Newly-added Games

Fantasy Life

Fantasy Life, Level-5 and Brownie Brown's life sim and action RPG, is a game with a long and storied history. Originally announced in Japan for the Nintendo DS/DSi generation of consoles back in 2009, it spent three years in development, seeing a platform upgrade to the Nintendo 3DS, finally releasing in Japan-only on 27th December, 2012.

Fantasy Life was closely watched by the western gaming press as the companies and staff involved in its production reads like a who's who of Japanese games industry RPG notables. In addition to Level-5, legendary character artist Yoshitaka Amano and early Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu are also credited on Fantasy Life. Most notably, Fantasy Life is the final game developed by Brownie Brown — before a restructuring and name change to 1-UP Studios — a company that holds a special place in JRPG fans' hearts for, among other things, its involvement with Mother 3, a game that was never officially released in the West. Now that Fantasy Life is finally arriving on western shores, does it deliver on the promise of its formidable creative staff? Absolutely.

At first blush the action RPG elements of Fantasy Life seem almost par for the course — the medieval fantasy setting, a dragon threatening the land, a race of cuddly creatures called the Plushies who haven't yet grasped that their name doesn't form the basis of the Queen's English; but the game excels by expanding the scope of the adventurer's journey by integrating it with the game's life sim features. In addition to gaining XP and earning Dosh (the in-game currency) for littering the landscape with creature corpses, each Life has its own series of challenges which award stars.
When enough stars are earned, the player ranks up in the Life they are currently living and gains access to new skills or recipes that also mostly remain usable when a character switches Lives, with one exception. Special Skills, unusually powerful or useful techniques, can only be used as part of the character's current Life. While the game certainly supports focusing exclusively on picking up a sword and going to town on the local wildlife or just hanging around the city selling handmade furniture, the full experience of Fantasy Life lies in developing a well-rounded character that can craft his or her own armour and weapons, potions, stat-boosting foods, and more.

All of this may sound like you're building a personal mobile weapons platform that can knit its own ammunition during recoil phases, but the game's difficulty is handled surprisingly well. You won't find yourself switching Lives and single-shot killing everything in sight, and the monsters of new kingdoms feel appropriately challenging once the areas become available. Combat is centred around using special button presses to execute certain moves, requiring a bit of timing to master but certainly not especially difficult, even to action RPG newcomers.
Fantasy Life isn't a game of statistics, gear dependence, and power grubbing, and this is evident in its somewhat eccentric user interface. While the screens are beautifully laid out and clean, this forces some useful information off of the top-level screens. It takes a few button presses to check out an item's statistics, and while shopping there's no immediately visible comparison between currently equipped gear and the selected item in the shop, again taking a few button presses to access. Fantasy Life is obviously not a title for people in a hurry.

Several of Fantasy Life's Lives involve producing goods, such as armour, clothing, and furniture by means of a short minigame. The crafting process is straightforward, requiring changing your character's position at the workbench and then performing the related task at that station in time with the indicator using the A button, and activating special skills once available. The difficulty is noticeable but not punishingly so — it's possible to miss a few taps or launch your character to the wrong place at the workbench and still make the item in the allotted time. Should you fail, your crafting materials will not be consumed, leaving you free to try again with no penalty; another example of design generous to less experienced players.
In addition to XP for character level gains and and stars for Life ranks, there's a third system, called Bliss, that awards points for other life sim related tasks like exploration, making in-game allies and decorating or buying new homes. As you increase your Bliss, you are awarded things like bigger bags, the ability to utilize mounts from different kingdoms and enhanced shopping experiences. Bliss is administered by Flutter, a talking butterfly that becomes your constant companion and neck piece early on in the game.

Fantasy Life's art is superb, with a beautifully colourful palette and cartoony, stylised graphics that are just unrealistic enough to avoid looking ridiculous; the 3D effect works consistently and adds even more richness to the already pleasing graphics. Unfortunately, it does suffer from some minor visual issues. The perspective, which is midway between a top-down and a side view — combined with the relatively low resolution of the 3DS — means that details get somewhat crunched to fit the available pixels or lost entirely, an issue which mostly affects in-game characters — the environment art is consistently fantastic. There was some obvious slowdown in the main cities at times, but this didn't occur frequently enough to be a major concern while playing. If you're looking for pure graphical heft Fantasy Life won't satisfy, but the art definitely supports and enhances the game world's presentation.
Brownie Brown has created a game world suitable for all ages, but mature enough in its presentation that it won't turn off the legal-to-drive crowd. The game's main story addresses themes of acceptance and cooperation in a way that any pro-social parent would be proud to hector their children with. The in-game cinematics that advance the main story, of which there are sadly few, are every bit as delightful as what we've already seen in the game's many trailers, and the 3D effect makes them feel that much more vivid. The music also supports Fantasy Life's light-hearted and humorous tone, but it's not all kazoos and glockenspiels — the bell and violin theme that plays in Castele's city at night is simply and gorgeously haunting.

It should also be noted, though its level of attraction will vary, that this isn't an exclusively single-player adventure. Fantasy Life's multiplayer allows players to get together locally or online in groups of up to three and accomplish the same tasks and challenges as in single-player mode (although it is not possible to advance the main story in multiplayer). With the variety of Lives to live and the range of tasks to perform, any trip to any kingdom with just about anyone is sure to be productive in some way — and you might just get the right help to finally defeat that challenge monster that's spent far too long in your Life list.
Link mode also allows you to send your online friends messages (both group-wide and private), notifications and applause without actually playing together. The onscreen keyboard is alphabetical and not QWERTY, so expect a learning curve when trying to stylus- or fingernail-tap out a message. Using StreetPass, tagged players' Fantasy Life avatars can appear as residents in your main town of Castele; speak with them enough to become friends and eventually they may reward you with gifts. These are welcome touches that will add a great deal to the experience for some, or at the very least offer a fun diversion.

Conclusion

Given the game's relative age, Fantasy Life isn't going to be the shiniest toy on the 3DS' shelf this year, but it just may be the happiest. Providing quality gameplay in both its life sim and action RPG aspects, served up with all of the colourful wit and charm anyone could ask for, it serves as a jewel in the crown of memory of a games studio that helped create some of the most memorable role-playing video games that ever graced the medium. It may now be 1-UP Studios, but Brownie Brown hit its marks with Level 5 in this game. As a farewell for the company in its old guise this is an excellent game for the occasion. So long Brownie Brown, and thanks for all the fun.

Suikoden 2 review: The greatest RPG ever made

Suikoden 2 is the greatest RPG ever made. 

If you have not played the first Suikoden then please check out the review for it here due to the similarities between the two games. A lot of what is said in that review about the gameplay basics can be carried over to here. It should also be mentioned again that as a PlayStation One classic, there is nothing new or changed to the game. It is a strict port of the PS1 original.

You take over the role of a young teenager named Riou, and along with his best friend Jowy, are caught up in a plot to create a new war between the Highland Empire and the City-States of Jowston. Rising from refugee to leader of the rebel forces against the Highland Empire, the player is caught up in political intrigue, friendship, and betrayal. The story is a lot darker and serious. While the first game made the motives of the hero easier to digest, Suikoden 2 puts the world in a layer of grey, making morality not as clear cut a choice. This is helped by there being multiple endings throughout the game.
As discussed in the Suikoden 1 review, that human tragedy element is an even bigger focus in Suikoden 2 because of the obfuscation of morality. Playing through the game, I had mixed emotions over events that happened because it takes you through a different path through the valley of death and human nature. The first game, overall, gives you a clear-cut choice of you're fighting the good fight against something evil. While Prince Luca Blight is one of the most extreme, sadistic villains in any RPG, events that transpire make you question who is right, and who is wrong in the conflict. So for the gamer who wants to think deep about what is presented to him, you're given lots of philosophical material to work with. At the same time, you still have a tale of good vs. evil that flows off the TV screen for gamers wanting to just read and enjoy the surface.

Konami also improved the amount of purpose and storyline integration of the 108 Stars of Destiny. A good amount have a role to play in progressing the narrative before, and after, joining the cast. There are still characters with little interaction outside of clicking circle, they say they are an aspiring merchant, and you offer to recruit them. This is offset by Richmond, the private detective, who can research the backstory of all of the 108 characters. Some RPGs have a hard enough time weaving together a dozen characters, let alone a cast that rivaled Dynasty Warriors before Dynasty Warriors even existed.
While this is a sequel, any knowledge of the first game only helps the player with their appreciation of the world, and understating some background material, especially with some of the returning characters. If you did not play the first you lose nothing in terms of the story though. Save data from the first game can be transferred over to give the player added benefits, like certain cameos I won't mention due to spoilers.

One change was made to the equipment system which will be a bother to people depending on the style they enjoy. Instead of having an inventory the character can just use items from; all items need to be equipped. The catch is it takes away a slot for a piece of miscellaneous equipment. You can either go all equipment, which is what I do, all items or a mixture. I can understand why they did it that way, as the magic item system could be greatly abused as it allows non-magically skilled character access to powerful spells.
The combat system is almost unchanged from the first game. Unite attacks are still around, and so is the 6-man team. The one small addition is sometimes characters will perform double or triple attacks, meaning they will attack more than one enemy even though it is a basic attack. Duels have also returned, and are just as fun.

The strategy combat system has changed. Not every one of the 108 stars is included. Instead it has become a mini-version of a tactics style game. Certain characters are leaders which give you a new unit on the field. This is pre-determined and cannot be changed. But the others will give that unit bonuses, like extra attack or defense, or a powerful ability.
Suikoden 2 is twice the length of Suikoden 1, for those looking for the most bang for your buck. The amount of extras they added into the game help improves it over the original. One in particular is the Iron Chef mini-game which has its own unique storyline, and gives the player a reason to go collecting all the recipes around the world. There are other secondary storylines that help enrich the world that can be found if searched for carefully enough.

Suikoden 2 takes the foundation provided from Suikoden 1 and improves it. The foundation did not have any cracks, much like the lauded movies I used in the opening; it merely needed a couple tweaks. Those adjustments have created the best RPG ever made, in this writer's opinion. Everything it does is done without fault, and can appeal to any kind of fan of the genre from the casual to the most hardcore. There is something in it for everyone. Above all else, RPGs are made or broken by their story, and this has a story that will keep you coming back again and again. Even if you disagree it is the greatest, it is still one of the best RPGs from the PS1 era and well worth your time and money to pick up if you missed it back then.

Murdered: Soul Suspect

Murdered: Soul Suspect plays like a great B-movie.

Murdered: Soul Suspect is the best old-fashioned ghost story I've watched or played in years.
Airtight's third person horror game takes inspiration from folk mythology about ghosts and spirits, as well as the mystery genre. That marriage — and the game itself — works much better than Soul Suspect's jokey title led me to believe. While it treads familiar territory for both genres, it feels fresh in its approach and assured, crafted seemingly with a keen sense of what makes each kind of story tick.

The game begins with protagonist Ronan O'Connor's dramatic death — he's thrown out a window and shot with his own gun. Ronan's a gifted detective and prototypical tough guy with a checkered past. In death, he's determined to solve his own murder at the hands of the mysterious Bell Killer — a serial murderer that is terrorizing Salem, Massachusetts — and stop them once and for all.
The plot plays out like hardboiled detective fiction steeped in horror tropes. Ronan monologues like a disembodied Philip Marlowe, but he also passes through walls, possesses the living and talks to mediums (people who can communicate with the spirit world). While the narrative doesn't break new ground for either genre, it's well-paced and stocked with characters that I immediately cared about, including Joy, a sassy young medium, and surprisingly, Ronan himself. I was invested in Ronan's story from the first moments of the game, despite the tired "tattooed antihero" archetype he appears to represent. There's pathos in his story, lent from a difficult upbringing and the losses he's suffered. He's a criminal-turned-cop trying to atone for his past, and he shows real empathy and even tenderness in the way he deals with others — living or dead.
As a ghostly Ronan, it was my job to play detective. For the most part, investigations are straightforward. I would walk around a crime scene or room, examining objects of relevance, occasionally possessing living bystanders or witnesses to read their minds, peek through their eyes, or influence their memory to find further clues. In one early scene, I needed to break into the Bell Killer "war room" at the police precinct and check for leads on the case. I possessed one cop sitting at a computer so I could look through his eyes and get crucial details about a person of interest.
Once I examined all of the evidence in a scene, I had to choose from a visual list of clues to solve the present mystery. Often, I had to pick the three most relevant details that directly addressed a question — "what was the killer doing in the room," for example. I could click on an image depicting a memory I triggered in a possessed witness, or a picture that showed a murder weapon. Finding the right clues was a matter of simple logic, and Soul Suspect didn't punish me for guessing wrong on occasion. The system let me get inside Ronan's head, and I enjoyed playing amatuer detective. I found myself talking to the screen, puzzling out the various clues and getting excited when I nailed the solution on my first try.
I found the most satisfaction in helping other ghosts resolve their pasts and "cross over" to the afterlife. These took the form of side quests where I'd use Ronan's detective skills to look for clues about their death, then report back and allow them to move on. One ghost appeared on the beach near a capsized ship — I investigated and found that she was a hero who saved people from drowning during a cataclysmic sinking. Another ghost was tormented by the thought that he was driving drunk and had killed his friends. These were tiny stories, completely optional, but they added a great deal to Soul Suspect's fiction. I sought out as many as I could find.
In between investigations, I used my ghostly powers to get around. I possessed cats to get into tight spots and climb up ledges, and teleported short distances. Occasionally, I was tasked with guiding a living companion through a high security area. In order to get her through, I had to posses ("poltergeist") inanimate objects to distract guards so she could slip by unnoticed. These areas were always exciting — there's a simple joy in freaking people out by, say, making a copier start bursting paper from its tray, or turning a TV on and off.

Scoping Salem

Airtight's loving rendition of Salem is a chief reason that Soul Suspect works so well. Salem is a real-life harbor city famous for the witch trials that gripped the populace in the 1600s, as depicted in The Crucible. Airtight built a ghostly version that looks and sounds like the real thing — complete with nods to the town's maritime history, countless seafood houses, and grisly tourist attractions — like witch museums and graveyard tours. The only thing missing? Almost none of the locals in the game sport the signature New England accent.
All of the funhouse antics died down when the stealth situation involved demons. Demons are the only enemies that can "kill" Ronan, so I needed to teleport from shadow to shadow to avoid getting my soul sucked. I could execute demons by sneaking up on them, but they had the nasty habit of turning their ghostly backs the moment I wanted to do them in, which led to frustrating deaths. The whole demon enterprise felt like padding — I was invested enough in the story and the detective mechanics, and certainly didn't need a slow stealth puzzle after every major investigation scene.
Soul Suspect is also held back by a few aggravating technical glitches. On the lower end, these issues were merely annoying. For example, the voiceover audio almost never matched up with the subtitles. But occasionally, a game-breaking glitch would ruin the flow. In my very first investigation, the buttons for examining a clue malfunctioned, prompting a restart. And the game crashed on me once during my playthrough. None of this happened often enough to ruin my experience, but it took me out of the game when it did.
Soul Suspect's narrative and world kept me going despite these irritations. Like any great detective story, Soul Suspect is linear, but that was never a problem for me. In between story sections, I was free to wander about Salem, discover hidden stories, chat with other ghosts and solve side quests. I could possess almost every living person and read their mind, eavesdrop on conversations, and generally take in the rich world Airtight built.

Murdered: Soul Suspect is awash in tropes, but somehow, that's part of the charm. It's a pulpy detective tale remixed as a classic ghost story, and it works as a sort of playable B-movie. It's linear and mechanically simple, but it flows well and keeps a fast pace, at least as long as I wasn't chasing down demons. Supernatural Salem was a rich, sad, beautiful place to visit, and as it turned out, Ronan was the perfect tour guide.

Fire Emblem Heroes

Fire Emblem Heroes, as an idea, doesn't seem to match Nintendo's efforts in the mobile space so far.
Pokémon Go removed much of the base series' depth for location-based social activity. Super Mario Run relegated the sophistication of Mario platforming to button taps. Fire Emblem as a series is resistant to that kind of reduction. The strategy role-playing game series is all about lengthy battles, challenging maps and memorable characters whose stories play out over several chapters.
Yet with Fire Emblem Heroes, Nintendo seems to finally have perfected translating the console experience to smartphones. Heroes is an excellent example of how to make an RPG work on smartphones, optimized for the platform without sacrificing the most important and appealing parts of the genre.

Fire Emblem Heroes is optimized for mobile without making too many sacrifices
Fire Emblem Heroes manages to do this by turning the franchise's wide-ranging cast into its biggest gimmick. A story mode has the unseen player character command a team of up to four units traverse the various worlds of Fire Emblem. Each one is based on a different game in the series, from 1990's Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light to last year's Fire Emblem Fates.
Hopping around from setting to setting involves some nonsensical bits of explanation, but it was a treat seeing dozens of familiar faces team up and take on my own carefully constructed group of fighters. It's not just the characters that are recognizable, though. Nintendo and Intelligent Systems also preserved the series' battle system and core mechanics for Heroes. Memorizing the weapon triangle — swords beat axes, axes beat lances, lances beat swords — is still required for making it out of those turn-based battles with all units still intact.
The battle system may not be as complex as it is on consoles, but it's not watered down. It remains nuanced enough for me to get lost in, having played several Fire Emblem games in the past. At the same time, removing some of the more intense elements — like permadeath and weapon durability — also makes Fire Emblem Heroes accessible and appealing to newcomers. Map design, on the other hand, is lacking in comparison to the main series, but limiting the number of fighters that can enter into battle helps to provide a new kind of strategizing in place of traps and danger zones usually found on maps.
Most importantly, the battle system highlights the diversity of Fire Emblem's characters. That rings true in all of Fire Emblem Heroes' modes, which are varied and bountiful. After racing through the story, I've spent time sharpening my favorite fighters' skills in the Arena mode, which pits your team against those of other players worldwide to rack up chain bonuses and rewards; the Training Tower, where you can collect items and experience and level up new recruits; and the recently introduced Paralogues, which are like story mode side quests that rotate out on a recurring basis.
All of these modes give the characters room to shine and endear themselves to players, which is evident in the gorgeous character art and self-deprecating level up dialogue each one has. With modes like Paralogues, I got to meet and fall in love with new characters beyond my pre-existing favorites, which isn't just fun for me, it feeds directly into the free-to-play element.
For all of its traditional Fire Emblem conceits, Heroes is still a mobile game with some very recognizable mobile game constraints. All of those characters that I found so endearing in the story chapters? You can't just add them to your party. It costs in-game currency to collect them — it's called Orbs — and that comes at a cost.
Thus far, I've found it easy to play Fire Emblem Heroes without spending a dime. The game hands out Orbs left and right. The trade-off? I have very few of my favorite characters (and anyone who's finished up the entire Story mode will find themselves stuck without a free way to generate more funds).
Fire Emblem Heroes introduces a feature called Summon to build your party. Summon appropriates the Japanese phenomenon of "gachapon," wherein players spend money for a random grab bag of characters. Fire Emblem Heroes lets players spend upward of 20 Orbs at a time for five characters. There are a ton of character variables involved, from which hero you get to their stats.
the barriers to building the best team can be frustrating
As a Fire Emblem fan with some major allegiances, this can be a crapshoot. The probability that I'll get the highest quality version of my favorite characters is extremely low, which means I've amassed a good deal of new characters that I've never seen before and who aren't great in battle. While Fire Emblem Heroes has some wonderful writing and I've come to love some new faces, the barriers to building the best team can be frustrating.
More annoying is the other big free-to-play limitation: energy costs. Every single action I took in Fire Emblem Heroes requires the use of stamina, which dwindles rapidly and takes eons to replenish. There's no way to increase the stamina limit beyond its 50 cap, and when a battle — win or lose — costs upward of 15 stamina points, that means I'm left waiting for hours to play Fire Emblem Heroes again after only playing for five minutes.
I want to play Fire Emblem Heroes as much as possible, which is a testament to its battle system and characters. Whenever I've amassed enough free Orbs and summoned a hero I actually do want to add to my team, I want to use them in battle immediately and often. The stamina costs interrupt what would otherwise be an endless gameplay session, and it's impossible to do anything about this without spending cash.

Harvest Moon: Another Wonderful Life: Special Edition - IGN

The Harvest Moon series attracts a very specific type of gamer. Like SimCity and the Sims, Harvest Moon takes a bunch of everyday (read: mundane) chores and whips them into a compelling game experience. In Harvest Moon, the objective is to raise a family and run a farm. Both objectives require you to perform a string of tasks, ranging from milking cows and feeding chickens to playing with your kids. Obviously, this kind of thing doesn't appeal to everyone.

The release of Harvest Moon: Another Wonderful Life, which shipped last year for the Nintendo GameCube, didn't change the formula. To those who loved the series, Another Wonderful Life remained quirky and undeniably charming. That's the way it has always been in the Harvest Moon universe. With Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life: Special Edition, you'll notice a few changes here and there, but primarily it's the same deal. That is to say, it's identical in terms of game mechanics, but you will notice a few dips, especially in terms of visuals and framerate. Not only that, the load times are pretty long. The game even loads considerably when opening and closing the village map. Simply should not happen.
If you've played A Wonderful Life, or the GameCube version of Another Wonderful Life, this PS2 iteration simply doesn't hold much appeal. Technically, the two games are virtually identical. Yes, you do get a broader selection of brides (four in all), but the effects on gameplay are minimal at best. Running the farm and raising a family still form the bulk of the game, with all the chores from A Wonderful Life remaining largely unchanged. Balancing finances, animals, plants and kids remains the key to success. As such, if you liked Harvest Moon and haven't played the Cube version, then Another Wonderful Life: Special Edition serves up a mean dish of, well, farm life.
The game starts with your arrival in Forget-Me-Not-Valley. The first thing you do is tour your new farm. Your guide on the tour, a crabby farm hand by the name of Takakura, gives you the skinny on just about everything, from the local townsfolk to running the farm to purchasing animals from local merchants. After the not-so-brief introduction, Takakura leaves you alone to fend for yourself. Life in, err, Another Wonderful Life splits between a number of chapters, each with its own set of requirements. The first chapter ends when you get married to a lass from town, for example. Having said that, you can spend 100 hours on the first chapter if all you want to do is milk cows.
Before getting hitched (to one of four brides, this time), it's best to learn how to farm. Like previous Harvest Moon games, you receive an initial batch of seeds and equipment, plus a single cow. Success in Harvest Moon depends largely on how well you manage your first cow, as well as your first batch of seeds. Since this is essentially the same game as A Wonderful Life, performing tasks around the farm feels just as fun as before. Planting seeds and watering plants is just as strangely addicting as before, as is taking care of and milking cows.
Of course, there's a lot more to do than raise chickens, milk cows and sow plants. You can also purchase sheep to sell their wool. Raising sheep brings its own set of complications, however. If you want the best wool, you need to bathe the sheep. Plus, you can't sell wool nearly as fast as you can sell milk, but sheep also require less of your attention. It's a decent trade-off. Furthermore, the more animals you have on the farm, the harder it becomes to feed them, wash them, take them outside when weather permits and also sticking them in the barn when it's rainy. Beyond this, you still need to cuddle them and talk to them to make sure they're happy. And as everyone knows, happy cows produce excellent milk.
Fishing and cooking represent major pastimes in the game as well. After purchasing a fishing rod from Van, a roaming merchant, you can set off fishing to make dishes or to sell on the market. Like most aspects of the game, fishing can be as simple or as complex as you want. You can fish only once in the game if you want, for example, or spend hours at a time searching for one specific class of fish. The same goes for cooking dishes. You can simply cook with whatever ingredients you have or you can spend whole days searching for that single, elusive ingredient.
Just as in real life, you'll find there isn't enough time in the day to do everything you want to do. In addition to raising livestock and tending to plants for cash, Forgot-Me-Not-Valley features a cast of oddball characters and locations to explore. Interestingly, you can now choose the gender of your child and guide them through a mini-career path. It's not as complex as it could be, but it does add a little something to the mix. Fans will appreciate it, anyway.
The Verdict
Harvest Moon: Another Wonderful Life - Special Edition feels very much like the original Cube version. And that&#Array;s because both titles share almost everything. They sound the same and play the same. The differences, including an increase in brides, choosing the gender of your child and the ability to play forever, make little difference. What does make a difference, though, is the drastic drop in framerate, increase in load times and muddy graphics. 

LEGO Star Wars III: The Clone Wars (3DS)

Back in 2005, if you would have told someone that six years down the road, LEGO Star Wars would still be one of the most bankable and consistently enjoyable franchise would have been laughed at. Many called the idea a shallow cash grab, yet here we are in 2011 with another instalment in the hugely popular series.
Before the Wii fully tapped into the casual gaming crowd, the idea of making any game (other than maybe Mario Party) primarily for a family audience was still not widely considered to be a wise or potentially profitable business plan.

But LEGO Star Wars wasn't a lazy cash-in. It was an incredibly fun and whimsical action-platformer whose unique sense of humor and charm captivated everyone from LEGO-loving kids to old-school Star Wars fans who had grown disillusioned with the recent, melodramatic prequels.
Things are a little different now.
Not much has changed in the ol' LEGO formula since the first game came out, and if you've enjoyed previous entries in the series, there's little reason to suspect you wouldn't enjoy LEGO Star Wars III: The Clone Wars as well. Sadly, some surprising omissions, a few gameplay issues and technical problems make it the closest the series has come to that first feared lazy cash grab.
Of course the tricky thing right off the bat is that of all sagas in the Star Wars universe, the Clone Wars is by far the least familiar, mostly because it's so new and primarily relegated to an animated television series. As a result, the nostalgia/familiarity factor is lost almost immediately for the Average Joe. This isn't a problem while playing the levels themselves, but the cutscenes and story sequences, all of which are silently acted, are more confusing than they ought to be.

It's a testament to the gameplay, then, that the title remains mostly enjoyable despite this. As in the other LEGO Star Wars games, you'll be gallivanting across various planets and galaxies while using a mixture of platforming, exploration and character-based puzzle-solving to pass each story level. Unlike some of the other entries in the series, The Clone Wars wisely focuses on these gameplay staples for the most part, rather than repetitious combat; in fact there are several clever instances where the combat is a puzzle in and of itself. It's also worth noting that although you'll still be using multiple characters to complete each level, the character-swapping mechanics have been significantly streamlined. Instead of having your entire party following you around at all times, there's now only ever one player on the screen, meaning you simply switch characters with the R and L triggers. The developers put this to fairly good use as well, as certain enemies require the participation of multiple party members in quick succession to be destroyed.
Your party members aren't just aesthetically different, however — as series vets know, every character has their own special ability that can be used to complete specific puzzles or grant them certain advantages in combat. Yoda, for example, as a short little guy can fit in small nooks and crannies that a larger character might not be able to access. The levels, which are some of the best the series has seen, have a certain amount of depth to them as well: you might see a ledge with a special object on it that you can't reach with your current party, for example, meaning you'll have to come back later with a different character or two to reach it. You see, for the uninitiated, LEGO Star Wars is quite reminiscent of the platformers of the N64/PS1 era in that it's very much about collecting things. Completionists are definitely going to get the most mileage out of this one, as all the collectables, combined with the branching level designs, give the player plenty of reasons to go back and visit the story missions multiple times.

If there's one thing that has really made the series popular, though, it's the great co-operative multiplayer, which is why it's such a shame that this game doesn't have any.
It's a pretty baffling omission, quite frankly. Even some of the DS iterations of the LEGO games, such as LEGO Indiana Jones, had a full fledged co-op mode. Given the 3DS's significantly greater horsepower, its omission is both strange and hugely disappointing. It doesn't do the minigames any favours either: these unlockable extras feel like little more than pointless distractions without a friend to play them with. The StreetPass feature doesn't make up for the loss at all, as all it does is grant you a few extra studs (the game's currency), though considering the number of these you need to unlock all the characters, every little helps.

Of course as you probably expected, most of the 3DS' extra power is used on the visuals, which are undeniably mesmerising. Whether you have the 3D turned on or off, LEGO Star Wars III is one great looking game, with incredible texture work, sharp lighting effects and beautiful environments. The 3D is, as expected, a double-edged sword — the frame rate takes a hit if you have it turned on, but it also adds a surprising amount of depth to the environments, and makes the otherwise jagged character models appear much smoother. It's not the best showcase of the system's graphical prowess on the launch lineup, but it's a visual treat nonetheless.
The one area that not even the 3D visuals can save, however, is the dogfight missions, which are just short of unbearable. They don't control well (even with the usually-excellent Circle Pad), they're a bummer to look at, and to top it off they're simply not fun. Mercifully, these missions are infrequent, and are usually backed up by a strong traditional mission-type or two.
During our play through the game froze on at least five occasions, and it doesn't appear to be at all related to the most recent 3DS update (which has been causing similar problems) as no error message occurs during freezing. There were also some instances during cutscenes where characters would just completely fail to animate. These issues don't seem to be affecting everyone's copy of the game, but having to replay a level three times simply because it keeps freezing on you is an inexcusable issue in any game, and a particularly shocking one from this typically well-polished series.

Conclusion

LEGO Star Wars III: The Clone Wars is a tough one to pin down. Its single player mode is just as fun as previous entries in the series, if not more so; its puzzles and level designs are wonderfully clever, if not particularly challenging, and new abilities like wall-jumping add even more variety to the already solid experience. Fans of exploration will have an even better time with the game, as there are numerous, tough-to-find collectables in each level. On the other hand, you're going to have to put up with some seriously mediocre flight missions, potentially game-ending bugs, and there's no multiplayer to speak of.
In a word: disappointing. What we have here is a fun game that, with a bit of polish and a few extra features could have been something truly special.

Inazuma Eleven GO: Light & Shadow (3DS)



In Japan, Level-5 is one of the masters at maximising franchises through games — typically on portable systems — and TV shows or films, continually keeping the storyline going and producing regular content. Yo-kai Watch is the current craze, while Professor Layton had some film content to accompany six main-series games and more spin-offs besides; then there's Inazuma Eleven, one of the company's most prolific franchises. Its route to the West has been long, however, with heavily delayed localisation and a Europe focus holding it back — North America only recently received a revamped 3DS version of the DS original.
It's a series with impressive lore, nevertheless, and Inazuma Eleven GO: Light & Shadow are the first entries (two titles largely the same, Pokémon-style) outside of Japan to bring the major side-series to Western attention — in Europe initially, once again. Right off the bat we'll say this: if you're a devotee of the first three main titles across DS and 3DS, this is a fun extension that should join your collection. For those coming in fresh, a lot of the nods, winks and background story may be a little baffling, albeit not enough to spoil the experience.
The storyline takes place — we think we've got this right — 10 years after the conclusion of Inazuma Eleven 3, and this time around you're controlling Arion Sherwind, who comes with the same DNA of over-the-top super-enthusiasm as the main protagonist of this title's predecessors, Mark Evans. He's just starting out at Raimon, the setting of the first DS title and recurring home of Evans, and joins the school team and a host of new characters. Initially we struggled to warm to Arion and his team-mates as much as those that came before, but the title does a good job of using its story-telling to flesh these players out; eventually we did have some level of affinity with these young footballers.
There are a host of returning characters, though, which we won't spoil here, which as mentioned above could fly over the heads of those jumping in for the first time. There's a bit of clunky reminiscence to remind you of what's come before, but overall the ensemble cast is introduced and expanded relatively skilfully. As for the overall storyline, it's got a neat hook and progresses nicely, though it does have padding that feels unnecessary; in fact, the amount of slightly inane busy-work that's thrown in on occasion is a regular complaint following on from Inazuma Eleven 3 — the development team wants this to be a substantial undertaking, but throws in unnecessary filler to achieve that goal.
This GO entry, meanwhile, scales back some of the daunting depth that spiralled out of control in the original trilogy, though perhaps chops away too much. The first title hit a sweet spot that this entry misses, as despite having equipment, abilities and levelling to tackle, it feels less substantial. Random 5-a-side football battles are exceptionally rare now, as you're instead simply shown challengers on the map that you can take on or completely ignore — it's welcome, compared to over-zealous equivalents that came before, but we found that the world felt less vibrant as a result. There are plenty of NPCs to exchange meaningless phrases with, yes, but for many hours we were running around the same dozen or so small-ish areas over and over again; this is a title setting the foundations for the whole GO series, yet it falls short of being compelling in its storytelling and sense of progress.

That said, there are new features and an attention to detail to admire. Though the overworld is more barren than before and items feel less relevant than ever, there's real depth to the action. The Extra Competition Route for additional matches returns — despite being annoyingly restrictive early on — but there are new ideas such as Twitter-style network where characters chat over events, and a neat trading card mechanic for acquiring new players. As with previous entries you can certainly get by with the default line-up and extras picked up in battles, but there's daunting scope to expand your roster, while local Wi-Fi trading is great for making deals with friends.
The primary feature of this title — beyond exploring the over-world and picking some local battles — is the story 'event' matches, which are 11-a-side and full of drama. It's in these where the now-standard wacky special moves come to the fore, and some scripting is combined with increasingly tough matches — we even had to endure a penalty shoot-out on one occasion. These are essential to the plot and progress well, gradually unveiling more abilities and evolving characters, all once again — as with the 5-a-side battles — controlled with the stylus on the touch screen, though conversations and special moves show on the top screen. It functions as before with a combination of taps and swipes, though this entry throws in some new mechanics; most notable are Fighting Spirits, which have their own energy requirements and involve rather large spirits beefing up key characters and, on occasion, clashing with each other.

It's to Level-5's credit that these matches remain a highlight, especially with some added drama thrown in with key events that disable the clock — you're tasked with getting a specific character into a certain area of the pitch, for example. Managing points and energy for special moves, Fighting Spirits, special team moves and general stamina may sound complex and exhausting, but it's introduced steadily and impeccably structured; young gamers that can handle Pokémon should find it a breeze. With each chapter structured in multiple parts that conclude with a match, on occasion we found ourselves keen to get past the fluff of storyline and fetching brown bread for the coach — yes, really! — and into the matches.
What these matches and the title as a whole also show off is a genuine improvement in presentation, too. While previous efforts on 3DS — two iterations of Inazuma Eleven 3 — were a little lazy, this sports a new visual engine that's clearly based on the same technology used for the more recent Professor Layton titles. The style brings us clean, simple polygons that look particularly good in 3D, while the music is of higher quality than before. This was the first title in the series developed from the ground up for 3DS, and it succeeds in moving the franchise on in terms of its presentation. There's download content — as well as StreetPass and SpotPass functionality — so keen players have plenty to enjoy.

Overall, this is a thoroughly decent entry in the Inazuma series, with its GO moniker introducing some new elements and a young cast to join old favourites. That said, the core experience remains largely the same, and we feel that the RPG sweet-spot of the first title hasn't been hit here — it's less ponderous that the last of the original trilogy, but somewhat empty and smaller in scale, too. Despite that, it retains the franchise charm, enthusiasm and positive attitude, while providing a meaty adventure to keep gamers busy for a lot of hours.

Conclusion

Inazuma Eleven GO: Light & Shadow is another welcome entry in the series, notable for finally embracing the 3DS fully as opposed to updating DS content. It adds a smattering of new features and ideas, some of which enhance the play, though retains the same formula of overworld exploration and stylus-based matches — all of which should satisfy long terms fans. The world is a little less vibrant than the original classic yet retains charm, and this is a good jumping-in point for 3DS owners that are willing to overlook nods and winks to series lore. A solid début for the GO sub-series, if not a stand-out, it scores a narrow, extra time win in its quest to maintain the standards that fans of outrageous football have come to expect. Well played, Level-5.

Fire Emblem: Awakening (3DS)

A hint of trepidation arises whenever the "Powers That Be" decide that "Your Cool Thing" needs a bigger audience, primarily because "What They Like" and "Why You Like It" don't always mesh. Take Fire Emblem, possibly the most hardcore of Nintendo's franchises — not "hardcore" in the nonsense term of it appealing primarily to a traditional gaming audience, but because it is by its very nature a beautifully unforgiving beast. Expanding the base tends to mean dulling its claws, and the risk is that it'll no longer sink them in as deep.



To love Fire Emblem is to feast up on the throne of Damocles, but not everyone wants to chow down with a sword over their brain. It's clear that Nintendo would like more people to actually pay money for Fire Emblem: Awakening, so some of the series' idiosyncrasies big and small are smoothed out or tweaked, including the option to switch off the whole eternal sleep thing — and without penalty at that. Doing so may fly in the face of what Fire Emblem fans love about Fire Emblem, but, after all, it's only an option, tucked away safely in the likely healthier Casual mode you can choose to ignore. Or jump straight into. Who are we to judge?

If concessions like that are what it takes to continue to see high-caliber games of this ilk then Nintendo can tweak away; Awakening may be the most accessible Fire Emblem to date but retains its hardcore strategic faculties for those who are already very happy with the franchise, thank-you-very-much, and adds a whole bunch of other modern-day niceties on top of it that anyone can get behind. Damocles can have his delicious cake - and eat it, too.
The events of Fire Emblem: Awakening are set years past that of any other Fire Emblem entry, keeping its legacy at a distance far enough to prevent new players from feeling lost but with enough insider nudges to satisfy series veterans. After creating your character - named Robin by default - they are woken in a field by a group of soldiers led by Price Chrom of Ylisse. Robin doesn't remember who they are or where they came from, but soon finds themselves joining Chrom's cause in the role of tactician, fighting for the future of the kingdom. While we can't say the overarching plot feels wholly unique - if we had a dollar for every time we've seen an amnesiac at the center of an RPG story, we'd be happily shacked up in the Bahamas by now - interest in Fire Emblem: Awakening's tale of heroism and bravery against seemingly impossible odds is propelled in its near-entirety by the relationships between the game's characters - all of which come with difficult-to-pronounce names. Stoic, heroic and witty to the end, each cast member - no matter how minor the role - has a strong presence and unique voice thanks to some really great writing.

Watching these personalities interact and build relationships is its own kind of reward off the battlefield, as are the gorgeous, fully voice-acted cut-scenes for key plot points, although this typically involves an awful lot of reading between skirmishes. Partial voice acting peppers the wealth of dialogue, where a character blurts something audible at the beginning of their lines, but this tends to be hit-or-miss affair as sometimes what a character says doesn't align directly with the on-screen text. Still, it's more interesting than just text and works often enough to grow on you. You can even switch the voice track to the original Japanese, if you're so inclined.
There is certainly enough time for Fire Emblem: Awakening to grow on you as the campaign is quite lengthy, easily breaching 25 hours on a straight-shot through — indulging in the dozens of optional missions and side-scraps can tick up that clock significantly, not to mention the free SpotPass and paid downloadable missions slated to hit from day one. That's a lot of strategizing, and in typical Fire Emblem fashion there is a great depth to fighting that never stops rewarding smart thinking or punishing lapses of judgment no matter how temporary. It can be frustrating to get knocked on your back at the end of a contentious fight, but then again, it was probably your fault anyway.

Each side takes turns moving their dozen or so units of assorted types around the map in a limited fashion, allowing one action per unit - move, attack, use an item and such. The battle mechanics build on a simple Rock-Paper-Scissors-type weapon triangle, and on top of that certain weapon types are more effective against assorted units. It sounds simple, but in practice requires a lot of careful consideration to maximize your turn - not only must you try to figure out the most powerful way to attack your opponent, but also ensure proper footing so you don't get anyone killed when your enemy takes their turn. Successful routings require surveying the terrain, arming with the proper equipment and thinking two steps ahead. The campaign loves to toy with your emotions, often pitting you against what seems like an insurmountable enemy only to throw in an empowering twist somewhere down the line - or a devastating one, if you're unlucky.
As units level up they grow stronger and more capable with their weapons, which in turn yields higher damages and resistances and allows the wielding of more powerful arms. You can change or upgrade a unit's class or abilities with items and Miyagi them to their true potential. Key to this entry are character relationships; while they are fun to watch unfold off the battlefield, how chummy everyone is together matters even more in the thick of it. The buddy system reigns supreme in Fire Emblem: Awakening: placing units next to each other in battle allows them to influence stats like hit, dodge and critical rates, jump in to protect from a blow or themselves swoop in with an extra strike. The more that the same units fight together, the stronger their relationship becomes, which can be crucial in determining whether they live or die.

At the outset of a campaign you can pick between Casual and Classic rules, and once selected you cannot switch. When playing in Casual mode, death isn't such a big deal: your units hit the sidelines for the rest of the battle but are happy to join in with the next fray. Without the fear of permanent loss this style of play allows for more reckless action, although suffering too many losses in one battle is a sure-fire way to not win. Classic is more demanding in this area as a dead unit is, as one might imagine in reality, really dead. A steady stream of new units prevents your roster from depleting too much, but losing a unit you've groomed and become attached to because of a poorly reasoned move is a good way to drive yourself crazy. There are none of Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon's Save Points on the maps so in Classic mode there is no saving while in battle; you can bookmark a fight and resume it later, but if you want to avoid a death then you'll have to restart the chapter. Considering the stiff challenge of later portions of the game, restarting a map can become a frustratingly common occurrence - this is one of those games where your Activity Log and in-game timer will never align. In Casual mode you can save anywhere at any time, making deaths even less of a setback.
There are other tweaks to the mechanics that a newcomer might not notice but an old-timer will appreciate; legacy quirks have been ironed out by default to make for a smoother experience, like being able to approach an enemy unit before picking a weapon. Since there's already so much on your tactician's plate, anything to help make their life a little easier is very welcome, but grizzled veterans who hate change can switch off a bunch of settings to play the game they want.
Easy on the eyes for the most part, Awakening's presentation is a real step above prior portable outings but not quite up there with the past few home console entries. The aforementioned CG cut-scenes have some of the best art design that we've seen on the handheld so far, beautifully bringing the world to life with vivid anime detail. Half of the exposition makes use of illustrated talking head-style exchanges with slightly tweaked facial expressions — the art is lovely and effective for its purpose but comes off a little static somewhere around the halfway point. The 3D portions are somewhat less detailed and impressive but they too get the job done, lending some much-needed dynamism to battles even if it takes some focus to get past how none of the characters appear to have any feet. The maps don't generally look all that remarkable but fulfill their utilitarian purpose - were they any busier then they'd likely distract, after all, and the 2D sprites used relay information more clearly than a scaled-down polygonal model would on this screen. Plus they look neat and have a lot of personality, making it really easy to spot who is who out there.

Awakening's wonderfully smooth campaign is paired with a suite of multiplayer modes in both local and StreetPass flavors. Alongside an ally in the same room, Double Duel has each player choose three friendly units from their campaigns to march into battle against an AI army, taking turns to send in a hero and buddy unit. Defeat nets you nothing, nor do your units stay dead here, but as it isn't the same type of tactical combat as the rest of the game - more of a stat fight, really - there's little risk involved, and thus a less fulfilling reward. Double Duel victories yield Renown to unlock bonus items and grow a scary number next to your name for StreetPass battles, the far more interesting social mode where you select an army of 10 to send out into the ether to do battle with, recruit or buy wares from visiting platoons. StreetPass Sorties take the place of online multiplayer, which is kind of a bummer to have removed for those who never seem to find themselves around fellow 3DS owners.

Conclusion

Fire Emblem: Awakening's masterful tightrope walk between luring in curious onlookers and appealing to the hardest of cores is a sight to behold. It doesn't matter whether you've been strategizing with Marth since the NES days or only know him as the weird blue-haired guy from Super Smash Bros: Fire Emblem: Awakening's tale of heroism, colorful cast of characters and richly rewarding gameplay are sure to sink their talons in for a very long time. Who knows, with practice a beginner might even come around to the whole perma-death challenge thing. While the multiplayer options may be a little iffy depending on your circumstances, the sheer amount of quality content and replay value make this one icon sure to spend a long time on your 3DS menu. Have no fear: Fire Emblem: Awakening is here.
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