Games 8/18/09: Little King's Story, Daisy Fuentes Pilates, Trials HD

Little King’s Story
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Marvelous Entertainment/XSEED
ESRB Rating: Teen (crude humor, mild cartoon violence, suggestive themes, use of alcohol)

There’s nothing particularly little about “Little King’s Story,” which takes the gameplay sensibilities of Nintendo’s “Pikmin” and mashes it into a kingdom-management game that’s as ambitious and guilefully challenging as it is charming and surprisingly accessible.

As “Pikmin” did, “Story” stars you as the central figurehead — the titular king, in this case — and lets you instruct your underlings to do your bidding and heavy lifting. In “Story’s” case, those underlings come from your kingdom and train to become soldiers, carpenters, cooks and more. You can train your citizens (the population of which grows as you expand your kingdom) to embody different job classes, and you then can instruct different configurations of workers (up to six at first, and eventually up to 30) to follow you as you complete tasks each class is best suited to handle.

As you might have already gleaned, “Story” essentially is one giant cause-and-effect puzzle: You’ll need to establish job classes to do what is necessary to grow the kingdom, which in turn creates new challenges, which in turn creates new jobs that grow the kingdom yet more. “Story” doesn’t offer enough kingdom-building freedom to classify itself as a true simulation, but it nonetheless is fun to give orders and witness growth from the throne in between expeditions that drop you into the thick of the process.

Part of that reward comes from just how sweeping — and, after a few simple combat-centric challenges, challenging — the process reveals itself to be, particularly when it comes to managing your underlings’ strengths and vitals in battle. Taking down grunts is a simple matter of sending a few soldiers their way and letting them do their job. But “Story’s” tougher enemies — to say nothing of some delightfully inventive but brutally tough boss enemies that block your kingdom’s expansion — require significant finesse with regard to ordering troops to attack and retreat in a pattern that maximizes their effect while minimizing casualties.

“Story,” for its part, keeps the controls simple, eschewing pointer or motion controls in favor of the same lean control scheme that made “Pikmin” so easy to enjoy. The use of the analog stick instead of a pointer to pick targets for your underlings occasionally makes it difficult to quickly distinguish between two adjacent targets. That, along with your underlings’ occasional propensity to get stuck on objects and lose their way, creates a one-two punch of trouble that together take the cake as the game’s most frustrating issues.

But bad as those issues sound on paper, neither proves nearly troublesome enough to damage the overall experience, which is lengthy (30ish hours), infectiously charming, and more fun than the some of its already fun parts as result of all that personality. This has been a good year for unexpected sleeper surprises on the Wii, and for “Pikmin” fans who want to see the genre venture to the next level, “Story” may be the gem that tops them all.

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Daisy Fuentes Pilates
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Collision Studios/Interactive Game Group/Sega
ESRB Rating: Everyone

It’s hard to discuss “Daisy Fuentes Pilates” in the context of a game review, because when it comes right down to it, it isn’t even a game so much as (a) an interactive, customizable workout tape or (b) a personal trainer you can mute with a remote control.

As serviceable introductions to Pilates go, “Pilates” does a serviceable job. Ten exercises (not including warm-up and cool-down exercises) are available for perusal, and each features a demonstration of the exercise, a narrated tutorial, and three difficulty settings that alter some (but not all) of the exercises’ physical demands.

In a nice touch, “Pilates” also supports user-customizable workouts: Users can pick which exercises to perform, the order in which to perform them, and the number of reps for each exercise. The game has save slots for five custom workouts and complements those with five prefabricated workouts based on need and experience.

All of this, of course, leads to the exercises themselves, and this is where any notion of “Pilates” being a game in the vein of “Wii Fit” or “EA Sports Active” completely falls apart.

“Pilates” aspires to score players by using simple timing metrics to calculate whether a player is using proper form. The measurement of that aptitude is displayed in the form of a timing bar that glows green, yellow and red based on one’s ability to mimic what Fuentes’ onscreen avatar is doing. This sort of works during exercises that rely on the Wii Balance Board, because all the game does is track when a player’s feet touch the board.

If you lack a Balance Board, the exercises that employ it lack any means of scoring your work. But it honestly is just as well, because the exercises that use the Wii remote to gauge your form might as well not score you either. The motions that constitute a typical Pilates exercise are far too slow and controlled for the remote to properly understand, the game has no real way of properly judging your form, and taking the score to heart merely creates frustration where there need not be any.

The complete uselessness of the scoring mechanic — which is the only means of stat-tracking the game has — makes “Pilates” similarly useless as a tool for tracking progress. Other attempts to give credence to the “game” claim — a tool for changing Daisy’s outfit, a flimsy resort tour option (which basically just changes the backdrop), a smattering of low-tech tips to accompany the general budget-mindedness of the overall look and experience — don’t fare any better.

On the other hand, while it’s still $10 more expensive than it should be, “Pilates” costs $30. That puts it in the same price ballpark as numerous Pilates DVDs that lack the interactivity this, in spite of its significant failings as a game, ultimately does provide.

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Trials HD
For: Xbox 360 Live Arcade
From: RedLynx/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild blood, mild violence)
Price: $15

Though its visual resemblance to the Nintendo classic “Excitebike” is obvious and its control scheme similarly streamlined, “Trials HD” is a deviously different, and appropriately evolved, animal. For starters, you aren’t racing other bikers, but instead riding through some ingeniously intricate obstacle courses with one goal: finish as quickly as with as few crashes as possible. The game doesn’t impose a time limit, and a generous in-track checkpoint system means you won’t have to retry difficult early jumps if you crash during a later jump. But while anyone can conceivably complete any track, finishing quickly and safely enough to rack up medals is another story. “Trials” places a heavy emphasis on bike and course physics, and mastering the intricacies of each bike is a daunting but rewarding challenge. Racking up medals is paramount toward unlocking bonus mini-games, which allow for such silly experiments as performing a ski jump off the bike or staying upright while riding inside a giant hamster ball. But the real carrot on the fishing line is the integration of Xbox Live Friends leaderboards inside every race and every bonus mode. “Trials” lacks any sort of online or pass-the-controller local multiplayer, but the ability to continually chase friends’ record times — which appear both in the heads-up display and on the track when applicable — more than compensates. The only caveat, of course, is a biggie: You need friends on your list to buy and play the game.