Review: The Darkness (XBOX 360)

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“You are nothing but my puppet”

Developer : Starbreeze Studios
Publisher : 2K Games
Available on : XBOX 360, PS3

In today’s age of gaming it would seem a new first person shooter comes out everyday. With hundreds of games flooding the market, gamers with guns are continually looking for a refreshing and unique experience. It is without a doubt that anyone who plays through The Darkness will be rewarded with a great story, interesting characters and some fond memories. That said, this 10-or-so hour experience isn’t without some gripes to deal with.

Continue reading Review: The Darkness (XBOX 360)

Review: Okami (PS2)

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“Origin of all that is good and mother to us all”

Developer: Clover Studio
Publisher: Capcom

With one death, comes new life. For a final farewell, Okami is the second last title we’ll see from the Capcom subsidiary Clover Studio (with God Hand being the finale). And a fitting farewell it is.

Okami follows the tale of the sun god Okami Amaterasu, in a free roaming action/adventure through a mythological, natural feudal Japan world. Amaterasu (the protagonist wolf) is followed closely by a beetle-headed companion Issun in a Zelda + faerie team style. Now I should point this out – this will not be the first comparison of Okami to Zelda. One of the biggest drawbacks in Okami is the numerous strong similarities of these two games. Fortunately Okami features enough unique gameplay, story and technical elements to make it stand out as a one of a kind masterpiece.

It was almost 100 years ago since the 8 headed dragon Orochi was slain, and the village of Kamiki was freed from darkness. The valiant sun god Suirichi (with companion) and the warrior Nagi, worked together to end the terror and restore peace. Nearing the eve of the 100th year anniversary of this battle, the village of Kamiki is stricken again as Orochi is freed unto the land. This is where our protagonists Amaterasu and Issun come in. While Okami Amaterasu is the re-embodied form of the sun god Suirichi, Issun is a direct descendant of the companion that assisted trapping the dragon Orochi for the past 100 years. Though seperate, the descendant of Nagi, Susano, also follows along the journey to save the land of Kamiki yet again. So, in total, that leaves us at current day with 3 descendants of the battle long ago, all vouching to slay and trap Orochi once again. While my attempted recount of the beginning of this story may seem convoluted, it is merely the tip of the iceberg. Okami is a good 30+ hour journey across the entire world of Nippon, exploring every part of nature and wildlife, cleansing evil, and helping villagers.

The first thing anyone playing Okami would notice, is the artistic style. Okami features the most vivid and creative cel-shaded visual experience any game on the shelf today has to offer. The art direction and animations are enough to keep you gripped through the entire game. The sound is presented in crisp Dolby Pro Logic 2, accentuating the amazing soundtrack that ranges across short bursts of nature sounds through to epic musical scores. Who would have known being a sun god in the form of a wolf could be so impressive?

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The attention to detail is also quite noticeable, with small features adding to the overall immersing experience provided through the environment. Even the smallest events of no significance can result in shrubbery bursting to life, explosions of light fragments, or an aural feat that will make you feel you’re in a real forest.

The most impressive examples of this would be the videos of reviving a guardian sapling. Early in the game our wonderful wolf is required to revive lands of cursed territories. To do this, our wolf must use his godly tail brush abilities to burst forth a blossom of life to a key tree, a guardian sapling. This may only be one small task in a big game, but it provides one of the nicest examples of the environment Okami provides. Whilst there are no full motion videos in the game, a pre-rendered video of an entire region being brought to life is played, and it is yet another source of warm fuzzy feelings. There are many cases where Okami proves to be a visual delight; another is how throughout the game you are required to create lily pads for transportation along water. Every now and then, on creation of a lily pad, a small frog will appear, croak, and jump off into the water and swim away. Maybe nothing too special, but it just shows the attention to detail and effects throughout the game.

The animation is also commendable, not only does the world and characters mould together well, the extra effects are what brings the world to life. When Amaterasu runs, he leaves behind a path of grass kicked up by his feet. As the wolf gains speed, a trail of flowers will appear at his feet. There isn’t enough ways to describe the variety of interesting nature effects in the game.

The main feature of Okami that gave it a lot of attention was Amaterasu’s brush tail. This is the key element of the game, a technique that is used throughout to defeat enemies and solve puzzles. As Amaterasu explores the world of Nippon, discovering the 13 brush tail constellations is a clear goal. Upon finding a new skill, they can be used via holding the R1 button, which takes you into the brush skill palette. Here you can perform a variety of moves by painting symbols or seals related to the ability you wish to perform. Painting is done via the left analogue stick and a few different painting methods, such as thin lines of ink, or large blotches.

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As mentioned, gaining these abilities is a common goal throughout the whole game. These godly abilities are gained by re-drawing constellations to find other gods throughout the land. A variety of creatures and Chinese zodiac symbols will provide you with abilities such as control over elements and power over time, or the most valuable power, the power slash (a simple swipe to slash enemies and trees). Amaterasu will even find himself with the ability to turn night into day, and day into night. What this does to the social lives of the people of Nippon, I don’t know. They mustn’t have a solid calendar year. And even after all these abilities, Amaterasu, a sun god wolf, still can’t manage to swim for more than a few seconds. Yes, Okami is another game that suffers from the un-explainable “protagonist can save the world yet can’t swim to save himself” syndrome.

Combat is made most interesting via the brush stroke abilities. Some enemies may be near impossible to defeat without the correct brush stroke. Combat consists of your usual 3D button mash session, jumping, dodging, attacking and so forth. Combat is generally a lot of beat ‘em up fun, it was just disappointing that it wasn’t necessary all that often. Mandatory battles will appear from time to time mainly in the form of a boss. Other combat situations are encountered in a ‘random encounter’ system similar to that of Final Fantasy. Areas of monsters are signaled by a wandering floating flag across the ground. Get too close, the flag will move in on you, and you’ll be transported into a “demonic dimension”. The next thing you know it’s time to chew on some imps. If you want a good amount of combat in Okami, you might find yourself specifically looking for it.

Most the time you’re running around exploring, solving puzzles, or talking to NPC’s. Don’t get me wrong, as an adventure game it’s a lot of fun. Even running Amaterasu around open plains can be entertaining as the mere control of this speedy wolf is something to enjoy.

The puzzles are numerous but generally quite easy. Often a problem will present itself, with the solution being told to you merely seconds later by your beetle-headed companion Issun. Giving the player sometime to think or deduce their own conclusion to situations would have assisted in creating an immersive or challenging experience. Even though puzzles can be easy or practically explained to you, they can be a lot of fun and quite interesting.

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There certainly is a lot of map to explore too. While story may be linear in narration and goal orientation, free roaming aspects in between tasks are wide and varied. There’s a lot of Nippon to explore, and a lot of extras to hunt for and collect. If you’re willing to put the time into it, there’s a lot of ‘Stray Beads’ to collect (for end-game bonuses) or animals to feed. You can even dig up and enliven clovers (with a short sound of the company logo) as a small non-subtle Easter egg. While the notion of a wolf feeding a variety of animals (such as rabbits, horses and even bears) may seem a bit strange, it all adds to the pleasant natural tone of Okami. It’s obvious Clover were working for this to be something specifically nice as well. When feeding an animal, a short video with ambient music will change as you watch the animal chowing down on the assortment of food you may provide. Doing such nice things such as feeding animals, rejuvenating wildlife or generally being a good guy will result in Amaterasu gaining some praise.

Praise is experience used the same way as any other game. Earn enough, and you can use your hard earned karma on upgrading your health, ink pots, astral pouch or your handy coin purse. The astral pouch is a device when if full, will revive our wolf to full health upon death. This pouch can be filled by eating delicious fruits that the surroundings of Nippon provide. While it may be handy leveling up and filling up your pouch to prevent death, I only used it once. This is because I only died once. Despite this fact, combat isn’t an easy affair. The only reason it remains no threat to the player is the easy availability of items to regain health and increase attack/defense. Very rarely will combat seem a precarious challenge.

Dungeons are tackled in the same manner as your average adventure game (Zelda comes to mind) would. The average collection of jumps, traps and checkpoints must be passed to arrive to that boss at the end. There really isn’t much challenge here either. Even falling off a cliff-face in a dungeon will result in you being immediately returned to the point at which you fell, minus one bar of life. This lack of risk really reduces the effect of a dungeon, leaving most signs of challenge in the game within the mandatory combat scenes. And for another Zelda reference, Issun will often leap off Amaterasu’s head to bounce on an object of interest, proclaiming with a sound. Just a TAD like a faerie. Not to mention that time I uncovered an object to hear a success sound I swear had been taken straight from Ocarina of Time.

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Apart from the fighting, exploring and story progression of Okami, there’s still a lot of other things to do. There’s the pre-mentioned exploring and collecting, along with the odd mini-game. A few easter eggs are about too, for those who look for them. One example is Onigiri Sensei, the dojo master. Pay for a lesson and be treated with a response in the form of Joe’s dance from Viewtiful Joe (a previous Clover Studios game). A fun fishing mini-game pops up every now and then, in which Amaterasu uses his brush tail to assist a younger villager in his quest for fish. These fish can then be sold for huge profits. If only we could create a small fish monopoly upon villages, controlling the fish market and raking in the profits. If only. Other variations on the standard gameplay are there too, I just won’t mention them all here.

Considering you’re playing a sun god, you sure do have to fill out a lot of villager’s demands. While Okami follows a brilliant story with excellent speech and narration, it can drag out a bit at times, with wading through the huge lines of text turning a bit excessive. All speech throughout Okami is spoken in a gibberish language of sorts, similar to that of The Sims or Banjo-Kazooie. A lot of adventure/RPG games have the main character speechless throughout all voice/text scenes. It’s always been a good technique for immersion. If the character you’re playing is saying nothing at all, it really helps to put you in his boots. Apart from scenes where you’re talking to animals, this works wonders in Okami, as you’re playing a wolf. So while the story is at its core, a masterpiece, the text and progression can be a bit frustrating.

You’ll follow a big lead-up to a giant climax; finish a battle expecting a resolute conclusion of sorts, only to be forced into another precarious situation with no real reason or build up as to why. I’m sticking with no spoilers of course, but at one time I honestly thought I had finished the game. I was ready to pack it up and call it a day, but the game was most certainly NOT over.

Looking past these minor faults, Okami is still a masterpiece. Nippon is a glorious buffet for the eyes and ears, along with a great combat system, interesting characters, epic story and an array of warm fuzzy feelings you’ll be looking back on for years. It got my game of the year for 2006 for a reason.

Okami

93%

The good –

An amazing feast for your eyes and ears.
Epic story with great narration.
Wonderfully unique combat/puzzle system via brush stroke ability.

The bad –

Very easy in a lot of ways.
Story can progress erratically.
The Legend Of Zelda – The White Wolf.

Top 5 Games of 2006 & Top 5 Most Anticipated of 2007.

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5. Lumines 2 (PSP)
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Although it’s essentially a sequel with additions, Lumines 2 provided me with hours of portable amazement. The vibrant skins and furiously addictive gaming deemed this title worthy of number 5. You can check out my review of Lumines 2 here.

4. The Legend Of Zelda : Twilight Princess (Wii)
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Another year, another Zelda game. I’m not the only sucker to the series out there. Twilight Princess introduced unique elements that contributed to both story and gameplay, making another Zelda story seem fresh again. The Wii version specifically stood out, introducing a new control element to give the series even more life. Why fix something that isn’t broken?

3. Viva Pinata (XBOX 360)
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A wonderful combination of simulation, atmosphere, creatures, and� gardening. The world of Viva Pinata is colourful, fun, interesting, and shouldn’t be missed. Simulation games often need their own sense of atmosphere, their own world for you to immerse yourself in, which is abundant in Viva Pinata.

2. Gears Of War (XBOX 360)
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Action, action and more action. Not only did Gears Of War pack a punch, it boasted some great characters and is one of the most visually advanced XBOX 360 games to date. It certainly got enough publicity to boost itself up the sales charts. It’s now a reason for a lot of people to purchase a 360. The co-op and multiplayer modes are the main features.

1. Okami (PS2)
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My reason for choosing Okami as game of the year, is due to sheer creativity. Okami is a visual delight, hindered only by the now apparently dated technology of the PS2 (Tekken 5, anyone?). The white wolf has some great abilities, mainly the tail brush, adding something beyond your standard 3rd person action/adventure. Okami is the last game we’ll see from Clover Studios (now a subsidiary of Capcom), and is certainly a worthy farewell.

Honorable mentions:

Dead Rising (XBOX 360)
Zombies! So many zombies!

LocoRoco (PSP)
Literally fun for the whole family. Most can’t resist the warm fuzzy feelings derived from rolling that little smiley guy down hills. This didn’t make the list due to it being a bit short and unrewarding once complete.

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5. Halo 3 (XBOX 360)
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With the amount of hype Halo 3 is getting, it�s hard not to get involved whether you’re a fan or not. Halo 1 and 2 completely dominated the XBOX, and Halo 3 will be the reason for many 360 console sales past and future. Hopefully it won’t suffer from the over-hype Halo 2 received. It’s getting to the point where it’ll end up being excellent, but won’t impress to a level the hype is presuming.

4. Spore (PC)
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Spore is coming to us straight from the brain of Will Wright (Sim City, The Sims), master of simulation. Featuring a seemingly unlimited array of lifeforms to manipulate, hopefully Spore will re-invent simulation into something we’ve never seen before.

3. Smash Bros. Brawl (Wii)
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Pure party action. Nothing says a gaming party like Smash Bros. This’ll be the 3rd episode in the series, following on from the N64 and Gamecube counterparts. Not only is this another episode in a fantastic series, but it’ll also be interesting to see how the Wii controller is implemented.

2. World Of Warcraft : Burning Crusade (PC)
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Whether you play it or not, this will be HUGE for gaming. The World of Warcraft has already sucked in 7 million players around the world. With the upcoming expansion, this will change the life of many addictions, or enhance a passing hobby for others.

1. Metal Gear Solid 4 (PS3)
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With all the flak the PS3 has been receiving, hopefully MGS 4 will make it all worthwhile. Considering the quality of the series to date, I think we can be sure of this. Known for being a movie as much as a game, the MGS series continues to blend a perfect story and sneaking action.

Honorable mentions:

Metroid Prime 3: Corruption (Wii) – Samus is back, but this may just be more of the same under a new control system.

Super Mario Galaxy (Wii) – Nothing says video games like the Italian in the red hat. Never failing to impress, this’ll surely be a revolution.

Supreme Commander (PC) – This RTS is looking impressive indeed. Coming from Chris Taylor (Total Annihilation), this title will have a few nifty features such as dual-monitor support.

Review: Lumines 2 (PSP)

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When a gaming console is released, there is always a title in the launch line-up that crosses the line between a game, and a tech demo. Nothing blurred that line much more than Lumines. Featuring both an excellent example of the PSP’s audio/video capabilities, the game itself was furiously addictive and fun, a significant step for puzzle games. Almost 2 years later, Lumines 2 is hitting shelves world-wide, bringing more of the addictive gameplay many have learned to love.

Lumines 2 features a variety of new modes and variations, yet the game itself is completely unchanged. The same mechanics apply as original Lumines; four-square blocks will fall into place, each consisting of two pieces of two different colours. It’s your job to arrange and place these blocks in a manner that will create a nice 2×2 (4 piece) square of the one colour. Depending on the song’s tempo, a bar of varying speed will move across the screen eliminating all of these 2×2 blocks you’ve created. This means that all your 4 colour squares will remain, until swept up by the songs tempo, allowing all kinds of fast combos. Seem easy? As you stare at your first checkerboard of a construction, you’ll learn the game can take some time to master, down to being able to slam and arrange blocks faster than your brain can recognize. Then it’s mastering the skill of eliminating 20 blocks in one sweep.

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The main appeal of Lumines was always its skins. Music would seemingly morph around your block building, with vibrant backgrounds and colours to fit the theme of the song. Now, Lumines 2 features full video backgrounds, up to some skins featuring actual music videos (Featuring clips from Black Eyed Peas, Chemical Brothers, Junior Senior, etc.) Some of these skins work really well, flow smoothly, and can be described as just ‘nice’. Ambient light animations in the background are a great accompaniment to the feast the rest of your senses take. Some skins� don�t work too well. Having full motion videos in the background can be very distracting, and the only way you’d ever see or make out these videos is if you weren’t paying attention to the actual game at all; and not all people like Gwen Stefani. The amount of new skins is overwhelming, featuring bizarre, ambient and visually intense combinations.

Like most puzzle games, Lumines tended to suffer from burst-play addiction. As addictive as the game is, extended play sessions could really tend to drag out, as you find yourself playing it for a few games, stopping, only to find yourself playing it again an hour later. In a well-fit effort to combat this, Lumines 2 features a variety of new modes. The older ones are all still in :-

Challenge mode, the single player game with 3 difficulties (each featuring their own set of skins).

Vs. CPU mode, for the competitive fast-paced edge against the CPU

Time attack mode, getting your highest score possible in the timeframe;

Puzzle mode (involving making shapes with certain coloured blocks).

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These were always a great selection of modes, but whatever you do, you�re still throwing down coloured squares, and can get repetitive. Now there’s new additions, which include :-

Skin Edit Mode, where you can create your own playlist of skins you�ve unlocked, which is great for when you�ve unlocked everything. Hate Black Eyed Peas? I know I do! Out they go, leaving you with just the skins you enjoy.

Mission mode is very similar to Puzzle Mode, but has you clearing a series of scenarios, such as making at least one column empty in a sea of blocks.

There’s the duel mode for friendly player vs. player action, while it was in the original Lumines, this time it has some new battle modes.

If you’re looking for a break from the main game, the best way to go would be the sequencer.

The Sequencer allows you to create your own tracks and skins. This is done by selecting things such as the tempo, notes, beats, and giving it a name. It would have been nice to be able to select the visual background to your track, but such feature is unavailable. The tracks you make can�t be too long, and are mainly intended to be a quick skin to be added in with all the others. And there are a lot of others.

When comparing Lumines 2 to the original, the most significant upgrade is the sheer mass of new video skins. The new game modes are great, and make this sequel a worthy purchase for those who already own the original. For those who don’t, Lumines 2 is a highly recommended starting and finishing point. Its colourful vibrancy is something most people shan’t resist.

86%

The good
More wonderful skins than you can throw blocks at.
A bunch of new modes to revive the old.
Demo of Every Extend Extra included.

The bad
Some distracting skins.
While addictive, long sessions can get repetitive.

Trackmania Nations ESWC (PC) Review.

Trackmania Nations brings new spark to the loved TM series.

Following the underground success of Trackmania Original, Nadeo released Trackmania Sunrise into a decent sized audience worldwide. While a minor success, copies were hard to find for a while, and it wasn’t exactly a blockbuster. Most people purchased it online here in Australia due to its lack of presence on store shelves. Now comes Nations, the free to download little brother of past titles. Nations packs the same lovable gameplay of the previous titles, though much more confined, set around a Formula 1 circuit. This means that the game only includes one arena and one car model, but that’s enough for this free title.

Continue reading Trackmania Nations ESWC (PC) Review.

Miami Vice (PSP) Review.

  • What type of movies do you hate?
  • What type of games do you hate?

Ask a bunch of people these two questions and a lot of them will give you the same two answers:

  • Remakes.
  • Games based on Movies.

That doesn’t promote well for Miami Vice and it’s not a great game by any stretch of the imagination, but shocking as it may be it is a fairly decent game.

Continue reading Miami Vice (PSP) Review.