Matt Hoffman’s Pro BMX 2

Gamestyle Archive Intro: well I never, here’s another review from the Marquis De Sade himself. Dating from around August 2002, here he relives his childhood bike fantasty.

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Pity me. In my youth, I spent many an hour learning to ride a bike the hard way. Not that I was performing handstands whilst steering the bike, I hasten to add – that’s for Wave Race afficionados. Instead, my parents sadistically bought me a Raleigh Chopper. The bike that when you fell off, you required two firemen and a blanket to catch your fall. The bike that had all of the turning cicle prowess of a juggernaut, and the bike that, most worryingly, was mocked at by many a schoolkid, as they’d upgraded to BMX’s, whilst I had painfully remained in the 70’s. But thanks to the wonders of videogame entertainment, I can now forget about the past, and make up for that lost time, courtesy of Matt Hoffman’s Pro BMX 2.

From the stable of Activisions’ O2 series, Matt Hoffman’s Pro BMX 2 (MHPB2) is insantly recognisable to those who have played other ‘extreme’ games such as the eponymous Dave Mirra or Tony Hawks. Sadly, the game offers nothing new, as if content to offer more of the same. After a lengthy FMV opening (you know the drill; ‘dudes’ performing ‘zany’ stunts) accompanied by the dulcet tones of Iggy Pop, the main menu is presented with the usual options: Road Trip (the story mode), Session (an imposed time limit to rack up as much points as possible), Free Ride and Multiplayer. A park editor is included too, and it won’t take long for any budding creators out there to conjure up a decent park. Road Trip is the core of the game, and from here, you choose from one of the ten ‘real’ BMX’ers (though more can be unlocked), as you make you way across the ‘States, demonstrating your prowess.

Predictably, only one area is unlocked at the beginning, and in order to move to other locations, you have to amass ‘trip points’, which are gained via completing objectives on each level, as well as fancy combos. One each level is cleared, its onto the Hoffman’s tour bus, and a brief, documentary-style FMV clip is shown, highlighting the man himself, along with his friends commenting on the scene etc, and these are actually quite interesting. And it’s here that the lack of imagination is severley evident. Chanllenges range from attaining so many points, to collecting gas cans, or hitting switches etc. Many of the challenges are therefore simply a memory test, and lack any zest. As is usual with many of the ‘extreme’ games, a time limit of two minutes is imposed for each run, so there’s not much time to get used to the levels intricacies (though this is alleviated by the Free Ride option).

MHPB2 is playable enough, although biking feels more inflexible compared to skateboarding, and it does take a while before any decent combos can be racked up. Graphically, it’s a mixed bag. The bikers themselves are detailed, and instantly recognisable for the enthusiasts out there, and the bikes move with convincing grace, and for a game that requires a lot of precision, the frame rate is thankfully very fluid. But the levels are drab, and lacking in real detail. Colours are washed out, and textures are simplistic. There’s no doubting that Microsoft’s console could handle far more than what is thrown at it here. If the game had been designed with the Xbox solely in mind, one would’ve expect prettier visuals.

As for the music, well you can expect the usual smattering of nu-metal, angst-ridden tunes, but if it’s not to your taste, tracks from your hard disk can be used instead.(which oddly, cannot be selected from the main menu, but from pasuing in-game). The sound effect are convincing, though hardly outstanding. And therein lies the problem with MHPB2. It reeks of mediocrity. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it, nor is there anything that’s going to grab your attention. Whilst there is always a curiosity as the next levels design, you know that you’ll be still trying to complete the same challenges, and it’s all a bit tedious. Designing your own park offers a little more longevity, but the game remains rather sterile.

It goes without saying that if you enjoy your ‘extreme’ games, then enjoyment will be gained for those who like to rack up high-scoring combos and manuals, but for anyone about take their first plunge in the genre, the best bet looks likely to be Tony Hawks Pro Skateboarding 4.

Gamestyle Score: 6/10

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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

Cold Fear

Gamestyle Archive Intro: this is an incomplete review but it seems over 75% intact so we’re going with it as it stands in the archive. Cold Fear was an interesting idea on paper with a different setting to the usual scare ’em videogames of the time. Yet the execution let the side down. This review was from JJ and maybe one day we’ll find the complete version.

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With umpteen movies released by Hollywood which deal with horrors afloat, it’s bizarre that developers have taken so long to seize upon a workable template. Even for Gamestyle, the mere notion of ‘survival horror at sea’ instils an icy-cold fear of the unknown which has hitherto inhibited us from spending some quality time with the game. The first step in overcoming one’s fears is to confront them… As a coastguard you are dispatched to a Russian merchant vessel that is somehow adrift on the high seas – and despite a heavy pounding by the forces of nature, it refuses to submerge. Unusually, there was no Mayday signal to respond to; rather you are acting on orders from higher up the chain of command. Luckily, these merchant crewmen come adequately trained and armed, because the rescue mission is soon reversed into one of survival.

Cold Fear begins positively, as it aims to confront the player with the predicament of being stranded on a ghost ship in an almighty storm. The screen sways from side to side, and the camera behaves erratically – a brilliant piece of design if it weren’t for the fact that it’s ongoing throughout the game. There is no opening sequence which familiarises your skills and training (nor any convenient link to an operative who might help); you are very much alone – with only a gun and gumption for survival. These opening moments are best compared to Metal Gear Solid 2, but here the ship’s deck feels more dangerous, more alive and far more threatening.

The efficient use of the environment also extends to items within the ship – as light bulbs will go out, bodies will nervously twitch; in fact there is always something happening to divert your attention (and thus raise the fear factor). Wading through a half-flooded corridor is a telling moment: you just know that something is out there, waiting to pop up. This somewhat compensates for the disappointing opponents you will stumble across – beginning with the Russian sailors. There is no means to communicate with the crewmen (who are obviously at their wit’s end); instead gunplay is the only language they’ll understand in Cold Fear. Essentially, this is a missed opportunity, because it dumbs down what could have been an otherwise invigorating situation and/or voyage of discovery. Despite the many locked doors and open cabins, there is no escaping the fact this is a linear adventure. Information and objects are drip-fed as you navigate the crumbling interior of the ship – often at times you’ll be solving puzzles without really knowing it.

Each cabin is in a terrible state: blood and bodily remains are scattered everywhere (ramping up the gore factor), and fire rages wherever the seawater subsides. Opponents line themselves up nicely, with crewmen automatically anchored behind the nearest cover; the infected will quite often throw themselves into your line of fire and quite early you’ll discover the infection can take over corpses that have lain silent for days. This prompts a lot of backtracking – and a series of headshots into those who have already fallen foul of the ultimate coastguard (but feels familiarly like content that is stretched too thin). Meanwhile, Cold Fear certainly impresses with its visual style; the crisp textures are courtesy of the Renderware toolset which again delivers in spades.

The outdoor sections (where the storm is raging) are perfectly-reproduced, with hazardous-to-your-health objects forever dancing in the wind. In fact, there were moments where Gamestyle wanted to reach out and wipe away the drizzle from our television screen (not to mention donning the waterproofs). However, there was no time for such pleasantries, as every minute spent outside weakened our resistance to the elements. The predictable opposition becomes increasingly harder to kill as you make your way through the ship.

Part of the reason for this is the atrocious targeting system (and largely useless camera angles provided in the free-roaming third-person perspective). A halfway measure to correct this is playing the game from an over-the-shoulder viewpoint; this improves accuracy (but not nearly enough to satisfy) and makes fairly good use of the laser sight (along with the handheld torch). Without this option, Cold Fear would have been virtually unplayable. Another horrid piece of direction is evidenced by save points: in the survival horror genre, players are quite accustomed to saving at regular intervals. This acts as a safety mechanism, but in Cold Fear this assurance has been strictly linked to pivotal moments in the storyline. The first save point for instance is too far into proceedings, and unless you are playing on the two easiest difficulty levels, a real pain to reach. Of course, given the premature playing time (and the lack of unlockable extras) this decision was perhaps understandable, but nonetheless frustrating. The omission of frequent saving is not helped by the fact that Cold Fear does not provide a map option – which can prove (review ends)

Gamestyle Score: 6/10

Syberia II

Gamestyle Archive Intro: the joys of the point and click genre may be lost on the current generation. However it was a thrilling and challenging experience. Even after all these years I remember playing Syberia II just like it was November 2004 all over again.

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Point ‘n’ click adventures have never really found a home amid the confines of current consoles; their pace, difficulty, static screens and quirks are everything that our newfangled entertainment centres would rail against. The Broken Sword series may have found a receptive audience, but far fewer releases have dared to stray from their PC stable (with the obvious exception being the behemoth Myst series). So, with this in mind, Gamestyle opens its mind to Syberia II.

The original Syberia managed to fill a niche on the Playstation 2, and although the sequel has hereto arrived on Xbox, it’s hardly likely to be usurping the top shelf. With virtually no marketing or any form of public awareness, Syberia faded away – and while the sequel is perfectly enjoyable in its right, the first half of the story owes a debt of continuity to the original. It goes without saying that point ‘n’ click adventures are nothing without internal dialogue, and Syberia II’s opening moments lack any reprise for those who are new to the series.

Thus, you again adopt the role of Kate Walker, a New York lawyer taking sabbatical in a remote permafrost region of Europe. She has left everything behind to join Hans Voralberg on his lifelong quest to find the legendary Syberia (note: this partnership is already formed and outlined in the first game). What does become clear is that Kate’s former employers are desperate to have her back in New York – and many co-opted locals will stop at nothing to prevent this enterprising duo en route.

The storyline was penned by Benoit Sokal, a notable European comic strip creator, and Syberia’s world is very much his oyster; the characteristic designs, technology, and architectural style are all very distinctive. If Gamestyle were to draw parallels, then Sokal’s nearest contemporary would be Jean-Pierre Jeunet – the director of City of Lost Children, Delicatessen, and (unfortunately) Alien Resurrection. Thankfully, the genre allows you to fully appreciate his clockwork apparatuses spread amongst four principal areas; these devices evidently inform the practices and history of the region and are truly mesmerising – and the snow (which is everywhere) adds an ethereal touch.

Syberia II offers no surprises in gameplay terms, and remains fundamentally true to its ‘point ‘n’ click’ roots: there are no quick-timed events or periodic bursts of activity required here. What awaits the player are a series of logistical tests (aka: puzzles) that must be overcome in order to progress. Initially the goal may seem simple – such as fixing a train – but the tasks sporadically branch out to incorporate a host of characters and town locations. Unfortunately, this does require a great deal of trial-and-error (and even more backtracking); the genre infamously takes no prisoners – so, if you are already cringing at the thought of it, then Syberia II is certainly not for you.

The difficulty curve is steep, and will prove extremely frustrating for the unwary (as there is no in-game help or hint system to speak of). The key is dragging your cursor across every inch of the screen – waiting for it to change appearance – then engaging in conversations and breaking down tasks by a simplistic ‘division of labour’ approach. Connoisseurs of such adventures will no doubt find Syberia II fairly straightforward to play – if it weren’t for several intrusive (or hereditary, given its PC lineage) factors.

Where should Gamestyle start – as a fair degree of testing should have highlighted the following problems: firstly, pathways are never clearly defined and are often hidden behind objects (or compounded by the white blanket of snow in certain areas). To discover that hidden route – typically off-screen – it is best to let Kate run in a circle; eventually she’ll spin off in another direction. Adding to this frustration are invisible walls that are in plentiful supply at nearly every location; a need for pinpoint accuracy (when opening objects or activating items) which is not served by console controllers; and each screen takes far too long to load – which, married to the quality of backtracking involved, only serves to infuriate players.

Notwithstanding, Syberia II is worth playing for its wonderful story and desire to overcome these obstacles. There’s a real sense of satisfaction when a cut-scene ensues, but even these moments can be short-changed by some dreadful editing (and sequences sometimes finish abruptly; the direction here is certainly amiss and the scripting could’ve been more polished). On a more positive note, there are some picturesque locations (and hand-drawn visuals) accompanying Syberia II, and the soundtrack is suitably evocative. Gamestyle certainly enjoyed its time in the snow, and would advise point ‘n’ click travellers to wait until the retail price falls a notch before taking a chance on this distinguished adventure.

Gamestyle Score: 6/10

La Pucelle: Tactics

Gamestyle Archive Intro:  a glut of tactical games arrived on the PS2 around 10 years ago and offered a new challenge for gamers. La Pucelle: Tactics isn’t the cream of the crop by far, yet acted as an introduction and tuning mechanism for future delights. This was an NTSC review from 2004 by JJ.

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The tactical element in games has come ahead in leaps and bounds. Kick-started by Final Fantasy Tactics, and helped along by Advance Wars, the true masters of the genre are a hitherto little-known Japanese developer called Nippon Ichi Software.

Following in the tradition of Disgaea: Hour of Darkness (and Phantom Brave), La Pucelle: Tactics pitches the player within a world of grid-based battles – those expecting a challenge will not be disappointed, as the precursor to Disgaea is a worthy combatant indeed. Assuming the role of Prier, a young trainee, La Pucelle’s story captivates immediately (despite the somewhat dour presentation). Prier’s aim is to become a Maiden of the Light (the controlling church), and this will be achieved by overcoming demons and gaining new skills – notwithstanding the battle against her own personal demons.

There are some links with Disgaea (Prier was a secret character, in fact) but both releases can be thoroughly enjoyed as separate ventures; the danger currently facing the kingdom is a series of dark portals through which evil creatures have been unleashed. So, your ‘apprenticeship’ will be fairly hectic as new skills and tactics are introduced via steady ritual. The strength of the story is key to your motivation in La Pucelle: Tactics – as battles do become lengthy and formidable. Character interludes and revelations sit well within the scope of action, however the presentation isn’t all that it could’ve been (and perhaps would’ve looked more at home on the GBA or a 16-bit format). Nevertheless, it is an enchanting tale, and confirms that lengthy cut sequences are not always required when the story is so convincing. And perhaps the primitive, hand-drawn graphics – together with some accomplished voice acting – prove slightly refreshing in this all-too-predictable era of videogaming.

If the idea of constant levelling up and gaining experience points is not what you want from a game then La Pucelle is certainly not for you: this is heavy-duty statistical analysis and item-juggling, and probably explains its popularity with disenfranchised RPG players who are suffering hunger pains of late. The game is split into chapters, and only when you have completed one ‘epic’ stage, can you move onto the next morsel of exposition. There is the option to return to previous battles (if you fancy levelling up some more), but with newfound skills to exploit, it can become a little tiresome. The battles themselves are based on a grid structure, where everyone takes their turn – killing all your adversaries or throwing a necessary switch will typically expedite progress. However, demons will sometimes reappear and force a sudden re-evaluation of tactics; nothing ground-breaking to be sure, but the real paradigm is being able to purify enemies and harness their dark energies via a map – once this is achieved, a ‘miracle’ can occur.

Ultimately, the combat system provides greater strategic riches but it isn’t foolproof: you are able to move indefinitely (provided no action is taken) or otherwise control the flow of a dark portal (aka: movement of an opponent) if you’re conversant with the system. For all of its niceties, La Pucelle: Tactics is far from perfect. The interface is decidedly cumbersome and a nightmare to utilise, and there’s a great deal of additional information lurking beneath (details on enemies for instance). But it’s not freely available – you’ll have to go looking for these pearls.

Again, in keeping with other RTS titles like Front Mission 4, if you haven’t levelled up enough then eventually you’ll hit a wall: a battle from which you’ll have no hope of emerging victorious. And you’re certainly not helped by controls which are muddled and fiddly – in fact, it’s far from a conventional layout, and on several occasions you’ll find yourself cancelling moves rather than instigating them. This can make the pacing of battles seem extremely slow (and it does seem like an eternity has passed before your characters have levelled up). And, while the graphical style works, there is no denying that backdrops become repetitive and lack variety.

Gamestyle appreciates the grid-based limitations, but Future Tactics: The Uprising and Front Mission 4 managed so much more whilst shackled to the same formulae. Finally, even the story itself can be criticised for introducing too many side-quests (which might artificially elongate the playing time). La Pucelle: Tactics feels like an add-on pack which has been stretched too thin between the cracks of a cracking good yarn (see: Disgaea). While it’s a pleasant enough journey to take – before reaching the neighbourhood of Phantom Brave – unless you really love the work of Nippon Ichi (or indeed the genre), don’t expect to be revisiting this locale after you’re done.

Gamestyle Score: 6/10

Rumble Roses

Gamestyle Archive Intro: there was a time in the very earliest versions of the website where Dean would like to put up a picture of a woman to enhance the visual appeal of the page. Why I’m mentioning this I don’t know other than whilst putting this review back together the memory reappeared. This review is from JJ and dates from February 2005.

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Scantily-clad women wresting in obscene outfits (not to mention the obligatory mud wrestling). For some this sounds like a winning recipe, but for others the least politically-correct release of the year (outside of Rockstar’s own schedule) ticks every possible wish-list of teenage gamers.

You have the nurse character; a femme fatale; busty blondes; a schoolgirl and many more besides. It would be easy to dismiss Konami’s Rumble Roses as a flagrant attempt to pick up the reigns from Tecmo’s Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball, but to do so would be missing the point of the whole game: by looking beyond the flesh festival, the outrageous oeuvre, you’ll moreover find yourself having fun with yourself (ahem) – and many a time at that. Because, if nothing else, this politically-charged game is indeed a guilty pleasure.

Rumble Roses is ‘filled out’ like a typical beat ’em up, but in wrestler’s clothing. You have your standard versus mode and the main challenge arriving via story mode. Here you must take each character through their paces, fighting bitter rivals in your quest to become the wrestling champion. In so doing, additional characters and costumes are made available; the gallery function allows you to hear dialogue and zoom in on your favourite wrestler. Like Tekken’s Iron Fist tournament, Rumble Roses is the ultimate wrestling event that every wannabe wants to compete in. Each of the wrestlers has their own reasons for doing so – ranging from finding a lost relative, to covert government investigations, or simply proving they are the best. The character stories are driven by cut sequences that only heighten your awareness of the clothing available. The stories themselves are so imbecilic that they eventually become endearing, but thankfully, take a backseat to the ‘action’ itself.

It’s somewhat ironic that Konami – relative newcomers to the wrestling genre – can produce a game which is superior to most Smackdown! releases of late. Of course, this isn’t saying much as the ‘next generation’ competition hasn’t exactly broken free of its PSone shackles. The qualitative difference here is Konami taking their arcade experience and pinning it firmly on the ‘breast’ of a wrestling-cum-beat ’em up hybrid. Speaking of which, the flesh festival will no doubt prove alluring to some, but in addition the familiarity of known fighting regimes will attract others who might normally be dismissive of the wrestling-cum-pantomime experience. The real selling-point (as opposed to the fairground attraction of mud wrestling) is the visuals – which clearly allow for successful interpretation of moves. You can also sit back and soak up the scenery if you wish, as two CPU characters will go head to head. The camera is well-behaved and the focus on killer moves really brings a television dynamic to fights, despite the fact there is (thankfully) no overriding commentary.

Characters are convincingly-detailed (Konami has claimed 10,000 polygons per model), animate fluidly and overall have a ‘replay’ quality that has technically become the norm. However, there is no accidental loss of accessories – perhaps these girls ‘superglue’ their sunglasses? The sound is a mixed bag, with hysterics and sound effects coming across well as each girl dishes out (and receives) heavy punishment. Those fans of Ferrari F355’s particular blend of J-Pop will be well-catered for with the generic selection of tunes on offer. The fighting system has been streamlined for accessibility, and goes hand in hand with the arcade feel. There is no training mode to speak of; instead you’re left to find a wrestler that matches your own style. For instance, the judo wrestler is extremely adept with grappling and submission moves, while the loudmouthed cowgirl packs a brutal wallop (and mulekick, for that matter).

Nevertheless, there is some degree of thought required (especially on the higher difficulty), as it’s simply not a case of building up momentum before unleashing the killer move. Submission moves work extremely well if you react quickly and counter any attempt to escape. Yet the AI is a little unpredictable at times, as it will often fail to follow up a decent combo with a killing move when it has the initiative. One common occurrence is when you are on the ground and the CPU character will be grappling for (what seems like) an eternity. It’s almost as if it were catching its breath before resuming. Despite the political rough and tumble, Rumble Roses should prove popular enough. Beyond the jaw-dropping visuals there’s actually a fun and entertaining piece of ‘soft’ ware to be held, er… had. So what if it raises a few eyebrows? It’s only a game.

Gamestyle Score: 6/10

Nightshade

Gamestyle Archive Intro: Tom takes us back to a classic potential reviving of a Sega franchise that didn’t exactly take off. Better luck next time. This review dates from 2004.

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Sega have been slow to take advantage of their illustrious back catalogue, with many well-loved characters skipping entire hardware generations before re-entering the fray. One such classic was Shinobi – arcade and console hit of the ’80s and early ’90s – who in 2003 made a welcome return to Sony’s Playstation 2 and is now graced with a sequel: Nightshade.

In a potential marketing blunder, Sega have opted to strip Nightshade of its historic pedigree and remove any direct reference to Shinobi. Only by reading the blurb on the backside of the box will those familiar with the story of Hotsuma and the destruction of Hakujiki realise that it is in fact a sequel; Nightshade is set a few short months after the final battle of Shinobi. Naming conventions aside, Nightshade plays and feels exactly like its forebear. At its simplest, Kunoichi’s adventure is a straight-up arcade hack ‘n’ slash fest complete with enormous and challenging boss encounters. A smattering of moves are all that’s required to slice and shuriken your way through the challenges ahead. Despite the addition of special moves and a kick, Kunoichi’s female ninja maintains the modest approach of Hotsuma who came before: the challenge and also the bulk of the enjoyment comes from a need for style – not just to compete but to excel. Lifting Kunoichi, literally, above the standard fare is her ability to seamlessly, flowingly, and downright beautifully dispose of every enemy on screen.

Airborne attacks and stealth dashes allow Kunoichi to combo her way through all demons on screen, and the player is treated to a ‘Tate’ scene showing the simultaneous demise of her foes. Flowing from one enemy to the next, without breaking pattern and accompanied by a sometimes surreal soundtrack, is where this game excels. An almost dreamlike quality takes over – a trance of stylised killing – where one is mesmerised by the dancing scarf of the ninja avatar and the drum ‘n’ bass beats. End-of-level boss encounters, in keeping with the arcade styling, are huge and challenging. Often preceded by an introductory cut-scene, these gargantuan foes make up for the shortcomings of the smaller demons encountered throughout the levels. Careful use of the smaller demons is in fact the key to defeating their towering brethren.

Powering up her Tate ability on the underlings, Kunoichi increases the amount of damage she can do to the main adversary – throwing a welcome element of strategy into the mix. At the level’s end the player is graded alphabetically for performance: tate killings are high-scoring, as is the tactical use of special moves (retries and taking damage subtract points). Dependent on your score are the prizes you will unlock. In an improvement over Shinobi, Nightshade offers quite a range of alternate modes and unlockable extras to keep you coming back for more. In terms of difficulty, Nightshade has the potential to offend the hardcore fraternity. Whereas death in Shinobi would place you right back at the beginning of a level, Nightshade offers a mid-point resurrection (depending on where you’d saved throughout the levels). The ability to wall-walk has also been extended to include almost all surfaces, making those bottomless chasm leaps just a bit more user-friendly. Gone too is the hunger of ‘Akujiki’ – meaning that players can quite happily neglect to kill all enemies on screen and progress to the next area. Of course, a certain quota must be met to open up the next portion, but it’s not nearly the same as having the compulsion to engage the evil sword. It is as challenging as ever, though, to achieve ‘A’ grades throughout and the three difficulty levels should provide enough tweaking for the masochist. Unfortunately, the praise must end there.

Overworks has not improved on the graphical shortcomings of Shinobi by one iota. The visuals would not have turned heads on the Dreamcast and certainly deserve to be noticed on Sony’s more powerful machine. Character models lurch around unconvincingly and do little to excite the imagination; the player-model particularly annoys as she is unable to respond to further commands until the current animation has been completed. Indeed, after swinging her trusty katana, Kunoichi is left prone for just long enough to receive punishment from her opportunistic enemies – most frustrating. And not aided at all by lacklustre environments which so often default to generic passageways and streets – only underground do the levels hold together with something approaching cohesion; the shimmering Tokyo of the cut-scenes is nowhere to be seen once into the game.

Amputating the retro-cool tunes of Shinobi and grafting on a mixed bag of dance and ambient ditties was not an entirely successful operation, and has left much of the game limping as a result. The occasional track does get it right, and as previously mentioned contributes greatly to the on-screen synergy, but sadly this is all too rare. The largely acceptable voice-acting is also marred by the irritating Americanised whine of the schoolgirl heroine; when subtitles are provided throughout it is something of a mystery as to why the original Japanese audio was not retained. Perhaps this is yet another example of how the atmosphere of Shinobi has been tweaked and ever so slightly spoiled.

Neither an outright improvement nor a disappointment (when compared with Shinobi), it comes down to this: if you are satisfied with a ‘C’ grade for completion, it will be hard to look beyond Nightshade’s extremely modest presentation in order to unlock the scintillating challenge that lies beneath. If you have the yearning, however, it may be advisable to seek out another of Sega’s recent offerings – the lavishly-presented, highly-atmospheric originality of Otogi.

Gamestyle Score: 6/10

Wreckless

Gamestyle Archive intro: Apologies for the downtime recently, but now the Archive is back and we’re in March 2002 with Chris about to take us on a tour in this wrecking experience.

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The generic name ‘Driving game’ has become a label for many different games with wildly differing requirements. There are straight first past-the-post racing (Gran Turismo), racing around cities perfoming tasks (Driver) games that use realistic physics and rules (Ferrari F355) and those that don’t (Midtown Madness).

The recipe for Wreckless is one city, fleshed out and populated and trafficated, where you play as either elite cops (known as the Dragons) or spies, both vying to take down the Hong Kong mafia- the Yakuza. So far, so like Driver. Add in some Midtown Madness-esque physics, such as the ability to take out a bus with a mini, and cook for the Xbox at launch. Put portion in fridge, and unwrap at Christmas for PS2. Check recipe again, and cook another helping of portions for this edition, but bear in mind that the outer cover won’t look as good as it once did. Serve liberally, for one to two eaters.

Wreckless is a fast and a furious game which requires you to drive at high speeds through a Hong Kong styled city with little regard for its populous. Scenery, citizens, cars- they’re all tyre fodder. Buildings and concrete walls will stop you, but everything else is more of a distraction than a barrier. The citizens do get in your way though there is no GTA-style blood, they just scream a bit and roll over your bonnet. Forget them though- your car doesn’t take any damage, so crashing and hit n’ runs are okay. In Wreckless, slapstick rules ok. I’ve mentioned quite a few generic comparatives, and to describe the gameplay here’s another one; Smuggler’s Run in Hong Kong, which is what most of the action comes to. You chase cars and ram into them and then have to do something else. There’s a lot of imagination and variation that has gone into the levels to reduce repetitive actions. You’ll chase cars for stolen number plates, race accross town with blood for the hospital, find your superior’s broken down car in the sewers, engage in a late night street race and destroy trash cans on the top of a huge dumper truck.

The sewer level is worth the asking price alone, bearing more resemblance to a platformer than a racing level and marking perhaps the most diverse objective. Many of the others require you to learn the layout of the city, while others restrict you to a specific path. This is made more difficult by the mini-map in the corner of your screen being the main form of navigation, and not an entire city map as in Driver. The other form of navigation is the straight line arrow, which Crazy Taxi veterans will atest, is not to be trusted. On levels with multiple targets it doesn’t know which to choose from, and the nearest is not always the most logical. With experience of the city, you’ll learn the shortcuts and back alleys, yet you have to learn the hard way. There are double the number of missions than the Xbox version including sub-missions on every level.

The bonus missions are unlocked after you beat the ‘hard’ levels, and they reward you with a selection of cheats and bonus cars. Eight two-player levels are available for versus and co-operative play, such as a Speed rip-off. These are played without split screen, which is a novel, if not bizarre idea. Initially it is confusing, and it means that not all the levels work- especially the strange (and mainly unhelpful) rolling starts in some levels- yet it adds a further reason to play. In fact the game seems to have had an entire overhaul from it’s Xbox incarnation (see review here) and it’s for the better.

The handling is great, the controls are responsive and the play screen less cluttered than before. If you want to count a list of games that are superior on PS2 than Xbox then Wreckless will be on it. Graphically it’s very impressive, showing many objects onscreen without slowdown, though sometimes the visual cacophany is too much and your eyes will care not for the many cars, obstacles and visual effects that almost overbear the game. It’s well presented with cut scenes which are well animated, though annoyingly voiced. Be warned, the game takes an exorborant time to load. The gameplay isn’t especially deep and the arcade aspects may put some people off, though fans of Crazy Taxi will be right at home.

Sometime Wreckless is too chaotic for you to properly digest it. There can be too much onscreen action and it blends into one big mess. The sounds have been well mixed and there are lots of toppings. It won’t fill you up and is more of a microwave snack than a main meal, though it’ll take you a while to eat it all- be aware that it is an acquired taste.

Gamestyle Score: 6/10

Naval Ops: Warship Gunner

Gamestyle Archive Intro: now this is a game I do remember as it dared to be different and was one of the more unexpected Japanese titles to receive a PAL release. This review dates from October 2003 and JJ.

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Initially, Gamestyle was expecting Naval Ops: Warship Gunner to deliver a gripping World War II experience wrapped around the tactical flair so oft-displayed by Koei throughout its history. How wrong we were.

The opening sequence of Naval Ops sets up a scenario reminiscent of the alleged “Philadelphia Experiment”. However, this time you do indeed travel to a parallel world and see what is happening on the other side. This new world is almost identical, except a war is raging between the Freedom Fighters and the ruling Empire Forces. Here, victory is still decided with battleships and aircraft carriers, but now abetted by modern weapons such as lasers and missiles (alongside more traditional weaponry). This mixture of WWII ships and hi-tech armament is prominent throughout the main story mode. Historical war fanatics will be thankful that a WWII option accompanies the main mode, but minus the story. This option removes the destructive weaponry, and instead provides trainee captains with depth charges, anti-aircraft guns and those tremendous 14-inch-plus cannons. With or without these weapons, the ships themselves carry famous names such as the Bismarck, and are scaled replicas of the originals. Brilliant. Does a floating fortress of 65,000 tons, with nine 18.1-inch cannons at your disposal, sound like fun?

Gamestyle accepts this is no realistic simulation: enough fundamentals have been altered to give Naval Ops an arcadey feel. These metallic beasts now glide through the water with little resistance, and the whole battle system has been given a hefty dose of laxatives. Confrontations are based upon a style similar to that found in Dynasty Warriors – where bigger weapons, constant fire and swift movement will result in victory. Any necessity for tactical play has been thrown off the port side, as Naval Ops feels very much like a first-person shooter on water. By this analogy, Gamestyle means the focus is very much on maintaining quick movement to dodge incoming fire and circle targets – pounding your opposition into the watery depths. The most effective view is the default third-person viewpoint, as the aerial stance limits the area displayed; whilst the first-person view (enjoyable for pinpoint accuracy) does not allow control of the steering at the same time.

The speed of combat and its ferocity are not the only symptoms of a simplification in the game design. For every vessel that you sink, there is a chance of a bonus item being left behind (found happily bobbing on the ocean). What’s more, during battle you are allowed to conduct a limited number of repairs, which fully replenish your health. In spite of refreshment strategies afforded by the various bonus items, Naval Ops is a particularly unforgiving and difficult game to master or, as Gamestyle would hasten to advise, to appreciate fully. The mission structure is partially responsible, as it doesn’t allow for deviation from its linear route – but at the same time cannot be accused of being tragically realised. Forty varied missions form the main challenge (split equally into four sections), but failure to complete the next mission will result in a proverbial scuttling. The rigid storyline does not allow for any branching either, and despite a promising opening sequence, fails to further develop or capture the imagination of the player; instead mooring itself in military action.

The critical stage of the game is always in the dock beforehand, where you can spend points on developing new technology or manufacturing/buying new parts for an existing vessel. It is essential that your boat is fully-tailored for the missions ahead, as opponents increase in numbers as does their class of vessel. The menu system is cumbersome, and only improves over time; however, for Gamestyle, this is where the true joy of Naval Ops is to be found. Being able to construct and deploy a battleship of your own design is the stuff of childhood dreams, and far more memorable in a videogame (package) than a plastic assembly kit. There are factors to consider: such as cost, weight, armour, weaponry, and more besides. The opportunity to build the weird and wonderful is enhanced through good performance, opening up bonus items and new opportunities. The ability to possess several vessels at any one time adds more freedom to experiment, alongside the ability to scrap them. It’s a real shame the level of work needed to reach this plateau is beyond the pale of most players – however, this is a game that won’t appeal to the mainstream.

Visually, there is little on show here that will impress anyone. The oceans are undefined, and the coastal environments lack any real detail; even the ship models are not nearly as impressive as one might have imagined. Conversely, there is no ‘fog’ to speak of, thereby creating an impressive draw distance with a solid framerate in tow – small mercies that again enhance the arcade nature of combat. Matters improve somewhat when entertaining the soundtrack, despite some average-at-best voice acting. The sounds of gunfire and shells landing are well-matched with the efficient graphical notes. Releases such as Naval Ops: Warship Gunner should be applauded, as they allow us to deviate from the usual fare served up by publishers. The overall concept of the game is promising, and Koei should be congratulated for green-lighting such a release. However, Naval Ops doesn’t know whether to call itself an adventure or something much deeper – underpinned with the trimmings of a simulation. This personality ‘conflict’ has resulted in a game that fails to match the auspicious concept.

Gamestyle Score: 6/10