Games 4/10/12: Ridge Racer: Unbounded, Xenoblade Chronicles, The Splatters

Ridge Racer: Unbounded
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Bugbear Entertainment/Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild language, mild violence)
Price: $60

Between the awkward subtitle and the fact that it neither looks nor plays like a “Ridge Racer” game, “Ridge Racer: Unbounded” arrives with a supremely unfortunate name as its introduction.

Happily, just about everything else is superlative going the other way. If this is the future of “Ridge Racer,” then so be it, because “Unbounded” is one of the most exhilarating arcade racing games ever made.

Per “Ridge Racer” tradition, drifting plays a key role in “Unbounded,” which includes a dedicated drift event as part of a large roster of single-player events centered around racing, time trials, “Burnout”-style car combat and occasional special events. Drifting (along with tailgating, trading paint and other dangerous driving feats) contributes to a power meter that, when full, lets you wreak some exceptional havoc on both your opponents and the track at large.

At its most benign, cashing in a full power meter is good for a quick shot of turbo. But it’s far more valuable as a means for fully obliterating another racer. Activate the power and ram a car before it depletes, and it’s good for a takedown that punishes your opponent and quickly refills your power almost completely. String together consecutive takedowns, and it’s the most fun you can have dominating the field. But with high bursts of speed come frequent opportunities to completely miss a perfect takedown and ram a wall instead. “Unbounded” is fast by default and completely reckless at top speed, and the risks, rewards, reflexes and snap decisions needed to succeed are appropriately thrilling.

A properly-timed power activation also allows for some visually spectacular track modification. Want to drive straight through a building for a shortcut while everyone else takes the road around it? Go right ahead. Again, though, you’d best time it right: Barrel into that building just as the meter empties, and the only wreckage will be your car.

The ensuing bedlam perfectly complements a blend of physics and heft that’s considerably different than the customary “Ridge Racer” laws of motion. Drifting no longer is a comically easy maneuver you can perform for a half-mile at a time: There is a pronounced weight to these cars that, along with a terrific sense of speed and momentum, turns every drift and power activation into a risky play. Different cars handle with varying levels of ease, and there are instances where a touch too much can cause a tailspin that dooms your race position.

That can be problematic, because “Unbounded’s” single difficulty setting is fair but harsh. Commit some ugly blunders, and you’ll find yourself in 12th place with no way to scrape back to third or better (which, in races, is required to pass the event). A persistent upgrade track means even a pitiful finish brings some reward in terms of experience points that eventually unlock new events and better cars. But the goal remains to place or win, and “Unbounded” won’t hold your hand and take you there. That’s refreshing, and it’s genuinely satisfying to ace an event, but if you’re easily discouraged, consider yourself warned.

“Unbounded’s” upgrade path carries over to multiplayer (eight players, online only), and while the head-to-head races are as straightforward as online racing gets, it gets the job done.

Much more interesting are the community challenges. “Unbounded” includes a surprisingly versatile track editor, and you can create your own “city” by packaging created tracks and events together. Your creations are shareable online, and “Unbounded” arranges the content into time-limited (some an hour, some a day) challenges where players worldwide compete for the best score. The event creator’s score is prominently on display as well, and even if you can’t best all comers, there’s immense satisfaction in outclassing a player in an event he or she designed.

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Xenoblade Chronicles
For: Wii
From: Monolith Soft/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, mild language, partial nudity, use of alcohol and tobacco, violence)
Price: $50

No single gaming genre is mired in a longer slump than the Japanese role-playing game, which (scattered exceptions aside, naturally) has been consistently reeling for years.

“Xenoblade Chronicles” is the arguable slumpbuster — a massive adventure that arrives with significant fanfare and, instead of using that hype as a crutch, cashes it in to teach a tired genre some overdue new tricks. It liberally adopts concepts that have propelled Western RPGs forward, but merges them with a flavor and storytelling approach that leaves no doubt where its lineage lies.

Crucially, “Chronicles” lays most of it — a monstrous open world, versatile side quests, customizable armor and weaponry run wild — almost immediately at your feet following an opening sequence that’s similarly generous with its combat system.

When it doesn’t get in its own way, that combat is stellar. Like an early Bioware RPG (or, for JRPG fans, “Final Fantasy XII”), “Chronicles” combines real-time battlefield awareness and turn-based strategy. You have continuous, direct control over your character’s position, and because the action doesn’t break for turns, he or she will default to a basic attack against the nearest available enemy unless you dictate otherwise.

And you will, because default attacks get you nowhere. Thriving in battle means managing an array of skills, monitoring allies’ statuses and health, and keeping party morale high enough to execute special chain attacks and (if necessary) revive fallen comrades.

With a story that lands comfortably in the 50- to 100-hour range (dependent on your affinity for exploration, side quests and other electives), “Chronicles” affords plenty of time to get comfortable with combat and master the advanced techniques it gradually introduces.

But if there’s one aspect that stands out alongside the system’s depth, it’s how fast it is. There are no random battles in “Chronicles” — many potential enemies outright ignore you unless you engage them — but as soon as you’re in an enemy’s sights, the action kicks straight into fifth gear. Managing the particulars would be a cakewalk in a turn-based RPG, but it’s an exciting challenge when there’s no breather between snap decisions.

Occasionally, the system is caffeinated to a fault. If nearby enemies sniff a fight, they may jump in, and suddenly four enemies swells to 12. The camera is problematic by default, and it’s a mess when attempting to contain battles this sprawling. The chaos will frequently cost you the fight, especially if those wandering enemies are level 75 creatures who can obliterate your level 16 hide in one hit. (Fortunately, death is merely an inconvenience: Defeated enemies respawn, but “Chronicles” revives you at the nearest landmark with all items and collected experience points — even from the losing battle — still intact.)

Other nagging issues abound. “Chronicles” takes a convenient cue from Western RPGs and lets you warp to landmarks you’ve previously discovered, but the map interface is a hassle to use for general exploration. A passive mechanic that stops a fight to show you an enemy’s future attack is, while clever, disruptive to the combat’s tempo. The story itself is watered down by its immense length, and characters repeat the same annoying catchphrases way too often in battle.

Finally, though primarily the Wii’s fault, “Chronicles'” visual presentation leaves something to be desired. It’s visually sufficient, but it’s impossible not to wonder what this world would look like in high definition.

But “Chronicles” does too much too well for long-starved JRPG fans to fret over quibbles like these. Though strained, the story nonetheless gratifies with strong, likable characters who embrace rather than sulk toward their destiny. And with so much left up to players to decide — from character relationships to gear customization to the minor but wonderful ability to save anywhere — it’s a treat rather than a chore to carry that story to its conclusion.

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The Splatters
For: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live)
From: SpikySnail Games/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild fantasy violence)
Price: $10

On paper, “The Splatters” sounds familiar enough. The object is to clear clusters of orbs scattered around each level, and doing so entails launching smiling blobs (known as Splatters) toward them at the angle and power of your choosing. Along with a three-star scoring system, comparisons to any number of mobile games would appear inevitable. But the Splatters aren’t called Splatters just because. Eventually — be it via collision or combustion — the Splatters indeed splatter into an unwieldy liquid whose properties and subsequent splash effect are exponentially dicier to handle than some angry bird. “The Splatters” offers a handful of maneuvers that let you change direction mid-flight, launch a powerful but messy kamikaze attack, and even rewind your active Splatter’s flight path while its physical instability and the surrounding level continue progressing forward. Chaining these and other tricks is imperative toward achieving three-star scores and sharing brag-worthy gameplay clips on the online community channel, but intricate levels and haphazard physics means even completing these 65 levels — sorted into basic, combo-centric and trick shot-centric flavors — a deviously fun challenge that goes well beyond simple aiming and firing. The challenge ramps up early and significantly, and the mercurial physics elude complete mastery even with practice. But responsive controls and an easy means for instantly resetting a level if a strategy goes south make the pursuit of those stars fun and frustration-free.