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The Lord of the Rings: the Two Towers

When you think of the Lord of the Rings you think of an epic adventure. I certainly wouldn’t begrudge anyone from assuming that the games that would accompany the three Peter Jackson movies would probably be action RPGs but kudos to Electronic Arts for defying expectations and creating some of the best beat em ups released in years. From the nuanced combat to its slavish devotion to the source material I wish more licensed games were built with this much attention to detail. It’s a bit ugly now but this will still provide hours of entertainment.

Although the game is named the Two Towers it follows the plot of the first two films, albeit in a condensed form. Most of the key points of the two movies are touched upon and serve as excellent source material for the levels. It should be noted that EA only had the license for the films (Vivendi had the book license) and as such were limited in what they could use. While I can appreciate them using clips from the movie as framing devices it does come across disjointed as a whole. But let’s be honest, you’re not here for the plot.

Aside from the brief introduction in which you control Isildur the primary heroes are Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas. While it is slightly disappointing that the other members of the Fellowship aren’t playable they do fight by your side in most of the levels. And besides, the trio are so fully fleshed out ability wise that the game would have seemed bloated anyway. The differences between the characters are significant and unfortunately Aragorn is too well rounded. Legolas is best with a bow as he attacks faster and is equipped with 60 arrows to start. However he is physically weak and will die in a few well-placed hits. Gimli is physically the strongest but outside of maybe one level is too slow to warrant constant use.

To start with you are armed with a fast attack, a heavy attack to break shields, and a few defensive moves to parry attacks or shove enemies out of the way. Each character can also perform a ranged attack of varying speed and strength. Knowing which attack to use when surrounded or when dealing with heavily armored attackers is key to keeping your combo strings going as you are graded on your performance. Like Devil May Cry your combos are awarded ranks with the best being perfect, which allows one hit kills for a brief time. Chaining attacks together without being hit is the fastest route to perfect status which not only helps clear the screen but awards the most points at the end to buy upgrades. Defense is also absolutely critical as a result; while the screen is never as crowded as in Dynasty Warriors it does get pretty busy. The smaller crowds do avoid the repetition inherit in those games as well.

The Two Towers avoids the flaw of a limited move set inherit in most brawlers by offering a substantial upgrade system after each level. There are a variety of techniques to learn, some requiring pretty complex button combinations and while you can pull up the menu at any time it isn’t necessary. One technique in particular, Isildur’s Swift Terror and its upgraded counterpart are so overpowered you don’t need to bother with anything else. That’s just my opinion of course but the depth is more than welcome in allowing some leeway in terms of how you want to play the game.

Over the course of the twelve missions the difficulty has a relatively nice curve. The initial few are easy and almost impossible to fail but once you reach Fanhorn Forest there is a sharp increase. The level structure is constantly shifting as well. Most levels follow a linear path but usually have a set objective to break from the monotony of killing the same goblins and Uruk-hai over and over. Some will task you with killing a set number of enemies, or even something as short as beating a few dire wargs and their leader. Only the last few stages drag on far too long but that is a small complaint.

There are a host of extras included as incentive to go back and replay stages to earn a better ranking. There are numerous interview with members of the cast as well as production artwork, and brief movie clips. Unfortunately the interviews range in quality as it is obvious which members of the crew have actually ever played a videogame in their lives. The true meat of the extras would be an additional playable character and a 20 floor tower that that will really test just how well you have mastered the battle system. There are also character specific missions that unlock once the game is completed, making a game that is already packed with content that much more fulfilling.

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Back in 2002 this was a pretty good looking game, like Dynasty Warriors if it had an actual budget. EA were able to seamlessly blend film footage and real time cutscenes together that was pretty impressive for the time. Despite the high number of polygonal models during battle there is rarely any slowdown. The character models are pretty ugly however, less so on the GameCube than PS2 where overall image quality is cleaner. The environments are incredibly detailed; because the camera is fixed most of the time the artists were able to deliver maximum visual impact. The soundtrack is largely the same as the movie which means it is stirring and epic.

The Two Towers remains one of my favorite beat em ups after all these years and outside of two-player coop I can’t think of anything it is missing. A decently long quest and a wealth of extras will keep you occupied for hours in what is one of the better licensed titles out there.

8-out-of-101

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Risky Woods

Electronic Arts is most famous for their numerous sports games and it is fair to say that they are still number one in that category worldwide. This legacy began on the Genesis however in their early days on the platform they published ports of various PC games. Some were interesting, such as Budokan and the Immortal. Being honest however a lot of that stuff was terrible. No one remembers Sword of Sodan for its “engaging” swordplay. Risky Woods is an interesting outlier in that discussion. There are plenty of likable elements in it but the off-putting difficulty spikes and scatterbrained design mean only the most patient gamers will stick with it.

The world was once a peaceful place, with monks who fiercely guarded its wisdom. The demon Draxos however came along and froze all of them except the young Rohan. Now Rohan must set venture into the Risky Woods to free them.

Risky Woods was ported to a number of platforms but the Sega version is a unique beast. Rohan was redesigned to look more like a wandering priest than an adventurer. I suppose it fits the game’s plot but dear god he looks like he belongs in a god damn Wisdom Tree game than a side scroller. The largest change comes to weapons. The shop no longer exists, with the coins now relegated to giving you a suit of armor at 33 and 66 respectively. Weapons come from the destroyed gate statues. Speaking of gates, there is now a Simon style puzzle involved in destroying the gates. It’s a cool idea but it’s also detrimental in that the clock is still running and you can’t pause.

This is not meant to be a fast paced action game and in fact trying to play it as such will result in a quick death. You need to take your time and take note of where enemies spawn and always be wary of any jump since you never know come out to take a bite. The game is very similar in that regard to Gods, another Amiga port. Yet the blazing fast clock means you have very little time to sit in one spot. The game is wildly inconsistent in this regard as there are levels with a very generous amount of time but in most cases I found that I would just barely reach the end with 10 seconds to spare.

Getting to the exit is a trial in and of itself. Everything is out to get you and sometimes you’ll die in seconds without realizing how. Most enemies move significantly faster than you, attack in groups, and will respawn if you step back an inch. The treasure chests that spawn items drop a random assortment of trinkets. However seemingly half of the items that drop will screw you over in some way. Poison is instant death, some potions will teleport you back to a set point, and there are apples that put you to sleep and shave 30 seconds off the clock! Those monks you need to save to complete the levels? It isn’t long before the levels are littered with fakes that simply take some of your health and unfortunately there is no way to tell the difference.

The game is plagued with very odd difficulty spikes. One moment you can run a good distance without any opposition and then face an endlessly respawning session of enemies. If you can believe it the Amiga original was even worse. The game’s bosses are a nightmare, not just in look but in terms of how much of a bullet sponge they are. They take entirely too many hits to kill and if you enter the fight with the wrong weapon more than likely you’ll run out of time before killing them. Don’t get me started on the final boss; what the hell were they thinking?

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The one area the game excels in with no caveats is presentation. European games during the 16-bit era all had a distinctive look, be it the Bitmap Brothers metallic grey sheen or the Amiga’s color palette. This Genesis port stacks up favorably with a loss of detail in the backgrounds but a smoother frame rate to compensate. The game has a very dark scheme throughout but still manages to inject some color into its surroundings here and there. The creature design is fantastic, especially the bosses. Even the music is good although it can’t match up to the CD quality sound of its PC cousin.

Despite all of the frustrations I still like Risky Woods. But not enough that I would recommend it. There are very few action games like it for the platform but the constant enemy spawns and inconsistent hit detection get to be a bit much. With a few small tweaks this would have been a good platformer. Too bad you’ll need the patience of a saint to appreciate its good parts.

6-out-of-10-1