The tower defense genre has boomed on handhelds, and the DS is no different. Abylight’s Dairojo! Samurai Defenders is a lightweight downloadable entry into the genre, and the $8 DSiWare title replaces faceless towers with traditional Japanese warriors. Does that make a difference?

Unfortunately, it really doesn’t. It makes for an interesting visual theme; various samurai and ninja opponents try to storm your castle, and it’s amusing to see the “flying” enemies and such, but essentially you’re running a tower defense game. Your units include the base spearmen, range-tastic archers and gunners, powerful cannons and stat-boosting generals. You’ll go up against burrowing enemies, enemies riding kites and other such things, which further emphasizes that this theme is just that: a coat of paint.

Dairojo includes 3 modes: Normal Mode, Score Attack and Random Mode. We can tell that the modes are different, but it’s unclear in what ways. You’re basically dealing with trial and error, as there’s no intuitive way to place samurai or tutorial explaining the differences. (You can look in the DSiWare manual, but there’s a lot of effort to get through to look at the section on the differences, and even then it’s not clear what each are for.)

A bonus we like very much: the game includes Download Play, where you can beam the game to any DS and play simultaneously, with the winner being whoever survives longest against identical waves. 

Besides that, it’s a tower defense game with little accessibility and unknown depth. This would be a disastrous retail title, but as an $8 game only available to DSi owners monitoring DSiWare releases? Yeah, that’s the target market. It should be no one’s first tower defense game, but genre madmen want whatever they can get.


From the same mind that brought us Phoenix Wright and the Ace Attorney Investigations series arrives Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective, a puzzle/maze/adventure game starring Sissel, an amnesiac ghost with some interesting powers. Mostly Sissel can possess inanimate objects and perform a simple “trick”, like unfolding a deck chair, turning on a lamp, or throwing a switch. He can move from object to object via their “cores”, but he can only reach out a limited distance to reach the next core, which is where the maze-like elements of the gameplay kick in as you try to figure out how to gain access to the objects you really need to manipulate. 

Of course, having a limited reach for his core-hopping would make for a fairly boring adventure, as Sissel would either be limited to a small area or be forced to hop from object to object just to cross a street. Fortunately Sissel can travel much faster by possessing phone lines, but there are a couple of hitches. The first is that you have to already know the phone number of where you want to go; Sissel’s amnesia has emptied his mental Rolodex, so you will have to “trace” an active call in order to go anywhere. Once you have that you can hop from phone to phone as the opportunity arises. The second restriction is that only currently-active phone lines can be traversed while Sissel is in the past.

You see, Sissel’s final power is to rewind time. By possessing the core of a freshly-slain corpse (less than a day old), Sissel can view the four minutes immediately preceding their death; then you get to try to avert their fate by using his powers to prevent the incident. Anyone that has been saved in this manner retains their memories of that averted fate as well as their core (living individuals do not normally have one visible) and is able to communicate with nearby ghosts through it. In this manner Sissel slowly accumulates a group of colorful individuals linked by fate that will ultimately reveal the truth about Sissel’s own murder, but not without taking some wild twists along the way.

As might be expected from the creator of Phoenix Wright, the cast of characters is diverse, quirky, and memorable — both the heroes and the villains. Unlike the Ace Attorney games (with the possible exception of the Miles Edgeworth title), however, these characters are also very well-animated. The stylized look of the game comes alive when the characters move (especially a certain white-coated investigator), and everything is accentuated by some great background music.

But even with the fun and engaging game play, developed characters, and solid sound, the true strength of Ghost Trick is the story, which stands a strong chance of being remembered at the end of the year as one of the Best of 2011. As every chapter unfolds, things just get more complicated, and surprising new elements are introduced just when you think you’ve got everything under control. The difficulty increases naturally, but you’re never really in any danger of losing since Sissel can always keep rewinding time until you discover the correct sequence to progress. The later chapters can be quite devious, including a few that can literally only be solved in the last second. 

The whole experience is quite a trip, and even though it is ultimately a short ride, that doesn’t make it any less fun. The “one more chapter” impulse is strong with this one; you’ll find yourself consuming it in the span of a couple days at most — and then wanting so much more. Hopefully we’ll get more, but until then be sure to pick this one up — and avoid spoilers at all costs!


DodoGo! Challenge

January 25, 2011

DodoGo! Challenge is a tricky game to evaluate in a vacuum, as it is apparently an expansion pack for/follow-up to a different DSiWare title (DodoGo!). You are tasked with guiding anthropomorphic dodo eggs through all manner of hazards and obstacles to the goal (nest). You have various tools at your disposal that allow you to accomplish this, much like the classic computer game Lemmings. You only need to get one egg to the nest in order to clear a level (some have only one to guide, others have up to five), but you only earn a medal if all of them survive; falling too far can crack or destroy an egg, and uncomfortable conditions (such as being under water) can turn them grumpy. Cracks can be repaired and grumpy eggs soothed by zooming in on them and stroking them with the stylus, but that will cost you precious time. You normally need to stimulate the eggs to their highest happiness level in order to be awarded a gold medal, but if you manage to get them all to the nest under a given “par” time (which mercifully doesn’t begin counting down until you actually touch your first tool icon), you will be upgraded one medal class (earning a Golden Egg Cup if you’re already at gold). The game can provide a code to let you share your records on the website’s leaderboard, for the truly competitive and/or obsessive. 

A slight problem arises when some aspects of the game are simply never explained. There’s a tutorial somewhat curiously hidden behind the “galleries” option, but it doesn’t cover all of your tools (although the only one that is skipped is fairly straightforward) or other objects you might encounter on some levels (like enemies or costumes). You can figure out what they do with some experimentation, but it seems like an odd omission. I can only assume that they were described in the other (non-“challenge”) game and it was expected that you’ve already played that one.

Aside from the minor lack of documentation, my only problem with DodoGo! Challenge came from some control issues. When the clock is ticking down, certain gestures can cost you precious seconds if misinterpreted, and others can cause an egg to perish if the timing is off. The game encourages you to shout “Go!” or “Stop!” into the microphone to give more “hands-free” control over the eggs, but if you’re like me and prefer to not be screaming at inanimate objects in public (or with someone sleeping in another room) there are thankfully stylus gestures to get them rolling. 

If you’ve played the more expensive (800 points) DodoGo! and enjoyed it, spending another 500 points on the additional levels of Challenge is probably worth it. Without the prior experience, DodoGo! Challenge is still playable and fun, just without much in the way of context. The levels are as challenging as the title suggests. Fans of logic puzzles and other Lemmings-like games will probably enjoy it most, but anyone that could use a ready supply of bite-sized entertainment could certainly do far worse for five bucks.


Golden Sun: Dark Dawn

December 1, 2010

2010 has been an absolutely torrential year in the world of DS RPGs. It should say something, then, that Golden Sun: Dark Dawn sits atop the heap. The game, a sequel to a GBA series thought abandoned, strikes that balance between tradition and innovation, and it does it with some serious visual flash.

For those of you who didn’t play the originals (or just can’t remember that many years ago), the series makes you the leader of a party of Adepts, special people with the ability to control the elements. The originals had you on a quest to bring about the Golden Sun to save the world from a painful demise, that was actually accomplished at the end of the second game, The Lost Age. In this game, then, it’s 30 years later and the world is suffering the pains that come with the sudden re-emergence of elemental power.

Don’t worry, though, things get back on the track of saving the world from ruin soon enough.

While it starts feeling like a traditional Japanese RPG, the depth in the battle system comes from acquiring Djinn. Djinn are magical creatures, each with a different elemental alignment, and you equip them to characters. Doing this changes that fighter’s stats and available Psynergy attacks. But it’s not that simple. You can also use each Djinn to unleash its own special power, but that removes the stat boost it provides. 

It would be interesting if it stopped there, but using Djinn puts them on standby, giving you the ability to use them to summon massive elemental creatures with crazy full-screen effects. These were the centerpiece of the originals’ visual flair, and though Dark Dawn doesn’t push the system’s power as much as the GBA ones did, there’s still a high level of polish to the summons. Once you get deeper in your adventure, you’re managing larger and larger parties at once, and that just adds one more layer to a battle’s depth.

All of this makes for a dynamic battle system, but we’ve seen those before and they don’t always make for great games. So what of Dark Dawn‘s other selling points? Well the overworld puzzles are actually entertaining. Unlike some games, Golden Sun‘s aren’t brain-dead, and enough goes on to make it feel less tedious. Each involves using the same Psynergy powers available in battle, but now Fireball activates switches, Whirlwind lifts platforms and Grip acts as a grappling hook. All of this uses the touch screen primarily, but Camelot smartly put d-pad control in too. While you may need to use the touch-screen to pull off special maneuvers, for most essential puzzle-solving you can let the game lock on to the correct object.

Unlike this summer’s Dragon Quest IX, the game has no problem streamlining simple game tasks like shopping and item management, and the menu system is full of glanceable information and time-saving shortcuts. That kind of thing is incredibly helpful in a game with dozens of gameplay hours, as saving three seconds every time can really add up. In addition, Nintendo’s Treehouse team comes through again with a translation that is simultaneously coherent and amusing. The dialogue is tongue-in-cheek in moments it needs to be, especially those JRPG traditions like the villain arbitrarily letting you walk away or an important NPC giving you information that doesn’t seem like it would come up in conversation but is needed for the next task.

Now most who played the first game are probably sitting there thinking that this sounds exactly like the originals. I’m not going to dispute that at all. It doesn’t take major gameplay risks, and everything feels like it used to. 

But everything used to feel really, really good.


Visual novels are a tricky genre to evaluate. They are typically long on reading and short on action; how much you enjoy the experience is largely dependent on how much text you can tolerate. A good plot and interesting characters help, and fortunately 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors (hereafter sanely abbreviated as 999) has both. Developer Chunsoft has a reputation for quality visual novels, and although this is the first to be translated and released outside of Japan it certainly lives up to that standard. 

In the narrative of 999, you make the decisions for Junpei, a 21-year-old college student who has been abducted by a mysterious masked man. He wakes up in a strange, sparse bedroom that he later learns is on a Titanic-like ocean liner. Of course, since he learns this thanks to a porthole springing a leak and rapidly flooding the cabin he has other, more pressing issues — like getting the heck out of this locked room. The gameplay elements, outside of some minor “choose your own adventure” path branching, consist of this point-and-click escape sequence and others like it. Junpei will be confronted with strange puzzles and all manner of locked doors, but every solution makes logical sense and your companions often provide hints and suggestions if you need them — after all, they are literally in the same boat.

There are eight other characters, each one wearing a watch-like bracelet bearing a single digit (from one to nine; Junpei is number five). Their host/captor, called Zero, has assembled them all for reasons known only to himself (or herself?), placed them this boat that will sink in nine hours, and tasked them with finding the exit while following his insane rules. Part of the quirk of this deadly, Saw-like experiment is that there are certain doors bearing large numbers; only certain combinations of characters/numbers can pass through these doors, with the others needing to seek an alternate route (typically one of the other doors in the same area). If anyone “unauthorized” passes through such a door, his or her bracelet will detonate an explosive device that they were all force-fed while unconscious. This is demonstrated in no uncertain terms as soon as the nine are first assembled, in the first of many potential casualties.

While the game never actually shows the resulting carnage (other than an impressive splatter of blood), it does describe what is left of the corpse in grisly detail. 999 is rated M for all kinds of justified reasons, but it is easy to forget that until one of those reasons suddenly assaults your eyes. In addition to the violence and blood, there are also references to drug and alcohol use plus some strongly suggestive conversations (all characters are 18+) and profanity. This allows the story to progress naturally, without pulling any punches that similar games (like Hotel Dusk) might have to.

Of course, you might not like where and/or how that story progresses. 999 has multiple endings, and the nature of the plot dictates that you cannot achieve the “best/true” ending on your first playthrough. If you follow the correct path, you’ll receive a post-credits hint directing you to how you should next play to further advance the overall narrative. Needing to play through the game at least twice (if you are lucky) is made somewhat more palatable by a few neat features. The game allows you to fast-forward through any wall of text that you have already seen, although it has to be the exact passage, so minor variations will make you sit through some repetition from time to time; you will also have to repeat any escape sequence, although the solutions never change and you can actually shortcut a couple (especially Junpei’s initial escape) if you remember (or wrote down) what you need to know. Repeat playthroughs will also remember the choices you made in previous runs and gray them out to remind you what you have yet to try. Of course, since there are clearly multiple paths built into the game, you will not be able to experience all of the escape sequences in one go anyway, so the first two replays are essentially “free” if you want to try them all (it will take at least three to visit all of the rooms). Once you complete a run, all of the escapes that you’ve completed will be accessible directly from the menu should you want to replay them without the narrative for some reason; this also serves as a reminder as to which doors you have yet to try.

There are five potential endings in total; the sixth is a “to be continued” version of the true ending if you have yet to experience the correct lead-in ending (to which it will then point you). The actual plot of the game can be quite dense, and may not make complete sense once you discover it (one small aspect was literally lost in the translation, thanks to a Japanese-specific homophone), but 999 is a wild enough ride that the ending is worth the journey. Each path reveals something about the characters accompanying Junpei; I really wanted to uncover all of their secrets and tore through the game in the space of a single weekend, seeing all endings (in approximately “worst to best” order, through sheer accident). It might be difficult to find this game in retailers, but that at least is one puzzle that should not provide too much of an obstacle.

Pros: Intricate, mature storyline; forced repetition made tolerable by some design aspects

Cons: Much, much more text than actual gameplay