Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (Part 1: The First 8 Hours)
Note to Reader: This review will be divided into 2 articles, and this one covers the beginning of the game up until your second party member joins.
If it were up to my wife, Oliver would be left to die and the worlds would fall into ruin—but the animals (see monsters) of the “Another World” would be safe and free to mutilate whomever they choose. Such is the curse of Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (PS3), a game so full of life, detail, and utter adorableness that you won’t want to harm anything that inhabits it (until monsters are chomping at your torso).
You’ll first meet 13-year-old Oliver as he is peer-pressured into sneaking out of his house one night to try out a friend’s homemade car—a vehicle that is the hallmark of the sleepy 50’s-inspired town of Motorville. We get our first glimpse of Oliver’s cleverness as he carefully negotiates a conversation with his mom to find out how he can get away with leaving in the middle of the night.
But Oliver’s being watched from another realm; in a Wizard of Oz-style scene, a mysterious helmeted figure in a cloak peers across worlds at Oliver, noting to her bird-of-darkness that Oliver is the “Pure-Hearted One” the prophecies speak of who will save the world. She does not like that one bit, and waves a spell across space that sabotages the car. After a series of unfortunate events set in motion by this sabotage, Oliver survives, and locks himself in his room for days. But his tears awaken a stuffed doll he has had since he was a child, bringing back to life Drippy, the once-cursed Lord High Lord of the Fairies (who, notably, has a small lantern that hangs from his nose). Drippy wastes no time when he realizes Oliver has no clue of the bigger picture (and this helps to keep the pace up for the player, as well). Drippy concisely explains that there are multiple worlds, and a dark djinn called Shadar (from Drippy’s world) has terrorized the people. In a Kingdom Hearts-like move, Shadar stole pieces of the people’s hearts and left them “brokenhearted” so they never rise up against him. Oliver’s magical tears proved that he’s the pure-hearted one of legend, and Drippy quickly spews out some history and rules of the universe.
But Drippy needs Oliver. All living things have a “soul mate” in the other world—a connected counterpart that shares some of their traits but are not similar enough to be a doppelgänger. Oliver’s mom’s soul mate happens to be Alicia, one of the four Great Sages, though she was taken out of commission by Shadar and the only way to ensure Oliver’s own mother will be alright is to help her soul mate. Drippy recognizes that, given a wand and a spellbook, Oliver has it in him to become a proper wizard and, using said spellbook, they cross a gateway to the other world (where the majority of the game will take place). The spellbook, a. k. a. the Wizard’s Companion, is a fully realized, fully browsable book you can read from the in-game menu (the special edition of the game came with a printed hardcover version as well). The book runs 300+ pages and unlocks bit by bit as Oliver progresses through his journey. Spells are described, tales are told, and background is given on all major aspects of the world. It deepens the player’s understanding of the game world while simultaneously serving as a plot device, though any mandatory plot information is given outside of the book. This book was clearly given a lot of love and attention; it resembles exactly what you would imagine a fairytale spellbook would look like, and you can easily spend hours panning and zooming around its content—in fact, Drippy encourages it!
The first 8 hours of the 40—60-hour adventure spends its time letting us get to know Oliver and Drippy, both as characters and as a duo, and it does a great job of balancing the pacing without holding your hand too hard through the tutorials. Drippy gives out some info in brief tutorials, but the majority of the player’s information comes from characters who are actually intelligent, clever, and can draw their own conclusions. Oliver is a great lead, as despite his youth he is as wise as the wizard he sets out to become. You won’t end up yelling at the screen during a dialogue when you know an answer—either Oliver or someone else involved will quickly catch on to what needs to be done and helps keep the plot moving. Oliver is no whiney, stuck-up, kid with amnesia or a cold heart: on the surface, he’s a regular lad who grew up with a regular family, and he cares about the worlds and the people within them. He represents the wholesome son with every fiber of his character, down to his expletives (he cries often out, “Jeepers!”). And while he may be the chosen one of legend, he works for his greatness, and he works hard.
Level-5 and Studio Ghibli have done a great job at realizing the worlds and answering every question a player could possibly have about it. The other world is a world of magic, though magic in practice is rare: Shadar left all great wizards brokenhearted or defeated, and most wands were lost or destroyed in fear of Shadar striking back against magic-users. Monsters run loose as well, making the world a dangerous place.
Not all creatures are aggressive,though; tamed monsters are called “familiars.” Not too long into their journey Drippy teaches Oliver how to summon a familiar from his own heart, and the result is Mitey: an adorable little warrior with a sword and shield. And while Oliver does fight on his own for much of the first few hours (he excels at magic casting but is weak in physical attacking), he benefits from Mitey’s high physical attack and defense ratings. Battling with Mitey becomes a Pokémon-style mechanic of controlling the creature and giving it commands in an action-RPG way—you’ll manually run around the area, landing and dodging attacks based on your proximity. As you’d imagine, different creatures have different strengths, weaknesses, and abilities, so oftentimes Oliver will have a better chance at winning a battle using a familiar than by doing the fighting himself (he later acquires Lemahl, a lemur with high evasion and quick jabs of medium-strength attacks, and Sid, a healer that can learn magic attacks). But switching back and forth is also a helpful battle strategy, as Oliver has his own set of spells that come in handy, and can use items. You’ll find yourself looking for fights because they work so well and feel so good without being too easy. Oliver or Mitey run around the battle area with Drippy visibly cheering from the sidelines as Oliver takes on such ridiculously cute creatures as the Ruff and Baatender. The dynamic changes after the 8 hour point, when your second party member joins, and I’ll discuss that in Part 2 of this review (coming soon).
Paper Mario: Sticker Star Review
Paper Mario: Sticker Star on the 3DS is charming, cute, clever, and fun, drawing inspiration from past Super Mario and Paper Mario games. With thought-provoking puzzles, smart level design, and zany dialogue, Sticker Star is a game to love despite a few frustrating flaws.
For those new to the series: Paper Mario takes place in a paper-based Mushroom Kingdom in which everything is 2D within a 3D plane. The 3DS’ technology highlights the dimensional differences well, giving the paper Toads, goombas, and other Mario Bros. elements a truly flat feel amongst the three-dimensional environments. But having been released for a 3D system, it’s curious that the developers didn’t create a world similar to that of Super Paper Mario for the Wii, where the player would have to switch on the fly between a 2D and 3D view of the world. (Maybe they felt the switching back and forth would cause headaches?)
In Sticker Star, the kingdom has gathered at the square for the annual Sticker Fest to watch the passing-by of the Sticker Comet—said to grant a wish to the person who touches it. Princess Peach plans to wish for peace, but after a struggle Bowser touches the comet and it splits into six royal stickers. They scatter across the kingdom, and Bowser gets away, kidnapping the princess in the process.
But Mario will need to do more than papercut Bowser to save the kingdom and its princess. Enter Kersti: a shiny sticker fairy who arrives to protect the sticker comet. Kersti, who resembles a tiara, grants the reknown hero Mario the ability to collect in an enchanted album the stickers that were scattered when Bowser wreaked havoc and use them offensively. She also grants him the ability to “paperize” an area, flattening it out like a book so Mario can peel off specific pieces of the environment for use in other areas. This becomes integral to solving the game’s puzzles and advancing to the next level. Mario is also given a hammer.
Together, they travel the world map in search of the royal stickers and clues of Bowser’s wherabouts. Along Mario and Kersti’s journey, they encounter plenty of Bowser’s minions: goombas, koopas, shy guys, boos, and many more. Battles are initiated by jumping on or swinging Mario’s hammer at on-screen enemies, which takes you to a turn-based battle scenario in which Mario can spend stickers to use associated attacks, block incoming attacks, and spin a slots wheel for attack bonuses—a boot sticker allows Mario to jump on an enemies; a fire flower sticker allows him to hurl fireballs, etc.). But battles feel bare and often pointless with no experience or growth system in place. If you can actively avoid many enemies and only lose stickers (your only means of attacking) by fighting, what’s the player’s motivation to fight? Yes, you’ll win a few coins, but coins are used to buy stickers or spin the slots wheel, so why spend the stickers in the first place?
Saving stickers often proves to be a more useful tactic, as each suped-up royal-sticker-wearing boss requires you to throw everything you have at it if you didn’t already have the appropriate “thing” sticker for the battle in your inventory. “Things” are three-dimensional real-world items like a vacuum, pillow, goat, jackhammer, bowling ball, and more that can be found and converted into powerful stickers. As you can imagine, scissors in a paper-based world can be devastating in battle, but other stickers (like an upright fan) need to be placed within a level using paperization in order to progress. More often than not, however, you will not know what you need until you are standing next to the spot where it needs to be placed, as there are usually no hints as to what things you will need to bring with you to a level. Carrying them all with you isn’t feasible because they take up so much inventory space (thing stickers are much larger than regular stickers), so you will often find yourself going back to the town square to convert things to stickers and then traveling back to the level in which it is needed. The same goes for boss battles: some battles are incredibly difficult or even impossible without the right special sticker, but you won’t know what that sticker is until you’re already in the battle. These are battles you of course cannot run from, so the only option is to reload your last in-level save or world map auto-save. This can become very frustrating, as some of the needed stickers for levels or bosses are particular to one specific sticker and it’s not apparent which is needed, but others are interchangeable. For example, I tried to wake a sleeping creature up using a jackhammer, but only a musical instrument worked. However, an oven or heater could be used to melt snow.
Still, the level design is well-done, usually having Mario traverse a 3D plane (moving toward and away from the 3DS screen), requiring you to avoid or take down enemies while searching for areas to paperize. Secret paths exist too, leading you to hidden sticker stars or items. Levels like the Enigmansion in World 4 (of 6) functions as a callback to Luigi’s Mansion and the infamous haunted houses of past games, and also demonstrates smart level design, showing off the series’ strength for collecting hidden items, taking multiple paths, and remembering where each room is for when you need to return and place an integral sticker.
And then there’s the music: fantastic arrangements that are reminiscent of old Mario tunes but modernized and made appropriate for the quirkiness of Sticker Star. With full orchestral tracks that would feel at home in old Hollywood productions, the music is very much its own star. Not only are the tracks festive and catchy without becoming mind-numbingly repetitive, but they work perfectly with the world they are playing within. For example, the desert world’s soundtrack includes mariachi-style clap beats that are perfectly fitting with the acoustic guitar-playing Sombrero Guy enemies perched in the sand. It created a strong sense of atmosphere, and I couldn’t help but smile when I first came across this.
But through the good and the frustrating, the game also suffers from not knowing what genre it is. It’s scant on RPG elements and the platforming is weak, and what feels like an effort to merge the two genres just didn’t work. Instead, we’re left with a Mario who can’t jump high or far and who doesn’t earn experience points or work with other party members. The writing saves the game, though, because no matter how frustrating battling may become, there is always someone with a clever line or a fun personality quirk.
Paper Mario: Sticker Star was drawn for younger players, but planned for adults. You’ll need your wits about you and to always be ready to problem-solve. While I wouldn’t call the game hard, it does require a sense of logic and creativity other games rarely ask for. But without an experience system or clues for what special stickers to bring to boss fights, battles can become a frustrating chore. Still, it’s a clever, well-written adventure worth taking that feels fresh while often calling back to previous games in the series without sacrificing itself.
New Super Mario Bros. 2: More Bling Than Sequel (Review)
It’s impossible not to be enamored with a game that includes Koopa Troopers that do jazz hands to the musical cues in each level’s soundtrack—something that’s just the tip of New Super Mario Bros. 2’s charm.
The game is more of an extension of the first game than a direct sequel: the mechanics are familiar, as are most of the power-ups and level elements. But the game’s core goal has changed: Yes, you have to chase Bowser’s underlings across the game’s six world’s (and three secret worlds) to rescue the princess, but Mario’s main goal is to get paid. The game keeps a running tally of every coin you’ve collected since you first began your save file, including coins collected before losing a life (though on the occasion that you do, odds are you’ll still have over 100 lives left). I suppose after all the work Mario’s done for the Mushroom Kingdom he is looking for what he hopes to be his big payday before settling down with Princess Peach (and probably securing a position as prince).
And with this game, Nintendo’s made coin-collecting relevant again—we’re talking coin-collecting for coin-collecting’s sake. There are no in-game trophies or achievements for grabbing every coin you see and spending hours replaying levels,but you’ll want to do it anyway. Why? Not so much for the unlockable post-game levels (though you’ll enjoy those), but because of a simple counter on the screen, a community total, and the on-screen suggestion that you should do it.
The modern-day gaming community loves stats. We like to use services like Steam and Raptr to track how many hours we put into each game; we like to keep a running count of trophies and achievements, and we like asinine statistics like the collective hours a game has been played worldwide. But New Super Mario Bros. 2 takes its own spin on the idea of the leaderboard. Like every Mario game, you compete against your own coin-collecting score per level, but you also have a running total of how many coins you’ve collected game-wide, which contributes toward a worldwide counter Nintendo keeps (as of 8/25/12, the total worldwide coin count was 50,610,416,353). The running challenge is for individual players to collect one million coins.
However, the core of the game is unchanged from the first New Super Mario Bros. This is the same side-scrolling 2.5D gameplay you saw on the DS and Wii, and while it remains a fun, solid game with smart level-design, it is ultimately the same experience with a handful of new elements. Yes, you now have the tenooki suit with the ability to fly ala Super Mario Bros. 3, as well as a golden flower power-up that lets you turn nearly everything to coins, but it doesn’t much alter how you take Mario from the beginning of a level to the flag at the end of it. You can also co-op with a friend as Luigi, but it’s local co-op only. And, in New Super Mario Bros. style, the boss fights are built for five-year-olds.
There is a new mode, though, called Coin Rush. This is a Street-Pass-enabled mode that gives you a set of three levels with a time limit of 100 seconds each and the goal of collecting as many coins as you can. It can be tricky, and you’ll trade high scores with other players through Street Pass. Nintendo also recently released new Coin Rush content as DLC—but keep in mind the DLC is tied to your 3DS system and not to an account or to the cartridge.
I did really enjoy the game, but it ultimately fell short of the fun I had with the recent Super Mario 3D Land, which did some things that felt unique to the game even when they weren’t. New Super Mario Bros. 2, on the other hand, does everything it can to recreate the original experience of the series and, depending on how you feel, that may not be what you actually want from the game.
Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance Review
By Robert M. Errera
Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance for the 3DS is an epic amalgam of every Kingdom Hearts game in existence, with nearly every character referenced, every plot line relevant, and every moment of the series significant. Heartless, nobodies, key holes, the Mark of Mastery exam, Disney worlds, black coats, time travel, and more—the game is only missing the unversed and Final Fantasy characters in order to have thrown in every element of the series (though the salesmoogle is included, as well as characters from Square-Enix’s The World Ends With You). Prepare for a compelling tale of snowballed convolution that only someone who’s paid attention through each of the other six games in the series will fully comprehend (though written reports in-game will summarize the previous installments well enough to get by). The intricate plot of Dream Drop Distance will take some effort to wrap your head around, and if you’re just now gaining an interest in the Kingdom Hearts series, this game is not for you.
But complex story aside, it’s a great game, and a great addition to the mythology.
Review: Star Wars: The Force Unleashed
(Disclaimer: I played the PS3 version.)
When Darth Vader slaughters your parents and promises you a badass life, you don’t argue. And Starkiller didn’t, as a boy; instead he embraced the dark side and became a terrible force to be reckoned with (which, of course, no one reckoned with if they could help it). But Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is not a choose-your-own-side game, and Starkiller’s alliances are predetermined by the plot. It is a tale of morality, betrayal, and ultimately revenge and redemption—with a ton of force-unleashing along the way.
Battlestar Galactica fans may recognize the main character of The Force Unleashed as Crashdown (who also played the zombie in the tank in The Walking Dead TV show), and he provides a majority of the game’s great voice acting. Unfortunately, the script itself is incredibly mediocre, and there were points where I smirked and shook my head at the terribly flat and predictable dialogue. The redeeming qualities are the battle mechanics and music (beautiful Star Wars orchestra pieces), which taken together create a cinematic feeling that allows the game to rise to the level of the Star Wars universe. You’ll combo-slash wave after wave of the Empire’s minions and soldiers, leveling up your character to the point in which nothing can withstand the variety of force powers at Starkiller’s disposal—all to the sharp notes of recognizable Star Wars instrumentals. And while a powerful, charged force push can be satisfying—enemies bounce off of walls and decrease their health with each inevitable concussion—sometimes the situation calls for high-powered force lightning. Or for lifting foes with the force and smashing them against the ground (or each other). Or for lifting all manner of objects in the environment and using them as large projectiles. A quick warning, though: There are a fair number of God-of-War-style quick time events, though they are often slow enough that you probably won’t miss very often. But this is made up for by your quick-paced battles against other users of the force, including Darth Vader, and the particularly awesome feeling of taking down a space ship with your mind (yeah, that happens).
The game is mostly about the action, but the storytelling is directed much like a Star Wars movie, notably the screen wipe scene change. The plot covers politics, force politics, a love interest, and the expected evil-to-not-so-bad character arc typical of a tale of good and evil. In the end, the 10-hour adventure is a great way to blow off steam after a long day.
Heavy Rain Review: Both Win and Fail
The week before Final Fantasy XIII was released I pushed through Heavy Rain, making sure I didn’t sacrifice any of my free time on not playing, and I mostly loved the experience due to its immersive controls and dialogue heavy plot.
MINOR STORY AND GAMEPLAY SPOILERS AHEAD.
As I’d previously mentioned when discussing the demo version of the game, Heavy Rain’s controls have you mimicking the actions in the game with corresponding button pushes or analog stick movements with the end goal of finding a kidnapped boy before he is killed and identifying the person responsible. This is in no way comparable to what some of the better Wii games have done with motion control, but it works well on the PS3.
The game not only exercises your hand-eye coordination but it plays with your mind as well. Details you wouldn’t normally think were important in a game turn into plot points and if you’re caught off-guard and don’t remember the correct details it can change events in the game or the timeframe with which certain events occur. Of course, this kind of game that learns and adapts is not a new idea but Heavy Rain has turned heads because of the way it presents and executes these cause-and-effect actions. Some players may complain about the large amount of very usual actions that have to be done (setting the dinner table, microwaving food, cooking eggs, etc.) but these actions exist to make future actions and events more meaningful or to make character responses more realistic. And the wondrous thing is that the player actually begins to care about these everyday actions even if it’s not something they care about in real life. There was one point in which a character has a woman visiting his apartment and she decides to take a shower while he cooks some eggs. The player then gains control over cooking the eggs using the analog sticks, and the SIXAXIS motion sensor, and even though you are free to leave the kitchen and perhaps peek in on her shower, I and many other players I saw on message boards were more concerned with timing the eggs just right (which I received a trophy for). Of course, if you did decide to abandon your cooking detail you will be greeted with a fitting response. The most frantic and fun sequences in my opinion, though, are the fight scenes which are made up of fast, complex, adaptive quick-time events. You hit buttons, move the analog sticks, shake the controller, hold button combinations, all according to what control the game is corresponding with what action in that fight and if you miss a move or several the fight rolls on and you gain more opportunities to fight off your assailant.
The most fascinating part of the game, however, is that any of your four main characters CAN die permanently and the game will continue without their influence. The storyline will change and certain events will or will not happen as a consequence, and every major decision you make (and there are plenty) will effect the pace, story, and outcome of the game. With multiple endings based on what character accomplishes or doesn’t accomplish their goals, which characters are killed or survive, and what decisions are made to get to any of those points, the game has tons of replay value.
But it’s not all perfect.
Once you learn who the kidnapper/murderer is the replay value becomes simply for the variation in story scenes and gameplay as the kidnapper is the same person every time. There are some questionable plot points/elements that could be considered plot holes, which is a big sin for a game based around its story, but these points can mostly be overlooked as the story itself works well as a whole. Still, finding out who the killer is could have been more climactic. I wasn’t entirely satisfied. There are one or more questions about the main characters that are never answered, though I expect they’ll be addressed in backstory DLC episodes.
Another problem is that the game is highly sexist. We know nothing more about Ethan’s wife than she takes care of the kids, cooks dinner, and will easily accuse him of a crime without discussing it with him first. But the worst was the way main character Madison Paige was written. She is a journalist and proven badass who can hold her own in a fight and rides a motorcycle, but she is constantly put into positions of sexual subordination, whether it be her having to dance on a pedestal to get an important source’s attention, strip for him (and strip very close to naked - we’re talking full topless and at least panties - should the player decide not to attack the man instead), and even thinks to herself something along the lines of, “Sometimes I think there isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for a story.” She plays nurse, as well, tending to the wounds of one of the male characters. She’s also the only woman in a sex scene, a scene that has the player using the controller to emulate taking her shirt off, unclasping her bra, and getting naked with her (it stays very softcore, though still feels very intimate). Hell, the first time we’re introduced to Madison we have to have her strip naked and take a shower. The game shows us her 720p breasts and nipples without censorship (her lower portion is strategically blocked) before getting dressed fighting off multiple masked assailants who have broken into her apartment and seem to want to rape her. This of course turns out to be a lucid dream, establishing the idea that the only strong female character’s single worst fear is strong men.
Those gripes aside, I was constantly pulled into Heavy Rain, immersed to the point in which I had to pause the game, walk around to clear my head, and seek advice before making certain major decisions because I was so concerned about the repercussions. Or course, the ability to reload any chapter of the game as it is autosaved means you could always just do a section over if you’re unhappy with the results, but I was trying to be a honest with my in-game decisions as possible. As a result, I kept everyone safe and happy and received what was probably the weakest ending. I have a feeling the tragic endings are the more powerful, better written ones.
I’m highly expectant of a Heavy Rain rerelease for use with the Playstation Move motion controller, and if it does happen I’d have no hesitation trying my hand at that version. The game is something everyone should at least give a try, gamer or not.
Stripped-Down Final Fantasy XIII Is More Movie Than Game [WIRED]
“With precious few exceptions, the first 17 hours go like this: battle, movie, repeat. There are almost no towns, nonplayable characters to chat up, extra side missions, hidden sequences, fancy equipment to save up for and buy, or reasons to run around and grind enemies for extra level-ups. Heck, there’s no need to even wonder what to do next…”Read the full review from [Wired].