Sunday, September 25, 2016

Sword Coast Legends (Xbox One) Review

Sword Coast Legends aims to bring an authentic Dungeons & Dragons experience to the consoles, the likes of which have not been done before.  While the RPG portion of the game does that in some ways, it also has a DM (dungeon master) mode to try and add a truly unique multiplayer experience.

The game starts off with some backstory to understand the basics of what is going on.  Depending on how much lore you want, this is either a good or a bad thing.  Personally, I like that it gives me the basics and gets me into the game.  Anything else is best presented as dialogue, books or glossaries in the game itself.  After that, you get to make your own character!  And boy, is it an involved process.

There are a ton of's almost daunting.  In fact, it probably is scary to some players.  You can set normal things, like the appearance of the character and their race.  Each race has different bonuses, so it can help to match a race to a particular class.  You also set your alignment (chaotic good, lawful neutral, etc.) and a backstory for your character.  This also gives a character a small bonus, so it's best to at least read what each one does to decide how it affects your created champion.  Thankfully you can scroll back and change these, which I had to do after seeing what stats my class actually needed instead of what I thought they did.

Afterwards, you move on to choose starting skills for the character.  All of the class' possible trees are available to look at, with many, many skills to check out.  As if the time spent on the character themselves wasn't enough, you can spend just as long looking through the myriad of abilities they can get, and to start and plan your character.  Each ability costs a certain amount of points which you will get from leveling up.  Overall it was a lengthy process to create my character, which I do like.  Two hours well spent.

I'd recommend playing the short tutorial.  The controls of the game are laid out fairly well, but they do take some getting used to, as there are a lot of functions crammed into the controller's buttons.  Character abilities are mapped to the face buttons and the triggers will toggle the sets.  Abilities are on a cooldown instead of MP-based, which is great.  The "boxes" button (select for you awesome old schoolers) pauses and unpauses the action (very useful) and the "wavy lines" (start) is the menu, inventory, etc.  Left and right stick are movement and the camera as you would expect.  Up and down on the d-pad switch which character you control, while left and right change your formation.  Strangely, the left bumper is used to switch targets, which took a lot of getting used to.

Speaking of tutorials, they do have many of them, but they also have a massive drawback.  They appear on the screen whenever you do something new that would require them, but they are only displayed for so long.  There's an icon on the bottom of each pop-up (I think it's an outline of a D20) that counts down.  When it reaches the end, the tutorial disappears, regardless of if you have read it.  This might not bother me but some of the pop ups have a lot of text, and it would be nigh impossible to read and understand it all before it disappears.  I didn't see an option to make them stay until I press a button, which would have been best for such a complicated and involved game.

The game is an isometric view, and combat is in real time.  As mentioned before, you can pause the game to select your skills and targets.  This is highly recommended, and there is actually customizable settings for this.  You can set the game to automatically pause at the start of combat, after a certain number of turns, and even if someone drops below a certain HP threshold.  When the game is paused, you can change characters, pick what ability to do, and switch targets.  Combat can go by pretty fast, so pausing every so often helps a lot, but it's too slow to do it every turn.  It's necessary to try and find the best balance for yourself, because your party can die really quickly, even on the easiest setting.  If you don't pay attention, or have it stop every so often that you can make strategic adjustments, you'll wipe a lot.  I would expect this kind of necessity on the hard setting and maybe sometimes on normal, but I think it's a bit too much to need it on easy.

True to any worthwhile dungeon diving, there are hidden traps and doorways in the game.  To find them, you have a party member enter "sneak mode".  You move slower, but there is a ring around your character where they can detect hidden things.  This is usually best left to a rogue, since they have the best chance to find and then disable traps.  Or, you can just trigger them by accidentally running across them, which is what ended up happening to me most of the time.  Oops.

The game contains the original Sword Coast Legends story, but also the Rage of Demons expansion.  These are both of the story modes.  Next is Dungeon Crawl, which you can set to make a small dungeon to play by yourself or with others online.  You can set the area, goal of the quest, enemy types, number of floors and even what kind of reward you get at the end.  Unfortunately, it is really hard to do these dungeon crawls by yourself, since I didn't find a way to bring your AI partners with you, only online friends and other people.

Similar to the dungeon crawl, the Dungeon Master (DM) mode lets you set the same options, but you can also play as the Dungeon Master.  As the DM, you can place new enemies for others to fight.  Placing them takes "threat", which builds up as the other players defeat enemies.  It is decreased when they die, since the goal of the game is to make it fun, not constantly kill the others.  I think this makes it the first game to actually reward people for making a multiplayer game fun instead of just being a jerk to others.  However, this is what the game tells me about DM mode.  Since you set up all the options when you do it, plus have to constantly place enemies when you have threat, you sadly can't set up a dungeon ahead of time and play it yourself.  I wasn't able to try this mode out, since none of my friends have the game, and I didn't have anyone join mine when I had it up.  I could only play around with the settings, not actually have people run though my creation.

When I first started the story mode, I intended to set the game to normal.  However, during this selection, easy was the only setting that had no friendly fire.  Since friendly fire is a huge annoyance and pet peeve of mine, I was stuck with the easy setting.  It would be nice if that were a separate setting.  It's probably for the best that I did have it on easy, since you can still get wiped out easily by big groups.  There are many different races, classes and skills to try out, so replay value is high.  There is also a guild chest that you can use to share loot with all of your other characters.  As fun as achievements can be, the ones in Sword Coast are on the ridiculous side.  There's one for beating the game as every race and class, which would take a long time.  It's not one I would have the time to get.

Sword Coast Legends is pretty fun once I got into the groove of playing it, but I would like it to be more accessible.  It has long load times, and I've had the game crash on me and my wife a couple of times, too.  You also only have one save for your character's story mode and it is possible to get stuck if you aren't careful.  It's a good game for hardcore Dungeons & Dragons fans, but ends up being pretty average for other RPG players.  If you have any interest or knowledge of D&D, it's worth trying out.

The Good:
Lots of options when creating characters gives many reasons to play around with character builds.  Multiple ways to solve quests.

The Bad:
The sheer plethora of options might scare away casual players.  Even on easy the combat can be very unforgiving.  Some of the achievements are ridiculously long.

The SaHD:
No druid class :(

(Review code for Sword Coast Legends was provided by the publisher)

Friday, September 23, 2016

Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse (3DS) Review

Shin Megami Tensei is always a series I should play more of, but for whatever reason, have not.  I've played a few hours of several of the titles, but always seem to get distracted.  They are dark and punishing RPGs, with crazy mechanics and monster designs.  Basically, they should be games that I love and plow through them to completion, yet for some reason don't.  The best way to correct this: get a review copy of one.  So, that's what I did.

Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse is a side story to the previously released SMT IV (no subtitle). I do own that, but have only played a few hours of it.  Even so, I had no trouble following the story of Apocalypse and how it connected to the previous game.  It explains any relevant backstory so you can easily jump right into this game.  Just be warned that it will reveal a few plot points from SMT IV if you have interest in playing that first.  The only trouble I had was keeping location names straight.

Like most of the SMT games I have tried, the battles in Apocalypse are turn based, however they are noticeably unique from many other turn-based RPGs.  Each turn you get one action per party member.  If you strike an enemy's weakness, or get a critical, you gain another action for your team.  Meaning, if you know your enemy (or get lucky), you get more turns to destroy them.  It's great because it rewards you for having a balanced team and knowledge of the game.  However, the reverse is also true.  If you miss or the enemy absorbs the attack, you lose an extra turn on top of the one you just spent.  Ouch.  I'm not too fond of that, mostly because missing is sometimes out of your control, but it does make things fair for the monsters.  Thankfully, you can pass the current character's turn at the cost of half a turn, so if their action would cost you extra, you aren't screwed.  If you keep the battle in your favor, you can route a group of enemies with little effort.

Boss fights can be very difficult, though.  They get multiple turns (I guess to keep things fair), jacked stats (to nullify the previous reasoning), and top it off with high critical and smirk chances.  Smirking is a new status that gives you a high critical chance and gives the light and dark spells (Hama and Mudo) their original chance to instantly kill the target.  So basically, bosses have multiple turns, hit hard, and get more turns.  Ouch.  Frequently I would have to grind a few levels before I could take one down, ensuring my game progress was slow.  Thankfully you can save anywhere, so you hopefully won't lose much progress from a team wipe.

Another enemy type that I don't like much are the hordes.  The are represented by a lot of enemies on the screen at once.  They count as one whole unit, sharing HP and weaknesses.  Like bosses, they get several turns when they act.  Thankfully moves that hit all enemies hit them multiple times, which helps even them out.  My biggest gripe is that they usually have multiple waves.  When killing off one group, reinforcements may arrive, which then gives you another group to fight.  At least they give a lot of experience when you defeat them, but I could do with less of them since they are a pain to fight most times.  And if you are wondering, Hama and Mudo can kill the whole group instantly if you are smirking.  It's really satisfying to see that.

Like SMT: Nocturne, your only human party member is the main character.  The rest of the party is filled by demons that you can swap from your reserves.  Demons don't just join your quest out of the goodness of their hearts, they have to be persuaded.  This involves talking to them in combat, and sometimes giving them money, items, or letting them take HP or MP.  It's not an exact science, since there each demon has its own preferences, but it is much more user friendly than it was in SMT IV.  Apocalypse has scouting dialogue that makes more sense, plus if you already had the demon, it will usually join you again if you just ask.  Really great changes considering how vital it is to recruit lots of demons.

The main attack stats in the game are strength, which affects melee attacks and skills; dexterity, which affects ranged attacks and skills; and magic, which affects, well, spells and such.  When the main character gains a level, you can assign the stat points as you see fit, but it pays to specialize, even early on.  You won't have many skills when the game starts, but your demon friends can help you with that.  When a demon levels up and learns all of their skills, they can 'whisper' them to you, and you will learn it.  If it is one you already know, it will power that skill up.  So, the best way to learn strong and useful skills is to recruit demons with them, and put the time and effort into leveling them up and passing them to your main character.  Sadly, the slots available take awhile to open up, and even then don't leave as much room as I would like.  Toward the end of the game is when you can actually have a mage with all the elements, which feels too limiting.

The other use of demons is fusion.  You can select two demons to fuse, and get a third, different one in the process.  You can select which skills are inherited on the new demon.  This is a great system to play around with, since you can have a variety of skills on a demon.  There are also special fusions that use more than two demons.  Sometimes accidents occur while fusing, so make sure to save first if you need reliability.  If you need more demons that you already had, you can pay money to re-summon them, and even overwrite the default ones with their current counterparts that you have raised yourself.  The demons in the game are a very valuable resource that is complex but rewarding to master.

Since you play as a hunter, most story progression is through completing missions.  Unlike most games that do a similar thing, the missions feel really relevant to what's going on and aren't just there to pad out the game length (that's what the boss fights are for).  Get a mission, complete it, move on to the next bit of story, rinse and repeat.  There are also optional side quests, called challenge quests, that are automatically given to you at various points.  One of the many conveniences of getting missions through your smart phone instead of a job board.  Some of the challenge missions are actually pretty hard, and others aren't very clear on your destination.  Even so, they are extra, so I'm fine with them not being perfect.  At least they aren't all fetch or collection quests!

Having a long and storied RPG pedigree, Shin Megami Tensei games are also know for their length.  Apocalypse is no different, offering at least 50 hours of playtime.  Sure, a good chunk of that is grinding for the next boss, but there is also a lot of time you can lose fusing demons and getting powerful skills for you main character.  It's definitely a game for dedicated RPG players, as it is not likely to leave your 3DS until completion.

Being a 3DS title, the game also has some street pass functionality.  You can acquire other hunter's cards, but also randomly fuse or power-up your attached demon.  Both are nice in their own way.  Fusion is good early on, or to use a lower level demon that you don't need, while gaining a random stat point is good for stronger demons or ones that you are going to keep.  Plus, they bring back some items.  I randomly got a pretty strong gun early in the game, which saved me some macca.  You can also connect to the internet for the same boosts, but only every 2 hours of actual game time.  It's still totally worth it to do so once, as you get a big AP boost when you do.  Too bad it does't give you that every time.

Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse is a fun and length RPG.  Battles can be a bit punishing and bosses likely require grinding, but the skill system and demon fusion are really fun to play around with.  Fans of SMT IV should definitely check it out, and make sure to import your save file for some bonuses.  It's also a game that most RPG fans should check out, even if they haven't played a Shin Megami Tensei game before.

The Good:
Battles reward the player for being prepared and/or knowledgeable.  Recruiting demons is made a lot easier than the previous entry in the series.  A lot of game for your buck.

The Bad:
Each new area brings with it the need for grinding.  If a battle goes bad, it goes bad.

The SaHD:
I wish I could move the camera with the C-stick and switch the buttons for attacking and menu.  Some of the monster designs are cool, some are creepy, but they are all unique.  As an artist, I really appreciate the enemy design in the SMT games that I've seen.

(Review code for Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocolypse was provided by the publisher)

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Rive (PS4) Review

RIVE is a hardcore, twin-stick shooting action game.  You move around the various rooms, hallways and ducts of a derelict space ship while battling waves of enemies at various points.  The right stick can be set to aim and fire, or just aim, while firing would be another button.  That's sadly the most control you have over the button configuration.  The jump is set to L2.  This works...but I would like to try it as another button, considering I've hit both R2 and the X Button in a twitched response to jump.  Thanks, muscle memory.

You can use bits from defeated enemies to occasionally purchase upgrades and weapons for your vehicle.  They have a variety of types of special moves, from close range to AoE.  Unfortunately, you only get one shot before you have to replenish.  Not one shot of each, as would make more sense...just one overall.  Therefore, it's probably best to just buy the one you like and forego the rest.  Or, being able to actually upgrade your gun would be nice, too.  To get more ammo for the special attack, you have to hope for a random drop from an enemy.

Thankfully, unreliable special attacks aren't the only thing you have to help you.  You eventually get power-ups that let you hack turrets, nurse drones and other things to help in your mission.  Nurse drones will heal you at the cost of their health, and be destroyed afterwards.  Turret drones shoot when and where you do, effectively doubling your fire power.  Sadly, they are destroyed when they run out of ammo or health.  Considering how much you have to shoot, they don't last long.  So like most things in RIVE, they work okay, but could be much better and more reliable.

Probably my favorite part of the game is the personality it has.  The two talking characters are well voiced, and have some good dialogue.  A fair amount of the dialogue is tongue-in-cheek though.  The game does start off by switching the camera to "side-scrolling shooter" mode after all.  They also make references to video games, memes and tropes.  At one point, the player character even remarks why would someone store fuel in the middle of a molten furnace.  He also wastes the effort and space to have fireworks in his small vehicle so he can shoot them off when he completes a mission.  That's dedication.

The environment is really good looking and the atmosphere is set perfectly in each location as well.  Trouble is, the game is really too linear to take advantage of it.  You run down some hallways, stop, fight enemies, go to another room, stop, fight waves of enemies, rinse and repeat.  Being able to roam around the station, or even use the warp rooms 'correctly' (ie, not only one way to a set destination) would make the game a lot better.  I would really like being able to explore this cool looking desolate place instead of being shuttled off to another place to fight way too many enemies.

While I'm on the subject, the difficulty of the game is its biggest downfall.  It is just unapologetically hard.  Enemies swarm in from off the screen, move quickly and do a lot of damage.  The most prolific enemy is a fast mine that homes in on you with absurdly high accuracy.  It might not be that bad if they didn't routinely throw 5 or more at you at the same time.  Enemies from every side of the screen, plus homing enemies, plus homing shots, plus high damage equals high frustration.  Don't even get me started on the shielded enemies that are only vulnerable when dropping 8 of the homing mines and/or other homing enemies.

Assuming the enemies don't kill you, the environment likely will.  The whole game is filled with areas and traps that either flat out kill you instantly, or do half your max health.  Kind of negates the armor upgrade, huh?  Sometimes they just combine them all to piss you off.  One early section had me on a conveyor belt pushing me toward a high-damage saw and an instant death stomper.  On the other side of me was another instant death stomper.  I had to constantly jump to avoid moving in one direction while not going too far in the other.  Oh, and they also had me fight waves of enemies (those stupid mines) while doing so.  This is a bit much for the end of the second stage.  Sheesh.

At the very least, the game has plenty of checkpoints (although there is no indication of when/where they are) and there is no real penalty for dying, so you can keep trying until you succeed or quit playing.  It also loads really fast from death (yes!).  Sadly, this also has the problem of sometimes putting you in a situation where you might die again instantly, or at least take unnecessary damage.  The game is filled with instant death following the need to make split second decisions, so I guess it is true to itself.

The game isn't overly long...assuming you don't die a lot.  Sadly, that about doubles the play time for mere action game mortals such as myself.  To be fair, the difficulty is apparent when you start the game, since you can only select 'hard mode'.  It is possible to switch to a slightly easier mode in the game.  When/if you do, it places a bear on the screen in an attempt to humiliate anyone trying to make the game more fair.  I get what they are going for, but trying to make fun of a person just trying to have fun playing a video game, or one trying to make the game not so unfairly hard, is just dumb.  Anyway, you can replay the missions if you want, and there are two other modes, speedrun and single-credit mode.  Both speak for themselves, and both are modes I have little interest in.  Single-credit works for shmups, but here?  Yeah, good luck with that.

Overall, RIVE is a fairly average game.  Vehicle movement, attacks and upgrades work okay, but easily could be made much better.  The difficulty is cheap as well.  This is fine for some folks, but it takes the game down a few notches in my book.  I see a lot of potential in how the hacking and other things could have made for a great Metroid-like game, but instead it's just a linear game with hordes of frustrating enemies.  If you like unapologetic tough-as-nails action games, then definitely try out RIVE, but everyone else can easily skip it and not miss much.

The Good:
Lots of personality in the characters, environment, and dialogue.

The Bad:
Cheap, just throw everything at the player at the same time difficulty.

The SaHD:
The shmup-like sections are kind of fun.

(Review code for Rive was provided by the publisher)