Ratchet and Clank Review – Up Your (Half)Arsenal

As the bedroom-dwelling fare of my cupboard and shelf may insinuate, I’m a sucker for a platformer. Having had my heart hacked into early-on by Crash Bandicoot 3 and Super Mario Land, I’ve propelled myself (sometimes with very little sleep and surprisingly vocal excitement) into those late-90’s-early-00’s series heralded by many and enjoyed by even more. And Insomniac’s runny, gunny and crudely funny Ratchet and Clank remains amongst the best series to grace the early noughties. The 2002 original was something of a breakthrough for Insomniac; whilst evidently encumbered with slow character controls and dysfunctional aim system, the series introduced a wry wackiness to the third person shooter. What a shame its silver-screen counterpart contributes no similar notabilities, for it wears its faults on its sleeves whilst keeping its redeeming features firmly out of reach.

Ratchet and Clank grin

Like its interactive better-half, the film reimagines the story of 2002’s shooty-platformer. Ratchet and Clank’s opening moments extend the spanning Solana Galaxy, complete with fizzling subtitles alluding to their various names (Novalis, and so on), before cutting to the first recognisable mug of the series. Chairman Drek – here named Alonzo Drek – plans to explode the populated planets of the galaxy by way of his own personal ‘De-Planetiser’, in order to use the fragments to fashion his very own, perfect planet to house his race, Frankenstein-style.

The rest of the film overlooks the evolution of the plucky, co-titular Lombax, Ratchet – from humble mechanic to hands-down space hero. Ratchet’s attempts to join the Galactic Rangers to help fend off the repugnant Drek are repeatedly shot down by the hopelessly self-enamoured Captain Qwark. Only after a defective repairbot – the scientifically-minded Clank – flees Drek’s intergalactic clutches to promptly crash on Ratchet’s home planet does life turn around for the Lombax mechanic, and between the bot’s logical mind and Ratchet’s tail-to-the-wall bravado.

Visually, the film endeavours to match the clear-fibred looks of the various animal-folk native to other recent animated ventures such as Zootropolis, the intergalactic realms of Ratchet and Clank‘s toonish multiverse is stunningly reformed and remastered, but without the luxury of exploring such a dimension oneself, these worlds can’t help but feel a little alien – and not in an literal, Blargian way.

Ratchet and Clank Space

It sounds much like the premise of a Ratchet and Clank game (something no doubt intended), but over the course of my hour-and-a-half sitting I found myself surprised at just how little Ratchet and Clank the film actually contained. Many moments in the film feel like wasted opportunities to be funny, shoehorning in hyper-relevant social media jokes when a brief cameo from Skid McMarx or the ubiquitous Lizard vendor would’ve charmed so much more. The game’s most prominent aspect – the voluminous arsenal of wacky firearms – was strikingly missed here, instead merely glossed over in a forced gamestyle montage, with the series’ enemies receiving a similar treatment. Whilst the swarming horde of yoo-hoo­ing Zurkon was a fun little nod, conflicts were lacking, and ultimately left me a little deflated considering jaunty lock-n-loads and varied enemy encounters was Ratchet and Clank’s thing.

Of course, that and its winning proclivity for including as many double-entendres into both gameplay and title as humanly (Blargally?) possible. But alas, these were nowhere to be found either. Considering the heightened awareness many films are showing of their audiences (examples might include the recent LEGO Movie and quite nearly all of Pixar’s films), a little naughtiness can be accommodated in many animated films without being clocked by younger audiences. Given that the film is likely aimed at fans of the original game (who’ve since grown into adults quite possibly proficient in the language of the innuendo), I was expecting at least a smattering of nods to some of the series’ bluer titles (Up Your Arsenal remains a favourite of mine). But the closest we get to a euphemism here is a distinctively bum-rushed narrative. Whilst Drek is entertaining and personable, his actions never garner sufficient purpose or intent to drive his maniacal planetary possession. His prompt replacement by the crazed Dr. Nefarious does little to remedy the situation, furthermore, as the filmmakers merely replace a superficial, yet mildly entertaining antagonist with one of lesser substance and none of the supposed charm. Instead, his actions are allowed to revel in a manic futility, with his actions hurriedly trussed up at the end with an explanation more predictable than a secondary school anti-smoking play.

Ratchet and Clank vomit

One positive that can be said of the film is that its cast proffers the pipes of the original Ratchet and Clank alumni. The film is carried by James Arnold Taylor’s Ratchet, and David Kay’re endearingly nonplussed tone as the quizzical repairbot, Clank. Jim Ward also returns, lending a recognisable buffoonishness as the hopelessly doltish Captain Qwark.
Decidedly not returning in this film-of-the-game however is Kevin Michael Richardson as its iron-fisted tyrant, Chairman Drek. The dastardly boots are instead filed by Paul Giamatti, whose childlike exclamations and Plankton-esque sincerity actually make for one of the film’s most enjoyable moments, if not always attaining the gravelly threat that made Richardson’s Chairman Drek a truly formidable dictator.

Following Prince of Persia, DOOM and the condemnable Agent 47, my past experiences with video game adaptations has been somewhat traumatic, so I almost want to commend the film for its competence as a fun and respectful throwback to the original game- but overall it appeared a rickety patchwork of game cutscenes that had been hurriedly stitched together for release, with the evident gaps left for gameplay sections all but filled in with the cinematic equivalent of a sharpie pen. It’s a shame in many ways; even with low expectations, fans of the series will likely find the tie-in for the Ratchet and Clank reboot superficial and disappointing, but the silver lining here is that there’s always the opportunity to play the film in a better-rounded, cohesive PS4 reboot. Not many films have that luxury.

Deadpool – Meta Go-Getter And Plenty French Letters

If Bertolt Brecht was here to see the trajectory of his alienation principle, he’d either be abhorred or touched. It’s true that I experienced a similar conflict having thrown myself verily into the realms of Deadpool, but sandwiched as I was between unfettered dick jokes and merciless slants at alternate timelines and X-Men budgeting, it was a conflict I began to find stomach-churningly alluring.

It’s fair to say that my recovery from X Men Origins: Wolverine sparked more than a faint tremor of trepidation at the prospect of a Deadpool revival. The mercenary was fiendishly manipulated, leaving the Merc With the Mouth with a distortedly blunted charisma and a questionable lack of…well, mouth.

Deadpool drawing

And Deadpool could well have made made similar mistakes, if it wasn’t for Ryan Reynolds’ cheerful dedication to ensuring the potty-mouthed, katana-wielding mercenary got what he, and his fans, deserved. Deadpool is spiked with irony and pop culture references, and considering its comparitively meagre budget against its Marvel compatriots, it’s a film that vehemently and viciously validates the ‘hero”s seven year haitus from the clutches of the silver screen. From the opening credits’ exchanging production info for slants at Hollywood archetypes, naming the director as ‘an overpaid tool’, and the producers ‘asshats’, to Stan Lee’s delightfully naughty cameo, Deadpool manages to live up to the comic book character’s intended representation, whilst managing to consistently surprise in the process.

Reynolds is Wade Wilson, the sweary chieftan of Deadpool’s bombastic tale, whose abrupt on-screen birth assumes a heated taxi exchange. It soon comes to light that Wilson has been forced to undergo a physical mutation by Ajax, played by Game of Thrones Londoner, Ed Skrein. The protagonist (a term you’ll be truly left to question over the course of the film) embarks on the typical herohood pilgramage, but for a refreshingly selfish vengeance, as opposed to self-appointed gallantry. There’ll be the discernible warring between faculties and hurricanic destruction, with more than its fair share of romantic pursuits. But Deadpool is well aware of these hailed tropes, and it goes to extreme lengths to ‘act out’ between the archetypes.

The spandex-sporting antihero would sooner lop off his hands than join any superhuman academy and amidst his violent penchant for superheroic proclivities, the heroic inner struggle is sumptuously butchered with nonchalant matter-of-factness. Instead, Deadpool hashes together its own Avengers-style tag-team, including all of two Marvel confederates. It feels like they’ve just been thrown in – and Deadpool‘s financially-aware script makes it obvious they have been – but Colossus’ withering attempts to steer the ireverrent Deadpool coupled with Negasonic Teenage Warhead’s excruciating teenie-bopper foibles translate well into Deadpool’s wayward charm, and it’s a joy to watch them squirm against the garrulous surge of Deadpool’s ludicrous world.

Deadpool standing

My mother found a soft spot for the X-Men films, and has committed her evenings mercilessly to observation of Hugh Jackman’s illustrious midsection and Stewart’s luminous scalp; events in which I’d gleefully partake. But I’d be hesitant to add Deadpool to the Saturday night agenda. This isn’t a film as easily adapted for family occasions. Despite Reynolds’ additional crush on the adamantium-boned mutant, there are sharper edges in Deadpool that set it apart from the standard hero flick. It’s a film that swings capriciously from ironical bubblegum cheeriness and unabashed cock shots, to mournful reflections of loss, pain and solitude. And indeed, on occasions such as the origin story, the two palpitate so venemously that I found myself quite unnerved by what I was watching. Contrapuntal soundtracks truly shine here, that’s all I’ll say.

Mostly, however, Deadpool is a litany of churlish arse jokes and perfunctory dismemberment, and in a way that is as superficial as it is juvenile, it’s beguiling. It’s aware; unashamed, and with a comic violence comparable to Tarantino’s exuberant slashiness, it’s an effective action movie that pays homage to the overarching culture Marvel has become. The eponymous Deadpool takes time out from immeasurable baddie-beating to address the audience directly, whilst raising a simultaneous middle finger to corporate claims against the R-rated superhero; a project seldom-visited since Blade’s cult garnerings. Blade is grateful, Reynolds, and perhaps there’ll even be more sweary, adult-themed slaughterfests to follow after the commercial success of 2016’s ladybug-shaded antihero.

Amongst its most alluring elements is its unwavering honesty. Deadpool‘s relentless jabs at his own film’s budgeting renders his would-be-Avengers backup of Colossus and ‘Obligatory moody-teen’ less forced, more endearing, whilst his near-pantomime erection for Hugh Jackman dispenses with the anticipatory anxiety around the film as a panderer to the X-Men franchise. Instead, it’s a cheerfully brutish break from the valiant endeavours of Xavier, or Wolverine; a crazed romp that stands defiantly alone in its adult themes and wry referential tone.

deadpool walking

It knows it’s schlocky, vain and boorish, and it doesn’t care one jot. The very foundation of the love story.

Retrokick – Super Mario Land

The void is a beautiful thing. The more I engage in the humdrum regularities of life’s to-ing, fro-ing and woeing as I tarry inexorably into the complex realms of adulthood, the stronger the allure of a few moments of vacuous bliss transpires to become. It’s not a bad thing, for I’m still a complicated person. I’m practically parfaited with tendencies, joys, fears and intolerances; including a consolidated compulsion to hoard conkers like a gargantuan squirrel. I’m a multi-tiered blood-cake of stuff, and I’d imagine you are too. Unless you’re reading this as an absolutely new born baby, in which case, kudos.

Level 1

But there’s a value to be had in simplicity, and for my platformer-mechanised thumbs, none hit the mark quite like Super Mario Land.

Super Mario Land is an odd little thing. It was one of the last titles that depicted a still rather adolescent Mario. His identity wasn’t set in stone yet, allowing Nintendo tried on a few different components on before settling with the peppy plumber we know today, among the extensive cast of Bowsers, Peaches, Toads and Waluigis that all very much have their own brand. Mario even pursues Princess Daisy here, rather than his regular beloved, Peach.

In that way, you could play Super Mario Land without it feeling truly like a Mario game, and as such, the adventure feels as fresh to me now as it did upon my ingenuous first encounter with the mustachioed protagonist.

super mario land

Unlike its counterparts, Super Mario Land is set in the new environment of Sarasaland.

Whilst Retrokick’s whippersnapperous delving has mostly covered systems that were technologically impressive at launch, the Game Boy’s restrictions were well noticed even back in 1989. This knowledge meant that compact, simplistic games took priority for the Game Boy, and among Tetris and a smattering of sports titles, Super Mario Land debuted alongside the console.

This was one of the only Mario games not produced by the protagonist’s creator, Shigeru Miyamoto. The glory for Super Mario Land laid with Miyamoto’s mentor, Gunpei Yokoi. Manager of Nintendo’s oldest developer – R&D 1 – and daddy of the D-Pad, a possible reason for Super Mario Land’s enduring freshness was Yokoi’s technological perspective. He approached Mario Land’s production aiming to use dying technology in a creative way, and perhaps as a result of that, there’s still an incredible youth to Mario’s monochromatic exploits today.

jump

During an interview with Imanishi and Masayuki Uemura, it was explained that Mario’s original nickname was ‘Ossan’ meaning ‘Middle Aged Guy’, before making numerous transitions to Mr. Video, Jumpman and Mario.

Of course, simple platforming and sidescrolling design choices formed the game’s core. But with inspiration drawn from arcade shooter Gradius, Super Mario Land implemented different styles in the form of two scrolling shooter levels, switching up the difficulty to mark pivotal narrative moments. Mario also left his weighty fireballs at home here, instead able to propel powerballs that could bounce off of scenery, through the air to attack enemies and collect coins, if the player’s angles permitted.

More than a mere gimmick, Yokoi introduced an elegance to level progression that had never been seen before, often allowing players to alternate between platforming and puzzle elements with a fluency that made speedrunning delectably satisfying, and the accumulation of extra lives (as collecting 100 coins equaled one Mario life) eased the tension the further you progressed.

Rest assured, the comfort was minimal; with 12 checkpointless levels to progress, and the game’s total reset after lives were depleted, the lamp-lit sessions I spent in Sarasaland were ones spent sifting every available coin to beef up my longevity.

game over

Oh yes, Super Mario Land is as much a real-life-simulator as it is a platformer.

Super Mario Bros. had you stomping about repetitive Mushroom Kingdoms. Each frame was embezzled with the same cheery blue sky and viridescent pipery, again and again. And that was okay; I never played Super Mario Bros. for the groundbreaking visuals. But if Bros.’s world was vanilla, Super Mario Land’s was Neapolitan.

In terms of visual capacity, the NES trumped the Game Boy, but even considering the portable console’s algae-hued limitations, Super Mario Land offered a greater variety, creative flair and a surprising sense of humour than Bros. had, often through world design alone. Mario sprinted through ancient Egypt, China, even Atlantis; taking on pharaoh Lions, aquatic overlords and sentient Moai statues. An undersea robotic invasion even joined the overalled protagonist’s opposing roster. A far cry from the Goomba-Koopa ubiquity.

Although for me, Mario had always been about hopping about gleefully gathering coins like a capitalistic rabbit, Super Mario Land’s many realms made it an adventure. The odyssey was incredibly potent within the game’s ancient depictions, and as such, they communicated a powerful sense of plot without thrusting a narrative right under the player’s nose.

Seahorse boss

The Underwater ‘Muda’ Kingdom was inspired by the ‘lost kingdom’ Mu, and Bermuda.

When I finally reached Daisy (that is, the Daisy that doesn’t experience some sort of Kafka-like transmogrification), it didn’t just feel like a victory because the levels were challenging. It was a victory because I’d battled through all these gauntlets, traveled all these mystical lands of odd little creatures to reach her. Old romanticism doesn’t always die hard.

The variety didn’t cease with the design. Hip Tanaka’s chiptune compositions are recognisable across Metroid, Tetris and Kid Icarus, and characterised Super Mario Land’s levels in a way that was straightforward and undecorative. Void of the hailed jauntiness of the Super Mario theme tune, each kingdom proffered its own theme, blending the game’s numerous mythical representations with the distinctively electronic chipset limitations of the Game Boy. The ancient China levels comprised jaunty chimes, whilst the boss theme managed to be unforgettably ominous, often playing well before the player uncovered the villainous golem blocking Mario’s path.

 

Daisy

But what if this Daisy is Peach inside a Daisy suit? Does Daisy even exist?!

Super Mario Land stood as a lesson in minimalism when the Game Boy first launched, and it still stands as one today, even if its mother console has retreated into antiquity. This simplistic platforming odyssey integrated mystical locations with a charming sense of humour, communicating a malleable narrative that could align with the player’s own experience. It broke conventions, even when the Mario brand was still shaky, and it’s one of the weirdest, boldest and ultimately most beguiling Mario games to date because of it.

If there’s anything I wish I hadn’t taken from Super Mario Land, however, it’s my inescapable paranoia that women I like will irreversibly turn into flies. Of course, before I realise that that isn’t a feasible thing that can happen.

That’s not a feasible thing that can happen, is it?

 

oh daisy

LEGO Dimensions Review – A Brick in the Childhood

(This review first appeared on New Game Network as a review of LEGO Dimensions.)

Genre: Toys-to-Life, Action/Adventure

Developer: Traveller’s Tales

Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

Systems: PS4, XOne, WiiU, X360, PS3

LEGO is a craze that is as ubiquitous as it is rampant. A near-animate entity that peers from the deepest cavities of arguably every living room sofa in existence, these versatile capsules have overseen a greater yield of joy than Prozac. LEGO Nation is still upon us, and Traveller’s Tale’s latest toys-to-life build feels closer than ever to the culture these Danish-born bricks have become.

lego dimensions cakes

Despite the ‘toys-to-life’ genre having reached widespread recognition, LEGO Dimensions blends the physical and on-screen worlds in a way that is creative and unique. It’s a game that realises the inherent nostalgia of the abundant LEGO brick, shrugs, and decides to throw in a maelstrom of other childhood allegiances while it’s at it.

The adventure happens upon the nefarious Lord Vortech, whose plan to unite the scattered foundations of the various LEGO realms will merge every existing universe into one, under his blockish thumb.

The lovably daft humor that surged through TT’s previous creations makes its renaissance in LEGO Dimensions, cheekily interrupting some of the figurehead moments of beloved media franchises, proffering comical alternate timelines that feel wryly at home with fan culture.

lego dimensions gandalf batman

Did Gandalf actually meet Batman down there with the Balrog? Dimensions canon says yes.

 

With crossover capers aplenty, LEGO Dimensions jerks you between universes – with little time to feel giddy in between – and when you’re taking on a florid Joker mech amidst the burning ruins of Springfield’s Power Plant, or chasing a rogue Cyberman helmet through Whovian hallways etched with Bad Wolf graffiti and cracks in time, there’s a nostalgic thrill to be had that runs deeper than the toys-to-life aesthetic.

lego dimensions cyber

It’s like being slapped in the face with Marty McFly’s hoverboard whilst Gene Wilder sings the Pokémon theme tune. Oh, and it’s raining popping candy.
LEGO Dimensions is the largest game under TT’s belt, but despite having more on their plate, the smart details that lace the various realms of LEGO Dimensions are fine proof that TT haven’t bitten off more than they can chew. From the constant influx of on-point witticisms, to the decidedly stop-motion-y animations reserved for LEGO Movie characters, there’s a distinctly thoughtful undertone to the game’s visual showmanship, and  it’s truly heartening to see.

But Dimensions’ most notable visual aspect is actually found off-screen. The starter pack offers Batman, Gandalf and Wyldstyle minifigures whose quality match those of original LEGO playsets, along with a constructible portal that attaches niftily to the toypad. I spent close to two hours meticulously slotting all manner of knick-knacks together, and when the meat of the game finally began, I felt oddly rewarded.

lego dimensions batmen fighting

Despite its ingenuity, however, LEGO Dimensions isn’t without its banalities. As amusing (and undeniably adorable) as the crossover friction is, character dialogue isn’t all that varied in-game. Catchphrases can feel shoehorned in, alternating between a paltry selection of notable remarks. As much as I love Gandalf, one can only hear “You shall not pass” so many times, before the novelty inevitably begins to pale.

The LEGO games have always been easy to pick up – that’s partially the joy of them – and Dimensions is no different, sporting a simple controls and no real fail-state. The fluid control scheme doesn’t always sit well with vehicles in the game, as you’re occasionally required to turn sharply into narrow spaces, but amidst the bombardment of character references and clever design elsewhere, the frustration is thankfully fleeting.

But despite remaining true to franchise formulas, with the addition of toys-to-life properties, TT adds a whole new layer to the hallmark elements they’ve come to be known for. In addition to spawing characters by plonking the corresponding figure down on the toypad, players must shift them between sections to avoid capture by certain enemies.

lego dimensions dino

Fancy taking Gandalf for an enthused joyride? Sure thing. Want Homer Simpson to pilot the Batmobile? Be my guest.

Triggering Batman’s stealth manouevres or Wyldstyle’s master-building can all be done via the toypad, reflecting a give-and-take between physical and on-screen worlds that is rarely as balanced in other toys-to-life titles.

But where the pad really shines is in the game’s puzzle-solving elements. Conundrums feel more inventive in LEGO Dimensions than in previous brickish incarnations, requiring players to consider their physical environments as much as the game world. As a result, puzzles can be a lot more intricate.

By moving figures around on the pad, you’ll be able to warp to unclimbable areas, locate hidden items or summon electric fields, with more options becoming available as the main story progresses. Whilst puzzles aren’t mind-bending by any means, they certainly require a lot more from you than previous LEGO titles, and only validate the toypad more. They make it an accomplice to the play, rather than a mere, ornate conduit.

lego dimensions

‘Toys-to-Life’ is a classification that is quickly becoming synonymous with expense. Skylanders harboured a collection of levels that were ‘out of bounds’ if you didn’t have a specific figure type, and the genre took a lot of flack for extortion.

This is where LEGO Dimensions offers an alternative. For an in-game sum, you can ‘hire a hero’ to aid your endeavours, without having to rush to the nearest toy outlet to barrage an unsuspecting youth with contentions about how you absolutely must acquire Scooby Doo. And with TT’s assurance that the toypad will be compatible with all future content, Lego Dimensions’ steeper entry price may prove favourable over Skylanders’ more transitory portal.

One of the most debateable aspects of  LEGO Dimensions’ multiversal premise is that it makes ample room for additional content, and there’s already a vast array of expansion figures on offer that allow access to galaxies beyond the main storyline. A certain Marty McFly, for example, will unlock the Back to the Future dimension, as well as a smattering of open-world quests, challenges and collectibles.

lego dimensions marty.jpg

Whilst levels are flecked with actions that can only be unlocked by characters excluded from the starter pack, the game’s ‘Hire a Hero’ mechanic proves lighter on the wallet.

At £15-29.99 a piece, however, Dimensions can feel like a steep investment atop the entry price. LEGO has never been cheap, and Dimensions unpleasantly reminds players of this. The amount of content forelaying the game’s Level, Team and Fun Packs is still acceptable, and still sparkling with ingenious design, you just have to be willing to pay for it.

But they’re not at all essential to enjoy the game if you’re the thrifty type. The starter pack still exudes that quaint, LEGO charm.

lego dimensions scooby

Dimensions doesn’t just look like a LEGO game, however, it sounds like one. Reprising some of the most iconic pieces from Lord of the Rings, Doctor Who and Back to the Future – to name a few – LEGO Dimensions’ soundtrack is a true hark-back to the beloved adventures we’ve seen before, only this time adorned with endearingly blockish humour.

It boasts an impressive voice cast too. Gary Oldman is deliciously evil as Vortech, and hearing the likes of Christopher Lloyd and Michael J. Fox translated into jocular brick form instantly brings one closer to the story, and somehow makes the sharp-witted writing even tastier.

lego dimensions capaldi

Peter Capaldi also lends his voice for Dimensions’ Doctor Who realms. A great Scot.

Traveller’s Tales may drawn upon the source material of some of their most successful titles, and the product isn’t completely lacking in repetition, but ultimately produces a concept with a charming ingenuity, and a contagion of childlike creativity. LEGO Dimensions takes full advantage of its toys-to-life status, integrating the toypad into puzzle and combat mechanics with stylish, imaginative flair.

It’s a game that allows you to build (or not build) as you see fit, making it a stellar experience to share with siblings, offspring, or your predigiously chatty young niece, whilst still managing to showcase the liveliness, acuity and downright silliness that makes TT’s championed series so darned great. If you’re a fan of copious crossovers and are prepared for a steeper price of entry, LEGO Dimensions is a joyous, 12 hour romp.

As for me, I’m still wheeling my modded Batmobile across the weathered plains of my desk. It’s remarkably therapeutic.

Overall Score:

80/100

 

 

Retrokick – Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped

Last time on Retrokick we delved into the game I turned to whenever I felt small. Now, ladies and gentlemen, we plough past the caffeinated synapses of my retentive memory bank to access a game I turned to when I was small. One of my first games, and certainly the title that ignited my – at times I’ll admit – questionable romanticism for third person platformers.

crash warp room 3
Oh yes. Oh yes. Here we are, my friends. Crash Bandicoot. Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped.
Crash Bandicoot is a name that has attained incredible prestige in the platforming world. Arguably the definitive Playstation mascot, the plucky orange goof represents Naughty Dog’s first venture into 3D platforming, and the candy-striped heart of nostalgia for many children of the 32-bit era.

Warped was the third installment in what would soon become – for better or worse – the extensive Crash series. The second Crash had been widely popular, selling over 800,000 copies by April 1998 in Japan alone, and Naughty Dog were given under 11 months to materialise a third.

Given the immense pressure the company were under, it’s a wonder how Naughty Dog managed to deliver a game that didn’t foreshadow the likes of Assassins Creed Unity, let alone a game as satisfying, challenging, intricate and drop-dead wacko as Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped turned out to be.

crash bandicoot 3 medieval

The escapade is set immediately after the events of Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back. After Clancy Brown’s incredible antagonist, Neo Cortex has his formidable ‘Cortex Vortex’ destroyed, it becomes thrillingly apparent that an evil far beyond the washed-up scientist’s feindish forces is on the horizon.

Unleashed is Uka Uka, a paranormal tyrant and incidental twin of the mask that granted temporary invincibility in Crash 2, Aku Aku. Although at the time, my infantile tongue merely conceived him as ‘Boogah Boogah’.

crash bandicoot aku aku

A name to which I remain fastidiously faithful.

Perhaps concordant with his gravelly register, Uka’s hella evil. Hella evil, and hell-bent on gathering powerful crystals to exploit and ultimately enslave the Earth. Unfortunately, as crystal-kind is scarce nowadays, Uka Uka wishes to travel through time to nab them from their original positions. With the enlisted help of Dr. Nefarious Tropy, a diabolical time-augmenter with Captain Hook charisma and a Time-Twisting Machine, the dastardly duo whorl through continuum vortexes, on the inexplicable hunt for those precious purple talismans.

crash bandicoot cortex begs

Naturally, as the eponymous Crash Bandicoot, it’s your job to stop them.

It’s a typical goodies-v-baddies setup; one that doesn’t differ heavily from the Crash 2 formula. But the fresh wickedness of Uka, Tropy and other such goons as Dingodile ensured that the world of the Bandicoot didn’t fall flat on campy humour, and character interactions were kept interesting. And it’s always fun to watch Cortex cowering in fear.

The visual choices Naughty Dog made with Crash 3 felt somewhat mute in comparison to Crash 2. The undefined flatness given to characters against the simplistic backdrop of a whirling vortex is especially apparent now, paling in comparison to the delightful angularities of Cortex’s bulbous noggin in the precursor.

crash bandicoot tiny vortex

Crash 3′s character animations look a little flat.

Crash 3′s amorphous character animations gnaw especially at the killer vocal performances given for Dingodile and Tiny Tiger, and the holographic presentation I’d found so characteristic in Cortex Strikes Back was sorely missed here.

Visual quality elsewhere is undeniable. Crash 3 sported colour schemes that felt marginally more dynamic, and oversaw the introduction of entirely new domains. A favourite remains the prehistoric levels, not just for their volcanic design, but its immense sense of character. The levels are riddled with familiar Cortexic minions that hide Apocalypse-Now-style in swamps and bogs in attempt to bag you up. Barriers of steaming magma test your reflexes as hulking cretaceous beasts chase you.

crash bandicoot cortex hologram

Crash 2’s holographic animations suited the style better.

 

Above all perhaps, was Crash’s  veer into Mario/Yoshi territory, with the addition of a mountable dinosaur friend to aid your prehistoric travails; something that came in particularly handy during time trial segments.

For the most part, Warped played like its predecessor. Crash could jump, use a spin attack, crouch and body-slam. Whilst the latter had always been the exploitable solution to hard-to-reach areas, Crash 3′s doltish bosses offered an alternative. After defeating each boss, powerups were received to super-charge one’s abilities, making level traversal a little more varied than Crash 2, and much more entertaining.

crash bandicoot baby t

Crash’s sister, Coco also took a more active role in Warped, appearing as the controllable character in many of the ‘bear-ride’ sections that’d been available in the previous game, only this time sporting a fiery orange Tiger Cub, called Pura. Whilst her appearance didn’t switch up level progression, it contributed nicely to the storyline, overseeing Warped as a collaborative effort between siblings against the formidable forces of Uka Uka. It certainly beat Coco’s pervasive teenish attitude previously.

Bosses themselves were, again, multi-tiered, and although manouevres didn’t deviate much (if at all) from those adopted in the previous game, the time and attention to detail artists such as Charles Zembillas put into creating Cortex’s hybrid goons definitely shines through. From Tiny’s Tiger’s galumphing leaps and bounds, to N. Gin’s intergalactic mech suit, each boss wears its own idiosyncrasies on its sleeve; leaving you to veritably (and amusingly) exploit it.

crash bandicoot dingodile zembillas

Naughty Dog had originally intended Dingodile to breathe fire, but ultimately changed him to a flame-thrower-wieldy menace after Zembillas suggested it would make him more interesting [Artwork by Charles Zembillas]

Despite this, looking back at Warped with eyes jaded by recent, more complex attack patterns, it’s easy to claim Crash 3‘s bosses feel a little too simple. Whilst the frequency at which Dingodile attack does have its volume turned up with each tier, it’s easy to get the hang of, perhaps leaving a modern newcomer to the series feeling a little unchallenged.

 

This being said, though – even for design and writing alone – the brutish bodyguards of the Crash series are a whimsical treasure, and are varied enough never to become dull. So even if you’re finding N. Tropy a breeze, he’ll at least entertain you while you kick his time-oriented ass.

The notion of gems and secret warp rooms was, by the time Warped released, a well-recieved one. Indeed, with the third installment, Naughty Dog had significantly upped the ante when it came to hidden goodies, making Crash 3 strikingly more complex than its 1997 predecessor.

crash bandicoot polar

crash bandicoot pura

Not wishing to divide the room or anything here, but Polar or Pura?

 

It was much more common to access hidden pathways and brave notorious ‘death-paths’ in order to obtain every gem, with each level posing the dangling carrot of relics for beating it within a specified time-frame. Indeed, some time trials were so stringent that they required powerups to beat. With superdashing, superjumping and the occasional fruit bazooka at one’s disposal, time trials have represented one of the highlights of Warped for me, and if ever I needed a remedy for the bosses’ lack of challenge, obtaining each platinum relic provided the bittersweet tonic.

Naughty Dog also created three new engines to support new modes in the game. The motorbike was an acquired taste; taking a little more concentration to avoid swerving hazardously into bottomless pits or into hatefully slowing desert patches. The jet ski segments were also amongst the least enjoyable levels, with clumsy controls that made navigating tight corners difficult.

Rest assured, if you’re not bothered about gems or relics, these stages provide a delightful break from platforming antics, but the liberal control scheme here often meant doubling laboriously back after missing several crates, or spamming the restart function in order to beat the time trial. Consequently, I often found myself grimacing at the sight of another pirate ship.
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On a lighter (and quite literal) note, Crash 3: Warped maintains its status as one of my favourite video game soundtracks. Amidst a delightful assortment of catchy bass riffs, synthy crescendo and head-bopping percussion, composer Josh Mancell had always known how to rock a didgeridoo, and with the effervescent warblings of the xylophone to top it all off, the tunes of Crash 3 are tough to beat in a 90’s platformer.

In under a year, Naughty Dog had managed to deliver a Crash that lived up to its predecessor, bursting with emphatic character and wacky design, whilst maintaining the intricacies that were so popular amongst older audiences in Cortex Strikes Back. It’s a true feat to behold even now. Perhaps especially now; an era technical slip-ups, incompletion and game-imploding bugs.

crash bandicoot infant cortex and tropy

Through it all, Naughty Dog have remained consistently strong, proceeding to conquer such acclaimed series as Jak and Daxter, Uncharted and The Last of Us. Does Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped still hold up? Unquestionably, and arguably not just because this game was a huge part of my childhood. Overall, it delivered everything that a sequel should have been. Balancing familiarity with a deluge of new features, Warped was a romp that remains a pleasure to venture through in the beshadowed hours of Saturday morning.

And with the recent remasterings of Oddworld: New n’ Tasty, and both Ratchet and Clank and Uncharted 4 set to grip the Dualshock 4 later this year, would it be so naive to anticipate the return of the Bandicoot for his 20th birthday?

crash bandicoot e3.png

Oh very good, Mr. Layden. Very good indeed. Just give me Crash at 60fps with at least one Clancy-Brown-Mr.-Krabs joke. Hold the microtransactions.

 

 

 

 

 

Retrokick – Monster Hunter Freedom Unite

Alas, Monster Hunter. The game I always turned to whenever I felt small. A world I didn’t necessarily topple into in order to feel massive because, if anything, its menagerie of formidable Wyverns and flatulent Conga habitually bludgeoned into virtually negative hit points. But what was so appealing about the Monster Hunter games was the assertion that one didn’t have to be massive in order to face smothering odds, and that brute force was a mere tool at the disposal of style and methodology.

mhfu popo1

Monster Hunter Freedom Unite  was the hopeful enhanced edition of the prior action-rpg, Monster Hunter Freedom 2. The Western Monster Hunter games were ported from the second Monster Hunter for the PlayStation 2, which never reached outside of Japan. After a modest reception on larger consoles, Capcom decided to translate the franchise onto portable devices, and Freedom Unite received a Western PSP release in 2009.

And in a restricted sense, it worked. Very well, in fact. Freedom Unite was a veritable hit in Japan, with a million copies sold in the first day. Western reception, on the other hand, was, and continues to be, comparitively dry.

mhfu pokke What little story Freedom Unite possesses is simple. Lone, insipient hunter you are, your exploits in the snow-capped mountains fall short with the prompt arrival of the Tigrex, an enormous wyvern adorned with orange-blue stripes. After a brief battle segment you are rendered unconscious, awakening in the parochial village of Pokke. Weakened, but before the straightforward path unto Monster Hunter glory.

However, in Freedom Unite, the line between ‘straightforward’ and ‘easy’ has never been more stark.

A large part of what there is to love about Freedom Unite lies in its stunning visuals. Expansive maps are comprised of craggy mountaintops, tropical jungles and punishing desert territory, all of which are home to highly specialised – and highly lethal – monsters.

mhfu cephadrome

Your timely rendezvous with the notorious Tigrex opens up an unforgiving world of hulking, fanged gorrillas, subterranean manta-worms and paralysing super-wasps. The tally of things that can kill you in Freedom Unite is vast, and its diversity has come to be a hallmark of the Monster Hunter series.

Ventures are punctuated with smaller, peace-loving beings too, however – and from the passive mammoth creatures, the Popo, to the nippy anthropomorphic Felyne race, the prehistoric world of Freedom Unite breathes with every alcove. And it’s truly beautiful – however ambiguous and terrifying – to behold.

The village of Pokke constitutes your base of operations for your monster hunting antics; a place where you can buy armour, farm and stock up on provisions for the treacherous path ahead. Whilst the purpose of the village is more administrative than anything else, the atmosphere of Pokke is one of rustic cosiness; a warm, welcoming lull after hours of beastly galavanting.

You can also have a pig. With a crown.
mhfu pig

Freedom Unite possessed a combat system that has since been refined by the Souls games, boasting gargantuan foes with equally dessimating attacks. Weapons are extravagant but equally taxing to handle, making calculating one’s moves imperative, as one ill-timed roll or wonky swing could very well send you reeling into the cold clutches of oblivion, lending greatly to the game’s challenge level.

It’s also remarkably satisfying to watch your character prancing about Pokke with all the vaulting vigor of an incredibly pent-up Freudian.

Whilst, in retrospect, there are similarities between Capcom and From Software’s creations, Freedom Unite still achieves a very personal uncertainty as to what waits around the next corner, and with the looming prospect of randomly spawning beasts over unrelated missions, the sense of danger remains as fresh today as it did then. As a result, Freedom Unite‘s world – six years on – still appears very much alive.

The life of Freedom Unite extends beyond the single player experience, and its online play system is often the reason some return to the game. The PlayStation Ad Hoc Party function allowed four PSP and PS3 owners to team up and brave true titans of beasts, which, considering the tough single player tussles, amounted to a more balanced and deeply involving battle experience. Admittedly, Ad Hoc practice is relatively thin nowadays, but Monster Hunter’s capacity for camaraderie endures to this day, surfacing in the more recent 3DS titles.

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This being said, the series is a gem with some very distinct blemishes. Freedom Unite is certainly no exception, with clunky combat manoevres and esoteric gameplay explanations overlooking some of the game’s truly beautiful aspects.

Capcom’s inefficacy at explaining the game to newcomers has filtered into the series’ overall reception, which has only hindered its reputation. Battle tutorials take the form of exhaustive dialogue segments, which, especially when so adamantly placed at the beginning of the game, makes Freedom Unite difficult to really jump into. The interface is particularly elusive, designating a weighty ‘start up time’ to Freedom Unite to merely learn its navigation. Rest assured, Freedom Unite isn’t a game you can play in your lunch break.

Combat movements are slow, leaving the player vulnerable to hits against large groups of enemies. Healing said hits are no picnic either, and last a positive age, requiring the player to distance themselves from the action in order to heal and evade failure, which isnt’ always easy when there’s a litter of raving Giaprey on your behind.

The champion ailment in Freedom Unite, however, is its wonky camera controls. The camera is unintuitive and lacks precision; often requiring manual adjustment via the D-pad’s left and right. This unnecessarily complicates combat situations, and strikes as particularly archaic with retrospect.

mhfu giadome

Freedom Unite takes a risk-reward decision with quests, but it doesn’t always serve the game well. Particularly bountiful quests will eventually ask the player to pay in-game ‘Z’ currency to progress, which can prove harsh on beginners. Each time you fall in battle, your pay is docked, which found me continually out-of-pocket before unlocking the next set of adventures. Previous quests must then be re-done or useful crafting items sold, again touching on that prehistoric sense of the nomadic, but proving incredibly repetitive in the process.

The lasting mundanity in a game with such epic moments is unfortunate, and seems to have affected the series overall. Monster Hunter sustains a reputation for heavy grinding and steep learning curves – something that perpetuates the series’ still rather niche audience.
But as I always say, there’s more to life than a good old grind. I’ve said it at least twice, anyway.

mhfu beach

Freedom Unite’s glorious soundtracks remains one of my favourite things about the game. An orchestral treasure, Freedom Unite‘s soundtrack offers a score of epics to tap into the soul of the hunter. Each boss revels in its own operatic theme, scopic hikes are mellifluously resonant, and many humorous inflections are taken to brighten the mood. There is a distinct sense of majesty exuding Freedom Unite‘s soundtrack, and alongside its towering behemouths and lush landscapes – it’s certainly a game that sounds as good as it looks.

Freedom Unite is a rewarding game, but only when studied extensively. The stringent control scheme and haphazard camera controls make the combat significantly more difficult, and possibly contributed to the game’s poor Western sales. This being said, Freedom Unite proffers a level of immersion uncommon for a PSP title, and its hefty challenge has gathered something of a cult following.
mhfu tigrex

In the wake of Freedom Unite and its predecessors, further entries have built upon the world of the hunter, and with the fourth installment proving more accessible than any other in the series, the Monster Hunter following is timidly – very timidly –  expanding, albeit on an explicitly Nintendian platform. It does, however, mean that there’s not a huge amount of reason to return to Freedom Unite, as later installments have proven a little more forgiving, navigable and visually pleasing.

But you can have a pig. That’s the take home message here. With a crown.

DmC: Devil May Cry: Definitive Edition Review – Angels and Demons

Genre: Action/Adventure, Hack and Slash

Developer: Ninja Theory

Publisher: Capcom

Systems: PS4, XOne, PC

It might be Capcom’s most controversial release yet.

dmc pistol

Anybody else hear pistols cocking?

 

The indignation this game attracted at launch was substantial. Ninja Theory’s neo take on the tearaway antics of a treasured paranormal mercenary was a far cry from the gothic tropes of Capcom’s original hack n’ slash, and DmC: Devil May Cry wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms.

Needless to say, this game is no Devil May Cry, and considering the liberties Ninja Theory took with Dante, a sequel quite clearly wasn’t the aim. Rather, the effect was a sharp, energetic reboot with a bold sense of humour and unrelenting creative design.

Provocative and audacious, DmC runs rampant with swipes at consumerism, censorship and corporate capitalism. The story takes place in Limbo City, a recognisable, but fabricated dimension that houses a humanity that is kept complacent; enslaved by the ethereal demons running the show.
dmc obesity

It’s a mockery that is barefaced, shameless and savage; one that owes itself almost primarily to classic satire They Live. Much like Roddy Piper’s shades, the lurid world of Limbo enables Dante – a nephilim –  to see the truth; the smirking, demonic powers controlling humans behind the humdrum facade. The tyrannical fatcat atop these limbic happenings is Mundus; a despotic banker and murderer of Dante’s mother.

On your malefic travels to avenge Dante’s mother, you’ll rally against phony News tyrants dedicated to keeping the nation docile, and trash bilious soft drink brands that addle the mind. Whilst previous releases seemed a vision of teen fantasy, DmC is rather one of teen angst, and is remarkably framed by splendid vocal performances and believable character animation.

Against the classical gothicism of previous installments, this wayward gambol is a breath of fresh air, and whilst neither what many fans of Devil May Cry expected, nor wanted, Ninja Theory’s creative boldness will likely shine both for newcomers and those thirsty for more of the stylish absurdity the franchise always did so well.

dmc platforming

The world of DmC is noticeably contemporary in comparison to earlier entries. The vengeful exploits of Dante are backdropped with the bleeding hysterics of Limbo’s inverted metropolis, where stalagmitic obsidian chokes corners and blocks paths. There are kalaidoscopic night clubs that bend and warp hyperactively, and cyberpunk cityscapes that throng the polluted horizon.

The narrative poses scant platforming segments, taking us inside the fragmented memory of the tortured nephilim. Whilst often a laggard break from the tingly action of unbridled demon-hacking, the beauty of these sections is still undeniable; overseeing fluorescent, floating purgatories echoic of Alice: Madness Returns. All the while there’s a distinct urban grunge overlaying the entire thing, but each dimension stands apart in its own hellish way, and now at 60 frames, gliding seamlessly through it all has never felt so good on console.

Devil May Cry veterans aren’t likely to find the same punishing combat system they did with prior games, and devastating combos are much easier to pull off in DmC. As combat focuses on speed with no motivation for real strategy, fights err a little on the easy side. That being said, I’ve never been one for hardcore move sets, and gaining the S-rank has always been a fortuitous bonus, so I found the streamlined combat system more gratifying than I did banal, and Definitive Edition’s improved frame rate only makes Dante’s moves tastier.

dmc demon pull

The controls are simplistic, but effective, allowing for smooth alternation between weapons to bring a little pizazz to the protagonist’s begrudging bloodlust. The utilisation of the Angel and Demon Pull is no loss either, often providing a sense of clarity amidst the demonic scrum a battle can occasionally take on, and lending a sense of breakneck beauty to the game’s platforming intervals.

By way of the PS4’s L2 and R2 triggers, you can hook n’ drag enemies towards you or launch yourself towards them; a useful method for isolating certain enemies whilst avoiding damage from others. Whilst initially fiddly, the incommodity is promptly smoothed over with practice, and grappling through the demonic underbelly like an incredibly sarky Tarzan has since become an absolute joy.

dmc osiris

There is also a hefty armory at your disposal, including celestial throwing stars that can hack at far flung enemies, and a slow-swung battle axe that remains useful against sluggish, burlier opponents. DmC is very much melee-oriented, with trademark twin pistols, Ebony and Ivory, taking more of a back seat as a tool for continuing the combo between moves.

It’s a shame that the predominant image that lingers in many a mind when considering DmC is the sheer animosity its launch attracted, because there’s enough individualism here for it to stand tall in its own right. This being said, I do have my gripes about the game.

Definitive Edition contains all the previously available DLC, including Dante’s weapon skins and costumes. Whilst this touch is both a fun source of customisation that now offers the option to play as classic Dante, his appearance within cutscenes is irregular.

For one stage, I selected to play with white hair, for example. In some cinematics, my choice was evident, whilst others (typically those more essential to the narrative) showed Dante sporting his darker, less vampiric look.
dmc night club

It’s easy to see that many scenes have merely been remastered without thought for the later released DLC, but the fluctuating character appearances was disruptive; something that could’ve been rectified with more consistency; either reserving skins for gameplay alone, or incorporating it into all cutscenes.

There are some minor irregularities within the plot, too. Whilst Ninja Theory’s decision to take a moodier route with Dante doesn’t majorly affect the story or -indeed- the gameplay – his sudden attachment to characters he hardly knows seems to clash with his other assets. It’s remarkable how quickly the angelodemonic youth goes from nonchalant to protective, and with little reason for doing so.

dmc kattt

Also, I have a problem with Kat. In DmC, she’s introduced as a learned outcast capable of entering alternate dimensions, but falls unfortunately out of interest once the action picks up. Of course, it’s difficult for games to avoid their cliches nowadays, but after the first few missions, Kat felt half-hearted, whose only purpose transpired to be a convenient ‘damsel in distress’ model to direct the action.

Many look to Devil May Cry as an esteemed member of  the hack n’ slash elite, and it seems that the thrill of the duel exudes each and every surface  surrounding Dante’s existence. Sure enough, DmC‘s soundtrack certainly isn’t one for the contrapuntal. A furious convolution of synthy heavy rock, it’s a fast-paced score to a fast-paced game. There’s a very keen angst amidst the dubstep warblings and hard-rock riffs; a wrathful sense of youth that just feels cool. Even more so when there’s a bonafide brute reeling from you in slow motion.

dmc kat dante

The overall style and challenge level of DmC proves a far cry from the punishing original series. Instead, Ninja Theory have created a gorgeous spin-off that delights in savage absurdity, with a fanatical, fierce narrative that has as much fun veering down darker paths as it does fooling around. It’s not, for all intents and purposes, a Devil May Cry game; and to a certain point I can understand the shock this game created at launch. But it’s still a thrilling experience in its own right; a furious hack n’ slash romp with its own flair and its own confidences to set it apart from its adored predecessors.

Overall Score

80/100