Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Prince of Persia

It's been a long time since I've touched a Prince of Persia game. The first and last game I played was the first one on Gamecube: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. It was a good game, and I liked it a lot, but after that I drifted away from the series, all but ignoring its successors.

But, with the buzz surrounding it, I was intrigued by this game, and bought it. Like most will say after playing it, the game does a lot of things differently, which has made it hit or miss with fans of the series.

Like its predecessors, Prince of Persia is made of primarily of two key elements: combat and acrobatics. During combat, players have a wide variety of dazzling moves available to them, while, during more peaceful portions, you'll be able to run, jump, climb, and wallrun your way to your objective. Along the way, you'll occasionally encounter puzzles, which decidedly feel out of place.
This installment doesn't really change that very much.

The story follows a young man dubbed "The Prince" (as usual, the main character is not named ever), as he struggles through an intense sandstorm. Searching for his donkey (who just happens to be named Farah), which is loaded with gold from a previous adventure, he falls through a hole and into a canyon, where he meets a woman named Elika, who is fleeing from a group of soldiers. Beating their pursuers back and following her into a temple, he witnesses the destruction of the Fertile Tree, which was sealing the evil god Ahriman. Ahriman escapes, and unleashes his power onto the land. The light fades, the plants die, and pure corruption (looks like black ooze) begins to settle all around the region like mold. Elika explains that though the tree has been destroyed, enough power currently remains to seal Ahriman within the region. However, once it depletes, he'll be able to wreak havoc on the world at large. The only way to restore power to the tree is to heal the many fertile grounds in the area. However, Ahriman has released his four minons, the Corrupted, to guard these areas. And so the duo set out to heal the land.

Elika will accompany you everywhere, even in battle. You can't get far without her, but she can't do this without you. Elika is just about as athletically fit as Prince, and will always be able to keep up with you. She also has magic powers, and uses them instead of any physical weapon. Triangle is the "Elika" button. Out of combat, pressing it while on the ground will make her use her magic compass, which helps guide you to your next destination. Press it in the air and Elika will teleport to you and toss you that extra distance you might need to make it to the next platform. In combat, pressing triangle prompts Elika into action. She'll leap at the enemy and start bashing him/her with magic. She's responsive enough that it almost feels like having a third arm; that's just how fluid her teamwork with the Prince is. Though this might seem like the perfect set up for multiplayer coop, the option isn't there; Elika is completely AI controlled. Still, she's very reliable, and there was perhaps one or two instances throughout the whole playthrough that I felt a little frustrated with her. Elika is the princess of the region, and it was her father, the king, who diced the fertile tree. The general consensus seems to be it was Ahriman swaying his mind, already vulnerable from the death of Elika's mother. Elika is kind, but has a strict sense of duty, and is very loyal to the god Ormazd (Ahriman's brother), the one who granted her powers. She keeps Prince at length for quite a while, but eventually softens up to him.

The Prince is emphasized to be a mere mortal. He has no magic, no wierd or supernatural tricks up his sleeve or anything of that sort. All he has is his gauntlet, his sword, and his physical finess.
With Elika always trailing close behind, he can wallrun, climb up walls short distances, ROOFRUN (the guy literally crawls across a roof for a foot. not possible? O_O), and use his gauntlet to "gripfall" down any surface. By gripfalling, I mean the Prince slides down a wall by using his gauntlet claws to slow his descent and keep him from detaching. Most things you might have against the Prince will be tough to not forgive once you see him do a roofrun, or gripfall down the side of a tower. Prince is a real charismatic guy (same guy who voiced Drake from Uncharted voices the Prince, by the way), and likes to tell jokes and play games, to Elika's constant annoyance. He's very easygoing, and doesn't believe in any sort of religion or fate.

Combat is one of the most expansive aspects of the game, perhaps THE most expansive. All battles (indeed, the game as whole), and the moves used in them are designed to have a very cinematic flair to them, and it makes watching the game in action almost as fun as playing it. Though very simple to learn, the combo tree is surprisingly deep, and takes some practice to master. The square button is assigned to Prince's sword, which is of course going to be a slash from him of some type, and the triangle button calls Elika (who stays close behind Prince until called on, as if on standby) into action, who beats back the enemy. Elika's attacks are useful because they're unblockable, and thus good for getting a juggle combo going. While square and triangle are the main attack buttons, X and O are more useful for keeping it going. X goes to acrobatic attacks, which, as their name implies, are always pretty fun to watch. O is assigned to your gauntlet, and tosses your opponent into the air, after which you can follow up with any of the other three.

The beauty of the combat in Prince of Persia is that just about any button can be chained to another to make combos branch off in a variety of paths. For example, after alternating between sword slashes and Elika (Prince moves in for a slash, than backs off and Elika moves in etc.), for 3 hits or so, I can press X to move in for an acrobatic attack, then circle to somersault over the target and launch him, than have Elika juggle him, then X again to have Prince leap up for an attack, or square to have him leap up and smash the enemy back down with his sword. Or, instead of starting with alternating attacks, I could hit with Elika the whole time, then move with circle and launch the target before starting up a couple aerial attacks with X, then smashing the opponent down with square, before literally throwing Elika at the enemy from midair, who tackles him/her. Its tough to master, but rewarding once you've gotten to the point where you can defeat an enemy with full health with one well-orchestrated combo. Besides the standard input buttons, you can block/deflect enemy attacks with R2, and, if you're in a hurry, even insta-kill some enemies by pushing them off the arena or into a wall. Enemies will also commonly start quick time events (If you've played God of War, The Force Unleashed, Heavenly Sword, or really, just about any action or hack and slash game out there, you've played a Quick Time Event plenty of times, trust me), and frequently change form or use their own special attacks to gain the upper hand. By changing form, enemies can make themselves invinvible to all but one type of attack. For example, when the target imbues himself with a bluish aura, nothing but a woopin' with Prince's sword will get him back in shape. Gauntlet and acrobatics get repelled, and Elika just bounces off of him/her (and gets knocked unconscious in the process). When the enemy sprouts dark tentacles, only Elika can hurt him/her. Furthering the "The Prince is only human" idea, you can basically only take one hit before the enemy has a chance to kill you. First hit, Prince is limping. He'll be fine if you don't get hit for a while, but usually, with one more hit, a Quick Time Event will ensue, giving you one final chance to escape death.

Combat in Prince of Persia is, however, not very common. Your main opponents will be the four Corrupted: The Hunter (funnest to fight in my opinion), who attacks in a quick flurry and will spit in your face to block your vision temporarily, The Concubine (most annoying, because she changes forms almost every few seconds) who can reverse your movement controls with her charm (har har), The Warrior, a hulking beast of an opponent who is so thick with armor, he's impervious to all normal attacks (everytime you fight him, you gotta either lock him in or into something or knock him off the arena), and the Alchemist (second most annoying because he uses Quick Time Events almost as often as he uses normal attacks), who uses magic and intellect to fight Prince and Elika. They each control 1/4 of the region, with each section having four fertile grounds to heal. You'll have to defeat the respective Corrupted at each fertile ground before you can heal it. After all four grounds in their area is healed, you gain access to that boss's final lair, where you can destroy him/her once and for all. Since there's 4 sections, and 4 fertile grounds in each area, there's 16 fertile grounds. Add in the entrance grounds for each section (one for each), and each boss's lair, and you have 24 fertile grounds to heal, before you go on to the final boss.

Those looking for a challenge will want to note something about Prince of Persia: you can't fail. There's no "Game over" screen, or way to die. If you slip and fall off a ledge, or screw up a wallrun, or whatever, Elika will save you. Even if you fail the life or death Quick Time Event in combat, Elika will save you (though this gives the enemy a chance to regain health). She'll always save you, and drop you off at the last place where you were standing on solid ground. Naturally, this destroys any serious difficulty the game might have had. This is coupled with the fact that, as deep as combos can get, as long as you know how to block and deflect, you can get by any battle in the game with cheap 3-4 hit combos, like just mashing square over and over again. There's no huge incentive for learning the ropes of combat, besides feeling incredibly accomplished and suddenly very powerful.

Perhaps to make it more accessible, the game's controls are very simplified, and it feels like the game itself is holding your hand at times. Everything you'll need to get from one place to another can probably be done with just the X, triangle, O, and R2 buttons (and of course the left analog stick). X handles jumping, and all acrobatics that come after it, triangle helps you find your way to your destination and do a coop jump, and R2 is used for descent, namely gripfall. O is used almost exclusively to swing on wall mounted rings to extend a wallrun. It makes the game fun to play, but it also makes it feel...shallow, for lack of a better word. Also, nearly everything you can do is unlocked as soon as you first set out from the temple to start healing the land. The Prince's weapons and abilities don't change at all, and neither does the combo tree. If you have experience from a previous playthrough, you could be doing 14 hit combos right from the beginning. Even though technically, all the lands are available to you from the beginning, the game does provide some amount of linear gameplay by making each land (except for the Boss lairs and entrance grounds)require a certain power to heal. There are four powers to unlock, each of which have no impact on combat. You can get these powers in any order, but they each require a progressively larger amount of light seeds to unlock. Light seeds are acquired by healing lands. Each area spawns 45 light seeds after being healed, which are scattered all around the area (some harder to find than others). In total, there are exactly 1001 Light seeds to be found in the game, including one very last one that I won't talk about, though you'll only need a little over half that many to beat the game.

With such little amount of of linear gameplay, its hard to imagine how a plot could be strung together. Well, between the events of the beginning of the game and the end, much of the character fleshing out and plot is told via the L2 button, which can be pressed at any time to start up a dialogue between Elika and the Prince. Sometimes its about Elika's history, sometimes its about the boss of the current region you're in, sometimes its about the overall game plot, and sometimes its just the Prince playing jokes on Elika. Either way, I liked this feature a LOT, and would often stop in the middle of my adventuring to relax a bit while the two struck up a game of I Spy. Besides the on-demand L2 dialogue (which is fully voiced, by the way), there are a few cutscenes along the way, usually before or after a boss battle or after healing a fertile ground. All of these string together well enough to form an interesting tale.

Complementing its cinematic style of gameplay, Prince of Persia looks beautiful. Its drawn style of the characters and evironments almosts makes the game look like it jumped right out of a storybook. Complementing this is some truly great animation. The Prince and Elika move across the lands with great flow and fluidity, and the world itself seems alive. Flowers sway in the breeze, corruption reaches out when you get too close, ready to suck you in, and wood under your foot creaks of old age. The draw distance is also incredible, the best I've ever seen in a videogame. Searching for light seeds, you could climb to the top of a high tower housing one fertile ground, and see several others in the distance. If you're really sharp, you can even make out light seeds all the way at the bottom, possibly in other sections of the region. It really is a awesome thing to behold. The game does stutter and glitch sometimes though. I remember at the very beginning of the game, I walked out of the temple for the first time only to realize the entire desert before me had completely disappeared. It would appear to be there from a distance, and then just vanish as I got closer. I thought it was an actual game mechanic at first, but it was apparently a glitch, because it came back for good after I restarted the game. There were also a couple instances where buttons siezed to work, or the framerate would dip noticeably when there were too many effects on screen at once (For those who have beaten the game, the very last scene in the game comes to mind).

Unfortunately, the game offers very little replay value. I was able to squeeze an extra week out of it plowing for Trophies (currently have about 4 left until platinum), but besides some skins (like Altair from Assassin's Creed for Prince, or Jade from Beyond Good and Evil) and artwork ( I got the Limited Edition, so there's also a bonus disc I havent looked at yet), not much else to do, unless you feel like just wandering around doing acrobatics. It's a great game, and a fun game, but not everyone will like it. An 8.5/10

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Hayate no Gotoku

Here's an anime series I've been watching on and off over the past few months.  It's currently 52 episodes long, with another season already confirmed.

Hayate no Gotoku has a pretty large cast of characters, but many of them appear infrequently, or are only mentioned, much to their disappointment.  Yes, this is an anime that br
eaks the fourth wall constantly, with characters complaining about how very little screentime they get, or chastising others for doing things that may not go so well with their audience.

Among this large cast, there is of course a group of major characters.  At the helm are the three in the picture: Hayate in the top left, Maria in the top right, and Nagi in front of them.

Hayate is an incredibly unfortunate guy who, despite his kind, humble nature and hard working personality, can't seem to catch a break.  Right at the beginning of the first episode, he returns home to find that his irresponsible parents have screwed up financially and fled, leaving a debt of 150,000,000 yen (Over $1,500,000) on Hayate's shoulder's.  What's more, they attempted to ease this debt buy selling Hayate's organs to the local Yakuza.  Overwhelmed, Hayate reluctantly decides to try kidnapping someone for ransom.  He soon meets Nagi Sanzenin, a young, very rich girl at a vending machine, and decides to take her.  Nagi mistakes his words ("Come with me") as a love confession, and invitation to a date, and quickly falls in love with him, with disheartens Hayate from trying to kidnap her.  The Yakuza track Hayate down, however, and try to kidnap Nagi, but Hayate protects  her, which leads her to offer him a job as her butler, so that he can pay back his debt.  All of this happens in one episode, by the way. 

Like I said, Hayate is a real nice guy, and tries his best to not trouble whoever he meets.  He bears no hostility towards anyone, until they attempt to hurt Nagi.  Then he eradicates them.  Hayate is also inexplicably powerful.  In fact, at times, he seems invincible.  Rescueing Nagi in the first episode, he gets hit by a car and gets right back up.  He can ride a bicycle at speeds that would shame a rocket powered car, while towing a large carriage.  He's incredibly fast, can jump to extreme heights, and has a wide arsenal of talents, including art authentication, fly fishing, proficiency with firearms, and excellent cooking and cleaning skills.  He also seems to have some skill at DBZ style energy attacks, and eventually develops an ultimate technique.  He's also known to be able to defeat Tama (the Sanzenin's extremely large white tiger) with his bare hands.  However, having had little time for education trying to keep him and his parents off the street, Hayate struggles with school, and throughout the series, just barely manages to get by with passing marks.  Though he's noted for his kind personality, Nagi and a select few other characters who have a crush on him are constantly frustrated by his complete and utter lack of understanding of the female mind, staying completely oblivious to just about every flirt and advance that's made to him.  Naturally, he earns kicks and punches from these girls on a regular basis because of it.  Because of his apparent inability to say no to requests, Hayate is treated as chump by many characters, who either look down on him or see him as a well to slack off.  Nagi and Maria also believe Hayate looks feminine, and frequently force him to cross dress, usually as a cat girl.
As Hayate nervously takes his leave, Nagi is saying "Dang, he got away."  
Notice Maria is holding a High School girl's disguise.

Nagi Sanzenin is the rich heir to the Sanzenin family fortune.  Her funds seem nearly limitless, which is shown by her mansion, her extremely large estate (which has a built in theme park, lake, and forest), the large monument she had erected for Hayate when he passed his final exams, and her education.  Nagi attends the prestigious Hakou Acedemy, which supposedly is extremely rigorous.  She's had extensive singing lessons, and knows several languages.  Through her help, Hayate is also able to attend Hakou.  Nagi is the perfect example of a tsundere (that is, a girl who is extremely fierce on the outside, but soft on the inside, put simply).  She is competitive, and has a fiery temper, but is quick to blush whenever Hayate unknowingly says or does something she interprets as being out love.  She is also a huge nerd.  Though she somehow has perfect grades, Nagi very rarely goes to school, usually skipping it, in favor of staying home to play videogames, watch anime, and read manga.  She's especially knowledgeable about mecha series, namely Gundam, and is even drawing her own manga, though it doesn't make much sense.  A running gag throughout the series is Nagi's horrible cooking and cleaning skills.  Though her cooking skills begin to improve towards the end of the series, early on, anyone taste testing her meals probably had a death wish.  She can't even make a cup ramen.
Nagi is quick to get angry.

Nagi's maid and Hayate's friend and advisor is Maria, a young 17 year old who is wise and mature beyond her years.  In fact, many characters instinctively see her as being as old as she acts, to her frustration.  Maria is perhaps the only character in the series who understands just about everything that goes on, including the relationship between Nagi and Hayate.  She is a trustworthy and knowledgeable character, who helps Hayate out on numerous occasions.  Like Hayate, she is skilled at self defense and house keeping, but unlike him, is also highly intelligent.  Maria is noted for having graduated from Hakou at the top of her class at the age of 13, receiving many awards and maintaining the position of student body president along the way.  No matter what happens throughout the show, Maria is generally there to keep things from getting out of hand.  Hayate is occasionally shown to have a small crush on her, which she appears to be unaware of.

Other major characters include Hinagiku, Saki and Wataru, Isumi, Sakuya, and Ayuma Nishizawa.  Hinagiku is a classmate of Hayate and Nagi, and also student body president and captain of the kendo team.  She's very responsible and dedicated to her job, has a competitive personality, a fierce fear of heights, and a crush on Hayate.  It may also be worth noting that she's the only person to whom Hayate has shown feelings back.  
Saki and Wataru run a rental shop called Tachibana.  Though Wataru's family used to be rich, they fell bankrupt.  He is engaged to Nagi, but the two have no feelings for each other since it was arranged before they were born.  Wataru believes the engagement was made only for the money.  Saki is Wataru's maid, and looks out for him.  
Isumi is the heir to another rich family.  She has an absolutely terrible sense of direction, which leads her to get lost almost constantly.  She is able to dispel spirits with spell tags, and shows surprising combat ability.
Sakuya is perhaps my favorite character in the series.  She's obsessed with stand up comedy, and makes jabs constantly, challenging other characters to recognize them (namely Hayate).  She is on good terms with everyone in the series, and has known many of the major characters for a long time.  She's also rich (rich enough to buy a huge Titanic replica to take a cruise on), but not as much as Nagi.  Though she mostly looks down on Hayate, she is occasionally impressed by his abilities, and gives him advice sometimes.
Nishizawa is an old friend of Hayate's who went to the same school as him before he became a butler.  She is considered to be the epitome of "normalness".  To figure out how to be normal, Nagi hangs out with her for a day, to her dismay.  Like Nagi, Nishizawa has an intense crush on Hayate, and the two often compete over him (though he remains oblivious to both of them.).  Nishizawa appears in every episode of the series for at least a couple seconds, usually doing something completely unrelated to the plot of the episode, and almost always eating something.

As you can guess, Hayate no Gotoku is a love comedy, with references from various elements of Japanese culture thrown in on a frequent basis, especially anime and manga, and most often mecha series such as Gundam, Evangelion, and Guren Lagann.  Some are more obvious than others, but seriously, an otaku would be at home here.  Given Nagi's vast fortunes and large imagination, lots of wacky misadventures tend to occur as she tries to capture Hayate's love.

Besides the bond between Nagi and Hayate, the anime has no long term plot.  Though the characters do remember major past events, each episode generally has its own plot.  Its a bit of a slog watching episodes back to back, but each one has its laughs, and is fairly entertaining.  I liked the series as a whole pretty well.