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Review #306

Afrika
Publisher: Natsume
Developer: Rhino Studios
Genre: Safari Simulation
Release Date: 10/06/2009

Hakuna Matata,
What a wonderful phrase.
It’s our problem free,
Philosophy!
Hakuna Matata

Man, every time I boot this game up, I get that song in my head. It’s probably because I imported the Korean version of this game several months ago due to it being fully localized in English. There the game is named Hakuna Matata, for general Asian release, while in Japan it’s still Afrika. Still, I’d rather have a Lion King song in my head than something by Toto.

It’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from you.
There’s nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do.
I bless the rains down in Africa.
Gonna take some time to do the things we never had.

Ew.

Anyway, even though Afrika was released in Asia well over a year ago and is considered one of, if not THE, best looking game ever made, and sold extremely well, Sony of America (SCEA) decided not to bring it to the US. Even though you know, it was already fully in English anyway. Why? Well, a very tiny stupid reason that shows you why Sony is in the shape it’s in this console generation. You see, SCEA made a room that in 2009, all games released in North America for the PS3 had to have trophies. Afrika didn’t. So instead of adding trophies (which along with achievements is one of the stupidest things in gaming,), which would have taken maybe a week, SCEA decided to let the game rot. Idiots.

Well thank god for Natsume and their creating a trophy patch. Alas, it also means Sony’s marketing budget won’t go to promoting what is easily the best game I’ve played on the PS3 this year, but at least we get it hear in North America finally and you can all experience why I’ve been in love with this game for nearly a year. Let’s take a look at exactly why SCEA made a huge mistake by not bringing this amazing game to the US themselves.

Let’s Review

1. Modes

You start the game by choosing one of two characters, male or female, and then you’re off to partake in an African Safari. No, you won’t be killing things ala a Cabela game; this is a PHOTO safari. Your main goal will be to catalogue all the animals you come across. For each animal you take a picture of, you’ll receive money to pay for camera upgrades and nick-nacks. You’ll also unlock information, high resolution real life photos of the animals, movies, and information provided by National Geographic.

After your first missions, you’ll be given more and more assignments by people who not only want specific animals but animals doing specific things. An early request is getting a picture of a hippo yawning. Later on you’ll get requests like one male impala and multiple females. You’ll also unlock big game side quests by taking pictures of things in your environment. Big game quests are just that, but again, you won’t be shooting a leopard or lion with a gun. It’s all photos.

Unlike games like Pokemon Snap or Cardcaptor Sakura this isn’t an on-rails photo game. You’re free to wander around any given area as long as it is within a certain distance of your vehicle. You can also get as close to animals as you can, except some animals will run from you if they notice you, while others like this nasty hippo that beat the crap out of me, will charge you. If you stay still long enough, the AI will be quite realistic and they’ll start to ignore you. I got to have a Zebra walk right past me and I’ll tell you, I marked out like a schoolgirl it was so close.

The goal here is to snap pictures of all the possible animals in the game and complete all the quests. There’s a lot to do and see, and it’s basically Endless Ocean but with far superior graphics, better music, non aquatic animals, and the chance of getting your butt kicked by a wild animal you stupidly ticked off. Of course, there’s no death in this game. Not for you or caused by you anyway. If an animal attacks, you just lose all your photos for the day. Alas.

Besides the main mode, there’s Geo Africa. This is where you can get all the real life information about the animals, ranging from videos to pictures as I mentioned before. There’s also online mode. Here you can see photos taken by other Afrika players, upload your own, compete in photo contests, and more. One of the other things I love is that you can transfer photos you’ve taken to either the PS3 hard drive or a flash drive that you have placed in one of the USB slots. In fact, all the screenshots in this review came directly from the first few quests in my game.

In all, Afrika is an all consuming game. It’s incredibly deep, the AI is magnificent and it’s easy to lose yourself just watching the animals interact with their environment and each other. It’s soothing and satisfying in a way that can’t be explained – only experienced.

Modes Rating: 8/10

2. Graphics

I can sum this up in only one way: This is the most breathtaking and visually stunning video game I have ever played. EVER. It is the most lifelike game I’ve ever seen. The animals move and breathe as if they were going to jump out of my HDTV and leave scat all over my living room. The backgrounds are equally beautiful. The trees, the mountains, even the way the sunlight pours through the trees as dusk approaches never fails to blow me away and I’ve been playing the import version of this game for months.

I’ve never seen a game put this much detail into the most minute of details. There’s a bit later on in the game where you’re taking pictures of elephants against the backdrop of a waterfall. It’s just mind-blowing how real this game looks and feels. I mean, I own a lot of National Geographic and Nova documentaries on Blu-Ray. For me, it’s the reason to have High Definition. Afrika is proof of exactly what high definition graphics should look like instead of darkly hued games with little colour or depth. Sadly though, those games are the norm while this is the exception. It really should be the other way around.

Honestly, if you’re a graphics whore in the slightest, Afrika should be a system seller for you. That’s all there is to it.

Graphics Rating: 10/10

3. Sound

The score to this game is amazing. The symphonic tracks in the game just send chills down my spine. Again, this is the type of music you would hear is a high budget nature documentary or high fantasy RPG. It’s moving in the way only classical music can be, and it fits the nature of the game perfectly. It reminds me a lot of the music for the old Sega-CD game Dark Wizard, which was definitely the best score ever for that era of gaming. Honestly, if Natsume released a soundtrack, I’d snatch it up in a second for my car.

When you’re in the field on a photoshoot, everything sounds like what you would expect. You’ll actually hear the crunch of twigs beneath hooves, the whinnies or snorts of animals. You’ll get splashing through water or angry defensive noises. Trust me when I say you will come to know the noises and facial expressions of an animal ready to lay the smacketh down on you.

In much the same way that Endless Ocean was an auditory feast, Afrika is a game that will tickle your auditory senses. It contains an amazing soundtrack and real life recordings of the animals you will encounter. As much as you need to see this game in action to truly comprehend how amazing it is, you also need to HEAR it.

Sound Rating: 10/10

4. Control and Gameplay

The controls are fairly simply. Unless you’re taking pictures, you’re walking around and using your eyes and/or binoculars to scout for the best area to take pictures. Each day you’ll be driven to a location to do a quest, but you can have the driver pull over the car at any time to take pictures of whatever you want.

Once you get to an area, you can walk, run or crawl to a vantage point and begin to take pictures. There is no time limit, but you do have space for only 30 pictures until you start buying upgrades. You don’t even have to finish or complete your quest the day you agree to take it on. Let’s say you take a quest to see a Zebra close up and personal, but then you find the Zebras are skittish that day and end of taking a really nice picture of a giraffe drinking water, which you remembered was for an entirely different quest. You can do that!

Taking pictures are really easy. The left analog stick is used to aim your camera and the right is for zooming. Then it’s just a matter of getting the shot you want. A lot of the game is waiting for the right shot, so luck and patience are the ultimate deciders in what happens with your game.

Each camera performs differently and as your unlock new ones, you’ll find the better the picture, the more work is required to get it. It’s definitely worth it though as when you get that perfect shot, you’ll find yourself brimming with pride and showing it to all your friends as if it was real. Heck, it looks real enough.

For those of you like me who never really bother with cameras or photography of any kind, the controls might take a quest or two to get the hang of, especially when you get a new camera. For long time semi-professional photographers like my friend Dan or even my father, you’ll find the controls instinctive and fluid. You’ll be able to slide into using the dual shock as if it was a real camera and your photos will no doubt turn out much better than my own .

Afrika is a fairly easy game to pick up and the controls are rock solid. I can’t see anyone complaining about the gameplay, but I can see people not having the patience for getting the perfect picture.

Control and Gameplay: 8/10

Replayability

There are so many quests to do in the game, both that are unlocked by natural progression or that you have to take some pictures via your own initiative to activate. Even then, you don’t HAVE to do them. You can just go out and take pictures of whatever you want, whenever you want. The game is very much a free roaming simulation where you have complete control. It’s rather like a sandbox game, just with better graphics, likeable characters (animals), and less violence. If you want to just shoot roll of film after roll of film of vultures, then knock yourself out! There’s also the photo contests (which have died out with the Asian/Korean release, but which North America will just be starting to take part in), the ability to share pictures with other gamers, or even to upload them to your home computer or the like. The pictures in this review are all taken with the WORST camera in the game and they are still jaw-dropping. Imagine what the images taken with the better cameras are like.

Honestly, you can spend months with this game and still find stuff to do. Maybe you missed that little hamster. Maybe you just couldn’t activate one of the big game quests. Maybe you just love watching the animals and the best graphics currently available on the PS3. Afrika is a game worth your time. Not only is it serene and relaxing, but there’s something Zen about the whole experience. This is a game you can come back to constantly, and always find something new to experience or encounter.

Replayability Rating: 7/10

6. Balance

Each quest is given a difficulty rating before you agree to take it on, so you are forewarned. However, the higher the difficulty doesn’t actually mean the game is like say, trying to perfect Nightmare Geese in an SNK game. Instead, it’s more about the likelihood, timing and positioning of your character to get that perfect shot. Let’s take an early quest as example. Let’s say you’re assigned to take a picture of hippos yawning. Well, for an animal to feel comfortable enough to yawn, they need to be relaxed. Hippos do not like humans however, so if they notice you, they won’t yawn as much as they will charge and beat the snot out of you. What you’ll need to do is either hide behind some bushes for a time and slowly side out as you see one (or more) yawning or else stay out of their eyeshot and take a picture when you seem them yawn. In the former, you’ll have to be lightning fast. With the latter, it’ll be easier, but the quality of the shot won’t be as good. Now there is a third way with this quest to kind of cheat the game. You see, the game is looking for a hippo with an open mouth. Something else you can do is charge the hippo and wait for it to roar before it attacks you. Snap the picture of the roaring hippo and run like hell. Although this isn’t the way you SHOULD get the photo, you will get a hilariously awesome one and it’s a fun way to put a little action and insanity into the game. There’s something about a hippo with its eyes rolling back in its head preparing to charge you that just makes for a fun photo. Of course if it was in real life, that photo would probably be your last act on earth besides soiling yourself as the hippo tramples your vital organs.

Again, this game may frustrate those without any patience or those that have the need to kill things when holding a controller, but for everyone else, the game game is a pretty easy and relaxing romp through an African savannah.

Balance Rating: 7/10

7. Originality

As I’ve mentioned several times before, this game has several similarities with Endless Ocean This is actually a good thing considering it won our 2008 Wii Game of the Year AND our Best All Ages Game awards last year. Both games also you free roaming fun, to move at your own pace and to interact with realistic looking animals. However neither was the first game in this line and in the case of Afrika, there are many other photo simulation games.

What the game does do in terms of innovation is give us our first lifelike animal simulation, our first real look at the beauty and savagery of Africa and it has great interaction with a flash drive. It’s the first PSP game I can think of that lets you do that. It’s also the first game that I can think of that lets you share in game photos, although Singstar lets you make videos.

Photography simulations and animal interaction games have been done numerous times before, that can’t be denied. At least Afrika brings a few new tricks to the genre as well as giving us the biggest and most beautiful looking environment for either.

Originality Rating: 5/10

8. Addictiveness

This is really going to depend on your level of concentration and patience. If you can stand waiting for minutes until an animal gets into “perfect shot” range. Some people might now be able to do more than one or two quests without needed to take a break with something more action oriented. Those who are playing this for the artistic value, the sheer beauty of the game or the love of animals will be able to get months out of this game without a need to put it down.

Overall, Afrika offers so many options and things to see, that gamers will be able to log a lot of time on this single game. Sure you’re not using your camera to destroy evil spirits ala Fatal Frame, but you are using it to take some of the most memorable screencaps in gaming.

Addictiveness Rating: 7/10

9. Appeal Factor

This is the one downside with the game. Look at what’s successful on the PS3: KillZone 2, Uncharted 2, Infamous and so on and so forth. As you can tell, Afrika doesn’t really fit the demographic of the average Playstation 3 owner in the United States. However, that doesn’t mean they won’t enjoy this game. In fact, most will. It’s just SCEA has pretty much forced first person shooters or generic sandbox games down our throat. Personally, when I go through my collection of Sony exclusives, none of those I named earlier are in there. My PS3 exclusives are things like Cross Edge, Buzz!, Valkyria Chronicles and Singstar. As you can see, just because SCEA doesn’t actually like to market games with colour, originality or humour doesn’t mean they don’t exist. There’s a large market for Afrika here with PS3 owners. It’s just a matter of making sure they know it exists.

Is Afrika worth buying a PS3 for? No, it’s not a system seller by itself, but once you DO have a PS3, if you don’t already, it certainly will one of the crown jewels of your collection. If your primary reason for playing games is graphics, you’ll love this. If it’s to unwind or relax, you’ll love this, if it’s to experience gamers that aren’t the usual generic crap, you’ll love this. If you have a sig other that isn’t into games or children in your household, this is a great way to get them into gaming.

Afrika may not involve only graphics with only three colours, heading exploding or constant tests for your hand-eye coordination, but it is a work of art and should be hailed as such. You know, i was annoyed with SCEA with their treatment of 2-D games and SNK in particular with the PS2, but the fact SCEA bailed on one of Sony’s biggest exclusives because it didn’t have FREAKIN’ TROPHIES just disturbs me. They nearly cost all of us one of the best games for the system and that’s a disservice to all of us who happily own a PS3. Teach them a lesson by not only buying this game, but by loving it

Appeal Factor Rating: 6/10

10. Miscellaneous

This is Rhino Studios’ first game and I’m still blown away by how good it is. I’ll pretty much buy whatever they make next, although I’d really love something similar in say, a rainforest setting. This is just simply an excellent game in every regard. It really shows the power of blu-ray and high definition graphics, while providing high quality family-friendly content.

Best of all is the fact that you can get the game for HALF of retail price if you don’t care about trophies. Play-Asia currently offers the game for $24.90 compared to the US release price of fifty dollars. As the game is region free and it’s 100% in English save for the manual, why WOULDN’T you get this PS#3GOTY contender for half off? Hell, even if you don’t currently have a PS3, you might as well buy this for when you DO get one. I feel a bit bad not recommending Natsume’s US release over Sony’s Korean release, but it’s HALF OFF and the only thing different is it doesn’t have those lame ass trophies.

For under twenty five dollars Hakuna Matata, as the Korean version is known, will easily be your best purchase for the PS3 this year. Take advantage of it while you can. If you do decide to get the US version, you’ll still find an amazing game well worth the full fifty dollar price tag. It might not offer the deepest gameplay or the most frantic experience, but no PS3 exclusive has made me HAPPIER this year, and that’s what matters most at the end of the day.

Miscellaneous Rating: 10/10

The Scores
Modes: 8/10
Graphics: 10/10
Sound: 10/10
Control and Gameplay: 8/10
Replayability: 7/10
Balance: 7/10
Originality: 5/10
Addictiveness: 7/10
Appeal Factor: 6/10
Miscellaneous: 10/10
Total Score: 78
FINAL SCORE: 8.0 (GREAT GAME!)

Short Attention Span Summary
Afrika is not only the best looking game I have ever played, but it’s the best game I’ve played for the PS3 all year. Yes I said it. The combination of jaw dropping visuals, life-like animals, one of the best classical scores I’ve ever heard in a video game and the overall experience had me import the original months ago. Now it’s your turn to see why this game was a PS3 best seller in Asia and just how soothing and awesome it can be. Thank you Natsume for picking up the ball where SCEA clearly dropped it. Afrika is a game you owe it to yourself to experience. Don’t let this one pass you by.

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