April 2010

Are you following @SnackbarGames on Twitter? Well you should be! You see, occasionally we like to run contests over there, with the winner getting free stuff. (Everyone likes free stuff. Don’t deny it.) Anyway, right now we’re running one where you can win Sakura Wars! You really should check it out.

First and foremost, Sakura Wars is a dating sim. Don’t let that stop you though – it’s a darn good dating sim, and to up the manliness a bit there are also giant robots and SRPG battle mechanics. It took a long time for Sakura Wars to come to the US, and that makes sense. It’s chock full of wacky Japanese tropes that hang together just enough to skirt the line between ridiculous and wonderful. Originally a PS2 game, Overworks (who are responsible for gems like Valkyria Chronicles and Skies of Arcadia) has not only brought Sakura Wars to the west, but they also ported it to the Wii to appease those of us who no longer have a functioning PS2 or a PS3 with backward-compatibility. 

So Long, My Love is unique. Despite being the most recent entry of the series in Japan this marks its first outing here. The narrative supports this very well. Shinjiro, the main character, is new to the US. As he is acclimating to life in New York you will be getting used to the controls and interesting meld of genres. Sakura Wars isn’t for the 15 minutes at a time player. I spent 90 minutes moving through text at the opening before moving into the battle tutorial. Sakura Wars is deep and rewarding, but you’ll need to humor it a bit to get started.

Instead of alternately watching scenes and kicking butt a la Valkyria Chronicles the dialogue in Sakura Wars is more interactive and a game unto itself. As conversations progress you’ll occasionally be presented with response choices (usually 3). Choose correctly and you’ll hear a chime and the “next” option. Choose poorly and the conversation ends and you’ve missed an opportunity to advance your relationship with that character. And this mechanic isn’t restricted to just one character. Most people you speak to keep track of how good you are at saying the right thing. Don’t sweat it when you get one wrong, there are tons of opportunities to flesh out your compatriots personalities. And you want to improve your relationship with each of your coworkers even if you don’t really care for story. As you get to know them and form stronger bonds you’ll reap the benefits in battle later. Stronger bonds mean Duo attacks, and you definitely want to use Duo attacks.

When you’re not busy playing the dating sim half of Sakura Wars you’ll be piloting giant mechs. Where do these mechs come from? They come from a giant ship called the Ahab that is launched via ballista from the bay doors of the Littlelip Theater (where you conveniently work as an usher) that nobody noticed. Really. I couldn’t make up things that sound this awesome if I tried. Your STAR (Super Telekinetic Assault Robot) runs on mobility (similar to AP from the Front Mission series). Moving, jumping, and attacking all cost mobility. The system is nice and forgiving, too – move back where you started and your mobility comes back. This is nice because it means that mobility is bound more to where you end up than how you got there. Mobility is also used to defend – you’ll need about 25% of your allotment remaining – or heal. Duo attacks use a different gauge called the Spirit Gauge (it’s like mana). These Duo attacks are available depending on who else is on your team and how much they like you (I told you the dating sim part was important). Spirit attacks also drain the Spirit Gauge, and these types of attacks are analogous to magic or summons, right down to the pre-rendered scene that plays out when they’re executed.

But that’s not all! When it comes time for a boss fight the more traditional SRPG mechanics give way to full 360 degree movement and elevation in the air. Bosses all have multiple attacks and weak points so their fights play out like a puzzle within the SRPG framework. It is important to prioritize targets and take out offensive weapons before hammering on weak points to protect your team and their STARs. Take out boss defenses and weapons in the right order and you’ll come away unscathed. Choose poorly and you’ll get to try the fight again – thankfully Sakura Wars checkpoints before milestone encounters so you’ll never lose a ton of progress by falling to a boss.

As the game goes on, something interesting happens. The characters become more than just talking portraits during cutscenes or caricatures to woo in any other dating sim. You’ll come to care about your team and get to know them as well-defined characters. Sure, on the surface they’re identifiable by common traits like hair and skin color, but each girl has a distinct personality and it is clear that NIS spent a lot of time faithfully translating the characters and dialog for a US audience. NIS has taken what may be the last high-note RPG for the PS2 and started what I hope is a pattern of high-quality RPGs on the Wii. You’ll play Sakura Wars multiple times, and it’s short enough to support that without feeling like a retread because of the sheer number of ways conversations can go and the choices that must be made about how to spend the time you have to wander around the streets of New York. If you enjoy SRPGs and branching dialogue that actually affects gameplay, then Sakura Wars definitely deserves a spot on your shelf.

Plays Like: Sakura Taisen, Front Mission

Pros: Highly replayable, interesting characters, big stompy mechs, huge flying bosses, strategic battles

Cons: Can be a bit overwhelming – particularly the dialog choices


This week we’re focusing on rumors for game announcements.

Current scores:

Andrew Passafiume: +85 

Graham Russell: +5

Shawn Vermette: +100

LittleBigPlanet 2 to be announced at E3

Yes, one of the developers of LittleBigPlanet has said that they have zero interest in making a sequel to LittleBigPlanet despite its huge sales numbers. However, recently a musician posted on his website that he had been hired to do the music for LittleBigPlanet 2. That post has since been removed, but it leads us now to this question: Was the musician in error about what game he was hired for? Or did Sony pressure Media Molecule into making a sequel to their breakout game?

Andrew: It’s been practically confirmed in several news stories and by Media Molecule (or people working with MM on the sequel), and E3 seems like the most logical place to announce it. Media Molecule originally stated that, aside from the PSP version, LittleBigPlanet would be its own thing and a sequel would never be required, but it seems like they do have plenty of new ideas in store for one. 90%

Graham: I feel like backwards compatibility is key here. All this created stuff should be compatible with the sequel, or there are going to be some unhappy people. That said, this is probably happening.  There’s just some stuff you can’t do with patches and updates, and LBP fans want more. (Personally, I’m hoping for another LBP-driven conference. The first one was fun.)  90%

Shawn: I think the fact that despite having a number of high profile exclusives lately, the PS3 still lagging in sales has convinced Sony that they need to make a sequel to LittleBigPlanet. They need as many strong titles as they can get in their fight with Microsoft. 85%

Dead Space: Extraction to be ported to the Xbox 360

Dead Space: Extraction was released to critical acclaim and poor sales. Now, rumor has it that to make up for the lack of sales on the Wii, EA is looking into porting it onto the Xbox 360. This is intriguing for a couple of reasons. First, EA is already at work on Dead Space 2. Second, while Dead Space sold well on the 360, I don’t know of any rail shooters that sold well on the 360.

Andrew: This is something else that seems to be almost confirmed by many sources at EA, but it’s not been made official yet. I’ve heard that it may even be getting an Xbox Live Arcade release as opposed to a full retail release, which seems a lot more likely to me. And considering the popularity of Dead Space with the 360 crowd, it would seem like a good thing to do to hype people up closer to Dead Space 2’s release. Although I can possibly see EA not wanting to even bother with this spin-off/prequel after how badly it did on the Wii and the fact that it is not exactly a “true” Dead Space game in terms of gameplay. 80%

Graham: Here’s the new formula: release a core game on Wii. Have critical praise but low sales numbers. Then release it on 360. This seems like it’s following the formula pretty well, and gamers will try it out. Unless, of course, it doesn’t happen, in which case they won’t be able to. 70%

Shawn: EA has been all about trying to grow their business with new and different games lately. Unfortunately, few of them have been commercial successes despite everyone agreeing they are great games. Because of this I definitely believe EA will take advantage of the popularity of Dead Space and rerelease Dead Space: Extraction on the 360. 75%

New James Bond game to be shown at E3

There’s been talk for a while about Activision working on a new James Bond game, but nothing else is known about it. Will we finally see it at this year’s E3?

Andrew: I remember hearing rumors about Bizarre Creations working on a new Bond title for Activision, but that never seemed to come to fruition. But I can see either that, or a new Bond title being revealed sometime soon. It’s been a while since the last Bond game, after all.  70% 

Graham: Activision has been surreptitiously picking up domains and trademarks for various Bond things over the past few months. Will we see the game released this year? I have my doubts. It’d be hard to avoid a game trailer or something this June.  75%

Shawn: Last I heard about a James Bond game, it was being built using the Modern Warfare engine. I have no idea if that rumored game is still being worked on, but I think it’s definitely time for Activision to finally release a James Bond game. 75%

Samurai Shodown Sen is a game that, despite current-generation graphics, feels like it belongs bout two console generations back. There are only the most basic of game modes, button mashing can ensure victory, and fighting game staples like sidestepping and counters are nowhere to be found. Sen also suffers from Tekken-itis – meaning that each character has far more moves that are realistically necessary and that you only really have enough time before the next fighting game comes out to get good with one character.

Samurai Shodown Sen features only three modes: Versus, Survival, and Story. All are self-explanatory, and all are genre staples. Where are the interesting modes? I don’t expect SNK to copy modes from other games, but we’ve got fighters with quarter mode, coop story, and moveset-restricted challenge modes. I expect more out a home console fighter than the options I had in arcades 15 years ago. Sen feels like a game whose motto was “what do we need?” instead of “what can we do?” There are a ton of moves available for each character, but you’ll find one combination that usually works well (block + A and B) to slog through the story.

Visually, Samurai Shodown Sen looks fine, but everything feels less alive than it used to. SNK has some of the best sprite-work out there, and it’s disappointing to see them use 3D models instead. There’s plenty of fun to be had with sprites on a 2D plane, and Samurai Shodown suffers for moving away from one of SNK’s strong suits and trading it away for 3D that looks like it could have come from any developer out there. Griping about lack of sprites aside, the game moves well, characters are animated nicely, and the backgrounds are gorgeous. It’s just a shame that it’s all dressing over a lackluster product.

Mechanically, Sen is stuck in the arcades. When you inevitably lost a match you’re greeted to your fighter bleeding out on the ground while a giant “Continue?” pops up on the screen with a timer. I don’t have quarters anymore. Just let me press A to continue or B to quit. And while you’re at it, come up with a better solution that sending me back to the character select. All that does is annoy me because then I have to wait through all the loads again. With so few options and current mechanics left on the floor the least you could give me is quick loading after I fall. 

Samurai Shodown Sen feels like SNK looked at every popular fighter released in the last few years, took note of what features they all had in common, and slapped their characters on it. The whole package feels lifeless and uninspired. You’ll have more fun and spend less money with a used copy of Street Fighter IV. You’ll also be able to find people to play against online.

Plays Like: Street Fighter IV with less options and more moves

Pros: Backgrounds are nice

Cons: I miss the spritework and fun from Samurai Shodown games of years past


The “Age of Exploration”, when European nations spread their influence pretty much all over the world, is a common theme in modern board games and even a few video games. Endeavor, from Z-Man Games, is one such title, combining area control with a worker-placement mechanic into a neat seven-round package for three to five players.

Setting up Endeavor involves randomly assigning one of the 104 tokens to each of the circular spaces on the board; it’s best to do this face-down to keep things unbiased before flipping them all over. The distribution of these tokens will dramatically affect your strategy in playing, as building up your Industry, Culture, and Economy will be key to your development and collecting these tokens is one of the ways to accomplish this. Each region of the board also has a stack of cards numbered from one to five (in order) with a Governor card (or 0-value card in the case of the Europe/Mediterranean and Slavery areas) placed on top.

Each player begins at level one in each of the four statistics (the three mentioned above and Politics), with a single “occupy” action available to them. Beginning with the start player (which passes each round), players purchase one building per round, with their available options based on their level of Industry. Buildings often increase one of your stats in addition to providing a potential action for the action phase. Once buildings have been purchased, each player generates a number of workers as defined by their current Culture threshold. In all rounds but the first (because obviously no actions have been used at that point) they can also buy back a number of workers used for previous actions based on their Economy level. This is the only way to free up a used action space, barring gaining access to a “payment” action, so it pays to be able to pay your workers if you want to be able to maximize your options each round.

With the workers available to them, players then progress to the action phase. In turn, each player either performs one action or passes for the round. Actions are usually represented by open spaces on your buildings; in order to perform the action, you must place one of your workers on that space and often an additional worker — or more — somewhere else. The actions include Occupy (place one worker in a city in an area that is open to you, collecting the token there as well as the one on the connecting “trade route” if you own both ends of the route), Shipping (place a worker on the discovery track of an area, collecting the token there), Combat (sacrifice one worker to replace another player’s worker in an area where you have a presence), Payment (return another worker from one of your buildings to your available pool), and Draw (draw one card in an area, but only if you have enough influence in the area to obtain the current card there); some advanced buildings might either give you a choice of actions (“occupy or ship,” “ship or draw”) or combine/double actions (“occupy and ship,” “draw and draw”). Tokens you collect via Occupy or Shipping can either increase one of your statistics or provide you a “free” one-shot action to use at your discretion. Any workers left over once you have either exhausted your available spaces or passed are retained for future rounds. Finally, you must discard any cards you have collected in excess of those allowed by your current Politics level, adjusting your statistics accordingly; each player can have one “free” Governor card and one “free” Slavery card beyond their limit (up to a point in the case of Slavery).

Initially you can only use the Occupy, Draw, and (later) Combat actions in the European/Mediterranean region, which includes the Slavery deck. The five-value card in the E/M deck, in addition to its normal bonuses, also represents the “abolition of slavery”; each slavery card owned by all players when that card is drawn is lost (along with its benefits) and represents a negative point at the end of the game — as does a slavery card discarded for any other reason. Slavery cards are a quick and cheap way to rapidly increase your Industry and Economy early, but can potentially be a double-edged sword later on; whether or not you go for the risk is an important strategic decision.

Once an outlying region’s discovery track is completely filled it becomes available for non-Shipping actions only to those who have at least one worker on the track; you can still place a worker on an already-filled track via a Shipping action to get around this restriction. Whoever has the most workers on the discovery track is declared the Governor of that region and claims the appropriate card; in the case of a tie, the tied player with the worker closest to the last place on the track earns the honor, which can create some interesting strategic tension as these cards are often quite powerful/valuable.

At the end of the seventh round, the game is over — even if there are unclaimed spaces on the board (which is especially common with fewer players). In addition to the points scored by buildings, cards, occupying cities, and controlling trade routes, each player also scores points dependent on the levels of his statistics as indicated on the boards as well as one point for every three workers they have available but unused. The rules suggest using the various tokens to keep track of the scores but this is completely unnecessary and way too fiddly; counting up and then writing down each player’s total in turn is far simpler (and makes the included 50-point tokens something of a waste of cardboard). Scores are often very close as long as everyone has at least a vague idea of what they’re doing, and the winner is typically only a handful of points away from the player with the lowest total.

This tightness in scoring is perhaps my favorite aspect of Endeavor, as these scores are often achieved via wildly differing strategies, which indicates that pretty much any well-executed plan is viable rather than there being just one dominating plan that other players need to disrupt before someone can execute it. In fact, you have to be able to adapt your strategy on the fly thanks to the random distribution of tokens and other players beating you to certain actions, which keeps you active (but can lead to some paralysis if your house of cards gets knocked over by a single unexpected move). Another huge plus is the short play time, typically 90 minutes at the very most; other games in this genre can take two hours or more to complete and can drag on towards the later rounds when options are at their peak. A quick-playing game with dynamic strategy is always a sure bet in my book, and Endeavor fits that description neatly.