Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Mechrunner (PS4) Review

Endless runners is a genre usually withheld for mobile gaming platforms that are free to play and offer many microtransactions.  There have been a few released on consoles, even ones that are sold as complete games.  Mechrunner is one of the latter, and you... play as a transforming mech?!


When you start out, you get no real explanation of what's going on.  Just start the game and you're in.  Well, I'd recommend looking at the controls first.  There is a backstory to the game, you just have to play far enough to buy/unlock the movies that explain it.  It's a weird decision, since I would like some context for this game world, but I'm sure many people just want to jump into the action.

As most endless runners do, you mostly move forward, making your way down the war-torn streets, destroying enemies and rescuing civilians (except that poor dude at the start).  When you do encounter an enemy, you stop moving forward and the view zooms.  If you are hit by either enemy attacks or obstructions in the environment, you will take damage.  If you run out of health, it's game over.

You can either be the mech or tank form, and the Triangle button switches between them on the fly.  The mech has melee blades that can cut up enemies, and a gun that you can aim.  Unfortunately, you can only aim while shooting and for a bit afterwards.  It would be much easier if you could aim before hand, so you wouldn't have to waste shots.  Even though you have infinite ammo, the mech's guns overheat as you shoot them, and have to recharge.  It's actually a pretty big pain, simply because its guns aren't very accurate or strong, and just about every enemy is outside of the sword's range.

The tank, on the other hand, is far better.  It can shoot missiles and its dual cannons.  These can't be aimed manually, but the missiles have some tracking ability and it isn't really a problem.  Plus, they don't overheat, so you can spam the triggers the whole time, which is stupidly effective.  Once I quickly figured out the stay in tank mode 95% of the time, the game got much better, and easier.  The only time I change to mech mode is to finish off a stunned target after a battle, since you get more protoenergy (currency) for doing so.  Oh, and to slowly work toward the associated trophies.  You can also hold the tank's shots to charge them up, but I didn't really need to, nor see much reason to, since spamming the shot kills things rather quickly.

There are some random pick-ups scattered through the game, which you can use when you want (you can only hold so many, though).  They are all pretty useful.  There's a healing one, that you have to actually activate.  I didn't know this for awhile, and thought they would replenish some health when you pick them up.  There's one that makes your missiles stronger (I think).  It's a bomb icon, so I thought it gave you a screen clearing attack or something, which would have been cool.  The last one is the shield, which will protect you from damage for a short time.  This is invaluable.  It not only makes difficulty enemies trivial, it helps with some of the cheap hits you get when the endless running speeds up.

Killing enemies and gathering the protoenergy will give you experience and money.  As your level increases, you can buy new upgrades, skins and areas to explore.  Most of the unlockables require the protoenergy, so you will be grinding a lot to get the amounts you need, and to reach the required level.  At least that helps work toward many of the trophies.  Strangely, the movies that explain the story of the game are in the upgrade shop, offering you a small glimpse every 10 or so levels.

There are a few problems I have with the game, though some are minor.  One, you can only pick up civilians in the tank.  Sure, I quickly realized this when it didn't work when I was the mech, but it would have been nice to be told, or have that loading screen tip come up way sooner.  As mentioned earlier, the mech form is almost useless because the tank is so much better.  Plus, having the shooting on the triggers makes sense, but gets to be a real pain if you play for too long.  Spamming them to shoot fast makes the game easier, but cramps your hands after a bit.  I would think an arcade stick would be great for the game, except for needing the right stick the few times you might need the mech's guns, and having to need both the d-pad and the right stick for the menu and moving respectively.  As for mashing the triggers a lot, a turbo controller fixes that right up.  (I won't tell if you won't.)

Being an endless runner, you don't really "beat" the game, as it just keeps going.  There are different areas that you can unlock, but you transition to them during your run, as opposed to being an actual different stage.  It's a pretty neat effect, but having it as different actual stages would have been cool too.  Hit detection for your tank/mech seems a bit off most times as well, which really shows when things speed up.  My biggest problem is the many cheap hits the game has.  As an example, there are many times where something drops in the only place you can go to avoid an obstacle, which means you have to take damage.  Also if an enemy is behind an obstruction and stunned, closing in to slice it up will damage you.  Yuck.

Overall, Mechrunner was pretty fun.  I'm glad the game isn't a free-to-play microtransaction trap, but instead a low priced release.  It's good for a pick up and play game for a few minutes at time, but you might cramp up your hands playing it too long.  It could use a bit more polish, but it was definitely worth the several hours I put into it.

The Good:
Cool mech design, easy to pick up and play.

The Bad:
Mech is nowhere near as good as the tank, spotty hit detection, cheap shots, and can cramp your hands after awhile.

The SaHD:
Can some make an actual transforming toy of the mech in the game?  Maybe on Shapeways?  I'd love to get one.

(Review code for Mechrunner was provided by the publisher)

Friday, April 21, 2017

PSYCHO-PASS: Mandatory Happiness (PC/Steam) Review

PSYCHO-PASS: Mandatory Happiness came out last fall for the Vita, and is now available on Steam for PC fans to enjoy.  It is a visual novel set in an alternate Japan in the year 2112.  There is a computer system called Sybil, which dictates what your future path should be.  Everyone's feelings are quantified, and those with "clouded hue" can be deemed dangerous.  It's used as an indicator for criminals, and Division 1 is tasked with dealing with them.  To do so, they use a special gun called the Dominator.  It can either subdue a target, if their hue isn't too clouded, or, if they are beyond redemption, blast them into tiny bits.  "I am the law" indeed.

As you go through the game, you follow your chosen protagonist (either Tsurugi or Nadeshiko), and together with the rest of CID Division 1, solve some crimes.  From their perspectives, the crimes start out as unrelated, but quickly coalesce into an over-arching story that is pretty enjoyable.  Admittedly, I'd like a little more closure to one of the game's bigger mysteries, but it may be tied into a future game or even the TV show (that I still sadly haven't seen).

At many points throughout the game, there are choices to make, which will affect some of how the story plays out.  The game is great at showing you when the paths diverge, but it's not always obvious how or why certain choices would affect it.  Your choices will also affect a scene in the middle of the game where you get to know one of your colleges better, and the ending.  As noted in my review of the Vita version, my first ending felt very abrupt and out of nowhere, and felt more like an extra scene than an ending to the game.  Still, much of the story plays out similar regardless of choices.  However, there is also a mini-game to play, which lets you earn points to unlock things in the gallery and other bonuses.  It's a pretty fun mini-game, but you will have to get really good at it to get enough points to unlock everything, as the total cost is way too high.

As a visual novel, the controls shouldn't make much of a difference.  The keyboard works, but the controls felt really off, and it took me a few tries to figure out where the menu was.  It's on the "1" key, which, in my limited PC gaming experience, is kinda weird.  Once I found that, I was able to look at the keybindings.  I left them on default, which is ok once I knew where everything was mapped.  To me, the mouse is the best, as left click advances text or makes a choice, while right clicking is the menu.  Pretty much everything you would need is right there.  Plus, you can click the on-screen buttons if you wanted to set the text to auto (which advances for you when the spoken dialogue reaches the end of the line).  The Xbox 360 controller works just fine as well, if you prefer that.

PSYCHO-PASS is a fairly engaging visual novel that takes around 5-6 hours for a first run.  The two main protagonists and the branching paths give good replayability, although I wish some choices were clearer in what it affected.  I imagine the system requirements aren't too high, but the game ran perfectly fine on my i7.  Loaded quickly, too.  I'd recommend the game to any crime drama fans, as the story is well written, and the world is pretty interesting.

The Good:
Good story, lots of choices, and many ending scenes.

The Bad:
How the route changes is rarely apparent.

The SaHD:
I'm glad the real life (non-killing) Dominator sold out so I wasn't tempted to get one.  Not like I could afford it, though...

(Review code for PSYCHO-PASS: Mandatory Happiness was provided by the publisher)

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Torment: Tides of Numenera (PS4) Review

Torment: Tides of Numenera has come to consoles after a very successful Kickstarter for its PC release a few months ago.  It harkens back to the old PC RPGs of years ago, where atmosphere and characters were top billing.  In contrast to most games nowadays, you can talk yourself out of most situations, and rarely have to resort to combat...unless you want to.

The game starts off with some voiced lines that sets up what is happening and helps set up your character with a personality quiz, or something like it.  I found this bit confusing, as I was trying to sort out what this world is, and it wasn't coming together for me.  There is then a brief tutorial before the game properly starts, and that was the point where I started to "get" the backstory.  I honestly felt the game could have started there, then went into the other parts, but I'm sure there are others who are fine with how the game starts.

The idea of the game is neat and unique.  There is an entity called the Changing God, who, in an effort to continuously gain knowledge and also escape a powerful being called Sorrow, creates a new body every 10-20 years, and transfers into it.  This leaves behind the old body, which is then filled with a new soul.  These "castoffs" are known throughout the world by their telltale scar, and this is the character you play as.  You have no real past of your own, except for whatever trouble the Changing God caused in your body, plus memory fragments of previous bodies.

The game has a lot of reading.  In fact, that is an understatement.  It has a near insane amount of text, as first encounters don't just name a person, but describe them in a Robert Jordan kind of way.  By contrast, few lines have voices.  Most interactions have a lot of extra text that sets the tone and scene, describing actions to make things seem more alive.  It's pulled off really well, even if there are a lot of complexities that are almost too much to digest.

Here's an example.  A character you meet is an alien with intricate mechanical arms.  He is studying the mating habits of other creatures because they differ so much from that of his race.  To reproduce, they cut off a limb, which will grow into a new person.  Which part is cut off determines what the person does.  Legs make laborers, arms make more thoughtful people, and the head makes leaders, because of the obvious sacrifice.  Regrowing or replacing a limb is seen as offensive to your offspring, and is frowned upon in their society.  When this particular guy accidentally ended up with mechanical arms, he was exiled from his society.

I should now note that this isn't even a party member.  This is some NPC that you interact with for about 2 minutes.  That is a crazy amount of thought and effort put into something so small, but it really makes the game deeper and more realistic.  It's easy to get absorbed into as you read everything.  It's also easy to spend a ton of time and not really go anywhere...I spend almost 20 hours in the first town alone!  It wasn't all from the loading screens.  They were frequent, and were on the long side, but still not as bad as some other recent titles.

The core system of the game is Effort.  To do something, you must expend your stats.  You want to break something?  Use some of your Might to do so.  Want to catch a fast moving object?  Spend some Speed.  The more points you use, the higher the success percent.  There is a definite balance between using more Effort to guarantee success, and leaving some to use for the next choice.  There are items to restore stat points, and sleeping will also recharge you.  However, sleeping too much can advance some quests, simply because you were taking too long to do it.  Plus, money is pretty hard to come by, especially early on, so you might go broke if you have to spend a few days at the inn.

I actually really like the Effort system, mostly because you can see the percent chance of success, and with multiple party members, you can alternate who spends the points.  Effort also extends to combat, where expending more increases accuracy and damage done.  Plus, you spend the stat relevant to your weapon type.  Speed for light weapons, Might for heavy, and etc.  Once you understand the basics, it works well.

Of course, as alluded to earlier, you barely have to fight in the game if you don't want to.  Many quests have multiple outcomes, which can be brought about by talking, convincing, lying, or maybe even stealing.  I'll give you an example.  In one quest, you meet a trio of ancient builder robots that cannot move, but can talk and think.  So, they help direct people in building and renovating the city above and around them.  One of them is having a bit of an existential crisis and wants to produce offspring.  It has failed several times, but the only way to succeed will ultimately kill this intelligent, ancient and rare being.  Do you help it, or convince it to live instead?  I choose to help it, and it created several robo-babies that scampered about.  You could round them up, or let them run free.  I let them out into the world.  However, there is one that didn't work out.  You can leave it, but I chose to take it with me.  Never would I have thought that an item I would receive in a video game would be a stillborn robot baby, but here we are.

While fighting and finishing quests can give you big chunks of experience, a lot of things in the game give little bits.  Reading things, or learning about people can provide small boosts toward your next level, or should I say Tier?  Instead of a more traditional set-up, your characters will advance toward the next tier, which requires 4 advancements.  At each advancement (level up, basically), you can choose one thing to improve, from a list of four or five.  However, each can only be taken once each tier, so you can't load your characters up with stats or skills, and then do the other later.  The things you can choose from are: increase a stat, increase edge (which basically gives you a free stat point toward effort checks), extra effort (can expend an extra point to increase success %), improved ability (give you a new ability to use), and improved skill (can improve a passive skill).  Several of these are useful, so it's best to think about what you want from your characters when deciding.  I especially like edge, as it helps stretch out your stat points.

One last thing I want to mention is the "tides" system for your character's personality.  Well, I think that's what it's for, the game didn't really explain it.  As you choose responses to the many, many text options, your tides will shift toward different colors.  I would think this effects how others see you, but I'm not really sure.  I only caught on that they are supposed to represent your personality from a random loading screen hint.  Your character screen shows your dominant tides, but you have to use the touch pad to see more detail, then scroll down in the appropriate tab to actually see what those colors represent.  I would have liked a more detailed (and easy to access) explanation, or even just knowing which responses might trigger the shifts, because they don't all fit with their descriptions.  If it doesn't actually affect the game, I'd at least like to know that, too.

The developers tout not being able to see everything in one run of the game, and I believe it.  There are lots of little choices and alternate outcomes to quests that add up throughout the playthrough that I see good reasons to go through the game a second time.  Plus, you could try another character class, or different skills.  Trophies are sometimes awarded for competing quest outcomes, and it is very easy to miss a good chunk of them if you aren't following a guide.

So, Torment: Tides of Numenera is an engaging and deep game to eat up your free time.  It won't be for everyone, but if you are the type to get completely engrossed in a game and its lore, this is definitely a game you owe it to yourself to play.  It's fun, unique, and offers good replay.  It controls well on consoles, too, so pick it up on your platform of choice.

The Good:
Lengthy, deep, old school RPG that can suck you in for hours.  Effort system is a refreshing new way for skill checks and combat.

The Bad:
Might be more text than you can handle.

The SaHD:
"I haven't had this much fun, since...the last time!"

(Review code for Torment was provided by the publisher)

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey (PS4) Review

By Aly Hand

Atelier Firis: Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey is the newest game to join the prestigious Atelier series. The eighteenth iteration of the series, Atelier Firis is not the one I would choose for people just starting out with the series. The game begins with Firis, a young girl who is living in an isolated town, hoping to venture outside and see the world. The first stranger she encounters is Sophie, the titular character from the previous game, and Sophie agrees to teach her alchemy. Firis then uses what she's learned to convince her parents to allow her to leave town. She begins her journey with a time limit: if she doesn't become a fully licensed alchemist within a year, she will have to return home. She begins her journey, venturing out of her hometown accompanied by her older sister, Liane. In a move quite different from other RPGs, there is no "final boss" at the end of that time limit, but instead an exam designed to torture people with poor memories for trivia, or people who rush through the game without taking the time to learn recipes and practice what they've learned.

From a personal standpoint, I have to say this is not the best example of what an Atelier game can do. The game can be divided into two sections: pre- and post-exam. Unfortunately, the directions for how to proceed pre-exam are not always clear. In terms of game time, over half of the time limit was spent trying to figure out how to get out of Flussheim. Everything pre-exam is tense, with the time limit hanging over your head, pressuring you to do things faster. And while it is very possible to get through the pre-exam time without issue, it's much harder on an initial play-through unless you have a strategy guide or FAQ handy. Not all the quests are clearly explained, nor are the solutions to them intuitive, so numerous times I found myself suffering through trial and error in order to progress.

Learning recipes has changed once more. No longer do you learn them almost exclusively from recipe books and by tinkering with other recipes. Now you learn new items by what you do: through battles with specific monsters, gathering specific materials, or synthesizing specific items a certain number of times. While there are recipe books, they are rare and often prohibitively expensive. And with money being a comparatively rare thing, it takes a significant amount of time to build up the necessary funds to afford them.

The battle system is relatively simple to understand, with turn-based combat and a chain gauge that allows you to combine party member attacks into massive combos for additional effect. While the addition of the chain gauge is nice, nine times out of ten the monsters (even bosses) die before you can get it set up properly. In fact, setting up a chain combo without help is so difficult I never managed to pull it off. Without carefully reviewing the help menu and lots of trial and error, you may complete the timed portion of the game without ever managing it.

Bosses in the game are also different; rather than a staple of a finished dungeon, now they wander around specific sections of the map and are completely avoidable. In fact, it is very easy to complete the timed portion of the game without ever fighting one. Maps are large, with many quick-travel points scattered around, though the quick-travel is also somewhat limited in that you can only quick-travel on the map you're on. Though there is a world map, you can't travel between maps from it, nor can you see quick-travel points on any map other than the one you are currently on. These limitations are frustrating, particularly while the time limit of the game hangs overhead like the Sword of Damocles.

The one thing that would make it easier to progress in the game—the addition of new party members—takes an almost prohibitively long time to occur. I pushed through to the first major town, called Flussheim, and it still took over half of my time limit before I could find another party member and recruit them. And he cost money! With how little money you get from battles, hiring him would have taken me several more hours to afford. Thankfully, by wandering around several of the other maps, I managed to stumble across two more party members, before finally finding a third and fourth. Unfortunately, once you complete the exam, you will have to go fetch them again, which makes it very frustrating to try and get through maps you've already completed.

Still, there are a great number of quests to do in the game, and while they all follow the standard model (kill x of y enemy; gather x number of y material; make x number of y recipe and/or deliver to so-and-so) there's enough spread out amongst the maps that it's possible to do them all with relative ease. Unfortunately, again, reviewing active quests can be a time-consuming and often frustrating process, simply because of how they are designed. For example, if you open your quest book and page between active quests, you will have to back all the way up to the initial quest detail you opened before you can exit that portion of the menu. Kind of like having to hit the back button to get back to your home page in a web browser with no way to close it unless you do. As frustrating as that would make surfing the web, that is the frustration felt when navigating the details in the menus.

Overall the game was entertaining and a decent addition to the Atelier series. Unfortunately, between the severe lack of direction and the extreme frustration of the final exam, the initial portion of the game makes it difficult to appreciate the secondary portion. It was fun, but the previous game was much better in both design and execution.

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

Thursday, April 6, 2017

World of Final Fantasy (PS Vita) Review

When World of Final Fantasy was first shown at E3 a year or so ago, I was intrigued.  Who where the twins?  Why is there a more "normal" style and a chibi style?  What are battles like?  When the game was released, I got a taste of it by using the shareplay function on the PS4, but I have recently finished up the Vita version and decided to review it.

World of Final Fantasy's battle system looks and sounds more complicated than it is.  Each character has their own skills and can fight on their own, although their HP is low and can be killed quickly.  To combat this, you can stack up to three party members, one of each size (S, M, and L) to add their stats together.  This makes them much stronger and harder to kill, but each stack only gets one turn, as opposed to each member getting their own turn.  Still, I went through the whole game stacked, and it usually went fine.  Some attacks will weaken the stack, and eventually knock it over.  This stuns everyone in the stack, making them vulnerable to a focused assault.  If the stack loses all of its HP, all three members will be dead.  Enemies can also be stacked, so knowing how they function not only protects you, but gives you knowledge to fight enemies.

Each member of the stack has their own abilities.  Depending on how they combine, you may get stronger abilities too.  This is the way to get stronger spells.  If two people have the water spell, then your stack also has access to watera, the next strongest tier of water spells.  It's actually a well thought out system that isn't too hard to figure out, and is rewarding when you use it.

In battles, there are two ways to give commands, the new style and the classic style.  New has each character's skill list as a separate button, or direction or something...and I hated it.  Classic puts it all in one list, so it is easy to see what you have available.  My only gripe with it is that you can't customize the order or sort it.  Also the game features the Active Time Battle that was a staple of Final Fantasy games for years, but you can also make it turn based by turning off the ATB.  While I did love that system back in the day, I have it set to turn based, so I have time to think about my moves, find the right skill, plan out my actions, or just knowing I won't get blown up if I have to deal with some child's emergency during battle.

To capture monsters, you need their prismarium (or elder box for the robots) and to fulfill specific conditions to make them capture-able.  These are listed in their info if you scan them, and range from doing damage, using a certain element/ailment, or even things like hitting them with a counter attack.  Some requirements can be met up to three times to increase the capture percent.  Thankfully, you only use up the prismarium or elder box if you actually capture the creature, so you can try multiple times until it is successful.  They also supply you with a prismarium (but not elder box) for each creature the first time you fight it.  In terms of monster catching, this is a great way to do it, and probably the best I've used.

Monsters that you take with you gain experience and level up.  When gaining a level, their stats improve and they gain a CP, which can be used on their mirage board to gain stats, abilities, and skills.  They very much remind me of the sphere grids from Final Fantasy X.  Many monsters can transfigure into other monsters that have connected boards, which share stats and some skills.  Some can turn into other monsters that have their own connected boards, which do not share stats or skills, but have the appropriate CP for their level.  Buying skills on monster's boards will up their sync percent, which gives bonus stats at certain intervals, and awards a skill at max.  This take in to account all boards, so those small stat boosts are shared, but the mastery skill isn't, so you can pick different ones.  However, the twins do not have mirage boards and instead gain skills depending on what mirajewels you equip them with.  There are numerous to find and earn, and you can freely switch them out of battle.

As you make your way through the story, you will come to many dungeons, each with a boss at the end.  There are also secret areas to find.  The dungeons can get pretty long, but the encounter rate feels appropriate so it isn't a slog.  However, a few of the dungeons have bad designs that are pretty much run forward in a (near) straight line.  I did enjoy the story, too, but some scenes had a bit too much unnecessary dialogue, which I've come to get tired of quickly in my older age.  It would be fine if you could advance it quicker, but the dialogue is voiced and I couldn't find that as an option.  But good news!  You can pause the cut scenes!  Thank you...this should really be a standard for games.

Though at one point in the story, it feels like it comes to a screeching halt.  To help the champions against a new threat you must...take part in some minigames.  These come out of nowhere, and are pretty terrible (at best).  You can't really skip them either, but some let you advance after losing.  I really hate this part of the game, simply because they lock off the actual game until you complete some stupid and terrible minigames.  It's annoying when games do that, and doubly so when it's a game I'm really enjoying.  Several of the games are pure luck based, so you can't even get good at them, just lucky.  You also unlock the ability to play them whenever you want, as if that is some sort of reward.  Instead of the minigames, they should have just made them all non-gimmicky fights.

On to better news, the game takes around 50 hours to get the first ending.  It took me more, but I was doing some grinding and other extra stuff that drove up my playtime.  The only time I felt I had to grind was before the final boss of each ending, but only because it's a fast little jerkwad.  To get the second, true ending, it takes maybe about 10 more, depending on how strong you and your monsters are.  When I finally finished everything but the post-game dungeons, I had put over 70 hours into the game.

World of Final Fantasy is definitely a love letter to fans of Final Fantasy, and an easy recommendation to JRPG fans.  It's still accessible to new fans, but you will get more out of it the more of the franchise you have played.  Even the secret boss...well, I don't want to ruin it, but I was super excited to see it.  I played the entire game on the Vita, and the only problem was the longer load times.  It's not terrible, but it is noticeable.  The game has a lot of playtime, monsters to catch and ways to customize your battle party.  It is easily worth the price for either the PS4 or the Vita.

The Good:
Battles, game length, customization, references...

The Bad:
When the story grinds to a halt because of mandatory minigames.

The SaHD:
Aw, man, that secret boss hits me right in the nostalgia.

(World of Final Fantasy was purchased by the reviewer)