Games 1/27/09: Elebits: The Adventures of Kai and Zero, Star Ocean: Second Evolution

mebeliElebits: The Adventures of Kai and Zero
For: Nintendo DS
From: Konami
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence)

Though it’s an “Elebits” game in every superficial respect, “Elebits: The Adventures of Kai and Zero” shares almost nothing in common with the Nintendo Wii game that birthed the franchise. That game was a quirky action/puzzle game that had you using the Wiimote to overturn furniture and play virtual hide and seek, while “Zero” translates some of the same concepts into a far more traditional, two-dimensional adventure game in the “Legend of Zelda” vein.

It works, albeit in spite of itself sometimes, and it allows the series to spread its ever-deepening mythology to systems that (a) can’t do what the Wii can and (b) can do things the Wii cannot.

As with the original “Elebits” — and as satisfactorily explained by a brief storyline introduction — “Zero” has you trapping and collecting little Elebit creatures, which provide you with energy.

This time, though, that energy goes toward more than simply moving forward. Progression through “Zero” rewards you with Omegas — evolved companion Elebits who not only help you round up lesser Elebits, but also exhibit special abilities (breathing fire, freezing and so on) that grant you access to areas on the map you can see but otherwise cannot reach.

For the most part, beyond some boss encounters, that’s how you play: Find the hiding Elebits, collect energy, and use your team of Omegas to ward off small enemies and solve puzzles that impede your progress. But again, it works. “Zero” doesn’t throw a lot of frantic action your way, but the puzzles are designed well — neither embarrassingly easy nor unnecessarily cryptic in their riddle.

The boss fights are similarly fun, though they also best expose “Zero’s” somewhat awkward controls. The game overwhelmingly uses the touch screen to conduct business — move and shake objects to uncover Elebits, tap Elebits to stun them, tap your Omega to send it into capture mode — and it works fine on this basic level. But “Zero” also gives occasion to take direct control over your Omegas, and it handles this change of control awkwardly, which in turn can trip you up during a heated moment. The handoff becomes less jarring with time and practice, and it never develops into a deal-breaker, but the awkwardness never fully dissipates.

Beyond that, “Zero” is quite a pleasant surprise — a visually vibrant, pleasantly paced adventure that uses ingredients from its vastly different predecessor to create its own unique niche on the DS. A return to the wacky Wii format would be most welcome, but kudos to Konami to spinning this one off in just the right way while we wait for that to happen.

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Star Ocean: Second Evolution
For: Sony PSP
From: Square-Enix
ESRB Rating: Teen (alcohol and tobacco reference, mild fantasy violence, mild language, suggestive themes)

It’s all “Star Ocean,” all the time at Square-Enix, which is gearing up to release a brand-new “Ocean” chapter on the Xbox 360 while giving the original games a well-deserved kick in the pants on a very game-starved PSP.

For those completely unfamiliar, the original “Star Ocean” games played out like your typical role-playing game from the mid- to late-1990s, albeit with one difference: Instead of engaging in turn-based battles, the encounters, while still randomly generated, played out in real time. Players control one character, while the game’s A.I. handles the rest of your party, which fights according to the attributes you’ve established for them. Just imagine an old-school “Final Fantasy” game with real-time battles, and you understand “Star Ocean” well enough to be comfortable with it.

As remakes go, “Star Ocean: Second Evolution” isn’t as drastic a makeover as last year’s “Star Ocean: First Departure.” Nor should it be: Whereas “Departure” reinvented a 16-bit game that never even made it out of Japan, “Evolution” takes on a sequel, “The Second Story,” that both appeared on more modern hardware and debuted in America less than 10 years ago.

Furthermore, most of what was novel about “Departure’s” remake — a polished translation that does the original story justice, brand-new animated cut scenes, a streamlined mix of 2D and 3D graphics that’s tailor-made for the PSP’s screen — returns for “Evolution.” That isn’t bad news at all, because the visual symmetry does wonders for realigning the series’ timeline. But if you played “Departure,” the changes in “Evolution” won’t drop your jaw the same way, and that merits noting.

Where “Evolution” truly excels over “Departure” is, in fact, where it counts most: It’s based on a better game. The two remakes operate almost identically, but where “Departure” was bogged down by sloppy storytelling and the need to backtrack incessantly, “Evolution” continually barrels ahead with a better, more focused story that begets similarly forward-minded gameplay.

Beyond that, little else needs be said. You don’t remake a game if it wasn’t any good and people didn’t treasure it the first time around, and “Star Ocean” isn’t the series to change that rule. Playing “Departure” before getting into “Evolution” is the right move if you want the full series experience, but if you don’t mind skipping ahead a little bit, this easily ranks as the better of the two remakes.