XBLA: Braid

Puzzle platforming by reversing time? Surprising and aspiring, such antics can be found in Braid, a download-able Live Arcade game from independent developer Johnathan Blow. The game features a hub of worlds devilishly devised to stump even the most veteran puzzle fans. With a side scroll 2D design does Braid sparkle with innovation and design or is it time to turn back the clock?.

Utilizing a hub world, Braid presents itself with a series of 6 different worlds, each with their own set of levels presenting an additional unique game mechanic to each world. Though it does not present itself clearly to the player, there is a story to the game following protagonist Tim on his search for the princess. Though ambiguous at first, players soon find out all is not what is meant to be through the many books before starting each world. The core gameplay in Braid involves manipulating time to complete puzzles in 2d side scrolling levels. The objective is to collect puzzle pieces for each world scattered throughout it’s different levels to piece together the main jigsaw for the world and unlock the next piece of ladder to advance to the final stages. Though it sounds simplistic, the game is definitely not with enemies walking around on each level requiring players to think outside the box to complete a majority of them. Enemies play an an even more important role as you work through each of the worlds using them to help reach new areas or just killing off by jumping on them. As you progress, the levels gets more and more difficult and with the unique mechanic in each world gives each new world you reach a freshness. Controls in Braid is simple relying more on jumping by tapping A and involking Time control by tapping X and using the left and right bumpers to fast forward or rewind. Though the game has plenty of interesting elements in it’s design, it ultimately falls short with it’s overall length as the game can be finished in one sitting. However, puzzle platforming with the unique time mechanic is surely something everyone should see and experience.

Braid sets itself apart from alot of XBLA games and delivers in not only its unique style and story but also its unique gameplay elements that mesh to bring something fresh into the genre.
Braid is currently available to download from the Xbox Live MarketPlace for 800 MS Points.

Overall – 8.0

XBOX360: Mirror’s Edge

Free-running/ Parkour is nothing that we haven’t seen already but combine that with a first person perspective and platforming elements and it’s a shines anew. Mirror’s Edge, a first person platforming game from the developers of the Battlefield Series DICE, sets to break new ground by combining genres which we’d never think would go together into a package that delivers in innovation. Renown more for First Person Shooters, the Swedish Developer takes a break from the genre to produce an entirely different experience receiving critical acclaim from its showings, but does the Mirror still shine or has it become dull?

Mirror’s Edge takes place in an unknown city governed by a totalitarian regime which monitors all communication and surveillances it’s citizens in order to bring down crime and keep order. This Utopia however, is in fact a dystopia robbing the citizens of their privacy and removing any free speech against the government. An electoral campaign is underway with the current Mayor Callaghan seeking to retain his position. However, there is a new candidate Robert Pope, seeking to bring about vast changes in the way the government runs. This is where you take the role of Faith Conner, a “runner” skilled in the art of Parkour whose sister Kate becomes a suspect framed with the sudden murder of the new candidate. This leads Faith on a mission to prove her sister’s innocence and find the people responsible. The story plays out in both brief in game cutscenes and sequences of 2d cutscenes shown at the start of each level taking on the look and style of flash animations. The problem is that narrative development is devoid of any emotion because of the limited nature of the cutscenes and while in first person, you can never really become attached to Faith because you never see her. Another issue is its length; the story mode ends way too soon before you even feel a sense of accomplishment and with only 9 chapters to play through, skilled players can beat the game in a matter of 6-7 hours. Once you master story mode, there is a large number of speed runs which will give speedrun fanatics a good run for their money.

The game play revolves around the theme of freedom and speed. Most of the time you’ll be running to get from one point to another point clearing obstacles that are directly in your path using whatever path you want. There are however, times where you’ll be either chased or the chaser and these help to add variety to the main campaign. The environments are also mixed with different locales and buildings but most of them have the same look and feel. There are a few varieties with a subway, sewer and ship levels but other than that, you’ll be spending most of your time going up lifts and enjoying the vantage points of the rooftops. Though the game enourages finding different methods to travel from one point to another, the problem is when the game forces combat upon the player breaking the free roaming aspect of the game which occurs more often as you progress through the narrative. The Controls in Mirror’s Edge feels clunky at first but it eventually works and feels right as jumping over obstacles is controlled by your left bumper while crouching is by the left trigger. Combat in the game is broken up into 2 categories, gun and melee performed by either a face button or right trigger. Unfortunately, none of them are well executed. Gun combat is mediocre and melee combat is clunky and robotic as they serve as merely quick time events having to press a button at the right time.

Mirror’s edge uses a first person perspective for the large majority of the game and combining this with the Unreal 3 Engine delivers a vibrant world with mixes of colour to serve as runner’s vision. The use of the first person view for the game is unique and serves to give the player a more intimite feel as you attempt and perfom the acrobatics from a personal perspective.
The Mirror’s Edge world shows through the use of colour with the primary focus on white giving a devoid but clean feel to the environment emphasizing the totalitarian government’s hold on its citizens. The game runs at a crisp framerate which hardly drops in framerate which gives the speed factor a plus. There are occasional mid level loads but it does ever detract from the game.
The audio is also up to scratch with an original theme song and soundtrack specially made to give off an ambient feel to the environment which is lacking in life.

Mirror’s Edge is a game full of innovation and unique ideas and it shows. Regardless of whether players like the core gameplay mechanics or not, there’s definitely nothing like it before. While it does have a few issues, the overall package is one that is worth seeing.

Story – 7.5
Gameplay – 7.5
Video -8.5
Audio -8.5
Overall – 8.0

XBOX360: Eternal Sonata

Eternal Sonata is a sleeper title from the Sound Composer division turned developer of Tri Ace, Tri Crescendo. Released in 2007, the title focuses on the life of famed composer Frances Fredrick Chopin and manages to craft an original story around the composer and delivers a package that shines in production values. Tri Crescendo has taken the challenge to create one of the most beautiful and original RPG ever to hit the system but does the tune stay in rhythm or is it a broken note?

Set in the dream of Chopin and broken up into 7 chapters each having a piece of Chopin’s music as it’s name, players begin as Polka, a young girl in Tenuto,a village within the kingdom of Forte.Polka however, is cursed with a terminal illness which has a side effect of the ability to perform magic in the dream world. This leads many people to be afraid of her for fear of contracting the illness. She makes her living selling floral Powder which unfortunately can’t complete with the tax free “mineral powder”, an addictive healing agent which is being supplied by Forte Castle. Eventually she meets up with Frederic Chopin who offers to help escort her as she tries to plead with Count Waltz to increase prices and the story unfolds from there into a war between the kingdoms of Forte and Baroque. Polka and Frederic are not alone for the journey however as they meet many new additions to their group such as the Orphans Allergretto and Beat, Herder Viola, Guardians of Agogo Forest Salsa and March and the group of Andantino comprising of Jazz, Falsetto and Claves.

The story is rich in many themes concerning war, love, life, messages of hope and courage each revolving around Chopin’s life and music. The characters are well written with a good amount of back story to each of them and throughout the narrative, they each show progression as they learn more about themselves and find the answers they were searching for. Polka is the most touching of them as you’ll feel an attachment to her by the time you reach the end. There is a lot of material to take in and the game doesn’t hold back from telling it, as a majority of the dialogue is well written with a large amount of philosophical phrases. The problem is that for some, it may be too much to take in and in combination with it’s slow pacing, does become a bit long winded at times but, if you can look past that, it is still a very rewarding and touching story with a large amount of depth, character development and attachment. Though the story is charming and beautifully crafted, it does come out a bit short clocking in at 20 hours for the main story and 30 for those who take up all the side quests.

The worlds in Eternal Sonata are filled to the brim with many musical motifs and has a healthy blend of imaginative environments with many locales having a strong music presence right down to their name. The majority of the time you’ll be exploring towns or traversing through new areas. Battle encounters are all on screen and can be avoided at will or running at them at a specific direction which are then taken into a random battle field. The battle system in carries on from the system you see in other games such as Tales and Star Ocean employing a roaming turn based system. You can give commands to attack, use special attacks, items and guard. While the system is fairly limited at first, gradually it evolves with limits to the amount of tactical time and placing depth into how you use harmony chains to string special attacks. Chaining the right attacks can add damage and help you out of difficult situations especially in the bonus dungeon at the end of the game and forcing the player to use normal attacks to build up echo chains reduces the abuse of using only special attacks. Of course, you are not the only one able to dish out damage as enemies can easily take out a member or two in a single move in later areas. This is where the guard button helps to get you out of difficult situations to the point where battles can only be won by learning to guard and leaving you dead otherwise. It does seem like a crutch at times, but you’ll be thankful for it once you’re in later portions of the game. Another mechanic, is the light dark system where you and your enemies change attributes depending on whether you’re in light or dark areas. These greatly effect the tide of battle and mixes the action making you choose the correct strategy to defeat them. The battles themselves are played out in short bursts so that players don’t receive any downtime when coming back to the main story. Level grinding is virtually non existence if you play the game normally and resist avoiding enemies but those who do will find normal battles to be fairly easy except for the occasional bosses and later areas. There are also a vast amount of customization with different weapons and abilities you can assign to your character. The only issue is that equipment placed on your character doesn’t show up on your character and only serve to change stat points.

One major problem of the game is the camera. By incorporating a fixed camera perspective, it makes it hard to enjoy some of the game’s visual presentation when traversing areas and quickly becomes a nuisance in battles since you have no control over it’s placement resulting in times where you’ll be obscured by a large enemy and cannot see where to place your character so you ending up hitting nothing.

There are also a number of side quests such as the score collection but most of these can only be completed on a second run through. The score collection mini-game has you collecting score pieces scattered throughout the game and playing them against an NPC to be either awarded a rank and collect an item or booed. While seemingly simplistic compared to other mini games in the genre, it does adds to the overall music theme and gives the player something to do other than the main story. The main issue with it is the trial and error nature as there is no real way to ideally mix and match score pieces but this is overlooked as it is an optional component.

As you traverse the environments, you’ll come to appreciate the colourful and gorgeous visuals the game has to offer. Each town or city you visit is enriched in detail and the character models are all unique and wonderfully animated. Story cut scenes are well scripted with only minor lip sync issues. Though the game has a large emphasis on the music of Chopin and contains a number of his pieces, there are also original compositions by Matoi Sakuraba which are all fully orchestrated. The voice acting is pretty solid but does get annoying at times where there is long dialogue.

Eternal Sonata does the Xbox 360 justice with an imaginative story and deep battle system which offers JRPG fans a rewarding experience. It maybe a bit cliche but the story is one of a kind and you won’t find anything else like it. Chopin’s tale has proved itself to be some worth hearing. This is definitely a must own title for all fans of the genre.

Story – 9.0 – exceptional but slow story telling with a large amount of themes and morals in combination with an original plot combining real and fantasy, background info of Chopin is excellent

Gameplay – 7.5 – Fun and evolving battle system with some depth, Camera issues, limited exploration, Linear environments

Video – 9.0 – Colourful and charming environments with plenty of detail, Excellent character and enemy models.

Audio – 8.5 – Orchestrated soundtrack with many piano pieces with real pieces from Chopin. Excellent composition, Voice acting sometimes annoying but passable.

Overall – 8.5

XBOX360: Fable II

“Who will You become?”, the big question in the latest Action RPG game from LionHead. Putting players in an open world environment and give the player freedom of how their hero progresses that extends beyond the good or evil originally coined by the series. Sequel to the original Fable, also developed by LionHead Studios, the latest installment takes players back into the world of Albion to once again save all of mankind. The team has created an open environment that is fully fleshed out with many new dungeons and towns to explore.This time around however, you won’t be alone on the journey as your faithful canine companion will be tagging along on your quests to become the savior of Albion from the evil clutches of Lucien. But does the game conquer evil or remain on the path of evil?.

The story sets itself in the world of Albion where you start yourself as a poor kid known as Sparrow off in Old Bowerstone with your sister Rose where you meet a merchant who sells you a magical music box which he claims can grant one wish . After acquiring enough gold, Rose makes a wish to live in the nearby castle but the box vanishes and disappears in a flash of light. Later that night, Sparrow and Rose are wakened by a guard and bought there otherwise. Meeting Lucien, the owner of the castle, he tells them to step in a circle of blue light after they tell him about the music box. The Circle of blue light then turns red and he learns that they are not anyone of the three heroes but a fourth. He shoots Rose and then shoots Sparrow out of the window. Luckily Sparrow survives and get rescued by Theresa where ten years later, Sparrow (the player) are told that they are a descendant of a great hero and destined to be the downfall of Lucien who is restoring the great Spire which grants enormous power. Accompanied by your trusty dog, your great journey begins. The plot plays out well, though, short as you can expect to finish the story in about 7-8 hours of playtime and after that there’s a few additional quests which can take a few more hours to fully complete. You won’t find yourself getting lost as there’s always a golden trail which shows you the way to go to the objective.

The whole gameplay in Fable II revolves around choice and what the player chooses to pursue. These decisions ultimately affects the world around them. You can choose different genders and different outfits for your characters and make decisions in the story which will affect the economy, environment and outcome. The Action RPG element is when you traverse the lands of Albion going into dungeons and caves battling pirates and bandits. The combat is broken up into close quarter melee, ranged attacks and magic each being assigned to a face button. Though the combat does have some depth to it, the magic attacks don’t seem be doing much damage as you don’t really see the force of the attack. The other issue is that trying to do a high level spell incurs a tremendous amount of lag time especially when you try to perform a spell straight after a melee or ranged attack. When an enemy is beaten, it leaves behind certain orbs giving experience and allowing you to use those points to gain new abilities and level up existing ones. There is a fair amount of depth to how you spend your experience points on certain attributes but in the end you’ll most likely be either maxing them all out or just a few. One issue is the skills you can pick where alot of them seem to lack any power or usefulness. The ones that seems to be most used is Time control, Raise dead and Shock. These three given a good combination early in the game but you’ll be quickly switching back to magic for the remainder of the game.

A new addition to the core gameplay and giving more personality to your character effecting certain attributes to them is the new expression system. By using to top bumper on the controller, players can use gestures to impress, annoy, scare etc. These expressions are mostly useful only in co-op or in towns where they effect how villagers perceive you. The issue is that the expressions lack depth and seems like a timing based minigame where you’ll just spam an expression just to raise a certain attribute. Owning land and property is also a new part of the game where you can build your own empire and real estate by purchasing property with gold. If done early in the game, alot of challenge will be removed from later portions as you’ll eventually be gaining so much gold that paying a beggar 3000 gold is not a big deal.

The biggest addition to the game is your dog. The dog accompanies you throughout the entirety of the game and aids in finding dig spots and treasure. The dog is your only friend on this long journey and this greatly helps your journey as you never feel alone. There’s always someone there with you all all times and he quickly becomes a valuable asset making the game feel more personal.

Visually the game looks good whether in a town or roaming across the land. Your hero is modelled well and will take scars if you die in battle and you’ll see any items you attach onto the hero appear on them. There is a small amount of pop in occurring in towns and some lag with magic but they don’t take anything away from the experience. The big issue is the people where you’ll see the same reused models time and time again and there isn’t very much detail to distinguish one from another. They all look bland and some look disproportionate. Additional effects are used well from the visuals of each of the magic sequences being performed to the CG cut scenes used for some of the story. Each of these shows the high production value in the overall design of the game.

The audio is also impressive where the soundtrack is a mix of choir and orchestral tracks. They all play at the right moments with small melodies when in towns or revving up with enemy battles. The tracks never feel out of place and accompany the action well. Dialogue gets annoying sometimes but is admissible. The speech for the citizens of Albion however are well produced and the amount of varied phrases will surprise most. They all have something different to say and hardly reuse the same phrase over and over again adding to the individuality of each of the citizens.

On my play through however there didn’t seem to be much to accomplish besides the main questions except for real estate and achievements and hopefully LionHead will fix these with the upcoming DLC adding more quests and a new island.

Overall Fable II is a satisfying sequel to it’s predecessor and fans will like the new presentation and style of the game. There still is a few things that needs to be fleshed out abit more but those looking for a solid action RPG, look no further.

Story -8.0
Gameplay – 9.0
Video – 7.5
Audio – 9.0
Overall – 8.4