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7:15 AM on 02.01.2011

Review: Golden Sun: Dark Dawn

The Nintendo DS is easily the go-to console this generation when it comes to RPGs. As a developer, you'd be hard-pressed to have your title stand out in a library already rife with role-playing goodness. There are exceptions however, and Camelot's Golden Sun franchise is certainly one of them. The series' notoriety on the Game Boy Advance was enough to perk people's ears when Golden Sun: Dark Dawn was first announced. The sequel comes to us 7 years after the The Lost Age, with 30 years having passed in the game's universe. The original GBA games were hits. Does the sequel live up to the legacy they left behind?

If you take a glance at the beginning of my First Hour Review (, you'll see that I've listed what, I feel, makes a damn good Golden Sun game. I thought I'd keep this review simple and basically go through each of the points I already made and comment on what's changed and whats been added or subtracted from the core experience.

The tale of Dark Dawn, while not as grand as those of the first two titles', is nonetheless a worthy addition to the Golden Sun canon. It suffers from some odd pacing, but the story's biggest problem actually comes from its dialog. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not opposed to text-heavy games—certainly not RPGs—so long as what I'm reading is informative and entertaining. Dark Dawn's text certainly has those traits, but it's dialog suffers from excessive amounts of pointless banter. Every character says something in every conversation; things that don't contribute anything at all. And by the time you get a full party of eight (plus those tagging along), this can get pretty ridiculous.

At least Matthew—much like his father in the first game—is a mute. Unfortunately, people often talk for him, which is even more annoying. I'm not saying that every conversation needs to advance the story in some way, but oftentimes you'll find yourself telling the cast to shut up and get to the point. When they get there, you'll often have to suffer through it several times. There's a lot of reiteration when it comes to important story elements—as if Camelot thought we'd be too stupid to remember.

Still, if you loved the story of the first two games, you'll probably enjoy this one as well. And without spoiling too much, by the end of the game, it's evident that Dark Dawn—in true Golden Sun fashion—was just a prologue for the real quest yet to come. If I were to make a rather obvious guess, I'd say we can expect to see the story continue on the Nintendo 3DS at some point.

Before I move on, I'll mention that the choices your given during conversations (I touched on this in the First Hour review) don't impact the story at all outside of prompting a different response, so don't worry about the consequences of your choices—there are none.

The battle system remains virtually unchanged, which is a very good thing (if it ain't broke, don't fix it). Psynergy, Djinn, and summons work in the exact same way. All of them make a return in fact, with a few new additions. You might think it "lazy" of Camelot not to have added much after seven years, but if Square Enix's Final Fantasy can get away with it, so can Golden Sun. This goes back to the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" line, and I personally loved seeing all of my favourite spells and summons return anew in 3D. They didn't just receive graphical updates, by the way—most have undergone significant changes to their design and animation. One of my favourite updates is to Tiamat. In the original games, summoning Tiamat would call forth a chubby baby dragon to scorch foes with a breath of fire. Well, that was 30 years ago (story wise), and let's just say, she's grown up.

The biggest change to combat is how Artifact weapons and their special attacks work. In the original games, every weapon has a critical hit, while Artifacts have a special attack in addition. In Dark Dawn, there are no critical hits per se—instead, every weapon has at least one special (though oftentimes it's simply a "Critical Strike"), while Artifacts have up to four. But no matter the weapon, characters won't be able to unleash its special attacks until they've mastered the weapon a certain degree. The character's mastery of a specific weapon is indicated by a Weapon Skill Meter on the item's page. It fills as players hit enemies with standard attacks, and the fuller it gets the more specials they'll have access to. Filling the bar completely masters the weapon, at which point specials will occur more often. Most weapons have pretty cool specials—some can even summon creatures. Much like Psynergy, Djinn, and summons, a lot of old favourites make a return in Dark Dawn. The ability to forge Artifacts returns as well.

The game's difficultly in this department is rather disappointing however. Boss fights are few and far between, and aren't very challenging at all save for the final boss and those you face in the end-game. This means that the player is never really pushed to explore the depths of Golden Sun's brilliant battle system during the main story, which is a shame. Fighting is still fun as hell though, but I really hope Camelot takes off the kiddie gloves next time around.

As any Golden Sun fan will tell you though, dungeon crawling is the other half of the experience. Dark Dawn's puzzles aren't some of the most difficult we've seen, but are among the most creative and fun. The game is now home to some favorites of mine for sure.

One of the things that can dampen the challenge for players, however, is a particular ability acquired relatively early in the game called Insight. It's a spell whose power reveals what Psynergy can be used and where by showing that Psynergy's symbol over the intractable objects in view (even if its effect won't produce any real results; it does this for every pillar, puddle, flame, etc.). Remember those times when you saw something you knew could be manipulated but just didn't know exactly what Psynergy to use? This saves you the trouble of going through your entire bag of tricks before discovering you in fact don't have it. It's great for saving time and possibly frustration, but you'll still have to remember what symbol was shown less you haul your ass all the way back to discover you still don't have the right spell.

That's what's good about it, in my opinion, but I fear that its abilities may have been taken too far. I say "may" because I don't actually know. I refrained from using it in certain situations for fear that it would reveal the solutions to puzzles I was solving, after accidentally using it in one such situation. It more or less revealed the solution (I won't say where or how), which was a real disappointment having not solved it on my own just yet.

For this reason, Insight seems to have been added to increase the game's "accessibility"—in other words, broaden the games appeal to a wider audience. There are other such additions that also do just that by helping players keep track of their progress (in many areas), though most of them are welcome additions for the most part.

The Encyclopedia is a very smart inclusion by Camelot. It lists detailed information on important people, places, and terms in the Golden Sun universe, providing those new to the series, as well as those who haven't touched it in quite some time, a means of keeping up with the story. And of course, it also provides juicy bits of game lore for those interested (like me). An interesting thing about the Encyclopedia is that it updates as you go, so if you notice a highlighted term you could've sworn you've already entered, it's because it's a new description. Before moving on, I'll take this opportunity to say I'm slightly disappointed in Camelot for not including a Bestiary section while they were at it. I don't know, I personally love those things; it's like playing Pokémon if the phrase were "Gotta kill 'em all!"

The Sun Saga tomes fill the gaps between Encyclopedia entries, giving a quick overview of what happened during the course of the first two games. Each chapter is presented in a delightful, storybook-like animation with nursery rhyme-ish music playing in the background. There are five chapters to find in total. You're not a hardcore Golden Sun fan unless you watch every second of every one (*glares*).

The Atlas is a great resource for keeping track of where the hell everything is. It basically saves the small maps you'll find on the top screen while traversing towns and dungeons and categorizes them by location. If you spot a treasure chest or Djinni, it will mark those as well, and whether or not you grabbed them. This makes backtracking for missed chests or Djinn (which you may have left because you lacked the appropriate Psynergy to acquire them) much, much easier. You'll still need to remember the general area though, if you don't want to sift through pages upon pages of cartography.

The Djinn Guide is like a second Encyclopedia specifically for Djinn. Each entry gives a brief description of the Djinni's name, it's effect, and where you found it. This, combined with the Atlas, makes tracking down every Djinn in the game much less of a task, and normally I'd condemn its inclusion because of that...were it not for the fact that it is possible to permanently miss a significant amount of Djinn during your quest.

Finally, the Travel Log is a great little addition. It's essentially the 'Save Game' screen, but includes a small yet important paragraph above your files, which is a summation of your party's current objective. Obviously, this is useful for picking up where you left off a day or two (or ten) ago, but it also helps while you're playing. Now you need not remember every minor detail of those important, often (overly) long conversations just to ensure you've remembered the critical points.

Again, it's obvious that most of these tools were added to increase accessibility among lesser RPG players in and attempt to perhaps broaded the fanbase. Unfortunately, Dark Dawn's overall difficulty suffers as a result, which will be a huge disappointment to a lot of fans.

Ultimately though, despite all of the shortcomings, I can't deny that I had an absoulte blast playing Dark Dawn. None of its faults stop it from being a fantastic RPG, and just a fantastic game overall. And they certainly didn't stop this Golden Sun fan from enjoying every second of this 40+ hour experience (if you want to find everything). Here's looking forward to the next great chapter in the Golden Sun saga, and here's hoping the wait won't be as long.

Overall: 8   read

2:05 PM on 01.14.2011

Review: Donkey Kong Country Returns

A game so good it’ll have you beating your chest and flinging your feces in excitement.


In case you hadn’t noticed, in the last couple of years, the Nintendo Wii has been subject to the revival of a number of key franchises in the company’s portfolio; franchises that have either strayed far from their humble beginnings or simply haven’t been seen in many years, if not both. The beloved Donkey Kong franchise is the latest to follow this trend—in the footsteps of New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Kirby’s Epic Yarn, and even, to some extent, Metroid: Other M—with its newest incarnation, Donkey Kong Country Returns. Interestingly, the game’s developer, Retro Studios, is the same company responsible for the re-imagination of another classic Nintendo franchise, in the form of the Metroid Prime saga. However, this time—as mentioned—the company was tasked with bringing a series back to its roots, rather than taking it (quite literally) to another dimension. It’s been 13 years since we’ve seen the Kong family in 2D platforming fashion. In fact, the game’s titular character hasn’t been played in this form since Donkey Kong Land for the Gameboy back in 1995. Well, as the name suggests, he makes a return in DKCR. And what a triumphant return it is.

I previously wrote a first hour review of the game (, and now, after spending much more time with it (and considering Retro’s history with Metroid), I’m of the opinion that Retro should be given full responsibility over all major Nintendo IPs henceforth. This game is—and I’m trying really hard not to oversell it—perfect. Okay, well, maybe not perfect, but about as close as you can get. I kind of had trouble writing a review because of this. I didn’t know exactly how to convey the sheer brilliance of this game, but, at the same time, I know words can only go so far. Only after playing will you understand why everyone’s going ape over this—and hopefully, if nothing else, this review will get you to do so.

Donkey Kong Country veterans will feel right at home in this new game. Most of the original concepts return in much the same form; vine swinging, barrel blasting, mine carting, banana grabbing, KONG letter collecting—it’s all there. Not returning however is K. Rool and the Kremlings, much to the dismay of some diehards. Fear not, the Tiki Tak Tribe makes an excellent new enemy. There’s much variety in the many forms the tikis take, as well as the animals and boss creatures they have under their control. Other noticeable omissions include underwater levels and a sizable roster of animal buddies to command (save for Rambi and Squawks), the later being the most disappointing—not because their absence leaves something to be desired, but because it would’ve been interesting to see how Retro implemented the likes of Expresso, Winky, or Squitter, to name a few.

Donkey Kong can still jump and roll to defeat foes and ground pound to reveal hidden items. Ground pounding near enemies will also stun them now. I mentioned barrel blasting, but barrel throwing also returns (it is DK’s thing afterall), and is used to not only attack enemies but break into hidden areas. Although the lack of many types of barrels didn’t go unnoticed, I didn’t really miss the likes of the steel or TNT barrels at all. Seems you can teach an old Kong new tricks, though… Donkey and Diddy can now cling on grassy surfaces to climb or brachiate their way through levels, and the blow mechanic means it will take more than brute strength to solve puzzles, defeat certain enemies, or find hidden treasures—like puzzle pieces, a new item that unlocks bonus material if players track down a level’s entire set.

Another noteworthy addition is that of the health meter, represented by two hearts in the top-right corner of the screen. Basically, Donkey Kong can take two hits now instead of one. Players can also find hearts to heal themselves throughout levels. Retro’s also added a new “vehicle” for the Kong’s to ride in: the rocket barrel. In rocket barrel levels, the player is required simply to hold or let go of the ’2′ button to make the barrel rise or fall to collect items and weave around hazards. Simple in design, these levels provide some great fun and challenge, and are a welcome addition.

One of the biggest changes is how Diddy Kong is implemented in single player. Instead of swapping between the two Kongs as you see fit, you remain in control of Donkey the whole time while Diddy rides on his back. This does several things: It adds two more hearts to your health (Diddy will be lost if the player takes two hits however), it allows you to roll through enemies ad infinitum, and it allows you to make use of Diddy’s jetpack, which not only lets you jump farther but better time and land your jumps (this is easily the most important attribute). The Kongs can work separately in two player mode though, which we’ll get to in a bit…

Level design is absolutely ingenious. Everything from the pacing, to the placement, to the look itself is virtually flawless (this becomes all the more evident in Time Attack mode). And I just can’t get over how incredibly creative Retro’s use of the foreground and background is during play. If not interacting with it directly/indirectly in some way—using barrels to blast between various planes or changing the scenery entirely—the player is often treated to eye candy in the form of scripted animations. Things like a giant octopus breaking up a pirate ship in the background, or a mole riding along in a mine cart in the foreground, are a common sight throughout the entire game, if not otherwise breathtakingly gorgeous scenery. Sharp eyes may even spot an interesting easter egg or two.

The attention to detail is also there. The way certain elements react as the player passes by, or how the player’s character will look in the direction of dynamic focal points throughout a level is truly phenomenal. Inching your characters towards the edge of a cliff will even prompt a change in their animations the closer they come to falling. It’s just spectacular stuff.

Looking past the bells and whistles, however, DKCR’s levels provide some of best platforming we’ve ever seen in a 2D game. Utilizing all of the big ape’s techniques, players will battle their way through eight punishing worlds, each with its own unique enemies and obstacles to overcome. And Retro never throws the same series of obstacles at you twice, which not only helps to increase challenge but the variety of the experience as well.

Speaking of challenge, the game is deliciously difficult. It’s one thing to get through the game, but another entirely to find all of the KONG letters and puzzle pieces while your at it—with the bonus levels being some of the most challenging (and some of my personal favourites). And just when you thought the game couldn’t get any more difficult, Time Attack and Mirror modes really put the player’s platforming skills to the test (so you better stock up on balloons). And ifthat wasn’t enough, you can do it all with a buddy in co-op mode.

In co-op, two players take on the task of tackling the Tiki Tak Tribe together (say that ten times fast). Player one controls Donkey Kong, and player two controls Diddy. Diddy controls exactly the same way as Donkey Kong does and, in essence, possesses the exact same moves. Some moves behave differently however. For example, Diddy’s ground pound isn’t really a ground pound; he shoots the floor furiously with his peanut popguns instead. The basic effect is still the same, but as an added bonus, the peanut shells he fires will crack open upon impact, and the nuts inside will begin bouncing along the floor ahead of him ala Fire Flower Mario’s fireballs. Most enemies the nuts hit will either be killed, or stunned. It’s a great way for those lacking platforming skills to take down or approach a string of enemies. For example, when playing with my girlfriend—a gamer by no stretch of the imagination—this was a common tactic she used. However, skilled players will still want to jump on as many enemies in succession as possible for bonus coins and lives.

More important however is Diddy’s jetpack. Again, when playing with my girlfriend, the jetpack helped her land and time jumps she would have otherwise been unable to, especially across wide gaps where roll-jumping would have otherwise been necessary and difficult for new players to pull off during hectic situations. Donkey Kong Country Returns is a very challenging platformer after all, and I feel that Retro made Diddy the perfect way to gradually introduce new players to the series.

Should a player fall, they can revive themselves at any time with the push of the ‘A’ button, so long as the other player is still alive. Doing so costs one balloon, which will float down on screen with a DK barrel tied to it, containing the newly revived player. The floating barrel behaves similarly to a bubble-encased player in New Super Mario Bros. Wii. Shaking the Wiimote will coax the barrel closer to the other player, who must touch it to bring their partner back. Of course, to save on lives, you can always wait for the other player to grab a DK barrel. If at any time the second player feels overwhelmed, they can hop on Donkey Kong’s back and let player one take command. But player two doesn’t have to just sit back and watch; while on DK’s back, shake the Wiimote to fire your popguns as much as you want.

My only qualm with co-op is how off-screen players were handled. If one player falls behind, they have five seconds before the game automatically teleports them to the ahead player. I’m not sure why Retro couldn’t have just given the player as much time as they wanted to catch up. Even if off-screen platforming was deemed too difficult, most of the time the ahead player could simply backtrack to allow the other to see, and if they couldn’t, one balloon would seem an appropriate penalty for failing to work together. It’s just yet another means for the lesser player to bypass part of a level, and I feel that the floating barrel and hoping on DK’s back were enough.

I personally don’t mind off-screen platforming, but some argue that there shouldn’t have been any at all; that the game should be split screen or zoomed-out when players grow too far apart. The problem with zooming out, in this game, is that certain secrets and even solutions to puzzles would be revealed. Splitting the screen would be a better solution, but I fear that in a fast-paced platformer such as this, the sudden transistion back and forth between one and two screens would often cause confusion and death as a result. But I digress—this minor issue doesn’t change the fact that co-op mode is solid, with lots of fun to be had for both veterans and newcomers alike.

The game’s sound design is also worthy of note. The sound effects are great, even the ones that play out of the Wiimote’s speakers. In fact, this is probably the first game I’ve played where I actually enjoyed hearing something come out of those things, especially when collecting a large string of bananas or bouncing off a series of enemies’ heads. The soundtrack is a wonderful mixture of new tunes and remixes of old classics that sound superb. They do a great job of transporting you back to the good ol’ days of playing the original—and getting stuck in your head just as easily.

This game was clearly created by Nintendo fans, and Retro clearly loves doing what they do. It’s been a long time since a game has gotten me this excited, not just to play, but to have others play; I want people to play this game or, at the very least, witness its masterpiece in motion. As far as 2D platformers are concerned, Donkey Kong Country Returns has set a whole new bar; one so high, I dare say no one will come close to reaching anytime soon.

Overall: 10   read

3:54 PM on 11.24.2010

Review: Sonic the Hedgehog 4 - Episode I

Sonic fans are in 4 a treat.

The gaming world first learned of Sonic the Hedgehog 4 back in September of 2009, under the code name “Project Needlemouse”. Sega declared a return to the franchise’s 2D roots, promising the Sonic game old-school fans have been anxiously awaiting for years. Well, there’s no doubt that if you spent the better part of your Saturday mornings as a child dashing through shuttle loops, this is definitely the Sonic game for you.

Sonic 4 picks up where the blue blur left off 16 years ago in Sonic & Knuckles, for the Sega Genesis. Dr. Eggman (or Robotnik, if you prefer) is up to his old tricks, and it’s up to none other than the fastest thing alive, Sonic the Hedgehog, to stop him; chasing the evil scientist through 4 zones (3 acts each, plus a boss battle) before a final showdown against the doctor’s ultimate creation…

The gameplay will feel instantly familiar to anybody who’s picked up a 2D Sonic game before. There are some noticeable differences though, but none that take very long to get used to. For one thing, after performing a Spin Dash and jumping, Sonic will just sort of stop in mid-air–you’ll have to hold ’forward’ to maintain his momentum. It’s weird, but gives you more control, ultimately. There are other subtle differences but I’ll leave it for you to discover. It’s nothing game-breaking anyway, it just feels different, you know? To help our spikey blue friend along, players will utilize such signature Sonic abilities as the aforementioned Spin Dash, as well as the Homing Attack from the Adventure titles–which can be used to target enemies, monitors, springs, and other objects. It might seem like a strange addition, but it adds for some great platforming throughout the game, such as allowing you to navigate hidden ”paths” through the air by homing in on multiple enemies in a row. And using it while not targeting something gives you an instant speed boost, making it an essential tool for clearing acts as fast as possible.

Sonic will encounter familiar Badniks during his adventure. Zones are direct inspirations of those found in the first two Sonic titles, with enough added elements to keep the game feeling fresh throughout. For example, in one act of the Lost Labyrinth Zone, Sonic, carrying a torch, must navigate his way through the dark, lighting dynamite to destroy multiple obstructions. In one act of Casino Street Zone, speeding past giant playing cards and matching three of the same symbol will give the player extra rings or lives. Levels are designed incredibly well, containing lots of detail, bright colours, multiple paths, and, most importantly, speed. Players will make use of many recognizable items in each act, including the Speed Shoes, shield, and invincibility. At the end of each zone, Sonic will face a boss. Inspired by past creations, Eggman’s “new” machines will behave differently than previous models after taking enough damage (and you thought that disco ball couldn’t get any deadlier).

Also making a return are the seven Chaos Emeralds, which, as you can imagine, are earned by completing a corresponding special stage. Players gain access to these special stages by jumping into a giant ring at the end of an act, which will only be present if they successfully maintain a minimum of 50 rings by the time they reach the goal. The special stages are reminiscent of those found in the original Sonic the Hedgehog. This time however, instead of guiding Sonic through a rotating maze in search of a Chaos Emerald, it’s up to the player to rotate the stage themselves as Sonic free-falls throughout. Players who successfully collect every emerald and beat the final boss will be treated to the game’s true ending. You won’t have to do this all in one sitting by the way, as the game features a save file much like that of Sonic the Hedgehog 3.

If it wasn’t clear already, this game oozes nostalgia. You only need to listen to the game to be transported back to the good ol’ days of ring collecting. The sound effects are taken directly from the original games, and the music, though new, retains that familiar, old-school Sonic the Hedgehog feel. The game even opens with the famous “SEGAAA!” as Sonic whizzes back and forth across the screen, revealing the company’s logo. You know right from the start that you’re about to get a major blast from the past.

Short but sweet, Sonic the Hedgehog 4 is definitely worthy of that number. It’s an absolute blast to play and even a little challenging in some respects–particularly the bonus stages. It’s nothing you’ll be stuck on for very long, mind you, but the level of challenge is appreciable, for sure. Really, the true challenge is in completing a level as fast as you can, and Sonic 4 encourages players to try via online leaderboards where you can pit your fastest times against players from around the world. Just switch the game to Time Attack mode and give it all you’ve got. Minor issues aside (like, where was the sound test mode, for example? Those rocked!), it doesn’t get much better than this. I already can’t wait for Episode 2–and I’m sure I won’t be the only one.

Welcome back, Sonic.

SCORE: 8/10   read

8:16 AM on 11.23.2010

Review: Kirby's Epic Yarn

Nintendo and Good Feel weave a wonderful platformer.

Attendees of the 2010 Electronic Entertainment Expo were witness to many exciting announcements on June 15th during Nintendo’s press conference—one of them being the highly awaited return of Kirby to home consoles. This would mark Kirby’s first appearance on a home console since 2003’s Kirby Air Ride for the Gamecube, and his first platforming adventure since 2000’s Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards. It clearly had a lot to live up to. But alongside roaring applause, the announcement was met with many raised eyebrows regarding our pink hero’s return—for he had undergone a change the likes of which a Nintendo mascot hasn’t seen since Paper Mario. Kirby was made of yarn. Yes, yarn. And his new game, Kirby’s Epic Yarn, would see him battle across a world of felt and fabric against a new foe, and with a new friend. Nevertheless, everyone was excited and anxiously awaiting its release. So, did Nintendo weave the world a masterpiece (yes, I just said that)?

Epic Yarn’s plot is presented in short, storybook-like scenes whose silliness is only surpassed by that of its narrator. It’s really something only a small child would find entertaining, and luckily these scenes can be skipped by those who don’t care. If you’re one of those people, I suggest skipping to the next paragraph...

While taking a stroll through Dream Land, Kirby stumbles upon a strange Metamato made of yarn and tries to eat it. It turns out to be the property of an evil sorcerer named Yin-Yarn, who sucks Kirby into a magic sock as revenge for consuming it. Kirby winds up in Patch Land—a world where everything, including himself, is made of yarn. Because of this, Kirby’s powers of inhalation are useless, as air passes right through him. Instead, the Metamato has given Kirby the power of transformation, which he uses to rescue a young yarn boy, named Prince Fluff, from a monster. Prince Fluff thanks Kirby and informs him that Yin-Yarn has separated the fabric of Patch Land, and that he must gather the missing pieces of magic yarn to sew it back together. Kirby decides to help, and the two set off together to save Patch Land.

As mentioned, players won’t make use of Kirby’s signature inhale and copy ability this time around, and will instead utilize his new-found powers of transformation—as well as some sort of yarn whip—to defeat enemies and navigate the world.

Using the whip, Kirby can unravel enemies or wind them into a ball, which can be thrown to destroy other enemies or break through barriers. The whip can also be used to latch onto various objects sewn about the game world. Kirby can swing on buttons, rip patches of felt off, unzip pieces of fabric, and more. The mechanic is used quite cleverly. One of my favourites is tugging on a loose piece of string (tied to a button) and pulling the felt background towards you, thereby bringing a series platforms in reach or perhaps revealing a hidden area. Manipulating the game world in this way is surprisingly satisfying.

Kirby can also transform to help him get around. Some transformations can be used at any time—these include a car to move faster, a parachute to descend slowly, a submarine to move through water, and so forth. Other, more complex transformations occur after grabbing a special item. Most of the time, these transformations are mandatory for navigating a certain section of a level. These transformations include a fire engine, a train, a dune buggy, a UFO, and a giant tank-like robot, among others. Certain transformations require additional inputs from the Wiimote, requiring you to tilt it or even point it at the screen.

Most transformations are quite fun, but I found the train extremely boring and even annoying. This transformation requires you to point the Wiimote at the screen and draw a track for Train Kirby to ride as he constantly moves forward. The only direct control you have over him is choosing to turn him around at any time. Drawing the track can be finicky for one thing, but the primary reason for the frustration is how excruciatingly slow Train Kirby moves. I’d often just draw the simplest, shortest path out of a level rather than collect all the beads or treasure so as not to prolong the arduousness.

As a direct contrast, one of my favourites is Dolphin Kirby—whose controls bring back memories of Ecco the Dolphin for the Sega Genesis. He’s fast, agile, and has an attack that can destroy just about any enemy. Most importantly, I found Dolphin Kirby levels to be some of the most fun and creative.

As mentioned, as players move through levels, they will gather beads and find hidden treasures such as music and furniture that can be placed in their very own apartment back in the hub world of Quilty Square. As a means of keeping score, beads are also used as currency to purchase various unlockables. There are approximately 500 items to find or purchase. Once a level is complete, the next will be unlocked, until players finally face off against a boss. Boss fights, in particular, are one of the game's highlights, in my opinion. They're the perfect mix of just the right amount of challenge and fun. After a boss is defeated, the piece of magic yarn it was holding will weave its way through the fabric of Patch Land and sew it back together, unlocking the next world. There are 7 worlds in total, each with a couple of bonus levels.

Eventually, players will unlock four challenge modes as they progress. These modes require the player to do a number of tasks, such as collecting a certain number of beads, defeating a certain number of enemies, playing hide-and-go-seek, and more, all before a timer runs out. Each of these challenges takes place in a small section of levels players have already beaten. When a player clears a challenge, they receive a felt background and unlock the next one (provided they beat the level in takes place in first).

Overall, the game is pretty fun, however seriously lacking in the difficulty department. Death is nonexistent. Falling victim to an enemy or hazard will do nothing more than strip you of a portion of the beads you’ve collected in the level thus far, and usually most if not all of them can be recovered anyway.

The absence of challenge coupled with a childish, uncompelling plot makes the journey to restore Patch Land feel more like a giant scavenger hunt rather than an epic quest. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it can feel tedious occasionally. Because of this, I had very little motivation to return to past levels and collect missed treasures or improve my score, and completing the extra challenges in particular felt like a chore. The overall result was growing bored of the game after very short sessions. Nevertheless, I kept coming back, which I guess is the most important thing, but I know it’s mostly because I didn’t have other gaming endeavours at the time.

Co-op mode lets two players tackle the game together, with player two controlling Prince Fluff himself. The prince has the exact same controls and abilities as Kirby. The game's difficulty does not increase to compensate for the additional player, and instead becomes all the more easy. The duo can wrap each other up into yarn balls, just like enemies, and use each other as weapons against their foes. The two can also use each other as platforms to get to those just-out-of-reach areas. As you can imagine, this mode is great for playing with a young child, especially one new to gaming or the platforming genre.

Visually, the game is an absolute masterpiece. The charming graphics and animations are a delight to behold and are easily some of the best and most creative we’ve seen in the history of 2D gaming. And who could resist Yarn Kirby? He's just so darn cute. That being said however, I think Nintendo would do well to leave this title as a standalone adventure in the Kirby universe. A second trip through Patch Land would surely feel stale.

The up-beat soundtrack is a mixture of new tunes and remixes of old Kirby classics which work well within the game. Kirby fans will surely hum or whistle along as they play.

Despite being aimed at small children, Kirby’s Epic Yarn provides enough entertainment to warrant the attention of even the most picky platforming fans. However, for some, a rental might make more sense, as they may not likely take a second trip through Patch Land after completing the game for the first time. The impressive art style and creative level design accompanied by a solid sound track are enough to coax the player forward despite the goofy story—though the novelty may wear off quickly for those looking for a real challenge. Still, Epic Yarn can be great for gamers just looking to kick back, relax, and enjoy some simple platforming fun.

I feel like this is the launching pad for a much grander Kirby adventure, and I’m very much interested in seeing where Good Feel and Nintendo take our puffy pink hero next.

SCORE: 8/10   read

9:48 PM on 06.29.2010

Sin & Punishment: Star Successor Review

The original Sin & Punishment was released in late 2000 for the N64. Due to developer Treasure's cancellation of its North American release, the game never made it outside of Japan until its rerelease for the Wii's Virtual Console seven years later. Its success, combined with the prospect of creating an all new experience utilizing the Wii's motion controls prompted the Treasure team to make a sequel; Sin & Punishment: Star Successor.

Control in Star Successor is done via the Wii Remote and Nunchuck by default. Motion controls are implemented perfectly, allowing for smooth, precise targeting, though I found my wrist getting strained after long periods (there's a joke in there somewhere). You can also use the Classic Controller, GameCube Controller, or Wii Zapper, but I feel the standard setup works best.

After choosing your difficulty--Easy, Normal, Hard--you choose your character; Isa or Kachi. Beside the standard rapid fire attack, each character has a charge shot and melee attack; great for dealing with multiple targets at close range, but also redirecting certain projectiles back at enemies, causing devastating amounts of damage. You're also given the ability to evade, making you invincible for a brief period--a skill that must be mastered in order to dodge the unavoidable attacks occasionally thrown at you.

The main difference between the two characters is in their charge attacks. Isa's is a single blast that causes a massive explosion, while Kachi's splits off into dozens of shots that automatically home in on their targets.

The first stage of the game acts like a tutorial, teaching you the basics of attacking, dodging, and melee-ing effectively. From there on out, it's clear that the emphasis in this game is on the "punishment". With thousands of enemies to shoot, millions of projectiles to avoid, and a seemingly endless amount of bosses to fight, each stage will leave you gasping for air by its end. On a console ripe with casual games, this one's a slap in the face.

You will die. Often. In fact, it can be down right frustrating at times. But once you understand the attack patterns of enemies, ploughing through a stage or boss fight unscathed is easily one of the most satisfying accomplishments on the console in recent memory. Getting through the game isn't the trouble--health pick-ups and checkpoints are plentiful throughout--but in a game primarily about high score chasing, the penalty for dying is severe: Your score is reset to '0'.

High scores, by the way, can be uploaded to an online leader board. In order to achieve the best scores, players must maintain a high score multiplier and strive for bonuses throughout each level. The score multiplier increases as you kill enemies, and decreases as you take hits. Bonuses are awarded for fulfilling certain conditions, such as destroying a particular set of enemies or clearing a scene in a short amount of time. Other bonuses--such as a health bonus--are awarded at the end of each stage (no accuracy bonus though).

The game also features a co-op mode which consists of player two controlling a second cursor on-screen and firing away. It's a little disappointing, especially considering that the game features two main characters, but was probably done to save on confusion, as it can be tough to see past just a single character for certain scenes. Still, with two guns a blazin', it would have more than made up for the slight increase in awkwardness.

The levels in Star Successor look amazing and are very well designed, switching from the standard third-person view, fighting enemies head-on, to a 2D perspective, and even requiring you to circle a room for certain boss fights. New foes await at every turn, keeping the game feeling fresh even after multiple play throughs. Enemy designs are, in a word: weird as fuck (okay, that's three words). Fire-breathing frogs, dark matter dolphins, flying sperm cells, those strange creatures you see when you stare at stucco ceilings for too long...this game has it all.

My only gripe with the visuals is with the main characters themselves. In a world full of the strangest creatures imaginable, those two weird me out the most; Isa's fashion sense particularly. Sound design is exceptional and the voice acting is surprisingly well-done, though the voices for our heroes don't quite fit their look. The game's music is punchy, energetic, and fits the game's futuristic setting perfectly, but is unfortunately lost among the fray for the most part.

Oh, I almost forgot...there's also a story thrown in there somewhere. It takes place many years after the events of the first game, but honestly, who cares? You're not playing this game for the story. Trust me.

Star Successor's brilliance is in its simplicity. It's about pattern recognition, timing, and accuracy--the core skills of gaming. Not about how long you spent level grinding or number crunching. The game is very pick-up-and-play friendly (though I use the term "friendly" loosely), and presents a rare and unique challenge that very few gamers these days will appreciate. It's not a long game--you'll burn through it in as little as five hours--but the excitement of each stage and desire to constantly top your high scores (and those of your friends) is such to keep you coming back for a while.

Treasure's latest is a treasure indeed.

SCORE: 8.8   read

6:55 PM on 05.03.2010

Monster Hunter Tri Review

The Monster Hunter franchise has been a favourite in Japan for years—selling millions of copies on both consoles and handhelds—but has failed to make the same impact in North America. Capcom was looking to change that with the release of its latest addition, Monster Hunter Tri, for the Wii.

To get people excited for the game, Capcom launched an impressive multi-platform marketing campaign for North America, which included everything from a dedicated website, to television commercials, to a YouTube channel—all featuring Monster Hunter Tri’s official spokesperson/mascot, Ironbeard McCullough, a monster hunter who even has a Facebook and Twitter account. The company even held a weapon design contest, whose winners would have their creations rendered and available in-game.

In Japan, over 1.1 million copies of the game were sold in 2009 from its August 1st launch to the end of the year. Japan was clearly excited. And why shouldn’t they be? Japan's Famitsu gave the game a perfect score, the eleventh game (third on the Wii) to do so in the magazine’s 20-year history. This alone was enough to get me excited; I was anxious to see what makes the perfect game.

After booting it up and creating a file, you are tasked with creating your hunter. You can customize everything from his/her skin tone, eye colour, hair style, clothing, and even voice. You then find yourself in the small town of Moga Village, which is currently suffering from a recent string of earthquakes plaguing the surrounding region. The village's chief suspects that the cause of these tremors is the mighty Lagiacrus, an electrically charged leviathan referred to by seafarers as the "Lord of the Seas". You’re not nearly strong enough to face it yet, so in the meantime, the chief has enlisted your help to quell some of the other problems the village and its people are experiencing.

Ultimately though, this game is about—surprise, surprise—hunting monsters. Those looking for a deep, engaging tale won't find it here. What little story there is merely provides a motivation to progress, as well as serving as the game's tutorial for a while. In fact, the lack of urgency that comes with most adventure/role-playing games requiring you to "save the world" is welcome, as it allows you to have a more fun and relaxed experience; going about your own business at your own pace (something even the chief recommends doing). Relaxing, that is, until you face a monster. Tri boasts some seriously bad ass beasties to take down, and to do this, you'll need some seriously bad ass equipment.

First, let's talk weapons. There are seven weapon classes to choose from: Sword and Shield, Greatsword, Longsword, Hammer, Lance, Gunbow, and the all-new Switch Axe, which has the ability to switch from an axe to a sword mid-combo to deliver some devastating blows. As you can imagine, each class has its advantages and disadvantages. A Sword and Shield, for example, doesn't have the impressive range or attack that a Greatsword possesses, but will allow you to move quicker, and block and dodge much more effectively.

Gunbows are in a league of their own. All other weapons are categorized as Blade types, while Gunbows are considered Gunner type weapons. They come in Light, Medium, and Heavy varieties. Unlike other weapons, Gunbows are forged in three pieces—Barrel, Frame, and Stock—and require ammunition to operate. This means that being a gunner is definitely the more expensive route to take, but the obvious pay off is being able to take enemies down at range, keeping yourself out of harm's way (most of the time).

Armour can be equipped on your head, chest, waist, arms, and legs. Some pieces can only be equipped on hunters using melee or ranged weapons, while others work for both. Generally, Gunner armour possesses lower defense values than similar Blade armour pieces—another thing to take into consideration when choosing to go long range. In addition to boosting defense and raising (or lowering) elemental resistance, armour also adds skill points to your Skill Tree. Every 10 points unlocks a skill. For example, if you’re wearing four pieces of armour that add a total of 8 points to the Attack skill, your final piece would have to add 2 more points so you could gain the bonus. Typically, you'll want to equip your hunter with pieces from the same set, as they grant skill points in similar areas. However, armour (and weapons) with slots can be fitted with Decorations that grant additional skill points, giving you some freedom.

Each hunter can also equip a single Charm which grants additional bonuses. These enigmatic items cannot be forged, and are, instead, found throughout the game world or given to you as quest rewards.

Supplies are also extremely important. While hunting, you can bring along numerous edibles to recover health or stamina, antidotes to reverse status effects, and even whetstones to keep your blades sharp. Fighting in the middle of a scorching desert? Be sure to bring plenty of Cool Drinks to prevent heat exhaustion. You can even bring tools and traps to help take down tougher creatures. Because you can only carry so much at a time, it's important to plan ahead and ensure you take only what's necessary on a trip. Remember, you'll still want plenty of room in your Item Pouch for the various goodies you'll acquire on your excursions.

Equipment is only half of the story, though. In addition to gear, you'll need to rely on skill and cunning if you hope to make it out of an encounter alive, especially against some of the game's more impressive specimens. Understanding a monster's behaviour is key. It's important to implement strategies that take a monster's behaviour, as well as the equipment you’re using, into account before attempting to take it down. Pay close attention... Every monster has a "tell" for each of its attacks, hinting when to dodge, block, or attack. Monster's also have weak points you can take advantage of to produce more damage or other results. For example, you can hack the tail off a monster who insists on swiping you with it.

Once a monster has been taken down, resources can be harvested from it. Monster parts such as bones, teeth, claws, horns, and hides, as well as various ores you can mine, are primarily used for making weapons and armour. Simply gather the required number of resources, and the village's blacksmith will forge your desired piece of equipment—for a fee. Weapons and armour are upgraded in the same way.

Things foraged from the land such as plants, seeds, mushrooms, even insects and fish, can be used as, or combined to make supplies. For example, one of the more basic combinations involves combining a Blue Mushroom with an Herb to make a Potion. Items can be combined in your Item Pouch or in your Item Box back at the village. When combining, only items with at least one combination will be selectable, and after discovering a combination, it will be automatically logged in your Hunter's Notes. It's a very user-friendly concept. Speaking of Hunter's Notes; it's a great tool for those unfamiliar with the Monster Hunter franchise. It provides information on the ins and outs of weapons (and how to use them), armour, tools, skills, etc. You can also log information on the various monsters you encounter on your hunts—kind of like an old-school Pokedex (go ahead, try to catch 'em all!).

You'll gain even more resources—in addition to money—after successfully completing a quest. Quests involve everything from killing/capturing a certain number of beasts, or gathering specific items. Every so often, you'll be asked to take on an Urgent Quest. After successfully completing an Urgent Quest, the next set of quests will be unlocked.

Once your confident enough with your monster hunting skills, you can leave the Village and head for the City—the online hub for multiplayer monster hunting action. Instead of fumbling with Friend Codes, you simply create a Capcom ID to access the Monster Hunter Tri servers. Most of the options available to you in the village are available here as well (Armoury, Material Shop, Guildmaster, etc). The biggest difference is the difficulty of the quests you'll undertake, which are meant to be tackled as a group. If you've made some friends, you can register them in your Friends Roster, which allows you to teleport to them in the City for quick and easy setup of hunting parties (up to four).

A varied group of hunters with different skills will go a long way. Having a gunner in your party is a big advantage, for example, as the varieties of ammo available can cause a wide range of status effects to hamper the enemy's assault. Besides the added attack potential, the biggest advantage to having multiple people working together is distraction; having the monster focus its attention on one individual so another can set up traps or power up big hits. Communication is also important. This is done best via the Wii Speak or Wii Keyboard peripherals. If you don't own (or plan on owning) either of those, fear not, the game has preset messages you can send. Ideally, after hunting with the same group of friends for a while, you'll be so in-tune with each other that you'll hardly need to communicate anyway.

Overall, the game controls beautifully. Certain actions will require getting used to—some even seeming awkward at first—but it won't be long before they become second-nature. The game supports most control types, the ideal choice being the Classic Controller Pro for smooth control of both your movement and camera with the left and right thumb stick, respectively. You can't fight what you can't see, as they say, and since there is no auto-targeting in Monster Hunter Tri, you'll have to manually keep your eye on your prey. If you don't have one already, Capcom has bundled Monster Hunter Tri with a black Classic Controller Pro for an additional $15—a good deal considering the controller alone retails for $25. For those unwilling to shell out the extra cash, the original Classic Controller will work just as well.

The game also looks beautiful. The graphics and sound are top-notch (monster cries sound great), pushing the power of the Wii to its limit while maintaining very short load times. Although sometimes feeling a little closed in, the lush and lively environments are well designed. You'll experience many "wow" moments in the game. There's nothing quite like taking on a Great Jaggi and his pack while a herd of panicking Aptonoth are sent into a stampede around you.

Monster Hunter Tri is not for everyone. Only those willing to invest the appropriate amount of time and patience learning the intricacies of the game will be rewarded with all it has to offer. It's challenging, complex, and amazingly satisfying as a result. With all the different equipment to use, monsters to hunt, items to gather, and so much to do online and off, Tri will easily soak up hundreds of hours of your life—and you'll love every moment of it. Simply put, Monster Hunter Tri is masterfully done. Is it perfect? No. But it just might be the perfect addition to your Wii library.

SCORE: 9.3   read

4:21 PM on 05.03.2010

Infinite Space Review

We first heard of Infinite Space way back in May of 2008. The collaboration between developer Platinum Games and Sega was looking to become one of the more epic additions to the DS's library. Tantalizing players with the promise of hundreds of hours of ship customization and intense sci-fi story-driven combat, North Americans have anxiously awaited its arrival almost two years after its announcement. So, was it worth the wait?

Infinite Space follows the story of Yuri, a young boy from a planet whose population is forbidden from space travel. Yuri never stops gazing up at the sky, dreaming of one day venturing into the vast sea of stars in hopes of uncovering the secrets of the "Epitaph", a mysterious artifact left to him by his space-faring father. To do this, he enlists the help of a "launcher" (basically an interplanetary taxi driver) named Nia. And thus, the adventure begins...

The story is actually quite long and enjoyable. Fans of science-fiction or anime will easily get into it.

You begin the game with a single ship, Nia's; a retrofitted cargo ship called the "Daisy" (Millennium Falcon was taken). Players travel between planets and other locations by charting courses on a star map. Various events can occur during space travel, including random encounters with enemy vessels which you can choose to do battle with. Deceptively simple at first, battles become surprisingly complex as the game progresses.

Before entering battle, players must take into consideration their ships' durability (hit points) and crew's fatigue. Fatigue gradually increases as you travel, and effects how fast your Command Gauge fills during combat (more on that later). Strangely, players are forced to remember where these values stand at the time of an encounter, as the screen on which you choose whether or not to fight provides no indication on their levels. Both fatigue and durability are replenished automatically when you dock at a spaceport. Even destroyed ships will be automatically repaired at no cost; a forgiving feature when compared to the game's overall difficulty.

During battle, players control their fleet (up to five ships) as a single unit, issuing commands via the touch screen. The DS's top screen provides a view of the battlefield. Statistics on each of your ships is shown at the bottom of the top screen, including icons that show whether or not a ship's weapons are in firing range. The Battle Gauge, at the top of the touch screen, shows the distance between your fleet and your enemy's, as well as your fleet's attack range—indicated by a green bar. Even if an enemy ship is within a weapon's firing range, its accuracy will be considerably less if the ship is not within attack range as well. Players can move their fleet closer to the enemy in order to get a better shot, as well as withdraw for defensive manoeuvres.

The Command Gauge, on the left side of the touch screen, gradually fills over time, and depletes as players issue commands. There are three levels on the Command Gauge—green, yellow, and red—which allow you to Dodge, launch a Normal attack, or launch a Barrage. A Normal attack will fire a single volley from all ships whose weapons are in range. A Barrage is three volleys, but with less accuracy. If you Dodge, incoming Barrages will always miss, but you're more vulnerable to Normal attacks while doing so. More commands become available as the story advances, such as the ability to launch fighters, perform special attacks, and even board enemy ships (called Melee attacks). You can get an idea of your enemy's Command Gauge by looking at the outline of the ship your currently targeting. The colour of the outline will match the enemy's current Command Gauge level. This helps you better plan your strategy. A fleet's formation must also be taken into consideration when attacking. Ships in the back and middle rows will be much harder to hit than those in the front, so working your way towards the back of an enemy formation is usually your best bet.

Battles are satisfyingly challenging, and can occasionally be quite difficult. You'll feel a strong sense of accomplishment—as well as relief—when your fleet just manages to pull through a long, arduous fight; all the while praying you can make it to the nearest spaceport without further incident. Battles can get a little repetitive, but only rarely, so occasional tedium is easily forgiven.

You'll earn experience, money, and fame after each victory. Fame is your fleet's notoriety. The more famous you are, the more crew members there will be willing to join you. Crew members are assigned to key positions in a player's fleet to increase its stats. Having a skilled Artillery Chief, for example, will increase overall weapon accuracy. A Radar Chief increases weapon range, while a Chief Engineer increases engine output, and so on. Each person has different attributes that determine what role they're best suited for. Some even possess special skills that grant bonuses in and out of battle. Attributes and skills increase as the crew gains experience and levels up.

Players will travel to numerous planets over the course of the game, each with a spaceport orbiting it. Here, players can perform necessary tasks such as hiring crew members, building ships, and, most importantly, saving the game—something I'd recommend doing often, as the game can be quite punishing at times. Players should also get into the habit of visiting taverns regularly. Located on the surface of planets, taverns are places to gather important information, take on jobs, and are oftentimes where the story advances. Advancing the story usually involves talking to the appropriate people the appropriate number of times. It's actually a little strange, but what's annoying is the inability to fast track through conversations or skip ones you've already engaged in.

Early on, you'll be given access to the "Help" menu while docked. It contains absolutely everything a player needs to know about the game, right down to the nitty-gritties on ship customization and crew management. It's an essential tool—one that should be read through thoroughly. Admittedly, the wealth of information can be overwhelming at first. Fortunately, information is only available when it's relevant—a smart decision by the developers to prevent over complication.

Players will spend a lot of time in spaceports customizing ships and their various systems. Ships, fighters, and modules (rooms) can only be purchased after acquiring their blueprints from companies found on certain planets. Once acquired however, you can purchase any number of these at any shipyard or remodelling shop across the galaxy. Their quality level largely depends on how advanced the planet's technology is. Weapons are the exception. They don't require blueprints, and are purchased directly from remodelling shops. The weapons a ship can be outfitted with depend on its class. There are four ship classes—Battleships, Destroyers, Cruisers, and Carriers—each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Larger ships are more customizable—having more weapon slots and more room to place modules—but are also more expensive and less manoeuvrable. Large ships equipped with hangars can carry fighters and launch them into combat against enemy vessels.

Weapons come in a number of varieties and sizes. Different varieties include everything from lasers, to missiles, to plasma weapons, each designed for a specific purpose. They come in four sizes: S, M, L, and XL. Larger weapons possess higher damage and range values, but are restricted to larger ships. Weapons also come in two types: Single Attack and Multi-Attack. Single Attack weapons target a single ship, while Multi-Attack weapons target an entire fleet.

Modules are another big part of customization. They are essentially rooms you can add to your ship for stat bonuses. During purchase, players place the Tetris-like modules on a gridded cross-section of their ship, trying as best as possible to maximize the space. By default, each ship readily comes with a bridge and an engine room which must fall within specified areas on the grid. There are a wide range of modules available to improve everything from a ship's combat strength to its living conditions, the latter helping to reduce how fast the crew's fatigue rises during space travel. Taking into consideration every ship, weapon, and module (not to mention crew members) available to the player, the combinations are infinite. A fleet is truly yours in this game.

Another interesting feature in the game, found on the main menu, is the database. It logs character profiles and ship descriptions as they're encountered during the game, providing a percentage on the total number of records you've obtained. It also logs every celestial body you discover on your travels, and provides real-life examples of where such stars, nebulas, or supernovas can be observed in our own galaxy. A neat bonus.

Infinite Space offers a truly unique experience on the Nintendo DS. Deep space is home to even deeper story and gameplay. Players will happily invest hours into number-crunching customization ensuring ships achieve optimal performance during combat. This is made all the more satisfying during battle, as dramatic cut scenes play out for every action (don't worry—they can be skipped). Charming visuals and well-drawn characters add to the overall visual appeal. The game's music and sound effects are nothing special, but aren't that bad either. Players giving this game a chance will undoubtedly find themselves lost in space (in a good way).

SCORE: 8.4   read

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