Games 1/24/12: Scarygirl, Amy, Saints Row the Third: GenkiBowl VII

For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: TikGames/Square-Enx
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence, use of tobacco)
Price: $15

Don’t let the name fool you: Even though its namesake and star has the arms of an octopus and the face of a skeleton vinyl doll, Scarygirl — and the game bearing her name — is more cute than scary.

In fact, for those attuned to “LittleBigPlanet’s” style, “Scarygirl’s” presentation will be familiarly cute. Like “LBP,” it’s a 2D platformer modeled with 3D graphics that look like a diorama come to life — more papercraft and watercolor than “LBP’s” burlap, cardboard and vinyl, but unmistakably riding the same visual wavelength. Throw in the narrator, who introduces each level as if a page from a slightly twisted bedtime storybook, and it’s very obvious from whence at least some of “Scarygirl’s” stylistic influence came.

With that said, don’t let the kindly exterior fool you either. “Scarygirl” gets off to a pretty gentle start, and the levels that comprise the first two of its seven chapters aren’t terribly imposing if your only goal is to clear them.

But then “Scarygirl” drops you into the Hairclump Spider Cave with the cave’s namesake enemy almost immediately on your tail, and just like that, the kid gloves are off.

In part, the challenge spikes for unintended reasons. Though she’s pretty spry, Scarygirl’s repertoire (running, jumping, gliding, swinging, melee combat, and a limited-use forcefield for blocking and counterattacking) sometimes feels almost too responsive, resulting in a slight jerkiness that makes it easy to slip when combining moves or trying to stick a precise jump.

An overly generous hit detection works against as well as for Scarygirl, and there are occasions where enemies spawn right on top of her and cause damage before you even have a chance to react.

Finally, while “Scarygirl’s” level design is generally pretty great — diverse locations, branching paths, gobs of color and style — it also features occasional instances where a jump of faith feels necessary. Sometimes, a jump that looks doable just isn’t because it’s part of a another path on a different perspective plane. “Scarygirl” rarely depends on trial and error, but the few times it does are pretty unflattering. (Fortunately, checkpoints are frequent enough that they aren’t very aggravating.)

Fortunately, the aforementioned points are exceptions to the rule, and “Scarygirl’s” challenge mostly comes from the right places.

The branching, vertical level designs — set in deserts, mountains, aboard airships, in a nightclub and elsewhere — make excellent use of Scarygirl’s arsenal, particularly if you’re bold enough to pull off the tricky acrobatic maneuvers needed to get a perfect level score (no deaths, all collectibles found). You need not perfect a level to pass it, but “Scarygirl” keeps track and provides an leaderboard to motivate the best of the best.

Similarly, while its combat is simple — strong attack, weak attack, forcefield — “Scarygirl” tests it with enemies (and especially bosses) whose attack patterns make it crucial to balance defense, offense and positioning to manage multiple enemies. At its best and most imposing, it’s a perfect ode to the classic sidescrollers of the NES era — modern in its production values and polish, but timeless in the desire it creates to play, replay and master its levels.

If you aren’t quite that dedicated, “Scarygirl’s” two-player drop-in co-op support will take the edge off a bit. It works as painlessly as one hopes it would, with the lack of online support being the only potential downside.


For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
From: Vector Cell/Lexis Numerique
ESRB Rating: Mature (use of drugs, blood, intense violence, language)
Price: $10

In the thin strip of land separating challenge and undying aggravation, the checkpoint is king. As it goes, so often goes a game’s fate, especially when it’s a horror game crawling with elements seemingly designed to purposefully work against you.

The Amy in “Amy” is a young girl who, for reasons not really clarified, cannot speak and wants zero to do with a place known casually as The Center. When things go awry, she’s in the care of Lana (that’s you), who shares her sentiments.

The upshot of the not-really-explained story is that “Amy” overwhelmingly is an escort game. You indirectly control Amy by pressing a button to hold her hand and pull her around, but she’s also capable (when the A.I. cooperates) of following, waiting, hiding and accessing places you can’t reach to create access for you.

Arguably, when not wandering into mission-ending peril, Amy gives more than she receives. When nearby, she automatically heals Lana, and over time, she’s able to (clumsily) wield telekinetic powers and create temporary safe zones that distort enemies’ senses. In “Amy’s” best trick, you also can hear (and feel, via the controller’s vibration) her heartbeat when monsters, infected people and other enemies are near. The closer you are to peril, the more forceful it beats.

The tension that heartbeat creates is palpable, because “Amy” subscribes to much — good or bad — of what made horror games so scary during their mid-1990s advent. Lana isn’t as clumsy to control as those early “Resident Evil” game characters, but her awkward turning skills and the controller gymnastics needed to make her break into a sprint (especially when holding Amy’s hand) means she’s working in the same neighborhood.

Sadly, her melee combat acumen fares even worse — a point you’ll suspect in “Amy’s” easy first chapter and confirm when things get exponentially hairier in chapter two. The weapons she uses break way too easily, and her swing wouldn’t pass muster in a slow-pitch softball game. Though “Amy” offers a dodge mechanic and encourages you to use it, its sloppy camera and hit detection almost certainly will betray (and, if one bad break leads to another, kill) you.

This, by the way, is where “Amy” goes from endearingly antiquated to hellaciously frustrating.

There are checkpoints scattered across during “Amy’s” six chapters, but they are cruelly sparse. Once again, you’ll likely realize this in chapter two, where you’ll do some exploring, find some story clues, find Amy (who fled following chapter one’s closing twist), see a cutscene and almost immediately get killed in one whack by the star of that cutscene.

If that happens, you have to repeat all that mundane exploring and hope to device an escape plan so the quick demise doesn’t repeat. But even if you escape, learn about Amy’s special abilities, solve a couple key card puzzles and then die at the hands of another enemy you meet 20 minutes later, you have to start the entire chapter over. Because where most games would have dotted this half-hour stretch with two, maybe three checkpoints, “Amy” offers zero.

What a shame, too, because with even a reasonable checkpoint system, all of “Amy’s” miscues — stiff controls, clumsy combat, A.I. lapses, some elaborately annoying trial-and-error processes, a stealth section that would feel ancient 14 years ago — could be written off as forgivable callbacks to a punishing niche genre that still has its fans. When “Amy” is tense, it is exceptionally so, and a reasonable scattering of checkpoints would have enhanced rather than ruined that. When immersive tension gives way to the dread of having to replay 30 minutes that weren’t necessarily fun the first time around, there’s no reason to keep playing.


Saints Row the Third: GenkiBowl VII
For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Windows PC (requires Saints Row the Third)
From: Volition/THQ
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, drug reference, intense violence, partial nudity, sexual content, strong language)
Price: $7 (also included as part of the $20 season pass)

After the complete spectacle that was “Saints Row the Third’s” main storyline, hopes were high that the first downloadable expansion would go even crazier. On one hand, “GenkiBowl VII” — a series of violently fantastical events emceed by the diabolical game show host/living cartoon character Professor Genki — delivers on that hope. Sexy Kitten Yarngasm, for instance, tasks you with causing as much property destruction as possible with a massive, steerable, shockwave-blasting yarn ball, while Sad Panda Skyblazing combines the timeless sports of free-falling through the air in a panda suit and waging war on people in bunny and hot dog suits. Along with some funny play-by-play, it certainly qualifies as a spectacle. But Yarngasm essentially is a modified version of the main game’s Tank Mayhem missions, and the events where you escort Genki around and venture through a deadly game show-style maze have similar counterparts. Only Skyblazing feels completely new, and with only two missions per event to complete, the entire expansion is over before you know it. You can keep the spoils — the yarn ball, Genki’s car, some characters and outfits — and use them throughout the rest of the game, and the fun of wreaking havoc with a gigantic cat toy cannot be overstated. But even with that said, a few more missions per event would have done wonders for better justifying “GB7’s” price tag.

Games 12/20/11: Striiv, Playstation 3D Display, Marvel Pinball: Vengeance and Virtue

From: Striiv
Price: $100

Yes, it’s awfully nice to carry around a single, compact device that replaces your telephone, calendar, netbook, camcorder, GPS, MP3 player, Game Boy, alarm clock and who knows what else.

But while attempts have been made to conquer the humble pedometer, they have thus far failed. Step-counting apps have flashed promise by doing more than simply counting steps, but they’re non-starters when you always need the app active and gulping down battery life. Never mind that pedometers are one of the few gadgets that actually make smartphones feel bulky by comparison.

In that respect, the arrival of Striiv — a device that combines the physical makeup of a pedometer, the digital sensibilities of a tiny iPod touch and the achievement-dangling compulsion of a contemporary video game — is as welcome as it probably was inevitable.

At its absolute core, Striiv is just a fancy pedometer. It’s light and small, and the full-color backlit touchscreen delivers an interface that’s prettier and considerably more intuitive than that of a typical pedometer. The device counts steps whether it’s on or off, you can drop it in your pocket and forget about it, and it discerns between walking, running and stair-climbing steps with impressive accuracy. The built-in battery lasts roughly a week between charges under normal use, and the package includes the necessary cables to charge it via USB or a wall outlet.

For those who like to gauge their progress, Striiv’s software is similarly impressive. A charts application lets you compare steps, miles and calories burned over the past week or month, and a separate stats program breaks down your step types and lets you view all-time totals, personal bests and daily averages.

But it’s the trophies and challenges that push Striiv beyond classification and blur the line between fitness aid and living video game.

Trophies function like achievements, awarding you for everything from beating your daily average to walking the equivalent of Peru’s Inca Trail (70,000 steps) in a week. There are daily, weekly and all-time trophies, and Striiv tracks how many times you earn trophies in the first two categories. Every trophy awards you with energy points, which are to Striiv what Gamerscore is to Xbox Live — mostly just a number, but a carrot that makes earning them irrationally (but healthily!) fun.

Challenges, meanwhile, are toggled manually but are more urgent once activated. Striiv scatters randomly-generated challenges across three difficulty levels (walk half a mile in a half hour on Easy, run 500 steps in 10 minutes on Medium) and tackling a handful of them and doing whatever it says makes for a great impromptu mini-workout. Like trophies, successful challenges pay out in energy, though you’ll also earn trophies if you complete enough of them in one day.

Striiv dangles a seemingly endless steam of attainable rewards, and the gamut they run in terms of size and time investment makes it easy to feel an immediately sense of progress while still eyeing a larger goal way down the road.

Additionally, while all that collected energy isn’t a very tangible reward, it does feed into some of the device’s more unusual extracurricular activities.

Most prominent is the quirky Myland minigame, in which you can populate and decorate an enchanted island by exchanging collected energy for plant life and manmade structures. As simulations go, Myland’s simplicity more closely resembles “Farmville” than “SimCity.” But grinding for rewards by walking and running is considerably more satisfying than nagging your Facebook friends until they unfriend you, and a lively island of fantastical creatures is a pretty clever way to view an abstract picture of your progress.

But the coolest use of your energy is as a conduit for acts of charity. Via GlobalGiving, Striiv lets you participate in virtual walkathons and convert bundles of energy into donations toward clean drinking water, polio vaccinations and/or rainforest conservation. (As with everything else, the device tracks how many contributions you make.)

Striiv sends the donations whenever you connect it to a Mac or PC via the USB charge cable, and it also uses this occasion to do another thing — check for and automatically apply firmware updates — pedometers typically never do.

Since release, the device has received a few minor firmware updates that have brought no major feature enhancements. But Striiv has made known its intentions to supply new programs and games through future updates. Little else is known at this point, but the company seems actively engaged with its community via Facebook, Twitter and its own blog. If you keep up, you’ll likely know what’s coming next as soon as it’s announced.


PlayStation 3D display
From: Sony
Price: $500

Your appreciation of Sony’s PlayStation 3D display will be at least partially dependent on how far on board you are with the entertainment industry’s umpteenth attempt to make 3D technology stick past the fad stage.

But while the display’s embrace of 3D — and Sony’s subsequent positioning of it as the rare 3D television with a three-figure asking price — are significant factors, they aren’t the only ones in play.

It’s worth clarifying up front that while the display sports Playstation branding, it doesn’t use any proprietary technology that only a Playstation 3 can understand. The range of inputs is a little limited, and you’ll need to get an adapter if you want to connect a VGA or DVI cable, but the input ports it does offer — two HDMI, one component — aren’t exactly unique to the PS3. If you can connect a device to the display, either natively or with the help of an adapter, it will look just fine (though if all you want is a top-end PC monitor, you can get displays with better refresh rates and native driver support for less money.)

It will look better than fine, in fact. Though the display isn’t designed with maximum flexibility and intuitiveness in mind — the glossy screen is pretty reflective in harsh light, the inputs are on the display’s left side instead of in a neutral spot at the bottom, and the buttons are placed awkwardly behind the display instead of on the side — it looks absolutely lovely once properly set up. It’s thin and sleek but also feels sturdy, and if the 24-inch screen is a good size for your setup and viewing range, the picture doesn’t disappoint.

While your success will vary if you use it with unsupported devices, the display’s 3D support in conjunction with games and Blu-ray discs worked as good as advertised when tested on a PS3. You’ll need to keep the included 3D glasses charged via the included micro-USB cable — in case you’ve lost track of where we are with 3D technology, the glasses are now battery-powered — but enabling 3D is as easy as selecting it in the game or Blu-ray’s menu interface.

(Your mileage will, of course, vary with regard to your tolerance of 3D and the potential eyestrain it incurs over extended sittings.)

For games that support it, the display’s SimulView technology arguably is the more exciting result of the 3D technology than 3D itself. With SimulView enabled, a two-player game no longer need be splitscreen: Instead, each player receives a unique (and complete) view of the action via his or her glasses. It’s like playing via LAN using one display, and while it sounds like voodoo, it actually works. Because the images passed to the glasses are 2D, the aforementioned concerns about viewing fatigue also don’t factor.

The downside? You’ll need a second pair of glasses, which retail for $70 each — which means the display isn’t quite as affordable as you thought if you wish to take advantage of its best feature.

There’s also a matter of games actually supporting SimulView. The bundled “MotorStorm: Apocalypse” supports it, as do a handful of other games published by Sony, but it’s anyone’s guess whether third parties will climb on board with their own support. Presently, there’s also no easy place to track which games are receiving or have received support. The display’s page on lists the initial batch above a “Coming soon” message, but there’s no telling if new information will appear there or elsewhere.


Marvel Pinball: Vengeance and Virtue
For: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade; requires free Pinball FX 2 download) and Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network; requires Marvel Pinball)
From: Zen Studios
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild fantasy violence)
Price: $10

2011 wasn’t a great year for video games bearing the Marvel name — unless you prefer pinball to other genres, in which case it was the best year ever. “Marvel Pinball: Vengeance and Virtue” adds four more tables to the roster, and they fit in perfectly in terms of personality and use of their respective licenses. The Thor table will appeal to those who love high-scoring tables, and in true “Marvel Pinball” fashion, Thor himself appears on the table to do battle with Loki (among other enemies) as you indirectly guide the action via pinball. The Ghost Rider table is the noisiest and most festive of the bunch, and the dual-layer table design is overshadowed only by an incredible second ball launcher that resembles a giant waving shotgun. The X-Men table presents the stiffest challenge via devious ramp designs that are harder to hit and unapologetically shift the ball’s speed when you do hit them. But Moon Knight’s table may be the most novel: It looks extremely simple at first glance, but it uses tricks of light and deceptive rail patterns to set a tempo that’s unlike any of the other tables (Marvel-branded or otherwise) on Zen’s roster. Like the tables that preceded it, “Vengeance’s” selections are extremely visually lively and reasonably authentic with regard to pinball physics. They also hide a startlingly deep array of missions and objectives beneath the surface. As per custom, the tables integrate seamlessly into their respective games, adding new achievements/trophies and adopting existing leaderboard and score structures, making the best pinball platforms on the console block that much better.

Games 3/2/10: Heavy Rain, MLB 2K10, Borderlands: The Secret Armory of General Knoxx

Heavy Rain
For: Playstation 3
From: Quantic Dream/Sony
ESRB Rating: Mature

Early on, when it becomes clear just how good “Heavy Rain” is at doing the unique little things it does, it also becomes clear that this might be the first video game capable — to a stunningly unsettling degree and under the cover of complete banality — of making players feel like a lousy parent.

The guilt is somewhat temporary, if only because “Rain” periodically shifts the player between four characters — two detectives, a photojournalist and a fourth person whose role won’t be specified for spoiler-proofing purposes — with ties to a story centered around a serial killer and a race to find his latest abductee alive.

But “Rain” has a knack for using small details and interactions to engender some surprisingly strong connections to all four characters, and those connections prove invaluable toward transforming a reasonably conventional suspense thriller into something pretty special. That some of them are borne out of completely pedestrian moments — one character helping his son with his homework, another reaching for his inhaler during an asthma attack — speak to the game’s striking attention to detail.

The connection between player and characters appears to be “Rain’s” primary objective, and the game goes to unconventional gameplay lengths to fulfill its mission. The camera perspective harkens back to “Resident Evil’s” formative years, and “Rain’s” walking controls — hold R2 to walk and use only the left stick to control all movement — fall similarly in line. It’s initially jarring and, in certain tight spaces, clumsy.

But in the context of everything else, it also makes sense. “Rain” uses the rest of the controller for a myriad of small, context-sensitive movements — a measured pull on the right stick to sip coffee without spilling, a quick twirl to open an envelope, a tilt of the controller to yank the steering wheel during a skid down the highway, timed alternate presses of L1 and R1 to straighten out a character’s left and right feet while he climbs a slippery mud hill.

“Rain” handles the majority of these actions through time-sensitive onscreen prompts, which on paper sounds like a nightmare to gamers already fed up with developers’ overuse of the technique.

But where most games seem to spit out random prompts without any rhythm, “Rain” maps them so thoughtfully as to change the entire tenor of the mechanic. The input choices make actual sense, and “Rain” uses numerous techniques with regard to combinations, timing and speed of execution to match the situation on the screen. The attention to detail, once again, makes all the difference.

These scenarios have additional significance because, unlike almost every game ever, “Rain” only flashes a “Game Over” screen when the story ends. Failed challenges and foolish decisions with regard to the story’s many moral and dialogue choices can kill a playable character, and if a character dies, the story still continues.

“Rain’s” four characters face some 20 or so combined fates that can lead to dramatically different stories for different players, and it often isn’t the obvious decisions and scenarios that can take the storyline down a completely different road. Dare we say it again? Attention to small details sometimes makes all the difference, and that’s true of the player as well as the game.


MLB 2K10
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii, Playstation 2, Windows PC, Sony PSP and Nintendo DS
From: Visual Concepts/2K Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone

It’s usually a pretty funny sight when a major league pitcher completely fouls up and accidentally launches a pitch six feet over the catcher’s head.

But Visual Concepts seems to think it’s downright hilarious, because it happens more times in one game of “MLB 2K10” than it likely will throughout the entire 2010 season.

To be fair, “2K10’s” pitching controls, which use right-joystick gestures to control the speed and movement of each pitch, are considerably more user-friendly than “2K9’s” system. Conceivably, it’s also more fun to pitch this way than by hitting buttons and navigating meters.

But just like in “2K9,” the margin for error is absurdly fickle. Miss the gesture by a tick, and even a fastball sails out of the strike zone. Miss it by two ticks, and it flies wildly over the catcher’s head. The degree between a lights-out pitch and a wild pitch is unrealistically small, and players who lack surgeon hands are bound to pay unfairly because of it.

The continued problems with pitching underscore the story of “2K10” as a whole. It’s better than its broken predecessor and has some nice overdue features — most notably the My Player mode, which apes Sony’s MLB game by allowing players to experience a professional career from a single player’s perspective. But too much sloppiness carries over to call this a return to the series’ better days, and because those new features don’t fix the regressions the series has endured over time, they feel the same effects.

The best news about “2K9” is that the aggravating (and occasionally hilarious) bugs that often changed a game — disappearing outfielders, fielders catching balls with their face, baserunners running to who knows where — appear squashed.

But numerous weird instances remain — including, for instance, baserunners’ bizarre propensity to slide into first far too often. Occasionally, the runner gets up and inexplicably rounds first without getting tagged out even though the first baseman has the ball. Once in a while, he’ll slide into first before circling the bases after hitting a home run.

Strange occurrences like these don’t cripple “2K10’s” gameplay so much as damage the illusion, but when something so instantly and continually out of place in “2K9” shows up yet again in “2K10,” it speaks either to the developers’ disinterest in refinement or its inability to understand its subject matter. That, in turn, kills hope that real problems — including A.I. pitchers picking off would-be stealers with psychic accuracy and the aforementioned wild pitch bonanza — will ever get a patch.

Per tradition, “2K10” allows players to adjust difficulty sliders to somewhat mitigate these problems, but players who do so also lose access to all unlockable achievements, trophies and virtual baseball cards — as if “2K10” is punishing players who just want to take extra steps to enjoy their $60 purchase rather than fight it.

As always, those who play with friends or online will benefit the most, if only because both teams have the same issues to overcome. Questionable gameplay aside, “2K10” at least delivers in terms of features, with full-featured online leagues and the fun highlight reel editing and sharing tool back for another season.


Borderlands: The Secret Armory of General Knoxx
For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Windows PC
Requires: Borderlands
From: Gearbox Software/2K Games
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, mature humor, strong language)
Price: $10

A lot of people weren’t thrilled with the second “Borderlands” downloadable pack, which felt more like a self-contained (and oppressively difficult) extra mode than a seamless extension of the game world. For those folks and everyone else who loves that world, this latest pack is more like it. “The Secret Armory Of General Knoxx” introduces a huge new plot of frontier to explore, and with that comes new instances of everything — guns, vehicles, enemies (hello giant mechs), main/side missions, weird characters, dark humor — that make the main game great. The level cap receives an overdue boost, from 50 to 61, and with that comes new privileges with regard to abilities and rare weapon types. All the rewards naturally carry back into the rest of the game, and per “Borderlands” tradition, Gearbox encourages multiple playthroughs by dialing up the difficulty and payoff the second time around. Just be sure to have your wits about you before digging in: Gearbox recommends players enter “Knoxx” at around level 35, which means beating the main game’s storyline first is advisable. “Knoxxx” won’t stop anyone who wishes to dive in sooner than that, but it also won’t scale down its difficulty to accommodate low-level characters, so consider this your fair warning if you’re feeling bold.

Games 1/5/10: Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers, Borderlands: Mad Moxxi's Underdome Riot, Piyo Blocks

Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers
For: Wii
From: Square Enix
ESRB Rating: Teen (alcohol reference, crude humor, fantasy violence, mild language, suggestive themes)

For better or worse — and a trip through this game provides ample evidence of both — “Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers” is trying to do exactly what Wii games should be doing in the system’s fourth year of existence. Whether the result is good or not — and again, the pendulum swings both ways — “Bearers” does things that are unique, weird and physically impossible on other hardware.

“Bearers” certainly gets off to a fun start — first, by tossing players into a free-falling shootout in the sky, and then by putting them at the literal wheel of a humungous airship for a chase sequence through tight canyon corridors. The convoluted storytelling aside — and per “Crystal Chronicles” tradition, the tale of good, evil and crystals is a potpourri of incomprehensible mythology and bad dialogue — it’s clear almost immediately that “Bearers” is going for a much more action-oriented bent than its series predecessors.

The game’s primary means of action also steps far outside traditional “Final Fantasy” bounds: Using a cursor-centric aiming system, players point the Wii remote at people and objects on the screen and then lift them into the air, Darth Vader-style, to move or toss them around. Anyone who played “Star Wars: The Force Unleashed” can grasp the combat and level-manipulation possibilities here, and while “Bearers'” control scheme and camerawork leave plenty to be desired, it nonetheless fulfills that promise.

The combination of this core mechanic, a sloppily passable story, “Final Fantasy” iconography and a consistent barrage of experimental diversions — from Chocobo races to a flawed but fun stealth challenge to a completely bizarre game involving girls, a beach and good balance — is enough to make “Bearers” fun when it works.

But “Bearers” often falls short, and when it does, it falls hard. Worse, the most offensive problems stem from lousy design decisions that would seem almost mandatorily avoidable in 2010.

Far and away the game’s biggest issue is the onscreen prompts it uses to instruct players on what to do during these one-off diversions. Too many of them are confusingly vague, while a few are cryptic to the point of misleading, throwing up meters without explanation and displaying controller animations that only barely resemble what a player is supposed to actually do. “Bearers” is generous with save checkpoints and many of these diversions are impossible to completely fail outright, but stumbling your way through a badly-designed challenge isn’t fun simply because it doesn’t halt your progress.

The problems are less acute during the main adventure, but they’re no aggravating. The opaque map and navigation system feel strikingly unfinished given Square-Enix’s experience with interface design in traditional “Final Fantasy” games, and getting lost or slogging from point to point is entirely too easy. That isn’t helped by the fact that during these slogs, there simply isn’t much to do. For every example of blinding ingenuity “Bearers” displays, there are two or three that feel perplexingly amateurish, and the ratio may prove too much for all but the most ardent and adventurous “Final Fantasy” fans to handle for very long.


Borderlands: Mad Moxxi’s Underdome Riot
For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Windows PC
Requires: Borderlands
From: Gearbox Software/2K Games
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, mature humor, strong language)
Price: $10

Though entirely enjoyable as a solo first-person shooter experience, “Borderlands” relies on a story, quest and inventory structure that’s best enjoyed with teammates (four players online, two locally) via cooperative play. Happily, players who want it both ways have the flexibility to play parts of the game alone and bring in friends on the fly without starting over as a new character.

Good thing, too, because whether you’ve played “Borderlands” alone, with friends or both up to this point, there’s pretty much no point in playing the “Mad Moxxi’s Underdome Riot” downloadable expansion without help.

As its name somewhat implies, “Riot” ditches the typical exploratory nature of “Borderlands'” quests in favor of post-apocalyptic arena combat: Moxxi is the host, and her “sport” consists of a survivor or four shooting their way out of a labyrinth that’s parts shanty town, stadium and game show studio. Moxxi emcees the action, and between her amusing taunts and the general gaudy design of the three arenas, “Riot” is a fantastic demonstration of the audiovisual spectacle that makes “Borderlands” so unique in spite of its bleak setting and genre.

Just don’t bask in the spectacle alone unless you really enjoy punishment.

“Riot” divides each match into five rounds, and those rounds split into five themed waves. Completing each wave consists of mowing down every enemy in the arena, and the reward for doing so is a brief supply drop of ammo and health. When all five waves of a round are wiped out, Moxxi drops a few items of actual value beneath the stage. Complete all 25 waves, and the match ends. Easy, right?

Not so much — and definitely not if you’re playing alone. Players who succumb to the enemy can continue to assist in the fight, but are confined to a penalty box until the next wave. If all players get sent to the box, gameplay halts and the round starts over from the first wave.

The task of conquering the harder waves and rounds is daunting enough, particularly when Moxxi alters the rules to remove gravity, nullify certain weapons useless or even strip away players’ shields. The challenge amplifies when fighting alone, and it’s made arguably unfair by the fact that if you get banished to the penalty box, the round automatically starts over by virtue of your having no teammates on the ground. Because “Riot” puzzlingly awards no experience points for killing enemies in the arena, it amounts to a lot of effort for no reward.

Though the continued emphasis on teamwork in “Borderlands” is admirable, it would’ve been nice, just this one time and only because the pool of “Borderlands” players has understandably shrunk since October, if Gearbox backed down a little and allowed solo players to enlist an A.I.-controlled teammate or two. “Riot” offers players a mountain of content and perhaps the stiffest challenge so far, but unless you make a pact with friends to take it on together, proceed with caution.


Piyo Blocks
For: iPhone/iPod Touch
From: Big Pixel Studios
iTunes Store Rating: 4+
Price: $2

Turnabout appears to be fair play to “Piyo Blocks,” which borrows some unmistakable design points from a game, “Zoo Keeper,” that itself was a pretty transparent knock-off of “Bejeweled.” If you’ve played “Bejeweled” — and pretty much everyone in the world has at this point — the core gameplay in “Blocks” offers little surprise: A grid of colored blocks fills the screen, and players switch two blocks to create as many rows of three or more as possible before time runs out. Creating rows clears the blocks and adds some time to the clock, and meeting certain quotas (as defined by “Blocks'” three separate modes) advances the action to new levels with trickier (albeit randomly-generated) starting patterns. Though it doesn’t have “Keeper’s” charming animal characters, “Blocks” still pretty faithfully mimics that game’s cheerful, intentionally blocky good looks. More importantly, it gets the basic mechanics of “Keeper’s” controls — including the ability to string combos together while the game clears other blocks away — down perfectly. For a game that costs less than a bag of chips, the level of polish, if not the originality of the concept, is most impressive. For good measure, Big Pixel includes support for the OpenFeint network, which provides online leaderboards, friends support, chat functionality and achievements.

Games 12/29/09: Where the Wild Things Are, Guitar Hero: Van Halen, LittleBigPlanet Pirates of the Caribbean Premium Level Kit

Where the Wild Things Are
Reviewed for: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Wii
Also available for: Nintendo DS
From: Griptonite Games/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (comic mischief, fantasy violence)

Invariably, once Christmas wraps and the annual holiday onslaught of megablockbusters eases up, there remain a few games that bear the scars of coming out at precisely the wrong time and being completely overlooked for doing so.

In 2009, that dubious distinction belongs to “Where the Wild Things Are,” a not-necessarily-for-kids’ game hopelessly tied to the release date of a not-necessarily-for-kids’ movie and subsequently overlooked for coming out smack in the middle of a tidal wave of bigger releases. A long history of lousy games based on kids’ movies, and the perception that creates for this game, didn’t help matters.

But “WTWTA” borrows heavily from the Playstation 2 classic “Ico” and, surprisingly, succeeds where other like-minded games failed. Players control Max, the mischievous little boy who washes up uninvited on the island of the Wild Things, and most of the game’s action consists of the same mix of light combat and ledge jumping, rock climbing, and environmental puzzles that “Ico” did so masterfully well. Max is easy to control, and the semi-fixed camera angle — also borrowed from “Ico” — presents each environment in a manner that’s intuitive without making traversing it a complete cakewalk. The Wild Things add a wrinkle to the challenges by lending a hand and further altering the landscape whenever they can.

As should be expected from a game based on a movie that itself is based on what practically is a picture book, “WTWTA’s” story isn’t exactly a narrative barnburner. But Griptonite makes good on with what it has to work with: The game looks pretty good and animates nicely, and the Wild Things emerge as really likable characters in spite of their secondary role throughout most of the game.

Like so many other family games, “WTWTA” pads the main story content by dropping various collectables in each level. Unlike as with most games, though, rounding them up is something a worthy pursuit. The game doesn’t overload the environments with hundreds of useless objects to round up, nor does it hide items in places players would never bother to look. There’s a challenge in finding everything, but it isn’t so obtuse as to be a waste of time, and finding them pays off in the form of rewards — some of them leading to fun new optional challenges — in the hub level that doubles as the Wild Things’ home base.

The sum of this content (there’s nothing to do beyond the single-player adventure) doesn’t quite justify the full price the game commanded back at launch, but a quick price drop means finding “WTWTA” brand-new for upwards of $20 less already is a feasible proposition. At that price, it’s hard not to recommend it: Younger players will appreciate a game made for them that doesn’t insult their gaming intelligence, and their parents — or really, anyone in need of an “Ico”-style fix — might come away surprised by just how much this innocuous piece of tie-in merchandising gets right.


Guitar Hero: Van Halen
For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Wii and Playstation 2
From: Neversoft/Activision
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild lyrics, mild suggestive themes)

“Guitar Hero’s” previous single-band releases, devoted to Aerosmith and Metallica, were already of questionable quality before “Rock Band” kicked the bar out of the atmosphere with “The Beatles: Rock Band.”

Though a perfectly tenable game for reasons to be detailed later, “Guitar Hero: Van Halen” doesn’t brighten the picture. Depending on your opinion of Val Halen’s present-day relevance and your tolerance for “Guitar Hero” releases in the span of a single year, it might even constitute a leap backward.

Per convention, Van Halen’s visual fingerprints are all over the box and interface, and the band’s likenesses come to life in typical semi-cartoony fashion. This time, though, politics and squabbling have left former bassist Michael Anthony and former lead singers Sammy Hagar and Gary Cherone off the bill. Consequently, none of the band’s Hagar- and Cherone-fronted catalog appears, either. Whether the loss of that music and iconography is a big deal will vary from fan to fan, but there’s no arguing it doesn’t splinter whatever hope “GH:VH” had for documenting its subject matter the way “Beatles” did.

Then again, Neversoft’s inability to learn from “Beatles” — or the failings of its own single-band games — torpedoed that hope without the band’s help.

“GH:VH’s” 47-song track list is, like those other games, significantly smaller than the numbered (but same-priced) “Guitar Hero” game. Bbut the real issue comes from 19 of those songs being either Eddie Van Halen guitar solos or the product of bands other than Van Halen. The game claims the other music has some stylistic connection to Van Halen’s music, but one look at the track list (Fountains of Wayne? Third Eye Blind? Weezer?) suggests otherwise. Whatever effort would have been necessary to kiss and make up with Hagar, if not everyone from Van Halen’s past, would more than have been worth it if it resulted in a coherent, complete tribute to the band’s catalog. This, by contrast, feels like a track pack tucked inside a full-priced game with some extra filler to justify the price.

On that note, it comes down to whether the tracks, which would cost nearly $80 if totaled up as downloadable content for “Guitar Hero 5,” justify the purchase. “GH:VH” at least does things — namely, a new career mode and a new suite of achievements/trophies in the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 versions — a track pack alone cannot.

But do you want to buy something Activision seems reluctant to sell? The company gave the game away to anyone who purchased “GH5” earlier in the year, and it waited two months to sneak it onto shelves after most people’s holiday shopping had concluded. Pushing the game out the door at full price after previously giving it away seems like a move made for the half-hearted heck of it, which seems to have been “GH:VH’s” artistic approach as well. Watching a publisher practically wash its hand of a product doesn’t affect the quality of the product itself, but it’s hard to get excited about a game when the people who made it seem not to care.


LittleBigPlanet: Pirates of the Caribbean Premium Level Kit
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
Requires: LittleBigPlanet
From: Media Molecule/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief, mild cartoon violence)
Price: $6

Media Molecule has made more than good on its promise to consistently support “LittleBigPlanet” long after its late 2008 release, so the appearance of a “Pirates of the Caribbean” level kit would superficially seem no more interesting than the numerous other costumes and packs that preceded it. But with this level kit comes a new element — water — whose significance needs no real  explanation for those already familiar with “LittleBigPlanet’s” modus operandi as a physics-heavy 2D platformer. And beyond the clumsy introduction — the Playstation Store’s description of the pack doesn’t even mention water, much less its significance — the new content works just as one would hope it would. Media Molecule’s attention to physics detail has gone a long way toward establishing “LittleBigPlanet’s” identity, and its year-in-the-making take on water enjoys the same level of care. Implementing it in new and existing level designs is as easy as adding any other ingredient via the game’s level creation tool, and the tool’s extreme flexibility allows players to utilize and control water in a multitude of imaginative ways. That, in turn, gives a game with near-endless legs even more staying power going into 2010. Not bad for six dollars. (For those who care, the rest of the pack, which includes “Caribbean” character costumes, five new single-player levels, new PSN trophies and new music/objects/stickers/materials with which to further modify levels, is pretty hearty as well.)