November 2008

Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia is the third game of the popular vampire-hunting series for the Nintendo DS platform. After arguably taking a step backwards with last year’s Portrait of Ruin, Koji Igarashi and company have made a few changes to the formula that has been prevalent in the first two DS games. There is a pretty interesting story, gameplay that takes place over multiple locations on a world map instead of in one castle, a new Glyph system which allows players to arm two weapons at once, and a difficulty level that Castlevania players have not seen in quite some time.

The game’s story introduces players to the Order of Ecclesia, a group that is dedicated to ridding the world of Dracula once and for all. Shanoa is the game’s protagonist, and she has been chosen to defeat Dracula by utilizing the Dominus Glyph, a weapon of ultimate power. Standing in Shanoa’s way is Albus, her fellow Ecclesia member and brother figure, who goes rogue after discovering that he has not been chosen to carry Dominus and steals it before it can be given to Shanoa. Shanoa is charged with finding Albus, taking back the Dominus Glyph, and destroying Dracula. Dominus has a dark secret that allows for some interesting plot twists as the game progresses.

Ecclesia’s progression takes place in several different locations, which is a departure from the castle-centric setting seen in the previous portable Castlevania games. The locations vary between indoor, outdoor, and underwater stages of play. There are caves, caverns, forests, swamps, and monasteries represented here. Unfortunately, many of these stages are basic travels from one point to another and don’t allow for the explorative aspects that castle travel afforded players. There are secrets hidden in breakable walls, underground passages, and in other areas, but each stage feels like a mission instead of an area to investigate. Some players may not mind the change, while others may balk at it. In fact, these stages feel more like enhanced versions of the worlds in the paintings within Portrait of Ruin. This new progression doesn’t hurt the game, however, as long as the player is open-minded.

As you might expect, Shanoa will have to deal with a variety of enemies during her quest, and this is where the Glyph system comes into play. Players arm Shanoa with Glyphs, rather than conventional weapons. Glyphs can be found and absorbed from treasure chests, fallen enemies, and secret locations. Once absorbed, Shanoa can equip two offensive Glyphs for the X and Y buttons and a support Glyph, which is activated by using the R button. Offensive Glyph types include swords, hammers, axes, scythes, rapiers, and offensive magic. Support Glyphs include temporary stat increases, drawing more money from hacking candles and torches, and a special Glyph called Magnes, which functions similarly to a grappling hook and is vital to accessing hard-to-reach areas or traversing spike pits.

Unlike recent games in the Castlevania series, Order of Ecclesia stands as a formidable challenge. Players will find that enemies deal a lot more damage than in the past, and boss encounters can be downright punishing. Adding to the game’s challenge is that initial healing items are pretty weak and money isn’t as plentiful, leading to either exhibiting skill or setting out on replays of earlier stages for farming money and items in order to have enough potions and perishables to survive onslaughts of damage from bosses. One particularly tough boss battle occurs pretty early on in Ecclesia’s progression, against a crab boss, likely to cause more deaths during this one encounter than some veteran Castlevania players experienced in Dawn of Sorrow and Portrait of Ruin combined. This battle is a cruel reminder that a bit of trial and error is required when using Glyphs as certain Glyphs deal more damage to certain enemies than others.

In addition to dispatching enemies and bosses, Shanoa also becomes tasked with rescuing villagers who have been taken by Albus and sealed away in the various stages that Shanoa visits. These villagers are important to advancing the story and they also have subquests that can be completed by Shanoa which lead to various monetary and item bonuses, similar to Wind’s role in Portrait of Ruin. The subquests range from item collection to defeating certain enemies to games of hide and seek. Completing all of these subquests is not vital to beating the game, but completists will revel in the chance to finish every last task before meeting up with Albus in the final battle for Dominus.

The visuals contained within Order of Ecclesia are quite impressive. The character designs have moved away from the anime-influenced style that has been prevalent in the handheld games and towards a more gothic style once again. There is a nice mix of new enemies and familiar foes here, as well. The boss characters are generally huge, ranging from the crab mentioned earlier to a large militant zombie and a creature comprised entirely of shadow. The only nitpick here is that infrequent periods of slowdown can disrupt an otherwise smooth gameplay experience. It’s a bit surprising that slowdown can still be such an issue, especially at this stage of the Nintendo DS’ development cycle, but the problem does still exist, apparently. These bouts are infrequent, though, and don’t serve to further inflate the game’s difficulty.

Ecclesia’s music is very good, although it’s not quite as consistently good as in other games in the series. There are certainly some tracks that stand out, including the piece that accompanies the opening cinematic, but there are also several repeats and a couple of less-than-stellar tracks. Fans of Symphony of the Night will notice some interesting parallels between that game’s soundtrack and several of the tracks within Ecclesia. The game’s sound effects are clean, and there is a decent amount of voice work included; unfortunately, the game’s dialogue is still limited to text.

Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia is worth the $30 price of admission. It has its imperfections, and the difficulty may be off-putting to some, but persistence and skill do eventually pay off in the end. Few games in this series—or on the DS itself, for that matter—give such a feeling of accomplishment and achievement once the game ends. There are several options that become available once players complete Ecclesia that provide a fair amount of replay value, as well. Ecclesia may be a no-brainer to Castlevania fans, but it’s recommended even for gamers who haven’t yet faced off against Dracula or his minions.

ESRB: T (Blood, Fantasy Violence)
Plays like: Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin
Pros: Glyph system, new level progression, unlockables
Cons: Difficulty may frustrate some, some quests require lengthy item farming

The first Silent Hill is almost a decade old, and were it not for the PSP’s first Silent Hill title, Silent Hill: Origins, fans would have assumed the series retired. Origins and the last major console-based title, Silent Hill 4, were considered oddities; 2008 brings us Silent Hill: Homecoming, the first Silent Hill game to be developed by Americans.

Silent Hill’s success has come mainly from unique storytelling that adhered to cinematic horror conventions. If you love horror, you are aware that there are Japanese and American styles of horror presentation. If you aren’t, a brief and incomplete summary: American horror usually reveals the root cause of the problem as the story goes along; the problem usually involves lots of blood and dismemberment. Japanese horror is allowed to involve blood and dismemberment, but not required to; it is, however, required to steep the viewer in mystery. Even if the threat is abated or escaped, its full nature still lies in question.

So previous Silent Hill games had a particular Japanese flavor; really scary monsters and situations combined with puzzling situations and endings where you mostly knew what happened, but you didn’t know why, or even sometimes how.

Most of Homecoming is by the book Silent Hill.  The combat, while better than previous releases, is still uncomfortable; it is almost impossible to dodge something using the new combat dodge. The puzzles are usually easy but occasionally maddening, the monsters are strange (except those who come back for an encore, due to familiarity), and the scenery and music perfectly support the urgent and intense need to sort out family matters. Akira Yamaoka of previous Silent Hill titles wrote the soundtrack for Homecoming, and the graphics on the PS3 and 360 make it feel like a new and improved experience. The screen sometimes looks like it’s displayed by projector, complete with grains and occasional spatters of black–surprisingly this doesn’t annoy but manages to sink into your brain, unconsciously making you accept it without question.

It’s unquestionably still part of the canon; some may view it as a half-sibling and a stepchild. You play Alex Shepherd, a young man discharged from the military. On your way home, you discover that your younger brother Joshua is missing; when you get home, your father is also missing and your mother has become catatonic. The plot is still unpredictable, but it doesn’t feel original. The biggest divergence here is that while a few questions are left open, most are answered; if understanding why all the characters do what they do and become what they become would ruin Silent Hill for you, you may feel betrayed by this game (do not worry: there is still a UFO ending).

This is legitimate horror. The fights are not fun and not easy, and the save points are spaced apart terribly, but this is still Silent Hill. Think of it as spicy and bold cover of your favorite classic song: you will always think of the original, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be good in its own way.

ESRB: M for mature for language, dark themes, and horrible deaths and gore

Plays like: A polished Silent Hill with less obscurity and improved combat mechanics

Pros: Makes good use of current-gen systems in presenting a horror experience, voice acting is passable and it (whew) manages to be scary and engrossing

Cons: Diehard Silent Hill fans may dislike some stylistic changes in storytelling, the combat is still not that good and the save points are far apart

de Blob

November 20, 2008

De Blob is one of the more unique and creative games that I’ve played in recent years. The evil INKT Corporation has invaded the city of Chroma and outlawed color and fun. Playing as de Blob, you will lead the color revolution in an effort to bring back color to the city and help the oppressed citizens of Chroma enjoy daily life again.

Playing as de Blob, you start off as a clear ball of water and smash paint cans to absorb the paint. Paint cans come in the three primary colors and can be mixed to form four additional colors. Each paint can awards you a fixed number of paint points when you absorb it. Every time you touch a building or an object it turns the color of de Blob and deducts 1 paint point. Use all your paint points and you can no longer paint objects in the city.

Chroma city is divided into several parts that you unlock as you progress through the game. Each area has various challenges and sections you can. Sections are timed, but completing challenges and progressing through levels awards you additional time to continue playing as well as points. Collect a certain number of points to open up the additional sections of your current level. As you paint the town, additional citizens of Chroma city, called Raydians, arrive with additional challenges or missions for de Blob. Challenges can be anything from painting certain buildings various colors to defeating armies of INKT soldiers.

Each level also has certain goals that you can strive to meet such as painting all the trees or rescuing all the Raydians. Meeting all of these goals results in scoring 100% on that section or level. This must be done on a single play through as de Blob doesn’t store your progress on any given level. Start the level again and you are back at the very beginning. I didn’t like this feature at all.

de Blob is a simple concept with a virtually flawless execution and the controls only serve to complement this. Developer, Blue Tongue, opted to make full use of the motion sensing features of the Wii. Movement is handled with the analog stick but jumping and any additional movement like smashing paint cans or INKY soldiers is done by flicking the Wii remote up or down. The controls can be a little difficult to get the hang of and will be difficult for younger gamers.

De Blob is an amazing game by any standard. It delivers a solid and enjoyable gaming experience. It’s a little too challenging for kids under 6 to truly enjoy, but everyone else will be fine.

ESRB: de Blob is rated E for mild cartoon violence
Plays Like: Nothing I’ve played before
Pros: Excellent story and characters; fun and original
Cons: Doesn’t preserve level progress upon completion

Rock Band

November 20, 2008

Musical rhythm games have been a huge hit with gamers of all ages since Guitar Hero stormed onto the scene. In the past, emulating your favorite rock star was limited to showcasing your skills on a replica guitar controller. With the release of Rock Band, that all changed.

Rock Band was initially released in late 2007 for the PS3, PS2, and the Xbox 360. It wasn’t until the summer of 2008 that Rock Band became available for the hordes of Wii owners begging for a full rock experience.

Unfortunately for Wii owners, the version that was delivered is similar to the previously released PS2 version and it lacks the some of the capabilities of the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions. The most glaring omission is the online music store that allows gamers to purchase new tracks. As a consolation, Harmonix and MTV are releasing 20 song Track Packs for $29.99. The downside is that it becomes an all or nothing affair for gamers wishing to expand their track library. Other missing features include the lack of online play, no create-a-rocker, and a stripped down career mode. For a game that shines as a party game, these online features aren’t paramount to a good time.

Rock Band for the Wii may be missing some features that expand its playing experience, but the core gameplay is intact and it’s as fun as ever. The instruments are solid and the sleek white color of the drum set invokes an Apple-ish design.

Rock Band 2 is slated for a December 2008 release on the Wii and with improved instruments making their way to the Xbox 360 and the PS3 gamers will want to hold off on purchasing this full bundle.

Variety reports  many ex-employees from Midway say the company’s reliance on the licensed Unreal Engine weakened the struggling publisher/developer.

“The mistake we made was, instead of just taking the base Unreal 3 engine that Gears of War was made on and building games off of that, we let our tech and product development guys try to really modify the engine to add all these different things,” an ex-employee told Variety’s Ben Fritz. “It was a ton of new technology which they just weren’t capable of doing. It put all the games way behind schedule.”

Midway had to alter the UE3 engine, licensed from creator Epic Games, for every project individually, meaning its developers didn’t benefit from having shared resources. Many of Midway’s titles were delayed as a result.

Strapped for cash, Midway was forced to release games like Blacksite: Area 51 before they were ready, leading to very negative reviews and poor sales.

Released on Tuesday, Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe is Midway’s best hope for significant income during the holiday season. The game has received mostly average reviews so far. Football game Blitz: The League II was released in October to mediocre reviews. Wheelman, based on a Vin Diesel action movie, and open-world game This is Vegas are scheduled for release in early 2009.

Midway posted a $75.9 million loss in its 2008 third quarter. Chairman Shari Redstone resigned and the company laid off some employees from its Chicago studio. Earlier this year, Midway laid off employees from its Austin studio and closed down its Los Angeles one. 

Along with Mortal Kombat, Midway’s biggest IPs include Rampage, Gauntlet and the rights to games based on TNA wrestling.