Nut Load. Mini reviews of games old and new. No fuss. No spoilers. Occasional shock face.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Front Mission 4 (2004)

Genre: Turn-based Strategy | Players: 1 | Developer: Square Enix Product Development Division 6

An assault is undertaken on a series of German military bases by an unknown and powerful wanzer force that all but cripples the German military's capabilities. As quickly as they appeared, they disappear into the night. The collective European allied nations known as the European Community (E.C.) send in the Durandal, a team of pilots and researchers specializing in wanzer combat including new recruit and protagonist Elsa Elaine, to help with the investigation and uncover who is behind the attack. Meanwhile, a half a world away, Venezuela declares independence from the United Continental States (U.C.S.) and is now embroiled in a conflict between UCS troops and the state army forces. 2nd protagonist UCS sergeant Darril Traubel and his 3-man wanzer squad are slacking off on their rear guard duties as usual when a state army plane is shot down and they are the first to the crash. The plane's only cargo is a crate filled with gold; the funds embezzled by the corrupt Venezuelan governor from the people. Darril and the squad, unhappy with their career trajectories decide to steal the gold, go AWOL and make plans to abscond with the cash out of the country which proves much more difficult than expected.

Gameplay takes place on some rather large battlefields with possibly daunting tactical depth. There are many stats to be aware of for both the pilots and the wanzers and also how they interact with each other. There are prebuilt wanzer models for players who don't get off on all that number crunching, but deep customization is the only way to get the most out of your units. There are AP points that dictate how many actions a pilot can take in a turn, EP that can be spent to learn skills and boost stats and Link points that can be assigned to friendly pilots so they can act in tandem providing they have enough AP and are in range.

Weapons are in 1 of 3 categories of Melee, Ranged and Long Range. Melee weapons only hit once and can only be used adjacent to an enemy, but only cost 1 AP. Ranged weapons cost more AP to use and are limited by ammo and accuracy, but hit multiple wanzer parts. Long Range weapons have huge attack range and power, but cost large amouns of AP to use, have very limited ammo, and are extremely heavy so only large, slow wanzers can carry them. There are also 3 different types of armor; Impact, Piercing and Fire. Only 1 type can be used at a time (at first), but if it is the counter to the enemies' weapon then damage will be cut by a third. There are also support abilities with new backpacks that can be used to carry items, inflict status ailments, extend missile range and call in air support. Using all of these factors in tandem along with optimizing wanzer parts will let players tear through the opposition. The only problem with it besides its daunting depth is it isn't entirely necessary until later in the plot because of enemy A.I. that is pretty unchallenging. Enemies don't often work together, leaving damaged easy kills to attack another pilot that they have a fixation on and also not using Links effectively, often being linked with a unit on the other side of the map. Although once enemies figure that out later, it is a whole different ballgame.

The graphics are pretty, though bland. Colors are washed out and lots of textures are flat and uninteresting which might at least be in theme with a mech game I suppose. The cinematics are top notch as is expected from Squeenix. There isn't a whole lot of replayability. You can start a new game with all your EP and money from a previous game, but only the hardcore will care to use that boost to try different setups and unlock all the hidden Simulator battles which are the only way of grinding.
For those who like it, incredible depth of tactics and a suspenseful political plot with some decent voice acting outweighs the easy difficulty curve and serviceable, but bland visuals.

Buyer's Guide:
Available for the PS2.

4 Everything explodes out of 5

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Shadow of the Colossus (2005 / 2011 in HD)

Genre: Action / Adventure  |  Players: 1  |  Developer: Team Ico

Team Ico’s follow-up to ICO (2001) is a very different kind of game. Nevertheless, there’s the feeling that they both exist within the same fictional universe, making SotC a spiritual sequel.* It’s the story of a boy and his horse. There’s also the matter of a dead girlfriend. Wander (the boy) will do whatever's required to bring her back from beyond the veil, even kill at the behest of a mysterious voice.

Combat is essentially a series of boss battles. The Colossi are the kind of thing you’d face at the end of a Legend of Zelda dungeon. Many are so large that they need to be climbed so that you can attack their vulnerable spot, but just finding the Colossi can be a challenge in itself because the game world is vast.

Your only companions are your horse Agro and your conscience. As you traverse deserts and plains you’ll see man-made structures reclaimed by nature, signs of a once-great civilisation. The loneliness gives you time to reflect on your deeds but will likely bore anyone seeking a quick fix. Seriously, there's almost nothing to do outside of the core objective. Some side-missions would've been nice, but I can understand why they weren't included. The ambitious, uncompromising vision of the game designers is clear to see but will be the very thing that alienates people the most. If possible, trying before buying is definitely recommended.

Most of the story doesn't happen until the last quarter. Until then you’re the principal part of a mystery, required to repeatedly take a life in the hope that aggressive single-mindedness will result in your wish being granted.

The colossi will defend themselves like any animal would and should, but that doesn't change the fact that you‘re the trespasser. You’re the greater evil. The sadness and silent cries of ‘Why?’ on the faces of the victims cuts deep.

Like ICO did, it forces you to ask questions as you play. Why does the game try so very hard to instil a sense of guilt in the player? Are Wander's actions selfless or the product of a beleaguered conscience? How exactly did the girl die? We can take nothing for granted. We can only hope that the end justifies the means. In essence, it's like acting out a Greek myth.

New players will likely have trouble with the horse. Keep in mind that he isn't a car, so don’t try to control him as such. Spur him on, use the reins to direct him and leave him to it. He can be an idiot at times, but mostly you won’t need to negotiate every turn or corner because he’s quite capable of doing that himself.

4½ surmountable bods out of 5

*There’s evidence within SotC to suggest that it may actually be the second part of a trilogy being told in reverse. If so, that would make it a prequel to ICO. The theory will remain just that unless the third game, The Last Guardian, sheds new light. I don’t expect it’ll confirm either way, but I live in hope.

Note: SotC was re-released in 2011 as one half of The ICO and Shadow of the Colossus Collection HD. For more info on ICO, stab right about HERE.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

ICO (2001 / 2011 in HD)

Genre: Adventure / Puzzle / 3D Platformer  |  Players: 1  |  Developer: Team Ico

ICO is an adventure game unlike any that the PS2 had seen before. You play as the titular character (pronounced Eee-co), a young lad with horns on his head. His adventure begins in a large room inside a larger castle. You'll have a fair idea why he’s there, but won’t know why he was chosen. Was it because of the horns or some other reason? We also don’t know why there’s a second individual, a caged female, perhaps a little older than Ico, who doesn't speak the same language as the boy. If they’re to escape before whatever it is they've been offered up to comes for them they must somehow overcome barriers and work together.

Unable to communicate verbally the pair exchange meaning via gestures, inflections and discernible emotions. If you want her to follow you the best way is to grab her hand and lead her. United by circumstance you become guide and protector. The bond that develops between them is all important, and mostly it’s up to you to create and sustain it. Is it a love story? Perhaps. It’s certainly a story of chivalry and mutual respect. If you fail to take an interest in that aspect of it then you may as well quit playing before you've even begun.

There’s no tutorial, no HUD and no objectives other than escape. To do that you’ll be required to solve puzzles and overcome challenges, including avoiding the clutches of the creepy shadow people that rise from the ground, determined to drag the girl into their shadowy existence.

As you progress though the castle you’ll catch glimpses of areas you've been and areas you've yet to reach. You know walls are basically just textures arranged at right angles, but it feels solid. The higher you go the more the defiant wind howls, carrying with it the call of the raging sea and the occasional bird. The prevalent atmosphere is one of wonder coupled with unknowable dangers.

The camera is a point of contention for some people. It’s fixed like a movie camera, but you can pivot and zoom at any time, even during cut scenes, and it’ll swing or pan as you run by to encompass the enormity of the environment. If you had complete freedom to move it wherever you liked then the puzzling aspect would be less effective and it would be arguably less dramatic visually.

Combat is simplistic. You hit things with a stick. You might be lucky and have something other than a stick, but the available actions never change. It doesn't matter. Like everything else in the game, it gives you only what you need. Even Michiru ƌshima's beautifully evocative music is minimal. The ambient sounds of the castle are the soundtrack the majority of the time.

I've maybe made it sound less than perfect in some ways but only because I don’t want to give a false allusion. It’s a game that doesn't rely on gimmicks. It uses emotion as a narrative device, wherein a small person can make a big difference, and for which an understanding of friendship is a key requirement.

5 flights to freedom (and stairs) out of 5

Note: ICO was re-released in 2011 as one half of The ICO and Shadow of the Colossus Collection HD. For more info on SotC, click HERE.