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!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Xbox 360 Review: Magna Carta 2

Magna Carta originally launched as a Korean RPG back in 2001. A few years later a sequel was released on the PlayStation 2, though for us here in the States it served as the first installment. The game caught on with the hardcore anime crowd and it was met with moderate success. Sadly, this was probably largely due to the fact that the game toted artwork by Hyung-Tae Kim, whose style uses buxom, beautiful girls in seductive poses. Who says sex doesn’t sell!? Even so, the game turned out to be not all that bad and there were some redeeming qualities. Is it worth another go-around though?

Magna Carta 2 follows a rather typical role-playing storyline. There’s an effeminate boy who also happens to be an amnesiac. This boy, Juto, lives on a peaceful island that finds itself smack dab between the opposing military forces of the North and South. Both armies are attempting to find something on the island known as a Guardian, and Juto gets caught up in events beyond his control. Soon enough he vows revenge against the North and joins the Southern forces to aid a Princess named Zephie. Together, along with some other party members, they do what they can to stop the Northern forces, destroy Guardians, and unlock parts of the past.

There is more to the plot in Magna Carta 2 than just that description alone, but in all honesty this game is a slow burn. Many key plot points are not revealed until much later in the story and as you progress you’ll receive tiny morsels to sate your appetite. Even so, the plot here is nothing to fascinating and it’s not entirely original either. That combined with the fact that it takes forever to progress the story leaves much of Magna Carta 2 feeling dry. Sadly the gameplay doesn’t do much to stave off that impression.

For all intents and purposes Magna Carta 2 is an action-RPG. You run around the world environment in real time and can enter and exit combat as you see fit. Your proximity to an enemy dictates whether or not you’ll be able to hit them and there’s no such thing as turn-based actions here. Instead of giving your free reign to do as you please though, there is a stamina meter that allows you a limited amount of attacks and special skills. Because of that, it’s safe to say that this game isn’t exactly a dungeon crawler, but rather a hybrid that also feels like an MMORPG in a way. It’s an interesting system that works towards the game’s favor.

Combat definitely takes the center stage here, and there are many nuances that come into play. For instance there’s a system known as Chain Break, which allows you to snap characters out of an exhausted state when they use too much stamina. This is essential in big battles, especially during boss fights and it’s important to listen to what the tutorial tells you about this when you come upon it. Otherwise all you really need to know is that in order to do special attacks you have to connect regular ones. The more regular attacks you do, the more “Kan” you build up. Kan is basically this game’s word for skill points, and it dictates all super attacks and magic skills that you may feel like unleashing on your enemies. The nice thing is Kan sticks with you after a battle and it lends itself to some strategy for going into the next fight.

While there is a fair amount of strategy to employ here, and some challenge built into the system, the combat just isn’t very lively. This isn’t the kind of game where you can level grind for hours on end and still be excited to take the next step. Fighting feels like a means to an end here and often times it’s kind of a chore to stop and battle in between objectives. That’s because each battle boils down to using the same mechanics, swapping between the same characters, and using Chain Break to reset your party’s stamina. It’s a very formulaic set up that doesn’t allow for trying new things.

Exploring the game is another thing that makes Magna Carta 2 feel somewhat like an MMORPG. You run around a city, over-world, or dungeon running into NPCs and getting questions from them. The amount of side and story quests is pretty hefty and there’s a nice experience and monetary reward that follows each. Some quests even net you handy items.

Speaking of items, there is the matter of equipment to bring up. Each character has a choice of two weapons they can use, a piece of armor, and two accessories. As far as the weapons are concerned they vary by style. For instance the hero, Juto, can use a one-handed sword technique, or a two-handed one. Argo, a party member, can use a hammer or axe, and Zephie can use a rod or fan. For each character depending upon the weapon you choose, different skills will become available. As an example, if Zephie is using a rod she’s more dedicated to healing, while the fan is more for attacking. There’s a nifty Skill Tree for each character that allows you to allocate points and unlock new abilities for each weapon style. The system is fairly deep and allows for some nice customization early on.

Adding to the customization level is something called Enhancements. These are basically the Materia (from Final Fantasy VII) of Magna Carta 2. There are orbs called Kamons that can be equipped to each weapon and they have stat boosting effects. Exploring which ones work best for the different weapons and each characters fighting style definitely leaves room for interpretation and uniqueness.

Aside from the nice customization options and mildly entertaining combat system, Magna Carta 2 is little better than your average RPG. The game is incredibly linear, despite the side quests, and the story takes far too long to develop before it starts to become interesting. All in all the game just doesn’t feel like that much of an improvement over the original, and it’s not strong enough to go toe-to-toe with some of the Xbox 360’s other RPG games such as Lost Odyssey, Star Ocean, Blue Dragon, and Infinite Undiscovery.

The gameplay doesn’t necessarily rise above the pack, and I hate to admit it, but the graphics don’t really either. The overall character design are nice, even if they don’t particularly match Kim’s gorgeous style. The world design, however, is rather static and kind of boring. Nearly every environment is lifeless to the point it looks like it could have been plucked from ye olde RPG. Adding to that are some muddied textures, a lack of finer detail, and an incredible amount of pop-in that occurs as backgrounds load. The game just looks like it’s been in gestation for far too long and simply doesn’t pack the punch some of the aforementioned RPGs do.

Thankfully the sound fairs much better. The voice cast really brings the game to life in a way that few other games can mimic. The roster is full of anime greats such as Steve Blum, Travis Willingham, and Laura Baily. The list goes on, really, and I have to say that the cast brings a tremendous amount of personality to an otherwise dull plot and script. The music is good, but standard RPG fare, as are the sound effects. During battle there is a nice use of the soundfield though, and some boss fights truly come to life, like the one against two giant sea monsters that appear on both sides of you.

Overall Magna Carta 2 isn’t a horrible game, but it’s not one that really makes you stand up and cheer either. It’ll tide over RPG enthusiasts with its game-by-numbers structure and may be enough to entice players to pick up the first game if they didn’t. However, you have to blindly dedicate yourself to the game in order to get anywhere with it. The plot takes forever to get going and the gameplay never picks up in speed. If you’re looking for an RPG to hold you over until the next big thing then consider this one a light recommendation.