Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Phantasy Star 3: Generations of Doom

 It’s the black sheep of the Phantasy Star family, the one that nearly ruined the series. If you look for online user reviews of Phantasy Star 3 you’d expect it to be one of the worst games ever made. Many people feel it doesn’t quite fit the series and was a massive step backwards. However Phantasy Star 3 is by no means a bad game and in fact improves on Phantasy Star 2 in some ways.

The game begins on the day Rhys, the crown prince of Landen, is to wed his love Maia, a girl who was found washed up on shore suffering from amnesia. However just before they can exchange vows Maia is stolen away by a Dragon who claims to be of Layan ancestry. A thousand years prior a bitter war was fought between two factions, one lead by Orakio and the other by the dark witch Laya. Nobody had seen a Layan in generations until this Dragon appeared. Rhys vows to seek vengeance on the Layans and sets off on a quest that will span three generations and reveal the secrets of the world he lives in.

And thus begins another epic.
One problem many people have with Phantasy Star 3 is that the setting is more medieval than science fiction. While this may be true of the start of the game many sci-fi elements slip in as the game progresses. Two combat cyborgs join the party and the walkways between areas are full of complex machinery. The truth about this world is slowly revealed over the course of the game. Revealing the truth about the world was one of the game’s best moments and I found it quite a clever twist.

The battle system of Phantasy Star 3 follows the same fast paced battle system of Phantasy Star 2. You have the choice of auto attacking for a round, auto attacking indefinitely until you interrupt it or choosing what targets to attack or techniques to use. While the encounter rate is quite high the battle system is fast paced enough that it rarely annoys. Phantasy Star 3 is also quite a lot easier than its two predecessors. While those games are incredibly tough and require a lot of grinding to beat, levelling up in Phantasy Star 3 is very quick and you can get through the game with little to no grinding. Dungeons are also much smaller and more manageable than the sprawling labyrinths of previous Phantasy Star games. It’s a lot easier to navigate them. You won’t be forced to use a walkthrough or get out the graph paper just to find your way around them.

Unfortunately that’s where the improvements to the battle system end. The magic, or rather technique system, is rather unique. You can pay a vendor to redistribute the strength of your techniques. Strengthening one technique will weaken another. The problem is that techniques are all pretty much worthless in the game other than Gires, a healing technique that heals the entire party. You do more damage with regular attacks and while some of the buff spells can totally break the game I never once felt the need to use them. It’s an interesting system wasted by the fact that techniques just aren’t worth using.

Wasted potential really sums up Phantasy Star 3. The overworld graphics look a lot better than in Phantasy Star 2 but in some areas it is really lacking. Towns look all the same and are almost devoid of any NPCs to talk to. Even in desert or snow areas the town will still have the same houses surrounded by green grass. The castles in the game look and feel even sparser. The in-battle backgrounds will change depending on where you are fighting, a feature weirdly dropped for Phantasy Star 2, and there’s some nice parallax scrolling effects. However the animation on enemies is very disappointing. Phantasy Star set itself apart from its 8-bit contemporaries with gorgeously animated enemies. Phantasy Star 2 went one better; battles were filled with animations of your characters running up to attack enemies or firing off spells. Character animations are missing from Phantasy Star 3 and replaced with weapon effects like you would see in the early Dragon Quest games and enemies remain motionless until they attack. These attack animations are very disappointing, most never going over two frames of animation. One enemy attacks by waggling his finger back and forth, another’s eyes will glow and the strangest of all, one enemy will attack by flexing his pectorals. Not exactly the most exciting of animations. Those zombie rabbits in Phantasy Star 2 that shoved their spilling entrails back into their stomachs were disgusting but the pixel art and animation looked stunning. The still anime cutscenes from the first and second games are now a rarity replaced with tiny portraits of the characters and text at important points in the game.

I'm not sure which town this is because they all look near identical.
The world of Phantasy Star 3 is quite intriguing as is the generation system from which the title draws its name, Generations of Doom. At certain points in the game you must choose a bride to marry. The story then continues on from the point of view of the characters son. Depending on their mix of Orakian or Layan blood the offspring can be either more focused on physical attacks, techniques or a mix of both. You have to choose a bride twice during the game and depending on who you choose the story and character you control will change. One particular combination will even result in the birth of twins, a male and a female. This system has the potential for the player to become emotionally invested in the characters and their choices but unfortunately this isn’t fully realised. All characters in the game are pretty much blank slates so it’s hard to become attached to them.  It’s telling that Dragon Quest V which came out afterwards and also had a generational mechanic became one of the most emotionally involving games of the 16-bit era. The story as a whole could have done with more exposition. It’s an interesting premise but it’s presented in a bare bones manner. NPCs and other characters that join your party are barely fleshed out. While the beginning of the game does a good job of guiding the player to where they need to go there are some ambiguous moments later on that can leave you stumped unless you look up a FAQ on where to go next unless you would prefer to wander about aimlessly for a while.

This is what replaces the anime stills from the previous two games. At least the awesome 80's anime style is still present.
What isn’t disappointing is the soundtrack. It’s one of the best FM synth soundtracks ever composed. The instrumentation might be a little lacking compared to later Megadrive games but there’s no faulting the compositions. The title track which I’ve put a link to below is one of the all time great pieces of videogame music. Another nice touch is how the music changes in battle depending on how you are doing and how the overworld music adds more instruments as you recruit more characters.

Phantasy Star 3 is far from a bad game. It’s a good game that just failed to live up to its predecessors. In ways it is an improvement. It’s far more accessible due to its much fairer difficulty level and smaller dungeons. The potential was there for it to be something special but it never fulfilled its own ambitions. The battle system is unique and fast paced but you can beat most of the game by just using the auto attack command. The story goes to some very interesting places towards the end but the bland characters and underutilised generation mechanic leaves the player emotionally detached. It never reaches the heights of the Phantasy Star 2’s social commentary and superb ending. If you are interested in the Phantasy Star series don’t skip over this one. It’s fun, relatively short and has some interesting features. Just be prepared for some measure of disappointment when it’s all over.

All that leaves me is Phantasy Star IV to play. I’ve started it and from the first few hours it’s been absolutely superb and I hope to get a review up soon and maybe even get a podcast out on the series.

Decisions, decisions.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Sonic the Hedgehog: Pocket Adventure (Neo Geo Pocket)

You have to feel sorry for SNK and their Neo Geo Pocket console. It was looking so good. They had a wonderful console that boasted more power than the Gameboy Colour yet had far better battery life. They even managed to tempt some third parties to publish for their console. However they just could not compete with the juggernaut that Pokémon became. Sonic the Hedgehog on the Neo Geo Pocket was a surprise third party release for the Neo Geo Pocket and is to my knowledge the first time Sonic had appeared on a non Sega console. I’m sure the fact that the Neo Geo Pocket could link with the Dreamcast sweetened the deal but it was still a miraculous coup for SNK to have such a big franchise appear on their fledgling handheld.

The usual 'Green Hill Zone' stage starts everything off.
Many people label Sonic Pocket Adventure as a port of Sonic 2. They would be mistaken; Pocket Adventure is a unique sonic game. The game’s looks borrow heavily from Sonic 2. If you have played that game you will have a strong feeling of déjà vu. However the level design is completely different. Art assets look like downscaled versions of Sonic 2’s art and the borrowing doesn’t stop there. All the music is taken from Sonic 3. It’s a bit of a bizarre combination when you hear Sonic 3 music over a level that looks like it came from Sonic 2. Of course there are chaos emeralds to collect. The special stage is accessed by finishing Act 1 with 50 rings, ala Sonic 1. The special stage is ripped straight out of Sonic 2, which were my favourite Sonic special stages. What I don’t like is how fiendishly difficult these stages are and the fact that there’s only one chance in each zone to collect a chaos emerald.

In terms of visuals the special stages are more than a match for its Megadrive cousin

 Pocket Adventure was developed by Dimps, the same team that would later go on to create the Sonic Advance games for the GBA. It plays remarkably close to the Megadrive games it is based on but unfortunately falls foul to the same mishaps as the Advance games. Maybe it’s the development team or the diminutive size of the NGP and GBA screens. Pocket Adventure’ just like the Advance games’ is filled with leaps of faith and pitfalls that aren’t avoidable without the power to see into the future. It becomes more prevalent as the game advances. It’s not enough to ruin the game but enough to annoy. Mostly the level design is pretty good.

The Neo Geo Pocket hasn’t got many platform games and Sonic Pocket Adventure would definitely be one of the best. It’s fast, plays remarkably close to the Megadrive games and looks gorgeous. It’s definitely worth picking up and is relatively cheap even in the gorgeous PAL mini MVS case version. 

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Sniper 2

The PS2 era saw a lot of weird releases, particularly in Europe. A few tiny publishers sprang up and began localising some very obscure games for Europe and selling them at budget prices. The vast majority of these games were taken from the Simple range of Japanese games.  These were a series of low budget games published by D3 Publisher. The PS2 series was named Simple 2000 because each game sold for 2000 yen, the PS1 series similarly was called Simple 1500 again due to the price point.  While some absolute classics were released on the series (Global Defence Force, which had a European release, is superb; I really should review it soon), the majority was pretty terrible. The Sniper 2 for the PS2 is a very good example. Unleashed on unsuspecting European gamers by Midas Interactive, the supreme masters of publishing crappy Japanese games, The Sniper 2 is now also available on the European PSN store.

The first Sniper game was released on the PS1 and unfortunately/fortunately never got a western release so it’s a good thing that there’s a plot in the intro. The plot overview shows the first games most ‘exciting’ moments in all their low budget PS1 ‘glory’ (I’ve a feeling I may run out of inverted commas before this review is finished). And what a story it had. To summarise Harry, a fire fighter, while saving a girl named Melissa stumbles across a Mafia counterfeit ring and as a result loses his job and his girlfriend is killed by the Mafia. He then trains to be top class sniper and returns to the city to exact his revenge. While on this vigilante crusade Harry is contacted by an informant named CA. CA gives Harry information on the Mafia to help him out. After he kills the Mafia boss he finally meets CA. CA was Melissa, the girl he saved at the start. She also possesses (wait for it) the memories of his murdered girlfriend.

Who wrote this shit?

Nope this isn't in game, it's the CGI intro. It looks even worse in game.
Anyway the game starts after these events. Harry and CA are on the run and pick up a guy named Stanley whose car has broken down. They go to a diner of Stanley’s choosing and then all hell breaks loose. They come under attack by Mafia, there’s another killer (Harry knows he’s a killer because he smells the same as he does, as you do) and the waitress turns out to be a CIA agent. What transpires afterwards is another load of old nonsense involving the Mafia and bio weapons.

The game is separated into about 12 stages full of sniping fun. The sniping gameplay isn’t all that bad. You can move about (extremely slowly) in a very limited sniping area and can zoom in to take your shot. Your rifle has 3 levels of zoom and sways making each shot a little more difficult to take. You also have to take into account the time it will take for the bullet to reach your target making moving targets quite a challenge. While the gameplay is solid if uninspired, the stages are where the game shows its low budget origins. Most stages only require you to shoot one target. This means most can end in roughly 5-10 seconds. Each one is bookended by lengthy nonsensical cutscenes and loading times. Even more ridiculous is that each stage is begins with the opening credit sequence and ends with the closing credits. At first I thought the game was just horribly broken until I realised that they were going for an episodic feel were each stage in the game was supposed to represent an episode in a TV series. Very clever, except for the fact that each stage can last maybe 10 seconds! What were they thinking!

A beautiful vista in low poly land.

Later stages just get frustrating. One involves setting off a fire alarm and killing the target as he runs out of a nightclub. Your only clue to who the target is is a black and white photograph of his back at the start of the level. The fact that all the male game models are near identical other than the colour of their clothing makes this stage a frustrating exercise in trial and error. Another involves shooting out the tires of a speeding limousine and then killing the target as he escapes. Actually landing a hit on the tires is nigh on impossible at the speed it travels. And don’t get me started on the stage that requires you to take out security cameras.

Here's your brief for the nightclub stage described above
Can you see the target in the crowd? It's like 'Where's Wally' at a Where's Wally convention.

Each stage only lasts at most 3 minutes, some as I said can be completed in 5 seconds and there are only about 12 stages in the game. I’m amazed that they actually managed to make a whole game and sell it when there’s so little content. If you skip the cutscenes and don’t get stuck for too long on some of the more frustrating areas then you could have this game finished off in about half an hour. However once you finish the game, something else is revealed, the game has two branching paths where you need an A+ or higher rating to access them.

Accessing these drove me demented. I tried the first stage and killed the first enemy in as quick a time as possible. Then I did the same with a head shot. I couldn’t get higher than a B-. I trawled the internet and found out that your ranking isn’t based on how well you do. If you wait until there are less than 10 seconds left on the clock to kill your target you are guaranteed an A ranking. I’d love to slap the designer that thought this would be intuitive and not bother explaining this at all in the game or in the instructions.

'Dramatic'. The true power of the PS2 'Emotion Engine'.
I’m sure you’ve noticed the ‘wonderful’ visuals in the screenshots throughout the review. It really does look that bad. Even with the low polygon count and low resolution textures the game still has the audacity to experience slow down problems making some missions take even longer than they should. Special mention should also go to the out of place jazz music used throughout the game.

You really know you are getting a complete turd when even the publisher can’t be bothered to try and make the game sound appealing. Here’s the PSN blurb the publisher has up to describe the game:

“Get ready to experience the most bizarre, eccentric and maddening game ever created! Featuring a truly off-the-wall storyline, unbelievable character stereotypes and one-dimensional gameplay, The Sniper 2 has earned its place amongst the stars as a loveable cult classic.”

This stage can also die screaming.
You’re probably thinking that you should avoid this game since even the publisher can’t bring themselves to lie about its quality. However I recommend you definitely try this game out. Sniper 2 is a hilarious experience in the same way that terrible horror movies are enjoyable. It’s a total train wreck of a game but the story, acting and just plain crappiness has somehow managed to make this game transcend terrible to become almost enjoyable again. Play it with a group of friends with a sense of humour and prepare to laugh your ass off. Even if you hate it it’s so cheap you won’t feel out of pocket.

Check out the fan made trailer:

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Arcade and Retro Podcast Halloween Special: Resident Evil

In the spirit of Halloween and to mark the occasion of the recent release of the latest title in the series we look back at the Resident Evil games.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

October Horrorthon: Parasite Eve

I was put off playing Parasite Eve for a long time because here in Europe we only ever got Parasite Eve 2. While I didn’t play much of PE2 it seemed like a very lacklustre Resident Evil clone and didn’t hold my attention so I assumed the original was the same. Turns out I was very wrong; Parasite Eve is a strange mish-mash of action and RPG that works exceptionally well.

I recently read at Jeremy Parish’s Telebunny that Parasite Eve was a collaboration between the Japanese Squaresoft and an American based team with CGI created by a big name Hollywood effects studio. This would make a lot of sense since Parasite Eve is set in New York during the Christmas holidays. When Japanese developers try to recreate American culture they usually get it very wrong (gloriously so in the case of the Mother series).  Parasite Eve’s depiction of New York nails the cop drama dynamic, albeit a cop drama filled with horribly mutated creatures.

The depiction of New York is surprisingly accurate
Parasite Eve is a sequel to the horror/sci-fi novel of the same name by Hideaki Sena. The game and book give a good science fiction explanation of the science behind the plot but in short the mitochondria of human cells evolve enough to become sentient and rebel against the rest of the cell to try and become their own form of life. As someone with a PhD in science it actually makes some sense although it gets a bit crazier in the videogame. The game opens with NYPD cop and protagonist Aya Brea going to the opera with her bellend of a date. That’s when everything goes wrong. When the female lead of the opera, Melissa, begins to sing the audience start to burst into flames. Everyone except Aya seems to be affected. It’s a wonderful piece of CGI that is up there with the best openings of any game. Aya chases down horribly mutating Melissa who now calls herself Eve. It’s not just people spontaneously bursting into flames that she has to contend with but the local wildlife are also mutating into horrible creatures. Over the next 6 days Aya and the NYPD must hunt down and stop Eve’s malicious plans to create a new dominant lifeform.

Nearly 15 years on the opening cutscene is still disturbing.
At first glance Parasite Eve looks like a Resident Evil clone. The backgrounds are CGI rendered stills with polygonal models imposed on top of them. Parasite Eve is a more linear experience that doesn’t focus on puzzles and searching for keys, although there is a little of that. Some people will be glad to hear the Parasite Eve does away with Resident Evil’s tank controls. Although battles aren’t random, they trigger at certain points in the field and enemies are not visible until battle is initiated. During battle you are free to move around avoiding enemy attacks until your ATB gauge is full allowing you to attack, cast ‘parasite energy’ (magic), or enter the menu.  When you attack a wire frame appears around your character showing the effective range of your weapon. Attack outside this range and your shots will deal less damage and likely miss. It’s a bit like Vagrant Story except it works a whole lot better since you can freely dodge attacks. The depth comes from knowing the right time to attack since you are stationary and vulnerable while attacking.

You are free to move to avoid attacks but once you commit to an attack you are locked into it and cannot move until the animation is complete. During this time enemies can freely attack you.
Being an RPG you can of course level up but the most important system in the game is weapon and armour customisation. All weapons and armour have base stats as well as bonus stats. These bonus stats can be transferred to other pieces of equipment. You can build up some serious bonus stats using this system. You can also transfer item abilities such as rapid fire, acid bullets or auto potion to pieces of equipment using the same system. It’s a system that allows you to really craft your own weapons. You can also carry over a piece of armour and a weapon to the EX mode, a form of new game+. You’ll need them since this opens up a new rock hard 77 floor randomly generated dungeon in the Chrysler Building. Completing the Chrysler Building gives the games true ending.

Parasite Eve the game can be a little silly in places and doesn’t compare to the novel in terms of narrative but it’s no less entertaining. Fighting grotesque mutants is fun but the heart of the game is the characters themselves. Aya Brea is an excellent strong female protagonist and the game never focuses on her sex appeal, an unfortunate rarity in videogames. Her relationship with her fellow officers and Maede the Japanese scientist is well fleshed out. Her partner Daniel is especially well written, his terribly parenting skills make him a lot more believable. Then there is Eve herself, a great villain that constantly harasses Aya throughout. It’s wonderfully paced, clocking in at about 15 hours. Plot revelations and impressive CGI cutscenes come thick and fast so there’s not a slow moment in the game.

Crappy dad, great cop partner. Why is Aya called Karen here? Answers on a postcard.

The CGI backgrounds and cutscenes look good for their time but have aged a little. The CGI cutscenes are well directed which makes up for slightly dated CG. Graphically it is somewhere between FFVII and FFVIII. They really managed to achieve the cinematic feel the creators set out to achieve. The wintery New York depicted in the game has echoes of cop dramas like Law and Order, except with more mitochondrial monstrosities of course. The soundtrack, composed by Yoko Shimomura of Street Fighter 2 and Kingdom Hearts fame, is excellent despite a somewhat fake sounding opera sample.

Parasite Eve is a wonderful combination of horror, action and RPG and I’m amazing Square has never returned to the same gameplay formula. The battle system works brilliantly and more RPGs should take from short length of the game. The lack of filler and slow boring exposition scenes leaves the game excellently paced. The contemporary setting is a refreshing alternative to the overdone fantasy and sci-fi settings. I’d go so far as to say that Parasite Eve is the best combination of action and RPG since Secret of Mana. The game is available on PSN although only in the US and Japan but Europeans still have access to to these stores so there's no excuse to miss out.

If you don't play it Eve will set you on fire.