Bayonetta 2 Review

Gruesomely bigger, outrageously better, and offensively uncut

bayonetta2_1About twenty minutes into the original Bayonetta, our beloved wicked witch – after disguising herself as a praying nun during a funeral – turns the whole celebration into a bloodshed by brutally murdering a group of angels who came by to pick up the deceased soul. Meanwhile, when the same amount of minutes has passed on the sequel, players will most likely – after riding on top of a jet plane through a busy city in the midst of a battle against angelic beings – be using Bayonetta’s newly acquired power to fly in order to kill a gigantic dragon-like demon that, in epic fashion, has decided to climb a skyscraper just for the heck of it.

That paragraph alone could be pretty much everything one needs to know about what exactly are the differences between both games. While the two obviously thrive on the sheer spectacle and magnitude that is bound to come to the surface in the skirmishes between the powers of heaven and hell, there is an appreciable distinction here. In some ways, it could be said that Bayonetta started relatively small (such as with a straightforward graveyard struggle) and grew from there until it reached grand heights. Bayonetta 2, however, is a far fiercer creature.

bayonetta2_3The elegant lady in black comes out to play with one thing clear in her mind: in order to surpass her prior adventure, she needs to be flashier and more ambitious than ever. And that is precisely what happens. Bayonetta 2 is bigger and better. It wisely assumes that anyone coming into this second adventure has already gone through the earth-shattering clashes of its predecessor, and then it proceeds to pick up right from where it left off.

It knows its audience is experienced, and it is fully aware that little doses of maniac violence will not amaze. Therefore, it starts out huge and it ends in such large-scale fanfare that it is shocking to find out that, when the whole affair is done, the Wii U console has not blown up itself to pieces due to its inability to contain the volcanic force that is present in this package.

The key to Bayonetta’s success was that its combat system allowed players to do a lot with a little, empowering them to unleash spectacular combos and smooth movements with simple button presses that felt intuitive and controlled; hence avoiding the fall into the monotonous pit of button-mashing. Acknowledging the high quality of that implementation, Platinum Games has kept everything pretty much untouched.

bayonetta2_7Combos, which are numerous and whose effects depend on the weapons that are equipped on Bayonetta’s hands and feet, are delivered with simple combinations of the punch and kick triggers. Stylish dodging movements are performed with the timely press of a button. And filling up the magic gauge, which is done by landing blows without being hit too much, allows players to either deliver torture attacks or, on a twist that is new to Bayonetta 2, activate the Umbra Climax, a temporary power-up that enhances the damage done by all regular strikes.

The trick to it all is how visually engrossing each of those simple commands look on the TV screen. Combos always culminate with the opening up of a portal that allows Madama Butterfly, the demon with whom Bayonetta has a pact, to unleash a powerful hit. A successful dodge as the character is on the brink of suffering damage activates Witch Mode, a feature that slows down time for a few seconds, and lets Bayonetta punish enemies with no major worries. And while the famous torture attacks are a sight to behold, as the wicked woman finds some rather creative and brutal ways to vaporize her foes, the Umbra Climaxes manage some equally dramatic fireworks.

bayonetta2_2Absolutely everything about the game lives and dies for the bloody extravaganza, making pure unaltered satisfaction the ultimate reward that comes with every one of the hundreds of battles that take place during the main quest. Due to the options it gives players, the game ends up turning all sets of enemies into some sort of unpainted canvas that needs to be filled up with their blood. Here, killing becomes a weird sort of art, for not only are the combos, climaxes and tortures varied (even more so when all the weapon combinations are considered), but they are also extremely accessible.

A game with such a large degree of violence (especially one that turns it all into one showy parade) should come along with some unsettling feelings, but Bayonetta 2 – like its predecessor – stays far away from any such thing. That unexpected equilibrium is once more achieved due to the borderline cartoonish writing and humor that is employed throughout the narrative.

Although she is dealing with some pretty gargantuan powers – the ones that govern the whole universe, to be more specific – Bayonetta does it all with a calm and ironic demeanor that almost turns everything into mockery. She faces unbelievably powerful angels that are bent on killing her with an air of teenage superiority, and taunts the most dangerous merciless demons with a tongue in her cheek.

bayonetta2_4The game’s insistence in throwing comic-relief personages and sexualized crotch and butt closeups in the midst of the most serious situations, not to mention the use of catchy pop songs as the soundtrack for the bloodbaths, also help in the transforming of what could have been unbearably gruesome into enchantingly light-hearted. The game works hard behind the scenes to make all the gore and murder a boatload of guiltless fun, and it all clicks in a perfect symphony.

Aside from having a great flair for the overwhelmingly big, Bayonetta 2 also fixes some of the minor problems that hurt the original game. The scenarios are much better designed; they feel wider and more interesting. That quality gains a lot of importance when one considers that Bayonetta 2 has its fair share of collectibles, which include LPs that give you access to new weapons, logs with extra information about the game’s setting, broken witch hearts that increase the character’s health, and pearls that give her more magic power.

In addition, quick-time events that upon failure of the player to respond result in instant death are gone altogether. The game still uses that tool with the goal to let gamers interact with the cutscenes where Bayonetta executes absurd moves to turn her enemies to dust (remember, this is a piece of software that loves to show off), but those are actually awesomely fun and well-placed, and the fact they are still present is welcomed.

bayonetta2_5The one issue that is not addressed is the game’s plot. As a direct continuation of the original game, Bayonetta 2 inherits the same convoluted storyline that plagued its predecessor. The premise Platinum Games uses to catapult the title’s events is a good one: Jeanne is killed during the opening moments and, like it happens to all witches, her soul gets sent to hell. Bayonetta, therefore, sets out to find the entrance to the fiery depths in order to rescue her friend before her spirit is completely consumed by the demons of the underworld.

The great thing about that starting point is that it creates a conflict between Bayonetta and the creatures that inhabit Inferno. Consequently, not only does she have to deal with her usual foes (the heavenly angels), she also ends up on a collision course with her former allies (the demons). Naturally, and thankfully for us gamers, the developers are not shy to use the dual threats in order to make battles even grander and more epic, which is in fact one of the elements that aid Bayonetta 2 in the trumping of its predecessor.

However, underlining that straightforward storyline is – once more – concepts and conspiracies that are a little bit too all over the place. The plot development lacks focus, which makes following and – most importantly – becoming truly engaged in the game’s occurrences quite a challenge.

bayonetta2_6Bayonetta 2, though, more than justifies the great lengths Nintendo had to go to in order to have the title produced exclusively to them. It is by all means a masterpiece that flirts with perfection, whether it is on the hard-to-believe smoothness and beauty that its visuals retain even amidst the biggest battles the gaming universe has ever seen, or on the solid joy that it is to cause havoc and destruction through its easy-to-grasp control scheme.

The game delivers spectacularly both on the single-player and multiplayer fronts, and has more than enough content to keep players coming back for more and more. Improving the earned rank for each of the missions, finding all secret battles, and trying harder levels of difficulty make the game an experience that can be enjoyed for countless hours. However, even without them, Bayonetta 2 would have still been highly replayable, for the immense satisfaction one gets on each of its many battles has been rarely replicated on a videogame console.

Whether she is flying with her set of wings, riding on top of a jet plane, summoning a gigantic demon, manning a mecha robot, or just doing battle on the ground, lady Bayonetta definitely solidifies her position as the queen of all action games. She sits alone in her castle, though, because she has likely gruesomely murdered the king on her way to the throne.

Bayonetta 2

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Nintendo Land Review

More than a blueprint for what the Wii U can do, Nintendo Land is a full-fledged game packed with content

nintendo_land2It is undeniable that Wii Sports is one of the most important and successful games of all time. That statement may sound outrageously exaggerated – especially when we consider its sales were inflated by the fact the title came packed with the Nintendo Wii – but it becomes rather reasonable when we look at it as the doorway the gaming world, and those outside it, used to the universe of motion-controlled games.

The whole introductory experiment went so well that Nintendo once again attempts to capture lightning in a bottle with Nintendo Land. There is no better way to put it: Nintendo Land is to the Wii U what Wii Sports was to the Wii; the first note on a brand new control scheme, and a game that offers twelve experiments and blueprints that aim to display the system’s capabilities. However, it is a game that is far more neatly produced, offers much more in terms of content and value, and has the irresistibly charming quality of being centered around the Nintendo Universe.

In the midst of all the great manners on which the system’s controller is used, one of Nintendo Land’s key components, and perhaps its most original one, is its art style. Set in a fictional Nintendo theme park, the game features a central hub surrounded by twelve extravagant gates that lead into the attractions. Taking advantage of this make-believe scenario, Nintendo made sure to design everything as it were part of a nicely put together attempt to recreate the “real” worlds within their games.

nintendo_land3On The Legend of Zelda’s attraction, the whole world is made of plush; Donkey Kong’s ride uses a chalkboard as its background; and the recreation of the world of Pikmin is done with Mushroom Kingdom blocks, and robots that recreate the game’s insects. Absolutely everything is exploding either from Nintendo self-references, or bits of detail that tell players nothing is what it really seems.

Nintendo Land was built by giving designers the power to act as mad scientists working with a new potion, and as it is the case with any experiment in creativity and insanity, some results are far better than others, but the twelve-game package is so varied that every single gamer will, at least, find some attractions he will greatly enjoy.

While a player’s most liked attractions will be the cause of many hours of gameplay, the least beloved ones will also warrant a visit, because Nintendo Land is packed with collectibles and achievements that are more effectively unlocked when all attractions are played. Every attraction features a number of stamps that can be acquired through the clearing of certain goals, and each one of them will also grant players a star or master rank according to the level of completion achieved.

nintendo_land6As if that was not enough, the more levels are cleared, attractions are played, and stamps are acquired, players will gain a few coins, which can be spent in an arcade-like mini-game to unlock gift boxes hiding items featuring Nintendo icons that will decorate the central hub. There is an overwhelmingly great satisfaction in watching as your personal version of the park is populated by statues of Kraid, Ganon, Koopas and others.

The quality of the games, the sensational multiplayer value that some possess, and the daunting challenges and levels that nearly all of them have would already be a valuable enough incentive to play the game for countless hours, but Nintendo added plenty of extras to keep players going, which goes to show that Nintendo Land is not simply a pack-in, it is a full fledged game that could be worth full price.

The game offers three attractions focused exclusively on multiplayer. All of those take advantage of the asymmetrical gameplay allowed by the Gamepad’s screen to create smart, simple, and impossibly fun scenarios.

nintendo_land5In Mario Chase, while one player flees through a small arena others go after him. The twist here is that the player who controls Mario can see the whole map through the gamepad’s screen, while the chasers have to explore the place looking for him without many visual clues. Both Animal Crossing: Sweet Day and Luigi’s Ghost Mansion are slight variations of that theme: in the first, one or more players gather candy around the village while the other controls, through the gamepad, two guards that walk independently according to the movement of both control sticks; in the latter, one player acts as a ghost, being invisible to those who look at the TV screen, while the others must use flashlights to capture him.

The three experiences are nicely balanced, and the two different approaches with which each of them can be experienced doubles the value of the whole thing. Playing them will surely guarantee plenty of laughter and exciting close calls.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is a group of six games whose focus is solo play, four of which are probably the weakest of the bunch: Captain Falcon’s Twister Race, Balloon Trip Breeze, Takamaru’s Ninja Castle and Octopus Dance. On Twister Race, players must tilt the gamepad to control the Blue Falcon through a course divided in 16 distinct timed segments. Meanwhile, Balloon Trip has players drawing air currents on the screen to move the character across a sky that is plagued by tons of enemies.

On Ninja Castle, players must slide their fingers across the gamepad’s screen while aiming at the TV to launch stars against deadly enemies. And in Octopus Dance, both of the pad’s control sticks must be used independently to move the arms of your character in order to replicate the dance moves of a robot. Although those activities are a lot of fun, they become the game’s weakest links because their content is thin; their value comes from the fact their arcade-like structure will have players going back to the very beginning whenever they lose their lives.

nintendo_land7The other two single-player attractions also feature the same sort of game over system, but they have a highly addictive nature that severely diminishes any frustration caused by having to restart from scratch. DK’s Crash Course offers a ten-section obstacle course inspired by the original arcade Donkey Kong title. During this attraction, players must carefully tilt the gamepad to move a little wheeled cart across many slopes, platforms, and traps that are just waiting to crush your poor Mii.

On Yoshi’s Fruit Cart, players must draw a path for Yoshi to follow and eat all the fruit in a given stage. The twist, though, is that obstacles and fruit only appear on the TV, leaving players to utilize tiny visual cues to determine where exactly on the gamepad’s screen the objects are located. Like every other attraction in the game, those two keep track of best scores achieved, which makes trying to outdo yourself a very compelling experience.

As a coincidence, or maybe not, the three greatest attractions found in the game are those that allow all three kinds of gameplay: competitive, cooperative, and single-player. Metroid Blast, the finest one in the bunch, places up to five players in one arena (where one controls a ship through the gamepad and others play as Samus on the ground) to either blast each other to death or defeat hordes of different enemies in varied challenges.

The Legend of Zelda: Battle Quest offers nine familiar scenarios with temples, forests, and volcanoes where a group of Miis garbed in the traditional hero outfit must down many challenging foes and bosses with swords, or with the arrow and bow. Finally, Pikmin Adventure has one player lead the way as Olimar, while the other four control large and very powerful Pikmin to aid the captain make his way through bug-infested challenges.

nintendo_land4What is most impressive about those titles, other than the fact that they are incredibly fun – a quality that is shared among all attractions of the game – is that they have a load of content. Aside from the regular levels that must be cleared either alone or cooperatively, they also feature extra and very challenging stages (some of which are nearly impossible to clear by yourself), and a whole bunch of different modes to be explored.

Another positive point, which is equally spread across the entirety of Nintendo Land, is how well the controls work, especially the gamepad. Moving Samus’ ship by working with the control sticks and tilting the controller as if it were a window through which you can better glimpse what is on TV is absolutely fantastic, and the same can be said for moving the cart in DK’s Crash Course, using the bow in Zelda: Battle Quest, or getting a totally different perspective through the controller’s screen in the chase-centered attractions.

The cherry on top of this glorious pile of content is the game’s integration with Mii Verse. Aside from seamlessly allowing players to share comments in-between stages and matches, and showing what other people around the world are saying about the attractions, Nintendo Land will populate the central plaza of the park with hundreds of real Miis from other players.

nintendo_land8Aside from serving as a visual prop, it is possible to select any Mii that is walking around the place in order to check where that person is from, what attractions they have been playing, how many coins and prizes they have collected, and how is their level of completion in all of the attractions. It’s something so naturally done, and it is executed with such incredible charm, that spending time around the plaza looking at other people’s comments and records is not exactly rare. Although the game does not feature any kind of online gameplay, which is a shame as some games could have greatly benefited from it, there is still a whole lot of connectivity.

Nintendo Land, therefore, serves three core purposes. Firstly, it is an extremely well-produced game that packs a whole lot of value; secondly, it works as a blueprint so that gamers can know what their newly acquired system is capable of, and developers can use its concepts as a source of inspiration; and, finally, it is a great display of how Nintendo’s MiiVerse can be integrated into a game in very meaningful ways. More than a bonus that comes with the system, Nintendo Land is a game that offers plenty of challenge for lonely moments, and a huge quantity of fun when two or more friends are gathered.

Nintendo Land

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Bayonetta Review

Our world, heaven, hell, and purgatory would all be equally hard-pressed to find something so impurely fun

bayonettaRidiculous is the first word that comes to mind when trying to describe Bayonetta. For the good and, in very rare occasions, for the bad, that adjective seems to apply to almost everything the title does. This is a game about an extremely sexualized witch who brutally murders violent angelic beings in order to satisfy the powers of the underworld, and who occasionally summons enormous demons with the goal of sending the heavenly creatures straight to hell. It somehow makes sense, while simultaneously being senseless, but that is the contradiction within which the game exists.

Bayonetta is blatantly built with the goal of delivering players battles that are as big and outrageous as possible. Every piece of the puzzle here has been obviously put in place to feed the combat, which is the purpose and main spectacle that Platinum Games set out to seek. That quest has been clearly fulfilled, for it is hard to find a game whose battles are this thrilling and satisfying; however, it has also left some gaping holes that stop it from reaching the full level of excellence that could have been had.

The titular character starts the game dressed as a nun praying beside a coffin whose deceased content has been provided by the local mob boss. As angels descend from Paradiso to carry the body away, she strips herself of her clothing, reveals her air-tight leather outfit, and proceeds to grind the good spirits to death.

bayonetta4That introduction alone serves to showcase two of the game’s greatest qualities. Firstly, Bayonetta lives for show: the battles’ starting points, as well as their climaxes, are downright epic. The wicked lady knows how to spring into action, and is even more skilled when it comes to ending the life of her foes in the most eye-popping ways. She will shoot them down, dismember them into nothingness, and – in almost full nudity – call mighty devils to smash them gruesomely.

Those visceral fireworks, as well as the poppy songs that accompany the combats, make it impossible to resist the overwhelming joy that comes with the fights against armies of angels. Everything is drowned in savage gore, but that sadistic demeanor is smartly alleviated by the tongue-in-cheek nature of the game. In the midst of the most cruel situations, Bayonetta acts with a light-hearted nonchalance, boasting humorously while killing seamlessly, and landing all her lines with a low-key sort of amusement. Instead of being disturbingly vile, the game’s heart comes off as entertainingly pleasing.

That flair for the spectacular, despite being mostly for the best, can sometimes get on the game’s way. The cinematic intermissions either in the middle or in the end of battles usually come accompanied by some quick-time events. Though most are harmless and surprisingly fun, some – namely those where reacting incorrectly can lead to a one-hit death – can get annoying.

bayonetta2The second positive attribute disclosed by Bayonetta’s opening is that the game does not kid around. It knows very well how to balance its storytelling with the action under which it thrives. Although combat is sometimes broken up by cutscenes, that division is very well-balanced. Players are never left anxious to take control of the character because not only are the cinematics enjoyable, whether they are meaningful or simply pointless fun, but they are also restrained.

Though they are entertaining, the cutscenes are closely tied to Bayonetta’s biggest issue. The game’s premise of a witch that has lost her memory and combats heavenly forces is intriguing, but it does not materialize into an engaging plot. Instead of going for an easy-to-follow storyline, Platinum Games aims for something much bigger and ends up bitting off more than it could chew. A quest of rediscovery of one’s past ends up being inserted inside a convoluted drama of four different realms (heaven, hell, the human world, and purgatory), two secret clans, and a man trying to control the universe. The result fails to satisfy both in its character-development and content.

The biggest part of the enjoyment to be found in the game, though, has its source right on the fantastic battle system that has been put together. Platinum Games has been able to strike the chord that all action games need to find, which is to build depth out of simplicity. The control system is very straightforward, as there is a button to punch, another to kick, one to jump, and – finally – a last one to dodge. Primarily, those are the actions the character can perform, but – with those four commands as its basis – the game constructs a combat system that is highly enjoyable and deep.

bayonetta6The amount of combos that can be executed by combining those four moves is immense, but the game loses no time to explain them to players one by one. Instead, it leaves everything up to experimentation during the fights, which creates a fantastic and rewarding learning curve. As a small brilliant twist, though, during load screens it is possible to navigate through the list of all possible combos and practice them at will. Therefore, the game turns something potentially boring into a valuable practicing opportunity.

As amazing as they might be, various combos are nothing new when it comes to action games. What truly differentiates the combat system of Bayonetta from the bunch are two elements: the torture attacks, and witch time. The former, which is a clear example of how this a game that is deeply in love with flashy massacre, can be unleashed once a magic gauge, which goes up when Bayonetta lands hits and down when she is attacked, is filled. Those moves show the witch making use of numerous torture devices (including a guillotine and an iron maiden) to deliver both huge amounts of damage and visual extravaganza.

Witch time, meanwhile, adds an intriguing risk-and-reward factor to battles. It works by slowing down time, and – consequently – enemies, to a crawl so that Bayonetta can smash away without worrying about being hit. However, activating witch time requires that incoming attacks be avoided at the very moment that separates a successful dodge from a hit. It ends up turning dodging into a game of chicken where players are constantly confronted with the decision of either safely executing an early evasion, or leaving the press of the button for the last second – hence risking a hit.

bayonetta5Making careful decisions during battles is important because Bayonetta is a challenging quest. Some bosses and a few minor angels are very hard to deal with, even after multiple encounters, and some battle sequences can be very demanding. The difficulty is further increased due to the fact that the game is not generous when it comes to money.

There is a store where various upgrades, weapons, and items can be purchased. Nevertheless, acquiring a considerable number of empowering new toys is hard because cash does not come easy. And even if it did, the game has a low and smartly determined limitation on the number of healing potions and other magical items that can be taken into levels, forcing players to truly care about their health.

Being concerned with getting killed has little to do with losing progress; the checkpoints are generally well-placed even if in some rare situations following a “game over” players are forced to replay through mundane segments only to get to a boss. That concern, actually, comes from the fact all of Bayonetta’s chapters are divided into segments, called verses, that award players with a score according to their overall performance, and dying certainly does not help the cause.

bayonetta1Such structure – along with dozens of achievements – makes the game very replayable, as it is nearly irresistible to try to get a better score on each of the verses in order to increase the rank one receives after completing a whole chapter. This alluring nature turns a game whose main mission can be a bit on the short side (the whole thing can be completed within ten hours) into something that carries a greater value.

Though it starts from an insane, yet interesting, premise, Bayonetta never really comes together as a wonderful tale. However, those who wander into an action game looking for deep reflections have certainly taken the wrong turn along the way. What the game delivers, and it does it much better than a large percentage of the titles that share its genre, is spectacular and ridiculous thrill. This is not one climatic explosion at the end of an action flick, this is a series of endless loud bangs that get more absurdly entertaining by the second, and the game never lets go off of that pace.

Everything, its dialogues, the sexualization of its titular character, its flashy combat scheme, its progressively outrageous enemy design, and its overwhelming gore come up to form a creature that is simultaneously brutal and light-hearted. This is blatant violence without a drop of guilt; it is heavy darkness coated in pop accessibility; it is wicked elegance; it is doing everything that is ridiculous and polemic for the sake of entertainment; and it is the chance for players to perform the most eye-popping moves and maneuvers with the press of a few buttons or the delivery of some timely combos. Our world, heaven, hell, and purgatory would all be equally hard-pressed to find something so impurely fun.

Bayonetta

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Animal Crossing: New Leaf Review

A daily joy to be treasured, shared, and enjoyed

new_leaf_1At some point during most games, when faced with the simple question “What are you playing this for?” most gamers will proudly state that they are either aiming to finish the main storyline or looking for all collectibles and achievements that can be found out there to reach full sweet completion. However, when the same question is aimed towards someone who is enjoying one fine session of Animal Crossing, the answers will be so varied that no statistical map will be able to hold them in a cohesive manner.

Some will answer they are simply looking for fish of the current season, or hunting a valuable bug that has been eluding them; while others will go on and on about how the flower and tree placement on their town is miles away from their intended target. It is in that delightful variety that lies the beauty of Animal Crossing; a game that, within the confines of a charming little town, offers a delicate and solid array of possibilities that players can explore with great degrees of freedom. It’s a beautiful virtual life, and one that cannot be missed by any means.

It all starts suddenly. At first, you are sitting on a train making small talk with a curious blue cat that asks numerous questions about you and your destination. Next thing you know, you step out of the station to find a small group of animals cheering at the sight of your arrival. As it turns out, they have chosen you as their mayor; the one whose responsibility will be to develop the town and bring their suggestions for public works projects to fruition.

new_leaf_2Although that added power is the biggest shift New Leaf presents in relation to its predecessors, it is far from being the only one that is remarkable. After City Folk, the Nintendo Wii installment, changed almost nothing in the general scope of the series, Nintendo was fully aware that Animal Crossing needed to take a considerable leap, but without forgetting the quirks and care that have always made it such a fantastic franchise. As it turns out, they have pulled it off in amazing fashion.

In its beginning, New Leaf is extremely wise in its pacing, welcoming veterans with the necessary freedom, and aiding newcomers in finding out what exactly there is to do in this lovely world Nintendo has crafted. After settling into your small tent, the humble beginnings of a house that can transform into an enormous mansion, Isabelle – your helpful assistant – will tell you that the ability to build projects around town is not available until you have achieved full approval from your neighbors.

She will, therefore, offer a number of suggestions as to what can be done in order to improve your popularity ratings. As a consequence, while veterans will be enthralled in the quest for the permission to start creating their dream town, beginners will be engaged in the discovery of the little activities that make Animal Crossing what it is.

new_leaf_4All of the series’ major staples make a return: fishing remains as fun as ever, catching bugs requires a lot of patience and silence, and digging up fossils is a daily delight. All of those activities, much like the entire game, work together with the system’s internal clock. Most fish and bugs are only available during a certain season, month, or hour; new fossils appear as dawn comes; each of the town’s shops have their own working hours and have different available items everyday; the weather and the town’s visual changes as the year passes; some special visitors come around randomly during the week; and while some villagers wake up very early in the morning, others will only be up a little bit later and will be walking around town until the late hours of the night.

If there is one thing that defines Animal Crossing is its ability to renovate itself with every passing day, making those that are engaged by it feel as though they have a brand new game to play with the arrival of every morning.

Another one of the series’ main achievements, and one that is very much present in New Leaf, is how such a little and simple game map makes up for so many hours of gameplay. Although one can walk through the entirety of their town within a couple of minutes, it is not rare to spend over one hundred hours with the title. Those hours, though, do not come within a few days, as Animal Crossing is a game that is best enjoyed on daily bursts of about forty minutes. It’s not time-consuming, even if its packed with so much content that most players will not be able to sort through it all and embrace everything.

new_leaf_7That quite intriguing distinction comes from the fact that Animal Crossing forces players to be patient and wait, and New Leaf emphasizes it more strongly than any other installment. The game is full of unlockable shops, abilities, and constructions, and even though there is a large number of requirements that need to be met in order to be able to enjoy them, one requirement is shared by all of them: the passage of time.

Some shops are only renovated after a week, or more; some characters only appear once a week; and after a public project has been fully paid for, players must wait for the next day to watch it materialize. The joy of Animal Crossing is in the little things, like the humble celebrations that are held when a construction is done, and while the game does not offer any kind of stressful challenge, it makes players feel rewarded in their waiting.

If there is some challenge, other than playing the waiting game, to be had in New Leaf, it certainly is earning money. Previous Animal Crossing titles put a heavy emphasis on finding ways to make money, and New Leaf takes it to a whole higher level. Regular items like furniture, clothes, and tools retain the same average price, but not only does it take much more money to fully upgrade your small tent to a glorious six-room mansion, but the public work projects are also very expensive.

new_leaf_5Some of those projects are extremely useful, such as the club on the shopping district where it’s possible to earn facial expressions and songs, or the laid-back coffee shop; while others only serve the purpose of making your town prettier, like the windmill or the fountain, something that is of very high importance in the world of Animal Crossing. As a consequence, earning the money to make both your town and your house look exactly like your sketched dreamy plans is an absolute must.

Thankfully, in order to balance out the game’s increased hunger for cash, Nintendo has added a tropical island to the mix. This paradise is in perpetual summer, which is precisely the time when the most valuable bugs and fish are available to be caught, and, as a consequence, a forty-minute visit to it will leave your pockets filled with beetles and sharks that can be sold for great prices.

new_leaf_6Aside from aiding players in the creation of money-making schemes, the island also offers a few random tours that change everyday. Those tours work like timed mini-games of varied theme – catching a certain species of fish, popping balloons in the sky, picking up the right fruit, or planting the right flowers – and reward players with medals, which can be exchanged in the paradise’s shop for island-exclusive items. However, its most important benefit to the game is the great multiplayer action it offres to players who like to visit other people’s towns over the Internet.

Speaking of traveling to foreign villages, it is important to note that it has become a much more engaging activity, and not just because the new Dream Suite allows players to visit random virtual versions of towns that are uploaded by players, but because New Leaf puts such a heavy focus on customization.

Once upon a time, all players could do to make their town distinguish itself from others was planting trees, flowers, and putting patterns on the ground to simulate sidewalks. This time, however, with the vast group of public projects, towns are even more distinguishable, allowing players to combine their gardening abilities with the precise placement of their desired structures.

The customization leaks right out of the landscaping and it affects other areas of the game like the clothing, as unique shoes and even socks are available to be purchased; the exterior of your house, since Tom Nook has abandoned the retail business to focus on real estate; and even the furniture, which can be customized by the alpacas that run the recycling shop.

new_leaf_8Fishing, hunting for bugs, looking for fossils, gardening, shopping, landscaping, customizing the world, visiting other towns, and even diving for sea-life (a brand new mechanic); it is all a whole lot of fun, but Animal Crossing wold not be complete without its charming cast of characters who are given life through the hilariously quirky dialogue.

All of the NPCs, whether it’s the fixed characters who run the shops or visit town every once in a while, or the villagers that come and go as times moves on, leave their mark one way or another, and there are not many games out there who have such an impressive and lovable supporting cast as Animal Crossing does. They add a lot of life to this virtual town, and they are bound to make you smile either for the simple fact that you have seen them, or because they have delivered one nice line of dialogue.

New Leaf is not just the series’ peak in terms of content and value, it’s also its highest point in technical terms. The game’s visuals are absolutely stellar, and the cooperation between its unique, and slightly improved, art style with its relaxing and nearly rural feeling makes playing Animal Crossing come as close as gaming will ever come to being a therapeutic experience.

Everything is tied up together by a soundtrack that hangs out in the shadows, but pops up quite nicely once one pays close attention to it. The hourly shift from one tune to the other is absolutely magical, and among the game’s twenty-four unique town compositions – not to mention the incredible tunes played on Saturday by the great K.K. Slider – every single player will find a dozen of songs to cherish.

While stellar, New Leaf is not free of flaws, but all of them are so minor that they never grow pass the point of being slight annoyances or silly nitpicks that could only be pointed out by longtime fans. On the spectrum of slight annoyances is the fact that the game’s inventory system is a little bit too restricted, as your character can only carry around seventeen items at a time. It sounds like a good quantity, but when one factors the number of tools that are vital for daily activities (four), and that there is a whole lot of daily shopping to do, seventeen slots means that players will be doing way too many trips to either store what they have purchased in their house or to sell those items somewhere.

new_leaf_3Meanwhile, on the side of silly nitpicks, lie the fact that the difference between the types of personalities of the villagers has been diminished, meaning that – for instance – cranky villagers are not that cranky anymore and snotty ones are way too nice; and the return of grass deterioration, a heavily criticized feature of City Folk that is present here on a less aggressive manner, but that still works heavily against a game that puts so much emphasis on making one’s town look good, punishing gamers that play the game too often by turning certain spots of grass that are too frequently walked over into muddy areas.

In the end, New Leaf is a game better described through the use of superlatives. It is one of the most charming games Nintendo has ever released, the most relaxing experience one can have while playing a videogame, and it’s a title of unparalleled value, being able to renovate itself with each passing day and remain fresh not for weeks, but for years. It’s a game that, in its general description, might sound dull or mundane; but once one comes into contact with it, and starts developing some kind of relationship with their town and the characters that inhabit it, it becomes increasingly more difficult to put down. It’s not a guilty pleasure; it’s a daily joy to be treasured, shared and enjoyed.

New Leaf

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Beyond Good and Evil Review

By setting out to make her home a better place to live, Jade ends up making our world a whole lot better

beyond_good_and_evil5Games pertaining to the action/adventure genre have been continuously produced ever since 3-D gaming was born. After all, if there is one thing a tridimensional scenario claims for is deep exploration with a few action sequences along the way to further enhance the game’s pace, hence stopping it from being a monotonous linear line on the excitement chart.

Most of those games, though, fail to provide a somewhat unique experience as they usually draw tested concepts and gameplay structure from genre pioneers (Zelda and Mario), but fail to use those pillars as the solid foundation for something that is big and refreshing. Consequently, they end up feeling like redundant purchases, or inferior imitators, to gamers that already have the best of the genre on their collection. Beyond Good and Evil is different, however. It heavily drinks from the Zelda fountain, but it adds some extremely successful elements that help distinguish it from its colleagues.

As the game begins, on year 2435, players are presented to the world of Hillys, a beautiful planet in a far away galaxy where many islands are connected by a big body of water filled with ships while space shuttles fly overhead. In this planet humans, robots, and other animal-like species live in a society that is more often than not attacked by DomZ, evil aliens with an unknown purpose. Thankfully, the planet is protected by a group of military forces dubbed Alpha Sections, which always show up on attack scenes right after the occurrence in order to protect the population and fight the DomZ.

beyond_good_and_evil6Jade, a human orphan and the game’s star, lives with her uncle Pey’j, a pig-like humanoid with great knowledge in mechanics, in a lighthouse taking care of Hillys’ children that have been orphaned by DomZ’s attacks. One day, while going through financial woes, Jade receives a mysterious message. Its content leads her to an investigation group, the IRIS Network, that searches for evidence of a possible conspiracy inside the government. The search reveals a shocking reality, and the brave Jade decides to lead the IRIS Network in their fight against the powers that be.

The plot is extremely original and clever. Not only does it deal with propaganda and underground battles between a dirty government and its suppressed opposition – a surprisingly deep theme for a software of cartoonish visuals, it also sets the basis for an equally distinct gameplay, and it is in that combination that Beyond Good and Evil truly flourishes as a game.

beyond_good_and_evil2The storyline is made even stronger by the building bricks that fill it with life. The voice acting is great, and so are the lines punctually delivered by the actors. As a consequence, Beyond Good and Evil’s characters are charismatic and easy to fall in love with, naturally increasing players’ interest in what happens during the adventure and making the levels of engagement soar. The same applies to the development of the core group of characters, which is handled with a lot of care by placing them in carefully constructed situations of drama, comedy, tension, and sheer joyful adventure

All of that excitement unfolds in a vast overworld composed of a small number of islands and locations to be explored, and a big city that serves both as the main point for resupplying and the secret base of Jade’s insurgent organization. The metropolis is bustling with activity and, as an added touch, it feels extremely alive due to the fact that – as the investigation advances and the truth begins to go from mouth to mouth – citizens start reacting to what is taking place and change their behavior.

In order to travel between the distant locations that form Hillys, Jade uses a fast modern ship that controls very well and streamlines the process of going from one place to another. The vehicle plays a large role in the game and a good portion of the adventure is spent inside of it as some of the places that must be visited are heavily guarded by enemies, barricades, and other obstacles that can only be surpassed by using it.

beyond_good_and_evil7Additionally, perhaps aware of how thrilling that method of transportation is, Ubisoft threw in few amusing races and other small side missions that involve driving the ship as fast as possible while speeding by the almost surrealistic scenarios of Hillys.

Once Jade steps out of her vehicle things take a less-frantic turn. Most of the gameplay consists of exploring large and dark environments where the government is potentially undertaking suspicious activities. Like a nosy journalist committed to the truth, Jade’s main goal is to show the population the reality of what is taking place behind the scenes. Therefore, she must often take revealing pictures in locations that are heavily guarded.

Players will have to find a way to sneak through hordes of bots that will act in the sign of any small noticeable movement. Naturally, Beyond Good and Evil has an intense element of stealth surrounding each and every one of its missions. Jade will crawl, hide, and surprise the guards by attacking their weak spots when they least expect it. In order to advance, players will have to carefully scan their surroundings and look for a route that is best suited for sneaking around, making most of the gameplay feel like a big puzzle that involves finding a way to navigate between two points without being seen.

beyond_good_and_evil3Those sequences are overwhelmingly impressive. The combination of the tense soundtrack, the knowledge that these are facilities that hide huge secrets, and the visually stunning camera angles that display perspectives that border on cinematic drives the pressure to the stratosphere.

Although stealth is its calling card, Beyond Good and Evil does a fantastic job in balancing out its gameplay. There is a lot of sidling, but there is also plenty of puzzle solving and combat. The former involves some Zelda-like solutions to problems that stymie the progress of the investigation. Overcoming those obstacles usually involves using the skills of Jade’s partner by pressing the Y-button, which works as a context sensitive command to those characters.

Meanwhile, the latter consists of a good collection of baddies ready to be beaten down. It is worth noting that the game’s combat system – which makes use of a fixed camera that is extremely accurate even if the automatic lock may bother some players – isn’t exactly deep, as most regular enemies can be brought down in hack and slash fashion. However, it is entertaining and it does its job in changing the game’s pace a little bit. Boss battles, on the other hand, even if not very numerous, are pretty inventive and tend to demand more than button-mashing.

beyond_good_and_evil4That fantastic alternation between stealth, combat, and puzzle-solving comes to a close after ten excellent hours of gameplay, but Beyond Good and Evil knows the impressive allure of its world, and it finds ways to lure players into further exploring it. Firstly, as a pleasant break from the snapshots of disturbing contents, Jade can use her camera to photograph and catalog the vast fauna of Hillys, temporarily turning the game into a delightful scientific quest in beautiful and, sometimes, inhospitable settings.

Secondly, as a more traditional – yet equally attractive – collectible of sorts, pearls are scattered throughout Hillys, and tracking each of them down can be an adventure in itself given some of their hiding spots are away from the course one takes when tackling the game’s main plot.

Despite all of its qualities, Beyond Good and Evil is not perfect, and it is disappointing to notice that its major shortcoming is found in one of its most original and best elements: the storyline. Although the script is by all means stellar, its execution has issues that diminish the value of its concept and of the prowesses that it highlights, such as the tense atmosphere created by the knowledge there is something iffy going on.

Through the first half of the quest, players will be extremely compelled to uncover the schemes of the planet’s leaders. Unfortunately, the truth is unveiled so quickly that the game’s second half feels a little bit lacking because the story’s core will already be exposed by then. Therefore, from that point onwards, players are left with a gameplay-focused experience.

beyond_good_and_evilWhile the gameplay is great and holds up the game by itself just fine, the complementary tension provided by being on the verge of a nice discovery is gone, taking away a little bit of the game’s fantastic charm. Thus, Beyond Good and Evil skyrockets to the masterpiece level on its first hours, but comes to the finish line as a great action/adventure game.

The end result is Beyond Good and Evil is not as great as it could have been, but it clearly rises far above most of its competition. It uses an intriguing premise as its launching pad and, from that point, it proceeds to craft clever gameplay elements to complement it. In this world where goofy characters meet somewhat dystopic visual cues, Ubisoft pulls together a highly varied adventure with great heart and personality that rightfully earns a well-regarded position in the lore of gaming. By setting out to make her home a better place to live, Jade ends up making our world a whole lot better; we should be thankful.

Beyond Good and Evil

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Fantasy Life Review

True Charm Conquers All

fantasy_lifeTitles that set out with the purpose of giving players a virtual life are nothing new. They are, after all, not only a consequence of the power games have to immerse their fans in fantastic worlds, but also of the increasing amount of content software can carry. Fantasy Life is, simultaneously, a lot alike and really different from most works that fall under that niche: the similarity lies in the fact that it loads itself with so much to do that full completion is hard to envision, but the distinction is the defined goals the game is quick to establish. This is a universe on which one can spend endless hours, but – at the same time – where there are clear objectives to pursue.

That blend is achieved smartly, for Fantasy Life brings together role-playing elements – the game’s core – with a focus on collecting furniture and doing other seemingly mundane activities that is easily comparable to Nintendo’s stellar line of Animal Crossing games. It works both ways, because those who are usually bothered by the lack of focus of open-ended titles will have a shiny finish line to chase, and anyone who loves the loose freedom of the genre will get a bundle of that independence along with a structured adventure to tackle.

fantasy_life_5It all begins when the main nameless character has to make a very important decision: select the life he wants to pursue. When he arrives in the castle to voice his choice, the infant-looking king expresses his concern over events that have been plaguing the land of Reveria. As it turns out, the sky seems to be falling apart, and its pieces – tellingly named Doomstones – are causing major damage and also mysteriously affecting the creatures of the areas on which they fall. Naturally, noticing the energy and enthusiasm of the soon-to-be hero, the king tasks the youngster with the investigation of those occurrences.

And that, right there, is the point when the game opens the way for its two facets: its RPG adventure, which is the main storyline; and its life system, which is what turns Fantasy Life into a unique product. Starting from that very early moment, gamers can take the wheel and decide whether they want to focus in advancing in their selected career, or go after the quests that make up the solving of the riddle behind the sinister stones. It is a very intense sense of freedom, and it makes everything seem like a huge explorable open-world that can be experienced in many different ways.

fantasy_life_2The game offers twelve career choices. It is indeed a large number, but – for practical purposes – they could be easily divided in three groups. Firstly, there are the lives that gravitate around combat: Paladin, a regular sword-yielding soldier; Hunter, a bow specialist; Wizard, a user of elemental magic; and Mercenary, a slow unit that deals a large amount of damage. Secondly, there are those that harvest resources from the land: Angler, Woodcutter, and Miner. And, finally, there are lives whose goal is to use resources and loot to craft new items: Blacksmith, Carpenter, Tailor, Alchemist, and Cook.

Thankfully, due to the total combat ineptitude that the harvesting and crafting classes posses, and smartly, since it gives players the chance to truly go through everything the game has to offer, it is possible to mutually belong to any number of lives. Inside each of those careers, players can level up in rank according to the class-specific tasks they are able to complete, which allows the use of new and more powerful weapons or tools, and the learning of new class-related techniques.

fantasy_life_3The option to freely switch between classes turns out to be brilliant in two ways. For starters, it supports the heavy collaboration between each skill. For example, a very rare piece of lumber found by a high-level woodcutter can be employed by a carpenter in the making of an epically mighty shield that will be used in battle by a master paladin; on the other hand, that piece of wood could simply be used in the crafting of a bed that will look just perfect on your newly acquired seaside hut. Fantasy Life fills players’ hands with a multitude of choices, and it is up to them to have fun in whatever way they see fit.

The second direct effect of being able to play all of the roles is that it is possible to, while traveling through the wonderful land of Reveria, have up to fourteen lists of numerous quests of distinct natures: one for each of the twelve classes, one related to the main quest, and one consisting of requests made by NPCs. Players can pretty much freely choose what they want to do, where they want to go, and whether it is time to upgrade their interior decoration, climb up the ladder in a certain class, go after treasure to buy that fancy piece of real estate, or save the world.

It sounds overwhelming, it comes off as ridiculously impossible to manage, and it is numerically astounding. However, not only does Fantasy Life make it all seem like a relaxing pleasure, but those hundreds of quests also serve as the sweet excuse players will have to spend hundreds of hours in Reveria.

fantasy_life_7And that is precisely where Fantasy Life truly shines. Players will desperately look for a reason to put their adventure gear on and face the dangers of the world, and the game will give them about a few dozen pieces of motivation. That eager want for a purpose to explore Reveria is easily explained by one undeniable fact: few, maybe zero, games out there are as unbelievably charming as Fantasy Life.

The loveliness is so dense that it oozes from every single corner. It begins with the involving soundtrack, which was handled by the gifted Nobuo Uematsu, the man responsible for the tunes that drive the emotional weight of most Final Fantasy games into the stratosphere. His work here lives up to his credentials. Faced with a world that is far more light-hearted than what one usually finds on the Square-Enix flagship franchise, his music is able to convey both the whimsical and the slightly dramatic with perfection.

fantasy_life_10Then there is Reveria itself, which is as adorable as a virtual planet can be. From the outset, and without having to wait for the story to progress much, it is possible to go pretty much anywhere, and the sights to behold are many. This is a land that pairs up a traditional medieval kingdom, a port town with Caribbean motifs whose ruling is shared by aristocrats and pirates, and a desert land bursting with magicians, and it makes all those strange pieces fit together through its simple graphics that are sustained by a masterful art style. In between those places, players will explore everything from natural reserves, volcanoes, plains, floating islands, deserts, and countless caves.

All of those locations are filled to the brim with hordes of enemies whose design was carefully constructed, making them seem right at home in this borderline fairy-tale world. Although some are indeed threatening due to the absurdly high level they possess, almost none of them come off as dangerous or evil in their looks. They lean more towards goofy. And that light nature goes right along with one of the greatest things about Reveria: the fact that, despite the threat of the falling sky, this is a place with no real enemies. There is absolutely no one with a demeanor of cartoonish evil; these are all regular, yet incredibly amusing, people living in a fantastic world.

fantasy_life_8What truly lays down the bricks that make up this wonderful land are the dialogues that give heart to these characters. They can be truthfully touching (without ever coming close to cheesiness) and laugh-out-loud hilarious. And that quality is present literally everywhere; it is in the minor characters that take care of shops, in those who frequently ask players to do sidequests, in the main storyline participants, and in the numerous carefully developed people that are available to be recruited to the player’s party when they set out for adventure.

Nowhere is that trait clearer than on the butterfly that serves as your main companion during the game. She is able to be warmly friendly, easily lovable, sharply sarcastic, truthfully helpful and brilliantly mocking all at the same time. It would be no exaggeration to dub her the greatest sidekick to ever grace a game.

For all of its qualities, there is one reality that holds Fantasy Life back from achieving everything its concept and charm could have allowed: this is a somewhat flawed game. Getting to the end of its storyline is so easy it demands almost no effort, and a large number of the quests involved in it are just a matter of heading to a certain location (which is almost always highlighted on the map) and talking to someone. This means that Fantasy Life is a game that is very heavy in text. Given the dialogues are invariably great, it is not an inherent issue, but it is a characteristic that might turn off some people.

fantasy_life_9Additionally, it is disappointing to realize that, in a game whose core allure is the variety of professions to choose from, many of them are similar to a certain degree. The five crafting lives (tailor, carpenter, blacksmith, alchemist, and cook) all involve the same mini-game that is merely presented in a different skin depending on the item one wants to create. The same applies to the harvesting careers of mining and woodcutting, which offer the same commands and techniques, albeit with different goals; and the battling jobs, which present an equal shortcoming.

The various professions are also the source of a minor annoyance. In order to go up a rank in a certain occupation, players must validate their completed quests with the guild’s master. However, in spite of the fact the main character can simultaneously be engaged in all 12 careers, only one of the licenses can be carried at a time. Therefore, to report completed tasks to a specific master, players must either be holding that job’s license or else they will have to go back to the town’s office, pick up the required document, and only then head to the guild’s leader.

It is a silly limitation that makes no sense at all, because players can perform activities or do quests pertaining to any profession regardless of the license they are currently carrying (for example, a character holding a hunter license can mine at will as long as he has also been certified as a miner).

fantasy_life_11The game’s greatest problem, however, lies in the structure of its quests. Fantasy Life has very clear inspirations in the universe of MMOs, which ends up translating into tasks that can have a heavy focus on sheer grinding. Although that is not true about the main quest, it is an unshakable fact that is attached to the job-specific goals and general sidequests. Although they are cleverly presented in different ways, most gravitate around going to a precise location and either killing a certain number of foes, searching for elusive item drops, gathering specific resources, and sometimes using what you have collected to build something through the crafting professions.

It is a never-ending, and somewhat repetitive, cycle of going out into the world and grinding your way to the finding of something special. It sounds shallow, and to a certain level it is pretty hollow, but the bottom line is that it all works. Somehow Fantasy Life escapes nearly unscathed through all of its major stumbles and minor issues to come out on the other side as this delightful game that can be awfully hard to put down simply due to the fact that you will want to spend more time in Reveria, and the game will happily oblige by throwing hundreds of quests onto the players laps.

Sure, the quests might be repetitive and involve a lot of grinding, but they are an excuse to go out there and explore some more and – maybe – even discover some interesting new place full of fun characters and creatures. How does Fantasy Life manage to muster such magic despite its problems? It all comes down to its overwhelming charm and the pure joy of getting a taste of what can be found in its world. It is irresistible, and at the same time a weird sort of guilty pleasure. In this case, true charm truly conquers all, even the most glaring flaws.

Fantasy Life

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Reviewing Extravaganza

During the relatively short time this humble blog has been up here, I have tried my best to alternate posts of different kinds. I am always aiming to spread out the posting of gaming reviews and articles, and eventually throw one or two posts about music and animation out there for the sake of variety.

I believe that not only does this format keep things more interesting, but it also makes the blog far more dynamic. Here is the thing, though: I have a huge backlog of reviews to post. As a few of you may know, I have been writing as Pierst179 over at Gamespot since 2006, and although all of my early reviews are pretty lackluster, I have quite a few recent ones that I published not too long before creating this blog that are worthy of being posted in this space.

I have selected twenty of them – most of which concern games whose releases have happened during the last four years or so – and I plan on posting them here during the next few months. Therefore, during that period of time, this blog will see the rate of published reviews rise quite a bit. I will try to spread out their posting with three or four days, though, in order to keep things more manageable and pleasant.

To those who are reading, firstly, thanks for going through my nonsense, and secondly, bear with me on this reviewing extravaganza. I sincerely hope you will enjoy it and that some of those reviews prove to be useful in the decision of whether or not to buy a game.

nintendo

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