All posts by Mark Smith

I've been an avid gamer since I stumbled upon ZORK running in my local Radio Shack in 1980. Ten years later I was working for Sierra Online. Since then I've owned nearly every game system and most of the games to go with them. Not sure if 40 years of gaming qualifies me to write reviews, but I do it anyway.

Urban Trial Freestyle Review – PlayStation Vita

While the comparisons of the new Urban Trial Freestyle game with the legendary puzzle-platform-racer, Trials and Trials Evolution are obvious and endless, Urban Trial Freestyle has one thing going for it on the PS Vita that no other similar game has – it’s actually available on the Vita, and sometimes in a world of knock-offs, exclusivity has its rewards.

For a tiny package on a tiny screen Urban Trial Freestyle is packed with content. Spread across five themed environments are more than 45 levels to master in both Time Trial and Stunt modes. Obviously, the former has you racing against the clock while the latter has you performing specific stunts in specific places for points. The levels themselves are quite complex, often with a primary mid-level route and usually a low and/or high road alternate path buried in the scenery. You may even spot a particular path you cannot access until you have earned enough cash to purchase specific parts to enable your bike to reach them. These upgrades affect your top speed, acceleration, and handling providing 64 possible bike combinations. Collect various cash bag loot drops within the levels to boost your bank account – just another reason to explore all areas of all the levels.

Urban Trial Freestyle is particularly suited for the Vita; not that it makes use of any advanced features beyond the camera, which can snap your photo then insert your mug shot into the game to stamp your victory on a particular stunt billboard or the game’s final tally screen, but more so by its sheer design. A level in Urban Trial Freestyle can last anywhere from 30-90 seconds; the very definition of “pick-up-and-play” game design where you can knock out one or two levels during a TV commercial break. The game plays surprisingly well using the left analog stick for smooth analog control over your rider and his ability to shift his weight on the bike for stunts or to lean forward in numerous steep hill climbs.

You can (and likely will) burn through all the levels in this game in one or two short sittings but the joy in Urban Trial Freestyle is the almost obsessive-compulsion you have to keep coming back, either to beat your own previous attempt or those who have already staked their claim to in-game photo ops and post-level leaderboards. Plus, once you start adding those upgrades, replaying the earlier levels will be a completely different experience as fast speeds mean higher jumps to previously inaccessible areas of the level. Sadly, there are no level creation tools, so we are at the mercy of the developers and future DLC for any new content.

The game looks great with a definitive urban theme, both in the opening montage as well as the basic levels designs and environments that cross between cities, slums, and factories. You can definitely see the influence of Julien Dupont, the “godfather of urban trial freestyle” in the overall theme of the game and it’s presentation. Julien Dupont is known around the world for his unique street style and technique, mashing down barriers and setting new records.

There is almost always a depressing overcast shadow in the skies and sometimes it’s even raining. The physics are virtually spot-on, perhaps slightly exaggerated for effect, and you’ll need to quickly master gas, break, and body weight shifting to keep the rubber on the road – or whatever surface you’re driving on. The various stunt cues and meters in the game are seamlessly integrated into the environments so they aren’t distracting, and the camera seems to always provide the perfect angle and distance for what dangers lie ahead. My only minor complaint is the bright orange ghost rider you often find yourself racing against. It’s a poor color choice and it’s not transparent enough, so until one of you pulls away from the other it can be very confusing.

The music is pretty grunge but is also kept to the opening montage and the menus, leaving only the throaty, weed-whacker-whine buzz of your engine RPM’s to assault your ears during the actual levels. If you play long enough you’ll be able to gauge your speed by this sound and improve your stunts and times.

It’s a shame this game couldn’t have been released as a cross-platform title that you can go back and forth between the PS3 and the Vita, so for those who want to play on both systems you’ll need to purchase two separate games. And while this game might be just a bit too shallow for console gamers, I found the addictive, almost puzzle-like gameplay buried in this visually striking motocross game to be the perfect fit for the PS Vita, and I highly recommend adding it to your digital library.

Strike Suit Zero Review – PC

My love of the space shooter knows no limits, especially when it comes to the Wing Commander franchise. That franchise alone spurred me to spend $700 for a Roland MT-32 sound card in 1989 just so I could enjoy the MIDI soundtrack for the original Wing Commander, and in 1994 I spent another $700 to purchase a Panasonic 3DO just to play Super Wing Commander. And when you factor in the special 3DO flight stick and the Thrustmaster HOTAS hardware for the PC, space sim shooters have cost me well over $2000 over the past two decades.

Wing Commander may be the nucleus of my addiction but there were other games as well; Colony Wars for the PlayStation, Rogue Squadron for the GameCube, and of course, the phenomenal X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter franchise for the PC, but there has been an inexplicable absence of space shooters in the gaming world for quite some time. It’s not like the genre is without its fans. Just look at how well Chris Roberts’ Kickstarter-funded Star Citizen game was received. And then you have Born Ready Games and their homage to the space sim shooter, Strike Suit Zero.

On paper, in screenshots, and even in the first few levels of actually playing this new game I can’t deny the surge of nostalgic glee that washed over me as I climbed into the cockpit of my futuristic space fighter and started steering my way through gorgeous backdrops that looks like Hubble Telescope photography of a distant galaxy. But only an hour or so and a few levels in, Space Suit Zero takes a dangerous turn into a steep difficulty spike, and with checkpoints that are light-years apart, my overall enjoyment of the game was vented into the vacuum of space.

The setup for Space Suit Zero is somewhat original in that you aren’t going up against an invading alien race but rather taking part in a more civil style of space war. It seems that Earth has colonized a distant part of space and those colonists have discovered powerful alien tech that has given them the means (although no discernible reason) to wipeout the Earth. You are Earth’s last hope; a rogue pilot who must prove himself in some initial tutorial testing missions before taking command of the prototype Strike Suit.

Strike Suit Zero follows the space sim shooter blueprint to perfection. All of the staples are present from the waves of smaller enemy fighters to the larger capital ships and space stations with defensive turrets that must be chipped away at before that final glorious fireball. Fans of the genre will quickly identify familiar weapons like plasma guns to take out shields and physical bullets to inflict damage on armor, while missiles provide fire-and-forget guidance technology and dumb fire rockets offer greater damage if you can nail the line of sight angle before firing.

A big part of the game’s hook is the actual Strike Suit, a transformable ship that can go from a fast and powerful Pursuit Mode to a slower, but more maneuverable combat machine in Strike Mode. During combat and over time you will accumulate “flux”, and when you have enough you can activate the transformation. You decide when and where to switch based on your own tactics and strategy, but keep in mind that once you switch to Strike mode the flux starts to drain and when the “timer” expires you are back to Pursuit mode where the process begins again. The parallels to the Transformers universe are not lost on me, and many times I felt like a Decepticon racing to a strategic point in vehicle mode then transforming into my more powerful robot form to unload my weapons before changing back to escape any enemies who escaped my momentary wrath.

Something else you have control over is the ultimate ending to the game; not so much in a branching narrative, but at least to the degree that your choices will subtly alter the final state of Earth before the final credits roll. Cutscenes are minimal; mostly in-game voiceovers that accompany external fly-by camera shot, and mission briefing screens where you can also tweak your ship. It’s not literature but the story will keep you engaged enough to hopefully overcome the steep difficulty spikes.

While optimized for mouse and keyboard the game is much more enjoyable with a flight stick or even a gamepad such as the Xbox 360 controller. There are numerous controls but not so many that they can’t be mapped to either device. Strike Suit Zero also supports triple-wide monitors for those who really want to immerse themselves in these gorgeous space backgrounds. While I do enjoy the choice between a chase camera and a nose camera, I found the lack of any cockpit view an almost unforgiveable oversight. One thing I did enjoy was the fantastic ship models created by none other than renowned Mechanical Design engineer Junji Okubo (Appleseed: Ex Machina, Steel Battalion.) These designs alone had me flying in the chase view more often than usual.

Accenting the visuals is a stirring soundtrack by award-winning composer Paul Ruskay (Homeworld) including a collaboration with Japanese singer/songwriter Kokia (Tales of Innocence, Gunslinger Girl: II Teatrino). This majestic score is expertly mixed in with surprisingly descent voice acting for the com chatter and some futuristic sound effects to punch up the combat – even though we all know there is no sound in space.

Strike Suit Zero is a good game interspersed with bad ideas. There are long sequences of little or no action where you might be flying through a series of distant checkpoints on some routine patrol, and these can take minutes before anything “fun” happens. The serious crime is the checkpoint system that returns you to the beginning of the boring stuff rather than the start of the action, so if (or rather when) you die in combat, you get to experience the solitary confines of your ship in the vastness of space all over again…well that and any and all com chatter you may have already heard before you died. This problem could easily be fixed with more intuitively placed checkpoints or a simple “Skip ahead” button. It’s not like these non-action parts are masking any load times.

To add insult to injury, Strike Suit Zero also offers a scoring system that will rank your performance in each mission. While I enjoyed the Kilrathi Kill Leaderboard in Wing Commander I am not a fan of some arbitrary scoring system that is forcibly worked into my space opera, especially when the game seems hell bent on killing you often and penalizing your score for each death. While I could care less about chasing the leaderboards, your mission scores do affect your ability to upgrade your ships, which can only make the game that much harder in later levels if you are dying a lot in the earlier ones.

Strike Suit Zero could be considered a work in progress, as the developers are still working on patches to address the difficulty and pacing issues and even adding VR tracking with the Oculus Rift. Hopefully they can work in a cockpit view into a future update as I really want to see what the inside of my ship looks like. Yet even with its flaws, Strike Suit Zero is still a valiant effort, especially for a crowd funded game, loaded with good intentions that hits the mark on visual and sound design. With a few nips and tucks Strike Suit Zero could be the game to usher in a whole new era of space sim shooters, and for only $20 on Steam you can find out for yourself.

Monsters, Inc. 3D – Ultimate Collector’s Edition Blu-ray Review

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 12 years since Monsters, Inc. debuted in theaters, but what’s not a surprise is just how well the film holds up a decade plus later, both in timeless storytelling and even technology. Arguably, CG is light-years beyond what it was in the pre-2001 development time of this feature film. One only need look to recent triumphs like Brave to see that, but at the fundamental levels of art design and texture detail, I’d stack Sulley’s fur follicle count up against Princess Merida’s fiery locks any day of the week.

With the sequel, Monsters University right around the theatrical release corner, Disney has taken the time to remaster and rerelease Monsters, Inc. in stunning 3D. Much like Finding Nemo, the film had a short run in the theaters over the holiday and now it’s time to enjoy the adventure at home on this impressive Blu-ray Ultimate Collector’s Edition release.

The only thing the folks over at Pixar do better than CG is tell a good story, and Monsters, Inc. is about as original as it gets. It only takes a few minutes of screen time to get firmly entrenched in the concept that there is a secret world of monsters who invade the human world every night via the closet doors of innocent children. Their sole purpose is to scare the children and collect their resulting screams, the primary energy source of the monster world. The concept is far scarier than the execution thanks to the charmingly designed monsters that generate more smiles than terror.

Time are tough though, as kids in the human world have become much harder to scare, forcing a lot of shredded doors and an inevitable energy crises that threatens the future of the factory where our two main characters work. Meet top scare employee of numerous consecutive months, Sulley (John Goodman) and his roommate/best friend/co-worker, Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal). These guys perform like a well-oiled machine, much to the delight of boss, Henry Waternoose (James Coburn), and much to the chagrin of rival scare technician, Randall Boggs (Steve Buscemi) who has his own evil agenda for increasing his energy harvesting quota.

The story and humor are delightfully simplistic and expertly executed; mostly based on the concept that the monsters are more afraid of the children than they are of them. There are numerous safeguards in place to ensure that no part of the human world comes back through the closet door portal; a point painfully played out when a sock with static cling hitches a ride on the back of one particularly hairy monster and he is subject to the rapid response detox team complete with hazmat shower, full body shave, and humiliating head cone. And if that’s what they do with just a sock imagine what would happen if an actual child came through the door.

That’s exactly what happens late one night when Randall is up to his sinister plans and Sulley and Mike catch him in the act. Now it’s up to our heroes to not only overcome their own initial fear of the human child contaminating their world, but ultimately protect her until they can return her safely to her own bedroom.

The chemistry between Goodman and Crystal is undeniable, and the banter flows nearly nonstop throughout the film. Crystal isn’t really playing a character as much as just allowing his own unique personality to inhabit this spherical green Cyclops. Goodman plays the straight man of this comedy duo, usually setting up Crystal for one comic line after the next, but he is also allowed to shine in a more dramatic and almost fatherly way. His expressive relationship with Boo transcends words with the sole exception of the final tear-inducing line in the film.

When we aren’t being subjected to the rapid-fire delivery of humorous dialogue there are all sorts of obvious and not-so-obvious visual sight gags integrated into almost every scene. Monsters, Inc. is as much a triumph of turn of the century CG technology as it is storytelling. The sets and locations are amazingly creative but it’s the monsters that steal this show with their comical design and meticulously crafted textures that will tempt you to count the fur on Sulley and the scales on Randall. The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 is a beauty to behold and the MVC 3D experience rivals the 3D theatrical experience in every way. The 3D really pops, adding great depth to the scenes and making the characters even more lifelike than before. Every scene is loaded with rich and vibrant color and multiple levels of detail, and when coupled with solid black levels, bold contrast, and no discernible flaws, artifacts, banding, or ghosting in 3D, Monsters, Inc is a remaster for the record books.

I was pleasantly surprised to see (or rather hear) than Disney had created an entirely new lossless Dolby TrueHD 7.1 surround track. Not that there was anything wrong with the DTS 5.1 mix from the 2009 Blu-ray release, but side by side this new 2013 remix will blow your mind if you have the home theater sound system to appreciate it. The inclusion of the additional channels creates a more seamless 3D experience for your ears to go along with the 3D experience for your eyes. Dialogue is flawlessly mixed so you never miss a witty word, and there are moments of LFE goodness that will reward your subwoofer investment.

The four disc box set includes the 2D and 3D versions of the film on Blu-ray, the standard DVD, and a digital copy that will push the limits of your retina screen iPad. Sadly, when it comes to extras there isn’t much Disney could have added to the great selection of goodies already available on the 2009 release. Those have all made the trip to this package and sadly they are in SD, so they are a stark contrast to the quality of the feature presentation. I really was hoping for at least a small documentary on how they converted the film to 3D or perhaps a reunion roundtable four years later. There are two or three new exclusives but they don’t amount to much.

Disc one is home to Outtakes and Company Play, five hilarious minutes of 3D footage that ran alongside the theatrical credits. Discs one and two both contain 3D and 2D respective versions of extras such as Partysaurus Rex, For the Birds, and 14 minutes of Sneak Peeks as well as a 3-minute promo for Monsters University as well as the trailer. The feature commentary with Pete Doctor, Lee Unkrich, Andrew Stanton, and John Lasseter is only on the 2D version on disc two as is the 22-minute roundtable discussion. Disc three is home to all of the previously released bonus material including Mike’s New Car, Roz’s 100 Door Challenge, Pixar’s Fun Factory Tour, Story Featurettes, Banished Concepts, Storyboard to Film Comparisons, Designing Monstropolis, Set Dressing, Location Flyaround, Monster File, Music and Sound, and a 26-minute, six-part feature on the Animation process. There are also 17 minutes of release trailers and TV spots, 12 minutes of Monsters Only bonuses from the original DVD, 900 pieces of sketches and concept art in the Art Gallery, and a three-minute Wrap-Up from the filmmakers.

Even if 98% of the bonus features are recycled this newest version offers the absolute best graphical presentation in both 2D and 3D and when combined with the new lossless 7.1 audio mix, Monsters, Inc. has never looked or sounded better. This is without a doubt the definitive version of the film you can possibly own and a must-have addition to your Disney Blu-ray library.

Wreck-It Ralph 3D – Ultimate Collector’s Edition Blu-ray Review

Wreck-It Ralph 3D is easily my favorite animated Disney feature of all-time, but then again, this movie was written specifically for me…or at least it seems that way. As an avid videogame enthusiast for the better part of the past three decades and someone who grew up spending all their after-school time in the arcades, and someone who even got a job in the local pizza/arcade parlor because I got free tokens it’s safe to say that I have played pretty much every major coin-op game released since the original Space Invaders and Asteroids. I probably could have (and should have) consulting on the making of Wreck-It Ralph, although after six viewings of the film I can’t think of too much the filmmakers left out in this fiendishly clever tribute to videogame and geek culture.

The setup for Wreck-It Ralph is brilliant and reminded me of an idea pitch I made when I was working at Sierra Online back in the early 90’s about how all the characters in all of the Sierra adventure games got mixed up on a fragmented hard drive and started appearing in each other’s games. In Wreck-It Ralph the concept is similar in that all of the arcade machines are interconnected via their power cords with the surge protector acting as a Grand Central Station that connects all the games together. So when the arcade closes down for the night all the video game characters can take a break from their “day job” and head over to Tappers for a frosty mug or make their way to the center of Pac-Man’s maze for a bit of group therapy.

It is just such a therapy session where we meet the hero (and villain) of our story, Ralph (John C. Reilly). This lumbering 9-foot behemoth is the Donkey Kong equivalent in the aging arcade game, Fix-It Felix Jr., which I suppose makes Felix the unspoken Mario. In his game Ralph terrorizes the occupants of an apartment building by smashing the place up while gamers use the joystick to control Felix and his magic hammer as he climbs around making repairs. Every night after the arcade closes Felix goes to his penthouse apartment to hang a new gold medal on his wall and party with his friends while Ralph retires to the local dump where he sleeps on a bed of crumbled bricks to dream of a better life.

On the eve of their game’s 30th anniversary Felix (Jack McBrayer) is hosting a big party with fireworks and cake and Ralph decides to show up. Things don’t turn out so good, and it is made quite clear that he is the “unwanted bad guy” and should not return unless he can win a gold medal of his own. As he is telling his sad story to the bartender in Tapper a frazzled soldier from the game Hero’s Duty staggers into the bar and Ralph hears him mention something about a gold medal. Ralph ends up commandeering the man’s battle armor and jumping games – something extremely forbidden in the unspoken rules of arcade society. Not only is death permanent outside your own game, with Ralph no longer in his own game Fix-It Felix Jr. has been slapped with an Out of Order sticker and is doomed to be removed from the arcade.

After a terrifying game session of Hero’s Duty, Ralph does manage to acquire his coveted gold medal and exits the game in an out-of-control escape pod where he ultimately crash lands in another game, Sugar Rush; basically Mario Kart with a heavy candy coated theme. Unfortunately, things only get more complicated from here as Ralph has brought along a dangerous Cy-bug that, outside its own game rules, can potentially invade every other game like a virus and destroy the entire arcade, but not if Sergeant Tamora Jean Calhoun (Jane Lynch) has anything to say about it. She, along with lovesick Felix, who can’t get over her “high definition facial textures”, track down the Cy-bug while Ralph embarks on his own adventures with Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a quirky little game glitch who aspires to be a champion racer.

Wreck-It Ralph is heavily targeted to fans of videogame culture, and this may just be the first Disney movie to lack that universal appeal. Whereas most any other Disney movie can suck in both kids and adults, Ralph’s appeal lies solely in the wink-wink-nudge-nudge for those that get the countless references whether they be a visual sight gag, a random video game character appearing in the background scenery, the inputting of the infamous Konami code to unlock the secret vault, or even other non-gaming pop-culture references. Sure, we all get the joke that the cops are donuts, but let’s face it. If you don’t know going into this movie that dropping a Mentos into a Diet Coke equals explosive results then there is a huge plot point of the film that will be completely lost on you.

Whether you get the jokes and references or not, Wreck-It Ralph has heart and tells a surprisingly emotional and relevant tale about one man’s dream to aspire to be something more than the label placed upon him by society and one girls dream to reach for the stars despite overwhelming obstacles, bullies, and peer pressure. As expected, everyone gets what they want and lives happily ever after before the credits start to roll, and the expectations of a sequel are not entirely unfounded, although with arcades being all but extinct, I would think that any sequels would have to involve home video games and connecting characters via the Internet.

Wreck-It Ralph blew me away in theaters and the Blu-ray is even better with a stunning 1080p/AVC 2D and 1080p/MVC 3D transfer that will dazzle you with or without the 3D glasses. As you might expect given the subject matter, colors are rich and pop off the screen – literally in the 3D version. Great care was taken to keep the various 8 and 16 bit graphics true to form when viewing the characters from the real world, but once you slip behind the screen, we get to see these characters come to life in glorious CG, some more so than others. While Felix and his apartment-dwelling friends are all modeled in 3D they still move around in stilted sprite animations that reveal their video game roots. The transitions between game screen and game world are perfectly executed for maximum comical benefit. You’ll see Ralph leave Pac-Man’s therapy session and exit via the 2D maze, stopping to pick up some cherries along the way, then appear in the power-strip transit hub in full 3D with 3D modeled cherries. Or you might see a bar patron call for a refill only to zoom out to the classic screen view of Tapper racing around the bar filling mugs of root beer. The 3D presentation is fantastic with virtually no ghosting or other issues associated with the technology. The 3D is used primarily to create more immersive worlds although there are a few in-your-face moments, but they never feel gimmicky.

Given the simplistic nature of the sound and music in arcade games over the past 30 years Disney has done a masterful job of capturing all the subtle levels of sound design and tech advancement from the classics ranging from Q-Bert speak to the waka…waka of Pac-Man to the thunderous surround sound of a high dollar game like Hero’s Duty. Wreck-It Ralph delivers a powerful DTS-HD MA 7.1 mix that will immerse you in this fantasy world behind the screen with sounds coming from every channel along with some aggressive LFE to punch up the more action-oriented moments. The most memorable sound design moments are the initial attack sequence in Hero’s Duty and the exciting final race in Sugar Rush that make maximum use of surround sound, yet no matter how complex the sound mix, the dialogue track and emotionally fueled score are always in perfect balance.

When it comes to the bonus features of Wreck-It Ralph you can insert the Pac-Man death sound here. What a wasted opportunity. There is so much reference material that needs to be discussed yet Disney cannot even muster a feature commentary or even one of their Second Screen tablet tie-ins. How disappointing. Instead, we get a 17-minute feature entitled, “Bit by Bit: Creating the Worlds of Wreck-It Ralph” that has Director Rich Moore, producer Clark Spencer, writer Phil Johnston, art director Mike Gabriel, co-art director Ian Gooding, effects supervisor Cesar Velazquez, animation supervisor Renato Dos Anjos and a few other members of the team barely scratching the surface of this film. There are also four deleted and alternate scenes with optional commentary, four Video Game Commercials related to material from the film, and finally Disney Intermission, a measly 10-minutes worth of material presented by Chris Hardwick (The Nerdist) who will discuss the jokes and references whenever you hit pause during the film. There are also 10 minutes of trailers for upcoming Disney features and last but certainly not least – the best extra on the disc, Paperman: Theatrical Short, which just won the Oscar as I am writing this review. The four-disc box set includes both 2D and 3D versions of the film, a standard DVD copy and a digital copy that will push your retina screen iPad to the limits.

Personally, for me, this movie is a perfect 5 out of 5, but then again, I take the subject matter very personally. In the grand scheme of things I have to keep in mind that a lot of people just aren’t going to get much of the gamer jokes and insider pop-culture references, and if you don’t get it then this movie won’t interest you despite its other charms. Plus with the disappointing selection of extras one can’t wonder if a bigger and better edition of Wreck-It Ralph is coming at a later date. Even with an amazing audio and video Blu-ray presentation, the lack of content makes this a bit tougher to recommend unless you can find a really good sale price. But if money isn’t an issue and you are somewhere between the age of 30 and 50 and you’ve ever been in an arcade more than once you probably need to add Wreck-It Ralph to your Blu-ray library immediately.

Trine 2: Director’s Cut Review – Wii U

It’s a bit ironic that one of the best games to arrive on the Wii U since its launch is a port of a PC/360/PS3 game that is only available in the eShop. Trine 2 has already dazzled me twice on the two aforementioned systems and again on the PC with the Goblin Menace DLC last September, so I was eager to once again dive into this charming storybook world with soothing narration, stunning, rich, vibrant, gorgeous, amazing, (excuse me while I consult my thesaurus…) , dazzling, astounding, elegant graphics. And it probably didn’t hurt that Trine 2 also offers some of the most satisfying platform-puzzle gameplay that mixes the best parts of Lost Vikings (look it up) and Portal 2.

All hyperbole aside (if that is even possible), Trine 2: Director’s Cut is quite simply the must-own game for the Wii U and at only $20 there is no reason for you not to be playing, especially since this version packs in all the bonus adventures of the Goblin Menace along with a few other exclusive features.

Obviously, Trine 2 is a sequel, although, it doesn’t require any knowledge of the first as we meet up with Amadeus the Wizard, comfortably napping after long hours researching the elusive Fireball spell. A rush of wind forces the door of his cottage open extinguishing the lights, then a bright light shines through the window waking him up. Amadeus staggers outside into a lush storybook wonderland that serves as your first of three tutorials.

Once Amadeus meets up with the Trine (a magical beacon of light), you will link up with the other two members of your team, Pontius the Knight, and Zoya the Thief, who each have their own introductory tutorial levels that showcase their unique skills and abilities. Pontius is your fighter armed with sword, shield and hammer while Zoya uses her bow and grapple for ranged combat and platform navigation. Together, these three are an unstoppable force once you learn to master their unique talents.

There is also a nice leveling-up process that requires you to collect these glass jars scattered about the levels. Some are quite obvious while others require special feats of navigation and acrobatics, or perhaps magical intervention or even the forceful smash of Pontius’ blade or hammer. For every 50 you collect you will obtain one skill point that can be spent to upgrade any of the three characters in various ways.
Amadeus skill tree allows him to levitate a monster or increase his initial conjuring ability to include multiple objects or even a plank; a nice alternative to the normal boxes he can summon. Zoya can upgrade to fire and ice arrows or even unlock a stealth ability while Pontius can upgrade his shield so it freezes his enemies or give his hammer a Thor-like throwing ability. The various upgrades get progressively more expensive, so you often have to bank your skill points and save up for the more powerful enhancements.

Gameplay, or at least the concept, is eloquently simple by design but the actual game provides some of the most fiendish puzzles of any game to date. And thanks to a wonderful physics system, there is an unparalleled ability to experiment and solve these navigation, combat, and item collection puzzles in a multitude of ways. I came away from 90% of the puzzles in this game thinking I had “tricked the designers” and had done something “nobody else would ever think of”.

Controls are a bit hit and miss on the Wii U. The tablet-like control is a bit awkward and not nearly as intuitive as waving a Wii-mote around like Amadeus would a wand. Things can get slightly confusing since the character switch controls are assigned to triggers that are adjacent to the primary action controls for each character leading to some undesired character cycling. Thankfully, many of these action controls can also be triggered using the touchscreen. Speaking of which, Trine 2: Director’s Cut can also be played entirely on the smaller portable screen.

If you are playing Trine 2 solo then you can only have one character active at any time, but you are free to switch them out on the fly, even in mid-jump. This presents some creative opportunities for solving a great many of the game’s puzzles. But when you play the game with one or two others all new possibilities present themselves because now you can have two or three active characters working in concert to solve these puzzles. Secondary characters will be relegated to using Wii-motes and Nunchuks, which have their own minor control issues to overcome. Couch co-op is preferred since it’s easier to coordinate in a local group, and thankfully a recent patch has added voice chat support so online co-op is actually a feasible alternative now.

Balancing issues still exist. The wizard and his ability to create a box or plank negates nearly every puzzle in the game when played cooperatively. Instead of playing the game as intended it is much easier to summon an object then have another player ride it to the exit then have that player swap to the wizard and return the favor. It also makes collecting any items scattered high up in the level or reaching impossible ledges a breeze. The camera also needs to pull out a bit more in co-op play. Way too often you are fighting the edge of the screen (and the other players) to grab an object just out of reach.

While worthless in combat, Amadeus is still my preferred character or at least the one I actively play when not required to switch to the other two. His ability to conjure boxes and planks is critical in just getting through the levels, and the more boxes and planks he can summon, the easier it is to get through the game and get a 100% collection. He can also levitate the environment like rocks, logs, leaves, and even these deadly spore-shooting plants that can be aimed at the enemy. You can also affect the environment like jamming a summoned box into the gears of some machine, moving pieces of pipe to create new air streams, or tug on a curled leaf to redirect water flow to irrigate a seed into a climbable plant.

Pontius comes into play whenever the game throws a batch of enemies at you. He can slash his way through most with ease; others require being stunned first, and others require a pounding with his hammer. Zoya is great for targeting enemies perched on ledges or shooting fire arrows into exploding barrels. Her grapple is perfect for zipping up to the top of the screen or swinging across bottomless chasms. And when it comes time to go swimming, you can enjoy three individual air meters, effectively tripling the time you can spend exploring underwater as long as you switch characters.

There is a steady progression in difficulty in both the gameplay and the puzzles yet Trine 2 never gets frustrating thanks to its wonderful healing and checkpoint system. About every two screens scrolled there is a glowing orb that will heal your party and resurrect any dead characters. There were even a few combat encounters that take place on the same screen as one of these orbs, effectively making you indestructible. You’ll never have to repeat a combat or solve a difficult puzzle twice in this game.

As “hinted” at above, Trine 2 is simply gorgeous and makes great use of the powerful graphics on the Wii U. The colors, and the multi-scrolling backgrounds and the sheer level of detail will have you studying the artwork as much as the puzzle designs. The sound design is right up there with the visuals thanks to quality voice acting, mostly by the narrator, but also the three individual characters who will often chime in with their own quips and remarks showcasing their unique personalities and their group dynamic. Ambient environmental sound effects like wind, rain, flowing water, fire, explosions, crumbling rocks, the splash of acid, the roar of a dragon or the bellow of an Ogre king all mix in to create a living fantasy world; one that is uniquely complemented by the magical score composed by Ari Pulkkinen.

The Director’s Cut includes a Wii U exclusive level, the Dwarven Caverns, as well as the previously released Goblin Menace DLC , a standout adventure in its own right where we hook up with Amadeus the Wizard, Pontius the Knight, and Zoya the Thief kicking back in the local pub looking rather bored, but not for long as Goblins invade the bar and our heroes must spring into action once again to save the land and rescue the fair maiden from the invading green menace. Gameplay is pretty much the same as the core game, only now you find yourself in new locations like a burning desert, an oriental city floating on flying mountains, or even worse, the belly of a giant sandworm so visually repulsive you can almost smell it. Each new location is more impressive than the last. While your worst enemy is always the environment and your ability to solve the puzzles, there are more than a few enemy encounters and challenging boss fights, and as before, there are numerous secrets and areas that will require the assistance of a co-op partner.

Trine 2 is a solid 10-12 hour game and you can add in another 3-5 hours for the built-in Goblin Menace DLC. Your mileage may vary based entirely on how easily you can figure out the puzzles it presents and whether or not you are playing alone or co-op. There is a built-in hint system that you can tweak to provide hints after a certain amount of time. Completionists will want to go for the perfect kills and collectibles, both XP jars and hidden treasures, plus many fun and challenging Achievements, and there are interesting Game+ modes to experiment with after your initial trip through the game.

Despite a few control issues, Trine 2 is simply one of the best Wii U games you can play this year. You can check out the demo now available in the eShop if you need further convincing. Just make sure you experience the magic of Trine 2. It is an unforgettable adventure that will keep you glued to your TV for days and weeks to come.

TRINE 2 Screenshots


DmC: Devil May Cry Review – PC

I’m a big Devil May Cry fan and have been playing the series from the very beginning, so I was extremely interested when I heard that Capcom was rebooting the franchise with DmC; even more so when I learned that Ninja Theory was going to be developing this next-gen reimagining. Sure, faithful fans of the series may balk at the subtle tweaks to characters and events, but at the core of DmC lies the insane and stylish combat and mind-blowing action we expect from a Devil May Cry game. Ninja Theory delivers all that and more…

We meet up with Dante after a wild night at the club. A bang on his trailer door quickly turns into a tutorial level to beat all other tutorial levels as a Hunter demon pulls Dante into Limbo and destroys his trailer. Thankfully, Dante manages to put on a few clothes in a classic Mike Myers (Austin Powers) “hide-the-naughty-bits” cutscene, the first of many humorous pop-culture and even self-referencing bits of comedy.

The tutorial does a great job of easing you into the basics of combat, both for your sword, Rebellion and your dual-wielded pistols, Ebony and Ivory. But you’ll constantly be learning as you add more satisfyingly vicious moves to your repertoire and bolster your arsenal with new weapons like the Arbiter, Osiris, and Eryx just to name a few. About six hours into the game you will be switching weapons and cycling through new ones in mid-combo for some of the most creative chaos in recent memory. Stringing together lengthy and original combos fuels your score and your Style ranking, just one part of your overall score and rank for each of the 20 levels in DmC.

With so many weapon types and so many uses for those weapons it can all seem a bit overwhelming, so I was surprised to find just how flowing and intuitive the combat ended up being, even when you throw in some of the more powerful and nastier creatures in the rogues gallery. Your grapple-like device has dual functionality, both in level navigation as well as combat in that you decide whether you want to pull something toward you or pull yourself toward it. This is great for grapple-swinging through areas or yanking a shield away from an enemy, or even launching yourself straight up to fight a Harpy on her own turf.

Weapons have multiple combos with various button sequences that can be triggered from the ground or in the air and then combined with other attacks or even other weapons to create cool combos, and your pistols can be used to extend those combos into some startling scores. And as much as the left and right triggers determine the “polarity” of your grapple, it also chooses your Angelic and Demonic slant to combat; an important factor in some battles as some elemental enemies take more or less damage based on the type of attack. You can yank an enemy toward you then quickly kick him away or launch an enemy straight up then jump up to flurry him with sword slashes or yank him down to the ground and perform an aerial ground pound attack. The options are truly endless, and for the first time in a fighting game I was never relying on any one set of “favorite” tactics. The combat is always evolving dynamically with each encounter.

While combat controls are virtually flawless the same can’t be said for navigation. The camera has a mind of its own and requires constant tweaking as you navigate these eerie 3D worlds. Grappling is made easy by a blue and red color coding system, and for the most part ledge-hopping is easy enough until you factor in the air-dash move, which for some reason is not nearly as responsive as it should be and ends up responsible for numerous death falls, retries, and missed collectibles. While the game is playable with a mouse and keyboard you definitely want to use a gamepad or Xbox 360 controller for the most satisfying results.

DmC is surprisingly long. Expect a solid 12+ hour experience – not bad for a 3D action-platformer in this day and age, and keep in mind that is just my first pass. By design, many of these levels are going to require a second visit as you collect keys, weapons, and new abilities that will grant you access to previously inaccessible areas of the levels in order to find more collectibles like keys, secret doors with mini-game challenges, and Lost Souls struggling to free themselves from the environment. And of course, each level is scored and ranked so you can compare your performance with that of your friends or the entire world on the Steam leaderboards.

DmC looks incredible on the PC with stunning high res graphics that showcase the unique art style and design being used to create these sinister worlds. What DmC lacks in photo-realistic visuals is more than made up for with one of the most stylized graphical presentations since the cel shading in Borderlands or the fantasy art style of Darksiders. Your time in the “real world” is usually limited to cutscenes and story bits, with most of the gameplay taking place in the ethereal world of Limbo, a world overcast in radioactive reds with all sorts of haunting special effects and the occasional smoky image of someone from the “other side” trickling through if you stand still long enough.

Even more interesting is when the game periodically reverts back to the real world and you can see the results of your actions in that world, often shown in televised news clips. Dante and the other members of the cast all look like they stepped out of a gothic graphic novel. Their art design is only trumped by the expert motion-capture used for animating Dante’s endless list of combat moves that somehow bring a physicality and weight to his swinging of a sword or skidding to a halt after landing an air-boost leap.

Another perk of the PC version is the 60fps gameplay that not only offers an incredibly smooth presentation, but also actually enhances the combat experience by allowing for more seamless combos and chain attacks, not to mention improved movement and navigation through these complex worlds. As has become the norm, the pre-rendered cutscenes are the only questionable material when it comes to graphics quality and detail, but the gameplay visuals are outstanding. Screenshots hardly do them justice. You really must see Dante in action to appreciate this experience.

The soundtrack is great if you love death metal and head-banging energetic rock accenting all your bloodletting. There are few moments of quiet that reveal creepy environmental effects, but even when the game takes a dramatic twist the music maintains a certain level of demonic and evil influence. The voice acting is superb; even the intentional over-the-top bits, and I loved all the quips from Dante, both internal dialogue and one-liners directed toward the enemy.

There is no multiplayer for DmC and I am fine with that. While I see a possible co-op game in the future, perhaps featuring Dante’s twin brother, Vergil, this was not the time, and I for one applaud the choice to release a quality single-player experience rather than try to cram some awkward multiplayer modes into the package. With a 12+ hour initial pass and potentially twice that time lying ahead for total completion, achievement hunting, and score competition, DmC will keep you busy for the better part of a month.

DmC is just a few control refinements away from perfection. The combat is massively complex in scope and refreshing intuitive in execution with so many options and so many stunning visuals that sometimes it’s hard to believe you are responsible for what you are seeing on the screen. The evolving combat can quite literally get away from you and take on a life of its own. Normally, by the time you get to the end of one of these games you are just muddling through to see the story resolution, but DmC is one of the few games in the genre that is just as fresh at the finale as it was during the introduction. Whether you are a longtime fan like me or even if this is your first Devil May Cry game, DmC is the first must-play game of 2013 that no action gamer should even consider skipping, and if you have a relatively high-end PC then this is the definitive version, both for graphics quality and combat fluidity.

Old Clockmaker’s Riddle HD Review – iOS

It’s been a while since I’ve played a classic Match Three puzzle game, and it’s been even longer since I played one with any type of purpose or story beyond the simple task of matching three or more panels in a cascading grid of tiles. Old Clockmaker’s Riddle HD does just that in one of the more surprising releases from G5 Entertainment – the folks who normally bring us all those HOA games. The setup is whimsically charming as you find yourself in an old town whose clock tower has started running backwards, sending the village into utter disrepair. It’s your job to restore the town to its former glory by solving more than 50 puzzles as you rebuild the town one building at a time.

As you click off on each available building on the village map you’ll trigger a Match Three puzzle that consists of multicolored gems and jewels. Click on any two adjoining tiles to swap their position to create a sequence of three or more matching tiles. Those tiles will then be removed and new ones will drop down from the top to fill in the space, often creating elaborate and unforeseen cascades of matches. The goal of each puzzle board is to obtain the required amount of “clock hands”. These are icons that are buried in some, but not all, of the jewels, adding a bid of strategy in your color-matching process.

Depending on whether you have chosen Timed or Relaxed mode will tweak the intensity of the game, but only slightly. Even when playing in Timed mode I never felt the pressure of the clock, and I never lost a board because of expired time. As you get further into the game new obstacle tiles will start to invade the grid and you’ll need to rely on a dozen various upgrades and five magic tools to complete the levels.

One thing I particularly enjoyed where the special challenge levels that interlace with the main game puzzles. These challenges require you to solve specially laid out puzzle boards in a limited number of moves. From what I can tell there is usually only one (maybe two) ways to solve each of these and it will likely take you several attempts before you stumble upon the proper sequence of moves to complete the puzzle. These were some of the most rewarding moments of the game for me; especially when I did a board without succumbing to the hint button down in the corner.

The game looks great with colorful graphics in the puzzles and a charming art style for the village map and all the encounters between rounds when you go shopping or learn more about the town in a narrative cutscene. It may seem extraneous to have such an elaborate backstory for a simple Match Three game, but that just makes Old Clockmaker’s Riddle HD shine that much brighter. The $7 unlock price seems a bit steep for a puzzle game that should cost no more than $4, so you may want to wait for a sale or price drop, otherwise this is a great diversion for those looking for a moderately challenging game best played in small doses.

Art Mogul HD Review – iOS

Art Mogul HD may just be the most original game I’ve played on my iPad in the past year. Part hidden object, part strategy, and part simulation, this game will have you traveling the world bidding on and hopefully acquiring various pieces of artwork. Visit seven cities like San-Francisco, New York, London, Paris, Saint-Petersburg, Shanghai, and Tokyo in search of 430 pictures that you can use to populate your own art galleries. With more than a thousand objects to find and three Art Museums to buy, creating your own art empire has never been so much fun.

If I had to say anything bad about the game it would be its lack of variety. Not that the game is short on content, but it’s safe to say that once you have an hour or two invested in Art Mogul you have pretty much seen and done everything this game has to offer and now you will be repeating that process until you dominate the art world. This makes the initial free purchase a great way to test the water before you lay down your $5 to unlock the full experience.

Art Mogul is vast, both in its content offer and the relative freedom it allows in how you approach and play the game. You are given set objectives, but how you complete them is surprisingly open. You decide which city to visit and whether you search for art at an official gallery or risk the chance of purchasing a forgery as an Auction House or local Café. Depending on where you choose to shop dictates the next stage of the game.

Art Gallery purchase and sale prices are determined by finding key elements within the specific piece of art. The better you do the better price you can lock in. Café shopping can be even more challenging as two copies of the painting will be displayed and you need to find all the differences to ensure you aren’t purchasing a forgery. The Auction House really gets intense as you are put on a timer and required to find a specific object in order to win the bid.

There is a nice level of strategy and simulation buried within Art Mogul and as buy low and sell high and decide which paintings to keep to populate your own museums and art galleries. There is also a surprisingly bit of tension when you knowingly try to sell a forgery and hope the purchaser doesn’t see through the deception.

Art Mogul HD has a sophisticated art style that fits with the pompous demeanor you would expect from snobby art dealers. The 400+ paintings are spectacular and there is great art for the city locations, menus, and various other interface screens. There is some pleasant background music in some screens but most of the puzzle portions of the game are played in silence.

If you are looking to experience a new take on the hidden object location genre and mix it up with a bit of strategy and business simulation then Art Mogul HD may just be the breath of fresh air you’ve been waiting for. It might get a bit “grindy” a few hours in but if played in short doses, Art Mogul should provide you with plenty of hours of engaging fun and quite possibly give you a new appreciation for the world of art.