Organized Rambling is a monthly column that details all the games I’ve played in a given month, even if they’re old. Generally, I’ll talk about whatever comes to mind while dropping some fun factoids that you won’t normally find in reviews… Because this isn’t a review; it’s Organized Rambling.
This month, here in America, we celebrate Memorial Day, where we pay homage to the brave efforts of our veterans by burning cow flesh over hot coals. Now that I’m actually feeling better, I decided to instead play a bunch of video games and watch cute South Korean girls dance and sing… because if our veterans fought for anything, it was the right to watch attractive Korean girls parody those crappy “dance battle culture” movies like Step it Up.
Luckily, some insane Korean companies are willing to strike forth and release a game or two geared toward people that actually play games, and Anima is one of those. It’s an action-RPG in the same vein as Ys or Seiken Densetsu, but with some MMORPG influence as well. You start out by choosing one of three classes (warrior, mage, gunner) and digging through a mountain of text that is probably important to the storyline and reminds me that I should be brushing up on my incredibly meager Korean skills right now.
Anyway, quests are handed out in a World of Warcraft-like fashion. You talk to NPCs with giant exclamation points floating over their heads, then you’re charged with the task of killing 20 killer birds, or collecting 10 Evil Plant Butts, or whatever. As you continue through your quests, new areas open up with slightly different killer birds or evil plants (potentially sans butt). As you level up, you get stat points that you can dump into the usual suspects such as intelligence and vitality, and there’s a giant entity made of magical energy that follows you around as a little glowing ball until you call on it to appear and blow things up. It also levels up.
Unfortunately, Anima falls into the same trap that most so-called “free” games have been following these days: the pay-to-win mentality. You can spend real money to purchase points called ZAM (2100 ZAM will only cost you a cool 100,000 Korean Won! (about $85)). There are ZAM stores in each town that allow you to spend your ZAM on items that… uh, do something. (I have no idea what (I should be brushing up on my incredibly meager Korean skills right now)). Also unfortunate: each song in the game lasts about 15 seconds before it loops, and changing areas makes the music fade out and start again even if it’s the exact same song. It’s weird and reminds me of that awful NES game, Deadly Towers.
Perhaps the best part of Anima is its boss fights. They’re very occasional, but each one pits you against a hulking monstrosity of a foe that hits hard and requires you to use your wits and fast reflexes to survive… which is much easier said than done, when trying to play a game with touchscreen controls.
The big guy you see above is the first boss. He swings his axes around on a huge chain, and if he hits you, he drags you towards him and whacks you again just as an added little “fuck you.” He also sends out little purple bursts of energy that would be easy to dodge if I were using a controller… but I’m not.
Anima isn’t a great game, but considering its competition, it’s one of the best for the mobile phone platform.
But really, that’s not saying much.
After that, you get to select your next stage, meaning you can play Contra: Hard Corps on your own terms. Awesome!
Later stages have you hanging onto the side of a plane as you’re fending off foes, only to leap on top to fight another plane that’s attacking you. Eventually, the plane you’re standing on takes a hit and goes down. You leap off the plane as it smashes into the ground in a ball of flame, and you blast open the door to a facility where a scientist is being held hostage. Another stage has you running through a forest, fighting a monster behind a waterfall that grabs and pulls the bridge you’re standing on, until you finally defeat him and the bridge collapses. You land on a green rock-like surface, running up it and killing things in your path until you come to the end and realize you’ve been walking up a dinosaur’s neck the entire time.
Unlike other Contra games, there’s a host of characters to pick from. There’s the normal white guy with the buzz cut. There’s also a cute-but-badass girl, a little robot, and a werewolf guy named Brad, because why the hell not? Like my fellow viking warrior Zigfried, I also secretly wish I were female, so I picked the cute blonde girl, Sheena.
One of the cool things about this edition of Contra is that each character has their own equipment. The butch guy Ray has classic Contra staples like the laser, spread gun, and homing missiles, while Sheena has her own armament that includes bombs that drop to the ground and explode, and a wide-beam laser that mixes the best aspects of the spread gun and the homing missiles. That being said, Contra: Hard Corps is packed with over-the-top action, the kind you can barely find these days since the boring, “realistic” western style is what sells to the lowest common denominator. To hell with brown shooters and yearly updates! Give me a game with color, with originality, and with tons of ass-kicking action. Give me a game that’s as hardcore as Hard Corps.
X-Blades tries to copy that model and falls short on nearly every single occasion. The main character, Ayumi, is cocky, but she doesn’t come across as skilled or particularly badass. Devil May Cry was incredibly cheesy. However, X-Blades is even worse. It doesn’t help that the awful writing and voice acting makes Ayumi sound less like a cocky treasure hunter and more like a valley girl that’s completely out of her element. Furthermore, there’s some strange graphical disparity going on. The cutscenes are done in a cel-shaded style, while the rest of the game isn’t. It’s jarring to see a nicely-rendered anime-esque cutscene, only to take control of Ayumi and discover she looks startlingly different.
It wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that the game is both terribly linear and restricted. In Devil May Cry, I could explore the castle as much as I wanted, and was encouraged to look around for secrets. In X-Blades, you’ve got a collection of narrow hallways that lead into open rooms, which then fill up with enemies. You then strike those enemies down using Ayumi’s dual blades (or shoot them because the blades are also guns, apparently). There are tokens lying around that upgrade your abilities, but they’re not particularly well hidden, so finding them doesn’t feel rewarding at all. You collect souls for killing enemies, which are used to buy new abilities and health restoration… but buying the inexpensive health restoration can be done at any time, so death is impossible as long as you pause the game fast enough to open the menu. Also, most of the environments look exactly the same, but there are several seconds of loading between two rooms. Just what is loading, here? Most of the assets are reused ad nauseum, so I can’t imagine there’s much new data to put into the console’s RAM. Oh yeah, and halfway through the game, you have to go through the entire place again, only during a different time of day. It would be more tolerable if the place was actually a fairly large size, but it’s not.
The action in X-Blades is fine, but there’s little variety in the monsters. I guess it’s cool in a Dynasty Warriors sort of way… you bash through hordes of enemies (though not nearly as many as in the Musou games) that are way too weak to pose much threat, pull off some flashy moves, and occasionally fight a boss. It’s the kind of game you need to be in the right mindset for, but not one you’d really want to spend much time with.
Strangely enough though, X-Blades got a sequel of sorts published by Konami. Called Blades of Time, Ayumi has changed from a cute-if-annoying valley girl to the standard medieval wench, complete with a spontaneously acquired English accent (one of the prerequisites to being a medieval wench). The action looks like it’d be better than that in X-Blades, but I’m not sure if I could get over the fact that Ayumi somehow turned uglier and British.
Legacy of the Wizard Dragon Slayer IV is a sidescrolling dungeoncrawler in the same vein as Milon’s Secret Castle, only not nearly as fucked up. For one, it doesn’t throw you into a dead end right away. In fact, you can explore a huge amount of the castle, with other parts opening up as you find more items. There’s an entire family’s worth of characters to play as (including the family pet!), but the most important character is actually the daughter, because of how crazy her jump is.
The son is essentially worthless until the very end of the game, but when that end comes around, he’s especially needed. He’s the only one who can wield the titular Dragon Slayer, the sword needed to kill the, uh, Dragon. Each character has their own strengths and weaknesses, with the father being incredibly strong but incapable of jumping well, and the mother being a powerful wizard with a lot of useful tools at her disposal. The family pet is awful in combat, but can’t be damaged by monsters, so he’s useful for scouting ahead and charting a route.
All in all, Dragon Slayer IV is a great NES game with some incredibly well-done music, which shouldn’t come as a surprise considering it’s a Falcom game. The music was composed by Yuzo Koshiro, who not only composed most of Falcom’s early works (including the venerated soundtracks of the first three Ys titles), but he composed the music in games like ActRaiser, Shinobi, and Streets of Rage.