Games 4/19/11: Portal 2, Monster Tale, Section 8: Prejudice

Portal 2
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows, Macintosh
From: Valve Corporation
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (fantasy violence, mild language)

Though a rousingly successful experiment, “Portal” was still an experiment — so much so that Valve snuck it into players’ hands as the wild card in a five-game suite that also included “Team Fortress 2” and “Half-Life 2” and its two expansions.

As such, while it was a wonderfully original game, it also felt like a project with nothing to lose — short, a little barren in the user-friendliness department, and flashing a hilariously, dryly insulting sense of humor that made the user-unfriendliness its soulmate.

Now as the headliner on its own box, “Portal 2” is obligated to step it up in some respects. The new game’s single-player component is a little more than twice as long as the entirety of the original game, and a second, separate co-op adventure (two players, splitscreen or online) makes this four times the game “Portal” was. The game’s objective and basic functions are more clearly explained, and the loose not-quite narrative of that first game funnels into a much fuller storyline — with some affectionate callbacks to its predecessor — this time around.

But at no point does “Portal 2” lose sight of the eccentricities that made “Portal” a surprising classic. That same sense of humor is back, and a slight expansion of the cast (no spoilers) makes it even funnier this time around. When the game is forced to change its ways — the extra dose of user-friendliness, for instance — it fully acknowledges the obligation with some of the funniest instances of overcompensation you’ll ever experience in a video game.

The amusing storytelling helps move along an early stretch that, for “Portal” graduates, will play a little slow while it helps the uninitiated get comfortable.

It’s a necessary evil, because if you’ve never played “Portal,” then you’ve never played anything like this. “Portal 2” looks and controls like a first person shooter, and the right and left triggers eventually will be used for firing. But instead of shooting enemies, you’re firing at walls to create portals. Your two portal guns can create one active portal per gun at a time, and walking into one portal takes you out the other. The goal is to use these portals to manipulate the scenery and make your way to an exit that would otherwise be unreachable.

If that sounds mind-bending, wait until you see it. “Portal 2’s” early challenges are simple and involve only one or two steps to get from A to B. But as time passes and the areas expand, you’ll have to create chains of events, take uncomfortable leaps of semi-faith, manipulate objects’ physical properties, and hone your geometry and timing skills — sometimes simultaneously. The riddles are beautifully designed so as never to be unreasonably arcane, but they can most certainly be devious. Gradually overcoming a level that initially seemed impossible is a wonderfully rewarding challenge that no other first-person game can remotely match.

That holds exponentially true for the co-op campaign, which tells a new story, introduces two terrific new characters (Atlas and P-body, who are the most adorably likable robots this side of Wall-E), and takes the deviousness to a new plane by forcing players to work together with four portals instead of two.

Once again, the difficulty ramps up perfectly. Early challenges have you operating separate halves of the same area to eventually reach the goal together. But once things open up, you’ll need to master all the things described earlier while trading steps with your partner and sometimes harmonizing your moves to make everything click. Prepare to communicate, and prepare to celebrate if you take the campaign down together.


Monster Tale
For: Nintendo DS
From: DreamRift/Majesco
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence)

Arguably no game validated the Nintendo DS’ dual screens more perfectly than “Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure,” which put entirely different genres on each screen — platforming on top, a “Bejeweled”-style puzzle game on the bottom — and meshed them together for one brilliantly cohesive good time.

“Monster Tale” comes courtesy of the some of the same developers who made “Hatsworth.” So while it should be a surprise that we have two even more ambitious genres working in similarly perfect harmony, it really isn’t.

This time, the top screen is home to an open-ended platformer in the vein of “Metroid” or “Castlevania.” Ellie (that’s you) begins her adventure with little more than the ability to run, jump and fire a puny blaster. You’re free to maneuver through the game world in whatever direction you want, but certain areas are inaccessible to Ellie until she finds and acquires the abilities — rolling, a melee attack, high-jumping, a better blaster — that allow her to reach them.

Like the games that influenced it, “Tale” intelligently spreads the rewards around, allowing you to acquire new abilities and access new areas at a steady pace that feels just right. Exploring the world is great fun, too: “Tale’s” controls are as polished and responsive here as “Hatworth’s” were, and the rate at which you meet new enemies, boss characters and obstacles keeps things fresh even when you need to backtrack through areas you’ve already visited. The game’s visual design is a treat as well, with vibrant colors and imaginative level and enemy designs that distinguish themselves nicely from area to area.

Where “Tale” transforms from homage to a beast of its own creation is with the introduction of Chomp, an enigmatic little monster who follows Ellie around like a loyal puppy after she rescues him very early in the game.

You don’t control Chomp directly, but in the virtual pet simulator that occupies “Tale’s” bottom screen, you are charged with keeping him healthy, educated and dangerous to all who threaten your progress.

If the words “virtual pet simulator” make you cringe, fear not, because there isn’t much work involved in keeping Chomp healthy. A button press brings him into Ellie’s world in the top screen, where he will automatically fight nearby enemies without your having to do anything, and another button press sends him back to his sanctuary, where he can heal and use books and food you find in battle to get stronger and smarter. A few other items — a catapult and a soccer ball, among other amusing choices — will also drop into the sanctuary, and Chomp can use them from the bottom screen to temporarily wreak havoc on the top screen.

All the learning and growing makes Chomp a better fighter, but it also allows him to learn new abilities and even assume whole new forms whose specialized abilities give Ellie access to areas she wouldn’t be able to reach alone.

“Tale” doesn’t hold back, either: Chomp has a staggering 30 forms waiting to be discovered, and when you pile those atop all those other abilities and lay that sum atop a game that ramps up the challenge at a similarly ideal pace, the surprises never stop filing in.


Section 8: Prejudice
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
Also available for: Windows
From: TimeGate Studios
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, language, violence)
Price: $15

Were “Section 8: Prejudice” a full-priced first-person shooter, it’d be recommendable as a flawed but endearing breath of fresh
air. At $15, though, it’s simply a no-brainer. From the visual presentation (good, but a couple years behind its big-budget counterparts) to the enemy A.I. (also good, but occasionally prone to significant lapses in judgment), “Prejudice’s” campaign doesn’t completely mask its smaller budget. At the same time, though, its warzones are wider and higher than the constrictive corridors that dominate most shooters, and it gives you the necessary tools — jet packs, mechs, vehicles that are wildly fun to operate — to take advantage of all that space. “Prejudice’s” campaign is comparable in length to a $60 shooter, and its 32-player competitive multiplayer includes unlockable perks, bot support and even some light real-time strategy mechanics. It also takes a page from “Killzone’s” book by dynamically mixing multiple team-based objectives into a single match. (Another nice strategic touch: Because you “spawn” by dropping in from the sky, you can pick exactly where you want to land each time you regenerate.) “Prejudice” also includes four-player co-op via the Swarm mode, in which waves of enemies descend on your foursome until you’re inevitably overrun. Warts or not, everything about “Prejudice” operates with a great mix of competence and chaos, and the total package is a total steal at this price.