Pokédemon

The culprit: Castlevania: Curse of Darkness (PlayStation 2)

Enter the heroMy feelings about Curse of Darkness are a rather mixed bag. Its predecessor had it easier. As the first Castlevania game chronologically and a valiant attempt to reinvent the series in 3D after the lacklustre efforts on the Nintendo 64, Lament of Innocence could get away with being formulaic in a series that pretty much epitomises the word. Curse of Darkness doesn’t have that luxury: it’s third in line chronologically, and the 3D novelty doesn’t work anymore. And while it does try to mix things up a little and ends up being more than a little quirky, the effort feels distinctly half-baked. As if the developers were mostly going through the motions, rather than genuinely trying to produce something new and interesting. But then, ‘new and interesting’ tends to be too much to expect from most long-running game series.

Curse of Darkness is set three years after Dracula’s Curse on the NES, in which Dracula–formerly Mathias Cronqvist, as people who have played LoI will know–was defeated by Trevor Belmont, a descendant of Mathias’ friend, Leon Belmont. However, before he died, Dracula cursed the land, resulting in a recrudescence of monsters and general proclivity for conflict among the people.

Dramatic posingThe first thing worth noting is that the main protagonist is not a Belmont, although this has happened before (e.g. Alucard, Soma Cruz) and will happen again in later games. Trevor does make an appearance, but he’s not the main focus. Thus, the player is put in control of Hector, a former Devil Forgemaster of Dracula’s. During the events of Dracula’s Curse, Hector was sent to confront Trevor, but used the opportunity to escape, as he couldn’t tolerate Dracula’s evil any longer. Dracula was defeated, and Hector tried to live a quiet life. However, another Devil Forgemaster, called Isaac (who clearly thinks he’s too sexy for his shirt), was jealous of Hector’s status as Dracula’s favourite and wanted revenge for his betrayal. He kept tabs on him and orchestrated a plot that got Hector’s wife executed for witchcraft in order to draw him out. Isaac’s other goal is to resurrect Dracula, which is why Trevor eventually gets involved as well.

Yes, reallyThe more atypical characteristic of the game is the environment. The main focus of most Castlevania games is the actual Castlevania, i.e. Dracula’s Castle, which tends to be the setting for most, if not all, of the story. Here, Castlevania doesn’t even exist for most of the game. Thus, Hector spends most of his time in the Wallachian (N.B. a region in Romania) countryside, traversing forests, mountains, temples and even a town (although it’s deserted). Before you get all enthusiastic, though, the difference isn’t really blatant. The colour palette is generally a variation on ‘drab’, and the level designers don’t seem to have mastered much beyond corridors. Thankfully, transportation is somewhat facilitated by Memorial Tickets, which will take Hector to the last Save Room he used (marked in red on maps), or handy teleporter…chairs. Actually, saving is also achieved via chairs. In fact, chairs are a recurring joke theme in this game. Each area in the game features several seating items (often in hidden locations) that Hector can plonk his rear on, which are then collected in a completely surreal secret room.

"Ziggy played guitar"Another prominent difference lies in combat, which is one of the main points of interest in the game. As he is not a Belmont, Hector doesn’t have access to their trademark whip weapon. He is, however, a Forgemaster, meaning that he can use a whole plethora of other stuff, including swords, spears, axes, knuckles, and some joke weapons such as a nail bat, a frying pan or even an electric guitar (and yes, he actually plays it to attack…). Every weapon has its own set of attack combos. Hector’s equipment also includes the more traditional helmets, armour and accessories. Most of this can be crafted from items, which can be dropped or stolen (once Hector learns the skill) from enemies.

"Bring meee tooo life"Weapons are not Hector’s main speciality, however. As a Devil Forgemaster, he has, first and foremost, the ability to create Innocent Devils (IDs). If you’re wondering about the name, the explanation is that, while they are dark beings, they have no inherent moral compass and simply serve their creator with utmost loyalty. Certain areas in the game contain forges: small rooms where Hector can unlock a new type of ID, which he can then name and summon to accompany him. Familiars have been used in other games in the series, but this is their most involved and detailed iteration. There are six types of IDs: fairies, melee, birds, mages, actual devils and, making a comeback from LoI, pumpkins. They all boost Hector’s stats in some way, and every type has a speciality. Fairies can heal and open locks; melee-types can smash walls and floors; birds can carry Hector over chasms; mages can stop time and burn vines; devils can hide Hector underground (to pass under obstructions); and pumpkins, while worthless in combat, give him the heftiest stat boosts.

Unleash the dragonIDs fight alongside Hector, and you can either control them manually or let the A.I. handle it. Some can even chain attacks with Hector when an onscreen prompt appears. IDs level up from combat, just as Hector does, gradually learning new abilities and extending their Heart Meter. This not only serves as their HP, but also depletes a little whenever they use a special move, thus making them the equivalent of sub-weapons in other Castlevanias. Hearts can be found by smashing candles, dropped by enemies or regained by performing a Perfect Guard (i.e. guarding right before the enemy attacks), once Hector learns the ability.

How to grow your pumpkinWhen first unlocked, each ID appears in a default form, and each type has several different evolution paths to choose from, except the devil-type, which only has one, and the pumpkin, whose evolutions are purely cosmetic. When Hector fights alongside an ID, enemies drop different coloured Evolution Crystals, depending on the weapon Hector kills them with. Once you pick up a certain item, you’ll be able to consult each ID’s evolution Fuzzballchart in the menu, showing how many crystals are needed for each form, and what that form’s stats are. Some are more useful than others, and some look decidedly goofy, considering the general atmosphere of the game. E.g. all of the pumpkins; the Proboscis Fairy, with its fake nose and moustache; or the adorably cuddly Iytei (probably a misspelling of “yeti”), which even features in a boss battle, as Isaac has one too.

BenignIDs will also sometimes drop Devil Shards, which allow Hector to create another ID of the same type, but with improved stats. These increase with every generation, so it might make sense to go through several iterations before settling on your favourite. Early on in the game, Hector will encounter Julia, a witch who has escaped persecution by living in isolation in the mountains and looks uncannily like his deceased wife. I’m sure you can guess where this is headed. What I’m not sure of is why in the world the “she looks like my dead wife” trope is considered as a good basis for a budding relationship. Anyway, Julia offers to help Hector defeat Isaac: he can buy items in her shop, but she will also store his surplus IDs for him, and he can swap them at will by visiting the shop using Magical Tickets (another Castlevania staple). This makes it possible to have several evolutions of one ID type available, which can be a definite plus (e.g. with Fairies).

"Fly me to the moon"Other elements in the game are more typical. There’s an optional dungeon, accessible with a bird-type ID, called the Tower of Evermore, which consists of a series of 50 identical, enemy-filled rooms (wahey), and an optional superboss, accessible with a devil-type ID. Once you finish your first playthrough, there’s a Boss Rush mode and a Crazy mode, to increase the difficulty. You can also replay the game with Trevor, who can use whips and sub-weapons (instead of IDs), and collect stat bonuses instead of EXP, but can’t access Julia’s shop or store consumables. And last but not least, Michiru Yamane’s and Yuka Watanabe’s soundtrack is still one of the game’s main attractions, even though I found it to be somewhat less memorable than in LoI. The highlights are the darkly blazing “Abandoned Castle – The Curse of Darkness”; the groovy “Balhjet Mountains”; the ominously lilting “Garibaldi Courtyard”, complete with tolling bells; or the surprising “Mortvia Fountain”, with its salsa-like rhythms.

Cannot...unsee...To sum things up, this is a rather uneven effort. It’s fun enough while you’re plugging away at it, but rather forgettable when all is said and done. None of the characters manage to rise above the generic, the dialogue and plot are as exciting as stale bread, Isaac should REALLY put some clothes on, the Saint-Germain character feels out-of-place, the attempts at humour are rather jarring, and the level design is, to put it bluntly, boring. On the other hand, the music is great, and raising Innocent Devils is quite entertaining, adding a distinct “gotta catch ‘em all” vibe to it all. Then again, this is supposed to be Castlevania, not Pokémon.

Three is a crowd

The culprit: Fatal Frame 3/Project Zero 3: The Tormented (PlayStation 2)

She that remainsThe Rule of Three is all well and good, but it doesn’t always work. It’s also very rare that all three parts in a trilogy are of equal quality, and while the Fatal Frame series ultimately continued to a fourth and a fifth instalment, The Tormented is the tail end of a trilogy, in more ways than one. It’s still a fine piece of horror. In fact, on its own merits, it’s probably better than many horror games out there. But by comparison with its predecessors and even with its immediate successor, I felt that something was missing.

IndelibleFirst of all, the formulaic bent of the series is starting to take its toll: heroine explores sprawling locale haunted, among others, by a powerful female ghost after a gruesome ancient ritual gone horribly wrong, with a camera that has the ability to harm spirits. You still feel isolated and vulnerable, the sound effects get under your skin, the atmosphere is thoroughly creepy and disturbing, with a special mention for the the Stained Corridor, the “Under the Floor” section (…oh god) and the Flickering Hallway, as well as ghosts such as the Crawling Woman, the Engravers and Woman Brushing. However, at this point, the ratio of gruesome Shinto rituals prone to horrific failure is really starting to pile up, straining the player’s suspension of disbelief.

Doomed trioAnother formulaic element: the first game featured one protagonist, the second game two. You guessed it, The Tormented has three…and, in a flight of Dickensian fancy, they’re all related, which further undermines the suspension of disbelief. The main heroine is Rei (at least her name doesn’t start with an M like in the first two games), a 23-year-old photographer, disconsolate and guilt-stricken after losing her boyfriend, Yuu, in a car accident where she was at the wheel. Working as her assistant is Miku from the first game, now 19, and still feeling guilty over her brother’s demise. Starting to see a pattern here? The third protagonist is a novelty, as he is, uncharacteristically for the series, male. Kei is a 26-year-old writer, friend of Yuu and uncle to–surprise, surprise–Mio and Mayu from the second game, meaning that he’s also got a guilt-stricken niece on his hands. Since the series subscribes to the belief that women are naturally more sensitive to the supernatural, Kei is significantly less adept at the whole ghostbusting thing than either of his female co-stars. But hey, credit where it’s due: at least he’s there, and he’s trying.

Silent snowThe single biggest flaw of the game, in my eyes, is the sloppiness of its narrative: it tries to do too much at once. Not only do you have three intertwining storylines, but the means of their intertwining is weak at best. Basically, there’s an urban legend that states that, if a person faces unbearable guilt and/or longing for a dead loved one, they eventually have vivid dreams of a manor, which gradually become more absorbing, the person spending more and more time asleep, until they can’t wake up anymore. Additionally, their body becomes gradually covered by a peculiar tattoo. Then one day, they simply vanish, leaving behind a dark, person-shaped stain. As you can guess, this starts to affect all three protagonists, although, in Kei’s case, it’s more by proxy, since Mio is already in the advanced stages of this affliction, and he’s simply trying to help her. Which isn’t quite playing by the rules, but you could say he feels guilty for her predicament.

Shadowy menaceThis phenomenon is based on an ancient ritual, but its circumstances are so vague that it almost feels like an unnecessary addition rather than the driving force behind the game. You’re never even sure when or where it took place. And where the physical details of the rituals in the first two games were at least plausible, this one…nope. I mean, sealing a shrine in a dream? Tattoos in someone’s eyes?! There’s also something about the main villain’s anatomy that really bothers me…you’ll probably see what I mean.

Mirror, mirror on the wallThe Manor of Sleep is also a rather inchoate construct: while it has a basis in reality–the house that Rei and Miku visit at the beginning of the game–and its ‘core’ inside the dreams is the same for anyone who ‘visits’ it, it also recreates locales from each dreamer’s memory. For instance, when you’re in control of Miku, some rooms from the Himuro Mansion will appear, while when you’re in control of Kei, places from Minakami Village will pop up…even though Mio and Mayu are the ones that have been there, not him. The end result is that the game spends too much time rehashing the past and not enough time establishing its own identity, which is a glaring weakness. To add to the choppiness of the exposition, some scenes take place in the ‘real’ world, inside Rei’s apartment…which also inexplicably becomes haunted over time. Ever played Silent Hill 4: The Room? Yep, just like that. Although this does result in a shower scene that would put Psycho to shame.

Working girlSeveral gameplay features also make a comeback from the previous instalments. There are different difficulty settings, an alternate ending which becomes available after the first playthrough and a Mission Mode, which pits the characters against various combinations of ghosts. Each playthrough is graded at the end of the game, and you can use the accumulated points to purchase various goodies for subsequent playthroughs, such as additional lenses or costumes for the characters, although you first have to meet certain conditions (e.g. completing the Mission Mode with a certain grade) before they become available. Then there’s also the pause screen: just leave it on for a while for some…interesting results.

Snooping aroundGameplay and combat also remain basically the same, albeit with certain additions, some more successful than others. Whenever Rei falls asleep, either she or Miku or Kei will appear in the Manor (yes, this doesn’t make much sense). The goal is to explore, solve puzzles, and pick up notes and recordings. Rei can listen to these on her cassette player once she wakes up. She can also develop pictures she takes in the ‘real’ world and hand them to Miku for research purposes. At any point during a dream, you can choose to make Rei/Miku/Kei ‘wake up’ by exiting the Manor, if you find yourself running out of supplies. This will restore the character’s starting stock of camera film and respawn certain items, like Herbal Medicine or Purifying Candles (another SH4 callback). These are possibly the most annoying addition to the game: once you start finding them, they effectively put a timer on your explorations. Without a candle, the screen turns grey, and your character is not only more prone to ghost attacks, but the main villain (invincible at that point in the game; yet another recurrent situation in the series) also starts pursuing them until they either exit the dream or find another candle.

Deceptively safeGhosts still come in three flavours: hidden ghosts, whose presence is only signalled by the filament/capture circle of the camera turning blue; vanishing ghosts, which only appear for a short time; and hostile ghosts, which can appear randomly just about anywhere in the manor. This can happen even in a room with a save point, which is designated by a blue lantern and will become inactive if this occurs. A word of warning: there are several very difficult vanishing ghosts this time around, especially at the beginning of the game, before you reach the first save point, which means restarting if you fail to capture them…Of course, you could simply move on, but these pictures are worth quite a lot of points, which serve to upgrade the characters’ cameras.

I don't think he's swatting fliesYes, plural: in addition to having slightly different abilities, each character has a different camera. You can upgrade their basic functions (e.g. range or power), their lenses, which cost a different amount of spirit points to use (obtained from letting the camera charge up while aiming at a ghost) or their special abilities. Since there are three cameras, though, this means accumulating a LOT of points. Rei’s camera is the most balanced one, as she’s the main heroine and the one with the most screentime. Kei’s is the worst and notably doesn’t have a special ability (instead, however, he can move heavy objects and hide from ghosts). Miku can’t use lenses, but, being the most spiritually attuned of the three, she has two special abilities and a massive damage potential, in addition to being small enough to fit into crawlspaces. On top of all these camera upgrades, you will also find several add-ons that will automatically grant them new functions, such as Measure, which displays a ghost’s HP.

Shoot her now!Combat happens by aiming at a ghost with the capture circle and letting the shot charge up (c.f. the symbols around the circle) for maximum power. Film functions as ammo, and higher grades of film deal more damage, but are also rarer. You also get more points for well-framed or close-up shots, as well as shots of multiple ghosts. When the capture circle turns red, you have a “Shutter Chance”, which inflicts more damage (Rei’s special ability, Flash, helps to trigger this). If you wait until the ghost is about to attack (the Alarm function helps), you may hit the infamous “Fatal Frame”, which not only deals extra damage, but also pushes the ghost backwards and leaves it open for combos: just take another photo when the screen flashes again, and you can keep going until the ghost is defeated or out of range.

DisorientedFrankly, combat is probably the most satisfying aspect of this game, which isn’t much of a compliment, because the series’ main appeal for me, up to this point, was the effectiveness of its setting and atmosphere. The old formula still works, to an extent, but it’s starting to wear at the seams, and the haphazard lore-building genuinely hurts the game. I guess the idea was to create a cohesive whole with the previous games and bring them all to a conclusion, but this robs The Tormented of its own identity. Rei’s story had potential as a standalone, but diluting it with the other two significantly weakens it, leaving it no room to spread its wings. The result is disappointment.

Unforgotten, unforgiven

The culprit: Myst III: Exile (PC, Mac, Xbox, PlayStation 2)

After Riven, the Myst series changed hands, with both a different developer and a different publisher (Ubisoft), and Myst III: Exile went back to its roots. Instead of one very large age and two tiny ones, there is now a hub age and five smaller ones connected to it. Moreover, after the Gehn parenthesis, the story returns to its root villains, Sirrus and Achenar, or rather, the direct consequences of their actions in the first game.

Curious architectureThe problem is that changing developers is always risky. Some people were disappointed with the return to a Myst-like exploration scheme, after the evolution effected in Riven, but as this kind of hub-based exploration has since become the staple for the series, it’s Riven that now stands as an exception. Of course, this is largely what makes it the best game in the series, in my eyes, but no matter. The other controversial change is a more…‘gamey’ approach to things, for lack of a better term. Many felt that the puzzles were less integrated into their environment than they previously were, and that the game was overly intrusive in pointing certain things out. While that may be true in comparison to Riven, which has been criticised for being overly subtle, I don’t feel it’s accurate in comparison to, say, Myst. In fact, considering the in-game reason why the ages in Myst III were created, I feel that the puzzle presentation makes complete sense. I also feel that it justifies the ‘reward rides’ which conclude three of the ages. Another noticeable change lies in the soundtrack. Robyn Miller, who was responsible for the music in the first two games, left the team after Riven and was replaced by a certain Jack Wall, who has since achieved fame by working on the Mass Effect series, Call of Duty or Splinter CellMyst III was his breakthrough, and its soundtrack is therefore a lot more dramatic, elaborate and noticeable, which may have been jarring for some. I can certainly see where they’re coming from, but some of the tracks are very good.

The end result is that Myst III wasn’t as commercially successful as its predecessors, which I don’t feel is entirely fair. I genuinely enjoyed the game: it’s my second favourite in the series, and I would even rate it above the original Myst. It notably features my favourite age of all, Amateria. Graphical improvements are apparent, which, in a game so heavily dependent on outstanding visuals to create its worlds, can only be a good thing. While the point-and-click movement scheme of the preceding games is retained, the ‘slideshow’ look isn’t. Instead, you now have a 360° (or almost) camera, which allows for unbroken perspective at every in-game node; some people have termed this ‘bubblevision’. And last, but not least, the game benefits from a solid storyline and a fantastic, ambivalent villain. In short, I can only recommend it.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

Snakes for breakfast, frogs for lunch

The culprit: Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)

Ahh, my favourite MGS game. Which may be odd, since it features several noteworthy differences from the rest of the series: a) it’s mostly set outdoors in a jungle, b) it doesn’t involve Metal Gear as a final opponent, and c) it includes some gameplay elements that are either new or haven’t been reused since. Heck, it doesn’t even feature Solid Snake.

"Badass" is his middle nameLet me qualify that last statement: it doesn’t feature Solid Snake in name only. The protagonist is Naked Snake (…no comment), who will later become known as Big Boss, arch-nemesis and biological ‘father’ of Solid (and Liquid and Solidus). If you’ve played the first two games, you’ll know that they’re not so much his children as his clones, so essentially, you’re controlling a character who looks and sounds exactly like Solid Snake, and behaves pretty much like him too. And everyone calls him Snake anyway.

The main opponent is not Metal Gear simply because it hadn’t been invented at the time. Its predecessor is involved, though, bearing the much more pedestrian name of The woman in chargeShagohod (literally “which moves by walking” in Russian). The game is set in Cold War USSR and involves Snake’s former mentor–known as The Boss–defecting to the Soviets, while he has to prevent a nuclear incident from escalating into outright war and rescue a Soviet scientist who had defected to the US but was subsequently used as a bargaining chip to defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis. This setting serves to increase the series’ similarity to a Bond film. This is further enhanced by the inclusion of a hammy, Bondesque theme song with hilariously preposterous lyrics like “someday you go through the rain, and someday you dine on a tree frog”.

This brings us to the main gameplay mechanic and the reason behind the game’s title. Since Snake gets dumped in the wilderness with nothing but the clothes on his back and his gun, he has to rely on the local flora and fauna to survive. In addition to his Life Gourmet menumeter, he has a Stamina meter, which gradually depletes and affects his aim accuracy, among other things. The only way to recover Stamina is to find some grub. However, to complicate matters, not all foodstuffs have the same nutritional value. Some are downright poisonous (this, however, can be used against enemies), some Snake just doesn’t like the taste of and therefore won’t recover much Stamina from (but he can get used to the taste over time and even grow to like it), and some require skill to catch (cf. Gavials or the elusive LegendaryTsuchinoko). Other foodstuffs, like the False Mango, have medicinal properties, and the Russian Glow Cap mushroom can even recharge batteries…which makes you wonder whether those nukes in the Shagohod aren’t leaking or something. One thing to take into consideration, however, is the fact that, although Snake can catch up to three live animals, he has no way of actually preserving food, meaning that it will spoil after a while (signalled by flies appearing on its menu icon). Specifically, as the game has an internal clock, if you quit and come back to that save later, you’ll be guaranteed to find every non-industrial food item spoiled. And while I must applaud the game’s realism, it can become aggravating to constantly renew your food supplies.

Instant diagnosisI mentioned medicinal properties, and this is another feature specific to the game: Snake can get seriously wounded (eg. break a bone) or poisoned, which will affect his Life meter until treated. Each type of injury requires a specific treatment routine (eg. disinfecting or suturing). Again, bonus points for realism, but it does mean that you have to keep an eye on your medical supplies.

UnsuspectingOther than this, the controls are very similar to previous games, so you won’t have any difficulties if you’re a veteran of the series. One difference is the absence of a radar, due to the fact that the game is set in the ‘60s. Instead, you can use a motion detector system, which basically performs the same function. However, the stealth element has received a significant upgrade with the addition of camouflage. Snake can change his outfit and even his face paint to blend in with his surroundings. These are indicated atBricked the top right of the screen, alongside a camouflage percentage. Obviously, the higher the better, and crouching or lying down will increase the percentage further. You can find new outfits and face paints as you progress, and picking the right one in any given situation is a definite tactical plus. Although you do have to wonder where exactly he stows all those outfits (in particular, the crocodile cap…).

Femme fataleAs far as characters are concerned, the game fares a lot better than its immediate predecessor. For starters, you’ve got EVA, who acts as a competent sidekick for Snake, even though her status as the game’s official ‘femme fatale’ wouldn’t have been diminished if she’d zipped up her overalls at least a little bit more. The villain department can also stand proud. The Boss is a strong, charismatic presence throughout the game, miles ahead of anything Solidus Snake could ever hope to achieve. Unfortunately, the game ends up contriving a completely ludicrous reason (that is NOT how a caeserean works) for her to flash some cleavage as well during Snake’s inevitable confrontation with her. It’s a dent to her credibility, but as it occurs through no actual fault of her character, I just try to ignore it.

Moreover, not only does a young Revolver Ocelot make an appearance (although he’s rather annoying this time around), but the familiar group of sub-bosses is more memorable than the MGS2 ones. The Boss used to be part of a Soviet special forces squad, the Cobra Unit. Each member of the unit is named after a specific emotion which they associate with combat (eg. The Fury or The Pain) and has a characteristic way of fighting to go with it. Special mention Pretty sly for an old guygoes to The End, the extremely old sniper, whose boss battle involves Snake trying to sneak up on him over three separate areas. This is rendered more difficult by the fact that he’s an expert at camouflage, can recover stamina from sunlight, relocates every time Snake shoots him and has a parrot which acts as a spotter. However, the game’s internal clock can be used to humorous advantage here. If you save during the battle and come back to the game after a week, The End will have died of old age.

Each MGS game has its own theme: the first one revolved around genetics, the second around memetic engineering. Snake Eater deals with moral and cultural relativism. This is exemplified by the various defections throughout the game and drives home (with a baseball bat) the fact that different sides of a conflict result from different cultural backgrounds and circumstances, and that those circumstances can change. This is particularly relevant for Naked Snake himself, since he will be considered as a villain in later games. I found this to be a more compelling thematic than the two preceding ones, even though it’s unavoidably treated with the same overdramatic flair as anything in MGS. And, of course, silly humour still abounds. For instance, the Target practicecollectibles in this game no longer include the usual dog tags, but instead…toy frogs, named Kerotans, scattered in semi-hidden locations throughout the game. Shooting all of them (and there’s a handful of infuriatingly difficult ones towards the end) will grant you the Kerotan codename at the end of the game, as well as the Stealth camo (which makes Snake invisible) for subsequent replays.

I must, however, mention something which I found particularly grating. The game does a surprisingly good job with its Russian. Most of the place names are believable, and they’re even transcribed correctly on the loading screens 99% of the time. Even most of the character names are realistic. But then…the game throws the ludicrous “Adamska” at you during the final cutscene. And they were so close to getting it right…Oh, and one more thing: this game features the most incomprehensible caesarean ever. You’ll see what I mean.

No parleyBe that as it may, I must still commend Snake Eater. It delivers everything which makes MGS fun and does so in spades. It’s possible that the stronger Bond parallels made me enjoy it more, but whatever the reason, I had a blast playing this. Especially due to the fact that I’d seen the infamous “Crab Battle” video prior to starting.

In fact, if at all possible, try to get your hands on Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence, a remake released two years after the original and also the version included in the HD Collection. Not only does the game now include a free third person camera (invaluable), but also extra camo items. Additionally, a separate disc titled Persistence features various extras, such as a Boss Duel Mode, a Secret Theatre featuring Computers galorehumorous cutscenes, a silly minigame called Snake vs Monkey, but, more importantly, the first two games in the saga, Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, which were previously all but unavailable outside Japan. Honestly, they’re old games, and not really much to write home about, but if you’re interested in the origins of MGS, then this is for you. The disc also features Metal Gear Online, a multiplayer mode which has since become obsolete, so it can safely be disregarded. Finally, the European edition of Subsistence (and the limited US edition) includes a third disc titled Existence, which basically strings together all the game’s cutscenes, condensing it into something like a film format. For people who want an even more cinematic experience.

Erase and rewind

The culprit: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (PlayStation 2, GameCube, Xbox, GameBoy Advance, PlayStation 3, PC)

Having played and enjoyed the Assassin’s Creed games, I became curious about Prince of Persia. Ubisoft took over the series from the PS2 trilogy onwards, and I’d heard that it involved similar gameplay to AC. So I got my grubby mitts on its HD re-release for the PS3 and got cracking on The Sands of Time.

Defying the laws of gravityShocking as it may sound, the game’s protagonist is the nameless Prince of Persia. The namelessness is actually rather jarring and only becomes more so as the series progresses. I assume that this was a way to encourage player identification, but it’s just odd that no one ever calls him by name. That aside, it’s easy to see the link with AC. The Prince is an accomplished athlete, far more so than either Altaïr or Ezio. He has some rather spectacular stunts at his disposal, the most famous of which is probably the ‘wall run’. This exaggerated acrobatic prowess fits in with the series fairytale-like atmosphere. The game is even presented as a framed narrative: a tale being told by the Prince himself to an (at first) unknown recipient. Which, I must admit, is a rather clever device. If you ever get the Prince Don't leave me hanging!killed, the Game Over screen will be accompanied by a comment along the lines of “no, no, that’s not how it happened”, as if the narrator had had a sudden lapse of memory, or as if his interlocutor had tried to butt into the story. Similar comments accompany pausing or saving, thus integrating these actions into the narrative.

It's right over thereThe story begins as the Prince’s father, King Shahraman, allies himself with the traitorous Vizier of a small Indian kingdom. He helps Shahraman to sack the local Maharajah’s palace and retrieve the Sands of Time from his treasury. These supposedly confer immortality to whoever can control them (which is the Vizier’s goal, as he appears to be terminally ill), but turn all other living things into sand monsters. The Sands are contained within a giant hourglass and can be unlocked by means of a dagger, which also protects its user from the Sands’ corruptive power. Additionally, a staff and a medallion have the same effect. The former is in the possession of the Vizier, while the latter is worn by the Maharajah’s captured daughter, Farah. Prevented by the Prince from obtaining the coveted dagger, the Vizier tricks him into unleashing the Sands when the Persian army stops in the friendly kingdom of Azad. This partially destroys the palace of Azad and transforms all its inhabitants, except the Prince, Farah and the Vizier, who absconds with the hourglass to the top of the highest tower. The Prince must then make his way through the palace, solving puzzles, evading deadly traps and fighting sand creatures to get his revenge. Except that this also brings the dagger within the Vizier’s reach…

Just try it, punkThe dagger is the basis for the game’s combat and gameplay. It contains a small portion of the Sands, which allows its user to manipulate time, slowing it down, stopping it or rewinding it for a short period. All of this functions with the help of sand tanks and power tanks. Sand tanks are indicated by a string of circles at the top left of the screen, which become yellow when full. These are used for rewinding time (one tank per rewind), or for a special attack which freezes all enemies on the screen. This bad boy requires six sand tanks, but also six power tanks. These are indicated by crescent shapes next to the sand tanks and are used for all other time-related special attacks. Sand tanks and power tanks can be replenished either by absorbing sand from the enemies the Prince vanquishes or from sand fields, which look like small puffs of sand dotted around the palace. Each sand field fills all power tanks and all sand tanks, while Got sand?absorbing sand from an enemy fills one sand tank at a time. Once all tanks are full, it begins filling half a power tank at a time. Absorbing eight sand fields will create a new sand tank, while absorbing sand from 16 enemies will create a new power tank (although you can only have as many as you do sand tanks). Overall, this is a rather redundant and convoluted system, and subsequent games in the series wisely get rid of power tanks altogether.

Care for a drink?Other gameplay elements include fountains…or any body of water, really. You see, drinking water recovers the Prince’s health. A good steak would’ve made more sense to me, but what do I know? There are also several hidden areas (recognisable as corridors hung with draperies) which all lead the Prince to the same mysterious fountain, then inexplicably vanish. Drinking from that fountain increases his maximum health. Finally, there are also sand clouds, which enable the Prince to save, but also provide a sped-up flash-forward of his progression through the next area. And while these are accurate at first, they gradually become disturbingly less so, showing the Prince falling to his death and so on.

Leap-frogAs far as combat is concerned, the Prince fights with a sword in one hand (which he’ll be able to upgrade twice over the course of the game) and the dagger in the other. He can block enemy attacks and has several combos at his disposal. But by far the two most effective tactics are making him vault over enemies to stab them in the back, or propelling him from a wall to knock them over.

Invasive hairThe Prince is also eventually joined by Farah, as they would both like to do very nasty things to the Vizier, and the dynamic between them is one of the game’s stronger points. She’s a pretty little thing, and he’s not half bad himself, even allowing for the somewhat cartoonish graphics, but they’re both rather pig-headed, so expect belligerent attraction expressed through abundant bickering. That aside, Farah also provides assistance in various ways: not only will she help in combat with her bow, but she’s also skinny enough to fit through various cracks and holes which are inaccessible to the Prince, thereby helping in exploration as well. Although he’ll still spend a good deal of his time opening doors for her. You also need to make sure the enemies don’t swarm her, as, if she dies, it’s Game Over. Moreover, she’s entirely capable of accidentally nailing the Prince with an arrow if he stands in her way. The joys of a sidekick, I tell you.

The game has several other annoying aspects. First of all, there’s the Prince, who, to be entirely honest, is a bit of a jackass. He’s proud, rash, snobbish and more than a little whiny. The snobbishness wears off a bit, but the rest remains, so he’s not exactly You can leave your hat onthe most likeable hero ever. Also, he inexplicably ends the game topless. You’ll see him rip off a sleeve, then another, then the rest of his shirt (including his chest-guard) for seemingly no reason. Presumably, it’s because his clothes are torn, but surely, going bare-chested into combat is hardly going to help? Another drawback is repetitiveness. It’s not a very long game, but while the puzzle solving mostly keeps you on your feet, the combat does get rather old after a while. One other thing that irritated me considerably was the lack of subtitles. I don’t know what it is about the sound in this game, but it’s sometimes very difficult to hear what some of the characters are saying (the Vizier especially swallows a lot of his words), and there’s no way to remedy that except trying to fiddle with the background music volume. You’d think this could have been resolved in the HD remake, but apparently not.

Sandy princeStill, I found this to be an enjoyable, spirited romp. The graphics are colourful and stylish, Stuart Chatwood’s music has flair and a nice Middle-Eastern vibe (special mention goes to the ending credits song “Time Only Knows”), and overall, the game does an honourable job of what it sets out to do. What’s more, the ending provides a surprising little twist. Well, unless you’ve seen the film based on the game. Then you know what the twist is. But if you have to decide between the two, pick the game. It’s just better, Jake Gyllenhaal’s abs and Gemma Arterton’s curves be damned. Although Ben Kingsley does look remarkably like the Vizier.

Goth and cheese

The culprit: Castlevania: Lament of Innocence (PlayStation 2)

I’d never played a Castlevania game before, but I’d heard plenty about them, so I thought I’d see for myself what the fuss was about. Lament of Innocence being chronologically the first episode in the series, that’s where I decided to start. For those who are unfamiliar with it, it (mostly) chronicles a century-spanning feud between one family, the Belmonts, and none other than Dracula (it even integrates Bram Stoker’s novel into its chronology). The gist, then, is killing vampires. With whips. Go figure.

Full-on gothConsidering the subject matter, you may expect cheesiness. And you’d be right. As is fitting when dealing with vampires (*throws bricks at Twilight*), the games are steeped in gothic and baroque imagery, albeit with an anime twist. Expect looming castles filled with ominous statuary; rainy nights over dark forests; pale, virginal maidens who get abducted; demonic creatures and fiendish traps; hammy dialogue; long-limbed, sharp-featured virtuous heroes, and a (thankfully) non-sparkling Dracula waiting for them at the end. Although you have to wonder at the efficiency of it all…I mean, if Dracula keeps coming back, maybe they should take a hint and start using stakes instead of whips? Just saying.

Indy called, he wants his whip backBe that as it may, since Lament of Innocence deals with the origins of Dracula, he’s not actually the game’s main antagonist. That title goes to another vampire, rather ludicrously named Walter. Don’t know about you, but that says ‘dignified English butler’ rather than ‘bloodthirsty fiend’ to me. Anyway, the game takes place in 1094, and the hero is Leon Belmont, a blonde nobleman in a distinctly non-XIth century outfit, whose bride gets kidnapped by Jeeves. Obviously, he rushes to the rescue with help from an alchemist named Rinaldo who lives in a cabin near the vampire’s castle (read: he will be Leon’s go-to supplier throughout the game). It seems that Alfred gets a kick out of kidnapping brides and defeating the suitors who come to rescue them, and Rinaldo’s not exactly down with that.

Is that tomato juice?Leon is fairly reactive and easy to control, and the game guides you through a tutorial sequence at the beginning to get acquainted with his moves. He can run, jump, double-jump (i.e. gain an extra boost in midair) and latch onto things with the magical whip given to him by Rinaldo. The whip is also his main weapon, and he can upgrade it by facing three optional bosses. There are several combos he can perform with it, all of which are automatically learned and helpfully listed in the menu. He also has access to several sub-weapons, such as an axe or a vial of holy water, of which he can equip one at a time (you do have opportunities to swap them, however). Sub-weapons can be used to perform special attacks, but consume energy, measured in hearts. These are sometimes dropped by enemies, but can also be found by breaking Holy protection, bitchez!candle-stands. Sub-weapons can be further powered up by coloured orbs obtained after defeating the main storyline bosses, which lends a lot of variety to combat. Things tend to get a bit hairy when enemies attack in large groups, however, which isn’t helped by the fact that opening the menu in combat doesn’t pause the action and renders Leon unable to attack.

In terms of defence, Leon has a magical gauntlet, which can be used for guarding against attacks. Furthermore, if guarding against a special attack or performing a perfect guard (guarding at the last possible moment before an attack hits), Leon will recover MP. Unfortunately, this is the only way to do so, which can sometimes be aggravating. MP are used to power relics: various offensive or defensive magical objects (such as the Invincible Jar or the Crystal Skull) of which Leon can also only equip one at a time. A suit of armour and two accessories complete his outfit.

Apart from the engaging combat system, the game also does a good job in the setting department. Nestor’s castle is enormous. I mean, it’s the size of a town. The entrance lobby is a hub area, from which Leon can access various wings of the building. There Do vampires go to church?are seven in total, each with its own general thematic, atmosphere and overdramatically pompous name. For example, the House of Sacred Remains looks like a sprawling cathedral, the Anti-Soul Mysteries Lab is a fiery forge, and the Ghostly Theatre looks like you’ve stumbled backstage at the opera, while the Garden Forgotten by Time is an overgrown ruin and the Dark Palace of Waterfalls is just a poetic name for the sewers. These five areas are available from the beginning, and clearing each one will earn Leon one of the aforementioned coloured orbs, which will light up a corresponding globe in the lobby. Once all have been lit, he will gain access to the Pagoda of the Misty Moon, He could use a makeoverwhich looks nothing like a pagoda, but leads up to the final confrontation with Jenkins. The seventh area is the Prison of Eternal Torture, containing a very difficult optional boss, if you’re eager for a challenge and an extra coloured orb. Although it’s definitely not for the squeamish. There’s just one problem: the only indication as to the order in which to explore these areas is a hint on where to go first, but after that, you’re on your own. Which means that you could pick wisely…or wander into the Dark Palace of Waterfalls and tear your hair out. It doesn’t help that each area features a locked door which usually leads to a nifty item, but requires a key found in a different part of the castle. That means backtracking through respawning enemies, which can get distinctly tedious, due to the sheer size of the areas and the developers’ inordinate love for all things corridor-y. That being said, there are some ways to ease the pain. First of all, save points (situated in small rooms marked in red on the map) will always replenish Leon’s HP. Secondly, Magical Tickets will whisk him off to Rinaldo’s shop from anywhere within the castle, while Memorial Tickets will take him back to the latest save point he used. Thirdly, he can use coloured Marker Stones to signal points of interest on the map.

Floor websThe one indisputably successful aspect of this game is the music. Michiru Yamane’s score is simply fantastic, featuring beautiful, haunting melodies, such as the theme of the House of Sacred Remains (my personal favourite), with its slow buildup, the measured lilt of the Garden Forgotten by Time or the dramatic flair of the Ghostly Theatre. Even the more surprisingly rhythmical Anti-Soul Mysteries Lab works well with its environment. This is a great bonus for the game’s atmosphere, almost counterbalancing all the backtracking, and possibly what I enjoyed the most about it.

Girdle of smokeThe game also makes an effort in the replayability sector. Once Leon is done showing Poole who’s boss–notably lambasting him with a ham of epic proportions (“I’ll defeat you AND the night!”)–you have several new options. You can play in Crazy mode, which will significantly raise the difficulty level. You can also play the Boss Rush mode, which strings all the game’s bosses together back-to-back, provided you’ve beaten them in the course of the storyline (this includes all optional bosses). You can start a new game with all of Leon’s skills learned, or, more interestingly, with a different protagonist. The first one available is Joachim, a vampire whom you may remember as a boss. He has a longstanding feud with Winston, and the story changes accordingly. There are a few crucial differences between him an Leon, namely that he uses magical swords which circle Blade barrieraround him instead of a whip and can’t block enemy attacks. The lack of a whip also means that he can’t perform acrobatics, but the game accommodates him by introducing moving blocks instead. Joachim also can’t equip or carry any items (Rinaldo won’t deal with him, and anything he finds is consumed immediately), although he can collect stat upgrades. All in all, it makes the game distinctly more challenging, especially if you decide to take on the optional bosses.

Trick or treat?Once you’ve cleared the game with Joachim, you’ll unlock another protagonist: Pumpkin, an…adorable little munchkin with a pumpkin for a head and giant sweets for hands. He has puny HP and MP, and his only sub-weapon is *gasp* a pumpkin, but boy, does he pack a wallop. Especially since he starts with the strongest whip in the game. In all other respects, he handles exactly as Leon did, which, amusingly, makes him the most powerful character of the three. As an added bonus, leave him idle for a while, and he’ll start humming Joachim’s theme tune.

My name is WALTER, dammit!All in all, this is a decent bit of entertainment. The storyline is nothing to write home about, the characters are cardboard cutouts, the voice acting is mediocre at best, the dialogue is cheesy as all hell, and Wilkins is a terrible name for a vampire. On the other hand, the combat system is entertaining, and while exploration does get repetitive, the lavish, gloomy gothic castle and its various musical pleasures do have definite style. I’ve noticed that Castlevania fans tend to snub this particular entry in the series, but while it’s far from being a masterpiece, it’s not a complete disaster either, as some may lead you to believe.

Double, double toil and trouble

The culprit: Fatal Frame 2/Project Zero 2: Crimson Butterfly (PlayStation 2, Xbox, Wii)

Dark skiesA common trend with sequels is to go the ‘bigger, better, more’ route. And while the ‘bigger’ and ‘more’ parts are easy enough to achieve, they don’t always equate to ‘better’. This, however, is not the case with Fatal Frame 2, or Project Zero 2, as European markets stubbornly persist in naming the series. While the game is bigger than its predecessor in every respect and offers a lot more content, I also find it distinctly better. In fact, I think it’s the best entry in the series. And if you thought the first game delivered in the chills-and-scares department, you won’t be disappointed here either. It’s not actually necessary to have played the first game to understand this one, as it is, in fact, a prequel, but if you have, then you may spot a couple of familiar names.

Neon butterfliesThis time, you get two heroines for the price of one, as well as an entire village instead of just one haunted house. The story follows a pair of 15-year-old twins: Mio, the plucky one in the white skirt, whom you’ll control for most of the game, and Mayu, the shy, more spiritually-attuned one in the brown dress. Mayu had an accident as a child, which left her with a limp, and Mio is very protective of her. While out on a walk near the future site of a dam, Mayu spots a crimson butterfly and follows it through the forest. Mio chases her, only to find herself in an abandoned village. The sky has darkened, and the path back through the woods has mysteriously vanished. The sisters therefore have no choice but to figure out what’s wrong with the place. The problem is that Mayu’s spiritual sensitivity soon causes trouble.

It's my party, and I die if I want toThe Fatal Frame series is nothing if not formulaic, and many things make a comeback from the first opus. You explore a haunted locale with a female character whose only weapon is a camera which has the ability to see and harm spirits: an effective combination which compounds a feeling of vulnerability with the necessity to get a good close look at ghosts. Most of the important protagonists are female, including the villains, of which the main one successfully combines creepiness and insanity. A gruesome, failed ritual is, again, at the source of the haunting, although this one has an added layer of psychological torture which ranks it a step above its peersIs it Halloween already?. It’s also early enough in the series for suspension of disbelief to work: later games suffer from the fact that you start wondering just how many gruesome rituals there are in Japan. Once you finish the game, your playthrough is graded, and you can use the accumulated points from the pictures you’ve taken to purchase goodies for any subsequent playthroughs. These include camera upgrades and different costumes for the girls. The first playthrough also unlocks an additional difficulty, an additional ending and a mission mode in which Mio can battle various combinations of ghosts. Oh, and just like in the first opus, leaving the game paused for a while produces…interesting results *shudders*.

Are we receiving?In terms of exploration and storyline progression, the tried-and-true spiel of solving puzzles, and finding notes and recordings applies. However, the puzzles are more diverse than in the first game, and, instead of an old cassette player, Mio finds a portable spirit stone radio. The idea is that some ghosts’ thoughts are trapped within gems that she’ll find lying around, which, when used with the radio, play these thoughts out like recordings. Well, whatever works.

Hey, sister, MOVE!As with the majority of action games where partners are involved, Mayu tends to be a hassle, and this is probably the most annoying aspect of the game. She’s a slow walker (or hobbler) and will complain if left too far behind. Hostile ghosts may also attack her during combat, and while this may provide Mio with a handy decoy to land a shot, Mayu’s not invincible, and if she dies, it’s Game Over. You can’t use items to heal her either, unlike Mio. Fortunately–or is it unfortunately?–this is a sporadic problem at best, because Mio spends most of the game chasing after Mayu, who quickly falls under the village’s spell and wanders off on her own; you control her for short bursts, but all she can do is walk towards a predetermined destination. On the other hand, when she does follow Mio around, Mayu is handy for pointing out important clues, as she will stop and stare at them.

Mayu-related annoyances aside, atmosphere is just as successful as in the previous game, if not more, because of the scope of the locale. The music–or rather, the background ambience–is still as unnerving, with its eerie chimes, distorted noises and furtive whispers. Random ghost encounters can occur anywhere, especially if Mio idles for too long, even in rooms containing save points (red lanterns which will turn off if a ghost is present). The decrepit village is shrouded in thick darkness, there’s Keep that camera downan ominous-looking altar located right at the entrance, the largest house is situated beyond a bridge over a murky river, a path winds off into the forest towards a dilapidated shrine, and there is also a very gloomy cemetery, where ghosts enjoy popping up as soon as Mio raises her camera. There were four influential families in the village, and thus, there are four main houses to visit: Osaka, Kiryu, Tachibana and Kurosawa. I shall take this opportunity to warn you about the Kiryu house. The unsettling atmosphere is off the charts, and it contains two of the game’s scariest/most disturbing ghosts: the Kiryu twins, of “why did you kill?” fame, and Fallen Woman, who is simply painful to look at. Another highlight of the ghost cast worth mentioning is Woman in Box, who is a direct reference to Sadako, of Ring fame.

Hey, psst, turn around!One aspect of the game which has received a substantial upgrade is combat. There are noticeably more ghosts, which often appear in groups and still come in the hidden, vanishing and hostile variety: hidden ones are only detectable when the camera’s capture circle turns blue in a specific spot, while the vanishing ones, as their name implies, will only appear for a short time, some being particularly difficult to snap. Some of these cannot be captured on your first playthrough, since they appear before Mio has the camera or require a camera function which only becomes available upon clearing the game. But since Mio will start each subsequent playthrough with the camera already in hand, this maximises replayability.

The camera itself has more diverse functionalities than in the first game. Each photo Mio takes will still grant points which can then be used to upgrade the camera’s basic functions, but it can also be further spruced up with attachments (including one which enables Mio to evade attacks) and extra lenses. These require both points and Spirit Orbs to upgrade, and serve to either cripple ghosts or deal more damage. The camera also has Don't be fooled by the cute facean infinite supply of the weakest available film, meaning that Mio will never be strapped for ‘ammo’. You still receive extra points for specific kinds of photos (close-up, well-framed, multiple ghosts), in particular the ‘fatal frame’ shot which gives the series its name. This can be taken at a moment when a ghost is particularly vulnerable (usually right before or right after an attack), but is only detectable via the aforementioned attachments. More importantly, if you hit a fatal frame, you can now combo it with a second fatal frame and possibly even a third one, if your timing is good and provided the ghost hasn’t been knocked too far back, thus racking up the damage and the points.

Unsafe corridorsAll in all, I find that this game improves on every aspect that made its predecessor successful, thus making it a big hit in my book. If you’re a fan of psychological horror, this is for you, and if there’s only one Fatal Frame game you must play, make sure it’s this one. As a heads-up, it has been recently re-released in Europe on the Wii, with updated graphics and an additional ending from the Xbox version, but also a two-player mode and some of the less successful gameplay aspects from Fatal Frame 4, which leaves me feeling ambivalent about it.

Mangy mutt

The culprit: Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII (PlayStation 2)

Staring down the barrel of a gunI’ll always regret the £5 I spent on Dirge of Cerberus. Yes, it’s a used copy, yes, it was cheap, yes, this was four years ago. But none of that changes the fact that it’s a terrible game. I’d heard the bad reviews before, and I really should have listened, but a sort of morbid fascination guided my hand, like watching an imminent train wreck. Mind you, I hadn’t yet played Crisis Core at that point, so I had no precedent as to what to expect. Vincent was my favourite character in Final Fantasy VII, and the simple fact of him being the protagonist of his own game felt like he was finally getting some much-deserved limelight.

Well, he certainly didn’t deserve this.

The first reason why DoC doesn’t work is because it’s a third-person shooter derived from an RPG. While it probably makes sense on a theoretical level, since Vincent’s weapon of Um, ok...choice is a gun, after all, it fails in execution. First of all, you immediately start to wonder why the rest of the FFVII crew isn’t helping him. There’s a world-threatening crisis, surely they don’t all have better things to do? He does get some minor assistance from Yuffie and Reeve/Cait Sith, but that’s it. The latter actually features in a short infiltration sequence, but it’s terminally useless, thoroughly out of place, and the only worse character they could’ve picked from the original FFVII cast is Aeris/Aerith. Good thing they couldn’t. Mweheh. Anyway, I guess the rest of the old crew were having a BBQ party. Or a massive case of indigestion. Who knows?

Double sights, just to make sureBe that as it may, the shooter format feels like a simplistic downgrade from the RPG one. Corridor-riddled maps with invisible walls all over the place, no exploration to speak of, and character interaction reduced to cutscenes, often including idiotic dialogue. Still, shooters can be entertaining, when they’re well-executed, but this is most definitely not the case here. Everything looks and feels stilted, clunky and unwieldy. Combat is slow and extremely repetitive. Movement…well, Vincent can jump, but he’s either carrying bricks in his pockets, or those metallic toe-caps of his must weigh a ton. Possibly both. And this is the English version of the game; I’m told the original Japanese release was even worse.

Your money or your life?To further damn the gameplay, some RPG elements still remain: the game is broken down into 12 chapters, which are further subdivided into stages, each with its own (frequently asinine) goal to achieve, and Vincent gains a certain amount of EXP at the end of each according to his performance. This can be used to level him up or transformed into money he can spend on supplies, such as ammo or potions (of which he can only carry a ridiculously small amount), or spare parts to upgrade his guns (of which he has three different models). The latter can quickly become expensive, meaning that you either have to sacrifice a significant chunk of EXP to be able to afford them or pray that enemies will drop wads of cash. Needless to say that this is a restrictive system, which penalises people who aren’t good at shooters. Scratch that: people who aren’t good at DoC, because the only less user-friendly gun mechanics I can think of are in the original Silent Hill.

Vincent can also use a melee combo if enemies manage to get up close and personal, but I’ll let you guess how often that comes in handy. He also has access to materia (it wouldn’t be an FFVII game without it), but there’s such a small selection of it that, once Come give daddy a hug!again, you’re left wondering where everything else went. The same thing happens to Vincent’s trademark shapeshifting Limit Breaks, of which he had four different ones in FFVII. In DoC, he can only use the Galian Beast. There’s a (largely implausible) storyline reason why he can’t use Chaos, but what happened to the other two? Did he suddenly incur partial amnesia? We shall never know. Be that as it may, the Galian Beast does pack a wallop, but also looks terminally silly, with Vincent’s cape serving as a loincloth. To trigger it, he must use a consumable item mysteriously named Limit Breaker. Is it drugs? Steroids? Red Bull? The game certainly doesn’t tell you, and Limit Breaks didn’t work that way in FFVII, so the mystery remains complete.

I’m not actually a stickler for smooth gameplay, and I can disregard quite a lot if the storyline and/or characters compensate for it. But by that reasoning, DoC would have to be nothing short of a literary masterpiece. As you can probably guess, this is far from being the case. Sequels are tricky to manage at the best of times, even when the original story deliberately leaves loose ends that would allow for one. FFVII certainly didn’t, and DoC isn’t any better in its premise than Advent Children was. It even references the abomination that is Genesis, the Sephiroth-wannabe and sorry excuse for a villain introduced in Crisis Core. The result is an insipid mess, as full of plotholes as a slab of gruyère, involving a super-secret, heretofore unknown and nefarious branch of Shinra, which performs human experiments and whose goal, once again, is to destroy the planet. My only interest was to get some insight into Vincent’s past, and more specifically, Lucrecia’s side of the story, which went largely ignored in FFVII. DoC does delve into these questions, but it loses itself in a morass of retcons, additions, thoroughly implausible developments…and stupid outfits. An example would be the A pair of fashion faux pasintroduction of Vincent’s father as a character. Fair enough, but 1) he’s essentially nothing more than a plot device and gets about two minutes of total screentime, 2) why the hell is he called Grimoire?! (which is a kind of spellbook), and 3) why is he dressed like Van Helsing, when he was supposedly a scientist? And for that matter, what kind of scientist wears a frilly blouse and asymmetrical frilly skirt? *points at Lucrecia* Don’t ask me where she got a change of clothes before encasing herself into that crystal she’s in, either (how did she manage that, by the way?)

This brings us to the character department, which is just another nail in the game’s coffin (get it?…Vincent…coffin…ok, I’ll just let myself out). Lucrecia gradually becomes appropriately deranged, and Hojo is his usual psychotic self. That’s about all the Yes, this happenspositive I can dredge up though. Vincent gets all his emo dials cranked up a few notches and is reduced to about half a normal human being’s width. It’s a wonder he doesn’t snap in half whenever there’s a gust of wind. Yuffie’s just as annoying as ever, Reeve is useless at best, and the rest of the FFVII team features in a horribly cheesy cameo at the end of the game. Other than that, the character lineup features such wonderful highlights as a set of villains redundantly named after colours. Eg. Azul the Cerulean: ‘azul’ is ‘blue’ in Spanish, and ‘cerulean’ is a type of blue…so the result is Blue the Blue…*facepalm* There’s also a half-robotic female scientist wearing what can only be described as Skanky, meet Creepy; Creepy, meet Skankyremnants of clothing (where did they ever see a scientist like that?!), which would seriously not look out of place in a strip club, and her sister, who suffers from the Presea syndrome: arrested development due to scientific tampering, which left her as a 19-year-old in a 9-year-old body…who fights with a laser skipping rope. This is already creepy in and of itself–what with the ‘sexy’ pose she strikes on her official render–, but the game pushes the creepiness further by introducing a storyline development whereby she gradually takes on Lucrecia’s personality traits. While this may presage the worst, I’m happy to report that Vincent manages to avoid Pedobear-worthy territory. But just barely.

Blah-blah-blahThe game features some extras, such as well-hidden memory capsules which you can shoot to unlock an artwork gallery, and G-Reports, which you can collect to obtain an extra ending scene. However, it’s essentially a piece of self-insert marketing by Gackt, a Japanese artist, who also penned two songs for the game, so it’s really not worth the effort. Apart from that, there are also 40 side missions which unlock progressively as you complete them. I made a half-hearted attempt at them, only to promptly give up. They bring absolutely nothing to the storyline–not that there’s anything interesting about it to begin with–, and I couldn’t find any valid reason to subject myself to more of that gameplay. As for the music…um, I guess the best I can say is that it fits the dark atmosphere of the game? It’s mostly a series of orchestral musings with very little in the way of catchy melodies; a couple of tracks at best. And then there are the two Gackt songs, the existence of which I keep trying to forget.

Can someone remind me why I'm in this gameThe best thing I can say about this game is that the cinematics are beautiful. Except they’re few and far between and  are achieved at the expense of in-game graphics, which are blocky, blurry and usually either grey or brown. Bottom line? Do yourself a favour and stay very far away from this mess. Even if you like Vincent. Or, should I say, especially if you like Vincent.

I ain’t ‘fraid of no ghosts!

The culprit: Fatal Frame/Project Zero (PlayStation 2, Xbox)

Enter if you dareDespite scaring extremely easily, I am a confirmed fan of psychological horror. You know, the kind that doesn’t involve limbs flying in all directions and litres of haemoglobin gushing all over the place. One of the scariest films I’ve ever seen was the original Japanese version of Ring, and despite having its own set of clichés, J-Horror, as the genre is called, usually proves very effective on me. So, in my hunt for something that would unsettle me more than the Silent Hill series–which isn’t completely up my street–, Fatal Frame naturally caught my attention. European releases of this game (and the rest of the series as well) are inexplicably titled Project Zero–the name of the team that created it–but that’s beside the point. The point being that if you like psychological horror in general and J-Horror in particular, you should definitely give this a try.

How cosyThe premise of the game is the tried-and-true haunted house setup: a famous novelist goes missing on a research trip to an abandoned mansion, his assistant goes to look for him and suffers the same fate, and finally, it falls to the assistant’s sister, 17-year-old Miku, to make sense of it all and attempt to find her brother. Exploration and plot advancement are also rather traditional: Miku will find copious notes, journals and cassettes that will fill her in on the mansion’s past (and the genuinely gruesome ritual that’s at the source of it all), and will periodically need to solve puzzles to progress. Still, even if the structure is nothing new, the execution is genuinely effective.

Yes, there is someone right behind youOne peculiarity of the Fatal Frame series is its decidedly feminine angle: most of the main characters are female, including the villains, who aren’t so much villains as vengeful victims, as Asian ghosts tend to be. There’s probably a message about the victimisation of women and the sublimation of female fear somewhere in there, but what can I say? Horrific situations definitely have more of an impact when you’re put in control of a terrified girl with no real means of defence rather than a guy with a big gun. Miku’s unease is both contagious and literally palpable, since the controller vibration is put to use to mimic her heartbeat when she becomes frightened. She also walks and runs veeeeery slooooowly (it’s more of a hesitant jog than a run, really), which, besides being infuriating at times, does actually contribute to the feeling that, all in all, she’d much rather be anywhere else than in that godforsaken house.

Fancy a walk in the forest?Atmosphere is the big winner in this game, as it’s the main vector of fear. The music is minimal, consisting mostly of eerie ambient backdrops which end up getting under your skin. The game is set exclusively inside the mansion and on its grounds (which include a pond and a forest temple) over four nights. This equates to ubiquitous darkness, only alleviated by candles, torches and the solitary beam of Miku’s flashlight, and all the creaking, groaning, wind-whistling and what-the-hell-was-that-noise you could expect from an old abandoned house. Whispers,  footsteps, mysterious figures shadowed on blinds, doors closing and objects falling on their own. Broken windows with moonlight barely filtering through, Lovely interior decorationcrumbling floors and collapsing ceilings, bloody handprints on the walls, dusty kimonos stretched on stands, an unsettilingly lifelike doll kneeling in a corner, a pool with blood dripping onto the surface from an unknown source, a long corridor with ropes hanging from the ceiling and a mirror standing at the end, and so on and so forth. And copious amounts of ghost encounters, of course. Oh, and, for an added kick, try pausing the game and leaving it for a while. I had a nice little jolt when I did that to take care of something else, then looked up at my screen.

Ghost paparazziGhosts are the only enemies and the only allies in this game, most being designated by a straightforward description of their appearance (eg. Long Arms, Bound Man; very few of them have a name), and Miku’s only means of dealing with them is an antique camera she inherited from her mother. In a literal take on the old superstition of cameras capturing people’s souls, this camera has the ability to take pictures of spirits, damaging hostile ones. It uses film like ammo, and there are different, increasingly powerful grades of film available. The lowest grade can be found in infinite supply at any save point, which looks like an old camera on a stand. Every picture is worth a certain number of points, which can then be used to upgrade the camera. Basic upgrades enhance its range and the power of its shots, while special upgrades require Spirit Stones and may slow a hostile ghost down, paralyse it or simply inflict more The opportune momentdamage. Timing is also important in combat; close-up shots are worth more points, and each ghost has their own ‘fatal frame’: a moment when they are more vulnerable, signalled by the camera’s capture circle turning orange instead of blue. This usually occurs either right before or right after an attack, so while these shots deal a lot of damage, they can also be perilous.

An added fear factor is that not all hostile ghosts are scripted encounters. There is a randomised chance of encountering a hostile ghost in almost every room of the house, which creates a permanent feeling of dread and urgency. Really, Miku’s not 100% safe anywhere, not even in a room with a save point (its light will turn red instead of blue if something’s in the room). Ghost appearances are signalled by a chiming noise and heartbeat, and you’ll probably be pricking your ears in suspense more than once. It’s also entirely possible to have Miku pull out the camera (say, to take a picture of a puzzle clue), only to be greeted by a ghost DIRECTLY IN HER FACE. As far as specific ghosts are concerned, the first encounter with Broken Neck will more than likely have you jumping in your seat (“It hurts! It hurts!”), while the numerous run-ins you’ll have with Blinded (“My eyes…”) may very well turn into nightmare fuel. They’re not the only scary ghosts in the game, but they were certainly the main highlights as far as I was concerned. I’ll spare you the pictures to preserve shock value.

There's something there...really!Non-hostile ghosts come in two flavours: hidden ghosts, which will only appear when Miku takes their picture (her only means of finding them is the camera’s capture circle turning blue) and vanishing ghosts, which will appear at certain precise spots for a short while. Some of these are hair-tearingly difficult to snap, but of course, they’re usually also worth the most points.

Replay value has also been taken into account. After you finish the game once, various goodies are unlocked, such as a music player or the list of all ghosts in the game, which allows you to check which ones you’ve captured (and some are only available on second-or-more playthroughs). You also gain access to additional difficulties, as well as a mission mode which pits Miku against various combinations of the ghosts she’s encountered. Your playthrough is given a rating based on how much damage Miku has dealt, which grants you a certain number of points to spend on camera upgrades that carry over to your next playthrough. Finishing the game or the mission mode on different difficulties also unlocks additional costumes for Miku, which, besides changing her appearance, will make her move a tad faster. And last but not least, an alternate ending becomes available for subsequent playthroughs.

Don't fall inAll in all, this game doesn’t make any groundbreaking innovations, and it does have several drawbacks: the controls are fairly unwieldy, the graphics aren’t exactly top-of-the-line, the translation feels shoddy at times, and the voice acting is adequate at best. You’ll probably need a guide to capture most of the vanishing ghosts, and there’s an unnecessarily complicated album feature which allows you to save the pictures you’ve taken (but is separate from your game saves). Still, the main point of a survival/horror game is to induce fear, unease and a sense of danger, and that’s something Fatal Frame excels at.

Mind-boggling doesn’t even begin to describe it

The culprit: Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, as part of the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection)

Every series has its black sheep: the game that either fell short of the established quality mark, or tried to do something different, but didn’t quite succeed. In the Metal Gear Solid series, the title of black sheep usually goes to the second opus, Sons of Liberty. And I would tend to agree. Compared to its predecessor, things just don’t quite He'll defend his modesty with his lifegel together. Even in the fanservice department. Considering the game is designed for an overwhelmingly male audience and is part of a series now famous for its mild naughtiness, there’s really not a lot of it. No Meryls or Sniper Wolves here, gentlemen. You have manly Olga and her armpits (way to give Russian women a bad rap, thanks!), just-as-manly Fortune, who looks like she just came out of a Pro Wrestling ring, Emma (Otacon’s half-sister), straight from ‘nerdy-14-year-old-stalker’ land and Rose, who’s in a whole league of her own, and not in a good way. On top of that, there’s a rather lengthy section involving Raiden (a.k.a. Jack) running around buck naked. It’s a refreshing change of pace from scantily clad ladies, but I’m curious: which part of the player base was this aimed at?

The storyline is intentionally designed as a sort of rehash of the first game, which distinctly impairs its impact. But the reason it provides for said rehash opens a whole other can of worms. Kojima’s (N.B. Hideo Kojima, the mastermind behind the series) intention may have been to deliver a deep philosophical message about the increasingly virtual nature of our society, but I’m sure I wasn’t the only one going “what…the…hell…” during that–oh…1hr long?–final cutscene. And yes, the cinematic overload the series is now notorious for is beginning to be apparent here. It’s still the same kind of epic nonsense as in the first game, but it somehow got turned up to 11 (cue obscure film reference). Especially the ‘radio breakdown’ episode. And naming the various rooms of the final area of the game after the stages of the digestive tract (culminating in “Arsenal: Rectum”) might have been a liiiittle bit too much. The aim was to give the player the sense of having been swallowed by a malevolent entity. Well, it certainly worked! It also seems like there was a lot more American patriotism going on this time around, which, I must say, feels very strange in a Japanese game.

The game is split into two uneven parts featuring two different protagonists. I didn’t mind it, but it certainly caused an uproar when the game came out. Snake, who is the face of the MGS series, now has to share the bill with a newcomer called Raiden. A younger, more impulsive, more emotional, more talkative, blonder and ninja’er newcomer. It’s like a clash of the stereotypes: the rough, grizzled Action Man vs the acrobatic, pretty (but so very pretty…) anime hero. In fact, he’s so pretty that one male character mistakes him for a woman, despite the fact that he’s wearing a skin-tight bodysuit, then proceeds to grope him (…). To make matters worse, Raiden starts his section of the game being briefly codenamed Snake, just to cement that “hey guys, I’m crashing this party!” feeling. Certainly not the best way to win support. But you know what? Despite having been warned multiple times about him…I actually liked him. Shocking, I know. He was a nice change of pace from Snake’s “I don’t have time for this crap” attitude, especially since the structure of the game allowed for a direct comparison between the two. I’ve heard him described as whiny. Well, I’d certainly whine for a lot less. Yes, Snake also has his share of baggage and bears it quietly, but I don’t mind that Raiden is more open about his issues. Not that “open” is quite the proper term. I’m pretty sure he would’ve dwelt on them a lot less if not for his girlfriend, Rose.

Oh. Dear. God. Rose. “Jack, what day is it tomorrow?” “Jack, you seem upset.” “Jack, you’re in the middle of a dangerous mission, you could die at any moment, and I shouldn’t bother you, but…do you really care about me? Do you? Do you really? Because I don’t think you do. In fact, I think that you’re scared, and you don’t let me in, and your room is empty, and I bet you enjoyed rescuing Emma, you pervert, and…” *gets shot* I have rarely encountered a character that annoyed me to this extent. Raiden deserves a damn medal simply for putting up with her. And before you ask, yes, “Jack and Rose” was intentional.

Moving right on, due to the game’s insistence on rehashing its predecessor, much of the villain cast feels like a pale ersatz. There’s a Grey Fox stand-in and the Foxhound-wannabe Dead Cell. It’s a little difficult to take someone seriously when they’re riding around on rollerskates in a bombsuit while drinking wine from a straw (heresy!). That’s Fatman, and although the battle against him definitely qualifies as annoying, he’s no Vulcan Raven. Secondly, where Sniper Wolf scored a winning combination of cleavage, stealth and shadiness, Fortune wears a swimsuit (this isn’t a JRPG!), and flaunts those glistening man-thighs and that enormous railgun. Not to mention that her My, what long teeth you haveunique…condition all but nullifies the point of her boss battle. The only one that manages to equal his predecessor is Vamp, who, despite sharing Fortune’s condition, is just as disturbing as Psycho Mantis (if not more, due to the lack of fourth-wall-breaking tendencies) and certainly just as nefarious. To top it all off, you have Solidus Snake, who gives off a distinct Doc Ock vibe, but is otherwise a sorry excuse for a villain.

This isn’t to say that the entire cast is bad. Other than Snake, Otacon also makes a comeback, providing some thoroughly random hilarity in the first part of the game by trying to imitate Mei Ling and a rather heartbreaking episode in the second one. All of that, thankfully, sans pant-wetting. In the villain department, fan-favourite Revolver Ocelot also reappears, albeit with a somewhat disturbing twist.

It's ok, there's no one thereTo round things off, a few words about combat. It’s almost identical to The Twin Snakes, but for some reason, I had a lot less trouble with the controls this time around. Maybe because the PS2 controller is more ergonomic. Or maybe I simply got used to them. In any case, for anybody who’s only played the original Metal Gear Solid, it’s a significant improvement. You still get a codename based on your performance upon completing the game, alongside a pin code made up entirely of letters. This was originally intended to be entered on a special website to get the statistical breakdown for your playthrough. However, it’s no longer available, due to the age of the game. I must also say that collecting dog tags is now noticeably more difficult. There are quite a few tricky ones, even on Normal mode, and one memorably hair-tearing instance at the end of the first part of the game, where there’s a whole military meeting going on. The final series of battles is also particularly nasty this time around. Having to fight through roomfuls of guards before finally facing the big bad has a tendency to deplete rations. This resulted in my restarting several times to get the hang of the Metal Gear RAYs (yes, that’s a plural). Not to mention the ensuing smackdown against Solidus. There are a lot of things he is not, but “goddamn annoying” certainly applies as much to him as it did to Liquid, if not more. Let me also say just how much I hate the HF Blade, which is mandatory for that battle. Who thought that controlling a katana with a joystick was a good idea? Doesn’t help that you obtain it right before the final series of battles, meaning that you don’t have time to properly get used to it, short of running around slicing at thin air.

He'll never see this one comingTo make a long story short, this is still MGS alright, even if not in top shape, so if you enjoyed the first game, you might as well keep going. It only gets better, and if you want to understand what’s going on in MGS4, playing this one is pretty much a requirement. Not a bad game by any means, but certainly not the best the series has to offer.

That's debatableSons of Liberty was remade as Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance two years after its initial release, but apart from some minor graphic upgrades and a lot of optional stuff, such as Virtual Training combat simulations, a skateboarding mini-game (of all things) or the Snake Tales–which essentially gave people who really hated Raiden the ability to replay some of his sequences as Snake–the core game is the same as the original. In other words, if you already have the original, no point in shelling out more money. This version is also the one included in the recently-released Metal Gear Solid HD Collection.