If life is, indeed, like a box of chocolates, then we'd opine that penning one of Eurogamer's review roundups is rather like a box of chocolates bought for you by a relative who doesn't like you very much, with the Tesco discount label only half peeled off. You never know quite what you're going to get, but the chances are you won't like many flavours, and may feel somewhat ill by the end. Not to mention fatter.
Now all that remains to be seen is whether this latest batch of PSP treats can dish up some unexpectedly delicious centres, or whether the chocolate will be cheap and the nasty chewy ones that stick between your molars all too abundant. Or, indeed, whether this metaphor will ever end. Sorry.
- Publisher: Ivolgamus
- Developer: Ivolgamus
Like every other handheld console in the short and tumultuous history of portable gaming, the PSP isn't short a puzzle game or three. However, none of them are quite like Fading Shadows - in fact, nothing we've ever played is quite like Fading Shadows.
In theory, you play a young girl with clairvoyant abilities, who attempts to rescue her brother from the clutches of an evil sorcerer who plans on conquering the Castle of Heaven by sacrificing this innocent child. In practice, you play a beam of sunlight that guides a rolling orb (in which the boy's soul is sealed) around a collection of imaginative, atmospheric and sometimes genuinely inspired levels.
Your controls are fairly simple. You can widen the beam of light, or focus it more tightly - a more focused beam moves the orb faster, but runs the risk of burning the orb. By rolling over switches in the floor you can turn the orb into different types. Metal is impervious to the light beam, and can jump slightly by tapping O, but it gradually rusts in water; wood floats on water, but burns easily if you shine the beam on it. Hitting triangle reverts the orb to its default state, glass - which doesn't float, isn't damaged by water, only burns very slowly but will shatter if you slam it too hard against something.
Essentially, then, you have three forms to play with, and by combining this with various door switches, rivers, ponds of water, elevated platforms, and even mirrors that reflect the beams around, the game crafts a superb variety of puzzle environments. Each one is designed like an abandoned room, tower or courtyard in a magical castle, and with no time limit, you're left free to explore and muse on solutions in your own time - which suits the wistful, melancholy atmosphere of the whole thing perfectly.
It's by no means perfect - it's a touch on the short side, the enormous load delays between levels are a massive source of frustration, and we noticed our light beam getting caught on scenery on a few occasions. However, even allowing for that, this is a hidden gem in the PSP catalogue. Beautiful, understated and relaxing, this is to normal "marble puzzle" games what ICO was to normal platform games.
Pro Evolution Soccer 2008
- Publisher: Konami
- Developer: Konami
This is the third annual iteration of Pro Evolution Soccer on the PSP - and by now you probably know whether that means much to you or not. Like its big brothers on home consoles, the PSP edition of PES 2008 is very much an incremental upgrade, offering a minor evolution of football gameplay that most seem to agree is deep, realistic and - most importantly of all - actually fun.
The problem with PES 2008 is that you could have made exactly the same comment about PES 2007. This year's game boasts tight, fluid football at its heart, but it's pretty much the same tight, fluid football that we liked in last year's game - and it's accompanied by pretty much the same visuals (not bad, but the occasional mis-step like the awful, grey-looking crowds) and the same basic presentation problems, like very patchy commentary and pretty shockingly awful music.
One area that sees a genuine step forwards is the interaction between the PS2 and the PSP versions. While the ability to move data between versions has been a feature of the PSP edition since its first instalment, PES 2008 takes it to a much more impressive level by allowing you to transfer every single mode in the game - Master Leagues, World Tour Challenges, the lot - over to the PSP. It's finally at the stage where the PS2 game is almost entirely replicated on your handheld, allowing you to continue playing the game on the road - and then sync it back when you come home.
That's good. What isn't so good is that the game simply isn't moving forward in other departments. PES fans will be sick of hearing reviewers grumble about the lack of licensed team information, but it's still a legitimate complaint, and one that isn't fixed much in the 2008 edition (at least for the English teams).
Multiplayer, meanwhile, remains a glaring black hole in the game's featureset. There's ad hoc local wireless play - but no online play. Even the (admittedly poor) DS version has online head to head play, which makes this look a bit silly. As the game's name reminds us, it is 2008, after all.
Even allowing for the fact that PES' core game experience is still great, we can't in all honesty call this a great game - simply because it offers remarkably little that you can't get in last year's version. It's competent, it's fun, it's certainly good - but unless the PS2 to PSP transfer stuff tugs your whistle, it's not easy to justify the upgrade.
King of Clubs
- Publisher: Oxygen Games
- Developer: Oxygen Games
Arriving as it did in a nondescript package with no box art, our first expectation was that King of Clubs would be a card game of some sort. We hadn't even considered the possibility that it could be a golf game - crazy golf, at that. In fact, we didn't twig that until we arrived at the main menu, because the intro cinematic, rather ominously, ignores golf entirely in favour of putting all the emphasis on the crazy.
Yes, this is crazy golf. Keraaaaaazy golf, said in the same tone of voice you might use to describe attention starved idiots who drink a couple of pints of beer, put their trousers on their heads and breathlessly describe themselves to the faintly disapproving audience as being "SO CRAZY!" It's full of crazy American stereotypes, like a crazy redneck and a crazy Elvis bloke and a crazy busty blonde, and a variety of even crazier unlockable "pro" players. We won't spoil the crazy fun.
In fact, our first concern was simply that the game seemed to have spent so long focusing on the utterly mundane Crazyness that it had forgotten to do anything with, you know, the golf bit. Graphically it's dull as dishwater, with a colour palette borrowed from the brain of a manic depressive with a large collection of Radiohead music, and the early mini-golf levels are incredibly simple - essentially just brown blocks of play area in the middle of cardboard cut-out artwork of crazy locations.
Not terribly promising, then - but King of Clubs actually pulls its socks up as it goes along. What initially seems an almost offensively simple stroke mechanism (you simply pick a club, the direction and the power) comes into its own as the courses get more complex and obstacle-packed, and power-ups like rubber balls are introduced through the shop system.
It's still a shockingly easy game right up until the last holes, but it's got just enough depth to keep it entertaining. If you can ignore the keraaazy attempted humour and give it a little while to find its stride after the dull opening rounds, there's a fun little game in here - and it does support game sharing for multiplayer rounds, which is a plus. On the other hand, though, it's hard to see why you'd play this in preference to the vastly superior Everybody's Golf; unless you've already played that to death, King of Clubs probably shouldn't be at the top of your to-buy list.
Hard Rock Casino
- Publisher: Oxygen Games
- Developer: Farsight Studios
There are two types of bad game in this world. There are the kinds which are a fundamentally good idea, but implemented with all the grace and style of a hideously fat man crossing a busy road on a pogo-stick. Blindfolded. Then there are the games which, simply, have been a bad idea since the moment that the initial concept flopped out of the mouth of a designer. Somehow these concepts survive months and months in development without anyone noticing what a crap idea the whole thing is.
Hard Rock Casino is the latter type of bad game. It's dressed up in ruthlessly competent but utterly soulless execution, but the simple awfulness of the concept shines through brightly. It's not just that it's a compilation of gambling games. Let's pretend that you're willing to accept that games of pure chance can be fun even without any real cash riding on the outcome, because if you don't, then it's not like your hand was ever going to stray near this game on a shelf anyway.
Here you'll find well over a dozen different games, ranging from slot machines to variants on poker - all wrapped up (here's the innovation, ladies) in a story mode where you have to complete various challenges in order to proceed through your "adventure".
Two problems slap you in the face within minutes. Firstly, each game is implemented in a manner that's functional, but crude and ugly - with a crowded, unpleasant interface that feels more like a poor Flash game than a proper PSP title. All of the games work, but none of them is particularly fun to play. The most painfully utilitarian is one of the slot machine games, which really is just a matter of feeding it virtual coins and pressing X to see if you win. At least in some of the others you have to make some arbitrary decisions before pressing X to see if you win. We do mean arbitrary, too; there's a whole section for sports betting where you're not shown the form of any of the horses before the race.
Secondly, the adventure mode idea may have worked on paper - but someone should have realised, long before this game made it onto shop shelves, that replacing player skill with random chance in order to progress is a shockingly bad idea. Some of the challenges, admittedly, aren't random - but you'll fail other ones purely because the random number generator didn't like you that time around. It's an exercise in frustration and annoyance, and the payoffs aren't worth it - nothing you unlock makes this game any fun. Even the most ardent casino game fan (do those really exist?) will struggle to enjoy this.
Need for Speed: ProStreet
- Publisher: Electronic Arts
- Developer: Electronic Arts
We weren't big fans of the home console versions of Need for Speed: ProStreet that appeared late last year - with Tom opining, essentially, that if you're going to release a racing game it'd probably be a good idea to let players steer the damned cars, before slapping a 5/10 on the game's twitching corpse. Predictably, it sold millions.
It's a little surprising, then, that the PSP version has taken so long to appear - we had anticipated a quick cash-in by just throwing the mystifyingly popular PS2 version onto a handheld version and hoping for the best. Instead, the PSP version has been somewhat reworked, although not necessarily with the best intentions.
Utterly lacking any kind of plot - and abandoning the whole idea of illegal street racing in favour of hurtling your souped up penis-size compensation machines down a variety of real-life and imaginary race courses - the game's career mode is purely a series of straightforward races. Take part and you get to modify your cars; arguably the series' core appeal in recent years, and one which ProStreet certainly doesn't ignore, with extensive (albeit sometimes not terribly noticeable in gameplay terms) modifications on offer.
The game's chief addition over the previous versions is that you can choose a character - or rather, a difficulty level - to play as, with lower difficulty levels adding driving assists for you. It also adds a new feature (new to ProStreet, not new to racing games), which warns you if you're going too fast into a turn, and suggests an optimal driving line.
These additions, however, are just a sop to what remains the biggest problem with ProStreet - namely that driving the cars themselves is about as much fun as climbing on board a cow and encouraging it to run straight at a wall. The earlier models in the game steer like oil tankers - and in order to proceed to later cars, which improve matters somewhat, you'll need to come first in a litany of boring, frustrating races against ludicrous AI that wilfully shoves you off the track, but then appears to be concreted to the floor when you try to return the favour.
Moreover, for everything added to the PSP version, something has been taken away - leaving the game stripped down to a basic core of career mode, single race events, and a handful of tracks. It's dull, it's lacklustre, and it entirely betrays the series' name by having no perceptible sense of speed. With the PSP absolutely drowning in a pool of brilliant racing games, there's absolutely no reason why you should bother with this.