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Kirby: Mass Attack | Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

Mario is a flexible character. Running, jumping, fighting, racing, athletics, baseball, tennis, football, basketball, party games; he’s a veritable decathlete, but at times I feel he’s phoning it in. Stuck in the titular role and never able to stray too far from his comfort zone, he’s a definite safe, if unexciting, bet.

And then we have Kirby, a veritable chameleon of a mascot; albeit a decidedly pink chameleon. His gameography is a smorgasbord of variety; from his classic platforming days of Dream Land through to his Line Rider-esque Canvas Curse, our bloated little friend has been anything but pigeon-holed. He’s branched out and experimented with the possibilities of the touch screen, tried his hand as a golf ball, and even spent a whole year pretending to be a ball of yarn, all because he’s free of the burden and pressure that comes with being a Mario.

Mass Attack again sees Kirby trying something new. Although this time he’s gone to pieces. Literally.

An evil power has invaded the Popopo Islands and is spreading across the land. Its leader, Necrodeus, catches Kirby unawares and splits him into ten, each copy having only a fraction of our hero’s greatness. Besting nine, Necrodeus turns his attention on the only one standing between him and control of the islands. Thankfully, jumping on a passing star, Kirby escapes, regroups, and thus prepares to take back the land from the dark invaders.

He’s nothing if not hardy, and we take control of the lone Kirby bumbling his way through green fields at the start of his travels. Control is solely handled by the stylus. Tap it to the screen and he’ll follow its point, the level scrolling as you reach the screen’s edge. Similarly, flick your stylus across Kirby’s path and he’ll leap as though a pink projectile in the same direction. It’s a neat, simple system, minimising the need to obscure the action and easily capable of allowing you and Kirby to set off on a platforming adventure.

Inevitably along the way there are friends of Necrodus who wish to interrupt the ramble and, as adorable as they may be, it’s kill or be killed. Unlike more traditional platformers though, there’s no need to jump on anyone’s head here. Tap on an enemy and Kirby will head straight for them, fists flailing, as though he’s learned this particular form of martial arts from watching my wife play Wii Boxing.

Being but a fraction of his former self however, the monster will soon shake him off. From Kirby’s point of view, this is rather embarrassing. It’s like a former England international insisting to play on in the Conference, and to this end he does what a Kirby does best to right this indignity: eat. Scoff enough of the fruit lying about the world or dropped by defeated foes and you will soon summon another Kirby, both of whom can be thrown about and sent into battle. Continue filling their pink bellies and another and another will appear until eventually you have all ten Kirbys fighting for your attention.

Having ten run and bump into each other as you direct them across the screen is utterly charming. They won’t all space out and walk like ducklings following their mother, these fellows feel like young siblings squabbling to get the best of their brethren. They’ll clump on top of each other, all jostling for position, and then, when called into action, bravely dash forward with the same mob mentality, fighting to be first into the brawl.

Unsurprisingly, such fights become much easier once the squad size has risen. Small critters crumble under the flurry of blows, and only the much larger creatures will ever brush off your first wave of attack. To such an end, most enemies you meet prove no bother, simply an excuse to see your decakirbhedron break out into the animation where they look all flustered and furious.

Where the challenge lies is in leaving an enemy alone for too long. Some might just try and punch you quite hard, but others will fire electric bolts, encase you in purple jars or even try and carry you away. Very rarely does a creature out-and-out kill you, instead they aim to impede, or sneak one of you merry band away. It’s a very forgiving experience. Even if a Kirby is terminally injured – having already turned a sorry looking blue to warn you of his fragile state – that’s not the end. They will rise angel-like towards the heavens and should one of the surviving Kirbys grab them before they disappear, then they’re back in the fight. This is a game where everything possible is done to keep you in the fight and keep frustrations to an absolute minimum.

As such, the only real test of mettle comes with frequent boss battles that mark the end of each of the world’s areas. From boulder-spitting pigs that live in volcanoes to piranha plants determined to shake you off of a giant see-saw, there’s a diversity in both boss and battle that can make you eager to see just what pickle you’re going to be dropped into next. Between balancing on a constantly toppling tower, to counter-weighting an evil’s clock’s dials, so many try and bring out different the facets of controlling a herd it only occasionally feels repeated. Admittedly, very little cannot be achieve by hurling Kirby after Kirby at the problem, but it’s all about finding that opening.

Although they start out relatively straight, the levels also start adding in bags of variation. Early stages will deem it enough that you know how to run and jump and simply find the exit, but as you progress through deserts and forests then a series of secret passages, timed gates and alternate routes will see your pace slow as you look to unlock hidden treasures. The platforming itself is not difficult and precision is not a factor so these and other distractions unique to each world help keep Kirby’s adventures fresh.

On one hand these diversions are as simple as a fresh set of enemies with as yet unseen powers, but every now and again something truly special will crop up. There’s nothing like popping through a door and finding that on the other side is a tank that you cannot only pilot but fire Kirbys out of the barrel. Or maybe a giant game of pinball where, once again, our pink friend plays the role of the ball. These oddities are delightful and make you wonder whether you’ve accidentally gone into the Extras menu, which itself is home to a handful of mini-games that are of a surprising quality given their status.

In fact, Mass Attack seems nothing but a large collection of deviations, content never to leave you alone for too long a period without changing it all up again. The first portion of the game lulls players into a false sense of security, bedding them down that they’re about to embark on a relatively straight forward platformer before slowly releasing the trickle of distractions. The sheer breadth of the variety goes a long way in masking the lack of challenge, but at times you do feel as though certain sections are but window dressing to cover some of the basic shortcomings.

Therefore the latest Kirby continues to mark him as somewhat of a risk taker, striking out and doing a lot of different and unique things. Most are successful, but every adventure falls just short in carrying a consistent quality. And that definitely something that could be learnt from his moustachioed comrade: he may be safe, but he’s nothing if not consistent.

7 /10

Review: Blood Bowl

Originally posted on www.7outof10.co.uk

Blitzing into view is this year’s second greatest American Football game. If Madden’s photorealistic simulation isn’t your idea of how a pigskin should be used, then maybe gridiron mixed with Orks is more your thing with this faithful recreation of the classic and ultra-violent board game, Blood Bowl.

Games Workshop’s Blood Bowl is a fantasy, turn-based interpretation on America’s favourite sport. Given a team of hardy individuals each with their own special skills, you must block, tackle and foul your opponent into submission and carry the ball into their end zone. The victors are the side with the most touchdowns, whether that be after the allotted number of turns or because one team has been battered into submission.

Every action is taken with dice, with the success based on an individual character’s attributes of agility, strength, armour and movement. Stronger players will survive better in the rough and tumble of tackling, whilst the more agile can skip through defences and will be more adept at catching passes. The key is knowing your team’s strengths and your opponent’s weakness in order to exploit them to create gaps in their defence.

It has, however, been many, many years since my ratty Skaven team have been pulled down from the loft and forced on the field of play. Whilst I had a vague recollection of what was required, I felt it safest heading directly to the tutorial to refresh myself. What is presented is woefully inadequate. Most rules, even the very basic concepts of the game, are presented through reams of tediously, lengthy pop-ups. The amount of information that bombards the player is overwhelming and presented very inefficiently. Just one case in point is that when reeling off the dozen or so ways a player’s turn can be ended it is displayed in twelve separate pop-ups rather than a simple list. Worse still is that much of the information cannot be accessed from anywhere else, so any vagueness on the rules can only be righted by inflicting the tutorial on yourself again. This is at odds, however, with the welcome foresight of putting the bewildering array of a team member’s special skills in an encyclopaedia on the pause menu.

Thankfully there is a training match that offers you the chance to play a simple game of Blood Bowl that at every opportunity explains just what you and your opponent are doing. This definitely helps pull the separate parts of the tutorial together and adds a lot more context to the numerous pop-ups.

bloodbowl1

Outside of this learning curve, the actual recreation of Blood Bowl is very competent. There seems no omissions or compromises in bringing it to the DS and those who have played before should feel at home. It can be summarised as “angry chess” and is a very tactical game where you must weigh up the odds of success against each action you take in your bid for the end zone. The dice rolls are all hidden, which can lead to minor consternation at times as you try and work out just why your star player is face down in the mud but is clearly done with the intention of speeding up play.

Opponent AI seems well rounded, providing a good test even at the base Rookie difficulty, with victories earned rather than given. The downside seems to be large pauses during play for no perceivable reason. Whether it is the DS’s limitations or not, I very much doubt the Blood Bowl equivalent of Deep Blue has been included and it always prompts me to question whether the rival coach is deep in contemplation or has just crashed.

Those willing to sink time into the sport can head to the game’s main mode, the Championship. Based on a normal league format, you start at the bottom of the third division and aim to play yourself to the top, buying in a team of players and then building them into stars as your rise through the standings. The long term depth of Championship – again pulled directly from the board game’s team building – may not be enough to win over those fresh to Blood Bowl, though, as it seems very much a title that will only find success with those who already have prior experience with Games Workshop. There are just too many barriers preventing the uninitiated embracing the game and many will not be able to get passed the stuttering tutorial and the constant minor annoyances of an unresponsive UI.

As a faithful recreation of a classic board game it should be commended but the final verdict is a missed opportunity to bring in new players.

5/10

First Impressions: Henry Hatsworth

On a day like today, what on earth could be more British than Henry Hatsworth? Putting aside that it’s developed by a Florida based studio, Mr Hatsworth is the epitome of Victorian adventurers. A gentleman, if you will. With a bowler hat firmly on his head a fine moustache flowing from the upper lip, he’s ready to set off into the deepest darkest jungles to recover lost treasures from the savages and give Johnny Foreigner a damn good hiding, what, what!

Just as with the last DS eccentric, Professor Layton, the character style is the first thing to set this cartridge apart from the competition. Opening cutscenes will present Hatsworth, his younger friend Cole and their nemesis Weasleby as clichés of a by gone Britain. Cole, in particular, is only a hair’s breadth from uttering the word “Guv’nor” whilst offering to shine your shoes. Playing up to this, their speech, whilst presented in the form of text boxes, is accompanied by samples that match their character with Hatsworth continually huffing and making pompous noises whereas Cole’s sounds seem to be snippets of cockney charm.

The game itself, however, is a platformer. You’ll take control of Hatworth and run and jump him through jungles in search of a mysterious golden suit that is rumoured to have the power to control the world. The locals aren’t too keen on giving up their shiny attire and so their resistence must be put down with swings from your machete and shots from your hunting rifle.

The early levels are very straight forward and the only time that you should see your life counter go down is either through misadventure or experimentation from seeing if that pit in front of you is actually as bottomless as it seems. I’m told that later levels do gain in complexity with the addition of a walljump, allowing access to higher areas, but so far it’s quite a standard affair. Enemies are easy enough to dispatch given enough blows from either weapon, although the odd boss fight crops up, too, to test your resolve.

Where Hatsworth differs from traditional platformers is the delightful inclusion of a Tetris Attack style “parallel world”. Some how your hunt for the suit has opened up a rift between your world and the Puzzle Realm. Any enemies killed in your world are transported to this alternate plane and transformed into blocks. If they are not also disposed of in the Puzzle Realm then they will only return to try and thwart you again.

An interesting narrative but an even more interesting gameplay angle as also hidden within the puzzler are powerups and health boosts for you, too. A tap of a button will see you switch screens and then its a classic “match 3” puzzle setup. Link three of more coloured blocks together and they will be removed along with any monsters they contained and granting you any powerups that they held. Obviously the more that you can remove in a single go the better and so you can always find your eye drifting down from the platforming screen to the grid of squares seeing if there’s an opportunity to setup a devastating combo.

I think it’s fair to say that neither component is exceptional; I’ve played far better platformers and there are many addictive puzzlers out for the DS but both are good and what’s more important is that work exceedingly well together. Much like the Grand Theft Auto, it is more than the sum of its parts.

Role Reversal

Our honeymoon saw some role reversal. No, not like that. At home it’s usually Ali that loses me to colourful moving pictures; I’ll sit down, controller in hand promising I’ll just be a short while only to find her asking me to turn down the volume as it’s gone midnight and she’d like to get some sleep.

Away from home, however, Zoo Keeper on the DS has become something nearing crack to my new wife. We’d get back from a day wandering around a lost civilisation or seeing the finest paintings that Italy has to offer and it wouldn’t be long before the plinky plunky sounds of the DS’s tiny speakers would signal that I’d lost her for another hour at least.

If only she wasn’t so good at it I’d probably lose her for a lot less time but watching this woman match trios of animals is to witness a skill approaching an art form.

My holiday gaming consisted of revisiting some classics: Mr Driller, a DS launch title, still remains a firm favourite, especially in the more considered modes that aren’t based purely on speed; the relatively unheralded Nintendo Touch Golf is always worth a round or two; and starting Mario over can never be faulted.

But now matter how much I played, Ali’s talent meant that she was always playing after I’d long put down my DS. The only saving grace is that Zuma and Peggle haven’t made it to DS yet otherwise the only thing that would have gotten her away from the stylus would have been a flat battery.

Introducing the DSi

Have you seen the new DS? They call it DSi – for those who don’t already possess enough gadgets with a lower case ‘I’ in the title – and it’s arriving in Japan next month. The new model sees the addition of a camera and the ability to download software from Nintendo’s online service, as listed succinctly by 1UP, and I’m still trying to make sense of the decision.

I was very happy to upgrade from the original DS to the DS lite because it gave me the added benefit of a significantly better screen, longer battery life, a sleeker design and, most importantly, a more comfortable layout and feel. With this third iteration of the hardware, I can’t say I’m snared by the changes.

Whilst I can see the potential for the camera and the new SD slot, I have other concerns. As per the motion add-on for the Wii, it does seem that once again Nintendo are in danger of fracturing their own market with something that is too decidedly similar to what is already out there, and you have to wonder if it is worth the effort. The GBA expansion slot has also been removed to slim down the handheld’s profile but by doing so you are also making Guitar Hero and titles that use the rumble pack backwardly incompatible.

My own personal take is that I would have much preferred a completely new DS; an upgrade in specs and capabilities but still with backward capabilities. Whilst I’m all for new features the added options, if widely used, could alienate the multiple millions of owners out there. Conversely, I suppose those multiple millions of users are also why they aren’t jumping ship quite yet.

Consider the jury out.

Professor Layton

My greatest find at Memorabilia was the stall of  a man with a large beard. The beard itself was nothing spectacular, for there were many around that day, but it was the selection of DS games that were amongst his wares and more specifically Professor Layton and the Curious Village, which I have been pining for for some time.

It wasn’t just me, either; Mapoo picked it up at the same time and with just as much feverish excitement.

Expect a bad cockeny urchin accent from the one on the right.

Professor Layton is a point-and-click adventure set around the mysteries of barons death and the investigative mind of the title character. How the mysteries are pieced together, plot is developed and indeed how the vast majority of conversations end, are with bite-sized logic puzzles.

You could be moving matches around to form shapes, figuring out how to takes wolves and chicks across a river or even which of Professor Layton’s hats is as wide as it is tall. The puzzles only rarely seem to connect back with the banter you were just engaged in or the plot at hand, but that doesn’t matter in the slightest as the entire game is merely a flimsy pretext for them to be thrown at you in great numbers and with great variety.

This isn’t a slur on the Prof at all, it’s just as if there are two games going on at once with the delightful French-feeling anime storyline and the constant stream of brain teasers taking turns to entertain. The whole thing is very pick-up-and-play, seemingly designed to attract both gamers and the casual market.

Whereas Brain Training did grab me to the extent it did Ali, this is something we can both enjoy with the DS constantly handed back and forth as we take turns with the puzzles. For her it has the flexing of the mental muscle and for me it has actual gameplay; everyone’s happy.

365 Word Review: Zelda: Phantom Hourglass

What Phantom Hourglass brings to Zelda is a fresh take on an experience that for me was becoming stale. True, it resurrects aspects of Wind Waker, but this is merely a backdrop for a greater, seabound adventure.

Washed up on a beach, your quest is to rescue your friend Tetra from a powerful evil and restore the Ocean King to his full power. To help you on your way, you quickly befriend a bearded old man, his twinkling fairy granddaughter and a treasure hunter named Linebeck.

Never taking itself too seriously, Phantom Hourglass has some genuinely funny moments as the three bicker, trying to decide your path. Partially helped by the stylistic look, they create the most charasmatic installment of the series and cutscenes are never full the of faux heroism that hampers many adventure games.

With Linebeck’s boat at your command you set sail, navigating in between islands and firing your cannon with deft strokes from your stylus.

Look up there. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a boss… get it!!!

In fact the stylus is used cunningly throughout; nothing seems forced, from your sword swings to the bomb-chus that follow your drawn trail, each weapon fits into the control scheme. Highlight is definitely the boomerang as you trace its course across the screen.

Being Zelda, you are always on the look out for your next dungeon and these are the game’s strength. Each bases itself around one of your weapons and trains you in its art before unleashing a boss upon you to test your skills.

When not hunting new toys, there is always something to do on the waves as treasure hunting, fishing, side quests and dodging pirates are quickly opened up to keep your voyages eventful.

What is key about this Zelda is the relaxed approach it takes. Although a lot of the battles do require reactions and thought, many of your tasks are about manipulating the environement with the touch screen or general observations that encourage you to constantly make notes on your map – another excellent use of the DS.

With these changes, some may consider that it panders to the casual market but they would mistaken for it just makes it far more acessible and refreshing than many a recent outing.

9/10

Portable Recommendations

As my Visual Studio crashes for the umpteenth time today, I sit looking out on the frozen duckpond outside my window and my mind drifts.

Mostly, it’s drifting towards my DS, sitting glinting next to me, and what to play on it now that Ali and I (team effort) have now completed Zelda: Phantom Hour Glass. It was absolutely fantastic but I need something new to fill the void.

Does anyone have any recommendations? Ideally some similar adventure style game would probably be good so as to keep us both amused but I’m open to most things. Has anyone tried Professor Layton?