Saturday, February 26, 2011

Shining in the Darkness

Do you like mazes? Do you ever sit down with a puzzle book and do the maze because it gets you your jollies? Do you like going out with friends to a corn maze or a hedge maze and finding your way through? Does it feel rewarding when the maze is finally solved? If you answered yes to any or all of the above, would you still enjoy mazes if they were filled with an infinite number of deadly monsters bent on hunting you down and murdering you?

Dozing.Well you're in luck! Welcome to Shining in the Darkness, a game that gives you precisely that. An old dude in a rocking chair will introduce you to the Kingdom of Thornwood, where you're the son of the King's most trusted knight, Mortred. Unfortunately, he's gone missing along with the king's daughter (please note: "king's daughter" is no more than a synonym for "princess"), and you are charged with finding them. Then some dark sorcerer shows up calling himself "Dark Sol" and cackling about he's the one responsible and he's trapped the king's daughter in the giant Labyrinth that is conveniently located in the kingdom but for some reason nobody recalls building or exploring. Mmkay.

Thornwood's straight creepy. There's a town near the castle with all your amenities, but it's populated by those creatures from the kid's show Arthur. Yeah, I don't know what kind of animal they're supposed to be either, but they're happy to sell you crappy weapons and armor. "Oh, you're on a royal mission to save the life of the heir of the kingdom? Well in that case for 100 gold pieces I'll give you this leather glove." Whoa whoa, nevermind that a leather glove is meaningless in the long run, and nevermind the price gouging for it. What concerns me is who this dude skinned to get it. I mean, if the shopkeeper is some sort of anthropomorphic mammal of indeterminate nature, doesn't it stand to reason that animals in this kingdom are capable of higher cognitive processes? What I'm getting at is that by selling me a leather glove he might as well be offering me my uncle's severed arm. I'll pass, man.

The town's layout gives me pause too. The game is entirely from a first-person perspective, which is fine. So in the town you choose which building to enter by turning in a panorama and selecting the given buildings that are encircling you. This doesn't seem like a problem except for two things. First, the screen pans far too slowly. I don't have all day. Second, who builds a town like that? Who puts up buildings to form a circle with nothing in the middle? I know who. Cultists. Cultists do that. The Kingdom of Thornwood is full of murderous animal cultists. Yeah, I said it.

Poisonpowder.All this without even setting foot in the Labyrinth! When you get in there you'll be ready to get out. I'm talking battles every 2-3 steps on average. It starts off innocently enough, with just slimes or oozes or whatever name you want to give the same stereotypical blob that opens virtually every RPG. But the monsters really ramp up to a frustrating degree as you move along. Not to mention the keys. See, the whole idea is that Dark Sol is on the top (fifth) floor of the complex, and you've got to work your way up to his sanctum. But it's not that simple; much of the maze on the ground level is blocked off by locked doors or similar obstacles. In exasperation you'll just return to the king ready to quit. Instead some adviser of his will start prattling about having to complete four ancient trials to move on, and the town will foist a couple other people on you to make a "party."

The embarrassing part is that each of these helpers, named Milo and Pyra, is more useful than your own character. By far. They both use a little something we in the video game world like to call "magic." You should check it out at some point. Lots of possibilities. Milo comes from the "Shrine" to whatever higher power he worships. The game never really commits. But it's got stained glass windows, so we're going to just assume it's Christianity. Though, I guess it's a fantasy world, so....Aslan. Milo is a priest of Aslan. Pyra though is an arrogant wizard skank (and also one of those wallaby-rat abominations from the town). This means Milo can heal and pray and stuff, and Pyra can burn and electrocute things. Your dude? He swings his sword. That's it. Solid.

Map screen.Now what comes as a really disappointing surprise is that each of the four trials you've got to do is another maze. They're like basement levels of the complex. So that means to "pass" all the trials you've got to actually explore and solve five mazes, each throwing enemies at you every few steps. And thanks to the whole "I may be king and I may own that place but I never bothered sending anyone to explore it" bit, you've got no map. None, that is, until Pyra reaches a certain level and spontaneously learns a spell that lets her see an overhead view of the maze level on which you're currently located. And thank goodness, because to that point I was having to scribble it on a sheet of paper as I went along. It's damn tedious drawing a new line every step to make sure your maze drawing is accurate.

Then there's some revelation that Dark Sol was actually one of the king's advisers at the beginning and it's supposed to be all shock-worthy and stuff. Whatever. I just want to finish these mazes. I guess it's good that Shining in the Darkness managed to do away with some RPG battle failings from older games. For example, if you tell two people to attack the same enemy, and the first one kills the enemy, your second character will actually attack someone else. I know, right? Someone finally caught on. Monsters are also divided into groups, which are somewhat randomly sized. A group of enemies might be two or it might be five, but either way when you tell your characters to attack, you attack the group and not the individual. This sometimes can create a minor amount of frustration by not eliminating certain individuals in the order you'd want, but there actually aren't any major hiccups with the system. For one, groups can only be composed of the same type of monster. So while you might have to fight a group of slimes at the same time as a group of slugs, you'll never have a group composed of both slimes and slugs together. Secondly, there's a bit of AI going on wherein your characters will attempt to maximize their damage by not using stronger attacks to kill weaker enemies, and so forth. It's actually very well done, which allows you to focus less on how to battle and more on what the various species of dumb creatures you'll be slaying are.

Sméagol.There are two types of monsters in this game: those with generic names, and those with names that are bad puns. The former includes such writing gems as "Zombie," "Minotaur," "Ghost," or even "Brikeye" (which, yes, is a brick with an eye in the middle). The latter is comprised of things like "Centaurion" (a centaur in classical Roman armor), "Lancerot" (an undead knight), or "Battle Oxe" (a half-man half-ox wielding a giant battle axe). Hardy-freaking-har, game.

It's not enough though for the monsters to have weird names. They've also got to do weird things. I'm talking statues coming to life and "exhaling a blast of freezing breath" that wipes out your entire party in one go. I'm talking necromancers "howling for help," which when you hear it sounds like an obese cat doped up on catnip and coke, and being answered by monsters literally called "Meat Zombies." I'm talking about when it says "Tommyhawk 2 is flexing its muscles!" Hell if I know. Even the cursor to select your target is an upside-down male symbol. If this game is some type of message in support of feminism, I've got to admit it went right over my head. If you've got an agenda, maybe next time start by creating a plot that doesn't revolve around another princess getting kidnapped, okay?

Stormcrow.Consider for a moment the question of what happens when your party is on the verge of death. There's a tavern in town with the typical "rest for a night and somehow you'll recover the quarts of blood you lost yesterday" thing going on, and you can save in that shrine, but how does that help you from inside the Labyrinth? Answer: It doesn't. You've got to leave the mazes every single time you want to save or rest. And you've got to then retread the parts of the maze you've already explored to get back to where you were. This is infuriating at times, which is why you'll be thrilled when a familiar wizard decked in gray shows up to give you an item that lets you create checkpoints on every floor of the complex as you ascend. Even still, you'll be going back to town and therefore redoing entire maze floors repeatedly. Doesn't help that the inventory is largely against you.

Each of your characters has eight inventory slots, though at any given time four of each of these will be taken up by equipped armor and weapons. This means each person has four "usable" slots of inventory, though keys and other necessary items to progress through the mazes will also take up space. Realistically you'll have four or five free spots of inventory total among all your characters, so space is really at a premium. It's not at all uncommon to be full on space, particularly as you find better items you don't want to ditch. So let's say a character dies and happened to be holding the item that allows you to return to town to heal up and restart. You go to use the item and aren't allowed. Why? Because that guy is dead, that's why. Don't worry yourself over the fact that you've got two perfectly healthy people (or one healthy person and one half-animal abomination) who could just pick the item up out of the bag and use it. We don't deal in common sense, here; did you forget this is a video game?

And God forbid you try to use the "Miracle Herb." It's an item that claims to revive a slain character, but it doesn't actually work. Ever. You're treated to text stating "But nothing happened!" every single time. It's a dirty lie is what it is. But the chumps in town will buy it off you for 6000 gold, so feel free to pass the scam around. And don't be surprised, the townies are pretty idiotic. I once had two identical swords. I sold them to the blacksmith one at a time. Know what he says when I hand him the second one? "I've never seen anything like this before!" Dude, I sold you that exact same sword not five seconds ago.

Hygiene.In order to get the cell key to save the princess you've got to kill the dark knight, Mortred. If you're anything like me, you reacted to this by going "Okay? So?" Lemme lay a refresher on you: scroll up to the second paragraph of this review. Mortred's your dad. Whoooooaahooo yeah! That's a sick plot twist isn't it?! Except that by this point in the review you probably completely forgot who "Mortred" was, and you probably never really cared in the first place. Let me tell you something: it's no different in the actual game. I was actually surprised when I came across the princess in her jail cell because I forgot I was looking for her. I'd forgotten everything other than the understanding that there was some dude with a really lame name I needed to kill. But moreover, I just wanted to get through the mazes. The maze is supposed to be the means to the end, but the nature of the game is such that if you don't quit playing after the first two hours, finishing the maze becomes the end in itself. Plot be damned.

I think here it's also worth noting that one of those horse-faced rodent people from town, named "Edward," was an ass to me the whole game. He kept saying something about bringing him "Dai," and I didn't know what in the world he was talking about. At the end of the game, this Dai showed up in the tavern complaining about how tough it was to escape the dungeon on an injured ankle. So let me make this clear: the plot in Shining in the Darkness is so forgettable that there was an entire character I could have rescued and neglected to for the entire game, with no ill consequence. Unless deeply desiring to grind up Edward for my glue counts as an ill consequence, that is.

If you like doing mazes, and especially if you like doing the same mazes over and over with continuous interruptions, you've hit the jackpot with Shining in the Darkness. If that doesn't sound too appealing, don't fret. On rare occasions within the mazes you'll come out onto a balcony, and it plays some sweet balcony music. It's like elevator music, only you're in the open air, and you're walking, and you're not actually going up or down, and it sounds completely different. Worth the price of admission alone? You be the judge.

Bottom Line: 13/20

Friday, February 11, 2011

Donkey Kong Land

It's a fairly common practice to take a popular game and make a portable version of it. There's a Game Boy version of Mega Man, Tetris, and really any number of other titles from home consoles that developers figured could earn them a few extra bucks by way of a watered-down re-release. But as Nintendo had showed already with Super Mario Land, they wanted to push things a little further by offering watered-down new games on their handheld instead. And so, after the big success of the reviving of the Donkey Kong brand through Donkey Kong Country, Nintendo followed up with Donkey Kong Land, named even in the spirit of that mediocre Mario game.

The trick with this one that didn't exist for Super Mario Land was that they wanted a strong tie-in quality with the Super Nintendo game. When Super Mario Land came out, multiple Mario games were hits worldwide. They just needed to attach his name and that was that. But there were no Donkey Kong games in ages excepting the most recent 16-bit effort here. And so the core of the game remained the same for Donkey Kong Land, to the point where you could mistake it for a pure port if you weren't paying attention.

The plot, believe it or not, is that Cranky Kong (the original Donkey Kong from the 80s games, bear in mind) got pissed that Donkey Kong Country was successful and that its star characters were popular. A-freaking-men, Cranky. So Cranky claims that the game was only a hit because of the fancy graphics and sound, and that the gameplay was crap. Dude. Get out of my head. So he convinces King K. Rool to go steal all the bananas again to force Donkey and Diddy to recover them, this time on a system with bad sound, low graphical capability, and no color. He then expects the game to be a disaster to prove his point about how Donkey Kong Country sucked.

Cranky Kong is my hero.

Now credit where credit's due before I go any further: despite the system's limitations, the audio in Donkey Kong Land is still pretty good. The soundtrack remains inspired, so you won't be tempted to mute the Game Boy in anger or anything as you go. And for what it's worth, the barrel blasting stuff that was so atrocious at times in Donkey Kong Country is noticeably improved here. There are a couple spots that can lead to frustration, but nothing like the level you'd experience on the SNES. And, mercifully, this time around we're spared the levels revolving around being in the dark. Maybe they figured with no color it would be impossible to navigate anything meaningfully in such a stage. Or maybe they just came to their senses and realized the whole concept was idiotic. Either way, gamers profit.

The list of positive changes pretty much ends there, sadly. There's one particular change worth mentioning though that doesn't really improve or detract from the game experience. It's that saving can be done after any level instead of having to hunt down Donkey Kong's sleazy girlfriend whenever you want some good old fashioned data backup. But there's a catch to it, naturally. In order to save after the completion of a level, you've got to collect the K-O-N-G letters in the stage. If you fail to finish with all four, you'll get credit for beating the level, but will be unable to save. And with no save point actually on the map, this forces you to be extra vigilant in each stage just so you don't run out of lives and lose all your progress.

And believe me, your progress is most definitely at risk in Donkey Kong Land. Death is lurking everywhere for you, including especially places where it has no business hanging around. I get that the graphics aren't going to be great and I don't really even care that the game can't feature more than various shades of puke-green. What I can't accept is the overall fuzzy quality of the entire endeavor. Consider for a moment how small that Game Boy screen actually is. Think about the general distance you've got to have your eyes from it in order to really see what you need to in a standard game on the system. Whatever that is for you, you've got to get twice as close to make anything out in this one, and that's pretty lousy for a first-party franchise title.

The jumping is also really sticky. I'm not sure of what better word I can use as a descriptor here, but clearly "sticky" isn't the adjective of choice for a platformer, which is by nature a jumping game. I guess the apes just feel weighty somehow, or like they drop in ways you don't think they really should every time you jump. It's almost as hard to describe as it is to jump in this game. See what I did there? It's especially noticeable when jumping from something other than the ground - say ropes for instance. While some of the bad levels from Country are gone, the good ones (mine cart stages, I'm looking at you) have disappeared as well. Instead we get giant pirate ships that don't really make any design sense (they are surely not seaworthy, at the very least), the gameplay of which entails jumping from mast rope to mast rope while snakes spawn out of the woodwork to slither toward your hands. Get that business out of here, guys. No need for it.

Speaking of...ugh. Just ugh. Country's water stages suffered from two major faults. The first was a substantial overpopulation of enemies you couldn't hurt, making navigation a nightmare. The second was that they were water levels. Donkey Kong Land fixed the first fault, but retained the second (and arguably more egregious), while adding two more of its own. The first is that the water in this game has crazy stupid inertia. I know that water is by its very nature wet at all times, but that doesn't mean a single tap of the A button ought to launch you across the screen uncontrollably. And the second insidious fault? That damn nautilus is out for monkey flesh and will not stop until it gets some. It only appears in one level, but bloody hell. That stage is even called "Nautilus Chase" and revolves around a bunch of these things just hunting you down as you fight bad swim control through an underwater maze. Keep in mind that you've got to grab the KONG letters too if you want to save afterward, and that detours will almost certainly get you ingested. What is wrong with game designers?! Why does this most basic of mistakes continue to plague me? WHY?! And you know what? They took the swordfish out of this game, so now when you're down in that watery soup of death, you've got no help. Fan-freaking-tastic.

One of the game's four bosses is in the water too, just to rub it in a little more. He's pretty easy though, which can be said really for all the bosses. The hardest part of each fight, as with most of the game in general, is just seeing what the heck is going on and making sense of it in the first place. Once you do that, you're golden. It doesn't help then when you're already struggling to make sense of stuff visually that the game's manual straight up lies to you. There's a stage the manual calls "Balloon Barrage" and another called "Construction Site Fight." Well, the former has no balloons and the latter doesn't take place in a construction site. In fact, each level matches with the opposite name, which means they didn't even proofread the instruction booklet that came with the cartridge. There's a real positive sign.

Even with most of the bells and whistles removed, I still got gripes with these levels. Jumping onto floating oil drums that spontaneously combust and then self-extinguish in front of infinitely tall skyscrapers? If you ever wanted to perform such an act, Donkey Kong Land is the game for you. Hanging from a rope and blind jumping off it to a platform that may or may not be there but could very well kill you either way? Heck yeah, we got that too. Or maybe you want a stage where you have to roll a tire around as a portable bouncing tool only to get it stuck and have to go back and redo the whole thing because the design doesn't allow for mistakes. You're covered with Donkey Kong Land.

They've got bonus areas, but they're pretty lame and virtually all the same. As you go you'll collect big coins. When you enter a bonus area it'll display the number of coins you've collected to that point on the screen, and an auto-rotating barrel will move back and forth at the top of the screen. You've got to step on a switch on the screen and the barrel will shoot one of your coins. If you grab it, you get an extra life. This is totally inane. Think about it - you get the 1-up for getting the coin. But you can only collect the coin if you already had it and stuck it in a barrel to shoot it at yourself. Why do you need to do this? Is that coin-launching barrel somehow supercharging that stuff with soul energy or something? Or am I once again just trying to assign meaning to something to avoid the mental hernia all the nonsense would bring me?

I guess what I'm really trying to say to you is this: get used to this screen. You will be seeing plenty of it. All. The. Time. Donkey Kong Country had its rough spots but it's got nothing on the difficulty of its neglected little cousin. I wish I could promise a feeling of satisfaction and/or a rewarding ending for when and if you finally do complete it, but I can't. You'll get neither. Maybe a feeling of gratitude and relief that you don't have to keep playing it, but honestly you can have that at any time by simply not playing this game at all in the first place. Just trust me on this one, please. Don't make me have reviewed this in vain.

Ultimately you've got to figure Cranky was right to this point. Donkey Kong games are just garbage. And yet again I find myself with a score that's better than the review would indicate. Again it's mostly thanks to the soundtrack, and the fact that I did hate life a little less throughout this game than Country, for whatever that's worth. But seriously guys, if you liked the SNES game, you probably won't get a kick out of its Game Boy "sequel" - too much has changed. And if, like me, you didn't care much for the SNES original, you won't get a kick out of this game - too much is still wrong. So take this score with a grain of salt, and on the lookout for bees. Those bastards hide in plain sight I tell ya.

Bottom Line: 11/20