Thursday, November 7, 2013

Pushmo Review for the Nintendo 3DS

As the followup to Pushmo - the game that introduced one of Nintendo's strongest new IPs in years and single-handedly validated the 3DS eShop as a destination for must-have exclusives - Crashmo has an awful lot to live up to. With a visual style and premise that’s nearly identical to its predecessor, can this possibly be anything other than a quick cash-in on a newly established brand? Does Pushmo even need a sequel, when fans continue to pump out user-generated content that’s just as good, if not better, than developer Intelligent Systems' own stages? And with the 3DS set to host one of the most incredible (and incredibly crowded) end-of-year lineups any handheld has ever seen, should gamers even consider fitting Crashmo into their holiday schedules?

The answer to all three of these questions is an unequivocal ‘yes.’ If you have a 3DS, you simply must play this game.

Cloud Blocks: just one of many updates to the now-classic Pushmo formula.

Crashmo will be instantly familiar to anyone who's spent time in Pushmo's puzzle-platforming, candy-colored dreamland, but players shouldn't come into this sequel expecting more of the same, because the rules have changed. Whereas Pushmo tasked players with expanding, contracting, and hopping across rigidly arranged block structures in just the right order to rescue the helpless child stranded at the top, Crashmo actually lets you rearrange individual components of its structures independently of one another, in pursuit of a similar goal: retrieving the 100 birds who've flown out of reach and are needed to fly Papa Blox's grandniece Poppy home. Structures cannot be rotated, and as before, can only be moved horizontally - that is, unless you remove the supporting pieces below them, in which case they'll come crashing to the ground. Luckily, Pushmo's popular rewind and reset functions have returned, because with Crashmo's newfound freedom of movement comes the ability to mess things up beyond repair.

To support the aforementioned gameplay tweaks, Crashmo's engine - technically the same one used in Pushmo - has gone through some fine-tuning. The most obvious change comes in the form of several new block types. Cloud Blocks aren't affected by gravity and will continue to float even with nothing beneath them; Door Blocks act similarly to Manhole Blocks, with Mallo passing between them from the front, rather than the top and bottom. Switch Blocks, while technically returning from Pushmo, might as well be new, because they act completely differently this time: rather than expanding the width of a block as in the previous game, switches now make blocks move one space in whichever direction they're pointing.

Crashmo's swanky new adjustable camera, checking things out from the side.

In addition to the new block types, one small but considerable change has been made to the way Mallo interacts with the world around him. In the previous game, moving a block while standing on the edge of another one was impossible; now, Mallo can fall off platforms while moving blocks, meaning this kind of move is no longer rejected by the game.  This change might be counter-intuitive to Pushmo veterans, but it quickly becomes second nature as it's required to complete many of the later stages. The final tweak Crashmo introduces is the addition of camera control, which allows the view to be rotated in 90 degree increments, giving a clearer view of the game's more dimensional puzzles and making it infinitely more playable for users who can't (or don't want to) use the 3DS's stereoscopic effect.

As with its predecessor, the difficulty in Crashmo ramps up nicely, at least until a sudden difficulty spike around the 70th of the game's 100 main stages turns the game into an exercise in patience. I'm not the kind of person to physically externalize anger, but I came close to smashing my 3DS after I spent forty-five minutes working through one of the later stages, only to have the solution hit me on the head one minute, then slip out of my mind the next while I was using the game's rewind function to retrace my steps and take screenshots for a walkthrough.

YOU solve it. Go ahead. I'll wait.

As difficult as Crashmo can be, the solution is always there in front of you - you just have to puzzle it out. For those who simply can't, the game offers a couple of olive branches to keep players from getting frustrated to the point of no return. First: any of the game's 100 main stages can be skipped at any time, though you won't unlock any hidden content until you solve all of them. Second: in the training stages that make up the other half of Crashmo's nearly 200 challenges, talking to Papa Blox at any point activates a SuperGuide-style video that shows you exactly how to solve a puzzle. As has been the case since this feature was introduced in New Super Mario Bros Wii, the existence of an in-game walkthrough might be frustrating to seasoned players, but as before, the feature is completely optional and shouldn't be a nuisance to players who choose to ignore it.  More significantly, SuperGuides are an invaluable teaching tool for less-experienced players, with concepts learned while watching them being directly applicable to the main stages, which offer no such assistance. It's a great way for players of all skill levels to get into a game they might otherwise be intimidated by, and certainly one of the most under-appreciated of Nintendo's recent innovations.

As I alluded to earlier, one of Pushmo's strongest selling points is its potential for expansion through user-generated levels, and Crashmo is no different in this regard. With a fully-featured level editor that will no doubt be the genesis of countless outrageous, nostalgia-inducing, or downright maddening stages, the game is likely to sit atop the eShop charts for months to come. One subtle, but useful upgrade to the game's Studio mode that will likely prove incredibly popular is the ability to import levels directly from the system's built in Internet browser. Admittedly, the sluggishness of the browser actually makes this slower in practice than taking a picture of a QR code on a separate device as in Pushmo, but for players whose only connected device is a 3DS, it's an invaluable addition that will extend the game's life indefinitely.  One quick thing to note: QR codes generated by Pushmo are not compatible with Crashmo.

Well, it waaaaaas a chicken, at one point...

Crashmo is that rare followup that improves on its predecessor in almost every way, but doesn't invalidate the appeal of the game it follows. Tweaks to the gameplay, both sweeping and subtle, make this more of a companion to Pushmo than a sequel, and enhancements to usability and user friendliness should help push the game into the hands of more players than ever before. If I have one thing against Crashmo, it's that the game's story mode contains only half the stages that Pushmo had, though the extreme difficulty of the latter third of the game, plentiful tutorial stages, and proliferation of user-generated content will likely make this a non-issue for most players.

In short: Crashmo is everything you could have hoped for from the followup to IGN's highest-rated eShop exclusive. Go get it, already!*


A surprise followup that's every bit as good as its predecessor. A 3DS must-buy.

+ Delightful aesthetic presentation that will be instantly familiar to Pushmo fans

+ Completely new style of play keeps the game distinct from its predecessor

+ Robust support for user-generated content

+ More palatable to inexperienced and 3D-challenged players

- Fewer main stages than Pushmo

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Project X Zone Review Nintendo 3DS

It's unlikely that this review is the first you're hearing of Project X Zone; with a sprawling, time-traveling, world-hopping, dimension-skipping plot that draws together more than 200 characters from about 30 different franchises, there's been a lot of excited talk about this one. Now that we've been able to spend our time with it, we can say that the excitement was well-founded.

Project X Zone is technically a Bandai Namco game, but it's a more or less even crossover project with two other major publishers: Capcom and Sega. That's a genuine cause for celebration, because each of these companies have long and rich histories, and Project X Zone makes the most of drawing from all of them. It's a massive, thrilling swirl of mythologies, concepts and universes, and it's handled with a both wry sense of humour and wise acknowledgement of its gimmickry. It's the video game equivalent of generations of actors and actresses getting together to reminisce about the magic of Hollywood and the strange places their careers have taken them, and it's delightful.

The gameplay itself manages a balance as impressive as its character roster, being both accessible to casual fans and allowing for the advanced strategy that RTS experts will bring along with them. This allows the game to appeal to a wide range of people, from folks who just want to power through and enjoy the story to those who want to strut their tactical prowess, and the fact that it manages to pull this off without resorting to including a separate Easy Mode is something akin to magic.

Each chapter consists of a long, involved battle. Typically your units have a very clear objective (to destroy a boss, to protect another unit, etc.) but this will often change on the fly, and entire strategies will need to be revised on order to account for the arrival of new enemies or complications. This is nice, because once you've seen one battle grid you've seen them all; Project X Zone knows this, and uses it to lull you into a sense of complacency. That's exactly when it tosses you a curve ball, and you realized that the enemy you've worn yourself down fighting was just a mislead, and the real adversary has snuck up from behind.

The action is turn-based, with each unit displaying a number above his or her (or its) head that lets you know when they'll next get the chance to move. If you're playing with simplicity in mind, this is all you need to know; you will move and attack the enemy when you can, with additional firepower on your side if you're close enough to a friendly unit.

It's easy, and the actual execution of your attacks is even simpler: on the battle screen you press A to unleash one attack, left and A to unleash another, and right and A to unleash a third. If your XP meter is at 100% (though it can go higher) you can also press Y to trigger a gorgeously animated attack of immense devastation. If you forget any of this, don't worry; it's all listed right on the touch screen for easy reference.

However if you want to explore the deeper aspects of combat, you have a much more complicated road ahead. For instance you can trigger the attack of allied units to land at the same time as your own; if you're successful in this, you'll "lock" the enemy in place for a short time so that you can keep pounding on them. Additionally you can time your attacks to land just as the enemy rebounds from a previous strike, which is difficult but results in a very handy Critical when it works. This is one of the best things about the purposeful duality of Project X Zone; the frantic melee on-screen is brilliant eye candy when you're playing casually, but a tricky test of expert timing when you want to make every hit count.

You can also use your time on the grid to do more than maneuver troops into position; you can hunt down upgrades in treasure chests, revive fallen units, use special skills to replenish health or break an enemy's defenses (among other things) and more. You can equip and swap powerup items with unique stat effects, you can rotate partners into and out of unique combinations, and you save into as many as 15(!) different slots between chapters so that you can experiment with as many different approaches as you like. And this is just scraping the surface; Project X Zone has a lot of opportunity for personal strategy, and if you're willing to dig a little bit even the most experienced gamers will find something to challenge them.

When an enemy unit attacks, you'll have a few options. Of course, you can choose to do nothing and bear the brunt of their weaponry — which is many times the best option, strategically speaking — but you can also trade in XP to Counter (allowing you to strike back), Defend (reducing the damage you'll take) or Full Defend (nullifying the damage you'd have taken).

It's a bit confusing at first because the game features both XP and Exp., which are two very different concepts. Exp. refers to experience points, which accumulate after battle and allow your units to level up. XP however is a different meter, which fills during battle and allows you to release stronger attacks once it maxes out. This means that while you'll always be tempted to cash in some XP in order to turn an enemy's attacks back against them, it comes with a price: your most devastating attacks will have to wait. And, of course, if you trade in all of your XP, there won't be anything you can do on an enemy's turn but sit back and take whatever they decide to dish out!

We'd love to talk about the plot here, but part of the fun is that the myriad characters in Project X Zone spend so much time arguing and debating what that plot is that we don't want to undercut the deliberate confusion. Suffice it to say that the developers knew better than to take such a silly concept too seriously. We can't imagine too many gamers would take it seriously either, but we will warn you right now that if you expect there to be a sincere and profound reason that Jill Valentine and Bruno Delinger are teaming up to fight the red arremers from Ghosts 'n Goblins, you're going to be sorely disappointed.

Project X Zone is first and foremost a comedy, and it's a rather good one (if, obviously, self-indulgent). Characters appear, talk a little about the silliness and inconsistencies of their own franchises and histories, and then team up with somebody else who gets to do the same. While this does start to feel routine after a while, the in-jokes are clever winks to fans of every represented title in the game, and the humour is broad enough that you don't have to know these characters very well to enjoy their company (see the great running joke about the things Frank West chooses to document with his camera, which is funny regardless of context). In fact, the humour isn't even limited to video games; classic films, television shows and even works of literature are ripe for allusion as well, and it helps Project X Zone to feel more like a fascinating cultural event than just a self-aware video game.

The jokey asides and playful dialogue do feel a bit overwhelming at times (after all, there are a lot of characters, and they all have something to say) but thankfully the one thing the game does take seriously is its combat, which is some of the best-calibrated, most impressive turn-based action we've seen since Fire Emblem: Awakening. There's also a sort of magical fidelity to the animation behind each pair's special moves, with several of them being genuinely breathtaking, and all of them worth triggering at least once in order to appreciate the love and affection behind each.

In terms of the franchises represented in Project X Zone, it's the Capcom titles that are likely to be most familiar to Western gamers. With series such as Mega Man X, Resident Evil, Dead Rising, Street Fighter and Devil May Cry in the mix, it can make some of the Bandai Namco and Sega franchises seem a bit obscure by comparison. This isn't a criticism, however; it's a great opportunity to broaden our gaming horizons, and it's a definite accomplishment that literally every allied unit was a pleasure to use. Of course with the likes of Shining Force, Tekken and Xenosaga front and center as well, it's not as though Western fans will be getting used to all new faces, and the fact that these franchises all bring along their own items, environments and adversaries makes even the smallest discoveries a lot of fun.

We do have a few concerns with the game, but at this point in the review it's probably pretty clear that they pale in comparison to what Project X Zone does right. Nevertheless, they're worth bringing up.

For starters, since you can only save your game between chapters it's very possible that some foolish moves at the end of an epic 40-minute battle will force you to restart the entire thing. It's not a huge problem, but when it does happen you'll certainly feel it.

There's also a sense of fatigue that sets in if your play sessions are too long. With the extended dialogues and similar battle grids, Project X Zone is best played in shorter bursts of a chapter or two at a time; any longer than that and the game can start to feel tedious, so it's worth taking regular breaks.

The music is great — both the original tracks and the brilliant remixes from other titles — but some tracks only play while a particular unit is moving. This means that you'll hear the same two or three seconds of the song every time a character moves, but never again, and the constant interruption of songs can feel pretty graceless in a game that's otherwise very well polished.

Other than that there aren't many problems with the game, though there is one other thing worth mentioning: it has a decidedly sexual sense of humour, and when any given female character shows up in provocative attire, the comments from the male characters pile up in a way that may seem like a bit much. It's all down to your personal tolerance for things of this nature, but the sheer volume of innuendo (as well as over proposition) makes it stand out in a way that some gamers might not be comfortable with.

Overall, though, Project X Zone is every bit as great as it should be. The 3D is a bit underused, but the visuals are top-notch, with any animated sequence becoming an immediate highlight and some absolutely perfect spritework on characters that typically aren't represented in sprite form! There's also a great soundtrack that draws from the expected source material, and a combat system that's impressively complicated for a game like this, which could have skimped on the gameplay in order to coast instead on our nostalgia and good graces.

It's a great experience, and one that sets the bar extremely high for ambitious crossovers. We're already daydreaming about who we'd like to see in a sequel; it says a lot about the quality of Project X Zone that a game this huge could still leave us wanting more.

It's by no means a flawless experience, but Project X Zone offers an infectiously giddy thrill that somehow only manages to grow the more time you spend with it. While the battles can go on a bit long and feel repetitive — and the staggering number of characters means a lot of redundant dialogue — the reservations we have about the game are easily outweighed by how much Project X Zone does exactly right. The combat is smart, the animation fantastic, and the sheer sense of joy that comes with seeing Mega Man X fighting side by side with KOS-MOS and Erica Fontaine never gets old. It's a once in a lifetime chance to see so many worlds coming together, and this massively satisfying (and decidedly tongue-in-cheek) title makes the most of every opportunity. If you have even the slightest interest in Project X Zone, the odds are good you'll come away happy.

Crimson Shroud Review for the Nintendo 3DS

You may not see them, but dice rolls are pretty much everywhere in RPGs. Even role-playing shooters like Alpha Protocol feature dice rolls to an extent. But Crimson Shroud is one of the few I can think of to literally feature dice. It's one of its most endearing features.

In essence, Crimson Shroud is a one-shot tabletop adventure for the Nintendo 3DS. As with the classic Dungeons & Dragons games, multiple dice are used in everything from rolling for initiative to determining whether the party can launch a surprise attack. Characters are represented by the tiny figurines used to map distance, and the story is told across long tracts of text, as if the Dungeon Master were actually narrating. For longtime tabletop gamers, it's a treat.

Crimson Shroud also features an impeccable pedigree. It was written and directed by Yasumi Matusno, who is best known for his work on Tactics Ogre, Vagrant Story, and Final Fantasy XII. Crimson Shroud's dark fantasy setting is one of his hallmarks, as is the complicated battle system. Being a downloadable title though, it's necessarily shorter than a lot of Matsuno's more epic titles. In fact, it's a lot shorter.

I compare Crimson Shroud to a one-shot adventure because, in video game terms, that's pretty much what it is. The story lasts around seven hours, with at least three of those hours spent stumbling around trying to figure out what to do. In that, it's less like a D&D module and more like, say, a 1980's dungeon crawler. That's not always for the best.

I know I'm not alone in getting completely and utterly stuck around Chapter 2. Suffice to say, a lot of people will either be compelled to look up the answer to the dilemma on Google. Either that, or they'll give up entirely. It's the sort of quest that is unapologetic in reaching out to old-school RPG fans, and I suppose there's a kind of stubborn nobility to that. But in some ways, its overall lack of transparency makes it hard to recommend.

Whatever shortcomings it might have, however, are greatly mitigated by what turns out to be a very good battle system. Drawing upon its Japanese roots, Crimson Shroud is a turn-based affair featuring a mix of skills and magic. The strategy is primarily wrapped up in deciding whether to buff a character and then launch an attack, or use both an offensive skill and an attack. The main wrinkle can be found in the ability to add dice to any attack, which will increase its power or accuracy. More often than not, I found myself putting them into accuracy. As the mid-game rolled into the late game, hits became critical. Crimson Shroud isn't the easiest of RPGs.

 I think it's fair to say that it's an acquired taste. Most people will know whether or not like they like it from the first moment that they get a good look at the art, which is extremely rough. Crimson Shroud really isn't interested in fancy pyrotechnics or other frills. Its storytelling, combat, and exploration are about as raw as it gets.

With that caveat, Crimson Shroud did actually manage to get its hooks into me in relatively short order. I was charmed by the dice and the battle system. It was enough that I was almost willing to put up with the grind of killing skeletons until they dropped a certain piece of loot that would allow me to continue. I say 'almost' because, if I'm being honest with myself, I probably would have quit after being stuck for two solid hours. This is why I both love and hate reviews – they force me to persevere.

If that little anecdote has you thinking, "Oh come on, Kat obviously can't handle a proper old-school RPG," then you will probably enjoy Crimson Shroud. If you're thinking, "Oh god, that sounds terrible," then you probably won't. It really is that simple.

Personally, I think it's a worthwhile RPG, and a fun little experiment by one of the genre's best designers. It's definitely worth experiencing, if only for the joy of tossing a handful of digital 20-sided dice.

(This game is only available through the Nintendo e-Shop)

Pokemon X & Y Review for the NIntendo 3DS

By this point I shouldn’t have to explain what this long-running RPG series is about. The coming of age story of an adventurous kid and their menagerie of bizarre monsters has been constantly repeated over the last fifteen years with a very gradual evolution in the gameplay. While I enjoyed Pokémon Black, White and their sequels, the lack of meaningful mechanical changes that came with staying on one console for too long started to set in and I was hopeful that X & Y would breath new life into some of the staler aspects of the series. Now that the series finally makes the jump to the 3DS, does it manage to revitalize the franchise with new features while still capturing the same je ne sais quoi as the other titles? Well I think it does, at least.

The most immediately striking (and completely superficial) feature of Pokémon X/Y is the massive graphical update. The old sprites are gone and replaced with 3D models, but it doesn’t seem like the best tradeoff. While it’s neat to see every Pokémon rendered in 3D, the game suffers from performance issues. The framerate dips occasionally while exploring and gets even worse during battles. The console’s 3D effect is disabled outside of battles, dungeons and certain cutscenes, and I assume this is because turning it on results in a noticeable amount of slowdown. Performance aside, the game is quite aesthetically pleasing. If the theme of Pokémon X & Y is “beauty”, then the picturesque landscapes of the Kalos region fit perfectly. Though geographically varied, the locations suit the French feel of the game far better than Black & White’s disjointed depiction of the US. Sure, the constant accordion soundtrack and plentiful cafes are a bit stereotypical, but it’s a consistent style with plenty of fun nods to things like “Paris Syndrome.”

Despite being often accused of derivative game design, every new Pokémon game brings something new to the table, and this time “Pokémon-amie”, mega-evolutions and Super Training are touted as being the big new additions to the series. As well as being the greatest pun mankind has ever conceived, Pokémon-amie is used to increase your Pokémons’ friendship with you (which is totally separate to the existing “happiness” value, mind you). The friendlier your Pokémon are, the more likely they are to score critical hits, gain boosted EXP and shrug off status effects, so maxing it this stat is helpful, if a little tedious. Petting and making faces at your Pokémon is definitely cute, but the primary way to increase their affection is to feed them Poke-puffs, which can only be obtained through several mediocre minigames. That said, Pokémon-amie isn’t required except for evolving one specific Pokémon, so it’s safe to ignore it if your eyes glaze over at the thought of bouncing yet enough ball of yarn. It is worth checking out, though, since it’s very cute and there’s an impressive attention to detail (don’t pet the Slugma!). Even the slightly altered battle text when you fight with a Pokémon you’ve spent time force-feeding macaroons is adorable. Although I didn’t always enjoy using it, Pokémon-amie definitely makes your Pokémon feel like an actual companion rather than just a sprite and a series of statistics.
On the other hand, I wasn’t exactly a huge fan of the new mega-evolutions. Some of the mega-evolutions do an admiral job of making older Pokémon like Mawile and Kangaskhan more viable in battles, but other Pokémon like Garchomp and Blaziken already have a heavy presence in the competitive scene and giving them mega evolutions feels like a waste especially when the benefits of evolving them are negligible. Most Pokémon already have a cohesive progression of design across their evolutions and the mega-evolutions just look really tacked on. Some, like Mega Venasaur, look barely any different to the original designs. That said, mega-evolutions don’t feel too overpowered since they’re limited to one per team and use up a valuable item slot. Despite my inner eight-year-old squealing with glee when my Charizard evolved, I didn’t think mega-evolutions added much, but it remains to be seen if they shake up the whole competitive battling aspect of the meta game in the same way that the new Fairy typing does.

As a whole, I think the competitive side of the game has become a lot more accessible this generation. While previously the domain of Pokémaniacs and Super Nerds, X & Y make the usual mix of IVs and EVs that underpin Pokémon’s’ stats more transparent and easier to figure out. If all that sounds like nonsense to you, then it doesn’t really matter. The new Super Training mode shows a graph displaying a broad overview of each Pokémon’s “effort values”, which can be boosted by playing a bunch of minigames, making it easy for new players to boost their Pokémon’s stats without even getting into the really dorky stuff. It’s just a shame that the actual Super Training isn’t all that fun, consisting of tapping punching bags or taking part in bunch of trials in the style of Kid Icarus Uprising (though at least Kid Icarus had some kind of option for left-handed players). Like Pokémon-amie, maxing out each Pokémon’s stats is rewarding but tedious. It’s an improvement on the old methods, but I think that says more about the dedication of those who bred and trained up perfect Pokémon than this new game’s actual quality.

It’s the small additions that really changed the way I played through the game. Firstly, a lot has been said about the return of the Exp. All item, which now gives experience points to Pokémon that weren’t even used in battles. While it’s true that this optional item does result in your Pokémon becoming incredibly over-leveled, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In most Pokémon games I find a nice group of six monsters to take along with me and avoid swapping them out because of the grind required to get everyone to an appropriate level. In X/Y I was constantly switching my team around, mixing old favorites and Kalos exclusives and even Pokémon that I’d recently caught never really fell behind. And I sure was catching a lot of them thanks to the new mechanic that gives out experience points even if you capture a Pokémon instead of making it faint. As a result, I caught just about every wild Pokémon I ran into and those I didn’t need I put up for trade with the new Wonder Trade feature. Pokémon X/Y might not have a Game Corner with the usual slot machines, but the Wonder Trade is a far more rewarding and addictive experience than any of the usual gambling. The gist of it is that you select something to put up for trade and as soon as you find a trade partner it’s exchanged for an unknown, probably unwanted Pokémon. You might end up with that rare version-exclusive Pokémon you were after, or it might be a Bidoof. Whatever it is, your trade partner is added to your “Acquaintances” list, where you can interact with them further.

The term “social game” is thrown around a lot lately, usually in reference to the latest classic IP turned into a iPhone card game or some god-awful Zynga title that fills your friends’ Facebook feed, but the addition of the new “Player Search System” turns Pokémon X/Y into a truly social experience. The requirement to connect and interact with other players has always been a major part of the series, but here that philosophy is integrated in the most seamless fashion yet. With the PSS there’s no need to plug in a link cable or backtrack to the nearest Pokémon Center; all of your friends are displayed on the lower screen as well as the aforementioned “acquaintances”, people playing nearby and the hundreds of people online at the same time. From here it’s easy to trade with, battle and view the insane PR videos of complete strangers. The PSS also allows you to use “O-Powers”, an expanded, more easily accessible take on Black and White’s “Pass Powers”. These powers allow you to temporarily increase your catch rate, experience gained and other helpful buffs, but more importantly they allow you to gift others with these benefits with a much lower cost – all the powers cost a portion of energy that never quite seems to regenerate quick enough. Spreading random acts of kindness really encourages players to interact with each other, even with people across different continents. In fact, X & Y seem to leverage the global appeal of the series to encourage communication across different cultures, which I thought was a really interesting, positive approach. Like Black and White, the game can be linked to the Pokémon Global Link website, which brings back the medal (read: achievement) system to track statistics and save photos from your journey. It doesn’t do much to enhance the experience, but it’s a cute addition.

To me the most enjoyable part of a Pokémon game is playing it alongside friends and the narrative in X & Y follows this idea. Even if you don’t have any real friends to trade and battle with, your trainer is accompanied by large cast of characters who fit the usual “rival” role. These friends travel alongside you throughout the story and this, combined with Pokémon-amie, gives a sense of companionship that previous games lacked. They also put forth the message that it doesn’t really matter how you play the game, so long as you have fun. Sure, you can still follow the old “gotta catch ‘em all” motto, but why not try to be the strongest trainer or even the best dancer? That said, Pokémon X & Y do still follow the usual narrative beats, taking your young trainer from a small town to the Pokémon League while encountering goofy gang members along the way. This time around the token villains are Team Flare, a bunch of latté-sipping idealists who dress like Space Channel 5 characters. Despite their silly attire, the game takes on a bizarrely melancholy tone when discussing their motivations. Like Black & White, this attempt to inject moral ambiguity and depth into the story is laughable, though the plot does resolve itself in an ultimately uplifting fashion.

It might just be because I recently played Mario and Luigi: Dream Team, but I really appreciated the way that Pokémon X & Y doesn’t hold players hands at all. In fact, I initially didn’t notice that Pokémon-amie and Super Training were accessible because I expected they’d only be available following a lengthy tutorial. Despite being aimed at kids, X & Y doesn’t treat players like idiots. Tips are given out by actually talking to people, though there’s enough flavour text and funny dialogue that NPCs don’t just sound like walking instruction manuals. Limiting Pokémon to four moves gives the illusion that the game is very simple, but the game gradually piles on additional elemental types with a massive chart of weaknesses and resistances, different abilities, status effects, weather changes and all kinds of gimmicks.
Pokémon X & Y also benefits from feeling much more streamlined. Saving is nearly instantaneous, getting around is easy when you have roller-skates, and you can switch Pokémon and use items just by dragging them around – no need to dip into four different menus. The Global Trade System that has been utterly broken for the last six years is finally functional, making it easy to find reasonable trades for Pokémon that you’re missing. That said, some parts of the UI are still very clunky, such as selecting berries to blend or turn into mulch. And since we can now trade Pokémon from anywhere would it really be much of a stretch to swap your active party without backtracking to the nearest computer? Another issue with X & Y is that there isn’t as much postgame content as other installments in the series. While the game’s social take on the traditional Safari Zone is incredibly compelling, it’s disappointing that there’s no equivalent to previous game’s Battle Frontier or World Tournament. Still, if you’re aiming to catch every last one of those critters or reach the big leagues with the online battling, Pokémon X & Y will consume your life.

Lego Marvel Super Heroes for Playstation 3 Review

I've battled robots, super villains, and henchmen beyond number through the streets of New York, through the halls of Asgard, under the sea, on the deck of the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier, and in space. And I'm only moments away from foiling Doctor Doom's nefarious, world-threatening plans, whatever they may be. Lego Marvel Super Heroes has arrived, transforming the Marvel universe into a Lego playground bursting with wit and diversity.

The game revels in the cheesiness and over-the-top attitude that characterize Marvel comics. The playful writing has the characters bouncing jokes off each other, and skilled voice actors chew up the scenery with every snarl. A series of background jokes--such as Nick Fury evoking the 2012 Avengers movie by asking about lunch, and a nearby S.H.I.E.L.D. agent quickly producing a takeout shawarma menu--rewards a keen eye and comic book knowledge. Upon finishing a level, you see Lego workers sweep up the damage you've caused, while Agent Coulson amusingly offers coffee and snacks to those around him.

The Lego games have always found ways to sing new songs to a familiar rhythm. You enter a level, smash or blast everything around you, snag the Lego pips that rain down, and perform superpowers and assemble machines that allow you to enter the next area. You've tapped your feet to this gameplay beat before, but Lego Marvel Super Heroes keeps things snappy, barely giving you time to breathe before ushering you to the next heroic task. The Marvel connection is a delightful complement to the spirited pace from the very beginning; the first characters you play with are Iron Man and the Hulk, and the first level involves smashing everything within New York’s Grand Central Station.
What better way to fight evil than Howard the Duck with a rocket launcher?

Unlocking new playable characters is another returning joy, thanks to the varied array of superpowers at your disposal. You can dive into a group of enemies as Wolverine and claw through everything in front of you, or harness Jean Grey's significant powers and hurl opponents into each other like human bowling pins. Either way, your slain opponents explode into dozens of tiny Lego blocks that serve as the game's primary currency. Each major character offers a different kind of gameplay mechanic, making it fun to jump into the battle and take down groups of enemies--even if your character of choice is Howard the Duck toting a powerful rocket launcher.

Your first campaign runthrough is only the starter course: you unlock loads of characters and content that make Lego Marvel Super Heroes worth returning to. Dizzying numbers of characters, locations, vehicles, and landmarks you've loved from the Marvel world have been translated into Lego form, and once you discover the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier, you may explore New York as any character you've unlocked and take on missions as you see fit. The game's Free Play mode taps into the compulsive need to unearth every secret and unlock every door by encouraging you to replay levels as different characters, thus gaining access to areas previously closed off.

Lego Marvel Super Heroes starts with a standard comic book plot and runs with it. In the game's opening cutscene, Doctor Doom has destroyed the Silver Surfer's surfboard and hired every available supervillain to gather the board's cosmic brick components in order to create his Doom Ray of Doom. The plot has various super teams, such as the Avengers, the X-Men, and the Fantastic Four--as well as solo heroes--working to recover the cosmic bricks while various villains swoop in to stop them.
Just three of the 150 characters you can unlock in Lego Marvel Super Heroes.

Lego Marvel Super Heroes looks and sounds lovely, but its presentation quirks often prove distracting. Certain characters repeat the same lines of dialogue ad infinitum, which can get tiresome; there are only so many times you can hear Tony Stark proudly describe himself as "Tony Stark...genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist" before it gets old. The frame rate occasionally drops, particularly upon entering co-op mode, and a small black box occasionally appeared in the air over my characters' heads towards the end of the game. At one point, my character would respawn directly next to his still-present corpse, while a boss fight against Red Skull had me wandering around the room for several minutes looking for scenery to smash before I realized I had encountered a bug and had to restart the level.

In spite of such troubles, inviting visuals, surging music, and hilarious character interactions make for breezy entertainment. Weird moments, such as accidentally turning Mr. Fantastic into a tea kettle, and Iron Man doing the robot, further widen the smile you're sure to be wearing on your face. It's moments like these, along with taking down a suit of flying Hulkbuster armor via the House Party protocol from Iron Man 3--wherein half a dozen Iron Man suits soar in to pound on your opponent--that keep you coming back for more. Whether you're looking for a way to take down the Juggernaut or working to help a random citizen in Free Play mode, Lego Marvel Super Heroes is all sorts of web-slinging, shield-flinging, Hulk-smashing fun.