Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Disgaea 1 Complete (Nintendo Switch) Review

Back in 2003, I saw an ad for the soon-to-release Disgaea: Hour of Darkness.  Since I liked strategy RPGs, and anime art, I decided to buy it when it came out.  Once I played it, my mind was blown.  There was crazy stuff I hadn't seen before in an RPG.  Crazy characters, wild terrain effects, and insane stats.  The levels went to 4 digits!  It was eye-opening to see this stuff after max level 99 and max damage 9999 Final Fantasy games.  It quickly became my favorite game, and its success likely fueled other RPGs increasing their own level and damage caps.

This should have been an easy review to write.  This is a re-release of Disgaea.  The first one.  My number 1 favorite game of all time.  It dethroned Final Fantasy IV for heaven's sake, which was no small feat.  All I should have to do is gush about how much I loved the game.  However, nostalgia can be a cruel mistress.

Is it the updated visuals?  Nope, those look crisp.  With the exception of the graphics and sound, the game is a fairly faithful recreation of its original incarnation.  And therein lies the problem.

The subsequent game added new things, changed some, and fixed things for the better.  Well, most times.  Still, there were plenty of quality of life changes that just made the core experience better.  None of that is present here.  There's no cheat shop, so leveling up takes more time and more grinding.  Money is more of an issue in the early game, as is fully equipping your people.  You don't get experience from healing, so healers fall behind.  High rank weapon types aren't balanced.  Heck, monsters only have the one type of weapon, so "too bad" if they need INT.

The item world is of course present.  Every item contains a random dungeon that allows you to power it up as you descend.  Still a great idea.  Levels aren't as small as they became over the years, and Mr. Gency's exits aren't as easy to come by.  No innocent farm or storage.  I will give the game credit for at least removing the geo panel from the exit square.  Now there should not be any floors that are actually impossible.  Also, the support innocents, like Statistician, seem to be higher starting values.  I don't remember there being so many, especially in values over 5, at the early stages of the game.

Some aspects of the Dark Assembly feel dated, too.  Since the cheat shop (regretfully) wasn't added, you have to use the council to increase or decrease monster levels.  Bribery is a huge pain, since each senator is an individual, not part of a group.  The percent chance of success isn't shown before the vote.  If you want to increase your counter attacks, you'll need the Dark Assembly, since there is no Character World.  No more promotion to increase your class' rank, you have to reincarnate for that.  Mentor and student isn't something that can be switched to benefit people, it's completely set at creation.  Just listing the stuff that should have been added to the "complete" version is kind of depressing.

Now, as much as I want the improvements from future games to be crammed into Disgaea 1, making a formerly great game incredible, I can see reasons why they didn't.  Maybe they wanted a 1:1 copy of the original, just with crisper graphics.  If that was what happened, I would still complain, but understand.  For better or worse, that's not what happened.  Remember the treant golems in the first game?  They were there, but now they're not.  Several enemy types were replaced with later iterations, likely because HD sprites of them already existed.  So I guess they aren't even pretending to faithfully recreate it, just do what ever is cheap and fast, consumer be damned.

But, we get Asagi.  I mean, she's been in other games before, but now she's...here.  And a Prism Ranger!  That's actually cool.  Not totally unique, because there was apparently a way to get one in the PSP version.  Still, it's a shame that those two things are the only things that were added.  Maybe it's my fault.  Maybe I expected too much after how great the re-releases of all the other mainline games have been.  How they get upgrades from new system mechanics, benefiting the player.  However, part of the blame is also adding Complete to the title, which implies something comparable to the last release that carried it.  Adding one and a half new characters doesn't strike me as a "complete" sort of thing, just a tiny gesture.

There is a silver lining through all of these dark clouds.  For all the things that should have changed, there remains one thing that shouldn't.  The story.  Disgaea 1's story is still the best the series has to offer, and it is completely intact.  I still think Laharl is wonderful, Flonne is ditzy, and Etna sucks.  The story for this game is wonderful, and was one of the reasons I kept playing it, despite how painful it could be.

Disgaea 1 Complete should have been a slam dunk.  Take the original characters and story, add the improvements from the past 15 years, slap in some new characters and battles, and rake in the praise and profits.  Sadly, that isn't what happened.  What we did get was a lazy port that tries to keep to everything original, except the things that would require doing work.  Despite the Complete moniker, it's barely different from the current PC offering.  If you have never played the original Disgaea, then it might be worth it to play the amazing story.  Otherwise, leave your nostalgia in the past...having your face shoved in its faults is a painful experience for the soul.  It's not a bad game, but it's a huge missed opportunity.  Just play Disgaea 5 Complete instead.

The Good:
Uh...it looks much better than the PS2 version.  I don't think some random item world levels are impossible anymore.  The plot is still great.

The Bad:
Disappointingly lacks the quality of life improvements from the last 15 years that really should have been added to make this game utterly fantastic.  I'm pretty sure I brought that up at least once or twice.

The SaHD:
Well I had already preordered the special edition from NIS, so it should be very easy to keep it sealed.

(Review code for Disgaea 1 Complete was provided by the publisher)

Monday, October 8, 2018

Metal Max Xeno (PS4) Review

Metal Max Xeno is an RPG set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.  Humans created robots that turned on their creators, nearly wiping them out.  As one of the last remaining humans, jump aboard your tank and take your revenge!

The setting isn't unique by any stretch of the imagination, but it's not one I can recall in an RPG.  It's like a mix of Terminator and Mad Max, and I really like it.  When looking the game up, I was surprised to find out that there have been several Metal Max games, dating back to the NES.  I didn't think I had heard of the series before, but apparently Metal Saga on PS2 (which I played some of and enjoyed) is under its umbrella.  Thankfully, you don't need any prior knowledge to enjoy this game.

Upon starting, you are given a small tutorial dungeon to learn a few mechanics. I thought it would have started with more story, but it did not.  After gaining your first tank, you find a town, and are quickly thrust into your first quest.  In fact, you can't even enter the building until you finish part of the quest.  You can restore your health and ammo by visiting it though.  This gave me the impression that the game was going to be light on story, and mostly a dungeon crawler.  That isn't really the case.  It does have a lot of dungeon crawling, as you fight in dungeons and in the overworld, but there are times you will be in the home base, and talking to people.

For the overworld, most fights will be your tanks versus the enemies.  Enemy groups show up on the world map, allowing you time to avoid them, or get in the first attack.  When they pop up, you can press the X Button to target them with your weapons.  You can also check the enemy weaknesses, switch attacker, or which weapon you will shoot them with.  Damage done to them before the fight starts will carry over, as does the ammo consumption.  If you manage to defeat them with this first attack, you also get bonus experience.  I was pleasantly surprised at just how often this happened.  It's a nice way to skip battles, or at least make them shorter, while either giving you full experience, or a nice bonus.  Also, it does not make the game a cake walk to kill most enemies you come across.

If your opening salvo doesn't finish them off, you will start combat.  The player chooses which weapon with each character to attack with, or they can use a variety of skills.  Tanks can equip a variety of cannons, machine guns, and special heavy weapons.  Cannons are fairly strong but have limited ammo, while machine guns are weaker but have unlimited ammunition.  The latter are also really nice for opening shots, as they can finish off a group of enemies.  Special weapons are things like missile launchers, or other specialized armaments.  These tend to be stronger than cannons, but the ammo is even more limited.

Once you have selected your choices, the turn plays out.  The game claims that it is in semi-real time, but it waits while you are selecting your moves.  "Semi-real time" seems to mean that multiple people can shoot each other at the same time.  It's fine, just slightly more confusing when trying to follow who hit who.  Tanks don't have HP, but instead have SP.  When they take damage, SP depletes.  When it runs out...well, the tank is still okay.  Since it represents your shield, you don't immediately die when SP is zero.  Instead, it enemy attacks can damage or destroy parts of your tank.  If a weapon is destroyed, it can't be used until repaired.  If the chassis is destroyed, the pilot gets kicked out and will likely meet a grisly end on the next turn.  It's a nice system, as there are fights I would have lost if just running out of SP knocked the character out of battle.  It's also really easy to fix your tank and restore ammo by warping back to the base from any point on the overworld.  You can then warp back to a nearby warp point and quickly pick up where you left off.

When not driving around, exploding wicked machinery and ants, your characters will run around some dungeons on foot.  The combat is still turned based, and is very similar to the tank combat.  The only difference is you can't get a cheap shot on an enemy to start the fight.  In fact, the dungeon enemies don't appear at all, you just get into random fights with them, like old school RPGs.  Humans also have HP instead of SP, and are knocked out when that HP drops to zero.  Inside a dungeon, you can only warp to the entrance.  Nice if you want to leave.

There is some nice customization with your party and their tanks.  The party is made up of three people, each of whom can equip three weapons.  Each character has a job class, which gives certain skills as it levels up.  The job level is independent of the character's level.  Tanks can equip several different weapons, and you have some say in what is possible.  The chassis can be modified to house more weapons, special weapons, or even scaled back to provide more power to the shield.  You can even edit specific weapon slots if you don't want to change the whole thing.  Special chips can also be equipped to the tank, giving them skills.  These can be simple but powerful, like shooting every cannon or machine gun you have in one turn!  It will burn through ammo, but packs the punch you might need on a boss.

Normal enemies, both in the tank and on foot, aren't that hard.  You can beat them without much difficulty, provided you aren't fighting tank enemies on foot (you aren't Grahf).  However, there also exist wanted and named monsters.  Named are special, stronger enemies that tend to appear in dungeons.  They are just random encounters.  Wanted monsters are basically boss enemies, and defeating them helps pad your bank account nicely.  These fights are much tougher, mostly because they get multiple actions in a turn.  It can require a few tries to iron out a usable strategy.  Since you can save anywhere, I'd recommend it, as these fights can spring up on you and can be difficult.

While it is great that you can save anywhere, that's also tied to one of my gripes with the game.  After saving, it always asks if you want to quit to the title screen, or continue playing.  I don't know why they wanted to copy probably the most annoying thing from Dragon Quest, but they did.  And it's annoying here, too.  Since I save a lot, I would much rather the option to quit to title screen in the menu, and not incessantly asked upon my successful save.

I really liked Metal Max Xeno.  The setting and gameplay aren't anything unique, but they are interesting and fun.  That's very important.  The difficulty goes through a few spikes at times.  However, the amount of party and tank customization, the monsters to fight, dungeons to explore, and items to find make it well worth playing for any RPG fans.

The Good:
Fun battles, interesting premise, and lots of customization for your party.

The Bad:
Uneven difficulty at times, being pestered to continue/quit after every save.

The SaHD:
I don't think it will be hard to convince my wife to cosplay as Maria.  She really likes purple!

(Review code for Metal Max Xeno was provided by the publisher)

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Shadows: Awakening (Xbox One) Review

Isometric action RPGs can be very fun experiences on consoles.  For me, most examples of the genre have been entertaining and engrossing.  While usually having multiplayer helps that a lot, there are some that have pulled off being single player, or are entertaining enough to not need a second (or third, or fourth) player with you to keep you awake.

On the surface, Shadows: Awakening looks like other competitors in the isometric action RPG space.  In some ways, it also plays like them.  You run around, kill monsters, get loot and complete quests.  Your characters travel from one area to the next, working toward your goal.  Several town and dungeon areas have teleporters, so you can jump to them for shops, or to turn in quests.  Button layout is what you might expect, with the A Button doing your auto attack, and the other three face buttons using other skills.  Unfortunately, you can only have three other skills equipped at a time.

However, it has a few distinct differences.  One, there is no multiplayer.  Yes, it's a bummer, but you get a party of up to four characters to make up for it.  The central character is the Devourer, a demon who is bound to a hero's soul.  He exists in the shadowrealm, while the puppets exist in the mortal world.  You can switch between them at almost any time.  In fact, you will need to.  Certain paths only exist in one realm or the other, and switching between them allows you to access them all.  Different enemies also exist in each realm, with some that cross over as well.  It's not an unheard of  mechanic, but it's used very well here.

Another difference is the soulstone.  Instead of chugging potions to survive, you use charges of your equipped soulstone.  Getting a refill of health or mana takes one charge, and different types have different max numbers of charges.  Defeating enemies and absorbing their souls slowly refills your charges.  Again, it's pulled off very well.  I always had access to healing, and was able to refill it without any difficulty.  That may change on harder difficulties though.

Thankfully, all characters share the same experience, and level up at the same time, even the ones you aren't using.  Every level increased gives you five stat points to distribute into four different stats.  Effects of each point increase are shown as you put them in and before you confirm them.  Each character also gains a skill point, which can be used to buy a new skill, or saved up to power up an existing one.  Since you can only have on three at a time, I tended to only try out the ones that sounded good, and power up the ones I found most useful.  Talent slots are unlocked every three levels, and allow you to equip a passive ability.  These are decent, but usually not super powerful.  The ones available are based on your main stats, and you don't seem to be able to change them once set.

There is a HUD in the game, I swear!

There are also several slots for different pieces of equipment, but not every character can equip every type.  That's not even limited to weapons, either.  Most make sense, since very large or small characters would need different size boots or gloves, or might not even have feet!  My only gripe with equipment is the reliance on the dreaded random number generator (RNG for short).  Sure, the shops sell some stuff, but enemies don't respawn and money is limited, so you can't buy everything.  Otherwise, you are stuck hoping that good stuff drops.  Unfortunately, the loot is entirely random within a level range.  I got a lot of drops for characters I didn't use, and worse, for characters I didn't even have, nor could have at that point.  That's not unexpected of the genre, but that doesn't mean I have to like it.

Early on, you must decide who is your first puppet: the fighter, the mage or the hunter.  Me being me, I had to decide between the mage and the hunter, so I went with the hunter first.  As you go through the game, you have opportunities to add more puppets to your party, but only three can go with you at any time.  I was excited to get my second puppet, who was...a hunter.  Yeah, I guess I should have picked one of the other two then.

As I pressed on, I got another puppet after the first boss.  This was a large skeleton fighter that hit like a truck.  Awesome!  He complimented the Devourer and hunter well.  The next puppet I found was unexpected.  Upon being interrogated, I was faced with a choice.  I first accidentally agreed to sell out a town for freedom, but that wasn't what I wanted to do.  So, I loaded my previous save (thankfully there's no silly one-slot-autosave nonsense here), and decided to fight him instead.  Not only was this a better personal choice (I had no reason to sell out the town), but I killed the boss and added a new puppet to my roster.  He ended up being another fighter, which again showed that I should have just picked the mage in the beginning.

On the normal setting, the game isn't very difficult.  Save for a few circumstances, it was just right.  The "few circumstances" are annoying traps and boss fights, but that's mostly from the lack of a dodge or real defensive move.  You can save pretty much anywhere, and getting a game over just forces you to reload your last save.  The story length is really good too, giving you a suitably epic tale to weave through.  Plus, the different characters you can use gives good reasons to go through it at least once more.  While there are a host of sidequests, the game is pretty linear, and the maps are set.  That's not a problem for me, but I know some people won't like that.

If you enjoy isometric action RPGs, then definitely check out Shadows: Awakening.  It looks familiar, but has some unique twists that make it feel fresh and fun.  I recommend trying it out!

The Good:
Fun isometric action RPG.  Switching between characters and worlds is a great concept.

The Bad:
The dungeon traps are way too deadly for how sensitive the hit boxes are.

The SaHD:
I put a belt on my wood elemental, which he's not supposed to be able to equip.  Oops.  You can take the person out of the tester job, but you can't always take the tester out of the person.

(Review code for Shadows: Awakening was provided by the publisher)

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

SNK Heroines ~Tag Team Frenzy~ (PS4) Review

SNK Heroines is a casual fighting game starring only ladies from the rich SNK roster.  Well, except for the one guy that was turned into a female for this game.  And the boss.  And the guest characters.  Anyway, Terry Bogard sells games, so he's now a female, and all of them must battle each other to escape the crazy dream world made by the one guy in the game.

At first glance, the game looks a lot like a King of Fighters.  It has a familiar roster, the boisterous announcer, and is 2-D.  You even have a tag partner, hence the game's subtitle.  Once you spend some time with the game, it probably has more in common with Super Smash Bros., or Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale (still a bad title).  It's not just the items, the simplified moveset, or the super finishes, but a combination of all of them that make it feel that way.

Make no mistake: this is a simplified, watered-down fighter.  That's not necessarily a bad thing, but be aware of that before jumping in.  There is a light attack button, a heavy attack button, a special attack button, and a throw button.  Block is also a button, which is not usually the best choice in fighting games.  At least super moves get their own button too.  While that sounds like a lot, the moves are very limited.  You can't even duck!  Combo potential is basically a few lights, a heavy or special, and then trying to tag and chain a few more hits.  Since I'm not great at fighting games, there may be more, but I don't think so.

Like Smash Bros., tilting the stick in a direction with a button press changes some moves, notably the specials.  While this could add some depth and ease of use, it just felt too limiting to me.  Especially since some of the light or heavy normal attacks were just bad.  When a character has about six standard attacks, one of them can't be useless.  It just doesn't work.  Even worse, multiple characters have these, and sometimes they are the combo opener.  I've hit with an attack, and the enemy recovers before I do and hits me back.  How is that balanced?

Special moves and the "dream finishers" (super attacks) take meter to preform.  In a strange move, the life meter and special meter are on the same bar.  The cool part is your special cap extends as you take damage, but the bad part is that it's just not a good decision.  It's just too weird for people that have played a fighting game before.  And while you might think that this game is made for them, there are plenty of references to things that only fans would know.  It's not something that is easily pulled off, and SNK Heroines doesn't.

Depleting a character's health is not the end of the fight.  Instead, you have to actually hit your opponent with a dream finish when their health is red.  One one hand, this should be cool, as it ensures the fights have flashing outcomes.  In practice, it's more like Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale: not that exciting.  The super moves themselves can be cool, as maybe a small handful actually are, but most times they just fall flat.  Instead of a flashy finish, the screen quickly fades out when you hit with the move.  They just peter out, and lack impact.  They don't feel like a strong move that ends the fight, they just feel limp and weak.  This in exacerbated by the hit sparks/hit effects.  A lot of special and super attacks send out a plethora of stickers, teddy bears, and rainbows and stuff that just feels goofy.  Did Lisa Frank design this stuff?  Besides being too large and out-of-place, it feels lazy and stereotypical.

SNK Heroines also has a story mode.  It is more involved than I thought it would be, but it's still barely more than an excuse to make the game.  Kukri traps the women in this magical world made from his mind, and makes them fight.  He somehow steals the despair from the losers, and that will make this world permanent.  Yeah, ok, super plausible.  The cutscenes in story mode can be utterly bizarre, but they can also be funny.  The character interactions and endings are enjoyable too.  So strangely enough, it ends up being probably the best part of the game.

Besides the story mode, there is the obligatory (at this point) Versus and Online modes.  What you might not expect is the amount of unlockable things, including costume pieces.  Since the playable character are all females (technically, here Terry is as well), you have to dress them up.  Each heroine has two purchasable costumes, the first of which is their more traditional/normal one.  The third costume is a bit of a mixed bag.  Some are really nice, and I like them, while others feel very random.  What I really would have preferred is getting some costumes on other characters...think of the possibilities!

Then come the accessories.  There are a plethora of options of baubles and doo-dads that you can put on heads, hands, feet, etc.  Some are already unlocked, and some must be purchased.  You can even remove pre-set ones, and make Sylvie look not terrible.  In the vein of Senran Kagura, there are unlockable backgrounds and poses you can put the characters in.  Most are from the ending scenes.  Once you set it up, you can take a picture of them.  I'm sure someone will love that feature, but it's not really one I would get much use out of.

On one hand, SNK Heroines ~Tag Team Frenzy~ is a party-type fighter, easy to pick up and play.  On the other, I think it's a bit too simple at times.  I might sound pretty negative about it, but the story can be pretty fun, and it doesn't take it self too seriously.  I doubt there will be high level competitions of the game, but that's not what it is meant for.  It's a decent thing to play with a group of friends that don't really play fighting games, although they aren't going to get much out of it.  I think there should be a few tweaks to make it better for the audience that would appreciate it.

The Good:
Simplistic fighter that's easy to pick up and play.

The Bad:
Feels a bit content-light, and the core of the game is niche enough to potentially alienate the casual audience that could easily grasp the mechanics.

The SaHD:
While I think female Terry Bogard is a fun idea, there are a lot of female characters not included, but probably should have been.

(Review code for SNK Heroines was provided by the publisher)