Sunday, September 30, 2018

Shadows: Awakening (Xbox One) Review

Isometric action RPGs can be very fun experiences on consoles.  For me, most examples of the genre have been entertaining and engrossing.  While usually having multiplayer helps that a lot, there are some that have pulled off being single player, or are entertaining enough to not need a second (or third, or fourth) player with you to keep you awake.

On the surface, Shadows: Awakening looks like other competitors in the isometric action RPG space.  In some ways, it also plays like them.  You run around, kill monsters, get loot and complete quests.  Your characters travel from one area to the next, working toward your goal.  Several town and dungeon areas have teleporters, so you can jump to them for shops, or to turn in quests.  Button layout is what you might expect, with the A Button doing your auto attack, and the other three face buttons using other skills.  Unfortunately, you can only have three other skills equipped at a time.

However, it has a few distinct differences.  One, there is no multiplayer.  Yes, it's a bummer, but you get a party of up to four characters to make up for it.  The central character is the Devourer, a demon who is bound to a hero's soul.  He exists in the shadowrealm, while the puppets exist in the mortal world.  You can switch between them at almost any time.  In fact, you will need to.  Certain paths only exist in one realm or the other, and switching between them allows you to access them all.  Different enemies also exist in each realm, with some that cross over as well.  It's not an unheard of  mechanic, but it's used very well here.

Another difference is the soulstone.  Instead of chugging potions to survive, you use charges of your equipped soulstone.  Getting a refill of health or mana takes one charge, and different types have different max numbers of charges.  Defeating enemies and absorbing their souls slowly refills your charges.  Again, it's pulled off very well.  I always had access to healing, and was able to refill it without any difficulty.  That may change on harder difficulties though.

Thankfully, all characters share the same experience, and level up at the same time, even the ones you aren't using.  Every level increased gives you five stat points to distribute into four different stats.  Effects of each point increase are shown as you put them in and before you confirm them.  Each character also gains a skill point, which can be used to buy a new skill, or saved up to power up an existing one.  Since you can only have on three at a time, I tended to only try out the ones that sounded good, and power up the ones I found most useful.  Talent slots are unlocked every three levels, and allow you to equip a passive ability.  These are decent, but usually not super powerful.  The ones available are based on your main stats, and you don't seem to be able to change them once set.

There is a HUD in the game, I swear!

There are also several slots for different pieces of equipment, but not every character can equip every type.  That's not even limited to weapons, either.  Most make sense, since very large or small characters would need different size boots or gloves, or might not even have feet!  My only gripe with equipment is the reliance on the dreaded random number generator (RNG for short).  Sure, the shops sell some stuff, but enemies don't respawn and money is limited, so you can't buy everything.  Otherwise, you are stuck hoping that good stuff drops.  Unfortunately, the loot is entirely random within a level range.  I got a lot of drops for characters I didn't use, and worse, for characters I didn't even have, nor could have at that point.  That's not unexpected of the genre, but that doesn't mean I have to like it.

Early on, you must decide who is your first puppet: the fighter, the mage or the hunter.  Me being me, I had to decide between the mage and the hunter, so I went with the hunter first.  As you go through the game, you have opportunities to add more puppets to your party, but only three can go with you at any time.  I was excited to get my second puppet, who was...a hunter.  Yeah, I guess I should have picked one of the other two then.

As I pressed on, I got another puppet after the first boss.  This was a large skeleton fighter that hit like a truck.  Awesome!  He complimented the Devourer and hunter well.  The next puppet I found was unexpected.  Upon being interrogated, I was faced with a choice.  I first accidentally agreed to sell out a town for freedom, but that wasn't what I wanted to do.  So, I loaded my previous save (thankfully there's no silly one-slot-autosave nonsense here), and decided to fight him instead.  Not only was this a better personal choice (I had no reason to sell out the town), but I killed the boss and added a new puppet to my roster.  He ended up being another fighter, which again showed that I should have just picked the mage in the beginning.

On the normal setting, the game isn't very difficult.  Save for a few circumstances, it was just right.  The "few circumstances" are annoying traps and boss fights, but that's mostly from the lack of a dodge or real defensive move.  You can save pretty much anywhere, and getting a game over just forces you to reload your last save.  The story length is really good too, giving you a suitably epic tale to weave through.  Plus, the different characters you can use gives good reasons to go through it at least once more.  While there are a host of sidequests, the game is pretty linear, and the maps are set.  That's not a problem for me, but I know some people won't like that.

If you enjoy isometric action RPGs, then definitely check out Shadows: Awakening.  It looks familiar, but has some unique twists that make it feel fresh and fun.  I recommend trying it out!

The Good:
Fun isometric action RPG.  Switching between characters and worlds is a great concept.

The Bad:
The dungeon traps are way too deadly for how sensitive the hit boxes are.

The SaHD:
I put a belt on my wood elemental, which he's not supposed to be able to equip.  Oops.  You can take the person out of the tester job, but you can't always take the tester out of the person.

(Review code for Shadows: Awakening was provided by the publisher)

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

SNK Heroines ~Tag Team Frenzy~ (PS4) Review

SNK Heroines is a casual fighting game starring only ladies from the rich SNK roster.  Well, except for the one guy that was turned into a female for this game.  And the boss.  And the guest characters.  Anyway, Terry Bogard sells games, so he's now a female, and all of them must battle each other to escape the crazy dream world made by the one guy in the game.

At first glance, the game looks a lot like a King of Fighters.  It has a familiar roster, the boisterous announcer, and is 2-D.  You even have a tag partner, hence the game's subtitle.  Once you spend some time with the game, it probably has more in common with Super Smash Bros., or Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale (still a bad title).  It's not just the items, the simplified moveset, or the super finishes, but a combination of all of them that make it feel that way.

Make no mistake: this is a simplified, watered-down fighter.  That's not necessarily a bad thing, but be aware of that before jumping in.  There is a light attack button, a heavy attack button, a special attack button, and a throw button.  Block is also a button, which is not usually the best choice in fighting games.  At least super moves get their own button too.  While that sounds like a lot, the moves are very limited.  You can't even duck!  Combo potential is basically a few lights, a heavy or special, and then trying to tag and chain a few more hits.  Since I'm not great at fighting games, there may be more, but I don't think so.

Like Smash Bros., tilting the stick in a direction with a button press changes some moves, notably the specials.  While this could add some depth and ease of use, it just felt too limiting to me.  Especially since some of the light or heavy normal attacks were just bad.  When a character has about six standard attacks, one of them can't be useless.  It just doesn't work.  Even worse, multiple characters have these, and sometimes they are the combo opener.  I've hit with an attack, and the enemy recovers before I do and hits me back.  How is that balanced?

Special moves and the "dream finishers" (super attacks) take meter to preform.  In a strange move, the life meter and special meter are on the same bar.  The cool part is your special cap extends as you take damage, but the bad part is that it's just not a good decision.  It's just too weird for people that have played a fighting game before.  And while you might think that this game is made for them, there are plenty of references to things that only fans would know.  It's not something that is easily pulled off, and SNK Heroines doesn't.

Depleting a character's health is not the end of the fight.  Instead, you have to actually hit your opponent with a dream finish when their health is red.  One one hand, this should be cool, as it ensures the fights have flashing outcomes.  In practice, it's more like Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale: not that exciting.  The super moves themselves can be cool, as maybe a small handful actually are, but most times they just fall flat.  Instead of a flashy finish, the screen quickly fades out when you hit with the move.  They just peter out, and lack impact.  They don't feel like a strong move that ends the fight, they just feel limp and weak.  This in exacerbated by the hit sparks/hit effects.  A lot of special and super attacks send out a plethora of stickers, teddy bears, and rainbows and stuff that just feels goofy.  Did Lisa Frank design this stuff?  Besides being too large and out-of-place, it feels lazy and stereotypical.

SNK Heroines also has a story mode.  It is more involved than I thought it would be, but it's still barely more than an excuse to make the game.  Kukri traps the women in this magical world made from his mind, and makes them fight.  He somehow steals the despair from the losers, and that will make this world permanent.  Yeah, ok, super plausible.  The cutscenes in story mode can be utterly bizarre, but they can also be funny.  The character interactions and endings are enjoyable too.  So strangely enough, it ends up being probably the best part of the game.

Besides the story mode, there is the obligatory (at this point) Versus and Online modes.  What you might not expect is the amount of unlockable things, including costume pieces.  Since the playable character are all females (technically, here Terry is as well), you have to dress them up.  Each heroine has two purchasable costumes, the first of which is their more traditional/normal one.  The third costume is a bit of a mixed bag.  Some are really nice, and I like them, while others feel very random.  What I really would have preferred is getting some costumes on other characters...think of the possibilities!

Then come the accessories.  There are a plethora of options of baubles and doo-dads that you can put on heads, hands, feet, etc.  Some are already unlocked, and some must be purchased.  You can even remove pre-set ones, and make Sylvie look not terrible.  In the vein of Senran Kagura, there are unlockable backgrounds and poses you can put the characters in.  Most are from the ending scenes.  Once you set it up, you can take a picture of them.  I'm sure someone will love that feature, but it's not really one I would get much use out of.

On one hand, SNK Heroines ~Tag Team Frenzy~ is a party-type fighter, easy to pick up and play.  On the other, I think it's a bit too simple at times.  I might sound pretty negative about it, but the story can be pretty fun, and it doesn't take it self too seriously.  I doubt there will be high level competitions of the game, but that's not what it is meant for.  It's a decent thing to play with a group of friends that don't really play fighting games, although they aren't going to get much out of it.  I think there should be a few tweaks to make it better for the audience that would appreciate it.

The Good:
Simplistic fighter that's easy to pick up and play.

The Bad:
Feels a bit content-light, and the core of the game is niche enough to potentially alienate the casual audience that could easily grasp the mechanics.

The SaHD:
While I think female Terry Bogard is a fun idea, there are a lot of female characters not included, but probably should have been.

(Review code for SNK Heroines was provided by the publisher)

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Yakuza Kiwami 2 (PS4) Review

Just as Yakuza Kiwami was a fresh remake of the original, the second Yakuza also gets its due.  Yakuza Kiwami 2 continues Kiryu's tale, and even uses the same engine as Yakuza 6.  It also boasts new mini-games, and some returning or refined ones.

The story continues one year after the previous game, and deals with the fallout of those events.  I like this aspect of the Yakuza story.  It might not always go the places I think it should, but it always moves forward, and lets time pass in a fairly realistic manner.  There are points where it feels like things happen just to make the story longer.  Personally, it can be a bit hard for me to keep a lot of the lore straight.  Having played 5, then Kiwami, then 6, and now Kiwami 2, there are a lot of story developments that I can't always remember the order of.  If I had the time, I'd re-play them in order to better sort out the time line.  This isn't necessarily a problem that others will face, but with the re-releases coming between the ending ones, I'm sure there are others in the same boat.  Thankfully the start of Kiwami 2 does have a memory sequence near the beginning, so you can hit the major points.

If you have played any of the other Yakuza games, the combat will feel familiar, as it is largely unchanged from the core experience.  You attack thugs, build up your heat gauge, which then allows you to unleash really powerful attacks.  It does seem like the developers are continuously refining the combat engine, making minor changes along the way.  This time, it feels like there are far fewer heat moves.  I still get them, but they feel much more situational, and I guess I'm just not in the situation for them.  Extreme Heat returns from chronologically later game Yakuza 6, but you have to buy it after a certain point in the game.  That's a bit of a pain, but I still like and use the mode.  I just wish buying a longer heat bar didn't make it harder to activate Extreme Heat.  Weapons are still very useful, but you have to store them after picking them up in order to actually keep them after a fight.  It's a bit cumbersome.  For better or worse, they give you tons of them in the enemy hideouts, so use them and throw the empty ones away.

While I will miss the plethora of heat moves, my biggest problem in combat is the dodge.  Blocking still only works from the front, ensuring I can't and won't use it.  So, I have to rely on dodging.  Trouble is, by default, it is terrible.  It's more of a timing thing, since Kiryu barely moves anywhere when dodging, which seems to go against the concept.  Trying to dodge for me usually did nothing.  In the skill menu, there is a way to increase the dodge distance.  Buying one level had such a minor effect, I checked to make sure I actually bought it.  That doesn't make me want to invest more points into it.  However, there is also a skill that gives you the ability to string multiple dodges together.  This was a much more effective way to dodge, and I could actually use it.  Too bad I had to go through half the game before finding and being able to buy it.

Kiwami 2 has a few more chapters than other Yakuza games I've played, but the chapters themselves feel shorter.  The only have a few story and battles scenes.  I think you are supposed to use the time between to wander around and do the side stories, which is pretty much what I did.  Of course there are many side stories, quests, and mini-games to fill your time.  Like the other games in the series, expect many hours of beating punks, finding locker keys, and helping out random strangers.

One cool and fun addition is the Majima story line.  No longer content to stay in the background (or attack you at random times), the cyclops now has his own mini-story and game mode.  It's really fun to use him, as he has a knife and lacks Kiryu's aversion to killing people while totally killing them.  Goro Majima just straight up stabs fools, and loves every second of it.  He doesn't gain experience sadly, but you can use items to heal.  He even has his own heat moves.  I like this mode, but unfortunately you are limited in how far you can progress in it until you complete more of Kiryu's story.  Since it takes place between Kiwami and Kiwami 2, this doesn't make sense to me.  Just let me run wild as the Mad Dog of Shimano when I want to!

Yakuza knows you like your mini-games, and Kiwami 2 brings them to you.  The Sega arcade not only packs in Virtua Fighter 2 again, but also adds Virutal On!  You can also help run a club, which is a lot more hectic than I would have thought, or play a crane game.  Yes, the virtual one is rigged too, but I've won it a few times.  The crowing achievement in mini-games has to be Toylets.  It's a mini-game that you play while Kiryu is taking a piss.

No, you didn't misread that, and yes, it's true.  There are two Toylet games, and they seem kind of simple.  Admittedly, I lost the first one I tried, but was unable to try again until I ate and drank to fill my bladder.  It's really weird to think about, weird to write about, and weird to play.  However, it does feel appropriate to the Yakuza universe.  Don't forget that probably every iteration has a sub-story to help some guy in a bathroom stall.

Like me, if you enjoyed the Clan Creator in Yakuza 6, you will be glad to know that it has...sort of returned.  Instead of Kiryu's clan, it is the clan for Majima Construction.  He truly is everywhere.  After the destruction and desertion of Purgatory, Majima moved in and is building his own paradise.  Unfortunately, some real estate big wigs know how "money" it will be, and are moving in to steal the plans.  Instead of being on the offense, you are defending your equipment from the endless thugs these construction moguls throw at you.  No longer will you buy generic units, but instead direct a small group of individuals where to go to either save your equipment, or prevent the enemies from reaching them.  So far it's pretty fun, but I do prefer the original.  Just as before, the enemies are Japanese professional wrestlers.  This time it's some legends instead of the newer guys.  It's still an awesome idea to include that kind of thing, and I'm curious who they will get next time.

Yakuza Kiwami 2 is an easy recommendation if you are following the Yakuza tale.  It looks great and plays pretty well.  Combat is again similar to all the others, but slightly tweaked to ensure it is not the exact same.  One day they will get it perfect.  Like all the others, there is a focus on the story, but includes a lot of side stuff to distract you.

The Good:
More of Kiryu being a badass, lots of things to do and punks to beat up.

The Bad:
Story drags on at times, combat is again tweaked from previous releases.

The SaHD:
My favorite part in any side story is when some dumb punk talks down to Kiryu.  You just smile as he runs his mouth, because you know you are about to whoop his ass.

(Review code for Yakuza Kiwami 2 was provided by the publisher)

Monday, September 17, 2018

Senran Kagura: Reflexions (Switch) Review

Early on in the Switch's life, Kenichiro Takaki, the producer of Senran Kagura, wondered about making a game using the enhanced rumble.  Fans of the series dreamed about what would come next...and then we got Senran Kagura: Reflexions.

If you have ever messed around in the Dressing Room feature in any of the other SK games, then you will have a good idea what this game is all about.  Except now there's dialogue to go with it!  Asuka will talk to you, then you will message a part of her hand.  Depending on which part she responds to, and which part you rub, you are then taken to one of the game's "arcs".  Asuka will be dressed appropriately for the arc, and ready for you to practice your reflexology on her body.  Yes, you read that right.

There are two main actions in the body reflexology, squeezing and touching.  Well, there's also caressing and using the water gun, but they don't seem to do anything.  I take that back.  The water gun mode lets you rotate Asuka around, so you can touch her back.  Not really a function that needs to be tied to it, but it is.

Anyway, you will poke or grab various parts of her body.  When you do, a colored circle will appear.  Getting more and more of any color will be reflected the background effect.  Once you've done that enough, you can use a tool to...message her.  As you go through the arcs, you will eventually earn all 4 different tools.  Once it's time, just select one and go.  Each has its own mini-game that rely on the same principle.  Keep Asuka's happy meter in the right zone, which increases the heart meter.  The trick is to keep it in the right range, as doing something too long or, hard, won't work.  If you get the heart meter to the specified level within the time limit, you win!  And by "win" I mean fill her heart crystal more.  Then back to the hand reflexology and repeat until the crystal is filled.  You will need to do this at least five times to fully fill the crystal.

Both reflexologies can be done with motion controls or the controller buttons.  The motion controls are fairly responsive.  Half of the motions felt appropriate, while the other half didn't feel like they were mimicking the actions they were trying to.  I pretty much stuck to using the controller sticks and buttons, as they were a lot more reliable to succeed in the mini-games.  It was a lot easier for me to find the rhythm when using the sticks.  I would encourage players to try both, as the motion worked better than I would have though, and was fun for some of the mini-games.

The crystal fills with whatever color effects you had when going into the mini-game.  Mixing colors will change the overall crystal, and whatever color it is when it is fully filled, that's the ending you get.  That's good in theory.  In practice, the endings aren't really that different, just different dialogue.  The main reason to end with each of the five colors is to get the "true" ending, which unlocks the second main menu picture.  Other than that, getting all five colors in an arc will unlock that costume.

I'm sure that's not how you use a brush

As for other things to do, there is the mini-reflexology, where you can just squeeze and touch Asuka in the classroom, and it won't go to the mini-game.  It's easiest to dress her up in the various outfits here as well.  If you want a more static experience, Reflexions also has the dressing room option.  This is where you change Asuka's hair, accessories, and outfit, plus it allows you to put her in various poses.  It wasn't something I used very often in the main games, and that hasn't changed here.

Well, Senran Kagura: Reflexions sure is an interesting idea, if not a bit creepy at times.  It does feel more like a tech demo to me, since it relies on the motion controls and vibration for most of the interesting bits.  Otherwise, it's pretty much the stuff you can already do in the dressing room function of the other SK games.  Those also have the added benefits of more (and better) girls and outfits.  While you will be able to buy other girls as DLC at some point, I'm not sure it's enough to make me go back to the game (unless there's Murakumo DLC).  There isn't a whole lot to do, but at least the price reflects that.

The Good:
Interesting use of the motion controls and the vibration function.

The Bad:
Making a stand alone game out of a rarely used menu section of the normal games doesn't automatically make it good.

The SaHD:
The "big brother" arc is of course creepy, but the idol one ("Oh, Mr. Producer!") also feels a little uncomfortable in today's world.

(Review code for Senran Kagura: Reflexions was provided by the publisher)

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Shikhondo: Soul Eater Review

I'm always game to try a new shmup.  Some are good, some are bad, but it's a genre I enjoy.  When Shikhondo was announced, I made sure to ask for a review code.  I figured it would play really well on the Switch, and happily received that version.

Once on the main game menu, you do have a few options.  There is arcade mode, hardcore, novice, and boss rush.  Arcade mode is pretty much the normal game.  As with a lot of the other modes, you can choose one of four difficulty levels.  Boss rush is pretty self-explanatory, as you just fight all of the bosses.  Novice is supposedly easier, but didn't feel that different from the easy setting of the arcade mode.  Hardcore boasts 1 life, no continues, but double the speed of soul charging.  When I tried it, it let me continue.  Once I did, I had the normal amount of lives until the end of the stage.  Starting the next one seemed to put me back to hardcore, as I only had the one life.  I'm not sure if this is intentional, but it did feel weird.  To round it out, there's a customize mode that lets you change a few options, and local co-op.  Sadly, I couldn't find anyone in my house brave enough to try that out with me.

The controls and ideas behind the game are pretty simple.  There is a shot button for your normal attack.  There is an alt-fire button, that you hold with the shot button to do a slightly different attack.  This will also make you move a lot slower, so it's easier to weave between bullets.  When you pass close by an enemy bullet, it will fill a bit of your soul gauge.  When it is full, pressing the soul button will have you enter a powered up state for a few seconds.  Pressing the button again will consume a soul stock, but power you up a second level.  If you press the soul button when you don't have a full soul meter, it acts like a bomb attack, damaging on-screen enemies, and taking away some of the bullets.  The soul system is pretty nice once you get the hang of it, just make sure to look at the meter (or listen for the sound) before you hit the button, so you get the power-up instead of the bomb.  Both are useful, but the power-up is better.  Well, for the most part.

There are two characters to choose from, the Grim Reaper and The Girl.  Really descriptive, I know.  Of course I tried the reaper first, as I figured she was like Botan (assuming anyone else remembers Yu Yu Hakusho).  Both have different shot patterns, so the choice isn't superficial.  The reaper has a normal spread, while holding the alt and shot buttons concentrates her fire.  The girl has two orbs with her.  Her normal shot is fairly concentrated, but the small shots from the orbs will automatically aim toward enemies.  The alt-fire send the orbs next to an enemy, and blasts them at short range.  At first I liked the reaper's shot pattern, but eventually found the girl to be better for me.

I did have some problems using the joy-con's analog stick.  There were times where it wouldn't respond, especially if I was moving it back and forth rapidly (like when dodging bullets).  The d-pad buttons worked fine.  I switched to the pro controller, and the stick worked fine.  It may only be a problem with my joy-con, but it's not something I have encountered in any game I've played with them before.

Just like most shmups, you die in 1 hit.  You will start right where you left off, but will be out any soul charge you had.  Of course, these rules can be changed in the "customize" game type.  Thankfully, the characters have really tight hit boxes.  Coupled with the slower movement during alt-fire, it feels good to dodge the bullet hell.  Even if you do run out of lives, you can continue, and it still places you right where you were.  It's very possible to brute force your way through the game, which is nice at least for completing it, and practicing later stages, since there is no feature to select them.

I will say the game can be hard, but it's mostly because the enemy bullets are sometimes hard to see through your shots.  This problem is magnified when using the soul power-up.  I'd also heartily recommend playing in TV mode, as the small screen of handheld mode plus lots of small bullets is a recipe for disaster.  At least some bullet types disappear when the enemy dies, which saved me more times than I can count.

There are 5 stages, each ending with a giant boss battle.  After the fifth one, the game goes on for a few seconds, leading me to believe there is some kind of hidden final boss.  I don't know if there is, and I don't know what the qualifications are.  I would imagine having to do it on 1CC or something like that, but I don't know for sure.  In another unique feature, after completing a stage, you can choose to get an extra life, or another soul.  It isn't much, but I like it.  Obviously, they don't offer it in hardcore mode.

Shikhondo: Soul Eater may not offer many modes or characters, but it's a very solid and fun shmup.  The soul charge and power-up is a nice and unique gameplay mechanic that I enjoyed.  I'd easily recommend it to fans of the genre.  Just be sure to play in TV mode.

The Good:
Good differences between the two characters, tight hit box, unique soul system for power-ups.

The Bad:
Very much a "no frills" experience.

The SaHD:
I really should have invested in the shmup Switch grip Kickstarter thing.

(Review code for Shikhondo was provided by the publisher)