Thursday, 22 December 2011

Alice: Madness Returns - 360/PS3/PC

There's a lot to like about Alice: Madness Returns. From the beautifully presented waif-like protagonist and her constantly changing sense of style, to the cast of grotesque characters who litter a decaying vision of Lewis Carroll's dreamlike Wonderland.

It's a spellbinding visual treat throughout and whether Alice is stumbling through the grimy streets of Victorian London, exploring the clockwork innards of the Mad Hatter's lair or making her way through the faded grandeur of the Queen of Hearts' castle, the art direction is inspired.

But despite the visual flair, Alice's journey through her rotten mind descends into a standard third-person romp, with a raft of gameplay ideas as old as the hills.

Armed with a twisted assortment of weapons - including a chain gun-style pepper grinder, a teapot cannon and white rabbit time bombs - Alice fights, jumps, runs and twirls through long, drawn-out levels in a bid to save her sanity.

The combat is initially a thrill, with Alice cutting a swathe through Studio Ghibli-like enemies. However, respawning gothic creatures and a dodgy in-game camera soon temper that initial rush and these arena style brawls soon become something to be tolerated rather than enjoyed.

The platform-heavy antics are a throwback in many ways. Leaping from invisible platforms, riding on steam vents, trampolining off neon-tinged mushrooms and sliding down Mario 64-inspired chutes is decent enough fun, but we've been here hundreds of times before.

And while the game does its best to mix up gameplay styles with the inclusion of environmental puzzles, 2D papercraft sections and a side-scrolling shooter level, much of Alice's adventure feels hastily pieced together. It's as if developer Spicy Horse couldn't decide on a plain course of action and instead decided to throw everything at the title to see what would stick.

But despite its flaws, I was captivated by the adventure from start to finish. The art direction certainly helped and wanting to know what lay around the next corner kept me ploughing through the madness.

The storyline also does its best to tug the player through the experience and Alice is constantly reminded of the cause of her fading sanity - the house fire which killed her family. As the story plays out, snippets of her memories spring to life in the shape of collectable audio logs, while other hidden treasures await those who wish to scuffle about the darker recesses of Alice's warped mind.

Once Alice's adventure is over, fans can skip back though her painful memories and replay chapters to sweep up missed collectables - and Spicy Horse have added an extra treat for Alice fans.

The original PC title from 11 years ago, American McGee's Alice, is also included on the disc. While this cult classic hasn't aged particularly well, it's a nice bonus and completes the Alice collection.

Spicy Horse have played it safe on many levels and regurgitated tried and tested gameplay ideas throughout in a desperate attempt to make Alice: Madness Returns a macabre masterpiece. But it falls somewhat short of its lofty ambitions, leaving the player wishing for something more.

It can be fun and at times it is a visually splendid experience, but too many quirks and flaws make this trip to Wonderland entirely optional rather than essential.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Let's Go Island 3D - arcade

2011 was predicted to be the year in which 3D games made their big breakthrough. Nintendo launched the 3DS back in March, while several big-name titles on 360 and PS3 also incorporated 3D modes.

But as the year draws to a close, only a couple of titles have really impressed me - Super Mario Land 3D and Pushblox on 3DS - two games which showed how thoughtful use of the new tech can enhance gameplay.

Another game which has piqued my interest is Sega's Let's Go Island - a shooter which features glasses-free 3D on a far bigger scale than Nintendo's hand-held. This arcade game - complete with 52" screen - looks glorious, with bold colours and sumptuous Sega blue skies really catching the eye.

The over-the-top shooting action is frenetic but Sega have also added a generous helping of humour in the shape of lobster golf, high flying stunts, underwater escapades and a section where you are forced to defend yourself from snapping sea creatures with bottles of soda. Even boring old QTE prompts have been given added spice due to the fact the arcade cabinet is mounted on a motion sensitive base.

This is the kind of game I would love to see on home consoles. Let's face it, it would be a significant step-up from the majority of frankly awful software currently available for Move and Kinect.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Yakuza 4 - Tourist snaps

Back in March I blogged about the joys of wandering around Yakuza 4's Kamurocho, taking in the sights and sounds of this fictional Tokyo district. Sadly, a peaceful stroll is something I can only dream about, with the game's roguish cast of characters constantly assaulted by gangs of knuckle dragging goons in puffer jackets.

But when I'm not smashing bikes over heads or battering thugs with huge ice cream cones, I've been taking snaps of the wonderful environment Sega have created on my iPhone. Take the time to look around Kamurocho and you'll be constantly surprised at what's on show. Here are a few of my favourites taken from my most recent late night adventure:

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love - Wii

This title from the makers of PS3 classic Valkyria Chronicles isn't your typical role-playing game.

Where most Japanese RPGs focus on a po-faced, spiky-haired protagonist suffering from amnesia, this 2010 release takes great delight in dispensing with this tried and tested formula, resulting in a refreshing take on the genre.

Part turn-based strategy game, part social interaction/dating sim, Sakura Wars is full of chirpy anime characters, giant robots, animated cut scenes and a nonsensical plot which twists and turns through an alternative 1920's New York.

Taking control of Shinjiro Taiga, the son of a Japanese general, you are sent to the Big Apple to assist the New York Combat Revue in their battle against an evil force.

The first three hours or so are spent ploughing through a multitude of conversation topics, with only one battle tutorial to break up a slideshow of anime stills and crude 3D free-roaming sections. Persevere, though, and Sakura Wars blossoms into an engaging and highly entertaining game.

The story runs over a series of chapters, which are delivered in a similar style to a TV series. Each chapter throws up the usual assortment of dialogue trees, but Sakura Wars shakes the formula up by giving the player a limited time to make their conversation choice.

This quick-fire approach means you sometimes have to skim over the choices, leading to a variety of outcomes.

Where the system doesn't work so well is when you are tasked with manually twisting the left analogue stick and the D-Pad on the Wiimote within a tight time frame to achieve objectives. The controls here are less than responsive and lead to moments of frustration.

However, despite some control wobbles, underneath the sugary-sweet anime coating lies a robust and enjoyable strategic battle system.

Here, much like Valkyria Chronicles, the player has a limited range of movement before they can choose to attack. It's a deep and absorbing chess-like experience, with each move running the risk of leaving a squad member exposed.

The battles don't occur every five minutes, either. Instead these epic fights end the chapter, meaning if you don't warm to the story or the friendship building, you could find yourself extremely bored.

While each character has their own range of special moves, links can be created between two units, which increases your firepower. These start off relatively weak, but can be beefed up by interacting with your squad mates between skirmishes.

Forging relationships with the rest of your squad echoes Atlus's Persona games, but it never feels quite as complete. It certainly doesn't detract from the experience, but it just fails to match these PS2 classics.

Sakura Wars' visuals are a mixed bag, with the clean-cut character portraits and epic battles taking most of the plaudits. The blurry backgrounds and rough-looking free-roaming sections unfortunately don't fare quite so well, especially as the game doesn't run in progressive scan mode.

The biggest surprise of all, however, is the fact the game has been released in Europe at all. For years, games such as Sakura Wars were destined only for the Japanese market, so it's refreshing to see NIS America take a chance on such a niche title in the West.

You should be able to find Sakura Wars at a low price these days, so if you see it, snap it up.