Monday, September 18, 2006

Mega Man ZX: How many Mega Man games is this now?

The first new Mega Man game on the Nintendo DS is Mega Man ZX, a game that will feel somewhat familiar to those who played the X games for SNES/PlayStation (the 2D ones), and those who played through the Zero games for the GBA.

How it Looks: Good
While it won't win any awards for its graphics, the game does look very good, with smooth animations and no hiccups whatsoever. Dual and sometimes even Triple scrolling backgrounds are present in every level, showing off what the DS can do with sprite-based games. There is no 3D graphics anywhere in this game, as the developers kept the same 2D look that has made the Mega Man series a household name.

How it Sounds: Good
The music in the game is typical Mega Man fare: Nice rock music that just fits in the place it is. The soundtrack in general isn't as loud as some previous scores (the classic Mega Man X score is still the best Mega Man soundtrack to date, and in my opinion one of the best ever! I can still remember the beat to the opening level, and as I write this, I'm humming that tune horribly off-key!), but it's still very good. There are very few moments where there are voice overs, but those are all done in japanese, but so far I've only encountered one use of it. The sound effects, though, are top notch, with exception to timing: the main character's yell is heard every time he shoots and slashes the Z-Saber. While rapid fire and swinging aren't prevailent much, the one form I like to stay in is quick-fire: attacks quickly and uses projectiles. To this effect, the main character yells a lot, and can get annoying very fast. That is the only problem so far in the sound of the game.

How it Feels: Excellent!
Controls are very intuitive and make use of every button (except for select so far). The Y and R buttons are attacks (Y is main, and R is secondary), L is for dashing (though pushing a direction key twice rapidly will dash as well), B jumps, X brings up a ring menu to change your suit, A puts you in overdrive (more on that later), and Start accesses the menu, where you can also switch suits, refuel using sub tanks, and check your map and mission log. The touch screen isn't used for controls at all, so the hands stay on the buttons at all times to keep the Mega Man feel of the game. Everything is quick, and it has to be: the action is fast, and mistakes cost lives, which leads to...

How it Plays: Fun!
Gameplay is simple: kill minor robots in a level to get to the midboss, then kill more minor robots to get to the big boss, then beat him and get his power. Same formula for every Mega Man game, and the same can be sa— oh, wait. They changed the Mega Man formula! How ludacris! How outrageous!
How... refreshing! While it hasn't changed much, you take on a human character this time around (you get to choose male or female), who is chosen by the X model Biometal. Biometal allows humans to get some robotic assistance. The X model, for instance, turns our hero into X from the Mega Man X series, with dash and charge shot included. Eventually, you get the Z model, and the X and Z model fuse to get the titular Biometal, the ZX model. This turns you into Zero from Mega Man Zero fame, with a weak buster and a strong Saber. There is a map, which connects each level with a couple of starting areas and a city. There are save points scattered throughout the zones, with some connected to a transporter for easy reach, since the map is fairly large. The main goal is overtaking missions (most of which means facing mavericks and regaining Biometal from them). The main missions yield new Biometal that fuse with the X model. Each model has a different play style with it: HX allows you to dash in the air (even up!), one allows you better movement in the water, one can destroy big blocks and melt ice, and one allows you to cling to roofs and ledges while throwing projectiles. Each one also makes use of the bottom screen in different ways: The ZX mode doesn't use it for anything however, HX shows the health of the last enemy you attacked, FX allows you to plot the course of its bullets (though how is unknown to me... maybe in the manual I haven't read?), LX shows a layout of the surrounding area and has a homing dot that moves to any item in the screen, and the PX shows a smaller version of the LX area map, but does show where enemies and secret passageways are.
Besides those changes, its straight Mega Man action: shoot stuff, jump over pits (bottomless or spike-filled), shoot more stuff, shoot bosses, shoot more stuff. Just be sure to save often, as you can die almost anywhere if you're not careful.

Game Length: 10-20 Hours (aproximation)
If you just complete the main missions, it will be over in 8-10 hours (less if you're on easy mode and/or are a Mega Man veteran), but factor in some optional missions, some minigames, and a normal (hard) difficulty, and you've got yourself some playing time. Unfortunately, this is a solo campagn, so no multiplayer.

Verdict: Buy!
If you are a Mega Man fan, you'd be nuts to pass this up, as it is the same tried-and-true formula, only evolved. Plus who doesn't love some platforming with large guns. If you aren't a Mega Man fan, this is definitely a game to try out, as it is a basic platformer that tests your quickness with the controller more than your brainpower. When the only downside to the game is finding where to go (and that isn't so bad in the age of walkthroughs), you know you've got a hit on your hands.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Xenosaga III: A Semi-Interactive Movie!

The Xenosaga series has taken a lot of criticism for its long cutscenes, linear gameplay, and overarching story. This has caused some poor sales, and Namco Bandai decided that the 6-part series would be cut short, making Xenosaga III the final game of the now-trilogy series. While the storytelling hasn't changed much, the gameplay has, and for the better.

How it Looks: Excellent/Poor
How can a game get an excellent AND a poor rating? Because the graphics are great, but perhaps a little too great for the engine to handle at times. Characters are nicely detailed, with a style that is more of a balance between the anime-style Episode I characters and the super-realistic Episode II characters. Essentially, keep the detail of Ep. II and make the eyes bigger and mouths smaller, and you get where the character design is going. Naturally, all the main characters gets new outfits, which are a mixed bag, but that's only subtle things.
What gives the graphics a poor grade as well is the fact that during cutscenes, if there are more than 3 characters on the screen, or 2 or more with a lot of action, explosions and such, then the graphics will skip, passing over a couple of frames at a time. It keeps going at the same speed, meaning when the action should stop, it does, but it looks choppy.
Environments look absolutely tremendous, with lots of detail, even when close up. The camera is perfect for the layout of each level, though it is annoying (to me at least) when it stops moving forward/back when you run into a wall when coming towards the outside of the screen.

How it Sounds: Excellent
The musical score for Ep. III is again very good, reminiscent of Ep. I, but adding a couple of tunes in the style of Ep. II, but more in place than in Ep. II. Each piece of music fits the location or the situation, and plays smoothly throughout, without any hiccups. While none of them will stick in your head for very long after the power goes off, it has kept me from playing with the volume off since I've got it.
Voice overs are, once again, a mishmash of sorts. The original voice actors for Shion and KOS-MOS return, and the original voices for Jr., Albedo, Ziggy, Allen, and Margulis all stick around for the third installment (there may be more, but those are the only ones I could pick out). chaos, MOMO and Jin keep their Ep. II voice actors (I like chaos and Jin's Ep. II voice actors better anyways), while the rest of the cast seems to get new voice actors. Minor characters aren't heard from much, so annoying voices are kept to a minimum. I'm still disappointed that Tony's voice from Ep. I didn't stick around for the entire series, and his Ep. III voice is the only annoying one. VO play smoothly throughout the cutscenes, but through the meat of the dialog, there seem to be a lot of awkward pauses when sentences are cut up (whether using normal or auto mode of dialog advancing).

How it Feels: Awkward
Controls are still the same as the other two installments of Xenosaga, but it is rather awkward that way. Instead of the standard X button for confirmation and advancing, everything is done with the O button, which is different from almost every other RPG I've played. Worst still, you can't change the controls. At this day and age, that is unacceptable. Shortcuts are nice, like the Triangle button automatically gets you out of any menu screen and back into the field, and pausing cutscenes and dialog scenes with start and skipping them with Triangle, but it doesn't make up for the O/X swap. I find myself adding a 5-minute learning curve to each game I play after I finish a session of Ep III, and another 5 minutes getting used to Ep. III again.

How it Plays: Somewhat Boring
The gameplay has been simplified a fair bit from the last two, probably due to the fact of a limited budget. Battles are still turn-based, but instead of pushing key combinations, you now just input simplified commands, like Fight and Ether (magic), which removes a bit of interactivity. Also, the random battle panel is gone, which removes more of the randomness of the battle, so your enemy doesn't all of a sudden hit you ten times for criticals and cheese you out of a battle, or you find yourself getting mad boost because you hit them hard on the Boost panel. Speaking of boost, for those who haven't played the game, the battle system is a lot like Final Fantasy X: a turn-based fight system, where order is decided by speed, and you choose commands for the character when their turn comes up. There is a boost gauge that fills up when you hit an enemy. By holding an R button (besides R3) and pressing either O, Triangle or Square buttons, you can make it so that a party member goes right after you do, as long as you have one boost in your gauge. A new gauge has been added to this game: the Break gauge. D&D fans can relate it to subdual damage: some attacks (usually punches, kicks and choking) also do break damage, and when that bar is full, you go into Break status and skip your next two turns. It's a good strategy on hard-hitting enemies, since you also do normal damage with break attacks, but do note that they can do the same to you!
Most of the gameplay is somewhat far in between the cutscenes, with 1/4 of it walking from cutscene to cutscene, hence the somewhat boring part. However, the areas in which you fight are large and good for exploring. Scattered among the levels are 15 Red or Gold doors called "Segment Files", which need a decoder to open. Find the decoder, then find the door to get a goodie from inside. It's about the only thing to distract you from the monotony of the main quest (there is a minigame called HaKox, but it's essentially Lemmings that forces you to use the face buttons and not much else to guide the poor souls to the end. Yawn). Boss fights do get intense, since there's a lot of skill involved in beating the later ones, because some of them can get lucky and off a character in one hit. Note that there aren't many bosses that can crush your party in one hit.

Game Length: 30-50 hours
The main quest does go on for a while, but mainly because of the story parts. Learning every skill and finding all the decoders are a couple of ways to add to the time, but other than some more Robot Building quests (like in Ep. I and II), once you finish the story, you're pretty much done with the game. If you want to complete HaKox, that supposedly doubles the game length, but I'm not a fan of it.

Verdict: Split
People who played through Ep. I and II and liked either or both: Buy!
The closure on the story is almost enough to get you to come back to this game, since you don't want to leave the story unfinished do you? Gameplay has changed enough to make it different, but still feel natural at the same time.
People who didn't play either Ep. I or Ep. II (or played neither): Rent!
It's hard to recommend a game so heavily driven by story to people who haven't played the first two games. The notes on Ep. I and II on the title screen are very helpful, but some subtleties will confuse players who haven't seen all of the first two games. Plus, there isn't much playing to do in the game, so take the game length and cut it in half and that's actually how much you play in the game. Also, the battle system feels a lot like Final Fantasy X to really make it stand out. If you are a fan of Japanese RPGs and don't mind the heavy story commitment, then give it a try. If not, you may want to steer clear, because this follows the Japanese RPG guide to a tee.
Do note that I'm not recommending you try to beat it by just renting it. It's a suggestion that if you want to try it, rent it or borrow it first. It's not that good on its own to be a pick-up and play title.