Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Nights: Journey of Dreams Review

Ladies and gentlemen, five days ago today, I witnessed this:

This is something that should have happened several years ago, but hey, better late than never, as they say. I always thought that Nights into Dreams would be perfectly suited for an arcade release, considering its play style and general size. Not to mention that my own SEGA Saturn hasn’t been functional for a very long time, which unfortunately still leaves me unable to play this wondrous and nostalgic masterpiece until this remastered version is finally released, a fact that greatly saddens me. I still remember receiving the dusty old thing around six years ago and Nights alongside it, ready to play this Sonic Team cult classic that I had never experienced before. I wasn’t sure what to make of it at first, but once I was into it, boy, was I ever into it. The magnificent soundtrack, the amazingly creative levels, the surprisingly well-aged abstract visual design, the simple storyline that expressed so much without a single line of dialogue, the fluid gameplay, the perfect controls, the general originality…good Lord, it was an experience. It was a very short game, but I replayed it far too many times to count. My SEGA Saturn’s save battery was dead long before I received it, so I had to start over each time I played, but did I care? Not in the least. To my 10-year-old mind, this was one of the best games I had ever played, and I actually wouldn’t expect my opinion to have changed too drastically over time. Of course, I suppose I will ultimately have to wait and see until I have finally experienced it again, but still, I’m expecting to have a pretty freaking good time.

Ah…and reminiscing about Nights into Dreams reminds me of its heavily belated sequel, Journey of Dreams. Had you asked anyone so many years ago, they would certainly tell you that this game simply called for a sequel, but years passed and there was no word. Nights received many cameos in later SEGA games and there was a prototype for a new Nights game on the Dreamcast, but it never went beyond that stage. Then, finally, in 2007, a sequel was announced, for the Nintendo Wii no less. See, this was back before we realized that the Wii is a terrible console that wants to eat everyone’s babies, and instead were dreaming of all of the ways in which the new Nights game would take advantage of the Wii’s amazing and innovative technology. Who gives a crap that Sonic Team had only just been responsible for two of the worst abominations to ever be crapped out of their core franchise? They were making a new Nights game, and it was going to be a masterful sequel that would do the utmost justice to its eleven-year-old predecessor. So, did it succeed after all? Well…it’s a bit hard to say. Let’s just dive right in to the controversial Nights: Journey of Dreams.


Since I don’t want to start the review on a negative note, I believe I should begin by talking about the visuals and music. The visuals of Journey of Dreams are for the most part simply splendid; the game’s worlds inherit the abstract and colorful aesthetic design of the first game, which is, of course, appropriate, since the game takes place in a dream universe. The worlds are very diverse, as well, with each having its own look. Cutscenes do suffer from a bad framerate and there’s some slight uncanny valley on the human characters in both in-engine cutscenes and FMV’s, but on the whole, visual design holds up very well even five years after the game’s initial release. The soundtrack is…probably the game’s biggest strength. In fact - no exaggeration - it may very well be one of the greatest soundtracks I’ve ever heard from a video game. It’s all just wonderfully composed, upbeat and extremely catchy. Yes, the lyrics to “Dreams Dreams” are just as cringe worthy as ever, but hey, at least the instrumental version is great.

But then, we have…*sigh*…the story. The original Nights told a very simple storyline about two children who are dealing with insecurities in their waking life and, throughout their journeys through the dream world, Nightopia, with the mysterious creature Nights, they grow more confident and courageous and are eventually able to work together to defeat the evil king of nightmares, Wizeman. The endings show them fully conquering their fears and even meeting each other in person, at which point something of a romance is implied. The storyline had very few cutscenes and no dialogue, but conveyed a lot in spite of that. I know the phrase has been used before, but it very much applies here: it talked so little, yet said so much. Journey of Dreams has a very similar premise to the original Nights, but rather than the children being solely concerned with their talents and how they are viewed by their peers because of them, a lot of the insecurities of these two children – named Will and Helen – involve their relationships with their parents. The story of Journey of Dreams would also be able to use better technology to provide in-engine cutscenes and spoken dialogue for said in-engine cutscenes, which, if used well, could have delivered a more compelling narrative.
I think you know where I'm going with this.
Unfortunately, while there was a lot of potential in the storyline of Journey of Dreams, the execution is absolutely dreadful. The narrative is…coherent, I suppose, and there aren’t really any plot holes that I could see, but aside from that, the entire story is horribly written and, on the whole, just very boring. While the game pretends its focus is on the children’s problems and how they come to terms with them over the course of the game – as it should have been – it…really isn’t. We don’t actually know exactly what’s bothering these kids so much that it’s causing them to have horrible nightmares. There are some implications, sure, but we’re never 100% sure exactly what’s bothering them or even why. For instance, Will could possibly be afraid that his father won’t be able to show up at his big soccer game - and spoiler alert: he does - which kind of sucks, but if I’m getting the story right, he should be used to his dad going on these sorts of business trips and he seems pretty competent at playing soccer besides. I could see him being a bit nervous, but scared out of his mind? Or maybe the problem is that he feels lonely because he isn’t able to spend enough time with his dad? The problems are never made completely clear for either of the two kids, and neither was particularly likable besides. They were pretty bland characters and all of the “character development” and the meetings between them felt really forced and contrived.

Actually, every time the story did seem to touch on something that could have been interesting, it didn’t elaborate on it at all. Each of the worlds are said to be a reflection of the visitor’s heart. This could have made for some great opportunities for actual, legitimate character development, but wasn’t. At one point, Owl (who is basically this game’s equivalent to Navi) brings up that most visitors to Nightopia lose their memories upon waking up, and this scene occurs after a pretty big “character” moment. This is brought up once and never mentioned again. There was also the fact that Nights is actually a creation of Wizeman that ended up rebelling against him, while his evil twin brother Reala remains loyal to Wizeman. Both children end up learning this and have very brief moments where they question whether they should trust Nights or not, which is another thing that could have been expanded upon so much more and made into an interesting conflict. Actually, that’s another thing: there was a pretty big opportunity here to give us a deeper understanding of Nights’ back story. We know almost nothing about him…eh…her…IT aside from what I’ve already stated, and because of this, it comes off as a very underdeveloped character. It wasn’t bland if only for the fact that it had an actual personality, but the story still gave me no reason to care about this character, even at its dramatic sacrifice. Yeah, this is a storyline so horridly written that I didn’t even care when one of the main characters supposedly died. Have you ever actually seen that?
Actually, I'm not entirely sure if this game's story is better or worse.
I suppose I shouldn’t even need to mention that the dialogue and voice acting are simply nauseating and the cutscenes all move very slowly. The only parts of the story that I thought even remotely succeeded were the endings. Being completely devoid of anything that made the rest of the story an utter trainwreck, they accomplish exactly what the original Nights did. Not quite as well, but they still do it. Other than that, though, I’d say I might have actually enjoyed this storyline less than that of Sonic the Hedgehog 2006. I guess it’s more comprehensible, but Sonic 06 was bad in a sort of “it’s terrible but I can’t look away” manner. This was just…ugh. Now, you may be thinking that I shouldn’t be harping on this so much; considering exactly what kind of game Nights is, I shouldn’t be devoting so much time to explaining in detail why the story sucks. However…it really is emphasized a lot more than you would think and I can definitely tell that they wanted to make a solid story. Heck, you actually can’t skip the cutscenes in this game; it forces you to watch them the first time. I’ve played very few games that have actually caused me to dread the coming of the next cutscene; this is one of them. In the end, this does leave the storyline as a rather significant fault, which is sad, to say the least. It’s basically the exact opposite of the first game’s storyline: it talks so much, but says almost nothing.

But, of course, while the story is a bit more important to this game than it probably should be, it’s really not the point. The point of Journey of Dreams is its gameplay, and, at its base, it’s basically the same gameplay style that made the original game so unique and fun. You spend the main levels of the game controlling the titular Nights, flying in a 2.5D perspective, which will occasionally switch to behind-the-back or top-down perspectives. You fly through rings, collect Blue Chips and defeat Nightmarens as you make your way through the level to accomplish the goal at hand and get the highest score possible. Nights also has a drill dash move that is used to gain speed as well as attack enemies and destroy obstacles, but as you use it, the gauge depletes. Said gauge is refilled by flying through rings.  By creating an enclosed loop with the trail that Nights leaves behind when flying, you can also perform a “paraloop” move, which kills all enemies and collects all Blue Chips inside of it. Flying through a set of rings and collecting Blue Chips will create “Links”, or combos, which can be maintained for extra points. Nights has a time limit, and if it runs out, you will have to control one of the kids and make your way back to the place that Nights is being held, which basically cripples your potential score. Upon completing the level, you finally face off with a boss.

So, Journey of Dreams is fundamentally similar to the original game. However, there are some key differences that significantly affect the experience. Despite the time limit, Nights into Dreams was a rather leisurely game. The objective was to collect the Ideya from the stationary Ideya Captures, and taking one of the Ideya back to the Ideya Palace would start a new course of the level. To break the Ideya Captures, you had to collect twenty Blue Chips, which would respawn along with the rings every time you flew past an Ideya Palace, and even when you got the Ideya, there was no need to start the next course just yet, and you would have to make use of this to get the best ranks. In fact, you would actually get more points if you hit the checkpoint while you were down to your last ten seconds. Into Dreams also felt like its level design, while more compact, was a bit more multi-faceted and there was more of a focus on finding secrets in them.

In comparison, Journey of Dreams is more focused on being fast. In the main levels, you are required to chase down a bird that is carrying a key in order to unlock a cage, which will start the next course. Levels are much larger to accommodate this, but feel more streamlined and aren’t quite as multi-faceted as those of the original Nights, nor do they contain as many secrets. Links are also a lot easier to maintain than in the original Nights and are more important because they add to your allotted time in this game, and the more time you have when you break the cage, the higher your score will be. It feels like they were trying to create an experience more similar to, say, a Sonic game, and while I find the approach of the original Nights more enjoyable, Journey of Dreams’ approach does what it wants to do well in spite of some rubber band AI on the birds. Level design is also great and even creative, with each level having some very unique gimmicks and attributes. I’m particularly fond of Crystal Castle. Some areas in this level have objects that only appear in mirrors, and there are prisms and whatnot that split Nights into tiny clones or even make him/her/it gigantic, which are put to various uses. They’re all very imaginative and are generally great fun.
Oh yeah, the new power-ups are pretty cool, too.
Of course, you may be curious as to how well this game makes use of the Wii’s technology.  Yuji Naka, the programmer of the original game, said himself that the Wii would be the perfect console for a Nights sequel because of the motion controls. One of the possible control styles for Journey of Dreams allows you to use the Wii Remote’s IR to control Nights. Does it work well? Ehhhhhhhhhh...not really.  The Wii IR controls aren’t awful if you know how the game wants you to use them. You’re supposed to keep the Wii Remote’s position relatively the same and use only subtle movements to control Nights, but…quite frankly, that’s a bit impractical, and can become cramp inducing after a while. It’s not exactly easy on the thumb, either, since you have to keep the “A” button held down the whole time to continue moving. Doing loops is also made needlessly difficult with these controls because of how easy it is to lose your position, and half the time, straight up and straight down movements, while rarely required, are nigh-on impossible to do correctly. It’s really disappointing, honestly, because there was a lot of potential here to enhance the experience, but ultimately, you’re going to want to stick to analog control. Analog control is decent, but unfortunately, even then, the game feels weirdly stiff in comparison to the nigh-on perfect controls of the first game, which takes away some of the fluidity of the gameplay. The game is still plenty fun, but it is noticeable and does hurt the experience a bit.

Each world in the game has four missions aside from the main ones. The fifth one is always a more difficult rematch with that world’s boss. Bosses in the game get points for originality, but not all of them are particularly fun. I suppose most of them are decently enjoyable if a bit tedious, but there were three that were just bad. The boss battle of Lost Park required you to perform paraloops in order to uncover the boss, which was hiding behind a curtain, within the time limit. This came off as pretty much entirely luck-based, and while cards in the background could possibly give a clue as to where he was hiding, generally they didn’t help much. The second fight was even worse, since bombs with unfathomably large blast radii were randomly peppered throughout the arena. The mechanics of Crystal Castle’s boss, while unique, suffered from poor physics that made it needlessly difficult. Memory Forest’s boss fight was fine in the first battle, but in the second just dragged on forever and made it difficult to get a decent rank.

Most of each world’s other missions were actually pretty dang fun. Generally, they used the same mechanics of the main missions, but put them to a different use or gave you a different goal, which helped to add a lot of variety to the game. In particular, I enjoyed the Octopaw missions, which had you following this blue octopus creature that…crapped out rings in order to get a high number of Links. Yeah, it doesn’t make much sense, but it was a lot of fun. Another that I found especially enjoyable was a mission in Memory Forest that was played something like a rhythm game, which I thought was a very unique and fun use of the Nights gameplay. There were a few missions that were rather insipid: namely, the “platforming” missions played with the two kids. There were four of these, and they were about as bland as the kids themselves. They were slow, tedious and almost completely devoid of any actual platforming, puzzles or anything that could possibly have made these missions salvageable. They’re also considerably longer than most other missions in the game. These missions make up only four out of the game’s thirty, but they were so bad that they just needed to be mentioned. Just…ugh.

The Good:

+ Great graphics
+ Amazing soundtrack
+ Gameplay is still fun and unique
+ Very fun and creative levels
+ Plenty of variety
+ Endings are satisfying…

The Bad:

- …but the story is otherwise horrid
-  Wii IR controls are disappointing
- Analog control isn’t as polished as in the first game
- Some bosses just suck
- Missions with the kids are an utter travesty


So, how does Nights: Journey of Dreams compare to its predecessor? Well…the first is most definitely a far superior game in…basically every aspect except the graphics and possibly the music. But though it has several noteworthy faults, as a whole, Journey of Dreams is still a pretty good game. While controls aren’t nearly as fluid as in the first game, they really aren’t bad enough to keep the gameplay from being very enjoyable. The story is intrusive, over-emphasized and, to be blunt, downright awful, but the gameplay is still Journey’s primary focus in the end. It’s pretty short, but there’s a good amount of replay value here and the game has been out for five years anyway, so it probably wouldn’t cost too much. At the very least, you should consider renting it. It’s not a great experience, but it’s an experience worth having nonetheless.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

No More Heroes Review

-------My Rating System-------

A(-)(+) A top notch experience all the way through. It may not necessarily be perfect, but whatever flaws it does have won’t take you out of it or make it any less worth your time. (Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2)

B(-)(+) A very fun experience bogged down by some significant problems, whether they’re related to the story, gameplay, or both. However, it’s still a good or even great game and worth the price of admission. (Kingdom Hearts: Recoded)

C(-)(+) A mixed bag. Generally fun to some extent and may shine in some areas, but is either too flawed to fully recommend or far too short for its price. Conisder it for a reduced price, at least if you’re a fan of its genre. (Rayman 3D)

D(-)(+) Subpar. It may not be terrible, but it is severely flawed and whatever it does well ultimately fails to save it. Even if you’re a fan of the genre, this is barely a bargain bin purchase. (Sonic Heroes)

F Insipid, disgusting, despicable, and insufferable. It is a scar on the face of human accomplishments that time shall never heal. The best thing we can do is avoid playing it at all costs. It is the only way to prevent its parasitic disease of awfulness from spreading. (Shadow the Hedgehog)


Well…how to begin? I recently played through No More Heroes for the first time, and since I don’t really have anything else to talk about and it seemed like a pretty unique game, I thought that I may as well write a review of it. No More Heroes is brought to us by Goichi Suda – nickname Suda51 – whom I didn't actually know about before playing this game, but apparently, he’s responsible for killer7 and a lot of games that I’ve never even heard of. But after playing this one, I am kind of interested in his other work. Thus the review begins.

Oh, and happy Fourth of July, since that happens to be the day I'm posting this.


The story of No More Heroes focuses on the wonderfully named Travis Touchdown, a pro-wrestling-obsessed otaku living in poverty in a motel after winning a beam katana off the Internet in an auction. After meeting with a woman named Silvia Christel, he takes on a job to kill a man named Helter Skelter and succeeds at doing so, and so the United Assassins Association ranks him as the 11th-best assassin the world. Wanting nothing more than to be the best, Travis sets out on a quest to brutally murder the other ten assassins and reach rank 1.
How classy.

The main plot does actually get a bit interesting towards the end thanks to some well-done plot twists, but what really stands out is the writing. No More Heroes doesn’t take itself seriously in the least; in fact, it’s intentionally cheesy (in an enjoyable way) and it knows that the main protagonist is just as despicable of a human being – well, almost as despicable, in some cases – as the people you’re fighting against. There is no fourth wall to speak of, either, and a lot of the dialogue is really funny. All of the characters, from the main protagonist to the other ranked assassins to the Travis’s designated foil are very well-written, and it all makes this a very fun – and funny – story to watch play out.

No More Heroes has a very unique cel-shaded art style that looks something like a comic book. It did have to grow on me for some reason, but the more I played the game, the more I fell in love with it. The soundtrack is far from the most diverse you’ll ever hear; in fact, boss themes aside, it’s mostly just remixes of the same tune, but it is pretty nice and the credits theme is just amazing.

Now, let’s move on to the gameplay, and let me just say that if you ever wanted to play Kill Bill rather than simply watch it, No More Heroes may just be for you. The majority of the game is played as a hack-n-slash…with a freaking beam katana. Yeah, it’s pretty awesome. You can slash high and slash low depending on how you’re holding the Wii Remote, and all slashing is done with the “A” button. Once an enemy’s health bar is completely depleted, swing the Wii Remote in the requested direction and you will kill the enemy, resulting in massive amounts of blood and guts bursting out and raining down on everything. Since I prefer to keep the content of this blog relatively PG, I am not going to show any screenshots of this.
Instead, enjoy this picture of a ridiculously adorable puppy.

Of course, slicing your enemy to bits isn’t the only way to deplete their health bar. By pressing “B”, you can perform an attack that has a chance of stunning the enemy, at which point you can press “B” again and take the enemy down with Travis’s pro wrestling moves, which you gain more of throughout the game. These are performed by swinging the Wii Remote and Nunchuk in various directions. You can also lock blades with enemies, at which point you must shake the Wii Remote into oblivion; win, and you will get to slice in the enemy into gory chunks, regardless of how much health said enemy had left.  Of course, you will have to defend yourself, but blocking is automatically done when you are locked on to an enemy and if an enemy is using an unblockable charged attack, you can simply use the D-Pad to roll out of the way. Each time you kill an enemy, a slot machine appears at the bottom of the screen, and if you get three matching slots, you will be able to use other moves with some…rather interesting names. “Cranberry Chocolate Sundae” allows you to respond to button prompts for one-hit kills, “Strawberry on the Shortcake” allows you to deliver a killing blow after hitting any enemy only once and "Blueberry Cheese Brownie" allows you to shoot sword beams at enemies. 

The gameplay is a bit “style over substance”, but that’s not always a bad thing. In fact, combat in No More Heroes is actually a lot of fun. Even if it is simplistic, the combat feels awesome and satisfying, especially when you deliver that gory killing blow, which can also take out or knock down other enemies in its vicinity. Of course, this is no doubt in part thanks to the fact that Travis’s weapon of choice is a freaking beam katana. The wrestling moves are a lot of fun to pull off as well, and the required motions for each of these actions are, for the most part, pretty responsive. I did notice that it sometimes wouldn’t respond properly after the first try and when it did, I didn’t always have to be particularly accurate – I recall several occasions where I swung the Wii Remote in the exact opposite direction of the one I was told to and it still worked – which is a bit of a flaw, but not one that severely drags the game down if only because I almost always got it to work the second time.  And, of course, you’ve got to keep in mind that this game was released relatively early on in the Wii’s lifespan. What was a bit more annoying was the lock-on system, which seemed a tad erratic and didn’t always lock on to the enemy that I meant to lock onto, even if he was directly in front of me. In the end, though, these are pretty minor faults.

The game also isn’t without challenge. You will have to mind the battery charge of your beam katana as you take down enemies, and if it runs too low, you will have to find a safe spot and attempt to charge it, done by shaking the Wii Remote repeatedly. Some of the larger enemy groups can be a bit tough as well, and you will face off with some more durable enemies as the game goes on. And then there are the bosses. Yes, while a lot of No More Heroes is spent taking on various grunts, the game places heavy emphasis on its boss fights. The main “levels” of the game, accessed when you’ve paid a stipulated entry fee, are the ranked matches with the other assassins, although you have to fight your way to said assassins first. There is plenty of diversity between these areas, which keeps the gameplay from feeling too repetitive. As for the bosses themselves, they’re also pretty diverse and generally very challenging; each one will require you to use different tactics to avoid their attacks and find openings for you to attack yourself. They are quite fun to fight, but what did annoy me about a few of them was that they have attacks that always kill you regardless of how much health you have. You are not going to see this coming the first time this happens to you, and it’s pretty insulting besides to be taken down immediately by something like that after spending an hour (figuratively) whittling away at a boss’s health bar. Of course, this only applies to a few boss fights in the game, and all of the others are quite well-designed.

This is one of the bosses. No, really.

But like I said, to access these ranked matches, you have to pay a rather large fee. Thus, part of the game consists of driving around the city of Santa Boring – oh, excuse me, Santa Destroy – looking for various ways to get money. True, that joke was lame, but still, I’ve got to say, the overworld is probably the worst part of the game. Aside from some stores and more or less compulsory missions taken from the two exact same places, there is very little to do. There are side missions of sorts, but they’re rather few and far between and are all exactly the same…and, from my experience, nigh-on impossible to boot. The only collectible items were seven balls scattered around the city, but the place was so needlessly huge that I felt no motivation to get them and after playing through the game twice – once on the highest difficulty level – I obviously didn’t suffer for it. Aside from that, the city just feels really lifeless and dull. Nothing changes over the course of the game aside from stores opening up early on and the NPC’s and other such objects are only there for you to run over – no, really. Oh, and it’s not very polished, either; there were several moments where the bike actually got stuck due to bad collision detection and I had to fight with the game for a few seconds to get it free. It’s pretty annoying, quite frankly.

But as for the missions themselves, which most of your time in the overworld will be spent doing, they fare quite a bit better. There are two types of main missions, both of which will get you tons of money, depending on how well you perform. These types are part-time jobs and assassination missions. Part-time jobs are mini-games in which you do, well…part-time jobs. These include such riveting activities as collecting garbage, filling up cars with gas and wiping away graffiti. All snarking aside, these missions really aren’t as boring as you would expect; they’re far from the most substantial mini-games you’ll ever play, but they are well-executed and fairly enjoyable and they help to give the gameplay a bit of variety. Assassination missions are basically timed missions in which you kill people for money. Some have little twists and such, but that’s really all there is to it. Since the combat is still fun, though, I won’t count off for it.

The Good:

+ Enjoyable story with funny writing
+ Great art style
+ Nice soundtrack
+ Very fun combat
+ Great bosses for the most part
+ Part-time job mini-games add variety

The Bad:

- Motions can be slightly unresponsive or inaccurate at times
- Some bosses have instant kill moves
- Generally boring overworld
- Occasional collision detection issues in said overworld


It’s far from perfect, but ultimately, No More Heroes is a very fun game that’s definitely worth experiencing. It’s true, there isn’t much substance to it, and in fact, to an extent it could even be called mindless at points. But hey, sometimes, that can be fun. It’s comparable to Crazy Taxi in a sense; no, there’s not much to it, but it’s so over-the-top and so crazy that you can’t help but enjoy it relentlessly. It’s a “popcorn game”, so to speak, and the fun story and great writing only make it that much better. No More Heroes is a very good game and I intend for the sequel to find its way into my ever-growing collection soon.

Grade: B

Hey, I actually remembered to copy the grading system this time!