Monday, May 25, 2009

Ranger X- Genesis- Gau Entertainment

Growing up, I was a Genesis kid. Sure, the first system I had was an NES, but if you really pressed me for just one system that defined my childhood, the Sega would be it. And it may have been because at that time I began to be allowed to rent games. Almost every weekend began with my dad taking me down to Adventure Video, and as he was looking around for a movie to rent, I would stare in awe at the vast collection of games that seemed almost magical to my young mind. There was no set criteria for the games I would play. I rented randomly. More often than not, it'd be a last second grab as my dad was demanding we go home. So, it shouldn't be surprising that I've played a lot of games for the Genesis. That's why it's always a surprise when I run into one that I've never even heard of. And Ranger X, created by Toshio Toyota and Gau Entertainment in 1993, was one of those games.

The plot is a simple one. Those pesky terrorists have invaded the Homeworld, and it is up to you and your mech, Ranger X, to put a stop to them and restore peace to your planet. It's the kind of plot that's just there to placate the people like me that have to know what's going on and why they're blowing up everything that moves. It has no real effect on the storyline. Anything that the player needed to know, they knew before picking up the game. There are bad guys, and the player's the only one that can stop them.

The graphics are some of the best on the Genesis boasting detailed sprite work and top notch animation. The frame rate is mostly solid, but there are the occasional hiccup when there's too much on the screen. The locales that you visit are varied and interesting. Occasionally, the background's don't seem to shift with you, but in those cases the background is either an important visual or something that makes sense to be static.

Enemy designs range from generic orbs that fire missiles to small walking mechs with a shield that can only be attacked through careful movement and planning. The bosses in the game are huge, often dwarfing the Ranger X and making him look tiny in comparison. The fact the player's mech is several times the size of a person only add emphasis to how big these bosses are.

The game looks great, and there's no denying that, but having pretty graphics don't amount to much if the game doesn't play well. Luckily, Ranger X handles well. Attacking in this game is simple. A fires your gun left, C fires your gun to the right, and B fires which ever special weapon you have equipped at the time. If you happen to have a six button controller, you are able to also dictate how you wish your companion robot to shoot. The button setup for the game allows for almost the level of precision found in a schmup, because one is capable of training fire toward the enemy without having to break to dodge.

Which is a nice touch, because this mech behaves more like a Gundam than a walking tank. Indeed, the Ranger X is a very flighty machine able to almost dart about the screen simply by pressing the direction you wish to go. In fact double tapping to the side or pressing down and then up, will launch the mech quickly across the screen. The maneuverability in this game is amazing. The only thing keeping you from dodging a shot is a bit of inertia and your own ability to guide your walking death machine out of harms way.

Unfortunately, these abilities aren't really put to the test that often in the game. Because, generally, a more methodical pace will serve you better, allowing the player to only face a few enemies at a time rather than a dozen. Of course, while you're inching along, you're probably riding in the Ex-Up, a motorcycle like mech that follows you through half of the levels. This is because not only does the Ex-Up have a different life bar than the Ranger X, but it also has an auto targeting system, which makes most of the situations in the game, especially early on, extremely easy. In fact, the first boss, with just a pinch luck, can be beaten by sitting in one spot and firing.

What I'm trying to get across is that the game is rarely frantic enough to force the player fully make use of the control scheme. This is why the third level is so enjoyable. In the third level, the Ex-Up is replaced by a hovering base that floats after you well above the action. Its only roles are the occasional blast of support fire and providing a place to swap your special attacks. So, the player no longer has the ex-ups extra life bar or its homing attack to fall back on when things get a little heated. And as this level is filled with little flying enemies, Ranger X will be darting around trying to dodge shots and enemies while keeping enough life that he can make it through the onslaught with enough health to destroy all of the targets. It's a moment that just feels right.

Speaking of the targets, the goal of each level is to destroy all of the targets in a given level. After which, the player will be whisked away to a boss battle. The issue I have with the targets is that a majority of the levels are just straight lines. The player walks, or climbs, in one direction, pausing to destroy the large enemy or base that they have been told to. But, a player would do that anyway. These are not just little houses that just sit there or tokens sitting slightly off to the side. These are enemies or bases that spawn enemies, which are sitting right in the player's path. Players would destroy them regardless of being told.

It's not simply that there are targets that bothers me. Having targets makes sense in levels like two and five, which are large and sprawling. It actually forces exploration. However, in levels like one and four, which are literally straight lines, it ends up breaking the flow. And, I can't help but feel that those levels would have been better with only one target at the end and more quick, darting enemies to force the player to master controlling the mech.

Unfortunately, there are actually very few times that being skilled at controlling the mech is required. Those few times are during the third level and at the final boss. Normally, one would think that the bosses would be the test that makes sure the player has gained enough skill, but that's not the case in this game. That's because Ranger X is more about the levels than the bosses, or rather, the bosses serve little more purpose than being a pothole on the road to the next level.

The bosses in Ranger X vary in difficulty from simple to easy. The first can be beaten, as I said, by sitting in the Ex-up and firing. The second is a little better, actually having four distinct parts and attack patterns that emerge as it loses health. The first two parts simply ask you to dodge back and forth and shoot. The third asks you to duck at the right time and shoot. While the fourth asks you to back up and shoot. Only the final boss and the second half of the third feels both fair and challenging.

This is in part because the game never forces the player to adapt beyond the first two specials: the Flame Unit and the Seeker Mine. That's probably because the Flame Unit, or flame thrower, is extremely powerful at close ranges, while the Seeker Unit, a grenade, is capable of destroying ground based targets in three hits. And as those are two of seven power-ups, it just feels like wasted potential.

The music in the game is good with quick and pumping beats that fit in well with a shooter, and do a good job of creating an environment of energy. The sound effects, on the other hand, are muted at best. The weapons sound weak and the explosions are muffled, which stands in contrast to how powerful the Ranger X actually is.

I've come across very harsh in this review, which wasn't my intention. Ranger X is a good game. It's just a good game that I feel could have been great if a few choices had been made differently. It's worth playing just for stage three alone. If you're a fan of mechs or just feel like playing a shooter with a unique playstyle, give Ranger X a try.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Persona 2: Eternal Punishment-PSX-Atlus

Over the years, the Persona series has grown to become one of my favorite series of games, and with its ascension up the ranks, its developer Atlus grew to be a name I trust. But this wasn't always the case. Both Persona 1 and Eternal Punishment were far too confusing for me when they were released back in 1996 and 2000 respectively. So it wasn't until Persona 3, which streamlined both the persona and battle systems, was released that I fell in love with the series. However, both games left their mark on me, and I found that throughout the years, I would often recall moments from both that seemed, even years later, so fresh and so cunning. Of course, that begs the question, is Eternal Punishment as brilliantly challenging as I remember, or was I wearing the mask of a fool?

The story is one of the most important parts of an RPG, so I'll try to explain the plot of Eternal Punishment as best I can. Persona 2 is actually made up of two games: Innocent Sin and Eternal Punishment. Innocent Sin never made it out of Japan, but we did receive Eternal Punishment. So in effect, what we got was the second half of a very long, confusing, and dark plot. As I have never played Innocent Sin, I know little of what transpired in the first game, I shall start with Eternal Punishment and explain what I know.

When Eternal Punishment begins, the characters have lost their memories of the events of Innocent Sin and exist in a parallel dimension where the events of the first game never occurred. Their peaceful existence is conditional though. They must never remember the events of Innocent Sin . Unfortunately, Tatsuya, the main character of the first half of the story, is unable to forget, which causes the cycle of destruction to begin anew.

As I mentioned, you don't actually play as Tatsuya in Eternal Punishment. It isn't until much later in the game that he even joins your party. This time, you play as Maya Amano, one of the party members from the first game. Maya, an editor for the fashion magazine Coolest, is sent to Seven Sister's High School in order to investigate the rumor of the JOKER, a bag wearing serial killer who murders anyone he's asked. To make matters worse, this psycho-for-hire is easy to get in touch with. One simply needs to dial their own cell phone number.

While investigating the school, Maya stumbles across the grizzly murder of a principle who'd been harassing a student. While leaving the scene, Maya is stopped by the JOKER, who is capable of summoning demons. Rambling like the madman he is, the JOKER demands that Maya remember the "other side" and laments that he is living in a world that is completely wrong. On their first encounter, JOKER causes Maya, her friend Ulala, and a police officer, Katsuya, to awaken to their persona through taunts and attacks. On their second encounter in the school's clock tower, Maya and her party are put to sleep because the JOKER cares more about Maya remembering the "other side" than about outright killing her.

Not surprising when the tale involves demons, magic, and persona, no one believes Maya's group when they try to explain the situation So they take it upon themselves, with the help of an information seller named Baofu, to discover the identity of the JOKER and figure out exactly what this "other side" is.

Graphically, the game hasn't aged that badly. The sprites are slender and capable of showing off a good deal of emotion and movement. And other than being almost featureless, they do a good job of replicating the artwork they are based on. The monsters are well designed and varied. There are a few enemies, such as slimes, that show up more than once as simple recolors, but for the most part, each area will throw around ten new enemies at the player.

Inside environments are clean and crisp, doing a good job of melding the real world look and feel of an area with the more gamey dungeon structure. Outside areas, on the other hand, are more often blurry, confusing, and outright dungeon like. This can occasionally break the flow of the game, especially considering that the in game map is cumbersome at best. Fortunately, outside dungeons occur less frequently than the indoor ones, so it is rarely a problem.

The battle screens are a good for their time. The floor of the arena is created from the more dominant ground pattern of the place the party is exploring, while the area around it is made up of a wiggling wall of shadows and fog. The ground twists and warps a bit around the edges, which is either a representation of reality breaking or a graphical glitch. The former adds a bit of mystique, but the latter is probably the truth.

Speaking of the battles, the battle system of Eternal Punishment is completely designed around the fact that it is a grind heavy game. What I mean is, you do not command Maya to shoot enemy A and then Katsuya to heal. Instead, you create a strategy that the party will follow by telling each character what you want them to do. So, while grinding all you have to do is select battle, and the characters will attack on their own until either the battle is over or you press circle to pause the fight to change the strategy.

There it is. I had to mention the kiss of death for many a decent RPG: grinding. And I will not lie, there is a lot of it in this game, but it is not as bad as one might think. And that's because you aren't just grinding for levels, and when you do, they actually come fairly quickly. Combine that with the auto battle system, and leveling becomes as hassle free as possible without using the gambit system. No, I call Eternal Punishment a grind heavy game because you have to grind twice. Once for levels and again for tarot cards or vice-versa.

The tarot cards are earned by contacting the various monsters and conversing with them by sending out various combinations of your party members. This allows the player to not only win battles through combat, but through diplomacy as well. Each monster has a set personality type that can be influenced to feel one of four emotions: anger, fear, happiness, or interest. A monster that is angered may go berserk or attack without warning, while one that is afraid of your party will flee. A happy monster will either make a contract or give you something. But, it is their interest that you'll most want to pique as an interested monster will grant you tarot cards that allow the summoning of more powerful persona.

The summoning of persona is the backbone of the game, because not only do the persona attached to each character effect their stats and stat growth but also determine the skills that they will be able to learn and perform in battle. Of course, you can't just attach any persona to whom ever you want. You have to match based on affinity. A character with a high affinity will use less SP when summoning a persona than a character with low affinity. And one with a low enough affinity may not be able to summon that persona at all. Matching affinity is important, because SP isn't drained by spell but rather by the act of calling upon a persona. All the spells that are at a characters disposal will cost the exact same to use every time, so if the affinity is too low your characters will blow through their SP before the battle is even near complete.

As I mentioned, it was Persona 3 that really brought me into the series, and one of the major differences between the games is that stats aren't linked just to persona. Your characters have their own stats, which are increased along set parameters that match up with their personality, except for Maya. Maya's stats are dependent on how you want to build her. If you want a powerful mage, put most of her points into TEC. If you want a strong fighter, put them into STR. With each level, you are allowed 3 points to assign as you see fit and a bonus point that is determined by the persona that character has equipped. It's a nice little bit of customization that allows you to build based on your needs, and gives the game a bit of replayabilty.

Of course, that's not the only facet of the game that you are allowed to bend to your will. In the world of EP, anything that becomes a rumor,or rather anything believed by a significant number of people, becomes reality. By hiring a detective, you are able to spread rumors that you need. Need a bar to sell weapons? No problem. Need an exchange student to be a mafia smuggler? Not a worry. Need the symbol of Seven Sisters High School to protect people from the JOKER? It can do that too. Anything that the people believe is now as real as a table. Even that which is spread by the enemy. The story becomes a bit more hectic when anyone that ever called upon the JOKER becomes one themselves.

The music in the game is a mixture of techno, rock, and more atmospheric songs, and, in general, lacks the repetitious JPOP songs that most people grew so tired of in the third and fourth games. The only real problem with the game's audio is that the voices sound like the character is talking into cupped hands. It's an odd effect that could have been an attempt to highlight the game's muddled reality, but in the end, just comes off as slightly sloppy. And while the voice work isn't stealer, the voices definitely match the character, so it's a shame that it isn't as clear as they could be.

Eternal Punishment is not a game without faults. It is confusing, and it is challenging. More often than not, I survived a boss battle more due to a lucky Persona equip than skill. But if you've got the time, and the patience, Persona 2 will reward you with an interesting trip through a dark world populated by adults rather than the standard teenager.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Herc's Adventures-PSX- Big Ape Productions

What do you get when you combine one part Lucas Arts adventure game, one part Zombies Ate My Neighbors, and one part action RPG? Herc's Adventure's, a quirky little romp through ancient Greece, that's what. Developed by Big Ape Productions, this Lucas Arts title was released in 1997 for both the PSX and the Saturn. This was one of those games I remember loving as a kid, often quoting bits of the opening cinematic to myself at random times. But, so often the memory plays tricks on one. So does Herc's Adventures electrify like Zeus or smell like Hades?

Let's begin with a story of old. It is the end of winter, and spring is just beginning to spread its way across Greece. Hades, however, has a plan to stop that. And I think, just this once, I'll let someone else do the explaining. Besides, Hades put it best when he told Zeus, "I have Persephone. There will be no more spring, no more trees, no more flowers, no more food. Without spring, all of Greece will perish. My power in the underworld will grow supreme as I rule a nation of the dead." Zeus' forces have been slaughtered. There are only three players left on Zeus' side of the board that are capable of standing up against Hades' power: Hercules, Jason, and Atlanta. But will their strength be enough to find the Golden Fleece, assault the underworld, and bring Persephone back before the lack of food starves all of Greece?

As you can tell, the set-up is pretty bleak, but luckily, that never brings the humorous nature of the game down. The graphics are actually quite gorgeous, with brightly colored backgrounds, well animated sprites, and a great attention to detail. Enemies are both humorously and well designed. But most importantly, or most surprisingly, the game retains in gameplay the exact visual styling that was shown in the opening FMV. That's a nice touch, especially in the early PSX era when most games in game sprites only vaguely resembled the person they were designed from.

Speaking of which, the characters during gameplay are actually expressive, reacting in pain when hit and in fright when Zeus or Hades appear to encourage or antagonize. But what impresses me the most is that the enemies are given this same attention to detail. Cyclops' maintain the same look of blundering stupidity even when hurling you into the ground. While enemies solders, once defeated, run from you in their boxers until they collapse from panic and fatigue.

One of the biggest achievements in the game is that there are no breaks in the action, once the game loads, it is loaded. There is rarely an end of the screen, and areas meld seamlessly, save a few bit of slowdown, between one another. This small thing removes from the player the minor annoyance that load times would add to the game's exploration based gameplay.

And what I mean by that, is that there is no hand holding in this game. From the moment, you are dropped down on the mountain as what ever ancient hero you deigned to be, it is up to you to figure out where you are supposed to go.

Like in Metroid or an exploration based Castlevania, there are hidden nooks everywhere containing some little treasure, and often there are no clues that the path was there or that an item had been hidden behind those trees. These, of course, aren't pivotal to the plot, but they do a good job of rewarding players that actively explore the land around them.

To continue with the Metroid analogy, there are occasionally paths that are for a time blocked off. And there can be one of two ways that this can happen.

The first is a door, requiring either a standard key or a god key. Standard doors, usually, only hide items, weapons, coins, or the occasional cow. God doors, on the other hand block off sections of the land you haven't yet proven yourself ready for. These usually require completing a task set by one of the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece or by defeating a tricky monster or two.

The other thing that can block your path is your players own strength. Each of the three players behave a little bit differently. Jason is the fastest, Atlanta has the ability to attack at a distance easily with her bow, and Herc is the strongest. This strength is represented by the blue bar on the screen and effects not only what you can lift, but how long you can lift it. Certain spots in the game will be blocked by large boulders or weights that require the player to have gained enough strength to pass. Strength can be gained fairly easily though by visiting the training booths that are in most major cities, so a diligent player will likely not be impeded by the giant boulders placed in their path.

Speaking of training booths, the stat progression in the game is mostly dependent on these booths. A man weight lighting will charge you a few coins to increase the maximum amount of the players power, while a man whacking himself in the head with a board will increase the characters toughness or health. Other ways of going about this are by finding dumbbells or hearts that have been littered around Greece. These give smaller increases to overall strength or health than the booths, but they don't usually cost anything. However, they tend to be well hidden or locked within a small, magic shrine, which only gives up its goods if a certain task is completed. These tasks are never specified but are always nearby. Most of the time, it requires simply hitting a target a bit off the path, but sometimes requires a bit more effort, or at least a small portion of your weapons.

I have explained the the things that I believe make the game feel like Lucas Arts adventure and Action RPG, but I haven't yet touched on what makes the game similar to Zombies Ate my Neighbors. And while I could attribute it to feel, because the game does feel like the next game in that series (Especially once you meet the martians in Egypt). I would prefer to basing this on the weapons and items.

In Zombies Ate my Neighbors, the player was wholly dependent upon whatever weapons and items that they could scrounge from their environment. But that wouldn't work in an action RPG where backtracking for goods is not only rewarding, but vital. To aid in that, each character has a basic attack that can be used at all times. However, much like the water pistol, this attack is exceedingly weak and will do little to protect the player from anything but the weakest of enemies.

Instead, the player would be wise to fight with the weapons and items they can scrounge from the surrounding area. Yes, that system that was the very foundation of the combat in Zombies Ate my Neighbors made its way into the game, and it is every bit as rewarding. Of course, the difference is that these tools are based on ancient Greek mythology and zany wackiness rather than monster movies and zany wackiness. Another difference is that these tools replenish once the player has gone from an area for a long enough time, so it is possible to go raid Sparta, collect some coins, and return to Elis for strength training and health restoring gyros over and over again. This lessens the difficulty of the game slightly, but not enough that it would hinder the enjoyment.

The voice acting in the game is pretty solid, especially for an early PSX title. There are no voices that really stand out as stellar, save maybe Hades. But even his can sound a bit too soft at times. The sound effects in the game are good and goofy and generally do a nice job of conveying exactly what they need to.The music is also quite good, ranging from soaring epics of the opening area to the eerie quite of the the edge of the world.

On the whole, the game is very good. There are a few problems though. One being that save points are few and far between. This isn't something that would be accepted in this day and age, but it was the norm when it came out. Thankfully, these scribes never move from their locations, so a careful player should be able to manage it. Another problem is that the player is never told how many lives they have. Once dead, the player appears in the underworld and must battle their way out. With each subsequent death, the player is pushed farther and farther back, until they end up in a locked room with the words game over on the floor and Hades laughing maniacal. If Zombies At my Neighbors holds a place in your heart, than you owe it to yourself to track down a copy of Herc's Adventures. But if you just want a whimsical romp through ancient Greece, well... why haven't you bought Herc's Adventures?

Monday, May 4, 2009

Knights of the Round- SNES-Capcom

Every so often, people just feel the need to hit something. Of course, that's not entirely possible in today's society unless we want to make statements like, 'no, officer. I wasn't really trying to hurt him. I just wanted to hit something.' Thankfully, video game designers were quick to latch onto that notion, which may be the reason we got so many great beat-em-ups in the 90s. While Knights of the Round doesn't reach the same level of greatness that other Capcom classics, such as Final Fight, have achieved, it is a good game in its own right. Designed by Boyoyon and released in 1994, this SNES game dared to ask the question 'Does King Arthur hate barrels?' Yes, yes he does.

The story of Knights of the Round is, as you can probably guess, based on the Arthurian Legend. Arthur is a man training to be a knight. However, all of that changes when he pulls the sword Excalibur from the stone. In a flash, Merlin appears before the young man and informs him that he must locate the Holy Grail to drive the chaos from Brittan. On his quest, Arthur will be joined by the talented swordsman, Lancelot, who is searching for a liege, and the pure-hearted Percival who I guess just came along because he wanted to hit stuff too. The story doesn't perfectly match up with the legend, but it comes close enough that it would at least seem correct to someone not well versed in the lore.

The graphics in the game are fairly impressive. The world is colorful and vibrant and the sprite work is detailed. The enemies are especially well designed, and there are enough of them that even the recolors maintain a sense of newness to them, except the soldier, as I could never remember if the green or the red one was the first to appear (it's the green one by the way). That said, the attacking animation can look a little choppy, but it's never bad enough to distract the player from what's going on in the battle. I should point out that Arthur's initial attack looks a little odd. Mostly because it's a half swing if it doesn't connect, so seeing it break barrels without going through the full swinging motion seems a tad off.

The gameplay is what you'd expect. The player and, if they are lucky, a buddy choose one of three characters. Lancelot is for those who favor the swift, while Percival excels in breaking enemies with his brute force and mighty axe. Arthur plays the typical balanced leader role. All of the characters can be used successfully, and there isn't really a character that is just hugely better than the others. However, there are differences. The length of the standard attack combo varies slightly from character to character, as does how the jumping attack works. During a jump, Lancelot will flurry his sword the moment the button is pressed, while Percival will not deliver the crushing blow until his feet touch the ground again. Percival also seems to have a move that none of the other characters have, which is a dashing attack. By double tapping forward, Percival will begin to sprint. Attacking at this time will unleash a slow but heavy blow.

Like other games in the genre, each character possesses a special attack that sacrifices some health. These attacks aren't necessarily more powerful than the standard attack, but they have the ability to hit any enemy near the player and knock them down. It's a very useful skill when you're getting attacked from all sides, and while that situation doesn't happen all that often, you'll be glad you have that move when you need it. The most interesting skill that the game offers the player is a block. When the block button is pressed, your character will hold his weapon out in front of him for about two seconds. If during that time, he is struck by an attack, he will take no damage and be granted a small period of invincibility. This is very, very useful against the bosses.

Speaking of which, the bosses in the game are as difficult as they are large. You are given nine continues at the start of each game for a reason, and there have been times, especially early on, where I would need three or more to take one down. That is especially sad when you realize that you respawn in the exact spot you died at with enemies retaining all the damage dealt to them. However, it's not that surprising when you realize that even standard enemies can kill you in just a few hits. The bosses with their increased power, huge reach, and life bar that takes a normal amount of damage, are much stronger than your characters. Blocking and gaining that momentary invincibility is imperative if you want to survive to do more than a few small ticks of damage to the boss.

As I mentioned before, the player character takes a lot of damage from attacks. It's not rare to die from one hit when there is still a third of the life bar remaining. Thankfully, this is alleviated slightly by the level-up system. As you gain points from defeating enemies, picking up treasures, or eating food while at full health, the characters grow stronger. With each level, the player gains a point in strength, defense, speed, and also changes in appearance, gaining new weapons or heavier armor to visually inform the player that their character is stronger. The problem is that these level ups mostly occur at the end of a stage, and each new one brings stronger enemies, so it never really feels like the characters have gotten stronger. It is a nice touch though that serves to reward the player every so often for their work.

The music in the game is good. The standard between level music captures that feeling of knightly valor without sounding completely over the top. While the level tunes, on the other hand, are more upbeat and generally very pleasant to listen to. On the downside, the sound effects are very muted. It's not hard to hear them, but they are so soft that the combat in the game lacks that oomph that a good heavy striking sound adds to the combat.

One the whole, Knights of the Round is a good beat-em-up. There are advanced strategies for playing the game, such as hitting large items to break them into smaller ones for more points, and advanced moves that players won't notice the first time, but the game does have problems. It's really easy to die, hard to block at times, and the enemies' reach sometimes seems to go beyond the animation. But, if those don't bother you, and you feel like a challenge, there are much worse beat-em-ups out there.