Version tested: Wii
Those who once held out hope for Nintendo’s WiiWare service as an outlet for charming, offbeat and innovative games might well be sobbing into their lacy handkerchiefs. While there’s no shortage of games available now, the prices remain prohibitively high and quality is an often secondary concern.
There are, however, some notable titles loitering in amongst the incomprehensible brawlers and bafflingly simplistic Wii Sports rip-offs. Here’s our pick of the more interesting efforts from the last few months.
Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a Darklord
- Price: 1000 Points
- In Real Money: £7 / €10
A loosely related spin-off from a spin-off, this companion piece to WiiWare debut title My Life as a King at least earns some credit for mixing things up. Unlike the RPG series that spawned it, and unlike the resource management game that preceded it, this is yet another entry in the increasingly crowded tower defence genre.
In this case you play as Mira, the cutesy evil offspring of the Darklord. Eager to make a name for herself as a wicked force in her own right, she sets off to lure worthy foes into her magic tower (not a euphemism) so that their defeat might increase her infamy.
This being a Final Fantasy game, albeit several times removed from the source, the plot is nowhere near that simple. By the end the requisite secrets and conspiracies have been painstakingly laid out in a procession of between-level speech bubbles.
The core of the game, however, remains the same throughout. Adventurers invade your tower, and you have to stop them reaching the top. You do this by first placing floors and then populating them with monsters. Each floor has an artefact which must be protected from damage. These artefacts can boost the stats of any monsters on the floor, cause additional damage to adventurers or provide other area effects. Should the artefact be destroyed, the floor collapses taking its inhabitants with it.
Adventurers advance floor by floor, trading blows with whatever lies on each until a small timer runs out. They then ascend to the next level. Only one adventurer can occupy each floor and they’ll keep climbing until they find a vacant spot, so as the numbers increase you need to keep an eye of where each incoming foe is going to end up.
Two currencies govern the action. Negative Points are your spending money, used in each stage to add floors and monsters. You earn more NP for each enemy defeated, and items can boost your initial stock to give you a head start. Karma, on the other hand, is earned for victory and can only be spent in the menu. This is what you use to expand your tower’s available size – allowing up to five additional floors for 300 Karma points – and to boost the stats of your creatures. Once levelled up, you can then use NP in-game to raise individual monsters to the required level.
As the bedrock for a fast-paced strategy game it’s functional enough, and the game quickly starts adding more wrinkles to the cloth. Enemies come in different classes – melee, ranged and magic being most common – and a rigid rock, paper, scissors framework dictates the most effective response. An invading mage will be cut down swiftly by ranged attacks, but melee fighters will struggle to inflict damage.
It’s here that Darklord’s limitations start to become evident. The class boundaries are so inflexible that the wrong match of monster and invader is essentially useless. Since there’s no way to change your set up to suit a changing situation, it’s too easy to be left with an unworkable arrangement that leads to inevitable defeat. Before each level you’re told how many enemies to expect, and what classes they’ll be drawn from. What you don’t know is in what order they’ll arrive, how many there will be in each raiding party or what level they’ll be.
What works for four Level 3 Black Mages is a waste of time against the three Level 5 Gladiators that might theoretically follow. Always leaving yourself some empty slots and spare NP to react to such situations goes some way to solving the problem, but by the midpoint of the game you’ll still only have unlocked a couple of floor types, a few monsters and a handful of optional items.
With extremely limited reserves of NP to play with, and a finite number of ways to replenish your stock, it always feels like the game is holding back - the miserly units at your command giving you little room to really dig deep into the tempting tactical depths that the concept so clearly offers.
There’s a reason for this: DLC. Right from launch there were 14 packages of downloadable additions to the game, boosting your floors, monsters and items to more flexible levels for a cumulative price of 4700 points. That’s not including the extra stages, which clock in at another 1000 points. While it’s possible to complete the game without dipping into this expensive array of additional resources, the structure is such that the game blatantly nudges you towards more spending at every opportunity.
My Life as a Darklord has the foundations of a decent tower defence game, and there will surely be those devotees who see its claustrophobic restrictions as a plus rather than a minus. There is depth here, especially for patient or committed fans, but the mercenary way that the game dangles this potentially richer gameplay as bait for overpriced DLC purchases sticks in the throat.
Final Fantasy IV: The After Years
- Price: 800 Points
- In Real Money: £6 / €8
Much like Capcom’s 8-bit styled MegaMan 9, this direct sequel to the 1991 entry in the series has been designed to look and play like a SNES title. It’s also episodic in nature although as with My Life as a Darklord, the way this has been implemented is rather unappetising.
The game is set 17 years after the original. We find Ceodore, son of Cecil and Rosa, taking his place as our new precocious hero. The moon detached from the Blue Planet’s orbit at the end of Final Fantasy IV has returned mysteriously, and those bloomin’ Crystals start to throb in a “here we go again” sort of way.
A total of 13 existing characters are reintroduced in older forms while 11 new characters have been added to the pot. In other words, it’s every bit as sprawling and busy as you’d expect from the Final Fantasy series. Familiarity with the previous game isn’t essential as such, but it certainly helps. You’ll know already if Square’s wordy dialogue and leisurely storytelling is your cup of tea, so there’s little point chalking it up as either pro or con. Suffice to say, it feels every inch the classic Final Fantasy adventure.
Gameplay is much as it would have been back in 1991, making for a familiar and intuitive experience, but there are some new features of note. The phases of the moon change each time you rest, and this lunar cycle has an immediate effect – both positive and negative - on your party and the enemies you fight.
There’s also the ChronoTrigger-inspired Band System, which allows you to combine attacks from each character to create new, more devastating, offensive moves. With so many characters to choose from, it’s no small addition to the tactical meat of the battles.
All of which should, in theory, make The After Years an instant purchase for fans. At 800 Points for an all-new Final Fantasy game in the classic style, it’s hard not to recommend this course of action. That is until our old friend DLC drops in for a visit. The initial purchase only gives you the main story. If you want the sidequests, and the character-specific storylines, then you’ll need to fork out for an extra 13 chapters, which adds another 3700 points to the asking price.
They are, of course, entirely optional but the sort of people most likely to be attracted to a SNES-styled sequel to a 1991 JRPG are also those most likely to want every last drop of gameplay. Perhaps more than any other genre, this is the one where you know that simply playing the main storyline is less than half the experience. With that in mind, while The After Years is a treat for fans in concept and execution, it’s a slap in the face from a commercial standpoint.
NyxQuest: Kindred Spirits
- Price: 1000 Points
- In Real Money: £7 / €10
Openly inviting comparisons to Ico on the basis of its lovely hand-painted graphical style, this quietly captivating platformer can also tip its feathery cap in the direction of LostWinds - that other gentle platforming gem which now seems like an oasis of style and restraint amid the morass of shrill, overpriced tat clogging up the WiiWare channel.
The storyline, which is based very loosely on Greek mythology, tells the tale of Nyx. Originally the goddess of the night, she’s reimagined here as a winged nymph on a quest to find her lost love, Icarus. You may recall he came a cropper in a wax wings/sunshine-related accident.
Guiding Nyx with the nunchuk, you trot along using up to five flaps of your wings to clear obstacles. After some basic hops to get you started Nyx earns new abilities. The Z button allows you to glide, or run when on the ground. After a chat with Zeus the remote comes into play, enabling you to grab objects in the gameworld with the B button and move them around.
Shifting blocks to cover scalding sand and toppling pillars that are in Nyx’s path seems like rudimentary stuff, but the game slowly becomes more inventive than it first seems. You’re faced with seemingly impossible barriers that require more than obvious solutions to circumnavigate - and that’s just the start of the abilities that the game drip feeds you along the way.
I’m wary of mentioning Braid for fear of making NyxQuest sound more arty than it really is, but structurally there’s much to compare. Both have simple interfaces that become steadily more complex through environment rather than button combinations. Both mark progress by the introduction of new skills, but each addition enhances the simple core of the game rather than smothering it.
It’s lovely, and if there’s any criticism to be made, it’s that while NyxQuest effortlessly builds into something delightful, it never quite manages that little extra twist that distinguishes a truly memorable title. Even so, that’s still enough to make it stand out from its WiiWare peers, and there are few better ways to spend 1000 points on the service right now.