Monthly Archives: January 2016

Opinions on… Mario and Luigi: Paper Jam Bros.

The sheer idea of a Mario RPG, or a Mario game set in a universe made of paper, are both something that you would be forgiven for laughing at if it when they were announced at the time. Yet with the benefit of hindsight both of these series managed to become amazing and grow in their own right; Super Mario RPG threw Luigi into the mix for a bunch of fun RPG adventures in various wacky situations, and Paper Mario did roughly the same, but each had their own charms and personality. Knowing the success of each, it was only logical to then team them up for a joint adventure; take the best bits of each series and merging them together could only be a good thing after all, right?

Well, the main thing that becomes readily apparent about Paper Jam Bros is this is not a Paper Mario game – if you’re coming into it expecting that sort of gameplay and humour you’re going to be rather disappointed. What it is, though, is a very good Mario and Luigi game with Paper Mario and friends tagging along for the ride. The main change this creates is navigating three people throughout the game instead of two, each mapped on to their own button. It’s a bit confusing at first (Praise be to the button that lets them all jump at once), but it thankfully doesn’t take too long to get the hang of it, and adds a new (second) dimension into things. Having Paper Mario in where this is most readily apparent – he can create copies of himself to attack more foes at once or soak up damage, and the team up with the others for pretty inventive and devastating power attacks. The simple fact he stands further back than the other two when battling is a new element of its own, meaning you have to time counter-attacks a little bit later than with the others. It sounds complicated, but in reality it all works rather cleverly.

Everything else in the game is nicely bundled together as well. This may be practically par for the course with Mario and Luigi games, but it’s nice to have this layer of polish anyway, and it’s also good to see some grievances from the previous titles ironed out. For example, the infuriating endless tutorials from Dream Team are all but gone, now replaced with a system where reading and learning about attacks is purely optional. Boss battles to me are also more refreshingly frequent but not overbearing, even though some of them prove more annoying than they have any right to be. Giant papercraft fights also add more into the mix – they’re nothing mind-blowing and appear slightly too infrequently, but they’re fun to play and mix things up just that little bit more. It’s all just good solid fun.

Despite these improvements and features, though, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the game overall is depressingly routine. Nintendo often gets flack for generally bringing out the same game over and over, and while the past few years and games like Hyrule Warriors are trying to buck the trend, predictability is out in full force here. Peach is kidnapped, so you travel to a desert world, then an island world, then an ice world, than a fire world…. You get the picture. There’s a lot of hitting X amount of buttons in different areas of the map to trigger something also, and not enough unique ways of pushing your progress along away from the skill you learn through the game. In short, there’s just nothing here that really tries to buck the trend, and make things really exciting.

The second problem I had with the game stems from the first, and that is the fact that eventually things start to get a little bit repetitive, even for an RPG. Fighting is the main culprit here – by the end game especially, the easiest and most logical way to win is to keep spamming your special attacks, all of which take a good 30 seconds to complete each time. Yet this is the best approach with every enemy, not just bosses – and there are a lot of enemies about. There’s also not a lot elsewhere to distract you from the story itself. Paper toad rescue missions are the main draw, but apart from the ones you have to complete to progress the story, I honestly didn’t see the point of doing any of the optional ones. There’s also a minigame arcade that challenges you to score big by doing good at… What you’ve been doing throughout the game anyway – and again the rewards don’t seem much. It edges dangerously close sometimes to falling into the category of being boring sometimes – but then there’s another fun little segment pops up, or a genuinely funny piece of writing makes you laugh, and the game manages to pull itself from the brink.

Overall, I rather enjoyed Paper Jam Bros. It could have done with a bit more originality thrown into the mix, and the lack of Paper Mario being much more than another party member could be lamented, but overall the game doesn’t do much wrong. It’s quite simply another Mario RPG to add on to the long list of those that you can gladly enjoyed whittling away the hours away on.

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Opinions on… Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer

If there’s a set of words that can sum up Happy Home Designer, those words are “proof of concept”. It’s an odd set of words to use, I know, but they feel remarkably accurate. This is due to the fact that the core ‘designing homes’ gameplay just feels like a test run for the replacement of the way you had to design your home in the previous Animal Crossing games. It’s out with the old irksome system, and if with a new shiny one – and in a big way. For instance, gone is the cumbersome method of using your character to shove around your items in what was the weirdest game of Tetris ever. Now, it’s a simple drag and drop affair with your stylus and everything is set with ease. Gone also is the arbitrary square room with little scope for personalisation – now rooms can be a multitude of shapes and sizes, and you can personalise everything from the lights on the ceiling to the curtains on your window. It’s an excellent system to use, that’s for sure, and one that allows for a good deal of imagination and (most importantly) fun.

Each resident you meet, you see, has their own wishes as to what they want their home to look like, and the sheer variety in their requests shows what scope this new system has. From an exotic country home, to a fast food outlet, and even to a construction site – there are lots of different design challenges for you to try and sink your teeth into, and there’s no real right or wrong way of going about them. You only have to go online to see one person’s idea of “a quiet place where I can reflect” may vary vastly for another’s… But they both still can match up to the request with ease, and that’s the beauty of the system.  You could lose yourself for a shocking period of time tinkering with every tiny bit of your house design in order to create a perfect place for your animal friends to live; the amount of possibilities you have left would still be endless.

You’d better hope, though, that the appeal of creating the perfect home burns strongly within you, because there’s very little elsewhere in the game to entertain you. You can wander round a small plaza area and potentially check out the buildings you designed, but there’s not much to do in them. You can visit previous homes you’ve designed, but all the purpose that really serves is to admire your previous good work and maybe take a screenshot or two. While the charm and personality of Animal Crossing is alive and well, even that seems dulled to a heavy extent. Characters, even those you know and love like Isabelle, have very little to say outside of anything that isn’t relating to house design. You start a day, you design a home, spend two minutes looking around, and then start the cycle again. That’s pretty much it.

The game also fails to provide you with much incentive to keep playing apart from that which you can create yourself. After the initial burst of unlocking all the additional design options and the ability to design unique buildings, there’s little else. Each house you design from then on unlocks an emotion for your character to use (which are beyond pointless) and a few new pieces of furniture, and nothing more. When you realise residents are pretty much happy with their home even if you give them just the items they have to begin with and nothing else, the motivation drains further. Being able to upload your designs and have other people rate them tries to create something to strive for, but the system is so flooded with new designs all the time you’ll be lucky if yours is even noticed in the first place. The game feels like it needs some sort of ‘approval rating’ system, or some other long term goal to strive for. While this would perhaps be difficult to balance against giving you unlimited creative scope, that’s a good chance it would have really benefitted the game; alas, it wasn’t to be.

Perhaps then, you can make it your goal to collect all the Amiibo cards, which are such a big element to Happy Home Designer they almost categorically have to be mentioned. With around 200 total nowadays, it’s a grand endeavour to try and collect them all, and they’re not exactly cheap either. Some may argue that it’s a shameless cash grab by Nintendo by doing things this way, but I honestly disagree; they’re in no way required to do anything in the game, and in my opinion (although yours may differ) slowly but surely collecting them is fun enough to justify the price. It’s got all the joy of when you collected trading cards when you were young, but these are trading cards that actually interact with the game itself and don’t just have to remain a boring piece of card. The potential to start swapping and sharing is there too – as is the potential to sell individual cards for ludicrous prices, but let’s not go down that road…

Overall, then, Happy Home Designer is a game that lives and dies on your willingness to design homes until the end of time. It holds an appeal for me, and I’m getting a lot of fun out of it, but if it sounds like your personal idea of hell it goes without saying you’ll do well to stay away. It’s certainly not the greatest game in the world – but if anything, its core design will become a key part of the next Animal Crossing title… And who knows how great that might be?

Opinions on… Amplitude

You know, there’s something to be said for the fact that Amplitude even exists. It’s a series that’s gone over 10 years without a direct sequel, one that seemed destined to only have spiritual successors in the form of Rock Band spin-off titles, which suddenly and without warning burst on to the Kickstarter scene. From there, it set off on a fundraising campaign that at many points seemed destined for failure, only for people’s sense of nostalgia to finally kick in and see the project succeed with only a few days remaining. Looking back now, it seems like it was always destined to happen – but back then the outcome was far from clear, with Amplitude at points seeming destined for obscurity. But here we are, with a new and shiny title ready to download – it’s just a question of whether it was worth the wait.

There’s no denying the core of the gameplay of Amplitude was, and still is, pure liquid gold – tap the buttons to complete a layer of the track, then switch over to another track and keep building up the music. It’s deceptively simple, but when the notes start flying at you at an absurd pace your focus has to well and truly kick in, and everything ends up boiling down to just you and the game. It’s not a lie when people say a good run enters you into a weirdly trace-like state, effortlessly switching between tracks without thought like a musical guru. There’s also a distinct desire to try and improve your scores, beat your friends and generally get better; it’s immensely satisfying to come back to a track that was giving your grief days ago only to effortlessly smash through it with ease. It’s addictive stuff.

It’s therefore even more disappointing that there’s a few tiny niggles in the gameplay design that end up souring the taste of everything. The most glaring comes from the incredibly tight timing windows that you sometimes have when it comes to switching tracks. The last note on one track and the first note on another can end up being so close to each other, the difficulty ends up wobbling between “hard” and “unfair” at unexpected moments. Switching between tracks that are on opposite sides of the screen can also prove frustrating; you’re expected to be ready for the first note of the new track you’re switching to, but there are points where I found I had no means to do this because I couldn’t see the note coming up – it instead being stubbornly cut off the side of my screen. It’s possibly a design choice to have things this way – with practice you can choose the tracks you play wisely to prevent such situations occurring often – but even if it a design choice, it doesn’t feel like a very good one.

The bigger issue by a distance, though, is the one most people online seem to agree upon – the tracklist. With just 31 tracks (one being Kickstarter exclusive), there not much room for you to dislike many songs before you’re left with very little you actually enjoy. With half of these songs also being Harmonix’s genuinely interesting take on a concept album, filled with electronica tunes and general surrealism that are unlikely to appeal to a general crowd, your choice of preferred songs has a good chance of dropping even lower. I personally enjoy the vast majority of what’s on offer, but I concur there’s a good four or five songs minimum that I am in no rush to return to. The end result is that there’s only so many times you can play what’s left, before song fatigue and boredom start to strike in a pretty big way.

How much you enjoy the tracklist, therefore, is genuinely going to affect how much fun you get out of Amplitude, which is a sense comes as a shame considering the gameplay itself is such pure entertainment. Although it seems unlikely, I hope strongly for announcements of DLC to materialise in the future; otherwise Amplitude is going to end up just not having the endurance that its gameplay so rightly deserves to have.

Opinions on… Need for Speed

The crew. Oh god, the crew. To me, practically every other aspect of Need for Speed is not as impactful as the five characters that form the crew in the live action cutscenes that make up the game’s excuse of a story. They’re delightfully stereotypical; the youthful boy racer with a short temper, the spiritual dude, the girl mechanic, the stylish rock chick, and the grizzled renegade. They’re also everywhere, coded into the games DNA so hard they’re impossible to shake off – they call you to set a mission. They call you to remind you of a mission. They call you after. On more than one occasion I had calls from them while they were racing in the car next to me. It’s relentless.

It wouldn’t be so bad if these characters had depth of any kind, but they really don’t. Any shade of character development they may have is immediately snuffed out when it appears – they’re only there to sprout lines like “Cray fish sick” at you, while chugging cans of Monster energy drink at a party in a dingy location. Even more surreally, all the way throughout the game, your character never say a word back; creating the oddest sort of friendship I’ve ever seen.  It’s easy to visualise a bunch of EA executives sitting in a boardroom somewhere, desperately trying to get in touch with the youth and the street racing culture, and ending up with this as a final result. It’s hard to know who they thought would find it endearing – the actual racing scene will probably find it offensive. The vast majority are just going to find it poor quality. In a sense, to me, it’s so bad that it swings back round to being good, swelling in me a morbid curiosity to find out how many fist bumps would take place in the next cutscene. It’s objectively bad, but even so, it’s probably the game’s most memorable factor.

Yet it’s this fact that is the main problem with Need for Speed – it does nothing else that is as remotely enduring. The closest anything gets is in the form of the graphics, which to be fair are a treat to look at – the city is lit up in a dazzling glow, bouncing reflections off the eternally rain-slicked roads, and a satisfying level of grit is smeared over everything via a liberal use of film grain and depth of view. It’s such a shame, therefore, that this stylish world has hardly anything actually going for it. Apart from a smattering of photo spots to collect (More of a chance for the game to show off its flair than anything), and other activities than require you to basically press one button to complete, all the world becomes is a means to get from one event to the next – which becomes pointless when you realise can just teleport around the map anyway.  There are no little areas or shortcuts to scout out, or anything of the sorts – it’s rather disappointing.

In that case, you’d hope the events are up to scratch, and to an extent, they are – even though most basically boil down to “race” or “drift”, there’s just enough variety to keep things going. One may see you having to drift close to a pack of other racers, another set the best time on a small circuit. Throughout each, the cars handle in a well-executed arcade style, one that’s easy to pick up and play. With the tap of a button and the brief twitch of a stick, it’s possible to send cars in a beautiful arc of a drift that’s genuinely enjoyable to pull off. It’s even possible to tweak individual car settings to formulate your ultimate dream machine. When it works and things are going well, it’s a lot of fun, the spectacle of squealing tyres and roaring engines enough to bring a stupid grin to anyone’s face. That, however, is when it works.

I had a bunch of problems in events that really managed to put the brakes (pun intended) on the real, pure entertainment I was getting out of the game. Some of these problems were simple, with rubber banding being one of them… Opponents slow down and speed up according to the situation at hand, in a way that’s so glaring it’s frustrating; on one event I saw the AI essentially stop so the pack could get back together. Other issues are worse; on many an occasion my drift events saw a perfect drift round a sweeping turn rewarded with absolutely zero points, only for a tiny nudge sideways on the next corner to suddenly award me with 10,000 points. Some issues are downright inexcusable – more than once during race events the map just flat out stopped showing me where to go in any shape or form, leading me to cruise along lost as the AI followed the invisible line perfectly to victory. It’s even more jarring considering these things tend to happen when the fun is hitting its peak; you scream down the highway at 200mph with the music pounding, only for the game to decide that’s quite enough fun for today, and promptly completely screw you over.

Overall, I would say there’s a lot of fun to be had with Need for Speed, fun I certainly managed to find – even if a lot of it came from just laughing at the actions of my crew.  It’s therefore a shame there’s a lot of things just drag the game down overall, and make it hard to sell as any sort of critical arcade-racing success. If you even get the chance to pick it up cheap, or even just try it at a friend’s house, I implore you to give it a go just for the kicks that you can get out of it… When it comes to handing any commendations out, however, this one can stay safely on the shelf.