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    Feb 9th, 2008 at 06:52:55     -    The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (DS)

    GAMEPLAY

    Phantom Hourglass has delivered standard Zelda fare so far. Although one could enter a Pulp Fiction-esque "little differences" diatribe, the main elements are still there - the puzzles based on environmental details, the constant rewards of varying value for varying tasks, the patterned boss fights, the acquisition of new tools and abilities for the purpose of solving puzzles and opening new paths, and the slow but steady expansion of the game world as the player progresses. As mentioned in the previous post, what sets this game apart from previous Zelda games is its interface and the degree to which it is integrated.

    During the gameplay after my previous post, I encountered several shining examples of the utilization of the DS's capabilities. One such example required the player to create their own map of an island, and then unify the image they've traced with clues as to where to do certain things and in what order. The notion that I would have to be the cartographer myself seemed preposterous at first, as I had been trained by countless previous games that a pre-made map hidden by some omniscient cartographer would inevitably be found within five or so minutes. Once I gave in and decided to try sketching the map with the built-in capabilities that the game offered, however, it seemed a completely natural and logical thing to do, and I felt silly for not considering it straight off.

    Another example of the game using the stylus to better immerse the player is in treasure hunting. Hints are laid around to connect certain points on the map and investigate whatever results, usually leading to some goodie or another. I found this particularly successful at making me feel like I had honestly discovered it on my own, and on a higher mental level than similar treasure situations in previous Zelda games. This resulted in much more satisfaction from the find than usual and gave me a genuine sense of accomplishment.

    Combat, a major facet of the game as well, continues to be fidgety, but I seem to have adapted to the controls a bit more. The serial nature of the control of the player character still presents a problem, but I have become more fluid with it, meaning the transition between movement and attacking is no longer quite as jarring.

    Finally, the characters continue to be deeper and more likable than ones in other Zelda games, with a very noticeable streak of humor present throughout. The player is often offered the chance to respond to non-player character remarks in a binary but often humorously befuddled manner, which drew me in to the world a bit more than I would have expected. The character development is definitely a highlight of this game.

    DESIGN

    The high level of integration of the control scheme into the game has a very noticable impact on the game. Puzzles, a major aspect of any Zelda game, are very player-centric, relying on them to keep track of information and transform it into a usable format. As a result, the dungeons have shifted away from the traditional Zelda spatial skillset (block pushing, combat, navigation) and towards one that is based on the ability of the player to draw figures and keep track of multiple pieces of information simultaneously.

    Time-based gameplay is also significant in the game, requiring the player to manage their time resource (the Phantom Hourglass) while in dungeons to avoid damage for just occupying any space but specific safe zones. This means that any space but those safe zones takes on an immediate air of danger and instability, as the timer will count down in there, but stop when in a safe zone. The fact that the player can not regularly recharge or regenerate the timer without leaving the dungeon puts a high priority on the time resource. This puts the player continually on edge while in the dungeons, as the physical space they're occupying is actually trying to kill them.

    The continual deliverance of rewards is always present, as with all Zelda games. The rewards range from small scale and high frequency (a rupee or heart every few seconds, from grass or enemies or some other common source) to large scale and low frequency (the new piece of equipment you pick up in a dungeon, vital to continuing onward, picked up once every few hours). This continually encourages the player and compels them to push onward, as they quickly learn the reward structure and become driven by it. Aside from the unique puzzles that populate Zelda games, the reward structure is perhaps the most important and recognizable aspect of the games, and Phantom Hourglass is no exception.

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    Feb 8th, 2008 at 22:36:13     -    The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (DS)

    SUMMARY

    The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass is a typical hand held Zelda game, meaning that it is a superb overhead adventure game. Where it distances itself from previous iterations, however, is its interface. Players use the stylus to guide their character and make him perform actions, and even use the built-in microphone from time to time. The player is, as usual, tasked with rescuing someone, which is accomplished through successive dungeon crawls filled with puzzles and combat. Useful items are encountered and obtained along the way to aid you in solving puzzles and in combat, many of which are staples of Zelda games, but a few of which are brand new.

    GAMEPLAY

    What struck me first about Phantom Hourglass was how much more character-oriented it was than previous Zelda games. You develop a strong (but not necessarily good) relationship with one non-player character fairly early on, with genuine back-and-forth going on between him and your fairy. This kind of dialogue was rare in previous iterations, with characters only speaking directly to you, and even then delivering either convenient advice, critical messages, or throw-away lines. The occurrence of one NPC bantering and bickering with another brought the characters into a new space, one where other characters in the world finally acknowledged each other as occupying the game world. It adds a depth to the characters that I haven't seen in a Zelda game before, filling a void that I honestly didn't even notice until now.

    The gameplay in Phantom Hourglass is aesthetically similar to previous Zelda games, but feels entirely different. This is largely due to the interface-centric design. The entire game was engineered around the unique capabilities of the Nintendo DS, with the character controlled entirely by the stylus and no buttons actually required for gameplay. While interesting, this system doesn't always work out for the best, however. Combat is noticeably awkward, with the player required to either draw lines on the screen to swing the sword or circles to spin attack, meaning that movement is almost entirely out of the question while on the offensive. It also forces all of your actions into a serial format, where you have to stop one action to initiate another, as opposed to a multi-input format (multiple buttons traditionally), where you are allowed to perform separate actions fully independently of each other (movement and attacking, for example).

    The game is easier than previous Zelda games, and I suspect it is because of the previously noted issue. Most of the dungeon and overworld puzzles are based around using the interface in some way, whether it be blowing into the microphone to extinguish candles, marking several points on a map, or drawing lines for your boomerang to fly along. This is, for all intents and purposes, a highly successful integration of the new elements, but it tends to make you feel like the game has either been dumbed down or that the real opponent in the game is the interface itself. I found myself struggling with it in combat more than once, which is very discouraging so early on in the game. Actions such as rolling and slashing frequently fail to execute when I believe that I have given the proper input, and the game is unclear about how exactly to make them work reliably in the first place.

    I am anxious to see if I become to adjusted to the interface as the game continues. It would be very nice to be able to perform actions without difficulty, but the fact that the dungeons are so interface-puzzle-centric suggests that may not happen.

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    Jan 26th, 2008 at 17:08:07     -    Rayman Raving Rabbids (Wii)

    GAMEPLAY

    I decided to try some Rayman Raving Rabbids games with just two players this time, which opened up the option of the first-person co-op rail shooter. The shooter has the players moving together through varied environments with a toilet plunger launcher, firing at attacking rabbids. The players attempt to hit the rabbids with plungers before they get close enough to inflict damage and frequently enough to rack up a high score. This created gameplay that varied between conservative shot placement and wild firing which was very engaging. Playing it cooperatively with another player created a level of communication based on who was supposed to shoot which rabbid, and we would essentially take turns to chain together 'kills.'

    I also ran into some of the worse minigames of Raving Rabbids. Primarily marred by interface and control issues, these games tended to be frustrating and kill the mood the game was previously perpetuating. Difficult-to-control game characters and oddly timed pattern games were significantly less interesting and fun. The social aspect of the game, however, tended to salvage them somewhat, as other players would do as poorly as you had done, and it became a challenge not against the intended game mechanics but against the game itself.

    Narrative was not an aspect I deliberately chose to pursue with this game, as the single player portion served simply as a means to unlock the minigames for multiplayer accessibility. The games themselves, however, created some sense of narrative, with the different minigames connected in themes and locations. For example, in one game you attempt to launch a rabbid dressed as Superman out of a mine shaft and through the air as far as possible, at which point he becomes stuck face-down in the desert ground outside. Another game has you hovering above the desert landscape in a flying saucer, trying to rescue rabbids dressed as Superman who fly into the game area and become stuck face-first in the ground. These sort of narrative connections are present throughout many minigames, and suggest at a form of progression through the different levels.

    The social experience of the game is a major draw. Even with only two people the game creates a fiercely competitive or cooperative atmosphere. Bystanders also tend to get into the game, cheering for players or simply commenting on the demented nature of many of the various minigames. I get the feeling that Raving Rabbids would be not nearly as fun alone, as a major source of enjoyment comes from the other players themselves and the interactions you have with them. With that removed, the game would be much less attractive.

    DESIGN

    This game makes heavy use of the unique nature of the Wii controller. Very few (if not none) of the minigames use a traditional control system, preferring to use the motion sensing and pointing capabilities of the Wiimote and Nunchuck instead. This requires that the player get physically involved with the game and gameplay, drawing them into the game to a higher degree. The game also uses the physical nature of the game to create a frenetic pace, with the player becoming physically exhausted by some of the challenges. The game successfully combines the hectic art style, fast gameplay, and unique control system to create a largely hysterical and frenetic game.

    The rail shooter games are an odd experience in themselves. The player is punished for allowing the rabbids to get close enough to inflict damage, but rewarded for chaining five consecutive hits together, creating gameplay that swings between wild and deliberate. In my experience, the players would take turns with shots when possible, communicating what they needed to rack up higher scores. Once a major offensive wave is launched by the rabbids, however, that tends to go out the window in favor of wild firing and fast-paced targeting. This creates a series of highs and lows in gameplay that are satisfying and contribute to an enjoyable pace.

    Not all of the minigames are as good as others, however. Some of the different dancing minigames (in which players essentially drum with the Wiimote and Nunchuck) could become very frustrating, as the drum patterns weren't necessarily in time to the beat of the song in any way. That combined with the manner in which the drum beats are presented to the player (rabbids slide in from opposite sides of the screen, making it difficult to track one side without losing track of the other) make for a jarring break in the mostly satisfying gameplay. Additionally, controls for other minigames (such as one where you are flying a pterodactyl) are oddly counterintuitive and clunky, requiring you to spend your time fighting them instead of the intended game mechanics. These minigames are massively outnumbered by well-implemented games, however, and can easily just be neglected.

    The game also suffers from a period of down-time between the end of one minigame and the start of another. Making the players agree on one minigame and getting into it causes a hitch in the flow, and an option where you simply play a random string of games was strangely absent. I am also unconvinced that the game has a great deal of replayability, as I found myself avoiding many of the minigames that I had already played. The game does make an attempt at adding longevity by including different levels of difficulty for some of the games, but by and large each one offers a very limited scope of play that once fully tapped does not offer a lot of draw.

    Rayman Raving Rabbids is best described as a very fun game. Every aspect of it has been engineered to make players laugh and throw themselves completely into the gameplay. The show-stealing rabbids are a welcome addition to the previously mediocre Rayman universe, and offer a whole new direction for the franchise. The game makes very worthy use of the unique control scheme of the Wii, and all of the elements of the game come together to create a frenetic and exciting style of play. The artistic direction of the game is wildly varied, well executed, and very memorable, and the minigames themselves make good use of the Wiimote control scheme to create a variety of unique experiences. All in all, Rayman Raving Rabbids is a very good game.

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    Jan 23rd, 2008 at 05:15:12     -    Rayman Raving Rabbids (Wii)

    SUMMARY

    Rayman Raving Rabbids is primarily a party game for the Wii, although the minigames to be played as a group are unlocked via a story mode (which I decided to forgo in this case to get to the meat of the game). Players utilize the Wiimotes (and Nunchucks in several cases) to mime actions, point at the screen, and control their characters in order to obtain the highest score in that particular round. Minigames include shearing sheep, shooting streams of carrot juice at rabbids, skydiving through rings, playing a version of Simon Says on the exposed gray matter of a rabbit, and flinging a bovine projectile as far as possible. The minigames all generally consist of the player using some form of the Wiimote's motion sensing abilities to pantomime the necessary action, resulting in a frenetic pace and a high-energy atmosphere. All of this combined with the absurd art style of the game creates a gameplay experience that can best be described as "hilarious."

    GAMEPLAY

    The game is very easy to pick up, with rabbids demonstrating what the player needs to do with the Wiimote and Nunchuck to play the particular minigame before each one starts. Each one is self-contained, though they often seem to reference others through locales and themes. Individually, the games are fast-paced (due to the inclusion of a timer or some time-critical element in almost every minigame) and very fun to actually play. The sound and art have a large influence on this, with the rabbids serving as comedic relief any time they are on screen, punctuating their actions with their trademark wail. The frenetic pacing of the minigames provide near-instant feedback, and the challenges all seem to be unique enough that it would be worth playing each.

    The social aspect of this game is a major draw. It allows up to four people to participate in the minigames, either by taking turns or allowing them to all to play simultaneously. The competition between the players creates a generally mirthful atmosphere, with the short-term nature of the minigames mitigating the pains of defeat, as you tend to simply become more determined to win the next round. The fact that the minigames are also very easy to pick up and do decently at means that even against veteran players you feel like you have a genuine chance at winning. All in all, Rayman Raving Rabbids is a huge success as a party game, with the players generally having fun at almost all points and a high maintained by the pace and variety of the gameplay.

    All in all I enjoyed the game, but it seems a bit confined by its party-game style and status. I have a hard time imagining myself pulling this out and playing it by myself, and see it more as something that only comes out when you've got a group available. The gameplay seems a bit hampered by the lull in between minigames, as it takes a while for the group to select the next one to play, although I'll need to investigate the existence of a "random" button before I pass any real judgment on the issue, as it seems like that would solve the problem. I plan to try it with only one other person next and see how that changes the experience. For now, however, I highly recommend the game.

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    1Hotel Dusk: Room 215 (DS)Stopped playing - Got frustrated
    2Rayman Raving Rabbids (Wii)Finished playing
    3S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl (PC)Finished playing
    4Shadow of the Colossus (PS2)Finished playing
    5The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (DS)Played occasionally

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