August 2010

In Cyclades, designed by Bruno Cathala and Ludovic Maublanc (the same team responsible for Mr. Jack and Cleopatra and the Society of Architects), up to five rival cities vie to achieve dominance amongst the Greek islands by making offerings to gods, enlisting the aid of mythical creatures, and building metropolises.

The goal of the game is to construct a second metropolis (or a third in the two-player variant), which is normally accomplished by controlling one of each of the four building types although there are alternate methods. Each player begins with five gold pieces (kept secret behind their screen), control of two islands, and two fleets; each starting position has a total income of two gold, and each player has six troops and six fleets in reserve. The first cycle’s turn order is determined randomly.

At the beginning of each cycle (round), the mythical creatures track is filled with a new card for every empty space (except on the first two rounds) and the four god tiles are randomly placed on the bidding track; if there are less than five players some of them will be placed face down and be the first one(s) on the track for the next cycle (or every other cycle, depending). Each player then collects their income, represented by the number of controlled cornucopias. Starting with the first player, each player then bids an amount to offer to one of the four gods or seeks Apollo’s aid, which is free. If a player is outbid by another, the outbid player immediately places a new bid on a different god; this chain reaction continues until no player is outbid, at which point the next player who has not placed a bid does so. Once everybody has a standing bid (or has gone to Apollo), the offerings are paid simultaneously. The two-player rules allow each player to beseech two gods a turn, but otherwise this phase works the same.

Once the offerings are done, the players’ actions get resolved in the order of the gods on the track; the winner of the first god executes all of their actions, and then so on down the line. Each god except Apollo has several abilities, which includes a recruitment ability, a building ability, and  a special ability (except Athena). Additionally, all non-Apollo gods also have the ability to recruit creatures. Zeus recruits priests which reduce the amount required to pay for future offerings (to a minimum of one), builds temples which can be used to reduce the recruitment cost of a single creature (again, to a minimum of one), and can discard a creature on the track and replace it with the top card of the deck. Poseidon recruits fleets, builds ports that give extra defense to all friendly adjacent fleets, and can move fleets up to three spaces per gold spent. Ares is sort of a land-based Poseidon, recruiting troops, building fortresses, and allowing troops to move over a chain of fleets to conquer a new island. Athena recruits philosophers — four of which earn you a free metropolis! — and builds universities — whose only function is to be one-fourth of a metropolis. Finally, Apollo awards you an additional gold piece, or four if you are down to only one controlled island; the first player to beseech Apollo each cycle also gains an additional cornucopia to place on one of their islands for additional income. After you have used all of the abilities of your god that you wish to (and/or can afford to), place your bid marker on the lowest turn order space; the first to execute actions will bid last in the next round, while those on Apollo will go first.

When opposing fleets or troops share the same space/island, combat ensues. Each round of combat is resolved by the players rolling an averaging die (0, 1, 1, 2, 2, 3) and then adding the number of troops/fleets controlled, plus any defensive bonuses granted by fortresses/ports. The losing side sacrifices a troop/fleet, with both sides suffering casualties in the event of a tie. After each round each player has the option of retreating, if able, otherwise the combat continues with new rolls until one side is wiped out.  Any buildings and cornucopias on a conquered island are claimed by the victor, which includes a metropolis; this is the third and final way to gain one. You will also probably need to conquer additional islands in order to build your second metropolis, as each island has room for a limited number of buildings and building a metropolis may require the demolition of existing buildings if you are careless (usually relevant when getting your fourth philosopher). However, an opponent who controls only one island cannot be attacked unless that attack will result in the attacker winning the game via conquered buildings.

The powers of the creatures are unique and varied, with some extremely powerful and others of a more niche use. There are about fifteen of them, with the ability of one including reshuffling the “graveyard” back into the deck. Five of the creatures have a lasting effect on the board and have their own figures to represent this; the rest are one-shot effects. The cards use a symbology which makes sense if you know what the abilities are, but the handy quick-start guide includes descriptions for all of them. Using creatures will be a key factor in many games, and knowing which ones may be useful to those acting after you — and potentially before you — is one of many aspects of the game that should be tracked.

The game ends at the conclusion of a cycle in which a player obtains his second (or third) metropolis. In the event of a tie, the player with the most remaining gold wins. Since the win condition and everyone’s progress towards it is obvious to all, later rounds often shift into “stop the leader”, with the ultimate win ultimately coming either from an unstoppable breakthrough round, an under-the-radar sneak win, or a kingmaker action (especially when two players are both vying for the same route to victory). Sadly, the random nature of the combat die and the creature deck can sometimes cause “lucky” wins that owed little to actual strategy (that round, at least), but it’s a minor problem in an otherwise finely strategic game. A session of Cyclades is usually complete in about an hour. 

Cyclades retails for around $60, but you get a lot of materials for that price. Each city’s fleets and troops are uniquely sculpted plastic pawns (as opposed to the generic wooden pawns of the European editions), as are the larger-than-life creature pawns (which the European version lacks entirely; the cardboard tokens used for that edition are also included), and the massive amount of gold coins are heavyweight cardboard. The cards are stronger than most games, even though only the creatures will be shuffled. Finally, the three-piece game board is double-sided to accommodate different board sizes for different numbers of players (the back of the god/creature track is a mural image). 

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a game for a very specific audience. If you fall outside of its demographic, it isn’t very appealing. 

Of course, its demographic is people who like games. So you’ll like it quite a lot.

Scott Pilgrim is a side-scrolling brawler that borrows heavily from 8-bit classic River City Ransom. You play as the main characters in the graphic novel series: protagonist Scott Pilgrim, love interest Ramona Flowers, band frontman Stephen Stills and drummer Kim Pine. Each character has a variation on the same moves, so while it provides a bit of variety, all of them are similar enough that there won’t be arguments about who is who. You beat up a bunch of enemies inexplicably violent towards you on the way to a boss, who is also inexplicably violent towards you. But this is Scott Pilgrim, where it’s accepted as normal that someone would have to kill a girl’s exes to date her (and no one bats an eye when they’re all extremely talented fighters with special abilities). Of course, it’s all based on video game logic, so even those who haven’t read the books would get the humor.

Not that you shouldn’t read them before playing. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is stuffed full of references only fans would get, from amusing scenes animated in the background to weaknesses of bosses to…well, everything really.

The game tries to push the right buttons for its audience, and with the fervor of a new Tekken player. The love letter to early-1990s games includes a world map reminiscent of Super Mario World, secret codes pulled directly from Street Fighter and Sonic 3, a menu aesthetic that evokes EarthBound and chiptunes from Anamanaguchi. There are ninjas, zombies, robots and clones. Ubisoft may have tried a little too hard here, but that’s amusing in its own right.

Since the game stays true to the graphic novels and only has seven bosses, it’s not very long. Some attempts were made to add replay value. Each character has its own ending, and reaching certain milestones unlocks a few more playable heroes. The game’s RPG system means you can play again and shape a character’s stats differently. There are three difficulty levels that range from reasonable to ridiculous, and even with a powered-up character the higher levels are a challenge. Online multiplayer is not supported (though four can play locally), but leaderboards are there to stimulate the competitive among us.

Ultimately, though it’s tied to the movie release, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World isn’t really a movie game. It stays closer to the books’ plot and doesn’t include any likenesses or voices from the film. Yes, it’s more enjoyable if you’ve read the series. But that doesn’t mean I won’t recommend that you buy it. That just means I recommend that you read the books and then buy it.


Trinity Universe

August 11, 2010

Trinity Universe is one of the hardest games to define, as it seems to be the amalgamation of several different series with questionable results. Depending upon your knowledge of beloved series like Atelier, Disgaea and Valkyrie, you may be left scratching your head in confusion or laughing till you cry. Do you love Japanese RPGs that place an emphasis on grinding over story? Do you love quirky characters with nonsensical dialogue that goes nowhere yet makes you laugh? Do you love dungeon crawlers with plenty of loot to upgrade your characters to the point of being overpowered? How you answer these questions will ultimately tell you where you may fall with this title.

Trinity Universe takes place in the city of Empyria, a lone safe harbor within the Netheruniverse where lost things float about in a vortex. Floating objects such as bonsai trees and shoes come and go past Empyria without issue but occasionally a dungeon will enter the gravity pull of the city, threatening to destroy the town. Here you take the role of one of two saviors taking two different yet converging paths to save the city: Demon Dog Kanata takes the easier difficulty path, using the dungeons as a reason to escape your fate while chowing down on everything you come across, and Valkyrie Rizelia wants to right wrongs and force the Demon Dog Kanata to face his ultimate destiny. Merely a façade for hijinks, the plot doesn’t really explain anything until you complete both paths opening up a third path and hidden character to explore around with.

While both initial paths are supposed to be different in difficulty and story, they intertwine enough that you get almost the same experience with both. The biggest difference between each path is when you get access to extras associated with your party members, whether it be the Monster Coliseum or the various shops, you may need to wait longer to access them. In the end the game always ends up with your hero going on a dungeon crawl.

To stop the random dungeons from destroying Empyria, you need to enter them and destroy a gravity core that is guarded by a boss. Here the game devolves significantly as the light hearted nature of the game quickly becomes rote grinding. Each dungeon has its own personality, but unfortunately the designs seemed lackluster and repetitive with occasional horrible camera issues. Likewise the exploration and combat seemed to be an afterthought compared to the witty dialogue.

Random encounters and boss battles use a turn-based Action Point (AP) system where you could use a set amount of AP per turn to use strong, weak or magic attacks, each mapped to a face button. Add to that a static camera behind the heroes and limited animations and grinding, and you have a truly boring experience of mostly spamming square or triangle over and over. For the first couple of hours you have this to look forward to until the game opens additional mechanics that allow you to synthesize items and forge better weapons based off of loot drops.

It pays off if you can make it past this phase, because the item creation system is truly in-depth and allows you to create some unstoppable weapons. Depending upon your feel, this could either be a bad or good thing, because the grinding becomes easier, but you devolve into more button spamming to progress. At this point, only in the boss battles do you need to exercise any caution with strategy to make it out alive.

Visually the game is hit or miss; during the 2D cutscenes the character animations are manga heavy with bright colors and vibrant with emotions and humor, while the dungeons almost look like something you could have found on the PlayStation 2. The cutscenes use an interesting movement to create a breathing image that moves as the characters talk to each other, hair gently sways and dog ears flap ever so lightly. Voice acting is top-notch with the actors emoting just as much ridiculousness as the dialogue demands, but the score is often repetitive and drab, especially in the dungeons. 

Trinity Universe is a mixed bag that seems to cater to a specific crowd. If you are in-the-know about JRPGs, you will be pleasantly surprised by how everything mixes together. If you aren’t, there is a strong possibility you won’t make it past the first couple of hours to experience what the game truly has to offer.

Pros: Quirky memorable characters, plenty to do past the first couple of hours

Cons: Lackluster combat and grinding, with a couple of boring hours in the beginning


This week we recognize a new leader in our rankings while discussing Kinect, sequel spam, and DLC.

Current score

Andrew Passafiume: +270

Graham Russell: +184

Eric Schabel: +100

Shawn Vermette: +275



NBA Jam remake coming to Xbox 360 and PS3

EA has announced that a truncated version of NBA Jam will be given away for free to purchasers of NBA Elite 11 on the Xbox 360 and PS3. Unfortunately for those who only want NBA Jam, EA says that as of right now, there is no other way to get it on the 360 and PS3.

Andrew 50% = +0

Eric 80% = +30

Graham 60% = +10

Shawn 80% = +30


Kinect to recognize American Sign Language

So far we’ve been told that Kinect can track your body and joint movements and recognize your voice and face. Now, there’s a possibility that Kinect will even be able to detect American Sign Language. According to a patent filing, Microsoft plans on making Kinect recognize ASL motions and then verbalize them to those you are playing a with or against online. Will gamers be able to taunt each other with their hands this fall? Or will this be yet another patent filing that never sees the light of day?

Andrew: I really see no reason why it wouldn’t be able to, but at the same time it doesn’t seem like something that will ever really a feature that most (if any) people who bought the device would actually take advantage of.  50%

Graham: It’s capable of it. It seems like it’d have to be implemented individually in each instance, but whether it’s widely used isn’t the issue. I don’t usually stick my neck out, but I’m confident. Yep, it’ll be there.   90%

Eric: This is certainly a neat idea, though obviously American Sign Language would not be utilized by the vast majority of users. The Kinect technology certainly seems capable enough to pull off signing recognition, though, and it could be an interesting teaching tool. That said, I don’t think most gamers would bother to learn the language to sign to their friends when they can just use a headset. 60%

Shawn: I’m sure it’s possible for Kinect to recognize ASL, the question is whether Microsoft thinks there are enough deaf gamers who would use it to bother programming it to do so. On the other hand, Microsoft might go ahead and program it to recognize sign language just to be able to say that it can. 65%

EA prepping another Dead Space title in Dead Space: Sabotage

EA has introduced a great many new franchises in the last couple years, with the most popular being Dead Space. Since its introduction, EA has gone into overdrive expanding the Dead Space universe, having created Dead Space: Extraction, Dead Space: Ignition, and Dead Space 2 in the interactive realm, while releasing Dead Space: Martyr and Dead Space: Salvage as books, and Dead Space: Aftermath and Dead Space: Downfall showing up on DVD. EA recently secured the rights to, so we’re sure to see it in one form or another, but will it be a game or some other form of entertainment?

Andrew: I really don’t think EA would be giving us yet another game with the downloadable Dead Space 2 “prequel” and Dead Space 2 itself both arriving by the end January. I could see it being another book or film based on the series, or even something different altogether, but I really don’t think it will be another game. 30%

Graham: Consider my neck safely back in. Sabotage could very well be some other property, since they’re not exactly shy about those. Add in the fact that we aren’t even seeing Dead Space 2 until next year, and starting work on another one would be premature. 50%

Eric: I think we will be seeing Dead Space Sabotage show up sooner or later, but I really don’t know if it will be in the form of a video game. However, since games are the most successful medium for the Dead Space franchise, I would guess Sabotage is likely to be a new game title.  75%

Shawn: Dead Space: Sabotage will definitely exist, along with who knows how many other titles…my only question is whether it will be as a game or not. At this point, I am completely unsure because of the large number of tie-in media being produced by EA. So…I think I’ll go with my first throwaway vote yet. 50%


Castlevania: Harmony of Despair to add two new playable characters

Even though Castlevania: Harmony of Despair just came out this week, rumors are swirling about possibilities for DLC for it. Among the more interesting is a rumor stating that Maria Renard and Julius Belmont will soon be added via DLC to the already robust stable of playable characters in Harmony of Despair.

Andrew: Considering there are many different playable characters in the Castlevania series, I really don’t see why Konami wouldn’t take advantage of this. I definitely see these two coming out soon and starting a trend that will lead to many more CV favorites ending up in the multiplayer adventure. 95%

Graham:  The return of the neck! Yeah, this’ll happen. We’re a DLC-crazed world now, and playable characters are the kind that even I approve of. With all the hype the game is getting as part of the Summer of Arcade, it would be strange if they weren’t working on something. 90% 

Eric: Sure, why not? Most games are being designed with DLC in mind these days, and I can’t imagine it would be too difficult to prep some new playable characters for Harmony of Despair. I haven’t played the game myself, but I do know that adding new characters is a good way to get players to come back for more (and to spend a little more, too). 80%

Shawn: Konami will definitely add more characters. Launching Harmony of Despair with just 5 characters and a 6 player co-op mode literally begs for more playable characters. Will they be Maria Renard and Julius Belmont? Well…given that I’ve never played a Castlevania game yet I recognize both those characters tell me that they are very likely candidates to be added. 85% 

For those who remember the good ol’ days of Diablo II, with its mouse-destroying point-and-click combat, it has been a very long time since they’ve been able to set forth on a new adventure. READ MORE