A free, once-weekly round-up of all the best Nintendo Switch links, articles and videos from the past seven days.
published Thursday, Jan 12th

Dungeon Defenders Review

The premise in Trendy Entertainment’s PSN tower defense game Dungeon Defenders is simple at heart but takes time to master.

Players are initially challenged to defend their single Eternia Crystal from the hoards of enemies looking to destroy it. This can be achieved through the use of building protective structures that act automatically to attack or repel any foes that cross its path. The difficulty ramps up significantly throughout the numerous levels, and as the number of crystals you have to defend increases so to do the access routes for enemies to reach their destructive goal.

Despite this simple premise being worthy of a game in its own right, the developer wasn’t content with a simple tower defense game so instead decided to up the ante with some added action RPG elements.

published Monday, Jun 20th

Dungeons & Dragons: Daggerdale Review

It has been seven years since the last Dungeons and Dragons game was released for consoles. This new downloadable offering from Bedlam Games and Wizards of the Coast returns us to the forgotten realms in search of gold, adventure and probably a few goblins to kill as well.

published Tuesday, Mar 15th

Dragon Age II Review

Dragon Age II isn’t a direct continuation of 2009’s Origins title but does happen to be set in the same world. The focus this time is on the adventures of Hawke, a former resident of the land of Fereldan, who players join as he flees the deadly Blight with his family. He then takes up residence in the nearby town of Kirkwall where events unfold further.

published Wednesday, Dec 01st

Costume Quest Review

It’s very rare that a game releases at a specific time of year to match its content. This however is the case with Costume Quest, the latest offering from Double Fine Productions, who have timed their downloadable title to match the spooky holiday of Halloween.

published Tuesday, Apr 06th

Pokemon Heart Gold & Soul Silver Review

It’s hard to believe it’s been 15 years since Nintendo unleashed Pocket Monsters upon an unsuspecting public. The franchise’s phenomenal success surprised everyone, including Nintendo themselves, but there were still some critics that saw it as just another childish fad. While interest may have cooled a bit in the west, the franchise remains as popular as ever in Japan, pulling in sales figures in the millions. The series’ high point is undoubtedly the first set of sequels, released on the Game Boy Color in 2000/2001. There were more new features in these than the rest of the later sequels put together. Pokemon breeding, dual battles, day/night cycles and extensive ‘post-credits’ quests were all features established in the second generation, and have been present in every iteration since.

Nintendo has now refitted the second set of Pokemon titles for release on the DS. Though while they may seem like a cynical cash-in, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

When the first set of games were re-released on the Game Boy Advance as Fire Red and Leaf Green, Nintendo gave them a bit of a lick of paint and added a few extra features. Heart Gold and Soul Silver have themselves been spruced up a bit graphically, but Nintendo have included far more extra content than they did in FR & LG. For starters, some of the features from the later two generations have been slotted into HG & SS, like the Battle Frontier and Pal Park. But perhaps the biggest and most significant additions are the all-new Pokeathlon (a series of ‘Pokemon Olympic’ events, controlled via the stylus), and the surprisingly fun little freebie, the Pokewalker.

It’s essentially just a simple pedometer, but its application in the world of Pokemon adds a new dimension to the gameplay. Pokemon can be transferred to the Pokewalker and then carried around with you as you go about your daily business. Every step in the real world equates to one experience point for your chosen partner; for every twenty you’ll build up watts, a special in-game currency. Watts can then be used to unlock new locations to walk in, or for two simple mini-games included on the Pokewalker, which allow you to find items or Pokemon along the way. Presumably the device is meant to encourage fat ten-year olds to get out of the house and get some exercise, but it’s still an addictive little distraction nonetheless.

So the new features fit in well, but what about the original stuff? Does it remain as addictive as our sepia-toned memories might suggest? Well, this could be down to personal opinion but the simple answer is this is Pokemon as it’s always been: complex, engaging and full of charm. The nostalgia factor is definitely there for those who have travelled the length and breadth of the Johto world already, and newcomers can look forward to the biggest and best Pokemon adventure yet. HG & SS represent Pokemon in its purest form, before the world was filled with hundreds of insignificant monsters, dozens of ‘legendaries’ and pointless side games (like the beauty pageants).

There are a few minor flaws lingering in the series that Nintendo seem averse to correcting. Pokemon are still represented by simple sprite art, which, as charming as it might be, could really do with being a bit more dynamic. The over-world graphics, while functional, are far from pushing the DS hardware much. Finally, the game structure is beginning to feel a little tired now and could do with a shake up. Nintendo will certainly need to look into rebooting some aspects of the series in any future editions if they want to hold gamers’ interest.

These issues can’t take the shine off what is an epic and enthralling return to the series’ glory days. The core gameplay is still as addictive as it ever was, with hundreds of golden gaming hours to be had, marking this as yet another essential DS title. Perhaps the next editions will take the series in a new direction, but for now these titles stand as a fond celebration of the world of Pokemon at its best.

published Wednesday, Feb 17th

Mass Effect 2 Review

With a huge marketing push thanks to adverts almost everywhere, it was clear that no self-respecting gamer would miss out on the hype surrounding Mass Effect 2. The original 2007 sci-fi role-playing-game turned a lot of heads, but was ultimately disappointing due to the clear flaws in technicalities, such as texture loading and low frame rate. Fortunately, Mass Effect 2 is much improved on its predecessor in a number of areas.

The key of any role-playing title is the storyline progression. Mass Effect 2 starts almost straight after the original game with a powerful opening event which is critical in setting the stage for the entire game. Without revealing any spoilers, protagonist Shepard, willingly or not, joins a group named Cerberus, who’s leader, The Illusive Man, assures that you are the only hope for the human race, with colonies disappearing at the hand of a mysterious enemy. Without going into too much detail, the opening sequence allows for new players to customise their character to how they desire in gender, facial features and class.

For those that have played and finished Mass Effect, they will have the option to import their character and the decisions they made in the original game, to the new story. The effect of doing this contributes to the plot in surprising depth. The information taken into account includes what experience level the game ended at, whether Paragon or Renegade is more affiliated and more importantly, which characters had lived or passed through your actions. If imported, the Galaxy is shaped with very little input at the start of the game. On the other hand, once the plot begins to unravel subtle – but key – questions are asked of Shepard to determine what the player wants to have happen as a consequence of the events in Mass Effect. For both new players and those that want to tweak their world, this offers an accessible and sensible way for players to become familiar with what happens at the games opening.

What has been made clear in various trailers and the broad advertisements is that some portion of the game requires the collection of specialist personnel in order to tackle this threat to humanity. In fact this takes up most of the game, keeping the ‘suicide mission’ in secrecy until the time is right. There is a long list of various characters and personalities for the player to pick and choose from, the hard part being actually finding the individuals and persuading them to join the team.

There are three main areas which you can travel to on the world map, all with a vast city-like structure, including the space station Citadel. The populated areas are small, but suitable for what is required of them. These locations host the interactive non-player characters, shops with research upgrades to purchase for weapons, armour and your ship, and minor assignments or side missions. The large missions never take place within these locations, but are placed as a linear offset, with apt loading screens depicting direction of travel, rather than the famous elevator sequences. The ship is the main hub for the entire game. It holds all of the crew, teammates, and allied recruits that you have picked up from across the galaxy.

Since a large sum of the game is set finding key characters for the squad, each of them have been really fleshed out and have unique personalities. Should the recruitment process be successful loyalty missions are asked of Shepard, helping to resolve personal matters, looking into the history, and what has brought the characters to what they are. The quests are not necessarily combat based, some may not have any at all.

Conversation and problem resolution plays the other half of the Mass Effect experience. Paragon and Renegade are the two extremes of the approach that can be Shepard. In any talk, whether it is with a love interest or someone holding a gun to your head, there are plenty of options with everything in between the two persuasions. In Mass Effect 2 there are added interrupts that can totally change the direction. Assigned to the two triggers if an approach isn’t going as planned, a pop up appears should a Paragon or Renegade resolution appeal to the situation. The conversations arguably have the most significant effect on the game. Whether you hit the Batarian on the head with the wrench or not can have a massive outcome, and as the player it is both unpredictable and terribly exciting.

An armoury, wardrobe and research station are onboard for that important change in equipment. The wardrobe allows for Shepard to be outfitted in whatever the player think suits. Casual clothes and armour are available to buy from shops in market areas, or to download from the Cerberus Network; the feature which hosts downloadable content, requiring a code, and designed to encourage new game sales. Upgrades for armour and weapons are made possible by the collection of elements both on the surface and through the vehicle exploration of the galaxy.

The ship is available to roam the game world, orbiting planets, searching for ‘anomalies’ or distress calls (providing short side missions), and collecting 4 chemical elements necessary for the research. The surface transporter, Mako, has been scrapped and replaced by a drop-off shuttle, should there be somewhere to land. By scanning the planet and launching probes to collect any material that is found, quantities of Element Zero, Iridium, Palladium, and Platinum can be gathered and then used at a research station. Hours can be sucked into the quest for more and more of each item; a process that can become quite addictive. Experience is gained after each mission or assignment, no matter how small, and with each level points can be added to upgrade powers and abilities.

When each is fully upgraded there is a choice between two specialties, often just a choice between a stronger or more widespread attack. The armoury holds the weaponry of the game, split into expanded catagories such as machine pistol and heavy pistol. It is never made possible to buy weapons at any part of the game; instead there are just a small number of weapons available to collect out in the field, or to be given to you during the course of the game. Other loot can be found by hacking wall safes or bypassing doors, both introducing a new mini game – matching up nodes on a circuit board, and matching segments of code on a scrolling screen. These offer just the right of challenge to begin with, but lack of variation makes them a trivial task by the end stretches of the game, especially when most of them just offer credits.

The combat is much more action orientated, like a shooter, than in its predecessor. If the role playing elements have been reduced, then the encounters have been honed. Cover is more of a critical factor and there is much more of a tactical approach placed on powers and ammo types. As there is no direct control of teammates, the radial wheel comes into function for Shepard to command the use of available powers on selected enemies or (often explosive) objects. This is great as it also pauses the game for an overview of the situation and allows for the biotic powers, such as pull or push, to be quite precise. The directional pad can be used to direct the two squad members to take cover separately, a useful override if the AI isn’t doing exactly what you had planned. For Shepard, health is regained by sitting behind cover. The Mass Effect medi-gel can now only be used to revive the two teammates that are chosen to bring on the mission, should they fall in battle. The broader range of weapons no longer overheat, but instead they all use universal heat-sink ammo that needs to be ejected. All of this streamlines the combat, making it much simpler and action focused.

The majority of the enemies are from one of the three mercenary organisations, which seem to be a major player in the game from being non-existent in Mass Effect. Blue Suns, Blood Pack, and Eclipse have most of the races in their ranks, including an army of robot ‘mechs’ and provide most of the opposition when recruiting the team. Also present are the Collectors, notable from Mass Effect downloadable content, and the Geth also have a minor presence. The many different angles in the game can also have an effect on combat situations, such as re-programming mechs to work against the enemy, a quirky touch by the developers.

The scope of different characters in the game is what sets the Mass Effect universe apart from any other in the science fiction genre. Although Mass Effect 2 has less of an open world feel to it and more like a series of linked linear areas, it does not take away from the scope of the universe ahead. The end portion of the game is shrouded in mystery until the player decides to jump in, and provides a heart racing climax to the paced storyline. The statistic tracking and other role playing features might have been toned down for the sequel, but Bioware has definitely improved the depth in each of the characters and the game world. With just enough fiction and role-playing to satisfy the fan, and plenty of emphasis on tactical combat, there is plenty in this game to satisfy all parties.

Mass Effect 2 has made significant improvements in regards to presentation, with a wealthy bank of smooth animations for each of the characters and the game looking graphically superior than the original from the offset. Problems that haunted Mass Effect have almost been eradicated, with only one or two instances of sluggish frame rates and texture loading in the many hours spent exploring the galaxy. With that many options the game is as shallow or deep as the player wants to make it, with more than 35 hours of gameplay on offer for those wanting to see it.

Mass Effect 2 arguably could be the most improved video game sequel ever and if not, it is a seriously satisfying, engaging and most importantly, fun game in any case.

published Saturday, Feb 06th

The Zombie Island Of Dr. Ned – Borderlands DLC Review

When Capcom announced they were working on a new instalment of their ‘vs’ crossover fighting series, the chances of a western release were somewhere between slim and none. Firstly, the game would be matching Capcom’s popular fighting roster with those of manga powerhouse, Tatsunoko – a company with very little exposure outside Japan. Secondly, the Wii, a format not known or built for traditional beat-em-ups, was chosen as the sole home platform. To cap it off, the amount of effort involved in localising the title, including sorting out the tricky issue of licences, appeared too great for Capcom to bother with.

But Capcom have realised (more than any gaming company this gen) that listening to the whims of your fan base can reap big rewards, and Tatsunoko vs Capcom generated a lot of interest from western gamers when it was first announced. To cut a long story short, Capcom have gone through all the necessary hoops and here we are, with the PAL version sitting in our excited laps.

T vs C uses the same gameplay elements as previous versus titles like Marvel vs Capcom; it’s a 2-D fighter with 2 v 2 tag-team bouts. Characters can be switched on the fly or brought into the battle for a single ‘assist’ attack or a larger combo attack. Attacks are performed using three buttons (high-medium-low) instead of the six used for Street Fighter and similar titles. Despite appearing simplified on the surface, there are still the usual combos, specials, hyper specials and counter moves you’d expect from a fighting game. Capcom have succeeded in creating a control system that is both accessible to newcomers and yet deep enough to satisfy hardcore fighting fans. Button bashers may get a few cheap wins against lower level foes but to really excel against good players it takes quite a bit of time and effort to master the move sets and apply them in the heat of battle.

The list of combatants available is very impressive, despite the unknown roster on the Tatsunoko side, with 26 in all. Capcom themselves have got some iconic characters from franchises like Street Fighter and Mega Man, plus a few unexpected appearances, like Viewtiful Joe, Frank West (Dead Rising) and Soki from Onimusha. The Tatsunoko characters may not be well-known over here, but that doesn’t mean they are weaker fighters. Far from it actually – give them a few minutes and you’ll find them to be just as accessible and fun to play with as any of Capcom’s famous faces. Ryu and Ken the Eagle will soon feel as natural a pairing as peanut butter and jam. Overpowered characters were one of the concerns in the Japanese release but this has been tidied up considerably in the western version – the result is almost on a par with Street Fighter 4 in terms of variety and balance.

The same can be said about the game’s presentation, which replaces the 2D sprite art of previous versus titles with something a little closer to Street Fighter 4’s stylised 3D look. Character models have a soft cel-shaded, almost comic book, look to them which happily accommodates both the realistic characters and Tatsunoko’s manga style. The arenas are also very detailed, impressively capturing the look of the various games they have been plucked from.

We couldn’t end a review without mentioning the online modes. In a nut-shell, the online experience is far and away the most pleasing of any Wii game we’ve tried so far. Battles have been completely lag-free and setting up matches against friends or random challengers are mostly pain-free. Capcom have shown Nintendo how to handle online fights, putting Smash Bros Brawl to shame, and the only let down is the inclusion of friend codes, but then that is more an issue from Nintendo’s side. Capcom have also come up with a novel idea to stop people quitting before ranked matches have ended, a problem rife in SF IV. Persistant quitters will find themselves pitted against other quitters when they try and start another ranked match. This makes us smile inside.

Capcom really can do no wrong at the moment and this is yet another high moment. The game is a series of triumphs; the excellent control system, the near-perfect character balance, the wealth of extras and the solid online modes all make this a true success story. Wii owners who are itching for a decent fighter should look no further, and fans of SF IV or the previous versus games really ought to pick this up as it is hands-down one of the best fighters of this or any generation.

The story of this game’s journey to a western release has been a long and intriguing one. Hopefully Capcom will get the happy ending they deserve and we’ll get the chance to get our hands on a sequel.

published Saturday, Feb 06th

Borderlands Review

Gearbox Software has been in operation since 1999, but despite an army of Brothers in Arms games under their belt, they have rarely created anything unique. With this in mind, don’t be too quick to judge their new IP Borderlands. It may be a first person shooter, but it stands out from the regular stream of these games with some well implemented role playing elements.

The game comprises of a story mode, where you take one of four available characters through a fairly straightforward plot. The game sets the scene of a once in a lifetime opportunity to obtain the fabled treasures of the ‘Vault’, only available once every 200 years on the planet of Pandora. Pandora is, for the most part of the game, a canyon filled desert environment with a basic human existence. With a few exceptions, most of the areas that are encountered have an impression that life is hard to live, despite marks of a technologically advanced background in wind turbines, Bioshock style vending machines for health, ammo and weapons, and even teleportation terminals. The world is scattered with a range of human characters, varied wild creatures, and delightful robots named Claptraps.

Where none of these have a particular depth in personality, the superb voice acting adds more to the believability of the world that has been created. The Claptraps are small, loveable robots that have no real bearing on the storyline, but their coupling with slapstick humour and hilarious dialogue give them more depth than their gate keeper roles. There are two main ‘safe’ areas in the game. Fyrestone and New Haven have a populace of which you can trade and obtain side quests from, and the discovery of the two areas define the distinct halves of the game. The world is not one large area, but is split into named locations with access points, and these two towns offer the focal point from which to branch off from in the quest for the Vault.

All areas of the game look fantastic with a particular cell shaded style. The use of a slight cartoon theme in the desert and eventual alpine locations adds to the humour in the characters and takes the storyline away from any distinct realism. The figures and two-man vehicles don’t do a lot with animations, but also keeps up with the production value of the rest of the game.

Beginning on a bus journey, you gain entrance to the first location, Fyrestone, where each of the playable characters is displayed for comparison. As you depart a guardian angel figure appears (which is not too far from the Cortana visions of Halo 3) to guide you towards the goal. You are informed that if there is to be any chance of finding the Vault the help of the people is required, thus paving the way to the many characters that inhabit the area. Missions are obtained by interacting with select citizens in the area and also the notice boards that are dotted about the built up areas. The objectives range from the collection of objects to simply killing a named enemy. The start of the game introduces the integration the of the health, experience and weapon systems, which is a great alternative to the standard training prologue.

Kills, side quests, and challenges will give experience to the player’s character in order to fill levels up to 50. At each level, a point can be added to a skills tree for upgrades in stats including health, ammunition, and skill strength. Each of the playable characters has their own unique skill with a deployable turret, bird, force field, or berserker fists (aka crazy punching). These special attacks come across as just a sideline ability, where as the guns in the game take the centre stage. As advertised, there are thousands of guns in Borderlands. There are the regular snipers, machine guns and pistols, but the endless possibilities come from the customisation with suppressors, scopes, and powerful elemental bullets. The guns are available throughout the game, levelling with the character, rewarded for completing missions and found in a seemingly random fashion in chests. The merge of role playing elements with the weapons makes it hard not to spend hours on the hunt for the rare items, either to put in a collection or simply to do that extra bit of damage.

Borderlands is played best in cooperative multiplayer. The strategy of taking down the big enemies and jousting for loot is without question the most valuable part of the experience. Not to say that single player is flawed, but the drop-in multiplayer, with competitive arenas, is definitely more beneficial in a playing experience perspective. Playing with two or more friends does have its restrictions, as enemies scale in toughness with the levels of the characters. Playing cooperatively with a large gap in experience will result in the lesser player being severely hindered.

Borderlands seemingly makes use of other game features to create a new, unique experience. The brave combination of role playing exploration and leveling with the first person shooter foundations works out extremely well. Although the storyline lacks any real importance and the characters are unexpectedly shallow, it doesn’t detract from the 30 hour action packed and ultimately very satisfying ride, especially in co-op.

published Wednesday, Oct 21st

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 Review

Name your favourite comic book characters. While there may be a couple of other companies’ figures in your mind (Batman and Superman, most likely), your list will probably be populated mostly by Marvel characters. Be they Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man or any of the X-Men, the Marvel universe undoubtedly has a greater number of mainstream characters filling its roster. Individually, they’re all pretty cool characters, so how awesome would it be if there was a game where they all teamed up?

The concept’s been tried before in Marvel Ultimate Alliance, with mixed results. While it was fun stomping about smashing heads as your favourite Marvel heroes, the title left a lot to be desired. The graphics were average at best, there seemed to be little connection between your chosen foursome aside from the fact they were working together and the story was dire, its uninteresting locations only serving to make it exceptionally uninspiring and unoriginal. It was a bit of a blow for comics fans, so it’s excellent news that Vicarious Visions have more than made up for it with the spectacular (if not informatively named) Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2. If this year’s Batman: Arkham Asylum perfected the template for titles focusing on lone heroes, MUA2 does the same for team-up titles.

The first indicator that this is something special hits you before you’ve even started playing. Upon loading, you’re greeted with possibly the most spectacular menu screens in recent memory. From the stunning start screen to the moody tableau’s of the main menu, the tone of the game is set from the get go. There’s a sense of reverence on display here: MUA2 treats itself as not just a game but an event, much like the Secret War and Civil War storylines the title’s plot takes its inspiration from.

Fueled by a tragedy resulting in the deaths of over 600 innocents in Stamford, Connecticut caused indirectly by a secret invasion of Latveria by Nick Fury a year earlier, the Superhero Registration Act is rushed through congress, decreeing that all active heroes must register their identities with the authorities in order to continue operating or face punishment. Naturally, this causes a rift between the adventurers and former allies quickly become sworn enemies. The choice falls on you to decide which side you’re on.

This story draws enough parallels with the comics to please fans while being different enough to keep things interesting. It also allows for the story structure to take an interesting flow: branching out at the approval of the SRA, it lets you follow one of two story arcs (depending on which side you’ve chosen) before cohesively merging into one path again as events become more menacing than anyone could ever have previously imagined, effectively explaining why heroes and villains alike are working together. It’s also quite long, which isn’t a bad thing since you’ll want to find out how the saga concludes.

It’s the characters that make this game. The attention to detail is superb: the developers obviously adore their source material and it shows. They may pass regular gamers, but Marvel fans will love all the little touches found in their favourite characters, be it Spider-Man’s self-referential belters (“would you say that was amazing or spectacular?”), the inclusion of Wolverine’s fastball special and Stan Lee’s cameo as a politician. The character that steals the show however, no matter what your thoughts on him, is easily Deadpool. The Merc with a Mouth’s constant wisecracks and hilarious dialogue choices, alongside his unwavering belief that’s he a pawn in some kind of videogame, makes it worth the price of admission alone. Trivia offering experience points and in-depth dossiers on characters and locations help to ensure that once your time with the title is finished, your Marvel knowledge will be up to snuff.

One major flaw with the original was the soulless grouping of your four chosen characters: they may have worked as a team, but there was no gelling of personalities or any sense of teamwork, meaning that most of the action felt cold and dispassionate. The exact opposite is true of the sequel. Your chosen four convey their personalities and emotions through improved, colourful dialogue (although Thor sounds a bit like Tigger from Winnie The Pooh) and fusion moves– where two characters combine their abilities in a unique and devastating display to eradicate large groups of enemies– giving a greater sense of teamwork than the first title ever could. The fact that there are over 250 combinations of these pairings shows Vicarious Visions’ knowledge and respect for both the universe’s creators and its fans.

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 betters its predecessor in every way. The overall presentation is far slicker, the story is infinitely more engaging and the graphics, with their glossy sheen giving a comic-like yet grounded look, are unequivocally superior. The niggles, such as subtitles taking up large portions of the screen, the removal of certain characters (no Moon Knight?) and the occasional moment where it’s hard to tell what’s going on don’t come into question when you’re simply having so much fun. Like Batman before it, it’s the faithfulness to the source material that makes this title so good. Marvellous stuff.

published Monday, Feb 23rd

Chrono Trigger DS Review

When Chrono Trigger was released on the SNES way back in 1995 it was a true landmark title, not just in terms of its technical ability or gameplay innovations (more on those later) but also because of its core development team which consisted of some of the most notable figures in RPG gaming all under one roof. This so-called ‘Dream Team’ was aptly named – the father of the Final Fantasy series, Hironobu Sakaguchi sat at the helm, while Square recruited Dragon Quest designers Yuji Hori and Akira Toriyama to lend their years of expertise to the project, which ultimately became one of the greatest games of its time. That Chrono Trigger still sits high on various media outlets’ top 100 lists is a testament to the team’s achievements. Sadly it never got a release in PAL territories; if you thought Europe got a raw deal now, just imagine how bad things were in 1995 – very few RPG epics actually mad it to these shores back then. But now, nearly fifteen years later, Chrono Trigger finally gets a PAL release and the chance to enthral an entirely new generation.

Chrono Trigger’s finely crafted story has been oft copied but rarely matched for pacing, detail and characterisation. One of the reasons for the Dragon Quest games’ continued popularity, despite little innovation in gameplay, has been due to the wonderful stories and the depth of the characters and Yuji Hori’s influence in this department is plain to see. Despite the grandiose themes of time-travel and saving the world, the story never loses sight of the human element. The relationships between heroes Crono, Marle and Lucca and the main antagonist Magus are as complex as you are likely to see in gaming, and their development through the game is handled with great care.

In terms of gameplay, Chrono Trigger was responsible for creating or at least popularising many key innovations in the RPG genre. It was one of the first RPGs to do away with random battles, with enemies being completely visible, and instead of cutting away to a separate battle screen each fight took place in the game world itself. While the battle system was still effectively turn-based (utilising the same active time battle system as the Final Fantasy games from IV onwards) character and enemy placement was important; multiple enemies could be hit from one attack if they were close together for example. Your characters could also combine special attacks (known as techs) to unleash more complex attacks or healing moves. In this DS remake, battle options and stats are now kept on the touch screen so the action remains uncluttered, and can be controlled with the stylus or with traditional buttons.

One of Chrono Trigger’s other unique features which can be seen in a lot of games today are the multiple endings and the subtle way your choices in the game affect little parts of the plot. At the beginning of the game you get to explore a town fair, which has a few mini-games and a couple of side-quests. What you choose to do during this early section plays a small part in one of the later plot twists; recent titles like Fable 2 and Fallout 3 have made a big deal about player decisions changing their plots but Chrono Trigger handles this a little more subtly as it never lets on there are implications for your actions.

It must have been tempting for Square-Enix to have given Chrono Trigger the same 3D update awarded to some of its other back catalogue from the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest series, but thankfully every pixel of the original remains intact. Even now, it looks and sounds like a masterpiece and has lost nothing in its translation to the DS. Each world contains an eerie sense of familiarity as you travel between the same locations set in different eras and Toriyama’s character designs are simple yet expressive, even on the smaller screen. The score is still one of the most popular amongst gaming music fans and the many tunes composed by Yasunori Mitsuda later Nobou Uematsu (Mitsuda fell ill during the development) have been recreated by Uematsu-San himself to guarantee they sound as good on the DS’ tiny speakers as they did back in 1995.

Altogether this remake should come highly recommended to both fans of the original and those gamers who either weren’t born or weren’t interested at the time of the original release. Chrono Trigger’s impact will undoubtedly be weathered for first-timers raised on polygons and bloom lighting, but it still stands as one of the finest experiences in gaming history and a real treasure.

published Monday, Jan 26th

Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon Review

Despite coming from one of Nintendo’s most consistently highly-rated internal studios (Intelligent Systems) and plugging one of their biggest genre gaps (the strategy RPG), the Fire Emblem series never gets the support it deserves from its own publisher. The only positive step in the last few years has been the long overdue western debut, and that was only due to Marth and Roy’s popularity in Smash Bros Melee. With a bigger budget and some, or any, marketing it could be a jewel in Nintendo’s gleaming crown and one that could help attract some of those hardcore gamers that jumped ship after the Wii took Nintendo down the more mainstream road. Instead the series continues to be ignored. Even the most dedicated Nintendo fan would be forgiven for wondering if the latest title, Shadow Dragon, had actually been released in the UK, such is the lack of any marketing push and available stock. But arrived it has and the dozen or so people that actually managed to find a copy will be more than happy with the latest offering.

For those who have yet to be exposed to the Fire Emblem series, the most simplistic way to describe it would be Advance Wars with medieval knights and RPG undertones. This however belies the depth of what is still one of the best strategy series available. Each new entry has slowly added new features but the core gameplay has mostly remained the same from day one: each unit has a set movement and attack range; choose to fight an enemy unit and you’ll be whisked away to a quick battle scene, win and your unit will get experience points, lose and they’ll be lost forever. This last bit is probably the series’ signature mark and the reason the games can be frustratingly difficult at times, with reset buttons in constant use. It’s certainly a brave feature but can really test the patient of the calmest of gamers when a simple mistake at the end of an hour-long campaign can result in the permanent loss of a character that you’d grown to love and invested many hours levelling up.

The series’ DS debut is a redux of the very first NES game, starring afore-mentioned Smash Bros alumni Marth and featuring a full makeover. The character art and the levels look great on the small screen, but it’s the impressive battle animations that are more worthy of a mention. Even after seeing them for the hundredth time, watching your mounted Knight fluidly stab at an enemy is still entertaining. The re-mastered soundtrack is another high point and one of the best in the series.

Intelligent Systems have also integrated some of the newer features that have shaped the series in recent titles. Units get an attack boost depending on their equipped weapon and can be reclassed (which is very handy if you suddenly find yourself short of a particular type of fighter). And brand new save points are liberally spread across levels which can be a godsend if you can’t commit to the 45 minutes or more needed to finish a single level. Sadly the skits and support conversations that played between battles on the more recent titles are missing and this accentuates one of the big problems with this remake.

The 15 year old plot was unlikely to stand the test of time as well as the gameplay – hero Marth battles a rival country to regain the throne of his Kingdom and avenge the death of his Father. The brand new prologue fills in some of the original’s gaps but the lack of character development outside the two main characters is very disappointing. By the end of the game you could be forgiven for wondering just why you should care for Marth and his battle hardened ensemble; including the skits would have gone some way to helping fleshing out the plot.

Another negative is the extreme difficulty level, which again could have been eased by one of the newer features. Unlike the GBA, cube and Wii games you don’t get the chance to dole out bonus experience points gained after battle to the units you wanted to concentrate on upgrading. In a way this isn’t a bad thing as the temptation to rely on a heavily armed ‘tank’ unit is no longer there, but it also means you will lose key units a lot more often. Levels aren’t especially quick or easy to get through so if you do lose someone you’d rather keep you’ll be faced with the agonising decision of whether to hit the reset button or leave it alone and soldier on.

The game takes a minimum of 25 hours to get through but factoring in the inevitable resets on a first run can push your actual playtime to nearer 40 hours. But even with the often-tortuous difficulty this still remains a compelling game. The length of the single player campaign and the online battle modes, which are a first for the series, mean that Shadow Dragon will remain in your DS for a good few months.

It’s not the best title for newcomers (who should try Path of Radiance on Gamecube or Sacred Stones on GBA if they want an easier route into the series), but veterans of FE or strategy games in general should consider this a definite purchase.