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Professor layton and the Curious Village is either a work of marketing genius or the biggest fluke of last year. The advertising slipped it into the public conciousness as the natural successor to Brain Training, and combined with nationwide stock shortages, what could have just slipped under the radar as a quaint puzzle game became the gold dust of DS games this Christmas.

Professor Layton and his young apprentice arrive in the bizare town of St Mystere, where the locals have an insane fascination with puzzles, to help sort out a dispute over the legacy of the recently deceased lord Reinhold. Of course, things aren’t as simple as they first appear, and the duo must explore the village in search of clues to the mysteries that haunt the streets, solving puzzles as they go. This is something to be happy about, an adventure game this successful ( with a sequel on the way and a third out in japan right now) is nothing but good for the genre, and should hopefully make the release of Broken Sword on the DS and Wii a bit more lucrative.

Despite drawing in the Brain Training crowd, Professor Layton is very much a different beast, with lateral thinking puzzles taking centre stage. None of them are as simple, or sometimes even as difficult, as they first seem, and I’ve told my DS to “fuck off” several times since I started playing. That said, despite small penalties for a wrong answer it’s a very easy going game, letting you enjoy it at your own pace. There’s no pressure to explore every part of the village for puzzles in each chapter, and any that you miss will be moved to a special house in the village. With more than a 130 puzzles there’s a fair bit to do during your investigation, and there’s an absolutely wonderful download service that releases a new puzzle each week.

And from devious, but gentle, to a black hearted monster of a videogame. Recommended to me with the words “don’t worry if you die a lot on the first level” I arrogantly dismissed such warnings, and, after running through a dozen of the avaliable tutorial levels, dived into the opening level. Unknown to me, the game had been lying in wait on the periphery, swinging a sack of bricks, and at that moment let it fly. I died quite horribly, unprepared for the violent missile storm I encountered, and thinking that perhaps this was just a troublesome, unbalanced level, proceeded to the next one, where a godzilla sized robot and his six little mates beat me to a pulp.

Bangai-o Spirits is, essentially, WarioWare for the shoot ’em up genre, and it has no pity for you. Some people will be put off by the difficulty curve, but they are weak. This game is all about the seemingly impossible levels and the rush of doing a little better, and finally conquering it (and saving your replay, which is an awesome addition). Each one is a small, self-contained problem, and they are brutally hard, but all of the 100+ levels are avaliable right from the start, allowing frustrating levels to be bypassed. Even if you exhaust the everything the game has there’s high scores and times to be beaten, or even new levels to be created using the level editor.

Like some kind of greatest hits collection, there’s a diverse array of weapons to equip before each mission, from homing missiles to baseball bats, and your selection can be instrumental in your success. As well as “normal attacks” there are the EX attacks, that- in a sign of the game’s madness- run off a power bar that needs to be recharged by collecting fruit from dead enemies, and unleash a massive barrage of up to 100 missiles. They also take into account the number of enemy missiles on screen at the time and multiplies the power and size of each of your missiles while reducing the number, and are wonderously overpowered attacks. Until you encounter enemies that have their own EX attacks, that it. These bastards are more than happy to reflect your attacks back at you, and suddenly you’re playing ping pong with hundreds of over-sized missiles, and Bangai-o’s utter disregard for the framerate becomes apparent. Slideshows are a regular occurance and spectacularly large EX combos will happily lock up the screen for a few seconds- although, this can even work to your advantage for dodging attacks. It’s masochistically difficult, entirely mental, and I love it.


Advance Wars: Dark Conflict- DS.

For anyone who’s played any of the previous games in the series, it’s business as usual. New campaign, new units, and some mechanic tweaking, but, essentially, it’s still the same game. For those of you just joining us, it’s a deceptively simple, turn-based strategy game, where you build up an army of cartoon-ish soldiers and tanks, and command them through a series of story-linked scenarios, the various skirmish modes, or the online multiplayer.

Oh yes, online multiplayer.

As well as being able to upload and download custom maps, you can now, bloody finally, take the fight online. This alone makes it the definitive version of Advance Wars, despite the changes; the obvious one being the visuals.

From the colourful, upbeat world at war of the previous games we are transported to a new world of desperate survival against bandits and plagues in a post-apocalyptic nightmare. It would be silly to call the new style “realistic” as the main character looks like he’s had a face transplant from Mickey Mouse, but it’s a step in a slightly more mature direction.

It’s as if the game has suddenly developed from a young child to a fourteen year old, and started listening to Linkin Park. And speaking of music, more turn based strategy games need rock music. Nothing starts a turn off better than your Commanding Officer’s signature tune blasting out of the DS speakers.

Anyway, ignoring the “Advance Wars: The Angsty Teen Years” shell, it’s a still Advance Wars at its core, but Intelligent Systems have been tinkering with more than just the visuals. DC doesn’t fall for the dual screen gimmick, like Dual Strike did, and has disposed of dual screen battles; the top screen is just for map and unit info. There is a new assortment of units, but they are actually functional, as opposed to the increasingly bigger tanks that have appeared previously.

A few of the highlights include: Motorcycles, which are fast semi-infantry that can capture cities; Flare Tanks, that can fire flares, surprisingly, to remove sections of the fog of war; and APCs, which aren’t new, but have been renamed Mobile Workshops and now have the ability to setup temporary docks and airbases on the map.

The biggest changes arriving with Dark Conflict are those to the CO (Commanding Officers) powers, after the “Eagle’s power is so good let’s make it even better and give it to everyone” of Dual Strike they’ve been toned down a bit, and are more difficult to activate. COs have to possess a unit on the field in order to build up their CO powers. It’s very similar to how the powers were generated before, but it requires you to think about what type of unit they should commandeer and where they would be most effective. It also carries with it the risk of losing your CO, and losing all the power they’ve built up. The best thing about this new system is that it effectively stops matches turning into CO power ping pong; you can use them to break through the enemy army without worrying about doing enough damage to set off the their own power the following turn, making them rarer, but more significant.

And briefly touching on the story, it’s shite. On one hand it’s trying to be more serious, with characters droning on about how “War is so terrible, blah, blah, blah”, but then there’s some utter nonsense about a mysterious flower virus that turns people into bouquets. It’s also riddled with the usual anime clichés of stupid bloody amnesiac characters, melodramatic banter, and lots of sentences that just trail off…

Not that it makes any difference, though, as you can just skip all that guff and get straight into the action.

The thing with the Advance Wars series is that they nailed the basic mechanics so well in the first game they’ve only needed to make incremental changes since then, just adding the odd new unit or CO with each incarnation. Strangely enough, this leads someone like me to have this nagging feeling that I’ve just been playing the same game since 2001. Dark Conflict, however, is the first game that feels like a full step forward, or, at least, in a different direction.

Using the Advance Wars name as a brand and setting it in a different universe opens up a world of opportunities for the future; in the same way that the Total war series has remained fresh by jumping to different periods in history, maybe we could even see Advance Wars: Generic Fantasy Land, or Advance Wars: Holy Shit, Space!

So, for first time buyers, it’s one of, if not the, best turn-based strategy game available on the DS and, for long time fans, the mechanical changes and online play make it different enough to warrant a look.