Friday, February 22, 2019

Devil May Cry 3: Dante's Awakening Special Edition Review

Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening Special Edition is an enhanced version of the original 2005 release of DMC3. It was sort of a GOTY edition before publishers called their re-releases GOTY editions. The Special Edition added a few new difficulty modes, a Turbo mode with 20% increased speed, a “Gold” mode that allowed you to continue without restarting the whole level after dying, the Bloody Palace mode, and made Vergil a playable character. The PS3 HD remaster that I played for this review is basically the same game as the PS2 version, but is displayed in 16:9 and 720p.

Devil May Cry 3 is a prequel to DMC1 taking place before Dante has even named his demon hunter for hire business. You play as a younger Dante trying to stop his brother, Vergil, from opening a gate to the demon world and obtaining the power of the twin’s father, Sparda. It's the first game in the timeline, but it doesn't really feel like an origin story. I think game does a good job of setting the table for DMC1, but it feels like the sequel to a game than never existed. There are many references to previous battles between Vergil and Dante, and even times when they have teamed up, but they never really spell out what led to them fighting. This is actually the first DMC I’ve ever beaten, so maybe some of this stuff is explained in later games, but right now, I feel like I walked into the theater halfway through the movie.

When asked what the genre of his new games was, DMC creator, Hideki Kamiya, called DMC a stylish hard action game. It’s an action game with a focus on chaining together cool looking combos while killing monsters. The more varied your combos are, the better your rank will be when you finish a mission, and the more red orbs (the game’s currency) you’ll get to buy more moves with. There is a big emphasis on style, but it would be a bit misleading to say that's all the game is about. You don't have to be stylish if don't want to. You can completely ignore the grading system if you want. You have the choice to be boring and simply survive through the game, too.

DMC3 isn't a survival horror game, but it still has some of those Resident Evil elements from DMC1. DMC1 actually started out as a Resident Evil sequel prototype. Most of DMC3 takes place inside Temen-ni-gru, a demonic tower that shifts and twists around like a Rubik's cube as the game goes on. Even though the game is split up into missions, you'll often revisit old areas in new missions because of how the pieces of the tower move around. There’s also a lot of looking for key items to place in specific spots to open doors and even a few puzzles. That aspect has been toned down quite a bit since DMC1, though. All the item puzzles are fairly straightforward and there are no multi-part item puzzle chains. Most of the Resident Evil style background elements with cryptic flavor text are also gone. Part of me feels like maybe the game would be better if it just stuck to the action. The excitement certainly takes a dive whenever you're forced to backtrack to go get an item to to put in a slot to progress.

DMC3 builds upon the original idea of stylish combat by giving you a lot more options to play around with. You can now equip 2 Devil Arms (melee weapons) and 2 guns, and switch between them at any time with the press of a button. You also get 6 different fighting styles to choose from. What all this amounts to is a lot of new ways to look like badass while killing demons.

You start the game off with Rebellion, a beat up broadsword not to be confused with the Force Edge or Alastor swords. When you beat a boss in the tower, you either get a new weapon or a new fighting style, kind of like in Mega Man. The melee weapons include Cerberus, a pair of ice nunchucks; Agni and Rudra, a pair of fire and wind swords; Nevan, an electric guitar that shoots bats and lightning; and Beowulf, a set of light magic greaves and gauntlets that gives you hand to hand combat moves straight out of Street Fighter, including a dragon punch and a dive kick. Each one of these weapons uses the same basic inputs, but they all look completely different and allow you to do different things. Some weapons can do damage to crowds of monsters, some are better for closing distances, and some have better range or faster attacks than others.

There’s also 5 guns in the game, which you usually find hidden around the levels. You start off with Dante’s handguns, Ebony and Ivory. There’s also a shotgun; Artemis, a Mega Man-like laser arm cannon that looks like something out of Halo; Spiral, a high powered rifle; and Kalina Ann, Lady’s rocket launcher. Like the Devil Arms, different guns are good in different situations. Ebony and Ivory are great for juggling enemies and keeping your combos going, while Kalina Ann is great for blowing up groups of enemies, and the shotgun is perfect for blowing demon’s faces off close range.

After your first fight with Vergil, you’ll unlock Devil Trigger. Devil Trigger turns Dante into a devil that looks like something straight out of Devilman. His speed and attack power increase, and he can do the Air Raid move with Nevan, which lets him literally fly for a limited time. Devil Trigger uses a special meter, similar to a fighting game special meter, which you fill up by landing attacks on enemies.

The different fighting styles are all about putting a spin on the Devil Arms and gun combat with abilities that totally change how you play. You can’t change fighting styles on the fly like you can with weapons, though. You can only change styles before starting a mission, or at one of the Divinity Statues found in the levels. You start the game with Trickster, a style that’s all about dodging attacks and closing the distance between you and the enemy. It lets you dash both on the ground and in the air, and gives you a wall run. Leveling this style at least once is required to get the air dash and be able to reach one of the blue orb fragments hidden in the game.

Swordmaster gives you an extra attack button for all Devil Arms. It’s not just for swords. It’s really good for putting together longer and more varied single weapon combos, which you’ll have to do to break open statues with blue orb fragments hidden inside.

Gunslinger is all about doing cool moves with your guns. It lets you shoot at multiple targets, charge your guns like Mega Man, and do a cool spinning gun attack in the air with the handguns, twirl the shotgun around like nunchucks, shoot homing rockets with Kalina Ann, ricocheting shots with Spiral, and a charged multishot with Artemis.

Royalguard is all about blocking and countering enemy attacks. This style gives you a block button on Circle, which blocks pretty much any attack. As you block attacks, a gem by your life bar will light up, and when you fill it up by blocking 3 attacks, you can do a powerful special move called Just Release with R1 + Circle. This move does even more damage if you use it like a parry.

Quicksilver is one of the 2 styles you get later in the story. It lets you slow down time for enemies at the expense of Devil Trigger meter. Most enemies are practically frozen in time, so you can run around and attack freely. However, this ability eats up meter very quickly, so it doesn’t last long. You can use Devil Trigger while slowing time, but since it uses the same meter, you won’t be able to use them at the same time for very long, even with a maxed out meter.

Doppelganger is the last style you get in the story. This style lets you call a Devil Trigger shadow clone that mirrors your attacks. This move can also be used with Devil Trigger active, but it uses the same meter, too.

Once you beat the game with Dante, you’ll unlock Vergil. You can use Vergil in both the story and Bloody Palace, but his save is completely separate from Dante’s, and none of your progress carries over into the other's game. Vergil gets a different opening cutscene in the story, but gets no cutscenes at all after that. Vergil only gets one fighting style, Dark Slayer. This style is similar to Dante’s Trickster, but Vergil teleports around instead of dashing, he can’t wall run, and he can use a same place teleport to completely avoid enemy attacks without moving away from the target. Unlike Dante, Vergil can carry 3 Devil Arms and switch between them whenever he wants. He has Beowulf, Force Edge, and Yamato. Beowulf and Force Edge play similarly to Dante’s Rebellion and Beowulf but with slightly different moves. Vergil’s main weapon is Yamato, a Japanese style Samurai sword. Yamato gives you that sort of delayed slice effect, like in an anime where the Samurai cuts down the enemy and they don’t notice until he sheaths his sword.

That's a lot of stuff to play around with. Sounds great, right? Well, there's a lot of work required to collect and fully upgrade all this stuff. You start the game with nothing but the handguns and 2 handed sword. You have to play through the game to collect the rest of the weapons, you have to buy gun upgrades to max out their power, and you have to buy new moves and upgraded moves for every one of the melee weapons on top of that. A couple of the fighting styles are also acquired by playing through the story, and all fighting styles have to be leveled up twice to get all the moves. Leveling a style to the max takes forever, too. I only managed to level 2 styles before I beat the game. You also have to buy 6 of the health upgrades and all 7 of the Devil Trigger meter upgrades. And don't forget that Vergil's game is on another save slot, so you have to upgrade all his stuff separately. I guess you could say that's a lot of replay value, but I'd want to move on and play another game long before maxing out both characters.

Bloody Palace is basically a gauntlet mode. There's 9,999 levels, and they're all either a bunch of enemies on a circle platform floating somewhere in the nether, or one of the bosses from the story. After clearing a level, you're given the choice of taking 3 portals; fire, water, or lightning. Fire always moves you up 100 levels, lightning 10, and water 1. Taking a water portal always rewards you with a health orb and lightning always rewards you with a Devil Trigger orb, so there's more strategy than simply picking the fire portal every time to beat this mode as fast as possible. All experience and red orbs acquired in this mode carry over to your main game, so this is a good place to farm orbs, too.

There are certainly some rough looking spots in this game, but overall, it looks alright for a PS2 game in HD. There are a bunch of cutscenes that look very ugly and pixelated, like they weren't touched up at all for this remaster, and they really stick out, but the actual game looks fine. The dark gothic atmosphere comes across really well and the character, enemy, and weapon designs are all very cool. I really love the art direction in the game. Everything has bat wings, a devil tail, or a skull on it, and a lot of the characters look like they're straight out of a Go Nagai anime. The over the top, Matrix-like cutscene animations are also pretty amusing. One thing that really bothers me is the Resident Evil style fixed camera angles. There were too many times when I would be running towards the camera, or running around and the camera angle would change and I would be pressing one direction on the stick and running in another direction.

If the straight out of the Matrix animation wasn't a big enough hint that this game was made in the 2000s, the soundtrack is a dead giveaway. Devil May Cry 3’s soundtrack is the most mid-afternoon Ozzfest main stage band sounding music I've ever heard in a game. If you told me this is actually Powerman 5,000, I'd believe you. This is what heavy metal sounded like when Korn and Rob Zombie reached the height of their mainstream popularity. It does fit the tone of the game, though. The voice acting doesn't sound bad, but the dialogue is pretty corny. Dante is an action movie one liner machine. Everything he says is like something out of an action movie trailer. Which I guess is fine, because of course teenage Dante would be super annoying and full of himself.

DMC3 is definitely the best DMC game in the original trilogy. DMC1 was the innovator, but DMC3 is where the series really comes into its own. My biggest complaint about the game would have to be the huge amount of stuff there is to buy. I feel like these games are the most fun when you have all the moves unlocked. That's why I used amiibos in Bayonetta 2. Getting everything is just too much work. DMC3 in particular feels like a real struggle when you're starting out with only a few moves because the game is no cakewalk either.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse Review

Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse was originally released by Konami on the Famicom as Akumajou Densetsu (Demon Castle Legend) in 1989, a little over 2 years after the Japanese release of Castlevania II: Simon's Quest. Castlevania III is a very influential game within the series. It was the first Castlevania with branching paths, multiple playable characters, and it introduced Sypha Belnades and Alucard, two major characters in Castlevania lore.

Castlevania III takes place in 1476, 215 years before Castlevania I, and the year in which the real life Vlad Tepes Dracula died. It's also sandwiched between Castlevania: Lament of Innocence (1094) and Curse of Darkness (1479) in the official timeline. It's set in a period of time in which the Belmonts are exiled from Wallachia because people fear their supernatural powers, and Dracula and his monsters are taking over Europe and committing genocide. The governing church has no choice but to call upon the help of Trevor Belmont, current heir to the Vampire Killer.

By today's standards, Castlevania II was a Metroidvania. You could explore the world, visit towns, and get upgrades and new items like in games such as Zelda II and Shantae. Dracula's Curse dropped all those action adventure elements and went back to the series’ roots. Castlevania III is a traditional action platformer like Castlevania I, but you can choose between 2 levels to play at multiple points throughout the game. These branching paths don't work like in Bloodlines or Rondo of Blood, though. There's no exploration or experimentation involved. They're single screen rooms completely separated from the actual levels. They're really just glorified stage select screens. You usually come across these forks in the road after a boss battle at the end of a level, and there are also a few times when you can choose between 2 paths at the halfway point of a level. Different paths lead to completely different levels, and different recruitable characters. There aren't a lot of unique bosses, though. You seem to fight the Mummies, Cyclops, and Skeleton Knight 2 or 3 times no matter which route you take. I really like how you can play through the game in a few different ways, but I like the implementation better in Rondo of Blood.

Similarly to how Castlevania I’s levels tell the story of Simon traversing Dracula’s castle, Castlevania III’s levels tell the story of Trevor traveling from a village in Wallachia to the castle, and then through Castlevania to Dracula’s throne room. Taking half the game out of the castle allowed the developers to get more creative with the level design and try new things, which I enjoyed for the most part. I liked seeing the Castlevania level version of a ghost ship and a haunted swamp, for example. There are a few levels that are just annoying to play through later in the game, though. Especially on Alucard's route, and even more so if you don't have Alucard with you. For example, there's a level that has you dodging blocks falling from the sky for about 5 minutes as you jump on them to get to the top of the stage that's incredibly annoying.

The other defining mechanic of Castlevania III is the recruitable allies. After beating 3 specific bosses in the game, you'll be given the option to recruit one of 3 playable characters. These characters will join Trevor, and you'll be able to switch between them by pressing the Select button. The switching animation is very slow, but all the enemies are frozen in place while you switch, so you're not a sitting duck. You can only have 1 ally with Trevor, so if you recruit a character while you already have an ally, the old ally will be replaced with the new one. The 3 allies play completely differently from Trevor and each other, and you'll get different endings depending on who you have with you when you beat the game.

The 3 recruitable characters are Sypha, Grant, and Alucard. Sypha Belnades is a Witch who was part of a group of Vampire hunters sent to kill Dracula by the church. The others were killed and she was captured and turned to stone by a Cyclops. Her melee attack is very weak and has a short range, but she can cast powerful elemental magic spells that do a lot of damage. Sypha can walk a bit faster than Trevor, and she can use her ice spell to freeze enemies in place and use them as platforms, so she’s no slouch when it comes to mobility.

Grant Danasty looks like a Flea Man dressed like a pirate, but he is actually a thief who was part of a group of rebel fighters who tried to take on Dracula. They failed, and Grant was turned into a demon and put in the clock tower as a boss. Grant’s main attribute is the ability to climb on walls and ceilings. You simply jump towards a wall and hold down the direction the wall or ceiling is in and cling to it. Since Grant climbs on all fours, he can use this ability to crawl through small spaces that no one else can, and since he's so short, he can duck under some enemy attacks which the other characters can't. In the Japanese version, Grant’s normal attack allows him to throw daggers without having the dagger subweapon or using hearts, but that was changed to a stab with terribly short range in the Western versions. He can still use the dagger subweapon and do the same thing, though. Grant can also use the Axe subweapon, and he can use both it and the dagger subweapons while climbing. Grant has a little bit of air control, which none of the other characters have, but his head can’t pass through overhead blocks while jumping, so his jumps are constantly blocked in mid air if his head hits something. It's really annoying. All the other characters keep moving forward even if their heads clip through a block.

Alucard is the son of Dracula and his second wife, Lisa. He is a Dhampir, half human and half Vampire. He looks more like the classic Universal Monsters Dracula here, but he is the same Alucard you play as in Symphony of the Night. Alucard does not agree with his father’s intent to kill all humans, so he is looking for someone to help in stopping him. Alucard can shoot fireballs, kind of like how Dracula usually does in the first phase of his fight in most games, but this attack isn't nearly as powerful. Alucard has the weakest normal attack out of all the playable characters. This makes Alucard the worst character in the game to me, since it takes twice as long for him to kill anything. The cool thing about Alucard is his ability to turn into a bat and fly. This ability consumes hearts to activate and uses more hearts every second you’re transformed, but you can use it to fly over difficult platforming sections with ease.

Trevor plays exactly like Simon Belmont in Castlevania I does. He has the same heavy jump with no air control, the same slow walk, same whip attacks with the little windup animation, and the same subweapons. The only real difference between Trevor and Simon is their sprites. Trevor does the most melee damage, has good reach with his whip, and can use all the subweapons, so he’s my favorite character to use. I guess his only real weakness is his mobility when compared to the other characters’.

Frankly, I don't like playing as any of the allies. Sypha is the only one I can tolerate during normal gameplay. Grant and Alucard are just plain frustrating to to use. I mainly use Trevor and only switch to the others in specific sections. I basically use them like special abilities. They just have too many weaknesses for me to use them over Trevor. I almost wonder if these characters were even intended to be used outside of specific situations with how weak they are in regular combat.

When I think of the NES style of graphics, I think of games like Castlevania III. This is the look games like Shovel Knight draw their influence from. Castlevania III uses a very limited color palette, but it uses a lot silhouettes to add layers to the backgrounds, and outlines, highlights, and shading on the environment pieces to give everything a textured look. You can see bricks showing through the torn wallpaper on walls, splintered wooden boards holding the catacomb walls together, and moss growing on the stone steps leading up to Dracula’s throne room. It’s the same art style used in Castlevania I, but with a lot more detail. There is some slowdown, especially in areas with lots of moving pieces in the background, like the clock towers, but the framerate is smooth most of the time. It’s certainly much better than in Castlevania I and II.

Castlevania III’s soundtrack just might be the best soundtrack of any NES game period. Nearly every song in it is a classic. Clockwork, Beginning, Mad Forest, Riddle, Aquarius, Vampire Killer. All great and memorable Castlevania tracks. It’s worth noting that the Famicom version has a special sound chip in the cart, which allows for a few more audio channels. It’s the same tracks, but they all sound like the have more instruments in them, so it sounds much better than the NES version. It's a shame Koji Igarashi didn't get the chance to remake this game like he wanted to because we might have gotten an even better PS1 quality version of the soundtrack.

I think Castlevania I will always be my favorite of the NES trilogy, but Castlevania III is a close second. It has great music, great graphics, and it’s a pretty influential game within the series in terms of both gameplay systems and story. There’s just a few things holding it back. I think a handful of the levels are pretty bad, I don’t like playing as any of the recruitable allies, and I also think the balance of checkpoints and stage length is way too punishing in the second half of the game, but you can cheat your way around that with save states now.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Pikuniku Review

Pikuniku is a side scrolling puzzle platformer/adventure game from developer, Sectordub. It's published by Devolver Digital, and it's available on Nintendo Switch and PC for $12.99. Pikuniku is all about exploration, wacky platforming puzzles, and doing goofy quests for even goofier NPCs. It's kind of like a Metroidvania with off the wall situations and an environmentalist message. I guess you could call it a Hippievania.

Pikuniku takes place in a weird and colorful world full of silly looking creatures. This world isn't all happy little clouds and trees, though. There's this guy called Mr Sunshine, who runs a big company called Sunshine Inc., and is wreaking havoc on the environment with his giant robots. Mr Sunshine has been chopping down forests, draining lakes, and taking all the corn harvest for himself. He's giving everyone money, though, so it's okay, right? No! Because he also plans to blow up a volcano and destroy the whole island, kill everyone, and build his new city on top of it. That money won't do anyone any good when they're dead. There's a lot of environmentalist messages here, but this isn't a serious or preachy game. It's a very lighthearted game full of clever dialogue and funny situations.

Pikuniku is part physics-based platformer and part adventure game. Most of the game is about jumping around with this weird creature with spindly legs and kicking stuff. Kicking stuff seems to often do the trick. Since Piku has no arms and can't carry anything, you just kicks things. You kick doors open, kick boxes around to use them as platforms, kick rocks on top of switches, and even break walls by kicking them. Piku can also tuck its legs in and roll around to squeeze through small spaces, and use its legs to grab onto hooks around the world and swing on them, not unlike Simon Belmont in Super Castlevania IV.

There is a lot of platforming in this game, but the feel of the controls is the complete opposite of Mario. Piku feels very clumsy while walking, because its feet kind of move independently from its body when it walks, like a puppet. Piku's footing also matters, so it can't jump with one foot hanging off a ledge, for example. Piku's jumps are also floaty and hard to control because of the way Piku somersaults, and its kicks are unpredictable and hard to aim. Combine these controls with a world with wacky cartoon physics, and you have a very awkward controlling, funny looking game. Playing as a drunk puppet might be a good way to describe how this game plays.

But Pikuniku isn't about jumping around looking goofy for no reason, Piku is trying to help people. Piku is your friendly neighborhood red puppet thing. There's towns, and you run around talking to people, and do quests for them. Sometimes these quests require you to get an item from somewhere, complete some kind of minigame or platforming obstacle course, beat a boss, or just go somewhere to move the story forward. There are a few items you just use right out of your inventory window, but the main mechanic for using inventory items is wearing them like hats. Most of these objectives have something to do with Mr Sunshine and the trouble he's causing, but there's also sidequests that are just there for fun, like one that has you playing hide and seek with a rock creature. I put on shades to look cool and get into a dance club, I played basketball with my feet, I drew a face on a scarecrow, I played a Dig Dug knockoff, I did all sorts of fun things. It's these sort of quirky objectives that make this game so charming and unique.

Pikuniku is a very chill, slow-paced game. Sometimes maybe bordering on being a little too unexciting. There are no enemies roaming the world, like Goombas in a Mario game. The only things you ever fight in this game are Mr Sunshine's robots. You can't even die outside of these boss battles and a handful of obstacle courses. And when you do die, you're never sent back very far. You can't drown, fall to your death, or anything like that during most of the game. There isn't even a health bar. The most challenging thing about the game is fighting with the physics in some of the later puzzles.

There's also a multiplayer mode, separate from the story, that strips the gameplay down to just the platforming. In some stages, 2 players each control a Piku and work together to open the path forward. Sometimes one player must pull a switch to open a path in the section the other player is in, or maybe one player will need to use the other as a platform to jump higher. It kind of reminds me of Gyromite on NES. Some of these levels also have the 2 players tethered together, for even more physics-based hilarity. There's also a few Sonic-like racing levels in which you can ride on cars, and the basketball minigame is also playable here. Sadly, there is no online, and trying to play this mode by yourself is extremely hard, unless you can play with your feet. There's a good idea for one of those charity streams.

Pikuniku has very simple graphics with lots of flat colors with no outlines, gradients, shading, or much of a texture on anything. There is also no real lighting, and very few effects. The game is not technically impressive, but it has a nice looking cartoon style. I think the art style works well with the lighthearted vibe of the game. The music in Pikuniku is also very mellow and quirky. There's a lot harmonica (or accordions) and bongo drums, and it often reminded me of Animal Crossing's soundtrack.

Pikuniku didn't exactly blow my mind, but it's a fun little game. It's not very challenging or super exciting, but it doesn't overstay its welcome, and it's over before it has a chance to get boring. It's really short. You can beat it in about 5 hours. I think it's worth playing for the cute story, clever dialog, and chill soundtrack. The controls are awkward, but looking stupid and fighting the physics are part of the fun of the game.