Friday, February 29, 2008

Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney review

Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney (Gyakuten Saiban 4), is the fourth in the Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney series of point and click adventure/graphic novel games. This is also the first game in the series to be developed from the ground-up for the Nintendo DS (previous games were released on the Game Boy Advance platform before being ported to the DS), and is also the first game without Phoenix Wright (Ryuichi Naruhodo) as the main protagonist (a reboot of sort). This review may contain some spoilers (but nothing major - I swear!).

This time around the story centres around a set of new heroes - rookie defence lawyer Apollo Justice, whose first case came to a rather sticky end despite winning the case, and Trucy a 15 year old magician in training. Rest assured, despite this you will be meeting some old friends such as Phoenix Wright himself. There is a total of four cases available, each growing in both length and ridiculousness as the story progresses - and as expected ties together rather nicely through the end. The first case also happens to be a tutorial case (though you can skip the tutorial bits if you wish), where you defend the legendary Phoenix Wright himself, though its importance is far greater than the first two games first cases. New gameplay mechanisms are introduced slowly throughout the four cases.

The new storyline requires some getting used to. For GS veterans who has played the previous three games, it may be hard to play a game that does not feature Maya Fey, Miles Edgeworth and the many other main characters whom we have grown up to enjoy our pixelated company with. At times it seemed that the charm of the previous games has been lost. Phoenix for example, is portrayed here as a little bit more cynical with the legal system, and whose character has undergone much personality change since the explosive final events of Gyakuten Saiban 3/Trials & Tribulation. In fact Pheonix's determination to keep his past seven years as vague as possible proves to be an appealing centrepiece in Apollo Justice as his secrets unravel near the end which provides a Fight Club level of twist. Case 4 is almost nearly as epic as GS3-5.

Visually the game has undergone significant changes. While the UI remains the same, Capcom has redrawn most of the sprites completely, no thanks to new set of characters as well as time period. Despite that the art style remained the same. Background environments however receive the bulk of the changes, with what looks like pre-rendered 3D environments. It is certainly cleaner, though I have to admit I do not really like the new "glossier" look. The game also features FMV sequences as well as polygonal renders for recreating crime scenes. And like the bonus chapter of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, most evidence under the court records can now be examined in more detail. The soundtrack has been updated with new themes for the new characters. Sound plays a very important part, at least in one case, so this isn't a deft friendly title.

Gameplay in Apollo Justice remains more or less unchanged. There are a couple of new gameplay mechanism designed to take advantage of the DS's hardware. Some of you may remember the bonus fifth case from Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney remake. Well that served as a 'testing ground' for some of the new gameplay. For example we see the return of fingerprint dusting where one taps the screen to spread white powder around a fingerprint and then blowing at the DS microphone to reveal the fingerprint. One example of a new forensic technique is creating a footprint cast and trying to match it with the shoes of the witnesses and/or perpetrator.

It wouldn't be an Ace Attorney game if it didn't involve some supernatural gimmick. In Gyakuten Saiban 2, Psyche-Lock was introduced as means to suppress mental barriers created by unhelpful witnesses during the investigation part of the game. In Apollo Justice the protagonist, through his mysterious bracelet, has a talent of being able to concentrate on a witness and study their behaviour. This allows Apollo to expose their nervousness through their body language. The new gameplay is known as the Perceive System, which requires the usage of the touchscreen to zoom in on the witness while he or she is testifying. Speaking of touchscreen, I am glad that for the majority of the game is playable via the hardware buttons.

The localisation was handled by one Alexander O. Smith, a veteran in translating such fine Japanese games like Final Fantasy XII and Vagrant Story, as well as the first Ace Attorney game. Thankfully like the first three localisation, any Japanese cultural reference were redone to match the different humour enjoyed in the west. However I did find some of the puns to be very terribly predictable, and dare I say it, bland. Despite that the quality of the writing is equally on par with the first three games (yes! I loved the localisation of GS2 and GS3 despite the many spelling errors - the writing was remarkable) and the dialogues are humorous as before.

Apollo Justice is actually easier than the previous games, and I meant that as a compliment. In the past a small portion of the testimony contradictions and puzzles weren't as obvious and requires the use of time wasting process of elimination. Here the evidence in your disposal is significantly less than in past cases (for example case 5 of Phoenix Wright remake), and most contradictions are very obvious that presenting evidence is a doodle. Some may view this is as detrimental to the gameplay but in a genre like this the story matters much more than the gameplay - at least that is what I believe.

If you are an ardent fan of the series, I am sure you are already playing this, or at least planning to. If you haven't played any, there is no better time to start now that all four games already localised into English. Apollo Justice may be too formulaic, but the story is still refreshing enough to please both newcomers and series veterans. One final thing: while it isn't a requirement to play the first three games to enjoy Apollo Justice, some of the back story would be better explained if you actually played the first three games.


Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney, GS1, GS2 and GS3 are all available on Play-Asia, and Amazon UK.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Persona 3

Look at what the postie dropped in today.


Bummer that we are only getting this now, especially when Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES edition has been announced as a budget release for the North American market. Times like this I wish that I have invested in a NTSC PS2. Oh well, maybe once it hits US$100.

Ah, but who cares? Persona 3 is now available in Europe and that is the most important bit, even if we have to wait six months after the US release. This is one of the last few triple-A games on the PS2, the console who is preventing me from next-gen (Wii doesn't count). Anyway since I have already completed a couple of articles - all scheduled to be published via Blogger draft - I will be away for the whole weekend. ^_^

Marks & Spencer sought positive green PR

Today's decision by Marks & Spencer to charge for carrier plastic bags is a first step in the right direction. We always carry an empty backpack (not those designer totes) whenever we do our groceries anyway, so we won't be affected by it. The main problem yet to be addressed however are imported food goods, and here M&S is still guilty. For example M&S sells organic spring onions imported from Kenya! I understand certain food produces (like bananas) has to be imported, but spring onions are also grown here. Another example is asparagus, a native to mainland Europe, are mainly imported from South America and China.

So while it is great that the latest campaign by M&S will do good in reducing carrier plastic consumption, in my opinion this is merely a PR stunt aimed at receiving some good willed green publicity. I highly doubt that M&S is any more sustainable than they were a year ago. Visit their lunch section and you will find plenty of sliced fruits pre-bagged. I find it silly that people can't be bothered to slice up their own fruits. Even whole fresh fruits are pre-packed!

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

You call that an earthquake? LOL

In another fine example of hysterical Britain, the 'shocking' earthquake that hit Lincolnshire early this morning has gripped much of the country. Apparently tremors were felt as far as London when the 10 second quake hit just before 1am. Personally I don't recall feeling anything as I laid in bed engrossingly pushing Apollo Justice towards its epic conclusion.

Damages were insignificant in comparison to the massive amount in-depth wall to wall coverage dedicated of this pathetic earthquake masquerading as something bigger. These includes broken chimneys, damaged roof tiles, moving furnitures, broken bottles, banging doors, traffic delays and singing birds! But the way the mass media is treating the quake (with live reports, helicopters flyover, interview with 2 year old kids who slept through it) you would think Ragnarok has truly arrived to claim us all.


Latest rumour is that Hollywood is keen to create a film adaptation of Britain's biggest quake in 25 years. I hear Ridley Scott will be directing with the movie starring expat Tom Cruise as the hero who saved daughter Dakota Fanning from a killer roof tile. It will be released next summer to coincide with a number of other Hollywood disaster films, such as one based on the Heathrow crash.

Resident Evil: Extinction mini-review

I finally got around to watching Resident Evil: Extinction on DVD, and to be very honest here I admit to finding myself entertained by it. I had to remind myself that this is merely a loose adaptation of Capcom's Resident Evil video games franchise, but seriously, I was genuinely pleased. As far as Mad Max style action films goes, it wasn't too over the top - but it did have balance and it didn't overuse their martial arts choreography that Hollywood loves. Gory effects were liberally edited but appears moderately - something that I do appreciate - but the pacing of the story could have been better.

I did lower my expectations, but even then I have to say it was one of the better 'do not require brain cells Friday night popcorn' films (how ironic) that I missed from last year. Despite the lower budget and restrained narrative, I found the Russell Mulcahy (Highlander) directed film far more entertaining than Michael Bay's Transformers and slightly more entertaining than the amazingly dull Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End and weird Spiderman 3. Regardless Extinction is easily the better film within the trilogy and a massive improvement over Apocalypse.

Even if you are hell bent on hating Extinction, the film is still worth watching purely for Milla Jovovich alone.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Kratos PSP Slim is hot

Holy! More info of this hot God of War: Chains of Olympus limited edition PSP Slim is available here. Out this June for 199 American dollars, this deep red PSP Slim will be bundled with GoW: CoO, one UMD of a film I have never heard and a PSN voucher for multiplayer game Syphon Filter: Combat Ops. Anybody interested in reserving my PSP Slim for a June collection?

Monday, February 25, 2008

Patapon mini-review

Patapon is a rhythm-based platform game created by the same people who brought us the incredibly under appreciated LocoRoco. Unlike the more traditional rhythm games like Gitaroo Man, the game involves you, the Almighty of the Patapon world, beating your sacred drums to create a rhythm which will motivate your tribal creatures to do your bidding. The game is mixture of real-time tactics genre (think Shogun: Total War, but in 2D) coupled with the rhythm part to navigate your miniature troops through a variety of environments like swamps and deserts and battle their enemies - the Zigotons.

Drum beats are simulated via the four face buttons. Your cute warring critters sings to get the rhythm going, then as god you will have to play your drums to their rhythm. For example: Pata Pata Pata Pon (which is square -> square -> square -> circle), instructs your tribe of blood lusting morbid killers to move forward; and Chaka Chaka Pata Pon (triange -> triange -> square -> circle), which orders your Patapons to defend themselves. The four edges of the PSP's screen with pulsate with the rhythm. Timing is crucial when beating as even a miss of a micro second will cause your worshippers to start throwing insults at you.

Missions are condition-based. You can head down to the Patata Plain to hunt animals to increase your Patapon levels as well as to harvest new equipments, or participate in battle with the Zigotons. Either way, the Patapon army can be customised before each missions. This allows you to equip them with different weapons as well as arranging them in formations of three squads (each squads having up to six Patapons, all equipped with the same weapons). Yaripons (archers) for example should be dumped way back where as Tatepons (sword bearers) should be placed on the front.

Unlike LocoRoco, Patapon is much more challenging, especially if you have not developed a sense of rhythm. The challenge is in the timing, but anyone who has a couple of hours experience with a gamepad should be fine. Combos can be raked through perfect timing execution as you go from chanting to beats, rinse and repeat. Those hoping for a carefree gameplay similar to LocoRoco should look elsewhere, as apart from some visual similarities Patapon is anything but.

Speaking of visuals, Patapon is gorgeous. Like LocoRoco, it eschews three dimensional graphics for simply two-dimensional detail. Colours are sparsely used, and whichever hues are on the screen are very vivid. Creature designs done by French artist Rolito are heavily stylised - the Patapons themselves are miniature eyeballs. Artistically, Patapon is unique in today's video gaming industry where polygons are often used to judge a game's visual merits.

As far as the game is concerned, there is no problem I can think of. The only one issue I had with the game is this: I find myself chanting out loudly in rhythm with the game, so it would be highly unlikely I will ever get to enjoy this in the public. Which is disappointing in my part as this game does deserve every bit of publicity it can get.

But I do have a complain and it is the price. While American games get to play Patapon at a budget price (US$20), we in PAL land are slapped with rather insulting £25 retail price. Amazon UK has it for a more palatable £20 if you really need soon, but those willing to wait a bit longer should import the US copy from MovieTyme where the game is available for only £12. But don't let that put you of, Patapon is a highly recommended game for fans of adventure, strategy, RPG and rhythm games alike and the price barrier should not stop you from enjoying it.


Saturday, February 23, 2008

Club Nintendo Mario Game Rack

Finally, after more than two months, the postie finally delivered this Mario Game Rack I ordered through Club Nintendo for 4500 star points (the equivalent of registering 18 games!). It was flat packed and came with a 27 page 'Made in Japan' glossy and coloured assembly manual.

The rack isn't half as bad as I thought it would be, but it gets scratched easily. It only holds 8-9 games depending on thickness of a game's jewel/plastic case. So unless I have ten of these, it won't be replacing the sturdy bookcase any time soon. Right now it has taken its seat on the bedside table holding a couple of PSP and DS games, segregated from each kind via a handy clear divider.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

WipEout HD trailer

I understand that this isn't the most important event of the year, but please take the time to check out this really hot WipEout HD trailer on Eurogamer. This is the PSN downloadable version (won't be available on retail) and features 1080p visuals running at 60fps, eight tracks, eight people online multiplayer and Dolby 5.1 audio. Textures are godly as are the lighting.

WipEout HD
will be a remix of WipEout Pure and Pulse (which I thoroughly recommend as one of the finest portable console racing games available) and may be worth the purchase of the PS3. Grab the MP4 file here and bow bow to Sony Studio Liverpool.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Do You Like Rock Music? (I do)

I finally bought British Sea Power's latest LP Do You Like Rock Music?. Truth be told I haven't paid much attention to music lately so I wasn't even aware that the album was released. Blame it on video gaming.

Anyway I haven't given it much a listening yet, but I've to say that the sound is very typical BSP - which is all good. Chanting choruses and beating drums, it's all here. Do You Like Rock Music? sounds like a masterpiece - not on par with The Decline of British Sea Power but already I am liking it more than Open Season.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Handheld heaven week

This week sees the EU release of Patapon and North America's release of Gyakuten Saiban 4's English translated version Ace Attorney: Apollo Justice. The EU release of GS4 is in April, a month after GS3 hits here, so make sure to order from your favourite online import store if you want to play it before everyone else (outside Japan). And don't forget to download the Patapon demo to get the Spear of Protection weapon first.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Sony Ericsson T250i impressions

So I had to get this on behalf of someone. Had a cheek to unbox it and play with it under the pretence of checking it. Nice phone for the price (£19.99 on O2 prepay via Carphone Warehouse). Reminds me a lot of my old Ericsson T610, which isn't surprisingly as this and the mid-range T650i obviously pays homage to as they shares the same series T-suffix.

For a super budget phone, the T250i does come with a lot of goodies. In the proper retail box came a universal Sony Ericsson AC charger as well as a stereo headset. Seriously I was excepting just a tiny USB cable. The phone itself is fitted with a 780mAh Li-pol battery, which is larger than I expected. The T250i is incredibly sexy and light (82g) with its enclosure made of a combination of plastic and brushed metal - giving it a premium feel. I was also surprised to learn that it is a quad band phone, giving more reason for international travellers to pick this cheap and cheerful gadget.

So what kind of features you get in a £20 phone? Surprisingly a lot. There is a VGA camera at the back, which is sufficient for as well as a FM radio. No fancy shit like WiFi or 3G here. This is purely a phone for either people on budget or wants a second backup phone. Even the phone book is sparse, with only the option of saving three numbers per contact detail. Besides that it contains a T9, SMS & MMS (see Jobs?) messaging capabilities, alarm clock, stop watch, calendar, WAP, a couple of games, polyphonic ring tones and calculator. Amazingly the T250i also contains an infrared hardware on the right side, which is essential for exchanging files like contacts and pictures. Kinda like how my old Palm m505 used to work.

The UI is very simple to navigate and hasn't changed much since Ericsson adopted the 3x3 UI grid back when the acclaimed Ericsson T68m was first introduced. The UI is very quick and doesn't do anything fancy over the T250i's 128x160 resolution screen, and is controlled via a four way d-pad (which also doubles as short cuts to the camera, text message, phonebook and FM radio applications). Two soft buttons also provide short cuts to the menu and contact via the desktop.

I really like it. There are some functions I couldn't test like making a phone call (hei, it isn't mine!). But from my rather brief time I had with it, I rather like it. If Sony Ericsson's main objective was to create a desirable super budget or backup phone I think they clearly succeeded. It has the style of a phone that costs five times as much, as well as most essential functions.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

A newbie's guide to installing custom firmware on PSP Slim & Lite

Before you install a custom firmware on your newly purchases PSP Slim, you will need a couple of things. A PSP Slim (d'uh!), a Pandora Battery (or Datel Max Power Tool or Datel Tool Battery for Slim), a genuine Memory Stick Pro Duo (Magic Gate) with a capacity above 128MB and below 4GB as well as access to a Windows PC. Note that this guide can also be used on older PSP (PSP-1000 series). See the comments.
  1. Download the TotalNewbieEasyInstaller program (Google or Yahoo! it).
  2. Run the program (Start.exe).
  3. Put your PSP (with the Memory Stick) into USB mode and connect it to your PC via a USB cable.
  4. Follow the instructions (this will involve formatting your MS stick so be sure to backup any content before).
  5. Choose 4. Universal Unbricker: 3.71 M33 Installer and install.
  6. Follow the instructions.
Now you will need a Pandora Battery to put your PSP into service mode. This requires you to open up your PSP Slim's original battery and mess around with the PCB. You can convert it back to a normal battery after use, but personally I would just recommend you to purchase the Datel Tool battery and be done with. Either way make sure the battery is fully charged.

The next step is so easy even George Bush can do it:
  1. Make sure the Memory Stick is inserted inside.
  2. Insert the Pandora's Battery or Datel Tool battery into your PSP Slim's battery slot.
  3. Follow the instructions. Here you can restore your PSP Slim to 3.71 official firmware, install 3.71 M33 or backup the PSP's NAND ROM to MS by pressing 'Square'.
  4. Press 'X' to install 3.71 M33 firmware.
  5. Once done, remove the battery and insert a none-hacked battery.
  6. Turn it on. You can confirm the firmware by checking the System Information.
You would probably want to update the firmware to the latest one. There are slight issues with the latest 3.80 and 3.90 firmwares so unless you really want Skype, just update to 3.71 M33-4 for now. Download the M33-4 update file and extract the file. Connect via USB and install the 'UPDATE' folder into ms0:/PSP/GAME. Exit USB mode and navigate to GAME on your XMB and run the update.

If you want to install the latest 3.90 M33, just download the M33 release file and Sony's official 3.90 update file and rename it to 390.PBP. Copy the UPDATE folder into ms0:/PSP/GAME and copy 390.PBP into the same folder. Navigate to GAME/Memory Stick on the XMB and run the installer. The firmware will be installed by Sony's own updater program. Make sure your battery is charged and follow the instructions. If you have a slow Memory Stick, you may want to patch the firmware with 3.71 fatmsmod.

After installing the custom firmware the first thing I recommend is to turn on your PSP while pressing the right shoulder button to put the PSP into recovery mode and "overclock" your PSP Slim into 333Mhz for games. This will provide a massive performance improvements to games originally developed to run at 222Mhz. Format the Memory Stick if you need the extra space.

After that how you want to use your PSP is up to you. I personally use it to extract the ISO from my UMDs so as to be able to run them from the Memory Stick rather than UMD drive. This is as easy as dragging the ISO onto your desktop, then compressing it via a CSO compressor utility (search engines are your friends) to reduce the size. The massive battery improvement alone is worth it, but there are other advantages like reduced loading time and the convenience of not having to carry many UMDs. I also use custom firmware to run PS1 games via emulation.

Disclaimer: This is merely a guide. I will not take responsibility if you brick your PSP.

Update: Not all PSP-2000 can be used with a Pandora battery, right now specifically those with TA-088 motherboards.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Patapon demo impressions

Patapon is a rhythm-based platform game brought to you by SCE Japan Studio, the same people who created the under appreciated LocoRoco. Judging from the demo, this game is going to be hell of a fun. The game involves you, the Almighty of the Patapon world, beating your drums in rhythm to motivate your tribal creatures to do your bidding.

Input to simulate drum beats are via the four face buttons. For example: Pata-Pata-Pata-Pon (which is square -> square -> square -> circle), instructs your tribe to move forward; and Pon-Pon-Pata-Pon which orders the conscripts to throw spears.

Unfortunately you won't be attacking this Giant Enemy Crab's weak point for massive damage in the demo

Unlike LocoRoco, Patapon is much more challenging, especially if you have not developed a sense of rhythm. The challenge is in the timing, but anyone who has a couple of hours experience with a game pad should be fine. Combos can be raked through perfect timing execution as you go from chanting to beats etc.

Even if you have already made up your mind and will be getting the game, you should still download the demo. The save file generated at the end of the demo will be compatible with the retail version and gives you the rare Staff of Protection weapon. Anyway day one purchase for me. Go my pata-pata-pons!

Patapon will be released this 22nd February for twenty quid.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Patapon demo available on PlayStation store

SCEE has released a demo of Patapon to coincide with Valentine's Day. The 40MB demo is available from the PC PlayStation Store and took a couple of minutes to download and install. The demo will also create a save file that is compatible with the retail copy of Patapon, due out here on the 22nd February. Playing the demo will also provide you with a rare Spear of Protection weapon.

I will post a quick impression once I get dinner over with and had a chance to give it a go.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Transformers review (a rant)

I don't visit the cinema as often as I used to. You see for two years I used to be a member of UGC's unlimited cinema club where for the privileged of them having my direct debit details (and dipping into it every once in a while) I got to watch as many films as often as I wanted to. But not any more (due to lack of time and lack of a cinema that provides the equivalent to the Unlimited Cinema membership around here). Because of this I tend to be more selective of any films I watch at the theatre. Besides ticket prices are getting higher and Screenselect/LoveFilm (to North American readers, these are similar to your Netflix service) has been providing a similar service to me for the past two years or so.

So when a live action film adaptation of one of my favourite franchise was announced I immediately vowed NOT to watch it. Having Steven Spielberg on board with Transformers did not change my mind. The casting of Michael Bay as the director further confirmed with my opinion that the film was heading from bad to awful. The only reason I would ever want to watch Transformers was Megan Fox, whose recurring appearance in the now canned Hope & Faith was the highlight of the short lived comedy series. And I wasn't alone. Many fans of Transformers who grew up watching the TV series and playing the toys also hated the idea.

I am not against the idea of a modern iteration of classic franchise but I have always felt that if there ever was one - someone with a great insight to the history of the franchise would be better. Hollywood's performance in rebooting series like Batman and Superman, as well as Ang Lee's incredibly dumb Hulk film, has always been a concern of mine. But maybe, just maybe, Michael Bay pulled it off. But I should have known better. Plenty of people did give Christopher Nolan's Batman reboot a favourable review, but I thought it was a boring shit especially when compared to Tim Burton's classics. When Transformers finally got released, critics gave in and many gave the film the thumbs up. Some of the original TV series fans even got converted and praised the Transformers as 'realistic'.

Like the critics, I broke down and ordered LoveFilm to send the DVD over. I lowered my expectations, readied to be showered with General Motors product placements on the scale of The Island. And boy was I disappointed. Was this the same film I watched as the critics? One praised the film as "ludicrious fun". The version I watched was anything but. It was tedious at best. The human storyline was a chore to watch (and yes, there were too many, for example the "hacker" storyline - what was that about?). Shia LaBeouf came off as ineffective and unlikeable in his portrayal of a two dimensional geek, and Megan Fox's acting skills were not once put to test. And lets not start on the Transformers themselves, whom were basically whims. Sure they are flashy when they are in their automobile mode, but pinch them a little and they will drop like flies kicking and crying like babies.

As expected, Michael Bay did turn the film into a orgy of "unrealistic action porn with average visuals of everything blown off creating a cinematography mess that gives migraine to people who watch them" at the expense of genuine human interaction and emotions. I have to watch Terminator 2 again, just to stir my brain up and prove to it that enjoyable, fun and balanced action films do once exist.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Jeanne d'Arc review

I finally completed my first play through of Level-5's Jeanne d'Arc. Seeing that this title may not receive a European release, possibly due to the low commercial viability of strategic RPG genre in this part of the world, I guess it is a good time to write a quick review on this Level-5 game so you can decide whether or not to import the game before it goes out of print.

According to Level-5, Jeanne d'Arc is a blending of reality and fantasy loosely based on the tale of Joan of Arc and her campaign to save France from the English during the Hundred Years' War back in the 15th century. The developers has decided to interpret freely the myths behind the legend and does include historical accuracy, as well as practising their artistic license. Henry VI's insanity for example is explained to be of demon procession nature caused by the Duke of Bedford. As well as the historical campaigns based on Joan of Arc, the game dabbles with plenty of fantasy based plotlines. The fictional War of the Reapers is one such example, a tale of a war between human and demons - which explains why the English conscripts are mainly made up of ugly monsters.

Gameplay wise the title is divided into chapters. It is very predictable really. It kinda works like this: Cutscene -> Confrontation -> Battle repeated ad nauseam. The world map is made up of towns, villages and other locations connected via sprawling lines where your party travels through. There are no random battles as per usual to SPRG conventions here and grinding requires you to participate in free battle locations. The party is made up of members whom la Pucelle meets during her excursions and there are no class or job system here though unique skills can be assigned. There is a similar mechanism to Dragon Quest VIII's Alchemy Pot where skill stones can be fused to create more powerful ones.

Like Disgaea and Final Fantasy Tactics, battle occurs on a grid based location and are turn based with EXP points are gained for whatever actions a character takes regardless of whether or not the enemy is defeated. Battles are condition based and does not necessary involve defeating all enemies. As far as gameplay depth goes, Jeanne d'Arc isn't very deep. It is a very traditional title - even more so than Tactics. You will be hard pressed to find the high level of customisation provided by other titles like Disgaea or the tactical skills required in Tactics.

Despite the reserved attitude, Jeanne d'Arc does introduce some rather intriguing combat mechanism. One such example is the "Unified Guard" where if your allies are close by, it increase the defence of the targeted party member. Enemies can counter attack, but if you attack from the back it decreases the chance of a successful counter attack and vice versa. Attacking an enemy target will also produce a burning aura on the tile behind the enemy, which another party member who attacks from the tile will be given a temporary attack boost. Jeanne, among others, also have the power to transform once per battle. This gives temporary stat boost as well as bonus turns for every enemy Jeanne kills. This gives a tactical advantage to the player when playing levels which has very few turn limits.

Visually the game is set on a rotatable square-based grid plane with full polygonal backgrounds and characters. While the cel-shaded characters are well done, personally I would have preferred if they have gone for sprites. The lack of emotional expressions is one of the reasons why sprites would have been better - just look at Disgaea or Final Fantasy Tactics. Both features low-res sprites but still allows far more detail to be conveyed when compared to Jeanne d'Arc's super deformed chibby characters.

Regardless the graphics still stack up nicely, a testament to Level-5's knowledge in pushing a console's polygonal power. The environments are detailed with French architecture suitably based on the medieval time period. This reassures me as at least now I know that Dragon Quest IX is in very capable hands. In between battles we have story sequences that are sometimes told via FMVs. They aren't too distracting (I am not normally a fan of prerendered videos in video games) and are well animated. Plus you won't find a more vibrant and colourful game than this.

The soundtrack is okay with very good orchestra-like collection, but gets very repetitive. Sound effects are exceptionally well done with environment details and what-nots available. Only the English voice acting is available for the US version, but like Dragon Quest VIII, Level-5 cleverly decided against an Americanised voice accent, usually favoured by other developers like Nippon Ichi America for Disgaea's English voiceover. While the entire game's voice acting language is in English, regional stereotypical accents is applied to provide nationality. The voice of the virgin one is provided by video gaming voice actress veteran Kari Wahlgren, whose CV includes Ashe (Final Fantasy XII) and Lilika (Rogue Galaxy)

There are a couple of issues with the games though. The directional controls for example can get a tad annoying. Pushing the d-pad into the direction you want the character to move may not yield the result you want due to the way the camera handles, which is why I am happy to toggle the camera bring a vertical or horizontal viewpoint rather than an isometric one. Regardless this is purely a personal preference and may not affect everyone. But it does put a damper to my enjoyment of the game.

Loading times is also an issue. Even accessing the menu from the world map will bring up the loading screen. But anyone who has ever played the localised versions of Dragon Quest VIII will realise this is most likely due to the elaborate design that Level-5 puts into creating the menus. Performance wise the game runs smoothly with the framerate not once stuttering, though the graphics could do with a little bit of anti-aliased filtering. Finally the game is not too challenging, though you may encounter the Game Over screen early on while grasping the rules. Even then this title should not give your brain too much a work out.

It is a minefield out there having to choose a SRPG game for the PSP as it holds host to a number of quality titles like this, Final Fantasy Tactics and Disgaea Afternoon of Darkness. However Jeanne d'Arc is the only original title among the games I listed and despite its flaws, is a must have game for PSP owners seeking for a quality SRPG title and fans of the genre alike. It may not have the level of depth the previous title exhibits, nor does it push the genre much. Like Dragon Quest VIII, Level-5 has developed a title that is charming if a little bit too traditional and accessible.


Monday, February 11, 2008

So what is up with Channel 4 and Desperate Housewives?

Based on early rumours (and past practice), the fourth season of Desperate Housewives was supposed to début last month in the UK on Channel 4. Unfortunately we are now in the second week of February and C4 has been keeping mum about its scheduling for the series. There has been unofficial online speculation that the fourth season has been pushed back to March. Some has cited that this is due to E4/C4 controller fearing a mid-season WGA strike-related cock up like what happened to Heroes season two, as well as the possible clashing with Channel 4's retarded flagship programme Big Brother last month and this summer.

Sorry Channel 4, you had your chance. Right now the only thing keeping me from downloading the series is because we want to watch it on a large telly from the comfort of a sofa. But many has already lost patience especially with the continued production of some shit reality TV show. Then again we are talking about Channel 4 here, who seems to favour crap like The O.C. and Smallville over Nip/Tuck and Six Feet Under.

Update: A quick google revealed that season four of Desperate Housewives will probably start airing this Spring, by which then we will be 15-17 episodes behind.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Last CNY meal at Oriental City?

I have been coming to Oriental City for the past eight years every time I fancy dining over some nice fattening south-east Asian cuisine. Frankly it is far more convenient than going to China Town. Plus the traders here are far friendlier than those in Soho. But the past year hasn't been too kind to the community. The owner of the site has sold it to a developer who plans to develop a series of flats, a primary school and a supermarket there (isn't ASDA already enough just next door?).

Personally I am pretty sad by the prospect of the food court possibly closing this May 2008. But the logic in me would argue that there is nothing that can be done. Brent Council has issued a valid planning permission, and the site doesn't even belong to the tenants. *shrugs* Well things happen. I am sure something equivalent to Oriental City will rise in its ashes, though it may take many years to rebuild the community spirit exhibited there.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Gitaroo Man Lives! for a fiver, plus mini-review

Yesterday I found two copies of Gitaroo Man Lives! in a local GAME store for only a fiver each. Five quid for an old game isn't that great, but this is a bargain considering the title - even if I was a little late to the party. For the cost of a crap meal that may kill you, this is one solid impulse purchase that you ought never regret. Not sure why GAME's website lists it for £14.99 (same price at Amazon), but from what I understand the five quid price is valid at most of GAME's brick and mortar stores. Note: these are for new copies, not preowned.

Gitaroo Man Lives! is a port of Gitaroo Man for PS2 and was developed by iNiS, whom some of you may recognise as the developer behind the Japan-only cult favourite Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan (best rhythm game ever) series and Elite Beat Agents. Like Ouendan and other beat music games like PaRappa, this is a rhythm game that is as compelling as it is addictive. Visuals are stunning and for a port you will be hard pressed to find something to complain about. The PSP Slim's pair of face speakers are good, but unfortunately does not provide enough fidelity to truly enjoy the variety of genre music including original (none-licensed) J-pop.

The game requires usage of the analogue pad, which isn't as good as playing on a Dual Shock - but what can you do? You could theoretically mod your PSP, but then you won't be able to fit it in your pocket. Gameplay is very simple, just move your right thumb along to trace the line and press the corresponding face buttons (Square, Δ, O and Χ) as indicated to charge, dodge and attack. Each tracks are divided into three sections: charge, attack and defending. The first two requires the usage of the analogue pad, where as defending/guarding does not as it works more like a traditional DDR style rhythm game without the line tracing. It is easy enough to get into, but it is an awfully difficult game to master. I won't bother explaining the storyline, as it is nonsensical enough not to put much care into.

Any who, seeing that this game supports local multiplayer - why not do yourself and your valentine a favour and get two copies.


Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Advance Wars: Dark Conflict / Days of Ruin review

After all the hype and assurance that the new art direction would be fine, I found the new Advance Wars to be not that appealing, at least on an aesthetic level.

The intro must have been edited in like an hour and the UI must have been designed by a child, giving this title a seemingly poor production. The scenario looks like it was lifted from a rejected Front Mission script or a brain storming session that lasted only a couple of minutes.

Intelligent Systems also seemed to have hired admirers of Tetsuya Nomura (or a fanboy) to design the characters (which to some may be a plus). The soundtrack is also frankly the worse of the series with what I call pure stereotypical 'video game metal' noise, and this coming from someone who holds bands like Carcass and Morbid Angel in high regard (the sound effects are nice though). So basically the previous charm of the past games are long gone. Not good.

Fortunately the gameplay remains essentially unchanged which is a good thing (or bad if you just can't stomach playing the same game you played years ago). Fog of War has been overhauled with some pretty good ideas. Unit power (both new and old) has been balanced and the tag CO power from Dual Strike has been scrapped. The number of COs has also been decreased. Unfortunately unit sprites are dull looking especially when compared to previous super-deformed units. Cutscene battle sprites are even worse, with very limited hue and the battle animations are uninspired and clashes with the new gritty and 'edgy' art style.

The enemy A.I. are pushovers too, so don't expect a challenge here. You will likely find that completing through the 26 mission campaign to be a speedy process. Still there are times when the game does become difficult, but as a whole don't expect to give your Canon a workout printing some of the free FAQs available.

Thankfully the lack of multiple singleplayer mode options that were presented in Dual Strike were replaced by multiplayer support. Fans will be pleased that the lack of online WiFi in the first DS Advance Wars has been addressed here as Dark Conflict features both local and online support. It also supports VoIP for kids who just love ruining people's experience. Maps created via the design room can be uploaded and shared via Nintendo WiFi Connection.

Conclusion - it is still the same turn-based strategy Advance Wars we love and the gameplay remains as polished, just very badly presented. If you don't mind the new art direction and require online mode, the purchase is a no-brainer. But those without access to wireless access point should hold on to their Advance Wars GBA cart. It is still a good game mind you and for those who like their Advance Wars laced with some kind of childlike grittiness, this is the strategy game for you.


Advance Wars: Dark Conflict is also known as Days of Ruin outside Europe.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Brooklands Country guest house

This was where we stayed during the weekend. Brooklands Country guest house is a bed and breakfast situated about a mile south of the historic town of Arundel and 1.5 miles from the railway station. The guest house is a converted hay barn, with its interior an elegant mix of modern fixture and traditional façade and wood beams. As far as guest house and bed and breakfast goes, this was one of the best we have been to.

Our comfortable room (which was formerly the loft) was fitted with a king size bed, a 23" LCD telly with Freeview and electric shower. In addition to that we had access to a bath, an indoor heated swimming pool and plenty of sofas to chill-out. Our host, Pauline, was very friendly and helpful and made us felt welcomed. If we were to visit Arundel again, there is little doubt to where we will seek accommodation from.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Weekend retreat at Arundel

Was in Arundel for a short weekend retreat and was very lucky. While the awful weather battered much of the north, we here were fortunately spared. It wasn't as cold or as windy and it was sunny for much of the day. As a bonus yesterday also happened to be World Wetlands Day so we did spend some time at the Arundel Wetland Centre. Here are some pictures.

Arundel High Street:

Arundel Cathedral:

Arundel Castle:

Arundel Wetland Centre:

Strolling on the muddy footpath around Swanbourne Lake behind Arundel Castle:

Lunch at Tudor Rose tea room on the high street: