What would you get if the designer of some of the greatest point and click adventures of all time in Tim Schafer decided to make a 3D platformer? [i]Psychonauts[/i] is pretty much your answer. [i]Psychonauts[/i] is a humorous, delightful, and stirring tale about a young boy’s dreams of grandeur and his attempts at fulfilling them. This is not an unusual story concept, but one that I don’t think we see often enough in videogames. [i]Psychonauts[/i] delivers a rather quaint and visually strange view of the world where special agents with Psychic powers fight against evil doers, and it just so happens this agency, known as the [i]Psychonauts[/i] oddly enough, recruit from a training camp in the middle of nowhere. The game begins with all the students being given an introduction speech by Coach Oleander, head of the [i]Psychonauts[/i] training camp, and a runaway named Rasputin crashing the party somewhat. Though it is Rasputin’s dearest wish to become a Psychonaut, the fact that he didn’t go through the proper channels or do the right paperwork of course means that technically he couldn’t stay to learn, so he is given a bunk for the night whilst the heads of the camp try to contact his parents.

Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a game if that’s all there was to it. Through a bit of luck and the presence of some obvious Psychic talent, Raz, as he prefers to be called, manages to talk his way into taking the basic “braining” course, with the agreement that should he pass, he could then study for as long as he is at the camp. And so, Raz’s journey begins. And his journey quickly becomes an urgent one when mysterious persons seem to be stealing the brains of all his fellow students! The game has a very surprising twist half way through, and the plot, though pretty standard stuff, is fun to see unfold as almost every new segment of the game introduces a wonderful new character or location.

The basis of [i]Psychonauts[/i]’ structure is quite simple and set up by the very first 3D platformer, Super Mario 64, with the basic idea of there being a hub world and then worlds that are interconnected through portals. [i]Psychonauts[/i] does employ the rather excellent idea of making these other worlds the minds of some of the game’s characters. This means of course that the game escapes form the clichA

Real, time and strategy. Three words that when placed together make many a PC games player yell in joy, but they’re more likely to make me groan. A few years ago, Koei changed that with a splinter series off of their wildly successful series [i]Dynasty Warriors[/i], [i]Kessen[/i]. [i]Kessen[/i] combined effective management of units in battle with full on, hack and slashing action. True, it wasn’t exactly most people’s idea of a real-time strategy game, but it definitely fits the definition and added another dimension to what people like me see as the main problem with pure RTS games – action. So fast forward a few years later and we have a Korean entrant into the strange hybrid genre that [i]Kessen[/i] had created. [i]Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders[/i] is actually a sequel to a mediocre PC RTS game, but has taken a completely different direction to its predecessor. Out go the point and click interface and in control pad based one, but while there is still a degree of PC like input in its mechanics, [i]KUF: TC[/i] for the most part feels every part like it was designed with the Xbox controller in mind. But let’s wait before we get to the game’s gameplay, and talk about its other aspects.

[i]Kessen[/i] was based on the same scenarios as the [i]Dynasty Warriors[/i] games were based on; the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms. [i]Kingdom Under Fire[/i] on the other hand is based on an original source, and quite an interesting one it is too. It tells of a land called Bersia, a fantasy world inhabited by humans, orcs, elves and you probably know the rest. Typical Lord of the Rings, but what makes [i]Kingdom Under Fire[/i] quite untypical is that it is not about heroic quests or maniacal destroyers. No, it reflects a world of conflict, where different races simply cannot get along and feel the need to wage war on one another based on differences of creed, and outside appearances. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Thus the game is divided into four campaigns, two for each of the major sides in the story. On the human side, players can take control of the talented Knight Gerald or the stoic Religious defender Kendall, and for the dark forces players can play as the incredulous Dark Elf Lucretia, my personal favourite, and the superhuman one-man-army Regnier. Yes, Regnier is a human, but one with a rather unique… back-story. Each campaign has it’s own difficulty level and all four tell the same story, from four differing viewpoints. The game does a good job of not portraying the forces of Hexter and Vellond, (the orcs and Dark Elves), as not out rightly evil, in an unbiased fashion. Typically, games, movies and books show these sides as evil and bad, and there’s that, that’s all that there is to be known about them. Yes, they are the aggressors, this time anyway, and yes they hate humans very much, but, not only are these two armies in fact merely the unwilling pawns of a power struggle between Regnier, and Valdemar, the Lord of a race of half-vampires who only hold sway in the east of Bersia thanks to Regnier’s temporary support, but it really isn’t like the human forces are any less guilty of unreasonable hatred towards the other side. Because of this, the games narrative from both sides is genuinely enthralling, and somewhat unexpected, the most tragic, pitiable character in the end, is none other than Lucretia.

And I just can’t write this review without mentioning it… the first half of Lucretia’s campaign has some of the funniest dialogue I have ever seen in any videogame. Her banter with her officers, the air headed Dark Elf Cirith and the cold hearted, sarcastic Morene, a half vampire overseer to Lucretia’s unit, is absolute gold. Although it does tend to rely a bit too much on the word “bitch” sometimes, and the ridiculously forced accents that all the Dark elves seem to have is a bit off-putting, and the game also suffers from some weird aural glitches, seeing as how none of the characters can say the word “Patriarch”, perhaps the uttering of which might collapse all of Bersia or something, all is easy to forgive thanks to a good, if shoddily translated script and some, not too much, genuinely decent voice acting.

Graphically, the game is very impressive, on the whole. Whilst admittedly units tend to just be multiple copies of the exact same character model, it doesn’t matter too much in the middle of battle, and the main players of the plot are rendered extremely well, as they ought to be. The levels are absolutely huge, impressively so. In fact, perhaps they’re even a little too large since generally there isn’t a huge amount of units on a map at the same time, with a few notable exceptions. Still, this does mean the game lends itself well to guerrilla tactics and stealth. Also of note are the abnormal units, things like giant scorpions, storm mammoths, storm riders, bomber wings et al. The sightings of these support units are quite impressive and add variety to the appearance of battle. The game has a rather different soundtrack from what one would normally expect from a medieval fantasy games. What you would expect is an orchestral, dramatic soundtrack, but what you get are rock guitar, hard riffs and screaming solos. I personally like the soundtrack as it gives the game a different feel aurally, a difference matched in its approach to its gameplay, art and story. A lot can be said for a game that goes as far as it can to be unique even when one could argue it is full of clichA

Okay, okay, this is going to be hard to review. I mean, it’s [i]Metal Gear Solid[/i]! If you’re reading this and you have not heard of [i]Metal Gear Solid[/i], I would physically slap you if I could. But anyway, quick history lesson. 1996 saw the release of the world’s first pure stealth 3D game, though I guess the definition of pure stealth has changed over the years, [i]Metal Gear Solid[/i], itself a sequel to two 2D stealth-em-ups in [i]Metal Gear[/i] and [i]Metal Gear 2[/i]. Now, I first played [i]Metal Gear Solid[/i] in 1999, since it debuted here in Europe at the end of 1997 and well, I had a Nintendo 64 at the time. It took me a while to get used to the unusual gameplay, but once I knew what I was doing I promptly started to enjoy myself. What I found extremely interesting however was the fact that I was seeing quite an incredible story unfold through the cut scenes of the game, and the Codec screen which it used instead of the usual dialogue boxes for those long conversations. I am fairly sure this was the first time a game’s story had me riveted to the screen, even through some of the extremely long Codec sequences. The second was probably [i]Final Fantasy VII[/i]. But that’s another story.

[i]Metal Gear Solid[/i]’s story stood out more however than almost any other story based game, with a plethora of interesting characters, multiple devious twists, and some truly heart wrenching moments. The Gameplay itself just about kept up, thanks to plenty of interesting set pieces and some amazing boss battles. A few years later Konami came up with [i]Metal Gear Solid 2[/i], which I loved equally as much, perhaps even more as once I made sense of it’s rather odd ending, I realised that the story itself was an accurate reflection of many real world truths, such as the growth of the information age and the polarisation of the world. But now we fast-forward to last year, 2005, which saw the European release of the third [i]Metal Gear Solid[/i], and fifth [i]Metal Gear[/i]. And the one that this review shall focus on, but that background information I just gave will help in understanding just why I feel about the series the way I do.

One of the first things noticeable in [i]Snake Eater[/i] is the change of setting – from modern wonders of industry to the natural jungle. Also, not only has the setting changed but also the time period, which is the 60s. Certainly quite the rewind, which means the Snake you play as can’t be Solid Snake. No, he is Naked Snake, the man who will one day become Big Boss, antagonist of the original two Metal Gears. So it would seem [i]Snake Eater[/i] is going to fill in all the back-story about his character. And what a story! Sent into the Russian wilderness to rescue a scientist defector, Sokolov, Snake discovers that Sokolov’s research is one damn good reason to get him out, as his research entails the building of a Nuclear Tank, the Shagohod. But Snake fails this first mission, thanks to being double crossed by the one person he trusted the most, his mentor, The Boss. Knocked off a bridge and left for dead, Snake barely survives. Whilst he is recovering, Volgin, a renegade General in the Red Army, launches a nuclear attack on the Shagohod Facility, causing an international incident that could bring the Cold War to a fiery halt. Left with little choice, the American Government sends in Snake again, this time, his mission to kill Volgin, the Boss; her unit and to destroy the Shagohod. A tall order, but if anybody can do it, Snake can.

Okay, so that’s the basics of the plot covered. I’ll leave it up to you to discover the rest of what is bar none one of the greatest thrillers ever conceived. But now, onto the gameplay. [i]Metal Gear Solid[/i] has always been quite unique to play. Utilising an above the head camera system reminiscent of its 2D ancestors, [i]Metal Gear Solid[/i] has always been about paying attention to radar, using equipment the right way and looking for weaknesses in enemy patterns. [i]Snake Eater[/i] is for the most part, not that different. Except owing to the change of time period you can no longer rely on the technological wonder of your radar, and instead must rely on more archaic forms of navigation in order to avoid or defeat the enemy. Also, the addition of a stamina bar, which must be kept, topped up in order to heal Snake’s health and allow him to perform physically exerting acts. Hunting animals and plants, and consuming them can top up the Stamina bar. This of course adds a layer of realism to the game, creating a far more natural experience to the game, in line with the change to a much more natural setting. Another addition is in the form of physical injury, which must be physically treated using a specific menu. These injuries, which include bullet wounds, broken bones and burns, must be treated as quickly as possible as they hinder Snake’s ability to combat enemies. And many of the bosses are capable of inflicting these unpleasant injuries on Snake making his job all the harder.

However, where I personally believe the biggest changes and improvements to the old [i]Metal Gear Solid[/i] formula introduced by [i]Snake Eater[/i] is to the combat system. Not only is there a greater variety of guns, including for the first time ever in Metal Gear, a Shotgun, but also a major addition to Snake’s close range weaponry, a knife. You see, The Boss taught Snake Close Quarters Combat, a fighting technique that allows for the quick neutralisation of enemies at point black range. Mastery of the stealthy approach followed by the quick CQC takedown can make the game a breeze, but then so could master gunplay. That’s what I love in particular about [i]Snake Eater[/i] – the variety of combat approaches, which do work in the game. And the boss battles with The Boss’s Unit are incredibly memorable. My favourite was the 100-year-old Sniper, The End. My battle with him took close to 30 full minutes, in which I made the conscious choice not to try and engage the old fox, a master of camouflage, in a pitched sniper battle but rather I would discern his location and sneak up behind him, leaving him open to an attack. Speaking of Camouflage, I totally forgot. Camouflage is the crux of [i]Snake Eater[/i]’s stealth gameplay. Again, keeping in line with the game’s natural setting, the game shows a percentage onscreen which indicates how well hidden you are. It’s a simple system that works perfectly, but does result in a lot of crawling through grass.

Cutting straight to the chase, [i]Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater[/i] is an incredible game. Offering variety and depth of gameplay above and beyond any of its predecessors or competitors, and continuing the great Metal Gear tradition of having a story that is rich and exciting beyond compare, it’s the perfect action game. The graphics and sound are of course top notch, but hell, do I even need to confirm that? It’s [i]Metal Gear Solid[/i]! Now that you have sat here and read me blabbing on, I expect you to go play [i]Snake Eater[/i] if you have yet to experience it, or better yet wait for Substinence which will contain Metal Gear’s first attempt at multiplayer. If it’s anywhere near as good as the solo game, the PS2 has its online [i]Halo[/i] killer, but of course that won’t be known until it’s out. In finishing, play [i]Snake Eater[/i]. You will not regret it, and if you do, well I’d be shocked.

Originating with the relatively unknown game [i]Koudelka[/i] on the PS1, the [i]Shadow Hearts[/i] series has managed to develop itself a reputation as one of the premier RPG series in the world. Utilizing a highly Westernised artistic design and set in Europe near the start of the 20th century, [i]Shadow Hearts[/i] is not your typical Japanese RPG fare. Indeed, in terms of style, it is very close to the likes of [i]Castlevania[/i] and [i]Devil May Cry[/i] rather than the usual fantasy, sci-fi or pseudo-fantasy/sci-fi setup that most RPGs employ. The character art is very unique and really can’t be compared to any other games I can think of in the RPG genre. And indeed, art style is not the only thing that [i]Shadow Hearts[/i] is unique in.

The most notable gameplay aspect of [i]Shadow Hearts: Covenant[/i] is the Judgement Ring. A circle with a line circling it, players must press the X button at appropriate times on the ring in order to successfully carry out an attack. Players with quick reflexes can even go for ‘strike areas’, or little red areas at the apex of an attack area that will allow for the full power of the attack. The Judgement Ring does two important things for the quality of [i]SHC[/i]’s gameplay. First, it really makes the turn-based battle system a lot more interesting. As a player getting rather bored of just selecting attacks from menus, the Judgement Ring offers a little excitement to the formula. Now, the concept of the Judgement Ring could get rather boring, but this is where the developers cover their backs on that extremely well. The second thing that the Judgement Ring offers is a deep level of customization. Between items that can change the size of the areas, the option to pick a different number of physical attacks per turn, different kinds of rings, keys which allow for multiple spins of the ring and a whole slew of nasty status effects which can affect the Ring’s behavior, the Judgement Ring completely and utterly controls the flow of the game’s gameplay. In other words, it is not a gimmick. No, it is a completely new way of playing an RPG.

Now, time to move to rather more frivolous aspects of the game. [i]SHC[/i] has always offered a lot in terms of presentation. Detailed character models complement some really nice gothic architecture and outdoor areas, which feel really natural. There are a series of absolutely beautiful FMV sequences that pepper the game’s story, and of course, all the usual cut scenes, dialogue boxes and other non-interactive touches. The music isn’t hugely memorable, but the game’s OST, from what I’ve heard, has some nice remixes. Of course, none of the music is going to drill through your ears, so that is something. The voice acting, however, is mostly a revelation. While undoubtedly there are some characters with voices that make you want to strangle them (Garan), [i]SHC[/i] has some great voice acing and definitely some great dialogue. Too many RPGs have been dubbed into English really poorly, but thanks in part to being set in Europe, Midway decided to get some decent voice actors to do the setting some justice.

So we’ve confirmed the game offers nifty presentation and really good gameplay innovation, but what else is important in the RPG genre? Well, story and characterization, of course! The [i]Shadow Hearts[/i] series has made a habit of breaking almost every RPG clichA

The Suffering

January 9, 2006

The suffering of a man within a suffering world is largely what [i]The Suffering[/i] is about. John Torque is awaiting punishment for an incredibly heinous crime: the murder of his own family. In Carnate Penitentiary, the punishment for such a crime is the lethal injection. However, fate has far worse than death in store for Torque. No, he will face his suffering, and he will face the suffering of Carnate itself.

Heh, I seem to be good at pushing a game’s mood and emotion, and I feel that it’s the best way to introduce a game that is very much focused on getting the player to engage with its story and atmosphere. One thing [i]The Suffering[/i] has going for it is a tremendous introduction to its gameplay. Torque is thrown into a cell in Carnate’s death row. He never talks, but people around him speak. It is through what they say that you begin to understand just what has brought Torque to being in this dire situation, and it leads to a lot of questions. Is it really true? Is the character you’re playing really a murderer? Does he even deserve to live? Well, it’s best to save those questions for later because the conversation between Torque and his cell mates is broken up suddenly by a power outage and some very nasty bladed creatures. From there, Torque has to stay alive and find a way out of the prison, and eventually off Carnate Island.

However, his journey is wrought with peril. It soon becomes apparent that Carnate has a tragically awful past full of death, cruelty and of course, suffering. And that suffering seems to have come to life in the form of creatures that symbolically represent each of Carnate’s most horrible incidents, as well as the methods of execution used in the penitentiary. Torque also seems to have an odd abilityA