Version tested: DS
As the 3DS experiences something of a fallow period, it's easy to forget that its planet-conquering predecessor, the Nintendo DS, went through some lean times in its early days. With the industry seemingly banking on Sony's PSP winning the battle for handheld supremacy, publishers were understandably cautious about this strange dual-screened portable, and after the initial wave of support during the DS launch window new releases were thin on the ground.
The likes of Nintendogs and Brain Training - and a sleek redesign - obviously changed all that. But many had to rely on a thriving import scene to fill the gaps between big releases. It could be argued that, had the DS not been region-free, it wouldn't have found such favour with core gamers.
If importing remained a niche, it was slowly widening, with Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan and Slitherlink (among others) becoming breakout hits. They were even recognised by those unfamiliar with Play-Asia and the sadly missed Lik-Sang.
Of course, the opportunity to get certain games early was a big part of the appeal. Would the Ace Attorney titles have been in such demand without the fervent support of the savvier gamer? A handful of games seemed to make the leap purely thanks to their import popularity; it took Nintendo of Europe a couple of years to bring over Atlus' Etrian Odyssey, and it sold poorly, but the very existence of a European version says much about the cachet generated by word-of-mouth buzz. Ditto for Jam with the Band, a very belated localisation of the superb Daigasso! Band Brothers DX.
Yet with the DS now on the wane and the 3DS being region-locked, importing will now be restricted to the ultra-dedicated and the rich. It's a good job Nintendo didn't get the idea sooner – a world without Ouendan and Hudson's Puzzle Series would be too horrifying to comprehend for some. Many would have missed out on Trauma Center: Under The Knife 2, Etrian Odyssey II and III, Contra 4, Jump Ultimate Stars, Chousouju Mecha MG and Loopop Cube: Lup Salad, to mention but a few. Extend that to the previous generation and Drill Dozer, Wario Ware Twisted!, Rhythm Tengoku and the Bit Generations games would all have been off-limits. If the handheld import scene is moribund, it's not dead just yet. The idiosyncrasies of the region-lock system still allow 3DS owners to play DS games from any territory. So if you're looking for something to tide you over until Ocarina of Time 3D – or you're a DS owner who hasn't bought into Nintendo's glasses-free revolution just yet – then the following trio might just be worth those customs charges...
As that great philosopher Alan Partridge once noted, "zombies by their very nature are inconsistent," which naturally makes them bad subjects for a real-time strategy game. It certainly makes them entertaining subjects for an RTS, and managing a horde of blue-faced brain-gobblers is your task in this endearingly ramshackle game from roguelike kings Chun Soft.
You guide your troupe of flesh-eating freaks exclusively using the touchscreen, with the aim of destroying all humans within an area, collecting a special item, or defeating a single powerful foe. Taps select individual zombies, while dragging the stylus across several makes them all move at once. Pressing and holding attracts them like the smell of human flesh, while three brisk taps send them scattering – useful for avoiding the attacks of the larger 'boss' characters. You can also select them by the colour of their t-shirts (evidently cardigans are out in undead fashion circles), while the d-pad simply moves the camera around.
It's an elegant control scheme for an inelegant mob; your charges are like Pikmin, only far more disobedient. Nintendo's carrot-shaped critters might have occasionally meandered towards blobs of delicious nectar, but in the main, they'd do as they were told. Organising this lot is like trying to keep control of a primary school class on a field trip to a Skittles factory. Zombies get easily bored of chasing quicker prey, instead preferring to wrap their decaying gums around traffic cones, or mindlessly thump parked vehicles.
Yet this is all part of the fun. Strategy goes out of the window in favour of feverish stylus swipes as you desperately round up a large enough group to swamp bosses with windmilling fists or fast-moving cameramen, whose recordings can alert SWAT teams, giving you a short time to finish off the remaining survivors before said men with guns take down your cranium-cracking crew. Meanwhile, the presents you pick up contain seeds which can be planted in your farm hub, growing items that improve the strength and speed of the zombies that eat them. See, PopCap? They can be friends.
The art style is simple but cute - a news report adorably refers to the infected as 'blue masks' - while the sprinkling of English text and judicious use of arrows and icons for objectives makes it far more accessible than most kanji-heavy Japanese titles. It barely qualifies as a strategy game, but what it lacks in tactical depth, it more than makes up for with charm, humour and an enjoyably frenzied pace.
This cheerful platform-adventure comes from DreamRift, the studio formed by a team of developers who worked on Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure, a fact which becomes obvious once you start playing. Monster's Tale similarly asks players to watch both screens at once, though rather than a match-three puzzler supplementing the overground action, it's more of a virtual Tamagotchi.
On the top screen, you control blue-haired moppet named Ellie, who finds herself in a world ruled by malevolent kids and their monstrous pets. The bottom screen is reserved for Chomp, a friendly creature who decides to help Ellie to escape. The pair must work together to overcome etc. etc.
Chomp is small and cute when you meet him, but he soon proves handy in combat, happily slapping enemies around without prompting. His energy meter gradually depletes from every action, however, so you'll need to send him to his home on the bottom screen to recuperate. Any items you find from slain enemies, shops or chests can be used to train Chomp, with food giving him vital EXP and weapons firing projectiles up to the top screen. His evolution is dependent on the items he consumes, whether he's munching on a cookie or reading a book. As with Pokémon, much of the excitement comes in the anticipation of his next transformation.
Not that you'll really need him too often, because Ellie herself is no shrinking violet, able to shoot powerful bolts from her magical bracelet and smash thin walls and enemies with her satchel of freakishly impressive destructive abilities. For the most part, Chomp will hover ineffectually underneath the action, waiting for treats to fall his way, prodding the odd switch to release a barrier blocking Ellie's path, or tackling enemies that occasionally venture into his realm. You'll bring him back up whenever a new form or ability is available, just to see how it looks, but a few screens later he'll be relegated to the bottom screen once more.
Still, Chomp's sporadic mutations make the backtracking more fun. Monster Tale has a 'Metroidvania' approach to exploration, with new areas opening up as Ellie learns new skills. But while the respawning enemies are weak, they're still a bit of an annoyance when you're trekking back across the same section of map for the third time. Boss battles fare rather better, making more inventive use of both screens, and it's here that Chomp's various abilities come into their own.
It might not make the most of its central idea, but Monster Tale is a colourful and breezily enjoyable adventure that's impossible to dislike. Hopefully DreamRift will get the opportunity to work on a sequel that really does the concept justice.
Radiant Historia review
Whenever anyone complains about the decline of the Japanese role-playing genre, you can be assured they don't own a DS. Nintendo's handheld has played host to many of the finest JRPGs of the generation, and it's no exaggeration to say that Radiant Historia belongs among the upper echelons.
It breaks with JRPG convention immediately by putting you in the shoes of a character that seems fully-formed already. A far cry from the wide-eyed orphan norm, Stocke is more like a deuteragonist in a lead role, the cocky and slightly aloof older fighter who softens as the game progresses. The rest of the cast are well-rounded, too, niftily sidestepping genre cliché.
There is still a world that needs saving, of course. With most of the land claimed by desertification (a phenomenon apparently determined to create the universe's biggest beach), two factions are battling over the remaining fertile land. After witnessing two of his comrades killed in battle, Stocke manages to travel back in time with the help of a magical book to rewrite the past, creating two parallel timelines where actions in one resonate in the other.
The idea of being able to rewrite past wrongs is a seductive but hardly uncommon one and while Atlus gets some mileage from the concept, it can't quite disguise the game's linearity. Certain elements don't quite add up, either - once you start examining timeline inconsistencies, the whole thing starts to fall apart. If you don't think too hard and just go with the (irregular) flow, you'll likely enjoy the dramatic effects your choices can have. The early sequence where Stocke rescues a spy from a volley of arrows only he knew was coming is just one of a number of moments designed to make your hairs stand on end.
A few of the goosebumps come courtesy of the fabulous score from RPG veteran Yoko Shimomura, who provides a string of stirring themes throughout. Graphically, it doesn't fare quite so well - the 2D character art is decent, but outside the shifting Escher-meets-Hogwarts staircases of Historia (the place where timelines intersect) environments are a little nondescript, as fairly basic character sprites skate unconvincingly across them.
Yet if presentational shortcomings betray budgetary constraints, the brilliant grid-based battle system shows lack of funds needn't mean lack of imagination. Push attacks guide enemies from front to rear, reducing their damage output, while nudging several into the same square lets basic attacks hit multiple foes. Shifting turn order allows you to stack up attacks to deliver powerful combos but leaves your defences down while you wait to strike. It's rife with tactical opportunities, and the atypically brisk pace - even the default movement speed is a sprint - means you'll relish every encounter.
Radiant Historia might lack the breadth and polish of Dragon Quest IX or the contemporary chutzpah of The World Ends With You, but in its own way, it's every bit as memorable and fully deserves its place alongside them at the top table of DS role-players.