Monday, May 24, 2010

Dissidia: Final Fantasy

The ultimate wet dream for any Final Fantasy fanboy.

Platform: PlayStation Portable
Published by: Square Enix
Developed by: Square Enix
Genre: Fighting/Action-RPG
Players: 1-2
US Release Date: August 25, 2009
ESRB Rating: Teen - Fantasy Violence, Mild Language, Partial Nudity

Story: Dissidia's story can best be described as a unique amalgamation of some of the most beloved quests in Final Fantasy history. Serving as a mash-up of the first ten games, Dissidia finds our heroes mysteriously drawn together in a common universe. Early on, it's revealed that the goddess of harmony, Cosmos, has called upon each of the heroes to defeat the god of discord, Chaos. Consequently, Chaos has also summoned champions of his own - as a result, some of video gaming's most sinister badasses will go toe-to-toe with the series' coolest heroes. The game picks up with the forces of light fighting a losing battle against their dark counterpoints; Cosmos, in turn, begs the heroes to find ten crystals scattered throughout the realm. Each hero sets out on a "Destiny Odyssey" to find the only objects capable of repelling the advancing darkness.

Themes from the original games make themselves pertinent throughout Dissidia's epic yarn, providing this game with an almost unlimited source of fan service. While this is enough to make any fanboy (and I use this term as endearingly as possible) wet his pants with delight, the game's storyline lacks any standalone "oomph" of its own; in truth, Dissidia's original plot is pretty bare-bones and rarely strays outside the established cliché "good vs. evil" of yesteryear. Along with this, the pacing, as well as the overall coherency of the story don't really satisfy until several chapters have been completed. While this certainly isn't horrible in any way, shape, or form, it would have been refreshing to experience an original, well-constructed story as deep as any of the games Dissidia is based off of. That being said, Square Enix was sure to pack in plenty of extras, providing an incredibly wealthy treasure trove of backstory for those die-hard and patient enough to unlock them all.

This is a game all about men who love flowers! Kind of.

Graphics: If the PlayStation Portable was the United States during World War II, then Dissidia would be its CG cutscene nuke. Bad historical metaphors aside, Dissidia is arguably the best looking game on the system: event graphics are beautifully-rendered, character models react and flow realistically, and environments are each alive with their own energy. I can't count the number of times this game took my breath away or awed me into a speechless stupor - from the moment the UMD loaded and the opening cutscene assaulted my senses, to any of the countless, gravity-defying standard enemy battles, Dissidia had me marveling at the capabilities of the tiny machine in my hands. Far more than mere eye candy, Dissidia wows with supreme technical prowess and as much attention to detail as any of Square Enix's console titles.

Garland and Cloud in one of their regular "Whose sword is bigger?" battles (i.e. "Who's overcompensating more?").

Sound/Music: Dissidia boasts a soundtrack of massive proportions, ranging from the nostalgic anthems of the great Nobuo Uematsu, to the wound-up, high-energy rock offerings of "Your Favorite Enemies." Classic Nobuo Uematsu tracks are prevalent throughout most of the game, with some transforming into hyper-intense battle remixes - mere ghosts of their former melodies haunting the interludes and choruses of the synthesized fanfares. Not necessarily a bad thing, Dissidia's soundtrack comes across as a hefty helping of the familiar, served up with a dash of innovation; a balancing act that should satisfy both the new and old camps.

The sheer amount of spoken dialogue in Dissidia is also quite impressive, as every cutscene in the game contains some form of voice acting. The voice actors chosen for each character are all pretty fitting, and do a decent job (with several mediocre exceptions) of portraying their roles as agents of harmony and discord. Nothing stellar, but definitely appropriate for what the title is.

Ah, the backhand: the core of any father-son relationship.

Gameplay: Part fighting game, part action-RPG, Dissidia plays a lot like an episode of Dragon Ball Z: spells fly through the air at breakneck speed, explosions destroy parts of the environment, and attacks are swung so viciously that the opposing character is knocked clear across the stage. There is even a "chase" mechanic in Dissidia that allows you to catch up to and smash your opponent's falling body over and over again - if that doesn't scream "anime fight scene," then nothing does. Battles also seem reminiscent of the Struggle Battles of Kingdom Hearts II, but instead of balls, each player has a "bravery gauge" that can be drained through the use of "bravery attacks," and an "HP gauge" that can be drained by landing "HP attacks." It may sound strange, but in practice it's a wonderfully-constructed battle system that sets up the player for some really great strategic plans of attack. Implementing a theme common in many later additions to the Final Fantasy franchise, Dissidia allows characters to execute stat-boosting transformations, similar to "Limit Breaks," upon collecting enough "EX gauge" points; many times, these transformations can alter the course of a battle or offer an opportunity for a one-hit kill on your opponent. For those unfamiliar with the high-speed world of fighting games, Dissidia even offers a "command input mode" that makes the game play out more like a traditional action-RPG, and keeps Dissidia from pigeonholing itself purely as a fighting game.

The action-RPG elements of Dissidia are perfectly woven into the customization and battle systems of the game: attacks are techniques and abilities your character learns over time, equipment offers boosts to your primary stats, experience points are awarded for attacking and defeating opponents (sometimes during battle), and exploration occurs on a chessboard-like overworld. New equipment can be purchased with the money you collect from fights (as long as you meet the level prerequisites), and, like many action-RPGs, abilities can be "mastered" with repeated use. Even better yet, the game keeps track of your stats in real-time, granting bonuses (like extra money or experience points) on certain days of the month, and awarding you with special prizes for meeting certain preset criteria, offering the player a rewarding and entertaining achievement system. The overworld element of the game can get tedious and dry at times, but Dissidia serves up its battles with an extra-large helping of awesome sauce. For those who can't be satiated by the campaign, Dissidia offers a plethora of modes, as well as system-to-system linking for some of the best head-to-head multiplayer battles the PSP has to offer. With over 20 characters to choose from, each with their own fighting styles and attacks, solving the epic question of "Who would win in a fight: Cloud or Squall?" is made that much easier.

Squall: "Bang, bang! You're dead!"
Tidus: ":("

Overall: To be honest, flying through a 3-D arena, blasting spells and dodging sword swipes is the sweetest combination of intensity and fun I've ever experienced on the PSP, and I'm not the least bit embarrassed to admit I've invested dozens upon dozens of hours into this game. Equal parts fighting bonanza and action-RPG paradise, topped with a spoonful of addictive, hardcore level-grinding incentive, Dissidia delivers on all fronts. This isn't to say that Dissidia is for everyone, or that it is totally devoid of some truly frustrating moments (final boss battle, anyone?), but Dissidia is easily one of the most technically-sound and polished products I've ever laid my hands on. Old-school fans and curious fighting/action-RPG enthusiasts should definitely give it a try - adding it to your collection won't be too far behind.

Score (out of 10): 9

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Puyo Pop

A puzzle game that will have you addicted before you can say "campy."

Platform: Game Boy Advance, Neo Geo Pocket Color, N-Gage
Version Reviewed: Game Boy Advance
Published by: THQ/Sega
Developed by: Sonic Team
Genre: Puzzle
Players: 1-4
US Release Date: October 5, 1999
ESRB Rating: Everyone

Story: Puzzle games, as a whole, have come a long way in terms of story. Normally heavily-steeped in the realm of science-fiction or fantasy, we find ourselves chaining together multicolored gems to blast our enemies with fireballs or jumping through walls via space-time portals. While character development might still take a backseat to gameplay, it can safely be said that puzzle games now primarily utilize protagonists undergoing some sort of conflict or quest. This, in itself, is a gigantic step away from the impersonal falling, gray blocks of yesteryear - finally, we puzzle fans are able to take control (to a degree) of a hero with a purpose. No matter how kitschy many of these so-called "stories" may seem, it's at least something.

With this being said, the story of Puyo Pop is as kitschy as they come. Apparently, Puyo Pop is part of the Puyo Puyo series of puzzle games, all starring a young sorceress Arle and her fat, bunny-ish pet named Carbuncle - this being the first Puyo Puyo game I've played, I had no preexisting connection with these characters. Arle and Carbuncle travel their fantasy setting in complete, oblivious glee, and are randomly challenged to puzzle battles by a plethora of insane characters that would fit in with the cast of any teen anime series. In fact, Puyo Pop's story is most easily-digested if you play it expecting just that: an extremely campy, goofy, sugar-coated anime show. This is a Japanese game, and Sonic Team does not want you to forget it. Since there really isn't much in terms of deep story or character development, forgetting might prove easier than they anticipated.

...a wild Pokémon appeared! What? Wrong game? Damn.

Graphics: Drawing heavily from the pool of easily-accessible anime artist talent in Japan, Puyo Pop is a festival of bright, explosive colors and gigantic, glimmering eyeballs. While by no means impressive, the static "cutscenes" still make great use of the Game Boy Advance's extensive color palette. Battle screens come alive with a multitude of little details and animations that any puzzle fan can appreciate. Don't prepare to be dazzled, but Puyo Pop certainly knows how to keep things bright and fun.

Wait until you see Arle's REAL excited face.

Sound/Music: Puyo Pop's soundtrack consists of all that is bouncy and light-hearted, wreaking absolute havoc on the Game Boy Advance's horns and chime synthesizers. Regardless of its bubblegum-sweet sensibilities, I found myself unintentionally bobbing my head along to some of the tracks each time I booted up Puyo Pop. High-energy, and never dark or sinister in any way, Puyo Pop's music is a fitting addition to this game's cotton candy theme.

Going hand-in-hand with Puyo Pop's musical score is the game's sound effects, which sound like they were borrowed from an early Super Nintendo RPG; note that this isn't a bad thing. Sonic Team has even included tiny voice clips (in original Japanese!) during battle, breathing even more life into the already frantic fights. These vocal bits alone add another ten points to Puyo Pop's already appropriate placement on the "kitsch" scale.

Gameplay: The battle elements of Puyo Pop play almost exactly like a relatively-unknown Windows game, called Qwirks (from Tetris creator, Alexey Pajitnov) that I used to have as a kid. A set of two, colored blobs are dropped into the play area; matching four or more of these pieces, or making chains will remove them from the play field and drop clear "blocks" onto your opponents side, which will prevent them from creating sets or chains of their own. If you or your opponent's screen becomes too full to fit another block or blob, that person loses the match. It may sound basic (and in truth, the concept is), but each stage you unlock yields new enemies, who become progressively harder as the game goes on. The in-game tutorials are worked seamlessly into the experience and prove to be helpful practice for future opponents, giving the game a smooth learning curve. The whole gameplay experience is a prime example of the key elements true puzzle fans look for in a game: simplistic controls, pick-up-and-play concepts, and a gauntlet of intense, fast-paced challenges. Additional time with the story mode will unlock new obstacles and a bonus challenge mode, but the real fun is available if you have a link cable: a single game cartridge allows up to four players to duke it out, Puyo Pop style, giving this already addictive title some great replay value.

Forget swords and magic - you know it's on when the blobs start falling!

Overall: If you decide to take on Puyo Pop, I hope you have your tent and sleeping bag ready, because this title is beyond "campy." While many will be turned off early by the cutesy art style, bouncy music, and sickly-sweet dialogue, I urge you to stick around for what is, at its heart, one of the most entertaining puzzle games of the Game Boy Advance's time. The core gameplay is solid as a rock, and is sure to not disappoint those looking for an exciting, high-paced puzzle experience - even if it is drenched in an extra-large helping of kitsch-syrup.

Score (out of 10): 8.5
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