Twisted Pixel has been making a name for themselves in the past few years for developing critically and commercially successful games on the Xbox 360. Their first stepping stone to prominence was The Maw, released for Xbox Live Arcade on January 21, 2009 via publisher Microsoft Game Studios.
The Maw opens up with a cutscene showing Frank, the alien I controlled, getting thrown into a jail cell. Riding in a space ship that soon crashed, there were creatures all around Frank, most importantly was the Maw. After the crash Frank and the Maw were on their way to freedom. They soon came upon these small, cute creatures, which the Maw happily ate. After eating a few more he grew larger. This trend continued throughout the game and the Maw became enormous. There were some creatures that also gave the Maw special abilities.
The abilities were interesting but they didn’t stave off the boredom that grew on me. I had to feed the Maw until we were able to continue on to the next area or stage and that was it. The abilities added a new element, break this or fly over that, but I still needed to eat a lot of creatures. I led the Maw around each stage as I attempted to find more edible creatures and this didn’t do it for me.
Throughout the game there was one aspect I really enjoyed and that was the cutscenes. They were told exclusively through body language and they routinely put a smile on my face. Frank and the Maw had a good chemistry and it seemed like they needed each other to succeed; one was the brains and the other was the brawn.
I didn’t really enjoy the gameplay of The Maw but it was short enough that by the time I got bored with it I was close enough to beating it to simply plow through. The highlight for me was the production. Twisted Pixel had a solid vision for the game and they nailed it. The visuals and soundtrack were comparable to a CGI movie and the interactions between Frank and the Maw routinely put a smile on my face. Not too shabby for an initial stepping stone.
Surprised by how much I enjoyed the Streets of Rage games earlier this year, I look upon beat ‘em ups in a new light nowadays. However I have yet to play one in 3D, disregarding games which feature beat ‘em gameplay but rely on many more elements, like Batman: Arkham City. Therefore The Bouncer is my first foray into a 3D beat ‘em up with a traditional, simpler focus.
The Bouncer was released very early on in the PlayStation 2’s life cycle. It was developed collaboratively by Square and Dream Factory and published by Square Electronic Arts on March 5, 2001. With Square being more familiar with RPGs, I assume most of the game’s development was handled by Dream Factory, known for fighting games with minor RPG elements at the time. Regardless of the pedigree, The Bouncer is a beat ’em up.
The Bouncer follows a group of three bouncers as they rescue their kidnapped friend. Sion, Volt, and Kou are all working when Dominique, a young girl who Sion recently found, gets captured by ninja-like thugs. As they search for Dominique, they get involved with a major corporation run by a megalomaniac named Dauragon. He is the root cause for their woes and they deal with him and others as they get closer to finding Dominique and unraveling Dauragon’s plans.
It took less than two hours to complete The Bouncer and I liked the pacing of events. Unlike an RPG which may resolve a minor story thread over the span of hours, The Bouncer introduced a few key players early on and dealt with them over the short run time. I didn’t know a lot about the characters, but I didn’t need back story to understand them. Sion had strong feelings for Dominque and wanted to rescue her. Dauragon had a complicated past that shed light on his reasoning for kidnapping Dominque, but then the plot in general snowballed into craziness.
Whereas the older beat ‘em ups are primarily gameplay with little story development, The Bouncer is mostly story with minor gameplay bits. I haven’t tested it myself but some say that 2/3 of The Bouncer is cutscenes, and that sounds right and maybe for the best.
I didn’t like The Bouncer’s gameplay. Attacks felt like one-time affairs that could rarely evolve into a combo and never be chained with another attack. I had four attacks: low, medium, and high as well as a jump attack. I never mixed and matched attacks with any success and combos were short bursts of the same attack dependent upon how much pressure I applied to the attack button; The Bouncer took advantage of the PS2s unique pressure sensitivity feature. I found that I could lightly press the high three times and get a nice combo and I stuck with this.
Because attacks felt like one-time affairs, the combat felt stilted, very stop and go. The same can be said for the overall pacing of The Bouncer. I’d witness a few cutscenes and then get to play, only to defeat two enemies and watch more cutscenes. I found it jarring how little I spent actually playing the game. Most of the combat took place in closed off areas resembling arenas with only a few stages requiring me to get from point A to B. Some of the stages lasted less than a minute.
When I did get to play the game I had the option of choosing which bouncer I wanted to play as. They each had their own stats that could be upgraded. Implementing an element of RPGs, I gained experience from each enemy I took out. I could then apply the experience to level up Sion, Volt, or Kou’s health, power, or defense, or use the experience to learn a special attack. I stuck with Sion and focused on boosting his stats and it had a noticeable effect.
The Bouncer, my first foray into a traditional 3D beat ‘em up was lackluster. The gameplay was rough around the edges, what little of it there was. The addition of the experience system is actually a solid idea and tied with the game’s short length and multiple playable characters, it’s conducive to me playing more of the game. In retrospect, maybe I should’ve given more credence to the pedigree, because at the time Square seemed more interested in making movies, not beat ‘em ups.
Figuring I might have a little bit of free time on a trip to visit my girlfriend’s family, I decided to bring along my PSP and a few games. Of the games I brought, Hot Pixel received the most attention. It was developed in France by zSLide and published by Atari on October 2, 2007.
Hot Pixel is really nothing more than a WarioWare clone with an urban theme. It sticks with the idea of microgames and coasts on that idea for about an hour, the time it took me to beat the game and finish with 67% completion. The core mode is broken up into ten episodes consisting of about ten microgames as well as a boss battle. Whereas the microgames lasted a few seconds at most, the boss battles were slightly longer, like a remixed round of Breakout. This isn’t the only remixed Atari classic in the game but there aren’t that many; I wish there was there was more of an emphasis on utilizing Atari’s catalog of old games.
One feature that I thought was inventive was the addition of playlists. Hot Pixel comes preloaded with many playlists, usually with clever parameters; they can be customized too. I can’t follow up the previous paragraph with one composed of two sentences and I still want to talk about unlockables, so I will! They were lame. There doesn’t seem to be a lot and the ones I unlocked weren’t compelling enough to keep me playing to see what else there was. I was rewarded with pixels for completing games, but they weren’t used for anything. I would’ve liked to see an abundance of unlockables and a shop where pixels were spent, but that wasn’t the case.
Like Mr. Driller: Drill Spirits, Hot Pixel was satisfying for a short period of time. I didn’t dig every microgame I played, many were too similar, and I wish the game played up Atari’s past more but the game was enjoyable nonetheless. There isn’t enough of a reason for it to be a primary focus, but it’s great for a trip.
A: Juggernaut is a first-person adventure game where the primary mechanic is solving puzzles. A great shorthand reference would be the popular game Myst, a less ideal one would be either Mansion of Hidden Souls or The Mansion of Hidden Souls, two similar games that I wrote about earlier in the year. Juggernaut was released on the Playstation in 1999, many years after any of these games.
Q: What is Juggernaut about?
A: The protagonist’s girlfriend has become possessed by an evil spirit (presumably the devil) and a priest has notified the protagonist that the exorcism he performed was ineffective. Telling the protagonist that his love for her is the greatest chance of removing the evil, he sends him into her body to rid her of the evil.
Q: Wait, what!?
A: Yes, that’s only the beginning to the surreal adventure that plays out in Juggernaut. Inside the girlfriend’s body my friend and I did not find organs and blood but instead a mansion; perhaps a nod to the Mansion games?
Q: Okay, but why a mansion?
A: Well I suppose it could be a metaphor for something. Maybe it symbolizes her soul with the rooms inside representing specific chapters of her life, maybe not though. Functionally it provides a great backdrop for a single environment that requires a lot of exploration and houses many puzzles.
Q: You’ve mentioned puzzles, but what’s gameplay like besides them, what do you do?
A: My friend and I controlled the protagonist and explored the mansion and other environments. We’d explore until we couldn’t progress any farther, usually because of puzzles, although I use that term lightly. Most puzzles seemed to revolve around finding an item and making the connection as to what it’s used for. There were puzzles that required my friend and me to get scratch paper out and think something through, but for the most part making connections was the name of the game.
Q: So it’s a puzzle game and the puzzles aren’t that great, why should I even care about Juggernaut?
A: That’s a great point actually. My friend and I felt the same way until we encountered an evil microcosm, what we were attempting to rid the girlfriend’s body of. The evil microcosms were one-off stories that featured unique plots, characters, and environments. The stories and dialogue in the microcosms were absurd! Definitely some of the weirdest stuff I’ve encountered in a video game.
There were eight microcosms in all. Two of them took place in the future, entirely on the internet via virtual reality. Two of them took place in an isolated prison. One of these featured a spy who yelled out karate moves before he attacked people, like “karate correspondence manual page 12, flying kangaroo”. It ended in a goofy/creepy five minute conversation with another character that had my friend and me laughing, and confused. Two took place on tropical islands and they also resulted in confusion. The last two took place in woods and they dealt with a ghost shaman from Africa and a killer who slashed out eyes. I’m only scratching the surface of what makes these storylines strange by the way, just know the plots develop strangely and the dialogue is detailed
Q: After everything you did was the ending satisfying?
A: Yes, actually. What was more satisfying was the epilogue though. It added another puzzle and a lot of exposition from the girlfriend’s perspective, plus, a twist.
Q: Who made Juggernaut?
A: I’m unclear on that. There are two Japanese companies attached to Juggernaut, Will and TonkinHouse. From what I’ve gathered Will developed it and Tonkin House published it in Japan. Jaleco published it in America. Remember, it came out on the PlayStation in 1999.
Q: So should I play it?
A: Nah. The gameplay was slow and it takes a long place to get somewhere. There was an interesting mechanic in the mansion of having to switch bodies to access specific rooms but this was time consuming. Juggernaut is a pretty ugly game even considering how old it is but I liked the soundtrack, it wasn’t overbearing, it was moody, and set the tone well. It was fun solving puzzles and experiencing the oddities with a friend and the microcosms were surreal, but you can probably YouTube that stuff.
Developed by Game Arts and published by Enix, Grandia Xtreme was the third game in the series to be released in the United States. It came out in 2002 for the PlayStation 2 and is notable for being a departure from Grandia and Grandia II. Instead of playing like a traditional Japanese role-playing game where players follow a town-dungeon-town format, Grandia Xtreme focuses on dungeon crawling. The dungeons are plentiful and they are challenging. But Grandia Xtreme has an identity crisis. Game Arts tried to get the best of both genres and came up short.
I assumed the role of Evann, a young Ranger who has distaste for the military, especially for one of its commanding officers, Colonel Kroitz. However, they come seeking his skills. After refusing to assist the army, they kidnap him. Once he wakes up he is briefed by the military and eventually agrees to lend them a hand, begrudgingly.
There have been a number of environmental disorders and the military thinks it might have something to do with ancient ruins located nearby, go figure. So Evann, along with a ragtag group of fellow warriors quell the disorders by removing ancient slabs from the heart of these ruins. After the disorders have been taken care of, Kroitz takes these slabs and opens a fifth ruin and it’s apparent he’s up to no good. While this was immediately clear from the first time he spoke, it took the gang forever to figure out he simply wanted to harness Quanlee, the ultimate power.
Remember how I said Grandia Xtreme differs from Grandia and Grandia II? Well, the biggest difference between these three is their format. Grandia and Grandia II stuck with a familiar town-dungeon-town format, and generally speaking the dungeons in these two games weren’t that tough.
Grandia Xtreme instead has a primary town (Locca) that the group works from, although there was a second town to be fair (Escarre). Instead of adventuring around and exploring new areas, I simply warped to the dungeon I needed to go to; and these were tough! In general they were much larger and held tougher enemies than the previous games. Same goes for the boss battles; these guys were tough, requiring level grinding at the end.
The best thing about the Grandia games has always been the combat, and Grandia Xtreme excels here. The battle system is pretty much directly lifted from Grandia II. Throw in the ability to fight more enemies at once and speed it up a little, and it’s the best of the three. Magic and skills function the same way, although mana eggs have slightly changed. This time around, eggs can be combined to form new eggs, and there are a lot of combinations to figure out.
Okay, so besides the format, there are other qualities of Grandia Xtreme that made me say it has an identity crisis. First off, six of the seven companions that join Evann, join him at the same time; and there is really little exposition for them. Throughout the game, I learned a little more about them individually, but they were really flat characters. In comparison, Grandia and Grandia II featured many characters that grew throughout their adventures. The second major aspect that draws my criticism is the item format. I would’ve preferred randomly dropped loot from enemies instead of acquiring gear as I would in a traditional RPG: buying better gear when it’s available from the store.
I don’t usually do this but there were a lot of minor gripes I had with Grandia Xtreme that I’m going to have a complaint dump. There’s not a lot of voice acting in the game, and what’s present is either overacted or just spoken awkwardly. There wasn’t much depth the characters or overarching storyline. Not including an item that could warp me back to town stunk, as did the infrequent save opportunities. The camera moved slowly in dungeons and I would’ve preferred having the camera controls mapped to the right analog stick rather than L1 and R1. Characters crossed paths too often in battle, canceling their turns. On the bright side, load times were practically nonexistent; much better.
I really want to say I enjoyed Grandia Xtreme. Leveling up characters and equipping them with new gear, just to watch their stats incrementally improve is somehow exciting to me and Grandia Xtreme was very pleasing. The dungeons were challenging and fulfilling, and the battle system is top notch. But, I’m glad to be done with the game, and can’t recommend it over Grandia or Grandia II.