Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Disgaea D2: A Brighter Darkness (PS3) Review

Although the smash-hit Disgaea: Hour of Darkness had three sequels (and a few re-releases), it has not spawned a direct sequel starring the same lovable cast of characters.  Until now.  Disgaea D2: A Brighter Darkness picks up five years after the close of the previous game, and stars Laharl, still trying to assert himself as overlord upon the population of the Netherworld.

Thankfully, they are still using sprites, and they look great.  The characters, environments and attacks look more detailed than Disgaea 3 (I haven't played 4 yet, since I want to wait for the Vita version), and the animations are wonderful.  I like most of the new techniques and the new looks of old ones.  They are flashier than they have been.  To me, the "mega" versions of the elemental magic take a bit too long (except mega star, that one is awesome), so I usually end up skipping them with the Triangle Button.  The music is once again pretty good.  There are some remixed classic Disgaea themes with a lot of new ones.

As previously mentioned, the game picks up five years after the close of Disgaea.  Flonne is still a fallen angel, and Laharl is still claiming the title of overlord against a throng of naysayers.  While the writing and voice acting are very good, I took exception to so many people in the game being clueless about Laharl.  I get that it's a running joke that just about everyone is mean to him, but he went to Celestia and beat up the Archangel!  How many demons have done that?  I would think someone that wasn't in the castle must have heard about that, as it would have been a big deal.  However, it seems no one has, so there are all sorts of demons vying for the title of Overlord, and it's up to Laharl to put them down.  I like the story, but it's not as good as the first Disgaea.

On a side note, Etna claims that she won't try to kill you, because if she tried, she would succeed.  She must have forgotten the beginning of the first game, since she did try and she failed.  Silly Etna.

Disgaea D2, like the ones that have come before, is a strategy RPG.  The battlefield is a grid that you move your units on.  They deploy from a "base panel", and only a maximum of 10 of your units can be on the field at a time.  Units can be placed back in the base panel and another can take its place.  However, if a character dies that slot cannot be regained until the next battle.  Thankfully, death is nowhere near permanent, as in the overlord's castle, there is a hospital where you pay to have your units healed.  In fact, you are rewarded based off the amount of healing you do and number of units you have resurrected.  So, don't be afraid to sacrifice a unit for the greater good.  It's what a good overlord would do.

The types of weapons that your "human" characters equip have different attributes.  Spears can hit farther out, fists have more counter-attacks, guns have range but can only shoot in a straight line, and so on.  Each character type has different affinities for each weapon, which means they level it up faster.  Leveling up a weapon will make their attacks more effective and sometimes grant you a special move.  While it is preferred to match a character with particular weapons, you are free to equip them with whatever you want.  Like most of the things in the game, it is very elaborate, more so than I can write here without talking your ear off.  Well... typing your ear off.

Anyway, most stages will also have effects that are granted when characters are standing on colored tiles.  These are called Geo Effects.  There are Geo Symbols that will grant their effect to all of whatever color tile they are on.  Some of the possible effects are: invincibility, level up (only for enemies), damage, warp, or extra rewards for defeating an enemy.  The symbols are able to be moved, so you can put them where they will benefit you instead of the enemies.  They can also be destroyed, and will change the color of the tiles to whatever color the destroyed symbol was.  While the color is changing, any unit standing on them will be damaged.  These can be chained together and if done correctly, the entire board can be cleared of geo tiles, which will damage all enemies left on the map.  The other benefit of changing the tiles is that you get a good chunk of bonus gauge for it.  The bonus gauge is extra stuff that you get at the end of a battle, like extra money, experience and equipment.  So, like HP, more is always better.

Like any good, long running series, there are improvements to Disgaea D2 versus the previous games (again note that I haven't played Disgaea 4 yet).  The Dark Assembly, which is like a congressional meeting to get various things unlocked, can now be paid off if you fail (unlike the real Congress, the senators of the Netherworld actually work).  There's even a similar one for the Item World, called the Item Assembly.  It allows you to change the look of a weapon, or increase the stat gain on it.  Evilities also return, and each class has three to choose from.  These can also be switched while visiting the Dark Assembly, and can even be stolen from other units.

However, my favorite new thing is the Cheat Shop.  As you progress, you unlock more options for it, and it really allows you to tailor the game to your tastes.  Even if your tastes are weird (no experience, I'm looking at you).  My favorite part, though, is changing the percent of the different rewards for beating enemies.  You can increase and decrease experience, weapon xp, mana, money and skill xp.  To add a percent, you have to take it from one of the others, so there is still balance.  Personally, I sack some of mana and money, since I didn't need as much of that early on, and put it into experience.  That way, I can cut down a bit on the grinding and make my way through the story.

If you enjoy SRPGs, then Disgaea is always chock full of content.  Besides the main story, there are special stages unlocked after completing that, new game+, a level cap of 9999 (really) and the item world.  Each item contains a 30-100 story random dungeon inside of it, which is the item world.  Completing floors and defeating Item Generals every 10 floors will power up the piece of equipment.  You could theoretically play the game forever.  Even if you didn't, there's a lot to do, and is well worth the asking price.  Or, to put it another way, the original Disgaea was always my first choice for a game I would take if I were stranded on a desert island and could only have 1 game and Disgaea D2 has at least that much content.

There's also a chunk of things I haven't even touched upon in the review yet.  Items have "innocents" that increase the stats of the weapon.  These characters can be killed in the Item World, and then can be freely moved to another piece of equipment.  Characters can have masters and apprentices, where the mentor will get a stat boost and the apprentice can learn the techniques of the master.  It's a nice easy way to give your mages multiple elemental spells or give characters a heal for an emergency.  There's also reincarnation, where you go back to level one, but gain bonus stats based on how many levels you had before reincarnating.  In the short run you may get weaker, but in the long run you grow a lot more powerful.  A great new addition is "Promotion", where you can change your created characters to the higher tier version of their job class without reincarnating them.  There's a lot at your disposal in the game, but you don't have to take advantage of it if you don't want to.

I will say that there are three downsides for me in the game.  The first is that the story levels will likely require you to grind a bit.  As the battles became tougher, I would take a run through the Item World to get some more experience before moving on.  The second was a few of the story maps.  The Geo Effects on some of them is pretty mean.  Yes, it adds to the strategy element, but sometimes it feels like the deck is really stacked against you.  The third is the random times the game locks up.  It only happened to me a few times, but sometimes when an enemy cast a fire spell, the game would freeze.  After doing some digging, it mostly seems to happen in the digital version.  Here's hoping it gets patched out.

I'm preferring the list of trophies in D2 more than Disgaea 3's set.  You get one per chapter, and one each for some of the super bosses in the game.  You also get some for doing things in the base, like talking to characters (a lot), and jumping.  There's a few just given away, for creating a character, using a mounted skill, and so on.  A good variety of trophies overall.  Some of the DLC for the game also has trophies, and they are already on the full list.  The DLC is basically characters from other NIS games, like the previous Disgaeas, Phantom Brave and La Pucelle Tactics.  I was sad to see the La Pucelle DLC has 2 different Priers, but no Alouette or Croix (my favorites).  Maybe next time?  Also, no Jennifer, Gordon or super robot Thursday?  I may be the only one, but I want Gordon back with his overlord given title of "Slayer of the Netherworld".

Sorry, I got a bit off track there.  If you at all like strategy RPGs, give Disgaea D2 a try.  If you liked any of the Disgaea games, play D2.  There's a lot of freedom in leveling up equipment, reincarnating characters and even different colors you can make your units.  It takes everything great about the first one and refines it while adding great new touches.  Even without the grinding, there is near endless playtime.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Atelier Meruru Plus (Vita) Review

A few months after the "stealth" release of Atelier Totori Plus for the Vita, the US is treated to another Atelier game.  Atelier Meruru Plus is the Vita release of the PS3 game, with a few changes and additions.  This game follows the exploits of Meruru, princess of the rural Arls Kingdom, and her training to become an alchemist.  She is training under Totori, who has now become a powerful alchemist in her own right, much like Rorona was in her game.

If you have played the previous entries in the series, or read my other reviews, you will think that there is a 3 year limit to complete your training.  You would also be correct.  If you haven't played any other Atelier games before, the main character is given 3 years to advance enough as an alchemist to get one of the good endings to the game.  Making items, gathering, travelling and fighting all take time, so plan accordingly.  Other than that, the game gives you a fair amount of freedom in accomplishing this goal.  There are several developmental quests that you must fulfill to strengthen the kingdom for its inevitable merger with Arland.

One of the best parts of Atelier Meruru Plus is how you can actually change some areas.  Since Arls is a developing kingdom, some of the requests are to make nearby areas more suitable for expansion.  One area early on has you clear out foliage (by gathering them), defeat the enemies, and deliver items to a knight stationed there so they can make the place hospitable for the increasing population.  Once all of that is done, it actually changes the look of that area, changing it from a forest into a clearing with a cabin.  It might not be a huge deal, but I think it's cool that you actually affect things in the game in such a way.  Another way that you can change the map is when choosing what to develop for Arls.  With the points you acquire, you can erect walls for defense, schools and other commodities.  These not only apply bonuses to your character and town, but they show up as little graphics around the city on the world map.  Both of those make it really feel like you are changing and developing the kingdom, and I really like it.

The basics of any Atelier game is to go to various locales, fight monsters, gather materials, then go back to your workshop and make things with what you found.  There's a lot to the actual making of items and managing your time by balancing travelling, hunting and gathering.  The tutorials the game provides are pretty good, and tend to not dump too much on you at once, basically easing you into each mechanic.  People new to the series shouldn't have any trouble picking up what to do and how to do it.  Mastery of alchemy will take time, though.

Making items using alchemy is as simple as having the recipe, the items and the MP to do it.  Better ingredients make a better product, and the traits you put into the item can change the properties of the final result.  Traits can make an item sell for more, be a higher quality, allow healing, or adding a stat to a piece of equipment.  There are many, many traits, and figuring out what to put on what can require a lot of pre-planning.  Sometimes requests will want specific traits, and turning in items with those traits will reduce the number of the items you have to turn in, which will save you time and materials.  Another place that you will want to pay attention to the traits is when making ingots and cloth for weapons and armor, respectively.  A shiny new spear might be stronger, but it will be even better when you add more attack, some HP or MP and a guaranteed critical versus a certain enemy type.

Meruru's MP, which is needed to synthesize equipment, can easily be replenished by resting for a few days.  Of course that takes time, so balancing MP cost, time to make it and materials required is the great juggling act of the game.  There will be stores that sell some raw ingredients, and even one that you can "register" things you have made so you can buy more without making it again.  You will also get two Homs that can either gather materials or make items for you.  Taking advantage of all of these resources is vital to maximizing your time.

Fights are turn-based, with each character or monster getting a turn based on their speed.  A helpful chart on the right side of the screen shows when each participant will get their turn.  All characters can attack, but only Meruru can use items.  Other characters get skills that use MP.  Managing your items and skill use is important early on, as it can make encounters a lot shorter or easier.  If Meruru uses an attack item, one of the other characters can follow up that attack.  If she is being targeted by an enemy, another character can block for her.  Both of these actions take a level of their meter and two LP, so decided when to use them is part of the game's strategy.  Sometimes, defeating all of the enemies in an area will allow you to move on to the next one.  This at least makes sure that you are somewhat prepared for the next area.

Battles in Meruru are actually easier than the ones in Totori.  You can easily get the Uni item early on, which Meruru can use as a cheap attack item (and thus allow chain attacks).  Plus, the other two starting party members have AoE attacks, making battles much easier than in the previous entry in the series.  Provided you have the Homs making ingots and cloth, getting the newer characters geared up is easy, too.  It was fairly painless to switch around my characters until I found which ones I liked best.  It costs a fair bit of money to make the good equipment, but I had enough stashed from all the requests I was doing along the way.

Depending on what actions you take, the time necessary to complete the game can vary.  I lost track of how much time had passed during my first run (I don't think the game keeps track either), but I estimate it was at least 30+ hours.  At first, I was flying through the development quests, but eventually hit a few that required me to be a higher level.  The game slowed down a bit, but after clearing those out, I hit another quick patch, followed by another period of slowdown.  I don't know if that's how it was designed or if how I played the game made it flow like that.  Thankfully, just like in Totori, there is a time extension, so the 3 year limit isn't as daunting.  There's also a new game+, which allows you to keep your current equipment, Meruru's alchemist equipment and money.  This will obviously make any subsequent playthroughs much faster.  A few of the endings are also only obtainable in new game+, so there's plenty more to play when you've beaten the game once.

The trophies for Meruru are similar to the other Atelier games.  Certain scenes will have an accompanying trophy, as will the different endings.  Others are for attaining certain goals in the game, like having a huge population or defeating specific powerful enemies.  For the most part, the difficulty wasn't that bad, since I felt it was easier to keep up decent equipment and the characters were all pretty useful.  Getting over my hoarding nature with the alchemy items also helped.  The hardest parts for full completion would be beating the really powerful enemies and trying for some of the stricter requirements for the various endings.

Atelier Meruru Plus is a pretty game.  The graphics, like the game before, look wonderful on the Vita's screen.  Starting out in the game was fairly painless, since the starting characters were good and the tutorials didn't drown you in too much information each time.  Overall, I enjoyed it more than Totori, which was also fun.  Changing the few areas in the game by fulfilling development requests was a great little addition.  If you like any of the other Atelier games, you'll find the same fun in Meruru.  If you want an RPG that is part fighting, part making items and part doing quests, you should give Atelier Meruru Plus a try.  It should keep you using your Vita for the next few weeks!

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A.R.E.S. Extinction Agenda EX (XBLA) Review

After being available on PCs for over 2 years, A.R.E.S. Extinction Agenda has made its way to Xbox Live Arcade.  Now titled A.R.E.S. Extinction Agenda EX, it has added a few things to the PC release, most notably is a second playable character.  The game is a side-scrolling action shooter set in the future where Ares and Tarus, two robots, must rescue a scientist from an entity that is corrupting the robots on board a satellite.

I have played some of the PC version, so I noted a few differences in the XBLA version versus the PC version, in case you have played it before.  First off, the cut scenes are done in a different style.  The small boxes of the character's faces have been replaced with much larger, almost full-body shots.  The dialogue has been expanded as well, considering there is another character to interact with.  The grenade weapon from the PC version is gone, but you won't miss it.  Instead of the EMP grenade, you will emit the EMP yourself (Ares) or as a forward shot (Tarus).  It's much more useful now, since it is on a cooldown instead of using salvage.

At first the game is reminiscent of Megaman games.  You can run, jump and shoot to make your way through the level to fight the boss.  However, you can shoot in 360 degrees using the right analog stick, which really helps to shoot all the bad guys.  While this makes shooting easier, it makes jumping while shooting much harder, since a face button is used to jump.  You could just use the face buttons to jump and shoot, but the game doesn't seem designed to make it that viable.  Enemies and shots come at you from many angles, so the ability to shoot and move in different directions is a must.  The buttons cannot be remapped, so you can't get the best of both worlds by making jump a shoulder or trigger button.

That's not my only problem with jumping.  There were frequent times when I felt the jump was not responding, which would have me either A) miss my jump or B) drop me into danger.  Ares' jump is quick, and the double jump not very high, so stalling to maximize the height or distance is not really an option.  You do get dash and hover abilities, but it takes a split second for them to activate, which got me hit or killed several times.  This was most evident during one of the jumping parts where you have to escape from a robot that is destroying the platforms as it climbs.  Other than that, the controls were pretty spot on and responsive.

It's easy to get hit in A.R.E.S.  The hit box seems a bit large, and enemies can be plentiful.  Enemies also reappear if you leave the screen and come back.  It's not as bad as it seems, since you should be shooting plenty, and will likely kill most of them before they even enter your vision.  There is a dash/ roll maneuver (that eventually becomes invincible) to help avoid attacks, but that can be hard to control, too.  There are a few boss fights where even using the dash/roll could not prevent damage, since the enemy (or their attack) was just big enough to still hit me.  This is especially frustrating while trying to clear the bosses without getting hit.

Killing enemy robots will yield salvage that can be used to heal damage or upgrade your various weapons and abilities.  You have to first find the upgrade chip and then pay for the upgrade, but salvage is fairly plentiful as long as you aren't avoiding every robot in your path.  This is streamlined versus the PC release, where you had three different types of salvage.  Personally, I'm happier with just the one type, so I don't have to grind and hope to get the one I need.  Using the salvage to heal yourself is moderately useful, since the stronger you get, the less percent it is healing you.  It also has a large cooldown, so it can only be used sparingly.  Upgrading it will make it much better, but it's still in your best interests to learn boss patterns and avoid getting hit as much as you can (this also improves stage ranking).

The stages themselves are pretty linear, but remind me more of Metroid than Megaman.  Sometimes you can backtrack rooms, but most times you have little choice but to press forward.  Every few rooms is a checkpoint that you will restart at if you die.  Most rooms are not that hard to get through, but the ones that require quick and/or precise jumping gave me trouble.  There's also a few parts where there are cheap hits that can knock you into a pit.  These are frustrating as well, but practice makes perfect and most will not give you trouble after awhile.  For instance, my second run through with Tarus was much faster and less frustrating, since I knew what to expect and how to get past most parts with little effort.

Instead of the PC version's 5 stages, there are now 7 stages to complete.  The stages will get longer as the game progresses, and to get all of the upgrade chips and collectibles, you will have to replay them when you have the necessary abilities.  Yeah, that kind of replayability is kind of forced, but it does help you raise your score and get more salvage to buy all the power-ups.  Some of the later stages and bosses do get rather difficult, even when you know their patterns.  It's not insurmountably difficult, but it did get frustrating at times.  Even so, it takes about 5 hours to get through the game and get all of the upgrade chips with one character, so almost double that for both characters.  They have enough differences that it isn't the same exact experience, but most of the level and boss knowledge will carry over.  In some ways, I found Tarus easier to use, but it may just be because I had learned the stages and bosses from my Ares playthrough.

Now on to the achievements.  Sure, some people don't care about them, but I should at least talk about them for those that do.  The list is split pretty evenly between completion and mastery.  You will get some achievements from beating some of the stages with each character and for getting all of the upgrades.  On the mastery side, there are achievements for beating the bosses without getting hit.  These are really hard.  I replayed the first (and easiest) boss at least 10 times before getting the achievement for it.  Also, note that Tarus' shield will block damage, but not you from getting "hit".  I should know, I beat the first boss with him without taking damage, but the bullets that hit my shield counted against me.  D'oh.  There's also one for beating all of the stages without using the heal.  This will be easier once you are fully upgraded.  Getting the level based ones seem simple, but the game only counts your highest stage scores toward to level.  Reaching level 4 is pretty easy, but 5 is really tough, let alone reaching 6.

All in all, A.R.E.S. Extinction Agenda EX is an decent game.  If you like action games like Metroid or Megaman, you'll find a good challenge in A.R.E.S.  I had about equal fun and frustration while playing.  The game can be a little short, but there are two characters to use, several power-ups to get, data cubes to find, and achievements to master if you want to keep playing.