Review: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors

Released On: Nintendo DS
Developed By: Chunsoft
Published By: Aksys Games
Available: Now
MSRP: $35

Note: This review is spoiler-free, but does cover the basic setup of the game.  Also, if you’d like to listen to my audio impressions of the game on episode 171 of TVGP starting around 1:19:00.

As a kid, I loved Choose Your Own Adventure books.  Not only did I love reading, but being able to choose how the story plays out (typically with your own demise, if I remember correctly) was incredibly appealing at that age.  Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (999) takes my love of reading and Choose Your Own Adventure books and turns it into a game on the DS.

The game’s basic, non-spoilery story feels a lot like Battle Royale (in a positive way).  You play as Junpei, who, with eight other people who were abducted by the mysterious Zero, must survive and solve the puzzles of the giant ship you’re trapped on.  Zero gives you the ultimate goal and promise that if you find a door with a ‘9’ on it, you’ll be able to escape the ship.  Unfortunately for the nine people trapped, you have a watch with a number attached to your wrist, which is ultimately a detonator for the bomb in your stomach.

Any story discussions beyond this point would, ultimately, result in me having to spoil 999’s amazing story.  It’s not only impressive that Chunsoft managed to tie together nine individual stories (each character’s backstory is delved into) but even more impressive that Askys was able to translate the virtual mountain of text contained within.  There are a few odd choices in the translation, but nothing that sullies the core story.

Also of particular note is 999 encourages multiple playthroughs; most obviously due to its six different endings.  Additionally, the game remembers what text you read (along with what choices you’ve made) previously and lets you fast-forward through it if you choose to do so.  999 doesn’t allow you to skip puzzles, though, so I recommend writing down the solutions to puzzles in a notebook or something; the solutions will help you breeze through future playthroughs.

Chunsoft managed to create some great puzzles throughout whose difficulty ramps up nicely as you progress further into the game.  Classic adventure games are paid homage, too, with different inventory items resulting in different reactions when used in the environment, along with being able to combine certain items together.  Thankfully, you can control the game via either the touch screen or the buttons (which more DS games need to do), though a few puzzles will require you use the stylus.  The first puzzle in the game (and the intro) is available to demo on Aksys’ 999 website.

999 is a simple game in all the best ways.  The story telling is straightforward and high quality, the music is good without being overpowering, the puzzles are difficult without being impossible, and all of the characters are interesting.  There isn’t much more to say about the game other than it receives my highest recommendation.  If you own a DS, you must try 999 (especially if you’re like me and want to see more visual novels published in the US).  Hopefully you’ll be as pleasantly surprised as I was.

Review: Breach

Originally posted on Gamers With Casts

Released On: Xbox Live Arcade, PC
Developed By: Atomic Games
Published By: Atomic Games
Available: Now
MSRP: $15

Breach is the latest game from Atomic Games, long-time developers of the Close Combat series.  Breach is a team-based, first person shooter that focuses on highly destructible environments.

Thankfully, the destructible environments are more than just eye candy.  One of the loading screens suggests that, if under fire from a sniper in a building, bring the roof down onto his head.  Impressively, tactics like those actually work.  There were a few matches that had the tide turn partway through because our team was able to destroy a building that was used as cover by the other team, forcing them out into the open.  And, to be honest, watching a building explode into wood planks and shrapnel was incredibly satisfying.

Breach’s other basic system is Active Cover, its third-person cover system.  While certainly useful, I never really got comfortable with it during my time with the game.  Peeking out from cover seemed a little twitchy and I had trouble moving from side to side while in cover.  Active Cover may work in the long run, but my first few matches with it felt needlessly frustrating.

All the usual suspects are here for leveling and progression.  You get XP for kills, assists, and an amount based on how your team performed in the match.  The XP you’ve accumulated serves a number of different purposes for both leveling your different roles along with purchasing different gadgets/perks for your loadout.  As you play one of the game’s five different classes (Rifleman, Gunner, Sniper, Support, and Recon), your XP gained for kills while playing that class go towards unlocking new guns for that same class.  Additionally, overall XP gained can be used to purchase gadgets, perks, and attachments.  With so many different classes and so many items to buy in-game, it’s nice to see a game that you can’t blow through in a solid weekend.

The five different game types are pretty standard, too.  Team Deathmatch is here, along with Sole Survivor (no respawns until one team wins), and Infiltration, the Capture Points mode.  The other two modes were the ones that I preferred; Convoy has your team escorting a pair of trucks through the enemy’s base, stopping to repair the vehicles or blow up blockades, and Retrieval, where your team needs to grab canisters and return them to your team’s points.  I should also note that there are no single player modes in Breach and no bot matches.

Overall, nothing in Breach really blew me away.  The graphics are less-than-stellar, the sound is okay, and the game comes with a small number of maps (I only saw two, though I heard there were five).  Breach never clicked with me, though that doesn’t necessarily mean I wouldn’t recommend it.  With a little post-release love from Atomic and a strong community, Breach could have lasting power.  If team-based, first person shooters are in your wheelhouse, Breach is certainly worth a try.

Review: Sonic Free Riders

Originally posted on Gamers With Casts

Released On: Xbox 360 w/ Kinect (reviewed)
Developed By: Sega
Published By: Sega
Available: Now
MSRP: $50

With the launch of a new platform or high-profile peripheral, especially something as controller-free as Kinect, there are bound to be issues.  It’s a shame that Sonic Free Riders has so many issues that keep it from being much else other than frustrating.

The problems start early, with a menu system that’s cumbersome at best.  You’re presented with a ring of icons; flick your hand to the left or right to move through the items and pull an icon towards the bottom right-hand corner to launch.  Though it can be frustrating to use due to its insistence on accuracy (especially on the pulling step), the menus get downright frustrating when you’re presented with more than a few items, making navigation and purchasing items in the in-game shop a bear.  Either presenting the player with a grid on-screen that requires the standard hold-your-hand-in-front-of-it selection process or allowing for controller inputs would have helped monumentally.

The control issues extend beyond the menus and into the game itself.  You’re instructed to stand sideways, similar to riding a skateboard, to auto-accelerate.  Unfortunately, every other motion I tried worked intermittently at best.  To steer, you lean forward and backwards.  That wouldn’t be a problem if the detection was better; there were times where I’d lean a little and turn sharply and other times where I was bending backwards in a near contortionist-like, ab-burning movements.  Jumping, item usage, and track-specific motions all fall short because of the control issues.

The game’s main draw is World Grand Prix, a mission-based mode wrapped by fairly standard Sonic interactions and a predictable story (spoiler alert: the Chaos Emeralds are in trouble again).  Sonic’s team has a rival in the Babylon Rogues, with their captain Jet the Hawk.  All of that is window-dressing for a fairly standard mission mode, very similar in feel and objectives to the mission mode in the recently released Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing.  The other modes are the typical time trial modes, along with a few variants of regular races, and standard online modes.  In the time I spent with the game, I was unable to find a full lobby to race online.

It’s a shame that there are so many problems because when the game was working correctly I really got into it.  Leaning to take turns while collecting rings and actually throwing weapons (not just pressing a button) was fun.  Sonic Free Riders needed a little more time in the oven to iron out the problems.  With those in place, there are better alternatives for putting your new Kinect to use.

Review: Costume Quest

Your party surveys the mall/dungeon.

Released On: XBLA (reviewed), PSN
Developed By: Double Fine
Published By: THQ
Available: Now
MSRP: $15

The one word I’ll likely repeat one too many times in this review is “fun.”  Everything about Costume Quest is simply fun.  Double Fine has managed to make what’s essentially a kid’s game enjoyable and accessible for all ages, much like the layered humor of a Pixar movie.

The story of Costume Quest isn’t terribly complex, though that really serves in the game’s favor.  You play as either the boy or girl of a pair of twins who are continually bickering, like children often do.  Sent out of the house on Halloween with explicit instructions to play nice and meet kids in the neighborhood, Reynold and Wren set out to battle monsters, gather candy, transform into giant versions of their costumes, and save their sibling.

The focus of much of the game’s coverage has been the costume transformation, and for good reason.  As a 29-year-old man, I was surprisingly overjoyed when I got a new costume, racing off to fight a monster so I could see how awesome the transformation was (or slightly horrifying, in the case of the French fry costume).  The costumes don’t play too large of a part in the main maps other than some minor puzzle solving parts, but their individual skills do have major effects in battle.

The battle system is a simple, fast-paced, and enjoyable part of the game.  The fights reminded me most of the Penny Arcade games, with a standard JRPG line-up-on-both-sides type of engine with timed button presses adding some excitement to each fairly standard battle.  Occasionally you can also perform larger attacks that either attack all the enemies on screen on heal party members, both of which feel very satisfying (especially the robot unicorn’s heal spell).

When you’re not in battle, Costume Quest has you wandering around one of three different areas of your neighborhood, solving little puzzles and undertaking quests for the other costumed children.  Double Fine really nailed these maps, with there being just the right amount of quests so you’re never overwhelmed combined with map sizes that are big enough to have a small amount of exploration but don’t feel big enough that you’d get lost in them.  Costume Quest doesn’t take more than a few hours to get 100% in, but the pacing and world size make the game feel right without any areas that become frustrating or boring.

The game overall isn’t difficult, but that can be expected in a game that seems to be marketed towards kids.  It’s the combination of great writing, clever pacing, a fun battle system, and a quirky art style that makes Costume Quest a must-play.

Oh, and one of the costumes turns you into a panther that shoots lasers.  You can’t argue with that type of awesome.

Review: Kane and Lynch 2: Dog Days

Originally posted on Gamers With Casts

Released On: Xbox 360 (reviewed), PS3, PC
Developed By: IO Interactive
Published By: Square Enix
Available: Now
MSRP: $60 (console) / $50 (PC)

Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days starts off strong, with a cutscene of the titular characters tied up, naked, getting slashed with a knife by an unknown man in a dirty, underground bathroom.  The game quickly cuts away to a quiet moment between Lynch and his girlfriend in their apartment, the only real quiet moment you’ll have in the game before everything goes downhill. Continue reading

Review: Hydro Thunder Hurricane

The slowest you'll see the game move

I, like many of you, played way too much of the original Hydro Thunder when it came out in arcades in 1999.  I spent far too many hours and far, far too much money racing through temples, jungles, volcanoes, and plenty of other insane tracks.  I’m happy to report that this new XBLA version ate up my time and kept me as entertained as the previous game, if not more so.

At its core, Hydro Thunder Hurricane is a fast arcade racing game with speedboats.  What makes it so exciting is the reckless, breakneck speeds that you’re racing at; it’s not unusual to be racing at an average speed of 150mph+ (or even faster when you’re boosting).  Thankfully, the boats handle very well and each of the three classes of boats behave differently.  When you race in a Casual class boat, it moves at a reasonable speed and handles pretty well, but the Expert boats you unlock later are blisteringly fast and turn on a dime.  Each boat has a few different paint jobs that you unlock either by collecting Hydro Thunder logos (the game calls them “hidden packages”) around each track or other track-specific challenges.

Fans of the previous Hydro Thunder will be happy to know that the bizarre tracks are back and bigger than before.  Across these eight tracks, you’ll race through quiet lakes, a mythological town, a Japanese race track, the Paris sewer system, and a few more that I don’t want to spoil.  Thanks to consoles being more powerful now, there are plenty of water effects and giant waves to deal with.  And, of course, there are plenty of shortcuts in each track.

There’s more than just the regular race mode this time around.  My favorite of the new modes is Ring Master, where each of the tracks are littered with rings that you need to drive or jump through.  It’s just you and a race against a pre-defined best time.  Miss a ring and you get a few seconds added to the clock; drive through a ring and you get a little more boost added to your boost meter.  Depending on the class of boat you use, the track gets harder, but shows you more shortcuts and gives you more of an opportunity to gather Hydro Thunder logos.

The next mode is Gauntlet, where you’re thrown into any of the tracks in whatever boat you choose in a race against the clock.  Oh, and the track is absolutely chock-full of exploding barrels.  The final mode is Championship, which mixes up the different types of events across multiple races.  With eight different tracks, 24 Ring Master events, eight gauntlet events, and ten championships, there’s a ton of game here.  In classic arcade fashion, each track and race type will reward you for learning the track and taking advantage of the shortcuts.

There weren’t very many online races available during my review, but the few I got into were easy to join and lag-free.  Unfortunately, I was unable to try the new Rubber Ducky mode, where teams try to get a rubber ducky across the finish line first.

Everyone that owns an Xbox 360 needs to go try Hydro Thunder Hurricane.  It’s a sequel done right, taking the best parts of the original, making them better, and giving you more craziness.  And, above all else, it’s a game that’s simply fun.

Review: Blacklight: Tango Down

I loved all of the Order graffiti in the levels

Originally posted on Gamers With Casts

Released On: XBLA (reviewed), PSN, PC
Developed By: Zombie Studios
Published By: UTV Ignintion Entertainment
Available: Now
MSRP: $15

Blacklight: Tango Down is the newest game from Zombie Studios, who typically create realistic, modern-day shooters.  This time, instead of focusing on modern day, realistic shooting, they’ve skipped 25 years into the future for their new, solid shooter.

If you’ve played any online first person shooters over the past few years, you’ll likely know how to play Tango Down.  The controls are the same, the loadout and experience system is similar, and the various online modes are all familiar.  The standard Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch are really the focus here, with Capture the Flag and Domination modes rounding out the options.  There’s also a simple Black Ops mode, which pits you against enemies in some of the game’s maps solo or with friends, but online modes are really the draw here.

Zombie manages to keep the whole package from feeling like a copy of other games in the genre by keeping the shooting solid.  All the weapons, no matter if they’re a handgun, sniper rifle, or a giant heavy machine gun, are incredibly responsive and just feel right.  As you kill enemies and gain experience, you’ll gain access to more types of armor (along with camo for that armor) and different configurations for the two weapons you carry into each match.  I was very impressed by the stats the game keeps; you not only get shots fired/shots hit overall, but you get those stats for each weapon along with how many wins you’ve had overall.  Many of those stats also tie into the game’s 165 medals, which track everything from kills with weapons to how many canisters you’ve captured.

I typically don’t like writing about graphics in my reviews, but I need to make an exception for Tango Down.  I had someone over while I was playing and he had mistaken it for a full retail title.  Zombie managed to squeeze an amazing looking game out of the finicky Unreal Engine 3.  Some of the maps can fall into the UE3 trap of having too many browns and grays, but the maps are largely colorful and filled with little touches like monitors flickering and plenty of great lighting.  Couple that with deliberate uses of code and pixelation during certain attacks (one type of grenade will even cause your helmet to blue screen) or respawning and you have a game that really stands out in a genre that encourages facsimiles.

The helmet your character wears, known as the Hyper Reality Visor, is an interesting addition (besides the blue screening).  If you hit up on the d-pad (I played the Xbox 360 version for my review), your visor switches to a different mode that shows the location of your enemies.  That mode does have a rather serious cooldown, so it’s hard to exploit.  Though I didn’t use it that often, I did find it useful when I’m wandering around a map and feeling like I was missing all the action.

Even if you’re religiously playing one online shooter or another, you need to give Blacklight: Tango Down a chance.  I think you’ll be as surprised as I was at how much fun it is.  And at $15 on all platforms, it’s far cheaper than a lot of the other shooters out there and has all the features and modes you’d want.  And if you enjoy this game, Zombie’s already working hard on the second one, so there’s even more great shooting on the horizon.

Review: 3D Dot Game Heroes

Looking majestically over the pixel landscape

Originally posted on Gamers With Casts

Released On: PS3 (reviewed)
Developed By: FROM Software
Published By: Atlus
Available: Now
MSRP: $40

Like the last From Software developed, Atlus published game, Demon’s Souls, 3D Dot Game Heroes has generally been boiled down to one core idea when people talk about it.  With Demon’s Souls, you would always hear, “It’s so brutally difficult.”  With 3D Dot Game Heroes, “It’s the first Legend of Zelda.”

That comparison isn’t completely off base, but it does do 3D Dot Game Heroes a bit of a disservice.  There have been quite a few improvements to the action adventure genre over the years, much of which is (thankfully) included here.

Continue reading

Review: City Builder

Building bridges to yet more levels.

Originally posted on Gamers With Casts

Released On: Wii (reviewed), PC
Developed By: Collision Studios
Published By: VP Games
Available: Now
MSRP: $30

When I was presented with City Builder as my next review game, I was excited to play it.  Looking at the screenshots and videos, City Builder reminded me of the old puzzle game Pipe Dream if someone combined it with the look of Sim City 2000.

Continue reading

Review: Bloomies

That's right, there are pirate bees.

Originally posted on Gamers With Casts

Released On: iPhone (reviewed), iPod Touch, iPad
Developed By: Phantoom Entertainment
Available: Now
MSRP: $1

To be honest, Bloomies isn’t a game that I would have been drawn to naturally, with its saccharine sweet graphics and cheery music.  But the more I played Bloomies, the more I grew to love it and realize that it was like a two-dimensional, portable Viva Pinata-style game.

Continue reading