Braid And 10 Years In Time

So, here’s to 10 years of Braid. And 10 years of Blow.

Braid went on to become a hit, critically and commercially. It contributed to the rise of indie games, digital distribution being a viable platform and self-publishing. Its most profound achievement is showing an industry what games can be – like Ico before it – that games can be an art form and it inspired this sensibility, not just for indie games, but the AAA market too.

What Braid is, is a fine – and very rare – example of postmodernism in videogames. Braid takes what we know from platforming games – especially citing the pinnacle of the genre Mario on several occasions – to only flip it on its head; to take what we conceive and then change our preconception of it.

This is evident in the closing level when you finally come to rescue the princess in more ways than one. How its narrative is told through books of text and not a cutscene, or how its story is fragmented and deconstructed is like the postmodern literature of Vonnegut, Moore or Pynchon. It takes the fun and simplicity of Mario (Modernism), then changes it to a high concept and philosophical platformer, Braid (Postmodernism).

Everything in the game has meaning, even if it’s not clear consciously. This has many people speculating and theorizing the true meaning of Braid; such as the game is about a scientist working on the atomic bomb, obsession, etc.

The game’s story sees you playing as Tim to rescue a princess from a monster. The story is told through text at the start of each world, here you’ll read that Tim has made a mistake that he would like to forget. After completion, more text is revealed adding more narrative, in a more ambiguous nature highlighting more of the deeper themes of the game.

Aesthetically the game is seeping with European and British iconography of countrysides and castles smeared with whimsical watercolours. All this accompanied by a folk-inspired soundtrack, that just hearing it makes you smell the fresh moisture produced from the green pastures. It screams of classic children’s novels like ‘Peter Rabbit’, ‘Charlotte’s Web’ or ‘Wind and the Willows’.

Braid, on the first glance, looks like a typical platformer with puzzle elements, with an added bit of collecting jigsaw puzzle pieces to complete a jigsaw on each level.

It’s when you play the game where one of the mechanics is the manipulation of time, mainly reversing time. It’s here where Blow shows his skill as a game designer and takes what I call a ‘Nintendo’ approach to game design; using a single mechanic and exploring that single mechanic to its full potential (now if anyone wants to debate this, please write in the comments as I’ll happily discuss… Even if you are Jonathan Blow yourself!).

This time manipulation is stretched and rolled like a piece of dough with some in-game items not being affected by it, the player’s shadow leaving an imprint on the world, slowing down time in a specific area or the world where time is governed by the direction you walk. Time manipulation isn’t just the mechanic, it’s the central core of the gameplay.

Here in the UK, we never had a video game crash. It was around this time the rise of independent video games happened. Teenagers coding on the ZX Spectrum, BBC Micro or Commodore 64. Hobbyists turned into rock stars and the biggest entrepreneurs in the UK.

So, independent games have been around for decades but the rise of independent games from the past 10 years owe it to Braid. Braid was released on the infamous Xbox Live and then saw ports to various other systems. It cemented Johnathan Blow as a video game legend overnight; ushering a new wave of independent developers with new sensibilities to game design.

I was in my second year of university studying media when a close friend from my hometown, I kept in contact through Xbox Live and party chat, told me about this game he was playing that blew his mind.

Eager to share this experience, my friend purchased me an Xbox cash voucher and told me to buy a game called Braid. Like my friend, I too was entranced by this video game, this piece of philosophy, this work of art. Never had I gazed upon a CRT for that length of time simply not moving – watching, understanding the levels and their logic.

You don’t simply play Braid, you assimilate Braid.

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Past Blast: Chase The Express – Staying Above 50mph

What to say about the 90’s? Take That, Shell suits, Cassettes, the rave culture, Brit-pop, The X-files, The Outer-Limits, Steps, Strange but True, Sony PlayStation, VHS, Eclipse clothing, tramlines, the ear stud, Pokémon, Nintendo vs. Sega, Eerie Indiana and the Hollywood Blockbuster action movie.

In the 90’s, TV, clothing, music, brands and movies were events; they meant something. One burst out of nowhere, full of high octane action and was all thrill; that movie was the legendary ‘Speed’ starring Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock and Dennis Hopper. An action movie that defined a generation with cheesy dialogue, a simple plot and a 1 hour and 56 minutes adrenaline rush.

I imagine any youth of today may laugh at the above comments on Speed, yet, I’m not kidding. Speed was the must-see movie that even had its own simulator. Speed later influenced one of gaming’s beloved franchises: Metal Gear Solid. With the first Metal Gear Solid soundtrack ripping off the Speed soundtrack (seriously, someone should have been sued) and Metal Gear Solid 2’s Fat Man being inspired by Dennis Hopper’s character.

But there was one game that feels like Speed the game just without the staying above 50mph, being on a bus and Sandra Bullock – that game is Chase the Express.

Covert Ops: Nuclear Dawn (let’s be honest, that title sounds like a prog album) in America, was developed by Sugar and Rockets, and published by Sony Computer Entertainment in Japan/Europe and Activision in America. It was released in the dawn of the new Millennium for the PlayStation.

You play as Jack Morton (maybe I’m reading into it too much but the main character from Speed is called Jack) a NATO officer sent to board the Blue Harvest, a train carrying the Ambassador that’s been hijacked by the KGB who now have access to nuclear bombs.

You are the sole survivor of your team after missiles strike your helicopter, nevertheless, you’ll see many characters on the way, Christina Wayborn – one the ambassador’s special police, Philip Mason – the ambassador’s secretary.  As Jack, your job is to stop the terrorists and ensure none of the nuclear bombs are detonated.

Ok, but what about the gameplay? I hear you say that – I was going to tell you if you calm down and listen. Patience is a good thing.

Chase the Express is a third-person action game with puzzle elements and item management. It features the obligatory tank controls suited for the fixed camera angles you’d expect from a game of the genre and time; however, the environments are modelled in 3D meaning you can slightly alter the camera angle.

The puzzles are your typical ‘find item, and place item in said obvious place’. Firearm combat auto aims at an enemy with a ring that will appear around them – changing to a darker colour, it indicates you can deal more damage and if you run out of ammo you always have your fists.

Stealth mainly consists of you walking to one of the side cabin, waiting for a geezer to walk past, and walking out while his back is turned. Another option is popping out of cover with an action roll or dodging certain attacks; you Souls veterans will feel right at home. The game does it’s best to mix the gameplay up with controlling the speed of a train to match another train, multiple scenarios/endings and a bomb disposal section where the wirecutter is the slowest machine I’ve had the pleasure of enduring.

The highlight of this game is by far the dialogue, writing and voice acting; it’s so terrible in that PlayStation 1 way that it provides the game entertainment and lots of charm. The lines are delivered vacantly with no emotion and are disjointed. The writing – there is a section where you speak to a character about how to disarm some missiles, his reply is just “Screwdriver”. Screwdriver… Genius.

That’s the joy of this game, it doesn’t try to be something spectacular because it knows it isn’t, the gameplay doesn’t try to wow you with some special mechanic because it’s all a poorly done version of something else, the writing and acting isn’t going to blow your mind and they know it.

What the game is, is entertainment, time out of your life for 4-5 hours. In that very 90’s way, it knows what it is and what its goal is, to entertain; not too much, but enough –  it doesn’t swallow your life in the process. If this was a 90’s movie, it would come in a triple VHS with ‘Money Train’ and/or ‘Daylight’; it’s that calibre of video game.

It cost me three pounds. If there is any PlayStation one fans/collectors who haven’t played this game and they want something they can hammer out in a day or two – give it a blast. I’ll be back soon.

Past Blast: L.A. Noire – Fresh Yet Strangely Familiar

Ok, let’s get this out of the way, to begin with. This isn’t Grand Theft Auto for the 40s. L.A. Noire is not about running over pedestrians. It is a little more highbrow in fact. From the setting through to the story-telling via the gameplay, it all feels fresh, and yet strangely familiar.

Welcome to 1947 Los Angeles. You assume the role of a detective. Solving cases and swigging coffee are your forte, and you’re there to get the job done. You spend most of your time talking to witnesses and searching for clues, trying to solve cases of Arson, Vice and Homicide.

While you can hijack cars and explore the city, the main focus of the game is its strong narrative. This is beautifully complemented by the animation and voice acting. Talking about the animation specifically, Rockstar made use of the impressive MotionScan technology that really captures minute facial expressions, taking virtual acting to another level.

The cutscenes were tightened and more polished than the Grand Theft Auto series too. All of these improvements mean the narrative, was and is, conveyed in a sublime fashion.

John Noble.jpg
Even the mighty John Noble was in it.

But how does the gameplay fair? Well, oddly enough the advanced animation actually becomes crucial here, especially when talking to witnesses. You have to examine witnesses movements and facial expressions when talking to them, trying to figure out if they’re lying. This sort of concentration the game demands only serves to further draw you into the compelling plot.

Comparisons may be drawn with past PlayStation 3 hitter Heavy Rain, in the sense that if you do read the situation wrongly, it can impact your progress within the game. But unlike the BAFTA-winning hit, LA Noire seems to take the complete experience to another level. The action sequences that complement the investigative gameplay work very well too, (as you’d expect from Rockstar).

Even though it felt more like LA Confidential as opposed to film noir, it was an awfully good game (haters begone!).

How Your Parents Bought Their Video Games

How Your Parents Bought Their Video Games

As I was downloading a game onto my PlayStation 4, it dawned on me that the process in which we purchase video games is nothing like the bygone days of my youth. Back in the ancient times of the 80’s and 90’s, we had to go to places called stores, which were constructed of bricks and mortar, and staffed by human beings from all walks of life.

These hallowed halls contained gaming wonders and often times, you could overhear the finest of nerd conversations and debates.

It not only saddens me that those days are most likely over (with a couple exceptions), but it makes me weep for the younger generation who will never know what that experience was like. For all those who don’t know what video game buying was like oh so long ago, I am going to list all the places and experiences from my childhood where one could go to treat themselves to a cacophony of gaming.

Toys R’ Us

I feel like I should start with Toys R Us as they only recently went out of business, and younger gamers might know what this was like. I can’t say if the store changed the way it sold games in recent times, but back in the day, it was an interesting experience.

Finding your way to the video game section was always fun because you got to pass all the awesome toys on the way. Once you got to the correct aisle, there were, in fact, no games to actually take. Instead, where games should be, buyers would find tiny slips of paper. You’d take the slip you wanted, bring it to the register to be scanned and paid for, and sent to a waiting area by a storeroom. You’d hand your receipt to the employee who would disappear momentarily before returning with your game.

It was a unique experience, most likely put into place to curb theft, but It always felt like an adventure. Nothing was more heartbreaking then locating the game you wanted, only to find there were no more slips of paper, just a sad sold-out sign. Toys R’ Us would also have systems on display before they were released; I’ll never forget the first time I saw the Nintendo 64 at my local store and nearly lost it over how amazing the system was!

KB Toys

KB Toys was a staple in practically every mall in the United States up until they declared bankruptcy in 2008 and disappeared. They were small toy stores but always had a special charm to them that I can’t quite put my finger on. I pretty much went to KB Toys for the sole purpose of either buying Star Wars figures or video games. They had a wall of Star Wars toys that would make any nerd weep and always had a figure or two that was harder to find. Their gaming section was pretty much non-existent, however.

Everything they had was located behind the counter, so you’d have to ask if there was something you didn’t see. I always found it slightly impersonal, but reliable in a clutch if a game was sold out elsewhere. If memory serves me, they were also a tad more expensive than other places, which is probably why I mostly stuck to the Star Wars figures. It’s been years since I’ve seen a KB Toys let alone walked into one, but a trip to the mall was never complete without walking down its disorganized aisles of fun.

Funcoland

I don’t know if this was a New York thing, or if they existed across the country, but Funcoland was a unique experience, to say the least. Not really a place where you’d go to buy new games, as they were definitely more expensive than other retailers, but they were one of the only places in town to buy older games and systems. If you were looking for an original gold cartridge of The Legend of Zelda, that was the place you’d find it. They had quite the collection and usually had a few systems hooked up to play. In fact, they had a ton of systems visitors could try out and waste hours hopping from one to another.

This was a store where the true gaming fans went to play old games, strike up good conversations, and perhaps walk out with a classic they hadn’t thought about in years. It should also be noted they all looked slightly run down, which further added to their magic. Like KB Toys and Toys R’ Us, Funcoland no longer exists, but retro-gaming stores of today owe a lot to this pioneering gaming utopia.

Electronics Boutique

Another mall staple and a place that’s near and dear to my heart! EB, as it was known back in the day, was my home away from home. It was well-lit, clean, and always stocked with the latest and greatest. This was the place I bought 90 per cent of my gaming needs. I can’t think of a time where I didn’t walk in to buy something but ended up there for hours just talking to the employees about all things geeky and gaming. There were systems set up to play and everyone had a great time. It was our Central Park, our hangout spot.

I loved EB so much, I ended up working there for a couple of summers when I was in high school. Walking into a GameStop today is almost exactly like the experience gamers would have had back in the EB days. The layouts are similar, the staff have the same vibe, and it’s probably the number one place to buy used games. There is, of course, a reason for this, which brings me to…

Babbages

Babbages has a long and storied history, which is shocking when you think about it. I did not like Babbages when I was younger. They were also a mall mainstay but palled in comparison to Electronics Boutique. Whereas EB was big and bright, clean and inviting, Babbages was small and dark, dirty and off-putting. The staff was usually not as friendly (or knowledgeable), but they tried their hardest to compete. Over the years, Babbages has been bought and sold, changed its name, and tried to reinvent itself.

Eventually aquired by Barnes & Noble (they also bought Funco as well), back in the late 90’s, the entity formally known as Babbages went public and was renamed, you might have guessed, GameStop! That tiny hole in the wall store has become one of the biggest names in gaming retail, which is mind-boggling to me.

In a WWE vs. WCW move, GameStop even purchased formal Rival EB Games (Electronics Boutique) for a whopping $1.44 billion back in 2005. GameStop is a great place and I enjoy my visits, but the evolution it took to get to where it is today is staggering.

Next time you enter a GameStop, take a minute to think about the history that goes along with it. Buying a game or a system isn’t just about the purchase, it’s about the experience. The sights and sounds of a retail store are unique and magical in their own right. With their acquisition of ThinkGeek, GameStop stores are even more wonderous than ever before.

Heart And Soul

I’m pretty lazy these days, so if I can purchase a digital download or a physical copy of a game online, I probably will, but sometimes I really miss doing it the old-fashioned way. A good gaming chat is hard to come by these days, and the conversations you strike up with people while waiting in line or behind the counter can’t be recreated with an online purchase. Buying video games may be more convenient these days, but the heart and soul of it all is an endangered activity.

Bujingai Swordmaster

Past Blast: Bujingai Swordmaster – Surprisingly Rare

As I approached my favourite stall at the Doncaster Video Game Market, looking at all the obscure splendours, I thought: ‘It’s these obscure games that make me attend these events’. To dig into gaming’s past, games ignored on their release and games still ignored today.

As I’m looking through the PlayStation 2 games I hear my fiancée’s voice staccato with excitement to my left. There in her hand was ‘Bujingai-Swordmaster’, there was one of these obscure splendours. I hand over the game with my money to the merchant.

“You know what, this game should be a hell of a lot more expensive. This is a surprisingly rare game”, says the merchant consciously grinning.

“I know, I’ve been after it for some time,” I say, noticing the crowd look at the case in a curious bewilderment.

“Not got the demand, which is a shame because it’s a really good game”, replied the merchant as he’s bagging it up.

“Well, no one has heard of it”.

“I know, thanks mate,” I said, taking the bag from the merchant.

“Thank you”.

I walk off in search for more obscure splendours.

Bujingai Swordmaster

Bujingai Swordmaster

Bujingai, Bujingai: Swordmaster (in Europe) or Bujingai: The Forsaken Forest (North America) is a beat em up/hack and slash game with loose puzzle-solving and platform elements.

It was developed by the legendary Taito Corporation in collaboration with Red Entertainment and published by BAM! Entertainment in North America and 505 Gamestreet in Europe.

The game was exclusively made for the PlayStation 2 and was a celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Taito. Due to the anniversary, some exceptional talent worked on this game, with Toshihiro Kawamoto the character designer for Cowboy Bebop, Yosuke Kuroda the scenario writer Trigun and the main protagonist modelled after J-pop Icon Gackt.

So again, all this talent but I bet you just walked past this game?

Well, here’s what you’ve missed out on or for you retro collectors out there; here is what you can get and get for a reasonable price!

Now when I played this game, I didn’t pay that much attention to the story. I had a vague idea of something going on, but I’ve done some research (I read the Wikipedia page…) and here’s what I’ve got.

A 100 years ago an accident of an environmentally friendly energy source has wiped out 70% of the world’s population and in the process has wiped out the government.

All the remaining survivors have gained special powers from earth’s energy – in swordplay and magic. You play as Lau Wong, a human exile who returns to earth to battle his training partner and friend Rei Jenron – who has been possessed by an ‘Evil Spirit’.

Yohfa has been kidnapped, and numerous portals have been opened allowing demons to take over the Asian city Bujingai; it’s up to Lau Wong, to save Bujingai.

Bujingai Swordmaster

As you can see, not an Oscar-winning narrative, but this game isn’t about the narrative, it’s about gameplay.

The gameplay is simple, with two attack buttons and a jump button. The jump allows you to glide and run on the wall, then the light attack button acts as a counter if pressed at the right time.

The counter is where the game shines, you have these gems in the corner of the screen based on how many times you can defend before taking damage. When the counter kicks in, your mouth will drop, and you’ll salivate at its splendour.

Like all hack and slashers around this era, you have a combo counter; in this game, the combo counter runs out the more you are on the ground, so the game encourages you to jump around, gliding through the air and running on walls like some crazed Chow Yun-fat.

The unspoken genius of this game lays in the hands of the sound designers. It’s like listening to the nostalgia of old samurai and kung-fu movies. Those vivid swooshes of the sword, that ting and swipe of steel on steel, the swooping of bodies gliding in the air, those synthesized laser beams, and last but not by a long shot least, the sound of the loose fabric clothes contending with the force of its wearer.

It’s in those details in sound that gives the game authenticity.

Bujingai Swordmaster

Bujingai isn’t a masterpiece, the environments aren’t that exciting, the glide mechanic never feels like you have complete control of where Lau will go, and the game is repetitive.

But the excellent sound design mixed with the outstanding choreography of the fighting animations is just a fun gameplay experience; it’s a shame it doesn’t get the credit it deserves.

Well, now I must give it a blast because it was so dirt cheap.

Discworld Noir

Past Blast: Discworld Noir [1999] – Pratchettean Comedic Fantasy

The 90’s were something of a golden age for the Graphic Point-and-Click Adventure.

From the likes of Revolution Software’s Beneath a Steel Sky and Broken Sword to LucasArts’ Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis and The Curse of Monkey Island, many who grew up playing these narrative-heavy, puzzle-solving games look back on this era fondly.

Indeed, reflecting on such an era makes one lament how relatively unpopular the genre is nowadays. There are many theories surrounding the genre’s downfall – the rise of DOOM and the fast-paced action game was more fun and more instantly rewarding than the slow-paced, puzzle-solving brain-scratchers that were Point-and-Clicks, some say.

Or, perhaps, the genre simply suffered from overexposure – after all, a ton of Adventure Games were released during the 90’s and many were predictable and samey in their game mechanics (point cursor here, collect an item, combine with this item, talk to character here) that the genre merely became stale.

Heck, a great deal of Point-and-Click adventures used LucasArts’ SCUMM engine in their games so maybe it’s no wonder if that was the case.

Discworld Noir

Past Blast: Discworld Noir

Thus, when Discworld Noir was released in 1999, it’s no surprise the game fell under the radar for most people. It was at this point that far more fast-paced and insta-rewarding 3D polygonal platform and shooting games were ruling the gaming roost on such platforms as the PC and Sony PlayStation.

In addition, the publisher was folding just as the game was being released, meaning it received little to no promotion. This is a shame – because many missed out on what is arguably one of the funniest and inventive narrative-driven video games in existence.

Based on the late author Terry Pratchett’s comical fantasy universe, The Discworld, Discworld Noir mixed traditional character archetypes and themes from 1930’s film noir with Pratchett’s strange and humorous world to create a unique take on both of these things respectively.

Add to the mix gameplay based around a notebook and clues (and smells – more on that later) as well as the occasional object puzzle and you got yourself a success – if not the most obvious one.

Discworld Noir

The game’s story centres around the adventures of the Discworld’s first and only Private Detective, Lewton (a seeming nod to famous 1940’s film producer, Val Lewton) who, in traditional Noir fashion, has a fateful meeting with a femme fatale, Carlotta von Uberwald.

Asking Lewton to investigate the disappearance of her lover, Mundy, this sets the fledgeling Private Eye on a long case that will take him all over Ankh-Morpork, the Disc’s greatest city, in a plot that thickens by the hour.

In fact, it would be accurate to say that, out of the three Discworld video games developed by Perfect Entertainment, it is the most in-depth and engaging in terms of its narrative, with a few plot twists and interesting characters along the way that keep things fresh and interesting.

Whereas the original Discworld and its sequel, Discworld II: Missing Presumed…!? reflected the quirky and light-hearted tone of Pratchett’s earlier work with obvious fantasy parodies and even nods towards the absurdities of game design, Discworld Noir captures the relatively mature tone of Pratchett’s later work, especially from the ‘Watch’ novels.

Gone are the two-dimensional, zany cartoon visuals of the first two games – in their place are realistic 3D pre-rendered graphics that create a darker atmosphere. Indeed, the whole game takes place during night.

This is a different Discworld game, for sure – but it’s in these differences that the game truly shines.

Discworld Noir

The crux of the gameplay revolves around visiting locations from the game’s overworld map (the city of Ankh-Morpork which appears in most of the novels), interacting with characters in these locations and asking them questions to proceed the case.

The player asks these questions through a simple menu of dialogue choices but more frequently through the use of Lewton’s notebook. When Lewton hears important information or potential leads, he will automatically note it down in his notebook.

The presentation of the notebook is satisfying, with players able to freely flick through the pages and choose a subject to grill the character with by simply clicking it. Often, the path forward is illuminated by thinking about what subjects to ask the character about and in what order.

Part of the way into the game, Lewton obtains the ability to switch into a werewolf and out again at will – this allows him to track different scents and smells that can help with his investigations.

This, again, adds another dynamic to the gameplay, encouraging the player to use their brains and think about the various tools in their arsenal that can be used to crack a puzzle or situation.

It makes that moment when you do figure out a puzzle all the more satisfying. Where traditional object puzzles are concerned, many players will find relief in that they are relatively sparse, particularly in regards to the previous two games which were notorious for their overuse of this mechanic.

Discworld Noir

The presentation in Discworld Noir is visually impressive, and especially so given this is a video game released in 1999. From the music (the main theme of which employs old-style sombre saxophones) to the dark brooding setting, the game beautifully exudes the atmosphere of 1940’s film Noir.

Like with many games of its era, it utilises pre-rendered backgrounds for its various locations and characters, giving it a significant edge which wouldn’t have been achieved had the developers decided to use 3D polygonal graphics.

In fact, the only 3D polygonal character in the game is Lewton himself. Admittedly, some of the pre-rendered character animations can look a bit robotic and unnatural sometimes – and especially so, compared to the exuberance of today’s graphical technology.

Regardless, it works and doesn’t detract from the game. What does help is the game’s high-quality voice acting – which is even more impressive when you realise that four actors are providing the voices to over seventy different characters.

The stars include Irish comedian Rob Brydon (who masterfully provides Lewton’s ‘hard-boiled dialogue’ among other voices), Kate Robbins, Robert Llewellyn and Nigel Planer.

All four of these extraordinary talents are experienced UK comedy actors and it shows. The delivery of the dialogue is great, the voices varied and wonderfully executed and the comedic timing is on point.

Each character is uniquely brought to life and, with a game that revolves around character and dialogue, it’s good that they got that right.

Discworld Noir

But ultimately, Perfect Entertainment got a lot of things right with Discworld Noir.

It’s one of those rare gems that will not only appeal to a niche audience (fans of Terry Pratchett) but also to those who enjoy adventures games in general – particularly if you like your fantasy with a twist.

The fact that the game flew underneath the radar during the time of its release is simply criminal. It’s so unique in its premise – mixing Pratchettean comedic fantasy with film Noir themes – and its plot so deep and engaging that it is undoubtedly worth playing today.

While players have experienced considerable difficulty making the game work on newer versions of Windows, you can find a workable solution on lead game designer Chris Bateman’s blog. Trust me when I say it’s worth the effort.

Grandia Past Blast [PSone] – Charm and Brilliance

The Sony PlayStation (or the PSone in its later slim, white iteration) was home to some of the biggest and best JRPGs in gaming. From the likes of the unforgettable Final Fantasy VII to Star Ocean: The Second Story to Suikoden II, Sony’s first console rivalled the Super Nintendo in terms of diverse and epic JRPGs. In this Past Blast, we’re focusing on one of the more charming and vibrant releases in the genre during the PSone’s lifespan. This release is Grandia.

Grandia

Grandia Past Blast [PSone]

Grandia was developed by Game Arts, a company previously famous for their Lunar series, the last of which had been released on the oft-forgotten Sega Mega-CD system in 1994 in Japan. Development began shortly after Lunar: Eternal Blue had been completed, taking a total of two years to finish. Although the game was initially going to be released for the Sega Mega-CD, it was eventually decided to be released on Sega’s next-gen console at the time, the Saturn in 1997. It was welcomed with large amounts of praise from fans and critics alike during its initial release in Japan but, despite a fan campaign as well as massive import sales, it wasn’t released in the West. It wasn’t until the game journeyed to Sony’s magic grey box two years later in 1999 that it was given an official English localization. And for many players, this is where their experience of Game Arts’ classic began. So, what exactly is so good about it?

Grandia

Well, firstly, there is the charm and character of the game which is not only apparent in its colourful, anime-esque presentation, but also in the shoes of its protagonists. The story follows the escapades of fourteen-year-old Justin, a wannabe adventurer, and his sidekick and childhood friend, eight-year-old Sue, as they travel the game’s world searching for the lost kingdom of the mysterious long-forgotten Icarian race, Alent. This consequently has them lock horns with a private army known as the Garlyle Forces, whose evil leader is looking to seize the secrets of the Icarians himself and use them to take over the world. As is evident, the story isn’t exactly groundbreaking – the game clearly has younger players in mind, after all – but it works.

Even the characters are admittedly not all that original, fulfilling specific archetypes down to a tee, but they’re so well-written (and many of them so well-developed over the course of the game’s narrative) that you are unlikely to care. The energetic, impulsive Justin’s rapport with the relatively level-headed but humorous Sue provides much of the game’s charm, especially in the opening chapters of the game. Even then, many of the later characters such as master swordsman, Gadwin, who acts as a mentor to the younger characters provide a lot of personality to the game, not to mention the teenage adventuress, Feena, with whom Justin develops a budding romance. Their personalities are further amplified by the emotive character portraits that appear during dialogue as well as the game’s impressive range of character animations. In fact, the range of animations – particularly during in-game scenes – are so large and varied, that it makes one think that maybe all games with sprite-based characters should be like for this.

Grandia

Another area where Grandia is strong is its in-game world. Unlike many of its contemporaries in the genre, Grandia doesn’t use pre-rendered backgrounds for its locations, instead opting to use fully 3D polygonal areas. While this does mean that the areas have a very jagged look about them (and especially noticeable in today’s climate where games are held to a much higher graphical standard), the game’s bright and vibrant colour palette, as well as the variety in location assets, nonetheless make it a joy to explore.

From lively towns to derelict temples to maze-like jungles, the game has it all, with an atmosphere aided by its great music. Now, while the game’s music is something of a mixed bag – shifting between inspired, catchy tunes and atmospheric dungeon music to rather lacklustre bongo drum loops for some of its outside areas – when the music gets good, it gets really good. This is particularly evident during some of the game’s important scenes which employ sweeping emotional strings during key emotional moments and a riveting orchestral score as its main theme. It’s a shame that the game’s soundtrack couldn’t have been completely orchestral, although this is perhaps a result of the limitations of the PlayStation’s disc space.

Grandia

Luckily though, plenty of disc space was left for battles that are fun and engaging in equal measure. In an interesting twist, the game combines elements from both turn-based and real-time battle systems. During a battle, both the party and their enemies must wait until their icon reaches the midway point of the ‘IP’ bar before they can make an action. When an enemy or player is attacked, this usually means that their icon’s journey to the midpoint of the IP bar is momentarily postponed thus giving an opportunity for the player or enemy to reach their midway point before the other and gain an advantage. If the player manages to attack the enemy while they are planning an attack or spell, they will ‘cancel’ that enemy’s action – naturally, the same applies vice versa.

As can be expected from a JRPG, there is a wide range of special attacks and magic spells for the characters to learn and exploit. In the case of the special moves, these are (mostly) unique to each character and, interestingly, are linked to the player’s use of magic. By consistently using their magic (bought at town shops using special ‘mana eggs’ found in the field or dungeons), party members not only upgrade the vigour and effect of their spells but also their stats and their repertoire of special moves. Similar effects can be achieved through the continued use of different weapons. The nature of this is that it encourages players to switch between different kinds of weapons and to keep using different kinds of spells, working out which spell works most effectively on which kind of enemy. In addition, the prospect of more punishing special moves gives the player more reason to utilise their magic.

Grandia

The real magic, however, is in the game as a whole. Combining vibrant, colourful locations with brilliant characters, a fun battle system and intriguing lore, Grandia is well-worth a look, even in this day and age. There is a reason, after all, why it is still widely talked about and given that the game is readily available on the PSN network, you really have no excuse! In an era of angst-filled JRPG solemnity, the charm and brilliance of Game Arts’ classic is a welcome one. It’s time for adventure. It’s time to level up. It’s time for Grandia.

El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron

Past Blast – El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron

I am not a religious man, but I also don’t like to call myself an atheist either; atheism is just another belief, just another label and just another divide between people. I may not be religious, but I have no problem with religion either – religion fascinates me. The incredible stories, stories that guide people into living a better life, stories that give people hope and stories that help people through tough times; what’s so bad about that?

El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron

Behold El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron, a hack and slash platformer developed and published by UTV Ignition Games. The game was released for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in 2011. Development was led by none other than Takeyasu Sawaki, the character designer for classics such as Okami, Devil May Cry and Fatal Frame. It featured voice acting from Jason Isaacs who played Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter Movies.

So, with this class A talent working on the project, why haven’t you, most likely, heard of this game? I’ll tell you why, because you were too busy playing some Western FPS game, (probably).

You really should have played this game, and here’s why reader.

El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron
El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron

El Shaddai, roughly translated ‘God Almighty’ takes its story inspiration from several religious texts but the main bulk of the story comes from ‘The Book of Enoch’; Enoch being the character the player inhabits.

Enoch is a scribe in the heavens and is the only mortal human to ever be granted access to heaven, lived for thousands of years and is the grandfather of Noah. Enoch is instructed by Lucifel, a guardian angel who acts as the voice of God (The Metatron), to return the Fallen Angels to Heaven.

The Fallen Angels have disobeyed God’s will and have corrupted human life by progressing human evolution, due to this, the humans now worship the Angels more than God. The Fallen Angels have also created Nephilims, half-angel and half-human hybrids that devour each other (and humans).

It’s your job as Enoch, with the help of Lucifel and the Archangels (Gabriel, Michael, Raphael and Uriel) to put a stop to the Fallen Angels’ antics – preventing the Great Flood.

On the surface, this may look like your typical third-person platformer hack and slash, but it is, in fact, more unique than you would think. With only three weapon types: Gail, a long ranged weapon that allows you to dash in mid-air but is weak in terms of damage, Arch, a mid-damage melee weapon that allows you to perform combos quickly, and the Vail, a slow weapon, but powerful. It can also act as a strong shield.

These weapons can only be acquired by stealing them from enemies, and you can only have one weapon at a time – giving the game a little bit of strategy. After prolonged use of a weapon, the weapon will get corrupted and you’ll need to purify it. However, you must choose the right time to purify your weapon as it takes a few seconds to accomplish the action.

It’s the fight mechanics where the game will either turn people on or off. Spamming the buttons quickly will act as a light attack, having a split-second break within the attacks will act as a medium attack, and holding down the buttons is obviously a charge attack. It’s when you realize this that the combat’s nuances really start to shine through.

Not only this, but the game doesn’t give you a health bar (well, not until you’ve completed it once), instead your armour will break piece by piece until you are a shirtless man in jeans (yes, jeans) and that’s when you die… Or do you?

As the screen fades, if you spam all of the buttons, you will get another attempt and carry on from where you left off – but each time gets harder and harder to revive yourself. If that wasn’t enough uniqueness for you, the game also changes from 3D to 2D sections and never feels off when it does.

El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron
El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron

Without a shadow of a doubt, El Shaddai is visually the most beautiful game ever made; I can say that with no struggle at all. See, this story is set before Christ and is even set before there was a Hell, so the game has an otherworldly feeling; it looks and feels divine, nothing is man-made here. Like a Roger Dean illustration.

It achieves this through striking colours and shapes, but there’s also mobile phones, disco-dancing and a motorbike section; it’s the mix of old, contemporary and the profound, it’s like everything you’ve seen and like nothing you’ve seen all at once. The game has a charm to it too, with the characters appearing in a cel-shaded manner. The Nephilim? Even these cannibalistic abominations look cute.

The sound design is very THX, it sounds like they have been treated with a circuit board and transmitted by an aerial; natural but perverted by technology.

Then we have the music and what a soundtrack it is. Just like the visuals, it mixes old with new; you’ll have classic pieces that sound like Steve Reich and Philip Glass B-sides, only for the next level to change to what sounds like Vangelis jamming on a Moog synthesizer; obviously it’s not these artists, but you get where I’m coming from: variety, classic and modern fused together.

El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron
El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron

The game does have some faults, like the fixed camera in the third-person sections, making the 3D platforming sections rather irritating as you try to judge the platforms. Another is that the gameplay doesn’t really change throughout, with little variety (except the motorbike section), but with its reasonable short length it’s not too much of an issue.

El Shaddai takes what we know from the past – religious text, 2D platforming, a single attack button, classical music, and then puts its modern spin on everything. We get religious characters wearing jeans and using mobile phones, a rhythmic combat system and electronic music that creates an original and unique gaming experience you’ll get nowhere else.

Sometimes you must look to the past to find the future.

Echo Night: Beyond

Past Blast: Echo Night: Beyond

I had a very close friend in my childhood through to my teens, she got me through thick and thin, she was always someone to rely on. This friend was my pet cat, Thelma.

She may have been out for a day or two, but she always made sure she came back home to let me know she was fine – I knew she had my back. We went on adventures together, pretending that the spare room, which at one point was filled with a broken ship, was an alien land.

Unfortunately, my mother went through a divorce – which resulted in us moving out and giving up Thelma to a new home as we crowded into my grandfather’s house. The following years after that were tough, before I had my trusty companion, now I was alone. Thelma would have died by now, all I can hope for is that she was happy in her new home and that she went peacefully – but that’s something I’ll never know, and will never know. I never got to say goodbye properly. I never got closure.

Past Blast: Echo Night: Beyond

Ok, so. Echo Night: Beyond may sound like a performance but it’s a first-person survival horror adventure game – if released today it would simply be called a Walking Sim. It was developed by From Software (wooooh!) and was published in Europe by Indie Games Production for the PlayStation 2 in 2005.

The game starts you off waking up on a shuttle that has crash landed into a Luna Space station. You were on a trip with your Fiancée who has now disappeared when you regained consciousness. There’s a  ring left on the seat next to you and a note opposite the seat saying, ‘Come to The Facility’. It’s from here you explore the space station and the Luna surface to find your loved one.

You quickly realize you are not the only one on this space station as you come across several ghosts who are waiting in purgatory – waiting to pass over. You communicate with these ghosts who will set you tasks in the form of fetch quests – doing this sets their spirit free.

The first spirit you set free warns you to stay clear of the fog: the base has a mysterious fog that makes the ghosts chase you, which then raises your heart rate until it hits a certain point… and then you die. It’s your job to clean the fog by finding the air conditioner terminal to clear it. This stops the ghosts being feral.

As I mentioned, you don’t have a typical health bar as it’s your heart rate instead. Ghosts make the rate go up, as well as running, and the higher it goes the less you can see. This is a strange mechanic because when you see a ghost you heart rate goes up, so you run away, that makes your heart rate go faster and thus diminishes your visibility… Yeah.

You are not that hopeless though, as you have Monitor Rooms that act as save rooms. You can also use the consoles to see through various cameras, so you can see where the ghosts and items are before you enter.

Echo Night: Beyond
Echo Night: Beyond

Visually, the game has that basic PlayStation 2 3D environment, but there some nice features like the occasional flickering light or various signs around the space station. There is a great sense of depth too, as corridors look like you are staring into a black hole – because they are that dark.

The sense of isolation is an ode to the audio though, being accompanied by your breathing, footsteps and the faint echoing voices of the dead repeating the same sentence – due to hardware limitations, but here it gives an unsettling and haunting feeling to the game. The main theme is a rendition of ‘Moonlight Sonata’, but with electronic instruments and a female vocal chorus that captures the game’s slow-paced and mournful tone.

So, would I recommend Echo Night: Beyond?

It’s not for everyone. The game’s pace is that slow, it’s drooling all over itself. There are no boss fights and no way of arming yourself; adventure game fans would appreciate it, but don’t worry, there aren’t any bizarre puzzles – like making a fake key out of soap and plaster.

Echo Night: Beyond
Echo Night: Beyond

At times Echo Night: Beyond is a beautiful experience because what it gets right, it really gets right. Like the brief encounters with the ghosts, you really get a sense of their personalities and why they are stuck in purgatory. There is a section in which you find a ghost looking at his dead body, remembering he was left alone and all he wanted was to be found; it’s a brief moment, but with the believable voice acting the moment really sticks with you and makes you feel sorry for the character.

The game is something you experience, not play. You experience these little beautiful moments, moments of Sorrow met with moments of Hope as you help these lost souls finally get some closure.

After playing Echo Night: Beyond it got me thinking about the afterlife, it gave me hope too; the hope in seeing my granddad again and having a conversation about The Beatles, the hope in seeing my grandma so I can show her some Krautrock, the hope in seeing my friend Jamie to reminisce about times in the flat, and the hope of seeing Thelma again, to give her a big fuss and pretend we were in that spacecraft again.

I take comfort in that, don’t you?

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

Past Blast: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, from Japanese giant Capcom, was produced for the Nintendo DS in 2005, or rather, an enhanced remake was. While it’s not all that common knowledge, the game was actually first conceived for the Game Boy Advance in Japan, way back in 2001. There was also a popular port of the title on Nintendo’s archaic, yet somehow fondly remembered WiiWare service in 2010.

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

The first game in the series centred on the eponymous Phoenix Wright, a budding new attorney learning the ropes of the courtroom. What struck many, myself included, was that the story was good – really good. This was essentially a lawyer simulator turned into a game but, arguably, (and in this writer’s opinion), the title features some of the best writing in one to date.

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
A Nintendo DS screenshot showing both screens in use.

‘Gameplay’ wise, you were tasked with finding contradictions within a witness’s testimony. This started off simple, but quickly became complex, with players often running the scenes through their head and asking questions such as: “How did they get there if they were also somewhere else at the exact same time? Something doesn’t add up.” Then, once you were sure enough of your own conviction, you could make yourself feel stupid/empowered and shout “Objection!” at your DS, or TV, depending on which version you played the game on. (Fear not, you could also just hit a button if you were feeling a little bit awkward on that crowded bus to work).

It was this spark of simple genius that made the game so compelling. If you were W-right (see what I did there? Ok, I’ll grab my coat), you saw your witness squirm in front of you, trying anything to convince you that they didn’t kill him or her. What made it even better was when the opposing prosecutor, Miles Edgeworth, came into the fray with a smart ‘get out’ for the witness – upping the ante considerably. Ensue a battle of wits until the very end, all in the name of justice. Like a Sherlock Holmes vs Professor Moriarty encounter. And really, there isn’t much better than that.

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
The visuals were blown up on WiiWare.

Tie all this in with the aforementioned sagacious writing, sometimes silly, often hilarious, thought-provoking and incredibly dark when it wanted to be, and what you had was a game many had not ever experienced before. (It would be remiss of me not to mention the music that plays when Wright brings the justice):

But it wasn’t just the cases which were superbly put together in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, it was the surprising depth of the characters as well – each had hours of intriguing backstory that would deliciously expand over the course of the game(s).

Nick himself, for instance, was a captivating protagonist. His quirky, yet determined to succeed and find the truth manner (something his creator Shu Takumi once admitted was based on himself) made the journey a truly thrilling ride. Wright’s character and position would subtly continue to develop over the games, from rookie to outright veteran in the later adventures. (Sorry, no major spoilers here!).

Let us not forget Miles Edgeworth either, a fan favourite of the series, and rightfully so. Edgeworth would end up becoming the anti-hero construction we all know and love in fiction. He would help Phoenix in the courtroom, but would nevertheless remain a formidable opponent who Wright had to prove himself to again and again; however improbable the events that unfolded!

That’s without mentioning the rest of the cast: the loveable yet struggling to achieve Gumshoe, the endearing and curious Maya. Manfred von Karma… All of these characters felt alive.

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
Ace Prosecutor Miles Edgeworth.

This writer remembers getting to the last case of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney for the first time (many years ago), not knowing the series always ended on such an epic dénouement; the scale of it all hit me. That final case (and just wait until you play the others) is something to see; tense, absorbing and yes, moving. It’s comparable to the final court scene in the film A Few Good Men.

Admittedly, never having played Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney on the DS, it was a series I had always wanted to try, but never got around to. Bigger names always stole my attention whenever I got close. For me then, it was on WiiWare where the natural love began. The rest is history: Ace Attorney remains one of my favourite games (and series) to this very day. There’s no doubt it gets more attention than ever, but it’s still a pretty niche series.

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
‘Rise from the Ashes’ was a bonus case created for DS.

So, you’ve never played it? That’s ok, it’s never too late! Copies for the DS can be few and far between nowadays, so the best bet is to pick it up on 3DS or on iOS devices. As for the future of the series, we now know that Capcom is working on a new Ace Attorney title for the Switch. There are rumours circulating that an ‘Ultimate Edition’ of sorts is in the works too. But, as ever, we’ll have to wait and see on that.

Indeed, while we wait, if you’ve played the masterpiece that is Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney already, why not share your memories with us below? With that said, I think it’s time to finish Spirit of Justice myself. Have a good weekend all.

Time Hollow

Time Hollow: A Forgotten Classic Lost In Time?

Have you ever wanted to travel back in time and stop yourself from making a mistake? I wish I could step back in time and stop my younger self from wasting money renting Superman 64. Alas, time travel is not yet a reality, but time travel is a fun concept which has seen much application (good and bad) in film, fiction, and video games. Junko Kawano is a video game designer and writer whose work often features themes of time travel.

Kawano’s video game writing debut was the 2001 PS2 title Shadow of Memories, a game centred around the concept of time travel. Shadow of Memories’ protagonist, Elke Kusch, is murdered shortly after the game begins, and spends the remaining length of the game travelling through the past to prevent his own murder. Shadow of Memories is an exceptional adventure game, but it’s also a game that is more concerned with telling an interesting story than it is with being a “fun” game. If you’re patient and like slow-paced adventure games, I can’t recommend Shadow of Memories enough, but I recommend Kawano’s Nintendo DS title Time Hollow more.

Travel with me seven years into the future, from 2001 to 2008. Nintendo’s DS was four years into its lifespan and a hit with gamers of all stripes. 2005’s Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney was a surprise hit that bolstered publishers’ confidence in visual novels. Publisher confidence led to the localization of many Japanese visual novels on the Nintendo DS. One such localized Japanese visual novel on the Nintendo DS was Kawano’s second foray into time travel, Time Hollow.

Time Hollow: A Forgotten Classic

Time Hollow is a visual novel about teenager Ethan Kairos and the people in his life. Ethan goes to sleep one night and wakes up the next morning to find himself in a timeline other than his own… a timeline where his parents don’t exist. Confused, Ethan sets off to discover how he ended up in an alternate timeline and what he can do to return to his original timeline. Throughout the progression of Ethan’s adventure, Ethan explores both the past and alternative timelines.

Ethan’s adventure begins in his bedroom on the evening before his 17th birthday, and in Ethan’s bedroom players are introduced to Time Hollow’s “gameplay”. Time Hollow, like other visual novels, isn’t exactly something you play, rather, Time Hollow presents the player a world they can explore through point-and-click mechanics.

Time Hollow

Don’t Forget The Hollow Pen

Time Hollow’s world is, in my opinion, its greatest strength. Not only are the beautiful sprite-based graphics easy on the eyes, the player sees the way Ethan’s world changes with the passage of time and transversal of timelines. A business in one timeline may not exist in another timeline, or the business may have different employees in different timelines. Ethan is able to interact directly with characters in the past to influence his present. Seeing Ethan’s world change as he manipulated time gripped me and made it hard for me to pull myself away from Time Hollow. Ethan explores the past and different timelines through the use of a “hollow pen” he is gifted by his dad for Ethan’s 17th birthday.

Ethan’s hollow pen is a Kairos family heirloom gifted to every successive Kairos on their 17th birthday. The hollow pen allows its wielder the ability to draw a “hollow” in the fabric of time. These drawn hollows function as windows to the past. Time Hollow’s gameplay hinges on using the DS’ touch screen to physically draw hollows in Ethan’s world, and using those hollows to manipulate the past and thus alter the present. Of course, you can’t run around Ethan’s world drawing hollows wherever you please; Time Hollow is very restrictive in regards to linearity.

Affecting “fun” factor and replayability most is Time Hollow’s linearity. On one hand, Time Hollow’s strict linearity can make repeated plays a dull affair, but Time Hollow’s strict linearity also streamlines the story, a nice (debatable) feature in a visual novel.

An Adult Story

Time Hollow’s story is often startlingly adult. Time Hollow’s graphics and anime-esque characters may lead one to believe Time Hollow is a predictable, childlike affair, but the story takes surprisingly dark turns. Honestly, I was shocked to discover Time Hollow is rated 7+ by PEGI. Time Hollow features graphic imagery like pools of blood, a dead body with blood spilling out of its head, and characters getting stabbed. Graphic imagery aside, suicide and murder are both prevalent themes in Time Hollow’s narrative. Time Hollow’s story is both dark and serious.

Time Hollow

As compelling as Time Hollow’s themes and world may be, the characters are typical anime fodder, but it is interesting to see how the characters change as Ethan travels from one timeline to another. There’s a devious villain, a nerdy, perv friend complete with glasses, a shy girl (who doubles as a psychic) with a crush on Ethan, and a cheesy theme song. The theme song (featured in DDR SuperNOVA 2) is the worst bit of music here though, the remainder of Time Hollow’s soundtrack is great.

Time Hollow is not a perfect game, it got a warm reception from critics and gamers alike, but it is a great experience for fans of visual novels or point-and-click adventures – you shouldn’t miss it.

Looking Back at Lollipop Chainsaw – Saving Classmates, Decapitating Zombies

Grasshopper Manufacture has released a pretty solid library of games. It was set up by gaming luminaries Suda 51, Shinji Mikami and Akira Yamoaka. Shadows of the Damned managed to be an entertaining, chaotic trip through hell. Grasshopper then set its sights on small-town America with Lollipop Chainsaw. But was it a Past ‘Blast’?

Produced by Kadokawa Games and Grasshopper Manufacture, Lollipop Chainsaw tells the story of all American cheerleader Juliet Starling. Juliet spends her days eating lollipops, cheering and being incredibly annoying while her nights are spent battling legions of the undead with her zombie hunting family. Think Buffy the Vampire Slayer crossed with The Walton’s.

The story, what little of it there is, is penned by Hollywood writer and director James Gunn. Suda 51 sprinkles his trademark brand of lunacy over the proceedings as creative director and overall the writing is pretty funny if at times bordering on highly irritating in the case of Juliet. The tale of severed heads, disco zombies and over-sexualised teens is entertaining enough and delivered with a strong tongue in cheek theme that enables it all to be likeable if you can look past all the upskirts and creepy lollipop sucking from the games’ lead.

Story and writing, however, aren’t Lollipop Chainsaw’s main selling point, and I only mention them first because the gameplay, the meat of the game, is so painfully average. Juliet’s adventure plays out in your basic hack and slash style with the titular cheerleader exploring the games’ six levels, saving classmates, decapitating zombies and eventually taking on an end of level boss.

The basic “light, light, heavy” God of War style gameplay was broken up admirably with some pretty cool moments that I won’t spoil here, but aside from these moments and a few QTE’s, gameplay in Lollipop Chainsaw basically amounts to running through corridors hammering a few attack buttons then running on. Now this wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, the previously mentioned God of War and many other titles stick to this formula and are brilliant games, but combat in Lollipop Chainsaw feels incredibly dull and formulaic. After unlocking a few combos I found myself sticking to the same two for the entire game, never experimenting with any others because the combat is so dull that I  was just ploughing through it.

There’s little enemy variation outside of the tried and true “exploding enemy, flying enemy, slow enemy, fast enemy, rinse and repeat” approach to character design which just adds more to this glazed over “hit things until they stop moving” feel of much of the game. There is a few bells and whistles such as the “Sparkle Hunting” mechanic which rewards multiple decapitations at the same time and the inclusion of a few semi-vehicular sections but these trimmings do little to improve the overall experience.

Games like Lollipop Chainsaw live and die by the quality and feel of their combat. God of War worked brilliantly because it made you feel like the most powerful badass in the world, Bayonetta worked because you felt like an agile and magically sadistic killing machine. In Lollipop Chainsaw controlling Juliet in combat, navigation and even in the poorly presented QTE’s just feels like a chore.

It’s clear from the large amount of unlockable costumes and the online leaderboards that Lollipop Chainsaw is a game that’s meant to played multiple times, especially when it can be beaten in around six hours on normal difficulty. This is a great idea and one shared by many games of this type, however, this idea falls down a little when there’s nothing worth actually unlocking from all this work. Outside of the before mentioned costumes and a few pieces of concept art, Lollipop Chainsaw does little to hook gamers in for that third or fourth run through.

It’s not all bad though, the presentation in Lollipop Chainsaw is exceptional. The gorgeous cel-shaded look of the game blends in with its overall comic book feel, hand-drawn hud elements flash up looking like a golden age comic and every inch of the menu system follows this theme. It really looks like a pulp comic from the 1950’s, albeit a far gorier and filthier version.

The boss encounters are the only hint of how off the wall and great this game could have been. Taking cues from music genres Lollipop Chainsaw’s bosses are fantastically designed. One level you’re fighting a punk rock zombie that uses swear words as attacks the next you’re on a flying black metal Viking ship shooting at a severed head covered in corpse paint. These encounters really are entertaining, showing that if this level of detail and thought had been given to the rest of the game it could have been something special. However the gameplay complaints still remain and while these boss fights look and sound great, they’re far too easy and boring to actually enjoy.

Music is also used to great effect. I couldn’t help but grin like a moron when I heard Children of Bodom playing in the background as I dodged lightning bolts being fired from the sky. The section where the Dead or Alive hit “You Spin Me Right Round” booms out while Juliet is using a combine harvester to mow down zombies is also a slice of genius.

It really is a shame about Lollipop Chainsaw. In retrospect, the game had some really funny, interesting moments but none of these occurred when I was actually controlling the game. The music, presentation and the concept of the game are great – it just feels rushed and poorly executed. There is little about the game to recommend to fans of the character action genre that can’t be found somewhere else where it has been done better. Besides the titillation and the gore, there really isn’t much to Lollipop Chainsaw, it’s as if years of eating nothing but Chubba Chubs has made Juliet a little anaemic.

I also wanted to like this game, I really did. I love zombies, I love this type of game and I loved the concept but there just isn’t enough actual game here – and that hasn’t changed years on. In all honesty, if you’re looking for a great character action game with a sexy lead character and insane gameplay, buy Bayonetta.