Saturday, 31 December 2011

First Impressions: Mario Kart 7

 Whenever a new Mario Kart game is released, gamers across the world will take the chance to compare it to its predecessors. It's difficult to differentiate more recent releases in the series such as Mario Kart Wii  and DS, as they're very much similar when it comes down to the basics of kart racing with everyone's favourite plumber and his slimmer brother, alongside many other Mushroom Kingdom favourites. The gameplay mechanics rarely make a drastic change with each subsequent release, and the 'feel' of each Mario Kart game has only made a single turnaround following the release of Super Circuit on Game Boy Advance. Since underrated GameCube title Double Dash, the tightened handling and evidently more luck-based gameplay has only been changed up through varying gameplay mechanics. The DS release was a core experience, offering up no ridiculous gimmicks and instead opting for the inclusion of online multiplayer modes to differentiate itself from its predecessors. Mario Kart Wii, on the other hand, introduced many new features to make the Mario Kart experience more thriving. These included a trick system in which the player would be granted a small speed boost if a button is pressed or a remote is waggled at the correct moment following a jump, and more importantly the inclusion of bikes; alternate machines that offered drifting with increased under-steer as well as the ability to do a wheelie, a technique useful on straights.

Despite being a more varied Mario Kart, however, the Wii iteration often receives a barrage of hate from many, thanks to its entirely luck-based appeal. The awful players in last place would almost definitely receive a deadly Blue Shell from an item box when racing, and due to a lack of temporary invincibility after being hit, this often lead to the skillful player in first position being knocked down to last position. I and many others find Mario Kart Wii far too frustrating to actually enjoy, and if it wasn't for the quite frankly broken gameplay, it would've potentially been the best game in the series. For this reason alone, the release following this universally hated instalment had to be good. It had to pack all the things that would've made the Wii version great, while refining the core handling and game mechanics back to the way they were in the DS version. Well, that's exactly what Nintendo, with a little help from Retro Studios, have done with the 3DS iteration of Mario Kart. Say hello to Mario Kart 7, a total game-changer for the spin-off series in more ways than one. And this post happens to be none other than my first impressions of this release, as if you didn't notice from the post's header.

The best thing about Mario Kart 7 on 3DS isn't all the exciting new features, but the extra layers of strategy introduced by them and the balanced-out, fine tuned gameplay that Nintendo have perfected in this release. No longer will the player be haunted by rubber-banding AI or dreaded Blue Shells, which appear much more rarely in this release, and when they do they tend not to send your racer flying back into last place. Mario Kart 7 is truly a game of skill, and aforementioned strategy. The main new feature exclusive to the seventh release in this long-running franchise takes the form of strategic flying and underwater sections. When launched into the air through a large, boost-covered ramp, the kart will sprout a glider about it, allowing the player full horizontal control of their kart, as well as vertical control. This works essentially like PilotWings, having the player catch air by diving, then gaining altitude from a sudden ascention. This allows for the strategic skipping of certain sections of tracks, whether they be the 16 all-new ones, or 16 retro courses, all of which are a great selection of settings for some frantic, but well-balanced gameplay. Underwater sections are also introduced in Mario Kart 7, although these moments aren't quite as fully fleshed-out as the sections that involve gliding through the air. Handling makes a change underwater, making the drift mechanic of your kart feel a lot more like that of Mario Kart Wii's bikes, which are unfortunately scarce in this release. Regardless, underwater segments are almost entirely optional, giving you freedom of choice over which of the many routes available you should take. Throw in the welcome addition of Super Mario Kart's speed-boosting Coins and you've got the most strategy-based Mario Kart ever.

Judging from my First Impressions of the game, Mario Kart 7 is the definitive entry into the franchise. They've managed to balance out the kart racing formula after Mario Kart Wii's disappointingly broken antics, which you can probably tell more than impresses yours truly. The glider and underwater sections, as well as the re-introduction of classic titles' Coins are more than welcome, and it's great to finally be racing in a balanced playing environment, rather than one that awards those who have luck on their side rather than skill. Better items found in Item boxes are still granted to those in lower positions in a race, but the amount of boxes placed on a track have been decreased a little this time around, and a number of annoyingly broken tools from earlier releases have been thankfully removed from this experience. Other than the Wii release's bikes, Mario Kart 7 packs everything from past releases and more, and with the same awesome online multiplayer (which I've unfortunately not been able to test out just yet) we found in the past two releases you've certainly got what might just be the series' magnum opus. However poor the first three quarters or so of 2011 have been, nobody can deny the quality of more recent releases on every platform, and this is one of those releases that truly shines. Quite frankly, if you have a 3DS and you're getting a bit bored of your library of games, you quite frankly need this title. Get set for my full impressions of Mario Kart 7 in the impending review which will drop in the big year that is 2012. I'd like to thank everyone who reads this stuff, and wish everyone a happy new year. In the closing hours of 2011, this is me out. Here's to a spectacular 2012...

~Happy New Year!~

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Feature: My Christmas 2011 Gaming Wishlist

Christmas Eve. A day that begins exactly 24 hours before the 25th of December; Christmas day. For many, it's a day that involves a fair bit of belated Christmas shopping. For others, it's a time for celebration before the big day that only happens once a year finally drops. For me, it's the day I post a Christmas-related Feature here on my blog. Bet you thought I wouldn't make it in time, huh?! Anyway, this time last year I happened to write a post regarding five stellar recommendations in the form of some well-received games that I reckoned would've made superb gifts last Christmas. This festive season, I'll be doing the same thing. Call me unimaginative, but I reckon that this post would not only be a nice way to celebrate of one of the biggest days of the year in the form of a Feature (because my Mercenaries 3D review was oh-so festive, wasn't it?), but also a method of comparing and contrasting this 2011 edition of the post to last year's poor attempt at journalism. How I got praise for my writing back then, I will never know. To prevent the end of this paragraph from becoming a sour note, might I just say that at the time of writing, it's Christmas tomorrow, and that's kind of a big deal. I sincerely hope everyone who reads this has a superb day tomorrow, and hopefully receives what they wish for whether that's a great time or some lush presents, or both! Moving onwards, in a slightly cliched manner, here is my present from yours truly to you in the form of my five gaming highlights this Christmas...

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
Kicking off this list not only with a title I've already played and loved to pieces, but what I personally would consider to be the best game released in the whole of 2011. As stated in my recent Christmas Update, it's not been the best twelve months for video games. The first three quarters of the year have seen very few truly stellar games released across just about every platform, so when the latest home console release in Nintendo's finest franchise was finally available to be played by the public after 3 years of waiting since announcement and over half a decade of development, stating that it was something special would be a dramatic understatement. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is an absolutely stunning game in every department, and one that brought us our gaming fix after many months of only relatively good games occasionally hitting the shelves.

When I say 'us', I'm referring to the people who've actually played Skyward Sword. A fair few have decided to leave the latest Legend of Zelda instalment under wraps until Christmas, which is a wise decision as I'm sure this game will make their festive season all the more amazing. Skyward Sword, in my opinion, is the greatest Zelda game ever created, which is a rather bold statement. It packs so many things that made past titles brilliant and shoves them all into one all-new, fresh experience - One that shows that, with the help of 1:1 Motion control, the series has finally evolved after many titles followed the same gameplay pattern and structure. It's easy to tell that Nintendo weren't lying when they stated the latest title in the Zelda series is the one game they've put the most money, time and effort into in all their time in the industry. I'm saving my full opinions of the game for my review which will be posted in the coming months, but for now all I can say is this: If you haven't bought it or received it already, you need to get your mitts on this game if you show at least an amount of interest in Nintendo gaming. Who knows, maybe it'll be under your tree this year...

Mario Kart 7
And now for something completely different. Next up is a game I haven't played yet, and am very much hoping to receive this Christmas. Regardless of whether I'll receive Mario Kart 7 tomorrow or not, one fact remains constant: Mario Kart as a series has always been one of the best sets of multiplayer games around, and the seventh instalment, available now on the 3DS, might just be the best release under the celebrated franchise name yet. Combining the brilliant online multiplayer mode of Mario Kart Wii with finely-tuned gameplay to create a thankfully unbroken experience was a master stroke on both Nintendo and Retro Studios' behalf, as the tedius, admittedly ruined gameplay of the previous instalment in the celebrated series has had countless fans raging for what feels like an eon. While I enjoyed the Wii edition of the kart racing series to a certain extent, there's absolutely no denying that what Nintendo did to make the game more 'fair' actually did the complete opposite. A real shame, as it could have been the best Mario Kart game to date if the gameplay was fixed and fair.

Following up to the release of the latest Mario Kart game, the future of the series seemed bright, and now that the title has been released, it certainly is. According to many journalists from publications both online and offline, Mario Kart 7 offers the most finely-tuned experience the series has seen to date. Apparently, the 3DS game feels like the successor to what many consider to be the best game in the series altogether; Mario Kart DS. This claim alone is enough to make me want Mario Kart 7, that is if I didn't wish to have it in my 3DS in the first place. Like Skyward Sword, the latest kart racing game starring a certain mustachioed plumber (among many other Mushroom Kingdom veterans) somewhat revolutionises the tried and tested formula of its predecessors. Elements that have never been seen before in a Mario Kart such as kart customisation and flying and underwater segments that change the flow of gameplay drastically, slyly make their way onto Mario Kart 7 for a fresh take on kart racing with Mario. And let's not forget the three-dimensional visuals that also set this new instalment apart from its predecessors - I haven't seen the 3D in action but I'm informed that it does look rather amazing. In short, I can't wait to play Mario Kart 7. After many hours of getting annoyed at the Wii version's frustratingly broken antics, it will certainly be refreshing to go back to fair (if a bit mental) kart racing with everyone's favourite plumber.

Professor Layton and the Spectre's Call
If you checked out my review of Professor Layton and the Lost Future earlier this year, you'll know for a fact that I'm a massive fan of the series. Every Christmas since the series' first instalment, I've received each yearly subsequent Professor Layton game as a gift, so rest assured I'm hoping to receive the first in the Professor Layton prequel trilogy, not to mention the last DS game starring the top-hatted Professor before the series hits 3DS, tomorrow. Developers Level-5 are going all Star Wars with the fourth game in the series, The Spectre's Call, as it will detail the origins of Hershel Layton becoming a full on self-employed investigator and puzzle master, and the birth of his companionship with Luke Triton, the cockney-boy apprentice who has annoyed many with his infuriating vocals throughout the whole of the original trilogy. Knowing that this is a prequel to those titles, Luke wouldn't have hit puberty yet, unfortunately. Less unfortunate is the fact that Professor Layton and the Spectre's Call is set to be another great adventure in the series, according to various sources.

I certainly have my doubts that the fourth game in the Professor Layton saga will top the absolutely excellent Lost Future when it comes to story, but in the gameplay department Spectre's Call will no doubt be as good as ever. Each subsequent Layton release has seen more and more content injected into it in the form of more and more puzzles to solve, and more animated full motion videos that tell each story in style. Apparently, albeit not surprisingly, they've managed to top the last instalment's puzzle and animated cutscene count in the latest game. There are a whopping 180 conundrums to solve in the fourth game, which should keep us glued to the game for a good amount of time. Unfortunately, the time European players could've put into playing Professor Layton and the Spectre's Call could have been a lot more than it is. London Life, a 100+ hour life sim RPG set to be included in the Spectre's Call package, was forced to be removed from the European version. This is pretty frustrating, but that's not to say it's not within reason. Still, despite the removal of what could've made the Professor Layton series' fourth release all the more special, it's still undeniably going to be a stellar release, and one of the DS's last hurrahs. Hopefully I'll find it sitting under the tree tomorrow morning...

And so, there you have it. There are many other titles I would've loved to detail in this post, such as Super Mario 3D Land and Cave Story 3D, but since I made the ridiculous decision to write this Feature on Christmas Eve, I didn't really have time to write any more than I have before the big day. Regardless, I hope you had a relatively enjoyable experience reading my mindless recommendations, and that you and everyone else who reads the blog has a truly excellent Christmas, and soon, a mesmerising new year... Again, have an awesome time tomorrow (at the time of writing, at least) and hopefully my next post won't seem as rushed!

~Merry Christmas~ 

Sunday, 18 December 2011

REVIEW: Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D

Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D
[3DS] [Capcom] [2011]
Reviewing Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D is like taking a trip down memory lane. My indisputable hype for this excellent-looking title following up to its release was quite shocking considering how the finished game turned out. This standalone package, containing an upgraded version of the love it or hate it Mercenaries mini-game from the fourth and fifth instalments in Capcom's popular Resident Evil franchise, received anything but critical acclaim from many journalists just before it came out. I'll be truthful in saying that I'm one of those strange people who absolutely adores Mercenaries mode. I was addicted to the stellar piece of after-game content in Resident Evil 4 and ended up playing it a fair bit. So, despite notoriously low review scores, I thought I'd enjoy the expanded 3DS version of the  game, and I must say that quite frankly, I did. A fair bit, as a matter of fact. However, that's not to say that the many problems surrounding this game that journalists. In fact, The Mercenaries 3D is infested with technical flaws in almost every department, which is odd considering it's such an enjoyable game if you're a fan of past Resident Evil games' Mercenaries modes.

Normally when reviewing any game, I tend to choose a linear structure that allows me to describe all of the brilliant bits of the title, occasionally touching on minor nit-pickings that surround these aspects, and in the penultimate paragraph, move on to the striking flaws (if any). This certainly won't be the case with my review of Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D, as there's so much bad in this 3DS title that I can't help but point out these many errors throughout this whole review. Still, with all this negativity and talk of flaws, Mercenaries 3D still does a lot of things right. The most obvious of things that impress about the game are the brilliant visuals, which are no doubt up to the standard many 3DS games don't quite meet. These great graphics are made even more impressive when you turn up the 3D depth slider as the 3D in Mercenaries, while not the best I've seen on the system (that boast would go to Starfox 64 3D), still implements a superb usage of depth, making the entire foreground stand out more so than the background. Not to say that this isn't something we haven't seen before on the 3DS, but at least the 3D effects complement the superb visuals of this title. Unfortunately, it's clear that some sacrifices had to be made to keep this game a looker that maintains a steady frame-rate. Equip a sniper rifle, look down the scope and zoom in to near maximum and you'll see that pretty much everything in the far distance looks like a heap of manure visually, not to mention a heap of manure with a rather choppy frame-rate. Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D isn't nearly as disgusting as that analogy made it sound, though, so forgive me. Moving swiftly onwards, the next thing that makes Mercenaries 3D an improvement over its predecessors comes in the form of longevity.

Barry picked the wrong time to mimic that impression of an orangutan Ed did in Shaun of the Dead. Then again...
Resident Evil 4's Mercenaries mode housed five playable characters (only two of which were actually useful) and four stages. Seeing as The Mercenaries 3D is a full price retail game, you would hope that Capcom at least had the decency to boost up the replay value of the title in the form of more stages and characters to play as. Luckily, I'm happy to inform you that the developers did in fact inject more content into this title. A lot more. In the game, you'll find eight playable characters, each of which has a rather ridiculous alternative costume with different stats. Chris Redfield and his sister Claire are packed in there alongside HUNK, Jack Krauser, Rebecca Chambers, Jill Valentine, Albert Wesker and the legendary Barry Burton. All in all, despite the lack of a certain Mr. Scott Kennedy, this roster of playable heroes and villains from Resident Evil lore is anything but a disappointment in my honest opinion. The selection of stages on the other hand is also impressive, in a rather cheeky way on Capcom's behalf. You see, the back of the case boasts 30 stages to play through, which isn't a lie. What's not mentioned on the back of the case is the fact that almost half of these are tutorial missions, and there's in truth only nine varying landscapes in which to battle Ganados and Majini. While this is in some ways a good thing (when you unlock the highest difficulty of stages you can play any of the nine available on that difficulty) and is more than enough to keep you coming back for more as each character, it is a little bit of a punch to the nose when the consumer comes to expect thirty levels that they'll actually enjoy. And believe me, the tutorial missions are a complete and utter slog.

When you do get round to the missions that you'll actually have fun with, however, things get extremely addictive and very enjoyable indeed. The concept of Mercenaries mode goes something like this: You, as one of the eight available Resident Evil characters in either of their costumes, must use an array of weapons to mow, cut and blast down as many enemies as possible in order to earn as many points as possible. Quite often bosses that reap a large quantity of points are chucked into the mix, also. Sound simple? That's because it is. The real challenge and strategy of the game comes in the form of battling against a different kind of opponent: time itself. A daunting and ever closing in countdown is placed at the top of the screen, and when this timer hits zero (or if you've cleared out every single enemy in a stage) the game ends and the points you've earned are submitted, awarding you with a rank ranging from a very poor E to an exceptional SS. So, how exactly do you fight this evil, invisible beast? Two ways: The first of which is smashing up time statues, a number of which are found in each level. By performing your selected character's stylish melee attack in the direction of one of these statues with a tap of the Y button, you'll earn a specific amount of extra time depending on the statue you smash. The strategy of the game comes through keeping up a steady combo of enemy kills whilst making your way towards and obliterating each and every statue in order to earn the best possible score.

With only four seconds left on the ever-daunting countdown, it's a good thing that Jill's about to smash this Time Bonus, eh?
Things get even more strategic with the second method of fending off the time limit; through the use of melee attacks on enemies. Shooting an opponent at a specific part of their body will make them become stunned, and when this happens it's the perfect opportunity to move in and perform a melee attack. 5 precious seconds are awarded for defeating an opponent with a melee maneuver, so it's worth doing this frequently to ensure a maximum score. The gameplay of Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D sure hasn't changed since the fifth main game's escapades, which is no doubt a good thing. Quite simply, the best thing about this title is no doubt the actual core gameplay, as even the countless niggles and nit-pickings don't deteriorate the core experience in any way. It's extremely addictive stuff that will keep you playing for hours on end. As a matter of fact, I earned an SS Rank on every stage at just over 100 hours of play time, so if you enjoy Mercenaries mode there's a lot of game in here for you. Things get a lot less repetitive thanks to the new Skills system introduced in Mercenaries 3D, which allows you to customise your characters with unlockable upgrades that can be leveled-up by doing nothing other than actually playing the game. And quite frankly, you're given motivation to do so as maxed-out skills will offer even more special abilities. Some of these even variate the gameplay a fair bit, such as the 'Infinity 7' which grants you infinite ammo for the destructive rocket launcher at the cost of chucking the idea of points out of the window. Simpler ones on the other hand upgrade the firepower of your weapons, add extra time to the countdown when you defeat an enemy with a certain number on the clock, and so on.

In online co-op, you can support and heal up your partner as seen in this screenshot. You won't see a scene like this too often when you play the game, mind.
Another thing that Mercenaries 3D does right enters this paragraph in the form of a superb soundtrack. Reworked tunes from past titles, including a surprisingly fitting techno ditty, keep the adrenaline pumping as you blast your enemies in a race against the clock. The fact that they are reworked tunes may seem a little lazy, but the point is that they're very fitting and oddly rather catchy. And Resident Evil 4 fans should prepare for a surprise in the music department when they reach the final set of stages. Unfortunately, this takes us onto another flawed aspect of the game: The poor sound quality. The music sounds great, but voices are ridiculously low-quality and gunshots sound like pop-caps. It's not a major flaw, but it still remains slightly annoying considering how astonishingly good the sound design was in Resident Evil 4. What is a major flaw, however, is the online play. I've saved the most striking flaw of the game until last, so here's the bottom line: Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D's online multiplayer is completely broken. And I don't mean you regularly get disconnected, I mean you can't even get a game 99.5% of the time. I was excited when pre-release trailers for the game boasted co-operative ganado blasting through an online mode, but was severely let-down when I discovered that it's pretty much impossible to actually connect with another player in the game. It's a shame, because the three sessions I've played in co-op on the game were very fun, but I simply can't praise this title for that since you're rarely going to experience this co-operative fun. The online in this game genuinely doesn't work at all, and it's a real shame.

Ever wondered what happened to the old, black-suited Stig from Top Gear? Wonder no more! Just don't expect him to make a return, or anything.
In conclusion, Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D is like a Kinder Egg. Tacky, low-quality milk chocolate surrounding a slightly tastier white chocolate mantle, with a love it or hate it trinket found in the centre. Simply put, this review is a recommendation of a very enjoyable game with many frustrating flaws surrounding it, only to those who enjoyed the Mercenaries modes in previous Resident Evil games. I poured just over 100 hours into the game before putting it down, and if I can put up with the silly parts of the game then so can you as long as you enjoy Mercenaries as well. It's still an extremely addictive, notoriously satisfying race against the clock at its core, and one well worth giving a try if you think you fit the bill. If you've never played Mercenaries mode before and aren't sure whether you'll be keen on this, pick up the brilliant Resident Evil 4 (preferably the Wii Edition), play the extra mode found in that title and see if you at least like it a bit. At the other end of the spectrum, if you know for a fact that you don't like Mercenaries having played it in past games already, this game certainly won't change your views. In the end, Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D is a very flawed and very disappointing game, but I still had a lot of fun with it, so give it a shot if you fancy a nice pick up and play game on your 3DS. We can only hope that Capcom will fix up the injured body of Resident Evil with the next big installment on Nintendo's platform; Resident Evil: Revelations. Until then, perhaps The Mercenaries 3D is worth your money. Perhaps...


Friday, 9 December 2011

Christmas 2011 Update: The Year in Retrospect, Skyward Sword Review and What's to Come Next Year!

And so, after eleven months of highs and lows, the festive season is finally upon us. December, for those who didn't know for whatever rather odd reason, has been and will continue to be the last month of the year ever since the English calendar system was first introduced, and the last month a new year can only mean one thing: a Christmas-related update on this blog. Today, I'll be informing you of what's to come both before the year ends and when 2012 starts, as well as chucking in some dedications in the process. It's been quite a year for gaming, I must say. And by that I mean not a particularly good one, at least for the first three quarters of the year. The 3DS launch was an absolute shambles, with the best games on the system being either ports or remakes of older games for quite some time. Low sales caused a price drop, and while the 3DS has seen a dramatic increase in units sold since the release of titles including Super Mario 3D Land and Mario Kart 7 (a 400% increase, to be exact) there's no denying that the amount of truly stellar games on the system before the final quarter of the year was slightly booing. This can be said for other platforms as well. The DS, as I've said previously in my review of Solatorobo: Red the Hunter, has entered it's days of decline this year, with the most recent and possibly last stellar release being the fourth Professor Layton game. The Wii has seen a few brilliant releases earlier in the year, such as the apparently amazing Xenoblade Chronicles, but again the amount of more than decent titles released before November hit has been few and far between in comparison to previous years. As for other platforms, their quantity of stellar releases has been truly lacking also, with the first truly stellar release of the year here in the UK being Batman: Arkham City, which was luckily followed by a number of other great additions to the PS3 and Xbox 360 platforms as the fourth quarter begun. It's not just lack of games released that made this such a poor year for games, as this year's E3 was pretty awful too. Poor conferences on all three main publishers' part made for one of the worst E3 shows in years, dare I say it even worse than 2009's failed collection of poorly thought out conferences.

Mario Kart 7 is one of the many stellar titles released following up to Christmas. I'm hoping to get my copy in on a certain special day!
It's slightly annoying then, that publishers have finally decided to release all of their games following up to Christmas this year. There has always been a big gaming rush before the year's end for a long time, but never quite on this scale. Because of this, I've decided to compile a short list of my recommendations  of games released this year on Nintendo platforms, a number of which I've added to my Christmas wish list. Expect the likes of Mario Kart 7, Super Mario 3D Land, and Professor Layton and the Spectre's Call among a number of other stellar titles released this year. What I'm also hoping to have posted before the 25th of this oh-so joyous month is another review, one of a not-so festive game. While Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D is a 3DS game based around the core concept of slaughtering baddies in order to build up a combo while fighting off a depleting time limit (totally Christmassy, right?) it's still a title I've hyped up a lot since its announcement last year, and one I haven't really unleashed my opinion of since actually playing through the game. And you can trust me in saying that there's a good reason for this. It'll also be nice to have another 3DS Review posted after a ridiculously long time since my debut one of a certain street fighting launch title, no?
Skyward Sword sure has come a long way since this piece of concept art was first revealed over two years ago, eh? You'll discover my definitive opinion of the finished game very soon!
Also featured in the upcoming reviews machine that I refer to as my brain is what is without a doubt the biggest title I'll ever have the courage to write about thus far. In the event that you're colourblind, you won't be able to read that this review will be of a certain game in the long-running Legend of Zelda series, namely the absolutely incredible Skyward Sword for Wii. You can't expect the review to be up this month, but as a celebratory way to start up another year of writing on this blog I'm hoping for this massive review to become one of the first things I post in the big year that is 2012. Also coming in the new year is my inevitable Top 10 Most Anticipated Games of 2012 feature, marking the third edition of my ramblings about games I'm looking forward to in the next 12 months. Next year is set to be a much bigger year for gaming than the positively dire 2011, what with the poor first three quarters of the year and the frustratingly low E3 conferences we've seen in the last 12 sets of thirty-or-so days. Finally, the last of the posts I have planned for the coming months is a rather large one. For the first time ever in the history of my blog's many ramblings, I'll be discussing the heavy,  controversial topic of my Top 10 Personal Favourite Games of All Time, which will feature multiplatform titles old and new. I personally reckon this would be a great way to start the blog's third year running with a bang, and hopefully it'll spawn some comments or something. We'll see.

And now to close off this rambly Christmas-related update with a dedication. Many moons ago, soon after the big re-design of my blog that still feels like only yesterday at the time of writing this post, I mentioned a rather cool guy called Conorr and his blog. Very similar to mine, he posted a number of great pieces that unfortunately didn't receive quite as much attention as they should have. Conorr has recently started up a brand-spanking new blog under his name, which you can check out right here. You can trust me in saying that the raw journalistic talent of this guy is well and truly superior to mine, if you take a look at the drivel I came out with during my blog's first year. So, in short, give Conorr's new blog the attention it deserves and maybe it'll take off this time. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is where I'm going to have to conclude this post. Have a very merry, particularly festive holiday and here's to a truly mesmerising new year!

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

REVIEW: Professor Layton and the Lost Future

Professor Layton and the Lost Future
[DS] [Level-5] [2010]
For a series that revolves around solving ridiculously clever puzzles throughout numerous bafflingly genius adventures, the history of Professor Layton is a rather strange case in itself. In February 2007, the original Japanese version of what us here in the UK know as Professor Layton and the Curious Village was first stocked up on store shelves. The quirky little puzzle game received much critical acclaim, and went on to see an English release in the US just about a whole year later. Back then, it was positively baffling as to why Nintendo, the rather known folks who published Level-5's series at the time and continue to do so now, never decided to release the first game in Europe. After all, the excellent title revolved around a British character, Professor Hershel Layton (who would've guessed?) and his young cockney apprentice Luke Triton, yet this adventure still failed to see release in the UK because quite frankly, quirky Japanese games like this one never really sell that much over here. At least, that's what Nintendo thought at the time. It was a risk worth taking, then, when the big N decided to release Professor Layton and the Curious Village here in the UK and the rest of Europe over a year and a half after the game was originally played by foreign Japanese super-humans. Curious Village sold by the bucketloads, mainly thanks to Nintendo of Europe's clever advertising campaign which pushed the game as a title that adults could enjoy, regardless of their gaming experience. Every subsequent year following the amazingly successful release of the first Professor Layton game in Europe, a translated version of the already-available-in-Japan-a-year-earlier Layton title would see another critically acclaimed launch, and it's all thanks to the decision to unleash the top-hatted Professor's first case over here.

Here we are then, three years after Professor Layton and the Curious Village entered our DS systems in the form of a PAL release. The fourth Professor Layton title, titled The Last Specter over here, has just seen another critically acclaimed release. The first in a prequel trilogy to the original three games, the next Layton title looks just as ace as the original three games, and I can't wait to get my hands on it, most probably on Christmas day. Enough about the now though, and back into the past. Or rather, since the third title in the acclaimed series is based around jumping ten whole years into a future version of London, let's head back to the future. The Lost Future, to be exact. Today I'll be reviewing what at this moment in time is without a doubt my second favourite handheld game ever, topped only by the legendary The World Ends with You. The gripping conclusion to the original trilogy is not only without a speck of denial the best Layton game of the first three, but it's also one of the most well-written adventures to date.

Don't get me wrong, I loved the first two games in the puzzling series, but the title following those games properly chased them out of their puzzle-infested waters like some kind of conundrum solving genius... in a top hat. A noteworthy upper-hand that Lost Future has over Curious Village and the slightly disappointing Pandora's Box, is the greatly increased amount of content to be found in the game, which can only be described by how much more time you'll invest into the game without getting bored in comparison to the first two. It took me 15 hours to reach the end credits of the original trilogy's conclusion, almost triple the amount of time it took me to 100% finish the first and second games respectively. And I won't forget to mention that, even after I conquered Lost Future's main plot I still had another two or three hours worth of extra content to get my brain running with, which is pretty spectacular if you compare and contrast with the first two titles. Even when I did some kind of speed-run of the third game for this review, it still took me twice as long as it did to finish the first two games without rushing through them. I wouldn't go on about the length of any game this much unless the game in question is The Lost Future as, while 18 hours is only really a decent amount of time to reach most games' end credits, it's such an improvement over its predecessors. However, I'm not saying anyone should start at the third Layton title completely ignoring its rather short following completely, as the Layton saga is very much as focused on plot as it is puzzle solving. Speaking of which, The Lost Future happens to showcase the most well-written, most enjoyable and drastically importantly, the most emotionally impacting plot of any of the games in the series leading up to the fourth game which of course, I'm yet to play.

The plot of The Lost Future is one I certainly won't spoil, but will at least touch upon due to the fact that this is my first review of a Layton game and you as a reader might not actually be familiar with the Professor and his short, timid cockney apprentice. The two protagonists of each game in the original trilogy take the form of Professor Hershel Layton and Luke Triton, self-employed freelance investigators who tend to have a knack for solving the most baffling of cases that many, including the players themselves, won't be able to completely wrap their heads around. In Curious Village the gentlemanly duo were tasked with solving an inheritance dispute in, you guessed it, a rather curious village, although not all was as it seemed. In the sequel, Pandora's Box, a mysterious box said to lead to the murder of whoever was to open it was the main focus in the plot which also tied in with various other things, although again, not all was as it seemed. Having played through the first two titles, I knew the plot of The Lost Future wouldn't be quite as it seemed, but the story of the third game is so well-written and gripping that I was just as confused as I was when trying to wrap my head around its predecessors, in a good way that is. Without spoiling anything past the half an hour of this 15 hour investigation, Layton and Luke set the scene of Lost Future by pondering a letter that they have supposedly received from a future version of London. As if this wasn't ridiculous enough, the letter's sender is stated to be a slightly more elderly version of Luke. The letter itself concerns the future Luke's homeland, still London, but a London that has been thrown into utter chaos regardless. Any true gentleman and his apprentice would normally ignore something like this, but when reminiscing about time-travel related events that took place a week earlier, the duo set out to a clock shop where the letter from the future Luke wishes them to travel in order to receive 'further directions'. What happens from there onwards is something you as a player should experience yourself, to be perfectly honest. Let's just say that you'll need a handkerchief ready for one of the most tear-jerking ending sequences in video game history.

While the majority of each Professor Layton game's story is told through dialogue sequences (many of which in the third title are voiced) you'll often be treated to some truly excellent animated cutscenes. These video segments use an art-style that feels like a brilliant fusion of the artistic movements of Japanese anime director Hayao Miyazaki, the same guy who brought us Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle among many other Studio Ghibli-produced gems, and Sylvain Chomet, French director of Belleville Rendezvous and more recently The Illusionist. This art style fits the Layton games perfectly, and makes for an excellent way to present the fully animated and fully voiced cutscenes, by which there are more than ever before in Professor Layton and the Lost Future which is definitely pleasing as the amount of animated sequences in the first two titles was slightly lacking. Again, this is another aspect regarding a larger amount of content that places the third Professor Layton game high above its two predecessors.

The gameplay of the Professor Layton games took 'interactive novels' a giant leap further when Curious Village was first released, and what you'll be doing yourself in Professor Layton and the Lost Future actually hasn't changed very much since the series' elements were first unleashed upon the majority of DS owners. Most of the time when playing any of the series' first three titles you'll be using your head to solve some truly genius puzzles from the minds of Japanese puzzle masters, as they call them in the trade. While the prospect of these conundrums may sound a little bland, it really isn't. Ever since the first title in the series, the puzzles in Professor Layton games have packed just as much charm as the story segments, not to say both of the original trilogy's two main elements aren't intertwined in any way. A puzzle is quite clearly shoehorned into even the most ridiculous situations, and the 'this [insert object here] reminds me of a puzzle' gag is often used by the Professor in order to send the player off into a conundrum in relation to the object they just tapped.

There are a fair few puzzles that are required to progress through each Layton game's main plot, but there's even more optional ones to take part in than those that are actually compulsary. At some points however, the player is asked to solve a certain quantity of puzzles before they can move on so they do have to solve the optional ones, which is a much better way to move things along as the player has a choice over which puzzles to partake in. And trust me, you'll have a lot of trouble with some of these brainteasers. Luckily, that's where Hint Coins come into play. Throughout the point and click segments outside of puzzles, you'll find coins hidden in certain areas of the hand-drawn scenery just by giving their locations a tap with the stylus. If you're having difficulty getting a puzzle solved, you can buy up to four hints with the coins you've collected, ranging from the first hint not really helping you at all to the Super Hint, which basically tells you the solution straight up to the puzzle you're finding tricky. Your reward for solving puzzles other than in some cases to move on the story, come in the form of Picarats, a numerical value that acts as a sort of currency for unlockable after-game content. The more times you get a puzzle wrong, the less Picarats you earn, which is a clever way of ruling out the possibility of tapping every option available to the player, or in other words cheating. You can unlock each bit of bonus content with the minimum amount of Picarats, but then you'd have to solve every puzzle in the game. All in all the puzzle system in every Professor Layton game to date has worked, and while The Lost Future isn't at all a revolutionary take on the standard fare for these games, it really doesn't have to be. Unfortunately, the third game's only real striking flaw is in some of the puzzles. Quite frankly, the first thirty or so are an absolute breeze to get through which can't be said about the first two games. This is due to the fact that, since Layton 3 was already in development by the time it was decided that the first Layton game was to be released in Europe, an amount of puzzles that simply wouldn't translate from Japanese to English had to be replaced with easier tasks. After playing through the first two games, these easier puzzles felt like a bit of a slog to get through in all honesty.

Let's not end on a slightly down note, though. Professor Layton and the Lost Future is not only the best game in the acclaimed series thus far, it's also some of the most fun you can have on a certain handheld with two screens. It's a massive improvement over the first two games, not to say you shouldn't play through Curious Village and Pandora's Box beforehand (and trust me, you'll need to for certain story elements to make a genuine impact in the third title). It has more animated cutscenes than ever before, a much better written story than its predecessors and more brain bending puzzles to get your teeth into, despite the fact that the first 30 or so won't take quite as much thought processing to solve this time around. As the great Professor Layton himself has stated time and time again, "Every puzzle has an answer," and if you were to ask me if you should buy this game, then here's your answer: Definitely, at least unless you're genuinely not into these sort of games. And that's another puzzle solved...


Saturday, 19 November 2011

First Impressions: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

I must admit, the title of this post is pretty misleading. These are less first impressions, and more what I think of the twenty wonderful hours I've experienced of Skyward Sword so far. I'll let my main thoughts on how the new Zelda adventure ranks up against its predecessors right away; Quite simply, from what I've played at least, this is the best Legend of Zelda game of all time, and the closest a Nintendo game has ever come to perfection. And you can certainly trust me in saying that I wouldn't make these controversial statements often. Still, despite me being lead to believe from what I've played so far that this is the greatest Zelda adventure, it doesn't necessarily make it my personal favourite. Let me explain: In terms of what the game offers, it's absolutely incredible and pretty much flawless. I've come across practically no flaws thus far, the game harks back to its predecessors in countless ways and the plot is very well-thought out considering it's a prequel to the much-proclaimed best Zelda before Skyward Sword was released, namely Ocarina of Time. There's so much positive to say about the newest installment in Nintendo's legendary franchise that, if the game even had any flaws, it would blow them out of the water. It really is that amazing a game, and the last bit of actual story progression that I conquered was the third dungeon, meaning I'm not even halfway through this amazing experience yet.

What Nintendo has done with Skyward Sword over the past near-six years is pretty amazing. They've made a Zelda game that removes all the bad out of past adventures, borrows quirks from the majority of its predecessors and chucks in loads of new stuff in the process. It really does show that Skyward Sword has been Nintendo's most expensive project, a project they've been working on for just over half a decade. They've completely smashed the former polygonal Zelda formula and built a game that combines a perfect mix of familiarity and freshness that will please anyone who remotely enjoys anything like a past Legend of Zelda game. One might say I'm overshadowed with hype here, but I would completely deny this if anyone were to claim that I am overemphasizing things a little bit. Anyone who disagrees with my comments needs to play the game immediately. Without waffling on about how utterly awe-inspiring the game for too much longer, I'm going to talk about some of the things I've experienced in the title so far. Unless you want to know absolutely nothing about the game, I wouldn't consider a single word in the next two paragraphs to be spoiler-related at all, so no worries if you don't mind a small heap of text detailing quite possibly the biggest release of the year.

Quite possibly the aspect of Skyward Sword that deserves the majority of my praise is the fact that they've made everything outside of the main storyline properly fun now. The newest Zelda title is packed with loads of extra content, ranging from different sized side-quests to a bunch of extremely fun mini games that had me playing for hours simply because they were so fun. Practically nothing is a slog, even the slightly tedious 'travelling across a field' sections have been blown away by the system of exploration in Skyloft, the sky-bound land that acts as some form of hub in the game. You'll explore the land above the clouds, coming across small Wind Waker-esque islands that sometimes hold valuable treasure, among other things. The main on-foot hub is located in the dead centre of this sea of clouds, a huge floating island that some might refer to as Skyloft's capital. There's a ton of stuff to do here, and simply wondering around to see what you can find in terms of new side-quests and secret locations and whatnot is a joy. As I progress more through the main story, I find myself spending more time in Skyloft than when I did before I made more story progression, as more and more of the world above opened up to me. In the event that I did want to continue the plot, that was extremely fun as always too. Most of the action takes place below the clouds, with three central locations on the land below to be accessed via three pillars of light that can easily be spotted when flying around Skyloft. How do you transfer from the sky to the surface, you ask? Well, you hop off your Loftwing (your mode of transport in Skyward Sword that I must add is the best way to travel yet in any Zelda game) and freefall downwards in the direction of one of these light pillars, of course. When you're exploring the surface, the areas outside of what would typically be considered a dungeon feel less like traversing around bland landscape and more like conquering more of the game and making more progression, which is a first for Zelda.

Outside of the gameplay aspects featured in Link's latest adventure, the storytelling is also brilliantly done through some amazingly well-animated cutscenes, which are made even better by the tremendous art style on show in this title. The visuals of the game combine the best of Wind Waker's charming cartoony designs and the focused realism of Twilight Princess to create an art style very much based around impressionist paintings. What's more is that Nintendo have used this visual flair to their advantage, with background details looking like actual parts of a painting. This not only looks superb, but it also helps maintain a sturdy, solid frame-rate within the Wii's technical limitations. Quite simply, this game is among the best-looking on Wii; In fact, scratch that, it IS the best looking game on Wii. I mentioned a few sentences ago that the cutscenes in Skyward Sword are particularly incredible, both in design and ambition. These sequences really do have to be seen to be believed, as they add an amount of charm many wouldn't have considered possible in the past, especially in one of the already charming Zelda games. Quite simply, this post has been nothing other than yours truly babbling on about why Skyward Sword is the best experience I've had on Nintendo's home console in its entire lifespan thus far, and I'm not even halfway through the game yet. If you don't have The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword already and you do own a Wii, buy it as soon as your pockets are packed with enough cash to do so.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Feature: My Top Five Personal Favourite Legend of Zelda Games

To celebrate twenty-five years of epic quests of legendary proportions, here's a look at my five favourite adventures from Nintendo's pinnacle franchise...

I've said time and time again in previous posts that The Legend of Zelda is a series of games that I can call, with not a speck of hesitation in my mind, my favourite video game franchise of all time, and I can't see that changing anytime soon. Ever since I first discovered the universe of this epic series in The Wind Waker, my first Zelda purchase to be followed by many others, I've kept it at the top of my list when it comes to gaming. This year clearly marks the 25th anniversary of Link's escapades through Hyrule and other magical locales, and Nintendo have thrown quite the celebration. The brilliant Zelda 25th Anniversary Symphony Orchestra did some musical hijinks in London and New York City recently to the amazement of fans of excellent compositions and hardcore lovers of the great series' superb music alike, with these persons reactions consisting of comments such as "The best night of my life" and "The whole room was truly transported into the Zelda universe" among other such positive feedback. These comments are definitely no understatement, as many gamers will most probably be aware that the Zelda soundtracks contain some of the most celebrated tunes of all time, and you could only better them by having them played by a huge symphonic orchestra, as demonstrated at the event. Some surprising faces even turned up alongside the orchestra to the shock of attendees. composer Koji Kondo and Nintendo Prez Eiji Aonuma allegedly dropped by alongside Zelda Williams, who apparently got a bit emotional when talking about her favourite games, and when it's a series of games such as The Legend of Zelda, it's perfectly okay to do so if you ask me.

However, as brilliant as the 80 minute set list of celebratory Zelda tunes seemed to be (nope, I didn't go) the one true celebration of 25 years of adventuring through Hyrule will be found in the form of the next instalment in the series. And if you don't know that the next instalment happens to The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, then there's something going on in that brain of yours. The reviews are in, with the game scoring a whopping 98% from the relatively biased but still believable Official Nintendo Magazine, a perfect 10 from the usually critical publication many know as EDGE and another perfect one-oh from US magazine GameInformer, among many other stellar review scores (and a few hilariously poor ones that were clearly put up for a joke). If you're reading this post on the day it has been published, Skyward Sword will have been released and I'm most certainly playing it right now, unless Amazon have screwed up the delivery or something. At the time of writing I wouldn't know how I personally feel about the game, but Skyward Sword will most certainly be the next truly astonishing game in a truly brilliant series and a fitting celebration of 25 long years of excellence from what I would consider to be Nintendo's greatest franchise.

I'll also be celebrating this landmark year for gaming in the form of today's Feature, in which I'll be discussing my top five games from the Legend of Zelda series. Like a genius, I've named this post 'My Top Five Personal Favourite Legend of Zelda Games' just in case you didn't notice from the title above the paragraph following closely behind the paragraph following the one you're reading now. In this feature, I'll naturally be talking about my favourite titles from the long-running series out of the many I've played, but keep in mind that this list renders a number of games invalid. A Link to the Past, The Minish Cap, Link's Awakening and the Oracles games haven't actually found themselves in my grasp at the time of writing, but every other Zelda game has and this Feature is all about those games. Also, I must add that this post does contain some spoilers past this point. If you haven't finished a game from the series that isn't on this list, I advise that you don't read about it unless you couldn't care less about spoiling some story elements key to the single greatest franchise in gaming (in which case I pity you). Really, you don't want to spoil these amazing games and I wouldn't want you to either. Anyway, with that out of the way and without further celebratory rambling, let's begin this nostalgic journey with a rather unexpected entry...

5. The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass
[Nintendo DS] [2008] [In a Word: Underrated]
In retrospect, the two Zelda titles that appeared on the DS during the system's run really weren't anywhere near as good as most other instalments in the series. By the time I played through Spirit Tracks, the series' second dual screen release, I knew for a fact that both that game and former release Phantom Hourglass really didn't have anything on the vast majority of other Zelda titles. So, with the fact that I've played well over 5 Legend of Zelda games in mind, why on Earth is Phantom Hourglass, a game that I would easily award a solid but not spectacular 80% to, peaking at my all important number 5 spot that every other game bar my top four have been fighting over to at least make an appearance on this list? Well, I'll tell you. The Wind Waker was my first Zelda game, followed by this handheld title which I received in conjunction with my amazing but now frustratingly broken Gold Zelda Edition DS Lite at a rather young age. Back then I didn't think it was as good as Wind Waker, which you'll find takes a higher position on this list, but it still gave me that warm, nostalgic feeling that few games outside the Zelda series can give you. Many fans decline to say they love Phantom Hourglass as much as the other, 'main', instalments in the series, yet I reckon it's enjoyable enough to warrant a purchase and, as I said, a solid review score. The game itself wasn't bad at all, in fact, it was one of the best games on the DS when it was released. Phantom Hourglass happened to introduce some of the most inventive uses of the touch screen, that so many other titles have desperately attempted to replicate since. The whole Phantom Hourglass experience was played without the use of any buttons - Everything was controlled through the unique features of the DS, from the touch screen to the microphone. Link's movement was carried out through dragging the stylus across the lower screen, as if it was an invisible analogue stick in that the further you pushed down the screen, the fast Link would sprint around the field. All of the items in this title were also given new life through touch controls, as they allowed you to send the trademark boomerang flying in any direction you want, and fire arrows like there's no tomorrow at a simple tap of the screen. What's more, the touch screen mechanic never, ever felt broken which is impressive as the player took control of pretty much everything through it.

As a Zelda story the game held up too, and was one tale told through some pretty brilliant visuals that were surprisingly crisp and very impressive considering Phantom Hourglass was on the DS. As per usual you took the role of Link, this time the same one we saw in The Wind Waker. Not too long after the events of its predecessor, the hero is found travelling once again with the pirate chums he befriended in the previous chronological game, as part of a simple life outside of saving the world and such (and trust me, the only thing Link needed after Wind Waker's epic quest was a good ol' rest) but before long, all Hell breaks loose at the arrival of a ghastly Ghost Ship on the pirates' ship's starboard. Naturally, Link's gal Tetra is kidnapped and taken aboard this huge house of ghosts, with the protagonist's attempt to save her ending in a fall downwards straight into the deep end of the great sea. Link wakes up in a mysterious land to find himself journeying on another epic quest to save the world, with next to no help from his lovable new found ship-owning sidekick, Linebeck, the old geezer that sparked that brilliant character design and remarkable charm found through the faces you see in most home console Zeldas... only this time on a supposedly inferior handheld adventure. With this stuff in mind, I find it difficult to deny that The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass is nothing but another core Zelda experience that you can truly enjoy on the move, this time. It may not have been the first great handheld title in this superb series, but hey, it's still an ace one. Some very frustrating flaws aside, such as the annoyingly short length of the game (I clocked the ending at about 10 hours, which isn't too long considering the series' other titles) and that annoying repeated dungeon that everyone hated, myself partially included, Phantom Hourglass is a superb, nostalgic title in my honest opinion that is well worth this spot on my list. Next up, we'll be moving onto even more controversial ground...

4. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
[Nintendo 64, remade for 3DS] [1998/2011] [In a Word: Overrated]
Yes, that's right, the game that so many have given the ridiculous title of the single greatest game of all time... Isn't my favourite Zelda game, nor is it my favourite game altogether. I realise there's been a graphically enhanced remake of the game on Nintendo's latest handheld system, but Ocarina of Time hasn't really stood the test of time in my eyes. Feel free to say I'm crap at games (although I'll whup anyone at a good brawl in Tekken anytime, anywhere) but the amount of times I got stuck in Link's so-called greatest adventure due to the fact there was no incentive of where to go next was absolutely ridiculous when I first played Ocarina of Time a few years ago. So yeah, I'm not part of the popular opinion when it comes to the best Zelda game - And what many consider to be the best game of all time. It ain't even in my top three, as you know, peaking at number 4 in this list. But still, don't let this put you off at all - The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is one of the greatest accomplishments in video game history, even more so than my preferred games of the same series that were basically inspired by Link's first ever 3D adventure on the Nintendo 64, and more recently the Hero of Time's first ever 3D adventure on 3DS (see what I did there?). Ocarina of Time is truly an outstanding achievement - It's the Nintendo 64's biggest and best game, just like Skyward Sword is set to be for Wii, and I would agree that at the time it was released it was one of the best games ever made if not the best.

So, what with me praising Ocarina of Time to such an incredible extent, why would I place it 2nd to last in this top five? Well, I'll tell you: the game simply didn't grip me as much as the other titles in the series. I'd already played through The Wind Waker, Twilight Princess, Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks before finally and belatedly hopping into the world of Ocarina, and I have a feeling that my experience with the newer and more refined titles brought my enjoyment of the original polygonal masterpiece down a bit, which is a massive shame. Still, I don't want this segment of the post to completely consist of negative notes - Ocarina of Time made it on this list for a reason. I don't have to tell anyone that this is one of the landmark achievements throughout video game historyOcarina, and I have a feeling that my experience with the newer and more refined titles brought my enjoyment of the original polygonal masterpiece down a bit, which is a massive shame. Still, I don't want this segment of the post to completely consist of negative notes - Ocarina of Time made it on this list for a reason. I don't have to tell anyone that this is one of the landmark achievements throughout video game history alongside the likes of Pong and the original Super Mario Bros., defining a genre much like these titles before it to the huge critical acclaim that Ocarina achieved. The game featured a huge quest spanning 50 hours of both fun (if a little clunky) adventuring and some great storytelling, detailing the adventure of a small Kokori boy who grows up to become the legendary Hero of Time, who is celebrated both in the game and in real life quite often. The time-travelling Ocarina that granted its user the ability to travel between a seven-year gap in Hyrule's history was a very interesting and innovative gameplayGanondorf's towering castle.

When it comes down to it, what can you really say about Ocarina of Time? It's the one game that defined Zelda titles for another 13 years following its release, and one that introduced a formula that has never changed too much until the series' next instalment finally hits. It may not be my favourite game out of personal taste, but if I had played it at the time (and with a developed enough brain to understand what was going on) I think Ocarina would've made it a bit higher on this list (although most probably not at the elusive number one spot) but if you ask me about my personal opinion, the game is a little bit overrated. I realise I called a masterpiece a few paragraphs ago, and it is worthy of that title, but really... Ocarina greatly improved on its predecessors just as the sequels improved on it, like a poor parent who tells their child of their past failings so that the child can improve on these errors and become a better person. Ridiculous analogies aside, I think I've perfectly placed Ocarina here at the number 4 spot, even though I know the majority of folks will disagree with me. In the end, there is a reason I stated this as my own personal list in the title of this feature. It's a truly amazing game that everyone who can needs to witness. Now, on to my next controversial pick...

3. The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask
[Nintendo 64] [2000] [In a Word: Disturbtacular]
The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask is about as disturbing as it gets when it comes to games published by Nintendo, unless you count the frightfully odd spin-off DS title Freshly Picked: Tingle's Rosy Rupeeland (which shockingly didn't make an appearance on this list, for whatever reason). If you ask me, it's the whole vibe and oddity of Majora's Mask that grants it a shiny bronze medal for reaching the number 4 spot on my top 5 Zelda games. A direct sequel to Ocarina of time, this amazingly niche title is almost as loved as the much-proclaimed greatest game in the series, and in all honesty I actually prefer this game to its over-celebrated predecessor. While Majora didn't make anywhere near as much of an impact as Link's first 3D adventure, it was still a brilliant title that for me personally shines a dark, moody and frighteningly shocking light on the usual cheery vibe that is other Zelda titles, and it's one of the standouts in the series for being such a black sheep in my eyes. In Majora's Mask, Link, in his child form, finds himself travelling the lonely path of a lonely loner who walks down lonely roads after crawling away from the events of Ocarina of Time in which he saved both the world and time itself. When trotting through a mysterious forest on steed Epona, The Skull Kid, a minor character who made an appearance in Ocarina is found sporting the devilish Mask of Majora, which possesses the ability to transform its wearer into an insane psychopath. Alongside his two fairy pals, the Skull Kid turns our lonely protagonist traveller into a Deku Scrub, one of the enemies you previously fought in past Zelda games, as a filthy prank. Let me rephrase that and allow you to sink in the majesty of this moment, a minor character who appears in Ocarina of Time transforms the Hero of Time himself into a Deku Scrub. Just five minutes into Majora's Mask, I was already slightly baffled. But baffled in a good way, nevertheless.

After the Skull Kid plays his ridiculous prank on Link and precedes to MURDER Epona, the hero finds himself in Termina, a parallel universe of sorts to Ocarina of Time's Hyrule. Castle Town is now Clock Town, an established city that, in three days time, is going to be destroyed alongise the rest of all existence by an extremely disturbing moon, which is possessed by Majora's Mask just like the psychopath Skull Kid. This tyrannous moon is set to coincide with the planet's atmosphere and kill everyone after 72 hours of game time, which is about an hour in real life. Oh, and did I mention this moon has a properly weird, smug grin on its face? Did I mention the moon in Majora even has a face? Weird stuff, for sure. And so, Link is found attempting to save Termina, the city that sounds like the creation of someone with a terminal illness, from the moon itself. And honestly, 72 hours, at least in the game's time stream, is clearly not enough time to do so. Not to mention the fact that you not only have to save the world,  Inevitably you realise that, as the Hero of Time, you can travel through time with your precious Ocarina and end up going back three days a large number of times before finally fixing everything and witnessing the end credits. It's sort of like a disturbing version of Groundhog Day set in the Zelda universe. 

The celebrated quote, "I... I shall consume. Consume... consume everything..." perfectly sums up the dark atmosphere of this dark, dark game, and it's the dark vibe of Majora's Mask that for me personally puts it above the vast majority of other instalments in the Zelda series. It's one of the creepiest games Nintendo have ever created, not only because of its dark and poetic vibes, but also because it's a perfect parallel to Ocarina of Time. Minor characters from Link's first Nintendo 64 appearence shine as main stars here, from the aforementioned Majora-possessed Skull Kid to the weirdo that is the Happy Mask Salesman, who is just as psychotic as the game's main antagonist. Majora's Mask isn't an epic quest, it's a dark experience that strays the furthest away from the standard Zelda formula and in turn provides the player with a dark adventure that might just be succeeded in completing for nothing but a lost cause... Oh, before I finish this segment of the feature, I'd like to muscle in the fact that I don't prefer Majora's Mask to Ocarina of Time, or vice-versa. No, I love both of Link's Nintendo 64 equally, and I really couldn't put one above the other if you asked me to. I just felt that the underrated title should take position above the one I consider to be pretty overrated, which is why Majora's Mask takes pride of place as my third favourite Zelda game, even though I find Ocarina just as awesome a title as this one. The day Nintendo decide to make another adventure starring the same Link from Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask is the day I decide I'm going to die happy. And now, on to our next game. This title was the first Nintendo game I own, and the title that practically defined games for yours truly. The penultimate Zelda title; The game that made me a gamer; One of the greatest games of all time - It can't be anything other than...

2. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
[GameCube] [2003] [In a Word: Beautiful]
While I wouldn't say it's the game that made my childhood, that would be The Legend of Dragoon on PS1, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker is the one game that defined my interest in all things Nintendo. It was my first ever Zelda game which I bought for the first ever Nintendo console I owned, and I still ponder to this day what my view of videogames would be like today if it weren't for this title. The Wind Waker was absolutely incredible when it came to both gameplay and visuals. The cel-shaded approach Nintendo went for may have seemed controversial when this title was first unveiled over a decade ago, but it definitely payed off and is one of the sole reasons that Wind Waker often ends up pretty high on most best Zelda game lists, and best game ever lists for that matter. It wasn't all about the beautiful visual approach Nintendo took with this title that truly defined it as one of the best Zelda games, however, the story was absolutely wonderous too. It followed on, although not directly, from the Hero of Time's larks in both Ocarina and Majora's Mask, this time following the adventure of a different Link. Hyrule has been washed away by a great sea which happens to be filled with a number of islands, one of which holds refuge to a surprisingly unlikely hero, who happens to be celebrating his birthday on the day Wind Waker's epic tale begins. After various escapades and hijinks, Link sets out on an epic quest alongside a crew of pirates lead by the awesome Tetra, who turns out, rather unexpectedly, to be a very familiar face later on. The very young Link's incentive to set out on this journey is due to his little sister Aryll's kidnapping by the ruler of the deadly Forsaken Fortress, the first of many dungeons you visit throughout Wind Waker's epic quest. Who exactly is the ruler of this castle of doom? Well, let's just say it's an evil man we're all familiar with...

The beautiful art and great script isn't the only thing that defines Wind Waker as the second best Zelda in my opinion. The gameplay itself was the same tried and tested formula from Ocarina of Time that, at the time wasn't getting old so it wasn't as big a deal as it would've been if a new instalment didn't revolutionise it. Overworld, dungeon, overworld, dungeon and the occasional side-quest or set-piece basically built up the structure of Wind Waker, and while this may seem a little dull (like I said, it probably would be if the game had been released in this era of fancy new games) it's brought to life by an amazingly creative assortment of characters. Aryll, Link's little sister, is likeable enough for you to have incentive as a player to go and rescue her from the clutches of evil, and the pirates who join you are all quirky and packed with personality traits. The Legend of Zelda has always had likeable characters, but the Twin Peaks-inspired personalities of Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask didn't come close to the folks you'll meet in this game. The expansive Great Sea is packed with islands that can be reached on The King of Red Lions, a ship that literally co-operates with Link on his quest by talking to him. The first time I witnessed the scene where the boat turned its 'mane' around and sprawled out dialogue, I must've burst out laughing. Dated hilarity aside, this guy was also a very likeableoccasional side-quest or set-piece basically built up the structure of Wind Waker, and while this may seem a little dull (like I said, it probably would be if the game had been released in this era of fancy new games) it's brought to life by an amazingly creative assortment of characters. Aryll, Link's little sister, is likeable enough for you to have incentive as a player to go and rescue her from the clutches of evil, and the pirates who join you are all quirky and packed with personality traits. The Legend of Zelda has always had likeable characters, but the Twin Peaks-inspired personalities of Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask didn't come close to the folks you'll meet in this game. The expansive Great Sea is packed with islands that can be reached on The King of Red Lions, a ship that literally co-operates with Link on his quest by talking to him. The first time I witnessed the scene where the boat turned its 'mane' around and sprawled out dialogue, I must have burst out laughing. Dated hilarity aside, this guy was also a very likeable companion, much more so than Ocarina's annoying Navi. All these folks and more helped make Wind Waker a much less dull experience than it could've been thanks to the tried and tested gameplay formula that the series has finally moved away from with Skyward Sword. This game is worth playing just to experience the personalities of the varying cast, the absolutely wonderful visuals, the superb setting and one of the best scripts in Zelda history, if not the best yet. Sure, the game was immensely let down towards the end by an extremely annoying fetch quest and it certainly isn't the longest Zelda game you can play, but nevertheless it was pure brilliance in its own right.

Going back to play the Wind Waker for this feature was an insanely nostalgic and truly magical trip of soaring proportions. I haven't touched the game in years, and seeing the game's wondrous cel-shaded visuals and witnessing the story unfold once more was mesmerising to say the least. The music in particular was extremely nostalgic, and to this day I happily state that The Wind Waker has the very best Zelda soundtrack to this day, which is a mean feat considering its competition. Naturally Koji Kondo handled the music, and quite frankly the soundtrack of this game ranks up as some of his best work. It's safe to say by now that I absolutely adore this game, and that it's well worth the second best position on the pantheon of Zelda titles in my opinion. If you've not played The Wind Waker yet, I recommend you purchase it as soon as possible if you want to experience one of the finest games ever released. If you have played it but, like myself, haven't touched it for a while then do so for a nostalgic trip down memory lane. So, at that, we're left with one final question that will be answered shortly; What exactly is my number one Legend of Zelda game? I've already included Wind Waker, Majora's Mask and Ocarina of Time, the more obvious choices for the top spot on this list, so what could possibly be the pinnacle Zelda game in my personal opinion? It couldn't be... that instalment, could it? Read on and find out...

Monday, 24 October 2011

REVIEW: Solatorobo: Red the Hunter

Solatorobo: Red the Hunter
[DS] [Cyber-Connect2]
Despite being Nintendo's most successful video game system, the DS has been living through a somewhat declining age recently. The dinky dual-screened handheld has since been bested by the much-superior 3DS, leading to loss in sales of DS games, particularly new releases. By next year, the handheld that has sold so many units and lasted for a rather long seven years will most probably have passed away after experiencing a few last hurrahs. Professor Layton and the Last Spectre is one of these games, as is Solatorobo: Red the Hunter, an absolutely excellent RPG released just a few months ago only to be overshadowed by the 3DS and that newer system's tall-standing games. This ace DS title, developed by Japanese RPG experts Cyber-Connect2 who crafted this game a rather long time ago, was finally released in the UK after Nintendo decided to publish it. Yes, it's actually been a number of years since the release of Solatorobo: Sorekara Coda e (that's the fancy Japanese name of the title) in its country of origin, and while it's quite possibly the worst time to release the game in the UK now, what with Nintendo's latest handheld completely hijacking the spotlight from the poor old DS, they really couldn't have picked a much better game on the last-generation handheld to see an English release after so many years of practically nobody waiting for it, because they've never actually heard of it.

It's a shame that Solatorobo: Red the Hunter waddled along onto UK shelves without much hullabaloo surrounding it, because this overlooked title really is one of the dying handheld's hidden gems. While not the system's best RPG, this tale of a humanoid dog who rides around on a mech with stretchy arms is packed with colourful characters, very varied gameplay elements, a ton of well thought out content and some of the best visuals you'll see on the DS, if not the best. Being a role-playing game, you'd expect this title to have some kind of deep plot. You'd be right in thinking that, but what you probably wouldn't expect is for the game to feature not one, but two adventures each lasting about 8 to 14 hours, depending on how often you sit back and take up some of the many side-quests that offer a surprisingly dialogue-filled distraction from the game's main adventure. The protagonist you'll be taking up these quests as is Red, a hunter  (as if you couldn't guess that from the games title) who takes the form of a humanoid doggy. This character is enthusiastic about his work as a travelling quester, who takes up jobs in order to make sweet, sweet cash in order to make a living with his younger sister, ridiculously named Chocolat Gelato. Both the main dog and his feline sibling are very likable protagonists, who are also joined by another character early on in the game, the mysterious Elh, who acts as the individual who sets up the epic quest you play through in Solatorobo thanks to the promise of a rather massive sum of money on this young, loner's behalf. Of course, things get a lot more complex and a lot more brilliant later on down the line, but I wouldn't want to spoil any of that for you guys and gals! Let's just say that, while Solatorobo's plot isn't quite up there with the genius writing found in say, The World Ends with You, it's still a very enjoyable adventure spread across two whole stories, featuring many likable characters and some great twists and turns that will keep you sucked-in. The art style found in the game is particularly awesome too, representing a Studio Ghibli film. Great art, charming characters and a well-written plot add up to make Solatorobo's indisputable and unique appeal, and it's this charm that you'll mainly be playing this title for.

How you advance through Solatorobo's plot is through the Quest Broker. There's one of these small kiosks housing a woman who will happily let you accept quests on or below your 'Hunter Rank' in pretty much every location you visit throughout the game, allowing you to take on aforementioned side-quests to not only take a break from those that would advance the story, but also to increase your Hunter Rank if need be. The 'urgent' quests that advance the plot may be the funnest of all, but you'll often be too low a rank to participate in them so it's a good idea to often get a little sidetracked with the sub-missions on offer. It may be a very odd comparison to make, but this system of questing is a lot like Monster Hunter Tri's online mode, where you also increase your Hunter Rank to take part in tougher segments of the game, working your way up the hunter tree. It never feels like you are straying away from the plot in Solatorobo when taking part in side-quests, however, as the narrative and fun-factor found in these levels is just as rich and enjoyable as that of the main story, where you'll often be asked to do some quests to increase your rank anyway. Where you'll be initiating the many quests found in Solatorobo is a collection of floating islands, each of which has there own distinct look thanks to some of the best visuals on the DS. A mix of 2D and 3D rendering makes for an interesting art-style and graphical approach, making Solatorobo one of the best-looking games on Nintendo's previous generation handheld. The art-style also seeps into the many interesting individuals you'll encounter throughout the game, from Red's friends and enemies to everyone in between. The kiddy look of the games furry animalistic humanoids is more of a trick of the eyes at points too, as the story can often get more serious than you'd expect, giving Solatorobo yet another layer of character.

This was the only decent screenshot I could find of the game, and even this image far from does Solatorobo's great visuals justice. If you want to see the game for yourself then buy it!
While story and characters are a big focus in most RPGs, the gameplay is also very important no matter what the genre of game. You'll be exploring Solatorobo's world, as the hunter Red Savarin, in the Dahak, a strange mechanised robot that proves to be very 'handy' in battle situations. I say handy because, rather than using weapons and ridiculously high stats to beat your foes, you'll simply be lifting them from the ground and throwing them to destroy them and loot cash and whatnot. As uninteresting as this method of enemy-bashing sounds, it's actually very satisfying to spam the A button to lift up your targeted opponent, throw them up into the air after getting a firm hold on them and slamming them back to the ground, possibly into one of your other opponents. What's more, just as this battle system is getting uninteresting towards the start of the second story, many new techniques are added to differentiate from what was previously starting to become a little boring, changing things up in a surprising and very much welcome manner. It's this method of surprising the player that really sucks you in to Solatorobo: Red the Hunter. Often the gameplay will change thanks to the inclusion of newly introduced elements, the odd minigame (one of which is a Mario Kart-esque flying racer that could pretty much be a game in itself) and the many twists and turns in the games plot. Unfortunately, this is where the first of Solatorobo's few flaws comes in to play, as you'll never really get much time with some of the newly introduced gameplay elements. At very few points throughout the adventure you have to defend a character or go all-out against a huge boss by hopping on a gun turret which launches rapid-fire bullets in a very satisfying manner, and I honestly feel like more of these segments should have been included, at least in more of the sub-quests. The aforementioned (in brackets) racing game is actually only played in two quests throughout the entire game, with little motivation to race on the tracks direct from the games menu as you don't even get any prize money, let alone no prizes at all for winning races.

And this underused content isn't the only flaw surrounding what is ultimately a brilliant game. Oh no, what's most infuriating about Solatorobo is its criminally easy difficulty, no doubt. Throughout the 22 hours it took me to finish both of the game's tales, I died an insanely low amount of times. Twice, to be precise. This is ridiculous, as I'm sure you'll agree. You still have to concentrate on what you're doing, otherwise you will take hits from enemies rather easily, but Solatorobo's punishing lack of actual challenge is the game's only real flaw, without a shadow of a doubt. You can potentially get around this poor difficulty by forcing yourself to not customise your Dahak mech, which can be upgraded via an involving attache case-esque minigame, but without knowing the game would be so easy I ended up wanting to build up my stats more than anything leading to me realising Solatorobo's shockingly low difficulty. This is meant to be a Japanese role-playing game, not Barbie Horse Adventures! Still, without waffling on about the lack of any real challenge, Solatorobo: Red the Hunter is still a very, very fun and involving game that features a charming cast of characters, is packed with loads of well thought out content and two whole plots to play through. It still saddens me that not enough many people have experienced this gem yet, so take my advice and add it to your DS collection as a sign that you still care for your handheld, at least until the next Professor Layton game is released anyway. While it's not the longest RPG ever, nor is it the hardest (in fact it's probably the easiest RPG I've ever played), this is honestly one of the best games on DS so you might want to do yourself a favour and purchase it.