Review of Death Mark

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Screenshots can be deceptive. Based on Death Mark’s promotional images, I expected this horror title from Aksys Games to be a first person dungeon crawler. In actuality it is a visual novel with point and click adventure segments. Over the course of five chapters, which took me around six hours to finish, players take control of an amnesiac whose wrist has been branded with the titular Death Mark. At first glance said marking looks like a cool tattoo. Early on in the story however it is revealed that the Death Mark is a curse placed on the protagonist by a vengeful spirit. Unless he is able to rid himself of it, our hero is fated to die within the next few days. Regrettably for him, erasing the Death Mark will prove to be more painful than enduring a session of laser tattoo removal.

OVERVIEW

Death Mark’s hub world is a mansion that once belonged to a paranormal expert. The player controlled character is based there, as he is searching the estate for clues on how to cure his condition. His investigation hasn’t uncovered much, but on the plus side he does find a cute talking doll that resembles a character right out of Rozen Maiden. At the start of each chapter more victims, who have been cursed, show up at the mansion’s doorstep. They seek help with escaping the fate that has befallen them. Unlike the main character, who has no memory of his past, the visitors have some idea of where they got marked. They take the protagonist to said location, hoping that he can defeat the spectre that roams there. In theory, exorcising the ghost should purge the hex it cast on them.

By using the d-pad players can navigate each area. The levels available to explore include a sewer, an abandoned school and a forest frequented by suicidal folk. Crikey, this game is starting to sound like a Logan Paul simulator! Via the use of the analogue stick players can aim a flashlight, which is used to examine objects and pick up items. The inventory procured is in turn used to solve puzzles. Pretty standard stuff. Open a locked door with a key, use bug spray to kill bees that block your path and um, repair an elevator with condoms. Wow, I don’t recall MacGyver ever doing anything like that. Items are also required to defeat the phantoms you encounter. Every now and then the player is placed in perilous Life or Death situations. These come in the form of timed events, were an action needs to be selected from a multiple choice list of options. Picking the wrong response will result in damage and potential death.

VERDICT

My rating for Death Mark is a four out of five. If you enjoyed Corpse Party: Book of Shadows I imagine you will like Death Mark, as they both have similar gameplay. Don’t expect much in the way of animation, as this is one of those titles that relies on text and still pictures to tell its story. The main campaign has two endings to unlock. How each chapter concludes is determined by the choices made during the end of level boss fight. Overall I liked the cast of characters you partner up with, over the course of the adventure, and the game’s plot. Aside from the main mystery, of who cursed the protagonist, each chapter serves as a stand alone ghost tale. It’s interesting to discover the tragic origins responsible for birthing the creatures you are pitted against.

Anyone who is left wanting more, after the end credits roll, can purchase the two-hour DLC for a bonus chapter. This applies to the Vita version only. For some reason the other console releases come complete with the extra chapter. That may seem harsh, for long suffering Vita fans, but it all evens out, as the edition on Sony’s handheld is the cheapest to buy. In terms of scares Death Mark isn’t too terrifying. The developers try to make things creepy with sound effects and the odd jump scare, but none of it phased me. I only had to change my underwear two times. All that said, I would only recommend Death Mark to gamers who are in their late teens or older. Apart from the occasional gruesome death the game includes a few kinky images. These include a bondage scene involving plant vines, a picture of a naked woman who is covered in serpents and a spirit possession that causes one of your female partners to strip. Maybe that’s what Ray Parker meant when he said (ghost) busting makes me feel good.

Review of Zero Time Dilemma

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It’s a massive relief to see that Zero Time Dilemma managed to wrap up the Zero Escape saga in a satisfactory manner. For a while it seemed like the franchise was doomed (much like a Fox commissioned TV show) for cancellation, leaving its ongoing tale unresolved. Thankfully the trilogy is now complete – even if most people won’t care, as the previous games sold poorly in spite of the critical acclaim they received. It always sucks when quality is not rewarded in terms of sales figures… just ask Okami.

OVERVIEW

Despite being the final chapter of the Zero Escape triad of titles, ZTD chronically takes place between the events of 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward. Once again a group of hapless victims has been kidnapped by the mysterious Zero and are forced to compete in a life or death game (think the Saw movies, only with less torture porn and more plot.) Zero, who now sports a creepy plague doctor’s outfit instead of a gas mask, has this time trapped nine science experiment volunteers inside a bomb shelter that has been decorated to simulate a Mars base. The only way of vacating the compound is to input six passwords, but unfortunately for the participants codes are only revealed when someone dies.

Players are tasked with guiding the nine hostages who, at the start of the game, have been split up into three man teams. The roster of characters includes some Zero Escape favourites such as Phi, Junpei, Akane and Sigma. New faces making their debut in this third instalment include Carlos the fireman, an amnesiac boy named Q (sadly not voiced by John de Lancie) and a busty lady called Mira – because it’s impossible to have a Zero Escape game devoid of cleavage.

Just like in 999 and VLR, in order to advance the narrative players are expected to clear the occasional puzzle room by using their handheld’s D-Pad and touchscreen. Scouring the environment for clues and useful tools is the order of the day, as is deduction of logic puzzles, sliding block brainteasers and mathematical conundrums. Wait, did someone say math problems? Yuk, I can now see why the previous games sold so poorly.

VERDICT

My rating for Zero Time Dilemma is a five out of five. Thank goodness that director Kotaro Uchikoshi secured sufficient funding to complete the game, because the end result is one of the finest trilogies I have ever played/watched. Why creative projects cannot attract cash whilst potato salad Kickstarters drown in thousands of dollars is beyond me. It’s a real shame that the series hasn’t courted more attention. Anyone who enjoys smartly written sci-fi really should give Zero Escape a shot; even if puzzlers or games with limited interactivity are not usually your bag. Looking online it seems like some other reviewers have been lukewarm on Zero Time Dilemma, although reading between the lines I think we can attribute those views to expectations being unrealistically high due to the quality of Dilemma’s predecessors.

Bibliophiles may disapprove of the contentious decision to replace the visual novel format of previous titles with fully animated cut scenes, but it worked for me as it gave ZTD the feel of an anime themed Telltale game. All that said the animation was a bit ropey during certain clips. Akane’s pigtail in particular looked like it was possessed by a demonic entity, which would at times cause it to pass through solid matter or defy the laws of gravity. Visual niggles aside, I really enjoyed the twenty hours I spent unlocking ZTD’s numerous endings. I highly recommend the game, although be aware that the story is inaccessible without knowledge of the previous titles. Europeans interested in checking out Zero Escape should ideally start with 999. A puzzle free remake of the DS original can presently be bought on iOS devices. Alternatively you can wait for the PC port to come out. Play now or wait? That’s quite the time dilemma.

Review of Moco Moco Friends

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The world of Dreamtopia is a magical place where humans live side by side with sentient stuffed toys known as Plushkins. Moco (the titular heroine who is named after the Spanish word for snot) is a young witch who resides in the aforementioned realm. She recently graduated from Plushkin Magic School, where she learned how to enslave adorable critters and force them to do her bidding. Armed with an army of cute servants she patrols the kingdom’s various dungeons eliminating any dark vortexes that manifest. Purging the land of these mysterious anomalies is of paramount importance given the effect they have on local wildlife. If a Plushkin comes into contact with said portals they immediately enrage, making them almost as violent as Mel Gibson getting pulled over by a Jewish copper.

OVERVIEW

Moco Moco Friends is a turn based RPG were you traipse through randomly generated levels beating up any stray Pokemon… um Plushkins that you encounter. Much like in Game Freak’s popular franchise, the 120 creatures available to capture come in various elemental flavours. You all know the drill by now. Light attacks receive a damage boost when targeting dark Plushkins whilst fire attacks are ineffective against water types. The similarities between Moco Moco Friends and titles featuring Pikachu are uncanny, although the action plays out a little differently. Battles against enemies require that you summon three Plushkins onto the field, with the fourth slot of your team being reserved for a substitute you can call in at the start of each turn.

It is said that money doesn’t grow on trees, but apparently textiles grow on cacti. When navigating a dungeon be on the look out for prickly plants because Moco is able to transmute flora into buttons and fabrics by using her trusty feline headed staff. These materials can be used back at home to sew anything from health restorative waffles (extra syrup on mine please) to enchanted gems that can make Plushkins evolve into a stronger form (I wonder if these cotton stuffed animals are related to Freeza.) During her travels Moco can also procure seedlings, which can be planted at her garden. After a ten to twenty minute wait seeds will sprout into flowers that can be harvested to earn additional crafting ingredients.

VERDICT

Although the game is a shameless Pokemon clone I think Moco Moco Friends is worthy of three and a half stars. From a gameplay perspective I preferred managing a party of three characters to the one on one duels Pokemon is famous for. As someone who is pressed for time I also appreciated that the two floor dungeons can be briskly cleared. Much less frustrating than getting lost for hours in a vast cavern where endless waves of Zubats assault you every time you take a step. Adding to the game’s fun factor are the cutesy visuals, jovial tunes and a charming cast of characters. Moco is a dim-witted sleepy glutton whilst her pals include a spell caster who yells out Sumo battle cries whenever she is frustrated and a giant canine that suffers from phalacrophobia.

My only real complaint with Moco Moco Friends is that after a few hours it begins to feel a tad repetitive. Clearly this is one of those handheld games that should be played in short bursts. Another disappointment was the title’s lack of challenge. Providing that you carry sufficient healing items you can pretty much neglect the tactical nuances of countering foes with attacks they are weak against. All that said I can pardon the developers for making things too easy as the title is targeted at youngsters. Moco Moco Friends is a 3DS release I would recommend to any parents who have a daughter that has expressed an interest in playing daddy’s RPGs. She can give this lovable adventure a go and if she manages to complete it you can then promote her to something slightly more taxing like say… Bloodborne.

Review of Mind Zero

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Mind Zero is the personification of plagiarism. The manner in which it copies the Persona franchise is akin to that little twerp who used to copy my exam answers back in school. He ceased that unethical practice once his grades came back and he realised I’m equally clueless when it comes to geography. Much like in Persona, the cast of Mind Zero is composed of teenagers who battle creatures in an alternate dimension with the aid of powerful guardians. In the case of Atlus’ smash hit you explore the Shadow World and summon Personas, whilst Mind Zero has you traversing the Inner Realm with the aid of summoned Minds. If that isn’t blatant imitation then Blackpool isn’t the capital of England… told you I suck at geography.

GAMEPLAY

Aside from the similar premise Mind Zero also mimics Persona with its cast of characters. Kei, the moody protagonist, is accompanied by a buffoonish sidekick and a spunky tomboy that make up a trio who resemble Persona’s Makoto, Yosuke and Chie (both in terms of appearance and personality.) Coincidently the English voice actor who plays Yosuke also voices Leo the Yosuke doppelganger. Clearly Aksys Games, who localised Mind Zero for western audiences, noticed the similarities between both titles too. They can at least defend their casting decision by arguing that said voice actor does a fine job performing the role. If however you are one of those sticklers who prefer to play games in their native tongue, you’ll be pleased to know that the option to switch over to Japanese is also available.

Much like in Persona, the majority of Mind Zero’s gameplay involves dungeon crawling through mazes made up of multiple floors. I cannot help but admire the stamina of your average RPG hero. I’m down for the count after climbing a flight of stairs, unlike Mind Zero’s cast who manage to traverse several floors and battle monsters without breaking a sweat. Although I have spent much of this review harping on about the similarities Persona and Mind Zero share, I can at least say they differ slightly in their execution. Persona’s levels are randomly generated whilst Mind Zero’s are pre-made. Your view of the action is also different. The recent Persona games show your party from a third person view whilst Mind Zero opts for a first person vantage point, akin to that used in Demon Gaze and Etrian Odyssey.

COMBAT

Like with many JRPGs, combat is a turn-based affair were you select your desired action from a list of commands. Random encounters are the order of the day so you won’t see any enemies on the map. Instead every step you take has a chance of triggering a battle, which in my experience occurred too frequently for my liking. In order to triumph over the game’s tougher foes managing your Minds is essential. Summoning a Mind onto the field boosts your stats and protects your characters from damage by depleting your MP bar, instead of your health, whenever you get hit. Hiding behind a Mind can however be risky as an attack that reduces your MP to zero will stun a character, preventing them from moving in the following turn. In other words you should be MINDful about overusing your Mind (ha ha.)

Apart from performing standard attacks and using items players can also command their party to cast spells. Magic that heals allies, buffs comrades and damages foes can be assigned to specific characters by equipping them with special cards. Vanquished enemies liberally drop these enchanted cards, which is a relief. Whenever I think of collecting cards my mind goes back to the days when I tried to complete a Premier League album. I never accomplished that feat and was forced to consume tons of nasty bubble-gum, which came bundled with the cards. Moving back to Mind Zero, the card system is neat as it allows you to customize your team. Duplicate cards can be sacrificed in order to strengthen your equipped spells, in addition to clearing up inventory space.

VERDICT

My rating for Mind Zero is a three out of five. It’s not a bad game, but it fails to distinguish itself from the multitude of other JRPGs on Sony’s handheld. I genuinely enjoyed Mind Zero at first, but after clocking in several hours of play its flaws began to surface. My chief complaint is the repetitive combat, which is made all the worse by the frequency of its random encounters. The uninteresting battles made the later levels a chore, as they regularly interrupted the game’s dungeon crawling. Increasing difficulty, more elaborate mazes to navigate and re-coloured versions of enemies you have previously faced are not a good combination when the battle system is struggling to maintain your interest.

Thankfully holding down the shoulder button speeds up the combat sequences, although there isn’t much pay off for fighting your way to the end. The story ends in an unsatisfactory cliffhanger, which may never be resolved given that the game wasn’t a hit. Despite its faults RPG fans looking for a new dungeon crawler will find some enjoyment in Mind Zero. The question is whether this Persona pretender is worth the full retail asking price. Given that Persona 4 Golden is jam packed with content you would probably have more fun replaying it over tackling its unimaginative imposter.

Review of 999: The Novel (iPad)

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999: The Novel is the iPad version of the 2009 DS game 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors. Given that the original release only appeared in Japan and North America, this iOS port finally gives European players the opportunity to sample the precursor to the awesome Virtue’s Last Reward. The visual novel’s narrative is told from the point of view of twenty-one year old Junpei Tenmyouji who, along with eight other hapless victims, finds himself trapped aboard a sinking cruise liner after being kidnapped by a masked individual who answers to the name of Zero.

As you may have guessed from the game’s title, in order to escape a watery grave the unlucky nine must conqueror Zero’s Nonary Game, which involves getting past nine locked doors within a strict nine hour time limit. Each of the participants has been allocated a number from one to nine, which becomes relevant whenever you come across a sealed room. Locked doors can only be opened by a party whose total assigned numbers have a digital root that matches the door’s number. If this is all giving you a headache don’t worry. Anyone lacking mathematical skills, such as myself, need only concern themselves with picking what door Junpei should enter. Once this is accomplished the group will organise themselves into teams to make your selection possible.

What is controversial about the iPad version of 999 is what happens upon entering a room. In the DS version players were expected to solve several puzzles in order to exit the room and explore the rest of the ship. The iPad iteration however does away with the puzzles altogether, simply telling the reader that “after a while the group figured out the puzzles and moved on.” It’s a strange decision given how the iPad touchscreen is more that adequate to handle the interface of the DS original. For all intents and purposes the iPad conversion has transformed 999 into an adventure book were you pick a door and then see how your selection impacts the plot. If you dislike brainteasers this is great, as you can enjoy the story with minimal distractions, but I imagine some players will feel that the omission of riddles makes the iPad download inferior to the DS original.

That’s not to say that the iPad version doesn’t surpass the DS in other areas. Visually the iPad can boast to having higher resolution graphics courtesy of the system’s bigger screen and retina display. Another plus is that the game includes a story flowchart similar to that found in Virtue’s Last Reward. Using the chart you can rewind back to events you have previously seen, which is handy for picking unexplored doors that lead to alternate endings. The system isn’t perfect though, as selecting a scene were you pick a door still forces you to read some text before you are permitted to make a selection, but it still trumps the DS cartridge which forced you to restart the story from the very beginning.

I am going to give 999: The Novel five stars out of five. The missing puzzles aren’t a deal breaker for me as the inclusion of the flow chart more than makes up for it by cutting down on needless backtracking. I can also let the lack of puzzles slide as the asking price is a bargain £3. That’s considerably cheaper than your average DS game. It’s a shame that I cannot comment on the story more without giving away major spoilers, as the plot is by far the game’s strongest aspect. Escaping a sinking ship is gripping enough, but trust me there is much more to it than that. The mystery surrounding Zero’s motives, in orchestrating the Nonary Game, is packed with clever twists that would put Fight Club to shame. If you enjoy mysteries, sci-fi or anime I can highly recommend 999. It’s just as enjoyable as any traditional paperback you can name with the added benefits of music, sound effects and graphics.