Hot Games of the Week Reviewed: December 2

Just like the turkey in the fridge, it’s time for gamers to enjoy some fine leftovers. Now that we’ve made it through a release-packed November, December is all about playing catch-up. Some late-November games — Freedom Wars and Tales From the Borderlands — join new releases Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 Remix and a pair of Pokemon remakes to give gamers plenty to do. There’s a wide range of play experiences available, ranging from point-and-click adventure-stylings to lite RPGs and puzzle-platforming.

Reviews by Phil Villarreal. Phil is an authorblogger and Twitterer. Publishers provided review copies.

Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker

(Wii U, $40, Everyone)

Inspired by levels left on the cutting-room floor of Super Mario 3D World, the puzzle-platformer shoves aside Mario and Luigi to let mushroom-thing Toad take center stage. You scamper around labyrinth-like levels, picking up power-ups and coins. Designed in the manner of quick-hit mobile games, the idea is to play and replay levels until you master them, bettering your runs on each go-round. The typical Mario charm oozes from every corner of the cartoony, colorful backgrounds and enemies, and the controls are as tight and responsive as you’d expect from a mainline Nintendo-published title. Thankfully, the game is $40, rather than the typical mainline Nintendo-published title price of $60.
The design makes excellent use of the tablet-style GamePad, adding yet another solid reason to pick up the solid but largely neglected system. The touchscreen and gyro controls are used regularly and rarely in a gimmicky way, and the graphics style lends itself perfectly to the lower-resolution handheld screen. A touchy camera dampens the fun a bit, but never is too much of a hassle. While a little light on content, at least Treasure Tracker isn’t padded out with dull filler. The fact that it leaves you wanting more, even after you’ve played and replayed most of its inventively designed levels, is a good thing. A publisher hurt for fresh new franchises may have found a spin-off that fills the void.


Freedom Wars

(Vita, $30, Teen)

The Vita has had a great 2014 in terms of oddball Japanese RPGs, but a pathetic showing in just about every other genre. Freedom Wars throws yet another winner onto the JRPG pile, showing that a solid mobile game can benefit greatly from the system’s dual sticks and six-button layout. Akin to Pokemon or Monster Hunter, you roam a high-tech jungle, taking on missions that have you hunting down giant enemies, clearing out fortified compounds and harvesting resources that strengthen your character. Dialogue-heavy between-missions scenes can grow tedious, but the thrilling combat and creative mission design — as well as a rating feature that grades and rewards your skill — keep you coming back for more.
The story is as incomprehensible as those in most other RPGs, but as long as you can slog through the slow, earlier phases, it tends to sink its hooks in you. Characters are well-crafted and the story twists are tough to predict. A lot of the game’s fun comes under the hood, in messing with specs, armor and loadouts as you craft the most efficient, cool-looking warrior you can dream up. The missions, though engrossing, tend to run long, but that’s not a problem because of the Vita’s game suspension feature. Just don’t let your batteries run out between saves. At least the longer missions move so quickly that you tend to be surprised how long you’ve lost yourself inside this crazy little world.


Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 Remix

(PS3, $40, Everyone 10+)

It’s been nine years since the Disney/Final Fantasy-melding Kingdom Hearts II came out, but Square Enix has kept the momentum going with countless remakes, remasters, rereleases, prequels and spin-offs. This 2.5 Remix compiles an HD remakes of the 2005 game, along with the latest remake of PSP game Birth by Sleep and the cutscenes from the DS title Re:Coded. Developers have added tons of new characters, items and gameplay tweaks, smoothing out the originals’ many rough edges  to something halfway passable as modern gameplay. There is a ton of charm and a staggering amount of gameplay in the package, which seems to be geared to those who have been addicted to these games for years.
PlayStation Network trophies and hidden unlockables give veterans plenty of new stuff to play for, and the Re: Coded scenes are a welcome change of pace, letting you take in that game’s backstory and characterization without having to struggle through archaic handheld gameplay. It’s too bad the game is only available on the PS3, leaving everyone who has moved on to the PS4 left behind. At least that subset of gamers can hope for yet another remastered compilation on their system, since the wait for Kingdom Hearts III seems to have no end in sight.


Pokemon Omega Ruby and Pokemon Alpha Sapphire

(3DS, $40 each, Everyone)

A pair of 2003 GameBoy Advance Pokemon titles are reborn with the graphics and gameplay enhancements of the series-high Pokemon X and Y. Since the series formula hasn’t changed much over time, there is little lost in translation and a whole lot gained. The remakes retain the charm, characters and story of the original but lose the blocky, awkward graphics and combat that used to be acceptable but now seems distracting. The training, capturing and collecting loop that lifted the series to fame remains as engaging and fulfilling as ever. The thrill of tracking down the toughest to find of the creatures still brings back a joyful exuberance.
While overall not as strong or creative a package as X and Y, the remakes are welcome because series devotees usually have to wait years between releases. Casual players can get by with choosing one of the games, but anyone who is in it to collect ’em all and score all the dual-game unlocks will be best off just getting both games at the same time. For the sake of convenience, it makes the most sense to invest in a high-capacity SD card and download the games. Saving the hassle of having to swap out cartridges is one of the 3DS’s best features. If Pokemon is your main obsession, the $80 charge to play both games could have you set for months.


Tales From the Borderlands: Episode 1, Zero Sum

(Xbox One, PS4, Xbox 360, PS3, Vita, $5, Mature)
The Borderlands games have been known more for their frenetic combat and nonstop loot-hauling than their cheesy storylines, so the adventure game maestros at Telltale Games took a major risk by doing away with most of the former in favor of the latter. Luckily, the team that delivered The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us is up to the daunting task. Told from a number of different — sometimes contradictory — perspectives, the tales of backstabbings, betrayals and relentless wisecracks unfolds with all the urgency and entertainment value of Telltatle’s calling cards.
There is little action or combat to break up the story, which mostly consists of scrolling your cursor around the screen and quick-time button presses. The characters are left to carry the load, and they do just that, establishing themselves as fascinating oddballs whose stories you want to see progress over the rest of the episode arc. While there’s not as much depth or relatability to the characters as there is in Telltale’s previous games, there’s more of a sense of fun and whimsy here. If you are a Telltale fan, you simply can’t miss this game. If you’re more into the standard run-and-gun Borderlands style, the game may not be for you because the lack of combat could be frustrating.
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