Shooting, thievery, soccer and puzzle solving are all on the menu for gamers this week, in a season suddenly packed with mega-releases. The long-in-gestation, stealth-heavy Thief — a remake of a PC classic — slinks onto shelves, and the smartphone/tablet franchise Plants vs. Zombies makes the move into first-person shooter world with Garden Warfare. Those are games available on current-gen as well as last-gen systems, but the older generation still continues to show life by netting most major releases, including the new Castlevania: Lords of Shadow II, which Xboners and PS4 players won’t get to touch unless they kept their old systems.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow II
(360, PS3, $60, Mature)
Finally, after decades of hunting Dracula in the series, it’s time to take control of the blood-sucking prince of darkness. Weakened and sick of being stuck with the curse of immortality, Dracula — who started off as monster hunter Gabriel Belmont in the first entry of the 2010 franchise relaunch — is thrust into the modern world, where he wrestles with satanic forces in order to reclaim his powers, halt global destruction and die with a semi-clean conscience. Life is tough for Drac, who is such a weakling he has to slink through some sections like a ninja lest he be impaled by demonic forces. Also, his descendants are also after his hide.
A major departure from the first game in that there’s more of an open world and most of the settings are modern, Lords of Shadow sticks with the kinetic, God of War-style combat that made the 2010 game so enticing. It’s a tough game with checkpoints that are often unforgiving, with many sections that seem weighed down and padded out. Solid storytelling and vicious battles help keep things moving.
(3DS, $20, Everyone 10+)
One of those insular Japanese games you read about on otaku sites but never figure will get a shot in North America, the soccer sim/RPG improbably washes ashore as a 3DS download. The genre mash-up, which is tonally similar to Pokemon, has you put together a soccer team at your school by recruiting and challenging characters, completing errands and fetch quests and such. You also engage in impromptu soccer competitions and matches by controlling players on the touch screen.
There’s a charm and innocence to Inazuma Eleven that has the ability to crush the defenses of those who don’t care about soccer or drama on virtual playgrounds. Fans of micromanagement fans will find much to sink their teeth into, jockeying player strengths, abilities and lineups to shape your team in your image. You can spend unspeakable amounts of time making little progress, and just messing around in the arresting world. It’s a game for true, shameless dorks, of which I certainly am.
Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare
(Xbox One, 360, $40, Everyone 10+)
A multiplayer-focused first-person shooter/real-time strategy hybrid, Garden Warfare rounds up the memorable plants from the mobile franchise and sets them loose on the open battlefield. Blessed with the ability to move about as you please, you guard against waves of zombies by managing your resources, planting stationary, turret-like weapon plants in pots and stepping in to fix problem areas manually.
While the action is fun and addictive, especially in the later waves in co-op mode, the asking price seems a bit high for a game that lacks a solo campaign. The game would be much easier to recommend at $15 than $40. What’s here is solid and engaging, with excellent tactical and character variety. With the right group of people, Garden Warfare could be a worthwhile investment. Solo players should stick with the $1 or free smartphone/tablet downloads.
Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy
(3DS, $30, Everyone 10+)
Like many Nintendo series, Professor Layton is rightfully accused of sticking in its chosen rut, rarely looking to innovate. The latest puzzle-adventure entry in the Layton series doesn’t do much to combat those accusations, but I’m OK with that. Building on the user-friendly interface advances made in the 2012 entry, Miracle Mask, Azran Legacy does just what Layton fans hoped it would. You get a hokey story, a bizarre, inexplicably obtuse mystery, and hokey dialogue that exists only to set up the next excuse to hurl a logic puzzle at you.
An increase in cinematic scenes, spoken dialogue and puzzle variety helps break up the monotony previous games tended to fall into. Some puzzles, such as an early, Math Blaster-like shooting level, test quick-thinking reflexes, but the game is strongest when it sticks to its clever, IQ test-style basics. Lengthy and broken up into commuter-friendly bite-sized pieces, Azran sustains the Layton Legacy well.
(Xbox One, PS4, Xbox 360, PS3, $15, Everyone 10+)
Capcom dips deep into its well of long-abandoned franchises to pull out a ramek of its 1989 NES/arcade ninja robot side-scroller. It might have seemed like a move based on desperation, but turned out to be an inspired choice. A zippy, fast-moving Metroidvania-like blur, Strider never lets you pause for breath, throwing out an unceasing chain of upgrades, special moves and wacky bosses to keep you kick-sliding.
Inspired by the likes of the Shank series, Strider works exquisitely as a revamped franchise, packaged as a low-cost download. It’s the sort of wild, wacky game you plan on spending 15 minutes with but end up getting sucked into for hours.
(Xbox One, PS4, Xbox 360, PS3, $60, Mature)
Another long-distance reboot, this rekindling of the franchise that basically invented the stealth genre does some reinvention of its own. Borrowing liberally from the likes of Assassin’s Creed and Dishonored, the narrative lets you control a brazen pickpocket who preys on the wealthy, gets by on his wits and does all he can to flee from confrontation. It’s up to you to stalk the shadows, discern movement patterns and devise diversions to let you make your way through.
Thief is heavy on the sneaking, but there is also ziplining, rooftop chases and window pop-ins to keep things fresh. The look, especially on the PS4, is gorgeously detailed and impeccably designed. The dialogue may be forgettable and the storytelling is bland, but the game’s willingness to let you improvise and come up with your own clever ways to slink through the enemy’s defenses makes the new Thief worthwhile.