Games 3/21: God of War II, Lunar Knights, Custom Robo Arena

God of War II
For: Playstation 2
From: Sony
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, nudity, sexual themes, strong language)

Any fears of a sophomore slump from the PS2’s best action game dissipate in… oh, two minutes, maybe? Yes, “God of War II” has quite an act to follow — and what better way to do so than by kicking things off with a boss fight?

The opening encounter — the plot details of which won’t be spoiled here — pits you against hundreds of normal-sized enemies and one ridiculously huge boss enemy. It takes place in three separate areas, including the boss’ burning innards. And when it’s over, nearly 90 minutes later, you’ll have witnessed an opening throwdown that puts most games’ final levels to shame.

The best part? It is, literally, only the beginning. Even if you take on that fight in its entirety and have a bad case of ADD, what immediately follows will make you want to keep on playing.

This, people, is how you do a sequel right. For the most part, anyway.

If there’s a gripe about “GOW2,” it’s that it’s basically an extension of its predecessor. Carryovers from the first game — everything from the orbs to controls to the interface to several common enemies and how to dispatch them — are abundant. If you played the original, occasional stretches of the sequel will undoubtedly leave you with a sense of déjà vu.

But at the risk of sounding like a fanboy or an apologist, who cares? “GOW” is one of those rare big-budget games that got just about everything right in its first attempt. It played marvelously, hopped genres (platforming, puzzle-solving, brutally violent combat) with ease, and told a thrilling story that unfolded during instead of merely between the action.

Notable additions include a new grappling ability — which gets put to great use — and a brand-new batch of context-sensitive scenarios that (very) briefly change the nature of the game. For the most part, though, “GOW2” justifies its sequel status by taking everything that worked the first time, polishing it, and upping the ante across the board.

That’s not nearly as easy as it sounds when the bar sits so high — just ask “Mario Kart 64,” “Devil May Cry 2” or even “Halo 2.”  Perhaps chapter three will take more chances, but it’s hard to begrudge a game that outclasses the class of its genre for an encore.

—–

Lunar Knights
For: Nintendo DS
From: Kojima Productions/Konami
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (animated blood, mild fantasy violence, mild language, mild suggestive themes)

It doesn’t exactly come right out and declare it, but “Lunar Knights” clearly is an extension of the “Boktai” games — a brilliant pair of Game Boy Advance action-RPGs best known for the solar sensor attachment that made playing under direct sunlight a requirement. “Knights” doesn’t come with any such attachment, but the characters, gameplay, mythology and heavy employment of both vampires and sunlight (and now moonlight)-dependent gameplay will immediately ring bells for fans of the series.

If “Boktai’s” geographical and time-sensitive demands scared you, worry not: The sun and moon in “Knights” exist solely inside the DS’ top screen. The game’s time of day plays a major role in the storyline and affects several facets of the gameplay, but it’s no longer dependent on your time of day. (Players who plug in a “Boktai” GBA cart while playing, however, receive a nice reward. How’s that for proof of the games’ connection?)

Dedicating an entire screen to a picture of a sun or moon might seem wasteful, but you’ll appreciate its constant presence once you realize the importance such factors as cloud coverage and wind play in how much energy you can harness and where.

In fact, “Knights” is a poster child for using the DS’ special features to improve a game’s playability rather than simply pile on the bloat. Kojima doesn’t force touch screen capabilities onto a control scheme that doesn’t need them. Instead, it replaces “Boktai’s” most mundane element — having to drag the coffins of defeated vampires out of their castles — with a bizarre, stylus-controlled space shooter sequence that’s eloquently executed and a fast, fun change of pace from the main quest, which is wisely left alone.

In addition to its smart use of creative restraint, “Knights” improves on the “Boktai” formula in several respects. The role-playing elements run deeper, the overall presentation (now with animated cut-scenes) is more engaging, and you eventually can switch between two vampire hunters with rather starkly different approaches to combat (and life in general).

Add this beauty to the too-short list of smart, sophisticated adventure games for a system that’s hungry for them. With no sun sensor to fear, the opportunity to jump in and see what this series is about has never been better.

—–

Custom Robo Arena
For: Nintendo DS
From: Noise/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (fantasy violence)

When “Custom Robo” made its stateside debut two years ago on the Gamecube, it accidentally left its personality back in Japan. The game played well enough, but a convoluted storyline and a lifeless visual presentation consistently undermined it.

Fortunately, “Custom Robo Arena” packed its bags more carefully. The nonsensical “defeat the bad guys” storyline has been scrapped, and in its place is a return to the fun competition angle that worked perfectly fine in the first, Japan-only game. The bland graphics of the Gamecube game also disappears, replaced by a clean and very visually pleasing look that’s reminiscent of any number of Super Nintendo role-playing games.

For the uninitiated, “Robo” is what the TV show “Battlebots” would be were it a story-driven videogame. You navigate through the storyline as a person, but the bulk of the gameplay consists of you customizing, maintaining and pitting your robo[t] against other people’s robos in a battle to see which bot is best.

While the story mode looks like old-school “Final Fantasy,” the battles in “Arena” take place in a three-dimensional, single-screen arena. These fights aren’t as easy on the eyes as the 2D stuff, but the gameplay — think “Power Stone” and “Smash Bros.,” but with robots — is fast, fun and increasingly nuanced as you advance through the game. Part of “Robo’s” appeal lies in collecting and sorting through the ridiculous number of parts you can use to customize your robo. Guns, boots, rockets and more exist in all manner of configurations, and building a bot that complements your fighting style is a lot of fun.

It’s also easier than ever to do, thanks to a storyline that, while a bit on the talky side, is miles more engaging than what Gamecube owners slogged through three years ago. You have to advance through the story to acquire parts to use in multiplayer combat, so it’s nice to be able to actually enjoy doing so this time.

Speaking of multiplayer, “Arena” (mostly) delivers the goods, offering both single- multi-card wireless play as well as (can I get a Hallelujah) online play, complete with record-keeping, friend/rival lists and a reliable matchmaking system. Four-player support would’ve been nice, but the two-player battles you do get don’t exactly disappoint in the chaos department.