Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies
For: Nintendo DS
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (alcohol reference, animated blood, comic mischief, fantasy violence, mild suggestive themes, mild language)
If you have a soft spot for the founding fathers of turn-based role-playing games but loathed everything “Final Fantasy XIII” stood for when it released in March, there could scarcely be a more different game than “Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies,” which takes a few superficially backward steps but cherishes the things that, in 2010 just as in 1986, ultimately matter most.
The contrasts are immediate. “FFXIII” is eye candy overload, but an arguably toxic appetite for storytelling overloads the game with cutscenes over which players have no effect. “Skies,” meanwhile, takes a visual dive from its predecessor by migrating from the Playstation 2 to the Nintendo DS, and beyond its introduction, the storyline heads down a path that’s practically boilerplate by genre standards.
But that open-ended sparseness allows “Skies” to give players more control from the start than “FFXIII” arguably provides in its lifetime.
“Skies” lets players not only name the characters in their party, but also design them using a surprisingly thorough character editor. The story that follows may be one that RPGs have been telling since their inception, but it stars whomever players want it to star. And while cutscenes that use the DS’ real-time 3D capabilities aren’t in the same league as “FFXIII’s” pre-rendered scenes, they’re innumerably more personalized and, by extension, far more rewarding over the game’s very long haul.
The customization bent also complements “Skies’s” most impressive innovation: co-op play. Up to four players can team up wirelessly (local only, and everyone needs a copy of the game), and the game is surprisingly liberal with regard to what happens from there. Players can adventure separately in the same world, summon one another for immediate help in battle, and basically treat the experience like a small-scale MMO. “Skies” allows players to join and part as they please, regardless of experience levels and in-game progress, and it doesn’t force anyone to choose between leaning on the feature or completely missing out on its benefits.
That’s about the only way it can work, because for most, the 25 (main quest) to 100-plus (everything) hours needed to turn “Skies” inside out would be almost impossible to invest under inflexible conditions. In this respect, the decision to take the game down the portable route looks like genius. A considerable time investment is needed before everything the game offers is freely available, but “Skies'” world opens up relatively quickly, and it’s exponentially more freely explorable than “FFXIII’s” depressing straight line. Being able to continually chip away at it, regardless of time investment or other conditions, more than compensates for whatever fidelity the graphics would have gained on flashier hardware.
With that said, if you don’t love “Dragon Quest” already, “Skies” won’t be the gust of wind that turns that boat around. Impressively large and intelligently innovative though it may be, this ultimately is the same general pattern of turned-based battling gameplay and storytelling that has subsisted for nearly 25 years. Like its predecessors, “Skies” excels at doing those things by balancing challenge, elegance and depth in ways few turned-based RPGs can, but not so much that it changes the game for anyone who doesn’t love it already.
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Artificial Mind & Movement/505 Games
ESRB Rating: Teen (violence)
Every year, a few games surface that belie the prerequisite that a game must be good in order to be any fun.
This year, the leader of that pack has to be “Naughty Bear,” a thoroughly bizarre, poorly-coded and very arguably reprehensible game that might, because of how easy it is to exploit as well as how strange it is in the first place, be something you might wish to see anyway.
“Bear” stars players as the titular Naughty Bear, who, after getting ostracized by the other bears in his village, decides to turn his hurt feelings into a murderous rampage. The bears look and sound like your prototypical stuffed bears, and the village in which they live is similarly saccharine. The only difference is that players can use a range of weaponry and nearby objects — from toilets to grills — to turn the village into a crime scene. The truly skilled can even traumatize the other bears into turning on themselves.
If it sounds kind of terrible, it’s because it is. Killing isn’t exactly a foreign concept in games, but you’ll need some kind of stone heart to wreak havoc on a sweet-sounding stuffed bear and emerge feeling terrible or at least somewhat disturbed. This, obviously, is what “Bear” is going after by blending cuteness and murder to this degree, but it might be a little too good at it to make this playable beyond the morbid curiosity stage.
What “Bear” isn’t good at is most everything else. The game’s missions are variations of the same few things over and over, and the chapters continually take place in the same tiny environments. The camera is jerky to a motion sickness-inducing degree, the animation and controls lack polish, and the lack of mid-mission checkpoints — even though every mission is divided into very clear parts — makes some of the levels with stricter objectives a needless pain (especially when the camera causes a mission failure).
Last but not least, the game crashes in myriad ways — sometimes hanging on a load screen, sometimes freezing completely, and occasionally just suspending all character animation while parts of the game keep chugging away in some bizarre fashion or another.
On the other hand, some of “Bear’s” shortcomings — chiefly, its sorry excuse for A.I. and stealth — accidentally make the game more fun than it might otherwise have been.
For whatever reason, hiding in shallow patches of grass and bushes makes Naughty Bear completely invisible to the other bears. It doesn’t matter if he’s three inches away from two bears and hidden by a single leaf. It doesn’t matter if he just hit a bear in the face, took one step sideways and is screaming “boo” from the bushes. They can’t see him, and players are free to exploit this absurd reality to terrorize the other bears in ways a competent game wouldn’t allow. It basically allows players who are awful at stealth games to see why players who are good at them love them so much.
But once these novelties wear off, nothing remains but an empty game that plays poorly and makes players feel worse. That makes “Bear” a great rental, if only to satisfy any lingering curiosity about one of the year’s strangest games before realizing that any investment beyond a few bucks and a few hours is money and time poorly spent.
Blacklight: Tango Down
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade
Also available for: Windows PC, Playstation 3 via Playstation Network (later this summer)
From: Zombie Studios/Ignition Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, violence)
Were “Blacklight: Tango Down” a full-priced first-person shooter, its combination of generic atmosphere and tacked-on single-player offerings would make it almost superlatively insignificant. At $15, though, it’s another story. “Blacklight” takes place in environments that look like
areas you’ve seen before, and it’s populated by soldiers engaging in battle for reasons that aren’t necessarily important. The single-player (or, with three friends, online co-op) component explains little, but it’s for the best, because the entirely unrefined A.I. — enemies mindlessly spray bullets like walking turrets — makes it entirely skippable anyway. “Blacklight’s” real purpose is as a multiplayer shooter (16 players), and like last summer’s “Battlefield 1943,” it provides a healthy return on investment without reinventing anything. All the usual multiplayer modes are here, the map count is surprisingly high at 12, and “Blacklight” looks, controls and sounds like a $60 game in a $15 game’s body. Better still, it provides a reason to keep coming back, flaunting an experience system that rewards players a massive unlockable cache of weapons, accessories and character improvements. The climb to the top of the rewards pile is steep, and an unimpressive matchmaking system makes it tough on new players who have to overcome experienced players with better gear, but the stream of perks is so constant that it’s easy to find the motivation to beat those odds. (For those who’d rather just play with friends, no worries: Private match support also is available.)