Thursday, 16 January 2014

Dark Souls II - Cursed

Since completing Dark Souls, I've merely dabbled with NG+ - not really getting anywhere despite my best intentions. However, I have picked up the PC version recently and installed a bunch of mods which make the game look truly spectacular. So I've been going back to it quite a bit and faffing about with the early game. 

To be honest, I've spent most of the time taking screenshots and examining the textures closely rather than playing the game proper. I've also had the urge over the last few days to boot up Demon's Souls again, as it's been quite a while since I last dived into the world of Boletaria.

But of course, Dark Souls II has appeared on the horizon, surrounded by billowing black storm clouds and its heading this way like some terrible, unstoppable, inevitable nightmare.

A trailer was released this week and it made me weep with a mixture of fear and complete joy. Words such as curse, misery and frail hope are scattered throughout, so no change there then. It also shows ivy-strewn castle walls, a giant bandaged-wrapped monstrosity, a long-limbed freak, some god-forsaken fiery demon and spiders. Terrible, awful, spindly spiders.

As if to hammer the point home that this is no laughing matter, the narrator says: "Your wings will burn in anguish, time after time."

I hope at the end of Dark Souls II, FROM Software include a final death tally. That will make frightening reading. My pre-order is in and I'm ready. March can't come soon enough.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Attack of the Friday Monsters! A Tokyo Tale- 3DS

I've long been an admirer of Kaz Ayabe's long-running Boku no Natsuyasumi series - in fact one of my first blog posts was about Boku 3 on PlayStation 3 back in 2008. 

Since then I've tracked down the second game on PlayStation 2 but the first game on PS1 - and subsequently ported to PSP - and the PSP-only fourth game in the series have sadly eluded me.

It's a series which has a lot going for it, but with its roots deep in Japanese culture, there was never a chance  of any of the games being translated into English and released in the West - although I know of one brave soul who is currently beavering away on a translation project for Boku no Natsuyasumi 3.

So it was with delight that I discovered that Ayabe's Millennium Kitchen - along with Level 5 - had actually released a title in the West last year on 3DS. It went completely under my radar until chatter over on Twitter alerted me to the game's existence just last month.

While Attack of the Friday Monsters! A Tokyo Tale isn't directly linked to the Boku series, there are many similarities here, specifically the hand-painted backdrops, the rural setting, the joy of exploration and the innocence of childhood.

The protagonist is young Sohta Tono, a kid who has arrived in a Tokyo suburb toward the end of the summer of 1971. Here, in this well-looked after collection of houses, shops and businesses, something amazing happens every Friday - huge "Kaiju" mysteriously appear, hulking great monsters who do battle on the edge of town. Or do they?

The strange goings on in this picturesque town are seen through a child's eyes and are open to interpretation, while Sohta and his friends' imaginative tale unfolds beautifully in waves of wide-eyed wonder.

The immaculately told story is utterly charming and while the game is linear in its structure, there are things to do when not following the story arc. Multicoloured Glims are scattered around the town and collecting seven similarly coloured motes of light rewards the player with a monster card which can be used to battle friends in a simple rock, paper, scissors-style game. The monsters have wonderful names such as the Colossal Crustacean and Jumbogon and each card gives a delightful description of the monster along with a roaring sound clip.

The general atmosphere of the previously mentioned Boku no Natsuyasumi series is intact here, not just because of the lovely hand-drawn locations and the Japanese voice acting, but thanks to the environmental sounds which pepper every scene; birds chirp, katydids and crickets rattle away, Japanese voices from unseen TVs chatter while you're exploring the streets and wind chimes clink in the distance.

There's even a nod to Boku no Natsuyasumi to be found in the game: Stand outside the dry cleaners, and you'll see a small poster featuring a young lad who looks remarkably like Boku from Ayabe's best-loved series.

The soundtrack is another feather in the game's cap, with gentle guitars, tinkling pianos, clarinets and violins combining to creating a superb atmosphere. However, the standout is the game’s opening theme which is upbeat, sickeningly cute and packed with heartfelt lyrics.

Attack of the Friday Monsters! A Tokyo Tale lasts around four hours and costs £7.19 from the Nintendo eShop and it is a little gem. I'm so glad I was pointed in its direction - better late than never - and now, I'll just wait patiently to discover if Ayabe-san has Boku no Natsuyasumi 5 up his sleeve for PS4 or Vita.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Super Mario 3D World - Wii U

When Mario made an enthusiastic leap into the third dimension in his Nintendo 64 debut, few could have predicted what an influence the game would have as the years rolled by. The plumber's magical journey spawned plenty of hopefuls vying for his coveted cloth cap, yet not one of them could touch the mustachioed plumber.

Since that memorable 1996 adventure, Mario has appeared in several wonderful platform capers, including the superb Mario Galaxy games on Wii, but it's taken until now for him to make his glorious big screen return to 3D in Super Mario 3D World.

The game moves away from the fabled Mushroom Kingdom and the expanses of starlit space and instead takes place in the Sprixie Kingdom - a place where Bowser has kidnapped the realm's fairies and plonked them in bottles to indulge his evil whims - something Link has been doing for years without anyone batting an eyelid. It's all utter nonsense, of course, and just a loose framework to hang the game's spectacular action on. And spectacular it certainly is, with the game boasting amazing level design, sublime visuals and yet another glorious soundtrack. In fact, the game has more fun crammed into its first hour than most games with a 12-hour campaign can boast.

The game sets out its stall before the player dives into the action, with the ever-changing title screen showing Mario, Luigi, Peach and Toad gleefully scampering around, showing the player all the moves that can be pulled off in the game. It's a glorious opening and one which serves to whet the player's appetite for the action to come.

Once the player takes the plunge into the game proper, a world of wonder opens up, with Nintendo's latest brimming with fresh and playful ideas. Chief among these is the ability for the main character to slip into a cat-like onesie, complete with impossibly cute ears and tail. This snug-fitting new suit is a wonderful addition and not just a visual gimmick. It enables Mario to scuttle up vertical surfaces for a limited time, where coin stashes and emerald stars are squirreled away in the magnificent environments. It's also utterly adorable and it's impossible not to smile as Mario gambols along with cat-like agility, swiping and leaping at enemies with gusto.

Of course, it's not just Mario that is open to the player. Toad, Peach and Luigi can also be selected and each has their own particular trait which serves to help the player navigate their way through the brilliantly thought-out levels.

The new twists and turns don't end there either, as Nintendo have decided to get fruity with the arrival of the double cherry. Chomp down one of these, and a clone of Mario appears and it's possible to have multiple characters rampaging around the screen at any one time - all controlled simultaneously. Some levels have been crafted with this transmogrification at their very core, allowing the player to spread themselves out and activate switches which opens up even more hideaways.

Nintendo have clearly worked long into the night not only devising Super Mario 3D World's delicious levels, but in the look of the game. This is Mario's first perspective shifting romp on Wii U and the detail is stunning. Bloom is used liberally throughout, giving the game a wonderfully soft feel, while the patterns and textures used are glorious. Giant springy gelatinous orange blocks that wobble to life when Mario leaps on them are a personal favourite.

As Mario opens up new locations a few other surprises lie in store. Self-contained mini levels where the player controls Toad are a highlight, with the player tilting and rotating the cube-like settings in an effort to snaffle all the precariously placed stars before the time runs out. Because of the bite-sized nature of these stages, this would make an excellent standalone game on 3DS and the possibility of dozens more portable levels is certainly something I would like to see.

Control - as you would expect - is impeccable, with Mario and chums responding smoothly to button prompts and stick movements. It's also possible to play with all the Nintendo controllers since the launch of the Wii, and you are going to need them all if you want to take part in the game's riotous multiplayer mayhem. It's a madcap dash to the finish line and with up to three others and on a crowded sofa, Super Mario 3D World shines. That said, the single player mode is where the majority of players will find themselves and rest assured - played solo, this is still a wonderful experience.

Super Mario 3D World might not innovate as much as the splendid Mario Galaxy games, but it's still light years ahead of the competition and showcases Nintendo at its playful best. Utterly glorious, packed with an abundance of sparkling content and an absolute joy to play, Super Mario 3D World was the best game I played throughout 2013. A rare and precious treat.