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Posts Tagged ‘jrpg – action’

Backlog Tackling, 2016 Edition

As with the old Gaming Roundups, which I addressed last time, another annual feature of this blog was a backlog assessment. However, unlike in previous posts, a photo of my current backlog will not accompany this year’s entry. Roughly half of my backlog nowadays is digital, so the best overview of the games I have yet to finish, or even start, is at the Backloggery. As you can see, as of this posting, there is… a good amount. Some of these are games I will never, ever go back to, usually either due to lack of interest or an annoying issue I have with the game itself (oh hi, Crayon Physics Deluxe!). However, the vast majority are games I genuinely want to play and beat.

Parin from <i>Gurumin: A Monstrous Adventure</i>.To start off my 2016 gaming, I chose a title which is representative of my favorite type of game: quirky, mid-tier, colorful, reasonably polished, and Japanese. This game was Gurumin: A Monstrous Adventure, an action RPG of sorts by Nihon Falcom, the folks behind my beloved Ys series. I had actually gotten this game for free; before Valve (understandably) banned this sort of practice, publisher Mastiff gave away Steam keys in exchange for Greenlight votes and joining the official group. Seeing as how I would’ve voted for it anyway, signing up for this promotion was a no-brainer. Gurumin, which took me roughly a week to beat, was more or less what I expected: somewhat janky in places—the pacing of the localized voiced dialogue, the slightly imperfect platforming, the graphical glitches at the edges of the screen—but otherwise a decent little story-light game with lovingly-crafted graphics. Drill-wielding heroine Parin is a likable protagonist, and the world she inhabits is rather charming. It’s the type of very good all-ages game that I don’t see too often nowadays outside of Nintendo’s titles and a few other places, and certainly very rarely on PC.

A couple of days after starting Gurumin, I fired up my first lengthy turn-based RPG for this year: Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers. A 3DS port of a never-localized Sega Saturn game, this is, technically, the oldest JRPG I’ve played in some time, and it shows. Besides the usual low-budget MegaTen trappings, Soul Hackers‘ demon conversation system and certain other gameplay bits are a touch cruder than those that have come along since the late 90s. The story is very 90s as well: it takes place in a fully networked city where a Second Life-esque virtual world is being beta tested. The player character, a member of the hacker group Spookies, becomes embroiled in a conspiracy involving demons, summoners, and the city’s advanced intranet. It’s not bad, especially since there are “hacks” available that allow you to make the game less frustrating on the fly; I have the “automap” one on almost all the time. As of this writing, I’m still playing it, but given recent story developments, I hope to beat it sometime next week.

The third game I started this year, which was also the first one beaten, was Super Puzzle Platformer Deluxe, a very different kind of falling block puzzle game. The basic conceit is that, instead of moving or rotating the pieces that fall, you play a little person inside of the well who uses its gun to destroy individual or adjoining blocks of a single color. A row of deadly spikes on the well’s bottom incentivizes you not to clear the board, and, in a similar bending of typical match-three mechanics, there’s no real penalty for stacking blocks too high, at least in the standard single-player mode. Throw in various obstacles, such as cannons which sometimes fall in place of blocks, a few power-ups, unlockable outfits and challenge stages (neither of which I’ve paid much attention to), and collectible gems, and that’s pretty much the game.

It’s a neat combination, and although the requirements to “beat” each stage are somewhat dull (accumulate a set number of large gems over an unlimited number of games), it also makes the game a bit less daunting than certain other falling block games I could name. Even so, I don’t think it has what it takes to join the lofty ranks of recent-ish hybrid puzzlers like 10000000 or Puzzle & Dragons. There is too little variety in the blocks, for one thing—it would’ve been great to see the difficulty slowly ramped up in the form of additional block colors, instead of trickier types of cannons, etc. falling from above. The platforming end of things gets kind of samey after awhile, too. Although the game is fun in short bursts, in general, “Deluxe” seems like a bit too generous an adjective to attach to its name.

So, that’s where I stand so far in my 2016 gaming. There’s still a lot left, of course, particularly when it comes to JRPGs. My main worry in all this is that the games themselves will become chores more than diversions, but hopefully I can pace myself so that won’t be a problem. Wish me luck!


Wrapping Up Various Things

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.

Barefoot Gen vol. 1, unabridged editionA 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.

This is harder than it looks. From Octodad: Dadliest Catch.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.


Forging Through the Backlog

February was a productive month, gaming-wise. After completing Tropico 4‘s campaign, I went ahead and played On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, Episode Two, which was more of the same Penny Arcade-themed adventuring, albeit with a gimmicky end boss. There was something of a cliffhanger at the end, though, and given that Episode Three was cancelled, I would have to rely on Penny Arcade’s own documents should I wish to know the rest of the story. (ETA: Pete has informed me that Zeboyd is working on Episode 3. Huzzah!)

I also took up Pokemon White again, where, among other things, I added the last three Gym Badges to my collection. There was also a handful of new story events to play through, where Team Plasma continued in their quest to free Pokemon everywhere from trainer oppression. Compared to past Pokemon enemy squads, Team Plasma is easier to empathize with, though no more or less devoted to their cause. Their leader, the enigmatic N, is certainly the most memorable such character that I’ve yet seen in the series. Although I’ve set the game aside again, largely for practical reasons (Pokemon White has a season-based system that uses the DS’ internal clock, and I haven’t seen Winter or Spring yet), I’m looking forward to taking on Victory Road and the Pokemon League.

Tropico 4 was also revisited, much earlier than I thought I would. This time, it was to play the first two DLC missions. The one contained in the “Junta Military” pack was quite challenging, while the “Plantador” mission had a thick streak of humor, with its pop-culture friendly occult theme. In between all of this, I made a lot of progress in Sonic Colors, finally beating it on the 28th. It remains a wonderful Sonic, and simply a great platformer in general.

After all that was wrapped up, I decided to go back to the Halo franchise with the next game in the series, Halo Wars. I was already familiar with developer Ensemble Studios’ work through Age of Empires II, and therefore expected good things from what wound up being their final game. Thanks to Halo Wars‘ interesting missions and marvelous control scheme, I wasn’t disappointed. By necessity, it’s a lot simpler than PC RTSes, but far from dull; it’s probably the most fun I’ve had with a Halo game since the original. Sadly, the campaign was over fairly quickly, but on the plus side, it gave me my last beaten game of the month.

The PS2 port of Baroque was decided upon as my next game, and the first one for March. I started it yesterday and played for the better part of the afternoon, but decided to drop it in the end. It’s a roguelike, but with action, as opposed to turn-based, gameplay, which is unusual for the genre. Nevertheless, it has roguelike-style difficulty, complete with randomly-generated dungeons and being booted back to the starting area at Level 1 every time you die. I died quite a bit early on, but made progress at a steady pace, and then, not very long after starting over yet again, I came across the Experience Wings.

The Experience Wings are a piece of equipment that boost the amount of experience points one can get from each defeated monster. Needless to say, they make level grinding much easier, lessening the pain I felt just on Normal difficulty. However, after going through several floors, I play through a story event that sends me back to the beginning, at Level 1. After making it so that the Experience Wings can be carried over to this new session, I do it all again, though it’s much more monotonous this time, and the same thing happens. While reading some info about the game afterward, I found that progression is determined not by what floor of the dungeon you make it to, but whether or not you can fulfill the arbitrary and oftentimes vaguely hinted-at goals given to you by the macabre, dull, and badly voice-acted NPCs. Upon learning this, I could readily envision the tediousness this would entail, and promptly decided to give it up.

So, what’s on the agenda next? As I said before, I’m on hiatus from Pokemon White again; also, I don’t think we’ll be tackling Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles‘ tough endgame again anytime soon. Right now, my plan is to continue on with more Halo games I haven’t played yet, namely Halo 3: ODST and Halo: Reach. I also have Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary in my backlog, which I’d like to play co-op, but that’s not as big a priority. I also want to start another JRPG, though I haven’t settled on which one yet. Tales of the Abyss, perhaps?

How many games will I beat in March? Stay tuned…

Special Stage: Congrats once again to my friend and fellow Citadeler Tarale on her recent engagement! The incredibly geeky story of how she proposed to her boyfriend, via Team Fortress 2 and with some special help from Valve, made Kotaku Australia; here’s the story!


A Dissatisfying Time in Paradise

When Rune Factory: Tides of Destiny begins, it lets you know right away that this is an atypical entry in the series. After a brief battle sequence—the purpose of which is awfully vague—the two main characters appear in a completely different scene, where they’re spirited away and one is forced to share the other’s body.

From that point on, it continues as any Rune Factory does, on the first day of Spring with a strange new town and a lot of friendly locals to meet, but the differences start becoming noticeable again. For one thing, the house you’re given does not include an adjacent plot of farmland. In fact, it’s impossible to do any farming at all until certain story-related missions are completed. These seasonal farms, like the game’s dungeons, are islands spread throughout a vast ocean, which is traversed across with the help of a massive golem. This monster is both the game’s most important feature as well as the source of many of its flaws.

Exploring the world is done by walking all over the ocean via the golem. The golem is a neat feature, but as a form of transportation, it is far from perfect. As opposed to your typical Rune Factory dungeon, which is located close to home, Tides of Destiny‘s monster-infested islands can take half an in-game day or longer to reach. An instant-transport option is available for a good chunk of the game, but is later taken away thanks to story events. This setup can make it difficult to collect monster drops for crafting, but fortunately, reaching the farming islands is as easy as stepping into special portals within the golem.

The biggest single flaw, however, doesn’t have much to do with the golem and in fact messes with one of the core Harvest Moon fundamentals upon which Rune Factory has been based: the four seasons. This is the first Rune Factory I’ve played in which seasons are mostly irrelevant, mere points on a calendar. Seasonal areas are not dungeons this time around, and after restoration, can be used to grow just about any crop. Said crops are grown not through the use of seeds, but with Spirit Magic and captured monsters, each with their own specialty. All of this is fine, but aside from the winter-themed island, upon which only metals, gems, and crystals can be grown, any plant can be raised and harvested on any farm. For instance, with a well-groomed monster, it’s easy to quickly grow cucumbers on the Spring, Summer, and Autumn islands, discarding any need for the careful planning that typically goes into farming. On top of that, most monsters specialize in multiple types of crops, and the player has no option to tell them what exactly they should grow. Because of this, I wound up growing way more eggplants and far fewer tomatoes and that I would have normally.

The broken season system extends to the fishing as well. On the main island, the types of fish available to catch don’t vary much between seasons, and for rarities, one must venture out onto the golem to find special spots in the middle of the ocean—which are not added to the map once they’ve been discovered, unlike dungeons and seasonal islands.

Aside from the botched handling of ocean-crossing and seasons, there are flaws when it comes to the optional quests. For the most part, these quests, typically of the “fetch” variety, are all right, but there are a handful that appear early on and require high skill levels and/or rare items in order to complete, including one set which is informal in nature and impossible to get the details of again once it’s been triggered. There is also at least one quest which is impossible to even begin, an apparent victim of the worst bug I have yet seen in this series. As these sidequests are the only way to obtain new recipes for cooking, forging, and so on (though not all of them give out said recipes as rewards), this is somewhat frustrating. Also, speaking of technical problems, when multiple enemies or characters populate the screen, this game suffers from slowdown that’s worse than in some of the DS entries (note that I played the Wii version; I’m not sure if this is the case on the PS3 one). The localization is sub-par as well, with a not insignificant number of grammatical errors.

However, all is not lost with this Rune Factory, as it sports some above average dungeon design and carries over the great timing-based cooking/forging/crafting/alchemy system from Frontier, with a new addition in the form of woodworking. Loading times are also shorter than Frontier‘s, and the still character portraits that pop up during conversations have been replaced with animated 3D models. There’s also a neat musical easter egg that’s triggered by a certain Frontier character who appears for a cameo.

The story is a particular strong point, mixing certain themes from the older games (it must be noted here that all of the Rune Factory tales occur within the same world) with some interesting new ideas. The characters occupy the usual range of tropes, and are everything from charming to irritating, but as in Rune Factory 3, there are consistent mini-stories for each one that flesh them out over time. Two of the most interesting characters are the playable leads, Aden and Sonja, both of whom have more personality, for better or worse, than the rest of the series’ heroes. Aesthetically, and despite some odd decisions when it comes to what lines are given voice, the visuals and sound maintain the high level of quality I’ve come to expect from the series.

Tides of Destiny is one of the most ambitious, but also one of the most fault-ridden, Rune Factory games. It is highly experimental in its revamped approached to farming and exploring and unfortunately, the vast majority of these experiments are failures, but when the game does things right, it really shines. Still, this game is only for hardcore Rune Factory fans like myself. Everyone else would be better off checking out the slightly older, but far superior, Rune Factory 3.


Of Backlogs and Buccaneers

It was a long time in coming, but I finally, finally managed to play Level-5’s space pirate action RPG Rogue Galaxy. I don’t know exactly how long I’d had it sitting around, but its presence there dates back from at least April 2008. After roughly a month and a half of playing, the Rogue Galaxy Era of my backlog officially ended on November 7, 2011 after watching the credits roll. Looking at my “Currently playing/in my backlog” list from that post, it seems that Persona 3 (or rather, Persona 3 FES, which I had acquired since then) should be my next major priority.

However, let’s not concern ourselves with that right now; this post is about Rogue Galaxy. Ah, Rogue Galaxy! I can still remember how excited I was about this game before it launched. The splendidly quirky Dark Cloud 2 had been my first introduction to a small development house called Level-5, and from that point on, I was immediately interested in anything they produced. However, since that time, I had played their masterful collaborations with Square Enix, Dragon Quest VIII and IX, and none of their other titles. The first Dark Cloud and Professor Layton games are currently languishing in my backlog, but Rogue Galaxy had been in the Pile of Shame longer than either of them. This is not the case any more, and now, I feel obliged tell you about this game which took me way too long to get around to playing.

Much like Dark Cloud 2, Rogue Galaxy is a beautifully cel-shaded action RPG (with even more beautifully cel-shaded FMVs). The story follows Jaster Rogue, a young man on a desert planet who dreams of going up into space. One day, his dreams come true when a pair of crew members serving under the pirate captain Dorgengoa mistake Jaster for one of the galaxy’s top bounty hunters and bring the young man aboard their ship. What follows is an adventure filled with planet-hopping, interesting characters, and gobs of clichés. Think Treasure Planet with touches of every JRPG ever, told through cutscenes as long as Xenosaga, Episode I‘s, but without the sluggish pacing. Finally, I’d like to mention one handy feature in relation to the plot: a brief recap of recent events that pops up when starting a new game or continuing from a save.

The game is jam-packed with things to do. In addition to the main quest, there are a handful of sidequests and optional goals, including bounties to hunt down, a multi-tiered insect fighting tournament, and a complex factory-based item creation system that’s reminiscent of the town-rebuilding aspects of the Dark Cloud series. Speaking of items, there are an overwhelming number of them—not just in the form of weapons and healing medicines, but shields, foods, metals, gems, machines, circuitry, random objects, event-specific things, a talking purple frog that can merge two weapons into one, and a handful of alternate outfits for your party members. These items are used in some of the optional activities I described above, as well as the Revelation Flow, charts (specialized for each character) from which new abilities and augmentations can be unlocked. Then, there’s the separate section for special items—three types of them, to be exact. This is a game that loves its stuff.

At the core of all this is some very good combat made use of in environments that are pretty but relatively monotonous, and all far larger than they need to be. The party-based battle system most closely resembles that of Kingdom Hearts; there are no cutaways to “battle screens”—instead, enemies simply appear on the field—and one character is directly controlled by the player while the other two are handled by AI. However, here the action can be paused at any time to access party members’ menus for special commands, and AI-controlled members will often ask for advice on which attack or item to use. All of the special moves, by the way, are accompanied by brief cutscenes, which are thankfully skippable, though not right away. Each character also has a set of “Burning Strike” attacks, which relies on a filling up a meter and timed button presses, as well as combo moves that recall the Double and Triple Techs from Chrono Trigger.

It’s an engaging, well-executed system… for the most part. Its major weakness comes about in the rare instances when characters find themselves in one-on-one battles. Although Rogue Galaxy tends to err on the easy side, once party strength is cut down by a third, you’re facing the toughest fights in the game. It’s easy to blow through a dozen or more healing potions during one of these battles, to say nothing of dying and getting “Game Over”.

As for the environments, as previously implied, they are generally gorgeous, but also wear out their welcome fairly quickly, with little variety within single areas, and wide, lengthy pathways that take a long time to get through. Backtracking to unlock special chests, defeat bounties, or seek out any other extra content is often tedious, to say nothing of going through the game’s dungeons the first time around. The save points, which double as teleporters, do help to lessen this tedium. Unfortunately, I wish I could say the same about the map system, which only allows for views of many different floors at once at save points, and can be unreliable once the ability to see all unlocked chests on a given planet is accessed.

The music is inoffensive and only occasionally ear-wormy. The regular battle theme in particular has a starting similarity to the one in a certain other game about pirates in flying ships. As for the voice acting and sound effects, much like the music, they get the job done reasonably well. There’s nothing truly outstanding about the sound design in general, but nor is there anything bad.

I’m sure I’m forgetting something; Rogue Galaxy has so much going on that it would be hard not to. It’s a beautiful, ambitious title filled with both great and frivolous ideas, and arguably one of the better Sony-published JRPGs of the PS2 era. However, it lacks some of the coherence and originality of the best that console has to offer. I hesitate to call Rogue Galaxy average—since it isn’t—but it’s also not the masterpiece it had the potential to be. That said, it is still a very good game, and although it took me ages to get around to playing it, I’m glad to have ultimately done so.


Where I’ve Been, and the Return of Braincrumbs

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…

Girls, Girls, Girls – Rune Factory 3: A Fantasy Harvest Moon

Daria's a bit nutty, but in an endearing way.

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.

Match Three Tactics – Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes

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.

Aperture Don’t Stop – Portal 2

Aperture Science has seen better days.

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”.

(Sorry, little pet peeve of mine.)

And speaking of Square, I found myself greatly amused by The Dark Id’s Let’s Play of Chrono Cross. It really demonstrates just how much of a clusterfuck that game is, and makes it that much funnier and more entertaining. His earlier LP of Dirge of Cerberus is also not to be missed.

Oh, and finally, I’m now on the Twitters.