Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Costume Quest Review

Costume Quest is the latest creation from developer Double Fine, makers of Psychonauts and BrĂ¼tal Legend. This adventure RPG is the first in a planned series of upcoming downloadable titles for XboxLive Arcade and Playstation Network as the studio shifts its focus toward smaller games with smaller budgets in lieu of disc-based retail outings. Set amidst the haunting glow of jack-o-lanterns on Halloween night, Costume Quest begins as brother and sister, Reynold & Wren, embark on their annual trip ‘round the neighborhood collecting candy. Things quickly go awry as one of the siblings (depending on who you choose to play as) is kidnapped by a pack of candy-coveting monsters. Costume Quest relies on Double Fine’s quick wit and a charming sense of humor as sweet as the treats those monsters so desperately seek. An easy but rewarding combat system keeps the action moving while side quests and the occasional bout of exploring are, for the most part, a fun addition.

As you journey through the neighborhood, you’ll encounter fellow trick-or-treaters to join your cause as you rid the town of enemies and liberate homes of their sugary morsels. Knocking on a door will bring either a costumed adult with a witty line and a bowl full of candy (the game’s all-too appropriate currency) or a battle-ready monster.

Battles are a mix of turn-based combat with an active twist. Similar to the combat of the Paper Mario series, Costume Quest’s battles are handled by selecting between normal and special attacks, the latter needing to be charged up before use, and applying it to your enemy. Time-sensitive prompts increase the damage you can inflict as well as increase your defense.

Costumes play a large role in combat as the outfit you’re wearing changes your abilities. What may appear as nothing more than a cardboard robot costume becomes a gigantic mech that towers over the city, delivering missile blasts to any Grubbin foolish enough to stand in your way. Other costumes include a knight, perfect for shielding you from attacks, the Statue of Liberty, a healing class, and many more which you discover over the course of the adventure. In addition, Battle Stamps increase the options available to players creating a little more variety and depth.

Along your travels, you’ll come across Sadie, an enterprising grade-schooler. (Think Lucy’s psychiatry stand in Peanuts.) In exchange for candy, she’ll give you Battle Stamps which alter abilities such as inflicting poison and put a few new tricks up your sleeve during combat like hitting an enemy after a successful dodge.

The combat is a lot of fun although it can get very easy. As an RPG-novice I was surprised by what little challenge the combat presented. It would have been nice to see a higher difficulty curve but, as it stands, Costume Quest doesn’t offer much. If you’re looking for a game with punishing difficulty, go elsewhere, that’s clearly not the intention here. Still, what’s there is good and encourages experimentation. It’s not the most complex system ever devised but its fun while it lasts and at six hours the game ends before fighting feels repetitive.

Side quests and exploring make up the time between battles as you trick-or-treat your way to the top. Bobbing for apples, card collecting, and playing hide & seek with the neighborhood kids are a fun addition to the overall experience however I was disappointed to see a lack of variety in these missions. In each of the three main areas to explore, you’ll find yourself doing the same thing in each level: bob for apples, find rare cards, find hiding children, repeat. The side quests seem to lack the same imagination that powers the game’s style and story.

As the game nears its conclusion, certain problems arise. For starters, the game feels short and not because of some arbitrary limit on dollars spent versus hours played. What makes the game feel short is the rapid pace at which things wrap up. With only the three main areas to explore, you and your costumed cohorts reach the end just when things are starting to pick up. It would have been nice to see at least one more level. Still, in a way it’s a testament to the game that I was left wanting more. That feeling isn’t something you reserve for a game you dislike.

Before the final credits, one of the characters declares, “We should do this every year!” and I have to agree. I can honestly see myself making Costume Quest an annual tradition this time of year. It’s not the longest nor the most-challenging game but what’s there is a fun, charming, and worthwhile adventure. The battle system is engaging and the game carries an imaginative spark that, simply put, makes me want to keep coming back.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow Review

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow seems like a risky move for the franchise. Previous attempts to bring the series into the world of 3D haven’t necessarily rendered the results fans have craved. After three successful 2-D titles on the DS, the series is having another go on consoles and developer MercurySteam has finally broken the 3-D curse. Lords of Shadow isn’t a perfect game but it’s certainly a good one which takes many liberties with the Castlevania license while crafting an appropriately epic story along the way. While elements of the gameplay take direct inspiration from other franchises, the game has more in common thematically with the likes of Tolkien than anything else. Gabriel Belmont has embarked on a journey following the death of his wife as a scourge of evil and darkness threatens to overtake the world. High stakes, to be sure, but all in a day’s work for a member of the Brotherhood of Light. During his travels, Gabriel will trudge through poisonous bogs, up treacherous mountains, and deep into the bowels of the underworld while battling all manner of skeletons, lycanthropes, vampires, and other creatures of Castlevania lore.

As I said, the story is quite epic, spanning various locations with incredible vistas, characters, and monsters. Gabriel is not alone in his quest as Zobek, fellow member of the Brotherhood, accompanies him for much of his journey though he only takes part in the action for a very short time. Zobek is voiced by none other than everybody’s favorite follically-challenged Trekkie, Patrick Stewart, who does his best with the source material. Problems arise with the storytelling as every chapter begins with a lengthy narration by Stewart which borders on the melodramatic. As the game can last up to twenty hours, players will find themselves constantly pulled out of the experience as the next chapter loads and another narration begins. It’s not all-bad but it made the experience feel somewhat disjointed. Despite the heavy-handed approach to some of the storytelling, the tale can be riveting. It's what kept me coming back to the game. The lengthy story is coupled with gameplay that is mostly satisfying making the journey toward the stunning conclusion all the more enjoyable.

Lords of Shadow is an action game in the same vein as God of War, taking much of its inspiration from the likes of Sony’s Spartan series, platforming reminiscent of Uncharted, and the occasional boss battle ripped straight out of Shadow of the Colossus. While elements of the gameplay might feel somewhat derivative, Lords of Shadow still feels incredibly rewarding, offering complexity, tactility, and weight to its combat. As players progress through each level, they gain experience points which can be traded for additional combos and other upgrades. Added depth comes by way of Light & Shadow magic. Gabriel can harness magical abilities, allowing players to regain health with Light magic and increase damage with Shadow magic active. It’s an extra layer that increases the complexity just enough to reward players looking for more depth in the combat. Meanwhile, players hoping to hammer on the square and triangle buttons will be challenged but can probably manage on lower difficulties just fine.

The game deviates from the “Metroidvania” design of recent Castlevania titles in favor of a more linear, stream-lined experience. It isn’t a bad thing, it’s simply a different direction which could turn off some hardcore fans. I didn’t find myself missing any of the back-tracking. The game isn’t trying to tell the same story or give the same experience as a game like Symphony of the Night. The closest thing to back-tracking is the game’s repayable design. As each level is completed it’s made available to go back, find all of the upgrades, complete on higher difficulties, and attempt various challenges such as beating a boss without using Light magic. Lords of Shadow wears its influences on its sleeve and while the gameplay is enjoyable, for the most part, it does stumble when the fighting subsides.

Occasional puzzles break up the action offering brief moments of lever-pulling, dial-turning, and color matching. The puzzle aren’t going to offer much in the way of head-scratching but at the very least they help to mix up the pace, avoiding the monotony of having the action constantly turned up to 11. However, Castlevania’s weakest points are the moments of exploration and platforming. Gabriel’s movement lacks the fine-tuned feeling we’ve come to expect from games like Uncharted, making certain sections of the game (yeah Music Box level, I’m calling you out) feel extremely frustrating. The problem comes from a lack of weight to Gabriel’s character. His model never feels as weighted as he could and problems abound when standing on moving surfaces. I often encountered an issue with moving platforms as Gabriel would inexplicably walk of the edge without any input from me. A tiny but annoying problem that, to me, illustrated some of the frustration and lack of polish present in the platforming.

I would be remiss if I didn’t take time to mention how beautiful the game looks. From a technical standpoint, the graphics are top-rate. But more importantly the environments and other design elements are, simply put, amazing. There was a moment in particular, as Gabriel stormed across the landscape, a huge gothic castle loomed in the distance, snow whipped at the screen, that I stood back for a long time and stared in awe. The design of Lords of Shadow could be arguably its strongest asset. I remember thinking several times that I hope everybody who plays the game makes it to the end so they can enjoy the views.

The game would have benefited from some editing. It can take a few hours for it to really hit its stride which could turn some gamers off. When an action game of this ilk takes so long to get down to business, more time could have been spent examining what’s absolutely essential. It may seem strange to complain that a game is too long but several levels in Lords of Shadow clutter up an otherwise great game. I would have much preferred a slightly shorter but more concise experience.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow takes inspiration from many great games. Is the combat better than God of War? Debatable. Are some of the boss battles greater than Shadow of the Colossus? No. Is the platforming as finely-tuned as Uncharted? Not really. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad game- far from it. It might not step out from the shadow of its influences, but Castlevnia is a good game that’s absolutely worth seeing through to the end and stands on its own accomplishments of design and story. In fact, in many regards it surpasses a game like God of War. Kratos would be wise to take an acting lesson or two from Gabriel. It’s a slow-burn, offering players an experience that takes more than 20 hours to see the first time through. The game is far more than a miserable little pile of influences, managing to bring a charm all its own offering themes, characters, and locations unique to the franchise. I hadn’t heard of developer MercurySteam before this game and throughout my time with Lords of Shadow I kept asking myself where on Earth they’d been hiding all this time.