Thursday, July 24, 2014

Spec Ops: The Line (PS3) Review

Lt. Walker and his two men, the whole of Delta Squad, have been sent into Dubai on a rescue mission in Spec Ops: The Line.  Since it's a modern day military shooter set in the desert, you might think it will be a bland mess of brown and gray.  Thankfully, this isn't the case as the creators put a lot of color into the game.  There are lots of posters, fish tanks and other scenery pieces that really make the game look good.  Some of the textures can be muddy, but the Delta Squad members look great and will actually change throughout the game.  On the flip side, I don't think the music is that good.  Most times it's some kind of techno-Bollywood mix that just didn't sound good.

The gameplay is a fairly standard cover-based third-person shooter, and ranges from average and functional to sometimes frustrating.  Sprinting doesn't require you to hold the button, which I wish could be turned off, and some surfaces/walls didn't allow you to take cover on them.  This wouldn't be too bad, but you can die quick, even on the 'normal' setting.  However, so does most enemies, so the health actually evens out.  Vaulting over things was also finicky, and would require you standing still at the right angle to do so, and ended up being not fluid at all (see Gears of War for an example of how it's done right.)  Occasionally I had trouble distinguishing if a guy running up or far away was my squad mate or an enemy, but that could easily be an issue on my end and not the game's.

The usual arrays of tricks are present- blind fire, grenades and alternate fire for each weapon- and work fairly well.  Grenades are actually really effective, but come with a cost.  If they explode near sand or other similar surface, they will kick up smoke, making it harder to see in the area.  Annoying, but a nice little touch.  Pretty much all of the weapons are useful and kill quickly, so no worries if you are stuck with a particular gun.  There are some that are better, yes, but none that are just flat out bad.  I frequently ran out of ammo, but guns are scattered around well enough that I was never without methods of attack.  Plus, you could order your squad to shoot enemies if you are really low on ammo.

While the gameplay is average, the story is anything but.  It's really well done, engaging, well acted and overall I'd say it's great.  The main three characters are voiced very well, as are the other two characters of "Radioman" and Konrad.  What other game has Kid from Kid and Play and Captain Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) in it?  Besides the voice cast, the story itself is engaging.  I don't want to spoil much, but it's very far from a stereotypical war game, and has a few turns you might not see coming.  Plus, the writers intentionally left several points open to interpretation, so there are a few valid theories as to what all is going on.  Awesome stuff and after learning a thing or two I wanted to run through the game again.

There are 15 chapters in Spec Ops, and they go by pretty quickly.  The game doesn't count any time accrued if you reload, which makes the playtime look a little less than it actual is.  My file's time was almost 5 and a half hours.  After that, I spent an hour or so more going through the other choices in the story.  If you are intent upon getting all of the trophies or achievements, you'll spend more time with the game and go through it at least twice.  The achievement/trophy list is a very standard one with no surprises.  Some for story progression, choices, weapon kills and completing the game on the various difficulties.  There's also a multiplayer mode, but I didn't invest any time into it.

While the third-person cover gun play of Spec Ops: The Line is average at best, the story and voice work more than make up for it.  The way the game plays out and the themes it covers are very well done and I'd recommend playing the game just for the story.  Just put it on easy and have some fun.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Battle Princess of Arcadias (PS3) Review

Battle Princess of Arcadias has finally come to the US as a digital only title.  I was anxious to try it out as the gameplay sounds like a fun reminder of the old 2D beat em ups from back in the day.  The first thing I noticed upon booting up the game was the style of the game.  It's a nice storybook or watercolor-looking world that in some ways reminds me of Vanillaware's games.  However, the animation is a different story.  Maybe it's keeping in with the storybook look of the game, but the animations look like they were made in Adobe Flash.  They aren't so much horrible as they are very stiff and puppet like.  The game's audio is also Japanese only with subtitles, which is a bit of a bummer.  Better than the game not coming out at all, but of course dual audio is preferable.

Combat is pretty fun.  You have a standard attack and a heavy attack.  There are some basic skills (combos), and a few more are unlocked as you level up.  You can jump around, attack enemies and rack up combo hits.  The easiest way to lose your combo number is to get hit, which happens easily.  The guard in the game doesn't cut your animations, so it can be difficult to successfully guard on the fly.  The normal fighting levels (the first battle type) will have you against several groups of enemies, and finishing it will give you some bonus loot.  These levels aren't too hard, which is good because you will need to grind on them several times.

The second type of battle is a siege.  These are fights against one big monster instead of groups of smaller ones.  You have troops to command and help whittle down the monster's shield.  Once the monster is hit enough, the shield will drop and you will finally damage its health.  The siege monsters do a lot of damage and easily kill many of your soldiers if you don't have them in defensive mode.  I found it cumbersome to switch the troops from attacking to defense when it was better to do so, and you don't really have much time to do it.  I found it easier to get a level or two over the monster and leave the soldiers in defensive mode so they don't lose the battle for you.  While attacking the monster, you have time for one combo, then block, then rinse and repeat.  If you build up your morale meter to full, you can unleash a powerful super attack that will help turn the tide in your favor.  You will need that same meter to switch the troops from defense to attack, so use it wisely.

Skirmishes, the third type of fight, are very similar to sieges.  Instead of fighting a large monster, you fight another army.  While your troops fight in the background, you fight some enemies in the normal plane.  If you manage to kill off a group, you will get a chunk of the morale meter.  Each type of troop has strengths and weaknesses against the other troop types, so matching them up helps immensely.  Changing your soldiers to another type costs some of the morale meter, so fighting in the foreground does help.  It sadly doesn't feel like it helps that much, since it doesn't actually reduce enemy numbers to kill them, which leaves it to the soldiers to win or lose.  It's more based on your unit's level and how they match up to the opponent.

The sieges and skirmishes, while interesting, just don't seem fully realized.  The first time you get to them, they just seem too hard, forcing you to grind until you and your troops are strong enough to win.  Your soldiers die very easily, and in large numbers (especially in the sieges), and losing all of them is a lost battle.  Yuck.  While grinding is a necessity in some games, it seems too excessive in Battle Princess.  The first battle in the game is a normal fight, then the next is a siege.  I would think that the first one of a battle type is easier, so the player can get a chance to acclimate to it.  I was wrong.  The first siege (the second stage of the game) had me spend the next 30 or so minutes grinding to get strong enough to get past it.  That's not the best way to start a game off.  The first skirmish (the third stage of the game) wasn't quite as bad, but it was a close victory for me.

This "grind for the sieges and skirmishes" seems prevalent.  After those first ones, there were several normal stages that unlocked.  I didn't lose a single one of them, but the next siege (which was optional) was way harder than it should be, considering how early it unlocks.  The next skirmish I got to was ridiculously hard, and had a boss that basically turtles the whole time, making it harder to get the morale necessary to change your troops and win.  Each time a new siege or skirmish unlocked, it would result in an hour or so of grinding to be able to pass it.  It's entirely possible I'm just terrible at those types of fights.  However, raising your level and getting the money, both necessary to train up each type of soldier, didn't come naturally and required multiple plays of previous levels.  I'm ok with grinding, but it really should be later in the game.  Having it so early just left a bad taste in my mouth and made the game feel unbalanced.

That grinding seemed to make up the bulk of my playtime, since it felt like it took hours to actually get anywhere in the game.  Story-wise the game is fine, if a bit silly at certain points.  Each character has a distinct personality, and none of them seem to get along with each other.  The princess herself is a complete ditz, and her brother, the king, has turned into a goose.  It's pretty enjoyable, and that part of the game doesn't take itself too seriously.

The trophies are a fairly standard set.  You'll get a few for completing sieges, and some for number of kills.  You'll have to use all the different characters to get a platinum, since you'll need to max out all their levels and honor (affection, basically) with each other.  There's some for getting a lot of kills and high hitting combos to round out the list.  Some of these seem like they will take a lot of time, but affection and levels can raise faster than you might think.

While the battle system for Battle Princess of Arcadias is fun, the necessity of grinding was very off-putting.  The sieges and skirmishes were a good idea, but not executed as well as they could have been.  The animation is a bit stiff and looks like early web videos.  While this might all be intentional, the game was a bit disappointing to me.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Atelier Rorona Plus (Vita) Review

By: Aly Hand

Atelier Rorona Plus is a remake of the original Atelier Rorona game that was released by NIS on Playstation 3.  The game is a combination RPG-meets-crafting sim, where your main character uses alchemy to craft various items for use in-game.  If you have never played Rorona before, this version is the better of the two, as they have adjusted the game to be slightly more like Atelier Meruru and Atelier Totori, games that were Playstation 3 releases after the original Atelier Rorona.  If you have played Rorona before, there’s little need to play this version, as the main core game play hasn’t changed significantly between the two versions.

Atelier games from recent times all have very similar game mechanics.  The game is timed, with a period of three in-game years that the story progresses through.  Each period is separated into three “assignments,” specific things that advance the plot and guide the player through the tasks of exploring, gathering, or crafting.  These assignments get more difficult and complex the further through the game a player goes, but overall each fall into one of those three categories.  Most tasks in town can be navigated by menus, from turning in assignments to traveling to different shops.  There is a great deal of extraneous content, conversations with characters, hidden scenes, extra gathered materials, and even bonus assignments that can be explored and completed while in town.  To be honest, I found the additional scenes relatively uninteresting, and in many cases not worth bothering to earn since the rewards were so limited.

One of the main mechanics from the original Rorona that was carried over involves the construction of your party.  In the original game, you hired other people on a per-trip basis to fill out your party.  There was always Cory, who was the only character not to charge a fee, but for the most part it would often be too expensive to hire the other characters.  This, unfortunately, hasn’t changed.  You now have extra characters to hire, however, that weren’t playable in the original game.  Astrid, who charges almost 10,000 per trip (and isn’t really worth it), and Esty, who is slightly less expensive to hire than Sterk, but is extremely useful.  The fact that you have to pay your party is probably one of the biggest flaws of the game, since money isn’t exactly easy to come by.

Some of the things added to this version are interesting and useful.  You can now “decorate” your workshop with all kinds of useful items.  There are ones that provide materials, ones that increase the effectiveness of your crafting, the quality of ingredients you find, how often you find them, how much money you get from battle, and a host of other things.  You can also grow materials in a garden outside your shop, though I've found that seeds are incredibly rare.  There’s also a dressing room, where if you have save files on your system from other games you can get extra costumes to dress your characters in.  This doesn't affect game play at all, but is a nice little cosmetic addition.

If you've ever played an Atelier game before, the game play is nothing surprising.  Battles are turn-based, and Rorona has an assist meter that allows other party members to either protect her from damage or aid her in attacks if she uses a skill.  Crafting requires MP as well as ingredients and time, so more often than not you’re better off saving your MP for what you’re trying to make instead of using it to throw skills around.  Normal enemies are evenly balanced, but rare and target monsters seem to be overpowered for the equipment and items available whenever the player first encounters them.

Dungeons require time to get to, and that time is rarely anywhere close to what it looks like it should take based on the layout of the map.  New areas become available slowly at first, and then very quickly once you get further into the game, something which is a bit of a pain.  Often, you’ll need materials from the place you’re in to finish off exploring the place you were.  Still, the bonus assignments are a nice addition, as well as the rewards for completing them.   Now, whenever you complete a bonus assignment, you get a stamp on a 3x3 grid, and each line you make earns you a different reward.  You don’t have to complete the grid to ace the main assignment, but it’s a nice extra feature to make the game just a tiny bit easier.

Unlike the original, too, the game seems to be a bit buggy and unpolished, which is odd to say for a remake.  There were numerous times it would hang up while loading a battle, experience scrolling would be fast or slow depending on the amount being given, and at the end of battle it would take several seconds and numerous pushes of the x-button to go back to the normal screen.  Often I would be just starting to worry about whether or not the game had frozen before it finally decided to continue.  And battles aren't the only time that’s happened.  Numerous times when loading a cut scene I would get the impression the game had frozen, and once I even had it crash on me completely while I was crafting.  It was so bad that I had to reset the whole thing and load all over again.  One other problem was in the help files, where I stumbled across grammatical errors on more than one occasion.  Improper punctuation and incorrect words (i.e. “fine” instead of “find”) are more of a pet peeve than game-breaking, but still subtract from the overall impression of the game.

The story hasn't changed at all from the original game.  Rorona is a struggling apprentice trying to repay her family’s debt to the town’s lazy Master Alchemist, Astrid.  It begins with Rorona being informed the workshop has three years to prove its worth to the town and the King, or it will be destroyed in favor of factories.  Astrid, being the lazy lump she is, dumps responsibility for saving the workshop squarely on Rorona’s shoulders before heading off for her scheduled afternoon nap.  With the help of her spoiled, rich best friend Cordelia, the town chef Iksel, burly knight Sterk, performing puppeteer Lionela, mysterious elder swordsman Gio, flakey bard Tantris, and now ninja/knight Esty and of course the eminently forgettable lazy alchemist Astrid, Rorona must save her workshop and her job.  Oh, and maybe the town, too.

Overall, this game is good, but problematic.  There are a lot of issues that could easily have been resolved with a little careful attention (no excuse for bad grammar in this day and age) and some time.  Not enough of the problems from the original game have been mitigated by the additional content.  The story isn't as interesting the second time around, and the laggy game play is just annoying enough to push it down to the lower end of good.  If you have never played Rorona before, you can flip a coin to decide which, but if you’re looking for a good Atelier game I would definitely say Atelier Escha and Logy is better.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Shovel Knight (Wii U) Review

Thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, Shovel Knight has been released on the PC, Wii U and 3DS.  It is very inspired by old NES platformer games, which has taken root in the looks, sounds and gameplay.  The visuals are a wonderfully animated sprite display, and I very much like it.  The music is also really good, and feels like it was ripped out of old Nintendo classics.

After the initial stage, you will have a world map that will allow you to move to various places, and gives you some freedom in the order to tackle stages.  The look of the map itself is reminiscent of Super Mario Bros. 3, and I really like the little bit of freedom it gives you.  It's easy to replay stages and get more money or find collectibles or power-ups that you may have missed.  Beating each set of bosses unlocks new areas to continue your quest.  There's also a town that allows you to purchase relics, health and magic upgrades, and one that allows you to get shovel power-ups and new sets of armor.

While the controls are pretty tight, they aren't perfect.  Sometimes it doesn't seem to register my shovel pogo, and walking near ledges can be tricky.  If you stop pressing left or right in the air, though, you will stop moving that direction, which takes a little getting used to, as usually games have a little bit of momentum to directional jumps.  I felt the attack range of the shovel was just a bit too small, as I misjudged it several times, leading to unnecessary damage.  Using the game pad was ok at best, but the classic pro was the best bet.  The normal Wii remote held classic style was a close second, but the small d-pad was a hindrance.

When you hear "old school platforming", you probably think "ridiculous difficulty", and that's an accurate thought.  Overall, the game has a decent difficulty curve, although the game got really mean near the end.  The last few stages have some very unforgiving parts (lots of instant death nonsense), and just before the final boss there's a very clear homage to the Mega Man games.  Too bad the bosses don't have counter weapons to make that section less painful.  Death results in some money loss and being sent back to a checkpoint.  There aren't any lives, so you can keep retrying as long as your patience holds out.  The game is slightly less stressful than the games that inspired it in those regards.  There are ways to make the game harder if you're a masoch-- I mean, itching for a challenge.  Destroying checkpoints gives money, but then they cannot be used as checkpoints.  You can actually beat the game with no relics, and you don't have to pick up any health or magic upgrades.  So while the game has a growing difficulty, you can make it more challenging if you so choose.

There are 11 stages (8 bosses plus 3 others) for the main story of Shovel Knight.  There's also several extra stages and boss fights to extend gameplay.  Depending on how much you die, it can take awhile to make your way through the game.  My first run was about 8 hours, and of course there are people boasting much less.  The game also includes feats, which are basically achievements.  While you can speed run the game (there's a feat for that), you can also go for full completion by tracking down all the relics, completing every extra stage and buying all the armor and shovel upgrades.  Definitely a good amount of content for the money.  Supposedly, there's DLC coming down the line that adds new playable characters.  Sounds like a good way to get some more hours out of the game to me.

Shovel Knight is a good example of a retro game.  It has the right looks and sounds, while still having several modern upgrades.  It's a great mix of old games, like Castlevania and Mega Man, but for a modern audience.  While the difficulty near the end was very off-putting, I still consider it a good game.  If you enjoy old-school platformers or a good challenge, definitely pick up Shovel Knight.

Bonus Tip:  Make sure to leave the game pad charging or at least nearby while you play (since you shouldn't be using it to play the game), since if it runs out of batteries, the game will freeze.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Blood of the Werewolf (XBLA) Review

After being available on the PC for over half a year, Blood of the Werewolf has brought its blistering platforming to the Xbox Live Arcade.  The game stars Selena, nowone of two surviving werewolves, who sets out to get her son back and get revenge on those that stole him and murdered her husband.

Going along with the werewolf theme, many of the enemies you fight are from older horror movies.  Vampires, skeletons, bats and mutants are some of the fodder you run across while seeking Selena's son Marko.  The bosses are also modeled after such classic monsters as Dracula and Mr. Hyde.  The characters, music and look of the game fit very well together, and are really neat for fans of old B-grade horror films.  Even the voice acting of the main character is done really well.  The only part I'm not too happy with is the lack of subtitles for the cut-scenes.  The volume always seemed low for those especially, and it can be almost impossible to hear over children running around.

Selena, as the werewolf matron, splits her time in the game between human and wolf forms.  The human form has a crossbow for distance attacks at any angle, while the werewolf has a double jump and stronger attacks.  Controlling either character is fairly easy and the controls are responsive and tight.  They need to be for all the precise platforming you have to do as you make your way through the game.  The story follows the pattern of two stages followed by a boss fight.  At various points through each stage (and sometimes the boss), you will switch between Selena's human and werewolf sides.  It's a great and really unique aspect of the game.  I like the dual gameplay of using each form for different combat and platforming challenges.  And boy, are there plenty of challenges.

While the game starts off fairly easy, it quickly gets tough.  The second stage gets downright brutal with a section that has instant-death pistons.  It wasn't too bad until the part where you have to fall down a winding path without getting hit.  If you touch the ground at all, you've taken too much time and will die.  It was a bit jarring for the game to have that jump in difficulty so quickly.  However, it ends up being a decent introduction to the game, since there are several parts where you will die with a simple mistake (especially the fireball/moving platform/spike sections in the late game).  Oh, and one more brutal thing I have to mention: the bats.  If you've ever played a Castlevania game, you will know the medusa heads, aka the "Bane of Platformers' Existence".  The bats in Blood of the Werewolf behave almost exactly like the medusa heads, annoyingly simple pattern and all.  I can't decide if it's an homage or torture.  Or maybe a little of both...

The game takes many cues from old-school platforming games.  There's a lot of hazards just off the screen, so when you run or jump forward, you get hit.  I didn't find many of those parts that would knock me into a pit, but a few that would do so for spikes, which basically amounts to the same thing.  It is less about reaction and more about memorization.  Some jumping sections have lots of dodging while you make your way through, which would, however, test both.  Like older games, a lot of perseverance will make up for any other shortcomings you have, and several times my heart was pounding when I finished a tough section.  There were frequent checkpoints, and deaths would only waste your stage completion time, so it was much less frustrating than it could have been.  Plus, I found the bosses to be pretty easy.  I would get hit a fair amount, but I never actually died on any of them.

The main game consists of ten stages and five bosses.  A first run through a stage might run about 10-30 minutes, depending on how many times you die.  Bosses are shorter, simply because there is no stage beforehand, just the boss fight.  Total time for me through the story was about 4-5 hours.  In addition to that, you can play each completed stage in Score Attack, where you grab gems and kill enemies for points.  There's even an Endless mode, where rooms are procedurally generated (randomly strung together from a large list).  These are rooms created especially for this mode, so knowledge of the normal stages won't help you here.  Both of the extra modes are good ways to test your skills, and I'd say you can easily get your money's worth if you at least beat the story.

All achievements in Blood of the Werewolf are for completing quests, and you get one for every five or ten quests that you do.  The quests are for pretty much doing everything in the game- finishing levels, getting good ranks, beating bosses, stages and scores in score attack, getting collectibles, etc.  Some aren't too hard, like surviving one room in endless mode or getting 25% of the sigils, but some are very difficult, like completing each stage quick enough to get the S rank.  If you are a perfectionist, getting all the quests in the game (and hence all the achievements) will keep you busy for many hours.

The game has a great vibe, but the difficulty was frequently frustrating.  The bosses seemed almost too easy while the stages could be downright brutal.  Fans of old-school platforming games should definitely check it out, as the difficulty will make them feel right at home.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Monster Monpiece (PS Vita) Review

Monster Monpiece is a card-based strategy game that became infamous for its rubbing mechanic.  As a fan of trading/collectible card games, I decided to check it out and see if the game deserves its wrap or not.  After the story kicks off, you must travel around through the various regions of the world to procure their Magna Quartzes and keep them safe.

The map consists of various points connected by lines laid over a picture of the region's topography.  There are occasional gates that block your progress and you must fight in order to proceed.  Their are small offshoots where there might be new opponents, extra money, rub points or cards.  At the end of each area, you'll fight the boss, then see some more story and move onto the next area.

The card battles take place on a 7x3 grid separated into 9 blue squares, then 3 gray squares and lastly, 9 red squares.  Castles flank both of the short sides and represents you and the opponent.  On your turn, you can place one of your cards on any of the unoccupied blue squares.  They will attack any opposing cards in front of them, and move one space forward in any turn possible.  Each card has a mana cost to summon, and you recover 3 mana at the start of each turn.  If you have played any trading/collectible card games, you should be right at home with how battles flow.  It does seem really simple, but of course it's much deeper once you start playing the game.  There are melee units that are strong, but can only hit in front of them, ranged units that can hit a space a few in front of them, healers that can restore a card's HP, and magic units that can power up a card's attack.  You can even fuse cards of the same type, and summoning the same color card a few turns in a row will provide very useful bonuses.  At first you might not need to pay much attention to these, but they will become crucial towards the middle of the game.

There are various skills and "potentials" that cards can have.  Potentials activate when the unit is summoned.  Skills either activate when summoned (but take mana), an unit attacks a base or when the unit is defeated.  The two most common potentials are "hyper", which lets a unit move on the turn it is summoned, and "stationary", which, well, keeps the unit in place.  Skills are much more varied.  They can reduce an enemy's attack, HP, increase the opponent's mana reserve or other effects.  My biggest annoyance with the skills is just how many the computer opponent has.  It seems like every unit they have will at least give them mana when they die.  Even if I had the same card and it appeared to be the same level, mine didn't have those skills.  And if their cards were a lot higher a level, why would you be encountering them so early in the game?  I rarely lost because of it, but it's still frustrating to feel like the deck is stacked so much against you.

The base cards you get out of the packs will not usually have skills or potentials on them.  For that, you'll have to power up the card using a procedure that made this game so infamous: First Crush Rub.  You will have to spend Rub Points and then do a minigame to power up each card.  The minigame requires you to tap, rub or pinch the picture on each card while holding the Vita sideways.  If you do it well enough, you'll enter Extreme Love mode, where you rub the front and back touch pads rapidly to increase the tension meter.  It looks strange, but sounds innocent enough.  However, combine that with the fact that every card is a girl, and well... you can see why it became so infamous.  Plus, when the cards level up, the picture changes and the girl will be less clothed then they were before.  Not completely naked, mind you, but if you've watched any anime then you can probably guess how skimpily they are dressed.

Personally I didn't find it so bad, but it's not a function I would do around random people.  There was a funny instance while I was doing it though.  When I entered Extreme Love mode, I changed my grip slightly so I wouldn't drop the Vita while furiously rubbing it.  I accidentally put my finger on the volume up button, so as I'm rubbing and the monster girl is moaning, she keeps getting louder.  I see the volume going up, and try to simultaneously move my finger off the button, keep rubbing, not drop the Vita, and laugh.  It was pretty funny, and would have looked hilarious to anyone watching.

Anyway, the only real gripe I have with powering them up is that you won't know how a card changes until you do it.  Most times they get stronger, but sometimes it's debatable if it was an increase or decrease in usefulness.  Sometimes they would get stronger, but cost more mana.  Sometimes their attack would increase, but they would get the "stationary" skill, meaning they're better for defense than offense.  While each type of card will always level up the same way, it would be nice to be able to see what was going to change so you can effectively decide if it will be worth it.  It seems you will at least need to level up one card completely so you can see what happens at each level, and cherry-pick the best level of each card for your deck.

There are 8 areas to conquer, plus an extra one that opens up after the completion of the story.  Each area takes 1-3 hours, depending on what extra fights you do, and your wins/losses.  If you want to do any of the extra fights or routes, make sure to do them before entering the main city of the region, since you won't be able to go back.  After the story is completed, an extra area opens up with the hardest battles the game has to offer.  You'll get a decent amount of playtime with the game, and even more if you can't resist collecting the cards (which I rarely can resist).  You can even play other people online if you want to test your deck against the world or just play with your friends.

If you can get past the somewhat controversial aspects of the game, it's very enjoyable.  It might seem simple, but battles are surprisingly deep and fast-paced.  It also makes good use of the touch screen.  If you enjoy strategy games or trading/collectible card games, definitely check out Monster Monpiece.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Mind Zero (PS Vita) Review

Mind Zero follows the story of a high school student named Kei as he tries to figure out what Minds are and why they are able to cross over into our world.  To do so, he will meet other "Minders" (those that have met Minds and not been possessed by them) and go dungeon diving.  The dungeons and maps are very much like the old Wizardry games.  Navigation is in first-person perspective and the grid-like map is filled in as you explore it.  There are a few locked doors that sometimes require a switch, and other times use the touch screen to open them.  My biggest problem with the dungeons is how non-sequential they can be.  Sometimes, they flow from floor 1 to 2 to 3, but most times they start diverting.  The stairs for floor 8 might be on floor 3, and floor 4 might go to 6.  It gets pretty confusing, and is really strange.  Thankfully, there are teleporters in the dungeons that can ease some of the travel to the various depths.

While a lot of the game is reminiscent of the Wizardry series, you don't make your own characters.  Instead, you get actual story, dialogue and plot.  As much as I do like making my own characters, I liked the characters they made.  It was refreshing to play a dungeon crawler that had characters with personality and dialogue that was sometimes funny.  To appeal to both sets of fans, you can choose English or Japanese spoken lines every time you load a save file.  The game is separated into "Phases", basically story chapters, which start with some plot, then open up a dungeon for you to conquer before moving on to the next phase.  There's also requests (side quests) to do if you want extra money or insight into the characters.

Battles are where the game really stands out from its competition.  First, battles appear to be first-person, like the dungeons, but that's only for the enemies' attacks.  When your character attacks, you see them or their Mind perform it.  To me, it's a nice evolution of the fights in first-person RPGs.  Second are the Minds, which are partner creatures from the other realm.  While you Mind is active, you deal more damage (to most enemies), can use skills, and any damage you take is deducted from you MP, not HP.  You also lose some MP every turn your Mind is out.  If you run out of MP this way, your Mind will go away until re-summoned.  If you lose the remained of your MP when being attacked, you will suffer a "Mind Break" and will be stunned for a turn, leaving you very vulnerable.

I quickly learned that having your Mind up as much as possible is key to battling effectively.  MP is an easier resource to control in this game, it just took adjusting my mind to think of it that way.  Since skills can only be used when the Mind is active, and take HP and or TP, it seems more logical to treat HP and MP and MP as HP.  The characters die pretty quickly when taking HP damage, and since they deal more when the Mind is active, there's little reason to put them away.  There are a few enemies that take less damage from the Mind, and you don't want to run out of MP or worse, get Mind broken, so you don't want to throw them on every turn of every fight.  There's some strategy involved in using them, and I think the combat is good in the game.

Equipping skills is not as intuitive as it should be.  Abilities, like heal skills, are cast from the same menu as equipping them.  So one button will use it, and another button will bring up the list to equip them to a slot.  Still another will let you swap them with ones already on the list.  While that function is useful, remembering which button does what is an issue.  Also, partway through the game you gain the ability to use extra skill cards to power up skills.  It's a good thing that the limit of cards you can hold is so high, since I had close to the max before I gained this ability.  It will say on the card what leveling it up will do, but without hard numbers, I'm not sure how effective it is.  My powered up skills seem marginally better than the base ones, but I'd like to see just how much better they are.  Besides the healing ones, most skills didn't seem worth using very often.

There are over 10 phases in the game, and each takes several hours to complete.  I had to do some grinding for most dungeons, which will of course increase the playtime.  I can easily see spending 50 or so hours to complete the main game.  While progressing through the story, you'll get some trophies, of course.  Most of the trophies come with normal play, but there area few you'll have to work toward.  Doing all the side quests, getting every skill card and uncovering every square of every floor of every map would be ones most likely to be missed.  There is one for beating the game on the hardest setting, so make sure to do that if you want to get them all.

Overall, I had fun playing Mind Zero.  I didn't expect to like it, since I don't really like the Wizardry games and similar titles, but it didn't have many of the really frustrating aspects of those games (no fighting more than 6 guys, no formation nonsense).  I enjoyed the characters and dialogue, and combat was fresh and entertaining.  The biggest problems I had were the strange dungeon designs and the long, long load times.  While not the best RPG on the Vita, I'd recommend the game for fans of Wizardry-style games and people who like old-school turn based RPGs.