Inside Pulse 12

Retrograding 01.28.03

Let’s see, first off I was in Stratford-upon-Avon this weekend. Nice little town. Probably the best I’ve seen in the UK so far. And not just because of Shakespeare. Anyways, I had one of my Spider-Sense tingling, like when I found FF Tactics and the Strategy guide for sale for $20 in a little down in Oregon. Walked into the GAME store there, and found a copy of every single game on my survival-terror list, Freaky huh? So UK gamers, if you want obscure and hard to find games, it appears the land of Falstaff is your destination. Also picked up a copy of HELLNIGHT for 15£, and as I already have one, That’s going to be going to one lucky reader. But just make sure you can play PAL games.

No one did the Captain N thing over the weekend you lazy bastards. Tons of other email, but no actual responses. And with Joseph’s comment about “Ask 411” dying quicker than a mayfly, you’d think we’d have to assume that the only interaction 411 readers want is with just comments, but weird games. However, lots of responses to my would-be interactive thing I only hinted at to readers. A lot of people have found out about the game though, either by asking or sneaking around the web and finding it, as I have 30+ people signed up for it already. I am going to send a copy of what it is to Chris, and if he okay’s it, I’ll put it up in a future retrograding column. If not, you’ll just have to ask me about it. It is survival terror however, so hopefully that piques a tad bit more interest. But until it shows up on 411, you’re gonna have to email me.

Also thanks to the concern of the other 411 staff that think I’m going to burn myself out with the amount I’ve written over the past month. But I am going to take their advice and slow down, not to keep myself from burning out, but to keep you guys from being sick of me. Especially as I wait for some research material to come my way. And thus I’m taking this time to do some reader requests.

Alex-

Instead of the usual blather about how great you are, I’m going to ask a question. How do you decide what games are good or not? I mean what are your standards? I see you slag Final fantasy (for justified reasons) but also praise Pokemon which is unusual for someone considered “hardcore” because of it’s kiddie steriotype?

-Martin

I saved this one from the mailbag so I could do this column. I have my own personal ratings system. The 411 rating system is excellent and I use it for my own reviews as you have seen. Not because I’m forced to, but because I want to. However I thought I’d use this letter to do another mini-list in this column. So here are Alex’s things he looks for in a game.

1. Story.

Okay. This IS the most important aspect of a video game. Anyone who tells you otherwise is stupid. No, not really. There are lots of good games without stories. Tetris for example. But I can’t overestimate how important a good story is to a video game. There are TONS of games with pretty graphics but have a story so pathetically bad you can’t play them. But there are many games with below average graphics that still have a great story to tell. And those games generally become the ones your fork out fistfuls of money for on Ebay. Most Sega CD games are proof of that. Popful Mail? Decent graphics. Cute story. Vay? Same thing. Lunar? I rest my case. Just because a game runs on a 128 bit system and looks like a TG-16 game doesn’t mean it’s not as good a game with great graphics but plays like shit and has a story that even General Hospital fans wouldn’t find interesting (I’m looking at YOU The Bouncer.)

2. Graphics.

The other half of the coin. Yes, graphics are important. I’ll give you that. But a person shouldn’t play games just to coo at sprites and cell shading. But people do which is why so many crap games sell bucketloads. Graphics are important. I actually put story over graphics simply because there are a lot of memorable games without graphics form my childhood. Again, this is personal commentary, but you will never here me say ick to pretty graphics…unless the rest of the game sucks. Remember when SNES fans had to do a code to get blood and gore graphics on their Mortal Kombat games? Didn’t that suck wang if you didn’t know it? Games like Radiant Silvergun, Castlevania, and Panzer Dragoon hooked us in first with their stunning visuals, only to amaze us further when the game didn’t play like something for the Amiga.

3. Sound

Music (or lack thereof) can make or break a game easily. When music stops in Clock Tower, you know it is time to wet yourself. When Luna sings upon the boat in Lunar:SSSC, you find yourself entranced. When people stare at you on mass transportation because you’ve been singing the Zelda theme song out loud for ten minutes…well, you’re mortified. But it shows how important music is.

But there’s also voice acting. Too often some holier-than-thou reviewer or “Hardcore Gamer” will start complaining about how bad American Voice acting is. Which makes them look foolish for three reasons.

1. Most of the people complaining don’t know Japanese in the first place.
2. Why do American Voice actors put emotion into their part while most Japanese voice actors sound like Ben Stein?
3. Why do so many Japanese gamers prefer American voice acting?

The last one is what gets me the most irritated. It’s like you have to diss your own country’s performers to be “hardcore” Yet Working Designs US translations of certain games sell better in Japan than the Japanese Counterparts! GASP!!!! So even though I have a good share of import games (Like my precious Sakura Wars), I don’t kvetch or come off looking like a pompous jackass by saying one style of voice acting is better than another. Hey, I accomplish that in other ways.  I like both US and Japanese dialogue.. It all depends on the game for me. Grandia is a perfect example of bad American voice acting, while Valkyrie Profile in English is so much better than the Japanese version, it’s scary. At least Atlus gave us the CHOICE in Rhapsody, a very excellent but overlooked game due to it’s femmy nature. With the capabilities of the next-gen systems, would it really be THAT hard to let us pick what language we want dialog in. PAL games have to have English, Italian, French, German, Russian, etc. We should be that lucky to have that option.

4.Control

We see possibly great games go down the crapper due to lazy programmers and horrible control. Remember how everyone was jazzing in their pants for Evil Dead: Hail to the King? Does anyone actually own the game anymore? The horrible controls and piss poor design of the game RUINED it for Bruce Campbell fans worldwide. And made the game go in the used bin of every Electronics Boutiques in your city. If you hit “A” and the computer acts like you it “Left-left-R2,” there’s either something wrong with your joystick, or you bought one hell of a crappy game.

5. Replayability

Is this a game you’ll play over and over again even years down the road? I remember when I first got Shining Force in 9th grade. Played that mother for 3 days straight. Beat the game. Then played it again. I still pick the entire series up and play them a lot. The game NEVER gets old.

Or is the game something you buy, play once or twice and never play again, allowing it to sit in your closet until it gets buried under a mound of crap? Record of Lodoss War is a prime example. Great game. Loved every minute. But I was so thankful when it was over. And will probably never play it again.

Note that multiple endings, different paths in a game and non-linear plotlines enhance this aspect of gaming.

6. Balance

This is probably the hardest of all the categories to understand. Basically, is the game even in all aspects. Does the difficult level increase at a steady pace with each level, or is the game super ultra easy for 90% of it and then suddenly the last boss is mucho psychotically tough as in the first Evolution)?

As well, is the game priced correctly for the amount you get. Who would pay $40 for Cannon Spike? Excellent Game, but you beat it in an hour. Another example is Popful mail. Costs about 50$ on Ebay…but the game is beaten in 3-9 hours. ACK!

However the opposite is true as well. Games that have crap loads of filler in it (Star Ocean 2) that make you waste time just so they can increase the amount of time it takes you to beat the game…can make them annoyingly stupid.

7. Originality.

Probably the hardest one to judge. You remember when Street Fighter II FIRST came out? I do. I’d spend a few hours at the arcade murdering people with Ryu and Blanka, and then Sagat when SFIICE came out. Incredible game with an approach no one had seen before. Now we’re on SFIII: Third Strike, along with all the VS spin offs. And a lot of the magic is gone. Same old game. Same old plot. New Characters. It’s harder to get as enthused.

But it’s hard to be original nowadays, both in plot and concept. But games keep showing up that amaze us all. Legend of Mana was very original. TYPING OF THE DEAD? How much more of a mind bogglingly Unique title do you require? Originality is out there people. You just have to look.

8. Addictiveness

How much do you WANT to keep playing this game, forsaking all other aspects of your life? You hear about EverCrack, but you know what? I never found the game fun in the first place. But Hundreds of Thousands of people do. And love the damn thing. They eat, sleep and masturbate it. HEAVY Heroin factor.

But then there are some games where you don’t really get into them, or you just can’t play them for long periods of time, no matter how good they are. Revelations: Persona is a perfect example. One of my favorite games, even without the Snow Queen Quest in the US version, but I sure as hell can’t play it for more than 2-3 hours a day. Same with the Sequels, which are superior in every way…but still not something you can devote an entire day too.

9. Appeal Factor .

Appeal Factor simply is: How well will this game appeal to a large audience of fans, and not just a niche group. I realize this is controversial, but it really is something that needs to be looked at. Valkyrie Profile is by my standards, the MOST PERFECT GAME EVER. But you know what? It’s not gonna fly with more than the RPG/Enix worshiper/hardcore gamer niche. Little Bobby, age 15 and drooling over the latest Lara Croft game JUST. WON’T. GET. IT. And that’s too bad. But if the game can’t appeal to a decent chunk of players, it won’t sell well. And sadly, ultimately, that decides how good a game is to the makers and companies. Army Men games suck. But they sell. And they keep making them. And people keep buying them. So in that aspect, it’s a good game. But ONLY in that aspect.

10. Miscellaneous

Consider this the category that covers everything else involving a video game. If it’s an RPG, it’s the battle system. If it’s a date sim, how logical the answers are. If it’s real time strategy, how decent it flows. Things of that nature. Not much more can be said, as this category rewrites itself constantly. This is the obvious catch-all category to clear anything I missed, because quite honestly, there are so many little aspects of games that go unnoticed.

And because I’m sure someone will want me to do some review of a game to see how it holds up, so let’s try it. Remember, this is going to be a one time thing for the heck of it.

Vanguard Bandits Review

One-line Review: Robotech meets Final Fantasy Tactics, but a better plot than either one has to offer.

Game History:

VB was originally released in Japan by Human, makers of such exquisite games as Clock Tower, and, Fire Pro Wrestling, Of course, it was saddled with a horrible named like “Epica Stella.” Stellar Epic? It takes place on another world…but that’s about it. Truly an odd name, but so are most games put out by that company. Vasteel? What the hell does that title mean anyways?

Of course, when Working Designs brought it over, they created their usual controversy. Some say they butcher games with utterly changing the dialog, adding humour and actually changing aspects of game play.

I say that’s idiocy pure and simple.

Working Designs makes the games more geared towards American players! IS that so wrong? The Japanese changed a good part of the Beast Wars Cartoon when they got it. And people don’t complain about that. The Japanese sure raised hell though. It’s a hypocritical double standard that makes worshipers of all things Japanese look like even bigger idiots than they already are.

And what’s worse? Most of those people have NEVER played the Japanese versions. ARRRRRRRRRGH! I mean, I import, but only if I can’t get the game in the US. I never assume the Japanese version is better.

So what else did WD change besides make the story more interesting?

The added a team assist system. When allies flank your character, he does better in combat. But the same holds true for the enemy. This is a HUGE improvement. HUGE. And it’s very noticeable in the game play. Whip out your copy of Epica Stella (and if you have one, you frighten me greatly) and TRY to beat the Zulwarn without the extra boost the assist factor gives you. It’s like Borgan from Lunar: Eternal Blue for the Sega CD. Things will be thrown and your neighbours will assume a sailor on shore leave has come to visit you.

They also added unlockable Easter eggs. And as usual, Working Designs has the best extras out of all designers. Unlock Music, incredible graphics of the ATAC’s, credits (lame), and a wacky alternate opening FMV. Sweet ass candy. Ummm..but where are the patented WD outtakes? Oh that’s right. No voice acting except for one 3-minute block between two actors. An odd thing for a company so known for exacting voice work.

LET’S REVIEW

1. Story

Hmmm. The plot’s best summed up as “A crapload of plot archetypes mixed together with giant mechs.” You play as Bastion, who is obviously the love child of Batman’s archenemy: The Joker. Right down to the Green Hair and super sized schnozz. You and your dad are rebels against an “Evil Empire” which you secretly plan to bring down. Things happen, Daddy dies, and oh…you’re not really his kid. You’re really the son of the late King of the Pharastia Kingdom and your “dad” was his mightiest warrior. And only you can unlock the mighty ATAC (ATAC = mech) that can restore peace to this world.

Anyone getting flashbacks to Guardian Heroes but with robots instead of undead Golden heroes?

Yup. Common enough plot. But here’s the thing. There are SEVEN different paths you can set Bastion upon, and five different endings to boot. Make Bastion get it on with the Princess of the Empire (which I did the first time I played). Make Bastion reclaim his throne. Make Bastion an evil bastard who kills all his friends in the last battle. Things like that.

So the game is both generic enough to hook people in, but diverse enough to surprise them once they start playing. Excellent job, and infinitely better than the Japanese version of the story (ies).

Something else to touch on is the writing. Sure it’s Working Designs. And that means both humorous dialogue and obscure pop culture references, but also well-written near seamless story points with characters that almost feel as if you know them.

Plot rating: 8/10

Graphics:

Okay. It’s a game from the time of TG-16 game played on a PSX. Graphics aren’t exactly world stopping. Especially on the battlefield. Little blobs are attacking other blobs. But the action sequences are where it counts. Beautifully animated robots beat the shit out of each other with a variety of weapons. And it’s realistic in movement and actions. The little FMV footage at the beginning is very nicely done too. But for most of the game, it shows it’s 16-bit nature. Averages out things nicely IMO.

Graphics rating (for a PSX game): 5/10

Sound:

I was surprised as hell to find the music is improved upon as well. Remember TG-16’s music? Sqwark sqwark. Midi, Midi. But the music is very good in this game. Not something I’d generally put in a CD player for a long car trip, but the music is perfect for the battles and fits the theme of the game perfectly.

Sound rating: 7/10

4. Control.

Hmmm. Mixed bag here. Sometimes you have to click more than once to get an ATAC to move where you want them to be. Often trying to back out using a character into the menu screens (Such as whose turn is next, stats of the opponent and so on) takes a while. Especially if you’re in mid movement of a character. You have to delete all movement, see what you want and start anew. But what is most vexing is that when you move the ATAC, it doesn’t automatically face the enemy. If an enemy’s back is directly ahead and to the left, you think when you move your ATAC directly ahead and to the left, it would automatically face the enemy. But it doesn’t. That’s bad voodoo to do when you’re just starting the game. After your ass is kicked the first battle, you learn to watch those things constantly.

On the plus side, attacks and options are laid out in a logical manner.

Control Rating: 5/10

5. Replayability

People, with 7 plots and 5 endings, not to mention a butt load of different characters and customization options, there is NO EXCUSE to play this game only once. Yeah okay…crappy controls. But still, ¦the plots are incredible, dialogue rules and you get unlocked stuff for each ending you get. The problem is that four of the plots are nearly the same. And plots 5-6 follow the same path except for the ending. So a lot of times, if you want to play every mission in the game, you get a LOT of Deja vu. .

Replayability rating: 8/10

6. Balance.

Okay. Let’s say it right now. There IS no balance in regards to difficulty. 99% of the times, my guys destroyed the computer opponents. Yes, it is well known I’m a savant when it comes to war Sims, but still. I have NEVER had a strat sim this easy. You will roll through the game without blinking and then – WHAM! Out of nowhere the difficultly level goes from “8 to 43. And generally it’s only one ATAC giving you the trouble.

And then there is ALWAYS the Zulwarn. Never gets tried. Almost always dodges, even when the screen says you have a 96% chance of hitting him. And kills you very quickly. Did I forget to mention he has 700 hit points where the next most powerful enemy in the entire game has oh, 252??? The difficulty is almost insane and there’s next to no way to beat the thing unless you cheese heavily with the almighty Turbulence spell.

Only the Ruins storyline has a semblance of difficulty slowly rising. And then again, the final battle is insane, and you win only because a CP-controlled ally gains control of the Zulwarn. LAME!!!!

Luckily, the other half of balance is the price. You can buy this game for less than 15$. And that is a great deal. Just be prepared to swear.

Balance rating: 5/10

7. Originality.

Okay. ANY game where you can switch sides in the final battle and murder your friends like Jews in a concentration camp is awesome. An unexpected plot swerve like that totally reeks of originality. (No, I’m not a Nazi. My Mother’s Mother’s side of the family is Jewish. Please no Anti-Semitic accusatory emails.)Yes, there is the whole “Rebel is actually long lost Prince fighting to bring peace to the world”plot that is done is so many games, movies and cartoons that you wish you were bulimic, but WD pulls off generic plots better than anyone, by turning them into pretty damn good tales you can’t wait to hear the rest of. Plus, it’s a Tactics game with giant robots instead of Mages and Knights.

The final cap in the originality rating is the sheer customization. By switching ATACS (32 kinds), and magic stones (5 types) you can make the weirdest teams possible. My favourite was putting Claire is Bastion’s old Alba and using either a wind stone for Turbulence cheese, or healing, so she was not only the second best fighter, but could do some defense as well.

Originality rating: 8/10

8. Addictiveness

Hurm. Well, even though I did enjoy this game, I couldn’t play more than 2-3 battles a day of it. They took quite a bit of time, and although I enjoyed the story, it didn’t leave me playing it at 3am while my rabbit Zuel nipped as the Joystick cords. It was more a Diversion between other things, rather than a game I really got into, like Legend of Mana. But it was always one of those things I looked forward to.

Addictiveness rating: 5/10

9. Appeal Factor.

This game will appeal to the following: Fans of Final Fantasy/Ogre Tactics looking for a better version of the game style, War sim fans, Mech fans, Robotech fans, fans of any other Working Designs Games, and well…sadly not too many others. The game is just too bizarre for Joe Average. They won’t get the War Sim or the Strategies, it’ll take them forever to beat Zulwarn if they are still playing at that point and worst of all, they won’t get how well done the story is. Sadly, Vanguard Bandits is a game that won’t be discovered by many.

Appeal Factor rating: 4/10

10. Miscellaneous

As you will see, Working Design Games always get a high rating here. Not only did they include a pretty good Lunar: Eternal Blue Demo with this 1999 game (For a game that didn’t come out until 2001!!!), but the game has some fun Easter eggs. I enjoyed looking at all the ATAC’s, and loved when I got the new opening movie. Sadly, there were no voice outtakes, but they entire score of voice acting is unlocked as part of the music section. Nice touch, except that the ending with the voice ending wasn’t the one I won first, leaving an ending ruined for me. Ah well…

Also factor in there were NO random battles, a fun interview/morale boosting aspect to the game, and long ending sequences, you have a great bit of extra in this game.

Miscellaneous rating: 8/10

Average score: 6.3/10

THE 411

Vanguard Bandits is a pretty good game that you’ll want in your collection for a long time. Like every decent game, there are a few flaws that can be ignored, and some that can’t, but if you’re looking for a game that feels like Tactics, but with a HELL of a better plot, run down and snatch this game up for cheap, cheap, cheap!

Well, that worked rather interesting, didn’t it? Some obviously flaws and strengths to me, but let’s see what you think.

Feel free to send email to the usual spot, IM me, etc. Look for the usual Retrograding Advance coming out at the end of the week.