GAME REVIEWS

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Sol Moonarge

~ SOL MOONARGE ~
Irem
Super CD-ROM
1993

I have mixed feelings about this RPG. There were times when it annoyed the hell out of me. Then things would happen that made me admire the ambition and creativity that went into it and think about how great it would be if it didn't insist on repeatedly mucking things up with its flaws.



I don't like the characters much at all. Understand that just prior to playing this game for the first time, I'd revisited Cosmic Fantasy 2 and Kabuki Den, which star some of the video-game characters I'm fondest of. Then I sat down with Moonarge and encountered a blonde-haired Pinocchio clone and his odd-looking cohorts. I felt like I was controlling a bunch of Sesame Street puppets. Granted, the wacky theme paves the way for some funny moments to occur (primarily early in the adventure); but when I'm tagging along with a video-game crew for a fifteen-hour quest, I like to have some sort of emotional investment in the affair, and it just didn't happen with this overly caricaturish bunch.



The random-battle enemies are also lame; impressive designs such as a fiery golden spike-head are few and far between. And while the bad-guy graphics are sub-mediocre, the overworld visuals border on horrible. Some locations feature a lot of colors, but the shades are poorly matched, creating big, bright, kaleidoscopic messes. The game shoots itself in the foot when it splatters too many colors on screen at once; the places that do look cool generally keep things simple.



The soundtrack has its fair share of nice tunes, but some of them are maimed by poor, abrasive sound quality, making them reminiscent of bad Genny-sound-chip ditties. A few of the ones that came out okay truly manage to shine, including a very exciting boss number.

My gripes about the gameplay generally involve the way-too-frequent random battles. And I guess I just stated the primary problem: there are just too damn many random battles. Laying off the dash button can help a little bit, but then exploration becomes a slower and more tedious task; and some areas will toss you into fights every few seconds no matter how slowly you're proceeding. The fact that the enemies win initiative far more often than your party members doesn't help.



But at least Irem did a lot of cool things with the battle system. You can divvy the damage you do among the entire band of enemies or concentrate the full force of your blow on just one unfortunate beast. The fights are generally fast paced (slowing down only when an enemy performs an attack that affects your whole party and you have to sit through the repeated animations, but I've endured much worse). There are decent-looking backdrops, and your characters celebrate in amusing fashion when they're victorious. Plus, one character you use early in the game gets killer animation bits for his critical hits (it's a pity all of the characters weren't granted such exciting attack theatrics).

The designers also did well with their take on RPG commerce. When you're looking at an item in a store, the game shows the effects on stats said item will have for each party member. And if you decide to go ahead and buy it, you can equip it right then and there without having to exit the shop menu and open a new one.

But perhaps the best element of all is the dungeon design. "Dungeon" might not be the most appropriate term, though; perhaps "challenge area" would be more accurate, considering the variety of challenges that await you in certain places. You're asked to do a hell of a lot more than trek through mazes: you'll ride enormous spinning gears, climb brambles up castle walls, assume different animal forms to pass unusual trials, and do plenty more.



Should you overcome the challenges, you'll have some fantastic bosses to look forward to fighting. These guys have lots of tricks up their sleeves; you can't just trade blows with them. There's a haunted mirror that pits you against scowling versions of your own party members; there's the swordsman Brack with his amazing show of swipes among petal storms; and there's a polygonal nightmare that delights in interacting with (and butchering) your little character avatars at the bottom of the screen.



Yes, it was an up-and-down ride for me, and I think my expectations for the game exceeded what it actually delivered, but it does get progressively better as the journey goes on, and my final overall impression did fall on the positive side. I have a feeling that more people will like it than don't (and like it more than I do, at that). Still, you might want to keep in mind that for the $30-40 the game often costs, you can purchase ten other PCE RPGs, many of which may prove superior.


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Insanity

~ INSANITY ~
Aetherbyte / Hurgle
Super CD-ROM
2009

I'm very glad that Insanity exists. If my brother Alexei hadn't penned an Insanity review, I might still be unaware that he was a Kaypro player during his youth, just like I was during mine (we grew up in separate garrisons, you see). Ensuing upon our discovery of this commonality was a merry conversation on the greatness of Kaypro games ranging from the tricky platformer Ladder to the space-set stock-trader that neither of us could quite remember the title of (Star Traders!).

But while I wax nostalgic over my way-back-when Kaypro experiences, the truth is I have a very difficult time sitting down with most pre-16-bit-era titles. There are few NES games I can stomach at this point; go back even further in time and you're almost sure to disgust me. And being that I was never a big Berzerk fan, you can understand why I did not anticipate good times with its PCE descendant.



After just a few rounds of drone thrashing, I'd already compiled a sizable list of qualms I had with Insanity's gameplay. The action starts off terribly slowly, and the protagonist's lethargic gait had me wishing on many occasions that button I had been utilized for a dash function. (A sped-up version of the game can be accessed, though the almost-immediate mass robot suicide that takes place in many stages makes it more of a source of chuckles than a viable play option.) Once the pace picks up in the main mode, cheap deaths occur regularly, as the robots don't hesitate to level you with potshots as soon as a new room materializes onscreen.



Berzerk's premise and the manner in which it plays out haven't ever appealed to me, and the fact that it and its successor are so repetitive makes the respective experiences all the more vexatious. It's easy for me to play armchair programmer, so I will. I wish the walls periodically changed in color and in brand of construct. I wish the robotic voices were used sparingly so as to alleviate the Bravoman-esque aural pangs. I wish there were some sort of interlude prior to the appearance of each new wave of foes--if Berzerk's rudiments don't lend themselves to full-fledged cinemas, perhaps stills (a la Avenger) in the style of the title-screen and ending art would have served well. And I wish there were different kinds of enemies to evade or fend off (aside from the time's-up chaser and the big boss).



I know that Aetherbyte placed major importance on the notion of "staying true" to the original Berzerk. But the problem is that different people will have different ideas as to how far the concept could've been fleshed out while remaining faithful and tributary to the source material. If more variety would have increased the amount of enjoyment that many players would get out of the title and won over some of those averse to the concept in the first place, then perhaps more additions and amendments to the formula should have been explored. It bears mentioning that people who are in fact fans of Berzerk have often voiced the same criticisms of this game as those who were never thrilled with the template.



But what everyone does seem to be into is Insanity's music, particularly the PSG material. While not every tune works for me, I do think there's some pretty good stuff here. The main theme is a sticks-in-your-head sort of number, and the subdued melodies accompanying the end credits are quite nice. And as the adventure concludes on a positive note, so will this review: as unappealing as its foundation was to me from the start, and as many issues as I have with the approach taken by Aetherbyte, Insanity is certainly playable and has a soundtrack that may just achieve greatness in the ears of many. Even one with an eye that perceives the game as flawed and underdeveloped will likely acknowledge it worthy of a fair spin or two.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Steam Heart's

~ STEAM HEART'S ~
TGL / GIGA
Super CD-ROM
1996

TGL vert Steam Hearts (I hate the apostrophe) is known for being a relatively rare piece of smut, but before it shows off its filthy side, it makes an impression with the quantities of missiles it shakes out of its little enemy sprites. Now, we're not talking prehistoric manic hell a la Raiden or Kyuukyoku Tiger here, as these shot-showers are a little lackadaisical as they travel across the playfield. Still, such focus on bullet bevies was abnormal for the 16-bit day.



There's not much else interesting to speak of when it comes to SH's stage play. The action is decent, but the game has a low-budget look and feel about it--pretty ironic for what has long been a fairly expensive title. The visuals are extremely simplistic--appealingly so in a few parts, but blah-ishly dark and unimpressive for far too many strips. You have two craft to select from, but each can equip just a couple of not-so-hot main guns and a handful of typical auxiliary pieces. A speed burst function is also at your disposal, but strategic use of it (as is required in Rayxanber II with that game's similar tool) won't really be needed save for during a few boss encounters.



Those boss battles constitute the true main draw of the experience. SH's lord mecha initially seem small and informidable, but they're very capable fighters: one creates laser-beam downpours while another wields an enormous energy spear.



Best those admirable warriors and you'll get to watch the naughty Steam Hearts circus shows, intermissions depicting beast-girl rape for the supposed betterment of the universe. Mildly repugnant stills stay onscreen for excessive amounts of time and are accompanied by voice-acted crying and conversing. It's incredibly boring stuff. If developers are going to go this route, they may as well strive to make a mark, perhaps with scenes that are so ludicrous as to be amusingly silly or so over the top as to be memorably revolting. Steam Hearts bores its audiences and leaves it at that.



But it does feature some smooth animation during its opening sequence as well as a bit of nice art as it concludes. I suppose that seeking such signs of effort and artistic merit throughout the experience would have been to ask too much of the game's designers.


Saturday, February 12, 2011

Alnam no Kiba (Fang of Alnam)

~ FANG OF ALNAM ~
Right Stuff
Super CD-ROM
1994

I expected good things from this RPG. Its cover art is very nice, after all. And as for the game itself, well, I'd never read any negative reports on it. I guess I'll be the first to deliver one: Alnam disappointed me. It's merely okay on the whole--and even rather bad at times.



Have you ever wondered what it would be like to play a Xenosaga game designed for the Turbo? You probably haven't, but a Xeno-esque affair is essentially what you'll get with Alnam. The cutscenes here go on and on, and it's not like they feature much cool stuff. It's almost all endless, boring conversation; exchanges that could've been completed in thirty seconds had they been handled with in-game text are pointlessly dragged out into anime-style congregations. I actually walked away to do something else during some of them. You do get a bit of tragedy, and you do get a bit of comedy, and the game handles those bits fairly well. Plus, the two leads have good "game-character chemistry." But the entertaining cinematic stuff drowns amid the useless material.



Even worse are the instances when the game decides not to switch over to cinematics but to host unskippable voice-acted babblefests instead. And get ready for some excruciatingly long load times--not just prior to cinemas, but upon entering dungeons and towns as well.

The cinemas are presented in solid style, at least, though the character designs are kind of hit-or-miss: most of the girls are cool, but most of the guys are lame. The in-game visuals don't fare as well as the anime stuff, as they're dark and drab and often ugly (except for... the water; some of the water looks really nice). Everything is small and indistinct; at times, I just barely noticed that there was a townsperson standing nearby.



The music seems pretty good at first but reveals itself to be merely decent. It's also very repetitive, as there aren't many tracks and you're forced to bumble around in certain locations for long periods at a time. Bird chirps and the like do their best to create pleasant atmosphere, but they can't make up for the ugliness of the visuals or the limitations of the music.

What almost manages to save this game (which is actually deplorable in so many respects) is a very good battle system. In fact, the ballyhooed Emerald Dragon could've learned a thing or two from Alnam's combat. You view the slugfests from an overhead perspective, as you do in ED, and you're given "move points," various amounts of which are spent each time you perform an action. The options at your disposal are quite cool and range from animal transformations to tag-team techniques. Strategy obviously plays a role here; but unlike the later-stage scrums in ED, Alnam's fights play out extremely quickly. Your characters achieve level-ups quite often, especially during stretches when you have a good magic user in your band. Unfortunately, the graphics mess things up a bit, as the battle terrain is usually dull and the tiny enemies are rather ugly and get palette swapped around at a ridiculously early point in the quest.



But another combat-related positive to note is the handling of cash. You aren't given a monetary reward at the end of each battle; instead, you have to see a certain fellow in town and collect a cash sum based on your collective killings since the previous payday. It probably seems like a silly way to handle things, but there's a feeling of anticipation that comes with each visit to the cash house, and I was often eager to see just how much money I'd get after a while spent on the battlefield.

Sadly, as much as Right Stuff did right with combat, they left me with far more to mention on the negative side of things. Long cinemas and ugly graphics don't tell the whole sad story. Dungeon designs are boring and uninspired, town layouts are annoyingly tortuous, and the random-encounter rate is high. It's somewhat convenient for those who don't know Japanese that the quest is a straightforward one, as you often can't leave or enter towns until you've hit the right trigger or discovered the correct course to take; but then again, this can be extremely annoying when you stop at a previously visited town to buy something only for some jackass to bar you from entering. I really can't see Alnam being much of a winner for anyone, unless somebody is looking for an RPG in which leveling up is the most enjoyable part.


Sunday, February 6, 2011

Burai II

~ BURAI II ~
Riverhill Soft
Super CD-ROM
1992

The one thing about this game that truly intrigued me when I first played it ages ago was the colorful, action-packed combat. The first Burai's battles are ultra primitive, but the ones here feature large, animated enemies; loud, flashy, party-demolishing attack spells; cool music; and backdrops that don't look all that great but certainly represent a step up from black nothingness. Even with all the animation and effects, the fights proceed fairly quickly, unlike some other graphical combat "show scenes" like those in sloggy Monster Maker. Early on, you can actually avoid overworld fights altogether simply by staying away from the areas where monsters reside (like forests and deserts).



Whether you partake in combat or not, overworld treks are much more enjoyable in B2 than they are in the first Burai. The playfield in this one isn't scrunched, thank goodness. And while they don't exactly rank among the PCE's best, Burai II's field graphics annihilate those of its predecessor. You'll revisit many locations from the first game, but you might not even recognize them initially because they look so much better here.



The cinemas are interesting in that they have more of a "hand-drawn" look to them than do most of the anime-style sequences in other PCE RPGs.



They look somewhat basic at times, but they're neat in style as a one-time sort of thing, and there are plenty of them, especially towards the end of the game. The conclusion, which has sort of a Final Fantasy X vibe for a stretch, is quite memorable.



This is a sequel that revisits its roots in many ways and usually improves on the way things were. Your old party members return, but they constitute a much more balanced lot now. They still have to take care of personal business before coming together, but the game is split into episodes that are longer and larger in scope than the previous chapter's mini-quests. You'll still be assailed by mini-bosses, and there are still numerous secrets to stumble upon. The event scenes feature cinema-style art as opposed to the abstract drawings in the first Burai, and there's more overt humor this time around, much of which involves the funny furry folks, who engage in such antics as dancing and putting on concerts to raise cash.



Burai II is certainly a successful title, but there are a few not-so-positive things to note about it. Once you've assembled a seven- or eight-character party, random battles can take an extremely long time. In addition to selecting actions for all those characters and watching their magic-spell light shows, you'll have to deal with enemies who can take lots of hits and perform attacks that do damage to each of your party members, one at a time.



Still, I've experienced worse, and this problem plagues only a couple of chapters. In fact, the last area of all is packed with enemies who go down quickly. But while it isn't much of a challenge, that last area can take quite a long time to get through, and it doesn't allow you to save your game as you proceed. It's a cool final stretch that features lots of cinemas and bosses, and it provides plenty of healing spots, but you'll have to set aside a lot of time to play through it, and there's always that chance that you could screw up at some point.



And I should warn prospective buyers that the game occasionally freezes at the end of skirmishes. Luckily, the old "tapping trick" has worked every single time this has happened to me. So just give your system a few taps or tosses and everything should get back on track. B2 has never completely crashed on me.