SingStar (PS2) E3 2006 Preview

Developer: SCE London Studio | Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment

While at E3 this year, I was able to try out Sony’s Singstar for the PS2. At first I was a little hesitant to pick up the surprisingly well-made microphone, and just stood by watching other people sing. But when nobody was playing anymore, I decided to give it a try. While I played, one of the representatives from Sony that was demonstrating the game played with me the whole time. SingStar has been a very popular game in Europe, so its surprising that it took so long for the game to come over – it was instantly apparent to me why it’s so popular as soon as I started playing.

The most impressive thing about the game is the user interface. It’s very clean and very intuitive, and I actually like shuffling through album covers while looking for songs to sing. There is a very generous mix of rock and pop music, and it was interesting to see Nirvana, The Darkness, and Franz Ferdinand (to name a few) in the song list. Just as Guitar Hero helps you better appreciate what a guitarist can do, SingStar will make you appreciate how well someone can sing or perform certain lyrics. The “do do do” and “lucky lucky” interludes Franz Ferdinand’s “Do You Want To” come to mind as being very tricky to get the words right. The high notes in “I Believe In a Thing Called Love” by the Darkness also come to mind as being incredibly challenging.

The game shows you the music video while you sing. This gives players something to watch during solos and other non-singing parts, so you’re not completely bored. When you are supposed to sing, the lyrics show up at the bottom of the screen with the word you’re singing highlighted. Depending on how close you are to getting the correct note/pitch, you get points. Playing alone probably won’t be as fun as it would be playing with someone else, just because it’s fun being able to compete and see who sings better. Lines show up on the screen corresponding to how the actual song is sung. As you sing into the microphone, another line will appear, graphically depicting if you are higher or lower than the note you should be at. The closer you are to the song’s own line, the more points you get. If you hit notes correctly at certain points of a song’s line that are sparkling, you’ll get a “Golden Note” which counts for bonus points. It’s a very simple game – one that can teach you how to sing your favorite songs.

I had fun playing SingStar on PS2. A version is coming to the PS3 that will allow players to download songs, but the multiple PS2 versions will be pre-chosen packages. Even though the PS3 version was on the floor, I wasn’t able to try that one out because there were a lot more people packed into the PS3 section cracking jokes about “600 dollars” than I would have cared to show off my singing abilities to.

 

 

Guitar Hero II (PS2) E3 2006 Preview

Developer: Harmonix Music Studios | Publisher: RedOctane

Guitar Hero II, you say? New songs, you say? Sold! Guitar Hero II is basically Guitar Hero with different songs. So far the game seems better, but how? Well, the multiplayer mode has become more worthwhile – much more worthwhile. The single player mode’s highlights are basically being able to play the new songs, so multiplayer is a different kind of special.

As opposed to the first Guitar Hero, songs in the sequel are recorded with two “tracks” – one for the lead guitar and one for rhythm guitar. If there is only one guitar, bass will be used for the second track. Needless to say this an improvement over the first game since it made you share the same track. However, that doesn’t mean they removed the previous mode — both the new and the old style of play are here. There is nothing gameplay-wise that was in the first game that isn’t in Guitar Hero II.

I played the game at E3, and was able to experience a new song first hand. For some reason I wasn’t doing all that good, maybe because I was really close to the screen or maybe because my timing was off that day. There looked to be new venues and new characters, which is good if only just to show more of a change between the two Guitar Hero games, but the main addition will be new songs that are going to be included.

As it is, Guitar Hero is a great game and getting a new set of songs to play is exciting to wait for. There’s nothing new about the guitar for Guitar Hero II, so you’ll be able to use your guitar controller already. Fifty songs or so are said to be in the new Guitar Hero, so it’ll be exciting to see more of the songs revealed as the game comes closer to shipping.

The list of songs that have been revealed so far is as follows:

Drist – Arterial Black (original track)
Primus – John The Fisherman (original track)
The Reverend Horton Heat – Psychobilly Freakout
KISS – Strutter
Black Sabbath – War Pigs
The Butthole Surfers – Who Was in My Room Last Night
The Kinks, as performed by Van Halen – You Really Got Me
Rush – YYZ

 

PlayStation 3 Controller Preview

The Playstation 3 controller has changed quite a bit from its Dual Shock and Dual Shock 2 relatives. Whether or not its going to be called Dual Shockless (because of the lack of rumble) or end up being called the Dual Shock 3 (if by some miracle Sony puts rumble back into it), its got a few other changes to point out that are relatively for the better.

The form factor is quite literally the same as the Dual Shock 2, maybe changed a little to fit the palms easier, but all in all the same. It’s lighter, but still feels durable – maybe not as much as the Dual Shock 2, but that’s because of the weight that has been dropped between the two controllers. But this loss of rumble motor weight should help while using the motion sensing and battery life. Speaking of battery life, its supposed to last for about 24 hours on a single charge. The battery will be integrated into the controller, so that it won’t compromise the shape of the Dual Shock, though it probably would be a good idea to make it user replaceable.

All the controllers at E3 were wired, so they obviously were not the final controllers since very controller is to be wireless by Bluetooth. There are four lights on the top part of the controller to indicate which controller is which. As of now, seven controllers are still supposed to be used, but the lack of three extra lights on the controller might be worrisome to a few people. It’s possible to show controllers over four by displaying two lights at the same time, for a total of seven combinations of lights up to two lights on at the same time. There is also a USB port on the top of the controller for the final version which will allow for charging, and who knows, maybe even attachments.
The analog sticks became more sensitive, increasing from 8 bit to 10 bit in resolution. The game that really showed off the enhancement to me was Mobile Suit Gundam, during the aiming of its machine gun. The analog sticks seem like they will be more apologetic towards FPS games than any other PlayStation controller before it, so some people will be happy about that. A “Home” or “Guide” button has been added to the middle with the PS logo on it. The “Analog” button is gone now, so you can always assume that analog is on. Though it was nice to know your controller was working by having that light, the new indicator lights will replace that use, I’m sure.

As far as I could tell, pressure sensitivity is still there in the buttons, as well as the L3 and R3 (clicking sticks) buttons. The only buttons that have really changed are the L2 and R2 buttons. They’re more like true analog triggers, while still keeping their traditional button feel. Some people say they feel a little “spongey,” but I didn’t get that feeling at all. It’ll just take a little getting used to how they work as opposed to the L2/R2 buttons on a Dual Shock 2.

Motion sensing is obviously the biggest new feature in the PS3 controller, and is supposedly responsible for the removal of the rumble feature. The only game to use the motion sensing was Warhawk, and it definitely seems that the motion sensing will be a worthwhile function. It will not get as huge of a focus as the Wii’s motion sensing will get (most likely), but the way I look at it, it shouldn’t be. It will probably only be used for small improvements/functionality not otherwise possible before. The motion sensing itself in Warhawk at E3 felt like a fully spherical analog stick – instead of just using the top part of the sphere that regular analog sticks sit on top of. The motion sensing will probably see its biggest functionality be that of a substitute or third analog stick than anything else. Small flicks and the like might be all that’d happen otherwise, but developers should be able to surprise us down the line.

Though no one had a chance to use the “boomerang” PS3 controller, going with the Dual Shock design again is a good and bad thing. It’s good because we know how it works and how it feels, but it’s also bad because it doesn’t really try to improve too much of the ergonomics of how it feels. Maybe the PS4 will see another design.

 

Steambot Chronicles (PS2) Review

Developer: Irem / Publisher: Atlus || Overall: 7.5/10

Atlus is known for delivering niche Japanese-developed titles and Steambot Chronicles is no exception. Developed by Irem, Steambot Chronicles is not really any one type of game that you can pinpoint directly – it is one part sandbox, one part mech game, one part music game, and one part RPG all mixed into each other. Combined with its certain type of charm and fantasy, Steambot Chronicles is a great little game that is hampered by control problems, graphical inconsistencies, and a weak story to boot.

The story starts out with the main character losing his memory, as he awakens on a beach. This prompts the main character, Vanilla, to find out whom he is, and what happened. Even though there is a huge ship that has crashed against the shore and smoking because of a fire, there is little to no acknowledgement of it by you or the person who found you, named Connie, which is a little weird to say the least. Given that the story is very simplistic in nature to begin with, its immediately apparent that Steambot Chronicles is really not about its story as you get into some real gameplay with little to no delay.

The girl who finds you on the beach, Connie, is a cute brown-haired girl who sings for a very famous band called the Garland Globetrotters., and if you play your cards right a nice relationship can evolve from knowing her. Constantly throughout the game, you are given choices for what Vanilla says or does, and the outcome of certain events will be influenced by such. You can be a bastard or a big softy – it’s really up to you. The very weak story of Steambot Chronicles basically encompasses Vanilla’s search for who he is while going on tour with Connie’s band. Other than that it really isn’t compelling – the world doesn’t have to be saved, there is no impending evil; you get the point. Along the way you’ll meet up with many people and discover new things to do in the world. The game itself is very non-linear and you don’t even have to follow through with the story at all except for a few key parts. An interesting way that the game influences you to try and talk to everyone in towns and cities is that their picture is added to a photo album in the start menu. This is very unique, to say the least, and gives you a feeling of “talk to all the generic characters I can find!” Pictures will be updated as you talk to more and more people, and important characters will get their own picture.

The main form of transportation and gameplay is something called a trotmobile. Think of a car with arms and legs and you have a trotmobile. Anyone who has played through Front Mission 3 or 4 will instantly grasp how to manage it in the backend system. Basically, a trotmobile’s body/legs can hold a certain amount of wight which will contribute to what kind of arms and “backpack” you can equip. Arms are mainly used for combat while the back attachment is more for the extra stuff you can do in the world. Possible types of arms include Sword Arms, Spiked Ball Arms, Cannon Arms and back attachments include a carriage for bussing people around and a flatbed for carrying stuff. This is all fine and dandy except for two very disappointing aspects of the game.

The controls for the trotmobile are very counter-intuitive because they use “Katamari” controls. Both analog sticks are required to move effectively which quite frankly blows because it doesn’t give you a free camera (you’re locked behind your trotmobile at all times) to use. This is very annoying when battling, obviously. Not to mention that movement would have been done just as effectively, if not more, with one stick. The other glaring problem is that there just isn’t that much actual combat to spend time on. Without any random battles, you’re forced to fight the same enemies over and over – they’ll pop out at you from the same place as you travel between towns.

Trotmobiles are also very slow, so you’ll be walking through fields, beating two enemies between each town (effortlessly, I might add) without getting much use of the effort you put into improving your trotmobile to begin with.

Boss battles happen every once in a while and are very fun, but they only last for maybe a minute or two before you’re given a load time to celebrate your win. Each town has their own “Arena” in which you can fight tough trotmobiles 1 on 1, but even these battles go by quickly. There’s almost as much loading as there is playtime (sometimes more if you’re good) during these Arena battles. Other things in the world to do include playing an assortment of instruments for different songs, bussing people from one town to the next, fighting in arenas and dungeons, digging up fossils to fill up a museum, and stuff like that. You’re allowed to do almost anything you please in the world that has been created. You’ll also have to maintain your character by eating whenever he gets hungry, and that’s just plain annoying.

As for sound and graphics, they are about average. The voice actors are alright but they can be annoying at times. General sound effect usage is good, and battle sounds aren’t very irritating even though you hear them over and over. The most bothersome sound effect would be the trotmobile’s walking noise. Music is very cheerful, and goes along with the mood of the game, but isn’t all that memorable. As for the graphics, the game has a cel-shaded look to it which promotes a cartoonish feel to the game – but maintains a more realistic look than most cel-shaded games. There isn’t anything special but nothing is particularly ugly except a few things that stick out like character animation. Load times also avert some of the pleasure that is delivered, which is unfortunate.

What I favored about this game was the open-endedness of it all. The game doesn’t tell you where to go; you tell the game where to go. It shows that GTA-style games don’t always have to be about 100% action or even have a strong storyline; it provides the person playing the game with many things to do at their own leisure with practically no bounds. By giving you choices in what to say or do throughout the game, it can also influence you to replay the game and see how it would be being mean the whole way through or being nice all the time.

Steambot Chronicles is a fun game that rides on you being interested enough to take part in the activities the world offers through its non-linearity. Besides the flawed controls and graphical discrepancies here and there, Steambot Chronicles is a light-hearted adventure game that isn’t hard to get into.

 

Mobile Suit Gundam: Crossfire (PS3) E3 2006 Preview

Developer/Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment

Mobile Suit Gundam made its way to Sony’s show floor in a barebones sort of way. This game in particular allowed for more than just testing the short demo itself, but seeing what parts of the controller had been improved. As you may or may not know, the controller’s regular two analog sticks’ resolution had been increased from 8 bit to 10 bit. Basically, meaning they are more sensitive — the extra sensitivity helped out tremendously in the demo.

Mobile Suit Gundam’s camera is placed in an over-the-shoulder view. Though the Gundam takes up a little bit more of the screen than it probably should (about half), the Gundam model looks very nice. Even the enemy Mobile Suits looked cool; the only thing that really sucked about the game in terms of graphics was everything else. They plop you down in a desolate mountain desert and let you blow up six enemy Leos and a couple of guard towers. Hoorayyyy… however, I did enjoy the little bit that was offered. Regular movement was a bit slower than it probably should have been, and made it harder to actually put your laser sword to any good use.

The main weapons I used were the machine gun and the head Vulcans (machine guns in the head). It didn’t take too long to defeat enemies. If you happen to actually get damaged enough during the demo (aka you suck at games and probably life) body parts will start to fall off, disallowing use of certain weaponry or abilities. I hadn’t figured it out until my last play-through of the demo, but you can boost while on the ground, allowing you to move a lot faster and not rely solely on sprinting on foot towards your enemies. The boost also allows you to jump to get to higher places but when you land it takes a second or two for your Gundam to recover.

To me, it was weird to see such a barebones demo for Mobile Suit Gundam out on the show floor when there was the Xbox 360 counterpart Mobile Ops: One Year War practically finished already. For what its worth, though, the PS3 version did look noticeably better.

 

 

Silent Hill Experience, The (PSP) Review

Developer/Publisher: Konami || Overall: 8.5/10

If you’re looking to get into the Silent Hill series, why not start with an animated comic book? That’s exactly what the Silent Hill Experience is; two hours of digital comic books, music from the games, and a few extra videos. Even with the additional media, the main feature of the title itself is quite obviously the digital comic books, and with good reason.

In basically what can be described as a movie you read with an awesome soundtrack, the comics included on the UMD are very interesting. If you are new to the Silent Hill series, like I am, the comics can seem a little “out there” in terms of understanding what is going on story-wise. After a while, however, you can understand the world Silent Hill creates in itself and what happens to the people that interact with it. The art style is very unique, and if you appreciate that kind of thing, it’s worth the price tag in itself. The drawings hold nothing back in terms of graphicness – you’ll see lots of blood, gore, and everything in between. The colors really make the comics come to life and once you get into it, you feel like you’re actually immersed with what is happening. And obviously being all about horror, Silent Hill can be quite scary in terms of what’s happening rather than you being actually scared.

There are two comics included in The Silent Hill Experience. One was made specifically for this release, “The Hunger,” and the other is named “Silent Hill: Dying Inside.” “Dying Inside” is a comic translated into a digital comic by Konami, and separated into four parts. The way you would watch one of these comics, is simply by selecting which part you wanted to watch from the menu and letting it go from there. The comic panels will fade in, zoom in, zoom out, and fade away into the next panel for you to look at. There is no interactivity with the comics themselves, there’s a limited amount of time for you to read and watch each panel. Altogether, these comics are as long as a feature-length film.

The music that accompanies the comics as they play helps in the immersion of the story as it unfolds. The music changes at just the right moments to help in the immersion of the whole experience. What would have improved the whole thing, would have actually been a featuring of voice-overs to help with the immersion even more.

The comics can also move a bit faster than you might like if you’re not a fast reader – I usually have to Pause the video every time a new speech bubble comes along. As for the other stuff, it’s not too much to get excited about. There are music 20 music tracks from the series, a video interview, and other video content from the Silent Hill games.

The video interface can be a little confusing, as it’s presented in a way in which you’re flying through an abandoned and severely damaged school. Different rooms contain different pieces of content. How you move around almost simulates how a first person view board game would be; you press up and you go in a pre-determined direction. Sometimes you have to figure out exactly which way to go to get to certain pieces of content, sometimes resulting in you accidentally going back the way you came and losing track of where you were before.

The Silent Hill Experience uses the PSP in a unique way by exploiting its multimedia strengths. The Silent Hill Experience is a perfect example of how a UMD Video that is marketed and produced directly for PSP users can do something more than a DVD. Seeing more of this kind of product on the PSP would definitely be cool. All in all, $20 isn’t too shabby for what you get in this package, and fans are sure to enjoy it.

 

.hack//G.U. Conference Call

I had the opportunity to participate in a conference call for .hack//GU Part 1 this past week. Some new information as well as old information about the game was talked about during the conference. Much of the information presented was random.

The information I was able to get out of the conference is as follows:

• Fall release date on the PS2, developed by the same developer.
• The game takes place several years after Part 4. CC Corporation has built a new version of The World after the events from the first quadrilogy. The World is not the same – there are similar/familiar areas, but they’re not exactly the same. Someone who has played through the previous games should feel comfortable in the settings, however.
• The game goes for a much darker and grittier feeling than the previous games. It is very anime-styled with a cross between cg and cel-shaded.
• The story starts out with two people helping the main character with starting out in The World, not unlike Part 1. He gets into trouble and then gets rescued. He turns into an anti-hero sort of guy. Later on, he finds out about a legendary Player Killer, and after their first encounter, the main character’s level is dropped back down to 1. He tries to find out what is going on, only to find out that not everything has been fixed from the previous version of The World.
• While the core mechanics of the game is similar to the previous installments, the battle system is much more action oriented with combos. The higher the level you are, the more special attacks you can learn, which obviously give you a better advantage. The main character can change his weapons depending on the level he’s at, as well.
• Guilds are also introduced in the .hack//GU Part 1. Depending on how big your guild becomes, you can get a guild hall (which is like your own house), and it’ll have important items and the like for you to use.
• As opposed to the first four games, there will not be a dual audio option (meaning Japanese and English audio tracks) because there isn’t enough space on the disc. The space on the disc is filled up with all the new content they’ve added for the game.
• A class called the Multiblade can use multiple weapons. A player can learn different types of weapons as they increase their levels. They start out with the twin-blades.
• .hack//GU will be three parts instead of four. No separate DVD where there is an elaboration is going to be included, but there will be content that is separate.
• There will be some sort of memory card activity with the previous games, but it was not elaborated on in the call.
• The keyword system will make a comeback, but it will be easier to use.
• There are no online plans for the game, as the whole point of the .hack series is to simulate an MMORPG.
• All the characters in the game will be new, but they will look very familiar. What this means is that each class has its own “look” that anyone who played the previous .hack games will recognize as they played through the games.
• There will be voice-overs. The soundtrack is composed and directed by the same people as the previous four, but it won’t be as happy-go-lucky – it’ll have a much darker tone. However, the key change for this “darker” aspect is in the art.
• The game is going to be completely original, but people from previous games will still appreciate it.
• You don’t need to have played the original series to understand what is going on in the .hack//GU series. They want newcomers to feel welcomed.
• Email and OS interaction will be included, similar to the last games.
• Since the main complaint of the original games was the lack of new content, they’re going to pack .hack//GU with as much content that would be equivalent to all four of the previous games. There’s going to be a lot of new content, and it’ll take much more than 20 hours to beat each part of .hack//GU.
• Player Killing takes a part in the game, but you can’t just go into towns and kill people. You can’t go out actively and kill other players either, but you will be able to prevent others from hurting others if you chose to.
• There will be guild vs. guild matches.
• If people die in the game, it will take a negative impact on the game itself.
• The game is aiming to be a darker version of the original series, but its not going to be G rated. There will be mature themes, but it will stay within the same rating. They’re not going for a GTA-esque level, but they’re not going to be cartoons. It’ll be a middleground of sorts, aiming for the same people who bought the preious games.
• The World is more violent in general, since there is player vs. player interaction. There will be a lot more interaction with the game, battle and non-battle-wise. More character development is also an aim.
• A level-cap is still being determined. There is a class change cap.

A playable demo is still unconfirmed. There might be something at E3 this week, however. Keep watch for more information about .hack//GU at Gamersmark.com!

 

Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: Paradox Interactive || Overall: 8.4/10

If anyone has played Hearts of Iron II for the PC, Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday will feel all too familiar. Heck, it’s pretty much exactly the same game except with a couple new layers of situations to play through and a few more options. As a stand-alone expansion, it’s all that’s to be expected really, but if you are yearning for more Hearts of Iron II challenges, it could be worth a look. One thing is for sure though, if you are contested between having to chose Hearts of Iron II or Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday, go with the latter.

Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday is one of the most fleshed out strategy games that I’ve ever seen. Such a massive amount of information is presented to you, all of which you are able to manipulate. The game almost inadvertently creates a very overwhelming feeling when you first start to play. The tutorial mode will help in that respect, but even after that, you’ll have to think fast as you have to deal with military, political, and developmental needs of your country. Taking place on such a large scale, it’ll be a definite challenge to keep up with all the things that are happening even if you put the speed of the game on slow.

The gameplay screen is exactly like a tactical map from a war documentary, as you can see the paths of your units with large arrows. The color of the arrows show what a unit is doing. The world is split up into provinces, and practically every province can be taken over if you play your cards correctly, but it’s easier said than done. You can fight through the whole of World War II exactly as it played out, with the Axis powers losing, or the complete opposite, with the Axis powers winning. You can use your imagination here, I’m sure. What can be a turn-off to some people is that you don’t really see the action unfolding all that excitingly. There are animations of units showing that they are in battle, but you’re not going to be right in the action seeing how units die and stuff like that, so it can be a little boring at times.

However, you’ll be so preoccupied with so many of the other things happening, it’d be trivial to even have something like that included. Your units are also not all displayed on the screen at the same time, so it might seem like you only have two or three units when you really have something like twenty or thirty, just because they all stack on top of each other as long as they’re in the same province. Units like airplanes and naval craft are in ports, so you have to click on the port itself to activate that particular unit. You can view the map in different ways, through terrain, political boundaries, wealth, and others, to help you plan out how you go about moving your military. There wasn’t really anything that was noticeably improved from Hearts of Iron II in the expansion, but either way the user interface is about as good as it can be for what is accomplished.

History only sets up the platform from which you will take control of the game… depending on what year you start out in. This brings us to the main scenario that has been added to the game: Doomsday. I suppose you can call it science-fiction, but Doomsday takes place in 1945, directly after the end of World War II. The Soviet Union decides it’s a good idea to go ahead and start to take over the world, especially when they feel threatened by a couple of US-owned atomic bombs sitting in airplanes in Turkey. So when the Soviet Union starts advancing into the war-weary Western Europe, the US drops those atomic bombs on Moscow and another city in Russia and completely destroys them. Boy is Russia mad now. They’ve already got practically half of the world’s provinces under their control, especially with taking back many of the provinces that had been taken over by Nazi Germany. So now Europe, the United States, and the rest of its allies have a heck of a task ahead of them in defeating the Soviet Union when they’ve exerted so much of their power on defeating the Axis powers. The Doomsday scenario is a lot more fast-paced than others included, since so many things are happening at the same time. One could even say that the Doomsday scenario was what the Cold War could have been if things had heated up right after the war had ended.

Since Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday is an expansion, a couple of gameplay features had been added to influence how the game can be played. Nuclear weaponry being the most apparent, there is also intelligence, and more technology to be researched. Intelligence will help in being able to steal technology from other countries, or cause some trouble in another country you don’t exactly like. The additions are welcomed, but they’re not nearly enough of a change from Hearts of Iron II to really worry too much about.

Graphics and sound are still the same as Hearts of Iron II. The graphics are nothing special at all — you’ll be looking at a very plain, but colorful, world and of course unique-looking units, but that’s about it. The music is nice to listen to, as it is a bit empowering in your military struggle against your foes. However, a good PC is a must for playing the game. I experienced a little bit of lag while playing the game and it isn’t even that bad of a computer. The processing power required running the complexity of the world and its huge amount of provinces and military movements across the whole thing is quite certainly a lot. Multiplayer modes are also included.

With plenty of dedication on your part, you can uncover a rewarding experience in Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday. Being able to play as so many different countries for the same scenario results in a large amount of replay time if you get so inclined to play the game for all its worth in that respect. Hearts of Iron II: Doomsday is one of the most advanced strategy games to date, and hardcore strategy gamers will find a great challenge in it.

 

Take Command 2nd Manassas (PC) Review

Developer: MadMinute Games / Publisher: Paradox Interactive || Overall: 7.9/10

Take Command 2nd Manassas is an interesting strategy game. Set during the American Civil War, It takes a middle ground between a real time strategy and a regular strategy game by allowing you to control your units as part of large groups rather than single individuals — all in real time. Through the use of different formations, you have to control your division effectively to overtake the Union or Confederacy in a battle in an open field. Take Command 2nd Manassas visually portrays the Civil War very accurately — it is a unique way to see how the battles in the Civil War had taken place, especially with a 3D camera, allowing you to see the fighting from all sides. History Channel, eat your heart out.

Take Command 2nd Manassas focuses more on a particular part of the Civil War, rather than the whole thing. Quite obviously, it’s the Second Manassas battle, otherwise known as Second Battle of Bull Run. During the time, Manassas was a strategic railroad crossing that lead to Richmond and Washington, DC. The battle itself is broken down into days, and further into multiple commanders for both sides of the battle. The battles before and after Second Manassas are also available for play.

You can manage your troops from the brigade level all the way up to the division level. Depending on the particular scenario you’re involved in, of course, it could vary how much command you have, with other soldiers on your side being controlled by the AI only. The AI assists you tremendously as well, automatically adjusting your soldiers in a fashion that they will line up facing the correct way to shoot at oncoming foes. You can control multiple brigades under a leader by selecting a leader and telling the troops to rally behind it in a certain formation. Rallying your troops behind a leader is a very effective way to move all of the troops connected to that leader as they march toward the battle.

Positioning is the key to winning a battle or skirmish. By placing your units in a line, your units will be able to fire on the enemy. Placing them in a double line or a column makes for some cool-looking marches down the battlefield, but you’ll end up having to revert back to the simple line to fire on the enemy. Once you position your troops, you just watch as they either become victorious or run away in fear because their morale is broken. One thing about the action that takes place is that you’re not as involved with what is going on as much as you might want to be. By restricting how much you’re able to control your soldiers, you’re forced to fight battles the same way they were done during the Civil War. The victor of the battle is basically the one who takes the least casualties.

Morale of your troops is important because it dictates how long a brigade will stay and fight as their buddies die next to them. As a unit’s morale drops lower and lower, you can see the brigade scattering out a little more, falling back. Once their morale reaches the “broken” status, that particular brigade will go into a full retreat and literally run away from the battle as they are still being shot at by the enemy. They don’t leave the battle entirely, as they will regroup, and once their morale gets back up will be usable for battle again. Positioning leaders behind your troops will give the brigades morale boosts as to divert the drop of morale just a bit longer. Though not every single individual person in a brigade is shown, a counter is displayed in the information bar when you click on one of them. The number can be anywhere from a hundred to a thousand, though it’ll usually be around three hundred. If a brigade gets tired, their morale will tend to get lower faster as well as not being able to move as fast. If they’re given time to rest, outside of any enemy fire, they’ll be able to get back to a rested state.

The graphics are okay. The cool visuals you can get with the full 3D camera are quite interesting as your troops are fighting. You can see it from a bird’s-eye view all the way to an almost-first-person view. The units themselves are low-resolution 2D sprites slapped on top of a large 3D terrain, which can make them seem a little bit out of place at times, just because of how flat they look, and even a little bit cartoony. The terrain could have done with looking a bit more realistic – same with the sparse buildings that are sprinkled here and there. Explosions don’t look anything more than flashes with smoke, and don’t leave any marks on the terrain as if there had been some. Sound is pretty good — there’s nothing that can be pointed out as really out of place or annoying as all the sounds of war are there in realistic proportions. There’s no speech at all, not even in tutorials, and all communications with other officers are done by courier, so there aren’t any briefing scenes where you talk with General Lee about the status of the battle or whatnot.

Take Command 2nd Manassas is the most accurate representation of a Civil War battle I’ve seen in a video game. Though it might not represent the battle of 2nd Manassas completely or even have a 100% realistic tone to it, the battles alone make the Civil War come alive in front of you. One thing is for certain, though: if you’re looking for a Civil War strategy game, give Take Command 2nd Manassas a whirl.

 

Horse and Musket 2: Prussia’s Glory (PC) Review

Developer: Boku Strategy Games / Publisher: Shrapnel Games || Overall: 5.5/10

Does anyone remember Prussia? Well, besides the fact they’re not a country anymore, Prussia was a really powerful nation back in the 1700s, the era in which Prussia’s Glory takes place. Prussia’s Glory focuses on five important battles of Frederick the Great, a “military genius” who came to power in Prussia in 1740 and fought battles such as one against an Austrian army that outnumbered him severely, but still came up as the victor. Okay, so enough of the history lesson, time to talk about the game.

Upon first booting up Prussia’s Glory, the first thing I said was “ew.” To put it simply, the presentation of the game is horrid. The game just comes off as looking way too archaic for its own good; its in-game graphics aren’t pleasant to look at by any means. The game’s visuals give you this cluttered feel, especially when one unit is actually like nine-or-so indistinct people with flags and drums. Additionally, the font used to display various pieces of information is difficult to read. However, it should be noted that games like Prussia’s Glory don’t rely on their graphics to sell themselves to strategy fans as much as they do on gameplay… as for the gameplay itself, you may find out that it’s not up to snuff either.

It would’ve been a lot more fun if the game wasn’t so slow-paced, but it’s something to be expected in a strategy game that isn’t in real-time. The game moves in “phases,” starting with the bombardment phase in which you use artillery units to hit your enemy. The command turn phase, which occurs every four turns (which translates into an hour of game time), a command phase, and an activation phase among others. The last three phases basically boil down to this: you attempt to “activate” a group of units that are attached to a particular leader so you can move them. Sometimes the activation will fail, resulting in you not being able to move the units at all until the next turn where you can attempt to activate them again. This sort of methodology for moving units just seems to be kind of ridiculous, especially when it takes so long to even move your units into position in the first place to attack.

There are a lot of menial gameplay factors in Prussia’s Glory that aren’t too clear in how they affect any of its battles significantly, such as terrain, morale of the troops, leaders, cavalry, and stacking. Learning how to use all of them effectively will probably be the greatest time absorber, but if only the game made you feel compelled to truly understand them. Terrain will either limit or dictate the kind of moves and attacks your units can do. Cavalry can charge, morale of troops affects their performance — it’s all pretty complicated if you choose to really go into it.

Where the game really suffers is in its all around archaic-feel within the genre of strategy gaming. Mostly attributed to the user interface not being all that friendly, the game forces you to really have to look through the accompanied manual to learn how everything basically works. Instead of being able to attack with a unit in a traditional strategy-game way, you have to wait until the game allows you to use your units to attack where they stand (if they’re able to, to begin with). Seemingly unnecessary things like that bring the game lower.

There are a couple of multiplayer options, including play by e-mail to get some more longevity out of the investment in the game. For those who don’t know what play by e-mail is, it’s a gameplay mode which allows for two players to play a round of the game little by little, with the game sending an e-mail to your opponent after every move so that you don’t have to spend a large amount of time playing a round in one go. However, in the end, the gameplay just wasn’t fun enough for me to really want to put this mode to use. In fact, the game as a whole isn’t the type that will be redeemed by its multiplayer modes.

My experience with the Prussia’s Glory wasn’t very delightful. It didn’t appeal to me on any level, not in concept, gameplay, visuals, or really even sound. Prussia’s Glory is a very underwhelming strategy game, and most people would be ill-advised if they’re told this was a worthwhile game to sink their time into. Although, those interested in recreating history of Prussia in videogame form may want to give this game a chance.

 

Metal Gear Acid 2 (PSP) Review

Developer: Kojima Productions / Publisher: Konami || Overall: 9.3/10

The strategy genre is one in which I’ve had the opportunity to delve into more as of late. Just the luck of the draw I suppose, but ever since finishing the first Metal Gear Acid, I’ve been excited for more action from the series, and little less than a year it has come with Metal Gear Acid 2 (MGA2). Metal Gear Acid 2 is a vast improvement over its predecessor; a more refined formula of what had been initially introduced with the series.

The gameplay mechanics of MGA2 are essentially the same as those in the original Metal Gear Acid, just with improvements, but these improvements don’t change the basic game. If you’ve played through the first, then MGA2 will feel very familiar. Movement on the map has changed just a little bit; instead of watching an arrow come out of the player to plan a move out thoroughly, the player’s character will actually move in a “real-time” fashion. Other enhancements make basic movements much more streamlined. One thing that might be annoying is that instead of immediately having you chose the direction to face after you move, you have to remember to press the triangle button and then press the X button (as opposed to the circle button, which is the confirm button). The visual interface has also been enhanced to show what moves are available when picking an action. The basic strategies you have to manipulate have stayed relatively the same and are generally in line with the usual strategy game. The speed in which a mission progresses is a major aspect, as it helps to keep the game interesting.

The amount of available cards to acquire has been more than doubled. Approximately 550 cards are in Acid 2’s library, up from the 200 to collect in the first. Obviously a number of new cards had been added, but the main bulk of new cards come from being able to upgrade cards – a new feature that remedies the deterioration of lower-leveled cards through the game’s progression. Having so many cards also makes it a challenge to complete the collection. The concept of “Interference” has also been carried over, and MGA2 puts more stress on using it correctly over than the original had. Interference is the concept of an equipped item influencing a certain stat that another equipped item has. Used effectively, it could make things a little easier. It can also make things a little harder. There are a couple of new types of cards, most significant of which being automatically triggering cards that can help quite a bit during a mission, such as a hit % increase or an attack increase.

The biggest improvement over the first MGA is the sheer amount of opportunities of extra missions to earn extra points and cards and more varied game design. Once you complete an area in Metal Gear Acid 2, you can replay the area in several different ways, including Eliminate, Sneaking, and Special Mission. In Eliminate, you basically just kill all the enemies on the map. Sneaking, you have to get through the level without being detected at all. Special Missions are a lot more like puzzles, making you devise a way to complete an objective within the constraints of the challenge, whether it is allowing only a limited amount of cost to complete the objective, using a pre-made deck of cards, or completing something in one turn. There are special clear bonuses if you get an S rank after completing any story mission or extra mission given in the form of cards, so it is definitely worth your while to do your best in everything you do.

As for the visuals and sound, MGA2 has definitely been enhanced over the first. The biggest being the visual style, the game looks more like a comic book with outlined characters, as well as being vibrantly colored. It’s a nice change from a “regularly” colored game, even if it is funky to see Snake wearing blue shin guards. Sound is used in a better way overall, with most guns sounding unique from each other. What could be seen as a lacking aspect in the sound, however, is the absence of any voice-overs. It’s unfortunate that another game in the series has a lack of a vital aspect to sound in games nowadays. The story is pretty interesting, and completely independent from the first. For much of the game, Snake is dealing with amnesia and not knowing who he is other than a mercenary. Not that the story that is included was a bad choice to use, but I had become personally interested in the way the story of the first MGA could have been continued, but alas, a new story is what is given, and its delivered (yet again) in drawn stills. The inclusion of quite a few more bosses through the game breaks up the monotony of killing regular guards, and definitely solves the biggest qualm I had with the first MGA.

A big extra part of the game is the ability to watch movies in actual 3D with the accompanied Solid Eye plastic-coated cardboard “glasses” that slide over the PSP. As you collect more cards, more movies are available to watch in 3D. The movies to watch are basically every movie from Metal Gear Solid 3. And some movies of extremely hot chicks not usually wearing all that much or getting squirted with water or something like that. The music that plays over those movies made me feel kind of weird, just because all you were basically doing was looking at this girl smiling in the camera seeming like she didn’t really know what to do. I wasn’t too crazy about the movies they put in there, but the 3D was quite effective. The only unfortunate thing is that you can see the pixels of the PSP pretty well, so it looks like you’re actually watching a “bricked” image, if you can understand that.

Metal Gear Acid 2 is an awesome sequel, definitely one of the games that define the PSP for its visual quality, capabilities, and possibility of having add-on things, like the Solid Eye, for specific games. A lot more excitement is to be had with the second Metal Gear Acid, and more bosses integrated into the overall gameplay stresses that point. If you liked the first Metal Gear Acid, you’ll find enjoyment with Metal Gear Acid 2.

 

winSPMBT (PC) Review

Developer: The Camo Workshop / Publisher: Shrapnel Games || Overall: 7.0/10

WinSPMBT, otherwise known as “Windows, Steel Panthers, Main Battle Tank” is a PC turn-based strategy game with a simple premise: capture points on the map, and beat the crap out of your enemy… strategically, of course. WinSPMBT isn’t necessarily a bad game, but it has a horribly outdated feel through and through. Everything, including the user interface, the gameplay mechanics, all the way down to the graphics feel this way.

WinSPMBT feels like a trip taken in a time machine set to 1995. The game looks on par with the first Command & Conquer. There is a reason behind this, as winSPMBT is the Windows version of a mod for a game called Steel Panthers 2: Modern Battles. SPMBT was originally a DOS game, but it has been ported to Windows for compatibility’s sake and resolution. Fans of the original SPMBT would certainly appreciate this, since they can now play the game on modern-day operating systems. What’s even better is that people can download the game for free from the Shrapnel Games site, so it’s not like you’d lose anything by giving it a shot, but you can also buy the enhanced CD version for $39.95. Both versions are the same, but the CD comes with a printed quick start guide, higher resolutions and a map editor.

Gameplay is a bit less than enthralling, to say the least. When you’re not directing units around on the hexagonal map, you’re watching units attempt to destroy each other with tiny animations of flying lines, little orbs, smoke, and sparks all from a top-down aspect. Sad to say, but that’s about it. There are more advanced commands and different ways to go about it, but you’ll have to play out your strategy without any exciting explosions or things of that sort. There are many different types of tanks, infantry, artillery, and the like to use during the game, and each is accompanied by low-res picture to represent it. To win a battle you need to occupy as many “V points” as possible while eliminating your opponent’s units and keeping your units intact. V points are basically points of interest on the map that help your side if you hold, or at least occupy them at some point. At the end of eight turns, the battle is over and the results are shown to you.

The sound is boring and can even be annoying. All that’s heard are the gun and explosion sound effects with absolutely no music to accompany them. It gets irritating when you hear the same sound effects over and over. One of the worst cases was fifty seconds worth of air strike sounds in one mission. There’s also no music. The graphics follow the sound — as I said before the game looks like it’s from 1995 (in truth, it’s from 1996). Still imagery far outweighs any animations or any real noticeable movement, and really promotes the idea of the game being just another boring strategy game. The maps you play on can look quite complex in texture, like one level in Germany, but the map’s graphics can collide with the sprites of your actual units, making it hard to see where or what your units are, making you wish for a desert level with no textures at all.

WinSPMBT will really only appeal to nostalgic gamers, fans of the original game, and hardcore strategy gamers. I’d be hard-pressed to believe that anyone who isn’t in one of those niche crowds would have an interest in the game, but the possibility is greater since it is available for free. WinSPMBT really would have done well with a major overhaul, but in its current form it’s in the awkward position of being an outdated game made available again. But because it’s obvious that they wanted to keep the integrity of the original game intact as much as possible, winSPMBT is all it is and nothing more.

 

Guitar Hero (PS2) Review

Developer: Harmonix Music Studios / Publisher: RedOctane || Overall: 9.5/10

I’ve never been a fan of beat games, half the reason being that I completely suck at them. The other being I really had no interest in playing any — that was, until Guitar Hero. At first, the biggest factor for my interest had been the guitar controller that actually came with the game, since I play the bass guitar; I found the novelty of playing with the guitar controller appealing. When first playing Guitar Hero you don’t have to have any previous experience playing a guitar (though it could help), as the game slowly builds on difficulty as progression is made. There are plenty of awesome songs available to play, each with four difficulty levels. Not only is Guitar Hero fun to play, but it actually feels like you’re playing the song. Guitar Hero can be appealing to a lot of different people, just from my own anecdotal evidence, and gives people the chance to experience how it would be like to play a guitar without actually having a real one.

There’s no story involved with Guitar Hero, you dive right into the Career mode with nothing more than the name of your band and the guitar controller in hand. As you play through the career mode, more songs will unlock, allowing you to play them any time you’d like in the Quick Play mode or during multiplayer. In total, there’s about thirty songs made by famous artists such as Ozzy Osbourne, Jimi Hendrix, and Incubus – all redone by a different band, not the original artists, but it could be hard to tell the difference at times. Once you master all the famous songs, there’s a ton of bonus songs recorded by lesser-known bands.

The guitar controller that comes with the game has numerous features to it. Five “fret” buttons are played by your left hand (if you’re right-handed), a wammy bar, a “strum bar” that is played by your right hand to actually play the notes, as well as start and select buttons that look like volume knobs. There’s a guitar strap that you can put on if you want to play standing up. The guitar is also tilt-sensitive, so when you tilt the guitar while playing the game you can activate something called “Star Power” which will be explained later on. The guitar controller is about half the size of an actual guitar, so it doesn’t take a lot of space while you’re not using it. The box that you buy the game with can actually be used as a guitar case for storing the guitar controller when you’re not using it, if you so desired. The guitar controller can’t really be used to play any other game except for Guitar Hero, since it doesn’t have all the functionality of a Dual Shock 2 – but it doesn’t hurt to experiment.

The basic functions of the game are quite simple. You hold down a fret button and strum the strum bar at the right time to play a note as it appears on screen. When you start the game on easy, it’ll only use three of the fret buttons, adding on a fret button for each difficulty level higher. As you increase difficulty level, more advanced techniques must be used, like holding notes, hammer-ons, and pull-offs — just like on a regular guitar. As you increase difficulty level, more notes are tossed into songs you’ve already become familiar with, making it feel like you’re playing the song a little bit more realistically, as well as making it seem like the song you played before is completely different from what you’re playing once you increase difficulty. This gives you incentive to go back and play the easier difficulties in the game to get perfect scores during Free Play, just to see how high you can get.

When you hold notes, you can use the whammy bar on the guitar controller to make the note distorted, and make the song sound a little bit different each time you play it. Using the whammy bar at certain times will also help increase your “Star Power” that, when activated, will give you twice as many points for each note you play while it lasts. The more notes you play without any error, the higher the multiplier is, as well. Without using Star Power, you can get up to a “X4” multiplier, and with Star Power a “X8” multiplier. Using Star Power at the right time will result in higher scores, especially when you use Star Power when there are a lot of notes to be played. Another way Star Power can help is when your Rock Meter is low. The Rock Meter is basically the approval rating the audience is giving you, which equates to how many notes you get right. If you miss a lot, your Rock Meter is going to be in the red. Conversely, if you get all the notes right, you’ll be in the green. Star Power helps you get back up toward the green by giving you a higher boost than normal for each note you get correct.

When it comes to aspects other than the guitar and actually playing, Guitar Hero suffers just a bit. The graphics are what you’d expect from a late-generation PlayStation 2 game, but there are better looking and more interesting games that have come along recently. The sound, quite obviously, is spectacular. Since all of the songs are not by their original artists, but redone for the game, it’s amazing how alike they can sound to the original songs. Another really cool thing about the sound is that when you miss a note, the song actually misses a note, so you hear what you actually play (or don’t play). There are a lot of songs to keep anyone busy with, and how the songs have been designed really helps with immersion. A multiplayer mode is included as well, so that when your friend brings over their Guitar Hero controller, you can “duel” by trying to play songs better than each other. Multiplayer games can be come pretty heated with one note being the difference between loss and win. Multiplayer mode really required a stereo TV/sound system, since one speaker will be one player and the other speaker will be the other.

Guitar Hero is one of the most fun games I have personally played on any console to date. I’ve played it so much that my left hand felt like it was sprained for a month because I couldn’t stop playing it for so long. Not only that, it takes a lot of skill and practice to beat every song on expert, so the game doesn’t get old as fast as other beat games might. The only drawback I felt the game had was the limited amount of songs it had, while there was a good selection to begin with, it would have been nice to be able to download more songs to play. Guitar Hero is also a bit more expensive than a regular game due to the guitar controller being included, but in the end it’s worth every penny you spend on it and more.

 

Marine Park Empire (PC) Review

Publisher: Enlight Software Inc. || Overall: 6.0/10

Marine Park Empire, developed by Enlight Software, is a simulation tycoon game for the PC. What Marine Park Empire sets out to do is provide another “build-your-own-thing” game, much like those we’ve seen before so many times. Unfortunately for this title, it isn’t nearly as compelling as games that have helped define the genre in the first place. It also doesn’t help that there’s a curious emphasis on land animals, which is really out of place considering the title and apparent main theme. At the end of the day, Marine Park Empire is just a basic zoo tycoon game.

As is common with the genre, there’s no overall story; rather the game is scenario-based. There’s a little background about why a park needs help or how it’s doing to create some conflict, thus giving motivation for the player to make a conscious effort in rectifying the problem with the zoo you’re trying to complete goals for. Each new scenario is pretty basic: you’re given a chunk of land to mess around with, and a trunk full of cash. After that it’s just you buying animals and putting up fences so you can watch little people walk around the park, stare at the animals, then walk around the park some more.

Buildings are important, as they are in any real life zoo. Concession stands and employee offices are just a few of the buildings that can be built. Some help you maintain the park while some help you build revenue. With the money you make or loan out, you can buy animals and customize their habitats. Animal habitats can be customized to your liking by placing trees, rocks, water, and of course animals, to make your park come to life. Unfortunately that life is pretty depressing all around, as the user interface is a lot more ineffective than it really should be. The management bars themselves take up about half of the screen making it very hard to do anything at all.

As with all other tycoon games of the sort, you try to earn money, keep customers happy, tend to your park as it is needed, and try and complete goals that need to be completed in a particular scenario. There’s also the option to take pictures with a “camera” in-game, as well as take video– I’d say it would be a useful addition if the game was actually interesting to look at, like Roller Coaster Tycoon, but Marine Park Empire doesn’t evoke that feeling. The graphics have a cartoony feel which are moderate at best, and the sound is on the same level. You can run the game in both 800×600 and 1024×768 modes, so it can be tailored better to what resolution your computer can run at.

Marine Park Empire has a lot of playability problems, however. It takes a very long time to load a new scenario — you can be waiting around two or three minutes at times. Even when exiting a game it takes a long time to leave. The game, being in full 3D, has to make use of a full 3D camera, but unfortunately it’s clunky and even a mess at times. For some reason, the game feels like making the camera do exactly what it isn’t supposed to do, like when trying to tilt and pan ever so slightly, it’ll fly into a tornado resulting in an unintended angle. One thing that is kind of nice about the camera is that you can zoom all the way into the “action” that’s happening in your park. Even though this is a zoo game, I couldn’t cage the lag that runs rampant most of the time, even with all the visual settings turned down.

Basically, Marine Park Empire comes down to being a generic tycoon game with an overly complex management system. It isn’t that exciting to play because most of what you do is watch animals mate and pay back the huge loans that you get dumped with in the beginning of a scenario. Being a budget title, Marine Park Empire could be right up the alley of tycoon game enthusiasts or even for a young kid who hasn’t played any other tycoon game yet, however, if you stick with a Roller Coaster Tycoon game, you honestly won’t be missing out on much at the end of the day.

 

Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 2 (PS2) Review

Developer/Publisher: Atlus || Overall: 8.9/10

Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 2 is the direct sequel to Atlus’ Digital Devil Saga. DDS2 marks the first time I’ve experienced the series, so I didn’t know what to expect. Since I hadn’t played the game that had set down the original storyline and introduced the characters I actually play as, the beginning hours of the game left me completely clueless as to what was going on. There is absolutely no summary of the first game – DDS2 starts right after the original ends. DDS2 is an interesting RPG, nonetheless, and with a little research online you can catch up with at least some pieces of the story you’re already supposed to know before putting the game into your Playstation 2.

As mentioned before, to truly understand what is going on in DDS2, you’ll have to have played the first game. While the bigger picture might leave you in the dark if you start with the second game, you’ll be able to follow what’s going on to some degree. There are some seemingly random concepts thrown about, like “the Junkyard,” A.I. being implanted into soldiers, “The Karma Society,” cannibalism, “Nirvana,” a black sun that turns people into stone – the list goes on. Not much can really actually be said without spoiling both games. Non-battle gameplay consists of mazes and puzzles that you have to complete to get through levels.

DDS2 takes a few pages out of the classic turn-based RPG handbook. Random battles, magic, and experience points are just a few of the concepts in the game that aren’t new. What actually makes or breaks an RPG is how it’s implemented, and DDS2 does a great job at doing so, so much that it can actually be enjoyable to play through the tons of random battles you’ll encounter. The best thing about most of the random battles is that they go by very fast, especially when going against weaker enemies. An “Auto” function can really speed up the battles you enter when you just want to have your characters all use their regular physical attacks and beat the crap out of the enemies without having to press the X button repeatedly. You have five characters to fight with, and only three at a time can be active in battle. At any time (even when a character has fallen) you can switch out one character for another. The benefit of being able to get through battles faster means you can get more leveling up in less time, and in turn, getting on with the story at hand.

When it comes to regular battles, your characters assume the form of a demon called an Atma. Each character will have a unique demon to transform into, and can “revert” to his or her human form at any time. In their human forms, the characters will use guns as their weapons. Most of the time, you’ll enter the battle in your demon form, which allows you to use all your normal skills and magic. In the event you get ambushed, you won’t “have enough time” to transform, and be left to either fight in your human form or take a turn to transform into the Atma. On an even rarer occasion, you’ll enter battles in a “berserk” mode, in which your characters “can’t control their power” and are stuck in between transformations. Berserk mode boosts the attack of your characters immensely, but greatly lowers their defense. While in Berserk mode, a class of skills called “Hunt” will work the best. The Hunt skill class itself allows you to eat your enemies and gives you a large amount of ability points cleverly called Atma Points. AP is simply used to gain new abilities; to earn these new abilities, you have to buy a “Mantra” and download it. The different types of ways you can enter battle definitely makes the game more interesting when leveling up, because you won’t keep entering battles the same way hundreds of times and can take advantage of the different situations to give a feeling of more variety in the gameplay.

Most closely in relation to how the Sphere Grid worked in Final Fantasy X, a hexagonal grid called the Mantra Grid allows you to pick which Mantra (and in turn, abilities) that you want to buy. Once you master a Mantra, you download another one and the process repeats itself. Mantra can and will be very expensive down the line. Once a Mantra on the grid is mastered, the other hexagons around the newly mastered hexagon will “unlock” and allow you to buy and download them to gain their skills. The grid will expand as you move toward the outer edges, and unlock one layer at a time. There are also “locked” hexagons on the Mantra grid that must have all the Mantra around them mastered before they can be downloaded – as long as a character has mastered any of the hexagons around the locked hexagon, it’ll count towards unlocking it basically meaning all your characters can work together at unlocking a hexagon. Having the skills displayed on a grid makes ability earning a lot more interesting; there is a visual representation of what has been earned making randomly earning abilities seem more restrictive.

A ton of abilities are available to be earned, and with five characters there’ll be a lot of effort put into acquiring all of them for everyone. However, as time goes on, each character will inevitably end up diverging into different directions and have unique abilities. As if that weren’t enough to do with your characters, combos are thrown into the mix. If two or three characters have compatibly equipped abilities, they work together to make a more advanced skill to use together. The rest of the backend battle system doesn’t involve much more than ability management. The only thing you have to worry about equipping is ammo for guns that you use in your human form (which can actually be surprisingly expensive) and rings. Rings aren’t too complicated; they just enhance certain stats and if you combine jewels in the rings’ slots they’ll boost your stats even more. The extra layers of complexity are definitely aimed towards the hardcore RPG crowd, and it’s definitely nice to feel like you’re playing a game that actually takes some skill to play.

By far the most attractive aspect of the game will be in its general presentation and graphics. The game really looks like it’s an anime, though some parts might look a little stale or unnatural, it’s really amazing how it looks for the Playstation 2. The world they create is obviously science fiction, and there are some interesting concepts shown, as per its setting. The game is very pleasing to experience from a visual standpoint. The sound effects and soundtrack are also another strong part to the game. The music is very good, and sound effects aren’t annoying. Sometimes the characters will talk when you’re entering a battle, but their voices are so low you can’t really even hear what they’re saying. What drags the overall sound’s experience down is the curious lack of actual voice acting in anywhere except for CG cutscenes. During story scenes where it seems like there should have been talking, there just aren’t any, which is unfortunate and definitely takes away from the overall experience. As for the actual voice actors, none of them are annoying, and that’s really all you can ask for in an RPG. The main character doesn’t talk, so there’s no voice actor for him; it just gets kind of annoying during cutscenes when he looks at a character with a blank expression and seems to transfer all his thoughts on the issue at hand to the other person with no sound.

Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 2 is definitely an RPG aimed at the niche hardcore that enjoy Japanese RPGs and have played through the first game. In effect, DDS2 really is the second half of one game, and to really get the full experience this “side story” of the Shin Megami Tensei series has to offer, both must be played in succession. Otherwise, DDS2 is a solid RPG that is fun to play regardless of whether or not you understand the story.