June 2008

While I really enjoy Guitar Hero and games that allow me to pretend to be the awesome Rock Star that I’ll never be, I am historically bad at them. The irony in that is that I used to actually play bass guitar and still have a bevy of musical instruments stashed in my closet.

Guitar Hero On Tour is the first mobile version of the Guitar Hero franchise and comes packed with a slick new custom controller and stylus. The controller plugs into your DS’ GBA slot and it comes with adapters for both the DS Phat and DS Lite and is easily swapped with a screwdriver. The guitar pick stylus slides easily into the controller. READ MORE

Amazon has Super Smash Bros. Brawl as the Deal of the Day today. For today only it is priced at $26 w/ Free Shipping. Get yours here.

One of our staff members had a wonderful conversation with the folks over at Game Quest Direct today. GQD is best known for arranging deals with publishers to reprint titles that have long gone out of print. They’ve made a business out of it and they are making many gamers happy, and many collectors very angry.

They confirmed to us today that one of the next titles they going to be reprinting is the PSP port of the PSX release of Valkyrie Profile, Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth.

No word was given on price or availability dates on VP:L, but a deal is also reportedly in the works to begin reprinting Xenogears. Keep your eyes on the GQD website for these and other hard to find titles.

Thanks to Jeff for the heads up.

Following closely in the footsteps of its predecessor Atelier Iris, Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis refines the item synthesis process into the leveling scheme, completely abandoning traditional experience gained systems. Light-hearted and quirky, this game never delves into serious themes which could have led to its downfall. Instead it relies upon tongue-in-cheek visuals and over-the-top voice acting to cover the meager graphics and story. Hidden beneath this fluff is a seriously fun combat system and even more addictive item synthesis that should have RPG fans clamoring for a look.

A lonely orphan by the name of Vayne is offered the chance of a lifetime by gaining admittance to the famed Al-Revis academy. Navigating from class to class, Vayne must complete assignments with his colorful lab-mates before time runs out or suffer poor marks and be subjected to harder remedial assignments. Along the way he gains more allies and friends as he delves deeper into his own past.

The crux of the game centers on the item synthesis. Instead of the traditional experience leveling scheme, you are powered up by the items that you equip and which are only made through alchemic means. By either gathering recipes or enough materials to muck with different combinations of items, further power enhancing item slots are opened up within your personal Grow Book. Rather than troublesome to negotiate, the Grow Book and item synthesis are addictive and fun to use, constantly generating powerful items and unlocking even more powerful attacks. Al-Revis serves as the basic hub of the game as you radiate outward completing assignments for different classes, most require going into new dungeons to collect recipes or ingredients to synthesize new and interesting items and upgrades. At the end of the day you always end up in your groups’ lab, turning in assignments or picking up odd jobs to gain additional materials. Having the layout this way almost made the game smaller than it actually was, as you are given a way to warp back any time, and if you are defeated within a dungeon you just end up in the campus infirmary with no consequences.

In the dungeons, you gather alchemy materials from the zone or from visible, avoidable enemies. Once in combat with a monster, the game switches to a standard turn-based system with fighting order visible in the top left. By consecutively attacking the same monster it is possible to knock them back in the order, giving a little bit of strategy to how you proceed. Mid-way through the game you are given extra team members who may be switched in for dying members or to execute a person specific combination to annihilate the enemies. This addition adds to the already easy (though fun) combat and makes the fighting virtually impossible to lose, unless it is night. Given a timer that has no relation to the world timer each dungeon goes through a day/night cycle where the night routine becomes significantly more difficult. While a nice idea, your assignment schedule has nothing to do with days or night, making nights simply an annoyance you can avoid by standing in one place until the day returns.

The graphics are based on two-dimensional Sprites that are colorful and vibrant but don’t achieve the retro feel that they are going for. Music is cute at first but quickly wears out its welcome, especially returning to the academy night after night. Voice acting is superb, and is aptly suited to the almost non-sensical plot and dialog.

Mana Khemia is not going to win any awards, but it does accomplish maintaining a fun experience without become too serious or too hard, making it a good offing for most RPGers new or old.

Much like the arcades that once housed them, the classic pinball table is something that many of today’s gamers might not recognize, let alone appreciate. Their high degree of maintenance and large footprint make them less than ideal for most personal dwellings, which further pushed them into obscurity as the video game industry shifted towards home entertainment. The love of pinball born in the 70s hasn’t completely gone away, however; ever since the Atari 2600 the silver ball (or in that case, blue square) has appeared in pixelated form on pretty much every console and handheld, with varying degrees of success.

One such offering for Nintendo’s Wii console is Dream Pinball 3d from Southpeak Games. Featuring six virtual tables, Dream Pinball 3d comes off more as a demo of some pinball creation software utility than a serious pinball offering. Five of the tables contained on this disc are essentially interchangeable, nearly palette-swaps of each other with the ramps moved around and a different assortment of sounds. The sixth, “Amber Moon”, was originally created by a different studio for a Cyber Pinball World Cup of some sort, although it still seems strikingly similar to the other five. All six tables feature at least five flippers (“Amber Moon” has an astounding eight), multiball play, and the usual assortment of ramps and targets. They look impressive graphically, and the sounds aren’t any more obnoxious than those of an actual table, but they just don’t feel… well, real.

There are several factors contributing to this feeling of unease. The first and perhaps most apparent is the default camera, which follows the ball in play much too tightly, to the point of committing the cardinal sin of taking your eye off the important part of the table: your main flippers. As the ball zooms around the field the camera sometimes feels like it has no idea where it’s going next, leading to frustrating situations when a carom or downramp sends the metallic sphere rocketing between the flippers without you even being aware of it until it’s too late to react. Should you activate multiball on a table the camera pans back to encompass the whole field, but that’s just being considerate more than it is actually being any sort of good camera programming. The game features a total of seven different camera angles, but none of them are ideal.

There also seems to be some sort of issue with the actual ball physics, although I can’t quite put my finger on what, exactly. It could just be a side effect of the camera troubles, but the ball didn’t always feel like it was behaving the way I was expecting it to do. Flipper speed is another problem, as they are tighter than usual and reach their “on/up” position almost instantaneously; this is when I could even see the flippers in the first place, as they are often hidden behind other elements of the table and frequently emerge unexpectedly. For what it’s worth, less experienced pinball players might not even notice these shortcomings.

One aspect of Dream Pinball 3D that not even experienced pinball players can gauge, however, is its “ball change” feature. Once you’ve obtained a predetermined score, the game asks “Are you ready for ball change?” and the next time you shoot the ball into one of the table’s chambers it will emerge as one of six different materials with different ballistic properties. I personally didn’t really notice any difference, which is probably due to the above issues I had with the overall feel of the game. There are also four different difficulty settings, which affect the number of balls available as well as the duration of various timers; each difficulty has its own high score board so you don’t have to worry about your seven-ball “Easy” runs crushing your three-ball “Hard” attempts.

Dream Pinball 3D takes minimal advantage of the Wii’s unique control interface, using the Remote’s motion control to “shake” the table like in real life and mimicking pulling back on the plunger to put the ball into play. If you opt to use the Nunchuck, its sensor can tilt the table as well. Using the Nunchuck feels more natural, putting control of the left flipper(s) on the Z button while the right flipper(s) respond to the Remote’s B; these controls revert to the more traditional left on the D pad and the 2 button, respectively, when using the Remote alone (in its “NES” position).

Overall, Dream Pinball 3D is an accurate representation of what pinball has become in the “virtual” era. While that may be good enough for those who have never experienced a real pinball table, it simply tastes artificial and hollow to those who have. Making matters worse for Dream Pinball 3D is the fact that a more faithful pinball disc came out for the Wii approximately a month prior to its release that basically trumps it in every way: Pinball Hall of Fame — the Williams Collection. This unfortunate timing shunts Dream Pinball 3D firmly into the Rental category, especially for diehard pinball wizards.