Castlevania: Lament of Innocence [PlayStation 2] – Review

Ayami Kojima, the artist for this and many other Castlevania games is self-taught. What talent!
Ayami Kojima, the artist for this and many other Castlevania games is self-taught. What talent!

Castlevania: Lament of Innocence was released on this day eleven years ago. It marked the franchise’s return to 3D, after a pair of reportedly underwhelming N64 titles. This title also marked Koji Igarashi’s first attempt at doing so, after helming many lauded 2D Castlevanias (Circle of the Moon not among them). It didn’t surprise me when I found this game to be very similar to the GBA and DS games that I adore. The formula of those games was transposed into the 3D action-adventure genre, although at least one key gameplay element was omitted, making for a less addicting game.

But you're Death. Aren't you already dead?
But you’re Death. Aren’t you already dead?

On top of that, the combat system implemented here lacked much depth. This didn’t bother me too much, although it also didn’t encourage me to explore the full repertoire of the game’s protagonist. But, that leads to one of the facets that drew me into this game and the franchise in the first place – the stories and settings. The Gothic settings and character designs are second to none in the video game realm. This game serves as the chronological origin for the franchise so it’s a key game in that regard, and even with a small cast of characters, I found it to be entertaining and worth my while. It only took me six hours to complete, after all.

As I mentioned, the formula that the 2D Castlevanias are known for was completely lifted and applied to the 3D action-adventure genre, with a few exceptions… That formula – the “Metroidvania” formula – is often noted for its extreme backtracking tied to character development. Neither of those elements was on display in this game, much. There was a fair dose of backtracking, but this was generally confined to each unique area. Character development also wasn’t a focus.

The HUD would display much information. It wasn't overly crowded though.
The HUD would display much information. It wasn’t overly crowded though.

The castle that the protagonist was exploring served as a hub to about six other remote sections. There wasn’t much tying these stages together, besides a foreboding sense of trouble. Even the association puzzles that I infrequently came across didn’t cross boundaries. Character development of abilities wasn’t a hindrance to my exploration either, so this was somewhat unique among the more recent entries in the franchise. Exploration was limited, and very straightforward. Thankfully, the castle itself was basically a character; granted one with dissociative identity disorder.

Composed of about six distinct areas, the castle was diverse, but always atmospheric. The Ghostly Theatre, the Anti-Souls Mysteries Lab, the Garden Forgotten by Time, you might intuit their ominousness from their names. When they weren’t recycling the same hallway or large room that hosted a group of enemies, they were fun to examine. Especially when coupled with Michiru Yamane’s fantastic soundtrack. The Castlevania games are host to some of the best video game music, and this one didn’t disappoint. In fact, there were a handful of songs that I had to download to listen on their own.

Guarding was crucial to this game. It negated all physical damage dealt.
Guarding was crucial to this game. It negated all physical damage dealt.

The game’s combat lacked much ambition, especially in comparison to some of its contemporaries, namely Devil May Cry. The basic combat centered on light and heavy combos with the franchise’s traditional whip. Also at my disposal was a small amount of magical buffs and the classic sub-weapons from the original Castlevania. I was content to mash the heavy attack button through the entirety of my playthrough, and this was very effective. It didn’t have to charge up much and the increased damage dealt was always worth the effort.

I refrained from using magical buffs, as I only had access to one until I was near completion. Plus, I didn’t find the one I had too helpful. On the flip side, the sub-weapons were a highlight. Four of the five were directly from the original Castlevania, but they were more than a nostalgic throwback. They provided many opportunities to deal ranged damage, and each had many variations. These variations were fun to experiment with and allowed me the opportunity to explore that aspect of the combat system, unlike the lackluster whip combos that were gradually learned.

On the whole, the game's difficulty curve was fair. Maybe a little easy, but there were some tough spots too.
On the whole, the game’s difficulty curve was fair. Maybe a little easy, but there were some tough spots too.

What made this game less addicting than its handheld brethren was the omission of any role-playing elements. I’m specifically thinking of Aria of Sorrow, where the player character could level up and equip a plethora of weapons. There was nothing like that in Lament of Innocence – and the infrequent health/heart boosts don’t count; nor do the three other whips. Instead, any sort of character development was done strictly though the combat system, which as I mentioned, lacked depth outside of the sub-weapons. RPG elements were commonplace in the franchise at this point, so I have to wonder if their omission had to do with the transition to 3D or a focus on simplicity for the origin story?

Lament of Innocence serves as the origins for the franchise, or it did before Lords of Shadow. I believe that’s another “universe” however. Taking place in 1094, the game sets up the eternal struggle between the Belmont family line and Dracula. The amount of exposition was minimal on the whole, with lots at the beginning and end, but little in the middle. The cast of characters was also small, but each is given much screen time as a result. I have nothing but praises for the narrative, definitely a highlight, and well worth experiencing for fans of the franchise.

The cross was one of the sub-weapons.
The cross was one of the sub-weapons.

Most of the narrative was told through dialogue between Leon Belmont and Rinaldo Gandalfi. The former was the protagonist, obviously, while the later aided those who sought to defeat Walter Barnhard, the vampire antagonist. Leon entered Walter’s immense castle in an attempt to rescue his betrothed, Sara Trantoul. It initially seems as though Walter captured Sara to draw a foe into his castle – to hunt Leon, more or less – but in a twist, it’s revealed that he was being used by a surprising character, forcing the Belmont family into a future of vampire hunting.

Well, now you've done it Leon.
Well, now you’ve done it Leon.

Castlevania: Lament of Innocence proved to be a solid effort at transitioning the franchise into 3D, again. I was disappointed by some of the gameplay elements, but enjoyed others. The combat system on the whole was a little dull, although the sub-weapons were a nostalgic callback, and fun to experiment with. Exploration was also a little dull, despite the castle’s diverse composition. The lack of much RPG influence was perhaps my biggest knock against this game, but I still enjoyed my time with it. Perhaps due most of all to the well told story and mysterious cast of characters. Castlevania: Lament of Innocence is a worthwhile adventure for fans of the franchise or genre, but it’s not the best of either.

Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem [GameCube] – Review

Eternal Darkness Sanity's RequiemSilicon Knights has come to be known for many things, mostly negative. One of the reasons they became so notorious though, was due to their former success. Without question, Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem was one of the studio’s highest highs. A survival horror game, published by Nintendo for the GameCube, the game met high praises upon its release in 2002, and is still fondly recalled. I recently played through the game, and while enjoyable, I didn’t become a rabid fan. For all of its uniqueness, the game feels pretty dated twelve years after its release.

Alex discovering the Tome of Eternal Darkness in her grandfather's secret study.
Alex discovering the Tome of Eternal Darkness in her grandfather’s secret study.

The game’s primary protagonist is Alex Roivas. Her grandfather was just murdered and she’s now the last of the family. Edward dealt heavily in the occult and as Alex searches for answers to his murder, she becomes embroiled in a struggle between good and evil that dates back at least two-thousand years. Center to her quest is the Tome of Eternal Darkness. As Alex discovers pages to the Tome, scattered about Edward’s mansion, she is taken back in time and relives the struggles of her ancestors as they work to prevent the revival of evil ancients. This facilitates an interesting storytelling mechanic and a wide cast of characters.

I don’t care who you are, time travel is always interesting. Personally, I think of it in context of futuristic science-fiction, so its usage in the game was something different. Alex’s reading of the Tome was translated into individual sections of the game, where I controlled characters as diverse as a Roman centurion, a Cambodian slave, and a World War I soldier. Those characters, as well as many more filled out the game. The environments were as varied as the characters themselves. This is an astonishing fact as there were only a handful of settings. The locales were revisited through the ages, and while they were mostly identical, they remained fresh by virtue of the aging process and the period pieces I’d obtain and use in them; unlike say, Devil May Cry 4.

Hugs and kisses!
Hugs and kisses!

As the game dealt with many time periods and characters, the items and weapons I’d come across naturally fit the setting. Generally, each character gained access to multiple weapons, with the majority of them being swords. These highlighted the inventive combat system well. I had the ability to target different portions of an enemy’s body – head, torso, or upper appendages. I almost always went for the head as it was the quickest way to deal with an enemy or cope with a crowd, although striking appendages was helpful in many circumstances too. Besides swords, I came across many guns and long range weapons. In my experience with the game, these were useful against only one enemy and one boss. Don’t get me wrong, I could use them on anything, I just didn’t find them effective. Ammunition wasn’t an issue, unlike other survival horror games of this period.

Finishing enemies boosted a character's sanity.
Finishing enemies boosted a character’s sanity.

Another aspect that differentiated this game from its peers was its distinct lack of tank controls. No matter the character, I was able to freely move them about. Coupling this with what I perceive as an enhanced focus on combat because of the targeting system and lack of inventory/ammo management, and this game skews more towards the action spectrum of action-adventure. However, like games of this ilk, there are plenty of items to find and puzzles to solve. Or…, association puzzles, as I’ll call them. These are what I found in the Mansion games and Juggernaut. Through exploration, I’d stumble across something I could interact with, generally nonworking; for instance, a telescope missing a handle. Eventually, I’d find the handle, and putting them together, I’d be able to advance the story.

These types of “puzzles” were never too difficult, although this game stumped me more than once. Or, it stumped my friend and me, as we played cooperatively. Yes, more than once we flat out got stuck and had to source GameFAQs. In these few instances, the solutions were obvious, but for whatever reason, we didn’t crack the game’s logic. An example: playing an archaeologist in Cambodia circa the 1980s, we roamed the entirety of an ancient ruin not knowing what to do. We had examined a handful of spider webs earlier, which spurred the archaeologist to think they might be obscuring something, but we believed that a nonstarter. We thought this because it was clear there was nothing behind them when they were examined. WRONG. In his inventory, he had a brush that we used earlier to clear away dirt. When used on the spider webs, an important item was discovered, allowing us to progress. There were a few other instances of this, and it was extremely demoralizing.

The writing in the game - the story and descriptions - was so good. Very atmospheric and dark.
The writing in the game – the story and descriptions – was so good. Very atmospheric and dark.

My time with Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem started strong. An impressive narrative wrapped around an inventive storytelling mechanic and large cast of characters served well to draw me in. The unique combat system and strong playability were nothing to scoff at, especially considering its peers. However, the weak puzzles and sometimes confusing internal logic required to progress grew tepid. AND, there are sanity effects that I didn’t even mention! Honestly, I was a little underwhelmed by them because I always kept my sanity meter high. By the end of it, I was more jazzed than ever to see how the story culminated, but I was ready to finish playing the game. It’s still a very impressive game. But, it was more impressive twelve years ago, just like Silicon Knights.

Grandia III [PlayStation 2] – Review

Finally, I've gotten around to playing Grandia III.
Finally, I’ve gotten around to playing Grandia III.

Wow! I just went back and read the reviews I wrote for the previous games I’ve played in the Grandia series – Grandia, II, and Xtreme. The grammatical errors and poor consideration for the paragraphs is awfully humbling. I completed Grandia III this week so hopefully I can construct a better review this time around. It sounds like I generally enjoyed the lot, and made mention of their narratives, characters, and gameplay. I’ll attempt to do the same here, albeit, better. Like its predecessors, it was developed by Game Arts, although it was published for the PlayStation 2 by Square Enix in 2006.

Magic was broke up into four elemental affinities.
Magic was broke up into four elemental affinities.

Yuki, a teenager with a passion for flying airplanes is the primary protagonist, and the element of flight plays a large part in the narrative, at least early on. Before too long though, the greater narrative kicks in. This, after Yuki and his mother Miranda encounter Alfina, another teenager, although one who’s able to communicate with the guardians of their world. Emellious, her twin brother shares this ability but, disillusioned, he seeks to destroy the guardians and revive Xorn, an evil guardian who he believes will bring about a world of crystalline harmony. As a result, Alfina is on the run from his henchmen.

As the narrative unfolded over the forty hours I spent with the game, the element of love kept appearing. Indeed, love no matter what the circumstance was the moral of Grandia III. It was illustrated in many instances, but no more powerful than the love Alfina had for Emellious, despite his actions. Up to their final confrontation, Alfina’s unyielding love for Emellious was the key to the protagonists’ eventual success. In the final cutscenes and battle, this aspect grew cheesy and I wouldn’t have been surprised if “All You Need Is Love” began playing over the credits.

There was a world map, but it was barely seen.
There was a world map, but it was barely seen.

What drew me to the series originally was the fast-paced battle system, and this game has the best in the series.  The battle system is turn-based at its core but the leverage I was given in my actions and the quick pace do much to make it entertaining. In regards to the previous games, the only addition is the aerial combo. They didn’t amount to much extra damage, but were fun to strive for. Like in previous games, I used all of the magic and special attacks that were available to me; this, because they improved through their use, or improved correlating stats of the characters. Even having to grind levels for a few hours wasn’t so bad. In fact, I could trust the CPU-controlled characters enough to play a few Game Boy games during battles.

On-field enemies are still the route to battles.
On-field enemies are still the route to battles.

Grandia III is an expertly crafted JRPG. The narrative was entertaining enough to keep me interested, although it contained plenty of genre clichés. Some of the characters were cardboard cutouts from other games in the genre, heck even from earlier entries in the series. And the presentation of the struggle between good and evil was very simple. But the battle system is one of the genre’s best. The fast-paced nature made it feel more like a real-time battle system and I can’t get enough of those. Coupled with the continual stat and gear improvements that the genre is known for, it proved to be a worthwhile journey.

Battle Unit Zeoth [Game Boy] – Review

Lacking the box and manual, I can only assume this game is about saving the Earth.
Lacking the box and manual, I can only assume this game is about saving the Earth.

With Kirby’s Dream Land beaten and SolarStriker finished, I turned my attention to Battle Unit Zeoth, another Game Boy game, and like the latter, another shoot ‘em up. I purchased it with SolarStriker, and didn’t really play it until this week. It was developed and published by Jaleco in 1991 and perhaps thanks to this later release, Battle Unit Zeoth is a little more progressive than SolarStriker. I say this primarily due to its level design and it’s usage of infinite continues.

Piloting the mech felt good. It could fly around, or just walk on the ground or platforms.
Piloting the mech felt good. It could fly around, or just walk on the ground or platforms.

The game is composed of five stages. The three odd-numbered stages are traditional side-scrolling affairs, with the screen auto scrolling horizontally. The two even-numbered stages however scrolled vertically with my movements, but required a lot of platform navigation. I thought these were pretty unique stages for this type of game. Shoot, even the traditional horizontally scrolling stages featured a notable amount of verticality to them. My control of the mech seemed pretty progressive too, as I was able to shoot in all four directions, and with enemies coming from all sides, I often had to.

That being said, the game was made easier than SolarStriker thanks to the infinite continues. Instead of having a reserve of lives that would increase with my score, I only had access to one life. But, when I died I could continue from the beginning of the stage I died on, albeit, without the upgrades I had collected. That was an important loss too, as the upgraded weaponry had a much larger impact than it did in SolarStriker.

If you play this game, you'll see this screen often.
If you play this game, you’ll see this screen often.

Between the two, I think Battle Unit Zeoth is the more interesting shooter, design-wise. But, it’s also the easier shooter, which may rub some the wrong way. Still, being able to complete a game is nice, and games in this genre are very replayable. So, I think I’m done writing about Game Boy games for the moment. I am playing something on the platform currently, although I’m not sure an article will come to fruition as a result.

SolarStriker [Game Boy] – Review

I've got that boom boom pow!
I’ve got that boom boom pow!

So after completing Kirby’s Dream Land, I figured I’d make a kick out of this “playing Game Boy games” idea and keep the concept going. I acquired SolarStriker and another Game Boy shoot ‘em up at the famous (infamous?) Admiral Flea Market for a few bucks many weeks ago and barely played it then. It was released in 1990 by Nintendo and developed by Nintendo R&D 1 and Minakuchi Engineering. The copy I have is loose and there are no indications of a narrative in-game, although I can tell from a little research (Wikipedia) that there is some mumbo jumbo about saving the Earth. A story isn’t crucial though, as is usually the case with this type of game. What matters is the gameplay.

These are a couple of the first enemies, and the stages never got much tougher than this.
These are a couple of the first enemies, and the stages never got much tougher than this.

All of the game’s six stages had me piloting an X-Wing looking spacecraft vertically towards the top of the screen. The enemies remained basic throughout my sessions with the game. They always entered from the top of the screen, and maybe even the sides; always in waves though, but never shooting profusely in a bullet hell way. The game did grow challenging, although I was able to make it the final stage within a half-dozen attempts. The bosses were the most challenging foes (duh) and I thought the fourth one especially was a life-sucker; there were bullets coming from all directions! In my favor was a simplistic power-up system, although my weaponry never deviated from shooting straight ahead.

That is, excluding boss fights of course. They could be challenging, at least from the fourth one on.
That is, excluding boss fights of course. They could be challenging, at least from the fourth one on.

When I began playing SolarStriker, I thought that I wouldn’t get close to the end. But after a little bit of time and determination, I was able to routinely make it. So, it’s a challenging game, but not devilishly so, however… the naturally dark color palette of the game was an issue. I had to adjust the color palette on the Game Boy itself to a negative version of the default to stand a chance. There was something about the black background of each stage obscuring the enemy fire that I couldn’t get my head around. Like Kirby’s Dream Land, this was a simple iteration of the genre it’s portraying, but a fun one that didn’t consume a lot of time.

Kirby’s Dream Land [Game Boy] – Review

Wait a minute... isn't Kirby pink?
Wait a minute… isn’t Kirby pink?

Released for the Game Boy in 1992, Kirby’s Dream Land marked the debut of the eponymous character that sucks and blows. What’s more, it also marked the beginning of Masahiro Sakurai’s entry into game development (in a directorial position, at least) and the growing relationship between the game’s developer – HAL Laboratory – and its publisher – Nintendo. But, instead of honing in on those aspects, I’m just going to talk briefly about the game itself. In short, it’s a basic platformer that was intended to be an entry-point for young video game players.

Kirby's flight was unlimited, unlike in later games, I believe.
Kirby’s flight was unlimited, unlike in later games, I believe.

And short it is! After finding a complete copy at a local Goodwill for a couple dollars, I plugged it into my GBA SP late that night and wound up beating it there and then. After getting through the first two stages trouble-free, I looked online to see just how many stages were in the game. After reading there was five, I trucked on and completed the game, only having to continue once. After the credits, the game extolled a harder difficulty, but that’s not usually my scene.

One notable aspect of this game – while Kirby can suck up enemies, consuming them or shooting them back out, he doesn’t have his copy ability. This, being the ability to swallow an enemy and gain its attacks, wasn’t introduced until the next game, Kirby’s Adventure for the NES. Lacking this, the game felt a little empty taking my experiences with later Kirby games into account. Still, I was surprised to find that a few of the stages had a degree of openness to them, similar to the Genesis Sonic the Hedgehog games.

Many of the bosses will be familiar if you've played a Kirby game.
Many of the bosses will be familiar if you’ve played a Kirby game.

So, my biggest takeaway from Kirby’s Dream Land is its brevity. That’s not to say it’s a bad game, in fact, I think it’s very solid. Kirby controls great, and even lacking his copy ability, he still has many differentiating qualities. The boss fights that capped off each stage were fun too. And, I’d be remiss to not mention the jubilant soundtrack as well. It’s a high point for this game and indicative of the tunes the series would be known for. It’s a fun little game worth a half-hour of your time if you’re into platformers.

Arkanoid: Doh It Again [SNES] – Review

Arkanoid Doh It AgainMy interest in the Arkanoid series piqued after reading a Retro Gamer article chronicling the series. I’d never played a game in the series, although like most everyone else, had played a game like it. So, when the Oklahoma Video Game Exhibition came around and I found what I believed to be a reasonably-priced complete copy of Arkanoid: Doh It Again, I snagged it. Since then, I’ve played the game a great deal, enough to beat it, even. There were interesting touches to differentiate it from other similar games, although I eventually grew bored of it. The bulk of my time was enjoyable, but the times that weren’t, were tortuous.

The rounds usually were made to look recognizable.
The rounds were usually made to look recognizable.

The game consisted of 99 rounds with each one featuring a unique arrangement of blocks. Most were easy, usually requiring no more than a handful of attempts. However, there were a few, particularly rounds 95 and 99 that took me upwards of fifty attempts; seriously, like fifty attempts. These were awful and truly tested my determination to see the end. Generally, the tougher rounds were made so due to the inclusion of gray and gold blocks. Gray ones took multiple hits to destroy while gold ones were unbreakable. When these were used in combination, and arranged in specific ways, my success was based on persistence and a lot of luck.

Breaking up the formula were boss fights. These took place every eleven rounds and featured one of three bosses. If you’ve done the math, you know that means I fought each boss three times! This was a letdown, especially when I reached round 99 and sure enough, just a repeated boss. To be fair, they grew tougher with each appearance, although nothing else changed about them. I simply had to hit them more times. And, as I mentioned in the previous paragraph, the final round ate up my time and patience. Eventually though, I overcame, able to walk away with the satisfaction of beating the game, and little else.

Two-player modes (competitive and cooperative) round out the game and enhance the replayability. Honestly, this is where the game shines, too. Playing solo, the game represents a near-perfect podcast game, which is to say it can be a little boring. Throwing another person into the mix livens the atmosphere and makes for a fun experience – specifically cooperatively. There is a level editor mode as well, but that’s not my cup of tea; and the game also supports the SNES mouse which seems like an odd bullet point, but it probably has its perks in level creation.

One of the three boss fights, and one of the two instances of Doh.
One of the three boss fights, and one of the two instances of Doh.

Arkanoid: Doh It Again doesn’t have a lot going for it. Persisting through the game’s 99 rounds yields some good times, but eventually, those are overshadowed by the hours spent beating a select few stages. I’m still interested in playing other games in the series, but won’t necessarily seek them out. Perhaps the biggest personal revelation, however, was the fact that this game came out on the Super Nintendo in November 1997. That’s so late in the SNES’ lifecycle! I mean, November 1997. NOVEMBER. 1997.

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