Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Grand Kingdom (PS Vita) Review

Grand Kingdom begins with a simple premise - you start as a mercenary group looking for work.  It then adds some layers to make it a very unique game offering, mixing single player and online asynchronous multiplayer versus elements.  The resulting game is definitely a mixed bag, but I will say that it at least looks good.  The artwork and character graphics are really nice and detailed.

At its core, the game wants you to form a contract with one of four warring nations, and participate in battles to help them win territory.  Performing well in battle will get you more money and influence within their city.  You can stick with one or jump around as your whims dictate.  In other words, you actually do play as a mercenary.  To gain fortune and fame, you can take on several different kinds of quests.  Campaign quests will further the single player narrative of your group.  Versus battles will give you and a few other mercenary groups a common goal, and it is up to you to avoid each other, or directly interfere to gain the upper hand.  Single are quests given by each nation, and usually have some kind of restriction or gimmick to them, such as low move limit, harder enemies or no contact with enemies.  The last are Travel quests, which allow you to run around a given area, gather materials and fight enemies.

Each quest takes place on a map, where you move around like a piece in a board game.  Every move takes one turn, and you have a set number of turns you can take before failing the quest.  There are treasure chests to open and materials to gather set around at various points.  Sometimes hazards block your path, and you can choose to turn around, spend time to safely navigate it, or even use an item to clear it away.  There are also a few shortcuts for the player to use.  Your group members each have special abilities that can be used on the map if you have the TP to use them, plus items that can be used as well.  Unfortunately, such things tend to affect your whole group, even if it's only one or two people that need to be healed, which ends up wasting some of your limited healing.  Unit abilities and items are crucial to making it through several of the missions in the game, so get used to them.

You aren't the only one on the field though.  There are also enemy pieces that move around while you do.  If you run into one of them (visible or not) you will start a battle.  Battles are actually really neat and can be fun.  There are three planes that you can move between.  Each unit can equip up to six different attacks to use on your turn.  Ranged units like mages and archer will display the affected area before you confirm the attack.  Your target reticle moves from one side to the other, and you must press the button each time to do the attack, allowing you to aim it fairly well.  You can attack as many times as your vitality gauge allows.  Melee units attack right next to them, but you can link their various moves into combos, and even launch the opponent.  Fun!

Now for my gripes with the combat.  First is that it is too easy to hit your own people.  Attacks like the bottles and arrows show the trajectory, but it lies on how wide it considers the hit box.  You have to be fairly far from another unit to actually have your attack arc over them.  Arrows are better than boxes and bottles, but they can still hit a unit next to you.  However, you cannot use them like this, since you can't attack unless there is a target in your ending zone.  If a unit gets launched and contacts another, it will do damage to that unit as well.  This can work in your favor, but I find it helping the computer most often.  Plus, you take almost full attack damage from something that isn't the attack.  What!?

"But wait...there's more" as they like to say on infomercials.  There are techniques that will put damaging patches on the ground.  These are limited in use, except to the computer, because they don't need to plan for the future.  So, they often rush you and throw it all around your character to box you in, often before you even get a turn.  Effective?  Sure.  Cheap?  Hell yeah.  Combine it with the catapults and other things that will target your side each turn and you can have some really cheap battles to overcome.

Besides the combat annoyances, I do have a lot of other problems with the game.  First, I will tackle quests.  I like the Campaign quests, since they have a set level and are one of precious few things you can over-level for.  The other is the Travel quests to gather materials and fight enemies.  While you don't get any bonuses for doing anything there, they are great for leveling up units.

However, even they have some problems.  First is that you can get rare items if the resource percent (shown before you embark on a Roam quest to a location) is 100%.  This would be great except enemies can gather resources, thereby robbing you of your rare item because the developers put the resources in the path of the enemy.  Since you can't always get to the resources before an enemy happens upon it, this is annoying.  Minor, yes, but still annoying.  Roam quests also contain bounty monsters, which the game warns you are stronger than the surrounding monsters.  It doesn't say how much stronger, so when I was level 8 in the level 3 area, I decided to fight one.  It was level 15.  Yeah, that seems really reasonable.

Versus quests try to be unique from the others.  However, the other mercenaries rush to fight you, so they lose that uniqueness and just become normal quests.  To top it off, the other mercenary squads I fought seemed way to powerful for their level, with better stats and more attacks than the same units I had.  The Single quests and their gimmicks tend to be the most annoying.  I guess it is nice that they increase your reputation with one of the nations, but that also limits which ones you can do, often taking the four listed to two available.  One tasks you with fighting X amount of groups.  Ok, makes sense.  It then puts the normal difficulty enemies at the fringes of the map and plops lots of stronger enemy symbols in the way.  That's just one example, but plenty of the Single quests I tried used a gimmick and set up the player to easily fail.

Recruiting characters to use in battle is also a crap shoot.  In the beginning, they provide you with a good mix of standard types to fill out your first party.  Then they will randomly cycle in eight mercenaries of various types with different skills and bonus points for you to hire after each quest.  Once you pick one, you can then change the name, look and set the bonus points.  However, you cannot set what skills they have or their class.  Why only go halfway?  While I was trying to fill out my parties, I eventually needed another healer or two.  I had to wait for several hours (4+) of doing quests before it would let me buy one, since it was intent on offering me multiple valkyries, archers and mages.  If I could just create the character fully, paying more for certain things, this wouldn't be a problem, and I would be a slightly happier camper.

In addition to the single player content, there are also wars going on between the four nations.  This is the multiplayer/online portion of the game, and the part people can participate in with the "Lite" version.  The game explains part of what is going on, but not all of it.  When I participate in an online war, sometimes one win or loss will end the battle.  Other times it will just repeat until the battle is over or I just quit out.  I have no idea why there are different outcomes, the fights seem the same.  It also seems to match me up to other groups that again have more attacks and higher stats at the same level.  Or, it will put me against higher level groups, because that's what will help me not suck.  There's no way to know the level of an opponent until you actually fight them, so you run the risk of coming across much stronger units that you have no hope to beat.  This seems to run against the quest mentality that puts enemies at your level to (pretend to) keep it even.

I usually end up just dispatching my troops and let the AI use them.  It's some free experience, but wow do you lose even more.  Until the game released, my records were usually 0:10.  The only groups that had wins were the ones with Dragon Mages (the best unit I think).  Afterwards, my win/loss rate dramatically improved to 2:10.  I'm sure the AI isn't supposed to win, but I'm sarcastically glad that I fueled a lot of wins for somebody...as it sure as heck wasn't for me.

Maybe part of my problem with Grand Kingdom is that core things seem to be under-explained.  My favorite example of this is the stats.  Yes, they do blatantly tell you what the stat does, but not how an increase affects it.  I pump level up points into something, and it doesn't actually seem to get better.  Strength affects physical attack power, but does that mean it affects ranged attacks like bows and vials?  It must, since nothing else would, based off the descriptions.  Vitality affects the attack gauge recovery speed.  So, does that mean I get my turn faster?  Or does increasing it get me more attacks per turn?  Or is it the move gauge (Agility) that determines when I move?  In practice, it seems to not matter, as your class determines turn order.  Then what does increasing Vit or Agi actually do?  So even though they do say what a stat is supposed to do, in practice it actually either tells me nothing or is meaningless.

Given the random and replayable nature of the PvP and quests (other than the campaign), the game does boast a healthy amount of playtime.  For Grand Kingdom, it is a double edged sword, though.  While I was trying to get all the units, level up some, try them out and do some quests, I spend my first 12 or so hours to go nowhere.  Unlike that feeling in something like The Elder Scrolls games, where it is because you have so much to do, here it felt like I was playing in circles.  I thought I was going somewhere, but really wasn't.

To be fair, maybe I just wasn't "getting" Grand Kingdom.  Maybe what it does isn't clicking with me.  The PvP focus goes against how RPGs play, and it's not a combination that really works in my opinion.  I played the game on the Vita, but I feel it would at least be slightly better on the PS4.  The Vita version loads too often and too long, which should be cut down by the more powerful system.  Plus, the game wants you to constantly be online, which is better for a console than a handheld with limited battery life and a non-constant connection.  Ultimately, I feel very unsuccessful while playing the game, with no indication what I was doing wrong and what I could do to improve.  There is a good game somewhere in the mess, but it has to dump or fix the half of the game that undermines the other half.

The Good:
Map movement and battles are very unique.  If you enjoy PvP and random quests, there is a lot of playtime and replayability in the game.  The art in the game also looks really good.

The Bad:
The PvP focus undermines the RPG aspects.  You can't just create characters.  Important aspects don't seem well explained, and the game is very inconsistent.

The SaHD:
Flint is really annoying.

(Review codes for Grand Kingdom was provided by the publisher)

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Bravely Second: Hours 40-60

Early on, I fought a boss that was a mechanical bird (apparently being ridden by the two stupid soldiers that desperately want to be funny and replace Biggs and Wedge.  No deal.)  It looked fine, but could also transform in battle into the form of a person (it's called the giant form, but it isn't that big).  This made it instantly cooler, and I really liked the look of the boss.

It was also a pretty easy fight, thanks to the Exorcist job.  The third skill it gives will restore 30MP each turn, which is amazing for mages, and totally worth the equip cost (which is a paltry 1 slot).  This meant I could spam the most powerful bishop heal on everyone each turn for free (and actually get 6 MP back!)  Needless to say, a lot of fights got easier after that, especially the following boss.

I got the airship too.  It was pretty obvious, but somehow stranger than the airship from the first game.  Speaking of which, where is that?  Anyway, getting the ship and airship felt really close together and a little odd.  You have to stick with the stupid canoe for way longer than you get a ship.

I fought another boss that may be more annoying than Geist.  Coincidentally, it is his son Revenant.  True to his name he is a ghost (although not a zombie that Hawk has to put into a soul orb).  He's annoying and an asterisk holder.  Basically, he can possess one of your party members so he has access to their abilities and you can't damage him.  He really liked to possess my fighters, and use steal breath.  This would of course heal him, and not the body he was in.  However, damaging him while he was in a body would only damage the body and not him...which is pretty broken in his favor.

Actually, many of the gimmicky asterisk boss fights are like that.  The battle is really skewed in favor of whatever dumb gimmick the job has to show it in a better light.  Often, when you then get these jobs, they are nowhere near as good as advertised.  For example, the swordmaster.  The reason that fight can be hard is he is very counter-heavy.  If you attack him, even with splitting your moves between magic and physical, he has 2-4 chances to counter you for big damage.  If you guess correctly (unlikely), they you are fine.  However, reversing the roles, you have a 1 in 4 chance of him hitting your one person.  The odds are not in your favor and set up an unrealistic scenario for the job's effectiveness.  I feel like Revenant's asterisk is going to be similar.

I also finished chapter 4, which results in you getting the bad ending.  Anyone who played the first game will understand that you have to get this "ending" to further the story.  They kind of hit you over the head with what to do, but I foolishly thought it would all be automatic.  It wasn't, and that meant I would have to basically do the whole game over again, because I missed the tiny window where I was actually supposed to do something I don't normally do.  During the Kaiser fight at the beginning of the game, you have one action, where you can only really attack.  Hence, why I thought it was going to be automatic, since I couldn't do anything else.

Except, I could use the hourglass.  Considering how often I used it before now (maybe twice), I totally forgot it was an option.  It's what I was supposed to do.  Thankfully I didn't get to far in repeating the whole damn game because of a slight mistake before looking it up and shaking my head.  A better idea than the first game for sure, but still annoying.

I like that in the new world/run, you still fight the asterisk holders again, but they tend to team up, so the fight is different.  You still know how to deal with them, but there is at least a small twist to keep them more interesting.  However, they do team up Geist and Revenant, which could potentially be a horrible combination.  So, I abused the SP (hey they wanted me to use it...) to break the damage limit and hit them with specials to drop them fast.  I figure why not, since I don't want to put up with their crap again, especially not together.
-End Spoilers-

Returning to the world map shows several side quests.  This is the chance to redo them and pick the other side.  So, that was how I spent the next few hours, since I did want to pick up all of them, but a few were a top priority.  First stop, the red mage.  After that my intention was to get the monk.

However, I got a little mixed up and did the performer fight instead.  You see, some of the side quest have you do the whole thing again, and some you can skip to the end.  I didn't know this and talked to the person for the performer v pirate side quest, which is just the conversation and then the fight.  While it is something I would have done eventually, I was going to put that one off till last.  I then went and got the monk, so I was a happy camper.

One cool thing besides being able to skip chunks of some of the quests is that the dialogue changes.  Edea remembers the arguments, so she just sums it up for the people, which usually confuses them a bit.  Bravo to the developers for making it more player friendly!

I cleaned up the rest of the jobs before continuing the story.  I did mess up one other time, returning to the wrong dungeon and did the knight job fight instead of the ranger one.  Oops...again.  While doing this, I came to the realization that many of the jobs from the previous game have been toned down, or outright outdone by the new jobs.  Dual wielding doesn't seem as good, and neither does the dragoon.  White and black magic are terrible compared to the bishop and sorcerer.  It's sad to see the classics treated this way, but it does make the new jobs at least appear very useful.  And I suppose that means you can skip the side quests, although I don't know why you would want to.  At least some of the passive skills are still awesome.

During this whole time, I managed to fine tune my boss setup and make it even better.  I'm a big fan of spellcraft, but had not even begun to understand how great it could be.  I would have my healer set up a benediction mist to heal a lot of HP at the end of the turn for a few turns, and could have them default while it was down to recover the BP it takes to keep a continuous chain of it.  The other mage would do any other healing that was needed, or attack with elemental weaknesses.  Tiz and Yew, who I had as physical damage dealers (one as a bow thief and the other a hunter), would default to build up to max BP, then unleashed it all in a turn.  Barrage made this a little more effective than just attacking each turn.  It wasn't foolproof, but it was very safe, effective and I loved it.

-Spoilers (again)-
The final boss of chapter 5 was really annoying.  It was a Ba'al that had a mirror coat that reflected all damaging attacks.  It starts with 100%, and each reflected attack will take 20% off of this.  So 5 attacks and it's down, right?  Sort of.  At the end of each turn, it will automatically restore 20%, so each turn you have to suffer at least one reflected attack.

So how best to beat this?  I tried being clever, and reflecting non-damaging spells like Antidote and stuff, but that didn't seem to lower the percent.  Fine, so I try to reflect a heal spell.  No dice.  I eventually figured out to hit it with my mage(s), so the reflected damage was negligible, but they go at the end of the turn, so I still have to eat one attack before damaging it.  I got he bright idea to knock down the shield, then blow an SP point to use a special and break the damage limit.  Ha!  Smashed him down good...and then he just gets to full heal because plot.  So, rinse repeat and then...the fight ends, but 'story wise' he wouldn't die.  It was resolved, but the fight was really stupid in my opinion.  However, it was just a portent of things to come...
-End Spoilers-

< Hours 30-40  |  Hours 60-??

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book (PS4) Review

by Aly Hand

Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book is the latest game to join the prestigious Atelier series.  The seventeenth iteration of the series, Atelier Sophie works extremely well as a stand-alone title.  If you have never played any of the Atelier games before, this one is a really good one to start with.  The game begins with Sophie, a young girl who is looking to fill her deceased grandmother's role as an alchemist.  She takes advantage of her grandmother's legacy and in the process discovers a magical talking book named Plachta who remembers nothing of her past.  From there the story progresses as Sophie works to restore Plachta's memories and improve her alchemy skills.  Throughout this process she makes friends and helps the townspeople.  Unlike most story-driven RPGs, there is no immediate opponent, no "bad guy" to defeat.  Though there is a "final boss", there is no in-game pressure to defeat it.  Unlike many of the previous Atelier games, there is no hard time limit.

Perhaps one of the more interesting things about the game is how Sophie learns new recipes.  Previously in Atelier games, recipes were organized by type, in a giant list, and the alchemist learned new ones by either discovering them or by substituting different ingredients in existing recipes.  This time around, recipes are organized in trees, and Sophie learns new ones based off of different methods of inspiration.  In other words, what she does effects what she learns.  While this can be an easier way of discovering recipes, there are some instances where the "clues" the player is given are difficult to interpret, making it hard to complete a recipe tree without turning to sources outside the game for assistance.

The battle system is another area where things have been tweaked from previous games.  Though there are many similarities, the addition of a synch meter and the ability to switch between defensive and offensive modes gives a player more options for keeping characters alive.  As the synch meter percentage rises, the in-battle characters perform automatic actions: in offensive mode, they will perform assist attacks, and the higher the percentage the more characters will assist, culminating in a unique attack for the fourth character to assist once the gauge is at 300%; in defensive mode it is much the same, with characters defending each other with a unique defensive move per character when the gauge is maxed out.  Mastering the gauge becomes essential as the player progresses through the game, as battles become more and more difficult.

There is one aspect of the game that is moderately confusing, and it harkens back to Atelier Shallie.  Once a character hits level 20, they cease to gain levels and instead gain "adventure points".  These points can then be spent on stat bonuses, skill upgrades, and special abilities.  On the down side, however, the characters no longer gain these things naturally.  In both games it was an oddity, to switch between natural level progression and player-controlled level progression after a certain point in gameplay.  The question at hand is why, if this is such an integral part of the game, this feature isn't available the entire time.  It is as if the developer is saying "we'll trust you to control your character's level ups, but only after you've proven you can play the game".  While it isn't something game-breaking or even particularly unique, it definitely takes the player time to adjust.  Like someone learning to drive in America and then suddenly having to drive in the UK, a player has to constantly remind him- or herself to pay attention and distribute points, lest characters fall behind and become a liability.

Overall, however, the game was a well-crafted addition to the Atelier brand, with pleasant characters and a clear and understandable story.  It was fun to play, and definitely one I would recommend for anyone new to RPGs, or to the Atelier games.

(Review code for Atelier Sophie was provided by the publisher)

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Hard Reset: Redux (Xbox One) Review

Hard Reset Redux is a first person shooter set in a futuristic world where humans and robots are at war.  The city has a strong cyber punk and dystopian future vibe to it, and many places are run down.  All story scenes are told through motion comics between the stages, and they look pretty cool.

In some ways, the game plays like what one would expect of a first-person shooter.  Your crosshairs move with the right stick, your character with the left.  A Button is jumping, although you don't jump that high or far.  What sets Hard Reset apart is how the game handles the guns.  You have two basic guns, each with their own ammo count.  The first is the CLN gun, which uses physical projectiles.  The second gun is the NRG gun, which obviously uses some kind of energy as ammunition.  The guns have all of their ammo loaded, so while you will need to pick up refills, you don't have clips and don't reload the guns.  It still took me a bit to get used to this, as I am a habitual reloader, and would hit a button to reload, even though there isn't one.  Thanks, muscle memory!

By getting enough kills and/or picking up yellow credit pick-ups during stages, you will fill your Nano meter.  Each time it is filled, you gain one point to upgrade your guns or yourself.  The CLN gun starts as a machine gun/assault rifle, but with upgrades it can change into a shotgun, RPG, grenade launcher and mine thrower (strangely no sniper rifle, though).  The NRG gun gains a very useful short-range blaster mode, plasma mortar, rail gun and smart gun.  The smart gun is really cool, since it tracks and shoots through objects.  Each shot of the different types of guns takes a different amount of ammo, so even with the upgrades you only have two types of ammo to keep track of.

There is definitely some overlap with the upgradeable funcitons, as the initial modes and the close range modes behave similarly.  They also both have a kind of explosive launcher.  The last two of each differ, though.  Besides that and the different ammo counts, there isn't much difference between the two weapons that I could see.  Enemies didn't seem to be more resistant to one than the other, so I think it mostly comes down to situations and personal preference.

Each weapon also has an alternate fire you can purchase as an upgrade, but I rarely used any of them.  At one point in the game you also get an energy katana, likely as a nod to one of the developer's other games, Shadow Warrior.  It isn't very useful, sadly.  The third upgrade section is for your character, and is mostly for upgrading health and shields.  There is some useful stuff in there for sure, but it's not a very flashy tree, just utilitarian.

Hard Reset is very much a run and gun type fps, since only one weapon can aim down the sights (and it is really weird about it).  Enemies come quickly and tend to travel in groups.  Small ones will rush you and jump around, making them not only harder to hit, but more annoying.  Some bigger enemies will rush you too, notably the big, strong and tough gorilla-like ones.  You have a short dash that can help move you out of trouble, but it seems to get me stuck on the environment when it is least convenient.  There are also lots of things in the environment that can explode or shoot electricity to take out enemies (or yourself if you aren't careful), giving the game an arcade-like feel.

When not in a battle for your life, you walk and occasionally jump around the various locales that you character will travel to.  There are several switches to push to unlock doors so you can proceed.  Several enemy ambushes will also open the way forward.  Poking around in nooks and crannies can reveal secrets to get more credits to fuel your upgrades.  There's sadly no map, so you have to keep track of where you came from and where you need to go.  Even so, I rarely got lost or confused as to how to proceed, since the game is pretty linear.  Some stages even end in a boss fight that can make you scramble around trying to stay alive.  There were several times I had sweaty palms while taking on the harder foes.

I played the game on the Normal setting (I would have copped out and played Easy, but several of the achievements want you to at least play on Normal...bleh) and it was an appropriate level of difficulty.  There were a few more difficult parts, but they still felt like the right difficulty for a 'Normal' setting.  Health and ammo power-ups are fairly plentiful in each area.  Ammo/energy itself will even refill up to a certain point if you get low, so the game is really nice about keeping you alive and full of bullets between fights.   A majority of my deaths were not from fights, but the environment (traps, pits, etc.)

There are a few unlockable things, too.  My favorite is the artbook of concept drawings that gets filled out as you play the game.  Upon completion, you get an EX Mode, which is basically new game+, but lets you change the difficulty.  I would assume this makes the harder difficulties much more manageable.  Last is Heroic Mode.  This mode is harder than the Insane difficulty, and only saves at the beginning of the level, so you have to do each one in one shot.  While that's fine for others, it is definitely not something I would ever do.

Since the game is all single player, the meat of the game is story mode, and runs about 10-15 hours depending on how much you poke around for secrets.  However, there is also a survival mode thrown in.  There are four arenas to pick from, and power-ups around the area.  At the end of each wave, you get an upgrade point that you have to quickly put into a skill.  The mode is fairly fun, but I would of course love it if there were multiplayer (even though I don't have any friends with the game yet).  Because it is single player, I'm not sure why you have so little time to allocate your upgrade point.  You would have to already know what each point does, and what you would want to buy, since you don't have the luxury to look.  It just seems unnecessary since it's just you and not online.

All in all, Hard Reset Redux is actually pretty fun.  It is a very action oriented first person shooter with many enemies rushing you and not giving you a moment to rest or a safe place to hide.  The two guns and upgrade system is cool, giving the game a very unique quality.  It's not too hard on the Normal setting, and the length is just about right for its price.  There is even a survival mode added to give you something else to do after completing the story.  I'd recommend cyber punk fans and fps single player fans definitely try Hard Reset Redux.

The Good:
Cool upgrades that give your two guns different uses while keeping ammo and inventory management simple.

The Bad:
It can be really hard to hit the little enemies as they jump around and behind you.  Dodging enemies works pretty well until you get caught on the environment at a crucial time and take unnecessary damage.

The SaHD:
That main character really sounds like Steve Blum, but it's not him.  It also took me embarrassingly long to find the option to invert the aim.  Why wasn't it closer to the top!?

(Review code for Hard Reset Redux was provided by the publisher)

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir (PS4) Review

I still own the original Odin Sphere somewhere in my collection.  I only played it for a bit, but loved the way it looked.  Looking back, it was probably my first introduction to the fabulous art style of Vanillaware.  It was easily one of the best looking PS2 games, and on the PS4 it still looks amazing.  Environments are very detailed, and character models look good and have great animations.

Odin Sphere is a side scrolling action RPG game, and the Leifthrasir remaster has revamped the combat.  It feels really good now.  Attacking, jumping, blocking, and dodging felt very fluid and easy to grasp.  The dodge can be pretty useful, although not an "instant win" button by any means.  Launching enemies up for air combos and mixing in special attacks works seamlessly.

Since I remember having difficulty with the first boss in the original, I shamelessly put the game on easy to play.  I am glad I did.  It was really fun to tear through enemies and lay waste to big, imposing bosses.  For the most part, the controls are really responsive.  The only part I really had trouble with was Mercedes, since she plays different from the rest (although they all have unique elements).  However, there are two side-scrolling shooter sections with her, and those were awesome!

Souls can be gained from slain enemies, or from other objects in the environment.  These souls are used to power up the various skills you acquire throughout the game.  First, you have to find the corresponding crystal, which will unlock the skill.  Many skills are gained from completing battle zones, but some are hidden in an area.  There are hints on the skills as to where to acquire the crystal, so you at least have a general idea where to look for any you may have missed.  When you are looking to power up a skill with souls, it will say what the effects of leveling it up will be, and you can decide if it is worth it or not.  The skills can be assigned to different directions and the circle button, but it is possible to add more, which is cool.  You can even assign some to be midair only, giving you many options!

The other use of souls is to grow plants.  No, really.  In one of the more odd systems in the game, the characters can plant seeds on the ground, and feed it souls to have it bear fruit.  Food in the game gives experience and increases max HP, so the fruit can either be eaten or used in some cooking recipes.  While it's not bad, it feels really superfluous to grow your own.  I can't argue with the effects, though.

The map for each area seems straightforward, but the areas themselves are a bit strange.  The game is on a 2D plane, but many areas are circular rooms.  As you run right or left, you effectively run around the area, but don't change your orientation.  It works, but it can be difficult to know which way is which without the map.  Many areas have multiple exits to other ones, and you hold up and hit the X Button to change.  Again it's not the most intuitive, but it works for what it needs to, and I haven't accidentally changed zones when trying to do something else.

The story will follow one character at a time through their arc of six chapters and an epilogue.  It takes about 7-8 hours each, and there is a final arc that encompasses all of the characters.  They will weave in and out of each other's tales, and it can be a pain to keep them all straight.  A timeline is included, which does help, but it is still not the most comprehensive story.  The character order for the first five chapters is set.  I usually found myself not caring about some of the characters at the start, but thinking they were interesting by the end...just in time for me to be whisked off to another.

While the story is pretty good, interesting, and a little confusing, I feel it doesn't quite live up to the foundation they have set.  Several of the characters have great motivations for their actions, but they (and their resolutions) aren't explored as in-depth as they could be.  Many plot points just seem to happen, instead of having proper build-up.  I guess it's a better problem to have than the opposite (trying to build a huge story on a bad premise).  Since the characters' stories cross a lot, you will be visiting the same locations with each of them.  Plus, you will be fighting the same enemies, and many of the same bosses.  At least they are in a different order so it isn't the same thing five times, but you will start to predict what each boss will be before you enter the area.

While I didn't remember how the original game played very much, Leifthrasir does include the Classic Mode.  It will have the updated graphics, but everything else is from the original.  After playing it for an hour, I can see why I didn't play much of it.  It feels needlessly complicated and the combat lacks the fluidity and fun of the remaster.  I'd recommend trying it so you can appreciate Leifthrasir that much more.

I really recommend Odin Sphere: Leifthasir to any side-scrolling action or action RPG fans.  The game looks great (sorry if you are one of those poor saps that doesn't like Vanillaware's style), and is really fun to play.  The original is also present, so you can see just how much they changed (for the better).  The game is fun, slick, pretty, and gives you a nice chunk of playtime.  What more could you want?  As much as I like Dragon's Crown, I'm hoping that game eventually gets the same treatment as Odin Sphere.

The Good:
Well, obviously I adore the look of the game, so that is an easy good point.  Second, the combat feels really well done.  Most importantly of all, the game was really fun to play.

The Bad:
It can be a pain to keep the overall story timeline straight, even with the graph.  While going through with the 5 characters, you will see each location, enemy and boss several times.

The SaHD:
It bugs me that the shopkeeps keep throwing my stuff on the floor.  Just put it in my inventory!

(Review code for Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir was provided by the publisher)

Friday, June 3, 2016

Anima: Gate of Memories (PS4) Review

Anima: Gate of Memories is an action RPG following a young nameless girl called The Bearer and her companion as she journeys to retrieve a relic stolen from the Order of Nathaniel.  The world the game portrays seems interesting and full of lore.  Unfortunately, a lot of information is dumped on you when you start up the game.  It's not my preferred way of having it done, but there is an in-game reference for some of the things in case you get lost.

Besides all the story and dialogue, the game throws in some jokes, pretty much all of them from Ergo, the demon-like entity sealed in a book carried by The Bearer.  While this could be fine, and a few did make me chuckle, some of his jokes are pop-culture references.  They really don't fit the world the characters inhabit, and are for the player instead.  Trying to make a serious game with a serious plot is pretty much completely undermined by the out of place wisecracks about things from Legend of Zelda to Reading Rainbow.  It could have worked, but didn't.

As both the girl (who is unnamed for a reason, which is kind of neat) and her companion Ergo, you will fight enemies, jump across platforms and make your way through various locations during the game.  The square button is your normal attack, both characters have a double jump and a dodge.  Most of the other buttons can be customized with the attacks you unlock when you level up, which is cool.  The characters have separate health pools (which is a life saver), but share MP and Ki (stamina) meters.  When you level up, each gain 2 skill points to put in their trees.  One interesting thing is stat increases are gained when you purchase connected skills.  It's an interesting idea, and one that had me want to buy skills that I wouldn't even use, just for the stat points.

While the combat sounds fine on paper, the actual result isn't as solid.  Enemies attack quickly, leaving you a fraction of a second to dodge.  Most times, I had to guess when they would attack, or try to figure out the pattern for the dodge move to actually work.  There's no way I could get it on reaction, as the enemies were just too quick.  However, enemy ranged attacks are either tracking or they lead their shots, meaning you can't dodge those too early, or you will still get hit.  If your projectile collides with an enemy one, they will explode.  It's a neat idea that unfortunately hurts the player in the long run.  It can be hard to tell if yours hit or was canceled out before reaching the target (thanks camera!)  Plus, when multiple enemies shoot at you, canceling out one attack does nothing.

Getting hit easily might not be a problem in some games, but you take a lot of damage from enemy attacks on the normal setting in Anima.  With limited ways to heal (or really slooooooooow ways), you have to avoid damage as much as you can.  Several enemies each shooting projectiles at you can chain hit you while you are just trying to move.  It's really annoying.  Near the end, I would just spam the dash move, attack a few times, then mash dodge and repeat the whole string.  I didn't avoid many hits this way, but it sadly made harder fights easier because they were over faster.  It may have somewhat worked, but that doesn't feel like a valid strategy.  I actually bumped the game down to easy to see how much better it was.  Enemies did deal less damage, but it still doesn't make the game a cake walk by any means.

To counter balance the combat, there are also platforming sections in the game.  The jumping isn't that great, which can lead to some missed jumps.  But don't worry, since that will just cost you some precious health and send you back to the beginning of the section.  Oh, and any enemies in that section will respawn, too.  And in case you were wondering, you can totally dodge yourself off a ledge while trying to avoid enemy fire.  Even if you are being careful, small ledges and decent dodge ranges don't work well together.  Seriously, just spawn the player on the previous ledge and don't bring the enemies back...like pretty much every other game in the last 12 years.  There are several places that have platforming sections you can just stare at and not want to do at all, filled with timed platforms, spikes and other such annoyances.

Once you complete the first stage, the game opens up.  You are in a hub world that connects to the various stages you have to complete to beat the game.  There are three first areas, then two more later.  While this works for the most part, it can feel very aimless.  There are parts that are easier, but the game won't point them out for you.  Plus, while most areas have a way to teleport back to the hub, you are either stuck going through a lot of an area or running the long way back out if it's not the "right" one.  The areas do have numbers associated with them, but they confusingly don't match the preferred order.  Also, the map sometimes lists things incorrectly, which doesn't help.

The game is also really dark.  Not in the humor or tone sense, although there is that too, but they really need to turn the lights on.  Well, except the one area in the temple that is way too bright.  Other than that one, many areas are very poorly lit.  Sometimes it is intentional, like the nightmare area.  However, this starts to physically hurt my eyes after awhile.  I have to have the lights off to even see some of the places in this game.  There are some really stylish and pretty locals, but that gets marred by making the player platform and fight in almost pitch-black situations.

If none of that stuff bothers you, the game takes about 10-15 hours to complete, especially with all the retrying of the harder parts.  There is a new game+, which is always nice to see, some cool extra costumes, and multiple endings.  There are secrets to find and even a hidden boss.  The puppet mansion has prisoners that you can free to get rewards, but you cannot free them all in one run, so that's another reason to replay the game.  Having the game a decent length and giving some good replayability is welcome in my book, even if other parts of the game don't work out so well.

While Anima: Gate of Memories has an interesting premise and world, it is also chock full of things that make you not want to play the game.  The combat is frustrating when taking on multiple opponents (or really strong ones), the platforming and camera are painful, and they need to add a brightness option to make the game visible at times.  Did I mention the grammatical mistakes?  It's not a horrible game, as there were several points where I was chugging right along, but the cheap hits and pitfalls will likely dissuade many people from playing it more than an hour.  The more I played it, the less I wanted to, which is not a good thing for a game to do.

The Good:
Decent length for its type of game, new game +, multiple endings and secrets to uncover.

The Bad:
Fights against multiple opponents, strong opponents, or shoot-happy foes.  Oh, and a lot of the platforming sections.

The SaHD:
If they ever patch the game, I really, really hope they include a brightness option.  I wasn't kidding when I said it is a dark game.  I had to play with lights off, and even then it hurt my eyes after awhile.  It also makes on of the extra costumes kind of pointless, since you will have trouble seeing yourself, too.

(Review code for Anima: Gate of Memories was provided by the publisher)