Saturday, 31 July 2010

Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies - DS

Along with Monster Hunter and Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest is one of the biggest franchises in Japan. The games date back to 1986, when the first title made its debut on Nintendo’s NES system. However, the series has only become truly international over the course of the last few years.

Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King arrived on PS2 in 2006, while Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen (2008) and Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride (2009) were remade for the DS, helping to introduce European audiences to the series for the first time.

While some elements in this ninth instalment are still firmly rooted in the dark days of ancient role playing games, developer Level 5 have streamlined the experience making it easily the most accessible game in the long-running series.

You take on the role of a fallen angel, whose wings have been clipped by a dark and mysterious power. Regaining consciousness on terra firma, your character finds his halo and wings gone, and sets out on a mission to help others in the hope his angelic aura will return.

While the central tale throws up traditional dungeon crawls and end of level bosses, the player is generally free to explore and take on dozens of sidequests. And you’ll want to explore every inch of the land, as not only does exploration throw up delightful surprises, but the quality of the whimsical script is rather special.

There’s a strong emphasis on character design, and the localisation team have done a sterling job in bringing each of the main figures’ personalities to the fore. The range of regional dialects shines through, and Scottish players will take great delight in reading through some of the Tartan-tinged dialogue.

The game caters for four-player co-op, but unfortunately it is only for local play, not a full online experience. However, solo players need not worry, as three other computer controlled comrades can be recruited - each one adding strength and tactical nous to the battles.

Standard classes such as warrior, mage and priest are available from the start, but later in the game, these can be swapped, mixed and changed to give you band of adventurers a unique flavour.

Each story along the course of the main quest is beautifully presented, every one throwing up new and unique situations. Reuniting a knight with his true love, curing a small village from a deadly plague, and encouraging a fishing community back into work are just some of the tasks woven into the game.

There’s a fair amount of sadness peppered throughout, too, which belies the sugar-coated presentation. The monsters who inhabit the world are a colourful bunch, and their vivid and expressive style is a far cry from Final Fantasy’s poe-faced adversaries. Creatures might have kid friendly names such as Badger Mager, Mummy Boy, Knocktopus and Ragin’ Contagion but they’re no pushovers.

Mixing up party attacks is key, but it’s this area which is a a bit disappointing. While the game does away with random encounters, there is no way of knowing which party member will strike next. This leads to unavoidable deaths, which is incredibly frustrating as it’s a problem which could have been easily rectified. Still, with a bit of forward planning and approaching boss encounters cautiously, success is well within reach.

One of the game’s trump cards lies in the way every weapon and piece of armour is visually represented on your character. This gives the game a Diablo/World of Warcraft feel and with hundreds of items in the game, and an online store, everyone will be able to create their own unique look.

Another great addition is the inclusion of the crafting system. Gathering ingredients on your travels is worthwhile as they can be combined with other objects to make new weapons, armour and items. This part alone will occupy you for hours and it’s another nod to online games such as World of Warcraft.

Dragon Quest IX is a truly wonderful game, and the best role playing game I’ve played in years. It oozes charm, looks and sounds fantastic, and has been perfectly tailored to suit Nintendo’s hand-held system. One of the most magical experiences on the DS and a contender for game of the year.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Videogame music

Videogame music is generally looked down upon by non-gamers. But for those who know better, the inclusion of a cracking soundtrack adds immesurably to the gaming experience.

Below, I've listed a few of my all-time favourites. Let me know what you think, or feel free to put a few suggestions my way.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Minecraft - PC, Mac, Linux

Regular readers will know I love Dwarf Fortress. Its free-form gameplay and insane levels of complexity make for a quite brilliant and absorbing game.

But there is a new obsession in my life - a game which takes elements from Dwarf Fortress, throws in a bit of Rogue and adds a generous glug of 3D Dot Game Heroes - and it’s called Minecraft.

You begin the game plonked in the middle of a vast randomly generated world and you are then completely free to do what you want. Every item in the world must be created from scratch, but you better be quick, because when night falls, the nasties come out to play.

You start by chopping down trees to get wood, which in turn can be used to make planks and tools. It’s vital to find coal as soon as possible which can then be combined with sticks to make torches. When night falls, evil zombies and other nocturnal creatures will keep well away from the bright lights.

A crafting bench, storage boxes and a furnace are next on the list, while combining sticks and stones makes more robust weapons and tools.

While exploring during daylight hours, animals can be farmed for food and skins - the latter are used to craft armour. But when the light gradually starts to disappear, you’ll want to get home quickly to avoid the prowling mobs.

Finding your way back to your base and closing the door on the inky blackness is always a welcome relief. And when you hear the zombies moaning outside your door, you’ll be glad you are safe and sound.

I’m currently in a great place, and the pictures here are all my own. Some of them show my fledgling mountainside home - complete with natural lava flow - while the others show a zombie burning in the morning sun, snow on the hills and the inside of a natural cave.

By mining deeper and deeper, you can find gold and diamond, which again are used to craft armour and robust weapons.

To make windows, you need to build a furnace, chop some wood, then add sand. As you can see, I've used glass around the entrance as well as using it to create the windows in the rock face.

The work I've done here took me the best part of four hours, but I'm quite pleased with the results. Long way to go, though.

The game is currently is alpha testing and it costs around £8 to buy. A free browser based version can be played, although it lacks many of the features of the paid-for version, while you can't save your progress.

New content is poured in every week and there are huge plans for the game as the months and years go by.

Over the past few weeks, snow, boats, cacti and cows have been added - so who knows what will appear later today.

For more info about the game, visit the official website. And if you want to dig even deeper into the game, the Minecraft Wiki is essential reading.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

A Boy And His Blob - Wii

A remake of David Crane's 1989 NES original, A Boy And His Blob on Wii came out at the end of last year. Many people may have missed it, but it is a lovely title and a game definitely worth playing.

The story is wafer-thin, but the game's beautiful hand-drawn visuals blend perfectly with puzzle and platform action to create something truly special.

The boy under your command can't do a great deal - his jumps are small and he can't attack enemy creatures. However, by feeding his mysterious blob jellybeans, the little white bundle can transform into 15 useful objects such as a ladder, trampoline, and parachute.

With dozens of levels, optional challenge stages, and a sprinkling of collectables, A Boy And His Blob will last you upwards of 10 hours.

A gorgeous game that sadly didn't get the attention it deserved when it was released last November.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Epic Win - iPhone/iPod Touch

Household chores. No one likes them and it’s hard to find the motivation to get the vacuum out, the dishes done and the bathroom cleaned – especially when you would rather be playing through that big pile of games beside the TV.

But this daily hassle could be a thing of the past thanks to Rexbox and MrFungFung’s Epic Win, a forthcoming game for the iPhone/iPod Touch.

It’s an RPG which rewards the player’s avatar with experience, stat boosts and lovely virtual loot by completing everyday tasks.

Each completed task on your to-do list moves your character forward on the quest map, uncovering new and rare treasures in the process. All your hard work around the house can then be shared with friends on Facebook and Twitter.

Now I can finally put up those shelves that have been staring at me for the last month and start painting the spare room, safe in the knowledge I’ll be rewarded for my efforts. That is indeed an Epic Win!

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Rune Factory Frontier - Wii

Due to the staggering amount of big-name titles released in the first half of the year, many great games have been sadly forgotten about. One such title is Rune Factory Frontier, a lovely game which really deserves your attention.

A spin-off from the much-loved Harvest Moon franchise, Rune Factory's unusual blend of farming, life simulation and dungeon crawling makes for a wonderful and original single player adventure.

Taking control of a boy named Raguna, you arrive in the town of Trampoli, desperately looking for your friend, Mist. It turns out she has started a new life in the picturesque town and urges you to join her.

Within the opening 15 minutes, Raguna will be a fully-fledged member of Trampoli's small but vibrant community, have his own house - complete with dusty plot of land - and own the bare essentials with which to make a living.

The whimsical background story isn't deep, complex or sprinkled with heavy dialogue choices, but Rune Factory Frontier's mish-mash of gameplay styles is so well delivered, the flimsy tale really doesn't matter.

Being a game from the Harvest Moon stable, Rune Factory Frontier focuses heavily on growing crops, looking after livestock and expanding your farm. However, unlike some other Harvest Moon titles, you never feel rushed into trying to cram as much as possible into every in-game day.

The clock still ticks along at an alarming rate, but stops when Raguna is indoors - a wonderful design choice which takes the stress away from his daily chores.

Rune Factory Frontier is completely open-ended, meaning it's entirely possible to concentrate solely on looking after your small farm. But doing so would be folly, as the game is crammed with things to do.

Some aren't immediately obvious, due in large to a lack of hand-holding. In my view, this is one of the game's strengths as it encourages the player to explore the beautiful game world and interact with other characters to move the story along at its own sedate pace.

When not pulling turnips and crops out of the earth, Raguna can cook, fish, craft items, upgrade weapons, visit townsfolk, sell his produce, go shopping, build relationships, get married, go sailing, visit a health spa and generally live a life of comfort.

But where Rune Factory branches away from the traditional Harvest Moon template is in the game's combat. Raguna can enter dungeons and do battle against a range of enemies - he can even recruit monsters to fight by his side or work on his farm. It's very well done, although be prepared to put in some serious work if you want to get the most out of these denizens of the dark.

Visually, the game is beautiful - although there's unfortunately no 480p option. The cheery scenery changes as the seasons pass with rainy autumn and the eerie ambiance of winter being particular stand-outs. There's a full day/night cycle in place, too, which adds to the games enchanting atmosphere.

Each new day in Trampoli brings with it a boggling amount of stuff to do, and the sheer amount of tasks can be overwhelming at times. However, just take your time, and quietly potter about at your own pace and the game becomes much more manageable. Trying to cram everything in at one time is an impossible task, so relax and the game's charms will rise to the surface.

Rune Factory Frontier is bright, breezy, utterly charming and incredibly satisfying to play. Some may think it's a bit too twee, but it's the best role-playing game on the Wii since 2008's Opoona.

If you missed it when it was released back in April, this Rising Stars Games' title is well worth hunting down.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Professor Layton and the Unwound Future - DS

Everyone loves a bit of Professor Layton, right? Well I adore the series and have completed the first two games: The Curious Village and Pandora's Box, both on DS.

So you can imagine how happy I was when the third game in the series, Professor Layton and the Unwound Future, was announced at the E3 conference in Los Angeles a few weeks ago.

The professor receives a letter from his sidekick Luke, only the letter has been sent from 10 years in the future.

London is apparently in chaos and it's up to the Prof and Luke to solve more riddles to save the city.

The delicious hand-drawn visuals look as magical as ever and Nintendo have promised 160 brain-teasers and even more animated cut scenes. Extra puzzles will also be free to download following the game's launch.

The game should find its way over to the UK around September, and I'll be first in the queue on launch day.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Child Of Eden - 360/PS3/Kinect

One of the most exciting announcements at this year's E3 conference was the unveiling of Tetsuya Mizuguchi's new game, Child Of Eden.

It's another beautiful sensory experience from the man who brought us Lumines and Rez, and it looked dazzling as Ubisoft opened their press conference with a live demo of the game.

Child of Eden will be released on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, but it's the fact the game will also run using Microsoft's Kinect hands-free motion sensing control system which is the most exciting news.

It's been described as a “multi-sensory shooter” blending sparkling visuals with a thumping electro soundtrack by Genki Rockets. And with Mizuguchi on board, you just know it's going to be something special.