All posts tagged review

Review: Hyperdimension Neptunia

If concept were king, then Hyperdimension Neptunia might be queen, but no matter how much glitter you put on a mess, it’s still just a mess, albeit a shiny one. I started Neptunia with the hopes that its breakdown of the console wars would create a compelling story or, if anything, a comedic comparison at the very least. What I received instead, was a wordy JRPG that made me feel like a perv. This overwhelming feeling wasn’t ever aided by entertaining gameplay in the slightest. I’m sorry to break the news to those who haven’t heard, but Hyperdimension Neptunia just isn’t the outlandish depiction of the console wars you were hoping for and there’s most certainly a reason that Sega wasn’t compelled to publish the game in the States.

Odds are, if you are reading this, you know the score of Neptunia’s plot. The general concept is that a couple of goddesses are fighting for control of GameIndustri. Each one represents a current console (except for Neptune, who is the goddess of a failed Dreamcast successor). I’m not even slightly an otaku, but the general concept surrounding Neptunia sucked me in. Unfortunately, once I had my hands on the game my outlook was crushed under the pointless dialogue and backstory, of which neither were aided by the jiggling breasts that constantly assaulted my senses. It’s a damn shame, because Neptunia’s barrage of real-world gaming references had captured my interest from the get go, but the end product quickly sent me in the opposite direction.

I fully realize that plenty of RPGs have created great deals of enjoyment even without a sensible plot, but Neptunia’s gameplay is far too archaic to find comfort let alone enjoyment. Most of the time, I find myself picking out what is wrong with gameplay in an RPG, but with Neptunia, I had a hard time finding what was “right” with the combat. I was initially turned off by the unbelievable depth that Neptunia “seemed” to display on the surface. Fortunately, beneath all the completed settings, Neptunia has some fairly simple combat that can be played out quickly. So Garrett, if combat is so simple, where’s the “but?” The “but” is a fairly large one, involving automatically executed character actions, such as healing. You say “Oh that’s great! The goddesses heal themselves,” and I say “butttttt..” The but is a fairly big one in this case. You are incapable of carrying out actions such as healing. As you level up your crew, they gain an increase of the odds of healing themselves or carrying out similar tasks, but you never have any direct control over these commands outside of attacking. Yep, you can’t ever heal your party, they have to choose to heal themselves. With mechanics such as this plaguing Neptunia, I don’t think “archaic” can even slightly sum it up, but the experience overall experience is diminished by hoping a character will heal herself before being sent to oblivion. Neptunia just isn’t ever any fun. Combat is carried out using “AP” which a character can use until it is depleted enough to the point where another action cannot be carried out. Trinity Universe, anyone? It doesn’t help that the combat can be extremely repetitious, often dragging as you crawl through lackluster dungeon after lackluster dungeon.

The one component that I desperately wanted Neptunia to deliver on, was the visuals, including the throwback Sega summons. While those deliver, and the sprites are animated almost too well, the world they populate is bland. The voice acting leaves a lot to be desired, as with most JRPGs, but the music is easy enough on the ears to keep you from stabbing your ear drums. If you’re looking for the best possible experience, playing Neptunia with the Japanese voiceovers is the most ideal setup.

I went into Hyperdimension Neptunia with a completely open mind. Every time I picked it up, I left feeling robbed. The only components that deliver are the sprites and even then, their oft sexually-charged encounters made the game a bigger turnoff. I quickly grew tired of underage-looking women in S&M type scenarios, which were a drawback to a concept that had so much promise. While you may think that throwbacks to old school Sega games may be a plus, it never is. Not matter how much I wanted to love Hyperdimension Neptunia, I was always shut down by some off-putting component.

While the news of Neptunia’s poor quality may be saddening, keep an eye out for my upcoming preview and review of Ar Tonelico Qoga, also published by NIS, is a game that does pervy “right.”

Review: God of War: Ghost of Sparta

I think, in a way, the collective gaming community is just waiting for the developers of the God of War series to slip up.  When the first PSP rendition was released a few years ago, it came from a new studio, and many thought, Well this is probably it, take the reigns away from Santa Monica Studios and youll definitely have a flop.  Fortunately for fans, Ready at Dawn was already an established development studio with former members of both Blizzard and Naughty Dog, and not only did they churn out a stellar God of War game, but they crafted the highest rated PSP game of all time.  At least, until now.  Ghost of Sparta capitalizes on everything that made Chains of Olympus great, but tells a more epic story, looks even better than its predecessor, and adds nearly triple the amount of gameplay and collectibles.  If these are the final days of the PSP, then God of War: Ghost of Sparta is the swansong to send this little system to the fields of Elysium where it can languor in decadence for all eternity.

Story

How do you follow up the supposed death of Kratos from God of War III?  You develop a prequel, set it in the time between the first two God of War games, and use it to dispel any rumors about a God of War IVGhost of Sparta picks up after the death of Ares, before Kratos has been given the mantle of God of War.  The vehicle for this latest journey comes when Kratos finds his mother, supposedly long-lost, who tells him that he must find and rescue his brother Deimos from the realm of death, a place in between the realm of the living and the Underworld (think Purgatory).  Deimos is a figure not often mentioned in the series, as he was torn from Kratos life at a young age.  In fact, only those who really delved into the first game and watched some of the unlockable video sequences would even know of his existence.  Ghost of Sparta tells his tale in a series of vivid flashbacks depicting Kratos and his brother as children, training and growing in the warrior-city of Sparta itself.  These flashbacks also relate the moment of Deimos abduction by some familiar gods, and begin the tale of the downfall of Olympus.  The use of Thanatos, the god of death, as an antagonist is an odd choice given his relatively minor importance to Greek mythology, but it works in the story, and Kratos journey into his realm is described as a walk through a place feared even by the gods.

The exposition is great for fans of the story itself, and the entire journey culminates in some of the most exciting end-game content Ive seen in any God of War game.  This series in general has a knack for ending each game with a mind-shattering bang, and Ghost of Sparta is no exception.  The last fight and subsequent movies, both pre- and post-credit, had me jonesing for more God of War, more story, and more Kratos.

The addition of some new locales also adds to the exploration of Ancient Greece.  Atlantis is visited several times, and while we never really see the city proper, there is some fantastic imagery depicted in the sequences involving the Lost City.  Kratos also makes his way home, venturing to Sparta itself where he is hailed as the God of War and lavished with women and weapons.  Yes, there is a sex minigame.  Its very reminiscent of the one from God of War III, but withahemmore participants.

Gameplay

Theres relatively little that is new gameplay-wise in Ghost of Sparta.  Players still roam expertly-designed levels that often twist back on themselves in unexpected ways, and that require you to backtrack without actually traversing the same ground.  Kratos opens chests and doors the same way, flings himself across gaps, sinks his blades into rock faces to traverse cliffs, etc.  There are a few additions to some of the underwater navigation in the game, but nothing that will feel wildly different.  This late in the Kratos saga, to change anything gameplay-wise would be an invitation to disaster.

One thing that Ghost of Sparta does add that its PSP predecessor lacked are extras.  Chains of Olympus took a deviation from its console brethren by not integrating new costumes or artifacts for use in subsequent playthroughs of the game.  This isnt something that I would look down on a developer for not including (lets face it, most people dont even play through games a second or third time anyway), but its addition into Ghost of Sparta feels like fan-service of the best kind.  Ghost of Sparta not only offers a range of new costumes to play with, but also adds artifacts for use in follow-up playthroughs on the same difficulty (or lower).  And unlike God of War III, which screwed players over by not allowing them access to all the upgrades and weapons when starting a new game at the same difficulty, Ghost of Sparta does things right by opening up the entire kit right at the start of a new game.

Combat

Combat remains quite familiar as well.  Kratos begins the game with the Blades of Athena given to him at the end of God of War, and as usual those will be the bread and butter that he uses to carve his way through the realms of mythology.  One new addition, however, is one that I found myself using an extraordinary amount.  A combination of block and circle sends Kratos charging headfirst into any enemy man-sized or smaller, tackling them with a ferocity that would make any linebacker cringe, and taking them to the ground where he slams them.  The force of the attack creates a shockwave that knocks down any nearby foes, giving Kratos the opportunity to either throw them, or slam them in the face repeatedly until they die.  While charging, and while performing this takedown, Kratos becomes basically invincible to attacks from elsewhere, and I found myself using this move repeatedly while surrounded by anything smaller than a minotaur.

As with any new God of War game, much of what is new in the combat comes from what new weapons and magic attacks Kratos will gain access to.  Obviously, the Blades of Athena remain in use for nearly all of the game, and in fact many fights straight up require them due to the addition of the item bar to Ghost of Sparta.  The item bar was something introduced in God of War III, and in Ghost of Sparta only has one particular ability associated with it.  This ability causes Kratos blades to become encased in flame, a necessity when fighting certain armored foes.  The new magic attacks are fairly standard.  There is a lightning attack, a wind attack that sometimes freezes enemies, and a traveling orb of green death that will stun and do some hefty damage in a small area.  The real prize of this games collectible weapons are the Arms of Sparta.  The Arms of Sparta are acquired fairly late in the game in the city of Sparta itself.  As it may seem apparent from the name, the Arms of Sparta are the spear and shield of the battle-city itself.  While equipped, Kratos literally looks like someone out of the movie 300, and his combat prowess is just as ferocious.  The Arms allow him both a ranged attack when chucks the spear, and a blocking attack when he uses the shield.  It also allows him to move while blocking, and combined with the ability to lash out from behind the shield, this new set of weapons really adds a new dynamic to the combat.  My only complaint was that the Arms were not available earlier in the game.  Some people might take issue with them as well simply because they are not Kratos trademarked weapons of death; however, every God of War game brings some new weapon to the table, and with maybe the exception of the Cestus from God of War III, I think the Arms are possibly the best.

A God of War game would also not be complete without some thrilling boss fights, and Ghost of Sparta delivers, though much as with Chains of Olympus, the portable game doesnt offer quite as many as the console versions do.  Kratos is forced to fight bosses across levels and sometimes even in different areas entirely.  The last battle, in particular, is one of the finest moments in the series history, offering up an ally that makes the fight not only emotionally charged, but engaging in a way that I havent seen in many games, console or handheld, period.

Visuals

Ill be very surprised if another game comes out for the PSP that looks as good as Ghost of Sparta.  It borders on PS3-like visuals, albeit on a smaller screen, streams along at an incredibly smooth framerate, and has some of the lushest environments youll see in the series.  Even the combat has an artistry to it that Ive not seen in many games, particularly when using the flaming blades which look almost like a painting in motion.  We also come to expect a certain amount of polish from any cut scenes, and the game delivers there as well, offering up probably the prettiest looking movie sequences on the system.

As I mentioned previously, Ghost of Sparta takes everything that made Chains of Olympus great and heaps on more of everything good.  The story is better, the combat is more interesting, and where Chains of Olympus could be completed in a few hours, Ghost of Sparta clocks in at around ten hours or more, but never drags or feels too long.  Its quite frankly a better game in every conceivable way, and the fact that Chains of Olympus was itself so very good only emphasizes just how brilliant Ghost of Sparta is.  If I had any complaints at all, it would be that the nub of the PSP should never be used for rotation-based quicktime events.  I also think I would have preferred playing through this story in high definition on the PS3.  Whatever.  Everything else about the game is completely Kratos-worthy, and fans should be happy to see their beloved icon on such an adventure.

Review: Red Dead Redemption

I could sum up my thoughts in a single sentence about this game:  Red Dead Redemption is my Game of the Year right now, and I honestly cant see anything surpassing it.  The attempts to bring a Western to the gaming world have been relatively rare.  Rockstar tried it once with Red Dead Revolver, but that title wasnt even really their game as they had bought the rights from Capcom to publish it.  Gun was a marginal success and even saw PSP and Xbox 360 re-releases, and the Call of Juarez games did all right too.  But the Western genre has never seen its the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.  There have been quality attempts, but nothing blockbuster.  Red Dead Redemption changes that, and sets a nigh unreachable bar for any future attempts at gunslinging.

Central to the game is ex-bandit John Marston.  His intentions in the beginning arent entirely clear.  Players learn that hes hunting a man named Bill Williamson, and thats really about it.  In fact, the story always remains a slowly unraveling yarn, and it works wonderfully that way.  In typical Rockstar fashion, once players gain control, its a game that allows almost total freedom from the get-go.  As soon as I fell into the Old West I remembered just who pioneered this open-world genre of games, and why theyre so much better at it than anyone else.  I can admit that I enjoyed wheeling around the various cities featured in the Grand Theft Auto games.  They were well-constructed mazes that felt like real places.  Unfortunately, real cities are not very hard to come by.  Half the worlds population probably live in one.  The Old West is a different story.  Much of what we see in Red Dead Redemption is land now cultivated or populated or veined with roads.  Its a land lost to time, and Rockstars attempt to bring it back into playable form is almost perfect.  Walking around in this world feels exactly like what I would envision walking around inside a Western movie would feel like.  The tumbleweeds are right around each corner, scrub and cacti dominate the landscape, and everything is wild.  Even the towns feel like feeble encroachments into this harsh land where death waits at the end of a barrel or on the claw of an angry cougar.

Like other Rockstar games, Red Dead Redemption is based around an open-world mission structure.  Story missions are marked on the map with letters denoting the person who Marston will be interacting with.  But no mission is forced until the time comes to move on from one land to another.  There are three lands total, and each offers a different Western experience.  New Austin is what could be considered a typical Western setting, obviously derived from Texan history. One town is dirt-lined, small, and has the perfect main thoroughfare for a duel at high noon.  Its the town youd see in movies like Unforgiven, and in fact much of the first area reminds me of that classic film.  The second area is dubbed Nuevo Paradiso, though why they label it that instead of just Mexico is beyond me (particularly as all the characters in that area call it Mexico).  Its the typical mesa-lined desert on one side, and scrub-filled plateau on the other.  The third area is called West Elizabeth and represents a slightly more cultured area mainly because of a town on its eastern side called Blackwater.  Aside from Blackwater, the area is a mix of plains (replete with buffalo roaming) and snowy mountains full of angry grizzlies.  Each of these lands offer a distinct setting, and to return to the movie theme, deftly span the range of Western films.

Visually, the game is nothing if not impressive.  To date, Rockstar has never been particularly well-known for their graphical prowess.  Red Dead Redemption, while not the single greatest looking game made, holds up to just about anything out right now.  The landscapes in particular are possibly on the top of the list.  The characters all look real enough and their mannerisms are fully believable.  They even motion-captured horses for this game, just to give an idea of the level of dedication they climbed to.  On the audio front, the game is even more impressive, with every spur rustle and horse whinney sounding just as it should.  The music is at times so enthralling that I wanted to stop playing and just listen.  There are a couple key moments in the game where the lyrical music, a rarity in the game, almost brought me to tears simply because it was so well-placed.  One of my worst moments in the game actually was when one such moment started and I made the mistake of getting off my horse to pluck a flower, which apparently cues the music to stop and I missed out on the full song.

Gameplay is similar to other Rockstar games, but more refined.  Combat, in particular, is leaps ahead of anything weve seen from the developer in the past.  Marstons ability to take cover and slow-motion bullseye his foes is as good as anything third-person out there.  Central to his gunslinging repertoire is an ability called Dead Eye, which is basically cowboy slang for bullet time.  Marston has a meter near his minimap that fills up over time, and fills up faster while hes killing people outside of Dead Eye mode.  When he has enough juice in the meter, players can press down on the R3 button while aiming and enter a yellow-tinged molasses view that slows every enemy to a crawl and allows Marston to mark them up for swift death.  Its similar to Splinter Cells recent mark and execute feature, only better because it is meter-based and isnt limited to five shots.  Marston can literally mark up however many targets his gun has bullets for.  Much like with the mark and execute that Sam Fisher had access to, some players might find Dead Eye makes the game too easy.  I didnt feel that it did simply because third-person shooting isnt perfect, the reticule is literally just a dot on screen, and the only way I could even think to make players feel like a true steel-slinger would be to add something like this to the game.  Its immensely satisfying, moreso than any bullet-time effect Ive ever used, and towards the end of the game when I could basically refill my Dead Eye meter at will, I felt as powerful as a legend of the West should feel.

The story of Red Dead Redemption, while not as captivating in some areas (Im looking at you, Mexico), is completely engrossing for probably 80% of its telling.  Marston might be one of the best characters Ive had the pleasure of playing as.  He has a bandits warped code of ethics that he never strays from, and he is believable as a man because he has obvious flaws, but also sticks to his guns, so to speak.  Just as an example, Marston is married.  Because of this fact, he, unlike every Grand Theft Auto protagonist, refuses to visit a brothel for that expected good time.  It seems a simple thing, but really sets a tone for what kind of man he is.  Players can either increase or decrease his honor level through various means, but John Marston remains the same.  In fact, it is the honor/dishonor scale that most exemplifies his personality.  I could have been dishonorable.  Many times shooting someone dead is a far easier path to take, but the character is so strong, as is his place in the world, that I never wanted to.  Where many games give you the option to be honorable or dishonorable, or good or evil, this one gives you the freedom to keep the storys integrity intact.  Even aside from who he is, many of his dialogue lines are dead-on perfect, and the voice acting behind them delivers, again, better than any Ive heard in one of Rockstars games.

And it certainly would not be an open-world game without something to divert a players attention from the main task, and Red Dead Redemption delivers here as well.  Ive always had issue with the side mission type things in Grand Theft Auto games.   I dont want to have to scour a city for hundreds of hidden packages that have no story relevance or are even interesting.  Red Dead Redemption does away with such trivialities and offers more immersive side quests.  The herb picking can feel boring and annoying, but even it pays off big time if seen to completion.  There are also hunting quests, which I found completely enjoyable and often very challenging (killing a grizzly bear with a knife is a fantastic moment in my gaming history).  The stranger missions Marston will find around the world are also often a blast, and despite their status as completely optional, I found myself searching them out with a grin on my face as to what slightly insane person Id meet next.

I could literally write thousands more words on this game, but I wont.  There are too many things to discover on ones own for me to run through it all.  Ill simply say a few more things about Red Dead Redemption that I hope will give you some insight into whether or not youll enjoy it.  Red Dead Redemption is a Western.  If youve ever watched the movies Unforgiven, Tombstone or 3:10 to Yuma and thought to yourself, Im in the wrong period of history, then you must play this game, without question.  If you like the other Rockstar efforts, like the open-world format and stories of a darker or seedier nature, chances are good youll want to pick this up.  And really, if you just want to play one of the finest games of our, or any, generation, this is your chance.  As I mentioned before, this is my Game of the Year right now, and I reckon itll stand as such despite this years later releases.  Its flawed, charmingly glitched in spots, and certainly has room for improvement, but this is a game I will return to probably every year until something better comes out in the genre, and its hard to imagine that even happening right now as I bask in the afterglow of my journey through the Old West.

Review Crime Scene

If youve played Unsolved Crimes for DS, then Crime Scene will instantly feel familiar. So familiar, in fact, that at first I thought they were developed by the same team. Basically, you play as a rookie investigator and must use your evidence collecting and analytical skills to help solve various cases from murders to terrorist attacks.

The gameplay is a point-and-click at heart, but the spin here is a huge focus on evidence-based mini games, for lack of a better term. In other words, you must dust for fingerprints, swab for blood and compare ballistics information to identify what gun shot which bullet, and so on. Although some of these games can be a little silly (you use a laser to destroy unwanted cells in your microscope, for example), overall the entire process is engaging and fun. That is, when the controls work.

And as Hamlet says, Aye, theres the rub, The first major problem Crime Scene has is the fact that there really isnt a tutorial level to get you used to the controls. For example, the menu system isnt completely intuitive, and you may find yourself fumbling a bit. But that could be forgiven. The real issue is that you arent given any chance to practice with the various evidence collection mini games before youre thrust into the real world, so to speak. Youre shoved into the deep end and you have to figure things out as you go along. This would be fine, except for the fact that you are penalized very severely every time you get something wrong. This is made worse by the fact that the only instructions youre given for the various steps of say, taking a blood swab, are given during the timed interval when youre supposed to be doing those steps. Meaning 1) you cant possibly read all the instructions in the given time and 2) you will fail because youre spending time trying to see what you have to do in order to succeed. Add to the fact that the controls arent as responsive as they could be and you may find yourself with a Game Over before youve even begun (I know I did). Certainly, this is not the most encouraging way to introduce the player to the game.

Once youve managed to figure out what you need to do, you would think that things would move more smoothly. Sadly, this isnt true. Try as you may, the game wont always read your stylus gestures correctly, so you will often find yourself failing the swab test, for example, because you arent swabbing in the right area even when youve been rubbing your stylus right over the blood spot. Each time you make a mistake, you lose credibility (a blue thermometer-like meter). When it drops all the way, your game is over, and you have to start over from your last save. Thankfully, the game does auto save at key points, but you still want to make sure you save often, otherwise youll have to re-do a lot of (what then becomes) tedious data collection and analysis, not to mention tons of dialogue to weed through (theres no skip option).

By far the most vicious offender is the tweezers, which command you to follow a certain path with your stylus a certain number of times in order successfully pick up the item. The problem is, these gestures are only recognized about 10% of the time, and if the game thinks youve picked up your stylus, you drop the tweezers and have to start again. Add to the fact that you might have to repeat the same pattern 9 or 10 times before the meter expires, and youll often find yourself ready to throw your DS across the room and give up. No, Ive decided the scalpel is actually worse since whenever you try to use it to cut something, following the prompt, it either tells you the area cant be cut or for some reason takes the scalpel away from you and you have to start over in a never ending cycle.

Magnifying the problem is the control design: rather than sticking to a primarily stylus-only control system, you have to use the L and/or R buttons while using your stylus to perform various maneuvers. In principle, this seems fine, but in practice, its awful. Its very uncomfortable to hold the DS that way, especially for long-stretches and for extended periods. I know my hands were really hurting after only the first case.

When everything is working smoothly, however, the game is enjoyable. Its an interesting take on the genre, especially since the mini-games dont feel tacked on the way they did in Unsolved Crimes, and its exciting to see the pieces of the puzzle reveal themselves. You really do feel like youre the one solving the case, instead of being lead through it step by step the way you are in many other games of this nature. I also like that you will occasionally find dead ends such as clues that you cant identify in the database, or clues that end up being a false lead, which force you to rethink the situation. Youll also often have to revisit the scenes to look at things in a new light and discover new clues that may help crack the case. I also liked that you must build your case in order to apply for a warrant by selecting the best evidence to include in your file. This was just another way the game made you feel like you were really the one solving this case rather than just hanging along for the ride.

Crime Scene does have other flaws, but these seem minor in comparison to the huge control issue. For example, the translation isnt always the best (I believe this was a Spanish-language game originally), and sometimes you might struggle to figure out how the game wants you to respond. Also, you arent able to fully explore the scenes the way you can in other games of this genre, and you can only zoom in to look at something more closely when the game allows you to. Still, these are negligible and dont harm the gameplay in the same way that the unforgiving controls do.

The pattern of the gameplay is basically as such: youll be briefed on a case, comb the scenes, collect evidence, analyze the evidence, and then build your case. Youll often have to revisit the scene and may get new suspects to interview, but that is generally the way the game goes. Your evidence collection tools are basically a swab for blood and other fluids, a duster and tape for fingerprints and footprints, a scalpel, as well as a reagent spray and UV light to discover hidden blood and fluids, plus tweezers to collect small evidence or bullets. Back at the station, you analyze this info using a scanner, camera, microscope and computer database. So you may scan in the fingerprint you collected at the scene and then compare it to the various fingerprints in the system to try and find a match. Many of the tests do mimic real life evidence analysis and this is where the game is truly in its element, especially since the analysis tools work much better than the collection ones do, control-wise.

The sad thing about Crime Scene is it may have earned as high as a 7/10 if the controls werent so brutally unforgiving. I honestly dont know how the game got past testing, as broken as the controls can be most times. And the reality is the fix could have been as simple as removing the fail state from the data collection process and making it so you only lose credibility for misinterpreting the evidence. As it is, however, I cant recommend this game, because the controls really do break it. You will undoubtedly find sections that you cannot get past because the game will not read your tweezers movements, or unfairly think youre rubbing the swab in the wrong area. Save yourself the aggravation and look elsewhere for your CSI needs.

Review: Ragnarok DS

Ragnarok DS is what you could consider the portable version of the MMO Ragnarok Online, of which, I can confess I am not very familiar with.  However, I think that may be one of the reasons this baby brother was released for the DS: to introduce potential new players into the Ragnarok universe.

The game is basically a dungeon-crawling action RPG, and follows the story of Ales, a young man whose dream is to be an adventurer and eventually start his own guild.  He immediately finds an amnesiac young girl named Sierra, who he agrees to bring along with him on his adventures.  Naturally, as the story progresses, more people join his party in the constant search for adventure: pretty typical RPG-faire here.

Although some buttons are mapped (i.e. You can use the D-pad to move your character and the face buttons to pull up menus), youll find yourself using the stylus almost exclusively, since the button integration isnt complete.  For example, you cant press a button to continue in dialogue or go back in a menu, which can be a bit annoying.  So expect a very Zelda DS experience here, control-wise.

Dragging your stylus will move your character around, and tapping on a monster will initiate his attack.  Unless you change the settings, your character will keep attacking that enemy until its defeated.  You also have access to a shortcut bar at the top of the touch screen, where you can set frequently used skills and items for easy access.  To use a skill, you must click on it and then perform the action indicated on the top screen, like drawing a swift line through an enemy or a circle through a group of them.  You also have limited control of your party members.  You can set their tactics, such as telling them to act freely, or commanding them to heal, and you can click on their picture in the taskbar to direct them to attack a particular enemy.  However, you cant directly tell them what skills or spells to use, which is a little frustrating at times.

Exploration is interesting.  Towns remind me a bit of Suikoden Tierkreis in which you are presented with a menu (shops, save, etc.), but when you pick an option (i.e. Tavern), you can walk around and interact with people in that location.  Towns are the only place you can make a permanent save (with two save slots available), although you can make a temporary save any time.  The biggest gripe I had with this system is with no quick travel (more on that later), you may find your quests dragging out for long periods of time, and if you choose to do a temporary save (so you dont risk losing all your progress), the game will automatically return you to the title screen instead of asking if you want to continue.  Its not a big deal, but it is irksome.

The game does have an interesting dual-leveling system.  You have your base level, or what you would be most familiar with in every RPG, and then you have your job level.  Each time your base level goes up, youre given points you can use to improve your characters attributes, such as dexterity, luck, intelligence, etc.  The higher that attribute is the more points it will take to increase it, giving a bit of strategy in how you distribute your points.  When your job level goes up, youre given skill points to spend on learning and improving skills based on what job you are.

Everyone starts the game as a novice job class with two basic skills, but once your job level reaches 10, you can go to the job guild and apply for a more advanced job, such as a swordsman.  Each job has its own equipment and skills, and whenever you change jobs you must start over: all your equipment is removed (but not lost), and your job level goes back to zero.  You also must start from scratch with your new skills.  As you level up, you can also try for an even higher level job (such as a knight), which has its own requirements and skills, but which will enable you to use equipment you otherwise could not.  In some ways, this is the most interesting aspect of the game, as there are even higher secret jobs you can acquire if your character becomes powerful enough.

Although there is a story and plenty of (very. slow. moving.) dialogue, the heart of the game is fetch quest dungeon crawling.  Generally, you are told to find some random object, you go on your trek, fight your way through to the very end of a dungeon, kill the boss monster, collect the item, and then trudge all the way back.  Thats right. Theres no quick travel, even after you complete a dungeon.  Its a little ironic, considering you use warp gates (instead of doors) for everything, yet you cant just warp to places (i.e. from a town) that youve already visited.  It also means you will have to go through the dungeon to the exit every time, plus passing through all the forest or whatnot you had to travel through to get there in the first place.  Even though dungeons arent very big (no more than a few floors or sections), this gets old pretty fast, as it is completely unnecessary. This is made worse by the fact that there is usually only one laborious path from point A to point B, which would be fine one or two times, but certainly not more than that. Add to the fact that you must find the map for the area whenever you enter a new locale (think the original Zelda dungeons), and it all can get old pretty fast. Later in the game, youre able to purchase some items that give you limited quick travel abilities, but the fact that this is done so late and doesnt solve all the repetition is still disappointing.

Dont get me wrong, Ragnarok can be fun at times, but overall, I found the frustration usually outweighed any levity.  For example, you can only take on one tavern quest at a time, and I found it could take many hours of battling the same monsters before you ever got them to drop what you needed for your quest.  Also, quests are only partially recorded in your menu.  Let me explain Only the main quests and tavern quests will be listed, but often details wont be, and some sub-quests of the main quests will not be included at all.  This often means you have to trek back to whomever it was that gave you the quest to find out the details (i.e., what items did they want you to collect for them again?), which is completely poor design.

Muliplayer. For a game thats based off of an MMO, you would expect the multiplayer experience to be a high priority to be developed well, but this doesnt seem to be the case.  For instance, you cant jump into multiplayer directly from the main menu the way you can in most DS RPGs that offer it.  Instead, you have to travel the long distance through the game world until you get to the Mirage Tower, a tower filled with various floors and enemies that you can tackle as either a single player or with others in multiplayer.  The game never tells you this at any point.  It isnt mentioned in the otherwise very thorough manual, either.  So its very possible someone could play through the game and never even realize that multiplayer exists, or at least never figure out how to access it.  This is the first flaw.  The second is that you can only play with others in this tower.  Thats it.  You would expect that you could have friends join you once you finish the main story to help you fulfill the thousands of side quests available (which make up most of the gameplay), but youd be wrong.  Although I dabbled in the multiplayer for the sake of this review, I think in general you would find the tower more fulfilling as a single player experience.

Basically, once you arrive at the tower you have the option to make a save and customize your characters look along with a few messages you can trigger with the face buttons.  Then you can enter the tower as either a single player, or choose multiplayer.  The game will then ask if you want to do this locally or over WiFi, and if you choose WiFi, then you have the option of entering (or choosing, if you already registered them) your friends.  Otherwise, it will randomly search for Allys (yes, thats how its spelled in the game) to join you.  You have no customization in this at all, which is a little disappointing, as you could very easily end up with a rather unbalanced party.

The first few times I tried to get matched up, my allies decided to jump right into the very top of the tower, as they were obviously more experienced than me.  Luckily for me (or my character, perhaps), my connection got broken almost immediately as we arrived in the tower, and I was sent back to the matchmaking screen.  When I finally was able to enter the tower (on floor 1), I had only one other ally with me.  This was fine for these early floors, but I could see this system being problematic for higher levels.

Basically the tower is just a series of rooms per floor that (thankfully) are pre-mapped.  You must defeat a certain number of monsters per floor to either A) make the warp appear that will take you to the next level or B) make the special monster appear that you must defeat to make that warp appear.  Just do this over and over and there you have the tower.  After you pass a certain number of floors (i.e., five), you will fight a boss monster.  Then you will go to a screen that lets you and your allies bid on various items, such as weapons, potions, and cards.  You can pass or bid, although I found the system a bit confusing.  After the time limit passes, you win whatever items you had the highest bid on.  Then you have the option to continue in the tower or end your session.

I would imagine that playing locally with friends might have some potential for fun, but as it stands, I feel like the multiplayer was a tacked-on experience and doesnt really add much to the game as a whole.

I was hopeful that the game simply got off to a slow/poor start, but even once you successfully open your own guild, the gameplay remains basically the same: flawed, repetitive, and with a low challenge level. However, if you like dungeon-crawling action-RPGs, you may want to give this one a try anyway. It can have a very Diabolo-esque feel to it at times (you will be picking up a lot of loot, which you much decide to keep or sell to maintain your limited inventory).  The card system (which I havent mentioned) allows you to customize certain weapons and gear to improve their stats (think of them as the runes or gems you might have experienced in other RPGs), which does add a bit of strategy.  Once you finish the story, which is pretty short by RPG standards, about 20 hours, with only about 10 of that being actual content and the rest filler, you have hours and hours of gameplay if you choose to complete all the side quests available or take on the tower (either alone or in multiplayer). Still, there are better DS RPGs on the market, so you may be better off spending your money elsewhere.  Or, if youre really interested, you may want to try the more robust MMO experience that Raganarok Online offers on the PC.

Review: BioShock 2

The word rapture has several connotations. Its most popular usage is to describe those who are wrapped up in a state of bliss or overwhelming ecstasy. To devout Christians, its the second coming of Christ. To the thriving community of gamers who eagerly devoured the critically acclaimed (and smash commercial hit) BioShock, the words meaning is absolutely concrete. Rapture is synonymous with the bizarre yet profound adventure that continues to push the bounds of what gaming can accomplish; Andrew Ryans obliterated utopia the fully realized dream of one man who believed in the power of the power of the self. Rapture. The name sends chills down ones spine.

With BioShocks release in 2007 we learned how a laissez-faire utopia could crumble to the ground. Just as swiftly as it was erected, it was torn to shreds by its so-called creme-de-la-creme inhabitants. After picking up the pieces of our shattered psyches and delivering (or damning) the souls of the fictitious underwater city, we moved on, though never able to truly shake Ryans influence, nor the feral glow emanating from a Little Sisters eyes.

Now, in 2010, our patience and devotion to the thematic masterpiece has been rewarded with the chance to venture once more into the deep; a new window into the city we could never burn out of our minds: BioShock 2. As a masterful return to form from 2K Marin, this poignant yet utterly insane journey through the mind of a father looking to rescue his little girl is every bit worth your time to complete, and BioShock fans owe it to themselves to pick up a copy of their very own if not to satisfy their curiosity, then to experience the story of Rapture as it comes around full circle.

Players assume the role of one Subject Delta, a sort of prototype Big Daddy who has lost the Little Sister he was bonded to. When bonded with a Little Sister, its for life. And Delta is going out of his mind to find this little one, the familiarly named Eleanor Lamb. Yes, young Eleanor happens to be the daughter of one Sofia Lamb, the present matriarch of Rapture. After the fall of Ryan, the ten years that passed werent exactly kind to the underwater utopia. A strong, passionate woman with ideals on the complete opposite side of the fence rose up to take control of the people, the Big Daddies, and most importantly, the Little Sisters. To this sentient Big Daddy with no recollection of his past, it soon becomes quite obvious that Lamb will be responsible for the second collapse of the unfortunate city. This journey that stemmed from the love of his precious child evolves into something much darker, and a trip that players wont soon forget.

There are quite a few tumultuous twists and unforgettable peaks littered throughout this jaunt through the tattered city, and none of them are worth spoiling for potential players. Rest assured, however, that this sequel retains all of the delicate moral crossroads seen in the previous game, as well as fragile alliances, steadfast relationships, and the sense of uneasiness that permeates even the pressurized behemoth that is Rapture. If youre looking to make a purchase based solely on how similar the atmosphere is, then you should feel quite secure in the knowledge that the aesthetic has not changed a bit.

It is for all intents and purposes a mirror image of the preceding game, save for the fact that players have stepped into the heady shoes of the prototype Big Daddy, Subject Delta. Hes got access to plasmids thank Ryan, right? and familiar weapons as well. While traversing the eerie, abandoned halls of the fallen city, some of the very same Splicers who troubled Jack Ryan before lie in wait. This return to Rapture feels just as if youd gone on vacation for a short while and returned to find everything just the way you left it, give or take a few piles of corpses. And you can take comfort in that fact, even if you must blow off a little of the dust thats settled on. This city feels very much like home, and players should be very appreciative of that facet of the game.

There are quite a few significant changes to be found, however. First is the ability to dual wield plasmids and a weapon of your choosing. As Subject Delta, that will likely be the infamous drill that all Big Daddies come equipped with. Though its tempting to rely on the drill for all of your Splicer-downing needs, its prudent to remember that the drill can (and will) run out of fuel. And its always such a letdown, just like running out of fuel for the glorious chainsaw in Left 4 Dead 2. This leaves the drill useless as anything other than a blunt force weapon until you can find a can of fuel lying around a level somewhere. While youve got that bad boy spinning, its easy to lunge forth and feel like hell on wheels, but when youre relegating to head-bashing status using the drill as the butt of a gun, the illusion of being a true Big Daddy begins to fade slightly, but well revisit that later.

Of course, the other weapons available for use work just as well. And youll need a menagerie of weapons should you opt out of the Winter Blast/drill bash method of play, which drastically reduces the games difficulty (the old freeze em in place, then whittle away their health with your drill works every time!). For normal exploration, you could certainly rely on that strategy in order to forge a path, but when it comes to gathering ADAM, currency for use at the Gatherers Garden, youll need to be a bit craftier.

Thats where the Little Sisters and menacing Big Sisters come into play. Before, players had limited contact with these darling little menaces. As a fellow Daddy, Delta has the ability to harvest or adopt each Sister present in the game. Of course, this all comes at a price. To gain either of these options, youll need to go toe-to-toe with Rosies, Bouncers, and Rumblers. These encounters are nothing like the impossible battles we faced as Jack Ryan, as we now know of the tricks up these behemoths sleeves. Defeating Big Daddies is now quite simple if you know how to approach them youre now on equal ground, after all.

The collapse of one of those big boys nets players a Little Sister to either harvest for copious amounts of ADAM and a demerit on their track record as a do-gooder, or the choice to adopt the children to harvest ADAM the correct way. The adorable affect of these munchkins is too much to bear, with each This way, Daddy! or Im telling all the girls that my Daddy is the best Daddy! tugging at my heartstrings. As a callous gamer who normally takes delight in obliterating enemies and damning little tots, I could not bring myself to harvest these girls. Perhaps it was the notion of bucking the title of monster bestowed upon me by the citizens of Rapture or Lamb herself. Perhaps it was the way they pleaded with me, looking up at me with such somber expressions. I opted to adopt the rugrats, which allows players to hunt for corpses rife with ADAM.

When a Sisters wispy spirit-like guide (via face button) leads you to a dead Splicer, tower defense-like scenes are triggered where every Splicer in the vicinity comes running to try and score a little of the precious commodity for themselves. With some cleverly placed traps via Trap Rivets in the Rivet Gun, security bots, and some fancy shootin, you can protect the little girls as they gather ADAM just for you.

But beware during any one of these outings, a shrill, piercing cry is only moments away from bursting your eardrums the cry of a Big Sister. The more svelte, feminine equivalent to a Big Daddy is not to be taken lightly. There are plenty at Lambs disposal to send out and protect the Little Sisters whenever its suspected youre using them for your own, selfish gain. These spindly terrors do unfortunately become just a bit routine after the first few scripted encounters, but do serve as a welcome challenge later in the game should you exhaust yourself mowing down Houdini splicers or simple Leadheads.

At the end of each scenario, its your choice once again to harvest them or adopt them. Each Sister is good for up to two or three gathers, and your brief stint with the child is ended upon reaching the vents that the tots lovingly refer to as the hidey-holes. Youre again faced with the same choice as before, and making the good choice returns the Little Sister to normal. Its true you receive ADAM at a much slower rate (albeit a steadier one) than you would if you harvested the children, but I found the notion of sacrificing these children for the sake of a tonic or plasmid absolutely sickening. Perhaps it was just me, but they were so much more personable this time around. Much more like real little girls. It got to the point where I would have just as soon as turned the game off rather than see my current adopted Sister bawling, waiting for me by the nearest Vita Chamber.

Its this sense of realism that grabs players and holds them in its icy grip throughout the entirety of the game. Coupled with the appearances of familiar enemies, believable personalities (Brigid Tenenbaum finally has her own character model), and gorgeous scenery, a cohesive narrative plays out before your very eyes in ways that we could not have imagined. The choices laid out before the player arent so black and white that you can absolutely guess the outcome of the paths you take. For instance, would you take a mans life if he begged for it to be so? Why? Would you slaughter a woman simply because youve been lead to believe she is responsible for all of your suffering? These are questions you can only answer after having been faced with the choices.

However, for all the high points in BioShock 2, there are still some lower points that prevent me from awarding it the prestigious perfect score.

Hacking has been simplified, perhaps at the request of players who didnt quite see the merits of solving a puzzle to deactivate each security bot or to simply receive a discount at the Circus of Values, whose tagline has gone curiously missing in this sequel. As a result, vending machines and bots are now ridiculously simple to control. What once was an ominous setup to be wary of is now a pitiable attempt by Rapture to keep you out. Coupled with Remote Hack Darts and Auto Hack Darts, having the ability to hack almost seems useless. I appreciated the streamlining of this mechanic, but what made the original BioShocks cameras so frustrating and menacing was the fact that it was harder to hack them then to downright destroy them, making them formidable annoyances.

Perhaps thats a commentary on the power of the Big Daddy, which is arguably much similar to being a regular Joe (or Jack in the case of the previous game.) While the weight of Subject Deltas suit, obviously much smaller than that of a Bouncer or a Rosie is accurately represented when jumping and moving around, few gameplay alterations are made to accurately showcase this. If it werent the HUD and the drill, I would have forgotten that I was indeed one of the souls bonded to a Little Sister. For one of the titles big bullet points Big Daddy-dom, it fails to impress. That isnt to say the sentiment is lost entirely. You feel like a father, and in a very striking, poignant way. The gravity of your new role just never seems to completely set in in a physical manner.

My final complaint is the lack of skill required to complete the game. As mentioned previously, when obtaining the Winter Blast plasmid, you gain the ability to freeze enemies in place just as in the previous game. Since this works on all enemies, even Big Daddies and Little Sisters, the game can become a curt mockery of itself. If you play your cards right, you can complete the game using a combination of the plasmid and a drill sans fuel. You can use a combination of other plasmids as well, but I found this to be the most effective, which does in turn make the game feel so much less epic than it could, knowing your ice is effective even against the greatest enemies the game has to offer. I found this rather strange. Effective, nonetheless, but just a tad unbalanced.

Still, even with its rather minor faults, BioShock 2 is a magnificent journey into the mind of a soul who knows only the primal instinct of protecting his young now against all odds. Against society. Against himself. With an explosive ending youll never see coming, a delightfully bizarre cast of characters, and the macabre charm of the Cult of Rapture combined, I can safely say that this is one of the greatest adventures you will have had so far this year. Whether you choose love or hatred, you will reap what you sow in the briny deep. Will you become a slave once more, or will you be a man for young Eleanor? The choice is yours.