Welcome to the ninth installment of the Portable Project here at GameCritics.com. Handheld gaming has established itself as a force to be reckoned with in the industry, though some of the pocket-sized titles aren't quite in-depth enough to warrant a full-length review at the site. This semi-regular feature allows critics to comment on a sampling of the portable market in a shorter, though no less incisive, format.
Star Wars: Flight of the Falcon
Developer: Pocket Studios
It seems like a month doesn't go by without the release of yet another Star Wars game featuring the requisite scrolling-text prologue, blaring John Williams soundtrack, space battles with X-wings and TIE fighters, and the famous Death Star run. Some games at least to a decent job of rehashing these 25-year-old scenarios, though unfortunately Flight of the Falcon isn't one of them—the obvious question being why bother to attempt to remake something that has been done better elsewhere?
The title Flight of the Falcon is misleading. Though a substantial part of the game is spent piloting Han Solo's famous ship, the Millennium Falcon, through various mission highlights of Star Wars Episodes IV - VI, there's also a sampling of other vehicles including the land speeder and X-wing fighter.
The inclusion of other vehicles isn't a bad thing, though, because the Falcon itself handles like a leaky river barge. A small tap of the D-pad will send it careening from one side to the other, making subtle movements and precision-targeting impossible.
Targeting is in fact one of the most problematic aspects of the game. Flight of the Falcon uses a behind-the-ship camera similar to Star Fox, and the targeting crosshair is a tiny red box literally only a few pixels wide. Trying to target equally small ships as they appear on the horizon (coupled, don't forget, with the Falcon's leaky-barge flight mechanics) is exhausting.
The game's missions typically fall into one of two categories: shoot down a certain number of enemies without being blown up first, or speed to the end of the level while dodging some obstacles and enemies before time runs out. The killing enemies levels seem to drag on forever, while some of the time-limit levels, notably the Tatooine stages from Episode IV, are simply difficult to navigate because of the clunky 3-D graphics where background objects bleed into one another.
Falcon uses a 4-digit password system, though it's somewhat unfortunate that the only three entry-points into the game are at the beginning of each episode (as opposed to the individual levels within those episodes.) Failing a later stage knocks the player back to the beginning of whatever episode they were in, leaving them with the prospect of clawing their way back through the banality of the levels before.
The music, by contrast, is extremely engaging. It's just unfortunate that the rousing music rarely reflects the humdrum action on-screen.
Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance
Developer: Magic Pockets
Dark Alliance certainly doesn't break any new ground. In a genre where change comes slowly anyway, if at all, this console port is content to serve up a quintessential Dungeons & Dragons-style dungeon crawl that compensates with length for what it lacks in creativity.
The plot is typical sword & sorcery fare: the hero must investigate a strange new evil called the Dark Alliance, which is threatening Baldur's Gate. Starting in the city itself (and its subterranean sewer system,) the quest soon expands into other regions.
What follows is a journey of single-minded hack n' slash, loot-hoarding and character-building, interspersed with a few stilted "role-playing" elements with miscellaneous townsfolk. The hero can be one of three archetypes: warrior, archer, or wizard, who all look exactly the same except for a palette-swapped tunic.
The palette-swapped main characters are just one example of the dullness of the whole experience. While the game is hardly a train wreck of either design or aesthetics, nevertheless monotony permeates the entire experience. There are no twists or turns, no cleverness inherent in the level design or dialogue. On top of it, the enemies are witless and easily manipulated into cheap kills.
There are other examples of portable hack n' slash adventures that have been executed with far more finesse. Electronic Arts' The Two Towers, for example.
Polly Pocket: Super Splash Island
Developer: Vivendi Universal
In the midst of so many wince-worthy "girl games," it's refreshing to see one like Polly Pocket that achieves what it sets out to do (presumably attract girl gamers in the 5 - 8 age bracket) while actually being playable at the same time.
Based on the popular series of tiny action figures, Polly Pocket is actually a set of six mini-games that take place in an amusement park called Super Splash Island. While fun to play in their own right, the mini-games also award the player tickets based on performance. Collecting tickets opens up a seventh challenge: the waterslide, a surprisingly fun coast down a surreal blue tube with the goal of collecting sets of flowers for a high score.
The mini-games are mostly derivative. River Crossing and River Rapids are unabashed clones of Frogger and Toobin' respectively (though fun all the same.) Water Blaster is like Whack-a-Mole meets American Gladiator, where children pop out of inner-tubes and must be dispatched with water-balloons from a giant gun. Jet Boats is a straight-ahead racer down a simple course, while the goal of Bumper Boats is to bump rival boaters out of the water and on to the sand. The stand-out game is Tube Trouble: three rows of interconnected tubes which Polly must hop agilely through to collect balloons and evade tidal waves and fountains of water.
In essence, Polly Pocket is a diversion in the same sense as playing a few Windows games to fend off down-time boredom.(which seems just fine, given the game's target audience). Other positive features are a two-player mode and alternate outfits to unlock (only a few, unfortunately-it would have been nice to have more variety in the "hidden closet.")