Apr 022013
 

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There is a long list of things I do when I get together with my friends. Sometimes we play games, watch a movie, or eat some snacks. There is almost always some sort of alcohol involved. I do have one peculiar friend that has been hanging out with me for almost five years now that always wants to do the strangest things – usually a lot of running, jumping, kicking and sliding. I’m probably one of the least athletic people you’ll ever meet, but my friend CommanderVideo makes a compelling argument as to why these activities should be fun, and necessary for saving this and all other worlds.

The last time CommanderVideo (you may know him as protagonist of the Bit.Trip series) and I hung out, we were paddling his way across the stars. At the time, we thought that would be the last we ever saw of CommanderVideo, but Gaijin broke one of their own tropes and announced they were making Bit.Trip Presents Runner 2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien, which was the first true sequel to the fourth installment of their six part series. The fact that they were reusing a previous mechanic was enough to irritate an army of Internet trolls, but then they took their blasphemy a step further – they were going to change the graphics and music style as well. After one particular Bit.Trip fan (me) stopped rolling his eyes and scoffing enough to actually look at Runner 2, it was clear that this would be a game worth checking out.

Gameplay
At its core, Runner 2 plays just like the first Runner game. It is an auto-run platformer, which means the character’s forward movement is automatic and it is up to the player to initiate actions that will keep the character from face planting into the insane amount of obstacles between him and the finish line. While this isn’t a wholly original idea, it is one of the first games of this type that incorporated rhythm elements into its game. Once you get the hang of the beat, it’s all a matter of having fast enough reflexes to be able to predict the correct timing of your life saving button presses.

We can guarantee there will be a point at which you stop skipping checkpoints.

We can guarantee there will be a point at which you stop skipping checkpoints.

When you hit an enemy or obstacle, and you will do this often, one of two things will happen. Either your chosen character will fly back to the beginning of the level, or if you chose to take the checkpoint in the level you’ll go back there and you get to try again. There is a benefit to skipping the checkpoint, because not only will you skip the point penalty you take each time you start over from the checkpoint, but you also get a point bonus at the end if you skipped it. This feature, along with the new adjustable difficulty makes the game a lot more accessible to a wider range of players.

For those of you who have played the original Runner, don’t think for an instant that there is nothing new for you here. CommanderVideo and his friends have quite a few new moves, such as a sliding jump (which means you’ll be gliding through some very tight nooks and crannies) and the ability to initiate some dance moves that rack up points each time they’re executed successfully. There are also branching paths, unlockable characters and costumes, retro themed bonus levels, and scads of other goodies. Runner 2 is just a huge bundle of classic Bit.Trip goodness presented in a whole new and interesting way.

Presentation
The guys at Gaijin have already proved that they really know how to make an eye-catching game, and they took it a step further and really outdid themselves when designing Runner 2. The color palate manages to be bright and vivid without looking gaudy, and the art style is distinctive enough that there is no worry of this game being mistaken for another. Clearly a lot of time was spent on visuals, and they’re presented in such a light hearted and whimsical manner that a lot of players will find it difficult to fully explode in a fit of anger at this game, even when playing the most punishing levels.

Each map's worlds will have a unique and interesting visual feel.

Each map’s worlds will have a unique and interesting visual feel.

As previously mentioned, Runner 2 is a game with strong rhythm elements, so the sound design is a very distinctive element of the game. The soundtrack is filled with toe-tapping tunes that are easy to groove to, which is good because grooving will be essential if you want to complete this game. Just like the other Bit.Trip games, the songs in each level gain more layers as you collect the score multiplying power-ups, so you’ll have to grab them all to hear the song at it’s fullest by the end of the level. If you’re lucky enough to play this game on the WiiU, try plugging headphones into your GamePad and turning its volume up to experience the music at its best quality and as loudly as you can bear without worrying about disturbing your neighbors, or rupturing your ear drums.

If you had doubts that an actual sequel would work in the Bit.Trip universe, or about a more modern approach to the game’s graphics and sound, then please immediately cast those doubts aside. Runner 2 is an excellent game that definitely reaches the high bar Gaijin set for itself, and perhaps even pushes that bar up a few notches. It has been designed in such a way that Bit.Trip newbies will appreciate it, but veterans that are willing to give it a chance will dive into it for another adventure in the strange universe of CommanderVideo. Just don’t get mad at him when he comes over, forgot it was his turn to bring the beer, and has a whole posse of similarly shaped, uninvited people with him. They’re good people too, and they really know how to spice up a party.

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Pros: This is a gorgeous game that really knows how to get your heart racing and will challenge even the most seasoned of gamers.

Cons: Runner 3 hasn’t been announced yet.

Value: $15 is a tough price point to push on eShop customers, but it’s definitely worth the money. Once beating the game you can easily get some replay value by perfecting each level and unlocking all the bonus stages.

Verdict: Runner 2 has easily established itself as the standard by which all auto-runners will be judged.

Score: 10

Mar 292013
 

I have been playing RPGs my whole life, specifically JRPGs. I started with Final Fantasy and Phantasy Star 3 and those two games hooked me on the genre. Over the past few years JRPGs have been a little hit and VERY miss. A few good titles on the Wii come to mind, but other than that it was pretty bad out there. This year changed all that when Ni No Kuni came out on the Playstation 3. I had hope for the genre again and soon purchased the new Fire Emblem and Etrian Odyssey. They were both fine editions into the genre. Were they coming back? I had hoped so and possibly hyped myself up too much for the next JRPG I would play which was Hyperdimension Neptunia Victory. What a mouthful!

HyperdimensionNeptuniaVictory

(Warning, many of these screenshots I took as I was playing the game via my cell phone.)

 

I was a newcomer to the series, but I knew the game would have a strong focus on humor, parody, and fan service. Usually all of those things done right make for a great experience, but the key words are DONE RIGHT.

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One of several video game references. I love Zelda!

The premise sounds wacky enough to be amazing. Picture a world called Gameindustri, where the countries are named to reflect different Video Game companies. Their leaders are typical anime girls who can transform into “hot” bad asses with typical armor and laser swords. There are video game references EVERYWHERE. These are fun to find for sure, but it’s like going on an Easter Egg hunt in a minefield.

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One of the quests you can do for the guild.

A typical segment is broken down like this. You access the main city’s area and have a bunch of sprites you can talk to. Most of them are there for flavor and what not. From there you either look for the right tab with “EVENT” written on it, or go to the guild and pick up quests. Them quests are your typical “Kill x” or “bring y” of something, which is fine, Nothing exciting, but no reason to get upset for sure.

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Or hit Square to skip the whole thing…. If only it were that easy.

Here is where the main issue I have with the game. In order to progress the “story” you have to go to the places that say “EVENT.” Why is this bad? Well, it begins a mind numbing display of terrible ongoing dialogue. I am used to long periods of not playing or just pressing X occasionally to progress through story. I am perfectly fine with it, if it’s decent. I don’t know if something in the localization went horribly wrong, or if there was a writer’s strike going on. It’s bad. The information in these segments is mostly irrelevant attempts to be quirky, funny, and sometimes sexy. All of those attempts seem to fail. Only a little bit of the actual dialogue has to do with the loose “going back in time to an alternate world” storyline. Other than that, it’s pretty much girls insulting each other in very childish ways, or trying to be overly sexy. The other thing is they go on FOREVER. There is a skip button, which the characters actually mention. I decided to use it once, out of curiosity. You hit square and the text boxes start going by. You can still see the text going by at an incredibly fast rate. The function works well, except that for this particular moment I skipped, it took TWO MINUTES. Can you imagine if I just let them talk? I don’t think I could have handled that. Every time these characters would talk, I literally felt depressed. I honestly can’t remember the last time that has happened.

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That’s the least of your worries.

 

Once you’ve woken up from dialogue coma, you can venture out into the world. There is a map where you pick locations to “explore.” These areas remind me of very bland Phantasy Star Online areas. The movement is very jerky and feels very unnatural. It’s the type of game where you can see the enemies before you fight them. Finally we get to a good part. The combat is actually kinda fun. HNV’s combat feels a little like a mix between Grandia 2 and Xenogears. Your characters can move around on the field of battle. Each weapon has an area it can attack in. The key is to line up the area so you can hit more than one of the enemies. Then you input commands similar to Xenogears. There are also neat skills you can use as well as the ability to transform and do even more damage. It’s a neat little battle system, but it does get stale rather quick. Often times you don’t exactly know what the enemies did or are doing because it flashes their actions on screen so quickly. Besides some of the monsters being references to other games, they are often sort of bland. While the combat is the best part of the game, that isn’t saying a whole lot.

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The soundtrack is also pretty decent. Then again it is Nobou Uematsu and the Earthbound Papa’s doing it. It isn’t his best work, but not everything can be as awesome as the Blue Dragon soundtrack. The voice acting isn’t that great either.

This doesn't even help the game.

This doesn’t even help the game.

 

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Pros: Combat is kind fun. Nobou Uematsu does the soundtrack.

Cons: Horrific dialogue, sub-par

story, clunky controls.

Value: I wouldn’t ever pay full price for this game. Maybe if you can get it on sale or used for ten bucks, MAYBE.

Verdict: Hyperdimension  Neptunia Victory is definitely not for me. If you are a fan of the series, you might find all these things super. The dialogue is just so bad and the story isn’t good enough to wade through all of that mess. Dialogue and Story are pretty key ingredients for any good JRPG and this one just seemed to miss both of those things. Unfortunately, I can’t see myself or anyone I know enjoying this game.

Score: 4

Mar 212013
 

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You know how the old saying goes: “Just when you are putting the supernatural events that happened to you 12 years ago behind you, a zany scientist calls you in the middle of the night and you will once again find yourself battling paranormal phenomenon with a vacuum cleaner and a flashlight.” Oh, you’ve never heard that saying? Weird…my great great great grandmother had it cross-stitched on a sampler above her fireplace. I don’t think Luigi had ever heard it either, because he certainly looked surprised and reluctant when the opening events of Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon were unfolding.

Story
The game opens up with Professor E. Gadd asking Luigi to help restore peace to Evershade Valley. There was an artifact known as the Dark Moon that kept the spirits residing in the valley subdued and happily living out their afterlife, but that item has been stolen. Gadd re-equips Luigi with his updated Poltergust 5000, which is a vacuum cleaner designed to capture and contain ghosts. Luigi, while trembling in his boots, vehemently opposes this notion but the Professor seems to think “no” means “yes” and thrusts poor Luigi into a valley of haunted mansions anyway.

OooOOoO! Spooky!

OooOOoO! Spooky!

Gameplay: Ghost bustin’
Playing the original Luigi’s Mansion on GameCube required a player to move Luigi with the left analog stick, and then use the right one to pull the Poltergust in the opposite direction the ensnared ghost was moving in order to weaken it and eventually suck it up. A lot of people were concerned that a CirclePad Pro would be required to fully enjoy the game, but the developers have tweaked the control scheme enough to where that isn’t the case. To capture a ghost, you must first use the A button to trigger the flashlight’s strobe function to stun the ghost. Then you initiate the Poltergust’s suction with the R button and use the CirclePad to move Luigi away from the ghost. A meter above Luigi’s head fills up as this is going on, and once it’s full you can press A to give the ghost a good tug and lower it’s hit points more quickly. Imagine you are fishing, but the fish  is mostly invisible,  flying around, and is trying to kill you while you reel it in. The mechanic works well, and it won’t take long for players to adjust to only having one CirclePad.

This ghost's day is about to really SUCK.

This ghost’s day is about to really SUCK.

Gameplay: Puzzle solvin’
Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon is not just a game about grabbing ghosts, but it is also pretty heavily laden with puzzles. They’re usually a puzzle that involves manipulating the room or area you’re in by finding hidden objects or doors so you can proceed to the next room. A lot of the puzzles will likely leave you scratching your head for a while, but don’t worry; the solution was probably standing right in front of your face the whole time. You will have to be a fast thinker though if you want to get the maximum rating for each mission (which you can keep replaying until you get a score you’re happy with), because the amount of time it takes you to finish a mission weighs heavily on the grade you’re given at the end. A lot of puzzles make use of the new Dark Light attachment to the Poltergust’s built-in flashlight. Shining it on hidden objects reveals them and makes it possible for Luigi to interact with them. For example, the key you need to progress may be hidden in a vase you can’t see until it gets a good dose of Dark Light. Some puzzles were very challenging, but any lack of success was usually pretty easy to attribute to not being observant enough.

Puzzles like this will appear almost as frequently as ghosts.

Puzzles like this will appear almost as frequently as ghosts.

Gameplay: Multiplayer
Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon offers both local multiplayer (either two game cards or a limited mode via Download Play) and online multiplayer (either with friends or worldwide). At the time of writing this review, there were not very many people playing online yet, so expect a follow-up later that focuses on this aspect of the game. However, we did get some online time in with people playing the Rush Mode. All players split up to find the exit for the floor of the ScareScraper they’re on. With only 30 seconds to start with, a feeling of panic can immediately set in, but collecting watches as you play adds 10 seconds to the shared clock.

Presentation
The visuals in the game are clean and crisp, and styled in a way the is cute which is good if there are any children in the household that will play. Unfortunately, the 3D effect isn’t so crisp and it seemed impossible to find that “sweet spot” for a sharp and solid 3D image. Add to that the fact that you must move the 3DS to precisely aim the Poltergust, and playing with the 3D on at all feels pointless.  It seems though that most 3DS owners don’t particularly care if a game is in 3D or not, so playing the game in 2D all the time feels just fine. What really makes the game stand out visually are the little touches, like the way Luigi’s flashlight flares if you point straight forward at the player, or the way Luigi pats his pockets looking for his DS when the Professor calls him.

The sound design was handled in much the same way; there are some great themes you will be humming around the house for days, but it is the tiny details that make the game sound so delightful. Playing the game with headphones on not only allows you to bypass the 3DS’s shoddy internal speakers, but it lets you hear which side of the room a ghost is in even if you can’t see it yet. As Luigi is exploring each level, there will be times when he starts humming along to the theme, and his DS plays a clever dance remix of the game’s main theme when it rings. It’s all of these little touches that will leave you with a smile on your face as you’re playing.

At least one other character from the Mushroom Kingdom makes an appearance as well.

At least one other character from the Mushroom Kingdom makes an appearance as well.

Luigi may have been reluctant to begin a new adventure with Professor Gadd, but once you get into the swing of Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon you’ll be glad he did. The challenging environmental puzzles and fun ghost grabbing gameplay are wrapped up with some nice visuals and awesome sound work to make a package that you’ll have a hard time putting down. Add to that the value of online multiplayer and you’ve got one of the first “must-have” titles to hit the 3DS in a long time. I just wish my great great great grandmother could put down her cross stitching long enough to work through the ScareScraper with me.

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Pros: This game is just pure fun, period. You would have to try REALLY hard to play it and not be completely delighted.

Cons: While it was pretty disappointing to see the blurry 3D (it’s awfully late in the 3DS’s life cycle for that), it wasn’t necessary to play the game or enjoy it fully.

Value: With the amount of time it takes to initially complete each level, plus the added replay value of improving your score and tackling the ScareScraper in multiplayer mode, $40 seems like a steal.

Verdict: Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon is a game that will likely cause some strife in a family, because it’s so good no one is going to want to share it.

Score: 9

Mar 112013
 

Contender for the 2013 award for most convoluted game title ever.Vampires are just one of the many occult creatures that heavily pepper today’s pop culture. We have vampires that write diaries, vampires that sparkle when exposed to sunlight, and even vampires with a Southern drawl living in the Louisiana bayou. One thing there aren’t a lot of is stories about old timey vampire hunters with magical chain whips, and perhaps that’s a role Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate can fill. Set over 1000 years ago, it tells the story of one Simon Belmont and mysterious shadowy figures helping him as he infiltrates the castle of Dracula to learn the fate of his long lost father and avenge his death.

Gameplay
One trope that has been consistent in Castlevania games is a nonlinear progression through levels, and Mirror of Fate is no different. Right out of the gate, players will see areas that are not accessible with the character’s current abilities. The expectation is players will want to backtrack to earlier areas of the castle and explore the locked areas once they have the appropriate abilities. Explorers will be rewarded by getting to witness the incredibly varied locales of the castle. There are rooms with obstacles ranging from malicious merry-go-rounds to tiny, dirty nooks Simon must shimmy through as zombies clutch at his ankles. However, if you’re the type of gamer that likes to take a straight shot through a game, then that’s something you can totally do.

The intuitive way to control a game that almost exclusively calls for two dimensional movement would be to use the D-Pad, but unfortunately that is not an option. The only way to guide the protagonists’ movement is with the Circle Pad, which can feel awkward at times. While you’re guiding Simon and his cohorts as they platform their way to Dracula’s lair within the castle, hordes of undead minions will be in your way. There are typical, run-of-the mill ghouls and rabid dogs, but the developers also threw in things like harpies and magic books that conjure more enemies while sapping your life or magic just to keep things lively. Boss design was inventive as well – especially when you consider the large breasted bisexual succubus. It’s not often game designers throw in foes of that nature!

To dispatch these foes back to the depths of Hell from whence they came, you will be flailing a whip around with more fervor than Willow Smith when she whips her hair back and forth. The whip mechanic works well and makes for not only some interesting combat sequences, but also some unique exploration opportunities once the weapon is upgraded. You will also earn various secondary weapons you can equip, such as new ax to throw at flying enemies, or Molotov cocktails to clear out a crowd with fire. As you earn experience points from defeated enemies, Simon and his co-conspirator will unlock new combos with the whip, as well as other abilities. Players will not get a choice as to which abilities unlock or when they do, but this pseudo RPG element adds some welcome depth to the game.

When a problem (like a skeleton monster) comes a long, you must whip it!

When a problem (like a skeleton monster) comes a long, you must whip it!

Another cool aspect of the combat is the ability to get various spirits to aid you during your fight against Dracula and his minions. The first one is a handy shield that draws energy from Simon’s magic supply to block attacks, but each one you befriend offers a new ability. They prove to be valuable assets, and most players will probably find themselves scouring each area for refills on the magic they need to summon their spectral friends.

Presentation
The visuals in the game look pretty decent, and the 3DS has no problem running the game at a full frame rate. However, there is nothing overly remarkable about Mirror of Fate’s look. The cutscenes are some of the best visual treats in the game, but the cell shading used in them is so different from styles used in the rest of the game that it is a little unsettling; almost like you are seeing scenes from a different game. During these cutscenes is the only time you should attempt to utilize the 3D function, because during standard gameplay you will probably be so frantically smashing buttons that the effect will make your eyes hurt rather than wow you. The environments are incredibly dark, and while that is understandable considering the game’s subject matter, it caused difficulties while playing. Thankfully, there is an option in the game’s settings to turn the brightness up and this helps immensely.

Whip it...into shape!

Whip it…into shape!

The music for the game is actually quite exceptional, especially when listened to with headphones. The themes are all very dramatic and some of them sound like they’d be right at home in an old horror movie starring Vincent Price or Bela Lugosi. There is quite a bit of good voice acting in the game as well, which is something a lot of gamers still probably aren’t used to when it comes to a handheld title.

Castlevania is one of those game franchises with an intensely dedicated fan base, and a lot of those fans will be vehemently opposed to any changes to their favorite series simply as a matter of principal. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate is a solid game with passable graphics, and combat that could only have been improved if the protagonists were actually whipping their weaves around instead of chains. However, if you have enough garlic and holy water on hand and are brave enough to insert the cartridge into your 3DS, you will be treated to a fun action platformer with a sprawling and labyrinthine Gothic castle to explore.

Whip it...whip it good!

Whip it…whip it good!

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Pros: The combat and level design in this game are top notch, the soundtrack is something other 3DS developers need to take notice of.

Cons: The visuals aren’t the best seen on the 3DS, and playing with the 3D on is not advisable due to the amount of movement your system will be experiencing. Some people may get bored trying to explore every nook and cranny if the castle. Playing with the circle pad is pointless considering movement is almost solely up, down, left, right.

Value: Players that are really into heavily exploring the game will fund this game well worth the money. Those wanting to blow right through the story may be underwhelmed, considering the hefty $40 price tag.

Verdict: Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate is an excellent addition to any 3DS owner’s library, even if it is the first title they’ve played in the franchise.

Score: 7

Whoops…wrong video.

Feb 192013
 

Revengeance Title

Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, as all fans of tactical espionage action and their grandmothers know, is the exciting new almost-sequel-but-mostly-spinoff of Hideo Kojima’s exalted Metal Gear franchise. The crazy things about this entry, of course are A) the genre shift from a stealth/shooter hybrid to a balls to the wall hardcore action game and B) Platinum Games being behind development with Hideki Kamiya (The freaking creator of Devil May Cry and Bayonetta) spearheading the insanity. This is not a Metal Gear game in the traditional sense. Pack up everything you thought you knew about the franchise (except for nanomachines of course) and get ready for one of the wildest rides the genre has to offer. Forget buckling up; seatbelts are for nerds. Continue reading »

Jan 202013
 

Retro_City_Rampage_coverPeople come in a a variety of sizes, shapes, attitudes, colors, and smells, but despite our differences there are a few basic needs and desires that we all have in common with each other. Me, being a cold, hardened, and vicious Chicagoan, have an innate desire to commit massive crimes, run people over with assorted vehicles, and shoot things with a wide array of weapons. Until recently I had to keep these urges locked up deep down inside of me, hoping against all hope that the time would come when I would have an appropriate outlet for my violent and criminal tendencies. Not only does the newly released Retro City Rampage allow me to cover all of these bases, but it is a game that doesn’t take itself too seriously, which is something anyone can appreciate these days.

Gameplay
At its core, Retro City Rampage is an open-world sandbox game. This simply means you could probably spend a fair amount of time just engaging in sidequests and other optional aspects of the game without ever really touching the main quest. It also means things don’t necessarily need to be performed in a specific order, so you can play the game in a structure that best suits you.

While exploring the game world of Theftopolis, you will assume the role of the main character named PLAYER. Almost all tasks in this game will revolve around some sort of crime. Whether it’s burglary, assault, or grand theft auto – you name it and it has probably found its way into the game.

You can add grand theft TANK to your rap sheet!

You can add grand theft TANK to your rap sheet!

If you’re going to commit crimes, you obviously need weapons, which are definitely not in short supply in Theftopolis. Each weapon is uniquely designed so you will need to learn the best weapon for each situation in order to succeed. Most people’s first instinct is probably to “run and gun” through missions in this game, but that would be a mistake. If you want to keep PLAYER alive, you will need to make a plan before heading into a room guns blazing. Thankfully, there is a simple but ingenious targeting system in place to ensure you will be able to make every bullet, rocket, or squirt from your flame thrower count.
If you ever tire of the main game’s action, simply hop over to Nolan’s Arcade and play some of the mini-games. Some familiar indie game faces will make an appearance, such as CommanderVideo in “Bit.Trip: Retro City”, and Super Meat Boy in “Virtual Meat Boy”. When visiting the arcade, it was pleasantly surprising to see how easy it was to spend almost just as much time on the mini-games as the main game.

Presentation
Let’s start off by getting the obvious out of the way; Retro City Rampage is a current generation game designed to look like an 8-bit classic. To drive this old school feeling home, players can select different frames to put around the action, such as a UHF TV frame (if you have to ask what that is, you’re too young to comprehend). If all this is just TOO much of a throwback for you, there is the option to remove the frames. You can also toggle scanlines on or off. Despite all these tricks that were employed to give the game a retro feel, a well polished and fully HD game shines through. It would have been so easy to cut corners and say it’s for the sake of making the game look older, but thankfully that wasn’t the case here.

No 80s classic game is safe from the developer's humor.

No 80s classic game is safe from the developer’s humor.

While you’re ogling the sharp, HD 8bit goodness of Theftopolis you will notice another visual element of the game, and that is quite a few nicely done visual jokes. We won’t dive into all of them here, but make sure to read the signs on businesses as you are blazing through the streets plowing over pedestrians or evading the fuzz. You will be pleasantly surprised and the amount of laughs to be had.

To solidify Retro City Rampage‘s 8-bit feel, a killer chiptune soundtrack has been crafted to bleep and blop along with you as you terrorize the city. If you find there is one of these songs you just can’t get enough of while you’re playing, you can pick an in-game radio station to listen to. However, the game’s soundtrack is so awesome you would do better to leave it on the default setting so you can listen to the music as it was intended.

Video games often get a lot of heat in the media for being too violent, and therefore promoting violent tendencies in their players. However, it’s easy to see from the comical tone of Retro City Rampage that VBlank Entertainment Inc. had nothing but good intentions over the years it took to create this game. Not only is this a finely crafted parody of the 8-bit games we 30somthings cut our teeth on, but it also manages to poke a little fun at modern sandbox style games while throwing in heaps of other humor and nods to pop culture both old and new. We here at RoboAwesome recommend doing whatever you have to do to get your hands on this game, short of looting, plundering, or pillaging.

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Pros: This game will not only appeal to gamers who grew up in the 80s, but fans of games like Grand Theft Auto. It is the finest modern example of a parody video game.

Cons: The old school graphics and music are fantastic, but they may alienate younger gamers.

Value: At $10 this game is a steal, considering the amount of play time you are likely to get out of it.

Verdict: Retro City Rampage is definitely a game that needs to be played to be appreciated, but you won’t be sorry for giving it a shot.

Score: 9

Jan 122013
 

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Imagine waking up in your hotel room to find a dead body laying on the floor at the foot of your bed. Here in Chicago that can be a commonplace occurrence, but for those of you in fairer parts of the country and world this would likely cause you quite a shock. Especially if said dead corpse was wearing menacing black armor had an enormous sword stuck in the ground near it.

Naturally, your first instinct would be to call the police. However, the sword looks pretty badass and you’d like to take a few swings with it before your friends with the talking brooches arrive. As you place your hand on the hilt, the aforementioned black armor on the corpse magically transports itself onto your body and you are hurled into a string of adventures as a strange black knight with an enchanted sword.

Black Knight Sword is a strange fairy tale which has developer Grasshopper Manufacture and Suda 51′s hallmarks (such as buckets and buckets of blood, nightmarish monsters, and a very strange world) woven throughout it. Once players don the armor of the black knight, who is actually the hero in this story, they will embark on a quest to put an end to the reign of the tyrannical Evil White Princess. Basically, all tropes of this kind of story have been flip-flopped and twisted right from the get-go, so players will never really be able to predict just what happens next.

Presentation
The visual aspect of Black Knight Sword’s story is relayed with in a unique style based on Kamishibai story telling from 12th century Japan. Buddhist monks used paper scrolls to relay moral stories to a mostly illiterate audience. In the case of Black Knight Sword these “scrolls” have been given movement, and feature static characters on top of a moving background to give the illusion of the character moving. The look of these scrolls has been captured wonderfully by the art team at Grasshopper Manufacture, and it really gives the game the feel of an interactive storybook and can make it easy to forget that you are actually playing a very challenging video game.

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I’m really not sure what ancient Buddhists would say the moral of this story is.

It is nice to see that the developers didn’t spend all their attention on the looks of the game and then slack on the music. The soundtrack of Black Knight Sword is amazing orchestral (with hints of opera) fare that really furthers the sensation of being at some sort of wonderfully gory theater. This music is ambient, but very easily heightens the creepy and dramatic elements of the game.

Gameplay
Black Knight Sword is very much a Metroidvania type of game, meaning that it is a non-linear action-adventure game with heavy elements of platforming woven in. While exploring the Black Knight’s twisted world, you will find yourself backtracking, and quite possibly downtracking and uptracking, in order to find each branching path or each pot of Cat Head Grass (don’t ask). The platforming elements of this game range from simple to outright brutal, but there is a high degree of cleverness put into the design. One thing that makes the platforming unique is the utilization of Hellebore, the spirit that resides in the Black Sword. Players will often have to release Hellebore so she can turn on platforms and make them solid so the Black Knight may jump on them.

Combating the twisted enemies of this game is fairly simple and enjoyable hack-n-slash fare. When the game starts, the knight will often be stabbing his foes, but as the game progresses he will earn new attacks or powered up forms of old ones. Often it seemed that the key to success in a battle was knowing when it was okay to go in and just wail on a bad guy wildly, and when to take a moment to strategize and pick your timing properly to avoid the game over screen. Thankfully, the game has abundant checkpoints so when you do die, you won’t be replaying an awful amount.

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The Black Knight’s fairy friend has a sweet magic attack she can use.

To help you along your journey, there are floating eyeballs that serve as shopkeepers. They will sell you things like life meter refills, 1UPs, and also temporary upgrades to the Knight’s armor. You pay for these items with the piles of human hearts you collect from slain enemies and the microwaves that serve as item boxes in the game. If you’ve never played one of Suda 51′s games before, this will sound gross and weird. If you are a fan of his work, this will sound delightful and charming and really indicates just how much fun you are in for if you choose to pick up this game.

The knight’s armor may be black instead of shining, and he may be trying to defeat the princess instead of save her, but that’s just part of what makes Black Knight Sword a great game. It is a game that takes what could be a somewhat conventional and boring fairy tale, turns it on its head, and sets it all in a world that could easily be described as a schizophrenic person’s nightmare. All of this is wrapped up in a solidly built action platformer that has been rendered in a beautiful ancient Japanese art style and is sprinkled with some haunting music. You will never be bored, and you will constantly be grossed and/or stressed out while playing this game, which is to say you will be consistently entertained the entire time you play; even if you are a puny noob playing it on easy (like me).

Pros: Suda 51′s twisted mind has churned out what is sure to be deemed another classic game by his somewhat cultish following. Black Knight Sword is a great game for those looking for something old school with a demented new school twist.
Cons: The sheer and utter weirdness of the game’s environment may make it inaccessible for some people.
Verdict: If you are brave enough to take up the sword and assume the mantle of the Black Knight, you will be very glad you did.

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Jan 042013
 

altDownloadable gaming services are funny. Sometimes they have titles you’ve been looking forward to for weeks. Sometimes they have stinkers you can smell a mile away. Is Gunman Clive, for the 3DS eShop, a lone gunman of greatness? Or is it destined to rot in a ghost town?

 


The first thing you will notice about this game is it’s price point $1.99. Many would think that a game that low costing is destined to be awful but actually the cost is quite fair. This is a very brief game. I managed to complete the entire game on normal difficulty in just over thirty-five minutes. This is not a case of a company trying to put up a full retail game that lasts only a few hours. The creators seem to know this is a budget length game so it has a budget price. Is the game good though? Well…yeah.

The second thing you will notice is the presentation. The game has a unique sepia-toned color scheme. Backgrounds, and the main character are a dull brown while msot enemies will pop out in shades of blue or yellow. The 3D effect also works well. Certain background elemnts swing into the foreground and the use of depth actually adds quite a bit to the platforming. Sound effects are inspired by action games of old and the music fits in with the western world. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself humming the main level theme.

Gunman Clive plays like a classic action-platformer from the days of old. There’s plenty of leaping from object to object and taking down evil gunslingers. Controls are precise and jumping is fluid. There’s not much in the way of new or groundbreaking platform tricks, the game plays it safe with the tried and true, but it’s all remarkably well polished. A sampling of power-ups add to the shooting. The game wears it’s retro-inspiration proudly. Expect a few cheap deaths from mistimed jumps and a few respawning enemies. The shortness of stages make sure it’s not too much of a hinderance. The trial and error boss fights make take a few deaths before figuring out their paterns, but conquering them is cause for celebration.

 

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It may seem like a game this brief can offer next to no replay. Surprisingly this game does feature some. There are two playable characters who play totally differently. Clive is a standard action hero, quick with his pistol, and Ms. Johnson uses her petticoat to float and guide jumps. There’s aslo a special charm in playing the lady who must rescue the kidnapped cowboy. In addition to the two main characters there is one of the most amusing, and enjoyable, unlockable characters I’ve seen in a game in quite some time. Stages are brief but the game keeps track of your time and makes a note of if you cleared a stage without damage. This makes replays and perfect runs easier to attempt.

Gunman Clive is a brief but fun game that comes at a very small price. If you’re a fan of side-scrolling shooters you’d definitely enjoy picking this game up. The presentation is great, the action is tightly controlled and enjoyable. The replayability may not rival something like Grand Theft Auto, but it’s still a great game to invest in.

Pros – Solid and fluid platforming, unique presentation, very inexpensive
Cons – Some cheap deaths.
Verdict – A fun old-school action game for the price of a cup of coffee (or less, depending on which cafe you frequent) Gunman Clive is not to be missed.

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Dec 162012
 

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It is a sad but true fact that a Dovahkiin’s work is never done. First, you had to juggle my time between saving the world from Alduin the World Eater and choosing a side in a civil war. Then, you were faced with the tough decision of squashing a vampire uprising or subjugating the living citizens of Skyrim. After all that, you somehow managed to build an impressive lakefront home and start a family. Now, with the release of the newest add-on pack Dragonborn, a new and malicious force is threatening Tamriel, and it is up to you to stop it.


The Good
If you read my review of the previous DLC pack for Skyrim, Hearthfire, you may remember that it was plagued with problems from the beginning. Lack of any real direction from the game or its NPCs forced me to scour the Internet for answers as to how to even get started on the quest line this pack added to the game. Thankfully, this problem didn’t rear its ugly head again in Dragonborn. After the pack was downloaded and installed, I headed to a city and events of the main quest began to unfold immediately.

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Dragonborn will take you to places such as this, where wizards live in giant mushroom houses.

Dragonborn takes you to a whole new area of Solstheim, which is an island closer to Morrowind than Skyrim. This island is fairly substantial, so it takes a bit of time to traverse on foot. While this may seem daunting to a newer Skyrim player, it felt like a welcome addition because it made the game seem brand new again. Not only was the terrain new, but enemies were almost all new as well. The main quest pits you against a brand new foe, who could potentially be your deadliest enemy yet; the first Dragonborn. Finding out his motives and learning how to stop him was not only fun, but also involved traveling to some delightfully creepy and gross locales.

The newness didn’t stop with terrain and enemies. You can now tame and ride a dragon, there are two new materials available from which players can craft new weapons and armor, and there are also several new shouts with which to experiment.. Aside from the main quest, there are scads of side quests that will keep even the most focused player sidetracked and occupied for a few hours. Overall, 10-15 hours of playtime is included in the main quest with much more in side quests. That’s not too shabby, considering there are few other forms of entertainment you can do for less than $2.00 an hour.

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Confirmed: baddies like this will be all up in your grill while playing Dragonborn.

The Bad
Dragonborn was freezing quite frequently in the first couple hours of playing. This may have been a problem unique to my particular combination of game disc, DLC files and console (it’s not like Skyrim never froze on me before), but it’s worth noting. The only other real complaint is that something so amazing as dragon mounts was included, but the feature was hobbled severely. You can only tame a wild dragon and then fly to a fast travel location on your map. This is a fun new feature, but it would have been preferable to be able to summon a dragon at a whim, and then be able to fly it anywhere. Thankfully, the beauty of this generation of games is that features can be changed just as easily as they were added.

I was pretty hyped for Skyrim, but if you had told me a year ago that I’d still be playing it now, I probably would’ve released a substantial belly laugh in your face. However, if Bethesda keeps releasing great content like Dragonborn, then I could see my relationship with the game lasting at least another year. That’s because Dragonborn isn’t just a little DLC pack that adds a few new features; it is a full-fledged expansion just like in the old days of PC gaming. There is a whole new map to fill out with locations as you explore, new enemies, and oodles of new quests. If it’s been a while since your last adventure in Tamriel, I suggest you get a glass of salt water and gargle to prepare your th’um, because there is a whole new corner of the world out there for you waiting to hear you shout.

Pros: This is the first fully realized “expansion” for Skyrim, and it is sure to sink its hooks into you if you’re a fan of the game.
Cons: There seems to be a glitch that causes frequent game freezes in the beginning; there were some missed opportunities when designing the dragon riding mechanics.
Verdict: If you have been dying for some newness in the world of Skyrim, then you definitely need to pickup this expansion.

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Dec 102012
 

I’m not sure exactly when zombies became so incredibly popular in film and video games. I feel like it almost happened overnight; we’ve had pop culture zombies for a long time, but they didn’t burst out in popularity until recently. Zombies are seen everywhere in pop culture at this point, from television shows like The Walking Dead to Treyarch’s multiplayer zombies in Call of Duty. In games, zombies have become more about action and mindless bloodshed than about survival horror (with the recent exception of DayZ). Even a classic survival horror series like Resident Evil has become more action oriented in its recent releases.


 

Where did the survival — and the horror — aspect go? Valve’s Left 4 Dead series is easily one one of the most played zombie games to come out in the last few years, yet it isn’t based on horror. Survival, certainly, as hordes of zombies sprint at the team of four players. But the part that makes a zombie apocalypse so frightening is the idea that a single bite will end everything for someone. That idea is not present in Left 4 Dead, or even Resident Evil.

I had grown weary of the zombie genre in gaming because of this. Using zombies in a game, especially in something like Call of Duty, just felt like an excuse to let players mindlessly mow down enemies. Zombies can be replaced by anything in Left 4 Dead — vampires, aliens, Gremlins — and the core gameplay will remain exactly the same. That’s why ZombiU piqued my interest when Ubisoft debuted it at last year’s E3. A zombie game that actually incorporates what makes zombies zombies?

ZombiU focuses heavily on survival and horror, something few survival horror games actually do. Instead of relying on cheap scare tactics, Ubisoft instead created a very atmospheric world that legitimately feels scary. Players will encounter a few characters here and there, but for the most part, they’re completely on their own. I’ve never felt this isolated in a game since playing Metroid Prime. The game’s world is broken into several different areas in London — a market, apartment complex, and the Tower of London, to name a few — with a hub center known as the safe house at the center. The world is seamed as opposed to seamless, with loading screens between each major area. There is a strange design choice I discovered: when going to a new area, players will always go through a busted wall in a subway, then climb up a ladder and exit through a door. It’s the same every single time, and I can only wonder why Ubisoft kept reusing the same exact transition between levels.

The campaign is mission based, with a remote NPC known as The Prepper giving instructions to the player character via radio chatter. The Prepper has his own distinct mannerisms, and doesn’t really like it when players go out of their way to help NPC survivors in the game, or try to evacuate with the Ravens of Dee, a group of survivors that knew the zombie plague was coming. Thankfully The Prepper isn’t always rambling away, and he even refuses to talk to the player at certain parts of the game.

ZombiU’s survival mechanics are somewhat hit and miss. The game handles inventory management in a unique and haunting way: the Wii U’s GamePad acts as the inventory screen allowing players to easily manage their inventory, but the game doesn’t pause during this process. The player character will be shown rummaging through their bag on the TV screen with zombies bearing down on them, as the player themselves stare at the Wii U’s controller to make their changes.

The GamePad also lets ZombiU do away with the HUD completely. The controller’s screen displays a radar that can detect nearby zombies as red dots (and will also detect rats and crows as red dots), six currently equipped items, and an icon that allows players to access their full inventory. Having to look down at the controller to check the map works well for ZombiU despite being an awful idea for a competitive shooter like Call of Duty. It really adds to the sense of desperation in the game — if this were real, survivors would be constantly checking their portable radar map for nearby zombies, and this concept is carried over amazingly well into the game.

What doesn’t really work, however, is the new survivor mechanic. One bite from a zombie will turn the player’s character into one of the undead (as will getting mobbed by zombies that attack with their hands or projectiles), and this aspect to the game is terrifying early on. Players can then take up a new survivor and track down their zombified previous survivor, kill them, and take their weapons back. I soon discovered that zombies don’t respawn even if it was a previous survivor that killed them. New survivors also start off with a pistol and six shots, so it’s sometimes beneficial to let a survivor die if they’re completely out of ammo. At one point I had an AK-47, double barrel shotgun, carbine, hunting crossbow, and a handgun — the only weapon that had ammunition was my crossbow. I let my survivor die and I came back as a new survivor, easily made it to my previous survivor since all the zombies were killed before, and got all of my weapons back. I feel like this mechanic is more useful when people on the player’s Wii U friend list die, since they show up as zombies in the player’s game.

There is a more difficult game mode, though, that does perma-kill players if their survivor dies. The developers have championed its difficulty, and announced recently that one gamer was able to complete it without a single death.

For everything that ZombiU does differently from other “survival horror” games, it does share one thing in common with games like Resident Evil: dodgy controls. The controls feel slow and generally a little unresponsive, and they really stand out considering how slow paced and almost repetitive the combat is. Players are forced to aim down their sights in order to fire — no running and gunning here. Ammo is a commodity, so most of the time players will be using their cricket bat to fend off zombies. Cricket bats aren’t sharp weapons — they’re basically a 2 by 4. It takes a good amount of wailing away at a zombie to kill it with the cricket bat. Two zombies are manageable, but three are nearly impossible to kill with the cricket bat alone. Tapping on a weapon’s icon on the GamePad will have the character switch to it, which takes a good two seconds to accomplish. It’s best to plan out skirmishes before taking zombies on, and this is where I feel ZombiU‘s combat really excels despite being a little muddy. It almost reminds me of Batman: Arkham City, where every encounter is like a puzzle where the player has to decide very specific actions to take before engaging groups of enemies. Taking on mobs of zombies in ZombiU is a little bit like that: at one point, there are four or five zombies standing around in a club, blocking the hallway that players have to reach. I had a few shots available with my shotgun, roughly eight arrows, and a flare. Instead of running and gunning Left 4 Dead style, I took out one of the zombies with my crossbow, tossed a flare into the center of the room to distract the remaining zombies, and proceeded to blow off their heads with my shotgun.

What bothers me most about the game’s controls is that players are forced to use the GamePad to aim the crossbow and sniper rifle. It can be done either with the GamePad’s motion controls or with the analog stick, but in both instances, the controller has to be held up at the TV screen. There’s about a two second delay between the time the controller is held up and when the scope actually appears on screen, making it a little frustrating to line up shots at times.

Most of the game is slow, methodical, and generally scary, but there was one specific moment in the game that stood out to me as being very different from the status quo. Players will have the opportunity to take on a mission that involves infiltrating the Tower of London in order to evacuate the area. The parts leading up to it were more of the same — dark areas, taking on a few zombies at once in crowded hallways — but everything changed once players reach the Tower itself. The mood of the game warps completely during this segment, as a frantic score plays in the background and a sniper helps the player pick off zombies as they sprint to the top of the tower. It was an exciting mixture of run and gun gameplay, but not to the mindless extent found in Left 4 Dead. It was still scary, yet was able to make me completely disregard my constant observing of the area. I wish there was more of this in the game, along with the puzzle-like elements I detailed above.

Multiplayer is, by far, the most enjoyable part of ZombiU. One player take control of the King of Zombies on the Wii U GamePad and is able to place different types of zombies all over the map, while another player using either a Wii Remote and Nunchuck or Wii U Pro Controller must capture different flags. The player on the GamePad experiences an RTS-like game, as the different types of zombies require a certain number of points which build up as time passes. The King of Zombies must also capture flags, but only grunt zombies have the capability of doing so. The other zombie types have their specific advantages — one type can sprint at the player, another can spit projectiles, and another is wearing riot gear. The mode feels very balanced overall, combining both the strategic run and gun seen in the Tower of London mission along with an RTS on the GamePad.

Pros

  • Genuinely scary atmosphere, no cheap scares.
  • One bite from a zombie infects the player.
  • Some encounters require careful planning.
  • Multiplayer is tons of fun.

Cons

  • … Not enough puzzle-like zombie encounters.
  • Combat is a little repetitive and sluggish.
  • Aiming with the crossbow and sniper rifle is frustrating.
  • The new survivor mechanic doesn’t punish death as much as it should.