Category: Playstation 2 (Review)


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Ventures into the realm of Japanese Shinto religion are few and far between, but are mostly portrayed in a bizarre and often scary way. One of the earlier examples in video games comes from the Shin Megami Tensei series, which in turn is based off the Digital Devil Saga novels. The series somehow became a cult phenomenon in its native country because of the odd blend of the future and the occult. Spawning more spinoffs than any game series to date with the possible exception of the Capcom’s Megaman, there are many different styles of the same core idea. Arguably the most commercially successful of these is the only one to really penetrate the western shores; Shin Megami Tensei: Persona. But it is easy to forget that there are other games from the same series to have been lovingly translated. One such example tries to take the idea of the core series and turn it on its head. Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner – Raidou Kuzunoha vs The Soulless Army (herein known as simply “Devil Summoner – Raidou Kuzunoha vs The Soulless Army” ) brings back the series to a 1920s Japan and places you in a detective agency. The setting is a bit like a Japanese version of a HP Lovecraft short story. Will sanity be reduced due to a really messed up story or some poor development decisions?

Things start with a trial by fire. In order to earn the title of Raidou Kuzunoha the 14th, you need to complete the task set for you by a disembodied voice. After earning the title, you are tasked with the defence of Tokio, and are employed by a detective agency that specializes with occult activity. Your first case doesn’t go particularly well however as the client gets kidnapped by men with weird helmets and big swords. By the end of the first chapter, it becomes apparent that there is something really big going on and that it will take the rest of the game to explain it. For me, this wouldn’t have been the direction I would have liked to have seen, simply because having an entire case take the entire game to solve doesn’t allow much room for mystery. This is essentially the first instance where the game has no idea of the pace at which the game is progressing. What’s even more baffling is that some of the twelve chapters are incredibly short when compared to others. The second chapter took hours and hours to get through, whereas the following one took mere minutes, providing you didn’t get lost. There is also a sense that while the 1920s feel is right, there is a notion that the game isn’t taking itself seriously. When the game name-bombs historical figures such as Grigori Rasputin and throws them into the role of a psychopathic devil summoned who is hell bent on destroying a Japanese city, this is where all reality gets thrown out of the window. Not that unrealistic elements aren’t welcome in a games plot. It is just that the story loses what credibility it has at that point due to the unusual pace of gameplay combined with a plot that is hard to follow.

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While the story is a little hard to follow; the setting and overall look of the game is indeed a good effort. The cars and trams might look a little too modern in comparison to actual reality, but the busy streets give the game a uniquely urban feel for an RPG. The music is not quite as polished. It isn’t that the tracks aren’t good, because they really are catchy. The problem comes from setting. Everything in the normal world is a little on the Jazzy side, which would be absolutely brilliant if the battles didn’t rely on rock/metal influences. This is an odd complaint for me, but the shift between the two styles makes no sense.

There is a real sense that the game doesn’t know its own encounter rate a little on the extreme side. There have been occasions when I would walk three steps and another battle happens. This really slows down the game to a crawl. A couple of advantages you do have are that you have the ability to detect when you are next going to have a random battle, and that you can increase or decrease the rate at which you fight. The indicator does sometimes go blue in some areas, which means you won’t have any random battles here. It is a good touch to know when the random encounters are going to happen, but would be even better if the game kept to a fair pace. As for the battles themselves, they take place in a small area. Providing that Raidou has enough MAG, he can summon demons that he has confined to glorified test tubes. While his demons have many abilities depending on their species, Raidou himself is limited to running around, slashing and item duties. If he should die, it is game over. This would be fine if the game didn’t decide that certain random encounters would start off with him being surrounded by monsters. It’s bad enough having zombies with hats all around you performing nose dives in an effort to flatten you; having Gorgon-like demons spam you with a charm spell that immobilizes you from the get go is just ridiculously unbalanced. At least running away from many enemies is far simpler than running away from just one or two. Bosses crop up on occasion and are fought in a fairly standard fashion, whilst posing a challenge.

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The action all takes place in the streets and districts of Tokio; so while you are in towns that would normally be completely safe, you would be fighting demons that manage to pass through the dimensions. There are occasions where you warp or pass through into this other dimension, which usually brings upon it the Shikimi no Kage. These are walls that can only be harmed by the element named in its type and all other elements do nothing. It is an interesting concept that relies on you to manage your party efficiently enough to have all the different elements needed to kill it, as well as being well stocked on bullets. There are examples of clever yet infuriating dungeon design, such as the labyrinth where entering it at different points enables new paths to be traversed. If it wasn’t for the unforgiving random battle rate, this wouldn’t be anywhere near as frustrating. One of the better implemented techniques used is the monster abilities that aren’t battle related. The type of monster and its nature is used to get important information or to get across an obstacle. One early example is when attempting to find a diary using a monsters world ability that highlights important objects. There is a somewhat familiarity between this and the Pokémon games in practice, but I’d actually say this is better executed. You also have segments where monsters have to go off on their own to investigate areas that are out of your reach. The downside to this is that battles are fought with just that monster and more often than not it will be pinned by a flurry of attacks. Monsters are a little more rigid in their movement and thus harder to control.

All these random encounters do however serve a very useful purpose. As you rise in the ranks, you gain the ability to handle stronger demons and indeed a wider variety. In turn, your monsters not only rank up and gain new abilities, but they also give you items and become more loyal to you. Loyalty is very important because once the loyalty is at the maximum, you can use it as your heart desires. Need a stronger monster? Fuse two of them together creating a new and hefty variety. Want to improve your weapon? Fuse a monster with it and imbue your weapon with magical powers! Feel that your monster needs a new ability? Sacrifice one so that it learns said ability. All of these actions are done in what can only be described as Dr Frankenstein’s laboratory for the demonically challenged. The level of customization and sheer range of monsters is perhaps the biggest perk and the reason it works is that while the encounter rate is so high, the actual battles themselves are a breeze.

Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs The Soulless Army is in short a bit of a loose cannon. There are elements that work really well, such as the visual style and Overworld investigation segments, with actual monster interaction with items and puzzles being of a particular highlight. The levelling system is balanced with a great level of customization for party members and while the music is a little odd in terms of style choice, it is well composed. But the other side of the coin shows the abnormally high battle encounter rate and an obscure plot that fails to make one either care for it, or even make sense of what is happening at the time. I suppose the fact that the games overall name is stupidly long should have served as a warning sign.

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Soul Nomad & The World Eaters (PS2) PAL

With so much emphasis on being the good guy in games, there is definitely a temptation to do something bad when given the choice. But most of the time, these choices have a reflection that is portrayed in a way that is about as dramatic as watching paint dry. With this in mind, there is a worrying trend developing in that more games are allowing you to be bad. Soul Nomad & The World Eaters has a rather unique solution to this issue. Instead of making choices solely reflect the course of the plot, have the choices reflect on the battle system itself. Essentially, allowing you to cheat. But does this cheater prosper or does the age old saying still ring true?

The plot is very hard to describe due to the sheer insanity of the context. Around two hundred years before the beginning of the adventure, a number of wars had been fought on a potentially cataclysmic level. It didn’t help when an army of beasts descended onto the world with the intention to obliterate it. Good did indeed prevail though and the world knew peace. This is what the history books say however, as the leader of these beasts was sealed inside a sword. You are unfortunately the hapless sap who has to contain the power of a god. Not just any god however, as the being locked away like a fat kid from the kitchen is none other than God of Destruction; Gig. Two hundred years give a god time to scheme, so his plan is to take your body. Lucky for you, he can’t take full dominion over your soul. With the power of a reluctant god, you venture into the world to destroy his band of “World Eaters”.

While it may seem as an ironic statement considering he wants to end the world and all, Gig is perhaps the most likeable character. His arrogance and cockiness are portrayed in such a way that you feel like being on his side when he is ripping into characters verbally. It isn’t that the rest of the cast don’t have their qualities. Your childhood friend Danette has the unusual tick of being really bad with names, including your own, while with a rather unusual attachment to a member of his family. But it is how Gig completely runs away with how ridiculous their concepts are that is the real treat. One could feel guilty in that you are effectively siding with the bully, but considering he does concede that there is some intelligence amongst the mortals occasionally and that the Sepp people are faster than anything, there is a more human side.

If there is one thing developer Nippon Ichi has done to death is the tactical RPG. All but two of their titles prior to this that were developed in-house have something to do with putting one unit in one place to beat the living daylights out of another in the most insane fashion. This one does things a little differently. Why have only one beating the snot out of the enemy when you can have a whole squadron? This is the question that is answered here. You can customise your own squads by assigning units from the selection of manikins you can create from your fallen foes, and placing them in a 3×3 grid, known as rooms. These rooms are randomly generated with the “Change” function in the arrange mode. Each individual unit has their own perks and weaknesses, but when you combine them you can unlock certain skills that trigger after attacking (normally). There are others that trigger when the enemy attacks or even “tactic” abilities that provide the whole unit with a bonus that lasts the battle. The best part is that it doesn’t rely on grinding as much as previous games because of two factors. When you buy a unit, you can opt to raise its level to the maximum for a few more GP (Gig Points – currency). The whole squad levels up as a whole as well, meaning that when things die everyone gets a share of the experience pot rather than those within the combo.

As for battles themselves, they are fought in a much more traditional fashion that is more Fire Emblem than Disgaea. You summon allies to the battlefield (costs lots of GP) and go on a tactical rampage. Grinding is a little critical to success or failure, but squad balancing also allows for some units to take advantage. Combo attacks bring the over the top flavour that Nippon Ichi are renowned for, which does include perhaps the best looking move I’ve ever seen in a game. Artistically it looks awesome and indeed very painful. The rest of the finishers are as painful looking as one would expect, but it seems the developers favoured Gig yet again with him having a place in each of the most painful and visually pleasing moves. Spanning to around 50 different story battles, the incentive of the strange, yet entertaining story keeps you motivated to plod on through the encounters.

Gig’s exploits aren’t limited to battle. He also has his Gig Edicts, which are essentially powers that you can use and abuse. They range from the normal Item based powers, picking fights, stealing stuff and even instant level ups. In the right situations, they can be completely abused beyond recognition. The game trailer suggests that you can break the game, and this power is how you do it. Steal from a shop-keeper? It’s entirely possible. Gain 1000 levels instantly? You betcha! A lot of these powers don’t appear until a little later on in the game, with a lot of the Edicts such as stealing stuff not working too well in the open world at the beginning. Gig can also upgrade rooms via inspections, which act as the random dungeons. New Edicts and Decors can be purchased in the Arrange setting, with the latter boosting the power of the room your characters reside in.

Perhaps the coolest move I've ever seen in a Nippon Ichi game. He gets out a scythe!

Given the complexity in terms of how you can abuse the system and the surprising presentation of the story, it is somewhat disappointing that the 3D environments are a little lacklustre in quality. Battle scenes look nice, but on the maps scale everything looks very basic. Sprites are a little more detailed than any other game in the developer’s library and are somewhat larger than we’re used to. It also seems that the game runs on a higher resolution because of the fluid execution of the visuals. Music is an interesting mix of the traditional Nippon Ichi J-Pop vibes and some slightly more serious sounding tracks. Perhaps the only thing that is seemingly recycled are the sound effects, but this isn’t exactly a bad thing.

The main quest will last a good few hours, clocking in around the 40 hour mark. This is child’s play when compared to the gargantuan Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, but consider this. Not everyone has a bazillion hours to waste with levelling up and stupidly lengthy unlock processes. Soul Nomad & the World Eaters shows that fun can be had on a smaller scale. It is an idea to save often as the game provides many “bad endings”, conveniently symbolised with a skull in the dialogue choice. After completing it the hard way however, the game offers not only the trademark New Game + with all the trimmings you painstakingly unlocked the first time around, but also a bad guy story. It serves as a “what if you were really bad” scenario. It is an amusing if random scenario that is worth a look. Other unlockables include the hidden characters we’ve seen before, but it’s nice to see they’re within arm’s reach this time around.

Soul Nomad & The World Eaters is a pleasant surprise because it deviates from the general trend that tactical RPGs seem to have taken over the years. Not only is it able to be beaten in under 100 hours, but it has an enjoyable plot with a diverse cast of miscreants, and Gig. He alone makes it worth a look because he is such a well realised character. The system features an intriguing game breaking mechanic that allows the rebel inside to directly attack the game. All the things you ever wanted to do that seemed impossible are achievable here. While it may be the shortest Nippon Ichi game, that doesn’t mean it skimps on the hours and it does provide some extras for the post-game experience. If an anarchist were to create a game, this would probably be the closest example in comparison because it essentially breaks down the foundations that built up the genre.

Project Zero PS2 (PAL) (VERSION REVIEWED) Project Zero Xbox (PAL)  

With all these games about zombies and vampires, there seems to be no fear garnered from probably the oldest horror creatures: Ghosts. These are probably the most realistic of unexplainable phenomenon since people claim to see them while some of those even claim to channel their spirits. Movies love ghosts because of all the tricks it can muster suspense within their viewer. Video games however haven’t really bothered to translate the humble spectre into the horror genre because let’s face it, you can’t be invaded by ghostly hordes. Tecmo have however attempted to do the impossible and make them scary. But will it just startle you, or will you have nightmares?

Project Zero starts with a fleeting description of a Miku, a girl trying to find her brother who has gone missing. Cut to a rather abrupt flashback to when her brother first arrived at the Himrou mansion to look for a famous author who, oddly enough also went missing. It seems that this building has some connection with ancient Shinto rituals and bad things happening there. There is also a history of brutal murders. Shortly after arriving at the mansion, Mafuyu; Miku’s brother discovers an old notebook that belonged to the author, describing his desire to base his next book on the lore behind the mansion. Then without much fanfare, a rather sinister looking spectre appears in front of him and begins attacking. Soon after this, the real quest to find Miku’s brother starts. The problem with the plot is the sheer mass of stupidity. If the locals urged the film crew to stay away from a haunted mansion, it’s a sign not to go near it. The reason behind the brother going in is a little strange too, since he isn’t related to the first crew at all. With Miku entering the mansion, it just feels like a doomed mission. Everyone else who ever went in is now dead. Why should she be any different?

Not even the pretty flickering candles can save this girl from the wisp behind her...

One thing that Project Zero gets on the right mark is the atmosphere. In the third person perspective, while it feels a lot like a Japanese Resident Evil, the rooms all look gloomy enough to warrant anxiousness. The sound of muttering and groaning from the unseen paranormal activity surrounding the building does make you wonder just what is actually going to happen. What it does well in freaking you out, it does badly in setting the tone. Dialogue is laughable, and the delivery is hammier than a cannibalistic pot bellied pig. When you hear audio tapes, the emotion in their voices seems forced compared to one of actual fear or despair. This is really doesn’t help the already weakfish storyline at all. Character models are detailed but expressionless like porcelain dolls, except for the ghosts who look more gormless than terrifying. One fairly unsettling touch is the pause screen. If you leave it too long, bloody handprints with begin to touch the screen and fade after a while.

If you have played a survival horror game before, then Project Zero’s basic movement, questing and puzzle parts will seem all too familiar. The difference here though is that everything moves too slowly. While Miku moves at a snail’s pace, her brother might as well be on crutches. Going up and down stairs or ladders is a heavily time consuming and potentially dangerous activity. Puzzles are recycled so much that you begin to see a pattern forming even before the end of the first chunk of the game. The most frequent one is where you must press Japanese characters into a wall. While solvable, the novelty wears off after the first one. So far, this game is starting to sound like a third rate disaster…

While zombies may eat lead or fire, ghosts prefer cheese.

Then we come to the “combat”. Your currently controlled character, mostly the really paranoid girl, will be holding a special camera. Since it is unfair for one to try to spot the invisible, you have a “filament” at your disposal which detects clues (blue) or spirits (orange). I personally think this is a great idea of how to make ghosts scarier. There is that aspect of the movies, but also making it interactive gives it edge. The camera however is slightly unwieldy, as the most effective technique is to switch in and out of the first person mode. This completely defeats the point of the right analogue stick in this mode, but is necessary because said stick is really difficult to handle effectively. When you do see a ghost, you must switch to first person mode and line up a decent shot. Most of the time, ghosts won’t see you or purposefully ignore you. But on the odd set piece where the ghost is purposefully trying to kill you, you can line up the camera onto their face. Doing so charges the shot so when it is unleashed at full capacity it hurts them more. Shooting them as they’re about to attack you is a useful tactic, known as the Zero shot. Each shot you take extracts spectral energy to upgrade your camera’s capabilities. You can upgrade your camera to be more effective, even unlocking special abilities which consume Spirit Stones. They are rather effective ones, but your ability to use them is highly limited due to the necessity of using Spirit Stones.

When all is said and done, Project Zero is a deceivingly average. One second it’ll show greatness by doing something well, the next it brings it all down to earth with a rather loud unexplainable thump. The atmosphere that the game is there and produces the right reaction, but the controls in first person mode combined with the diabolically awful voice acting and the non-creepy variety of sound effects undermine the efforts gone into it. There are times where this game actually saps the fun out of the survival horror genre just by having the control scheme. It should be pointed out that the Xbox version is the better looking and probably the better version to play. But handling these ghosts is less Ghostbusters but more The Eye in a photo-shoot.

The Xbox version is the superior one due to the better graphics and slightly more robust control scheme. It also has added content in comparison with the PS2 version. This game goes under the name of Fatal Frame in the US, and Zero in Japan.

Gregory Horror Show (PAL) box

What does the emotion of fear mean to you? Is it the feeling of dread when faced with a particular situation, or an adrenaline rush you actively seek? Being scared can be triggered by many means, though the most common example is a sudden shock like having a spider in your hair. Other kinds are more psychological in nature, such as an arachnophobic realising a spider is in their hair. Capcom have a long standing tradition of catering to the shock factor with the Resident Evil series. But in a rare move they created Gregory Horror Show, a game based upon a three dimensional anime. Instead of the normal action based route however, Capcom opted for a more psychological method.

You are an initially gender confused individual who happens to get lost in the woods. Finding the hotel, you are greeted by the strange rat featured proprietor of the establishment; Gregory. Once you have sorted out which gender you actually are, Gregory puts you up for the night. Sometime after this event you are confronted by Death, who has evidently gone to Sweden for a holiday recently. He informs you that you cannot escape the confines of the hotel, probably due to you somehow committing suicide in such a creepy place. Interestingly, he offers you a get out clause as long as you bring him lost souls. He also warns you that getting these souls will be hard due to the nature of the ones holding said souls.

Hello, Good evening, and welcome...to Through the Keyhole. 

The first thing you will undoubtedly notice is the characters and that everyone resembles the Lego people, with a cubed head. It isn’t until you look at the source material to find that this is how they look normally. The rest of the game looks appropriately gloomy. Dark dank corridors combined with some subtle lighting instil an overwhelming sense of paranoia. A disappointing factor is that the visuals featured could have been replicated on past platforms. While there is merit for sticking to the resource material, it isn’t good to skimp out on the scenery. Having said that, the sound is superb, perhaps the most polished part of the game. Voice acting is remarkably slick yet creepy at the same time, while timely lightning and thunder increase tension.

As I played through the tutorial, it suddenly dawned on me just exactly what kind of game this is. Essentially what you’ll be doing is wandering around the mansion and spying on the guests. It is for lack of a better term; playing as a Peeping Tom. There are variations on the gameplay however which are interesting. Firstly most of the guests react when they see you or hear you. One of the first few guests to come through is an overly paranoid cactus cowboy, who reacts very badly to knocking on the door. Others such as Nurse Catherine actively seek you out to subject you to a “horror show”. I should explain that merely wandering around the dark gloomy corridors is enough to sap you slowly out of your sanity. Watching a horror show takes a large chunk and possibly inflicts you with an ailment. Each person has an individual game plan, and some even throw you into a rather fun board game in order to obtain the soul. Most of them will merely resort to chasing you around the mansion like a Slasher horror film victim. Not that that is a bad thing.

Pining for the fjords?!

There are a number of ways to regain lost sanity. The first is to get a good night’s sleep. The second is to eat consumables as this apparently focuses your concentration on the food/drink. Lastly, there are books scattered around the mansion which if read increases your maximum sanity and fully restores your gauge. Some items are an obvious nod to the Resident Evil series, namely the herb plants. You can also use collected items to purchase new ones at Gregory’s Horror Shop. Some of these are essential to your quest, especially the doll in the second wave of guests. Something about Gregory Horror Show though doesn’t seem to fit in place. There is a vague sense of achieving when you obtain a soul, but the build up towards it feels a little slow. It especially doesn’t help if you took about two hours to obtain a soul, only for it to be ripped from your limp hands after a subsequent horror show. It is also quite a short game, but I suppose the budget retail price was an indication of that.

Despite its name, it is only the atmosphere and when you run into harmful guests unexpectedly that you will get a scare from Gregory Horror Show. That isn’t to say that it truly fails at what it is trying to achieve however. With its unique presentation, it also maintains a claustrophobic feel as you skulk around the corridors of the hotel, attempting to gain the lost souls from guests and avoiding those who you pilfered from before. The fact you have no way of defending yourself other than running like a cliché horror victim is for once an endearing trait. Figuring out how to take the souls from the others is more attributed to point and click adventures of old, but unfortunately it is all too easy to lose progress by getting caught. It certainly has a lot going for itself, but alas the problems are all too easy to pick out. Gregory Horror Show won’t burn your wallet, but it might build up tension in more frustrating ways.

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 (PAL) box     Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES (PAL) box
                                                                                      Version Reviewed

It may be a safe assumption that Japan has an obsession with using schools as settings. Westerners that have found English copies of manga or learned Japanese and imported native manga will find that ones that feature teenagers will feature schools as a place where things happen. It is rare that we see the same in video games, as the most interesting ones tend to feature some action or puzzles. Enter then the first instalment in European territories of Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 (Persona 3) and the expanded version dubbed Persona 3 FES. It is probably the only RPG series to fuse the concepts of demon hunters and going to school. Is this game concept as fantastically stupid as it sounds, or does it somehow make a great deal of sense?

While the year might be the same, the themes aren’t in the slightest. Instead of an economic crisis to contend with, the protagonist experiences a phenomenon known as the “dark hour”. As he soon discovers, others around him experience the same thing and when he unleashes his Persona by using a gun shaped “Evoker”, they invite him to join their group; SEES. The leader of SEES, Mitsuru, decides to send the recruits into a location known as Tartarus in order to find the source of the Shadows attacking them. The story is well told, even if it does sound like someone had rather macabre inspiration. The simplistic visual design together with very good voice acting flesh out the plot’s intentions perfectly. The musical direction is about as baffling as the plot however, though unlike the plot it isn’t for the right reasons. Combining J-Pop with American RnB is a very perplexing one that just sounds a mess. Some of the sound effects as well come across as a little weak, but thankfully they aren’t intrusive enough to care too much about. Really though it comes down to whether or not you can withstand that much Japanese culture thrown at you.

Let us talk a little more about what conventional aspects of the genre Persona 3 FES takes on board. You will no doubt become a frequent visitor to the otherworldly realm of Tartarus. This is where the randomised dungeons that western gamers would recognise from Diablo come into play. Every time you enter the creepy building that is made up of the remnants of Gekkoukan High School every dark hour, the layouts of most floors will change. This means on every floor there is another chance to obtain treasure and fight enemies. Every so often you’ll come across guardians, who take up an entire floor all to themselves. You will see a warp point before each one, so progress through Tartarus can be saved as you head skywards. Every so often you’ll hit a dead end. These dead ends can only be lifted after a certain day, namely every full moon. When it occurs, you will participate in a random event on the dark hour. Examples include being dispatched to handle a situation on the monorail and rescuing a girl who somehow found herself trapped somewhere in Tartarus. Within these areas are enemies you’re already familiar with as you moved around Tartarus. But unlike exploring that tower, these locations are fixed in design. While full moon events that take place inside Tartarus are the same in design, those that aren’t have a distinct feel. Walking across the monorail track under the gaze of the dark hour full moon is eerie, but at the same time breathtaking. There are several unique bosses that appear because of the full moon and they must be defeated to progress. Perhaps the only bit of linearity in the entire Persona 3 package, and it sticks out like a wart.

Oddly, this game takes on a characteristic of its own, proper role playing!?

Battles themselves are fairly straight-forward in that they are turn based and revolve around strengths and weaknesses we’ve seen for years now. Critical hits and exploiting weaknesses will render the target prone, having to spend a turn getting up. This works for your allies as well as your enemies. When every enemy is prone, you can initiate an all-out attack. This causes the party to effectively dog-pile on the foes in cartoon-like fashion and deals a lot of physical damage. The usual status effects are present to hinder you and the enemy in battle. Two things annoyed me greatly though. The main character isn’t allowed to die, or else the game ends (depending on difficulty set). This wouldn’t be as much of a problem if you could control your allies directly. Instead you are periodically given tactical commands and you need to designate vague orders rather than tell them to use a certain skill on a target. Your character is vastly different to everyone else however. As described by Igor, the creepy guy in the Velvet room, you have the power of the “wildcard”. What this means roughly translated into pure simple gameplay terms is, “you can create multiple personae” resulting in you being the most flexible character. By fusing multiple personae into different combinations you can raise your stats, gain new skills and maybe even some new strengths and weaknesses. The way to advance though is to do this often. Some Persona will inherit new skills from the combined parents. Thankfully the game allows you to bring back the good persona you register via the compendium for a price. Some Persona can use a new ability if another particular Persona is in your mind, such as the Orpheus and Aspara combination. There may be a chance that some will yield an item when they have learned all they can. In the FES edition of the game, you can also fuse personae into weapons to create new equipment for enemy bashing with customisable attributes. The most important thing however comes from something known as Social Links. As you increase the level of a particular Arcana, if it governs the Persona you are creating, that Persona gains experience. This is useful for creating more powerful allies. But how do you gain these social links?

That is where the not so normal factor of Persona 3 kicks in. You will have to go to school on top of your treks into Tartarus. Amazingly to the state schooled individual from the western world, it seems this element incorporates a lot more of the Japanese culture than the actual fighting. School days are Monday to Saturday, with Sundays and holidays acting as days off. While there are some days that you can’t control what you do, a large proportion is left to you to decide what to do. Developing social links is a matter of seeing a person of particular Arcana repeatedly whilst making the right choices in dialogue. Some relationships are harder to maintain than others, as you will end up becoming a two timer and have to watch out for annoying a girl whose trust you gained. Using the Persona of the matching Arcana will increase the likelihood of upgrading your rank. Essentially however you come across as a bit of a gigolo. The characters you meet are varied to say the least and have rather interesting storylines as you progress with your ranks. For example, there is a girl you meet via the student council named Chihiro. She starts out as an incredibly timid girl who struggles to even speak to you. Eventually though, you’ll discover she is a passionate girl who somehow develops feelings for the protagonist and she gets over her fear as a result.

I'd sure hope they did. I wouldnt want to be stalked by gym short body paint man there!

Persona 3 & Persona 3 FES do a lot of things right in a modern RPG to make the genre move with the times. But there are one or two niggling factors that somehow spoil the experience slightly. The first comes from the strict time management needed to progress through the game. It is incredibly difficult to be able to progress to where you need to be in Tartarus by a certain date when you have tiredness affecting what day you can venture further and because of the social links, the only real time where you can go about raising your stats is the night-time. When progress in one aspect is made, you almost feel as if you’ve neglected another. As you progress, depending on how you handled yourself initially, this will only either escalate or if you are incredibly lucky, only begin to occur. This is only really a minor thing as depending on how much you care about social links and the daytime activities, it may not even matter. What is a bigger concern is how the inventory is handled. When you press the triangle button to bring up the menu, the options you see are pretty much centred on the main character. Sure you can select to heal the others, but the only person who you can check the status or switch their equipment is “you”. To change the equipment and look at the status for everyone else, you have to talk to them. Let us put this into perspective by comparing it with a game from the Final Fantasy series. Equipment changing is all done by the main menu and is a quick and efficient method of doing so. In Persona 3 FES, this usually simple practice is tedious and overdrawn. One thing it doesn’t fail on is side quests. Elizabeth in the Velvet room will hand out missions, which upon completion grant you new items, money or Persona to create. Not all missions take place in Tartarus however, and some are even date sensitive. Not good for a game where time is precious.

So what is new in the FES version of this game? In what this version calls “The Journey”, you can gain new personae; create a new social link and take part in new events with friends and SEES allies. There is also the aforementioned Weapon Fusion system, some new requests from Elizabeth. If you owned Persona 3 and bought Persona 3 FES, Atlus have been good to you because your actions with the older version can be transferred to starting over. For those who completed Persona 3 however, there is a new chapter named “The Answer”. You take on the role of Aigis, a character who was part of SEES during the dark hour. In a Groundhog Day twist, March 31st keeps on happening over and over, and it is due to a place known as The Abyss of Time. Essentially though, this is what the Japanese would dub “Persona 3 Gaiden”. It is a side story. The difficulty has been upped to the most difficult, and the social aspect of “The Journey” has been cut. This then makes it a straight out dungeon crawler. It is a nice addition, but one that comes off as a bit stale.

It is hard not to recommend something that is original and interesting at the same time and I’m glad to say that despite it being so Japanese that it’ll make your head hurt, Persona 3 and Persona 3 FES fit into this way of thinking. While it is effectively a dungeon crawler, it also manages to do one thing that many other RPGs miss out on. You get to choose what kind of person you want to be. Sure there are a lot of games where you can do this, but they don’t allow for as much freedom in what you do as Persona 3. Add the fact that the battle system for the most part works well and creating Personae is a joy and you have a pretty extensive experience. Well, one with a few problems. There are times where it is cheap enough to critical hit kill you in one hit resulting in a game over. There are others when you realise you managed your time wrongly and you need to start the entire game over again. So while this is a good recommendation, it comes with a little slip saying, “This game has a tendency to frustrate”.

Please note that while the box for Persona 3 has a rating of 12+, this was before the controversy surrounding some of the game’s aspects and the FES rating should be taken into account. Also note that Persona 3 FES contains everything the original does and more, and is therefore the definitive version.

God of War II (PAL) box

How do you follow up a true epic? The obvious answer would be “with another one”. It rarely works out that way though as only certain media pieces truly live on in their sequels. For the literary world you have the eleven book epic in The Wheel of Time, or the ever increasing amount of novels about the Discworld. In films we have the trilogies of films that came out of one of George Lucas’ orifice, or the inspired cult classic The Evil Dead. It seems though that in video games, sequels are everywhere but only a few deserve them as much as God of War did. Truly groundbreaking upon release, it was said that few would surpass it in terms of detail and grand scale. In the time of the Playstation 2’s twilight years, Kratos once again leaps on top of the machine and stabs it with the blades of Athena to drain the system’s potential. Is the claim that this is the console’s swansong justified?

When we last left the troubled Spartan general, he’d brutally murdered the god of war; Ares. Because of this deed, the god Athena made a case for Kratos to become the new god of war, and so he did. This however wasn’t enough for him. He’d been betrayed by the gods time and time again and his only solace was his loyal Spartan subjects. But as mythology depicts them, the gods of Mount Olympus are petty ones. When Kratos decides to assist his minions in the invasion of Athens, his is suddenly struck by magic that shrank him to a mortal size. The same magic activates the Colossus on the shore of the city, who in turn lays siege to the Spartan forces. In order to defeat the Colossus, he is guided by Zeus to obtain the Sword of Olympus. Victory has a consequence, and in doing so he was betrayed once more by the gods. Swearing vengeance against them, he finds he has a common enemy with the titans, who agree to assist in his quest to cheat death and defeat the gods. The journey features many locales and a shed load of Greek mythology.

Just like the original, expect blood, gore, boobs and irate Greeks in loincloths.

It is safe to say that while God of War was epic, it wasn’t a varied game in terms of epic locations. You had a ship, a besieged city, a desert, the temple on the back of a titan, and a brief stint in the underworld. Thankfully here is a little more mythological in terms of the locations. After your defeat in Athens, you have a brief stint once again in the underworld and a big temple but to name a few. Expect more of the same in terms of presentation then as the camera will frequently pan out to show the grand scale of where you are going. It is also worth noting that every kind of style is incorporated, so expect lots of varied detail and colours in this rendition of Greek mythology. Sure the camera is still fixed, but it is generally a help rather than a hindrance. I’d much rather look at an obscure ledge I doubt I should actually be able to climb than stare at Kratos’ legs.

Each of the different areas features distinct challenges that seem familiar. There are extended wall climbing sections and areas involving re-spawning enemies to distract you from the puzzle at hand. Set pieces from the original return under different guises, such as the rotating plate you need to operate whilst being bombarded with enemies and the ambiguous puzzle that isn’t fully solved until you come back around four hours later. Will you feel that this is just the last one with more dead things and links to mythology of the classic ages? Sure. But really that isn’t a bad thing at all. God of War was revered because of the coalition of every single element that makes the genre it represents an appeal, and then shoves more blood and Minotaurs than you could possibly imagine. You’ll largely face what you saw in the first game, but they have been training vigorously and some even use Cyclopes’ as mounts! It’s about as farfetched as the concept in some fantasy novels of Dragons being a perfect alternative to the humble horse.

I always wondered where the dead go? Lose a bunch of skin and take a load of growth pills...

Controls remain largely the same as the original, and it is all the better for it. QTE have been made as interesting as possible, though in abundance for some. But Kratos would be permanently in the underworld in more ways than one if he didn’t have weapons and magic. After a brief stint of being able to use what you could in the first game, it all gets taken away from you since the gods have shunned you. It all seems a little like Kratos, the small shy child, being bullied by the gods and getting his “big brother” and his mates to “beat them up”. As such, the titans give similar powers to Kratos than those given by the gods. Largely they’re different enough to be given the titan makeover, but magic is magic and variety in this case is limited. Weapons though spell a different story. Kratos will have access to a lance, axe and a gleaming sword by the end of his adventure, and all of them have their uses. Having a spear that juggles enemies in the air is always fun, and there’s no better way to deal with a prone foe than to cleave them in half with an incredibly heavy axe.

One thing Ready at Dawn got right this time was length. God of War was woefully short in comparison with many other big releases on the Playstation 2. This has been remedied not by just making puzzles more difficult and varied, but also by including different scenery to give the illusion of more going on. As with the original, God of War II comes with a host of bonus features. The now dubbed “Titan” mode is unlocked upon completion, as is the “Challenge of Hades”. This is effectively a tiered survival mode where success is achieved by killing enemies in a certain fashion whilst not being maimed yourself. For those who want an extra challenge post-story, each of the tiers will test your abilities to the extreme. There are also some costumes to unlock, such as the truly inspired “Cod of War”. What’s next? “Goth of War”?

The best way to describe God of War II then is “more of the same, with one or two minor changes”. In honesty, it is a better game for it. Certainly a larger one, but on an epic scale as well as length of game time. The adding of challenging and downright hilarious extras does something to further imbue the game with quality and sustenance. In terms of pushing the console to its limit, God of War II is the safe assumption to be the swansong of under a decade’s domination from Sony’s colossal success. Given the system’s limited capabilities, it is amazing that such a detailed and grand title could make such an impact. While it is a last generation game, it deserves to be up with the greats…that is until God of War III

Makai Kingdom: Chronicles of the Sacred Tome (PAL) box

The strategy RPG has been one which was dominated for so long by one or two games. The reason being is that it is a specialised market with a smaller audience than more established genres. Usually though the “SRPG” has generated some sleeper hits. The most bizarre of which is the rise of the once small time developer: Nippon Ichi. Their rise to success and indeed increasing the sales of SRPGs their unique take on the genre. Disgaea: Hour of Darkness was celebrated for its sheer size. The most that was capable in terms of hours for games before it was enough for one play-through. With the introduction of the Dark Assembly and Item Worlds, as well as being able to level up into the thousands, this charming little title encouraged bending the rules of the system to your aid. Since that time, Nippon Ichi released the broken Phantom Brave. Not one to give up after a setback, Makai Kingdom: Chronicles of the Sacred Tome sets out to regain some lost dignity, in more ways than one.
Overlord Zetta was a very successful Overlord, and was much feared throughout the entire cosmos. He is one day confronted by Pram – an Oracle, who informs him that his netherworld faces destruction. Alarmed by this revelation, he storms towards a sacred temple. After eliminating the defence and in his mind ensuring his sovereignty, he opens a book on the altar. Inside the book states that he’s an idiot and will ultimately bring the end of his realm. Furious by this, he burns the book and reality begins to cease to exist. In order to save his own skin, he binds his soul with the book and promptly realises that he’s lost everything. A laughing stock of the entire overlord community, Zetta needs to get his pad back into existence.

While the story is semi-original in that you aren’t saving the world, the dialogue does have its hits and misses. Nearly every character will mock Zetta since he is now a work of literature, which is rewarding since he is pretty unlikeable at the beginning. Sure he may be the strongest overlord, but bragging about it isn’t doing him favours. Still, some of the dialogue is just terrible. At one point in the introduction, Zetta comes out with a random line that makes his ordeal seem like a business transaction. Voice work is also a little on the over-acting side, though the melodrama seems to suit the lightweight side of the script. The other overlords are given unique traits which is refreshing to see. You have the Dark Lord Valvolga, who is by far the most troubled one of the lot. The top part seems to have internal conflicts with the parts below him in that while he feels he should be nice, the other two conspire to sabotage his efforts. There is also the Dragon Overlord Babylon, who is so ancient he constantly forgets things and falls asleep.

Nippon Ichi’s previous effort, Phantom Brave introduced a lot of novel ideas that unfortunately fell on deaf ears. Since it pretty much died post-release, Makai Kingdom: Chronicles of the Sacred Tome inherits its key features. It also introduced a concept known as Confining. Instead of just having characters appearing out of the ether, Zetta can create minions out of anything. With the wide variety of classes in the game, you could make a Fighter out of a rock or a Healer out of a tree. But here’s where things get interesting. As you progress, you unlock new classes to fool around with and the theme of this title is a little more military than usual. Instead of the tried and tested medieval jobs of yore, Makai Kingdom seems to have taken a world war two persona. So expect Soldiers, Engineers and Medics alongside Magicians. Some classes take on jobs in the overlord’s domain too. For example, while a Junk Trader may be an ace with nunchaku, they also act as a rudimentary shop. One significant addition is the inclusion of Wishes. These can be used to summon new buildings, transmigrate, and make new characters. All cost Mana, gained like in Disgaea. Usually there is a price for bigger wishes, which usually involves erasure of a demon you raised.

The amount of classes is insane this time around; but there are also vehicles and buildings!

Battles have changed as well. The winning condition is to meet a certain amount of points. This can be done by killing enemies, who have different values upon defeat; or picking up items off the ground. Usually holding on to these items means you get to keep them after the battle. Zetta summons his allies and buildings into battle. You did read right. This isn’t some kind of mind game to make sure you’re still awake. The purpose of buildings is to garrison allies within it. Essentially it means you can summon more allies and gadgetry into battle. They also provide useful bonuses for garrisoned units once they leave to wreck havoc. Much like Phantom Brave, units use a radius to act as movement instead of the medieval grid system. This has its advantages in that characters feel free in terms of moving them. But it also comes with disadvantages however as it is possible to get your characters caught in scenery as you move. As in Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, you can pick up units and throw them. Here, throwing them can have benefits/complications. It is possible to erase them completely by throwing them out of bounds or even use them as a weapon. What better way to use their troops than as a battering ram? Certain units may have “Key” written over their heads like a price label from Tesco. Defeating these means extra portions of the maps are unlocked. Sometimes you may get a special picture. Usually this indicates something is up with the enemy, like a theme. Other times however you may become subject to a status effect as well. Thankfully though, this is usually remedied with an Espoir from a healer.

It is also possible for the enemy to have buildings, and in some cases you’re required to invade. While you could waltz in there with your fighters, you can also use some of the overpowered vehicles to assist you. From tanks to armoured suits, you can wreck havoc on the outside plains or in buildings. Any unit can hop onto a vehicle, and make bullets/bombs fly into their opponents with potentially devastating effects. Of course some are more accustomed to fighting with machines than others. Vehicles are built just like the characters, but require certain classes to effectively use them. Mechanics and Professors deal with vehicle issues you might have such as healing and upgrading. All these new classes, features and systems give the game an added life in gameplay…

This was a bad day to walk into the salad bar...

However, does having all these features give the player an overwhelming experience that struggles to maintain interest? One problem comes from meeting certain conditions to be able to do certain things. You can only recruit gun tooting soldiers and medics after a certain point. While most games have chapter three as an early part, it could take an eternity to get to chapter three here. Even having the ability to transmute allies into new buildings doesn’t really manifest until around halfway through the entire experience. So it comes as no surprise that this game takes more of an eternity to complete. Sometimes, the drive to know what happens in the game’s story spurs you on like a cheerleader spurring on a predominantly male fan base at a baseball game. Here the cheerleader might as well be a morbidly obese man in a thong that leaves little to the imagination. Not that it is sloppy or terrible, just not engaging enough to warrant persistence in playing. While Disgaea had a genuinely funny story like Hot Fuzz and Phantom Brave had a thought provoking tale to rival Schindler’s List, Makai Kingdom is like any film by Uwe Boll; a boring, baffling experience with nothing to keep you interested.

It is an unfortunate thing I have to say at this point. While gameplay is improved over the sad travesty that plagued their previous attempt, Makai Kingdom: Chronicles of the Sacred Tome is just too complex for its own good. While I would maintain that freedom of movement is brilliant, and tanks are initially cool, it just takes too long for any results to come into fruition. Most games with complex gameplay designs with an intriguing story to back it up and make it worth the effort. Here that isn’t the case. In fact, the only case here is that the developers have missed the mark again and generated another strike. Is this any worse than their first one? My answer would be yes and no. No, because at least it isn’t broken and unplayable. Yes, because it is the gaming equivalent to a one man band. Sure it takes balls, but really there’s no sense of rhythm because they’re trying to do too much at once. As a result, it is a boring title. One might say truly average but that’s being a little generous, since the bad definitely outweighs the good.

Resident Evil 4 (Gamecube) PAL boxResident Evil 4 (PS2) PAL boxResident Evil 4 (PS2) PAL Limited Edition boxResident Evil 4 (Wii) PAL box

Zombies make people jump. Their sole purpose in movies and games is go give audiences an adrenaline rush. Adrenaline is probably the safest thing to get addicted to, since it normally doesn’t cost much to satisfy and there are no side effects. In the film industry, we have the Night of the Dead series, courtesy of George A Romero. In the video game industry, that would be the Resident Evil series, courtesy of Capcom. But hard times have fallen on the gaming counterpart, due to boredom of the poor controls and clichéd fixed angles. So naturally, they went to the drawing board. What came out of that meeting is the concept for the new breed of evil. But is it as tame as a playful kitten with some string or as vicious as a hungry tiger with a human leg?

Resident Evil 4 has the right idea from the get go. The series is no longer dwelling on the Redfield family or based in the zombie infested location of Racoon City. It isn’t even set in America, or a city. Since surviving the incident at Racoon City, Leon S Kennedy has become a secret agent for the government. His latest assignment is a rescue mission based in Europe. According to intelligence, the President’s daughter is being held hostage by some peculiar looking types in a small village in Spain. Upon arriving at his destination, it suddenly becomes clear that the villagers are in cohorts with each other. They’re also not exactly human. In typical Resident Evil style, the dialogue borders along the abysmal some of the time. At least they took a little bit of care into the formulation of the plot this time around, featuring a conspiracy involving a hooded man and the huge chieftain of the local community.

When you begin your adventure into the unsanitary ghost town of shambling Spaniards, it becomes abundantly clear that this is beyond any survival horror you’ve experienced before. The viewpoint is just over the shoulder of Leon on his right. This gives Resident Evil 4 three advantages over the rest of the series. Firstly, the control scheme can be adapted around the new angles. It so happens that for once, everything feels as fluid as it should do. Previously if you got surrounded, it was because of the controls pulling a fast one on you. But here, frustration of bad controls has suddenly become fear. You’re surrounded and it isn’t because of awkward movement. Secondly, there are no more fixed images. I remember in the first game that whenever the camera changes from one position to another suddenly, it was because something’s about to come through a window. Here there is no such warning and there is a heightened sense of paranoia because of it, even if you’re not constantly checking on your heath due to a health bar being introduced. Thirdly, this paranoia doesn’t just reflect on a lack of prediction. Your viewpoint covers your right side fairly well, but anything on your left is a blind spot. You’ll be constantly flicking the camera to the left a smidgen just to check that nothing is about to eat Leon’s right cheek.

In addition to the updated controls, certain face button action prompts appear in certain conditions. It is now possibly to jump through a window of a hut, jump from high ledges and kick down doors. I love the knowledge that if zombapocalypse rears its ugly shambling way, that kicking a door and drop kicking the undead won’t necessarily end up with chunks missing from my flesh. There are also instances where quick-time-events rise from the grave of video game clichés to make cut-scenes a little more interesting. There is one instance where unless you press a combination of buttons, an axe-wielding maniac will chop you in half and then skulk on his merry way back to his farming.

Initially, they will scare the bejebus out of you. But once you're packing heat, things become gory!

Luckily, Leon isn’t always caught out on the lavatory with toilet paper stuck to his shoe. He brought along a pistol and some ammunition. The pistol is fired with laser guiding so that you can aim without need of an artificial reticule plastered on. Shooting is fine, though turning whilst aiming is a little slow. It is also far easier to shoot the bad guys in the head this time round as you are no longer aiming for the ceiling and praying that it hits. Along the way, you’ll meet a shady salesman who never bothers to learn names. He’ll sell you, with a good wink, a variety of different firearms. These include upgraded versions of your pistol, and Shotguns, Sniper Rifles, Sub-machine guns and Rocket Launchers. The different weapons pack different types of punches.

It is obvious though that Shotguns are Resident Evil 4’s way of saying “Sorry to scare you earlier, here’s something to make it easier”. With constant upgrading, it is possible to clear the field of bad guys with a couple of shots. It’s arguable then that this is perhaps one of the easier experiences you could have with the undead. Sniping is also fun, especially with the scope, one of the many added extras you can obtain from the shaded cockney weasel. Ammunition however borders from the slightly too much to the desperately few depending on where you are. It is usually wise to go around with the pistol and only use the other weapons in dire need. Thankfully if all goes to pot, he does have a knife. Perhaps the only thing Capcom decided to bring along to this new horror is the inventory system. Items you collect, ranging from healing aids to weapons and ammo are stored in limited space. Run out of space and you are left with a surplus that is discarded. Never to be seen again.

The game isn’t long, but that’s probably for the best since after a certain point in the game you’ll be doing some babysitting. The good news is that the person you’re escorting does roughly what she’s told and has a limited amount of use for puzzle solving. The bad news is that person doesn’t know how to use a gun and you need to protect her. It is a little bit of a problem when she likes to get into the way. One minute everything is fine, the next she’s screaming because she’s being captured or killed. It is one thing having a damsel in distress, but even the valiant white knight must have gotten tired of saving the girl time and time again. Perhaps he wanted to do something productive, like drink himself into a coma.

 How to put a shark off food; give it toothache in the form of harpoons...

But where would Resident Evil be without its zombies? Well, Spain really. It may come as a surprise to you that these shambling, farm tool wielding psychopaths are still technically human. They are known as “Ganados” which incidentally is Spanish for cattle, a fact I find ironic since the process of ridding them seems like a slaughter. Ganados differ from zombies in that they’ve been implanted with an odd parasite that sprouts tendrils on occasion out of their orifices. This goes for animals and grotesques too, as even man’s best friend is cursed with slashing membranes on its back. Obviously they don’t come into effect every time, but it does mean more bullets when they do rear their ugly forms. Sometimes the sheer numbers may attempt to overwhelm you. Some will even resort to…tactics?! Thinking on the spot? Lighting a stick of dynamite to take you down? Shocking but true, these ones will take some brains to dispose of, not just bullets. You will on the odd occasion encounter members of the shambling cult running into their own explosive traps, but usually there’s a small amount of provocation: like shooting one and dancing on the spot like a buffoon. Which is a fine tactic, just don’t walk into one whilst luring them out.

Boss encounters are rare, but immensely enjoyable. Most involve some kind of QTE, which oddly fits as well as it did in the God of War series. Others involve some kind of unusual quirk. There was one where the entire fight was on water and you needed to throw harpoons at a fish whilst avoiding rocks or its mouth. Being knocked off would mean damage and a mad basing of one of the face buttons to ensure you’re not the bait on a hook. The only problem with these fights is when you have no ammunition. If you don’t have access to much in the way of firepower, you’re generally dead on the spot. Sure there may be some lying around, but it usually isn’t enough to take down said boss. But when you do have the firepower, some quick instinct and tactical edge, the bosses can be fun. Even the set pieces are fun to an extent in that you can fortify yourself in a position and take pot shots like the redneck hillbillies in the introduction to the original Dawn of the Dead.

It comes with no surprise then that although a little short, Resident Evil 4 is a solid, updated vision of the survival horror genre. The heightened paranoia is once more achieved musky look, sensitive audio and a new angle on the action. It does sport a little too small a difficulty curve, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t do it with style. Pumping lead into a horde of angry Spanish villages has never been this much fun. The people who are infected call themselves “Los Iluminados”, which literally translated means “The Illuminated Ones”. Far from being glow in the dark and easy to find, it is most likely that they will scare you on occasions, their hounds will scare you on occasions and indeed their hideous gargantuan inbred children will scare you in general. I assume that they’re inbred, they’ve got disfigured faces.

Please note that version played was the Playstation 2. The Gamecube version has fewer extras due to it being the original version.

Please also note that while the Wii version of this title has the same added features of the Playstation 2 version, that the controls are different. Since I don’t have access to the Wii version, I can’t comment on the ease of playing the game for said version.

Phantom Brave (PAL) box

It is always tough to follow up on a cult hit. When everyone is expecting you to come up with something new and refreshing that dispels any thought that all the hard work you did was merely that of a one-trick-pony. That you will forever be known as the creator of one great piece of media. Many have tried to follow up their smashing successes, many failed. Some even ask the immortal question; “is it even possible?”. In the case of Nippon Ichi, they already had a tiny hold on the strategy RPG market with two titles before releasing their big break. Critically acclaimed for their success with “Disgaea: Hour of Darkness”, many wondered which direction they would turn. Their next release “Phantom Brave”, was their hand. But was it a full house or merely a bluff?
 
The game tells the sad tale of Marona, a nine year old orphan, shunned because of her ability to see the dead, goes on a mission to find herself and somehow make a quick buck. She is assisted by Ash, a phantom who knew both of their parents, and how they died. When Ash notices some familiar Phantoms, he begins to fear the worst. The narrative isn’t of the norm, as is with most Nippon Ichi games. However, it is a lot more serious in tone as well. This is quite a surprise because the issues the game deals with are either heart-warming or just plain harsh. The other characters play a role into how she learns lessons in life, and indeed how to break the barriers between herself and others.

Beautifully drawn cutscenes, combined with a deep plot make you want to forgive Phantom Brave for its shortcomings...

As to the actual game, its similar in style to Nippon Ichi’s previous effort. What is different however, is the newly incorporated Free Movement system. Instead of grids, characters move in a radius. The problem is that on occasion the battlefield is as chaotic as a child’s untidy bedroom. The confinement system effectively allows a little girl to temporarily imprison people into rocks, amongst other things and make them her slaves. Since it’s temporary, this becomes the game’s biggest problem. Characters never stay on the battlefield as long as you want them to, and therefore you easily become heavily outnumbered. Since Marona is the only person always on the battlefield, you are constantly hoping she survives.

What the developer gets fully right is the look and voice of the game. “Phantom Brave” is undoubtedly a very pretty game with stunning sprite based visuals. But it is the soundtrack that steals the show by having some of the most wonderfully crafted music and sound in any game to date. Whilst not memorable in many ways, it feels right. I do think that somebody got a little vain however as the music also appears on a separate disc. Perhaps he knew just how annoyingly broken the game actually was.

 The screens don't really tell the horror that is the confine system...

The games main marketing drive is also its biggest disappointment. While they nearly got it right with the movement method, being able to control an army of possessed rocks is as futile as attempting to drive lemmings away from a cliff. It is a huge shame as well as the serious undertone and atmospheric presence of the title had a chance for greatness. A magazine on the cover of the box was quoted in saying “A wonderful blend of tactical action, beautifully-told narrative and subtle humour”. This quote alone shows that the people who looked at it then took as much time looking at it as the quality control enforcer spent eating doughnuts and drinking beer.

God of War (PAL) box

So we’ve had games based on legends before. The Japanese seem to brandish theirs in games much like a bible basher to packs of nearby heathens. Norse mythology has also been given a spark with Square Enix and their “Valkyrie Profile” series. But perhaps the most touched on all European mythology is that of the Greek nature. We’ve had Indiana Jones in sprite form navigating the Lost City of Atlantis, some burly berk with a sword masquerade around as if he owned the place, and even you being whatever kind of God from mythology and attempt to make yourself the most believed and influential one of the lot, much like Greek mythology. Heck, we’ve even had a large-bosomed girl in khaki hot-pants in a Greek temple. But all of this, except for the berk with the rusty dagger, merely touches upon the concept of Greek mythology. One game dares go further and become mythology itself. God of War, perhaps one of the bigger franchises created in this century combines just about everything that makes games good, pours fine wine all over it and serves it to its guests at the video game banquet of excellence.

About the plot, all I can say is: mythology is a funny thing. One minute the gods are sitting on top of a mountain, merrily drinking wine to their hearts’ content; the next they’re stomping the snot out of each others’ worshippers or plotting the complete and utter demise of their probable siblings. The minute after that, they could be subjecting one of their loyal slaves to years of torture and torment. This is apparently what is happening to Kratos, who for all purposes is a bit of a berk. He is a member of the Spartan army who pleaded with Ares – the God of War – to save his life in exchange for his soul. Since then, he had Athena’s blades surgically attached to his arms, and perhaps reluctantly obeyed Ares in many ghastly deeds, such as killing his wife and child. Now, Ares is stomping the snot out of Athens and Athena is mightily annoyed. She asks Kratos to do the impossible to save the city. Kill the God of War. As you progress, more is revealed about Kratos through elaborate, albeit random cut-scenes.

You instantly realise that this is a fairly linear game, but because of the gorgeous visuals you will quickly dismiss that argument altogether. To get a true perspective of just how epic it looks, use a very large TV – say about fifty inches’ worth. When you see one of those zoomed out landscape parts, such as looking at Ares stomping Athenian soldiers and chucking boulders, you get the impression of just how small Kratos is compared to the bigger picture. Incidentally, Kratos’ model is what can only be described by using slang term – “Bad ass.” While a little on the sluggish side at times, Kratos and the foes he meets all have so much detail, it’s a marvel that the engine could possibly cope, and rather amazingly it does. It’s as if the game orders the PS2 to perform whilst whipping it constantly.

I've blown this image up to the maximum size just so you can appreciate the sheer spectical of the backgrounds. I apologise to those with Dialup...

Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way in a single paragraph. Firstly while the camera is generally as good as it can be for a fixed camera game, there are moments where it lets you down as much as the Alien vs. Predator films have. Because I wasn’t sure how harsh I was being, I thought I’d send it off for a second opinion, like a doctor and a patient with hypochondria. What I got back was pretty much the same as I experienced in places. It especially screwed my second opinion over when they were trying to walk across the beams in the ‘Challenge of Hades’: Kratos is walking into a limited space and dealing with things that are moving towards you from an area not yet showed on screen. It’s like trying to bat conker shells blindfolded and they being hurled by a baseball machine. It’s almost impossible to do it first time round because you have to learn where everything is. While I reward a game for trial and error, this part in particular felt like a kick in the jockstrap due to the camera being an awkward, tantrum-prone six-year-old. The other bad thing about the game is the ease at which Red Orbs are accumulated during the course of the game. Red Orbs are used to upgrade the various weapons and magic Kratos obtains from the gods and every enemy spits them out in abundance; chests even sprout them. This is probably one of the bigger shortcomings of the game because to complete it, all you really need is the starting weapon and first spell. Sure there are moments where you need special equipment but I found that the game is complete-able just slashing away and shocking enemies when needed.

So, along with the monsters, gods, women not wearing very much and less than convenient camera is the combat system, which is generally combo based. You can swing with Square, heavy attack with Triangle, Jump around swirling your blades around, and grab things to do nasty stuff to them. Every so often you’ll see the Circle button appear over the heads of enemies, and the dreaded Quick Time Events pop up like rodents in a brutal game of whack-a-mole. To criticise God of War for its QTE is redundant since it set off the trend everywhere else. Having said that, it’s probably the best example as the buttons are clearly marked, sufficient time is given, and some of the results are worth the punching in of buttons. Minotaurs in particular are rewarding as repeatedly hammering the Circle button results in Kratos driving the blades he holds into the things throat and throttles the bull violently. Much blood gushing ensues.

There are many moments in this game that stand out. From the introduction where you are on a ship, to perhaps the most original puzzle I’ve come across. There is a moment where Kratos is in a desert, and in the middle of a sandstorm. Depending on where he walks you hear a faint singing sound. Using your ears you must walk until you spot an enemy, which turns out to be a siren. Desensitizing your eyes and relying on your ears to progress is a fantastic idea and one that is done very well. Using surround sound in particular for this part gives the best results as you are led to the enemy. The actual puzzles also give plenty of challenge, with some being obvious to some and not to others. Bosses are perhaps the best part of the entire game, with some of the most iconic characters in Greek mythology; such as the Hydra, attempting to stop Kratos in his tracks. His savagery is even more apparent here, as the QTE are more elaborate and end in even stickier results. Every enemy you fight has the potential to annoy you greatly, so the bitter end for them is so much sweeter.

You know a game is gory when it enables you to do root canal surgery...without anethesia!

For those who want to bleed everything physically possible from the developers; Sony Computer Entertainment America (SCEA) haven’t forgotten you like that toy you got for Christmas from the obscure relative when you were seven. The unlockables include Titan mode, some documentaries on the game’s creation, some new character models for Kratos and quite a few more. While you do have to run through the game’s entirety before you can even think of looking at extra content, the game has lots to do so this is entirely forgivable. Some may feel that the content available isn’t very interesting as documentaries aren’t for everyone and character models range from the cool to ridiculous. It’s debatable as to whether or not the extra content is worth the continuous play.

For the Playstation 2, God of War changes everything. Not only does it churn everything from the box in terms of outstanding visuals and frame rate to match, but the sheer depth of everything that appears from puzzles and combat to the plot itself and outstanding panoramic backdrops make this game a pleasure to play. It’s amazing what could have been possible from the Playstation 2 considering it was in development at the turn of the century and many advances have been made, yet it is one of the best looking and above all fun games on the system. Even if you are a straight girl who might not like to see 34Ds on a fifty inch widescreen TV, everything else should please you enough to forgive the game for that.