Sunday, July 29, 2018

Aces of the Luftwaffe - Squadron (Xbox One) Review

Aces of the Luftwaffe - Squadron is a vertical plane shooting game, popularly referred to as a shmup (shoot-em-up).  I'm always happy to try out a new one.  It is set during around World War II, where you are eventually tasked with taking down some of the 3rd Reich's air forces.  It also has up to 4 player co-op, in case you wondered why it has the "Squadron" subtitle.

The game is broken down into 5 chapters, each with 5 stages in them.  The fifth stage is a boss fight.  As you complete each stage and chapter, the next opens up.  There's a story as well, as every stage has some dialogue to set up the mission, and banter between the squadron mates.  While the voice work isn't great by any stretch of the imagination, the story is okay.  It does make a strange turn toward the end, though.

In addition, each stage has a specific extra mission that, if completed, awards extra medals that can be used to level up your squadron.  Several of theses extra missions are staying in one place for a few seconds to drop or pick something up, or destroying a certain number of a specific enemy.  Boss fights have the all important "survive" extra missions, where you have to...well, not die.  Yeah, that one isn't that inspired, I agree.  The most unique one is when you have to remain undetected.  Enemy aircraft will have searchlights, and you have to maneuver your squad around them with out triggering the alarm.  Thankfully you can't shoot until you are detected.  It's a neat idea, and one that I felt was pulled off pretty well.

Adding even more unique mechanics to the game, there are several points in the story when one of your pilots will be afflicted with the disorder that they suffer from.  When Mark is feeling the affects of the poison in his body, you have to move very slowly until it subsides.  When John is angry, you either steer clear, or get wrecked.  Steve will fall asleep in the middle of the battle...somehow.  Strangely, defending him wakes him up faster, where I would think him getting shot would wake him up right quick.  Melissa just has a fear of heights.  Great thing for a pilot.  In another strange twist, hers is the easiest disorder to deal with.  She just leaves.  No special condition, no real inconvenience.  Her firepower is missing, but that's no different from when she gets shot down.  These happen at set points in the story, so at least you can plan around them.  I like the idea the developers had for these, as it makes the pilots more unique, but it can be a pain to deal with.

I definitely would not have expected this in this type of game, but there are full-blown skill trees.  Each character has several skills they can learn, both passive and active.  When you level up, or find a hidden skill coin, these are saved to your profile and later used to buy skills.  There are skills to make the pilots do more damage, increase dodge chance (very useful for the AI), and even ones that have a chance to active.  These are my favorite, solely because of Steve's skill that can slow down time.  This helped me out of more than one jam.  All learned active skills are available, and you cycle to the one you want.  They share the same cooldown though, so you don't get several at the same time.  While I haven't done it yet, the skill coins can be refunded and spent anew.  It costs some medals to do so.

While the game has some new and interesting things, there are also some problems.  You can get new ships to fly, but they are random drops from bosses, complete with rarities.  This isn't too bad, since the skills on the ships I have are not very good.  I'm not a fan of random drops like that, though.  Speaking of which, gun upgrades are also random.  You have to collect a crate to upgrade, and those are usually random upon enemy defeat.  Considering you are pathetically weak without the upgrades later in the game, this is not good.  The power ups also have ammo, so they can run out.  Conserving ammo is not really a thing to force in a shoot-em-up's kind of the point to shoot everything.

But of course everything will shoot you.  It's not bad on the easier levels, but toward the end and on higher difficulties, bullet spreads and enemy attack intervals ensures there are times you just can't do anything except get hit.  That chance increases when the screen shakes from your supposed helpful skills, or when the UI/dialogue/explosions cover up valuable screen space.  Plane movement is sometimes wonky, moving you faster than normal.  Maybe it's the "wind resistance" that one plane partially protects against?  I don't know, they don't really tell you that.  Speaking of movement, you can't go all the way to the bottom of the screen.  It actually hurts your dodging ability, since so may big things (like bosses) take up too much of the screen.  That last inch would make a world of difference.  Add in spotty hit detection, and it's a recipe for going down.  Plus, there is no way to dodge everything and not have the wing-men get hit.  They will die plenty of times, and there isn't much you can do about it.

Oh, and that third boss.  You have to go into her shield to damage her?  How on earth would we figure that out?  The shield blocks shots, and you take a ton of collision damage, so why would you fly into the shield, unless you died several times and gave up trying to figure out what to do?

I feel like these would be less of a problem if a few things were different.  For one, the bomb ability should get rid of bullets.  That's baseline for a shmup.  Second, you need a reliable spread shot.  Pretty much every shot is focused toward the front exclusively, with very little capable of hitting outside of that.  When the only plausible or safe way to hit an enemy is from an angle, this is killer.  Very high level power-ups will give some kind of area attacks, but they tend to be very weak.  So even if you could get them, they aren't much help.

Overall, Aces of Luftwaffe - Squadron had some fun.  There are a some problems I had with the game, but it was enjoyable outside of the problem missions.  I would encourage shmup fans to give it a try.

The Good:
Unique pilots, ships, and skills.  Skill trees!

The Bad:
Hard to maneuver around shots while not getting something hit.  Shots are front focused, which is not the best thing to force in a shmup.

The SaHD:
It took me awhile to realize it, but they only refer to the enemy as "Germans" and "Krauts", not "Nazis".  And wait, that isn't the right symbol on that UFO...

(Review code for Aces of the Luftwaffe - Squadron was received from the publisher)

Monday, July 23, 2018

Rainbow Skies (PS4) Review

Over 4 years ago, Rainbow Moon hit the PS3 and Vita.  Since then, the team was hard at work bringing out the spiritual successor, Rainbow Skies.  At first glance, it looks a lot like Rainbow Moon.  Upon further examination, it also sounds and plays a lot like Rainbow Moon.  Since that game was a fun mix of RPG with SRPG-style combat, more of the same is not a bad thing

The story is more involved this time around.  It starts with two friends, Damion and Layne, accidentally setting monsters loose in their town.  While trying to fix it, they inadvertently crash down to the world below (they live in a floating city).  Just before they hit the ground, Ashly, an aspiring mage, casts a spell of binding on a nearby monster.  Of course, things go awry, and the three must travel together, seeking a way to undo said spell.  I really like the setup for the plot, and there is some good dialogue in the game.  On the other hand, Damion is really obnoxious.  While he is your stereotypical loudmouth braggart, he wears out his welcome rather quickly.  You don't have to be a jerk to everyone!

As you move around the map, there are enemies to fight, chests to plunder, hidden items to seek, and people to interact with.  The main quest line is fairly easy to follow, and there are plenty of side quests, of course.  Looking at one of the companies involved in the game's creation, this makes perfect sense.  All quests are tracked in the journal.  It can also alert you to ones that are available, even if you haven't found it.  This is really nice, since I don't like missing out on quests.  Even with plentiful side quests, Rainbow Skies feels shorter than its predecessor.  This is largely in part to the reduction of grinding.  There were a few points where I still needed to, but it was far less common than the previous game, which is a big step in the right direction.

Combat is largely the same as Rainbow Moon.  When you either touch an enemy on the field, or accept a random encounter, your party will be transported to a medium-sized area laid out on a grid.  Characters will take their turn based off their speed value.  When it is your turn, you have a certain amount of actions that you can take.  Moving, attacking, using an item, or activating some battle skills will take one action.  So, if you are far from an enemy, you can spend your actions to move closer, but if you are next to them, you can instead attack multiple times.  It a really cool system that rewards you for being smart (or cowardly) with your turns.

Fights just feel better than they previously did.  At the start of the game, they were a lot easier too.  It was a good way to ease players into the game and its systems.  However, it does start to rear its unbalanced head as you go through the story.  When you know what you are doing, fighting against small groups of enemies isn't any trouble.  It's when the game throws you against 12 enemies that it gets more annoying.  The damage they deal isn't always the issue, either.  It's waiting around for your turn, and having to sit through the skill animations.  Hopefully, it isn't a technique that poisons, since that damage is completely bonkers.  I accept some damage per turn, but taking almost 20% each time is absurd.  Couple that with limited potion space for anti-venom, and it's a recipe for frustration.

Now back to the animations.  Oh boy, those obnoxious animations.  It's one of my biggest complaints about the game.  The basic fireball spell of Ashly's is palatable, but every other skill has an animation that is just too long, or too silly.  The wacky ones could be fine, but seeing them more than once or twice diminishes their appeal drastically.  You might notice a "Skip FX" function when selecting the skill, and that can help, but it's also way too limiting.  You have to hold the button before you confirm the target, and it is way too hard to skip enemy animations.  Plus, you have to see the animation once per battle before you can skip it.  To make that worse, if a character uses another skill in-between, you can't skip it again.  Only repeated uses of the same skill allow you to skip.  Ugh.

Beyond that, your characters learn several skills, and the skills can gain levels to make them stronger.  MP costs of these skills starts off more reasonable than the ones in Moon, so that isn't a problem until later.  The area of effect for the skills could use some work, though.  Many just aren't useful.  Either the target areas are awkward, having one panel that has to have a target, or some other problem.  The basic ones are fine, but just past that it becomes much harder to actual find uses for them.  I could live with not needing most of the area of effect, but not at the cost for some of the later skills.  They are not high, but they add up, and are not at all efficient when you only hit 1 out of 3 or 4 squares.

A big new addition to the formula is monster party members.  After a certain point in the story, you can find monster eggs from enemies you have defeated several times.  Take the eggs to a special NPC, pay some money, wait a few battles, and presto!  You can then retrieve your new monster from the NPC.  It's really helpful to have more party members in battle, and very nice that the first they give you can heal.  At the start, you can only have one monster in battle, but that number increases as you progress.  Monster tend to be very strong, but not that sturdy.  Rotating them in and out is a great idea, plus it lets them heal between fights.  They do need equipment and stat upgrades, so the downside to using them is scattering your resources even further.  However, it is still great overall.  I would like to be able to use the monsters earlier than you currently can.

Similar to Moon, you can increase character stats in Rainbow Skies.  Last time it took Moon Pearls, which were obtained by killing enemies.  The huge problem was that only the character that struck the final blow got the pearls.  This meant that characters that fell behind would stay behind.  Thankfully, that has been rectified.  Now, the different colored chips you need are enemy drops that go to a shared pool.  It's a lot easier to increase stats now, and the boosts (especially to HP) feel more significant.

Equipment has received an overhaul as well.  For one, armor, helmets, and weapons now show up on your characters!  They can also level up independent of the character's levels, which gives them more slots for upgrading.  Monster parts can be used to give stat boosts to equipment.  While it may be tempting to save them, you will get plenty throughout the game, so use them.  As an added bonus, selling upgraded equipment will net higher prices, so you aren't missing out on money by using the parts instead of selling them.  I like that you can keep equipment useful for longer, because money is still a problem in the series.  There is a lot to buy, and not a lot of money to do it with.  You don't start with many inventory slots for important things like potions, and having to pay more and more money to increase your capacity drains more money than it rightfully should.  If they again add money as DLC, I may get some when it's on sale, as it helped in the last game.  That is far from an ideal solution though.

While Rainbow Skies looks, sounds, and plays very similar to Rainbow Moon, this is a good thing.  Just about every aspect of the game has been improved.  There are still a few annoyances, but overall the game is very fun.  Fans of the first have likely already started playing Rainbow Skies, but I'd recommend it to any fan of RPGs.

The Good:
RPG with strategy RPG battles is still a fun mix.  Several additions and improvements over the previous game.

The Bad:
Poison is way too powerful against the player.  Combat skill animations are annoyingly long and silly.

The SaHD:
Why does the archer hit people with his bow instead of shooting an arrow?  Throwing a rock is not the same thing!

(Review code for Rainbow Skies was received from the publisher)

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Psychedelica of the Ashen Hawk (PS Vita) Review

Finishing off Aksys' "Summer of Mystery" is the third Vita visual novel, Psychedelica of the Ashen Hawk.  Like the others, it is an otome game, so you play as a female protagonist.  She is a witch, which the townspeople fear.  To avoid suspicion, she was raised as a boy alongside her two "brothers", her secret known only to a select few.  As the story progresses, she will learn to dress and act like a girl to help her locate the mysterious Kaleido-Via, all while trying to keep her secrets from being exposed.

I will definitely give the game credit for a unique premise.  I was interested to see where it would go, and what exactly they would do with it.  At first, though, I wasn't that impressed.  You quickly meet most of the characters, and most of them annoyed me instantly.  Not the best way to start a game.  However, as the story continued, the characters either changed, or the annoying elements were pushed into the background, ensuring I would enjoy it.  There are some twists that I did not see coming, and they were pulled off very well.  My opinions on at least two characters completely flipped.  That's not something I expected.  Some of the endings felt a little too random for my tastes, so it's not perfect.  While I won't spoil anything, there are some connections to the previous title, Psychedelica of the Black Butterfly.  After I started, I didn't think there would be, but fans of that game should appreciate what's in Ashen Hawk.

At a few points in the game, you will have a simplified map of the town.  From here, you can select short stories, comments from townspeople, and the next main story section.  I would have liked a quick explanation as to what the icons meant, but there isn't one.  Thankfully it isn't too hard to figure it out.  The pink eyeglass icons are comments from townspeople, which will give you a point.  These points are used to purchase special items from the antique store, which will unlock short stories, other side story scenes, and some gallery pictures.  To unlock them all, you have to talk to everybody.  It's not the most interesting way to unlock the additional scenes, but it's much less intense than Black Butterfly's shooting mini-game.

Once you have the necessary items purchased, it is very easy to go back and view any scenes you have missed.  All because of the glorious flow chart!  It was my favorite thing about Black Butterfly, and I was overjoyed to see it back in Ashen Hawk.  It allows you to see where all the scenes and branches are, so you can quickly move back to grab them.  This makes it easier to get all the endings and explore the story.  It's also much easier to actually get on to the branches than it was in the previous game.

Psychedelica of the Ashen Hawk was a fun visual novel.  After a rough beginning, the story and characters got a lot better.  Factoring in all the townspeople conversations and side stories, the main game is longer than most visual novels I have played.  The flip side is the "routes" tend to just be the endings.  Thankfully the awesome flow chart is back to make jumping to the relevant scenes quick and easy.  I definitely recommend this otome game to fans of visual novels, and especially fans of Black Butterfly.

The Good:
An interesting and unique story that pulled off some difficult plot twists very well.

The Bad:
The story is largely linear.  There are branches, but they are pretty much just the endings.

The SaHD:
I'm not a fan of the "character is abysmal at cooking" cliche.  It's not funny, and doesn't make sense.  It did have some small relevance in this game, but that doesn't really make it much better.

(Review code for Psychedelica of the Ashen Hawk was received from the publisher)

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Space Hulk: Deathwing - Enhanced Edition (PS4) Review

When I first started playing Space Hulk: Deathwing - Enhanced Edition, I was excited.  I've been a fan of Warhammer 40k for years now, and always hope that an amazing game capable of capturing that universe comes along.  While the real time strategy ones are very good and accurate, I know there’s a great action or RPG game just waiting to be made (preferably featuring the wonderful Eldar).

The game starts off with the tutorial, even if you already did it from the main menu (like me).  Afterwards, you are put into the space hulk with your mission.  The scenery looks really nice, and appropriate.   It's also pretty dark.  I didn't find any enemies for the first few minutes, so I figured the game was going for a more atmospheric approach, rather than an action oriented one.  This could work, since you are in heavy Terminator armor.  You are big and bulky, so going for the scare factor would play off the resistance and fire power you should have.

Once closer to the first major objective, there was a group of enemies that ran in.  Since it was from a more enclosed location, they were fairly easily dispatched.  So, maybe they weren’t going with a fewer-but-scarier enemy layout, but instead some small waves of them.   I pressed on, and reached the first objective.  It was time for my third assessment.

There were a lot of enemies.  Not like Left 4 Dead horde amounts, but a steady stream.  I stayed with my two squadmates, fighting them off.  I figured there would be an end to them, and I could move on.  There wasn't.  They just kept coming.  Eventually, I realized this, and had to run back to the beginning area of the level, with occasional stops to shoot a few foes in my way.  I eventually got toward the end, and received a brief reprieve.

Then, I had to defend my position.  I figured it wouldn’t be too bad, since I’m on easy, and my squadmates are fairly helpful.  I was wrong.  After a few minutes of valiant fighting, I went down.  It was a bit of a shock, since I’m not terrible at FPS games.   I’m not great, but should be able to beat the first level of one on the easy setting.  So, I reloaded and tried again.  This time, I hit up the warp portal to fully heal everyone, and tried again.

Another failure.  I slightly revise my strategy and tried again.  Yet another failure.  Revise, die, repeat.  I started to question myself, my abilities, reality, and the existentialism of the universe.  I eventually hid in a nearby tube with my squad, which limited where the enemies could come from.  I lost one member (thanks suicide exploder enemies!), but managed to get through.  Great, only several more levels to go.

Besides the story mode, there are Special Missions and Multiplayer.  Sadly, these both just recycle the story mode maps.  Special Missions are just playing the same maps with random objectives each time you load in.  It’s not the most interesting idea, but it gives you some decent replayability.  Multiplayer is either a story mode or special mission map that you play with other people.  It’s more enjoyable than playing with the AI, and probably a lot more fun with actual friends.  I really would have preferred some kind of horde mode too, as I really like those, and it would fit with the theme.  The game still has the same problems, but with four people, it’s a little easier.  Plus, when not in story mode, you can pick your class.

Since you are stuck as a terminator, the class selection isn’t near as varied as it could be for a 40K game.  Each class gets a melee weapon on one hand, while the other has a ranged or another melee weapon.  There are only so many weapons, so there is plenty of overlap between the classes.  Skills, on the other hand, are unique.  Once you find the skills you like (if you can navigate through the terrible menus to actually see what they are), you stand a decent chance of also finding weapons you like on that class.  Killing enemies and completing objectives will give your multiplayer classes experience.  When you level up, you get a random unlock and some in-game currency to buy upgrades and skins.  Pretty basic stuff.

Death in Space Hulk feels off.  Your final hit just kind of kills you.  I rarely saw where it came from, you just…fall over.  It's very lackluster and made me feel like I wasn't even hit, but that my guy just gave up.   It also likes to happen very suddenly.  I’ve been killed in one hit by some enemies, and even died immediately upon loading into a map.  If you fail a map, you get some experience, but don’t seem to get any currency.  With how much you money you need to unlock stuff, the game somehow makes a long grind even longer and more grind-y.  Plus, you have to sit through several long load times, making it even worse.

It would be easier to not die if the visuals were tweaked.  Scenery, while detailed and appropriate, shares the pallet with the enemies.  It is much harder than it should be to pick up the off-white and grey enemies from the grey and dark grey backgrounds.  To make matters worse, your HUD and weapon effects take up a ton of screen real estate.  The information on the HUD can be useful, but it could also be presented in a better way.  Plus, sometimes your character will put his shoulder up into the frame which blocks more of the screen than anyone should be okay with.  The flamer and plasma cannons are useful weapons, but also disguise what is going on behind their fancy effects.   Is the enemy dead?  Should I stop shooting?  Are they more enemies behind them?  Having all of these things interfere with your sense of sight is not good design.

Choosing a class and playing with other people is a better experience than single player, which sadly, isn’t really saying much.  I was looking forward to playing Space Hulk: Deathwing - Enhanced Edition, but was left feeling disappointed.  Muddled visuals, repeating stages, cheesy enemies, cumbersome menus, and long load times really bring the game down.  Looks like I'm not the only one to bring shame to my chapter.

The Good:
Player models look really good.  Classes are a nice touch, and you can always have a varied experience in the special missions.

The Bad:
It's way too hard to see anything, since it is very dark, there are lots of effects everywhere, and the enemies are the same colors as the scenery.  Back in my day, Tyrannids were blue and purple!

The SaHD:
How does the power fist not kill the genestealers in 1 hit?  It's a strength of 8!  If it hits them, they die.  Have they not played 40K or read the codex?

(Review code for Space Hulk: Deathwing -EE was received from the publisher)