Games 9/14/10: Batman: The Brave and the Bold, Professor Layton and the Unwound Future, Game Center

Batman: The Brave and the Bold: The Videogame
Reviewed for: Wii
Also available for: Nintendo DS
From: WayForward Technologies/WB Games
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence, comic mischief)

No series of games has earned the “fun for all ages” tag quite like the Lego-branded games, which are fun and funny enough to engage good players but accommodating enough to allow even the most hopelessly hopeless to see them to completion. Thanks to local co-op support, they also allow two players of completely different disciplines to play together and have an identically great time doing so.

“Batman: The Brave and the Bold” is a classic sidescrolling beat ’em up that plays nothing like those Lego games — picture “Double Dragon” or the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” arcade game, but with “Batman” characters and gadgets. But by basing itself on the terrifically funny cartoon of the same name, and by adopting the same appetite for accommodation, it achieves that same all-inclusive vibe that makes those Lego games so endearing.

“Bold” mimics the cartoon by not only using the same art style and voice cast, but also by dividing its storyline into four mock episodes, all of which kick off with a boss fight against a secondary supervillain before launching into the cartoon’s title sequence and getting on with the episode.

All four episodes star Batman (who, in this instance, resembles Adam West’s genial character more than Christian Bale’s barking antihero), but each supplies him with a different sidekick and a fresh set of villains and environments. Players (playing alone with a surprisingly capable A.I. partner or with a friend via local co-op) can embody either hero, each of whom has his own gadgets on top of the standard brawling moves. Players also can summon one of 10 superheroes for brief assistance when things get hairy — a nice way to include “Bold’s” large cast of heroes while staying true to the show’s format.

Also true to the show: how surprisingly funny the whole thing is. If the recent “Batman” movies’ dreariness leaves you cold, “Bold” the cartoon is a personable and brilliantly funny antidote. The game is light on cutscenes, but it continually enhances the action with banter from the show’s voice talent, and the mix of reverence, self-depreciation and hilarious one-liners makes this one of the most pleasantly enjoyable games of the summer.

For some — young kids certainly, but maybe their gaming-challenged parents as well — part of that enjoyment will come from how generously “Bold,” like those Lego games, punishes failure. The game offers unlimited lives, and players who lose all health respawn right where they perished (or, in the event of falling into a pit of lava or something similar, as close to the spot as possible). The only penalty is a dent in collected coins, which go toward the purchase of those gadget upgrades, but the generosity means players don’t exactly need those upgrades to get through the game anyway.

While some won’t love that system, it’s infinitely preferable to making the game a cakewalk. “Bold” never approaches the punishing difficulty of some of its forebears, but it certainly doesn’t lack for action. Numerous enemies crowd the screen at once, and between the chaos they create and the moves at players’ disposal, there’s rarely a moment in “Bold” that’s dull. “Bold” uses certain Wii remote functions intelligently — Batman’s batarang certainly benefits from the Wii remote’s cursor capabilities — but for the most part, this is as classically fun as 2D brawling gets.


Professor Layton and the Unwound Future
For: Nintendo DS
From: Level-5/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild violence)

Three titles on, it’s easy to take the “Professor Layton” games for granted, and it’s temptingly easy to just recommend them out of hand to anyone who played and enjoyed the first two. If that’s you, here’s your “Professor Layton and the Unwound Future” review: Get it. It’s mostly more of the same — and that’s probably all you need to hear.

For the uninitiated, the “Layton” games are collections of genuinely clever riddles — picture rainy day brainteasers more than matching blocks and the usual stuff one associates with puzzle games — packaged inside a charming storyline starring the mystery-solving titular professor and his trusty apprentice Luke. By Nintendo DS standards, the storytelling is surprisingly polished, with hand-drawn animated cutscenes, generous amounts of voice acting and a narrative that ties into the puzzles startlingly well considering how many of them there are (165 and counting in this case) and how unique and meticulously crafted most of them are.

All of that still applies in “Future,” which finds Layton receiving a letter from London that apparently was written 10 years in the future by an older Luke. “Future” naturally weaves time travel into its storyline, and the device allows players not only to visit an environment that’s far busier than the first two games’ sleepy locales, but also see London in two dramatically different time periods and states.

Without spoiling specifics, “Future’s” story does have some warts — mostly with regard to making players trek back and forth between areas that aren’t exactly next door to one another. The plot also struggles occasionally to stay on a sane path while managing all those riddles and keeping a lid on the logistical can of worms that always threatens to spill out of any story based around time travel.

More than not, though, “Future” finds the best things about the series at their very best. The glimpse at future Luke gives fans more insight into our supporting hero, and the change of venue works in tandem with a greater concentration of cutscenes to flesh out Layton’s world in a way that will greatly satisfy fans and likely catch new players pleasantly off guard. There really is no other video game that tells stories quite the way these do — an accomplishment on any system, but especially impressive on the little DS.

Most important, though, the story ties into the riddle designs more closely than ever. Stating that “Future” has 165 riddles isn’t implying that it has 30 slight variations of the same five or so riddle designs. The variety here is enormous, and the only thing more impressive than the puzzles’ storyline ties is how consistently the game toes a perfect difficulty line. “Future’s” brainteasers are ingeniously tricky, but they’re always surmountable, and the systems the game has in place — not every puzzle must be solved to see the ending, collectable coins are redeemable toward hints, and there are no time limits for solving riddles — keeps the experience challenging but never frustrating.

Per series custom, Nintendo will sweeten “Future’s” already sweet $30 price by releasing additional puzzle packs for free each week via its in-game Wi-Fi Connection pipeline. The company hasn’t specified how long it’ll do this, but if the first two games’ post-release content is any gauge, that should equate to roughly 30 more puzzles for no additional cost.


Game Center
For: iPhone/iPod Touch (available for iPad in November)
From: Apple
iTunes Store Rating: N/A (comes bundled with iOS 4.1)
Price: Free (games sold separately)

Apple has slowly warmed up to the iPhone and iPod Touch’s accidental transformations into portable gaming juggernauts, but Game Center makes the embrace official. Officially speaking, Game Center is to the iPhone and iPod Touch (and, come November, iPad) w
hat Xbox Live and Playstation Network are to the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, respectively. As such, the features are what you’d expect, with accommodations for friend lists, leaderboards and achievements. In terms of execution, it succeeds more than not. Being able to quick-launch any supported game from inside the “Center” app is handy, and the leaderboard section — which employs a nifty percentile system in addition to standard ranking metrics, ranks players worldwide and amongst friends, and has daily, weekly and all-time leaderboards for both tiers — is terrific. The system for finding friends is clumsy, though, and there’s no way to chat or set up a multiplayer game from within the “Center” app. The biggest caveat, though? Before Game Center came along, OpenFeint already thrived on iOS by doing the same thing, and between that service’s admirable member support and its pending arrival on the Android platform, it arguably remains superior to Apple’s offering. Time will tell which service attracts more new games — OpenFeint presently has a gargantuan lead, but developers are sure to flock to a system that’s ingrained into the OS — and that, more than features or interface, likely will determine which platform leads the pack in the future. In the meantime, the competition can only benefit users of both services.