Monday, February 28, 2011

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

For the past two months or so, the only game I’ve been playing other than Apollo Justice and LittleBigPlanet 2--the former of which I finished a couple weeks ago and the latter I’ve only been playing on and off--is Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. And at many points I wasn’t entirely sure why.

Lords of Shadow represents a reboot in a series that I’ve never so much as dipped a toe in. As much as they dress it up, the story premise is fairly basic: evil has descended upon the world, and it’s up to you as Gabriel Belmont to squash it, but Gabriel’s real goal is the revival of his love, Marie, who was murdered by creatures of the night. To achieve this, he’ll need the God Mask, which has been broken into three pieces. Each of the pieces, however, is held by a Lord of Shadow. Conveniently, the Lords of Shadow--who each rule over a major race of evil, such as werewolves--are the ones responsible for the current state of things; killing two birds with one stone, I guess.

But really, I’ve come to think that this is all just a front. An excuse, if you will, to not only visit all kinds of locales, but to kill the various fantastical creatures residing in them, and look as awesome as possible while doing it. And do all this you will. Consequently, this is also where Lords of Shadows’ strengths tend to lie.

Combat is not atypical of the likes Dante’s Inferno and Bayonetta, both in style and mechanics. However, LoS definitely places itself in a higher class of difficulty without straying from its fantasy setting. Though the game encourages precision and finesse not unlike what’s required in, say Ninja Gaiden, it possesses enough cinematic flair and outright brutality to make the likes of Kratos proud. The gimmick introduced is that of Light and Shadow magic, each represented by a small bar on the left and right corners of the screen, respectively. Activating Light Magic allows you recover health with each hit you make, while Shadow Magic increases damage output. Furthermore, each also has it’s own share of powerful techniques that can only be used while one or the other is active. For example, with Light Magic you have many moves that are defensive in nature, such as the Holy Cross attack, which projects a wide stream of light so intense it not only dazes opponents, but rapidly damages them the longer they’re caught in it. Shadow augments the strength of many of your normal techniques (like turning normal daggers into flaming, exploding ones) while introducing new ones like a powerful shoulder charge that allows you to dash a short distance near instantly, knocking aside anyone or anything in your way. Both Light and Shadow magic can be enabled and disabled on the fly, in the middle combat. This gave me a nice feeling of control as I could change the flow of battle instantly depending on what I was using at the given moment.

To restore your magic, you have to collect magic orbs. Sometimes these are dropped when you kill enemies, but the quickest way to regain magic in the middle of combat is to simply play well. Consecutive hits dished out without taking damage add to a meter at the bottom of the screen, which, when full, make enemies drop one orb each time they take a hit; naturally there will be a a lot of orbs lying around soon enough, if you keep up the assault. The effect is shattered, however, the very next time you yourself are hit, discouraging simple button mashing.

Finally, you have an assortment of secondary consumable items used to varying effects. Throwing daggers are quick and represent a fast way to do ranged damage. Faeries will distract enemies. Holy Water functions like a grenade, and is especially devastating against vampires and undead. The magic crystal, when broken apart, summons a powerful demon to do major damage to anyone in the vicinity.

Gabriel’s weapon of choice is the Combat Cross, a unique, holy weapon granted to him for his excellent combat performance within the Brotherhood to which he belongs. The Combat Cross is, in it’s basic form, literally a large holy cross (actually kind of like a sword hilt without a blade). However, the tip secretes a long chain which Gabriel can use to..wait for it..whip enemies with. Aha! A whip! Of course.

Enemies come in a quite a variety, and Gabriel often has a unique way of dealing with each and every one of them, regardless of their size, ferocity or stature. The majority of the opponents you’ll encounter offer themselves up for a more brutal finisher after they’ve lost a certain percentage of health. Though our hero will sometimes use his weapon to finish the job (like staking vampires with the sharp tip), I’ve noticed Gabriel has a preference for killing a given creature with its given choice. One boss fight, for example, ends with Gabriel cutting off the arms of his opponent, and then running him through, all with his own blade. What I’m saying here is that the enemies don’t disappoint, and neither do their demises.

Other than combat, you’ll frequently come across platforming and puzzle sections. The platforming is competent, and certainly enjoyable, as it gives you a chance to really take in the gorgeous graphics and environments. At times it’s fairly reminiscent of Uncharted (and, to a lesser extent, Assassin’s Creed). Despite all this, however, the platforming sometimes managed to feel like filler to me, especially compared to the more intense moments in the game presented by the combat. I also found that a minor lack of consistency, with you being able to perform certain movements only at certain times in the game. Think Enslaved and you you’ll have the right idea, though it’s not that bad.

I’ve never really been the type of guy who enjoys puzzles, and I must say I understand even less why developers insist on putting them into action games, of all things. Why, after completing an epic boss battle, would I want to settle down for a brain teaser? The answer is I don’t want to do such a thing. …That said, the puzzles in Lords of Shadow are actually fairly amusing and clever most of the time, even if they are a little to plentiful for my tastes. Fortunately, all of the puzzles are seemingly optional, as you can opt to have the answer revealed to you, at the cost of the reward (which is usually a mild helping of XP).

Lords of Shadow is a surprisingly lengthy adventure. The game is about 11 chapters long, with each chapter spanning as many as nine levels (though more commonly they range from 3-6 levels). And yet, despite this, variety is truly the name of the game here. As you progress, you’ll collect all sorts of upgrades and items (such as the aforementioned Light and Shadow magic abilities, and various upgrades to the Combat Cross), in addition to a hoard of XP from defeated enemies. You can use the XP to buy new combos and also extra artwork. The game throws new experiences at you every chance it gets, to the point that you’ll eventually stop being surprised and just be looking for what new and interesting thing you’ll get to do next. The beginning of the game turns into an epic chase through the woods on a unicorn, fending off invading Wargs. After that, you go on to fight enemies some 50x your size, tame various creatures into mounts, and even engage in a fun variation of chess. All across what seems like a dozen different locales, including an enchanted forest, an abandoned city, Frankenstein’s lab, and the insides of a music box. This is one game that doesn’t try to stick to a single formula.

What finally compelled me to really want to try the full game out after playing the demo wasn’t really the gameplay, however. It was the presentation; the production values. This just reeked of a game that had a lot of time and resources flowing into it. Right off the bat, you see the book format of the pause screen and main menu, complete with narrated chapter prologues and cool little animated sketches exemplifying the various combos you could buy for use ingame (like those flip book sketches that used to be all the rage). You see the village, in the middle of a rain storm, terrorized by a giant Warg. You see a stranger, Gabriel, approaching, drenched in the rain. It’s just all so immersive. But a package like that isn’t complete without a well-composed soundtrack, and Oscar Araujo delivers, with a set of sweeping orchestral scores that give depth to nearly every moment in the game.

I don’t know how it compares to previous games in the series, but to honest, I no longer care. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is a quality title that invites you to follow Gabriel on one of the greatest journeys of the year. My only qualms with it are the questionable ending, and the way you are forced to pass many items by, even if they are in plain sight, simply because you don’t yet have the equipment necessary to obtain them. Fortunately, going back through earlier levels isn’t entirely without merit, as each level offers a “trial”, or optional objective you can try for. Overall, however, there’s a lot to like about Lords of Shadow. 9.0/10

Monday, February 14, 2011

Pokemon: A Basic Overview

I’ll admit it: Pokemon was a notable part of my childhood. I used to buy and trade cards; still have about 600 of them stashed away in my room (including the illusive holographic Charizard that was all the rage back in the day). I saw the first movie in theaters, and it was amazing (seen the majority of every other Pokemon movie since then). And you better believe I’ve been playing Pokemon portable games since the days of Red and Blue. Still got my Blue cartridge sitting on my dresser.

So suffice to say, I know a little bit about Pokemon. Granted, I never played competitively. I was more of a trade and collect kind of guy; not that I didn’t like battling, or that I was ever a passionate enough collector to get anywhere close to “catching em all”.

Introduction and History

I sometimes come across people new to the world of Pokemon, asking various questions such as “what goes into a good team”, “how do I battle effectively”, and “what kind of game is pokemon?”. The intent of this post is to give an overview of the series and basically be as informative as possible. I just felt like writing this because I’m actually in the middle of EV training a new team from the ground up in HeartGold.

So, Pokemon is a very broad, very big franchise. There’s the TV show, the movies, the card game, the console games, the merchandise (oh, the merchandise!), among others. But it all really comes from the main series of portable games, which themselves started on the Gameboy Color with Pokemon Red, Blue, Green (which was only available in Japan), and later Yellow. Now, before you feel overwhelmed by there being so many versions in a single generations, the first thing you should note is that most of the games in a generation are nearly identical in terms of everything but the pokemon available to you. The typical trend is, you have two versions which are pretty much the same, but one version will have a slightly different roster of pokemon available than the other. So there will be perhaps 4-6 Pokemon that can only be found in one version or the other. In the case of the first generation, these were Red and Blue (and Green). Later, a third version will come along, with all the pokemon of both previous versions, and often a couple gameplay variations. In this case, that’s Yellow.

Currently, there exist five generations of Pokemon games (though the fifth hasn’t quite reached North America yet). Each one usually introduces a new region to explore, which in turn means new characters and never-before-seen Pokemon. The Generations and their games are as follows..

Generation 1 (Gameboy) - Red, Blue, Green (Japan only), and Yellow

Generation 2 (Gameboy Color) - Gold, Silver, Crystal

Generation 3 (Gameboy Advance) - Ruby, Sapphire, Emerald + FireRed and Leafgreen (remakes of Gen1 games)

Generation 4 (DS) - Diamond, Pearl, Platinum + HeartGold and SoulSilver (remakes of Gen2 games)

Generation 5 (DS) - Black, White

However, even though the series spans at least a dozen titles now (not even counting Generation 5 and any spinoffs), over the course of more than a decade, the gameplay really hasn’t changed that much. Under all the bells and whistles and advancements made with each new generation are the same core principles introduced to the world with Red and Blue.


If one had to give these games a genre, I suppose “strategic turn-based RPG” would fit the bill well enough. You play as a Pokemon Trainer, with the simple goal of becoming the best of them all. To prove your mettle, each region of the world has in place a Pokemon League, headed by the Pokemon Champion, who is the reigning strongest trainer in the region. To be eligible to challenge the Champion, you’ll have to beat the Elite 4, a team of the four strongest trainers after the Champion. To be eligible to challenge the Elite 4, you’ll need all eight gym badges for that region. To get those, you’ll have to travel around the region, visiting Pokemon Gyms, who are lead by Gym Leaders. Each Gym Leader will relinquish his/her badge when you manage to defeat them. In short: Explore the region, beat the Gym Leaders, beat the Elite 4, become a hero. That is your quest. Whether you’re playing Pokemon Blue or Pokemon Platinum, this is your long term objective.

Now, gameplay. This is perhaps where most of the series’ longevity comes from. As of Generation 4, there’s about 500 Pokemon in existence. The vast majority of which are quite unique from each other. Simply put, the series’ gameplay revolves mostly around interactions with Pokemon. Battling with them, trading them, playing games with them, befriending them, traveling with them, growing with them, etc.

As you travel through the game, you’ll come across many other characters that you can get information from and chat with. Many of them will also challenge you to a battle if they see you. Which brings us to what is perhaps the most prevalent aspect of the series.

Pokemon battles are turn-based, which means there’s no player skill involved in them. Victory is obtained with knowledge, tactics, and in many cases, a bit of luck. Most battles are known as single battles, where you and one other trainer each send out one pokemon at a time to fight. Trainers are only allowed to carry up to six pokemon with them at a time, and battles are tag-team affairs. Generation 3 introduced double battles (my favorite type), which has each trainer sending out two Pokemon at a time to fight.

At the beginning of each turn in battle, you have four options. You can fight, use an item, switch your pokemon out, or attempt to run away (you can’t run away from battles with other trainers though). Each of these will use up your turn should you choose them. Choosing fight brings you to your pokemon’s set of moves. Each pokemon can remember up to four moves at a time. Moves come in a very wide variety, with some dealing damage, others lowering the stats of your opponent, others raising your stats, etc.

Each pokemon has limited amount of HP, or hit points, that is depleted as they sustain damage. Once one fully runs out of HP, it faints and becomes unable to fight. A battle is over when all of a trainer’s on-hand pokemon have been KO’ed, rendering him/her unable to continue.

Those are the basics, anyway. A brief overview of the series and what it’s about. If I haven’t mentioned it already, I’ll say it again. Much of the draw of Pokemon comes from the possibilities presented. The series’ slogan “Gotta Catch Em All!” is still one of the loftiest goals you can achieve in gaming. Going into a new generation and meeting dozens of new pokemon holds a certain level of fascination. Anyway, this post is for the outside looking in. Stay tuned for Intermediate Tips and Tricks, for those who’ve already bought a game and are now wondering what to do with it.