GAME REVIEWS

Friday, November 30, 2012

Startling Odyssey II


~ STARTLING ODYSSEY II ~
RayForce
Super CD-ROM
1994

Startling Odyssey II lacks a calling card. Not a single thing about it stands out as being superlative. But it's an example of an RPG that achieves excellence thanks to its makers doing solid (if not standard-setting) work on just about every aspect of the title.


The graphics, though they fall short of magnificence, are likely to garner some attention as soon as play begins. Canvases done up with subdued hues are sprinkled with flecks of brightness to create appealingly distinctive field and town designs.


The element of visual intrigue extends to the cinemas, which utilize lots of bluish greens to give outdoors scenes an overcast look (which works quite well for gloomy old me). Intermissions are plentiful and showcase the game's cool (if occasionally roughly sketched) main characters. Amusing shenanigans are periodically interrupted by episodes of tragedy; one particularly stunning event stuck with me through the years separating my first and most recent playthroughs.




The combat scenes are also visually interesting in that the action is presented in a "slanted" manner. Nice-looking backdrops and large enemies are on offer, and the characters are hardly the stand-still types: kicks and sword swipes are actually carried out rather than simply being told of via text messages, and badly hurt warriors slump to the turf in agony. The skirmishes don't play out quickly, and the encounter rate leans a bit towards the gratuitously high side, but the positive aspects of the brawling render those issues minor.



While battle sequences proceed methodically, field play is never slow or arduous (provided that you dig through the menus and ramp up the character-walking and message-relaying speeds). Your determined little party members let nothing stand in their way as they travel from one important location to the next--even bumbling townsfolk can simply be shoved aside.


Among those important locations are labyrinthine areas that seem rather plain appearance-wise but earn accolades for offering lots of treasure- and trap-strewn paths to explore.


Once the last of those areas has been conquered, you get to enjoy a long and interesting cinematic sequence that concludes matters in atypical (for a PCE RPG) fashion.


The music is perhaps the only element that disappoints. Early promise of classical symphonic greatness is quickly forgotten as annoying town and combat tunes come to the fore. A masterpiece of a soundtrack just might have elevated the game to the tier of the classics. But even as it is, SO2 is absolutely fantastic and far superior to its respectable predecessor.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Image Fight II


~ IMAGE FIGHT II ~
Irem
Super CD-ROM
1992

The first Image Fight is no pushover, but I don't think it's nearly as demanding and punishing as many tout it to be. Its sequel, on the other hand, is nightmarishly hard and really seems to revel in the dismembering of players. If you're okay with risking dismemberment, go ahead and take up its challenge--and prepare yourself for a ten-level-long journey that'll demand constant attentiveness and be nothing if not hellish for long stretches at a time. You'll frequently find yourself navigating uncomfortably tight spaces as powerful enemies soar onto the field from the front, side, and rear (and even emerge from the backdrop at particular points). These steel-ship berserkers typically dart about erratically and launch hard-to-evade projectile attacks.


But they do play fair when it comes right down to it. IF2 is tough, but it's seldom cheap, and it actually grants players what amounts to a fairly stacked hand. Back to tag along with you are the series's trademark option pods (blues shoot straight ahead while reds fire in the direction opposite the one you're moving in). You can adjust your craft's speed at any time and acquire a wide variety of highly destructive weapons as you blast apart the enemy legion. And if you experiment with those weapons a bit and give matters some thought, you just might figure out ways to take out the large, formidable bosses with ease.


But even if you're a skilled pilot and a master strategist, you'll have to take a few knocks and endure some frustration as you attempt to make headway in this realm where shooter fans die. You'll also have to remember that you can't afford to let up once you do get on a roll. Like its predecessor, IF2 sends players who fail to destroy a significant portion of the enemy's frontline forces to an extremely difficult "penalty area." But while achieving the kill percentage required to avoid penalization is practically a given in the first game, it takes quite a bit of hard work and smooth flying here.


You won't get much incentive cinematically to continue getting pummeled. IF2's interludes primarily consist of terribly drawn characters chatting within the confines of tiny windows.


The in-game graphics get the job done, however. The rings of Saturn and wavy gas storms make for extremely appealing backdrops. The soundtrack is also of fairly high quality, boasting plenty of tense numbers that lend to the game's sinister air. Image Fight 2 knows that it's brutal, which is why players feel so good once they've put it in its place.


But most people won't get to experience that feeling. Frankly, I don't think there's much fun to be had here for "casual" players, as the game will pound on them mercilessly. And this is no cheapie, so those who whimsically decide to "give it a shot" will have to part with a pretty significant sum of cash to take their thumps. But if you're good--and I mean if you're sure you're good--and you're willing to put in plenty of practice and weather some frustrating times, then go ahead and try to make your way through IF2. The process won't always be enjoyable, but it can prove very rewarding.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Alshark


~ ALSHARK ~
Right Stuff / Victor Entertainment
Super CD-ROM
1994

Alshark is quite reminiscent of Fang of Alnam, another traditional-style RPG released by Right Stuff. Both games feature excellent battle systems, but they share the misfortune of being plagued by abysmal visuals, and neither lives up to its vast potential.


As appallingly primitive as Alshark's field graphics are, they're hardly a major concern, as the strikingly speedy characters need little time to scurry from one location to the next. Interruptions occur in the forms of overhead-view combat scenes that play out in entertaining fashion. Your party consists of heroes and heroines who wield lightsabers and mow down their foes with missiles and machine-gun fire.


Not nearly as engaging are the spacecraft duels that take place as your fellowship travels amongst the stars. You can allow the game to carry out each visually unimpressive orbital scrum in a predetermined manner, or you can take matters into your own hands and partake in the rudimentary VCS-shooter-like action.


Complete an important mission on a given planet and chances are you'll get to view a lengthy cinema, but these occasions are seldom worth getting excited about, as the quite-cool main characters usually aren't displayed in the most flattering of fashions.


Almost every aspect of this fairly ambitious effort ends up dragged down to some degree by the poor visual work. Even the battle scenes, which remain entertaining for the duration of the quest, could've benefited from superior sprite design. The few bosses that appear are tiny and nondescript.


The soundtrack, which travels a back-and-forth line between goofy and generic, is of little help, but superficial elements are hardly the most significant concern here. A far more serious issue is the immense slowdown that frequently occurs as your characters are strolling about towns (of all places). With some villages being quite expansive and requiring plenty of mundane, here-and-there fetching and conversing, the sludgy hiking constitutes an absolutely unforgivable flaw.


The game does get its act together to some extent during its latter half, as it turns its focus to dungeon-depths combat and away from in-town antics. The labyrinths themselves are never particularly innovative in design, but there are some dramatic plot points to be experienced within them.


It all culminates with a surprisingly fantastic ending, but in typical Right Stuff fashion, the dreadful accompanies the awesome--the dreadful in this case being an atrocious end-credits tune.

Friday, November 9, 2012

De Ja


~ DE JA ~
NEC Interchannel / Elf
Super CD-ROM
1996

Positive initial impressions led me to believe that De Ja had the makings of an elite digital comic. The opening cinema and first few moments of play acquainted me with an Indiana Jones-like protagonist and seemed to promise high adventure of the treasure-hunting, monster-battling sort, with Elf's typically charming anime femmes tossed in for good measure.


But after spending a great deal of time on a single dull scene with no apparent method of tale advancement in sight, I realized what De Ja is truly all about. Ridiculously lengthy back-and-forth discussions and wordy internal monologues temper high hopes for fast-paced plot progression. Even "climactic" encounters with evildoers are drained of tension as the garrulous characters prattle on and on and on. A solid soundtrack ends up wasted on a comic that clocks in as an epic for all the wrong reasons. Being a somewhat-rare late release, the debacle commands a relatively hefty sum on auction sites, and thus should be dismissed out of hand even by fans of the genre.


The opening moments are pretty misleading.


Forget about acquiring wealth and dueling with villains; your character spends most of his time contemplating matters or engaging in terribly dull discussions.


Once he's done with any given chain of seemingly interminable chats, he's able to undertake heroic endeavors like panty pirating.


There's no shortage of fruitcakes to come across while you're out and about.


After you've put in a significant amount of time wandering around town and harassing the local women, you'll finally get to do some adventuring--which will mainly consist of hopping aboard trains and planes to reach destinations where not much of anything is going on.


A typical late-game maze sequence is dressed up as a walk through the woods.


As for good parts, there's a fairly amusing (and all-too-brief) fight scene that sees the main lout finally get what's coming to him.


And, well, there's this, too.


Persist beyond those unforgettable episodes and you'll encounter some "puzzles" that may prove troublesome. Here's the correct solution to one of them, though it won't get you anywhere until the protagonist himself realizes what needs to be done.


For the doorknob puzzle, enter 6 and 9 (of course).


The game's "final challenge" calls for you to spread eight "visits" amongst eight different girls. If you go about things correctly, you will have encountered one of the ladies more than once, leaving another unseen.


The ending is actually pretty nice but stands as insufficient reason to endure the monotony that precedes it.