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Disney Epic Mickey (Wii)
Disney Epic Mickey (Wii)
Offered by Game Trade Online
Price: £13.51

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Sinister Reviews: Epic Mickey, 3 Mar. 2012
The premise of Epic Mickey is an interesting one, and not one just for Disney aficionados. Mickey, the obvious protagonist and Disney's flagship character, discovers the world of the Wasteland through an accident in the Sorceror's laboratory. Here reside the characters and designs who filled Disney's early cartoons before the arrival of feature films, and the appearance of a certain Mouse caused much of Uncle Walt's early work to be forgotten and neglected.Prime in this world is Oswald the Lucky Rabbit; Walt Disney's first creation whilst working at the studios of Universal, and yet one of Disney's most little-known creations until the House of Mouse re-acquired Oswald from Universal Studios in 2006. The titular rabbit governs the Wasteland and its inhabitants, until Mickey's clumsiness in the laboratory unleashes a dark evil known as The Blot: Mickey must then go on to rescue the Wasteland from the darkness and return to his own world. The `dark' theme runs through the whole of Epic Mickey - conceiving a world where Mickey is no longer the hero but the `villain'; blamed for the fall in popularity of Oswald and his brethren and cause of their eviction to the Wasteland, all but forgotten. It's certainly an interesting twist on Mickey's usual role as flawless hero; but despite the slight darkness which is cast over Epic Mickey (at least compared to Disney's usual, cheery output), it's by no means the Magic Kingdom revolution that the title arguably implies.

The accident leaves Mickey with the sorceror's Magic Brush, allowing him to `paint' the landscape and characters, or `thin' them out with turpentine; controlled using the Wii remote and pointer: Removing or adding scenery is then used to reach a previously-unreachable area, tackle enemies, reveal passageways, or fill in a cog to fix a broken ferris wheel to allow you to reach the top; simply point where you want to paint/thin, and hold B to fire paint or Z to fire thinner. When it's used to navigate a path from through a level or environment it works delightfully, and for those who stray from the beaten track, deft use of the brush will reveal treasures such as collectable medals and Epic Mickey`s currency, E-tickets. Rarely does progress feel impeded by the way past an obstacle being obscured or unclear, though don't expect to expend too much brainpower in discerning the route upon which you're shepherded through the level. It's feels a shame that there's not `more' that can be done with the brush: There's just the tiniest suspicion that the only thing holding back levels from possessing more interactivity is not the lack of imagination of the level designer or puzzle mechanics, but the limitations of the Wii console. Movement between the Mean Street U.S.A. hub and other levels takes the form of a variety of 2-D platform levels, each set in a previous Mickey Mouse cartoon environment (e.g. Steamboat Willie, Clock Cleaners, etc.). They're glorified loading screens, and whilst relatively pleasant on the first run though, since you're obliged to run through each time you travel from the hub to level or vice versa, you'll be rather sick of the sight of them fairly soon.

Manoeuvring Mickey around the Wasteland is (largely) a piece of cake, then; if hampered by possibly the worst camera that's ever been witnessed in a third-person/action-adventure game: Sometimes it feels like it's pointed at anything but Mickey himself, and becomes even more of a handful when you're also intending to use in combination with the Magic Brush and the Wii Remote's pointer. Indeed, there are times when you'll be controlling Mickey through a level and he's not even visible on-screen, or spraying paint all over the scenery except what you're explicitly aiming at with the Wii Remote; to say nothing of the camera's ability to radically change position just as you're leaping to the next platform, causing Mickey to leap suicidally into a sea of turpentine and die a horrible, thinned-out death. Amongst the rest of the game's top-quality production values, it's a catastrophic crash back to Earth; unforgivable when titles like Super Mario Galaxy are amongst your competition.
Epic Mickey is yet one more game that strives to spark the sentiments of true freedom of character progression, letting the player shape the hero's actions, personality and lean towards the forces of light or dark. Where this works in the Fable universe where your character essentially starts off as a blank canvas, trying to implant such sentiments on Mickey, a character which is already the absolute embodiment of everything that is `good' and metaphor for the American dream, these efforts ultimately collapse. It's also never clear who Mickey's meant to be `fighting' - is it the Mad Doctor, who remains the baddie in the first half; the Shadow Blot, who Mickey ultimately battles at the finale but isn't mentioned beforehand; or Oswald, the counterfoil to Mickey's purity? It underlines the ambiguity that is rife through Epic Mickey, a lack of cohesion or direction in story; a wonderful title that's not been permitted the opportunity to show enough innovation.

With some solid controls, novel and (usually) entertaining gameplay and some top-notch art and design, there's a lot of fun to be had with Epic Mickey. So why does it fall so short? Maybe it's the feeling that it's only a shadow of what could have been: If those initial ideas had translated to an edgy re-invention of all things Mouse, then I'd be whistling a different tune. As it is, it feels soul-less, as if everything that could have made Epic Mickey great was cut out; leaving just a cold, empty body where a beating heart and individual personality should. So, what we end up with is, much like those who roam the Wasteland: Heroes whose true calling has long been forgotten, and so now merely go through the motions with a glazed expression, and no beating heart.

Super Paper Mario (Wii)
Super Paper Mario (Wii)
Offered by EVERGAME
Price: £20.11

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Super Paper Mario - 7/10, 19 Oct. 2011
Super Paper Mario was one of the first games I purchased for my Wii back in early 2008. Having never played any release from the Paper Mario franchise (which at present includes the self-titled N64 release, Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door on the GameCube and a forthcoming adventure on 3DS) but having been an avid onlooker from the confines of my Mario-free PlayStation 2, I jumped at the chance to join in with the Plumber's current-gen incarnation. Where the previous two releases were more straightforward Mushroom Kingdom RPGs with comedic overtones, Super Paper Mario takes the `Super' from Super Mario Bros. and transplants RPG elements onto the traditional 2-D platformer; melding some nifty side-scrolling action across eight, stylised worlds. The relatively servicable storyline sees Mario, Luigi, Peach and Bowser joining forces (and all becoming playable) to defeat a new antagonist and save the worlds of both dark and light. All too often, games relying to heavily on mash-ups of contrasting genres fall flat or become a jack-of-all-trades but a master of none: Super Paper Mario manages to juggle genres with aplomb, and ignoring a few mere fumbles, manages to keep things in the air until the curtains close.

Where Super Mario Bros. and its subsequent incarnations have (largely) kept a straight face and kept to the usual `Bowser kidnaps Peach, Mario has to save the World' tack, offshoots like the Mario & Luigi series on GBA/DS and Paper Mario have always shuffled things up and tipped the Mushroom Kingdom on its head. Super Paper Mario is no exception, and the first hint that things are amiss is the total world-spanning cataclysm and the appearance of the game's villain, Count Bleck, to gatecrash Peach's inevitable forced-marriage to Bowser. Some evil wizardry later, Bleck rips a Void into the universe, sending (unwlling) bride and groom, along with wedding-crashers Mario & Luigi, through to inter-dimensional reality and the universe beyond. Waking up in the dimensional world of Flipside, Mario must then collect a total of eight pure hearts in order to open the door back to reality, each one hidden at the end of a four-level World. All four main characters (yup, even Bowser) are playable at some point or other; with the ability to swap out between them to access each character's special abilities, including Mario's dimension-flip (more on that later), Luigi's super-jump, Bowser's fire-breathing and Peach's umbrella glide. In addition to the character-specific abilities, Mario is joined by a wide array of flunkies, known as Pixls, which provide Mario with further powers: Cudge, who can turn into a wieldable hammer; Boomer, who can turn into a bomb to destroy scenery or enemies; or Fleep, who can flip enemies and confuse them for a short time. Efficient use of a mixture of Pixl powers, character abilities and deft platforming skills are required to navigate the thirty-odd levels on offer; clever switching between both characters and Pixls to navigate levels keeps it interesting and exciting, and Nintendo's superlative level design is out in force to form a learning curve that's almost perfect in pitch.

The main meat of Super Paper Mario takes place in the two-dimensional platforming plane much like its Super Mario Bros. brethren, with enemies dispatched with a deft leap and a thump on the bonce, and everything controlled with just the Wii Remote alone; tilted to form a familiar replica of the NES controller of old. What differentiates the action this time, though, is the matter of Hit Points (HP); with both the playable character and monsters having attributes of health, strength, defence and the other usual statistics mainly reserved for stat-heavy RPG grinds. This all works rather well, with weak enemies (e.g. Goombas) being taken out in one hit, whilst stronger baddies (e.g. Hammer Bros.) taking two or three head-stamps to dispatch. A simple levelling system upgrades your attack strength and HP, with Mario losing HP (varying according to both the player's and enemy's stats) for walking into a monster or landing on spikes. You never really need to think about all of the statistics at all during play; simply focus on bashing heads in and kicking Koopa shells toward your foes. Plucking more from RPG titles, there's also an array of items that Mario can collect/pick up/buy and carry; restoring HP in the form of a Shroom Shake, or dealing damage with attack items. It all works rather well, and it's never much of a distraction from the main flow of the game. At the end of each World there's the obligatory boss-battle, with these nasties being able to absorb considerably more damage before keeling over, but they usually require merely repeated performance of a particular move or ability at a weak spot and so never put up much of a fight. Where there's little to challenge the player in the main game, the bosses will mark the only major hurdles; and even then, it unlikely you'll ever see be completely KO'd and be directed to a disheartening `Game Over' screen.

While we've discussed the special abilities of those around him, we've not yet touched on the talents of Mario himself. The Paper Mario series has always seen everything being flattened to two dimensions - like a paper puppet show with characters, places and items all formed from 2-D prints; while that's still the case here, the magic verb here is: `Flip'. Mario's status as `The Hero' comes with the added bonus of being able to `flip' into the third dimension: While everything in the 2-D plane looks like an updated, cartoony version of Super Mario Bros., flipping to 3-D shows the world and characters as the cut-out characters they are, and there's nimble application of the `Flip' to solve puzzles, navigate past blockages in the 2-D world or find treasures hidden behind cut-out scenery. The curse of flipping, alas, is a limited time Mario can spend out of the 2-D plane; with a timer at the top of the screen counting down until Mario receives damage when it is consumed - it's an ingenious touch, and there's some excellent level design across the whole of Super Paper Mario to ensure that it doesn't go to waste. To boot, everything looks fantastic; whether you're navigating through the vast and varied worlds, the hub towns of Flipside/Flopside or whizzing through pipes to bonus areas - the cartoon style is to die for, and the character models for the multitude of nasties are wonderfully unique and varied: It's as much a treat for the eyes as the thumbs, and each world and level is painted to a different theme or scenery that all remain distinct, ranging from the familiar rolling hills and mushrooms of the first levels (which bring to mind Mario's first NES outing); to the 8-bit world where everything is pixels and beeps; to the coldness of outer-space, where Mario dons a fish-bowl space helmet and rides a baby squid in a side-scrolling space shooter. All of it is a delight.

The main plot, and context of all these inter-dimensional shenanigans, is not itself a yarn-ripper, but a perfectly serviceable means to an end of dumping Mario into a brand new world that isn't the familiar Mushroom Kingdom, and giving him the cause to bounce around eight new worlds to locate eight new shiny treasures. Those shiny treasures are Pure Hearts, with one obtained for successfully completing a world, and unlocking the next world available from the level hub in Flipside. Given Super Paper Mario`s RPG leanings, it's no surprise that there's a lot of exposition detailed by cutscenes and in-game dialogue: While the story is adequate and fairly light-hearted, there's a slight over-emphasis on dishing out unnecessary plotpoints and handling superfluous chit-chat with various NPCs; gloriously witty though it may be. Marriage of the immediacy of Super Mario Bros. with typically plot-driven RPG mechanics serve only to slow down the rapid, platforming action and offer unnecessary barriers to the otherwise cracking pace offered by the main action. It's not something that irks immediately, but by the end, you'll be left feeling as though you just want to get on and beat that next boss rather than having to wade through several minutes of chatter (with said boss, no less) before you regain control and stomp its head in. Gratefully, the dialogue is well-written, humourous and light-hearted, but that doesn't stop it from spinning out the game experience longer than anticipated.

It's not the only example of that, either - some concepts are relied upon too much to forcibly mix things up and attempting to pad out the game from a short platform experience to a more healthy 20-25 hours to suit the `RPG' aspect more. Super Paper Mario is the ideal concept for a short, sweet platform game; one that doesn't begin to run out of tricks near the end, one that tries to do something a little different, and one that doesn't outstay its welcome. As it is though, you can almost see the edges of the game bulging at the seams where the experience has been forcedly extended, and it reduces the impact of the sweet, simple mechanics that it should have been. A fine example is the `sweat shop' level, where Mario must physically run a treadmill in order to earn enough coins to hand in his P45; completely unnecessary to the storyline and shoe-horned in to blatantly wring out the game experience. Still, if you plough through the main game and are still left wanting more, then there's an array of collectables (which also improve battle abilities) to hunt down; including monster cards (representing the bestiary of the adventure), treasures hidden on a series of `X marks the spot' maps and a couple of Pixls which are not fundamental to completing the game but whom can be unlocked with some side-questing malarkey. If you're the impatient type, then Super Paper Mario can be finished in a good 12-15 hours; spend more time exploring and hoarding EXP, then you can easily double that. The game never provides much of a challenge, and this can be amplified even further if you're efficient at levelling and trounce as many nasties as possible along the way.

That's not to say that it isn't enjoyable, or that `hardcore' gamers won't find much to like here - There's some fantastic action here, coupled with a relatively enjoyable story, and some of the character interactions will have you laughing out loud or cackling as it pulls in both comedy and references/parodies with gay abandon. Ignoring the main team of Mario, Luigi, Bowser and Peach, the new characters introduced are interesting and talkative, and the rather bland main antagonist of Count Bleck aside, his henchmen possess oodles of personality and charm. The bright, breezy levels combined with the gameplay seem to propel Super Paper Mario along relatively swiftly, even if the experience is held together by a rather weak plot and some game-extending mechanics duct-taped on. There's also the feeling that more could have been made of the hub towns of Flipside/Flopside, but there's really little to entertain there aside from locating the next Heart Pillar into which Mario must insert the most recent Pure Heart to unlock the next world. Sure, there's the usual range of RPG shops and taverns, but instead of bustling cities which are full of excitement for the next available world, they're just drab interludes to the main action, and which regularly become a chore to navigate. Which, in fact, rather sums up Super Paper Mario: As a concept, it works staggeringly well, but it would've worked so much better if it was a short, bouncy adventure rather than a protracted experience that attempts to deviate too far from the regular platformer tack but wants to retain such punchiness. It comes highly recommended, but with the warning that, once the initial charm wears off and you start to see the same themes recurring and same puzzles being recycled, that excitement will drop off near the end. That said, if punching coin blocks and pouncing on monster's heads to earn EXP sounds like your kind of bag and you're in possession of a funny bone, then you should fit right in.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 2, 2011 9:02 AM GMT

The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (Nintendo DS)
The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (Nintendo DS)
Offered by Games.C
Price: £49.90

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks - 8/10, 11 Oct. 2011
The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks follows on from the previous Zelda/DS incarnation, The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, which I'll happily go on record saying is easily the DS' finest hour and one of the most inventive Zelda games in the history of the series. In between the awesomeness, however, nestled many flaws that plagued the experience: The endless sailing required to travel from place to place, the short lifespan of the main adventure, the repetitive trawls through the Temple of the Ocean King after every couple of hours' gameplay, the lack of substantial sidequests; it was certainly a Zelda quest full of character and charm, but in terms of substance, it was unfortunately left wanting. Two years wiser, Nintendo stepped back from their palace of gold to take a good look at the series and propose a Zelda adventure that doesn't just retread old glories (like Twilight Princess did with Ocarina of Time; and Phantom Hourglass continued from Wind Waker) but instead proposes its own quirks and oddities. Sure, Zelda gets kidnapped as per usual and Hyrule is once again in peril of succumbing to evil forces, but not in usual way; yes, you've got the same old boomerang and the same old sword 'n' shield, but with some completely original weapons that make great use of the DS' innovative controls; and while the traditional Zelda dungeon mechanic is retrodden, the new features it weaves into it balance 'familiarity' and 'originality' with ease. So, Nintendo have gone against all tradition and listened to player's criticisms and troubles by attempting to 'fix' what many felt Phantom Hourglass lacked, while honing those features that it excelled at, right? Well, with a couple of exceptions, yes.

Events take place around 100 years after Phantom Hourglass (and involving alternate descendants of Link and Tetra from Phantom Hourglass), where the land has dried up to reveal the ancient Spirit Tracks that allow the train system to thrive across Hyrule. In usual Zelda stylee, the Princess herself has gotten kidnapped by a guy who is too cool for just one hat in order to resurrect his Dark Master, Malladus. Link arrives as a young train engineer who, aided by the spirit of Princess Zelda herself, must travel across Hyrule with the ancient Spirit Train, reviving the Spirit Tracks to allow him to contact the remaining masters of the ancient Lokomos tribe which may help restore the Spirit Tower and recover Zelda's body from the clutches of Malladus. So far, so straightforward. Gameplay retains the essential Zelda spirit (pun definitely intended) so that those familiar with the series, or the vague 3D RPG/adventure genre should have no trouble getting to grips with the basic mechanic. Indeed, the controls are as simple to pick as ever, and the game is so confident in this regard that it largely dispenses with a tutorial for each new action or item acquired; letting the player get a feel for how it operates themselves without spoiling the fun of discovering its potential. The main story is more developed than its predecessor, and Tracks will last a good 20 hours of charming main storyline, excluding a nice dose of side-quests for those who're still hungry for more. For those hungry for more minigames, how about catching rabbits with a giant, train-mounted net? Or collecting stamps from every new town, village or dungeon you descend upon? Treasure-collection returns to allow upgrades to the train car, and there's also a heap of escort side-quests to transport various NPCs and items across Hyrule on the back of your train which further unlocks regions of Hyrule with new Spirit Tracks.

In both looks and operation, Spirit Tracks resembles a slightly more refined Phantom Hourglass, and it's nice to see some familiar sights in the sequel: The appearance of Linebeck, the pirate captain; familiar tribes and locations, like the Anouki and the Gorons; a stained-glass depiction of Tetra in Hyrule Castle. The 'notebook' mechanic is even more integrated than in the original, where 'secret' maps can be memorised and complex combinations jotted down; making Hyrule, and its many temples and dungeons, just as much a joy to traverse as it ever was. To boot, the range of NPCs in Hyrule's vast green fields (and where Phantom Hourglass was all blue, Tracks is all very green) seems to reach ever-charming levels. The key new item in this game is, like the Ocarina of Time and Wind Waker that preceded it, musical; taking the form of the Spirit Pipes, which make full use of the DS' microphone for blowing as one would a set of pan pipes, while moving the pipes left and right with the touchscreen to change the pitch. Despite around six songs to 'collect' which can be operated in normal play (such as to 'reveal' an item hidden underground), the only other operations are to 'jam' with the Lokomos elders in order to revive the Spirit Tracks in a new zone; where you're forced to copy the rhythm and mimic the tune. The overall effect is a criminal underuse of a mechanic you'll only ever critically need a handful of times in order to finish the game. The other new items - the Sand Wand (where the temptation to rhyme 'wand' with 'sand' is inescapable), the Whirlwind and the Whip- all nestle among the familiar items without disturbance, but also instigate key puzzles revolving around their mastery. The mix of 'familiar' and 'unique' in such balance keeps it fresh for the Zelda veterans (though not since Majora's Mask, or perhaps the visual style of Wind Waker, has Link's adventure seemed so fresh) while still offering newbies the much-honed 'core' of the series that's kept it ahead of its competitors.

The constant presence of multi-puzzle dungeons still permeates Hyrule, all filled with all kinds of nefarious traps and baddies that'll challenge both newcomers and veterans: Baddies that emit purple death clouds which you 'blow' away with the Whirlwind, traps requiring quick actions and fast item-changes, creepy giant hands that chase you when you're carried the Boss Key (somewhat resembling the Master Hand from Super Smash Bros., and no less disturbing). Just as you'd expect, Zelda's main hook of classy dungeon design is as visible as ever, and fighty-action-puzzle bits are numerous enough to keep you interested but not descend into grindy dungeon crawl too swiftly. Less, however, can be said for the bits in between: While there's no tedious sailing this time, tedious train-manouevring is in abundance. The innovative, but ultimately disarming, locomotive controls are difficult to get used to, and the lack of freedom to travel exactly where you want causes untold levels of frustration as you're forced on a linear route at an often crawl-like pace. While it's certainly nice to leave the boat at home on this outing, the change in transport can be just as troublesome, with the presence of monsters that unpredictably appear in your path and wipe out health instantly requiring either an attack with your train-mounted cannon or a sharp blast with the train's whistle to dispatch: You can never 'abandon' your game and let the train take you directly from A to B, since one slash from a nasty sends you right back to the station you departed from. Hence, you're forced to keep a watchful eye on your travel (making adjustments along the way) and constantly monitor Link's snail-like progress with a patience that soon dissipates once you get a few hours into the game.

Similar to Navi from Ocarina of Time, it is Zelda herself that acts as your 'guide' in Spirit Tracks. Stripped of her physical form, she remains a spirit who accompanies you everywhere, taking on further roles in certain dungeons where she's able to occupy the empty suits of armour formerly under the control of Phantoms. It's a nice break from the familiar dungeon grind, since it's one that requires a totally new perspective, and also justifies the 'step up' in difficulty: Where Phantom Hourglass was mostly a breeze without a hitch, the last dungeon of Spirit Tracks caused me headaches for a good few hour.: Exceedingly frustrating, but ultimately vastly rewarding, the solution requires multiple talents with all of the items and skills acquired during the rest of the game (including Zelda's work herself, occupying different Phantom armours, each with different abilities) over puzzles stretching over multiple floors and requiring formidable planning in order to advance. Here, the strength of the Zelda series really shines through; the superb design making the game accessible to all, but challenging (although never to the point of 'throw the console across the room'-style frustration) for fans of the series.

The DS controls still work like a charm and the honed 3D engine looks fantastic; Tracks is assuredly one of the best-looking games on the ageing handheld. The cel-shaded style inherited from Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass seemed renewed, somehow, as if the move from the submerged Hyrule has given the visuals increased vigour with a greater range in depths and hues of a terrestrial world. Likewise, the character design and models all look great, with the main pro-/antagonists looking delightfully unique (including the irrepressible henchman Staven, who's by far the best Zelda baddie of recent outings) and the vast array of NPCs taking on many shades of individuality and charm. The game's sound effects and music represent a high point for the series, with some of the game's main musical themes being fantastically catchy and seemingly immune to the effects of repetition, as they remain just as enjoyable in the last hour of the game as the first. Everything that previously had a sparkly sheen has been buffed further, so that the game typifies one that's essentially been honed continuously over it's twenty-odd year lifetime, and one that shows no sign of letting up in future instalments. The Legend of Zelda remains probably my most favourite game series that's still ongoing (after Final Fantasy lost me after it's tenth instalment and Monkey Island's sporadic activity fails to reproduce the glory of the first two games), and certainly Spirit Tracks does nothing to change that; if anything, re-affirming its relevance and bolstering it impact.

For a game series that's on its fifteenth or so outing to still feel fresh and innovative, whilst defining the most integrated and polished title on a console that itself is five years old, is staggering. You'll never find a truly disappointing Zelda game; and while some may have obvious flaws, they're never ones that detract from the main game, or subtract enough from it to make it an unworthy title in the series. While Spirit Tracks still has a few niggling weaknesses, its glorious main game and the great swathes of improvement over its predecessor make it a decidedly essential title for anyone who's a contended owner of Nintendo's handheld. I still say that, overall, Phantom Hourglass is a better game, and definitely a better introduction to the Zelda mythos, but Spirit Tracks can certainly hold its own and further raises the bar that some competitors fail to reach. If you haven't yet, get Phantom Hourglass and revel in its glory. And when you've finished that, then Spirit Tracks will be waiting for you; a fine locomotive companion piece to a superlative ocean cruiser. [8]

No More Heroes (Wii)
No More Heroes (Wii)
Price: £9.99

3.0 out of 5 stars No More Heroes - 7/10, 25 Sept. 2011
This review is from: No More Heroes (Wii) (Video Game)
It was with great trepidation that I booted up No More Heroes . My only previous experience with Suda51's wacky Grasshopper dev team was the decidedly hit-and-miss puzzle-adventure Flower, Sun and Rain on the DS, which turned point-and-click adventure gaming completely on its head to produce something so unspeakably bizarre, to this day I can't decide if it's a work of genius or a product of lunacy. They're a developer renowned for pushing the boundaries of traditional games, often adopting unconventional visual styles, gaming conventions or storytelling techniques to blur the line between games and "art"; though very much with a tongue firmly wedged in the cheek. From the off, however, No More Heroes is a barnstorming slash-'em-up that's a riot from start to finish, even if the entertainment it provides feels ultimately hollow.

The game bundles you into the body of Travis Touchdown; a down-on-his-luck otaku who is coerced into the career of an assassin by chance meeting with "the girl of his dreams", Sylvia Christel. After slaying his first victim with his recently-purchased lightsaber I mean "beam katana", Travis rises to become the 11th-ranked assassin, and encouraged to slay the remaining ten ranked members of the United Assassin Association to take up the mantle of Number One assassin. From there on in, No More Heroes continues a semi-unrelenting pace of pre-boss, thug bashing warm-ups; closed-arena `ranking' battles; and a smorgasbord of side-quests and distractions; and a meagre dollop of storyline to propel the action. Perhaps what's so compelling is that this is all happening on a Wii, which aside from a few notable exceptions such as MadWorld, has seen titles for mature gaming audiences largely ignored by the masses (The Conduit, anyone?), leading No More Heroes to stand out from the crowd. While NMH has recently been exported to X360 and PS3 where it may get lost in the mire, its disposition on Nintendo's White Box feels fresh-faced and exuberant, made all the more substantial given that it was developed with the console's quirks in mind; not just a second-rate port. It's not the third-party game to topple the monopoly Nintendo hold on Wii thanks to the Mario, Zelda & Metroid franchises, but at least it crosses the line in a race where, all too often, the visiting competitors fail to finish.

One thing that NMH dishes out in large quantities is absurdity; something which is to its credit as it's one of the currents upon which the game rides to lift it above the competition. While a lot of the main game is on the SERIOUS BUSINESS side of the serious/absurd boundary, it's rarely far from straying back into wacky territory which it does often and with alarming spontaneity. In terms of story, the game manages to maintain a largely straight face right until the completely batshit-crazy ending, even if the main plot is something out of a thousand comics or movies. The side-job mini-games are beacons of light-hearted in an ocean of thug-killing, and some of the humourous billboards and references dotted around the game's locales muster a cheeky snicker every once in a while. Grasshopper Manufacture's offbeat brand of humour reveals itself across the board, particularly evident in conveniently-placed toilet cubicles which act as save points; spawning branded NMH toilet paper (which must rank as one of the craziest game tie-ins yet seen), along with a thousand Suda51 on-toilet interviews. Further peculiarities which make an appearance are the necessity to perform masturbatory techniques with the Wii remote to re-charge the beam katana's energy blade (even if you had previously thought about letting children watch you play NMH, you should probably think again); Travis' pet cat Jeane , which you can `pet' and play with in Travis' motel room; and `cleaners' which vacuum up the ashes of your opponent after each ranked battle. There's an undercurrent of ridicule to the `serious' aspects of the storyline, and there are several points during the game which self-reference or break the fourth wall, mocking that No More Heroes is merely just a video game. Overall, it combines a heavy dose of seriousness with small, bitesize touches of light humour to propel the experience forward without becoming so heavy that it drags along the ground, but weighty enough that it doesn't dissipate into anonymity.

Let's make no bones about it, No More Heroes is brutal. Combat-wise, there's a lot here to remind one of the 16 bit-era of side-scrolling city brawlers a la the Streets of Rage series, which maintains a constant level of beat-'em-up streamrolling through urban settings, generi-thugs and over-the-top level bosses. Strangely for a third-party game, there's a decent effort at adopting the Wii's range of motion controls, from slashing `finishing' moves to unleashing a range of wrestling take-downs. Even the criminally-underused Wii remote speaker gets an outing as it blares out phone calls from Travis' UAA contact, Sylvia. It's a shame that the beam katana's moves are deployed by deft pressing of the A button rather than by gesturing with the Wiimote, but at least that means it avoids the pitfalls of inaccurate motion controls which would cripple a game where fast pacing and tricky enemy AI punish poor combat skills. The small number of quick-time-events during battles do, however, require some lightning-quick reactions with the remote's motion-sensing, but they're pretty hard to screw up as you can do pretty much anything with the Wiimote and it counts as a "pass". But without any hand-to-hand or alternative combat techniques (not even a `jump' button), the fact remains that you'd better get used to copious amount of beam katana button-mashing, because you're going to be doing a heck of a lot of it. Dispatch a baddie and in the lower corner of the screen you'll get a spin of the slot machine which, if it matches three icons, you'll get a Dark Side attack where time is slowed and you'll have access to some bonus powers - they're pretty rare though, and inevitably, much of the time they do arrive it's as you're slashing through the last guy in the room when there's no-one to beat down on. They're a nice break from the usual hand-wavy Wiimote button-mashing, but they never feel like the 'step-up' in power that they should have been. The dreaded Quick Time Events also makes an inevitable appearance along the way, but they're saved for the plethora of wrestling moves that can be deployed by waving the Wiimote and nunchuk, but it's a massive shame that there's not more motion control action used to command the beam katana; perhaps heeding the warnings from the mediocre Red Steel, and not having the benefit of the Wii MotionPlus accessory which was unveiled after this release.

Travis himself is much like No More Heroes as a whole; posessing many flaws but ending up just on the right side of `likable' to maintain interest until the end. Character development and staging is handled pretty well, and the gameplay experience is expanded with some beautifully-orchestrated pre-battle cut-scenes and well-written dialogue which remains polished and punchy throughout. Travis remains unpredictable and intriguing to the end, and it's easy to stick with both the story and characters to the close just to see if the story implodes and we get to see Travis completely off the chain. The ongoing exposition very nearly justifyies the banality of some of the between-batttle `side jobs' that Travis must perform to earn enough cash to enter the next ranked battle. The most amenable are the range of `legitimate' jobs, which end up being fun minigames revolving around harvesting coconuts, mowing lawns or collecting cats. The flip side are "assassination" and "free fight" missions which earn considerably more money, but are merely more exercise in button-mashing grind with generic bad guys, that becomes a chore largely from the off. Despite some shameless fun to be had with the side-jobs in very short, detached bursts, they merely serve to pad out what is a woefully short main game and tend to distract from the main storyline enough that it's ultimately watered-down near the end. Still, if you finish it and still want more, there are a bunch of harder difficulty modes and a few collectible/scavenger hunts to fill in some time. They're as throwaway as anything and ultimately count for nothing aside from any burning desire to unlock all Travis' clothing customisations or view development art (surely the least rewarding `unlockable' most modern games offer), but they do at least partially justify the presence of the game's open-world environment and its surplus of empty streets, lack of zeal and collision issues.

While No More Heroes exists as a linear, 3-D scrolling beat-`em-up during combat, the remaining time is spent around the Santa Destroy's sandbox city, which ends up being a somewhat muffled open-world environment. Compared to established sandbox games like Grand Theft Auto with fully-fledged cities inhabited by all kinds of potential, Santa Destroy exists merely as a corridor for Travis to travel between jobs or battles. Off the beaten track, there's very little to find or explore within, and with no other pedestrians and relatively few cars, there's no NPC interaction or recreation to be had. Travis' transport of choice is a supercharged motorbike, albeit with arguably the worst driving controls of any open-world game - You'll get caught on scenery (Santa Destroy may as well be renamed "Clipping Central"), fall off at the slightest collision, and there's no coherent tutorial. The presence of the Santa Destroy sandbox merely slows down the action, which in a game that's so rapid and unrelenting as No More Heroes' main game, it's particularly debilitating. It's telling that, for the sequel No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle, the open-world presence was removed and a more linear mission development was put in place. After a tense boss battle and a bit more exposition, you're ready to take on the next foe; only to be metaphorically cock-blocked by the necessity to trawl all across town to earn enough money, then trawl back to pay the entry fee, head over to Travis' flat to await Sylvia's call, ride over to the next mission, and finally get the gameplay bit firmly back in teeth. That said, the requirement to pay up front for each ranked battle, in cash, is also a source of in-jokery at Travis' expense, so it's arguable that it's presence is there to parody those more `serious' games in which in-game currency counts for everything yet is drip-fed to the player (see: Grand Theft Auto IV) rather than letting them swim in gold (see: Grand Theft Auto III). To thieve a concept from Zero Punctuation's review of No More Heroes, it's as though all of the game's foibles are meant to be there; taking NMH from the usual action canon to light-hearted parody of more serious titles. For me, NMH just about pulls it off, but there's plenty of evidence to argue otherwise.

In that respect, No More Heroes remains an anomaly. In short, intense bursts, there's little more on the Wii that's more fun for a quick, twenty-minute blast than No More Heroes for the mature, hardcore crowd. But it's those very same, `arcade' sensibilities that makes the experience sour so much quicker into a gaming session, making it tragically unsuitable for prolonged bouts of action as the repetition and little change in the gameplay experience grate all the sooner. It's by no means the best action game on the Wii and has more flaws than it's possible to overlook, but it's full of enough amusement, hook and charm to just about make up for it all, and if you can look past the foibles to the wealth of possibly that's lurking underneath, you'll have a hoot.

Lego Harry Potter: Years 1-4 (Wii)
Lego Harry Potter: Years 1-4 (Wii)
Offered by sellatronic
Price: £29.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Lego Harry Potter: Years 1-4 - 8/10, 25 Sept. 2011
I was slightly apprehensive at first about delving into LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4`s comfortable, warm wizard's robe. My previous experience of the LEGO video game series had been the staggeringly-awesome LEGO Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy, which still ranks as quite possibly the best Star Wars game there's ever been (give or take a few BioWare and Dark Forces outings). However, it came with the ever-so- slightest twinge that it hit a sweet spot that was entirely unique to the novelty of combining the Star Wars saga with a bunch of kids' toys, and that its sparkle couldn't last forever. Still, along came the boy wizard in the form of a cheap pre-owned sale, and here we are; back building bricks and saving the world yet again.

Traveller's Tales and their LEGO video game series seem to have been rattling through the major movie franchises like there's no tomorrow (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Batman and now Pirates of the Caribbean): Aside from The Lord of the Rings, it's difficult to think of any major film series they haven't plundered from in recent years (I'm still waiting for that LEGO Saw announcement). Gameplay-wise, it's business as usual, as you must build your way through twenty-four puzzle-filled levels from the first four books/movies of the Harry Potter saga. If you've played any of the previous iterations before, you should know what to expect and you'll nestle back into the action without even noticing that you've done so- that said, it's just as open to newcomers as seasoned players, so if you've never joined the LEGO party before then jumping straight on board should be a doddle. There's more of a lean towards adventurous puzzling than some of the previous games who focussed more on combat, such as LEGO Star Wars or LEGO Batman, where there's melee a'plenty. The change in pace is more to fit the source material though, which suits adventuring and puzzle-solving a lot better than blasting everything in sight. Free-for-all scuffles do still make appearances here and there and there's still the standard `boss' fights after few levels, but there are larger gaps between them than in previous games; into which there's more puzzles to solve and classes to attend. So much so, that's it's often a surprise when a (typically dramatic) cutscene finishes and you're suddenly thrust into pitched battle once more, completely unprepared. The puzzles that make up the majority of the main game are, on the whole, well-thought out and of significant enough breadth variety to keep things from going stale too soon. A good proportion of the puzzles and powers on offer are lifted from previous iterations or given a makeover, but such are the perils of developing a videogame franchise which is enormously successful, but neither the developers nor fans want the boat rocked too violently.

The game world itself is immersed in the lore of J. K. Rowling's boy wizard; in fact, it's so `immersed', it's almost drowning. Outside of the main game itself there's a fully-explorable Hogwarts albeit without any sort of map, which makes navigating round there about as simple as tying your shoelaces with your elbows), along with Diagon Alley, The Forbidden Forest, Hogsmeade and any other Potter locale you wish to name. The main story progresses through six levels of each book, charging through set-piece after set-piece that'll be familiar if you're already onboard with the main storylines - this being the LEGO video game series though, it's a `re-imagining' of the events of the saga rather than playing them out word-for-word. Cut-scenes progress the main story in a pantomime fashion; using plenty of visual references and slapstick to act out the plot all without a word being uttered by any of the characters (minifigs don't have vocals cords, dont'cha know?). It's these moments that give the series its well-deserved charm, and the pacing and comic timing of the in-game movies is superb. The game never takes itself too seriously, and even some of the more SERIOUS BUSINESS aspects of the story are dealt with with tongue firmly pressed into cheek.

Level design has always been the series' forté, and it's present in full force here again with a huge range of obstacles to tackle, areas to navigate and rooms to explore. While ploughing through the story levels is as linear and straightforward as you'd expect, navigating Hogwarts' sandbox environment is a somewhat different kettle of fish: The castle itself is enormous, with every kind of the classroom, dorm, corridor and outdoor environments you'd come to expect from a game that sticks closely to its source material. With no signposting, map or particularly memorable landmarks to guide you, chances are you can easily lose half an hour just trying to find your way to the next level (for reference, some nice maps can be found here). Nearly Headless Nick attempts to mark a breadcrumb trail to your next port-of-call by laying a path of ghost LEGO studs, but it's very hit-and-miss and more often than not sends you blindly in the wrong direction. A map in the pause menu (or even in the manual, I'm not fussy) would have been useful; something I hope they rectify in the imminent LEGO Harry Potter: Years 5-7.

The main meat of LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4 revolves around the ample supply of spells that are unlocked during the story by attending and completing lessons; used to put bricks together, zap enemies, ward off nasties or blow things to smithereens. Holding down the C-button opens up the spell wheel, allowing selection of the next piece of sorcery with the analogue stick, and upgrades can be purchased in Diagon Alley for some of the combat-based spells. Magicks on offer range from familiar tricks like Wingardium Leviosa and Alohamora, to more obscure spells like Anteoculatia; which can be unleashed to turn a NPC's hair into antlers in a fairly amusing manner. Pretty much everything is destroyable in order to harvest LEGO studs which can be spent on new characters, spells and extras (providing you've found them in the main game first). New additions to the standard `brick-em-up' grind are cauldrons in which ingredients (distributed around the level and sometimes requiring some minor puzzle-solving to get hold of) must be collected to brew a potion and advance further in the level. Tonics that can be inbibed include strength potion, invisibility serum, or the real showstopper, Polyjuice potion. Polyjuicing permits toggling to a character that's previously been unlocked in the main game (and subsequently purchased at Madam Malkin's Robes For All Occasions), and can be dandy fun once you have a few recognisable characters unlocked and charge around Hogwarts causing mayhem. Some of the playable characters not automatically provided during the main game but unlocked by careful sleuthing are particular fun (especially Lucius Malfoy, who introduces Avada Kedavra into the spellcasting mix) as they often bring with them new abilities, spells or comedic value. Voldemort and Dumbledore, meanwhile, are only accessed somewhere near the tail end of the '100% Completion' spectrum; so by the time you get to the good guys, you'll have unlocked so many Generic Ravenclaw Girl(tm)s, that the novelty of becoming He Shall Not Be Named has somewhat lost its shine.

In single-player, you'll be joined by a computer-controlled character; drop-in, drop-out co-op is offered if you've a friend. The series excels in providing a balanced co-op experience, even if most puzzles are solved by either P1 or P2 alone and there are only a smattering of co-operative (P1 + P2) puzzles to be solved. The game benefits greatly from the split-screen capability, meaning that both players are now free to explore around the whole level without having an invisible bungee-rope tied to each other preventing characters from leaving the same screen. Gameplay is still firmly pitched toward family/co-op play so players will have no problem getting through the main game; nailing 100% of the gold bricks, characters and extras will need some sleuthful adventuring, though. In addition to the gold bricks, character tokens and normal Lego studs there is to collect, there's also a bunch of other collectibles to busy yourself with, from red Owl Mail boxes to find which unlock bonus modes (Score x10, Christmas mode or Invincability) to a variety of students dotted around the gameworld who must be rescued from various "perilous" situations. To get through it all, be prepared to hammer through the main game several times to get the characters and skills required to complete certain tasks and hunt down all the collectibles on offer. There's a special something for those who manage to find all 200 Gold Bricks, which is (arguably) the sweetest level of the game, but I won't spoil the surprise. If that seems like a lot of content to rattle through, then be reassured that LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4 never feels like a chore. Even prolonged periods of play should keep things interesting enough to keep you glued to your Wiimote for easily a few hours; re-affirming the LEGO series' ability to be just at home with sucking players in for extended periods of time as offering short, twenty-minute bouts in between gaming snacks.

The third-person adventuring of the main story is broken up with various mini-levels, including the aforementioned spell classes and 'chase' sequences a la the boulder bit in Raiders of the Lost Ark. These typically necessitate the player to sprint towards the screen in an attempt to outrun some enraged nasty and if you like hopeless controls, getting stuck on scenery and not being able to see where you're running to and falling straight into a chasm, then this is the minigame for you. For the rest of us, thankfully, they're kept to a minimum and so are kept to just a minor irritation than anything more substantial; saved for the end part of a single chapter rather than an entire level themselves. Broomsticks emerge at various points in the story, but since only Harry can actually use the broom competently out of the main trio, if you're playing co-op, then P2 will find their feet staying firmly on the ground. Aside from these minor inconveniences, LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4 possesses more substantial problems that it's harder to ignore: Despite its heritage in the rest of the series, the game engine still shows the tendency to be subjected an often-alarming number of glitches and bugs: Characters getting stuck on scenery is routine; objects glitching out Geddan-style can occur spontaneously; or, even worse, NPCs spazzing out and running neverendingly into walls can often result in the inability to progress to the next area and demanding a console reset to put right. There's also a nagging feeling that the experience runs out of steam near the end; as if the game shows its hand far too soon and much of the tail end of the story begins to feel like a re-run of the first half's levels, action and puzzles. It's not a deal-breaker, and there's still plenty of fun to be had, it's just that it can start to feel like it's fun you've already had before, dressed up in a different set of robes.

Building on a series which has largely maintained its fanbase a success on not deviating from a winning formula, fans of the series will find this just as enjoyable and avid cynics will find little to convert their beliefs. For a game targeted at those enveloped the extended Venn diagram suggested by the game's title, most players will encounter few challenges along the way; but that's to ensure that the game remains accessible at at all times.While LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4 doesn't re-invent the wheel, it does succeed in combining the most entertaining bits of the LEGO series and the Boy Wizard's exploits; if any of that sounds appealing and you can look past a few minor flaws, then you'll have a hoot.

Fable II (Xbox 360)
Fable II (Xbox 360)
Offered by Games World Inc
Price: £18.93

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Fable 2 - 6/10, 25 Sept. 2011
This review is from: Fable II (Xbox 360) (Video Game)
It's hard to review Fable II without first talking about Peter Molyneux and since it's a lot easier to get the whole thing done with now, let's get down to it: Creative Director of Lionhead Studios (and before that, Bullfrog Productions), Molyneux's overseen some of the most seminal videogames of the past two decades; from Black and White and Dungeon Keeper to Populous and Theme Park. Fantastic though his output is, he's attained a reputation in the industry for being happy to talk to journalists early in a game's gestation period and promising a huge bunch of "cool stuff" to appear in the final product (note: Not actual Peter Molyneux quote). Understandably, the time and budget constraints of developing a current-gen videogame mean that a lot of good ideas end up getting dropped, or scaled-down upon release; leading to inevitable disappointment from fans and a product that doesn't live up to the whirlwind of hype. With each new release, the promise of (r)evolution detailed by Lionhead's pre-release statements gets larger and larger, offering a mind-blowing combination of Choices, Options and Potential. There's nothing wrong with ambition, but too often, trying to be a jack of all trades with a vast array of game modes, minigames, side-quests tends to disengage from the main game itself and that sums up Fable II: A darned solid game, but nowhere near what it's trying to be.

If you look past all of that 'action-RPG' fare that's the core of Fable II, what lies beneath is more the 'simulation' that's at the heart of much of Molyneux's work. If there's ever a Theme (no pun intended, scoff) to run through Molyneux's efforts, it's that of freedom. The original Fable saw widespread adoption of this philosophy, with the flexibility to evolve into a world-saving hero of Good, or the oppressive Evil force dominating the land of Albion through fear and death; albeit with very little grey area in between. Continuing in the same vein, there's plenty of decisions to be made throughout Fable II: Do you stay honest and earn cash the hard way through minigames, or perfect the art of cat-burgling and pinch it from unsuspecting villagers? Do you rescue the slaves to set them free, or sell them on for profit? Do you stay faithful to your chosen partner, or make use of the ample supply prostitutes (of both sexes) that populate the seedier towns of Albion? It's all about giving the player the ultimate choice about how to pursue the game, but there's just that nagging suspicion that, whatever the decision, its impact on the player's experience is largely unnoticable. Everything's been designed so clinically that the personality of the game is so polished that you never really relate to the main character or the story's key protagonists; even if you royally shaft them over to further your own ambitions rather than the usual mission of Saving the World. So, while there's freedom, there's not that emotive feedback that real-world decisions are subject to and as a result, story-defining decisions are far too easy to make.

All across the board, Fable II is a treat for the senses. One thing the original Fable excelled at was capturing the essence of a fully-working society: Many games attempt to 'bottle' the sights, smells and atmosphere of a living social environment and end up with just a random collection of chunky NPCs who either interact either too little, or too much, and the overall effect is unconvincing. One of the key natures of the Fable universe is that everything's in motion - the world's inhabitants go about their own business, interact with each other and alter their opinions of you in real-time; not just stand still and wait for you to approach, or spout the same line of text each time you stumble across them. Of course, there's only so much you can cram onto a single game disc so there's copy-pasted villagers that pop up all across Albion, but there's so many different NPC personalities that it's hardly noticable. The respectable market town of Bowerstone is full of polite citizens who clamour around the Hero, whilst the seedy dock of Bloodstone is full of beggars, prostitutes and undesirables hassling you as you make your way across town. Whilst the range of expressions and emotions available to the player to interact with the townsfolk has been upped, it still remains a 'side dish' to the main game: There's no necessity to interact with the townsfolk, and aside from the odd gift from an adoring fan (or, indeed, a terrified pedestrian) the pitiful amount of Reknown which you can gain by interacting with NPCs pales in comparison to that which may be attained by attempting and completing quests; something that'll tempt the player a lot more than trying to gain a standing in the community, be it as a benevolent Hero or intimidating overlord.

Time in the gameworld passes at quite a lick; each 'day' in the game lasting around twenty minutes to half an hour, with shops opening and closing, and different NPCs emerging at different hours of the day. Play long enough, and you'll notice the seasons change, too. Sound quality across the game is also superb, with a whole range of British voice talent lending some superb voice acting to all of the NPCs on show (including some famous names in the form of ZoŽ Wanamaker, Stephen Fry, Julia Sawalha, and others), and it's by no means wasted: There's some of the most well-written dialogue ever seen in a videogame: from the main story dialogue; through comments that permeate the various loading screens; the lore contained in the numerous books you can purchase and read in-game; all the way down to throwaway comments NPCs will yell at you from time to time. There are many instances of pure laugh-out-loud hilarity, and there's a huge dollop of some classic British-style humour that's interweaved with the characture style displayed across the whole of Albion. Everything's kept light-hearted at all times (except for notable points in the story where the game very clearly puts on its serious face), and it's this fact that continues to make Fable II a very easy way to lose much of a weekend without input from the brain.

One thing that instantly hooks is the gorgeous visual style that's present across everything from character design to the flawlessly cartoonish scenery. The style nestles gently between realism and characature, making it a game that rarely fails to draw the eye and often lubricates the desire to simply explore. The time-shift from the medieval fantasy setting of Fable means that now everything has a Middle Ages steampunk-ish feel to it, and this is no more evident than the re-invigoration of the cityscapes, turning the archaic villages and hamlets into bustling centres of commerce filled with Olde Worlde shopfronts and houses permeated with that realistic cartoon style. The game's weaponry has also gained a new lease of life and the technology now permits ranged weapons such as clockwork rifles, spring-loaded crossbows and hulking blunderbusses (blunderbii?) which you can opt to lock onto enemies in 3rd-person view to riddle them with bullets or aim in first-person to snipe from a distance. The extension and evolution of the stylings carried over from Fable show clear signs of growth and maturity, yet retaining enough of the character. If you're new to the series (heck, maybe even the genre) the don't fret; it's just as straightforward to break into, and it's this accommodation of varying levels of interest and experience that is to Fable II 's credit.

Something the original Fable excelled at was the ease, pace and structure of the adventure, and there's no doubting that the same philosophy has been plugged expertly into its sequel: There's no stress of character micro-management as you try and set up your party to be effective against every possible eventuality, and the story is never so unforgiving that if you get to a place you shouldn't, you don't immediately get ripped apart by some higher-level goon. The main gameplay sees few changes from the original Fable: The combo of a main sword weapon accompanied by a long-range bow and array of magical spells continues, with experience in each class earned through combat which may then be re-spent on the class in upgrading features like physical toughness, long-range accuracy or the power/abilities of various spells available to the magic user. It's a simple design that doesn't alienate either the novice or expert, and it's never subject to unnecessary level-grinding to get your Hero up to speed. That being said, Lionhead's drive to make everything 'accessible' means that you'll never, ever, see a 'Game Over' screen; despite the amount of 'death' you'll experience: Getting wiped out by a monster simply sees you resurrected a few seconds later with a message about everything being prophesised, hence the Hero must survive; recalling Altair's de-synching with history when he dies in Assassin's Creed). With only a small loss of experience, there's no real 'penalty' for going into battle head-first since the worst that can happen is you lose a few EXP orbs which you'll soon get back once you defeat the baddies in question. It's a fine premise, but it does mean that it's far too easy to Tank the whole game with a strong, sword-wielding character with mastery of one magical attack skill with little necessity to give other combat styles a chance.

Despite the praise and criticism detailed above, Fable II is crippled primarily by its disappointingly-short main game. Since true 'death' is never an issue, there's little challenge to be found on the combat side, and there's a glowing breadcrumb trail which directs you exactly to your next quest or task (which can be switched off, granted) which means most players will rip through pretty much everything there is to see in less than 25 hours or so bar clearing up some of the side-missions or scrounging those last achievements. There's some DLC to be had, but with it the rather sore feeling that it should have been included on the original release anyway and a lack of motivation to throw money at recycled content. Given the level of writing and production that's invested in the Fable series, the main story is disappointingly weak. Even in the context of the very relaxed pace set by Molyneux's vision of Freedom, it's so abominably stunted that just when it seems like it's getting going, the credits roll and the curtains close. There's rarely a sense of drama or real danger, and relationships between the Hero and the main pro- and antagonists just aren't explored to a large enough an extent that such an epic tale deserves.

Still, at least you haven't got to do it all alone; and the major surprise is that it's taken this far in this review to mention anything canine. Yes, in Fable II, you have a dog. Yet, far from being just a simple Molyneux gimmick to say "Hey! Look! You can have a dog now!", it's actually a remarkably refreshing device that re-defines the 'adventure' aspect of the game's wide pigeonhole. Señor Pooch (yes, you can name it whatever you want) follows by your side as companion throughout the game; sniffing out treasure, locating dig spots that yield useful items and helping to attack ambushing enemies. Books are littered across Albion which can be used to improve Fido's skills and, unlike the human companions that may accompany you during the game, it'll soon become largely the only character in the game that you build up any respect for during the adventure. Ultimately though, its presence is merely yet another diversion from the disappointing main story; another distraction in a gameworld that's seemingly built on 'distraction' yet possessing no solid foundation of core gameplay beneath. Perhaps that's the problem with Fable II in general - there's so much focus on covering every base and offering something for everyone that, perhaps, it ends up not catering any single demographic with any mastery. It's neither a disappointment nor a triumph; instead of an epic quest across Albion's beautifully-rendered countryside filled with excitement, danger and intrigue, it feels more like a walk in the park. [6]

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