Version tested: DS
Etrian Odyssey (US Import)
Cartography is a profession woefully under-represented in videogames. We're used to having our in-game maps fully charted and available right from the start of a level (or, in the case of Zelda at least implausibly awaiting discovery in some remote treasure chest). As a result, few modern gamers will have experienced the antiquated and inimitable enjoyment that comes from painstakingly mapping a level, square by square on school maths paper.
Etrain Odyssey takes this ancient RPG hobbyist practice and boots it into the present by offering a turn-based first person perspective RPG on the top screen and a fully-featured mapping tool on the bottom.
Your fist task in the game is to assemble a team of fighters and healers (by naming and choosing their avatars and skills) into a guild before setting off into a lush green forest charged with the task of fully charting its corridors and depths. As you walk through these tight pathways you fill in the squares on the bottom screen taking care to note with numerous types of helpful icons where you find treasure or trigger key events. Essentially the game consists of you clearing a floor or area of the forest before moving on to the next one, mapping areas and disposing of enemies as you progress, which is actually a lot more engaging than it sounds in summary.
Your party of five can be created from the usual character classes. Skill points, earned when you level up, must be assigned in order to improve your squad's abilities. Unlike traditional RPGs you must actually specify and pay for an increase in a character's HP or Attack power. As each character class has 21 skills, which can be levelled up a total of ten times each, you quickly nurture a very personal team.
This is a tough game requiring frequent trips back out of the forest to resuscitate team members back at the town when you've run out of healing items or your mage is out of magic points (TP). Nevertheless, this is usually down to poor planning on your part so it's rarely infuriating and, with so many options and tools at your disposal there's always incentive to go back and take on enemies again - albeit now with a better plan.
Despite the fact there's little variation to the locations, the graphics are pretty and detailed. Atlus, as you might expect, has done an excellent job translating the flowery text and this, combined with the delightful soundtrack, conspires to create a distinctive and compelling atmosphere. Indeed, Etrian Odyssey succeeds in making some aged and usually uncomfortable RPG conventions feel fresh, thoughtful and engaging and is thoroughly recommended to DS owners with even a passing interest in the genre.
7 / 10
Dead 'n' Furious (Touch the Dead in the US)
Sega's long-running series of light gun-based arcade games is loved for its light-hearted but gory frenetic shooting, hammy acting, camp scenarios and creatively gruesome monsters. Dead 'n' Furious, far from being a necrophilia-'em-up, follows in these lumbering footsteps by translating the light gun interface to a more abstracted control scheme.
Here you hammer the stylus on the touch screen at the point at which you wish to fire your gun before dragging a clip of ammunition from the bottom right of the screen over to your weapon in order to reload. It's a system that works curiously well and, while you'd think simply having to touch where you want to shoot might make the game a little simple, by limiting the amount of ammo in your clip, skilful timing of reloads becomes of paramount importance.
The ridiculous storyline casts you as Rob Steiner, a prisoner at Ashdown Hole State Penitentiary who is lounging in his cell when all of the prison's doors mysteriously unlock. Stranger still how all of the other cells and corridors are empty and, curiouser and curiouser, Steiner finds a handgun lying unattended in the toilets. The story never really advances much from this sparse introduction: you shoot zombies and escape the prison. Narrative closed.
While the game is on-rails, guiding you through the prison step by step while you concentrate on the shooting, you do get the occasional binary choice as to which direction to take (by shooting at a left or right arrow on a wall). Over the course of the four main chapters, each closed with an intimating boss fight, you'll pick up a shotgun, a crowbar and a submachine gun. For these other weapons you'll need to find ammo by shooting crates and so your eyes are constantly searching scenes for both monsters and containers.
Graphically bland, the game still manages to create some tension through its rudimentary presentation with some clever pacing. However, a lacklustre co-op mode (which bizarrely / cheaply sees you both viewing the game from the same perspective) does little to flesh out a sparse package which, once cleared in three or four hours, has very little else to offer.
5 / 10
Tank Beat (US import)
Despite the leading title, regrettably Tank Beat isn't a military-themed rhythm action game. Instead this is a stylus-controlled tank simulator-lite in which you control an armoured vehicle by tracing directions and shot angles on the map-based touch screen while the action outplays in 3D on the top screen.
Story Mode follows tank pilot rookie Vill Katjue, a young soldier separated from his platoon during a skirmish. Throughout the short campaign Vill is able to take control of a number of different tanks as he goes rogue working to liberate his homeland from the Codusal Army and reunite with his family. While the anime style portraits that illustrate the story are well-drawn, the dialogue is tiresome and ineffective ensuring the tale in Story Mode quickly becomes an irritating obstacle to the action.
And, sadly, that action lacks lustre when you eventually get to it. A blue dot represents Vill's tank on the touch screen and by drawing a line away from your position you can manoeuvre the vehicle around the map. Dragging the stylus in a circle around your tank swivels your turret view and, when a red dot appears on the map screen, you must hold the L-trigger and tap at it to fire off rockets.
This simple mechanic is built upon with the addition of friendly units that join your side on the fly. These units can either provide support to Vill by following your movements or they can be independently controlled by the player or even sent off to seek and destroy using their own AI. However, as micromanaging one tank with this control scheme is tough enough, you'll soon simply set comrades to follow your lead to ease the burden.
The problem with DS games which use this system of control is that, while all of the art team's work has gone into creating the 3D models, environments and textures on the top screen, as a player you only ever need to watch the 2D abstracted map screen on the bottom. This isn't such a bad thing with Tank Beat as the environments are bland, models blocky and textures dreary and repetitive but, nonetheless, moving dots around a map is rarely compelling.
As the Story Mode can be cleared in a couple of hours you're left to find fun in one of the game's simple multiplayer modes (download play or Wi-Fi) but these do little to enliven the repetitive and staccato move, stop, point, shoot, flow of play leaving a meagre and shallow title that's difficult to recommend.
4 / 10
Look, chances are you, like us, are probably not dead centre of Pony Friends' target demographic of horsey six-year-old girls. But, if part of the reason videogames exist is to give us chance to try new experiences, why shouldn't we have a digital pony to love and cherish and groom under the covers in bed at night?
So it was with open-mind and light-heart that we picked out and named our first pony, Colonel Proust, in this, Eidos' equestrian answer to Nintendogs. Budding genetic engineers will be pleased to know you can tweak almost every part of your pony's appearance, which, if it helps, is a bit like creating car designs in Forza 2, right?
We chose a grey-dappled back, light brown tail, dark chestnut 'socks', a brown star on his nose (giggle etc) and a bright red birthmark on his rump which, while making him look like a bit like a burns victim also ensured he's easy to pick out of a crowded paddock. Colonel Proust shares our birthday and his favourite food is parsnips and he's totally awesome, OK?
Your pony design created (or at least selected from a pony decal randomiser) the business of managing its health, diet, exercise, training and upkeep begins. The package is surprisingly thorough with each element of upkeep shoehorned into a mini-game of some sort. You can enter you ponies onto races, which require you to jolly them along to victory by shouting into the microphone at a specified volume. Mercifully the old DS trick of blowing into the mic at various strengths provides precise control without the acute embarrassment of needing to shout: 'Run, run Colonel Proust! Win this and I'll put a ribbon in your hair!' or something on a crowded commuter train.
Riding and racing your ponies makes them tired and dirty so you'll need to pick stones from their hooves and shampoo them down regularly. A happiness stat indicates how well you're treating your charge through feeding them treats, petting them, oiling their hooves and giving them gifts. A Pokmon Snap style minigame, surprisingly accomplished for such a niche title, allows you to photograph wildlife as you travel from location to location and selling these pics earns money to spend in the game's well-stocked shops.
There are even Xbox Live style achievements to ensure you explore all of the game's various avenues - a neat idea in a genre that can quickly become meandering and aimless.
Obviously the game is targeted with a marketing sniper's precision to appeal to a certain type of young girl, but it's well crafted enough to interest a wider, inquisitive audience. However, if you're yet to hit puberty and you'd trade your older brother for a pony in an instant, then you can probably add a gazillion trillion to the score below. Then, when you next play skipping rope in the playground, you can chant in a sing-sing voice: 'A gazillion trillion out of ten, this is better than Halo then.'
6 / 10