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.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Frog Fractions, the weirdest game of the year.

My girlfriend showed me this game yesterday and it's popularity seems to have exploded since this morning. It starts off like a simple flash based game but once you get the dragon power up and start exploring it gets a hell of a lot weirder and funnier. Definitely give this a go, it won't take long to beat!

Here's the link:

It starts off like a normal boring flash game:

Then gets weird:

And then a whole lot weirder:

And this is only the start!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

October Horrorthon: Luigi’s Mansion

I own a pretty extensive collection of Gamecube games but for some reason I never managed to pick up Luigi’s Mansion until very recently. I guess I was put off this Gamecube launch title by reviews complaining how short the game was. With some games barely hitting a four hour completion time I think in retrospect Luigi’s Mansion is a lot better than reviewers gave it credit for.

One day Luigi receives a letter notifying him that he has won a mansion, although he never remembers entering any competition. He goes out to view the mansion he has won only to discover that it’s been overrun by ghosts. To make matters worse it seems Mario is also missing. Thankfully he meets up with Professor E. Gad. With the help of Prof. E. Gad’s Poltergust 3000 vacuum cleaner Luigi sets off to rid the mansion of ghosts and hopefully find out what happened to Mario.

The obligatory shower scene

 Luigi can’t just use the vacuum cleaner to suck up ghosts directly. They first must be stunned. Usually this involves letting the ghosts get as close to Luigi as possible before shining your torch on them. This reveals their hearts, making them vulnerable to your vacuum. The ghosts won’t give up without a struggle. Struggling ghosts will drag you around the room while you try to ‘reel them in’ with your vacuum. There are however other, unique, let’s say ‘boss’, ghosts that won’t reveal their hearts as easily as the more common variety. Getting them to reveal their hearts can lead to a puzzle or boss battle. A handy camera can give you hints on how to make these ghosts reveal their hearts. Things get even more complicated when fire, ice and water elements get added to your vacuum and there are 50 mischievous Boos to find throughout the mansion. There’s plenty to keep Luigi occupied.

Who you gonna call?! Luigi???

 As a launch title for the Gamecube Luigi’s Mansion does an excellent job of showcasing the hardware. The visuals are bold and cartoony and the ghost effects still impress. The way the vacuum interacts with the environment is always entertaining, especially the excellent cloth physics. There’s plenty of distortion and reflection effects utilised not just for aesthetic purposes but also as elements in many of the game’s puzzles. Despite the playful cartoon charms Luigi’s Mansion does a great job of creating a creepy atmosphere. Shadows are cast by your torch and lightning flashes outside. However my favourite touch is how Luigi whistles the theme tune to himself which turns to a nervous hum in creepy areas.

Luigi’s Mansion can be polished off in about 6 hours even if you take your time to collect all 50 Boos. That might seem short but it’s such a well paced game that there’s never a dull moment. Each boss ghost is defeated is a different manner so gameplay never ends up repeating itself. You can get it pretty cheap now so really the short length isn’t an issue and you can enjoy it for what it is, one of the best games on the Gamecube. It’s also good to see Luigi getting the spotlight for once!

Friday, October 19, 2012

October Horrorthon: Costume Quest

OK there’s nothing scary about Costume Quest but it is Halloween themed so it counts! Costume Quest is a simple RPG game that follows a group of children out trick or treating on Halloween. Things get a little more interesting when your protagonist (you have a choice of a male of female protagonist) discovers a sinister plot by creatures called ‘Grubbins’ to steal all the candy for an unknown but more than likely nefarious deed. To make matters worse they have mistaken your sibling for a giant candy and have taken him as well. You’ll have to stop the Grubbins nefarious plans and get you brother back because you’ll be in deep trouble if you return home without him!

The pedigree of this game is obvious once you play it. The lead designer was Tasha Harris, a former Pixar animator, and the legendary Tim Schafer helped with the development as well. The game has bags of charm and is a very nostalgic experience even if it represents a more American view of Halloween. I don’t know any shopping centers in Ireland that are open for trick or treating and most costumes in my youth had a black bin-liner poncho as a base. The writing is witty and got a fair few laughs out of me. It’s got a very distinctive charming visual style.

There are no random battles in Costume Quest. Every time you trick or treat a house there’s a chance you’ll either receive candy, which acts as currency in the game, or you’ll be attacked by Grubbins. Later on you’ll see Grubbins walking around and can get an upper hand in battle by sneaking up on them. Your powers in battle are determined by what costume you have on and once you enter battle you take a gigantic, more realistic form of the costume you are wearing, a nice play on the active imaginations of children. It borrows from the Mario RPG games using timed prompts to inflict more damage with basic attacks. The battle system is quite simplistic but since the game is quite short the game ends before you bore of it, unlike other games like the woeful Legend of Dragoon. More costumes are unlocked by finding their patterns and then searching each area for the parts required to complete it. Some costumes also have functions outside of combat like the robot that allows you to use ramps and the Luke Skywalker knock off which lights up dark areas with his lightsaber.

Costume Quest is a wonderfully charming bite sized RPG that’s well worth playing coming up to Halloween. It is perfect adults looking for a shot of nostalgia and kids as well since it’s short, easy and the punishment for failure is very lenient, dropping you back to just before the last battle. One minor problem is the text during cutscenes proceeds automatically and can be too fast for children but other than that it’s one of the best downloadable games money can buy. There’s also Christmas themed DLC called Grubbins on Ice which is included in the price when bought on Steam. I know what I’ll be playing on the run up to the festive season.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

October Horrorthon: Forbidden Siren 2

About two years ago I wrote about Forbidden Siren ( The stealth based horror gameplay made it one of the most interesting horror games I’ve played but was unfortunately let down by too many silly design flaws. The sequel manages to address everything that was wrong with the original game making it one of the best horror games available on the PS2.

Forbidden Siren 2 follows a group of characters that have been mysteriously drawn to Yamijima Island. 29 years ago an underwater power cable was cut and the entire population of the island disappeared.  Just as this group of people reach the island it is hit by a massive tsunami. When they awaken the island is teeming with Shibito out to kill them. The events of 29 years previous seem to hold the clue to why they are here and what is happening to them.

Shibito are back and as terrifying as ever!

 As in the previous game the story is told from the perspective of about a dozen different characters while the story jumps between different points in the timeline. The game uses a Link Navigator to allow you to select what stage you want to play and show where in the timeline it is. Usually you have a choice of multiple stages to play as you see fit. One of the major problems of the original Forbidden Siren was that each segment of the game had a secondary objective necessary to complete the game and they were so obtuse that a FAQ was pretty much essential. These secondary objectives return once again but thankfully Siren 2 gives hints before the mission and clearly defines the objective. If a secondary objective is required to advance to another stage the game clearly indicates which stage the objective is in and states on the map screen what the objective is.  Siren 2 is thankfully a much better designed game and I never needed to confront a FAQ.

The original Forbidden Siren is infamous for its high difficulty. Many characters were unarmed or so weak that if a Shibito spotted them they were as good as dead. Even when they were armed ammunition was so scarce that you could not afford to waste a single bullet. While this made the game incredibly tense it also meant some of the stages became an exercise in trial and error. The characters in Siren 2 are now more capable of defending themselves. Most stages are checkpointed to further alleviate frustration. However make no mistake, Siren 2 is definitely not a cake walk and enemies still pose a major threat and avoiding confrontation is always preferable to combat.

The Forbidden Siren series most distinguishing feature is ‘sightjacking’ where if you press the right analog stick in the direction of an enemy or other character you can see through their eyes. It’s a wonderful mechanic that is explored in even more interesting ways other than learning enemy routes so you can avoid them.  One of the characters has extremely poor eyesight so you must sightjack his dog to help him see. Another character is able to pick up psychic visions of the past in certain areas while another can take control of sightjacked enemies for a limited period. The use of lighting is also cleverly implemented. To offset the greater offensive capabilities of the characters in Siren 2, Shibito have now become more aggressive and intelligent. However you can now use darkened areas to hide yourself from them. Later in the game Yamibito appear. Yamibito are like the Shibito except they are damaged by light. You can use your flashlight to stun them or hide in well lit areas safe from harm. I found this play on light and darkness a very interesting mechanic. Shibito and Yamibito are natural enemies and you can use this to your advantage, they will rather fight each other rather than attack you.

Sightjacking a Shibito. That's not you holding the gun, it's you in the Shibitos crosshairs

Forbidden Siren 2 is one of the more visually stunning games on the PS2. The environments are excellently rendered and the use of lighting, fog and other atmospheric effects add greatly to the oppressive nature of the game. Characters faces have been digitised from real actors and while the effect can end up in the uncanny valley it does a great job of humanising the characters.

While Forbidden Siren 2 addresses all the problems with the original and adds its own interesting twists to the gameplay it falls short in one area. The story of Forbidden Siren 2 is nowhere near as good as the original. It’s again told in a very obtuse manner and most of the important points are hidden away in archive items you must find during the game. It’s just not as satisfying once you piece it all together. I really liked how the original game focused on the humanity of the characters. Shibito being former humans carried out bizarre corrupted imitations of their everyday routines. There was a strong focus on how the characters dealt with the situation and how they were all slowly turning into Shibito themselves. The characters of Forbidden Siren 2 are just not as interesting and there’s nothing that comes close to the emotional highs of the stories of Tomoko Maede or Risa Onda in the original. It’s still a well written piece of horror fiction just not up to the standard of its predecessor.

The Yamibito are shrouded in black robes to protect from light but not well enough to avoid the light from your torch

Forbidden Siren 2 is one of the best horror games ever made and well worth playing. The stealth horror gameplay that showed so much potential in the original is now polished and allowed to shine.  It’s tense and terrifying like all good horror games but without the frustrations of the first game. The oppressive atmosphere is helped by some wonderfully realised visuals and a superb soundtrack that gives the Silent Hill games a run for their money. Another nice feature is that the game gives you the choice of English voice acting or Japanese voice acting. The original game had Japanese characters speaking with jarring English accents so playing with the original actors and subtitles is a welcome addition. Unfortunately Forbidden Siren 2 was only released in Japan and Europe meaning US players will have difficulty playing this game.

Just a small note to end with, the game is very loosely tied to a Siren film. It’s not required viewing to enjoy and understand the story but worth checking out for fans of the series. My girlfriend really liked it while I found it very disappointing.