Rhythm Thief and the Emperor’s Treasure Review

Despite its occasional problems, it delivers an intriguing mix of adventure and rhythmic challenges

One of Sega’s first efforts on the Nintendo 3DS, Rhythm Thief and the Emperor’s Treasure, though completely original in its content, is not entirely new in its structure. Much like the Professor Layton franchise, that dressed up a puzzle game in a grand storyline and point-and-click exploration segments, it is a game that embraces one genre – in this case, rhythm-based mini-games – and complements it with a delightful universe, a solid plot, and plenty of cinematic cutscenes.

ImageTaking place in modern-day Paris, it makes full use of numerous visual cues, not to mention major architectural and cultural staples. That French charm ends up naturally leaking into every aspect of the game, including the dialogues, soundtrack and script. The developers did a fantastic job in bringing the city to life, and they have achieved it through the blending of realistic settings with happenings that are as outlandish as the looseness of its cartoonish visuals allow for.

Raphael is a boy with a curious hobby. As Phantom R, one of the cities most wanted criminals, he sneaks into the museums of Paris at night, takes major works of art, and – for unknown reasons – returns them on the following days. Left behind by his father, who disappeared around the time the casket of Napoleon was stolen from Les Invalides, Raphael gets thrown in the midst of a treasure hunt around the city when, one day, after trying to get away following his latest theft, he bumps into a man who claims to be Napoleon as he attempts to abduct a girl.

ImageThe adventure shown in Rhythm Thief and the Emperor’s Treasure mostly takes place during a treasure hunt around the streets of Paris as the characters involved on the plot scour the place in search of key relics. As a consequence, players will frequently be tapping on the screen, traveling between locations, and engaging in conversations with city dwellers.

The city has plenty of secrets to be found through the touch screen. Sounds, when recorded, can be used to help players solve puzzles and even unlock some extra secrets; musical notes – once fully gathered – also unlock extra content; and coins can be spent on a local shop in exchange for cutscenes and other items.

The game’s progression is pretty straightforward, as a handy map on the upper screen constantly indicates where to go next. To some, that aid will undoubtedly come off as severe hand-holding, and it does indeed harm the experience to some degree, for the whole exploration component of the game requires so little effort that it is hard to get fully immersed in the nicely written investigation that occupies pretty much half of the game’s main story length.

ImageThe real meat here, though, as the game’s title indicates, are the musical sections that punctuate the entire journey, and on that regard Rhythm Thief is almost flawless. The title comes packed with a whopping 50 rhythmic gauntlets that vary in theme, musical style, difficulty, and controls, offering a very wide array of mini-games that will please almost everybody while also providing a great challenge even to those who have played a large share of games of the sort.

Whether they are mandatory to the continuity of the main story, or optionals that are only accessed through interaction with minor NPCs, the activities Raphael and his friends must perform are, mostly, perfectly integrated into the plot. Seldom do they feel forced or lazily tacked on; they have been carefully designed to match what is going on at the moment, and on that regard the game is a resounding success, for it has a large number of truly visually and rhythmically exciting mini-games.

If characters are attacked by an army of baddies, Phantom R will have to beat them down to the rhythm; when making a glorious getaway, players will have to tap as platforms appear to the beat of the music; if a song must be played to unlock the secrets of a cathedral, it will be necessary to swipe the stylus right on cue with the movements of the violin; the wonderful list goes on and on.

ImageThe controls implemented for each of the songs are greatly varied, but they generally fall into three camps, either utilizing the touch screen, the system’s actual buttons, or its gyroscopic detection. The first two work wonderfully and it is an absolute joy to play mini-games that make use of them. However, the very few ones that require the 3DS to be tilted sideways can be painfully frustrating. The game sometimes will fail to recognize that the required movement has been made, and as a consequence it is not rare to fail a challenge or simply lose a combo due to one of those miscues.

Getting to the end of the story mode is relatively easy, and newcomers to the genre should not feel intimidated by it; the game welcomes them with a great and smooth difficulty curve. To those who want to get more out of the title than simply getting to the end of a very compelling plot, it is possible to attempt to get better scores and ranks on cleared songs that appear tightly organized into a practical menu. Hence, a ten-hour adventure can offer many more hours of gameplay to enthusiasts of the genre who want to face the daunting challenge of perfecting it the whole way through.

Unfortunately, in spite of its high replayability, Rhythm Thief possesses a scoring system that is a bit uneven as the rank it awards players after a performance is not influenced by the score. The rank is, actually, determined by a bar that slowly fills up as movements are made with the right timing, and any mistake will automatically make players lose almost one entire rank.

ImageIf that sole mistake is done during the early part of the level, the rank is easily recoverable. However, if the slip-up is committed on the very last moments of the dance, someone who has racked up one long combo and made just one mistake will likely have to be happy with a B rank in spite of the very high score. It is possible then to face a situation on which a performance with five mistakes made during its first phase might receive an A rank while one with a single fault on the waning seconds gets a B. It might sound like a silly flaw, but it can be an awfully frustrating development when struggling for a better grade.

The fact that the excellent rhythm sections punctuate exploration segments that are a little bit lackluster due to their simplicity means that the game has some problems with its pacing. While some of its chapters are loaded with mini-games, therefore bringing a good balance between the two faces of Rhythm Thief; others are heavier on the walking-around factor, which while being supported by an interesting plot are just not enough to hold one’s attention throughly.

Aside from static dialogue, the plot is also developed by a large number of cartoon cutscenes filled with details, special effects, and style. And although the writing sometimes stumbles on lines and moments that are far too cheesy, the twists and turns the script takes make up for a very pleasant ride filled with surprises, making players truly grow attached to the game’s great characters.

ImageRhythm Thief and the Emperor’s Treasure is, unquestionably, a little rough around the edges and it makes some mistakes in important areas. However, the overall package is highly recommendable. It turns what would have otherwise been a simple music game into something much bigger, and it is able to pull off an incredible integration between its rhythmical challenges and its plot.

It is accessible due to its difficulty curve, but brutally challenging to those who want full completion, and – consequently – Sega crafts an experience that will certainly be able to please both those who love the genre and the ones that are a little bit reluctant to get into it. It is a charming and lovable world, and – when the adventure is done – it is hard not to wish for an improved sequel.

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Xenoblade Chronicles Review

Xenoblade Chronicles does not simply stand out among other JRPGs, it ventures into new areas and clears the path for new possibilities

ImageOnce upon a time, the world was nothing but a big blue ball of water. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, two entities sprung up from the very bottom of the sea: Mechonis, the mechanical menacing giant; and Bionis, a natural monstrosity. For years and years the two beings fought mercilessly for reasons that would remain unknown to men for quite a long time, as – when life started to appear in the resting corpses of the two giants – all remaining signs of the gargantuan battle would be a few landforms perpetuated in their bodies as a direct consequence of battle wounds, and the giant sword of the Mechonis that, frozen in time as a constant reminder of what happened before life came to exist, in its final piercing blow created a valley that connected the only two pieces of solid land in this watery world.

In Xenoblade’s first ten minutes, this is how the world where the game’s adventure takes place is made known to players, and it is hard not to feel compelled to tie a sword to your back, and just venture into the enormous beings to see how it is physically, and humanly, possible to build an entire cohesive world in the different body parts of a giant and bring it all together in geographic and artistic integrity.

The uniqueness of its world, though, does not only unveil a will for adventure inside all players; it also makes it blatantly clear that, even though Xenoblade does carry a few JRPGs clichés on its back, the sheer talent of the people involved in this project is just too big for the game to simply fit in nicely among its genre peers. From the get go, Xenoblade presents itself as a game that wants to standout, and as it progresses the question is not whether or not it will succeed in doing so, but whether it will simply bow its head and humbly standout among JRPGs, or whether its ambitions will take it a little further than that.

ImageThe game begins as both Homs, human-like beings who inhabit Bionis, and Mechon, heartless machines who have built a fortress in Mechonis, are in full-blown war against each other. In the sword that connects the two giants, a trio of Homs battle numerous Mechon squads with the aid of a powerful sword, the Monado, who is oddly effective against those beings. Although Dunban, the sword wielder, is deeply wounded when after battle he is overwhelmed by the sword’s power, the Homs celebrate what seemed to be a definitive victory against the invading forces.

However, after one year of living in relative peace, the tranquil human colony in the back of the Bioni’s lower leg is suddenly attacked by even more powerful types of Mechon. With Dunban out of the picture due to his wounds, it is up to Shulk, the game’s protagonist, and his friend Reyn, a very strong teenager with little brain and a lot of heart, to defend the colony while they can and then, set out to seek revenge.

Amazingly, this initial bit of storyline – that ends up serving as the game’s core motivation through most of its seventy hours – is so slowly developed, by first introducing players to the friendly people around the village and then handing them the controls through most of the events that occur during the invasion, that the feeling of disgust and blind anger is brilliantly transported from the character to the players themselves who, during a few hours of gameplay, end up developing a very positive feeling towards the place and the people.

ImageXenoblade is guilty of stepping in a few areas that have been overdone by JRPGs throughout gaming history, but the developers where smart enough to mostly transplant the good, and try to leave all the bad behind. As its main stars are fragile teenagers that suddenly have the weight of the world on their shoulders, the game does feature a lot of teenage anguish, though it is mostly treated in an elegant enough way to steer clear of embarrassing moments; besides, in a more positive light, Xenoblade has the ridiculously detailed amount of menus and options that the genre is known for.

There is so much to manage and to explore that chances are most gamers will not even touch on one-third of all character-related options by the time the game concludes. It is possible to exchange specific abilities between members of your party by developing good relationships among them, trade with NPCs once you have helped them enough for them to care about you (which is shown by an amazingly detailed social graphic featuring the hundreds of NPCs you have interacted with), equip gems into your armor that will give further abilities to your characters, and – of course – constantly switch your seven-people party to find the combination that suits you best for each specific type of battle.

ImageBy setting its adventure on two giants, Xenoblade is accurately making players aware of its megalomaniac ways, because it is a game that is both huge in the scope of its scenarios and the extension of the options and activities it offers to players during the game.

If, at times, Xenoblade embraces its JRPG roots, in other moments it neglects them completely. The game walks as far from linearity as possible. In fact, it could be said that Xenoblade is an RPG trapped in the body of an open-world adventure game. However, it is not an uncomfortable imprisonment, the extension of the world fits like a glove, as instead of clashing with the RPG elements, it ends up complementing them in ways that had never been seen before.

The game’s scenarios are so numerous and absurdly big that it often wanders into MMORPG territory by offering large varieties of monsters to fight, more quests than players could possibly imagine, and plenty of secret locations that can only be properly explored once characters reach a level that can only be achieved beyond the end of the game.

The game’s quests might have structures that are a little bit repetitive – they are either concerned with killing a certain number of a specific enemy, collecting some materials dropped by foes or found lying around certain areas, or finding the necessary resources to bring destroyed places back to their former state – but their appeal lies in the fact that they give players extra motivation to both further explore Xenoblade’s locations and spend more time immersed in the game’s world. Although it is possible to grasp their repetitive nature, it is impossible to escape the allure of doing at least one-third of the game’s over three hundred quests.

ImageIn their attempt to feature big environments, some games wind up sinfully failing to fill gorgeous landscapes with content, turning the experience into a torturing exercise of walking from one point to another very distant location. Aside from the plentiful NPCs, Xenoblade uses a very unique technique to populate its huge scenarios with something to strive for, and it does so by smartly scattering major locations and landmarks across its vast lands.

As players first step into a new area and begin to explore distinct locations such as valleys, hills, bridges, rivers, and others, they begin to earn names and be revealed on the map, and as more exploration is done landmarks – which can be used as teleporting points – are also unveiled. Finding all of those places of interest eventually unlocks the whole map of the area, but the motivation to locate them all goes far beyond that. Landmarks and locations usually offer absolutely unique and stunning views of the Xenoblade world, not to mention how important they are when locating certain spots and enemies in the map that are vital to some quests.

However – most importantly – players will earn a considerable amount of XP points when finding of those places, and the harder they are to track down, the sweeter is the reward, with certain areas being worth so much XP that characters will almost instantly jump a whole level. These brilliant mechanics bring an unspeakable deal of balance to the gameplay, as it frees players from the usual RPG demand to grind by battling enemies through a map and gives them the opportunity to decide by themselves to customize their gameplay experience with their desired amount of battling and exploring.

ImageWhen it comes to battles, Xenoblade readily does away with random enemy encounters and integrates enemies into the scenario, letting players decided whether they want to fight or flee. Foes are alerted of your presence by different actions, some react to sound, others to sight and so on. Once the battle starts, players will control one character while the other two selected members of the party will be handled by the CPU, which is absolutely necessary given how the game opts for a battle system that integrates a few elements reminiscent of turn-based games, with action-oriented gameplay.

Though more than one enemy can be fought at once, at any time during the battle players can only be locked on to a certain foe, and whenever the character approaches said enemy they will start delivering their standard attacks automatically in specific intervals, it is left to players, then, to control the movements of the character and select one from eight available arts to attack the foes.

Each of the seven party members has a very distinct set of arts to upgrade and choose from, which opens up wide possibilities for fighting styles and, at the same time, requires a lot of learning from players if they want to master all characters or find a very effective combination for their style. Interestingly, some arts will be extra effective when delivered in a certain position in relation to the enemy, which makes standing behind or in front of the foe the difference between doing 100 damage or 800, bringing a whole new element of strategic positioning into the battle.

ImageThe fact that the game leaves it for CPUs to completely manage other characters ends up being a tad frustrating when the game is in its winding moments, though, because as battles become closer and tougher, and Xenoblade is a game that definitely gets very hard starting in its midway point, small actions may be the difference between life and frustrating death.

Most players will sadly come across a few occasions on which, for example, a healer won’t heal at a very critical moment, a character will blindly wander into some very harmful terrain during a tough boss battle, or a character that is still standing will fail to revive your fallen character quickly only to be then promptly killed by a powerful enemy that may be very close to finally succumbing. Sadly, with the way the game’s great battle system was designed, there would be no way around those frustrating moments other than polishing up partner AI a little bit more.

Another one of the game’s very few flaws is that, down the line, right before its final stretch, the game stumbles on some slight pacing problems. Xenoblade’s story is one long epic tale with many twists and turns along the way, and it was masterfully designed so that players would be completely integrated into the story’s introduction, making the whole game much more compelling, and also placing emotional peaks in such a calculated manner that if the game’s intensity level were shown in a chart, it would look like a very wild roller-coaster ride.

ImageHowever, the valley that represents the period of time right between the game’s final emotional peak – and its very pinnacle – and the true ending of the game drags for way too long, putting too much emphasis on short dungeons and insane boss battles and little on exploration and questing, which ends up forcing most players to grind for considerable hours before they can move on to the next part of the game only to be placed in front of another mighty boss.

It is a fact that, by that point, the game has reached such a dramatic scale that things need to definitely go big, tough and epic; however, it is hard not to play through that stretch without feeling like you are only doing it to finish the game, instead of playing it for the extreme delight that it is to play Xenoblade for sixty of its seventy hours.

Although the game grows tiring in its homestretch, Xenoblade never becomes boring to look at. Though the design of its characters scream JRPG cliché, everything else about is an absolute work of art. The game’s initial premise of taking place in the body of two giants is not there just for show. While venturing through a valley on the Bionis’ leg or a huge ocean by its wings, it is completely possible to find certain views of the scenery that reveal your actual location in the giants’ body, but also let the artistic brilliancy of the game’s art work sink in.

ImageXenoblade is not a game satisfied with throwing huge and gorgeously crafted locations on the screen, it is also set in making you realize that everything is placed in a way that makes sense in relation to the body of the two giants. The attention to detail is far beyond what words can explain as it is better felt and seen rather than described.

Since, like all RPGs with thick stories, Xenoblade packs a very large amount of cutscenes, the developers opted to make all of them with in-game graphics rather than flashy CGI, but although they lose some of their cinematic quality, they more than live up to their original intent due to the good localization work in the dialogues, amazing characters and good voice acting. In other words, even when it shows its technical limitations, the game makes them almost transparent by effectively sucking players into its world.

As if the visual work of art that are Xenoblade’s graphics was not enough, the game also features a soundtrack that puts almost every game to ridiculous shame. There is no song here that fails to move the heart in one way or another, and it is simply incredible how, as in-game time shifts from day to night and the scenario around you changes drastically, the soundtrack also mutates to better fit the moodiness of the night.

Hence, it is possible to say that almost all of the game’s locations feature not one, but two incredibly composed tunes. If the game succeeds incredibly on its songs, it does fail on some of its sound effects, especially the words uttered by characters during battle. As they struggle against enemies the characters will be constantly motivating their friends with phrases of positive effect or yelling out the name of the attack that has been chosen. Unfortunately, those things happen a little bit too often and far before the game reaches its halfway mark, players will already be extremely annoyed by the short repertory of battle sentences the characters have.

ImageThe ultimate question is, does Xenoblade only set itself apart from other JRPGs, or does it climb higher than that? It is hard to tell whether or not its clear attempt to refresh the genre will be a success, after all, it is a matter of if other games will walk on some of its footsteps or if they will keep their occasional annoying habits as the norm.

However, for now, it is possible to say that Xenoblade is already historically relevant, if not for its yet-to-be-seen influence, for how it manages to involve players in its fantastic tale, geographically and visually develop its ambitious world in a way that is beautiful and surprisingly cohesive and show that when bright open minds come together, the result is a game that carries more than one hundred hours of content that, more than entertain, might be destined to change the fate of a whole genre.

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The DLC Dilemma

Downloadable content is, conceptually, a blessing. Even after the game has been put on store shelves and gamers have explored every single one of its nooks and crannies, developers can still deliver brand new levels, items or challenges. It has the power to augment a title’s value to unsurmountable lengths, creating software that – instead of getting old – gets fresher every time something is added to its catalog of DLC.

ImageHowever, in reality, those things have a price for companies. After all, a developer that could have been working on a new game has to spend his working hours thinking of new ways to please customers who have already acquired a product. Naturally, that cost is passed over to players, who have to pay extra cash to play something on which companies need to spend a few more bucks. It is simple math, and on paper it is a very fair deal: those who want to get more than they acquired for the game’s initial price tag have to dispose of some money.

While extra content is universally applauded, the minute it gets priced marks the point on which a barrage of comments accuse companies of being merciless money-hungry tyrants. Case in point, the recent announcement that the upcoming Mario Golf: World Tour will have courses that can only be downloaded if players pay for them, which caused many of those who were anticipating the game to accuse Nintendo of ripping players off.

ImageGames, like any project, have a limited budget and the content that gets put into a title is always limited by whether or not there is enough cash left to cover it. It does not take the knowledge of an insider to claim that Mario Kart courses, Zelda dungeons, Super Mario Galaxy stages, and Metroid bosses have been left out of the final version of the game because time and money had just run out, and the game needed to be put out there so that the company could start collecting the laurels of its hard work.

Nowadays, that upper limit budgets have is undoubtedly looser. Extra ideas that would have otherwise not made it can materialize due to the fact companies can now allocate extra money on projects and expect good returns over it because of paid downloadable content. In other words, if gamers are paying extra cash for features that would have been non-existent in a world without DLC, then they are most certainly not being ripped off.

Still, players’ complaints are not all that unreasonable. Companies do like money, and the world is – sadly – crowded with unscrupulous people that are not ashamed to take advantage of others in order to make some more money. Hence, to us outside the process of gaming development, there is one huge dilemma surrounding DLC: it is just impossible to know whether a certain piece of downloadable content is really an extra, or something that was originally part of the full game that got removed just for the sake of squeezing extra coins out of our wallets.

Gaming development is a dark box to gamers, and in the full knowledge that businessmen – like any other kind of human being – can be bad, we have naturally come to suspect every additional bit of gaming goodness for which we are charged after we paid for the full game. It is a problem to which there is no fast fix, for it relies on something extremely abstract: the relation of trust between a company – a faceless entity – and its fans.

ImageThough by no means quick, that solution is certainly achievable. The one way through which companies can make players start looking at DLC with more positive eyes – even if the negative comments will never cease to exist – is to consistently deliver games that are exploding with gameplay hours. In that sense, the issue of paying more money for extra content can be positive to gamers since companies will have to make sure their titles feel like really full packages from the very start, potentially increasing the value of the average game.

Staying on the Nintendo side of things, one stellar example of a game that reaches such balance is Fire Emblem: Awakening. Its downloadable content is gigantic, featuring new missions and units that are linked to unlockable classes, skills and items. Awakening has, literally, a full game’s worth of DLC. However, its single-player campaign is so lengthy, its features so configurable, and its production values so exquisite that its very well-priced load of pay-to-play content is a very pleasant sight once the end of the game is reached. It is like finding a treasure chest full of gems when the loot seemed to be all taken.

The bar against which World Tour must be measured is, obviously, its predecessors. Both the original Mario Golf and the Gamecube’s Toadstool Tour had six courses to be enjoyed, and the Gameboy Advance game had five, which were complemented by a strong and high-value RPG mode on which players could slowly build up their characters. If World Tour can deliver a number of courses equal or above six and pack a strong RPG gameplay, then its extra content will undoubtedly be seen with very positive eyes by media and fans alike, as the game would be bound to get a very good reception.

ImageNintendo does not have a strong tradition of placing DLC in its games, but it can use Mario Golf: World Tour to keep improving its credentials on this field. In turn, that might – one day – back up the inclusion of downloadable elements on even bigger games such as Mario platformers, Mario Kart, Star Fox, or F-Zero.

In spite of the understandable negative reactions that happen at first, everything might turn out to be very positive. After all, who in the world would not love a Mario Kart title that gets updated with new packs of courses every two months or a Star Fox title that receives new thrilling space missions on a weekly basis?

Posted in Articles | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy Review

It wraps up an an everlasting saga in a magnificent way

ImageAfter six years and six games that made up two fantastic trilogies that blended incredible storytelling with challenging puzzles, Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy marks the end of the very successful handheld series developed by Level-5. As the point on which the prequel trilogy ties itself to the final three games, which – in Star Wars fashion – were released first, the title carries the emotional weight of the ending of many partnerships, setting up a new beginning for the beloved heroes.

The Azran Legacy, unsurprisingly, does not operate major shifts in gameplay. However, due to its placement in the timeline, it feels grander and more important than the two games that preceded it. That grandeur ends up materializing nicely, for the game provides great closure both in terms of character development (especially to personages that are nowhere to be seen on the sequel trilogy), and it fantastically wraps up a storyline that, sometimes discretely, permeated both the Last Specter and the Miracle Mask, and even the franchise’s silver screen outing: the Eternal Diva.

The game succeeds marvelously in connecting all the loose threads, and it does so in a very sensible way. Although the plot of the game itself can be perfectly understood by those who have not come in touch with all of the franchise’s media, it carries extra rewards, and a great deal of satisfaction and fulfillment to those who have been around long enough to be able to catch all subtleties of its plot. In that sense, the Azran Legacy is a major storytelling achievement.

ImageThe adventure beings when Layton receives a letter from a fellow archaeologist. The professor and his assistants – the young and good-hearted Luke and the energetic Emmy – are then invited to the chilly town of Froenberg, where a frozen mummy with active vital signs has been discovered. The mummy, it is believed, has ties to the ancient and technologically gifted Azran civilization. Layton, having great interest in the studying of that people due to previous games’ events, quickly travels to the site of the discovery. He, however, is not the sole person with an interest on the case. Targent, an agency with dark intentions, looks to unearth the ancient power tied to the Azran, and they will do anything to stop him.

In traditional Layton fashion, the story is told through a mix of static dialogue with character models appearing on screen and a bunch of cutscenes featuring hand-drawn animation that are saved for the game’s climaxes. With numerous twists and turns, the plot is highly engaging. The development is continuous and very well-paced, which keeps players motivated to continue playing through the game’s pleasantly lengthy course.

Adding to the feeling that what is at stake is pretty big, the journey takes on a unique structure. Instead of taking place at one big specific location, the Azran Legacy sends the characters all over the world in a treasure hunt for relics. As a consequence, the individual sites are smaller, and Layton must travel between them on a charming zeppelin – the Bostonius.

ImageSuch layout has two direct consequences on the game, one that produces mixed results and another that is a fantastic delight. The first is that the game works like a storybook. Therefore, under the large encompassing main plot, there are independent mysteries that unfold on each of the locations scattered around the world. While the quality of the core thread is unquestionable, these smaller riddles are irregular. Some are downright brilliant, offering thrilling moments and mind-blowing discoveries; others are rather mundane, adding up to a somewhat lopsided package.

The second effect of the dismemberment is one that plays right into the hands of one of the series’ best features: its art. Since the many towns visited by Layton and his friends have distinct geographical features, the artists at Level-5 were allowed to go absolutely wild with their talents. Whether characters are exploring a tropical paradise, a locale of western inspirations, a jungle, or an area with medieval lines, there is no other way to put it: the game is absolutely gorgeous. Every scene is filled with beautiful details, and the characters that inhabit the different regions have very unique designs. Never has a Professor Layton game been this visually varied, and the Azran Legacy does not fail in constantly awing.

Inside that different structure, the game operates in the same manner as its predecessors. Players touch the screen to walk around the locations, talk to the many characters, and scan the screen in search of hidden puzzles, items, or hint coins – which serve as a pleasant aid to younger players throughout the adventure and to more experienced puzzle solvers on riddles that offer brutal challenge.

ImageDuring the adventure, players can come across a whopping 150 puzzles that are nicely integrated into the context on which they are found. In addition, upon solving the three clever multi-leveled mini-games the game traditionally offers, another 15 specially challenging conundrums are unlocked. As if that bundle was not big enough, over 300 enigmas are set to be delivered daily through the next year, bumping the grand total of puzzles to the north side of 500. Consequently, an adventure that can last for over 30 hours to those who act like true gentlemen and decide to solve every puzzle gains even more value as a new riddle is delivered daily

The daily puzzles are neatly divided into 20 styles, a few of which have been migrated from the previous game (the Miracle Mask) with added twists. Meanwhile, the ones scattered along the adventure are greatly varied, offering mathematical challenges, purely logical problems, and some that use twisted wording to try and trick players into giving the wrong answer. Although not all puzzles feature the same high level of quality, the biggest part of the package is great.

ImageProfessor Layton and the Azran Legacy is, in the end, a remarkable exclamation point that brings the series to an end with a very positive note. Its fresh structure might bring mixed results, but this is still the Layton most portable gaming fans have come to adore. It tells a tale with efficiency that is rarely seen on the gaming world, it stars characters with which is extremely easy to fall in love, and uses all sorts of storytelling techniques to get players deeply engaged. And then, it tops it all off with a seemingly endless amount of good puzzles, great art, incredible music and marvelous voice acting.

As Layton tips his hat and heads towards a well-deserved break, it is impossible to know whether we will ever see him return in a game of this kind. One thing is for sure, though: he and Level-5 leave, more than many fans, an everlasting saga that will surely remain alive in the hearts of those who played it and enchant future generations of gamers.

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Smashing Direct

ImageEver since the inception of the Nintendo Directs, never has a presentation caused this much anticipation among fans. The hype, of course, was completely warranted. After all, differently from the shows that occur close to E3 – when there is a fog of mystery surrounding what will be shown – this one had a clear focus revealed from the get go: Nintendo was going to deliver more details about the upcoming pair of Super Smash Bros. games.

In that sense, this week’s show fulfilled expectations. Fans got to know the release window for both titles, Summer for the 3DS version and Winter for the Wii U game; plenty of new characters, items, and assist trophies were revealed; and gameplay details that are bound to please different kinds of Smash Bros. fans were made known.

Masahiro Sakurai – the series’ director – if fully aware of his audience’s diverging mentalities when approaching his most famous brainchild. He knows that while some view the franchise as a realm on which the wackiness of party games meets a delightfully simple, yet deep, fighting gameplay; others view it as a competitive arena that is occasionally hampered by random elements, such as items and stage effects that interfere with the fighting.

ImageIn a way, he has always tried to make both camps happy by making a game that is as customizable as possible, allowing gamers total freedom in setting up the battle style and the items that would appear. This time, though, that flexibility has been taken to a whole different level, hence practically guaranteeing that the two sides of the coin will be satisfied.

On a simple masterstroke, Smash Bros. will now allow all of its stages to be configured either to a madhouse full of traps, or to a standard single-platform arena with no quirks. That division will be extended to the game’s online, on which a simple menu click will separate those who want an item-free battle on static stages from those who feel like getting the full insane extent of the Smash Bros. experience. The rift on the fanbase is, then, materialized on its online community, pretty much creating two distinct sides that will fight with their preferred set of rules.

In terms of character announcements, the Smash Direct left a little to be desired. Having characters such as Charizard, Sheik, and Zero Suit Samus star on their own slots is certainly deserving, for all of them present original movesets and great designs, and the announcement came as a pleasant surprise. At the same time, though, the only real new character to appear was Greninja, from the Pokemon X/Y versions.

ImageThe new Smash Bros. versions are, naturally, expected to bring numerous additions to the roster of characters they inherited from Brawl. However, as we stand a few months from the release of the Nintendo 3DS version – which will knowingly have the same cast as the Wii U game – the roster additions remain thin.

A positive outlook indicates that such fact means future updates to the game’s site and Nintendo’s eventual E3 Direct will probably be packed with new characters, whereas a more gloomy perspective will lean towards the confirmation that the existence of the 3DS version has severely limited the potential for expansion of the cast, which would be a terrible shame. Sakurai has already stated that such a problem does exist, but the extension of its effects remain to be seen.

From a business standpoint, Nintendo’s decision to produce two versions of the game, hence taking away the home consoles’ exclusivity over the franchise, remains questionable. The Nintendo Wii U undoubtedly needs a boost in sales, and that push could have come with it having a firm grip over the next Smash Bros. game.

ImageNow that it is known that the 3DS game will be released a few months before Wii U version, that decision becomes even more confusing. The 3DS game was already bound to rob the Wii U of numerous hardware sales due to the fact 3DS owners would not need to buy Nintendo’s home console to play the game. With an earlier release date and a fully exclusive mode, the allure of the 3DS Smash Bros. has greatly gone up, while the Wii U version will come as an afterthought to the greater part of gamers out there.

With at least eight months before the Wii U version of Super Smash Bros. comes out, Nintendo has a good amount of time to build up hype and announce sweet morsels of exclusive content. Still, though there is not really much to criticize when it comes to today’s wonderful Direct (greatly presented by a humorous Sakurai that displayed great knowledge on the audience he is dealing with), Nintendo’s business strategy in handling these two Smash Bros games remains utterly confusing.

Posted in Articles | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dead Letter Office

Great ideas pop up quite frequently among game designers; however, it is not surprising that most of them never see the light of the day. Sometimes the men who hold not the creative power, but the money – and consequently the ability to greenlight or shelve a project – don’t see any financial gains that could be squeezed out of a brilliant concept, on other occasions something goes awfully wrong between the stages of sketching and executing.

Some of those doomed projects are even announced to an ecstatic crowd of players before disaster crosses their path, leaving everybody with a sour taste in their mouths once those titles disappear from public view and developers refuse to talk about them. Ready your noses as we take a look at the dusty files of some failed, but not forgotten, games.

Donkey Kong Racing

ImageOut of all Mario Kart titles, the Nintendo 64 version was the one that suffered from the biggest competition. On the Playstation’s Crash Team Racing, the charismatic Crash and his crew were, at their best moments, more frantic and faster than Mario’s gang, meanwhile Diddy Kong Racing added a little bit of adventure to the solid arcade racing formula built on Super Mario Kart.

The latter featured incredibly beautiful and colorful scenarios as Diddy and a bunch of virtually unknown critters raced using karts, hovercrafts and even airplanes. To some this fantastic variety gave the game an edge over what had been presented by Mario Kart 64. In fact, the game was so successful that a sequel was planned: Donkey Kong Racing.

ImageThe game was revealed together with the Gamecube, and as its one and only trailer shows it would be yet another display of Rare’s amazing creativity on their partnership with Nintendo. The animal buddies of the Donkey Kong Country games were now used as vehicles that would allow racing on the land, under the sea, and in the air. Sadly, one year later the company was purchased by Microsoft, and consequently lost the rights to producing anything that featured Nintendo’s famous simian family.

The project came to a halt, but Nintendo – not willing to let Donkey Kong’s racing franchise die – would some years later outsource the development of a new racing game. As expected, though, the game did not feature either Rare’s brilliancy or their signature quality, as Donkey Kong Barrel Blast was decimated by all reviewers.

Dinosaur Planet

One can argue that Dinosaur Planet was indeed released, but as another completely different beast called: Star Fox Adventures. However, it is easy to note that without the presence of Fox McCloud the game could have been considerably different – and even better received.

ImageDinosaur Planet was not initially planned to be a Nintendo Gamecube release. Instead, its development began as yet another Rareware gem that was bound to hit the Nintendo 64; however, the project started quite late into the system’s life cycle – its announcement occurred on E3 2000 – and as an incoming generation of consoles loomed in the horizon, the game was transferred to the Nintendo Gamecube to avoid being overshadowed by the highly awaited Playstation 2.

The basis of the title had been planned with two original characters that could be switched at will in certain points of the game so that their distinct abilities and weapons could be more properly used. Nintendo, though, seemed to have other plans for the title, because as the target consoles shifted, so did the starring characters: Sabre was out, and Fox was in. Crystal, though, was not removed.

It is unknown how much of the gameplay was changed with those new additions, but by slapping Star Fox in there Nintendo opened up the floodgates of prejudice. Many people would inevitably look at the game in a prematurely negative way as Fox emulated Link, and spent little time on his natural habitat: his airwing. Star Fox Adventures has its merits – especially on the visual realm – but had it been pitched on its original form perhaps life would have been kinder to it.

Project H.A.M.M.E.R.

ImageNintendo’s showing on E3 2006 was remarkable. The company unveiled the truly juicy games that would power the Nintendo Wii for its first months of life and it did not disappoint. Metroid Prime 3 delivered on its promise of wrapping up the series in a fantastic way, Super Mario Galaxy blew everyone away with its gravity mechanics, and the latest details on Twilight Princess were naturally received with a level of excitement that neared hysteria.

Those that weren’t too caught up in the moment managed to also note a few minor first-party games that looked rather promising when the WiiMote was added to the formula. Among those games was Project H.A.M.M.E.R.

As its almost self-explanatory title lets on the game was a beat ‘em up affair where gamers would defend American cities from violent robots while yielding a mighty hammer to get the job done. It sounds silly, but had we been given the opportunity to swing a powerful weapon and destroy everything around us with the added excitement of the Wiimote, silliness would then turn into awesomeness. Sadly, the game was canceled, and though Nintendo originally claimed that we might see it again, chances are Project H.A.M.M.E.R. will forever be stuck on Nintendo’s archive for shelved titles.

Star Fox 2

ImageStar Fox 2 ran into the same issue that would nearly kill Dinosaur Planet a few years later: an impending generation of more powerful machines. The game was completely finished by the final months of 1995 with the exception of a few debugging tools that had to be removed from the final version.

Strangely, although they had already spent almost everything they had to in order to complete the project – with only minor tweaks left to be done, Nintendo decided not to release the game. It is hard to comprehend the logic behind that call as even if the game’s sales had suffered from the birth of more advanced hardware, Nintendo would nevertheless have been able to get some of their investment back. And as both Super Mario RPG and Donkey Kong Country 3 proved when they launched for the Super Nintendo one year later in 1996, the system still had some fuel left to burn and costumers still wanted to buy new games.

ImageStar Fox 2 was not completely thrown away, though, as some of the concepts developed for the game were eventually reused. The game was going to feature a Lylat System, map allowing players to follow a non-linear path to the ending instead of the fixed mission order of the original.

That concept would eventually be brought to Star Fox 64, and it would turn out to be an addition that would add a whole lot of value to the title. Other features like the all-range mode and multiplayer were also ported to its Nintendo 64 brother, while tridimensional camera engines were used as a basis for the magic of Super Mario 64. In the end Star Fox 2 and its code didn’t make it out to the market, but some of its artifacts and developments were vital to Nintendo’s great start on the 3-D era: a fine legacy indeed.

Metroid Dread

ImageMetroid Fusion, a haunting and immersive adventure on which Samus Aran is stuck on an abandoned space station with an evil doppelganger, was released in 2002. Over a decade later, it remains the latest 2-D title of the franchise and the final point of its known timeline. Such a long lull can be attributed to Nintendo’s focus on wrapping up the glorious Metroid Prime trilogy, and to the fact that Metroid Dread, the planned sequel to Fusion, has turned into dust.

The game was never officially announced, and the only proof it ever existed is a leaked internal software list made by Nintendo in 2005. Sakamoto, the series’ director, later confirmed the game was, at one point, in development, and a cryptic message located on a Metroid Prime 3 computer stating that “Metroid project ‘Dread’ is nearing the final stages of completion” added fuel to the expectations that a reveal was only a matter of time.

Sadly, in spite of media comments that a full script for the game was completely written and the endless clamor of fans for a brand new Metroid sidescroller, no artifacts of Metroid Dread ever reached the eyes of the public, making the project one of the great unsolved mysteries of Nintendo’s lore.

However, as each day passes and the wait for the next Metroid sidescroller grows longer, the chances a sequel to fusion will eventually surface become higher. Nintendo’s recent rediscovered love for 2-D games due to their simplicity and popularity has made nearly all of their major characters star on games of the sort during the past few years. Therefore, it is likely that Samus might be next in line for that treatment, and even if that future Metroid title is not baptized as “Dread”, it might end up being the heir of the completed script and gameplay ideas that were mapped out for that unreleased game.

Posted in Articles | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hole in One

ImageWith the platforming gameplay as his immaculate headquarters, Mario has been able to leap out of those boundaries to reach new gaming landscapes. Fully aware that competing directly against the traditional juggernauts of genres on which he is a mere visitor – and not the main attraction – would be a major folly, Nintendo and their partners have taken measures to avoid eye-to-eye combats, and the results have been mostly successful.

By simplifying the mechanics of many genres and sprinkling the recipe with a whole lot of Mushroom Kingdom charm, Mario has starred on numerous family-friendly and highly engaging titles that involve little jumping and Goomba-squashing antics. Starting with Super Mario Kart, eventually extending all the way to RPGs with Square’s Legend of the Seven Stars, and going wild by exploring pretty much every major sport practiced around the planet, the plumber has, more often than not, garnered great critical reception and entertained millions of young and experienced gamers alike.

Although both the go-karting series and the Mario RPGs have nearly perfect track records in spite of their high volume of installments, the same does not apply to Mario sports games, which have sometimes fallen victim to rushed production, poor controls, and a wish to gain easy money that surpasses the desire to deliver a consistent product. In 2012′s Mario Tennis Open, the Nintendo 3DS has already been home to one of those hollow mixed bags, but two years later the system seems to be about to redeem itself with Mario Golf: World Tour.

ImageIt would be no hyperbole to say that World Tour belongs to a somehow noble line of Mario sports games. After all, it was back in 1999 – on the Nintendo 64 days – with Camelot’s Mario Golf, that Nintendo opened up the floodgates to allow Mario to explore, simplify, and make more fun the experience of playing sports simulations. Though that pioneering award has, in the eyes of many, lost some of its nobility due to some uninspired pieces of software that such experiment birthed, the fact that it also catapulted gems like the original Mario Tennis or the hilariously brutal Mario Strikers makes it all worth it.

Besides, the Mario Golf branch of the Mario Sports tree has yet to house a game that sits below great. The original 1999 game featured tough courses and a deep, yet simple, gameplay schema that, despite the fact that it shows its age nowadays, was certainly a commendable achievement at the time. The Gamecube’s Toadstool Tour made ideal adjustments to that structure, introducing elements that would be borrowed by traditional golf games, and painted absolutely gorgeous scenarios by using the system’s magnificent hardware. And finally, Advance Tour came around in 2004 and blended the standard Mario Golf gameplay with RPG elements that took the game’s value and length to unsurmountable heights.

Mario Golf: World Tour arrives with all that legacy solidly laid, and even though it is the heir to arguably the best Mario Sports game of all, Toadstool Tour, it seems poised to make a run towards the top. It might sound like a extremely bold claim, but it is one that is backed up by one simple word: time.

ImageFirst of all, there is the time of development. Mario Tennis Open, the most recent sports game produced by Camelot, was simply decent. Though it is hard to pinpoint, from the outside, the cause for its failure to achieve the greatness of the series’ Nintendo 64, Gameboy Advance, and Gamecube outings, the game seemed rushed. The absence of an RPG mode made its single-player content too thin, hence forcing the title to fully rely on its multiplayer virtues.

Given how greatly received that mode had been on the GBA outings of both the Golf and Tennis games, not to mention the fact that it was also included on the latest Mario Sluggers title, the most reasonable explanation for its apparent removal has to fall on utter lack of a lengthier development schedule.

World Tour was set to release on the second half of 2013, but – perhaps due to how Nintendo perceived the average reception of Mario Tennis Open to have affected its sales – it was delayed by nearly one year. As we sit one month from the game’s release, information on the title is still relatively slim, but not only do we know that World Tour will feature RPG-like gameplay, in the shape of Castle Club (a hub from which players will access tournaments, shops, training facilities, and who knows what else), but a quick glimpse of videos released by Nintendo unveils what seem to be greatly designed courses, creative use of items, gorgeous visuals, and good gameplay options, all of which have been undoubtedly expanded and improved during the one-year delay.

ImageIn addition to the extra period of development, time also plays a role in increasing the game’s level of freshness. When World Tour releases, almost ten years will have passed since Advance Tour, the most recent game of the Mario Golf series, came to be. For starters, that lull means that countless young gamers will get in touch with the franchise for the first time, whereas veterans will feel like a lifetime has passed since the last time they sat down to play a round of golf on the Mushroom Kingdom.

More importantly, that decade-long retirement means that Mario Golf will enter a gaming scenario that is far different from what it encountered back in 2004. The 3DS’ hardware is, by leaps and bounds, superior to what the GBA had to offer, meaning that course elements, the RPG gameplay, and everything else will reach new levels of detail and depth.

ImageBesides, the rising of online gameplay will allow the game’s multiplayer to be much more dynamic. It will permit the seamless connection of players from all over the world in tournaments that will – probably – encompass a pleasantly large number of competitors, and the fact that each player has their own system means that, instead of playing in turns (which can cause the match to drag), they will be able to tackle the course simultaneously. If Nintendo and Camelot manage to come up with, and support, a large number of tournament options, leaderboards, and other network features, World Tour’s online mode could have the legs to match the company’s multiplayer kings: Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros.

In spite of all those promising tidbits, Mario Golf: World Tour has been flying under the radar. Once it releases, though, it will have a great shot to show that Camelot has learned from the stumble called Mario Tennis Open and, to reward fans of the Mario sports games, has created one of the finest titles to hit the Nintendo 3DS.

Posted in Articles | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments