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.