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Spooky Plays: Fatal Frame

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Before I get started I just want to say that Fatal Frame is absolutely NOT based on a true story. The producer of the series has gone on record to say that the story is based on two Japanese urban legends and ghost stories, so it is certainly not true at all. This was a marketing slogan that was slapped on the cover for Western Markets. In Japan it was released as Zero, with Project Zero being the European title. The game was developed and published by Tecmo in Japan and the USA, with Europe being quite a mess with system exclusive publishers.

You start the game controlling Mafuyu Hinasaki, who is investigating the disappearance of his mentor, author Junsei Takamine. Junsei went to the Himuro Mansion to do research for his latest project with a couple of assistants. Not all is as it seems in the Himuro Mansion, and it soon becomes clear that the dark rituals performed here are more than mere rumors. Its not long before Mafuyu ends up getting entangled in the strange happenings around this ancient mansion that seems to pay heed to much darker Shinto rituals than most would want the outside world to know.

Mafuyu’s sister Miku then enters the game as the main character. She’s out to find her brother, but soon discovers the story and fate of the author’s team, and even a family that moved in after the Himuro clan suddenly died out. Mafuyu discovers that an antique camera, called the Camera Obscura, given to him by his mother has the power to exorcise ghosts, and Miku soon takes it up to use as her only weapon against the ghosts inhabiting Himuro Mansion.

This opens up a unique style of combat that is thrilling and pretty much shoves the chilling and in some cases nightmarish ghost design. Some of these images will stick with you for quite some time, don’t be surprised if they pop up in your dreams after a long night at work. Miku looks through the camera, and the game shifts from the normal fixed and panning camera angles straight into first person mode. Miku must then focus the camera on the ghost and take pictures to damage it. There is a bar that charges up with energy the longer you look at the ghost, attacking when this is fully charged deals more damage. Attacking while the ghost is charging you and with full energy deals even more damage and gives a huge bonus!

The Camera Obscura can be upgraded from the Spirit Points you gain by fighting ghosts. The ghosts get harder and harder to fight as you move through the game, so these upgrades and extra skills you can unlock can become wonderfully helpful. You can upgrade the damage radius, speed of energy charging, and damage output. The Camera also runs on film that is its ammunition. There are four levels of film, with each stronger one having a more limited supply, and there’s no shop in this game. Determining when to use what type of film is a good idea, blowing through all your powerful film early can kill you when you need it the most.

The ghosts never seem to be too overwhelming. Many of them are fought at specific points in the game, and are impossible or extremely difficult to escape normally. Random ghosts pop up in some locations if you spend too long wandering aimlessly trying to find your next goal. Unlike some other horror games like Clock Tower and Haunting Ground, these random ghosts are useful to hoard some points for upgrading, and most of them are rather harmless once you figure out their patterns.

The game is separated into four different chapters. Each chapter is one night. These nights all have their own self contained stories, but these work to build up the overarching story about the rituals and people involved in the old ways. Each night also introduces new enemies and unlocks more of the mansion to explore. Some old areas will have new items and events in them as well, so there is some backtracking, but you are rewarded for it so it never feels like wasted time.

In my experience its rare for a horror game to really grab you by its story. Most seem to run on atmosphere, tension, quick scares, puzzles, or just good mechanics, but the story is usually lackluster. Fatal Frame has everything that a great horror title needs. There is a reason for the main characters Mafuyu and Miku to be in Himuro Mansion, they have a purpose! They’re not just dropped into this environment against their will and forced to deal with it. The story unfolds slowly but keeps you eager to move forward, and each night has a defined ending, with the next night starting Miku in a new or old room with more to discover and explore, and new ghosts to exorcise!

Spooky Plays: D

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Welcome back to a world of horror and fright. You may remember last year when I did a review of a game that not many would think of when pondering the options to step into a good atmosphere that sends chills down spines and squeals up throats. Thief: The Dark Project was that game, and the horror came from the masterpiece’s years spent in development hell when its focus was changed about a half dozen times. Well, if you want to read more about that game check it out right here: http://whydidiplaythis.wordpress.com/2014/01/02/unexpectedly-spooky-thief-the-dark-project/ . In contrast to a jumbled mess of juxtaposed design and experimentation that somehow worked brilliantly, this year I bring you D. Just D. The letter D. No more. No less. D.

D is a horror puzzle game developed by WARP and published by Acclaim. It was originally created and released on the 3DO, but given the system’s less than stellar sales records, the game was ported over to Sega’s Saturn and Sony’s Playstation, as well as DOS in the Western markets. In Japan, the Saturn release was a smash hit, debuting at the top of the sales chart. Acclaim insisted on porting it over to the other consoles themselves, and localizing it for the international market. The Saturn port was also successful on the sales charts in the West despite that console’s lukewarm reception. Sadly, Sony did not manufacture enough copies to even dream of satisfing pre-order demands for the Playstation release, and few more were ever produced. This leads to the oddity of the Saturn version being the easiest to find in the US. There’s not too much difference in price between the two though, Saturn averages out to be cheaper. The 3DO version stands up as the hardest to find and most expensive release. I blame this on the fact that searching for just “D” leads to so many other results that its annoying to find this specific game for any of its systems.

The game’s development is a wonderful tale in and of itself, with Kenji Eno going to extreme lengths to keep the real story of the game hidden, even from his coworkers, in an attempt to sort of cheat his way into a publishing deal. He made the game appear more like it was a clean cut adventure game with high quality graphics, not unlike Myst before it. Since Kenji Eno personally visited manufacturers in the USA to switch out his clean version from the real version he also bypassed any possibility of censorship.

Even today the horror imagery and well detailed (for the time) art design and environments stand out among its peers in the genre. Where Resident Evil would release after this game and rely on bad voice acting and jump scares, D does an excellent job of instilling a creepy atmosphere around the player and the young woman you control, WARP’s digital actress Laura Harris.

One interesting way that this atmosphere was achieved is a design choice that forces the player to sit and play the game. There is no saving or pausing. You have two hours of real time to finish the game from start to ending. That may seem like a short time, but I ended up being about ten minutes shy of beating it when I first played it. The second time was the charm for me.

One of the reasons you might get stopped and take a bit longer to finish the game is the puzzle design. Its quite reminiscent of point and click adventure games, but given its short length, most of these puzzles lack the depth or insane difficulty of some PC adventure games that are similar to D’s presentation. The exploration and movement works well for being limited to a controller. The odd part about the game’s movement design is that some rooms have paths that go all over the place. One example of this is in one of the bedrooms. You’ll step inside and be looking at a painting, and you can only walk towards this painting at first. Later you’ll need to get into a table to the right of the painting, but to get to the table from the painting you have to turn left, walk to the other door, then turn and step to the bed, turn to the left again, and then step forward to the table. You can’t just turn right when you’re already standing next to the table.

The game certainly feels aged though. Compared to other horror games its quite tame. As you play you’ll find the atmosphere is where the real tension is, and there are some creepy images and unexplained phenomena throughout this mansion Laura finds herself in. The occasional dessicated corpse catches her by surprise, and a wall of spikes early in the game might be only real jump scares in the game, but none of them are harmful. This game did influence later titles when it comes to presentation though. D’s unexpected success in all markets is simultaneously a beginning and an ending, as slower FMV puzzle games were nearing their twilight. D’s future influence lies in its tight artistic designs, well produced visuals, and its use of sound to create a setting and experience that will stick to the player. Its length actually helps it in this case. Since the game is so short everything that happens gets stuck in your mind, and you’ll rarely find yourself scratching your chin trying to remember something like you might with a long winded RPG or even other horror games!

If you have about $20-40 burning up your pocket or paypal balance, and you want a good, creepy experience that doesn’t require a long term commitment, then D is a fantastic purchase.

Psychotic Reviews: Dragon Force

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Holy crap this game rules! Dragon Force is a rather unique strategy game for the Sega Saturn that mixes turn based strategy with real time tactical movement, decision making, and party building. Development was started by a company called J-Force, but Sega itself eventually took it over and finished it. In North America it was localized and released by Working Designs. Sega used Working Designs’ English translation for the European release of the game.

Dragon Force focuses on a continent wide war between various kingdoms and empires. The continent is called Legendra, which is a terrible name. There are eight total kingdoms to choose from, but only six are initially available. The rest are unlocked after the first time beating the game.

Each kingdom gets control of various Generals, either by recruiting them by searching in various castles, or by recruiting captured commanders. There are ten different types of Generals, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. There are ten main types of common soldier types as well, and each of these have strengths and weaknesses as well. The manual includes a table detailing the effects that common soldiers have against other types.

Now, with so many different countries and stories to choose from the game is built in with plenty of replayability. For this review I just played one scenario from start to finish and dabbled in a few others. I picked Highland as my main campaign, and after playing it this one does seem to be designed to be a tutorial type of campaign. Highland is rather isolated so you do not have to worry about border wars early on, and there is an easy peaceful annexation of Palemoon. It makes me think that Lord Wein and the elf Queen Teiris will be more than friends after this giant war.

Given this easy annexation I then stormed Tristan to basically conquer the entire Eastern half of Legendra. The rest of the conquest then focused on the Western half, picking off kingdom after kingdom until I finally took down Goldark. The threat continues as the evil being Madruk is still working to be awakened, so simply conquering Legendra is basically the first half of the game.

This game is quite fast paced in the beginning, but gets bogged down in the middle. You can just run around and storm castles all day long, making sure your enemies have little and later, nothing to counter your assault with. Once you’ve finished the conquest absolute chaos ensues but you can basically spend the time just grinding levels until you’re ready to easily blitz through the rest of the game. Turns start taking quite a long time though when you’re storming castle after castle and being counterattacked. Just before I was done conquering it wasn’t unfounded to have single turns take nearly an hour or more! So this game ends up being a major time sink, and its why I’ve just been pecking at it for months while I stroll through other games.

Each one of these scenarios by itself is quite long and rewarding, and if you could only pick one Saturn game to have on the system until the end of time, and only that one game, this would be a great candidate. Is it worth the price tag? It is if you enjoy the game and play through every single campaign to see the story unfold from so many different perspectives. This game is not cheap though, so in most cases it may be one of the last games that anybody collecting for the Saturn will pick up.

Psychotic Reviews: Suikoden Tierkreis

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Suikoden Tierkreis was the second game to be made by Konami for a non-Sony system, but it was the first of those games to be released outside of Japan. Suikoden Card Stories is basically a retelling of Suikoden II as a trading card game and was released on the Game Boy Advance exclusively in Japan. I have no idea what I’m doing in that game, but I do know what’s going on in Tierkreis for the Nintendo DS mostly because of the English language. Tierkreis was the first Suikoden game since the release of Suikoden V on the PS2, and was anxiously awaited by fans of the series since there was about a three year gap between releases.

Tierkreis is a complete and total spinoff of the series. It has absolutely nothing to do with the main numbered series. As a result of this it introduces its own world with its own set of rules, all new characters, and new political entities. There are some familiar elements from previous games, such as the headquarters and 108 Stars of Destiny to recruit. This game calls them Starbearers though.

Some of the most loved design choices from the main series are gone for this game. There are no tactical battles, there are no one-on-one duels. Well, technically there are some one-on-one fights, but these take place in the normal party based battle system. The familiar cinematic system of dialogue and counters is nowhere to be seen. The weapon sharpening system has been axed in favor of equippable weapons. What was a nice way for characters to have more defined personalities was replaced by the ultimate ‘throwaway character’ system.

Many of the plot elements are unfolded through the job board. A number of these end up with the recruitment of more Stars, but some are just there for money making purposes. Thankfully, not all recruitments involve this board, so you still have to explore towns and other areas to find out where people are hiding out. You make most of your money in this game by actually moving the plot forward, as you can turn in these missions at the job board to earn a big paycheck.

This game still focuses on political machinations and the various ambitions of the independent rulers of their respective areas. Unlike the main games there are many different nations, kingdoms, tribal areas, and cities all within the game world. There is a religious, militant, zealous imperial styled country, a magical kingdom, a city of porpoise people, a tribe of felines, a kingdom of swordsmen, as well as smaller villages.

Tierkreis’ world is described as being much larger than just the explorable area, as there are many worlds connected by gateways. There is another tribe that specializes in using these gateways to travel between worlds and use items they find to trade in other worlds. This also lets characters from other worlds visit your own, but sadly the reverse is not true. It would be awesome to have small areas to explore in other worlds while keeping the plot focused on the main world.

This is not completely unique to this game though. The idea of other parallel worlds existing has been blatantly mentioned in previous games, including the first two, Suikogaiden II, Suikoden IV and Tactics. Some stars of those games are theorized to be from other worlds, but this idea was never the focus of any of the stories from those games, just one piece of a massive puzzle. Tierkreis is completely focused on not only the fact that these parallel worlds exist, but how they are related to each other.

The lack of tactical battles really hurts the feeling of grandeur that previous games give. Going into a different screen where there are units to maneuver, tactics, and strategy to earn a victory is just much more satisfying. In Tierkreis you usually make one to three parties and each one gets a couple normal battles, maybe a boss battle, and then you’re on your way.

The music is a big step down from the main series. Short loops make their return from the first Suikoden, but each area gets its own unique tracks. The visuals are quite nice for a handheld of the time, and most characters have multiple pieces of art to represent different emotions and facial expressions. The game even has voice acting! I do not care much for the voice acting on the main characters. It sounds like somebody gave the VA for the main character an extra $20 to say all of his lines as fast as possible, so he is hard to understand since words fly out of his mouth. He also has a lame catchphrase: “We don’t know what’s going to happen until we try!” That might make some more sense after you play the game though. The others range from good to mediocre, but with the game’s budget this is probably better than one might expect.

Overall Tierkreis is a fine game for what is offered here. It works well, the story is a bit simpler than the main series entries, but it is worth a look even if you’re not a fan and are looking for a fun RPG to play on the go. If you’ve played the main games before this may feel underwhelming with all the changes and omissions, but the game is fine for what it tries to do and give the player. The story works well, but the localization is quite messy at times with punctuation, spelling, and grammar mistakes fairly consistent throughout the game.

Psychotic Reviews: The Legend of Oasis

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The Legend of Oasis is the followup/prequel to Beyond Oasis. It was also developed by Ancient and composed by the studio’s founder Yuzo Koshiro. It was released in 1996 for the Sega Saturn and was built off of the same engine that powered Beyond Oasis (The Story of Thor for those outside North America). The Legend of Oasis keeps the same feeling and exploration style of the first game while introducing new puzzles and a new map.

The Legend of Oasis features beautiful, hand drawn 2D art and characters and shows off the system’s 2D capabilities quite well. The first game looked great on the Genesis, and the followup also looks great on the Saturn. Despite being scored by Koshiro, the music seems to take a backseat for the most part. Its rather quiet and reserved, and there are long pauses between tracks, even when the track is on a loop. The voice samples used are of high quality and Koshiro makes good use of the available CD audio, both of which put his accomplished sound design abilities on display.

In The Legend of Oasis, there are more spirits to recruit and use. On top of the original four from Beyond Oasis (Bow was renamed to Bawu for this game), there are two additional spirits, Brass and Airl. Brass has the power of sound, which can shatter crystals and break up electrical currents, and Airl has the power of air. The four returning spirits play the same roles as they did in Beyond Oasis. Bawu has some added voice samples including a chuckle when he gets bored and a sigh when he doesn’t have anything to eat.

One significant change in The Legend of Oasis is that weapons no longer break, and level up by finding newer versions of them in dungeons. There are also scrolls that unlock special abilities for the weapons, and orbs which can power them. The use of food items has also changed in that now you are instantly healed when you pick them up instead of being stored as inventory items to use when you need them.

Unlike the first game, there is a much greater emphasis on the dungeons instead of a more balanced mixture between dungeon diving and overworld exploration. I feel like this is a step back, given that the outdoor areas in Beyond Oasis were filled with secrets and mini games. The overworld also served as a great way to separate dungeons from each other and give the player some breathing room. In The Legend of Oasis there are dungeon entrances within the depths of other dungeons, such as Shade’s Shrine of Darkness located within Brass’ Forest of Sound.

Overall, it feels like The Legend of Oasis was a step down from its Genesis predecessor. The Story of Thor series was laid to rest in only two games and ended on a rather mediocre adventure. However, one highlight of this game is that it does show you how the additional two spirits were to be used, since that weren’t in the Genesis game.

Psychotic Reviews: Crash Bandicoot: Warped

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After the criticisms of the second game Naughty Dog regrouped and started working on a new followup. This third in the series would be the most ambitious yet. After two extremely successful games Naughty Dog had a large budget to work with, but less than a year to build and finish the game. Like its predecessors the game saw immense success in Japan, and dethroned Crash 2 as the most successful Western developed game in the country. It was the first non-Japanese game to earn the Platinum Prize for selling over 1 million copies in Japan alone.

Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped would move away from the tropical islands somewhere off the coast of Australia and have our heroes trek through time. Dr. Neo Cortex is one again Crash’s adversary, but he is shown as little more than a subordinate under the powerful mask Uka Uka. Since Crash has had his own mask since the beginning this only serves to increase the rivalry between the two as well as deepen the story of the series. Each world’s boss also contacts Crash a couple times as you beat levels, so even they get more character development than most video game bosses. I’m not sure how many people really care about the story of platformers, but its there if you do.

In my review of the second Crash game I had some issues with the level design, and that level design showed unpolished physics which hurt the controls. The level design has been changed more to focus on the 3D elements of the Crash formula. Side scrolling is used fairly sparingly. The ice problems are gone as a result of the time trekking levels, there’s just not an Ice Age level in sight! Much more variety has been added to the overall level design. There are racing, jet ski, and flying levels on top of the usual platformers, so this game has wonderful shifts of pace that keep you on your toes.

There are also more playable characters. Crash’s sister Coco is available as the playable character in certain levels only, and like Crash she gets to ride a cute little animal (a tiger in her case), ride a jet ski, and fly through the skies. Crash does all the racing though, which only shows that the team was already building Crash Team Racing when they were developing this game. As you defeat bosses you get extra abilities to help you explore future levels and complete the bonus areas. These also help to access previously blocked off areas in previous levels.

The difficulty has been toned down quite a bit. I did not run into any problems getting through levels until the last few, and even those were not hard to overcome. Boss fights are mostly a joke, and a formality. Because of the lowered difficulty this feels the most kid friendly of the trilogy. This game could seem easier to me though since I did own this growing up, and I might still have some muscle memory buried deep down in the back recesses of my mind. Overall I do consider this the best game in the trilogy, despite the low difficulty. There’s just so much variety and fun to be had in this game. If you’re looking for legitimate challenge the first Crash is what you want. In my opinion the second game is the worst in the trilogy, but its by no means a bad game, just annoying.

Psychotic Reviews: Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back

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The international success of the first Crash Bandicoot allowed Naughty Dog to get started on a sequel, and most of the team made the transition intact. This let them build on the ideas from the first game and polish its problems up, while adding new ideas. Sadly this created quite a few new problems. Despite all these new issues Crash 2 was more successful than the first game, replacing it in Japan as the best selling Western developed game when it released. Its international sales ended up with the game falling a bit short of its predecessor though.

If you recall my previous review of the first Crash, my main issue with it were the quirky controls. These have been improved slightly, but are still not where I would like them to be. Ice levels can be quite infuriating until you figure out how the game calculates momentum. That is to say, it doesn’t stop calculating momentum even after you smash into a wall. So these ice levels can involve you moving in place until this momentum will eventually stop, then you go flying in the opposite direction. Also beware of small boxes with gaps across from them, you might think that hitting the box would stop you, but if you try and immediately jump onto the box you will assuredly overshoot it and fall to your death. All of this is just trial and error and has absolutely no regard to player skill, you’re just meant to figure this out on your own and probably die doing so.

Progression and exploration have been changed as well, with a hub based world instead of a linear map system like the first game. Each hub has five levels, and you must find the crystal in each level before you can go on to challenge the boss and move onto the next world. Each world has a similar layout of levels though, and there’s not much variety. When you move from one world to the next you can expect to play a combination of a polar bear level, a rock level, an ice level, sewer level, a temple level, a jet ski level, or an outdoor island level in every single world. The only thing that changes is the actual layout of the level, gone are the unique backgrounds and settings that permeated the worlds of the first game.

Each level does contain a bonus area that you can use to gain extra lives, but you also need to break every box in these bonus areas if you wish to collect the gems. There are also secret areas in many levels that require a colored gem to access. These colored gems are extremely difficult to find, mainly because the way you get them is so cryptic. You will almost never guess or find how to get a single one of these colored gems without a guide. In the first game the colored gems were collected by just getting to a certain number of gems, so there was nothing special you needed to do other than find out which levels you can get a gem in without a colored one. For most of the game your success is limited to trial and error. Deathtraps litter the levels, so you’ll probably have to farm the early levels for lives so you can learn how to avoid cheap deaths. That really sums up how this game is designed.

There are some new additions to the control sceme, a slide and jump added onto the spin, a face plant to break certain boxes and kill some enemies. This adds in more variety than just a simple jump attack and the spin, but it fails to add enough to save the game’s poorly designed levels and bad physics as a result of said design. This may be the weakest of the original trilogy but I still have one game to play through and examine first.

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