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Picked up the new Dragon Quest game yesterday, along with a new DS. My third, if you’re wondering. Thanks, Nintendo. Great build quality. Keep up the good work, you bastards.

Some thoughts:

Gosh, it’s pretty. The world’s in 3D, as are your characters, and NPCs for the most part are sprites. It works. Environments are wonderful, etc etc. I don’t like Dragon Ball, but I really like the character designs here. Look at those peeps up there! Adorable, great eyebrows and they’re far better than in say, Chrono Trigger. I’ve yet to find a character named after food or underwear, but I’m sure there’s at least one. This just wouldn’t be a Toriyama joint if there wasn’t. Basically, Level 5 can make a very good-looking DS game, even when they’re not especially good. They work better with other people’s IPs and oversight, I think, and Square Enix seem to have done a very good job, not that I think that was ever really in question. Dragon Quest is, let’s say, an important franchise for them. They can make a good game when they bother, and it all feels very expensive.

The battle system is a fairly simple turn-based affair, which is how I like it. None of this Active Time nonsense, and it hurtles along at a fair pace. Battles are well-animated, with characters running around all over, hitting things with a decent sense of impact and judicious use of slow motion. It’s a nice change from the whack-the-air routine of old, which really didn’t work in 3D games like, say, the DS Final Fantasy remakes.

Speaking of Final Fantasy, this is so much more pleasant than that. I’ve yet to get bored of fighting Cruelcumbers and Meow-gicians, the world is colourful and varied, and the translation is wonderful. The story is, so far, more straightforward than any Final Fantasy game I’ve played, but that doesn’t mean it’s not affecting. You’re an angel, cast down from heaven. There’s nothing much wrong (again, so far) with the world you’re in, it isn’t ending. Kingdoms aren’t really in peril, but something might be wrong in the world you’ve been thrown out of. So the melancholia comes from a sense of abandonment and loss, rather than danger or tragedy. It’s refreshing for a game like this. At the moment, the quest is to attract the attention of your long-gone God, which is nicely poignant. You save by going to confession. I gather that’s a Dragon Quest convention?

Religion up the bum, by the way. Such is the Square way. Up the bum.

Party members are customisable and interchangeable, which I really like. There’s something I really like about going through a game with characters I’ve made. Knowing that no-one else has quite the same Warrior as me – his name’s Caleb, by the way – really gets me. For me it absolutely makes up for an absence of character, and that’s just how I roll. I’m still getting used to all the classes. Priests seem a lot more physical than I’m used to, sort of a combination of Final Fantasy priests and monks. So healing spells and buffs, but also punching. Hitting things with a wand steals MP, which is good. It means there’s a point to hitting things as a mage, and I can also envisage using a strong melee character to neutralise magic users by getting rid of their mana. My main character’s a minstrel, although I think that’s randomly chosen. I thought perhaps that meant she was basically a bard, but I haven’t learned any, y’know, songs or stuff. I’m not really sure what the minstrel is good at, but she can breathe fire. That sir, is the absolute coolest. She’s called Dani, by the way. What? Don’t you judge me.

A few niggles. Having to go see a priest to check how much experience I need (Divination! Get it? Eh?) to level up is a pain. Just show me that stuff, people, come on. Maybe my priest will at some point be able to show that? I hope so. Also, Don’t show the experience I gain at the end of a battle on the bottom screen, and the money on the top. I tap through that stuff fast, and it doesn’t sound like it would be annoying, but trust me. It is.

My only major worry is that perhaps it’s a little easy. I’m not really sure what level of player I am, on your Amateur to Professional scale. Dilettante? Anyway, it’s all very pleasant, but I’m not being challenged. However, I am informed that, after five hours and 193 battles, I’ve only seen 8% of the enemies. Jury’s out on that one, then.

Anyway, it’s good! You have a fairy, and she drives a flying train! Yes!

That turned out well. So much for updating regularly here, or indeed anywhere, but thems the breaks. I’ve had a lot on, guys and gals, seriously, but enough with excuses. In amongst more revision than is decent, I’ve squeezed in a lot of various Grand Theft Auto titles, at the expense of maintaining anything even resembling a social life. My time in Liberty City has been fairly fruitful, or at least as fruitful as a video murder-simulator can be. GTA games, in my experience, positively churn out anecdotes, and everyone loves anecdotes, right? I know I do. My personal favourite is from San Andreas (I refuse to make a Danny Miller joke here). Right at the end of a long, difficult and tedious mission, my extremely rotund CJ is outrunning police on foot, after extricating himself from his stricken (and stolen, of course) patrol car. All of a sudden, a crop duster falls from the sky, landing rather improbably bang on top of him. There my story should end, but the plane does not kill poor Carl Johnson, instead sending him flying in the air to land, alive on a grandmother, who does die. Everyone in the crowd takes offence, and the protagonist meets death at the hand of a beefy looking man with a moustache, if I recall. I swear everything I just typed is true. GTAIV and Chinatown Wars are nowhere near as buggy as the previous versions, which is almost a shame, but I should point out that the PC port of GTAIV is terrible, it’s ridiculously spec-heavy. Games should run better on my PC than an Xbox 360. Just saying.

Boom, new games journalism.

On a side note, I’ve been listening to the latest Franz Ferdinand album, and, well, it’s pretty mediocre. I can’t say that it’s bad, it has a couple of great songs, but compared to the first two albums, it’s just underwhelming. Liking the cover, though, and the discocentricness of the whole endeavour is good, at least they’re trying something a little different.

Now this one’s a little strange. Nostalgia is often used, to great effect, to sell video games, but this is a first. Retro Game Challenge, published by XSeed in the US, is a bit different. What looks at first to be a compilation of NES games takes a turn for the surreal when you realise that all these titles are original.

Retro Game Challenge

Retro Game Challenge

Well, original is perhaps a little strong. The inspirations for these games are usually pretty obvious, when not explicitly stated in the titles (If you can’t tell which classics “Super Robot Haggle Man” takes its cues from, well, good luck to you.). There’s a good variety, with top down shooters and racers, platformers, and even a pretty well fleshed out RPG. Games are unlocked in order of “Release Date”, and you are required to complete various challenges (get 200,000 points, say, or destroy a large asteroid) in order to progress to the next one. Along the way, magazines are also unlocked, with tips and cheats for existing games, and previews of upcoming releases. It seems like something I personally would play for half an hour and then never touch again, but what makes RGC so compulsive is the sheer quality of the games, and that the challenges are never arduous enough that they outstay their welcome.

The localisation of this (very) japanese game is generally excellent. The magazines, which in the original feature characters from Game Center CX, the tv show the game is based on, now have editors of various american game mag editors, which is a nice touch. Whether this will be changed or remain the same for the european release remains to be seen. The only really irritating thing is the voiceover, which really starts to grate. The game is obviously supposed to be set in Japan, so why they couldn’t have left that dub in is beyond me.

The story fits the general all-round craziness of the rest of the game perfectly. Basically, (as explained in a star wars-style intro), Shinya Arino, the host of Game Center CX, has become so obsessed with being the best at video games that he has mutated into a huge green head lying on a D-Pad. Seriously. The now monstrous Arino, upset at your gaming prowess, has sent you back to the early 1980s, never to return unless you can beat his challenges. Aided by Arino’s younger self, you get stuck in. I think I should probably leave this right there.

I’ll admit, I still haven’t quite finished Chrono Trigger, despite how much I like it. The reason for this minor tragedy is Atlus RPG Etrian Odyssey, published here in Europe by Nintendo in June of last year (Over a year after the US release). It’s proving to be quite the  time sink.Etrian Odyssey

Etrian Odyssey is an RPG of the first person dungeon-crawler variety, in which you lead your band of adventurers down into a mysterious underground forest, to get items needed up top and to figure out why on earth the forest, dubbed the Yggdrasil Labyrinth (The “which-religion-shall-we-steal-from” wheel of fortune Japanese developers all seem to have this time apparently landing on Old Norse), is even there. Other than that, so far there’s no real story to speak of, which I don’t really regard as a bad thing in this case. I am content to be a delivery boy, fetching Holy Water for an old man who can’t really venture into the labyrinth anymore. It’s kind of refreshing not to be expected to save the world.

The lack of any substantial story extends to your characters as well. You choose everything about your party, including their names, classes, attributes and character portraits. This gives a real sense of  attachment to your group, and I felt some real discomfort watching my dorkily named avatars fall one by one to one of the super-hard enemies, or F.O.E.s that litter the forest. And believe me, this happens a lot. Etrian Odyssey is old school hard, which works well, as the only barrier to how far you can venture into the dungeon is whether or not you can actually survive, so there’s an amazing sense of accomplishment as you hack your way into a part of the dungeon through monsters who vastly out-level you, and gain some amazing loot and experience in return.

Graphics are serviceable, if not amazing, with some nice character portraits and backgrounds. The battle system is simple, but quite deep. If you’ve played Dragon Quest, you’ll know exactly how it works. A little unoriginal, sure, but DQ is certainly not a bad place to steal from. Music is very good. It’s written by Yuzo Koshiro, the composer for Ys 1&2, the Streets of Rage games, and Act Raiser 1&2, so I expected quality, and it’s certainly present.

Perhaps the most strikingly new feature of Etrian Odyssey is the mapping system. Your bottom screen is a grid, not unlike graph paper, where you are expected to map out the entire labyrinth. Spaces you have been are automatically painted onto the map, so it’s not impossibly difficult or fiddly, but placement of walls, treasure, traps and F.O.E.s is up to the player. This is one of the strongest points of Etrian Odyssey. It’s incredibly satisfying to see a dungeon floor entirely mapped out, and know that it was down to your effort. In fact, “satisfying” describes pretty much all of this game. Everything is extremely tight, and it all adds up to one of the best RPGs the Nintendo DS has seen.

Lately, I’ve been obsessed with the free Trackmania Nations Forever (Available now on Steam), so I started playing the newly released DS version.

pack_2d_nds_trackmania_cover

The handling is designed for digital input, so it works brilliantly, at least with the formula one car. The desert and rally cars, which are not in the free version of the PC game, turn a bit sharply for me, but your mileage may vary. Gameplay and levels are culled straight from the PC version. Basically, you find the absolutely best line in a very short course through repetition. It’s more fun than it sounds. Visually, it’s good for a DS game. Levels are varied, and the framrate is relatively stable.  The DS’ low resolution screens, however, make it difficult to see very far ahead, which is pretty essential in plotting your line. This leads to a lot more trial and error than there should be, and stops the experience from being as enjoyable as its big brother. If your computer can handle it (and it should be able to), play the free game.

Edit: Arrgh, I just realised I used “mileage may vary” in a post about a racing game.

Edit: Arrgh.

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