Friday, January 21, 2011

Ace Attorney: Apollo Justice

With the Phoenix Wright era of Ace Attorney games having supposedly ended, it’s come time for everyone’s favorite spiky-haired lawyer to pass on the mantle. And to whom has this honor been passed? A confident young man named Apollo; Apollo Justice, that is (are those puns I spy coming over yonder hill?). And though Mr. Wright and his band of buddies had really grown on my by the time I finished Trials and Tribulations, Apollo’s not such a bad guy.

But hold it! Why don’t we get to play as Phoenix anymore..? The answer is tragic, but simple, friend. He’s not a lawyer anymore. The trial that ended his career occurred seven years prior to this game, and just as you’d expect from anything Phoenix is involved in, it was quite sensational. Legendary, if you will. Phoenix used a piece of evidence in court that turned out to be forged. Fake. Phony. This mistake cost him his badge and his career. Fast forward, seven years later, and Mr. Wright is now a piano player at a pub--except he sucks as playing the piano. Really, Phoenix’s paychecks come from his ability to attract and entertain guests, who come to challenge him to a friendly game of poker. In these past seven years, he hasn’t lost a single game. But once more Phoenix finds himself in the defendant’s chair when his latest game ends in murder. Enter Apollo, who’s new to the lawyer game--much like Phoenix was in the first game--, mentored by Kristoph Gavin, a cool-headed defense lawyer who rose to prominence in Phoenix’s absence. Without spoiling too thing leads to another, and Apollo ends up under Phoenix’s tutelage. Oh, and I should also mention that Phoenix also now has a daughter, Trucy Wright.

But of course, there’s more to this than meets the eye. Who is Trucy really? Why (or perhaps how) did Phoenix present forged evidence? What does Phoenix want with Apollo? Where is Maya!? These are the questions that ran through my mind as I worked my way through Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney.

In general, this game plays just like all other previous Ace Attorney games. Gameplay is split up between two types: investigation and the court trial. During the investigation segment you’ll try to learn more about the situation and build your defense case by gathering evidence and talking to various characters. Remember Ema Skye? Phoenix’s stand-in assistant throughout the final case of the first game? Yeah, she’s back, all grown up. And you know what that means? Forensic Investigation is back! You can closely examine each piece of evidence you come across in 3D, which, just like in the first game, is a common way to uncover more case details. Detective Skye--not particular concerned about such things as prosecutor loyalty--is far more willing to help than Gumshoe often was, if only because it gives her a chance to further indulge in the wonders of science.

Once you’ve done all you can during the investigation segment, you’ll go to court with your findings. Here, it’s you versus the prosecutor; initially Payne, with a swingin’ new hairdo, and later Klavier Gavin, Kristoph’s younger rockstar brother. In addition to presenting the odd piece of incriminating evidence, the prosecutor will attempt to get your client declared guilty by calling key witnesses to the stand. Usually these witnesses’ accounts are flawed in some way though, and it’s your job to bring blast their testimony apart, piece by piece, through cross-examination. This is done by questioning them, and, when you notice a statement that contradicts evidence, presenting the evidence in question to keep them on their toes and hopefully make them slip up. As you progress through the trial, more details of the case’s true nature will dawn on Apollo, and he’ll begin to make accusations and conjecture, which you must back up with evidence and correct logic. Inexplicably, you can’t present profiles, like you could in Justice for All and Trials and Tribulations, but that’s not a complaint, just an observation.

The biggest gameplay addition other than the return of forensic investigation is Apollo’s ability to “perceive” subtle movements in the witnesses. Many witnesses have telling nervous habits, such as fidgeting or neck scratching, that Apollo’s bracelet can pick up on, alerting him to the possibility of there being more to the testimony than meets the eye. When it’s active, you can touch the bracelet to focus, carefully examining each sentence in a statement, watching carefully for odd movements.

As usual, the cases are a little far-fetched and hard to keep up with at times, but the well-done and highly entertaining (read: humorous) writing--by now a staple of the series--coupled with the fantastically colorful cast of characters makes this a petty complaint. Trucy in particular is probably my favorite sidekick character since Wright’s stint with Ema Skye so long ago. Everything about her, from her visual design to her silly magic tricks such as the Amazing Mr. Hat, and Magic Panties (which make for a hilarious sub-plot) is endlessly amusing.

It’s taken me four games to notice, but the art design has slowly, subtly improved over the course of the series. Compare designs and artwork in Apollo Justice to that of the first Phoenix Wright game, and what you find may be surprising. Colors are more vibrant, shapes are much better defined, and the flamboyance of the character designs has been toned down just a tad, for a mildly more believable experience. The game also has more, somewhat more complex pre-rendered videos. Finally, I’ll admit to being more a fan of Apollo’s visual design than Phoenix’s. It’s pretty classy.

I’m about, oh, 40-50% through the game now, and so far I don’t feel like the game’s music is especially better or worse than any other games in the series. Along with a number of others, the “Cornered” theme (you know, the one that plays when you’re kicking butt in court?) has been remixed for Apollo with a jazzy flair, and I dig it a lot.

I miss playing as Wright..I really do. But other than the upcoming Phoenix Wright vs. Professor Layton, it seems his saga is over, at least for now. So I’m happy to know that the young man taking his place as the “Ace Attorney” seems to be capable of filling his mentor’s shoes just fine. An 8.5/10.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Hand's On: Robot Soul Strike Freedom

So for Christmas I treated myself to two more Robot Soul figures: Strike Freedom, from Gundam SEED, and V2 Gundam from Gundam Victory. I’ll talk about the former in this post.

Strike Freedom wasn’t actually in SEED, but rather its second season, Gundam SEED Destiny. It was preceded by the Freedom, which was very similar in design, and was used heavily by Kira until it’s destruction at the hands of Shinn Asuka. Strike Freedom came into being later on, as a replacement. Though the overall design (namely the wings and hip-mounted beam rifles) remained largely the same, Strike Freedom traded Freedom’s twin over-the-the shoulder beam bazookas for a set of DRAGOON remote turrets (basically Funnels; small pods that act autonomously to attack and defend, equipped with their own beam shooters); one for each wing “blade”, totaling eight.

In addition to a powerful new chest-embedded cannon, Strike Freedom ditches a physical shield in favor of a new energy based one, generated from either of the red gems on its wrists. It also comes packing twin handheld beam rifles (which can be combined into one absurdly long one), and two beam sabers, which are also combinable. So, to tally up, Strike Freedom is packing twin hip-mounted beam rifles, two combinable beam sabers, two combinable beam rifles, eight DRAGOONs, and a chest cannon, in addition to the traditional head-embedded guns that most gundams (regardless of the show) are usually equipped with as a last-resort. That’s a lot of heat. The wings also grant it a fairly insane amount of mobility, allowing it zip through the battlefield slaying grunts left and right.

Now, the model. Strike Freedom didn’t actually come with that many accessories. It comes with the twin beam rifles, a few typical sets of hands (closed fists, open hands, and grasping hands), the beam shield, beam blades and their hilts, and the wings, which are initially detached. That’s okay though, because the majority of Strike Freedom’s equipment is built into it. The DRAGOONs, chest cannon, hip guns, and shield generators are all part of its design.

The figure is pretty articulate. The head in particular seems to have “hidden” neck, which can be extended for further articulation, though it looks a bit weird from some angles. The arms are also not as flexible as some other models I have (namely Arbalest), but still good. Without its wings, the figure looks like it has a giant hump sticking out of its back (which are the central verniers, and act as mounting points for the wings. Once the wings are attached, it fits right in though, and they stay in place quite firmly (it takes some force to get them in and out), assuring me they definitely won’t come loose, which is good considering how heavy the wings are. They’re so heavy in fact that it’s pretty much impossible for Strike Freedom to stand on its own with them attached, which is a pity. If the creators knew that Strike Freedom wouldn’t even be able to stand up properly by itself, they should have included a stand.

The wings are also quite articulate. Not quite as much as, say, Guren Kashoushiki’s wings, but there’s definitely a lot of pose potential. Each wing blade (there’s four on each side, stacked in sets of two) can be extended slightly, revealing its gold internals (Strike Freedom is odd in that had its skeletal parts are gold-colored), and also unlocking the mounted DRAGOON, which can then be removed. In a surprising plus, the figure also came with a set of clear plastic extensions, one for each wing blade, that allows you set up poses with the DRAGOONs floating around the figure.

Strike Freedom’s twin beam rifles (both the hip mounted and hand held ones) are also a source of wonder. The handheld ones, while looking identical at first glance, have mildly different functions. One of them has an extending barrel, and the both of them have removable ends, though for different purposes. Combining them creates one absurdly long rifle. The handles can swivel upwards into a depression for increased portability and customization. For some reason, Strike Freedom’s grasp on the rifles is incredibly loose, though. It’s very difficult to get a decent pose with it holding the rifles, without them ending up lopsided.

The hip-mounted cannons definitely rank among one of the cooler facets of this figure. The barrel of each one is extendable (and in fact, removable), once more revealing gold internal parts. It can also fold up for portability, and be swiveled to the back when not in use. Mounted on ball joints, they also have a good amount of articulation, which prevents them from restricting leg movement too much.

One of the coolest aspects of this figure, in my opinion, is the fact that it can carry all of its equipment on its person at once, something surprisingly few figures achieve. The hip-mounted cannons have each have a hook for holding one of the figure’s two beam sabers. Swinging them around to the figure’s back cleverly reveals points on each side that you can hook the handheld beam rifles onto (though it’s a loose fit). With the DRAGOONs attached, you’re done!

Anyone who’s seen Gundam SEED Destiny knows that Strike Freedom is probably one of the most overpowered mechs ever created. So it’s only natural I’d expect a figure like this to do it justice, and thankfully it does. It sucks that it can’t stand on its own though; that pretty much ruins poseability, unless you have a stand. It’s also odd and disappointing that it can’t even hold its own guns properly, but the cool thing about Strike Freedom is that its handheld weapons are just a minor part of its arsenal. 4/5.

Impressions: Playstation Move

So I got the Playstation Move Starter Bundle for Christmas. It came with a Move, a PSEye, and Sports Champions. This isn’t so much a review as a summation of my experiences and subsequent thoughts regarding Sony’s foray into motion controls.


Considering its contents, I’ll admit I was a little surprised to see the box as small as it was. The largest thing was probably the case for Sports Champions. The PSEye is actually somewhat tiny..wasn’t expecting that. The bundle also came with a disc containing a slew of Move-enabled demos like Slider and Tumble.

For the most part, I like the way the Move is structured. It’s comfortable to hold in the hand, and that doesn’t change after a few consecutive hours of holding it and swinging it around. The biggest annoyance encountered thus far is the positioning of the Start and Select buttons. They’re on each side of the controller, and it takes a little more concentration than I’d like to stretch a finger out to touch one of them. There were a couple times where the phone would ring while I was in the middle of a Ping Pong match or Gladiator Duel, and it would take me a couple seconds to pause the game, possibly leaving me in a bad position in-game. It may be worth mentioning that the ball on top is actually made of a rubbery material, and is a Nerf ball, or something.

Though I’ve yet to encounter any games that need this setup, I was always curious to see how it felt to hold a Dualshock 3 with the Move as a substitute for the Sub controller. It least on paper.


Like any other 1st party Playstation accessory, syncing the Move is as simple as connecting it via a USB cable. You’ll probably want to do some calibrating to make it work well in your environment. You can use the Move to navigate the XMB by holding the trigger and gesturing in the direction you want to go. This takes getting used to, and definitely won’t replace the Dualshock 3 overall, but it works fine for when you don’t want to get up and turn on your DS3 just to navigate to the game.

Sports Champions

So this is the game that I’ve gathered most of my impressions from, being the meatiest bit of Move-enabled software in my possession currently. Sports Champions is, as one would guess, a lot like Wii Sports on paper, but it does offer a lot more depth and content for those that want it (though that’s not saying much considering how simple a piece of software Wii Sports is). It offers several sporting events to try out: Table Tennis, Bocce (I don’t even know what this is..), Disc Golf, Gladiator Duel, Volleyball, and Archery. Of these, my favorite thus far is probably Disc Golf, but I’ll go through each one (except Bocce, which I haven’t tried yet), and talk about them briefly.

Table Tennis is kind of like the Wii version and kind of not. Screenshots would have you believe that it’s identical, but the biggest difference is that since the Move can track small motions like twisting your wrist and such, the game is actually very realistic, allowing you to deliver lobs, slices and the like similarly to how you would in real life. Positioning is also taken into account, as well as the angle you’re standing at, making this tie with Gladiator Duel as one of the most engaging events on the disc. I didn’t have a good time with it because I’m absolutely horrible at Table Tennis in real-life, but your mileage may vary.

The reason why Disc Golf is my favorite is because I think it does the best job at illustrating the Move’s 1:1 motion tracking capabilities. As someone who enjoys the game in real life, I was surprised by how well it was captured in digital form. You pick up the disc by holding the trigger, and from there you can position your throw any way you like. You can angle it to control altitude, give it some spin, all the works, all in real-time. It takes some practice to get used to translating your technique onto the Move controller and it’s not perfect, but it’s definitely very accurate. And just like its real life counterpart, the game is relaxing. You can also choose from a few different discs to throw depending on the distance to the basket, and the system will also recognize how much power you’re putting into a throw via the power meter. Disc Golf is also the one that benefits most from the Free Play option in my opinion (other than Archery, perhaps). My only gripe with this event is that I wish there were more locales to play in. There’s already an acceptable amount to be honest, but the advantage to playing the game in digital form is that I can visit any number of areas and enjoy the scenery as I play.

Gladiator Duel is probably the most heavily advertised portion of Sports Champions. And for good reason: Who wouldn’t want to be able to duel their friends and the computer with a sword? Well, Gladiator Duel still isn’t quite there, but it’s much closer than anything else I’ve seen. You still have to flick the controller for the game to recognize a hit gesture, but the game is more about positioning. Depending on how and where you’re holding your controller before you flick it, you can perform uppercuts, thrusts, downward slices, really you can hit in any direction you like. There’s even a challenge where you have to hit individual body parts of a dummy; the very fact this challenge actually works illustrates how many options you have when it comes to make ‘em hurt. You also have a shield that you can use to block enemy attacks, but turtling is discouraged by way of having your shield be able to be chipped away until it’s gone after many hits. There are many other nuances present as well, such as the ability to shield bash your opponent, backstep and sidestep, parry, and stun your opponent briefly via a well-placed blow to the head. Just like in any fighting game, each challenger has a health bar at the top of the screen, and each match is played out in rounds; best two out of three. There’s even a flashy special attack you can perform, and you can usually also win by ring-out. Gladiator Duel is very engaging such that you’ll often to remind yourself (or have the game remind you) to stay within ample view of the camera. It will have you flailing about to overcome your opponent. My arm was actually incredibly sore the next day after completing the Silver Cup championship match.

Volleyball is a lot like the Tennis game in Wii Sports in that it’s not about your position (your character moves around automatically) or even your technique, but your timing. When the ball heads your way, you have a split-second to decide between your three options of setting the ball, spiking it, or bumping. Trying to add depth this sort of game infra-structure proved kind of boring to me, which made this one of my lesser favorites.

Archery was enjoyable, but I sense it would benefit a lot from the presence of a second controller, which would let you hold the bow with one, and notch an arrow with the other. Without that it’s just sort of a relaxing shooting gallery.

Demo Disc

I’ve only played two demos on the disc; the one for Time Crisis, and the one for Tumble. It’s been a LONG time since I’ve played a light gun game that takes itself as seriously as Time Crisis Razing Storm does. It was crazy, fast-paced and over the top; just like light gun shooters are supposed to be, in my opinion. On a side note, man did that demo level look a lot like the first level in Metal Gear Solid 4; that can’t be a coincidence, right?

Tumble is another showcase of the Move’s tracking capabilities. The primary premise is very simple. You stack blocks of various shapes and characteristics on top of each other, trying to make a tower as high as possible. If you’ve ever tried to do this in real life, you know that this require precision and a steady hand, something that the Move translates into the game very well.


I was impressed by how accurately Move can track small nuances of hand and wrist motion. Sports Champions makes for an adequate way to illustrate this, but I won’t know for sure whether it was worth the investment until I see what other games do with it.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War

Ace Combat 5 reminds me of a time when retail games dared to be unique. Nowadays if you see something that can truly be called unique, you probably downloaded it. Presented by Namco, The Unsung War is a military flight sim with arcade elements.

By “arcade elements” I mean that on normal difficulty each plane carries scores of missiles (higher-end ones come packing 70-80 of them), and have unlimited fuel and gun ammo. I’m not sure how realistic some of the turns and other in-flight maneuvers you can easily pull off in this game are, but I’d guess even with heavy training you’d come close to blacking out trying some of them in real life. Despite all this, the game doesn’t feel unrealistic. Go too high or too slow and your plane will stall, and begin to drop like a rock. Higher difficulties introduce limited gun ammo, and enemy missiles can tear you apart in under two hits. Each plane has a cockpit view, which is nifty feature. Basically, the game tries to be as realistic as possible without constricting gameplay. I think it succeeds in striking a proper balance for this purpose. And believe it or not, even with that many missiles, it’s easier than you think to run out. Carelessly firing them as soon as you have a lock, or trying to take on every enemy burns through your supply of ammo fast. I actually depleted my entire stock of missiles and special weapons one mission, and had to finish it chasing targets with my gun.

One of the cool things about Ace Combat is the realistic-but-fictional world that it usually presents; an alternate Earth where a different set of countries exist. The Unsung War begins on a peaceful island air base in the country of Osea. 15 years ago, an aggressive country called Belka made war against its neighbors Osea and Yuktobania (the setting of Ace Combat Zero, incidentally). It was a long and bloody battle, but in the end Belka was pushed back, and lost much of its territory. In a shocking move, Belka simultaneously halted enemy advances and brought a swift end to the war by detonating several nuclear bombs on their own land. But this is all told through the game’s opening cutscene; back in the present we meet Wardog squadron, stationed at the island base, and composed of Alvin “Chopper” Davenport, Kei “Edge” Nagase, and silent protagonist Blaze (who, naturally, is controlled by the player). They’re all flight newbies, and are training under their captain when Yuktobania attacks the base while declaring war on Osea. The game shows the player the war from start to bitter finish through these three pilots’ eyes as they rise from being “nuggets” to full-on flight aces respected and feared as the “Demons of Razgriz”. As the war progresses, they learn revelations about Belka, and the nature of war itself.

The story is pushed along primarily by dialogue delivered by near-constant radio chatter, and the occasional cutscene. You’ll hear your wingmen chat it up (and sometimes join the conversation, though only with yes or no answers), you’ll hear any ground or allied forces’ relevant conversation, heck you’ll often even pick up on the enemy’s frequency and hear them talk! I liked the constant talking. Not only did it add to the atmosphere, but also gave a bit of weight to each objective given, and each plane shot down. I felt a bit more motivated to provide close-air support for a ground squad when they were shouting into their mics giving sitreps even as I heard gunfire in the background. Alternatively, each kill on a rival ace squad is that much sweeter when you get to hear them react to one of their comrades going down, after audibly displaying such confidence entering the fight.

Gameplay of course takes place entirely in the cockpit of you chosen aircraft. Missions are acceptably diverse, including providing air support for ground and naval units, taking out specific enemy targets, and gathering intelligence via stealth infiltration. Many missions also offer optional takeoff, landing and re-fueling segments. Most of the time you’ll have 2-3 wingmen at your side, who can be given rudimentary commands using the d-pad. You can have them disperse, cover you, or actively engage the enemy, in addition to enabling or disabling their use of special weapons. I didn’t notice a lot of change in their behavior between the commands, but it did serve to immerse me a little further.

In between missions you’ll often be treated to a cutscene to move the plot forward, before watching the briefing on your next mission. You can also buy and sell planes during this time. There’ about 50 planes to choose from, if memory serves, and all of them have strengths and weaknesses (though there’s definitely a progression in “quality” planes). For example, while A-10 Thunderbolt excels at ground attacks, it’s not nearly as maneuverable as many other planes, and not suited to air-to-air combat. The F-22 Raptor (probably one of the best aircraft in the game), on the other hand, is absolutely superior at air-to-air combat, but you might think twice bringing it into a mission that will mostly focus on land targets. Furthermore, many planes have alternate forms, such as the air-to-air oriented F-14 Tomcat having the “Bombcat” alteration, which gives it much better air-to-ground capabilities.

In addition to a vulcan cannon and missiles, each plane also has a small stock of special weapons ammo. Special weapons, take on many forms, and often define the role of the plane carrying them. The XMAA carried by the Raptor is a set of air-to-air missiles that, in addition to having much increased range and tracking ability over normal missiles, can seek up to four targets at once. The bomblet dispenser releases dozens of little bombs for an effective carpet bombing run. SAAM is single missile with immense range that will seek its target for as long as you can keep him/her within its tracking circle. There’s even a jamming special weapon that can be used to disrupt enemy missiles.

As in any flight sim, the best aspect of the game’s graphics are the planes themselves, which are rendered lovingly. Instead of being static models though, they all have moving parts, such as wing flaps, air brakes, missile doors, and turbines. Unfortunately, objects other than you and your wingmen’s planes didn’t get nearly as much treatment. The ground, while looking realistic enough, tends to feature a lot of crude shapes are supposed trees, tanks, and buildings, and bland textures are definitely a mainstay. It definitely doesn’t detract from the experience though, and this IS a PS2 game, so maybe I’m even being a tad harsh coming directly from the current generation.

The audio on the other hand is definitely good. Most of the dialogue was fun to listen to in my opinion, though some lines or voice pitches did stand out as odd. The game includes both English and Japanese dialogue tracks as well as subtitles though, so no complaints here. The BGMs are a bit varied, featuring your typical militaristic themes during briefing and before takeoff. Once up in the air, you’ll hear anything from rock n’ roll to orchestral scores. It never feels inappropriate, but that might be because I was too busy shacking targets and dodging missile locks to care.

I’ve said just about all I wanted to say about this game. It was great fun to revisit it, and I heartily recommend it to anyone looking for a nice rental. An 8.5/10