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Age of the Joker review

Posted : 6 years, 4 months ago on 27 June 2012 05:17 (A review of Age of the Joker)

Over the last couple of years I've seen my interest in power metal simultaneously strengthen and bow and break. Without going into a band-by-band analysis, it's hard to explain why one band's work remains viable and another band's doesn't. There have been serious surprises and there has been more than enough writing on the wall. Still, the one thing I didn't see coming was my growing disinterest in Germany’s Edguy. As with any lingering feeling, it didn't happen overnight and it didn't just happen due to the last album (which would have been more than enough to justify it) but it was growing even though I failed to admit it. So, if this paragraph is any indication, I've come to accept Edguy isn't the band I loved only a few years back. I've grown and they've grown (into what sometimes I haven’t a clue) so the very least I can do is be honest about it.

The problem with Edguy is ironically alluded to with the title of this album, Age of the Joker. First let's start with the word "Joker." Edguy has always been known for their wacky antics, and you don't have to look too far, especially on newer albums and singles, to see this in action. For years I found this quality endearing, but once tracks like "Lavatory Love Machine" (*groan*) started making their debut the hesitation to dive in head first started to build. This feeling magically disappeared when Rocket Ride was the hot thing but even that managed to boomerang back in a negative way a few years after its release. Still, I knew I had grown tired of Edguy's humor the minute I heard "Sex Fire Religion" on Tinnitus Sanctus. Trust me; it’s as bad as it sounds.

This brings us to "Age." The sad fact is Edguy's humor doesn't age well. Can anyone really listen to "Save Us Now" on 2001’s Mandrake and not get the immediate urge to change the track? Alien drum bunnies may have been funny in 2001 but all it is now is a less-than-impressive filler track on an overstated "breakthrough album." Yet this is only one take on why the word "age" is so important when it comes to Edguy. Age has a lot to do with this new "rock" sound Edguy has cultivated since Tinnitus Sanctus. Now, I'm not going to say that power metal style the band adhered to before was the most fertile valley, but Edguy was good enough – and smart enough - to make it their own. This failed to be case with the music on Tinnitus Sanctus where the material sounded extremely dated, which is just ludicrous considering this is still a relatively young band. So given that Age of the Joker continues to explore this sound while being a lot more mindful of the likes and dislikes of the people the last album turned off, how does it fair?

Well, the music still sounds a lot older that it really should, but the album successfully bridges the gap and deserves some serious props. The most obvious plus is this is a grower album. It's the kind of album you definitely need to listen to more than once for it to make its impact and reveal everything within. I don’t think there is a preverbal goldmine in here but it’s far from a cellar dweller. Unfortunately, as enjoyable as the experience can be – especially when taken in as a whole - the experience over before it really begins. Unlike previous Edguy albums which could hang around and could be viable months or even years after their introduction, Age of the Joker has an incredibly short shelf life. It took me about a week to get “into” the album, from there it only took two weeks to enjoy what it had to offer and put it away. There was no clear cut decree that I was “done” nor did I really get “sick” of the album, it had just run it’s extremely short course. I don’t even have the desire to listen to my favorites like “Two Out of Seven,” “Breathe” and “The Gates to Midnight World” on a stand alone basis. I came, I saw (err… listened) and I left.

As disappointing as the above is, I have to wonder if the Age of the Joker the beginning of a reconciliation been a band and a listener or merely a small reprieve before the rift between the two becomes insurmountable. I wish I had the answer. Still, the album has been the first measurable glimmer of hope between the two for a long time and as shaky as the truths is I'm willing to admit it was fun while it lasted. That said; let's hope Edguy makes the most of this opportunity.

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The Legend of Dragoon Original Soundtrack review

Posted : 6 years, 4 months ago on 27 June 2012 03:06 (A review of The Legend of Dragoon Original Soundtrack)

Known by most gamers as Sony's answer to Squaresoft's immensely successful Final Fantasy franchise during the 32-bit era, The Legend of Dragoon is a game one will either love or hate. While I personally can't say I "hated" what the game had to offer, I can say I found it to be an unimaginative mix of cliche's that had been traveled - often times much better - by previous games like Wild Arms. Sure, The Legend of Dragoon looked pretty snazzy, but beyond the graphical presentation was a game with something to hide around every corner. A muddled translation? Check. Cardboard cutouts as characters? Check. A soundtrack rife with mixed ambitions and grasping for direction? Check and Check.

Given it's the soundtrack I'm here to talk about, it may surprise some to know I'm here to defend it (kind of) despite what the six out of ten score would imply. Still, before I leap to my somewhat strained argument, I want to acknowledge that those who attack this score for its lack of quality have more than a legitimate point. I'm not going to say that Dennis Martin and Takao Miratsu's music is particularly good because, when I'm honest with myself and compare it what else is out there, it isn't. There are games out there, even from previous generations, with better music than what The Legend of Dragoon has to offer. Yet while I acknowledge this as a "personal truth," I have to admit the game's music has pried at my subconscious enough where ignoring it simply isn't an option.

So what makes an otherwise unspectacular soundtrack noteworthy? The first reason has to do with a certain subsection of music: battle themes. I'll admit I'm a sucker for a good battle theme and the ones in Legend of Dragoon (beyond those used for the final battle) deliver... eventually. Try as I might I can't even begin to form a plausible explanation why these tracks manage to top my playlists time and time again with their rough application of rock and techno. They are far from inspired creations but really capture their given moods. For example, I love the fever pitch and adrenaline of "Battle 1," the haunting warble within "Battle 2" and the epic flavor that presides over "Boss Battle 3." When it comes to video game music I could do a lot better than these tracks, but then I don't really want to when I listen to them. Topping off this bizarre attraction is how these tracks come to such a satisfying conclusion with their respective fanfares sealing the deal.

The second thing that makes soundtrack pop is the unusual appearance of a certain sound. While the Legend of Dragoon does indeed have a sound of it's own (one that's rather unremarkable), this is (ironically) not what we're talking about. What we're talking about is a game "borrowing" a sound from a previous, somewhat related title. That game? Legend of Legaia. Listen carefully and one will hear several passages in "Twilight of Rose" (track 41) and "Reminiscence" (track 30) that can easily be mistaken for Michiru Oshima's work in Legaia. Peculiar as these instances are, I don't point them out to portray them in a positive light, as Legend of Legaia's score falls prey to many of the same vices as Dragoon's.

Rocky as the road is however, there are still some pieces that manage to crawl up from the wood work. Slightly miscast as it is, the drive in "Dart's Theme" is more than welcome as is the cheeriness one hears in "Meru's Theme." The world map themes get somewhat of a reprieve with the second outing as do dungeon themes where the desperation in "Imperial Capital Kazas" manages to stop one cold. Still, these tracks can only undo so much of the damage caused by many of the remaining tracks. It's hard to believe that tracks like "Zieg's Theme" and "Lloyd's Theme" could ever be memorable outside of them being completely disposable. Town themes seem to burst from the seams with bustling activity but it's merely a facade as is the serene stillness of the forest-based dungeon numbers.

In the end, while I've come to appreciate some of the music on the Legend of Dragoon Original Soundtrack I believe it deserves it place at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to video game music. There's simply no way around the fact that superior music is in abundance and in existence. Yet this isn't a plea for people to avoid it all cost; it's a plea for those that are interested to be careful with this one because it certainly doesn't live up to its potential.

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Rockman X Command Mission Original Soundtrack review

Posted : 6 years, 4 months ago on 27 June 2012 02:58 (A review of Rockman X Command Mission Original Soundtrack)

As strange as it may sound coming from someone who can remember the most superfluous aspect about any given video game, I can’t quite remember what my initial thoughts were when I first heard that Mega Man X and his comrades would crossover into the RPG world. While former series director Keiji Inafune would have little problem in saying no to the idea and having nothing to do with the game’s development, I’m willing to bet I was curious. Sure, I wasn't exactly thrilled when they announced the team behind the game was responsible for Breath of Fire Dragon Quarter, but given how horrendous some of the games that had “graced” the series by that point were, I figured how much more damage could they really do?

As dangerous as it is to dare developers to do their worst, for most intensive purposes the experience Capcom put forth in Mega Man X Command Mission was far from another nightmare scenario. Unfortunately, dodging the trashcan doesn't exactly translate into a ringing endorsement either. While the game was capable of standing upright, Command Mission was a rather uninspired creation; there wasn't really one element of the game that really stood out. As damning as such a decree may seem that didn't stop me from picking one of these so-called elements and exploring it on a deeper level. In the case of Mega Man X Command Mission it just so happened to be the music.

Now, before we get too far into what Command Mission’s audio has to offer, I have to admit I’m far from being the biggest Shinya Okada fan out there. Credited with work on the Rockman X7 and X8 Soundtracks, Okada’s taste for techno-flavored pieces hasn't really enhanced what action-oriented Mega Man has to offer as much as it has (annoying) tried to declare war on conventions that are fine and are not in need of changing. This isn’t to say a well done techno-infused piece can’t serve a Mega Man game well (it’s been done and done well) but when you try and ramrod it down amidst other hard rock/metal influenced pieces in it’s purest form it’s obviously going to stick out like the sore thumb it is.

Here in nut shell is why the musical side of Mega Man X Command Mission works. With Okada being the head composer there are no other influences to battle. In other words Okada was given a blank slate and like a kid with a freshly written check from his grandma he cashes it as hard and as quickly as he can, drenching the canvas with his sound. I really can’t say I blame him, I’d love for my ideas to be heard as well if I was a composer, but this opportunity doesn't really arise as the previous explanation would imply. So how does Okada get away with such a change in style? It all goes back to the idea of crossing over. With Command Mission being a turn based RPG as opposed to an action-oriented side-scroller, did anyone know what a Mega Man RPG was supposed to sound like? The answer, as if it needs to be said, is no. No one had a clue what a Mega Man role playing game was meant to sound like unlike an early Breath of Fire title, titles that were known for their regal, epic flavor.

So given that Okada is one lucky son-of-a-gun for landing the composing role for this game, is his work notable just because it breaks away from the norm or is it notable because it actually has some merit? The stone-cold truth would have me tell you it leans more towards the former, but my experiences with music would have me tell you it’s between the two extremes. As unimpressive and short as some of these pieces really are (check out the insanely insipid “Abyssal World”) there are others that really bring the score alive. The quick witted “Maverick Hunt II” and brooding “The Judgment of Truth” don’t seem too special at first but eventually prove themselves as some of the album’s must-listen tunes. Other tracks like the subversive “Unknown Energy” fly under the radar for so long it’s truly something when they finally pop out the woodwork and expose themselves for the wonderful works they are.

Still, if I was going to complement anything present on the Command Mission soundtrack, I would have to pick Okada’s character themes. In the game, some of these characters are as disposable as the cliches they portray. Yet this really can’t be said when “Cinnamon Worries Endlessly,” “The Cheerful Thief Marino” and “Steel Massimo” come across one speakers. The last two are especially powerful and are also employed as battle themes.

As one would expect being part of a decent yet rather unimpressive product, the Rockman X Command Mission Original Soundtrack is far from being a must-have release. It’s interesting in a variety of ways but in a world where experiences are a dime a dozen and a click away it’s hard to say how many will justify even a brief excursion. Such truth laid bare, even I’m at a loss as to say how this little devil managed to worm it’s way into my heart - but then again I’m probably the exception and not the rule. Regardless, if you have the opportunity give it a chance, it just might surprise you.

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Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light Original Soundtrack review

Posted : 6 years, 4 months ago on 27 June 2012 02:51 (A review of Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light Original Soundtrack)

Final Fantasy. It’s a title that is often referred to when it comes to role-playing games. As rosy as my memories are of entries like Final Fantasy VI and VII it does little to remove the sting of where things stand now, an era were mass proliferation has turned this hallmark of a series into a walking, talking punch line. Really, I can’t be the only one who misses the days when there was one Final Fantasy title every two to three years. The games that came out of those uncongested waits were usually worth their weight in gold. But alas, business is business and failure (in the form of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within) is failure so we’re all reminded that artistic vision always yields before the almighty dollar – or in this case yen.

That said, most of use are still drawn to some of SquareEnix’s offerings despite the fact that some of them are games we've already played a million and a half times. Another version of Final Fantasy IV? That makes me somewhat nauseated – but gimme! It’s truly sad what creatures of habit gamers are and how companies bank on that but this is what almost kept me away from Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light. So how did I end up playing this title nestled among the endless parade of Final Fantasy titles? Well, it all started with Matrix’s Final Fantasy III remake. With Final Fantasy III being the only Final Fantasy prior to Final Fantasy X I hadn’t played and completed (X being my cut off point for things Final Fantasy) I wanted to give it a whirl and call it case closed on Final Fantasy. Little did I know that Final Fantasy III wasn’t the end but a new beginning....

Poetic as that sounds, Final Fantasy’s new life would not come easy. Truth be told, my first ten hours with Final Fantasy III only served to remind me that we move on from things every now and then for reasons that are more than clear. However, things would turn around in the last twenty hours were the game not only mended the bridge it almost burned but would aid in the construction of another. So with III’s notch on my Final Fantasy belt I set out for a new bounty to hunt but was interested in the other products Matrix had worked on. This - and the fact the local Game X-Change had a used copy of the Brady Games Strategy Guide - eventually lead me to The 4 Heroes of Light.

Like most new and unfamiliar products, I was a little hesitant to start the 4 Heroes of Light. This wasn't like Final Fantasy III where I was half familiar with what the game offered before playing. No, this was a completely new ballgame. Sure, I had a strategy guide in tow but it was still touch and go for a while. Did I like the game? Was I enjoying it despite its older playing style? These were the questions on my mind. Things did become clearer the further I got as did the frequency at which I played but there were still some unresolved feelings I had as I inched towards the end. What would the final verdict be? Would I go easy on it or would I be blunt? Was this a good game? A bad game? A lousy game? The answers where there and the final decision would prove to be more than interesting.

So upon defeating the evil being at the center of the darkness, I sat down to write about my experience. I actually had a lot to say but I think a lot of it was lost in translation between likes, dislikes and general indecisiveness. In the end I was both kind and harsh on The 4 Heroes of Light, pointing out the game was rather flawed and tried to be something special when it clearly wasn't. I gave it a six out of ten. Now, in today’s world of internet reviews a lot of people see a six out of ten and automatically think the game is a failure. Sixty percent may be a failing grade on a school paper but this really isn't the case elsewhere. Still, despite what my final score implied, I came out and stated that I really liked The 4 Heroes of Light. However, little did I know how much I had enjoyed it. It wasn't until I had moved on to some other games (the DS Castlevanias) that the game’s hold on me became apparent.

What does all of this have to do with Naoshi Mizuta’s score for The 4 Heroes of Light? Lots. Actually, everything because when you get right down to it Mizuta’s music was the first thing I noticed about the game and – ironically – was the first element I wrote about when reviewing it. Unfortunately, while that last sentence paints a pretty picture (hey, he must have liked it if he was eager to talk about it) that’s far from the case. In reality I started off with a dose of negativity when covering the game. But while several things in the game run afoul, why are the music’s flaws so noticeable and if it’s the case why on earth did I buy the soundtrack? Rest assured there are answers to those questions, but they are buried underneath the enigma that is The 4 Heroes of Light.

So what’s wrong with the music? Well, my initial retort to that would be “what isn't wrong” but I don’t want to use such an overused copout. Still, when getting down to the nitty-gritty, there’s only one track (or theme) you really need to take a look at to get the ball rolling and is of the utmost importance. What theme am I referring to? The main theme! Listening to this thing I can’t get over how work-a-day and phoned-in its emotional context really is. It’s quite extraordinary how far this piece falls when compared to a main theme with substance. I know not everything can be/will be as moving as “Tina’s Theme” from Final Fantasy VI or the infamous Prelude but come on; a piece with a purpose such as this HAS to be more viable than this. You want to know what’s even crazier? The fact that it actually works. Listing to this piece out of context I can easily see it as the underdeveloped entity it is but for some reason once you add the game to the mix its problems seem a lot less detrimental.

And that in a nutshell summarizes a lot of the music in The 4 Heroes of Light. Mizuta's ability to compose is truly second rate (and is well below average for someone hailing from Square’s closet of talent) and his work is literally rescued by every other element of the game – flawed as they may be. Mizuta’s town themes, which prove one with the most satisfying sub-section of the soundtrack, are proof of this. Okay, I guess one could say tracks like “Urbeth, City of Merchants” and “Arbor, Forbidden Land” have a symbiotic relationship with their context but those relationships are HARDLY equal as context was a key component when tracks like “Cursed Town” and “Heavenly Spelvia” made their impression on me. Take away that resource and who’s to say if they would have had the same effect or would have been noticed. This is why I believe Mizuta owes a round to everyone else who worked on the game; there are other weak elements but Mizuta’s soundtrack is arguably the weakest. Remove the canvas and all you have is gobs of paint – something other soundtracks are far from being.

As instrumental as the game is in bringing Mizuta’s creations to life, the soundtrack has a few extra bells and whistles to take note of. With this bring the score to a DS game it should surprise no one that things sound a bit different with the music coming out off a CD as apposed to the DS speakers. As delightful as it may sound to hear the audio in an enhanced light, the music of 4 Heroes wages a war against echo, depth and reverb that leaves a few casualties along the way. Personally I wish the audio was a little more in line with what I heard from the handheld considering those are the renditions I came to love but the final grade really depends on which track one’s talking about. Pivotal tracks like the aforementioned “Heavenly Spelvia” are untouched form their in-game performance as is the dead-pan despair of “Cursed Town” which is unfortunately overused in the game. (The score also suffers from an intense need to be larger than it is.) Things start to go a bit South when the additional depth comes across in “Urbeth, City of Merchants” but the crap REALLY hits the fan when the battle theme fanfare comes up to bat. Someone was obviously asleep at the mixing knobs on this one. The beats are so deep that I can’t call it anything but an error in mastering; the balance is so off it’s not really a case of what kind of set up your playing it on – it’s going to sound horrible regardless.

I’m sure some readers are wondering how this soundtrack, with all the negatives listed above, ended up in my collection. Again, there is no easy answer. All I can say is I love the tracks I love and the crap isn't enough to detract from them. Additionally, I have to reiterate how lucky a man Mizuta is that the game has enough charm to it despite it’s simplicity to cover his failures when it comes to sound. In the end my score is pretty much aligned with what I gave the game as a whole, but I’m willing to give the game a much greater head start when it comes to the benefit of the doubt. It’s that benefit that Mizuta should pray for when it comes to listeners adopting The 4 Heroes into their music library because when it comes to artistic quality this is one soundtrack that is far from resilient despite having it’s moments.

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Syphon Filter 3 review

Posted : 6 years, 4 months ago on 26 June 2012 02:27 (A review of Syphon Filter 3)

Old-school. Retro gamer. At one time, these were terms I absolutely despised when they were applied to me and video gaming. Outside the negative connotation that accompanies the label subconsciously, thoughts of me talking about games released over ten years ago in today's game stores while shaking a cane like Cranky Kong were never far behind. "These young whipper-snappers today don't know anything!" I'd say in a crotchety old voice with my pants pulled up well beyond my waist. Sure, it's funny when you illustrate it in such a comical manner, but a part of you feels a bit lost when most people are worried about the XBox 360 and you're still more than content with the original PlayStation. Another part of the equation lies in only being twenty-eight years old and having no real right to reminisce to such a level.

Thankfully, just as my interest in gaming eroded to its lowest point since its inception, a new, non-chain game store opened up in the neighboring town. Extending a hand to where gaming had been unlike most outlets, I was soon reminded of how great some of the games I grew up with really where. Soon after, the realization that those terms that annoyed me so many years before summed up the gamer that I'd become and, best of all, I was still enamored with the PlayStation. While that may only seem natural given its huge library, if I was forced to pick a group of a games that summed up my affection for the system, I would probably pick Syphon Filter.

Why Syphon Filter? Why not something like Tomb Raider or Final Fantasy, titles that lured me away from the Nintendo 64? In Tomb Raider's case, the overall difficulty of the games eventually eclipsed their fun factor (which happened by the third installment) and Final Fantasy lost a lot of luster in the post 32-bit era when the name became synonymous with the phrase "cash cow." Disheartening as such fates ended up being, there is something about Syphon Filter that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy about the time and the console. It wasn't perfect. Sometimes far from it, but then it didn't need to be. There was just something about controlling Gabe Logan in a fight against international terrorism that just worked and needed little explanation.

Gabe's first adventure in 1999 more or less set the standard for the games that followed, introducing the game play engine that would pretty much power the series to it's (first) finale and presented the narrative to build upon. Syphon Filter's second shot would more or less add a few refinements to the gameplay (the most notable being a new aiming mode for grenades and enabling enemies to get head shots on you) and, most ironically, end up souring the storyline slightly by biting off a lot more than it could chew. The later is perhaps the most important aspect the third game in the trilogy needed to work on and Syphon Filter 3 definitely delivered.

As many people know, many of the missions presented this time around are flashbacks of events that have only been alluded to in previous cut scenes or character dossiers. We get to see first hand the events in and leading up to the opening jungle scene from the first game, Gabe, Ellis, Benton and Lian's involvement in the middle east conflict during the Soviet occupation, Lawrence Mujari's first encounter with the Syphon Filter virus as a freedom fighter and Teresa Lipan's first encounter with Gabe during her ATF days. While some players have made their dislike of this approach well known, I can't love it anymore than I already do. Even in such a late hour for the series, discovering and experiencing more about these characters (and even some of the more minor ones) fulfills some kind of an unknown, insatiable appetite within me. Simply put, I found the set-up, execution, and interweave with current day missions to be perfect. I love these characters and I enjoy playing as them, and it is certainly one of the reasons why the game is so resilient.

Once again, the levels feature excellent design throughout. This really isn't a surprise since it's something that Syphon Filter has always had, although there are parts that will have you pulling your hair out. One of the more infamous levels presented has to be Convoy and the myriad of nightmarish scenarios it throws at you, especially the ridiculous ambush near the end. It's quite maddening, as is the crazy lack of ammunition found throughout would suggest, but the entire experience totally nails that desperate, last-ditch effort the narrative paints for the player. It also happens to give you an unprecedented feeling of accomplishment when you finally reach its end. All in all, almost every level has its own charms despite the game’s aging engine which does its job respectfully enough.

In-game unlockables (which mainly consist of multiplayer/mini game arenas) are unlocked a little bit differently than they were in Syphon Filter 2. Instead of finding a particular gun or item in the field of play, the player must complete a certain objective within a given level. Sometimes the objective is in line with another mission parameter and other times it's rather inconspicuous. Some of the more covert ones involve not putting bullets in the heads of certain NPC's that seem unimportant. Others, like Lian's hidden Afghanistan objective, fall in line with mission parameters but require a bit more effort. The reason I bring this one up is the game is insanely finicky about this one and most FAQs don't go into enough detail. Seriously, I had to go on you-tube and watch some video, as this one had eluded me since 2003. It's not just enough to kill all seven snipers without being seen, you can't acquire the AU100 prototype rifle before this. On top of that, it seems you must kill the sniper right in front of said rifle last. I wish I'd known this seven years ago! Talk about a poorly though out and ill-explained secret trigger.

Other additions in Syphon Filter 3 center around a small handful of new weapons (the Spyder is a rather interesting toy as is the X-Ray scope AUG Assault Rifle) and the Mini-Games. Sadly, while the Mini-Games are rather creative, they have arrived too late to be of any value. There doesn't appear to be anything unlocked by their completion either. One flaw that rears its ugly head is the uneven difficulty in the Elimination mini-game. On one difficulty setting you'll be able to mow your enemies down without having to take cover, but the next one up they'll cut through you like a cheese grater. Sure, you can survive by taking cover but wouldn't that undermine the underlying theme of the game?

On the sound side of the spectrum we're provided with a few peculiarities. I wonder, if in some alternate universe, if Gabe and Mujari would actually sound the same when hit by a bullet. If so, I think the game takes place in that universe. I know that disc is pretty full and all, but I think Mujari has paid his dues and deserves his own grunts and groans. Outside such mishaps however, most of the voice acting is of a reputable quality (there are some parts that are really bad like the hicks in the Teresa levels but that was pretty much done on purpose) and does its job of enhancing the game's key moments - it just wouldn't work otherwise. Can anyone imagine anyone other than John Chacon voicing Gabe? Musically, I was quite surprised to see that Chuck Doud did not reprise his role as music composer, Chris Stevens continuing his style and level of quality without a hitch.

Much like the first Syphon Filter (and the slightly, less impressive second one) I consider Syphon Filter 3 a solid title for any PS1 library. While it's true the series never reached the cinematic grandeur of Metal Gear Solid or ever made any significant strides in gameplay within its subsequent sequels, the game mostly stands tall when it comes to giving fans more of what they want. As is the case with any series, it's usually expected to judge the games at the end a little more harshly, and while I didn't really go too deep into the problems that are here and there, that's mostly due to the fact they exist in the earlier games and aren't severe enough to distract from the experience. Despite that, Syphon Filter 3 still isn't a sum of its parts; it's actually greater than the sum for some strange reason.

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Syphon Filter 2 review

Posted : 6 years, 4 months ago on 26 June 2012 02:21 (A review of Syphon Filter 2)

Sequels are a risky proposition. While most will agree there's a lot less at stake when extending a known property than creating a new one, a bad sequel can absolutely shatter a customer's faith in a product line. When one speaks of bad sequels and the consequences surrounding them, one can't help but think of Xenosaga II where the developers wound up so far off base it wasn't even funny. Games with the prefix Xeno in their titles may have had their issues before Xenosaga II, but the damage done by that title was, by all accounts, insane. Such lessons observed, fans of Syphon Filter can rest assured that the continued adventures of Gabe Logan and crew steers clear of such trouble, but the series has become the victim of its own success – at least somewhat.

So what's wrong with Syphon Filter 2? For the most part nothing. What we basically get is the first game with new levels, a few new toys, two new combat engine elements (a new aiming mode for grenades and the ability for enemies to get head shots on the player), a chance to play as Lian Xing and some minor tweaks to the character models. Beyond that, the game is pretty much more of the same. So how could things go wrong? While some will question how a full motion video can sum up the problem with a game in general, the opening video where we see Lian being kidnapped from the Pharcom Warehouses by the Agency is the tip of the iceberg. Now, I don't think there is anyone is going to argue that the first game was free of cheesy moments, but there's a fine line between “cheesy” and "do your worst impression of a Hollywood blockbuster" cheesy. The first kind of cheese can be bad but, as anyone who gamed through the early days of full voice acting will tell you, can be downright delicious for all the wrong reasons. Syphon Filter had this kind of cheese. A few minutes into the aforementioned video, we find that Syphon Filter 2 goes with the latter. Watching Gabe leap from box to box, shooting soldiers from left to right in slow-mo, I can't shake this feeling that the game wants to be taken seriously despite looking utterly ridiculous. Not the best combo per say.

Okay, so that's extreme case scenario, but there are several moments throughout Syphon Filter 2 where the narrative simply tries to be more than what it is. Most of these revolve around plot points that seemed firm enough ten years ago but now feel impossible not to pick apart. The story wants to have it all and in all due respect does, but the experience becomes top heavy and unbalanced. The capper to such a conundrum has to be the final twist the player is presented with. I'll admit I loved how this revelation blindsided me back in the day even though I should have seen it coming a mile away, but in being a little bit wiser than I was back then it simply doesn't hold water. What makes this so ironic is that the third game in the series is free of this detachment despite its missions taking place in all sorts of different years and locales, not to mention having its own, unrealistic twist.

Compounding the above is a battle between time and cleverness. While Syphon Filter 2 seemed downright clever at times despite being cliche, time has shown it's vulnerable to deprecation. One of the more obvious examples of this is when the player revisits the Pharcom Expo Center. This level was originally interesting because it didn't feel like a sorry excuse to re-use a pre-existing map. In many ways, this feeling lives on yet doesn't feel as bulletproof as it once did. Still, if anything has failed to bow to the contortions of time, it would have to be the final few levels that take place in the New York City Slums. Other levels have their charms, but there is something dead-on about playing cat and mouse with Agency goons in dilapidated buildings that just nails what Syphon Filter is all about. This doesn't really apply to the plot points that unfold in these locations (Lyle Stevens has nothing on Markinson despite getting his hands dirtier) and it shows that the gameplay outguns the narrative by a mile, which is Syphon Filter 2's saving grace.

Whether it's the result of over posturing or the pressure that comes with expectation, most of Syphon Filter 2's problems can be traced back to storytelling. Unfortunately, with Syphon Filter being such a story driven series, the effects it has on the remaining elements is as unsurprising as it is unavoidable. Disappointing as it ends up being, the gameplay is more than willing to make up for it and easily allows the series to get away with a mere flesh wound. If you're a fan or a newbie, Syphon Filter 2 is worth your time, just be ware just like most Mega Man games it's a standard sequel that may or may not be a low point in the series for you.

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Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light review

Posted : 6 years, 4 months ago on 26 June 2012 02:12 (A review of Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light)

Odd. It’s a word that almost describes itself. In this world there is no shortage of things that come off as odd, whether it’s the creatures that inhabit it or the creations of mankind it’s safe to say that odd is here to stay. Really, can anyone explain to me why bread is square and bologna is round? Regardless of what kind of spin one puts on it to satisfy their curiosity, we often poke fun at things that are strange because we often lack the words to define them. They’re just “odd” and that’s all there is to it.

Still, when it comes to video games – a boundless arena where one’s imagination is pretty much allowed to roam free, completely uninhibited – one can’t play more than five minutes without encountering a few oddities. Some of these are self-created, like my indecisive feelings towards Final Fantasy IV. I’d love to know the reasons why this game feels so alien to me when I play it but the answers just escape me. I can’t understand my immunity towards a game that easily deserves the acclaim it has received over the years. Even crazier still is how I can embrace a flawed piece of work like Final Fantasy II. One would think that the game that was actually deemed strong enough to be localized the first time around would go down a lot smoother than one that was brought over in a late-era PS1 remake a decade later. Perplexing as the whole situation is in reality, I know the problem lies more with me than it does with either game.

Fortunately there are times where the exact opposite holds true, times where things are more attractive because they are odd. I’m sure anybody who is familiar with gaming could easily come with half a dozen with very little thought. That said, considering the point being discussed here there is only one title that fills the bill: Harmony of Dissonance. Why Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance? Well, like Final Fantasy above the answer is far from simple but much easier to postulate. Blunt as it may seem, map design is something Castlevania has struggled with to various degrees since Symphony of the Night, the original “Castleroid.” There was something about the layout of Dracula’s Castle in that game that was brimming with intelligence, something the eventual follow-ups couldn’t tap into. While Harmony of Dissonance did little to fight this feeling, it had its own intangible x-factor, a constant sensation that something was off. This (and its strange color palette) ultimately made the game more memorable than it would have been otherwise.

So what does all of this have to do with Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light? Well, a lot because The 4 Heroes of Light is also weird game. How weird? Weird enough to make one question the fact that “Final Fantasy” is present in the title. Does Matrix’s stab at a Final Fantasy benefit from being “odd” or does it only add to the bottomless list of products that use the moniker to attract consumer attention? That’s a good a question as any....

Sights and Sounds

As odd as it may seem, the first element of Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light that made its impression on me was the music. In being a huge fan of video game music, it may have only been natural for me to focus on this aspect of the game, but in no sense is it an automatic response when taking in video-based entertainment. That said, a few hours in I was dying to know who the lead composer was. Why? Crazy as it sounds I was curious as to who could write something so fitting yet so underwhelming. It couldn't have been Nobuo Uematsu, who even in the twilight of his career could compose circles around something this bland and serviceable. Anyway, a bit of research later I came up with the name Naoshi Mizuta, something that wasn't too surprising given how far this game is from being a legitimate part of the series numbered continuity.

So why would I start this review by critiquing Mizuta’s work, a body of work that fails to make a name for itself? Because it exemplifies how the vast majority of elements that make up The 4 Heroes of Light work but are ultimately conflicted. Agreeable as the score is to the world it represents it has the uncanny “gift” of getting into trouble here and there. One of the best illustrations is when the music shifts in battle when one of the player’s characters is in critical condition. Considering how many RPG’s have gotten by without the employment of such a technique it’s as harsh and unnecessary as it sounds. A similar event occurs in boss fights when a boss’ hit points get low. Generally that’s a bit more useful even though it still falls into the realm of superfluous. Other issues, like the games over dependence on key tracks during the second half of the game, also take their toll and, perhaps most telling of all, is how flaccid the Dragon Harp jingle is.

The above situation applies to the game’s art direction as well. While I can’t imagine saying that character designer Akihiko Yoshida’s work is bad (it did have somewhat of a unique charm to in Final Fantasy III) it certainly leaves a lot to be desired here. For the lack of a better phrase it feels second rate and at the end of day I’d have a real hard time calling anything in The 4 Heroes of Light beautiful – drawn or rendered. If anything, it looks like a mishmash ambitions (similar and otherwise) that I've seen elsewhere. However, I will admit I've always had odd relationships with games that employ a dull color palette. Breath of Fire IV on the original PlayStation is great example; it’s washed out colors clashing with the bright colors Capcom used throughout the first three games. I can’t say the darker tones make the game less attractive when it comes to my personal hierarchy (of which Breath of Fire games are my favorite) yet the possibility exists. Another game that immediately comes to mind when presented with art of The 4 Heroes of Light is 1999’s Legend of Mana. Despite the fact that the bright and bold world presented in Legend of Mana is the exact opposite of what’s presented here, both games are obviously geared towards creating a mystical fairytale feel. Unfortunately for this game, Mana’s color palette makes it much more attractive even though it too is a conflicted creation.

Character Conundrum

The 4 Heroes of Light also runs into some trouble with its story and characterization. Most of the time the game is good at letting you know what your characters are thinking (something that’s achieved by having your characters split up when visiting towns much like a private action in Star Ocean) but there are times where the dialog seems to skip over or botch emotional extremes. For the sake of all that’s good and holy I expect a much more believable expression of grief after a plague has befallen Horne than “what the hell, at least we’re fine, screw it, let’s just leave.” Yet ironically, it’s this exact same “harshness” that fuels the characters personalities for the first half of the game and makes them a lot more interesting than they’d be otherwise. Brandt, Jusqua, Yunita and Aire are not exactly the most likeable people in world when the game opens and, oddly enough, the character introductions are very honest about that. I found something strangely genuine about that. What I enjoyed even more than that was how certain characters (especially Jusqua and Arie) bickered with one another. As silly as it sounds such interaction added a level of realism that most role-playing games tend to gleam over in favor of overall focus.

Unfortunately, like all good things this comes to an end. There’s a moment near the halfway point where the scenario takes on that typical, super-sappy “we've grown so much since we were last together” thing that tends to invade all role-playing games. I understand the importance of these characters putting their problems with one another behind them to focus on the task at hand but do they have to literally tell me that in a block of text? Having them tell me that they've grown – instead of showing me – only cheapens the experience and destroys the relevance of such epiphanies. Weak-kneed at this moment truly is (in all honesty it’s terrible and hard to swallow) the game does a surprisingly good job at burying it in the back of the player’s mind with some of the later revelations. Still, entertaining as some of twists end up being one will find the plot is in league with older Final Fantasies and lacks the complexity to compete with that of a full-fledged console-based title. In a certain sense I guess I’m “prettying up” what the story has to offer because in reality it doesn't ask a whole lot of the player but then I can’t real consider it a real flaw as most handheld titles tend to be shorter and self-contained.

Fight or Flight

Whereas previous sections have focused on areas where The 4 Heroes of Light falls in line with the status quo, combat presents the player with the one area where the game manages to mix things up. Combat is a turned based affair that throws out the concept of MP in exchange for a similar yet different ability point based system. Each command or spell consumes a set amount of AP with one point being refreshed at the start of each round. Also of vast importance are battle messages, snippets of information presented on the bottom screen that gives the player the most recent data on which effects (buffs) have been activated and which ones need to be recast. Another departure is the implementation of auto targeting. Physical attacks automatically target the front row of the enemy party (depending on what weapon is equipped) while spells automatically target the back.

Of all these changes the one that is most likely to strike doubt in the heart of potential players is the auto targeting. I was skeptical at first but the game handles it pretty well. I’ll admit there where times where I would have liked to have more control over what ally was resurrected or which character had their status abnormality cured but these sacrifices are ultimately necessary in making the enemy encounters in the 4 Heroes of Light as brief as possible. Why does combat need to as brief as possible? As simple and quick as combat seems at the start of the game it is quickly bogged down by commands you’ll constantly back with buffs. These “buffs” lengthen battles considerably and make combat a rather formulaic endeavor despite the vast number of choices the class system provides. There are only so many classes that can get away without self-buffing (these generally tend to be physical-oriented classes who rely on other characters and classes to do that for them) so there is no real way to depart from this style of gameplay; you’ll constantly be buffing, attacking and boosting (defending to restore AP) to fuel your offense/defense.

Another aspect affecting the game’s combat is the handoff between the first and second “worlds.” Enemies in the first world have set levels and statistics and can only be as powerful as they start out; the opposite holds true for enemies in the second world where your adversaries level up and scale with the level of the party. This means after a certain point it is senseless to try and overpower a boss solely by gaining levels. Different as this approach is, it really flies in the face of common sense, making one question why a game (and a development team) would employ such a dramatic shift in an experience system midway through a game. Why not just implement it from the beginning? Like combat itself I’ll concede it manages to work to a point, but the switch can create havoc if you finish the first part of the game at too high of level. Regardless, there are moments where both systems show their inadequacies.

Still, perhaps the most problematic aspect of battles is the over reliance on elementals. Most role-playing fans are familiar with the concepts that make ice creatures weak towards fire spells and make machines susceptible to lightning. These general “rules” may change a little between games but the general science usually holds true. Anyway, after the switch above takes place the practice of elementals takes on a whole new importance in The 4 Heroes of Light. Before this point it’s nice to have the correct elemental shield to block a given boss’ biggest spells but it literally becomes mandatory in the second half as is attacking with the correct element to adjust for the increased boss hit point totals. What makes this such a chore is that prior to fighting a boss (unless you’ve beaten the game before) you’re not going to know what element to protect against/attack with. So this means a lot of trial and error since a) you can’t change equipment during battle b) you can only carry so much equipment to begin with and c) most enemies have physical attacks are infused with elemental aspects.

The literal abuse of elemental combat above (and the broken yet lifesaving application of the Elementalist class) also tries back into something learned in Matrix’s reworking of Final Fantasy III: if you know what’s good for you do NOT ignore the magic defense statistic. Really, you don’t want to see what happens when a character lacking in this department is tagged by a spell. Also adding to the vast list of idiosyncrasies seen in combat is the reality that attacks don’t do a static amount of damage. Damage for the same attack can vary wildly from turn to turn for no real reason - even if you hit an enemy’s weak spot.

Delightful Dungeons?

Despite the title of this section (I only named it that so I could employ some sweet alliteration) exploring dungeons is actually another thing The 4 Heroes of Light does right. Unfortunately, as if it’s any surprise, it’s complicated by the problems above – especially the elemental problem which may have you leaving a dungeon here or there for the correct gear. Regardless, the developers took note of the limited on-hand inventory space and avoided loading the dungeons to the brim with treasure. You may have to make a decision on what to keep every once in a while (especially when combined with enemy drops) but you won’t be stressing over what and what not to keep or leaving a dungeon over and over to store items at the storage shop. The bite-sized dungeons go well with the inventory system and shows one an area where designer forethought finally coincides with the current reality.

That being said, dungeons really don’t bring the goods graphically or intellectually. Considering how The 4 Heroes of Light tries to emulate older games more than newer ones (again, it’s no accident that the game shares several similarities to Final Fantasy III) this may be another area where being hypercritical may be ill-advised. Still, there are times where the dungeon concepts wreak of desperation. In fact, one dungeon is more-or-less ripped straight out of Breath of Fire II. I know Capcom doesn't have complete jurisdiction over that specific “kind” of dungeon but it’s so close in spirit it’s not even funny.

Working Class Warfare

Given how Matrix worked on the DS remake of Final Fantasy III, it should come as no surprise that The 4 Heroes of Light employs a similar yet slightly different job system. Rest assured the classes everyone has grown up with are accounted for, but some of them are a bit redefined and repackaged to make things a bit more intriguing. However, the real change occurs in how the player expands upon their powers. Rather than relying on an age-old concept like a numerical level that’s based on accumulating a set number of experience points or performing so many actions, The 4 Heroes of Light takes a cue from Final Fantasy X’s sphere grid. Abilities (or commands) are unlocked by placing “gems” into “crowns.” Crowns are basically fancy sets of headgear that grant your characters their classes or jobs. It’s actually pretty satisfying to place your gems into these crowns but the appeal is ultimately limited by the number of gems you have on hand. Enemies have a set percentage at which they drop certain gems but there never seems to be enough to go around, something that prohibits any real, unbridled exploration of the classes available.

While there is little doubt you’ll be grinding for gems at one point or another, gems also come in handy when it comes to upgrading equipment. Upgrading the attack and defense parameters on weapons and armor is the only way to get ahead of the curve in the second half of the game proves to be essential when tackling the bonus content. Still, if I were to cry fowl about any one aspect of The 4 Heroes of Light it would be how one is expected to make money. One doesn't receive money from winning battles but by selling off their extra goods. From a straightforward point of view this is a clever approach, but from the view of your typical completionist it is an utter nightmare. For those wanting to complete the game with one of every item (there is actually a reward for this to boot) enemy drops take on a whole new level of importance.

Yea or Nay?

After all this talk you’re probably wondering what my final take on Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light is. Well, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is despite all the problems contained within I actually had a pretty good time and I look forward to replaying it at some point down the road. The bad news? As much as I enjoyed it I find I have to be honest and be a bit harsh while judging it. Still, while some will see the resulting six out of ten as a sign of failure nothing could be further from the truth. Sometimes ratings are just that – ratings. Ratings are not always an accurate way to calculate the intangibles that occasionally work their way into the equation. Oddly enough this is one of those times.

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Final Fantasy II Anniversary Edition review

Posted : 6 years, 4 months ago on 26 June 2012 01:43 (A review of Final Fantasy II Anniversary Edition)

Once one of the "forbidden treasures" never launched outside of its port of origin, Final Fantasy II - the real Final Fantasy II - first saw daylight in the west as part of the 2003 Origins package. That version, which is closer to the original than what's presented here, showed everyone (outside those who hadn't been lured into checking out fan translated ROM images of it years earlier) why it was skipped over: busted mechanics. The tangled web of changes within Final Fantasy II come from another, less acclaimed, series - the SaGa series.

Much like SaGa Frontier, gone are the concepts of experience and levels. This alone doesn't make the game bad. Despite the bashing SaGa Frontier took (and continues to take) the general fact is that its character development system wasn't really broken per say, or as broken as some other things in that game were. The problem with Final Fantasy II is that it is broken, and couldn't be fixed unless you rebuilt it from the ground up.

As many know, in the original version - and the "faithful" PS1 remaster - there where many tricks the player could employ to fool the computer into giving their characters dramatic stat boosts. There was the "select/cancel" trick that, due to poor/selective programming, could rack up massive spell usage and weapon levels. That particular loophole was abolished in the Dawn of Souls port, but there are those that remain. The classic, "smack myself around for HP" trick still works, as does the old "spam magic on myself for MP cause my characters are more durable targets than the enemies are" trick. The loss and retention of these shortcuts throughout the various versions has made for an interesting story, but once one realizes that many of Final Fantasy II's gameplay systems still rely on the employment of these shortcuts, red flags are eventually raised.

While the abolishment of the select/cancel trick disallows one to cheaply power level their weapon levels, it also raises questions on how or when these levels rise. For example, lets say Firion's skill with a sword is currently at two, and it stays at a two (no increases on the meter) even though your attacking wave after wave of enemies. All of a sudden you enter a new area and it starts to rise again. Wha? What invisible force governs the growth of this particular statistic? Change in environment, given events? Granted, it's always in balance and there never really a point where you're underpowered in this respect but why is there an invisible wall here? Compounding this are issues with certain weapon classes (axes) having adequately powered weapons available at certain times.

The weapon leveling system may have been reigned in, but the spell casting system is as short-sighted as ever. First of all, we ditched the lame item limit (somewhat) so why can't we ditch the sixteen spell limit considering every version of FFII since Dawn of Souls has been less strict than the last. Okay, so you don't exactly need every spell. You don't even need half of them. Not even one fourth? It's this that makes my next argument seem kind of fickle, but without the select/cancel trick, getting spells to level sixteen is a rough trek. And quite honestly, there is no way a casting of Bolt should cost as much as a casting of Ultima at the same level. Don't even get me started on the boneheaded way the damage for this aforementioned "ultimate spell" is calculated - you need a truly ultimate character to make it even worth casting, which is downright silly when the game's story places so much emphasis on obtaining it. In other words, just use the "legendary" Blood Sword on the bosses again.

However, Final Fantasy II starts to look much better once you look beyond its ever-flawed mechanics. Generally speaking, while the story isn't of a blockbuster nature, the fight against a malevolent empire is a nice, primitive precursor to Final Fantasy VI. It's also nice to see that the player's characters have lines this time around and don't really fit into the "silent protagonist" mold the four warriors of light did in the original. Sonically, Nobuo Uematsu's score taps into the game's overarching militaristic theme, the contrast between the "Rebel Army Theme" and the "Imperial Army Theme" being the crowning achievement that pulls everything together.

As for extras, Final Fantasy II outdoes Final Fantasy's Anniversary Edition by a mile. The clever (yet somewhat flawed and ill-explained premise of) Rebirth of Souls reappears from the GBA, and the Arcane Labyrinth puts the game's password/ask system to clever use even though it's still just another lame excuse to extend replay value.

Despite all the complaints in the first five paragraphs, I think I enjoyed playing through Final Fantasy II more this time around than I did in 2003 on the Origins package. This doesn't exactly translate into a ringing endorsement, as the game requires a bit of finesse until you get your party on their feet and make peace with the games various flaws, but you could certainly do worse. There is always something worse....

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Final Fantasy Anniversary Edition review

Posted : 6 years, 4 months ago on 26 June 2012 01:32 (A review of Final Fantasy Anniversary Edition)

Final Fantasy. It's a name that once held a significant amount of clout. In recent years, or more accurately, ever since Squaresoft and Enix merged after the disaster that was Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, "enhanced" ports of previously successful entries have come down the pike in the numbers one expects from in vitro fertilization. As disgusting as this cow-milking practice has become, and as disgusting as it is that I'm probably going to shell out for the sixth version of Final Fantasy IV in the Final Fantasy IV Complete Collection come April, I still like the original Final Fantasy despite the fact it lacks a robust storyline. Given that, I was more than willing to enlist for the first and most faithful recreation of the game on the PS1, but beyond that release the core game has been fitted with so many ill-fated additions that it's diluted what was a simple yet enjoyable experience. So, in the spirit of debate, let's look at the three main segments that make up Final Fantasy's 20th Anniversary Edition.

~ Final Fantasy: The Main Course ~

The core of the experience that emulates the original adventure on the NES, one will find that many liberties have been taken since Final Fantasy Origins. Most of them aren't too groundbreaking: the high resolution graphics are nice to look at even thought there wasn't really anything wrong with how the game was presented on the PS1 and GBA; the heightened accuracy of attacks at the beginning of the quest is quite helpful as are the additional commands available during combat (like Defend) that weren't originally there. Unfortunately, it's one of the most welcome changes, the ditching of casting system for mages that puts everything into jeopardy by absolutely destroying the game's balance. Now, most will jest at the idea of the original Final Fantasy being balanced, especially when the spell casting units where as handicapped as they were, but in its own, odd-ball way, it was. Here, there is no real worry about getting through a dungeon in one piece because your party has so many options, which destroys the last bit of challenge the title had.

~ Soul of Chaos: A Lesson in Monotony ~

A set of four optional dungeons that were first featured in the GBA Dawn of Souls package, Soul of Chaos represents some of the most insipid concepts that can be used to artificially inflate a game's lifespan. These multilevel dungeons throw their pre-programmed floors at you in random order, and the treasures on each floor are randomly selected from a pool specific to that floor. This means you won't find everything they have to offer in one play through. Boss floors, filled with classic bosses that are just a sad way of siphoning off past ideas, are set up so you can only take on one before you are forced to advance or leave. The mostly static (and weak) cast of enemies you encounter in random encounters will chip away at your enthusiasm faster than a rabbit nibbling away at a carrot as the super-powered bosses prove the game's battle system isn't really built for challenging battles.

~ Labyrinth of Time: It Gets Worse ~

As much as the Soul of Chaos dungeons remind me of terrible dungeons like Wild Arms 3's Abyss or Star Ocean 3's Sphere Company, The Labyrinth of Time shows up to prove things can get even messier. Once again, the levels are thrown at you in a random level, but this time the focus is mostly on non-combative challenges like memory games. This would be fine on its own, but we're not done. Each level requires you to sacrifice abilities for "time" to keep the "miasma" at bay. Miasma basically acts like a poison that saps away at you health and magic and increases enemy encounters until you leave the area. The whole experience is as fun as sounds. On top of that, you'll need to pass and fail challenges in a handful of certain patterns to encounter the various versions of the game's hardest boss. Oh, goody-goody gumdrops!

~ The Conclusion: Finally ~

Much like the evil miasma itself, Final Fantasy on the PSP starts out great until the extras corrode your soul from the inside out. Of course, just looking at the Square Enix logo (and what it's come to represent) is enough to do that on it's own, so you don't really need to subject yourself to the torture within this UMD to experience that. Still, I would honestly recommend the PS1 Origins package, Dawn of Souls and the much more deserving Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions over this 20th Anniversary cash-in. It's pretty to look at, but that's about all.

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Plasma Sword: Nightmare of Bilstein review

Posted : 6 years, 4 months ago on 26 June 2012 01:22 (A review of Plasma Sword: Nightmare of Bilstein)

In a question made famous by Shakespeare himself, the playwright unflinchingly asked "what is in a name?" While there is little doubt how perplexing today's world would be to someone from such an era, I can't help but think that Shakespeare was actually a prophet, talking about what should be for all intensive purposes be known as "Star Gladiator 2: Nightmare of Bilstein." Plasma Sword? How ironic is it that this change kept me, a fan of the original, in the dark about its existence for so long? Okay, so the word "Bilstein" should have been a clue since it's not exactly a common name, but really, would such a cosmetic change really change the game's fortunes for the better?

Beyond picking on Capcom for such an ill-fated name change, what has changed since we last checked in with the Star Gladiators and the members of the Fourth Empire? Story wise, we know that Hayato Kanzaki defeated Bilstein (like that's a shocker, the Ken/Ryu-ish character winning), Zelkin has defected from the ranks of the Fourth Empire and Rimgal doesn't reappear for the reasons revealed in the original. None of this is actually revealed by the game however - we only get a shallow, non-FMV opening that mainly states "it's not over yet" in typical Capcom fashion - so you'll need to dig around on the internet a little to discover the actual series canon because the manual isn't any help.

Speaking of the manual, it and character select screen gives us a glimpse at an area that has gone completely awry. The first row of characters presents us with the returning cast from the first game, otherwise known as the "good" characters. Unfortunately, I don't mean "good" as in "good intentioned," I mean good as in those who are well designed, have purpose and are able to form affection for. I myself have always had a soft spot for Hayato and Zelkin. Those in the second row are new characters, characters with borrowed move sets (outside plasma strikes) that are flat-out terrible. Haven't we learned that doubling the roster in a fighter is pointless when you simultaneously half it's quality? I think Capcom missed that lesson when it crashed and burned in Battle Arena Toshinden 3. Some of these characters are really unimaginative: June and Hayato's future daughter? God, we couldn't help that insipid impulse to throw some time travel in there could we? Hell, even Bilstein's daughter manages to free up some of her time to join the fray. The worst offenders have to be the hidden characters that look like they were rejected from a Bloody Roar game.

Plasma Sword does attempt to build more of bridge between its characters and the player than the original however. Upon reaching the fifth stage one is greeted with a small exchange between the characters and the endings are more accessible than they were in the first game (which was a HUGE problem), now being unlocked by obtaining enough battle points and not continuing rather than how long it takes the player to beat the final stage. That said, there are still many things within the game's universe that are simply not touched upon which is a real letdown when you consider how well Capcom can do this kind of thing when they put their minds to it - e.g. Rival Schools.

On the audio side of things, the opening animation - if you could call it an animation, calling it that seems too charitable considering this is the Dreamcast - and character select screen will tell one they're in for a bumpy ride. The opening tune is probably the best piece of music you're going to hear all game and it is quickly revisited on the first stage of the game (the rocking "Illusion of Peace") and cast roll, but once you hear the character select theme, you’ll realize that not everything fits into place and that the guitar-riff based soundtrack by Tetsuya Shibata and Takayuki Iwai is shallow by design. With stages and characters no longer as linked to one another as they once where, the personality that was seen in original game goes out the window. Still, the bulk of the stage themes can seem pretty fine when compared to the character ending themes which are complete and absolute garbage. On the plus side of things, the voice acting for many of the returning characters is spot-on again, with many of the win quotes/battle cries being close re-creations or transfers from the first game.

In another unsurprising twist, Plasma Sword is behind the times graphically as well. The graphics have been slightly improved from the original ZN-2 arcade board, which makes the game look like a slightly remastered PlayStation game. Human characters fair the best while larger characters like Gamof show the age of the original hardware, sharp lines and edges still defining his wookiee-like frame to the end. The battle arenas represent one of the lower lows of combat, ditching ring-outs and adopting an endless Tekken-like area with a flat, listless image pasted in the background that are insulting considering the original game did so much more.

Combat fairs a little better although there are some hew hitches to be aware of. First off, not assigning block to a button in a three-dimensional fighter is a bad idea in my opinion - especially in a series where it was originally. While the camera is never really a problem, there are times where blocking just doesn't seem to register. Second nick-pick: turning the former block button into a sidestep button. Like every other fighter out there, that's what the shoulder buttons are for. Third gripe: Do we really need command short-cuts for Plasma Strikes when they are already easy enough to execute? Save this for a game with six attack-button control scheme. Further diluting the experience of combat is the new plasma meter, adding that Street Fighter element to the game that was disregarded from Star Gladiator for a reason. Sure, it wasn't exactly a new experience but it was a nice change of pace for a Capcom fighter.

Finally, there are the various modes available for play. If you do a lot of gaming on your own then there's only one mode of play and that's arcade. Backing this up is versus play, group battle, training mode and nothing more. It would help if there was another mode of play like Soul Blade's Edge Master Mode that expanded on the story, attack options and replay value but no. A bare-bones presentation that makes you crave for a game like Rival Schools that heaped on the options to an almost absurd level.

Plasma Sword is worth the ten to fifteen dollars you're likely to spend on it if you're into the off-beat characters from the first game, but beyond that it's a game that’s been severely outclassed and outgunned. Well, it was outgunned and outclassed before it was released - even on previous consoles - but that's beside the point. The game can be fun while it lasts, but if you want to check out anything, or anything that should be called “Star Gladiator,” do yourself a big favor and check out the original game which was a much better product for its time.

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