Friday, June 6, 2008

Review: Professor Layton and the Curious Village

Level 5

Nintendo DS

Unless you’re running homebrew applications on your DS console (and you should, if only to re-experience old LucasArts gems through the magic of ScummVM), you may have felt the lack of point-and-click adventure games on anything resembling a current-gen console or handheld. With the same richly coloured and stylistic take on middle Europe that saw Dark Chronicle succeed, as well as by putting a charming spin on the puzzle genre, Professor Layton and the Curious Village steps in to save the day.

Along with his assistant Luke, Professor Layton is called to the village of St Mystere by a certain Lady Dahlia, widow of the late Baron Reinhold. Reinhold’s last will and testament had stated that his inheritance would be given to the person who found the mysterious Golden Apple, and it’s this treasure that Dahlia wants you to locate. Now, Professor Layton is apparently pretty famous (think Sherlock Holmes minus the opium addiction, and with the ubiquitous deerstalker replaced with a top hat), so everywhere you turn, you have to solve puzzles to prove you are who you claim to be. Initially you do this to get past the NPCs, who demand answers to puzzles they’ve been thinking about for weeks, but after half an hour in the game you’re actively searching out new puzzles to solve (there are 135 in total).

It is a little patronising, being refused access to certain areas of town or the use of a rowboat until you’ve proved that by moving only three coins you can invert a ten-coin pyramid, but these small road-blocking questions are what the game’s all about. The resulting small progressions in the plot are enough to keep your attention, and keep you playing, however.

Some of the mind-benders can be very difficult, but you can use hint tokens (a finite number of which can be found throughout the village) to buy tips on solving particular puzzles, up to a maximum of three hints per puzzle. Correctly solving puzzles wins you a certain number of points, called piccarats, but giving a wrong answer decreases the available piccarats for the puzzle.

Unlike puzzle titles in the Brain Age and Brain Training series, which only make the player better at player those specific games, Professor Layton has a much greater range of puzzles – including geometry, general maths, sliding tiles, common sense and trick questions. The DS’s touchscreen is perfect for almost all of the puzzles offered – character recognition is spot-on for maths puzzles and the stylus is well suited to sliding tiles and drawing efficient routes. Multiple-choice questions, of which there are quite a few, are neither here nor there; some are bewilderingly easy, others quite hard, while some simply rely on common sense (picking which chair is best suited for a multi-purpose town hall, for example). These questions don’t make much use of the hardware’s capabilities, but they’re at the crux of the game’s appeal – when all else fails, the simplest answer to any complex question is probably the right one. Occam’s razor, it seems, has found its home on the DS.

Visually, Professor Layton is a real treat – in-game cinematics, as well as the general style of the village, have definite shades (if not broad strokes) of The Triplets of Belleville’s quirky-yet-creepy animation. The game adds a rich sepia tint to almost everything in the village; colours are slightly muted, but jump out when the narrative needs to add a bit of drama. Similarly, characters are represented on-screen as two-dimensional animations, and the display flicks between speaking characters placed on top of meticulously painted backgrounds.

Navigating the village is very similarly handled to games like Myst, or even The Neverhood – moving around the streets by clicking on arrows, you move from static screen to static screen. It’s not boring, though – almost every time you move past the same street, there’s something different to do – a new villager will appear with a puzzle, or a previously inaccessible building will suddenly be opened up. These constant changes, and the many discrete puzzles, mean that the game’s great for casual gamers, although as the plot unfolds, the game becomes more and more difficult to put down.

Professor Layton does for puzzle games what Puzzle Quest did for three-in-a-row jewel swappers; it dresses up the core gameplay mechanics, wrapping it all in a beguiling plot and well thought-out setting. There are additional benefits for gamers with wi-fi connections; free puzzles are available to download each week, meaning that even when you’ve finished the story mode, you can keep your hand in while waiting for the sequel, Professor Layton and Pandora’s Box, as well as the as-yet-unannounced final chapter in the trilogy. It may be a long wait, but it’ll be well worth it.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Review: Gran Turismo 5: Prologue

Polyphony Digital


Let’s not mince words here – Gran Turismo 5: Prologue isn’t even a full game, but it’s flat-out, balls-to-the-wall gorgeous, to the point where you’d be forgiven for thinking that replays of races you just finished were actual live-to-air motorsport events. Despite its shininess, though, this scaled-back version of the PS3’s next banner title isn’t quite enough of a game in its own right to be worth your time.

Easier to newcomers than its predecessors, Prologue has a more forgiving driving physics engine underpinning the game, and consequently feels a lot more natural to pick up and play. It’s still punishing on anyone not used to fine gradations of movement with the PS3 controller, but rewards precise controls in a way that most games don’t. The recently released Burnout: Paradise, for example, is almost the antithesis of Prologue; the former is an arcade racer that rewards sharp turns, quick decisions, supports highly detailed damage modelling and even manages to punish players in entertaining ways. The Gran Turismo series, though, has always been about realism, something that Burnout decisively eschews.

In its service to racing realism, though, Prologue does miss out on showing any kind of damage modelling on the cars, regardless of how much you end up sideswiping your opponents. This makes the game seem a little sterile, as it’s more like driving (pretty) bumper cars without any rumble feedback. Like most games coming out for the PS3 for the past few months, Prologue supports the newly released DualShock3. If you don’t already own some kind of force feedback-enabled, GT-licensed driving wheel (to go with your Ford / Holden duvet cover, perhaps), it’s probably worth picking up a DualShock3 simply to play this game the way it was always meant to be played – with the player able to feel the nudges from other cars, not to mention the difference in driving surface when you go off the road, rather than having to keep an eye on the speedometer and rely on the changes in the sound textures. The Sixaxis’ clunky accelerometer controls aren’t supported in the game; this is probably a blessing, considering how demanding the control setup is.

Appealing to car aficionados as much as fans of photorealism, Prologue offers 71 retardedly realistic models of cars from a diverse range of manufacturers – many aren’t unlocked or available at the start of the game, though, and it can take a fair amount of time grinding easy levels to get enough credits to buy the pricier cars, some of which you need to own to participate in later races. Disappointingly, the game only offers six tracks, which are spread out around the three racing grades C, B and A (in escalating order of difficulty). Thankfully, you do end up racing slightly different version of these tracks (impressively – on the level design front – this includes racing the same track in a different direction), but having such a small choice of gamespace to inhabit really limits the game’s replayability.

What Prologue does best, though, is make the wait for the ‘real’ version of GT5 even more bittersweet – on one hand, the controls are responsive, the cars handle perfectly, and the environments are glorious – barring occasionally low-res character models at the side of the tracks – but on the other, the wait for the full game could mean that you’re well and truly bored with realistic racing sims by the time 2009 rolls around, additional cars and tracks notwithstanding.

Selling a demo before the full version of a game is an uncommon and ballsy move for a publisher, but it’s one that developers Polyphony Digital are familiar with, having released a prologue version of GT4 to the Japanese market a year earlier than the full version. It’s a pretty savvy business move, if one that won’t endear the company to any but the most hardcore fans. These fans had better save some of their course-related costs, though, as they’ll effectively be buying the game twice, paying $70 for a demo on steroids, then in excess of $100 for what’s effectively an expansion pack, albeit one that will probably give ten times the number of cars and tracks to choose from. If you can hold off and wait until next year to pick the full game when it’s good and ready, you probably should. In the meantime, though, now would be a good time to pick up some Polyphony shares, as the money’s likely to roll in to the company pretty steadily for the next year or so.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

Review: Lost Odyssey


Xbox 360

Despite its impressive graphics, Hironobu Sakaguchi’s Lost Odyssey still doesn’t tick enough boxes to make the 360 exclusive a must-play game. It’s still a solid RPG, but odd camera control and stale combat systems hold the game back from its potential, despite small attempts to freshen up the latter.

Sakaguchi, of course, shot to prominence on the back of the early Final Fantasy games, and with new studio Mistwalker, he’s still churning out quality, albeit by-the-book, JRPG fare. Sakaguchi’s previous epic for the 360, Blue Dragon, leaned towards cartoonish imaginings of the characters and enemies, and the whole design team has turned almost completely in the other direction for Lost Odyssey – characters, sets and cities are beautifully realistic, although still stylised just enough to avoid a downturn into the uncanny valley.

You play the game as the amnesiac immortal Kaim Argonar, caught in political intrigue between two nations as a magic-industrial revolution changes the world around him. Sakaguchi worked with Japanese novelist Kiyoshi Shigematsu to write Kaim’s backstory, which is revealed in fragments throughout the game, and is collectively entitled 'A Thousand Years of Dreams'. These text-only story elements are skippable, but they add immeasurably to the emotional heft of the game, which probably has one of the most engaging storylines I’ve seen in an RPG for years, even if it borrows tropes from sources as varied as Tolkien and the later Final Fantasy games.

The game’s spread over four discs, primarily to compensate for the amount of cut-scenes, which apparently take up about a third of the data spread across the discs. It took me five or six hours to get a full party together, by which time I’d reached the end of the first disc – the whole game clocks in at around 30-40 hours, a not-inconsiderable chunk of which is spent waiting for the enemy battles and cut-scenes to load. It’s worth the wait, though; the cut-scenes are beautifully rendered, and character design is fantastic, just as it was in Blue Dragon. Battles, though, are randomly placed in the wilderness maps, which means that trying to get anywhere in a hurry can be very quickly bogged down by loading screens.

During battle, it’s interesting to note that mortal and immortal characters in your party have different styles of play, and how you pair the two styles will have a great impact on your party’s effectiveness. Mortals, for example, level up normally and can use skills at any point once they’re unlocked, whereas immortals must be ‘linked’ to mortals in order to learn skills. There’s a lot of depth available in linking the two types together, and it’s also rewarding to play around with different combinations.

Twitch gamers will appreciate the addition of the combat ring system, which adds a timing-based bonus to any attacks, but this does little to make up for the incredibly slow pace of the rest of the game. It’s what you’d expect from long-form RPGs, to be sure, but if Lost Odyssey didn’t have such an appealing story, the pace would be a killer blow. As it stands, you’ll need at least a week without distractions to crack the main story.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]