2002 was a year of big-name games and even bigger hype. Some was deserved, some wasn't, but it was hard to avoid being bombarded by the media for those certain titles that shall go unpromoted in this review. Besides the discs that "everyone" was buying, there were a significant number of smaller efforts with gameplay as good (sometimes even better) than the so-called blockbusters. You can't blame a person for overlooking them in all the hubbub, though. For action fans, there were two games worth noting that I'll be focusing on in this piece: Rygar: The Legendary Adventure and Dual Hearts.
The first, Rygar, is an update to the venerable cult classic on the NES. The original game did have a sequel on the Atari Lynx, but (considering that the audience using it was miniscule) Rygar was not heard from again until now, on the PlayStation 2. Combining elements from the original game with a new structure similar to Capcom's Devil May Cry, this update is well worth checking out for fans of fast-paced, all-out action.
The game is played from a third-person perspective and uses pre-set camera angles to frame the adventure. There are some items to collect, but most aren't essential to progress. Also, while you will come across a few locked doors, opening them is usually no more difficult than flipping a switch a room or two away. The main focus of this game is fighting, and it rarely slows down for anything else. A very good thing, in my opinion.
There are basically two features that separate Rygar from Devil May Cry: the setting and the hero's weapon. Drawing much influence from ancient Greek myths, Tecmo has created a stunningly beautiful world full of Mediterranean vistas and crumbling temples. With such a rich setting, it's surprising that game developers don't draw from it more often. Everything is breathtakingly rendered, from the setting-sun homage to the stunningly unreal sky level. Besides being picturesque, the environments are highly interactive as well. Just about every item and much of the background can be destroyed and reduced to rubble in the search for hidden pathways and concealed treasure. Being able to affect your environment in Rygar points out the inadequacies of similar games that move characters shallowly across static worlds.
The other noteworthy feature is the Diskarmor. Brandished by the hero, a Diskarmor is a powerful weapon resembling a spiked shield attached to a long chain. There are three different types available, and each has their own strengths. Highly versatile, it can act as a shield, grappling hook, and killing implement all combined into one tidy package. The best thing about it is that it's extremely simple and effective to use. By sending it spinning and then guiding it with the analog stick, you can pull off several types of attacks and combinations. My favorite was to sink it into the body of an enemy, and then spinning that enemy in a huge circle while knocking back attackers. After accomplishing certain tasks, you can also fire off potent magical spells or summon creatures for extra oomph against the impressively large bosses.
Putting all of these elements together, Rygar is an effective game in terms of delivering visceral thrills and exotic sights. However, I'm not recommending it as a full priced purchase. The biggest reason is that the entire adventure is nearly over before you know it (my first play-through took about five hours). While such a limited playtime is the result of eliminating undesirable key-fetching and backtracking, it's hard to justify $50 for something you'll finish in an afternoon. The game does offer one somewhat meaty combat dungeon as a sidequest along with different Diskarmor skins to be earned (Pizzarmor, anyone?), but it's doubtful that many players will find these to be very engaging. The story is typically terrible Tecmo stuff only slightly better than their incomprehensible Dead Or Alive writing, so that's not really a big selling point either. Still, the rush is the thing and if you're craving some empty calories, you could do a lot worse than renting Rygar.
If you need a little strategy while stomping enemies and you want something that will provide a better bang-to-buck ratio, I found Dual Hearts to be a totally overlooked game delivering an excellent blend of both Action and RPG. It stars an embarrassingly named treasure hunter named Rumble and his beast companion Tumble (no, I'm not making this up...) as they go on an intriguing adventure between the real world and the land of dreams.
While other games have attempted to pull off similar concepts, Dual Hearts is the first one I've played where I felt the dreamworld theme was more than just lipservice. The entire game is bright and colorful, but the level design and artistry really take off when you enter the subconscious of people in trouble. In a painter's nightmare, things look as though viewed through the eyes of surrealist Salvador Dali, and the boss confrontation is based around the painter's insecurity surrounding her skill. In a pirate's dream, you go deep undersea surrounded by cool hues and warm coral. A favorite of mine, the dream of a little girl, is made up of pages in a storybook. The level is constructed of cut-out 2D enemies and Crayola illustrations, complete with a pop-up castle. The variety and creativity evident here make each level a joy to explore.
An important part of any RPG or Adventure game, the story in Dual Hearts is better than average. Rumble and Tumble are slightly antagonistic buddies who take on sort of an "Odd Couple" stance towards each other. There's a good amount of real humor in the script, and it held my interest all the way through. The quest is a standard sort of tale about finding a set of lost weapons that will be wielded against a dark overlord terrorizing the dreamworld. It never gets too heavy or metaphysical, but it's very likable and has a lot of positive energy.
As you might surmise from the plot, using the found weapons is a large part of the gameplay. Rumble can equip one in each hand for various combinations and effects. He can also hitch a ride on Tumble's back at any time. After mounting, Tumble can charge through baddies, use a breath weapon, restore Rumble's health, and even fly once getting the right powerup. The lack of restrictions on using Tumble make him seem a little like Epona from Ocarina Of Time, except he's a lot more than simple transportation. The mechanics of playing the characters alone or together is quite well done, and gives players a hefty selection of techniques to use solving the game's challenges.
The game's rough edges are few, and none are game-ruining. Technically, the framerate takes a hit here and there in some of the more ornate levels. It's noticeable, but it doesn't disrupt the flow of action. Also, there's no way to switch targets during combat with large groups of enemies. Compared to most current game design, this seems like a strange omission. As for the difficulty, the game ranges from easy to moderate until you hit the bosses. For some strange reason, most of them are surprisingly grueling and considerably more difficult than the levels they're found in. It seemed odd to receive such harsh spankings after being cuddled through most of the adventure, but perhaps there were two teams working on different portions of the game... or something.
On the whole, Dual Hearts is one of the better Action-Adventure games I've played in a while, and it's a shame that it disappeared from shelves without much chance to find an audience. It seems to me that the game was a victim of absolutely terrible timing since it was released right before the "Great Game Flood of '02" as it will come to be known. If released at any other time, I'm sure it would have garnered a semi-respectable cult following with just a bit of PR. If you didn't get it as a gift or buy it for yourself this past holiday season, do yourself a favor and pick it up now. The print run was small, and the price will be right on a used shelf or in a bargain bin (if you can find it). It'll be a fine bit of sustenance to help you through the coming summer doldrums.