Thursday, April 30, 2020

Root Letter: Last Answer (Switch) Review


Root Letter: Last Answer takes a good idea for a story and, well, turns it into a visual novel.  While in high school 15 years ago, the main character had a pen pal named Aya.  After finding the last of her letters mysteriously delivered to his house, "Max" decides to take a shot at meeting her in person.  As his nickname implies, he doesn't do anything half way.

Max travels to Shimane and quickly hits a dead end looking for his old pen pal. Undeterred, he decides to re-read one of her letters, and track down her old friends as a path to finding her.  Trouble is, she never specifically named any of her friends, just their nicknames.  Armed with that, determination, and some help from a few well-meaning locals, Max does everything he can to find out who his pen pal was, and where she is now.

For better or worse, the crux of the story is whatever secret revolves around Aya and the bull-headed conviction of people to be useless towards that goal.  I'm not going to spoil things if I can help it, but it really doesn't end up being that big of a deal.  One or two of the secrets may make some sense to keep under wraps, but the rest are super benign.  Plus, those one or two aren't even related to Max's quest.  One other weird aspect are the character's nicknames.  Max learns the real names of Aya's friends, but staunchly refuses to use those, instead only referring to them by these sometimes offensive nicknames.  It's not that bad, but makes it a bit harder for me to cheer him on.

One unique thing the game does is how it handles the interrogation of Aya's friends.  After corning one (sometimes literally), Max refutes each of their lies by presenting evidence.  It's set up like Phoenix Wright, but still feels fresh here.  Sometimes you will even enter "Max Mode", where a meter fills, changing what response you will tell the person.  I say tell, but he's usually yelling it at them...or at least enthusiastically saying at their face with higher volume and exclamation points.  The meter doesn't fill at a consistent rate, and the right answer isn't always obvious.  It's even harder when you have only a second or two to read the responses in the funky fonts.  At least there's no penalty for getting it wrong.

Root Letter does offer different routes in the story, but not in the way you may think.  The first 8 chapters are pretty much the same, and it's only the last one or two that are different.  The only things that affect your route are your responses to the letters you received years ago.  Max "remembers" what he wrote in each letter near the start of the chapter.  For better or worse, none of the other choices matter.  In my opinion, it's not the most logical, or interesting, way to do it.

Given this, the game would be prime for a flow chart, so you could just jump around and change your choices to get the different routes.  Unfortunately, there is no such grace.  Instead, you have to go through the whole game again, each time, to make the choices and get a different route.  Fortunately, there is a chapter skip in the menu, which will automatically advance through the completed chapter.  It's not the best method, but it at least keeps the subsequent playthroughs to about 20 minutes for a new ending.

Now, about those endings.  I won't spoil them, but they run the gamut from normal to horror, and even comedy.  You can see a bit why the choices lead to those endings, but they just don't feel like logical conclusions to the story.  If the choices had more of an influence over the story instead of just the last chapter or two, they might not seem as out of place.  Still, one or two of them are interesting.

There are two main additions in the Last Answer release.  The first is a live action mode, where all of the people and placed are replaced with photos of actors and locations.  It's pretty neat, and they did a great job replicating everything, but I prefer the original drawn artwork.  Quickly switching between the two would have been great, but you can't do it.  It has to be done on the main menu.  It would be nice to see the two back to back as you go through the story.  Still, it's a nice idea.

The second addition are some extended endings to most of the originals. These are hit or miss, but sadly, mostly the latter.  Thankfully, they are just unlocked to watch from the menu once you have completed all the vanilla game routes.  The one I would consider the "true" ending, because you have to watch the other first, is pretty good, and gives some extra closure.  There was another I liked, because it gave an actual resolution to the route.  The other two...are there.  Sorry to spoil this, but one involves kaiju.  Yes, really.  It's...odd, to say the least.

Root Letter: Last Answer is a decent visual novel.  The concept is good, as is the evidence-based interrogation scenes.  Route choices aren't the most intuitive, and the secret(s) behind the mystery could have been much more interesting.  They even throw out a very plausible explanation in the middle as a joke.  It's not that long of a game, so it's not a big time investment if you are looking for a new and (hopefully) cheap visual novel.  Otherwise, I'd suggest skipping it for much better offerings.


The Good:
Interesting idea with Phoenix Wright-style interrogations.

The Bad:
No route differences until very late, and very random directions of those changes.

The SaHD:
Like 428: Shibuya Scramble, this makes me want to visit the area it's set in.

(Root Letter: Last Answer was purchased by the reviewer)

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Kotodama: The 7 Mysteries of the Fujisawa (Switch) Review


Continuing my visual novel kick, I recently picked up Kotodama: 7 Mysteries of the Fujisawa.  It is a unique blend of a visual novel story with some match-3 types puzzles thrown in for good measure.  While this does give it a bigger replay value than most visual novels, it's definitely not without its faults.

The story follows your protagonist after they recently transferred into the Fujisawa Academy.  Oh, and you also have a contract with a demon fox that gives you special powers.  These powers force someone to tell the truth by stripping away the layers of their deceit.  Using your special ability, along with some good old fashioned detective work, will allow you to uncover the titular mysteries of the game.

Events follow a typical visual novel narrative.  There is a lot of dialogue, and appropriate characters appear on the screen as they speak or are spoken to.  There are dialogue choices, but most will not appear during your first time through the game.  Without giving anything away, Kotodama has an interesting take on its story.  It sadly doesn't really have routes as other visual novels do, but for the most part, I appreciate the way the story is handled.

During the story, you will learn several key phrases.  Primarily, these give you experience for each of the elemental pieces in the puzzle mode.  There are even specific ones for each opponent that allow you to do extra damage to them.  For better or worse, all of these are necessary to get the best ending.  To make it harder, some only appear if you go to certain areas when you are allowed to choose from several.  There's usually a list, and some choices disappear if not taken immediately, with no real reason for it.  Even more unfortunately, not having all of the key and power words means you have to repeat the game loop until you get them, if you want the true ending.  A chapter select would have been best to save all the unnecessary time wasted when (not if) you start another playthrough.

The other element of the story is the few times your main character calls upon his or her power to root out the truth.  This manifests as a match 3 like puzzle game.  Unlike a more traditional experience like Bejeweled, you don't swap pieces to match.  Instead, you pick a piece, and it gets sent to the top of the 8x8 grid.  It's different than what I've played before.  While it's not the best, it's pretty fun, and has some decent strategy.  You also get some abilities to use, but...they aren't great.  They aren't even fully explained.  I think you use one, poke the opponent somewhere, and have a percent chance to get some extra turns.  If not, they lock some pieces, making it harder.  While these abilities can be ignored for the most part, they will sometimes help in a pinch.

Oh, did I mention that the main character pictures peeling away the opponent's deceit like layers of clothing?  Well, that's how it plays out.  No, really.  As you fill out each opponent's happy meter, it will reach one of four milestones, removing some of their clothing (not in the "real" world) and giving you more moves to complete the stage.  It's not quite as creepy as it sounds.  No one is ever shown fully naked, just in his or her underwear.  You read that right.  It's not balanced, but there is one guy that you use your power on, compared to the five girls.

Once you have beaten an opponent, save for the near-final boss, they are unlocked in the puzzle mode for you to fight when you want.  Plus, they each have four different sets of undergarments to also unlock.  Most fights are not that hard, save for a few towards the end of the main game.  However, if you acquire the power word for those opponents, they are much easier.  I did have to retry a few fights for the near-final boss the first time through the game.  I say retry, but you basically have to load your game, so make sure to save often and take advantage of the multitude of save slots offered.

Overall, Kotodama: The 7 Mysteries of the Fujisawa was a decent visual novel and puzzle game hybrid.  The story has some nice ideas, but doesn't fully capitalize on its premise, and can easily drag on too long.  Puzzle sections can be pretty fun, though.   My only gripe was the ones at the end were really hard without having the special keywords.  If a sequel does get made and released, I would be interested in playing it for the story continuation.  Though it is not one I would get right when it releases.


The Good:
While mostly a visual novel, the match-3 puzzle aspect gives you a reason to play after the story ends.

The Bad:
Completing the game enough for the true ending can be a pain, and the final fights are difficult the first time through.

The SaHD:
No specific spoilers, but the ending was not fulfilling.

(Kotodama was purchased by the reviewer)

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Psikyo Shooting Stars Bravo (Switch) Review



Complimenting last month's release, NIS America releases Psikyo Shooting Stars Bravo, another collection of six retro shoot-em'up games, frequently called "shmups."  Okay, one of them isn't a shmup, but we will get to that.  Last time had the three Strikers games and three others, while this time the collection is mostly centered around Samurai Aces and Gunbird.

The first game in the collection is Samurai Aces.  Like most of the games last month, it is a top-down shooter.  Choosing one of six planes, you get an auto shot (fires continuously), a normal shot that can be charged, and a bomb.  Unlike some of the other shmups in the collections, the charge shot in Samurai Aces doesn't require a portion of an energy meter.  The exchange is that it takes longer to charge.  This really limits its effectiveness, since you can't shoot while charging.  It just leaves you too vulnerable to be very effective for me.

You fly through each stage, blasting enemies and mid-bosses until the boss shows up.  Whittle down its health, and it will be defeated, moving you on to the next stage.  Like too many shmups, the power-ups hate going down to the player's section of the screen.  They bounce around with the enemies.  It's dangerous to try and pick them up, but too necessary to pass up.  At least they are plentiful.  Sadly, they need to be.  Making matters worse is the highest level of power-up is only temporary.  After a bit, it drops you back down a level.  It's hard enough to get there, let alone keep.  Still, it's not a game mechanic that I like.  Of course, the game back then just wanted you to keep putting quarters in it, balance be damned.  Setting the continues to infinite helps take the sting out of that old-school "balance".


Next up is Tengai and Samurai Aces 3Tengai is pretty much Samurai Aces 2, just with a different name.  Unlike the first, these two are side-scrolling shooters.  If you remember Sol Divide from my previous review, then you will know the basic gist of these.  However, instead of the early 90s CGI graphics, these two games feature sprite artwork for the characters.  Tengai also has sprites for the backgrounds, which looks better to me.  Samurai Aces 3 has fancy 3-D graphics for the stage backdrops, but they are too distracting.

Tengai features 5 characters, each with an automatic shot, a charge shot, and a screen-clearing bomb attack.  It's pretty fun, and unlike the vertical scrolling shmups in the collections, the power pick-ups can actually go near where the player is likely residing.  Samurai Aces 3 sports 4 characters (2 more can be added with a code), plus adds something new to the control scheme.  Each character has a cannon attack.  Now you know why the subtitle is Sengoku Cannon.  This attack is strong, but not able to be fired continuously.  Plus, killing an enemy with it makes some of their bullets disappear.  It's a nice function, and I would like that game the best, if it were nicer.  The fancy backgrounds make the bullets hard to see, which makes them harder to dodge.  If the game had more static backgrounds, or maybe just lighter in color, I think it would be better.

Next up are Gunbird 1 & 2.  While I still own Gunbird 2 on the Dreamcast, I didn't remember much of it.  Each is similar to the first Samurai Aces, but with a different character set and theme.  Both of them have 5 characters to choose from, each with different attacks.  In an interesting twist, most of the characters are different in each game, rather than the same or similar, like Samurai Aces.

There is still an auto shot, a charge-able shot, and a bomb to get you out of trouble.  Gunbird 2 also has a close-range attack that requires the built up energy meter to use.  It's...not great.  It would be more useful if it were a lot stronger, or could protect you from bullets, or even if it didn't cost energy.  Right idea, but I think the execution needed some work.  Each stage throws lots of enemies at you, some power-ups, and ends with a big boss fight before moving you to the next area.  Like the first Samurai Aces, the premise and story are simple (yes there's actually a plot), but the games can be pretty fun.  Well, until the screen fills with bullets and you have no where to go.  I completed both of the Gunbirds while playing with my favorite co-op partner (the ever popular Wife Blade), despite the numerous deaths we suffered.



The last game in the collection is Gunbarich.  It has the main girl from Gunbird and...some boy as the playable characters.  Instead of a shmup, it's more like Alleyway or other brick breaking games.  This got me excited because I love those games.  In Gunbarich, your paddle even has flippers!  That makes it much easier to hit your ball at different angles.  The power ups are really useful too.  I quickly noticed the levels are timed, which I thought would be a problem.  That didn't end up being an issue though.  After a few levels, there is a boss fight, which were a little chaotic, but fun.

However, there is a huge downside to the game.  It's flat out cheap, and stops being fun very quickly.  There are enemies that shoot paralyzing bullets.  You can reflect them back with the flippers, so it didn't start as a huge deal.  But after the next few levels, the bullets would explode when passing the area the paddle moves in.  This leaves a large burst that paralyzes you when you touch it.  You can't hit both the ball and the paralyze bullet, so you have to prioritize.  Choosing the paralyze shot means you miss the ball and lose a life.  Choosing the ball means you hit it back once, then likely hit the paralyze burst, which causes you to miss the ball.  It's definitely a lose-lose situation.  When I tried playing as the boy, there was a creature that would suck in the ball, randomly reappear close to the paddle's level, and spit the ball out.  There was very little time to react.  Levels don't seem to be random, either, so there isn't much replay value.  As much fun as I thought I would have playing another brick break game, Gunbarich left me with the bitter taste of disappointment.

All in all, Psikyo Shooting Stars Bravo, like Alpha, is a collection worth playing for shmup fans.  Handheld mode works well enough, but I find the games better on the big screen.  It sure helps with dodging those bullets.  These games might not be the best in the genre, but they are faithful renditions of these arcade classics.  Bring a friend, but leave the quarters aside.


The Good:
Same as last time, six shoot-em-up classics on one cartridge/download.  Tengai is my favorite.

The Bad:
The games are still very quarter-hungry.

The SaHD:
Does Gadget Gen in the first Samurai Aces have an X-wing?!  It really looks like it.

(Review copy of Psikyo Shooting Stars Bravo was received from the publisher.)

Monday, January 27, 2020

Psikyo Shooting Stars Alpha (Switch) Review



Multi-game retro collections and "shmup" games are two things I enjoy.   It therefore follows that I would be excited to review Psikyo Shooting Stars Alpha, a retro collection of six shoot-em-up (shmup) games on the Switch.  The games contained are a healthy sampling of the genre, with some unique samples that I had not experienced before.  The game selection menu doesn't have any frills, but you can thankfully return to it at any point, a necessary feature sadly lacking in other game collections.


The first three games are Strikers 1945 I, II and III.  All three are very similar in gameplay and plane selection.  When I started the first one, it looked very familiar to me, but was missing a certain secret plane that I remember.  When I got to the third Strikers, I figured out why.  In college, there was a Strikers 1945 III arcade machine in the small arcade in the student union building.  I remember playing it several times back in the day, and one day seeing the secret plane that transforms into a robot for its bomb attack.  Of course I thought that was cool and would remember it. It's a transforming robot!

Anyway, memories aside, the three games are similar vertical scrolling shooters that task you with shooting down many enemies, dodging lots of bullets, and fighting a boss at the end that predictably has several forms.  In fact, most games in this collection fit that bill.  Each plane has a different shot pattern and bomb attack.  One cool thing is that each fighter has a special charge attack.  There is an energy meter at the bottom of the screen that charges to a few levels as you play.  Holding down the shot (not auto shot!) button charges it up if you have enough energy, and lets it fly.  Some will start as soon as you charge it enough, and sustains as long as you hold the button while having energy.  It's a useful attack, as most will cover for a craft's weakness.  For example, if the normal shot is very central-focused, the charge shot might be a spread, or vice-versa.

While these games are fun, they definitely show their arcade roots.  While a lot of shmups I play feel more focused on having dodge-able spread patterns, Strikers would rather you explode and pump another quarter into the machine.  The hit box and enemy attacks do not feel forgiving, and edge into the cheap territory, even on the default difficulty.  I would have loved an auto-bomb feature, but I didn't see one.  I found it much better playing the game while docked and on a TV, instead of handheld mode.  Also, the first few stages being in a random order is nice for replayability.



Next up is Sol Divide, the only side-scrolling shooter in the collection.  Besides that, it also looks the most different because of the digitized 3-D character models.  Both player and enemies will look familiar to anyone who played a lot of games in the mid-90s.  Because of this, all on-screen characters are much larger than in the other games, and there are fewer enemies as a result.

To further differentiate Sol Divide, there are only three playable characters, and no randomization of the stages. The only difference is after the first stage, you can choose the second.  You will end up doing the other choice right afterwards, so it doesn't really make a difference.  The player also gets a melee attack, and can cast various spells that are obtained while playing.

The magic aspect is really neat, as it provides a unique take on the bomb mechanic.  Some spells hit the whole screen, while some hit a much narrower area. There is even one that can make you invincible for a short time.  Melee attacks are just about the opposite.  They are clunky, weak and unreliable.  You might think that when an enemy rushed into your face would be there time to use a melee attack, and you should be right.  However, it doesn't knock them away or do anywhere close to enough damage.  That's assuming you can even pull it off.  Most times that I try, the enemy gets to swing first, and stuns me out of my attack.

Sadly, you can get stunned out of your spells, too.  It's possible to stun the enemy, but it is not common enough.  Your character model is big, making it very easy to get hit, and nigh impossible to dodge a lot of things.  To add insult to injury, you don't have any invincibility after taking a hit, so your health can sink like a rock for no real reason.  Sol Divide started off as an early favorite in the collection, but definitely wasn't by the end.  The aforementioned issues coupled with the "start the last stage over when continuing on it" nonsense saw to that.  It's still fun, just not the whole way through.

Dragon Blaze retains the fantasy aspect present in Sol Divide, but returns to the vertical shmup format of Strikers.  In fact, it's a lot like Strikers.  Instead of choosing a plane, you choose a dragon and rider.  Of course I chose the skull dragon first once I saw it.  You get a magic meter, which allows you to do a charge attack, and a bomb.  The most unique aspect in this game is the ability to separate from your dragon ally.  This will leave it in place to shoot while you move around.  It took me awhile to get used to that functionality, and to find it actually useful.  It's good for bosses and strong monsters, but only in spurts.  Supposedly there is a way to use it to one-shot a boss, but I couldn't get it to work on the only boss I saw the opening for.  It's a fun game, and the random path through the first four stages gives some decent replay.



Last, but certainly not least, is Zero Gunner 2.  I wasn't sure what to think at first, as the nice sprite graphics were replaced with early 90s 3-D.  Regardless of how it looks, it may be the most unique title offered in the collection.  It's still a vertical shmup for the most part (some parts scroll horizontal, but it's all top-down view), but you can change the direction you are shooting.  At first, I didn't like it.  It was a pain to stop shooting, change direction, and try to shoot another enemy.  After a try or two, I figured out that turning the ship doesn't mean you have to stop firing.  Now, you won't be a whirling dervish of death, but it made the game much easier, and much more fun.

Sadly, there are no bombs.  Even the method of powering up is different.  There are power-up icons to collect, but really you get stronger by grabbing the little "E" icons that fly out of everything you blow up.  Once I learned they gravitate toward you when you aren't shooting, it made it easier to collect the ones that pop up near the edge of the screen.  Too bad the other games don't have that ability.  Like every other game in the collection, you perform best when not dying.  The loss of damage when you are destroyed makes the games more challenging than I think it should, but it's very much in line with that old-school mentality.

I think Zero Gunner 2 is the easiest game of the bunch.  The stages are not, because you really have to fight your shmup instincts and stay in the middle to deal with all the enemies.  If you do the natural thing and stay near the bottom/back, way too many enemies will blindside you from that direction.  It's kind of annoying.  On the flip side, bosses tend to be much easier (save the near final boss), as you can usually get behind them and avoid most of their attacks.

Overall, Psikyo Shooting Stars Alpha is a good collection of shmups.  It was enjoyable, even if not as fair as more contemporary offerings in the genre.  It's still worth getting and playing for vertical shooter fans.


The Good:
Six shoot-em-up classics on one cartridge/download.

The Bad:
Given more recent offerings in the genre, the games can feel dated.

The SaHD:
You know things will be hard when the default "normal" is 5 out of 7 on the scale.

(Review copy of Psikyo Shooting Stars Alpha was received from the publisher.)