All posts by Tim MacKenzie

I'm a graduate student, focusing in Japanese-English Translation. My main goal is to work in the video game industry one day, and hopefully be the guy who translates and localizes games from Japan I've been with the COE crew for several years after being recruited from the the Nsider forums back in the day. I liked sharing my opinion on games and became one of the Nsider Sages over time. I've loved working with the COE crew throughout the whole trip. And I'm the resident Mega Man fanboy, so I can bug the guys that way. XD As far as gaming goes, I'm an all-around kind of guy. I love to collect games and systems, and finally have access to all the modern consoles. I have a particular affinity for fighting games (Street Fighter, BlazBlue, Smash Bros, etc), RPGs, and action games although I do dabble in others when they interest me. I'd say my weakest points would be in first-person shooters and real-time strategy games. I do like them, but man am I awful at those kinds of games...I keep trying though. I keep up with the Mega Man and Poke'mon games like a rabid fiend, but I also try to get niche games and things that just look interesting. Some of my all-time favorite games include: Chrono Trigger, Mega Man X, Shin Megami Tensei Persona 4, Resident Evil 4, Super Metroid, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time, Final Fantasy IV and VI, Okami, Street Fighter Alpha 3, Super Smash Bros. Melee, etc.

Phoenix Wright Dual Destinies Review

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Phoenix Wright Dual Destinies (Available exclusively on Nintendo 3DS eShop)
ESRB Rating: M
Number of Players: 1
Genre: Adventure/Visual Novel
Publisher: Capcom
Developer: Capcom
Release Date: October 24th, 2013

Parent Talk: Phoenix Wright is rated M for Mature because of mature themes—it’s a murder mystery, after all. There are some scenes of killing and splattering of blood, but the level of violence in this game is significantly different than something like Grand Theft Auto or Saints Row. The rating is deceptive, because if anything, the dialog and scenario are actually appropriate for younger audiences, and the game could have easily gotten away with a T rating.

Phoenix Wright Athena

Plays Like: The previous games in the Phoenix Wright series; that is, a point-and-click style adventure game or visual novel. Most of the game consists of reading. You read story scenes, watch cutscenes, analyze witness testimony, and then find contradictions by presenting the appropriate evidence at the right time.

Review Basis: Completed all cases.

Phoenix Wright games are basically “visual novels.” It’s a nebulous genre term at best, so if you’re not familiar with it, here’s what you’re in for: you read witness testimony and present evidence when you read something that you think is contradictory. Most of the game is reading. There is a lot of story text and dialog. You are able to move around and collect evidence in certain scenes, much akin to a point-and-click style adventure game, but you don’t really change the flow of the story nor do different scenarios. Yet, the series is loved by many because of its tightly-wounded narratives, memorable characters, and great music. It’s basically a courtroom drama and murder mystery.

The Great: A dramatic story. Phoenix Wright is all about the dramatic turnabouts. Heck, the original Japanese title for the series is “Turnabout Courtroom” (Gyakuten Saiban 逆転裁判). This game exemplifies that spirit perfectly. All of the games in the series have jaw-dropping moments of ridiculous drama and the games have done an excellent job of straddling the line between comedy and tragedy. It’s arguably the most consistently good series that Capcom has created, or any company for that matter. Each game in the series stands well on its own, with tightly wound narratives that are incredibly fun to unravel. Dual Destinies has one of the most engaging stories of the series, weaving in nods to the past games and establishing new characters and plot threads in expert fashion. Newcomer Athena has a genuinely intriguing backstory and this game’s finale really brought me back to the original title’s landmark DL-6 case.  Do yourself a favor: do not read walkthroughs on how to solve the cases and do not spoil the last case for yourself. I almost dropped my 3DS in shock when I got to the end!

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The Good:

  • Excellent characters, both old and new. Phoenix Wright is one of Capcom’s best characters, in my opinion. He’s eminently likable because of his awkward charms, so it’s great to see him back in full force (though to be fair, he was still a major presence in Apollo Justice). Speaking of Apollo, he also gets a major role in this game, making this feel like a true sequel, one that honors what the fourth game set out to do. Some past characters come back to make you feel nostalgic, and the new characters fit in quite well with the series cast. Simon Blackquill may remind many of prosecutors Von Karma or Godot from the original games, and Athena has quickly become a fan-favorite because of her excellent character design and well-written dialog. She’s a strong-headed young woman with a strong sense of justice. Even when the game comes off as cliché, it still manages to be sincere and genuine.
  • Perfect transition from 2D to 3D. Capturing Phoenix Wright in 3D is a tall order. The games are so well-known for the somewhat choppy sprite-based graphics of the original and it would be a shame to sacrifice the game’s visual flair. However, Capcom managed to capture the essence of Phoenix Wright’s look exceedingly well in this game. The characters are all spot on and the witness breakdowns are just as memorable as ever. It’s unfortunate that the iOS version of the games didn’t go this route, because it looks magnificent, and even better in 3D. The added depth works well in the visually busy courtroom.  I played through the entire game in 3D because I couldn’t get enough of looking at it.

  • An excellent soundtrack. Phoenix Wright games are typically known for the dramatic turnabouts, but what really makes those moments stand out is the music. When you start to go on the offensive and point out holes in the witness testimony, the game sets the stage perfectly with great songs. My personal favorite tracks are this game’s version of “Announcing the Truth” and “Running Wild ~ Mood Matrix.”

  • The Mood Matrix, Apollo’s super eyesight, and Phoenix’s Psyche Locks. During most of the game, you have to present the correct evidence at the right time to point out holes in witness testimony—that much is a given. But the series also has other gimmicks that make things interesting, and this game incorporates a lot of them. Phoenix has his magatama, a mystical item given to him by the Fey family, which allows him to see the “locks” around a person’s heart. In short, he can know when someone is keeping a secret. Apollo, on the other hand, has a bracelet on his wrist that reacts when someone lies. Then, using his hyper-sensitive eyesight, he can spot the small twitches and quirks that witnesses have when they lie. Athena uses a device and her knowledge of Analytical Psychology to basically walk the witness through their testimony, identifying how they are feeling and calming them down enough to divulge more details. It makes the courtroom scenes more interesting and fun. The Mood Matrix system starts simply, but becomes more interesting in later cases when you have more challenging witnesses.

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The So/So:

+/-It’s a linear game. This is complaint that I always see plastered on Phoenix Wright reviews, so I debated on pointing it out at all, but figured that I may as well. It’s somewhat pointless to complain about this in a visual novel type game, especially because the entire premise is to go through the story. To me, it’s like complaining that a book is linear. It simply comes with the territory. Nevertheless, if you don’t like a game that you can’t change the direction of, this may not be for you. Phoenix Wright isn’t about diverging plotlines or multiple scenarios; nor is it a game that you really play through multiple times in a row. Most of the enjoyment comes from seeing plot revelations unfold for the first time and figuring things out on your own.

The Bad:

-Not much use of the touch screen or other features, aside from menus. In the bonus case of Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney, you got to use various forensic tools with Emma Skye (and later in Apollo Justice). It was a neat way of exploiting some of the DS’s touch features, so I was hoping that we would see more of that in Dual Destinies. While the menus and interface has been significantly improved, there isn’t much forensic analysis in this game. You do have to “select” the right areas for certain pieces of evidence, but I do miss checking for fingerprints, testing for blood, etc. This is a minor nitpick at best though.

-Only minor cameos from certain characters and others don’t make an appearance. I wanted to see more of the cast! Where’s Franziska von Karma?!

-If you’re not a longtime fan, you won’t get as much out of the story. It’s still easy to play and enjoy, but there are many subtle nods to the previous games. There aren’t any strongly overt ties to the past games, so you can still jump in to this knowing simply that Phoenix and Apollo know each other from long ago and both are defense lawyers they have been fighting the xarelto lawsuits. You don’t need to know about how Phoenix defended his rival Miles Edgeworth in a landmark case in the first game, but it does help you understand the significance when he arrives in this game. It helps you understand why he’s indebted to Phoenix. The narrative weaves in a lot of references to the previous games and that significantly increases your enjoyment.

The Lowdown:

Dual Destinies is not to be missed. It’s an excellent game through-and-through and continues the series tradition quite admirably. It reaffirms my belief that Phoenix Wright is Capcom’s most consistently great series, because each game can stand on its own as an excellent adventure. If you absolutely cannot stand reading in games and you don’t like a game that doesn’t offer replay value, it may not be for you, but if you’re interested in playing something different from the mainstream and something with a great story, you should definitely get this. And parents, don’t let the M-for-mature rating fool you; this game is easily appropriate for teens to play. Download this one whenever you can!

Score: 9/10

Disgaea D2: A Brighter Darkness Review

Disgaea D2 BoxDisgaea D2: A Brighter Darkness (Available only on PlayStation 3)
ESRB Rating: T
Number of Players: 1
Genre: Strategy/RPG
Publisher: Nippon Ichi Software
Developer: Nippon Ichi Software
Release Date: October 8th, 2013

Parent Talk: Disgaea is filled with character archetypes and comedy tropes that should resonate with any anime fan, though the sexual innuendos and more offbeat humor may make some jokes too crude for children. Most of the humor is taken from clever wordplay and (sometimes groan-inducing) puns, making it great for the anime lover in the family.

Plays Like: If you’ve played previous entries into the main Disgaea line, you should have an understanding of how this game works. D2 is a direct sequel to the first game in the series, though it does take into account the tweaks of the later entries (not counting the Prinny-focused action games or the visual novel PSP game). Basically, the game is a series of battles that occur on a chessboard-like environment. There are no places to explore or towns to visit; you simply power up your characters, watch cutscenes, and then play the next map. It sounds simple but it’s so incredibly deep and complex it would take hundreds and hundreds of hours to see all the game has to offer.

Review Basis: Completed the game once, currently on a second play-through.

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I never expected Disgaea to become the recognizable fan-favorite franchise it’s become today. When the first game, Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, came out for the PlayStation 2 back in 2004, I expected it would become a beloved cult-favorite, destined to be lost to time and then home on many “Best of PS2” and “Games We Wish Had Sequels” list. I was certainly wrong. The lovable, offbeat (and admittedly bizarre) comedy, great characters, and dizzyingly deep combat and character customization not only made it a hit, but led to sequels, spin-offs, merchandise, an anime series, manga, and much more. Disgaea has become so popular that the Prinny, the hilarious penguin-like demons featured in the games, have basically become the de facto mascot of Nippon Ichi Software. Still, after all this time and all of the sequels, ports, and spinoffs, I’m amazed it’s taken this long to make a true-to-form sequel to the original game. D2 features the cast of the first game, back in action after nearly a decade. Laharl, Flonne, and Etna are without a doubt the most popular characters the franchise has to offer, so it’s great to see them return.

Even if you’ve only played the original game, you can dive into this one quite comfortably. All of the core entries in the series are turn-based strategy RPGs akin to Final Fantasy Tactics or Fire Emblem. If you haven’t played a game in the series before, you may be completely unable to follow the plot, but it’s still a fun ride. There are no towns to visit or vast fields to explore; instead, it’s all about character customization, grinding, and battles. Characters move on a map laid out like a chessboard, attacking enemies with a variety of magic, weapons, and skills. What makes the series so compelling though, is the sheer depth it has to offer. In addition to the main characters, each of which with their own special skills, you can create a number of other characters and develop them in a myriad of ways. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Great: An intricately laid out game. The basic flow of the game goes like this: 1) Watch a cutscene introducing the chapter. 2) Battle on a map. 3) Access new map. 4) Repeat a few times. 5) Fight boss. 6) End cutscene. It sounds simple, but the combat and character building is what makes the game so interesting. There are tons of possible character types you can create, including: Warrior, Skull, Witch, Healer, Thief, Gunner, Ninja, Samurai, Brawler, Archer, Magic Knight, Shaman, and much more, including monsters. When a character is created, he or she is set at a certain proficiency level, such as Good-for-Nothing, Incompetent, Skilled, and Genius.

Higher proficiency levels take more mana, which you get from winning battles and performing actions, but ensure the characters will have better growth. You can also promote characters to better class types once they are unlocked. You can also choose to reincarnate characters at level 1, to improve their stat growth patterns. That’s not including the smorgasbord of options available to you via the Dark Assembly courtroom. You can recruit special characters by fighting them in special missions and then maintain their growth with meticulous detail. Not only do characters level up, but they also can gain proficiency in different weapon types and gain experience in specific skills. That’s still not all of it.

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The Good:

+ A brilliant cast of characters. Laharl, Flonne, and Etna are some of the best characters that the series has to offer and I’d make the argument that they are some of the most memorable RPG characters of all time. Laharl is the son of the previous Overlord, King Krichevskoy. In the first game, the story was all about Laharl rising up to become the Overlord himself, and find out what happened to his mother along the way. He also befriends an angel named Flonne. And then we have a series of offbeat jokes, references to Super Sentai hero action shows, references to anime, nonsensical character dialog and humor, terrible puns, and more. It’s wonderful. The characters are back in full force and are just as lovable as ever.

The voice work, both in English and Japanese, is just spot on and captures the spirit of these characters perfectly. Case in point: the beginning of the game opens with Laharl riding a meteor that crashes into a flower garden that Flonne is tending to. Laharl laughs maniacally as it crashes into the ground. When Flonne says she’s angry, Laharl just comments that he’s the Overlord so it’s ok. Sicily, one of the new characters central to the story, fits in well with the cast. The plot of this game is about a group of schemers threatening to overthrow Laharl as the Overlord, the mysterious Sicily who claims to be Laharl’s younger sister, and the potential war between Celestia and the Netherworld.

+ A fun, nonsensical world. What makes the Disgaea series so lovable is the quirky sense of humor. It’s difficult to tread the line between groan-worthy and hilarious, but the game manages to do so well most of the time. It tends to be mostly juvenile, but there are some hilarious moments, especially all of the weapon descriptions. Puns abound! Like the original game though, it still balances out with a narrative that has weighty overtones. Most of the game is about accepting your family and reconnecting with lost loved ones. Laharl paints himself as a ruthless villain, but he actually cares deeply about his family. It’s that juxtaposition that makes the game interesting.

+ Character Maker is more intricate than before. This time around, you can choose between three different personality types for the character, which will change that unit’s passive bonus (called “evility” in this game), voice, and other characteristics.

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+ The Master/Apprentice system allows you to develop characters in the way you want. Do you want your spellcaster to learn some healing spells? Then have him serve as an apprentice to a healer!

+ The Demon Dojo also lets you develop your characters in the way you see fit. When you start, only certain sections of the dojo are open. For example, you can raise your characters’ HP or SP by making them train in the corresponding sections of the dojo. That way, when they level up, they will gain extra bonuses to those areas. By using the Dojo more often, you get new areas to train in (which gives you new opportunities for character growth) and more character slots per each spot in the Dojo.

+ The Cheat Shop allows you to fine-tune your preferences even further. Do you desperately need more mana, but you have more money than you know what to do with? Then adjust the settings so that you receive more mana at the cost of less money! You can even make the game harder by disabling certain features, like team combination attacks.

+ Geo Panels, team combination attacks, likability, and more!  Very few of the battles in this game are cut and dry. Not only do you have to account for your enemies’ attack patterns and movements, but you have to consider whether they will attempt to do a team attack on you, if the Geo Panel effects work to your favor or against you, and more. For example, you may have one section that gives you a boost to experience points—but enemies have higher damage output. Do you risk getting hurt for the sake of more experience? Or do you just destroy the Geo Panel? Or do you throw it to another part of the map to change what section the effects correspond to? Furthermore, you also have to consider how well your teammates get along. If you frequently pair units up together, they will like each other more. This means they will engage in team combination attacks more frequently. Or, if you’re on the receiving end of damage, an ally might step in and brace the attack for you if he or she likes you enough.

+ The Item World. If all of that wasn’t enough—skills, character classes, Geo Panels, and more—you can also level up your items and make them more potent! You see, each item basically hosts a dungeon. Different items have a different number of floors and guardians. If you can defeat the guardians and get to lower floors, you can power up your items. You can get all the way to level 9999!

+ Intricate balance and management. All of these mechanics are deep and profound, but the game carefully treads between spoon-feeding you details and ignoring it completely. The result is a game that manages to quickly instruct the player in a simple, unobtrusive way. For example, learning how to throw and stack characters is crucial to completing certain maps. The game teaches you the mechanic early on and encourages you to experiment.

+ Previous characters return in DLC. Fuka and Desco, two characters from Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten, are currently available to download, and more will be coming, some of which from games outside of the Disgaea series. For example, Gig (one of my personal favorites) from the game Soul Nomad and the World Eaters is slated to be a DLC character.

+ The HD sprites, character designs, and colorful presentation all look great. While the field graphics are nothing special, and the castle hub is somewhat plain, the character designs are really what stand out. The series is not particularly well-known for offering more advanced visuals, say as in a game like Ni No Kuni, but the colorful presentation and characters are packed with charm and personality. Unfortunately, unlike Disgaea 4, there is no option to toggle between the old-style sprites and new HD sprites, though it’s not much of a loss. There is a free DLC pack that allows you to use the original designs/outfits for the main characters though.

+ Great audio. Both the English and Japanese voice tracks are available, and both are great. When playing in English, some of the grunts and in-battle dialog isn’t translated, but the main performances are great and are in keeping with the character. The music is fun to listen to, and fans of the original game may recognize several tracks.

+ Extra missions. If you take the time to visit the Dark Assembly between missions, you may notice special options available to Laharl. If you successful convince the senators to vote in your favor, you’ll have access to new areas. These bonus missions don’t just let you battle on a new map; they also have special story cutscenes and allow you to recruit a bonus character to your party.

+ Multiple endings and New Game +. Playing through the game once takes dedication and patience. Completing the game multiple times offers extra incentive for the truly hardcore. Also, if you complete the game, you can carry over your party, gear, and levels, so that you can raise your characters to even greater levels.

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The Bad:

-The plot and characters are difficult to follow and care about it if you are not invested in the series. Laharl, Etna, and Flonne aren’t given much introduction in this game, so the expectation is that you are familiar with the world of Disgaea from the get-go. On the other hand, longtime fans might appreciate the fact that the game doesn’t waste time re-introducing the cast or treading over known territory. Also, because the original game is available on PSN, there isn’t much of a reason not to dive in.

-The adventure isn’t quite as memorable as the first. Sicily is a lovable character and I did genuinely enjoy the new story, but the story doesn’t quite live up to the original. It’s probably one of the weakest parts of the game. The story and gameplay are both great, but just not as great as the first. It tends to retread familiar ground. Even with the new gameplay tweaks, people who have played previous entries may already feel as though they’ve played this one before. Still, that should be taken in context—it’s still a wonderful game, one most certainly worth playing, just not as excellent as the first game. Trying to top the first game would be like capturing lightning in a bottle.  While this sequel plays it safe, it still manages to be fun and charming.

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The Lowdown:

If you like strategy RPGs, niche Japanese games, or games with a bizarre comedic style, Disgaea D2 is perfect for you. If you’re feeling burned out by lengthy strategy RPGs or simply don’t wish to invest that much into a game, this adventure might be a hard sell. But this entry sits comfortably alongside its contemporaries as one of the better strategy RPGs available.

Score: 8.5/10

Time and Eternity Review

TimeAndEternityTime and Eternity (Available exclusively on PlayStation 3)
ESRB Rating: T
Number of Players: 1
Genre: RPG
Publisher: NIS America
Developer: Image Epoch
Release Date: July 16th, 2013

Parent Talk: Time and Eternity has some sexual content and suggestive (and not at all subtle) innuendo, so the game may not be appropriate for younger children.

Plays Like: Time and Eternity is a role-playing game at its core, but it has elements of dating-sim games thrown in, which may make gamers think of the Persona series of games. Like most RPGs, you have to talk to NPCs to advance the story, buy and sell equipment, build your character’s skills, and fight enemies in battle, but you also can go on dates. The primary goal in this game is not to save a kingdom or stop an evil lord, but rather, to save your marriage.

Review Basis: Reached two of the three endings, currently on New Game +.

Time and Eternity is a game I wanted to like. I’m an outspoken fan of Japanese anime, I love RPGs, and I especially love the Shin Megami Tensei: Persona series. When I heard about this game, I thought that it was interesting and unique—an adventure game focused on saving your husband from death and reaching a happy marriage? That sounds great! To me, it seemed like a combination of Catherine, The Last Story, and Persona, all of which are great games. Unfortunately, Time and Eternity is far from great, it’s mediocre at best.

The plot is about a young man named Zack, who is a knight engaged to the princess Toki. On the day of their marriage, Zack is mortally wounded. Toki then unveils two surprises about herself. First, she actually has a split personality, an entirely other persona named Towa. Towa is the rough tomboy to Toki’s demure princess, and she fights off the assassin. Then, Toki uses her abilities to travel back in time in the hopes of preventing her marriage from being ruined and preventing Zack from coming to harm. Zack is sent along for the ride, but his soul is placed into the body of Toki’s pet drake.

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The Great:

+ The premise. Playing as a young woman who has to save her husband and her marriage makes for a great concept. I was looking forward to this and was hoping that we’d have a strong, interesting lead with a great supporting cast. Unfortunately, the game failed to deliver on this. The idea that you’re playing as Toki/Towa is thrown at the window since Zack doesn’t die at all. He’s just put into the body of Toki/Towa’s pet drake. With a story based on love and time travel, I was expecting more. It has some traces of great ideas though and if you want something different, this certainly is far from the norm. The story could have been far better, but it’s told in a juvenile, uninteresting way.

The Good:

+ The battle system. If nothing else, combat in Time and Eternity is unique. Rather than fighting enemies en masse, you engage with foes in one-on-one combat in a third-person perspective. You play as either Toki or Towa in a real-time combat system. If you stay far away from the enemy, you’ll use a rifle to attack. If you get in close, you’ll switch to sword-based combat. You also have a list of skills and magic to use, as well as a list of “time magic.” Your list of skills starts rather small, but as you progress, you’ll gain access to new skills and you can even expand your list of usable combat skills. The combat still has a sense of rigidness to it, so it’s not necessarily the same as other action-RPGs like Kingdom Hearts. You can only be in two main positions: near and far. You can dodge to the left or right, and you can block. This isn’t to knock the game entirely. This sense of rigidness gives it a kind of timing that you need to master. Understanding when to block, when to dodge, and how to counter makes the system interesting. Unfortunately, poor difficulty balancing (everything is way too easy), overpowered magic, “limit break” attacks that are far too infrequent to be useful, and some annoying enemy patterns, bring down what could have been a great combat system. I had a lot of fun adapting to the combat, learning the timing of attacks, and so on. With some re-balancing, it could be really great.

+ Time magic system. This is definitely what makes combat more interesting, but unfortunately makes it too easy. With the time abilities, you can rewind combat to undo a mistake, you can speed yourself up to attack more quickly, and you can even stop an enemy clean in their tracks. Unfortunately, using these skills is kind of game breaking. You’ll win without effort. I never had any trouble defeating any enemies as a result.

+ The anime characters. While certainly nowhere near as exquisite as the visuals in Valkyria Chronicles or Ni No Kuni, there’s something charming about the characters in Time and Eternity. In the game, the characters are represented through 2D anime portraits, giving the illusion that you’re basically playing an episode of the anime. Sometimes, it looks great; other times, not so much. When in combat and when shown in stills, the visuals look great.

+ Quests and skills. Even though the game has its share of faults, there are some good ideas. The skill system, called “Gifts” here, is actually quite cool. After defeating enemies, you accumulate skill points, which you can use to purchase a gift. Each gift is basically a selection of skills, focused on a particular area. For example, one may focus on passive skills, while others focus in certain types of elemental magic. You learn the skills from the gift the next time you level up, and after unlocking several gifts, you reach new tiers. That and the abundance of side quests at least provide some nice distractions from the main quest. The adventure on its on is rather brief and is only four chapters long. I’d guess many could complete it in less than ten hours. With all of the extra quests, it’s about 20 or more.

+Toki/Towa. Toki and Towa are probably the only decent characters in this game at all. Unfortunately, they cannot carry the adventure alone, because the supporting cast just fails. Considering that the entire focus of the game is about getting to know Toki and Towa and then ultimately marrying one of them, it makes sense that they would be the most developed characters of the bunch. Even so, the characters could have been refined more.

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The Bad:

-The animation is terrible. The character portraits are a nice touch and occasionally look nice, until they move that is. The animation is stilted and they tend to re-use the same frames. For example, one character had a falling down animation, which repeated several times—it looks extremely awkward. The walking and turning animation for Toki/Towa’s movement also seems odd and she moves like a forklift. Turning feels odd. The combat animation is far more fluid and is far more interesting visually, but even that is ruined when there’s slowdown. Toki/Towa’s sword attacks for example are far smoother and pleasant to look at. But during dialog scenes, characters have a certain set of actions that they repeat. For example, Toki may cross her legs, but she does it repeatedly during dialog, which just makes it look awkward.

-Characters are re-used and dull. Aside from, the supporting characters are bland and generic. Of course, it doesn’t help that most of the main characters are bland as well. Many of the characters are re-used and simply re-colored. For example, there’s a young boy character, a young girl character, a young female character, a young male character, an assassin character, etc. The same characters are just slapped on and given a new color scheme. It’s simply dull. Aside from that, most of the characters are just a waste of space. I didn’t really get to know much about Enda aside from the fact she’s Toki’s friend. She’s uninteresting and hardly contributes anything. Toki and Towa are the only interesting characters, and even then, they aren’t that different from each other. It seems like they were meant to be opposites: a princess and a tomboy, but the way they’re portrayed in the story after being introduced clashes with the original idea. The main character, Zack, is unlikable.

-Slowdown during combat. The animation during combat is smoother than the dialog scenes thankfully, but it doesn’t help when the action slows down during the fray. This seems to happen later in the game especially.

-The writing. Most of the jokes are just cringe-worthy, not in a good way either. Bad  jokes can be fun and I’m all for campy material, but most of the writing in the game is just juvenile and unfunny. The game can’t decide what it’s trying to be. Sometimes, it’s trying to be dramatic and sincere, like with the ending sequences that make you choose between Toki or Towa. It’s mean to tug at your heart strings because you’re supposed to have become attached to her, but it doesn’t work very well, not because Toki or Towa are bad, but because Zack is just not an interesting character nor is he written well. He’s basically the bland everyman. Other times, especially when dealing with characters like Makimona or Ricardo, the game tries to be silly. There’s a fourth-wall breaking character named iNew who talks about the latest trends and his dialog references Facebook, Twitter, etc. It’s not clever and it’s not amusing.  One of the game’s running jokes is about Ricardo’s cakes, which are awful. The character is dull to begin with, but the game draws it out over such a long period of time. The story is a poorly written mess.

-No sense of exploration. There’s not much point in exploring the world map, because the game explicitly points out where everything is anywhere. It gives you all the quest objectives, treasure chests, and so on.

-The date system. Persona 3 and 4 handled the dating-sim element rather well. You would choose to hang out with someone, answer questions, and do things to raise the person’s level of affection. The mechanics made sense. Here, it seems like you just happen to have events, and there isn’t much difference no matter what you do. For many of these sequences, if you happen to answer “correctly,” you’ll be awarded with a picture of Toki or Towa. Other sequences are simply there to advance the story or explain more about the relationship between Zack and Toki/Towa, but because Zack isn’t likable at all, it doesn’t make them interesting to watch. I didn’t really have to plan anything or give gifts or anything special. I managed to see every date event just by simply selecting it and there wasn’t really a reward for getting to know Toki or Towa, when that’s what should have been the focus.

-The shooting mini-game is out-of-place and has awkward controls. There are a few segments where the game will dramatically shift to a third-person shooter mode. This is done when you fight with a large boss, but it’s done so infrequently I wonder why it was implemented at all. You basically have four options: light attack, heavy attack, heal, and shield. The fight wasn’t challenging whatsoever. All I had to do was move back and forth, wait for the enemy to attack, then fire a blast and counterattack. It’s completely un-blanaced.

-The level of difficulty is just laughable. If you do happen to die, you can just immediately restart the battle. Most of the enemies are ridiculously simple to beat. If you use magic, you can mow over most enemies in one or a few hits. Even the final boss is a pushover. If you use time magic, you have no fear of losing.

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The Ugly

The environments are lifeless and bland. Most of the field graphics are completely dull. When in town and in other areas, during story segments for example, it looks better. However, when out exploring in the fields, everything looks generic.

The Lowdown:

There’s an interesting idea or two buried in here. I imagine some gamers, especially fans of niche RPGs from NIS and Gust, will want to look at this one just like I did. Admittedly, I had some moments of enjoyment, but there are significant problems here and they’re impossible to ignore. The bland characters, absolutely atrocious environments, stilted animation, and juvenile writing make the game difficult to recommend, but the other myriad of problems make the game impossible to recommend.

Score: 4/10 

Dragon’s Crown Review

dragonscrown02Dragon’s Crown (Available on PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita)
ESRB Rating: T
Number of Players: 1-4
Genre: Action/RPG
Publisher: Atlus
Developer: Vanillaware, Atlus
Release Date: August 6th, 2013
PS3 Price: $49.99
PS Vita Price: $39.99

PS3 vs. Vita: There aren’t many differences between the two versions. The Vita version has all of the content found in the home console version. It’s easier to gather around friends and play together with the home console version, though the handheld version is $10 cheaper and the pointer controls feel much more natural on the Vita. The Vita version seems to slow down more frequently during gameplay though, especially in the fights with the Kraken and the Goblin Gate. You can transfer save data between the two versions, though unfortunately cross-buy and cross-play features are not available.

Parent Talk: Dragon’s Crown doesn’t have any blood or gore, but it does have highly sexualized character designs. The character designs are meant to reference Dungeons and Dragons and Weird Tales/Conan the Barbarian, which had very scantily clad characters, but it may make some people feel uncomfortable, especially parents with young children.

Plays like: Classic arcade brawlers with a twist like Capcom’s Dungeons and Dragons: Tower of Doom (and the recently re-released Dungeons and Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara), as well as the Golden Axe series. Dragon’s Crown is a beat ‘em up game at its core, throwing you against hordes of enemies in a semi-2D field, but it has adventure and role-playing elements as well. Also, if you enjoyed Code of Princess, you’ll really love this game.

Review Basis: Completed the Elf campaign, played locally and online, currently on Hard mode, started campaigns with the Fighter, Wizard, and Sorceress.

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Vanillaware deserves a lot of love, whether or not many gamers know it already. They’ve been keeping 2D gaming alive with excellent titles like Odin Sphere and Muramasa: The Demon Blade (my personal favorite of the bunch). Dragon’s Crown fits squarely in with its forebears, because it thoroughly embraces its 2D heritage and manages to be fresh and interesting at the same time. While Odin Sphere was more of a single-player RPG and Muramasa was more of a Metroidvania-style adventure game, Dragon’s Crown is more of a Golden Axe-like arcade brawler. Yet also like its kin, Dragon’s Crown manages to make itself distinct, thanks to an interesting array of characters and a surprising amount of depth.

The Great:

Wonderful, nostalgic, 2D brawling. Dragon’s Crown is a throwback to classic arcade-style games, but given a modern twist. Part of the game’s charm is that it seems like a mindless, fun, hack-and-slash game at first glance, but hides a layer of depth beneath the surface. Destructoid probably put it best, calling the game a “technical brawler.” It doesn’t have the insane move-set of a typical fighting game, but each character has a unique move-set, a character-specific skill tree, and a wide variety of equipment at his or her disposal. Deciding who to go with and how to spec characters can make your adventure that much more successful.

The Good:

+ Absolutely stunning artwork. Though the character designs drew some ire from people, I’ll go out and defend it: George Kamitani’s artwork is absolutely wonderful and he has a true sense of style. The designs are meant to pay homage to the stylized look of Weird Tales/Conan the Barbarian, Dungeons and Dragons, Golden Axe, and perhaps Record of Lodoss War. I do agree that it’s highly exaggerated, but that’s the point of the characters. I personally prefer the aesthetic of Muramasa more, but that’s because I’m more interested in the Japanese mythology background and characters from that game. No matter which you prefer, it’s impossible to deny that the highly detailed characters and the amazing monsters really show that 2D artwork can still impress in the HD era. The dilapidated ruins, sprawling ruins, ornate castles, and dank waterways feel nostalgic rather than cliché. The characters have a sense of personality and life. The game looks especially beautiful on the Vita’s OLED widescreen. It’s quite possibly the most beautiful game on that system.

+ A diverse cast. There are six playable character types: Elf, Fighter, Amazon, Sorceress, Wizard, and Dwarf. While you cannot customize your character like in some fantasy role-playing games, each character has unique gimmicks. The Fighter has a wide array of sword attacks, can block with his shield, charge through enemies, and perform powerful combination attacks. However, the Wizard can create familiars out of wood and rain down fiery destruction. Each character gets access to a common skill tree as well as a character-specific skill tree. The Elf character, for example, can get access to a larger quiver, a better charged-shot skill, and more. You can build your character differently by focusing on different skills and changing your equipment list. I’ve spent most of my time playing as the Elf character, which is nimble and graceful. She can quickly unload a volley of arrows, but also unleash quick kick attack combos, which makes her a fun character to play.

+ Variety of equipment options. Most beat ‘em up games just set you own your way with a basic weapon and an occasional power-up. That is not the case here. Over the course of the game, you can open chests and get new gear, including weapons, armor, belts, necklaces, greaves, etc. Each piece of gear is ranked between E through S. E ranked gear tends to not offer any perks, while S ranked gear tends to have more passive bonuses. You can even purchase multiple equipment bags so that you can swap out different item sets between levels. You can spec one item list for finding items and increasing your chances of getting great loot. You can have up to 500 pieces of loot in your main equipment list, so you’re never pressured to start selling off your gear. Your equipment actually has a durability gauge as well. If you use your equipment too often, it may break, so you have to go to the shop and repair it. Though you may find that appraising a weapon you found may be the better option.

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 + Items and power-ups. In addition to the equipment system mentioned above, you can also find limited-use weapons and items, such as crossbows, daggers, and torches. You need torches to ward off ghosts and bombs are needed to blow up secret passages. You can even mount certain monsters and ride them around!

+ Partner system. Even if you’re playing alone, you still have options. You can play locally or online of course, but if you prefer, you can resurrect other characters to help you. If you find bones in a level, you can take them to the local priest and revive them. These partner characters can’t level up or change equipment, so you’re encouraged to manage these partners carefully. Bury the bones if you don’t need to revive them and then part ways with them after you’ve adventured for some time.  If you bury the bones, you may be rewarded with a bonus item as well.

+ Magic system. Of course, the Sorceress and the Wizard have spells at their disposal, but there’s also a rune system as well. You can purchase several runes from the wizard Lucain, who looks suspiciously like Lord of the Ring’s Gandalf.  When you enter a level, you may find inscriptions strewn about the landscape. You can select the runes via a point-and-click style control system and then combine them with your own to cast a variety of spells. By combining specific runes, you can heal your characters, open hidden passages, petrify enemies, and more. After you uncover a rune combination, it will be recorded in Lucain’s rune guide. Sometimes it’s too hectic to select the runes while fighting enemies and renders some of the attack-based rune spells somewhat ineffective, but it’s an interesting mechanic.

+ Multiple pathways, multiple difficulties. When you first play the game, everything is very straightforward. You go through a basic tutorial, undertake a basic quest, and then gradually reach new areas. Once you get far enough, you can get a “second quest” in each area. Once you finally clear each level and get all of the talismans, you can challenge the dragon in the hopes of defeating it and restoring the land. However, that’s just part of your quest. Beating the dragon once clears the game on “Normal” and revives on the goddesses, represented as a statute in the church. You can then play the game again on Hard, and then again on Nightmare, in the hopes of reviving the other goddesses. Your level cap increases on each mode, going from level 35 on Normal, to 65 on Hard, to 99 on Nightmare. I completed the Normal mode in about 15 hours after completing all of the quests, and going through the remaining modes is not a breeze either. The bosses become more challenging and you also gain access to a new labyrinth level, which is basically like a remixed tower consisting of various sections of other levels. Most levels only take about 10 minutes or less to beat, making the game ideal for short bursts of play.

+ Both English and Japanese audio is available.

+ There are multiple color schemes for each character.

+ Continuous play option. Levels don’t take much time to complete, but there’s an interesting hook that comes after beating a stage—you can choose to keep going in the hopes of getting added rewards, but risk becoming worn out. After each stage, you may get a bonus incentive, whether it’s added gold or score bonuses. However, if you use your equipment too long, it might break, making it less effective in combat. You also have to worry about how many life points your characters have, because after a certain amount of revives, you have to start shelling out money to revive your comrades. It’s a careful balancing act. Do you risk braving the next level? Or do you go home and rest, repair your equipment, and prepare for the next adventure? However, you may occasionally get the option to heal between adventures by feasting over the campfire.

+ Quests. Each level already has a secondary path to discover and alternate boss to fight, but you can also revisit levels to satisfy quest objectives. Some quests ask you to defeat a number of enemies, for example. After completing a quest, you get a piece of art with a short story. It’s simple, but rewarding, and may remind many gamers of Lost Odyssey. I became more interested in finishing the quests just to see the various art pieces and stories, rather than getting the quest bonuses and items.

+ Multiplayer. One of the big draws of Dragon’s Crown is the multiplayer. You can easily drop in and out of online plays, making play seamless and quick. I joined a game in a few seconds and experienced no lag whatsoever.  I also played with a friend locally and everything was seamless. You can drop in and drop out in the middle of levels, making joining games less cumbersome.

+ Music. The music is just excellent. Composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto, Dragon’s Crown score perfectly fits the fantasy aesthetic. Some of Sakimoto’s work includes Tactics Ogre, Vagrant Story, and Final Fantasy Tactics, which should give you an idea of its epic scope.

+ The fantasy landscape. Playing Dragon’s Crown is like reliving a session of Dungeons and Dragon’s mixed with a game of Golden Axe at the same time. The narrator perfectly complements the adventure with lines that make you feel as though you’re experiencing a tabletop adventure. The game play is reminiscent of classic arcade beat ‘em up, but the sparse story segments still manage to have personality and charm thanks to the dungeon master-like proclamations from the narrator. You can even access other narrator voices as well. The adventure is remarkably simple in scope, but that’s what makes it endearing—you have to defeat the dragon and save the land. It’s not bogged down with brooding characters or meandering plot threads.

+ Cross Save option easily lets you transfer your save data between the PS3 and Vita versions. You can upload your save data on one platform and then download the data on the other, so you can pick up where you left off.

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The Bad:

-The pointer controls on PS3. Controlling Rannie the Thief and activating runes is interesting, but the pointer controls on the PS3 are a bit awkward. It’s not necessarily that bad, and considering that it would otherwise be impossible to control Rannie at the same time, it’s a somewhat necessary evil. Many times, I wouldn’t activate runes or move Rannie until I cleared out enemies because it was difficult to do both, but the runes had attack-focused abilities, thus completely useless by the time I cleared out the enemies. This is a very minor complaint. The Vita version avoids it completely, because the touch controls are significantly quicker and easier.

-Stiffness. Dragon’s Crown is a 2D brawler, but it has a pseudo-3D plane like other arcade brawlers. And like those games, it also can be a bit awkward at first. This was especially problematic when playing as the Elf, when precision is required. Sometimes I would barely miss my arrow strikes because I misjudged the enemy’s hit box. Using the analog stick makes movement a bit easier, but then running became more awkward, because you have to hold the attack button down to run. The d-pad makes running easier (with a simple double tap), but then lining up to attack enemies is a bit trickier. This issue goes away in time and to be fair, it’s just a matter of getting used to the game’s controls and quirks. After some time, I was able to easily land hits.

-Even with the option to replay levels, do quests, and explore hidden routes, the action can get a bit repetitive. You’ll be fighting the same bosses several times, you’ll see the same levels several times, and you’ll have to run through the same challenges. If you play the game with other characters, you’ll have to redo the same challenges and stages. Playing on multiplayer alleviates the tedium and the game does remain fun to play for quite some time, but if you’re on your own, it does drone on a bit.

-Unfortunately, you cannot customize your character’s appearance and equipment doesn’t seem to change the look of the character. Also, there aren’t variations of the characters—if you select the Elf, there’s only the female Elf character, for example. The six characters are very well developed and designed, and the character art is incredibly intricate, so I can understand why they don’t have the added customization options. Still, it would have been nice to have other options for these characters.

-Sadly no Cross Play feature.

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The Ugly:

Occasional slowdown. This issue was more prevalent on the Vita version, especially during more hectic boss fights like the Kraken. I rarely had this issue with the PS3 version.

The Lowdown:

If you like classic arcade games and are a fan of 2D action, you’ll find a lot to love in Dragon’s Crown. It’s one of the best games of its kind, as a brawler with depth and heart. For a game in this genre to last more than a few hours is a feat in itself, so one that lasts a dozen is a godsend.

Score: 9/10

Persona 4 Golden Review

Persona 4 Golden BoxPersona 4 Golden (Available exclusively on PlayStation Vita)
ESRB Rating: M
Number of Players: 1
Genre: RPG
Publisher: Atlus
Developer: Atlus
Release Date: November 20th, 2012

Persona 4 is easily one of my favorite games on the PlayStation 2, and one of my favorite role-playing games of all time, so when I finally got the chance to play an enhanced director’s cut on the Vita, I was ecstatic. For that reason, this is a difficult game for me to review—I became so attached to the original I wasn’t sure if I could view it through a critical lens. After finally getting time to play the game, I’ve been hooked all over again. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 was already a near-perfect masterpiece, but Golden improves upon it in every way, making it a must-own for the Vita.

Parent Talk: Persona 4 Golden is rated M because of some suggestive dialog, alcohol references, and the dark nature of the story. There are only a few instances of profanity, there’s no sexual content, and there is hardly any blood or gore whatsoever. The game could have easily gotten away with a T for Teen rating.

Plays Like: A turn-based role-playing game mixed together with a dating-simulation game.

Review Basis: Completed everything the game has to offer, received a Platinum Trophy, and played approximately 140 hours.

Persona 4 Golden_meeting

The Great:

A flawless director’s cut. There are a lot of things I could put here—the endearing cast of characters, the excellent story, the innovative gameplay, but ultimately, I’m most impressed by how well the game stays fresh and how the changes, both the minor touches and the more major additions, mesh so well and result in a more polished, finished, and dare I say perfect product. Not only has the game received a visual upgrade, but there are additional dungeons, new story elements, new characters, new Social Links, more activities to do, and well…more of everything. It’s like an entirely new game. While it unfortunately lacks the ability to play as a female lead character, which Atlus implemented in the PlayStation Portable port of Persona 3, it offers enough to convince both existing fans and newbies alike to put down the cash.

The addition of Marie is unarguably the game’s biggest draw, serving as both an interesting new character and a vehicle for more compelling story content. The developers managed to insert her story so seamlessly into the adventure that people may think it was always there to begin with. The minor changes, such as the upgrades to the fishing mini-game, are welcome and help improve the parts of the game that felt less polished. That’s not to say there was much wrong with the original release. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find someone critical of the original, making these additions all the more amazing. The game scenario even continues for a longer period of time than in the original—in this game, you play until February, whereas in the original, you stopped in December.

Persona 4 Golden_izanagi

The Good:

+ An excellent cast of lovable characters. What makes the newer Persona games so great is that they are more about your interactions with the characters, as opposed to your interactions with a blank, expressionless world. Many RPGs send the player out into a world to explore, and the NPCs only act as a means to an end—a way to get a quest item or bit of the story. In the Persona games, the main character does act as somewhat of a blank slate for the player, but the rest of the cast are well-written and interesting. They grapple with problems that make them believable and human. Chie is jealous of her friend Yukiko, but she is upset with herself for feeling that way, leading to a cycle of self-loathing and depression. Yosuke is deeply hurt that he wasn’t able to get closer to a girl he liked, because she was killed before he really had the chance to open up. The characters feelings are actually an integral part of the plot, because each character needs to face his or her “True Self.” It’s a clever way of tying in the game mechanics, characters, and story into one cohesive theme—friendship and bonds. This game is all about the bonds you make when you meet someone, whether it’s by hanging out at school, working at a job, or spending time at home. By the end of the game, I was genuinely attached to the entire cast and was sad that it ended. The game eschews the “save the world” theme, in favor of getting you more attached to your fans and the little country town of Inaba.

+ Fantastic music. The music in the original was already incredible and the new tracks don’t disappoint either. The song “Memory,” which plays in one of the new dungeons, is probably my new favorite song in the game.

+ Refined combat. The game is still a menu-driven, turn-based role-playing game. That may make many newer gamers cringe, but it really shouldn’t. The mechanics are so polished and perfected here that it makes you believe it shouldn’t be any other way. Like the original, you have a party of four members, including the protagonist. The protagonist has access to a wide variety of personas and thus can be a jack-of-all-trades, while each other character has a specific specialty. Yukiko has fire-based attacks and high magic stats, while Kanji has electric-based moves and high physical attack, for example. Knowing how to best use your party for any situation and adapt your main character’s persona list accordingly can make a huge difference in battle. Each persona is kind of like a Pokémon—it’s a creature that can do your fighting for you. Though your character can perform physical attacks, personas can have up to eight attacks, spells, or abilities. If you use a spell or ability that exploits an enemy’s weakness, you can get another turn to attack. If you knock all of the enemies down, you can get an “All Out Attack” and have your entire party rush the field for added damage. This much should be a given for anyone who has played the original game.

In this version, however, not only are there more personas to use, but there are other subtle changes. For one, Rise is far more useful in combat than before. In the original, Rise acted only as a navigator, providing advice for the player. In this version, Rise can heal characters after battle, add damage to an All Out Attack, come into the battle to raise your party’s stats, and completely scan enemy weaknesses at the start of battle. How well she helps you is dependent on her level and her Social Link ranking with the protagonist. The other characters can also use team attacks, and characters outside the party can randomly join in for a support attack, as well. Also, it’s now far easier to refine your cast and your move-set. You can find cards in dungeons that will teach a move to your persona. After registering found cards, you can go and purchase more of them later, and you can even get cards by going to the café in town. You can teach your teammates moves they’ve forgotten by traveling to the hot spring and talking about your memories or you can teach them new moves by talking about your future. Characters can also get access to a third-tier persona in this version, with new attacks! The gameplay and battles are still carefully balanced, fun, and occasionally challenging even with these new additions.

Persona 4 Golden_summer

+ Social Link system. Persona 3 gained notoriety for its innovative hybrid of dating sim and role-playing game styles. Persona 4 improved on it in every way, offering more balanced content. Golden does the same. Basically, part of the game is a life simulator. You have to attend class and experience the major story events, but aside from that, you’re free to determine your own schedule. You can play basketball or soccer, join the drama club or band, hang out with friends after school (or even ditch class), go around town on your scooter, go fishing, watch movies, read books, get a part-time job, and more. Each of these events, seemingly insignificant at first, actually are incredibly important to building your character and learning more about the cast. Pursuing these events will build on your “Social Links,” which represent different Arcana. Arcana correlate with a certain class of persona. Thus, advancing your Social Link will allow you to create more powerful persona of that respective Arcana. Only by advancing the Social Link, learning more about that character’s likes and dislikes, and meeting them on their schedule will you be able to succeed.

It’s a careful balancing act, because you want to create a powerful persona to beat a boss, but to do that, you have to spend enough time with the person who represents that link. In this version, there are more characters to spend time with, more events to participate in (like the New Year’s Festival), and more ways to advance your social link. For example, you can know hang out with your friends at night and chat, which will raise their affection and speed up the time for increasing your Social Link.

+ Trophy support.

+ New scenes to watch, which give more insight to the characters. Many of them are quite fun and the Valentine’s Day scenes are actually really sweet. (By the way, Chie is the best choice).

+ Bonus extras, like a music player, cutscene viewer, a compilation of promotional videos and concert videos, and a quiz game.

+ Adjustable difficulty. You can set the game on Easy if you don’t want to concern yourself much with fighting, but the truly dedicated can try the game on higher modes. You can even fine tune individual settings, such as the rate of experience points awarded after battle, the amount of money you receive, the amount of damage dealt, and so on.

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The So-So:

The graphics have received a face-lift, but the character models are about the same as before. The game wasn’t designed for the Vita originally, so it won’t compete with the likes of Gravity Rush and Soul Sacrifice in terms of visuals, but it still has enough flair and style to make it look great. It’s definitely a game that will look good no matter how old it gets.

The Bad:

Unlike Persona 3 Portable, there is no option to play as a female lead character. It’s difficult to complain about this given how much content this version has and just how good the game is, but considering it was an addition to the previous game and this is a director’s cut, it would have been nice to have this in the game. Even if not much was changed, it would have been a neat option.

The Lowdown:

I consider Persona 4 Golden a near-perfect game. It improved upon an already excellent game in nearly every way and I had to struggle to find a complaint. The only major issue I had was the lack of an option that was featured in the previous game, but the adventure was just so fun and gameplay so addicting that I really didn’t care. I sunk in approximately 140 hours into the game and didn’t stop until I got the Platinum Trophy—and I still want to play it again and again. It’s a role-playing game that shows that JRPGs can still hang with the best of them, and if you have even a remote interest in role-playing games, this is simply a must-own for the PlayStation Vita. I consider it the best game in the system’s library. This game comes highly recommended.

Score: 10/10

Virtue’s Last Reward Review

Virtue's_Last_Reward_Boxart Virtue’s Last Reward (Available on Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita)
ESRB Rating: M
Number of Players: 1
Genre: Puzzle/Adventure
Publisher: Aksys Games
Developer: Chunsoft
Release Date: October 23rd, 2012

Parent Talk: Virtue’s Last Reward is absolutely not for children, not only because of the violent content, but also because of its difficult puzzles and emphasis on storytelling. VLR is a “visual novel” game, meaning that you have to read pages upon pages of text to advance the story. The story is dark and twisted, which should satisfy fans of mysteries and thriller movies. It’s not as overtly violent or gory as M-rated action games, but the game has a dark tone that permeates the entire narrative.

Plays Like: VLR is very similar to other games in the visual novel genre, especially 999, its Nintendo DS predecessor. Phoenix Wright and Professor Layton are also quite similar, because of the emphasis on puzzle solving and reading text.

Review Basis: Completed every story route, received a Platinum Trophy, and completed the previous game in the series.

3DS vs. Vita: There are no significant advantages in either version of the game. The 3DS obviously offers 3D effects, though the Vita offers a better audio and visuals. The Vita version’s biggest strengths are probably Trophy support and three save files. The 3DS only offers one save file. Some may focus on the fact that the 3DS has a stylus packaged in with the system, which makes writing notes and solving puzzles easier; however, you can easily purchase and use a stylus to use on the Vita.

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The Great: An excellent story. 999 excelled because of its strong characters and compelling narrative. It wove an intricate plot with multiple story threads and many different endings. Characters in that game were far from one-dimensional clichés; they had complicated back stories that required exploring. VLR offers substantially more than its predecessor. Each of the characters is unique, and that’s not just a reference to the visually striking character designs. It’s impossible to guess what’s going to happen next, which is essentially t any compelling mystery novel. The fun comes with trying to see what comes next and figuring out how to proceed.

Advancing the story isn’t as simple as just hitting the “confirm” button though. Each section of the game has an elaborate puzzle that must be solved, but the game encourages the player to be absolutely thorough in exploring the plot development as well. At certain parts in the story, there may be a “block” that the player can’t advance through without first going through one of the other story routes. This not only adds significant longevity to the game, but it also requires the player to think more about how the story evolves.

For your own sake, please do not read strategy guides that explain the story—that would absolutely ruin the experience. Like 999, VLR is a dark and twisted story. Nine people have been forced to participate in a bizarre competition called “The Nonary Game-Ambidex Edition.” In this game, characters must either choose to “ally” with or “betray” teammates in order to survive. To complete the game, a participant must accumulate at least nine points and then open up the number nine door. You can get points more quickly by betraying teammates, but then you’ll sacrifice trust, which is difficult to get back. If you choose to ally, you can reach a mutually beneficial outcome, but that’s only if you know your partner will also choose to ally.

Depending on the player’s choices, characters will be put into different groups, making each round full of anxious tension.  Each choice will open up a different story route, but it’s difficult to know which is the “correct” route to choose—a diabolical dilemma. If you fail to get enough points before someone else does, they will leave the facility, leaving you trapped…forever. Also, you can’t risk being too gullible either, because if your point total reaches zero, then you’ll die. Similarly, do you want to be responsible for the death of another character by taking away his or her points? This game is an exercise in moral dilemma.

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The Good:

+ Interesting characters. The character designs are bizarre, but they certainly are memorable. Every character has a uniquely defined personality and a complicated back story. Figuring out their motivations and deciding who can be trusted makes the narrative even more intense. Each route focuses on a specific character, but that doesn’t mean you won’t learn anything new about certain characters in other routes as well. Like 999, the story plays with your expectations.

+ Homage to 999. Playing 999 will properly set the stage for VLR, but it is not a requirement. In other words, the story can be understood and enjoyed on its own. The stories between the two games are unmistakably linked, but that may not be apparent even to those who have played the first game until much later in. The stories and characters from the first game are still important, but they are purposefully kept hidden and vague until much later in the adventure. This clever misdirection is meant to keep players guessing and wondering where the story will go, rather than pigeonholing this game as a blatant sequel.

+ Tense music. The music perfectly sets the stage for the tone of the narrative. My personal favorite track is “Blue Bird Lamentation,” which perfectly punctuates a more melancholy piece of the game’s narrative. Fans of 999 may even recognize some familiar music as well, in the song “Ambidexterity.”

+ Excellent voice work. There is a significant amount of spoken dialogue in this game, and it’s actually good. Really good, in fact. Character dialog can either be set to Japanese or English, but in either case, the voices perfectly match the characters. The performances are great and there’s hardly any poor or overacted lines at all.

+ Challenging puzzles. At its core, VLR is most certainly a puzzle game, even though it is wrapped in a lengthy narrative. Each section has a difficult puzzle to discover and master. However, these challenges aren’t just simple math or logic problems. Like 999, the puzzles are often contextual and have significant length.  Players must explore a room or series of rooms in search of clues. Hints gained from these bits of cryptic evidence are then applied in a series of smaller puzzles, each of which usually yields some small reward: a key, a new clue, some directions, etc.

Many of the puzzles require a unique form of input and sometimes they make interesting use of the system’s features. For example, in the Vita version of the game, certain puzzles may use touch screen input or motion controls. Some puzzles simply require you to input clues found in the room, while others require you to be a little more creative and come up with new solutions. After solving the puzzle, you will receive a code which will unlock a safe. Doing so will not only net some rewards, but will also open up the path forward. However, some puzzles have multiple solutions, and uncovering them may bring added rewards. Finding the hidden passwords will give the player more treasures from the safe. This adds significant replayability.

+ A well-developed world. One of the hallmarks of a great game is a rich, well-developed world. This can be done through intricate environments, but it can also be done by giving the player that the game world is larger than it appears, making the game appear more than just one adventure. In VLR, the hefty amount of notes and files left behind in the safes make for interesting reading material and help expand the game’s “world” far beyond what is expected. Some of these notes are trivial. Others explain mundane character activities, scientific principles mentioned in the puzzles, story elements from the previous game, story elements not mentioned explicitly in VLR or 999, back story, etc. All of these come together to make an established canon that immerses the player into a compelling, through-provoking world of mystery and intrigue.

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The So-So:

+ Every character is ridiculously intelligent. A great mystery story uses the right amount of misdirection—using vagueness and confusion to addle the audience at first, while slowly revealing more and more clues to reveal the puzzle. When things come together properly, the characters in the story should come to realize the truth at the same time the player does. If the player has everything figure out right away, the story has failed. However, here, the characters are so incredibly articulate and intelligent that it’s almost ridiculous. They all have some passing knowledge of academic schools of thought and complex scientific principles, which makes the dialog less believable. It pushes the game further into the realm of science-fiction. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can make the game hard to follow.

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The Bad:

-Minimal animation and movement. For most of the game, you will be looking at static screens filled with text. There isn’t much of a sense of movement. Even in tense scenes, most of the story scenes are played out via short animated segments, followed by text. Many of the scenarios described are either implied in the text or glossed over. That’s not to say that everything is lifeless, though. During exchanges of dialog, characters move about slightly, rather than just sitting still like portraits.

The Lowdown:

This should be one your “must have” list for 2012. No matter which platform you own or choose to play it on, Virtue’s Last Reward should be experienced. It’s difficult to pigeonhole the game into a genre, especially because terms like “puzzle game” and “visual novel” are nebulous at best. The compelling mystery story, the interesting characters, and challenging problem solving alone make it one of the best handheld games of the year.

Score: 9.5/10

Mega Man’s 25th Anniversary

Mega Man, and the franchise’s parent company Capcom, have had it rough for the past few years.

Mega-Man-25th-Anniversary

Mega Man has not had not a retail release for a major home console since Mega Man X8 back in 2005 on the PlayStation 2, a game which sold poorly (though I personally adored). The series, according to Capcom’s investor relations page, has managed to sell 29 million total units. However, that number should be considered in context—there are 129 total releases for the franchise and the series is now 25 years old. To put that in perspective, Pokémon Red and Blue have sold approximately 31 million units in their lifetime alone. That’s right; the entire Mega Man franchise collectively can’t stand up to the first generation of Nintendo’s collect-a-monster RPG series. Even though Mega Man 9 was an 8-bit masterpiece and helped reinvigorate interest in the series in the public eye, the franchise’s troubles were far from over. An uncertain future, a fragmented brand identity, a convoluted canon, and a difficult position in the market meant trouble for the blue bomber. So, Capcom had cancelled its projects for the year. Among those was Mega Man Legends 3, a game that I, like many other fans, was eagerly waiting for with rabid enthusiasm. Cancelling that game was simply the last straw for the fan base.

What's next for the series?
What’s next for the series?

Perhaps it’s a good thing though. Because of that cancellation (among cancellations for the promising Mega Man Universe and the interesting Mega Man Online), the fan response has been significant. It would be fair to point out that the level of hatred aimed at Capcom is, most of the time, rather unwarranted. Fans were willing to find fault in everything that the company did, taking any available opportunity to voice their disgust. However, considering everything that has happened, the company has tried to gamble on the blue bomber a lot. The games in the series have not typically sold well. The original games were not on par with Super Mario Bros. or Sonic the Hedgehog, yet Capcom pursued it. We’ve even seen several spinoffs and reinventions, including the fan-favorite Mega Man Legends and the Mega Man Battle Network series (which is still rather unique and unorthodox).

This has been the best time ever for Mega Man merchandise.
This has been the best time ever for Mega Man merchandise.

With the fan response, Capcom has re-evaluated their position on Mega Man. Hopefully now the series might be taken seriously again and a full, retail, console release might be in the realm of possibility. The series has certainly not died out among its fans and this has been the best time ever for merchandise based on the franchise. The excellent comic adaptation from Archie, the great English-adaptations of the Megamix and Gigamix manga series, and of course, the thoroughly awesome D-Arts line of collectible figures have been real treat for fans. December 17th is Mega Man’s official birthday, and this year marks the 25th anniversary for the franchise. To commemorate this event, Capcom has released Street Fighter X Mega Man, a company-backed fan project. The game can be downloaded now directly from Capcom’s website, for free.

Download this game immediately!
Download this game immediately!

This game is a real treat for fans of both series. It’s a labor of love from fans to the rest of the fan base—and it’s great to see that the Company has recognized and supported this project.  Zong Hui and A_Rival deserve large amounts of praise for working on this game. Capcom has been a rather supportive company, even in times that fans would like to claim otherwise. What other company gives fans an early look into the development process? Reaches out so well online, via blogs and forums? Actively pursues user content and feedback? While there are many fair criticisms that can be leveled against the company, they have frequently sought innovation, tried new things, partnered with other companies, and done everything to reach out to fans and others in the industry.

Download Street Fighter X Mega Man and give it a try. Even if 2D side-scrolling isn’t your thing, it’s an excellent project, and one worth supporting. The game plays like every other in the classic Mega Man series, with simple jump and shoot mechanics. The charge shot and slide mechanics seem like they were ripped directly out of Mega Man 4. The game is certainly challenging. The level design is simplistic and can appear rough around the edges, but the game has some clever ideas and fun enemies to face. Hopefully after this, Capcom will start to look into other games to release. Mega Man 1 through 6 are being prepared for release on the 3DS eShop and some new merchandise is in the pipeline.

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What’s next for Mega Man? As a fan, there are many projects I would love to see. A revival of the Legends series and Mega Man X9 are the games I would most like to play. Some new games on the home console and new innovations in the franchise would also be appreciated. If I had to make some predictions about what may come out for Mega Man’s 25th anniversary, I would place my bet on some kind of ultimate anthology collection. I’m also willing to bet that the company is looking at a franchise reboot, to try and provide some innovation for a series that many accuse of growing stagnant. Perhaps it is the right time, as well. Mega Man X reinvigorated interest in Mega Man after people grew tired of the 8-bit adventures. Mega Man Legends brought the series into 3D, infused it with adventure gameplay a la Legend of Zelda and even some trace elements of sandbox gameplay. Mega Man Battle Network dramatically altered the face of Mega Man and was one of the franchise’s more notable successes. Maybe it’s time for a new series to help bring it back into the spotlight.

NOTE: You can download Street Fighter X Mega Man here. This game is only available for the PC at this time, though it may come to consoles at a later date. It is completely free! Gamepad controls are supported during play and it is highly recommended that you use a USB controller rather than a keyboard.

Growlanser IV: Wayfarer of Time Review

Growlanser IV: Wayfarer of Time (Available only on PlayStation Portable and PSN)
ESRB Rating: T
Number of Players: 1
Genre: Strategy RPG
Publisher: ATLUS
Developer: Career Soft
Release Date: July 31st, 2012

Note: This game is playable on PlayStation Vita.

Parent Talk: Growlanser is a complex strategy-based role-playing game. There are mild sexual references and some profanity, but because of the relatively simple graphics, there isn’t any gore or blood to worry about. Some younger players may have a difficult time playing the game because of some of the more difficult battles. You do not have to play previous games in the series to understand or enjoy this game; it is a stand-alone product.

Plays Like: A mix of turn-based strategy games, like Final Fantasy Tactics, and real-time action. Characters do not move on a grid-style chessboard, but instead move freely about the area; movement speed varies between characters.

Review Basis: Played for 60 hours, completed the main adventure, and watched several of the endings.

Growlanser Generations was a pleasant surprise on the PlayStation 2. I imagine many North American gamers are unfamiliar with the series, just as I was when that game arrived. After playing it and enjoying the unique blend of strategy and real-time combat, I came to appreciate the series. Hopefully even more will come to enjoy it considering how excellent Wayfarer of Time is.

The Great: A memorable adventure. Like the PSP-exclusive role-playing game The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky, Growlanser IV succeeds not because of significant contribution to the genre or thoughtful innovations, but simply because it is a memorable, well-crafted adventure. Many (unfairly) criticize JRPGs of being stale, repetitive, and linear. WoT is excellent evidence to the contrary, with its excellent characters, great relationship system, non-linear storyline, and branching dialog. How you choose to play the game, how you choose to interact with other characters, and what your preferences are shape the adventure. Characters may live or die based on your choices, characters may enter or leave your party, and you can even fall in love.

Many gamers may be reminded of the Persona series, which is a fair assumption. However, the branching dialog trees are more pronounced here, with more significant changes to the story. In Persona, you are largely tasked with time management; in Growlanser, the game conforms to your preferences. However, unlike most Western RPGs of this ilk, you cannot customize or change the appearance of your characters. I personally prefer the existing designs because of the excellent artwork from Satoshi Urushihara, so I see this as more of a matter of preference.

The Good:

+ An interesting combat system. WoT mixes together elements of turn-based and real-time action. Players choose each character’s actions based on her or her position in the lineup, but characters move and act based on their movement speed and reaction time. These statistics can be improved by leveling up characters and equipping stones, but that’s only scratching the surface. Characters also have magic spells and skills (called knacks), in addition to unique abilities granted by stones.

Many situations do not simply ask for the player to take out all enemies; other times, players must escort a character safely across the battlefield, stop someone from escaping, recapture an area, etc. This adds a definite element of strategy of the game. Furthermore, battles can be completed without fulfilling the primary objectives, which leads to the possibility of multiple outcomes. You can choose to save someone or let that person die.

+ Many events, many possibilities. It’s simply impossible to see every even that the game has to offer the first time through the adventure. Interacting with characters opens up a wide array of options. If you speak carefully and are perceptive of character traits, it’s possible to have many of your teammates open up to you. Doing so not only makes them more prone to like you, but also gives you the chance to unlock unique events. Between major story events, you can take the time to relax and enjoy a nice furlough period. Doing so will give you time to talk to characters, go to an art gallery, take in the sights, enjoy a play, etc.

Sometimes, these bonus events actually open up interesting side quests and special events. Learning about a character’s past gives insight on how to significantly change that character’s fate, hopefully for the better. This is personally one of my favorite parts of the game, because it makes the characters and the adventure more personal and more genuine. Fans of the Persona series should especially enjoy this element of the game.

+ Length and replayability. As stated before, there are 40 possible endings, many alternate story routes, and many options for character interaction. The main scenario is rather straightforward, but each successive play through will provide new insights on many of the game’s characters (of which there are many)! Not only that, but the game will take a significant amount of time to complete even once. It’s easy to spend about 50 hours just to complete the game one time. That’s nothing to scoff at.

+ Excellent characters, character designs, and artwork. Satoshi Urushihara’s artwork is one of the many, many reasons to appreciate this game. Character portraits are intricately detailed and given a wide variety of expressions; the animation is limited, but the character portraits and special scenes are a joy to look at. All of this would be moot of course if the characters were dull and uninteresting in conversation, but thankfully they contribute frequently and I genuinely wanted to talk to the characters.

The So-So:

+ Music is good, but somewhat forgettable.

+ Character sprites are decent. They lack the punch of the remastered Final Fantasy games, but they at least stand out from the blurry backgrounds.

The Bad:

-The game starts slow. As a word of warning to everyone considering playing this game: make sure you stick it through. The beginning of the game is interesting, but the first act does drag a bit (at the academy, for instance).  However, once new characters are introduced and some of the drama unfolds (and some more of the game options open up), everything gets much more interesting. It would be sad to dismiss the game because of a slow start, because at the end of the game, I found myself attached to the game world and the characters in it.

-Some battles can be plagued with slowdown in some of the more hectic battles.

The Ugly:

-The field graphics are a blurry mess. It can be hard to distinguish some pathways because of how crowded the areas can be, especially if there are objects, foliage, etc., in the way. Many times, the areas are just rather bland and uninteresting to look at. The artwork is absolutely fantastic and is certainly one of the game’s selling points, but the same cannot be said for the field graphics.

The Lowdown:

Wayfarer of Time is definitely worth picking up if you need a reason to keep your PSP around or if you’re looking for content on the Vita. The series is one of my cult favorites because of its compelling blend of tactical strategy and simulation gameplay. If you’re a fan of JRPGs, especially the Persona series, this is one worth your time.

Score: 8/10

Halloween Games

Looking for games to play to celebrate Halloween? There are plenty of games out there that pay homage to monster movies, the ghouls and ghosts from folklore, and the creepy urban legends; there are even some that create their own niche, crafting interesting, original stories. Some games draw on horror themes without being overtly horror games at their core, while others are about non-stop scares. Here is my list of six games that you should check out this Halloween. Before we delve into my list, here are some honorable mentions:

Splatterhouse – An arcade classic beat ‘em up, the Splatterhouse games lack the nuances of more popular games like Double Dragon, Streets of Rage, and Final Fight, but makes up for it in style. The second and third entries have more complicated storylines and multiple pathways, but still have the same good, arcade-style fun. The visuals are genuinely disturbing and the monster designs are gruesome. The Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 reboot actually contains all three games, and like its predecessors, is a flawed but fun gore-filled romp.

7th Guest7th Guest is a PC classic, which has recently been re-released on touch devices.  7th Guest has the honor of being one of the earliest horror adventures. It’s a puzzle-based game set in a haunted mansion, which already means there’s a lot of creepy things to see. Not all games need visceral gore and shock value to scare you; sometimes, you just want to go into creepy manor and explore.

Silent Hill – This entire series is creepy and atmospheric, especially II. Silent Hill II is a psychological horror classic that should be played by any fan of horror. The fog is used in an ingenious way. Although it is used to However, because this game is usually mentioned on so many horror lists, I wanted to focus on some other entries.

Parasite Eve – This game is unique, because it’s a horror-infused RPG from Square, but it has more science fiction leanings and a modern setting. The first game is the most noteworthy and probably contains the most horror elements.

Dead Rising – This is the quintessential realization of the zombie game. The mall setting makes it a blast to play and the weapon combinations are unique and fun. Frank West has since become a fan favorite character and the series has become one of Capcom’s most significant of this generation. Even the sequels have performed well.

Alan Wake – This Is basically the perfect realization of a Stephen King novel in game form. In this game, the player controls Alan, a disgruntled writer who goes to Bright Falls to finish writing his book. However, his book begins to manifest in his life, creating nightmarish distortions in the world around him. Alan’s world has become a dark playground for his imagination to roam, threatening to destroy him. If you’re familiar with the film In the Mouth of Madness, you’ll have an idea of what this game is like.

Number 6: Sweet Home

I’m going to start this list off with something a bit more obscure. I actually have a more detailed write-up about this game, so I won’t delve too much into it again—instead, you can follow the link here for more information.

What Is It? A game adaptation of a film with the same name, Sweet Home is basically the great grand-daddy of the survival horror video game. It set the template for many horror games to follow, most especially the early Resident Evil games. Don’t brush this game off as just another primitive, 8-bit ancestor. Sweet Home is a thoughtful, fun, yet diabolical game. It blends together elements of turn-based role-playing games with the adventure and horror genre.

Why Is it Worth Playing? Sweet Home is perhaps one of the best RPGs for the Famicom/NES. The game has aged surprisingly well, with a creative gameplay system. The player controls a cast of five characters who must explore a haunted mansion. Their original task is to preserve frescoes left behind by painter Ichiro Mamiya. However, once they enter the mansion, they find out that it’s haunted by Ichiro’s late wife, and now they have to find a way to survive. The player has to constantly manage character rosters and items, because parties can only be split up into group sizes of three or less, and each character can only hold a few items. This makes exploring the mansion a stressful experience, but I mean that in the best possible way.

Number 5: Fatal Frame II

What Is It? The Fatal Frame series is largely inspired by Japanese horror films; it’s steeped in creepy atmosphere and is far more concerned with creating an unsettling atmosphere than with gore. In this game, twin sister Mio and Mayu are led into the woods—this is already a disturbing premise. It’s difficult to navigate the fog-shrouded areas, which only adds to the mystique. What makes the game more suited to the horror genre is it’s gameplay focus: it doesn’t feature combat.

Why Is It Worth Playing? Fatal Frame II is a PS2 thriller classic. Exploring the levels is a creepy experience, because of the excellent use of music/silence, atmosphere, and creative design. In this game, your camera is your only weapon. You are not equipped with a huge array of weapons, nor are you even expected to defend yourself. Instead, it’s about solving a mystery and trying to survive, and the tension only mounts when you draw your camera. You don’t know if the passive ghost is going to become enraged and attack you.

Number 4: Left 4 Dead/Left 4 Dead 2

What Is It? The Left 4 Dead series is one of the few co-operative horror games out there. Each level is basically a fight for survival; you have to fight against hordes of enemies, reach a safe house, and keep your friends alive until help arrives. Most would expect the typical fare, but Left 4 Dead manages to be creepy still.

Why Is It Worth Playing? Left 4 Dead manages to be chaotic, shooter-filled fun and tense, disturbing horror simultaneously. Shooting everything in sight is fun, but the feeling of security and empowerment quickly goes away because of the dark, foreboding levels. Enemies come out in waves, leaving you feeling vulnerable no matter where you are. And the fact that you have to rush to safety, sometimes crossing wide-open spaces, only makes things more stressful. Also, if you draw near a Witch, I can absolutely guarantee you will be scared—no doubt about it.

Number 3: Dead Space

What Is It? Dead Space shouldn’t need much of an introduction. It built on the formula laid out by Resident Evil 4, which is now considered one of the greatest games of all time. It adapted it into an outer-space setting. Terrifying, gruesome Necromorphs have taken over the space ship Ishimura, turning the crew into hideous monsters. The cramped ship corridors evoke memories of the Alien franchise, which makes it an excellent horror experience.

Why Is It Worth Playing? Dead Space is gruesome, brutal, and violent, but it also manages to infuse some aspects of psychological horror. You never know when an enemy will pop out of the ducts to come after you. The cramped, quiet corridors of the ship constantly evoke feelings of dread and tension; you never feel safe whenever you’re exploring the ship because you just don’t know what’s coming. What’s worse is that the enemies are quick and can’t be put down with just a simple headshot—you have to completely dismember them. The sequel delves more into Isaac’s shattered psyche, as he battles his loss of sanity and fights for his life. He has to keep a grip on what’s really happening to him while all hell breaks loose. Excellent gameplay mechanics and a brilliant setting make this an excellent game to play.

Number 2: Resident Evil

What Is It? This game needs no introduction. The first Resident Evil is the pioneer of survival horror video games, but we’re not talking about the original PlayStation adventure. That game is important, but it’s dated and clunky. I’m talking about the GameCube remake, often considered one of the greatest video game remakes of all time.

Why Is It Worth Playing? Resident Evil on GameCube is the perfect realization of the early Resident Evil games. Resident Evil 4 was a landmark action game that changed how games were made from beyond that point (and it’s one of my all-time favorite games), but the remake of the first game has some of the most visceral scares the series has to offer. For 2002, the graphics were absolutely stunning, and even in 2012, the visuals are impressive. The environments are intricately detailed, with so many knick-knacks around the mansion.

Exploring the mansion is a nerve-wracking experience. The whole time, you never know when enemies when arrive. When an enemy does show up, you are hopelessly underpowered. In this game, fighting is almost never the answer. Shooting a zombie is the equivalent of trying to slap it with a fish; it just won’t do anything. Simply because you have a gun, most gamers will try to take the zombies down, expecting that they can win. That’s where this game shines. It makes you think you are a badass, when you’re actually not; you’re completely helpless, trapped in a diabolical madhouse. All of the enemies can easily make quick work of you and the cramped hallways, brilliant use of perspective, and low amount of supplies only enhance the mood. You scan the hallways for signs of an enemy, only to find nothing. Finally, when you feel safe, you hear that familiar groan.

Number 1: Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem

What Is It? Eternal Darkness is a masterpiece of both the adventure genre and of horror fiction. It draws heavily on Lovecraft with its demon-inspired mythos and bizarre foray into insanity. It was released as an exclusive for the Nintendo GameCube courtesy of Silicon Knights, and as remained a cult favorite with critical acclaim. The game is a pleasant mix of third-person action gameplay, puzzle solving, exploration, and monster fighting.

Why Is It Worthy Playing? The narrative is one of the best reasons to play this game. It’s creepy, disturbing, and weird. The tome of Eternal Darkness is countless years old and contains dark secrets mankind was never meant to understand. The game focuses on different characters throughout history who have come into contact with this cursed book; this isn’t so much a survival horror game, because there really is no hope for survival. The story is cruel and dark; no character is safe. What makes this game really shine though, is how well the narrative is tied in with the gameplay. Characters can go insane after seeing hideous monsters, that much goes without saying. But how does a game transfer this feeling to the player? Eternal Darkness did this in a very clever way–it takes every opportunity to mess with you. Cockroaches will crawl across the screen, the volume will go up and down, even the menus conspire against you!

For the sake of keeping the best part of this game in tact, I won’t link a video here. It would be too easy to spoil the sanity effects. However, experiencing them firsthand is really what makes this game memorable. Full disclosure: When I first played this game, I stayed up late into the night. Before I knew it, it was 1:00AM. I was playing in a dark basement, with all of the lights off; only the faint glow of the TV filled the room. I was getting tired, but the desire to see more of the game (and some caffeine) kept me going. That’s when the first sanity effect hit me. It was subtle at first. I thought my brother was in the room. I called his name, looking around. For the next half hour or so, I was tense, because I thought he was just in the room, hiding…but when I didn’t hear anything, I got on edge. THAT is what this game does…it messes with your mind.

What do you think of my list? What are your recommendations? Are you upset that I didn’t mention games like System Shock, The Thing, or Amnesia: The Dark Descent? Or how about the Castlevania and Clock Tower series?

New! Super Mario Bros. 2 Review

New! Super Mario Bros. 2 (Available only on Nintendo 3DS/3DS eShop)
ESRB Rating: E
Number of Players: 1-2
Genre: Platformer
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Nintendo
Release Date: August 19th, 2012

Parent Talk: Mario is always the correct choice for family-friendly gaming. All parents and kids should already know who he is, but if you don’t, consider it time to introduce him to your family. Kids can love the games because of the colorful, charming levels and fun power-ups, but older kids, teenagers, and adults can easily be captivated by the thoughtful challenges and addictive gameplay.

Review Basis: Completed all worlds. Collected almost all of the Star Coins.

Note: As of writing this review, I have not yet played the DLC Coin Rush packs.

The Great:

Classic “New” Mario gameplay. The New! Super Mario Bros. series is a throwback to the classic 2D side-scrolling Mario game—that much is plain to see. However, the series has now carved out its own niche, becoming its own entity in the franchise; NSMB is not just a throwback to Mario that happens to be a part of the main series, it’s a sub-series that has its own conventions. If you have played NSMB on the Nintendo DS or Wii, you should instantly feel comfortable with jumping into this game.

The controls and mechanics are as simple as ever, but oh-so-addicting. You can run, jump, wall bounce, and more. However, it’s the power-ups and level design that steal the show. Each level is an intricate obstacle course that challenges you to get as many coins as possible, find hidden routes, find the hidden Star Coins, and achieve the best possible time. This means that you will have to play through stages many, many times. Most levels can be completed rather quickly, which makes the game ideal for quick game sessions on the go. Every time you complete a level, you’re compelled by that “Just one more!” feeling.

The Good:

+ Coins, coins, and more coins! Collecting coins has always been a staple of the Mario franchise, but Nintendo will nuts with the coin collecting in this game. You are tasked with collecting as many coins as possible in each level. The game tracks how many coins you collect in each level, as well as how many coins you have collectively, and the global player total. There’s something of a thrill when you pass landmarks like 10,000 and 30,000 coins. The power-ups and level design are all built around the theme of coin collecting: certain power-ups make coins appear all over, others let Mario turn blocks into coins, and so on.

+ Power-ups, new and old. Fan favorites like the Fire Flower, Super Mushroom, and Tanuki Leaf will never leave, but Nintendo added some clever new abilities. The Golden Fire Flower turns Mario into gold and lets him throw golden fireballs, which turn blocks into coins. Enemies defeated with the golden fireballs also give each coin bonuses.

+ Impeccably-solid controls. While the NSMB series unfortunately does not do much to spin on the themes of Mario worlds (ice area, fire area, etc.), the levels are as fun as ever. Some stages challenge you to run across the surface of the water as Mini Mario, avoiding enemies and collecting coins while the screen shifts to the right. Some of the ghost levels are like mazes, tricking players into trying all kinds of routes. There are also quite a few levels to go through, about 80 of them.

+ A difficulty level that accommodates all players. Many “core” gamers like to lament trends in gaming that allow all players to hop in –after all, we had to cut our teeth on the original NES games, so they should experience the same difficulty, right? Seasoned players will be able to breeze through the game and amass tons of lives. I collected several hundred lives before I knew it and I rarely ever died. However, I had more fun being challenged to collect hard-to-get Star Coins and to complete the more diabolical special stages. Younger or more inexperienced players who just want to reach the end of the game can still do so, by way of the special Tanuki suit. However, the game keeps track of levels completed in this way, so players can feel like completing the level normally is more of an achievement. As an adult who plays many games, I took this for granted, but inexperienced players may find this as a reason to stick with the game.

+ Coin Rush mode. The Coin Rush mode is simple but addicting. It’s basically a “time attack” mode that challenges the player to find the best possible route that will net the most coins. Each Coin Rush pack is a random selection of three stages (with the exception of the DLC packs, which contain unique Coin Rush levels). This plays well into the game’s Street Pass functionality. It’s fun to challenge other people’s times and see how well you can collect coins; it’s a simple feature that Nintendo should contain to explore.

+ Co-operative Local Play. If you have a friend, playing together is great fun.

+ Lots of levels! The alternate stage paths are actually quite well hidden, which adds extra incentive for repeated play sessions. Not only do stages each have three Star Coins to collect, there are occasionally alternate routes. Some of these routes lead to cannons, which can open up new worlds. Not to mention the fact there are a Mushroom and Flower world to go through, and a Special world.

 

The So/So:

+/- The music. The tunes are catchy and upbeat, but unremarkable. The main theme has been recycled for years and it’s just gotten stale. It would’ve been nice if more of the stages had unique themes, especially because it would help differentiate this entry from the DS and Nintendo Wii versions. Because the graphics and music are so similar, most gamers will probably mistake them for the same thing.

+/- The Mega and Mini mushrooms make a comeback, but they are used so sparingly that it’s easy to forget about them during the game. They seemed to be included as an afterthought, especially the Mega mushroom. The Mini mushrooms are used in some pretty clever ways (running along the water), but this should have been a sign for Nintendo to implement new ideas for these powers.

The Bad:

– The level themes. The stages are creative and well-designed from a gameplay perspective. They are all fun to play, the controls are tight, and it’s always fun to find secret routes and grab as many coins as possible. However, the stage themes are as generic as ever. Most every Mario game has a fire world, an ice world, and so on. This would’ve been a great opportunity to use new themes for the stages, especially because it would have set this entry apart. This is one of the issues that may give some players a negative impression.

– The game is too easy. While the game does accommodate more inexperienced players in a novel way (using the Silver Tanuki suit), it could have been adjusted still. Take for example, the Super Mario Galaxy series on Nintendo Wii. The Galaxy games have gameplay gimmicks that let more inexperienced players enjoy the game and bypass difficult areas (which is perfectly fine), but it has challenges for tougher players. To clarify, I had 500 lives at the end of NSMB2. 500 lives! There was literally no possibility for me to ever see a Game Over screen. This is both something good and bad; it lets new players play, but it’s not as balanced as the plumber’s other adventures.

– The 3D effect. This is by far the most criticized part of the game. After legitimizing the use of 3D in Super Mario 3D Land, it was expected that Nintendo could apply the same magic again…but that’s not the case here. Most people hate the 3D effect in this game. The backgrounds are normally both colorful and detailed when playing in the standard 2D mode. However, when playing in 3D, everything is fuzzy and out of focus. This was meant to give the game a sense of perspective; the 2D plane that the characters are on is in focus and is thus grabs our attention. The objects in the background are intentionally out of focus. I can understand why Nintendo choose to do this, and I actually didn’t mind playing in 3D, but this is definitely one of the times when the 3D effect can be seen as a detriment to the visuals.

The Lowdown:

NSMB2 is addictive, classic fun. It’s almost the video game equivalent of junk food; you just keep going for more. It’s easy to pick up and play on the spot, the coin collecting gimmick is fun. It doesn’t match up to the core series, but it’s charming. The score is admittedly generous, but it’s hard to deny the charm of a Mario game, even if it’s a disappointing one.

Score: 8/10

Growlanser IV: Wayfarer of Time Impressions

Growlanser IV: Wayfarer of Time (Available only on PlayStation Portable and PSN)
ESRB Rating: T
Number of Players: 1
Genre: Strategy RPG
Publisher: ATLUS
Developer: Career Soft
Release Date: July 31st, 2012

Note: This game is playable on PlayStation Vita.

So far, I’ve poured about 15 hours into Growlanser IV. I plan to play for quite a lot longer. My experience thus far has been very favorable, because Wayfarer of Time has proven to be an addictive, engaging handheld role-playing game. Fans of the strategy genre will have a lot to work with her and people who enjoy the “dating sim lite” approach in games like Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 and 4 will be thrilled. Even if you’ve retired your PlayStation Portable, you may want to dust it off or download this gem for your Vita–because it’s looking great.

What is Growlanser? Growlanser is a strategy role-playing game series. Most of the games have an isometric perspective and 2D character sprites. Think of like like a combination of Final Fantasy Tactics and a dating-sim. Outside of battles, the player can talk with characters, go to shops, engage in events (like going to see plays), and so on. There is an extensive relationship system that permeates the whole game. The player can form relationships with characters in the game, becoming close friends and possibly more. There are extensive dialog trees and the experience is highly customizable and personable. In battles, players fight enemies in a real-time, menu-based system.

I’ve never played a game in this series before. Can I play this one without experiencing the others? Yes! Wayfarer of Time stands on its own. If you’ve played Growlanser Generations, you will have a good understanding of how this game works-both are similar. They have the same battle system and general mechanics.

What makes this game unique/worth playing? The character customization make this a unique, lengthy, and engrossing adventure. There are multiple endings and many different options, depending on how you play. Are you kind and caring? Or are you cold and ruthless? How you act determines how characters will interact with you and treat you. You can also meet different characters based on how you act in the game; certain characters may live or die by your actions, as well. The battle system is also highly engaging and should be fun for any role-playing game fan, with its clever blend of real-time, turn-based, and tactical elements. Characters do not move on a grid nor is it a “wait-based” system. Battles require quick thinking and a level of preparation.

Is the story any good? Yes, and it’s lengthy. Characters are memorable and interesting. The high-level of of character interaction means that you get many opportunities to learn about each of the characters, but it won’t be the same way for each person. ATLUS has proclaimed that there are over 40 possible endings in the game. I won’t include any spoilers here, but here’s a rough primer: You play as Crevanille, a young boy taken in and raised by a mercenary brigade. His leader calls him the “key” and believes he will be instrumental in defeating the angels, who had destroyed human civilization ages ago and apparently threaten to do so again.

Expect a full review from me soon! 

Lollipop Chainsaw Review

Lollipop Chainsaw (Available on XBOX 360 and PlayStation 3)
ESRB Rating: M
Number of Players: 1
Genre: Action
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment/Kadokawa Games
Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture
Release Date: June 12th, 2012

Parent Talk: This game is absolutely not for children. Excessive profanity, violence, and gore is abound here. This is basically a glorified B-movie, with all of the hyper violence you would expect out of your typical zombie flick.

Review Basis: Completed all stages, replayed some levels a few times.

The Great: A delightfully stupid, kitschy, amazing game. One of the most beautiful things about Lollipop Chainsaw is that you are never meant to take it seriously. If you do, you are doing something seriously wrong. The violence is so incredibly over-the-top that it never comes off as scary or gruesome, but hilarious and ridiculous. Zombies are like piñatas that explode into coins and rainbows. Some people expected Juliet Starling’s character design to just be another case of pandering to a male-dominated audience, but her antics often make fun of the overly sexualized game character. Everyone expects her to be dumb, but she’s actually smart and sassy, openly poking fun at the stereotype in the same way that Bayonetta did (and her sarcastic boyfriend Nick complements her well). Enemies and situations are so absurd and insane that you can’t help but laugh. The first boss is a zombie punk rocker who screams insults at you and jumps on top of speakers. The second boss is an undead Viking metalhead who cruises in a flying wooden ship and bangs on a drumset (oh, and by the way, he has a living severed bear head on his shoulder). What other game has you cutting off zombie heads while listening to “Mickey?”

Like No More Heroes and Shadows of the Damned before it, the sense of humor is delightfully twisted. The reason these games are celebrated while games like Duke Nukem Forever are rebuffed is because they often poke fun at themselves—they are most definitely self-aware. I never once thought that Lollipop Chainsaw was an intelligent game, but I can’t help but love it.

The Good:

+ Arcade-style beat ‘em up action. In the glorious history of action games, many gamers hold a certain fondness for the “beat ‘em up” genre. When games like Double Dragon, Streets of Rage, and Final Fight were in their heyday, gamers surrendered countless quarters in the arcades. Back then, the side-scrolling beat ‘em up was more or less the face of the action genre. Now, however, action games have become more like third-person adventures. They are heavily driven by narrative and have been influenced by other genres, like platformers and RPGs. Games like Devil May Cry and God of War have fundamentally changed the action genre into what it is today…which is why Lollipop Chainsaw is so deceptively captivating. It’s a throwback to a classic genre.

The game is mostly a series of enemy challenges connected through mini-games. You don’t have to navigate through a labyrinth of pathways to reach the next area—you usually only walk forward slightly and meet the next batch of bad guys. Platforming is kept to a minimum so that more emphasis can be made on beating up enemies and racking up points. The game rewards you for using all kinds of combos and defeating large batches of enemies. The focus is on getting a high score and beating the level in record time. Some gamers may not realize this and expect levels to be longer and more fleshed out, but fans of old-school arcade style gaming should savor this rare treat.

+ Colorful, zany visuals. Grasshopper Manufacture certainly can never be accused of phoning in their visual design—Killer 7, Contact, No More Heroes and Shadows of the Damned have unique visual aesthetics. The games are memorable beyond their characters and narratives; they each manage to eschew normality and deliver a unique presentation. Lollipop Chainsaw is no different. The vibrant colors and absurd character designs shouldn’t mesh well, but they do. The game balances disgusting gore with sparkling lightshows. For example, as soon as you activate “Sparkle Hunting” mode, the screen gets all glittery. When you chop zombies in two, they explode into rainbows.

+ A variety of combos and attacks. Juliet’s arsenal is surprisingly varied. She has a wide selection of physical attack combinations, using her pom poms, kicks, and chainsaw. She can also swing her chainsaw low and perform special attacks (for example, if you follow a chainsaw hit after two physical attacks, Juliet will dive into enemies with her chainsaw). Juliet can also transform her chainsaw into a projectile weapon and she can use “Nick Tickets” for other zany attacks.

+ Improving Juliet’s statistics. By accruing coins, players can power up Juliet’s power, speed, homing distance, etc. Chances are you probably will not get all of the power ups and combos unlocked in one play through, as well.

+ Memorable boss fights. Each boss encounter has a unique gimmick that makes it distinct from the other. Bosses have multiple forms, each with different attack patterns and levels of difficulty. The enemy designs are well integrated into the gameplay, so the fights are an appropriate reflection of their character. The first boss, the zombie punk rocker, uses amps and his profane lyrics to attack you. The zombie hippie lady uses her sitar music and hallucinogenic abilities to mess with you. It’s completely deranged but somehow appropriate.

+ An amazing soundtrack. This game offers a diverse list of tunes; it’s a totally rockin’ set. It perfectly fits the grind house film/comic book vibe that permeates the adventure. The boss fight tracks are my personal favorite, especially against Zed, the zombie punk rocker. The voice work is great, but set your expectations accordingly. Most of the time, it’s intentionally campy, but the playfulness between Juliet and her severed-head-for-a-boyfriend Nick (who has a sarcastic quip for most any situation) is endearing.

+ Rescue your classmates. In each of the levels, Juliet can rescue her classmates from turning into zombies. Saving her peers will net coins, but failing to save them (or sometimes outright ignoring them) will result in new enemies to face. Saving classmates provides an extra layer of challenge in each level and gives added incentive for replaying stages.

The So/So:

+/- The fighting mechanics. The combinations of attacks are varied, the move list is interesting, and fights are absolutely satisfying. However, the controls could be tighter, locking onto enemies should be fine-tuned, and the combat in general comes off as somewhat sloppy. It lacks the finesse of more dedicated action games like Bayonetta, but on the other hand, Lollipop Chainsaw never tries to be that game. Older, more dedicated beat ‘em up fans will be able to get into the game much more easily, while fans of newer action games may need to adjust.

+/- The minigame segments. Lollipop Chainsaw is a beat ‘em up action game at its core, but it has so many other segments mixed in. On one hand, these minigames offer an insane kind of variety that only Grasshopper Manufacture could produce—Zombie Baseball? Why not? On the other hand, they often aren’t as fun as battling zombies and can get somewhat frustrating.  The mechanics and execution are somewhat sloppy, though the ideas are fun. The zombie baseball segment in particular ended up being more difficult and annoying to play than expected. The arcade level had some creative challenges though. Your level of appreciation may vary for the minigames.

+/- The length. This is probably the biggest point of contention for many. Gamers expect games to offer a substantial value to justify the price. This can often put game developers in a corner; intentionally short games are often criticized, rather unfairly. In some cases, shorter is better. Lollipop Chainsaw pays homage to the beat ‘em up genre in many ways, and the length is an accurate reflection. Levels offer suitable depth (some secret items, classmates to rescue, minibosses to fight), but they are intentionally linear. You can complete the game in about 5 to 6 hours, but the game encourages replay value. This is a game that you play multiple times over and over, for higher scores.

The Bad:

-The game can get unnecessarily difficult during combat scenes because of the camera. Several times, I was hit by an enemy that was slightly off screen. This can make intense battle screens annoying.

The Lowdown:

Lollipop Chainsaw is gleefully stupid and absolute fun. Fun, dynamic characters, challenging and memorable boss battles, compelling and interesting levels, and mechanics that give suitable homage to a classic game genre make this game very tempting. Unless you find the content objectionable, you should definitely check this game out. Like other games from Grasshopper Manufacture, the best way to understand it is to play it.

Score: 8.0/10

 

The Last Story Review

The Last Story (Available exclusively on Nintendo Wii)
ESRB Rating: T
Number of Players: 1-6
Genre: RPG
Publisher: XSEED Games
Developer: Mistwalker, AQ Interactive
Release Date: August 14th, 2012

Parent Talk: The Last Story has some mild profanity and sexual innuendo, but there is no explicit gore or sexual activity to worry about. Like most role-playing games, the content is tame enough for most audiences to handle. Younger children may have a more difficult time playing just because of the game mechanics, the lengthy amount of text, and figuring out the finer points of the battle system.

Plays Like: A hybrid of various game mechanics, including third-person action/hack-n-slash, menu-driven combat, and even stealth and shooting elements. Gamers familiar with action RPGs and typical hack-n-slash adventures may be able to slip into the battle system comfortably, it has a definite learning curve and necessary level of strategy required to tackle the battles.

Review Basis: Completed the game and played for about 30 hours.

*NOTE: As of writing this review, I did not have any experience with the online multiplayer.

The Great: A rich and rewarding combat system. Every character is important and indispensable in battle. Smart AI, varied and interactive environments, and a swath of gameplay features makes every battle unique and interesting. Like stated above, The Last Story has a real-time combat system that most may mistake for a simple hack-n-slash game at first glance. The truth is there is far much more to discover. The lead character, Zael, can bring attention to himself using his unique “Gathering” ability, which may sound familiar as a genre trait for experienced MMO players. Zael can not only attract enemy attention, but he can engage in combat with his sword, strike enemies from a distance with a bow, or issue out orders.

While in sword-based combat, everything feels comfortable and familiar. Controls and mechanics are easy to learn. The game subtly adds new features to make things more interesting though. Zael can charge his sword attack to use a powerful “Gale” move. This move is also capable of diffusing magic circles, which can be cast by your teammates. Basically, teammates cast magic spells that affect a limited area. By striking these magic circles, Zael can spread the effect to the whole field, whether it’s a spell intended to heal your allies or something meant to hurt enemies. This adds a profound layer of depth to the game.

Zael can also strike enemies from a distance with his bow, hide behind cover, and sneak around terrain to maintain a strategic advantage. The terrain also plays another role in combat—it can be used to hurt enemies. Enemies can sometimes hide in strategic locations, like in towers or on bridges. Zael can order the party mages to shoot magic spells at these places, causing them to crumble and fall. Sometimes crumbling terrain can be used to quickly dispatch hordes of enemies. A battle system with this much ingenuity is really something worth treasuring. As a quick note, it is recommended that you change the game to “MANUAL.” The default setting is on “AUTO,” which means that Zael will automatically swing his sword when an enemy is in range. This can get frustrating quickly, but switching to manual should alleviate these problems.

The Good:

+ A great cast of characters. Zael and his companions (Lowell, Mirania, Yurick, Dagran, Syrenne, and Lisa) are a surprisingly likable bunch. There are no “joke” characters or throwaways here. While the narrative doesn’t delve too deeply into all of the characters or spend time in developing all of them, they work so well together. I had legitimately enjoyed the character cutscenes. Yurick’s backstory was something I had not expected and I was glad that the game provided more depth beyond what I had expected. Again, the game does not spend an excessive amount of time exploring the personal motivations for each and every character, but enough time and effort was spent into making them distinct, interesting, and dynamic. Characters have a wonderful level of interaction. The English localization is charming and I found myself really attached to the English dub. I was a bit disappointed to see that there was no option to hear the original Japanese voices, but the cast did such an admirable job that I don’t think I could hear the game any other way.

+The romance between Zael and Callista (Lisa) was something I felt honestly attached to. A romance between main characters is not uncommon in role-playing games, but few games get you to care very much about the romantic relationships therein. The Last Story managed to spend suitable time in developing Zael and Callista’s encounters, making them grow individually as characters and then later as a couple.

+ Wonderful visual style. The best word for this game would be “focused.” The Last Story certainly doesn’t have the huge, sweeping environments from epic role-playing games like Xenoblade, but it doesn’t feel any less compelling. The narrative and the gameplay is more concerned with smaller, more defined, more detailed spaces and environments. Most of the game is set on Lazulis Island. The city that the characters inhabit is richly detailed and filled with life. I was surprised to see the level of detail on the buildings in the city. The colors are more muted and reserved than the typical JRPG, but there’s something calming and refreshing to have a RPG focused more on a single, more familiar location. The battle fields and environments don’t offer much to explore, but they boast the same level of attention and detail as the main hub. What’s important is that everything feels like they belong to a living, breathing, interactive world. The characters look great and are animated well, and the huge bosses are a spectacle.

+ Varied stages. While the game does not have an overworld map or large environments to explore, the stages are quite diverse. Players will see a main, sprawling city, a castle, a vast network of caves, underwater caverns, forested areas, and tombs. The color is lacking, but the stages manage to be distinct regardless.

+ The soundtrack is excellent and the voice work is far better than expected. The English localization is admirable, with plenty of excellent performances for all of the main characters.

+Character customization. Characters can be outfitted with a large variety of weapons and equipment. This is standard fare for most role-playing games, but it’s nice that the characters’ appearance actually changes with respect to what equipment is used. It adds a personal touch to the experience. Equipment can also be upgraded at shops in the game, which not only provide a boost in statistics, but also further change the appearance of the gear. The colors can be customized further, based on player preferences (though this has no impact on statistics obviously). Equipment can be purchased from stores and taken from fallen enemies and chests.

+ Quests. There is always a lot to see and do in Lazulis Island. Many characters have requests to make, some of which can be completed for benefits. Some of the quests can be completed multiple times, such as one of the challenge matches. These quests help pad out the game and give the player a chance to become better prepared for future battles.

+ No grinding. The Last Story is not designed around the idea that battles are separate from the game. Most RPGs treat battles like something that happens sporadically, usually asking the player to grind and level up to reach the next narrative segment. Here, each battle is an important segment, so the game is designed in a way so that the player doesn’t need to grind away on pointless battles to prepare for future challenges. The difficulty progresses at a nice, steady pace, gradually getting more difficult as battles get more complex.

+ It takes about 25 hours to complete the game. Last Story also offers a New Game + option as well as online multiplayer.

The So-So:

+/- The story treads some familiar conventions: the orphaned hero, the ragtag group of friends, the “save the kingdom” plot. Some of the elements come off as cliché, but may be more endearing to some players.

The Bad:

-Some of the environments aren’t as interactive as you would believe. There are plenty of “invisible walls” in the game’s design, but there is still much to explore.

-The game stops too soon. After learning more about the characters, powering everyone up, and getting acquainted to the town, it comes to an end. 25 hours is nothing shabby (and that’s 25 hours of solid gameplay, not watching cutscenes unfold), but the game certainly lacks the longevity of Xenoblade Chronicles. It would have been nice to have more quests, more story elements, and more content to pad out the adventure. While it certainly isn’t fun to have a bloated, overinflated adventure filled with pointless activity, it can be frustrating to have a good thing end far too soon.

The Ugly:

-The framerate drops during some of the more hectic battles. Also, when pushing up against objects and walls, I have noticed clipping. The visual problems are only slight though.

The Lowdown:

The Last Story is an engaging, robust role-playing game with endearing characters and a fantastic combat system. Its greatest sin is that it ends too soon once it gets going, but the adventure is well worth the price of admission.

Score: 8.5/10

Ys Origin Review

Ys Origin (Available exclusive on Steam)
Number of Players: 1
Genre: Action RPG
Publisher: XSEED
Developer: Nihon Falcom Corp
Release Date: May 31st, 2012

Parent Talk: Ys Origin is a role-playing game originally released on the Japanese PC market in 2006, now available in English for the first time. There are some instances of mild profanity, but nothing severe. There are no instances of blood, gore, excessive violence, or sexual themes though, so parents should have nothing to worry about.

Requirements: Windows XP, Vista, 7, 64-bit compatible; Pentium III/1 Ghz minimum, Pentium 4/1.3 Ghz or higher recommended, 1 GB ram, 64 MB VRAM, 3D accelerator w/DirectX 9.0c,  and 2 GB HD space.

Plays Like: Ys Origin plays similarly to other games in the series, especially Oath in Felghana and Ark of Napishtim. While all of the games in the Ys series are action role-playing games, these games share some many close similarities, like control style, the third-person perspective, etc. Even the visuals are similar. The major differences between them are the playable characters, story, and skill sets. While most games in the series feature Adol as the lead, Origin has three unique characters to choose from: Yunica, Hugo, and Toal.

Review Basis: Played for 28 hours, completed two campaigns (on normal and hard), currently playing the third.

The Great: Fast-paced role-playing. The Ys series has always distinguished itself from other role-playing games. This is due to many different things, but one of the primary differences comes from the game speed. Ys is anything but slow. While most people think RPGs tend to be slow, boring games, the Ys games focus more on action. You move quickly, attack quickly, and the game keeps going at a brisk pace. The emphasis on quick action, platforming, and combat makes every game a blast to play. You can easily power through the adventure in a much shorter time than other RPGs, but that just means there’s far less filler time to sift through. Story and cutscenes are important, but they take a backseat to the action. You will run and jump through a variety of traps and hazards, keep an eye out for switches and hidden passages, and attack enemies with a myriad of spells and skills. Think of it like the 2D Legend of Zelda games with a serious case of ADD.

The Good:

+ Excellent music. Nihon Falcom games tend to have great music, but Ys Origin managed to impress me thoroughly. The music is simply incredible. The boss themes are among the best I have ever heard in an role-playing game and they perfectly highlight story scenes. Scars of the Divine Wing and Beyond the Beginning are songs I’ve listened to repeatedly even after finishing the game.

+ A variety of characters to play as. When you boot up the game for the first time, you are allowed to be as Yunica or Hugo. Yunica is a young knight-in-training tasked with rescuing the goddesses Feena and Reah, while Hugo is a magical prodigy with his own agenda. They offer completely distinct styles of play, making the game ideal for multiple play throughs. Yunica is a quick, mid-range melee fighter with very aggressive and offensive skills. She is considered best for first time players and I had a genuinely fun time playing as her. Hugo, on the other hand, is far slower but offers more range and versatility. He has defensive skills (a wind barrier), in addition to mines and a fire attack. Once you complete the game, you will unlock Toal Fact as a third playable character, who specializes in speedy close-range melee attacks. His claws aren’t as tough as Yunica’s axe, but he moves quickly and his skills emphasize his agility. If you’ve grown tired of playing as Adol, then Origin will make you happy.

+  A sincere and well done story. Ys games never focus too much on narrative. Most often, the game just boils down to a conflict of good vs. evil. Still, the games manage to be endearing thanks to strong characters and an interesting world to explore. Origin manages to be even more interesting, because of its lead characters. Yunica isn’t just a knight-in-training, but she’s the daughter of a famous warrior who was slain by a man bartered for a demonic essence to gain power. She has to struggle with thoughts of revenge while on her quest, making her story genuinely fun without being overbearing. There are several cutscenes throughout the game and there are quite a few lines of dialog (nothing voiced), but they don’t ever come off as intrusive or annoying. Hugo’s story is arguably even more interesting, because of his moral ambiguity and his struggle with finding inner strength and purpose. Toal’s ambitions are even murkier, making him a fascinating character to explore—especially because it’s like experiencing the game from the enemy side’s point of view.

+ Platforming, combat, and exploration. Ys games aren’t particularly deep in any one area. They don’t offer huge and robust battle systems like strategy RPGs or rich and detailed worlds like the Elder Scrolls games, but they put it somewhere in the middle, perfect for a fast-paced adventure. There is enough emphasis to fully explore each area because of all of the hidden power ups and secret items though. With each new ability gained, you can access to new areas and new rewards.

+ Lots of challenging enemies and bosses. Even on normal, you should expect to die and retry on your first encounter with several of the boss enemies. Enemies will put up a serious fight and require precision to overcome. You can’t just hack away at bosses and expect to win (with some exceptions). You cannot pause the game or use healing items during boss encounters, meaning that you need to exercise absolute caution. Memorizing boss patterns and recognizing safe zones is a crucial element.

+ Excellent visuals. Origin is a six-year old game, so set your standards accordingly, but even so, this game does look pretty. When running at 1920 x 1030, everything looks nice and clean and the magic effects are a sight to behold.

+Replay value. It may only take you about 10-12 hours to complete a campaign, however, that’s 10-12 hours of solid gameplay and there are three unique characters to play as! Each character boast a distinct story and play style, making the game fun to play every time. That’s not counting the Steam achievements or bonus modes, like Time Attack and Arena Mode.

+ Support for gamepads like the Xbox 360 controller. It comes recommended, especially for tight jumps.

The Bad:

-You can’t pause during boss fights. I know I praised this a bit earlier, but it’s not a great decision. Granted, yes, it does raise tension during a fight and forces you to pay attention, but it’s just inconvenient. There have been several times when someone tried to call or text me, or someone in the room was trying to talk to me, but I was fighting a boss so I couldn’t pay attention until I either won or died. What if you had to use the restroom or answer the phone? It’s just a matter of simple convenience.

-Lack of towns and sidequests can make the game feel too linear. It moves about at a breakneck pace, but there aren’t meaningful distractions. Some may enjoy the fact that the game is straightforward and without filler, while others may think that it’s too linear.

-Character sprite animations are decent, but admittedly most of the environments are just ok. Remember though, this is a six-year old game, so set your expectations accordingly. I still feel that most will find this game pleasant to look at.

The Lowdown:

I had to struggle to find negative points to harp on for this game. I had so much fun while playing that I lost track of time, which is the highest praise I can give! While longtime fans may not rank this entry as his or her favorite, it is just excellent. With a price tag of only $19.99, I can’t think of any reason to pass on this one. It comes highly recommended.

Score: 8.5/10

A New Mega Man Game?!

CAPCOM has not enjoyed the best relationship with its fanbase for the last year or so, especially with the Mega Man faithful. Following the cancellation of Mega Man Universe and Mega Man Legends 3, fans are feeling particularly sour. Some people look for any reason to be upset, whether it’s the inclusion of hilarious Bad Box Art Mega Man in Street Fighter X Tekken (which is so radical I’d buy the game just for him), the lack of Mega Man in Ultimate Marvel vs. CAPCOM 3 (the way he was butchered in Marvel vs. CAPCOM 1 and 2 makes me grateful he wasn’t in, to be honest), and the frankly lazy iOS port of Mega Man X. But some fans will be very justified in their dissatisfaction with CAPCOM’s latest announcement, Rockman Xover (pronounced “cross over”).

The concept made me excited beyond words at first. According to the translated description posted on sites like The Mega Man Network, the story goes: “It’s a world where all the worlds of Rockman have crossed over. The gulf of space-time has been closed thanks to the efforts of Dr. Wily, Sigma and other villains to Rockman and co.! Dr Light and Dr. Cossack work together in creating a new robot to oppose this crisis. A production model, this robot uses “battle memory” that has been scattered over the world, and possesses infinite potential to transform and increase his power. The player battles evil as this new type robot. Create your own Rockman, and battle with others to protect peace!”

A crossover game putting together every series in the Mega Man franchise? That sounds amazing! I would’ve loved to see all of the Mega Man characters team up to take down villains from the franchise. The description, however, leads me to believe that it isn’t really “all” of the games, but rather the classic and X series respectively, given the inclusion of Dr. Light and Dr. Cossack, as well as Sigma. What could possibly be so bad about this? Well, it’s a Social RPG for iOS. I can’t say I’m too excited for the idea. Actual game mechanic details are slim at this point, so it’s probably too early to make a judgment call, but I just can’t shake this feeling of disappointment. Some fans are obviously taking this too far, claiming that CAPCOM intends to kill the franchise intentionally–which is just silly and misguided. Hopefully more games will be announced as part of the 25th anniversary and this is just a taste of things to come, and for what it’s worth, this may end up being a fun and addictive little diversion.

 

 

As a quick disclaimer about compatibility,  it will run on iPhone 3GS/4/4S, and iPod Touch models beyond generation 3. It is playable on iPad, but the game is not designed for the iPad’s resolution. The game is currently set for release in Japan this Fall. CAPCOM has already confirmed that this will be released in the US and European markets. Thanks to 4Gamer.net for posting the original story.