September 2009

In early 2008, Nintendo unleashed the English translation of Professor Layton and the Curious Village (Snackbar rating: Niche) on the western gaming world. Thanks to a rabid fan following and some surprising sales (mostly in Europe, where it was actually advertised) sixteen months later we finally received the sequel that had been out in Japan for ages (they’re almost on their fourth installment, actually). If you were one of those fans, you already have this game and can stop reading this review; by a similar nature, if you didn’t like the first one then there’s no reason to try this one.

If you haven’t played Curious Village, the Professor Layton series is a series of over 100 logic puzzles, riddles, and other brain teasers strung together with a whimsical narrative featuring the titular professor (of archaeology, if you were wondering) and his assistant Luke. The difference between Curious Village and Diabolical Box is subtle at best; the games are essentially identical save for the actual puzzles themselves.

One key innovation, however, is the “memo” feature. What this does is gives you a transparent overlay that lets you scribble, draw, and otherwise make notes as you solve; some of the puzzles in the first game had this, but this time around it’s available on all of them, and you can toggle between it and the original image at will to check your work. This makes certain puzzles much easier than they would have been the first time around and is a welcome addition.

Other than different mini games (one of which makes finding hidden puzzles much easier than the first installment’s pixel-hunting), however, it’s more of the same. While that “same” is awesome if you’re a fan of these kinds of puzzles, it’s not going to win over any new fans. I would recommend that new players start with Curious Village to avoid the mild spoilers and what would be otherwise confusing references to that title’s events, but if you just want the puzzles then go for it.

ESRB: E10 for Alcohol Reference and Mild Violence. The Professor and Luke tend to get involved in murder mysteries.

Plays like: Professor Layton and the Curious Village, almost exactly.

Pros: New puzzles! More charming animation and voice acting! NEW PUZZLES!

Cons: Some of those puzzles are “Tower of Hanoi”, “Knight’s Tour”, and “Disappearing Act” (peg solitaire), plus the ever-annoying sliding box puzzles return with infuriating new twists (blocks that aren’t all squares and rectangles). Prepare to be frustrated.


September 30, 2009

Scribblenauts is a shining example of reach exceeding grasp. The team at 5th Cell (Drawn to Life) have an amazing concept on their hands: “write anything, solve everything” is the game’s tagline, and for the most part that’s exactly what they gave us. However, they also gave us an absolutely mind-boggling arsenal with little to no instructions as to how anything actually works, and then tacked on some floaty controls to makes things extra frustrating. 

Once you get past the sandbox title screen (a brilliant inclusion), the game has two main modes: Puzzle stages and Action stages. The object of both types is to acquire the level’s starite; in Puzzle stages it only appears after you satisfy a certain condition, and in Action stages it’s in plain sight and the challenge is to get your character to it without destroying it or yourself. You get a hint of varying usefulness when the stage begins and then you’re on your own.

This is when the game’s concept kicks in. You have a notebook at your disposal, in which you can write/type just about any noun that isn’t vulgar, copyrighted, or otherwise restricted (the game is rated E10; use common sense here); a few adjectives like “large” are also recognized in certain cases. If what you’ve written is included in the game’s incredible dictionary, the object you’ve suggested will appear! If there’s a question as to which homonym you meant it will ask for clarification (“bass” the instrument or “bass” the animal?), and if what you typed was misspelled or otherwise not recognized the game will offer you a choice of the three closest examples it could find or give you the option to back out and try something else. There are some absolutely crazy items, creatures, and other assorted objects contained in this game, even if a few synonyms ultimately give you identical results.

If the object is a vehicle (or several types of animal), you can ride it. If the object is a weapon, you can wield it. If the object is a rope, vine, chain, or whatever you can tie each end to other objects. You get the idea. Some objects interact with each other in somewhat logical ways (almost anything that’s alive will be attracted to food, water extinguishes fires, ninjas fight pirates on sight, dropping a toaster in water will do bad things to anything swimming in that water, and so on), but a lot of the time you might have no idea how you can put your item to any actual use.

And herein lies the first problem with the game: just because you have (almost) everything at your disposal, that doesn’t mean that everything is equally useful. It’s incredibly easy to keep using the same handful of proven items over and over again to solve your problems, and that will suck some of the fun out of this game for you. Alternately, you can try to be creative and experiment, but that will lead to frustration more often than memorable moments of brilliance (which will still happen and are awesome when they do). Either way you’re probably going to get tired of it quickly, and there’s over 200 stages in the game. For completionists, each stage must be completed four times, using unique items on each subsequent run (within reason; you can use adjectives to cheat that requirement if you really want to, but then why did you even bother to replay the level?).

At least that problem can be mitigated by how much effort and patience you’re willing to put into the game. The one that’s harder to overcome, however, is the irritating control interface. Tapping an empty space will move Maxwell to that location (assuming he can reach it) — whether you wanted to move him there or not. It’s incredibly easy to accidentally cause him to move too close to danger while trying to manipulate an item in the right way, which is itself a challenge in some cases. The d-pad moves the camera, not Maxwell, and after a short idle time it re-centers on Maxwell automatically. When you repeatedly fail a level thanks to this — and you will — your tolerance for this game will quickly be tested.

Scribblenauts is a hard game to recommend, and equally hard to dismiss. The nearly bottomless well of creativity is something that needs to be experienced, for all of its faults. Those who don’t want to plumb its cavernous depths will probably find its charm wear off quickly, but this is the biggest virtual sandbox ever offered; there’s even a level editor that allows you to swap your creations over WiFi (using friend codes, obviously) for those who can’t get enough. In the end, what you get out of Scribblenauts is what you put into it.

ESRB: E10 for Cartoon Violence and Comic Mischief; how the ESRB rated this in any sane manner is beyond me.

Plays like: Everything…. nothing… I dunno. Let’s just say it’s unique.

Pros: Amazing, nearly incomprehensible depth of available items.

Cons: User interface for said items needs some serious work.

Wii Sports Resort

September 29, 2009

Wii Sports is arguably the most popular Wii title to date, simply because it shipped with the system as a pack in title. For most people, it really just whet the appetite and left us longing for more. Nintendo’s back with a sequel: Wii Sports Resort.

Wii Sports Resort is different from the original Wii Sports in many ways. Most notably is the required use of the Wii MotionPlus accessory, which is bundled with Resort (and some other games) and is also available as a standalone purchase. Resort also includes a larger collection of sports, 12 to Wii Sports’ 5, and with it a new menu screen. Each sport has an initial challenge with additional unlockable modes of increasing difficulty. Each sport will allow between 1 and 4 players to compete in the challenge, depending on the challenge. Sports included are Archery, Frisbee, Basketball, Cycling, Canoeing, Power Cruising, Table Tennis, Air Sports, Bowling, Swordplay, Golf and Wakeboarding.

I really enjoyed some of these sports and others were just downright cumbersome. Bowling and Golf are largely unchanged. Table Tennis was essentially just a modified version of Tennis from Wii Sports. Archery, Frisbee, Basketball, Swordplay, and Wakeboarding were all quite fun with Swordplay being the house favorite. The Air Sports events were really cool, the top choice of my wife. I felt pretty lukewarm about Canoeing mostly because I did so poorly at it and didn’t really enjoy it. That leaves Power Cruising and Cycling, neither of which I found to be all that enjoyable. Power Cruising was downright hard and I just couldn’t get the hang of it. After a few tries I just stopped playing that one completely.

At its core, Resort really is just an incredibly fun tech demo to showcase the abilities and precision of the Wii MotionPlus. For that, it does a really good job. It’s essentially to the WMP what Wii Sports was to the Wii Remote. Some might gawk at the $50 price tag, but with the WMP unit bundled in there, it’s really only setting you back $30 for the game (WMP retails for $20). At $30, Resort has more than enough depth to justify the price. If Wii Sports was any indicator, I’ll be playing a whole lot of Wii Sports Resort for months to come. This is something you’ll eventually want to pick up.

Pros: Bundled Wii MotionPlus unit; Expanded sports lineup

Cons: Price; Power Cruising sucked

Grand Slam Tennis

September 29, 2009

The Wii is the perfect platform for a tennis game, and it’s got no shortage of them already available. The newest of these is Grand Slam Tennis, a new franchise from the folks at EA Sports. Grand Slam Tennis boasts some features that make it stand out from the crowd and it promises to be richest tennis experience on the Wii, but does it deliver?

The game features an all star cast of 23 legend tennis players and it’s the first game to feature Wimbledon, making it the only tennis game to feature all four Grand Slam tournaments. The playable legend characters range from John McEnroe to Pete Sampras to the Williams Sisters each one complete with a special ability that is derived from their real life strength as a player.

Grand Slam features a few different gameplay modes including single player action that spans Grand Slam Career mode, exhibition matches, and even party games. Career mode allows you to create your own player and features an endless number of customizations, most of which you must unlock as you progress through the game. You can return to the character edit mode and update your wardrobe and equipment at any time. Career mode has you traveling to each of the four Grand Slams to take part in the tournament. Before beginning the tournament, you’ll play a few practice matches that include exhibition matches, legend matches, and skill challenges. You only have one shot to win each match. If you lose, you have to wait until the following year to reattempt that particular match. The tournament itself is a series of 5 consecutive matches against seeded players.

In addition to the new character customizations you can unlock through Career mode, you can be awarded special abilities as well as overall skill points. Upon creating your character, you start off with zero stars and you are gradually awarded additional stars for winning matches. Special abilities are awarded by defeating their respective legends. Initially you can only equip a single ability, but you can unlock the ability for two additional slots. In all, there is plenty to keep you playing Career mode in an effort to maximize the ability of your character.

One of the features that makes Grand Slam stand out is its support for Wii MotionPlus, the ultra-accurate accessory from Nintendo. I spent time playing Grand Slam with and without WMP and I personally preferred playing with just the standard Wii Remote. The standard remote was responsive enough for me to actually feel like I was playing a game of tennis, but I found playing with WMP to actually be less accurate. Any slight movement of the remote resulted in some movement of the racket and/or my character. On occasion, this resulted in very odd results where my character would as I prepared to swing the controller and when I did finally swing my character would lunge back and perform a forehand. It was all very unnatural and had me almost afraid to move prior to swinging. Without the WMP add on I was able to stand in front of the TV and freely swing the racket.

Despite the issues I had with Wii MotionPlus, the game itself presents a very realistic representation of swinging a tennis racket. The vertical direction of the racket could create a flat shot or one with spin and the direction of the ball was directly related to where in the swing you made contact with the ball. There was a minor learning curve to make sure you weren’t wildly hitting the ball all over the court, but usually a match or two should do it.

EA opted to go for a very cartoony style for Grand Slam Tennis and I think it fits the game perfectly. The characters and visuals look great and they did a solid job of capturing the mannerisms of the legends in the game. Audio-wise, the game was pretty average with a soundtrack that may as well not be there and commentary that feels a little dry.

Grand Slam Tennis is a great first title for a new franchise that is not without its flaws. I was really hoping the Wii MotionPlus implementation would improve the experience and not hamper it, but I would definitely recommend playing without it. The art style is great and I really enjoyed feeling like I was playing a match of tennis. I didn’t particularly care for the lack of a rematch option, especially early on in Career mode when your player was at a definite disadvantage. At the end of the day, Grand Slam Tennis is not a perfect game, but I really had a lot of fun with it and I’ve had no problem recommending it to friends and family alike as the go to title for a real tennis experience.

Pros: Great art style; Lots of fun

Cons: Wii MotionPlus support actually makes the game worse

Naughty Dog has released a multiplayer demo for Uncharted 2, one of the most-anticipated PS3 games of the holiday season. The demo includes 4 maps, 4 competitive modes and 2 co-op modes.

Uncharted 2 is set for release on October 13th.