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Bigredcoat Summer Gaming Blowout: The Red Star Doesn’t Suck!

Posted by nfinit on August 10, 2007

I’m going to let you into a dirty little secret of mine, one that’s even more perverse than my Lucy Lawless as an English nanny fetish.

I collect videogames.

Yeah, okay, so we all “collect” videogames, but when I say I “collect videogames” I mean in the way that some people “collect comics” and other people “collect comics“. I mean buying Valkyrie Profile for $120 and only playing it long enough to see if it boots up. Or buying copies of Zone of the Enders 2, simply because every so often I catch it selling for five bucks at Blockbuster. Or owning a copy of the Dungeons and Dragons Arcade Collection for the Saturn despite having no earthly idea what’s going on, seeing as how the entire thing is presented in unsubtitled Japanese. So when I saw Archangel Studios selling The Red Star for The PS2 off their website for twenty bucks, I figured it’d be worth hitting up on the off chance that it may suffer from a low print run, what with it being a fairly niche game produced by a small publisher released at the end of a console’s life, a combination that saw many a hundred dollar Ebay special for the Saturn and PS1.

Then last week at Best Buy I saw The Red Star in the budget rack alongside Ford Extreme Racing, so I went and broke open my copy.

And surprisingly, it doesn’t suck! Now I’m not going to say it’s a great game, because man, it’s not great. Not at all. Or even particularly good. I mean, if I’d spent fifty bucks for the thing, I’d be pretty pissed. At best, you can say The Red Star is pleasantly UN-horrible. But at twenty dollars, it’s just right, and you can even order the game directly from the studio and get a warm fuzzy feeling from sending money directly to the publisher and bypassing the bloated retail apparatus.

As far as the gameplay, the best I could say is that it’s something like a 3d beat ’em up combined with portions of a bullet-hell shump. Which sounds fantastic, (and in all honestly, it plays good enough) but it’s the details where things start to come apart– details such as Dreamcast-level graphics, or the lack of a lock-on system that actually works, or a difficulty curve that resembles a hockey stick. It’s that last bit that’s most frustrating, as for the first dozen or so levels of the game you’re presented with an enjoyable, if a tad easygoing beat ’em up where you can safely take on a screen full of enemies at once, but then at around the eleventh level the game presents you with enemies that roll/phase out of every attack, are capable of removing a quarter of a life bar with every hit, forcing you to creep along the screen not daring to take on more than a couple at a time. It’s also around this same time that the game suddenly becomes very stingy with it’s life-sustaining halliburton briefcases.

But it gets the important things(or it’s “core competencies” if I were the sort of hack to use techy buzzwords like “core competency”) right, as the gameplay is solid if a tad banal. Rush up to soldier, pound crap out of soldier, toss soldier into the air, pound crap out of soldier some more, slam soldier into the ground, repeat. In between crazed melee rushes you’re allowed to whip out a pair of guns and blast at enemies from range, although this is mainly a boss-fight sort of thing and is where the bullet-hell shump portions of the gameplay come into light. There’s even a couple of levels where you board a jet plane and take to the enemy shoot-em-up style, and while a bit clumsy and certainly inelegant they serve to nicely break up what would otherwise be a monotony. And while the storyline and atmosphere are good, they’re almost entirely irrelevant, as you’ll find yourself skipping the mission briefings without any repercussions whatsoever. Not to sound like a dick, but I don’t play beat ’em ups for the story– if it was Archangel’s intent to get the Red Star storyline out to a wider audience, they should have done so in something more resembling an RPG. (For that matter, with it’s high-magic, steampunk tech and alternate universe USSR universe, this would have made for an excellent RPG experience.)

While it seems harsh to call a game with decent gameplay “surprisingly un-awful”, it’s not like we’re talking God of War here– or even Final Fight. Think more along the lines of Golden Axe, but with better enemies. Which isn’t bad mind you, but it’s not the sort of thing you can really justify purchasing in this day and age at other than it’s budget price point. In fact, I wonder if it shouldn’t have been cut down to fit on Live Arcade instead, as I’m positive Castle Crashers will wind up outclassing it on every level.

Mild recommendation to buy, as long as you come in not expecting anything mind-blowing or unique– and sometimes, that’s just fine.

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Summer Gaming Blowout Special Update: Oh Lordy Does Bullet Witch Suck Edition

Posted by nfinit on July 26, 2007

Rented this last week, lacking anything better to do as well as basic common sense. The sheer awfulness of the Bullet Witch experience cannot be properly translated if I incorporated other games into this update, so I’m giving the title its own review.

Before I begin, I’d like to give Cavia Inc, the developers for Bullet Witch their due and point out exactly what Bullet Witch does right:

  1. When the schoolgirl outfit is selected and you’re running up stairs, you can see directly up your dress.

  2. In order to avoid claims that the point of offering a strong, independent female lead is negated when users can easily select blatantly sexualized outfits such as “catholic schoolgirl” and “naughty secretary”, or (and so help me god I’m not kidding) “sexy mummy outfit”, the game neglects to transfer these new outfits to cut scenes, allowing Alicia to call upon her supernatural powers to leap from outfits that barely cover her buttocks to an elegant black silk ensemble in the blink of an eye when confronted by NPCs.

Things Bullet Witch does not get right:

  1. The concept of “clipping”. Alicia can step right through random vegetation, park benches, wooden pallets, dead bodies, file cabinets, and a great many other obstinately solid objects. While this may be explained away by some unforeseen aspect of her supernatural powers, it doesn’t explain why a 3-inch rise from porch to patio deck wholly negates any forward movement.

  2. Pacing. One may easily find themselves wading through zombies through completely blind dead ends, as vast swaths of any given level are dedicated toward nothing resembling any actual goal or point, with open fields leading miles away from any actual action. Your goal may be a half mile behind you and receding in the distance, or it may be around the next random alleyway. There’s absolutely no way to tell, and by the time you’ve figured out what the game designers were expecting you to do, you’ve already wasted precious hours of your life, hours that you will bitterly regret eighty years from now as you lay dying in a hospital bed, the prime of your youth foolishly spent playing bad videogames because it was Friday night and Blockbuster was out of copies of Lost Planet.

  3. Geography. The large cosmopolitan city laying across a vast bridge in the middle of what would appear to be San Francisco Bay is policed by University of Nevada police officers. Also, leading up to this bridge is an offramp for Salt Lake City.

  4. Compelling characters or plot. Alicia has Goth Powers, and a voice inside her head that offers the occasional snide remark regarding humanity. Also, a gun that is also a broom. Or something. You fight incredibly stupid zombie soldiers. This is your motivation.

  5. Anything resembling good gameplay.

I’m not kidding about the last bit. The AI, such as it is, is laughably stupid. When given the choice to fire at innocent civilians or at the poorly armored emaciated-looking woman firing a machine gun at them, they’d far rather try to kill the citizenry, all the while offering dialog such as “Which limb shall I tear off first, your arm or your leg?” or “you’ll have to do better than that if you don’t want to die!”, provided instead the zombies aren’t expending vast quantities of ammunition into Nevada’s oceans. Often the game will rappel in squads of zombie soldiers to do battle with Alicia, only to drop these soldiers off so far away that they aren’t able to recognize Alicia as a threat, allowing the soldiers to stand around staring at each other making zombie soldier chitchat while Alicia calmly uses her supernatural abilities to goth-throw a taxicab into their midst. Then there’s the bit where Alicia can circle-strafe about her zombie oppressors, safely plugging hundreds of rounds of ammunition into the shambling horde while the undead marvel helplessly at Alicia’s invincible sideways-walking strategy. “Walnut Heads”, floating humans with enormous, pulsating heads, sorta just sit there and float while you unload into them, unconcerned that their engorged brainsacs are about to explode in a gush of viscera. Gigas, titanic zombie soldiers with enormous, pulsating hearts, thrash and stomp around unconcerned as you unleash a hail of lead into their throbbing chests. Citizens run back and forth into zombie/Alicia firefights. Enemy tanks are rendered harmless when you come within five feet of their hulls, their turrets fruitlessy tracking you as they sit, still as stones. Bullet Witch’s AI isn’t just bad, it single handedly nullifies nearly a century of Hollywood scaremongering regarding both zombies and evil robots. If this is the horror we have to look forward to when the zombie apocalypse finally shambles upon us, it’ll be a simple matter of standing five feet away from any given undead as they wander off to fire round after round of machine gun ammunition into Nevada’s vast shoreline.

If Bullet Witch’s sins were simply a matter of bad AI, inconsistent clipping and poor level design then Bullet Witch would be guilty of being merely awful. But no, this game takes suck to new heights, creating what may well be the earliest recorded case of a gaming atrocity to appear on the 360.

  • Despite a deep and varied selection of destructive Goth Magics there’s only one you really need to use, that being the supremely powerful lighting bolt attack, and the only reason you’d want to even go that far is because it’s the only thing that can kill tanks.

  • Despite featuring four gun/broom combinations to unlock, there’s no good reason to use anything other than the bog-standard machine gun.

  • When reloading your gun/broom’s clip (you never run out of ammunition in Bullet Witch, you merely need to remember to reload your magazine regularly) you can skip the canned reload animation by jumping.

  • When jumping, you are more or less invincible

  • Your health bar constantly regenerates. Therefore, in the rare occasion when Alicia faces death, you merely need to flip about like a Matrix reject until the danger is past. Then resume circle-strafing.

  • Objects that can explode– cars, fuel tankers, randomly scattered barrels– may or may not actually explode. Also, object that can be pushed around by Alicia’s “Willpower” ability may instead chose to stay put.

  • Whereas many games are trying to get away from the whole “obtrusive cut-scene” thing, Bullet Witch bucks this trend by constantly stopping play to present the player with a barrage of gameplay hints, most of which you will have figured out well before the hint imposes itself.

  • The game often tries dramatic, Crackdown-esque cinematic explosions, resulting in gouts of flame erupting from the ground as all and sundry are thrown into the stratosphere. Unfortunately, whereas Crackdown was created as a labor of love by professionals who obviously cared about their craft, and Bullet Witch was created by drooling fucktards, the game slows down to a nearly unplayable crawl.

  • In the aftermath of said explosions, it’s not at all unusual to find zombie soldiers standing around, unharmed by and uninterested in the conflagration that had so recently engulfed them.
  • AND MANY MORE! Special abilities that grant health bonuses in a game where you are never in danger of being at anything less than full health! Zombies that rematerialze if the game realized you needed to fill up your magic bar! 1-hit-kill zombie snipers that cannot be avoided once they spot you! Voice actors hired from the back alley of sperm donor clinics! Civilian NPCs that are wholly unharmed by any explosion you cause, car you throw, or bullet you fire! And an impossible boss fight set atop a flying 747 jumbo jet!

Now, I have a point to this insane rambling, and it’s this– Dave Halverson of Play Magazine gave Bullet Witch an 8.5 out of 10. I’m not sure if Dave simply masturbated to the intro and then slept through the part where he was supposed to play the game prior to reviewing it, but here’s a short list of games that have received 8.5s or less from Play– Super Paper Mario (8.5); Mercenaries (8.5); Project Gotham Racing 2 (8.5); Crackdown (8.5); Burnout 3 (8.0); Alien Hominid (8.0); Dead or Alive 3 and 4 (8.0 each) Suikoden V (8.0)(Which, I have on good authority been informed was the best in the series to appear on the PS2) and only five points worse than Soul Calibur III (9.0) which had a habit of destroying your memory card.

According to Play Magazine, one of the more respected and successful publications in the industry, Bullet Witch, a game which cannot be bothered to have enemy soldiers fire in your general direction, is on par with Mercenaries, Crackdown and Super Paper Mario, and is unquestionably better than motherfucking Alien Hominid. Not only that!   But the magazine the game was featured in not only had a Bullet Witch cover, but six pages of coverage, including two (two!) developer interviews!

Editors of Play Magazine; you owe me five dollars for the rental, as well as an Alicia wall scroll. Thank you.

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Gradius V Review

Posted by nfinit on February 2, 2007

Gradius V is a modern-day relic, a throwback to the salad days of the NES, and an obvious work of love from Treasure. The problem is, when you start with a game entrenched firmly in the mid 80’s Japanese arcade ethos and try to build a modern representation of it’s genre, you wind up with something that feels very much like a mid 80’s arcade game wrapped up in a neon blue polygon bow. There’s a lot of things in Gradius V that a neophyte shump fan is simply ill-adjusted to deal with or even enjoy.

The central conceit of Gradius V–and it’s central flaw– is it’s power up system, and indeed this powerup system defines Gradius as a whole. This system relies on collecting pods which are used to buy a sequence of power-ups shown as a segmented bar across the bottom edge of your screen. The problem with this system (and indeed with most shumps featuring a power-up system and why they’ve been phased out as of late) is that the game is balanced against a fully-powered Vic Viper. It has to be, otherwise a boss encounter– and there are many boss encounters– will result in all of a moment’s challenge if you come ready to bear with a full compliment of laser drones and missile pods. So once you get hit your survival strategy revolves around a war of attrition between the boss’s weak point and the number of credits you have left. In fact, once hit, the game changes from one of pattern memorization to one of a war of attrition between the boss’s weak points and the number of credits you have in reserve. Chances are, unless you’ve loaded up a wholly unreasonable number of extra lives and are playing on anything above Easy, they won’t be enough.

As a result you wind up with an inherently frustrating game, one based not exactly on skill, but on trial and error and the ability to memorize patterns, on being in the right place at the right time at all times. Most modern shooters eliminates pattern memorization (and thus create a game about skill and guile) simply by eliminating the powerup process completely, or at least allowing a player to keep their powerups after being destroyed. The one hit kill nature of Gradius V allows for very little imagination on the part of the player. There is the pattern, this pattern is paramount, learning the pattern is the only way to live.

I’m not saying Gradius V is a bad game– far from it, it’s a quality shump and Treasure’s pride and craftsmanship are evident in every detail– but it is a very difficult game to fully enjoy, especially if you already own Ikaruga or R-Type final or Mars Matrix, or any number of inherently less frustrating, more sophisticated shumps. The Catch 22 here being that if you don’t already own a shump, getting into the genre via Gradius V is akin to a layman learning about string theory by picking up a college-level physics textbook.

As such it’s a hard game to fully recommend. Yes, it’s a good game, but it’s one that’s really only meant to be appreciated by aficionados of the genre. For it’s part, Treasure makes no apologies for this, outright insulting a player on his poor performance while at the same time teasing for one more playthrough to see the imaginative level designs and uniquely Treasure boss encounters. It’s deserving of a spot in the shooter vet’s wall unit, but just be aware before going in that only the most dedicated of shump elite will ever get the full value inherent in this title.

Luckily, Gradius V is cheap, having not yet succumb to the particular madness of shooter fans that result in newcomers having to pay upwards of $40 just to enjoy Ikaruga. So by default it becomes one of the best easy-to-obtain shooters made in the past 5 years. In any case, the $20 spent will not go to waste, Gradius V is a fine game, albeit a fine game that is deeply flawed. If you have a low threshold for frustration, however there are any number of quality PlayStation 2 action games to be had for the same price, most of which will not lead the player to fits of controller-twisting rage.

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