Friday, February 24, 2017

Fate/Extella: The Umbral Star (PS4) Review

First off, I know very little about the Fate franchise.  I haven't seen any episodes of the show, I haven't played the original game, and the games I have played, I have not put much time into (yet).  I recognize a few characters, and that's about it.  So when I saw the new game was a vs. army hack and slash akin to my favored Warriors series, I was on board to try it out.

Battles are very reminiscent of Dynasty/Samurai Warriors, but with their own unique additions that make it its own experience.  Normal attacks are on the square button, and strong attacks are on triangle.  Using the strong attack at different points in the combo will give you different combo enders, and your attack combo expands as you gain levels.  So, what's different?  For one, you get a dash move.  It will hit enemies, but doesn't do damage and doesn't count as a hit.  Also, R2 will unleash your Noble Phantasm move.  You have to find all three pick-ups for it on the map to be able to use it, but it does a ton of damage.

Characters can also activate Moon Crux/Drive, which will power up their attacks, and, in the case of Nero and Tamamo, give them a new outfit with different attacks.  Unfortunately, these transformation scenes  (and the Noble Phantasms) don't have subtitles.  Since the game is subbed only, I have no idea what they are saying during these scenes.  Lastly, there is the Extella Maneuver.  Located under a servant's health bar are the EM bars that show how much energy is stored up.  When you press the circle button, your character dashes forward and begins to do a flashy combo to the target and surrounding enemies.  Thankfully these will target stronger units first, so you aren't wasting time trying to aim them.  As the attack is going, you can keep pressing circle to use more bars to extend the combo and increase its damage.  These attacks, besides being easy, are fun and useful.

Battlefields are divided up in a series of rooms connected by passageways.  Unlike other hack and slash games I have played, you press a button at the entrance to another room, and zoom over to it.  This cuts out some time wasted running from one room to another.  There are smaller hub-like rooms that have no enemies, but have portals to connecting rooms.  Each main room is worth a certain amount of points.  Whichever side controls it gets those points.  The first side to twelve will basically win.  In your case, it unlocks the boss for you to defeat.  If the enemy gets it first, then you just lose.

To take a room, you must kill a certain number of commander units, called Aggressors.  The number needed is shown toward the lower right hand side of the screen.  To get them to spawn, you must cut down a lot of the normal grunts in the room.  As you do, the Aggressor icons fill up.  It's a well thought out system, and I really appreciate how transparent it is in showing how many Aggressors you need to kill, how many are currently spawned, and how close you are to spawning more.  If one of your rooms is under siege, there is a similar function to take it back.  Usually it involves killing less Aggressors, though.

The game isn't super difficult once you understand the flow of battles.  Enemy controlled areas spawn horrible creatures called Plants that spew out Aggressors, which will quickly assault other rooms you control.  They are too big of a threat to let go for long, so most times you have to drop what you are doing and take care of them.  This was a lesson I learned the hard way.  I started the game on normal, and even in the second battle is was very hard to make headway.  If I left a Plant alone for too long, the battle was a constant back and forth loop that was hard to break.  Afterwards, I started picking easy, and it was much more fun, but still tense.  I still had to pay attention to the battlefield and take care of the high threats quickly in order to assure victory.  If the game was dubbed, it would be easier to spot problems, since you could listen instead of having to look at the map every minute or so.

In addition to leveling up, characters can also equip Install Skills.  These are super helpful passive abilities that can increase damage, make you resistant to certain elements (this helps deal with the zone traps on the harder difficulties), and other useful functions.  Repeated pick-ups will combine them together up to +20, making them more effective.  As your bond with your servants increases, the amount of Install Skills they can equip increases, and also connects them.  Placing skills of the same color together will increase their effectiveness, so be smart when placing them.  Overall, a nice system for passive skills.

There are also Mystic Codes, which your main character (the master) can equip.  In battle, you can use any of the skills present on your MC by using the d-pad.  Each ability has a certain amount of uses.  There are a lot of different ones to equip, but unfortunately, there is no way to make your own.  I found some that I liked, but none of them were perfect for my play style.  It helps to make a few, so you can switch them out for specific purposes, like elemental resists or item drops, but it is a pain to go through all the ones you have to find the one you want.  A sort or favorites function would have been nice.

Now for the story of the game.  First off, there is a lot of dialogue in this game, much more than I was expecting (especially in the Dawn Arc).  I'd say about half the playtime is dialogue.  There are places where you are prompted for a response, some of which will increase the bond with one of the three leading ladies.  The story was definitely a bit confusing at first, as it seems some prior knowledge of the Fate lore is required.  I eventually picked up on most of it, and the story itself is pretty well contained, once you know some of the backstory.  I think this is more of an offshoot to the main lore, since it doesn't feature what I think of as the main characters, but does have the ones I recognize from the PSP Fate RPG that I have somewhere around my house.  I did learn that the Fate combatants are all historical and mythical figures.  That's something I am very interested in, so I'm definitely going to start getting into more of the games!

The main story is told in four parts, and each takes around 5 hours to complete.  It would be much less if you just skip through the text, but where's the fun in that?  As you make your way through the story, you will unlock more characters for use in their own side stories.  These are short- only about 3 fights- and feature much less dialogue between them.  However, it does provide a bit of backstory for some of them, and lets you actually use the other characters, so I enjoy it.  There are also free battles, where you can re-do any of your completed battles.  The layout is different than what I am used to (you pick who your opponent is first, then which stage they are on), but it's still the best way to grind, go for the hidden challenges, or repeat each level on a harder difficulty.

Overall, Fate/Extella: The Umbral Star was a fun hack and slash game.  The Extella Maneuvers are flashy, cool, and effective.  Noble Phantasms are neat.  There's a lot of dialogue and story.  Battles are a lot more tense than what I am used to, and the whole experience was enjoyable.  I don't know how well it fits into the Fate franchise, since I've seen very little of it, but as a hack and slash game, it is worth playing.  It also made me very interested in checking out more of this universe!

The Good:
Familiar hack and slash with its own unique additions.

The Bad:
Battles can be very tense if you aren't fast enough.  Enemy plants can spawn with ridiculous speed.

The SaHD:
I know it's a big, important object, but there are four separate characters that are related to the sun.  Seems a bit high to me.

(Review code for Fate/Extella was provided by the publisher)

Friday, February 17, 2017

Fairy Fencer F: Advent Dark Force (PC) Review

Fairy Fencer F was a new RPG from Idea Factory when it debuted a few years ago.  Since then, the original was ported over to Steam (and looked good), and had a re-release with new content on the PS4 (which was fun), titled Fairy Fencer F: Advent Dark Force.  Now that has also been ported over to PCs.  The cycle continues.

The Advent Dark Force release doubles your battle party to 6 people, and adds two new story routes through the game, for many hours of additional content.  Battles are turn-based.  Each character has a movement radius that you can move around in as much as you want, until you do an action.  You attack has a radius as well, but you can only attack one enemy in it.  The characters also get combos that allow you a lot of freedom and customization once you start to purchase moves.  Stronger moves have more wait, which will make subsequent turns happen a little later, so there is a kind of balance to it.  If you have played any of the Neptunia games on PC, the battle system is similar to that, and you should feel right at home.

Each character gets a few special moves and spells, which take SP to use, and can be extremely useful to eliminate several enemies, or to do big damage to a boss monster.  There is also a meter around the character's portrait that allows you to combine with your fairy partner.  This is called Fairize, and gives you ridiculous and awesome mecha armor.  Oh, it also allows boosts your stats, changes the battle music, and gives you access to a powerful move if that's what you want to focus on.

For the most part, the story flows like most other RPGs.  Get a bit of story/dialogue, enter a dungeon, defeat the boss, return to town, rinse and repeat.  Dungeons are 3D areas that you can run and jump around in, while encountering enemies on the map.  A great twist is the faries that you get throughout the story can be bound to the swords impaling the Goddess and Vile God.  These swords, called furies, can then be used in world shaping, which allows you to stab them into the world map and provide modifiers to any dungeons they touch.  For example, you could have one that gives extra experience, but lowers money gain, or even one that changes the enemies that appear in the dungeon, but lowers magic damage.  You can place several around a dungeon, too, if you want multiple effects.  I would prefer less negative effects, but I can't deny you can get some great effects out of it, especially if you stack the extra experience!

My PC is an i7 with 16gb memory, and the game ran flawlessly.  I mostly used a controller, as the game plays so much better with one.  The keyboard works, but the layout is strange to me.  You could go through and re-map all the keys, but I find just plugging in a controller to be far easier.  The frame rate was stable and very smooth, although the graphics themselves didn't quick look as nice as the PS4.  It could easily because of the distance difference from monitor to TV, though.  My only problem with the PC version is the dungeons had a smokey or fog-like filter over the screen.  This extended to the battles, which made them appear washed out but still kind of bright.  It's not the whole game, since this effect disappears during a character's special attack animation, and during the godly revival fights.  I didn't see a way to turn it off, and it was fairly distracting.  On the plus side, the first cave dungeon wasn't too dark, as it was on the PS4 release.

I really enjoyed the PS4 release of Fairy Fencer F: Advent Dark Force, and the PC release on Steam is no exception.  The only real issue I had was the fog effect, but I would definitely recommend fans of the first release get this one, even if you have to start over.  The extra content and changes are worth it.

The Good:
I enjoyed the original release, and Advent Dark Force brings good improvements and a lot of new content.

The Bad:
Sadly there's no way to transfer your saves from the original's release, so you have to play the game all over again.

The SaHD:
I'd love a way to use the first Fairize music every time, instead of the later version.  Also, I unabashedly used the Nepgeardam heads because why not?

(Review code for Fairy Fencer F: Advent Dark Force was provided by the publisher)

Friday, February 10, 2017

Digimon World: Next Order (PS4) Review

When I first got my review code for Digimon World: Next Order, I was very excited.  I'm a big Digimon nerd, and like to play the video games, as I've enjoyed most of them.  The game throws you into a tutorial battle almost immediately, and it was clear that I was going to take a bit to get used to combat.  That's fine, that comes with the territory of a new game.

After that, you get transported to Jijimon, who explains a bit of what is going on, and sets up the story.  After Cyber Sleuth, I was surprised the game was dubbed.  Next I had to choose what eggs to make my partners, and this sadly took me 10 minutes to decide (since I know most of the possible digivolution lines).  And hey, Jijimon gave me some items to start my adventure, including a portable potty.

I froze.  A chill ran down my spine.  I got flashbacks from the first Digimon World, which was heavily based off the old LCD keychain know, before they figured out how to make a game fun.  Am I going to have to take care of small children again?  Would I end up in a near endless Numemon loop?  I had a review to do, so I pressed on.

I'm glad I did.  While Next Order does have many elements that are reminiscent of the first Digimon World game, it also makes many improvements.  You are responsible for raising and training your two partner digimon.  This entails feeding them when they are hungry, letting them rest or sleep when tired, and letting them go to the bathroom when they need to go.  Feeding the digimon isn't much of an issue, since they give you some meat every day, and there is plenty of it lying around in the areas you travel to.  As you get further into the game, you can add more fields to grow plenty of meat to feed your partners.

Sleeping and resting is best done in town, but at a certain point you will get a tent that allows you to do it in the field.  Bathroom breaks are much better than they have been.  Water closets are better spaced throughout the world, and you can get at least one portable potty each day from Numemon (of course).  Even so, I don't see how doing your business behind a tree in the forest, in a dark cave, or in a volcano is really a bad thing.  I'm pretty sure pooping in lava makes you hardcore, not a slimeball.

As mentioned before, battles were different than I expected.  Instead of the more traditional turn-based battles from other entries in the series, Next Order uses a mostly auto-battle system.  Your digimon will move around and use skills automatically.  The number of skills is determined by the tamer skills you purchase, and more attack skills can be learned by battling other digimon.  You can order them to do specific things, but these take Order Points, which are gained during battle when you press the X Button for support.

Depending on how well you time the press, your digimon will gain more OP for you to tell them what to do.  This is also how they use their signature skills and guard themselves from enemy attacks.  It's arguably the best thing you can use your OP for, since one tamer skill drops damage received during a guard to zero.  Once I figured out that the digimon will fight by themselves and I was their to offer a few directions and tell them when to guard, I was much more successful at battling.

Just stop saying "machine-dray-mon"

When not wandering around the fields, your partners are likely training to raise their stats.  On the surface, it's really easy to figure out what to do.  There are machines for each stat, and using one will increase that stat the most, and give a small bonus to two others.  However, there is a bonus chance after selecting the training, which will increase your gains.  This isn't explained very well, but basically there are different bonuses you can get to your training, and landing the bonus chance on any of them will give the bonus (none give more than the others) to both partners.  Here's one more tip: play the game on the 'easy' setting.  Doing so doubles your stat gains from training and gives you more money.  There is no downside to it either, it just saves you a lot of time!

The flow of the game is one area that I didn't like.  You basically get some story, have to go to a specific location, return, recruit digimon to your town, rinse and repeat.  The part that can take the longest is recruiting digimon.  I like doing so, as many add new or useful functions and upgrades to the town, but it can be a real buzzkill when you have to make sure you are strong enough to get to where they are, and complete their task/fight them.  Some stretches are fairly small, where some take hours to complete, just to get a little farther in the story.  Plus, if you take too long and you lose an ultimate or mega-level digimon, you are set back another few hours to train them back up.  I'm fine playing the game, but it really feels stretched thin to have big chunks of it boil down to "go find new citizens".

There are a few other gripes I have, too.  You have to feed a digimon until it is full.  Enemies' strength is measured in levels, but yours is not.  So, you have to try fighting something to find out if you can actually beat it or not, instead of doing a quick comparison.  Yes, I know that you gain stats, not levels, but that should be true for the enemies as well.  I'd just like a rough estimate so I know if I can actually survive a new area.  Bosses and other special fights suffer from this the most, since you won't even know their level until you are in the fight.  This would be less of an issue if there was a quick way to load the game or return to the title screen.  As it stands, you have to close the application and re-launch it.  Yuck.

Several points are poorly explained.  I've already mentioned the training bonus and combat.  My wife wanted to try the game, since she likes the Digimon games as well (and likes the first Digimon World much more than I do).  Since I had a few hours experience, I told her how things worked, and she hit the ground running.  She was able to get further in a faster time frame than I did, because she had a better explanation of some things.

So is it worth playing?  If you are a fan of the first Digimon World, this is a much improved experience.  If, like me, you didn't like that one, but like the other Digimon World games, then I would still recommend this, since it is a much better attempt than the old Playstation 1 game.  Also, if you are a fan of monster raising/sim-type games, then I would also suggest you play Digimon World: Next Order.

The Good:
A much improved experience for raising a Digimon.

The Bad:
Brings back a lot of memories of the first Digimon World, and taking care of babies/children.  The game flow is uneven.

The SaHD:
Yay, Diaboromon!  Boo, only getting him after you beat the game's story.

(Review code for Digimon World: Next Order was provided by the publisher)

Friday, February 3, 2017

Mercenaries Saga 2 (3DS) Review

Mercenaries Saga 2 is a strategy RPG, much in the vein of Final Fantasy Tactics.  So much so that it looks similar.  However, it isn't a copy, and if you draw inspiration from another SRPG, you might as well start at the top.

Battlefields are divided up into small squares that your character can move around on.  If you have played any other grid-based SRPGs, then you will feel right at home with the battles in Mercenaries Saga 2.  Each side takes their turn in alternating order, so being faster won't get you more turns.  Your characters can move and then take one action, be it an attack, skill, or using an item.  Unfortunately, you can't do an action first, and still have your move, like some other great SRPGs (although there is one character who can get that as a skill).

MP starts at 0, but units recover some each turn (based on their MPR stat that you can't see), so mages and healers stay useful throughout the fight.  Though, sometimes the close-range fighters struggle to gain any useful MP until late in the fight because heavy armor has a MPR penalty.  By the end of the game, you have 10 characters, but can only take 6 with you into battle (save the last two fights), meaning the later characters likely won't be used much.

At the end of each battle, all surviving characters get a portion of the obtained skill points.  These are used to buy new classes, skills, and power-up skills you already have.  It's a nice system that lets you power up any character brought into battle (and doesn't retreat), regardless of how many enemies they killed.  This is great for the healers, and helps balance out how easily the mages can destroy foes.  They will still be ahead in levels, though.

Once you reach level 10 or 20, you can class change your characters.  Each character can use all of the skills he or she has purchased, regardless of class.  Changing classes can easily be done in the menu.  You will have to re-equip their stuff, though.  Two of each character's high classes are locked until you exchange special items for them, but these will keep through playthroughs.  Overall, it's a great job class system, since you get the benefits from all your classes, and can pick whichever one you want for look or stats!

There are 32 story battles to go through, and almost as many free battles.  Each story level can be completed once per run, but the free battles can be completed as many times as you want.  I'd recommend doing most of them anyway, since you will want the extra experience, money and skill points from them.  Yes, it is grinding, but it's pretty quick, so I don't mind it.  It took me over 20 hours to get through the story mode, which included doing almost all of the free battles, too.

The game also has a very good new game+ mode.  You won't keep your levels or normal equipment, but you keep your money, skill points (although you have to re-allocate them), and magical/unique items.  If you get enough of the powerful and rare stuff, you can still power through a chunk of the game, even if your level is low.  You also unlock extra free battles and can challenge a higher difficulty once you complete the game.  Since there are two endings, it would be worth it to go through again.

Mercenaries Saga 2 is not as deep as other similar offerings (not limited to the 3DS), but is still very fun.  It offers good replayability, a great price for the content, and I would heartily recommend it to fans of grid-based strategy RPGs.

The Good:
Fun and well done SRPG with hours of content for a tiny price.  The skill and class system is pulled off very well.

The Bad:
Story is a bit bland.

The SaHD:
It can be a real pain to find the hidden weapons, so just use a guide.

(Mercenaries Saga 2 was purchased by the reviewer)