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Archive for the ‘Impressions’ Category

Spreadsheets Sublime

So, I’m playing a Nippon Ichi strategy RPG again, albeit for the first time in years. The last time was back in 2012, when I played through Soul Nomad, which was very different from their previous releases, though still enjoyable. This time around, it’s something a bit more “traditional”: Disgaea 3: Absence of Justice, a PS3 game in which the Netherworld consists of a gigantic school, the Evil Academy. The main character, Mao, is a top honor student—as in, he never goes to class and typically spends his days lazing about—who aspires to defeat his father, the Overlord. Mao and the other members of the cast have the usual eccentricities, and overall, the tone tries its best to channel the smile-inducing spirit of its most successful predecessor, Disgaea: Hour of Darkness. So far, I feel it’s falling somewhat short. I like some of the characters, particularly the waylaid hero Almaz, but Mao is only a few steps short of being annoying; also, the story, while not bad, isn’t particularly remarkable, and relies a touch too heavily on fourth-wall breaking for some of its humor.

A Disgaea 3 battle map filled with Geo effects.Normally, knowing how I review games with prominent stories and characters, this might pose a problem. For me, a poorly-plotted story can discolor what is otherwise a wonderful experience, and appealing characters are typically equally important in such games. This is a Nippon Ichi SRPG, however, so what will ultimately make or break the game is its gameplay: the turn-based, grid-based, multiple-character-managing battles executed in a style that this studio is famous for. Usually, they get this right, though there have been some missteps as well. Phantom Brave, which features one of the best stories amongst all of Nippon Ichi’s games, had a terrible system which ditched the space-by-space grid-based movement and attacks for a more freeform style, but that was hard to use effectively (nevertheless, I liked the rest of the game so much that I want to give it a second chance sometime, and, seeing as how I don’t own the original PS2 version anymore, picked up the Wii port awhile ago). Makai Kingdom, which, on the other hand, had a story and cast which I hated, had a more refined version of Phantom Brave‘s system, but it was only barely less fiddly. It’s worth noting that Nippon Ichi has gone back to, and stuck with, grids ever since. Besides grids, Disgaea 3 has the other trappings typically expected given its lineage, including a special field-based battle gimmick (in Disgaea games, this means the color-coded Geo panels and symbols/blocks), lots of character types to choose from, tons of equipment and other useful items, and a ridiculously high level limit of 9999.

Information overload, but only if you let it get to you.These systems are deep, and potentially overwhelming. The in-game information is presented very clearly within well-organized menus, with the most important bits made suitably prominent, and even so, it can be a lot to take in at once. It’s no surprise that Disgaea games are, usually derisively, compared to spreadsheets (and also that some players make spreadsheets to get the most out of a playthrough), but this is only part of the journey. Micromanagement leads to some pretty fun rewards in battle: giant explosions and magical effects from special attacks, useful bonuses that rack up depending on how many chained and combo attacks are pulled off, and the numbers that appear whenever most any action that doesn’t involve movement between panels is executed. Seeing these numbers climb higher, particularly after a carefully arranged Geo panel and block sequence is set into motion, is a major part of where the fun lies. Disgaea 3 and its ilk are not so much about spreadsheets and the statistics they contain, but making satisfyingly big numbers out of them. It is strangely capitalistic in this way, although more overt signs of capitalism—stores and the like—are presented in typical fashion otherwise.

It is the sort of game which I have been away from for far too long, but also, like so many other information-rich types, one which I should only indulge in occasionally, lest I start regularly seeing numbers in my sleep. Aside from the expected refinements made to the base formula (for better or worse), it’s the same sort of cozy, crazy Nippon Ichi SRPG I’ve always preferred. I’m only just starting the fourth chapter now, which means I should be about a quarter of the way through, by Disgaea standards, so there’s still a lot of room for the story to improve. I hope it does, but I wouldn’t begrudge the story too much if it never rises above its current mediocrity. Just keep the controls straightforward, the information tidy, and the effects and numbers captivatingly bombastic, and I’ll keep on happily playing until the credits roll.


Sonic’s Way Forward

Like many Sonic fans, I had a curious eye on this year’s Sonic Generations. When the reviews started to hit, many of them were positive, calling it the best Sonic in a long time. However, Tailsnake’s comment at Ars Technica stood out to me:

I’m not sure why the gaming media keeps acting like Sonic Colors didn’t exist. Sonic Generations is the Sonic Colors engine in HD on redesigned classic levels. Colors didn’t have the nostalgia factor, but it played just as well as Generations and didn’t have any annoying sidekicks either. Colors was the Sonic gameplay fans were waiting for, Generations is just Sega taking that engine HD (which is a great thing for fans, I just wanted to give Colors the credit it deserves).

At the time I was playing Sonic Colors—I still am, actually—and this comment resonated with me. Colors, not Generations, should hold the title for “best new console Sonic in years”. I haven’t bought Generations yet, but the Green Hill Zone-focused demo confirmed that the “modern Sonic” sections are indeed simply HD versions of the Colors formula.

Why was Sonic Colors—arguably the best 3D Sonic ever made at the time of its release—so sorely overlooked by Generations reviewers? I feel this is mainly due to Colors‘ status as Wii and DS exclusives, as opposed to Generations‘ more hardcore-friendly presence on 360 and PS3, to say nothing of the nostalgia factor hardwired into the latter game. As with many quality third-party Wii games, it’s a shame that Colors hasn’t been played by more enthusiast gamers, because it’s both a great platformer and a fantastic step forward for the long-troubled Sonic series.

The plot of Colors is simple, much like those of the Sonic games of old: Dr. Eggman has opened a theme park in outer space. Sonic and Tails, suspecting an ulterior motive, head to this park to investigate. The cutscenes and especially the dialogue are cheesy, but they’re also refreshingly wholesome, and with few additional characters to complicate things.

On a similar note, the only playable character is Sonic, though robotic Sonics and Miis can be used in an optional area. Sonic controls much like he always has, with breakneck speed and a strong sense of inertia. The major new feature this time around are the Wisps, diminutive aliens that can be collected for speed boosts or special abilities. Said abilities make up for the lack of other playable characters; for instance, the green Wisp allows Sonic to hover like Tails, and the pink one to climb walls, a la Knuckles. These powers can only be used for a limited time, though run into enough refills on the way, and the player can keep using them for as long as necessary.

In addition to the Wisps, the most striking thing about Colors are the environments. Standard platformer tropes are reimagined to fit the world—for instance, the requisite water level is a Japanese-themed aquarium—or ignored altogether. There are layer cake mountains, checkered lanes of light, and roller coasters that weave between asteroids. These levels are traversed from both front-facing and side-scrolling perspectives, shifting as necessary, and with none of the cameras-from-hell that mar certain other 3D Sonics. They also contain multiple paths, and with new kinds of Wisps unlockable in each area, many of them encourage repeat plays.

With the game’s outer space theme and some of its more eye-popping moments—not to mention the occasional shift in gravity and bounce between asteroids—Sonic Colors has been compared to Super Mario Galaxy, but they are alike only in superficial ways. Sonic is and has always been a very different character from Mario, and the levels in both characters’ platformers reflect that, including Colors. The thirty-plus Colors levels are built for speed and have plenty of springs, loops, and boosters, to say nothing of enemies placed in just the right spot to make you drop all your rings. Colors, then, does not come from the Super Mario Galaxy school of level design so much as that of classic Sonic; it is a well-done, modern take on a classic formula.

However, Sonic being Sonic, there are some frustrating bits. For some gimmicks, particularly the giant lollipops in Sweet Mountain and the special multi-jump sections, the timing is stopwatch-tight, and can require extreme precision to use successfully. The placement of at least one mid-level marker—from which Sonic can respawn, as long as there are lives available—is lousy in such a way that it’s preferable to simply start the entire level over again should the player die. It is difficult in spots where it doesn’t need to be, but in a way, this is just another affirmation that it’s a Sonic game.

Still, it’s a gorgeous game, with an outstanding and varied soundtrack and the type of zippy, interesting gameplay that one would want from a Sonic. Though I still have a ways to go until the end, I do plan on continuing with Sonic Colors in the new year, and I hope that future console Sonic games—not just Generations—build upon its template.


The JRPG For This Generation

It’s StarCraft 2 Day! Actually, the UPS man won’t get here with my copy of the Collector’s Edition until later, so I won’t be starting the Southerners in Space Wings of Liberty campaign until this evening at the earliest. I have much to do in the meantime, anyway. Such as brushing up on StarCraft canon, for starters; I remember the original (“vanilla”) game’s plot pretty clearly, but need to rewatch much of Brood War‘s cutscenes. On the non-StarCraft front, I’ve taken up DDR again, and want to sink more time into Dragon Quest IX.

Ah, DQIX. Originally, the plan was to beat the game before today, but as time went on, I realized that this would be an impossibility. I’m currently some forty hours in and (by my own rough estimate) a bit of a ways from the end—not because of any steep difficulty or lengthy story, but due to the fact that there’s so much to do in between main quests.

The central story revolves around the player hero character, this time an angel—sorry, Celestrian—who gathers the thanks of earthly mortals to feed the Yggdrasil Tree. Something bad happens, and the quest starts in earnest. The bare-bones plot moves forward by means of smaller, compact stories that occur in each new town the hero visits. Naturally, this bite-size approach to questing is ideal for lots of side-questing and other distractions. One of these is the Alchemy Pot, a modern-day Dragon Quest mainstay which is used to fuse multiple items into new ones that are stronger, rarer, or just all around better than what they were before. New to the series is a job/class system, reminiscent of—but not entirely comparable to—the ones in certain Final Fantasy games.

The job system is only one indicator of how different this Dragon Quest is from its predecessors. The look of the hero is entirely customizable. There’s also the other party members, none of which have the distinct names and personalities of the past, and can either be randomly generated or created from scratch. In terms of the world, the Goddess has been replaced with a male Almighty, and the abstract religious symbols typically seen in the series are different in most places. All enemies are visible when walking across the field, and in dungeons. Certain things have been tweaked easier, though the overall difficulty feels about the same as ever. Much has already been written about the ad-hoc multiplayer features and the platform that its on (it’s worth noting that nearly the entire game can be controlled with the touchscreen, which, incidentally, is how I’ve been playing it). It’s no wonder that, in Jamin Smith’s review at VideoGamer.com, he felt the game was more like a spinoff than a true main-series entry.

However, despite all of change DQIX has brought with it, two hallmarks of the series shine throughout: its aesthetics, and its quality. There is no mistaking this as anything but a mainline Dragon Quest, with all its Koichi Sugiyama musical stylings Akira Toriyama visuals, and much more care and polish than any of the (still great) spinoffs get. The controls are intuitive and, though the menu arrows could be a little larger for those of us using the stylus, sensible. The graphics and sound are among the very best on the DS. The game itself is diverse, easy to play on-the-go, and addictive. On top of all that, all of the new stuff (at least that which I’ve dealt with so far) is well done, and much of it enhances the overall experience; the visible enemies is one feature I would love to see in all future entries. This is a Dragon Quest for today, a JRPG for those who doubt the viability of the genre in a time when WRPGs have stormed consoles like FPSes did before them. It makes me want to play more, and also to wonder what a Dragon Quest MMO would be like.

It’s going to be really hard to juggle this and StarCraft 2.


Are You Ready For Some Space Marines?!

I was beginning to get burned out on RPGs, so yesterday, I installed and started Halo, one of the games on this year’s “must play” list. I say “installed” because it’s the PC port, which I’ve had for a long time, but never once touched. Having played FPSes since Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, I’m most accustomed with traditional computer controls; replacing WASD and a mouse with analog sticks is anathema to me.

That aside, Halo is clearly a previous-gen console game with traditional PC FPS window dressing, going by its aesthetics and limitations. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. The graphics, as straightforward and colorful (albeit with a selective palette) as they are compared to other FPSes from back then, bring to mind much of Blizzard’s work, and certain limitations—namely, that the player can only carry two weapons at a time—lend an additional layer of challenge. Overall, an enormous amount of craft and care is on display, and although Halo remains the most overhyped game of the ’00s, it’s also hard to hate.

The world of Halo.As every gamer knows by now, the player character is the nondescriptly-named Master Chief, a human marine fighting against the alien Covenant on a far-off world. His physical build is strong but not very distinctive, and he is completely covered by armor, right down to the reflective gold mask that hides his face. I’d always gotten the impression that his name and outward appearance were designed as such so that anyone could slide into his shoes, and had thus assumed that he was mute. However, he does have your typical tough-guy voice to match his special armor. Despite this, to his credit, he retains much of his blank-slate persona, and is as inoffensive and plain an avatar as I ever saw one.

The alien enemies are inoffensive as well—I’m a few hours in, and it looks as though I’ll never have to turn my guns against other humans. The grunt-level Covenant come across as cartoonish, what with their dwarven builds and high-pitched voices which wouldn’t be out of place in Worms, but the tougher ones have a certain lightness about them as well. No one would ever mistake Halo for hard sci-fi. Rather, it’s pop sci-fi, with a simple story centered around survival.

Halo‘s environments share much of this pop sensibility, but the best ones (that I’ve seen so far) are atmospheric, and add layers of character. Similarly distinctive is how the missions are presented in the campaign mode. Each mission blends right into the next one, with only a temporary, subtle display of said mission’s title letting the player know where they are in the grand scheme of things (ETA, 04/19: Now that I think about it, though, I do see very brief snippets of load screens between chapters. Either Halo‘s just that old or my computer’s just that badass). The HUD and NPC AI seem to be as good as it got for 2001, and still hold up well today. And the music, oh man the music. I had already been familiar with one or two tracks from Halo, but overall, the soundtrack is outstanding, and the sound editing even better, with much the same natural approach as the mission presentation. Oh, and no supply crates! All of the ammo, weapons, and whatnot I’ve picked up just lie there on the field, mostly near the dead.

So how does it feel playing Halo? As Master Chief, I feel very much like a leader of men, a soldier others look up to. However, there’s also an undercurrent of loneliness and a little bit of paranoia. So far, I’ve been on my own—both through chance and design—for decent stretches, where I am almost always outnumbered. When this happens, both large, open spaces and narrow hallways are approached with caution, with little to no music and a smattering of sound effects (as required) highlighting the action. NPCs—both enemies and fellow marines—don’t respawn, so backtracking adds to this emptiness. Also adding to it are the parts when I am with other marines; their simple camaraderie, via actions and dialogue, is missed when they aren’t around. It has been a long time since I played a proper FPS campaign, but I don’t recall one making me feel this way before (Portal, not being a “proper FPS”, doesn’t count).

The only major problem I’ve had with Halo so far has involved an apparent bug. A certain enemy disappears after I run away past a set point, and this disappearance seems to impede the flow of the story. I don’t think I’ll be able to take this guy down without a sniper rifle, which I had gotten rid of roughly a third of the way to that point, but after doing some lengthy backtracking, I found I couldn’t get to the place where I had ditched it. As such, I’m going to load up a save file from before I lost the sniper rifle, and make damn sure I hold onto it this time.

In general, I’m having a good time with Halo. The look is appealing in the way that any polished product made for a mass audience is. The fights are challenging enough (for the record, I’m playing on Normal), the maps are interesting but not overly complicated, and the Warthog vehicle, when it is available, handles well. It’s still weird to think of how this game helped change how traditionally PC genres were handled on consoles, since if Halo was PC-only, it might’ve earned the legacy of being merely “great” as opposed to “classic”. However, it’s still “great”, and because of that, I’m looking forward to finishing the campaign.


The Fun Driving Simulator

You wouldn’t know it by reading this blog, but one of the few video gaming genres I have loved unconditionally my entire life, ever since I was old enough and tall enough to reach the sticks on arcade cabinets, has been car driving and racing. I have fond memories of Pole Position; consider the OutRun soundtrack to be the greatest in the medium’s history; have smiled with Cruisin’ USA, gritted my teeth courtesy of Crazy Taxi, and laughed over manic multiplayer Mario Kart DS sessions. And even though I eventually gave up on Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, and open-world games in general, I took immense pleasure in simply cruising around a loving parody of the very real Miami Beach that I had spent much time in when I was younger, listening to the ’80s tunes and satirical talk shows on the radio. All of this is especially ironic since I have no interest in driving in real life and, in fact, only ever did so for a very short time.

Forza Motorsport 2 - screenshot 1But yes, I love driving games, even though I’m not very good at a lot of them. This last bit is why I don’t buy them all that often, and why, until recently, the first and last simulation racer I had ever bought was Gran Turismo 3 A-Spec, which came bundled with my first PlayStation 2. I had heard fantastic things about the Gran Turismo series, and this latest (at the time) entry in the series looked damned pretty, so for this casual driving game lover, I thought it was a no-brainer. However, my problem was just that: I was a casual driving game lover, and GT3 was very, very serious. In career mode, I got a starting car and some circuits to race on, but to save up enough money to upgrade from my lowly PT Cruiser was going to be a tedious task, and I never stuck with it. Of course, it didn’t help that the license tests, required to unlock the higher-level races, demand a certain sort of precision which my casual self couldn’t possibly hope (or want) to deliver.

I eventually set Gran Turismo 3 aside for other games, including the simpler but much more accessible go-kart racer Mario Kart DS, and ended up never touching it again. Another console generation rolled around. I picked up Mario Kart Wii and went through the entire Grand Prix in that, as I had with its predecessor, but it wasn’t enough. I wanted a more robust racing experience, something like Gran Turismo, but given my past experience, I had to do my research more carefully this time. We don’t have a PS3, but we do have an Xbox 360, and the Xbox brand’s equivalent of GT was Turn 10’s Forza Motorsport, so I began looking into that series. I already knew of its reputation for delivering as deep and realistic an experience as Polyphony Digital’s “Real Driving Simulator”, but could I play a Forza game and still have fun?

The answer? A resounding yes.

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An Etrian Odyssey Odyssey

Feeling too tired to delve deeper into the story-heavy Tales of Legendia, and knowing that Etrian Odyssey was much lighter in that respect, I finally got around to starting the latter this afternoon. I had bought a copy listed as “New” from an Amazon Marketplace seller several months ago. The shrinkwrapping was surprisingly poor for Atlus, the case had some minor imperfections, and though the manual was present and in perfect shape, the usual DS Health and Safety Guide was missing. That said, I suppose I shouldn’t have been too surprised to find a save file on the cart once I fired it up. I had never left feedback for the seller, and it’s way too late to do so now, but I did file a complaint regarding the wrongly-labeled condition of the item.

Etrian OdysseyAnyway, the game. I’d been intimidated by Etrian Odyssey, which is my main reason for putting off playing it for so long. Not because of its storied difficulty, but because of the map-drawing mechanic. Somehow, I had gotten the impression that the mapping tools enabled players to design the dungeons, including item, event, and enemy placements. I don’t know why I thought this, as it makes no sense, but there you go. It turns out that the mapping tools are not there for design, but actual cartography. Unlike other dungeon crawlers, which automatically draw the maps for you as you explore them, Etrian Odyssey makes you do the hard work. Maps have to be painted in, walls drawn to denote borders, treasure locations noted, and so on.

All this takes place in the land of Etria, where there’s just a town, and a labyrinth of a forest. Officials in the town are rewarding adventuring guilds for exploring the labyrinth, and the player is in charge of such a guild. The town contains all the necessities: an equipment store, a guildhall to create and manage party members, a hotel to rest and save at, an apothecary for healing purposes, and so on, and then there’s the untamed wilderness of the labyrinth, filled with random battles against monsters and things to do and see.

Navigating in the towns is done entirely through menus, while travel in the dungeon takes place in a 3D first-person point of view on the top screen, and on the map grid on the bottom one. Battles are carried out in the classic Dragon Quest style: your entire party’s commands are entered in before each turn, and still images of the enemies are shown on-screen with accompanying battle effects. The difficulty of said battles lives up to the game’s reputation, and I expect it will only get harder from here. Also throughout the dungeon are treasures, odd crystals which I don’t quite know the purpose of yet, and little events that are activated either automatically, or when the A button is pressed after a prompt.

So far, I’ve completed just one mission, and found an odd loophole in the midst of it. The beginners’ mission requires talking to a knight stationed within the first floor of the labyrinth; he asks you to map out a certain area before letting you pass, in order to complete the first task of mapping said floor. However, after I’d satisfied the knight, I did some backtracking to find areas I’d been to before, but died in the middle of (the only save point that I know of so far is in town; fortunately, newly mapped areas can be saved when the Game Over screen is reached). In the middle of this backtracking, I found a place I hadn’t mapped that appeared to be within the boundaries that the knight had originally specified. I don’t know if this was an oversight, a bug, or if I really didn’t have to map the whole area, just most of it. Doubt it’s the latter, though, and a quick look at a GameFAQs doc verified that the knight wanted the whole space within the set boundaries mapped. It should be interesting to see if there are any other such quirks as the game goes on. So far, it’s got the simple atmosphere I was hoping for, and holds my interest enough to me to stick with it. Not sure if it’s “engrossing” yet, but I can certainly see it becoming so.

Special Stage: Totally unrelated, but I rambled on a bit about the Compilation of FFVII and related matters in my LJ early this morning. I hope at least some of it makes sense.