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Review: Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal

Nov 21 // Chris Carter
Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal (3DS)Developer: Sanzaru GamesPublisher: SegaReleased: November 11, 2014MRSP: $39.99 Shattered Crystal is a 2D platforming alternative to the 3D Rise of Lyric, offering up old-school level-based gameplay instead of semi-open-world exploration. The map is very similar to Donkey Kong Country, as is the game's propensity to hide collectible objects in elaborate mazes. Sounds cool, right? Well, things go downhill from there. The biggest problem with Shattered Crystal is the sluggish pace. It's not possible to just jump and run around like you can in any other 2D Sonic game. In addition to all of the terrible dialog and ridiculous caricatures from the Wii U version (Knuckles is still an idiot), you'll also have to deal with slow-moving, unskippable text boxes during story scenes. Why yes, I definitely wanted to watch a five-minute scene about something meaningless with bad jokes in a 2D platformer. That's not the worst of it, though. Each stage has a large number of collectibles like blueprints and tokens that must be found to unlock more levels. Yep, in order to make any real progress, you have to search tirelessly for tons of objects rater than enjoy the level for what it is. Here's the biggest issue: levels are purposefully designed to have points of no return, forcing you to replay them at least twice to find everything, if you're lucky. At one point I wasn't sure if I was progressing through a level because multiple areas felt like direct copy-and-paste jobs. [embed]284124:56408:0[/embed] "Gating" is a common mechanic used in games that force you to master previous content to access tougher areas. While many would say it's never justified, I would argue that as long as said previous content is fun, gating can be a minor annoyance at worst as you work your way towards the newer stages and feel a sense of accomplishment along the way. But in Shattered Crystal, the maps are sprawling and feel exactly the same throughout, so it feels like an utter chore to trek on. The game has a map feature (if you can call it that), but it basically just throws up a blue grid on the bottom screen, completely devoid of any real information outside of the occasional icon. You're just going through a sea of blue struggling to find anything of value. Many levels aren't fun to play once, much less two, three, or more times at which point you'll probably give up. It sucks, because the mechanics are quite fun. Sonic not only has his homing attack and sonic spin, but also an air dash and a running ability that speeds things up. The air dash in particular adds a new dimension to gameplay since you can also stop momentarily and dash upwards, giving it a distinct Mega Man X feel. Switching characters to access new areas like air vents is also easy and intuitive. Sticks the Badger (Aika from Skies of Arcadia's doppleganger), the newcomer in lieu of Amy, is also a nice addition to boot. The visual style isn't technically impressive, but the cutscenes do have a console quality to them, and the actual levels are bright and full of life. There's also a consistent frame rate even with the 3D effect on. Just like the Wii U version, I don't mind the new character designs outside of Knuckles, which feels like a wasted effort based on the quality of the two games. Rather than let you actually play, Shattered Crystal is content to make you wait, wait, and wait some more before you get to the decent (but flawed) platforming. The design is maddening, especially when coupled with the poor dialog compliments of the new Boom universe. If you must pick up one edition of Sonic Boom, make it Rise of Lyric at a price drop. [This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Sonic Boom 3DS review photo
Sonic bust
While Sonic Boom on the Wii U has its issues, there are also some redeeming qualities. Co-op is enjoyable, the platforming is pretty fun, and the 2D sections aren't bad. With a few more months in the oven and more polish, it could have ultimately been a decent Sonic title. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the 3DS version of Sonic Boom. There's almost nothing redeeming about it.

Review: Bentley's Hack Pack

Feb 13 // Chris Carter
Bentley's Hack Pack (PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita [reviewed])Developer: Sanzaru Games Inc.Publisher: Sony Computer EntertainmentReleased: February 5, 2013MSRP: $2.99 (PlayStation 3 - Cross-buy with Vita) Bentley's Hack Pack is basically a collection of the various hacking mini-games found in the main campaign mode of Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time. If you've played the game already, you've come across these in the mandatory portions of the campaign, and you pretty much know what to expect going into Bentley's Hack Pack. There's a twin-stick tank shooter (System Cracker), a scrolling shoot-'em-up (Alter Ego), and a Marble Madness-style game (Spark Runner) -- the latter of which is operated entirely by way of motion controls. But that's not to say that each game is just comprised of rehashed levels from the Thieves in Time hacking sections -- because they're not. They are all-new levels developed for the Hack Pack, along with some extras. [embed]244831:46923[/embed] Specifically, Bentley's Hack Pack contains unique challenges for every level in the game, like no-death runs, high-score challenges, and hidden-mask hunts. Like your average $1-2 iOS game, it provides you with an optional method of replay value, should you be inclined to want to go back and best your prior efforts. Each game feels fun in its own way, especially System Cracker, which has a degree of exploration to it with the challenges in tow. As you play through each stage and complete these challenges, you'll start to unlock little cosmetic trophies that you can view and read a little blurb about. If you're a Cooper fan, you're going to get more out of the Hack Pack as you press on to unwrap gifts and treasures that subtly reference old adventures from Sly 1-3. Nothing is really earth-shattering in the slightest, but neat little factoids on items strewn about the franchise add to the charm of the overall package. There's also a special unlock at the very end, which fans are sure to enjoy. Control-wise, everything outside of the Marble Madness-style game handles extremely well. Just like Thieves in Time, I found that for the motion-controlled portions of the game, the Six-Axis DualShock 3 controls are superior to the Vita's gyroscope, so play it on the PS3 if you can. The Vita version's marble game is still serviceable, but on more than one occasion I fell to some pretty frustrating deaths after motion dead-zoning. It makes me long for developers to figure out that they don't have to force specific control methods in their games for the sake of it -- give us options! Sadly, unlike Thieves in Time, although the game is cross-buy compatible (meaning you get the PS3 and Vita versions with the same $2.99 purchase), it is not cross-save compatible. Meaning, you can't play on the go with your Vita, save your progress, and pick it up on the PS3 seamlessly through through cloud save capability. There's also no cross-interfacing features at all between this and the core release, in case you were hoping for a coin or item boost in Thieves in Time similar to Fable Pub Games and Fable II. As Conrad perfectly stated in his Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time review, Bentley's Hack Pack, like the core iteration this mini-game collection is based on, is at worst, inoffensive. If you're a retro gamer, you've already played other titles that present the core precepts these mini-games provide, but Bentley's Hack Pack has an interesting enough framework to actually compel you to keep going, with a bit of the ol' Sly charm to boot. For a few bucks, it's worth taking the plunge.
Bentley's Hack Pack photo
An inoffensive mini-game collection
Sony does a pretty terrible job at promoting its first-party games. For instance, take Sly Cooper. Droves of gamers were not only unaware that Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time launched last week, but they were completely in the da...

Review: Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time

Feb 12 // Conrad Zimmerman
Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time (PlayStation 3 [reviewed], PlayStation Vita)Developer: Sanzaru Games Inc.Publisher: Sony Computer EntertainmentReleased: February 5, 2013MSRP: $39.99  The plot of Thieves in Time is a bit silly, resembling a Saturday morning cartoon in terms of substantive value. By the end, the game seems to give up on the idea of trying to explain itself, and the resolution of the threat to the Cooper ancestors feels a bit hokey and half-assed, but there's some character development which takes place and expands the general narrative of the series in a positive way. Taken at face value, it's fun, with clever dialogue and a fair bit of cross-generational humor that should please the mature fans who have grown up with Sly already while remaining age appropriate for it's teenaged, target audience. The Cooper gang travels to five places and times within history (with stages in present-day Paris to bookend the game) where he'll meet up with the Coopers who came before him. Each time period features a moderately sized, open, explorable environment filled with collectibles and patrolling enemies, with several additional stages accessed through specific missions. [embed]244649:46896[/embed] Sly 4 controls quite well, with accurate response to commands. The series' hallmark one-button environment interaction returns, a system which allows Sly to cling to ledges, ropes and footholds with a single command, which also affords the player a little more wiggle room as Sly is guided toward interactive objects. It worked in the past and continues to do so here, taking much of the frustration out of narrow misses by preventing them from occurring in the first place, provided the player remembers to command Sly to cling. Hidden within each of the stages are a number of collectible items, consisting of clue bottles and treasures. There are thirty of the bottles and collecting all of them will allow you to unlock that stage's safe for a special reward. Treasures, once located, must be carried all the way back to the gang's hideout in the stage without taking any damage and within a limited amount of time, adding a fun little challenge in most circumstances. And the players efforts for finding them are nicely rewarded by unlocking a mini-game back at the hideout when all are returned. It's a fine amount of exploration-oriented content, without feeling burdensome or overwhelming. All of the collection is optional and missions which are set within the open environment rarely prevent the player from popping off real quick to collect an item they've only just noticed without failing an objective. The player is welcome to explore the open stage with any member of the gang, including Cooper's ancestors once they've joined up with the team. Each character has their own set of strengths and abilities, but the game offers very little reason to play as Bentley, Murray (or, later, Carmelita Fox) except when forced to by way of a dedicated mission, while the ancestors get slightly more love with a spot or two per overworld only accessible by them. The stages are open in their design, but the progression of the game is almost entirely linear. Missions are designated for a specific character to play (though may involve other playable characters during the mission), and there's rarely more than one mission offered at any one time, making it clear to the player early on that their options, though available, are fairly meaningless. On the plus side, there are a lot of them, about ten missions in each time period, comprising a campaign with a robust ten or so hours of play. As the player progresses through missions, new abilities for Sly and his friends may be purchased from within the hideout, using coins collected from destroying objects, pickpocketing enemies and returning treasures. Some, like the paraglider, are essential items but most of the upgrades you can buy are rarely useful gadgets and ammunition types which add some variety but don't feel as though they contribute in any considerable way. Other abilities are conferred to Sly through costumes collected in each of the different time periods. When worn, costumes may provide passive abilities, such as resistance to damage or letting Sly blend in with the locals and arouse less suspicion, as well as abilities which can be used to open new areas for exploration or provide solutions to environmental puzzles in missions. The costumes also restrict all of Sly's basic upgrades, however, limiting access to crucial abilities like the paraglider and any passive bonuses that have been purchased. In the early game, it seems as though Sly 4 is going to make pretty good use of these costumes, with the first having some universal appeal in its ability to prevent damage from fire, an ability which comes in rather handy in boss fights throughout the game. Sadly, by about the midpoint, it becomes clear that puzzles in each region deal almost entirely with the abilities granted by the costume received there, with callbacks to older capabilities rare. Every ability winds up being used in the collection of treasures and bottles in the various overworlds, but little further attempt is made at trying to combine aspects of multiple costumes in the design of puzzles outside of boss encounters at the end of each region. The boss fights themselves are decent, for the most part, and generally require mastery of the skills learned up to their point in the game. There is one blotch, one really poorly designed encounter which relies on the player to accurately aim a slow-moving attack from a fixed camera angle and an enemy whose attacks are timed a bit too tightly for the exceptionally slow animations related to the necessary costume. This particular battle could be enough to make a player throw down their controller in disgust, and rightfully so, but they should be comforted by the knowledge that it never gets any worse than that. Outside of the third-person platforming gameplay which makes up the bulk of Sly 4, comes the return of Bentley's hacking mini-games and a few other distractions. These include labyrinth mazes where the player guides a ball using Sixaxis motion controls to tilt the environment, side-scrolling shoot-em-up stages and a few, kind of forced rhythm matching games. They work great for breaking up the flow and preventing tedium, while still short enough as to be inoffensive if one type of game isn't your cup of tea (with the possible exception of a belly-dancing sequence which, in the current climate, might actually offend someone). In fact, "inoffensive" is probably the word that best describes Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time from the perspective of a fan. It fits right in with its predecessors, offering a rather lengthy campaign and a fair quantity of optional content that's fun to play, though not particularly challenging most of the time. While there may be an expectation that a series' arrival in a console generation outshine all that came before, Sanzaru has made a perfectly acceptable game that may not advance the genre, but feels comfortable with right where it is.
Sly Cooper Review photo
The Cooper gang is back in action
Sly Cooper has come out of retirement to try and solve the mystery of why pages have been disappearing from the Thievius Raccoonus, the tome of family history for the Cooper lineage of master thieves. Reunited with best frien...


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