Spyro: A Hero’s Tail

Gamestyle Archive Intro: Anna takes us down a popular PS1 title in new surroundings from this review towards the end of 2004.

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Spyro: A Hero’s Tail (ho) is easily the best post-PS1 Spyro title, and it’s obvious that the developers have really thought about some parts of the game. However, push the PS2 et al to their limits this doesn’t. Graphically, this game is decent. That said, it’s nothing at all impressive: we’ve all seen much better, and the draw distance is at times disconcertingly short.

Baddies also teleport into existence when you approach their patches, which may be intended to surprise but it seems more like laziness with regards to animating distant enemies. There are also a few irritating invisible walls around platforms that one should otherwise be able to reach. Perhaps the developers didn’t expect the player to try and explore off the game’s path so much, but it’s nice to have the option.

This game’s a first for the Spyro series in that the worlds aren’t broken up into discrete levels accessible only via portals: each of the four realms (obligatory ice one and lava one included) and its sublevels are all part of the same landmass, and one can walk from any part of a realm to another with no loading times. But it’s often quicker to just teleport there, which one can do with the aid of a ticket bought from Moneybags (a bear in a fez) for 100 shinies a pop. As well as teleport tickets, from the shop pads one can buy all manner of things including more ammo for super-attacks, keys for opening chests, and magic butterflies to restore Spyro’s health (bizarrely, Sparx the dragonfly eats them but it’s Spyro who benefits). Whilst the pads are very useful, they get irritating very quickly: every time you approach one, a green holographic Moneybags pops up and spouts a one-liner. Every time. Make him stop!

The rest of the game is surprisingly non-irritating for a magic land populated by faerie, magic crystals, and fluffy sheep, and in which even the baddies look harmless and cuddly and as though they would probably prefer discussing your differences over a plate of biscuits (and when you do choose to end their existences, they explode in a cloud of pretty bubbles). The dialogue is often genuinely funny (especially of note is the very camp Elder Magnus, who is also pink) and the voice-acting isn’t chummily goofy as has been the case in past titles. As is the standard for Spyro’s adventures, and indeed for most platformers, the main object of the game is to collect various artefacts; in this case being light gems, dark gems and dragon eggs. Light and dark gems lead the way forward, with light gems powering machines and dark ones opening boss areas. The eggs are optional and collecting them unlocks goodies, such as concept art and the ability to play as Ember or Flame (basically Spyro in drag) instead of El Purple One.

Eggs and light gems can be found hidden in cunning places or in locked chests, but a lot of them you’ll get as rewards for helping the inept natives. Their errands include using cannons to defend baby turtles from vultures, activating water-wheels so that an otter can go surfing, and pushing rock-monsters off cliffs to avenge a disgruntled hyena. In addition to Spyro, there are a few short sections in which Spyro stands aside to allow another character a moment of glory. Sadly, these aren’t much fun compared to the main levels, playing rather like a gaming equivalent of cutting room floor sweepings. Furthermore, their sections are all separate from Spyro’s. This, in Gamestyle’s opinion, makes the idea of multiple characters rather pointless: they can’t help each other bypass obstacles or assist each other in combat. Hunter the cheetah and Blink the mole have free-roaming sections, mostly involving jumping from platform to platform (a lot of which is buttock-clenchingly pixel-perfect in its demands). Both of them also have long-range weapons with zooms, and use explosives to break down doors. They’re only really set apart by the fact that Hunter can climb walls whereas Blink can brachiate (rather nimbly for a talpidine, too).

Sparx the dragonfly and Sgt. Byrd the tanked-up penguin are both flying shooters; Sparx on rails and the Sgt. (whose levels are easily the most enjoyable of all the non-Spyro ones) in an open-air assault course with hoops to fly through and aloft enemies to gun down. Whilst Spyro in the hands of Insomniac showed that cutesy games can still be challenging and testing (a formula taken to excess by the saccharine-flavoured but corundum-hard Croc games), A Hero’s Tail unfortunately doesn’t try as hard to overturn first impressions. Whilst this game is thankfully not patronising and does have a difficulty curve, and is pretty unforgiving checkpoint-wise, it really won’t have one foaming at the mouth (or any other orifices) with frustration. The final boss is laughably easy, even though failure will take you right back to the beginning of the battle and not just the start of the round.

Spyro: A Hero’s Tail is a nice game. It’s brightly-coloured, cheerful and inoffensive, and is a great title with which to unwind when you’re too feeling too frazzled or cack-handed to attempt a manlier game like Devil May Cry or Onimusha (although you may want to play some of those afterwards to get rid of the cute and sparkly aftertaste). If you’re not generally a fan of platformers, you’d be better off with a title that better showcases the genre, like Jak (a few ideas from which have been sneakily ‘borrowed’ for A Hero’s Tail) or Ratchet. Otherwise, this is a pretty little game that platforming fans shall find an enjoying diversion.

Gamestyle Score: 6/10

Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater

Gamestyle Archive Intro: why does Gamestyle matter and continue to do so? Well its honesty and principles. This review from Daniel is a perfect example. Whilst websites and press critics were falling over themselves to hype Snake Eater there was an apparent fear to criticise and highlight flaws. At GS we were an elite team of gamers who valued honesty and our own wallet; if something was disappointing them it was stated and scored as such. Refreshing in 2004 it sadly remains so in 2015.

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Metal Gear Solid was one of the few games to satisfactorily handle stealth, because it eliminated ‘guesswork’. The permanent view of your surroundings and enemy vision indicator made it possible to see and recognise multiple movement patterns simultaneously, plan each move with precision, and always know what needed to be done. But back in the sixties, the advanced radar systems that made this possible weren’t invented. Thus it is that the dreaded ‘curse of the prequels’ lands a wounding blow to Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater.

Without spoiling the plot, Snake Eater is set in 1964, where a special operations unit known as “Fox” has sent its operative “Naked Snake” into the heart of a Russian jungle; his mission is to rescue a scientist named Sokolov from a terrorist group who is holding him captive. Sokolov is a Soviet scientist who defected to the US during the Cold War, and whose skills are now desirable for the construction of an ultimate weapon (you can probably guess what that is). “Snake” comes face to face with his old mentor, The Boss, as well as some other familiar faces, who are a part of this elite terrorist group. The story isn’t as overly-complex as that of MGS2, but it sets up the events of the two previous games nicely.

Snake Eater is a remarkably ‘different’ game in the franchise. Large outdoor environments, swamps, trees, long grass and camouflage… it certainly loses its Pac-man style of gameplay; but at the same time, it refuses to let go of certain traditions which shouldn’t still be there. For example, the top-down camera is largely unchanged – switching back and forth when you press up against surfaces – but the radar screen is no longer there. This means that the normal view is the only way to navigate and orient yourself, and the camera is totally unqualified to take on such a responsibility. You can use a combination of the primitive sonar, the motion detector, the binoculars and the personnel detector to locate enemies or animals, but no one device does all these things together. This means you have to continually switch between devices, which can be very intrusive. The motion detector, for example, shows movement as dots; but it doesn’t tell you what they are or if they can see you. Indeed, since the only way to tell is to look ahead of you, you have to keep switching to a first person view, meaning you have to keep stopping and starting. This clear indication of the camera’s insufficiencies highlights why a free third-person camera would have been preferable.

Deep within the jungle, simply staying hidden is not the only concern; Snake has to stay alive as well. With a multifaceted menu system, Snake Eater’s micro-management is often just as important as its actions sequences. If you get injured, you will be required to clean and repair the wound; if you get tired, you will need to catch food and eat it. Your ‘stamina’ is what keeps you alive. A full stamina bar will allow Snake to gradually heal himself over time, whereas low stamina will affect his actions. Aiming becomes harder, wounds heal more slowly, and you can’t hold your breath for as long. It’s a remarkably authentic system, one which is always on the forefront of your mind. As you lie in ambush in the grass, or hide up in a tree, you’ll be planning where your next meal will come from. You can kill animals for food, but unless it’s caught alive, it begins to go bad over time, even when you aren’t playing.

Camouflage is a key feature of Snake Eater, replacing ‘lines-of-sight’ with a more organic visibility percentage indicator, much like Splinter Cell. Different environments call for different camo to be worn (tiger stripe, leaf, tree bark, etc.). There is a fundamental problem with this system, though: it is largely unnecessary. Going from grass onto leaves changes how visible you are, and requires you to change your outfit, but there’s no strategy to this; the only requirement is that you find the camo that has the highest number. One must ask why the game can’t simply do it automatically, or indeed why it needs you to do it at all. It’s a superfluous exercise in menu-navigation that further breaks the flow of the action. If this is all sounding so negative, it shouldn’t.

The Metal Gear Solid franchise has unusually high standards placed upon it, so when a game fails to live up to those, the shortcomings are simply more obvious. Make no mistake, Snake Eater is a lovingly-crafted and often wonderful adventure. The behaviour of the enemies, of the wildlife, the cunningly placed traps and dangers, the overall level of detail… it’s all staggeringly good. There never seems to be an end to the things you can do; sometimes it’s fun just to see what you can get away with. It’s also immensely satisfying when a well thought-out strategy of careful circumvention succeeds as you planned it. The movie cutscenes simply excel in all areas. The action within them is always well punctuated and choreographed; every frame is well considered and visually splendid; even the dialogue contains subtle blends of humour with traditional one-liners.

The game is replete with secrets, extras and in-jokes (seeing the words “time paradox” when Snake is killed is a funny moment) and you’ll no doubt want to replay the whole experience when you’ve finished it once, just to see what else you missed. The boss characters are extremely imaginative and have a variety of interesting abilities, which make encounters with each one totally unique, exciting and well-paced. There are many ways to defeat each one, some quicker than others, but the choice is yours to make.

All the characters are varied and likeable; there’s a unique charm to each of them. Listening to Major Zero’s (Snake’s commander) witty banter over the radio, or Para Medic’s talk about sixties’ movies is rarely tedious, but thoroughly welcomed. Even their names show the tongue-in-cheek humour that makes MGS so agreeable. The musical score is another triumph; it isn’t as pronounced, obvious or memorable as that of the past games, but the music during both action and movie sequences is always perfectly suited, and doesn’t distract you from what’s happening.

In general, most of Snake Eater’s individual features surpass the quality of most other games, point-per-point. Even the graphics would not only look at home on an Xbox, but wouldn’t look too out of place on a next generation console either. The shadows, textures and detail surpass that of MGS2 by enough to be immediately noticeable, and only the occasional slowdown reminds you how much detail the PS2 is having push around at once. The final sequences of the game are a magnificent journey through multiple styles of action and drama, brutal realism and shocking revelations. It is a game of numerous ingenious ideas, and it is clear that Konami didn’t want to simply retread the same old ground. For this, we are thankful; however much of the time it feels as though the core of the game isn’t updated enough to smooth out the rough edges and ‘guesswork’ required to struggle through its slower sections.

With the impending release of Subsistence (essentially Snake Eater’s version of Substance), online play and improvements to the camera system will be a big advantage over Snake Eater’s obtrusive viewpoints and lightweight Ape Escape sub-game. It’s not that Snake Eater isn’t a good game – it is – but there’s little point in buying this version. Gamestyle recommends either waiting for the upgrade or renting this for a solid weekend of tactical espionage action.

Gamestyle Score: 6/10

Altered Beast

Gamestyle Archive Intro:  the pain of Altered Beast still exists within. It marked a frustrating period as a Dreamcast and Sega supporter with periods of no releases or titles put together in quick fashion (often arcade ports) to fill such holes. Altered Beast was a painful infliction on PlayStation 2 owners who may have wondered what all the Sega fuss was? This release dates from February 2005.

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If Altered Beast is a blueprint of Sega’s newfound direction, then the next few years are going to be an uphill struggle. This release is indicative of so many Dreamcast titles – not the magical releases – but the games that lacked any conviction or spark and merely added a few more nails to the console’s coffin.  How could Gamestyle ever forget such efforts as Fighting Vipers 2, Charge ‘N’ Blast and OutTrigger (to name but a few)?

Thankfully we did, but Altered Beast has let loose those demons once again. The original Altered Beast is perhaps one of the most overrated releases in retrospect, as its legacy has built up over the years. Yet when you actually discuss the memorable and influential games of the Mega Drive era, it is rarely – if ever – mentioned. The gameplay in the original was extremely limited, and more often than not you just bypassed the incidental enemies to dash towards the next boss encounter (and many simply recall the game because it was given away free when you bought the machine). The Mega Drive version was simplistic, repetitive and shortlived – which begs the question: why the remake?

The modern take on proceedings is that you are a member of a special government unit, sent into a nameless town to investigate an outbreak. Yes, it’s more akin to a Resident Evil ‘remake’, but this version fails to share any of the mythology from Altered Beast. Instead of relying on shotguns or a traditional arsenal, these operatives control their own DNA sequence (courtesy of a specialist microchip). Yet their gory transformations are not limited to one type of monster; you can select from several which have unique abilities and killing moves. The first problem is there is no viable alternative to fighting except transforming (as in human form you are extremely vulnerable and unarmed). Whilst in monster mode it is important to kill, as you can receive health and sanity points that fill your health meters (the latter controls how long you can remain as a monster before changing back). So, predictably, levels are populated with various monsters that surround any survivors (cue lots of painful dicing and impaling of enemies).

Moving into a three-dimensional arena just highlights how bland this once-popular type of release has become – a decent fighting system can only compensate for so much, but there’s simply nothing new or entertaining about the battles offered in Altered Beast. And this is only the beginning of the game’s problems (incidentally, Sega of America decided not to release this title in its own territory). Gamestyle really is struggling to find any positive regard for Altered Beast – although it does have a 60Hz option, which in itself is confusing (given its profile). The camera needs constant adjusting, as it fails to keep up with characters or provide a satisfactory viewpoint when engaged in mass brawls. Further, the cut sequences have a grainy quality which is normally associated with Sega Saturn or early Playstation releases (and the transformation footage becomes irritating, kicking in every time you make the DNA change). These segments do try to inject variety by focusing on different parts of the body, but after a while even gore-hungry teenagers will tire of the interruptions.

Each level consists of a few rooms where progress is defined by a linear path. Conveniently-placed invisible walls will prevent anyone from dashing ahead (and thus hoping to avoid the minions beyond the next doorway). So progress is dictated by killing everything – which again just highlights the bland nature of combat. And things fails to improve as you delve deeper into the town (which consists of yet more rooms and more generic monsters). Despite the linearity, there are moments of confusion for the player as the next step (or action needed to move on) is seldom defined. For example, after killing the first boss – a giant rat – another action will be required, or else you must continue to fight the underlings as they appear from the catacombs. These lapses in design continually pop up, and with no help or training modes provided, it’s a dismal process of trial and error.

Visually, matters are hardly improved by muddy textures and sloppy graphics which fail to satisfy the player. Environmental detail is poor, and bereft of any incidental objects that might’ve at least provided variety. The voice-acting is dire – truly matching Resident Evil in at least one department – and the musical accompaniment barely enough. There are options to view details on monsters and their appearance, but the only option Gamestyle suggests is that you select ‘Quit’.

Gamestyle Score: 3/10