Monday, 24 June 2013

Ten Imperfect Ten's part 1.

After the recent discussions floating around the internet regarding the scores of The Last of Us, I thought I would take a little look at ten games I consider to warrant that so called perfect score.
A lot of people are getting confused with the meaning of a ten. It simply does not mean a game is perfect as there is frankly no such thing, but it shows that something is of the the very highest quality for various reasons.

There is no better place to start than with the 1990 classic from Nintendo.

Super Mario World. 
A game that needs little introduction at all, a bona fida classic. Almost 23 years now since it was launched in Japan and it hasn't aged a day. Still wonderfully responsive, still extremely well designed and still a charming as it was in 1990.
The beauty of this game is in the level design, there are so many clever secrets, multiple routes and outright hidden levels it will keep you going for ages. Also each level is packed with 5 Yoshi coins often expertly hidden, so searching for them becomes compelling. In the GBA update, these coins are logged within the game which makes collecting them all even more essential.
Other fantastic aspects of the game are the cape and Yoshi himself. The cape allows you to fly properly and Yoshi changes the dynamics of the game further. He can eat enemies and use them as projectiles, sometimes spitting shells or even fire and on the odd occasion grow wings! Also when you mount Yoshi, bongos are added to the music which is yet another magnificent touch in this wonderful game.
The save system is also superbly paced. Each Ghost House or Castle has a save point once you complete them. It just allows for the right amount of challenge and keeps a tally of all the exits you have found out of the maximum of 96.

SMW features so many great elements but it's not perfect. The excellent save system can easily be abused by multiple runs through the easiest ghost houses while lives and Yoshi coins are not saved on the original SNES version, that aside, it's an absolute classic example of virtually flawless design.

Final Fantasy XII.
A complete jump of generations now, to keep things somewhat interesting. Final Fantasy XII was a revolutionary change to not only the franchise but how the single player J-RPG is approached. Going for an offline MMO style of gameplay, FFXII mixed a wonderful open world style environment with a fluid battle system and wonderful visuals.

The battle system is one of the reasons I rate the game so highly. It is all in real time with no form of random encounters which was badly needed for the series. Despite this it still manages to keep the time based ATB system so the same strategy of older titles like FFVII remain, which personally is a plus. You and your allies are equipped with a system called Gambits. This allows you to program automated commands for the AI to follow which saves menu access when fighting the majority of creatures in the game. This allow the game to remain fluid at all times but be deactivated at will, which is useful for direct control during boss fights.

The game world is the other main point, it's absolutely huge and quite open ended. Yes there is a linear path but each area has loads to explore and items to find. They are also visually astonishing and push the PS2 to well beyond its limits.

The characters and plot are very different to the usual games in the franchise. More based around war and politics and it features much less melodrama. While a lot of fans were not keen on this change, for me it made a nice change and it sits nicely alongside other games in the series.

Some of the negative aspects of Final Fantasy XII is that it's quite a difficult game, certainly compared to the others in the series. Not a problem for more experienced players but more so for newer players
Also the Gambit system, whilst absolutely fantastic, should have been limited to the non player directly controller characters only because it would have stopped the complaints of being able to set the game up to essentially play itself. Audio also feels quite compressed.

Final Fantasy XII was a benchmark RPG. It has set a template that the best games in the genre have tried to copy. Xenoblade is the closest to it with the similar open style and action based combat. If you love  RPG's and haven't yet tried this, I highly recommend you do so now. It sits perfectly between a Japanese and western game and as a result is suitable for all types of RPG player that like a stiff challenge.

Going back a few years and a real shift of genre and we have Rez. First released for the Dreamcast and later ported and improved for PS2 and XBLA, Rez is a fusion of sound, visuals and shooting which combine to make an absolute masterpiece.

The gameplay is simple, you control an on screen cursor and aim to defend your on screen avatar from attacks whilst you infiltrate a computer system to save a trapped AI.
You can lock on to 8 enemies at once and the missiles are released in time with the music. This creates a wicked fusion of sound and visuals. You can also earn upgrades to your avatar and smart bombs. The upgrades change the type of sounds played when shooting enemies. If you take a hit, you lose a level and a hit at the lowest level is naturally game over.

The levels themselves are a very interesting. A wireframe visual style is used with enemies using filled polygons. They are backed up with various electronic music tracks and many of the structures in the levels pulse in time with the beat of the music.
Each level also has an end of level guardian that needs to be defeated to progress. These enemies are superbly designed and can often be addressed with different strategy but there is a best strategy for each one.

The real meat of the game is the unlockable score attack mode. Once this is unlocked the real obsession begins. Each enemy has a value but when you lock on, the value gets multiplied but up to 8x. Working out the best times to lock on for a full chain is extremely addictive and hugely satisfying when you nail it. The XBLA port has the benefit of online leaderboards for the really competitive.

A few things of note of the various ports of Rez. Overall the game really has only 5 levels which is very short, an extra couple wouldn't have gone amiss. The DC version only runs at 30fps which takes away some of the fluidity to the game and whilst the PS2 version is 60fps, it does slow down from time to time.

Despite this, Rez is like nothing you have ever played. The style of the game is so unique and the gameplay is so damn good, it's impossible not to give this a maximum score. Yes it could have more levels, but more than ten years later it still feels a fresh and when it was first released.

Resident Evil 4. 
Along with Final Fantasy XII, this is one of the more interesting titles in the list. The reason being is that it split fans of the franchise right down the middle, some loved it some were not so keen on the game seemingly betraying its roots.

I certainly love the older Resident Evil games, also the remake on GameCube proved you can really make a stunning old style horror game. Resident Evil 4 however breathed new life into the franchise and set a template in third person action genre hasn't really been beaten, even in 2013.

Resident Evil 4 is certainly more action based but it still retains core franchise elements such as puzzle solving, item management and limited exploration. The design of the game it what makes it so astonishingly good. It pushing you along a linear path but opens up enough to give you things to search for. Also the action set pieces are breathtaking but they never feel overdone like a few modern titles I could mention.
Boss fights are absolutely superb too, easily some of the best in the genre with a huge variety in their design.
Checkpoints are also handled really well so the game instills the right amount of fear into you but also rewards you for taking risks. 

As you play through the game, it throws more and more at you and you wonder how on earth they came up with it. Indiana Jones style rolling balls, huge water based creatures in a lake, mine cart combat, underground creatures stalking you, cage fights suspended in the air, it just goes on and you never want it to end!

Combat is fantastic and weapons are satisfying. Enemies have variable hit points, shoot one in the leg and he might stumble to the ground. Also you can stun them and melee attack which is useful for crowd control.
Weapons are also extremely satisfying, the sniper rifle making a superb sound when fired.
There are loads of items to collect too, secret gems to find too and superb graphics and audio. Utterly magnificent.

The main issue with Resident Evil 4 is the lack of ability to move and shoot. This was a small issue at the time but is certainly a bigger one for players used to more modern games within the genre. With twin stick control a staple of gaming in 2004, it is a wonder how it wasn't included.

Resident Evil 4 redefined not only the horror genre but the third person action game. It is a huge game, around 15-20 hours but is so good it warrants multiple playthroughs.

Chrono Cross. 
Finally for part 1 of this post is Chrono Cross. Not normally a game that is lauded as much as it should be I feel. Being the sequel to the SNES classic Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross was already at a disadvantage to follow a game so critically acclaimed.

Chrono Cross takes a different direction to Trigger, taking the theme of parallel worlds rather than time travel. You can travel between the worlds at will throughout the game and the main crux of the plot is to reunite them back in to one world. Naturally, some characters exist in both worlds and some have left or passed on. This makes for some very interesting moments throughout the game.

The game has around 50 characters to recruit. There are some parts of the game when you have offers by multiple characters to take you to your next destination. Depending on the character you choose, it will affect that path through that part of the game. You will have to complete the game 3 times to recruit all characters.

One of the best things about Chrono Cross is the battle system. Like Trigger it has no random battles which is an absolute godsend. It uses a semi active semi turn based stamina system. You have 7 points of stamina at the start and each attack uses 1-3 points. If you connect with an attack, again up to 7 you fill you element gauge. Elements are magic and items placed in your gauge and usable only once per battle unless they are consumables. They require 7 stamina points to use and have various levels. One attack will activate level 1 elements, up to level 7. With good tactics you can attack up to six times with light attacks, or combine light and medium, then use an element with only 1 stamina point remaining for massive damage. The penalty for this is you will go to -6 stamina. It really opens up strategy on the battlefield.

Story is excellent too with some excellent use of dialect in the writing. Characters are pretty well developed considering the amount of them over the 40 hours or so it takes to finish. I won't spoil the plot but it had me gripped from start to finish and some excellent cameos from older characters. Visuals are also superb with a wonderful mediterranean style to the graphics. The music is also second to none on the machine, a wonderful soundtrack by the legendary Yasunori Matsuda.

The only real gripes I have with Chrono Cross are with the use of music in battle. Despite the amazing music on offer, it plays the same battle music over and over which after a while does start to grate. Also the game is susceptible to slowdown from time to time which takes a little gloss off of the visuals.

Overall it's a stunning game, a nigh on perfect J-RPG. No frustrating grinding, wonderful graphics and audio and a plot that avoids cliches. Ideal for serious fans and gamers that want a challenging RPG but none of the frustration of random battles. Perhaps the best PS1 RPG.

That's it for part 1. Would be interested to hear peoples thoughts on these games or perhaps suggestions of their own. A 10/10 doesn't need to be perfect or always original, simply it needs to stand above everything else.

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