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.

His brother’s keeper

The culprit: Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC, Mac)

Elemental, my dear WatsonI’ve played sequels and prequels before, but this is the first time I’ve come across a bona fide ‘interquel’, that is, an entire game set between two pre-existing ones. So, if only because of this, Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands made me curious. Released in 2010, it’s set between The Sands of Time and Warrior Within in the PS2 trilogy, and it does answer a legitimate question: what did the Prince do for seven whole years, before the Dahaka caught up with him (although, I also wonder why it took the Dahaka so long to get to it)? And while the events of the game are a bit too short to have taken up that entire interval, it’s still an answer to the question.

The other peculiarity of The Forgotten Sands is that, aside from the PS3 and Xbox 360 version (which is the one I played), it also exists on the Wii, PSP and Nintendo DS with a completely different plot on each console. I must say that I find this particularly bizarre, but also suspect. Perhaps the Prince did all of what goes down in these games within that seven-year interval, which would be legitimate, but then it’s as if the developers were inciting people to purchase all of the different iterations of the game to have ‘the full story’. Or perhaps they’re trying to say that the Prince could have done any and all of these things, which serves to trivialise the story somewhat. What’s also suspect is that the game comes on the heels of the 2008 Prince of Persia reboot, which essentially attempted to restart the series in a different setting and with a somewhat different Prince, but proved to be a controversial move, even though–or maybe because?–it was a hell of an example of a downer ending. With all that in mind, The Forgotten Sands may be considered as an attempt to return to the ‘tried and true’ success of the PS2 trilogy in order to placate fans.

Overview of a disasterThe real question is: is it successful? Well, not quite. Mind you, it isn’t for a lack of trying: there has been a genuine effort to keep gameplay interesting. It’s just that the storyline somehow fails to be entirely engaging. Or maybe it was because, after three games, I’d gotten a bit tired of the PS2-trilogy Prince and his shenanigans.

He's got a planBe that as it may, after his misadventures in The Sands of Time and his realisation that he was maybe a bit of an idiot, the Prince decides to go visit his elder brother, Malik (who still manages not to call him by name a single time over the course of the game!), and ask him for advice on how to be a good ruler. However, when he arrives at Malik’s castle, he finds it besieged by an army that’s trying to breach its treasure vault to obtain “Solomon’s Army”, a fabled magical force that is somehow supposed to be locked within. The Prince manages to get inside the fortress and finds Malik, who admits that he can’t win the siege and is about to release Solomon’s Army to defend his kingdom by using a special seal. After the whole Sands of Time fiasco, the Prince is understandably wary of this…and he turns out to be right.

Impressive hornsWhat Malik unleashes reveals itself to be an army of sand warriors led by an Ifrit (a fire djinn) called Ratash. The army turns everyone into sand statues, except for the Prince and Malik, who are protected by the two halves of the seal. The rest of the game focuses on stopping Ratash, with a bit of a twist thrown into the proceedings, albeit not a wholly unexpected one. It’s not a bad story, per se, but it does feel like a re-tread of The Sands of Time, more so than the two other games in the trilogy, especially since, within the original PoP chronology, it’s set directly after The Sands of Time.

Watery helperMind you, the Prince’s powers are not focused on sand this time around. He manages to acquire the help of a Marid (a water djinn) called Razia, who has been protecting Malik’s citadel for a long time and lends him elemental powers. Much like in The Sands of Time, the Prince needs to find entrances to the magical fountain where she resides before she bestows these on him. He can now either leave a trail of fire behind him when he runs, which damages all enemies caught inside it; shoot a beam of ice with each sword attack; create a whirlwind to damage multiple enemies or put up rock armour.

SkelnadoThese abilities are considered as magic, and the Prince accordingly gets four magic slots to power them up. He earns EXP by killing enemies and breaking sarcophagi that can be found in out-of-the-way spots, and can use it to upgrade either one of the four abilities, his HP or his magic slots (up to eight).

Walk on waterOn top of that, the Prince also gets abilities that he can use at will, without depleting his magic slots. These include the good ol’ rewind mechanic that has become a staple of the series. However, this time, it’s not infinite: a metre determines how far you can go back. There’s also the ability to solidify water for a limited amount of time, thereby making it usable for platforming; the ability to fly over some particularly large gaps; and, later on in the game, the ability to materialise destroyed walls in places where they used to exist.

Skeleton crewAll of this is pretty neat and probably the main attraction of the game. The power to solidify water, in particular, sees a lot of use and will put your reflexes to the test, as you will need to alternatively pass through sheets of water and use them to climb, for example. Other than that, the combat and exploration mechanics stay very similar to the previous games. The Prince is still an accomplished acrobat who can run along and up walls, swing on poles and jump from column to column. He still fights with a sword and can jump over enemies to attack them from above or from the back. He can also unleash power attacks and kick enemies that have shields in order to bring them down. He can no longer block attacks, but he can dodge them, which essentially boils down to the same thing. On the other hand, he can no longer recover HP by drinking water, which I always thought was a bit silly. Instead, he can break vases or boxes and sometimes find HP or magic refills in them. Probably less silly, but also a lot less realistic.

I'm outta hereUltimately, The Forgotten Sands is quite fun, from a pure gameplay standpoint, especially if you’re a fan of the PoP series. And it’s refreshing to see a female companion who isn’t all over the Prince, for once, even if he is admittedly less of an arse than he was in The Sands of Time. Still, the game feels a bit like déjà vu, and even though it’s blessedly free from the all-pervading emo-ness of Warrior Within, I guess that a) there’s just so much you can do with such a specific setting, and b) it’s all rather anticlimactic, considering that the Prince’s story was, for all intents and purposes, already finished by the time the game came out, and you know exactly what’s going to happen after the game ends. That being said, I don’t doubt the writers’ ability to come up with yet a new entry in the series somewhere down the line. I just wonder how advisable that would be. Answer: probably not very.

Someone else’s legend

The culprit: The Legend of Zelda (Nintendo Entertainment System, GameBoy Advance, Gamecube, as part of The Legend of Zelda: Collector’s Edition, Wii and Nintendo 3DS via Virtual Console)

Forgotten heroHave you ever wondered why The Legend of Zelda series was named after Zelda? It’s not that I mind a female character getting recognition, but let’s face it: Zelda’s role in the series is secondary at best, and there are some games where she doesn’t appear at all. In fact, all things considered, it should really be The Legend of Link.

You’d think that the first game in a series would provide a good reason for its name (c.f. Mass Effect, Baldur’s Gate, even Final Fantasy), even if later games have a more tenuous link to it. Not so with the original Legend of Zelda: the princess only appears at the very end. And since it’s Patience is a virtuevery easy to miss the in-game backstory, which only appears if you wait instead of pressing “start” on the introductory screen, you may very well get through 99% of the game not knowing who she is or even that she exists. And you won’t know that Link is called Link either. This has actually created some confusion among players (myself included), who used to think that Link’s name was Zelda for a while.

Not that the in-game backstory is all that informative, especially if you’re playing the original NES version of the game, in which case, you’ll be treated to a painfully garbled Engrish text. The game then asks you what you want to name your character (this is where you can name Link ‘Bob’ if you haven’t watched the intro and have never played a Zelda game before), and he Helpful adviceis then plonked down in the middle of a rocky clearing in overhead view (a trademark of early Zelda games). The only noteworthy landmark in the vicinity is a cave. Inside this cave, Link finds an old guy, who tells him that it’s dangerous to go alone and hands him a sword. Either the sword is a cousin of Lilarcor from Baldur’s Gate II, or the old guy needs to get out of his cave more.

Nowadays, games often receive criticism for excessive hand-holding. Here, you’ve got entirely the reverse problem: the game omits to give you any sort of pointers as to where to go. I guess the idea was to let the player adventure at will and figure things out on their own. Which, admittedly, is a laudable goal: after all, exploration and discovery Could you be a little more specific?are what adventure is all about. Except that the desire to keep on exploring is based on finding clues and rewards, and if that is lacking, you run the risk of people simply losing interest. There are clues in this game, provided by a squad of identical old men. However, these clues are a) usually hidden in out-of-the-way rooms inside dungeons, and b) a tad on the cryptic side.

This is compounded by the fact that combat is pretty damn brutal, so aimlessly wandering around while looking for the entrance to a dungeon or a cave–which may or Keep walking...may not contain treasure or a shop–can quickly become an exercise in frustration, especially since enemies respawn whenever you leave a screen. In other words, you could randomly wander into one of the harder dungeons from the get-go, or spend five agonising, finger-nibbling minutes clearing a screen of tektites (those annoying bouncing insects) while trying not to get hit, then go to another screen, realize you’re going the wrong way, retrace your steps Go grab the money, you dolt!and have to face the same tektites again. Although you’d probably have the good sense to dash for the nearest exit this time around. That being said, slaughtering enemies is also a good source of money (or rupees, as they are called in this game), and considering just how stupidly expensive store-bought items are, this may be something you’ll find yourself forced to do sooner or later. And trust me, it’s not fun.

Total ripoffWhat’s more, not all stores have the same prices. So if you don’t know that beforehand, chances are you’ll find yourself cashing out for a bottle of potion…only to find the same potion being sold for much cheaper at another store a few screens away. And yet the game never tells you these things! It’s as if it were intentionally designed to penalize newcomers, which is completely mind-boggling to me. To add insult to injury, there are the archery mechanics. At one point in the game, Link acquires a bow. But the game apparently decided that arrows were too much of a hassle to implement. So, in exchange, each shot automatically subtracts the cost of an arrow from Link’s wallet. There’s no clearer metaphor for throwing your money away.

Target practiceCombat difficulty is further increased by the fact that Link doesn’t handle very well, only being able to attack facing the four cardinal directions. What’s more, while he has a shield, he can only block projectiles (not melee hits) and only if they so happen to align with said shield. In other words, avoiding damage is a losing battle. The problem here is that, when Link’s life-meter–represented by a line of hearts at the top of the screen–is full, his sword gains the ability to shoot lasers energy out of its blade, thus allowing him to attack enemies from a distance. This is extremely handy, but it also makes avoiding damage that much more crucial. And that much more frustrating when you can’t.

At this point, Zelda fans would probably say “come on, this is an old game, cut it some slack and look at its legacy!” Yes, this is an old game. And yes, oldschool games did have this tendency to be finger-numbingly difficult. But that didn’t prevent me from enjoying the first Super Mario Bros. That aside: it’s not because the game is par for the course with its contemporaries that it’s necessarily still enjoyable nowadays, even accounting for the innovations it helped introduce. The ability to save comes to mind: this was one of the first games to have this kind of feature. That’s great and all, but you "Save" is just a manner of speakinghave to get Link killed to be able to do this. You’ll excuse me if I don’t jump for joy. What’s more, whenever Link gets killed, he loses all the consumables he acquired prior to that point. So, say you made the effort to collect rupees to buy some bombs and potions prior to entering a dungeon, but then Link got killed by the boss. When he respawns, he’ll lose all the items he bought…but won’t get his money back. And if only for this reason, I never even tried finishing this game on console. Back when I first got it on NES, it was too difficult, and when I purchased it as part of the Gamecube Zelda collection, I didn’t even try playing (especially after seeing what Zelda II was like…), but went straight for an emulator instead. I’d rather conserve my progress when I save, thank you very much.

Objectively, this game does contain all the basics of a Zelda game. There’s a lad named Link, who must rescue Princess Zelda from the evil Ganondorf while collecting pieces of the Triforce. The gameplay and combat involve a variety of collectable objects, many of which have since become staples, The fountain of lovelike the boomerang. Many iconic enemies and creatures–such as tektites, keese or fairies–pop up. Even the music will be reused in later titles. But that’s just it: everything is basic. And if you’ve played the later games in the series, chances are you’ll feel like something’s missing. If you haven’t played them…don’t bother with this, unless you like gaming archaeology or have a massive bout of nostalgia. The game hasn’t aged well.

One person’s legend is another person’s nightmare. And this certainly isn’t my legend. Nor is it really Zelda’s, for that matter.

Get on with it

The culprit: Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC)

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood promotional artWhen Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood was first announced, my reaction was one of suspicion. It’s not that the AC series hadn’t produced spinoffs before: there were two for the first game and one for the second already. And it’s not that I didn’t fully expect Ezio’s decision at the end of ACII to come back and bite him–or at least someone–in the rear end. However, ACB wasn’t a spinoff: it was a fully-fledged game giving Ezio more limelight than I thought he deserved. The fact that it also looked like a poorly-disguised vehicle for multiplayer didn’t help. All in all, it felt like an unnecessary filler episode.

KillchainJust to get this out of the way: I am not a multiplayer person. With some very rare exceptions, you’ll never see me advocating it. Blame it on my completionism, my non-competitiveness or my extensively exploratory gaming style, but there you have it. So all I know about ACB multiplayer is that you can play as a variety of Assassin types.

Back to the matter at hand. Despite my first impression, I did give single-player ACB its due. And well…it is a filler episode, there’s no way around that. But if you like Ezio, you’ll probably be glad that he gets more screentime. And if you don’t, there are other things that Friendly faceACB could reel you in with. For instance, it confirms a trend of memorable secondary characters. Our good old pal Leo is still there, even though his relevance to the main plot is greatly reduced; he’s only there to provide Ezio with gadgets (including parachutes) and some sidequests to destroy his war machines, which he doesn’t want used by the Templars. Additionally, the Da Vinci Disappearance DLC provides him with a lengthier side-story.

Other recurring faces include Caterina Sforza, whom Ezio gets to know a lot better, if you catch my drift, and the garrulous, yet sympathetic mercenary captain Bartolomeo d’Alviano, thanks to whom Ezio finds himself involved in a rather hilarious linguistic Nemesisepisode. But the main highlight of the cast is the main villain: Cesare Borgia, son of Rodrigo, ACII’s big bad. As Ezio, for some obscure reason, spared Rodrigo at the end of ACII, it’s only fair that his son should want payback. Let’s not mince words: Cesare is a colossal jerk. But he’s precisely one of those you love to hate. Flamboyant, petulant, arrogant and infinitely ambitious, he provides enough theatrics and cruelty to make you want to kick his butt. I may also rather like his dark looks…Anyway, no story about the Borgia would be complete without Lucrezia, Cesare’s infamous sister, and sure enough, she’s there, even though her role is less prominent than her sibling’s. And if you’re wondering whether the game upholds the historical rumours concerning the two, the answer is clearly ‘yes’.

When in RomeThe storyline I found to be distinctly weaker this time around. Ezio finds himself in Rome, trying to sap Cesare’s influence and put an end to the Borgias. And…that’s about it. You’ll spend 95% of the game in Rome; the rest is comprised of Desmond’s sequences, which are set in modern-day Monteriggioni, and some short secondary missions, which briefly take you back to Florence, Venice and other, hitherto unknown locations. I find this to be a distinct flaw: part of the appeal of the AC series so far, for me, has been the exploration of different cityscapes, so to be effectively limited to one city, no matter how large and varied, feels restrictive. Moreover, the plot casts Ezio in a rather poor light: he made a big mistake, and now he has to fix it, but considering the amount of faffing he gets up to once again, he doesn’t seem to be in too much hurry to do so. Then again, what are seven more years when you’ve already spent twenty doing who knows what, right?

ParatrooperCombat is virtually identical to ACII with some additional gadgets. Parachutes have already been mentioned, thus allowing Ezio to survive potentially lethal falls. Moreover, he now has poison darts, which spare him the trouble of walking up to guards to poison them, but also a crossbow, which has the advantage of a longer range over throwing knives and silence over the gun. What’s more, Ezio is now able to dual-wield, usually the gun alongside a sword. The most significant change, however, is the introduction of execution Learn it, love itstreaks. To wit: if you select a different enemy than the one Ezio is currently killing (it has to be in the middle of the killing animation), he’ll immediately kill him in one hit straight afterwards, and you can keep going until everyone’s dead. That is, provided you don’t get interrupted, as other enemies can attack you while you’re doing this. The key is pre-empting attacks by keeping an eye on their health bars. If one starts flashing, that enemy is about to attack, meaning that Ezio should target him next. It’s not always easy, but if you manage it, combat becomes a cakewalk. I’m not sure that’s an advantage, but there you have it. If you need practice, you have the Virtual Training Program, an upgrade to the Animus which allows Desmond to participate in a variety of simulations–both combat- and agility-related–as Ezio.

Gameplay also receives several noteworthy brushups. First of all, while Desmond simply had to perform a set goal during each of Altaïr’s and ACII Ezio’s memories, the new and The way you do the things you doupgraded Animus spices things up. Now, simply achieving the mission goal will only grant you 50% sync. If you want the full 100%, you’ll have to fulfil an additional requirement, such as completing the mission within a certain time, killing the target in a specific way or not falling into water (or some other equally arbitrary condition), presumably to do things exactly like Ezio did. I understand the developers’ desire to keep things challenging, but I found this change aggravating.

FireworksSecondly, instead of renovating Monteriggioni, you now renovate Rome. In order to start renovating a district, you have to free it from Borgia influence, which involves killing the local Templar captain, then setting fire to a lookout tower. You can then put shops back into business, renovate monuments (eg. the Coliseum) and sewer tunnels, which are a new addition to allow faster travel between the various districts, but also assign vacant buildings to various factions, thus strategically distributing groups of courtesans, mercenaries and thieves throughout the city. As if that weren’t enough, each faction now has a set of challenges Ezio can undertake (such as killing a certain number of guards with poison). There are various advantages to completing these (reduced hiring costs, new weapons), and they’re also needed for a trophy/achievement.

Have at them!Last but not least, the reason behind the game’s name: Assassin recruits. Partway through the storyline, Ezio will be able to help civilians being harassed by guards. In return, they will pledge themselves to the Assassin cause. Ezio can then send them on missions, which will gradually increase their rank. Mission difficulty is indicated by stars and a percentage of success. Obviously, you don’t want to send a fresh recruit on a 4-star mission: if they fail, they die, and you’ll have to recruit someone new. Recruits can be of either gender, depending on the location where you find them, and their names are randomised. You can change the colour of their outfits and, once they gain a level, Full-fledgedupgrade their weapons and armour. When they finally reach the rank of Assassin, you can travel back to the Assassin HQ to formally induct them into the Order via a ceremony. The advantages of recruits? Ezio can summon them in combat or have them unleash an arrow storm, which usually kills all soldiers in the immediate vicinity. Of course, this only makes fighting even easier…

Overall, I’d say that this game is a mixed bag at best. It does have its good moments, and after a while, you get into the old AC-swing of things. On the other hand, it also shows distinct signs of getting bogged down by bling. I was already concerned about excessive variety in ACII, and ACB only adds more chips to the pile. Ultimately, you’ll still wind up with a mountain of cash and a boatload of optional things to accomplish that make you lose track of the overall goal. On the other hand, if you just go for the overall goal with as few distractions as possible, you’d end up with a rather meagre story, more akin to a scraggly, underfed pony than a well-groomed, healthy purebred. Desmond’s plotline does get a rather shocking twist at the very end, but apart from that, it’s still as I kill you!dull as before and doesn’t help the rest of the game. I guess it’s not easy to deal with this sort of hybrid: crammed into ACII, the events would’ve felt inconsistent and tacked on. But, as a standalone game, it’s a bit too light, and, in the immortal words of Monty Python, I frequently found myself mentally telling Ezio to “get on with it”.

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.

A wolf in hero’s clothing

The culprit: The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (GameCube, Wii)

In the Zelda series, Ocarina of Time (or OoT) stands tall as a monument of greatness. It’s the most famous and the best-loved opus, and for those who have played it before Twilight Princess, it almost invariably wins by comparison. Well, not for me.

Of course, I recognise the older game’s merits and fully agree that it has earned its status. I’m aware how heavily it has influenced the series, Twilight Princess included. In fact, you’ll find many elements from OoT peppering the game: from Epona the Sharpshootinghorse, to the Gorons and Zoras, to the Temple of Time. Link also gets a female sidekick, although she’s a distinct step up from Navi. Even the controls are largely similar, involving quick-button mapping, lock-on targeting and so on. There’s also a musical element involved, although it’s significantly less prominent than in OoT (or in Majora’s Mask, or in The Wind Waker, for that matter). Still, even with all the borrowing going on, Twilight Princess is my favourite Zelda game to date.

The first reason, shallow as it may sound, would be the graphics. I’m sure that even the most diehard OoT fans will agree that N64 graphics weren’t exactly of the highest quality, and that they made numerous NPCs look really ugly. I mean nightmare-fuel ugly. Not so here: Twilight Princess is, first and foremost, lovely to look at. It couldn’t hold a candle to some of its contemporaries on beefier consoles, but that’s not really Dappled groundthe point. To me, the Zelda series has always had a fairytale-like quality to it, and this game does it ample justice. Whether it be the quaint Ordon village, where Link resides, the lush forest which surrounds it, the green fields of Hyrule, the sweeping expanse of Lake Hylia or the grandiose architecture of Hyrule Castle, every environment is bright, warm (well, except Snowpeak) and alive, striking what I find to be exactly the right note for this kind of game. All these locales are populated with quirky, colourful characters who no longer look like they’re auditioning for Playing the herothe latest Tim Burton film (well…mostly *edges slowly away from Fyer and Falbi*). Most importantly, the graphics greatly help in the expressiveness department, which is vital in making a silent protagonist relatable, and Link’s baby blues and sharp features have never looked so good. Especially since he spends the entire game as an adult, rather than switching between being 7 and 17, as he did in OoT.

The second reason is the gameplay. While the basics are essentially a direct copy of OoT, there is one major innovation. According to the storyline, the kingdom of Hyrule becomes parasitized by the Twilight Realm, a dimension which usually exists in parallel to the ‘normal’ world, but suddenly begins to manifest directly into it, shadowy black monsters included. It appears as a golden glow with dark particles rising up from the Lupine accessorisingground, and transforms Hyrule’s inhabitants into spirits. However, Link, who holds the Triforce of Courage, as he usually does in the series, reacts to it in quite a different way: he transforms into a large wolf. And while this feature unfortunately dwindles in importance as the game progresses, it nevertheless lends a welcome change of pace to several of the game’s sequences. Wolf Link may not be a genius swordsman or a master bowyer, but he’s fun and original to play as. Paradoxically enough, he is also instrumental in learning sword techniques: peppered around the world are stones with holes in them, which look like Gossip Wolf karaoke!Stones from OoT and produce a melody when the wind blows through them. By howling along with the melody (there’s your musical element), Wolf Link can trigger sequences which allow vanilla Link to perfect his swordplay. Some of these techniques are particularly handy, by the way, lending an extra layer of sophistication to combat.To continue in the gameplay department, one of the main features of any Zelda game are the various gadgets Link picks up during his travels, such as a boomerang or bombs. While the selection available in this game is fairly run-of-the-mill, it does feature three highlights. Bomb arrows–which, as their name implies, can be created by attaching a bomb to an arrow–allow for long-range destruction without the iffy aim of simply throwing a bomb (they can still detonate in Link’s face if not fired promptly, however). The double clawshot turns Link into a Spiderman-wannabe and allows him to perform aerial stunts. It is acquired and abundantly used in the infamous City in the Sky dungeon, which I must Spin it like you mean itpraise for its originality (especially the boss battle at the end), but also curse abundantly for its setting. I’m afraid of heights! Finally, you have the spinner, which is best described as a clockwork hoverboard. It can attach itself to grooves in walls, propelling Link along at high speeds, which makes the boss battle in the dungeon it’s acquired from a lot of fun.

The third reason is the supporting cast. I’m sure Navi was created with the best intentions in mind, but “hey listen!” got infuriating after a while. Tatl, her successor in Majora’s Mask, did little to improve the score with her rudeness. This time around, Link Giddy up!is (literally) saddled with Midna, a mischievous, imp-like inhabitant of the Twilight Realm who has a bone to pick with the game’s main antagonist, Zant. She finds him in his wolf form and proffers her help by riding on his back and using the decidedly strange properties of her hair (which can turn into a large hand…) to help him execute certain manoeuvres. When he is in Hylian form, she hides in his shadow and continues to supply guidance. Sounds like just another variation on the annoying-yet-lovable sidekick thus far, but Midna trumps her predecessors by dint of being a fully-fledged, sympathetic character and one of the main protagonists of the game, second Cuddlyonly to Link himself. Sure, Princess Zelda’s in there too, and she both offers and needs assistance as well, but she takes a definite backseat to the driving duo, the dynamics of which are one of the game’s main perks. Other than that, there’s also a handful of resistants to Zant’s rule who try their best to help Link, making him feel a bit more integrated than his ‘lone ranger’ persona in OoT. And I must also put a word in for the pair of yetis he runs into during his travels: the female one, aptly named Yeta, is all kinds of adorable. Even though she’s a crack snowboarder and may give you trouble in the minigame which involves challenging her and her husband Yeto for a piece of heart (hearts being the typical health-measuring unit in a Zelda game).

What IS this?With all this in mind, the game does have its flaws. For one thing, the Wii and GameCube versions are mirror images of each other: as Link is traditionally left-handed, but the Wiimote isn’t, the developers solved the problem by flipping the entire game over (so what’s east on the GameCube is west on the Wii). I’d classify it as a nitpick, but Link purists may disagree. Moving along, strange creatures called Oocca have been introduced, their main gameplay purpose being to serve as quicksave points within dungeons, allowing Link to exit and come back in where he left off. I suppose this could be handy, if you found you needed to leave a dungeon for whatever reason, but I don’t think I’ve ever used them, so I find it a supremely superfluous feature. Not to mention that they look downright disturbing. There are still minigames, as mentioned earlier, usually for winning heart pieces, but if you were looking for a challenge, you may be disappointed. None of them reach the punishing heights of the archery challenges in OoT or Majora’s Mask. I actually thought that was a good thing, but your mileage may vary. However, if Sinister escortyou were getting tired of the formulaic nature of the Zelda series, this won’t be the game to change your opinion, as it is not only the spiritual successor to OoT, but retains many traditional elements of the series as well. This notably applies to the villain department. While Zant is a successfully nefarious presence for the greater part of the game, his charisma takes a nosedive towards the end, and Ganondorf still turns out to be the big bad. That being said, you do get the satisfaction Horseback heroicsof a bona fide, one-on-one swordfight between him and Link. And you could put the repetitiveness in a different perspective. Twilight Princess could be perceived as the culminating point of the OoT formula in the series. That’s certainly what it felt like to me.

The fine art of farniente

The culprit: Assassin’s Creed II (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC)

SerenissimaLet’s get this straight out there: Assassin’s Creed II is, quite simply, a better game than its predecessor. Great care has obviously been paid to varying the gameplay, streamlining old and new features, and enhancing the storyline. The plot is set in a more famous, and therefore more recognisable, environment (Renaissance Italy, rather than Medieval Syria and Palestine), and introduces a flashier protagonist, with the end result that it tends to overshadow its predecessor. And yet, in spite of the first game’s flaws, I could never shake the feeling that the second opus had lost part of its soul under all that bling. Don’t get me wrong: ACII is a lot of fun. But there were moments when I found myself missing the leaner, sterner world of its older brother.

The game starts exactly where AC left off. Desmond–he of the infinite charisma (not)–is rescued from the Abstergo lab where he was being held by Lucy, the assistant in his previous memory-delving adventures who actually turns out to be an Assassin, and two of her comrades. They take him to a secret location and hook him up to a better Animus You want me to do what?machine to send him into the memories of a more recent ancestor, the Florentine nobleman Ezio Auditore, in the hopes that it’ll help them find a Piece of Eden. The story is still split between Ezio’s sequences and Desmond’s, and the latter now at least has more partners in crime. Rebecca’s one of those hacker-types–short hair, funky clothes, headphones–with a perky, upbeat attitude, while Shaun is the prim, British-accented history geek with a degree in deadpan snark. Lucy’s also gotten an upgrade: from unremarkable lab mouse to…goggle-eyed and fish-lipped trendy babe in skinny jeans and a form-hugging top. Yeah…The modern-day sequences now also include a chance for Desmond to put all the moves he learned in his virtual escapades to the test. Although, seeing him perform those acrobatics in his baggy jeans, hoodie and sneakers was distinctly less glamourous than long white assassin robes and leather boots. Doesn’t help that he’s still completely unremarkable as a character. Just as Altaïr stole the show in AC, Ezio also steals the show this time around.

As has already been mentioned, the three operative words are variety, streamlining and enhancement.  And boy, is there a LOT of the former. The new and upgraded Animus features a historical database, which provides bite-sized info about notorious landmarks and characters. Ezio has access to more weapons (a second hidden blade, maces, smoke bombs…even a prototype gun) and armour, all of which he can upgrade, or, in the case of armour, repair, as it gets damaged in combat (which is a distinctly annoying feature). He also has more acrobatics at his command, such as assassinating targets When all else fails, use waterwhile hiding in bales of hay. He can disarm enemies in combat, poison them, toss sand in their faces to disorient them; he can also ride gondolas, and, most satisfyingly, swim. Which is handy, since one of the cities he visits is Venice. The conveniently placed groups of monks which allowed Altaïr to inconspicuously enter guarded areas have been replaced with various factions that Ezio can hire for the same purpose: courtesans, who can distract guards by shaking booty, thieves, who can steal their stuff to have them give chase, or mercenaries, who will simply go in and bash some heads. There is a day and night cycle, which, apart from varying the atmosphere, also comes into play in certain missions. Ezio now also has a homebase in the small Tuscan town of Monteriggioni, which he can renovate and upgrade (notably by buying famous Renaissance paintings) to earn regular income, as the game now features an economic They never said I'd have to do thiiiiiiiis!system, complete with merchants and even street doctors. There are a lot more sidequests, in particular the Templar Lairs and Assassin Tombs, which consist of some advanced platforming and reward Ezio with money and, in the case of the latter, special seals which eventually grant access to Altaïr’s black Master Assassin outfit (yum). There are also some strange blips in the Animus interface, which appear as shining glyphs on buildings and allow Desmond to solve some puzzles left behind by Subject 16, his defunct predecessor at Abstergo.

Adorkable geniusMuch like Desmond, Ezio is also surrounded by a more varied and more interesting cast of secondary characters. Among those, the biggest highlight is, undoubtedly, a young Leonardo da Vinci, with whom Ezio becomes good friends, and who helps him decipher some of Altaïr’s documents which he fortuitously finds. Leo is fun, chatty, endlessly enthusiastic, scatterbrained and just eminently huggable. And, thanks to the new system of cutscene interaction (an upgrade of AC’s camera angle changes), whereby you can be prompted to press some buttons to affect Ezio’s actions during some cutscenes, you can do just that. And beware Leo’s kicked-puppy eyes if you miss that hug! Other memorable additions include Caterina Sforza, the willful, intelligent and crafty ruler of Forli, or Rosa, a gutsy, very pretty and very foul-mouthed thief whom Ezio encounters in Venice. On a less serious note, there’s also Uncle Mario, whose claim to fame is the infamous “it’s-a me, Mario!” shout-out.

Noooo, there's THREE of them!As far as streamlining is concerned, the controls are more fluid, and there seem to be fewer bugs. The horrible beggar women have been replaced by the no less persistent, but much more amusing minstrels. Those will run up to Ezio and sing utter nonsense (“here comes a brave signoooreeee”), both hampering his movements and drawing attention to him until he either outruns them, knocks their lutes out of their hands or throws some money on the ground to send his immediate entourage, both rich and poor, frantically scrabbling for it. Flag collection still exists, but has been pared down to reduce tedium. Ezio now also has a notoriety meter, which rises when he performs risky or illegal acts in front of guards, and gradually makes him easier to detect. It can be reduced either by ripping off wanted posters, bribing town criers or assassinating corrupt officials. Oh, and a small detail which nevertheless makes me happy: Ezio has an accent. I missed that with Altaïr.

Horseback chopFinally, we come to storyline enhancement. Where Altaïr’s plotline basically boiled down to “here’s a hit list, do your worst”, Ezio’s tale is more linear, but also more personal, growing from revenge into commitment to a greater cause. Paradoxically though, this kind of presentation makes Ezio’s targets less memorable. Sure, there’s his first victim and the big bad at the end, but the people he kills in between? I couldn’t name them to save my life, and this despite the fact that their portraits are displayed in Monteriggioni after the fact. By contrast, I can still remember every one of Altaïr’s targets, and the unique settings for their assassinations. The other problem of the storyline is that it spans about twenty years, rather than just a couple of You call this old?!months. I’m sure the idea was to give it more scope, but it just doesn’t work very well. The only character who shows any signs of aging is Ezio, and even that is limited to…growing a beard. The only other indication that time has passed is the date which appears onscreen between chapters. Sometimes, the temporal gaps are downright baffling. Surely, someone with such a burning desire for revenge wouldn’t spend so much time doing…what exactly?

This brings us to the inevitable Altaïr vs Ezio showdown. The general opinion appears to be largely in favour of the latter, and this is easily understood: he’s depicted as far more human. He’s fiery, cocky, has a sense of humour and, upholding the most typical cliché about Italian men, is a total playboy. In short, the dashing rogue type. And yet, I couldn’t help feeling that this kind of personality didn’t quite befit an assassin. Altaïr may have been an arrogant jerk, but he was efficient, focussed, shady, and, to me, a lot more believable in his role. Ezio…just spends a whole lot of time faffing about. Defending a Hey, Lorenzo, d'you think I could maybe do my own stuff now?lady from an importunate suitor? Ezio to the rescue! A thief wants some racing practice? Ezio’s happy to oblige! And, what’s most detrimental to his integrity: his involvement with Lorenzo de Medici, whom he saves from an attempt on his life, only to become…his lackey. Lorenzo wants anything done? Ezio’s on it! No wonder the game has to span twenty years.

This, in turn, showcases the flipside of the lavish amounts of variety in the game. Weapons? All you ever really need are the hidden blades. Upgrading the villa? Ezio ends up sitting on a mountain of money he doesn’t know what to do with. Helper factions? They all amount to the same thing. Random sidequests? After a while, you He has his own way of walking off into the sunsetstart forgetting what your main goal in the storyline was. And much as I enjoyed running around familiar cities and scaling monuments I’d visited in real life, sightseeing isn’t all the Assassin’s Creed series is about. Still, don’t let this deter you: the game is definitely a terrific romp.

Mean, green failing machine

The culprit: Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (Nintendo Entertainment System, Gamecube, Wii and Nintendo 3DS, via Virtual Console)

Inspirational logoBeing a notorious completionist, when I enjoy a series, I eventually foray into its earliest installments. Partly out of curiosity to see the evolution over the years. Partly to be aware of the overarching story, if there is one. This is how I got around to Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. Having bought the Collector’s Edition for the Gamecube, which included Ocarina of TimeMajora’s Mask and the first two Zelda games, I thought that this was a good occasion for some videogame archaeology. I should’ve known what to expect before even starting. Maybe I don’t have the best reflexes in the world, and maybe I’m just no good at oldschool games, but I still have nightmarish memories of the first opus in the series: unforgivably difficult, no story to speak of, no indications as to the order in which to do things. Well, Zelda II is the same. But worse.

Serious case of oversleepingIn terms of storyline, it’s a direct sequel to the first game (one of the rare instances of such continuity within the series). This doesn’t really amount to much, however, since it takes place several years later. Link is older, and Zelda isn’t the same one as in the first game, but rather an ancestor, asleep in a remote chamber of the castle under the effects of a curse (now why does this sound familiar…?). So they may just as well have been different characters altogether. Just like in most of the other games in the series.

Blob attackAs for the gameplay, picture a hybrid between an old Super Mario game and an RPG. And no, you don’t get Legend of the Seven Stars (if only!), but rather some kind of unholy offspring. It comes as no surprise that this system has never been reused in the series since. There’s an overworld map, peppered with dungeons and visible enemies. Running into one of them or entering a dungeon plonks Link into a sidescrolling environment. He gets three lives and gains experience points in battle. Pretty bizarre for a Zelda game, but that’s not a problem in itself. If Link loses a life, he restarts at the entrance to the area. But god forbid you should actually get a Game Over (ie. lose all three of Link’s lives). Because that takes him back to the first area of the game. Meaning that he’ll have to Straight to the pointtrek all the way to where he was before dying. I’ll just let you imagine how that feels when you’re nearing the end of the game. And three lives whisk by very quickly. Especially since there’s no permanent way to obtain more; every time you get a Game Over, you’re brought back to three. Of course, there’s the slight additional problem that getting a Game Over is the only way to save. Yeap.

8-bit nightmareSo you’d think that avoiding a Game Over would be a good idea. That would be underestimating the combat system. Forget about steep learning curves. Or even 90° ones. In this game, the learning curve forms an acute angle. I actually had to give up trying to play it on my Gamecube and resort to a NES emulator. So I could, y’know, save. Otherwise, I’d still be trying to finish the first dungeon. And I really wish I was kidding. Not only are there very limited ways of recovering Link’s HP and magic power in the field (a handful of potions can be found or dropped after a battle), but the enemies are brutally unforgiving. Especially Iron Just *what* is he shooting?Knuckles, who have mind-bogglingly amazing AI for a NES game. If you thought they were hard in any of the subsequent Zelda games, you’ve got another one coming. The blue ones are particularly bad. They continuously chuck swords, of which they have an infinite supply. This is probably the closest thing to actual Sword-Chucks that you’ll find outside of 8-Bit Theater. It also looks profoundly dodgy when they switch to leg strikes.

Don't mind if I do!To compensate for the hair-tearing difficulty, the game offers a few chuckles at its own expense. Link–who is an adult in this game (another rare instance in the series)–allows himself some GTA-like escapades, as if the game were having a bizarre premonitory, cross-genre flash. Every town has a woman in a red dress walking around in front of a house. If Link talks to her, she invites him to come in. And then, all you see is his life bar filling up. Hey, even 8-bit studs need their action. However, this becomes a lot more disturbing when it comes to recovering magic power. The method is exactly the same, but Link has to talk to a little granny instead…who then gives him her ‘special medicine’.

I think I just had a revelationAmong other laughable details, there’s the translation, featuring such timeless classics as the “N°3 TRIFORCE”. Or “I AM ERROR”, one of the unforgettable–and oddly philosophical, when you think about it–responses Link will get during his sometimes baffling encounters with the denizens of the game. Or the Spell spell. Talk about stating the obvious. Or does Link have orthography problems? There’s also the aptly named Fairy spell, which is used to fly over obstacles. It transforms Link into one of those cute lil’ fairies that are commonly used to replenish health in Zelda games, complete with a red dress and a little crown. So not only does it shrink him and allow him to fly, but he also gets a sex change thrown in. It’s got to be one of the most impressive magic spells I’ve ever encountered. I’m sure Tingle, the incredibly creepy fairy guy from Majora’s Mask, would’ve loved the concept.

SPLAT!In conclusion, if you’re ever tempted, for some unfathomable reason, to try this game out, just pray you can get through it without terminal finger cramps. And never look back. Thank god that Zelda has evolved since then. That’s probably the one good thing I got out of this experience: a better appreciation of the more recent Zelda opuses. Nostalgia is all well and good, but you gotta be realistic sometimes: not everything was better back in Ye Olde Days.

Fly like an eagle

The culprit: Assassin’s Creed (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC)

I’ve always been wary of action games, because I tend to think too much before acting, and was concerned that my reflexes wouldn’t be up to the task. However, as time went by, the ‘you won’t know until you try’ credo grew on me, and I decided to expand my game collection with new genres. One of my friends pointed out that I couldn’t own an Xbox 360 and not try out Assassin’s Creed, and since the premise of the game already intrigued me, that finalised my decision.

The overall verdict is a favourable one. But I must say that both the storyline and characters left me with dual impressions. Incarnating a skilled Assassin is great fun, and Altaïr is undoubtedly one of the biggest highlights of the game: the sleek moves, the sneakiness, the arrogance, the taciturnity, the beauty and symbolism of the name. Even the missing finger. There’s just one problem: why can’t he swim? I know the sequel cooked up a dubious retroactive explanation, but it still seems a bit absurd. I’ve run into enough mishaps trying to make him cross bodies of water to make this a particularly annoying trait. But that’s just about his only drawback.

However, since Altaïr isn’t the ‘real’ hero of the game (pfff, as if!), that leaves us with Desmond, Altaïr’s descendent in modern times, as the main protagonist. And he has the charisma of a wet sock. Apart from the odd sarcastic quip, there isn’t a single interesting thing about him. Sure, he looks identical to Altaïr, but looks alone do not a compelling character make. Sorry, Des, you should have gotten yourself a personality instead.

The storyline suffers from the same duality. The gist is that there are two opposing factions, Assassins and Templars, who have faced each other throughout history. In the near future, Desmond, who is an Assassin by training, gets captured by a Templar-led company named Abstergo. They have a machine, called the Animus, which allows Desmond to relive the memories of his ancestors (which are somehow hardcoded within his DNA), a process Abstergo needs to locate something. So off goes Desmond into the skin of Altaïr, a Syrian Assassin from the XIIth century. This Medieval part of the game works very well, and some of Altaïr’s assassinations are truly memorable. Garnier de Naplouse, the Hospitalier leader, springs to mind: very convincingly unsettling, and the setting for his episode was well-nigh perfect. On top of that, I like the sonorities of his name, for some reason. Anyway, I’m sure all this would’ve constituted enough material for a game on its own. The modern-day part just feels tacked on and uninteresting. Perhaps because it features Desmond. Perhaps because it’s simply innately boring.

Since this was my first real action game, I apprehended the combat. The stealthy stuff, such as making Altaïr creep up on an unsuspecting victim and swiftly stick a knife in their back, came naturally enough (take that as you will…). But open combat took some work. It was simply a matter of getting used to it, and it won’t pose any particular challenge to action game veterans, but I did have to give my reflexes a bit of a shake to get used to blocking and countering, which is, by far, the most efficient way of fighting in this game. Still, once I’d come to grips with the technique, it became a treat to watch Altaïr stabbing his way through hapless soldiers who had no idea what hit them. I must really commend the combat choreography, by the way. In the hands of a skilled player, it looks like some sort of deadly dance.

The sandbox aspect of the game does its job well, and if you’ve played any of Ubisoft’s Prince of Persia games, you’ll be right at home with Altaïr’s acrobatics, even though he’s less of a gymnast than the Prince. Playing Spiderman among the rooftops is thoroughly entertaining. Scaling minarets and belfries to get an overview of the area and then swallow-diving off them (into haystacks…which should be lethal, but who needs realism, right?) is a novel way to fill in the area map, and the views themselves are impressive, especially for someone who’s afraid of heights, like me. The leap from the cross of the cathedral of Acre–the tallest building in the game–was a particularly intense moment.

Other positive aspects include graphics and…language. Despite some of the textures seeming overly sharp (I’m not sure how else to describe it), the game looks good. An added peculiarity is that each of the three big cities Altaïr visits has its own unobtrusive, but present colour palette: Acre has a bluish hue, Damascus red and Jerusalem green. As for the linguistic aspect, it’s noteworthy for its accuracy. Historical facts may have been doctored to make for a more exciting experience–most of Altaïr’s targets were real historical figures, but they weren’t quite as…colourful as in the game–, but the language is spot-on. Ubisoft is a French company, so it stands to reason that they’d know their stuff, but hearing a proper French accent in an Anglo-Saxon game is a rare enough occurrence to be noteworthy. Even random soldiers who spoke entirely in French (“Je vais t’étriper!”) were perfectly fluent. Same for the German, as far as I could tell. Details, I know, but they help the immersion. The only thing that could’ve made it better would’ve been if Altaïr himself had an accent.

The bane of Altaïr's existenceHowever, there are also negative elements. To start with the anecdotic, the beggar women who plague every city are the devil incarnate (“I’m poor and sick and hungry!”); if you don’t know what I mean, play the game, and you soon will. Secondly, and more importantly, a lot of people complain about the game’s repetitiveness, and while I found the context of each assassination episode to be interesting enough to make up for the fact that you essentially had to do the same thing every time, I can certainly concur. You’ll definitely get a sense of déjà vu after a while. And it will onlyFlagged get worse if you decide to go flag hunting: I’m really wondering why the developers felt the need to put so many of them in the game. There are also quite a few glitches (think random non-playable characters in gravity-defying positions on rooftops), which give the game a bit of an unpolished feel. The music is adequate, but nothing more. And, last but certainly not least, the ending is terrible. I understand that the developers likely wanted a tie-in with the sequel, but they probably got a tad overzealous. It’s as if the game didn’t end at all.

Nevertheless, I still had a great time. The initial concept is original enough to outweigh the kinks in execution, at least for me, and if the rest of the series is anything to go by, the developers do take account of the criticism they receive. Subsequent games have made a genuine effort to streamline the gameplay. I still far prefer Altaïr to his successor, Ezio, though. So here’s to the original four-fingered stabbing wonder.