Sunday, July 29, 2007

Tomb Raider Chronicles

Note: This review was originally posted on Myspace. I am reposting it here for archival purposes. It has been backdated to the date of its original posting.

"Lara Croft
Once And Future Adventurer"

My issues with this game are: a) it has the same downfalls as The Last Revelation (particularly in forced perspectives and cinematic reveals); b) the level-loading times are patience-testingly long; c) which is compounded by the fact that for some reason when you die, it automatically loads the title screen instead of assuming you want to load a game, so that when you die, you have to go through two painful loading screens instead of just one; and d) the final level has way too many annoying bugs...

If you can get past all of that, it's actually a pretty fun game. Clearly a lot shorter, and not quite so epic as LastRev, since the different episodes are unrelated, but fun. Plus, you get back that location variety as well as alternate outfits that were missing from LastRev. Winter Camo for the Russian levels, Young Lara for the Halloween episode, and a shiny Catsuit for the industrial levels (and, of course, the classic outfit for the Roman levels).

The setup of the plot is actually pretty neat. Lara is missing and presumed dead after the raid of LastRev, and some of her closest friends gather together after the dedication of her memorial in order to tell stories of some of her more secretive past adventures. First you get to run through the streets of Rome, and eventually the Colloseum, searching for the Philosopher's Stone. Then you get to infiltrate a Russian submarine to recover the Spear of Destiny from some undersea wreckage. Then you have a rather unique Halloween episode, where young Lara follows a priest onto a haunted island. Finally, you get to sneak into Von Croy Industries, Mission:Impossible style, to steal the Iris back from some androids (that's right).

Overall, the levels and locations felt sort of like an amalgam of previous tomb raiding memories and experiences, doing justice to the 'Chronicles' title, as well as adding some new features and experiences. New moves include tight-rope walking, parallel bar swinging, and limited hand-to-hand combat techniques. I'll say a few words about the individual locations (this section may contain some spoilers):

Rome (The Streets of Rome/Trajan Markets/The Colloseum)

These levels kind of felt like a dry Venice (TR2), with a little bit of the original greco-roman levels from the first game thrown in. The Colloseum was pretty cool. This time around, you got to fight gladiators as well as lions. You didn't get to explore the Colloseum proper, though, so it's not like you can even compare it to the first game's Coliseum. It was definitely interesting to see Pierre and Larson (from the first game) back, and as funny and stereotypical as ever. Larson being the dumb cowboy, and Pierre being the snooty Frenchman. Nothing too serious, but a generally good time. Pierre's downfall was pretty ruthless, though, but very clever (with a few puns of its own), and true to Lara's original badass image (as opposed to CD's modern 'delicate' Lara). Helmet Head was freaking annoying to kill.

Pierre: You were kicked in the head by a horse, oui? So the brain doesn't work correctly?
Larson: How'd you know about that?

Pierre: Come, let us get off this roof, and I will buy you a milkshake.

Russia (The Base/The Submarine/Deepsea Dive/Sinking Submarine)

Imagine TR2's Offshore Rig set in TR3's Antarctica, with a tiny bit of TR2's Maria Doria levels thrown in on the side, and that's what the Russian levels are like. The Russian Admiral actually turns out to be a pretty sympathizable character. Exploring the submarine was pretty fun. The Deepsea Dive portion was disappointingly short, though. The Sinking Submarine was also fun to explore.

Black Isle (Gallows Tree/Labyrinth/Old Mill)

This little episode was surprisingly original, and interesting. First of all, it's the first set of full levels with young Lara, unlike the Training levels in LastRev. Second, because Lara is young, you have no weapons, so you have to think of other ways to avoid enemies. Third, the whole thing was like a Halloween theme park, with all kinds of classic baddies haunting around, from werewolves to will o' the wisps to skeletons to deranged forest spirits to a [literally] heartless talking hanged man to an apparition of death to a seahag to a headed horseman/perturbed demon... Really neat levels.

Von Croy Industries (13th Floor/Escape with the Iris/Red Alert!)

Beside the annoying bugs in the final level, these levels are mostly fun. Some stealth stuff, partly reminiscent of TR3's Nevada levels, as well as a setting reminiscent of the City portion of TR3's London levels. Crawling through vents and sneaking around is fun, though this isn't quite Metal Gear Solid, and the stealth tactics aren't quite as reliable. The guy talkin' to Lara on the headset, telling her about the layout of the building and et cetera, is extremely annoying though. He tries to be all hip and cool and everything, and he just comes off as being obnoxiously annoying. And you can even tell in the tone of Lara's voice that she thinks the same way. Eventually, you start wishing he would just shut up and let you figure things out for yourself, for what it's worth.


As for the "tombiness" of Tomb Raider Chronicles - very low. But by this point, you kind of start taking for granted that Lara rarely raids tombs these days, and just accept it for what it is. For that reason, this game could never compare to the original, and it doesn't quite have the legendary levels that two and three boast. Still, for a light-hearted (despite the gloomy nature of the storyline - mourning Lara's death) adventure through some vaguely familiar, and some newer, areas, this game delivers an enjoyable distraction from your own boring life (at least until the bugs get you).

Endgame Stats:

Time Taken - 7:27:43
Distance Travelled - 34646m
Ammo Used - 2683
Health Packs Used - 42
Secrets Found - 28/36
Saves - 330

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Tomb Raider - The Last Revelation

Note: This review was originally posted on Myspace. I am reposting it here for archival purposes. It has been backdated to the date of its original posting.


The fourth installment in the hit series starring Lara Croft. Now this is interesting, because this is where I lost contact with the Tomb Raider series originally. I played the first three games when they came out, but then I sort of got distracted away from the series, and ignored it until just a month or so ago, when they remade the first game (Tomb Raider Anniversary). Since it was a remake of the incredible original, I couldn't pass it up, plus I figured it would be a good way to reintroduce myself to the series with something familiar, while meeting the modern Tomb Raider engine at the same time.

As it was, after playing Anniversary, my interest in the series was rekindled, and I played through the three games I own. Then I bought the next two games, and I'm playing through the fourth one now, for the first time ever. This game was supposed to be a return to the tombs, after the city-like, industrial, and open-jungle levels of the second and third games in the series. Last Revelation was also originally supposed to be the final Tomb Raider game, as Lara Croft supposedly dies at the end. It's also considered the last of the classic titles, as the fifth game was a half-assed cash cow (I hear), and the sixth game took some huge risks and failed miserably (I also hear). Then Core was replaced by Crystal Dynamics, and we get the modern Tomb Raider, Tomb Raider Legend, with an all-new game engine. That's the history of it anyway...


Nonlinearity - You can pass freely between levels, and in some cases, you have to in order to collect items and open gates to move on to yet more levels.

Poison Effect - The screen dilates and contracts on the vertical and horizontal axes, really screwing up your perception of direction and distance - impressive and effective.

Laser Sight - You can combine the laser sight to select guns in your inventory (why not all of them?), adding a new element to combat by allowing you to target a specific spot rather than just pointing your guns and shooting.

Shimmy Around Corners - This is a useful addition that seems like it should have been implemented awhile ago. Now, when you're hanging from ledges or climbing on ladders (or ladder-like surfaces), you can actually maneuver around corners without having to be on foot (as there is often not a floor to stand on in those situations).

Torches - Being able to pick up and light torches in this game was a really cool addition. It was also a nice alternative to lighting flares, as the torches lasted pretty much indefinitely (unless you drop it in some water). It would have been nice if you could use them as a weapon, though. It just seems like it would be natural to kill a mummy by lighting it on fire with a torch. But alas, I had no such luck.


Loading Times - I can understand the loading screen when you pass between levels, but stepping into a room within a level and having the screen freeze for five seconds before continuing really interrupts the game flow.

Forced Perspective - In some areas of the game, the camera changes from its usual spot behind Lara in order to accentuate a certain aspect of a room or focus on something within the room. This is useful and at times essential to the gameplay, but in the earlier Tomb Raiders, you have the option of hitting the Look button to move the camera back to its default position behind Lara. For some reason, in this game, you can't shake the camera out of its predefined position in these specific areas, leading to some really disorienting and frustrating sections where you can't choose where to look.

Cinematic Reveal - Every time you throw a switch, or sometimes just when you enter a particularly special room, a cinematic follows where it shows you a door opening or it shows off the room or something to that effect. In previous games, when this happens, you're still in control of Lara, and you can hit the Look button or pull out your guns in order to kill the cinematic and force the camera back to Lara. In this game, you just have to sit there and watch the cinematic, even if you've seen it already. Plus, there are a lot more cinematics in the game, reminding me of Elysia's comment on TRA, how every little thing has to be handed to you in a cinematic, instead of allowing you to discover it yourself. Honestly, I thought a lot of the disappointing changes in TRA were the result of CD's handling of the series (CD replaced Core after the sixth game), but now I'm starting to wonder if the disappointment of TRA stems from CD trying to replicate the disappointing aspects of later TR's and apply them to the pure and unfettered original game...

Locust Swarms - The piranha in TR3 were annoying, but you could stay out of the water. The scarab swarms in this game are annoying, but at least you can escape them by getting high off the ground. But the locust swarms cannot be evaded. When they come, all you can do is try to outrun them, as they peel away your health, until they run away. All I want is some way to evade them. Like if lighting a flare (glo-stick) would make them stay away, or if you could kill them somehow. I just don't like hearing that locust swarm moving in and knowing there's absolutely nothing I can do but suck it up and prepare a medikit.

Lack of Alternate Outfits - Okay, it's not a fundamental part of the gameplay, and even the fantastic original game stuck with one outfit for the whole journey, but after the exciting alternate outfits in the second and third games, it's a little disappointing not to see some new ones in this game.

Lack of Croft Manor - I can forgive this game because they have a rather original training level, where Lara is 16 years old and being instructed in the ways of tomb raiding by her mentor, but I still can't help feeling nostalgic for the old Croft Manor.

City Levels - A return to the tombs, indeed. The bright, sandy Alexandria areas were interesting and fun to play, but the dark Cairo levels started to bore me. It was interesting that they kind of went for almost a horror vibe, but it just wasn't right for a Tomb Raider game. The alien scares of the Antarctica levels in TR3 were effective, but this was a little...blah. Plus, I've never been hugely fond of vehicles in Tomb Raider, but they've been an integral part since the second game. I'd just rather explore at a slow pace on foot than zoom by a bunch of areas with my foot on the pedal.

Inventory - I really don't understand why they got rid of the three-tiered circular ring-style inventory of the previous games. It was unique and one of Tomb Raider's trademarks. In this game, you just get a regular line of items that you can scroll through left or right. And there's only one tier. It was really nice having weapons/health/flares on one level, special items (keys, etc.) on another level, and system controls (sound, video settings, load game, save game, etc.) on yet another level. In this game, everything is confined to a single level, and when you get a lot of items, it's annoying having to scroll them all back and forth like crazy, mainly to go from using medikits to saving games, to choosing ammo types for weapons, to looking at what special items you carry, etc. It's maddening. And the options and exit game commands weren't even in the inventory. You have to press 'p' (for pause) to get to them. I went halfway through the game before I figured out how to exit to title! And the bloated inventory is particularly annoying because halfway through the game, you pick up 5 special items that you just hang onto for the rest of the game. I just really don't see the justification for getting rid of the ring-style inventory...

Endgame Stats:

Time Taken - 17:32:03
Distance Travelled - 97975m
Ammo Used - 10144
Health Packs Used - 63
Secrets Found - 53/70
Saves - 754

Level Impressions:

(This section contains spoilers!).

Cambodia (Angkor Wat/Race For The Iris)

This was a nice training/beginning to the game. You get to control Lara at age 16 as she is shown the tomb raiding ropes by her mentor Werner Von Croy. The race is a lot of fun because you can try to beat Werner to the Iris, but you have to be good!

Valley of the Kings (Tomb of Seth/Burial Chambers/Valley of the Kings/KV5)

These levels were pretty cool. Kind of half tomb-y, half desert-y. A good introduction to the mood/setting of the game. The sphinx in Tomb of Seth and the rotating room in Burial Chambers were particularly cool. The vehicle section in the last two levels of this group had me feeling so-so, though, since I'm not a huge fan of vehicles in Tomb Raider.

Karnak (Temple of Karnak/Great Hypostle Hall/Sacred Lake/Tomb of Semerkhet/Guardian of Semerkhet)

These levels were fairly good. They were definitely reminiscent of the Egyptian levels in the first Tomb Raider game, particularly the Khamoon levels. Of course, they weren't quite as wonderfully architecturally designed, unfortunately. The game of Senet in the Tomb of Semerkhet was pretty fun (after I remembered to read the tablet stating the rules...). I like how you have to go through a bunch of extra chambers to beat the level if you lose the game. The Guardian of Semerkhet was creepy (until you saw he was just an ornamented live bull), and added a new aspect to the gameplay, as you had to use him to grant access to certain areas.

Desert (Desert Railroad)

This was a really fun level. It takes place on a moving train in the middle of the desert. I saw the cutscene leading into this level, and I was saying to myself, I really hope I get to play on the train! And I did! It definitely reminded me of Indiana Jones, in whichever movie it is where they're fighting on the train. I just wish there had been more to the level.

Alexandria (Alexandria/Coastal Ruins/Catacombs/Temple of Poseidon/Lost Library/Hall of Demetrius/Pharos, Temple of Isis/Cleopatra's Palaces)

This was probably my second favorite location in this game. The earlier sections are very sandy and desert-y, but the later underground levels are very tomb-y and actually somewhat reminiscent of the greco-roman levels from the first Tomb Raider game (a Temple of Poseidon, in Egypt?). The nonlinearity played a huge part in this location, as most of the levels were connected in various ways to each other. The Catacombs were pretty good. Not quite what I was expecting, but effective nonetheless. They were more vertical than horizontal, but that added to the feeling of "going deeper". The Lost Library had some pretty frustrating puzzles, which is probably a good thing. Pharos, Temple of Isis was probably the second biggest 'woah' moment for me in the game. I was a little confused about where to go from the Coastal Ruins. I knew I was missing something in the Catacombs, but I found an underwater passage in Coastal Ruins that led to this huge underwater cavern with the entrance to some giant underwater palace. I was totally impressed. And the hammerhead shark was a nice addition. I was just like, woah! And the best part was that I didn't even think I was supposed to be there, so it felt more like a discovery than just moving onto the next area. You know what I mean? Cleopatra's Palaces returned to that very sandy Egypt feel, but the beautiful plants scattered about also made me think of the gardens of Palace Midas from the first Tomb Raider game. All in all a pleasant level to explore.

Cairo (City of the Dead/Chambers of Tulun/Citadel Gate/Trenches/Street Bazaar/Citadel)

These were without a doubt my least favorite levels of the game. Dark, city levels. Kind of like the London levels of TR3 in atmosphere, but nowhere near as intricate or interesting to explore. Plus, they were all part-vehicle levels. The turret guns were annoying. Somebody could have told me that shooting them in just the right spot causes them to explode. The locust swarms were annoying. The giant dragon was pretty creepy, but kind of unexplained? I just really lost my patience with these levels, and was really anxious to get them behind me.

Giza (Sphinx Complex/Underneath the Sphinx/Menkaure's Pyramid/Inside Menkaure's Pyramid/The Mastabas/Great Pyramid/Khufu's Queens Pyramids/Inside the Great Pyramid/Temple of Horus)

I'd have to say this was probably my favorite location in this game. Which is good, because you want the game to end on a good note, right? The sphinx was cool, but it was the pyramids that really grabbed my attention. I had so much fun climbing up the side of Menkaure's Pyramid, and then when I saw the many-times-larger Great Pyramid, I was awe-struck! That was my biggest 'woah' moment from the game. Less of a wow!, and more of a wo-o-o-ow. Inside the pyramids was pretty good, though I feel like the tunnels and chambers could have been better if they were a little more claustrophobic. The lightning/thunder effects on the outside were cool. The giant scorpions were awesome, and creepy. Temple of Horus, being the final level, was slightly disappointing. Basically a single puzzle repeated a few times, then the boss chamber, which wasn't the most impressive boss chamber in a Tomb Raider game. There were some traps on the way out, but considering that this is The Great Pyramid, it still doesn't hold a candle to The Great Pyramid of the first Tomb Raider. And then the ending is, well, depressingly arbitrary. I can't believe that after all that happened, Werner is suddenly a good guy again, and I can't believe that after coming all that way, Lara can't make the last few steps out of the pyramid before it collapses. ::shrugs::

Overall Impressions:

This was overall an enjoyable game. There were some new additions that added to the Tomb Raider legacy, but I feel like there were many more new additions that pushed Tomb Raider away from the classic feel and more towards the modern feel. I still haven't played the other later TR games, but I really get the impression that CD used some of the less enjoyable ideas from this game when making Tomb Raider Anniversary, instead of sticking to what made the first game what it was. The levels themselves were pretty good, but already give off a slight feeling of in-intricacy. The nonlinear fashion of some of the level sets was really cool, but it felt like they used that as an excuse to make each level itself less intricate. Some of the levels were actually pretty small, serving as just a few traps or puzzles connecting this area and the next.

Final verdict: I just can't rate this game as highly as the first three in the series. It definitely had its moments, which will not soon be forgotten, but a pervading sense of deterioration is already palpable, and knowing the extent to which modern Tomb Raider has gone, I can't help but let that put a little poison into the experience. Still, it was mostly a fun game to play.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Shuffle! (2005-2006)

Note: This review was originally posted on Myspace. I am reposting it here for archival purposes. It has been backdated to the date of its original posting.

Warning! This review may contain some vague spoilers.

I was shuffling through some elf pics one day, and I came across a character I was able to identify as Kareha from Shuffle!, an anime series based on an eroge. Naturally, I decided to check out the series. Turns out Kareha is actually a god, not an elf, but the difference is negligible. Unfortunately, she's also a secondary character. But, being a sexy senpai with beautiful green eyes, who likes frilly underwear and works at a costume café, what's not to like?

As for the series, I'd say it's something of a cross between To Heart and Evangelion. Heh. It starts out like your basic shounen-series-based-on-a-dating-sim, except it takes place in a world that has connections to both the Realm of the Gods and the Realm of the Demons.

We have your main character, Tsuchimi Rin, a basic all-around nice guy; the required female childhood friend, Kaede, who lives with and cares for Rin (there was an ugly accident in the past that killed off both of Rin's parents as well as Kaede's mother); and the genki dama senpai (Shigure Asa) who harbors a long-standing and repressed crush on Rin. As if those two weren't enough for Rin to choose between, both the daughters of the Lord of the Gods and of the Lord of the Demons - Sia and Nerine (the latter is conveniently nicknamed Rin...) - transfer into Rin's class, and it turns out they both want to be Rin's wife. Oh, and there's also a mysterious lolita donning the Ruri-hairstyle (Primula, nicknamed Rim...) who ends up moving in with Rin and Kaede.

The characters are all cute and lovable, and the first half of the series is pretty light and happy. The second half takes a dark turn, though, starting with the revelation of Primula's true nature. The series begins to delve into the psychological states of the main characters, including Nerine's relationship with her clone, and Sia's relationship with her unborn twin. And then there's the truth behind Rin and Kaede's history together. Truly awesome. I really loved how these girls' worlds started falling apart when Rin finally chose one of them. You just know, with this many girls in love with one guy, that when he finally picks one, there's gonna be a mess. That having been said, I was kind of disappointed that the final ending was rather happy, with each of the girls coming to terms with her position in the eyes of her beloved.

Still, it was a good series. I thought they could have taken more advantage of the gods/demons angle, since the way it turns out, the only real difference between humans, gods, and demons is the shape of their ears, and some magic power that's used only sparingly throughout the series. Also, I thought the whole idol club/groupie thing was pretty awkward/silly. But, the bottom line for a series like this is whether you can fall for the characters, and Shuffle's characters are not only lovely, but psychologically intriguing as well. I recommend it.

"You're always concerned about people who are suffering. Maybe I should suffer more?"