Escape From Monkey Island

Gamestyle Archive intro: Back in 2001 the arrival of Escape from Monkey Island on a home console felt like a novelty and it probably would still be the case today. Such games have fallen out of fashion yet offer a unique, challenging experience. 

Writer: JJ

Published: July 2001

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They say its good to have a change of pace and to try something different once in a while and this is the case with Escape From Monkey Island. Brought to the PS2 by Lucas Arts it does not thankfully feature any Star Wars characters instead this game comes from their highly praised adventure series, Monkey Island and is the latest instalment. Very much a stronghold of the PC, this type of adventure does not rely on guns, action or explosions. Instead it draws on the company’s film experience by bringing a compelling plot, character design, clever puzzles and mixing it all together in one package.

One important element of the series is the humour on offer throughout and you can get a taste of this from the plot outline below. We need more humour in videogames for sure, Conkers Bad Fur Day being the only recent example. The voice acting in the game is excellent, perhaps the best yet on a console and should be the benchmark for all other games. The Monkey Island series started in 1990 with the secret of Monkey Island, and then LeChuck’s Revenge followed by The Curse of Monkey Island. There is obviously a lot of history before the game we have on review here. I had some experience of the previous games but as it’s a straight conversion many of the in jokes will go over your head. To its credit Escape From Monkey Island is a good enough game in its own right not to be affected by this as its very much a new adventure rather than a side story. Conversations with former crewmates who would like to see you dead and have a fear of monkeys will not make much sense to the uninitiated, as will later segments.

You are Guybrush Threepwood, the hero or bumbling baboon (depending on your point of view) of the series. The instalment begins after you lucky enough to marry Elaine Marley the governor of Melee Island after dispatching the evil demon zombie ghost Pirate LeChuck. When the couple returns from their honeymoon Melee island has taken a change for the worse. Many locals have been forced out of their homes by a sinister Australian land developer called Ozzie Mandrill who now has his sights set on the Scumm Bar. Believing that Elaine Marley died many government changes have taken place including the proposed destruction of the Governor’s mansion and strict law enforcement all under the guidance of the power hungry Charles L Charles. Its down to you to prove your wife isn’t dead and return Melee Island to its original state but its not going to be easy.

The gameplay is fairly straightforward as its roots are in the PC point and click genre. Shame that the PS2 USB ports have not been taken advantage of to provide a similar method of control but instead the analogue stick is acceptable. You can navigate the island by using the main map, enter most buildings, interact with every character and engage in some unique activities. Menus feature heavily in the game but these are straightforward and do not encroach on the gameplay unlike those found in the Bouncer. By pressing a key you will bring up several possible actions, each with a different response and its very a case of much trail and error. Talking to characters will offer you several phrases each again with a different response. If you are trying to obtain information you will of course have to take the correct approach but you can have some funny conversations. If you did everything by the book you would miss out on half the humour and wonderful moments. A guide for instance would offer the best combination of insults for the insult arm wrestling match in the Scumm bar, why not try them all out for fun? As the game isn’t time or lives based, you can take it at your own pace, explore and try all the possible connotations and needn’t worry about dying. Although the speech is excellent you may prefer the speech text or perhaps both but please try the former, as it really is superb.

Puzzle based games can be frustrating at the best of times but I would recommend that you do not use any guide. Not only would it shorten the length of the game but also you would miss out on so much. The puzzles in the game are more cryptic and challenging that those offered in Resident Evil or similar console games but once solved without a guide prove to be extremely satisfying. A tip I would offer is that every item in the game is there for a purpose – sometimes not a very obvious use I agree but pick them up as you will need it later. So how does an old PC game make the transfer to the 128bit monster that is the PS2? The answer is very well; in fact compared to Onimusha Warlords Escape From Monkey Island is superior in every respect. The artists at Lucas Arts have created a beautiful pre-rendered 3D world, lavish colouring and high-resolution helps to immerse you in the game. The game has been given a major overhaul and is streets ahead of its original version, cut scenes being a prime example.

The presentation is of a high standard again when it comes to the soundtrack and sound effects. It is strange that a similar amount of time, effort and respect hasn’t been given to the many Star Wars titles we’ve endured over recent years. Not everything is perfect however, this genre does not appeal to everyone and perhaps the challenges on offer will be too much for some without a guide. Once completed the game is over, the replay value like most RPG’s is of a fairly limited nature.

Gamestyle Score: 8/10

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Hope I Die Before I Get Old Part 1

Gamestyle Archive intro: now this is a personal retrospective. This Hope I Die piece was the first in a short lived series or columns at Gamestyle. Written around 2001 in the midst of a Phantasy Star Online addiction that many of the team were working their way through. It was also the age of online innocence where folk actually helped and looked out for one another.

The other night I had a revelation, a question of faith, whilst playing Phantasy Star Online with Killquik, DanGod and Jizza.   Here was I, now 28, sitting on the living room floor surrounded by every known junk food substance to man playing a game in the early hours of the morning with others (people who I haven’t even met in person) via a telephone line.   Now I’m sure this image is repeated across the world with varying degrees of extremism but this was no consolation.   For that moment I panicked, society demands that I grow up and move on.   Phantasy Star Online shows your total time played per character and on reading this I often go red with embarrassment.   145+ hours isn’t too bad compared to some players but when you could do a great deal with that time if given back, it makes you think, but I wouldn’t change a thing.   I’m sure many will look down on us who do such things in our spare time and label us with various false tags.  No friends and no social life?  Plenty mate, thanks, and dare I say it, I have more fun online that you would do the local?   I have no interest in cars, sporting clubs, snooker or being an advertisement for various clothes designers.  Self-improvement is masturbation after all.   It is hard for those who have not experienced something as wonderful and captivating as PSO to fully understand just how good it is, better than sex?   Just kidding but you catch my drift.

What I asked myself wasn’t how sad playing online is, because it isn’t, and five years from now, myself and PSO comrades will be seen as pioneers.   Remember us when the world is playing and enjoying new experiences in the future.  Remember how you mocked us and dismissed us as sad individuals, and then take a look at what you’re doing.  The way the world is heading, it won’t be safe to exist outside of your home soon only via your data stream – plug in your senses and wake up.   Welcome to the new world.   Instead of this I found myself questioning whether I was in fact too old for games in general and if the time had come to put down the controller and pick up the pipe and slippers.   Ever since I broke open the box containing my first video game many Christmas’s ago its been this way and something I have never questioned before.   It has been a great voyage full of fantastic memories and experiences over the years but should it end and how?   We are all aware of friends who once had a love similar to us of games but somehow they moved on or lost interest.   Is that part of their life still empty? How do they cope? Do we even care?   Do we wish to even know these answers?  Now more than ever it is acceptable in some small way to have friends around to play a game as sales of Who Wants to be a Millionaire and The Weakest Link suggest.   Board games are thing of the past, video games rule the lounge and slowly we are brainwashing the masses to our evil ways.   We will win there is no question of that comrades.

Even though we have grown up with games and played through every era and bit revolution the same stigmas that existed in the beginning are still here today.    It is something that I and no doubt many fellow gamers encounter every day, yet many of these commentators flock to watch the latest video game movie (Tomb Raider, Final Fantasy, Resident Evil) or expect to be able to buy a PS2 on Christmas Eve.  As the first generation to grow up with video games we are once again true pioneers and are paying the price for it.   I know of one friend who won’t even discuss games in general with his work colleagues as they think he is some strange outcast and doesn’t fit into their nice cosy social group.   Yet the same people would rather watch the latest soap or waste away their leisure time doing things more trivial and pointless than any 3DO game.   The key here is leisure time, for it is your own and who is to judge what you do within that?   Society certainly mocks us and why should we let them win?

When it happens I would rather my children play games instead of watching television, within reason of course, no Soldier of Fortune at that age or Army Men game, ever.   Has anyone else noticed that video games are now being blamed for everything now when a few years ago it was television?   No one likes us, we don’t care, is a motto we should have adopted long ago.   Getting back on track, is there a national retirement age for gaming; do we hang up our controllers at thirty and progress to simulations on the PC?    I certainly hope not but wander into any retailer and take a moment to look at the customers, where the ages tend to branch out, a pattern is visible and it is quite distinctive.   This is perhaps why I am looking forward to the launch of the Xbox in March for it is aimed at older gamers, say 25+ but it will hopefully attract everyone – once the price is lowered.   Just by reading an issue of PC Gamer recently I was amazed at the amount of interest and coverage of the Xbox console.   This market has money to burn and for the price of a new graphics card you could instead have the latest console from Microsoft.   The American launch was very clever for it had games that would appeal to everyone, cherry picked for every genre.   I’m sure more PC type games will soon follow, as will the gamers within that market, after all they are desperate to play Halo, just as we are.   Xbox – haven for the older gamer?

Being the second oldest at Gamestyle, after Lee and just ahead of Dean (even though he looks like 35) this topic of age is relevant today.   Without talking to the others I would suggest today that we spend more time playing or writing about games than ever before even though we now have wife/girlfriend/children/work and other commitments taking up our time.   Why?   I find it enjoyable, simple as that plus you meet people – some great, some unfortunately conniving scum of the worst kind imaginable and you are forever learning things.  My work colleagues cannot understand why I would spend X amount of time doing website work/writing or rush out to buy the latest release when there are other fantastic things I could do, or so they say.   There will be times when I will have to slow down but I’d rather do this than anything else, following the status quo isn’t for me.

So will I be hanging up my controller shortly?   Not a chance, it’s a part of me that you are just going to accept and learn to live with, I won’t force it down your throat and I expect the same from you.   As I move into a new house to accommodate my forthcoming Xbox (one of the reasons you know!) she understands the position and accepts it.   I just wish more people out there would in general do the same.   See you around on Phantasy Star Online sometime, especially when Dream Key 3 and Version 2 are finally released.    I’ll never be too old to play games.  Where do we go from here?  I’ll leave that up to you.

Gamestyle Offline Magazine Issue 5

Gamestyle Archive intro: Another weekend brings the fifth issue of GSO back online. It’s a great issue with diverse content throughout including the Gamestyle Top 100 Games and a real emphasis on features:

Features – violence in videogames, Mace Griffin Bounty Hunter, Nintendo offline, Digging for Fire, Gamepark 32

Review – Half-Life Dreamcast

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Mario Kart: Double Dash!!

Gamestyle Archive intro: it seems an apt time to put a Mario Kart review into the Archive given the recent current generation title hitting the market. What can I say about Mario Kart? Alex was a huge fan and when we were down in London at the Nintendo games show wanted any snippet of information about the game and how it played. I think at this time he was also doing a site specifically about the game itself. Enjoy.

Writer: AC

Published: November 2003

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It’s been the longest six months we can remember; from the first shots and details in late April to the finished game landing on our doorstep just last week, it’s been one wild ride, and joyously dragged out – some twisted quirk of time seemingly warping every second into an hour. However, two (very sore) blisters and one broken Wavebird later, we’ve finally completed the latest in the celebrated Mario Kart series, and unlocked all there is to see. And we’ve loved every minute of it. Those old enough to remember the first shots of the game will have no doubt been with us for the duration of the title’s development, or at least the portion of it that was made public.

Whilst Miyamoto-san hinted at special, as yet unseen features to the genre some time back, no one expected that to mean the now-familiar two characters per kart mechanic. Message boards were full of screaming zealots demanding the game be exactly the same whimsical ride that had come before; one character, one kart. And presumably represented the same group who complained about Zelda’s new look (but have since quietened down). Because the overhaul works – better than you’d have expected it might. Screenshots and previews are great, but nothing can convey the skill-set and tactics required to successfully master the dynamic new playing style.

In much the same way that N64 Tetris allowed the player to tap R to ‘save’ a block, Mario Kart: Double Dash!! unlocks the ability to switch the two characters around – one driving, one in charge of weapons. With this new notion, weapons can be stored (by switching the weapon-wielding character at the back to driving duties for a while) and then brought out again at any given opportunity. It’s deeper than that, of course; each of the 16 default characters (all familiar to Nintendo regulars, except perhaps Baby Luigi) is charged with one of eight special weapons, and although the normal item blocks remain, there’s a slim chance that players will be awarded that characters’ special – a more devastating, destructive item that (with skilful use) will often determine the outcome of a race. Team character is forged, then, with these special weapons in mind – do you go for all-out attack with Mario and Luigi’s fireballs, or opt for a more balanced partnership with Koopa’s triple shells and DK’s giant bananas? The two choices determine the available karts – larger characters can only fit into the larger karts, and normal Mario Kart statistics apply here; greater top speed is often offset by lower acceleration (although later unlockable karts balance these out somewhat). The differences are less pronounced than in previous Kart games, so it’s really more a case of selecting the characters for their special weapons rather than the karts you’ll get to drive. Naturally, there’s a wide selection of tracks to drive in, too – spread over four cups (the fourth is unlockable early on), there’s the usual Luigi and Mario circuits, the obligatory slippery ice level, and some other familiar favourites.

Whilst the selection on offer doesn’t deviate too much from earlier Mario Kart games (some even use the same names as they did in Mario Kart 64), the driving model has completely changed; offering a much tighter control method, cornering is far more precise. And whilst counter-powersliding still rewards you with a small boost, it’s easier to pull off, even on the straights – something you’ll need to be doing when tackling the course ghosts in Time Trial mode. Which is where the game really starts to shine; the normal Grand Prix mode is all well and good, but you’ll probably see the end of each speed class (50, 100 and 150cc engines remain as normal) within the first weekend. Time Trial, however, will last months (if not years). Not only does each course have a ‘time to beat’, but once beaten the Staff Ghost is unlocked, who more often than not will make a mockery of your previous attempts (for some considerable period). They are tough – easily as tough as those in Nintendo 64’s F-Zero X – and Nintendo have made no allowances for those not willing to invest the time to beat them. Practice, practice, practice – and we’re glad of the challenge.

Elsewhere, the game features an extensive Battle mode option, with three main modes (a capture the flag-like Shine Thief; an all-weapons blazing Balloon Burst; and the best, a crazy bomb-filled mode where every weapon is explosive and widespreading) and at least four courses. Whilst another couple are unlocked during the normal Grand Prix play, there’s plenty of variation here if you want to just grab three friends the moment you unwrap the cellophane. A great co-operative Grand Prix mode (two human players per kart) and the usual Versus modes round off the package, which will keep Kart fans busy for months – and that’s without mentioning the LAN play and potential online play via PC tunnelling software.

Graphically, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. While the whole thing shifts incredibly smoothly at a comforting 60 frames a second, there are few graphical flourishes (noticeably, just depth-of-field blurring and some heat haze on the desert course), and coupled with the rather simple Karts and character-modelling, the display is rather unassuming. It’s clean and crisp though, and we’d certainly prefer the smooth framerate to a jerky one, but next to Mario Golf, Yoshi and Co. look a little bit ‘last-gen’. Textures are also hit and miss; some wall and track textures are very high resolution, while others are laughably blocky. Aurally it’s a similar story – the music tracks don’t stand out as much as one might have liked, and few are memorable after switching off the console. They are well-produced though, but obviously in MIDI (rather than the traditional music found in other titles).

Sound effects are again crisp and well-engineered, with some trademark Nintendo noises thrown in (think: green shells) amongst the newer voices and weapon effects. It’s all solid enough, but it’s a shame you can’t lower the music in relation to the sound effects. There are other niggles, too. There’s no widescreen support, which might not be a problem for some but it’s frustrating after having experienced the full 16:9 panoramic splendour of F-Zero GX, for example. The game is also frustrating, especially at first, when you’re constantly bombarded with weapons from all sides – there’s certainly too many item boxes on the tracks for comfortable driving-based play; all the emphasis is on weaponry and when to use them. Thankfully, Time Trial remains purely skill-based, aside from some track-based nuances such as random spinning fireballs and the like. Don’t be put off, though – even with these cons, the game is still quite brilliant. It unmistakably screams Nintendo!!, and if that’s a good thing to you then you’re going to be in heaven.

Mario Kart: Double Dash!! is nicely presented (and there are no load times at all), it’s packed with pure playability and has enough ‘whimsical’ substance to last just as long as the others. Fans of the previous games will relish the new challenges on offer, and anyone new to the series will no doubt have a whale of a time in multiplayer alone. As for Gamestyle – having beaten Grand Prix (and unlocked some familiar Mario Kart faces and tracks) – we’re sticking to Time Trial, so we’ll see YOU on the TT ratings page!

Gamestyle Score: 9/10

Star Wars Rebel Strike: Rogue Squadron III

Gamestyle Archive intro: a massive hit at the time, Rebel Strike only showed flashes of what could be achieved on the Nintendo Gamecube.

Writer: JJ

Published: November 2003

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In principal, evolution ensures that things improve over time, removing the mistakes of previous incarnations. However, flaws exist in nature and even moreso in human creation. This brings us nicely onto Rogue Squadron, which in its third instalment should now be in its prime.

The game structure is the same as before; select a plum variety of moments from the Star Wars universe and exponentially grow these into full levels within the game. A majority of mouth-watering moments have already been shared previously, so Factor 5 has had to look elsewhere, and avoid the cherry-picking of previous Rogue releases. Running through the list of levels confirms some fine selections – in the form of Sarlacc Pit, Hoth, and the Death Star. Whereas the previous Rogue Squadron games were predominantly airborne affairs, Rebel Strike has expanded its remit to include on-foot and land vehicles, such as Speederbikes and Imperial Walkers. Admittedly, this has opened up a new realm of picturesque moments to enjoy, but has also increased the number of potential problems. The speeder and on-foot sections are tragically realised. The former is very much on-rails, and the environments fly by with little consequence for the player. The limited control, desultory visuals and camera positioning create a ramshackle impression; such levels could have been knocked together in a matter of days.

There is no polish here, only dry rot, and it’s seeped right into the core of the whole experience. The root of the problem (outside of level design) lies with the abysmal camera, which looks set to challenge Dino Crisis 3 for awkwardness. In space, the interior-cockpit view is rendered ineffective through a cluttered HUD, and outside its perspective induces tunnel vision. However, it frankly gets worse indoors – suffering from the same problems which plagued the Capcom release. Fixed camera angles simply force the player to shoot at enemies off-screen (no further explanation is required). A match made in pitchfork heaven is the only way to describe the camera and the on-foot sections of Rebel Strike. Words alone cannot prepare you for such a tragic marriage of inconvenience; save for actually experiencing the union. The on-foot sections hark back to releases of yesteryear, where following a linear route (with finger firmly depressed on fire), you navigate tragically short levels. Such apathy is not welcomed nor fitting for a series of this stature, and as such leaves a bitter aftertaste. Even the normally ‘stellar’ flying levels feel diminished and incomplete.

Admittedly, the sense of scale has been dramatically improved, thanks to a reworked graphics engine, and potential obstacles and enemies are displayed with visual fidelity (which does little to trouble the framerate at any time). However, Rebel Strike falls foul of the curse of open space in videogames – there is no clear sense of direction or position. The battle may be raging around you, but the player’s role in the proceedings is ill-defined; and more importantly, mission targets can at times be difficult to locate. Such issues with level design, camera foibles and other miscellanies were surely highlighted during testing. It is unfortunate that these were either downgraded or deliberately overlooked, but the damage to the series is momentous. Star Wars Rebel Strike: Rogue Squadron III falls woefully short of cutting-edge standards set in motion by BioWare’s Knights Of The Old Republic, for example. In spite of this avalanche of criticism, there are fleeting moments to savour in Rebel Strike (notwithstanding predictable AI patterns) that are worth revisiting time and again.

Still, Gamestyle predicts that only the most devout Star Wars fan will likely be ‘recycling’ energy for such a prolonged period. The medal structure, which rates performance and opens up a range of bonus items and levels, has been retained. Here lies the true challenge of the game, which at its most basic level, would not last beyond the weekend. In an attempt to boost longevity outside of gold medals, Factor 5 has included a co-operative mode and the de-rigueur ‘fun’ addition of a versus game. This reminded Gamestyle of the limited two-player options available in Ace Combat, but with the inclusion of wingmen. Again, fun in smallish doses, but after the expansive Crimson Skies (for Xbox), things just don’t compare. The cut sequences that are scattered throughout the levels form part of the Achilles heel of Rebel Strike – but obviously excludes footage taken from the films themselves. Gamestyle acknowledges the satisfaction gained from a series of artful encounters, which further drives the story, but those offered are lacklustre and only disrupt the relative fluidity of gameplay; appearing at inopportune times, forcing additional loading (oftentimes for the sum benefit of ten seconds’ duration) and infuriating the player.

The production values are additionally disappointing – drab character models and environments, with pedestrian animation. In fact, they can be quite laughable. The introduction/disco sequence is meant to be humorous, but not at the expense of laughing at its own plot-twists and events which play out through the game. Whilst the pre-production focus may have slipped with its cut sequences, things remain solid in audiophilic terms. Consumers often overlook the Gamecube as an underpowered performer, but the Pro Logic II soundtrack is as effective as anything else on the market. The game still bristles with ‘tech-demo’ appeal, and is a good showcase for the console, especially when left to run in stores. Only when the bystander picks up the controller is this grand illusion shattered – seemingly through flawed and self-limiting gameplay.

Star Wars Rebel Strike: Rogue Squadron III harks back to (Nintendo 64’s) Shadows Of The Empire, which was bearable thanks mainly to its memorable flying levels. If anything, this release proves that the series has now run its intended course. What is therefore required are fresh ideas and a dramatic overhaul as, in its ‘finished’ state, this is a bitter and extremely hoary pill for all Gamecube owners to swallow.

Gamestyle Score: 5/10

Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles

Gamestyle Archive intro: The return of Square Enix to a Nintendo console – there was much hype and anticipation around the Crystal Chronicles. So much so that Richard took a crash course in Japanese to experience it first.

Writer: RM

Published: August 2003

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How long has it been since Gamestyle has played a title with the names Nintendo and Square mentioned together in its credits? Possibly the last game developed by Square on a Nintendo console was Super Mario RPG on the Super Nintendo back in 1996, if our memory serves us right. So it comes as a really pleasant surprise that after all those years devoting its efforts to the Playstation, Square finally returns to the Nintendo fold with two new Final Fantasy games – Final Fantasy: Tactics Advance for the GameBoy Advance, and Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles for the Gamecube. (Technically, the return of Square games to a Nintendo system was marked by Chocobo Land on GBA back in December 2002, but the games that truly herald such an event are these new Final Fantasy releases.) Created by Game Designers Studio – a new division of Square Enix – Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles’ development was supported by Nintendo, hence the Gamecube/Game Boy Advance ‘connectivity’ idea. And therein lays the game’s appeal… and its problems.

Crystal Chronicles’ storyline is classic Final Fantasy – literally. There’s not much here besides a band of adventurers who travel the world to revive the power of the Crystals that keep the world in balance. This reminds Gamestyle of the original Final Fantasy all those years ago. This time though, instead of Light Warriors bringing light to the Orbs, it’s four kids and a Crystal Cage full of magic water. This magic water protects the game’s heroes from a deadly mist that has surrounded the world and plunged it into a state of decay. Your merry band of adventurers – played by up to four people using their GBA-SPs (preferably) as controllers – take to the dungeons scattered about the world map and trounce enemies in standard-realtime, action-RPG style instead of turn-based battles. Options are limited: fight, defend, and then whatever magic spells and items are equipped in the player’s command slots (you start with four and then gain more as the game progresses). The inventory system is not quite satisfying in that each character’s inventory is limited and you’ll run into that brick wall sooner than you think, constantly finding yourself dumping out items. What’s worse, if you bring your character into another player’s memory card for a team-up game, you can’t carry items back and forth, only weapons and status upgrades. This prevents outrageous cheating perhaps, but is somewhat annoying.

There is also practically nothing in the way of plot or character development – the emphasis is placed firmly on multiplayer dungeon exploring, which is a letdown compared with other Final Fantasy games. Each player has a different display on their Game Boy screen, determined randomly (and switching each time the party enters a new area) – a level map, an enemies radar, a treasure radar, and an enemy-stats display. Since the television screen only shows a little bit of the level at a time, the maps become necessary for navigation, which means that all four players have to constantly check their maps.

When enemies pop up, the player with their stats at hand needs to check for weaknesses and hit points. Since each player only has a tiny bit of the total picture, this encourages constant communication. One piece of information on each player’s screen that they might not be willing to share with the group is their own bonus condition for the current dungeon. This can be a certain task (deal out a lot of physical damage), something to avoid (don’t get hit with magic), or something silly (do get hit with magic). The player who fills his bonus requirements best gets first pick at the artefacts that are found throughout the dungeon. These artefacts are the only way your characters can level up, so they are quite valuable, and having first crack at them is nice. And thus an element of competition is added to this mostly co-operative game. As you can see, there’s quite a lot to the multiplayer mode. And all of these facets are carried over into the single-player. Unfortunately, that’s all the single-player mode really is – a toned-down, inelegant version of the multiplayer game. In place of your friend’s characters, you have your loyal Moogle to carry the Crystal Cage for you. (Spraypaint your Moogle different colours and you’ll change your GBA screen type.) The problem is of course that it’s like, say, playing Mario Party by yourself: you can squeeze out some fun here and there, but it comes nowhere near the enjoyment of playing with three friends. And the same applies for the story – with a tedious main character and a shallow plot, Gamestyle finds it hard to see why anybody would want to play Crystal Chronicles in single-player mode more than once.

Where Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles is beyond reproach is in the production values. It is a strikingly beautiful game; each new town or dungeon is like a new work of art to discover. Sprawling with life and detail, they have enough eye-candy to make you want to revisit them time and again. The lush rolling hills of green contrast with beautiful bodies of water and lovingly rendered skies bring a natural, almost pastoral look to the world.

In particular the music, composed by Kumi Tanioka, is done in folk-style and recorded live with ancient instruments from flutes and accordions to pan pipes and violins, producing a wonderfully authentic sound. Crystal Chronicles’ screen text is completely written in Japanese. In order to overcome the language barrier, Gamestyle took a crash-course in Katakana (one of four character sets in the Japanese language, and the easiest to learn) which proves useful in most Japanese games. However, Crystal Chronicles’ text is displayed in a decorative font which doesn’t make it any easier to read – and there was enough Kanji that we were unfamiliar with, making the game hard to understand. Unless you’re either a native Japanese speaker, or very fluent, you may want to hold out for the translated version (or play with a translation guide close at hand). It’s still playable though, in spite of the Japanese text. This Final Fantasy outing isn’t as story-heavy as other Final Fantasy games, so you’ll possibly manage quite well if you can’t decrypt Japanese.

The multi-GBA approach is refreshing, interesting even, and works remarkably well. But let’s face it – who knows three other GBA-owning friends who would be willing to come over on a regular basis to play multiplayer Crystal Chronicles? Frankly, Gamestyle can’t see this happening very often. Because of these niggles, it’s hard to pin down a satisfactory verdict on Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles. If you’re looking for a solid RPG experience, either wait for Crystal Chronicles to be translated into English and released in spring of 2004 (so you can understand the story), or look elsewhere.

As fun as Crystal Chronicles is – given the right mindset – Gamestyle has to conclude that it’s not a “proper” RPG. While obviously lacking in the story department, neither the single nor multiplayer modes really capture the Final Fantasy zeitgeist, instead having more in common with action-adventure titles like Gauntlet or Zelda. If you’re a fan of Square’s games generally, and/or just appreciate innovative gameplay like we do, Crystal Chronicles is a pretty good buy… but your ‘best bet’ is perhaps waiting for the English translation.

Gamestyle Score: 7/10

Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour

Gamestyle Archive intro: Alex was/still is I presume a massive Nintendo fan so imported the Gamecube rendition of Mario Golf whilst us mere Europeans had to wait until mid-2004 to get our round in. 

Writer: AC

Published: July 2003

Toadstool_Tour

Gamestyle has to admit a certain fondness for the latest in the age-old Mario franchise: filling the gap between platforming and karting quite neatly (at least in the States), Mario Golf gives Nintendo fans another dose of the old faithful cast and crew, with a few new[ish] faces bolstering the otherwise familiar line-up of characters. In what amounts to nothing more than an unashamed upgrade to the Nintendo 64 version of Mario Golf, Toadstool Tour brings new courses, new game modes and some quite gorgeous new graphics.

What it keeps much the same, however, is the swinging method. Rather than going down the route of Tiger Woods and friends, Mario et al must use the rather antiquated ‘Press A at the Sweetspot’ version of videogame golf, and little has changed since playing Leaderboard on an old 4-colour 286 over a decade ago. Basically, players hit A to start the swing then B at the desired power; finally, a further tap of A to set the direction and the ball’s away – and should this prove too tricky for younger players, A instead of B at the set-power stage automatically does the rest of the swing, with a slightly random outcome. Naturally, then, this allows Camelot a little room for improvisation and poetic licence with the normal physics of golf; double tap A on the way down and you’ll hit the ball with top spin, likewise a double hit of B will spin the ball the other way on landing. There are other spin combos, with obvious results.

Whilst initially Gamestyle would have preferred a more ‘mature’ swinging device, the Gamecube’s tiny C stick wouldn’t necessarily lend itself to precise direction, and once you get to grips with the game’s somewhat unique ball physics (the bounce is especially unpredictable) the easy spin setup does seem to prove valuable. More complicated shots can be attempted by hitting the ball at various spots, mainly to get extra height or curve the path of the ball around an obstacle, and with at least three button presses and this added thumbstick manipulation, there soon becomes plenty to do during the swing for even the most capable of gamers.

So, chaotic ball physics aside, does Toadstool Tour offer a decent game of golf? The answer is most definitely “yes”, and not just one game either; aside from the main Tournament modes (set over six 18 hole courses) there’s a plethora of game modes – including Closest to Pin, Speed Golf, and the more Mario-like shooting through rings and collecting coins. Each of the 10 or so game modes are completely self-contained (with high score tables and so on) and are mostly multiplayer, providing some great post-pub gaming moments – presumably a not entirely unintentional feature of the game. Games can get tense and challenging, with each character playing slightly differently and having different abilities. Mario Golf even offers a silly taunt option; tap the stick and the screen soon fills up with both complimentary and derogatory comments.

Speaking of filling up the screen, this is where Toadstool Tour fails to impress: while load times are virtually non-existent and the menus are all wonderfully intuitive, the actual in-game presentation leaves a lot to be desired. In a word, it’s messy – there’s far too much information crammed onto the 4:3 display (a widescreen mode would have helped to push out the HUD to the sides leaving more of the course visible). If it’s not the rather pointless Mario and Boos pointing out the power and wind direction, it’s the infuriating presence of more Boos scrolling past the screen after a couple of seconds – reminding you that “A starts a swing”, and other daft lines. Fine for the first ever game, but after 20 hours of play Gamestyle was well aware of how to play the game, thank you.

The music and sound effects are particularly grating, too, but the game’s playable without both, so switch your amp over to the CD player for the duration. So, with the patronising and clumsy screen display out of the way, all that’s left is to say that Golf fans (and Mario fans in particular) will find plenty to do here – the graphics are excellent (and locked at 60 frames per second), with well defined courses and helpful grid lines, and the tournament courses range from the gentle and forgiving first course (which closely resembles a ‘normal’ golf course) through to the fan-service Peach’s Invitational (complete with her castle, chain chomps and warp pipes), and a final hard-as-hell 6th course in and around Bowser’s castle.

There’s much enjoyment to be had here, it’s just a shame a little more effort wasn’t made to make it more grown-up for those of us more familiar with videogames; and there’s absolutely no excuse for the game to be scheduled for a mid-2004 release in Europe, either…

Gamestyle Score: 7/10

Lost Kingdoms 2

Gamestyle Archive intro: I’ve never played this title nor the original in the series but I do have the game in the attic. I was never a huge fan of these card-based games however they did have their fans. Alex enjoyed the sequel experience with this one.

Writer: AC

Published: June 2003

 Lost_Kingdoms_II_cover

Whilst the PAL release of the original Lost Kingdoms was a pleasant diversion, the fact that a sequel was in the works for its native Eastern audience came as a complete surprise – let alone promise of a European outing – given the rather subdued reception the first game received over here. Whether it’s leftover cash from Hawk and Co, or just genuine PAL generosity we’ll never know for sure, but you can’t fault the publisher for trying; had neither game seen these shores local Gamecube owners would have been up in arms at being left out. Again. But both have been released – and here’s the crux: the original is the superior game of the two, and crucially, this holds true whether you’ve played it or not.

Essentially, those familiar (and appreciative) of how Lost Kingdoms ‘worked’ may find the changes made to the mechanics in this sequel rather confusing and distracting, and yet the more complex card management and progression present here is likely to be an unassailable metaphorical brick wall of creature names and spells to gamers new to the series. Despite a new set of lead characters, there’s enough hidden familiarity within the game to make you feel like you’ve just started watching a made-for-television drama – only to find you’ve already missed the first hour. So, here’s an – assuringly adaptable to the prequel – recap: Lost Kingdoms 2 is a card-based action/role playing game, in which the principal female (the player) must battle the forces of evil using only these cards. There are no (direct) weapons with which to fight monsters, only skilful use of the four currently available themed-card types, selected at random from an ever-increasing customisable deck.

If you’re still reading, chances are the slightly quirky way of combat holds some level of interest – think Pokemon crossed with PSO and you’ll be somewhere near. Each card falls into one of five categories – when chosen, some summon a creature that walks around your immediate area fighting off monsters; some revive your health levels or allow you to enter previously unreachable areas of the level, and some transform your character into the figure on the card temporarily. The depth here (random selection aside) stems from the card attributes – based on the common elements, eg Fire, Water, Wood and so forth. It’s fairly obvious that some attributes are stronger against others, and vice versa; for example Earth cards are more useful against water-based creatures, whereas Fire cards are quite weak. Collecting these cards happens continuously throughout the course of the game, and as your deck is finite in size, selecting the appropriate cards’ types and attributes for the mission ahead forms most of the strategy in Lost Kingdoms 2 (despite some trial and error and the frustratingly chaotic chance of getting the card you want at the time you require it). The fact that your controllable character relies on card effects that aren’t wholly controllable when played, means that most of the combat will result in your running away from the monsters while desperately trying to pull the card most suited to the job from the pack.

Thankfully – or not – the monster AI is basic at best. In an unintentional nod to Phantasy Star Online, simply keeping a short distance away is enough to make most enemies forget you existed, and they’ll happily wander off and leave you in peace; of course purists will be right after the trickier enemies in order to complete their card collections, but for the most part fighting can be avoided if you can draw enemy creatures away. If this sounds unfamiliar to owners of the first game, it’s because From have radically changed the way monsters appear – no longer are there random battles (although there are still occasional set-pieces) which whisk you away to a confined battleground; here creatures walk around at will, and battles thus are much looser and slightly more vague in their effectiveness. Initially appealing (especially against the random battles of Final Fantasy, which still grate) but ultimately becoming rather dull, these ‘real time’ fights just don’t hold the same level of tension and difficulty as they did in the first game – and the decision to switch the main focus of the game in this manner is somewhat questionable.

The camera has suffered too: there’s now a lock-on function (of sorts) but it’s problematic and unreliable, and the number of zoom levels is now reduced to a digital two – there are no Wind Waker-like definable angles here, even the left-right motion is awkwardly reversed (as in Eidos’ Herdy Gerdy). The framerate has halved too, and whilst this has given the Gamecube’s innards more room to handle prettier textures and more polygons, the pace of the game feels somewhat slower overall, as if a mild dose of bullet-time has drifted into the proceedings. This is not a title dependent on speed though, and Lost Kingdoms 2 does looks good overall; those all-important cards are nicely detailed and the whole display is rendered in crisp resolution.

Gamestyle Score: 7/10

Yager

Gamestyle Archive intro: there are lots of writers who stuck with the site for years, providing a rich stream of content. One-by-one we’re slowly rediscovering examples of their work and putting them into this archive. There are other writers we’ve still yet to reach, but I wanted to find a review from Gareth who was an early member of the team. I’ve found this example of a decent Xbox title that has been lost to time since.

Writer: Gareth Chappell

Published: May 2003

yager

Welcome to the world of Yager: set on earth in the distant future, the planet is no longer divided with borders denoting different countries and regions, indeed such divisions are no longer considered a worthy way of defining geographical (and ideological) boundaries. Due to mega companies all looking after their own interests, the earth has now been ‘terraformed’, triangulated and assigned ownership. On one side of the sphere is a small province under the control of Proteus – a company based upon old-earth or western philosophies. On the other side is the OST, a militaristic organisation who tend not to get on with their Proteus brothers. In between these factions lies an area known as the Free Trade Zone; where inhabitants are laid-back and freedom-loving individuals – a culture radically peopled by Han Solo-types to be sure, all of them lovable scoundrels. The game sees you as pilot Magnus Tide, trying to rebuild your career after an unfortunate incident that left a wing commander with a broken nose. Hooking up with Proteus again, you must undergo a number of training sessions before taking on whatever mission they deem you are capable of.

At its heart, Yager is a sort of Rogue Leader-styled game set on land, with missions requiring you to fly about shooting various hostile forces, as well as doing reconnaissance work and a spot of investigating from time to time. Here is where the game comes into its own: the world of Yager is arguably the most credible, wilfully-constructed and altogether enticing environment that Gamestyle has chanced to come across. Each character you meet seems to have an individual history all of their own, even if they only say a few words to you. A more non-generic bunch of characters simply does not exist anywhere in the gaming spectrum. This is most notable when you reach the Free Trade Zone to investigate various goings-on. Whilst airborne, numerous pilots will chat to you about various things, such as how trade is going or even inviting you down to the local bar for a drink. It all comes across so well that you become completely immersed in the interaction; you simply stop playing the game and ‘become’ Magnus Tide.

The characters in the title are equally personable and all are complete individuals – from the slightly mad mechanic brothers to the freighter pilots and bar owners – everyone seems to have their own story to tell; meaning you end up caring about each and every person you come across, thus expanding the scope of the game. Though essentially guided by story parameters, the character involvement covers this up brilliantly, with apparent random meetings with old friends keeping things fresh and interesting all the way through. This is mainly achieved due to the fact that every character you meet does not necessarily have anything to do with the plot as a whole; there are just lots of friendly, hospitable folk about, all aiming to contribute to your sense of belonging.

Graphically, the title is stunning. Areas sprawl off into the distance for miles around, with rolling hills and some of the most astounding water effects ever seen in a game. If there is a weakness, it is that a lot of the landscapes tend to look the same – being a mix of grass-covered hills, roads and the odd mountain – but this doesn’t really detract from the experience as you get the impression you are working within a fairly small area where the plot is concerned. So things would look familiar, would they not? Between levels you are treated to some lovely cut-scenes where the story evolves further, and most of the time has Magnus relaxing with a drink in the local bar. Missions are varied; with some being a simple case of shooting things down, while others have you flying underneath the radar to pinpoint locations for missile strikes. Every now and then though, something irregular will pop up – like having to test out the new gun which the bar owner has installed. This sees you shooting a range of flying targets, pool tables, chairs, and just about anything else they can find to launch as space-aged clay pigeons. Magnus’s ship has two different control styles: it can either hover, allowing you to raise the ship up and down more easily and stay in one place, allowing movement at a fairly slow pace. The second style puts the ship into jet mode, which means you move a lot faster, and is ideally suited for combat situations as it allows for more flexible movements, vital for avoiding incoming missiles and gunfire.

Combat is easy enough to perform, with the ship being as manoeuvrable as is needed in order to take out multiple targets at once. A wide range of weaponry and tools are available, allowing for different approaches to each situation. The only problem really is that sometimes the combat seems to lack a touch of intensity – which ideally, in the midst of a huge gun battle, should be coming from all quarters. Overall then, Yager is a brilliant attempt at creating a completely engaging and interactive ‘living’ world. It is clear that an awful lot of care and attention has gone into sweating the details. On this count it cannot be faulted, however the lukewarm nature of its combat model suggests there is something ‘missing’ from the final picture; some genre-defining element that remains unexposed in the development tray.

In the final analysis, everyone should experience Yager as you do not play it – you visit it – and it soon becomes one of the most enthralling locations you could uncover. Undoubtedly a title that will either be loved or discarded over time, it is hard to see anyone disliking it completely. In short though, it is completely great, and that is the best recommendation we can give.

Gamestyle Score: 8/10

The Haunting

Gamestyle Archive intro: did you realise that the site used to have a dedicated DVD review section? It only lasted a couple of years. From memory Darran wanted to cover the medium and it seemed a logical extension with the PlayStation 2 arriving in homes, thereby opening up this new format; bye bye VHS. While the section itself wasn’t long running we often did review films/DVDs that were influenced by videogames including some awful ones later in the decade by a certain German director.

Writer: JJ

Published: January 2004

thehaunting

Director: Robert Wise

Cast: Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, Russ Tamblyn

Genre: Thriller

Length: 107 minutes

As a kid staying up late and watching video nasties and edited horror films (on terrestrial television) was a common activity for this Gamestyle writer.  Few films made any lasting impression, as gore and violence soon became repetitive.  However The Haunting was one film that refused to date and lose any of its atmosphere or ability to shock.  Given its lack of release on video or DVD until recently, the film has enjoyed “cult” status amongst those who appreciate well-crafted films.  Only through late night showings has this appreciation continued to grow, with finally Metro Goldwyn-Mayer finally releasing the film on DVD.

The script is fairly faithful to the book (The Haunting of Hill House) that the film is based upon – with a few liberties, here and there.  The initial premise will not win any prizes for originality as it involves a group of hand picked individuals (led by Dr John Markway) who conduct a paranormal investigation into Hill House, which remains unoccupied during nightfall.  The sceptics amongst the group soon begin to doubt their own senses, as a series of bizarre events take place.  Rather than let the spirits within the house embark on a rampage, Wise instead builds the relationships with the main characters.  The paranormal (for what they are) remain unseen, and in this, allows your imagination to run riot.

The 1999 big budget remake decided to explore other avenues within the house, but ultimately even modern special effects could not equal the standard of the original.  The 1963 version only has one noticeable special effect shot, while the rest of the film uses silence and thunderous noise to build tension.  This has increased the eternal and undated nature of the film.  Sitting in a darkened living room there is no film that comes close.  Upon its theatrical release in the UK the film was well received, but endured an X certificate.  To some The Haunting is pure psychological horror, to others a severe thriller with moments of unadulterated terror.

The main star of the film is the house itself, which does exist just outside of London, and yes is apparently haunted in real life – one cast member even recalls his own paranormal experience on set.  No doubt the cast were fully aware of the history and nearby graveyard, which added more focus to some memorable performances.  The assortment of relatively unknown actors and actresses’ works well, as there is no star complex among them.  And the small cast gets on with developing the story.

Robert Wise for those unaware was the editor on Orson Welles’ magical Citizen Kane, and such editing skills were used extremely efficiently in The Haunting.  For a film created in 1963 it features a variety of disorientating angles and sure fire edits, these help create the unnatural feeling of an unusual house.  Trivia fans will be surprised to know that after directing this tour de force, Wise went onto direct The Sound Of Music as his next project.

Unfortunately the print used for the DVD does not seem to be as clean as others seen on television.  At times the print does show its age, and more importantly the lack of any real enhancement when making its debut on DVD.  This is not a major downfall, but rather a blemish on a beautifully composed film, which surely deserved better treatment, as Wise enjoys exploiting every inch of frame at his disposal.  The minimal soundtrack (mostly reliant on sound effects) has forgone any Dolby Digital enhancement.  Perhaps a remixed version would have been at odds with the film itself, as both rely on one another greatly.

On the extras front The Haunting ignores any special edition status, and unsurprisingly little effort has been done for this budget release. The gallery of small stills shows the cast and crew during filming, while the theatrical trailer delivers a cringe worthy punch line.    Thankfully some credence has been given to delivering this DVD as a historical document, as MGM has included a commentary track.  This features the cast, writer and director in an accompanying edited track, which proves extremely interesting.  Of particular note are Wise who explains some of his thoughts and techniques, while Johnson provides an insight into the experiences of the actors.  For a budget release it’s a saving grace to have a commentary such as this – something Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was sorely lacking.

The Haunting is a welcome release on DVD, with the strength of the film still shining brightly forty years on.  An influential film that deserves to reach a wider audience why not cast aside those Scary Movies and try out one of the originals?

Gamestyle Score: 8/10