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.
Persona 5 has been great so far. The music and user interfaces are cool in a way that’s rare for other games. It also plays well, despite the inclusion of a Demon Negotiation system, aka the MegaTen series’ most tedious idea. As for the story, it has the expected combo of strong characterization and shock value, this time around with themes of obedience versus defiance. I’m currently more than thirty-six hours in, but given how much time I spent with the previous two games, there’s still a lot more to come.
Aside from that, I finally beat Pokemon Sun, though this victory was bittersweet. My team wasn’t quite in the shape I wanted it to be—my Decidueye and Solgaleo were a few levels above the others—but, not wanting to throw a match during my first attempt at the endgame battles, I continued on and became the Champion.
Though Pokemon Sun was great for the most part, there were a few lackluster elements. The story, themed around local traditions and wildlife conservation, started off slowly and with several dialogue-heavy cutscenes. However, by the time things picked up, this tale had become one of the best in the entire series. On a related note, Sun certainly has one of the better casts of characters in the world of Pokemon, with the goofy and energetic Professor Kukui and Team Skull’s underdog leader Guzma being two highlights. However, the most important cast member is Lillie, a somewhat timid girl who is neither a fellow Trainer nor someone particularly interested in Pokemon research, like most of the companions in the previous games. She journeys with a Pokemon called Cosmog, nicknamed “Nebby”, in the hopes of getting it home, and their journey frequently crosses paths with yours. By the time the story reaches its crescendo, however, both Lillie and Cosmog have taken on much larger roles; Pokemon Sun ends up being just as much about them as it is about the player.
Much else about the game is praise-worthy. The Hawaii-inspired Alola region is a nice change-of-pace after the staid Kalos from the previous gen, and the hip-hop misfits of Team Skull eventually became my favorite antagonistic group in the series. On the gameplay side, many of the traditional Pokemon trappings got an overhaul in Sun and Moon, and I feel that at least two of them could be worth holding on to for future installments. The first are the move-enhancing Z-Crystals, which replace the Badges won at certain points in the games, though certain types can also be obtained through other means. The second is the Ride Pokemon system, which replaces HMs, those moves that can be used out and about in the world to get to new areas. The Z-Crystals feel less like mere markers and more like useful prizes than the Badges ever did; plus it’s fun to see the Ride Pokemon in action, and freeing not to have to rely so much on specific Pokemon types to use HM moves.
As I implied before, Pokemon Sun isn’t perfect. Certain story-required battles are too repetitive, most of the Island Challenges are shorter and lack the puzzle-oriented fun of the old-style Gyms, and the endgame is bare-bones, even though this can be excused by certain quirks of the storytelling. It’s also a technically-demanding game, with some of the more intense moments slowing things down on my “old” 3DS XL. Still, I found it to be better than Pokemon X in a handful of ways, and maybe even one of the best games in the main series.
Besides Pokemon Sun, I beat a handful of other games since the beginning of March. The first of these was “Episode P4” in the Story mode of Persona 4 Arena Ultimax, which I soon followed up with “Episode P3”. These two stories conclude the tale from the first Persona 4 Arena, but are a bit more underwhelming as well. Aside from the weird addition of Rise, the new playable characters featured in this mode are all fine, but both stories are hampered not only by sub-par plotting, but also a tough-for-toughness’-sake (but thankfully skippable) final battle. Sadly, this is the sort of direct sequel that might be better served by seeking out a Let’s Play.
Next was Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, the one game I claimed for free during Ubisoft’s 30th Anniversary celebration. I play open-world games very rarely and had no experience in the Far Cry series before, but found this to be all right. Taking over bases and hunting down collectibles feels a bit like busywork, the world lacks distinctive landmarks, and the graphics are a bit too dark in their most aesthetically-pleasing form. However, the missions are generally fun and story is funny and inspired—it’s an ’80s homage done right, capturing the feel of the era while only rarely breaking out specific pop-culture references. As a standalone bit of fluff, it got the job done. I’m glad I played it, though I’m also fine with taking another long break from open-world games after this.
My third game beaten in March was Quantum Conundrum, a first-person environmental puzzler and one of the hardest such games I’ve ever played. Many of the puzzles, which involve moving between two or more dimensions to alter attributes like mass or gravity, feature some strict time constraints, involve several steps one right after the other, leave the player subject to the whims of the game’s physics engine, and/or are difficult, if not impossible, to solve on the first try. Despite the game’s polish in other areas, the puzzles aren’t as well crafted as in Creative Director Kim Swift’s most famous previous work, Portal. I really wish I could’ve liked this one more. After beating the main game and the dastardly DLC “The Desmond Debacle”, I managed to get a third of the way done with the even tougher second DLC, “IKE-aramba!”, before setting it down in favor of something else.
That something else ended up being Imperium Romanum: Gold Edition, another freebie from a publisher celebrating an anniversary. This one came courtesy of Kalypso, who sent codes out to their mailing list subscribers when they turned ten years old last summer. Our gift was a Roman-themed city builder by Haemimont Games, who later went on to make the modern Tropico titles. Imperium Romanum is a bit more dated than those, with somewhat clunky interfaces and just a smidge too little information about my settlements and their people. On top of that, some of the campaign scenarios were rather difficult, especially when fighting barbarians or other Romans(!) was involved. It’s not a bad city builder by any means, but there are several better ones out there.
And that’s it! I will probably start something new to break up things with Persona 5, though I’m not sure what yet. I’m a little behind on my Mario RPGs, but I’m also starting to get a match-three itch, so the next game could be either Mario & Luigi: Dream Team or Puzzle & Dragons Z. At any rate, I have to whittle down the JRPGs in my backlog.
We got back from a long, relaxing weekend jaunt yesterday, and although I didn’t touch any games other than a few Picross 3D Round 2 puzzles (which I really shouldn’t have done; I was dead tired), my husband did get back into The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, including a frustrating boss battle near the end of the evening’s session.
He has a love-hate relationship with the main Zelda series, much as I do with the main Mario one. It wasn’t all that long ago that I gave up on Super Mario Galaxy 2 (and, by extension, my husband as well, since he was in the “co-star” role), thanks to a badly-implemented 3D camera and a “helper” feature that felt more like cheating or the game taking pity on me than anything else. Perhaps more crucially, Galaxy 2 started feeling more like an obligation than something fun. Experiences like that are why I largely stick to the kart racers and RPGs when it comes to anything involving Mario. As for Zelda, well, it may be a long time before Breath of the Wild or any other new-to-us 3D entry in that series comes into this household. I will likely continue on with the rare 2D Zelda, but certain archaic quirks of the 3D ones continues to baffle both my husband as a player and myself as a spectator. The lag we’ve probably suffered with and the frequently convoluted and/or uncomfortable controls have also not helped these Wii games’ cases.
Anyway, on to this post’s mini-reviews. I recently played through three short indie PC games, none of which is quite like the other. The first is a pop-culture-laden pixel-art RPG, the second is a 3D moe action-platformer, and the third is an arty 2D puzzle-platformer.
Reference Materials: Knights of Pen and Paper +1 Edition (2013, Behold Studios)
This is one of a few games I received last year by trading Steam keys, and was not one that I’d ever had on any wishlist. Still, after looking up some info, Knights of Pen and Paper +1 Edition sounded interesting enough, so I completed the trade and added it to my library. In the end, it proved itself to be not a bad little game at all.
The premise is fairly simple: a pen and paper role-playing game is played out amidst the fantasy backdrops described by the dungeon master, complete with JRPG-style turn-based battling. Like far too many indie games with pixel graphics, there’s a ton of pop-culture references, but they’re easier to tolerate given that the story begins with a group of regular people in the “real” world. On top of that, while several references range from predictable (Doctor Who‘s Tardis) to insufferable (Monty Python and the Holy Grail‘s Knights of Ni), some are unexpected and even enjoyable; for example, though I disliked Chrono Cross, I appreciated KoPP‘s take on one of its most annoying elements.
The story itself is your standard JRPG fare with an appropriate twist or two, though told with a sometimes clunky English localization (Behold Studios is based in Brazil). The game also doesn’t explain some of its mechanics very well, if at all. On the plus side, the battle system is solid, with some nice variety between classes, and the difficulty curve is decent, though I did find myself having to grind a bit in one of the earlier sections. Aside from the inspired setting, it’s not a particularly remarkable game, but it is fun.
Speedy Angel: Angel Express (2008, EasyGameStation [via English ver., 2016])
Speaking of clunky localizations, Angel Express, also known as Tokkyu Tenshi, suffers a bit in its own way. During cutscenes with the player-named protagonist and her spirit partner El, there are often lines which seem like they should be said by the other character. This makes for some very odd dialogue at times, though most of the cutscenes are incidental and the core story is simple enough to follow. It’s worth noting that Angel Express is the first English-translated game by Japanese doujinsoft circle EasyGameStation not to have been localized by Carpe Fulgur, and, unfortunately, publisher Rockin’ Android just doesn’t do as good of a job.
As for the game itself, Angel Express is a platformer with a racing theme attached: individual stages are obstacle courses which are run through thrice at a time, and usually with a time limit attached or other characters to out-score. In addition to the repetition of the stages themselves, to reach the end of the story means going through most of them multiple times—and happening upon certain cutscenes multiple times as well. The stages are generally well designed and fun to play, so I didn’t mind too much, but it was still somewhat disappointing that there wasn’t more variety. Oh, and Angel Express is extremely difficult on “Normal”, so much so that I couldn’t beat the second part of the first stage on that setting. I ended up restarting and playing through the whole rest of the game on Easy, which is no slouch either.
There are a few additional features and modes, including a level designer, time trials, and multiplayer, though I didn’t touch any of that. I did check out “Totten News”, an in-game newsletter for delivery girls that includes gameplay tips as well as fictional features one might find in a real-life periodical, like recipes and horoscopes. Unfortunately, the last issue of Totten News suffers from a bug which makes it unreadable, so I’ll likely never find out how its serialized story, about two sisters in an alternate world, ends.
A Tale of Two Kitties: I and Me (2016, Wish Fang)
Incidentally, the last game in this Braincrumbs installment was also apparently made by a non-native English speaker, but has the best localization of the three, though one or two sections of text don’t linger on the screen long enough to read at a normal pace. The story being told here, though, is not as cheery as the previous two games’ are.
In I and Me, the player controls two identical black cats simultaneously, guiding them past hazards and lining them up perfectly so that they fit into a pair of picture frames somewhere else on the screen. It’s a lot like Toki Tori and similar character-based puzzle games, though controlling two characters like this requires a whole other set of skills, mainly a keen spatial awareness. It’s a challenging game, but fair, and the dozens of stages are cleverly designed.
As for the game’s tone, which I hinted at before, it is perhaps best described as melancholy. The story, such as it is, explores what it’s like to have “another self” in relation to being alone; the graphics make heavy use of black; and the music, much of it in the form of classical arrangements, complement the other moody elements very well. A handful of I and Me‘s Steam reviews describe it as “relaxing”, but it rarely fits that definition. Instead, it requires a bit of tolerance for a less colorful setting, as well as a certain degree of patience given the difficulty of a fair number of its puzzles.
Speaking of which, by the time I had gotten through about ninety percent of the levels, I and Me had finally gotten so hard that I skipped one of them. The next level happened to contain the credits. I still wonder if that specific level was the credits all along, or if some other sort of design was at work.
Some quick site business: It took a year, but I finally got rid of the “comments” links that were at the bottoms of posts on the main page.
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Just got back from Portland yesterday. It was an exhausting trip, filled with plenty of walking and foodie’s food. I had wanted to write this post either right before or during the trip, but a lack of sleep got in the way. However, I managed to catch up, somewhat, last night, so here I am.
To start off with, at the beginning of this month, I beat Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner 2: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. King Abbadon, an action RPG which has one of the longest titles of any game I’ve ever played. In terms of both gameplay and plot, it was better than the first Raidou game, which I beat earlier in the year. New features—such as the ability to summon two demons at once; better accessibility to the Gouma-den, where new demons can be fused; and a negotiation system which, despite its usual tediousness, is the best I’ve seen in all of MegaTen—were quite welcome, though some repetitive elements stood out as the game’s greatest flaws. By that, I don’t mean the reuse of much of the previous game’s assets, which I didn’t mind at all. Rather, what bothered me was the overdone recapping, and even more, the obviousness with how the story’s branches were handled. Every so often, roughly once a chapter, a character would ask a rhetorical, philosophical question that basically asked Raidou to choose between revolution and the status quo. The answers to these ham-fisted questions don’t matter until the very end of the game, and even then, there is one final barrage of inquiries right before the branching path is settled upon. Despite these nitpicks, Raidou 2 was a decent game, though hardly the best MegaTen I’ve played.
A few days afterward, I finally finished reading a manga series which I had first sampled over fifteen years ago: Barefoot Gen. My first experience with Gen came with a copy of Volume 2, picked up cheaply at a certain bookstore in Philadelphia. Some years later, I picked up a used copy of Volume 3, but I didn’t buy any more of the series until last year, when I picked up the first and fourth volumes. Around then was when I learned that my older volumes were heavily abridged, and that the current edition, published by Last Gasp, is complete and uncut. Therefore, I repurchased volumes 2 and 3, and, later on, the last six books as well.
A semi-autobiographical tale inspired by mangaka Keiji Nakazawa’s childhood, Barefoot Gen tells the story of Gen Nakaoka, an elementary school-aged boy who survives the atomic bombing of his hometown, Hiroshima. By the end of the first volume, the bomb has dropped, and the story truly begins. Subsequent volumes find Gen making new friends, being discriminated against, and raging at not just the Americans who dropped the bomb and occupied Japan, but the Japanese Emperor and politicians who were so eager to wage war in the first place. It is, as noted in the always excellent ANN column House of 1000 Manga (spoilers in link), an angry manga, and sometimes, especially toward the end, Gen’s anger gets to be a little too much. The last few volumes are rather tedious at times, even as it explores the Japanese side of things during the Korean War; as a sign of the plot wearing thin, the final tragedy that befalls Gen and his group is one which, startlingly, doesn’t have much of a direct tie to the atomic bomb. Gen is also a violent manga; atomic bomb aside, it hews to the shonen manga tropes of its time, with lots of hitting and fighting, often between adults and children. Despite its pacifist message, seeing Gen so eager to physically fight people who dismiss his anti-war views is more than a bit disarming. Also, without giving anything away, in one of the later volumes Gen does something in the name of his personal philosophy that is so lacking of empathy and maturity it’s astounding. It’s an important manga, probably the best I’ve ever read about Japan during that era, but it’s also rather dated, and at least one of the included forewards was undesirably diversionary from the manga’s basic premise. It might’ve helped if the manga was broken up into chapters, as they were originally serialized, but instead, the manga flows together as one long story, broken up only by its separation into ten books. I recommend the first few volumes, but if you don’t want to stick with it after that, I really couldn’t blame you.
After Gen was wrapped up, and between new volumes of Nisekoi (aka the harem manga for people who normally dislike harem manga) and the always charming and hunger-inducing What Did You Eat Yesterday?, more games were played! I started, and am still playing, a Japanese copy of Picross DS, which I picked up on the cheap during Play-Asia’s annual Spring Sale. There’s nothing much to say about it besides that yeah, it’s Picross, though the zoomed-in 15×15 puzzles took me a little getting used to, not to mention the menus in a language that I can’t understand very much of. Right now, I’m currently stuck on a couple of flower-themed puzzles in Normal mode, though I’m sure I’ll push through them soon enough.
I also cranked through a few short games on Steam. First up was Escape Goat, a room-based puzzle game a la Adventures of Lolo and Toki Tori. It’s a solid entry in this genre, structured to encourage experimentation, and with precise controls and well-designed, if sometimes frustrating, puzzles. If you like this sort of game, as I do, you’ll like Escape Goat—enough said.
Second was Octodad: Dadliest Catch, whose controls were the opposite: intentionally difficult to master. This game, about an octopus trying to live as a normal suburban father in a nuclear family, revels in the ridiculous. Everyday tasks, such as mowing the lawn or picking out the perfect apple at the supermarket, are much harder when your arms and legs are tentacles and you want to blend in with actual humans. The story takes some interesting turns, and although I felt somewhat partially robbed of my final victory due to where a certain object landed, I found Octodad to be a neat little game overall. The pair of included bonus episodes were worth playing through as well.
The third short game I played through before leaving for Portland was the shortest and least interactive of the bunch: a wordless visual novel called A Bird Story. Produced by the developer of To the Moon, this is a similarly sentimental journey. In it, a young boy, who goes through the motions at school and is interested in flight, rescues a bird. It’s kind of cloying at times, and because of that, whether or not you’d like this would depend on your natural tolerance for such things. Thankfully, the length is just right, and most everything about it is simple and straightforward.
Now that I’m back, and catching up on my sleep, I think I’ll continue going through some other short games in my backlog, which I may or may not write about here. I also picked up Legend of Dungeon again recently, which has improved since the last time I played it, thanks to some patches. It’s now not as unfair as before, though it still lacks some of the refinement and balance of better roguelikes. Goat Simulator is also in my “Now Playing” list, though I’m not sure when I’ll go back to it.
I also may start the last unplayed PS2 game I have left in my backlog (if you don’t count Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria, which I’ve put up for sale): Sakura Wars: So Long My Love. I may start that this week, depending on how I feel; we’ll see. At any rate, it’ll definitely get played sometime soon.
Our Wii has been getting a decent amount of playing time these past few months. First there was Chrono Trigger‘s much celebrated arrival on Virtual Console. At the time of its purchase, I also got Toki Tori, an environmental puzzler I’d been meaning to pick up for awhile. Later on, Kirby’s Epic Yarn gave me a nice respite from JRPGs, and not too long afterward, Shiren the Wanderer marked the end of my break.
I didn’t play Chrono Trigger, seeing as how my most recent playthrough was only just last year, via the DS port. Instead, my husband dove into this personal favorite of both of ours (ironically enough, we had named our Wii “Marle” when we had first gotten it). It is, like other Virtual Console offerings, the original game with nothing else added on, warts and all. Therefore, instead of the rich, fleshed-out DS localization, the original Ted Woolsey script is in full effect here. I have no problem with these old Woolsey localizations; the rushed Secret of Mana notwithstanding, he did a bang-up job given the restrictions he had to work with. The G-rated references to “juice” and “lemonade” in bar scenes are pretty silly to our adult selves, though. Localization aside, one interesting thing my husband pointed out in his playthrough was how similar the boss battles are in terms of the number of targets, how they act, and how they must be handled. This lack of diversity is one of the game’s weaker points, and only obvious to us now.
Oh, and before I forget, Chrono Trigger looks magnificent on an HDTV, especially those huge boss sprites. Not to mention the ending which was, this time around, one that neither of us had ever seen before. It was a fun playthrough to watch, and we even learned some new tricks; thanks to RPG Classics’ comprehensive Chrono Trigger shrine for those.
While he was playing Chrono Trigger, I started Toki Tori, and alternated between that and Final Fantasy Tactics A2 in my regular game-playing. Toki Tori is a remake of a Game Boy Color title; it has the same puzzles, apparently, but all new graphics and control options. The goal of the game, a 2D puzzler starring a squat yellow bird, is to collect all the eggs in each stage. There isn’t a time limit, but the bird can’t jump, plus there are restrictions on special moves and items. It’s possible to beat some stages with items to spare, but most of the time, I found myself coming up with solutions that neatly used everything at my disposal. The difficulty ramps up a bit in the final set of stages, which take place underwater and includes a new, albeit limited, floating action.
The WiiWare version favors the Wiimote, with not too much prompt-wise in either the documentation or the game itself for those of us who prefer the Classic Controller. Also, with its forty stages (not including tutorials), it feels shorter than it should be for a game of this type. Still, despite these quibbles, not to mention a rather… unexpected ending, Toki Tori is fun and worth checking out for puzzle fans.
Kirby’s Epic Yarn was the next game to keep the Wii busy. Although I haven’t played the entire series, I have loved Kirby games since the very first one on the original Game Boy. This particular entry might just be the best one of all. Many Kirby hallmarks are present—capturing and using enemies as projectiles, tons of collectables, and an optional co-op mode for starters—but Kirby cannot fly (under normal circumstances), his more elaborate transformations are context-sensitive, and there are no lives, just ways to lose a ton of beads. These differences are just that—differences—and in no way lessen the “Kirbyness” of the game. In general, this is a tightly-designed Kirby with many inspired implementations of its fabric-based theme and one of the best soundtracks ever recorded for a platformer. Only the final boss battle, which could’ve been bigger and better, disappointed, and even then only a little. Currently, even though I’ve beaten it, there’s still tons of doodads to collect (most of which can be used to decorate “Kirby’s Pad” in the hub world), minigames to tackle, and high scores to beat. I expect to be playing this, on and off, for some time yet.
Finally, there’s Shiren the Wanderer, which I came to neglect FFTA2 in favor of. As in the DS port of the original Shiren, we’re in the shoes of the titular silent protagonist, who has come to a strange new land chasing legends and treasure. This time around, his party members are old colleagues, one of which is with you from the beginning. These party members can also be directed to do certain actions, or even controlled individually. Also different this time is how the dungeons are presented. Instead of having to go through the entire thing in one straight line (with breaks along the way in the form of towns), multi-level dungeons are given to you in chunks with as few as three floors and as many as twenty-five, and typically with a brief boss fight at the end. Upon completing most of these, Shiren and his friends not only get to keep their money and items, but their levels as well. If you die, however, you will have all of your non-stored stuff taken away (in Normal mode, anyway) and your levels reset to what they were before you entered that dungeon.
The story this time around is a bit more complicated, not to mention convoluted, with a legendary mansion and mysterious girl as its centerpieces. It all made sense by the end—well, most of it—but the story is mere window dressing for the randomly-generated and sometimes devilish dungeons. As for the other trappings, the music is decent and the graphics are sometimes ugly, but generally okay. This goes for the animation as well, though the slidiness of the characters’ (especially the ferret Koppa’s) walks in non-dungeon areas can be distracting.
That’s it for the Wii games for awhile. Since this Wii binge started, Final Fantasy III (aka FFVI) came out on Virtual Console (on my birthday, no less!) and was promptly purchased, though I have no idea when either of us are going to start it. I also have a few disk-based Wii and Gamecube titles in my backlog. However, the almost-beaten FFTA2 has been neglected for some time now and there’s a decently-sized pile of games for other systems still to play. Time to get crackin’.
Yes, I’m back. My main excuse for dropping the ball on this blog for so long was my cross-country move back in early April. It was quite a production, as you can probably imagine, and even now we’re still unpacking, buying new furniture, and generally settling in. Even with a bunch left to do, I feel as though life has only recently started to get back to normal. I’ve even had time to play some games.
In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about what I’m going to do with this blog. My personal blog at LJ is pretty much dead, and I thought about moving it somewhere else, but at the same time, I’m not 100% happy with Brainscraps either. Right now, the plan is to experiment with some non-gaming posts here, making it a more general blog, just with a heavy emphasis on gaming. Thoughts and/or opinions, if anyone has ’em, are appreciated.
Now, as I said before, I’ve been playing games again recently. After pretty much stopping all my gaming in early March in order to pack and do other moving-related things (with a few, scattered sessions here and there), I picked up where I left off in Rune Factory 3 in late April. Since then, I’ve beaten it, and soon followed it up with Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes and the single-player campaign in Portal 2. I have been wanting to write about all three (well, mainly just Rune Factory 3 and Portal 2), but didn’t have the usual luxury of spacing my posts, so I’m doing the mini-review thing again. Here we go…
Rune Factory is one of my favorite game series of all time. A sublime blend of Harvest Moon‘s farm-based management (and dating) sim and a hack-and-slash dungeon crawler, it is heaven for those of us who like both types of gameplay. However, coming from Harvest Moon roots, it has not been without its hiccups along the way, including glitches, translation errors, and odd bits of game design. Thankfully, the series noticeably improves with each new entry, and Rune Factory 3 is certainly no exception, as it is the most enjoyable one yet.
The premise is very similar to what we have seen before: hero with amnesia, girl in a small town who gives him a farm to work on, etc. This time around, though, said hero is half-monster, with the ability to transform into a Wooly (the Rune Factory universe’s version of sheep), and said heroine is actually likable. All of the other bachelorettes in the game are interesting as well, with personalities that become fleshed out over the course of their sidequests. By the time I was ready to propose to the girl of my choice, I had maxed out the “love meter” for nearly all of the girls, mainly because I simply wanted to know more about them. On top of that, I liked the other townsfolk as well. Overall, the character development in Rune Factory 3 is outstanding, and a standard that all future games in the series should build upon.
The game’s mechanics have received some spit and polish as well. The farming system has been overhauled for both greater flexibility and greater challenge. Likewise, crafting is no longer the headache it once was, and rare items are now used in leveling up your existing equipment, and not much more than that. Meanwhile, the story progression is set up such that you don’t have to guess your way to the next event, but the player can still take things at their own pace.
Though we have yet to see how the localized Rune Factory Oceans—sorry, Rune Factory: Tides of Destiny—will turn out, for the time being, if you’re at all interested in the series but can only play just one of them, this is the one to play. Despite the occasional technical (or textual) hiccup, I wholeheartedly recommend this game to my fellow simulation and dungeon crawler fans.
In between battles, things look a bit less puzzley.
And now for an entirely different sort of RPG, but no less unique; one set in the world of a Western series, and with turn-based tactical puzzle elements. Clash of Heroes is, as I understand it, something of a departure from your traditional Might & Magic, a series which I know nothing about. Despite my ignorance, it stood well enough on its own as a single entry, and one which I found rather enjoyable.
The campaign is fairly short for an RPG—roughly twenty hours—but that’s as much as this game needs, as there wouldn’t be any real added benefits to additional grinding, what with the low level caps and hard limits on how many units one can have on the field. Each of the game’s main characters is played in turn, and each of their “chapters” progresses similarly to each other, save for the final one, what with its love of multiple boss battles in a row without opportunities to save between each one. Back at the very beginning, the tutorial stuff is handled well enough, but stumbles when it comes to explaining the unlocking and acquisition of special “Elite” and “Champion” units. As for the story, it’s your standard save-the-world fare with conspiracies and a magical MacGuffin. So, the non-battle campaign stuff is, in a nutshell, average and a little rough around the edges.
The battle system in Clash of Heroes is similarly unpolished, but quite a bit of fun. Using the match-three puzzle genre as a point of inspiration, battles take place by lining up color-coded troops into horizontal (defensive) or vertical (offensive) formations. Only the units at the very end of rows can be picked up and moved around; others can just be deleted. As in your typical puzzle game, chains can be created by pulling off the right moves, with the reward being additional actions for that turn. It’s a system that takes some getting used to (especially when doing the optional “puzzle” boards), and there are obvious balance issues with some of the units, but in general it works.
Said balance issues are supposed to have been fixed in the XBLA version of this game (I played the original one on DS), but I don’t know how much else was tweaked. Certainly, it’s an okay time-killer if you can get it at a decent price, and for me, not a bad way to add some variety to an already RPG-heavy backlog. After beating it, though, I was ready to move on.
Rounding out this post filled with strange genres is the sequel to gaming’s most beloved first-person environmental puzzler black comedy. This is—so far—the only big new “hardcore” game I have been interested in this year, and thankfully, it lived up to the hype. In this return trip to Aperture Laboratories, test subject Chell once again has to deal with the artificial intelligence GLaDOS and solve her way through chambers and corridors filled with endless amounts of Science. A chatty supporting player, the orb Wheatley, is along for the ride this time, and as in the first game, the environments are characters of their own.
Having gone through the original Portal twice (as well as the tough fan-made Flash Version Mappack after playthrough no. 2), I didn’t have as much trouble thinking my way through the environments in this sequel, even with a handful of new gimmicks thrown into the mix. The one time when I did take a hint to move forward, it was to a problem whose solution wasn’t very obvious; also, it was given to me in a natural manner in-game, reflective of the immersive approach Valve has (once again) employed in this world. There are some things in the environments that either feel gamey or don’t make much sense in the grand scheme of things, messing with the immersion, but they are few. Still, though, I feel that the original Portal did a slightly better job in this area. The wonder—and dread—that I felt playing through Portal were strong enough that I can still recall them; I had no such strong emotional reactions with Portal 2, save for a certain pair of moments, both of which were not driven by the overall environment, but mainly just the audio.
I don’t know if Portal 2‘s bigger, shinier, more mainstream approach is responsible for this less immersive experience, but I do feel that it has contributed to the lowered difficulty curve. There were certain puzzles in Portal that required damn good timing, and there’s quite a bit less of that this time around. Timing is still important in certain instances, but even then the game is more lenient, asking you to rely more on your own cleverness. Going through each individual area has become less about accomplishment and more about seeing what happens next.
Portal 2 is very good indeed (or at least the single-player campaign is. As of this writing, I haven’t done any of the cooperative stuff), but gaming magic is not something that can be easily replicated, especially in a sequel. If you loved the original and wouldn’t mind a longer sequel with more story and fewer mentions of cake, there is much to like in Portal 2. However, it’s a bit like StarCraft 2 in its polished approach, and it’s missing of that intangible something that made its predecessor go beyond the realm of “very good” and into “classic”.
Special Stage: Because of the move, I didn’t make it to PAX East this year. Instead, the plan is to go to PAX Prime, and indeed, we’re all booked for that trip and ready to go. There, we hope to witness the fourth “season” of Canon Fodder. The Season Three roundup is here, and sadly, not as entertaining a read as past summaries, mainly because there’s video attached this time.
P.S. to Kotaku (and various other gaming news outlets): There is no dash in “Square Enix”. None. I don’t care how silly or serious the article is, you’re embarrassing yourselves (not that that’s hard for you all). I’ve read way too many press releases, visited way too many of their sites, and bought way too many of their products to know for a fact that there is no dash in “Square Enix”.