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Developer: Nex Entertainment
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: March 2, 2006 (Japan), October 30, 2006 (North America), November 30, 2006 (Australia), January 12, 2007 (Europe)
Platforms: Nintendo DS
ESRB Rating: E10+ (Language, Mild Fantasy Violence)
With Secret of Mana for the Super Nintendo, Squaresoft established the action RPG in its modern form. It merged the freewheeling top-down gameplay of the Legend of Zelda games with a character advancement system borrowed from more methodical games such as Final Fantasy, and was elevated to classic status by its seamless co-op multiplayer. However, since the publication of the Japan-only sequel Seiken Densetsu 3 in 1995, the series has been mired in mediocrity, and, unfortunately, Children of Mana is more of the same. In a concession to the perceived limits of the handheld platform, the gameplay has been stripped down to a pure dungeon crawl with the only friendly territory being a single, relatively static area. This robs the game of much of the colour present in earlier entries in the series and exposes the repetitiveness of many of its core mechanics.
The action gameplay is straighforward and heavier on button-pressing skills than intelligence or timing. Earlier Mana games featured an attack strength bar that filled up slowly following an attack to discourage button-mashing, but Children of Mana instead relies on rapid multiple presses to build to the highest attack strength. The game features four weapons: sword, bow, flail, and warhammer, which can be switched at any time after you learn how to use them. Each weapon has a distinct support ability, many of which are necessary to navigate the later levels. While a rock-paper-scissors relationship between the weapon types may have been intended, in reality virtually all enemies can be defeated equally well with whatever weapon your character happens to be most proficient with. Combat is augmented with a rather awkward magic system, where you select (only) one of the several available sprites in town to be called in combat with a button press. Each sprite has two possible abilities, chosen between with a fiddly mechanism based on player placement; staying with the sprite activates the more defensive ability while moving away activates the more offensive ability.
While the combat is somewhat oversimplified, the dungeon design is the aspect of Children of Mana that makes the game truly repetitive. There are several 'main' dungeons associated with the story quests, each with their own design and character, but these do not provide sufficient advancement to progress through the game. Thus, the player takes on missions which occur in randomly-generated dungeons assembled from the pieces of the main dungeons. Grinding through these random dungeons in search of vendor trash and experience points makes up the majority of the gameplay; character development is tightly constrained as all equipment has a minimum level for use and few characteristics other than linear advances in power.
However, the game is reasonably well-presented. Characters are done in the series's trademark lush, hand-painted style and the graphical style and animations do not look out of place for a 2006 game. The music is well-placed and well-synthesized, though unmemorable. The main problem in presentation comes with the menu system. The menus in Children of Mana were designed to be used with either the buttons and D-pad or the DS touchscreen and stylus, but the result is not especially usable with either. Lists of items expand to great size with each item represented by its own, large touch target, while activating choices with the face buttons often requires one press to select and a second press to activate. The stylus has a slight edge in usability, but the rest of the game is played with the face buttons, necessitating slow switches between buttons and stylus.
Overall, Children of Mana fails to regain the quality of the Super Nintendo entries in the series. The gameplay has been stripped down to the level of button-mashing, and the game does not provide a particularly compelling storyline. While it is a reasonable pick-up-and-play portable game, there are many others that are more worthwhile.
"That was quite a move. I'll admit you've got potential. If challenge had a taste, you'd be quite delicious."
- Travis Touchdown
Playstation 3 (as No More Heroes: Heroes' Paradise)
Xbox 360 (as No More Heroes: Heroes' Paradise)
|Release Date||JP: December 6, 2007
NA: January 22, 2008
EU: March 14, 2008
AU: March 20, 2008
|Publisher||JP: Marvelous Entertainment/Spike
EU: Rising Star Games
|ESRB||M - Blood, Suggestive Themes, and Violence|
No More Heroes is a Wii-exclusive action-adventure game from Suda51 at Grasshopper Entertainment, the same development team that created Killer7 and Contact. It chronicles the rise of Travis Touchdown from lowly, fashion-impaired otaku to #1 (fashion-impaired otaku) Assassin in all of Santa Destroy, California. One of the few games that manages to get a motion-driven Wii control scheme just right, Suda51's unique approach to story and character design gives this action game a feel and a style you'll want to revisit even as soon as you finish the game.
If you're a fan of Killer7 at all, you've probably already had a crack at this even before this writeup was put together. For those who haven't heard of the game, Killer7 is essentially about major political issues such as terrorism and sexuality in the 21st century, except that the game itself stars an elderly wheelchair-confined assassin with a rare form of Dissociative Identity Disorder that allows him to physically change into any of his other personalities, including a barefoot woman with a scoped .45 revolver who can use blood magic and a silent masked luchador who packs a matched pair of grenade launchers. No More Heroes is definitely in the same visual ballpark, but where Killer7 was about political issues, No More Heroes is about social issues. It's also a lot lighter and funnier than Killer7, which makes it easier to pick up and definitely more accessible to the average person. Killer7 rather requires a bit of insight and reasoning in order to view the game as anything else than a surrealist game about smiling alien terrorists, but No More Heroes can be taken as not much more than an over-the-top action game with some really odd dialog if you don't want to look any deeper than that.
The controls for Wii games tend to be abysmally bad, comfortingly un-innovative, or awesomely spot-on. No More Heroes belongs solidly in the final category, managing to make use of some of the more esoteric Wiimote functions without being annoying about it. It uses the Wiimote + Nunchuck configuration for almost all of the basic input, while some of the attack power-up movements and world map tricks make use of some of the motion-sensing capabilities. In addition, it features probably the most novel use of the Wiimote speaker I've seen in a game yet.
The combat is simple enough that you can get by the first couple assassinations without too much trouble, but the fight with Shinobu is generally when the learning curve starts to rise upwards noticeably. In addition to Travis' beam katana, he's also a wrestler of some proficiency. A quick kick or punch can stun an enemy, leaving them open to be grabbed and put into one of several wrestling finishers, such as the Tombstone Piledriver or the Northern Lights Suplex. In addition, Travis can enter Dark Step Mode. Dark Step Mode is engaged by attempting to dodge just as an enemy's attack would contact Travis; when it happens, the background goes dark and everything but Travis slows vastly down, allowing Travis to get in many more hits than he would otherwise. Bosses are not immune to these counters, and in fact, some of the later bosses on Hard difficulty very nearly require the use of these counters to beat them.
In addition to the main assassination missions, the game features a series of novel minigames in the form of odd jobs such as minefield clearing, mowing lawns, and scorpion removal. Money earned through side missions and assassinations can be used to purchase upgrades for Travis and his beam katanas and extra clothing. If you're the completionist sort, you'll find a lot to do here: there's over 100 t-shirts, not counting the other items of clothing, as well as trading cards that unlock concept art and rankings based on performance in the side missions. There's also loads of hidden pickups in Santa Destroy, including some that allow you to purchase more wrestling moves.
Travis Touchdown is a single otaku living in the NO MORE HEROES Motel in Santa Destroy, doing odd jobs around town to fund his purchases of popular moe anime "Pure White Lover Bizarre Jelly" figures and pro wrestling memorabilia. He wins a beam katana in an internet auction, and when he finally runs out of money, drunk and destitute in a bar, a mysterious woman offers him a job as an assassin.
The woman, Sylvia Christel, turns out to be an agent for the United Assassin's Association (UAA), a mysterious group that specializes in professional killings for money and arranges ranking matches between assassins in their employ. When Travis kills the 11th ranked assassin, "Helter Skelter", Sylvia reveals that Travis is now the 11th ranked assassin, and is now a target for other assassins aspiring to reach the top ten rankings. Travis, seeing no way out, decides to go all the way and sets his sights on becoming the #1 ranked assassin.
Along the way, he meets a mysterious Irish assassin with a beam katana like his who drops ominous hints about Travis' history, and starts to question whether or not Sylvia's telling the truth, as well as why the ranking matches cost so much to get into. Eventually Travis discovers the truth about the UAA and Sylvia, as well as the truth about his own childhood.
Regarding Suda51's "social issues" angle on the story, it's not hard to draw parallels with current stereotypes of the entertainment industry. Travis himself is the most obvious, as a cariacature of the average "gamer". He dresses in the standard hipster getup, including tacky belt, goofy haircut, and deconstructed jeans. He's a hardcore otaku, living alone with only a cat named after an old ex-girlfriend and reduced to near-poverty by his drive to collect anime and wrestling merchandise. Despite all this, he's obviously intelligent and able to adapt quickly to changing situations, even chivalrous in spite of his normally unscrupulous outlook.
The Top Ten Assassins Of The UAA
He lives in a luxurious mansion at the outskirts of Santa Destroy, with a fantastic view out onto the coast, but when Travis calls it "paradise", Death Metal disagrees, calling it simply a place to die. When Travis defeats him, he exhorts Travis to "follow the path of the assassin" and tells him he has the title of "Holy Sword". Travis declines the title and advice, saying that all he cares for is becoming Number 1.
Before his match with Travis, he reveals that the UAA was able to get him a dinner at an expensive restaurant with his estranged daughter, as well as reserve the Destroy Stadium for the match, all without charging Dr. Peace a single cent. Travis, on the other hand, paid $150,000 as an entry fee to the match.
When Travis shows up at the Santa Destroy High School to challenge her to a match, she murders three of her classmates in cold blood to keep her identity as an assassin a secret.
Destroyman appears to be quite the movie nerd himself, as his costume is an imitation of a popular cult movie playing in Santa Destroy. Travis even refers to him as "Mister Cosplay"; in light of Travis' decidedly nerdy habits, it's hard to tell if this is sarcastic or just wry.
Holly is the most compelling assassin in the lineup; despite her violent background and willingness to blow Travis up as often as possible, she's the least bloodthirsty of the entire lineup, and accepts her fate without complaint or hesitation.
Like Destroyman, Letz Shake appears to be a nerd for technology; while running through the lengthy start-up for Dr. Shake, he straps what appears to be a Virtual Boy onto his wrist and face. Dr. Shake itself has a pair of engines that bear an odd similarity to the Xbox 360's Trinity engine and the Playstation 3's Cell microprocessor.
For his match with Travis, he invites Travis and Sylvia to one of his shows; on their arrival, they find that they are the only ones in the audience. He invites Travis up onto the stage and kills him with a circular saw before the match actually starts.
In another sort of nerd/otaku twist, Bad Girl's outfit is lifted from the pages of "Sweet Lolita" Japanese fashion: imagine what a slutty Halloween costume version of Miss Moppet's outfit would like, put it on a slim 20something woman, and give her really dramatic makeup, and you're in the right ballpark. In stark contrast, Bad Girl is easily the coarsest of the entire roster, as if she'd been raised by drunken sailors. Travis almost immediately dislikes her, accusing her of being nothing more than a "perverted killing maniac."
Continuing with the nerd theme of the game, Dark Star's mask obscures his voice and breathing in such a way as to make him sound like Darth Vader. He even goes so far as to insinuate who Travis' father might be.
This is one of the strongest games for the Wii since it was put together, and certainly something I'd recommend to that gamer looking for something new and different to add to his library. The controls are tight, the dialog manages to hit that sweet spot between "odd translation" and "clever", and the visual style isn't like anything else currently on the Wii. Heck, it breaks the fourth wall almost nonstop but it does it with such a wink and a nod that it comes across as clever anyway.
The main caveat to be had is that Santa Destroy is billed on the box blurb as being "free-roaming", which it technically is, in that you're allowed to roam around it freely. However, I believe 1up.com put it best, that "Santa Destroy essentially serves as the world's most inefficient level select."1 There's a lot of collecting to be had, and rolling around town on the Schpeltiger is always fun, but it's a very empty town, even if there are people walking around in it.
There's a ton of replay value to be had. Of those aforementioned 100+ t-shirts, 40 of them can only be found by hunting around town, and 50 of them aren't available at all until you complete the game once and start over via New Game+. There's also loads of concept art, but again, none of it even unlocks to be found until the game's been finished once. I consider the gameplay easily worth trying on harder difficulty levels, especially once you've picked up the basics of Dark Steps.
In short, I'd recommend this to most anyone over the age of 13 or so with a Wii. It's nice to see developers trying something daring with a platform notorious for attracting the less game-inclined, something that requires a good portion of work for the payoff. The few faults in this game are more than compensated for by the writing and gameplay, and as of this writing, Grasshopper Manufacture is putting together a sequel, making it a smart time to pick this one up and enjoy it before the second comes out and blows it away.
A Queasy Game By Johnathon Mak
|Release Date||NA: October 11, 2007
EU: February 14, 2008
|Publisher||Independent - Available via Playstation Store and Steam|
|ESRB||Unrated (approx. EA - Wholly abstract graphics and sound)|
Everyday Shooter would be the game produced if Rez and Geometry Wars had tiny downloadable children together. It plays like a regular dual-stick shoot 'em up (aka "shmup"), similar to Geometry Wars, where one control is for movement and one is for aiming and firing your gun. The visuals are highly abstract and the game is based largely around the idea of an emergent soundtrack, different every time you play. The game is described on the Queasy Games website as "an album of musical abstract shmups."1
Featuring the addicting gameplay of Geometry Wars, which is a previous record-holder for "Most Downloaded Game On XBox Live", and the beautiful abstraction of games like Rez, this game is awfully hard to put down. It's available for a very attractive $10 USD download via the Playstation Store for PS3 and PSP, and Steam or Direct2Drive for Windows.
The game is arranged as if it were an album of 8 songs, played in order. All of the music is acoustic guitar, recorded by Johnathon Mak, the one-man force behind Queasy Games. Each level features a simple guitar melody; once the melody ends, the game progresses to the next level. Each time the player destroys an enemy or collects a point pickup, a small guitar riff plays, adding complexity to the music. If you're familiar with Rez, you already know what this sounds like, but the somewhat less unstructured nature of Everyday Shooter gives this a more organic feel.
The core concept to the actual gameplay is chaining explosions together to destroy large groups of enemies. There are no power ups or bombs; your avatar is a small box, only a few pixels across. Each level has a different mechanic that initiates a chain explosion, varying in complexity. In addition, several levels change modes, and each mode has a different chain mechanic than the others. At higher levels, figuring out how to chain explosions is an essential skill, since the sheer number of enemies on-screen requires you to do it in order to free up breathing room.
I haven't been able to put this down since I got it. I picked this up on a whim after hearing about the soundtrack, and it's now a mainstay on my PSP. Despite the seemingly placid graphics and music, it can get very tense. As mentioned earlier, learning the exact chain mechanics of each level is a major part of the learning curve. The game is tough without being necessarily unfair.
The PSP, and the PS3 to a different extent, has a nice trend of music-based games that take a familiar gameplay concept and twist it to make it your own. The game is often compared to Rez, but I personally think it has more in common with Lumines. Both games take a long-tested game mechanic and subvert it in the name of music, but where Rez is all about the huge, multisensory experience, Lumines and Everyday Shooter are distinctly more about the music of the game, and pointing out the rhythms of the gameplay itself.
The style of the game is well realized: the menus are all simple two-tone colors, and the graphics are bright and colorful. There are several unlockable tweaks that play with the visual design, such as inverting all of the colors or making the game monochromatic. The idea of the game as an album of music permeates everything, right down to an unlockable Shuffle mode that lets you replay the game levels in random order.
The unlockables definitely help contribute to the replay value of the game. I've found that this game is for my PSP what Tetris is for my DS, but if working for a goal is more your speed, there's also some extra levels to unlock in addition to the other fancy things mentioned above. In fact, the game encourages longevity, as your ending score in a given game is added to a pool of points that you use to purchase the unlocks.
The only major fault I could find with the game lies in the point scoring system. The point pickups are a bit shortlived, and there seems to be a bit of insensitivity when attempting to collect them. As they are the only way to gain points, and extra lives, this makes the game a bit more difficult than it maybe should be. In fact, the easiest way to collect large bunches is to pass through a clump and then stop moving altogether, to let the pickups "fall" into your ship. As this sometimes goes directly against longtime shmup habits, it's a bit annoying at times.
I love it, despite its flaws. It's nicely priced at $10 on Steam and Direct2Drive, though I wasn't able to figure out whether it's still available on the Playstation Store or not, as nothing on their website ever explicitly states what's available for purchase at a given time. I think it's well suited for just about anyone, in the same way that Tetris is, and it's a flashy way to show off what a PSP can do to your friends. If nothing else, give it a shot just to see to see how the music ties into the gameplay.