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Mayan Mayan Mayan

You don’t get a great deal for trade-in games for the DS at the moment; I suppose that’s because its old-hat now, what with all this shiny 3D malarkey. Still, the shops don’t do too badly out of the deal and it must be said that if I’m not sure about a game, I’ll pick it up second hand rather than fork out for the brand-spanking new version. Sorry, should really say “pre-owned”, shouldn’t I? I wonder why they do that?

Having had a bit of a bad day (long story, involves handbags and shoes), the Prof (also one with an eye for a bargain) arrived home with a pressie for me in the shape of “Amazing Adventures: The Forgotten Ruins”, a puzzle game from Ubisoft set on a South American archaeological dig. Its your task to rootle around in the jungle in search of a missing Mayan Temple, all the while thwarting your arch-nemesis, a rather pudgy, beardy and rather naughty Indiana Jones type. Actually, if you think Indy versus Belloq, you won’t go far wrong. Except the special effects aren’t as good. There’s no giant rolling boulders, for a start. Or Nazis. But other than that…

Predominantly a hidden object game (there’s a lot of ‘em about), you do get to play mahjong, spot the difference and do jigsaw puzzles for a bit of light relief. It’s also a surprisingly long game. You have to find 17 specific items to unlock the various mini-games and I assumed that after you’d found those, the game would end; but no, on you go for another ten chapters. And you can win trophies too, which is all very nice.

The plot is wafer-thin with a fairly predictable twist, but the music is jolly and there’s a lot of play in it. It does get a bit wearing
as you go back to the same locations over and over again (just how many times do you need to search an aircraft to prove there isn’t an ancient religious site hidden somewhere in the onboard loo?) but at least you can see the objects clearly and unlike some other games I could mention, you’ve really got to be going some to trigger the random tap penalty.

There are other games available in the Amazing Adventures series, but they all appear to be for the PC, which is actually a bit of a shame. Despite the repetition, I wouldn’t have minded learning a bit more about our hero’s adventures. Fingers crossed they get their act together and bring out a new one soon, or at the very least, translate the existing ones to hand-held.

~FuschiaBegonia

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Tearing Up

Never believe everything you read in a review. That’s probably not how you would expect another review to start, now is it? But it’s true. Hunting round for a puzzle game to tide me over until the next drama-fest that is Professor Layton, I looked up a few reviews on Amazon to see what was lurking out there in the shadows. And I do mean shadows; the good Professor casts quite a long one, making it very difficult for a lot of games to gain any purchase in a market that has been well and truly spoilt rotten with lovely animation and devilish conundrums. Most of the reviews I read said that GSP’s “Jewel Quest: Curse of the Emerald Tear” was a goody, so I picked up a pre-owned copy, just in case. Which was just as well, as it turned out.

It doesn’t start off promisingly; a very shady character bwahahas his way through the briefest of introductions and it soon becomes horribly apparent that this game is one of a series. A series that the writers have no intention of bringing you up to speed with, should you not have had the misfortune to play any of the earlier ones. Okay, you could overlook that; I mean, it’s not desperately complicated. Basically, two bright young things travel all over the world looking for prophetic jewel boards and other exotic treasures by way of hidden object puzzles and the most piggingly awful and frustrating Connect-4 type game (helpfully called “Match 3”) I’ve ever played.

I didn’t finish this game. I don’t care if I never see it again; it makes the frustrations of “Flower, Sun and Rain” pale into insignificance. And the reason is this: each chapter has a series of quests leading up to a final puzzle on the jewel board, where you must turn all of the squares gold within a set time limit by matching 3 jewels in either a vertical or horizontal row. Should you fail, not only will you have to do that particular puzzle again, you’ll have to repeat the entire sodding chapter from scratch. Even if you quit out part way through that chapter, saving your progress as you do so (or so you thought, sucker).

The rules for how the end-game works are never really made clear, changing every now and again as they do with the introduction of some new random factor to the equation. After several hours of being bunted right back to the beginning of a chapter, my mind started to blank every time the jewel screen came on and it became, in the end, a truly vicious circle of panic and shouting. Maybe my mind just isn’t programmed that way and maybe this really is a good game for those who’ve followed it from its first incarnation, but nothing will make me go back to find out what happens in the end. “Curse of the Emerald Tear” has just joined “The Hobbit” as one of the most traumatic gaming experiences I’ve ever had.

~FuschiaBegonia


Go West!

On my last visit to our FLGS, I picked up two DS puzzle games: James Patterson’s Women’s Murder Club and Cate West: The Vanishing Files. After our not exactly positive experience with a certain DS game a few weeks ago, my good husband (the Prof) had kindly checked out other reviews for Cate West before I bought it. Basically, they recommended getting it either on the PC or the Wii but we couldn’t find those versions, so plumped for the DS one instead.

The game format is hidden object, where you must find X number of named objects across Y different locations. To spice things up a bit, you also have spot the difference puzzles, whodunits and, quite bizarrely, putting things back where you found them puzzles as well. Our heroine is Cate, erstwhile author and budding psychic, whose father was murdered many years ago. Suddenly she finds herself embroiled in a spate of weird and wonderful cases revolving around religious iconography, all linked to the church where her father was killed. She is accompanied by two rather dishy policemen who help her solve the crimes and present the evidence in court.

Having played the game, I can see now why the other formats are recommended over this one; the density of objects and relatively low level quality of the graphics do make it difficult in some locations to spot the hidden objects in amongst the background fuzz. There’s also a random screen tapping penalty, which is fair enough in some cases, but it does get annoying when you get penalised for tapping something that really looks like the thing you thought it was, only to find it isn’t. With fifteen chapters, the game also starts to get really repetitive, particularly as after a certain stage there are few new locations added. This is definitely a game to play one mystery at a time with a good break in between; played over two days it has a tendency to turn your brain to mush.

Despite that, the game does pull you in; the story is madder than several sacks of ferrets but is sufficiently intriguing to keep you fighting your way through the far too numerous junkyards of Arcadia. Mind you, the police here are a bit thick; if they really wanted to cut the crime rate, it would have been far more expedient to just leave a detachment at each of the locations, seeing how often the bad guys return to the same place. Still, that might have made the game a bit short. There’s also some great comedy mileage in the links Cate comes up with between the hidden objects and crucial pieces of evidence (that for some reason someone has cut up into bits and scattered here, there and everywhere). I still can’t quite work out how you get from a chilli and a map of Portugal to a set of false teeth and some roller skates, but there you go…

It’s fairly obvious who the bad guy is from very early on, using the standard mystery solving technique of the least yet therefore most obvious person has to be guilty, but that’s really all by-the-by; its why he’s doing it that’s important in the end. If you like your puzzle games a bit left of centre, then The Vanishing Files is worth the effort but unless you have Action Man’s eagle-eyes, get it on the Wii or PC, or you’ll probably go blind.

~FuschiaBegonia


Ladies Who (Murder) Lunch

Having had my appetite for murder mysteries whetted (and most definitely not satisfied) by “Flower, Sun & Rain”, I wandered into our FLGS to see what else might be available. The first game I picked up was “James Patterson’s Women’s Murder Club: Games of Passion” from THQ. Of course I’d heard of Patterson, even if I was only really familiar with his work through his guest appearances on Castle with Captain Tightpants, Nathan Fillion. Other than that, this was going to be a bit of a leap of faith.

Interestingly, the game runs not in the standard DS orientation but in a more traditional book format; I actually found this far more comfortable to hold, particularly during extended play sessions. The music is suitably US cop show, the female protagonists suitably glam, the men suitably slobby and/or gruff. The language is also right out of your average glossy crime drama, which may make it a bit rumpty-tumpty but also strangely endearing. This is safe, comfortable gaming; you know exactly what you’re going to get, with no nasty surprises.

Our feisty, gorgeous female detective and her feisty, gorgeous friends (a lawyer, a reporter and a police coroner) meet up at the end of each day to discuss the current case over the best food San Francisco has to offer. Equally gorgeous young women (and a fat bloke) are being dumped in the Bay (amongst other places) and it’s your job to solve the crimes and discover the link between them. The game is predominantly a hidden object mystery, where you must identify key clues scattered about various locations in order to answer prompt questions on the left-hand screen. But there’s also an LA Noire style bit during the over dinner case summary where you must remember what bits of evidence support your case (even if in some cases working out what these are is sheer guesswork because of the somewhat obscure wording of the prompts).

Patterson cheats in the same way that many crime authors cheat, by not giving you enough information to really solve the crime until he wants you to (although it is actually quite obvious who the criminal mastermind is very early on). In fact, I still have no real idea why the fat bloke gets it or how our feisty, gorgeous and really smart female protagonist doesn’t spot the bad guy right off, but it remains a perfect example of its genre: mildly diverting, gently entertaining and ultimately, utterly disposable. It’s a very short game, so if you have an evening where mildly diverting is about all you can cope with, then you could do worse than organise a dinner date with Mr Patterson and friends.

~FuschiaBegonia


Flower, Sun and What the…?

I do enjoy a good puzzle game; sadly, “Flower, Sun and Rain” (Nintendo DS, 2008) is not one of them. I should have realised something was a bit off when Game were flogging it for a fiver second hand and the previous owner hadn’t bothered to save any progress. But no, I thought, it’s by Rising Star Games (who include in their back catalogue Harvest Moon, possibly one of the most effective time vampires going) and Suda51 (who I’m reliably informed is an “innovative game designer”). Must be okay, right?

Wrong. It starts off well enough; slick investigator Sumio Mondo arrives on the leisure island of Lospass, where he’s been employed by the local hotel proprietor to solve a mystery. The introductory film is very existential and pretty, but it goes downhill from there on in. Your first game encounter is very confusing, seeing as neither the characters on the screen nor the handbook see fit to really explain what’s going on and the translation from Japanese into English is distinctly iffy. Part of the game involves you looking for “hidden” mysteries, but I didn’t manage to figure out how to do that until after leaving the first area, only to discover that I couldn’t get back again. Some early hidden mysteries require items found later in the game, but for the life of me I can’t work out how you get back to solve them.

And that is a major problem with this game; you think you’re in an open world that you can explore at will, but it soon becomes apparent that you are going to be railroaded in a single, predetermined direction. Deviate from the designer’s chosen path in any way and the game grinds to a painful halt, leaving you running backwards and forwards trying to work out what to do next. And if the designer doesn’t want you to go somewhere, he’s not above sticking giant purple crocodiles in the way. Seriously, I kid you not. Giant. Purple. Crocodiles.

On top of this, nearly all of the characters are desperately unsympathetic, making it very difficult for you to actually care what happens to them. Awful as it sounds, when the main character starts beating up a kid, I actually found myself cheering him on because the little toad was so vile. There’re even attempts to knowingly break the fourth wall which are supposed to be humorous, but come off as deeply pretentious (particularly as some of them are delivered by said brat).

There are several other major irritations: the memo pad, the graphics and the off-screen explanations, to name but a few. The memo pad allows you to make notes on how to solve the hidden and story mysteries. Only problem, you can’t actually access the memo pad when you’re solving the mysteries as they both use the bottom screen. In fact, most of the time the bottom screen is wasted, showing a less than useful map of the island. The game has been adapted from a much earlier Play Station 2 version and has pretty much failed to make good use of the change of platform, with almost all of the action taking place on the top screen in a very pixellated manner. And when the plot gets too impenetrable for the writer, the screen fades out on the protagonists explaining it to each other and fades back in on a “so you see, it makes much more sense now you know” type comment. And yes, the game sees fit to make jokes about how crap the animation is and how weak the plot is, which just smacks of laziness all round.

In the end, this game became a war of attrition. I was determined to finish it, not because I was particularly enjoying it or gave a stuff about what was going on, but because I didn’t want to be beaten by it. I have no clue what was actually going on in the end, other than it seemed to involve talking pink crocodiles, clones, hyenas and exploding planes; it’s utter tosh from start to finish. Oh, and don’t fall for all the “Groundhog Day” comparisons, its not even close. I only paid £2.50 for it thanks to the credit on my husband’s Game card and I still feel like I’ve been ripped off. Best avoid unless you enjoy inflicting mental anguish on yourself in the name of gaming.

~FuschiaBegonia


Yo Ho Ho Lego

I love (most of) the Lego games; let’s face it, the Traveller’s Tales’ version of the Star Wars prequels is far superior to the <expletives deleted> movies delivered by Uncle George. Quite a lot of other people obviously thought so too, meaning that before too long the original Star Wars movies were also given the same loving treatment. And then it was the turn of the first three Indy films to be masterfully translated into mini-fig form (personally my favourite of the franchise so far). But it hasn’t all been plain sailing; I didn’t get on well with the Batman game for a variety of reasons and J. K. Rowling really doesn’t need any of my money, so it’s been a while since I’ve played. That didn’t stop me from getting a bit over-excited when I saw that there was going to be a Lego Pirates of theCaribbean game, though.

So I was very pleased when my lovely husband brought home the X-box 360 version of the game for my delectation and delight. I’ve not done much on the X-box; having small hands, I have some issues with the sheer size of the joypad and therefore comfort during extended play. It’s taken a bit of getting used to, but on the whole it’s not too bad (even if I do still call all the buttons by their PS names).

All four films are included and they’ve been translated well, particularly given how unnecessarily complex Dead Man’s Chest and World’s End were. The Black Pearl chapter is a fun introduction to the game before you’re plunged into wondering what the heck you’re supposed to be doing in quite a bit of chapters 2 and 3. This is partly due to the difficulty of getting tortuous plot points across via the medium of mini-fig mime and because some of the sets are a little dark and viewed from a weird angle. Still, we only had to resort to a walkthrough twice in the entire game (albeit after much scratching of heads and “So, what do you think we’re supposed to do now?” moments). This may be because I’ve only seen the middle two films once each and I didn’t really like them all that much so the details haven’t stuck, but it was a bit frustrating at times. At least the game version of World’s End makes better use of Chow Yun Fat that the movie did; yes, you do get to play Chow Yun Fat, and it is good. The current film (Stranger Tides) is nicely abridged; thankfully the Bloom/Knightley cipher characters are mostly side-lined (although what they’ve done with the preacher is hilarious) and the plot is back to being much more easy to follow.

One of the major problems in previous games was with the multi-player option; you know, the lethally dragging your partner off the screen when you wander off somewhere, forcing them to drop-out of the game if you want to save your precious pennies. This has now been fixed with a split-screen mechanic. Not that it’s entirely perfect, but it’s a massive improvement over what went before. The only other real niggle with the game play is that in the multi-player story mode far too many levels rely on one player going off and solving quite a large proportion of the puzzles while the other player has to stand around and wait for them to finish. Thankfully, though, the vehicle levels are much more straight-forward than in previous incarnations (no trying to catch and then lob giant snowballs down wampa holes, for instance).

The quality of the animation is superb, as you would expect, not only in the game itself but also in the loading screens, which are incredibly cute cut-out puppets frolicking aboard a variety of pirate ships. The animators have captured Captain Jack’s bizarre mincing walk perfectly and provided proof that Orlando Bloom is, in reality, an escaped giant mini-fig. In many cases, the quality of the acting on display has gone right up when compared to the original portrayals; I mean, it’s not as if you could ever accuse the mini-figs of giving a wooden performance. Seeing as, well, you know, they’re made of plastic (or in this case, pixels; I’ll get my coat). There’s the usual slap-stick humour, including an obsession with pigs, and the standard story and free-play modes where you run round trying to become a true pirate and collecting ships in bottles. And thankfully there’s still the same high level of gratuitous, utterly wanton destruction which helps to make these games so much fun in the first place.

The designers at Traveller’s Tales have a winning formula and an obvious love and respect for their subject material. There are hours of obsessive game-play if you’re determined to collect everything, but it’s just as easy to dip in and out as the mood takes you. If you’ve never played a Lego film adaptation game before, this is a pretty good introduction; I mean, its pirates AND Lego – where can you possibly go wrong?

~fuschiabegonia


It’s About Time

For fifty minutes one cold November day, I was Sally Sparrow.

Perhaps an explanation is in order: this was 2009 and Cubicle 7 were in the process of releasing their Dr Who tabletop roleplaying game1. It wasn’t actually available for sale at that time due to shipping issues, but they were still running demos at Dragonmeet. It was so much fun that we put in a pre-order and eagerly awaited the day when it would drop through the letterbox and into our clammy little paws. We also won a Dalek standee the same day, but that’s another story…

There have been three Dr Who roleplaying games so far. The first was published by FASA2 in 1985 and has Tom Baker and Leela on the front cover, even though neither of them was still in the show by that point. The second was “Timelord” by Virgin3; unusually for the time, it was printed as a standard paperback and marketed as such to fit in with their line of novels. It includes the following classic piece of advice for novice roleplayers: “Role-playing is like acting: some people are good at it and others are appalling. There are some splendid examples of bad acting in the television series, so a player who cannot throw himself into a role is hardly setting a precedent – in fact he is making an accurate contribution to the adventure!” Er, right.

So why am I writing a review for a game that’s almost two years old now? Because it’s a good game and many people probably don’t know that it’s out there. Also, the new series of Doctor Who has just broadcast one of its best episodes ever. But also because at some point this year, Cubicle 7 will be releasing an updated version with all new artwork and some new monster material to bring it into the Eleventh Doctor’s reign. You can still get hold of the Tenth Doctor edition, which is what I’ll be reviewing here, an eye-poppingly gorgeous boxed set and well worth a look if you can’t wait patiently for the new stuff.

And, yes, I said boxed set. Many of the early RPGs came as multiple booklets in a box with a few dice. They then graduated onto A4-ish hard or soft-backs. Others, like Timelord, have been published in a smaller, more recognised format. Like its FASA predecessor, Cubicle 7’s game has gone for the traditional boxed set, but not for the same reasons. Licensing intellectual property is a very complex area these days; someone else already has the licence to produce Dr Who books, so the designers have been forced to be creative and return to gaming’s roots all at the same time. And yes, it has dice in it. They have TARDIS blue dots on them.

It also has a lot of other stuff in it: a Player’s guide, a Gamemaster’s guide, an adventures book, character sheets, pop-out gadget cards, story point counters and a four sided rules summary, all very similar to James Wallis’ favourite game of all time, the hugely influential Ghostbusters4. And that’s one of the game’s strengths: it has learnt from the best of the past and given the players a fast, simple way into the game that doesn’t necessarily require several days’ reading first. You can pick up the quick start guide (helpfully labelled “Read This First!”) and the pre-generated character sheets (Tennant’s Doctor, Rose, Mickey, Martha, Donna, the decent, non-Torchwood version of Captain Jack, Sarah Jane and the tin dog) and just get on with it. There’re not many games that you can say that about.

Obviously there are rules for creating your own characters; basically, you start with a set number of points that you assign to particular areas. In this game, that’s Attributes, Skills and Traits. There are six Attributes, which give your character a rough idea of their overall capabilities. Then there are your Skills, which make it all a bit more specific. I freely admit that this is the point at which I often give up on RPGs; the background might be amazing, but endless lists of abilities usually kill my enthusiasm stone dead. Fortunately this time, I survived.

Possibly the most interesting of these three areas are the Traits, which show a genuine knowledge and affection for the setting. The best examples of this are “Resourceful Pockets” (a Doctor staple) and “Screamer!” which made me laugh a great deal (even more so now after River’s comment to the Doctor in “The Impossible Astronaut”). There are also bad Traits, which gain you extra points to spend elsewhere, a fairly common idea in gaming but again containing a nice nod to the show’s history, particularly in the form of “Unadventurous”. This Trait can be used to “retire” a character from the story by giving the companion a reason to leave when they are fed up of being cold and wet, hypnotised left, right and centre, shot at, savaged by bug eyed monsters or not knowing whether they’re coming or going or been. There are also some fairly special Traits for aliens and Timelords, should you wish to play such high-powered characters.

What about the mechanics? Well, they’re fast, fun and very organic. It involves a little bit of maths (rolling two dice, adding them together then adding two more numbers to that, comparing it to a difficulty and seeing if you’d beaten it and by how much), but nothing too strenuous. That’s as far as it has to go, but there is a very nice touch in what could basically be described as the Vicki Pollard mechanic (“Yeah, but, no, but”). This allows you to have degrees of success and failure based on how far above/below the target number you were set and its great for getting some extra dramatics into the game if you don’t already do that sort of thing. You’ll also find quite a few tables and loads of examples to support game play, some from familiar episodes and some new.

A rather cool feature is the order in which events will happen during any given encounter: those who wish to talk go first (so they can do the whole tenth Doctor Shouty Man thing if they want), then those who wish to run, run (again, all very in-keeping with the show’s formula). Those who wish to do something (like build a gadget) go next and finally those wishing to resort to violence have to wait until the end. The anti-gun message is perhaps a little strident given the Doctor’s previous history regarding fire-arms (and UNIT), but it does fit with Tennant’s holier-than-thou attitude on the matter. I’d be very interested to see if this changes with the new edition, seeing as the Doctor has admitted finding River’s gunplay really rather enticing. There’s a whole load of stuff on damage and how to use the system’s story points to avoid getting moshed (and how to get more of them if you’re running a bit low), and an entire chapter of hints and tips for the new player. Needless to say, they’re rather more useful than the one from Timelord. And all this is just in the Player’s Guide!

The Gamemaster’s Guide is as sumptuously produced as its companion; my only real niggle with it (putting my lecturer’s hat on) is that there are some really odd grammatical choices in parts of the editing that felt really jarring (and that I’d mark my students down for). But then, I am incredibly old-fashioned that way, although I haven’t quite taken to wearing a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches. Yet. And then there’s that odd box on the top of page 53 about introducing characters in a game, slap bang in the middle of a section on healing and damage…

The rest of the GM’s book is good; straightforward to read, littered with examples from the series, only one of which I couldn’t place for the life of me (the SS Nakamura, anyone?) and some lovely humour harking back to the original series. Indeed, the Brig gets his infamous quote about aliens being resistant to bullets included in the description of potential alien immunities that will tickle long-standing fans without confusing new ones (à la the whole “Who the hell is Rassilon?” debacle at the end of the specials). Essentially for this type of book, it covers exactly what you’d need it to: story-telling advice, monster details and a more in-depth discussion of the rules. They’ve even duplicated some of the critical information from the Player’s Guide as well, so the GM doesn’t have to go borrowing the players’ book from them at a crucial moment.

All in all, this is a lovely shiny game with fun accessories, a well balanced rule system that can be pruned to suit your group’s playing style and sufficient support to get you going in the right direction. Cubicle 7 did say that they’d release the equivalent of a patch for people who already own the original version of the game when the new edition comes out, which suggests the changes will be mostly cosmetic. There is one other boxed set available (Monsters and Aliens) and a whole raft of others lined up for release in the summer. But then, they were also going to get released last year, which was somewhat scuppered by Tennant’s leaving and the whole re-branding issue. Never mind, I’m sure they’ll appear in time…

1 – Dr Who: Adventures in Time and Space, the Role Playing Game (2009) David F. Chapman et al; Cubicle 7 Entertainment Ltd

2 – The Dr Who Role Playing Game: Adventures Through Time and Space (1985) FASA

3 – Timelord: Adventures Through Time and Space (1991) Ian Marsh & Peter Darvill-Evans; Virgin

4 – Ghostbusters, a Frightfully Cheerful Roleplaying Game (1986) Sandy Petersen, Lynn Willis & Greg Stafford;West EndGames