Ah, racing games.  How I enjoy them.  Nothing like the thrill of being behind the wheel of an exotic vehicle, tearing down tracks at crazy speeds with a pack of rivals, and fighting tooth and nail for first place, barely edging out a photo finish.  It’s been a couple years since a game like that came my way (has it really been that long since I delved into Burnout Paradise?).  Now Split/Second has walked up to the plate; color me interested.

Let’s start from the beginning.  Split/Second is a racing game, named after the titular fictional show that you play as a contestant on.  Split/Second pits racers driving fast, expensive-looking cars against each other in a host of events, including races and lap runs.  The show’s (and, by extension, the game’s) name comes from the inclusion of Power Plays, scripted events that participants can trigger mid-race.  Dozens of explosives have been planted in various places on each track; Power Plays set them off.  The effect can vary wildly, from merely exploding a nearby tanker, to downing an entire building.  The idea is that you use Power Plays as an offensive tactic; instead of throwing a blue shell at someone, or a missile, or something, you can cause the warehouse they’re in to implode, or the bridge they’re racing under to collapse.  I’ve slipped under closing doors, made ludicrous detours in the blink of an eye, and just barely evaded swinging wrecking balls more times than I can count.  Hence, Split/Second.  The entire game is like if you took that scene in a generic action movie where the hero and his girlfriend are trying to escape the enemy HQ, right after the hero set off that cleverly planted set of bombs, and the whole place is coming down…and you stretched it into a TV series.  There’s jumps, improvised detours, and hazards galore.

The presentation and overall design of the game is very consistent; every aspect of the game does its part to convey a general theme.  The menus are slick and edgy, and the HUD–a small overlay that trails directly behind your car, telling you the lap number and your current place, among other things–is a creative touch, being sufficiently informative without being at all distracting.

Progression in the game’s career mode is split up into episodes.  Each episode has about five events.  Each event you complete adds to your total credits, with higher placement netting you more credits.  Credits unlock cars, and also unlock the Elite Races.  To progress to a new episode, you have to place 3rd or better in the current episode’s Elite Race.  While other events are purely for credits, each Elite Race, also counts towards a single ongoing tournament, with higher placements being assigned higher point values.  Since Elite Races are exclusively done with a set of named racers, considered to be the best contenders in the series, the points ladder is sort of a way to see your current standing in the series, regardless of episode.

While Split/Second is hardly a complicated game, there are some things you’ll definitely be wanting to pay attention to as you race.  Power Plays are activated using energy from a bar on your HUD, segmented into three pieces.  There’s a few ways to gain energy, but your primary methods will be drifting and drafting.  Drifting is something anyone who knows anything about racing will be familiar with.  Drafting is in a similar boat, but I’ll explain it anyway.  Drafting is the act of taking advantage of an opponent’s slipstream to pass them.  Getting into a bit of aerodynamics, when you’re going fast, air resistance becomes a more significant factor in your speed output.  If you imagined a car boring through a mound of earth, and another car following closely behind it, you’d have an idea of what drafting is except it’s air, not earth you’re “tunneling” through.  Long story short, following about 1-2 seconds behind a car, at fast speeds gives you a speed boost, allowing you to catch up and pass them.  It will also charge your Power Play meter.

Other things to pay attention to are the types of Power Plays.  Like I said before, they come in many flavors, some being more effective most.  For example, a common basic Power Play is to cause a parked car to explode, causing it to roll across the road in a veritable ball of fire.  Another is to cause a piece of machinery to activate, like a wrecking ball swinging across the track, or a set of buzz saws flying out of their encasing.  Even if the actual explosion or effect doesn’t directly hit you, in many cases the mere activation of a Power Play sends out a shockwave that turns your wheels to jelly (metaphorically, of course), and sends you skidding, making it all too easy to crash into something, or worse yet, spin out.  Some Power Plays will activate shortcuts, such as opening a gate, allowing you to bypass a sharp turn altogether.  Others will cause shortcuts to come crashing down on those inside of them.  Power Plays are context sensitive, appearing over other racers’ cars when they’re in range of being affected by one.  Still, some opportunities to use Power Plays are better than others, and even with the shockwave it’s very possible to miss entirely, or for a Power Play to have essentially no effect.  Frequently I’ve activated a Power Play, only for those near it to shake it off.  And yet one time I managed to eliminate six racers simultaneously by detonating a tanker, causing it to slide across the track, sweeping the whole rest of the pack into oblivion.

The most destructive Level 2 Power Plays require a full bar of energy, but the results are beautiful to behold.  Usually Level 2 Power Plays alter the course of the track, forcing a detour and wrecking anyone and everyone who are too late to switch routes.  For example, driving across a warf, I activated a Lv2 Power Play, which detonated a large ship, causing it to tip sideways, completely wrecking the stretch of track in front of us.  We instead had to drive onto the deck of the ship to bypass the wall of fire that had sprung up.  Another one derailed a train, causing it to crash in the area up ahead, and forcing us onto the freeway overhead.

Unfortunately, it’s not all positives.  Just like in many other games of the genre, there is some definite rubber-banding present, and it can get really bad at times.  When it takes you the better part of a lap to catch up to a computer cruising in 1st place, but only a minute or so for the computer to do the same to you, you know something’s not right.  The computer’s cars also don’t always seem to observe the same stats as yours do.  Trucks and SUVs are fully capable of passing sports cars (they weren’t drafting me, I checked), and a couple times I even saw a car literally spawn a couple hundred feet behind me.  It’s to the point that it actually kind of squanders your sense of progression in regards to the cars you earn.  Even though there’s a definite increase in performance as you unlock more cars, going back to older races with your newly unlocked cars doesn’t help much, as the computer will always use cars similar in class to the one you’re using.  

I also have a personal problem with the fact that the trucks and SUVs seem to be the computer’s car class of choice, just like you’ll find AI opponents more often than not touting rocket launchers and shock rifles in Unreal Tournament, and always dropping everything to go for health recovery items and the Smash Ball in Super Smash Bros games.  There’s just few things in life more irritating than driving an exotic super car and having an SUV just zoom right past you.  The competitors that aren’t driving in humongous trucks instead tend to choose whatever car you’re driving.  It’s kind of underwhelming, but at least the copying is only at its worst in the beginning episodes, when you don’t have that many cars.

Some of the crashes suffered by both you and the computer will feel arbitrary.  You’ll see it far more often in the AI, who will get pushed by a Power Play and either blow up right then and there, or essentially stop trying to steer, and go careening into a wall.  But it happens to you as well occasionally;  sometimes it feels like the game has frozen your steering wheel as a side effect of a Power Play shockwave, forcing you to crash.  Other times, the game won’t even give you a chance to actually hit something; your car will simply explode, and that’ll be that.  This hasn’t happened enough to cause frustration more than a couple times in my playtime thus far, though.

Other than races, there’s a fair number of other event types.  Detonator is very similar to your generic time attack sort of deal, except nearly every Power Play in the stage (including Level 2’s) is being activated as you draw near them, making this possibly the most action-y mode in the game.  Normally I dislike time trials, but Detonator is actually really fun.  There’s also Eliminator, which is kind of like Race except there’s a timer, and when that timer depletes, the guy in last place explodes, and is eliminated from the race.  This goes on at 20-30 second intervals, until there’s only one competitor left.  Clearly, to be a competitor in Split/Second you’d have to have a bit of crazy in you, evidenced by the other modes, Air Attack, Air Revenge, and Survival (the latter of which has you skirting in between a spill of explosive barrels dropped out of a series of giant big rigs).

Split/Second’s car selection isn’t bad.  There’s mainly three varieties of cars: 1)trucks and SUVs, which have good handling, and handle shockwaves better than the other guys, 2)sports cars and tuners, which are fast and nimble, but get knocked around easily, and 3)muscle cars, all-around vehicles that tend to have decent stats in every area.

There’s only a handful of environments, with a couple tracks running through each one, stretched across all 12 episodes.  Though this issue is diminished greatly by the ability to switch routes (sometimes multiple times on track) using Lv2 Power Plays, as of this writing I’m a little over halfway through the game and I am starting to feel the effects of recycled content.  What environments there are though, are nicely varied.

Overall, Split/Second is a well-performing, good looking game.  There’s a load screen when you first start the game up, and before starting each event, but thankfully you don’t have to sit through one if you decide to restart an event.  The game makes pretty great use of effects, with plenty of lens flare present.  For a game filled with explosions though, I think the explosions could actually look much better, as could the objects that go flying as a result of them.  There’s some clear crudeness in a lot of the environment models, and the textures aren’t too convincing.  I’ve also spotted the occasional visual glitch, such as the ground disappearing into a black abyss, but they usually come and go so quickly that it’s hard to pay much attention to them.  

The car models look great.  When the race begins, they look like they just rolled out of the dealership.  Crossing the finish line, there’s scratches galore on the sides, and streaks of dirt and dust on the paint.  At really fast speeds you get a bit of camera shake to let you know you’re being totally reckless, and dirt and debris tends to fly onscreen when something goes off near you.

Whoever was in charge of sound design in this game probably deserves a pat on the back, because Split/Second’s audio is incredibly engaging.  The BGM seems to consist of only one song, but it never feels like it because that song is remixed wildly to fit different situations.  For example, when you first arrive at the title screen, only a barebones version of it is playing.  As you go from menu to menu, more instruments chime in.  Mid-race is where you’ll really see the rewards of excellent sound design.  For example, you’re driving across an airport, and you see something in the sky way, way far up ahead.  Just as you realize that’s a mother-effin’ cargo plane on a crash course for you, the music just completely stops momentarily, as if you’re stuck in a vacuum.  Then it hits, and everything strikes back up again.  This game’s audio sucks you in.  Other sounds of note include a definite presence of the doppler effect (especially when you head into tunnels), and convincing engine sounds.

Split/Second is a very good game.  I didn’t get a chance to try its multiplayer (it also has two player split-screen, quick play and online modes), but the single player stands firm by itself as a fun and engaging experience.  The AI rubber-banding is irritating at times, to be sure, but it doesn’t do a whole lot to hamper what is otherwise a very solid racing title.  Especially for someone who enjoys Mario Kart, arguably the king of AI hax.  An 8.5/10.

Dead Nation

I quite enjoy twin stick shooters. It’s a genre that’s never failed to entertain me. I picked up Super Stardust HD as soon as a heard about it, and have enjoyed it ever since. It makes sense, then, that I would be interested to know what Housemarque, the creators of SSHD would be up to in their next endeavor. It turned out to be a nice little game called Dead Nation.

Dead Nation is a twin stick shooter as well. Except you’re not shooting rocks in this game; you’re shooting zombies. Lots and lots of zombies. You have the option of playing either a male or female survivor, in yet another world plagued by the zombie apocalypse. Instead of simply being dropped into an area and being basically trying to survive for a set amount of time before being whisked away to another level (like in SSHD or Zombie Apocalypse, a conceptually similar game), Dead Nation features a full campaign and plot. Housemarque doesn’t try to put any spin on the classic zombie formula, though; the story and setting aren’t anything you haven’t seen a few times before.

As in any game of this nature, you have a lot of weapons at your disposal. At the beginning of the game you start with a basic assault rifle. Though you still have to reload, you have unlimited ammo with this weapon, and you can charge it up for a power shot that will score automatic headshots on zombies and also scythe through and hit any ones directly behind them. As you progress through each level, you’ll encounter a number of rest stops along the way, which each hold shops where you can buy additional weapons and ammo. Such additonal weapons include standard fare like the SMG, shotgun and flamethrower, and less-than-standard fare like the blade gun, which shoots saw blades that rip through zombies (think the Ripper from Unreal Tournament). Shops are also where you’ll go to buy upgrades for your weapons. Each weapon can be upgraded in a number of categories, such as clip size, damage, and fire rate.

Scattered around the various levels are various chests. Some are easier to find than others, but all of them hold either ammo, money, or points for your score multiplier. Most importantly however, some of them hold armor pieces. Different armor pieces can give different stat boosts; endurance is for HP, strength for melee damage, agility for running speed, etc. You can choose your armor loadout in shops.

Like I said before, Dead Nation will throw a veritable horde of zombies at you, on a fairly regular basis. And sometimes they don’t always just come from the front. Sometimes they come from the back simultaneously; sometimes they drop down on you from above. There will be times when you fumble switching weapons or reloading, and that’s all it takes for them to bear down on you. For those times, you have the Rush technique and melee. Rushing is a technique carried over from Super Stardust HD. Basically, it’s a brief, headlong charge where you quickly sprint in one direction. You’re invincible during a Rush, so it’s a great way to evade attacks and escape being cornered. It takes several seconds to recharge a Rush though, so it’s not something to be used lightly. Melee is for those times when you can’t Rush, and you don’t have time to reload or switch weapons. It does enough damage to incapacitate most zombies in a single hit, so meleeing is often an effective way to take care of any strays that manage to get past your hail of gunfire.

You’re also able to carry a number of consumable weapons and items. Flares emit a pillar of light and smoke, attracting nearly every zombie in the vicinity, and in turn taking a lot of heat off of you. Grenades work similar to pipe bombs in Left 4 Dead, beeping to attract attention before exploding. You also have access to mines and molotov cocktails.

The levels in Dead Nation are pretty giant. It usually takes me 30-45 minutes to complete each one, and they’re filled with side paths and various nooks and crannies. A couple times each level you’ll come across a set piece, usually in the form of something that needs to be activated, and of course, will attract a lot of zombies in the process. One instance had me fending off a legion of the undead as I activated a switch to extend a bridge across an otherwise uncrossable gap. Another showdown occurred in a construction area as I warmed up an exterior elevator to get to the top of a sky scraper. Conveniently, it was filled with volatile gas tanks. The game was released with no loading checkpoints between levels, which meant that if you quit before finishing, you’d have to start that entire level over. That has been changed, recently with a patch, however.

While Dead Nation’s gameplay is definitely fun, what I found to be its greatest aspect is its visuals. For a top down game, it features some surprising production values. Explosions send debris flying every which way (including upward; I’ve had a chunk of zombie flesh fly directly into the camera from a grenade explosion), and the game really plays well with light and shadows. You’re constantly equipped with a flashlight, which is beamed in the direction that you aim. That flashlight is a lot more important to your survival than you might think. Most areas are very darkly lit, requiring you to constantly shine your light in every corner to check for danger. One area, for example, was flooded with a thick fog, making any lurking enemies appear as little more than shadows. Another area, which served as a set piece, gloomily lit and had zombies flooding out of buildings from nearly every angle. The orange glow provided by flares and frequent explosions served as my primary source of light as I frantically checked each direction. The result of all this is a remarkably immersive game, despite being a top down shooter.

But..this is a top down shooter, with arcade elements to prove it. Dead Nation provides for you score junkies out there with leaderboards and plenty of ways to multiply your score at the end of each level. Chief among this is the score multiplier. As you kill zombies and loot cars and chests, you’ll find two things: money and score points. Score points add to your multiplier, which, if you can sustain it until the end of the level, can accumulate a handsome bonus at the results screen. Every time you get hit though, your multiplier decreases, so the challenge is on! You can also tackle the game with a friend in local and online coop (voice chat has recently been patched in). The only quirk with this is that the co-op isn’t drop in/drop out. Co-op play has it’s own campaign, meaning you can’t have a friend join you in a level in your singleplayer campaign, and you can’t take a solo stab at levels unlocked in in co-op campaign. But the campaigns are exactly the same, in terms of plot and content.

Dead Nation’s name comes from its metagame. Each nation is plagued by a virus cycle, and to defeat it will require the death of many, many zombies. More than one person (or even a few dozen of people) could typically slay in a reasonable amount of time. So every time you finish a level, your performance is uploaded to the game’s servers, joining your efforts with that of everyone else in the country who’s playing the game. You can view each nation’s ranking and progress in realtime; right now the US is in the lead, followed by Japan.

Dead Nation is not a unique game. The setting has been done over and over again, sometimes better. The weapons, the items, the score system–aside from the metagame, there’s almost nothing about this game that is innovative. Instead, Housemarque took a tried and true concept and polished it to a sheen. They gave it a full campaign and story, graphical fidelity suitable for a full retail game, and an engine that runs smooth as butter. It’s an old, almost tired concept, polished to a bright sheen. What does this mean? It means Dead Nation is fun, that’s what it means. And really, that’s all that matters, isn’t it? 8.5/10

Ace Attorney: Apollo Justice

With the Phoenix Wright era of Ace Attorney games having supposedly ended, it’s come time for everyone’s favorite spiky-haired lawyer to pass on the mantle. And to whom has this honor been passed? A confident young man named Apollo; Apollo Justice, that is (are those puns I spy coming over yonder hill?). And though Mr. Wright and his band of buddies had really grown on my by the time I finished Trials and Tribulations, Apollo’s not such a bad guy.

But hold it! Why don’t we get to play as Phoenix anymore..? The answer is tragic, but simple, friend. He’s not a lawyer anymore. The trial that ended his career occurred seven years prior to this game, and just as you’d expect from anything Phoenix is involved in, it was quite sensational. Legendary, if you will. Phoenix used a piece of evidence in court that turned out to be forged. Fake. Phony. This mistake cost him his badge and his career. Fast forward, seven years later, and Mr. Wright is now a piano player at a pub–except he sucks as playing the piano. Really, Phoenix’s paychecks come from his ability to attract and entertain guests, who come to challenge him to a friendly game of poker. In these past seven years, he hasn’t lost a single game. But once more Phoenix finds himself in the defendant’s chair when his latest game ends in murder. Enter Apollo, who’s new to the lawyer game–much like Phoenix was in the first game–, mentored by Kristoph Gavin, a cool-headed defense lawyer who rose to prominence in Phoenix’s absence. Without spoiling too much..one thing leads to another, and Apollo ends up under Phoenix’s tutelage. Oh, and I should also mention that Phoenix also now has a daughter, Trucy Wright.

But of course, there’s more to this than meets the eye. Who is Trucy really? Why (or perhaps how) did Phoenix present forged evidence? What does Phoenix want with Apollo? Where is Maya!? These are the questions that ran through my mind as I worked my way through Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney.

In general, this game plays just like all other previous Ace Attorney games. Gameplay is split up between two types: investigation and the court trial. During the investigation segment you’ll try to learn more about the situation and build your defense case by gathering evidence and talking to various characters. Remember Ema Skye? Phoenix’s stand-in assistant throughout the final case of the first game? Yeah, she’s back, all grown up. And you know what that means? Forensic Investigation is back! You can closely examine each piece of evidence you come across in 3D, which, just like in the first game, is a common way to uncover more case details. Detective Skye–not particular concerned about such things as prosecutor loyalty–is far more willing to help than Gumshoe often was, if only because it gives her a chance to further indulge in the wonders of science.

Once you’ve done all you can during the investigation segment, you’ll go to court with your findings. Here, it’s you versus the prosecutor; initially Payne, with a swingin’ new hairdo, and later Klavier Gavin, Kristoph’s younger rockstar brother. In addition to presenting the odd piece of incriminating evidence, the prosecutor will attempt to get your client declared guilty by calling key witnesses to the stand. Usually these witnesses’ accounts are flawed in some way though, and it’s your job to bring blast their testimony apart, piece by piece, through cross-examination. This is done by questioning them, and, when you notice a statement that contradicts evidence, presenting the evidence in question to keep them on their toes and hopefully make them slip up. As you progress through the trial, more details of the case’s true nature will dawn on Apollo, and he’ll begin to make accusations and conjecture, which you must back up with evidence and correct logic. Inexplicably, you can’t present profiles, like you could in Justice for All and Trials and Tribulations, but that’s not a complaint, just an observation.

The biggest gameplay addition other than the return of forensic investigation is Apollo’s ability to “perceive” subtle movements in the witnesses. Many witnesses have telling nervous habits, such as fidgeting or neck scratching, that Apollo’s bracelet can pick up on, alerting him to the possibility of there being more to the testimony than meets the eye. When it’s active, you can touch the bracelet to focus, carefully examining each sentence in a statement, watching carefully for odd movements.

As usual, the cases are a little far-fetched and hard to keep up with at times, but the well-done and highly entertaining (read: humorous) writing–by now a staple of the series–coupled with the fantastically colorful cast of characters makes this a petty complaint. Trucy in particular is probably my favorite sidekick character since Wright’s stint with Ema Skye so long ago. Everything about her, from her visual design to her silly magic tricks such as the Amazing Mr. Hat, and Magic Panties (which make for a hilarious sub-plot) is endlessly amusing.

It’s taken me four games to notice, but the art design has slowly, subtly improved over the course of the series. Compare designs and artwork in Apollo Justice to that of the first Phoenix Wright game, and what you find may be surprising. Colors are more vibrant, shapes are much better defined, and the flamboyance of the character designs has been toned down just a tad, for a mildly more believable experience. The game also has more, somewhat more complex pre-rendered videos. Finally, I’ll admit to being more a fan of Apollo’s visual design than Phoenix’s. It’s pretty classy.

I’m about, oh, 40-50% through the game now, and so far I don’t feel like the game’s music is especially better or worse than any other games in the series. Along with a number of others, the “Cornered” theme (you know, the one that plays when you’re kicking butt in court?) has been remixed for Apollo with a jazzy flair, and I dig it a lot.

I miss playing as Wright..I really do. But other than the upcoming Phoenix Wright vs. Professor Layton, it seems his saga is over, at least for now. So I’m happy to know that the young man taking his place as the “Ace Attorney” seems to be capable of filling his mentor’s shoes just fine. An 8.5/10.

Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War

Ace Combat 5 reminds me of a time when retail games dared to be unique. Nowadays if you see something that can truly be called unique, you probably downloaded it. Presented by Namco, The Unsung War is a military flight sim with arcade elements.

By “arcade elements” I mean that on normal difficulty each plane carries scores of missiles (higher-end ones come packing 70-80 of them), and have unlimited fuel and gun ammo. I’m not sure how realistic some of the turns and other in-flight maneuvers you can easily pull off in this game are, but I’d guess even with heavy training you’d come close to blacking out trying some of them in real life. Despite all this, the game doesn’t feel unrealistic. Go too high or too slow and your plane will stall, and begin to drop like a rock. Higher difficulties introduce limited gun ammo, and enemy missiles can tear you apart in under two hits. Each plane has a cockpit view, which is nifty feature. Basically, the game tries to be as realistic as possible without constricting gameplay. I think it succeeds in striking a proper balance for this purpose. And believe it or not, even with that many missiles, it’s easier than you think to run out. Carelessly firing them as soon as you have a lock, or trying to take on every enemy burns through your supply of ammo fast. I actually depleted my entire stock of missiles and special weapons one mission, and had to finish it chasing targets with my gun.

One of the cool things about Ace Combat is the realistic-but-fictional world that it usually presents; an alternate Earth where a different set of countries exist. The Unsung War begins on a peaceful island air base in the country of Osea. 15 years ago, an aggressive country called Belka made war against its neighbors Osea and Yuktobania (the setting of Ace Combat Zero, incidentally). It was a long and bloody battle, but in the end Belka was pushed back, and lost much of its territory. In a shocking move, Belka simultaneously halted enemy advances and brought a swift end to the war by detonating several nuclear bombs on their own land. But this is all told through the game’s opening cutscene; back in the present we meet Wardog squadron, stationed at the island base, and composed of Alvin “Chopper” Davenport, Kei “Edge” Nagase, and silent protagonist Blaze (who, naturally, is controlled by the player). They’re all flight newbies, and are training under their captain when Yuktobania attacks the base while declaring war on Osea. The game shows the player the war from start to bitter finish through these three pilots’ eyes as they rise from being “nuggets” to full-on flight aces respected and feared as the “Demons of Razgriz”. As the war progresses, they learn revelations about Belka, and the nature of war itself.

The story is pushed along primarily by dialogue delivered by near-constant radio chatter, and the occasional cutscene. You’ll hear your wingmen chat it up (and sometimes join the conversation, though only with yes or no answers), you’ll hear any ground or allied forces’ relevant conversation, heck you’ll often even pick up on the enemy’s frequency and hear them talk! I liked the constant talking. Not only did it add to the atmosphere, but also gave a bit of weight to each objective given, and each plane shot down. I felt a bit more motivated to provide close-air support for a ground squad when they were shouting into their mics giving sitreps even as I heard gunfire in the background. Alternatively, each kill on a rival ace squad is that much sweeter when you get to hear them react to one of their comrades going down, after audibly displaying such confidence entering the fight.

Gameplay of course takes place entirely in the cockpit of you chosen aircraft. Missions are acceptably diverse, including providing air support for ground and naval units, taking out specific enemy targets, and gathering intelligence via stealth infiltration. Many missions also offer optional takeoff, landing and re-fueling segments. Most of the time you’ll have 2-3 wingmen at your side, who can be given rudimentary commands using the d-pad. You can have them disperse, cover you, or actively engage the enemy, in addition to enabling or disabling their use of special weapons. I didn’t notice a lot of change in their behavior between the commands, but it did serve to immerse me a little further.

In between missions you’ll often be treated to a cutscene to move the plot forward, before watching the briefing on your next mission. You can also buy and sell planes during this time. There’ about 50 planes to choose from, if memory serves, and all of them have strengths and weaknesses (though there’s definitely a progression in “quality” planes). For example, while A-10 Thunderbolt excels at ground attacks, it’s not nearly as maneuverable as many other planes, and not suited to air-to-air combat. The F-22 Raptor (probably one of the best aircraft in the game), on the other hand, is absolutely superior at air-to-air combat, but you might think twice bringing it into a mission that will mostly focus on land targets. Furthermore, many planes have alternate forms, such as the air-to-air oriented F-14 Tomcat having the “Bombcat” alteration, which gives it much better air-to-ground capabilities.

In addition to a vulcan cannon and missiles, each plane also has a small stock of special weapons ammo. Special weapons, take on many forms, and often define the role of the plane carrying them. The XMAA carried by the Raptor is a set of air-to-air missiles that, in addition to having much increased range and tracking ability over normal missiles, can seek up to four targets at once. The bomblet dispenser releases dozens of little bombs for an effective carpet bombing run. SAAM is single missile with immense range that will seek its target for as long as you can keep him/her within its tracking circle. There’s even a jamming special weapon that can be used to disrupt enemy missiles.

As in any flight sim, the best aspect of the game’s graphics are the planes themselves, which are rendered lovingly. Instead of being static models though, they all have moving parts, such as wing flaps, air brakes, missile doors, and turbines. Unfortunately, objects other than you and your wingmen’s planes didn’t get nearly as much treatment. The ground, while looking realistic enough, tends to feature a lot of crude shapes are supposed trees, tanks, and buildings, and bland textures are definitely a mainstay. It definitely doesn’t detract from the experience though, and this IS a PS2 game, so maybe I’m even being a tad harsh coming directly from the current generation.

The audio on the other hand is definitely good. Most of the dialogue was fun to listen to in my opinion, though some lines or voice pitches did stand out as odd. The game includes both English and Japanese dialogue tracks as well as subtitles though, so no complaints here. The BGMs are a bit varied, featuring your typical militaristic themes during briefing and before takeoff. Once up in the air, you’ll hear anything from rock n’ roll to orchestral scores. It never feels inappropriate, but that might be because I was too busy shacking targets and dodging missile locks to care.

I’ve said just about all I wanted to say about this game. It was great fun to revisit it, and I heartily recommend it to anyone looking for a nice rental. An 8.5/10

Demon’s Souls

Demon’s Souls is not a typical game. You probably heard as much. Basically, it’s a game will beat you over the head with a hammer until you either flee in terror or grab it by the horns and wrestle it to the ground. Christ, this game is hard.

Demon’s Soul’s is set in the fictional kingdom of Boletaria. Now you see, Boletaria’s having a bit of a problem. That is, it’s being overtaken by a curse of sorts, which is bringing demons into the land, who in turn are stealing people’s souls. The soulless husks that remain hunt down the living and kill them too. In another words, you should definitely cross Boletaria off your list of places to visit. But the curse won’t stop at Boletaria. It will eventually wrap the entire world in its embrace.

Here’s where you come in. Or rather, where you would have, if Demon’s Souls was a happier game. Pressing “New Game” from the main menu lets you pick a class and customize your character’s physical traits (it’s actually surprisingly extensive). Your class determines your starting equipment and stats.

Unlike the many other heroes who have tried and apparently failed to save Boletaria (and indeed, the entire world) from the evil, you’re here to end the curse. Unfortunately, you’re not quite as a badass as you think you are. The tutorial, should you choose to complete it, ends with you facing off against a boss twice your size who can slaughter you in a single hit. Naturally, you die (unless you ARE as badass as you thought, and manage to slay him, in which case your life is instead ended via a swiftly delivered claw to the face from a dragon). Your soul is tied to the Nexus, a spiritual realm.

The Nexus serves as the game’s hub. You can’t do much until you beat the game’s first boss (who is deceptively easy), but after that you gain access to leveling up, and a few more NPCs appear. In the Nexus you can find a base level blacksmith, Boldwin, who will sell you some basic equipment, and repair or upgrade any that you already have. Tom acts as a storage, and will hold onto any items you don’t want weighing you down during your quest. You can also purchase and learn some miracles and spells (heavenly and devilish abilities, respectively). Finally and perhaps most importantly, you’ll find the Maiden in Black in the Nexus, an innocent enough young woman who does most of the housekeeping duties, and buff your stats in exchange for an ever-increasing number of souls. If you’re playing online (more on that later), you can view leaderboards of the top players in various categories, such as much trophies earned, most souls obtained, etc.

Forming a half circle of sorts in the middle of the Nexus are several archstones; each representing a game world. Demon’s Souls is set up in a very straightforward way. Each world is separated into a few stages, which in turn each contain a demon to be slain at the end of each stage.

Generally speaking, the only living things you’ll encounter in Demon’s Souls will try to kill you at some point, if not at first sight. But there are some NPCs trapped or in peril in some of the stages (you can get glimpses of them during the loading screens) that you can help out for benefits. Sometimes, after being helped they’ll end up in the Nexus as merchants of some sort.

Now, Demon’s Souls’ notorious difficulty comes from a number of things, but I suspect what drives lesser players away most is the amount of repetition forced onto you. Even though it’s technically an action game, Demon’s Souls is a game that, above all, requires patience.

Souls are a big part of Demon’s Souls, as the name would suggest. A lot of people have lost theirs. You lose yours, and will lose it many more times. Enemies lose theirs when slain. You often find them lying around. Demons have them, and you must take them. Souls, souls, souls. But also, they serve not only as currency, but also as EXP points and upgrade components, in the case of demons’ souls. Everyone wants, them everyone needs them. As you travel through worlds, slaying all stand in your path, you’ll collect varying numbers of souls. If you can get back to the Nexus in one piece, you’ll be able to spend those souls on repairs, stat upgrades, and new abilities and equipment. Everything seems to cost an arm and a leg though, so you’ll have to be choosy with how many souls you dedicate to what. Will you blow all your stash on a couple stat upgrades, or spend them on much-needed repairs, and beefing up your equipment?

Souls can get you everything you need in this game, but here’s the big catch: If you die, you lose all of them. You still keep whatever items you had on you at the time of death, but all your precious souls are dropped. However, there is a single ray of hope. If you fall in battle, you can restart the stage, and try to retrieve your dropped goodies, with no strings attached. But, every time you restart or leave a stage, all the enemies respawn, so depending on far into the stage you died, some players may be saddened to realize they’re better off cutting their losses and trying a different stage. Furthermore, if you die, you come back in soul form (you start off in soul form after being slaughtered in the tutorial), which cuts your HP by 50%. If you don’t use a certain item to regain your human form, the only way to get back to full fighting form is slay a demon.

You can’t store souls, so you will often find yourself faced with a gamble. Here’s the scenario. You’re standing right in front of the boss gate, with 5,000 souls that you’ve collected over the course of your progress thus far. You’re not confident you can beat whatever awaits beyond the gate, but if you do, you’ll get your human form back, and be rewarded a brand-spanking new demon’s soul, very valuable. You feel it would be safer to run back to the Nexus and do some spending to prepare, but if you leave you’ll have to fight your back through the stage, as the enemies will have respawned. Will you take on the boss and risk losing everything, or run back to the Nexus with your tail in-between your legs?

Now, the mindset that Demon’s Souls beats into your skull is the expectation that you will die at some point or another. With this in mind, do you still choose to fight the boss, almost expecting to come out in a body bag? It’s foolhardy, and here’s where the repetition comes in. Demon’s Souls is almost a game of trial and error in this respect. Rushing forward, sword at the ready will most likely get you killed. Enemy ambushes, traps, and bottomless pits await you at nearly every turn, to the point that you learn to never walk into a new area without your shield raised. But similarly, playing Demon’s Souls is like gambling, all or nothing. It’s all about knowing when to quit, and when to press on. When you devote 45 minutes to a single stage, carefully progressing through it, only to slip up once and die at the very end, losing all your souls, all that time is basically wasted (unless you picked up some nice equipment along the way). The reality of this sinking in is probably what has proved to be the most frustrating aspect of Demon’s Souls.

One final wrench thrown into the difficulty is World Tendency. World Tendency, or WT for short can move between Pure White and Pure Black, depending on certain things you do, and can make your life easier or harder. White tendency makes enemies a bit easier, and also makes certain rare items appear. Black tendency causes powerful Black Phantom versions of enemies to appear, though it too offers some opportunities to obtain rare schwag. Both can open up new areas, or cause certain NPCs to appear. Killing demons shifts the world towards white WT, while dying (in physical form, rest assured) or killing certain NPCs will shift it to black.

WT can also be affected when you’re playing online. Demon’s Souls’ multiplayer is a little different from other games. If I could sum up the online aspect of the game in a single word, that word would be “indirect”, probably. As you play, you’ll likely see three things.

First, you’ll see messages on the ground, written by other players. If it’s your first time going through a world, it’s a good idea to take a look at these, as it’s fairly likely that they’ll provide valuable insight about what you’re up against. For example, the first boss, while not especially difficult by any means, is a push over if you use fire. I was notified of this by a message I encountered as I traveled through the first level.

Second, you’ll probably see bloodstains on the ground. When interacted with, they’ll replay another player’s final moments before being felled by some unseen force. Sometimes this too can be excellent forewarning; like, for example if you see a player’s ghost walk across a bridge, only to fall through the bridge to his death, you can surmise that the bridge will collapse if you follow in their footsteps.

Third, you might see ghosts of other players randomly pop in and out of your game. Personally, this scares the crap out of me, especially in dark places when I’m already tense, expecting an ambush around the next corner.

Demon’s Souls can be played in both PVP and co-op, but only under certain circumstances. Specifically, to initiate a co-op game you need to be in physical form, and to initiate pvp you need to be in soul form. Early on, you’ll receive two stones, the White and Blue Eyestones. If you’re in soul form, you can use the Blue stone to drop a marker on the ground soliciting your services. Other players who are in body form will be able to see your marker and, if they haven’t yet killed the demon in the given level, summon you to help them kill it. You’ll then appear in their game as a Blue Phantom. The White Eyestone can be used by the host to either send away Blue Phantoms, or by Blue Phantoms themselves to return to their world. Encountering a Black Phantom in your game may net you a Black Eyestone. In soul form, you can use this stone to invade another player’s game and try to kill them. If you succeed, you regain your body.

That’s Demon’s Souls’ multiplayer, in a nutshell. Atlus has also hosted a few online events in the past which affect your world tendency (like pushing you to Pure Black WT on Halloween).

That’s enough talk about the concept. Let’s talk a little about about the gameplay. If I didn’t mention it earlier, Demon’s Souls is an Action-RPG. It takes both sides of this hybrid seriously. You can cast magic, attack with weapons, block, parry, dodge, sprint and roll in real-time, but none of this matters if you don’t have the stats to provide for your plan of attack. Under your MP and HP bars sits your Stamina bar. Each swing of the sword, each attack blocked, every second spent sprinting, every dodge roll costs Stamina. Effectively managing stamina is the key to every combat situation. If you go in swords swinging, you’ll be too exhausted to block or evade the enemy’s retaliation. But likewise, if you turtle up and sit there blocking the whole time, you won’t have any stamina to counter-attack.

There are quite a few different weapon types in Demon’s Souls. There’s bows, magic, swords of varying sizes (from shortswords to greatswords), spears, , shields, halberds, polearms, katanas, rapiers, daggers, and even throwing knives, to name some. Obviously, various weapons have different pros and cons. Large swords are powerful, but slow. Bows and magic require a steady supply of ammo and MP, respectively. You can equip a different weapon in each hand, provided you have sufficient stats to wield both effectively, and also opt to use both hands on your right hand weapon, increasing its attack power by 50%. Personally, I like to use straight swords, either dual wielding them or paired with a shield. But the point I’m getting at here is, you’re not lacking options when it comes to methods of dishing out pain.

In terms of visual presentation, Demon’s Souls is just okay. The graphics themselves are quite serviceable, but nothing to write home about. The object physics can be a bit wonky, and I’ve known the game itself to glitch on occasion. Fortunately, the game auto-saves your progress literally all the time, so you can quit whenever you want and not have to worry about losing anything. The load screens are also of reasonable length.

In terms of overall presentation, Demon’s Souls strength lies in the delivery of its theme. From the moment you start the game up and are greeted to a CG cutscene that begins with a corpse being carried through the air, and ends with a knight being greeted by a gigantic dragon with two mouths, you know this is not a friendly world. Corpses are everywhere, and you can practically smell death in the air. Most of the environments are darkly lit (thank god for your light crystal), the future never, ever seems to stop looking grim. When you think about it, the air of hopelessness can make you wonder why you’re pressing on.

And perhaps here is where Demon’s Souls’ greatest strength lies. It forces players to find the strength to continue not from the game, but from within themselves (as cheesy as that sounds). The feeling of accomplishment that you get as you remember all the hardship is pretty significant. If that’s not it, search me. But Demon’s Souls is obviously doing something right if, even after dying at the hands of the Armor Spider demon after an hour spent fighting through the stage to reach it, I still can’t wait to have another go at the game. A 8.5/10

Trauma Team

The DS has played host to quite a variety of games, many of which let you play as characters from a variety of professions.  The Phoenix Wright series lets you play as a lawyer.  Cooking Mama makes housework fun.  Nintendogs gives you insight into owning a pet.  And the Trauma Center puts players in the shoes of medical professionals so talented they’re just about superhuman.

Though its based on the DS, Trauma Team is the series’ second foray on the Wii.  You play as six different doctors, each of which handle various steps of the treatment process.

Looking at the box art, let’s start on the very left.  We have Maria Torres, who is basically an EMT.  She provides First Response, which means on-site treatment to stabilize patients so they don’t die before they make it to the hospital.  She’s loud, rude, and impulsive, but she has the skills to back up her claims.  However, even as talented as she is, Maria doesn’t believe in the power of teamwork, and is quick to shove away any help from others when treating patients.

Next is Gabe Cunningham, a diagnostician.  He exams patients through various methods, including visual exams, questioning, and X-Ray to diagnose them with a disease, based on the symptoms they exhibit.  Put simply, Gabe’s the one who finds out what’s wrong with the patient, so that the other doctors know how to treat him/her.  Gabe is laid-back and crude, but is very good at what he does.  He tends to put his job before his personal life, though.

Next is Naomi Kishimura, a medical examiner.  Her role is close to that of a detective, with corpses being delivered to her office, and her job being to illustrate how that person died (and in many cases, why).  She has the ability to hear the dead person’s last words through her cell phone, which has gained her the title “Corpse Whisperer” in the tabloids.  Her skill in forensics and reasoning has led to the FBI often working closely with her to solve difficult cases.  Naomi isn’t bothered in the slightest by death, and can be cold and distant with others, but even she has a soft side that shows every now and then.

Moving on, we have CR-S01.  He’s been in maximum security prison, serving a 250-year sentence for a bioterrorism attack he was convicted for some time ago.  As a side-effect of the gas, he gained amnesia, forgetting everything except for his amazing medical talent.  Because he can’t remember his name, he’s referred to by his prison number, or “kiddo” by the other doctors.  Given his personality and skill at helping people, nobody, including the very man who arrested him, seems to believe he carried out that attack.  Brought in as a specialist, he is given a chance to reduce his sentence by performing difficult operations, and also in the hopes that letting him take up the scalpel once more will help him regain his memories.  As someone still struggling to identify himself, CR-S01 is quiet, and distant with others.  He is calm, collected and logical, and performs surgical operations at what is believed to be near-superhuman speed and precision.  He is often criticized for lacking passion, though.

Second from the right is Tomoe Tachibana, the heir to the Tachibana group, a rich and powerful family in Japan.  Bad relations with her father led her to leave Japan and pursue her own ambitions in America.  Tomoe is an endoscopic surgeon, meaning she uses an endoscope to treat patients from the inside.  This means you’ll control the endoscope directly, traveling through organs to repair any complications observed, such as tumors, excess blood, and hemorrhaging.  Tomoe is determined, and dedicated to her profession, such to the point that she ordered own personal endoscope, built from the ground up to her specifications.  Like CR-S01 though, she often wonders if she really belongs among the friends she’s made at Resurgam Hospital, and sometimes has trouble fitting in.

Finally, we have Hank Freebird.  Hank is an orthopedic surgeon at Resurgam Hospital by day, and the superhero Captain Eagle by night.  As Captain Eagle, Hank has superhuman strength and durability, and the ability to fly, though he deals with the typical growing pains all heroes deal with, such as public misunderstanding, and late appointments.  As an orthopedic surgeon, Hank works primarily with bones.  Got a dislocated bone?  Fractured bone?  Shattered bone?  Dr. Freebird’s your guy.  Hank maintains a positive outlook on life, and believes in humanity.  Many would call him an idealist.

Trauma Team’s story is split between two parts.  Initially, you’ll have access to each doctor’s story path, composed of several missions.  You can progress through each path at your leisure, switching to another character after every mission if you’d like.  In fact, many of the missions run parallel to each other, so mixing things up may be the best way to absorb the initial plot in a cohesive manner.  However, these stories serve more as character development story arcs, with the grand plot only being hinted at.

Finishing each doctor’s story path will unlock access to the Finale.  This is when the plot really starts to move, and all the pieces that you’ve uncovered through the initial paths fall into place.  The Finale is composed of 12 missions, composed of gameplay from all of the doctors.

Cutscenes are presented in the style of a comic book, with character sprites, speech bubbles, and limited animation.  However, the game puts what little movement shown to effective use, with sound effects and full voicing for all the characters, allowing me to easily imagine a more realistic scene in my head (wierd as that may sound..).  Surgical operations use 3D graphics, but it’s not anything to write home about (it is on the Wii, after all).

My primary concern when I tried Trauma Team, however, was how well the controls would work.  After all, in a surgical operation, precision is key!  And I’m happy to say that, for the most part they don’t get in the way.  The game makes fair use of all the Wii remote’s functions, incuding the mic and accelerometer.  For general and orthopedic surgery, the IR sensor isn’t as steady as I would like, but the developers apparently realized this, because the game is pretty forgiving, without sacrificing difficulty.  Most motion gestures are simple, but the controls for Tomoe’s endoscope, while hardly unusable, are probably the low point of the game in terms of controls.

Trauma Team didn’t seem to get much press or attention when it released, but I for one was pleasantly surprised by its quality.  The plot takes some time get moving, but that shouldn’t be mistaken for poor pacing.  The gameplay is fun, and I actually learned a few tidbits about the medical profession from playing (like for example how much of a team activity surgery is)!  Simply put, you’ll probably have a good time playing Trauma Team.  An 8.5/10

Critter Crunch

I’m not normally into puzzle games. They do say that there’s something about solving puzzles that releases a pleasure chemical in the human brain, but still. While it commanded my respect while I watch it in development, honestly the only reason I picked up Critter Crunch was because it was free (me being a PS+ member and all). It took me getting this chance to play it for essentially nothing that made me see, however, this title is more than worth its normal price of admission.

Critter Crunch is, like many typical puzzle games, an imaginative take on Tetris. The narrative is provided by a quirky explorer who is researching the ecosystem of a certain island inhabited by Biggs, a round furry animal with a hearty appetite. You play as Biggs as he travels across the island feeding on various critters as a part of the natural food chain.

Each level challenges you to fill Biggs’ hunger bar to completion by eating jewels. The critters slowly descend down a set a vines, and your job is to prey on them before they reach the bottom and dogpile Biggs. You do this by exploiting the food chain, feeding smaller critters to larger ones until they pop open, dropping tasty jewels for Biggs to eat.

You can also go for score chains by popping open multiple critters at once. For example, popping one critter will cause any others sitting beside it (that are the same color) to also pop, just like in Tetris. Also, feeding a small critter to medium critter that is sitting right below a large critter will cause the larger critter to immediately snatch up the medium critter, resulting in a “food chain” bonus. Popping eight or more critters in one chain summons Smalls, Biggs’ son. Once Smalls arrives, you can feed him for a pretty big bonus, but feeding him also causes the critters to descend faster.

It isn’t long before quite a few monkey wrenches are thrown into the formula. These come in the form of special critters, and power-ups. Occasionally, you’ll come across critters that are glowing. Popping these fellas will reveal power-ups, of which there are a fair bit. Garlic lets you move the entire hoard of critters up one row, giving you a bit of breathing space. Watermelon seeds let you immediately pop critters without having to feed them; great for killing off particularly troublesome critters. The spray can recolors all the critters to matching colors, setting them up for potentially huge chains.

In addition, you’ll also encounter a number of special critters to add some twist to the gameplay. Bomb critters can eat any size of critter, and explode when popped, taking any others nearby with it. Executors, when popped, also destroy any other critters on the board that are the same color and type as any critters that were sitting beside it. Morph critters constantly change between different colors and types. Rock critters can’t be moved, and refuse to eat critters. They have to be destroyed by popping the critters above them. Toxic critters are infected with a disease that will quickly spread to other critters. When popped, they drop jewels that can drain your hunger and hurt your score.

Besides the rather large adventure mode (featuring what must be dozens of levels), Critter Crunch comes packing quite a bit of replay value, such as Puzzle Challenges, which challenge you to clear to board in a certain number of moves. It also features both local and online multiplayer in the form of co-op and versus. At the time that I played the game, there were absolutely no public games being hosted, but I wasn’t too surprised, given the genre. You still have the option to play with friends, though.

One other highlight of Critter Crunch is its great presentation. The graphics consist of crisp, hand-drawn animation that looks absolutely fantastic on an HDTV. Load screens, while reasonably frequent, are extremely brief.

Overall, this is a very lighthearted, accessible game. There’s challenge for those who want it, but for the rest of us, Critter Crunch is a fun game that’s easy to get into (thanks in no small part to the brief but informative tutorials). An 8.5/10

Comet Crash

Tower defense games are everywhere. You can find one on every current generation console (including portables), on the internet, even on the iPhone (where they are quite popular). They’ve come and gone in multiple colorful varieties. Just when I thought I’d seen everything, Comet Crash came waltzing along.

The fundamentals of Comet Crash are still very easy to pick up by anyone who’s played their fair share of tower defense games. You control a ship that you can use to move around and survey the arena, and also build and maintain your defenses. There are two cores; yours and your opponent’s. Your opponent will consistently spawn enemies that will attempt to attack your core. To stop this, you’ll have to build towers to destroy enemy units before they get to your core. Like in any good TD game, towers are upgradeable (range, fire speed, power), repairable, and recyclable, and come in multiple varieties, some being better against certain units than others. For example, the Pulsar fries all ground units quickly and efficiently, but ignores air units and is vulnerable to being momentarily disabled by enemy EMP units, allowing a small group to slip past. Your standard turret is dirt cheap and makes for a nice defensive option early on, but faster moving enemies will slip past them easily enough. Bomber towers are great all around units, attacking both air and ground units with splash damage, but are really expensive to upgrade. Lasers ignore ground units, but destroy passing resource meteors for you and can really cut air units down to size.

But there’s one thing a little different about Comet Crash: going on the offensive. In Comet Crash the match ends when you destroy the enemy core, not after a certain number of units have been fended off, or you simply are defeated. You go about doing this by spawning units of your own! Certain special towers act as background factories, quietly building your army while you focus on defending your core. With units at your disposal, you can send out any number of them with a flick of the right stick.

Like towers, units come in many, many varieties, but can be separated into three categories; Offense, Support and Counter-Offense. Offensive units are your bread and butter, simply used to hopefully charge past your enemy’s defenses and hit their core. Examples include the basic scout vehicle, which is decently fast and built very quickly, but has very little health. Tanks have more health, but move slower and take a little more time to build.

Support units are designed to help keep your offensive units alive, like the dropship, which can load a couple dozen ground units and then fly right over the enemy’s defenses (unless they have anti-air towers), dropping them closer to the enemy core, and the EMP mine, which disables Pulsars for a couple seconds to allow ground units safe passage.

Counter-Offensive units are brilliant, and open up a whole new ballgame of defensive strategy. With a decent store of counter-offensive units built up, you can hold off an entire attack with just a few well placed towers. An example is the Thief, a gigantic ship that at first glance seems to function like an even slower-moving, but more heavily-armored tank. Enemy units that run into it while it’s glowing, however, are instantly converted to your side, and turn right around and head back to the enemy base. Then there’s the Hammer. It’s an extremely slow moving unit, that leaps instead of runs. Every time it lands though, it freezes nearby enemy units in place momentarily, leaving them open to extra turret fire. Needless to say, a squad of hammers and a couple upgraded pulsars can cripple even a ground horde numbering in the several hundreds.

You can have up to 1,000 units ready to mobilize (or already mobilized) at any time. Can anyone say “Unleash the horde”? In later stages, the computer will use armies of such sizes against you, but with some nice tactics and powerful towers, you can hold off even these with relative ease. The importance of support and counter-offensive units in particular becomes surprisingly outstanding midway through the campaign. These aren’t just novelties; they’re a genuinely innovative way to expand the game’s strategic potential. Surprisingly, battles can become really epic and engulfing with hundreds of units on screen, and lasers, bullets and bombs flying everywhere.

In the audio-visual department, Comet Crash is presented simply. The graphics are sharp, and detailed enough that I can pick out a scout making its way upstream a river of enemy units, but most object models are simple almost to the point of slight crudeness. But if this is what makes the game capable of rendering hundreds of them at a time with few signs of trouble, I see no reason to complain. Audio is largely forgettable, composed of the usual moody space themes you’d expect from a futuristic tower defense game (or not).

The campaign is separated into a couple dozen levels that, while getting progressively more difficult and offering up a variety of challenges, also gradually introduces you to each unit and tower, as well as some nice strategies. Impressively, there’s also 3-player co-op and 4 player versus (no online), making this surprisingly acceptable as a party game. If you like your games with a double-helping of strategy, I don’t see why you wouldn’t like Comet Crash. An 8.5/10

Star Ocean: The Last Hope International

For some time since the PS3’s release, the system has been getting only a trickle of JRPGs here and there. That has changed almost immediately this year. Looking forward, we have Resonance of Fate. Just the other day Final Fantasy XIII was officially released in North America. Last month also saw the release of a couple RPGs, among them Star Ocean: The Last Hope International.

The Last Hope isn’t actually a new game. It came out on Xbox 360 a year or so ago, to lukewarm attention. Apparently Square-Enix and tri-ace were only testing the waters though, because the game is back, this time on PS3, and with a couple welcome enhancements.

Though it’s the latest entry in the series, The Last Hope is actually a prequel, taking place before all the games in the rest of the series; that is, a few centuries before the first Star Ocean. Like Till the End of Time, as you start the game up, you’re treated to a nice CG cutscene that elaborates on the game’s setting.

World War 3 has devastated Earth. The advent of powerful nuclear weaponry leads to entire cities being destroyed in the crossfire, leaving only irradiated wasteland. Realizing that the planet can’t sustain such destruction for much longer, the world’s leaders call a ceasefire, but the environment has already been decimated beyond repair. Thus, humans look to the stars, and thus the SRF, or Space Reconnaissance Force is born, with the sole objective of exploring the galaxy to hopefully find a new planet for humans to colonize.

Enter Edge Maverick and Reimi Saionji, two remarkable recruits who are chosen to embark on the SRF’s first exploration mission, as part of the crew of the SRF-003 Calnus. Edge is a capable swordsman and martial artist with a powerful sense of responsibility. He was never the best at academics, and is rather headstrong and inexperienced, but has the determination to charge through any situation effectively, and the natural leadership skills to inspire others to charge through after him. Having been acquainted with him since childhood, Reimi is Edge’s best friend. She’s a sensible young woman, and highly adaptable. Whereas Edge wields a sword, Reimi prefers a bow as her weapon of choice. Having mastered both eastern and western styles of archery, Reimi is an unparalleled ranger.

An error mid-warp causes the small group of ships (including the Calnus) to crash land on the nearby planet Aeos. Things don’t get much better from there however, as all the ships are scattered. The Aquila (captained by Crowe, another childhood friend of both Reimi and Edge) disappears, the crew of another ship is mysteriously slaughtered, and the Calnus’ crew is attacked by gigantic insects after a crash landing severely damages the hull. Fortunately, an alien race known as the Eldarians (who had secretly been in contact with Earth over the past decade) arrive to give aid, young Faize among them. Faize is refined and can be prideful, but is quick to show humility. His skill with a rapier impresses Edge, and the two become fast friends.

With the Aquila gone and the other ship having been destroyed, The SRF envoy is rather understaffed. Despite this, the mission must go on, and thus the Calnus’s captain gives Edge his rank and tasks him with proceeding to continue exploring the galaxy for a suitable planet to colonize, with Faize and Reimi as his crewmates. And thus the three embark on a mission of galactic proportions.

Alongside the plot, character development is a significant component of this game. Though you embark with only three crew members, as you progress through the story you’ll of course meet several more characters, who will join you on your journey. Each one is unique, both in and out of the battlefield. There’s the young symbologist Lymle, who despite being technically 15 years old, is stuck with the body and personality of a 6 year old, due to a traumatic event long ago. There’s the ever-vengeful Myuria, who sticks with Edge with the hope that he’ll lead her to Crowe, who she wants so dearly to slaughter. There’s even the mandatory catgirl Meracle, a bouncy and somewhat mischievous girl who doesn’t know where she came from.

Each crew member you meet has some sort of past (that somehow even manages to relate vaguely to the overarching plot), and naturally each have small portions of the story to themselves. But to really get to know these guys, you’ll want to indulge in their private action events, which you can view while traveling from one destination to another. The galaxy is a big place, and even with the Calnus’s warp capabilities, it still takes a considerable amount of time to get around. So the crew sets the ship on auto-pilot and takes this time to relax. During this time, they’ll roam the ship and interact with each other, and as Edge you have several opportunities to chat it up them before you reach your destination. Most of these “events” raise the affection points Edge has with the given person(s), which will influence the ending cut scene.

But you didn’t pick up a Star Ocean game for the plot! You picked it up for the battles, am I right? So let’s get down to business. Contrary to what the Battle Simulator practice battle would have you believe (which to this day is still one of the tougher battles in the game), skirmishes in The Last Hope are fun, frantic, and above all, engaging. There are no random encounters; enemies show up on the overworld, and touching them will start a battle. Touching an enemy from behind will trigger a preemptive strike, where the enemies are not only fewer in number (usually), but don’t even know you’re there for the first few seconds. By the same token however, getting touched from behind triggers a battle with unfavorable odds, with your opponents surrounding you from all sides (usually), and starting with their Rush Gauge (more on that in a bit) at 50%.  If you start a battle with other enemies close by, it’s fairly likely they’ll jump in directly after you beat the first group, resulting in an ambush.  Each consecutive ambush nets you bonus XP, so several consecutive ambushes can really jack up your XP earnings.

Like in Till the End of Time, battles take place in a separate screen. You run around a moderately large battlefield (you really do move around a LOT in battle) while going toe to toe with your foes in real time (meaning no turns or action bars). Battles are extremely flexible. By tapping either L1 or R1, you can switch between any of your four battle members on the fly, any time. If you have a character set to auto, the computer will automatically take over when you switch away from a character. Pressing triangle brings up a radial pause menu, where you can change individual character tactics, cast symbols (spells), use items, remap your special techniques, and even switch out party members (you can have up to 8 people in your party, but only 4 in battle at a time).

Again, like in Till the End of Time, your computer-controlled buddies operate on a set a simplified guidelines called tactics. Though it’s an extremely humble system compared to something like FF12’s Gambit system or even the Tales series’ strategy options, it works. Telling the computer to “Fight freestyle” simply means the computer will choose who it wants to fight, and just not get in your way. “Stay out of trouble” is for your casters, who will stay on the fringes of the battle and do their thing. “Gang up on foes” means the computer will target the same enemy as another party member. Furthermore, you can tell them to either conserve MP by not using special attacks or symbols, or go full force (only recommended for bosses, of course). Ultimately, such simplicity works because the computer is usually able to hold its own admirably well, without you looking over your comrade’s shoulder. I can probably count the number of times a computer ally actually fell in battle (outside of a boss encounter) on one hand.

Level progression works just as it would in any other typical RPG. You fight enemies, you get experience. No twists there. However, there is an interesting system in place that heavily influences your stat growth, known as the BEAT system. BEATS are essentially fighting styles. There are three types of BEAT styles: BEAT.S, BEAT.N, and BEAT.B. BEAT.S and BEAT.B promote the growth of certain stats and add bonus effects to blindsides and Rush Mode, respectively. BEAT.N will earn you neither of the skill benefits, but instead you get bonuses to all the stats of B and S combined.

I’ll start with BEAT.S, which is focused on Blindsides, a crucial part of the game’s battle system. Simply tapping circle lets you jump, slide, or lunge (depending on the character) to whatever direction you hold the left stick in. However, holding the button for a few seconds lets you prepare a Blindside. Wait for an enemy to lock on to you at close range, then dodge after squatting for a couple seconds to initiate a Blindside, where your character sidesteps the target and quickly dashes to their backside. A properly blindsided enemy will completely lose sight of you, and for the next few seconds all attacks that connect are automatic critical hits. Thus a Blindside is an excellent way to slide into a nice juicy combo. Each character has their own unique Blindside animation (and jump/dodge type). Meracle confounds the foe with incredible speed before dashing to his/her backside. Reimi does a nice sidestep then launches into a high-flying somersault, landing behind her target. Blindsides are also a great way to counter incoming attacks. It’s a pretty amazing feeling when you dodge a powerful attack literally at the last possible second and manage to Blindside the enemy, opening up many possibilities for an immediate counter-attack.  As you progress in BEAT.S, you’ll gain benefits for Blindsides, like stunning nearby enemies when you perform a Blindside, or being unable to be staggered while Blindside charging (exceedingly useful, I assure you)

Alternatively there’s BEAT.B, which focuses on Rush Mode. Under each character’s HP and MP bars is a green bar, which is your Rush bar. You gain Rush percentage by dealing damage, receiving damage, and Blindside charging. When the gauge is full, you can activate Rush mode, which can either be a tremendous lifesaver or a gigantic window of possibilities for combos. While in Rush mode (which only lasts for 10-15 seconds, I’d say), enemy attacks don’t make you flinch, meaning you can run essentially ignore everything that’s hitting you and just focus on dealing damage (note that you’re NOT invincible, though with enough BEAT.B experience you can get added defense during Rush Mode). Your chance of dealing a critical hit is also significantly heightened. With Rush mode you can also initiate Rush Combos, where the whole party can attack a single enemy with a sequence of special attacks.  Though neither your comrades nor your enemies use blindsides, they will use Rush mode, and to great effect. As you rank up in BEAT.B, you can add other beneficial effects to Rush Mode, like minor MP usage deduction, and a chance to endure what would otherwise have been a fatal hit.
Just hacking and slashing might not cut it for tougher enemies, though.  Which is where special arts and symbols come in.  Symbols basically the Star Ocean series’ term for spells.  Attack symbols include elemental attacks like Earth Glaive (float the enemy with an eruption of earth) and Thunder Flare, whereas defensive symbols include Healing and Enhance.  Most characters also have their own set of personal special attacks, known as arts.  These attacks consume MP like symbols, but of course pack more punch.  Special attacks are mapped to the R2 and L2 buttons.  Though at first you can only chain two attacks by moving between the two buttons, you’ll eventually be able to map multiple attacks to the same button, which opens up a gateway to pretty large combos.

The focus on massive combos, helped along by combo chaining, blindsides and Rush Mode make combat in Star Ocean a rather fun affair.  What makes it addicting, however is the Bonus Board.  The Bonus Board is an inconspicuous looking thing that appears on the right side of the screen during a battle.  As you complete certain actions, like defeating an enemy solely with special attacks, or defeating an enemy with a critical hit, it gradually fills up with colorful gems, that grant enticing bonuses, like a small percentage of MP/HP recovery at the end of each battle, and a fairly significant bonus to your XP yield.  Some gems are easier to acquire than others, but it takes time and effort to cultivate a nice Bonus Board.  Suffering a critical hit shatters the board though (which is easily one of the most frustrating things I’ve experienced in gaming), so those who pay heed to their Bonus Board will also find themselves avoiding enemies who have entered Rush Mode.  Overall though, this feature is the icing on the cake.

This wouldn’t be a Star Ocean game without a ridiculously extensive crafting system, though.  Welch returns, though she looks radically different from her previous iteration.  Similar to crafting in Till the End of Time, before you can craft something, you have to think up item recipes.  To do this, you’ll separate your available party members into groups of three, and set them to work.  Every party member has strengths and weaknesses in various areas, so if you really want to amass a hoard of recipes to work with, you’ll need to pay attention to what each person is good at, and group together members with similar strengths.  For example, Edge is the best at Smithery, but not so hot at Artistry.  Lymle is great at Artistry, but knows nothing about Smithery.  Naturally these two aren’t going to make a lot of recipes.

But knowing is only half the battle.  To craft items, you’ve got to gather the necessary ingredients.  Some higher tier, rarer things are of course going to require some prestige ingredients, which is going to take some hunting, probably.

I suppose it’s about time I settled back and discussed the more technical aspects of the game.  Well I must say, it’s a very typical game in most ways.  There’s definitely a lot of elements present here that could have jumped out some wacky anime show.  The big, innocent eyes, the rainbow of hair colors, the youngster angst; it’s all here and accounted for.  Like I said before, there’s even a catgirl among your ranks.  

I’d say the only thing “next gen” about The Last Hope is its graphics, which are very pretty indeed.  The overworld environments are not only huge, but they look great, and most of the character models look pretty good.  This PS3 version also grants you the option of using the Japanese menu template, complete with awesome, drawn character portraits (instead of the CG ones).  There’s a 2.2GB mandatory install, but throughout my play time I’ve encountered absolutely no technical, graphical or gameplay bugs since I started playing, save for some odd black background sometimes surrounding subtitles (if you have them on) late in the game.  The game hasn’t frozen or hiccuped once though.

For the most part, audio is also another thing to look forward to.  Exclusive to the PS3 version (likely due to the extra disc space) is the ability to switch to the original Japanese voice track.  The English voices, while adequately fitting for each character, are pretty unconvincing during more emotional moments, which can hurt the game’s story presentation.  So it’s nice to know you can always switch back to the original actors.  The BGMs are a mix of songs that are forgettable and songs that can really get you motivated.  Each planet has its own overworld and battle themes, and so far my favorite is that of the planet Roak’s, which launches into an epic orchestral score when you enter battle.

Overall, this is a very straightforward, painfully typical JRPG.  The blatantly anime-ish character designs will be grating to some, but the core gameplay formula, familiar as it is, is still quite addicting.  Hallmarks of the series like exceedingly long boss battles, an extensive craft system, and an exciting battle system all return in full force, something I can appreciate.  While it could have done with some refinement here and there, Star Ocean: The Last Hope is still a blast to play, and ultimately that’s all that matters.  An 8.5/10

Trophies Rant:

…Oh and you know what else returns?  Battle trophies.  Folks, nabbing this game’s Platinum trophy would be a Herculean effort.  The majority of the trophies revolve around collecting things.  Collecting battle trophies, collecting monster data, collecting item data, collecting weapon data..only a handful of the trophies are story-related and almost all of them are bronzes.  What makes this so difficult? There are 100 battle trophies per character (I think).  There are 9 characters.  That means you’re looking at 900 battle trophies.  Many of these are effin ridiculous, like doing precisely 777 points of damage, or using only leg-based attacks.  And then there’s the data.  Getting all the weapon data meaning talking to every person, and buying and crafting every single weapon (there’s also a trophy for crafting every single freakin item possible).  There’s a trophy for opening every chest, and completing every quest.  Except planets have a tendency to get HORRIBLY MASSACRED after you leave them, obliterating quest givers, and possibly treasure chests.  But I’m not done yet.  To get the platinum trophy, you will have to beat the game on Chaos mode.  Chaos mode is unlocked by beating the game on Universe mode.  Universe mode is unlocked by beating the game on Galaxy mode.  But the icing on the cake are the character ending trophies.  If my suspicions are correct, you’ll have to beat the game about eight times (not including the afore mentioned difficulty modes), to try to view each character’s ending sequence.  Yikes.  Trophy hunters, look elsewhere.

Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days

There’s a lot of people, myself included, who would love to see a Kingom Hearts 3.  But while I have no doubt in my mind it will happen eventually (after FFVersus 13; you heard it here first), right now Square-Enix seems to be more focused on just expanding the plot content they’ve already got, with spin-offs of the two flagship PS2 games.  And so we have Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days.

In 358/2 Days, you play as Roxas, who more dedicated fans will recognize as Sora’s Nobody.  The game starts right from the time Roxas is created (when Sora becomes a Heartless in KH1), runs parallel to Chain of Memories for a while, then connects right into the beginning of Kingdom Hearts 2 at the end.  Most of the story centers around Roxas’s everyday life during the year Sora is asleep inbetween Chain of Memories and Kingdom Hearts 2.

Typical of a Kingdom Hearts game, 358/2 Days starts slow.  Really slow.  The plot is separated into a couple major story arcs, tied together with glimpses at the everyday life of Roxas during his time in Organization XIII.  The plot moves so slowly, in fact, that it’s difficult to summarize it in an efficient manner.  Taking the Uncharted 2 approach, starting a new game gives you a look at the happy conclusion of the ~250th or so day Roxas has spent in the Organization.  Then it zips all the way back to Day 1.  One thing’s for sure, however.  If you’re a fan of Organization XIII, and never got to see all of its members (before now, Chain of Memories was the only game that had most or all of them), this game is a boon.  Various Organization members accompany Roxas on daily missions, allowing for lots of dialogue which gives you an extensive look into each members’ personality.  Combined with Chain of Memories, it’s also a veritable gold mine of backstory information, particularly that of Roxas (like where he got his second keyblade) and of course each Organization member.

While a lot of 358/2 Days is recycled content, there are some interesting new elements.  Firstly, the game, while still linear, is mission based.  You still travel to different worlds (the same ones, in fact), but instead of steadily exploring them in one sitting, you go back to them for several visits for various objectives, and their story is given to you in tidbits, as a result.  Missions come in an acceptable amount of varieties.  Unlike the rest of the members of Organization XIII (except for Xion), Roxas is able to collect hearts from defeated Heartless enemies with his Keyblade.  Thus most missions have you going out to either hunt down specific enemy types, or just collect hearts, in general.  There’s also recon missions (my favorite), where you explore a certain world and try to scope out the situation by examining anything you find unusual (for example, through recon missions you slowly piece together that Beast is in fact the ruler of his castle, and that his appearance is possibly a curse).  The Organization will also regularly challenge you to complete fitness tests, which count as missions.  Only a couple of the missions handed out each day are mandatory (you can advance the plot and skip the remaining ones), but I suspect you would find yourself a little underpowered if you made a habit of only hitting up the story related missions.  You can go back and replay each completed mission with the Holo-Mission option in the pause menu.  Most missions also contain two different badges lying around.  The Ordeal badge lets you replay the mission in Challenge mode with some set restrictions (basically Hard mode) to earn Challenge Sigils, whereas the Unity badge unlocks the mission in the multiplayer mission mode.

The progression system has also undergone a drastic change.  While abilities, magic, and levels remain, they are governed by the new panel system.  Basically, you have a grid full of empty squares in which you can embed all sorts of things.  Level ups each take up one square, as does each cast of magic, each ability, and each item you bring into a mission.  Some tiles, like those that upgrade your weapon and augment basic tiles, are bigger and take up several spaces on the grid.  You start out with only a fraction of the grid open to you, but eventually you’ll open the entire grid.  Even so, space is a limited commodity, so you can’t just “wing it”.

Conceptually speaking, the Panel system achieves a level of stat customization similar to that in Final Fantasy 12, or Custom Robo.  You can make Roxas melee focused, dedicating grid space to strength and combo enhancing tiles, as well as abilities like Block and/or Dodge Rooll.  Or, you could make him a heavy magic user, with plenty of offensive and defensive magic tiles and ethers.  Or of course, you could strike any balance between the two, with a decent combo weapon tile and a couple projectile magic tiles for versatility.  It’s up to you.  You can store several custom grids, so you don’t have to manually wipe the board every time you want to make a drastic role change.

But organizing your panels gets more complex than that.  As a melee attacker, will you focus on air combos?  There’s a panel for that.  Attacks with a wide reach?  There’s a panel for that.  Long and quick high speed ground combos? There’s a panel for that.  You can only equip one weapon panel at a time, so it’s important keep in mind what you’re going to be up against in the next mission as you look over your panels.  If you’re going to fighting enemies that are known to strike quickly, maybe you should equip the Dodge Roll ability.  If you’re going to fighting a lot of airborne enemies or doing a fitness test, go for the Air Slide ability, which lets you dash in midair and cover that extra distance you may need.  Magic works the same way.  Will you equip Fire magic?  Thunder?  It should all depend on what the enemy report says as you look over an available mission

Lastly, panels’ abilities can be enhanced by linking them with special tiles.  Each time you level up, you get a level up panel to throw in the grid at your leisure.  Occasionally, you’ll come across a level multiplier, with which you can link several level up panels to multiply your overall stats to new heights.  The same goes for magic, ability, and weapon panels.  Certain panels linked to the Block ability tile (which let’s you deflect enemy attacks), for example, can give it special qualities, like extra recoil or the ability to immediately counter-attack.  Magic tiles linked together can multiply the number of casts available to you, reducing the number of magic-restoring ethers you might need to bring.

Inbetween missions, you’ll soon have access to the store, which let’s you spend points earned from collecting hearts on new panels.  You can also spend sigils earned from Challenge missions for some handy freebies, and badges earned from completing Mission Mode (more on that in a bit) tasks.

Another returning features is item synthesis.  As you complete missions, you’ll both collect and be rewarded with various item materials, with which you can craft panels.  It costs money (or “munny”) to synthesize items, but since you don’t use your cash for anything else (remember you use heart points to do real shopping), it replenishes itself quickly.  Synthesis is a way to get your hands on powerful new panels before they become available (assuming they ever will be available) in the points store.

As you complete missions, you are occasionally granted a rank promotion, which comes with lots of benefits.  Firstly, several new items become available for purchase and synthesis each time you rank up.  You can also unlock extra characters in Mission Mode with a high enough rank.

Combat in 358/2 Days is very much unchanged from most other entries in the series.  It’s still very much a game about mashing the attack button to throw out attacks.  Like in the other games, there’s a heavy focus on combos, especially once you get your hands on more advanced panels.  Taking out enemies in quick succession activates a Heart Chain, which multiplies the amount of heart points you get each time you take out an enemy before the chain expires. You can employ abilities like Dodge Roll, Air Slide and Block to spice things up, and more powerful weapon panels often have you press Y to extend your combo, but it’s still not anything people who played KH1 or 2 haven’t already seen in some variation.  The game makes minimal use of touch screen controls, only using the bottom screen to display mission information and a map.  Despite the DS having less buttons than a console controller, the game controls really well, and will be very familiar for series veterans.  You can still hold the left bumper to access custom mapped items and spells, and the X, Y, A, and B buttons do almost all the same things Triangle, Square, X, and Circle did on the Dualshock 2.

The only major addition is Limit Breaks.  About 15-20% of your life bar (just eyeballing it) is yellow.  When your HP falls into this region, you can activate your Limit Break mode for a few seconds, which lets you unleash a wild flurry of combos that do exponentially more damage per hit.  Each time you activate Limit Break, this yellow region shrinks significantly though, requiring you to take even more damage before you can activate it again.  Because of this you can typically only use Limit Break a couple times per mission (though there are panels available that increase the size of the yellow area).

Nearly all of the music, visuals, and presentation styles have been completely recycled from the console games, so there’s not much innovation to be found in that department.  In fact, I suspect a lot of development time was spent finding methods to take the existing worlds and their BGMs and compress them to fit on a DS cartridge.  They obviously managed it rather well, as the game features some pretty great visuals for a DS game.  But just know that there’s very little new content to be found here in terms of presentation.

358/2 Days has a very impressive amount of replay value though.  Like I said before, each and every mission can be replayed to find extra items and materials, and most of them also have a challenge counterpart that you can attempt to complete for sigils.

Speaking of replay value, let’s talk about Mission Mode.  When you’re not playing the main story, you can settle back for some miscellaneous missions in Mission Mode.  Missions can be completed cooperatively by up to four players via multi-cartridge multiplayer, which is an awesome bonus.  All thirteen Organization members are playable here, including Roxas, and they all have their own unique weapons, which too can be tinkered with using the panel system (though most of them still have preset base stats which make them better at some things and bad at others).  There are also a few secret characters that can be unlocked.  Completing missions earns you emblems, which you can redeem for prizes in the main story mode shop.

Overall, Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days is a great entry in the series.  While it doesn’t bring much of anything new to the table, there’s no denying that it gets a lot of things done right, and of course features a compelling, if poorly paced, story to keep players engaged.  The four player co-op is an excellent bonus, and one I can only hope to see in the next console entry.  An 8.5/10