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Hidden Xbox Gems Part 2: Single Player

16:5028/04/2012Posted by Raymond WebsterOne Comment

The previous entry in this series talked about a few multiplayer games that offered something a bit different to the norm, but this journey into the depths of the 360’s back catalogue isn’t done yet. There’s a wealth of distinctly fun single-player experiences to be had that might not be triple-A titles, but have a certain charm to them. Quite often these games are flawed, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from playing them; they show that there’s far more to the 360 than just Gears, Forza and Halo and that’s worthy of praise in its own right.

Project Sylpheed

Fans of Freespace or Elite looking for some space fighter action on their Xbox might be a bit put off by this game’s aggressively anime-inspired plot and art style – there’s no dodging the space cops and smuggling narcotics to Tau Ceti here but there is a lot of screaming and taking on insurmountable odds. Indeed, if you sit down and watch the between-mission FMVs, which is not recommended, the plot reveals itself to borrow more than a few hooks from the series Gundam SEED run through the wringer of video game cutscenes. However, the poor storyline shouldn’t let anyone stop playing this because hidden beneath it is an at times frustrating, but undeniably rewardingly hard to master space sim. A score-attack game at its heart with, the real enjoyment in Project Sylpheed comes from running through the decently-long campaign multiple times to try and get the high score and complete all the hidden bonus missions for maximum points.

Each mission earns credits which can be spent on upgrading your fighter, and while early missions seem daunting prospects with basic weapons, on a second run it’s positively encouraged to ignore the briefing telling you to avoid the battleships and go in and taken them out. There’s a hefty arsenal of weapons to unlock, and incredibly difficult (and completely free) DLC survival missions unlock even more. Whereas most flight sims expect you to be happy with a few guided missiles and a machine gun, by the end of this game you will be firing black holes at your enemies and equipping torpedoes twice the size of your jet. Come the last level, a solid wall of enemy battleships is a mere inconvenience and it’s this completely excessive sense of scale that makes the game stand out. However, unlike the way a FPS would have you watch the awesome things happen then go back to hiding behind crates scared of snipers, in this everything you see happen during a mission is your handiwork.

So while the plot is as hackneyed and melodramatic as can be, and the controls so involved as to make the tutorials almost mandatory, the end result is a very unique spin on the space fighter sim that does one of the best jobs of making the player feel awesome to be found in a current-gen game, up there with Just Cause 2.

Blade Kitten

This is, unfortunately, another good game marred by a poor choice of aesthetic and setting; put up with the “leet-talking” catgirl protagonist and smug cutscenes and there’s an exploration-based platformer waiting to be found that evokes titles like Jet Set Willy, Jazz Jackrabbit, Commander Keen and Crystal Caves. The aim is not as simple as getting from one end of the level to the other; that leads to an unsatisfyingly short experience. The aim is to explore the levels, finding the many secret areas, and get the highest score possible. Exploring is hugely satisfying thanks to the simple wall climbing mechanic, and while the puzzles are rarely as mindbending as Fez and the combat a fairly straightforward light- and heavy-attack affair, there’s a relaxed sense of exploration that makes it a singular experience – the game is about collecting items in quite well-designed levels and occasionally fighting simple boss fights. For all the retro HD remakes and classic gaming homages dotted about, few do as good a job at getting the actual game experience right as Blade Kitten.

While it might seem dated and primitive, and the art style and perpetually perky voice acting can grate, the fact that Blade Kitten does such a good job of evoking the old exploration-based platformer genre means it’s definitely one to recommend.

Lost Odyssey

The list of developers who worked on Lost Odyssey reads like a who’s who of the people who made Final Fantasy the go-to JRPG franchise for many through the SNES, PSX and PS2 eras. The game they created is the perfect homage to the genre; no complicated gimmicks, no flashy battle system that tries to reinvent the wheel, just the base essentials of a good JRPG tied together with some at times spectacular writing and enough small mechanical innovations to remain fresh. The basic storyline is standard stuff executed ably, with comic relief and child characters who don’t grate, but the real treasure is the Thousand Years of Dreams mechanic – at points during the game, the player experiences the protagonist’s suppressed memories in the form of often-moving short stories that play with ideas of immortality and its psychological effects on those around the person who never ages or dies. While this sometimes affects the pacing of the game, throwing the player abruptly out of the action in order to provide a chunk of narration, the quality of these stories is so high that they are often welcome and the player is driven to seek them out.

JRPGs are much-maligned for mawkish writing and awkward gameplay, and Lost Odyssey adroitly avoids both; the inclusion of a system of diminishing returns on experience, combined with fine balancing that ensures a perpetual sense of challenge while still giving a sense of increasing power to the player, means that the player never has to continually fight random encounters to gain levels, but instead through simply playing through each dungeon and exploring to find secrets, the player will always be at the right level for the boss of each area. Similarly, the end-game content is varied, with character-specific sidequests ranging from extra-hard bosses to riddles and puzzles to figure out. The entire package is a polished game experience which at the time of release filled the sadly empty niche of a good 360 JRPG, and still remains a solid choice for someone looking for a lengthy and rewarding game.

That rounds up our look at some of the XBox 360’s most underrated gems – let us know below if you think there are any titles we’ve overlooked….

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One Comment »

  • Charlie E/N said:

    I heartily agree with the Lost Odyssey recommendation. I was surprised at the animated prose asides and the surprising depth of the story. Hardly any FF style angst, despite how it seems at the start of the game.

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