GAME REVIEWS

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Langrisser

~ LANGRISSER ~
NCS/Masaya
Super CD-ROM
1993

I've never gotten along well with strategy-based titles, and I tend to leave them rotting away in my games-to-get-around-to queue. So while I'm typically gung ho for NCS/Masaya products, I'd owned Langrisser for years before I even bothered to play past its first few boards. My innate dislike for the genre was the main reason I'd kept my distance, but the poor cinemas had also proven to be a deterrent: the characters are frequently depicted in awkward, unflattering ways, which is a shame, as the designs themselves are fantastic.



And when participating in a "tactical" affair, I prefer the sci-fi stylings of a Military Madness to the swords-and-shields stuff found here.



Of course, it didn't help matters any that I wasn't exactly giving it my all during those early sessions. I was advancing through the stages but often by taking the quickest, most cowardly route possible, reaping meager gains in experience. I eventually decided to sit down and give the game a serious play (gotta get these damn strategy things out of the way at some point or another), and I actually did get some enjoyment out of it... for a while.


The main problem was that once I'd bothered to learn the ins and outs of the gameplay, I discovered that there simply isn't much substance to it. Actual medieval warfare tactics don't really play any part in this experience. You usually just move your little pods around, find an advantageous piece of terrain to occupy, bump into opposing units, and have at it.


Sure, Military Madness, which I definitely consider to be a superior strategy game, could be described in the same manner. But MM has so many more potential battlefield matchups than Langrisser does. Masaya's effort is basically built on a soldier-horseman-archer system that feels an awful lot like rock-paper-scissors after a while. Yes, you eventually have to deal with beasts such as wyverns and basilisks, and you can ultimately recruit slightly more interesting troops like griffin-riding warriors, but battles feel much the same as one another regardless of who's participating in them. The strategy here involves rudimentary tactics like luring mermen onto land and watching them charge forward like moths to a flame. By the time the interesting creatures show up, your mighty commanders are capable of steamrolling just about anything that may come their way.



The lack of depth really made the game drag on for me, but even during its first few levels, before the repetition and simplicity truly started to bother me, there were problems. Rather than having to think of ways to defeat the opposing army, I found myself concentrating on battering my enemies to the point where the weakest of my allies could deliver the finishing blows and earn some experience. Now, it's certainly fun to have weak-sauce pals sneak away with level-ups that they didn't really earn, but the gameplay shouldn't be weighted like that. Defeating my enemies should be my main concern (at least it should be by some early point), not maneuvering around to pull off experience-grabbing hijinks.


Still, if you're into old-school strategy games of this nature, you'll probably like this one. The music is very good, though you may grow tired of the small batch of in-game tunes (which I did right around the point when the gameplay deficiencies really became evident, marking the beginning of the decline in enjoyment). The battles, during which the participating combatants just kinda smash into each other, are handled quickly and are strangely amusing. And it can be fun to choose new classes and earn new powers as your characters rise through the experience ranks (although choices are ultimately pretty limited). Also, the language barrier shouldn't be considered significant, especially since there are decent (if not completely applicable) Warsong guides available.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Altered Beast CD

SEGA/NEC Avenue - 1989 - Japan
CD-ROM


My journey to acquire Altered Beast CD was a lethargic one. After all, phrases like "wasted opportunity" are constantly tossed around in discussions of the title. I'd even been told the game freezes mid-level in order to load from the CD. I already owned the cart version, so CD seemed pretty superfluous to me. It wasn't until brother IvaNEC brought word the CD wasn't a total waste after all that I even considered picking it up. While there's no question Altered Beast CD could have been much more than it turned out to be, it is more fleshed out than its cartridge counterpart and I think I like it just a little bit more.

It's also a fair bit easier, which may appeal to players who dislike the cart based on the high difficulty level. The Duo port of Altered Beast has long been chastised for its difficulty and lack of parallax. Well, the difficulty level here isn't really all that bad and I can't help but point out the arcade original didn't have any parallax either. In many ways, the Duo port is a closer match to the arcade than the Genesis version.



It really is strange Altered Beast CD doesn't feature redbook audio for the stage themes, although there are hints at what could have been in the "Story" cinema, title screen, and the between-levels jingle. Despite the lack of a complete, proper CD soundtrack, those chiptunes still sound pretty damn good. Sound effects got an overhaul, however, and the game now features hearty cracks and booms as you obliterate rocks and headstones, not to mention the voices which were missing from the cartridge are back.

Graphically the game has been altered slightly from the cart with several background palette swaps and a little art revision in stage 1. I believe the changes were made to make the game appear a little more similar to the arcade, but it's curious they went to the trouble for such minor tweaks. As for the game halting to load mid-level, well, it's safe to say I didn't even notice it at first. The scrolling does halt periodically anyway when the game is waiting for you to dispatch an enemy or obstacle, the only difference here is your inability to move for two seconds. Not quite the game wrecking flaw people make it out to be, the pauses are integrated into the levels well enough to be largely unnoticeable.

Alterations include changes in sky and background tree color.


The biggest difference, and indeed the most consequential, between the CD version and its cartridge counterpart lies in how your character handles damage. Where the cart will have you bouncing helplessly back and forth as your life drains away, the CD actually adds a second or two of invincibility allowing you to regain your composure and (hopefully) prevent unnecessary loss of life.


Altered Beast CD really is a superb port of the arcade classic, and if it wasn't for the existence of the cartridge for comparison, I think CD would probably be a little more highly regarded. Altered Beast on the Duo is an extremely solid product in either iteration, impressive even. Still, I'd unquestionably recommend CD first to players looking to give the game a try as only warriors as hardy as the Duomazov clan stand a chance of making headway with the cart.

It's worthy of note that Altered Beast CD requires the BIOS of the Japanese-only System Card 1.0 in order to play properly. The good news is System 1.0 shouldn't run you too much. It's also possible to play the game without issue using a flash cart "pretending" to be a System 1 card.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

GAME SUPPLEMENT: Might and Magic


Might & Magic for the Duo is perhaps the most advanced port in existence of this classic game. Certainly in another league entirely than the NES and PC versions. However, the game has some key differences from the PC ports that will give non-Japanese speakers a major headache.

The game is difficult enough as is, even for native Japanese speakers, I'm told. If you cannot read any Japanese at all, a walkthrough is an absolute must. Walkthroughs for the PC versions will serve you well in most cases but as I mentioned there are crucial differences that can mean the difference between victory and total defeat. For example, most of the side quests that are optional in the PC versions are mandatory in the Duo version.

Since many great, well-written walkthroughs already exist for the game, I'm going to keep things brief here. If you need help on, say, "completing all of Lord Hacker's quests," feel free to consult one of them. The intention of this supplement is to point you in the right direction for victory, not hold your hand every step of the way. Cousin Zigfried wrote an excellent quick-start guide for the Duo version, which can be found here.

Also, it is possible there are more differences between versions than what is listed here. What I've listed are the key differences that affect the outcome of the game.

So, let's get to it...


GAMEPLAY DIFFERENCES
======================

* You are given a preselected party of characters at the beginning of the game. You do not have the option of customizing your party at all; class, sex, name, order, anything.

* The "Search" command is rendered mostly useless in the Duo version; you auto-search every cell you land on. The only (and I mean ONLY) time you use the "Search" command is if you choose not to pick up a bag of gold or open a chest after a battle (say, if you need to discard some items to make room first). After doing what you need to do, you can then "Search" to once again bring up the treasure and the option to pick it up. There are many spots in the PC ports where "Search"ing is required to trigger certain items and events, but this stuff all happens automatically in the Duo version.

* Each character has their own backpack (inventory) in the original. In the Duo version, you only have one backpack for the entire party.

* You can change the order of items in your pack in the original, on the Duo the order of the items is determined by the order in which you acquire them.

* There are certain requirements for getting into the Inner Sanctum, all of which must be completed before you are granted access. As such, you are not given the option in the Inner Sanctum of returning to the game to complete any incomplete quests as you are in the PC ports.

STORYLINE DIFFERENCES
======================

* Your preselected party of characters comes with a backstory played out in a pre-game cinema.

* The entire space-age secret agent/future setting and storyline is jettisoned in favor of a more traditional fantasy RPG plot. In the original PC versions, you play a secret agent from another planet sent to the land of VARN to seek out and destroy an alien with designs on taking over. The actual land of VARN and everything in it is more or less the same, you just instead play a band of travelers from a faraway place with the goal of uncovering the secrets of the land. In the original, VARN was an acronym for Vehicular Astropod Research Nacelle. In the Duo version, it's just a name.

* The primary objective of the original game was to reveal and dethrone the alien impostor King Alamar. The objective of the Duo port is actually to complete five challenges. Dethroning the false Alamar is not one of them.

CHARACTER DIFFERENCES
=======================

* The "good aliens" in E2 from the PC versions have been replaced with generic "supernatural beings."

* The "evil alien" playing the King Alamar impostor in the PC ports is a demon in the Duo version.

* The Og encounter in D4 is completely different. Og himself is the same, and you still need the chess piece idols to talk to him, but instead of asking a chess question as he does in the PC versions, he instead poses a riddle:

"What is needed to burn the Earth..."

The correct answer in the Duo version is "LIGHT"

* The Clerics of the South challenge on the bottom level of Castle Dragadune is slightly different: in the original, the clerics had you ring a bunch of gongs to produce certain tones. In the Duo version you "play" magical musical pools of water. That's right. Puddles.

* The desert traders in D1 always take the first item in your pack in the PC versions, in the Duo version you get to choose which of your items you want to trade.

GAME COMPLETION PREREQUISITES
===============================

There are five objectives that must be completed in order to gain access to the Inner Sanctum. All of these are OPTIONAL in the PC versions; the PC versions have a completely different set of objectives that must be completed in order to gain access (optional here).

Required:

* Free all 6 prisoners from the 6 castles. NOTE: It is IMPERATIVE that you talk to the Wizard Ranalou in the cave in B3 for the game to acknowledge you've freed the prisoners (he is supposed to be the one to alert you of the prisoners in the first place). If you free the prisoners without talking to Ranalou the game will not register that they've been freed. After talking to Ranalou and freeing the prisoners you need to visit the Statue of Judgement in E1.

* Defeat the 4 beasts relevant to the Wheel of Luck challenge in A3. You can spin the wheel after defeating them for bonus experience points. Their locations:

A1 x12,y5 - Dark Rider
A3 x7,y9 - Sea Monster
D1 x10,y5 - Giant Scorpion
D4 x9,x9 - Winged Beast

* Complete all of Lord Hacker's (Blackridge South) quests.

* Complete all of Lord Inspectron's (Blackridge North) quests.

* Complete all of Lord Ironfist's (Whitewolf) quests.


Optional:

I'm not going to go into all of the optional challenges here as there are plenty of walkthroughs out there that detail the PC versions. I'll just say that basically anything that is required in those versions is optional here, including revealing the King Alamar impostor.

Good luck.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Xak III: The eternal recurrence

~ XAK III ~
Micro Cabin / NEC Home Electronics
Super CD-ROM
1994

Just as Ys had undergone a change in play formula upon reaching its third episode, so too did Xak abandon its old bump-to-kill ways for its own second sequel. But while Falcom made a foray into the realm of sidescrollers, Micro Cabin opted to retain a bird's-eye view for Xak III and simply added button-press-triggered slashing to the mix. The PC Engine had seen this "Ys plus manual hacking" recipe before in Brain Grey's Efera & Jiliora, a favorite of mine that I believed Xak III would resemble in style based on similarities I'd perceived in screen captures.



Well, I was right in thinking that Xak III would play like E&J, but the speedier of the respective avatars, the one that possesses the greater range of attack, is to be found in Brain Grey's title. I don't mind X3's imperfect combat so much (as E&J is kind of rough itself), but the sluggish shambling really annoys me. People often observe that The eternal recurrence is longer than its two-quest predecessor, but they usually neglect to mention that the added length is primarily attributable to the game having you shuffle along at an extremely slow pace (whereas its forerunner allows you to blaze across the countryside), not to mention that it forces you to trudge through a number of very large towns and structures, with nothing of note happening during the dragged-out trips.



What's frequently mentioned in testimonials (in rather nebulous fashion) is that Xak III is "dark." Well, when I think dark, I think of games with somber atmospheres and bleak environments--games like The Legendary Axe II and the aforementioned E&J. Xak III's take on dark is more along the lines of Mortal Kombat-type "darkness," as it contains a few bloody scenes where big, bad assholes decide to rip some people apart. Keep in mind we're talking in-game gore here, "horrific" happenings featuring small sprites and little red puddles, not breathtaking cinematic doses of blood-spattering a la the dramatic ice cave scene in Manji Maru. Also keep in mind that most of this stuff happens very early on. What follows is adventuring of the typical old-action-RPG variety, questing with a humdrum feel about it and not a whole lot of "darkness" to speak of.



There aren't many quality tunes to come across, either. I & II's soundtrack is brilliant, but III's is mostly boring and forgettable. And the graphics are so bad in some of X3's first few areas that it's occasionally difficult to tell which zones are open for exploration and which ones are perennially closed to travelers...



...but I suppose I should mention that the visuals do eventually advance all the way to "so-so" caliber.



The sporadically presented cinemas also fail to impress...



...and aside from one or two cunning creatures that confront you early on, the bosses can all be beaten through attrition.



Forgive me for making the comparison again, but Efera & Jiliora stars a crew of much cooler and tougher bosses. And E&J doesn't have us control a flying goober for its final battle.

Ugh.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Xak I and II

~ XAK I & II ~
Micro Cabin / Riot / Telenet
Super CD-ROM
1992

The whole "two episodes in one" thing along with the knowledge that the main Xak games are action-RPGs caused me to think of Ys Book I & II whenever this particular Riot release would come up in discussion. But it wasn't until I got to try it for myself that I realized just how many commonalities Xak I & II has with Falcom's famous product. In fact, it immediately comes off as an overt Ys mimicker, due in large part to its deja-vu-inducing bump-and-run gameplay. But with extremely fast-paced action and an excellent red book score, Xak proves itself to be much more than some cheap, two-bit imitator.



Nothing could shroud the Ys similarities on display here, but subtle graphical touches and neat in-game moments make Xak special in its own right. Inspect a heavily guarded treasure chest to find a family of helpful little gnomes, don an aquatic suit for a trip across a dual-tower's watercourse, and shrink yourself via magical means for dashes through mouse-made tunnels. Watch for cool little in-game animations: your character sheathes his sword when he's not on the offensive, and his mantle blows in the wind as he leaps from one platform to another. Indeed, there are jumping gauntlets to pass; there are even a couple of vertically scrolling shoot-'em-up sequences.



Most legs of the adventure, regardless of the play styles implemented for them, are straightforward. While some of the dungeons demand a good bit of time and thought, none of them are even nearly as complex in design as the largest Ys labyrinths. This may not be a negative for those who weren't enamored with Book II's required "in and out and all around" Solomon Shrine treks. However, most everyone will miss the unforgettable villains and dramatic plot points that Ys is known for but Xak is devoid of, though the latter does manage to hold its own cinematically.



Perhaps the only significant letdown here is the ease with which all challenges can be passed. The bosses, as cool looking as they are, come off as easily annihilated chumps if you're at reasonably high levels when you encounter them. Of course, power grinding isn't exactly compulsory, but level-ups occur so frequently anyway that you almost can't help but end up an almighty boss-slaughtering beast.


Xak is easy and short, but it's still a very well-executed action-RPG in the Ys vein, and it makes for fleeting-but-fantastic fun. Fans of the first, second, and fourth Ys episodes should consider it a must-buy.