Matt Karam

Final Fantasy XI

March 23, 2005

[floatleft][/floatleft]Let me forewarn everyone by saying that the [i]Final Fantasy[/i] series is my favorite series of all time, so I had a lot of expectations coming into this game. Not a single one of them was met. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as the game was certainly entertaining, but the tediousness of the game drove me to quit playing and cancel my subscription after about three quarters of a year, and I honestly don’t miss it. However, where [i]Final Fantasy XI[/i] failed to deliver us the charm of its predecessors, it added new charm that made a lasting impression on meA

[floatleft][/floatleft]The time is 44 B.C., and the Roman Empire is in a state of turmoil. Caesar has been assassinated, and the wrong person has been accused. The general of the Roman army has become a gladiator. He begins fighting in smaller city arenas, but his drive to succeed takes him to the Coliseum for the final matches. Surprisingly enough, I am not talking about the movie [i]Gladiator[/i]. I am referring to [i]Shadow of Rome[/i], which is, from start to finish, an extremely beautiful game. Yes, the premise sounds exactly like [i]Gladiator[/i], and for the most part it basically is (heck, there is even a scene where General Agrippa, said gladiator, yells “Are you not entertained?” to the crowd). But to steal a line from Cone, if you’re going to rip off a movie, at least pick a great movie. And Capcom did just that.

I’ll explain the story in a little more detail. Agrippa, the Roman general, has led his armies to victory against the Germanic tribes and is on his way back home. What the general does not know, however, is that back home, Julius Caesar has been assassinated, his last words being “Et tu, Brute?”, and his father Vipsanius is being accused of the murder. As Agrippa returns home, his friend Octavianus warns him that his mother is on trial for a public execution. Agrippa tries to stop them, but he falls short and sees his mother die right in front of him at the hands of Decius, the new Emperor’s right-hand man. A girl of unknown origin named Claudia helps Agrippa and Octavianus escape, then together the three hatch a plan to save Vipsanius. Claudia suggests that Agrippa become a gladiator (her brother Sextus owns a gladiator stable), as the winner of the Coliseum games gets to slay Vipsanius, leaving a chance for Agrippa to save him if he himself wins. Agrippa agrees, and meanwhile Octavianus sneaks around the Roman Senate searching for clues to the true killer’s identity. I say that the game is like [i]Gladiator[/i], and fundamentally yes it is, but the game is more like an imaginative take on Shakespeare’s [i]Julius Caesar[/i]. The events of the story pan out very nicely, and the battle that is the culmination of all events at the end of the game is fantastic.

Naturally, with two stories going on at once (that of Agrippa and that of Octavianus), you can expect the game to split into two partsA

Viewtiful Joe 2

February 14, 2005

[floatleft][/floatleft]If you thought things were done after Joe rescued Silvia from Movieland in the first [i]Viewtiful Joe[/i], you were sadly mistaken! Joe has now become an action hero for good, only this time he’s not alone. Sylvia, the damsel in distress from the first title, has begged Captain Blue for a V-Watch and is now a superheroine alongside her fearless boyfriend. They are out to stop the Black Emperor from stealing Rainbow Oscars in Movieworld, which contain the power of happy endings. This journey sends them through different representations of movies (such as the Samurai film reel) to stop the Emperor’s henchmen, of which there are hordes and hordes. Sound like a horrible story? Well, it is. But that shouldn’t surprise anyone, as the story isn’t meant to be mind-boggling. It’s supposed to be cheesy, and that’s what makes this series so fun.

[i]Viewtiful Joe 2[/i] is more of a new series of levels than it is a separate game. The fact that Joe travels around through different movie eras gives me the same distinct feeling that I had while playing [i]Turtles in Time[/i] for the SNES, which is easily in my top five favorite SNES games of all time. But I digress. The reason why this doesn’t feel like a totally new game is because it looks, feels, sounds (except the bosses were given better voiceovers, minus the [b]horribly[/b] annoying chameleon), and plays the exact same way as its predecessor. This means that if you excelled in the first game, this one will be a cakewalk because it’s generally easier. Each level (called a movie reel in this one) has several different acts-each having its own save point upon completion, making saves more frequent than in [i]Viewtiful Joe[/i]. Another cool edition to the game is that Joe’s father, Jet, changes the movie reels in the Real World, thus controlling where Joe travels to next, and the two exchange witty banter occasionally, adding to the game’s thick layer of cheese that already exists because of Joe and Sylvia’s interactions.

[floatright][/floatright]As I mentioned before, fundamentally the game did not at all change except for one addition. In the last game, Sylvia was one of several unlockable characters as which you could play the game. In this installment, both Sylvia and Joe are playable, and the use of the “Viewtiful Touch” allows you to switch between the two instantly while playing. This opens the door for two-person combos, but it also means that there are some areas where Joe (my favored character) can’t do everything and must call on Sylvia to get past a certain area. You still have to run through several 2-D side-scrolling levels, solving puzzles and smashing your way through torrents of enemies that keep popping up out of nowhere. You’re still trying to collect Viewtiful Points to buy powerups, and you’re still collecting Viewtiful Canisters to increase the size of your VFX (Viewtiful Effects) meter. And yes, you’re still using your VFX powers.

Let’s talk about said powers, of which there are four. Joe has all of his abilities back this time around, and they are still used in exactly the same way as before. VFX Slow slows down the screen so that Joe can unleash massive combos to gain tons of Viewtiful Points, and it can still be used to throw a super punch when the enemy is dizzy. VFX Mach Speed makes everything insanely fast, and as you purchase upgrades, you get multiple Joes running around, smashing boxes in the background that are otherwise unreachable. VFX Zoom In does just that, and this can be used to spin kick, spin jump, make a hard dive, or unleash my favorite move in the [i]Viewtiful Joe[/i] series: the Slow Zoom Red Hot One Hundred. One more power has been added to the fray, but Joe doesn’t get to use it. You must switch to Sylvia, and while she cannot use Mach Speed, she does have the ever-useful VFX Replay, which, as you can probably guess, takes a recording of a move and plays it twice more. So for scoring one hit, Sylvia does three times the damage. The only drawback is that if you use Replay and get hit, you lose three times the life.

[floatleft][/floatleft]Following in the footsteps of the first installment, [i]Viewtiful Joe 2[/i] has several items to unlock as you progress through its difficulties (and I have not found any cheat code thus far to do this the easy way). As you progress through the game, you’ll notice several chamber numbers popping up on your screen. That is a message telling you that you’ve unlocked one of 37 chambers, which serve as bonus levels. The trick is to perform an exact feat while playing, thus unlocking a different chamber. For example, you might have to progress through an area without grabbing one film canister, or you might have to let yourself be killed by a certain enemy. There is also the obligatory unlocking of harder difficulties as you continually beat them, but to be honest, for me playing any game once through is enough unless it offers some cool incentive (and unlocking a harder difficulty is not the way to do this). The game fell short on the secrets department.

Overall, I would say that [i]Viewtiful Joe 2[/i] is pretty fun considering it is more of the same stuff given to us by the first game. I wouldn’t recommend playing this one if you haven’t yet played the original, and if you have played it, don’t expect any new groundbreaking features in the sequel. If 2-D side-scrolling with very cheesy dialogue is your thing, then [i]Viewtiful Joe 2[/i] is your game. I’m surprised to say that even though I hate cheesy and am not a fan of side-scrollers, I found this game humorous and enjoyable. When I heard Joe say, “Henshin-A-Go-Go, Baby!” for the very first time in [i]Viewtiful Joe[/i], I rolled my eyes and nearly shut the game off right there. Now I can honestly say that, as I played through the sequel, I chuckled every time I heard it. In closing, [i]Viewtiful Joe 2[/i] may be the same game with a different name, but I enjoyed that game, and I think it’s worth checking out.

Viewtiful Joe

February 4, 2005

[floatleft][/floatleft]I was idly standing by the GameCube section when I noticed an interesting game on the screen. I didn’t know what it was called, but I saw a side-scrolling game with comic-style graphics. Some kid was intensely pounding away at the controls, and the dude in the red bodysuit with the pink cape was performing all sorts of animated antics that made stuff fly all over the place. After watching the action in awe for a few moments, I continued with my shopping. By the time I arrived at home, that game never entered my mind again. Months later, the game resurfaced on the PS2, and again I was mildly intrigued by this [i]Viewtiful Joe[/i].

I finally had the chance to check this game out, having read the great reviews for it both online and in magazines. I turned it on and set my difficulty to “Adults” (the other choices are “Sweet”, the easiest setting, and “Kids”, the default setting) and anticipated creating carnage as that little kid did in the store those months ago. Once I got started, I was hugely let down. My character wasn’t doing any of the actions that I knew he was capable of performing. On top of that, I kept dying, and it took me hours just to get to Level 2. I was fed up. How did that kid have it so easy, and I couldn’t do a thing? I sadly established that I wasn’t good enough to play on the “Adults” setting-perhaps I wasn’t good enough to play the game at all.

[floatright][/floatright]I decided to lessen the difficulty to “Kids” and see if I couldn’t learn how to play that way. I wasn’t looking forward to trying this, being low in spirit for finally finding a game I wasn’t good at. With a larger life bar and therefore more confidence, I began the game the right way. And let me tell you, I finally learned how to play [i]Viewtiful Joe[/i]. If you approach the game by just punching and kicking, you will not succeed on many levels. [i]Viewtiful Joe[/i] is virtually impossible to play without using Joe’s three major powers. His powers not only aid in helping you through the game, but if you use them correctly, you will gain a ton of Viewtiful Points, which act as Joe’s currency to purchase power-ups and abilities at save spots (which are few and far between). You are rated based on how well you played a certain section, and the higher the rating, the more Viewtiful Points you are awarded at the end of the level.

Just what might those powers be? Well, your first power is VFX (Viewtiful Effects) Slow, which slows down everything on the screen. This is the power that will be used most often, as you can perform a huge combo with tons of hits for loads of Viewtiful Points as well as dizzy up opponents so that you can completely obliterate them with an attack in Slow-Motion. You can also deflect bullets this way. The second power is VFX Mach Speed, which, as you guessed, is basically [i]Viewtiful Joe[/i] in fast-forward. If used properly, Joe will start to glow on Fire, which you can then use to light bombs or candles. Finally, you gain access to VFX Zoom In, which is useful for performing special attacks that aren’t available otherwise. The neatest part about VFX is the ability to combine them to create powerful attacks. Ultimately, my favorite one is the “Slow Zoom Red Hot One Hundred”, which combines the use of VFX Slow, Zoom, and holding down the punch button. Bosses don’t stand a chance against this.

The graphics are very unique. It looks and feels like a comic book, and Joe is believable as a superhero. Photographs of this game give it no justice, as the game moves a lot smoother than anyone would expect a 2-D side-scrolling game to do. The sound effects are cool, too, giving this game an arcade feel. Sounds of cracking and smacking never get old, and this game brings them to you in full throttle here. My only complaint on the sounds is that the voiceovers for some of the bosses you fight are completely horrible, as their voices are gross and their English is incomprehensible (the shark boss is just awful). You can easily bypass the scenes if you don’t care about what is going on and just want to pound some noses.

[floatleft][/floatleft]The story kind of threw me off-guard, and because of this I don’t rate the game any higher than maybe a 7.5 out of 10. I won’t say it’s horrible, but it’s definitely not the type of fantasy that appeals to me. Joe is a normal guy watching his favorite action star, Captain Blue, with his girlfriend Sylvia. Suddenly, Sylvia gets kidnapped and taken into the movie, and Joe gets sucked into the movie to rescue her (sound like a familiar Schwarzenegger movie to anyone?). He obtains superhero powers from Captain Blue, and then it’s off to the rescue. Meanwhile there’s a plot going on where the baddies in Movieland are planning to take over the real world, so in addition to saving Sylvia, Joe must stop the hostile takeover.

What is a game nowadays without lots of secret content? Not [i]Viewtiful Joe[/i], that’s for sure. There are tons of unlockable characters and difficulties that can either be done legitimately or by entering in a cheat code on the start menu (which I won’t tell you-you must find it yourself). I won’t spoil any of the secret content, either, because then it wouldn’t be much of a secret, now, would it? But if cheat codes are your thing, look them up-they won’t be hard to find. I don’t think the secret items, however, add much to the replay value. Essentially, you’re just playing the same game over and over.

[i]Viewtiful Joe[/i] is not the greatest game I have ever played, but it is an enjoyable one. I don’t have much experience with 2-D side-scrollers, but this was a nice change of pace from the hugely-involved questing RPGs. I am looking forward to starting the sequel, so keep checking for the review on that as well. The only thing I can say about [i]Viewtiful Joe[/i] is that it is cheesy, but who ever said that cheesy can’t be fun?

Oh, and on a final note, when you’re playing [i]Viewtiful Joe[/i] and your VFX meter has completely drained, making you a normal human being and more vulnerable, just remember the words that will restore all of your hope…

[b][i]”Henshin A-Go-Go, Baby!”[/i][/b]

[floatleft][/floatleft]Let me start by saying that I am an avid fan of the [i]Lord of the Rings[/i] trilogy. Until The Fellowship of the Ring movie came out, I had not read the books and knew nothing about the story. I had only read a few chapters of The Hobbit when I was young. So needless to say, after I viewed the first movie, I read the trilogy twice, watched every movie as it came out multiple times, and viewed the extended sets. I own everything that I mentioned above. Sadly, [i]Lord of the Rings[/i] video gaming, before the movies, had not even been an afterthought. Once the movies were released, the onslaught of games poured into stores and homes nationwide, and of course, I own every single one of them. The latest (and far from the greatest) is [i]Lord of the Rings: The Third Age[/i].

First of all, I didn’t utterly despise this game. I honestly didn’t. I might even say that I liked it. However, there is so much that is wrong with it that I can’t help but cringe and ask myself what EA Games was thinking. Riding on the wake of two very successful games ([i]The Two Towers[/i] and [i]The Return of the King[/i]), they thought they would cash in on that success to make a game based on the entire trilogy. Again I say, although I enjoyed the game for what it was, it fell very short.

[floatright][/floatright]For starters, the story is very cheap, and I stopped caring about it after ten minutes into it. EA thought they would introduce some new characters that were completely made up (and not by anyone bearing the name Tolkien). I was excited, thinking I would be getting an RPG set in Middle Earth that was a story in its own. Wow, was I wrong. Basically, you’re creating a second-string Fellowship, complete with a bickering Dwarf and Elf, a Gondorian warrior, a healing Ranger, a Rohirrim guard, and a shieldmaiden of Rohan (all that is missing is hobbits). Your mission objectives are, to my chagrin, to follow the Fellowship around and clean up the garbage they left behind. There is very little character interaction, and there is NO explanation to why the characters are doing anything among themselves. Just why didn’t Idrial accept Berethor’s love? What exactly was the main reason why these people were even traveling together? No one will ever know.

The only thing that progresses the game’s story are narrations by Ian McKellan. I was really annoyed by this because any good RPG has the characters interact and decide what to do for themselves. EA got horribly lazy here. The pace of the game slowed down tremendously when you had to stop whatever you were doing to view an “Epic scene” so that Gandalf could tell you where to go next and what you must do. After about the tenth scene (there are 109 of these terrible things), my patience dwindled to an all-time low. And placing this ragtag group in the heat of battles such as the Balrog, Helm’s Deep, and Sauron was more laughable than the fact that this game is even called [i]Lord of the Rings[/i]. When you beat the game, you are awarded with…another Ian McKellan narration! That was the final straw for me.

The graphics are very pixilated. I didn’t notice it after a while, but maybe that is because I got so accustomed to it that I stopped caring. Graphics aren’t usually a big part of why I play games, but…let’s face it, a game should be made using current technology. Something else that irked me was the lack of secrets and side quests. From start to finish, this is the most linear game I have ever played. The option to travel back to other lands is given to you, and I still don’t understand why in the world they thought that would be cool. Unless there are items waiting for you (which, when I experimented, I found nothing), there is no point to traveling. There is no secret equipment that takes something challenging to acquire. You simply pluck your things from chests, battle spoils, and maybe a steal from an enemy. I feel like EA just got lazy about midway through writing the game’s outline and just started making what they had, filling in gaps with useless garbage.

Is there anything salvageable in this utter mess of an RPG? Of course there is, or else I wouldn’t have played it for 45 hours. The main thing that drew me was the return of the turn-based battle system, as I admit I’m a sucker for [i]Final Fantasy[/i] games and anything that tries to be a spin-off. Without paying attention to the (horrible) story, I focused instead on building my characters, which was kind of fun.

[floatleft][/floatleft]Each character has three skill trees that they can learn abilities from, and in addition, there are three pearls (called Elfstones) that each fighter can learn from. With a total of six skill trees, I had a lot of work ahead of me in learning everything for every fighter (that Item Craft Elfstone took ages to master). Eventually I did, and by that time everyone was level 99. The game was a no-contest from there (I always seem to play my games this way).

The magic spells aren’t very impressive, and I knew-oh, I just KNEW-that one of the Elven girl’s spells would be the water stallions. The Dwarf’s magic was better, calling on erupting volcanoes and fire dragons to inflict massive damage. The melee abilities were cool too, especially when I could perform five- and six-hit strikes. The Rohirrim spearman was boring. The addition of “real” Fellowship members as guests in your battles was cool, but most of the time my fighters were better than the guest. A