Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Destiny (Xbox 360 / Xbox One) Review

To close out 2014, I figured I would review the most hyped game of the year.  I've spent many hours in Destiny, on both 360 and the Xbox One, so it's time to see how fun the half-billion dollar game really is.

First off, the game looks really good.  Even on the 360, the scenery, models and effects are top notch.  I'd say the scenery is some of the best and most detailed I've seen in a console game.  Of course, the Xbox One version is slightly better, but the difference isn't as big as you might suspect.  The biggest graphical addition there is the light effects.  The loading screen ships have little blinking lights, and the areas have much more dynamic lighting.

Second, the gun play is pretty solid.  It's not the best ever, as I've seen some people proclaim, but it's fairly satisfying.  I played the beta on the PS3 and 360, and the full game on 360 and XB1.  The 360 controller was definitely the best fit for me, and felt the most comfortable for the controls.  The only problem I had with the guns is the damage.  As you get further in the game, and notably in the Strikes and Raids, the enemies start to have JRPG levels of health.  This means you are pumping hundreds, if not thousands, or rounds into them before they die.  It gets boring having to shoot things so much.  So while the controls and guns work well, the damage they output doesn't keep up.

The game is an MMO in all but name.  You have to be online to play, and there are several other players around.  You will probably want to play with friends, seeing at how cumbersome it is to invite others to play in your party, or "firesquad".  It's also nigh impossible to communicate with others.  You get 4 different emotes, but you will probably only use 2... and one of them is to dance.  They added a firesquad chat channel, which could help, but this was so late into the game that most people don't use it, and instead play with friends and use party chat.  It's a strange decision to release an MMO with little to no way to communicate, but that's just what Bungie did.

There is a story mode that takes you through and unlocks each area of the game.  It spans multiple planets (and the moon!), with each having about 5 missions.  While broad in scope, it is light on duration.  My friend and I completed the story mode in two days.  Even if you do it with all 3 character slots, it still isn't much.  There are Strikes on each planet to give you a group-oriented challenge, but there are still only 5 total.  The Strikes are pretty fun, but they get old fast, since you are expected to run them many, many, many times.  There's also a Raid.  Yes, only one unless you buy DLC.  It's not very fun at all, at least to me.  It's long but with checkpoints that stay up for a week in case you cannot finish in one go.  That's about the only positive thing I can say about them.  Although other people think it's the best part of the game, I think it might be the worst.

Once you reach level 20, the experience cap, you will need to gain "light" to level up further.  Light is a stat on high level armor that will increase your level up to 30.  It's a nice, new concept, but inherently flawed.  While before you could chug away and earn experience to get new levels, now you are the mercy of a random number generator for loot to get those levels.  I'm one of those people who rarely gets good drops in games, which causes me to lag behind others for no reason other than the game doesn't want to give me better stuff.  Not skill or time based... just random luck.  Yuck.

The alternative is to buy some better equipment, which has me commit days to get enough "marks" or "strange coins" (which are also subject to the RNG) to get them.  This would be less of an issue if they game had more content.  This is probably my main complaint with the game.  It simply asks you to play so much, and offers so little to do.  Sure, there are daily bounties to kill certain enemies, or other such things, but by the time you finally get some good gear, you've done them all several times already.  There's even weekly caps on the marks you can earn.  So they want you to play too much already, but then punish you for playing a lot.  Whoever made such a terrible decision shouldn't have a job.  At least they fixed the unidentified items, now maybe the rest of the game?

If you want a better chance at better rewards, you can do harder versions of the Strikes.  These have minimum level requirements, so you can't be boosted through them to catch up to other people.  Some of these are entirely doable, but some are ridiculously stacked against you.  That isn't to say they are impossible, just close to it.  While there is the Dark Souls crowd that loves to overcome those odds, there are people like me, who have nothing to prove, that will just move on.  I'm fine with a challenge, but I hate unfair odds.  It's artificial challenge if they just let enemies one shot you, but take 1200 bullets to the head to kill.

Destiny is best played with friends.  Even then, it's not the best recommendation I could make.  The game is really pretty and has some good shooting, but falls flat in just about every other area.  It has not nearly enough content for how much they expect you to play.  There's some timed events and other things to try and add variety, but it's all based on the small pool of things already in the game.  It's even harder to recommend it if you are going to play by yourself.  Destiny is a collection of missed opportunities and a mystery of where its massive cost went.  There's at least a decent core to build upon for the inevitable sequel, which will hopefully address its issues and make it a great game.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Akiba's Trip: Undead and Undressed (PS4) Review

Akiba's Trip: Undead and Undressed, the vampire stripping action game, has made its way to the PS4, and brought along all its DLC with it on one disc.  The visuals are noticeably better than the Vita version, as they are much smoother.  It's still cel shaded and looks good.  There are both English and Japanese for the spoken lines, so both sides can be pleased.

The two biggest improvements for the game are the loading and the included DLC.  The DLC for the PS3 and Vita versions was a mix of free and paid weapons and costume pieces, so it's nice to see them all included without having to shell out extra money or wait until they are on the store.  They are accessible early, but don't really provide amazing bonuses.  That's ok, since the upgrade system makes them as good as you want.  My personal favorites are the two handed sword from Ragnarok Odyssey Ace (along with armor fit for female characters), and the prinny.  Maybe I'm a bit biased, but swinging around a prinny that explodes on contact is really fun.

However the loading is going to be the improvement most people will be more thankful for.  The original game had loading for each area, which added some wait time depending on how far you wanted to go and if you fast traveled.  Now, it is much faster.  The strange downside to this is you won't see the loading screen ads as often or as long.  I'm not really complaining, but I do like the ads, since it's very unlikely that I will get to the actual Akibahara and see them in person.

So those are the differences for any people that have played the first.  For the rest, here's a rundown of how the game works.  You play as an otaku that has undergone an experiment that grants him enhanced strength, but a weakness to light and increased hunger.  You are essentially a man-made vampire, and as a member of the Akiba Freedom Fighters (a collection of otaku wanting to keep Akiba safe), you fight other Synthesters.  To defeat them, you have to expose their skin to sunlight.  That requires you to rip off their clothes.

It's not near as graphic as you might think.  Characters are still in their underwear when fully stripped.  Well, unless they are finished with a big enough chain strip.  Then their underwear drops and is replaced with shining light.  So, no nudity in the game.  And it's a pretty even split between male and female opponents, so it's not exploitative, either.  It's fairly tongue-in-cheek, since they poke fun of it in the game, too.

Combat is a three button attack system, one for lower, middle and upper clothing items.  You get different combo attacks based on your weapon type and weapon.  Holding down the corresponding button will attempt to rip that article of clothing off.  If you haven't done enough damage, you will get knocked away.  If you've done a good amount, but still not enough to rip it off in one go, you will have a button mashing struggle to do some more damage and possibly destroy it.  Once all the articles of clothing are off an opponent (or you), they are defeated.  You can also block, counter, and even counter strip.  If you rip a piece off and there are other opponents with weakened clothing, you will proceed to strip them, provided you press the correct button in time.  This is a chain strip, and doing enough in a row will result in a super move that will leave them without any underwear and running for the hills!

The basic flow of the game is to read a little story, then go off and beat some Synthesters, then return for more plot.  It's not the most involved game, but it's fun.  It's also not very long, as the first time through took me 10 hours (8 on this version, since I've done it before).  There are multiple endings and difficulties, with lots of weapons and clothes to collect and power up.  This gives the game lots of replay value, for at least the endings.

While the game won't be for everyone, I enjoy Akiba's Trip: Undead and Undressed.  It's a silly premise, but fun to go through.  There are a few frustrating moments, but not "throw your controller" bad.  It's a fairly short game with lots of replay value.  If you have already played the Vita or PS3 version, the improved visuals, included DLC and faster loading probably aren't enough to make you buy it again, but I'd recommend this version of the game for those that haven't, and have a PS4.  Too bad progress from other versions doesn't carry over!

Monday, December 8, 2014

Rollers of the Realm (PS4/Vita) Review

Rollers of the Realm combines pinball with some traditional RPG elements.  You get experience, gold, can buy equipment... you get the idea.  The premise is pretty cool.  As a big fan of Puzzle Quest, I was excited to try another "combine X with an RPG" which, in this case, an video pinball game.

Unfortunately, I forgot that video pinball games have pretty bad physics.  In fact, I do this pretty often.  I like pinball, but don't want to pay to play it in arcades, since the time you play is mostly decided by random luck.  So, video pinball is a much cheaper alternative.  However, the physics are always just a little off, which quickly ruins the experience for me.  Plus, it's hard to get the length of pinball on a screen that is stretched the other direction.  That could actually work on the Vita version, but the actual areas are not designed for it, so it's not even an option.

Anyway, Rollers of the Realm unfortunately also suffers this fate.  The physics feel off, and the screen aspect ratio works against you.  There are stages that have multiple areas, which is neat, and there is a good variety of stages to boot.  Though, they do like to put obstacles, mainly enemies, close enough to your paddles that they can easily smack your ball down the hold.  Add some player-unfriendly design to the wonky physics, and you get a equation of frustration.

To make things a little better, you can hire other characters and buy equipment for your party.  Each piece of equipment shows what stats it effects, but there is no explanation of what each stat actually does.  I think I figured most out after playing the game awhile and matching things up, but it's not very intuitive.  Plus, I wasn't sure how to equip things, or even if I had to.  There are some similar pieces (like different weapons) for some characters, and I have to assume the effects stack, since it didn't seem like I had to equip anything.

Goals for levels aren't always stated from the start, but it's usually "kill guys until you can continue".  There are a good amount of stages in the game, so trudging through the game should get you your money's worth.  Sadly, the bulk of your play time will be retrying stages after dying (again), or replaying them for more money to buy equipment or extra party members.  Thankfully, each party member counts as a life in the game, and you can resurrect people if you get enough mana.  The trophies can also take awhile... at least 10 hours.  I say that since there's one for playing the game for 600 minutes.  Yuck.  Plus, if you are a platinum hunter, the trophy spread of the game is for a downloadable, so the highest you get is one gold trophy.

I'm sure there are people out there who would enjoy the game.  If you are fine with the hit or miss physics in video pinball games, then go ahead and play Rollers of the Realm.  If unreliable gameplay or random deaths annoy you, stay away.  I found the game more frustrating than fun, and was let down when I finally had a chance to play it.  The concept is neat, but the execution needs work.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Costume Quest 2 (Xbox 360) Review

Four years after the release of the charming and fun Costume Quest, we are finally treated to a sequel.  Set just after the events of the first game's Grubbins on Ice expansion, Costume Quest 2 gives us another story of siblings Wren and Reynold saving the world.  This time, they must travel through time and stop a candy-deprived dentist from taking over the world.  Yes, the plot is silly, and not as good as the first, but it's well told and there are some good lines.

The game looks a lot like the first, with stylized cel-shaded locations and characters.  You still walk around a small area and find chests, hit candy out of objects, trick or treat, and find enemies.  You can still strike enemies from behind for a little extra damage at the start of battle.  The roller skates that allow you to boost up ramps return as well  So, in a lot of ways, it's more of the same, which is a good thing.

It's not the exact same, though.  The bonus for getting a preemptive strike doesn't seem as powerful.  You lose your previous costumes, but the new ones have some new exploration abilities to use on the maps.  There's now pinatas strewn about to give you more candy, and respawning enemies to help boost your level.  You can also buy maps of each visited area to make sure you have collected every secret in them.  There's also purchasable upgrades for each costume that not only power it up, but change its appearance.

Battles are, again, a similar affair to the first.  Time a button press correctly and you get more damage.  Do the same on defense to cut down your damage received.  To add something new, you will also get a combo attack for some more damage, and a counter attack on the defensive side.  The counter move is really nice, but you get it pretty late in the game.  Given how short it is, you don't get much time to enjoy it.  Special moves now require a meter to be filled, and aren't usable every 3rd or 4th turn as they were previously.  They do seem more powerful to compensate, though.  Stamps are gone and replaced with cards.  The cooldown on each is several battles, so save them for when they are needed most.  I rarely used any because the cooldown was high.  There are some really nice ones that boost xp and candy (money) gain, and even ones that make enemies damage themselves when they attack.  A good variety to play around with.

The biggest downside of the game is the length.  I had about 8 hours on the clock when I had finished the game and got every achievement, card, costume and quest completed.  Outside of missing the one missable achievement, there aren't many reasons to replay except to play it again.  The game also isn't too hard.  It feels like damage is higher than the previous game, but it still feels more forgiving.  And that is with me having the useless candy corn costume in my party the whole time.

If you are a fan of the original Costume Quest, you should definitely get Costume Quest 2.  It may be short and sometimes feel formulaic, but it's more of the same battles and exploration that you enjoyed previously, but with some cool new costumes.  If you like turn-based RPGs, I'd recommend starting with the first Costume Quest, but this is still a very solid title.  It pretty much does what a good sequel should, keep the good and familiar while adding a few new things to liven it up.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Senran Kagura: Bon Appetit (Vita) Review

Hot off the heels of Shinovi Versus, Senran Kagura hits us with another domestic release, Bon Appetit.  While the previous two are action games, this one is... a rhythm game about cooking battles.  Yes, you read that correctly.  As is clearly stated from the outset, this is just a silly side game and has no bearing on the actual plot.

Being a rhythm game, you must push the correct button or direction at the correct moment.  There are two different lines that go from right to left that these buttons appear on.  I'm not sure why there are two, but I think it's so they can fit more buttons in a smaller area.  The directional buttons that must be pressed are color-coordinated to correspond to the face button (circle, triangle, etc.) so it's easier to see when there are a lot of quick moving buttons on the screen.  Granted, the buttons are color coded on the system controllers, not the Vita, so it's borderline silly to do that for a Vita game.  Silly as it is, it's still helpful, especially when there are so many buttons shooting along.

Each of the 10 songs are separated into three rounds.  Winning one of the first two rounds will damage the clothing of the opponent.  If you win the first two rounds and do really well on the third, you will completely strip the opponent, and they will be wearing the now infamous chibi faces and light stripe.  There's also two halves of a heart meter (one per round) that if you fill, will create a special heart button that can give you a humiliating camera view in the background for a few seconds.  While this is a reward for performing well, it's also distracting.  If you ignore it to do better, then it's not much of a reward, huh?  I probably shouldn't admit this, but I've almost dropped a combo a few times while they are playing in the background.  Plus, they look so sad at the end of the scene that I almost feel bad doing it.  Almost.

Winning a round treats you to a scene of Hanzo (Asuka's grandfather, master ninja and tournament creator) enjoying the dish.  Each girl creates a different dish, so there are 10 of these scenes.  The are definitely silly and over the top, but they get old pretty fast, and I was skipping them after seeing them two or three times.  However, the real treat for winning and completely stripping your opponent isn't Hanzo's scene... it's the special.  Your opponent will be placed on a pastry and covered with whipped cream and chocolate syrup.  It's as suggestive as you might think.  While it fits the tone of the game, I think it's even more risque than anything else so far in the series.  And that's an accomplishment, to be honest.  I didn't think it possible while keeping the game under an AO rating, but they did it.  To me, it's not a problem since it's on a handheld system, but as with the action games in the series, I wouldn't play it around my kids.

There are three settings, easy, normal and hard.  Easy is really easy.  I rarely missed even one note in a song, and I'm not really well versed in the current rhythm genre (I was really good at Bust a Groove and decent at Parappa).  Normal seems like a big step up from easy, and was challenging.  I can now consistently win at the normal setting (except Daidoji's song), but not without a mistake or two.  Hard is ridiculous to me, since that's where they add in the up direction and the triangle button, plus have more and harder button sequences.  The way it plays reminds me of the Hatsune Miku game demo I tried a year or so ago.  On the harder settings, the challenge for me was hitting the strange sequence of buttons and not on getting the timing.  I'm not sure if that's how rhythm games are nowadays, but I would prefer the focus be on timing.  Even so, I was able to complete all 10 stories on easy or normal.

Each character's story is 5 levels long, and takes about 30 minutes total to make your way through.  There's 10 girls to use (or 11 if you purchased the DLC characters for Shinovi Versus) and many costumes and underwear selections to unlock.  Each girl has their own song, 2 of which are vocal.  There's also an arcade mode which picks opponents based on the difficulty you select.  It's a decent value for $15, and you'll get your money's worth if you go after the platinum.  A few of the trophies require you to grind out a lot of songs, so if you really like the game, you might want to hold off on those until you get the DLC expansion that adds the girls from Shinovi Versus to give you a broader selection of characters and songs.

Fans of the Senran Kagura series will get the most out of the game.  It's a different style, but you'll know the characters and situations, and get more out of whatever story is present.  Rhythm fans may also enjoy it, but I'm not sure how it stacks up to other rhythm offerings.  Plus, if you aren't accustomed to the world of Senran Kagura, some of the racier aspects might be startling.  The game itself is decent, but I don't think it would convert anyone not into the series.  If you are a Senran Kagura fan and rhythm games are not your thing, you can skip it and not miss out on any ongoing plot.  If you are interested, the game isn't very expensive unless you get it and the forthcoming expansion, plus, a lot of the Shinovi Versus DLC (free and otherwise) will also work in Bon Appetit.

Game Trek: The Next Generation (of Consoles) - Part 6

Stardate 1014211141:

When the news of the $50 price drop on Xbox One consoles and bundles for the holiday came out, my mind starting swimming with ideas.  Maybe, despite the initial crash, I could end up getting an Xbox One as well.

I had a plan of action to get it the cheapest I could.  First, order the white Sunset Overdrive bundle for store pick up from Best Buy.  Since I had a week to pick it up, I could order it the Tuesday it released and pick it up the next Sunday, when the price dropped.  Then, return and rebuy with the lower price, and apply my coupon and mover's coupon (that may have cost me a lot to acquire).

I ordered the Sunset Overdrive bundle on the Tuesday it was released, and resisted all my urges to go pick it up.  Supposedly it was possible to get the adjustment even if it was open, but I didn't want to risk it.  On Sunday, I went and did they whole return/rebuy.  It took a bit, since they were busy, but there was no fighting, and the CS lady got it all taken care of.  Well, except for scanning my reward zone card, but I could fix that later I was told.

While I'm very happy with my deal, I know it's not the best.  The next Saturday, there was a few hour period where you could also get the free year of XBox Live.  It had some trouble stacking with the mover's coupon, since that is for 1 item, but I have a few years stored up already.  I'm happy that I got a good price, and the bundle I wanted.  Now to enjoy the sun(set)!

There's still the issue of the ticket, but I haven't heard back since I disputed it, so we will see how that goes...

< Part 5

Friday, November 14, 2014

Styx: Master of Shadows (PS4) Review

Styx, the wise-cracking, foul mouthed companion from Of Orcs and Men now strikes out in his own game.  Making full use of his shadowy and thief talents, you must keep to the shadows and master your skills to complete your missions.

Granted, this is my first PS4 game, so I can't compare it to too many others, but it looks really good.  The lighting effects and detail is noticeably higher than games from the previous generation of consoles.  There are a few visual hiccups, though.  There is some noticeable pop-in of some of the environment while crawling around the tunnels and some while rotating the camera sometimes.  I wouldn't call it screen tearing, since it looks different than that, but it's similar.

As you can infer from the title, Styx: Master of Shadows is a stealth-based game.  It's third person, so you get a better view of your surroundings.  This helps, since many items lying around have physics to them.  If you walk to close to a chair, or across a broom and bucket, you may knock them over, giving away your position.  This is the first game I've encountered that in, and I think it's really cool (even the times it screwed me up).  You also have an amber mark on your shoulder that glows when you are in full darkness, so it's easy to tell if you are likely to be seen.

Although, there are plenty of times I've been seen while standing in complete darkness.  Hugging a wall or at least standing behind something fixes that, but I felt the enemies saw me times when I was standing still in the dark.  They also have really good peripheral vision, so make sure you only approach them from the back, or you may get a sword in your face.

Each mission is divided into a few large areas with multiple paths through them.  This is one of the game's strengths.  There are lots of places to explore if you want to avoid enemies, sneak up on them for a stealth kill, or hide a body.  There is some platforming, too, since you have to jump around from ledge to ledge and climb to some areas.  Unfortunately, this is a bit spotty, since the jump isn't scripted, like the Assassin's Creed games, so it can be a little frustrating trying to jump far enough, or land on that small ledge.  It works for the most part, but there were times that a jump looked possible, but was just too far.  Trying to drop down and grip a ledge was annoying, since you had to walk off the edge slowly to do so.  It always felt like I would just fall down and die.  Why not just make it the drop button?  Anyway, movement was sometimes frustrating, but workable.  Just make sure you save a lot.

Styx does get a few abilities to help deal with threats.  He can carry a few throwing daggers for distance, and even has acid to melt a body away.  You can create a clone to fit in some areas, or even as a diversion.  If you are caught, your enter a duel with most enemies.  You will have to parry or dodge their attacks several times in a row, and then you can kill them when they are off balance.  It's not too hard, but you can die quickly if you don't get the timing down.  Unfortunately, not all enemies can be dueled.  Partway through the game, knights are introduced, and they are unaffected by your weaponry.  If they catch you, you are just dead.  Yuck.  They make the game harder, or at least force you to be more cautious and clever if you want to take them out (or just avoid them).  At least the new enemy types are spaced through the game, so you continuously get new challenges.

There are eight missions in the game (counting the prologue), and they took me about two hours game time each.  However, that two hours doesn't count all the time spent messing up and loading.  I wasn't trying to do perfect runs, but at the very least I didn't want to be seen (I was trying to be very stealthy).  This involved a lot of trial and error, which increased my playtime by a lot that isn't reflected in the end stage totals.  Missions have some replayability, since there are many paths to the end, and different play styles.  If you are a completionist or trophy hunter, you will very likely repeat each mission more than once, so you can get all the insignias (not killing, speed run, etc.) and the extra experience it gives for your skills.

If you like stealth games, I'd recommend Styx: Master of Shadows.  It's not the best one I've played (can anything topple Dishonored?), and it is far from the worst.  There is a lot of trial and error if you are a perfectionist, but it's usually possible to muddle your way through the levels and correct your mistakes if you don't want to keep re-loading.  The platforming isn't as smooth as I'd like, but the large, explorable areas make for some good replay value.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Game Trek: The Next Generation (of Consoles) - Part 5

Stardate 1014210144:

During this time, I kept checking out Cowboom and Craigslist to see if anything in my range popped up.  Then, two days after my pawn store debacles, Cowboom had a sale on PS4s for $100 off, making them $250 before tax.  The one I snagged included everything but the manual and the wired headset.  Sweet!  Not as great as the under $200 people lucked into, but acceptable for me.  Since I was a new customer, I could use the promo code for an extra $10 off.  Not great, but why not save 10 extra bucks?  Total with tax was about $265.  I was very happy, and anxiously awaited when it would be delivered.

My buddy David also bought one, so he could return the one he got at the pawn shop.  He paid for faster shipping so he could resume his Samurai Warriors 4 playing.  His had the actual PS4 box, but the included charge cable was for the PS3.  Whoops.

A week after my order, it finally arrived.  It took a few extra days to actually ship, but somehow UPS got it to me in a timely fashion.  I say "somehow" because UPS Ground is really, really slow.  I assume most packages are walked to their destinations.

Anyway... I was excited and opened up the package.  It didn't include the box, which I wasn't counting on (but would have been nice), and also didn't have the charge cable or hdmi cable it was supposed to.  Hmmm.  After asking some people and talking to David, I sent an email to Cowboom asking about them.  They offered a partial refund, which I happily took.  Buying those cables isn't expensive, but if they were supposed to be there, might as well take the discount.

I had cables I could use as substitutes, and tested it out to make sure it works.  It did!  I was super happy that I was almost the full way to getting into the current gen of consoles.  Only one thing left to do...

<Part 4 | Part 6>

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Game Trek: The Next Generation (of Consoles) - Part 4

Stardate 1014210143:

I sent a text to my buddy asking if he's seen any PS4s or XB1s at his store, and price range.  He says "yes" and "300".  Cool, if I can bargain that down a bit, or at least top off at $300 after tax, it's in the accepted price range.

I go to his store and see a PS4 there.  Problem is, the price is $350.  I decide against it, but ask my friend about the discrepancy.  Last he checked, they were $300, but he thinks they bumped it up because it's close to the holiday season.  Fair enough.

So the next day I plan to drive by a few pawn shops to see what they have and pricing.  Most were easy to locate, but few had either system.  One did have a XB1 with Kinect, but it was $400.  Not bad, but not great either.  It had Titanfall taped to it, but I didn't ask if it was included, or just showing it as available.  If included, it's a slightly better deal, but still not good enough.

One store was stupid hard to find.  I passed where it should have been, and drove down the road about another mile before finding a decent place to turn around.  Then, I saw the store, but not in time to turn in.  So, I hit the next turn and attempt to go just beyond it and turn back.  I bet you can see how this will go.  No right turns until much later down the road.  Then, on the way back, I couldn't find it again.  Apparently, it was the fabled ghost pawn store.  I chalk that one up as a loss and hit the remainder, with no results.

My friend then texts me and says they just got in a PS4.  He talked to his boss and I can get it for $300 +tax.  Not bad, but I needed under $300 after tax, so I tell him I'll think about it.  He mentions that one of our other friends bought one from him yesterday for that price.  Remember the one I saw in the second paragraph?  Turns out my good buddy David bought it.  Heh, small world sometimes.

<Part 3 | Part 5>

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Game Trek: The Next Generation (of Consoles) - Part 3

Stardate 1014210142:

While reading the Cowboom thread, one user mentioned that he got his new gen systems cheap on Craigslist.  I shook my head.  How had I forgotten about that?  So, I added a tab for Craigslist and would check that every few hours for both PS4 and X1.

Most wanted too much.  Well, they might have been fair prices, but not for used stuff.  A few were good enough for me to contact them... but they were duds too.  One in particular, however, went above and beyond.

It advertised trading a "bang bang" for a PS4.  There was a link posted in the ad, but you had to copy and paste it for it to work.  I didn't, but the address had something firearm-related in it.  Wow.  More than likely not legal, but the dude (I assume) wanted to trade a Beretta pistol for a PS4.  For meeting Craigslisters, it's always best to meet somewhere public, for safety.  I don't know how safe it is when you know the other person is bringing a gun.  Seriously, it seems way to easy to end up with both.  I mean, either the guy bringing the gun holds up the other, or you trade the gun and then he holds you up.  It's not really a win-win situation...but it is humorous.

Needless to say, Craigslist didn't pan out for the first week, and then I remembered by old co-worker/friend that worked a pawn store...

<Part 2 | Part 4>

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Samurai Warriors 4 (PS3) Review

After what seems like a long wait since the third game, Samurai Warriors 4 has made its way to the west.  As most Warriors sequels, it brings a new mode, more characters and a few other changes while trying not to mess with its 1 vs. 1000 hack and slash style.  I like most of the Warriors games, so I was looking forward to this releasing, since I actually prefer Samurai to Dynasty.  While the game is subbed only, which makes it harder for me to pay attention to objectives, I was happy to see there was far less pop-in versus Orochi 3 Ultimate, which released around a month ago.

To add more to the hack and slash formula that has worked so well for Tecmo Koei over the years, they added a hyper attack.  It effectively replaces the strong attack, and adds a new combo string to each character.  It does not replace the strong attack as a combo ender for the normal attacks, so you basically lose 1 attack that wasn't very useful, and gain another whole string with new enders.

The hyper attack usually has your character dash a short ways while attacking.  It's great for groups of grunts, and that's exactly what it is for.  It's almost overpowered, but officers have little trouble batting it away.  Therefore, there is a split in your combos.  Hypers are best for big groups of weak enemies, and the normal combos are best for officers.  I'm totally fine with this.  I really like the new hyper attacks, since it seems much more like an anime samurai, attacking so fast you can't see it.  I should mention I love that trope a lot, so it almost caters directly to me.

In a similar vein to the 3DS Samurai Warriors game, you have two characters on the battlefield at a time.  You can switch between the two and, thankfully, give simple orders to the one you aren't using.  Each battle contains multiple objectives that can give you extra rewards for completion.  Having two characters makes a lot of them actually possible by yourself.  The objectives themselves are fine, but expect to play each stages multiple times if you are a completionist, as you can't see what the objectives are, or who you need to use to get them, until the stage is completed once.  It is possible to get them all the first run though, but that is an exception rather than the norm.

You can bring several items into battle with you that give various buffs.  Gone are enemies sometimes dropping these buffs, like double attack or defense.  This doesn't bother me as much as I thought it would, since choosing when to activate something makes it easier to get it when you need it.  Each playable famous officer also has a personal treasure that gives a special effect, and it has a cooldown, rather than the one per battle use of the regular items.  Getting said personal treasures is a bit more difficult, since each officer must be killed a certain way for a chance at getting it.  I'm not sure what affects the chance, but regardless, it will take lots of grinding to get them all.

The weapon and skill system is, again, slightly revamped from its previous iterations.  Skills have a max level, which is determined when you get it, and requires gems to upgrade.  You get plenty of gems and money, so that part isn't the issue.  However the skills and max levels of them are random, and you can't merge items to transfer skills.  No more making your perfect weapon... you have to hope that you randomly get it.  Ugh.  Thankfully, you can transfer weapons to other people, so you can spread around the love to characters you have yet to use, and make sure they can survive the battles you throw them into.

The stories are broken up into factions, focusing on a few select characters per each.  They also vary in length, from 4 stages for the lesser factions to 8 or more for the big ones (Nobunaga, etc.)  The presentation is fine, but I would prefer a more streamlined one, so it is easier to see what happened when, or at least put the years at the start of each stage.  I know the games aren't 100% historically accurate, but I'd still like to be able to figure out what happened when without drawing a chart.

The new mode for the game is Chronicle mode.  Seemingly based on the 3DS games, you create your own character and run around Japan fighting battles.  You can meet up and befriend famous officers, which you can also play as if you want.  It's pretty open ended, and the battle objectives don't matter as much.  Plus, making your own character in these games is really fun.  Though, I'd like to see a bit more instruction for Chronicle mode, explaining what affects what, so you aren't just moving around and fighting without purpose.  They even brought in the quiz levels from Hyrule Warriors, although they are much harder here.  The ask things like, "which is the eldest brother", or "who's name is written differently in Kanji?"  Not impossible, but not really geared toward western audiences.

Like most Warriors games nowadays, there is a good amount of content.  Going through the story modes takes 20+ hours, and chronicles mode adds a lot more.  It could end up being endless, given the random nature of it.  Plus, if you are going after trophies or completion, there is a lot of grinding and re-doing levels for the personal treasures, objectives and rare weapons.  The two player is done a lot better than previous games, since you choose if you want single, co-op or online when you select story or free mode.  No more remembering to hit start at that one point every single level.  The only real problem with two player is there is a small dip in draw distance and frame rate.  It's not as horrible as a lot of people would have you believe, but it is there.

Samurai Warriors 4 is, to me, a great addition to the series.  The hyper attacks are a lot of fun, and adding what amounts to a second combo string gives each character a lot of moves, plus the rage mode/spirit meter returns.  The new characters fit in, and some of them are lots of fun to use.  The story mode offers a good chunk of playtime, and the Chronicle mode lets you create your own character and adds even more content.  The random nature and length of the Chronicle mode will be off-putting to some, and the highly objective-based battles in that and story mode aren't the most seamless the series has had.  It's still lots of fun, and I recommend it to any Warriors or hack and slash fans.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Game Trek: The Next Generation (of Consoles) - Part 2

Stardate 1014210141:

Skip forward a week or two, and I'm still bummed about the whole thing.  Who wouldn't be?  Not only could I not save $40 on the X1, but getting the coupons may have cost me $200.  I happened across one of the CAG threads about Cowboom, and remembering that they sold cheap used consoles, decided to read up on it.

I was in some luck.  There was a $100 off coupon for PS4s.  They put about 1 or 2 in stock when they updated, so it was hard to snag one, but I might as well try.  Their days rolled over at 10pm my time (central theirs), and that was the best time to get some.

To sweeten the deal, they dropped the price of some units to about $275 or so.  With the coupon, it made it about $180 shipped.  That's a crazy good deal and I wanted to jump on it.

Except, I was at Marcus' house that night.  So, one of the big people pushing me to get one ironically may have kept me from getting one.

The next morning, the price went back up, so the coupon made them about $285 shipped.  Still a decent deal, but I couldn't find ones that came with controllers.  Factoring how much and when I could get a controller, I didn't feel it was a good enough deal.  However, checking the thread so much did lead to another idea...

<Part 1 | Part 3>

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Game Trek: The Next Generation (of Consoles) - Part 1

Stardate 0914210141:

I figured it would be awhile before I could jump into the new generation of consoles (XBox One and PS4) ever since they were released about a year ago.  I was able to get a Wii U thanks to my wife's retail job, so that part was taken care of.  Also, that was not the best idea in hindsight.  More about that some other time.

Anyway, I didn't think I would be able to get one or both of the others this year, until my wife mentioned that she didn't want that to keep me from getting a review copy of something.  We had some extra Paypal money, and if something panned out, I would get more.  I would use it to get a PS4, and use something else to get an X1.

The plan for the X1 was pretty simple.  Get two mover's coupons, use one to buy a prepaid Visa gift card, taking that down 10%.  Then buy the console and use the second coupon, taking it down 10% again.  So total for the white X1 would be 320+ tax or so.  Good deal.

The thing for the extra Paypal money to get the PS4 fell through, so that option was off the table.  Sucks, but at least I could still get one of the new gen systems.

Or could I?  Two days before my coupon was valid, they changed it so it could no longer be used on a Visa gift card.  So that's $40 that I wouldn't be able to save.  Bad, but I might be able to recover from it.  Well, until the other shoe dropped.

The next day, I get a letter in the mail.  It has a speeding ticket from when I went to the Post Office to get the mover's coupon.  That was pretty much the last nail in the coffin.  So on top of not getting that extra $40 off, I might have to pay a $200 ticket.  The universe definitely took a dump on my that time.

Part 2>

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Tears to Tiara II: Heir of the Overlord (PS3) Review

Tears to Tiara II is a story of historical fiction, where the last of the Barca family, Hamil, rallies his supporters to rebel against the Empire.  The whole story is actually pretty interesting, and contains some obvious real-world influences (the game is set on the peninsula nation of Hispania... wonder what it's supposed to be).  There's some religious themes, too, so it might bother some people, but again, no problem with me.  Each character's dialogue artwork and the special CG scenes are really well done.  Battle models are 3D chibi versions of the characters, which seem a strange contrast to the sometimes dark and bleak nature of the game.

The game is billed as a hybrid of visual novel and strategy RPG.  Story sections are obviously the visual novel half.  There is a lot of dialogue, with nicely done character portraits and the occasional full-screen image.  Yes, other games, notably RPGs, do this too, but Tears to Tiara II earns the "visual novel" distinction because it is much more in-depth with the story and dialogue.  There is a lot of it.  It wasn't too much for me, but there are large chunks where there is nothing but story.  The first 90 minutes of the game had one short fight in it.  While it could be a bit much, it didn't seem out of place.  The dialogue and situations flowed pretty naturally, so it wasn't just lots of dialogue or story for the sake of padding the playtime.  So if you are someone who skips through dialogue to get to the fights, you might want to steer clear.

The battles are fairly standard SRPG faire, with the field divided up into a grid.  You get better damage and accuracy from the backs and sides of opponents, different weapons have different ranges, strengths and weaknesses... you know how it goes.  Tears to Tiara II adds a few things into the mix, the first being Awakening.  There are certain characters that can transform into a stronger form for a few turns, once a meter is filled.  When it wears off, their stats drop dramatically and they can only move 1 space for their next turn, so be careful when and where you use it.  It's pretty cool, but isn't super new.

The second thing is the Quadriga.  One of your units is an elephant, who can move and attack, and also carries around the Quadriga behind them.  This cart can reclaim units and put out another.  It's similar to the base panel in the Disgaea games, but mobile and can be attacked and destroyed.  The third is the Chain Stock.  There are bubbles at the bottom of the character window that can be used to attack extra times, or boost magic attacks for more greater effect.  Extra attacks are always nice when making sure to finish off your opponent.  You do have to hit a button with correct timing to do them, so it's entirely possible to mess up.

The fourth, and most unique addition is the rewind function.  You can turn back any turns you have done, up to a maximum of 20, if you need or want to do something over.  This is very useful.  Sometimes you make the wrong choice of where to move, or who to attack (or even waste your chain attack on a chest...which I've sadly done more than once).  Now, you can rewind and make a better choice.  There's no limit to the amount of times you can do this in a battle.  If you lose a battle, you can use this function to go back a few turns and try to fix any mistakes.  However, as they state, doing the exact same thing (like attacking the same enemy from the same angle) will still produce the same result.  So if you missed an attack, you won't hit it by trying it again from the same angle.  Attack from the side or the back, and it has another chance to hit.  It makes the game a lot more forgiving and a little easier to play.  It's still far from an auto-win, so it won't make the game too easy.

At first, you have to take battles as they come along, but eventually you will be able to re-do some battles for extra money and experience.  Granted, it takes about 7 hours (!) to get to that point, but thankfully you can do some grinding if you want to.  Most fights also include bonus objectives that give extra rewards at completion.  These are nice, and it's hard to resist trying for all of them, but they don't note which rewards are from the bonuses, so I don't know if they are worth getting.

The game is touted as being an 80 hour game, but it's closer to 50 or so for a first run through the game.  After beating the story, there is an optional dungeon and even a new game plus.  Many of the trophies will be obtained just by making your way through the game.  Each battle has a trophy, and there are ones for beating the game on each difficulty.  Thankfully the new game plus helps with that.  If that's not enough, you can buy some extra characters to use in battle.  These are crossover characters from another game, so they aren't selling you things that should have been included.  It would have been nicer if the PSN pages for the characters actually showed them, or said what their weapon is, to make it easier to cherry-pick which characters I might want.

While it's not going to be for everyone, I like Tears to Tiara II: Heir of the Overlord.  It has a good mix of visual novel and strategy RPGs, which gives a lot of story and character development with fun grid-based battles.  There is a lot of story and dialogue, so if you want people to shut up and get to the fights, you should probably stay away.  The rewind function is unique, useful, and makes the game more forgiving.  You might not take the proposed 80 hours to beat the game, but you should get your money's worth and fans of SRPGs should give Tears to Tiara II a try.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Ar Nosurge: Ode to an Unborn Star (PS3) Review

By Tina Hand

Ar Nosurge: Ode to an Unborn Star is a difficult game to classify.  While it is in many ways clearly an RPG, the unique battle system, oddly limited amount of equipment, and large blocks of story make it something unique.  When I first heard about this game, I was excited, because I loved the Ar Tonelico games for their compelling story, interesting battle systems, and unique methods of stat boosting.  Your characters are there to protect a singer, who stands behind your battle party and basically “sings” a spell the entire time your party is fighting.  Then, whenever you feel the need, you cast the spell and watch the fun ensue.  Ar Nosurge carries on that tradition but takes it a bit further since you only have one party member and one singer.

There are so many things to like about this game.  Everything you need is at your fingertips, often right from the outset, and there are multiple ways to improve your characters.  To make more songs available to your singer, you “dive” into what’s called their Genomsphere.  Basically, you take a peek inside their head to learn more about them and encourage them to trust you more.  With the Ar Tonelico games, you would dive repeatedly into the same girl, learning more and more about her and unlocking her potential that way.  Ar Nosurge went a slightly different and (I feel) more realistic way about it.  Yes, you can dive into your singer, but your singer will link herself with other characters, typically close friends or people she’s interacted with in the past, and you dive into them in a way as well.  So instead of learning more about her by digging your way deep into her psyche, you learn about her by learning about how she and her friends see each other.  This unlocks crystals you can then equip on your characters through a “purification ritual” where the two of them sit in a pool/pond/bath house and chat about things that have happened in the game.  Kind of seems like an excuse to get the girls into oddly designed bathing suits, but still has a purpose.  You can also synthesize new equipment and items from the drops you get in battle.

I think the battle system is my favorite part of this game.  It has been completely changed, and now instead of running around finding groups to fight or waiting for an encounter, there is a meter at the top of your screen that tells you the likelihood of an encounter and how many waves of enemies you’ll fight.  Think of it like having the entire dungeon’s contingent of encounters at once.  Each “wave” is like an encounter, and with a properly charged song you can clear out the entire batch of them in one fell swoop.  Ar Nosurge does an exceptional job of demonstrating just how powerful these singers are that they can clear out entire dungeons with a single song, and the different combinations the main attacker can use provides the player with plenty of variety in battle.

I won’t say battles are easy, because some of them can get quite complex.  However, there was never really a point where I felt underpowered, and that was before I fully understood the synthesis system or how to get the most out of my equipment.  There is definitely more strategy to a battle than simply mashing buttons, but if you do choose that route you aren’t going to find yourself getting beaten on a regular basis.  Of everything in this game, I liked the battle system the best.  The ability to control the opponent’s turns (and often outright deny them the ability to damage your singer) was awesome, and in a lot of ways the ability to do all the dungeon’s battles at once made grinding less of a chore and more of a puzzle.

In terms of art style, there have been significant changes since the days of Ar Tonelico.  In a lot of ways, the graphics and synthesis system are reminiscent of the Atelier series of games, where you grind in dungeons to gather the items you need to make new stuff.  The choice to go with more 3D models wasn’t one I was particularly fond of, though it certainly emphasizes the difference between Ar Nosurge and Ar Tonelico.  Perhaps the most obvious thing, though, was the character designs.  The majority of the main characters stand out because they all have ridiculously over the top, asymmetrical costumes.  Even Cass is subject to this flaw, though her costume is the simplest in design.  It seems as though they were trying a little too hard to make these people stand out from the rest, and while it’s good to make your main characters appear different, this seemed over-exaggerated.  Locations were all very artfully drawn, though they seemed odd when you actually go and are running around a 3D model instead of seeing the drawing style of the over world.  Overall, it wasn’t that compelling, and some of the characters costumes (in particular, Nay the Gale and Prim) are actually off-putting.

Now, however, I have to talk about the actual story.  The most important thing to note is that this game is technically a sequel to a game that was never released here in the US.  So often the characters will reference things that happened in the previous game and often I didn’t realize that’s what they were talking about until much, much later.  Through the game, you have what equates to two separate parties: Delta and Cass, and Earthes and Ion.  You start with Delta and Cass, and eventually you gain the ability to switch between them and Eathess and Ion.  There are a lot of things that are not fully explained, or the explanations are ones you have to find for yourself, or they expect you to know because you played the previous game.  So often I found myself completely confused and wondering just what had happened, or why people were acting the way they were.  Helpfully, the game’s creators included an encyclopedia with notes and references, so that the player can figure out what all these strange terms thrown out there actually mean.  Unfortunately, the plot is so thick that often I found myself uninterested in actually knowing what was going on.  There was never anything about any of the game’s characters that drew me in, or made me feel like I could understand them, their motives, their goals, or their problems.  I think this is the first RPG I’ve ever played where I found myself skipping dialogue because I was bored.  Or annoyed with the surprising amount of typos.

So, overall, this was a decent game.  If you have never played any of the Ar Tonelico-style games, then this isn’t the one that will convince you to.  For that, I would strongly recommend the first Ar Tonelico for Playstation 2.  The battle system, while unique and innovative, was not enough to overpower the heavy amount of plot, or the indecipherable motives of its characters.  This wasn’t a game I felt compelled to continue playing simply because I had to know what happened to these people.  I played it because the battle system becomes addictive once you learn how to manipulate it.  It’s a fun game to play, but the amount of play time was, for once, limited by the amount of plot time.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Senran Kagura Shinovi Versus (Vita) Review

Senran Kagura Shinovi Versus picks up six months after the ending of Senran Kagura Burst, a 3DS game.  It introduces a new shinobi school, Gessen Academy, and a new crew for the evil Hebijo, since the previous elites have gone rogue.  Of course, the fan service the game is built upon is in full force, and maybe even a little more risque.

While the 3DS game, Burst, is more of a side scrolling action game (think Final Fight or Streets of Rage), Shinovi Versus is more of a 3D hack and slash (think Dynasty Warriors or Sengoku Basara).  Thankfully, blocking has been added, making some fights a lot easier (yes, you strangely couldn't block in the 3DS one, even though the enemies could).  Attacking and moving just feel a little better and more fluid than before.  The only real downside is that it can be much harder to keep track of your opponents.  Before, they mostly stayed on one screen, but now they can easily attack from offscreen or even behind you.

The biggest thing the Senran Kagura series is known for is the fan service.  Most of the girls have big chests that bounce around a lot, and in combat, damage can get your clothes ripped off.  Since the bosses are all playable characters, they, too, can shed their clothing as you damage them.  Now, if you finish off a boss with a super move while they are in their underwear (top or bottom), it will shred that.  They won't be totally nude, since there will be little chibi faces covering their top, or a streak of light covering their bottom if you do it.  Ironically, some of these cover up more than the underwear they replace.  Yeah, not everyone is going to like this aspect (it doesn't bother me at all), but at least the game is upfront with its focus.

Last game, ranged enemies and characters were easily the most annoying, because you couldn't block their attacks.  Now, they can still be really annoying (Yagyu in the air being the main offender), but notably less so.  The AI overall is much more aggressive, and chase you down whenever you escape their attacks.  This makes them all harder than the previous game, but they didn't feel cheap or unfair (except maybe Asuka's strong attack).  Still, it can get annoying when you are just trying to air recover and escape, only to have the boss and their minions hound you incessantly.  Another cool addition is the midair fights.  Previously, when you launched a boss, you could follow them up and pile on extra damage with little resistance.  Now, if the launcher person recovers fast enough and attacks as the other is, it enters a clash where you have to button mash to win.  It's pretty fun, but there ended up being too many of those toward the end of each school's story mode.

From the outset, there are now three schools to choose from and go through their story.  Plus, you can unlock another group from the previous game, bringing the total to four groups of five girls, meaning there are twice as many characters as last time.  The returning characters have been tweaked as well, which benefits most of them (especially Hibari).  Sadly, I felt like Katsuragi was changed a bit for the worse, but it could be because she was my favorite to use in Burst.  Most of the new characters are just as good as the old, but I feel like each school still get at least one character that isn't that good.  I'm sure it's personal preference, as someone will undoubtedly love a character I don't, and dislike the ones I do.  I guess the point of this is that no one felt out of place.  They were all usable, and the new characters fit in perfectly.

One of the surprises of the previous game was how much story and character growth they had, and Shinovi Versus continues this.  A lot of the story is told through on-screen text with some spoken dialogue (in Japanese).  If you are willing to pay attention to it, it's actually good, and you see growth and depth in many of the characters.  Sadly it's easy for people to completely ignore it, since they will dismiss the game out of hand.  I'm not saying the story is the reason to buy this game, but it's actually done well, and better than many AAA games that I've played.

Content wise, there's also a lot of stages in the game.  Four playable schools with 24 or 25 stages each adds up to 97 story stages.  Each character also has their own mini story of 5 stages.  That's 100 more stages.  Even if each stages only takes a few minutes, counting story and loading, you'll get around 30 hours just to get through everyone's story.  This will also net you most of the trophies, since the list is pretty standard.  Expect trophies for story completion, purchasing costume pieces and other similar things.  The stage areas themselves aren't super interesting, but I was usually paying attention to the enemies, so I wasn't bothered by them getting reused a lot.

Supposedly, the draw, or at least unique aspect, of this entry in the series is the versus mode.  Ad-hoc and online are both supported.  While this would be cool to some, I feel it's unnecessary.  It tried the modes out because thankfully you can put bots in the empty slots instead of waiting around for someone (I had the game before release so it would be even harder to find a game).  There are three modes, but they all feel the same.  There are four people, so you just pick an opponent and keep fighting them.  You could switch targets, but there's little point unless it's the down time between respawns.  One mode has you attack each other for points, and another gives points for knocking their clothes off.  The third sounds different, as you collect underwear.  However, since getting hit knocks some out of you, you just sit there and hit each other.  I have no doubt there are people who will love the versus modes, and play it with their friends, but it still feels tacked on.  Thankfully, it can be ignored (save for 3 easy trophies that only require participation, not winning) and it doesn't seem to have affected the main game.

I really like Senran Kagura Shinovi Versus.  It's a fun hack and slash with lots of fast-paced ninja action.  It revels in its fanservice and doesn't shy away from its risque nature.  If that doesn't bother you, or you enjoy that, I'd recommend playing the game.  The story is better and more developed than most people would give it credit for, and there are a lot of stages to conquer.  The versus mode is forgettable, but overall I had a lot of fun playing the game.  I'm also eagerly awaiting the two DLC characters that should be coming out soon.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Natural Doctrine (PS3) Review

Natural Doctrine is the inaugural title made by Kadokawa Game Studio.  It's a strategy RPG in a fantasy setting.  The enemy and location designs seem more "western", being more brown and gray, where the character designs are much more "eastern".  It looks nice, and the character portraits have different settings, so you can have more realistic (as they are called), or the anime style with either large or small portraits.  I was surprised so many lines were voiced, too.

At its heart, the game is a strategy RPG, although not quite in the way I'm used to.  While battles do take place on a grid, each square is rather large.  You can't move in or through an area that the enemy occupies, so no real back or side attacking like other strategy or tactical RPGs.  Instead, each team member's turns can link with each other if you fulfill certain conditions.  Linked attacks will happen together, so you can pile on the damage... or get it piled on you.  The enemy can and will use these mechanics against you.  The whole system is pretty unique, but complicated and not very well explained.  I'd like it better, but it takes a lot of trial and error to understand it, and the computer is vicious, since they can and do take full advantage of it.

Battles can be hard, since any of your characters dying will result in a game over.  Considering linked turns can stack on the damage, one mistake can end the battle.  It's that unforgiving.  Battles have some checkpoints, but the game doesn't note when you hit one (at least not that I saw).  It's nice, and something you will probably use a lot, especially early on.  Although, I had at least one battle that I had to completely restart because the checkpoint was in a no-win situation.  If you want to succeed, you'll want to learn the link conditions and take advantage of them to move your team and destroy the enemy.  There are a few battles you can repeat, but the rewards will diminish quickly, so grinding doesn't help a whole lot.

One of the best aspects of the game is the skill trees for each character.  There are a lot of good skills and abilities in them, and you can change what skills you purchased any time you aren't in a battle.  Want extra healing in the next encounter?  Use your points on the skills that give health potions.  Did you end up needing a stronger attack ability?  Take those healing potion points back and re-distribute to get it.  No more accidentally buying something or finding out something isn't as great as the description made it sound.  It's a very flexible system, which helps you tailor your party to meet each challenge, reducing the difficulty of some battles.  Plus, healing and recovery potions will refill after each battle, so there's no penalty for using them when you need them, as you can't run out in the long run.

Surprisingly, there is multiplayer in the game, both versus and co-op.  I really wanted to try the co-op, since that's more my thing, but was unable to find a game after searching at different times for a few days.  I also searched several times for a versus match, and eventually found one.  It went...ok... but it was really boring.  When the enemies go in single player, you can hold circle to make their turn faster, but no dice for versus (obviously).  So, you just have to sit there until your turn.  Plus, you don't have your normal team, but a team assembled of characters that you have cards of.  Basically every character and enemy in the game gets a card, and what you can fit into each "deck" will be used as your units.  Really, a tutorial would have helped so you wouldn't be trying to figure it all out the one or two chances you have to play it online with someone.  At least it was easy to spend the points for more cards, since they gave you some each day your connected to online.  If you are a trophy hunter, you will want to set up matches, since there are trophies tied to the multiplayer.

All in all, I wanted to like Natural Doctrine more than I did.  It has a unique take on strategy RPGs, but ultimately is a bit too complicated for its own good.  While it explains the systems at work, it doesn't do it well enough, which comes to bite you rather quickly.  Fights are tough, and one mistake can fail the whole thing.  If you master the link system, the game gets better, though.  It looks nice and the story seems decent.  There's also cross-save and cross play, so there are definitely positives to the game.  If you are willing to invest the time figuring it out, the game can be pretty fun, it's just a shame it's so unforgiving and frustrating while you learn.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Arcana Heart 3 LOVEMAX!!!!! (PS3) Review

Arcana Heart 3: LOVEMAX!!!!! is an all-girl anime fighter.  Most of the graphics are really good in the game.  The menu, character select, and character art all look great.  The animations of the in-battle characters are good, but the sprites themselves look a little blocky and blurry.  It's not enough to deter my enjoyment, but they do stand out against everything else looking crisp.  The audio is in Japanese only, and a fair amount of the story lines are voiced.

The game is basically a five-button fighter, although one of those isn't an attack, but a dash/tracking move.  That said, it is really made for an arcade stick, since many commands require multiple buttons pressed simultaneously.  It is playable on the PS3's default controller, as I was able to beat the game without an issue.  When using an arcade stick, the multi-button presses became easier.  So thankfully it controls pretty well on both the Dualshock 3 and an arcade stick.

As stated before, there are five buttons for fighting, and the rest are set to different combinations of them.  Each character has a weak, medium and strong attack that can be comboed together.  There is also a homing attack, but it just dashes or floats you toward your opponent.  You can attack from it, but it's not really an attack on its own.  The arcana button will allow you to air launch and wall bounce your opponent, plus helps unleash the special move of your chosen arcana.  The attacks and special attacks flow pretty well from each other, making combat fluid.  The biggest gripes I have are the slow walking movement (necessitating the homing attack to move quickly) and that the homing attack always goes toward the opponent.  It would be nice if it could be used to dash away from them, but I suppose then it wouldn't be "homing".  There are a lot of special attacks to play around with though, and each arcana has a different trick, so being able to pick which one you want is nice.

Thankfully, there is a good amount of single player content.  There is a story mode, that while not super deep, allows you to pick who your next opponent is from a few choices.  Add in some special dialogue when certain characters battle, and you get some decent replay as you make your way through with the different fighters.  While there is a fair amount of dialogue, it feels more like other fighting games' arcade mode.  The story for the After Story mode is much better.  There is an overall narrative, with each girl's story intersecting with the others, so playing through them all gives one big story.  Unfortunately, each story only contains one fight of one round, with lots of dialogue around it.  More fights would have been better, but I like the way After Story was presented and how the stories would weave between each other.

There is still some more single player stuff to the game, though.  There are Trials, which pits you against another fighter, but also gives you a task to complete, like landing a ground combo or doing jump cancels.  It's harder than other games' similar modes, simply because you have to do it while fighting, not in some pre-set scenario.  No fighting game would be complete without a survival mode, and Arcana Heart delivers it combined with a score attack.  To round it out there is also a time attack mode.  While the last two are hardly revolutionary, they all add together to give a healthy amount of single player content to go through if you don't want to fight your friends or people online.

All that single player content aside, a lot of the allure of fighting games is playing against others, especially online.  I played a few matches, and didn't have much trouble finding games.  Non-peak times were much leaner, which is to be expected of a niche fighting game.  The matches I played had barely any lag that I could tell, and it felt pretty smooth once the fight started.  I still got completely destroyed, since I'm not very competitive (or good at fighting games), but it wasn't lag that got me killed.  Of course there's also a local versus mode if you don't wont to go online and have people to play with.

Lots of things are unlockable in the game.  The most obvious are the nice CG images shown throughout the various stories and endings.  There's also the different animations that can be displayed on the side during the fights (since the battles are not in widescreen).  It's better to view them here since they can be quite distracting during combat.  You also unlock "Memories" for the characters, which are separate text-based stories told in several parts.  They aren't necessary to the overall package, but they are kind of fun to read through once.  Trophies run the usual fighting game gamut, from winning x amount of battles online, completing the trials and going through the story modes.  There are many character specific ones which require you to utilize their unique talents and mechanics.  The list is mostly skill based ones, with a few grind-heavy trophies thrown in for good measure.

While not the best fighting game I've played, Arcana Heart 3 LOVEMAX!!!!! is pretty fun.  If you dedicate enough time to it, there is a deep combat system at its heart (pun not intended).  I'm not very good at fighting games, but there was enough single player content to keep me playing for awhile.  The few matches I played online ran well, so I have no complaints there.  Even if you aren't a competitive person like me, there is still some fun to be had going through the story modes and unlocking different extras.  If you like the more methodical fighting games like Guilty Gear and BlazBlue, give Arcana Heart 3 LOVEMAX!!!!! and all its exclamation points a try.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Fairy Fencer F (PS3/PC) Review

[Editor's Note: there has been an addition to the end for some impressions of the PC version]

Fairy Fencer F is from the makers of the Hyperdimension Neptunia series and stars the always hungry slacker Fang.  After he draws out a fairy-imbued weapon (called Furies in the game), he decides to help his fairy, Eryn, find her lost memories and get his wish granted... for more food.  Honestly, each character I met in the game was pretty unlikable at first, but they slowly grew on me.  The dialogue is often pretty funny and the story flows quickly.  The character art is nice, and even the battle models look good.  However, there are several enemy models that are pretty much copy/pasted from the Neptunia games.

The flow of the game is pretty simple.  You get one or more events in town, then a dungeon opens up.  Complete the dungeon and return to town, rinse and repeat.  There are quests to do for extra money and items, which gives you more reasons to return to each dungeon.  One nice addition to the formula is altering dungeons.  You acquire more furies as the game progresses, and through Godly Revival (more on this below), give them skills that will affect a dungeon if they are stabbed into the ground near them.  These can be simple, like giving more experience or money, or more complex, like changing what enemies are in the dungeon.  There's even an optional area that gives more enemies to fight the more furies are stabbed in the ground.  The furies can be moved or taken back at any point on the world map, so don't worry about putting them down when you need to.

Combat will look a little familiar if you've played the Neptunia series.  You fight in a predefined area and can move within your radius on your turn.  Normal attacks can only hit one target, but skills can be positioned to hit multiple enemies.  You can also purchase combo slots and different attacks to put in them, customizing your attack string.  The fury your characters get can switch forms to other weapons as you make your way through the game, and each type has different advantages from each other.  The combos you have are put together from whatever attacks you purchase and equip, so you can, for example, start with a sword attack, the next hit will be a spear, then end with a gun attack.  It's really fun to set up the combos, and you even get attacks that will launch your target.  Granted that's not useful until you get a further combo slot, but then you can follow them up into the air for more damage.

Another aspect of battle is the Avalanche attack.  If you hit an enemy with a weapon type that it is weak to, and at least one other character has their turn next, there is a chance you will get an avalanche attack.  This basically extends your attack by letting your other characters join in, and doesn't cost them their turn.  While that is really nice for upping your combo count and damage, the random nature makes it too unreliable.  More often than not it would start one just as I was hitting the button for my next combo attack, and it would mess up my fancy chains.  It was unfortunately hard to make the best use out of the feature, but at least it doesn't hurt you in any way, so I can't complain too much.

The last unique aspect of combat is the Fairize command.  When your tension meter is over a certain point, you can merge with your fairy into a powered-up state.  Besides looking pretty cool (if impractical), your stats are boosted and you get access to a super attack.  The super is pretty strong, but sadly takes health and mana to use.  It doesn't kick you out of the Fairize state, which I would expect it to.  I have to say that I would prefer it not take health, but drain your tension gauge.  I would have used it much more if it behaved like that.  As it is, I tried to use it to finish a boss fight, mostly for the cool factor, since I would be close to dead if I misjudged it.  Overall, combat is really fun.  The biggest complaint I have is sometimes it is hard to tell what monster(s) are targeted for an attack.  There is a marker above your target(s), but sometimes it is hard to see.  I rarely hit the wrong target, but it sadly did happen a few times.

The fun is about to begin...
Getting experience levels you up like other RPGs, but there are other ways to boost your party and customize them slightly.  You gain weapon points (WPs) for each victory, and they can be used to increase stats, buy magic, attacks and other things.  Most skills, abilities and magic will have prerequisites, so it can take a bit to get the really good attacks.  I always like buying skills and stuff in games, so I really liked all the different things you could get.  This menu is where you will buy combo slots and weapon attack to fill them.  The character challenges from Hyperdimension Neptunia V return for this game and give you further opportunity to strengthen your party.  Healing, using skills and items a certain amount of times will give small stat boosts.  Whoever you set as the party leader will also be able to earn other challenges, like jumping or getting preemptive strikes.  I liked them in Neptunia V and I like them again in Fairy Fencer F.  They aren't necessary, so if they aren't your thing you can ignore them.  Personally, I liked to rotate my leader and spread around the challenges to try and keep my people somewhat even.

While your fairy partner is set and cannot be changed, you can also equip a second fairy that gives you different skills.  Most skills they will get upon leveling up, but there is also a way to get them.  One character allows you to place a fairy in an inactive fury used to seal the two deities, called Godly Revival.  After you complete a fight, the fury is now yours to use on the world map, or equip the fairy for different skills.  A fairy can only be put in an equivalent tier weapon (C, B, A or S), but you can choose what order to do them in and which weapon to use what fairy on, so it's a pretty open system.  There are some very useful skills you can get this way, like restoring some HP after a fight, or restoring yourself completely when using the Fairize command.  While it is yet another way to make your characters stronger, it was fun to get a fury for my new fairies and raise them all to level 10 and see what skills they would get.  Plus, if you fight with them enough, they give you some items.

It takes awhile to make your way through the game, as it took me over 40.  The game isn't very hard and you don't need to grind, especially if you do a lot of the quests and sub events (like me).  A lot of the sub events are very easy to miss, which can make you miss out on extra fairies and even playable characters.  That's my biggest complaint overall with the game.  You can miss stuff very easily, and you can't actually do it all in your first run.  However, there is a new game + which allows you to keep your level, items and money, making it easy to go through the game again.  If you are a completionist like myself, there is good replay value.  Plus, if you are going after all the trophies, you will have to put even more time into it, mostly for the money trophy.  Unfortunately, the list is mostly secret, so you will have to look up those in addition to seeing how to get all the stuff you likely missed.

I had a lot of fun playing Fairy Fencer F.  The combat was my favorite part, having high-hitting combos and launching enemies into the air for juggling attacks.  There are several ways you can make characters stronger and I enjoyed using them all.  The only real downside to the game is how easy it is to miss things, but the new game + option makes it easier to deal with.  It was hard to pull myself away from the game, as I kept wanting to play.  I highly recommend it to RPG fans, especially if you enjoyed the combat in the Neptunia series.

[UPDATE: 10/18/15]
I've had a chance to try the PC version of the game.  It ran well on my i7 desktop.  Like other Idea Factory International games on the PC, the graphics look a little better and a controller is superior to use for the game, although you can use a keyboard and mouse.  The cut-scene graphics don't like as nice as the Neptunia ones, but they don't look bad, either.  If you don't want to wait for the PS4 psuedo-sequel coming out later and want the best looking version of the game, then the PC copy is the way to go.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Warriors Orochi 3 Ultimate (PS3) Review

The original Warriors Orochi 3 came out two years ago.  Tecmo Koei recently released an updated Ultimate version, which boasts new levels and a few additional characters.  However, the graphics don't seem upgraded as the character portraits seem grainy and there is still a lot of pop-in for the enemy troops.  The rest of the additions are pretty solid though.

The story follows from the second game, but it's not really required to have played it in order to understand what's going on.  Basically, the heroes of Dynasty Warriors and Samurai Warriors were transported to another world where they coexist and defeat an evil entity called Orochi.  A while after their victory, this world is threatened by the appearance of a multi-headed hydra.  You start at the three surviving heroes' assault on the monster.  It doesn't go so well, and you end up being saved by one of the mystics.  Her name is Kaguya, and her power allows you to travel through time to recruit all of the other Warriors characters and have a chance at beating the hydra.

I like the presentation of the story.  It's a nice unified plot, and has a good excuse for so many levels.  You can only jump to places that a recruited character has been, so as you gain more people, you also open up more levels.  Some stages have a character die.  Later you will unlock special stages that allow you to change their fate, and recruit them to your cause.  While not the deepest or best plot I've ever seen, the story mode is fun and well done.  There's also several guest characters from other franchises, like Ninja Gaiden and Bladestorm.  For the Ultimate edition, they even added Sterk from Atelier Rorona and Sophitia from Soul Calibur, among others.  It's a great excuse to put others in a fun hack and slash game, and I approve.

The core fighting is pretty much the same as Dynasty and Samurai Warriors.  You get a regular attack and a charge attack that changes depending on what point in the combo you use it.  There's also a special attack that takes some of your musou meter to use.  Some are attacks, while others are power-ups or something similar.  Instead of the two weapon system from the later Dynasty Warriors games (which came out after the original Orochi 3), you have 3 characters that you can switch between.

One new feature in this system is the ability to summon the other two to fight alongside you.  While they won't recover health and musou when deployed like this, they can attack enemies and allow you to use your multi-person musou attack.  However, my favorite improvement is the Scroll of Enlightenment.  Picking one up gives a temporary buff where any enemy killed gives an experience scroll.  You get a ton of experience this way and it's a lot of fun to see so many scrolls and so many level ups happen so quickly.  The only problem I have is I see no indication of how long it lasts.  Getting a lot of levels helps with the other new addition, "promoting".  Similar to other games, this allows you to start a max level character over at level 1, but with higher stats and more skill slots.  You can do it a maximum of 10 times per officer and end up with ridiculously overpowered characters.

Besides the story mode mentioned above, there are three other modes.  The first one I'll talk about is Duel mode.  It basically turns the game into a fighting game (kind of like the first Dynasty Warriors), where you will face off 3-vs-3.  You can also equip and use special cards that activate different abilities.  The mode isn't bad, but it's fairly uninteresting.  It's something you'll likely play once for the novelty of it, or a few times for the trophies.

There's also a battlefield edit mode, which allows you to change any completed battle by altering lines, enemies, allies and participating officers.  While it could be pretty fun, I'd rather have a more robust level creator.  I can rarely remember which battle took place where, since the levels are all corrupted by Orochi and end up looking similar (save the beach level), so starting by choosing a level to edit didn't help.  It's kind of fun to change lines and stuff, but it doesn't last.  If it were more open, like picking a field (and showing you the map), picking a troop type and selecting where officers went (and it would place the troops automatically), it would be a blast.  As it stands, it's another novelty that you might try once and then forget about.

The last mode is called Gauntlet.  You will start with 5 characters (there are some pre-selected or you can choose any you have unlocked), which cannot be changed until others are unlocked in this mode.  The stages have random "Dragon Portals" which must be activated, and do a variety of things, like summon enemies, heal you, or give items.  One of them will be the exit for the stage, which you must find to complete it.  As you kill enemies, they will get much stronger, and any named officers you defeat will be unlocked so you can use them in Gauntlet mode.  When you beat a stage, you get a crystal that can be used to unlock another stage.

Gauntlet mode is pretty fun, but the random nature can make it near impossible to complete stages.  I was able to beat the tutorial very easily, but it took me 3 or 4 tries to actually beat the first stage.  Enemy levels shoot up very quickly, so it become important to find the exit first, then get some experience, items and defeat enemy officers.  The biggest knock against the mode is the uneven difficulty.  It's fun, but can get downright brutal if you aren't lucky.  One piece of advice from my friend DTJAAAAM: get and use the formation skill that allows you to see where the exit is.  The mode will be much easier then.  Also, you can edit the colors of officers that you are using in Gauntlet mode, which is cool in any game.

There are a lot of stages in the original Orochi 3, and Ultimate about doubles the amount.  Since each battle takes about 10-20 minutes (more with loading, dialogue and preparations), I would say it's about 50 or so hours to do all of the story missions.  Add in the time for Gauntlet mode, and you will easily get your money's worth from the game.  You'll likely get some replay out of Gauntlet mode, since you're supposed to go through it multiple times to get all the good stuff.  If you are a trophy hunter, you will be in it for the long haul.  If you have a save file for the original Warriors Orochi 3, you can save yourself 20 or so hours, and jump into the new stuff with your leveled officers.

If you are a fan of Dynasty or Samurai Warriors (or even the upcoming Hyrule Warriors), then I'd easily recommend Warriors Orochi 3 Ultimate.  Even if you have played the original release, there is enough new content that I would still recommend picking up the game.  Some of the visuals look a bit grainy, but the game is fun and there are many an hour to be spent clearing the story.