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Joshua J. Slone


Crackdown (Xbox 360)

A supercop game that delivers

The Good
When I recently got an Xbox 360, I went browsing for deals. Crackdown was a game I wouldn't have got unless it was quite cheap. All I knew about it was that it was compared to Grand Theft Auto and was initially a big deal because it let players into a Halo 3 beta. However, the chance to try out a B-tier open world game on a high-def console for $10 seemed fair enough, so I went for it. I'm so glad I did. While the freedom is GTA-esque, in many ways Crackdown is like Grand Theft Auto in reverse.

Let me apologize if I go too heavy on GTA comparisons, but as it's by far the most popular game of this type and the one I've spent most time with, it seems the obvious way to frame things.

In Crackdown you don't follow a set mission structure. In fact, you could try to complete the game's main objectives almost immediately. However, you will probably fail. Your ultimate goal is to take out the leaders of Pacific City's three main gangs, but at the beginning they'll be heavily guarded. By taking out the lesser gang generals and kingpins (in any order you please), the gang will become less powerful and the final gang leader less well protected. This actually reminds me of the way battles work in the Dynasty Warriors series, but in this case it's on a much larger scale.

In GTA you can improve certain stats, but it's a fairly gradual thing. Crackdown kicks it up a very enjoyable notch. At the beginning the Agent you control will run and jump much like any game character, but as his agility increases through several levels he'll be able to run the speed of slow cars and jump dozens of feet. He'll go from being able to throw a trash can to being able to throw a truck. Other stats that improve are gunmanship, explosives, and driving. Eventually you get to feeling like quite the superhero. When I think Crackdown, I think racing along the city bounding from rooftop to rooftop and having a blast doing so.

GTA's on-foot and shooting controls have always been a bit clunky. Luckily since Crackdown is more action-packed and with a more agile and able character, the controls keep up. I'm more of an RPG guy, but after a while I was having no problem leaping around, targeting and taking out gang members in mid-jump, or smacking them around physically if they approached while I was reloading. Speaking of things that help me as more of an RPG guy, the game has multiple difficulty levels, though they still try to make one feel manly by naming the easiest "Tough". So whereas in many action game I'll just reach a point where I'm stuck forever, I was able to get through Tough without it seeming either taxing or patronizing.

In GTA you gain new weapons for your hideouts by finding hidden packages throughout the city. In Crackdown it's much more natural. You find a new weapon, you carry it back to one of your supply points, and now it will be available from any supply point. However, that doesn't necessarily make it easy--if you want a certain fancy rare rocket launcher, you'll first have to find someone who has it, take them out, drop one of the two weapons you can hold at a time in exchange for it, and then make it back to a supply point without being killed. There are still hundreds of objects hidden throughout the city to gather, but they have to do with increasing player stats.

As Crackdown is the first X360 or PS3 game I've spent many hours with, I'm not in the best position to compare the game to its peers in a technical sense. However, I can say this is the type of upgrade I prefer to see from a new generation. It's not uncommon for developers to get a more powerful system, but just go so wild that the frame rate still has problems. Not Crackdown. The frame rate is always great. The draw distance is near infinite. Unlike last-gen GTA games, you won't just have a few types of cars on screen at once, which disappear when you get a few dozen feet away--things stay in place pretty much until you've forgotten they were there. It's rare to find a texture that gets blurry. And as a matter of preference, I really like the outlined look objects have, rather than trying for photo-realism.

It's worth noting that the game has online multiplayer and for-pay downloadable content that promise more fun, but neither of which I tried.

The Bad
I've put above many of the ways being a reverse GTA can be good, but it sometimes can mean things that worked in GTA don't here.

One is driving. It feels largely superfluous. There are street races, but the driving controls themselves don't seem fun enough to bother with them. Perhaps they'd feel better if I leveled my driving stat higher. Going fast usually means some unintentional citizen casualties, which is sort of frowned upon in this game since we're supposed to be playing the side of law and order. The music also didn't strike me as worth listening to, and there's no attempt at things like fake commercials or radio station identities to keep you interested. Luckily, since the running and jumping is so great in this game, there's almost never a need to get in a car to go where you're going. It might just be more fun to carry it there.

Another is mission variety. In a game like GTA, you have actual varying mission types. Maybe you need to get in a car and knock someone else's vehicle off the road. Maybe a gun shootout. Maybe tail someone. Maybe drive a boat to various destinations. Not always handled well, but certainly mixes things up. In Crackdown almost everything boils down to infiltrating an area full of little gang goons until you reach the big gang goon and take them out. Doing so is plenty of fun, but it gets to being largely the same thing in a new location. The freedom you have can in some ways make it seem like the game designers wasted their time, as well. One gang general in particular looked to have a heavily guarded entrance, so I swam around to the back and the general was almost completely unprotected.

If there's one thing I really appreciate in GTA that's not here, it's just... messing around, maybe getting chased. In Crackdown, you can't really just pick on a civilian; you either do nothing or strike them, which in the latter case means killing them since you're such a superman. The law officials don't look kindly on that, but neither will they chase you around. I know it's not fair to expect this of every open world game, but as someone who gets a big kick out of doing that when it's there, it's worth mentioning to you readers that it's not. So when you've cleared out the gangs and everything is peaceful... well, it can be a little TOO peaceful. Though you can always use the menu to reset the gang members to try for them again.

The Bottom Line
This game was a real blast to play, and at the prices it goes for now if you've cared enough to check out my review of it this far you'd probably enjoy trying it out.

It's worth noting that I think the star rating attached to this review is I think a little low. Most of the categories I gave lower scores to are things that I didn't think were very important in the game, and so didn't detract from things to just be there rather than special. My pick for "Personal Slant" was the full 5.

By Joshua J. Slone on August 31st, 2009

Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled (Nintendo DS)

Not an oldie, but a goodie

The Good
Black Sigil tries to look and feel like a DS port of a classic SNES RPG that for some reason we never heard of, and it largely succeeds. The similarity in look to top-tier Square games of the day was enough for some people to claim Studio Archcraft was ripping old sprites, but if one actually examines things closely they won't find a match--they're just well-done in a similar style. The music isn't exactly going to put Yasunori Mitsuda or Nobuo Uematsu out of business, but it's suitable and there are a few quite catchy tunes.

The battle system is of particular note, because I don't recall playing anything like this in the SNES days. Placement in battle and movement matter, so if anything it reminds me a bit of the later Grandia games. Characters can be moved in battle, though doing so prevents them from using a standard attack that turn--they can still use a special attack. If a character is told to attack someone further away they'll have to run to them, possibly having to pause to briefly recharge if the distance is long. Different attacks and special moves have different ranges and areas of influence; usually circles of varying radius, though occasionally you'll get something like a rectangle.

Another thing that sets it apart from just being a completely run-of-the-mill RPG is that there's a lot of variety to the equipment. In some games going from the least to best weapon or armor is almost like following a line, with things improving each time along the way. In Black Sigil, it's not uncommon to find a new armor that's less upgrade than it is alternate. Perhaps one armor will provide higher physical and magic defense, but the other will provide more protection against fire and several status ailments. Perhaps one sword will have a higher chance of critical attacks, but another will poison enemies. Which you go with will depend on your priorities, and what the enemies in the current dungeon are like. Since status effects come up in battle possibly more than any other game I've played, this can be a pretty big deal.

Black Sigil is pretty packed with content. There are plenty of side quests, not all of which I did, but my game time did still pass 50 hours.

The Bad
The most apparent negative is the high enemy encounter rate. While I earlier wrote that battles are fun, that doesn't mean they can't get old. The more complicated and lengthy a game's battle system, the fewer battles are necessary. Black Sigil, however, gives a battle system more complicated than the standard Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest, yet an even higher encounter rate. The first time you fight a certain group of enemies in a dungeon might be tricky. The fifth time you've probably figured out a good plan of attack. The tenth time it's getting pretty old. You can run away from most battles pretty easily by holding B, but you may be holding it for a while as your character's turn gauges charge up and enemies make a few moves.

Another downside to battle is how usable items are handled. Each person can only hold four items, and a limited amount of each--fair enough. However, if you've got 60 of an item that a character can only hold 5 of, you can't have three characters each hold 5--only one character. This really makes things a hassle to deal with, especially later when you might be switching characters in and out of the party. For me, it basically trained me to ignore items as much as possible, except trying to make sure somebody in the party had one of the few reviving items.

There are also quite a few bugs or other mysterious rough spots. Studio Archcraft is a small company and this is their first game so I'm not going to hold it against them as much as I would for a game with 100 people in the credits. However, a handful of times while I was playing, things froze, necessitating a restart. This is especially annoying if you're in a dungeon, where save points are not common. Once I could keep moving around the map, but no longer interact with anything, enter stairs, or have random battles start. There's a "Monster" bar always visible on the top screen while on the world map, that the instruction booklet says fills up as one character uses his Appraise abilities on monsters. However, it never seems to change. It is things like these that most obviously remind one that it isn't actually a classic SNES RPG.

The Bottom Line
This is a flawed first game from a small developer. But if you appreciate what they're trying to do and can overlook the rough spots, there's a pretty decent game in there. If you don't particularly have a nostalgia for mid-1990s RPGs or care about development circumstances, there are probably other DS RPGs you'll enjoy more.

By Joshua J. Slone on August 30th, 2009

Elite Beat Agents (Nintendo DS)

By Joshua J. Slone on July 17th, 2007

Children of Mana (Nintendo DS)

Dungeon Crawl of Mana

The Good
This game is centered around battling, so it's a good thing that its battle controls are among the best a Mana game has seen. L pauses the action to allow you to choose which healing item is active, while R pauses the action to let you choose between weapons. Y is used to activate the healing item, while A and X are used for weapons. In past Mana games you might have needed to switch back and forth between weapons at times, but since you're able to have two active of four total at any time, it's very convenient. B is used for magic; once the elemental has arrived, you either walk into it for the defensive purpose, or it goes into its offensive use. Select activates Fury if you've filled it up, allowing you to attack more quickly and use special attacks.

It's worth dragging into a second paragraph that the battling is really fun. I frequently stay away from dungeon crawl games, since the battle system is often uninspired, with leveling up and rare items being the reason you're supposed to keep playing. Mana fighting is fun, though, and it's done well here. There are some things that seem simplified for sake of a multiplayer experience with less pauses, but it mostly works. Something new to the series is a sort of ricochet system, where an enemy can be knocked around by another item or enemy and take damage. The effect can cascade, so it's a hoot to smack a block into a crowd of enemies and watch them bouncing around taking minor damage.

As long as you enjoy battling, the game gives you plenty of excuses to. The first time you go to a new area, it will be for story reasons. Past that, chatting with people in your home town of Illusia may get them to request you take on a mission for them. If you want even more, there's Dud Services in town where for a fee you can take randomly generated quests for more goodies. Whether it's the townspeoples' requests or a job from the dudbears, these sidequests play out very much like your first trip through a dungeon, though with no boss and perhaps there will be a different number of randomly generated zones. You can even replay each dungeon as if it were the first time, using a "space-time distortion" as the game says.

The gem system is pretty cool. You get a gem frame, which starts off at a 2x2 size, but as the game progresses you may expand up to a 4x4 size. Within the frame you place gems that you find, buy, or fuse together from other gems. Gems will have various sizes and properties, though usually the better it is the more spots it will take up. Perhaps a game will increase your attack stat. Perhaps it will automatically use a status-healing item when necessary. Perhaps it will add an extra effect to your sword attack. This is the key piece of character customization in the game, and it's done well.

I wish I could put multiplayer here, but not having been able to try it I can only postulate. Battling is funner with friends, and I imagine the same is true here. I can't say, though, how hassle-free the process is, or whether there are any goofy limitations to be aware of as with the multiplayer in .

The Bad
The game is centered around battling. If you just took a look over some screens, you might think it looks like a regular Mana game, but there's no traveling from town to town or exploring an overworld that connects them here. You've got the one town of Illusia, and leaving the town brings you to a map from which you choose a destination, taking you immediately to a dungeon. More a bad thing if you're a previous fan of the series and come in with certain expectations.

Being centered around battling, there's no focus on interesting dungeon layouts or puzzles, just a series of zones to work through. On each zone there are two things you need to find: the gleamdrop (egg-shaped item) and the gleamwell (glowing spot on the floor). It tells you the requirements to find each. Sometimes the gleamdrop will be hidden in a chest or require you to defeat all the enemies; if the gleamwell is hidden it's usually under some larger destroyable object. As you go deeper through the zones the enemy selection becomes tougher. Every four zones you have a chance to change your equipment and save. It's a series of increasingly tough challenges through a single tileset, rather than a truly interestingly designed dungeon.

Though I mentioned in The Good that I liked the control/battle setup, there is one notable downgrade from previous games in that you can only bring spells from one elemental with you at a time. There's no ring system to switch between them, instead you can only switch them while in town. This also means there are no areas where by design one certain element is very crucial, so really magic is made not very important. Most of the time I stuck with Wisp so I could have access to the healing spell. Perhaps this would be more interesting in multiplayer, where different players could bring different elementals with them.

Other than the gem system, character evolution is very flat. At the beginning of the game you pick one of four characters and a color scheme for them, but from then on stat and item upgrades are pretty boring. No choosing to enhance one stat more than another at each level. No making a class choice at certain point. Not even finding different weapons with different special abilities. When you find a sword, it's just like every other sword, but with a different strength rating and level requirement. It just feels like a part of leveling up that you have to bother finding/buying and equipping.

The game feels very multiplayer oriented. Which I want to say is a good thing, since it's something Mana games from the past decade haven't been very good at. However, the plain fact is that as with most games that are too complex for a single-card multiplayer mode, odds are you'll be playing by yourself unless you hang out with many people who buy all the same games you do.

I knew going in that this game had a heavy multiplayer component, but what I wasn't expecting was that this meant I'd be playing solo with no computer-controller assistants throughout the entire game. That's first for the Mana series. No aiding a computer ally or vice-versa. No combining different strengths to be more effective. It's a real shame. Of the four character, three seem like they were directly aping qualities of the three leads from Secret of Mana, so it would've been nice to have them working together.

There's really not a whole lot to this game. Outside of town there aren't even 10 dungeons. Having gone through most of them several times due to sidequests and Dudbear jobs, my game time barely snuck past 20 hours.

The Bottom Line
Is it a Mana game with lacking dungeons and single-player? Is it a dungeon crawl with limited customization and no incentive to search for loot? It's got the basics from both sides of its heritage, but doesn't satisfy as much as the games it's inspired by.

By Joshua J. Slone on June 8th, 2007

Jeopardy! (PlayStation 2)

I'll take sloppy for $20, Alex.

The Good
The questions themselves are fine. The box claims they're from the Jeopardy! writing staff and there are over 5000 answers to question, so it should last a long time. That's something like 80 full games worth of questions included, so you'll certainly get your money's worth in that regard.

The reading of the questions themselves isn't bad, but they aren't read by Alex, either. Instead question-reading duty goes to Jeopardy! announcer Johnny Gilbert. So it's... sort of a half-baked authenticity.

The ability to draw in your name like the show sounds pretty cool, but since it doesn't take full advantage of the analogness of the controller you probably won't end up with anything like a regular human signature. Luckily this is only used for picking who you are when you start a game, so it can keep track of statistics about how many right and wrong responses you give, your win/loss record, and money records for various portions of the game. The stats themselves are pretty nice.

The Bad
The content is good, but most everything else about the game is mediocre at best.

As with many modern game show games, they feel the need to use video clips of the host. However, it feels like they could only take 10 minutes of Alex Trebek's time and they gave him a script to read in front of a green screen. Then they edit it awkwardly, so sometimes he'll seem to sit there slack-jawed for a second before talking. Even were the clips not flawed in this way, you'll get tired of the wasted time and back-and-forth loading of randomly going to generic clips containing such important gems as "The answer we were looking for, was this!" and "No, and I am sorry." I now find myself hitting Start every time Alex appears to skip the video and move things along.

The computer players use voice acting, one male voice and one female voice, which I guess is a fairly large feat considering how many possible answers they had to record. However, it just doesn't sound very good or natural. Sometimes it's like they're slowly reading a word they're not familiar with. Sometimes the sound quality itself seems low, while other times it's clear. Since this varies from clip to clip, it feels very inconsistent.

I was also left wondering why they didn't use the actual Jeopardy! set, or at least something like it. Alex's green screen clips are placed in front of an abstract set full of CG rectangles, while for things like game opening, ending, and main menu there's a flying view of the weird rectangles.

One might think presenting white text on a blue background would be a simple feat, but this game doesn't even get that quite optimal. The letters look like a font at a just-awkard size: Sometimes one letter's top will be slightly above the top of the letter next to it. Sometimes a letter with what should be a flat top (or side) will instead seem slightly crooked. It's mysterious. Really it's not a major deal since it's still quite readable, but since this game does a little bit of everything wrong it begged to be mentioned.

When providing an answer (or question, in this case), the method of presenting possible answers at first seems like a good, time-saving idea. However, it soon becomes clear that you can take advantage of this system if you're not sure of the answer. If you can remember a person's first name, typing that in should bring that person's name up as part of the list if they're the correct response. When for a "FISH" category I responded "Fishing for a compliment", one of the other options presented was "Fish and cut bait", which turned out to be a later answer in the same category. If you start answering something and your response doesn't come up as a choice, you automatically know your answer was wrong and you should try something else. However, it is possible to turn this option off, so if you really hate it it can be tossed out.

On the other hand, it can be too damn picky at times. When I was asked for the century the original Star Trek series took place in, "23" wasn't a good enough answer; it wanted "The 23rd century". When my brother answered about a flying barnyard animal with "pig", it wasn't accepted: the game wanted the answer "pigs". I answered about a river in London with "Thames", when it insisted that no, the correct response was "The Thames".

Even the Final Jeopardy! portion of the game is handled sloppily. It asks the other players to turn around while one player inputs their wager, then Alex tells when it's another player's turn. However, the dollar amount stays on screen a bit even after that announcement, so unless you're being extra extra careful you end up seeing their wagers anyway. Luckily the actual responses disappear before other players will see them. There's also the matter of music; though you have plenty of time to respond, the classic music used over that section is fairly short, so there's a lot of empty air time. It seems it would've been easy to get a longer loop of the song, and it can give a false message to new players that the person is done with their response.

The Bottom Line
There's fun to be had, especially if you're playing with a human opponent (or two) who is faced with the same problems and advantages you are. The game interface works against the goodness of the question/answers, though.

By Joshua J. Slone on June 7th, 2007

Final Fantasy Tactics Advance (Game Boy Advance)

Compared to the original it's greatly different, but also differently great.

The Good
Final Fantasy Tactics is one of my favorite games, so I had pretty high hopes for this portable followup. While it's not everything I'd wish for, the most important thing remains: fun tactical battles. Move characters on a grid, perform an action, choose which way to face, and on to the next. The types of items, actions, characters, and stage hazards are largely the same as before. The biggest change in battle is that actions now always take place right when they're used; in the original the actions themselves had a certain charge time, so if one character was the target of a spell he might have time to move away from the effects, or if the spell is centered on him to move where it will collaterally damage someone else. The other big change is that in most cases, people who are knocked out at the end of a battle will remain alive and in your party. The exception are battles taking place in the lawless jagds.

And battle, battle, battle you will. As I write about in The Bad, FFTA's story is pretty much throwaway. Most of your battles will be as part of a clan/mission system, a small part of which was used again in Final Fantasy XII. As part of a clan, you accept missions and complete them. Some involve battles, while others involve sending off some character to complete a mission apart from you; depending on their level and random chance they'll eventually come back having completed or failed. In total there are 300 missions, which should definitely keep you busy. Each time I've played FFTA has taken me 60 or more hours; about twice as long as a play through of the original FFT. It is a pain, though, that if you ignored certain missions or threw away certain items when you were holding too many, that it will then become impossible to take on other missions later since you don't meet the requirements, making getting the full 300 impossible. My first time through the game I hit 258. The second time, 299. ARGH. It's possible to link up to another player and trade items, if you know someone else with the game who doesn't mind losing their own important items.

As part of your clan duties, you'll also liberate more of the map as time goes on. Once a land is part of your territory by earning it in a mission, occasionally it will come under attack, at which time you have several weeks of game time to defend it in a battle before you lose it. Along with the other clans wandering the map, this adds to the amount of fighting you'll be doing in addition to the story and regular mission battles. If you free a town the prices in the store become lower for you, but really past the early stages of the game it doesn't make a big difference.

Audially and visually, FFTA is tops. The isometric+portraits view is nothing you haven't seen before, but it's done as well here as anything else you'll find on the GBA. There's no ability to rotate the battlefield as in the 3D areas in FFT, but they're designed so you don't need to; very rarely will a character be able to stand where a cliff or other obstacle hides it from view. The game sounds great, too; much of it isn't done by previous FFT composer Hitoshi Sakimoto, and FFT's other composer Masaharu Iwata isn't present at all, but if I hadn't paid close attention to the credits I wouldn't have been able to tell. Like most of the game it's cheerier than its predecessor, but keeps a similar sound and matches its quality, as far as GBA sound output physically allows.

As mentioned earlier there is a link aspect, but I can't say too much about it; I linked... once, I think. It doesn't have the main feature people would probably want, directly battling your linked opponent, but instead allows you to fight in some cooperative battles or to trade items/equipment/characters.

This game's closest comparison on the GBA is Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis for two good reasons: A) The FFT series was started by prominent members of the SNES Tactics Ogre game who left to join Square, and B) Square later purchased the remaining development assets of original Tactics Ogre developer quest, so Final Fantasy Tactics Advance was actually made by many of the same people who worked on Knight of Lodis. They are thus very similar games, but I come out preferring FFTA for three main reasons: more character customization through the job system, more length through the mission sysem, and the method of taking turns in battles. The latter means that in Knight of Lodis, each side in the battle had all their characters take turns one after another, while FFTA's turns depend on a speed statistic, and thus switch back from one side to the other. FFTA's battles just feel much more active when you don't have to wait for every single enemy unit to take all their turns before you can do the same.

The Bad
I loved FFT for not only its battling, but its story. I love FFTA for its battling. The story is almost completely throwaway. Main character Marche and a few others wake to a changed world, their town of St. Ivalice become the land of Ivalice based on Final Fantasy games. I liked some of the moral and philosophical questions it brings up, like is it really OK to change things back when not everyone wants to? What would happen to the inhabitants of this new version of the world? However, it never goes into any real depth on these issues. A heavily story-driven game like FFT's wouldn't have meshed well with the clan-based design of this game, so story was the victim.

The law system is... there. For each battle, there are certain laws you must follow; more simultaneously as the game progresses. Perhaps in one battle you shouldn't heal, but attacking with swords is rewarded with a bonus. It's usually easy to work around restrictive laws by walking around on the map since they change with each day, or anti-law cards you begin to earn which can cancel certain laws, but that's more avoiding a gameplay feature than having it be something useful. For me the main time the law system would come up would be far into a battle when I'd forget some law in effect and end up earning a mark against my characters, which come in two flavors: yellow (a fine--usually lack of battle reward) or red (go to prison for several battles). A bother.

The job system is much more restrictive in FFTA. There are five different races (human, moogle, bangaa, nu mou, viera), each which has a "different" selection of classes. I say "different" because many are much the same. A human white mage is more or less the same a a moogle white mage, and a human fighter is similar to a bangaa gladiator. However, because some classes remain mutually exclusive, your ability to mix and match abilities is somewhat lessened. Moogles are the only characters with a gunner class, but since they have no archery class you'll never be able to use Aim or Hunt skills with a gun. It does go to make the characters a bit less cookie-cutter, but the old way was more fun. Earning abilities within jobs is very different, too. Rather than earning JP which you then spend on various abilities from a menu, you must equip the right piece of equipment which can eventually earn you the ability after enough battles. This means in many cases if you want to learn all the skills, you'll need to regularly use statistically worse items. Combined with the menu weaknesses I describe in the next paragraph, I really stopped paying attention to specific equipment stats.

The menu system outside of battle is perhaps one of the worst things about FFTA. The original FFT had a great shop feature where you could try out equipment on a character to see how it would alter their stats, but no such feature is present here. To even see if a particular class can wear something you must hit Select where it will show you an entire class grid with certain classes lit up. To learn what special abilities a piece of equipment can teach, you must hit R; which then covers up the weapon's main stats, so you can't easily scroll through and see both. The main party equipment screen outside of battle is not better. You can't even directly see the changes when equipping a new weapon; you just choose it from a list and would have to pay attention to how the numbers change. It doesn't even show the weapon's base stats unless you go to the separate item listing area, which is also a trouble to scroll through once you get dozens of weapons and there are no scrolling shortcuts. It feels like there's always information you wish would be shown that isn't. What with the extra screen real estate available on the DS, this is the number one thing I hope is improved upon in the sequel.

The Bottom Line
Having written this, I realize I have a heck of a lot in The Bad section there. But consider it like this: Take one of my favorite games ever, muck up several notable things, but also add a few positives. It still leaves a really great game that's one of my GBA favorites. Final Fantasy Tactics Advance never reaches the same high as Final Fantasy Tactics, but lasts a lot longer.

By Joshua J. Slone on June 4th, 2007

Excite Truck (Wii)

Not an A game, but a top-tier B game

The Good
Excite Truck is a very different kind of racing game, and once you really get that into your head there really is a lot of EXCITE waiting for you; it's not just a recycled brand name. This isn't a game about getting to the end of the course first. That certainly helps, but it's only one way to earn points. You can drive relatively safely, get to the finish line, and earn 50 points for coming in first, but you're going to get a poor letter rank for doing so. Additional points are earned for smashing other trucks, driving through sets of trees without crashing, making huge jumps, jumping through sets of rings, drifting, air spins, and more.

Controls are simple, but take time to get used to. Considering it was one of my first Wii games and motion control in general was new, it's hard for me to tell how much of the learning curve was due to the game or the system in general. You hold the remote sideways in the NES position, and use it like a steering wheel. 2 is acceleration, 1 is brake/reverse (like that gets used much), and pressing the d-pad uses turbo. Use too much turbo and the truck will overheat, though you can help keep it cool by driving through water or spending more time in the air. When in the air, you can additionally tilt the truck back or forth. Early, everything felt very loose, but now it's like second nature. Some people will probably give up on the game before that early stage passes, though.

Each course has a different number of points required to earn various letter grades; a B is necessary to earn access to further cups in the same difficulty, but to unlock new difficulties one will need to earn S ranks. Some reviews say the game is too short; I wonder how many of these people managed to B their way through the standard Excite difficulty, think they'd seen what the game had to offer, and called it a day? I believe it's when trying to get S ranks (in both Excite and later Super Excite difficulty) that the game really starts to click. Faced with needing to find a way to earn a few dozen more points, you have to start really learning both the tricks and the courses. Learn which forks to take, learn how to do a proper boost jump, learn where you can cut through a set of trees or make a long drift, and try to put it all together without crashing too much or coming in behind other racers... then you will properly experience the excitement! It's a great feeling to make a jump thousands of feet long and immediately turn it into a boost which becomes another jump.

Other than the increasingly exciting play experience, they also keep you coming back by slowly unlocking new trucks, each of which you can further use to earn an alternate paint job for it. From large trucks that with slow handling that can guarantee you big jumps to small craft with quick handling, they certainly don't all feel the same; often the difference between frustration and an easy win on a track is picking the right truck. Another lesser incentive to keep playing is that the game will keep track of things like how many super truck smashes, super drifts, and other such things you do, occasionally granting you a new trophy which you can always go and not only view, but tilt around with the remote.

There are also powerups, which computer trucks cannot activate. By running into exclamation point icons, the track will change in some way. A tower will fall down, a hill will get taller and allow for bigger jumps, more rings will appear in the air, the track will dip and reveal an alternate path. Some of these effects will last throughout the race while others are individually activated per lap, but it certainly does add another exclamation point to the experience to fling other trucks into the air by creating a new hill underneath them, or have the mountains part way for you to pass through. By running through a POW icon, your truck will temporarily become very fast and able to smash through other trucks as well as trees with ease, though rocks and buildings will remain a hazard.

Graphically the game is slightly more good than bad. If there was a "The Mediocre" section it would go there. There are a few points that stick out: pieces flying away from crashes look cheap, and things like shrubbery load in slowly enough after you come back down to earth from a big jump that it's obvious. However, it looks clean, has a nice draw distance, and the frame rate never horribly dips, so it does take care of the important stuff.

The Bad
The AI is horribly rubberbandy. If you're taking longer to get through the course, so will they. More than once, I have gotten first in a race (even set a time record), and on the next attempt got a better time but instead came in last.

Sound is the game's least admirable aspect. The rock is very generic and not worth listening to. The game does allow you to instead use MP3 files from an SD card, which is great. Playing Excite Truck with music from Katamari Damacy, Ouendan or the Steve Miller Band is a blast, but that doesn't earn this game much credit. Even with ProLogic II the effects are nothing to write home about, either, for a game full of big trucks, crashes, and boosts.

Though the single-player race modes are great fun, the other options feel tacked on:

Multiplayer is a big disappointment. Whereas racing with five other trucks is properly exciting, with only one human opponent... not so much. Things feel very empty, and if you're of different skill levels it can largely feel like you're all alone on the track. You might have more fun just taking turns on the single-player mode.

Challenge Mode contains a few challenges intended to force you to hone particular skills. Gate Challenge has you racing between beams of light on the track, so you must stay on course. Ring Challenge has you attempting to jump through increasingly-difficult rings in the air. Crush Challenge doesn't take place on a regular course, but gives you free reign over one of the areas, where you attempt to crush the other trucks going about their business. These modes exist... but they don't attract a whole lot of attention.

A somewhat weak spot is that the game lacks track variety; there are six main areas, each with several track variants used throughout the game. All snow races take place in the Finland area for instance, but the specific courses within can vary greatly thanks to use of different paths and big transparent walls with arrows to prevent you from cutting the wrong way. A jump that in one Finland track ends the race may be the middle of a second track, and not even present in the third. Things are certainly mixed up, but all tracks from one country will feel very samey.

The Bottom Line
Bottom line, there's a lot of fun to be had in this game, but it doesn't quite get anything perfect. Thus, not an A game, but a top-tier B game. I'm left with the feeling that a sequel with more time spent on it could really knock my socks off.

By Joshua J. Slone on May 27th, 2007

Donkey Kong (NES)

By Joshua J. Slone on May 24th, 2007

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney (Nintendo DS)

Interactive comic with a lot of heart and laughs

The Good
In the near future, a new court system has been brought about. People are guilty until proven innocent, the trial begins the day after the crime, and a verdict must be reached within three days of trial. Not an easy time to be a defense attorney. Playing as rookie attorney Phoenix, you'll investigate various murders and defend your client in court. Within each case you'll go back and forth between the two modes, with more segments of each in the later longer cases.

Investigations involve traveling between the available areas, asking questions of the people there, and investigating the areas for evidence or other clues. As you gain new knowledge, new possibilities open until you gather all that's necessary to proceed to the trial phase.

The trial is the real center of drama. After the prosecution introduces a witness and they present their testimony, you get to cross-examine the witness. At any time you can press them for more details. Your main goal is to find inconsistencies between their testimony and the facts (or their previous testimony), which Phoenix can then present with a righteous "OBJECTION!" If you're wrong, a mark is counted against you; too many and your client will be found Guilty. If you're right, the witness will try to correct their story, and the cross-examination will continue. Eventually you'll either get your client found Not Guilty, or at least introduce enough question that the judge will allow more investigation to occur.

Controls are pretty simple. Ace Attorney was originally a GBA game, so everything can still be controlled with the d-pad and buttons, but you can also do everything very conveniently with the stylus (my preferred method). You can even hold a button to use the microphone in court, shouting "Hold it!" to press a witness or "Objection!" to present a contradiction. Unless you're by yourself and want to wear out your voice you probably won't bother, but it's a fun novelty.

The exception to this DS rule is the last case, which was specifically added to the DS version. In this case they'll take greater advantage of the touch screen and advanced graphics capabilities by letting you dust for prints with a stylus and blow the dust away with the microphone, and twist 3D objects around with the stylus. It's also the longest case in the game, giving the game as a whole a pretty significant length.

The gameplay mechanics seem pretty simple, and they are. Luckily they're used on top of fun stories, characters, and just plain writing, which is what you'll leave the game remembering. From the names (Detective Dick Gumshoe and Ms. Oldbag for instance) to comments made by your assistant during your investigations, to the inept comments made by the judge, to even the varied styles used (one witness speaks in 1337) reading this title will leave you entertained--which is a good thing, since you'll be doing it most of the time. I actually found myself laughing out loud occasionally. You'll get attached to the characters, and assisting in their triumphs (or stopping a murderer) makes you feel pretty great.

Another bonus about the good story-telling and simple gameplay is that this is a good game for people who aren't into very complicated games. When it comes to handheld game systems my mom primarily likes to play puzzle, card, or board games, but as a bit of a nut for CSI, Law & Order, and murder mystery novels, I thought she might get a kick out of Phoenix Wright. I was right. She got stuck a few times and called on me to assist, but she never felt over her head.

The Bad
If you demand a lot of interaction, this game might not be for you; it's very much on rails. You'll investigate and learn certain things in a certain order, until you've completed the game's objectives and move to the trial. At the trial you'll have to press the right statements and present the right piece of evidence at the right time. It may sometimes seem as if more than one piece is applicable, but it's only expecting one. You can at any time save the game to prevent losing progress and having to restart from the beginning of that day's trial, but repeatedly guessing can get pretty old if you're not sure what to do.

Other than seeing the story again, there's little to be gained by replaying this game. You're not going to find any new side areas you missed the first time around, or find an even better piece of evidence to use in trial. The most you can hope to gain is to investigate something you didn't see the first time around and get another funny comment from your assistant, or catch some other stray bit of text you'd previously missed. At least when replaying a case, though, you'll be able to scroll through the text much more quickly.

Though I earlier praised the game's writing and localization, there is one aspect I don't like. The Japanese version of the game was set in Japan, but in the English version it says it takes place in the USA. Considering the game contains things like nearby movie studios specializing in samurai shows and pre-packaged sushi meals, it rings false every time the text suggests they're in California.

As I mentioned earlier, the game was originally for GBA. Most of it hasn't been very changed, so the graphics and sound are under DS par. The designs aren't bad, but you'll notice some dithering and wish a few more colors were used. The music works, but you might wish for better samples.

Warning that there's only one save per game card. After beating a case you can jump to the beginning of it at any time, but don't expect to let someone else start their adventure while you're still in the middle of yours.

The Bottom Line
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is like an interactive comic. As someone who enjoys interactive and non-interactive entertainment, I don't mind a blurring of the lines if it's done well, and I believe it is here, though it's easy to get stuck and frustrated.

By Joshua J. Slone on May 8th, 2007

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Justice for All (Nintendo DS)

More of the same, for better or worse

The Good
First, if you're new to the series I recommend reading the review for the first game instead. The games are very similar, so I won't go into the same detail for all aspects. For story reasons it's better to play the series in order anyway.

Phoenix Wright may be a year older, but what else has changed? Not much. He's still getting stuck involved with helpless defendants in murder cases, and he still needs you to help him through them.

Gameplay is very much as it was in the first game, with two notable changes. First, the Psyche-Lock system. It becomes possible to tell when someone is lying to you or hiding something from you during an investigation, which is represented on the screen by a series of locks and chains. While it's a change to the gameplay, it isn't very new, either. It essentially takes the cross-examination portion of the trial, and lets you do it at certain points outside of the actual trial. It can be a bit trickier, though, since you can initiate it any time after you've seen the locks and chains, even if you haven't discovered all the evidence you'll need to unlock them, so you might find yourself running into dead ends if you're not yet prepared.

The other change is how making mistakes is represented. In the first game, you had several exclamation points each day of the trial, and you'd lose one when presenting the incorrect piece of evidence or making a bad claim. In this game the exclamation points are replaced by a bar, allowing decisions at different times to be worth different amounts. If it's at a key point in the trial, screwing up could cost you half a bar. This bar is also present during the Psyche-Lock sessions described in the previous paragraph.

Past those modifications, the game could be mistaken for an expansion pack. As was the case with the first game, though, the game mechanics take a back seat to the stories and text, which are still very entertaining. The names are as punny as ever (see ventriloquist Ben and his dummy, Trilo Quist), and there are more little pop culture references than ever: the Legend of Zelda cartoon, YTMND, there's even some really obscure stuff like use of a quote from Nintendo president Satoru Iwata that will probably go over most people's heads, but is great if you're one who catches it.

The Bad
The game really could be mistaken for an expansion pack. The gameplay and interface is nearly identical to the original. Many characters return, some of whom almost entirely reuse their images and animations from the first game. It's nice to see that these characters are still around, but sometimes you wish for some fresh blood. Music: much of it is reused, with the unfortunate exception of the exciting music that accompanied things turning your way in trial, which has a less-exciting replacement.

Though I again praised the localization, it is weaker in one simple way than the first game: an apparent lack of proofreading. I'm not surprised to see "alter" used where "altar" should be used in an online discussion, but in a professional game it's disappointing, and there are dozens of instances like that throughout the game.

Though the four cases of this game are longer than the first four of the previous game, this one has no DS-exclusive fifth case. On the one hand it's disappointing, because using the DS features in that case was a lot of fun. On the other hand, I'm somewhat glad that the DS ports of these games aren't being so labored on, so we can catch up to Japan and get to the games that were built for the DS from the ground up. It should also make things easier for the story; this game basically ignores the events of that bonus case, which makes sense since this game was written several years earlier, but as a player trying to keep his continuity straight it doesn't feel quite right.

The Bottom Line
Justice For All brings very little new to the table, but if you enjoyed the experience of the first, you'll probably want to continue it with this game. It's not like regular comic books have frequent improvements to their technology, so is it really a deal-breaker if an interactive comic book sequel doesn't either?

By Joshua J. Slone on May 7th, 2007

River City Ransom (NES)

By Joshua J. Slone on April 9th, 2004

Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island (SNES)

By Joshua J. Slone on August 15th, 2003

Super Metroid (SNES)

By Joshua J. Slone on August 15th, 2003

Super Mario World (SNES)

By Joshua J. Slone on August 15th, 2003

Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars (SNES)

By Joshua J. Slone on August 15th, 2003

Super Bomberman (SNES)

By Joshua J. Slone on August 15th, 2003

Street Fighter II Turbo (SNES)

By Joshua J. Slone on August 15th, 2003

Street Fighter II: The World Warrior (SNES)

By Joshua J. Slone on August 15th, 2003

Star Fox (SNES)

By Joshua J. Slone on August 15th, 2003

Seiken Densetsu 3 (SNES)

By Joshua J. Slone on August 15th, 2003

Secret of Mana (SNES)

By Joshua J. Slone on August 15th, 2003

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (SNES)

By Joshua J. Slone on August 15th, 2003

Final Fantasy III (SNES)

By Joshua J. Slone on August 15th, 2003

Final Fantasy III (PlayStation)

By Joshua J. Slone on August 15th, 2003

Final Fantasy II (SNES)

By Joshua J. Slone on August 15th, 2003

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