Link will play a harp in Skyward Sword

Eiji Aonuma has announced that Link will have the chance to play a musical harp in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. The Zelda producer told Nintendo Power that the harp will almost identical to the one played by Sheik in Ocarina of Time. Players will use the harp to find “something important” and will be controlled by rhythmic strumming (via MotionPlus).

Aonuma said: “The harp is sort of the central instrument that you’ll see this time. With a lot of previous Zelda games it has been about inputting specific notes to compose things. Given the nature of what a harp is, and the fact that it’s an instrument that one strums, this time we’re using the Wii MotionPlus to really make it based on the rhythm of strumming to get across the musical element.”

Other details leaked in the interview include:
– The game is now nearing the final stages of development.
Shigeru Miyamoto is helping on the game’s finishing touches.
– The localization of Skyward Sword will begin shortly.
– The plot has a large focus on the creation and forging of the Master Sword.
– Skyward Sword will feature a handful of full orchestrated songs.
– In The Legend of Zelda timeline, Skyward Sword is set directly before Ocarina of Time.

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Review for The Force Unleashed II

Stepping into the persona of a dual lightsaber wielding Sith should feel utterly compelling. After a distinctly average original, this sequel was a good chance for LucasArts to fix many of the franchise’s problems and capitalise on an immensely popular license. Although the Force Unleashed II looks and sounds as good as the classic trilogy, an incredibly short campaign and monotonous gameplay drags it down into the realm of uninspired cash-in.

I worshipped Star Wars as a child… and by that I mean really, really worshipped it. So upon entering this game I was prepared to forgive many of its shortcomings, provided it dealt a healthy dose of nostalgia and challenge. Players follow the life of Starkiller, Darth Vader’s secret apprentice and all round hyper-powerful Jedi. After an ambiguous death in the first outing, Darth Vader claims that this new Starkiller is a clone, albeit a more powerful one with the destiny of crushing the last of the rebel alliance. Questioning Vader’s interpretation of his origins, Starkiller escapes from the planet Kamino and tries to become reunited with his lost love, Juno Eclipse.

The CG cutscenes and voicework are very impressive. Sam Witwer does a good job of portraying the confusion and anger of Starkiller, whilst cameo appearances from Bobba Fett and Yoda help reel the plot into some sense of context. The soundtrack often reworks many of the Star Wars’ most iconic scores, emphasising the sense of a modernised re-conception.

The core of the game is a typical hack and slash, with all of the films’ force powers dramatised to their full advantage. Each face button can deliver either a devastating web of lightning from your finger tips, crush tie fighters to a cube like pulp or mind trick swarms of stormtroopers into battling one another. All of these can be upgraded and strung together into elaborate combos. The visual spectacle of destruction is initially awe inspiring, but quickly becomes replaced with a sense of complacency.

Unfortunately, dismembering your opponents is just far too easy. Starkiller is overpowered to the point that you can simply hold forward, press any combination of buttons and then sit back with your eyes closed, comfortable in the knowledge that you’ll reach the next stage in about five minutes. A few enemies can only be defeated by certain types of force powers and admittedly this does help to provide a sense of strategy and challenge – but players will quickly store these variations in their muscle memory. Each wave of enemies feels like a chore and can easily be sprinted past – a viable option if you’re not interested in picking up the force points needed to upgrade your abilities.

After the opening sequence, the plot almost immediately runs out of steam. Rather than unravel the mystery of his ‘cloning’ origins, Starkiller spends most of his time taking orders from Kota, an annoying Jedi pilot who repeatedly stops you from finding the second most interesting character in the game; Juno. The Force Unleashed II is like a poor piece of fan fiction, never once adding anything relevant or interesting to the Star Wars narrative. Both endings provide a glimpse of an interesting plot development, but they’re so far removed from the Star Wars canon that they feel completely irrelevant.

The worlds that you explore are interesting enough, with some fantastic weather effects (the rain in Kamino is stunning) and an above average sense of architectural grandeur. The little touches, such as paintings of familiar Neimodians and holograms of speeders are both fitting and convincing. However, behind this visual veil is the disappointing realisation that each level is merely a corridor. There are few deviating paths available and very little exploration involved. As long as you run towards the sound of blaster fire, you can be almost certain that you’re slogging in the right direction.

The adventure also feels remarkably short. Less than six hours on the normal difficulty setting simply isn’t good value money. Perhaps it could have been justified with an increasingly remarkable and inventive experience, but The Force Unleashed II simply isn’t it either of these. Apart from the desire to unlock the alternate ending (which can be found fairly easily on YouTube) or play on a higher difficulty setting, there is little incentive for a second playthrough. Those who paid full price for this title will likely be left feeling cheated or disappointed.

It’s hard to recommend this game unless you’re obsessed with Star Wars like I once was. An unremarkable tale and dreary combat surmounts to a single player title that is average at best. Hopefully Star Wars: The Old Republic will provide fans with the game that they’ve deserved for almost half a decade.

(Note: The Xbox 360 version of this title was used for review)

Okamiden: Chiisaki Taiyo Looks Promising

Okami was yet another underloved classic, a visually stunning title swept under the rug despite every reviewer shouting its praise. It was lucky enough to get a port to the Wii, but even hungry Zelda fans looking for another hit of action-adventure couldn’t help boost its sales. So most gamers were surprised when Capcom recently announced Okamiden, the franchise’s debut on the Nintendo DS.

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This time you’ll take control of Chibiterasu, a puppy version of the wolf god Amaterasu who starred in the original. Chibiterasu can still use the celestial brush, but he/she won’t have quite the same muscle as the sun godess we’re all used to. To make up for this, Okamiden features three partners who you’ll team up with in order to once again restore the balance of nature.

I wouldn’t blame you for thinking this is just a cutesy port, as the mission setup will feel pretty familiar to Okami veterans. You’ll be doing chores to help the local village, such as using the brush to making sakura trees bloom or helping fishermen catch a big haul. This time you won’t just be controlling your own abilities though. Capcom say that the relationships Chibiterasu has with his/her partners will greatly affect the storyline and gameplay, so you’ll able to control their actions fully with the touch screen. On the videos from TGS we could see a young girl flipping switches and collecting items, which seems pretty remedial when you consider the other innovations from Okami. Hopefully the partners will have a heavier influence on the puzzle solving that I loved in the first game.

Even for the Nintendo DS though, this game looks lush. I’m constantly surprised at what this platform can produce in the graphics department, as Capcom has managed to bring the harsh brush strokes and watercolour palette across without any noticeable compromise. It might not be at quite the same quality as top titles on the PSP, but it’s sure to turn a few heads when your sitting on the bus.

The only downside to this is the choppy framerate. At times the combat felt a little slow and jarring, which is a shame considering the Wii version made such big improvements with integrated motion controls. The animation in Chibiterasu’s attacks just didn’t feel quite as smooth as Amaterasu, especially when switching from action to stylus input. Still, Okamiden is early in development and there is obviously a lot of time for improvement. The familiar environments and characters means that gamers will feel instantly at home and i’m sure Capcom will put in plenty of development to give it the polish it deserves. Lets just hope it gains enough support to keep this fantastic series alive.

Tony Hawk: Ride impressions

Let’s be honest, on the current generation of consoles the Tony Hawk franchise has been torn apart. This is not entirely Activision’s fault, but rather how well Black Box has crafted Skate and Skate 2. With new, realistic physics and a unique control scheme Proving Ground looked rather… unnecessary in comparison. When they took last year off I thought that the Tony Hawk franchise may have been dropped completely, understandably putting all of their concentration into the billion dollar Guitar Hero franchise.

Activision have taken a year out to take the franchise in a rather different direction

Activision have taken a year out to take the franchise in a rather different direction

Yet just recently, a new trailer and website has been leaked here. GameTrailers TV has interviewed some of the production team behind it too, giving a small but valuable peek at the new reboot. I highly recommend watching here.

So if you haven’t guessed from the image above, the big deal about Tony Hawk: Ride is the usage of a board peripheral. Rather like the balance board used in Shaun White Snowboarding, it’s been designed from the ground up to hopefully recreate every action a skateboarder would want. All of the normal Xbox 360 buttons can be found down the side and the indentations on each rail are presumably for grab actions (?!). It’s a bold move, one that I can see the reasoning behind with the success of Shaun White and Guitar Hero. After seeing the birdman himself and some of the other pro’s give it a demo, I’ll give a few pointers that I noticed.

Although it has a new board, this will still be an arcade styled game. I actually think this is a positive. Skate 2 has the realistic portion of the market cornered, so it would be ridiculous to try and take it back. I believe an arcade action sports game can still be commercially successful, as proven by SSX and Jet Set Radio. In the GameTrailers interview they mentioned that over the top spectacles will return, such as a grind-able giant squid in New York’s Central Park. Believing in their current loyal fan base, I think this is actually a good idea.

Seeing the board in action brought a number of questions. Tricks seemed to be performed by either transferring weight or leaning back/forward on the nose/tail. For manualling this looked very satisfying, but flip tricks were left unanswered. How on earth are you going to determine different flip tricks without kicking the board halfway across the room? It’s in no way strapped to your feet. Similarly you don’t have to literally grab the board on the floor for grab tricks, but lean into them. How will the board know which grab you want to perform?! Activision is boasting that unlike Shaun White Snowboarding, you won’t need a controller in your hand at all. This will literally be a boarding experience.

Tony Hawk, Ryan Sheckler and other pro’s also played the game with the board parallel to the TV, rather than head on. Perhaps this was in order to see the TV better, but they also kept showing them physically spinning with the board to do 180 Ollies. How are you going to see if you’re then facing the wrong way? The board will have various levels of difficulty, ranging from novice to expert. Presumably the board will be more forgiving and require you to do less on the lower settings.

The visuals really stood out for me. Not because they were brilliant, but because they were actually rather plain and flat. Skate 2 is by no means a gorgeous beast, but the in game footage looked a bit lacklustre for my liking. This will be fine on the Nintendo Wii, but I really hope that the “artistic realism” that they coined is improved drastically for the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. My only other major complaint was the exclusion of local multiplayer. Peripheral controllers work best with friends around, as proven by the hugely successful Rock Band. Activision explained that play testing showed multiple boards in one room to be dangerous, but even so… will it therefore just be online play only?

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The character models show little detail

I’m glad to see Tony Hawk return to the game market. Even a publisher like EA has the potential to make Skate stale, so bringing in competition and fresh ideas is always positive. I have many doubts over this game, but a new direction is exactly what the Tony Hawk franchise needs. As long as the price point isn’t ridiculous, I’ll wait with baited breath.

Fragile and Mad World

Before our current generation of consoles, I was a proud owner of a Nintendo GameCube. In school, I was ridiculed by casual students for playing titles such as Tales of  Symphonia, Windwaker and Beyond Good & Evil. Nintendo was deemed as too ‘kiddy’, aimed at a demographic of less than ten years old. Gamers all knew otherwise, but that was the perception my peers used to have. I had great faith when the Wii was in development, (codenamed Revolution) but imagined it as an even more underground, critically respected platform. I was sceptical that they could claim the family audience with this machine, but if anyone had the creativity to pull it off; it was Nintendo.

With Twilight Princess in the works as a launch title, the Nintendo game plan seemed obvious; claim the traditional, ‘hardcore’ gamers as the majority of consumers, whilst tempting the families with a bundled version of Wii Play. As we all know, the casual gamer market has exploded since then, turning Nintendo’s fortunes around into the biggest console war U- turn I can remember. The Wii is in more homes now than I dare to count. Everyone seems to be playing Mario & Sonic at the Olympics, with the word “kiddy” being lost to the wind. If anything though, in my opinion Nintendo has capitalised too much on this new consumer, so that traditional games are few and far between.

Enter a new game called Fragile: Sayonara Tsuki no Haiyko, released at the end of January. Developed by Namco and the team behind Baten Kaitos, the game puts you in a post apocalyptic world not too similar to Fallout 3 or I Am Legend. You take on the role of Seto, a fairly standard JRPG lead who is searching for any survivors. Rather than latching on the motion controls as a cheap gimmick, the Wii remote is used as a flash light, allowing you to search the wreckages for vital clues. It may not sound very revolutionary on paper, but in a survival horror game atmosphere is everything. Incorporating something as crucial as a torch is highly engaging and draws the player into the drama. Seto is just a young boy, piecing together stories so that players can discover how this disaster came about.

Whether it will ever hit western shores is anyone’s guess. Yet it’s these kinds of games that show that new innovation is still possible for the Nintendo Wii. I beieve even families will eventually tire of the same mini-game/party titles that are constantly rehashed for another cheap profit. The ‘big N’ has released most of its first party franchises, leaving 2009 looking stagnant on the release list. That needn’t be the case. Famitsu magazine gave Fragile 31 out of 40, a positive score for a critical publication. Surprisingly, Sega has announced Mad World a game that also seems to be pushing the boundaries. The stark visuals are in black and white, leaving only the blood in colour for a Sin City style gore fest. I just hope that these titles can be noticed and find a well deserved place on Wii owner’s shelves.

I’ve held off buying a Nintendo Wii, waiting for a substantial amount of games to be released that I would like to own. At the moment I’m usually renting Wii titles and playing them on my friend’s consoles. 2009 will be a make or break year in my eyes that will show that either the Wii has more fight in it, or is simply content to bathe in record breaking profit. Innovation, don’t let me down.