sunnuntai 29. toukokuuta 2011

REVIEW - Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories (2004)

GENRE(S): Action / RPG
RELEASED: November 2004
DEVELOPER(S): Square Enix, Jupiter
PUBLISHER(S): Square Enix, Nintendo

While writing Kingdom Hearts II, Tetsuya Nomura came up with an intermediate story that would go on to bridge the large gap between the events of the first game and the beginning of the second one. Although he was reluctant to design the game exclusively for the Game Boy Advance mostly due to the fact that he didn't believe in the functionality of a 2D, handheld Kingdom Hearts game, he complied due to popular demand. Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories is one of those handheld exclusives that are bound to piss off a lot of home console owners and fans of the franchise at hand just by existing, since it's such an important part of the series' timeline. On top of that, it's a very strange game, and not wholly entertaining.

A game of cards

The game picks up right where Kingdom Hearts left off. Sora, Donald Duck and Goofy think they have finally caught up to King Mickey Mouse and Riku, who disappeared after the door to Kingdom Hearts was closed. Instead of finding whom they've been searching for so long, they find themselves on the doorstep of Castle Oblivion, a dreamlike stronghold inhabited by a strange group of individuals calling themselves Organization XIII. As they make their way to the top floors of the castle, the three heroes gradually lose their memories of recent events, to unlock dormant memories from Sora's past.

Me too, Jim. Me too.
I must tell you right now that I would have never played this game if it didn't hold the potential to explain the plotline of Kingdom Hearts II to me a little better. Everything about it used to scream out "don't touch" when it comes to my personal preference, most of all the fact that it's card-based. Whenever a game is promoted as an "outstanding mixture of action and card-collecting", I'm immediately thinking of Pokémon and all the shit that was born from this most annoying fad of the last 15 years. I simply don't understand why any game would need this kind of "hook", especially games in which some collectible card system just does not belong - here's looking at Metal Gear Ac!d. Oh well, perhaps I didn't go into Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories with a very optimistic attitude, but I forced myself to have one because there was no way I was going to just ignore the game. Even if I had downright hated it from the start, I had to build up for a patient playthrough and an unbiased review. One of the subtle agendas I have when I'm writing this blog is to learn to like quality games and comprehend why people like them, even if they're not games within my comfort zone. Plus, it is a solid part of the Kingdom Hearts series, there's no escaping that truth.

Well, I've told you before that I don't like the original half of the storyline of the Kingdom Hearts franchise a whole lot. However, at the very least parts of it are intriguing, and as crappy as any story is, I want to understand it. When I first played Kingdom Hearts II, I thought it was one of the best games I had ever played on the PlayStation 2, but I could not understand an inch of the plot, and there were all these references to Sora's quest in Castle Oblivion and new characters and such I had never heard of. Back then, I didn't even know about the existence of this game, since I had no interest in the handheld market at all. When I heard that they made a handheld exclusive in between the major parts of the series, I was in rage. So, if I was truly interested in the plot, I would have to buy myself a Game Boy Advance, is that right? Well, no, I could also go out on a limb and buy the Japanese "Final Mix" version of Kingdom Hearts II, which includes a PS2 remake of Chain of Memories. It's none the easier way to make this game happen for me, so maybe I'll just wait a few years to play it on the Advance like it was meant to be played. Here I am, and my verdict is very conflicted.

You thought these guys were annoying in
Kingdom Hearts? Get a load of this.
Those coming into this game mainly to tie some loose ends in the storyline, I have bad news for you. Chain of Memories explains two things: jack and shit. Those who've only played the first game thus far and barely survived its confusing plot are in for some much heavier damage to their grey matter. On the other hand, those who've already played Kingdom Hearts II will find that there are no explanations in this game, that the PlayStation game actually somewhat subtly recapped this one's events. If there's anything, there's a whole truckload of more questions instead of answers. I don't know about other people and their views on the first game's themes of "hearts" and "darkness"; whenever there was the slightest chance for anyone to mention "hearts" or "darkness" in a totally corny fashion, they did it, to the point of severe annoyance as far as I'm concerned. Here, the theme is "memory". Everything in this game is related to memories, and yes, the constant babble about memories is also very corny and annoying.

Sora has become a whining little bitch - which is why I'm kind of glad this game doesn't have full voiceover work. Riku's even worse. It really doesn't serve these guys well to be so God damn annoying when they weren't really great characters in the first game. Donald and Goofy have suddenly become voices of reason. The game's dialogue isn't nearly as humorous as that of Kingdom Hearts, or perhaps it's meant to be but it just isn't funny by a long shot. The best jabs are recycled stuff from the first game. There are no new Disney or Final Fantasy characters in this game, just whole new original ones. We are introduced to Organization XIII, who in my mind are a very intriguing bunch of villains - again, even if the plot is a little lackluster, they make the most out of their presence. There is only one new world in this game in addition to Castle Oblivion itself, Twilight Town, which of course serves as the enigmatic starting point in Kingdom Hearts II. For the rest of the game's duration, we revisit all the places from the first game, with the exception of Deep Jungle (whew). Sora does not remember the inhabitants of these worlds, nor do they remember him and his friends, so this calls for rehashing the stories from the first game, with the memory theme replacing the hearts 'n' darkness schtick. God, how boring... lucky for you, you still have no idea how boring the gameplay can be. You will, though.

'Tis a shame to see one of the greatest of all
time so humble. Speaking of some of the
greatest, where the hell is Sephiroth?
The game is visually one of the most outstanding games on the Game Boy Advance. It is known as one of the first and only games on the handheld that feature FMV cutscenes, from the recreation of the first game's final scene to a few exclusives. There are slight errors throughout, mostly in judgement, for example they could've left the shadows of the characters completely out if they couldn't do them properly, but for the most part, the game looks simply astounding; it's not even from the latest end of the Game Boy Advance library. There are very few new tunes on the soundtrack; mostly, it's reproduced stuff from the first game, but it's high-quality work nonetheless. Some choice voice samples from all characters are also included for battle scenes, they're pretty annoying in practice, but technically, they sound perfect.

Everything in Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories is based on cards, as one of the characters so politely tells you in the beginning of the game - even the shape of the worlds. Even if you do visit familiar locations in this game, the only things familiar about them are the general texture of the place and the background music. Every world is just a collective of rooms, what's in those rooms you can pretty much decide for yourself as you go. Your actual goal is to make it to doors that have a plaque shaped like a crown over them, and find the necessary cards to open them to make progress in the storyline. The best way to explain how Chain of Memories works is to let you go and try the game yourself, there's really no way to use words to do that since the gameplay divides opinions by such a lot. All I can provide you is a theoretical (and admittedly a bit cynical) lesson, so let's take a gander at these much-spoken cards.

First and foremost, your battle deck is your most valuable weapon. You can make three different ones if you want, but in reality, one's all you need since you can equip only one at a time. This battle deck is divided into five different categories: attack, magic, summon, item and support cards. With the exception of summon and support cards which you'll only gain by defeating enemies and bosses, you can get these cards anywhere. Attack cards are the most basic out of all cards and you should accommodate a deck with at least ten of them at all times. This basically means that you have ten chances for a normal attack in battle before you must reload the deck. You can manually choose the card to use in battle, or just arrange them in such a balanced way that you can simply mash your way through a battle - most of the time, that works, since the game isn't really that difficult until the end of Sora's story when the difficulty level suddenly jumps through the roof.

Yeah, yeah. Off with her head.
In battle, you can combine three cards of any type to pull off an uninterrupted combo, or a Sleight if you've learned one. Sleight is a special combo that is triggered by a certain series of cards, for example three attack cards that have a particular accumulative value. Upon leveling up, you have the option to either boost Sora's HP, his CP (Card Points, which determine the amount of cards you can deck up), and sometimes, you have the option to teach him a new Sleight instead of increasing his attributes. Sora is indeed alone in these fights. Donald, Goofy, and the local companions come in as cards as well. These friend cards are gained at random intervals during battle; they're officially categorized as temporary summon cards. Donald shows up to cast two random spells and Goofy unleashes a devastating physical attack. A Mickey card is only available during boss fights, and always grants you some sort of a temporary advantage over the boss. It's the only card in the game that is always unbreakable by the enemy. Yeah, that's what those numerical values are for. I probably need not explain them. I hope not.

The world cards explain themselves; they're your tickets to worlds. You always have a number of worlds to choose from, so the game is quite non-linear on paper, but there's always a recommended order to take them on. Some bosses are really, really difficult, and if you had as much trouble in Hollow Bastion in the first game as I did, you'll know to steer clear of the place until it's the last one left. The levels themselves are really not that bad at all, since they're basically copies of each other. The Heartless are of course tougher to beat in the later levels, but you can pretty much control the amount of enemies you're going to face with the map cards.
The map and key cards are the most difficult cards to explain. You gain map cards from battles, and key cards from making progress in each world. To open any door in this game, you need a particular card, a card of particular numeric value, or a combo of them. For example, you might need a blue card with a value equal to or more than 5, and any card that's valued under 3, to open a door. If you're not much into fighting, you would do well to have many blue cards in your stock, 'cause these are always to your advantage. For example, you can create a room with a save point or a treasure chest, without any enemies, if you happen to have a blue card corresponding to the door's value. To open those doors with a plaque over them, you need a key card with a corresponding face on it.

Do not touch his pom-pom.
The last thing I'll mention is the Moogle Room, which you can create (or to be faithful to the game's terms, synthesize) by using a blue card that is surprisingly called Moogle Room. Every time you visit a freshly synthesized Moogle Room, the moogle in charge of trade gives you a free pack of totally random attack cards. You can then buy more card packs with the Moogle Points you gain throughout the game, or trade off your old, needless cards for the very same points.

These are the basics of the game, so let's dive into why I dislike it. It's boring, and that's all I've got to say. The boss fights are all unique and nice, although they're all recycled from the first major game in the franchise. They look amazing, and until the end when they only take place to get on your nerves due to the bosses' incredible HP and card-breaking capabilities, I'm willing to bet you'll enjoy them, even if it's just because they're a break from the game's repetitive nature. Every world is exactly the same. You fight and talk, fight and talk, fight and talk, and shift from one identical room to another until you can find the correct order of rooms to make actual progress in the game. It's most annoying when a door to a "story room" requires a card of specific value, and you don't happen to have one; once again, you have to fight to gain those map cards, and I'm not kidding when I say that on at least one occasion, all enemies in the whole level magically disappeared once I found out I couldn't open the door. I had to circle around the whole God damn boring place to find just one batch of enemies. Of course, I got the wrong card out of that battle. Actually, I had to keep fighting for about 30 minutes to get a card of the indicated value. I even died once in the middle of this dig of the haystack, 'cause I fell asleep.

The fighting is frustrating, and very difficult to learn. The foremost reason to that is the game's explanation to the basics. I guarantee you: you will learn the game a lot better by playing it than carefully reading what you are told. The tutorials are just as confusing and far out as the game's plot. You will most definitely do just fine if you take one, good, concentrated look at the menus, and the battle interface, instead of reading one single word anyone says in the game. This really happened to me; I didn't understand one stinking shard of crap of the tutorials. I just learned to play the game by playing it. I tested the tutorials by reading them again after beating the game, and I STILL couldn't understand a word of them!

Holy hell, the bosses look great.
The difficulty level of the game is extremely inconsistent. Let's put it this way: "beating" the game as Sora takes about 12 hours. The first eight hours are easy as hell, assuming you've learned how to build up even a semi-efficient deck, and check it every once in a while (I usually do that just before saving the game). Then, the game hits you with a Satanic boss fight against Captain Hook, which wouldn't be difficult if that guy wasn't such a serious, unfair prick, and if the battleground was not an unstable pirate ship. It's one of the most frustrating boss fights I've had in a while, and it almost made me want to quit and bash this game to the deepest planes of hell. I guess Nomura thought the boss fight against Hook in Kingdom Hearts was way too easy for a guy of his villainous stature. Anyway, after that, the game eases up again. Hollow Bastion introduces some annoying enemies to the fray, such as those fat guys with shields, but all in all, it's not so bad. Maleficent is not nearly as hard to beat as she was on my first playthrough of Kingdom Hearts. After that, we're just two worlds short of the "end" of the game. The boss fights in these two remaining worlds are not nearly as hard as they are annoying and stretched to eternity mostly by the bosses' uncanny capabilities to counter your cards. Well, then comes the breaker. With the next three boss fights, the game's difficulty level just simply soars. If you've pretty much just zapped through the game, your ass is served to you on a plate. You're toast. You need a high EXP level, and a well-stacked deck of cards to beat the game. It would've been nice of the game to inform you of it at some capacity a bit earlier. I hate games that bring on such sudden death in such a late part of the game. Anyway, if you somehow manage to beat the game with a proper level, good skill OR a good dose of luck, a new mode is unlocked, in which you can replay the game in "reverse", with a wholly different story told from another character's perspective. Seems pretty cool, I know, but what's somewhat awry is that this mode is extremely easy. I, for one, am not crazy about bearing too many more hours of this room synthesizing madness without any sort of challenge to it. The mode completely removes your ability to modify your deck to your liking, so all that's remotely cool about the game is gone once you start to play it. It's only there for the story, which is exactly why I'm not the least bit interested in it. It's perfectly clear at this point that the game is not going to provide me with any answers to the questions I might've once had, anyway.

I'm sure there are a lot of people who like this game and perceive its gameplay and ideas as somewhat genius. I'm also sure there are a lot of people who enjoy the story of Kingdom Hearts - I don't know why, but I don't question them either, it's all a matter of taste. Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories has some bright spots, but the whole experience is boring and meaningless to me on a personal level. It's fun to fool around with the cards for a while, but eventually, the game breaks down due to its dragging pace and incredible repetition. I would've definitely preferred a diverse, standard action RPG; we've seen so many quality games of the kind on the Game Boy Advance that I must truly wonder why they didn't just make one.

SOUND : 8.9


a.k.a. Kingdom Hearts: Lost Memories

GameRankings: 77.54%

The game was remade for the PlayStation 2 in 2007 as Kingdom Hearts Re:Chain of Memories. The game was released exclusively in Japan, as the second disc of Kingdom Hearts II: Final Mix +.

torstai 26. toukokuuta 2011

REVIEW - Kingdom Hearts (2002)

GENRE(S): Action / RPG
RELEASED: March 2002
PUBLISHER(S): Square, Disney Interactive, Sony Computer Entertainment

If one doesn't count the Snake vs. Monkey minigame in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, Kingdom Hearts might be the strangest crossover in gaming history. The idea to make a role-playing game with Disney and Final Fantasy characters was first born when long-time Square producer Shinji Hashimoto met a Disney executive employee in an elevator one seemingly normal day in the late 90's. Production of the game began in early 2000, and it was Hironobu Sakaguchi himself who advised main designer Tetsuya Nomura - who had worked on the Final Fantasy series at some capacity since 1991 - that the game shouldn't be taken lightly, that it would be a failure if it didn't retain the Final Fantasy spirit, were the game based on the Disney mythology or not. The game was a megahit in Japan, and the North American localization was to feature the talents of an all-star voice cast reprising their roles from Disney features, and finally, the gaps were filled with such names as Haley Joel Osment, Hayden Panettiere, David Boreanaz, and the Final Fantasy VII cast, most of which went on to reprise their roles in the Advent Children movie. You do understand that whether you like this game's concept or not, you're not going to be able to resist it, right?

A game of hearts

Haley Joel Osment : Sora
David Gallagher : Riku
Hayden Panettiere : Kairi
Billy Zane : Ansem
David Boreanaz : Squall Leonhart
Mandy Moore : Aerith Gainsborough
Steve Burton : Cloud Strife
Christy Carlson Romano : Yuffie Kisaragi
Tony Anselmo : Donald Duck
Bill Farmer : Goofy

Sora, Riku and Kairi are three teenagers who live on a remote island. As a very small child, Kairi was stranded on the island, meaning she came from somewhere else, and ever since that, the kids have been wondering about the worlds outside the island - especially the increasingly impatient and eager Riku. Sora has strange dreams, in which he is told by an unseen entity that he will be the one to "hold the key", and the one to "open the door". The kids build a raft to travel to the outside world, but on the night before their departure, a terrible thunderstorm hits the island, along with a pack of monsters of the darkness. Both Riku and Kairi disappear under strange circumstances, and Sora is washed away by the darkness into another world, armed with a peculiar sword shaped like a key. Meanwhile in the Kingdom of Disney, court magician Donald Duck is startled by the sudden disappearance of his liege, King Mickey Mouse, and a cryptic letter he left behind. Together with the half-witted, but kind-hearted royal knight Goofy, Donald sets out to follow up to the King's wishes to find the mysterious key bearer, and a group of fighters from different worlds united against the darkness, led by a stout young fighter who calls himself Leon.

Let's start off with a story about how I found Kingdom Hearts. At the time of its release, I was a "cool" and "tough" 18-year old who "couldn't give two shits" about Disney movies, and locked myself in the closet to watch Jiminy Cricket's holiday special and laugh my ass off, Christmas after Christmas. Well, about a year passed, I had been reading rave reviews of the game and my inner Final Fantasy fanboy was seriously starting to take over. I had just recently acquired a PS2, and there was simply no reason for me to keep disrespecting and disregarding this game. The concept was so weird that I at least had to have the chance to try the game. Well, then I went to a market in another town with my then-girlfriend, who lived there - I went to see her, but somehow got persuaded to go downtown since that market is probably the only relevant annual thing about that shithole. Well, I happened to come across an old acquaintance: the very same video game store booth (and the very same clerk) that sold me Chrono Trigger so many years ago. Kingdom Hearts stuck out like a sore thumb from the PS2 variety of games, and the clerk was immediately like "no you don't". Of course he had nothing against me buying the game, but he knew I was going to haggle over it - I guess I had that glint in my eye. He was telling me that it was his last original copy of the game, and I guess he had kind of saved it for himself. After a short conversation and argument of why he should sell me the game, five euros off, he reluctantly agreed and reminisced how he can apparently always count on me to rob him of his treasures. He had the same face as he did when he sold my mom Chrono Trigger about seven years back, so I was convinced Kingdom Hearts would be one awesome game, or at least an experience I wouldn't soon forget. It sure is an experience, but awesome? I wouldn't go quite that far.

Captain Cid is back!
From a commercial standpoint, Kingdom Hearts is one clever product if there ever was one. Final Fantasy fans will want to play it because of some familiar characters hanging on the sidelines and core aspects of gameplay, while Disney fans will want to play it because of its immerse Disney-related universe. To make it perfectly clear, Final Fantasy is like subtle decoration to this game, the foundation of its gameplay and the element to remind us who made the game. All the worlds, except for the four that were exclusively designed for this game, are based on the Walt Disney Company's works. The main villains, apart from the exclusives, are all from Disney movies. Just three worlds out of the 13 in this game feature Final Fantasy main characters altogether. So, despite all the big talk, Kingdom Hearts is essentially a Disney game. But, after all these years, I guess I can finally admit the Disney factor is the decisive one for me, when it comes to why this game is so great to watch and listen to. It doesn't really need any more Final Fantasy in it - after all, the new main characters are very much like traditional Final Fantasy characters. Only even more juvenile and irritating.

I just can't hate Kairi, despite her useless presence. All the thanks for that go to the fact that she's voiced by one of the top entries on my list of people I'd like to... you know... anyway: Hayden Panettiere. Haley Joel Osment and David Gallagher sure ain't on that list, and I assure you, they never will be, but like Hayden, they're both young actors who know what they're doing. It's their characters that are the problem. I really don't care about the new characters, and I'm sure there are a lot of people who feel the same way, and it hurts the already confusing, irrelevant plot in all senses; you just don't have the interest to keep following it. If you even remotely think like me, you're here to giggle in amazement at all the tie-ins to the Disney and Final Fantasy franchises, not the intentionally whacked storyline involving the three teenagers and the mysterious main villain Ansem.

I just can't help spoiling some of the trip to you because some of the tie-ins are so genius! We're dealing with a game in which we visit "worlds" or "planets", which are actually familiar settings from many Disney movies, such as Wonderland, an African jungle, Agrabah, the Hundred Acre Wood, Halloween Town and Neverland. The cast of Disney characters in this game is enormous, as opposed to the very small cast of Final Fantasy characters, which again might disappoint some who came here to broaden their horizons of the Final Fantasy universe. Most of the level design in this game is based on movies, or certain scenes from them, they're just rewritten to the point that the tie-in to the game's original storyline involving the Heartless creatures and the world's descent into darkness makes some fashion of sense. Even if a feature didn't make the cut, the character might've - for example, the Beast from Beauty and the Beast is in the game (searching for Belle), but there's no world based on the movie's setting. The characters are the most important part of the game, in both quantity and quality, not the level design. Sadly, it shows, but more about that a while later. Some characters that didn't make the cut were included in the game as summons or background cameos - whatever works! And it's great!

This might be a good time to tell you that the game looks great, if you didn't figure it out already, but it's also a bit unrefined in some ways. The animation of the humanoid characters could be just slightly better, but considering how early on during the PS2's cycle the game was released and how much it uses the PS2's capacity to its advantage, I don't think I'm in any position to complain. Watching the cartoon characters such as Donald, Goofy and Winnie the Pooh in action makes you feel like you're watching a Disney movie, that's for sure. The cinematic style of the game is pure Final Fantasy X; long pauses, a somewhat awkward rhythm, weird camera angles that are even (perhaps unintentionally) spoofed at one early point when Donald breaks the fourth wall. The soundtrack is one rough divide. Let's begin with the title track, "Simple and Clean", composed by Yoko Shimomura and sung by Hikaru Utada. I do not understand why Square suddenly began to use these J-Pop abominations in their games at some point. In this case, it sounds even more horrible since it doesn't fit either one of the two bills accounted for here. The rest of the exclusive soundtrack is written to capture the magic from both main ingredients into one, and it definitely works. The partly licensed, partly rewritten music from Disney's works sounds phenomenal, but can get a wee bit repetitive, we're talking about hours of exploring with quick loops of them playing in the background, with no breaks besides the occasional battle theme.

Monkeys from the darkness. Intimidating.
The voiceover work alone would earn the game a potential 9.5 rating for sound. Where would the five missing decimals be then, you ask? Well, the dialogue between the new characters keeps reminding me of the most ridiculous bits of dialogue in Final Fantasy X. It's clumsy, there's a lot of forced laughing which immediately paints a horrible image of the negatively unforgettable laughing scene in Final Fantasy X, and like I said, the new characters or the original storyline are simply not interesting. The actors cope extremely well with what they are given, but admittedly sometimes it feels even they don't like their lines. It doesn't only concern the new characters, it also concerns the Final Fantasy cast. Tony Anselmo (Donald Duck) and Bill Farmer (Goofy) could read us the phonebook out loud in character, and they would still sound funny and awesome.

The Final Fantasy cast features Steve Burton and Christy Carlson Romano, who both went on to reprise their roles as Cloud Strife and Yuffie Kisaragi in Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children. Mandy Moore (yes, that Mandy Moore) skipped that movie, but she does a fine job as Aerith. Then, there's perhaps the biggest bomb of the century when it comes to casting - Lance Bass (that's LANCE BASS!) as the greatest video game villain of all time. Final Fantasy fans went berserk over this, and I don't know what the hell the North American localization team was thinking when they cast a member of N'Sync as the ultimate, inhuman manifestation of darkness, bitterness and evil. After that shock, we have David "Angel" Boreanaz as Squall, or as he calls himself, Leon. Last and least in the most awkward way, we have Tidus, Wakka and Selphie as children. Molly Keck gives Selphie the voice I pretty much always imagined her to have - a real squeaky and annoying one - while Tidus and Wakka are voiced by Shaun Fleming and Dee Bradley Baker. As much as I originally hated Wakka as a character, it's obvious that Baker didn't take any notes from John DiMaggio's technically good performance. There are these weird pauses before each "ya". Unfortunately, Cid has no voiceover work. Glad they fixed that error in Kingdom Hearts II.

Saving the best for last: the Disney cast. I already mentioned Tony Anselmo and Bill Farmer, who have done Donald and Goofy since the 80's; you can't go wrong with them, as long as you don't see their faces while they're doing their voices. The third classic cartoon veteran Wayne Allwine is credited on the top as Mickey Mouse, but he only has a couple of lines in the whole game. Since some of the original voice actors are long dead, and some had contractual problems to join the cast, about a half of the cast consists of the original voice actors, and the other half of damn good impersonators - even I can't spot the difference, although I usually can. Anyway, to nail down a small list of names, we have Sean Astin, Jodi and Robby Benson, Susanne Blakeslee, Brian Blessed, Corey Burton, Dan Castellaneta, Jim Cummings, Jonathan Freeman, Tony Goldwyn, Gilbert Gottfried, Kenneth Mars, Chris Sarandon, Scott Weinger and........... JAMES - FUCKIN' - WOODS!!!.......... delivering us some downright real, authentic, heartfelt and simply magnificent voiceover work. No matter if they need to join in on the plot or not. Believe you me, this game has some magic. If you can't find it anywhere else, then you can rely on the Disney cast to deliver it to you.

The game is a less traditional action-RPG. Most of the time you have a party of three. After an early twist in the storyline, your standard party consists of Sora, Donald and Goofy. Sora is inevitably a warrior, but you can manipulate some of his traits in the approximately 15-minute tutorial sequence in the beginning of the game, such as the starting strength of his magic when he finally learns some, strength and defense. Donald is a mystic, this game's own term for mage. He has some spells in the beginning of the journey, and he learns new ones in conjunction with Sora. Finally, Goofy is a guardian, a tank if you will - although having a tank doesn't really matter since once Sora falls, it's game over. Most of the time, he's a supporter that should be loaded with items at all times to aid his pals, but as the game progresses, you can customize him to deliver some very efficient physical attacks. The customization and A.I. of the party members really isn't up to the RPG standard. Instead of an intricate list of tactics or a chance to manually set specific tactics, you have a small list of different actions and multiple choices, for example "Use health items? Immediately - Frequently - Only in emergency". Whatever you choose, you never know when your pal decides you need first aid. Since you can't assign them to use specific spells instead, you'll constantly be running out of items. Luckily the game has a fairly large stock of them. Unluckily, the restocking menu in particular is a bitch to toggle! In some worlds, you'll have the chance to switch either Donald or Goofy out and replace your choice with a local Disney hero/heroine, who usually has a very high level, and such advanced combat skills that you really don't need to unload your item stock on them.

When in doubt, call Bambi.
The assignment of tactics and fooling around in the menu are not that fun, but the command menu and shortcut system are rather genius. Even outside of battle, the command menu is always with you for many reasons. Sometimes you need to interact with the environment by some other way than simply examining something or locking onto it and hitting it with your keyblade, such as a certain magic spell. While sometimes these puzzles are really illogical (such as fire being the only magical element capable of breaking stone), it's fun to run around and try all sorts of stuff. If the playfield wasn't so narrow and the worlds were not apart from each other, you could almost call this a sandbox. You can decide which spells you want to assign to shortcuts yourself. Of course, Cure's always the top option, and in Kingdom Hearts, that spell and its upgrades (Cura and Curaga) are even more important than perhaps in any other game.

There is no traditional world map in Kingdom Hearts, rather a map of worlds for you to continually unlock and explore. Occasionally, you'll unlock several worlds at once and you can make your decision based on the battle level indicated by a number of stars above the name of the place. Sometimes, the rating is really misleading, for example actually completing the Olympus Coliseum is really tough. It has a low rating because most of its battles are completely optional and losing to certain individuals holds no meaning at all, it's just a matter of pride. There are a few scripted and optional battles in this game, in which it really makes no difference in storyline if you win or lose, you'll just feel real good about yourself if you do win.

Although the worlds are much smaller than they first appear - the game's the biggest collection of inexplicable invisible walls yet - they hold within a whole bunch of secrets, each and every one of them, and to find them all, you need to go to some incredible heights, sometimes literally. I've got to tell you, though, most of the time it's a fool's errand. The only really good stuff you get in this game, you get via completing primary objectives and sidequests - but then again, I guess the chase is better than the catch. Just thought I'd give you a heads-up; most of the time, you'll find more or less standard power-ups, new parts for your ship and items for synthesis. Not saying they wouldn't be important, it's just a little bit disheartening that you can hardly find any new equipment or rare items such as summon gems from the field. The game involves a lot of platform jumping, which is sometimes really sick and definitely too precise to accommodate the quirky control and the absolutely awful camera. The camera's your worst enemy at all times, bar none.

At first, you will probably not like the real-time battle system. It feels like you're just swinging your blade around with no trace of strategy and hacking through bosses by simply locking on to a spot and letting it rip with a do-or-die attitude, but as you gain EXP and with that, more abilities - which you can assign yourself by using a system carried over from Final Fantasy IX - Sora becomes more agile, a more diverse fighter, and you will find it essential to use his new-found abilities in later boss fights in which strategy suddenly becomes key. The boss fights are pretty darn epic. You see so little during the first ten hours of the game. Kingdom Hearts is the kind of game that starts out and you don't really have an opinion on it but you're definitely intrigued enough to play more, the middle part is good on the first playthrough, then the game comes to a raging climax that's always fun to play, and ends in a somewhat disappointing fashion, but well enough for you to begin waiting for a sequel. I haven't seen many RPG's end in a cliffhanger. This one does. The cliffhanger was followed up exclusively on the Game Boy Advance, that's quite a crime against consumers, but also another story I'll save for later.

Exploring Atlantica is not as fun as it might
sound like.
...You thought this would be it? On the contrary, we still have a lot to go through. For those into sidequests and general stats, Jiminy Cricket is one of the most important characters in the game. He keeps a record of just about everything; the development of the storyline, character bios of even all the minor new acquaintances, cryptic "Ansem Reports" you find on the way, minigame results, and the collectables you've found. The most stand-out collectables in this game are Pongo and Perdita's 99 puppies, scattered all across the worlds. You always find three at once, and finding each tenth puppy (as well as the last one) results in a prize you can claim at the dalmatians' house at any time. Then, the trinities... the annoying trinities. As to why they're annoying is that you can't unlock a trinity if your party's missing Donald or Goofy. It sometimes results in some totally needless backtracking, since of course you want to play as the extra characters in their own levels. You can switch the party any time at save points. Anyway, the trinities are different-coloured marks on the ground, sometimes extremely well hidden, and having the "Keyblade trinity" do some sort of a weird ritual around it results in some prize, or sometimes even progress in the game. You learn more colours as you go. It's fun to search for the trinities and other secrets, but you'll have to wait for quite a while to get anything actually done in this game. It's most annoying when you spot a secret place high up that you just can't reach, five minutes later you learn the high jump, but are forced to leave and re-enter the level if you want to see what lies behind the veil, you can't get straight to it. When you finally get there, you find a Mega-Potion. Most rewarding...

I mentioned a couple of really important, and actually, pretty cool features of the game earlier. The Gummi Ship is your one and only transport, but it's fully customizable. You can decide its name, you can decide how it looks like to the final gummi seam, and finally, you can modify its special features, artillery and engine power. The editor allows you to use ready blueprints, which are sometimes pretty useless and are just there for some amusing show, or create your very own ship from scratch, assuming you have the proper parts to build a fully functional ship. The editor's very hard to use at first, but I'm willing to bet you'll be spending so much time creating your ship, that you'll get used to the editor's controls quite quickly. I only wish traveling itself would be as interesting as creating the ship. On the first playthrough, I didn't give a damn about the editor. I just picked a blueprint that looked somewhat balanced, and the ship turned out better than anything that I could've cooked up. All you need it for is speeding from one world to another and shooting out some obstacles and Heartless ships. If you fail, you just start the route over and over until you make it. It's that simple. At least you can collect some items on the way, but you can probably already guess what kind of items they are. Yep, more parts and blueprints for your ship. It's mildly entertaining shoot 'em up action to keep you entertained between worlds, but they could've gone a bit further with it. The Gummi Ship editor has developed some sort of a cult following and I know there are people who like to show off their creations, the ultimate creations are definitely born when you empty Cid's Gummi Ship emporium of its stock - once it opens.

You'll have to wait for the item synthesis shop to open for a pretty long while, too, since you need a certain trinity to unlock it. Every lucky person who ever played Final Fantasy IX knows exactly how this works. As you travel and do battle, you'll conjure up a lot of loot that has no use at all - before the Moogles' synthesis shop opens its doors. By bringing strange loot to the Moogles, you can create items, weapons and accessories, some of which you can't get anywhere else. Unlike in Final Fantasy IX, the synthesis doesn't cost you one dime, which is good since during the first half of the game, you need to buy items and they cost like honey. All you need for synthesis are those items. I simply love the concept of item synthesis, as long as you don't have to do it yourself with items you already have use for like in Crisis Core (I'm very indecisive at times). It's always exciting and great fun to stop by the Moogles' establishment to see if there's any new dastardly stuff available.

Since the game is obviously aimed at a slightly younger audience than any old Square RPG, you can safely expect tons of minigames, and you'll get them too. There are many minigames open from the beginning, and one of the worlds is wholly based on minigame madness - some of the games there are fun, while some really suffer from bad case-specific controls. The Olympus Coliseum is basically a battle arena, where you can try your luck in some training with inanimate objects, as well as several different tournaments with increasing challenge to them - and when I say increasing, I mean toughening to the hilt. In some cases, sequences that are initially parts of the progress become minigames.

Tinkerbell's here, as grumpy as ever. Gotta love
that lil' pixie.
Finally, I'd love to talk about some flaws which just might be enough to prevent this game from being an undisputed top product. The first few things are related to fighting. All of the spells are really slow to cast considering that the battles have an amazing tempo. Whenever Sora's health hits a certain low, there's a sound that tells you that something needs to be done about his health. There's absolutely no time to clumsily rush through the command menu and use an item at that point, you need to use a spell using a shortcut, but you also have to pick your spot first, 'cause most likely you'll be dead before Sora actually casts that spell. Even if he yells out "HEAL!" and seems to have cast the spell already, he might still be having an awkward pause in reality. It takes too much time. Then, there's the maze-like structure of the worlds itself. You might have to really struggle to find the correct path to a higher ground level, sometimes through a hidden passage in a wholly different room. The game doesn't give a shit how much you circle around in an effort to find that path. There are no invisible walls when it comes to higher ground levels. You accidentally lock on to an enemy that's below you, or make a jump in the wrong direction, you're back on the floor and are forced to get all the way up there again, just to be hailed by another batch of constantly respawning, annoying enemies that are actually prompting you to jump down to the pit of losing your patience. Oh, and they also aim to push you off edges, which gets really annoying in places in which falling into a pit leads you into an entirely different room. Jumping at flying enemies is always a great risk.

Then, there are the save points. You can leave a handful of worlds through the front gate, but in very many of them, you need to find a save point. There are two kinds of save points: simply ones which allow you to board the Gummi Ship and leave, and ones that don't. The save points are in really illogical places at times. There might be two or three of them, back to back in places you don't need to save in even once, and in truly difficult, long corridors or mazes, there might be just one, waiting at the end. You can't save on the map, which in my mind breaks a very important rule in the RPG handbook. Sometimes dying in a boss fight and retrying actually takes you to a point BEFORE the save point. In other words, sometimes it's faster to reset the game and load it instead of simply choosing "continue". Before I forget, you cannot skip cutscenes at all, and every boss fight is preceded by cinematics. This means that if you die while fighting a boss, you will be forced to watch the preceding cutscene over and over again 'til you get the job done. Ironically, the tougher the boss, the longer the cutscene.

One more thing to go over, and that is the boring level design. On the first playthrough, you just don't care. You're too awestruck to care about the narrow capacity of the worlds, or their annoying and/or boring design. But, I dare say you have to return to each world in this game at least once during even just a semi-complete playthrough, and you might really start feeling the negativity. The game changes by such a lot in some levels for both better and worse, that the only way to deliver a definitive review of the game would be to spoil each and every level, but I won't do that. Instead, I will pick two specific ones that are simply not fun, and have never been on my account. First up, the Deep Jungle from Tarzan. Not only is this world one son of a bitch based solely on backtracking and interactive jump controls that just don't work, it somehow doesn't fit the game, it smells of filler from miles away, and only succeeds in making me miss more urban environments even more - those urban environments are in which the level design excels in my opinion. I'm always trying to survive this borefest as fast as possible, but that's not very fast. Due to the backtracking, it drags on forever and it's one of the longest levels according to the in-game clock.

The other one's Atlantica. In a few choice levels, your characters' looks and gameplay change completely as long as you're exploring those particular worlds. Well, Atlantica obviously takes place underwater. The swimming controls are really awkward, and fighting Heartless underwater is even more awkward. Luckily there's some sort of sense in that: whenever you lock on to an enemy, you (SOMETIMES) automatically swim towards 'em when you attack. Just remember to lock on or else you'll just be creating waves with your blade, and that doesn't help one bit. Exploring this place is bitchy to say the least. Each treasure is hidden inside a clamshell instead of a treasure chest, and unlike normal chests, these shells don't disappear and they close after you've gotten the treasure, so in other words, you'll be reopening them quite a few times before you'll figure out to steer clear of those damn empty shells. On top of all, the level's really, really, really confusing. It's where the lack of a minimap truly presents itself. I tell you, you can't wait to get back on your six feet after you've completed the main objective here.

The journey continues. Don't ask how, ask why.
Truly completing the game, all of its sidequests and beating its optional bosses which there are a-plenty and some of them are HARD (like Final-Fantasy-V-optional-boss-HARD), takes a long time. As you "unlock" more enemies, those same enemies show up everywhere. Eventually, the fighting becomes boring and kind of pointless. There's much treasure for you to find, but once you at least think to have found everything in the game, fighting's all there is. Completing the game to 100% results in a different ending. If you just want to beat the final boss and lay the game to some period of rest, that's possible in something like 30-35 hours, with Sora's EXP level at an approximate 50. My third playthrough proved that some parts of this game retain their appeal longer than others. At times, I felt so good and like I hadn't played the game for ages, while at some times, I bored myself to death and it felt like yesterday I last played the game. Deep Jungle and Atlantica, in particular, are simply that dull.

I never claimed Kingdom Hearts to be a fantastic game, but it was a fantastic start that paved the way for a way more functional sequel (the true one!), and as I have said a few times already in some manner, it's a game you simply cannot resist - a game every PS2 owner should at least try. It's more of an experience than a truly, completely satisfying game. Strangely, I feel that was the idea.

SOUND : 9.2


GameRankings: 86.56%

Kingdom Hearts was Square's final game before merging with Enix.

A modified version of the game entitled Kingdom Hearts: Final Mix was released exclusively in Japan nine months after the original version's release. It features whole new battles, as well as the optional bosses who were originally exclusive to the North American localization, and new events that clarify the franchise's critically confusing storyline.

Mickey Mouse was originally meant to be the lead character of the game. The colour of his clothes remains in Sora's character design.

Sora's victory poses in the Olympus Coliseum are those of Cloud Strife, Zell Dincht and Squall Leonhart.

Gaston from Beauty and the Beast is the only villain from the featured stories who does not appear in this game.

A world based on The Lion King was Tetsuya Nomura's top priorities to include in the game, but due to time constraints and technical difficulties to program movement on four legs, he had to let go of the idea. However, Simba is included as a summon, and in Kingdom Hearts II, Nomura finally got his way and created The Pride Lands.

Ariel was naturally supposed to be one of the seven Princesses of Heart, one of the driving forces of the game's true storyline. However, if she was to be captured by Maleficent and her associates, she would've had to be redesigned and given legs. She was replaced by Alice, and this resulted in some serious outrage by Disney fans pretty much the same way as casting Lance Bass as Sephiroth resulted in bomb threats on Final Fantasy fans' behalf.

The reason why the Final Fantasy cast only consists of characters from Final Fantasy VII, VIII and X (apart from the Moogles mainly inspired by Final Fantasy VI), is that Tetsuya Nomura did not want to direct characters he didn't design, out of respect for other people's work.

After the North American voice actors had already recorded their parts, it was decided that Aerith Gainsborough should finally be officially referred to as Aerith instead of Aeris, as she was renamed in the original localization of Final Fantasy VII. That is why no one speaks her name in spoken dialogue.

Tifa Lockheart from Final Fantasy VII was supposed to be included as an optional boss, but due to time constraints, she was cut from the script and included in Kingdom Hearts II as one of the main characters of the Final Fantasy cast.

Rikku from Final Fantasy X was supposed to be part of Leon/Squall's gang, but since the original character of Riku was already created, and their names are pronounced exactly the same, she was replaced with Yuffie. Rikku does appear in Kingdom Hearts II as part of the Gullwings, but she is never referred to by name.

Irvine Kinneas from Final Fantasy VIII was also in the original script as a minor character. He was replaced with Wakka for unknown reasons.

The Agrabah superboss Kurt Zisa was named after the winner of a contest held by Square.

maanantai 23. toukokuuta 2011

REVIEW - Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas: The Pumpkin King (2005)

GENRE(S): Action / Adventure / Platform
RELEASED: September 2005
PUBLISHER(S): Buena Vista Interactive

Many people know who Tim Burton is. In case you don't, he's one genius of a director who has brought us such masterpieces in the history of cinema as Beetlejuice, Batman, Batman Returns, Sleepy Hollow, Big Fish and The Corpse Bride. This much everyone knows, but something that a lot of people fail to note nowadays is that once upon a time, Tim Burton was an animator at Disney and he worked on such Disney films as The Fox and the Hound, and The Black Cauldron. In 1982, he produced a short movie made entirely in stop-motion, entitled Vincent. Around the same time, he wrote a poem named "The Nightmare Before Christmas". Disney wanted him to make a short movie based on the poem, but Tim refused at the time, and became a hot shot director. In 1991, production began on a full-length stop-motion animation movie entitled The Nightmare Before Christmas. Henry Selick directed it, Tim Burton wrote it. Released in 1993, he movie became one of the most critically acclaimed animated movies of all time. In late 2004, 11 years after the movie's release, a video game sequel entitled Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas: Oogie's Revenge was released in Japan on the PlayStation 2 and Xbox. The game was released a whole year later in the west, and it was accompanied by another game, a prequel to the movie: Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas: The Pumpkin King. This game was released exclusively on the Game Boy Advance, and it's worth the trip if you're a serious Nightmare fanatic.

When Jack met Oogie

Smell the breath. You know you like it.
Everyone in Halloween Town loves Halloween, especially Jack Skellington, the self-proclaimed "Pumpkin King", who claims to be the scariest citizen of all of Halloween Town. Oogie Boogie, a mischeavous bag of bugs counters Jack's bold claim, infests the whole town with bugs and attempts to kidnap his competitor, but his trio of henchmen accidentally kidnaps Dr. Finkelstein's lab assistant Sally instead. It's up to Jack and his loyal ghost dog Zero to save Sally and the whole town from Oogie Boogie's jealous fit.

Somewhere along the dark past, I might've mentioned how much admiration I have for Mr. Burton's work. That being said (again), it's kind of ironic that I don't think of The Nightmare Before Christmas as much of a masterpiece. It's fun to watch during the holidays on three- or four-year intervals, but I don't know, the movie has never really made much of an impression on me as a whole - besides the artwork, I love the artwork and the look of the characters. Since The Nightmare Before Christmas is such an important part of the Kingdom Hearts series, I looked this Game Boy Advance title up after finishing Kingdom Hearts II, as my enthusiasm towards the franchise was somewhat rejuvenated, and found a surprisingly decent game, that doesn't really have flaws - instead, it has a whole handful of lacks.

I have a feeling I do.
The animation's decent enough, but the lack of colours and depth, which might have something to do with the theme itself make the game look like a good-looking Game Boy Color game instead of a 2005 Game Boy Advance title. The music's right on the mark, it's vintage Nightmare.

The game is very easy to explain: it was most likely released to ride on the success of Metroidvania. The basic idea is very much the same: you're free to explore Halloween Town and its buildings. However, there are no special items to be found besides weapons, shrunken heads that give you five extra ticks of health each, and rare items that practically have no use at all. You can be quick about the game if you want, there are very few necessities for you to pick up; the game is very easy once you get a decent hold of the quirky, sensitive controls. The game also isn't as lengthy as it might first seem, as there are only three different weapons for you to collect and upgrade, six different "levels" for you to complete and ten boss fights for you to conquer.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: I
fuckin' hate snakes.
The game is all about finding the one correct path, and not much else, which makes the appointed Metroidvania setting kind of useless and frustrating. Swatting all those millions of respawning bugs over and over again has no purpose either, the game has no EXP system like Castlevania does. It's always fun to explore, but there should be something to keep you going. The game has a tight pace and it hardly ever falls into a complete slump, but the whole experience lacks a sense of purpose that is a whole bundle of one of the most important underlying elements in this kind of game.

The game is good enough to be easily recommended to people who love The Nightmare Before Christmas, and even Metroidvania fans, but I'd go into it with reservations if I were you. The game lacks depth and purpose, but it is a fairly entertaining adventure.

SOUND : 8.0


GameRankings: 69.43%

REVIEW - The Incredibles: Rise of the Underminer (2005)

GENRE(S): Action / Fighting / Platform
RELEASED: October 2005
DEVELOPER(S): Heavy Iron Studios, Helixe (DS, GBA)

The Incredibles ended in the ominous rise of a new supervillain named the Underminer, but no sequel to the movie was ever planned - so they decided to make a video game instead. The game was originally released for Windows, but just a while later a port came out on the major consoles of the era. Nintendo's two handhelds got their own, stripped versions of the game as well. The home version of the game enjoyed decent reception as semi-formidable co-op entertainment. The Game Boy Advance version has fewer levels, no co-op and as a game, it's like the first one for the handheld, decorated with simple puzzles and elements from traditional platformers. It's a bit more innovative than the previous title, but not much greater fun to play.

Switch-a-roo your way to victory

Three months after saving the world from Syndrome, the Parr family's faced with a new challenge by a mole man bent on world domination, who calls himself the Underminer. Mr. Incredible and Frozone team up to take him and his army of robots down.

Get ready for an incredible slam!
Let's get straight to the point since Rise of the Underminer is not based on a movie. What we have here is a hybrid - a hybrid of a platformer and a fighting game. Essentially, the Game Boy Advance version follows the first game's example, but I guess the platform jumping and interactive elements are added in to make the game feel a little less tedious. Well, I don't know about that. While they did work on making gameplay a little more complex, they didn't cut off unnecessary length at all. There are only three actual levels, one boss fight and one tutorial in this whole game, but still it takes relatively forever to complete. Those three levels are long, and extremely repetitive. I've played so many repetitive games lately that I'm becoming repetitive myself, I know! But that's just how it is.

At first, Rise of the Underminer is a very interesting game and it makes good, easily learned use of the whole button scheme of the Game Boy Advance. After just one level, though, you've learned everything there is to the game, and seen all of its different features. You'll just have to bear it from there on out. Although there are different stipulations to the levels - such as ice, hrrrgh... - you're essentially playing the same level over and over again, until the game is over. I really thought they could afford to put a little more thought into the level design this time around, since having no license to worry about usually equals liberty.

Just chillin'.
The game looks weird, its cutscenes sport a cheap comic book style in contrast to the licensed game's CGI. The in-game graphics are pretty much the same as in the first game, although since the game incorporates those new elements, it's in strict 2D. All in all, it doesn't deliver anything that special. The music is still quite all right, it's a bit more aggressive stuff, but still jazzy enough to fit the theme perfectly, and it changes often enough.

Although the game is called The Incredibles, all members of the Parr family make their only appearance in the opening cutscene. Mr. Incredible and Frozone are the only playable characters, and to make progress, you need to switch between them constantly by simply pressing L. Mr. Incredible possesses amazing strength. He's much better to use in combat than the ranged but weak Frozone, he can lift up gates, smash up pipes, and drive some certain platforms into the ground with his powerful slam attack. Frozone, on the other hand, can freeze enemies and obstacles, create stationary platforms of ice, and also skate along a constantly forming layer of ice to places you can't reach with a normal jump. All of this makes up for some very interesting gameplay in the beginning of the game, but like I said, after just one single level, you've already done everything in the game. Now, you just need to do all of it about a hundred times more, put the Underminer back in his place, and watch as the game hits the same brick wall of end credits the first one did.

That Underminer's one evil, ugly dude.
The game is not difficult by any measure. It's a button masher above all and your success wholly depends on whether or not you can keep your lives intact during the dull and lengthy beat 'em up sequences against a dozen identical robots. Health items are a-plenty, if you can somehow muster up the interest to use Frozone's skating ability to check out the ceilings often enough. The aftertaste won't be too good, I guarantee you that. Once again, the game started out strong, and fell flat in record time. Completing it only made me numb, I didn't feel like success at all.

It's hard to say which Game Boy Advance title in the Incredibles franchise is the weaker or stronger one, but I'll give this game a lower rating because the developers didn't seem to learn anything essential about the mistakes they made with the previous game. They just gave us a hint of a better and notably more exciting game, but in the end, it's not that different from the first one: a needlessly lengthy, effortless beat 'em up with tiresome, dull level design. 

SOUND : 8.6


GameRankings: 54.90% (DS), 54.00% (GBA), 70.38% (GCN), 69.00% (PC), 59.00% (PS2), 65.20% (Xbox)

REVIEW - The Incredibles (2004)

GENRE(S): Action / Fighting
RELEASED: October 2004
DEVELOPER(S): Heavy Iron Studios, Helixe (GBA)

The Incredibles was Pixar's sixth full-length feature film, directed by Brad Bird, former director and creative designer of The Simpsons. As every Pixar film that came before it, The Incredibles was met by international acclaim, and as every Pixar film that came before it, it spawned a video game. Every game based on a Pixar film thus far had been notably different from the last; instead of being a platformer, The Incredibles drew most influence from arcade-style beat 'em ups that were popular in the golden age of 16 bits. Since The Incredibles only featured a few action-oriented sequences, and the game is told to be rather lengthy considering its simple style, I know exactly where I'm heading when I slap in this mother - to the sea of repetition.

Incredibly boring

15 years ago, Bob and Helen Parr were known as Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl. Their careers as superheroes came to a halt when it was decided by the government that all superheroes were to be banned due to the destruction they caused to the environment despite their good intentions. Bob can't take the normal life, so when he sees an opportunity to go back to his crime fighting ways, he does it, but soon finds out that his "top secret mission" is actually a plot against him, devised by his former, maniacal fan Buddy, who now calls himself Syndrome. With Bob imprisoned, it's up to his family to save the world from Syndrome's psychotic rage.

Mr. Incredible vs. the Death Star.
I know there are a lot of Incredibles fans out there, and it saddens me to say this but I think the movie is highly overrated. When I first watched it, it had some funny moments, but after it was over, I felt like I had just watched a three-hour CGI movie, although it runs for 115 minutes. On the second viewing, I fell asleep 30 minutes into it. It's that boring, I can't even begin to compare it to Pixar's best. I wasn't too ecstatic about trying an Incredibles video game, but when I heard that it's an arcade-style beat 'em up, I was a little bit more intrigued. The last arcade beat 'em up game I played that was a direct movie license was Batman Forever on the SNES. When I remembered this little trivia note, I trembled in fear and disgust, but then I remembered how good Batman Returns was. The Incredibles starts out almost as good, but loses its taste in just a matter of minutes. Like the movie in my opinion, this game seems to drag on forever and ever. It's easier than any game in the genre, too - it tends to get a little frustrating from time to time, though, but that's solely because of the controls.

The game looks quite all right, after all it doesn't take up a whole lot of capacity to put in four levels (the prologue, Syndrome's base, escaping the base and saving the city) with a million stages in each and copy-paste the same damn textures over and over again. There are seriously only a few different environments in this whole game, and a total of 40 damn stages! So it's the game's dullness that jumps on your face moreso than its wealth in colour and flashy animation. The soundtrack's a fine mix of some soothing, catchy jazz prominent in the movie, I have no complaints about the music.

She's certainly flexible. Grr.
This Game Boy Advance version features five playable characters: Bob and Helen Parr, a.k.a. Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl, their children Violet and Dash, and family friend Lucius Best, a.k.a. Frozone. Each character works in a whole different fashion. Bob's levels are pure beat 'em ups. You can mow down enemies by running, and with the Incredi-meter (?) full, you can execute a devastating uppercut. There's also an AOE stun attack. Helen's levels are pretty much the same, but her attacks are different and they have more range (since she, like, bends and stretches to "infinity"). She can also strip enemies of their weapons, scale walls and hover in the air for a short period. The scene in which she turns into a boat is also in the game, as a 2D obstacle course. These obstacle courses are standard shite for the rest of the characters. Violet can't really do anything to enemies, her strategy is to use her invisibility and sneak past enemies, she also has a force field "attack" that has close to no effect in combat, in one of the last stages it's the key to success but only used for protection instead of combat. Dash just runs forward automatically, you occasionally have to jump an obstacle or two, hitch an occasional ride on mobile enemies, and bash their brains out. Finally, as Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson, muthafucka!), you automatically skate forward on a thin layer of ice, you need to quickly create ramps for yourself, and protect yourself from enemies and missiles by freezing them.

They always fall for the same trick...
The levels featuring playable characters other than Bob or Helen are really bonus material, there's not too many of them. The basic controls are sufficient, but both Bob and Helen are slow as heck, assuming you're not using Bob's running attack the whole time; Helen doesn't have one, but she possesses the standard attack range Bob totally lacks. It's incredibly (no pun intended) hard to hit some enemies in this game. Your characters are too slow to react to ranged enemies' attacks soon enough anyway, and flying droids are the worst since they fly from layer to layer - not only do you need to follow them horizontally to be able to land a punch or a stretch attack, you also need to keep up with them vertically. The few boss fights in this game are really annoying, the slow speed of your characters gains a few exclamation marks when it comes to the game's worst qualities during them. There are two bosses in this whole game - you'll be fighting the first one just once, while the other one shows up four or five times, and the strategy changes just once! This game really feels like you're vulturing around the same dead body, hours upon hours, without ever sinking your beak into it. You can forget about a climax, too - there's none to be had. Syndrome meets his demise in a cutscene. How exciting. After hours of exclusively frustrating, otherwise super-easy boredom, the game hits a brick wall and the end credits roll.

Of course the game could be worse, and I've got to admit that I enjoyed it for a while just because of the arcade nostalgia, but over 30 stages of beating up Syndrome's henchmen and droids, and just a few wake-me-ups thrown in between is a bit too much. I wasn't too taken by this game, but I'm going into the sequel semi-intrigued anyway, because it doesn't have any source material to follow - I'm expecting a little more diversity and variability from it. I'm probably going to be disappointed, but it wouldn't be the first time. 

SOUND : 8.8


GameRankings: 53.47% (GBA), 65.45% (GCN), 58.36% (PC), 64.71% (PS2), 63.53% (Xbox)

sunnuntai 22. toukokuuta 2011

REVIEW - Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006)

GENRE(S): Action / Adventure / Platform
RELEASED: June 2006
DEVELOPER(S): Amaze Entertainment, Griptonite Games (PSP)
PUBLISHER(S): Buena Vista Games

Two sequels to Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl were filmed back to back in 2005. Writers Ted Elliott and Teddy Rossio had come up with a huge story arc that just one movie wasn't enough for, and the Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise was bound to be extended to at least the length of a trilogy anyway. After an utter waste of time like Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl for the Game Boy Advance, diving head first into Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest wasn't really that much of an appealing thought. However, it has the real Jack Sparrow on the cover, it at least seems to follow the movie's plot to some extent, it kind of looks like Castlevania... what the hell, let's give it a try! ...Just a couple of hours later, I'm not sure what to tell you. It's not a totally bad game when you compare it to some of the worst licensed games out there, but be warned: it is lengthy, and incredibly dull. Those who said that about the movie, you spoke too early.

This is a jar of dirt

Captain Jack Sparrow has a debt he has "forgotten" to pay Davy Jones, the feared captain of the Flying Dutchman. The only way for Jack to escape the looming collection of this ghostly debt is to steal Jones' heart, locked inside the fabled Dead Man's Chest. Meanwhile, Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann are faced with a death sentence unless they can trick Sparrow into parting ways with his strange compass and deliver it to the villainous Cutler Beckett.

Pirates of Castlevania.
Unlike its predecessor The Curse of the Black Pearl, which was praised by just about every critic out there, Dead Man's Chest was met with a very mixed response. Some critics found the two and a half hour movie way too lengthy, and the storyline somewhat lackluster. Me? I'm not quite sure, but Dead Man's Chest might be my favourite movie from the original Jack - Will - Elizabeth trilogy. I personally think the whole Davy Jones vs. Jack Sparrow story arc made the actual trilogy, while the first movie was more of a stand-alone masterpiece, kind of like in the case of the original Star Wars trilogy. When it comes to the game, I'm indeed very happy with the fact that it's so different from the first game for the Game Boy Advance, but it does share some of its quirks, and after a fairly strong beginning, it just simply waters itself down. It's so damn dull and repetitive it hurts.

The graphics are pretty mediocre, to tell you the truth. The open sea combat looks quite OK, but the standard 2D adventuring looks somewhat stripped down and cheap. The cutscenes are simply laughable; some parts of the dialogue are direct quotes from the movies, some of them just don't belong, and the still images of the characters are totally random outtakes from the movie. For example, Sparrow and Gibbs having a conversation in the tavern might suddenly cut into the middle of a battle at sea, and then back again. It's ridiculous. It seems the developers wanted to capture certain facial expressions for the cutscenes, it didn't matter which of the movie's scenes they were from. What a horrible call. The portraits during in-game dialogue look weird. Gibbs looks really thin and Jack looks like he has a misplaced jaw. The music's great, though. Ian Stocker, who worked on the Lego Star Wars games, among others, delivers a good soundtrack in the true spirit of Pirates of the Caribbean, which separates the game even further from the piece of unbelonging Filmation trash the first game was.

The game is a non-linear action-adventure, in which you control three characters - first just Jack, but later, Will and Elizabeth - on a journey across several islands of the Caribbean. Venturing on some certain islands continues the storyline, whether you want it or not; once you've entered a level that takes the story further, you cannot leave the whole island before fully completing it. There's never a clear indication where you should go to make progress in the story. "Sidequests" almost fully consist of going on a hunt for treasure, as well as legendary treasure, which result in tons of EXP. You can simply find treasures here and there on your way, but most of them are found by paying a few gold coins to town gossips around the Caribbean. As you level up, you essentially gain new combos for battle. Your attributes are almost fully managed by different equipment you can buy from shipyards, along with upgrades for your ship.

My food and drink meters are telling me
I'm screwed.
The standard gameplay style of Dead Man's Chest reminds me of a poor man's Metroidvania game. The main difference is that there are no essential hidden items in this game that you simply wouldn't do without, only regular power-ups and maybe some treasure. Your only true goal is to beat every 2D level in this game, and there are a LOT of them. The background art is different on each island, but the levels themselves are repetitive like crazy, the ones essential to the storyline just become harder to navigate towards the end. The combat is somewhat clumsy, the characters easily get stuck due to their own flashy combos and you have no way of deflecting or otherwise blocking projectiles. You have several projectiles to use as well as secondary weapons, but they come in very limited quantities and most of the ones that have some use, have a very weird range and trajectory.

That's just one half of the game, the second half consists of an advanced incarnation of the open sea combat from the previous game. It's even closer to ripping off The Curse of Monkey Island, but there's a very frustrating twist. You need to keep your crew in balance with abundances of food and drinks, or else there'll be a mutiny. Not only is it frustrating to spend your hard earned gold on beverages instead of some new equipment for the characters and your ship, it's also a very constant peeve as your food storage seems to deplete to zero in a matter of a few minutes, and the lesser you have, the harder your ship is to control - at times it even comes to a complete halt, which makes it impossible for you to alternatively target another ship in hopes of forcing your way onboard and ransacking their storage. You are forced to spend way too much valuable time on keeping your crew happy by either paying your ass sore for food and grog in the shipyards or fighting your way through identical ships and crews over and over again, from the beginning to the much anticipated end of the game.

Gotta love this guy.
A shorter length would do this game some good. The islands consist of several levels each, and the game just never gets any more challenging or diverse. It's not quite as boring as its very different predecessor, but after a few hours of scavenging nearly identical islands and running through a million British soldiers with your cutlass, suffering a few mutinies and returning for seconds to some choice locations just to raise the money for some ultra-expensive, but highly mandatory equipment, you'll be begging for an end. Of course, if you're lucky, you'll find the correct spots for the storyline to go on right away, and you'll be done a tad quicker than the average player. Like I said, the game begins rather strong, but it doesn't take long for it to fall into a serious need of change.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest is a playable game, and definitely a thousand digital miles ahead of its predecessor, but it's still just not a very exciting or interesting experience. It has many good things going for it on paper, such as character development via EXP and equipment, but the developers obviously weren't quite on mark when it came to how to capitalize on its artificial qualities and the more interesting elements of its gameplay. The food/drink system, on the other hand, was a bad idea that should've been crossed out at an early stage of development.

SOUND : 8.7


GameRankings: 63.54% (DS), 74.30% (GBA), 52.71% (PSP)

The waterwheel sequence is exclusive to the Game Boy Advance version.