Games 7/27/10: Sin and Punishment: Star Successor, The Cages: Pro Style Batting Practice, DeathSpank

Sin and Punishment: Star Successor
For: Wii
From: Treasure/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Teen (fantasy violence)

The genius of “Sin and Punishment: Star Successor” is not simply how skillfully it creates order out of what initially looks like sheer insane nonsense, but how easy it continually makes that skill look during the five or so hours it takes to experience it for the first time.

Dismissively, “Successor” can be classified as an on-rails shooter, which has become a term synonymous for all the Wii lacks in terms of traditional control schemes. The tag technically applies, because outside of when it pauses to swarm players with enemies or a boss fight, “Successor” is constantly in some form of forward motion, and it’s the duty of players to clear enemies away and keep up with it. Think of “Successor” as an old-fashioned space shooter that moves forward in three dimensions instead of sideways in two, and you can start to picture what’s going on here.

Like most on-rails shooters on the Wii, “Successor” also employs a cursor-based control scheme for shooting purposes. Aim the Wii remote around the screen to pick targets, press B to fire. No surprises there.

But “Successor” enhances these core elements by mixing in more extensive character control than the genre traditionally allows. Isa Jo and Achi, the game’s playable protagonists, can freely run and jump on the ground as well as hover to any corner of the screen, and outside of the on-rails forward and backward movement, “Successor” leaves all character movements in players’ hands.

Even the cursor controls, which complement the often frantic pace by incorporating a perfect dose of aiming assistance that’s effective but so subtle as to potentially go unnoticed, puts most similar control schemes to surprising shame. (An optional control scheme, supporting both the Classic and Gamecube controllers, allows players to go all the way traditional and control the targeting with the right stick.)

All that freedom is crucial, because “Successor” inspires more thrills from mastering and avoiding enemy attack patterns than from putting on a good offensive show. Like a great sidescrolling shooter, “Successor” swarms players with such a high variety of frantic enemy attacks that at first, it looks nothing short of (a) completely random and (b) impossible to circumvent. But everything in the game has a pattern, and players who put in the time to figure “Successor” out will gradually start to see it in a completely different (and far more appreciative) light once those patterns start to emerge.

The quest to master the insane variety of patterns “Successor” devises gives the game considerably more value than initial impressions might imply. The game has a story, and it’s sufficient if you absolutely need some narrative purpose, but seeing how it ends is nowhere near as interesting as playing and replaying stretches of the game to push your high scores up the online leaderboards.

“Successor” scores players like a classic arcade shooter, rewarding the ability to stay alive while also dangling a score multiplier that’s continually in flux and dependent on players’ ability to shoot quickly and just a little recklessly. The system lends itself perfectly to score chasers and perfectionists, and “Successor’s” complete understanding of that art — along with hours of great game design to back it up — makes this a must-play for anyone who identifies with either demographic.


The Cages: Pro Style Batting Practice
For: Wii
From: Alpha Unit/Konami
ESRB Rating: Everyone

At no point does this review know whether “The Cages: Pro Style Batting Practice” is a smart option for would-be baseball stars who, for all baseball science can tell us, might screw up their swing technique by swinging a Wii remote at a television instead of a real baseball bat at a real baseball. Considering the discrepancies in bat weight, among other obvious factors, it’s entirely likely this is more harmful than helpful for serious baseball players.

But taken simply as a video game simulation of a trip to the batting cages — and taking into account the limitations of the Wii even with the MotionPlus attachment in tow — “Cages” does a surprisingly good job at recreating this particular aspect of baseball practice.

With that said, first things first: Though “Cages” is playable without the MotionPlus attachment, the loss of precision that little attachment provides makes this a useless practice tool at best and completely unplayable at worst. If you’re at all serious about enjoying “Cages,” owning or purchasing a MotionPlus attachment should be viewed as mandatory in order for anything that follows to apply to your experience.

“Cages'” primary interface is as spartan as you might imagine: There’s a baseball field, a pitching machine, your bat (which, in the recommended first-person view, you barely even see) and very little else. The machine throws pitches, and players swing the Wii remote like a bat to try and hit the ball.

What makes it work, in addition to a refreshingly unforgiving demand on swing precision, are the options and interface touches the game lays atop the threadbare gameplay. Every pitch is followed by a skippable but very useful swing analyzer that shows players how early, late, high, low, inside or outside their swings are in relation to the ball’s trajectory. Players also can customize and save presets for the pitching machine, selecting what pitches it can throw and the range of speeds at which it can throw them. A stat-tracking feature logs your batting average and other numbers, and a calorie counter provides a morale boost for those days when your swing completely fails you.

“Cages” pads its value with a couple competitive multiplayer modes (one for two players, another for four), but nothing in the game’s feature set will satisfy players looking for anything resembling a game of organized baseball. The game, along its budget price tag, make no bones about its acute focus, and buyers who expect more from it will do so at their own peril.

What it does though — and taking into account the disclaimers from paragraphs one and three above — it does rather satisfactorily. By no stretch of any imagination is “Cages” a better experience than hitting real baseballs with a real bat, and its value as a training tool is pretty dubious. But for those who go to the cages purely for enjoyment’s sake but wouldn’t mind an alternative in a pinch when the time or means isn’t there, this isn’t a bad investment to make.


For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network and Xbox 360 Live Arcade
From: Hothead Games/EA
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, cartoon violence, crude humor, mild language, mild sexual themes)
Price: $15

Considering the enduring popularity of the two things — “Diablo”-style dungeon crawling and comedy — “DeathSpank” attempts to merge as one, it’s rather amazing it’s taken this long for the two to come together as naturally as they have here. “DeathSpank” starts off a little slow, and there are a handful of things it does adequately but never expertly. The sensation of combat “Diablo” absolutely nails never feels quite so satisfying here, and between the simplicity of the quest designs and the modest ambitions of the game’s comedic writing and voice acting, this likely will be neither the best-playing dungeon crawler nor the funniest game you play this year. Fortunately, what “DeathSpank” doesn’t do amazingly well, it does more
than well enough — so much so that the experience actually improves rather than degrades once the novelty of comedic dungeon crawling wears off. The quests, while not terribly ambitious in terms of variety or design, are at least numerous, as is the bounty of armor, weapons and items waiting to be discovered. The depth of the combat improves with the ability to cast new spells and even combine special attacks. And the world’s fleeting resemblance to an illustrated pop-up book (without the actual pop-up animation) works in tandem with the amusing overall tone to create a universe that, imperfections or not, is a whole lot of fun to explore.