though, looking at the competition, that isn't that big of a deal to boast about.) I'd say that I enjoyed this entry in the series much more than the PSP's Birth by Sleep. It isn't a perfect game (the Drop mechanic can be irritating and inconvenient at spots), but the addition of Flowmotion, the collectible nature of Dream Eaters, and the all-new worlds make for a Kingdom Hearts game that feels like a genuine big-time effort, and not some throwaway spinoff in the series like Re:Coded felt. This is the true lead-up to Kingdom Hearts III, and even if you haven't yet experienced this Disney + Square Enix collaboration series yet, Dream Drop Distance is the terrific opportunity to start. It has fast and frenetic action, it requires more tact than simple button-mashing, and it features a fantastic reminder as to why this action-RPG series is so highly regarded.

[SuperPhillip Says: 8.75/10]

Monday, August 20, 2012

SuperPhillip's Favorite VGMs - Back to School Edition

Many students, whether they are in primary school or college, are heading back or have already headed back to school. It's time to give my prized pupils the treat of video game music. Feel free to leave an apple on this teacher's desk when we are through. On this week's edition of the VGMs, we have music from Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow, Sonic & Knuckles, and Pokemon Rumble. Get your #2 pencil ready so we can begin.

v176. Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow (DS) - Into the Dark Night


The boss theme of Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow, Into the Dark Night is a fast paced theme worthy of slaying the most formidable foes. Dawn of Sorrow was my introduction to the series, and it left a grand impression on me. I loved the Metroid-style gameplay mixed with RPG elements such as leveling up. Then came the awesome and addicting soul-collecting. Grinding to kill the same enemy just so you could get its rare soul never grew old.

v177. Mega Man Battle Network 2 (GBA) - You Can't Go Back


The theme of the final level in Mega Man Battle Network 2, You Can't Go Back is a phrase that is exactly how it sounds. At a certain point in this level you literally cannot go back or save. You must beat the game from that point on. My favorite portion of this theme occurs between 0:20 and 0:35. The Mega Man Battle Network series's music didn't necessarily push the Game Boy Advance sound card much, but this theme is still rather catchy.

v178. Sonic & Knuckles (GEN) - Flying Battery Zone Act 2


Set on an airship suspended in the sky, the Flying Battery Zone takes place both inside and outside the aerial vessel that Sonic or Knuckles explore. Sonic & Knuckles wasn't your ordinary Sega Genesis cartridge. It had the ability to have Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and Sonic the Hedgehog 3 to latch onto it on its top. Thus, one of the greatest Sonic the Hedgehog experiences of all time in Sonic 3 & Knuckles happened. The game allowed the player to go through all of Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles' levels one by one, gathering the Chaos and then the Master Emeralds.

v179. Pokemon Rumble (WiiWare) - Fiery Furnace Battle


There's a sense of urgency when this theme from the Fiery Furnace levels of Pokemon Rumble plays. Pokemon Rumble was an action game where your Pokemon battled a bunch of other Pokemon across numerous dungeons. Once in a blue moon a defeated Pokemon would be able to be collected to join your arsenal of toy Pokemon. The Nintendo 3DS's Pokemon Rumble Blast would make a meatier game with more gameplay ideas, more dungeons, and a myriad of more Pokemon to obtain. I only wish the 3DS game prices weren't so high.

v180. Graffiti Kingdom (PS2) - The Boy's Small Hope and Weak Breaths


Graffiti Kingdom is a lesser known PlayStation 2 game, a sequel to Magic Pengel: The Quest for Color. The fun of the game was creating your own monsters to battle through the dungeons, defeating enemies, platforming, and finding treasure (you can see gameplay in the video the music accompanies). Unfortunately there are not too many songs uploaded to YouTube of this creative and severely overlooked game. The soundtrack by Yasunori Mitsuda (Chrono Trigger/Cross, Xenogears) is charming and whimsical as evident by this theme.

===

I hope those that are returning to school have a splendid semester. I know I hope to have one. But SPC will not be slowing down at all despite this. No, like I mentioned in my Spirit Camera review, there are two more new reviews for me to reveal and for you to read. Please look forward to those as I most certainly am.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Spirit Camera: The Cursed Memoir (3DS) Review

After last month's jam-packed month of reviews with Retro Review Month, August has been pretty bare. In fact, the only review that has been posted was actually a guest review, not even by me. Well, that is about to change with this influx of new reviews. Apart from this one, there will be two others this week. To kick off the review rush, we have Spirit Camera: The Cursed Memoir, a game published in North America by Nintendo and developed by Tecmo-Koei. 

That's the Spirit!
...No, Not Really.


Nintendo 3DS owners have had a taste of augmented reality with the prepackaged AR Cards that came with the platform and the built-in software of Face Raiders. Now, Tecmo-Koei is providing a spinoff to their haunting Fatal Frame series for the 3DS, in hopes of creating an authentic augmented reality experience inside the series's universe to excite those aforementioned owners who would like some more AR astonishment. Unfortunately, the only astonishment players will feel with Spirit Camera: The Cursed Memoir is just how awful the execution really is.

The premise of Spirit Camera is promising. The game has you coming upon a mysterious camera known as the Camera Obscura, which your 3DS plays the part of, and a multi-page booklet, the Diary of Faces, which your portable can read. You enter inside a dilapidated, dank, and dark home where you come across a door. Before you can open it and enter, a ghost of a girl, teenaged in years, stops you. She reveals herself to be named Maya, and informs you that beyond the door is a woman in black who steals the faces of her victims, unfortunate souls who have become trapped within the pages of the memoir. You wish to forgo this fate as you team up with Maya to have her help you and remember her past. The plot has plenty of twists and turns, and it will pique your curiosity, pending you can manage to survive the gameplay.

The problem with Spirit Camera is that -- for the most part -- it is essentially sensationally broken, and the fact of the matter is that the game is nowhere near "worth it" to justify all of the trouble you have to go through just to play it properly. Well lit room, completely killing off any atmosphere the game attempts to exude? Check. Impossible to play in battles unless you are standing or in a swivel chair? Check. Requires you to hold the AR booklet (the Diary of Faces) down with one hand, trying to wrestle with the 3DS with the other just to hope that the camera is at the correct angle and correct distance away from the booklet? Check. Constantly having the AR booklet out of the range at the most inopportune moments? Check. Needing to hold down pages of the booklet for it stay down and be readable to the 3DS's camera? Che-- well, you get the picture. Actually, that's probably the only picture you will get with Spirit Camera as nothing works well at all.

The coolness factor of the AR is short-lived.
I was facing a boss in the third chapter. It was a three part battle with a demure-looking hand that popped out of the memoir. The general idea behind battles is that you try to capture a spirit within a circle on the top screen. As you have the spirit within the circle, the power meter charges. Once it is full, you can utilize the camera's shutter to unleash an attack. However, these are best used when a spirit is about to strike. The circle around the targeted spirit will glow red, prompting you to let loose a counteroffensive, dealing devastating damage (more so than with a non-counterattack) to the ghost. The objective is to dwindle down all of the enemy's health before it does the same to you. Most battles do not require the booklet, and just have you spinning around as you search for the spirit in question. An indicator on the left or right of the circle shows which direction the spirit is located.

Move over, Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd.
This is a serious ghost-busting job!
In the case of the previously mentioned hand, you have to situate the booklet in a way that it stays within the 3DS camera's view while also keeping the hand in your sights for your shutter to charge up. For each of the three parts of the battle, the booklet needs to be facing a different direction. This is an effort in frustration because the AR booklet will go in and out of periods of not being able to be read. And when it can be read, the hand is ready to attack. Good luck trying to keep the hand within your view while not getting a game over. What it ends up with is an immensely irritating encounter that took several agonizing attempts just to complete.

And it's not just the unrecoverable and uncomfortable (for the most part) gameplay that sours me on this title either. No, the thirteen chapter story only takes 2-3 hours to complete. An extra mode unlocks once the game is beaten the first go around, but it is just the same game with harder battles and a new costume for Maya. The developers must have known how short their game was, because they added in some throwaway set of four mini-games to try to enhance the dismally disconcerting package. These are entirely forgettable and not worth the effort of getting them to work.

One of a handful of mini-games
that quickly wear out their welcome.
Apart from the battles, there are small little puzzles to solve and games within the plot to play. One of the more enjoyable moments took place with the spirit of a mask-wearing boy who wanted to play a game of hide-and-seek. By giving clues to his whereabouts in the sixteen page book, you have to find the page where the boy is hiding. Scanning the wrong page is a no-no. These interesting moments break up the aggravation of Spirit Camera. And even then, they are a small taste of what could have been something spectacular if done correctly and/or with better technology.

You'll "face" the truth that this game isn't 
as stellar as you might have hoped it to be.
Spirit Camera mostly relies on characters and spirits placed in the real world. There are a few full-motion video scenes to enjoy (these can be skipped), and they look quite nice. The actual characters that invade reality via AR come off as muddy and not very remarkable in the looks department. The voice acting, on the other hand, is really well done. It's superbly acted to give a nice, haunting horror vibe. The music -- if you can even call it that -- consists of spooky atmospheric sounds and little else. Spirit Camera certainly fits the bill of a horror game in presentation, and I have to concede that this part of the game is done just fine overall.

It is quite frankly impossible to not burst out laughing when trying to suggest with a straight face that Spirit Camera: The Cursed Memoir is worth its full retail asking price of $40.00 USD. It is absolutely laughable and downright insulting, and that is not just because the game is broken beyond belief. It is that the game is completely lacking on content to justify such a price, even if the game worked perfectly. I do, however, appreciate the attempt to tell an unnerving tale through augmented reality. Sadly, the only thing that will give you nightmares isn't the chilling story. No, it is this irreparably broken game that had so much potential and ambition yet is just an unfortunate failure of a tech demo. You can find a much better game in both fun and function in Face Raiders, and if you already own a 3DS, you already own that superior tech demo.

[SuperPhillip Says: 2.5/10]

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