Sunday, November 20, 2011

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception Review

It's pretty interesting to see just how far Naughty Dog has come. They made their big break with Crash Bandicoot in 1996, which was the first of the PlayStation's signature platformers. It was a big hit and was followed up by two superior sequels that actually still hold up pretty well. Then the PS2 came along and with it came the Jak series. Though I don't have as much personal experience with that series as I do their other main franchises, I can tell you that it did show a really big progression from Crash; both of the ones I played were far bigger and more ambitious than any games in their former series.

And then we have Uncharted, Naughty Dog's big series for the PS3. Unlike its previous series it doesn't take on a cartoonish tone, focusing on a more realistic adventure movie feel and featuring gameplay that could be most accurately described as "Gears of Tomb Raider". The first one, subtitled "Drake's Fortune", was certainly a very good game, but it suffered from its share of problems - namely, a massive focus on constant shootouts that, while fun, would get repetitive when there wasn't any platforming or puzzles to break the pace as well as an unrefined melee system. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, however, got rid of these problems and became arguably the best game for PS3...that is, until now. Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception is out now, and good Lord, is it amazing! Let's take a look at what joys it has in store for us.


I'll start with what makes Uncharted 3 so awesome with its visuals. Yes, I fully understand that visuals aren't what makes a game good or bad, but I believe special mention has to be given here: the graphics are amazing. The environments are all absolutely beautiful and detailed and the setpieces are fantastic, and credit needs to be given for the fact that Uncharted 3 is one of the few games that features very realistic-looking human characters without ever setting one foot into the uncanny valley. And you can't talk about the visuals without talking about the score, and Uncharted 3 does a fantastic job here as well. Everything fits and sounds awesome; not much else to say, really.

With that out of the way, let's move on to the story. Story was one of the main strengths of the first two games, and Uncharted 3 is by no means an exception. Just like in past games, all of the main characters are great, and you love to hate the villains. The story itself is really intriguing as well, and, much like games such as Alan Wake or the Metal Gear Solid series, Uncharted attempts to create the feeling of watching a movie in its cutscenes; in particular, a really fun adventure movie, and it does so really well. Of course, the movie feeling extends beyond the story. Uncharted captures the feeling of not only watching, but PLAYING a movie better than any other series I've ever played.

Which brings me to the gameplay, and if you've played an Uncharted game before, you should already know what to expect. In case you haven't, though, I'll explain it. There are four main elements to Uncharted's gameplay: third-person shooting, hand-to-hand combat, platforming and puzzle solving. Third-person shooting could best be compared to Gears of War...except without massive amounts of gory Locust chunks flying everywhere. You've got a variety of guns and weapons at your disposal, and you will always be carrying a side arm as well as a main gun. And if you want to avoid getting destroyed, you'll have to make heavy use of cover as well. It's everything you would expect from this type of gameplay and it's a lot of fun.

Then there's the hand-to-hand combat. Now, admittedly, I don't remember much about Uncharted 2's hand-to-hand combat system; it could have been exactly the same or it could have been a bit different. Regardless, the hand-to-hand system in Uncharted 3 works really well. It's almost baffling how the developers were able to make a combat system focused on mashing the square button with the occasional quick time event so much fun and often even exciting. Basically, your attacks are - as I just said - done with the square button, although you can push an enemy in any direction using the circle button. During battle, you will occasionally have to press the triangle button to counterattack or repeatedly press circle to break out of an opponent's grip. I suppose what makes it so great is how intense it is. You'll often be using melee to pick off a single opponent in the middle of a massive gunfight, and you can push them up against the wall or other objects to trap them or even use the environment and the objects around you to your advantage. It's also worth mentioning that you can pull off stealth kills when hiding in cover or by simply sneaking up on unsuspecting enemies. It's pretty dang satisfying.

Now, as for the platforming, maybe my memory of Uncharted 1 and 2 is a bit fuzzy, but I noticed that this element is given a lot more emphasis than in the other two games. Even in Uncharted 2, while it didn't suffer at all for it, combat was what mostly stole the show, and I appreciate the effort taken to balance things out more in 3. Basically, platforming in Uncharted has a similar focus to that of the Prince of Persia and Tomb Raider series: climbing and acrobatics, or parkour if you prefer. You'll be doing quite a bit of climbing to get around in this game as well as stuff like swinging off of poles. It's pretty simple; all you'll be using for it are the control stick and jump button. Of course, you will occasionally have to take timing and not falling to your death into account. It's simple, but it's fun and it works. And it looks really cool. Finally, we have the puzzle solving. Straight-up puzzle solving has always been the least-emphasized element of the series, but regardless, the puzzles in this game are probably the most intelligent and interesting in the series thus far. They're fun to solve and they further help to keep things from getting tiring.

The biggest thing that Uncharted 3 does better than 2 is the action. The other Uncharted games featured a lot of action, of course, but in Uncharted 3, there is a ridiculous amount of it all the time, especially in the second half of the game, and it's pretty over the top. It's a game that, in addition to its fantastic graphics, storyline and gameplay, always feels incredibly exciting. This brings me back to the whole "playing a movie" thing; honestly, I can't tell you if this really helps that feeling or if it's the other way around, but I can tell you it's freaking awesome.

There's one other aspect of Uncharted 3 that deserves to be covered: the multiplayer. Now, Uncharted 2 featured multiplayer, but I never actually played it, so I can't compare. Regardless, to access the multiplayer of Uncharted 3, you will have to use a pass code. If you buy it new, the code will come on the back of the manual, but unfortunately, if you bought it secondhand, you'll have to pay a little extra. Of course, since you're getting the game for a lower price anyway in that case, I suppose that it matters little. Naughty Dog said it was because they didn't have enough money to do otherwise, so eh, I can live with it.

And honestly, I'd say it's worth paying an extra ten bucks for anyway. Online multiplayer is pretty much what you'd expect from the game, and it's a lot more fun than you would think. In fact, the multiplayer of Uncharted 3 is pretty darn great and will probably keep you playing for quite a while after you beat the campaign. It's mostly based around gunning down other players' avatars, and the Uncharted gameplay translates very well to a multiplayer experience. You have your usual team deathmatches and battle royales, but if you ever get tired of that, you have games in which both teams compete to see which can collect the most idols (it's better than it sounds) as well as "Team Objective", where the objective constantly switches between rounds. One interesting thing about the multiplayer is that unlike games like Battlefield and CoD that give you preset loadouts to choose from, you get to customize your own loadouts. This includes buyable upgrades for your weapons as well as some extra abilities. Overall, Uncharted 3's multiplayer is tons of fun, addictive and will keep you coming back for more.

When it comes to flaws, well...Uncharted 3 is a game that I can seriously say doesn't have anything legitimately wrong with it. I don't believe that a game can be truly perfect, but I honestly can't think of anything I had a problem with in Uncharted 3. It's polished, the graphics are amazing, it runs smoothly, the gameplay is fantastic...I really just can't think of any flaws here!


Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception is a unequivicolly amazing game. It's easily the best game in the series and probably the best game you could be playing on PS3. Just about every aspect of it is borderline perfect, and no other games offer quite the same experience that Uncharted 3 does. If you're a PS3 owner or planning on getting a PS3, then this game is an absolute must-have.

Score: 10/10

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Sonic Generations Review

Kind of hard to believe it's already been twenty years since the original Sonic the Hedgehog graced the SEGA Genesis. I won't trouble you with a history lesson since I'm sure we all have at least some sort of vague idea as to who he is. Sonic's his name, speed's his game. He's the fastest thing alive, the cool blue dude with attitude, and whatever other cheesy nickname you could come up with. Yep, we have a lot of memories, Sonic and I. Since I first came along for the ride, we've ran down a building at a 90 degree angle in Speed Highway, plowed through cars in City Escape, taken a joyride through Green Hill, admired the chemical waterfalls in Chemical Plant, narrowly avoided falling to our certain deaths in Sky Sanctuary, defeated Eggman numerous times as well as a few god monsters... (sigh) And who could forget the time that Sonic started sucking?

Yes, it's a tale told in the introduction of ma
ny a Sonic review and I'm sure it's one we'd all like to forget, but Sonic's dark ages have only ended recently and I believe that they may have influenced the development of the game that we're discussing today. In 2001 the Dreamcast died, and from there, Sonic devolved into either a depressing tragedy or a hilarious joke depending on who you ask. 2003's Sonic Heroes was the picture of mediocrity and 2005's Shadow the Hedgehog was an abomination to game design. And following that, we have 2006's "Sonic the Hedgehog", which had potential, but was rushed to the point that it was completely unfinished and Sonic and friends ran slow as molasses. It completely destroyed Sonic's reputation for good, and 2008's Sonic Unleashed, though a massive improvement, was still too flawed to do anything to restore it. Not all was awful during this time, however. It was around this time that DIMPS made the Sonic Advance and Sonic Rush series for Nintendo's handhelds (and they would later go on to make Sonic 4: Episode I), but they were unfortunately forgotten under the torrent of crappy 3-D console titles.

But then one day at Sonic Team, someone had an epiphany: "Hey! Maybe people would like Sonic again if we mad
e a game that was awesome!" And that's just what they did. 2008's Sonic Unleashed, while bogged down by a stretchy-armed abomination known as the Werehog, actually did reinvent the 3-D Sonic gameplay in its other half, and it was pretty well received. Taking that framework and making it so that it focused more on platforming and exploration, Sonic Team created 2010's Sonic Colors, a brilliant game that combined clever level design with a fun power-up gimmick, and with that, things started looking up.

The next year (which happens to be this year! Gasp!) would be Sonic's 20th anniversary, and with it came, as expected, a new Sonic game. This game is known as Sonic Generations, and it is themed on Sonic's twenty-year-long history. As such, you not only get to play as the taller, leaner, green-eyed Sonic we see today, but also the pudgier, cuter Sonic from the Genesis days and both of them have their own styles of play. Also, in keeping with the theme, you will be visiting locales based on those from Sonic's previous adventures with level designs made to fit both play styles. Well, I've finally gotten to play it, and while the title of "first good console Sonic game since the Dreamcast days" has already been taken, Sonic Generations is the first Sonic game since Sonic 3 & Knuckles that I can legitimately say is a masterpiece. Let's find out why.


Well, where to begin? I suppose I'll start with aesthetics, since, you know, that's the first thing you're going to notice when you start up the game, and well...dang. The graphics of Sonic Generations look fantastic. The setpieces are amazing and the environments look absolutely fantastic. Sonic Generations does an amazing job of breathing new life into levels from games past. Of course, the visual highlight of the game is Planet Wisp, just as it was in the game it comes from. No exaggeration - it looks like it came straight out of James Cameron's Avatar. (And before you tell me that movie is incredibly overrated, well, I agree with you, but it certainly did look awesome.) The graphics aren't perfect, however. There are some noticeable framerate drops here and there, most unfortunately in the Goin' Down section of Speed Highway. I can't help but be just a bit disappointed that the game doesn't run smoothly during one of Sonic Adventure's most iconic moments.

Of course, that's not even getting into the soundtrack. In keeping with the theme, the music for all of the levels and bosses are remixes of their previous themes, and the styles are different for both Sonics. The music for Classic Sonic's levels are usually more techno inspired, while the music for Modern Sonic's levels is based moreso around rock. Regardless, I love all of the remixes present in the game. Some of my personal favorites are Modern Crisis City, Classic Speed Highway and Modern City Escape. One thing I also thought was really cool was that you can actually unlock tons of other music tracks from the series and play them over any level or boss you want. This is a series that's full of awesome music, so a feature like this is very nice to have.

The story of Sonic Generations is emphasized much less than most other modern Sonic games, but eh, I don't think it suffers because of it. While enjoying his birthday party, a giant vortex opens up in the sky and sucks in all of his friends and leaves Sonic in a white void with an entrance to a familiar location: Green Hill Zone. Sonic rescues Tails and discovers that a monster called the Time Eater is tearing holes in time and space, and must team up with his pudgy past self to restore the world and defeat the Time Eater. It's...quite a bit more enjoyable than it sounds. The writing style is different from how it was in Colors, focusing less on jokes, but the script is still good and has its funny moments. We also get to hear more of the new voice cast this time around since this game has more characters, and most of them are pretty great. In short, good stuff.

But with all that said, the most important aspect of any game is its gameplay, and boy, does Generations deliver here. As I mentioned before, in Sonic Generations you will be controlling the tall, green-eyed Modern Sonic and the pudgy, black-eyed Classic Sonic, and they both have different styles of play. However, rather than one of them being a crappy God of War ripoff, both are familiar styles of Sonic gameplay. But before we talk about the main gameplay, I think I should talk about the level list. As a celebration of twenty years of Sonic, the levels are all based off of the most iconic levels from Sonic games past and they are separated into three eras. From the classic era, we have Green Hill Zone (from Sonic 1), Chemical Plant Zone (from Sonic 2) and Sky Sanctuary Zone (from Sonic 3 & Knuckles). From the Adventure era, we have Speed Highway (from Sonic Adventure), City Escape (from Sonic Adventure 2), and Seaside Hill (from Sonic Heroes). Finally, from the modern era, we have Crisis City (from Sonic 06), Rooftop Run a.k.a. Spagonia (from Sonic Unleashed) and Planet Wisp (from Sonic Colors). It kind of amazes me how accurately they captured the feel of the original incarnations of these levels. Rather than being content just copying aesthetics, Sonic Team looked at everything: gimmicks, the enemies you faced in the level, and other elements that made these stages awesome.

Better yet is that, in regards to the level gimmicks, they've put a lot of creative and fun twists on them and even added new ones that make sense in the context of the levels. Modern Sonic's "road-boarding" section from the original City Escape returns, while the more early 90's-oriented Classic Sonic receives a skateboard that serves a similar purpose. Also, remember the giant truck at the end of the level that was just there for the Rule of Cool's sake in SA2? Well, now it's a legitimate hazard. In Modern Sonic's level, it pulls out sawblades that you will have to avoid, while in Classic Sonic's level, you will have to move fast as it tries to destroy paths you can take through the level. Crisis City is special if only for the fact that it's fun to play this time around, but now it makes use of Modern Sonic's stomp move by having you use it to push down rocks carried by lava geysers. It also recreates the infamous tornado sequence in both the Modern and Classic levels; in Modern Sonic's level, it's much the same except for the fact that you're running towards it rather than away from it as it throws things at you (and thus it's not as horrendously cheap), and in Classic Sonic's level it makes platforming more difficult by trying to pull you in. For Planet Wisp, they actually brought the color powers back from Sonic Colors; Modern Sonic gets the Orange Rocket power and Classic Sonic gets Pink Spikes, and they're both put to the same uses that they were before. The Spikes power is also used to operate and ride some of the machinery, and Modern Sonic can now hitch a ride on some of Planet Wisp's minecarts. It's things like this alongside the new level designs that help the levels feel new at the same time that they feel familiar, as well as adding more of a feeling of diversity to the levels.

With all that out of the way, I can talk about how both Sonics play, starting with Classic. Yes, Classic Sonic is back in Generations, and he plays much like you remember him. True to the color of his eyes, as Classic Sonic you will run through 2.5D environments propelled by momentum physics. Sonic Team got the classic physics down pretty well; movement feels great and Sonic's jumps carry momentum just as they did in the classics, and it's actually necessary to make use of this to reach some paths in the levels. Rebound height when jumping off of enemies is now fixed, but it's used as sort of a double jump to reach different areas, which actually works really well. In terms of physics, the only thing I think they could really have done a lot better is the rolling. Unfortunately, it hasn't improved much since the first demo. It still slows you down more than anything. This isn't a big flaw by any means; rolling really isn't necessary for anything, and it would be hard to care anyway considering how powerful the spin-dash is in this game. It's just something I think they could have worked on to make the game feel know...classic.

While Classic Sonic is slower than his modern self, don't think that there won't be enough speed. However, just like in the classics, you will have to play skillfully to maintain this sense of speed. Of course, there were two more aspects to the Genesis games aside from momentum physics and speed as a reward for skill: platforming and multi-teired level design that encourages exploration, and Classic Sonic's gameplay excels here as well. There's a lot of platforming here, and the levels are multi-layered with tons of different paths to take. One interesting thing is that the game makes use of the 2.5D perspective by making it so that the levels are not only layered from top to bottom, but also from left to right. Depending on where you are, there will be paths in the foreground or background, and often you will have to find a spring to take you to them. The game also makes use of the 2.5D perspective to provide more dynamic camera angles at certain points. On the whole, Classic Sonic's levels are very well-designed and a ton of fun to play.

But while the Classic Sonic levels are fantastic, it's Modern Sonic who really steals the show here. For those of you unfamilar with this gameplay style, the fundamental elements are that Sonic is given a boost move to help him go faster and perspectives constantly switch between 2.5D and 3D. Modern Sonic's levels borrow elements from both Sonic Unleashed and Sonic Colors. From Unleashed it borrows the amazing sense of speed and reflex-testing segments while from Colors it borrows the platforming and exploration. While Unleashed focused mostly on the speed and Colors focused mostly on the platforming and exploration, Modern Sonic's levels in Generations play pretty much like the perfect mix of all three elements. In addition to the awesome sense of speed, there's a lot of platforming to speak of and plenty of ways to get through each level. However, that's not the only thing that the Modern Sonic levels have improved on.

Easily the best thing about Modern Sonic's levels in Generations is how much Sonic Team has improved on the 3D gameplay since Unleashed and Colors. Some fans did actually complain that the 3D sections of Unleashed were confined and too focused around testing reflexes rather than platforming, whereas Colors severely downplayed 3D sections and what 3D there was was somewhat underwhelming and still lacked good platforming. Now, personally, I thought this worked for Unleashed, and while I didn't necessarily find anything wrong with the 3D in Sonic Colors, I will admit that it could have benefitted from better 3D sections and heavier use of them. Sonic Generations completely obliterates this flaw. Following Chemical Plant, most levels give much more emphasis to 3D gameplay. Sky Sanctuary, Seaside Hill and Crisis City are probably the best examples of how much the 3-D has improved since the last games. All three of these levels are completely filled with 3-D platforming, and Sky Sanctuary and Seaside Hill - Seaside Hill especially - have more paths to take and exploration than in any other 3-D Sonic level. Overall, Modern Sonic's gameplay is incredibly fun and the level design is amazing.

Of course, like Classic Sonic, Modern Sonic has only one thing that I think, while not a huge problem, is something that could have been worked on a bit more: 3-D controls. Don't get me wrong, play control in 3-D has improved a lot since the last games. I literally couldn't go back to Unleashed after playing Generations, and I'd probably screw up similarly if I were to go back and play Colors. However, it's still just a bit stiff and floaty, not to the point of causing any serious problems but just to the point that it's noticeable. The jump also sometimes feels like it carries a little bit more inertia than it should, and while it's just a nitpick, I think the game could have benefitted from always allowing you to turn all the way around while jumping. 3-D control is far from "bad"; it's just something they could have done a bit of a better job on in my opinion.

The next thing that I would like to talk about is bosses, and I don't know about anyone else, but I've always felt like boss design in 3-D Sonic games was somewhat lacking. I criticised the bosses in Sonic Adventure for being too easy, but that's not really the only flaw with bosses in 3-D Sonic games. For the most part, they're just sort of lackluster. Even the bosses of Sonic Colors, though an improvement, were for the most part just okay, and it didn't help that they were rehashed for the game's latter three worlds. In Sonic Generations, though...the bosses are actually pretty awesome! They're all based on bosses from previous games in the franchise, but they're all fought very differently. There are two kinds of boss battles in Sonic Generations: you have the rival battles in which you face off against one of Sonic's many rivals (such as Metal Sonic or Shadow) and you have the main bosses, which are, well...main bosses from the Sonic series. All of them are really fun to battle. The ways of defeating them are usually interesting, and while they're not quite "hard", I wouldn't describe them as "easy" either beyond the first two. (Of course, if you still think they're too easy, you can challenge them again in Hard Mode.) Easily my favorite boss in the game is the fight against Perfect Chaos, which takes place partially as its own mini-level and makes the fight from Sonic Adventure look completely obsolete.

On its own, Sonic Generations is not going to last you very long - about 5-6 hours at best. However, Sonic Team knew this wouldn't be enough, so they made sure that there was plenty of replay value. First of all, for each stage there are five Challenge Acts for both Sonics, sort of like the extra missions of Sonic Adventure 2 except, well, quite frankly better. While you will have to complete one of these from every level to beat the game, most of them are completely optional. It is also by beating the Challenge Acts that you will unlock a lot of the extra concept art and music. Some of these Challenge Acts will have you racing a doppelganger to the end of the level, some revolve around a specific mechanic or gimmick, some introduce a new upgrade (more on those later), and some actually have Sonic going up against or enlisting the aid of a member of the franchise's periphery cast, which is something I actually liked since I felt like it made them do more than just be in the game. While some of these Challenge Acts take place within areas of the main level, with the exception of the doppelganger races most feature completely different designs. There's a lot of variety as well, which keeps things from getting repetitive or boring. There were a few of these that I thought were tedious, but not enough to complain about and overall I had a lot of fun completing the Challenge Acts.

The other form of replay value in Generations is the Red Rings, which return from Sonic Colors. In Colors, these unlocked Sonic Simulator stages, and by beating those, you would get Chaos Emeralds. By getting all seven Chaos Emeralds, you would be able to go Super Sonic. In Generations, you actually unlock Super Sonic as an upgrade by simply defeating the final boss. So instead, collecting Red Rings in Generations gets you more concept art and music, and collecting all of them from a single Classic or Modern level will get you a secret upgrade. I suppose it's about time I started talking about those, isn't it?

Well, in Sonic Generations, there's a skill shop where you can buy and and equip skills using money you get from playing levels. Each upgrade has a different point cost to equip, and there are only five slots and 100 points you can use, preventing you from overpowering either Sonic. This is how you will use Super Sonic, as well as how you will be able to use the awesome elemental shields from Sonic 3 & Knuckles. If you're not interested in the skill shop, you don't have to use it, but it's a nice feature.

Back on the subject of replay value, like any good Sonic game, Sonic Generations is not an experience you'll get the most out of playing it just once. You'll likely find yourself playing playing at least the Modern Sonic stages over and over again, whether it's to take paths you haven't before, challenge your time or rank, or just enjoy yourself. Further encouraging this are leaderboards, which allow you to compare your time with other players. With this on top of Red Rings and Challenge Acts, Sonic Generations has plenty of replay value to keep its short length from dragging it down.

The Good:

+ Amazing environments and setpieces
+ Awesome soundtrack
+ Good story
+ New voice actors are great
+ Both Sonics are a crapload of fun to play as (but Modern Sonic moreso)
+ 3-D sections have improved immensely since Colors
+ Outstanding levels
+ Great boss fights
+ Great replay value

The Bad:

- Occasional framerate drops
- Classic Sonic's rolling is mostly useless
- 3-D controls could be a bit better, though are not at all bad


Sonic Generations was an absolutely fantastic experience for me and it's easily one of the best Sonic games of all time. Fans will, of course, get the most out of seeing some of the series' most memorable levels reimagined, but you don't have to be a fan to appreciate a genuinely great game. If you're not a fan, I'd say this is a great place to start. The few faults it has are minor, and it does everything else amazingly well. I wholeheartedly recommend this game to anyone. Happy 20th anniversary, Sonic. We love ya.

Score: 9.5/10

My Scoring System:
10 - Amazing game. Flaws are minor at best. If you don't own it, you should be ashamed of yourself. (Zelda: Ocarina of Time)

9(.5) - Fantastic game. Perhaps a couple of notable annoyances, but still a must-have. (Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep)

8(.5) - Very good game. Has a few flaws, but you won't be disappointed with your purchase. (Klonoa)

7(.5) - Pretty good game that either has several problems or is just too short for its price. Enjoyable to play, but you may want to wait for the price to drop a bit before picking it up. (Rayman 3D)

6(.5) - Passable game. Has its strengths, but unless you're a fan of the series or genre, you're probably better off not bothering. (Dragon Ball Z: Budokai Tenkaichi 2)

5(.5) - Mediocre game. Not a bad experience, but it's too flawed to be much fun. A bargain bin purchase at best, and only if you're a fan of the series. (Sonic Heroes)

3 or 4(.5) - Bad game. A mostly negative experience, and whatever it does right fails to save it overall. Even if you're a fan, you're probably better off not playing it. (Sonic and the Secret Rings)

1 or 2(.5) - Utter garbage. An unholy abomination that we should do all in our power to avoid playing. In other words, STAY THE HECK AWAY! (Dragon Ball Z: Ultimate Battle 22)

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Sonic Adventure (Re)Review

Surprise! Bet you didn't see this coming, did you? Sonic Generations was officially released PS3 and 360 today, so I'm sure you were expecting, if anything, a review of that. But alas, though Generations is out, I've preordered it off, meaning I will have to wait a few days before finally getting to immerse myself in its awesomeness. But I do have to celebrate the day somehow, so I'm giving you all something (not so) special: a redone review of Sonic Adventure! Why am I actually doing this? It's mainly because I feel like my old review of this game, written back in April of last year, is a bit...well, let's just say I feel like I've improved a lot since then and I'm a bit ashamed of some of my older work. I barely went in-depth on anything, and it just seems poorly written to me now. Besides that, there are a couple of things I didn't really bring up and my opinions on a few things have changed a bit since then. So now, INTRODUCTION!

Sonic Adventure was initially released in 1999 for SEGA's then new, now long dead Dreamcast console as a launch title. It was meant to be Sonic's big leap into the third dimension, which was a cool new thing to do way back when after Mario started the trend. It was a really ambitious, huge, even revolutionary game for its time, and as such it received widespread critical acclaim. Unfortunately, general opinion on the game has significantly cooled down as years have passed; while it's still generally considered one of the better 3-D entries in the series, opinions are split on many elements that it introduced to the series, and you will get varying answers as to how well it has aged. Bearing in mind that this is the first game I ever played - EVER - Sonic Adventure is a really important game for me, and I'd be lying if I said it wasn't sugarcoated in nostalgia. I will be as unbiased as I can in writing this review, but keep in mind that I may not be able to help myself.


The storyline of Sonic Adventure is emphasized a great deal more than it was in Sonic games before it. Dr. Eggman, or Dr. Robotnik if you prefer, has released an ancient water monster called Chaos from his prison in the Master Emerald, a powerful gem that Knuckles the Echidna has been given the duty of guarding in its home on the floating Angel Island. Releasing Chaos causes the Emerald to shatter into several pieces, which in turn causes Angel Island to crash into the ocean. This also releases Tikal, an echidna girl who knows about Chaos' past and shows bits and pieces of it to Sonic and friends in the form of cryptic flashbacks throughout the story. Sonic has his own run-in with Chaos one rainy night as he watches several cops unload on it but to no effect. Because homing attacks are more effective than bullets on a water monster, Sonic defeats it without a problem. However, he and his good friend Tails soon learn that Eggman is planning on using the seven Chaos Emeralds to make Chaos more powerful, at which point he will use Chaos to destroy Station Square (a local city) and build his own city, Robotnikland, on top of it. Being the only ones capable of stopping him, Sonic and Tails set out on a quest to get the Chaos Emeralds before Eggman does. Meanwhile, Knuckles searches for the pieces of the Master Emerald, Amy tries to help a lost bird find its family while on the run from one of Eggman's robots, new character Big the Cat - inventive name, I know - searches for his lost pet frog, and new character E-102 Gamma (a robot built by Eggman) decides he must destroy the rest of the E-Series robots to release the animals trapped inside their metal frames (for those unfamiliar with the series, Eggman powers his robots using animals).

What's most interesting about Sonic Adventure's storyline isn't as much the story itself as it is the way it's told. You will see Sonic Adventure's story through the perspectives of six different playable characters, each with their own experiences and takes on the storyline. What this pretty much means is, after you play through Sonic's storyline, you can play through Tails' storyline to see what happened during the points that the two got separated or you can play through Knuckles' storyline to see what he was doing the whole time. In addition, oftentimes characters' storylines will cross paths and some events in one storyline can connect to events in another. Also, it's worth mentioning here that you will actually have to play through all six characters' storylines to unlock the final story, where you will fight the true final boss and see the real ending to the game. There are a couple of plot holes here and there, but the story is pretty entertaining overall.

So, the story is pretty good, but how does the gameplay fare? Well, as I mentioned before, Sonic Adventure features six different characters that you will control - the titular Sonic the Hedgehog, his buddy Tails, former rival Knuckles the Echidna, fangirl Amy Rose, the moronic Big the Cat, and robot E-102 Gamma. In addition to having their own perspectives on the storyline, they all have different gameplay styles that vary in how far away they shy from the core gameplay of the series. This has garnered mixed reactions, to say the least. While from one perspective this offers some nice variety, at the same time there are definitely going to be some characters you will like more than others depending on your tastes, and some you might even outright hate. Besides that, the gameplay style of one character unarguably shouldn't be in a Sonic game at all, but we'll get to that when we get to it. Fortunately, Sonic Adventure averts the problem that Unleashed and, while I consider it a better game for a few reasons, Sonic Adventure 2 had by separating the characters' play styles into their own storylines rather than forcing you to switch between them as the plot demands. Though you do have to play all characters' storylines to completion in order to see the true ending, if that doesn't matter to you then you only have to play as the characters you like. Anyway, since all of the characters play so differently, I'm going to discuss each one separately.

We'll start with Sonic, the blue blur himself, and as anyone who's played this game will tell you, Sonic's storyline is the highlight of the game. While the other characters have three to five stages, Sonic has ten to his name and they're all a lot of fun to play. I suppose Sonic's gameplay can best be described as what happens when you take the classic Genesis games and put them into 3-D. Sonic gets a few new moves this time around such as the homing attack, which allows you to blast to an enemy and destroy it if you press the "A" button in mid-air, and the Light Dash, which allows Sonic to dash along a trail of Rings. Of course, Sonic is just as fast as he ever was and Sonic Adventure features many (unequivocally satisfying, I might add) sections where you just get to watch Sonic blast ahead at high speeds during chase sequences that pretty much abuse the Rule of Cool.

Later 3-D Sonic games would take the gameplay in different directions with varying degrees of success, but Sonic Adventure's physics and level design philosophy reflect the classics by a lot. Some longtime fans complain that recent 3-D Sonic games don't have enough straight-up platforming or exploration like in the classics. This is simply not a criticism that can be leveled against Sonic Adventure. There's a lot of platforming here and levels feature a fair amount of exploration as well; there are plenty of areas where paths branch out and some areas even have hidden extra lives or other such power-ups. It's impossible not to appreciate the diversity present in Sonic's stages either; one stage will feature Sonic riding on wind currents through the sky, another will partially take place as a pinball mini-game, and yet another will have you using Sonic as a sentient bowling ball right after a section in which you take a bumper car down a racetrack. On the whole, Sonic's levels are really fast and extremely well designed, and you'll probably find yourself playing them again and again.

The next character on our list is Tails. His gameplay style isn't really that different from Sonic's except for the fact that he actually has to race another character to the end of the stage. It's...actually not as hard as it sounds. In fact, it's really easy because Tails is able to fly, giving him access to many shortcuts that Sonic can't take. Most of Tails' levels can basically thought of as shorter, easier versions of Sonic's, the exception being Speed Highway in which Tails takes a completely different path. Tails also gets his own snowboarding (or sandboarding, as it would be) mini-game - more on those later - which is pretty nice, but though it's still fast and enjoyable, Tails' storyline feels mostly like an easier, shorter retread of Sonic's.

Instead, we can rely on Knuckles to deliver a different experience from Sonic's story. Knuckles' play style is very different from Sonic's or Tails'; rather than going from point A to point B, Knuckles' stages play out somewhat like a simpler, more Sonicy take on the gameplay of games like Banjo-Kazooie. In these stages, you are meant to find three pieces of the Master Emerald in an open environment using Knuckles' abilities to glide, climb and dig. As an aid, you are given a hot-cold radar that will start beeping whenever you get close to an Emerald shard. If you need more help or get lost, you can find one of Tikal's hint balls, which will fly in the direction of the nearest Emerald shard. Opinions seem to vary on this gameplay style quite a bit. Now, I actually really enjoyed these stages. I'm a fan of the "collect-the-items" style of gameplay and I liked that it gave you a good chance to really explore some of the game's more open levels. Besides, I think that giving Knuckles this gameplay style was at least somewhat justified by the fact that they were using the same eleven levels for all of the characters; Knuckles' moveset could have been a huge game breaker in point-A-to-point-B style stages. I do, however, wish that he had been given point-A-to-point-B stages in Sonic Adventure 2.

Next up is Amy Rose, Sonic's pink-haired fangirl, and this time she has a stalker of her own. Eggman's robot called ZERO is after the bird she's helping and Amy has to protect said bird. This is incorporated into the gameplay by having ZERO appear at some points during the levels and try to chase you down and attack. You'd literally have to stand still for him to be able to do anything, though; his lock-on punch attack won't follow you if he manages to get a lock, and you can attack him a few times to slow him down. Because of this, he's less of a threat and more of an almost irrelevant annoyance. Aside from that, though, Amy's gameplay is pretty interesting albeit flawed. Amy can't curl up into a ball like Sonic, Tails and Knuckles; instead, her preferred method of attack is a giant hammer. In addition to bashing enemies' skulls in, this hammer is also useful for making long jumps; pick up enough speed and Amy will hold her hammer out, at which point you can do something of a pole-vault move by pressing the "B" button. Of course, Amy is slower than most of the other cast, so her stages focus more on slower-paced platforming, finding switches or turning cranks to activate things, and some mild puzzle solving. Aside from two needlessly annoying color block "puzzles" in Hot Shelter (the word is in quotes because a two-year-old could solve them), her levels are for the most part well-designed. However, the slow pace of her gameplay may turn some off. For me, it's not so much that as it is her sluggish, floaty controls. I don't have a problem with her being slower than the other characters, but she should at least control well. However, Amy only has three levels, so you don't have to spend enough time with her to really complain about it.

And then we have Big the Cat, who...fishes for his pet frog named Froggy. No, I'm not even joking; there are fishing levels in this game. Well, okay, I'll admit in spite everything I've said about them in the past that Big's stages really aren't that bad for what they are. You just find Froggy, cast the rod, wiggle the lure around until he notices it, and then reel him in without letting the tension gauge get too high or else the rod will break and you'll lose a life. It's easy and takes no longer than two minutes if you know what you're doing, and Big only has four levels. Besides that, his storyline is entertaining because of how much of a stereotypical cartoon moron he is and because he can't seem to keep hold of Froggy until his storyline finally ends. (Also, fun fact: he's voiced by the same guy who does the voice of Duke Nukem.) The problem here is that this gameplay style does not by any stretch of the imagination belong in a Sonic game. I don't find this style of gameplay particularly enjoyable, and I shouldn't have to play it in a Sonic game. What's most baffling about this is that this is a character created specifically for the game so it could have fishing levels. I'm sorry, but who thought this was a good idea? Big's stages aren't that bad, but they really shouldn't be in this game.

Not only that, but his soulless stare kills you from the inside out as he eats your babies.

Fortunately, E-102 Gamma fares quite a bit better than Amy or Big. Being a robot with a gun arm, he gets faster-paced levels focused more on shooting. By holding "B", you will be able to lock on to enemies and objects and you'll fire lasers at them upon releasing "B". Gamma actually has a time limit to his levels and you will be able to get more time by killing enemies. The more enemies you lock onto at once, the more time you will get. It's also worth noting that Gamma's last three levels each end with bosses. These stages are actually pretty fun and due to their fast pace don't even feel as out of place in the game as Knuckles' or Amy's stages. Gamma also probably has the most interesting storyline out of all the characters. Gamma isn't as much fun to control as Sonic, Tails or Knuckles, but his gameplay style is still pretty good.

Of course, the action stages aren't the only side to Sonic Adventure's gameplay. Like many platformers of its time, Sonic Adventure features hub worlds, or "Adventure Fields" as they are known here. These hub worlds are where most cutscenes and boss fights take place, as well as where you'll find the entrances to the action stages, some of which are opened by solving minor puzzles, and upgrades for the six playable characters. You'll also find NPC's to talk to here. Nothing they say really has anything to do with anything, but some of their dialogue is pretty amusing and there are a couple of funny subplots involving some of them. If you're ever unsure of where to go, you can always go to Tikal's hint ball and she will tell you where you need to go. The best thing about these hub worlds is that they don't feel like they're just there as a bridge between stages; their presence, execution and use really do help to make the game feel more like a big adventure, which I appreciate.

One interesting thing about Sonic Adventure is that it features several mini-games that you will get to play throughout the story. These include Sky Chase, two rail shooting missions on a plane; Twinkle Circuit, a mini-game version of the bumper car racetrack from Twinkle Park; Sand Hill, a desert variation of Ice Cap's snowboarding sequence; and my personal favorite, Hedgehog Hammer, a whack-a-mole-esque game played with Amy. Sonic Adventure also features a Chao Garden, in which you can raise virtual pets called Chao. You can give these Chao animals that you find in the action stages to boost their stats and then enter them in races. Personally, I don't care for the Chao Garden in this game, preferring the one in Adventure 2, but if you like it, you can put hours into it. These are really nice features that do actually add more depth and replay value to the game if you care about them.

One last thing that I would like to give praise to is Sonic Adventure's soundtrack. Sonic games generally have awesome soundtracks, and Sonic Adventure is no exception. Pretty much every BGM in the game is fantastic. Unfortunately, I can't exactly say the same thing for most of the vocal tracks aside from Open Your Heart, which is the main theme, but I suppose that's mostly subject to personal taste.

Of course, many will argue that Sonic Adventure is showing its age, and, well, in the grand scheme of things it has aged...okay. Sonic's levels are still a crapload of fun to play, the level design is still great, the soundtrack is awesome, and - in personal opinion, of course - the other characters are fun to play as save for a certain purple cat. There's plenty of replay value here, and the story, while nothing to write home about, is pretty solid and interesting. I've played plenty of games from its era that have aged far worse.

I will admit, though, that Sonic Adventure is starting to look pretty dated in a few areas. In particular, boss design really leaves a lot to be desired. Some of them are pretty fun, but they're all just way too easy. I understand that the Sonic series was never exactly known for its great boss fights, but in Sonic Adventure, it almost seems a little ridiculous at times. Special mention goes to four out of E-102 Gamma's six boss fights, which can literally be won by standing in one place and mashing the "B" button continually. The camera system of Sonic Adventure was considered flawed even at the time of its release, and while it's not game breaking, the problem is there. Finally, Sonic Adventure is a pretty unpolished game. Glitches aren't frequent if you don't seek them out, but the occasional clipping glitch or collision detection flaw will happen. Sonic Adventure is not a broken game by any means, and the frustrations caused by its camera and lack of polish are generally minor, but these flaws are worth mentioning.

There is one other thing that falls outside the realm of gameplay that is pretty dated as well: the writing and voice acting. The voice acting is...hit or miss. Some fans would say that Ryan Drummond is the best voice actor for Sonic, and while I prefer Roger Craig Smith, I have to give credit where credit is due: he's one of the better ones here. He's not great, but his tone fits Sonic well and there's some emotion behind his acting. Amy's voice is okay, too, and I suppose Big's and Gamma's voices work for the types of characters they are. Easily the best one is for Dr. Eggman, who does a great job both during his more menacing moments and when Eggman is being the slightly goofy, egotistical villain we all know him to be inside. Unfortunately, rest of the voice cast doesn't fare quite as well, to say the least. Knuckles' voice actor seems to waver constantly between "kind of okay" and "completely wooden", and the actors for Tails and the supporting cast are so fake it's almost laughable. Fortunately, this can be remedied by setting the voices to Japanese while keeping the subtitles in English. Unfortunately, that's only getting rid of half the problem. The writing of Sonic Adventure is pretty cheesy to say the least - and I mean that in the bad way. But hey, at least some lines are so bad that they're almost good.

Now, there is one last thing I feel like I should mention. Due to Sonic Adventure's popularity on the Dreamcast, SEGA rereleased it several times on different consoles following the DC's death. The most well known ports are Sonic Adventure DX: Director's Cut for the GameCube, released in 2003, and the Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network port, which was released just last year. I've never played the GameCube version, but I have played the XBLA version, and it's...a pretty shoddy port to say the least. The fun gameplay and level design are still there, but the controls have somehow become ridiculously slippery, the camera has gotten far worse, and there are glitches everywhere. It's almost as broken as - dare I say it? - Sonic the Hedgehog 2006. The game also receives a graphical "upgrade", but in my opinion it does more harm than good; in the XBLA version, the character's look like they're made of metal and a lot of the textures they've changed or replaced just don't look as good to me, especially the rocky textures that literally look like vomit. About the only thing it has improved over the Dreamcast version is the Chao Garden, which features more of Sonic Adventure 2's innovations.

I've researched the GameCube version, and it does have a lot more extra content than either of the other ports. It includes a mission mode and, like the XBLA version, a Chao Garden more like Sonic Adventure 2's. It also includes each of Sonic's Game Gear titles as unlockables, which are completely amazing - well, not really "amazing" - okay, I guess most of them range from mediocre to utterly terrible, but Sonic 2, Chaos and Triple Trouble are fun. However, it supposedly has some of the same problems as the XBLA version albeit to a lesser extent. Most people don't own Dreamcasts these days, so I suppose that this is probably the best version you can get if you haven't played the game before. Of course, you probably shouldn't just take my word for it, since, as I mentioned before, I've never played this version.

The Good:

+ Fantastic Sonic levels
+ Six playable characters with their own perspectives on the story
+ Most of the said six characters are fun to play as
+ Great soundtrack
+ Mini-games and Chao Garden are nice
+ Solid storyline
+ Hub worlds are nice

The Bad:

- What are fishing levels doing in a Sonic game?
- Bosses are too easy
- Camera is flawed
- Occasional glitches
- English voice acting is hit or miss and the script is subpar

In the end, Sonic Adventure is still a very good game. Like I said, I do have a lot of nostalgia for this game, but I fully admit that it has some flaws and a few aspects haven't exactly aged wonderfully. However, I feel like I really don't need nostalgia goggles to enjoy Sonic Adventure. I still have a lot of fun with it when I play it - well, when I'm not playing as Big, anyway - and if you haven't played it already, I suggest you do so. The Sonic levels alone make this game at least worth a look, and its strengths outweigh its weaknesses. It's not an amazing masterpiece anymore, but it's still a solid game. Just avoid the XBLA/PSN version. T-Man, out.

Score (DC): 8/10
Score (XBLA/PSN): 4.5/10

My Scoring System:
10 - Amazing game. Flaws are minor at best. If you don't own it, you should be ashamed of yourself. (Zelda: Ocarina of Time)

9(.5) - Fantastic game. Perhaps a couple of notable annoyances, but still a must-have. (Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep)

8(.5) - Very good game. Has a few flaws, but you won't be disappointed with your purchase. (Klonoa)

7(.5) - Pretty good game that either has several problems or is just too short for its price. Enjoyable to play, but you may want to wait for the price to drop a bit before picking it up. (Rayman 3D)

6(.5) - Passable game. Has its strengths, but unless you're a fan of the series or genre, you're probably better off not bothering. (Dragon Ball Z: Budokai Tenkaichi 2)

5(.5) - Mediocre game. Not a bad experience, but it's too flawed to be much fun. A bargain bin purchase at best, and only if you're a fan of the series. (Sonic Heroes)

3 or 4(.5) - Bad game. A mostly negative experience, and whatever it does right fails to save it overall. Even if you're a fan, you're probably better off not playing it. (Sonic and the Secret Rings)

1 or 2(.5) - Utter garbage. An unholy abomination that we should do all in our power to avoid playing. In other words, STAY THE HECK AWAY! (Dragon Ball Z: Ultimate Battle 22)

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Donkey Kong Country Returns Review

I was planning on making another Sonic-related list or review, but I quickly realized that I probably have far too many Sonic-related posts on my blog. Sonic Generations is also coming out, which I simply can't see not reviewing, so today let's talk about another game series that has recently found its way back into our hearts: Donkey Kong.

Back in the 80's, there were a few Donkey Kong arcade games - the first of which is most famous for introducing us to the most widely recognized video game character by far, Mario. However, the Donkey Kong franchise didn't see as much recognition by itself until the SNES era, when Rareware, a second-party company owned by Nintendo, created the Donkey Kong Country trilogy. Sporting then-revolutionary graphics, tons of secrets, fantastic level design, and an incredible difficulty level, these games would find their way into the hearts of many gamers. During the Nintendo 64 era, Rare would make one more Donkey Kong game called - wait for it - Donkey Kong 64, and it remains as the series' only foray into the third dimension, which is a bit unfortunate if I do say so myself.

In 2002, Nintendo would sell Rare to Microsoft, and, unfortunately, the Donkey Kong franchise would suffer a bit. While they were - from what I've heard, anyway, since I've played hardly any of them - pretty solid, most Donkey Kong games from that point onward were spinoffs. The only platformer to come out of the series during the GameCube era was Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat, and even that was a spinoff that you played with the barrel bongos (bongo drum controller originally made for Donkey Konga, which was...a rhythm game. Yes. A Donkey Kong rhythm game.)

Fast forward to 2010. 2-D platformers are seeing somewhat of a resurgance in popularity, which has prompted several series to produce games that see them return to their roots. Mega Man 9 and 10, Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I - probably the most recent game of its nature - and Nintendo's own New Super Mario Bros. series have all seen success, and the Rayman series will be receiving its own retro revival, Rayman Origins, later this year. Realizing that fans would probably like to have a proper Donkey Kong title, Nintendo got Retro Studios, famous for the amazing Metroid Prime trilogy, on the job to see if they could make an equally amazing Donkey Kong game in the style of the original DK trilogy, and that's just what they freaking did! What the Super Mario Galaxy series is to 3-D platforming, Donkey Kong Country Returns is to 2-D platforming. Yes, it is that good. Let's see why, shall we?


The story of Donkey Kong Country Returns is simple. A volcanic eruption has released tiki guys that are hypnotizing the animals of DK Island and, like King K. Rool before them, stealing Donkey Kong's bananas. Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong seem to be resistant to the tikis' hypnotism, so they set out on a quest to defeat the tikis and get their freaking bananas back.

Pretty much everything you loved about the original Donkey Kong Country trilogy is here. You run through a level, going from point A to point B, clearing enemies and obstacles in your way and collecting bananas and coins to spend at the in-game shop, and often you will have to use barrel-shaped cannons to cross gaps and other areas. Of course, this game is for the Wii, and Retro Studios couldn't pass up the opportunity to make use of the motion controls. Actions like slamming the ground, used to destroy some objects and find secrets, and doing a roll to go faster are now handled by shaking the Wii Remote. A lot of people seem to have a problem with this, but personally I think it works pretty well. Also, Donkey Kong can actually take two hits in this game rather than just one. MUCH appreciated, Retro.

Of course, Donkey Kong won't be alone in his adventure. Also returning from the classic games is Diddy Kong, DK's sidekick, and I love what they've done with him in this game. In the classics, if you weren't playing in co-op mode, Diddy was pretty much just an extra hit point. He was faster and lighter than Donkey Kong, but he wasn't as strong. In Returns, you can't control him in single player mode, but I doubt you'll miss this ability much. In addition to giving you two extra hit points, Diddy actually rides on Donkey Kong's back. He uses his jetpack from Donkey Kong 64 to add a hover to the end of a jump if you keep the jump button held down, making platforming a bit easier. He also allows you to roll continuously if you keep shaking the Wii Remote. This makes it faster to get around, and let's face it: it's just plain satisfying to plow through enemies while rolling. Rambi the Rhino also returns, and he's just as awesome as he was way back when. There are two other small but nice touches that Retro saw fit to add. If you bounce on several enemies in a row, the chain will give you coins and eventually an extra life. Also, at the end of every level, there is a barrel with a bonus roulette on it. If you can touch it when it's on the "DK" symbol, you will be able to punch the barrel by shaking the Wii Remote repeatedly, and how much of an item you get will depend on how many times you shook the Wii Remote. You get to do something similar every time you beat a boss. These things may be small, but I couldn't help but find them relentlessly entertaining.

But we haven't even gone into the main reasons why Donkey Kong Country Returns is such an amazing game. Let's start with the level design. Remember when I said that this was the Super Mario Galaxy 2 of 2-D platformers? Yeah, this is why. Level design in Donkey Kong Country Returns is simply amazing. Retro Studios has shown a lot of creativity in designing these levels, and there's a lot of diversity to be found here. Each level poses its own challenges, and all of the levels are extremely enjoyable to play. We even get to see the return of the beloved minecart from the first game, as well as a new type of level in which you actually have to maneuver a flying rocket barrel around obstacles. Boss design is fantastic as well; the bosses are creative, challenging and fun to fight.

Speaking of challenge, this game has tons of it. Donkey Kong Country Returns is an immensely difficult game, and if it weren't for Super Meat Boy, this could even be called the platformer equivalent of From Software's Demon's Souls. I've seen a few people say that this game is cheap or unfair, but this simply can't be true. Every time I died in Donkey Kong Country Returns, I felt like I had genuinely screwed up - and I died a lot. The game is also pretty generous with extra lives, so you won't have to worry too much about getting game overs unless you really suck, and if you get too frustrated, you can always use the ever-insulting Super Guide. I'll get you one day, pig...
Wave that flag one more time. I DARE you.

In true Donkey Kong fashion, there are tons of secrets and extra items hidden in the levels of Donkey Kong Country Returns. Varying amounts of puzzle pieces are hidden in each level, which you may have to get creative to find and sometimes you will have to complete a bonus level to get them. Also, returning from the classics are the four KONG letters in each level. In the classics, getting all four of these in a single level would net you an extra life. Here, though, getting all four from each level in a world will unlock that world's secret level...which are some of the hardest in the game. Completing all of those unlocks a ninth world with a single level, and if you beat that, you get the Banana Mirror. This lets you replay the levels in Mirror Mode. Not only does this reverse everything, but it reduces you down to one hit point and forbids you from using inventory items or Diddy Kong. So basically, your reward for getting 100% is pretty much that you get to play through the levels again except they're even more difficult. To be honest, I was a bit too scared to try this beyond the first world.

As for flaws, well...I really can't think of anything to complain about! I wouldn't necessarily say that Donkey Kong Country Returns is perfect, because if I tried I could probably think of a nitpick or two, but DKCR really is a game that comes ridiculously close.


I suppose it would be fitting to say that Retro Studios could very well shape up to be to Nintendo now what Rare was to them way back when. Donkey Kong Country Returns is a simply fantastic game and a joy to play throughout. The gameplay is as good as it ever was, the level design is fantastic, it's incredibly challenging...if you own a Wii, this game is an absolute must-have. Well, I'll see you all again soon. Farewell, friends.

Score: 10/10

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Mega Man Maverick Hunter X Review

It's a little sad to see how Nintendo treated Star Fox 64 when remaking it for 3DS. The game is fourteen years old, but they saw fit to add precious little new content. All that's been done is that the game has received a graphical upgrade, the 3D feature, some new multiplayer maps and redone voice acting. Unfortunately, regarding that last point, the original Star Fox 64's horrendous voice acting was so bad it was good and added to the game's campy charm. The new voice acting is just bad. Perhaps what's even sadder is that the features they needed to add shouldn't have been that difficult to implement. Heck, just give me online multiplayer and I would definitely put down $40 for it. And yet Nintendo didn't even add such an obvious feature as that, making the multiplayer feature pretty much useless if you don't have a friend with a 3DS and the game. That is, unless you really like fighting bots. The saddest part about it all, though, is that Nintendo has stated that the future of the Star Fox series is riding on this remake. And when the original version has, graphics aside, aged exceptionally well, simply dusting off the old N64 or buying it for 15 bucks off the Wii Virtual Console might otherwise be a better option than putting down a full 40 dollars for it.

But on the opposite end of the spectrum from Star Fox 64 3D, you have Mega Man Maverick Hunter X. A remake of the original Mega Man X for the Super Nintendo, this game was released in early 2006 (late 2005 in Japan) for Sony's then-new PlayStation Portable console along with a remake of the original classic NES game to reboot the series in an attempt to renew interest in it. The attempt ultimately failed, as neither game met sales expectations. Does that say anything about the game itself? Let's see, shall we.


Taking place in a world dominated by robots called "Reploids" who can think and act for themselves, Mega Man Maverick Hunter X focuses on none other than Mega Man X (usually referred to simply as "X"), one of the Maverick Hunters who hunt down and kill Reploids who have been infected by a virus that causes them to "go Maverick", or turn against humans. Sigma originally led the Maverick Hunters, but he eventually went Maverick himself as well as many other Maverick Hunters. Making matters worse, an ex-Maverick Hunter who just happens to be an out-and-out butthole called Vile - okay, who even names a robot that? You're pretty much asking him to turn evil - is running amok, and he really hates X. Now it's up to X and his good buddy Zero to stop Sigma and the rest of the Mavericks.

For those unfamiliar with Mega Man and Mega Man X, it is a platformer-shooter series in which you are given eight bosses that you can battle in any order (Robot Masters in the classic series, Mavericks in X). Upon choosing a boss, you must go through that boss's level, making your way through numerous traps and enemies until you finally reach the boss you came to fight. If you defeat that boss, you get that boss's weapon, which, in turn is another boss's weakness. For instance, if you defeat Flame Mammoth, you get his weapon, the Flamethrower, which you can use on Chill Penguin. Defating Chill Penguin gets you Shotgun Ice, which is effective against Spark Mandrill. His weapon is effective against Armored Armadillo, and the cycle continues until all eight bosses are defeated, at which point you must battle your way through the final four stages and finally confront the final boss - which invariably has at least two forms. It should be noted that things can get really difficult in these games - which is always a good thing. However, if you have the weapon that a boss is weak to, it usually won't give you much trouble.

All of the crucial elements of classic Mega Man are present in the X series. However, X adds some much-appreciated Metroidvania elements into the mix. Each level features collectable upgrades. These include Heart Tanks that upgrade your health - which you will need - Sub-Tanks that store excess health-restoring pick-ups to use on your own time, and upgrades to X's armor that give him enhanced attributes or extra abilities. These include the Leg Parts, which allow you to dash by pressing the "O" button - very useful - the Body Parts, which increase your defense; the Arm Parts, which give X an enhanced charged shot as well as allow him to charge up bosses' weapons for extra effect; and finally, the Head Parts, which allow you to pretend to be Mario and bash blocks with your head, revealing paths to new items. Getting some items will require other upgrades or weapons that you may or may not have, as the order in which you go to each level is completely up to you. Thus, it should go without saying that some backtracking will be required. For me, part of the fun of the X series has always been seeing which level order results in the least backtracking, but I digress.

One of the first things those who are familiar with the original Mega Man X will notice is the enhanced graphics. Maverick Hunter X was a fairly early PSP game and doesn't impress as much as it did when it came out, especially when compared to games such as Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep and Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker. That's not to say that Hunter is a bad-looking game at all. The graphics are bright and colorful, and the art style works well for the game. Moving on to the soundtrack, the Mega Man series has always been known for its fantastic music, and Maverick Hunter X is no exception. Everything's fast-paced, well-composed and downright awesome - there really isn't much more to say here.

Of course, the changes that Hunter makes to the original Mega Man X run a lot deeper than the aesthetics, which is more than I can say for Star Fox 64 3D. Beautifully animated cutscenes play at the beginning and end of the game, and the remake features full voice acting for all of the scenes that take place in the game. You also get to see a scene before each boss battle in which X and the boss interact. Somewhat surprisingly, Hunter X's voice acting is very well done. Mark Gatha, Lucas Gilbertson and Roger Rhodes all do an excellent job as X, Zero and Vile (respectively), especially Mark. The mavericks are also well-casted, with their voices striking the perfect balance between cheesy and natural. The scenes before each boss battle also add more than you would think. Each Maverick has his own personality, and it adds a bit of background as X already knew a lot of them before they went Maverick. Speaking of background, if you complete the game you actually unlock a thirty-minute prequel OVA called The Day of Sigma that explains how everything started. It's a really cool OVA and definitely worth watching.

And as if that wasn't already enough to make Star Fox 64 3D look like a straight port by comparison, completing the game also let's you play as Vile, X's rival. And don't even entertain the notion that he's just a different skin for X; Vile has his own storyline complete with his own animated cutscenes and conversations with bosses. Gameplay works differently when playing as Vile as well; while X can have each available weapon on him at once, Vile can only carry three into a single level due to the way his weapons work. Vile has a finger blaster, a shoulder-mounted gun, and a...knee cannon, and there are different weapons and weapon classes that go with each. There is also a lot of variety in Vile's weapons, and he has a lot more weapons available to him overall. Combined with the different level layouts and item placement, this makes for a very different experience than going through the game with X.

Vile's pretty awesome.

As for flaws, well, while it does still feature enough replay value to make it worth buying nonetheless (not to mention that it isn't very expensive), it's a pretty dang short game. New players will probably be able to beat it over the course of a weekend, and veterans such as myself won't even take that long. Also, while the voice acting is great, the dialogue at times makes the Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep look like Mass Effect. Because of these flaws, I can't say that this game is a must-have. However, at the price it's being offered for ($20 at most), you really can't go wrong, especially considering that it's a remake of an older game.

The Good:

+ Gameplay is as great as ever
+ Features a graphical upgrade over the original
+ New animated cutscenes
+ Voice acting is great
+ Features a thirty-minute prequel OVA
+ You can go through the game as Vile
+ Interesting storyline
+ Great replay value

The Bad:

- Very short
- Writing can get really bad


Looking at Mega Man Maverick Hunter X, it's really unfortunate that it didn't sell very well. I can't believe I'm actually saying this, but I think that Nintendo should take pointers from Capcom here. It's clear that a lot of effort was put into making Hunter X worth buying even if you own or have played the original, which is a lot more than I can say for the likes of Star Fox 64 3D. It may be short, but even when it came out it was offered at a reduced price - like Star Fox 64 3D should have been. It's a great value overall and worth buying whether you're a fan of the series or not. If you like this game, you may also be interested in Mega Man X Collection for the GameCube and PS2, which features each of the first six games in the Mega Man X series mostly unaltered (X4 is my personal favorite), or maybe even Mega Man X8 for the PS2.

Just don't play X7.

Trust me.

Score: 8/10

My Scoring System:
10 - Amazing game. Flaws are minor at best. If you don't own it, you should be ashamed of yourself. (Zelda: Ocarina of Time)

9(.5) - Fantastic game. Perhaps a couple of notable annoyances, but still a must-have. (Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep)

8(.5) - Very good game. Has a few flaws, but you won't be disappointed with your purchase. (Klonoa)

7(.5) - Pretty good game that either has several problems or is just too short for its price. Enjoyable to play, but you may want to wait for the price to drop a bit before picking it up. (Rayman 3D)

6(.5) - Passable game. Has its strengths, but unless you're a fan of the series or genre, you're probably better off not bothering. (Dragon Ball Z: Budokai Tenkaichi 2)

5(.5) - Mediocre game. Not a bad experience, but it's too flawed to be much fun. A bargain bin purchase at best, and only if you're a fan of the series. (Sonic Heroes)

3 or 4(.5) - Bad game. A mostly negative experience, and whatever it does right fails to save it overall. Even if you're a fan, you're probably better off not playing it. (Sonic and the Secret Rings)

1 or 2(.5) - Utter garbage. An unholy abomination that we should do all in our power to avoid playing. In other words, STAY THE HECK AWAY! (Dragon Ball Z: Ultimate Battle 22)

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Final Fantasy XIII Review

Though I like the Final Fantasy series, I'm not just a huge fan of it. Don't get me wrong, I think all of the ones I've played so far are great, but what isn't so great is making an attempt at exploring a dungeon whilst having to deal with the ever-disruptive random encounters that pervaded the series' first ten installments. XII got rid of them (thank God), but its battle system wasn't really my cup of tea and so I didn't play much of it. Then came XIII. It was released in March of last year as the first HD Final Fantasy and was meant to be spun off into its own sub-series of games set in the same universe, with Versus XIII, Final Fantasy Type-0 and now XIII-2, a direct sequel, promised to come. It received massive hype and mostly good critical reviews, but a polarized response from the fanbase. Now that I've played through it to the end myself, let's see what I think of it and if I can understand why the overall reception has been so mixed.

(Note: This review does not reflect my current opinion of the game. I still think it's good, but I wouldn't be quite as forgiving with some things if I were to review it again, nor would I score it quite so high. ~T-Man 2013)


Allow me to begin my review by saying...dang, this game is beautiful. I own the 360 version, which runs at a lower resolution than the PS3 version and features some occasional framerate drops due to the 360's technical limitations. While these graphical flaws are there, the game is still certain to wow any gamer, and really, when a game is actually pushing the Xbox 360 past its limits, that is just something that needs to be lauded. As usual, Square has made pre-rendered cutscenes for many of the game's bigger and more action-packed moments, but the in-game graphics are fantastic too. The game's environments are all beautifully detailed, as are the character models and facial animations. Lip-syncing is mostly spot-on as well with only a few slip-ups, and they actually took the time to sync the lip movements of the pre-rendered cutscenes with the English voice track. Definitely a pleasent surprise. The music of Final Fantasy XIII is great as well, often complimenting the atmosphere of the area that you're in. Oh, and the battle theme is simply awesome.
Pictured above: Lighting (left) and Snow (right)
Of course, graphics don't make a game, and to me, one of the most important aspects of a JRPG such as Final Fantasy is its storyline. Gameplay is important, too, but we'll get to that later. Anyway, I've heard that Final Fantasy XII caught flack from fans for having a weak storyline and characters. Like I said, I didn't play much of 12 and as such I can't make that judgment, but anyone looking for a character-driven storyline definitely won't be disappointed with what Final Fantasy XIII has to offer. The storyline places a large emphasis on the emotions of the main cast (Lightning, Sazh, Snow, Hope, Vanille and Fang) and the interactions between them. In fact, chapters 3, 4, 5, and 6 of the game are focused almost solely on the characters and their exploits as they are on the run from the military. Some may find the story to drag on during these sections, especially considering the length of the cutscenes (many can run for up to ten to fifteen minutes, some even longer) but personally I really enjoyed watching the characters interact and it helped me to really like all of them. Yes, even Hope and Vanille grew on me. Granted, though, Hope was my least favorite out of the group. Most people tend to cite his "whininess" for around half the game as being on the grounds for disliking him, but for me it's kind of the opposite. When he develops, he feels like he mainly exists to give morale-boosting motivational speeches that remind me too much of Sonic Heroes' dialogue about the "real superpower of teamwork" for comfort.

Of course, don't think that FF13 gets lazy with the main plot either. The plot as a whole is very engaging, and combined with the presentation values and often lengthy (yet enjoyable) cutscenes, it really tends to capture the feeling of watching an anime movie. The storyline itself actually revolves a lot around an interesting and rich mythology...that is never fully explained in-game but rather in the information-storing "Datalog" in the menu. That's my sole problem with the storyline, as when you start the game you will have to visit the Datalog for clarity on many important elements. I feel like some of this information should have been explained in-game, especially considering that there are other games going to be set in XIII's world. That said, as a feature in and of itself, the Datalog is highly appreciated, as it stores a written recap of the events happening in the game. I very rarely play through 50-hour-long games without eventually getting into something else, so when I came back to the game, this was a lifesaver.

So now that we have established that the storyline is great, how does the gameplay fare? Well, before we get to the main point of contention here, let's talk about what it does right when compared to previous games in the series. XIII offers a LOT of conveniences that previous games did not. Like XII, it - thank God - doesn't have any random encounters at all. Many battles can theoretically be avoided, although due to my obsessive need to upgrade my characters (more on that later), I usually didn't. Should you die during a battle, you will be offered to retry, in which case you will be sent right outside of the battle with all items you used in the previous struggle returned to you. Cutscenes are always skippable, which will very much come in handy if you ever die before a boss. Perhaps best of all, though, is that every party member's hit points are fully healed after each battle, preventing you from starting any battle at a disadvantage or having to bother with healing outside of battle. The only other JRPG that I've ever seen do that is Enchanted Arms. However, in Enchanted Arms there was a catch: every time you entered a battle, you lost some "Vitality Points", which had to be restored at VP Stations. If you ran out, you would start the next battle with - get this - one hit point and no magic power. Not to mention that that game had fairly frequent - *shudder* - random encounters. Not so in Final Fantasy XIII! Of course, don't think that the game doesn't take advantage of these new conveniences. In the other Final Fantasy games I played, bar FF8 where the enemies actually leveled up with you, most battles wouldn't be that difficult if you were at the right level - which was good, cause, you know, random encounters. XIII, however, gets very difficult as you get farther into the game, especially the bosses. Trust me, you'll be really thankful for the ability to avoid battles once you get to Gran Pulse.

Speaking of battles, FF13 has seen fit to give us a brand new battle system, and it works great. Rather than previous battle systems the series has used, FF13's battle system opts to blend cinema and a fast pace with strategy, and the result is actually pretty fantastic. It almost feels like an odd mix of the ATB system that the games prior to FF10 used and the real-time battle systems found in such games as those in the Tales series of RPG's. You can bring up to three party members into a battle at once, but two of them are AI controlled. You are only responsible for the actions of the party leader. The ATB gauge is still there, but it is broken up into segments, which allows you to chain together multiple different commands as it fills up. However, bear in mind that some abilities will take up more than one ATB gauge segment. You start out with only two segments, but as the game moves on you will be able to gain up to five. Your commands during battle are "auto-battle," which chooses commands for you; "abilities", which lets you choose them yourself; techniques, which lets you use special abilities requiring technical points (not the same as magic points); and "items", which allows you to, well...use items.

Just as you would expect, the main goal is to deplete all of the enemies' hit points, but FF13 makes things more interesting by adding the stagger gauge. As you attack an enemy, the stagger gauge will fill up, and once it fills up completely, you'll really be able to do some big damage. Many battles will take forever if you don't try to make use of this, and it's worth noting that the stagger gauge does gradually go down, so you can't stop attacking for too long. The main controversy surrounding the battle system is the "auto-battle" feature, which some claim allows the game to pretty much play itself. Now, I rarely found myself using this feature anyway, as a lot of times it would choose one set of commands when I thought another would fit the situation better. At worst, it chooses obvious commands or commands you would have chosen yourself. The way I see it, it's just there if you're feeling lazy, and you can even go to the options menu and set the cursor to start off on the "abilities" command rather than "auto-battle" when you enter a fight.

Of course, even if the auto-battle worked in such a way, the game definitely wouldn't be playing itself for one reason: the paradigm system. The paradigm system is introduced early on in the game, and is a very interesting take on the job system seen in previous games that actually allows you to switch classes during battle. How it works is that there are certain "roles" that each character can acquire throughout the game. Commandos are your physical attackers, Ravagers cast damaging magic, Medics cast healing magic on the party, Saboteurs lower the enemy's defense and can inflict status ailments on enemies, Sentinels are meat shields that raise your party's collective defense - very useful - and Synergists cast magic that strengthens the party. In the menu, you can create "paradigms" in which each character takes on a certain role. You can switch between them on the fly during battle, and this is why FF13 really doesn't play itself. You have to know which paradigms to use and when, as they're all useful for different situations, and you will often be required to change your strategy depending on what type of enemy you're facing. It's also worth noting that you can only have six paradigms ready at once, so you need to think about which ones will be useful in the area that you're in. The battle system in general is very unique, fast-paced and enjoyable, and actually pretty addictive.

I have one more thing to discuss regarding the battle system. Summoning works quite a bit differently this time around. Summoning requires three technical points. At first when you summon, the monster you summoned will replace your two AI controlled party members and fight alongside you. The whole time, said summon monster's "Gestalt" (don't ask me what that word means) gauge is going down, but there is one under your life bar that fills as you attack the enemy. At any time, you can press "X" to enter Gestalt mode, at which point you can use the control stick and "A" button to unleash the summon's most powerful attacks. These attacks cost varying amounts of points to use, and how many points you will have is determined by how high the Gestalt gauge under your life bar was when you entered Gestalt mode. Needless to say, summons in this game are pretty awesome.

Moving on now, I'm pretty sure I should talk about the upgrade system. Final Fantasy XIII uses the "Crystarium" as an upgrade system. Basically, as you fight battles, you earn "Crystogen Points" that can be used to upgrade your characters in the Crystarium. The Crystarium is pretty much a road that leads to upgrades. It's through the Crystarium that the characters will learn many of the abilities available for their roles, as well as upgrade stats like HP, magic power and strength. It's pretty similar to Final Fantasy X's Sphere Grid, though I much prefer it for a few reasons. For one thing, it's much simpler and doesn't take as long to use, and for another you don't have to wait to level up or to have the correct sphere to get upgrades. You just have to win battles, and there ya go, Crystogen Points ready to be spent. Oh, and may I mention yet another conveniece this game has when compared to previous FF's: every playable character gains CP whether you use that character or not! It's about time, Square.

With that all out of the way, let's discuss the main reason why XIII is one of the more polarizing games in the Final Fantasy series: the linearity. Throughout much of its duration, Final Fantasy XIII keeps you moving forward on a set path with little exploration, a deviation from series tradition. There are branching paths at points that will lead to hidden items and whatnot, but for the most part you are on a straight path. For many fans, this caused the game to get boring, and though I can understand why, I really didn't have a problem with it. Actually, I felt like it aided the story progression, and besides that, the beautiful visuals and setpieces, the fun battle system and the storyline kept the game from getting boring at all. Now, it is worth mentioning that in Chapter 11, you are introduced to the world of Gran Pulse, where the game finally becomes very open-ended. There are numerous hunting sidequests to complete here, and the lush beauty of the area is unmatched even by most of the game's other locales. You will have to leave eventually, but there will be a point where you can come back if you want. In short, it's pretty amazing.

As for the problems I did have with Final Fantasy XIII, I already voiced my complaint about some important storyline information explained only through the Datalog, but there was one more thing that I found annoying. Up until a certain point in chapter 9, you have no control over who is in your party or who the party leader is, no matter how many characters are with you. I just felt like I should have been able to choose which characters I was using. Not a big deal, but annoying nonetheless.


XIII is definitely my favorite Final Fantasy of the ones I've played through so far. Sporting amazing visuals, a great battle system, and a highly engaging, character-driven storyline, I could recommend it to most RPG fans...that is, if you think you're down with the game's linearity. Though the PS3 version is the best of the two, if you don't own one, then the Xbox 360 version is still serviceable. If you're on the fence about buying it, you can always rent it first, or if you've got more money to spare, the PS3 greatest hits version and the Xbox 360 platinum hits version are only about twenty bucks on It's a fantastic game, and here's to hoping that XIII-2 and Versus XIII are even better.

The Good:

+ Amazing graphics
+ Great, unique battle system
+ Very engaging storyline with an interesting mythology
+ At times feels like you're watching a a good way
+ Great soundtrack
+ The open-ended and beautiful world of Gran Pulse
+ Features conveniences that previous FF's lacked
+ Datalog stores plot information

The Bad:

- Can't switch out party members until chapter 9
- Some important mythology and plot information revealed only through Datalog
- Linearity featured in most of the game's environments will turn some off

Score: 9/10

My Scoring System:

- Amazing game. Flaws are minor at best. If you don't own it, you should be ashamed of yourself. (Zelda: Ocarina of Time)

9(.5) - Fantastic game. Perhaps a couple of notable annoyances, but still a must-have. (Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep)

8(.5) - Very good game. Has a few flaws, but you won't be disappointed with your purchase. (Klonoa)

7(.5) - Pretty good game that either has several problems or is just too short for its price. Enjoyable to play, but you may want to wait for the price to drop a bit before picking it up. (Rayman 3D)

6(.5) - Passable game. Has its strengths, but unless you're a fan of the series or genre, you're probably better off not bothering. (Dragon Ball Z: Budokai Tenkaichi 2)

5(.5) - Mediocre game. Not a bad experience, but it's too flawed to be much fun. A bargain bin purchase at best, and only if you're a fan of the series. (Mega Man X7)

3 or 4(.5) - Bad game. A mostly negative experience, and whatever it does right fails to save it overall. Even if you're a fan, you're probably better off not playing it. (Sonic and the Secret Rings)

1 or 2(.5) - Utter garbage. An unholy abomination that we should do all in our power to avoid playing. In other words, STAY THE HECK AWAY! (Dragon Ball Z: Ultimate Battle 22)

0 - ...No. Just freaking no. (Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing)