Tuesday, December 30, 2008


Like Uncharted, LittleBigPlanet is a game that only recently caught my attention. After a bit of research into it, I quickly became excited; the game really looked great. Apparently, I wasn't alone, as, despite Sony's marketing campaign, LittleBigPlanet took many people by surprise with its cute and fun charm, coupled with its polished gameplay and incredible replay value.

Three words: Play, Create, and Share. Those are the words that form the game's marketing slogan, and also the words that best sum up the game as a whole, and the game's developer, Media Molecule, has stressed the idea that no one of the three is more important the other two.

For the "Play" component, you and up to three other players, online or offline (or any combination of the two) control highly customizable (and undeniably cute) "Sack boys/girls" as you work together to complete a level. LittleBigPlanet is a 2.5D (3D graphics, 2D gameplay) platformer that plays similarly to the old Sonic and Mario games, with a lot of twists thrown in with the typical run and jump formula. In addition to jumping, your Sackperson can also grab and push things (and other Sack people). Throughout your travels, you'll come across all manner of contraptions, such as cars, air ships, and trains. The folks at Media Molecule have created a set number of stages that ship with the game, and are organized into a story campaign. The story isn't a masterpiece, but that's fine since, more importantly, it gets you well used to what the game is all about, and how best to play it.

You'll also come across numerous bubble objects that often contain items, like stickers, decorations, materials, or things to further customize your Sack person with. Though they are predominantly just cosmetic, you'll sometimes encounter blank cardboard shapes which, when given the right sticker, activate special areas or more prize bubbles. Bubbles further your score and, when found in quick succession, can quickly multiply. Online leaderboards inform you how well you did compared to other players at the end of each level.
You'll start the game in your pod, which is a small space ship overlooking three planets: LittleBigPlanet, where the story takes place, the InfoMoon, where you can access a wealth of information and view your friends and profile, and MyMoon, home to all of your custom levels. Other players, online or off, can join you at any time, whether you're in a level, in your pod, or creating a level. Your pod can also be decorated with stickers and decorations.

The "Create" aspect covers level building. At any time after you've completed the initial tutorial levels, you can use the materials you've acquired so far to craft your own level from the ground up. Using various tools, you can add music, living creatures that can be programmed to speak to you, elements like electric floors and elevators, just about anything you can dream up can be made with relative ease here. Unfortunately, the game does force you to go through a lot of tutorials before you can really get to work, but they are mostly brief, and they're all actual levels that you play through, not just videos you sit and watch. Fortunately, loading times between your level and a tutorial level are fairly brief, so being forced to go through them is forgivable. Friends can also join you while you build, with all of you working as a team to build the perfect level.

Most of the "Share" aspect is online. This encompasses publishing your level online for others to play, trying out other people's levels, and commenting on them. Though the system is organized a little a sloppily, its not a big thing to complain about, and doesn't take away much from the overall experience.

Like I mentioned before, your Sackperson is fully customizable. The game ships with dozens of clothing and facial options for your little guy on the disc, and even more are readily available from the Playstation Store, some for free, some for a couple bucks. Examples of downloadable costumes include Ryu from Street Fighter, Old Snake from Metal Gear Solid 4 (complete with the Solid Eye and The Boss's bandanna), Santa Claus, and a Chimera from Resistance 2. All of these come in pieces, not sets, so you can mix and match elements of different costumes, like using Ryu's hairstyle, bandanna, and red gloves with Santa's coat and trousers. Add a large mustache and goatee and you've got a Sack boy to call your own.

LittleBigPlanet is a great game. Even if you're not connected to the internet, the fairly long campaign stuffed full of hidden items, not to mention the full featured level builder, adds an unprecedented amount of replay value to the game. Add in 4 player cooperative multiplayer that is very humorous at times, and you've got a golden package. LittleBigPlanet isn't perfect, it has its stutters occasionally, but overall its a game full of fun adventures. A 9.5/10, in my opinion.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

PixelJunk Eden

So, I bought this game kind of on a whim, and because it was on sale. All I can say is, its a really unique game.

In PixelJunk Eden, you play as an organism that is bent on collecting Spectra to bring life to its own Eden. It goes about this task by visiting different worlds to fetch them. Its only tool is its ability to use a thread of silk to swing from soft surfaces. Once you start of PixelJunk, you'll notice that the game is quite simplistic. Once you get past the first menu, most things are accessed during gameplay. Your little guy can latch onto nearly every structure in the game, most of which he can also swing from with his thread of silk.

Your primary goal is simply to find the given amount of Spectra in a level. From this goal branches two sub-goals: Find pollen to sprout seeds, and collect crystals to extend the amount of time you can stay there. On the bottom left portion of the screen sits a bar, that gradually depletes as you play. Once the bar reaches zero, you fail the world and have to try again. To replenish the bar's energy, you have to collect crystals.

Spectra are generally very high up, or in places impossible to reach when you first enter a level. To "unlock" more of the level, you have to build your own path up by collecting pollen, which is dropped by Prowlers (floating enemies that come in a variety of shapes and sizes), and giving it to the dozens of seeds sitting around the level. Once a seed has collected enough pollen, you can touch it to sprout it, giving rapid birth to a new plant that you can climb up, allowing you to reach new heights, and consequently bringing you that much closer to grabbing the Spectra.

The graphics style of PixelJunk Eden is very colorful and interesting. Each world has a different palette and style, and though the game takes a while to grow on you, It will. Eventually I found myself looking forward to each new world to try, and couldn't help smiling whenever I found innovative new ways to reach each Spectra. With each one you collect, a new piece of scenery will sprout forth in your Eden, allowing you to reach new worlds.

Overall, the game is very simple, yet fun at its core, and just a good way to pass the time. I think it was worth $5, but I wouldn't have paid much more for it.

The game also has three player co-op multiplayer and trophies, but they are ridiculously difficult to obtain, with little payback. Grabbing every single spectra is one of the simpler tasks at hand. And since the game not only lacks a platinum trophy, but only has mostly bronze, with a couple silvers tossed in (no golds), I just don't see much reward in it beyond bragging rights. A 7.5/10.

Heavenly Sword

When the Ps3 was released, its launch lineup wasn't overly exciting. Like the PsP, only recently (within the past half year or so) has the system's game library really begun to climb in popularity, with the release of titles like Resistance 2, Metal Gear Solid 4, Uncharted, and the wildly popular LittleBigPlanet.

Heavenly Sword also contributed to this rise. A lot of hype surrounded its beautiful graphics and interesting gameplay style.

Heavenly Sword tells the story of Nariko, a young woman who is born into a tribe that fears and shuns her, regarding her as a curse. This is because, according to a long held prophecy, Nariko's mother was to give birth to a male, who would wield the clan's heirloom, the Heavenly Sword, and lead them to greatness. When Nariko, instead a female, was born, everyone thought the clan had been cursed. Since then, Nariko has grown up with only Kai, her friend and adoptive sister to call a companion. Her mother died giving birth and her father is formal with her, being her tutor first and her father second.

Her clan is made up of skillful warriors, and though they enjoyed a long time of peace, this was shattered by the appearance of King Bohan and his army, who have been constantly tracking Nariko and her tribe in order to take the Heavenly Sword, an incredible weapon that is said to have descended from heaven. However, wielding the sword leads to inevitable death, as the sword feeds on the life force of its user. However, when the rest of her tribe is captured, Nariko is forced to wield it anyway, sacrificing her life to fight for her people.

Starting a new game, you are immediately given control of Nariko as she fights hundreds of thousands of troops in the last few minutes of her life. Enemies will come at you in huge swarms, but she'll fight on, eventually prompting a cutscene that shows her finally collapsing in battle, the sword having taken all of her life force.
The game then shows her waking up in an after life of sorts. She begs the sword to give her just a little more time, prompting it to raise a huge monolith from the ground behind her. The game proceeds in this way, with each monolith representing a chapter in the last few days of her life before she died.

Heavenly Sword is primarily a hack n slash game, similar to the likes of God of War and Ninja Gaiden. Though I haven't played much of either series, I like the game's control scheme. The Heavenly Sword has three forms, or "stances". Speed stance is the default, where Nariko wields two short blades and specializes in quick blows and counters in quick succession. Holding R1 switches to the Power stance, where the sword combines into one big sword. This form is really powerful, but of course is slower. You can dispatch most enemies (if you catch them off guard) in just a couple hits in Power stance. Holding L1 switches to Range stance, where the sword becomes a chain blade similar to what Kratos from God of War wields. The Ranged stance does very little damage, and is basically only useful for crowd control (that is, if enemies get a little too close for comfort), but it also inexplicable creates whirlwinds around Nariko when used, and its always amusing to see an enemy try his best to block the onslaught of chain blades, only to get swept off his feet by a sudden gust of wind.

Combat is executed in some form or another with all four of the symbol buttons. The square and triangle buttons are the primary attack buttons. Tapping triangle at the right time will execute a counter that will immediately kill the enemy. Some of these are pretty brutal. Examples include Nariko acrobatically grabbing an enemy and flicking him away, or knocking him down before placing her feet on each side of his neck, then twisting her legs, snapping it. The circle button is used to activate Super styles, which are impressive special attacks that defeat mostly everyone around Nariko in a wide radius. One such attack has Nariko grabbing a target and jumping into the air before flipping him over, standing in between his legs (ouch!), and slamming down to the ground, which sends out a tremendous shockwave that sends anyone close enough flying. Super styles are also used during some boss fights as interactive cut scenes of sorts. The X button is used to pick up and throw objects, such as fallen enemies and weapons. Holding X instead just tapping it lets you influence the object's path with the SIXAXIS motion sensing via a cool feature called Aftertouch.

As the controls would indicate, this game is really all about its combat. There's no jump button or crouch button or any typical action you'd find in a platformer or action adventure. However, the game is presented well, and combat holds up well for the most part. There will be times here and there where it will get repetitive, but there's enough variety thrown into the mix to keep it from becoming frustrating.

Speaking of variety, you won't actually play through the whole game as Nariko. You'll also spend a fair amount of time controlling Kai, who wields a huge crossbow. Though its a strange change of pace, Kai's segments are just as fun and amusing as Nariko. In stark contrast to Nariko's fierce, no nonsense personality, Kai is very playful and likes to play jokes on her enemies. There were a few parts where I couldn't help but chuckle (the poor guard being trapped in a building with fireworks going off inside comes to mind). Kai doesn't fair well in close quarters combat, so you'll have more fun picking enemies off from a distance. Or rather, you'll have lots of fun. Using the Aftertouch feature, picking enemies off with Kai's crossbow can be riot. Though it's generally a one hit kill wherever you hit them, enemies respond differently depending on where the arrow lands. A headshot will stop them in their tracks as they arc backwards suddenly with the force of the arrow slamming into their skull nearly tipping them over. They'll groan and stutter for some time before falling backward. I don't know why, maybe I'm overly sadistic, but I found experimenting with them to be hilarous. All the while, Kai will occasionally make comments on particularly painful looking hits, like "Ouch, that's gotta hurt".

The whole game is fun to playthrough, and though there are a few times where puzzles seemed out of place or overly frustrating, the overall feeling is that Heavenly Sword was a well polished game. My largest complaint is shared with most others who have played the game, which is that its incredibly short. I was able to play through about 85% of the story and get most of the unlockables along the way in an evening. Its hard to justify paying more than $50 for it.

However, the game is most certainly worth a rent. With its easy controls, good story, and awesome graphics, this is a great game for anyone who likes hack and slash games to have. An 8/10.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Uncharted: Drake's Fortune

Actually, I can't even remember why I got this game, now that I sit down and think about it. I sure hadn't been paying it much attention, and had only heard a little about it due to it being released in the 160gb ps3 bundle.

But, I did, and I'm glad, because this is one great game.

Uncharted: Drake's Fortune follows explorer Nathan Drake (who is supposedly descended from explorer Francis Drake) as he searches for clues left behind by his ancestor to El Dorado. He is accompanied by Victor Sullivan (aka Sully) and Elena Fisher, a reporter documenting his journey.

Drake is a smart talking guy with a sense of humor and a generally laid back personality. This becomes immediately apparent at the beginning of the game, when him and Elena's boat is ambushed by pirates. Drake, unfazed simply tosses a gun to Elena and starts shooting.

Elena is a bit more serious, but settles into the other two's stride quickly. She has surprising proficiency with firearms, and has quite a left hook, as Drake later finds out. Throughout the game, she carries a portable camera to film Drake as he delves deeper into the mystery of El Dorado. Though she is initially a very no nonsense person around him, she warms up to him as they spend more time together.

Sully is a middle aged man who has been friends with Drake for a long time, apparently. He's hoping whatever treasure they find will help get him out of the mountain of debt he's in. Like Drake, Sully has a sense of humor and is quite laid back, but knows when its time to be serious.

The game is an action adventure comparable to the Tomb Raider series. You'll play through the whole game as Drake, who, though very human, has a fair amount of physical prowess. As you go through the game, you'll jump, climb, and fight your way through tropical jungles dense with trees and moisture, caves and ruins with plenty of puzzles and ancient artifacts, and forests, heavy with fog and abandoned structures.

As you traverse these environments, you'll primarily spend your time 1)behind cover, as enemies will ambush you very, very often (fighting/shooting is a probably a larger part of the game than the adventuring) 2)climbing walls, navigating gaps, and hiking 3)gazing around for a way to proceed to either #1 or #2 as you observe the amazing graphics of the game and perhaps a glint of treasure 4)solving puzzles.

As briefly mentioned a few seconds ago, this game has really, really great graphics. Its easy to see that Naughty Dog is putting the Ps3's processing power to work. Forests and jungles seem alive, as light bounces off of leaves that bristle in the wind. The background music blends well with the environments, and everything just feels well done.

The effects also work well too. If something explodes too close to you, a sharp ringing will blot out other noises (including the BGM) and gradually fade, just as a sudden loud noise would cause ringing in your ears in real life. Following a recent trend going on shooting games as of late, Uncharted has a minimal HUD. There's no health bars, and your ammo indicator, though easy to read, only shows up when it's needed. That is, when you switch weapons, or start shooting. Instead of a health bar, as Nate takes damage, the screen will lose color. Its a subtle effect at first, but still quite noticeable. You'll know you're just about finished when the screen is devoid of color and you'll hear Nate's heartbeat (each beat is matched by a gentle pulse from your controller, if you're using a Dualshock 3, to make it more immersive). Avoid taking damage for a few seconds and the environment will regain its lush color and detail, and you'll be back in business. Many actions in the game are coupled with a steady commentary from Nate or his partners. For example, early on in the game, as him and Sully explore a jungle, you'll have full control over Nate as the two converse, give each other suggestions, and voice their observations. In another part of the game, as Nate climbs across the outer wall of a fortress, he'll often re-assure himself (or call himself insane for doing such a thing). Nate supplies a steady commentary of certain actions and events, such as frequently expressing annoyance at yet another pirate or mercenary ambush, or observing something the player might have missed (the game's way of giving hints).

The AI is also fairly well done. Enemies, occasionally stutter, and seem to prefer quantity over quality, but aren't incredibly stupid, and aren't going to continue simply trying to shoot you if you run up to them and hit them in the face. They don't really use tactics, but generally make good use of cover. The one complaint I have is that there's really no way to stealth kill enemies. This seems to be one of those games where once you pass some invisible line, all the enemies in the area automatically know that you're there, regardless of where you are, and whether, realistically speaking, they can actually see you. But this isn't a big deal, as the game doesn't really provide for much sneaky killing anyways.

Your allies are much more reliable, intelligence wise. Elena and Sully will make use of cover, and know when to duck and hide, when to flee (grenade!), and when to take a peek and maybe fire a potshot. Even if they weren't invincible, I feel like I wouldn't have to constantly worry about them over my shoulder.

As I said earlier, combat is a constantly recurring affair. You'll be ambushed by about 10 or so pirates, defeat them all, then take maybe 5 steps from the given area and be ambushed all over again. Though its fun and well executed, it does get repetitive, being constantly, constantly ambushed over and over again. When things do die down long enough for the game to give you some time to solve a puzzle or two or get back to just adventuring, though, I found it hard not to forgive the game all over again.

The control scheme is easily remembered, and well done. The D-pad lets you reload, switch weapons (Nate can only carry one pistol type weapon, one assualt rifle or two handed weapon, and a couple grenades), and use grenades. The circle button is an action button of sorts. While running you can do a combat roll, or stick to most walls and structures to use them as cover. While behind cover, you can press R1 (the fire button) to blind fire (same can be done when running around), or peak out with L1 to aim and fire more accurately. If you have a grenade ready, you can further refine its arc and distance beyond the analog controls with the SIXAXIS motion sensing. The X button makes Nate jump (and subsequently latch onto any ledges), and square is for hand to hand combat.

Getting up close and personal, as risky as it tends to be (what with a bunch of other guys with guns trained on you, running out from cover is foolhardy), is a fun and amusing thing to do (and rewarding, as there're a lot of Trophies revolving around hand to hand combat). Mashing square executes a quick combo, but Nate also has an array of "Brutal combos" in his arsenal that come with tapping a combination of square and triangle. Brutal Combos are pretty mean, and are indicated by one hit that occurs in slow motion.

Like Gears of War, cover is an essential thing through the first 3/4 of the game. I say 3/4 because very late in the story, the enemies change dramatically (I won't give much away, but I will say that cover becomes obsolete). Nate won't last very long out in the open (especially since they eventually start using snipers and grenade launchers, which can easily down you in two hits or less), so its important that, during fights, you spend most of your time behind some structure, showing yourself only long enough to squeeze out a shot or two. Your enemies will do the same (except for snipers, who will always be visible, and enemies toting grenade launchers, who will run around the area like idiots).

Overall, the game was a really fun playthrough, with an immersive story that blended well into the gameplay, likable and dependable characters, and some of the best graphics I've ever seen. Though its completely single player, and has no other modes, there's plenty of Trophies and unlockable rewards to keep you playing at least a few more times. A 9/10.