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XBLA 2: I’ve lost that shining feeling

Has your wallet been stolen by ninjas?  Are you not a bad enough dude to get it back?  It might be time to hit up Xbox Live for your next game.  There’s a lot of gems and a lot of junk in the Xbox Live system though, so make sure you know what you’re getting into before you start digitally buying Microsoft points.  This week we’ll touch on Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgement and Sam and Max: Beyond Time and Space, since both of these games are kinda short for a full post each.  I guess this is the second installment of Xbox Live Adventures.  If you missed the first one, check it out here.

Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgement

Vandal Hearts is a small game produced by Konami and Hijinks Studios that has been floating around on the Xbox Live system for a while now.  It’s a sword and sorcery hack-n-slash that focuses on larger battles against large gobs of foes based on a deep character development system.  Honestly, I originally downloaded the game because it made me nostalgic for Shining Force 2 for Sega Genesis.  The battle system is a dead ringer for the old Shining Force franchise, which is something that I’ve sorely missed over the years.

The premise is simple enough.  Two warring nations were having it out in one of those stab-you-with-swords fights you’d come to expect from Lord of the Rings.  This battle, however, was the end game.  Both sides were determined to defeat the other side once and for all in deadly combat that night, and no one seemed too concerned about going home.  Things were going well for the side whose name I have forgotten, until God dropped a meteor on the battlefield to kill everyone.  This left an entire generation of orphans on both sides of the conflict, but hey, the war was over so it all worked out.

You take the reigns of Tobias, an even-headed scamp who is being taught at one of those monastery schools, what with his parents being dead.  After a short introduction on how to play, bandits invade your town, and it’s up to Tobias and his dorky friend Calvin to head off to the garrison to fetch the calvary. You eventually get to control six characters to level up any way you want, and if you really work at it, FOJ gives you plenty of options to diversify your mans.

Is it a battle or a festive town gathering? I can't tell.

Seriously, this is the most impressive part about FOJ.  Everything can be leveled up.  Bow, hammer, axe, sword, and dagger skills can each individually be leveled up along with melee combat, magic, individual spells (which you have to learn by equipping the right book for a bit) dodge rating, ect ect.  Also, characters can level up their bonuses for attacking an enemy from the high ground, from behind, their bonus for attacking an enemy first, and more.  It’s a bit daunting if you’re trying to take it all in at once.

But the game is marred by some ugly bumps.  You’re pretty roped into the roles your characters are going to play by the game itself.  Calvin starts with an abnormally low weapon and melee combat scores, but already has a lot of levels in magic ability when you get him.  Tobias has a sword!  He knows how to use it!  You can change the path your characters are on, but honestly, why?  You need enemies to level up your skills, and you can get more enemies by repeating the same battles you’ve already seen over and over again.  It gets repetitive, and you’re much better off just plowing ahead with the main story than putting the hours into this game.

DIRTY POTS AND DIRTY PLATES. THAT'S WHAT BILBO BAGGINS HATES.

The second bad mark is that the characters, ALL of the characters, look like starving hobbits from the old animated Lord of the Rings cartoon.  (Wow, that’s the second Lord of the Rings reference in this article.  What’s up with that?)  They’re ugly, unrealistic, and I find myself wanting someone to poke out their freakishly enormous eyes.  The voice acting is sub par, and the characters are a bit on the tired stereotype side.

Still, combat can be fun and tricky to get the hang of.  Strategy becomes an issue, unless your strategy is “level up my mans until I don’t need strategy” in which case the game gets a bit dull.  You’d probably be better off saving your money on this one.  Despite it’s similar battle system, this game just didn’t give me that old “Shining Force” feeling.

Sam and Max: Beyond Time and Space

I was an enormous fan of Sam and Max Save the World, so it seemed only logical to pick up Beyond Time and Space as well.  The second season in the Xbox Live series was just as wacky as I remembered the first time around, but something about it felt a little off.

The plot picks up right where the first one left off.  Sam, a six-foot canine detective and Max, his hyperactive rabbit pal are chilling in their office after wrapping up a particularly thrilling mind control plot when they receive an early Christmas present in the form of a massive, angry destructive robot who has a deep love for philosophical questions and popular music.  After rearranging Sam and Max’s neighborhood, the duo manage to defeat the robot before setting out to find the angry pagan god Santa Claus to get some answers.

Yeah!!!!!11

Game play in Beyond Time and Space is the same as the previous game.  You control Sam as he wanders around, picking up random objects and talking with a rotating cast of paranoid, delusional, or possibly homicidal cast members in a search for clues or obscure items to solve everyone’s problem.  The only addition from the first game is Max’s hints, which he blurts out if you’re wandering around an area for too long, clueless about where you should be going.

The writing is solid, but honestly I’m not so sure about the point of some of those episodes.  First off, if you’ve never played Sam and Max Save the World, you’re going to be completely lost about what’s going on with the supporting cast.  This is definitely a sequel game, so time your download accordingly.

That being said, some of the new additions to the cast, like Santa, emo Moai heads, a German hipster vampire and Satan, seem a bit forced.  At points, it feels like the writers of Telltale Games had a basic idea where they wanted to end up, but no idea how to get there.  Which, I guess is fine for Sam and Max.  Lets just say I don’t think babies are funny enough to justify episode 2 and leave it at that.

Ugh, moai heads. Always such downers.

Also, the dialogue gets a bit more pop-culturey this time around.  That works fine for now, since the game was released in 2008, but you might want to get it soon before you forget about the distant, bygone past from 24 months ago.

Still, this one’s worth a download.  You won’t find a more unorthodox detective this side of Columbo, and if you enjoyed their adventures the first time around you owe it to yourself to see how the story ends.

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