Review - XBLA Retrospective - XBox 360

Castle Crashers

Many years ago (going all the way back to 2004) we got our first taste of the skills of animator Dan Paladin and programmer Tom Fulp when they released Alien Hominid on consoles after it had a rather large success on the flash game website and one of my old haunts, Newgrounds.com
After four years of arduously raking in the fortune that followed, both Dan and Tomdecided to release Castle Crashers, their second side scrolling run 'n' gun game as a spiritual successor to Aien Hominid.
Released in August of 2008 for the XBox Live Arcade, you play as one of four knights each with their own specific magical attack (Lightning, Ice, Fire and Poison) the mission brief in this game is simple...face smackingly so; four princesses and a giant magical gem have been taken from the castle by The Evil Wizard, go smash shit up and get them back...there, told you it was simple.

Atomic fart power!! Only joking, but that wouldn't be
out of place in this game!
The basic design is reassuringly safe, the graphics are your garden variety cartoon-style with sprinkles of mature humour and controls that are very easy to just pick up and play as the only button you will need to start with is the X or "hit badguy with stick" button.  Despite the overall safe feel and simplistic nature of Castle Crashers, there is a surprising amount of content here for an Arcade game, upon my first encounter with the game, me and three friends embarked on our couch co-op mission of saving the princesses and recover the Giant Gem of Unmentioned Power and upon finishing the game and watching the bizarre but not altogether unexpected ending our first instinct was not to put the pads down and play something else or to venture outside to remember what the touch of daylight felt like but it was to start the game again and gather all the items we had missed.

You see, as I mentioned, there is a stonking amount of content to collect in the game, there are an additional 19 playable characters which range from enemies within the game to the Melee Knight who has no magical attack but you obtain him by not using magic throughout the first two levels...sorry, did that count as a spoiler?...Ahh well!, carrying on!!
There are also dozens of "Animal Orbs" which act like little sidekicks that you can find in random little corners of each level which have different effects depending on what you pick up, from the Owl who will try and bring you hidden food in the level to heal you to the BiPolar Bear who will attack both enemies and friends who are low on health and kill them which (when four players are caught in a complete cluster-fuck of baddies franticaly mashing their attack buttons) adds a nice bit of comedy spice to an already funny game.  There are also more than 70 weapons to gather (including basic weapons from Axe and Sword to the more exotic such as Frozen Fish and Skeletal Leg, granted a handful of them are on the DLC packs) which are all kept in the storage area at the local Blacksmiths storeroom (which is a giant frog with antlers that has had it's tongue tied to the blacksmith anvil)

The Painter...without a doubt the strangest enemy I have ever
faced in a video game to date...
So you're wondering around the insides of this giant frog with it's heat beating a few feet above you as the weapons are stored on makeshift racks made out of rope tied between the frogs ribs and at no point after your initial visit do you think there is anything wrong with this situation!, Paladin and Fulp have done an extrodinary thing with Castle Crashers, they have put your characters in bizarre situations but the way things are presented simplys invokes that "Yeah, fair enough, I'll roll with that" feeling that most games are completely lacking nowadays.

There are many moments that will invoke this feeling in you, such as the fight with the Cat-Fish on the river level, where the boss is an actual cat but with gills! or the chase through the longest lunber mill in the world where you are being chased by a giant one-eyed furry black beast with giant arms as you flee on deer-back, or The Painter who appears near the end of the game who proceeds to spout lines of dialog such as "My brush is mighter than your sword" and "I'll paint you into a coma" as he paints minions on the wall which then come to life! The Painter is also one of those unique "Yeah fair enough" moments as only after the battle did it occur to me that The Painter had a toolbox for a head!

The audition for the new Teletubbie "Toothy" didn't turn out well...
This is not to say that Castle Crashers isn't without its faults, there are many times when you will find that you cast your entire magic bar at an enemy only to find that you were two pixels higher than the enemy in question and just wasted your best move on thin air! But this is part of Castle Crashers' charm and overall appeal, it takes you back to a time where games were so buggy that you had a massive sence of accomplishment for getting through "that level" because the enemies all knew where they were in relation to you in the game but you only had your keen gaming eyes, quick fingers and a bucket of luck to pull through it. I wouldn't be surprised if Paladin and Fulp included these features on purpose (or at least neglected to remove them) to bring these feelings out in their gamers.

Castle Crashers is a throughly fun and enjoyable game, it is rare thing that I would buy an XBox Live Arcade game and still be playing it today, granted not so much but playing it again for this review was no less fun than when I first found myself still playing it at 4am with my buddies and a copious amount of energy drink.



Second on my examination table this afternoon is Braid, a side scrolling time-manipulation puzzle game from the mind of Jonathan Blow (get all your laughs out now, I'm gonna be using his name alot in this one........done? good!) a video games columnist who created Braid as a personal critique to the comtemporary trends in video games today. I personally view Blow as one of the homegrown heros of Indie gaming, he funded Braid with his own money and got his webcomic artist friend, David Hellman to help him create the visually stunning scenes that he made Hellman recreate several times to fully encapsuleate Blow's vision.

You'd be forgiven for not noticing the "A" sign in the scene
considering the level is so damn pretty!
Braid is one of those games that reviews hate, not because it's a bad game, far from it, but  becasue we find that there is so much about that game that we love we end up writing 1500 words about it then find we have only just described the title screen, that being said, I will endevour to bring you as much information about Braid as I can in the following 8500 words!...

You begin the game as a small 2D dude called Tim, controling Tim you go into what you assume to be Tims apartment, in here you have five rooms, each one representing a different world in the Braid universe. The main objective in Braid seems straightforward enough "Tim needs to rescue the Princess" and on initial inspection of the game and storyline, you would be forgiven for thinking that this was a jazzed up version of Super Mario but Braids genius comes from it's multifaceted stroyline, you see, before each world in Braid, you find several storybooks that, when read, explain a little bit about the background of Tim and "the Princess" but I will touch more on that later...

In the mean time I think I should stop getting all gushy about the Braid story and actually do some reviewing! The graphics in Braid are stunning, not in a "Crysis on a supercomputer" stunning but more like you are playing an interactive work of art, the way the scene you are currently stood in seems to breath with life is quite breathtaking. Of course, after a few minutes of gaming, it is very easy to forget that there are many nice visual effects in Braid, such as when reversing time the colour depleats, leaving the scene grainy and monocrome or when the scene becomes imbued with so much colour that they seem to bleed together as time speeds up. 

One of the many "storybook" moments that reveal the story, little by little
The time-manipulation aspect of the game is fairly straight forward (or at least it starts that way in the begining) firstly, you have the power to either slow down time and therefore revers it or to quickly speed time back up to the present which neeeds to be utilised in some of the ealier puzzles. However, as the game progresses and you move through the different worlds of Braid, your inherent ability to muck about with the timeline seems to shift, the third world, for example, sees time shift in regard to Tims horizontal position in the game world, if he moves forward (to the right of the screen) time (and all enemies, convayer belts, items etc) moves forward and subsequently if he moves left, everything moves backwards. There are some absolutely mind bending puzzles in some of the later levels that would be on some sort of international triety preventing cruilty against gamers if it werent for the inclusion of the time-manipulation machanic. How Blow thought these up is really quite beyond me but my gaming hat has to go off to him for some of them, although, on the flip side of that somewhat brow-nosed comment, there are more than one of the puzzles that do not seem to want to be solved and after solving them you get this sensation of "was that what was supposed to happen or was that an accident?" and frankly sometimes the games puzzles feel broken...pretty, but broken!

THAT level...
On a side thought, I don't usually have much tolerance for puzzle games that present me with puzzles or levels that I am destined to fail at and have to restart at least 30 to 40 times (the Fickle Companion level springs INSTANTLY to mind) and personally I would like to both pat Blow on the back and also punch him in the stomach as hard as I could but at no point during this session of "try-fail-restart" mantra did I lose my temper, I was constantly struck with the "okay, I can do it this time" mentality, there was not one rage-quit during my adventures with Braid and there was an abundance of opportunities to do so, especially on some of the final levels but after thinking about it I have figured it out, the music!  

Now, I realise that this is going to make my sound like Jerry Fletcher from Conspiracy Theory here but bear with me, I think that the music from Braid has been engineered to have the opposite effect of Rage-Quit, like some sort of audio-only subliminal message that was designed to calm irate gamers...whatever it is, it seems to work so I say we let it slide, eh?

Some of the later levels are brain-cell poppingly frustration.
Now with the gameply, graphics and even the music covered, time to get all gooey about Braids storyline again! I think what impresses me most about Braid is even with the simple gameplay and linear storyline you are still left with moments of surprise as Tim's life is explained through the storybooks. Blow has delt us a beautifully rendered deck of cards, but has kept the final ace up his sleve until the last moment, culminating the adventure of Braid into a truly jaw-dropping end scene stiring within us emotions of excitement, sorrow and confusion, turning everything you have seen and read in the game on it's head leaving many people (myself included) searching forums and newsgroups trying to discover the one true interpretation of the games ending along with the passages in the storybooks. 

In conclusion, Braid is one of the shining moments in XBox Live Arcade history and personally one of those games you need to play as I believe you owe it to youself to enjoy video games from a slightly different perspective, granted, the replay value isn't great but it's one of those games you will certainly never forget.


Plant Vs Zombies

Okay so the old paradigm of "zombies = more awesome" has been hammered to death recently and my final exhibit on the XBLA table tonight is a game featuring these undead icons of todays culture, I give you, Plants Vs Zombies.

Why does the Flag Zombie carry a flag? Simple...he loves flags!
It's always good to see that in some examples, zombies can be put to good use as the main pillar of a game (i.e the Left 4 Dead franchise) rather than be abused like those half dead mules you see on the adverts for the Donkey Trust (i.e Call of duty: World at War and Back Ops) and the following game is a prime example that zombie games can not only achieve cult status within the gaming community but also that Zombies can be fun! Granted not "lets take little Timmy down to the zombie playpen" kinda of fun but you'll see what I mean...

The main objective behind PvZ is straight forward enough, stop the zombies from eating your brains, you achieve this by using your own garden as the chosen battlefield and whilst my own personal weapon of choice would involve a 12-gauge, a duffel bag filled with shotgun shells and an enevitable trip to the nearest mall, the main character in PvZ has chosen his or her plant collection, fighting the undead with their botanical skills.

The game is your basic tower defence game where you plant Sunflowers to gather Sun, the main resouce, and build (...or, should that be plant? anyway!) defensive structures such as the Wall-nut and it's eventual upgarade, the Tall-Nut, which acts like defensive walls and the Squash, which, unsurprisingly, squashes zombies that get too close. I told you this was going to be straight forward.

I never wondered how these gravestones got into my
yard in the first place!
And whilst building walls will keep the brain-munching badguys out for a while, they will eventually break through so you have the option to build weapons of botanical havok such as your basic Peashooter, which fires a single, low power pea at the oncoming zombie, to something altogether death-reigning like the mighty Cob Cannon, which obliterates a nine-square block of (hopefully) zombie filled garden.  Should the zombies shamble their way through all of you defences however, you have your trusty Lawnmowers as you very last line of defence, though these are a single use item.

Sturdy Lilly Pads prove that the Atkins Diet
is working for Tall-Nuts!
As you progress through PvZ's "story" mode, you unlock a new plant every level or so, this is usually an indication that you are going to be faced with a new type of zombie that can only be defeated (or at least weakened) with this new plant. such as the level where you unlock the Cactus which "Shoots down Balloon Zombies" now, if your anything like me, upon reading this description (if you haven't already played the game) you may be thinking "Balloon-Zombies?!?" that is unless of course you have ever managed to tie several helium balloons to a member of the walking dead and if you have you really should post that on Youtube and e-mail me the link! But I'm getting off the point...ZOMBIES!

The zombies come in some increasingly unusual flavours, such as the aforementioned Balloon Zombie, which will float above all of your defences to get to those tasty tasty brains of yours...and we don't want that now do we?
You also encounter such enemies as the Bucket Zombie, which has additional health and the Trash Can Zombie, which is essentially the same as the Bucket Zombie.  So far it's fairly simple, right? WRONG! before you know it you are faced with Pole-vault Zombies which run, George A. Romero's Land of The Dead style towards your defences and jump over the first line of defense (including Wall Nuts, but not Tall Nuts, but I'm getting distracted again) then you have the Football Zombies, which not only have increased health but increased speed.

This note was totally not from the zombies...totally.
The game progresses in this manner until you have uncovered such treasures as the Jack-In-The-Box Zombie which explodes taking out a nine-square grid of tiles with it if not killed...again...quickly, the Bob-Sled zombies which...well, is a bob-sled with three zombies in it, thats about it, to the Bungee Zombies which, on the later levels, mark several of your plants at random and bungee in to steal them!

You also have to add in the fact that each level in the story mode brings it's own issues depending on where the level is set.  Of the three areas you play in, the Front yard is the easiest, being just a large area of empty grass, however when night falls, it means your Sunflowers won't generate any sun, but never fear, you have the mighty Sun-Shroom and a choice of nocturnal mushroom-based plants to fight off the insomniac undead.

You then arrive at the Back Yard, where you are presented with a 6 lane garden, two lanes unfortunately are taken up by your swimming pool which calls for the Lilly Pads in order to place plants on the water and the Tangleweed Plant which takes care of underwater zombies.

The Roof is by far the most difficult, where you not only have to place Plant Pots first then plant you plants (not everyone has soil on their roofs like me!) but you need to ensure that, as you are planting at an angle because of the roof tiles that your weapons of botanical destruction can actually hit the zombies.

Upon reflection of PvZ it does seem like an ever-increasingly difficult game of Rock-Paper-Scissors, where you simply have to take the plants that are effective against the incoming horde.

Through this whole brightly coloured zombie nightmare, you are greated several times by you neighbour (and my personal pick for Video Game Personality of the Year) Crazy Dave, but his friends just call him Crazy Dave, who offers not only advice and the odd tutorial but also a shop...in a manner of speaking.  
Once you have rescued Crazy Daves car keys from the zombies, he can sell you stuff from Crazy Daves Twiddydinkies, these upgrades include (but are not limited to) extra seed packet slots so you can carry more plants into battle, upgrades to exsisting plants, such as the Gatling Pea, which transforms your Repeater (your upgraded Peashooter) into a military-style plant that shoots 4 peas at once and comes complete with a gatling gun for a nose and a military helmet, or the Twin Sunflower,  which, as the name implies, doubles the sun output of one Sunflower plant by genetically grafting a second sunflower head onto it.

The XBox Live Arcade version of this web based title also sees the inclusion of Mini Games such as Vasebreaker, where you are given a grid of vases and each one you click will either contain a zombie or a seed packet and the objective is to break all of the vases and have defeated all the zombies on screen.  There is also I, Zombie, which sees you in the position of the zombies fighting a randomly generated three, four or five column grid of cardboard plants (set up by Crazy Dave) where you have to get past all them to eat the brains behind them.

Name's Crazy Dave, but my friends call me Crazy Dave!
Also included in the XBox Live Arcade version is the versus mode which I found to be fun, infuriating and pointless all at the same time, the basic mechanic goes like this, you decide who is going to play as the Zombies, that person wins...thats it.
The zombies are unfortunately massively over powered and their basic zombies cost next to nothing to create which stacks the odds in favour of the controller of the undead. This is a mode that me and my girlfriend both played for a couple of hours then decided it was best not to play it anymore as the outcome is almost always the same. Team Brain-Munch almost always wins.

Plants V Zombies is one of the very few games that I have completely rinsed on PC first, then bought on XBox 360 and done exactly the same thing.

PvZ is a fun game that, if you enjoy tower defence games, will keep you happy for a good while and well worth checking out at least once, even if you play the free demo either on PopCap or the XBL Arcade.


And thus concludes my look at the XBox Live Arcade and it's current gems of awesomeness, there are undoubtadly many other games that I have not played that would be worty of a mention (LIMBO springs to mind currently) but these are three titles that have stood out so far.

Thanks for reading, hope you enjoyed the ride!