When a game developer has to figure out which time period his game will be set in, the answer is usually simple: The future. We all know that the future doesn't look too bright. Nobody expects waking up in a utopian world where nothing is broken, and thus nothing needs fixing. Our future is dark and it comes in two flavors: gloomy cyberpunk or post-apocalyptic chaos - not that there's anything wrong with that, at least when it comes to games. Korean developer Phantagram decided to go with the second flavor, placing the story of their Xbox game entitled Strident some years after World War III.
Strident is the game's title, but it's also the codename of the main character - A female agent with no recollection of her past, capable of killing just about anything with her bare hands. Who needs weapons, if you're an expert in martial arts and your acrobatics would probably win you a medal or two if you ever showed up at the Olympics? Strident is a death toy, and if you think you can stop her with a couple of rounds from your machine-gun, you're in for a surprise. We know who we'll be controlling, but what's out mission? Since our character lost her memory, in the end, the main objective has to be getting it back.
As it turns out, Strident is the last remaining member of FIST, a special unit operating under the orders of United Nations. Sent on a peacekeeping mission to the Middle East, the FIST unit disappeared from the face of the earth. During a mercenary attack on a research facility manufacturing cyborgs, our female lead gets a chance to escape, after being imprisoned for six months. This is where the player takes over. Memories have to be found and a huge conspiracy needs to be uncovered. For some reason, the United Nations are no longer on our side, so as usual, we'll have to deal with everything on our own.
The game sounds like a lot of fun, and I can imagine what would it be like to actually play it, but unfortunately, I won't ever get the chance to. Strident is one of those unfortunate titles that never made it past the development stage, and was eventually cancelled. All that we ever got to see were a couple of screenshots and some concept art. Phantagram also released a fully rendered cinematic that looked nothing like the actual game, so I won't even link it. Why am I writing about this? Because the moment I saw the screenshots, I knew this was a game for me, and if it ever came out, I'd love it. What's even worse, is that Strident wasn't the only title Phantagram cancelled.
As if losing Strident wasn't enough, we also lost Duality, another third person perspective game, developed by none other than Phantagram, who teamed up with Madrid based Trilobite Graphics. While similar to Strident in look and feel, Duality was supposed to be a breath of fresh air when it came to gameplay. Judging from the information released to the public, it was meant to be an action adventure, not unlike Quantic Dream's Omikron: The Nomad Soul.
The story begins with industrial espionage when Travis, a mercenary turned security agent, buys himself a place on a mega-corporation hit-list by not being able to prevent the theft of top secret blueprints. Escaping the company premises, our hero will have to track down the thieves and return the stolen property to get his old employers off his back. Along the way, Travis will encounter two other characters, which the player will be able to control: A hacker-extraordinaire named Sam, and an artificial intelligence being called Cube. Each of the characters will be able to explore a part of the story inaccessible others, eventually bringing everything together and tying up all loose ends.
I have always wondered for how long is a developer able to operate, paying its employees for their time, without actually releasing anything, and without going bankrupt. The year 2002 must have been a tough one for Phantagram, seeing as they've managed to start developing two potentially huge titles, only to see them get cancelled, with all the work going to waste. Is it better to abandon a project, or give it a shot, since it's already so far along? Developers always have to weigh their options against potential financial loss, but what about the credibility in the eyes of gamers?
Usually, when a title is being cancelled, developers, as well as gamers realize, that this particular title wouldn't have worked. Most of such projects are abandoned at an early stage, and no real harm is done, but I can't help myself but feel that these two titles had so much to offer. It's a common fact that relatively unknown developers tend to take risks, while those who made a name for themselves, usually play it safe. The audience is expecting a certain level of quality, and while innovative approach isn't necessarily bad, it might not be what gamers want.
Did Phantagram realize that both Strident and Duality would require enormous amount of work to make them shine? Maybe, but great games don't just happen - Money needs to be spent in order to be made again, and that's why I regret that Phantagram didn't have what it took to push these projects through. I can only assume that porting these titles to current generation hardware is out of question, since it would require a massive tech upgrade, unless we're talking about Wii. One can still hope, though. Just like I keep on hoping that LucasArts will release a sequel to Outlaws.
It's 2010 and I'm sitting here, trying to come up with something original and witty to write. After all, the very first entry of a new year should be something special. On second thought, why should it? The fact of the matter is, nothing particularly interesting has happened lately, and just because it's 2010 doesn't really change anything. Unless having a cold counts, since I haven't had one in ages. Christmas has come and gone, and I did buy a couple of games, which you could call a gift to myself, but it's not like I wouldn't have bought them anyway. Besides, Christmas isn't about the games. It's about consuming obscene quantities of julmust, and if you don't know what julmust is, look it up. Not to mention you're missing out.
Like I said, I did buy some new titles. Microsoft's Xbox 360 received the most attention, with no more and no less than six games added to my library. I finally got my hands on Fallout 3, Resident Evil 5 and I hunted down a premiere copy of Dead or Alive 4. On top of that I bought a cheap bundle including Kung Fu Panda and Lego Indiana Jones. Just before the New Year I also found a cheap copy of Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts. I'm a huge fan of the Nintendo 64 installments, and even though I'm not crazy about the machine building aspect incorporated in the new game, I had to have it.
I also bought a BluRay player, bundled with twenty movies, all Warner Bros. I don't have a proper high definition home cinema setup, but it was too cheap to pass up. Besides, it's becoming increasingly difficult to get a hold of decently priced HD-DVD movies, and you can't get the new stuff on HD-DVD, anyway, so the time was nigh to invest into BluRay. And no, I don't think PlayStation 3 does just as good as a dedicated BluRay player, because it doesn't. Ok, back to games. Another recently obtained game that deserves a mention is Söldner-X, an R-Type'ish horizontal shooter with which comes in a really nice box, packed with extras, including a music CD and a hardcover guidebook / artbook. It's actually my second copy of this game, but Play-Asia has it on sale for a mere $9.90, so get yours while you still can.
The domestic retail editions are never enough, so every now and then I have to get my fix of imports. This time I bought something slightly more interesting - The two PlayStation 2 discs you see in the picture are promotional demos which were given to those who attended the PlayStation Festival 2000, which took place in February of that year, and was held at Makuhari Messe in Chiba. I'll try to write more about these gems later, so stay tuned. Rare promo materials aside, the best find of 2009 is, by far, the set of six brand new, shrink-wrapped GamePark 32 games I scored for about $70. Since GamePark was exclusive to Korea, the games were released in considerably smaller quantities than those released for systems exclusive to Japan, WonderSwan being a good example.
The reason why it's so hard to find commercial GP32 games these days is the nature of GamePark itself. It was always meant to be an open multimedia platform, allowing the use of homebrew, with official SKD freely available. Since homebrew also means emulation, those who bought the system could just as well ignore the commercial titles and focus on various interpreters or emulators of the 16-bit systems. This caused only a small amount of games to travel across markets. Also, while the GamePark 32 community is still quite large and active, there are very few collectors of commercial software. Not unlike DreamCast, GP32 also fell victim of piracy, as it didn't require any modifications nor flash devices, only decrypted games. All of this makes finding commercial games really hard, not to mention finding brand new ones at low prices.
Now for some less interesting hardware. I have finally received a package containing my Willem EPROM programmer. The website I ordered it from somehow managed to send my order to an address in Italy, and it took me some time to get everything straightened out. Luckily, after the store realized I was already waiting for a month to get my hardware, they sent the programmer with express FedEx, which reached me in about five days. I decided to go with Willem because it's cheap, and it works. It's quite enough if you want to deal with arcade PCBs and 16-bit cartridges, and I got tired of bringing my hobby to work. Up until now, work was where I did all my EPROM burning. Not that I can't do it there - It was mainly a question of a quiet environment and my peace of mind.
Last but not least, a replacement case with a new screen cover and a full set of buttons and contacts arrived from Asia. I ordered this for the first GameBoy Color I bought. It's old and it shows some wear, so I figured I'll give this old-timer a new suit. I'll probably end up keeping all of the original buttons, since they work perfectly, but the rest of the original parts will end up in a box with spares. And that's that. That's my end of 2009. I'll try to write in detail about some of the stuff I bought, once I get to play it, test it and develop and opinion. Until then, stay healthy.
I bought some cheap games again. Not because I wanted to own these specific titles, but because of the price-tag. I'm not even going to speculate on how long these titles will have to wait their turn, but I know I won't play them anytime soon. Again, I bought four titles, as that's the usual deal at one of my local stores. They tend to have all the oldies on permanent sale of four for about $15, which is fine by me. I stop by from time to time, hoping the put something interesting in the bargain bin.
I got Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon for the PC, Project Zero II for PlayStation 2, Halo 2: Multiplayer Map Pack for the Xbox and Denki Blocks! for Game Boy Advance. I've never played any Broken Sword games other than the first two, so it will be interesting to see how well this title works in more action oriented 3D. I bought Tecmo's Project Zero II, also known as Fatal Frame or simply Zero, because I already own the first game. Having said that, I have to admit I've never bothered to finish it, so maybe I'll go back and do that before I start playing the sequel, whenever that may happen.
I chose to get the map pack for Halo 2 because of the lack of better alternatives. I've never really played that much Halo online, and that probably won't change anytime soon. Still, I had to get four titles and it was the map pack or a Fifa game, or perhaps NHL, which I absolutely despise. The map pack box says that Halo 2 is required to play, and I wonder how exactly does that work. I haven't bothered to check yet, but I'm guessing the game installs additional maps on the hard drive. You can't really swap discs on Xbox, so installation is probably the only way to go. We'll see.
Last but not least is Denki Blocks! And it's not me expressing my enthusiasm here - the game actually has an exclamation mark in its title. I have already played Denki Blocks! on Game Boy Color some years ago, and I really enjoyed it, so I knew what I was getting. It's a really decent, but not well known puzzler, that's all about positioning the blocks right. You start off with a cluster of blocks and a shape to replicate. When you use the directional pad, you move the blocks around, all at the same time. You have to position them in a desired way by pushing them against various obstacles. The concept might not be too entertaining when you read about it, but I assure you it's plenty of fun.
To finish this entry, some sad news - sad for me anyway. It's not something I have bought, but rather something I have lost. I lost my Xbox 360 to the dreaded Red Ring of Death. It came as a huge surprise, since I wasn't using it lately. I switched it on to watch a movie, and it just froze. Gave me some error message, started acting up and refused to start properly. At first I got only the lower right diode error, along with a message on the TV screen, and after that it did boot again, but the next day it wouldn't start at all. Who knows what was going on inside the console, but now it's dead and I have to send it to Microsoft, so that they can get it working again. I bought an Elite, because I wanted to have the best possible alternative. Serves me right for spending a bucket of money on a console that dies, no matter what model you buy.
Game prices always drop during the summer. Stores usually do some cleaning, which for me means low prices and sales. Recently I visited a store I usually avoid, because of their insane prices. Fortunately, they do have good sales every now and then, and I was lucky enough to score some titles for cheap.
With Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Wii titles filling up the shelves, the time was night to get rid of all those Xbox, GameCube and PlayStation 2 titles and make some room - out with the old, in with the new. The deal was $13 for four titles, so I grabbed everything that I consider good or at least playable and so, I got myself twelve titles I'm really happy with.
Four new titles for PlayStation 2: Zone of the Enders 2: 2nd Runner - Special Edition, Wild Arms 3, Super Monkey Ball Deluxe and Everybody's Golf. Seven titles for the Xbox: Syberia II, Dancing Stage Unleashed 2, Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel, Silent Hill 2: Inner Fears, TimeSplitters: Future Perfect, DeusEx: Invisible War and Far Cry: Instincts. All of that, plus one GameCube title, Viewtiful Joe. Not bad at all, for a combined price of $39. Unfortunately, except for Syberia II, none of the Xbox titles work on the 360. Looks like it's back to the big black box when it comes to these.
I'm particularly glad that I got Viewtiful Joe and ZoE 2. I bought Viewtiful Joe 2 for the GameCube a while back, and I've had the first Zone of the Enders since forever. It will be nice to play the prequel and sequel, respectively. Now if I could only make time go slower, so that I can enjoy all of these games.
After finishing Mirror's Edge and Ninja Gaiden 2, I started playing the new Prince of Persia, so unless the game is really short, it will be a while before I start playing any of the newly purchased games. Still, now that they're mine and they're not going anywhere, they can wait. Besides, I already played through Silent Hill 2 on PlayStation 2, same with TimeSplitters. Ok. Back to Prince of Persia.
Already with the first game, marking the revival or Ninja Gaiden franchise, this title has gained a reputation of being insanely hard, when compared other hack and slashers. It's been a while since I played Ninja Gaiden on the first Xbox, but I still remember it well, particularly because of how demanding it was. Ninja Gaiden II continues this tradition and raises the bar even higher.
The sequel supposedly picks up where the last game ended, but in all honesty, I haven't been paying attention to any of the story related bits of text. I just pushed on, killing off hordes of enemies and filling the screen up with chopped off limbs, twitching torsos and blood. That's what Ninja Gaiden is all about - Putting hundreds of baddies through a living blender that is Ryu Hayabusa.
The game opens as you'd expect it to. A girl with enormous breasts named Sonia walks into Muramasa's shop, asking for Ryu. Seconds later she's being kidnapped by the members of Black Spider clan, and being a fan of Caucasian girls with humongous knockers, you - or Ryu Hayabusa, to be exact - are off to rescue her. This is just a prelude to a greater plan, which leads to resurrecting the Archfiend, but all of that is just an excuse to keep you swinging your blade, and swing you will.
First Xbox was the most powerful platform of its generation and Ninja Gaiden developers made sure their game looks like it runs on a powerful piece of hardware. Everything about it was stunning. Extremely smooth action with plentiful enemies on screen, gigantic bosses and levels, and an impressive amount of detail. Keeping all that in mind, my expectations were high when I bought Ninja Gaiden II. After all, Xbox 360 has much more processing power and we've already seen many impressive games on that console.
The graphics of Ninja Gaiden II were the first letdown. After seeing the game look as great as it did on the old Xbox, I was expecting so much more from the Xbox 360 sequel. Don't get me wrong, the game still looks good, but it's been upgraded only to the point when nobody will complain it looks like a last generation title. The game simply doesn't impress like the last one did. Playing God of War and its sequel on PlayStation 2, I could not believe Sony's old hardware is capable of rendering such advanced graphics in a constant framerate. I kind of expected Ninja Gaiden II to impress me in a similar fashion. It didn't.
Another graphics related complaint is the lack of properly saturated colors. Ninja Gaiden II is not supposed to reflect the boring greyness of our world, so naturally I expected it to be more vibrant in the visuals department. Unfortunately the designers thought it would be cool to paint everything grey and brown and add some smoke or fog to strengthen the effect. There are moments when the game looks really good, but in general, it's rather greyish. Looking at the art direction of previously mentioned God of War or Devil May Cry, I can't understand why Team Ninja would stick to their boring palette.
Grey and monotone levels are one thing, but then there are those that are completely over-saturated. When I entered the underworld for the first time, I felt like my eyeballs were about to pop. The orange glow and bloom effect were so strong I didn't really know where to look. Same with the fog covered forest, displaying a blue glow. Looking at some scenes was like staring at the sun. These words may seem harsh, but that's how I felt when playing the game.
Don't go anywhere, because I'm not done complaining. Ninja Gaiden II adds a new camera angle. Well, it doesn't really add it - the original angle has been changed so that the camera floats lower and closer to Ryu. This makes fighting in narrow spaces extremely frustrating, as the camera will move all over the place, sometimes positioning itself behind an object that obstructs the view. In other games this could be annoying, but since Ninja Gaiden is so hard, bad camera can ultimately cause our death, since we won't be able to fight properly.
The "legendary" difficulty level is a whole new story. While the last Ninja Gaiden game was tough, this one is even tougher, but at the same time, it's full of cheap tricks. The game will try every single dirty trick in the book to kill you. You'll find yourself surrounded by dozens of enemies equipped with rocket launchers, each shooting six projectiles per second. The enemies aren't gathered in one spot either, but are scattered all over the place, so that you won't get a second to recover. The boss difficulty level is off balance as well. Early bosses can own you, while later bosses who get their own, cool intros will die after several easy combos.
All of this seems really bad, doesn't it? Yes, it kind of does. All the things I have mentioned, plus several slowdowns I've encountered throughout the game make me wonder - was this game rushed? Did Team Ninja really try their hardest to make this as good a product as it could have been? Maybe yes, maybe no. The bottom line is - Ninja Gaiden II is not for everyone.
If you like a challenge but you wouldn't normally play on a higher difficulty setting, get yourself Ninja Gaiden II and test both your skills and your patience. I know people who just tossed the controller out the window and never finished the game, because it was so frustratingly hard. I admit, it is hard. But it also delivers when it comes to feeling good about beating a tough game. I beat Mirror's Edge in two days. Ninja Gaiden II was much, much tougher.