John Marques

Dragon Ball Z is a staple of action anime known all around the world, and has been the basis for many different fighting games over the years. The most recent evolution in the series of games is Burst Limit for the XBox 360, and it looks and plays spectacularly. It continues on in the tradition of the Budokai game series from the PS2 and PSP, with simple controls with very fun game play.

The game covers three of the major story arcs from the anime. There’s the Saiyan Saga in which Goku’s brother Raditz comes to Earth to try and make him join his evil cause, followed closely by Nappa and Vegeta. Next is the Frieza Saga where the heroes journey to the planet Namek to try and wish their fallen friends back to life while fending off the demonic Frieza and his goon squad the Ginyu Force. Finally comes the Cell Saga in which Dr. Gero’s androids numbered 16 through 18 terrorize the people of the earth, with 17 and 18 ending up as nourishment for the bio-android Cell.

The game play is fairly straightforward. The player picks a scenario from the Z Chronicles menu and then a chapter to begin the story advancement. As stated before, the main arcs are the Saiyan, Frieza, and Cell sagas, with each one being unlocked in sequence upon completion of the prior. The battles in story mode, as well in the versus mode, are played out like in a typical fighting game, exchanging blows and special attacks until one player has their life depleted. The controls include a light “rush” attack which allows for long combos of quicker hits, or a harder “smash” attack to more quickly penetrate defense and knock opponents away.

In addition to physical attacks and combos are the staple “ki”, or energy attacks, that most people familiar with Dragon Ball Z have come to know. Normal ki blasts can be unleashed by pressing the button in quick succession to fire several small blasts, or by holding it down to let loose a larger one. By pressing back or forward on the stick or pad and pressing the ki button, the selected character will unleash a Special Attack. Holding down the ki button allows for the attack to build up more power and deal more damage. Pressing up on the stick or pad and hitting the ki button while the player’s ki gauge is full launches an Ultimate Attack, one that expends all of the player’s ki but is a great deal stronger than other attacks.

The game also has a number of advanced maneuvers like pursuit attacks which can be used to knock an opponent around the arena like a pinball, vanishing moves that are useful for evading the enemy and striking them from behind, the reflection of low-level ki blasts, the ability to dodge melee attacks and avoid all damage, ultimate guarding which blocks any damage except from throws, aura sparks to temporarily increase attack power, and transformations to augment the characters’ abilities and change their appearance. All of this sounds like quite a bit, but the game has a very in-depth tutorial that outlines each of these techniques, how they work, when it’s best to use them, and what the practicality of each technique is.

The fighting engine is quite fluid, and plays similarly to past entries in the Budokai series, chiefly the Shin Budokai series as mentioned before, with its simplified controls and easy to execute special moves. In that regard, once someone learn how to use one character, it’s fairly simple to learn the nuances of many of the others. The games includes the story mode called the Z Chronicles mode and covers the mentioned three major story arcs with two hidden stories, a survival mode to see if the player can last 100 fights, time trials, and a battle point mode where the player is scored depending on their skill. The one mode that fans have been waiting for for quite some time is the addition of the online mode. It’s a little on the laggy side, but still great for casual play with friends.

The story is where the game feels a little lackluster. Each battle is introduced and concluded with really well animated cut scenes that outline the story leading up to and out of the battle, but they leave out a large amount of detail. In lieu of longer cut scenes, Burst Limit uses a Drama Piece system. Depending on the conditions of a battle, a Drama Piece may be triggered and change the outcome of the fight. For starters, when fighting Raditz as Goku at the start of the game, try using a Kamehameha to see an example of such. Even with the Drama Pieces though, a lot of the plot begs to be filled in. Only longtime fans of the anime series will likely be able to readily piece the events of the story mode together.

Despite the laggy online play and skimping on story details, Burst Limit sports some amazing visuals and has a great soundtrack that helps keep the mood of battles fast-paced. The game’s roster might seem a bit underwhelming clocking in at 21 playable characters and five stages if you’ve just come from Budokai Tenkaichi 3‘s 150+ characters 20+ stages, but being that Burst Limit covers a little over half the DBZ storyline, there’s sure to be a sequel with more content in the works. Even if you haven’t played a Budokai or Shin Budokai game, it’s still relatively easy to pick up and play and is a blast to play through. It’s definitely worth checking out.

Most games that have “extreme” or such derivations in their titles are almost invariably not. This latest entry into classic territory actually is. Space Invaders Extreme starts off as the classic game does, with a space craft darting left to right. New alien types of different colors and sizes have been thrown into the mix to vary the gameplay a bit. Alien colors come in a variety of colors; defeating four of any color alien other than white nets a power up: red turns the player’s shots into bombs that hurt enemies in proximity to the blast, blue enables a devastating beam that tears through entire columns, green changes shots into a wide-area type that can hit multiple enemies at once, and black enables a shield to guard the player from damage.

This might all seem relatively basic, but defeating 4 aliens of one color followed by 4 aliens of another color, not including whites, makes a flashing saucer glide across the top of the screen. Shooting this saucer enables Round mode, a mini-game where the player is given an objective, i.e. shoot down 8 saucers, destroy 15 invaders, etc, in a certain time frame. If the player fails, the gameplay reverts to normal. If the player clears the Round, then game enters Fever mode. During Fever mode, the player is given temporary use of one of the three subweapons and is instructed to destroy as many aliens as possible. The more aliens shot down, the higher the Fever bonus.

The saucers mentioned earlier that enable Round mode also come in different colors: white which act as normal, blue which fire a laser beam, green which drop more aliens on the field, red which immediately begin Round mode much like flashing saucers, and yellow which start the roulette minigame. During the roulette, several color aliens spin around. Depending on which color is hit, the player gets different awards.

Each stage consists of a number of waves of aliens followed by an encounter with a boss. Bosses range from simply being larger versions of other aliens to multiple aliens that can combine together to make an STILL larger one with very specific weak points. It’s fair to say, for being a 30-year-old concept, the variety of enemy types is quite staggering in this game.

The multiplayer experience is unfortunately limited only to local wi-fi, unlike the game’s DS counterpart. Battles are fought by clearing as many waves of enemies as possible. The game ends when one player loses all their lives. Simple, yet very fun. The game experience itself cam be likened to being like the classic Space Invaders with more enemy types, and a dynamic that one might expect from a Lumines game insofar that the game action matches up with the rhythm of the music and makes it very trance-like. The game is fast, frantic, and certainly worth adding to your collection.

Arkanoid DS

July 8, 2008

Arkanoid ranks highly as an arcade classic, despite being a takeoff of Atari’s Breakout. The plot of the game revolves around the planet Arkanoid and eight satellites that orbit it. Each of these satellites is powered by the light of an alien hero. One day, the heroes of the satellites are all called to one of them, Ananke. A rift in space opened, drawing in seven of the heroes, leaving only the hero of Ananke behind to defend Arkanoid from an evil alien horde using the spacecraft Vaus.

The gameplay is simple and straightforward: use a paddle (as is the case in Arkanoid series, Vaus) to bounce the ball around the field and destroy all the bricks to advance to the next stage. Certain blocks like the silver blocks require two hits to break, and gold ones can’t be broken at all. Some blocks drop items like paddle extensions to make hitting the ball easier, laser gun upgrades to shoot blocks, the ability to catch and re-launch the ball, multi-ball upgrades, slowing the ball’s speed, and turning the ball into a megaball able to shred through blocks without bouncing off them. More uncommon abilities include reducing the size of the paddle which also doubles the points earned, the vanish ability which causes the ball to clear all blocks of a single color on the next bounce, and the rarest of all, a warp ability that automatically clears a level.

The single player experience consists of clear, quest, or versus the computer modes. Clear mode allows the player to traverse the seven invaded satellites, each with five stages. The end of the game consists of a battle and freeing the alien heroes from their captors. There are branching paths along the way, each with a different set of stages all leading up to a slightly different ending. Each ending gives a hint to unlocking a bonus, so be sure and pay attention during each ending. Quest mode allows replay of levels cleared in clear mode, each with a specific puzzle or objective such as clearing all blocks of a designated color, clearing all blocks, using a limited amount of lives, and so on.

The VS COM mode consists of two submodes: a race to clear all blocks of a certain color from the field, or a race to clear all blocks. In versus games, ball speed reduction and paddle size reduction power-downs still appear, but affect the opponent’s field instead of the player’s own, as well as other items to make more blocks appear on the opponent’s field. The game also has local and wi-fi multiplayer for 2 to 4 players, with the same modes as the previously mentioned VS COM game. The multiplayer experience is a bit limited, what with only two modes of play. However, playing with friends via the WFC is still enjoyable.

While playing through most of these game types, the player can accrue “game points.” These points can be traded for extras to enhance the game experience: backgrounds, sound effects, frames that shape the field, music tracks, block shape, and even the type of Vaus used to launch the ball. Probably one of the most amusing things about the game is that some of the levels, custom backgrounds, sounds, and block types pay homage other Taito games such as Space Invaders, Bubble Bobble, Exit, Lost Magic, Legend of Kage, Darius, and more.

Arkanoid DS is a wonderful game experience with a great presentation: it’s the classic game with all sorts of new levels and a wonderful soundtrack. For all its positives though, there’s a bit to frown upon. It feels a bit incomplete, for one thing. The lack of variety in multiplayer modes can get boring somewhat quickly. Also, the original game had a bonus minigame called Uranoid that could unlocked with a special code on the title screen; this seems to have been removed from the US version. Also, what happened to the paddle controller from the original version? There was a special attachment that could be plugged into the DS’s GBA slot to be used as an alternate method of control rather than using the stylus or control pad. The last gripe is how come there’s no stage builder? Granted, there’s only 3 types of blocks to build stages with, but all sorts of interesting structures could be put together. As far as nostalgia value goes, the game certainly has that angle covered, so it’s definitely worth playing for awhile.

Summon Night: Twin Age is a fun action-RPG that borrows elements from its Gameboy Advance counterparts and at the same time does a few new things of its own. While the first two games focused on becoming the Craftlord, what is essentially a heroic smithy, Twin Age takes a divergent path. It focuses upon a young girl named Reiha and her summoned beast-boy Aldo. The world they live in is wrought with strife, as there is an ongoing conflict between the humans and the demi-human race, the Kascuza. The Kascuza were exiled to a small island called Jarazi, and even though some animosity between the two races remain, the conflict has somewhat settled down. As for Aldo and Reiha, it’s close to their coming-of-age ritual, but they discover that the spirits on Jarazi have begun to act erratically. It’s up to them and friends they meet along the way to discover the source of the spirits’ behavior.

Twin Age is a bit of a departure from the first two GBA titles. The plot is oddly compelling, mostly since it’s driven by a cast of colorful and interesting characters, as well as the fact that the game play itself is vastly different. The first two played out like a traditional RPG with dungeon crawling and random battles that were more akin to a side scrolling beat-em-up type of game. Twin Age throws away the notion of random battles in favor of real-time battles controlled entirely by the touch screen.

When the game first starts, the player is given the chance to select whether they want to play the game from Aldo or Reiha’s perspective. It is possible to freely switch between the characters during battles, and the plot of the game remains largely the same. The narrative of the story merely shifts onto the character of choice and reflects their thoughts and opinions of the situation at hand.

Combat is handled in real time with character movement and attack/skill execution manipulated with the touch screen. A lot of what goes on in battle is fairly straightforward; the menu is used to assign skills to the skill palette, which allows for quick execution of skills and fast use of items, and speeds up the pace of battles. The skill menu also allows acquiring of new skills for use in battles. Skills are learned through leveling up from battles and then spending SP to learn and level up skills. Each skill has a maximum level of seven, and learning different skills allows both Reiha and Aldo to traverse their respective skill trees in different orders.

In addition to Aldo and Reiha, the player gains access to other AI party members such as Nassau, Aldo and Reiha’s axe-wielding friend, and Ayn, the young girl aspiring to be a Spirit Priestess of the Kascuza, close to the beginning of the game. Skills can’t be assigned to the AI party member, nor can they be directly controlled. Their levels are assigned as equal to that of the player’s main character, and they typically come with a handful of healing items at the start of each dungeon. Each AI party member has their own governing element as well as weapon specialization, such as Nassau having a few wind-element abilities and bearing an axe, and Ayn using mainly water-based skills and using a staff to cast spells.

The action is broken up with story sequences and dialog interspersed within the dungeons, as well as at the beginning and end of each chapter. Typically at the end of each chapter, the player is allowed to select a partner character to have a conversation with. How this conversation plays out is affected by the player’s choice of main character and the partner selected to converse with. They help to affect the relationship between the player’s selected character and the partner and increase the partner’s support rank, which increases their skill and usefulness in battle.

Despite the drastic changes from the previous games, Twin Age has a very polished look and there is a lot of fun to be had. The graphics are bold and colorful and the game’s score is quite enjoyable. Fans of Shinichiro Otsuka’s character designs from the previous games might be a little surprised to see that Twin Age’s character designs were handled by Sunaho Tobe, the artist responsible for the character designs in Riviera: The Promised Land. The only complaints are that the AI characters can be a little foolhardy; it’s not possible to freely customize their AI much more than use items/don’t use items, use skills/don’t use skills, use normal attacks/don’t use normal attacks, which takes away a little of bit the strategy. Also, at around chapter 5, the game difficulty sharply spikes, particularly during boss battles, so be prepared to do a little bit of grinding. For those who enjoyed the gameplay in Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings, Summon Night: Twin Age should have a pretty good appeal.

Shoot-em-ups are somewhat of a vice. It’s easy to sit down and start playing one for hours on end. The Castle of Shikigami series is obscure to western audiences, possibly because of the first two titles’ poor translation (think of “All your base”). Thankfully, the newest and superior chapter of the series, Castle of Shikigami III, hasn’t fallen victim to same fate as its predecessors.

The actual gameplay is pretty standard fare as far as shoot-em-ups are concerned. The player chooses from one of ten characters in normal mode, or two characters in Dramatic Change mode. The game progression is the same no matter what mode and which characters are chosen, but story events will change to reflect both characters in Dramatic Change mode, similarly if the game were played with two players. The controls are spot-on, and there’s several ways to fight enemies. There’s the normal rapid-fire shot, Shikigami attacks, and bombs. Each character’s Shikigami attack and bomb effect varies, from being homing shots or wide-area effects, and standard bombs to time stopping, respectively. Using a character’s Shikigami attack slows their movement a bit, but draws in coins that enemies drop; this is the key to racking up a high score. Additionally, a bomb can be sacrificed to activate High-Tension Max to increase point values temporarily.

Included in the game is a practice mode which allows the player to select a stage or stage segment and play through it freely, as well as boss attack mode, which pits the player against all 10 bosses in sequence on a single credit. There’s also a gallery mode which allows the review of artwork seen in the game’s story mode, as well as a “story recollection” mode. Story recollection allows the player to watch the in-game story sequences that have already been seen while playing through the game. The last option in the gallery is the jukebox, which goes without saying what it’s used for. I’d like to go on record by saying the game has a pretty slick soundtrack, so it’s a nice feature. The options screen hides the very enticing “extra options.” Once the game is cleared, regardless of which character and how many credits are used, this menu allows for tweaking of other game settings. These include more interesting tweaks like game speed and hitbox size.

Castle of Shikigami III is a worthy addition to any shoot em up fan’s collection, and plays very cleanly. It might feel like the barebones experience as far as games go nowadays, but it’ll provide hours of entertainment, to be sure. As far as story goes, it’s… uh… different. It’s not exactly clearly defined in the game nor in the manual. The in-game story sequences can be quite comical as the characters seem to enjoy breaking the 4th wall, referencing the fact that they’re in a game, or sometimes addressing the player directly. About the only thing the game is missing is the online experience. Granted the Japanese XBox 360 and PC versions didn’t have online play, but they did have an internet score ranking. This would have been a nice little extra just to see how your own skill measures up against the rest of the world. So in spite of the unclear story and the lack of online mode, it’s still quite solid. Be sure and check it out.