Record of Agarest War - Xbox 360 game review

Record of Agarest War is one of the few turn-based strategy games I’ve played in quite some time. I used to love this particular genre. I first got hooked on them back during Shining Force and Warsong (Or Langrisser as it was known overseas). I love turn-based strategy games – I recently picked up Sonic’s Genesis Collection for my 360 – mainly for the Shining Force and Phantasy Star games.

Record of Agarest War tries to do something a bit different as well though, mixing in something of a ‘dating sim’ aspect. Your lead character winds up in a potential relationship with one of three female characters. The layout is an overworld map that you can traverse where you have towns, battles, quests and events occur. The events are usually cut scenes that help to advance the storyline along, and it’s during these cut scenes where you sometimes have to make decisions . Sometimes it is just a matter of answering someone’s question, other times you make decisions on a path to take. These choices can affect things such as available routes, the affections of the three women you can romance and affect a light/dark gauge.

Let’s break the game down a bit and see how it all plays out.

Graphics – 6:

The artwork of the characters during scenes is nice, and the maps themselves have a nice, painted look to them. Until you realize that they are completely static and that there is not much variety in them. The quest modes have a nice feel to them as well, again continuing with this hand-drawn look, but sometimes there is a lack of clarity as to where you need to go. In the first cavern you visit, for example, the far left upper edge is black and that leads to more of the cavern. This could have been larger or perhaps had more attention drawn to it in some way, because it really did not look much different than the rest of the cave, so I found myself running around in circles for awhile before ‘bumping’ into that spot and being whisked off to the next section. The sprite-based combatants during combat are okay – kind of fuzzy and they feel like they would be right at home on a DS, but they feel a bit underwhelming on the much more powerful Xbox 360. The biggest problem for me is just the lack of variety. Even some sort of parallax background, lighting effects or smoke/fog effects to add some visual interest to the combat fields would have helped a lot.

Music & Sound – 4:

I really liked a handful of the tunes, like on the overworld map and when you start the game. Some of the quest exploration tunes are at least catchy if nothing special. So why the low score? I generally hate most of the battle music. The overworld map has such a full, orchestral sound to it and then you get into the battle maps and it’s less Lord of the Rings and more garage electric guitar. It’s quieter, and it completely feels out of place with the rest of the game’s theme. Additionally, there is a fair amount of voice to be heard during combat – but it’s all in Japanese. They never localized the speaking parts to English, which is a bit grating at times. The sounds are repetitive enough, but the inability to know what they are saying just adds to the frustration. Half the time I played this, I had music playing on my computer instead.

Gameplay – 8:

It seems like there is a lack of explanation at times as you play through the game. There’s just small things that are not explained real clearly or at all. That said, once you have the hang of it, the game is pretty easy to control, the menus are fairly easy to navigate (though would it have killed them to make a ‘page up/page down’ using bumper buttons when going through long lists of items like Titles or Shop Inventories?). There’s a nice fast-forward feature for cut scenes you don’t want to sit through (especially if you’re on a part that has a lengthy dialog before a big fight you have to do over again), but the option to hit ‘start’ and skip those ones that don’t require you make choices would have been quite nice (or a start that takes you to your first choice).

The strategy aspects are pretty good, but not perfect. There is an emphasis on what direction you are facing, because there are blocks that can ‘link’ you to another player – allowing for combined attacks. You don’t get this fundamental early on, but it is really helpful later. However, there is no flanking or backstab damage, so the impact of unit direction is somewhat minimalized. Also, all of the combat takes place on these painted backdrops with flat ground. As far back as there have been strategy games, there have been things impacted by terrain such as damage/defense and range, but there is none of that here. This coupled with the lack of terrain/graphical movement make the maps feel small and somewhat lifeless.

My last real complaint is the dating simulation. The questions can be a bit vague at times – you answer them expecting different results quite often, and that’s fine I guess. It keeps you from metagaming for the best possible results. That said, at the end of a generation, you automatically pick the woman you have the most ‘affection’ from. There is already a system in place where the stronger the bond, the stronger the next generation’s character will be. So why not let the player pick who they want to marry, for better or for worse? Still, the overall impact of this system is pretty cool, and it reminds me of the often underappreciated Phantasy Star III: Generations game I played repeatedly on my Genesis once upon a time (to the point where I had seen all possible endings). There are five generations handled in this fashion, where your relationship with who you marry affects your child not only statistically but with skills and weapon type.

The combat itself is pretty interesting with a fairly decent range of skills and spells of varying ranges. There is also an SP counter that goes up over time when you attack, are attacked or a team member dies. Enemies do have an annoying habit of teaming up on a single character and killing him or her before you can do anything about it, but this allows your chars to return the favor from a powered-up standpoint. Also characters can link together, otherwise attacking creatures that would have been outside of their range, or creating combination attacks – like two double strike attacks equal a quadruple attack that both characters perform together at the same time.

Intangibles – 8:

I already touched on the dating simulation aspect and the varied children you can have as a result. It would be cool if this was somehow more impactful on the storyline. In Phantasy Star III it actually gave you completely different views on events and storylines – in one of the instances if I recall correctly, you could even wind up with twins. The impact here is a bit less as the new character each generation is a neat mix of the two parents, but somehow feels more like a skin to an existing storyline. There are other systems though as well that really help to add to the value.

There is a monster capturing feature as well that feels like a missed opportunity. If you lower a creature’s health far enough (less than 5%) and you have a character with the capture skill, you can attempt to finish the creature off by capturing (notice I said creature – not humanoids but wolves, skeletons, mummies, etc). You can combine monsters to get new ones (sometimes), and you can trade them in for items. I usually do the latter. Their function if you don’t trade them in, is that you can add them to your group as a leveling party member – and here is where I feel like maybe it was a missed opportunity. I have not felt the urge to replace my existing party members with one of these less interesting monsters. It might have been more fun if you could summon them for a few rounds or use them as spells – something that doesn’t take away from your group configuration. Hence, why I trade them in.

Gear can be purchased, found and crafted from various components. The gear can also be enhanced using a type of combat experience exclusively for this process and it improves the stats. There are a wide variety of items, equipment and spells/skills to be created, improved and equipped and I enjoy it quite a bit. These smaller systems all help add some variety to what is a very long game, and without these systems the game could become quite a grind. I have heard a lot of people complain about the length of the game and how repetitive it was, but I guess these side items help add some value to it for me.

The leveling system is nice as well, because you gain points you get to put into different statistical areas. Not all areas are created equal for each character though – a magic user might need only 2 points to improve intelligence, but 4 points to improve vitality. So while you are certainly herded into certain directions, you are not restricted to them and it is a nice bit of customization you can apply to your characters.

All in all, there is quite a bit to do to keep you busy, and it’s capped off with a kind of new game+ for people who want to replay again. You can replay and keep your stuff, and play it again at that difficulty or less (so for example if you opt for normal difficulty (there are 3 to start) – you can do a new game+ on easy or normal – but not difficult).

Overall – 6.5:

It depends on what you want from the game. I’m willing to forgive a game like this for lower quality graphics and sound than I might be a first person shooter where the environment is a big part of the gameplay. Here it is more about tactics, storyline and loot.

I’ve sunk a ton of time into this game already. I’ll probably give it a new game+ just to try out different combinations of decisions, romances and so on. I’ve always been one of those people who can grind and grind and level up with sometimes ridiculous efficiency in both roleplaying and strategy games, and this one feeds into those interests of mine rather nicely. However, there are flaws in this game as well. The music and graphics are substandard overall, and the lack of localized voice just feels lazy. There are a vast number of subsystems, but if you find that you don’t like them or use them often, then the combat could start to feel pretty repetitive. A little variation in the landscapes both visually and strategically would have carried this game so much further and maybe helped edge it into the realm of classics like Shining Force or Final Fantasy Tactics, but instead it lags a bit behind them and it is a shame because I definitely want to see more games like this in the near future.

If you are a fan of turn-based stategy games in fantasy settings, this game might be for you. If those subsystems sound like fun, then you should find plenty to do and the game definitely gives you some mileage - I've read comments from players saying they've gone well over 100 hours on it. However, if action is more your thing and none of the above premises particularly grabbed your attention, then there is not enough technical achievement to probably interest you either as graphics and music have certainly been done better elsewhere. Also, the game does come with a teen rating, so while the sprited characters are cute enough and the gameplay relatively easy for younger players to pick up, there are some alcohol references, mild fantasy violence, mild language, and suggestive themes.

My review was for the Xbox 360 - I've read that there is some additional content out there for the Playstation 3 version but I can't say as I've tried any of it so I did not weigh in on that. All things being equal, I believe that they perform equally (albeit averagely) on both system so if you have access to both, it may be worth getting it on the PS3 (my acquisition price was considerably smaller on the 360 however).


NCAA Footbal 2011 - Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 review

This is going to be my longest, most detailed review to date. I’ve only played the Xbox 360 version, but I’ve been told by friends with the PS3 version who have played the Xbox one that they are for all intents and purposes the same – so I’ll consider this a review for both systems.

There’s a major preface I need to start with – I love football. I watch more NFL than college, but all in all I’ve been watching both for years. I’ve been playing them for years as well – over several generations of video game console. It seems like each time we move up to a new generation of console, the sports games suffer the most from failed expectations and it takes them a couple of years to find their proper legs.

If you’re not a fan of football games – you probably aren’t going to like this one. If you bought last year’s game, you’ll have to decide if the $60 price tag is worth the updates. NCAA Football 2011 is my favorite so far from the series, but in the areas I care about most, I don’t feel like it’s made enough strides. The be a legend mode feels almost unchanged. In fact, I’m fairly certain that the Erin Andrews videos are reused from last year’s game. The online stuff is a lot better, but I tend not to use it as much. For whateve reason, most of my friends play Madden every year, but don’t get the NCAA games so it’s more fun for me to league up with buddies on Madden than NCAA, but there are some nice improvements on this front as well. I also felt like the Dynasty mode has finally made some nice strides – and since this is where I spend the vast majority of my time, this does tilt the review in this year’s iteration favorably. I’ve already played through 3 seasons with another about half done, and put a player about halfway through the created player mode – so I’ve definitely seen most of the good and bad that the game has to offer. Here goes:

Graphics - 8.5:

Overall, the graphics are good. Player movements are fluid, the game moves along at a crisp pace, the stadium design looks solid and I never had any trouble telling what was going on during gameplay. The crowd has some cool animations now, but they feel fairly generic – then again, I would imagine that more detail and movement would cause the framerate to stuffer more than it already does during some action heavy sequences. The replays from on-field look better than most of the other angles in my opinion. There is one graphical glitch I have gotten to occur about every 6 or 7 games. I tend to do a lot of no huddle/hurry up stuff and so I’m often pressing buttons and getting out of replays – it’s just how I play. Well, several times now I’ve gotten the game’s graphics into a goofy state where the live gameplay still looks good, but all of the replays and scenes behind the playbook menus wind up in this out of focus blur filter that seems to accidentally get applied for the rest of the game. Get out of that particular match up though, and the next one is back to normal again. It kind of reminds me of the most recent Angry Video Game Nerd video about Graphics Glitches (not appropriate for kids).

Music & Sounds – 7:

The commentary is effective enough, and I like the announcers but they are starting to get a bit stale this year. School theme songs boom nicely, fans react more loudly in appropriate situations and really help the home field advantage feeling. The hits on the field and the quarterback cadences all sound like you would expect them to. It’s not a game like Modern Warfare where stereo effects really play into the game and surround sound gives you an actual advantage. One oddity that has occurred twice to me – my sound cut out mid-game. Just… completely gone. Unlike the blur filter issue, it did not clear up the next game. I had to back out to my main Xbox dashboard and then it came back. I’ve never had that problem with any other game, and it’s only been twice, so nowhere near as problematic as the blur filter, but more annoying.

Gameplay – 7:

This is going to be a long section, but in sports games I can live with so-so graphics and sound – good gameplay is a must. I really wanted to give it a 9, but there were a few things holding this score back. I’ve had a few glitches during the gameplay. Probably the most annoying bug I’ve had yet happened only once, on a PAT. The opposing team had just scored on me, and the ball hit the upright and the PAT was no good. Odd thing happened then, the ball fell to the endzone and one of my defensive players plucked it out of the air. And then we lined up to kick and… I was lining up to kick. Somehow the game had read that since I had possession, I was to kick off? Just a weird, weird glitch in what was a very close game at the time. I’ve tried repeatedly to replicate it, but I’ve yet to have another PAT miss fall into the endzone like that.

Next up? The blocking is a lot better overall, especially the run blocking – in most instances. The Maryland formation is basically broken then. If I run a counter or power, it’s a complete crapshoot. The formation calls for three backs in the backfield, with two serving as blockers for the halfback. They just seem to bust out and up just a bit regardless of who is coming. Once in awhile they’ll latch onto the defender and block, but at least two out of three times, my blockers just barrel ahead and don’t move toward the logical blockers. At least once every 3 or 4 plays, I will do a counter out of the formation and you’ll see a linebacker run right through all three potential blockers and hit me untouched. This isn’t the linebacker racing through the middle of the offensive line after jumping the snap count, but a guy who moved laterally and then made a beeline right for my halfback without any of his blockers reacting to pick that linebacker up.

This leads me to one of my biggest football video game pet peeves ever. Offensive line pancakes just need to happen more. This was a problem for years on the Playstation 2 versions of both NCAA football and Madden football – your linemen simply would not get pancakes. At least, not at the rate of other simulated teams. I once had a center who dropped 13 points overall in Madden due to this programming oversight because he had no pancakes and gave up no sacks over a full season of starting. So the game viewed him as not having played at all. When a league leader has 125 pancakes and makes an All-American team, it’s frustrating when your 97 overall guard has 11 pancakes at season’s end. And it’s not like I don’t run the ball. My RB won the Hiesman all but one year – I run the ball a ton. Well, they fixed this during the last couple of years of the Playstation 2 generation… only to reintroduce this problem in the current generation of systems. I’ve seen people complaining about it on forums, I’ve submitted it as a bug/feature request/problem at least a dozen times over the last three years. The only way to get more is to jack up the line play for your team in the sliders menu, or lengthen the game, but all of the rest of the stats would be hugely out of alignment then. Anyway – this is still broken, much to my annoyance.

Next up – punt returns. Most punt return formations you get about 3-5 yards per return. On the hardest level of difficulty, you basically fair catch or fumble because they barrel into you so fast every time – it doesn’t matter which return formation you use – except one. I’ve had pretty good luck with punt block return – a formation that fakes like you are going to rush and try to block the ball, but you actually bring two guys back as blockers. Mostly it just makes the computer pack their punt gunners back behind the line for protection. It’s cheap – and it gets me about 12 yards each time. There’s absolutely no hope of ever taking back a punt return for a touchdown though with the blocking mechanic so badly broken at the higher difficulties.

Boy, I must really hate this game, right? Quite the contrary, these things are more exception than rule, and the things that the game does regularly, it does very, very well. Playcalling is easy. The pass blocking is pretty good most of the time. I don’t see the abundance of interceptions I used to see in older games – the db’s do more knockdowns than pickoffs. I once had a season of NCAA where my cornerback had over 75 interceptions. Now? My top one had seven and I loved it. Big hits happen, but whiffing on them can cause all sorts of problems. I used to try and level big hits with impunity – but now I have to pick and choose my spots. More than any other football game I can think of, this year’s version of NCAA feels the most authentic to date.

A couple of the big things I really like now, after all that whining before:

The blocking is improved.
Route running and endzone/sideline catches by receivers are much better. If a WR catches an out route, they stay inbounds now instead of just darting out of bounds. This new sideline awareness is amazing.
Menu navigation is solid.
The new running controls utilizing the right stick for moves and balance is cool.
Defensive moves along the line feel better to me than they did the past.

Intangibles – 9:

There’s a lot that goes on in these games. The different modes are cool, though I still get the majority of my mileage out of Dynasty mode. I like saving out the draft classes, because I know I will be importing them into Madden in a few weeks when it comes out. The Dynasty mode is deep and the recruitment process feels great. It takes up a bit of time, but not too much time. The online modes are pretty cool and the way you can access them from online away from the console is a really nice innovation that should help keep the seasons moving. My experience in the past with these is that sometimes online dynasty/franchise modes would buckle because of inactive players. The system for creating highlight videos and images works very well and the variety of angles that the videos can be created from is very cool. With so many modes, the game gets some serious replay value.

Overall – 8:

Your mileage may vary of course. You have to like football. It helps to like college football. It helps if you don’t own last year’s version, because while there are obvious improvements over last year’s model of the game, there are some areas where the strides taken were not so great. However, this game usually drops in price in a few months once it’s been out for a bit and Madden has steamrolled onto the store shelves, so it can be had at a lower price if that is a point of contention for you. All games have bugs – the fuzzy filter and audio cutting out can be forgiven. For me, the blocking/return game stuff is a bit tougher to swallow, but I’ve had a chance to acclimate to it over the years and I’ve learned it’s part of the package and to deal with it. It’s just disappointing that such obvious problems still have not been fixed after all this time. My goal is to have at least 7 or 8 seasons under my belt before I pick up Madden. Inevitably I wind up playing Madden in favor of NCAA and I like having those classes to import. The game is a lot of fun if you can live with its shortcomings, which I certainly have and can.


Gaming News and Notes from 7-26-10

Yup, I’m alive. All… 4 of you… (maybe?) hopefully noticed. And missed me. Moving on – it’s been due to a large number of video games that have recently come into my possession (thank you Gamestop, giftcards and generous friends). I’ve got a handful of reviews cooking up and almost ready to publish. I should be able to fire one off tonight even. But first, I thought I’d gather up some gaming news from around the web and toss it out there for general consumption.

There’s another new firmware update going in for PS3 owners tonight. Sounds pretty small, with the only thing IGN even bothered to note about was that there is going to be a ‘you might like’ recommendations center for downloads. Not as big as the last one that had a handful of cool features – perhaps my favorite of which is the energy saver automatic shutoff for when my wife dozes off watching movies on it late at night. J

Apparently there was a slightly over-ambitious script running on Valve as they accidently banned over 12,000 Modern Warfare 2 accounts over the last 2 weeks. Those accounts are all back and those affected were given copies of Left for Dead 2 plus another to give to a friend. Pretty big mistake that affected a lot of people, but I for one find the compensation to be a classy move. Nice going Valve.

DC Universe finally cleared up a pair of questions for people interested in the MMO. First – the cost: Roughly $15/mo. Additionally, it was being made for PC and PS3 and there’s long been talk that maybe there would be interconnected play between platforms, but that rumor has in fact been put to rest.

Are you a Blu-ray owner? My two PS3’s would make that a yes for me, even though my collection is only around 30 at this time. That said, Sony has begun work on the eventually successor to that format. It’s interesting stuff to read about here, but it sounds like a good ways off – which is actually good for those of us who enjoy the current format and don’t want to push into something new and even more expensive any time soon.

If you are a fan of football and Madden games, no doubt you’re starting to latch onto every bit of football goodness out there. Today’s IGN tidbit? A trio of teams getting to show what happens if you win the Super Bowl – which was kind of cool since one was using my oft-beleaguered Lions. Anyway, it’s nice to see they put a bit more detail into winning the game, which in the past usually amounted to fairly short, ordinary screens with a confetti overlay.

There was a recently announced Street Fighter x Tekken game (think Marvel vs. Capcom). It’s actually being pronounced Street Fighter “cross” Tekken currently. As probably my two favorite one-on-one fighting franchises – this should be very cool. Namco and Capcom are working together on this, so there’s no doubt loads of talent behind the wheel here – but it should be interesting to see if they favor one game’s style over another. They’re usually quite different in how they play. Oh – but don’t hold your breath while waiting for the release. Looks like it’s going to be about 2 years off.

Last but not least, joy for Demon’s Souls players. One of the coolest (and most difficult) RPG games to come along in quite some time just got an extension. The North American Demon’s Souls online servers are going to stay up until March now, and the server tendencies were all pushed to pure white in celebration. It’s awesome seeing them bump the servers and keep some interaction going with what is still a very active fanbase. The online aspect of this game is very cool – to me the experience just would not be the same without it so if you’ve been contemplating this game, I’ve seen that it dropped in price new recently and I snagged a copy at Gamestop used for $26.


Haven't had a lot to report lately...

... but I should have some new reviews coming up soon. The reason my time away from posting has been good however - I have a slew of new games I've gotten my mitts on recently (Record of Agarest war - a turn based strategy game, the new Transformers: War for Cybertron, NCAA Football 2011 and Lego Harry Potter). I'm also headed to Gamestop a bit later to burn through a giftcard I got - and they have a pretty good deal going right now - buy 2 used games/accessories and get a 3rd one of equal or lesser value free. That deal ends today however. They've got another as well where if you trade in any 3 games from Wii, PSP, PS3, 360 or DS - as long as the trade-in value exceeds $1, you'll get a bonus $10. So armed with a trio of beaten games and a giftcard, I'll probably pick up a few older games today as well.

Last up, IGN is running a promotion with Microsoft to give away 20 free copies of some of the new Xbox 360 live arcade games here. Might be worth a peek - I entered, and they are doing a new one every week for the next few weeks. Check it out - and I'll be tossing up some new review shortly.


Updated to add: not bad - I snagged Super Mario Party 8, Red Steel 2 and Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn from Gamestop and I was out .78 cents after trade-ins and my gift card and weekly deals. I've been looking for Fire Emblem for awhile (I'm a sucker for strategy games) - but the disc does look a -bit- rough. Going to have to test it and make sure it works. It's the only copy I've seen used at any of the Gamestops around here though over the last year of looking. Hopefully this means some new reviews soon though. Anyone played any of those 3 games or the other 4 I've recently acquired?

Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn
Red Steel 2
Mario Party 8
Record of Agarest Wars
Transformers: War for Cybertron
Lego Harry Potter
NCAA Football 2011

Curious what your thoughts on them are, if so.

News and Notes from 7-8-10

So, here's some interesting tidbits I've picked up in the last day or two from various sites:

Bioware confirmed that Dragon Age will be releasing in March of 2011. This is a big one for me as I was a huge fan of the first game and the solid Awakenings expansion as well. They promise to have an updated graphics engine (one of the few things about the game that got critically picked on) and new combat mechanics. I'm looking forward to this one!

There going to be a downloadable Dead Space 2 prequel for the Xbox 360 and PS3. This is another IP I'm pretty stoked about. The first Dead Space was incredibly solid in my opinion, and I am really looking forward to more out of this series. There is talk that some of the accomplishments from this prequel will carry over into Dead Space 2 in the form of some pre-unlocked goodies.

Red Dead Redemption has 4 new downloadable content packages coming in the future. This was a game that has generated a lot of early Game of the Year buzz, and is likely to be one of my next reviews as I've finally had a chance to sit with it for an extended chunk of playtime.

IGN has posted about 1/2 of the player ratings for the upcoming Madden 2011 here. I am a sucker for football games and admit that I fall prey to the yearly incarnation of Madden almost every year. As a Lions fan (hey - don't laugh!) I'm looking forward to seeing what some of our young guys are going to be rated on there for my franchise mode.

The Star Craft 2 Beta has relaunched according to IGN as well. It has a new patch and some other tweaks in place for those interested.

And lastly, bad news for Assassin's Creed fans (raises his hand) - there next game in the series will not be releasing next year as had been speculated on many sites of late.

Final Fantasy XIII - Xbox 360 game review

I was out for several days due to longer work days and the holiday weekend, but I’m back with a handful of posts to come over the next few days while I’m off work. In that vein, I’m hoping to get more ‘new’ games posted soon when I get my hands on them. I have a few semi-new games on tap though, including Final Fantasy XIII for the 360. I’ve heard that the PS3 version is displayed at a higher resolution and generally the textures look just a shade better, but I haven’t seen that version in action.

However the 360 version looked great and came with three discs. There were quite a few changes to the more traditional Final Fantasy formula. This has been met with mixed results by fans. Looking at the IGN scores, fans rate it an average of 8.3 as I write this, but most of the comments in the review are negative. So, here’s what I thought after about 100 hours of play…

Graphics – 9.5:

The game is something of a technical achievement. There was stuttering framerate here and there, but only rarely in my play through. What I did experience consistently was a very appealing menu system, quality character models and engaging environments. Also the cut scene movies looked great, but then they almost always do in this series.

Music and sound – 8.5:

The music was good, though usually I find 2 or 3 songs that really catch my ear in the Final Fantasy games, and I go out to try and find them and listen to them outside of the game. I didn’t do that with this particular game. The voice work was pretty good, and really helped to drive the story home. That said, some of the battle sounds and quick voice clips were kind of repetitive.

Gameplay – 7:

It’s hard to rank an RPG game on things like precision controls and responsiveness, but the combat system works well enough – though it was one of my least-favorites in the series. There was also a lag in the menu system when you wanted to customize your skill points. Also, the customization never quite felt as good to me as the sphere grid system from Final Fantasy X, though that seems to be the obvious influence for the system used in Final Fantasy XIII.

Intangibles – 8:

The story was decent, but it took awhile to become something that was easy to follow. Some of their naming conventions could have been better, because key terms to the story were often named in similar fashion and for a newcomer to the story it could be a bit confusing. There is also a serious lack of mini-games and as someone who sunk a ton of time into things like Blitzball in the past, that was disappointing. Now, a lot of people complained about the linear storyline, but that did not bother me as much as I thought it would. In fact, the lack of doubling back over places I had already been was kind of nice. However, the game does open up quite a bit in the last couple of chapters, and there are a lot of side missions. You can also improve not only your character’s stats in specific fields but the weapons and accessories they use, though that system became quite a grind in my mind. I spent about 90 hours playing the game, many of which near the end were spent grinding upgrades and abilities. I thought it was a nice perk that certain accomplishments yielded game pics as well.

Overall – 8.25:

RPG’s are probably one of my two favorite game genres (the other being sports). I can sink a ton of time into them, and generally feel better about my investment than an action game that tends to be shorter in length like Alan Wake or F.E.A.R. I love the Final Fantasy series, as noted in some of my prior reviews. I really, really wanted to love this game, but I merely liked it a good deal. Technically the game is very impressive, and overall it tells a pretty good story. But the game itself is just not as strong as prior entries in the series. Combat worked well enough, but it and the systems for improving your characters were not as much fun as I would have liked. All in all though, I did drop nearly 100 hours into the game, and I think that says quite a bit in and of itself.


Alan Wake - Xbox 360 game review

Alan Wake is a game that felt like it was never going to come out. It seemed like a game I was hearing about ever since I bought an Xbox 360. Was the game getting pushed back because they really were tweaking it and making it better – or were there some serious design flaws that they were trying to gloss over?

As a huge fan of horror games (Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Fatal Frame – I love games with a sense of suspense) – this was one I had a lot of hope for. So, was it worth the wait? Let me break it down.

Graphics – 9.0:

The light and particle effects are top-notch. The shadows often feel like they’re alive all around you and the monsters you fight at night feel appropriately cloaked in darkness as you battle them. Animations look decent, if not great during the daytime, story-driven sections. All in all though, for a game that is made to be played in the dark, this game delivers an inky, creepy atmosphere.

Music and sound – 9.0:

Annnnd, speaking of creepy atmosphere, this game delivers on the audio front as well. Overall I thought the voice acting was pretty good. The music was excellent and the sound effects were generally quite good. There were times they lacked subtlety, but overall they were a huge and effective part of the ambiance.

Gameplay – 7.5:

The combat itself is quite good. The use of light as a clever aiming sight was cool, and the weapons feel effective enough. Also dodging was fairly solid. So why the middling score? For one, it sometimes got confusing and a bit annoying to find your way around. On harder levels of difficulty it’s not that hard to run out of ammo and then you’re really hosed (though you can at least restart the level). It’s not always obvious what you should be doing and for a game that feels like you’re being driven to specific points, it would be nice to have a better way of mapping your path.

Intangibles – 7.5:

Tough one here. First off – the game is spooky and fun. So that is key, and it’s the type of game I usually eat up. But I ate it up in like 7 hours or so the first time. And there’s not much to the replay value of it. Sure, you can go through the Nightmare mode and find additional manuscript pages not available otherwise, and these pages are generally very cool – but it doesn’t really feel like *enough* for me. Points though for such a richly realized world and atmosphere. I particularly enjoyed the radio stations and the television shows that had a nice Twilight feel to them. Still, the short duration of the story with no real game+ or online mode really hurts the game’s overall value in my opinion. Also, there’s some language and terror themes that probably make it unsuitable for younger kids.

Overall – 8.25:

This is a game that begs to be rented, or picked up a bit later when you can inevitably find copies of it used and cheap at a Gamestop. With its somewhat limited replay value, I’ve already started to notice copies showing up on the shelf. That said, it’s a very cool game that’s worth a play through if you enjoy this type of horror/survival game. It’s cleverly written and the shooting mechanics work nicely.


Cheap gaming - older sports games

My dad was recently visiting from Florida and he was considering getting a gaming system and an HD tv for himself and family members who came to visit (like my son). So, after some discussion, he decided that the PS3 was probably the best bet since he had an interest in building up a Bluray collection to boot. Of course, the system and the TV promised to be pretty expensive themselves. So what was he to do for games? Well, he found several that were a pretty good price – mostly sports related titles. So how did we do? Not bad for starting out with no games at all.

First acquisition: Bad Company. IGN score of 8.6. Good graphics, entertaining game. It was $17 used at Gamestop. Definitely not a game for little kids though between the crude humor and the violent settings and gameplay.

Next up was Little Big Planet (Game of the Year Edition) for $25 used. Quality game that’s perfect for kids. On top of that, there is a ton of content out there that combined with the level building system provides a ridiculous amount of extra value to the purchase, though having internet access is really key to take full advantage of these features.

Next up was a bevy of sports games. We’ll start with Tiger Woods PGA Tour 08 which got an 8.5 from IGN and ran us $16 at Gamestop. Good game, but the EA servers do not seem to support it, so you can’t hop online or import the face graphic if you don’t have a webcam hooked up to the PS3.

All-Pro 2k8 was one of the best values at just $5 used at Gamestop. It landed a solid 7.6 from IGN, though I thought the engine did not age particularly well (I’m a big fan of the Madden games) and it lacks the really deep franchise modes you might get from a Madden game as well. However, the game itself is fun and did I mention it was only $5?

Speaking of football and Madden games - we snagged the 7.7 rated version of Madden 08 for $4. Sure, the series has progressed since then, but you can buy some foamy flavored coffee for the same price that'll last you 7 minutes. This game? Much longer than that.

We snagged NBA ’08 which landed an 8.4 on IGN for $12 at Gamestop. This was admittedly probably my least favorite of the sports acquisitions personally. There was no online connectivity available either.

MLB ’08: The Show really surprised me. I’m not really a big fan of baseball itself, but I really enjoyed this game. It landed an 8.7 from IGN and ran us $8 I think? I’ve sunk a lot of time into this one myself. I didn’t try every one of these games online, but this one also lacked online play currently.

The last one we picked up with my dad was College Hoops 2k7. I think we were out like $8 on that one, and it scored an 8.3 at IGN. I liked this one quite a bit as well – better than the NBA game we snagged.

After all of these purchases, I decided to beef up my game collection slightly, getting Tiger Woods 08 and then also picking up EA’s fine NHL 08 game. It was $17 and scored an 8.6 from IGN. It’s been several years since I last played an NHL game – 06 I believe was my last one. This one surprised me – for the heck of it I tried to hop online and found an opponent almost immediately. Deep, entertaining game to boot.

Lastly, I really liked the Fight Night games but had never gotten around to the most recent iteration – Fight Night Round 4. This scored a solid 8.8 from IGN and ran me $17 was all. I’ve been playing this one quite a bit as well – the career mode is quite entertaining.

Obviously peoples’ mileage will vary here, and I have a Gamestop card so I shaved 10% off of all of this. But it was a fairly inexpensive way for my dad to create a collection of games. It seems like the sports series depreciates faster than any other genre – likely because the majority of sports titles have a 1 year lifecycle before the latest and greatest comes out. But if you’re not interested in the absolute latest tweaks, rosters and online play, this is a really good way to build up your game library at a fraction of the cost compared to purchasing this year’s sports titles.

A Kingdom for Keflings - Xbox 360 Live review

A Kingdom for Keflings was one of those games I never really paid much attention to when it first came out late in 2008. It’s an Xbox 360 Live purchase that I made because during E3 Microsoft put a few games up cheaply and this was among them. I looked it up and saw overall positive reviews for it. My wife and kid tend to enjoy city builder/sim type games as well, so I figured it was one that would get some mileage and I was right.

Essentially the game is a city builder. You are a giant among… well, Keflings. They are cute little people who run around and do your bidding, though you may have to pick them up and point them in the right direction. They’ll harvest resources for you so you can build parts, which in turn can be used to create buildings that unlock new blueprints and give your Keflings even more to do.

Graphics – 7:

This game is not a technical marvel, but most Live games are not. Still, even by Live standards the framerate and textures fail to impress. The graphics are cute and whimsical and suit their purpose, however. Bonus points for getting to use your avatar in the game as you tower over the Keflings.

Music and sound – 5:

Yikes – I’d almost play this one with the sound off and listen to my stereo. The basic tune itself isn’t really that bad. But it’s basically all you’ll ever hear once you start to play the game. There are almost no sound effects to speak of and no voiceover of any kind.

Gameplay – 8:

I was not a huge fan of the menu system, but it works. I also had a couple of buildings that were kind of complicated – I thought I had it all right, one piece was wrong and I spent probably 10 minutes tearing it apart to figure out what that piece was. Movement’s easy enough though, and the game has a nice flow to it, gradually growing and building and giving you a real sense that you are in fact creating something impressive. Plus, the Keflings are kinda cute, and I’m man enough to admit it. :P

Intangibles – 7:

I don’t think this game will be a staple play of mine. Once I played through, there wasn’t really much else to do. But, it’s fun, and each person goes about things a bit differently. My youngest daughter is only 8 and she spent nearly 2 hours on it before I told her she had to take a break – but she was enthralled by it. I first played it for about 3 ½ hours. In my mind, it’s pretty cool when a game can span a 26 year gap.

Overall – 6.75:

This is just how the numbers came out. I add them up and divide by four. Somehow, this seems a bit low, but I guess it depends on how you weight things. If graphics and music are terribly important to you, then this game is probably not for you. If you can enjoy a relaxing game without worrying too much about the soundtrack, then you may find that this game is quite enjoyable. I got it at half price at the time, which makes it a better deal for me than it will likely be for you. Not really for the hardcore crowd, but it was something of a hit with my family with its cute graphics and theme mixed with city building elements.


Demon's Souls - PS3 game review

Demon’s Souls has been out for awhile now in the US, but only recently has gotten released in some other locations. I put off picking this up because while it looked and sounded good, I tend to wait until games are a bit cheaper to acquire them. Additionally, the game is always being touted as insanely hard, and in my ‘old age’ I’ve grown to enjoy slightly less taxing games. Sure, as a kid I walloped on Ghosts & Goblins, the Ninja Gaiden games, Contra without the 30 lives code and plenty of others. However, I’ve gotten to a point where getting my butt handed to me by lines of code does sometimes get frustrating and I wasn’t sure I wanted to take this particular plunge.

However, I can say after giving this game a good long play, it was a lot of fun – despite some frustrating moments along the way. That said, I feel like the game can be had at an incredible value, if you are someone who can enjoy a challenging game without getting too frustrated with it.

Graphics – 8.5:

The animations sometimes feel just a shade off, but the magic and fire effects are nice, and the world is imaginatively presented. I’ve also seen some slowdown at odd times; and a world of lag and slowdown when one of my matches got invaded. That might fall under something other than graphics, but it was graphics that seemed the most affected (I was blocking but taking huge damage from a guy who also appeared to be blocking. Things were just not lining up at all). That said, the rest of the game looked really good, with some very impressive scenes – some of which really stood out (like the dragon sweeping the bridge to burn everyone on it).

Music and sound – 9.0:

All in all, it sounds good. Narration is solid, sound effects are somewhat varied with voice acting at most interactions. The voice acting is not always great, and I wish I could just skip through the repetitive people sitting in the Nexus. I have surround sound however, and it should be noted that it has been a lifesaver for me at times in this game; on par with the zings of Modern Warfare’s bullets. The music is also very impressive. It fits the theme of the game wonderfully.

Gameplay – 8.5:

This is a tough one for me. The game responds pretty well most of the time, though the lock-on mechanism can get you in trouble early on until you master it. As I’ve mentioned, the game can be hard. Now, I don’t think it’s quite as hard as some people make it out to be, but there are some cheap deaths in there (a pit you see that it looks like you should be able to descend but actually leads to death, any time something knocks you back when you’re on stairs/a ledge, or a ridiculously hard enemy you have no business fighting but might not have any idea of).

Intangibles – 9.5:

New game plus is cool, if brutal. Tons of customization. A deep game that makes you feel like you’re genuinely learning as you play. I mentioned above that there were cheap deaths, but most of the time it’s just your own fault for not handling the situation properly. Also, the online aspects really deserve to be mentioned. There’s a unique, almost beautiful in my mind, system of online play where you can see bloodstains on the ground and see the final moments of a player’s life. There’s been several times I touched it and watched someone barrel ahead only to get dropped from an attack they never saw coming – but I did thanks to that experience. Also you can leave messages that you can rate as useful as well. There was one part with a bridge and a dragon swooping down where the advice saved my arse. The PVP aspects I’m kind of down on. It’s creatively handled when you can invade someone else’s realm, or they can invade yours, but almost every time it’s happened my game stuttered and broke up pretty badly. I’ve seen others complain about the same thing and the general response from others is: play offline. In my opinion, you’re doing yourself an overall disservice if you do so. It adds a tremendous sense of ‘life’ to your world when you see ghosted images of other players, bloodstains and messages on the ground.

Overall – 8.75:

Demon’s Souls is hard. It’s meant to be hard. There is no easy mode. It doesn’t hold your hand or give you easy replays like Final Fantasy 13 does. It does however create a challenging, atmospheric adventure that if you can play without getting too frustrated, will provide you with a good deal of accomplishment as you conquer new tasks. The online features are pretty unique and for the most part they’re enjoyable, if not perfect. Adding to the game’s value in my mind is how much cheaper it has gotten of late. Gamestop had new copies for $40 and used for $26. Not bad for a game that many people thought of as Game of the Year for the PS3. I’m not sure I’d give it that particular title this year or last, but it is a solid action-RPG game that gives you a lot to do on your adventures.


Dissidia Final Fantasy game review for the PSP

So after beating Crisis Core for my PSP, I found myself wondering which game to play next. I admit that of my systems, my PSP is probably the most underutilized overall. We don’t travel a lot and I’ve got plenty of other good distractions around the house. However, I’ve recently been making an effort to pick it up and roll out a bit of playtime on it lately, and while Crisis Core certainly repaid me for my time (review here if you’re interested) – I had about a dozen unplayed options to consider. I wound up choosing Dissidia Final Fantasy next.

This was a game that like Crisis Core, was looking to do something a bit outside of the turn-based RPG realm that the Final Fantasy series was so well-known for. In fact, what Dissidia turns out to be is a one-on-one fighting game, using main heroes and villains from the first 10 Final Fantasy titles. This gave me a bit of pause, but then the experiment that was Crisis Core turned out quite well, so I thought this one merited a chance as well.

Graphics – 8:

Not as many great cut scenes as Crisis Core, but what was there sure looked good. The character models all look good. The game moves smoothly and I never noticed any slowdown or tearing from the visuals. All in all, the PSP acquits itself nicely on this game. My biggest complaint is actually the same one I had for Crisis Core in that the camera sometimes felt a bit clunky in its choice of angles.

Sound and Music – 8:

The sounds do the job, though there was not much amazing on that front. There was voice acting for all of the characters and cut scenes between levels. With so many characters the quality was bound to fluctuate with some of the characters being represented better than others. The music was a standout for me. Having played almost all of the prior games that inspired these characters and stadiums, there were a few fights in particular (Jecht, Sephiroth) that were just fun to hear.

Gamplay – 9:

The combat is not terribly complicated, but pulling off moves is easy and the large areas feel great – though some are more fun to navigate than others. The menu’s pretty overwhelming at first, but once you familiarize yourself with it, the interface is pretty solid. Combat is designed around an interesting mechanic – bravery and damage. Bravery is a sort of teeter-totter between you and your enemy. If you perform bravery attacks, your opponent’s goes down and yours goes up. However, the only way to win the fight is to do enough damage (hence, the damage attacks) to drain the opponent’s hitpoints. It is an odd sort of two-layered system, but essentially the bravery feeds your damage-dealing capability. It sounds more complicated than it is once you see it in action, and it adds an interesting layer of depth that really helps the game’s combat to succeed.

Intangibles – 9.5:

There is so much to do here. Loads of characters to take through storylines. A chess-like battlefield representing each level that begs to be replayed over and over (I generally go through each storyline 3 times before moving onto a new one), items to unlock and purchase, new skills to master, summons to find… and the game even has a constantly running calendar in the background that keeps track of the real date and time. Why? Because playing on certain games and in certain amounts can yield bonus to your experience, item, skill and gold earnings.

Overall – 9:

Probably my favorite PSP game to date, trumping Crisis Core by a bit. Crisis Core had a more engaging storyline, but there’s just so much to do in this game. And the battles in Dissidia remind me of the missions in Crisis Core – they’re short, bite-sized pieces of action perfect for the handheld medium in my opinion. Sure, with it’s callback to prior Final Fantasy games, Dissidia is a bit of a fan service game – but when it’s put together so well, I can’t find anything wrong with that.


Bayonetta - 360 game review and new blog look!

First off, I’d like to thank my wife for the cool new layout on my blog. She’s had a good deal more practice with the Blogger layouts than I have and when I grumbled about a few things, she knew exactly where to go so things like wider columns and easier to read article boxes hopefully make things a bit easier on the eyes – let me know if there’s something specific you do or don’t like – I’m more than willing to tweak it. So… moving on – Bayonetta.

This is a game I heard about on and off for awhile before it came out, and I saw that it got some really good scores from most of the review sites and some decent ones from players on the same sites rating the game. I got the game cheap from a friend and just never really got around to playing it. I dig the occasional action game, but this was one that always looked a bit cool if over the top. I finally gave it a pretty good going over recently, figured now was the time to write about it.

Graphics – 8.5:

The game is pretty, I’ll give it that. There’s some very cool animations, plenty to see and look around at, the art style is cool as well. Perhaps the biggest gripe I could levy at this game is how most of the storyboard scenes go. For a game that is so alive and full of animation, the cut scenes are just filmstrip stills with some voiceover. It’s all highly stylized visually, which is inline with the rest of the game, but the game itself always seems to have some sort of activity taking place, so these motionless moments feel a bit out of place to me.

Sound and Music – 7:

The music is not bad in and of itself – but it seldom seems to fit the game in my opinion. The oddly upbeat music reminded me of something from an anime cartoon. Again, not necessarily bad, and the game is fairly over-the-top in its storyline and presentation, but it never quite sat ‘right’ with me. Voice work was fine, if a bit campy at times, but it told the story. Sound effects were good and there were some quality chorus type effects (it is a game where you fight angels and such ‘divine’ creatures so that part fits well enough).

Gameplay – 9:

One of the game’s strongest points. Combat is fast, fluid and most importantly – fun. You string together combos while jumping in the air, slashing your sword, using a shotgun strapped to your ankle, switch techniques and lay into them with rapid fire pistols and as crazy as all of that sounds – it is pretty cool most of the time. I also have to give props toward some of the more epic set pieces. I’m not sure if it falls under gameplay, or graphics or what – but some of the boss encounters are really entertaining and have a crazy sort of epic scale to them that has to be seen in action to be fully appreciated.

Intangibles – 8.5:

The game’s fun, so that’s key. It’s a little campy and over-the-top. I like my storylines and delivery of said storylines so maybe this irked me a bit more than it will others, but it was at least creative. Also, there’s plenty of things to buy and discover, and you can easily replay prior levels if you are worried you missed something or just want to experience something again, so there’s definitely some replay value to be had. There are also several different difficulty settings as well.

Overall – 8.25:

This was a good game. It was somewhat long as an action title and there was plenty to do and do again. It was very stylized and overall the game looks really good and handles even better. Overall, if you like high action games like Devil May Cry, this is similar enough you’ll probably like it quite a bit as well. There are some caveats I think I should cover however.

First, I’m reviewing the 360 version. I’ve heard that the PS3 version is a port that some viewed as being rather inferior, especially graphically. Additionally the game is rated M, and it earned that rating. Religious themes, gore and violence, strong language, partial nudity and suggestive themes – it is not for your Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle loving 10 year old kids.


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