Games 1/5/10: Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers, Borderlands: Mad Moxxi's Underdome Riot, Piyo Blocks

Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers
For: Wii
From: Square Enix
ESRB Rating: Teen (alcohol reference, crude humor, fantasy violence, mild language, suggestive themes)

For better or worse — and a trip through this game provides ample evidence of both — “Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers” is trying to do exactly what Wii games should be doing in the system’s fourth year of existence. Whether the result is good or not — and again, the pendulum swings both ways — “Bearers” does things that are unique, weird and physically impossible on other hardware.

“Bearers” certainly gets off to a fun start — first, by tossing players into a free-falling shootout in the sky, and then by putting them at the literal wheel of a humungous airship for a chase sequence through tight canyon corridors. The convoluted storytelling aside — and per “Crystal Chronicles” tradition, the tale of good, evil and crystals is a potpourri of incomprehensible mythology and bad dialogue — it’s clear almost immediately that “Bearers” is going for a much more action-oriented bent than its series predecessors.

The game’s primary means of action also steps far outside traditional “Final Fantasy” bounds: Using a cursor-centric aiming system, players point the Wii remote at people and objects on the screen and then lift them into the air, Darth Vader-style, to move or toss them around. Anyone who played “Star Wars: The Force Unleashed” can grasp the combat and level-manipulation possibilities here, and while “Bearers'” control scheme and camerawork leave plenty to be desired, it nonetheless fulfills that promise.

The combination of this core mechanic, a sloppily passable story, “Final Fantasy” iconography and a consistent barrage of experimental diversions — from Chocobo races to a flawed but fun stealth challenge to a completely bizarre game involving girls, a beach and good balance — is enough to make “Bearers” fun when it works.

But “Bearers” often falls short, and when it does, it falls hard. Worse, the most offensive problems stem from lousy design decisions that would seem almost mandatorily avoidable in 2010.

Far and away the game’s biggest issue is the onscreen prompts it uses to instruct players on what to do during these one-off diversions. Too many of them are confusingly vague, while a few are cryptic to the point of misleading, throwing up meters without explanation and displaying controller animations that only barely resemble what a player is supposed to actually do. “Bearers” is generous with save checkpoints and many of these diversions are impossible to completely fail outright, but stumbling your way through a badly-designed challenge isn’t fun simply because it doesn’t halt your progress.

The problems are less acute during the main adventure, but they’re no aggravating. The opaque map and navigation system feel strikingly unfinished given Square-Enix’s experience with interface design in traditional “Final Fantasy” games, and getting lost or slogging from point to point is entirely too easy. That isn’t helped by the fact that during these slogs, there simply isn’t much to do. For every example of blinding ingenuity “Bearers” displays, there are two or three that feel perplexingly amateurish, and the ratio may prove too much for all but the most ardent and adventurous “Final Fantasy” fans to handle for very long.

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Borderlands: Mad Moxxi’s Underdome Riot
For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Windows PC
Requires: Borderlands
From: Gearbox Software/2K Games
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, mature humor, strong language)
Price: $10

Though entirely enjoyable as a solo first-person shooter experience, “Borderlands” relies on a story, quest and inventory structure that’s best enjoyed with teammates (four players online, two locally) via cooperative play. Happily, players who want it both ways have the flexibility to play parts of the game alone and bring in friends on the fly without starting over as a new character.

Good thing, too, because whether you’ve played “Borderlands” alone, with friends or both up to this point, there’s pretty much no point in playing the “Mad Moxxi’s Underdome Riot” downloadable expansion without help.

As its name somewhat implies, “Riot” ditches the typical exploratory nature of “Borderlands'” quests in favor of post-apocalyptic arena combat: Moxxi is the host, and her “sport” consists of a survivor or four shooting their way out of a labyrinth that’s parts shanty town, stadium and game show studio. Moxxi emcees the action, and between her amusing taunts and the general gaudy design of the three arenas, “Riot” is a fantastic demonstration of the audiovisual spectacle that makes “Borderlands” so unique in spite of its bleak setting and genre.

Just don’t bask in the spectacle alone unless you really enjoy punishment.

“Riot” divides each match into five rounds, and those rounds split into five themed waves. Completing each wave consists of mowing down every enemy in the arena, and the reward for doing so is a brief supply drop of ammo and health. When all five waves of a round are wiped out, Moxxi drops a few items of actual value beneath the stage. Complete all 25 waves, and the match ends. Easy, right?

Not so much — and definitely not if you’re playing alone. Players who succumb to the enemy can continue to assist in the fight, but are confined to a penalty box until the next wave. If all players get sent to the box, gameplay halts and the round starts over from the first wave.

The task of conquering the harder waves and rounds is daunting enough, particularly when Moxxi alters the rules to remove gravity, nullify certain weapons useless or even strip away players’ shields. The challenge amplifies when fighting alone, and it’s made arguably unfair by the fact that if you get banished to the penalty box, the round automatically starts over by virtue of your having no teammates on the ground. Because “Riot” puzzlingly awards no experience points for killing enemies in the arena, it amounts to a lot of effort for no reward.

Though the continued emphasis on teamwork in “Borderlands” is admirable, it would’ve been nice, just this one time and only because the pool of “Borderlands” players has understandably shrunk since October, if Gearbox backed down a little and allowed solo players to enlist an A.I.-controlled teammate or two. “Riot” offers players a mountain of content and perhaps the stiffest challenge so far, but unless you make a pact with friends to take it on together, proceed with caution.

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Piyo Blocks
For: iPhone/iPod Touch
From: Big Pixel Studios
iTunes Store Rating: 4+
Price: $2

Turnabout appears to be fair play to “Piyo Blocks,” which borrows some unmistakable design points from a game, “Zoo Keeper,” that itself was a pretty transparent knock-off of “Bejeweled.” If you’ve played “Bejeweled” — and pretty much everyone in the world has at this point — the core gameplay in “Blocks” offers little surprise: A grid of colored blocks fills the screen, and players switch two blocks to create as many rows of three or more as possible before time runs out. Creating rows clears the blocks and adds some time to the clock, and meeting certain quotas (as defined by “Blocks'” three separate modes) advances the action to new levels with trickier (albeit randomly-generated) starting patterns. Though it doesn’t have “Keeper’s” charming animal characters, “Blocks” still pretty faithfully mimics that game’s cheerful, intentionally blocky good looks. More importantly, it gets the basic mechanics of “Keeper’s” controls — including the ability to string combos together while the game clears other blocks away — down perfectly. For a game that costs less than a bag of chips, the level of polish, if not the originality of the concept, is most impressive. For good measure, Big Pixel includes support for the OpenFeint network, which provides online leaderboards, friends support, chat functionality and achievements.