Oct 122012

It is entirely likely that if today’s average gamer is asked what the best Game and Watch game was, they will stare at you with glazed over eyes as they try to figure out if “Game and Watch” is the name of the new Skrillex album, or if you’ve just completely lost your mind. However, old farts like me will recollect the grandfather of Nintendo’s handheld gaming systems; the little LCD games that Retro Pocket pays homage to with its recent DSiWare/eShop release.

The Good
On the surface, Retro Pocket offers a wide array of options for adventure. You can save people from a burning building, the mouth of a whale, or from thugs throwing beer bottles at their head. You can also catch different things and put them in containers, or rotate drums to fill them with oil. Each game offers both an A and a B version, with the B version being the faster or more difficult version. The core principal behind all these games is the same, whereas they require proper timing of moving the character and pressing a button in order to succeed. As your score gets higher, the game play becomes progressively faster, and if you get hit by an enemy or obstacle and you will loose a life. Though most of the scenarios aren’t entirely original, the principal behind each mini-game’s gameplay holds true to the Game and Watch formula it is attempting to tip its hat to.

Visually, Retro Pocket is spot-on. You can see the little ghosted images of characters and items on screen, so you can get a good idea of paths you should take or avoid. There were even times it was easy to forget that this is a modern game on a current generation system, and not an ancient mono-colored device from gaming days gone by. The music for each game is actually a pretty decent retro sounding tune, but the actual instrumentation is far beyond anything the old school Game and Watches could have managed.

Definitely the best game in the lot, even though it is the least Game and Watch-esque.

The Bad
In actuality, the variety of games is misleading. After cycling through all of the titles in Retro Pocket, most players will feel like these mini-games are just re-skinned versions of the same game. Three of them in particular task players with gathering eggs, candy, or steel girders and depositing them in a receptacle. Others seem to miss the timing element by just a hair, giving an unwelcomed feeling of randomness to a series of games that is supposed to be built on the premise of learning the game’s pattern and performing tasks with impeccable timing. The Fuel Drop mini-game is the best out of the bunch, but the two-toned visuals make it stick out like a sore thumb in the middle of this collection.

In a day and age when a game’s worth is often gaged by how many pixels it has, this game is unfortunately just a little too retro to be well-received by the masses. Overall, Retro Pocket is decent handful of mini-games, but it is definitely targeted at older gamers trying to relive something nostalgic from their past. It offers a good presentation and, for the most part, emulates the Game and Watch experience well. Unfortunately, players that aren’t LCD gaming fanatics will likely find this collection to be a little on the bland side. If you’re so old that you hear “Deadmau5” and think of emptying a mouse trap, then Retro Pocket may be worth checking out. This is definitely a game that will remind people of how far video games have come in the last 30 years.

Retro Pocket

ProsEffectively emulates the Game and Watch experience with only a few hiccups.
Cons: Mini-games are so alike they blur together, and some don't seem to work as they were intended.
Cons Mini-games are so alike they blur together, and some don't seem to work as they were intended.
VerdictGamers who are looking for a quick $5 trip down memory lane will probably enjoy Retro Pocket, but if you've never experienced these type of games before there are better examples out there.
Mar 032012

If you can’t stop yourself from giggling like a school boy when you hear the phrase Zuma’s Revenge because you’re thinking of someone with the Hershey squirts, don’t worry because you’re not alone. It is likely your mind is reeling at the gross-out factor a title like this could have, however, this action puzzler from Pop Cap has nothing to do with bowel movements or the alleged curse doled out by a Mexican emperor in the 1500′s. What this game is actually about, is an adorable little frog statue with a penchant for spitting colored balls. Continue reading »

Oct 132011

TEN-HUT! Tell me what’s pink, squishy, often makes squeaky sounds, and is bound to make you smile? No…we’re not talking about THAT. Now drop and give me 50 and stop being a pervert. What we’re talking about is one of Nintendo’s most understated franchises — KIRBY! Kirby has experienced a lot of adversity in his days; he’s been forced to shift the world around him for mobility, turned into a ball that can only roll on rainbow lines, and even been morphed into a circle of yarn and transported to a world made entirely of fabric. Now in Kirby Mass Attack, Nintendo and HAL Laboratories have fit Kirby into yet another whole new and unexpected type of game. Continue reading »

Jul 282011

Not only has this been a summer full of super hero themed blockbuster movies, but it has also been a summer filled with super hero themed lackluster games to tie in to these movies. I tried really, really hard to like Thor: God of Thunder and Green Lantern: The Rise of the Manhunters but I just couldn’t do it — despite Thor’s pecs that could crush a walnut and Hal’s abs of steel. They both felt like drab games that had been rushed to be released in time to sorta-kinda tie-in to their respective movies. Naturally, you can appreciate the trepidation with which I approached Captain America: Super Soldier, especially since it was developed by Griptonite who did the aforementioned Green Lantern game. I knew deep down inside of me that the animated version of Chris Evans as Captain America wouldn’t exactly put the toppings on my pizza, if you catch my drift, but I was surprised to find an enjoyable 2D brawler seasoned with a bit of nostalgia a gamer of my advancing years can appreciate.

Captain America: Super Soldier on DS plays a lot like any 2D beat-em-up game, such as Viewtiful Joe or Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game. You advance Cap through the levels of Hydra’s (the bad guys) headquarters until you hit a spot where you can no longer advance. Then you must brawl your way through wave after wave of spawning enemies using B to jump and evade, Y to initiate attack combos, X to throw enemies, and R to block attacks or deflect projectiles. Once you defeat every enemy in an area you will be allowed to continue your progress through the stage. Landing successful blows while avoiding taking hits yourself will fill up Captain America’s special attack gauge. Once it is half full you can press the L button to unleash a special attack that damages everything on the screen, or you can wait until it is 100% full to unleash an even more devastating attack. The controls are quick and responsive, though it is  a little too easy to get into a rut of just bashing the A button to spam the shield throw. Trying to vary Captain America’s attacks usually just results in him being overwhelmed until his health bar is drained away.

The development team at Griptonite went to great lengths to keep the gameplay elements varied. There are segments where you will have to keep Cap out of the line of sight of Hydra’s soldiers, then stealthily sneak up behind them and take them down. There is also a pretty good range of enemies for the Captain to pummel: ranging from run-of-the mill Hydra foot soldiers who are wussier that the biggest wuss in the imaginary town of Wussopolis, to gigantic missile firing robots like Iron Cross. There are also auto-run levels where Captain America will run at full speed through the stinking and stagnant bowels of Hydra castle while you only control his jumps jumps in order to grab medals which increase your score, and you can hit Y to do a shoulder bash which will eliminate the Hydra foot soldiers in your path.

Throwing the shield well will be crucial to your success in this game. Image courtesy of GamesPress.

Most people wouldn’t expect to find a puzzle in a 2D brawler like this one, especially ones that require at least a rudimentary understanding of geometry. There is nothing even close to the level of puzzles one would find in a game like those in the Legend of Zelda series, but they are certainly a welcomed addition to the game. Usually the puzzle is an environmental one that requires players to find and manipulate switches that will unlock the way forward. All of Cap’s special skills are used, such as his wall jumps, dashing (we’re talking about running fast here, not being a lady killer), and most importantly, the shield throw. Many switches needed an electrical charge to activate, so you would have to throw Captain America’s shield at an electricity source and ricochet it to the switch. It’s pretty convenient that Hydra’s secret switches are seemingly designed specifically for Captain America to foil, but how often does the world of video games actually make sense?

Visually, Captain America: Super Soldier looks good. The color palate of the backgrounds is pretty dull and washed-out, but given the fact that the whole game takes place in a singular location that happens to be a Nazi military base that is somewhat forgivable. I really doubt Red Skull spent a lot of time watching Christopher Lowell for advice as he was choosing the castle’s decor. Character models look very small, but that could be an attempt from the developers to show the scale of the castle. All in all animations are fluid and the overall visual style is one that plays to the DS’s strengths well. The sound is composed of standard adventure music fare which is very conducive to crushing in Nazi skulls. Believe it or not, dialogue in the game is handled by actual voice acting, which is pretty rare in a DS game.

Image courtesy of GamesPress.

Honestly, Captain America: Super Soldier on the DS surprised me. After a summer full of disappointing super hero games I went into this with low expectations and came out of it with a renewed hope for this genre. Fun beat-em-up gameplay joined with interesting puzzles and a fairly solid presentation made this a game comic geeks of any level would want to check out. Maybe the inevitable Avengers movie game won’t be awful, and maybe it will pander just a little to the gay geeky gamer audience, but I wouldn’t count on that just yet.

Captain America: Super Soldier (DS)

ProsGood gameplay and decent graphics make for a super hero game that finally feels playable.
ConsColors look washed out, Cap's moves are little unbalanced.
VerdictAnyone looking for a decent super hero game on the DS will like this game.
Apr 012011

It’s hard for me to imagine my life without Pokémon. I’ve been collecting, battling, breeding, and training the adorable little buggers just about since they were released into the wild of North America, a little over thirteen years ago. Given the fact that I am nearly 30, that means I have been playing Pokémon for almost half of my life. Now before you come rushing over to my apartment with cases of BENGAY and Metamucil (FYI my favorite flavor is orange), just relax for a second so I can turn up my hearing aid and we can talk about the real topic here – Pokémon Black and White. The two newest games in this insanely successful video game franchise are about as close to a reboot as the series has ever gotten, and it is a much needed refresher considering how often this series is accused of being stale. It is for that reason that this review attempts to look at Pokémon Black as a standalone title. Please don’t think any obvious comparisons were omitted due to my feeble, old mind breaking down!

If you’ve ever played a Pokémon game before, this will sound a little familiar. If not, be warned that a few spoilers may follow. You are a pre-teen who doesn’t seem to have a father, and is living in the smallest town in the entire region of Unova. Your town is also home to Professor Juniper, the most accomplished Pokémon researcher in the area. She sets you on a journey to see all of the Pokémon in Unova in order to complete her electronic index of Pokémon, or the Pokédex. In order to aid you on your quest, the professor gives you a familiar fire/water/grass type Pokémon. Along the way, you will encounter dubious Pokémon trainers known as Team Plasma who seem hell bent on snatching everyone’s Pokémon. You will also, as has been par for the course over the last decade and a half, discover there is a legendary Pokémon that will either destroy or save the world.
Aside from an adorable monster to aid your quest, you also have two friends that will travel with you. Bianca is a little older and has some daddy issues. Cheren is a boy who shares your goal of becoming Unova’s Pokémon League Champion, and is perhaps ambitious to a fault. The three of you begin your journey together, but eventually take different paths and discover you have varying ideas on what you’d like your lives with Pokémon to be like. Also along the way, you will discover that Team Plasma doesn’t exactly just want to steal Pokémon, but they in fact seem to want to liberate them from their lives of slavery to trainers. This is a heavier subject than younger PokéFans are used to dealing with, but unfortunately the idea is never fully realized. If more time had been spent exploring the idea of Pokémon being mistreated slaves, then Pokémon Black could have appealed to a more mature audience, but perhaps at the expense of loosing the younger following the series has enjoyed for its entire life cycle.

At its core, Pokémon games are sort of an elemental version of “paper-rock-scissors”, and this hasn’t really changed much at all over the last thirteen years. Each Pokémon has one or two types assigned to it which designates what kind of Pokémon they are strong or weak against. Fire trumps grass, water, beats fire, and so on. Once getting the knack for what types trump what other types, the basic turn-based RPG gameplay seems pretty standard, but there are hidden intricacies that will keep older players occupied once they figure them out. All together, 18 types of Pokémon, but this generation brought us some new combinations, such as Golurk the Ghost/Ground type Pokémon. This and the other interesting new type pairings are sure to create some interesting teams in the competitive battling scene. Also, with the introduction of reusable TMs, trainers can try out many different and unorthodox move combinations on these new Pokémon.

Entering a gym can be stressful even for the most seasoned of players.

This generation also has the addition of Triple Battles and Rotation Battles. Each of these types of battles utilize three Pokémon on each side, but that is really where the similarities end. In a Triple Battle, players pick a move for each of their three Pokémon The tricky aspect of these types of battles is that the Pokémon on the ends can only attack the Pokémon straight across from it or in the middle. You may swap a Pokémon’s position on your turn or choose an opponent to attack. Rotation Battles are quite different and will require a lot of strategical thinking in order to be successful. Each trainer’s three Pokémon are placed on a rotating platform, and only the Pokémon in the middle may attack or be attacked. Before you make your move you can choose to rotate the platform to the left or right. The rotation happens first, then the Pokémon attack in turn based on their speed stat. What makes these battles so challenging is you have no way of knowing which Pokémon your opponent has rotated into your line of fire, so it could easily be one that will resist or even completely absorb your attack.

Visually, Pokémon Black has brought a lot of new things to the table, despite the fact that it looks like it’s running on the same graphical engine as its DS predecessors. A huge change comes in the way of more advanced camera work. The camera’s angle seems to have been shifted down a few degrees which give the entire world a more 3D feel. Also, the camera is no longer in a static place; it shifts around to show different angles occasionally, like when entering buildings or traveling up a tower’s spiral staircase. During a battle the camera moves to create a more dynamic feel. Pokémon sprites and their attacks are more animated than ever before, and when combined with the updated camera, creates a brawl that looks and feels as much like Pokémon Battle Revolution as we can expect on the DS. Unfortunately, there is a drawback to all these new graphical bells and whistles — the camera now zooms in on Pokémon and other sprites quite frequently, giving them a pixelated look that can make the game feel a lot more outdated than it is.

The game’s soundtrack is great and sounds up-to-date. Some areas even have songs that vary with the game’s seasons, which change each calender month. New in-battle themes have been added to indicate when gym leaders are on their last Pokémon, or when your own Pokémon is low on health. Sadly, the same 8-bit screeches and electronic roars that have been assaulting players’ ears for the entirety of the series have somehow sneaked their way back in and sullied would otherwise be a perfectly passable auditory experience.

You'll be seeing the world of Pokémon from a whole new persepctive.

It would be easy to gush about Pokémon Black simply due to the amount of my life that has been spent playing these games, but when everything is said and done, this is just a great game that has the capacity to keep any player with even a remote amount of interest occupied for a very long time. A small attempt was made to mature the story, and the game’s creators stuck to their rock-solid turn-based RPG formula that can literally appeal to players of all ages. There is plenty of newness to draw seasoned vets back into the fold, but the game is still approachable by people who have been living in a cave on an isolated island and never heard of Pokémon until today. Don’t let a few graphical and sound shortcomings deter you from picking up this game, because Pokémon Black is a game worth strapping on your adult diapers and bib for. You’ll need both to keep you clean and tidy for the hundreds of hours it is bound to take you to “catch ‘em all”.

Pokémon Black

ProsPokémon Black stays true to the widely accessible turn based RPG roots the series was built upon. New gameplay mechanics and scores of new Pokémon will keep the game interesting for players both new and experienced.
ConsCertain aspects of the graphics and sound seem dated, elements of the story are stale or not fully realized.
VerdictCatch 'em all. No really, I mean it.
Feb 282011

Dragon Quest, as a whole, gracefully achieves what any other given long-running JRPG franchise strives for. It simultaneously adheres to a canon of familiarity and tradition while managing to find fun ways for each entry to feel not only like a member of the family, but also wholly unique. The latest release, Dragon Quest VI: Realms of Revelation, is the third in a “trilogy” of remakes on the DS, and like Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride, this is the first time the game has been officially available in North America. However, unlike Dragon Quest V, the original Super Famicom version of part VI never had a complete fan translation. So not only are gamers getting a new, delicious helping of Dragon Quest goodness, but for most it will probably be a very new experience.

Continue reading »

Feb 182011

You may be thinking the same thing I did when I heard the title Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective: “Oh cool, a game about a dead detective turned ectoplasmic prostitute”. Alas, such is not he case. Instead, the game you will find waiting for you when you boot up your DS is a interactive mystery where you will be controlling a ghost named Sissel on his quest to unravel the enigma of his own murder. Game designer Shu Takumi is no stranger to the whodunit genre. As creator of the Ace Attorney series he was able to craft mind boggling, smart point and click mysteries with a good amount of tongue-in-cheek humor. It will be clear to players of Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective that this ability has not at all diminished. An interesting story, a strangely delightful new game mechanic, and loads of tricks for you to turn makes a game that is sure to become a classic.

You must solve Sissel’s murder before the sun comes up and his spirit travels to “the other side” forever. Fortunately, upon his death, Sissel is imbued with special powers to aid him in his adventure. Two of these powers involve how Sissle moves around. For traveling great distances he can posses a telephone that’s in use, trace the origin of the call, and then travel to that location in the blink of an eye through the phone lines. For smaller distances, Sissel can hop into the ghost world where time stands still, and then move place to place by possessing inanimate objects. This ability has a short range, so in order to move around the entire scene, you will need to posses a series of objects to reach your destination. Often, you will need to transfer back to the real world to perform a “Ghost Trick”, which are simple actions along the lines of opening a cot or turning on a fan. These tricks manipulate the environment or cause characters to react in ways which will enable Sissel to get to areas that were previously unreachable. These environmental puzzles are very fun, intricate, and well thought out. Occasionally you will find one that requires a few restarts and some trial-and error, but these instances are few and far between. It’s just a shame that none of them involve a lady of the evening*.

Sissel has another main ability, which is the ability to posses corpses of the recently deceased (excluding his own) and rewind time to four minutes before their death. He can then use his abilities to prevent that person’s untimely demise. When you are working in the past, you will be racing against a time limit, but once you have changed the fate of the person you’re trying to save, it will initiate a checkpoint. If you mess up the timing on something, you have the option of restarting the scenario from the beginning or from the moment you changed the victim’s fate. Usually when you mess up, the error is so obvious that you won’t have to restart anything more than once. Once you’ve saved this person from their untimely demise, you can then hop into that person’s body and have a chat with them even though they’re alive.

Sissel at work, trying to prevent the untimely end of the dog Missile.

The presentation in this game is superb. Characters look cell shaded, but have a 3D aspect to them that is uncommon in cell shading. Their animations are smooth and fluid, and main characters have been given unique and quirky “trademark” movements that are sure to bring a chuckle here and there. The backgrounds they interact with show a high level of detail and serve as the perfect contrast to the cartoony characters. Being an interactive mystery means there is a lot of dialogue going on in Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective. Given the endless chuckles that can be found in the Ace Attorney series, it is easy to expect the same thing from Ghost Trick. There are some jokes, but unfortunately most of the dialogue seems flat and thick to wade through. Thankfully, the developers put important words and phrases in red so you can’t help but to jump directly to them when you’re reading. You’ll be glad for the effort it took to get through all that text, because there is an awesome game hiding beneath it. Hopefully if another game in this vein is made, some attention can be paid to making the text a little on the lighter side, or at least increasing the frequency of humor.

It is a rare occasion that a game developer can come up with something that seems almost completely new and original these days, but the team responsible for Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective pulled it off. Ghostly possession, traveling through phone lines, and time travel have definitely never been lumped together before, but they mesh well. Beautiful, fluidly animated characters provide perfect counter balance to the heavy, and surprisingly not humorous text, and there is actually a good story in this game that will probably challenge you quite a bit, but without frustrating you. Somehow, as if by magic, all of these elements are tied together despite the glaring error of not including women of ill repute**. Give Ghost Trick a fair chance and you just might find you are more of a detective than you thought, with a whole heap of tricks up your sleeve.
*  Meaning: HOOKER
**Meaning: HOOKER

Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective

ProsGreat and interesting new game mechanics help make this interactive mystery game a nearly instant classic. Superior art direction really helps bring the story to life.
ConsThere is a lot of text, and most of it is pretty bland.
VerdictA must have for all RPG fans
Feb 052011

Thick cloud cover rolls in to cover the moon and blot out the only light of the night. Heavy, dense fog rolls in obscuring what little view there was. Suddenly, heavy dragging steps are heard approaching out of the inky blackness of the night and a deep, gravely cry of “Braaiiinnsss!” Can be heard reverberating through the chilly air… While this may sound like a regular nightly walk home if you’re in Chicago, most of you are probably thinking of an impending zombie invasion. A little less than two years ago, Pop Cap Games made the chore of defending a home from a zombies into a wildly successful tower defense game that has been released has now seen its sixth release. Dubbed Plants vs. Zombies, this title puts a unique twist on the otherwise stagnant tower defense genre by having players fend off the adorable zombies by utilizing killer plants.

The action of the main game mode in Plants vs. Zombies takes place in different areas around the besieged home: such as the front yard, back yard, and roof. Conditions range from sunny afternoons to dark and stormy nights, where you can only see by lightening flashes. You have a diverse arsenal of plants at your disposal (though you don’t get to take all of them into battle at the same time) you can use to shoot, explode, and otherwise maim your undead foes. You control all of the action exclusively with the stylus and the touchscreen, a feature which is perfectly suited to this title. The only complaint with the stylus controls is that sometimes the action gets very hectic and it is easy to release the plant too soon and place it in the wrong slot. You are sometimes assisted in these endeavors by your neighbor “Crazy Dave”, who really only seems crazy because he wears a saucepan on his head and proclaims himself to be “ccRRRRaaaAAAZzzzZYYY”. Crazy Dave lends his help in the form of advice and selling you various items and plant upgrades. Crazy Dave also serves as one of the game’s many comic relief devices, and is just one of the numerous factors that make Plants vs. Zombies one of the most charming games to date.

The dreaded game over screen!

Aside from having simple and easy to understand gameplay, Plants vs. Zombies has the added bonus of being a game with a lot of character. The amount of environments you play in is rather limited, but Pop Cap compensated for that with spooky music and sound effects to create the right mood.  In a night time level, where half the playing field is covered with fog, long guttural cries of “BRRAAIINNSS!” will be enough to set you on edge and start frantically placing offensive plants. The zombies, despite having nothing on their minds but eating yours, are actually very adorable. From undead disco dancers to ghoulish miners, each type of zombie has some sort of endearing quality that you will likely notice just before one of your pea shooters botanically blasts the brain eater back to the depths of the netherworld from whence it came.

Left: Zombie madness in the backyard. Right: Zombies swarming the front yard...AT NIGHT!!! SCARY!

Many people are randomly docking points from the DS version of Plants vs. Zombies, much like a mad scientist randomly slashing at a cadaver just to see what kind of damage they can do. There are a lot of complaints about the game’s graphics floating around in other, less RoboAwesome-esque publications. It is pretty easy to say most of those gripes are pretty trivial. Granted, the resolution of the game’s sprites is a bit lower than their PC or console counterparts, but Pop Cap deserves some props for getting all of the PC Game of the Year content to fit onto a DS cartridge, along with four brand new mini-games, local multiplayer options (with one or two cartridges) and other DS exclusive content. Pop Cap very wisely chose to spend more resources on content that flashy graphics. This isn’t said to deny the fact that here are some undesirable framerate lags when the battleground gets too crowded with plants and zombies, but these lags in no way affect the ability to play each level through to completion.

Don’t be surprised if that thing going bump in the night is you waking up at 3:00 AM and fumbling around your dark house, trying to find your DS as you groan “oneeee mooorreeee leeveelllllllll…”. You will quickly discover that the DS version of Plants vs. Zombies is just as excellent as it ever was. Solid tower defense gameplay is presented in a spooky/cute manner that somehow makes a game that grabs onto your skull and gnaws. Look past the sometimes laggy framerate, because what you’ll see is a game that’s hours upon hours of strategic fun. In a time when zombies and other creatures of the night have saturated our pop culture, it is refreshing to play a well-crafted game that can stand out amongst the festering, stumbling, growling crowd.

Plants vs. Zombies

ProsAddictive tower defense gameplay with a unique twist, great music and character models
Cons Framerate gets pretty laggy at times, touch screen controls can be slightly frustrating if you allow them to get the best of you
VerdictPlants vs. Zombies will be a great buy for someone who has never played it before, but the added and exclusive content will be a draw even for people with extensive experience in other versions of the game.
Jan 292011

imageAs of now, it is next to impossible to talk to a Kingdom Hearts fan about the series without them grabbing you by the shoulders and screaming, “WHY ISN’T KINGDOM HEARTS 3 OUT YET?!” Well, that is one question you and your rabid fanatical friends may never get answered. To hold off the imminent riot at the SquareEnix HQ, we have been thrown a bone in the form of Kingdom Hearts Re:coded, which is a port, update, and/or expansion of the cellphone game Kingdom Hearts Coded that was previously only released in Japan.

The Story
The story in Kingdom Hearts Re:coded is probably what will cause most people playing it to be left with a huge proverbial question mark hanging over their heads. Without giving too much away, Jimmeny Cricket is reviewing his journal of the events that transpired in Kingdom Hearts 1 & 2, when he finds a mysterious message he just knows he didn’t write. While most people’s assumption would be that they did one too many keg stands the night before, Jimmeny assumes a mysterious force is at work and is messing with his journal. This conclusion causes him to consult King Mickey, who then orders Chip and Dale to digitize the journal so they can further investigate it.

One would think that by scanning the journal, the engineering rodents would simply create a .PDF, but such is not the case. Instead, what they create is a completely visual and interactive version of the journal. There is even a digital Sora who is given the task of determining the source of the strange message. As stated in the First Impressions, this is a very odd and convoluted storyline, even within the context of the Kingdom Hearts universe.

Classic hack-n-slash, Kingdom Hearts style. Image courtesy of GamesPress.com

The graphics in Kingdom Hearts Re:coded are some of the best seen to date on the DS. The 3D character models are rendered very smoothly, and the environments from the first two games you’ll be revisiting, such as Twilight Town and Wonderland, are recreated so well you’ll probably find yourself doing a doubletake at your DS to make sure you didn’t pick up a different system by mistake. Even the video cutscenes, which have become somewhat of a staple on DS RPGs, have overcome the pixelated “YouTube look” that has previously plagued other games with the same feature. The music, sound effects, and voice acting (when present) are all crystal clear and well done. All of this is, unfortunately, in stark contrast to the dialogue scenes that occur between Sora and the scores of characters he encounters. These are all rendered using still images of the characters changing poses every now and then in an attempt to show a little expression. They are standing in front of static backgrounds, and all talking is done via speech bubbles.  It gets the point accross, but it doesn’t really match up to the standards of quality set forth by the rest of the game.

The art style of dialogue scenes seems out of place compared to the rest of the game. Image courtesy of GamesPress.com

Gameplay and Controls
Overall, Kingdom Hearts Re:coded draws heavily from the core action/RPG that the series has been built upon. There’s all the platforming, hack-n-slash, and spell casting action players have become addicted to. Also, newer aspects from other handheld Kingdom Hearts have made their way into this title. One such feature is the Command Matrix system from Birth By Sleep makes another appearance in Re:coded. The Command Matrix is basically a queue of spells, attacks, or items that you may initiate in battle by pressing the X button. You can put them in any order you wish and you can earn more slots for additional commands in the deck as you level up. If you are used to the more direct method of accessing Sora’s spells and special attacks that was implemented in Kingdom Hearts 1 and 2, then the Command Matrix will likely take some getting used to, but it’s not so bad once you get the hang of it. The developers also brought back and enhanced the stat leveling system like the one introduced in 358/2 Days.

In regards to the stat leveling system, dubbed the Stat Matrix, deciding how to level Sora up was perhaps one of the most interesting facets of this game. Players are presented with a circuit board that microchips can be placed in. These microchips offer a boost to a certain stat, skill, or a level gain. There is a certain amount of strategy in deciding were to put the microchips because they will form a circuit that power up devices that allow you to modify certain game mechanics, such as the amount of loot that drops from slain enemies. This system is very similar to the stat board in 358/2 Days, just incredibly more polished and intricate.

A lot of time was spent on the graphical presentation of this game. Image courtesy of GamesPress.com

Unfortunately, there are a couple of pretty big flies in what would otherwise be a cool and refreshing jar of RPG ointment. The first one is the nearly unusable camera controls. You move the camera by holding the right shoulder button then move it with the d-pad, which means you can only reposition the camera when Sora is stationary. This wouldn’t be such a big deal if the target lock feature was a little smarter. Instead of picking the enemy that is the biggest threat, it simply focuses on the closest target which usually isn’t the best choice. The other issue really holding Re:coded back is the auto-jump feature, which is supposed to keep you from having to manually handle the game’s platforming elements. It is too sensitive though, and will often cause Sora to unexpectedly leap to his demise at the most inconvienent of times.

It is definitely easy to look at Kingdom Hearts Re:coded as “more of the same”, which is okay because that seems to be what the development team set out to do. Much of the Keyblade swinging action fans have come to love has returned, and it has been freshened with just enough newness to keep it from seeming as stale as last weekend’s pizza. Game elements like the Command and Stat Matrix eventually feel like they were part of Kingdom Hearts all along. Unfortunately this experience is muddied by a very sensitive auto-jump and almost unusable camera. The story is incredibly zany and hard to wrap your head around, but it may be just what you need to hold you over until Kingdom Hearts 3. What kind of adventures will the gang embark on? Perhaps an android version of Sora will break into Mickey’s castle and slay Minnie with laser beams from his eyes?! Post your speculation for upcoming plot twists in the comment section below!

Kingdom Hearts Re:coded

ProsExcellent visual and audio presentation, some good gameplay elements from previous titles make their way into this one
ConsIt seems like very little effort was put into crafting the story, some of the controls were very poorly designed
VerdictKingdom Hearts Re:coded is a good game for veteran players of the series, but would not make a good entry point for people who have never played a Kingdom Hearts game before.
Dec 162010

The Golden Sun games for GameBoy Advance were, in 2001 and 2003, two of the most beloved handheld RPGs of their time. Not only did they receive vast amounts of critical acclaim, but the titles collectively enjoyed high sales of almost 1.8 million copies worldwide. The buzz over the announcement of Golden Sun: Dark Dawn for DS awoke the droves of fans that had been laying in wait for the seven years that have lapsed since the second Golden Sun. What they found waiting for them was another solid, story driven RPG in which developer Camelot Software Planning has used the previously successful formula they built the first two entries in this series upon.

The storyline of Golden Sun: Dark Dawn picks up 30 years after the events of Golden Sun: The Lost Age took place. Once again, players are transported to the flat world of Weyard where the oceans pour off the edge of the world. There you are introduced to a young trio of “adepts”, which are people who can channel magic power called “psyenergy” related to the four elements of earth, fire, water, and wind that makes up all life matter in Weyard. Players will assume the mantle of Matthew, who is the son of two of the heroes from the previous games. Through a chain of events, Matthew and his posse will set out on a mission to save the world from the aftermath of the cataclysmic events that transpired three decades ago.

The developers did great job of making this game’s intricate story accessible to people, like me, who didn’t have the pleasure of experiencing the GBA saga. They implement two tools to keep players up to speed; one is that key words and phrases are clickable in characters’ speech bubbles. Once you click this text, an encyclopedia on the top screen will display detailed information on that topic. The other tool implemented is extensive dialogue. Unless you are a speed reader, the average player will log 20 to 30 minutes of play time being briefed on events both past and present before they actually begin the game’s main quest. Reading through this immense amount of text is about as much fun as reading the phone book, mostly due to a real lack of noticeable humor or charm from the characters. It seems there may have been an attempt at humor, but the localization team dropped the ball on making it appeal to a Western audience. Unfortunately, you will have to wade through these very long reading sessions numerous times before you see the credits. Fortunately, the game that happens in between the novella make it worthwhile.

Your gang of elemental rough riders is complete.

Gameplay in Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is pretty typical turn-based RPG fare. You will guide your party across a world map, traveling between towns and randomly engaging in battles with monsters such as harpies and hydras. Along the way you will earn experience and find or buy new equipment that will make your group stronger. Most of the monsters and bosses you encounter will be pretty easy to take down by simply launching your most powerful spells at it and making sure you upgrade your party’s armor and weapons every opportunity you get.

The aspect of this game that sets it apart from the RPG crowd is the use of Djinn, which are spirits hiding throughout Weyard that you can collect. Once you get them to join forces with you, they will exert their influence over the character they are “set” to, which will affect the character’s statistics, class, and what psyenergy they have access to. You can swap the Djinn between characters to create a team that best fits the situation you need to conquer.

Aside from modifying characters’ statistics, Djinn can also be unleashed during battle to make use of their powerful attacks, sat enhancing buffs, or debuffs which lower your enemies’ stats. However, this comes at a price — once a Djinni is unleashed, it goes into a standby status and your character will lose the benefit of its influence. Depending on the enemy you are battling, this may be a fair trade because once the Djinn have been used they are available to help perform summon attacks. These summon attacks are some of the most powerful and best looking attacks in the game. Once the Djinn perform a summon, you must wait a few turns before they are set back to your characters. This unique method of modifying your party’s stats and abilities is deep and complex, but easy to master with a little experimentation.

The graphics in the battle scenarios are excellent.

Overall, the presentation in Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is very good. It would actually be superb if it wasn’t for the strange differences in graphical quality between various areas of the game. For instance, when you are in a town or dungeon, the quality looks exactly up to par with similar recently released games on the DS. Buildings and the surrounding environment are brightly colored and detailed to the fullest extend of the DS’s capabilities. Characters have a slightly cell shaded look to them which keeps them from blending into the background. When you leave a town or dungeon, you are running around on the world map. Proportions between Matthew and environmental items are slightly askew, and the level of detail seems to be more in line with a high end GBA game. Battle scenes are where the looks of the game really shine through, because the style and level of detail seem to be pushing Nintendo’s hardware to the limits. All of the attack animations look great, especially the aforementioned summon attacks. The animated sequences for these attacks can seem a little lengthy, but you can easily skip to the damage dealing portion with the push of a button.

The summoning sequences were dazzling on the DS.

For fans of the first two Golden Sun games, Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is a solid and true sequel that is sure to tie up any loose ends you have, while still leaving room for a fourth game. Inconsistencies in graphical qualities and styles may roughen the playing experience a bit, but it by no means ruins it. The strong plot is only slightly sullied by the intense amounts of text you must forage through to get to the action, but it is a necessary evil to get the good story through to players. The returning Djinn mechanic works well, is something players haven’t seen before unless they played the GBA games, and is sure to keep RPG veterans interested in getting a glimpse of the Golden Sun — even if it’s for the first time.

Golden Sun: Dark Dawn

ProsGameplay sticks true to RPG fundamentals, while utilizing the Djinn system to add a fresh twist. It is at least up to speed with the graphics of this generation of DS games, with some areas even looking superb
ConsCut-scenes are pretty long winded and seem to fall flat, the overall pacing is pretty slow, big differences in graphical style make the game seem fractured at times
VerdictIf you are looking for a RPG to play on the DS that mostly follows the 'rules' set up for this genre of games, or are a lifelong Golden Sun fan you'll get plenty of enjoyment out of this game.