Games 10/13/09: Brütal Legend, Tornado Outbreak, iBlast Moki

Brütal Legend
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Double Fine Productions/EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, partial nudity, strong language, suggestive themes)

Everything Tim Schafer fans expect from a Tim Schafer-produced project is all over the entirety of his latest offering, which almost certainly will emerge as the consensus choice for 2009’s best-written video game. “Brütal Legend” is a both a send-up of and a heart-on-sleeve tribute to the world from which heavy metal videos and fantasies are made, and every piece of its presentational puzzle — from casting to voice acting to character animation to the sharply funny script that ties it all together — could scarcely wish for a better treatment than this.

As a nice bonus, the actual game portion of “Legend,” while not quite as spotless, is pretty excellent as well.

“Legend’s” gameplay begins in earnest as a fairly simple third-person action game from the “Ninja Gaiden” school of combat. You have a few basic attacks, and your task is to mash away while enemies rush you and the game’s script explains exactly why you, a simple roadie only moments earlier, are suddenly fighting a demonic horde.

Gradually, though, “Legend” layers up. The straightforward action game quickly gives way to an open-world adventure, complete with side missions and miles of discoverable landscape. Completing optional missions and unearthing discoveries awards you currency, which you can use to expand your abilities and tinker your hot rod. You can summon your car from anywhere at any time via the game’s brilliant spell-casting mechanic, which doubles as a miniature rhythm game.

“Legend” appears to peak once it gives you some minions and a small handful of basic squad management commands with which to maneuver them, but it ups the ante even further when it tacks on a real-time strategy component that has you managing an army of different units while also protecting your base, cultivating supplies and fighting on the ground. (“Legend” repackages this component as a terrifically frantic four-on-four online multiplayer component as well.)

That “Legend” manages to map all of these things to a control pad is remarkable, but especially so when it becomes apparent how easy it is to fight, lead a squad, cast a spell and manage troops almost simultaneously and without any need to pause the game.

The same can’t always be said for the game’s difficulty balancing, which occasionally falls completely out of whack during the most intense of these strategy missions. Enemies spawn at an alarming rate, and a failure to take a commanding advantage early on either devolves into an endlessly long battle of attraction in which defeat seems inevitable. It isn’t fun when this happens once, and having to repeat a fight only amplifies the frustration.

But those moments are rare, and they provide the only real blight on what otherwise is an exceptional example of how to take on multiple genres, do them proud, and tell a terrific story in the process. Schafer fans have every reason to be delighted yet again, but you need not know word one about the man to savor what he’s done here.

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Tornado Outbreak
For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii
From: Loose Cannon Studios/Konami
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence)

The technology is there, and the desire has been there since “SimCity” let armchair mayors destroy their own cities with natural disasters. So it’s a bit surprising that we had to wait this long for a game that lets us be a tornado and tear all that lay before us to smithereens.

At its core, and during its most satisfying moments, that’s precisely what “Tornado Outbreak” does. Each level starts you out as a tiny twister that’s no larger than a traffic cone. As you pick up smaller items, your funnel cloud grows, and the bigger you get, the larger the objects (or, in some cases, people) you can swoop up. Before long, you’re free to carve through entire buildings like they’re made of cotton.

“Outbreak’s” gameplay sensibilities borrow heavily from those of “Katamari Damacy,” and the satisfaction of engulfing a world that dwarfed you only moments earlier is similarly pronounced. The cartoony graphical style would seem to hamper the game’s ability to satisfactorily illustrate the full destructive might of a tornado, but it does so only slightly.

“Outbreak” justifies the act of wrecking cities, parks and carnivals with a storyline that attempts to spin the exercise off as beneficial to the planet. It’s absurd, but the game actually makes it work by designing some likable characters and supplying them with a startlingly good voice cast. That, in turn, allows it to rationalize boss fights and other challenges that add variety to the general wreckage levels.

“Outbreak” takes another page from “Damacy” by implementing conditions and time limits in those wreckage levels. Though it’d be fun if the game occasionally removed the clock and let you ravage a level at your leisure, the time limit does add the kind of challenge needed to keep the experience interesting past the novelty stage. “Outbreak” doesn’t employ constrictive conditions, so the freedom to run wild doesn’t go away.

Perhaps predictably, “Outbreak’s” chief hang-ups also come straight out of “Damacy’s” complaint box.

The camera is better here than in “Damacy,” but it still struggles to accommodate a gameplay scale that changes quickly and dramatically. It’s easy for your own tornadic magnificence to block your sightlines, which can create problems when precise movements are needed. It also makes it harder than necessary to spot each level’s goal marker, which you need to reach before time runs out. “Outbreak” wants you to find the goal yourself while traversing the level, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating when you complete the mission but still fail a level because you spent a minute searching fruitlessly for the exit.

Like “Damacy,” though, “Outbreak” is strangely enjoyable in spite of its aggravations, and it satisfies that destructive yearning in a family-friendly way. (That’s doubly true if you bring along a friend for some two-player splitscreen co-op.) The price is right, too: “Outbreak” lacks the pizzazz of your typical $60 game, but there’s more than enough content here to justify the $40 tag.

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iBlast Moki
For: iPhone/iPod Touch
From: Godzilab
iTunes Store Rating: 9+ (infrequent/mild cartoon or fantasy violence)
Price: $1

Some games are a better fit than others for the iPhone’s particular capabilities and shortcomings, but few feel quite as tailor-made as “iBlast Moki.” The goal in “Moki” is to help a group of cute, gumdrop-like characters (the Mokis) reach the goal circle in each level. To do that, you need to place bombs around the level, time their charges, and ignite a chain reaction that propels the Mokis past whatever obstacles stand in their way. The degree of problem solving needed to finish each level (and, if you’re ambitious, nab a gold-medal time) makes “Moki” a great little puzzle game in its own right. But the method by which the game measures your score — the clock doesn’t start ticking until after you’ve set everything up and started the chain reaction — means you don’t have to frantically fight with the iPhone’s imperfect touch controls. Everything about “Moki” is pleasant, in fact: It’s easy on the eyes and ears, and if you’re not happy with your score on a level, you can tweak your arrangement instantly and repeatedly until you are. “Moki” arrives with more than 70 levels inside, features a shockingly robust level editor, and supports the Plus+ social network system. For a single dollar, it’s a ludicrous value.