Art Academy

November 3, 2010

Continuing in their efforts to help DS owners with train their brains or learn new skills, Nintendo has now re-released Art Academy for the DS. Having previously released it as a two part DSiWare download, Nintendo apparently decided it was worth releasing to the greater DS owner population. After having fiddled around with it for awhile, I have to say that it is definitely worth a look if you are into art. 

Art Academy takes the approach of teaching you step by step the basics of how to draw and paint, from the basics of drawing circles and trees to painting full still-life images with nothing but your DS and a stylus. Along the way, you’ll learn a lot of real life lessons regarding drawing and painting techniques and composition. Even if you’re already a fair hand at drawing or painting, you may learn a little something from these very thorough lessons.

I’ve never been what you would call a good artist…heck, I can barely draw stick figures. Despite that, I learned more from this title than I ever did in art classes in school. My pictures still suck, but they suck correctly now. 

The top of the touch screen is basically your tool tray. Every pencil, paintbrush, eraser, you’ll need for the techniques you’ll learn will be there. Even a magnifying glass for adding finer detail to your drawings will be there. You are given three different pencils and six different brushes, and how you rub the screen changes how each of them are used. Faster and quicker movement lends itself to a different style than slower more precise movement, as it should. Additionally, you are given a palette of 10 colors that can be mixed with each other to create more colors however you see fit.

If you have a DSi, there’s no point in buying this. You can get it for cheaper via the DSi Shop. However, if you have an older DS model and you enjoy art, this is definitely a worthwhile pickup- if only for the real techniques and composition lessons you’ll receive.

Pros: Real life techniques; Some art history lessons sprinkled throughout; Different strokes are actually different in the game; Taught me how to make better stick figures

Cons: More expensive than the DSiWare version


Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light is an intentionally retro throwback to the old 8-bit Final Fantasy days, before the Active Battle System (first seen in FF4), pre-rendered cinematics (FF7) or pretty much anything else that has come to define the venerable series these days. There isn’t even a chocobo or moogle to be found, although crystals do show up.

4HoL uses an Action Point battle system that takes some getting used to. Every turn each one of your heroes generates one AP (to a maximum of five). Every action except “boost” requires at least one AP (boosting actually gives you one more AP while reducing damage taken that turn by half), and any AP you don’t use is carried over to the next turn — or to the next battle. That last part is key, as AP you carry between battles is also used to cast healing spells while not in combat. As you might expect, this has the effect of making items much more important, as there is no AP cost to use them on the map (they cost 1AP in battle just like a regular attack).

Of course, items take up space in your characters’ personal inventories; unlike most RPGs, there is no universal “bag of holding” in which all of your loot is stashed. Every item except crowns (more on them later) and key items occupies a single slot in a character’s fifteen-space inventory; multiples of the same item do not stack (although they do in your 99-slot “storage space”, which is only accessible via certain shops found in most towns). In addition to your items, you must also make room for equipment, weapons, and spell books. A well-armed magic-user will probably have precious little space to carry anything else… and any class can use magic if you want it to.

The class/job system in 4HoL is done via almost thirty hats called “crowns” that you earn a few at a time as you defeat bosses (or doing exceptionally well at the two mini-games you eventually find). You can swap crowns at any time, and crowns are accessible to all characters even if your party is split up at the time — which is how you will spend the first half of the game. In addition to an inherent ability (such as White Mages needing one less AP to cast white magic), each class has its own special ability, which must be assigned one of six action slots along with any spells you want to cast. Crowns can also be upgraded up to three times (per character…) in order to gain additional abilities; upgrading is done by attaching specific gems, which are gained by defeating monsters.

What you do not gain from defeating monsters is gold. Monsters only give you XP, items, and gems. Other than the occasional treasure chest, your only means of income is selling items, equipment or gems. Gems can be valuable when cashed in, especially the rarer ones, but since you need them for upgrading your crowns (and one town has a shop that can use gems to upgrade equipment as well) you have to weigh your options carefully. Bear in mind that if your party dies you will lose half of one type of gem (randomly selected, I believe) unless one of your characters is the beginning class of Freelancer (no crown).

All of this inventory and ability management makes the game tedious at times, but you quickly get used to it; using the button shortcuts instead of the stylus is usually more efficient, but both methods are fairly reliable. What you may not get used to unless you have experience with 8-bit RPGs is the nearly complete lack of hand-holding. If you forget — or simply don’t know — where you need to go next, your only recourse is to ask everyone you can find and see if one of them hints at a course of action. It’s not always obvious, but there’s usually something mentioned that you should investigate. Later on you gain the ability to speak to animals and can use that to get a more direct hint from the fox companion of the ubiquitous adventurer who serves as your only save points. That’s right, you can’t save whenever and wherever you want — there isn’t even a quicksave feature; it’s mostly restricted to just towns and right before bosses, although mercifully if you really need to you can always put the DS into sleep mode.

4HoL is hard, but not impossible. Your success will generally come from careful management of your crowns, as the right job(s) can make a world of difference. I’m almost convinced that certain bosses are actually unbeatable unless you have specific classes, which can be frustrating. Certain classes are more powerful and/or useful than others, although it’s not always the ones you might suspect. Be wary of over-leveling as well, as the game scales accordingly and you can quickly find yourself outclassed if you grind too much without having the skills and/or equipment to back it up. After completing the second half of the game you gain access to several randomly-generated dungeons that can yield the remaining crowns (you only earn twenty of them naturally, plus the two earned from mini-games) that can be thought of as post-game content, and there is a multiplayer local wireless aspect that I did not explore that will probably add some additional value for those able to utilize it. Points that you earn in the single-player mini-games can also be spent at the wireless store to buy special items — which I did not discover until after I beat the game.

While the retro style of 4 Heroes of Light has its charm, it is not for everybody. Even die-hard RPG fans might find the throwback uncomfortable. Overall I enjoyed the game, although I can’t recommend it as highly as I did the Final Fantasy III remake a few years back; that game’s limitations were inherent to its decades-old design (and even then they still managed to add a quicksave feature), while the limitations in 4HoL are all intentional. It’s still a solid RPG experience if you’re up for it.

Pros: “old-school” Final Fantasy adventure without all of the cinematic trappings of the current editions

Cons: A lot of those “retro” touches were abandoned for a reason


Super Scribblenauts

October 20, 2010

Last year developer 5th Cell unleashed perhaps the most ambitious title of the year for the DS in Scribblenauts; its tagline was “Write anything. Solve everything,” and for the most part the innovative dictionary-come-to-life system delivered on that end of the promise. Where the game fell far short of expectations, however, was in an awkward user interface when it came to moving Maxwell (your avatar), haphazard physics, and a par system that was meant to encourage you to maximize your efficiency but instead wound up stifling creativity and essentially forcing multiple level restarts. In my review I called it “a hard game to recommend, and equally hard to dismiss.” A year and change has passed since then; I would like to revise that statement to “don’t bother with the original version; get the sequel instead.” 

The team at 5th Cell, because they are awesome, actually listened to the complaints; their recent release of Super Scribblenauts addresses just about all of them. You no longer move Maxwell with the stylus (unless you want to for some reason; they included the option for both), the camera no longer snaps back on Maxwell after a period of time, objects no longer bounce off each other like they were all made of galvanized rubber, and there are no more “attach points” on each object to hunt for when trying to connect one with another. There is no longer a par on any level, allowing you to plumb the depths of your imagination more freely when it comes to finding a solution (and not penalizing you when an object does not appear as you might have expected), and the stages themselves unlock naturally without needing to spend Ollars (now basically only used to purchase new avatars). It’s worth noting that everything that “worked” the first time was mostly retained, including the sandbox title screen.

But Super Scribblenauts isn’t just about releasing a “patched” version of its predecessor. As somewhat implied by the title, the major addition this time around is adjectives. While the original recognized a few (mostly size-related), Super Scribblenauts recognizes approximately five hundred. And you can chain them — so if you really want, say, a “giant purple fire-breathing zombie cat,” go right ahead. The bulk of the game is the type of level formerly labeled “puzzle” in the original game (there are two stages of bonus “action” levels), some of which are designated specifically to flex some adjective muscle via abstract math (e.g., “funny man + rainbow wig = clown”). Only specific levels are available for “replay mode,” which challenges you to complete the level three times without repeating words. Without the frustrations of the original title, the levels in Super Scribblenauts seem to fly by; I completed all of them in the space of a few days, and there are over 100 of them all told (I replayed about half of them, too).

This is the game that 5th Cell valiantly tried to deliver last year. This is the game that fulfills almost all of the impossible, bottomless promise of the original. It’s still not quite perfect, especially when it comes to what is and is not an acceptable solution for certain levels, but it will do. The slogan may have changed slightly to “Create anything. Solve everything,” but the potential for fun remains the same.

Pros: All of the complaints about the original? Pretty much addressed, including and especially the controls and camera.

Cons: Sometimes cryptic about what is and is not an acceptable for a solution to some puzzles.


Ivy the Kiwi?

September 29, 2010

It is rare to see new IP. It is even rarer for that new IP to be a two-dimensional platformer. That is what we have though. Ivy the Kiwi? is the newest game created by Yuji Naka, the man responsible for Sonic the HedgehogIvy the Kiwi? is not just a reskin of the Blue Blur though.Sonic is about momentum, speed, and multiple paths through the level while Ivy is self-propelled (think Bit.Trip Runner or Canabalt). You can cause her to jump, but she’ll always be moving to the right through gorgeous environments that look hand-drawn and invoke the same sense of childlike wonder found in Yoshi’s Island

So you can’t control which direction Ivy is going or how quickly she is getting there, but you have more options than jump and not jump. In order to avoid environmental obstacles you will need to use the stylus to draw vines for Ivy to run on and jump off of to avoid spikes, pits, and anything else that would do the titular birdie any harm. Drawing vines for Ivy turns from an act of necessity to an act of strategy. Only three vines can exist at any given time. If you go to draw a fourth the first will disappear even if Ivy is currently standing on it. You’ll need to plan ahead, but the action can still be hectic with the vine limit. The gameplay scales down well on the DS, and the control scheme works most precisely on the platform. 

When enemies join the game’s spikes and acid you will need to use vines for more than level traversal. You can either use vines to block enemies away from Ivy or you can use the vines to bounce Ivy up into the air and then down again to use a spin drill move to take the enemies out permanently. And you’ll need to get good at the drill technique as it is the only way to get past the breakable blocks that show up in later stages. Ivy the Kiwi? does a good job of introducing concepts slowly so you won’t ever feel overwhelmed. As soon a you’ve mastered jumping over spikes you will move on to keeping acid from falling on Ivy’s head, and after that you’ll start encountering enemies. Eventually you’ll need to throw rocks at obstacles which is difficult since you can never stop Ivy’s movement, but the physics are sound – when a throw doesn’t work properly it isn’t because the game cheated you, but trying the same section over and over again can be frustrating nonetheless.

The unique mechanics presented here make Ivy the Kiwi? look like a platformer but play like a puzzler. You’ll need to figure out what to do and when to do it since Ivy’s constant forward motion imposes a time limit on the short but numerous levels. If you are looking for a family-friendly game on DS whose challenge ramps up as the game progresses making it appropriate for younger gamers and older gamers alike. 

Pros: Good progression of techniques, Gradual difficulty curve

Cons: Throwing is tricky due to lack of direct interaction with the environment

Managing Editor Graham Russell contributed to this review.

Another year, another Layton game. And they’re smart, well-made games, but as people who’ve played the first two know, each entry is essentially an expansion pack of puzzles. So we’ll focus on the changes in Professor Layton and the Unwound Future.

First, though, a primer for the uninitiated. Each game follows Professor Layton and his assistant Luke as they wander around an alternate version of Britain with two major differences. First is that everyone’s involved in some sort of mysterious activity. Layton and Luke are on the case, trying to uncover the overarching mystery and smaller ones on the way. The second? Everyone’s obsessed with puzzles. Everyone. All the time. Be prepared to suspend your disbelief. 

Anyway, though there are more Layton games coming, it is the end of the story chronologically. (At least for Luke.) So while the titles are fairly interchangeable, this has a larger amount of references to series tropes and should be played last of the three currently released. The installment involves time travel, and as such many of the puzzles are time-themed. There are more animations this time, and there’s a little more voice acting. The latter may not be a plus for everyone.

There are a few additions to the system. The “memo” feature added in the last installment now includes colored pens (which are more useful than you’d think). The minigames are different now. That’s about it.

Ultimately, this is a great addition to the series, and if you enjoyed the previous games, pick it up. But if you’re not interested in a third helping of puzzles, there’s not much to bring you into the fold.