Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Blu-ray Review: The Bourne Identity

Robert Ludlum's Bourne franchise has certainly been around the block a few times. The original book, Identity, was released in 1980 and since then seven books total have been released with the Bourne name attached. Sadly, most people undoubtedly associate the character to the trilogy of films that began in 2002.

Over-budgeted and oft-delayed, The Bourne Identity became a box office success story that went on to spawn the sequels, Supremacy and Ultimatum. Matt Damon instantly became an action star with that role and I dare say that he made the Bourne character his own. He fit the bill perfectly and there wasn't another actor out there that could have done a better job. Then again, that's just my opinion. But if the success of the franchise is a barometer of what the masses think, then I'm pleased to say that I'm not the only one.

Directed by Doug Liman, The Bourne Identity, begins with Bourne floating in the middle of the ocean. He's picked up by a rust-bucket of a fishing boat and after a little surgery to remove two bullets they discover a metallic cylinder within his skin. The object contains information about a bank in Germany and an account, but it's the least mysterious thing about Bourne. He simply has no clue who he is, where he's from, what he's doing, or where he's going. He has total amnesia, but retains his motor skills and abilities (such as the ability to kung fu chop two cops and render them unconscious in less than 10 seconds).

Upon getting ashore Bourne makes his way to Germany to find his bank account and unravel some of the secrets his mind is blocking. Along the way he gets in a scuffle at the US embassy and winds up hitching a ride with random stranger Marie (Franka Potente). Soon enough the two are on the run for their lives as an organization of assassins known as Treadstone begins closing in. Throughout Europe and in and around Paris Bourne and Marie scurry to fend off would-be killers and find out what's going on.

There are a few reveals as far as what happened along the way, but these are more or less breadcrumbs to keep viewers strung along. You begin to feel the frustration that Bourne's character feels and the film does a very good job of making you sympathize with him. The combination of the direction, script, and acting draws you in and takes you along for the ride. It's a white-knuckled experience that doesn't let up to the end, and even that's left open for the sequel Supremacy.

The bottom line is that the Bourne films are a blast and Identity is every bit as fun today was it was seven years ago when it was originally released. The brisk pacing helps the film's action, but it's the way all of these sequences were edited together that make the experience more visceral. If you haven't seen the movie yet for whatever reason then consider it highly recommended.

Now, if you have seen the film and are approaching this latest release, there are a few things you should know. First of all is that Universal's latest Blu-ray release marks the sixth time this film has hit store shelves. Two individual releases were on Standard Definition DVD, there was a trilogy repack, a release on HD-DVD, and last year a Blu-ray trilogy was released. So why release the films again one year later on the same format? Apparently there's a market for Blu-ray/DVD combo packs with high-def on one side and standard on the other. Who knew!

Bourne Identity's latest Blu-ray release receives a transfer that is identical to the trilogy release from last year. The film is presented in 1080p with an original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and comes with VC-1 encoding and hovers around 34 Mbps (the DVD features 480p resolution and similar aspect ratio). The fact that this transfer is like the previous means the picture quality is very solid, but not entirely perfect. On the bad side of things there is some grain present in many scenes and some scratches are still present from the original print. Otherwise the quality is razor sharp with loads of crystal clarity and nice definition all around. The black levels are rich and the contrast is kept in check. One quick flip of the disc highlights the differences between the high definition transfer and the standard (again, this is the most up to date standard definition transfer). All around this is the superior picture and if you own the previous DVD release then it's definitely worth the upgrade.

As far as sound is concerned this latest release for Identity presents the film with English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 as its main source of output. Options are also available for French and Spanish DTS 5.1 and English Dolby Digital 2.0. The DTS-HD track is simply incredible. The sound hits you from all directions with great force and intelligent uses for every channel. The film comes to life and sucks you in, emphasizing the bombastic score and powerful sound effects with great effect. On the DVD side of the disc the film comes with English, French, and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1. Subtitles are included for English, French, and Spanish as well.

This latest release of Bourne Identity includes a laundry list of bonus features. Perusing these is a daunting task and if you're new to them you'll want to take the extra time to see what they all have to offer. However, if you're coming to this release from one of the prior ones then you should know there are three supplemental features that were only available on the HD-DVD release and some additional content on U-Control and BD-Live.

As far as the list of bonus features is concerned there is an alternate opening and closing that were changed in response to 9/11. "The Bourne Mastermind: Robert Ludlum" (6:37) takes a look at the author, "Access Granted: An Interview with Tony Gilroy" (4:04) features Tony talking about writing the script for the film, "From Identity to Supremacy: Jason & Marie" (3:38) bridges the gap between this film and the next with some talk between Potente and Damon, and "The Bourne Diagnosis" (3:26) is a corny bit with a psychiatrist talking about amnesia. "Cloak and Dagger: Covert Ops" (5:32) looks at some undercover agent stuff, "Inside a Fight Sequence" (4:43) examines how one of the more intense fight scenes was put together, and "The Birth of The Bourne Identity" (14:32) is an overview of the film with some commentary from the cast.

There's still plenty of other bonus content to sift through with a handful of deleted scenes, an extended version of the farmhouse sequence, and a music video by Moby. Included here once again is the fantastic commentary by Director Doug Liman which is truly a must watch/listen for anyone watching this film. New to this release are three features: "The Ludlum Identity" (12:49), "The Ludlum Supremacy" (12:41), and "The Ludlum Ultimatum" (23:57). All three of these are documentary style features with people who knew, or were influenced by, Ludlum talking about the man and his work.

The Blu-ray exclusive features included U-Control and BD-Live. The U-Control content is interactive and appears when this option is activated and prompted. Basically there's "Picture in Picture", "Treadstone Files", and "Bourne Orientation"; all of which are worth turning on for additional views on the picture and information about the characters and film. The BD-Live content is kind of lame with mostly trailers and a card strategy game to waste some time with. (Note: The "Speed of Sound" feature that was present on other releases does not make the cut here.)

All in all this release of The Bourne Identity is certainly worth the upgrade over the standard definition. The A/V presentation of the film may not be "perfect" but it is spectacular without a doubt and should be experienced by fans of the film to truly be appreciated. Whether or not you pick this release up depends entirely on you and what's already in your collection. Whatever the case may be this release is highly recommended based on its own merits.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Blu-ray Review: Family Guy Presents: Something, Something, Something Dark Side

Few television series have as checkered a history as Family Guy. I mean, the show was canceled twice and resurrected via DVD sales. Since its return, however, the quality has been gradually declining with recycled gags and the writers opting for so-stupid-it’s-funny humor. Then again, this review isn’t for the series of Family Guy, it’s for the latest Star Wars homage, Something, Something, Something Dark Side. Unfortunately the follow-up to the very successful, very funny Blue Harvest falls prey to the same pitfalls the series is experiencing.

Let me be perfectly clear before we get on with this review. Family Guy Presents: Something, Something, Something Dark Side is a scene by scene tribute to Empire Strikes Back. It was lovingly put together by a crew who obviously have a deep passion for Star Wars. Painstaking detail went into just about every scene here and so many are faithful representations of the Lucas original, just in Family Guy animated form. Kudos must go to the team for that effort. Seriously, this is an amazing release in that sense. If you love Star Wars and like Family Guy then you’ll want to check this release out on that point alone. The disappointment sets in when you come to this release hoping for something as fresh and fun as Blue Harvest. Dark Side just is not as funny and doesn’t pop as well, despite the effort.

It all begins deep in space with an Imperial ship launching some probe droids while looking for the rebels. Luke Skywalker (Chris) is searching the planet called Hoth when he sees one of the probes, but is attacked by the Cookie Monster, er...I mean wampa. Meanwhile Captain Spicy Weiner (AKA Han Solo – played by Peter) is making to get off the icy rock, but he winds up getting roped into saving Luke. Soon enough Vader (Stewie) and the Empire find their way to Hoth, Luke leaves to find Yoda (played weakly by Chris’ old boss), and we all end up in Cloud City to watch Han frozen in carbonite.

If there was any doubt in your mind, rest assured that Something, Something, Something Dark Side indeed rips nearly every scene from Empire Strikes Back. The only real difference is that this version is condensed to be bones of the story and Family Guy’s brand of humor is infused throughout. Some of it works and some of it doesn’t.

If you’ve seen Family Guy at all then you should know what to expect. There’s the old banged knee gag, Peter versus the Chicken (Boba Fett), and all manner of random things that really have no place being there. For instance, early on in the film Peter breaks into a spoof of a Juicy Fruit commercial. Then there’s a guy who walks around the rebel base asking if anyone wants some ice, and Chris’ training with Yoda turns into a montage from Rocky IV. Again, this is atypical of what we’ve come to expect from the show, but there were far too many moments that I’m sure sounded funnier on paper than they actually were after production.

With the bad part out of the way I’m pleased to say that there are some truly inspired moments here that will cause viewers to burst out laughing and spit beverages from your nose, should they happen to be drinking at the time. There’s a maniacal genius to the script here at some points, and many of Dark Side’s better jokes are pulled off quite deftly. It’s just a shame that the breakdown between what’s hilarious and not is about 60/40.

Family Guy Presents: Something, Something, Something Dark Side is presented on blu-ray with a 1.33:1 full-frame aspect ratio. That’s right, you read that correctly. Despite the fact that this is a direct-to-DVD/Blu-ray release MacFarlane and company went with full-screen. Still, this is about as good as Family Guy has ever looked in all honestly.

The disc features a full 1080p and comes with AVC encoding. As one would expect, the picture quality is razor sharp, the colors are ultra bright, and the contrast holds up very well. Black levels are rich and all around the designs are top notch with fantastic recreations of the source Star Wars film. Despite the near flawless presentation there are some light shimmer and very minor compression artifacts at a few points. By comparison, however, the Blu-ray is decidedly better than the standard definition DVD so if you have the option definitely go for this one.

The audio for Something, Something, Something Dark Side comes in the form of a DTS-HD Master 5.1 track. The quality of the sound for this Blu-ray is decidedly better than anything we’ve heard from Family Guy before. The track is clean, robust, and uses all channels quite well, though to be fair the front channels shoulder most of the weight. John William’s epic score rings through loud and clear, sounding almost as good as the Star Wars DVDs themselves. If I were to fault this disc for anything it would only be that the dialogue was a smidge out of balance compared to the sound effects and music. Voices rang through louder than they probably should have, but that’s an extremely minor grievance. A slew of subtitle tracks are included for this release as well.

The extra features on this Blu-ray release of Dark Side are definitely worth digging through. For starters there is a second disc included here with a digital copy of the film to download to your PC. Beyond that the main disc offers an audio commentary which includes Executive Producers Seth MacFarlane, Mark Hentemann and David A. Goodman, Director Dominic Polcino, Writer Kirker Butler, and Actor Seth Green. Going into this commentary I was hoping it would be full of insight into the production of the film and maybe a discussion loaded with references to Star Wars. While some of that exists here, the majority of this commentary is the guys poking fun at each other and laughing at their own jokes. It grated on the nerves after a while and I dare say that only the most stalwart Family Guy fans will want to listen through to the end.

Beyond the commentary there’s a “Fact-up” track that runs the course of the movie as well. With this feature enable pop-up like snippets of information appear on the screen at random times. The content is split between those that deal with Family Guy and those that focus on Star Wars. This track was far more informative and interesting than the supplied audio commentary. “The Dark Side of the Poster Art” (9:18) features Character Designer Mick Cassidy and Painter Joe Vaux talking about how they created the poster cover art for Dark Side. It’s pretty interesting to see the evolution of the sketch to final product, but the fact that they are shirtless for most of the feature is a little disconcerting.

“Animatic Scene-to-Scene with Commentary by Director Dominic Polcino” (6:36) was a nice storyboard piece that compared black and white pencil sketches to the final product. It really gives one a strong impression for how the film and many of the scenes came together. After the animatics there are two table readings of both Dark Side and the upcoming conclusion to the trilogy, We Have a Bad Feeling About This. The Dark Side reading takes both acts and squishes them together with a runtime shortly less than the final product. In case you don’t know what a table reading is, basically picture a smallish conference room with about 70 people packed into it with scripts, reading along as the voice cast does their thing. It’s entertaining for a while, but it’s a little drier than watching the animated version. As far as what we see of Episode VI, well, maybe it will be better with animation as well.

All in all Family Guy Presents: Something, Something, Something Dark Side is a worthy addition to the libraries of fans of Family Guy and Star Wars alike. It’s downright hilarious at times and the production crew’s hard work with recapturing the smallest details from Empire Strikes Back simply has to be seen to be believed. With that being said a great portion of this release’s humor falls flat on its face with many jokes that barely go so far as to elicit a chuckle. Expect to laugh really hard and then stare at the TV with a blank expression. Despite the lack of balance this release is still recommended and the Blu-ray is by far the edition of choice.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Graphic Novel Review: StarCraft: Ghost Academy, Vol. 1

While it's not manga from Japan we enjoy all forms of graphic novels, so when the opportunity arose to check out StarCraft: Ghost Academy from Tokyopop, I naturally took it. Based on the hyped and then dead game by Blizzard, Ghost Academy comes out next week and acts as a sequel to the novelization of StarCraft: Ghost. If you're unfamiliar with the game franchise then all you really need to know is that it's science fiction and features all kinds of ass-kicking and aliens. Ghost Academy focuses more on the human aspect, and more to the point, those with special psychic powers.

Now, before I dig too far into the review of the material housed within the pages of this book I wanted to take a second to bring up the writing style and artwork. Keith R.A. Decandido penned the script here and fans of the franchise will recall his work on the Ghost novel, Nova. He does a nice job here and the dialogue flows and pops, imbuing characters with personality. Fernando Heinz Furukawa handles the visual side of things quite deftly with some great designs and loads of detail. With that being said I must admit that while his style is very nice, a lot of the faces look exactly alike, but I should digress from nitpicking. With that out of the way, on with the review!

Much like the focus of the dead StarCraft Ghost game, Ghost Academy sees a Ghost cadet named Nova as its main protagonist. Nova is particularly promising in many regards. For starters she has a PI score of 10, which is literally off the charts by comparison to some of the other members in training. Another thing she has going for her is her quick reaction time which has saved her hide on more than one occasion. The only downside we see with Nova in this installment is the fact that she's not necessarily a team player.

While Nova stands front and center in the graphic novel she's surrounded by a host of other characters who make up what's known as Team Blue. Tosh is their leader, Kath is another senior member, Lio is just kind of there, and Aal is the newest recruit. Each of the characters brings some type of dynamic to the story here. For instance Lio is addicted to a drug called Hab and just sucks all around, Aal is a cocky privileged kid, and Kath and Tosh have a relationship. There are some other characters that share some of the spotlight in this novel as well, but in all honesty the main events follow Nova and her development.

After reading through this first installment I have to say that I truly hope the series is headed somewhere. Why do I say that? Well, nothing really happens here! It's all set up, introductions, and development of the characters, but there's really no concrete story. Sure there are little pieces of conversation that hint towards something that may be coming down the road, but the entire volume consists of Team Blue going through training courses. That's it. Even then we get badgered on the fact that Nova is better than everyone else and she'd be so much better if she would just display some teamwork.

The story so far just doesn't feel balanced and there aren't many dramatic moments. Sure we get to see Nova blow some stuff up, Aal kick some butt with kung fu, and Lio have a bad reaction to hab (Drugs are bad okay? Just say no!), but that's pretty much it. Still, there are plenty of references to the rest of the franchise and diehards will appreciate the lingo and bits and pieces of information that pop up about other species. In the end this is one that is geared more towards StarCraft fans, and not necessarily something that newcomers will be able to appreciate. Even so the story here is kind of flat and the first volume doesn't exactly take off. Here's to hoping the next installment will push things to the next level!

StarCraft: Ghost Academy receives 2.5 out of 5 PI.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Xbox 360 Review: Tekken 6

When it comes to fighting game franchises, there are a few that stand out from the days of the arcade. Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, and Soul Calibur are some of the more popular series that have withstood the test of time. However, Tekken is not to be forgotten. This venerable series has been around for 15 years and has seen numerous installations. Last year, the sixth Tekken hit the arcade scene and now the game has made its way to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 consoles.

Not that a fighting game needs a story or anything, but Tekken 6 tries to piece together something. Basically, Jin Kazama has taken control of the Mishima Zaibatsu and is looking to take over the world. In charge of the Mishima, Jin essentially declares war on every other nation. Now this ticks his father, Kazuya, off and these events lead up to the formation of the King of Iron Fist Tournament 6. Around the globe fighters come together in an effort to take Jin down. There’s more to each character’s individual plot than that, but that’s up for players to discover. All gamers really need to know is that Tekken 6 offers a serviceable story that sets the stage for the battles that follow.

The setting is all well and good, but what fighting fans are probably hankering to know is how well the game plays. Tekken 6 is very much a successful game in that arena. There are a nice variety of modes to explore, some online functionality, and overall this installment keeps up in step with many of its competitors.

For starters, Tekken fans will be pleased to know that this release holds over 40 fighters. Some newcomers are available and the home release of the game includes additional content that wasn’t available in the arcades. New fighters like Alisa, Lars, and Leo help flesh out the ranks, though this reviewer does have to admit that Bob and Miguel are not the greatest. There’s even another version of Jack for this sequel as well, so his fans have something worth cheering about. No matter how many characters the game has, though, the thing that stands out the most is the fact that every fighter stands alone in regards to techniques. There are no Ken or Ryu clones like the Street Fighter series keeps pumping out. The characters in Tekken are wholly unique.

As is the case with any fighting game, Tekken 6 lives or dies by its various modes. Just having an Arcade mode and Versus mode simply does not cut it these days, and the creators of the franchise have realized that. Sure both of those perennial favorite play types are included here, but online matches, a campaign mode, and other customization features help keep gamers coming back for more. Throughout each mode, the core gameplay remains roughly the same, and though there are a few tweaks, longtime fans will likely feel right at home. This installment of Tekken feels very much like the last, for better or worse.

Players who haven’t stepped into the Tekken arena before should note that this franchise is all about memorizing combos, having perfect timing, and juggling your opponent. Sometimes battles are one-sided and when novices are facing a skilled player it will feel as if they might as well just put the controller down and walk away. The battle system takes a lot of practice and getting used to, so it’s suggested that you step into the Practice mode first to pick up some skills and attack combinations. This is only a place to start though, and after figuring out the basics it’s advisable to tackle the Ghost mode for additional training time. With the addition of bounce moves and a rage feature, you’ll definitely want to take your time with your preparations.

The Arcade mode pits you against a tier of the game’s fighters and inevitably throws you up against a ridiculously powerful end-boss. This hulking monstrosity is arguably the cheapest boss to come about in quite some time, even giving Seth from Street Fighter IV a run for his money. His moves are simply too powerful, he ignores all of your attacks, and everything he does is virtually unblockable. Needless to say this guy makes the Arcade mode more frustrating than it’s worth, even on the easiest difficulty setting.

Luckily, the Versus mode is solid and robust enough with the aforementioned wide array of characters to pick from and several different gameplay options. The same holds true for online play and this will undoubtedly bring players back time and time again. Unfortunately, latency issues with regards to the stability of the servers are a matter of concern. Most of the time, matches will be smooth enough, but connections and ping times drop inexplicably and with great frequency making the experience frustrating to say the least. It’s a gamble playing online, but that doesn’t take away the fact that it’s a lot of fun to go toe-to-toe with another human player.

When not going one on one against the CPU or another person, gamers can tackle the Scenario mode. In this variant, the game becomes a beat ‘em up of sorts as it tells a story. Players will pick a character and run through a 3D environment beating up random enemies along the way. The fighting system is built off the game’s combat engine, but it just doesn’t always work 100% of the time here. Even more problematic is the camera system which gets hung up far more often than it should. Still, anyone interested in customization will endure this mode for unlocks and money to buy items and add flair to their favorite characters.

Graphically Tekken 6 is more hit than miss, but not wholly a success. For the most part the game looks fantastic, with plenty of detailed, large character designs, smooth animations, and impressive backgrounds. Sadly however, there are times when each of those areas lets you down. Some attack animations look funny (like juggling) and even some environments are bland, though that’s certainly a minority. The Scenario mode is easily the worst looking thing in this package. The graphics are horribly dated and the aforementioned camera makes playing the mode an abysmal experience at times. Overall, Tekken 6 has blemishes for sure, but there are enough positives to overlook many of its missteps.

The sound direction is more or less everything you’d expect from a fighting game. Each hit resonates, the voice acting is fairly solid (though there are a few lame performances), and the music fits the mood well enough. While the sense of immersion isn’t as strong as in other titles, it’s very good for a fighting game entry.

Tekken 6 is a worthy installment for the franchise with a lot to offer. The fighting engine is every bit as enticing as ever, the gameplay modes are meaty enough (even though the Scenario is a let down), and the presentation will impress most of the time. Unfortunately it’s just not a complete hit out of the park. The game feels aged at times, the end-boss of the Arcade mode makes it pointless, and online play is spottier than it should be. Still, fans of this fighter will want to dig in and it’s very welcoming to newcomers as well. If you’ve grown bored with Street Fighter IV and Soul Calibur IV, give Tekken 6 a chance to find a home in your fighting roster.

Tekken 6 gets 3.5 kangaroo boxers out of 5.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Wii Review: Dragon Ball: Revenge of King Piccolo

Dragon Ball is arguably the most popular anime franchise ever created. It has spawned hundreds of television episodes, over a dozen movies, and countless video games. Suffice to say, fans of the show have no short supply of ways to explore the adventures of their favorite characters. Every gaming console for the past few generations has been a home to Dragon Ball in some form or another. The most recent hit for the franchise was the fighting game series, Budokai Tenkaichi, but a new title for the Nintendo Wii aims to dethrone the previous title holder.

Dragon Ball: Revenge of King Piccolo takes fans that have cut their teeth on the Z franchise back to the roots of the show. This is a timely move on Namco Bandai's part as FUNimation has begun recently releasing the original series on DVD in America. Fans that are familiar with Dragon Ball are more likely to be knowledgeable of the Z brand, and not the first series. That means the story backing the game will feel recognizable, yet things will be skewed somewhat and feel fresh.

Basically, Revenge of King Piccolo takes place about a year after Goku decided to get out and explore the world in his quest for Dragon Balls. As fans of the series know, collecting all seven Dragon Balls grants the bearer any wish their little heart desires. It's a straightforward story that is presented in every version of the show, and this one closely follows arcs revolving around the Red Ribbon Army and King Piccolo. The plot unfolds during cut scenes and clips of animation, though the degree of success is varied. Sometimes the story is easy enough to follow, and other times it seems like it's out in left field. Then again, gamers tackling this game probably already know a fair deal about what's going on so the story is kind of a moot point.

One thing that will surprise most Dragon Ball fans right out of the gate is the fact that Revenge of King Piccolo isn't a fighting game at its core. The title is really a side-scrolling 2.5D beat 'em up and this was a nice, welcome change of pace! The gameplay in Dragon Ball: Revenge of King Piccolo is broken down into two different modes: Adventure and Tournament.

Adventure mode is truly the meat of the experience here and it's where players will spend nearly all of their time. The controls in here are fairly simplistic with one button for attack, another for jump, and the rest being used for guarding or launching special attacks. Players do have the option for different control styles too, so if they have the GameCube or Classic controllers they may use them as well. It would be advisable to switch controllers if possible because the original scheme with the nunchuk and wiimote can be a tad cumbersome and overly complicated for this type of game.

As Goku players traverse over 20 levels fighting small enemies from the series and encountering frequent bosses at the end of stages. There is a fair amount of platforming that needs to happen as well, and the game uses its 2.5D interactions nicely enough with multiple parts on the field for Goku to interact with. It's nothing we haven't seen before and in all fairness the gameplay feels very similar to something like Klonoa.

As far as the quality of the adventure itself, the game is good, but not great. There isn't an awful lot of variety and aside from the Dragon Ball motif it's not a very captivating, or lengthy experience. Let's just say that this game doesn't necessary reinvent the wheel, and that can be a polarizing thing. Some will appreciate the simplicity and nostalgic value of it all, while others will bash the game for lacking creativity. Keep that in mind when coming to a decision about whether or not to play the game.

The Tournament mode serves as little more than a fighting distraction for players that have tired of the adventure. Don't look for anything as robust as Budokai Tenkaichi because the gameplay is pulled from the Adventure mode. That means attacks are performed with basically one button and things get tiresome quickly due to repetition. Aside from playing through the game, there is also a shop that can be accessed to purchase various extras and whatnot. Fans will appreciate using their zeni to buy some trinkets and pictures to be viewed in the gallery, but this is more or less just busy work to keep kids occupied.

One key element to anime-themed games is the matter of how it all looks. Thankfully, Dragon Ball: Revenge of King Piccolo faithfully renders each of the characters. The graphics are very smooth and look precisely how fans would expect. There are times where it's almost impossible to discern that this is a video game and not an actual moment from the show. Kudos go to developer Media.Vision for creating such an authentic looking experience. The sound quality is very good as well with Japanese and English dubbing tracks being made available. The effects are solid overall and the music is exactly what one would expect from Dragon Ball. This isn't the most engrossing audible experience though, and there's not much in the way of a sense of immersion.

Dragon Ball: Revenge of King Piccolo is a nice change of pace for fans of the series that have grown tired of one fighting entry after another. The side-scrolling beat 'em up aspect is a throwback to games of yesteryear and I really appreciated that change in direction. However, the concepts backing the gameplay are too simplistic for their own good. The game winds up falling short on expectations and becomes repetitive after a short time. The tacked-on Tournament mode doesn't help matters either and it's anything but robust. Still, fans of the anime franchise will want to check this one if they own a Wii.

Dragon Ball gets 3 Balls out of 5.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

DS Review: Nostalgia

Never before has there been a more appropriately named game. Nostalgia is the latest release from Ignition Entertainment and comes from the development team of Matrix Software, who had their hands in the remakes of Final Fantasy III and IV. Going in knowing that, it’s no wondering that Nostalgia is one of the greatest role-playing games on the Nintendo DS. That’s saying something considering the system has fan-favorites such as Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest calling it home. But, just what makes Nostalgia so gosh-darned nostalgic? Everything.

This game brings back those memories of a sense of wonder and adventure from when you were younger. There are random battles aplenty, a flying airship, a familiar skill system, the gameplay is turn-based, and there are some familiar monster types (the first monster that you encounter is a rat for crying out loud!). The structure is also very similar to other Japanese role-playing games (JRPG) in that you have to hit a town to advance the plot, gain experience from battle, and use loot to buy equipment. The game hits just about every other expectation you’d have for an RPG.

One thing about Nostalgia that will strike players right off the bat is the setting. The game takes place in the 19th century and begins in London. The world is rife with magic and there’s a definite steampunk vibe throughout. This alternate history of the world takes you from London to other major cities in the world as you follow the exploits of Eddie Brown and his cohorts on a quest to find his lost father, Gilbert, and save the world in the process. At the start of the game Gilbert is attempting to save a girl from a mysterious cult named the Cabal and goes missing during the rescue. His airship is recovered, but his whereabouts are unknown.

To be honest, the story is kind of flat. It lacks that draw that pulls you in and aside form the rich setting, there’s really nothing dynamic about it. The plot has many stereotypes and doesn’t have the emotional development typically associated with some of the more robust RPGs. Still, the true beauty to Nostalgia is the experience as a whole, so thankfully the game isn’t being judged on the merits of its story alone.

When you begin Nostalgia, Eddie is all alone and heads off to become an Adventurer. In your first mission you’re quickly introduced to all the mechanics, and believe me when I tell you that this was completely unnecessary. Even though this is a new title, you’ll feel like you’ve played the game before. A random encounter in a dungeon reveals a turn-based combat engine. When a character steps up to the plate they can just attack, use a skill or an item, defend, or run. If you’ve played a turn-based RPG at some point since the original Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest this should be nothing new to you.

As you play through the game you’ll unlock additional party members each with their unique brand of attacks and skills. It doesn’t take long for your party’s ranks to be filled, which is a good thing because grinding and gaining levels is paramount in Nostalgia. Enemies don’t really rise in level with you, so as you fight through new environments you’ll receive more of a challenge than when you retrace some of your steps. Either way, there are still a lot of random encounters to deal with, and what Nostalgia brings to the table is a little higher than the norm in that regard. Going from point A to point B can be kind of frustrating at times, but thankfully there are save points scattered along the way that refresh your HP and MP.

One nice take on the genre is the inclusion of airship battles, which are definitely a throwback. Eddie’s floating boat is equipped with a massive sword on the front and each of your party members can man other weapons as well. During these skirmishes the enemies are larger, seemingly tougher, and come at you from in front of you and to your sides. The battle system for the airship is roughly the same as it is for regular party battles, but there is a little more strategy involved.

While the other facets of this game are, at their core, standard RPG fare, the game also gives you Skill Points to use. These can be allocated to strengthen abilities of your characters and also set them down paths for new skills to learn. As you build up some SP it’s worthwhile and necessary to head into the sub-menu from time to time to perform some upgrades. While this exact system wasn’t exactly in RPGs of yesteryear, it’s one of those alterations that makes Nostalgia feel modern in some ways. Another example of such an improvement is a ranking system that grades how you did in a battle. The better you do, the more you’re rewarded with, so there’s definitely some incentive to better yourself.

The campaign in Nostalgia is fairly linear and for the most part you’re carted from one location to the next. There is a selection of side quests to dig through and the variety is pretty good as well. Also, it’s worth mentioning that for a DS game Nostalgia has a decent length to it. You can quick save anywhere, and real save in the overworld, in towns, or at special spots in dungeons. This helps minimize the frustration of playing a handheld RPG, but you could also just close the DS as well and restore your progress when you’re ready (just be sure you have enough battery power if you do that!).

What about how the game looks? Well, things are on par with other RPGs on the DS. The top screen displays your characters and movements, while the bottom brings up vital information, battle stats, and an area map. Everything gels and it’s safe to say that if you enjoyed the work done on the Final Fantasy revisions, you’ll appreciate what was done here. Characters are large, detailed, and nicely animated, and monsters are equally impressive. Some of the environments can be a tad bland and recycled from time to time, but overall the unique designs outweigh the sparseness of textures. One thing that stands out as problemematic is the fact that some of the text in the menus and maps. It’s simply too small for the screen and the brown color palette does not make for an easy read. Despite these nitpicks Nostalgia is a solid looking game and an impressive DS title.

The sound is great as well with a soundtrack that is rich and memorable. Everything from the overworld tunes to the theme and battle music is spot on with what you’d expect, and it’s even better that it comes from a DS cart. The game’s effects are also whimsical and charming to boot.

It could be said that the game doesn’t do anything original. I mean, Matrix Software takes everything you’d expect from a classic J-RPG and rolls it into one package. The combat, exploration, and structure all scream “hey, I’ve played this before!” Despite that fact, the realization comes through as a nostalgic sensation, almost as though the developer was paying homage to the franchises that came before it. Because of that, Nostalgia is the most aptly named games in recent memory. Sure it may have its flaws, and yes it’s not the most creative RPG ever, but it’s such a joy to play that it’s an instant classic.

Nostalgia gets a 4 out of 5.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Now playing: November 2009, Part 1

This week I'm working on a few things:

Just got my hands on Nostalgia for the DS and holy freaking crepes it's one awesome game. If you love RPGs and grew up in the 16-bit era, then man, you are in for a treat. Everything from this title exudes that nostalgic sense you get when you revisit something you adored. Never have I played a game where the title has fit so perfectly. This one is getting reviewed in the next couple of days.

Also dug into Dragon Ball: Revenge of King Piccolo for the Wii. This one is pretty solid so far and it's a worthy DB franchise fighter. I wouldn't go as far to say it's the best thing since sliced bread so far, but then again I haven't had a lot of time with it yet. Look for a review soon!

Other than those games I'm really, REALLY itching to unwrap Dragon Age. I simply can't bring myself to do it yet, because I know I'll get sucked in. Tekken is on the way as well and of course Modern Warfare 2 is just around the corner. Good God my thumbs are going to be aching from all the games!