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.)

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Lichdom: Battlemage (PS4) Review

Wasted potential is one of the most damaging things for a game.  Worse than mediocrity.  At least being average and forgettable doesn't leave you with regret.  Having a great idea on paper does not automatically transfer into a great game on the screen.  It still requires execution, know-how, and time.  Unfortunately for it, Lichdom: Battlemage is full of potential that it squanders.

Picture this: a power-mad ruler and his arrogant general flaunt their power over the commoners by doing as they please. Maybe they kill your family, or kidnap your sister.  After your despair, an old wizard approaches, offering you the power to take your revenge.  He gifts you two magic bracers that allow you to conjure magic.  Several elements are at your control, allowing you to destroy any in your path on your quest to make bad men pay for their crimes.

Sounds great, right?  It's a solid concept that, coupled with decent gameplay, would make an interesting title.  Sadly, Lichdom does not have that gameplay.  The building blocks are there, but the execution is not.  The game is first person.  Movement and aiming is what you would expect from a first person shooter, so the left stick moves the character while the right stick aims.  R2 fires off your offensive spell, L2 is a defensive shield, and both together uses your area of effect (AoE) spell.  There's also a short dash to move out of the way of enemies.

There are different trajectories and distances to launch your attacks, some more useful than others.  Both the attack and AoE can be charged to do more damage or hit a larger area.  That idea actually works fairly well.  The biggest problem is dealing with multiple enemies coming from random directions.  There are no constant threats, just rooms that spawn foes.  Unfortunately, there's no real way to tell how many are spawning and where, unless you see them appearing. Many times I would be fighting, only to get blindsided by some skeleton that popped out of the ground behind me or something similar. Then you have the scramble to get away, only to remember you don't move as fast as they can, nor have the generous attack range they do.  That's not the most conducive to charging an attack, which is usually a better and faster way to dispatch them.

So why not use the shield?  I do.  Well, I try.  To actually be effective with the shield, you need to time your block just as the enemy attacks.  This triggers a "nova" burst to damage everything around you.  Well, with some of the shield types anyway.  This is useful and powerful, but really hard (for me) to time correctly.  So, I try the dodge maneuver.  Sadly, it isn't much better.  For some shield types, you can only do a few "blinks", and they just don't go far enough to be useful.  I found it better to just do the tried and true "running around the room backwards while firing", and using the dash to stay out of harm's reach longer.

While you eventually discover several elements to command, only three can be taken with you at a time.  They can be swapped at some checkpoints.  These checkpoints also serve as your respawn point if and when you die.  It's not a new mechanic at all, but I appreciate that they work your character's "immortality" into the story.  The health system does have some unique features however. You have three health bars.  A bar can refill over time unless it was fully drained.  Fixing that can only be done by finding special orbs laying around the environment.  There is a burst from your shield when a bar is depleted, but all three going empty means a trip back to the last checkpoint, and doing whatever you started all over again.

Occasionally you will get points to strengthen some of your spells if you use them enough.  However, sometimes the point doesn't seem to increase a stat, so why use it on them?  Crafting new spells is a slightly more reliable way to make them better.  Enemies can drop different parts of spells of different rarities that you can use to make your own magic.  You are still limited by the types, but you can change trajectory, damage, and more.  While I do like some RPG elements in games, it feels a bit half baked in Lichdom.  The drops are plentiful, but still random, so you may not get what you want, or even something you can use.  You get a lot of drops, but it's still not easy to figure out what goes where if you are trying it for yourself.  That leads to the last few disappointing things about the game.

Capping the unhappy experience is the bad user interface.  While not always a make-or-break element, it does affect the experience.  In this case, it makes a bad situation worse.  The menu has both a normal and streamlined version.  One is good for making spells and seeing your drop components, but you need the other to upgrade them.  It's a baffling decision.  Plus, moving around the different menus is also a pain.  From wonky selections to having to use the menu button to exit (as opposed to hitting the cancel button), it just further mars the experience. 

Overall, Lichdom is not a good game.  I had heard that going in, but morbid curiosity got the better of me.  At least it was only a rental.  Multiple elements and spells is a great idea, as is the attack/defense/AoE control scheme.  Spell crafting is nice for customizing spells.  Unfortunately, the game doesn't run well, doesn't play well, and has bad user interfaces.  The game is only four years old, but looks and feels ten.  It would take a lot of effort and know-how to get this game to live up to its potential, and since it still hasn't happened after its numerous patches, it doesn't look like it ever will.

The Good:
Several spell types to play around with, and able to be customized to the player and situation.

The Bad:
Enemy hit detection, the UI, the big lack of polish.

The SaHD:
The game moves pretty smooth when you are just wandering.  The second enemies or effects appear, the frame rate takes a noticeable dive.

(Lichdom: Battlemage was rented from Gamefly's service.)

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Nurse Love Syndrome (PS Vita) Review

In case you were wondering, I still enjoy visual novels.  Being able to lay down, or relax for a few minutes while reading a story is definitely nice.  It doesn't matter if I'm playing as a guy or girl, as long as the story is interesting and enjoyable.

Enter my latest rental from Gamefly, Nurse Love Syndrome.  It's basically a spiritual successor to Nurse Love Addiction, a similar visual novel.  The previous game was about a young, dumb girl going through nursing school to fulfill her life-long dream of being a nurse.  This time, you are a different girl, who isn't quite as dumb as the last one.  She's already passed nursing school, and is starting her first day at her new job.

As you go through her daily life, you meet her co-workers and some of the patients she deals with. There are choices to make along the way, which influences which of the ladies' character routes and endings you will get.  That's right, just like the previous game, you are a lady romancing other women.  If you have a problem with that, then you have your own issues that you need to work out.  That's outside the scope of this review, though, so let's get back to it.

When trying to steer yourself onto a certain route, some choices are more obvious than others.  Some don't seem right at all, yet are.  I was able to get onto my chosen path the first time, but could not reach the good ending because I needed to complete two other good endings first.  Also, the routes for one character aren't even available until after you have done one playthrough.  Lots of different saves and consulting a good walkthru are recommended.

The stories are decent.  Unlike the previous game, there's not really a present end goal, like the graduation.  Therefore the story tends to amble along, slowly introducing a few tidbits until it ramps up toward the climax.  Such a format makes several slow parts to slog through.  The endings are a bit of a mixed bag, too.  "Good" endings are the only positive ones, because even the "normal" ones felt unsatisfying.  There's no "true" endings, just "bad" ones with quite dramatic finales.  It's not as out there as the story developments in the previous game, thankfully.  Though three of the good ending drag on a bit too long for my tastes, as they each have their own mini story arc after what feels like the conclusion.  Yes, really.

Overall, Nurse Love Syndrome is okay.  It's not the best visual novel I've played, but not the worst, either. There are some grammar mistakes that may have been fixed in the patch I didn't want to download. The story has interesting parts that are paired with long stretches of day to day stuff.  I can't fully recommend it, since there are better visual novels available, but it isn't necessarily one to avoid.

The Good:
Plenty of playtime going through the different routes, with some interesting bits of story.

The Bad:
Several lulls in the narrative.

The SaHD:
The scene cards between scenes are very cute.

(Nurse Love Syndrome was rented from Gamefly's service.)

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Ghostbusters: The Video Game Remastered (Switch) Review

Everything old is new again.  Ten years ago, Atari published the Ghostbusters video game, reuniting the original cast to voice their respective parts, craft an original story continued from the movies, and was even written by Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd.   Originally released 20 years after the second movie, the game has now been remastered on the eve of 35 years of the franchise.

While it's not as exciting to me as an Ecto-1 themed Transformer, I was eager to play the game again. I bought and still own the original on my Xbox 360.  Why not try it again with a shiny, new coat of paint?  For better or worse, that's what this "Remastered" is.  It looks nicer, but no other additions are present.  No new levels, modes, or anything like that.  On the contrary, the buggy multiplayer mode has been cut out entirely.  According this article, it should eventually be patched in after being re-built from the ground up, but it's certainly not there yet.

The gameplay is the same as the original release, but since I haven't reviewed that, I will cover it here.  You are the newest Ghostbuster, and must join forces with them to...what else, bust some ghosts.  The game dubs this as "zap 'em, cap 'em, and trap 'em", which is fairly accurate.  For the ghost enemies, you must start by zapping them with your proton stream or one of the other 3 weapon types.  Some are more suceptible to the different attack types than others, but the basic gist is to hit them and do damage.  Once their "health" is down enough, you can capture them with the proton stream.  A trap is thrown out, and the ghost must be lead into it.  Ghosts struggle while being captured.  Slamming them around will stun them and make it easier.  Despite the proton stream being appropriately inaccurate, the whole thing feels very satisfying.

That's all well and good, but the game isn't perfect.   While trapping ghosts can be fun, it can be a bit much when fighting multiple at a time, or some of the more annoying enemies.  It's very easy to get blindsided by something off-screen, or not be able to actually use the dodge move to get out of the way.   Many hits will knock you on the ground for a few seconds, leaving you unable to do anything.  Yes, the games around that time loved to make you ragdoll for some reason.

Another thing that was super popular to do in games around that time was not give a health bar.  Part of the "hud-less" craze, you won't know your exact health in Ghostbusters.  There's a tiny meter on the side of your proton pack, coupled with the growing red border of the screen, to give you a general idea of how you are doing.   It's not the biggest help, considering how quickly you can get downed, even on the "normal" setting.   Plus, the AI goes down even quicker, and isn't the best at helping you up. It's easy to get a "game over", sending you back to the nearest checkpoint.  That isn't the worst punishment for losing, but there could definitely be better placed checkpoints.

As is customary in video games then and nowadays, you can upgrade the different functions of your loadout.  It's not too involved, as each function only has 2-4 different upgrades, and each of those only has 1 upgrade.   For example, some attack types can be upgraded to reduce the heat gain from using it, or increase the damage.  The trap even has a few upgrades to it.   To get the money for upgrades, you simply need to advance through the game, and trap ghosts.  You should get enough to fully upgrade by the end, so there's no grinding.

While the gameplay is a mix of fun with some aggravation, the story is solid.  Written as a psuedo-replacement for the third movie, it actually fits the bill.  There's even reasons to have iconic locations and characters return, just so fans can experience them.  Re-hashing encounters with Stay Puft and the Grey Lady (librarian ghost) wouldn't do in a theater setting, but should put a smile on the face of long-time fans.  To top it off, the original cast is back to voice their own lines.  It's not necessarily the best voice acting ever, but it's good and authentic.  Characters talk and act like themselves, mostly because they are themselves.  Although some of the chatter is repeated too much, especially when you aren't the fastest at an objective, there is plenty of humor in the writing.

Overall thoughts on the game?  Mostly positive.  The core "zap 'em, cap'em & trap 'em" gameplay is fun and satisfying, even if several fights are not.   Dialogue and story scenes are the highlight, being written and performed by the iconic Ghostbusters themselves.   Multiplayer is absent, but will likely not be missed by many, even if it does eventually get patched in.  This game is worth playing for Ghostbusters fans.  If you already played the original release, I'd only recommend coming back if you really enjoyed it.  Otherwise, there's nothing new to entice you.

The Good:
Story, characters, and strapping on the pack to bust some ghosts with the original cast.

The Bad:
Get downed too quickly, annoying to fight too many enemies at once.

The SaHD:
Busting makes me feel good!

(Review code for Ghostbusters was received from the publisher.)