February 2010


February 14, 2010

Darwinia+ is essentially two games in one. It’s a console port of the original PC title, Darwinia, with a few new additions and tweaks. And it’s also a console port of Multiwinia, the multiplayer version of Darwinia. While Darwinia on the PC was an excellent game, the Xbox Live Arcade port holds up incredibly well on its own as what I consider the best version of the game so far.

Darwinia is a strategy game in which you try to rid a computer from a plague (or a string of viruses) from destroying what little of the mainframe is left. Inside of this computer are little programs known as Darwinians, and it is your job to protect these programs and destroy as much of the virus as possible in each level.  

The game has a very nice look to it with an amazingly catchy soundtrack, both of which complement each other perfectly. It adds to the atmosphere of the game, and it truly feels like you are inside of a computer trying to protect this “world” from being destroyed by the virus. 

Gameplay is pretty basic at first; you start out with two basic types of troops: you have the soldiers and the engineers. The soldiers are your main fighters, the ones who can do direct damage to the viruses you see in each level. The engineers pick up particles left behind by the destroyed (or perhaps deleted) viruses and use them to create new Darwinians. As you progress, you get new abilities for your soldiers and engineers, as well as other helpful tools that make it easier to take out the bigger viruses. 

The Darwinians themselves are the key to each level. Most levels have an objective which tells you to lead a certain number of Darwinians to a safe point in order to progress. You can assign a Darwinian leader to order them around and lead them towards safety, but it’s not that simple, as the Darwinians may get ambushed at certain points and can be destroyed rather easily. You have to continue to protect the Darwinians while also trying to clear out the rest of the level from the virus.

This game may seem simple at first, but as you go from level to level, the challenge ramps up significantly. Luckily the game translated incredibly well to a console, and the controls have been simplified so you can switch from one unit to another or even just navigate the map very easily. It will keep you from losing track of your Darwinians and your other units. But as the game increases in difficulty, it also becomes more and more addictive. 

Once you finish Darwinia, you can move onto Multiwinia, which is the multiplayer game that allows you to face up to three other teams of different colored Darwinians. You have six different modes, including Domination (teams go at it until one of them has full control of the map), King of the Hill, and Capture the Statue (which is the Multiwinia version of capture the flag). With the right group of friends, you can have a lot of fun with this mode. 

The problem I had with it is I could barely find anyone online to play with. I found one match with another person, but he dropped out shortly after the match started, so I resorted to having to play the computer A.I. to try out a lot of the modes. It’s still a fun time waster, but without real people to play against, I don’t see this being as enjoyable as it should be.

Darwinia+ is two great games in one $15 package. It contains an incredibly deep and truly addictive single player strategy game, and a fun multiplayer mode to keep you busy long after the single player ended. I recommend picking this up for Darwinia alone, but having Multiwinia is a nice added bonus. 

Pros: Unique graphical style; incredible music; addictive gameplay; multiplayer is a blast

Cons: Hard to find other people to play multiplayer with


Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is a re-imagining of the original Silent Hill game, done especially for Wii. It follows the story of amnesiac Harry Mason as he searches for his lost daughter Cheryl following a snow-related car accident. The town appears all but deserted —  the parts of it that aren’t literally walled off by snow — and the only tools Harry has at his disposal are a flashlight and a cellphone (plus maybe some flares along the way). There’s something not quite right about this place, and that’s before it periodically freezes over into a nightmarish hellscape inhabited by zombie-like creatures.

Shattered Memories does things a little differently than previous “horror” titles in that you are completely unable to vanquish your tormentors or even confront them directly. When trapped in the Nightmare, Harry’s only option is to run like crazy (fortunately he appears to be in good shape for a novelist); if he gets caught, he must shake off his pursuers before he succumbs to their icy grip — at which point you usually have to start over at the beginning of the Nightmare. Doors and other obstacles are highlighted to give you some guidance, but it’s really easy to get lost and/or loop around back to a previous position as you try to make your way to a checkpoint (and often a monster-free puzzle room) indicated on your phone’s GPS.

Harry’s phone has other useful features besides the GPS (which allows you to make notes, like tracing a path). Its camera can be useful for recalling important images (if you think ahead enough to photograph them); sometimes it can even pick up impressions left behind by ghosts. In fact, the phone is fairly sensitive to emotional impressions in general. Static can be an indicator of a strong “memory” that, if found, will manifest as either a voice mail or text message (unfortunately the text was hard for me to read on my 27″ CRT, much like the problems I experienced while playing MadWorld); it also serves as an indicator of how close you are to oncoming monsters. Every phone number you come across in the game can be dialed and the call plays via the Wii Remote’s speaker not unlike the calls in No More Heroes; some are just flavor, but others provide useful information. Finally, the phone has a save game function, which is something I wouldn’t mind having on my own!

You can access the phone by hitting the – button, or press left, up, or right the D-pad to directly access your GPS, call function, and camera respectively. Pressing down on the D-pad causes Harry to cast a look over his shoulder, which is useful for reminding you how close those creepy zombies are while you’re running. The + button toggles your flashlight (controlled by the Remote’s pointer) for those times when you might not want to attract unwanted attention by generating light. The A button handles pretty much all of your interactions, with the B button zooming in to give you a better look (this works with your camera too); the two buttons work together to grab something when the situation warrants it. Finally, holding down the Z button lets you run; while running Harry will automatically shoulder his way through doors (that are all thankfully — if oddly — “push”) and leap over obstacles, keeping the pace frantic during the chase sequences.

While the Nightmares may increase your pulse, they are they only time Harry is ever in any actual physical danger; this can reduce the intensity of the game for some, but Shattered Memories is more about psychological horror than slasher-style gore. The time in between the Nightmare sequences is mostly spent exploring the unsettling town, occasionally encountering one of a handful of inhabitants that are still to be found. The time in between those segments, however, is the game’s other distinguishing feature: psychoanalysis. You will frequently find  yourself on the couch of Dr. K as he probes your psyche to figure out what the heck is going on — both inside your head and in general. Every “session” ends with a test of various types; you’ll encounter inkblots, questionnaires, photographs, and other exams that the game will then use against you. The way you respond to these exams (and other aspects of the game while playing) will influence how the game unfolds; certain characters (including the monsters) might change appearance, locations might be different, or any number of other subtle changes might happen to personalize the experience up to and including the eventual ending. The game warns you up front that “it plays you as much as you play it;” that’s something of an over-dramatization, but it still adds an extra dimension that makes the game unique and invites potential replays.

Harry’s adventure is a strange one, and thus so is yours as you play. You’ll be wondering just what the hell is going on, and just when you think you might have a grip on it everything changes — sometimes literally. There were times when I needed to work up the motivation to continue playing (and rarely did so for more than a couple of hours at a time), but that was due to the game’s emotional nature and not any inherent flaws. And while it does have a flaw or two (for example, you can’t run while you have the phone out, somewhat mitigating its usefulness during chases) they are easily eclipsed by the solid story and presentation. I went into Shattered Memories without any prior Silent Hill experience, but I’ve heard similar accolades from series veterans. It is easily one of the premier (if sparse) M-rated titles for the Wii, and definitely worth picking up for both long-time residents of Silent Hill and newcomers alike.  

Plays like: The absence of combat makes the gameplay fairly distinct amongst 3rd-person games.

Pros: Genuinely creepy atmosphere; psychological analysis makes for interesting theme and adds replayability

Cons: Although you’re never quite sure when the Nightmare will strike, there’s absolutely no danger until it actually does; some phone interfaces are awkward, especially while being chased


Time Hollow

February 14, 2010

Konami’s Time Hollow is a point-and-click adventure that trades the genre’s usual emphasis on puzzles and inventory management for some fourth-dimensional thinking. Hero Ethan Karios inherits a strange item from his father that allows him to essentially poke a hole through time to make small changes to the past. Of course, right before he receives this item his parents go missing and apparently perished over a decade ago. Ethan’s ultimate mission is to save his parents and restore the timeline he remembers, but along the way he’ll have to solve several other issues with his friends and family. One thing is for certain: whoever has made these changes is playing for keeps.

Ethan can only open a hole to certain places and certain times. He will occasionally receive “flashbacks” to scenes that are important. As he investigates them, he uncovers details about them (since many of them never happened as he remembers). Once he has all of the details he can open a hole (by drawing a circle with the stylus) and attempt to correct the past, but how he can accomplish this may not be immediately apparent. Further complicating the issue is the fact that it costs him some of his “own time” (as in “life span”) to open a hole, so he can’t just poke around randomly without serious consequences. Finally, the change you make might affect the time line in unexpected ways…

When looking around in the present, you can pan to the left or right a little (using either the stylus or shoulder buttons). Often important details lie at the periphery of a scene, so it pays to look around. And although the flashbacks are static, photograph-like images, once you create the hole you can still pan around within the hole you’ve opened to find things that can’t be seen in the image. You don’t get too many shots at making holes, and later on you’ll need to open several (and have less time left to do so) in order to succeed. You can occasionally find “chronons” around town to replenish some of your lost time, but you still need to be cautious (and probably judicious with your saves).

While the time-altering mechanics are fairly consistent, the game play is sadly linear. You can’t avoid a poor outcome just because you know it’s going to happen, and you can’t experiment with alternate solutions. For example, in one early mission an acquaintance of Ethan’s is killed in a car accident; Ethan changes things so she isn’t there at the time but a dog is killed in the same accident instead. Even knowing that your first change will have that outcome, you have no choice but to “cause” the dog’s death to happen (don’t worry, Ethan soon corrects that problem too). The events surrounding that mission affect future ones, but you can’t intercept them and shortcut the whole process. The “new game+” is something of an exception, but I don’t want to spoil too much. 

Time Hollow is very by-the-numbers, and not really something I would recommend hunting down to own; it was released in small quantities 2008 and copies can be hard to find (although the one I picked up was unopened, so they’re out there). However, it’s definitely worth at least a rent and makes a nice addition to your collection if you’re a fan of the genre. If you liked Trace Memory and/or Hotel Dusk then Time Hollow probably deserves to sit next to them in your collection.

Plays like: Other point-and-click adventures

Pros: Interesting concept

Cons: Static game play; little to no room for innovation


Sands of Destruction

February 14, 2010

Most RPGs feature a team of teenagers who are inexplicably the only ones who can save the world. Sands of Destruction keeps the teenagers, but flips the convention by putting them on the path to destroy the world — and no, they’re not the villains. The world is divided into two general races: the animalistic ruling class of the Ferals (led by twelve Beastlords) and the subservient Humans. Most Ferals treat Humans like lesser life forms (some more than others), and understandably a few Humans have taken exception to this. The most extreme of these rebel factions is known as the World Annihilation Front, and it is that faction which main hero Kyrie (“kee-ree-ay”) finds himself unwittingly joining.

Kyrie meets up with WAF member Morte — aka “The Scarlet Death” — shortly after a mysterious force turns his home town — and everyone in it but him — to a pile of sand. The two meet up with others along the way, eventually accumulating a party of six (three of which are active at any given time), but they’re the primary focus of the narrative. In addition to the Beastlords, the heroes will also have to deal with opposing Human factions as well as elemental forces known as Primals on their path to destroying the world. At least, that’s the goal in theory. In practice that mission statement changes (somewhat predictably, somewhat annoyingly) about halfway through the adventure, but the general sentiment is still the same.

While the story may lose some wind, the combat system remains fairly strong throughout the game. Each character has a strong attack (“blow”) and a weaker, combo-oriented attack (“flurry”) in addition to various skills (offensive “blood skills” and defensive “life skills”); these are accessed by hitting the corresponding buttons (navigating menus in the case of skills/items). Normally each character has two Battle Points (BP); each action consumes one BP, and when you are out of BP — or when you use an item — your turn ends. However, certain conditions can grant you additional BP; having a high morale, your first critical hit per turn, every ten consecutive hits in a combo, stunnning/KOing/tossing an enemy for a follow-up attack, and other factors can build your BP total to a maximum of six. Once you hit six BP, you can unleash a powerful Special Attack or Special Skill that will inflict serious damage on  your opponents (or greatly help your party). Special Attacks require a five-button sequence to be entered quickly for maximum effectiveness, with three stages of power (fast entry, slow entry, and incomplete entry); an ability granted by some items can turn that sequence into nothing but Xs for rapid entry, but the sequences are specific for each character’s Special Attack and you can memorize them with little effort (Morte’s just alternates Y and B, for example).

In addition to cash, items, and xp, winning combat will earn participating characters Customization Points (CP). CP can be spent to improve the accuracy or damage of your various attacks (cost/power for skills); regardless of the move’s type, increasing one aspect decreases the other, so some sort of balance is usually in order. As abilities reach certain thresholds you can unlock new ones and intensify their effects. Combo moves can be chained to their more advanced follow-ups to enable truly ridiculous flurries with the press of a single button and thus one BP; one character can get in a crazy seventeen hits per flurry when fully chained, virtually guaranteeing a Special Attack against an enemy that doesn’t just die outright to being on the receiving end of a 40-hit combo. 

When combined with the fact that high combos provide CP bonuses, you might think that there would be no reason to ever use the slower but more powerful blows. However, some enemies — often bosses — have an ability that increases their speed (and thus affects when they move in the turn order) with each hit they take. If you unload with a thirty-hit combo, you might find yourself on the receiving end of several devastating turns in rapid succession in retaliation. Additionally, flying enemies (and those on the upper screen for other reasons, like being enormous) are harder to combo against since you have to jump to hit them (even if your character is using a gun or whip…); blows can often knock them down to ground level for easier pummeling. It really is a nicely-balanced system that keeps things interesting, even if skills are usually vastly inferior to the attacks (except when the skills allow for hitting multiple opponents at once).

Also keeping things interesting is the “quip” system. As you progress through the story, your characters will pick up catch phrases that are retained for future use. You can assign up to four of these quips to trigger at specific times in battle; they can happen at the start of combat, when you get hit, or several other times specific to each quip.  A quip gives you various bonuses, like increased defense, higher morale, or doubling the gold earned. They don’t fire all the time, and several assigned quips can be competing for the same trigger, but they do provide a nice break to what can be an otherwise fairly mechanical combat. Kyrie’s “It’s probably my fault” quip is one of the strangest, most self-depreicating things I’ve ever heard a primary hero utter. 

Overall, Sands of Destruction is an above-average RPG on a system that attracts them. While I didn’t care for the change in tone (and the other changes that came with it) in the middle, I did appreciate the neat little combat system and enjoyed the characters. I’ve certainly played worse RPGs, and Sands provides several opportunities to customize the game from CP to quips to being able to enhance weapons at blacksmiths using items dropped by beaten foes. It may be a little trite towards the end, but it’s never boring. The quest itself should occupy about 30 hours of your time, which isn’t a bad deal for the now-standard $35 DS RPG price tag. 

Plays like: most other RPGs. There is innovation here, but still fairly standard stuff.

Pros: Unique two-screen combat system; amusing “quips”; solid cast of characters

Cons: Poor “documentation” when it comes to the nuts and bolts of the world (which elements are superior/inferior to which other ones, what certain abilities do, etc.); disappointing plot shift about halfway through; awkward automatic camera in towns.


The Amazing Brain Train

February 14, 2010

The Amazing Brain Train is a great example of a family-friendly game that teaches children something along the way. Those of you that spend your weekend playing Halo 3 and Uncharted 2 don’t need to read any further – Brain Train is not for you unless you have a little one running around. Playing through The Amazing Brain Train brought back fond memories of playing Treasure Mountain and Math Blaster on my grade school PC, and that’s a good thing. The Amazing Brain Train manages to be both entertaining and fun for its target audience.

The Amazing Brain Train does its best to hold kids’ attention by stitching the various minigames together with a whimsical quest mode where the player is tasked with solving puzzles to help animals. The story is mostly fluff, but it serves its purpose well enough – do well at the provided puzzles, help the animals, and earn fuel for your train to move on to the next area. Puzzles range from sliding block puzzles to memory exercises to light redirection. There are about a dozen puzzle types, but each time a puzzle type is played the setup will be slightly different – the obstacles in the light redirection puzzle will be placed differently, or a different number of monkeys will jump into the leftmost bush (memory puzzle).

Graphically, The Amazing Brain Train looks like a Saturday morning cartoon. The visuals are simple, but that serves to make objects easy to identify for younger players. A lack of widescreen support is a little surprising, but everything that you need to see is presented to you. 

Wahoo has also incorporated one of my favorite features from the Xbox 360, PS3, and Steam platforms – achievements. Achievements work very well here as they serve as goals for kids to attain. The Amazing Brain Train is a great precursor to games like Nintendo’s own Brain Age, but it presents an upgrade from the Leapster platform creating a good stepping stone from the simple to the more complex. And it’s always nice to point a child at a game that will flex the brain instead of the trigger finger.

Pros: teaches and entertains simultaneously

Cons: no widescreen support

Plays Like: Brain Age, Treasure Mountain