February 2008

Ask any game forum on the Internet for a list of the most overlooked DS games, and the Ace Attorney series would be right at the top. Capcom released the fourth iteration of the Ace Attorney seriesA

MLB Power Pros

February 28, 2008

In a genre dominated by games like the Madden and FIFA series, sometimes it’s nice to be reminded that sports games don’t always have to be pure simulations. 2K’s MLB Power Pros is truly a game, and a deep one at that.

Konami’s Power Pro series has been popular for years in Japan, but never really had any success in the American market. For MLB Power Pros, Konami teamed up with 2K Sports to integrate Major League Baseball teams and players into its format. Even with the series’ simplistic player models, personalities of MLB stars come through just as much. The look fits in well on the Wii.

Don’t be fooled into thinking the game is easy. On the contrary, Power Pros has one of the deepest systems in the genre, and can be hard to pick up and play. Once a player is in, though, there’s something for everyone. In addition to a season mode with full AAA rosters, Power Pros includes player and team customization that includes detailed statistics and behaviors, multiplayer leagues, a home run challenge and, most importantly, Success Mode. This mode feels much like an RPG, with players making decisions and upgrading statistics in an attempt to have a college player make the jump to the big leagues. Success is very much a Japanese mode, from its high difficulty to the option to date various girls. Ultimately, though, it is a rewarding way to build a unique character to use in the rest of the game.

The actual gameplay is fairly conventional. Pitchers aim and press various button configurations, and batters react by moving the bat within a square and swinging. A player’s statistics seem to matter more in batting power and pitch speed and less in baserunning and accuracy, but ultimately players feel different. Most importantly for a baseball title, games progress relatively quickly, due to less presentation elements like replays.

The controls in this game don’t fit the Wii completely. The main game uses no motion sensors, and is best played with a GameCube controller or a Classic Controller. However, 2K also threw in an extra Wii Remote mode, which comes off as a variation on the Wii Sports Baseball design. The batting is more simplistic and only recognizes specific motions, but characters have more variety, and both Miis and other players in the game can be used. It also allows for customization of almost all rules and parameters, so it can be adjusted to work best in any environment.

MLB Power Pros is by no means a graphical powerhouse, but it makes up for it with depth, variety and sheer fun factor. It’s a good game for sports fans and a great sports title for gamers, and it’s also relatively inexpensive. Don’t let this one continue to fly under the radar.

The moment the Wii’s control scheme was initially announced, gamers worldwide were abuzz with ideas for games, and the concept of a swordfighting game was usually at the top of the list. Ubisoft’s Red Steel was the first attempt at this, but many found the controls inaccurate and the game lacking. With Samurai Warriors: Katana, Koei took a simpler approach, putting levels on rails like Ghost Squad and focusing on controlling the sword itself.

Unfortunately, this was ultimately not a success. The Samurai Warriors license feels like it should be accompanied by feverish, wild slashing with the Wii remote, and instead most of the time players end up aiming and shooting instead of hacking and slashing.

Katana feels like an attempt to capitalize on what made Samurai Warriors fun, but it seems to have missed the mark a bit. Sure, the initial excitement of the series comes from 50-hit combos and cool animations, but fans stick around for the strategic army movements and RPG elements. There is some weapon customization in the title, but nothing really changes in the base gameplay. All it allows is for one less slash to take out an enemy or a bit longer life for the player.

The graphics for this game are almost laughable. Almost everything looks recycled from the original PS2 title, which was designed to display dozens of enemies on screen at a time. The more powerful Wii and gameplay with less opponents should have made Koei go with higher polygon counts and more detail. Also, be warned: Katana suffers from the all-too-prevalent gimmick syndrome. As if a swordfighting game wasn’t gimmicky enough, Katana has players shaking the remote and Nunchuk for no reason as well. This is the time in the system’s lifespan that these sort of knee-jerk reactions should be fading away, but we’re not so fortunate yet.

The title isn’t a complete failure, though. Boss fights are certainly more epic than in the main series, and require knowing some advanced tactics to succeed. Also, the one-player campaign, if repetitive, is relatively long and includes a few attempts at variety. Finally, though it’s not a deep mode, there are a few 2-player minigames for a few seconds of fun.

That’s the true nature of Samurai Warriors: Katana, really – it’s for a burst of fun. In many ways, that makes it an ideal rental. Anyone hoping to get a full fifty bucks of enjoyment out of it, though, will be sadly disappointed.

Nintendo has certainly been trying to keep its customers in top mental shape recently. Brain Age and Big Brain Academy have been popular ways for DS owners to stay sharp. With Professor Layton and the Curious Village, though, the company decided it was time to wrap mental exercises inside a story.

That part of the title is largely a failure. Everyone in the game’s town, no matter their intelligence or motives, just wants Layton or his apprentice Luke to solve a riddle or brainteaser. That said, the story is basically a larger puzzle to contain other puzzles, and can at least be a bit challenging to figure out.

That said, the puzzles in Layton are still difficult while appealing to many age groups. This is the best accomplishment of this title. They are eventually solvable to younger players, and can initially trip up the brightest adults. All are driven by touch-screen interfaces, and most involve entering a number or circling the right answer. It certainly isn’t a complicated system, but it proves to be versatile, allowing for different types of problems with the same controls.

Layton‘s graphics and menus have their own unique style reminiscent of British cartoons, and it adds a certain charm that makes the game enjoyable. The sounds are mostly ambient, but the voice clips just get obnoxious. Thankfully, none play while trying to solve riddles.

Bolstering the game’s replay value is the addition of weekly downloadable puzzles. If there’s one problem with the game, it’s that it goes by quickly, and new brainteasers solve this quite well.

Professor Layton and the Curious Village is a solid title with quirks that make it a unique gaming experience. It has a charm reminiscent of the Phoenix Wright series, and will likely see a cult following and many sequels as a result. It just may not be for everyone.

At first glance, THQ’s Elements of Destruction (EoD) gives the impression of being a Rampage-style smashfest, with the giant monsters being replaced by powerful forces of nature like tornadoes and earthquakes. This is somewhat misleading, however, as the game plays much closer to a strategic puzzler complete with objectives, time limits, and limited resources. While this does not change the quantity of fun to be had in this original IP from developer Black Lantern Studios, it does significantly alter the quality, as the two genres tend to attract different types of gamers.

EoD follows a typical strategy-gaming progression, starting you off with the basics against minimal opposition and then slowly ramping up both your abilities as well as that of those trying to stop your quest for destruction. At first your only opponent is time, but before long the game will introduce drones that repair (or rebuild) buildings; those get followed up with buildings that will actually neutralize specific (or sometimes multiple) types of weather. To overcome these defenses, you will eventually gain access to five different types of weather, each with its own strengths and weaknesses that must be considered when plotting out how best to accomplish your given goals for the stage.

Right from the outset, this game is much harder than it appears to be, and that difficulty never really goes away. One carelessly-laid storm can quickly be sucked up by one of the defensive buildings, resulting in wasted time and — more importantly — wasted energy. You need energy to create storms, and you get energy by destroying things. The key is obviously to gain more energy from a storm’s destructive swath than you used to create the storm in the first place, but that’s not always so easy; the buildings that will produce the most energy are also usually the strongest, and are either protected by the anti-weather buildings or are (more often) those weather-sucking annoyances. It will take careful planning to negotiate each stage’s challenge, and that damnable clock is always ticking down.

Fortunately, the game’s difficulty is almost entirely by design and not because of unresponsive controls or a clunky interface. Just about everything is done via stylus, with the bottom screen having a series of icons on the right side for selecting a storm and indicators letting you know which storms you can create with your current level of energy. Once you’ve selected a storm, you either tap the screen where you want it centered or make a quick swipe to set it in motion. From there you can either let it do its thing on its own or redirect it as needed until it either runs out of strength or is eaten by a defensive building. You can scroll the bottom map either by using your stylus or, since that can be tricky with an active storm in the way, by using the d-pad. The top screen displays the overall map, as well as all your other pertinent information like energy level and time remaining. The only problems you are likely to encounter is when action is taking place on the right edge of the bottom screen, as your storm-selection icons may get in the way while you’re chasing down a drone or attempting to stop a storm from flying out of range.

Once I got past my initial desire to just smash stuff up (or, as suggested by the game’s cover, fling around cows), I found the challenge of EoD to be engaging. While some stages just felt unfair in the hoops I had to jump through in order to complete my goals in the time alloted, it was the same sense of “unfairness” that I’d encountered in Advance Wars or Fire Emblem games. Stages never felt outright impossible, but repeatedly had me thwarted as I slowly chipped away at them and figured out what needed to be done. Every hint of progress was another reason to re-attempt the stage, every oh-so-close failure just feeding the “one more try” reflex. If that type of game appeals to you, Elements of Destruction‘s original concept and unique feel should be worth your time.