Friday, June 26, 2015

[TRAILER] Rise of the Tomb Raider Trailer - New Trailer, Tomb Raider 2

As I mentioned in my review, I enjoyed the recent Tomb Raider prequel, and I've been looking forward to seeing where they take the franchise next. Square Enix have recently released a teaser trailer for the upcoming prequel-sequel, Rise of the Tomb Raider.

I know that it's just a teaser trailer, but I was hoping for some actual gameplay footage. At least we can assume that the cut scenes will look good, it'll take place at least partly in a cold environment, and there will still be climbing involved.

Personally, I didn't get much out of this trailer, but at least it reminded me that a new game is coming out, and I'll have to keep an eye out for a real trailer at some later point.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Punch Quest (Madgarden/Rocketcat Games, 2012)

Way back in my review of Jetpack Joyride (my 3rd review ever!) I talked about endless runners. While reviewing Bad Dudes vs. Dragon Ninja I talked about the classic Beat 'em Up genre. While Endless Runners are currently one of the most popular types of mobile games, those of us who grew up in the arcades of the late 80s and early 90s still have fond memories of popping token after token into the vast assortment of more or less identical Beat 'em Ups. These two styles of play seem miles away from each other, but somehow the design wizards over at Madgarden found away to merge the two into something new in the form of Punch Quest.

The first thing that struck me about Punch Quest (no  pun intended) was the amount of thought that must have gone into the controls. Endless Runners tend to have extremely simple controls, often using the entire touchscreen as a single button that is your only input. Arcade Beat 'em Ups were a bit more complex, tending to use a joystick for eight directional movement along with three buttons: Punch/Weapon, Jump, and Kick/Special Move. Punch Quest squeezes all of this into the equivalent of two buttons. The right half of the screen is Jab/Special Move/Forward Dash, and the left half is Uppercut/Jump. Pressing them both at the same time triggers a Block and causes your character to stand still until you let go. This gives you an impressive amount of control to the point where it sometimes reminded me of the classic console platformers I grew up on.

Endless Runners take place in a wide variety of environments from realistic to abstract. Punch Quest lands somewhere in between with a surreal monster infested cave/dungeon setting.Your overall objective is fairly irrelevant as is the norm for the genre, something about helping a gangsta' gnome leave the planet, but the mood it sets is what gives this experience its unique flavor. To make the never-ending random levels a bit more interesting, the path often splits into an upper or lower option with a simple sign hinting at what each choice has to offer. This is a great help when a quest requires a specific action such as using a powerup or defeating a boss.

Wait, boss fights? In an Endless Runner? Surprisingly, yes! While the game is clearly a runner at its core, it borrows the idea of boss fights from its Beat 'em Up roots. You don't actually stop running to fight the bosses. Instead, they fly along with you to stay on the screen, similar to the bosses in classic Beat 'em Up vehicle stages. The variety of attacks and strategies offered actually exceeds what is typically seen in the genre, and reminded me of classic platformer boss battles. The flying giant punching fist machine for example could easily have been in an early Sonic the Hedgehog title. Figuring out the best strategy and powerup combination for each boss was part of the fun, and quickly defeating the ones that previously gave so much trouble was very satisfying.

Speaking of powerups, this game has some that are actually useful! New attack special moves and platforming techniques can be unlocked and equipped in various combinations allowing you to customize the overall feel of the game. Personally, I enjoyed the forward punch that slows your descent after a jump, allowing you to span much larger chasms, and spend more time punching those pesky flying enemies. Some of these powerups are always active, and some only work after your Punch Meter reaches a certain point. There are also a number of cosmetic add-ons including the obligatory expansive hat selection to let you look however you'd like. Race and gender options also go far beyond the standard white dudes only approach similar games take.

As I mentioned in my Jetpack Joyride review, it's the mission system that really makes these types of games click for me. Sure, high scores are fun, but I like to feel I'm accomplishing something. Punch Quest borrows heavily from Jetpack Joyride's quest system, and it works just as well here. I was able to get lost in this strange world for many a lunch break and there was always that little voice in the back of my head urging just one more quick run.

Back in my Wake review I mentioned how retro graphics are becoming so common that they're starting to feel dated again. The art style in Punch Quest is certainly pixel art based, but has more of a modern leaning rather than an obvious attempt at a 16-bit look. It's a matter of opinion. I thought the graphics looked nice, but I probably would have preferred nice rounded edges instead. I did appreciate that it supports both portrait and landscape mode, that's a nice bonus! The sound was oddly mixed. The sound effects seemed to be mixed more mid-range and bass heavy while the background music was more treble heavy, the opposite of what is usually expected. It's not a big deal though since as a mobile game you'll probably be playing it muted the majority of the time anyway.

Punch Quest isn't a perfect game, but it is a fun game. It's full of strange ideas made stranger in a way that surprisingly feels both comfortable and familiar. You can play it in short bursts, or spend an afternoon with it. I don't know if I'd go back and play it again, but I enjoyed playing it when I did and if you are a fan of either Endless Runners or Beat 'em Ups, you might enjoy it too.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin (Konami, 2006)

I've mentioned the word "metroidvania" a few times in my reviews as it has become a genre in itself. Games such as Wake, Strider, and DLC Quest have strong metroidvania influences while Guacamelee and Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate offer full blown metroidvania experiences. But what exactly is a metroidvania?

The word actually started as a derogatory term used by old school Castlevania fans complaining about the direction the franchise took starting with Symphony of the Night. Rather than the more straight forward arcade inspired approach that most (but not all) of the previous titles offered, later releases more closely emulated the 2D games of the Metroid franchise. Despite the criticisms of some fans, many players (myself very much included) found this direction to be exactly what the series needed. By the time the hugely influential indie surprise hit Cave Story was released, the term "metroidvania" had become a badge of honor for fans of the genre. Luckily for us, Konami stuck with the style and released a number of handheld Castlevania titles further defining this new genre, including Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin.

The first couple Castlevanias were about a vampire hunter named Simon Belmont. Later titles expanded to the entire Belmont family, and eventually branched out into a larger variety of lead characters. Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin introduces two new slayers of the undead, Jonathan and Charlotte. Each has their own unique advantages and the player can not only switch between them at any time, but can have the other character play along via AI. There are simple commands to have your companion stay put or follow along, and some special attacks that require teaming up.

Having an ally is obviously an advantage in battle, but it also plays a large part in solving the castle's many puzzles. There are objects that require the strength of two to move, or the weight of two to activate, as well as situations where one character needs to wait in position while the other moves an object into place. The 2nd character can also help out with giving your jumps a bit of a boost which is a big deal early in the game before you've had a chance to load up on powerups.

As is the core of the metroidvania genre, Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin is full of roadblocks and dead ends which open up to you later in the game once a new ability or piece of gear has been acquired. This style acts as a sort of tutorial allowing the player to master each new technique before gaining access to the next, yet it also allows for an overall game design that feels very open world while still providing a polished linear experience. Powerups here include the standards such as the abilities to double jump, slide through small spaces, and break barriers, and while none of the powerups are really ground breaking, they do still manage to put their own Castlevania twist on them.

One of the most defining characteristics of Castlevania titles is the setting. Most of the 2D games in the series center around a single large castle that must be explored fully. While some of the earlier games experimented with having multiple smaller castles connected by outdoor areas and even towns to give more of an RPG feel, those releases tended not to be as well regarded. For Portrait of Ruin, Konami took a cue from Mario 64 and placed several magical paintings throughout the castle. These paintings can be entered, allowing for much more variety of location without ever technically leaving the castle. This is sort of the opposite of the classic Zelda formula as the interior of the castle becomes the overworld, and areas such as a sprawling desert or Victorian city are treated as the games dungeon zones.

Another aspect of Portrait of Ruin that sets it apart from other Castlevania titles is the central plot. with most of the series there is a simple formula: Dracula woke up and somebody has to get through his castle and hit him with a whip, all wrapped up in a unique combination of classic horror movies and Catholic mythology. This time there's a new vampire named Brauner who is trying to resurrect Dracula in order to stir up trouble. Along the way are some memorable characters such as the vampire sisters and the helpful ghost, each with thoughtfully written back stories. And as always, there's the usual money grubbing priest/merchant who is always happy to help you defeat evil, for the right price that is.

Pushing the narrative boundaries a bit more, Portrait of Ruin features multiple endings depending on what choices you make and how you go about accomplishing your task. As usual, there's a happier ending if you make the right choices, the "good ending", and several more that can be considered "bad endings". Luckily, the less desirable outcomes always involve actions taken after your last game save, so you can always keep trying for a more complete victory without fear.

While Castlevania started out with a more arcade action style, it has slowly been incorporating more RPG mechanics through the years. As with the other DS and GBA releases of the series, Portrait of Ruin features random loot drops to buff up the weapons and armor for both of your characters, as well as stock up on the usual items such as health potions, which are handy since unlike the Metroid series, Castlevania enemies generally don't drop health refills. Defeating enemies also raises your XP allowing you to level up your character. I generally find that this makes the constant backtracking seem like less of a chore, since it means I can grind XP along the way while keeping an eye out for missed secrets so the additional time doesn't feel wasted.

Castlevania games have long featured some of my favorite gaming soundtracks, and this one maintains the tradition of gothic and baroque themes interspersed with jazz, latin. and hard rock influences to create the magic blend we've come to expect. The general sound effects are pretty standard, but I was surprised by the amount of spoken dialog included in the game. Neither 2D metroidvania titles or DS games usually feature voice acting, so this little bonus gave the game an extra level of polish.

Graphically, Portrait of Ruin didn't immediately strike me as being too different from the GBA offerings, but over time I started to notice a few things.The additional storage available in the DS cartridges allowed for more detailed sprites and greater variety with smoother animations. The DS's graphics processor also lets some pretty cool effects happen against the sprites. Finally, a number of 3D polygonal objects and creatures show up from time to time to add a bit of depth to the visual style. So, while the overall art direction deviates little from what was available on the previous generation, what can be done with that style has certainly improved to offer a pleasing, if not wowing, graphical style that suits the game well.

For the multiplayer fans out there, I should probably also mention the Boss Rush mode. This two player cooperative mode allows one player to control Jonathan and the other Charlotte. As the name suggests, this mode allows you to take on all of the game's bosses one after another. I have to admit that I didn't personally try this mode out, but it could be a selling point for some, so it's worth bringing up.

So, if you're a fan of later 2D Castlevania games, or just the metroidvania genre overall, this is a solid game that delivers a quality adventure with a high degree of polish. It changes up the formula enough to feel fresh, while not enough to lose the feel of the genre. On the other hand, if the thought of backtracking and wondering aimlessly on a quest for yet another powerup makes you cringe, you should probably pass on this one. For me, I had a great time with Castlevania Portrait of Ruin, and I'll be keeping an eye out for some of the other Castlevania titles that I haven't had a chance to play through yet.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Strider (Double Helix Games/Capcom, 2014)

Back in middle school, my friends and I used to play a game on the NES called Strider. It was a fairly deep platformer adventure game with some metroidvania elements to it, and dialog that told an interesting sci-fi story of futuristic international espionage. Later, we realized that this was not a port, but a spinoff of an arcade game with a much different play style. A faithful Sega Genesis (or Megadrive if you're outside the US) release of this version gave us an entirely new experience to get lost in. While the arcade title had fewer mazes and backtracking for powerups, it offered a fluid style of acrobatic combat, and a platforming system that let you crawl along any surface, wall, or ceiling to fully explore your environment in a way we'd never seen before. There were a couple of sequels to it, another Genesis release as well as a completely different (and far superior) PS1 game, both simply called Strider 2. After that, the franchise sort of faded into history. Surprisingly, Capcom decided to dust off the series with the help of Double Helix Games to produce an all new adventure, confusingly enough once again called Strider.

With so many earlier games to pull inspiration from, there was some pre-release speculation as to what exactly Strider would be, and how it would feel. Double Helix did a faithful job of drawing inspiration from all of the existing source material, but when it came down to the actual controls it was all about the arcade game. Jumping, climbing, and all around swashbuckling (can you use that term to describe non-pirate related activities?) felt just as smooth and fluid as I remembered from my hours spent with the Genesis port. There's even a nice gravity free area where you really get to fully explore these abilities. The combat also was a faithful reinterpretation with the signature swipe of the Cypher (a futuristic katana) leaving a nice glowing swoosh floating in the air.

The level design on the other hand took a slightly different approach. Most of the games in the Strider series have a more traditional arcade style layout where you simply follow a winding path while killing everything in your way until you get to each stage's boss. The NES game focused more on exploration and backtracking as you collected powerups to get to previously unreachable areas. This game is somewhere in the middle. Each level is fairly large with multiple paths to explore, and upgrades to be found in the deepest reaches. Major powerups are collected as you go allowing you to open previously locked doors or travel in new ways to traverse new areas. There is a bit of backtracking within each area.

The major difference here is that once you've reached the new area, you don't need to return to the previous zone. Instead, the whole process starts up all over again. While playing through Strider, I found myself describing the design as a Metroidvania-lite approach. It makes a good compromise for a game in a series mostly not based on exploration, but needing a bit of modernization to thrive in todays console/PC game market. I'd say fans of the NES release and the arcade ports will both feel satisfied by this approach.

The story of Strider is sort of a reimagining of the original game. Being an arcade cabinet release, the original was pretty light on text and presented the basic premise that in the Russian inspired futuristic dystopia of Kazakh City, a man named Hiryu,a member of an elite organization known as Striders, has to overthrow an oppressive dictator named Grandmaster Melo. The NES port's slower pace managed to fill in the story a bit more, and this new release draws on all of the previous lore and expands upon it.

The characters are as over the top as I remember. This is a futuristic fantasy story more than an attempt at gritty realism. A number of assassins have been sent to stop Hiryu from completing his mission. These provide both entertaining cut scenes and challenging boss battles. Each has a distinctly different form of attack, and sometimes more than one must be faced at a time. Other classic boss encounters also resurface including my personal favorite, the incredible battle against the giant flying mechanical dragon that you both ride and attack at the same time. It was impressive in 2D sprite form decades ago, and it works even better as smoothly animated polygons. But you're not entirely alone in these fights, as in the original, you still collect small helper drones along the way that fight beside you as you go.

One aspect that needs to be mentioned is the overall length of the game. While this is easily the longest game in the Strider series, it's still much shorter than many modern titles. If you're looking forward to digging into a 20 hour adventure, you may be disappointed to reach the end after about five hours. Then again, if you're staring at the bottomless abyss of your sprawling Steam library and looking for something relatively quick to knock out, this might be a perfect choice!

Strider's visual presentation is also a matter of taste. As a longtime fan of the series, I was blown away by the detailed reimagining of the familiar environments. Kazakh City has never looked better! The problem some have with it however is that the entire game takes place in similar futuristic industrial environments, and while they are fairly varied between each other, there's never a really dramatic contrast. Still, it looks and sounds great. The music is just as top notch as ever, and the voice acting brings the characters to life without feeling like a cartoon.

So, what is Strider, and who is it for? That's a difficult question to answer. It's not an arcade brawler or an RPG platformer, it's not a sprawling metroidvania or a speedrunner's playground. Strider really tries to find it's own balance and offer something fresh without trying to invent anything completely new. As far as single sitting games go, I thoroughly enjoyed Strider as it drew inspiration from several genres I'm already a fan of and wrapped it around a nice chunk of nostalgia from my childhood. While your mileage may vary, I'd recommend checking it out if you're a fan of any of these styles of gameplay.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Room Two (Fireproof Games, 2013/2014)

It's sequel time again here at Hammer Down Reviews. Frequent readers may remember that a few months ago I posted a review for an indie mobile game called The Room. It was an extremely polished and creative take on the concept of the Escape-the-Room genre of gaming. As I mentioned in the review, I enjoyed the game a lot, so much so that I had to pick up a copy of the sequel as well. As with many games I'm so eager to download, it ended up just sitting on my phone staring at me for a while, but luckily I eventually found the time to sink into it. So, what exactly did I think of this follow up? Did it live up to the expectations set by it's predecessor? Let's find out, as I share my thoughts on The Room Two.

In my review of The Room, I mentioned that despite the name, the game isn't actually about the room itself, rather it's about a strange mechanical box inside the room. This time around, the game is actually about the room, or rather the rooms. Each level plants you in a different room of the mysterious old mansion of an eccentric scientist. Solving each room's puzzles grants you access to the next room, and its even more challenging brain teasers.

Gameplay in The Room Two retains the same tactile intuitiveness of the original, but expanded to incorporate the larger play areas. Dragging around the screen moves your viewpoint around a room, while pinch zooming focuses the camera on a single object or area, that can then be orbited as in the first game. These objects will in turn have parts that can be further zoomed into in order to interact with it. This gives you a lot more freedom of movement, and also increases the complexity of the puzzles. An item found hidden in one object might need to be used in another object across the room.

More thought is put into the story this time. The narrative is still pieced together from old letters found hidden in the various contraptions, but they come across slightly less as simply the ramblings of a mad man, and paint more of a picture around this mysterious new element known as Null, and all of the amazing potential and danger it possesses. These notes are also much more likely to contain necessary clues to the game's puzzles, so don't be surprised if you end up re-reading some of them a few times looking for subtle hints at hidden double meanings.

Visually, The Room Two continues the trend of having some of the most beautiful graphics I've seen in a mobile game. I can't say that it's a noticeable step up from the first title, but it's definitely the type of game you'd want to use to show off what your phone is capable of. While I'm generally glad that mobile games tend to reverse the trend of many current console franchises by placing more focus on gameplay and less on looks, it's still an unexpected treat when somebody puts this amount of detail into a game that you'll primarily be playing on the tiny screen in your pocket.

Once again, the designers managed to create an entire game worth of mind bending puzzles without ever repeating themselves. I don't know where they get all the inspiration, but hopefully they are able to keep this well of creativity flowing as the Fireproof Games website is already promising a 3rd installment of the series soon.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Tomb Raider (Crystal Dynamics/Square Enix, 2013)

If you're a regular visitor to this site, and you've been by lately, then you may have noticed that there have been some problems. I accidentally erased all of the images on the blog. As you can imagine, videogame reviews without screenshots aren't nearly as much fun. Needless to say, I was pretty upset, and even considered just pulling all of the reviews down and starting over from scratch. Luckily, I was able to restore most of them from a web cache, so the amount of time spent painstakingly rebuilding the review pics wasn't nearly as overwhelming as it could have been.

Starting over from scratch is never fun, but sometimes it's what must be done. Sometimes something wears out or breaks, sometimes something loses compatibility with current technology, or sometimes something simply goes out of style. In the case of videogames, sometimes a game series simply loses relevance as sequels and storylines stray too far from the original theme, and the characters can no longer be related to by new players. In these cases, trying to steer the series back on course might not be enough, and it's simply time to start over. This is exactly what Crystal Dynamics did when they rebooted Tomb Raider.

Way back in my Uncharted review, I mentioned how the original 1996 Tomb Raider came out in a time when 3rd party 3D platform adventures simply weren't really a thing. Tomb Raider set the groundwork for later games such as Super Mario 64 and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time that would eventually lead to 3D platforming becoming a common sight. As the years went by, the franchise flourished, even leading to a couple of big screen adaptations, but as the sequels kept coming, the stories had to keep outdoing earlier releases, until it eventually got a little too out there for new players to relate to. It was time to take a different approach.

Despite the naming confusion, Tomb Raider is not a remake of the original game, 2007's Tomb Raider: Anniversary took care of that. No, this is a prequel. This is the story of how Lara became the globetrotting adventure seeker we all know. This means that the game starts off with a much different Lara Croft than I expected. She's not confident, she's not bold, she's not out to save the world and defeat her enemies in the pursuit of ancient treasures. She's simply scared. She's a weak fragile creature thrust into an unfortunate situation and she's doing her best to survive, and save her friends if she can.

As would be expected, this creates a much darker story than the franchise had seen in the past. Even 2008's Tomb Raider: Underworld, my personal favorite of the series, with it's intentionally darker feel still feels like a light hearted romp compared to this game. Because Lara is presented as weak and inexperienced, the danger is more emotional, and this emotional fear is much more infectious than the more comic book style threats of earlier releases.

Another effect of Lara's novice status is her lack of starter items. I'm used to a well equipped and always prepared Lara Croft starting her mission with at least her twin pistols and a few electronic gizmos. This time you're forced to piece together whatever you can find as you make your way to safety. One of the early weapons is a primitive bow and arrow that is actually a lot of fun to use. Throughout the game, better weapons are acquired and upgraded, but archery remains a strong part of your combat technique throughout. Hopefully this trend will continue in the series.

I've spent most of this review explaining what makes this game so different from previous Tomb Raider titles, but I don't want to scare off fans of the earlier games. It's true that at the beginning of the game, it truly feels like a different franchise, but a funny thing happens the longer you play it. As with most modern action games, new skills and powerups are unlocked throughout your adventure, and the play style starts to shift as new techniques are utilized to deal with more challenging situations. There was a steady subtle shift in the gameplay style during this game. I'm not sure exactly when it happened, but I distinctly remember somewhere towards the end of the game realizing how much it felt like a Tomb Raider game. They managed to pull it off so brilliantly that it simply snuck up on me. I was climbing walls, jumping, flipping, and solving mind boggling puzzles in a way that by then felt so much more real than similar puzzles ever did in previous games.

Now that they've managed to turn this scared fragile girl into the powerful and capable Lara Croft we all know, where will they go next? Will the stories start to merge into the styles of the existing world? Will they forge this into an entirely new spin-off timeline as happened with the new Star Trek movies? It's still anybody's guess right now, but hopefully the series will continue to be successful for years to come and we'll get to know this new world Crystal Dynamics has created even more.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Images restored!

It took a little longer than expected, but all of the reviews have working images again! Some of them have different images than they used to, and some have fewer, but things are more or less back to how they were. Now, back to writing more new reviews!