Another year has ended, and with it, another pile of games beaten. My Backloggery breakdown for the previous year once again wound up in the negative, but what else is new? I can’t speak for whether this has been a great year for gaming, as the vast majority of what I played were pre-2018 releases, though I did enjoy myself.
If you’ve read one of my past year in review posts, you know the drill: every game here is one that I’ve beaten or completed in 2018, regardless of release date. This time, in addition to my top ten and five honorable mentions, I’d like to give special shoutouts to two games.
We had skipped PAX West (formerly PAX Prime) last year, and missed it terribly, so deciding how to spend our 2018 Labor Day weekend was a no-brainer. As usual, the whole process of obtaining the tickets was a white-knuckle affair—most especially and unexpectedly a few days before the show, when one of our PAX friends’ passes got lost in the mail. Fortunately, he was able to get things sorted out, and after a week of preparations on our end (including taking care of our own little emergency involving a pet sitting cancellation), we all met up in Seattle. This even included one of our group who had decided to skip PAX, but wanted to be in town nonetheless. PAX was here!
The following four days were packed with panels, games, and some delicious food, including some from longtime favorites Juicy Cafe and MOD Pizza. Downtown Seattle’s Rock Bottom Grill, our regular post-show spot, had since closed, but the Gordon Biersch in a nearby mall was a decent substitute; it was also the location of the first post-PAX Cheap Ass Gamer meetup that I organized seven years ago.
We’re now just past the midpoint of 2018, and although I’ve met my personal gaming goal for this year, my Backloggery progress index is in the negative, thanks largely to some Switch pickups (and a gift), and the usual Steam Summer Sale. I’ve been playing a little bit of everything—action and turn-based JRPGs, indie puzzle and adventure games, and a couple of newer entries in long-running franchises—but there’s always too much good stuff out there to catch up on.
My major gaming goals these past couple of months were to beat Etrian Odyssey V: Beyond the Myth and play through Tales of Vesperia. Despite a generic setup for the final boss battle (which, on the plus side, had awesome music), the former game was excellent—it’s easily one of the best, if not the best, in the core series. There was none of the overworld stuff that was first introduced in the third game and padded out the fourth (and most boring) entry. Instead, Etrian V is a straight-up dungeon crawl through the massive tree Yggdrasil, much like the first two games. That’s not to say this back-to-basics approach didn’t include any new elements, the best of which is the addition of in-dungeon food gathering and cooking, which gives one more options for healing and lessens the need to warp back to town whenever health and standard support items run low. On top of that, each dungeon strata’s gimmicks are novel, the story is quite good, and the mapmaking and other series hallmarks are as fine-tuned as they’ve ever been, including in the postgame, which is still tough as balls. This dungeon crawler fan highly recommends it.
Despite a nasty cold early in the month, January was fairly productive, gaming-wise. I started and beat seven games, both short and long, and started an eighth. That unfinished game is Etrian Odyssey V, the latest in Atlus’ cartographical dungeon-crawling series, which I had put off starting for a few months in order to focus on Holiday Card work. As of this writing, I’m close to the end of the first Stratum, and the difficulty is starting to feel more punishing. This is not to say that EOV is easier than past entries; I think I just had a good handle on what to expect from this series when I first stepped into this latest Yggdrasil Labyrinth.
One thing I’m really enjoying about EOV (besides the food-gathering and cooking, fantastic features which help cut down on trips back to town) is its back-to-basics approach. The previous two games in the main series introduced overworlds to explore between Strata, and in EOIV‘s case, I suspect that it was one reason why I was ultimately so bored with that game. EOV does away with such areas. Here, you’re in the labyrinth from the get-go, just like in the very first two games. While it’s a little odd to see this regression, it’s also quite refreshing. Hopefully, the game will continue to hold my attention as I ascend to new heights.
The first game I beat way at the beginning of January also involved dungeons. Fidel Dungeon Rescue, which is about a very good dog who sets out to save his kidnapped master, has its feet in both the turn-based dungeon crawler and environmental puzzler realms. Each room is a puzzle that can be solved in more ways that one, but the most optimal solutions have the greatest rewards, the best being the XP which helps Fidel level up, increasing his overall health. The game’s most prominent feature—and, at times, greatest obstacle—is the title character’s leash. Fidel’s leash drags behind him, leaving a trail of places you’ve been before, and can be quickly retracted to rewind time and try out a different set of steps. However, the catch is that no square can be touched more than once, which can lead to the leash feeling like a barrier if its placement gets in your way. It’s a simple but well-implemented system that, along with the generous time constraints and dungeon layouts, lends the game its challenge. Fidel took me a fair number of attempts to get through, and once I did, whole new sets of challenges appeared. I completed two of these before moving on.
Around the same time I started Fidel, I took up another, though very different, puzzle game: Alphabear: Hardcover Edition. This version is a “pay once” PC port of the mobile title Alphabear. To play, one has to arrange randomly-generated letter tiles into words, which are then assigned points based on each letter’s countdown timer as well as other factors, like which bears you equipped before starting that stage. Creating words eliminates the tiles used, which causes the bears around them to grow, leading to more points. Score enough points to gain new bears, level up existing ones, and/or unlock the next stage. The entire scoring system is… rather complicated.
Despite its cute, whimsical aesthetic and inventive gameplay, Alphabear‘s challenges can spike in difficulty without warning, and some are just about impossible if you don’t have the right rare bears in your arsenal. This was my situation with Chapter 4-2, so I went back to some older stages to level up the bears I had; I also unlocked at least one new one. After I got through that stage, which took quite a long time, there were one or two other tough spots, but none nearly as bad. The difficulty balance and/or the rare/legendary bear drop rates clearly need some refinement, but apparently, the game’s progression was tweaked today, so perhaps this complaint is moot now. It’s also free to play this weekend on Steam, so you might want to give it a go.
Anyway, because of those headaches, Alphabear was actually the third game I beat this year, since 4-2 led me to setting it down for awhile. The second was Danmaku Unlimited 2, which is another mobile port, as it turns out. If the title didn’t already give it away, this game is a vertically-oriented bullet hell shooter. Thankfully, the difficulty balance is perfect. As a casual shmup fan, I liked it so much that I reviewed it on Steam. It’s a lot of fun and very well made; there’s not much else I could’ve asked for.
A few days before starting Danmaku Unlimited 2, I picked up my 3DS and, with some reservations, started Kirby Triple Deluxe, which would later become my fourth game beaten in 2018. I say “with some reservations” since I didn’t like the last Kirby I played and was sure that I had become burnt out on the series. Roughly two years later, I was relieved to discover that Kirby, especially the standard Kirby formula of enemy-chomping and ability-obtaining that returns in Triple Deluxe, is still something I can enjoy. In addition to being a straight-up solid Kirby game, this entry also features some nice callbacks to previous titles in the series. The endgame is also surprisingly lengthy and tough. Like with Danmaku Unlimited 2, there isn’t much else to say about Kirby Triple Deluxe except that it’s very, very good if you’re into this sort of thing.
Another platformer was next up: Thomas Was Alone, which I received in a CAG Steam key trade. It’s a straightforward, puzzley game where rectangles and squares of varying abilities have to be delivered to specific points, much like Fidel, I and Me, and many other games. Controlling these objects is a little fussy, but the puzzles are generally well designed, albeit varying wildly in difficulty at times. What’s different this time around is the narration. Each of the quadrilaterals is given a name, personality, and motivation, making what would otherwise be a well-designed but bog-standard game into one bristling with life. Some are full of themselves, some start out with a bit less confidence than they find later on, and some, like Thomas, are mainly just happy to have companions. This is one of those Indie Games That Everyone’s Played that I ignored for a long time, and it seems that that was a mistake. Fortunately, it’s now a mistake that’s been rectified.
Finally, in wrapping up the month, I began my delve into Tale of Tales’ oeuvre via a Steam bundle I picked up during the last Summer Sale. Using the studio’s MobyGames page as a guideline for the release order, I started off with the oldest title in the collection. This was The Graveyard, an extremely short interactive black comedy. At least, that was how I read it, given what happens after the player guides the one controllable character, an old woman, to sit on a bench. To spoil what happens next: a jaunty song about death plays and then, at some random point, the old woman dies. The player can get up from the bench and leave the graveyard before the latter happens, but both of the times I tried to wait to do so after the song ended, she died.
After that, I moved on to The Path. Inspired by the fairy tale “Little Red Riding Hood”, The Path has the player controlling one of six red-themed sisters, all with different ages and personalites, on a walk to their grandmother’s house. Stay on the path, and the game will decide you are a complete failure, and you’ll have to start over again. Leaving the path—and in doing so getting lost and discovering new things, including the Wolf—is how to succeed at the game. Each girl can go on their journey in any order you wish, and they each have a different, horrible experience at Grandmother’s House after encountering their own personal Wolves. It’s an ambitious art game thick with metaphor, but is clearly ahead of its time in how it incorporates gaming conventions. Rather than ignoring things like scores and stats, which a modern game of this sort might do, The Path includes them, and even relies on them to a certain extent. I’m not sure that this was an entirely appropriate choice except as a pisstake at more mainstream games’ expense. Other than that, I found The Path to be an interesting experience.
And that’s it for January! Next up, besides more Etrian Odyssey V, are the rest of that Tale of Tales bundle and who knows what else. I’ve started February in a healthier spot than I did January—both literally and figuratively—but I also need to whittle down the number of JRPGs in my backlog. Right now, I have no idea if February will end with as many games beaten. As usual, we shall see.
March has been a mixed bag of a month. Between Daylight Savings, the fluctuating weather, and other circumstances, I wasn’t sleeping well for awhile, but now I’ve more or less adjusted. My comics backlog has grown bigger thanks to a big shipment of manga from Right Stuf, a couple of used bookstore pickups, and the arrival of a certain long-awaited graphic novel. I’ve also started trying out some new recipes for a change.
As for gaming, that’s been going more or less okay since my last post here, and the games themselves have been about as much of a mixed bag. I beat Disgaea 3; the ending was all right, though since learning that the sidequests are as grindy as expected, I officially put it down not long after. Before that, I went back to and finally beat Legend of Dungeon, using a class I hadn’t given a second thought to before; it’s still not at version 1.0 yet, but I’m just glad to be done with a second roguelike/like this year. Speaking of which, I took up Spelunky again and made quite a bit of progress, though it will be a long time until I actually beat it.
In addition to continuing on with Bravely Default and picking up Dance Dance Revolution SuperNOVA 2 again, that about wraps it up for February. Moving on to March, the first game I beat this month was the hot new release Firewatch. It is a beautiful and (mostly) well-crafted game, though a little bit of a victim of its own hype. The story is not mind-blowing but still decent; the save system leaves much to be desired; and the characters, music, and so forth were well done; but the real star in this game is the environment. Firewatch is set on a small parcel of US National Park land, and each little area within is distinctive in many ways. Aside from the climbing rocks (which are especially gamelike in a certain part), the wilderness here feels like a real place, and is easily the best thing about Firewatch.
This was not, however, the first game I started in March. That honor goes to Pokemon Blue Version, which, along with Red and Yellow, came out on the 3DS Virtual Console on the date of the series’ 20th birthday. Pokemon’s first generation is the only one I hadn’t played in some form, and, given how pricey original cartridges of that gen and its remakes can be, was one I hadn’t planned on ever playing until the Virtual Console announcement was made. I’m currently up to three gym badges and am not far from getting the fourth. It’s been interesting to see the roots of the series: the Pokemon, items, gyms, HMs, and all the other little things one becomes accustomed to seeing in the games. Some of the things that were different were just as surprising; for instance, most of the Pokemon don’t have listed genders, nor is the indicator for whether or not you’ve already caught a certain type present. The player character’s rival is also far more obnoxious than they would be in later series entries, and there is also a greater emphasis on filling up the Pokedex. In general, it’s all still both fun and tedious in its telltale ways; twenty years on, the core of what makes Pokemon Pokemon hasn’t changed much.
Next up would be the third RPG I’m currently playing: Diablo III, via the Ultimate Evil Edition on 360. After trying out a handful of different classes, bitprophet and I settled on a wizard and a monk (respectively) and started our adventure to investigate a fallen star and the prophecy it portends. It’s the loot-heavy, lore-heavy action RPG that you’d expect, and it’s looking to be quite long, as well.
Needing a break from RPGs for a little while, I recently started delving into some shorter games in other genres. First up was Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA F. This was my first time playing a Hatsune Miku Project game that’s specifically in the DIVA series, and, sadly, it was not as much fun as Project mirai DX. The difficulty is brutal, the small button icons can frequently get lost in the music video chaos on-screen, and there’s a handful of aesthetic issues that prevent me from enjoying it as much. Chief among these is the tracklist, which is on the weaker side overall, and weighs heavily on more offbeat songs toward the end. A lesser quibble I have is that the “modules” specific to each song are locked from the outset, which means Miku and company perform in their default outfits whenever a track is played for the first time. This is okay for many tracks, but does not work as well with others, especially the elaborate period piece “Senbonzakura”. After unlocking all the songs on Easy, I was ready to set Project DIVA F aside and move on to something else.
The next day, I started Kero Blaster, which is by Cave Story‘s Studio Pixel. It’s much more linear, for better or for worse, than Cave Story, and also more lighthearted, but maintains that same feel otherwise. The characters are all down to earth, moving and shooting are handled well (there’s even a bubble-based weapon that’s actually useful), and the levels are sufficiently challenging. I highly recommend it to anyone who likes old school-style “run and gun” side-scrolling games, and to fellow Cave Story fans especially. There are also two (very charming) free games, titled Pink Hour and Pink Heaven, that serve as demos of sorts for Kero Blaster, though you could also play them afterward, as I did.
Finally, there’s the two classic titles I started yesterday: Professor Layton and the Curious Village and the HD version of NiGHTS into Dreams… The former is my first Layton game, and might also be my last; it’s decent for what it is—a collection of brainteasers in a story wrapper seemingly inspired by European comics—but I’m not exactly hooked. I’m only about a couple of hours in, so maybe I’ll change my mind later on, but I kind of doubt it. Meanwhile, NiGHTS, which I ended up beating earlier today, is a slick-for-its-time 3D action experiment. Its so different from any other game that’s been made, I’m not sure if it has aged poorly or well. The camera’s a little iffy (though not as bad as in certain later Sonic Team games), the story’s more convoluted and strange than average, the routes through the levels can be tricky to navigate, and the game as a whole is short, but it’s got a certain flair which makes it impossible to dislike. Even more appealing is an unlockable bonus in the form of Christmas NiGHTS, one of the most famous and unique game demos ever made. This demo takes one of the first stages of NiGHTS and dresses it up with a Christmas theme, complete with a separate story to go along with it. Unfortunately, unlike the main game, the original Saturn version of Christmas NiGHTS is not included as a playable option.
That’s about all I’ve been up to lately, gaming-wise. With Kero Blaster and its spinoffs, I decided that it might be a good idea to dedicate my weekends to an indie/doujin game (or two) of a reasonable length, which would help me churn through more of my backlog, at the very least. At the moment, I’m considering my options for this coming weekend, and there are a lot of them. I should also get back to the RPGs in between those indies and sessions with Professor Layton. One of my major backlog goals for this year is to put a dent in the number of RPGs I have sitting around unplayed, but I was not expecting Bravely to be this long. Perhaps I’ll have it beaten by next month. Either way, I have no idea which RPG I would want to play next.
Ever since late January, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4‘s been eating up most of my gaming time. I finally beat it yesterday, but am going to put off writing about it for now (and I will write about it, promise) to get some reviews out of the way. Like the previously reviewed Paper Mario: Sticker Star, these are all games which I played when I was not preoccupied with Persona 4.
Before that, though, I just want to note that the links page has been updated for a couple of friends’ sites and a Let’s Play. I also want to note that the Kickstarter for “Frog Fractions 2” is currently going on and that you should pitch in, if you haven’t already. That’s all for now, so let’s get to it…
After beating Sticker Star, it would seem odd that my next “secondary” RPG would be another one based around platformer mascot characters, but that’s what it was. Sonic Chronicles, which is perhaps most famous for being made by BioWare, is the first and only RPG in the Sonic franchise. Given the rocky history of Sonic games and the unusual choice of developer, I both wasn’t quite sure what to expect and didn’t keep my hopes up. This proved to be a wise tactic.
Sonic Chronicles follows the title hedgehog and his friends on a quest to rescue a kidnapped Knuckles from a group called the Nocturnus, and eventually, save a whole lot more. It uses some prominent bits of Sonic lore in telling its tale, and many series regulars make appearances, including Amy, Shadow, Big, and Cream. There are dialogue trees sprinkled throughout, though they don’t really affect what direction the story takes, as well as a sprinkling of humor and pop culture references (the Soundgarden one was the most out-of-left-field of the latter). Aside from some bits of dialogue that could’ve done with much tighter editing, and every single human NPC being a white male of some sort, the story works well enough, both for the Sonic universe and in general.
However, the game controls in exactly the way one would expect from a big-name developer who had never made a DS title before: every action requires touchscreen input, including starting the game. There are only two actions that have button-based alternatives (the field abilities and opening the menu), but if one has to use a stylus for everything else anyway, there’s no point in using anything else. This touchscreen gameplay is fine for the most part, but gets tricky when using the special POW abilities during battle, all of which require precise timing. Most POW moves will thankfully let you do at least some damage if you mess up the inputs, but healing and other support actions will fail outright in such cases. This being the case, the support characters are pretty much useless until one obtains a certain very rare Chao which lets you bypass the timed inputs—and even then, it’s not guaranteed that you’ll ever be able to get this Chao, as which ones hatch from what eggs is apparently random.
The rest of the game is a mix of polished and clunky. For example, while some of the music sounds fine, albeit generic, other pieces are dinky and an embarrassment to the franchise; one of these happens to be the only piece that I recognized as being from a previous Sonic game, a bare-bones cover of “Diamond Dust Zone, Act 1”, originally from the Genesis version of Sonic 3D Blast (what’s odd is that Richard Jacques is in the credits, presumably for this piece, when, to the best of my knowledge, it was actually written by Jun Senoue). The graphics fare better, though the 3D character models are kind of ugly when seen head-on, and the POW move icons are a bit more pixelated and jaggy than they could be. Taken as a whole, it’s an odd, quirky entry in a franchise that’s no stranger to the occasional odd, quirky entry. It might be worth a look if you’re a Sonic fan and/or into such curiosities (I fit both criteria), but it’s hard to recommend as a good RPG.
Speaking of playing similar games so close to each other, my next secondary title was a high school-based life simulator, much like the non-dungeony parts of Persona 4, but such was my mood when I started up this doujin game. Published by Capcom, localized by Nyu Media, and developed by 773, Cherry Tree High Comedy Club puts the player in the shoes of Miley, a high school student who dreams of becoming a professional comedian. To help achieve this dream, she has set out to recreate a school club that two alumni, now famous comics, were originally members of. Unfortunately, she needs a minimum of five club members in order to make it official, and she only has herself and her roommate. Thus, the goal of the game is to recruit those last three members before the deadline for new clubs closes.
The format should be familiar to anyone who has pursued Social Links in Persona 3 and/or 4: when not cultivating her knowledge of conversational topics (ranging from pets to politics) through reading or other activities, Miley talks to people around town and nurtures friendships with a specific subset of them. If she becomes close enough friends with any one of the six available candidates, they will join the club. Carrying out your search for club members day to day in this way can be repetitive after awhile, but given the format, it’s to be expected. It’s not a very long or difficult game, though some strategizing is required. I should also note that recruiting all six candidates seems to be impossible for a first playthrough; fortunately, there is a New Game Plus mode.
The music and story are bright and cheery, as are the graphics—save for some issues with text on characters’ clothing when their portraits are flipped—and the UI is very well designed. However, the one part of the game that stands out in a negative way is the localization. Although the writing itself is fine, typographical errors frequently appear throughout the dialogue, and I even caught a misspelled word in the user interface. It’s clear that this game would’ve greatly benefitted from a thorough round of copy editing/proofreading. Aside from that, there’s a quirk to this localization that is peculiar to Capcom-published visual novels: it’s rewritten to be set in the United States. Aside from the Westernized names, two noteworthy changes are that a certain pair of foreigners are now from Sweden instead of Canada, and the town’s shrine is explained as being a gift from Japan. Granted, this is not usually a major issue with me, but things like the shrine, not to mention the castle visible from the town’s park, are so obviously Japanese that one wonders why they even bothered with Americanization in the first place. These changes have also led me to wonder if the game itself (and by extension, worryingly, the gameplay) was altered so that there’s no school on Saturday in the English-language version, but I couldn’t find anything on 773’s site that seems to indicate this. Either way, the technically inept localization is a disappointment compared to the rest of the game, which is an enjoyable, lively diversion.
Not long after starting Miley’s adventures in club recruitment, I got The Itch and started up Hammerwatch, one of the few light-on-plot hardcore dungeon games left in my Steam backlog. It was one of the first things I had ever voted for on Greenlight, but I didn’t get around to actually picking it up until the last Steam Holiday Sale. After playing it, I’m kind of glad I didn’t pay full price.
The story is very simple: while escaping from a castle with your fellow adventurers, you alone get trapped and have to find your way out. The game is divided into four areas of three floors each. Each area has a boss, as well as minibosses, regular enemies, enemy spawn points, loot, treasure chests, traps, upgrade and potion shops, and secrets—lots of secrets. Most of these secrets take the form of hidden areas that can be found by attacking the right wall, pushing the right buttons, or solving puzzles, and lead to money, “vendor coins” (special items that lower the prices at shops), extra lives, and strange planks. Unlike most other games with such secrets, finding these goodies in Hammerwatch is practically required if one wants to make decent progress through the game. While I appreciate the focus on discovery, it seems a bit misguided to me to have so much of the game’s accessibility be dependent on what should be optional.
Aside from that, the castle floors are massive and very well designed, though having to go through them again and again after failed playthroughs leads to a sort of boredom settling in. As for the enemies, although some interesting things are done with them from time to time, for the most part, they’re pretty brainless, and will just swarm straight to you once you’re in their line of sight.
There are four character classes to choose from (all male, which is a bit weird), which are all well-balanced with their own distinct strengths and weaknesses. Although I tend to gravitate toward melee classes for these types of games, after trying out all the classes on the Medium difficulty, I ended up beating Hammerwatch with the wizard, whose basic fireball attack struck the right chord with me. Playing any one of the classes is an exercise in repetition, though; no matter which class I was, I found myself using very similar strategies on most of the regular enemy types throughout the game.
As far as aesthetics go, I have no major complaints aside from an iffy loop point in the background music. The options for graphics, controls, etc. are very good, although controller support is limited. Hammerwatch also has a co-op multiplayer component and modding tools, which sound promising for anyone who’s into those sorts of things. However, if you’re like me and want a solid single-player dungeon crawler first and foremost, this isn’t bad, but you could do better.
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