Fire Emblem Awakening
Publisher: Nintendo (2013)
Rating: Teen (alcohol reference, fantasy violence, mild language, mild suggestive themes)
Special report by RPG correspondent Jonathan Hawk
This is the thirteenth
entry in the Fire Emblem franchise, a series largely unknown to North America until its characters appeared in Super Smash Bros. Melee (GameCube, 2001)
. Simply put, Awakening
is a delightfully addictive tactical role-playing game. The story, revealed via action-packed cut-scenes, follows a royal family during a time of strife, cultists, and zombies. Awakening
offers no towns to explore, no hidden items to find in someone's cupboard, and no vague conversations with villagers. What it does offer is a load of strategy/combat action at interesting locations like cliffsides, flooded forests, and catacombs. The characters are colorful and likeable, but often rendered with no feet
, which is just plain weird. You have the choice of Japanese or English language, but the game lacks true spoken dialogue. Instead characters sport a dozen or so canned expressions and exclamations displayed during combat and their witty conversations. The musical score is stellar, contributing to the atmosphere of each stage (a five
-disc soundtrack was released in Japan). The game's class system allows you to carefully mix and match unique talents for each of your units. There's no armor to worry about, only weapons. In combat, there are lots of factors to account for during each turn. Melee weapons (swords, spears, and axes) have a rock-paper-scissors dynamic. Some weapons deal bonus damage to certain units, so never bring a pegasus to an archery fight. As units fight in close proximity, they become friends and in some cases can fall in love and even get married!
These relationships provide in-combat bonuses, allowing for dual attacks or parrying damage. On top of that, the children
from these marriages (!) actually travel back in time
(!!) to help you fight. You can flex your strategy muscles by choosing which of your first generation units get hitched and pass on their desirable skills. Now, if the Fire Emblem franchise is known for one thing, it's permanent death
. When a unit dies, they're gone for good. Fortunately for newcomers and casual players, Awakening
includes a mode where death only lasts the duration of the current fight. The game prompts you to save your progress after combat, and there's even a quick-save feature available mid-fight. The menus are polished and the data screens offer a wealth of information at your fingertips - literally! The touch screen features all inventory and unit stats, and you can tap on anything
for a description. A whole cadre of DLC is available, providing extra maps for a buck or two each. You can also fight and recruit characters from basically every
past Fire Emblem title for free. Your 3DS StreetPass feature can share 10 units (of your choice) with other nearby Awakening
players. The local two-player mode isn't terribly good and feels tacked on. I've played Fire Emblem Awakening (with perma-death on) for a combined two-hundred
hours. Suffice to say I would regard this game alone as a perfectly valid
reason to invest in a 3DS. © Copyright 2014 The Video Game Critic.
Frozen: Olaf's Quest
Publisher: Disney (2013)
Providing the comic relief in the movie Frozen, Olaf the snowman is one of the more endearing Disney characters in recent memory. I reviewed Olaf's Quest during an actual blizzard - talk about perfect timing! The opening stages feature snowy hills, ice-encrusted trees, and scenic mountain peaks looming in the distance. The night stages look gorgeous with lighted cottages nestled into the distant hills. Olaf is pretty small on the screen so you don't really get a good sense of his comedic body language. The 3D isn't used in any meaningful way but the soothing musical score is absolutely first-rate. If only the gameplay lived up to the lofty production values. Your goal is to collect items such as snowflakes, flowers, and mugs of hot chocolate in 60 short stages. Most run well under a minute, and some under ten seconds!
Olaf has the ability to double-jump, hover, and even toss his head. When performing a ground-pound he yells "Watch out for my butt!" Some stages let him roll into an unstoppable snowball, crushing everything in his path. What's lacking from Olaf's Quest is any sense of tension or challenge. The stages aren't timed and I don't think you can die. In the warm Spring stages you'd expect Olaf to be in danger of melting but nope!
He doesn't face a single adversary until a wolf appears more than 30 stages in! Collecting stuff rewards you with clothing options like hats, scarves, and gloves. Trying to collect every single item might provide a slight
challenge, but there's not much of a pay-off. Normally I'd recommend a game like Olaf's Quest to young children but frankly I suspect it would even put them
to sleep. © Copyright 2016 The Video Game Critic.
Kid Icarus Uprising
Publisher: Nintendo (2012)
Rating: Everyone 10+
The original Kid Icarus
(NES, 1986) is a cult classic known for its extreme difficulty. Uprising resurrects the series but takes it in a whole new direction. This is more of a rapid-fire shooter than a platformer. The hero is an angel named Pit guided by Lady Palutena (Goddess of Light). This light-hearted adventure features both flying and on-foot stages. In the air you'll vanquish jellyfish, birds, dragons, and random creatures that are hard to describe. The stylus aims, the directional pad moves Pit, and the left shoulder button fires. It feels a lot like Space Harrier as you weave through ruins while frantically blasting away at floating eyeballs. The sense of speed is terrific as you plummet through clouds, skim over vast expanses of land, and plunge into deep ravines. In one amazing scene the ocean parts and you fly between the two huge walls of water. The ground stages are less exciting. As you wander through castles, mazes, and space stations you "flick" the stylus to swing the camera. It feels intuitive enough, but it's imprecise and occasionally disorienting. It's hard to tell if enemies are behind you, so it's good that the melee button automatically targets anything nearby. Using both the control pad and stylus at the same time causes the system to shift your hand, making it easy to lose focus. To alleviate this problem Nintendo included a small black stand that keeps the system steady on a tabletop. It's not perfect, but it definitely helps. Even so, I could only enjoy this game in small doses. The tongue-in-cheek dialogue is a pleasant surprise. Nintendo must have hired a writer for this, because the constant banter between Pit and Palutena is amusing and sometimes very funny. Pit: "Wait - if you have an all-seeing eye, why can't you
find Pandora's location?" Palutena: "Because of my slightly botched
laser eye surgery." Pit: "Are you messing with me again?" Pay close attention and you'll catch characters making subtle references to other video games. Uprising does retain some elements from the original game like floating red eyeballs and an Eggplant Wizard boss. Before each stage you have the ability to bet hearts to increase difficulty and rewards. Despite its control issues, Kid Icarus Uprising is hard to dislike, and when was the last time you played a game with quotable lines? © Copyright 2012 The Video Game Critic.
Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, The
Publisher: Nintendo (2013)
Rating: Everyone (fantasy violence)
When I started this game and heard that classic triforce refrain, I wept openly. Not really, but I did have an emotional reaction. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
(SNES, 1992) may be the single greatest video game of all time
, and Link Between Worlds is cast of the exact same mold. This captivating sequel retains the same overhead visual style, control scheme, and memorable musical score. Heck, even the layout of the land mirrors the original game. You can argue the merits of 3D Zelda titles, but I think the overhead view suits the series best. Not only does it simplify the controls (no camera to fiddle with) but the world is confined enough that you can explore every nook and cranny (and you'll actually want
to). The 3D effects really do spice up the experience. Especially in the multi-layered dungeons, the depth perception helps you discern the height of ledges and floating monsters. The only time I switched to 2D was during boss battles, which tend to be more hectic. One fantastic innovation introduced by Link Between Worlds is the ability to transform into a 2D image and move laterally along walls. Not only is it genuinely fun, but it opens up a new dimension of puzzle and exploration possibilities. Artfully crafted, the game gradually introduces items (like the devastating hammer) and new locations (such as Lorule, Hyrule's "bizarro" world). Strategically-placed weathervanes facilitate both saving and quick travel. The game plays like a dream, and I don't even mind when I die and have to replay a dungeon. So what's not to like? Well, there's a heck
of a lot of item swapping and teleporting between worlds. The idea of "renting" your items is bogus. In certain areas it's hard to judge heights - even with the 3D on. Even so, time has a way of melting away as you immerse youself in The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds. It's probably the best Zelda title in 20 years. © Copyright 2014 The Video Game Critic.
Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D
Publisher: Nintendo (2015)
Rating: Everyone 10+
It's time someone said what a lot of people are thinking: Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask is not very good!
Originally released in 2000 as the follow-up to Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
(Nintendo 64, 1998), this bizarre sequel relies heavily on confusing gimmicks. Majora's Mask is also very dark - and in more ways than one. During the disturbing opening scene a maniacal freak in a mask casts a spell on Link, giving him the frightening appearance of a Deku creature. The hub of the game is a town in a continual state of counting down 72 hours to doom. Time can be magically reset to the beginning but at the cost of losing items and rupees. The time of day changes frequently and after dark shops close and it becomes hard to see. At some point you obtain a song that lets you slow down time to a more reasonable pace. The game keeps you on a tight schedule, providing you with a notebook to keep track of important events and appointments. How is this supposed to be fun? You don masks to activate special abilities, but the masks themselves look creepy as hell. Some of the mechanics of this game seem very arbitrary, like having to remove your mask just to plant a seed. The camera angles are occasionally deceptive, especially in the overhead stealth areas. That said, Majora's Mask does have flashes of classic Zelda charm. There are some clever dungeon designs and the game provides regular clues to keep nudging you along. The automatic jumping is nice and using the 3DS touch screen to assign items to buttons is a snap. The controls are precise but I found myself contorting my hands to perform certain sword attacks. The 3D graphics are novel at first but I ended up shutting them off. The game's Nintendo 64 origins occasionally show through, like when you can't read a poster because it's so pixelated up close. The audio is surprisingly effective, delivering a surround sound quality you don't expect from a portable. Diehard Zelda fans who couldn't get enough of Ocarina are sure to relish the challenge and complexity of Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D. Personally I found reviewing this game to be a bit of a chore. © Copyright 2015 The Video Game Critic.
Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes
Publisher: Nintendo (2015)
In 2004 Nintendo released an oddball title called The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures. It came packed with a special cable connecting the Game Boy Advance to the GameCube. I purchased the game but never got far enough to write a proper review. Awkward, confusing, and unpopular, Four Swords quickly faded into obscurity. Tri Force Heroes tries to resurrect the same ill-conceived formula with no more success. It's possible to complete the game's 32 puzzle-laden dungeons with friends, but I stuck to the single-player mode. At a glance Tri Force Heroes looks promising. It's got the classic overhead perspective, whimsical characters, precision controls, delicate music, and familiar sounds. But unlike most Zelda games where you explore a gradually-expanding world, the game boils down to a laundry list of chores - whoops I meant to say "challenges". These team-oriented missions require you to use the touch pad to toggle between three Links: green, red, and blue. Only one Link is "alive" at a given time, with the others assuming the form of lifeless scarecrows called "doppels". Creepy!
Speaking of creepy, the king looks like that plastic-faced freak from the old Burger King commercials! [shudder]
The key mechanic in Tri Force Heroes is the ability to form "totems" by stacking characters. This allows you to toss partners to higher ledges, which is pretty critical since you can't jump. It also gives the guy on top a clear shot at targets situated at a particular height. It all sounds good on paper (does it? does it really?
) but in practice it's no fun. You're constantly swapping characters and it's hard to get them stacked in the proper arrangement. If the character on top is trying to shoot a target but isn't lined up perfectly, you'll need to switch to the guy at the bottom to reposition the group. Especially when trying to perform a timed action, juggling characters proves tedious and frustrating. The general design of this game is lacking, with the town hub basically just serving a place to change outfits. The dungeons and bosses are cleverly designed but there's little sense of exploration or discovery. Or joy. I also gave the online mode a try but was unimpressed. One of my partners had all these special abilities - including being able to swim through lava! Needless to say he was always going way ahead, grabbing all the treasure and solving most the puzzles on his own. Tri Force Heroes may look like a real Zelda game, but in the illustrious history of the franchise this will be lucky to achieve footnote status. © Copyright 2016 The Video Game Critic.
Lego Pirates of the Caribbean
Publisher: Disney (2011)
Rating: Everyone 10+
I was pretty high on the console version of Lego Pirates of the Caribbean, but this portable edition is actually a better game. All four Pirates of the Caribbean films are represented and fully unlocked after you complete the first few stages. You'll explore tropical environments, solve simple puzzles, and engage in hand-to-hand combat. It's shallow, light-hearted fun best enjoyed in small doses. The stages are different from the console versions, and they are less complex and easier to complete. You still toggle between characters, only one is shown at a time, resulting in less clutter on-screen. There are some new elements like rowboat challenges, the chance to control a parrot, and the ability to hit multiple targets with one gunshot. I liked playing while wearing earphones because the tic-tic-tic sound of collecting cogs is pleasing to the ears. You'll also notice the crisp sound effects of churning water, clanking swords, crackling fire, and even sipping tea. There are some brief load times, and the cut-scenes look a little grainy. The stages are shorter and less frustrating however, making this a nice title for those looking for some casual fun. © Copyright 2012 The Video Game Critic.
Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon
Publisher: Nintendo (2013)
Dark Moon is the long-awaited follow-up to the Luigi's Mansion
(GameCube, 2001). As in the original game, Luigi creeps through haunted houses while stunning ghosts with his flashlight and vacuuming them up with his "Poltergust 5000". The scares are minimal, but the decrepit scenery and organ music really bring out the Halloween theme. The 3D graphics give the furniture a plush look and add depth to the transparent ghosts. The act of catching ghosts is a lot like fishing, and I love the new mechanism that lets you snap them up with a well-timed button press. Burning massive spider webs with fire is awesome, and the thought-provoking puzzles are satisfying. You can tell the designers were real pros, gradually introducing new concepts and building upon them. The small scale of the game is refreshing, since it's possible to explore every little nook and cranny of each cozy little room. Little details make all the difference. In the boss encounter with the giant spider, it's hilarious how the spider panics when he sees fire headed towards his web. Often you can peek through cracks and windows to spy on ghosts causing mischief in the next room over. Unfortunately the idea of moving around the system to adjust your viewing angle doesn't work well, as you tend to lose focus of the 3D effect. Another bone of contention is how the game only saves between missions. There were times when I would pick up this game at bedtime and end up having to play an hour just to reach the next save point! That said, Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon is probably the most addictive title I've played on the 3DS. Sleep can wait. After all, these ghosts aren't going to catch themselves. © Copyright 2013 The Video Game Critic.