Monday, July 29, 2013

Metal Gear (MSX) - Go Ahead Solid Snake!

Note: The following review is based on the PS3 port of the original MSX2 version of Metal Gear as found within the HD Edition of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater from Metal Gear Solid: The Legacy Collection.

As I've said before in my review of Metal Gear Solid: Bande Dessinée, I have grown to love the Metal Gear franchise for its powerful storytelling and ever-improving gameplay. However, in my love for the games, I grew more curious about possibly playing the original Metal Gear to see where it all began. While I did settle initially for the text summaries of Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake from Metal Gear Solid, I still wanted to know how it played. It wasn't until more recently that I found out you could play these games through the re-release of Metal Gear Solid 3, which I was able to obtain thanks to Metal Gear Solid: The Legacy Collection. As I present the following review to you, I'd like to fully disclose that for the sake of completing it quicker to get to other stuff, I played on the added Easy difficulty and used a guide to help me get through some sections. Apart from that, I'm going to do my best to try and forget all knowledge I have of future Metal Gear games and review this one as if it first came out in 1987 (with some nods later to how the game was ported). Now let's dive into Metal Gear and see the beginnings of the Stealth genre (or at least the game which has had the most influence on this type of gameplay).

It's been discovered that a fortress known as Outer Heaven has developed a weapon of mass destruction known as Metal Gear, a walking nuclear battle tank capable of launching a nuclear warhead from anywhere in the world. In response, FOXHOUND agent Solid Snake has been sent in by unit leader Big Boss after a failed attempt by agent Gray Fox to stop the activity. The mission: Infiltrate Outer Heaven, destroy Metal Gear and rescue Gray Fox before it's too late.

The story of Metal Gear is actually pretty simple and straight-forward. In the time it takes to complete the mission, codenamed Intrude N313, the story is crystal clear and easy to digest. There's no real meat to it however as Gray Fox barely plays a role in the events, plus a side story that pops up ends up taking more prominence. Still, there's no confusion involved and it's simplicity is definitely not a weak point. The only surprise is a major twist at the end, which has some interesting foreshadowing through a couple of codec conversations, including one which breaks the fourth wall, leading up to a legitimate shocker. Basically, the story manages to not get in the way of the gameplay, but it's nice that they thought of a clear beginning, middle and end that satisfies everyone by tying itself up and not leaving out any important information. A stinger at the end credits hints at the story continuing beyond the ending, which seems like interesting material for a sequel.

The titular Metal Gear.

Playing the game is also easy to understand, since there aren't that many buttons required to play. Solid Snake has access to both an items menu and a weapons menu, each mapped to their own button and easy to navigate and switch between. While I do like the ease of access, and how selecting is just simply going through an implied grid, I do have to question how the items are laid out. As soon as you get a new item, it takes up the next spot down on the grid, no questions asked. I did get used to this system, but it still felt a bit awkward at times having to try and select items like the key cards when they are sometimes so far apart from each other, especially when I'm in a situation where the availability of the item is paramount. Similarly, the codec menu is easy to use and you can even access numbers without having to manually dial them in, but it's a little too easy to accidentally skip an important piece of text and there's one character who you are told to call, but his number isn't listed anywhere or said by anyone at all, which forces you to either fiddle around with the codec to find it out manually or wait for him to contact you much later so you can save it. Also, there are only specific rooms in which you can use the codec. While this is odd but not much of a problem, it gets a little annoying when you trigger the exact same codec calls just by making it back to the same screen it first appeared. It should be noted that there is a certain character who you must contact in order to beat the game, meaning that if you screw up in the requirements to contact them, you're out of luck.

As for what applies to Snake's mission, the game manages to be a combination of easy to learn but hard to master. The main element is sneaking past the guards, though you aren't really penalized except in rank for having to take some of them out (sometimes unavoidably). The weapons are easy to use and aiming is precise, since you only aim in four directions anyway, but sneaking is also made pretty easy since the guards operate on a line-of-sight basis, meaning you can be right next to them as long as one doesn't notice you're there. Level design is also good, the screen-based programming allowing for complex yet visually distinctive areas and plenty of room to lay traps for Snake to overcome, including infrared lasers and pitfalls. However, there are plenty of secret areas which require you to know where exactly to punch before planting an explosive against particular walls. It can get frustrating to locate these, since finding them is pretty much required to beat the game. Going through doors also sometimes requires you to be in a room filled with gas, meaning that you can take unavoidable damage, even if you do your best to minimize it.

Solid Snake (middle) avoiding detection from guards.

Even if you end up using a guide, however, a degree of challenge is still present. Getting around the traps takes patience and occasionally quick reflexes that a guide can't teach you and the bosses require knowledge of their weaknesses, and plenty of ammo, in order to take down. While some can still be pretty easy, the fight against Metal Gear requires a specific pattern given to you, and even then you have to guess the final piece of the puzzle. I enjoyed the challenge because it kept me invested in the game and showed that they put quite a bit of care into the overall design.

I would also like to commend the sound design. The stage music is well-written and while it's not entirely memorable, you may find yourself wanting to hear it again later. Triggering an alert phase makes a very distinctive sound, while bringing up an exclamation point over a guard's head, and when you are spotted by a camera or break a laser, you know that's it's time to either fight or flee. Whatever situation you're in may influence that decision, but what's for sure is that you'll know exactly what to do. Each stage and environment has its own music, which I think really helps to diversify the locales. The sound may be on a loop, but it's a loop that may bear repeating.

Before I end this review, I'd like to come out of the past for just a moment to talk about the porting for this version. From what I was able to gather based on research, and my limited knowledge of the game beforehand, the script is rewritten to be a more accurate translation of the original Japanese along with other changes. Some names were changed, including making Dr. Pettrovich into Dr. Madnar, and they added an unlockable Infinite Bandanna and an optional Easy difficulty. There's also a Boss Survival mode, which is basically a boss rush that times you based on how quickly you were able to beat every boss in a row. The last one is a fun addition that I'm sure many players will use simply to test their skill on either difficulty without having to replay the game to those points. The graphics also look improved to some degree, though all it's really doing is making the original 8-bit stuff look cleaner; the retro glory is still there for people to enjoy.

When all is said and done, Metal Gear is very solid game. The story is simple but complex enough to keep things interesting and the gameplay mechanics are sound and are used to the game's advantage. I'd encourage others to give this game a shot, especially if they are looking for something fresh and new. Though it's not perfect, I enjoyed my time playing it and I can't wait to see how this develops in the future; this is the birth of a new genre.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Metal Gear Solid: Bande Dessinée (Motion Comic)

Note: The following review is based on the English Dub of the non-interactive DVD version of the Metal Gear Solid comic featured in Metal Gear Solid: The Legacy Collection.

Since December of last year, the Metal Gear franchise quickly became one of my favorite video game franchises, if not my favorite franchise, thanks to not only its complex story, but also the many issues and themes that the games have dealt with over the course of their existence. The games have also been able to elicit a range of emotions from within me that I normally would not display toward other franchises; I've laughed, gotten riled up over a villain, been bamboozled by legitimately shocking revelations and even cried at points of emotional turmoil since pretty much every game has been able to push those buttons at just the right time and used what it has to its advantage to keep me playing. For this reason, I'm going to continue supporting the franchise for the foreseeable future and play each new game as it comes out regardless of main character or voice talent, such as the upcoming Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (let's see how well Keifer Sutherland does in that one when he fills in as the role of Big Boss) and any sequel they might make for Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance.

It is my love of this franchise that led me to stumble upon information which revealed that IDW Publishing had at one point released a comic adapting the events of the original Metal Gear Solid. While I have yet to get my hands on the physical comic in some form, I did find out that it would be included with Metal Gear Solid: The Legacy Collection, a collection released specifically to honor the 25th anniversary of the franchise (I intend to eventually review the package as a whole, but that will take some time). Since I had gotten my hands on the collection the day of its release, I only recently decided to begin work toward reviewing it, which I felt this would be a good step toward doing. While what I ended up doing was watching a two-hour motion comic, I feel that this way of experiencing the story is rather interesting, but not without its problems.

After his location is discovered, a man named Solid Snake is convinced by Colonel Campbell to come out of retirement for one last mission. Shadow Moses Island, located in Alaska on the Fox Archipelago, has been taken over by terrorists, who are former members of the FOXHOUND unit led by a man codenamed Liquid Snake, threatening a nuclear strike unless they receive the remains of the soldier known as Big Boss within 24 hours. While he is sent to neutralize the threat, Snake is also instructed to rescue two hostages -DARPA chief Donald Anderson and ArmsTech President Kenneth Baker- both of whom were captured to help further the objectives of the terrorists, as well as locate Campbell's niece, Meryl Silverburgh, who is believed to be on the island. Snake accepts the mission, since not only is he the only one who is capable of pulling this off, but he has a personal stake in it after learning that Liquid Snake is his genetic twin brother.

While I already knew the story and how it would play out based on my experience with the game it's based on, I did find myself surprised at how well it was translated to the comic book medium. Events that are explained in extra material or hinted at in dialogue are integrated into the main plot, which helps give newcomers a better sense of what exactly happened without requiring too much exposition. I also liked the scenes they added to help make the story flow better in this realm; Psycho Mantis' card-reading powers would definitely have been too hard to do and what we get instead still works. Also commendable is how they decided to fuse both possible endings of the game together, a move that makes the most sense considering that though one ending is really canon, both characters involved survive the events of the game. For the most part, Kris Oprisko retained the soul of the game and his additions to what was already heavily preserved shows a sign of effort on his part to stay true to the source material with understandable alterations.

The FOXHOUND cover of issue one of the comic.

However, there are some things with Oprisko's writing that I'm not sure worked quite that well in the grand scheme of things. For one, there's a scene in the game where the Cyborg Ninja (Gray Fox) has slaughtered a group of soldiers in a hallway. While the game shows only the aftermath of his assault, the comic decides to show it in full. Admittedly this does make him look like a badass, but personally I think it was a little more effective when we weren't shown exactly what happened. The only other major thing I thought was off, I'll forgive the increased use of the word "bitch", was Snake's characterization. When he meets Meryl for the first time, he's a little more focused on how great her ass is, rather than learning more about her; It's a little funny that they acknowledged how important her body is to the events, but we lose a little characterization on Meryl in the long run. Also, Snake seems a little more harsh toward Otacon in this version, as he is now more prone to insulting him as opposed to trying to get him out of his shell or help him understand that the reality of war has more consequences than he believes. It's because of this harsher treatment toward Otacon that Sniper Wolf's death was a little less effective to me, despite the delivery.

Ashley Wood's art is very good. I was able to pretty easily read the situations, even when knowing them out of the game, and his approach to the Yoji Shinkawa character designs is very interesting. I like how the style was put into animation, which made the big things seems appropriately big and the small appropriately small. The technology is integrated well and he knew the right camera angles to show the action at. The animators also put it really well in motion and I enjoyed seeing the artwork come to life. While I was watching however, there was one thing I couldn't help but think of, and that's the feeling that his style is more suited for a horror comic. That's not to say that I don't like the art, but the combination of brush strokes, pencils and inks and the uncomfortable combination of the two screams horror artist, even if it was used pretty well for the tonality of Metal Gear Solid. This feeling came partly because I knew that at one point IDW was known for doing horror comics, most famously 30 Days of Night, so I just thought that Wood is most appropriate for that material (though I will stress again that I liked it regardless).

Since this is pretty much a motion comic, there was also full voice acting. The awesome thing to me is that they managed to have most of the original voice actors back to read the lines, which shows that they put more effort into this than something like, say, the Watchmen motion comic, in which one guy was paid to do the whole thing and it was horrible. The delivery of the iconic Metal Gear voices, including David Hayter as Solid Snake and Cam Clarke as Liquid Snake, is very much like in the game, though Mei Ling and Naomi's voices don't really sound the same, which could be due a multitude of factors. I am aware that three characters had their voices changed, those being Anderson, Baker and the Cyborg Ninja. Of these three, the one most noticeable was the Cyborg Ninja, since his voice sounds younger and didn't really suit him as well as the deeper voice from the game, even during his newly written, and awesome, heroic sacrifice. Overall I'm not complaining about the voice acting, since they stayed pretty true to how the characters sound in the game and the effort to get these actors to reprise their roles is very impressive.

While Metal Gear Solid: Bande Dessinée may have its issues, this is still a very good way to experience the story in one go. Veterans such as myself may notice more issues with it, but those who are new to the series, and/or see the original game as archaic, will greatly enjoy it nonetheless and the enjoyment would be entirely justified. If you don't wish to hunt down a copy of the 12-issue comic or play either the original game or interactive PSP version of the comic (subtitled Digital Graphic Novel), try and view the motion comic. It's about two hours long, but it's also entertaining and will give you an idea, for the most part, of why the game is highly praised.

Also, just in case you're wondering, I do indeed plan on trying to obtain the comic and interactive PSP release to see how different the experiences are from this version (and possibly review them as well).

Saturday, July 27, 2013


As part of the 2013 Summer of Reboots and Sequels, one movie to be released recently is not only a comic book movie, but also a sequel, to the 2010 movie RED, this one simply titled RED 2. While I really enjoy the original RED (it's one of my favorite comic book movies ever), in fact finding it better than the original comic book of the same name, I wasn't sure what to think of the announcement of a sequel to the movie. Knowing how sequels are usually not quite as good as the original, save for rare exceptions like Spider-Man 2, I was afraid that RED 2 was not going to be as awesome or funny as the original (A Good Day to Die Hard probably left a bad taste in my mouth). Fortunately, upon seeing the sequel, my fears have been alleviated.

While shopping at a Costco, Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) and his girlfriend Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker) run into Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich), who believes he is being followed. While Sarah shows excitement over seeing some more action, Frank doesn't believe Marvin and tries to avoid him; as Marvin drives away from the Costco, his car soon explodes. After attending Marvin's funeral, where Frank believes he is faking his death (apparently he does this a lot), trouble finds Frank once again as he is taken for interrogation. Meanwhile, a man named Jack Horton (Neal McDonough) is trying to get to Moses, with the intent of not only killing him, but also getting information out of him regarding a secret project called Nightshade.

The story serves as a nice continuation of the first RED movie and is actually pretty well-written. New characters are introduced well and returning characters have consistent characterization. There are also a few plot twists within the movie, but they feel like genuine surprises and feel rather natural, rather than seeming to come out of nowhere like other twist-laden films. While the story is very definitely nothing like the comic on which it is based, they managed to take the heavy (good) changes made in the original and run with them down a nice path. And since sequels tend to want to feel bigger, the story sees the gang traveling to different locales during their mission. One of these locations happens to be Moscow, just like in another recent Bruce Willis feature, but with the way things happen in RED 2, I couldn't help but think that this is how that other movie should have been written the whole time.

One thing the original RED was good about was its humor. Thankfully, RED 2 sees a return of its predecessor's brand of humor, having consistently great timing with its jokes to boot. Like the first film, this is probably one of the only movies I have ever laughed the hardest at, and despite certain jokes already being in the trailer, I found them to be much funnier in context. The jokes hit more often than miss, and their delivery helps keep a consistent atmosphere with the first that feels more fun, rather than taking itself wholly seriously the entire time.

Helen Mirren returns as the entertaining Victoria Winslow from the original RED.
Like with the first RED, RED 2 was, I think, cast really well. It's nice to see actors that return from the first movie reprise their original roles, while newer actors do a good job playing their parts. One role that I think deserves mention, based on him getting poster billing and playing a semi-major role, is Lee Byung-hun as Han Jo-Bae, a man who is hired to kill Frank Moses over the course of the movie. Having seen him in both G.I. Joe movies (so far?), while I'm not one of his major fans, I do think he was a good choice for the character he plays in this movie. As for the music, while it does its job well in setting up the tone of a scene, it's not especially memorable, though it is a little more memorable than most others. Also, although I don't normally talk about this, I do think its sort of a nice touch that the protagonists are often seen wearing outfits that contain at least some sort of hint of red in them, since it's a subtle way of tying into the film's title.

One last thing I think should be brought up is the opening animation and scene transitions. The film opens on listing some of the major credits, all the while showing scenes from the original comic in a motion comic style in homage to the source material. Unlike other motion comics I have seen, however, this one feels like its more alive and I applaud the animation team that managed to pull off something of good quality that only lasts for a few moments. Then there's the scene transitions; whereas the first one pulled off some great transitions in the style of postcards, the sequel pauses the last scene in a comic book style before transitioning to an opening shot of the next major country the characters visit. While it does take you out of the story flow a little bit, I still enjoyed the way these transitions were pulled off.

RED 2 is a very enjoyable unnecessary sequel to a great comic book movie, in fact being at least on par with the original RED (which one is better may be up for debate). This is a great recommendation for people looking for a good action flick this summer that doesn't take itself too seriously, although you might want to watch the original RED first in order to get more familiar with the characters. Fans of the original RED will definitely have a good time watching this movie and may end up laughing hard in their seats. If a third RED movie is ever made, I hope they keep doing what they've been doing with the other two, because whatever they're doing, it seems to be working.

And as far as DC offerings so far this summer, RED 2 is much more enjoyable than Man of Steel.

Batman: Arkham Unhinged #3 (Comic)

Early last month, I took a look at the second issue of the Arkham Unhinged tie-in material for the outstanding Batman: Arkham City. While it managed to be a pretty good follow-up to the first issue, its art could have been better, since the odd penciling and inking proved to be distracting. This issue, which is very self-contained compared with the previous one, not only shows how well Derek Fridolfs can write Batman characters, but the art is also a better step in the right direction.

Before I truly begin, I want to say that I am aware of the length of time it is taking me to review the Arkham Unhinged issues. The thing is, I'd like to review them quicker, but at the same time I have other things going on and plenty of other reviews planned, be they video games or otherwise. At this point, it's the best I can do based on how I've prioritized things (the DmC comic in fact was reviewed before this because it was a collection of a completed comic, which has higher priority for review than a comic still being published).

The story of this issue, "Ruffled Feathers", deals this time with The Joker and The Penguin, more specifically their relations from the latter's point of view via narration (this is despite Joker being prominent on the cover). Basically, a deal conducted by The Penguin for supplies has gone awry, thanks to Joker's intervention. After scolding his remaining henchmen, Penguin decides to explain how his "no clowns" policy came into being. The execution of the plot in this manner creates a pattern that is obviously influenced by the book originally being in three digital parts, but it works well for separating the story into a good beginning, middle and end coupled with an effective framing device. What motivation is revealed for the aforementioned "no clowns" policy actually makes sense, since it's revealed that it has to do with Joker publicly humiliating Penguin, as Oswald Cobblepot, at the Iceberg Lounge. Based on how Penguin explains this, I can understand the animosity toward Joker and its influence on his actions. I'm not quite sure what to think of the last third of the book, since I'm not sure when during the game that could have happened, but it does end the story on an interesting note that seems to be there only to cement this animosity. Overall, the writing proves to continue being good.

Thankfully, the art is also up to par. This time, however, there are two pencilers, Simon Coleby and Bruno Redondo, whose art styles seem to better match the tone of the Arkhamverse than last issue. Gabe Eltaeb's coloring is also good, with darker colors to compliment the atmosphere nicely. The only chink in the art this time, I'd say, is the inking. I can't tell who of the three inkers, Coleby along with Santi Casas and Cliff Rathburn, did which section, but there's an odd bit of over-inking that seems to emphasize the circle around the eyes a little much, as well as making Penguin look just a little older than necessary (yeah, he's old, but come on). Still, I like the art better and I hope that this quality, with a little tweaking, persists in future issues.

Arkham Unhinged thus far hasn't been able to legitimately disappoint me in these rereads. The writing continues to be strong and the art has only gotten better (though it did hit a low last time, so it's more noticeable). The inking is a little off, but otherwise everything comes together well to create a Penguin-centirc issue that is worth reading to understand what's going through his mind during Arkham City.

Stubs – Earth vs. the Flying Saucers

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) Starring: Hugh Marlowe, Joan Taylor, Donald Curtis. Directed by Fred F. Sears. Screenplay by George Worthing Yates, Bernard Gordon. Based on the book, Flying Saucers from Outer Space by Maj. Donald Keyhoe. Produced by Charles H. Schneer. Technical Effects by Ray Harryhausen. Run Time: 83 minutes. U.S.  Black and White. Science Fiction

Ray Harryhausen was such a powerful force in science fiction that most films he worked on are referred to as his films, rather than the director’s or an actor’s. Part of it may have to do with the fact that he’s the only name to survive these low budget film offerings. Not only were the special effects he created important to telling their stories, but they were precursors to the CGI special effects we have come to expect today in what are largely big budget sci-fi movies. No one celebrates the works of Fred F. Sears or names restaurants in animated films after Hugh Marlowe.

An example of one of Harryhausen's effects from Earth vs the Flying Saucers.
A year before Harryhausen worked on 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), previously reviewed here, he worked on this film, based on a non-fiction book about flying saucers. Like 20 Million Miles, there are space ships and aliens, except the space ships are not returning to Earth, but an invasion force, and the aliens aren’t large lizards, but mechanical-suited humanoids who can shoot disintegrating rays out of their hands.

Aliens that can shoot a disintegrating ray from the end of their arms. Talk about handy.
The film opens with a quick look at UFOs, no doubt inspired by the book it’s based on, Flying Saucers from Outer Space, briefly touching on the phenomenon and asking if we’re be ready for a battle pitting Earth vs. the Flying Saucers.

Are we ready for this?
The story really begins one morning when Dr. Russell Marvin (Hugh Marlowe) and his bride of two hours, Carol (Joan Taylor), witness a flying saucer as they drive down a deserted desert road to work. While they don’t have photographic evidence, only a recording of a report he was dictating at the time on which is the sound of the saucer, they decide not to inform his superiors. Marvin is in charge of Project Skyhook, a Defense Department space program that has launched ten research satellites in preparation for man’s pending space exploration.

Talk about a road hog. Aliens buzz the Marvins on their way to work.
Brigadier General John Hanley (Morris Ankrum), Marvin’s boss and Carol’s father, arrives at the base to tell Marvin that he has evidence the satellites have crashed back to Earth. While he tries to stop the launch of the eleventh, Marvin insists they are on a tight schedule and the eleventh is launched. But at dinner that night, Marvin admits to the General that he had lost contact with all of them and tells him he suspects aliens are involved. Soon after, Project Skyhook loses contact with the eleventh satellite. For the twelfth launch, Marvin and Carol lock themselves in his underground lab to watch. Like the others, this one crashes, too.

Above ground, an alien ship lands and immediately comes under fire from U.S. soldiers. While one alien who has left the ship is killed, those on board are protected by the ship’s force field. The aliens then destroy the base, killing everyone, except the Marvins, who are trapped in his underground lab, and General Hanley, who is kidnapped and taken aboard the alien saucer.

In a pretty good special effect, the aliens extract knowledge from General Hanley's brain.
Russell records an alien broadcast, but can only decipher the message when the tape recorder’s batteries run low and the playback slows down. He realizes that the aliens have come to meet with him. After being rescued, Marvin and Carol are taken to the Pentagon. There he plays the message for his superiors, but they have to wait for authorization from the Cabinet before they can act.

Dying batteries slow down the playback so they can hear the alien's message.
Left sequestered in his hotel room, Marvin contacts the aliens on his short-wave radio and schedules a rendezvous with them. Over Carol’s objections, Russell leaves to meet the aliens. She contacts Major Huglin (Donald Curtis), Russell’s escort, and the two chase after him. A motorcycle cop (Larry J. Blake), in turn, chases after them. All arrive at the designated meeting place one right after the other. The saucer is already there and invites all of them onboard.

After the saucer takes off, a disembodied voice (Paul Frees) tells them that the satellites were shot down because they were considered to be weapons. The voice continues to tell them that the saucers now encircling the globe are survivors of a dead solar system. The voice further demands that it meet with world leaders in 56 days in Washington to discuss their occupation of Earth. Just then a zombie-like General Hanley appears. The aliens have managed to extract knowledge from his brain and stored it in their memory banks. Russell agrees to deliver the aliens' message and the saucer lands. He, Joan and Huglin are released, but the policeman and the General are not so lucky.

Because flying saucers are impervious to conventional weapons, upon returning to the Pentagon, Russell suggests the development of a new type of weapon to use against them. He works feverishly on a prototype of a high-wave frequency ray that would disrupt the flying saucer’s magnetic field. While they’re testing it, a spy device, which looks like the spot from a flashlight, flies about the room. Huglin shoots it down, but they decide it’s time to get the prototype to Washington before the aliens figure out what the scientists are up to. But before they get too far, a flying saucer arrives at the lab, letting out three aliens to investigate.

Aliens arrive at their lab right after Marvin and his group vacate with their new prototype.
Huglin shoots one of the aliens when he wanders away from the ship’s protective force field.  When the scientists remove the helmet of the suit, they see that the aliens are really shriveled up humanoids.

What the aliens look like without their masks.
Taking off again, the saucer uses its own disintegrating ray to destroy the bomber sent to give the scientists cover. Next the aliens throw out General Hanley and the policeman, who fall to their deaths.

Like their crew, the flying saucers also shoot a disintegrating ray.
Back at the Pentagon, the alien’s suit is analyzed. Made of what is described as frozen electricity, the helmet gives the aliens super hearing and sight. They start to decode the aliens' plan of attack, when a voice announces to the world that in nine days violent explosions on the sun will signal the start of the alien invasion. With the deadline approaching, Russell works to perfect the new weapon and Washington D.C. is ordered to be evacuated.

Look at me, I'm an alien. Marvin tries on one of their helmets.
Right on schedule, nine days later, as predicted, the violent solar eruptions lead to storms that disrupt all means of transportation and communication. The mass evacuation doesn’t occur as planned as a result.

I've never heard of solar activity causing floods before.
Alien ships arrive in Washington, London, Paris and Moscow and begin to destroy everything and everyone in their path. But Russell arrives in Washington with a convoy of trucks equipped with the new interference weapon and begin to shoot the saucers down. The Washington Monument, the Supreme Court, Union Station and finally the U.S. Capitol all sustain damage during the raid, but the Earth manages to defeat the flying saucers.
Nobody was a fan of Congress even back then.
The film ends with Russell and Carol finally celebrating their honeymoon and the end of the danger.

Flying saucers and fifties’ sci-fi films go together like milk and cookies. Before Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, several classic sci-fi invaders from space movies had already been released including Flying Disc from Mars (1950), The Flying Saucer (1950), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The Thing From Another World (1951), Invaders from Mars (1953), It Came From Outer Space (1953), The War of the Worlds (1953), Killers from Space (1954) and This Island Earth (1955) to name a few. The best of these, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Thing From Another World, The War of the Worlds and This Island Earth, are considered classics of the genre. Unfortunately, Earth vs. The Flying Saucers isn’t one of them.

This feels like the twentieth zombie movie or umpteenth TV series featuring vampires, in that it is following a trend and not breaking any new ground. Even Ray Harryhausen’s special effects aren’t good enough to make this a really memorable film. There really isn’t anything unique about the premise, the location, the characters or the conclusion. While the film shows that man is resourceful and will not go quietly into the dark night, even when faced with a superior enemy, so do a lot of other films. To me this comes off as a poor man’s variation on The Day the Earth Stood Still, except that instead of being misunderstood, the aliens are definitely out to do us harm.

Now watching a film like this does have some interesting images. The computer, though they don’t actually call it one, that helps translate the alien language is archaic now as it might have seemed modern then.

Modern science in action.
While this film will appeal to diehard fans of fifties sci-fi and of Ray Harryhausen’s stop motion animation, there are better examples of both out there for anyone interested in dipping their toes into the genre.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Report from the Front: SDCC 2013 Video Game Demos

San Diego Comic-Con, when not physically and mentally exhausting, is an opportunity to discover new things or find out something more about your interests. Every year that I go I try to check out some of the games on the horizon, though this visit had the added bonus of checking out both the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One before these systems reached the hands of the public. This year, I was able to play demos for four separate games, so I have decided to write up how I feel about them based on my first impressions.

Preview Note: The following write-up represents only the opinions of the writer and is based on a work in progress. Should the final version be reviewed, these opinions may change to reflect the full game.

Rayman Legends (Xbox 360)

This is a game that I wanted to play after it was revealed that it would be ported from the original Wii U version to the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 as well, so when I saw it at the Ubisoft Booth, I knew that would be a golden opportunity to see if I still had interest.

From what I was able to play, which was a regular gameplay level and not any of the extra modes, I think I still want to play it. I’ll admit right off the bat that to some degree it feels largely the same. The assets (graphics and music) seem as though they are recycled from Rayman Origins, though this might be because it uses the same engine and they already had certain things loaded in to work with. That said, there are still some new gameplay mechanics, as well as new music and animations, to help it feel fresh and new while still retaining some familiarity. I’ll admit that I probably would have bought this anyway, but it’s good to be able to remind myself why.

Ryse: Son of Rome (Xbox One)

Let’s be honest, if you were never going to play on an Xbox One but someone gave you the opportunity to try it out for free, you’d probably do it. That’s how I ended up playing Ryse: Son of Rome as my second game demo on the show floor. It’s also how I knew I’d never willingly pay for the privilege of this game.

To get this out of the way, the Xbox One controller is great. It felt very ergonomic in my hand and there are some changes to help it feel a little more natural than the one for the 360. I wasn’t able to try out the d-pad, but the most noticeable changes were from the sticks. The top feels a little more concave with a very slight lip to keep your thumbs in place and the sides are textured to help out the racing game crowd. Microsoft seems to have made an already good controller even better and have it work for many markets.

The hand sanitizer market, for instance.

Unfortunately, it had to be paired with what may be an early stinker for the console. To begin, the reps were unable to say what the story of this game was (story motivates the player, guys!), but they were able to explain the short scenario that the game is based on. Also, the controls weren’t posted anywhere on the screen, so the rep had to tell everyone in line how to play. When I asked another rep about this later (he’ll be brought up again), he acknowledged this blunder.

As for how the game plays, it’s a little weird. I gathered from what the line rep said, who I will henceforth call Rep One, as that they were not only trying to capture the feel of a movie, but also borrow combat elements from Assassin’s Creed and Batman: Arkham Asylum. The other rep, Rep Two, reiterated with me that what they were going for was the “multiple enemies” scenario with some differences native to Ryse. While I was playing, I noticed the 300 influence Rep One talked about, complete with slowdown and camera angles native to a movie. It’s an interesting idea, but this becomes distracting when all you’re really trying to do is run across a beachhead to Point B.

A late portion of the demo.

The controls are smooth and the camera is good at helping fixed scenarios feel more real, but it was combat which irked me quite a bit. See, you’re given a sword attack and a shield bash, which is all fine and dandy, but when I talked to Rep Two about my experience, he mentioned something that I began to notice in hindsight, which is that the system they’re going for is going to end up trying to tell you the exact order you should be using your attacks on enemies, since after a while an enemy will dodge to force you to use the shield bash. This probably isn’t too much of a complaint there, but the one thing that got to me was the Quick-Time Events. It’s not their presence, since games like God of War can integrate them smoothly, but rather their execution. You’re probably familiar with how they work, press the button onscreen to perform a certain action, but somehow Ryse occupies a certain warped space where the rules don’t matter.

To elaborate, you don’t need to press a single button to make it work. I read about this, but I wasn’t sure that it was possible until I got to try it for myself. I did everything I could, press it correctly and then purposefully press a different button or let the controller down, and the same cinematic still played out exactly with no repercussions or incentive to try and get better at the game from failing (I apologize for not having video of this). This disturbed me, since I didn’t think anyone would be crazy enough to do that, so I asked Rep Two to fill me in. When asked about it, he told me that this was an intentional feature because “you’ve basically already killed the guy” and that a later build will punish the player, but only in the animation that they see if they don’t press the right button; he also mentioned that there would be a leveling up system to unlock more executions (ie. more animations). I also said that the Arkham Asylum comparison wasn’t right with me because that game was more focused on rhythm, but, again, he explained that they wanted the scenario and not necessarily the execution.

In the end, Ryse looks like it’s a game designed to attract the 300 and Assassin’s Creed crowds. I know that two people in line, a little boy and a man who pre-ordered the Xbox One for some reason, were both sucked in by these promises, but the intense cinematic focus and lack of repercussions during an execution put me off of this game even more than I already was. But hey, at least the graphics are really good.

Knack (PlayStation 4)

A while after playing Ryse, I decided to try and play a game for PlayStation 4. The line for Knack was almost nonexistent compared to the ones for Octodad/Drive Club and Gran Turismo 6, so I decided to check that out; it’s the one my brother wanted to play anyway. Since we knew that the PS4 was something we would eventually try to get from the Eighth Generation of consoles, Knack was a pretty good game to try out anyway, but playing it pretty much solidified getting the console.

After letting a television crew finish filming there (I actually had the controller handed off to me on-camera before they left), I finally got to have a good feel for the PS4 controller. While I still don’t know how the d-pad felt, I do know that the DualShock 4 felt very natural to hold as always. However, the L2/R2 buttons are improved to allow for the fingers to stay on even when sweaty and the L1/R1 buttons seemed to have been angled in the middle, presumably so the index fingers could naturally curve around them and keep them held down better. The sticks were also greatly improved upon, adopting a sort of concave layering to keep the thumbs in place. In other words, the controller is familiar, but with some elements improved to let it feel good to a wider variety of players. Also, the “Options” button functions exactly like “Start” and the touch pad is not only smooth, but is also a button that can be pressed, which I can see opening up many gameplay options for developers.

The console, this time enclosed behind glass.

While I wasn’t told the story, a rep did tell my brother about how a robot named Knack was developed by a scientist in order to function as a line of defense against invading goblins. The premise is interesting, but from what I could tell it didn’t really matter to the demo, which was cut off halfway through for everyone playing in order to keep the line moving. That should say something, since the demo was pretty long and lasted more time than Ryse.

The level design is very good, going for a classic platforming feel, and the gameplay mechanics compliment this. Knack sort of operates like a living Katamari ball, as he can absorb elements in order to grow larger and increase his strength. Knack was also pretty easy to play, thanks to the simplified control scheme which can allow kids and adults to play by putting most of the action on the face buttons. There is definitely a stealth element present in certain levels, but it’s done in a way that works for the game and doesn’t really detract much.

Knack is both a graphical and technical marvel, mostly in what they did during development to make it so accessible. I had fun while playing and I think it’ll be one of the first games that I play when I finally get my hands on the PS4. It seems like a game that would be fun for the whole family.

Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures 

(Xbox 360/Nintendo 3DS)

To my surprise, the Namco booth had almost no-one trying to play Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures, so while I waited for the 360 version to be free, I tried it out on the 3DS. After playing both versions, I’m not really all that excited for Pac-Man’s return.

Both versions of the game control well, with an emphasis on platforming and eating different types of ghosts while collecting power pellets, but it just couldn’t draw me in. I suppose it’s a little clever how they managed to use the different elements of the original Pac-Man in a 3D plane and it’s interesting how they introduced the ability to wear different costumes for new abilities, but again, it couldn’t hold my interest either way. Maybe I’m missing something, but what?

Maybe it’s the lack of a story to go by in the demo. I wasn’t really sure why I was doing the things I was doing, which is probably explained by the fact that it’s meant to tie into a show airing on Disney XD. Still, a little bit of plot would’ve been nice to have.

Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures is a game I’m not looking forward to picking up. This disinterest is not nostalgia or anything, just a perceived lack of focus and the fact that I couldn’t stop thinking about a certain other video game character for some reason while playing. Kids will love it no doubt, but it’s just not for me.

So that’s my two cents on the four games I was able to play at SDCC this year. Hopefully I’ll be able to play more next year and see what I think of the future.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

DmC Devil May Cry: The Chronicles of Vergil (Comic)

It seems that when a video game is to be released or has been around for a while, there will be a comic made to tie into it. The release may be digital, print or even a print collection of digital material, but creating a comic is a way of creating exposure for the game as well as a golden opportunity to expand on its events or world. Today, we will be looking at a comic created by Titan Comics to tie in with DmC Devil May Cry subtitled as The Chronicles of Vergil. For the purpose of this review, I will be looking at the hardcover collection of the print material, which spans a total of two issues. While there are comics such as the ones for Uncharted or Ratchet & Clank which manage to expand on the universe of the games they are written for, The Chronicles of Vergil manages to fail in this endeavor.

While I do try to provide my own synopsis for the stuff I review, I'm going to let the cover blurb take care of it this time if only because it does a better job of explaining it than I could come up with. "In a world controlled by demons, Dante is humanity's last hope. But Dante is lost, imprisoned far from the human world. Accompanied by Kat, a human psychic, Dante's twin brother Vergil must now attempt a rescue." Of course, the basic premise is nothing unless you can execute it well, but Chronicles of Vergil decides to go about this very sloppily.

To begin with the writing, done by Izu, the time-scale is a little screwed. It opens with a scene from the game that isn't entirely accurate (more on that in a bit), but then it jumps to one year later, followed by "Today", then two two-day time skips before finally ending with three months later to tie into the game. I'm still a bit confused by when exactly this is supposed to take place, because not only does it start with a conflicting scene that's clearly supposed to be lifted from the game, but then it has the gall to just drop a "Today" on the reader as if that's when the comic takes place. I still want to know: what is this "Today?" Is it the year 2013? Is it when I live at this exact moment? Is it Tuesday? There's no context to help out, when what they could have done instead was start off with something that says something like "One year earlier" and then gradually moving it forward to make the opening of the game "Today" so that it would make more sense.

The cover of Issue 2.

Then of course we have plenty of continuity issues to deal with, even just between pages. I decided to actually replay a bit of the game that events in the book are lifted from, to make sure that I wasn't imagining things, and found that for the opening, the environment and dialogue doesn't really quite match up, especially since it's implied in the game that Dante and the Succubus demon had just seen each other for the first time, not a year before it was meant to happen. The ending shot of the comic is another story, since not only are the situation and dialogue seemingly rewritten from scratch, since they don't synch up at all with the game proper, but on top of that it's shown to be nighttime when in the game it is clearly daytime; what makes it most baffling is the fact that the comic still has Dante as just waking up and commenting on his hangover (in the wrong place, mind you). I'm sure there are more, but these were the most blatant to me.

As for the aforementioned errors between pages, I mean this as in they were not native to the game or trying to recreate scenes. For one thing, it's established at some point that Dante is no longer in Hellfire Prison, which looks like it's made of ice, but then Vergil and Kat figure this exact same thing out later even though a man inside already told her. Then, when Vergil defeats a group of Onyx guards, they establish, or rather guess, the grouping of their spirits as the true form of the Onyx. Later however, they guess that the same demon is actually the body of Hellfire and that the prison itself is alive, even though they said the exact same thing earlier when Kat somehow figures out that the Limbo version of the prison is a living organism when she hacks into its brain to find out where Dante is. Confused? Then we're in the same boat.

The sloppy storytelling however can also be blamed on the pacing. This book was only two issues, but I felt that they could have expanded it to three, or at most four, in order to establish little details such as how Kat is able to figure out everything she can do despite being knocked out for two whole days, how she knows that Vergil will lose his humanity from using his Devil Trigger and how she gradually seems to know more about Hellfire than Vergil despite only being conscious for maybe an hour or two. Everything moves a bit too quickly and the sudden romance between Kat and Vergil comes right out of nowhere before being erased from their memories; if you're just going to undo it at the end, why even bother?

But what is a comic without the art? Well, the work of Patrick Pion is pretty much the saving grace of this miniseries, but only to a point. You see, the backgrounds are phenomenal and very well rendered. It really captures the feeling of both the Human and Demon worlds as well as Limbo, with great detail and art that is great to look at on its own thanks to the pencil look. I can see that they must have planned out where everything is in relation to each other to lend a greater authenticity to it. The colors by Digikore Studio help out well, with a good color palette that matches the contrast of dull and colorful present in the game, which I like. The problem however is that sometimes Pion's inking is a bit weird. It looks all right in some shots, but in others it distorts the facial proportions a bit or makes characters look older than they really are. Mundus, for instance, looked about 40-something to me in the game, but in the one shot of him here he looks more like an old man due to being over-inked. Trying to name more specific examples would make this go on a bit too long, but I think you get the idea.

This should give you an idea of what I mean.

One last thing: the lettering. I think that both the dialogue and caption boxes are either a little too small or contain text that is itself a little too small, since in some cases there is plenty of white space around the text. I don't know if that's because another translation needs that much room, but it just feels like such a waste.

For lack of better words, this comic sucks. There is an interesting idea here, being the introduction of Vergil and Kat into the world of DmC, but the execution is very poorly done. The pacing is too quick, the story is rife with continuity errors, even within itself, and there are plot threads introduced that either go nowhere or are completely inconsequential to the whole thing. Patrick Pion's art is the only thing that saves it, but it doesn't carry the weight of the whole thing and doesn't prevent me from comparing it to the Mirror's Edge comic. It's a bit better than that effort, in fact it's kind of an inverse of quality, but just because it's better, that doesn't mean it's good. If you really need more DmC, then by all means read it, but I think even fans like myself will be struggling to find something to enjoy.

Plants vs. Zombies: Lawnmageddon (SDCC Comic) - The Seeds Have Been Planted

If you've ever been to San Diego Comic-Con or read our post on it, you know that the convention can be like hell if you let it. One of the good things about it, though, is getting exclusives that you couldn't get anywhere else, be it a special edition of a toy or a comic book among many, many other things. Today, I am going to cover something from the latter, a comic called Plants vs. Zombies: Lawnmageddon. For those unaware, Plants vs. Zombies is a game series developed by PopCap, the same company responsible for the popular and successful Bejeweled puzzle franchise. The gameplay involves planting plants in a garden as you try to protect your house (and your brains) from waves of zombies. I've played some of the game before and I enjoyed what I've played of it, and I plan to play the upcoming sequel titles, Plants vs. Zombies 2: It's About Time and Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare (the latter when it comes to Xbox 360, since I have absolutely zero interest in owning an Xbox One). Getting back on track, Lawnmageddon was an exclusive $2 comic at Comic-Con, via the Dark Horse booth, and with the help of my parents, my brother and I managed to secure a couple of autographed copies right when they were running out for the convention (on Preview Night no less) and I thank them for their effort. I actually got to reading the comic last night, and I can say that I liked what I far.

The story of Lawnmageddon, written by Paul Tobin, follows two kids, a boy named Nate Timely and a girl named Patrice Blazing, as they deal with an invasion of zombies that emerge from the depths of the sewers. The comic itself is only 12 pages long, so I don't think I can say much about the story, but I do think it's an interesting set-up. The introduction of these kids to the world of Plants vs. Zombies may seem odd since there was maybe only one important character in the original game, Crazy Dave, but I do think they're good at their purpose of moving the plot along, since I'm not sure how else you can create a coherent comic out of a game like that (plus, there is actually an interesting way Crazy Dave is worked into the story). Either way, I think Paul Tobin did a good job with the writing from what I have seen.

Then there's the art by Ron Chan, with colors by Matthew J. Rainwater. I think Ron Chan does an amazing job capturing the art style of the game, particularly with the designs of the titular plants and zombies, enhanced further by Rainwater's colors. The new child characters, along with the other humans you see in the comic, also look like they fit right in with whatever shows up from the game. There is no doubt here that Chan and Rainwater did an amazing job in the art department.

Quick, buy it before they run out!
Now the reason I said "so far" and "from what I have seen" is because, when I finished reading the comic, I found out exactly why it was an exclusive: at the back of the comic, on the inside cover, there is an advertisement for Lawnmageddon being a digital comic, which from the ad appears to be a six-issue deal. I decided to review this comic anyway because of the way it was packaged as a one-shot book, but I do plan to revisit this comic later once it finishes its run.

The Comic-Con version of Plants vs. Zombies: Lawnmageddon serves as a good first look at the digital series and gives those that bought the exclusive a good taste of what's to come. For those interested in checking it out, especially if you are already a Plants vs. Zombies fan, I would suggest doing so, either as it is released or, for those who prefer print material (like me), by holding out for the eventual hardcover collection, which can be pre-ordered on the Dark Horse website. I think the print comic that I read is enjoyable so far, but as for the overall quality of the finished product, we shall have to wait and see.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Report from the Front: Comic-Con Wrap-Up 2013

One of the wonders of Comic-Con is that it can make four days seem longer as the experience can nearly break you physically and fiscally if you let it. While I can’t comment on any breaking news that might have come out of Hall H or Ballroom 20, I can let you know that Comic-con is not for the weak.

Kingdom Hearts Re:Chain of Memories - A Necessary Link

By the time I post this review, typed mostly in the back of a car, I will have come back from San Diego Comic-Con International (2013 being my seventh visit within eight years), an annual convention which evolved from Comics and other niche media into a Hollywood-inspired pop culture and advertising battleground. With apologies to Penny Arcade, I’d like to describe it as a Pandemonium Box, since the experience, though worth the effort in the end, is very terrifying in both the preparation required for the experience and the subsequent survival of the mind, body and spirit.

"Yo dawg, I heard you like lines, so we put a line in your line
so you can stand in line while you stand in line!"

Of course, what you’re here for isn’t the war stories I might have to share about SDCC, but the promised review of an RPG which successfully blends Disney with Final Fantasy, so let’s get right on that.

After the runaway success of the original Kingdom Hearts, series director Tetsuya Nomura was allowed to create more. The result was Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, a sequel of sorts created for the Gameboy Advance handheld. While I do own a Gameboy, I don’t own that game, so that is not the version I will be covering. Instead, I will be looking at Re:Chain of Memories, the PlayStation 2 remake of the game which was first released in Japan in 2007 as part of a “Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix +” package before coming stateside in 2008. So, in case the review title and opening image weren’t enough of a tip-off, keep in mind that this review is based entirely on the remake and that it is my only experience with this important and necessary stop in the Kingdom Hearts series.

Immediately following the events of Kingdom Hearts, Sora, Donald and Goofy follow Pluto in the hopes of finding King Mickey after disappearing through the door of Kingdom Hearts. However, they run into a mysterious hooded man who basically tells them to enter a place known as Castle Oblivion if they want to find the King. After entering, the same man appears and informs them that now that they are all inside the castle, they have begun to lose their memory of how to fight, so they will have to navigate the castle and perform combat using cards forged from their memory. Before disappearing again, he leaves a cryptic message that “To find is to lose and to lose is to find.” When the man leaves, Sora, Donald and Goofy decide to press on for the sake of finding King Mickey, Riku and Kairi. Unfortunately, the party is completely unaware of what exactly they’ve just gotten themselves into.

Box art of the original Gameboy release.

While the first game was pretty straightforward and dealt with the balance of light and darkness within our hearts, Chain of Memories decided it wasn’t going to do that. Instead, this game introduces the idea of memories within our hearts and how they affect us and our reasoning, with the result that it’s a little baffling at first to suddenly have this dropped on the player. I got used to this sort of dialogue after a while, especially after it’s revealed exactly what is going on, but I’m still unsure about how they’ve now established the heart as a sort of vessel for our mind and spirit, even if it’s excused by hearts being the central focus of the franchise. Aside from this, the story, or Sora’s side of it at least, takes many twists and turns as it establishes a secret organization operating in the shadows with its own agenda. The scope of their dark work isn’t revealed entirely, which is probably done to set up the next game, and while we are given some sort of grasp of the fact that they aren’t exactly human, there isn’t enough presented to let us know exactly who they are or what their goals are, but we do know it somehow requires Sora.

Apart from that, the game manages to create some good character moments, even if it gets considerably darker this go-round. As Sora advances up the floors of Castle Oblivion for instance, he starts to lose a sense of who he really is, which causes him to be an increasingly bigger jerk to his friends. It gets quite interesting to follow along with the dialogue and notice just what is happening through the ascension, since the changes are noticeable and eventually lead to a good payoff with some poignancy at the very end of the campaign. The villains are also set up in a way that we know their personalities, such as Larxene’s bitchiness and Vexen’s arrogance, but when any of them is killed in some way, you actually feel sorry for their loss, even if they aren’t completely sympathetic. That’s something that I actually like to see in a villain, not because it’s supposed to introduce a moral quandary, but for the reason that it makes them seem more like complete characters with hopes and aspirations in their own right. The new character Naminé is also one I grew to like, thanks to how she’s handled, though I don’t wish to spoil her role in the game so I’ll stop right there. In the end, I think that even though the story feels a bit incomplete, it’s written in a way that would get anyone excited to play the next game just to find out where it will all lead; I know I’m tempted.

You may love to hate Larxene.

While the story described above is something you can really get into, I have an issue with the story in each of the worlds you visit. The selection of worlds you can visit is almost exactly the same as the original Kingdom Hearts, minus The End of the World and Deep Jungle (the latter was made inaccessible after extensive programming due to copyright infringement on the estate of Edgar Rice Burroughs). Because of this, the stories play out in ways that are wholly familiar, though it plays out slightly differently to work in dialogue about memories and make that theme the central focus. Perhaps this was done to allow Gameboy users the chance to play these worlds if they didn’t play Kingdom Hearts for some reason, but after playing Kingdom Hearts, having to play through all of these worlds again became an exercise in tedium. While there are some things which carry over into the main plot, my favorite part of these levels soon became getting to the end as quickly as possible.

Though the story is overall pretty good, the real problems that this game may have lie in the central mechanic: cards. Cards are used in Chain of Memories for pretty much everything you do minus scrolling through menus, which is basically combat and constructing the worlds that you go through. Please allow me to explain both individually.

I’ll start with the world construction. At certain points in the game, you get World Cards, which determine the worlds that you may visit. You pick one World Card at a time and play that to completion; you may revisit worlds later, but any nonessential progress is erased when you leave one world for another. Once you’ve selected which world you want to go to, it is split off into a series of interconnected rooms. However, in order to access these rooms, you have to pick Map Cards, which are obtained by beating encounters with the Heartless enemies. The requirements can include specific card colors or numbers (or even specific totals). As a further bit of variety, whichever card you pick to form the room ahead will determine how your encounters will go, with effects ranging from stunned enemies to more effective weapons or items. This system makes sense to me for the Gameboy version because of the limited memory of the handheld, but I didn’t quite understand why they couldn’t have tried to use a different system for the PS2 version. If there’s one good thing about it, it may be that it gets you to keep fighting Heartless to get more cards. This, however, is negated by my frustration later in the game, when the restrictions eventually left me with a rather limited card pool that would take a long time to refill, especially since I got to this point at the final floor of the game. Then I had to reform the rooms for before the final boss because I left in order to get specific cards from an earlier world to improve my deck, leading to more frustration and card rationing because I was getting a little tired of playing.

The mysterious man from the beginning holding a World Card.

The other thing cards are used for is combat, in which there are a couple of mechanics in play. One is how cards are used for general attacks. To attack you select a card from a deck you can freely scroll through. After you select the card, you attack using its value, which can compete against a value of a card from the opponent; whichever number is higher wins. If one side manages to use a card with a higher value than the other, then the other card is broken and both the attack and accompanying animation are cancelled out. This seems simple, but the rules change when it come to using cards with a value of zero; they can break all cards and prevent them from being reloaded into the opponent’s deck (provided they actually use one), but they can also be broken by every other card.

If that still seems simple, then consider that you and certain opponents can also save back three cards to initiate what is known as a Sleight. The value of the Sleight is the total value of all three cards, which means that a high enough value will be hard to break by the opponent, though a zero card or higher valued sleight will also break the entire sleight. Oh and if you use a sleight, the first card in it will never reload into your deck unless you use an item card to place them back in. This system is something the game discourages, but is actually the quickest way to complete an encounter and makes the battles a lot more fun. Leveling up and completing certain requirements will unlock more Sleights Sora can access. Because of how the remake sets up the boss battles against the residents of Castle Oblivion, building a deck around these Sleights makes them more of a cakewalk, especially if you combine them with cards obtained from bosses, the most effective decks being focused around Sonic Blade, Ars Arcanum or Lethal Flame (a mistranslation of Lethal Frame). Sleight-based decks are very powerful, even against the final boss, and against the tough bosses can still have a degree of challenge that makes you want to keep going; unfortunately, it is only against the bosses that combat isn’t somewhat of a slog to go through.

Sonic Blade in action.

There’s one little caveat though that makes deck-building a little difficult before leveling up enough: every card requires points, including the enemy cards. This does make you reconsider how your build is done, especially if you don’t end up getting all the right cards to build your dream deck without grinding, but it also forces you to think a little economically with deck size and maximizing the potential of your deck. I was able to do this pretty well, but it wasn’t until near the end of the game that I could create something really effective, which was probably because my play style involved balanced distribution of rewards upon level-up.

Before I finish talking about the combat, I have a couple of criticisms, both of which involve a lack of explanation. The game tells you that you can switch between your regular deck and enemy cards at any time, but it doesn’t really tell you how, leaving me to fumble with things until I was forced to look it up out of frustration. The other is a lack of explanation on how Premium cards work. Premium cards have gold numbering and will reduce the number of Card Points that they require to be in the deck, but I had to learn the hard way that you don’t want them in your deck, since they don’t really reload when you use them. This severely affected how I tried to build my deck in the final hours of play due to some of the Nines and Zeroes I needed being Premium versions.

At this point I’d like to talk about the technical side of things, which would be the sound and graphics. In terms of how the game looks, this version of Chain of Memories appears to use the Kingdom Hearts II engine, which would make sense considering that it came out after that game hit shelves, but uses assets from both of the main games. The worlds feel similar to the original game if only because the textures are very much the same (there may be a graphical upgrade, but that’s beside the point), but the experience is altered based on the world-building mechanic to try and help keep these familiar worlds fresh (as a side note, I have no idea if the rooms you can create are any different from those in the Gameboy version). The final world is the only one that’s any different, but throughout Castle Oblivion I did recognize certain assets re-used from Kingdom Hearts II to create an aesthetic similar to one of the worlds from that game as well as to create the characters who reside within (the way I figured this out was noticing that the character Axel looked exactly the same).

Stock photo of Axel.

As for the music and voice acting, this is when the game hit similar territory. Almost all of the game’s music is recycled from the original Kingdom Hearts, which made listening to some of the looping tracks a little grating from repetition. I still like the music from these worlds, especially Neverland, and I understand retaining the feel of the first game, but I think I’d have wanted more variety than just some new stuff for Castle Oblivion, even though that too is recycled (it’s from Kingdom Hearts II). When it comes to voice acting, there’s something a little strange. Everyone sounds exactly as they should, particularly the Disney characters in battle, and the Castle Oblivion residents have voices which match both their appearances and personalities. The actual weird part however is with Sora’s voice, provided by Haley Joel Osment. I think Haley Joel Osment has proven himself as a voice actor, but based on how old Sora is supposed to be, it feels very odd hearing an older version of Osment voice the character. I got used to it, but I never thought it really felt quite right.

While this would be the point where normally I’d end the review, I still have one more thing to talk about: Reverse/Rebirth mode (the name is a bit of a pun in the original Japanese since both words sound like “Ribasu”). When you complete Sora’s campaign, you get to play a brand new campaign as Riku, which is an exciting prospect, but ends up being a bit disappointing until the final couple of worlds. The selection of worlds is exactly the same, but much like the Vergil mode in Devil May Cry 3: Special Edition, there’s no plot for him in each of them, which makes it a bit boring to go through them all again, especially when you consider that there’s usually only one Key Card to speak of. There is still a story centered around him, Ansem and King Mickey as he ascends the basement levels and the villains take an interest in him, though that was my only real motivation to keep playing at this point, even if it was written well.

Combat as Riku is almost identical to Sora, with a few changes. He uses a fixed deck in each world, which means that results may vary, although this means that he has can use every enemy card instead of select ones, and he can still use Sleights, but all of the good ones are only accessible through his new Dark Mode, accessed in turn by breaking cards with a high enough value difference until it totals the number at the end of a gauge. On top of that, he also gets a Rapid Break mechanic to fuel the gauge and a Duel system. The Duel system is very broken, since it can be easy to intentionally start one during a boss fight and when you win, a sleight is triggered that cannot be broken or blocked and always takes off a good chunk of health. When you put all of these together, Riku is simultaneously better and worse than Sora to use, though he was still very fun to use in the important fights because of his mechanics.

Riku in Dark Mode against Zexion (he can be fought now!)

As a final note, the game length is a bit different between the two modes. While it took me over 24 hours to complete Sora’s campaign, the time it took to beat Riku’s was only a little over eight hours, roughly a third of the time. I know through research that completing both modes allows access to previously unobtainable cards in Sora’s game via a New Game +, but I considered myself done after the base completions.

Kingdom Hearts Re:Chain of Memories may be a bit rough around the edges, but as a necessary stop in the franchise it’s actually not that bad. The story is well written and gets me wanting to play the next game when I can, but the card-based systems can be a little uneven because of how much can go in your favor when you just focus on using Sleight-based decks. The amount of recycling done to create the in-game world makes me wonder how much outside of voice acting wasn’t recycled in some way from three different games (I know they had to program everything, but that’s beside the point). Kingdom Hearts fans, at least the ones who are in it for the story and gameplay, will have to play this to understand what’s coming up next, but newcomers are advised not to play this just yet, since the franchise cannot be understood fully unless it is played in the proper order. I’d hope that it gets better from here, but thankfully, I already know that its future gets brighter.

Now I know what some of you might be wondering: Since I’ve never played the original Gameboy version, will I ever try to play and review that? The short answer is that yes, I’d love the opportunity to see how different it really is from this version, but the long answer is that at the moment I don’t really have the luxury since it’ll take a little time to hunt down a copy and then find the time to invest into playing it against some of my other plans. Until that point comes, consider this my definitive review of the Chain of Memories portion of the franchise.