Category: DS (Review)


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The Nintendo DS has had some sleeper hits during its time as a mainstream gadget for the masses. It has been the base of the revival of the adventure genre, due to ease of control. One of the biggest surprises was the rather interesting Hotel Dusk: Room 215. It combined decent storytelling with new unthinkable ways to use the DS hardware, such as the part that involves you putting the DS on standby mode to flip the puzzle. A sequel looked almost certain due to the sheer genius of the package. Last Window: The Secret of Cape West is the rather oddly titled effort that serves its purpose as the sequel we’ve been looking for. Does it live to the potential or is it a big disappointment?

Things haven’t been going too well for Kyle Hyde. First he gets fired from his job as a door to door salesman; then he returns home only to find that Cape West is to be sold off and all the tenants, which include himself, are evicted when the building changes hands. To make matters worse for Kyle, he receives a mysterious order sheet directly, a practice that wasn’t common when he was employed. It simply reads: Solve the murder in Cape West that took place 25 years ago. Some of these things are resolved fairly quickly, such as Mr Hyde’s employment issue; but others are not so simple and turn into rather intriguing plot elements. The things that are lacking slightly are characterisation issues when combined with the sense of mystery. We have the character who will be some form of comic relief in the form of an out of work musician. It is fairly safe to establish at that point that he has very little impact on the overall plot. Then we have the slightly large man who snoops around too much and always wants the latest gossip from Kyle. This sort of character will arose suspicion and that is the problem. We are persuaded into pigeonholing the entire cast upon second meeting, then being proved exactly right. There is one genuine twist, but at the first signs of this it begins to fall into place very quickly. My main problem seems to be that Kyle has given up pursuing the man he was partnered with in the NYPD. It makes no sense to suddenly have him lose his job and then track down a killer from 25 years ago. But overall it isn’t a particularly badly written story as the dialogue is good. The overall story is just dull.

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The structure of the game is essentially like a point and click adventure, but with one necessary twist. You use Kyle’s detective skills to to extract information from people. Sure some items are used in the same generic style, but having the emphasis on conversation rather than puzzle solving this time around is a bit of a mixed bag. It is good because it keeps you on your toes a little more due to conversation branches. It is bad though because that is the sole device used for doing anything for half the game, and this problem far outweighs the merits. What happened to Cing and their puzzle creations that use the DS hardware to its fullest? Sure there are two puzzles which respectively involve dragging two switches on using the touch screen or fiddle around for an option that stopped a music box, but most of them will be uninspired and predictable.

The visual style is identical to the first game in this series; Hotel Dusk: Room 215, but there is more in the way of colour this time around. The jazz overtones of the soundtrack are used in a similar fashion to that game as well, since certain encounters with the denizens of Cape West. This all seems a little too safe though, as it is essentially using the same template. Even minor changes would have been a good touch, like for example making puzzle elements less blocky and more realistic.

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My main gripe with the last game is back with a vengeance though. There is a lot of walking around. If a morbidly obese man did this amount of walking, he’d either be significantly lighter, or be suffering a cardiac arrest. The game even teases you with an elevator later on, but the amount of buttons one has to press makes this take even longer! And where are you heading to when walking? 90% of the time you will be speaking to someone, while the rest is a mix of heading up to the fourth floor or to a random puzzle. This is a squandered opportunity, especially since your hand is mostly held tightly throughout. The puzzles that are here are few and far between, and what interesting ideas do appear are so short that it seems hard to justify it being a puzzle game. Then there are the recap sections at the end of each chapter. The game provides the chapters in book form, which is a nice touch providing you are not expecting the works of the great wordsmiths; so why do we need a test at the end of a chapter to go over what happened? Is the plot really that gripping that you need to understand it? It’s not like One Flew over the Cuckoos Nest or the Millenium series!

For a game with a rather large pedigree to live up to, it seems that Last Window: The Secret of Cape West has not only messed the opportunity, but made it almost impossible to care about what might happen afterwards. The fact that apart from the story and puzzles themselves, absolutely nothing has changed, is a bit depressing to see. It’s like watching someone go off the wagon and then wondering just how this could have been allowed to happen. That’s not to say it isn’t a well written game, or that the visual style is unappealing. It is just an unfortunate fall from grace.

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The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (PAL)

When The Legend of Zelda made its touch screen debut with The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, there was some initial confusion as to why they decided to make a direct sequel. This confusion only escalated when the art style and sailing aspects were returning considering the serious looking Wii launch title The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. It met with decent reception upon release, but was criticised for having repetitive segments and unrefined graphics. The market was definitely there for a follow up. So, the train approaching platform 3 is The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. Does the train serve up a first class service or will it simply derail into a burning heap?

If you were hoping that this would in no way resemble the cell shaded Zelda games of the past, then you’ll be sadly disappointed. Not only does the game feature the same artistic style, but it is yet another sequel to that story arch. Set roughly a hundred years after the events of The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, it seems the waters have subsided and the land is green once more. Link has just finished training as a train engineer (bear with me on this one), and goes to Hyrule in order to receive his qualification. Upon his meeting, Zelda slips him a note asking him to help her as she suspects Chancellor Cole is up to something. As they slip away from the castle town, the train crashes and chancellor Cole reveals his true colours. In a bizarre twist of fate, he steals Zelda’s body to use as a host for a demon he is attempting to resurrect. Two important things come from this. The first is that this is a fairly typical plot in essence, but the players are of different origins. The second and perhaps most important thing, is that this time Zelda is coming along for the ride. Considering for years we’ve had to put up with annoying spirits and men who want to be fairies, having royalty as the passenger is a refreshing concept. While a lot may seem familiar, there are subtle differences and they’re definitely welcome.

Trundling on in your little train, you will soon be craving it only being harmless piggies on the track.

Another similarity between the two DS titles is the control method. It is almost entirely touch screen enabled as tapping on a certain spot will allow Link to move there. Drawing a line or tapping an enemy will make him attack, while circles perform his trademark spinning attack. Some minor tweaks have been made to this, as rolling has been made more difficult to perform, but they generally work well. New train segments may seem limiting at first, but the expanse of map coverage expands greatly as you chug along the story. Enemies are slightly harder to deal with here as the cannon doesn’t seem to want to shoot exactly where you want it to, despite endless readjusting of the accuracy of the stylus input on the DS dashboard. Input of destination is far easier due to the linear tracks instead of vast oceans. Another big addition is the inclusion of the Spirit Flute. Much like the Ocarina of Time and Wind Baton, it is used to play melodies to trigger events or get through plot elements. Here it is used by dragging the bottom screen to focus on the note you want and then blowing, literally. It might make you look like an idiot on the train, but it generally works well.

The majority of the time spent in this game will be either doing side-quests, traversing to the higher levels of the spirit tower and of course, dungeons. Everything moves along in a set pattern, with new diversions making themselves known as you progress through the adventure. A depressing statistic is that the game only features five dungeons overall. Considering the majority of Zelda games have eight, this may seem like daylight robbery. The spirit tower however is several dungeons in itself, and makes up for this numbers hassle. One thing that has drastically changed from the Phantom Hourglass hub dungeon is the absence of a timer. Not having to worry about time limits and more time spent on exploration is welcome. Then there’s another series first. Zelda actually does something helpful. Remember the Phantoms that stalk the corridors like some crazy janitor hunting rats? She can possess them. Having a sidekick who is beefier than a Spanish Bull on “Lets run over humans” day makes this a more fun experience. Puzzles are intuitive, with some rather unethical solutions and the boss battles approach the same level of detail as console counterparts. While this may seem like an easy Zelda game, there is a lot to do and even more track to cover.

There is also a multiplayer component which requires only a single cartridge to run. Many copies of Link must collect as many pieces of the Triforce as is possible before either the time runs out or you get clobbered by the wandering Phantom. This sounds like a good time waster, but there is a trade-off. It only has a local mode, which considering Phantom Hourglass has an online multiplayer mode is a little suspect. Thankfully, the single player experience is so complete in its content that the multiplayer snafu hasn’t damaged the overall package.

 As soon as Zelda found out  that her bum did look big in that, she got out of there sharpish.

Visually, it doesn’t seem all too different from the other DS Zelda adventure as it still doesn’t push a lot of the hardware and still has some ugly textures. But looking from a more artistic point of view there is a sense of ironic subtext woven into the overall look and feel of the game. While the new features have an industrial age twist, the artistic design seems more tribal with lush colours and tipi like huts. The music seems to join in on this ironic statement against industrialism with pan-pipe melodies that are not only catchy but amongst the best of the Zelda series music to have surfaced in quite a while. There are occasions where the sound processor doesn’t quite manage to keep everything from turning into a momentary reverb bonanza, but the effect everything is going for is so inspired that it is alright to forgive some hardware shortcomings.

The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks successfully brings a new set of twists to the almost tired out series. Sure every Zelda game has been a smash hit due to excellent dungeons, but few stand out in the crowd as solid works. This is certainly no Ocarina of Time or Wind Waker, but to even mention one of the handheld Zelda’s in the same sentence as both of those games without uttering the words “pales in comparison” is an achievement in itself. While this is partially due to the referenced material from the title, the majority of the success comes from the feel and look of the game. It’s not stunning by any means, but it is certainly as pleasant as a steamy hot bath with soapy suds while getting your back washed by a beautiful servant. So is this better than The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass? Well, while that sank to the deep abyss of the forgotten, Spirit Tracks steams on ahead in rejuvenating a modern classic.

Rhythm Paradise (DS) PAL 

Things that work in other countries tend to work fairly well in the United Kingdom, such as the introduction of foreign cuisine into our culinary diet that has filled our passion for the exotic. Foreign cinema also tends to work well with those who don’t mind reading subtitles or even learning the lingo, as it is an insight into another place with different morals and ethics. Some are a little harder to grasp the concept of for the average Brit, and those of a Japanese nature find it hard to make a stand. Sure they make a lot of the TVs and gadgetry of our times, which is an impact in itself. But when it comes to the quirky nature for the bizarre, the English have the rather unhelpful trait of being a little conservative. In yet another effort to try to get us to get that aspect of Japanese culture, Nintendo bring us Rhythm Paradise. Will the culture shock be too much to take, or is keeping a beat the breakthrough?

I’ll be blunt and to the point. No. You probably never guessed that the answer was going too simply “no”, but there it is. Well, almost. Largely it depends on how coordinated your rhythm is. If you can’t tap your thigh to a beat then this isn’t really going to be an enjoyable experience. To control the game, you will use two motions. Tapping on the screen, and flicking. While these work well for a lot of the time, there are instances where the timing of these taps and flicks is so precise that even a skilled drummer would struggle. Dave Grohl would even throw his DS at a wall. The thing that will probably break your handheld is the requirements to pass a level. Even if you only mess up three times during the entire two minutes of constant rhythmic tapping and flicking, the game will patronise you with its “try again” picture.

Here's how it works. You need to flick when the beat indicates that you should. Relying on eyes isn't going to help one bit...

Rhythm Paradise follows a linear path, though if you begin to struggle with certain challenges then the game allows you to skip parts. In contrast, it’ll also ask for perfection attempts where one mistake will cost you everything. This is more a test of endurance of the mind than flicking ability since you only get three tries on each before it disappears. If you manage to gold star songs, which will be a huge accomplishment each time it happens, you gain medals which in turn unlock new toys to fool around with. The reward is a little on the underwhelming side until you unlock enough to get the guitar lessons. This unlock is fairly substantial in that it extends one of the games ideas into a full blown mini-game, and is perhaps one of the more rewarding aspects of the game that was intended.

Another thing they got right was the visual style. A lot of the time there are rudimentary 2D graphics with bright and vibrant colours. There are a few games that utilise the 3D engine and yet somehow manage to look as colourful. But while this is no fascinating horror show, like the Picasso painting of a woman in a hat, it certainly is no “Water lilies”. It isn’t striking in any way, but it does at least help make the rest of the game a little clearer while injecting some Japanese culture into the mix. Some could criticise that the overall layout looks a little too basic and last generation. I personally disagree in that I think they’re the most consistent aspect of the game, but given that the game was supposed to be designed on sound, it is ironic that the visuals seem to come out top.

Left: "It was him wasn't it?"                                    Middle: "Yes, I'm pretty sure it was..."

While the game certainly has a bizarre charm, the localisation of this project has perhaps taken some of the shine off with some really awful lyrics to the vocalised songs. There isn’t any variety. It’s almost like going to see Boys 2 Men in that every song is about love in one form or another, and I don’t mean in a gospel choir worshiping the lord kind of way. There you expect the songs to have the same theme and it works…somewhat. Here it sounds like every pop group in the 90s that were hurled out by EMI. In terms of “quality”, it works. In terms of it being any good then only the fans of cheese would think this is great. Then again, with the vocals lacking somewhat in talent I wouldn’t be surprised if Simon Cowell told them they should change careers.

It is a great looking if a little fast paced game. But as is always the case; just because it looks like it should be great, that doesn’t mean it is all smiles. Here it is mostly tears of frustration, and eventually mourning over the aggravated demise of the source of entertainment on a long train ride home. It isn’t something you’d want to everyone else to hear but then again the whole point of it is the rhythm, so sound is essential. When you get round that obstacle though, you will need to control your temper as the game has a nasty habit of nitpicking over the most minor of details. Incidentally, I want to know how long it was before Beyoncé Knowles cracked. If you really want to subject yourself to torture then by all means have a crack at it. Just don’t be surprised when your friends and family decide to section you on the grounds of “being raving mad”.

Professor Layton and Pandora's Box (Nintendo DS) PAL

Last year saw the introduction to Professor Layton to the European market. He’d already been introduced to the Americans the year before and said had his third adventure with the Japanese. As a brainteaser based puzzle game, his adventure had universal appeal as it didn’t rely so much on knowing the ins and outs of the game world to solve puzzles. Instead it took on the brain itself. This proved to be a huge hit not only with gamers looking for a new franchise of puzzle titles, but with the non-gamer generation that has spawned over the years due to accessibility combined with a charming world. Professor Layton and Pandora’s Box therefore looks set to be a smash hit on the Nintendo DS, offering more puzzles and a brand new story. In short, it delivers on this fantastically. But there are a few new surprises in store for early adopters of the series.

Continuing the adventures of the good Professor Layton and his sidekick Luke, they both receive a letter from Layton’s former mentor. It seems that Dr Schrader was attempting to solve the mystery behind the Elysian box, which the contents are infamous for causing death to those who open it. Layton and Luke decide to visit his place in London, only to find that he had been murdered. Their only clue is a discarded train ticket for the Molentary Express, which had a character ripped off. As they set out on their journey on the train, two questions are raised. Who killed Dr Schrader, and why? The story mixes elements of mystery and puzzle solving with great expertise. In terms of progression, there are a few checkpoints where you need to solve a certain amount of puzzles. Others involve you solving a puzzle itself to progress, but these are generally designed around the story this time. This is a move that provides a richer source of immersion than simply having the mandatory puzzle of “Here are some ducklings and wolves. Get them to the other side of the river before a wolf eats a duckling”.

The second adventure takes the Professor and his young apprentice to various locations. One of which is a town prematurely celebrating Christmas...

The amount of quality that went into the last game of the series has been trounced by the production values of this English port. Packed with more in the way of animated cut-scenes than the last game, it helps to tell a more blended story. Because of the fact that it has taken on the role of a more animated movie, the amount of voice acting has dramatically increased. It seems that once again Luke has taken on a different voice actor. If you were to play the US & UK versions of the previous instalment, you would have heard Luke’s voice then. Here it seems they’ve probably found their real Luke, as his voice has more emotion and isn’t nearly as annoying. Layton still sounds the same, but his calm and reassuring voice was always suited to the role of father figure and puzzle solver. The games locations take on a more multicultural approach than the last game, simply because it isn’t set in one town. From the flat of Dr Schrader in London to the small countryside town, things look pretty but not in a puzzling way. It isn’t until you find the mysterious town beyond the tracks that it things take a more familiar and bizarre turn.

As in the previous Professor Layton title, there are round about 150 puzzles in total. Most of these are optional and are consisting of various brain teasers and board game based puzzles. The trick of trick puzzles is still there but because of the previous game’s successful introduction to these nasty habits, they become easier to spot. One thing that is annoying though is the amount of block shifting puzzles. While some take the form of trains on a track, others take on a more conventional approach of being rubbish needing to be deposited in a bin. It all disguises the fact that they’re the same type of aggravating puzzle. Thankfully, with a lot more in the way of maths based puzzles as well, Level 5 have included a new memo option. Using the screen like a cartoonist would use see-through cell sheets, you write over the puzzle to try and figure things out. The see-through notepad therefore is a useful tool for not only working out maths without the need to kill a tree or two, but also the more interactive puzzle by plotting a route that can be easily deleted without consequence. Puzzles reward in the form of Picarats like the last game did, but the Picarats here can be spent to unlock new content. While puzzles are great sometimes the transitions between story and puzzle are a little forced, just like the last game. I can almost imagine this line appearing in a Professor Layton game: “Good lord Luke, he’s bleeding all over the place. He needs to get to a hospital now! But before you dial 999, this reminds me of a smashing puzzle…”

Side quests make a return with a little more than just collecting items and placing them in the right place. The camera, which is perhaps the only one that is similar to the side quests in the first game, can be built from various parts found across the game’s path. The difference here is the bonus when you fix the camera. While the mechanical dog in the first game sought hint coins, the camera activates spot the difference puzzles which lead to hidden puzzles that wouldn’t normally be seen. Luke will also at one point obtain a hamster which has been suffering from dietary issues for a long time. Here it is more a case of placing the items in the right place, but also figuring out how each item interacts with the hamster. The most promising puzzle feature is the tea based one. By gathering ingredients, you will gain access to new brews which in turn can be used to elevate the mood of one of the game’s inhabitants. The issue here though comes in the brewing of new teas. It is very experimental with the potential to fail more often than not. With the rest of the game being associated with critical thinking being the key, why is this segment more about pot luck?

Puzzles can now intergrate with the story. This is one of the first.

Puzzles one might have missed along the way will come back in the form of the travelling shack. This is very helpful in terms of getting 100%. As for unlockables, owners of the previous game will be able to enter a code to unlock some concept art. There are also the hardest puzzles of the game available upon story or mini-game completion, while on the downloadable side there are a host of weekly puzzles to keep one entertained. There is even a baffling piece of cross game interaction with the previous game to unlock the top secret puzzle. If you need a hint, it involves a hidden door. This cross game idea is a great marketing ploy, but also is a great reward for those who like the franchise. If this was a bad game, it would be a stunt at best. But because the series is consistently good it is a novel idea.

Just like the town of St Mystere, Professor Layton and Pandora’s Box carries on the tradition of testing the world with brainteasers whilst providing a truly magical story. The returning cast seem more developed this time around, even if in one instance he is now the real deal. There is a lot to do in this instalment of Layton’s adventures and plenty of unlockables via Picarat and mini-game completion. It is a shame that some of the puzzles aren’t as diverse as I would have liked, but then again the chance to wander around mysterious settings with such attention to detail almost makes up for it. Since this is seemingly a trilogy of games, those who are committed to Layton’s puzzling journey will have waited in baited breath for the sequel to finally get released. It was worth the wait. The third instalment probably won’t see the light of day until next year at least. Hopefully this will keep you occupied until then.

Pokémon Platinum (Nintendo DS) PAL

With what they dub as “the fourth generation” in full swing, Pokémon has taken the move to current generation handheld systems like a duck to water. It has improved enough to warrant a look for those all too familiar with the concept. In the time honoured tradition, a third version of the cycle was imminent. So here we are; Pokémon Platinum, and with all third versions it comes with some fundamental changes. With Pokémon Yellow it was having a yellow rodent walk behind you constantly. Pokémon Crystal had moving creatures in battle and special event, and Pokémon Emerald had a different story arch. What does Pokémon Platinum contribute to the line of changes, and are they any good?

Pokémon Platinum starts out pretty much the same as the Diamond and Pearl counterparts do. You are either a girl with a strange scarf, or a boy with the strangest fascination for berets. You are given a Pokémon by Professor Rowan, the region’s leading specialist on creatures. He then tells you about the Pokémon League and you get the rest. The basic plot from ten years ago still rings true today in the franchise and it is getting stale. There is however a sub-plot. Team Galactic, a group not unlike the Team Rocket of yesteryear, decide to fiddle with the time-space continuum to provoke the appearance of the Pokémon; Giratina. Legend has it that it has dominion over the Time Pokémon; Dialgia and the Space Pokémon; Palkia. Since the leader wishes to create a new world to his choosing, he has taken it upon himself to unmake the world in order to create a better one. It is an interesting concept, though the relevance of such might be lost upon its younger audience.

Familiar territory...

The Sinnoh region has had a bit of a facelift. One immediate difference is that the starting town is partially covered in snow, a difference that indicates a seasonal change between the other two versions. The protagonists do look slightly different, and the designs of the gyms you’ll enter are radically changed.The music however is exactly as you left it, and despite a couple of new characters involved on your journey the progression remains largely the same. The diversion of Pokémon shows is an interesting one, but again is nothing new. It is a case of “if you have played Diamond/Pearl, you will have seen a lot of this before”. Essentially this is the version for those who missed out the first time around and this isn’t a good thing. Sure there are different creatures to catch and a plot change, but in terms of what you do there is nothing different.

This rolls on to the battle system as well. While much praise can be given to the decision to distinguish between physical and mental attacks, that was also true for Diamond/Pearl. Some of the Pokémon learn different moves when they level up compared to previous titles, but this is too minor to really count as “an improvement”. The only change I could actually see was that used Pokémon move when placed into battle as well as opposing creatures. What I’m really unhappy about though is the fact they kept the same touch screen functionality. It was missing some key features before, so giving them a lick of paint isn’t going to disguise the fact it has been reused. This isn’t to say though that Pokémon Platinum isn’t fun. It is definitely so and will take a long time to get through everything. It just isn’t all that different from Diamond/Pearl…

…until you get to the top of the mountain. Here is where changes begin to happen. Instead of fighting the monster on the mountain, you are transported to a completely different area: The Distortion World. Here you will not encounter random battles. You will explore the length and breadth of this weird place that changes with its gravitational pull. At the end of which you will notice a second difference: Giratina has a different form. When it has equipped the orb from this realm, you will be able to have this “Origin Form” creature to wield as well. It isn’t the only one, but due to the nature of Nintendo’s strategy, it is the only one you’ll see without online intervention. The random one-off ghost Pokémon; Rotom for example can possess appliances and gain new moves. At the time of writing, the Nintendo Wi-Fi event had Shaymin up for grabs and when a key item is used on it, it changes its form entirely like an evolution. Sadly because these are purely for use with Platinum, you will see none of these changes on older versions. While this isn’t a 100% new idea, it is the first time that it has been a major selling point.

Please don't do drugs, unless they're prescription based. Otherwise you could end up in a gloomy distorted mess...

I briefly mentioned the Wi-Fi mystery gift option. While it is good that they are finally using it, I feel that they should allow users to update at their own pace rather than have specific time slots as to when content becomes available. Since everything is built into the cart, there is nothing to stop them doing this and I feel that like the touch screen this is a wasted opportunity. The GTS is back, and still has the community based flaw of “I’ll trade this average creature for one of the super legendaries”, and with friend codes being as finicky as ever this problem doesn’t seem to want to go away. The other Wi-Fi multiplayer options here include the same that was on Diamond/Pearl, which isn’t a bad thing as they were fun to begin with. There is a new Wi-Fi multiplayer option which feels somewhat reminiscent of the old Pokémon Stadium mini-games. You compete against three others to win as many mini-games as is required. There is a catch however. You can only spend a certain time in the area per day. Once this time begins to run out, the lights dim, fireworks go off, and then you are forcibly ejected by a Piplup/Charizard boat. While this is amusing, it is also inconvenient as it is a good diversion.

Pokémon Platinum then isn’t really the evolution of Pokémon Diamond/Pokémon Pearl that was promised. There are a few changes and additions here and there, which is all good. But really they aren’t the changes that are needed. A more robust online feature and better touch screen functionality would be far more appreciated than moving user Pokémon in battle. The addition of the Distortion World is clever and uses clever physics, but doesn’t really make or break the scale of improvement. New forms are interesting, but are purely for those who can be bothered with connecting their DS to the internet. It all comes down to one of two situations. Either you have only just bought a DS and wish to play one of the new generation Pokémon titles, or you are a die-hard veteran of the franchise who really wants the new downloadable legendaries. If you are in category one, you won’t be disappointed. If you are in category two, you’ve lucked out. One of them has already set sail into the realms of the abyss.

Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story PAL

Creating an empire over one idea has been the institution for good things as well as some diabolical travesties. The British taking over India over the prospect of tea would sound absurd in this day and age, but it really happened. The fact that it was one company taking over an entire country is even more baffling. In the latter part of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first sees the rather less hostile and certainly more accepted takeover from a certain Japanese company and a fictional Italian plumber. But this takeover isn’t territorial per se but more in terms of the video game market. One of the more successful ventures for the Italian plumber has been with the RPG genre, and Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story is poised to turn this tradition on its head with a baffling concept. Is this one a little too much to stomach or does it really have some muscle behind it?

A disease known as the “Blorbs” (no relation to swine flu, though the pandemic tone is definitely one of parody) is sweeping through the inhabitants of the Mushroom Kingdom. During a summit organised to tackle this pandemic, Bowser shows up only to be defeated by the Mario Bros. Sulking at yet another bitter defeat, he comes across a peddler who gives him a snack. This causes him to become a vacuum of sorts. He eventually wanders back into the summit, and proceeds to swallow Mario, Luigi, the Princess and the entire committee. When the peddler reveals himself to be the evil mastermind Fawful who wishes to take over the world once again, it falls to the unlikely “hero” that is Bowser to stop his plan. There is something a little disturbing about wandering around the many crevices of King Koopa’s innards, but the concept oddly works. It feels fresh. With a strong cast of NPCs, Mario and Luigi’s nonsense faux Italian is expressed to make the story progress. The undoubted stars of the show lie with the anti-hero Bowser; who has the pick of the dialogue and scenes, and the antagonist Fawful. He may be an English students nightmare with the amount of broken grammar, but instead of a text based “Hahahaha!!!” we are treated each time he laughs to these giant words filling the screen: “I HAVE CHORTLES!!!”

Yes, this is the only RPG where you can eat your enemies!

If you have played one of the side series that began with Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga in 2003, then you’ll find that not a great deal has changed. It is turn based RPG with an interactive twist in that you can inflict more damage with pressing the button at the right time, or dodge enemy attacks, with the button. Each character has their own button, though Bowser seems to have two that have independent actions. One thing about the battle system that is appreciated is the interactivity between the unsuspecting Bowser and the contents of his insides. You are given a block which enables Bowser to suck up small enemies. These are then handed to the Mario Bros to fight, which is a unique way of balancing the teams. Bowser also has touch screen enabled Minion attacks, which work just the same as the Mario Bros’ special attacks in context. The responsiveness of the DS for some of these attacks leaves a little to be desired, but they work well enough to be useable. New aspects include the ideas of badges and rankings. Each of the Mario Bros will eventually get badges with the ability to gain bonuses for when the meter fills up. More often than not they rely on you being good at maximising the potential of attacks, so it pays to press buttons at the right time here too. New ranks are obtained at fixed level points which enable new gear to be bought or more accessory slots to open up. It seems unfair that the King of the Koopa’s gets three ranks where the Mario Bros get five, but then again his stats reflect a balance of sorts. The game occasionally shakes things up with giant battles that are fully controlled by the touch screen and have some kind of unique winning condition, and for the most part these succeed in balancing the package.

It is when you get onto the exploration part that things shape up. At times there are obstacles that appear to which occasionally involve switching to the Mario Bros to find a solution via one of Bowser’s limbs. Whether it means making Bowser giant to fight one of the ridiculous Godzilla like giant battles or just to find something inside him while he drinks gallons of water, the idea of working outside the box is a good one. It is a shame that the game practically spoon feeds you with the solution. New techniques for exploration appear at fixed points and remove any element of working these things out for yourself. Dungeons have a degree of exploration for the Mario Bros as special move blocks are scattered throughout. Getting to them could prove a challenge due to the Mario Bros moving in tandem with each other, but jumping separately. The special blocks are however fairly easy to find, in fact one of them is required to move on with the story. While I commend how the game does things, the approach seems a little lazy.

Bowser suffers indigestion. Mario & Luigi sort it out.

The game isn’t terribly long either, clocking in at around 14/15 hours depending on how stuck you get when figuring out what those odd “trees” are for, or a particularly difficult jump that Luigi never seems to find the other side of. The various side missions and mini-games will help tide things over a little more, though some of these are over within about twenty minutes. It doesn’t really help that the game is structured to be as linear as is physically possible. If it wasn’t for the fact that the scenes change on the fly quicker than most RPGs, then this would be a lot more noticeable than it is. The Jigsaw puzzles do provide a proper alternative, but become time trial challenges sooner than anticipated.

Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story is a great third instalment to this promising side series, sporting a lot of fresh if disturbing ideas. The plot concept, progression and delivery are about as good as you’d expect from an adventure featuring the Italian plumbers. Battles are varied with scope for a change whenever the game feels like it, and wandering around the Mushroom Kingdom and Bowser’s insides is a joy. There are niggling issues with the linear path and lack of features outside the main story that might make this tale a little short lived. This is one of the more promising titles out for the Nintendo DS this year and a great way to waste time out on the open road. Just don’t expect this to be a game that will last you very long, perhaps about the same cumulative time as your lunch…

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Professor Layton and the Curious Village (PAL)  

The Nintendo DS has revived the concept of video games as a respectable hobby to the Daily Mail reading population. Before hand, they were claiming that video games rot the brain and that people who play them aren’t getting the most out of their lives. Mind you, these are the same people who believe tap water is a carcinogen. So in order to address the pants on head retarded individuals, Nintendo released a handheld device with a touch screen. This paved the way for a brain training game, which sole purpose, is to increase the mental arithmetic capacity of the global population. It has since sold in its hundreds of thousands of units worldwide, and the Daily Mail clientele have kind of retreated on their point since then. But there is only so far a game based upon furthering yourself can take you. Enter then Professor Layton and the Curious Village to blend the ideas of plot and brain teasing puzzles. But will this be a happy marriage of the two concepts, or will it end in a rather messy divorce settlement?

Our tale begins with Professor Layton and his young apprentice Luke driving to the small town of St. Mystere. They have been asked by the wife of the late Baron Augustus Reinhold to solve an inheritance dispute. In his will, he says that the one who finds the golden apple will be the owner of a grand treasure. One mystery slowly becomes several when a number of disappearances occur, along with the dark foreboding tower that looms over the village making strange sounds. The story is one that has more charm than a suave Hollywood actor/actress, together with some fantastic dialogue and voice work. Everything is incredibly immersive, until you realise that the plot is merely a facade. It seems that everyone has a puzzle to block progression with that you have to solve.

Half of the mystery surrounding St Mystere is why people look at walls for hours on end.

Despite the sometimes tenuous links between plot and puzzle, the brainteasers are fantastically designed. Most of them require logical thinking, there are also shifting puzzles that require you to move one thing to another location in as few moves as possible. There are also a fair number of trick puzzles to throw you off the beaten track, so it pays to read the instructions on each puzzle as carefully as possible. There is an emphasis on solving the puzzles first time, as there will be a number of “Picarats” awarded depending on how many guesses it took to solve them. All is not lost if you get stumped however as scattered throughout the game in hidden locations are hint coins. You can use up to three of them to assist in particularly difficult puzzles. While having the hint coins are a nice idea, there is nothing like being able to work things out without having to resort to whipping out the pen and paper. It is unfortunate that you have to literally resort to this as Professor Layton and the Curious Village doesn’t have a memo pad.

While the bulk of the game consists of wandering aimlessly around St. Mystere like a headless bamboozled chicken, there are one or two mini games to occupy some of your time with. Some of the more hidden puzzles can reward you with parts of a robotic dog, furniture, or scraps ancient artwork. Putting these back together will bestow more puzzles at the end of the game, with the dog in particular adding to the experience by detecting hint coins for you. Adding to these unlockable puzzles are the weekly downloadable puzzles. One suspects these are on the cartridge anyway, but having locked away content is a nice touch. It is nice to see a game that rewards players by giving them more of a challenge. While most opt for a “hard mode” of sorts, Professor Layton and the Curious Village just has a couple of harder puzzles. Those Picarats you obtain also help to unlock bonus content, but that is of the more conventional variety such as profiles and concept art.

This one is an easy one, but I'll let you figure it out...

St. Mystere is a rather baffling place, but if it was real you’d probably want to take a holiday there. The presentation is top notch with some unique and beautiful artwork to help keep this from being yet another Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training: How Old is your Brain?, albeit the loose links between plot and puzzle do spoil it somewhat. It helps that the voice acting and dialogue are well done. Just goes to show just how well a predominantly British cast can do things. A thing to note however is the difference between the UK and US versions. Having played both, it is interesting to hear the difference in voice casting for Luke. In the American version, he sounds posh. In the UK version he is a cockney geezer. Also to note are the unique puzzles for each version, as while the US might have a puzzle involving the digital clock, the British version has one involving an analogue clock. It is a little baffling as to why this is because some people in America are as familiar with analogue clocks as us Brits, and some Brits can’t tell the difference between 12am and 12pm!

There is a reason why Nintendo show trailer upon trailer of people playing this game, no matter where you are from. It is one of the most unique titles to grace a gaming format, let alone a handheld. The happy marriage between a mystery and puzzle solving without the need for point and click aspects is one with unusual circumstances. The groom; being the plot and presentation are expertly done, while the logic based puzzle bride makes you think outside and indeed inside the box to solve her many questions. But like all marriages there is a problem. The sense of immersion is tampered with too much to really get to grips with the adventure. It also doesn’t help that when solving puzzles, that you will probably need some paper. In a day and age where a built in memo pad for each puzzle isn’t beyond the medium, it just seems lazy. Having said all this though, the complaints are minor compared to the praise. In a way, it doesn’t matter what kind of DS owner you are. If you like training your brain, this game’s puzzles will satisfy you for a long time. If you like the point and click adventures of old, this game will feel like one. All that is left is for Professor Layton to hold a gun, though to be honest, he’d probably be reminded of yet another puzzle…

Pokémon Ranger: Shadows of Almia (PAL) box

The Pokémon series had before 2007 relied on one type of game with multiple instalments. While massively successful, by the time the Nintendo DS duo turned up things had gone a little stale. Since its introduction it has generated a lot of spin-off games that have been met with mixed results. From the original gameplay style of Pokémon Snap to the rather tedious dungeon crawler Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Red Rescue Team/Blue Rescue Team. Since the main series has shown signs of age, Nintendo have decided to try a new direction and release sequels for some of those said spin-offs. While the sequel for the dungeon crawler was destined to fail, Pokémon Ranger: Shadows of Almia shows an amount of promise. Is it a big flop, or the new glimmer of hope for the franchise?

Taking on the role of a trainee, your beginnings are as humble as your first day at school. Having recently been transferred to the area, you know nobody. During your term there, friendships made and connections are established between you and the Ranger HQs. Graduation with flying colours is the only way to move the story along, but pretty soon afterwards the arrival of the oddly named “Team Dim Sun”. Obviously they’re not Chinese food on legs infesting everyone’s pantry, but a group of mobsters who want world domination and something involving a large crystal being the key. For a game orientated at kids, the story is actually gripping. It helps that the emphasis isn’t on catching every creature in the game. It also helps that it is a lengthy one that spans over around fifteen chapters.

The Pokémon are confused... They hurt themselves in their confusion.

But essentially it is a Pokémon title at heart. There are still a whole host of creatures to catch for your needs. There are two differences however. The first is that not every creature is featured. The second is that instead of them being your loyal vassals towards fame and glory, they’re a one trick pony to help remove obstacles or assist in the capture of other creatures. The method of capture has also changed into a more involving practice. Instead of glorified cock-fights combined with throwing capsules at them, you have to run rings around them before they get so dizzy that they follow your command. They will resist your attempts to make their eyes spin by running at your lines or attacking them. Attacks are usually indicated by exclamation marks, but don’t think more of those punctuation symbols mean the attacks are more severe. It is entirely up to the creature what attacks it has and generally some of its more basic ones are harder to dodge. Thankfully you have critters of your own to assist in your endeavours.

There are two main types of Pokémon. Ones with “Target Clears”, which are essentially demolition guys on a serial rampage to destroy everything in your way. All the different types are represented on both sides, but their properties vary between creatures. For example, what would be known as the electric type in older titles are divided again to feature “Recharge”, “Electrify” or even some of the other sub-types that aren’t fully related to the creature in the older games. Incidentally, Recharge is the equivalent to curing yourself. Some abilities are for much bigger goals, such as being able to swim on rivers or fly. There is a small proportion of “Partner Pokémon”. While you can only have one with you at any given time, it is with you permanently and can be switched at the farm for another one. But don’t think you can just use its ability to assist the capturing of others all the time. You need to draw a certain amount of loops in order to charge up its motivation.

As a Ranger, your job is to help people and Pokémon alike. These can be done via the missions handed to you via the story, or the quests given to you by just about everyone on the planet. In the “Styler”, you can see where these people are who need your help. Once you take a quest or two, it becomes clear that some of the directions given are a bit ambiguous. A prime example is of one quest involving two creatures that ran into the forest attacking each other. The quest giver tells you it was beyond in the forest. What he doesn’t tell you is that it is very close by where they ended up and you don’t even need to switch areas. There is only one issue larger than this and that is that you can only accept one quest at a time. It is annoying when you go into one area to help one person out, only to have to go back to help someone else. Can’t Rangers multi-task or at least take notes? For quests you receive rewards that help either boost your defence or enhance the abilities of your machine, which to be honest is the only real incentive to do them all. Levelling up only does so much, so having damage prevention is a good call.

Battles are done by merely drawing circles.

Aside from the main plot and quests, there are a host of creatures to befriend and a few extra downloadable missions available from the internet. These add a certain bit more to the experience, but after completing the main quest it hardly seems like Pokémon Ranger: Shadows of Almia has a great deal to offer after its in depth and lengthy quest to anyone but a hoarder. Sure linkage with Pokémon Diamond/Pearl/Platinum is a good thing for those games, but beyond that both titles don’t have a lot of replay-ability. In an odd twist of fate, instead of becoming bored with a game aimed at children, I have been left wanting more and being disappointed. If it wasn’t for the main story being half decent for a change then this would have left me more than a little downhearted.

It’s not often I get saddened by a waste of potential in a game. Pokémon Ranger: Shadows of Almia on paper sounds like a game that could be a lot of fun and tell a good story. In practice it does a lot of things right, and is easily a game to recommend to someone young. As long as you can get the whole Pokémon stigma out of their head that is. But the amount of things that could have been included or done better is just too overwhelming to give it a whole hearted recommendation. In a lot of ways though, this is more an issue with the Pokémon franchise in general as there is only so much to do after the credits. So while a child might get a lot out of this title, the overall experience for everyone else is entirely forgettable, despite its positive points. That said, the re-invention of the series has proved that it isn’t just about “catch ‘em all” any more.

Metroid Prime Hunters (PAL) box (The box is shiny.)

In the eighties, a female heroine in computer games caused much shock. Not because she was the protagonist, but because she was a bounty hunter with a cool suit. To this day, Samus Aran remains possibly the only video game woman who isn’t embarrassingly characterised. Since her early days, she has thwarted space pirates single handed and discovered rare relics from the ancient Chozo (a bird-like humanoid race) she was raised by. All of this without once changing bra size or pompous characterisation change between developers. When she went into the third-dimension, players were once again shocked by how well Metroid transformed from a side-scrolling platformer to a first person shooter. In Metroid Prime Hunters, Samus Aran aims to shock players once more by proving that a handheld shooter on the DS could be done well. But can thunder strike thrice, or is this a mere fizzle?

Samus receives a coded message from the Galactic Federation that informs her of some relics that require a little investigating in Alimbic Solar system. They somehow know that the message would be intercepted, and lo and behold, six bounty hunters set off in search of the treasure for themselves. Essentially, this is the entire basis of the plot unless you actively seek it out. Through various points, Samus can learn the history of the solar system and why it is deserted in this day and age. Ultimately though, this doesn’t change the fact that the plot is too simple to care enough about. It doesn’t even add a great deal to the series. Metroid Prime Hunters manages to retain most of the presentation style that was to be found in the Gamecube titles. It is however perhaps a little on the dark side. A science fiction cliché, I know, but it’ll affect your retinas more than allegiances to the Jedi or Sith.

There are times where falling is definitely a bad idea...  

It is important that you take a while to get adjusted to the control scheme. Unless you are left handed like me, you shouldn’t need to change to the Dual Wield control scheme since it is about as useful and easy to manoeuvre as a shopping trolley with no bottom. Aiming with the stylus is a fairly good idea, but the drawback is that your fingers will cramp up badly after a while of continued play. There will come a point where you physically cannot play the game any longer due to your condition, and for some time afterwards you lose the ability to use your button hand properly. If you suffer from repetitive strain injuries often, this game will certainly not help. Thankfully only shooting and moving/strafing are controlled by buttons as aiming, jumping and weapon switching are handled in the touch screen part of the controls and they feel great.

Samus starts out with all the moves she can muster. A depressing realisation at first, but factor in the arsenal of weaponry to find and secret power-ups to locate and things appear slightly more optimistic. The diversity of the weapons here is fairly unique compared to most first person shooters. Samus of course has her charge beam and rocket supply from the outset, but can obtain weapons used by her adversaries; the other bounty hunters. Some shoot lasers from afar while others shards of ice that freeze you on the spot. These unusual weapons can be used against enemies or to disable coloured barriers. Metroid Prime Hunters offers more than mere weapon collection in the puzzles it sets out. Some involve rolling into a ball, while others utilise the Scan feature to find switches. These are welcome in this incarnation as much as they were in Metroid Prime. There is one major element that doesn’t seem right though. The level structure, no matter how interesting the puzzles are, is always the same. Wander in, do a puzzle, kill a hunter, do another couple of puzzles/kill more things, beat boss, escape. This is all you will ever do across five different worlds, and most of those you’ll be doing it twice. While its presentation is certainly 3D, the gameplay comes across as black and white. For a series like Metroid, this is concerning.

Incidentally, the whole game isn't set in a lava landscape, despite the pictures indicating this as such.

Perhaps the single player mode was a training adventure however. In the multiplayer option, you can opt to either play a local friend or duke it out online. However you proceed, you get the option of being either Samus or one of her unlockable adversaries. Each has their own heads up display and weapons with Samus being stripped down to her basics, and by basics I do mean how she starts out, not her “Zero Suit”. There are a number of maps to shoot your friends/strangers in, with more unlocked as you achieve certain conditions. Somehow though, despite being able to be played online, there is something amiss in this mode as well. Perhaps it is because of the Metroid universe that restrains it to the bare roots approach it has taken. Having said that, it is the best example of how multiplayer on the DS can potentially be fun. It is just a shame that the first online shooter for the handheld has little to offer the players in return.

Compared to the other handheld interpretations of the series, Metroid Prime Hunters is a somewhat painful experience. On top of visuals that require an absence of day-light in order to see anything, the single player mode feels a little restrained. Sure the environments could be pretty to those who can see them, but the structure behind the levels follows a gradually degrading pattern. The time trial to get back to Samus’ ship is by far the most annoying part of each level and usually it is due to confusing level design that one might fail to get back in time. It is also literally painful to you as well as the default touch screen modes while being the most precise way to play, will also do a number on your fingers. What makes single player Metroid Prime Hunters at least slightly bearable is the puzzle elements, which for a game where the emphasis is on combat is incredibly ironic. The combat structure does make more sense in the multiplayer component, and having unlockable features for use in that mode makes the single player option essential. Put simply, this is a low point in the Metroid series. It doesn’t have the charm that its 2D counterparts had, or indeed the 3D console interpretations. Perhaps I’m slightly bitter though; my right pointing finger feels like a piece of pork crackling.

Final Fantasy Anthology PSX (PAL) box (Also includes Final Fantasy V) Final Fantasy IV Advance GBA (PAL) box Final Fantasy IV DS (PAL) box (VERSION TESTED MOST RECENTLY)

The Final Fantasy series is what many would call a veteran in its field. It is the longest running Japanese RPG that is still going strong besides Square Enix’s other series, Dragon Quest. However it is the series that has gained the most notoriety. This could be due to the fact that westerners have been exposed to it a lot more, and that there have been more remakes of the series than any other RPG on the planet. Final Fantasy IV, a game originally released on the SNES in Japan and America, is he primary culprit of re-releases for Square Enix. In Europe at least, it has been ported on more than one occasion. The most recent of these is the Nintendo DS full on remake. Is Final Fantasy IV a story worth retelling and reimagining, or is it time Square Enix retired the material?

It isn’t an easy life being a mere pawn in an activity that goes against your morals. That is particularly true for Cecil, leader of Baron’s Red Wings squadron. He is being asked to retrieve with force the crystals from neighbouring kingdoms. After a recent mission, he confronts his king about the issue. He is thanked by being demoted and sent to deliver a package to the town of Mist. Upon reaching Mist he soon discovers that a dragon he encountered was an Eidolon belonging to a child’s mother, and that the package was meant to lay the town to ruin. He and his partner Kain vow to bring an end to Baron’s tyranny when they become separated via an earthquake caused by a small girl. The plot is somewhat predictable in the most part, though the dialogue in the DS version has been given a brand new translation, which flows far better. The characters though for the most part are either incredibly dull or not there long enough to further their characterisation.

Red and Yellow uniforms for guards never caught on. Some wonder why (From PSX version)

On the Playstation and GBA (the two released here in the UK), the presentation is made up of 2D Sprites, which while distinctive do seem a little bland. Perhaps this is because of the technology available during the time of conception. The GBA version improves things slightly, featuring character portraits for character dialogue. For the Nintendo DS version however, the entirety of the game adopts the same visual presentation given in Final Fantasy III. This is a vast improvement, and allows for a more fluid flow of gameplay. One thing that is consistent throughout both versions however is the quality of the soundtrack. Even in the original, the music was epic. While they’re also a little on the forgettable side compared with more recent efforts, they get the job done. The only real difference in audio between all the versions is that the DS version includes some voice acting, which for a lack of a better term screams hammy Lord of the Rings. It isn’t going to win an Oscar however due to some awkward delivery. Environments are nice though and towns provide steady pacing in terms of equipment.

One thing to note about the different ports is that there is a huge difference how the Playstation/GBA releases play to the Nintendo DS version. Consider the former to be a very simple take on the Active Time Battle system introduced via this particular Final Fantasy. Characters line up against enemies and beat the snot out of them. While battles in those versions are relatively simple, the DS version shakes things up with allowing enemies to Counter with specific abilities. For example, one boss I encountered decided to respond to a physical attack by binding the attacker so that they can’t attack again. Cecil’s initial technique as a Dark Knight has changed to merely increase damage done by sacrificing HP, rather than send a shockwave at everything. There are also many changes to encounters with enemies and bosses alike. All of these changes increases difficulty vastly. You will actually need to think about what you should do against enemies, and if need be, grind. Yes, the curse of all JRPGs is back with a monotonous vengeance. Just like in Final Fantasy III, you will need to aimlessly wander around beating the snot out of random monsters just passing you to go to a tea party.

Three...is a magic number. It makes goblins disappear! (From GBA version)

Essentially, the content on each version begins to fizzle out at this point. The Playstation version only offers cut-scenes at the beginning and end, while the Gameboy Advance shows new dungeons. The DS version in contrast offers all of the above, and also a new mini-game mechanic. One of the many friends the summoner, Rydia, has is called Wyght. He will stand in for her and randomly attack with equipped techniques. It is upgradeable via mini-games which are surprisingly hard. All of which utilise the touch screen in one form or another. There is also a mode where you can edit how Wyght looks, including a canvas to actually scribble on for its face. The customisation of its face is a little flawed in that you have to work with a particular colour scheme each time, because it has a nasty habit of changing colour when you change the scheme. It is also a little disappointing that we don’t have more options to customise our own summon magic. But what is given is at least a good attempt to engage the players into something other than card games.

Final Fantasy IV is a pretty easy and basic game if you look at the Playstation version. It becomes slightly harder, but more rewarding with the GBA version. The DS version expands even more, including a new visual presentation and more tactical nature in its combat. The game couldn’t be more schizophrenic if it wanted to. The Playstation and GBA versions appeal to the retro/new to RPG crowd, while the DS version appeals to the experienced gamer/those who like mini-games. They all have only one thing in common and that is the plot, the incredibly dull plot. RPGs have always tried to tell a tale, but with Final Fantasy IV, its heart doesn’t seem into it. On the DS version the translation helps somewhat with the awkward overall story. But when the material would put an enraged lion to sleep, you have to wonder if the person who came up with it was having an off day. For me this is the weakest link in the Final Fantasy series, and no Square Enix, just because you can pimp it up all you like doesn’t mean the plot can ever be salvaged with dignity.

  This thing exploding is perhaps the worst thing that could happen... (From DS version)