Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Huntsman: Winter's Curse (PS4) Review

The Huntsman: Winter's Curse is a side story to the recent movie, using the backstory and a few characters throughout its own original tale.  The PS4 release combines all five "books" that the game was originally split into as one full game.

The game is also really cool looking.  Each book opens with a voiced cutscene setting the stage.  However, that is the only voice work in the game.  This doesn't bother me, but there is a lot of dialogue, so I could see some people being turned off by the lack of voice acting.  It reminds me of my old school RPG roots, so I give it a pass. Dialogue and combat artwork is really good, and animates even better.  It looks like a story book, which is very appropriate.  Battle animations don't actually connect with your opponents.  Again, this reminds me of old RPGs I enjoy, so I'm fine with it, but I have heard people complain about that sort of thing before.

Combat is card-based.  Each piece of equipment provides 1 or 2 "cards" that have different effects on them, like attack damage or healing.  When combat starts, you get a number of cards that equals your hand (3-5, depending on skills).  On your turn you pick a card to use, and then that action takes place.  The card shows the amount of damage or healing, plus the effect of any buffs or debuffs you may have.  Many cards have multiple effects, with both being shown on the card.  For better or worse, you will draw multiple copies of the cards in your inventory.  I do like that you will never run out of cards, but it can be annoying when you draw multiple of a card that you don't want right now.

The turn order is represented by the character portraits on the bar at the top of the screen.  The portraits move toward the end, and when they reach it, that character takes a turn.  The action pauses when it is a character's turn, so you have plenty of time to look at your hand and decide what card to use.  Turn order isn't set in stone, since some card effects can stun (sliding your turn back) or invigorate (sliding you forward).  If you have ever played the Grandia games, it is a similar idea to turn order there, but not as complicated.

During the course of the five books, you will get many pieces of equipment.  Weapons and armor are unique to each character while accessories are shared.  Characters can equip two different accessories.  Unless you are in combat, you can switch your equipment at will, even during dialogue scenes!  When a character levels up, they gain a skill point to put into the skill trees.  These too can be freely redistributed, which is really cool and useful.

While there are some side quests to complete, the game is pretty linear.  You travel to different locations, but only if there is a quest there.  There is no real moving around the map, just selecting what quest you want to do.  There is some (or a lot) of dialogue, then usually a fight, some more talking, then you get your reward, rinse and repeat.  There are several dialogue choices in the dialogue scenes.  Some allow you to avoid extra fights, but they won't really change the story direction.  Most fights aren't that hard if you have some good equipment on, but a few are pretty tough (especially the final boss).  If you lose a fight, you get the option to retry it, or abandon the quest and go back to the world map.  Side quests give extra experience and equipment, so I recommend doing them right when they become available, as every little bit helps.

As stated before, there are five books for the whole game, and each book is about an hour of content.  There isn't much replay other than re-experiencing the story, since the game is so linear.  You could mess around with the different dialogue options, but most of the differences there would be a few fights.  You also only get one save slot you can save to (there are a few auto saves, but they are no more than a minute apart, as I suspect they are backups), so if you do want to go through the game again, you would overwrite your previous file.  I should also mention there is no option to re-size the HUD, so there were edges of the game were off my screen.

Now we move to the more unfortunate part of the review: the bugs and glitches.  Sadly, this game has a few, and they can be game breaking, just not the way bugs usually are.  I'll start with my big one: I hit a point in the second book where I had a fight I could not win.  It was Elisabeth versus three spiders.  No matter what equipment I had, there was no way for me to win the fight.  Even putting it on easy didn't work, since that just barely reduces the enemy's max health.

Why was the fight unwinnable?  Because I was supposed to have a second character.  Previously in the story, the character left, but they came back.  However, the game just skipped the end of that scene, so I didn't get the message that the character rejoined my party.  So the character wasn't added to my party.

Reloading didn't work, since the game had saved after that.  You only really have the one save file, so I couldn't even go back to a previous save.  It looked like I would have to start the whole game over.  Yes, that would only mean losing 2 hours of play time, but I still shouldn't have to do it.  Thankfully, the new save file had not yet been uploaded to the cloud, so I could retrieve an earlier one, only losing about an hour of playtime.

There is no way to actually skip cutscenes, so I'm not sure why the game does that sometimes.  It can happen at any story scene.  Just in the middle of dialogue, it just skips past the end and brings you to the world map.  Trouble is, 1) you miss story or even dialogue choices, and 2) you won't get any rewards that you were supposed to get, including experience, items and party members.  That's really, really, really bad.

I did find a bit of a workaround if you encounter this.  If the game skips the story and kicks you back to the world map, quit to the main menu.  Then, close the application on the home screen (you could reload from the menu, but it won't actually do it, just load and show the main menu screen without any options, which is another bug).  Boot up the game again and select 'continue'.  This will put you around where the game skipped from, and you can view the rest of the scene and get your rewards.

The Huntsman: Winter's Curse is a pretty fun game.  The story is decent, the artwork is great, and combat is pretty fun.  While it's not a very long game, it's the bugs that ruin the experience.  It would be worth playing for old school RPG fans if those ever get fixed.

The Good:
The artwork in the game is great.

The Bad:
The bugs that can completely destroy your ability to progress.

The SaHD:
Why are there three party member slots when you only ever get two at a time?!

(Review code for The Huntsman: Winter's Curse was provided by the publisher)

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Deadlight (Xbox 360) Review

I decided to take a look at Deadlight, one of the many games that has been given away during the Games with Gold promotion on Xbox.  Deadlight is a 2-D side-scrolling action platformer set against a zombie apocalypse.  Hey, it's also set in Seattle!  Neat!

Well, ostensibly the game is set there.  It really doesn't look super accurate, or much different from other big cities, but it gets the point across.  Even so, I really like the presentation of the game.  It is somewhat stylized in the actual game, and the story scenes are like motion comics.  Pretty much all of the lines are voices, and the voice acting is solid.  I actually didn't expect that.

The platforming in the game is workable, but not as responsive as it needs to be.  There is a run command that is necessary for many of the jumps.  However, it takes a second after you run while holding it for the running to actually kick in.  This might be fine, but there are many times where you have to do this on a small platform with just barely enough space to pull it off.  The character's jump isn't always as high as it seems, making some jumps much more of a pain than they should be.  Couple that with the fact that he won't always grab ledges that he is supposed to, and you have a recipe for annoyance.

You also get a wall jump.  It would be useful, but I just can't get it to respond half the time.  I do it exactly as instructed, but sometimes it just won't respond, and you just fall down and have to start again.  Another thing that bothers me is how well foreground and background objects can blend together.  There were a few times that I was sure something was a ledge, only to have it not be, sending my character plummeting to their death.  There were other times I though something was part of the background, only to have it actually be something I could stand on to proceed.

So is the combat any better?  Not really.  Melee combat (with a fire axe!) starts off passable, but is much worse when you are allowed to do it again further in the game.  Enemies just take too many hits to die, and when multiple are sent at you, it is that much worse.  Sometimes you won't even hit them if they are too close.  Each swing of the axe takes some of your stamina, so you have to be careful.  You can't do many swings before having to rest, so fighting more than 2 zombies at a time is, like many things in this game, more annoying than it should be.  If a zombie grabs you, you can mash a button to get out, but others can take cheap shots at you while you are escaping, so you can lose the health regardless.

Shooting in the game is much better than melee combat.  Ammo is fairly limited, but you can use the guns to quickly clear out zombies in your path.  I tried to only use the gun on enemies in my way, and I had enough shots when I needed them.  Just aim for as many headshots as you can, and you should do fine.

As for difficulty, the game just loves to kill you in cheap ways.  It didn't really happen at all to me in the first half hour or so, but then the game kicked it in to high gear.  Plenty of spike traps, pits and other instant kill nonsense made me wonder why they even bothered with a health bar.  Many times I would die while trying to figure out where to go (either the aforementioned foreground/background problem or getting swarmed by zombies).  The developers also threw in some running sections where you have to stay ahead of some catastrophe or another, otherwise you die.  While solid in concept, the flawed platforming just turned these into rage sections.  Now that I think about it, even though the concept is solid, I'd like it if all games stopped trying to do these sections...they just aren't fun.

Overall, the game would take about 3 hours to beat.  However, the frequent deaths and then reloading the game extends that time frame considerably.  There are collectibles to find if you want, but most of them are easy to find, or right in your path.  Other than than, there are three Tiger-like handheld games you can find and unlock.  It's a neat throwback to people old enough to remember them, but they only offer a few minutes of distraction.

Deadlight was a game that I didn't know much about before I played it.  That was for the best, since even then, the game was pretty disappointing.  The visual style of the game is the best part, but the inconsistent platforming, ineffective melee combat and cheap deaths drag the game down into the sewers.  Maybe they can dodge The Rat's traps while they are there.  It starts off fine, but quickly gets worse, which is not good, even for a short game such as this.

The Good:
The visuals and comic book-like story panels are great.

The Bad:
Sadly, the core of the game (platforming and combat) just aren't very good.

The SaHD:
I feel like the Remastered edition on the current gen systems won't actually fix any of the issues with the game.  If it doesn't, there was no reason to "remaster" it.

(Deadlight was obtained with the Games with Gold promotion)

Friday, August 26, 2016

Caladrius Blaze (PS4) Review

Caladrius Blaze (English website link) recently released on PS4.  After seeing it was a shmup (shoot-em-up), one of my favorite genres, I had to try and review the game.  The game is a vertical shmup, meaning the screen scrolls up and down.  Yes, this works better in arcades, since screen dimensions are different, but plays just fine on a normal TV.  Here, the side bars are used with the "shame break" system discussed below.  You move your ship around and shoot at enemies while making your way through the game.  There are also limited-use screen clearing bombs to get you out of tight spots, or to add extra damage to bosses.  The biggest unique element of this game, though, is the elemental shot system.

Each of the 8 different ships gets three different alternate abilities, designated by type: attack, support and defense.  Attack element shots are either strong shots or spread shots (usually the opposite of what the character's default shot is).  Support shots tend to hit set areas of the screen or do something else unique.  Also, some of them can be changed by ship position or how you are moving when you use it.  Defense shots are probably my favorite, since they shield your ship from enemy shots.  There are separate meters for each at the bottom of the screen, and using one will drain the meter a bit.  The meter fills over time, based on the character's stats, or by picking up a crystal item during the stages.

Each character has a different element, which is reflected in their elemental shots.  I don't know if enemies are particularly vulnerable to any specific elements, but it does help differentiate them from each other.  Killing enemies with the special shots will eventually drop an elemental chip.  Collecting enough chips will reward you with an upgrade point between stages.  You are free to choose which elemental shots you upgrade, which is pretty cool.  Every few levels, the look of the shot will change to reflect its more powerful state.

The main mode is story mode, which has three different options in it: Original, Evolution and Arcade.  The only real differences between them is the number of stages, as one only has 5, where another has 6 plus the two extra stages, and the third is in-between.  Plus, the special attack (pressing all three elemental shots at the same time when your gauges are over 50%) slightly differs in each mode, too.  The main stages are straightforward, fight through the enemies and then beat the boss after some dialogue (yes, there is actual plot!)  One of the extra stages tasks you with trying not to let enemies leave the bottom of the screen, and the other requires you to destroy certain enemies before they leave the top.  Stage bosses each have three phases, where they change up their attacks.

If you perform well enough, or end each phase with an elemental shot/bomb (I'm not sure which, as it seemed either worked), you will destroy some of a boss pilot's clothing.  These are called "shame breaks", and award extra points plus an image of the character.  Whenever your character loses a life, some of their clothes are also ripped.  The portrait of each pilot in their current state is shown on the border of the screen, which can actually be used to approximate how many lives you have left without looking in the upper corner.  The whole system seems like some fan service throw in to the game.  I don't mind it, but it does feel a bit unnecessary.  Although, it is funny to see Lilith not care at all that her clothing is getting evaporated (as the embodiment of hatred, she is kind of weird).

Each run through story mode takes about 30 minutes per character, depending on which story mode type you choose.  I found Caladrius Blaze to be harder than other shmups I've played, and I only had it on the normal setting.  It's possible I am really bad at it, or just off my game, but I died a lot.  It was a little embarrassing.  I'm not sure that all shot patterns can be evaded, or maybe shots traveled quicker than I am used to in these types of games.  Slower ships where much more difficult to use, but I suspect all of this is because of how good the defense elemental shot is.  Thankfully you get infinite continues in the story mode, and each death gives you another bomb.  This is good since bombs are per continue, not per life.  Even so, I was able to persevere through each story mode type.  2 player co-op is also present in the game, in case you have a friend that wants to help out.

Besides story mode, there is an unlockable Boss Rush mode, which does not give continues.  There is also a score attack mode, which is a great way to practice a particular stage, try out a new configuration, or try for a trophy.  Most trophies aren't hard, but a few are for experts only.  Pictures seen during the game are also added to the gallery.  I'm not sure it always works, however, since there are some pictures I should have, but aren't unlocked.  The best unlockable in the game is the customize option.  Beating the game with a character allows you to swap out any of their elemental shots with any other elemental shot from another character you have completed the story with.  Theses aren't restricted by type, so go wild and create your best character!

While Caladrius Blaze feels harder than other shmups I've played in recent times, it is still a genre I enjoy and I had lots of fun playing the game.  8 different ships with different shot patterns and elemental shots, plus three different story modes and some nice unlockables make this a definite play for shmup fans!

The Good:
Elemental shots are a great unique addition to the shmup formula.

The Bad:
Either the game is harder than the typical shmup I play, or I'm not good at the game.

The SaHD:
Before playing around with remapping the controls, I had a claw hand for using the support shot quickly.

(Review code for Caladrius Blaze was provided by the publisher, H2 Interactive Co, Ltd.)

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

We Happy Few (Xbox One) Game Preview

We Happy Few had a very attention-grabbing trailer at E3 that appropriately sets the stage for this first-person procedurally generated game.  The game starts off the same as that trailer, where the player character decides not to take his Joy, a happy-making medicine.  After that he escapes the authorities, and wakes up in an underground safehouse.

That's it for the story, so far, as the game is still in alpha.  A screen of text at the start of the game warns about this, so it wasn't a surprise.  It also notes a few other things, like that certain things might not work, or that the game might crash.  Fun!

I have had some of the stuff not work.  I didn't have a main quest the first time I played, which made the opening minutes much more aimless.  I just pretty much walked around and grabbed items.  I wasn't sure what else to do.

Luckily, I came upon some sidequests after about 20 minutes.  These, too are randomly placed in the world.  One tasked me with repairing the valve on a water pump.  Once I did it, the nearby people attacked me.  I'm really not sure why.

This was my introduction into the game's combat.  You attack with the Right Trigger, and each attack takes stamina.  The Left Trigger allows you to block, and you can even parry with correct timing.  Thankfully the enemies attacked one at a time so I could figure out what I was doing, and it is strangely satisfying to stab them with a long stick.  I was victorious, but not unscathed.

A few times I had to eat some food because my hunger was low, and at one point I had to sleep.  Finding a bed was a lot harder than I would have thought.  I couldn't get back into my safehouse (another bug), so I looked around until I found another bed.  The person who owned it wasn't too happy with me, and this started another fight.  Being critically wounded from some trapped treasure chests, I was quickly put down.

That was the end of my first foray into the game.  Since I had accidentally left the "permadeath" box checked when starting up (I didn't see it was an option until I had already hit "ok"), I had to start again.  This time, I had a main quest, and was allowed back into the safehouse.  I also turned off permadeath.

Items you find around the world can be weapons, food, or ingredients for crafting.  The menus aren't the most intuitive, but I was able to craft a few things and figure out where various things were, like my inventory and the quest log.  Your inventory is made of connected boxes, like the first Diablo game.  It is expandable, but I'm not sure yet how.  You can also somehow gain another weapon slot.

What there is of We Happy Few is promising.  The unique and stylized world stands out from the crowd, and the random nature of the world and quests should give a lot of replay value.  My only real complaint is how little they tell you at the start, and how aimless the game can be.  Other than that, I am looking forward to trying out the game when it is finished.

The Good:
Lots of replayability in a unique world.

The Bad:
The game is very much still in alpha.

The SaHD:
You can sneak around, but it seemed like everybody could easily see me.

(Early access code for We Happy Few was provided by the publisher)

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 1 & 2 (Xbox One) Review

Marvel: Ultimate Alliance joins a long and growing list of games being tweaked to release on current generation platforms.  With each offering being a hit or miss, where does Ultimate Alliance 1 and 2 fall?

Before we look at how the games have translated to the newer systems, let's look at how they play as games.  Both games are action RPGs that play from an isometric point of view.  You play as a team of four heroes (or villains!), attacking and using your super powers to fight off various enemies.  You control one character at a time while the AI handles the rest.  You can jump (some characters can fly), pick up and throw objects, and in general, cause a lot of mayhem in your quest to save the day.  The games are fairly linear, moving you from one location to the next as the story dictates.

Both games play largely the same, but Ultimate Alliance 2 adds team up special moves and healing items.  The healing items are self-explanatory, although it can be tough to know who to heal since it only shows your current character's HP.  The team up moves are pretty cool, coming in several flavors (aimed, AoE, etc.) and differing depending on which characters you team up for the attack.

Combat is pretty fun, but there are a few minor quibbles I have with the game.  In the first Ultimate Alliance, it can be hard to keep track of your character.  There are times when there are swarms of enemies, explosion effects, and even parts of the environment clogging your view.  Even with the colored ring at your character's feet, it can be very easy to lose yourself.  Plus, with no healing items it is a huge pain to resurrect fallen allies, as you have to wait out a timer and retrieve them from a save point, or reach a save point and swap them out.  It's kind of a bummer when you have characters you want to use, but can't since they are still injured.

The second game's problem is more the interface.  Switching character is still on the d-pad, but their position shifts on-screen when you switch.  It doesn't actually change which direction you press, but there is a disconnect with the direction their portrait is displayed versus the direction you select them with.  I don't have this problem in the first game.  To heal or use a team-up move, you hold a button and then press another to choose who to use it on/team up with.  The problem is the button is displayed over the character, not their portrait, so it is really hard to make out which button to press when it is displayed as a tiny picture over the head of a moving character.  These aren't game-breaking, but they can be really annoying.

The Xbox One and PS4 versions are smoother than their last-gen counterparts.  Beyond that, there isn't much extra flair added to the visuals.  The pre-rendered cutscenes look the same as they were before.  Character models, areas and visual effects don't appear to be beefed up in any way besides looking smoother.  Both games ran really well with no hangups, even after playing several hours in a row.  So while they haven't been changed in any significant way, at least they run really well.

Both games each offer 12-15 hours of content, with multiple characters to use and unlock.  You can play them with others online and off.  Couch co-op players will all need to sign in, which can be a pain.  That's mostly a symptom of current gaming rather than the game, though.  Also, since the game is several years old, keeping all characters on the same screen feels a bit more restrictive than something like Diablo 3.  Strangely, the Ultimate Alliance 1 DLC is not included, but it is for Ultimate Alliance 2.  Activision has confirmed that a patch will be en route fix this, which I am hoping comes soon.  I really want to use Venom and Doom in the first game!

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 1 & 2 are still fun games, whether you play by yourself or with friends.  Gameplay and content hold up well to current games.  Visually, they aren't much different from their previous gen counterparts, which is a bit of a shame, considering the price tag.  If you have played them before and would like to go through them again, or are now interested in trying them out, both games hold up well and are worth playing, but maybe not at the current price.  Digital copies of the games for the previous generation of systems have been much cheaper in the past, making the pricing on this release a bit on the high side.

The Good:
The games are still really fun and have some good character choices.

The Bad:
The games look slightly better, but that's about it.  No other real changes.

The SaHD:
I'd really like to know how they missed the first game's DLC coming with it.  The version on the 360 marketplace has it in.  Did they not use that file?

(Review code for Marvel: Ultimate Alliance Bundle was provided by the publisher)

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Ben 10 Alien Force: The Rise of Hex (Xbox 360) Review

Ben 10 was always a concept I liked, but thought would work even better as a video game.  While looking through my backlog of games to play, I finally set on trying out Ben 10 Alien Force: The Rise of Hex, which I had acquired years ago.

Being a downloadable TV show tie-in game, I have to admit my expectations were lowered.  The game is a fairly simple action-platformer, where you can change into various alien forms as you unlock them.  Ben has health denoted by green bars at the top of the screen, and energy denoted by yellow bars underneath that.  Pressing the right trigger will bring up the wheel that shows your alien forms, and allows you to choose one.  Each alien has special abilities.  Unfortunately, they seem mapped to either the Y Button, B Button, or Right Bumper.  Sometimes you can use more than one of the buttons for different abilities.  It's kind of a mess.

The game starts off fairly easy, but definitely gets harder as you go.  Most of the difficulty is the spotty hit detection, clunky combat and inaccurate platforming.  Yes, that is pretty much most of the game.  Invincibility time after taking damage seems short, and there are times when I'm not even sure the enemy is taking damage, even if it looks like they might be.  It's also way too easy for enemies with projectiles to hit you because Ben's hit box is bigger than each of his forms.  It does change based off the form, which is at least a plus.

It just feels like a lot of the difficulty is just the cheap damage.  Ben has no real defensive moves, so you are stuck killing an enemy in your way, or trying to avoid them.  You will get damaged by even touching an enemy, as if the game was made back in the 80s, which makes running around them less appealing than it should be.  Many times there were instances where it felt like the game was requiring me to take damage to proceed.

Jumping from platform to platform was also hit or miss, as many times throughout the game I would attempt jumps that the game needs you to make, only to have them not work over half the time.  I imagine most of these instances again stem from the larger than the model hitboxes getting stuck on parts of the environment.  Many of these areas also had instant death pits or spikes just for good measure.  Oh, did I mention that there are some spikes that are instant death and some that just damage you?  Yup, consistency is definitely not an alien Ben can use.

There are 15 stages in the game, plus three boss fights.  Each stage lasts from about 5 to 15 minutes.  It is possible to take some extra time if you get stuck in a stage, which admittedly happened to me once or twice.  Dying on a non-boss stage sends you back a bit, so it's more an inconvenience than a punishment.  This actually helps balance out the bad aspects of the game, so I'm okay with it.  The boss fights are probably the hardest parts of the game, since you have to do them all in one go.  Figuring out exactly what to do is more annoying that it would seem, and can easily cause you a few extra attempts to figure out what silly thing the game isn't communicating to you.

Besides the main game, there is a survival mode and a time attack mode.  Survival pits you against endless enemies to see how long you can last.  Harder enemies spawn the longer you last, but there is only one stage for it.  It also has instant death pits, which feels counter-intuitive to the survival idea.  It's an okay addition, but doesn't offer more than a few minutes of extra content.  The time attack mode is just the story mode again, but you can post your completion times to the leaderboard.  Again, not really substantial content.  The biggest reason to replay the game or the other modes is to get the game's achievements, which of course varies in importance person to person.

I still think the concept of Ben 10 would make a great game.  The Rise of Hex just isn't it.  Sure, I could cut it some slack since it is a licensed downloadable game, but much of the core elements of the game just don't work right, which is a big negative to any game.  It might appeal to fans of the show, but I imagine that it might be too hard for some younger fans.  I wouldn't recommend this for people like me that haven't really seen the show, as it will probably give you a bad impression of it.  Maybe it's for the best that the game was de-listed from the Xbox Marketplace.

The Good:
Solving some puzzles by switching alien forms quickly (or mid-air) is pretty cool.

The Bad:
Wonky hit detection and combat, plus the platforming doesn't always seem to work.

The SaHD:
I think having more than 3 songs in the entire game would have been a step in the right direction.

(Ben 10 Alien Force: The Rise of Hex was obtained for free on the Xbox Marketplace.  It has since been delisted)

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

A.W.: Phoenix Festa (PS Vita) Review

A.W.: Phoenix Festa involves the characters and backstory from the anime/light novel, but now adds an ability to play as a hero of your creation.  Half of the game is the training/sim portion.  You will train to raise your stats, take jobs for money, schedule duels, go on dates, and shop, each taking half a day.

To train, you just select an option from the menu, and it will give you some randomly determined increases to the indicated stat (Atk, Def, Speed, etc).  It takes HP to train, so training your HP first/early is very much advised.  If you train enough, the level of training will increase, which increases the amount gained.  There is also a condition icon that will go down as you train, so you will have to rest every so often to keep yourself in peak shape.  Resting will also restore about half of your max HP.  It's the same HP you use in fights, so you don't want it too low for any planned encounters.

You can shop for new weapons, recovery items and presents to give the girls.  No matter how much you buy, it takes half a day, so buy as much as you can in one trip.  It's the same deal for visiting the lab to upgrade your weapon.  Most weapons can be upgraded (to increase damage) twice, and refined up to five times to reduce prana consumption.  It also costs a rare material called manadite to do either of these things, but you can instead spend an arm and a leg (or 1 million, whatever) to buy it direct from the lab.  You get some pieces of manadite through events, so try to use those instead of buying it directly.

If you need more money, you can take one of the jobs from the list for some quick cash.  The more difficult the job, the more money you earn.  Any time you complete the level of a job, it goes up by one to make it harder the next time.  The monetary reward will increase as well.  The other way to earn money is to wait until payday (Friday).  The higher your rank, the more money you get.  So if you have a chance to duel and increase your rank, go for it!

Fighting is the other half of the game.  Fights are in third person, and are pretty much an action game.  You can lock on to your opponent, run around, attack, jump and block.  The in-game tutorial covers basics about HP and Prana (think of it like stamina), but not the actual buttons.  Square is your normal attack string, and triangle gives you a special attack.  Once your weapon mastery has gained a level, you can unleash super moves by holding L (block) and pressing Square.  Your different attacks are based on the weapon type you currently have equipped.  You can also dash after opponents, or away from their attacks, by using the R Button.  Guarding is very useful against some opponents, but it does take prana for every hit blocked.  Be very aware of this, as you will need some to counterattack.

Battles come in a few flavors, but most are one on one or two on two.  They aren't too hard once you get the hang of what to do, unless the enemy has much higher stats.  Since there isn't any level indicator, or even any way to tell the relative strength of an opponent before a fight, I tended to either win easily, or get squashed.

When the game starts, it lets you pick between the main character of the story, or make a created character.  Me being me, I choose to make a character.  I mean, why not?  It doesn't say there is any difference other than starting point, so I jumped right in after making my own guy.

It was actually pretty hard.  Not really the combat (when fighting appropriate enemies), just everything else.  I thought it would be easy to choose one of the girls and start to increase intimacy, but it isn't.  You can only really deal with them if the game randomly chooses them to talk to you.  If they do, you can either ask to fight them, go on a date, give them a present, ask to team up, or send them away.  Presents cost money, and if their intimacy isn't high enough, they don't want to duel or date you.  There's no free way to increase intimacy except for random events.  I don't much like that way of doing things.

You can schedule dates ahead of time, but again, if your intimacy isn't high enough, you will get rejected and waste half a day.  Same deal with duels, but there are set times where opponents cannot reject a duel.  This is a good way to increase your rank, but the opponents you can choose from are, you guessed it, random.  When the deadline for choosing a partner arrived, I had to make a last ditch effort to grab one of the girls as my partner.  It wasn't the one I wanted most (or even second), but I picked the one that I had the highest intimacy with, and... she barely accepted.  I was actually shocked to have almost failed right then and there.  It was quite a wake-up call.

So after that, I saved and quit, then rolled another save file with the main character Ayato.  Wow, it makes a huge difference.  Yes, he starts closer to the Festa deadline, but his stats are jacked up to where he is clearly stronger than your create-a-character.  They also quickly give him a powerful weapon (an Ogre Lux) and the girls trip over themselves to give him intimacy points (even if you already have a partner).  He is much easier to get through the game with... they should have mentioned that somewhere.  Definitely start with Ayato, it helps a lot.

Also, start by watching the anime.  Since the story places you at a school, there are tests to take.  Seriously.  At set points, you have to answer questions correctly, or be forced to take a makeup test a few weeks later.  Problem is, the answers aren't found or told to you in the game.  I checked the digital instruction booklet and they aren't there either.  I had to go to the Wikipedia article for the game to find them.  If you watched the show you may know the correct answers, but it seems ridiculous that they aren't in the game for people that haven't seen the show yet.  Maybe it isn't a big of a problem as I think it is, but it just seems like a bad decision.

One run through the game takes a few hours, based off your reading speed (or if you are skipping text) and activities chosen.  The fights aren't really the most difficult part of the game.  I found the random luck with getting skills and intimacy with the girls to be a much bigger factor in how far I could advance in the game.  Since there are multiple girls, there are multiple endings, giving the game some very good replay value.  There is a new game+, but you only keep your titles and skills.  The skills can help you a lot, but I do wish more stuff could carry over.  They even threw in a battle mode, where you can fight with a lot more characters that just the heroes and heroines.  You can also test your skills in a survival mode.

I would say A.W.: Phoenix Festa combines its two halves very well.  The battles are fun, and stat training is straight forward and enjoyable.  The dates and intimacy system is where the game needs some balancing.  It's too random, and not being able to choose a girl in any obvious way is kind of annoying.  It's still a pretty fun game, but I didn't end up enjoying as much as I thought I would when starting out.  That said, I still had fun.  I am interested in seeing the anime, though, so I may still gain a new appreciation for the game after seeing some of the show.  At the very least, I should be able to pass the tests without "cheating"...

The Good:
Combines action and simulation portions of the game very well.  Plus, there is a lot of good replay value in choosing which girl will be your partner.

The Bad:
Getting useful skills and intimacy with the girls is either too random or costly.

The SaHD:
After looking up some stuff for the game, it seems the created character is considered "hard mode".  I had to learn that the hard way.

(Review code for A.W. Phoenix Festa was provided by the publisher)

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Shiren The Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate (PS Vita) Review

Shiren The Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate is a mystery dungeon style game, and also a game with a very long title.  To change a sick woman's fate, Shiren must brave the three towers and retrieve the magical dice of Reeva, the god of fate.

For those not in the know, mystery dungeon games have many similarities to each other.  Their dungeons are multi-floored, and every floor is randomly generated each time you enter it.  Placement of items and enemies is also randomized, and what appears is random within a range.  If you die...sorry, when you die, you lose everything you have on you and are kicked back to the town.  Every time you enter a dungeon, your level is reset to 1.  You will automatically heal while moving around the dungeon, but only if you have some of your fullness meter.  It sounds a lot more complicated than is, but these are the basic tenets of the genre.

Shiren does up the ante by adding a lot of unique mechanics.  Well, at least I haven't seen them before in the mystery dungeon games I've played.  It adds so many little things that they have tutorials dedicated to all of them...seriously, all 9 or so pages of them.  In a nice twist, you will actually experience the tutorials, not just read about them, but they keep adding more.  Some of them would have been better as just a note, or text, instead of having to do a simple dungeon to illustrate them.  These tutorials open up well before you encounter them, so you have plenty of time to forget about them.

Most of the unique mechanics are pains in the butt for the player, with my least favorite being night.  Monsters get stronger, and you can barely see where you are going.  To compensate, you get skills that can only be used at night, but I'd rather it just not be in the game.  Sure, it is one of many on the list of mechanics that don't need to be here, so maybe it's just the metaphorical straw.

Thankfully, Shiren can have others follow him into dungeons on his journey.  Some are free, some are random, and some are actually useful.  They aren't the smartest bunch of NPCs, but they can be decent shields and extra attacks if positioned properly.  The only real downside to them (besides the ones that cost money, or leave randomly) is when an enemy actually manages to kill one.  This will almost certainly level the enemy enough to evolve into a stronger form, which will then almost certainly kill you.  Thanks, game.

Before Shiren can make his way through one of the towers to retrieve a Die of Fate, you have to do a 5 floor dungeon.  Every.  Time.  The towers have a recommended order, and each subsequent one adds a floor or two to the top.  After getting all three dice, you then go to another town, and have to continue through to another dungeon.  Guess what happens if you fall in there?  Yup, back to the first town, and through the 5 floor dungeon, the tower you last beat, and then to the dungeon again.  I don't know why they can't just let you warp to the town you made it to, or allow you to skip the first dungeon after completion, but they don't.

Maybe it's to keep your level high enough to survive the other dungeons?  That could work, but enemy damage jumps up every other floor regardless, lessening the impact you get from grinding.  Well, as much grinding as you can do.  They actually built a mechanic into the game that will make you auto fail a dungeon if you take too long on a floor.  So, you have to rush through, but take your time.  It just doesn't make sense.

Most of my gripes come down to the fact that the game is mean.  You are punished for not grinding and punished for grinding.  You are punished for the random number generator not going in your favor.  Oh, did you have items kept in that pot?  Too bad, this enemy just threw dirt into it and destroyed them.  Is that a good sword?  Too bad, you stepped on a trap that made it weaker.  Did you lose your strong sword but it was tagged?  Then go through 15 floors to find it again!  Since the game saves a lot without telling you when, it is a pain to save scum by using the cloud.  Making it through Shiren takes more luck than skill, which is something I don't like.

I should mention that there is a way to keep your stuff if you fail...but you have to be rescued.  You can only do it so many times, and you will have to wait for another person (nearby or over the internet) to actually come and rescue you.  It would be great if it didn't result in just sitting around for an hour or so waiting for someone to show up.  Maybe if they sold a million copies it would be feasible, but it's not a feature I got to experience.  There's also some versus multiplayer and co-op, but again, I don't know anyone with the game to be able to try them out, and I did sit around hoping for some random people to no avail.  At least the game has the option, even if less than 10% of players (my estimate) will actually be able to use it...

While it can take anywhere from a few hours to a lifetime to make it through all the normal dungeons, Shiren does throw some nice extra ones at you as well.  First is the two puzzle-like dungeons, Statue Cave and Explosive Rocks.  Statue Cave is moving around statues to their proper location, like a block-sliding puzzle.  There are many different stages of it, and each gives you a reward when you complete it.  Explosive Rocks is the mystery dungeon equivalent of Minesweeper.  So, if you actually like that game, you will probably like it here.  At least it is a decent way to get some items if/when you run out trying to get through the story.  Besides those, there are a host of other challenge dungeons that each have one or more unique quirks about them.  I'll definitely give the game props for having a variety of dungeons to delve through.

Overall, Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate is a tried and true mystery dungeon game.  For better or worse, it clings to the established formula, and doesn't offer any real modern amenities to help the player through the game.  While it does offer some other content, the game is just too unforgiving and mean for me.  Other games in the same genre are much more fun, while still being hard and unforgiving, leaving Shiren feeling too old-school and random.  Having some reliable method of actually getting stronger for harder dungeons, or not having to make your way through past dungeons to get back to where you fell would be leaps in the right direction.  As it stands, it is hard to recommend over previous mystery dungeon offerings on the Vita.  However, if you like this style of game, and are itching for a challenge against the RNG, then by all means dive in.

The Good:
The sprite artwork is really cool, and the extra puzzle and challenge dungeons are a nice touch.

The Bad:
As a normally unlucky person, I do not like leaving my progress to a RNG instead of player ability, learning and knowledge.

The SaHD:
Probably the only reason I got as far as I did is because I met a shape-shifting companion that would join me for free early on.  She's the best!

(Review code for Shiren the Wanderer was provided by the publisher)

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Dex: Enhanced Edition (PS4) Review

Dex is a mish-mash of styles, combining action, platforming and numerous RPG aspects into a 2D sidescrolling game.  There are dialogue trees, stat points, stealth, fist fights and gun battles.  All of this is set in a 16-bit looking cyberpunk future.

Visually, the game has a great atmosphere.  The city areas are dark and gritty, with many of them run-down.  Throw in some neon signs and you have the proper mix for cyberpunk.  Some of the areas are hard to see in because they are so dark, but thankfully it's not the worst I've seen recently.  It feels appropriate to the setting, even if I'd like an easier time seeing in some places.  You can also zoom the camera in and out in many areas to get a better view.  I also really enjoy the sprite-based graphics.

Movement is done with the left stick, and feels very responsive.  The jumping is pretty good (and great if you get a certain enhancement).  You can climb up ledges to get to new areas, and even take cover behind certain boxes to try and evade detection.  If you can sneak up behind most enemies before they notice you, you can even do a stealth takedown.  I really enjoyed doing that, but it isn't as easy as it would seem.  Dex (your player character) has line of sight, so the areas that she cannot see will be darkened in and will not show enemies.  This can make it harder to sneak around, but there are sometimes alternate paths around enemies.

Hand to hand combat is done pretty well in the game.  Most enemies can block, so you have to time your attacks when they are open, and block their attacks.  The bigger enemies also like to knock you down, which is annoying.  The right stick will also roll in either direction, which you need to dodge certain moves.  Unlike most other games that have a similar system, I felt I had enough time to actual realize they were doing the unblockable attack and then dodge it before they did it.  Once you figure out the rhythm of combat (and get some nice skills or augments), it becomes much easier, but it can be pretty unforgiving in the first half of the game.

Dex can also buy and equip guns.  You hold one button to bring them out, and the right stick will then aim it.  They were a little slow for my liking, so I rarely used them.  I can see a few instances where they would be helpful, but I didn't feel they were necessary.  Enemies with guns, however, were very annoying, and should definitely be taken out first.

When Dex needs to hack into something, the game shifts over to the cyberspace mode.  Instead of controlling your character, you move around a circle in a top-down twin stick-like shooter.  It reminds me of Geometry Wars, but much easier on the eyes.  Your cursor will shoot in whatever direction the right stick dictates while holding the button, and you even get some special attacks.  Some are one time use items, but the better ones take energy, which will refill over time.  These attacks are also upgradeable.  The beginning was a bit rough, but once I got the 'pulsewave' ability, it became much easier.

Instead of using Dex's health for cyberspace, it will use her focus meter.  There are several different enemy types and traps to watch out for.  Enemy contact or shots will deplete the focus meter, and if it fully drains, you are kicked out of cyberspace and take some actual damage (humorously listed as 'brain damage').  Focus will refill up to 25% over time when in the real world.

The hacking is not limited to the virtual world.  You can also hack some things with AR.  This is probably my most used thing in the game.  You can hack security cameras to not trigger alarms, turn turrets against your foes, and even stun enemies if you buy the right skill.  That last one is almost broken good, since you can slide behind them and choke them out without a fight, even after they see you.  When hacking things in AR, there will be enemies constantly coming to attack you, so the quicker it gets done, the better.

Gaining levels in Dex grants you skill points that you can put into several different skill lines.  Since there are multiple ways to go through the game and quests, you have a lot of freedom in what you choose to major in.  I put most of my early points in lockpicking and hacking/AR, then some in endurance for the HP boost (since HP doesn't increase with levels) and augment slots.  Once you can install the augments, there are some really useful ones, like the higher jumping and being immune to poison gas, among others.

Unfortunately, there are also some problems in the game.  While moving through the areas of town, there was some screen tearing.  It wasn't too major, and only seemed to be in the more heavily populated zones.  There are a few other glitches.  Occasionally I wouldn't be able to hit/target some enemies unless I left the area and came back, and I wasn't able to figure out what caused it.  When in cyberspace, there are times when the game hiccups, and then puts my cursor in a wall.  I can't move, and my only options are to die or reload.  Yuck.  There are also a handful of missable quests and trophy/achievements.  Completionists such as myself won't have much trouble getting most of them, though.

Dex runs about 15 to 20 hours, especially if you do all the sidequests.  The game starts out a lot harder than it ends, mostly because of the skills and augments that you can purchase.  Early on, I would save and load a lot while trying to make my way through the fights, but it was much easier once I had a few specific skills.  Until that point, you can skate by using items you find and the doctor to heal you.  There are a few bottomless pits to watch out for as well.

Dex is a really fun game, especially once you start getting somewhere.  It is a mix of game types that are pulled together really well, and there is a lot of freedom in quest resolutions and skill choices.  This also gives the game decent replayability, since the length of the game is right where I think it should be for this type of game.  Old school action fans and RPG fans should definitely try the game out, as I had a lot of fun playing through it.

The Good:
Expertly mixing 2D side-scrolling action and platforming with RPG elements.  Many different outcomes and paths through the quests.

The Bad:
It is really easy to take damage, and costly to fix it.  Plus, getting glitched into the wall during the cyberspace segments is annoying.

The SaHD:
I enjoyed the game enough that I'll likely play the Xbox One version at some point, too.

(Review code for Dex was provided by the publisher)