Review: Shenmue I & II

This is it! My review for Shenmue I & II is finally here! This also marks the last game in my “final four” list. After this review, I will be taking a short break from my “generational-backlog grind” and I’ll be focusing on a couple of fun projects. But for now, let me share my thoughts on this long-awaited collection.

For many, the Shenmue games are often considered to be two of the greatest video games ever made. I have long been aware of the legendary status they hold. But personally, I never had the chance to experience them until now. Both games were originally released on the Sega Dreamcast, a system often considered to be ahead of its time – but one that never seemed to break into the mainstream. For this reason, very few gamers actually got the pleasure of experiencing these titles the first time around. Regardless, Shenmue’s legacy refused to die. Finally, in 2015, a Kickstarter campaign was announced to fund the release of the third installment. The Kickstarter was a smashing success. As a result, the original two games have finally seen a re-release.

These are two games that I’ve wanted to get my hands on for over a decade. Now, having played and completed both entries, I’m excited to finally share my thoughts. Despite being two separate titles, I am reviewing both games together as a single collection. As a result, some parts of this review may contain mild spoilers. Be aware.

So, let’s start with the first game. Aside from taking place in 1980’s Japan, and being somewhat of an open-world title, I really didn’t know what to expect from Shenmue. I think a part of me was expecting some sort of martial arts beat-em-up/RPG hybrid. But that’s not all what I found. Instead, Shenmue ended up being more of an interactive story than anything else. Sure, there are some brief combat and action sequences – a number of which consist of brief QTE-style events. But for the most part, the game is very casual. The main character in Shenmue is Ryo Hazuki, a young Japanese man who is on a quest for revenge. Early in the game, Ryo witnesses the death of his father at the hand of a mysterious Chinese martial artist. He decides to do everything in his power to learn the identity of his father’s killer and hunt him down.

The game itself consists of open world exploration, as Ryo hunts for clues. He starts by questioning locals about the events of the day his father was killed. With each clue that is uncovered, a trail of breadcrumbs begins to appear that Ryo must follow further down the rabbit hole. His quest takes him from the streets of his local neighborhood into the secret bowels of the Japanese black market underworld.

While there are certainly some action sequences in Shenmue, I was surprised to learn it is more of a detective game than a fighting game. The majority of the gameplay is actually spent talking to NPCs and exploring than engaging in combat. Time passes as you hunt for clues. Ryo only has a few months to piece the mystery together before too much time has passed. That being said, the games gives you more than enough time to explore till you heart’s content. Part of the fun of Shenmue lies in environmental exploration/interaction. Ryo can visit stores and purchase various goods like groceries, toys and cassette tapes. The tapes contain musical numbers from the game’s soundtrack and can be played back on a cassette player Ryo finds in his bedroom. The toys are collectible items  that are obtained at random from gacha-style capsule machines. Ryo can even visit the local arcade which allows the player to experience some of Sega’s classic arcade games first-hand. To be honest, a lot of the game’s content is nothing more than a colossal waste of time. But… that’s part of the charm.

As a consequence of the game’s open nature, some parts of the story do seem to drag on occasionally. For example, anyone who’s really sat down to play Shenmue, will likely roll their eyes at the mention of the phrase, “Do you know where any sailors hang out?”. This is a reference to a seemingly endless storyline thread early in the title. Was it annoying? A little. But that didn’t bug me as much as the portion of the game in which Ryo has to work a nine-to-five  job at the local shipyard. Which of course, requires the player’s interaction. I don’t know about you… but if I wanted to play “Forklift Simulator”, I’d have bought that game instead. Despite these minor annoyances, I completely enchanted with the overall game itself.

Eventually, the first game comes to an end when Ryo departs Japan, headed for Hong-Kong.

Shenmue II was originally released in 2001, two years after the first game. But it picks up right where the first title left off. In fact, you can import data from the save file of the original game into this one. This is a feature not often seen with console titles, but one that I found to be very welcome. A year after its original release, it was ported to the Xbox. The Xbox version of the game is the source for this remaster.

In Shenmue II, Ryo’s search for his father’s killer has led him to Hong Kong. It is there that he must continue his hunt for clues. His journey will take him deeper into the criminal underworld. But not all of his interactions in Hong Kong are bad. During the story, Ryo will also make some new friends. I found the characters in this game to be much more interesting than those in the original title. Often times in the original Shenmue, interactions with NPCs often felt forced or unimportant. Sure there are a few exceptions. But for the most part, none of the NPCs really left an impression on me. That’s not the case at all in the sequel. The new characters are much more colorful. In fact, they often steal the show.

In many ways, Shenmue II is very similar to its predecessor. It’s also is largely an open-world, breadcrumb style game. However, the number of mini-games and interactive side-quests has increased. As players explore the streets of Hong Kong, Ryo can participate in street fighting and wrestling tournaments. He can also try his hand at a number of street-side gambling games. Of course, capsule toys make a comeback as well.

Shenmue II also ups the action a bit. There’s more combat and button-mashing QTE events in this title than were found in the original game. There’s also much more to explore. Players wanting to get the most out of the experience would do well to take their time and explore. There’s quite a few miss-able scenes and even characters tucked away in this game for those willing to dig deep.

Eventually, the setting for this game moves from the city of Hong Kong and further into mainland China, to an area known as Guilin.  The last portion of the game takes place in this locale and, despite being almost twenty years old, it features some of the most stunning visuals I’ve ever seen in a video game.

I’m not going to give anything away, but the story for Shenmue II ends with a massive cliff hanger. It’s going to kill me to wait a whole year to see the next chapter in this title, so I can’t imagine how bad it must have felt for original fans of the series.

Shenmue I and II is a great collection for a great price. Many aspects of these games were very much ahead of their time, while others have not aged well at all. Many people call this release a “remaster”. That isn’t exactly true. This package contains both games, presented in an HD format, but aside from being presented in an updated resolution and with a few QOL improvements, they are largely untouched from their original versions. I had a ball with these games, and I can’t wait for the next installment. But, I can also see how these are not going be games that will appeal to just anyone. Still, if you fancy yourself to be a gaming historian, you won’t want to miss out on these classic titles.

Difficulty: Easy – For the most part, these games provide little real challenge. They are played at a very casual pace with only a few tricky QTE-style events to pose any real difficulty. But even these events can be retried as many times as needed.

Story: This is why you want to play Shenmue. The tale told here is out of this world. Each game feels like an episode in a serial, and the storyline rivals any classic RPG you might come across. What starts out feeling like a crime drama, eventually ends up feeling much more epic and mysterious in the end.

Originality: While open-world style games were really nothing unheard of, Shenmue brought the genre to the console in a big way. The way it integrated mini-games into an explore-able environment was a radical change of pace. Another aspect of the game that really broke new ground was the way that it took real world locations and translated them into an open-world video game. Locales found in both games are real places. Dobuita Street in Yokosuka Japan, the walled-city of Kowloon – all of them were locations that were special to creator of Shenmue. In some ways, these games feel like a love letter he composed as a way to share his passion for certain places that were special to him.

Soundtrack: Overall, both games feature a varied and wonderful soundtrack. I have to give higher marks to Shenmue II when it comes to both music and overall audio quality. But admittedly, the voice acting in both games tends to be a bit sketchy at times. In fact, it ends up sounding a lot like an old Kung Fu movie. Which, in a weird way, is oddly appropriate.

Fun: Fans of open exploration and Asian-themed games will love Shenmue I & II. Players who prefer more structured or action-oriented games may be a bit put off.  Personally, I found the games to be relaxing and entertaining.  Despite being a bit surprised by the gameplay itself, I found myself having a blast with these two games.

Graphics: These games were released in 1999 and 2001, respectively. Despite being presented in an HD format, they show their age, but they do so pretty gracefully. At the time of release, they were both top-of-the line visually.

Playcontrol: This is probably my biggest complaint. Both games can be a bit hard to control at times. Ryo moves in a directional “tank-style” way – very similar to the classic Resident Evil games. Thankfully, this scheme takes place during the exploration portions of the game only. The QTE events in both games seem to be a bit touchy and unforgiving, and are often not very clear. Thankfully, the controls in combat are much more intuitive and function a lot like a beat-em-up style game.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: Martial arts violence, mild language.

Value:  This collection is available for $30.00 and at that price is well worth it. I’m surprised to see bargain pricing for a set of games with a legacy as renown as Shenmue. So, even if you’re on the fence, the prices makes it worth checking out. The only thing that’s missing from this collection is the proper presentation “Shenmue Passport” content – which was online content exclusive to the Sega Dreamcast. However, these were really nothing more than some scoreboards and an online jukebox. The titlescreen for Shenmue II in this collection features almost the game content.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 4 – Shenmue I & II are not perfect games. But the quality of the storyline combined with the amount of content and the attention to detail gives this collection a four-star rating. If I had to pick a favorite of the two, I’d go with Shenmue II as the better of the two games. That being said, the first game provides a lot of atmosphere and an overall “comfy” feeling. So it’s hard to say the second is really “better”.  Again, if you’re a fan of Asian culture, or games with great storytelling, this collection is a must-have.

Available on: PS4, Xbox One, Steam

Review: Legacy of Kain – Soul Reaver

The third entry in my “turn-of-the-century” Final Four is here; Legacy of Kain – Soul Reaver. Nearly two years ago, I reviewed the original title in the Legacy of Kain series: Blood Omen. It was a game that I had no prior experience with, but one that was often recommended to me. Personally, I was not especially impressed with it. I enjoyed the story and the atmosphere of the game. But I found the overall gameplay to be of poor quality. Regardless, I decided to give the second chapter in the series a fair chance. Originally released on the PS1, Dreamcast and PC – this game also connects all of the platforms I’m currently focusing on.

If you’ve played the original Legacy of Kain, it won’t take long for you to realize that Soul Reaver is a very different type of game. For starters, instead of being presented in the overhead view, like the original. This game switched to a third-person action perspective. Soul Reaver also focuses less on mindless combat and more on puzzle solving. In this regard, it is very reminiscent of other games from the era like Tomb Raider, Castlevania 64, or even (to a smaller extent), Ocarina of Time.

This game takes place fifteen-hundred years after the previous chapter. During this time, Kain (the previous game’s protagonist) has become a vampire lord. His armies overrun the land of Nosgoth. In this title, you play as Raziel, a vampire slain by hand of Kain. After his defeat, Raziel finds himself reborn as a wraith. He learns he was resurrected by an ancient god and has been tasked with defeating Kain and restoring Nosgoth to its former glory. Over the course of the game, the player will evolve Raziel’s powers so that he can ultimately face and defeat Kain.

As I mentioned earlier, Soul Reaver is vastly different than its predecessor. In fact, the only similarity between the two games comes from the storyline. In this game, the player controls Raziel in a 3D world. Players can run, jump and interact with objects. Upon defeating enemies, Raziel can consume their souls to restore his health.

The game is presented in a largely open-world format. Players are able to warp around and backtrack using portals that are unlocked as the player progresses through the game.

Since the majority of the enemies found in Soul Reaver are undead, simply beating them to a pulp is not enough to conquer them. Once they are defeated, the corpses must be either burned, drowned, impaled, or exposed to sunlight to be put to rest. Players can do this by interacting with environmental objects or with special weapons.

Another major aspect of the gameplay lies in puzzle solving. Players progressing through the game will often come across a number of environmental puzzles. These usually take the form of blocks and switches that must be moved into position or flipped in various combinations. In truth, these puzzles are probably the most challenging aspect of the game itself, but also a large part of what makes the game so memorable.

By today’s standards, Soul Reaver feels very antiquated. But at the time of its release, it was actually pretty revolutionary. Sure, 3D environmental puzzle games were nothing new, but this game provided a level of refinement that was second to none. Combined with excellent visuals and audio, Soul Reaver was quite a thing to behold.

Fans of the series should make every effort not to pass this game up. However, it has not aged particularly well and may not appeal to many gamers.

Difficulty: Medium – I’ve heard a number of people claim that this game is exceptionally difficult. I went into it expecting as much. But, I found those claims to be somewhat exaggerated. Sure, some of the boss fights and the puzzles can be a bit tricky. But I didn’t find them to be anything out of the ordinary. All in all, I felt the challenge was just about right for this type of game.

Story: One thing the Legacy of Kain series does well is storyline. The story unfolds through a number of FMVs and cutscenes scattered throughout the game. It is extremely well done. High marks here.

Originality: Credit should be given to the developers for making this game so radically different from its predecessor.  Even though there’s really nothing revolutionary brought to the table in terms of game design, the presentation still manages to feel new and refreshing.

Soundtrack: Superb. The game features an orchestral score that is simply amazing. The music is fitting and really sets the tone for the game itself. Also, the voice acting is second to none.

Fun: Fans of Tomb Raider and other 3D action/puzzle games will likely have a blast playing this game. As will fans of the gothic horror genre. For me, the best part of the game was the atmosphere and storyline. Even when the gameplay started to feel repetitive, the story was good enough to keep me entertained and wanting more.

Graphics: This title was released late in the life cycle of the PS1 and it shows. This is probably one of the best looking games on the platform. If you’re lucky enough to play the Dreamcast version of the game, it looks even better.

Playcontrol: The controls are not perfect, but they are better than most other games of this type from the same era. The camera is pretty accurate and can be rotated using the shoulder buttons. Unlike many early 3D games, it does not get in the way of the action. Occasionally, the controls can seem stiff and cumbersome, especially when dealing with jump puzzles. But overall, it’s not a big issue.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: Violence, Occult Themes

Value:  This game is actually pretty short. In some ways, the amount of content actually makes the game feel incomplete. I completed the whole game in under twelve hours. These days, the game is available digitally on Steam and on PSN for around $6.00. At this price, it’s more than worth it even with the lack of content.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 3 – Legacy of Kain – Soul Reaver is far from perfect. But, it is an improvement to the original. This is one of those weird games that players will either cherish or despise – depending on your style. All things considered, it’s a pretty solid title with a unique feel. If you’re a fan of horror games or gothic settings,  this one is worth a look.

Available on: Steam, PSN

Other Reviews In This Series:

Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain   –  Soul Reaver  – Soul Reaver 2 –  Blood Omen 2 – Defiance

Check Up: No Man’s Sky (1.5 NEXT Update)

The long awaited multiplayer update to No Man’s Sky is finally here. This is the one that everyone has been waiting for. To call this simply a patch is almost criminal. This update completely transforms the game from the bottom up.

In truth, I really don’t know where to begin. I suppose I’ll start with the first two most obvious changes; REAL multiplayer and a new (default) third-person perspective. 

That’s right, long promised by the developers – No Man’s Sky now has honest-to-goodness multiplayer. You can meet up with other players in this living, breathing galaxy – for better or for worse. You can work together or, in a move that’s certain to be controversial, even attack each other. Hello Games has made it easy to join up with either friends or random players. Of course, if you prefer to play alone, you still have the option to lock other players out of your game.

The next thing, or maybe the first thing, players are likely to notice is that No Man’s Sky is no longer a first person game. That’s right, you can now see your character from the third-person. Of course, the option still exists to play in the first person if you choose. But it seems that the developers made the bold move of actually making this new perspective the default experience. This was likely the result of now having a number of character customization options. 

While these are obviously some pretty big changes, that’s not all. Nearly every aspect of the game has been revamped in one way or another. Everything from ship designs, to crafting and gathering have been overhauled in this new version. And in a good way too. For those of us who have been playing from the beginning, we’ve seen this game grow from a barren, boring universe to a what is now a vibrant, living community. 

The storyline that was introduced in the ATLAS Update has been refined even further, to the point of being near perfection. The changes to the crafting system have made base construction more meaningful and interesting. I can’t being to explain just how much this game has evolved with the introduction of this patch.

If you are an old player who gave up on the game in its early days. Or even if you’ve been interested but were afraid to take the plunge, you owe it to yourself to give No Man’s Sky a look now. Not since Final Fantasy XIV have I seen the developers double-down on their promise and turn a game around in such a drastic way. In my opinion, No Man’s Sky is now the game that was originally promised to us years ago. 

So what now? Well, Hello Games isn’t stopping with the NEXT Update. They’ve promise to continue releasing content updates. Next on the agenda is something called the “Community Season”. We’ll have to wait and see what they have up their sleeve. In the meantime, there’s no better time to reacquainted with this game.

Review: Forsaken (Remastered)

Wow. Here’s a game I never expected to review, Forsaken. That’s right, out of nowhere, this classic title has been remastered and is now available to a whole new generation of gamers.

Forsaken was a game that I actually enjoyed in my younger days. A friend and I both owned the PC version. And together, we spent many hours blasting our way through multiplayer matches. Despite our love for it, the PC release of Forsaken never really seemed to take off with the general public. Instead, most players are familiar with the Nintendo 64 version of the game.

When I started working on my backlog reviews, Forsaken was a game that I desperately wanted to revisit. However, I found the original release to be riddled with compatibility issues that made it nearly unplayable on modern systems. For this reason, I decided to put it on the back burner. But now, with the release of the remastered version of the game, I jumped at the chance to dive back in.

Admittedly, Forsaken is really nothing more than a Descent clone. In it, you play as a futuristic treasure hunter in a hovercraft. You zoom through cramped corridors, blasting other pilots and enemies – with the goal of collecting the treasure and making it out alive.

Like Descent, you can pilot your ship in a full 360-degree range of motion (well, “six-degrees”, if you want to get technical).  The biggest difference here is that you can choose to play as a number of different characters, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. For example, one pilot might have a faster ship, but with a weaker hull or with less maneuverability.  Each pilot also has their own personality that is expressed through a series of audible taunts.

At the beginning of the game, only a handful of pilots are available to play. More are unlocked as you encounter and defeat them throughout the game itself. Now, perhaps it is my faulty memory, but I don’t seem to remember this mechanic in the original release of the game. I seem to recall having a full roster of characters right from the start. Perhaps I’m incorrect on this. Either way, this time around I actually found unlocking the characters to be enjoyable and motivating.

As for the gameplay itself, if you are familiar with any of the Descent games, you already know exactly what to expect; fast paced, flying action. Enemies will swarm you, forcing you to glide your ship behind corners for cover, only to dart back out in attempt to squeeze off a few shots. I found that controls handle very well. In fact, I daresay the playcontrol in Forsaken is an improvement over what was found in Descent.

The remastered version of Forsaken takes all of the content from the original PC release and the exclusive levels from the N64 and puts them all in one game, making this the absolute definitive version. The N64 levels are hidden, and must be unlocked by discovering secrets tucked away within the game’s main levels.

If you’re the type of player that likes to hunt secrets, that’s not all. In fact, this version of Forsaken also rewards players with “cheat codes” if they manage to find all of the gold bars that are hidden throughout each level. These codes can then be activated from a menu, providing players with everything from invincibility to alternate textures.

The single player content is entertaining in itself, but the multiplayer mode is arguably the most popular way to enjoy the game. Back in the day, I spent an embarrassing number of hours playing this game online with friends. Naturally, I was excited to try out multiplayer on this new remaster. However, every time I entered the lobby, I found it to be empty.

It seems that the Steam and GOG releases of the game do not share multiplayer lobbies. As a result, you are restricted to playing with others who use the same platform. This seems to be the main issue finding active multiplayer sessions. There’s just not enough people interested in a twenty year-old title. To say that this is a disappointment is an understatement. Despite the potential multiplayer troubles, Forsaken is still a game worthy of attention. Especially for six-degree shooter fans.

Difficulty: Variable – This game offers a number of difficulty settings, ranging from easy to nearly impossible. The settings affect both the number of enemies, enemy AI and even item placement. I found them all to be appropriate. There’s a setting for nearly every skill level.

Story: Games like this do not really need much of a story. The set up here is basic; post-apocalyptic Earth and scavengers.  It is simple, but for a game like this, more than enough.

Originality: Forsaken certainly did not invent the six-degree FPS genre. But it did manage to improve on it. By adding a little personality and some improved graphics and sound, this game brought the genre to a new era.

Soundtrack: One of better highlights of the game. The score for the game is catchy and appropriate; featuring high-energy techno tunes. The voice acting is over-the-top and ridiculous. This remastered version of the game incorporates the “adult themed” voice pack that was previously available as an add-on to the original game. Be warned.

Fun: If you enjoy futuristic, fast-paced FPS games, you’ll feel right at home with Forsaken. Sadly, due to the fragmented state of the multiplayer, it might end up feeling a little lonely.

Graphics: The original game was frequently bundled with graphics cards as a way to show off some of the (then) state-of-the-art dynamic lighting and Direct-3D rendering. These days, the graphics are nothing special, but they still look amazing in their presentation. Forsaken is a beautiful game.

Playcontrol: I found the controls in this game to be a huge improvement over Descent. Something about the default controls here just feels right. If I had to find any criticism, it would be with the UI and weapon cycling. Sometimes the UI seems a bit gaudy and overly large. But, it works.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: YES. Adult language, innuendo, and some nudity. (Nudity enabled via cheat code)

Value:  Forsaken Remastered is available for $19.99. Despite being an excellent game, I have a tough time recommending it at this price. The amount of a content is appropriate. But when considering the iffy multiplayer, this one might seem more appealing when on sale.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 3 – Forsaken is a long forgotten gem. It is a game that actually deserved the remaster treatment. For the most part, there is little to complain about. The game looks better than ever and is playable on modern machines. However, the best part of the game, the multiplayer – is damaged by the cross-platform wars.

Available on: Steam, GOG, Xbox One

Review: The Legend of Zelda – Oracle of Seasons/Ages

Nintendo fans rejoice! My long awaited review of the “Oracle” games is finally here. This review also marks the first of my GBC/N64 era “Final Four”. It has been a long time coming, but I’m proud to finally discuss these two classic titles.

Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages are two titles in The Legend of Zelda series. They were released simultaneously and as a result are very similar. In fact, they are actually designed with a special “linked game” mode that allows players to import progress from one game to the other. (More on that later).

At first glance, these games seem very similar to Link’s Awakening. The overall art and sound design are almost identical. But, the Oracle games take full advantage of the Game Boy Color’s graphics – resulting in a much better visual experience than even the DX version of Link’s Awakening.

The two games are nearly identical in terms of play. However, Oracle of Seasons tends to focus more on action, while Oracle of Ages shines a bigger spotlight on puzzle solving. The games are designed to be played in any order. But, for those that want to get technical, it is generally accepted that Oracle of Seasons should occur first in the timeline, followed by Oracle of Ages.

Once a player has completed one of the games, they are given a special password. When starting the second game, this password can be entered to enable the “linked game” feature. As the player progresses through the second title, they will be occasionally prompted to enter additional codes. These codes can be obtained by revisiting the completed first game and talking to specific NPCs. Once entered, these codes will grant perks or unlock special items/weapons in the second game. Thus, allowing the player to benefit from having already completed one of the games in the series.  If playing  these games on the original hardware, this same functionality is also available by using the link cable. But, most modern gamers are likely to be enjoying these courtesy of the 3DS Virtual Console.

It is also important to note that if playing a “linked game”, reaching the end of the second entry will activate a special final chapter. This definitive ending is only available for players who manage to tackle both OoA and OoS.

The storyline for the games start off in a similar way. Link is summoned by the Triforce, which then teleports him to a strange land. In Seasons, he finds himself in the land of Holodrum. It is there that he learns about a terrible creature named Onox who has shrouded the land in chaos. Seasons change on a whim and the people are fearful for their lives. To stop this, link must search for the eight Essences of Nature. Once collected, he will be able to defeat Onox and set things right.

In Ages, Link finds himself in the world of Lybrynna. It is here that Link discovers that the Oracle of Ages, Nayru has become possessed. As result, the flow of time has fallen into an erratic mess. This time, link must quest for the eight Essences of Time. Only then can he save Nayru and restore the flow of time to its proper path.

As mentioned above, completing both games unlocks a final chapter that puts a capstone on both adventures and reveals the true villain behind both games.

For the most part, both games play very much like any other Zelda title. Link explores various dungeons, recovers treasure and defeats bosses. The treasure he finds enable him to progress to new areas, etc. The big difference in these games are the introduction of the Seasons/Time mechanic. In OoS, Link gains the ability to change the seasons at will. This is useful in a number of ways. For example, in winter a mountain path might be blocked by drifts of snow. But, Link can change the season to summer so that the path will be clear. OoA works in a similar fashion. Link can travel through time to overcome obstacles much in the same way.

At first, one might think that by releasing two games side by side, Nintendo was simply trying to cash in on the concept made popular by Pokemon. But in reality, these are two completely separate games. The “linked game” mechanic does not come off as gimmicky at all. Instead, it actually feels very revolutionary, even by today’s standards.

In closing, I found both of these games to be flawless works of art. They certainly live up to the high standards set by the previous entries in the Zelda series. No fan;s library is complete without them.

Difficulty: Medium – The difficulty level for both of these games is pretty even. Neither is much harder than the other. I found both of them to be of average difficulty. Some spots, especially boss fights, can prove a bit troublesome at times. But in almost every case, there’s usually a weakness or strategy the be found.

Story: The storylines here are not as in-depth as what was found in the N64 or SNES Zelda titles. But, there’s enough lore here to keep things interesting and to drive players to completion.

Originality: In design, these games borrow heavily from the prior Game Boy title, Link’s Awakening. But the introduction of the Ages/Season switch mechanic, as well as the “linked game” option, really add a breath of fresh air that keep these titles feeling new and interesting.

Soundtrack: For a large part, the soundtrack for both of these games was lifted right out of Link’s Awakening. But each game also offers some of its own unique music. All in all, the new songs are fitting and appropriate, but they don’t reach iconic status of some of the previous titles in the series.

Fun: If you’re a fan of the Zelda series, these games will undoubtedly be enjoyable. The developers did a great job adding Easter eggs from the N64 titles into the these games. Seeing these brought a smile to my face more than once. Plus, It was just plain fun to figure out many of these classic-style puzzles again.

Graphics: There’s only so much you can do with the GBC hardware. But, these games manage to whip out every trick in the book. They are colorful and detailed, despite being held back by ancient technology. These two titles pretty much represent the pinnacle of GBC graphics.

Playcontrol: Overall no complaints. The controls are very precise and accurate. As with Link’s Awakening, the constant menu switching  can get a bit annoying, but it’s a minor complaint.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: No

Value:  Digitally, these games are available on 3DS Virtual Console for $5.99 each. At this price, they are well worth the money. Collectors can expect to pay anywhere from $10-$30 for original copies of the game.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 4 – Despite having farmed out development of these games to CapCom, the quality of both games matches that of any first-party Nintendo title. The Oracle titles are worthy of the Zelda name and I consider them a must-buy for any fan of the series. I played Oracle of Seasons many years a go, but this was the first time getting my hands dirty with Oracle of Ages. To truly appreciate these games, they must be enjoyed in tandem. I can’t recommend them enough.

Available on: 3DS Virtual Console

Other Games in this Series: 

LoZ –  LoZ II – Link to the Past – Link’s Awakening – Ocarina of Time – Majora’s Mask – Oracle of Season & Ages – Wind Waker – Four Swords – Minish Cap – Twilight Princess – Phantom Hourglass – Spirit Tracks – Skyward Sword – Link Between Worlds – Breath of the Wild

Review: Deus Ex

This is a review that has been a long time coming. In reality, I should have discussed this game quite some time ago. Deus Ex was released in 2000, before some of the other titles I’ve already featured on this site. But, as I wrap up my turn-of-the-century playthroughs, I find myself filling in some of the gaps in my backlog that I missed the first time around. This game is a fine example of that. Deus Ex is one of those PC titles that always appears on the “greatest games of all time” lists, and with good reason. This game is so good it’s ridiculous. On the surface, it appears to be just another first-person shooter, but in reality it is so much more than that. While presented in the first-person, Deus Ex also incorporates RPG and stealth elements. It manages to successfully merge these different styles in a way that’s rarely done successfully. For this reason, it cemented itself as a classic in hearts and minds of many gamers, myself included.

Before I get into the meat of the game, I want to take a moment to discuss some technical details. Deus Ex is built with a modified version of the original Unreal-Engine. This means that it is generally compatible with today’s PCs, but lacks some of the modern conveniences such as widescreen support and higher resolutions. To resolve this, players have a couple of options. (All unofficial fixes) First, for purists, there’s “Kentie’s Launcher“. This is a replacement executable that offers higher resolutions and FOV fixes without changing any of the original textures or artwork. (This is what I used for my playthrough/screenshots). The second option is “GMDX” which is actually more of a total-conversion mod than a simple fix. This mod upgrades the game’s graphics and mechanics resulting in a much more modern and polished experience, without detracting from the intended feel of the game’s developers. In all honestly, the GMDX mod is probably what I would recommend to most players who are just trying Deus Ex for the first time, as long as they don’t mind playing the game with fan-sourced textures.

The story of Deus Ex is an interesting mixture of both political intrigue and science fiction. The game takes place in a futuristic setting where society is on a downward spiral fueled by terrorist attacks, a world-wide plague, and political turmoil. As a result, most of the world is now under the control of a division of the United Nations called UNATCO (United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition). In Deus Ex, players control the character of JC Denton, a recent UNATCO recruit. Denton is an experimental agent who has been physically enhanced with various cybernetic implants. For his first mission, Denton is tasked with resolving a terrorist occupation at New York’s Liberty Island. It is there that he learns the true motive behind the terrorist’s activities, and it starts him down a path that will ultimately force him to decide where his loyalties lie.

The creators of Deus Ex mix some of the best late-90’s sci-fi concepts with nearly every crypto/conspiracy theory you can think of, resulting in a compelling and thrilling story. Throughout the course of the game, players will be taken from the streets of Hell’s Kitchen NYC and the Hong Kong underworld to the catacombs of Paris and beyond. At several points in the game, players will be faced with various decisions that will impact the storyline of the game itself. This adds a level of replayability that makes Deus Ex a game that players can enjoy over and over again.

Excellent story aside, the big secret to Deus Ex‘s success is in the game design itself. Despite looking like just another shooter, players can determine exactly how they want to control their character. Yes, Denton can end up blowing through his enemies like a guns blazing “Rambo”, but more often it’s better to be more subtle. Players can sneak around in shadows and try to avoid enemies entirely. Instead of obtaining keys from the bodies of slain soldiers, they can instead pick locks and hack computer terminals, allowing them to infiltrate enemy territory and continue with their mission. As you progress through the game and complete objectives, you are awarded skill points than can be spent on increasing certain abilities. For example, when it comes to combat, you can choose to master light weapons or explosives as opposed to rifles and hand guns. This system allows players to create a character that matches with the style of play they want to experience.

While the main focus of Deus Ex is the single player story, multiplayer capabilities were added to the game shortly after its release. However, these days, players who wish to experience online play will have quite a bit of work cut out for them. Initially, the multiplayer browser found in the game served as a front-end for the now defunct Gamespy service. Since Gamespy no longer exists, players will need to either enjoy multiplayer on a LAN or edit the game’s configuration files to allow for play using other third-party services (such as Master Server), but even then active matches can be hard to come by.

In the end, the Deus Ex experience is truly a work of art. It is a title that every PC gamer should have in their library. It was released at a time in the industry when the focus was shifting from single player to online experiences. In a way, its release marks the end of a era in PC gaming.

Difficulty: Variable –  Deus Ex offers several difficulty options. However, even at the easiest setting, the game can be brutal at times. Players would be wise to save their game often and try to “out-think” the problem in front them. Often times when confronted with what seems like a hopeless scenario, players can find a solution by approaching their goal from a completely different angle. This is just one of the many things that makes this game shine.

Story: You’d be hard pressed to find a better and more in-depth storyline in a PC title at the time Deus Ex was released. This game ranks right up there with Fallout and Max Payne in terms of compelling storytelling. The plot is certainly one of the best aspects of this game.

Originality: In a time when first-person shooters were a dime a dozen, Deus Ex flipped the script by adding stealth mechanics and RPG elements. Sure, stealth-based first-person games like Thief has already seen the light of day, but Deus Ex allowed players to choose what style of play was suited for them. This brought a dynamic that had never really been seen before.

Soundtrack: Filled with futuristic tunes and funky Asian-flaired hip-hop, Deus Ex features a catchy soundtrack that fits the game perfectly. The game also boasts voice acting that was above-average at the time.

Fun: At first, this game can seems a bit overwhelming. But once I managed to sink my teeth into it, I found myself having a complete blast. This is a game that I enjoyed immensely at the time it was released. Playing through it now, I found that it still managed to capture my attention just like it did back in the day.

Graphics: By today’s standards, Deus Ex will appear a bit dated. Of course, at the time it was released it was top-of-the-line. Modern players can improve the visuals using third party mods and patches.

Playcontrol: Fairly standard first person PC controls. Deus Ex uses the common WSAD keyboard layout for first-person PC games. No major issues.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: YES. Language, violence.

Value:  At the time of this writing, the Game of the Year edition of Deus Ex tends to sell for around $7.00. At this price, the game is certainly worth every penny. It is not uncommon to see the game for sale as low as $1.00 during Steam sales.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 4 – Deus Ex stands as a high watermark for classic PC gaming. It’s difficult to fully describe just how great this game is without sounding like a fanboy. But it really is that good. This is one of those rare games that reaches across multiple genres and appeals to nearly everyone. If you consider yourself to be a PC gamer, you owe it yourself to experience this game at least once.

Available on: Steam and GOG

Other Games in this Series:

Deus Ex     –    Invisible War    –    Human Revolution    –    The Fall    –    Mankind Divided

Review: Bloodstained – Curse of the Moon

It’s been three years since Koji Igarashi (or IGA, as he tends to be called) unveiled his plans for “Sword or Whip?” – the spiritual successor for the Castlevania franchise. Since that time, the game has been given a proper name; Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. The game itself is still in development with a release date scheduled for later this year. So, to hold players over, IGA has released a small spin-off title called Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon.  

As many know, Bloodstained is a game born from the ashes of the Castlevania series. For many years, IGA was in charge of the franchise while he was employed at Konami.  Ritual of the Night is viewed by many to be the modern continuation of the gothic-horror/platformer genre.  So if RotN is the future, what is CotM? This amazing little game is essentially a retro-clone. It’s presented in the classic 8-bit style that so many Castlevania fans will be familiar with. And yes, it serves as a prequel to the upcoming Ritual of the Night. As such, it is a delightful nod to the old-school roots that serve as the foundation for what IGA is about unveil.

The storyline for this title is surprisingly well done and it sets up the events leading into Ritual of the Night.  In a nutshell, the story goes like this: In the 18th century, science is on the verge of overtaking the long-practiced arts of magic and alchemy. In attempt to maintain their grip in the modern world, a group of alchemists conduct experiments on innocent people, implanting dark crystals into their bodies in hopes of summoning a demon. The experiment is successful, but instead of controlling the entity, the demon breaks free of the alchemists’ control and opens a portal to hell itself. Monsters and demons pour from the portal and overtake the countryside. Enter hero: Zangetsu – a blade-wielding demon-hunter. His only goal is to hunt down and destroy the source of the demonic infestation. During his journey he encounters the following other adventurers:

Miriam: A young girl who was taken as a child by a mad alchemist. Subject to the experiments mentioned above, her body was fused with cursed crystals – giving her demonic powers. Freed by Zangetsu, she seeks to hunt down the demonic entities with her enchanted whip.

Alfred: One of the alchemists responsible for unleashing the demonic threat. Fueled by his search for an ancient text, he will let nothing stand his way, be it human or demon.

Gebel:  Also a victim of the alchemist’s experiments, Gebel somehow managed to survive the ritual. However, his body continues to slowly be consumed by demonic energy. He seeks revenge against humanity by embracing the darkness that now consumes him.

When the game starts, players are in control of Zangetsu. As they continue to clear levels in the game, they will unlock the other playable characters. The player can switch between characters on the fly. Each character offers a slightly different style of play, with benefits and drawbacks of their own.

The game itself is VERY reminiscent of the NES-era Castlevania games, Castlevania III especially. The graphics, sound, level design, and overall presentation make this feel like a long-lost entry in that series. Everything that there was to love in those games can be found here, but with some more modern concepts thrown in as well. This makes Curse of the Moon feel like an evolution of those retro games instead of just a carbon-copy clone.

The game itself offers two difficulty levels from the start. Casual Mode offers unlimited lives and disables the knock-back that is experienced when a player takes damage. The Veteran Mode provides a more retro experience. Lives are finite and losing them all will result in players having to redo the entire level over again. Regardless of the mode selected, the game is not quite as difficult as the original Castlevania titles it is based on.

Upon completion of the game, Nightmare Mode is unlocked. This allows players to replay the game from the beginning with the additional characters already available. There’s also a Boss Rush mode that can be unlocked as well.

In the end, Curse of the Moon is both an excellent tip-of-the-hat to the games of yesteryear, as well as a clever set up for things to come. Everything about the game from the graphics to the enemy design is there to remind you of those classic Castlevania titles. But other aspects such as the depth of the storytelling to the well-designed boss battles, give players a hint that Bloodstained is going to be so much more.

I was blown away by this game. My level of excitement for Bloodstained has increased tenfold. This is a game worth a look.

Difficulty: Medium –  When stacked against the platformers of the past, Curse of the Moon is considerably easier. Even in Veteran Mode, this game is nowhere near as difficult as say, Castlevania or Castlevania III. The boss fights are probably the hardest part of the game, but the battles all contain patterns that are easy enough to learn and master. This is true even for the secret hidden boss available in the game’s alternate mode.

Story: The backstory for this game is surprisingly well done. It is presented at the start of the game and through readable in-game dialogue. This whole title actually seems to serve as a set up for the upcoming Ritual of the Night. I’m glad to see there’s actually some interesting lore for this new franchise. I’d hate for RotN to end up as nothing more than a poorly constructed style-clone.

Originality: Despite paying homage to retro Castlevania titles, Curse of the Moon manages to somehow feel fresh and exciting.  Maybe it’s because it’s been a while since we’ve seen anything like this. I’m not sure. But I do know that playing this game didn’t feel like a tired slog through memory lane. Instead, it felt like the start of something new and exciting.

Soundtrack: Classic retro bit-tunes. The soundtrack really took me back to the days of my youth. Most of the music was catchy and appropriate, but it honestly doesn’t hold a candle to some of the great jams we were treated with in the old Castlevania games.

Fun: This game took me by surprise. I was expecting to simply get a nostalgic smile or two out of it. But, instead I was floored by how good it was. The intricacies of the characters and the polish of the game design are simply brilliant. This little downloadable title is way better than it has any right to be.

Graphics: This game was designed to mimic the classic 8-bit NES era. With that in mind, it does a perfect job. By today’s standards it is not going to blow anyone away. But then again, it isn’t supposed to.

Playcontrol: If there’s any major improvement over the original Castlevania titles, it is this. The controls are responsive and accurate. No sluggish movement, no lag, No complaints whatsoever.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: YES – Religious and paranormal themes.

Value:  Backers of the Bloodstained Kickstarter can download this game for free on the platform of their choice. All others can purchase it for $9.99. In my opinion, this is a more than fair price for a game of this quality.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 4 – Despite being a retro-inspired game, Curse of the Moon is a quality product. I love the way the developers used the 8-bit era to create a prequel for their upcoming title. It let’s the players know the source of the developer’s inspiration, while setting the stage for the next era. This title is a love letter to older gamers like myself, but I really feel that even younger players who grew up with their PS3’s and Xbox 360’s will find enjoyment in this title.

Available on: Steam, Switch, PS4, Xbox One, 3DS

Review: Wario Land 3

It is so easy to get hung up on RPGs and other complex games that it’s possible to forget about some of the more simpler titles out there. I recently wound up my review for Xenogears, a game that took me several months to complete. By the time I was finished, I knew I wanted my next playthrough to be something a little more relaxed. So I took a look at my backlog and as soon as I saw Wario Land 3 on the list, I knew that would be my next game.

I reviewed Wario Land 2 nearly two years ago. So, it has been a while since I stepped into the quirky world of Wario. Wario Land 3 is a game that I never played in my younger days. It debuted on the Game Boy Color back in 2000. And, like so many titles of the era, it was released during a time in my life where gaming was not a priority for me. As a result, it flew under my radar at the time.

Like most titles in the series, the storyline here is fairly simple. Wario is going for a casual cruise in his cropduster when the engine fails and he crash lands on a mysterious island. After exploring the island for a bit, he comes upon a cave that contains a strange music box. As he gazes at the music box, he suddenly finds himself trapped inside of it! As it turns out, there’s a whole little world inside the cursed box and Wario is not alone; the maker of the box is also trapped inside with him. To escape, Wario must search the land inside this little prison for five other magical music boxes. Once they have all been collected, he will be able to return home with any riches he is also able to uncover along the way. – Yep… sounds like a typical Wario game.

If you’ve ever played either of the first two Wario Land titles, then you pretty much know what to expect in terms of gameplay. Just like Wario Land 2, Wario is invincible in this game as well. He cannot be killed by either his environment or by enemies. However, that is not to say that enemy attacks do not affect him. When attacked by some monsters, Wario will be inflicted with various effects. For example, if he comes in contact with a fire-based attack, he will burst into flames like a torch and run around wildly. If stung by a bee, he will swell up and float through the air, etc. These status ailments, while annoying at times, are actually the key to playing the game. Players will learn how to use them to navigate the levels and solve puzzles. For example, getting stung will enable him to float to an otherwise unreachable platform. This is the essentially the same mechanic that was introduced in Wario Land 2, but it is expanded and a little polished in this outing.

This time, each level contains a number of keys. As Wario collects keys of a certain color, he can use them to unlock the corresponding chest that’s also hidden in the level. Chests contain items that either unlock new areas on the overworld map or give Wario new abilities. Once a chest is unlocked, the level is over. This means that Wario will need to move back and forth between worlds, upgrading his abilities and revisiting previously played levels in order to reach previously inaccessible areas. It is actually quite clever. It is not necessary for players to unlock every chest to complete the game, but completionists will certainly find the extra challenge welcome. This design actually makes for quite a bit of a content. I took me just under nine hours to conquer this title. That’s a quite a bit of time for a handheld platformer.

One interesting aspect to this game are the inclusion of the “mini-golf” levels. Occasionally, progress through the game is halted by a roadbloack. These roadblocks are removed by participating in (and winning) a series of golf-based mini-games. To be honest, this mini-game is largely pointless and occasionally annoying. But somehow they seem to fit the weird and quirkiness of the rest of the game. Leave it to Nintendo to be both annoying and entertaining at the same time…

The Wario Land series shows that developers of platform games do not have to be afraid to deviate from the standard formula. This title is a great example of how to both build off an proven method, but still add new ideas and concepts into the mix. For me, I find these games to be a blast. The puzzles make you think outside of the box. And even though Wario cannot die, the game is still challenging in its own way.

Difficulty: Hard –  When you hear that this is a platform title in which the player cannot die, you might think that makes for a pretty easy experience. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In a way, Wario’s invincibility only makes certain parts of the game even more frustrating. You work hard to scale your way to the very top of a level, your goal in sight – only be to zapped by some random enemy and sent tumbling back down to the very start… Infuriating. To be honest, the main scenario of the game is probably on par with most other Nintendo-era platform titles. But players who want to get the most out of the game and collect all 100 treasures will be in for quite a challenge.

Story: Games like these are not very story-centric. Nor do they need to be. The gameplay is the focus here. But, this title includes a cute little set up with an interesting twist at the end. The background story here is on par with what is found in other platform games.

Originality: Somehow Nintendo has again managed to keep this game from feeling stale. Non-linear, replayable levels with unlockable areas help keep this platformer title feeling like something new. Quite a feat.

Soundtrack: Silly/oddly appropriate music. But nothing spectacular. Honestly, probably the least interesting part of the game.

Fun: This game ended up providing me with much more entertainment than I expected. Just when I thought I knew what expect from this genre, Nintendo tosses in something to keep things fun and fresh. The difficulty felt a little extreme at times and I can imagine that some younger players would get a bit turned off by it. But considering Wario cannot die, it is only a matter of willpower.

Graphics: This game will look pretty dated by today’s standards. But at the time, it featured top-tier visuals for a mobile game. This title is a prime example of what the Game Boy Color was capable of.

Playcontrol: The controls are responsive and accurate. No complaints whatsoever.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: None.

Value:  Original copies of this game typically go on Ebay for $20 or less. But, the game is available digitally through the 3DS eShop for only $4.99. At that price, you shouldn’t pass it up. There’s hours of content in the game. Plus, players willing to collect every treasure are treated with a special unlockable “time attack mode” that only makes the game even more replayable.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 4 – Ridiculously good. This game is better than it has any right to be. Despite not being a title you hear about often, Wario Land 3 is packed full of fun. It’s extremely well put together and even almost twenty years later, it still holds up. I highly recommend this to anyone with a 3DS that enjoys retro games.

Available on: 3DS Virtual Console

 

Other Reviews In This Series:

SMB   –   SMB Lost Levels  –  SMB 2  –  SMB 3  –  SM World – SM World 2-  SM Land  –  SM Land 2  – SM Land 3 –  Mario 64 – Mario Sunshine – New SMB – Galaxy – Galaxy 2 – New SMB Wii – Mario 3D Land – New SMB 2 – New SMB U – SMB 3D World

Paper Mario – Thousand Year Door – Super Paper Mario – Sticker Star

Wario Land 2 – Wario Land 3 – Wario Land 4 – Master of Disguise – Wario Land Shake It

Luigi’s Mansion – Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon – Super Princess Peach

Review: Xenogears

This review has been a long time coming. Xenogears is considered by many to be one of the greatest RPGs of all time. Despite this, it is a game that I never had the chance to sit down with until now. I was a big fan of the Xenoblade Chronicles on the Wii when it came out a few years back. So I was really excited to see what the earliest game in the “Xeno” franchise was all about. I started this title at the the first of the year and I expected to be done with it sometime around late March. But, boy was I wrong about that. I was anticipating this game to contain somewhere between forty to sixty hours of playtime (like most other RPGs of the era). Instead, I ended up spending a little over one hundred hours on this monster! Which is really mind-blowing considering the last half of the game was rushed for release and large portions of content were cut from the title. (More on this later).

So what is Xenogears exactly? Xenogears is the brainchild of Japanese game developer Tetsuya Takahashi, an employee of Squaresoft. It was originally pitched as a contender for the Final Fantasy series. When rejected, it ended up becoming something else entirely. Much time was spent on the lore and storyline for this game. The story of Xenogears was originally intended to be the fifth out of six chapters in what would be part of a vast story-arc. The idea was to tell the complete tale through various media; manga, anime, and of course, games. This grand vision never materialized, however. As such, Xenogears has remained the only chapter of this story to be told. Japanese fans were eventually treated to a special artbook called Xenogears Perfect Works. This book contained several pages outlining all six chapters of the intended original saga. While it is certainly a shame that fans may never see an official Xenogears anime, or read the untold tales in the pages of a comic book, the game itself does contain several anime-style cutscenes that provide a taste of what might have been.

The story of Xenogears focuses on the character of Fei Fong Wong. A young amnesiac who was brought to a remote village as a child by a mysterious man. Fei has grown up living a simple life, completely unaware of his origins. One day, Fei’s village becomes caught in the crossfire between two warring nations. During the attack, Fei climbs into a Gear, (one of the giant robots used in the war) in attempt to defend his village. Mysteriously, he finds that he has the innate ability to pilot the machine. But in the end, his actions in the Gear result in further damage to village. Disgraced and banished from his home, Fei and his mentor Citan leave the village together. From there, they encounter one of the soldiers involved in the attack, a woman named Elly. Before long, Fei learns that the attack on his village was no coincidence… He was the real target. This revelation prompts him to seek out the answers to his mysterious origins. Over the span of the game’s storyline, not only will Fei learn about his true nature, but will find himself as a major player in a war for the very fate of mankind. The secrets of human origin, as well as the true nature of divinity all play a part in this fantastic tale.

To say the storyline for Xenogears is epic would be an understatement. While many JRPGs often blur the lines between fantasy and sci-fi, this game took things to the next level. The lore of this game perfectly integrates high technology and religious mythology in a way that had not yet been explored in gaming. To make things even more interesting, it borrows a number of themes and terms found in Judaeo-Christian theology, giving the lore behind the game a familiar tone. In fact, this served as a strong point of controversy at the time the game was released. Personally, I found the plot to be very deep and philosophical. I was delighted by thought put into it.

When it comes to gameplay, Xenogears will be familiar territory for longtime RPG fans. It plays like most classic SNES-era RPGs, with an overhead view and menu-driven system. Unlike many of those classic games, it is also rendered in 2.5-D, meaning that even though it’s presented from the bird’s-eye-view, the camera can be rotated 360-degrees to allow viewing at all angles. This took me a little getting used to at first, and it’s important to remember, as sometimes chests and important environmental objects may not be visible until the camera is rotated. Occasionally, I found this to be quite an annoyance. My only other major gripe with the game comes in the form of UI delay when bringing up the menu and especially with save file management. This title seems to suffer from some annoying lag.

When it comes to combat, Xenogears builds from the classic Active Time Battle structure that most RPG players are already familiar with. But it actually manages to evolve that model in a meaningful way. Like with most games of this type, players can elect to execute a melee attack, select skills/magic, or  use an item. There’s also options to defend or attempt to flee battle. If a player uses a physical attack, they can then chose between a light, medium or strong attack. The more powerful the attack, the less accurate the attack will be. If successfully landed, the player earns an Action Point. Action Points can then be spent on special moves called “Death Blows”, players can also bank up their Action Points to chain various Death Blows together for even more damage.

Aside from hand-to-hand combat, players will often do battle while piloting Gears (mechs). Gear combat is very similar to standard combat, but instead of attack points a Gear’s “Attack Level” increases as they continue to damage an enemy. Higher Attack Levels mean stronger Death Blows, etc.

All in all, I found the battle system to be very well done. It was just different enough from what had been seen thus far to require a little getting used to. Other RPGs of the era tried tinkering with the standard ATB combat formula and failed. Xenogears is one of the few that was able to succeed.

Combat aside, the game plays very much like any other JRPG. There’s open world exploration, dungeons, boss fights, etc. The game is separated into two discs, with the majority of the gameplay being found on Disc 1. By the time I reached the second disc, I was already about seventy hours into the game. The contents of the second disc are vastly different from that of the first. At this point, the game shifts from standard RPG-play, to being more narrative driven. Instead of actually playing through storyline at this point, the game provides you with a summary of events accompanied by still pictures and cutscenes. This ongoing narrative is broken up occasionally with prompts to save and short dungeons. There’s a number of successive boss fights tossed in the mix as well. It certainly has an unusual feel when compared with the first half of the game.

It has since become known that the pacing of the second disc occurred due to time constraints put on the development team.  In order to meet the release date deadline, they were forced to cut hours of playable content from the game itself. This led to them having to stitch what had been developed together with bits of exposition and pre-rendered cutscenes. This is certainly a shame, as I can only imagine just how epic in scale this game might have been if it were released according to plan. But honestly, having all of this extra content would have probably doubled the length of what was already a long game. So, I’m in no way saying players should feel ripped off. There’s still tons of content in this title. But the patchwork that is the second disc does end up making the game feel rushed and disjointed to an extent.

Flaws and all, Xenogears is an amazing game. It certainly earned its status as one of the greatest RPGs of all time. That being said, the game is not perfect. Camera issues and UI lag are present, and don’t get me started on the awkwardness of the second half. All that aside, it still shines. This is without a doubt a must play for fans of the JRPG genre. If any game deserves a modern remake, Xenogears should certainly be a contender.

Difficulty: Medium –  As far as RPGs go, Xenogears is standard fare when it comes to difficulty. Most random encounters and boss fights are balanced pretty well. Any player who hasn’t simply rushed their way through the game should encounter only a moderate challenge. Players who are willing to take their time to grind and/or do sidequests should have no issue.  Many of the bosses often have mechanics that can be exploited either through action or by equipping characters/Gears with certain items.

Story: This is where the game shines. The depth and richness of the storyline is unrivaled even to this day. In fact, when considering how unfinished the game feels at times, it is almost a shame that a tale of this scope was told via game that feels so incomplete at times. It is a story that certainly deserved better. Deep, dark, and powerful.

Originality: By 1998 the formula for JRPGs had been well established. Xenogears manages to keep things fresh by providing a unique setting, re-envisioned combat, and a bold storyline. Every time the game started to feel like something I had seen before I was quickly proven wrong. Amazing work by Squaresoft.

Soundtrack: This is probably the second best part of the game. The soundtrack and score are nothing short of breathtaking. My only complaint is that there wasn’t more. For a game as long as Xenogears, the soundtrack seems to be somewhat lacking in content. Lots of music in the game is reused in places where a new theme seems appropriate. Again, perhaps it was due to budgeting or time constraints, but I feel like the soundtrack should be more diverse. That is a bit of a shame. But when judging the soundtrack we were given, it is hard to find a single thing to dislike.

Fun: This is a game that took me by surprise. At this point in my gaming career, I really thought I had seen everything there was to see when it comes to RPGs. Xenogears proved to me that a good developer can always manage to surprise you. I had a blast with this game. I went in knowing nothing at all about the game itself, and what a ride it was.

Graphics: At time of its release, Xenogears looked as good as a game could. It featured 16-bit style sprites, but in a semi-3D environment.  Today, the game does show its age. But it is still a pleasure to view.

Playcontrol: To claim Xenogears is flawless would be difficult. If any part of the game needs improvement it would be the play control. Laggy UI and quirky camera controls are a major issue at times. On top of that, several parts of the game actually include platforming puzzles – for example, climbing a building or a mountain. This requires players to run and jump from spot to spot. One wrong move and you have to start over. It can be extremely frustrating at times. Especially since the game doesn’t feel like it was designed with this type of play in mind. This, combined with a dicey camera makes for some rage-worthy moments.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: YES. Minor language, blasphemous themes.

Value:  Xenogears is available digitally on the Playstation Network for $9.99. At this price the game is a no-brainer. Used physical copes can range anywhere from $20-$100 on ebay depending on the quality. If you’re a collector, I’d be comfortable paying up to $50.00 for a game like this. It is worth every penny.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 4 – Even with some obvious flaws, Xenogears manages to take a top rating. It has been a while since I had such a good experience with an older game. Just when I thought I had seen everything, Xenogears popped up to remind me that there’s always something new to discover. Despite being twenty years old, the bold direction of this game still manages to hold up and feel new. If you’re a fan of JRPGs, this is a must-play.

Available on: PSN

 

Everquest

As many readers of this site will know, I’m a huge fan of fantasy role playing games. Both traditional pen and paper games and video games. When it comes to video game RPGs, my first taste of the genre came in the form of Wizardry, an old school PC game. From there, I moved on to Ultima and eventually to Final Fantasy. For many years, these three franchises continued to flourish and I would hop from one game to the other. Eventually, the Wizardry series fizzled into obscurity and the makers of Ultima had turned their attention to Online gaming. My initial experience with Ultima Online was not that promising, so for me, Ultima was now dead in the water. I enjoyed Final Fantasy, but I knew deep down in my soul that I wanted a gaming experience that captured that classic medieval Dungeons & Dragons genre of fantasy that I had originally found with Wizardry. Just when I thought all hope was lost, some friends of mine introduced me to a game called Everquest.

It was early 2000 and Everquest was the hottest online game in existence. It was not the first true MMO, that honor probably goes to Ultima Online  (or some would argue, Tibia). But, it was the first true 3D massive multiplayer online roleplaying game. I had several friends who had been raving about the game since it was initially announced. Then, upon its release in 1999, several of the them took whole weeks off of work just to dive in and play this new game. At that time in my life, gaming had been downgraded to a casual way to pass time. It was not a full time hobby of mine. So, for almost a year I avoided the Everquest craze. Then finally, a friend of mine showed up on my doorstep with a copy of Everquest: The Ruins of Kunark. The box contained both the original game as well as the new Ruins of Kunark Expansion. I was given the game as a gift on the condition that I would play with him and his friends for one month.

At first, I was completely enchanted with the game. The graphics reminded me of some of the later titles in the Wizardry series, only better. The music was delightful and awe-inspiring. The game even had an atmosphere that matched exactly what I was looking for. My only initial complaint was with the complexity of the user interface. I had spent a little time with Ultima Online, so the vast array of menus and options were not new to me, but Everquest had more windows and widgets than anything I had encountered thus far.

I remember enjoying my first few days in the land of Norrath. I was captivated by it. The world was large and full of mystery. Absent was the hand-holding that is often found in modern games. You were thrown right into a living, breathing world that was populated with other players. Your only guide was an instruction manual included in the box (which offered little more than basic instructions). To REALLY learn how to play, you had to rely on other people. In fact, it didn’t take long understand that it was actually the interactions with other players that really kept you hooked. Sadly, in my case, that’s also what led me to abandon the game after only a month in.

My friends played on a PvP server. As a result, you could be challenged by other players whenever you’d venture far enough into the world. It seemed that every time I’d step outside of the confines of my starting area, I would be bum-rushed by a hostile player. It got so bad that I eventually lost interest in playing. By the time my initial thirty days was over, I uninstalled the game and swore off of MMOs. My experiences with PvP in both Ultima Online and Everquest had sealed the deal as far as I was concerned. In fact, I wouldn’t touch another MMO until the release of Final Fantasy XI, three years later.

I tasted just enough Everquest in its early days to learn what it was and how it worked. I could see the charm that enrapt so many players, but I had become so frustrated with being ganked that I became disgusted. In truth, had I been playing on a non-PvP server, it is very possible that the game would have hooked me. If that had happened, I very well may have played it for years to come. Today, Everquest is nineteen years old. It’s still online and has a jaw-dropping twenty four expansions under its belt. The base game is now Free-to-Play with an optional subscription model. For me, the thought of getting back into a game when I’ve missed so much of its history was largely unthinkable.

Recently, I started participating in a special “progression” version of another MMO, RIFT. I found myself enjoying this “fresh start” version of RIFT so much, that I decided to take a look and see what other MMOs were currently offering something similar. To my surprise, I found that Everquest has just launched a new Progression server of their own. So as you might guess… I decided to go ahead and dip in a toe just to see how things felt.

Next thing I knew, I found myself back in the world of Norrath. Of course, I spent so little time there originally and it had been so long since I last played that I remembered nothing. I was completely lost. But, for the most part, this “vanilla” version of the game was just like I remembered. Yes, the graphics were a little more detailed and the the UI was a tad more modernized, but this version of the game is very much like I remembered. The biggest exception has to be with HP and MP regeneration. I seem to remember having to rest and heal HP between encounters originally. But now, they recover automatically.

Being a “progression server”, new content and expansions are added to the game every twelve weeks. At the end of the cycle, the content in the game will match what everyone else is playing on the live servers. After spending a week in this time-locked version of the game, I decided to take a peek at what the current version of the game is like. Needless to say, the modern version of Everquest is very different.

In the live version of the game, there’s enhanced graphics, a better tutorial, and a slew of additional races and classes to play. The Planes of Power expansion makes it easy for players to travel across the world in an instant, whereas the original version of the game makes traveling difficult and time consuming. The live version of the game also features an in-game store that allows players to buy items, gear, etc. (Something I generally disagree with unless these purchases are restricted to vanity items only).

I enjoy retro games. So for me, the fun in this little walk down memory lane has more to do with the look-and-feel of the game than with the content. It’s simply too late for me to become emotionally invested in a title as vast as Everquest at this point. I don’t see myself continuing to pay $15 a month or investing the time to reach the end of this progression server experience. But, I’ll enjoy it for a while. I simply owed it to myself to take another look back at a game that served as the inspiration for Final Fantasy XI, arguably my favorite game of all time.

If you’re a fan of any modern MMO, be it World of Warcraft, RIFT, Final Fantasy XIV, etc – all of these games owe a debt to Everquest. This is the game that made them all possible. These days, EQ is almost unrecognizable from what it once was. Add-ons and changes have taken a lot out of what once made the original game magical for so many. But, perhaps it is still worth a look for those fantasy online gamers who want to explore their roots.