March 2009

For a company generally afflicted with an incurable case of sequels and remakes, Square-Enix took every risk possible when unleashing The World Ends With You (WEWY) on the gaming populace last year. Unrecognizable by any established Japanese RPG standards, WEWY is an amazing mix of new ideas and brilliant execution that adds up to one of the best DS experiences in the record-breaking handheld’s lifetime. 

Designed to make use of every one of the DS’s unique features, WEWY will throw simultaneous two-screen real-time combat at you, requiring use of the d-pad as well as the stylus (and sometimes the microphone) in a rub your stomach/pat your head manner. Fortunately, you can set your partner’s control to fully or even semi-automatic until you get the hang of things, but fully-manual control isn’t that difficult once you’re used to it; usually just spamming left or right while you work the bottom screen will get the job done, although paying attention to the top screen for combos is far from impossible. 

In fact, the defining feature of WEWY is scalability. Nearly every aspect of the game is adjustable to every skill level: besides setting the level of AI control over your partner, you only engage in random encounters when you want to (and a few times when you have to, but almost never randomly), you can set the difficulty from Easy to Ultimate (once you unlock each level), and you can even turn your experience level up or down (lower levels result in higher frequency of item drops). Along the way you’ll acquire a couple of hundred different pins (weapons, basically), each with their own command input, strength, number of uses, type of damage, and fashion brand; these pins gain levels and occasionally even evolve into different pins not unlike Pokémon. Further customization can be found in your threads (equipment), food (stat improvements… once you’ve digested them via combat, but only up to a certain amount per real-time day), and whether or not you pay attention to the ever-shifting trends in Shibuya which affect the strength of pins and equipment, with popular brands in a given area being stronger and the least popular brand being only half strength. 

It all adds up to a bizarre RPG that defies all expectations. Even the narrative is out-there, pitting you as 15-year-old Neku trapped in some sort of strange “game” being contested in the streets of Shibuya, Japan. You and your partner combat creatures called “Noise” as you jump through hoops set before you by beings called “Reapers”. The Game takes place over a week, and each day kicks off with you receiving a timed mission via your cell phone. Eventually you figure out that you are in a parallel dimension from the normal world, and although you can see and interact with it to a certain extent, nobody from that dimension can interact with you except in special circumstances (i.e., shops). The exact nature of the Game and its participants will also unfold as you progress, and rarely in ways that you anticipate. 

Don’t be too worried about those time limits, by the way. There is no actual in-game time restriction; even if your mission is to be completed in 15 minutes, you can safely spend hours grinding and exploring without penalty. In fact, this is the most enjoyable grinding that I have ever done in any RPG, thanks to the intense combat mechanics and the fact that I more or less choose which monsters to fight in a given area. And without spoiling too much, don’t worry that the game will be over after only seven in-game days, either (a quick read of the manual would have tipped you off about that anyway). 

Despite all of the amazing things this game does, there is at least one shortcoming, however. While the amount of information recorded and provided to you is impressive, the game never tells you that some pins require different types of experience if you want them to evolve. You see, in addition to Battle PP, the pins you currently have equipped will also earn experience while you’re not playing (Shutdown PP); there is also Mingle PP, gained by having your DS sit in wireless mode for a while and picking up signals from other WEWY players, other DS wi-fi signals, and miscellaneous other signals (“Aliens”). Even when you do evolve your pins, there’s never any indication of how you did so in case you want to make some more. Anyone seeking total Pin Mastery and a couple of other “totals” that are based on that will have to consult a FAQ, but most completionists are probably used to that. 

Once you’ve completed the main narrative, several post-game options become available to you, including the ability to jump to any one of the game’s chapters. Not quite a “new game+”, you can replay these days with all of your advanced equipment/skills/etc. to find certain items, and completing each of a day’s goals will unveil a piece of the backstory, which is a fascinating bonus. There’s also a bizarre “Another Day” chapter that takes place in a different universe but somehow all makes sense within the framework of the game’s world (especially as you read the Secret Reports). Finally, you can also play a Bakugan-style mini-game called “Tin Pin Slammer” with up to four players over local wireless; the game occasionally crops up in the main narrative as well, so you’ll at least have some exposure to it regardless. 

It all adds up to a truly staggering amount of content. I really hate the fact that Square-Enix charges $40 for their new DS games, but WEWY would almost have been worth it just to encourage new ideas from The House the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest Built. Fortunately it’s now available at most locations for only $30. At that price it was just a matter of finding time to actually play the game, which every RPG fan should do eventually. I don’t know if we’ll ever see a sequel to The World Ends With You (probably… the story can support it, sort of), but I’ve definitely never seen anything like it before. 

ESRB Rating: T for Fantasy Violence, Mild Language, and Mild Suggestive Themes. The usual.

Plays like: nothing else

Pros: A pile of unique ideas and DS-specific design combine to create one of the most enjoyable RPGs in a long time, on any system

Cons: Still suffers from some “Guide Dang It” design that plagues most RPGs, but most players probably won’t notice




March 31, 2009

When Clover Studios first put out Okami for the PS2, many gamers believed that its “Celestial Brush” mechanic would make the game a perfect fit for Nintendo’s then-new motion-controlled Wii system. It may have taken two years, but Ready At Dawn finally gave it a shot; the results are a solid effort, although maybe not quite the perfect port many would have expected. 

Retelling the Japanese legend of the sun goddess Amaterasu, along with other stories from Japanese mythology, Okami puts you in control of Ammy in her white wolf form (“okami” can mean both “wolf” as well as something along the lines of “high god/spirit”). Essentially a Zelda-style adventure game, the game’s single most distinguishing gameplay feature is the “Celestial Brush” I mentioned a second ago. As you progress through the story, Ammy gains access to over a dozen brush techniques that can be used in various ways; pressing the B button pauses the game and lets you “draw” on the canvas of the game’s world. Slashes cut down obstacles (and enemies), spirals cause breezes (or gales!), and circles regenerate once-green plant life, among other effects. 

While the Celestial Brush does feel natural when using the Wii Remote’s pointer functionality, the reality is that the recognition of various strokes is inconsistent; straight lines are especially problematic, although holding down the Z button while you sketch will aid you greatly in that respect. This can be frustrating at first, but eventually you learn to overcome these issues and fling ink like the goddess you’re supposed to be. Another issue in the PS2-to-Wii translation is the use of gestures for combat maneuvers; the short version is that unless you are using the whip-style bead weapons (the first of which you don’t find until the second area of the game), it will be very awkward to execute combos and combat will be difficult. 

Fortunately, these are the only shortcomings with the Wii version of this otherwise-solid game. Everything else, from the “living painting” art style to the mythology-spanning narrative, is largely intact from the original edition. If you missed out on Okami the first time around and own a Wii, Okami bears a worthy comparison to The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. It’s not as fluid a port as it probably could have been, but ReadyAtDawn did what they could considering that they weren’t the original developers. I’m just thankful that I got to experience the game at all, and anyone else who skipped the PS2 version should be as well. It should be available at a bargain price by now, so pick it up if you haven’t already. 

ESRB Rating: T for Blood and Gore, Crude Humor, Fantasy Violence, Suggestive Themes, and Use of Alcohol and Tobacco. When you think about it, Greek/Roman mythology is just as bad.

Plays like: most Zelda clones.

Pros: gorgeous visuals, unique concept

Cons: inconsistent motion controls



“Each turn of Arkadia forces you to answer several strategic questions, as there is nearly no random element to speak of in the game.”

Arkadia is one of those games that appears to be fairly straightforward: you earn gold by cashing in seals you earn from completing buildings. Yet it is so layered in strategic choices that it can be impossible to get a good grip on it without several plays under your belt. Arkadia also has the unusual complication of requiring completely different tactics depending on the number of players, as plays that will probably be available to you with one opponent will most likely be stolen in larger groups. As a result, it is not as family-friendly as most board games, but deeply rewarding for those who enjoy more strategic fare.

Players represent master architects as they expand a town with a central castle, with three workers initially available to them and four cards in hand. Each turn, a player can place a Tetris-like building on the board by discarding a corresponding card (and then drawing a replacement at the end of his turn). Any tent spaces on the board covered by the placement of a building earns the player a neutral worker. Each building is endorsed by one of the four families and is marked with that family’s colored seal, to be claimed as an additional reward by whichever architect completes the building. A building is considered completed once it is bordered on all orthogonal sides by either other buildings or workers. Instead of placing a new building, a player my opt to place as many workers as he chooses (both of his own and any neutrals he may have) around a single existing building. Whoever completes a given building scores that building’s bonus seal, and each allies worker adjacent to a completed building scores his player one additional seal of that color.

Completing buildings also lets players place castle pieces on the central plaza, which can affect the standing of each family and in turn determines the value of each family’s seal at any given time. The plaza’s ten spaces initially weight each family evenly, with two seals of each family represented (plus two blank spaces). Each family also has three castle pieces that can be placed per level; the more a given family’s color shows when a player scores, the more that family’s seals are worth — from zero to six gold pieces per seal (as each level’s maximum value per family is three and the first level must be filled before the second can begin). Once the second level of the castle has been completed, each player gets one additional turn and then the game ends with one final scoring phase. Whoever has the most gold at the end of the game wins.

Each player has four opportunities to score before the final scoring phase and can choose to do so at the end of any turn; in addition to gold for traded-in seals, using a scoring opportunity also bestows two additional friendly workers to that player’s reserve. As the “market value” of each seal is constantly in flux, players must anticipate when to “cash in” and when to hoard for greater potential returns. Try to keep track of who is hoarding which seals (all such information in this game is private) and see if you can manipulate the market to screw them out of a huge windfall while shoring up your own investments. Additionally, it may be prudent to “score” without cashing in any seals at all, just to get more valuable friendly workers to place; if you don’t use them, then they’re just wasted!

Each turn of Arkadia forces you to answer several strategic questions, as there is nearly no random element to speak of in the game. Building or workers? Where to you place whatever it is you’re going to place? If a building, which one of the four in your hand is the best play? If you’re placing workers, how many will you put down — both how many non-scoring neutrals, and how many of your own precious scoring ones? How will you adjust the market if you complete a building — or two? Do you want to burn a scoring opportunity now? Will that awesome play you see still be there when your next turn rolls around or will someone else jump on it?

It’s a lot of thinking, and it can seem daunting. If that’s the sort of game you really love sinking your teeth into, then Arkadia won’t disappoint. If not, then you might want to look elsewhere. Playing Arkadia can easily instill an unwary player into feeling like he’s just along for the ride and not really sure where he’s going or what he’s doing, which is just a recipe for frustration. Arkadia is a great strategic game, just like Chess; but like Chess, it’s just not for certain types of people.


Images by GamerChris

So here’s what we’re wondering: what’s your policy on your game collection? Do you regularly trade in games for credit for others? Is it only occasionally? Or do you never get rid of any game? Let us know how you trim your collection.


March 28, 2009

See Jack. See Jack run. See Jack shove a signpost through some mook’s skull. See Jack carve him in half with his arm-mounted chainsaw. Kill, Jack, kill!

In the opening to MadWorld, the island of Varrigan City is cut off from the rest of the world when all bridges leading to it are blown up, all communications and internet disabled, and its airspace defended with lethal force. A “chaser” known as Jack has been called in by the mayor to find someone trapped on the island, but Jack has other motives that will be revealed in time.

Which is all well and good, but MadWorld isn’t about the narrative. MadWorld is all about violence, served in great bloody shovel-loads. Unlike other M-rated slaughterfests, however, MadWorld isn’t necessarily glorifying carnage; if anything, the depiction of brutality in this game is so over-the-top that it becomes humorous. The “Deathwatch Games” that are taking place on the island are a form of entertainment for those who know about them (and bet on them), and the whole experience is treated like the ultimate extreme sport, complete with humorous play-by-play and color commentary. If you don’t want to listen to the at-times repetitive commentary (or, in my case, the hip-hop style soundtrack), you can adjust the individual volume channels for music, voice/sound, and commentary in the Options menu.

The “black market entertainment broadcast over closed-circuit lines” aspect of MadWorld’s concept is also a partial justification for the game’s unique aesthetic. With the exception of blood sprays and some comic book-style onomatopoeia effects, the entire game is done in black and white, reminiscent of the comic book movie adaptations of Sin City and The Spirit. This also helps to keep the focus on humorous carnage and off realistic violence. Surprisingly, this look is never really a hindrance, although it does make for some unexciting screenshots.

MadWorld’s beat-’em-up gameplay is also relatively simple, as is common on a Wii title. Your controls are simple and fairly intuitive (although having to double-tap the control stick to run is somewhat awkward), and motion detection is very responsive. The game uses gesture-based Quick-Time Elements fairly often, especially during boss fights, but they aren’t obstacles for anyone with average reflexes — although sometimes triggering them during boss fights can be a challenge. They actually feel quite natural as you get caught up in the action, with your gestures mimicking what Jack does on screen more often than not. While the basic moves you use to take down waves of mooks will eventually become repetitive, there is still plenty of variety available to mix things up.

At its core, MadWorld is a throwback to arcade-style games like Double Dragon or Final Fight. You earn points based on how you dispatch your opponents, and as you reach predetermined totals something on the level unlocks, whether it be an additional weapon or other power-up, a new environmental hazard, or access to the level’s boss. Each stage also contains a “Bloodbath Challenge”, which is a mini-game that challenges you to pick off enemies in various ways such as Man Darts, Man Golf, Death Press, and Rocket Rammer. As an added bonus for replayability, these mini-games are available for two-player play once you complete their respective stages. Further replay incentives include higher scores and a harder difficulty setting — I’ve heard that even the tutorial is lethal on “Hard”, so those of you looking for a challenge definitely want to check that out.

All of this replayability is good, since it won’t take you very long to plow through MadWorld; the in-game clock only saves when you are successful, so it will probably only record half of the 6-10 hours of play you actually put into the game. As mentioned, much of that time will also seem to be repetitive, including the commentary clips, but it never seems boring. Rather than overstay its welcome, MadWorld is over in about a dozen stages, a few of which are just one (epic) boss fight each.

Like No More Heroes and a (very) few other games before it, MadWorld proves that the Wii isn’t just for family-friendly mini-game collections and party games. Platinum Games (formerly Clover Studios, makers of Viewtiful Joe, Okami, and Godhand) has once again united an unusual visual look to satisfying gameplay. While it obviously isn’t for every Wii owner (even ignoring the M rating that should theoretically exclude anyone under 17), those looking for some mindless mayhem and maturely immature content should eagerly add MadWorld to their Wii library.

ESRB: M for Blood and Gore, Drug Reference, Intense Violence, Mature Humor, Sexual Themes, and Strong Language. But enough about the introductory level…
Plays like: most 3D beat ’em ups
Pros: “Sin City” aesthetics, gloriously over-the-top violence and mayhem
Cons: somewhat repetitive (especially commentary), inconvenient lock-on system