By Brian M. Sammons
Yeah, I’ve got nothing.
Ok, almost nothing. I do have one little Xbox Live Arcade game and a Genre Break game I can discuss, but other than that I’ve got zip, zero, zilch. Summer is always the dry times for games, and that goes double for horror games. So for this month I was just going to do a few of my patented Terror Throwbacks and spotlight some of my favorite games from yesteryear, but then I thought screw that, why not do a bunch of great old games. How about 13 of them? So, I did that.
If you are interested in seeing my picks for the Best 13 Horror Games of all time, you can find that here
However, I did mention a couple of games for this month, so let’s go.
CASTLEVANIA: SYMPHONY OF THE NIGHT, by Konami; 1997 (originally) 2007 (rerelease), Rated Teem; Xbox 360
Just in case you’ve been living in a video game coma for just about forever, the CASTLEVANIA games are some of the most well revered games ever and that’s for good reason. They are high-jumping, whip-cracking, platforming excellence set in a world of classic monsters such as werewolves, zombies, mummies, the Frankenstein monster, and of course, Dracula.
The CASTLEVANIA games have almost always centered around the tragically cursed Belmont family, an ancient bloodline filled with badasses and monster mashers of the highest order. Dracula has been this whip-wielding family’s most dreaded, and ever returning, enemy for generations. Every time the Belmont heroes think that they’ve driven the wooden steak through that bloodsucker’s heart for the final time, he comes back years later for revenge and to continue with his evil machinations.
This game, SYMPHONY OF THE NIGHT, was the thirteenth (naturally) game in the series, and came out back in 1997 for the first Playstation in North America. It is arguably the best of the Castlevania games, and I think I would have to agree with that. This time around, you start off as Richter Belmont just as he finishes of Dracula yet again. What, starting off a game with Drac getting de-fanged? Yes, but there are more surprises to tome. A few years later and Richter ups and vanishes. A brave and capable woman, Maria Renard, who traveled with Richter back in the day, goes looking for the missing man at, where else, Dracula’s once again risen and monster infested castle. A further twist in the tale happens when Dracula’s son Alucard (get it) wakes up from a death-defying slumber and joins in the search. Yes, this time around you play most of this game not as a Belmont, but as Drac’s kid. What follows is amazing platforming action, fun and challenging boss battles, and a bit of tactical choice as you gain spells, powers, and can even switch out the famous whip for an axe or sword.
All of the CASTLEVANIA usually have something to offer, ok maybe not the horrible JUDGMENT fighting game, but most of the rest offer solid action goodness, and SoTN is easily in the top three of all the CASTLEVANIA games. If you want to see how “old school” games did platforming to perfection, you need to look no further that this game.
I give CASTLEVANIA: SYMPHONY OF THE NIGHT 5 whip-cracked vampire bats out of 5.
ALPHA PROTOCOL, by Sega & Obsidian Entertainment; 2010; Rated M; PC, PS3, Xbox 360
ALPHA was a game I was greatly looking forward to. I am a huge RPG nerd, I love spy books and films, and I’m a fan of many of Obsidian’s previous games. So for me this should have been a perfect match, and it was…almost.
The story and characters in this game are all very good, and for a Role Playing Game, that is all important. Furthermore, two things that this game does better than nearly any other game out there are dialog and choice. The dialog sound natural, is engaging, and always gives you a choice of responses to chose from. However unlike other games with branching dialog options, you must make your choice quickly. The game doesn’t pause and give you all day to carefully weigh your response to any given question and statement. It forces you to think on your feet on how you want to treat any given person or event. Hey, just like real life! So if you take too long to make a decision the game will make that for you. While some people may moan about that, I loved it.
Another aspect that this game nails on the head is choice and how the choices you make actually affects the world around you. Many RPGs boast about hard choices that your character must make, but for the most part the things you do in their games change nothing except maybe an end cut scene or two. In AP, the choices you make on how to deal with situations and people have an almost immediate effect in the game. There was one part in the game where I smacked a contact around that was giving me some lip. Later I had to infiltrate a base full of baddies, and because I had beaten up that particular person, but didn’t kill him, he had run to his buddies, told them I was coming, so there was even more baddies at the base now. Another time I was talking to a real world friend who was also playing ALPHA PROTOCOL and he mentioned some events that never even occurred to my character during my game. This means that this game has great re-playability as you would want to see how doing X instead of Y effects mission Z, not to mention the characters related to that plot thread.
Unfortunately the horrible gameplay and NPC AI will mean that you will never, ever want to play this game more than once. Or perhaps even finish it.
I cannot stress this enough, the people that did the story, dialog, and the ever-changing game based on the choices you make deserve a medal and a raise for their efforts. However the folks behind how this game plays need to be fired. Ok, not fired, but some sort of punishment is needed for completely running what otherwise could have been a great game. How does this game fall flat? Well let me count the ways. The combat is based on behind the scenes dice rolls, yet it plays like a third person action shooter, so blasting away at an enemy agent a mere twenty feet away and not hitting him at all is nothing but frustrating. The enemy AI goes from incredibly dense to totally-cheating-cheesy. That means that they’ll either stand around clueless as you pick off their friends, or they’ll have super psychic powers and know your exact location at any given moment so that as soon as you poke your head around a corner while cloaked in the shadows some guy will put a bullet between your eyes from 100 yards away with a pistol. That’s not fun nor challenging, just really bad game design. Then there are the guys that charge at you, doing a weird crab-sidewise-run, while you are blasting at them in full auto with a machinegun (and not hitting them), so that they can punch you, then they crab-run backwards, shooting you as they go. This just doesn’t happen once or twice, no this is a standard enemy tactic. The first time this happens you’ll laugh and probably say “WTF?” After the hundredth time this happens you’ll just find it annoying. Oh, and the mini games, like the lock picking, are needlessly twitchy and tedious. Then there’s the glitches, oh God don’t get me started on the glitches, and no not little bugs, but game ending ones. Twice I cleared a level of baddies and got to the exit door, only to not have the door open. Thankfully there are a generous number of save points, so I reloaded a few steps before that and magically, this time the door opened.
If you are a RPG fan, a spy fiction fan, or just like deep, character rich stories with your games, then you might want to give ALPHA PROTOCOL a play. But I suggest a rental, not a buy, because in all other aspects, this game is simply bad, bad, BAD. So bad that chances are you’ll not finish the game, and that’s just sad. Look up Missed Opportunity in the dictionary and you’ll find this game listed there.
For story reasons and innovative choice mechanics alone, I give ALPHA PROTOCOL 3 crab-running guys out of 5.
--Brian M. Sammons