Review – Anarchy Reigns (Playstation 3)

anarchy-1Platform(s): Playstation 3 (Reviewed), Xbox 360
Year: 2013
Developer: Platinum Games
Publisher: Sega
Genre: Third-person beat ’em up

“Platinum” and “Games” are two words that should absolutely be put together, because when you do this, you get the name of one of the most interesting and creative studios in modern gaming. It’s not the done thing to include personal bias or opinion within critical assessments but screw the rules; this reviewer is a Platinum devout and will buy any new game from the developer regardless of any pre-release impressions.

I have a great deal of faith in Platinum. After all, this is the team that brought us Bayonetta, Vanquish and Madworld – all highly entertaining, off-the-wall thrillfests. Let us not forget that before Platinum there was Clover Studio, a group responsible for God Hand, Okami and Viewtiful Joe. Combine the works of both Platinum and Clover and you get one hell of a fucking resume.

So with that gushing intro out of the way, you may expect me to proceed into a glowing review for 2013’s Anarchy Reigns.

You’d be wrong.

I really like this game but, objectively speaking, Anarchy Reigns isn’t a must-play classic.

A familiar criticism

That’s not to say that the game is bad, because it isn’t – at all. But it’s certainly a case of style-over-substance. Platinum’s calling cards of over-the-top action, non-conformist game design and liquid nitrogen-cool styling are all present in Anarchy Reigns but none of this can disguise the fact that the game feels lacking in content. Essentially, it’s a case of Platinum’s signature flair compensating for an extremely thin experience. Whether this succeeds or not is down to personal opinion. For me it does, because I adore the game’s artistic design and no-fucks-given attitude but, if you prioritise gameplay over art, then you’d be forgiven for thinking, “is this it?”

Anarchy Reigns is a third-person beat ’em up. Playing as either Madworld‘s chainsaw-armed brute, Jack Cayman, or pretty-boy Bureau of Public Safety (BPS for short) operative, Leo Victorion, the player journeys through two interwoven stories. Jack’s is the “Black Side” while Leo’s is called the “White Side”. Once both are completed, you can access the “Red Side” and Anarchy Reigns‘ true conclusion. In principle this is a nice idea because you get to experience the same story from both lead characters’ perspectives.

Each character’s side of the game consists of four chapters. Each chapter takes place in a hub world containing three side missions and three main story missions. One of Anarchy Reigns‘ main issues arises straight away here: the repetitive and rigid structure. You must achieve a set amount of points, either through completing missions or beating up the respawning hub world enemies, in order to unlock the next side/main mission(s). If you are good at the game, then you can reach each point quota instantly by completing a mission with either a gold or a platinum ranking. If you just about scrape through the missions with a poor score however, then you might have to replay side missions or just keep battling the hub world enemies to build up points.

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Things can get a bit mental, sometimes. [Image Source]
I managed to achieve the gold or platinum medals on most missions so I didn’t encounter too much of the grind but on the few occasions where I did struggle, it was certainly irritating to have to replay side missions or wander around laying waste to weak enemies until I’d collected enough points.

The hub worlds aren’t all that interesting either. On the positive side, the terrain boasts some nice elevation changes and air vents/boost ramps that send your character flying through the air to different parts of the map. Also, every so often, it will start raining and much stronger enemies will replace the standard Killseeker thugs. Random hazards will also enter the map, such as an out-of-control Mad Max-style fuel tanker, poison gas or jets that carpet bomb the region. Unfortunately, all of these chaotic elements are pretty predictable and scripted, doing nothing to disguise the emptiness of the maps. Other than fighting respawning enemies to earn points, or triggering missions, there isn’t anything to do; no collectables or secrets to look for either. They remind me of the lobbies that you get in some online games where you are free to idly mess about until enough players have joined.

I don’t want  to keep sticking the boot into Anarchy Reigns‘ hub worlds but it also doesn’t help that there are only four of them, and that you will play through them again in the same order with the second character. I can’t help but wonder if this structure is a way to artificially pad the game out because a more straight-forward sequential stage/chapter structure similar to Bayonetta – to use one of Platinum’s own games as a reference point – would have eliminated the majority of the repetition, grinding for points and over-familiarity with environments.

Violence is the solution

Fortunately, the combat goes some way to redeeming the game by being satisfying, if nothing revolutionary. It’s fairly standard third person, over-the-shoulder arena-based brawling. You have light attacks and heavy attacks to construct simple combos with, grab moves and a 360 attack that saps a small portion of health. You also have access to devastating “Killer Weapon” attacks that utilise Jack’s chainsaw or Leo’s energy blades to deal out massive damage, though the use of these attacks is reliant on a gauge that is refilled (pretty quickly) by standard fist fighting.

You can also knock enemies into the air to set them up for aerial combos or drop down from above to damage multiple enemies with a ground-shattering blow. Dropping from huge heights amplifies the latter, transforming the standard drop attack into a “meteor” blow resulting in big damage.

The final ability in your arsenal is the “Rampage” mode. Fill this gauge up by fighting, and, once activated, your character becomes invincible and their attacks much more powerful. What’s more, hitting stronger enemies or bosses initiates a cool move where your character batters the enemy with a flurry of lightspeed punches for huge damage.

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Jack’s back, now in colour!

As you’d expect from a game like this, there is also a lock-on feature and the ability to roll out of the way of incoming attacks. As far as third-person beat ’em ups go though, Anarchy Reigns doesn’t really offer anything new or different but gets away with it thanks to the meaty feel of the combat and the more than convincing impact of the pain you dish out as either Jack or Leo. Weaker enemies explode beneath your fists and the Killer Weapon attacks tear them apart. There’s plenty of excessive blood spraying around too. It’s furious, crazy and pretty satisfying. It makes you feel powerful, as all good beat ’em ups do.

You do take damage from the strong enemies and bosses fairly quickly though (if you’ve played Bayonetta then this should sound familiar) so you have to be on the ball and fight a bit more tactically rather than charging in Dynasty Warriors-style as you are able to do with the mobs of weak enemies. The majority of missions and boss battles will give you a stock of three lives, auto-reviving you on the spot to continue the fight should you fall. Obviously, however, your score and resulting medal will suffer the more you continue.

As I’ve already said, the gameplay itself does do a lot to compensate for the uninspiring game structure but it isn’t all perfect. The bosses for example can all be approached with the exact same wash/rinse/repeat method, regardless of what moves they boast or how they come at you. You hit them with a combo or two, get clear, roll out of the way of their attacks or combos, then hit them again and restart the process. Oddly enough, the large Mutant and Berserker enemies are actually more of a challenge than the game’s bosses since they are difficult to stagger and can end you in a handful of hits.

The Rampage ability is also incredibly OP against bosses. All you have to do is spend a little time wasting enemies in the hub world(s) to charge up the Rampage gauge, so that you have it ready before beginning a mission. Then, you can usually rely on depleting at least half of your opponent’s energy through a barrage of Rampage combos, even if they guard against some of your punches before you break their defence.

Collectable power-ups can also turn you into even more of a powerhouse. You can only carry two at a time but rocket launchers and rifles are notably powerful. The temporary shields and invisibility power-ups are best saved for dealing with multiple Mutants or Berserkers. There is also an item that allows you launch into Rampage mode regardless of how full your gauge is. So, if you are packing this bad boy as well as a full gauge, you can unload on a boss with two Rampages in a row and make a fight a one-sided affair.

Platinum strikes again

Now we’ve come full-circle and I can talk about the positive side of the earlier style-over-substance observation. If you want style and creativity in your videogames, then Platinum always has yo’ back, and Anarchy Reigns certainly doesn’t buck that trend. The game has a post-apocalyptic cyber-punk theme going on, with its decayed Mad Max-style world design and mechanical prosthetics galore. There’s a lot of detail in the design of the maps and the enemy models, and you can clearly tell that the artists enjoyed creating the robots and mechanical augmentations for the bloodthirsty Killseeker enemies.

The main characters are a bit stereotypical in that the men have enormous muscles (that would put Arnie to shame) and the women are all sexy with big boobs. I’ve seen some reviewers marking Anarchy Reigns down for the sexualisation of the female cast but I personally just view all of that as being part of Platinum’s design style. I’m here to be entertained after all (not to care about politics and the #metoo brigade) and Platinum are all about entertaining.

Jack Cayman is as badass as he was in Madworld – a hulking “Chaser” (bounty hunter) with no fear who just doesn’t give a shit. Several other Madworld characters are playable in the game too including the hilarious pimp-like Blacker Baron, his assistant, Mathilda, the heavy-hitting cyborg, Big Bull, and the Crimson Dragon girls – Rin Rin, Fei Rin and Ai Rin. My favourite of the new characters is the BPS agent, Sasha Ivanoff but that’s just because I’m a sucker for the Russian accent and a shiny silver, clingy bodysuit.

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I like Sasha, unsurprisingly. [Image Source]
Though you are primarily playing as either Jack or Leo, some story battles see the protagonists team-up with other characters and you can choose which character to play as. This is a pretty sweet feature as it gives you a chance to play as some of these other cool characters that you’ve previously only seen in the cut-scenes. Mechanically, they all play the same as Jack or Leo but there are variations in speed, attack power, combo strings etc. As you progress through the game, you gradually unlock the other characters to use freely when replaying completed chapters. If you purchase the game’s DLC, you can also play as Platinum’s slinky, butt-wiggling witch, Bayonetta, which is pretty fun – especially if you’ve played the Bayonetta games as her Torture techniques feature in her combos.

The game’s soundtrack – a mix of smooth, jazzy notes, energetic hip-hop and industrial tones – is a varied mix for sure but it all works. Some of the battle music will stick in your head long after the game is switched off for example.

Conclusion

It must be noted that I didn’t discuss Anarchy Reigns‘ multi-player mode in this review and that’s because I haven’t played it. Unfortunately, the game wasn’t a huge seller and by all accounts, the online side is dead now. It’s one of those instances where I regret not giving the online modes a go back when the game was new but, ironically, it was only during this second play-through in 2019 that I really came to appreciate the game. The online was meant to have been very fun, however, and it was a large focus point for the game which goes some way to explaining the puddle-deep single-player campaign that can be put to bed easily in under ten hours.

Even so, that short lifespan can’t be ignored, especially if you are considering picking Anarchy Reigns up today.

This is one of those games that you will either love or hate. The thin, repetitive gameplay, questionable single-player structure and combat that can take a while to properly “feel” might leave you cold and asking, “is this it?” but, if you value the cool factor, then there is a seriously fun beat ’em up here with some hard-hitting brawling. Additionally, if you love the Platinum ‘way’ then you will already know exactly what to expect from the crazy gameplay, wacky characters and the game’s gloriously non-PC streak that offers a middle finger to sensibilities.

Review – Geist (Gamecube)

Geist-1Platform: Gamecube
Year: 2005
Developer: N-Space
Publisher: Nintendo
Genre: FPS

Note: This is a review that I have previously published elsewhere in the past, either on a different (now defunct) blog or a gaming forum. I’ve dragged the original – kicking and screaming – from the dusty archives and polished it up. Consider this the ‘Director’s Cut’ edition…

Geist is a game suffering from an identity crisis that overshadows its potential. It’s a verdict that I couldn’t help but come away with after playing through N-Space’s ghostly adventure; a game bogged down by damaging flaws that detract from the fresh and interesting ideas that could have amounted to something special had the game been treated to more polish.

I wasn’t completely shocked by this, however. After all, Geist was first revealed at 2003’s E3 event and touted for release that very same year. Unfortunately, the game was delayed and by the time it finally materialised on the Gamecube in 2005, very few people cared anymore. History shows that games trapped in development hell are likely to finally emerge as damp squibs despite all of that extra time that the developers have had to fine tune their product. Sadly, Geist is no exception to this unwritten rule.

Ghostin’ it up

Geist opens with the player in the shoes of John Raimi (no relation to Hollywood’s Sam Raimi…I think), a member of a counter-terrorism team tasked with investigating a shady French lab. In true sci-fi fashion the mission goes terribly wrong and Raimi finds himself a ‘guest’ of the lab’s owners, the mysterious Volks Corporation, who decide that he is the perfect subject for their sinister experiments. Strapped into their machine, Raimi is ripped from his body and left to exist as an ethereal spirit but it isn’t long before he manages to escape.

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Raimi be angry. [Image Source]
This is where Geist‘s much-touted USP – possession – comes into play. After a short tutorial in possessing objects, you start to use Raimi’s new powers to explore the facility with the goal of recovering his body and uncovering the intentions of Volks. This means possessing the guards and scientists in Volks’ employ in order to interact with the physical world around you. Potential hosts can only be possessed when they have been sufficiently spooked as indicated by the colour of their aura so it’s a case of using the objects around them to get them nice and scared. Dustbins, computer terminals and items of machinery are just some of the things that Raimi can utilise to give his unsuspecting victims a case of the willies – you can force a piece of machinery to explode without warning for example. It’s usually a multi-stage process with several objects needing to be manipulated before the target succumbs to their fear and leaves the door open for Raimi to swoop in and take up residence.

At first this mechanic feels original and is genuinely fun. The first few possessions are magical and you’ll be hard-pressed not to smile at the results of your ghostly antics. Ironically, however, Geist‘s signature mechanic is also its Achilles heel because it quickly becomes apparent that you aren’t as free as your ghostly state would imply.

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Possessing a security gun turret is admittedly pretty cool. [Image Source]
Let’s begin with the elephant in the room: Raimi is a ghost and yet he is still thwarted by walls and closed/locked doors. Yes, really. So you are having to constantly possess unwitting humans in order to move between rooms whenever doors are involved. As well as making absolutely no sense whatsoever, this huge restriction serves to rob the player of feeling all-powerful. What’s the point of being a ghost if you are stuck playing by the rules of the physical world? It’s the first in a series of missed opportunities.

The possession mechanic itself is similarly limited. As with your inability to pass through walls like a paranormal badass, possessing humans is a restrictive and disappointingly scripted process. Inanimate objects usually have to be manipulated in a specific sequence so scaring the base’s populance boils down to identifying which items to utilise and what order to use them in. When this realisation hits home the fun rapidly evaporates and you are left with an extremely linear experience intent on pushing the player down pre-determined routes. Geist is crying out for a more sandbox-like style of play, where the player can choose which objects to use and how to use them. As well as enhancing the overall experience, it would certainly have given the game some much-needed replay value.

Variety is the spice of life

Then there is that identity crisis that I mentioned in this review’s opening sentence. Is it an FPS? A survival horror? It seems that even N-Space doesn’t know because Geist is an example of multiple styles of gameplay colliding to form a muddled experience. In fairness to N-Space Nintendo apparently got involved in this area but it doesn’t make the negative aspects of this genre clash forgivable in any way.

Possess a host carrying a firearm and Geist becomes an FPS which accounts for roughly 75% of the gameplay. Sadly, these sections are dreadful; weapons are restricted to what the host was originally carrying and ammo is unlimited, removing any sort of tactical approach. Not that you’d need to approach firefights with much thought though since the enemy AI appears content to run headlong into a hail of bullets or take ‘cover’ behind crates that only shield their legs! If Nintendo were hoping that Geist would be a killer FPS to boost the Gamecube’s credibility within the genre then this was an enormous failure. The far superior Timesplitters Future Perfect had already hit the system three months prior, for example, and the previous year’s Halo 2 and Killzone over on the Xbox and PS2 respectively would have laughed at Geist‘s attempt to muscle in.

Away from shooting stuff, a later area of the game has Raimi wandering around an eerie mansion and solving puzzles that involve rotating statues and light beams in order to open doors. It’s a notable change of pace from the FPS sections and more than a mild riff on Resident Evil‘s obscure puzzles and dilapidated setting. There’s even a brief stealth segment where, while possessing a dog, you must avoid the guards in a room and reach the other side. There’s nothing wrong with a jack-of-all-trades game but when none of the individual ingredients manage to impress, then the subsequent amalgamation of parts results in a fairly dissatisfying overall experience.

Other criticisms worth noting include the bosses which, bar a few encounters, are mostly recycled and sport identical weaknesses (spoilers: it’s their mouths), bland, generic character models (with poorly-rendered facial detailing) and the environments which look impressive from a distance but crumble under closer scrutiny.

 

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Ah, the old conveniently-placed soap suds effect. [original image credit here]
Also, this being a more adult (marketed at teenage boys, then) game released in the mid-noughties, Geist‘s female populance – whether they are wearing secretarial outfits, lab coats or military gear – are all equipped with enormous breasts. There is even a section of the game where you have to possess a busty woman wearing just a small shower towel so well done N-Space. Or not. As an unapologetic male, I’m never going to to complain too much about a bit of titillation in a game, but this must still be marked down as ticking the boxes on a checklist of required generic features.

Conclusion

From the negative tone threading its way through this review you might have already concluded that Geist is a total failure but that would be a decidedly harsh assessment. There are many original and humorous moments that break up the dull sections and the prospect of stumbling across the next one is just enough to keep you plodding on to the game’s conclusion. The aforementioned shower room scene, for example, might seem a bit of a cynical inclusion in order to check the ‘Boobs’ box but it’s still a cheeky nod to the first thing most teenage boys (and, let’s face it, a lot of adult blokes) would think of doing if they could be invisible and pass through walls.

The main issue is that there aren’t enough smile-inducing moments to properly dilute the crap bits. All too often I found myself wondering, “why didn’t they let you do this?” or “wouldn’t it have been cool if you could have done that?” This, and the distinct lack of attention to things like the game’s sub-par AI and very average aesthetics, really mark Geist down as a forgettable curio destined to be lost to the mists of time. This is a real shame because there are some innovative ideas here and so much potential for something truly special. Geist did nothing to set the gaming world alight back in 2005 but in 2019, with the much more powerful technology beneath our TV’s, there’s no reason why revisiting the concept couldn’t result in a fantastic game.

Capcom Figure Builder Nurse Morrigan Figure Review (NSFW)

DSC_0084Manufacturer: Capcom (Capcom Figure Builder Creator’s Model)
Year: 2016
Material(s): ABS, PVC
Scale: Approx 280mm/10.92 inches (310mm inc. Injection Needle)

Darkstalkers‘ Morrigan Aensland is one of my favourite female videogame characters. I guess that’s a fairly unoriginal statement to make in 2019 but it was a different case back when Capcom’s Darkstalkers/Vampire fighting game series was a little more obscure and more the preserve of the genre faithful. Whatever your age or gaming experience, however, it isn’t difficult to fall for Ms. Aensland’s charms and so it’s no surprise that there are many figures and statues based on the sexy succubus.

There are only three that matter in my opinion though: the Max Factory statue (based on Kinu Nishmura’s Capcom Vs SNK 2 artwork), the reclining Yamato resin figure (with realistic feathers) and this nurse-themed figure from Capcom themselves, released under their Figure Builder line. The uber-talented Ms Nishimura was also behind the artwork that inspired this figure. Like the Max Factory statue (which I also have), I took one look at the preview pictures for this figure and knew I HAD to have it, despite the fact that I was adamant that my days of buying statues were over.

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First of all…just look at it. Whoever sculpted this figure knocked it out of the park and dialled the sexy factor up to eleven. A lot of credit for the design must also go to Kinu Nishimura and her visual design of Morrigan’s nurse outfit. The metal bat incorporated into the stocking/garter is such a nice touch. Then there is the translucent ‘blood’ base with a cute lil’ bat popping up out of the blood. Morrigan herself is posed brilliantly, giving her patient a devastating view as she produces a thermometer.

Obviously, PVC figures can’t hold a candle to the vastly superior quality of the limited polystone statues that cost hundreds of dollars, but the finish here is still pretty damn good. If I have any criticisms then the first would be the inclusion of the oversized injection needle behind Morrigan. Yeah, it looks cool and fits the horror theme but I think the figure would have been just fine without it. Secondly, I’m not sure that her breasts needed to be so enormous. Don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly not complaining, but just a little bit smaller and they’d still be pretty damn big as well as better proportioned overall.

In conclusion, this figure is second only to the older Max Factory Morrigan statue in my opinion but that’s just because I love that particular pose and the artwork it was based on. On balance, this nurse edition of everybody’s favourite succubus is of better overall quality and pretty much essential if you are a fan of the character.

Some more pictures:

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Review – Crash Bandicoot N Sane Trilogy [Playstation 4]

DSC_0395Earlier this year, I played, completed and reviewed the rather wonderful Spyro Reignited Trilogy. The remastered collection of one of my favourite series’ of games wasn’t perfect (largely due to unwelcome glitches) but it made me smile no end and really, that’s what gaming is all about. It wasn’t the first modern remaster of a beloved Playstation platforming series though; that accolade goes to the Crash Bandicoot N Sane Trilogy – the commercial success of which can likely be thanked for Spyro’s adventures receiving a makeover. I actually received both collections for Christmas last year but made a beeline for Spyro as those games were my favourites. Now, I’ve had the chance to unwrap, play and complete Crash’s remasters so here is my review of the N Sane Trilogy.

A sympathetic makeover

In my review of the Spyro Reignited Trilogy, I had this to say about the overall makeover of the original games:

My overall feeling is that Spyro Reignited Trilogy is a totally authentic and – more importantly – sympathetic remake. Everything from the level layouts to the word-for-word script is as I remember it. The individuality between games has also been retained i.e. the designs of the treasure chests, the shapes of the gems and the extra life systems. Immediately, there is nothing on a basic level to offend the traditionalists who demand the most minimal of changes…

The same is true here for Crash. Everything is as you remember – it just looks a hell of a lot better. The beauty of the original Crash Bandicoot and Spyro games is that, while their worlds were crafted from (then) cutting-edge polygons and 3D tech, it was done in a cartoon-like, exaggerated style. So while those games are clearly aged when viewed through a modern filter, they are still perfectly acceptable today. Pop the original discs into your Playstation or download the digital versions from the Playstation store and you won’t be offended by horrible textures or laughable “realism” because those original games were inadvertently future-proofed by not chasing realism. The visuals are still sharp, the games still move smoothly and the music remains timeless.

With that in mind, I was sceptical about what the remasters could achieve. After all, there are plenty of other Playstation games that I think would absolutely benefit from ground-up remasters because the originals are just difficult to deal with after several decades of videogame evolution and refinement. Crash on the other hand didn’t really need much in my opinion. That said, the N Sane Trilogy manages to impress regardless. We have realistic textures now, much more dynamic special effects and nice, detailed touches such as Crash actually having proper fur. All of this is achieved without taking away any of the original games’ cartoon appeal.

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It’s as you remember, just furrier and, er…plantier. Wumpa fruit looking good enough to eat though!

Audio-wise, the music has been updated too but again, it’s very subtle, a testament to how good the original soundtrack was. I think I prefer the original but only because I’ve played the Playstation originals so much that I miss some of the minute details (the more pronounced clanking sounds in the sewer levels for example). Overall though, it’s an on-point mix that I can’t grumble about.

As with Spyro, the individual games and level layouts themselves remain utterly unchanged which pleased this crusty veteran gamer. There were only a few small additions that I noticed. You can now switch between Crash and his sister Coco for example. I didn’t detect any difference between the two Bandicoots but it’s a nice surface-level update. Coco was, after all, only originally playable in specific levels in Crash Warped. You also receive useful hints on the loading screens to point you in the direction of the bonus gems and secrets. Some may call this “dumbing down” but many of the secrets in the Crash games were pretty obtuse and even I couldn’t remember how to reach some of the coloured gems.

“A smashing blast from the past!”

One thing that the N Sane Trilogy successfully reminded me of was how challenging the first game in the series was. This is where it all began and so Crash’s reportoire of abilities is restricted to just jumping and spinning, severely minimising the amount of tricks that the player can use to negotiate the levels. This is proper old-school platforming that demands pin-point accuracy, respect for hazards and practiced timing. A lot of so-called “hardcore” gamers like to scoff at the 32-bit Playstation era and proffer the elitist opinion that this was where games got too easy and while I cannot argue with the crushing brutality of the preceeding 8 and 16-bit eras, Crash’s debut is no walk in the park and Activision did nothing to soften the punches with this remaster.

The later castle-themed levels for example play out in a 2D style and feature a gauntlet of moving platforms, staircases that collapse into ramps (requiring perfect timing) and moving enemies that must be used as platforms. Then there is the natural hazard of the into-the-screen, forward-facing platforming that often makes it difficult to safely land Crash when jumping between platforms. Yes, you have Crash’s shadow as guidance but even then, it can be challenging to guage the relative height of other platforms. This is a recurring quirk of the Crash Bandicoot games that never really goes away throughout the series and is something that you simply have to get used to.

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You will learn to hate those stairs. [Source – Youtube]
Going for the 100% completion is also much harder here than in the sequels. To earn the bonus clear gem, you must destroy all crates within a level. This much is common between all three games. What makes this objective harder in the first Crash game however is that you must perform this feat without dying even once. You need that perfect run which can require multiple restarts as well as trial-and-error mastering of a level. I had expected Activision to nix this for the remasters but they didn’t, much to their credit. It provokes frustration and sweaty-handed, tense gaming on the more challenging levels but that challenge is what we all want from our games, right? My main nemesis when going for the 100% completion was the “Fumbling in the dark” level which must have taken me three-quarters of an hour of constant re-tries to nail. That feeling upon finally hitting that perfect run though? Priceless.

Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back is my favourite of the trilogy and this has always been so. The game remained challenging and laden with secrets but lost that brutal edge that the original game sported. For example, you can now collect the clear gem for smashing all crates without worrying about dying in the process. Crash also has some new moves such as the belly flop, crouch-jump and the uber-useful slide. Sliding then jumping allows Crash to fly further forwards for those trickier leaps of faith. You can also slide, jump then spin, a combo that requires lightning-fast inputs but launches Crash even further.

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Being able to play as Coco is a nice addition, even if she doesn’t bring any unique abilities to the game. [Source – Youtube]
Crash 2 is the perfect balance. The player will be challenged to achieve the 100% but it is nowhere near as demanding to do as the first game. Crash’s new moves give him enhanced mobility, the music is possibly the best of the series and the game saw the debut of memorable level designs such as the jetpack segments and riding the adorable polar bear.

For many gamers though, Crash Bandicoot Warped is their favourite. The game follows a similar hub-world structure to Crash 2 but this time, the levels center on real-world themes including medievil/fantasy, the Great Wall of China and Egyptian tombs. Underwater levels make their debut as do jet ski and aeroplane missions. The overall sense I get from Warped is that the traditional platforming challenge is traded off to a degree in favour of visually impressive set pieces. Here again, we have parallels with the evolution of the Spyro franchise which gradually reduced the difficulty in favour of side-missions and unique mini-games.

That’s not to say that Warped is a weak sequel – far fom it. It is undeniably the easiest of the trilogy to beat however. This is largely down to the fact that Crash gained even more special abilities and by the time you have them all, Crash is operating in Super Saiyan territory. If you had all of these abilities in the first two games for example, there would be no challenge at all. There is now an enhanced belly-flop that can destroy nearby crates with a shockwave. You can also keep pressing the spin button to fly a great distance through the air, dramatically reducing the threat posed by pits and ground-based hazards.

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Crash has the moves in Warped. [Source]
The number one offender however is the Fruit Bazooka. Once you have this, the game becomes a cakewalk. Crash can stand still and take aim at distant enemies with this weapon and eliminate all threats without ever having to get near them. Crates can be shot for easy collection as can TNT and nitro crates, removing those hazards from Crash’s path as well. Did I mention that the ammo is also unlimited? This weapon is just absolute overkill in my opinion and I still don’t know why Naughty Dog thought it was a good idea in the first place. Granted, the Fruit Bazooka is a welcome friend when you are chasing the 100% but it also feels like you are cheesing the game.

Warped is nonetheless a great game and was a great way for Naughty Dog to sign off from the franchise (CTR not withstanding) back in the day. The set pieces and variety in gameplay keep things interesting and at the end of the day, it is fun which is what matters.

Conclusions

Like the Spyro Reignited Trilogy, these Crash Bandicoot remasters are a warm, welcoming nostalgia trip. They will raise a smile and take your mind back to the late 90’s, a time where life was – possibly – simpler and the future was teeming with possibilities. Gaming was simpler back then too but despite the aged formula, the Crash Bandicoot series has stood the test of time. Clever platforming design, an unmistakable visual direction and loveable characters are the key. The N Sane Trilogy brings it all back for gamers old and new without stepping on Naughty Dog’s toes and altering their work. In short, this is the perfect example of an ideal remaster.

Review – Metal Slug Anthology [PSP/Playstation 2/Wii]

MSA-1Release Date: 2007 (Europe)   |   Developer: SNK Playmore/Terminal Reality   |   Publisher: Ignition (Europe)

If you’ve lived behind a tower of modern games or are a younger gamer then you may not be familiar with SNK’s Metal Slug series and that is truly a shame because you might be missing out on something special. For those already in the know, Metal Slug is a stone-cold arcade classic requiring no introduction but for the uninformed, here’s the deal. Released in 1996 for SNK’s Neo Geo arcade hardware, Metal Slug quickly became one of the quintessential run ‘n gun experiences that the rest of the genre suddenly found itself compared to. Nazca Corp. blended tight, challenging gameplay with their stunning 2D artistry to create one of the defining Neo Geo experiences and a killer app for the (incredibly expensive) home version of the hardware.

The game oozed charm and was overflowing with character thanks to the comical nature of the cartoon-like visuals which should have been at odds with the military theme and bright red blood. It was – as previously mentioned – challenging too but not necessarily in an outrageously cheap way; not to begin with anyway – that’s a sin for some of the sequels to atone for and we’ll hold court on that subject in due course.

By the time SNK called time on the creaking Neo Geo hardware in 2004, the system had hosted six Metal Slug games. If you weren’t rich enough to own a Neo Geo and splurge on massive cartridges sporting eye-watering price tags (so most of us then) then it was difficult to be a Metal Slug fan though. There were ports to all kinds of the consoles such as the Playstation, Saturn, PS2 and original Xbox but these tended to vary in terms of quality and accuracy. In 2007 however (2006 for the US), we were treated to Metal Slug Anthology for PSP, Playstation 2 and Nintendo Wii. This compilation from the retro gods collected unaltered arcade versions of the five Neo Geo ‘Slugs plus the Atomiswave’s Metal Slug 6 which was brand-new for the West when Anthology hit the shelves.

LOADING…

I’ll start by quickly talking about the compilation in general. I won’t discuss the Wii port as I haven’t been lucky enough to own a copy but I have owned both the Playstation 2 and PSP editions of the game. Sadly, Sony’s versions suffer from unwelcome load times, even in basic areas such as the front end menu or in-game character select screens. It’s not a deal-breaker but is still pretty unforgiveable in my opinion, especially since the PS2 and PSP shouldn’t have been at all taxed to run a small collection of old Neo Geo games when the PS2 didn’t appear to break a sweat over big stuff like Gran Turismo and Black. The PSP is a more understandable situation given that the handheld’s loading capabilities were often scuppered by the UMD drive. Even so, I play all of my PSP games direct from the memory stick (thanks to the wonders of Custom Firmware) and even then, the loading isn’t completely eradicated. The Wii port is meant to be a lot better as it was allegedly coded by SNK themselves while Terminal Reality handled the PS2 and PSP versions. Don’t quote me on that though; it’s something I remember reading in period reviews.

In terms of extras, there’s an art gallery to unlock using tokens earnt by playing through the six games. It’s not much but I’m personally a big fan because outside of the official press art for SNK games, there is a wealth of bizarre artwork resembling fan art and this is often included in their games. Artwork won’t be of interest to everybody, granted, but I love the quirkiness of SNK’s galleries at times. That said, what we are really for are the games so let’s talk about them.

Original and best

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the original Metal Slug is in close contention for being the best game of the series. It’s a purer experience than the sequels and suffers with less of the bloat and often unnecessary variety that its successors injected (in a well-meaning way of course). You simply run to the right, avoiding enemy fire and blasting anything that gets in Marco Rossi’s way. You are granted three lives per credit and ten grenades per life. Continuing with a fresh credit gifts you the Heavy Machine-Gun power-up upon re-spawning as a welcome gesture. You might think then that Metal Slug is about as complicated as Paris Hilton and that’s a fair assessment as there’s nothing overly innovative about the whole thing. It’s HOW the game does what it does that makes it so endearing.

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First of all, the controls and ‘feel’ are spot-on and you should never find yourself condemning either for getting iced by an enemy. Secondly, the power-ups are just so damn fun to acquire and put to use. The Heavy Machine-Gun makes you feel like a force to be reckoned with, the shotgun’s explosive punch fills you with confidence and the Rocket Launcher is just the nuts. Special mention must go to the Arnie-like “Rocket Lowncher!” announcement from the voice-over dude when you collect the latter – always a pleasure to hear. Then there’s the Metal Slug tank itself which can take several hits before being destroyed. The tank is actually pretty cutesey thanks to its stubby profile and ability to jump but the rapid-fire machine-gun and cannon pack a serious punch.

Finally, there’s that distinctive art style which is a big part of the game’s appeal. Without it, Metal Slug would just be another solid run ‘n gun game but thanks to Nazca’s artistic sorcery, every backdrop, sprite and tiny detail deserves close attention. In fact, there is such a ludicrous level of detail in every single thing that it’s a wonder that they ever finished the game or were permitted the time to go so crazy in the first place. Special mention must go to the enormous bosses which are both intimidating and spectacular. Taking them down always feels like an achievement.

The visuals are backed up by the audio which consists of memorable voice-overs, fantastic sound effects (the explosions are awesome) and memorable music that blends military-themed composition with Nazca’s jazzy sound, the latter fitting in perfectly against all sound reason.

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I’ve already stated that the game is challenging as it really is but the original Metal Slug is perhaps the fairest of the lot. The first three missions are no cake-walk but can be completed with minimal stress. It’s only towards the end of the game that the opposition begins to overwhelm and you will have to feed in credits in order to push on. This was an arcade game designed to part punters from their cash but that said, I’ve certainly played much, much worse that would have you searching for Dick Turpin’s name in the developer credits.

Put simply, the original Metal Slug is a creative masterpiece and a very enjoyable arcade action game that deserves its lofty reputation. If you only play one game in the series then this has to be it but SNK did make some sequels so let’s address those next…

Bigger isn’t always better

Metal Slug 2 is probably the closest rival that the original game has for the honour of being the best in the series. I did say that if you only play one entry then it should be the original but ideally, you’d play the immediate follow-up as well. MS2 is more of the same but bigger and more extreme than before. New power-ups and new Slug vehicles debut as do the Mars People alien enemies. The bosses are equally impressive if not better than before with special mentions going to an Arabian palace that turns into a missile launcher and the second mission’s boss which sees you constantly climbing to avoid the chasing jaws of an enormous machine. The only issue I have with Metal Slug 2 is that the last few levels are a bit brutal with the player being expected to dodge too much crap and kill far too many aliens. That aside, it is a worthy follow-up deserving of your time.

Metal Slug X is essentially a remix of Metal Slug 2. The first stage for example now takes place at dusk, there are new enemies, remixed music and new power-ups. There’s a handy list of the updates here on Wikipedia. Whether you prefer X over ‘vanilla’ Metal Slug 2 is a personal preference but being as it is very similar, I would also class X as a game you can definitely keep coming back to.

Unfortunately, the series takes a nosedive with Metal Slug 3 that it never really fully recovered from. This was the last game produced by the original Nazca/SNK partnership before SNK went bankrupt and rose from the ashes as SNK Playmore. They went all-out and cranked the creativity up to the max with MS3 which should have been a positive thing but ends up being both good and bad. Starting with the good, they went pretty wild here and introduced a ton of new stuff and awe-inspiring bosses, all rendered in the same agonisingly attractive art style. The game also still plays perfectly soundly. The first problem however is that you aren’t only fighting military forces this time around but all manner of organic creatures and aliens. This did allow Nazca’s artists the chance to flex and animate a bunch of crazy stuff (which all looks lovely) but you will miss the characterful enemy soldiers and military hardware when you’re shooting at crabs, insects and…zombies?

MS3-1
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Yes, there is a zombie-themed level that mimics a slasher movie and I really hate this shit. When you get killed, a bolt of lightning will resurrect you albeit as a shambling, sluggish zombie with none of the agility that you need to avoid the onslaught of enemies. It doesn’t fit in with what Metal Slug is meant to be but even if you can overlook that, playing as a zombie slows the action to a crawl and puts a definite damper on things. Even when you are still in human form, emptying vast amounts of ammo into walking bullet sponges is no fun. The only enjoyable thing that comes from the whole zombie thing is the ability to vomit a massive arc of blood that covers most of the screen and takes out enemies with the force of a grenade. That’s fucking cool.

The other killjoy is the fact that Metal Slug 3 is just too damn hard. They really wanted your pocket change with this game, possibly to stave off impending bankruptcy. The first level is reasonably manageable but the cruelty factor soon arrives with the player being expected to dodge an unreasonable amount of on-screen shit. The final stage in particular is downright sadistic with overwhelming quotas of dangerous enemies clogging the screen and an insane amount of lethal projectiles to avoid. It also feels as though it will NEVER end. Whenever I decide to play MS3, I find myself begging the game to simply stop by this point. The bosses in this game also absorb a ridiculous amount of firepower before they go down, to the point that you may question whether your game has glitched out and granted said bosses immunity to death.

Metal Slug 3 is not a bad game per se. It has a lot going for it in the aesthetics department but the difficulty spike and general madness of battling crustaceans, Aztec gods and zombies really let it down. I simply cannot enjoy this game when I play it because it’s the first time that Metal Slug felt too cheap and remorseless to WANT to perservere with. It was the end of the original era though so how did SNK and Metal Slug fare in the Playmore era? Hmm…

A mixed bag

By this point, SNK Playmore didn’t yet exist and it was entity simply known as “Playmore”. In conjunction with Mega Enterprise, they kept SNK’s franchises’ ticking over with Metal Slug 4 being one result. I have to be honest and say that I really don’t care for this game. It’s not that it’s bad but it’s incredibly “meh”. Unsurprisingly – given the financial situation – MS4 is a recyclathon of old sprites and ideas but the classic Nazca art clashes somewhat with new stuff doing its best to imitate. The game receives points straight away for returning to military enemies but then throws it all down the toilet by re-introducing mummies and zombies. The level design is incredibly by-the-numbers and dull with very few set-pieces since the game instead favours holding the player up on the same screen for an eternity while wave after wave of enemies pour in from both sides, often in suffocating volumes that slow the game down. Bosses aren’t too interesting either and trade patterns for simply filling the screen with as many bullets, bombs and enemies as possible. Granted, I’m no master player of videogames but I don’t see how it’s possible to avoid some of the stuff that later bosses throw at the player.

Metal Slug 4 could have been a lot worse but at the same time, there’s no avoiding the fact that it had very little charm or creativity going on. It’s not a sequel that I can recommend on any grounds, really.

MS4-1
[Source]
Conversely, Metal Slug 5 is far superior. Aside from some tribal enemies at the outset and the final boss itself, it’s back to military enemies for a more traditional ‘Slug affair. The opposing army isn’t headed up by series antangonist Morden this time (even though the sprites are blatant re-skins) but the darker colours, black ops-style enemies and gritty rock music do suck some of the series’ trademark humour out of the game it has to be said. However, this is a reasonable trade off considering that the game is much fairer than the previous two and as a result, far closer to the formula of the first two games which were challenging but not downright malicious as per MS3 and 4. Bosses too have much better attack patterns and as such, aren’t a drain on your soul to take down. The final boss is a bit cheap though and probably the most ridiculous, out-of-place end boss in the series. Looks awesome though.

Unfortunately, Metal Slug 6 ruins the redemption of MS5. This was the first post-Neo Geo Metal Slug with Sammy’s Atomiswave platform taking over the hosting duties. Appropriately, SNK Playmore tried to inject some new blood into the series by upping the character select screen to six with the addition of Ralf and Clark from Ikari Warriors/King of Fighters. In addition, each character has special abilities such as Ralf’s Vulcan Punch attack and Eri’s ability to aim grenades in specific directions. You can now also stock up to two power-ups and switch between them. Also, MS6 introduced an easy mode which lowers the difficulty and grants the player the Heavy Machine-Gun as the standard weapon at the expense of not being able to challenge the game’s final stage.

That’s the good/interesting stuff. Sadly, the game just feels like an imitation or a fan-made tribute. Yes, the familiar sprites and visual design are correct and present but as with MS4, the new backgrounds and enemies aren’t as impressive and clash with the old, classic Nazca creations. Sound effects and enemy voices are also different (not for the better) and once again, the series returns to aliens and weird shit before long. The difficulty beyond the first few missions is also tough to swallow with all manner of bullet-sponge aliens and bizarre creatures flooding the screen and demanding a ridiculous amount of firepower to put down. The game feels cheap too with so much shit happening at once that there’s no hope of surviving. The final stage takes a (rotted) leaf from Metal Slug 3‘s book and features and seemingly endless gauntlet of everything that makes this sequel so charmless and unenjoyable to endure. By the time I reached the final boss, I was both bored and frustrated – emotions that I would never have associated with Metal Slug when playing the first two games. In short, it’s still a solid run ‘n gun but only because of all the work that Nazca put in back in the 90’s. Without their blueprint and artwork, games like Metal Slug 4 and 6 wouldn’t even be worth talking about.

Conclusions

To sum up the core Metal Slug series, I would say that the first two games + Metal Slug X are utterly essential run ‘n guns that any gamer with an interest in old-school, arcade gameplay should experience. As for the rest…Metal Slug 3 is worth a look for it’s aesthetics but is simply too cheap to enjoy, Metal Slug 4 and 6 are not worth your time while Metal Slug 5 is surprisingly decent with genuine replayability. Personally I’d rank them as MS1 > MS2 > MSX > MS3 >MS5 >MS4 > MS6. As for the Anthology specifically, it’s a shame that there are those loading niggles with the PSP and PS2 versions but whichever port you go with, the value is undeniably strong.

Review – Marvel Nemesis: Rise of the Imperfects [Playstation 2]

mnem1Release Date: 2005   |   Developer: Nihilistic Software   |   Publisher: EA Games   |   Also On: Xbox, Gamecube, PSP, Nintendo DS

Gather ye round, little ones and listen to this old man’s tale. Once upon a time there was a fantastic wonderland known as 90’s Gaming. It was a time of great change, innovation and colourful arcade games that made everybody go deaf and blind such were the booming audio and bright visuals. Today, we live in a second gaming wonderland with access to all of the old goodies plus huge, immersive experiences that previous generations of gamers could only fantasise about. But in between these two ages there was a dark age. It was a time when everything had to be moody, brown and uber-violent to pander to the teenage boys locked in bedrooms with closed curtains and crusted, very soiled socks hidden beneath beds. Games had to be brutal and gangsta and feature women with enormous breasts and blank, “sexy” expressions. Because reasons.

And games that had no reason to get serious were affected too. If – like me – you were a massive fan of the magnificence that was Marvel Vs Capcom 2 then you could have been forgiven for feeling the hype when EA announced Marvel Nemesis: Rise of the Imperfects. After all, it was a 3D Marvel fighting game backed by the might of EA. It was going to be huge! Holy shit! And it was huge…a huge fucking disappointment that has been lost to the mists of time. Nobody talks about it and very few remember it. here’s why…

Devoid of imagination

For some reason, I had always assumed that Marvel Nemesis was a 3D fighting game but no, I’m an idiot. It’s a 3D action game where you move about arenas/stages defeating enemies in a beat ‘em up fashion. The game’s story mode opens with The Thing walking along a bridge when aliens suddenly attack New York City. Your job in this first stage of the game is to defeat all the enemies on the bridge, punch through some blockades and that’s it. The next stage demands that you defeat all enemies on the streets. The third stage is back to the bridge again with the task of (guess what?) defeating all enemies. Okay, there’s a time limit this time but it isn’t anything taxing. Then it’s back to the streets again to…you get the idea. These opening stages with The Thing really show you what Marvel Nemesis is about. All of the stages in the game are essentially identical. Some have time limits or other conditions including handicapped health but the underlying requirement is always to beat all enemies or destroy a certain number of objects. The level descriptions sometimes almost attempt to disguise this mundane exercise but others can’t be bothered and simply state “Spiderman must defeat all enemies!” or “Daredevil must defeat all enemies!”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this set-up because – as you may be eager to point out – even the classics such as Final Fight have the same paper-thin game structure. The PS2 has its own collection of competent 3D beat ’em ups such as Urban Reign and Beatdown: Fists of Vengeance so the formula could still work back in the mid-00’s. It has to be interesting to play though and aesthetically appealing on some level. Marvel Nemesis could only dream of being these things.

mnem-2
Spiderman vs some bloke that nobody cares about. With added brown for that gritty effect.

There’s very little challenge for example with most of these ‘missions’ finished in a matter of minutes. Honestly, I felt like I was looking at loading and saving screens more than I was playing the game. Some of the missions are just plain embarrassing too such as the one where Wolverine must “navigate the traps in the Avengers mansion and defeat all enemies”. This translates to bypassing one set of security lasers then clearing a single room of enemies. Big mansion, huh? The character bios in the manual make mention of the ‘New Avengers’ so why the hell is the Avengers mansion even here? Anybody who reads Marvel comics knows that the mansion was destroyed before the New Avengers were formed. Obviously I’m nitpicking on a dangerously nerdy level here but that’s what happens when you play Marvel Nemesis; you get so bloody bored that your brain exits stage left and goes for a wander.

The graphics do a supreme job of reflecting your mood when playing this game. Everything is dark, muddy and desperately dull in a game world that barely manages to look much better than a PS1 title. The music is similarly complementary in that beautifully forgettable ‘stock music’ fashion. The soundtrack isn’t criminal but you won’t remember it thirty seconds after shutting the game off. I’ll let you decide whether that’s a positive thing or a big fat neg.

You’d expect the controls to be rotten as well wouldn’t you? Well you’re wrong! Shockingly, the controls are actually functional here; one analogue stick controls movement while the other offers generous manipulation of a reasonably compliant camera. You have buttons for attacking, blocking, grabbing/throwing and jumping so there’s very little to get wrong. Holding R1 while attacking allows for some more powerful moves (such as Storm’s lightning or Daredevil’s club) while doing the same with L1 allows for bigger jumps or some characters i.e. Human Torch and Spiderman to fly or swing.

Complimenting the controls is like trying to apply a tiny plaster to a massive, gaping wound that is gushing blood from a main artery however.

Marvel Nemesis shouts about having fully destructible environments but this really boils down to having arenas littered with projectiles such as cars, furniture and oil drums. As suspiciously numerous and carelessly abandoned as these drums are, they swiftly become your best friend in the whole wide world because most tight spots and boss battles can be negotiated by simply spamming drums and throwing them for big explosions – a tactic that remains effective no matter how far you get into the game. Stand in the wrong place when an enemy is throwing a drum though and you can instantly lose over half of your energy in one massive blast when getting caught in a chain reaction of exploding drums and cars. Well, you gotta take the rough with the smooth. Swings and roundabouts and all that.

mnem3
Surely this cannot be visually appealing to anybody?

I said that the game is really easy but there are ways for your ass to be handed to you in no time at all, the aforementioned random explosions for example. Like all poor 3D beat ‘em ups though, you can also get caught between multiple enemies and trapped in a loop of hits that will leave your character with hardly any health. Boss fights too swing from pathetically easy to being extremely cheap. The boss battle against Storm for example saw me getting hit by a bolt of lightning before I had the chance to move then stuck in a cycle of follow-up hits, leaving me with no energy and open to a finishing move in seconds. After many copy/paste starts to the battle, I finally won by jumping around and…throwing oil drums…sigh. The only way to overcome some of these battles is to fight fire with fire and be cheap by abusing oil drums or ranged attacks. Other times I have witnessed boss battles end instantly thanks to the opponent graciously walking themselves off the edge of the stage and to a ring-out defeat.

With the gameplay confirmed as tedius, poorly designed and possessed of stupid difficulty spikes and a severe lack of fun, what about the playable characters? You need to remember that Marvel Nemesis was released in the mid-2000’s so the roster is a good reflection of the pre-MCU era of Marvel cinema and who was popular as a result. There’s Spiderman (complete with Tobey Maguire era costume), Daredevil, Elektra, Iron Man, Wolverine, Storm and Magneto to name a handful. There really isn’t much more to say but I can’t avoid discussing Elektra.

For some reason, Elektra is the only character to have been given a visual revamp by EA and her new outfit looks like a bra/thong set from a racy lingerie catalogue with the red trousers from the crappy Jennifer Garner Elektra film thrown in for good measure. Oh and a spiked gothic choker. She looks nothing like Elektra should other than being garbed in red and her model is just plain fugly. All of her attacks seem to be accompanied by sexual moans and groans and even sans super-powers Elektra can still rip parking meters out of the ground and smack enemies about with them. Who needs the Thing?

Worse still however are the ‘Imperfects’, the foes of the game. The Imperfects are humans modified with extraterrestrial technology by the game’s alien villain so that they can do battle with Marvel’s finest and capture them for their powers (it’s a really crap storyline) but EA’s villains receive no injection of originality and appear to ape the powers of existing Marvel characters. Can you guess what sort of superpowers the likes of Solara, Fault Zone and Johnny Ohm (good grief!) have at their disposal? Asking these characters to stand next to Marvel characters is like you or me going back in time to when Arnold Shwarzenegger was still on the body building circuit and being asked to compete on-stage next to him. It would be a competitive massacre and the same applies here in Marvel Nemesis. I think I can say that Stan Lee didn’t lose sleep over being beaten to creating Johnny Ohm.

Conclusions

In hindsight, this game had all the ingredients of a disaster but we were naïve and could not have known that Marvel Vs Capcom 2 would remain the definitive use of the Marvel license until Capcom came riding in to save us in 2011 with MvC3. Likewise, it’s only now that we can look back on EA’s mid-2000’s output and realise just how many shoddy movie tie-ins, licensed trollop and relentless yearly updates their logo ended up being slapped on. If I had paid £40 for Marvel Nemesis: Rise of the Imperfects then I would have been absolutely devastated. Thankfully, I chose other games back in 2005. Aside from functional controls and the almost perverse desire to go back in time and experience shit games, I can’t come up with any other legitimate reasons to recommend Rise of the Imperfects. If anything, it shows just how far Marvel has come and you can’t imagine that precious money-printing license being permitted to associate with garbage like this game in the same way that films like the 2003 Hulk or Jennifer Garner Elektra would never happen in 2019.

Summary

The controls work at least

Repetitive, non-imaginative gameplay

Miserable visuals and forgettable music

Original characters are unispired and uninteresting

Random cheap deaths and chaotic gameplay

 

 

Atari Retro Handheld Review

Things that have aged well: The Jaguar E-Type, malt whiskeys, Anthea Turner.

Things that have NOT aged well: The UK’s post-apocalyptic road surfaces, casual racism, many, many Atari 2600 games.

Now you might be considering me a blasphemous fool if you worship the altar of Atari. You might even consider me an unqualified fool who “wasn’t there” when I drop a further bombshell and remind you that I was born in 1990 and so don’t have any first-hand experience of 2600 (or VCS) gaming to fall back on. Thing is though, despite starting my gaming journey with Sega’s Mega Drive, I’m not the sort of gamer to instantly dismiss older stuff from the 70’s/80’s based on it’s age. After all, without the flashy graphics and sophisticated technology that came later, games from this era had to rely on raw gameplay and that crack-like “just one more go” pull to get arcade goers to part with their coins and – subsequently – their folding paper money for home versions.

In short, I have big respect for the past and am always prepared to give something a go which is why I have been playing on this ‘Retro Handheld Console’ by Blaze featuring fifty Atari games. The problem is that the box craftily refers to the built-in titles as simply “Atari games” which might lead you into expecting the presence of some arcade classics. These are 2600 games though and without the benefit of rose-tinted vision, I struggled to muster up the enthusiasm to play many of these for an extended period of time. 2600 conversions were undoubtedly a big deal back in the day and the height of what a gamer could reasonably expect given the host hardware but in 2019, I have to say that most of what is on this handheld device is simply no fun to spend time with.

I will return to my gripes with the games in a moment. First though, I want to have a quick look at the device itself.

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I really like the design. The faux wood effect and grooved black plastic are a nice throwback to the 1977 original and if the Atari logo was to be removed, there would still be no doubt as to what this is. It’s such an iconic and nostalgic look. Furthermore, the red buttons are immediately reminiscent of the single red button featured on the famous 2600 joystick. Happily, the build quality on this thing does actually feel quite solid. It’s sturdy and the buttons don’t feel too cheap. The handheld takes four AAA batteries and comes with a standard headphone jack as well as an AV-Out port on the top edge.

My only criticisms of the hardware itself is the small screen (initially difficult to adjust to after years of huge, high quality smartphone and handheld console displays) and the fact that the sound isn’t that beefy through the headphones even with the volume wheel spun up to the max. I wanna hear those awesome Atari explosions damn it!

On the whole though, I was impressed with the overall finish and sturdiness of the handheld. As many retro gamers will be aware, a lot of these devices are hit-and-miss when it comes to construction quality and Blaze themselves have put their name to some poor efforts in the past. Not so here though – it’s a firm thumbs-up from me. I just wish that some kind of instructions came in the box because as it is, you are directed to an online site for the manual. The console doesn’t have built-in instructions for the games so some are pretty much impossible to fathom out without directions.

Let’s get back to those pesky games though and the first big issue: the lack of any third-party games. There’s none of Activision’s enduring classics present on the device for example and things get worse when you realise that a great many other essential games (third AND first party) don’t feature. Games such as Ms Pacman, Berzerk, Kaboom, Battlezone, Defender II and Jungle Hunt would have made this device a nice little pick-up-and-play distraction for example. Instead, the list of games is padded out with filler crap such as Fun With Numbers, 3D Tic-Tac-Toe, Video Checkers and a collection of hopelessly antiquated sports titles…the usual stuff that has been wasting space on Atari Flashback devices for years.

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Isn’t it about time that this ‘game’ stopped appearing on Atari compilations and retro gadgets?

There are a few redundant and unenjoyable ports such as Tempest and also some extremely abstract role-playing games like Adventure and the Swordquest series – games that were fun back when you had no choice but to use your imagination while moving simplistic squares about but not so much in 2019. If you were there when these games were new however then you might be able to extract some nostalgia-fuelled enjoyment from them. Additionally, there are several games on the handheld that make no sense in the single-player environment such as Air-Sea Battle (ignore the second gun and play with yourself) and Pong. Playing Pong alone against the computer is a bleak experience that could well send you down a nihilistic route in life.

So are there any games worth buying the device for? Obviously there is an element of personal taste involved (as with anything in the field of entertainment) but these are the games – based on previous experience as well as with this device – that I will definitely be giving more attention to:

  • Asteroids
  • Gravitar
  • Crystal Castles
  • Millipede
  • Missile Command
  • Off The Wall
  • Radar Lock
  • Yar’s Revenge

Eight games out of fifty isn’t what I would consider a strong strike ratio however. Granted, I have eliminated the rest based on the fact that I personally have no nostalgia for the games or because I genuinely believe that they are creaky and no fun to play. If you grew up with the 2600/VCS then I would implore you to check out the full game list because this handheld may well speak to you a little more than it did to me. For younger gamers or Atari virgins however, I can’t recommend this product.

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Missile Command is a classic that plays well for a 2600 conversion but this device needed more games of this quality to qualify as an essential purchase.

You want to be playing the arcade versions of games like Tempest and seeing what the 2600 was really capable of by digging into the Activision support, not playing Pong by your lonesome or something like Video Chess. The problem is that far stronger compilations of games have been released across various consoles over the last fifteen years or so. Emulation is also a thing as is Activision Hits Remixed for the PSP.

I wanted to like this because the device itself is pretty cool and surprisingly well put together but it could have been so much better. If you can find one dirt cheap or you receive it as a gift (like I did) then sure but otherwise, it’s just another underwhelming retro device that doesn’t stand out for any reason.

Review – Spyro Reignited Trilogy [Playstation 4]

spyro-2I’ve been gaming for a hell of a long time now and so you’d be forgiven for thinking that some of my viewpoints on modern gaming are somewhat cynical and the unfortunate victim(s) of rose-tinted vision. For example, I am about as interested in remakes and remasters as I am in that scene in Terminator Genisys where Emilia Clarke gets naked but the smart troll-ish 12-rated camera work denies you a glimpse of the goodness. Either I have no enthusiasm for retreading old ground in HD-o-Vision or I get all old-man grumpy and ignorantly presume that the developer will remix everything too much.

However, that has all changed very recently and my attitude towards a remake has softened a little. The game responsible for this shift is Spyro Reignited Trilogy, a full remastering of one of my favourite videogame series’ of all-time (pre-Enter The Dragonfly of course). Younger readers or newer gamers might not understand the big deal but I had the originals on release and still regularly play through all three most years. I adore these games and no amount of mowing down hookers in GTA (after purchasing their wares of course) has succeeded in dulling my enthusiasm for whimsical fantasy worlds and cutesy characters.

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The games look amazing now, all without any alterations to level layout or loss of the original charm [image: forgetoday.com]
As you might imagine then, I was gravely worried about what Activision and Toys For Bob might do to my childhood memories when Reignited was first announced but I needn’t have been concerned because the boys ‘n girls at ‘Bob did good and managed the near-impossible task of impressing this old-school gamer with a remake of all things. It isn’t all good news but the positives definitely outweigh the crappy stuff so I’ll talk about why this is such a great remake first and foremost.

My overall feeling is that Spyro Reignited Trilogy is a totally authentic and – more importantly – sympathetic remake. Everything from the level layouts to the word-for-word script is as I remember it. The individuality between games has also been retained i.e. the designs of the treasure chests, the shapes of the gems and the extra life systems. Immediately, there is nothing on a basic level to offend the traditionalists who demand the most minimal of changes and this is nice because Toys For Bob could have easily decided to bring each game in line and go for a uniform approach. The only big alteration to the trilogy as a whole is that the sideways roll feature that was originally canned for the sequels has been carried over to Gateway to Glimmer and Year of the Dragon for the remakes. This is actually a welcome change because many fans bemoaned the way that Insomniac took the roll away back when these games were first released. Now though, you can showboat to your heart’s content while avoiding enemy attacks.

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One for the ‘Furries’ out there. Bianca looks a lot foxier this time which ironic since she’s a rabbit [image: Youtube.com]
Then there is the all-important music, originally composed by Stuart Copeland of The Police and adored by fans ever since. The soundtrack of the first game in particular is especially good since each level has a distinct sound influenced by the theme of its home (or ‘hub’) world but the same set of instruments used throughout results in a very cohesive OST. The mix in Reignited is extremely gentle and in all honesty, it didn’t need to be dramatic anyway; the original OST was fantastic as it was and in some respects was ahead of the games themselves and what the technology of the time allowed them to do visually and technically. So it sounds very similar to the original tracks but with a bit of added depth in places. There is an interesting ‘dynamic’ effect too which alters the tone of the music when underground or in tunnels/caves. Stand stationary for a few seconds and the tone will shift to a more ambient, trippy chilled-out zen-like sound that I really enjoyed. You can switch the dynamic mode off and also revert to the original soundtrack if you wish so everybody should be satisfied.

All of that important preservation work acknowledged, we come to the new stuff. Most obvious are the brand-new visuals which really are beautiful. The dragon worlds and Avalar now look utterly sumptuous with so much more detail than was possible before. Obviously we cannot say for certain but this is perhaps what Insomniac would have wanted their games to look like if the technology had been available at the time. On the Playstation, they had to make do with simple colour schemes and basic textures to simulate the real things and define a level’s identity. Not so in Reignited. Flat greens are now proper grass with long blades that sway in the breeze, water looks good enough to drink and the smudgy, minimalistic backdrops now have some detail. It really was a joy to take my time exploring the familiar while absorbing the new.

Some levels in the sequels look like they have been revamped more than others but that’s down to their original designs. After all, some (especially in Year of the Dragon) felt a little uninspired back in the day and a retread of previously-utilised themes.

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The revamp is dramatic yet respectful [image: silconera.com]
The dragons have all been given unique, detailed looks and personalities too which is a massive upgrade over the original designs. Some of these look a bit too comical and over-the-top to me but otherwise it is a nice injection of variety and individuality which wasn’t present before. As mentioned earlier, the dragons still retain their original speech so it’s a nice little compromise between old and new in my opinion. Overall on the graphics front, I felt that Reignited had an almost Pixar-esque quality to its aesthetics and all three games were just so enjoyable to play through for that reason alone, let alone any others.

Obviously the only issue with these remakes being so authentic and true to the originals was that I absolutely caned them and literally had to impose play time limits on myself in order to refrain from completing them too quickly! The original trilogy was released between 1998 and 2000 and I’ve been playing them on and off via my original PS1 discs or the digital versions from the Playstation Store ever since so I know all of the secrets and solutions. Handily, Toys For Bob did attempt to add a little extra longevity with ‘Skill Points’. Skill Points first appeared in Spyro 2 and rewarded the player with an extra life for completing bonus tasks such as flaming all of a specific object within a level or beating a boss while taking no damage.

Similar challenges await in Reignited but this time around, many of the ‘flame all of X object’ Skill Point requirements have been replaced by new targets for variety’s sake. These include burning hidden objects (some of which are genuinely difficult to find) in the first game, completing three perfect laps of the supercharge circuit in Spyro 2‘s Fracture Hills level and beating the course records for the skateboard parks in the third game. Each game features two pages worth of challenges and these are worth doing to unlock the concept artwork which I quite liked the look of. There are trophies too of course and I assume that the Reignited Trilogy will be a relatively easy platinum. I achieved around 80% trophy completion without trying for example.

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Speedways look awesome and provide a nice challenge as usual but the controls feel a little off to me [image: gamepressure.com]
So as a remake of a fan-favourite set of games, Spyro Reignited Trilogy is a resounding success that managed to make me feel rather moist in a sexy way. Perfection is an impossible destination to reach however and so I must now – regrettably – lower the tone and talk about some of the what I didn’t like as well as what nobody will like.

The first collection of criticisms will probably only be relevant to those of us who played the original games and it’s to do with controlling Spyro and some of the hit detection. To me, Spyro felt more difficult to control at charging speed with slower rotation and a less compliant turning circle as opposed to the super-sharp handling in the OG games. Flames don’t seem quite as wide-reaching as before (feels like you have to be just a touch closer to actually make contact) and – most frustratingly – the gliding felt “off”.

It’s difficult to describe properly but I noticed that many of the glides between platforms were now more strict. I wouldn’t have thought twice about these glides in the original games but now it’s almost as if they are only just possible and on the very edge of Spyro’s capability. It’s almost as if he loses altitude that much faster and it’s only really a big issue in the first game which wasn’t equipped with the hover ability that afforded Spyro a little extra reach in the sequels. I experienced many annoying deaths in this way but I will admit that a lot of this was probably down to my instinctive behaviour (learned from years of memory-mapping the originals) being challenged by the remakes. I’m not sure if newcomers or those who didn’t play their PS1 copies into oblivion over the last two decades will feel the same but I thought it was worth noting.

Flight in the ‘speedway’ levels also felt a bit weird and not as tight as before. There were many times when cornering or making a sharp turn that Spyro felt like he was drifting wide or ‘sliding’ in the air like a racecar would when drifting around a corner, causing me to miscalculate and miss a target. Again, it’s no disaster and just took a little getting used to but even so, I’m not sure that understeer and a loss of traction is possible in mid-air…

There are a few other niggles with fiddly controls in some of the third game’s many unique missions/mini-games, some of which used custom mechanics and viewpoints. Skateboarding is one of the biggest culprits with the occasional bizarre collision detection and the game failing to register some of the more complex tricks. The other example that immediately springs to mind are the hideous controls for the speedboat in Seashell Shore which seem to continuously change depending on which way the boat is facing.

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Excuse the language but fuck the controls of this boat. Seriously. [image: gamepressure.com]
The game has also fallen foul of the need to be a little more politically sensitive in order to achieve a family-friendly age rating to slap on the box cover. The enemies in Twilight Harbour no longer resemble guerrilla fighters for example and their machineguns have been exchanged for comical paint guns; their grenades for explosive barrels. Guns were also taken away from the enemies in Spyro 2‘s Scorch level and replaced with catapults. Lastly, the fairies and various female characters are a lot less busty and sexualised this time around, particularly noticeable in the third game’s Desert Ruins level where the Lara Croft-imitating character of ‘Tara’ no longer has the titantic breasts to match her inspiration.

These alterations are not really “negative” changes that should affect your feelings towards Reignited but they stood out to me personally as a staunch anti-Political Correctness kind of guy. Other little differences that I wasn’t so excited about were Hunter’s new voice actor and a tiny portion of the updated soundtrack for Year of the Dragon. A few tracks sound very different (not bad just less recognisable vs the majority of Reignited‘s mixes) and I feel that Bamboo Terrace – one of my favourites – loses something without the chilled chanting in the background.

These are trivial moans that won’t apply to everybody. The universal gripes that should unite all players are the glitches however. It’s worth mentioning that I was lucky and managed to complete all three games without any major issues but looking around online, many have complained about game-breaking problems that render levels impossible to complete amongst other horror stories. Personally, I encountered some dodgy collision detection and occasional (but dramatic) framerate drops as well as a glitch at Lost Fleet’s skateboard race where crossing the line didn’t trigger the next lap (I had to keep trying and eventually I overcame it).

The blame for all of these technical issues can be levelled squarely at Activision and their insistence that the game be on store shelves in time for Christmas, pushing Toys For Bob hard in the process. They had already intended for Reignited to be released in September 2018 before pushing the date back, don’t forget. It’s the same reason that Spyro 2 and 3 don’t even ship on the physical disc and have to be downloaded as a 20GB+ “update”. My internet is perfectly fine for regular web browsing but too slow for fat-ass downloads like this and so I had almost completed the first Spyro before the rest of it had finished downloading in the background (it took FOUR DAYS). Worse still, there are (at the time of writing) no patches or word on forthcoming fixes for the bugs in this game.

All of which is a massive shame because Spyro Reignited Trilogy did pretty much everything right for me and was the first game in a long time that I couldn’t pull myself away from. To have such a good thing slightly spoilt by bugs and a game disc that may as well be a download code on a piece of paper is like enjoying a particularly tasty sandwich only for a seagull to swoop down and snatch the last mouthful. Shame on Activision and their pushy policy but much kudos to Toys For Bob for reviving a much-loved series in such an accomplished manner.

Conan [Playstation 2]

Note: This review is part of a series I am going to call “Resurrected Reviews”, essentially stuff that I wrote for previous (now deceased) blogs and review topics on various gaming forums over the years. I have dragged them kicking-and-a-screaming into the harsh light of the present day and revamped them where necessary. Some may say “Rehash” but I say “Recycling”.

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Release: 2004 | Developer: Cauldron | Publisher: TDK Mediactive | Also On: PC, Xbox, Gamecube

“What does not destroy me, makes me stronger”

When talking about the videogame adventures of Robert E Howard’s legendary barbarian warrior, most will be more familiar with the PS3 game by THQ, a very average 3D adventure game that I personally found to be akin to a poor man’s God of War. The game that I will be talking about now (also titled simply ‘Conan’) came before on the PS2 and Gamecube and was published by TDK, developed by Cauldron. It’s completely unrelated to the THQ game but would it be better for it? Well…

Picture this: after a mere ten minutes of gameplay, I was staring dully at the TV screen with mental despair taking hold. I was thinking, why oh why are there no good Conan games? The PS3 game was an un-enjoyable slog to the finish after just a few hours of playtime and there are no others that I know of aside from the PC Age of Conan MMO which I can’t be arsed with as I simply don’t ‘do’ PC games. The only other Conan game I have glimpsed came in the form of a few screenshots for an unreleased Atari Jaguar side-scrolling beat ‘em up (the very definition of obscure!) so I was desperate for this PS2 effort to satisfy the Conan fan in me. But no, it just had to be another bitter pill of disappointment.

Why are there no decent Conan games? Why? The films were great (well, the first one was. Conan the Destroyer isn’t quite the same and the remake is just pointless) but the books were even better. I’ve read every one of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories and they were brilliant. Between these and the movie adaptations, there is a world of resource and inspiration for some good Conan games so why…are…there…no…good…Conan…games? WHY? WHY? WHERE ARE THE GOOD CONAN GAMES?!?

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Whew. That’s better. Talk about your pent up frustration. In the spirit of Conan himself, I persevered and so with pad in hand I asked Crom for the strength to beat this game and if he wouldn’t listen? To hell with him.

To give Conan some credit, the game is at least faithful to the source material when it comes to locations, weapons and even the characterisation of Conan himself. This isn’t Conan as played by Arnie but the real Conan from E. Howard’s books and – as a fan of those tomes – I really appreciated what Cauldron did to keep things legit and authentically presented. The ‘epic’ music is generic but a good fit for the game (nothing else to say about it to be frank).

Gameplay revolves dispatching enemies with various button combinations. You have light attacks, heavy attacks, grabs and a block button. These are utilised to pull off preset combos and by killing enemies the player earns points to spend on unlocking new, flashier moves – standard stuff. Movement however is really clunky and despite using a few different pads, Conan sometimes simply refused to move in the desired direction when changing course. It didn’t cause too many unnecessary deaths during my play-through but it’s pretty piss-poor when a game makes you question the condition of your controllers, especially when it turns out that they are all working correctly.

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This screen is actually from the Xbox version but I’m not sure I care enough.

If you do run out of health though then Conan is transported to the realm of Crom where you must defeat enemies in an enclosed arena in order to be fully restored to the spot where Conan snuffed it. Sounds pretty sweet right? Especially when you consider that the feature has unlimited uses. It’s actually the opposite though because these arena battles are much easier than battles in the mortal realm making Conan’s resurrections assured and the threat of enemies neutered. If you can’t ever technically be killed then where is the challenge? Conan’s apparent immortality also makes a mockery of boss battles because you can be infinitely restored to the spot with the enemy’s life bar still depleted.

The only way that you don’t get a chance to fight for Conan’s restoration is by falling foul of environmental hazards such as holes or traps (apparently Conan hasn’t died as a warrior thus denying him the right to be resurrected) but this still doesn’t excuse the ability to ignore strategy completely and abuse this mechanic. Ultimately, I wondered if there was any point at all in trying to utilise the game’s full range of moves because you may as well repeat the same handful of basic sword combos while spamming this revival ability. It’s certainly possible to beat the game this way with little trouble.

You can switch between swords, axes and maces throughout the game but again, unless you need the mace for beating down armoured foes more effectively, there’s no incentive to bother. There’s also a running side quest to locate and assemble all four pieces of the Atlantean Sword but any exploration is voided by the fact that a) environments are incredibly linear and bland and b) only one of the pieces is easy to miss with the others all in plain sight or after beating a boss. The Atlantean Sword deals with enemies in one hit and shamefully, I even killed the final boss with one wild swipe! Who tested this shit?

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Braving the harsh elements and wild animals. At least the feel of the character and setting(s) is there.

The main problem with this game is the clunkiness and just general, basic dullness of everything. It really is an exercise in getting from A to B by killing everything in between, pulling a few levers and avoiding pitfalls. Lots of games have adopted this approach in the past and have turned out really well but Conan is just so uninteresting to sit through with repetitive scraps that don’t ever offer something new or stylish to at least paper over the shortcomings. It does say something that my highlight of the game was the quick cinematic of Conan punching a camel in a marketplace, a reference to a humorous scene in the original Arnie film. It made me smile at least when nothing else did.

The sole reason I persevered to the end was because the authenticity to the original books was spot on and I still wanted to see what happened in the end. I can imagine a non-Conan fan playing this game and binning it after a few levels because as much as I appreciated the videogame renditions of stuff from the books, it was always a case of sitting down and saying “right, got to get this bloody Conan game finished so I can play something else” rather than enjoying the game. I’m bored just writing about it.

Now that I’m nearing the conclusion of this review, I’m looking back over my words and thinking that I haven’t really gone into much detail but the truth is, I just don’t have anything else to say. So…is this an angry rant ending on a mellow note? Not until I’ve gone over the game’s miserable save system! I knew there was something else I hated about Conan – must have blocked it out of my mind for a moment there. Well, there’s no use in burying my head in the sand so I’ll talk about it.

Conan needs to possess a crystal to save the game. You can save anywhere (good) BUT you can only carry four of the damn things at any one time (bad) and let me tell you: there’s nothing worse than trying to make your last crystal go as far as possible only to fall down a hidden pit or be killed by a barely-visible trap because it means slogging back through the whole unsaved section all over again, slaying the same boring enemies and looking at the same uninspiring scenery (extremely, diarrhoea-grade bad). Who thinks that weird save systems like this are a good idea? Fuck these people. A game this underwhelming didn’t need to be any worse but congratulations developers, you managed it.

Overall Thoughts

It’s a shame that the gameplay is so uninspiring and bland because the source material was treated really well with this one. Conan is at least authentic in spirit but that means little when you barely want to play the actual game. Another missed oppurtunity.

Book Review – Joyland [Stephen King, 2013]

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As an avid Stephen King follower that has read almost everything by the author, I have to begin this review by admitting that I find most of his modern output lives in the shadows cast by earlier, more horror-centric classics such as The Stand, Salem’s Lot and Christine. Don’t get me wrong though: I love the newer books and never fail to get into them proper but it’s rare that I can wax lyrical with the same praise that I had for the old stuff.

Joyland was an exception though. The book is short by Stephen King standards and – here in the UK at least – was published under the “Hard Case Crime” banner so it was a little different straight away. In fact, I’d somehow not heard of Joyland at all until I was given it as a Christmas gift back in 2013.

The story is short but powerful and contains a small splash of the supernatural but is largely grounded in reality and tells the story of Devin Jones, a young college student who takes a summer job at a carnival-style amusement park called Joyland. It is there that he meets new friends, has new experiences and tries to move on from the first girl to break his heart. There is a central plot strand running through Joyland that focuses on a series of unsolved, heartless murders – the last one occuring at Joyland – that Devin finds himself investigating but this isn’t really the main premise of the book.

Joyland is actually a story about love, being young and foolish and growing up. We’ve all been there at Devin’s age and through his eyes I was able to recall my own similar experiences, thoughts and heartache. I found that I really cared about the characters in this book – Devin especially – and wanted the best ending for them but as we know from real life, the ideal isn’t always possible and our naive, young selves have to learn these lessons along the road.

As I mentioned earlier, the book is short yet King still manages to squeeze a lot of emotion, vivid detailing and character development into such a limited space (283 pages). It packs a real punch without being a novel of three to four times the size and captured my interest so much more than many of his modern, bigger books. Most of all though, the story and characters are incredibly endearing and it was the kind of book that I genuinely didn’t want to finish because I simply couldn’t get enough of the world that Stephen King had created within the pages of Joyland.

Overall I would recommend Joyland to any Stephen King fan without hesitation but even if you aren’t familiar with his work then I would be just as firm with my recommendation because this is a great story with very relatable characters that anybody can enjoy without needing to be onboard with the horror/supernatural themes that often form the basis of King’s books.

In addition, this book has also brought the Hard Case Crime line of books to my attention so I now have a new avenue of reading to explore…