Saturday, 26 February 2011

Chrono Trigger

Related article - One of Chrono Trigger's designers, Hironobu Sakaguchi, discusses his new Wii JPRG The Last Story.

It seems an apt time to revisit role-playing classic Chrono Trigger, in the wake of last year’s extremely successful Western launch of Dragon Quest IX and the recent Japanese release of The Last Story on Wii, which could be the last game Hironobu Sakaguchi* makes. In a recent interview with EDGE, the Final Fantasy creator poignantly admitted: "It's not a question of me wanting to make videogames or not. Of course I want to make more. It's more about the relevance of my work. If too few people like my games, it's a sign that my ideas are from another time. It would mean that my creativity doesn't meet today's tastes and expectations". So The Last Story, from its title onwards, appears as though it could be a rare case of a developer realizing and exploring their own waning relevance to a gaming world they fundamentally helped shape, wrapped up in the conventions of a JRPG (off the top of my head I can’t think of a better, possibly sadder, example of how far gaming culture has developed, and how old this interest of ours now is). Chrono Cross, a highly-praised sequel to Chrono Trigger was released in 1999, but sadly never made it to Europe. It is, however, scheduled to release on Japan’s Playstation Network in Spring, but given how long it took Chrono Trigger to officially launch in PAL territories – thirteen years! – we won’t be expecting it anytime soon. And besides, Chrono Trigger is ripe for several revisits yet, its multiple endings, intelligent battle system and excellent script as comforting on a third and fourth playthrough as they were startling on the first. The following extract from Eurogamer’s review is my favourite piece of writing on Chrono Trigger, distilling just what makes the game as fun and radical today as it was back in 1995:

In one memorable scene early on, Crono stands trial for crimes you're sure you never committed. During the trial, the prosecution shows footage of your actions earlier in the game, running from stall to stall at a bustling fair, 'stealing' goods from trestle tables. It's the game poking fun at your habit of clicking on everything; an excellent and surprising joke that not only ridicules the JRPG conventions its makers helped establish, but foreshadows the game's wider themes in a lighthearted way.

Presented after the screenshot is my review, originally written at the time of the DS version’s European release in early 2009.

Back when the thought of SquareSoft and Enix ever merging was as fanciful an idea as getting, say, Mario to compete in choice Olympic sports with Sonic, Chrono Trigger was a very big deal. While today it is deservedly regarded as one of the greatest games ever, back in 1995 Chrono Trigger’s myth revolved less around how its design template appeared to refine the RPG to a fine art and more on the mouth-watering prospect of designers from both JRPG-development behemoths collaborating on one title. The reality of course wasn’t as heretical as the headlines would suggest, but even Square dubbed the pairing of Hironobu Sakaguchi with Yuuji Horii and Akira Toriyama a “dream team” – the former created Final Fantasy, whilst the latter two distinguished themselves with work on Enix’s Dragon Quest series.

Despite this star billing, on the surface Chrono Trigger is as conventional a Japanese RPG as you’d expect. You begin the adventure as Crono, a young boy who ventures to the local fair to see his friend’s new teleportation machine. Within half an hour your friend Marle has been teleported through an alternate portal when the machine in question goes wrong. Following her you end up in 600 A.D (a symbol in the bottom corner keeping you up to date with the era you’re currently in). It’s testament to the considerable skill of Square’s storytellers that this tumultuous series of events never feels anything other than a breathless, panic-stricken prologue to the larger story that then unfolds. Despite only first meeting Marle at the fair, following her is the only compelling, believable response.

The little pieces of characterisation and dialogue are superb, as is the pacing, the careful layering of events. Never mind videogaming, Chrono Trigger is one of the great recent examples of storytelling in any medium. In short, it’s everything role-playing games are meant to be, sucking you into a unique world until your identification with the game is inseparable from the characters and their goals.

Unlike, for example, Final Fantasy IV (the last JRPG I played, and another example in the welcome trend of rereleasing these once rare games on the latest consoles), Chrono Trigger is a game that can be embraced by both genre novices and hardened veterans alike. That first group is perhaps the most important; we’d implore the sort of gamers to whom turn-based battles, MP/HP and intense item management seem impenetrable to play Chrono Trigger. In many ways it’s the perfect introduction to the genre, the surface impression of conventionality giving way to some subtle yet significant changes. For a start there are no random battles, with enemies visible at all times; this removes the irritation of being interrupted on your travels, allowing the sense of exploration to coincide with fighting instead of one factor spoiling the other. The Active Battle System (which actually made its debut in Final Fantasy IV) is similarly intuitive, and is pacey enough to almost make you forget that these encounters are still taking place along turn-based lines.

The slight tweaks to the format create some interesting results (for example the gameworld is surprisingly small, which is something you wouldn’t expect from a ‘traditional’ JRPG), but because the design is so tight everything has a purpose; the dynamic of time-travel lending the game the epic-ness that other, lesser, titles would take from an overwhelming world size or a cast of hundreds. This modesty also extends to the visuals (they may date back to 1995 but still retain immense charm) and of course the famous score by Yasunori Mitsuda. Despite all this talk of genre expectations, Chrono Trigger is a creation that transcends such pigeonholing, excelling despite its heritage and context. For a game that plays so successfully with the notion of time it’s fairly apt that with this re-release Chrono Trigger has proved itself to be pretty much timeless.

Having never had the opportunity to play Chrono Trigger until now, only reading about the game in various magazines and across forums over the years, I’m left feeling grateful that a) it lived up to the considerable hype, turning into the sort of canonised prestige title that the worlds of film and music have in such plentiful supply and that b) we live in an age when re-releases/masters such as this one are still considered services to gaming history. Especially for a game that is only seeing official light of day in PAL territories with this DS edition. As polished and complete a version as one could hope for, Chrono Trigger is, in this day of Square-Enix and multi-format Sonic, still a very big deal.

- Here's the full Eurogamer review from 2008, written by Simon Parkin.

- And here's the link to D+PAD Magazine, where my review was originally published.

* Hironobu Sakaguchi was part of the so-called “Dream Team”, which also included Yuji Horii and Akira Toriyama (creators of Dragon Quest and the anime series Dragon Ball respectively). Given that background, the tag dream team is, if anything, an understatement.

Killzone 2

After reading my original review of Killzone 2 again – republished (well, copy and pasted) below with a few corrections for grammar – early 2009 suddenly seems like such a long time ago. This was a time when the Playstation 3 was still struggling to gain momentum, a point in the console’s cycle where lauded exclusives had been falling, critically and commercially, by the wayside with alarming regularity (the much maligned likes of Heavenly Sword, Lair, Haze*), a point where there was little hint of the future innovations to come. The alarm bells, though understandable, proved a tad histrionic; the end of 2009 brought a certain little title by the name of Uncharted 2, and the Playstation 3 quickly stopped becoming the punchline for every fanboy’s console war joke. But Killzone 2’s release, in this turbulent context of early 2009, felt important in a way that the launch of the series’ second sequel – released yesterday in the UK – simply doesn’t.

Despite being an even more technically impressive production, Killzone 3 no longer needs to act as a billboard for the console’s capabilities; with the ‘wow’ factor (for want of a better phrase) missing, the focus has shifted to look at which criticisms of Killzone 2 Guerrila have taken on board and rectified. Some of the more regular complaints leveled at Killzone 2 were based on the repetition of its environments and misgivings about its narrative, which I touched upon back in February 2009. I felt the former was excusable, given the world’s sense of cohesion, although it sounds as though Killzone 3 has a much greater variety. I’ll be playing it this weekend and posting my thoughts at some point, although I won’t be holding my breath for improved characterization or plot of any descernible depth. Yes, Killzone 2 was very derivirative - but given the context of its place in the grander scheme of things there’s a sense that it couldn’t really have turned out any other way. It was more of a technical showcase then it was a first-person shooter to redefine this over-populated genre’s boundaries, but our eyes were too wide to care.

We’ve been here before of course. Back in 2003 the original Killzone was unveiled as the game that would emphatically wrestle the FPS initiative back to the PlayStation 2, away from Microsoft, Xbox and the mighty Halo. Blinded as the press and public were to some admittedly impressive technical demonstrations, the game went on to sell well over a million copies, presumably before anyone had the chance to realize just how many cracks there were beneath the invitingly shiny exterior and how poorly Killzone compared – if not in looks, then certainly in playability – to Bungie’s masterpiece (a game that appears to take on more and more significance as the years pass).

Skip forward two years to E3 2005. Killzone 2 is unveiled to an industry as the tech demo – sorry, game – that would cement PlayStation 3’s inevitable market leadership, even with the launch of the Xbox 360 just months away. Sony’s response appeared reminiscent of an advertising slogan Nintendo used in the months before the launch of Nintendo 64: “Is it worth the wait? Only if you want the best!” As we know, the PlayStation 3 has hardly had an easy ride since.

By now you’ll have already seen the corresponding score. Chances are you’ll have also made up your mind as to this review’s merits, or even those of Killzone 2 as a game overall. So for everyone disembarking at this point, the brief summation is thus: Killzone 2 does very few things that are new and it won’t exactly win the Pulitzer for its attempt at fiction, but it may just be the most accomplished slice of genre gaming this generation has yet produced, with every noteworthy strand of technology and game design collated into one console-defining title. Where others have innovated, Killzone 2 has refined to the nth degree; this approach may be considered cowardly, but it will work wonders for the average gamer.

What suggests Killzone 2 is such a successful creation is that after a while the soundbite-worthy features that stand out in the initial hours gradually give way to an experience that is all about the feel and the immersion of play, a factor that was sorely lacking from the original game. From the heaviness of movement to the debris that chips off each pillar through gunfire, the world of Killzone 2 is tangible, realistic and incredibly well conceived. The visuals, even after such blog-friendly hype, are astonishing, but would represent little more than a hollow victory were they not supporting this cohesive ethos. Narrative excepted – and it is a big exception – Guerrilla has placed a certain gravitas upon their vision of warfare and ensured that everything works towards this goal.

A case in point would be early on when your squad finds itself ambushed in one small corner of Visari Square by charging Helghast troops. Wave after wave of enemies appear, past the point that other FPS shooters would have reasonably given the player a break, but it never feels unfair; instead it’s the first intense set-piece in a game loaded with such encounters. By the end our ammo was down to single digits, our reaction one of being genuinely relieved to have survived. The final assault on Visari Palace is similar, a sustained battle during which every inch gained feels vital and where retreating even a few steps invites the Helghast forward.

Killzone 2 is a game that really benefits from a patient approach to combat, the now standard cover system adapted so that pushing forward on the left stick allows you to quickly duck out and fire before snapping back into place. This careful, grinding approach is somewhat at odds with the machismo that dominates practically everywhere else (from the name itself to the expletive-ridden script, Killzone 2 is the sort of game straight from the nightmares of Daily Mail readers), and is an example of contrasts and opposites that also extends to the campaign mode’s excellent structure. The flashpoints dotted throughout are certainly memorable, if only for their physicality, but they’re buffeted by some wonderful stretches of languor and isolation that significantly help the pacing. Prior to Suljeva Village the repetition of industrial environments threatens to become suffocating, but from Suljeva on, the game soars to a superbly judged climax; the intervening hours full of incident, tension and no little excitement. It’s clear that the last four years weren’t simply spent on pushing the PS3 hardware as far as possible, but in creating a world so cohesive that every successive mission feels like a natural progression from the last. Inconsequential narrative be damned (there are frequent pathetic attempts at investing the story with ‘emotion’ that make the Gears sequel look like Final Fantasy 7); Killzone 2 may have the most derivative campaign mode of the last few years, but it also has one of the very, very best.

One significant component of Killzone 2 that has yet to scale these aforementioned heights is the online multiplayer, though only for the simple reason that at the time of writing lobbies lie empty and arenas stand barren. For many, online play will be the determining factor of Killzone 2’s success and failure; reassuringly it’s clear that Guerrilla’s understanding of what makes for a compulsive multiplayer mode is as assured as their knack of cherry-picking ideas for the single-player game, a view also supported by our experience testing the November 2008 beta and hours spent in simulating with bots. Judging by the number of clans already being formed in anticipation, Killzone 2 appears to have captured the imagination of the wider PS3 community.

Again taking the template established by the usual FPS suspects, Killzone 2’s online play rewards perseverance and dedication, as more and more options are made available to the player, the more games, kills and points are racked up. Some will be intent on simply climbing up the promotional ladder (a gold trophy awaits future Generals), while others will relish the opportunity for personalisation that exists further down the line. Such a system ensures that there remains a motivation for returning to the game, should the promise of the tightest, most immersive online games since Modern Warfare not be enough. Expect this to dominate PSN for the remainder of 2009.

The irony here is that whereas Sony introduced the first, deeply disappointing, Killzone whilst in a position of unparalleled dominance (even five years on the PS2 is still a going sales concern), Killzone 2, this strangely beautiful testament to the industry as it stands today, arrives at a moment when the Japanese electronics giant has everything to prove within gaming. Countless lauded exclusives have spectacularly flopped since the PS3’s launch and the console’s market share is still less than glowing; there’s a sense that for history to repeat itself twice with another Killzone debacle, given the expectations, the jaw-dropping preview footage and the hordes of illiterate fanboys chomping at the bit, would have been catastrophic. Instead, the end result is nothing short of triumphant.

- This review was originally written for D+PAD Magazine; it looks a bit like this.

* Unable to remember the name of Free Radical Design's shooter, I Googled "PS3 EXCLUSIVE FIRST PERSON SHOOTER CRAP". Haze was the top result.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Bionic Commando Rearmed 2

Few companies approach the nostalgia-fuelled reimagining of classic properties with as much care and understanding as Capcom. From the ever-familiar updates of Street Fighter, which has kept the illustrious fighting game as relevant today as it was back in the early 90s, to the likes of the recent iPhone conversion of Phonenix Wright, the Capcom brand has always been greeted with great affection, whether the game in question be a sequel, port or remake.

It’s in that last category which 2008’s Bionic Commando Rearmed fell. A polished remake of the NES game from twenty years prior, Rearmed was something of an anomaly in that it ended up getting higher praise than the ‘full’ console game it was ostensibly released to promote, 2009’s flawed yet enjoyable Bionic Commando. Developer GRIN, responsible for both titles, sadly went bankrupt following the release of one last game (the broken Terminator Salvation) so responsibility for Bionic Commando Rearmed 2 has fallen to relative newcomer Fatshark.

To clear the confusion then, Rearmed 2 takes place a few years after the first remake, but before the events depicted in Bionic Commando. With neither the cache of reminiscing, nor the appeal of a full retail-release adventure, Rearmed 2 attempts to make amends by retaining the old-school scrolling gameplay of the first game, albeit with some elements incorporated from its 2009 elder sibling. Most controversial of all perhaps is the new-found power to jump.

It may seem strange to highlight jumping as being noteworthy, especially in a platformer, but the 1988 Bionic Commando was famous for the lead character Nathan Spencer’s ability to only traverse the landscape by swinging, thanks to the use of his extendable bionic arm. While Fatshark do acknowledge the intrinsic appeal of this mechanic to the purists (it is possible to complete the game without using the jump, which unlocks an Achievement/Trophy), it is still nevertheless a little disappointing that such concessions had to be made, when the original game proved so adept in its level design that the absence of a jump was barely noticed.

The plot sees Spencer and four fellow FSA operatives being sent to the Papagaya Islands, a barely disguised Cuba surrogate. They’re here to search for Colonel Bruabaker, who has been missing shortly after landing on the islands to confront the dictator General Sabio. It’s an undemanding set-up that allows for some diverse locations as well as some winningly surreal dialogue (one memorable early exchange between a boss and Spencer centres on the strength-giving properties of muesli). One of the more notable changes to the structure of Rearmed 2 is hinted at in the above synopsis, with the four companions of Spencer serving as the gateway to co-operative play. The problem here is that the level design, which is in many cases multi-levelled and open to a certain exploration, is wasted on two players. The screen doesn’t scale to accommodate divergent paths, and co-op largely ends up as a game of follow-the-leader, with little room for spontaneity.

It’s just as well then that the single-player game is decent enough for us to forgive other digressions. Instead of being able to choose your path as you could in the original, Rearmed 2 is strictly linear, with one level opening at a time. These vary in pace and set-pieces, although the newly beefed up physics are regularly given ample opportunity to shine; the first Rearmed was notable for its understated and respectful graphical overhaul – there’s no such reverence paid (or even necessary) here, and as a result Rearmed 2, with its myriad graphical effects and distracting visual noise, leaves you in no doubt that it is very much a product of the current Xbox LIVE/PSN games climate. Thankfully the 8-bit stylings of the soundtrack do make a return.

While Rearmed 2 may be misguided in trampling across its legacy in certain areas, it also makes successful winks to heritage as well as – most importantly – providing a fun, robust experience. It may err to the easier side (another jarring contrast to the original which was, to say the least, challenging) but several hours spent at the controls of Nathan and co may just offer the warm retro-tinged glow you’ve been looking for. Or just wait for the key improvements to be made when Capcom remakes this in ten years time.

- This review was first published by those fine people over at D+PAD Magazine.

- Bionic Commando Rearmed 2 is out now for PSN/Xbox LIVE Arcade.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword

Prior to meeting Muramasa for the second time, every non-enemy character in Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword can be conversed with by simply tapping on them with your trusty stylus. But no matter how many times you touch "the kindly old man", no matter how long you spend inelegantly jumping up and down in front of him, he just won't wake from his deep slumber lying in the middle of a bridge. But then the idea to shout Muramasa's name into the microphone dawned on us, and immediately the elderly store owner jumped up. It's an excellent re-introduction to a key character in this slight but extremely well-formed adventure.

Employing the DS's microphone in such a way is of course far from novel, but it's a moment that does show how considerate of the host hardware Team Ninja were when designing this off-shoot, retaining the series' essence whilst understandably curtailing its more notorious aspects. Played with the DS held sideways, with the left screen displaying the game map, control of Ryu Hayabusa is akin to that of Link in Phantom Hourglass: slashing across enemies will attack them in various ways, depending on the direction in which you moved the stylus, whilst dodging (or 'Reverse Wind', as the instruction manual states), is as easy as holding down any face button and pointing either to the left or right.

At first it makes for a compromised experience, as swathes of demons are disposed of as easily as if you were popping the surface of bubble wrap. It's only several chapters in that the beauty of the system materialises, Ryu quickly attacking, then weaving out of harm's way before calling upon a magic attack. With its combination of nimble movement and furious action (albeit with disappointingly easy bosses, at least in Normal mode) Dragon Sword is in fact not unlike its console brothers in terms of the feel of gameplay - quite the compliment when you consider the glorious fluidity of combat in both Ninja Gaiden and its sequel (a fluidity arguably only matched in recent years by Bayonetta).

Despite viewed mostly from above using a fixed camera, there are frequent shifts in Dragon Sword to strict 2D planes, with brief brawls in corridors that recall this classic fight from Oldboy (well kind of, but it's an excuse just to watch this scene again):

Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword was generally well received upon release, a great example of what can be achieved when the innate feel of a supposedly unconvertible franchise is weaved into a machine as unique as the Nintendo DS. A Nintendo 3DS Ninja Gaiden has already been confirmed by Team Ninja, which if handled with as much intelligence as evidenced here, could be quite spectacular.