Saturday, May 30, 2015

Onechanbara: Z 2 Chaos (PS4) Import Preview

A few weeks ago, my friend David lent me two Japanese PS4 games.  The first was Onechanbara: Z II Chaos, which is headed to the US later this year.  David first got me into the Onechanbara series a few months before the last one in the US came out on the Xbox 360, several years ago.  I liked that entry overall, and was anxious to try out the latest game before it came to the states.

There are two new protagonists, Saaya and Kagura, joining the original girls, Aya and Saki.  After a few introduction stages, you have all four ladies for the remaining stages that I played.  You also get 4 or 5 different stages that you can choose from.  However, it didn't seem to list what was the next one, so I just choose one.  It was stage 9, when it should have been 4.  Uh-oh.

It actually went ok.  I choose another stage, and got 8.  They weren't next to each other, so I don't know what the "correct" order is.  I didn't see an option to choose again, and if I loaded the game, it saved me in the stage.  Since I didn't outright fail these stages (but got close on the boss on stage 8), they might scale them slightly to your level.  Hopefully I'll know more when it comes to the US.

Each character gets a few different weapons to equip, and you can switch between your equipped ones on the fly.  I did find some fit my playstyle more than others, and Saaya and her chainsaw was my fourth spot on the team, as I found her really good.  She was my ringer!  The game was more difficult than I though it would be, but I'm not sure if it's because of the stage selection thing mentioned above.  Being able to understand what all the equipment and upgrades I could purchase would do would help a lot.  I'm still looking forward to the US release of this game, as it seems a good successor to the game I played some seven years ago.

Wait, seven?  Yeah, I think it has been that long since we had a localized Onechanbara.  At least we are getting it here... (looks sadly at Sengoku Basara)

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Hyperdimension Neptunia U: Action Unleashed (PS Vita) Review

The Hyperdimension Neptunia series is no stranger to having spin-off incursions into other genres.  Its latest game is their take on the hack and slash action genre, titled Hyperdimension Neptunia U: Action Unleashed.  So instead of an RPG, think more like Dynasty Warriors... or Senran Kagura.

Actually, it is a lot like Senran Kagura.  Considering that both were developed by Tamsoft, I'm sure it's no coincidence.  Anyway, you run around stages taken directly from the Neptunia series and kill lots of enemies.  You have a standard combo of normal attacks, and the Triangle Button is the power attack.  There are a few variations of the power attack, depending on when you press the button, and some characters can even combo it.  X is the jump button and Circle is a short range dash to get out of trouble, or move closer to an enemy.  Up to three special attacks can be equipped and used by holding the R Button and pressing Square, Triangle or Circle.  Each of these moves takes one or more SP bars, which are the little blue bars above your health bar.

Being a Neptunia game, you characters can ascend to their HDD forms.  Once your EXE meter is half full or more, you can activate HDD for a strong power-up.  Once the meter is gone, your transform back into your normal form.  You can also cash out the remainder of your EXE meter to perform your super attack.  Thankfully, all of these options are also available to the two new characters, even though they are just gaming journalists, and not gaming goddesses.

There are ten characters in all, but they mostly play the same.  They have different combos and attacks, but the biggest difference is if they are a ranged or melee-type character.  Ranged characters will strafe while you keep hitting the attack button while moving, rather than change the direction of attack.  There is a decent variety of familiar Neptunia enemies to wade through, with certain ones being boss monsters.  One strange thing is the dating sim enemies.  There are three types, although they are effectively palette swaps of the same base one.  However, all other enemy types don't have their palette swaps counted as different types, so I'm not sure why the dating sim ones do.

As either an intentional riff, or because they just wanted it in the game, the ripping clothes mechanic from the Senran Kagura series is also present.  If you take too much damage, you will get an all-too familiar series of shots showing the outfit's destruction.  Spamming the strong attack will weaken it too, but most times it was the damage that destroyed mine.  You do get half of the EXE meter when this happens, so it is actually useful.  It can also occur to the HDD forms, and will effectively increase the time you can stay HDD (since you get the half an EXE meter).  It's a strange choice for the series, but there don't appear to be any down sides.  Well, unless it happens to Rom or Ram, since that's a little creepy.

The story of the game is pretty much there to get you to play stages and kill lots of guys.  There are only three chapters, but many missions to complete.  The story mode isn't very linear.  When stages open up, it gives you several, and you don't have to complete them all or in a certain order.  To mix it up a bit, there are "irregular quests", which have hidden conditions.  They are kind of like puzzles, since you have to figure out what to do.  When they open up, it gives you all of them.  I figured they would just unlock along the way, but nope, they just post them all.  It's a strange way to do it.  I took about 10 hours to get through the story mode and all the missions, but there was still a few more things to do.

Once you complete the story mode, "Gamindustri Gauntlet" opens up.  This mode has you choose a character and then fight in a one on one tournament.  It's not a very interesting mode to me, but I did it to try it out and to unlock the next mode, "Neptral Tower".  Opening up with a silly discussion of translating names, the Neptral Tower is a 50 floor tower that has a stronger version of the story final boss at the top.  Most fights in the tower are pretty short, but a few drag on a bit too long.  Each fighter has to make their way up through every stage to make it to the top.  Thankfully, you can do it in pairs so as long as you can use five of the girls, you can get them all to the top in a decent amount of time.  It's a pretty fun mode, and a great way to grind out some of the trophies.

While the trophies in Neptunia U aren't hard to get, they can become really tedious.  Maxing out all the Lily ranks for all characters (which now go to 10), getting all accessories, winning the Gamindustri Gauntlet with every character... you get the picture.  And yes, for the Gauntlet, the HDD forms count as separate characters.  Ugh.  One cool extra though are cheats.  After fulfilling certain conditions, you can unlock perma-HDD mode, infinite health, and more.  These make a few of the trophies/parts of the game more bearable... like the max level story stages.  These levels aren't required for the "all stages" trophy, and it seems they were DLC stages in the Japanese version, and just lumped into ours.

As a fan of hack and slash Warriors-type games, I was looking forward to Neptunia U.  It definitely didn't disappoint me, and the game is really fun.  It isn't quite as deep as the Warriors games, but there is the clothes ripping mechanic from the Senran Kagura series if that interests you.  I really like that the Neptunia series is branching out into other genres.  The first three excursions have been pretty fun, and I hope they continue to do more.  However, I hope they expand upon the ones they have done.  I'd really like another Action Unleashed title, with more of the characters seen in the other entries in the Neptunia family.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Order: 1886 (PS4) Review

The Order: 1886 was one of the games made to showcase the power of the PS4 and how good next-gen (now current gen) would look.  At least that part was accurate.  The game does look really, really good.  The shadows, graphics, facial animations and lighting effects all look top-notch.  The downside of this is you can tell that is where most of the time, effort and money for the development went.

The game was developed to be more like a movie, which, in fairness, doesn't outright make it terrible.  Sure, it should be a game first, but cinematic games have become pretty popular, and can be pulled off very well.  The Order, sadly, doesn't fall into that category.

The story of the game is pretty average.  I will say the last 15 minutes or so were actually interesting, but the events leading up to it were fairly standard, predictable, or both.  My wife watched me play about two levels near the end, and without seeing anything leading up to it, predicted what one of the twists was.  At least being predictable is better than being terrible, and I did enjoy the end, but I'm pretty sure a lot of the groundwork they were laying for future sequels will go nowhere.  Dear game developers: please focus on making something good first, then figure out how to expand upon it.  Stop laying groundwork for things that may not / likely won't happen... it's a terrible idea.

Enough about the slight positives the game has.  Let's get to the gameplay.  The Order is, in some ways, a third-person, cover-based shooter.  The gunplay itself is not so bad, and the cover works for the most part, but the game can get grating in its use of certain enemies.  Guys with shotguns will rush your position, which is really annoying when you have no idea they are there because you are shooting the other six guys hiding around the map.  They also drop you in two shots, which will happen quickly.  Of course you don't have a visible health bar, just the "screen darkens" nonsense that has become so popular the last six years or so.  You sometimes have a chance to heal up and get back in the fight, but not if they shoot you again.  Then, it's back to doing the prolonged fight over again.  Many fights have someone else there with you, but they aren't likely to help.  Time to fend for yourself.

Too bad the shotgun guys aren't the end of the annoyances.  Some enemies will start spamming grenade throws so you have to keep moving while trying to figure out where the perpetrator is so you can stop their nonsense.  There are also some enemies that have grenade launchers, or the thermite rifle to bug you while you are behind all of the chest-high walls.  Did I mention some of these guys have armor so you can't head shot them and so they can absorb bullets?  Yeah, it is as annoying as it sounds.  Of course the fights wouldn't be complete without waves of guys pouring out of places like a clown car.  The Order isn't the worst offender of this in games, but it is still annoying whenever it pops up.

While that might sound bad, you aren't fighting groups like that very often.  Actually, you don't fight at all very often.  Sure, there are a handful of gun battles, but that only makes up less than half of the game's length.  Another big part of the game are the cutscenes, of which there are many.  Again, there existence isn't what makes the game worse, but the frequency and length of them.  It helps the story, but not the gameplay.  Plus, when there are whole chapter of the game that are just long cutscenes, it seems like a bit much.

So what makes up the last part of the equation?  Walking.  While the cutscenes can be boring, especially because you can't skip them, I'd argue the walking bits are worse.  There are big sections of the game devoted to walking down various hallways.  Sometimes, you even get a lamp to hold up (please read that in a faux happy, sarcastic voice)!  These sections have most, if not all, of the collectibles and other various things you can inspect.  Many collectibles are picked up by the main character, and you can use the control stick to move his hand around and look around some of the object.  Photographs can even be flipped over to check the back.  I'm guessing they thought the game was so pretty that players would want to lift up a scarce few objects and move it around in their hand.  It's... at least unique.  Unfortunately it does little to break up the monotony of lengthy walks to other places.

The overall balance of the three main components of the game just seems off to me.  There are big chunks of cutscenes, large stretches of walking around and looking at stuff, then drawn-out gun battles versus wave after wave of enemies.  I think it would have been more enjoyable if each section wasn't such a big section to itself.  Spread them out more.  As it stands, each is just a large chunk that I got sick of by the end of it.  Whenever a new section started, you knew you were in for the long haul before it would cycle to the next one.

Finally we come to one of the biggest gripes that the public had about the game just before its release: the length.  While it was famously quoted as being around 5 hours, I think a run is closer to 8 or so, especially if you are looking for collectibles, or re-doing some of the gunfights because you were rushed by a shotgunner.  While it seems short on paper, it felt like a standard length for a game of its type.  However, there is very little reason to play it past the first run.  Sure, there are collectibles and trophies, but those can be achieved in the first run through, especially if you have a guide.  I was able to get the Platinum in less than a week, and I didn't even play it everyday.  Yikes.  I'm not opposed to shorter games, but that plus no replay value doesn't equal $60 (to me, anyway).  Honestly, I think the lack of replay is worse than the game's length.

While it is obvious that I'm not too fond of The Order: 1886, I won't say that it is terrible, just boring.  The frequent unskippable cutscenes, long stretches of walking down hallways and clown-car enemy fights just need a better balance.  The length, to me, was not the worst factor of the game.  It's that there is so much time devoted to not doing anything interesting.  While a sequel seems unlikely, it could easily save the series, since I'd argue it can still be redeemed.  Until then, I'd recommend skipping the game, unless you have nothing else to play on your PS4, and really want to play a third-person shooter.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Shovel Knight (PS4, Xbox One) Review

Shovel Knight enjoyed a brief exclusivity on the Wii U and 3DS, but it has now made its way to Nintendo's competition, Sony and Microsoft.  While the game will only appear on the Xbox One on the Microsoft side, Sony users get the game on PS3, PS4 and the Vita.  Assuming you have heard of the Vita, it is a good little handheld.

If you want a more in-depth look at the game, check out my Wii U review here, as this will be more an overall impression and then in-depth about the additions and differences.  In a nutshell, Shovel Knight is a retro-inspired platformer where the player must guide the titular character and defeat the Order of No Quarter and their leader, the Enchantress.  The art style and music are top-notch retro goodness.  The controls... can be a little loose.  While I'm sure many others will disagree with that, it feels like my attack is just enough past my button press to throw me off.  The movement of the knight also feels a little slippery at times.  That throws the platforming off, which can be very frustrating when you need to be so precise.  It's not insurmountable, but it just feels a little loose compared to the games Shovel Knight is inspired by.

So what is the differences between the three?  First off, getting to the inventory is better on the PS4 and Xbox One.  While selecting the sub-weapons with the touch screen is nice, in practice it is more cumbersome.  Plus, the Wii U Gamepad is not the most comfortable thing to hold, especially for long periods of time.  Among them all, I felt the Xbox One version controlled the best.  Surprisingly, the D-Pad felt more precise than the others.  The sticks work okay on all the systems, but playing Shovel Knight is just better with the Control Pad instead of the analog sticks.  When using the sticks, I had problems numerous times with it registering the "down" press for the pogo.

As for the new and exclusive content, Sony platforms get a bonus fight with the God of War himself, Kratos.  The fight starts off pretty simple, but after depleting Kratos' health, it will refill and he gains new moves.  After depleting that health, it enters the infuriating phase of the fight.  Seriously, I do not like the third part.  You and Kratos must fight while jumping around on falling column pieces.  Falling off the bottom of the screen does a lot of damage, but thankfully won't kill you outright.  You jump a lot higher than normal, which makes it possible to move up and not fall off the bottom.

Trouble is, platforms come from the top, which makes it too easy to bump into one that wasn't there when you started the jump, and then screws it up so you fall off the screen.  Hitting Kratos in this phase wasn't the hard part, nor was dodging his attacks.  All of the difficulty was contending with the random platforms and trying to not fall off the screen.  At least there is a checkpoint after the first two phases.  If there wasn't, I probably would have just left it alone and given Kratos his trollish victory.  After the fight, you get an item that gives you a new set of armor that looks really cool.  Plus, it gives you a nice flaming combo and a shovel drop attack from the air.  A nice reward!

Over on the Xbox One side, players will have a whole new stage that is an extended boss fight with the Battletoads.  The first part is taken right out of stage 2 of the original Battletoads, and has you fight Zitz (I think) while hanging on a rope going down a long shaft.  Movement of course feels a little loose, which makes it harder than it has to be.  Halfway through the fight, Zitz takes off and you have to dodge hazards and enemies until he shows back up.  Dying at any part of this fight sadly has you re-do the whole thing.  Oh, and you can't use items, so no ichor cushion.  Yuck.

Once/if you make it past that, then the real fun (not really) begins.  You must fight Pimple while riding on a speeder bike in a re-creation of the infamous Turbo Tunnels level.  It is much easier than the one in the original game, simply because it is possible to beat it (the original Turbo Tunnels is the only gaming feat I actually consider impossible to do legit).  This section thankfully has several checkpoints, which helps keep your controller intact.  The final phase of the fight, which unlike the Kratos fight, is the easiest.  It is just a showdown between you and Rash... and whatever else he throws at you.  The whole stage can be downright infuriating, but at completion you get a sweet set of Toad Armor.  It gives you a combo attack and a nice dash attack, all in a lovely green color (of course).

This next bit is more of a personal peeve than a problem, but I really dislike the achievements for the Xbox One version.  I'm not a achievement/trophy hunter, but I really hate zero point achievements.  I can understand some of them, like running away 50 times in Blue Dragon, or losing 10 games in a row on Dead or Alive 4, since you aren't actually achieving something.  On the whole, I think they are just stupid, though.  Unfortunately, several actual achievements are worth zero points on the Xbox One version.  The only upside is they unlock some nice artwork that you can use as a background, but I'd rather see another way to unlock them (maybe tied to the in-game feats?), or just give points and the artwork, if that is possible.  Not necessarily a deal-breaker, but I don't like spreads of achievements being nothing or next to nothing for things, but the hardest ones worth a ton of points.  Again, this won't be a problem for everyone, and I guess it is a step up from having points not ending in 5 or 0, but I don't like it (read that last part in the horse's voice from Ren and Stimpy).

Overall, Shovel Knight is a good game, but the slightly loose controls give a lot of frustration.  While the PS4 and Xbox One versions are similar, I have to give the advantage to the Xbox One version.  The Battletoads fit better with the retro look and feel of the game, and they get a whole stage as opposed to just a fight.  Granted, both are way more annoying that they really should be.  While the Kratos fight isn't as cool, I think the armor gained is slightly better than the Toad Armor.  If you have only one of the systems, then obviously go with that version.  For people that purchased the Wii U version, there isn't really enough extra to grant a second purchase, unless you really want one of those bonus fights, or want to support Yacht Club Games.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters (PS Vita) Review

Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters seeks to mix visual novel stories and characters with expansive dialogue options and even grid based strategy battles.  While the concept is neat, there is a lot of missed potential in the game.

The game starts off with some story and a lot of dialogue.  They set up some of the characters, the story and you even do a sample battle all before you can save.  It took about 45 minutes to get to that point.  It's not horrible, but a little strange for a handheld game to go so long without a decent pausing point.  Thankfully the Vita has a wonderful suspend function.  Anyway, at many points throughout the story, you are presented with dialogue choices, and here is the first of my gripes with the game.

While this is fairly standard in RPGs nowadays, TTGH has a unique input to choose many of the responses.  A selection wheel appears that has icons representing the five senses.  Choose one and then pick an emotional response, like anger or friendship.  On the surface, that's pretty neat.  You see a weird spot on the wall, you can touch it, think about it or smell it (ghosts apparently smell like sulfur).  Cool.  Now I should mention the game doesn't label these interactions, or even have a tutorial on them, so I had to do a few before I even started to understand what I was doing.  Yuck.

Oh, and you can't go back a selection.  So if you pick touch, but then decide you should look, too bad.  Plus, a lot of times the selection just doesn't fit.  If a character asks you a question, I would like to say "yes" or "no", not sniff their hair.  Best I could do was either contemplate it or offer a handshake.  The choices you make seem to affect how the characters react to you, so I was not doing any favors when trying to be nice to the main girl by trying to lick her.  In my defense, I thought the mouth option might be speak, since that makes more sense than trying to french kiss a stranger, but I guess not.  It also seems like taking too long to choose will just move past it and others think you are just spacing out.  You just can't win, can you?  It could have been a really awesome and unique dialogue system, but it seems like they intentionally messed it up.  Adding a tutorial before the first dialogue choice, labeling the choices, or letting the player back up would improve it enough to make it workable.

While you will converse many times with your various teammates, there is a lot of time devoted to battling ghosts and earning money for doing so.  The battles start off fine, and there is a decent tutorial that teaches you what to do.  However, it's not really clear on why to do these things, which makes actual battles not near as easy as the scripted tutorial one.  The basic idea of each fight is to defeat one or more ghosts inhabiting a set area, all from a top-down perspective of a grid.  Seems pretty straightforward, right?  Well, in a way it is.

Unfortunately, I feel there are four things working against you in the fights.  First is the obstacles in the area.  The arenas, for lack of a better term, are things like shops and apartments.  There are walls, rooms, tables, chairs, counters... you get the idea.  You cannot move through these things, but the ghost can.  Fair enough, that makes perfect sense.  This shouldn't change, and I can work around it because it is logical.

The second thing working against you is the random nature of the ghosts.  At the start of each turn, the "visible" ghosts will show a projected move pattern designated by blue highlighted squares emanating from their present location.  That's fine, but they don't seem to follow it very well.  Granted, it is "projected", but it can be really frustrating trying to line up attacks so you can actually fulfill the mission.  Trying to move into position can be a crap shoot.  If a ghost moves through you, it is a free attack for them, and you don't get to retaliate.  You will only attack where you have targeted, so if you path crosses a ghost, you won't stop to take care of business.  I don't really like this system, but again I could learn to deal with it, as I did get slightly better as the game went on.  I didn't fully "get it", but there was improvement.

Third is the AP system.  Moves and attacking all require a certain amount of AP.  Ok, I've dealt with that before, so it should be fine, right?  Not really.  Moving taking AP, fine.  Turning taking AP?  I'm less inclined to agree with that.  However, the turning adds up very quickly to make the system borderline ridiculous.  Each panel takes 1 AP, as does turning.  Want to sidestep?  A simple enough motion that should take 1 AP, 2 at most.  Well, the game treats it as turn, move 1 square, turn again.  That's three, and that is overpriced.  Just trying to navigate around a simple chair costs an absurd amount of AP, and you don't get much each turn.  It also doesn't seem to roll over, so you can't store it up and then chase down a ghost once you find it.  Again, this by itself isn't deal breaking, but definitely not fun or user friendly.  In fact, I could deal with this and the above two if not for the fourth obstacle in battles.

There's a time limit.  Each battle has a set number of minutes you have to complete the battle, and each turn is 1 minute.  Remember how easy it is to waste turns because of the AP system?  Remember how annoying it can be to try and guess where the ghost is going so you can actually attack it?  Yeah, those are as annoying as you might suspect when coupled with a time limit to get them done.  As it stands, I could live with just one of theses getting fixed.  If the ghosts weren't so random, it would be easier to dispatch them in the time frame.  If AP was not so restrictive for simple actions, I could chase after them quickly.  If there wasn't a time limit, I wouldn't mind as much spending turns to side step and attack while trying to hit a non-corporeal baddie.  Unfortunately, you (and I) have to contend with all of them, and it definitely sours the experience.  At least you can instantly retry any failed battles.

Admittedly, I don't hate the game.  Sure big chunks of it have enough problems that make it worse than it should be, but it's not all bad.  The story itself seems pretty interesting, and the whole package is very unique.  Each story section is portrayed as an episode of a TV show, complete with the intro and credits.  Strange that two recent games have had that same thing, but I do like it as an interesting take for a video game.  There is also a lot of randomized side jobs you can do for extra money, so it is very easy to grind.  The way you access these side quests is pretty cool too, as you have to use a button combo to find the "secret" webpage in the office.  Plus, the overall presentation is really nice.

Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters has a cool concept: travel around with your group of ghost hunters and fight ghosts.  The dialogue wheel is also a neat idea, although it would need some usability tweaks to make it work.  The random nature and time limit of the battles severely limit the fun to be hard there, which is sad.  I wanted to like the game more than I did.  A few tweaks to the dialogue choices and the battles would make it a good game, but as it stands, it's just a little disappointing.  At least the trophy list is pretty cool and filled with Ghostbusters references.