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Video games and other things.

Posts Tagged ‘jrpg – general’

Heaven, Hell, and Everything in Between

As far as beating games goes, this has been shaping up to be a somewhat productive summer. I’ve beaten seven games and two DLCs/expansions since my previous post, including a few titles I obtained during Steam’s annual Summer Sale. Right now, my biggest pickup from that sale, the much-lauded 2016 version of Doom, is sitting on one of my hard drives, having been freshly downloaded from Steam’s servers this past Tuesday.

Doom 2016 is one of my very rare triple-A indulgences, and a graphical beast; even on the lowest settings, the demo looked fantastic. There’s tons of options to tweak, as one would expect of a game from a storied PC developer like id Software, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the game itself will run on my (admittedly) offbeat PC gaming hardware of choice, a 2013 Mac Pro running Boot Camp. My little taste of it back in June was quite delicious, with a red-drenched palette and hints of the sort of over-the-top badassery one expects from the Doom franchise.

A typical sight in <i>Doom 3</i>.Before I could start Doom 2016, and after beating Doom II back in early May, I finished my tour of the older id-crafted parts of the franchise with Doom 3 and its companion pieces, “Resurrection of Evil” and the BFG Edition-exclusive “Lost Mission”. Doom 3 did well when it came to the look and feel of the weapons and enemies, but atmospherically, it was, for the most part, not Doom. The story took itself a bit more seriously than it had in Doom and Doom II—even the difficulty setting names were straight-laced—and on top of that, the shadowy environments and heavy emphasis on sound effects lent the game more of a horror feel, rather than the goofy action movie style I was used to (given this situation, the famed flashlight controversy is especially interesting). It was sort of like a scarier, less puzzley, and less wry Half-Life set in the Doomiverse. That’s not to say there weren’t any funny or adrenaline-pumping moments—there most certainly were—but Doom 3 stands out a little as an odd duck. It was a fun game, though, especially the last third or so, which includes the requisite trip to Hell. The two bonus campaigns retread some familiar ground, story-wise, but are also fairly decent, especially “Resurrection of Evil”; “Lost Mission” felt a little slapdash in comparison.

Before I wrapped up Doom 3, I defeated the final boss in a very different sort of game: The Guided Fate Paradox, a roguelike developed by Nippon Ichi for the PS3. It was a shrewd choice to be Nippon Ichi’s 20th anniversary title, not just because of its genre, but also its setting: Celestia, the angelic counterpart to the Netherworld where so many of the company’s games take place. In this particular entry in Nippon Ichi’s multidimensional canon, the player character is Renya, a high school student who wins the title of “God” in a shopping arcade lottery. Despite the wacky setup, much of the rest of the story, in which Renya fulfills prayers and wishes hand-picked by his team of angels, is played fairly straight, with very few forays into outright comedy. Some potential is there—an innuendous angel, a chuunibyou angel, a mission that involves helping zombies—but it never gets as comedic as many of the studio’s other works.

As for the story that is there, it’s a heaping pile of jargon-laden anime bullshit with a few entertaining bits here and there. Much of the game’s plot seems to exist solely to justify the mechanics of fighting, picking up items, leveling up, dying, and then doing most all of it over again from scratch. Other such games are happy enough hand-waving away the peculiarities of the roguelike format when it comes to storytelling, but The Guided Fate Paradox isn’t. In a way, I’m glad they took this approach, since it fits very well with Nippon Ichi’s house style, but there were times when it all felt a touch too complicated or serious for them. Despite all that, the dungeon crawling parts were mostly outstanding, with some neat chapter-specific gimmicks, snappy movement and attack speeds, loads of customization options (including some basic stats which can be improved permanently), and, save for a grindy endgame, a fair difficulty curve. If you like this sort of game at least as much as I do and can stomach or ignore the less-than-great story bits, The Guided Fate Paradox is worth a try.

<i>Evoland II</i>'s obligatory stealth section, complete with obligatory <i>Metal Gear Solid</i> reference.Other than that, I beat Pokemon Blue Version, ending my journeys through both Kanto and Pokemon’s origins. I also played Evoland II, which is both bigger and not as good in certain ways as its predecessor: though the plotting is amazingly thorough and most of the gameplay bits are solid, there’s too many superfluous references to other games and too much rambling dialogue (see this post I made in CAG’s current RPG Thread for more detailed impressions). As for some more of those aforementioned Summer Sale games, Witch and Hero was a nice and chaotic little J-indie nugget, Bejeweled 3 was (and continues to be) so very good, and DLC Quest was pleasantly goofy, if a little ugly to look at, and didn’t wear out its welcome.

As for stuff I’m still playing, besides trying to get the last two (very tough) achievements in Bejeweled 3, there’s Project CARS, Fantasy Life, and Pokemon GO. As I only typically buy one sim racer per generation, the PC version of Project CARS had a lot riding on it, but I’m enjoying its career mode thus far. It’s quite deep, but also very approachable thanks to its bevy of difficulty modifiers, which is great for filthy casual racing fans like myself. Fantasy Life is much like most any other game wholly conceived and developed by Level-5: beautiful, dense with variety, and with a story and world that’s pleasantly vanilla. Sometimes this latter point works against them, as it did for me with Professor Layton and the Curious Village, but the results here are a bit more mixed; I’m not quite sure what to make of it yet. Lastly, there’s Pokemon GO. As Pokemon games go, it’s one of the shallowest ever made, but the real world trappings are a neat novelty, and, at the very least, it’s getting me out and walking a bit more.

Soon, Doom 2016 will join that list. I’ve already been to Hell and back again with Doomguy a handful of times this year, but I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t looking forward to one more trip.


The Little Things

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.

One of the landscapes (with reticule, sorry) in Firewatch.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.

Christmas NiGHTS, in all its glory.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.

Until next time…


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.


The Hills and Valleys of Gallia

It’s always frustrating to see a game get so much right, only to fall flat on its face in a few significant ways, but such was my experience with Valkyria Chronicles. This game had been on my radar for a long time, and I picked it up a few months after its arrival on Steam. In most ways, it lived up to the hype, and I greatly enjoyed it, but its flaws are difficult to ignore.

A typical battle scene.I’ll start with the good stuff since, like I said, this game does do a lot of things right. This is a strategy RPG unlike most others, one which ditches the isometric gridded maps for full 3D environments as in other modern console JRPGs. The gameplay is a mix of the real-time (shifting lines of sight and enemy fire while a unit moves) and the turn-based (everything else), with variables ranging from weapon capabilities to characters’ personalities affecting every action in the field. Keeping things simple, the character classes are limited to five (six if you include tanks), with the strengths and weaknesses of each clearly defined.

The most welcome aspect of the battle system is the way experience is handled. One of the issues I almost always run up against in SRPGs is leveling up individual units; in these sorts of games, only those who deal the killing blows to enemies gain experience points. Valkyria Chronicles solves this problem by not doling out EXP until the end of a battle, after which it goes into a wallet of sorts that can be spent on leveling up entire classes and/or learning new orders, special buffs which can be used on one or more units during a fight. On the downside however, at least for me, the amounts of both EXP and money received at the end of battle are partially determined by a rigid grading system, where higher grades are given the faster a map is cleared, similar to modern Sonic games. Despite this, I found that the shared experience pool, along with the equipment upgrade system and party management options, nicely streamlines the most fiddly bits of a customization-heavy genre.

The maps themselves are diverse in size, layout, terrain, and so on, and although the missions tend to rely too much on “occupy the enemy’s main base” as a goal, there is enough variation amongst the rest that this doesn’t become too dull. There is a learning curve for many of the missions, particularly if you’re like me and don’t want to lose any units (permadeath being very much A Thing for non-officer Valkyria Chronicles militiapeople), but the game is generally not very difficult.

Aesthetically, there’s as much pleasure here as within the gameplay. The cel-shaded graphics have a earthy and sketchy watercolor look about them, and, despite the occasional bit of outlandishness in the character design, everything is animated with subtlety and grace. Fan favorite game composer Hitoshi Sakimoto is responsible for the soundtrack, which is slightly gentler and happier than some of his most famous SRPG works. Excellent voice acting and sound effects complete the package. All of this is presented within a nearly flawless PC port; I did encounter one very bad clipping error, along with one or two much less severe issues, but the vast majority of the game ran smoothly.

The main book menu, while on the Headquarters tab.Tying all this together is a user interface that is, for the most part, a dream to work with. The main menu takes the form of a book, with story events and battles broken up into individual sections within their respective chapters. Every cutscene not tied to a battle can be replayed at the player’s leisure after they’re first viewed, making catching up on the story between play sessions a refreshingly trivial affair. Outside of the story, customization and other features are largely handled through a “Headquarters” tab, and similar appendices are available for optional skirmish battles, glossaries, and so on. Just about the only thing I don’t like about the main menu is that there’s no “Load” option; to jump to a different save file, one has to quit back to the opening screen and do it through there.

In battle, the UI is just as handy, if not moreso. Things like number of remaining action points, unit locations, and so on are clearly marked, and although there are no takebacks after a unit has been chosen in the field, saving and loading files can be done at any time between actions.

However, despite all the polish that has gone into how the game plays, the story has a handful of issues. Blending the real-life inspiration of World War II with touches of JRPG-style fantasy, Valkyria Chronicles is set in the Europan country of Gallia, a neutral party caught between the western Federation and eastern Empire. The story, presented in the form of a book titled “On the Gallian Front”, revolves around Militia Lieutenant Welkin Gunther and his comrades in Squad 7. Naturally, Welkin just happens to be the son of a famous war hero, and has come to Gallia’s capital from a small town with two young women in tow: reserved younger sister Isara and energetic baker’s apprentice Alicia.

The FMVs and in-game graphics are pretty much identical.If this one-guy-two-girls setup is reminiscent of Skies of Arcadia, that’s probably not an accident, as Valkyria Chronicles shares some key staff members, and even contains a few nice homages to the older RPG. However, the comparisons don’t stop there, as several of Arcadia‘s most conspicuous plot elements make themselves incredibly clear early on. Because Arcadia was lighter in tone and, to a certain extent, unabashedly cartoony—with brightly-colored graphics, a setting that could only exist in fantasy, and themes of adventure and discovery—it could largely get away with its by-the-numbers story. On the other hand, the more grounded Valkyria, with its more modest plot centered around a small country doing its best to defend itself, doesn’t have that luxury. As a result, and despite some surprises and high points, Valkyria‘s story is more obviously predictable than even your average JRPG (particularly if you pay attention to certain details in the opening movie) and its few missteps stand out all the more.

The primary example I can give of the latter involves a major spoiler, so I won’t describe it in great detail, but I do want to discuss it, so I’ll try my best not to give too much away. It starts with a well-executed story sequence, and quite moving as well, so much so that it was the third instance of a game making me cry. However, even while this event was playing out, one character’s reaction to it confused me. More worryingly, when a certain aspect of this event is repeated later on, it felt like a cheapening of what had come before; on top of that, there was a ton of foreshadowing leading up to Event #2, so it’s not like that storytelling mechanic was all on the shoulders of Event #1. To the writers’ credit, Event #1 did have lasting relevance right on through to the end of the game, so it wasn’t a superfluous scene. However, the execution of both events was… poorly considered. This was, I might add, the point where I started to grow somewhat tired of the game.

Non-FMV cutscenes are handled like this.The characters, like the story, don’t shy away from cliches, and despite most of them being pleasant, or, at the very least, interesting to watch, there’s only as much depth added to them as needed for the plot. This is especially true of the non-story-required militia members, each one of whom can be neatly filed away according to archetype. Fortunately, there are a wide variety of recruits to choose from when forming your squad, and it’s easy enough to ignore the most annoying-seeming characters in favor of those who are more appealing. On a positive note, it’s hard to ignore the fact that these grunts are a step up from the bland, personality-lacking units of the SRPGs of the past.

Choosing your squad, however, is not an option in the “Enter the Edy Detachment!” DLC, where you are stuck with six specific militia members, including and led by the shrill Edy, in a brief side-story where they get separated from the rest of Squad 7. This mission is unusually difficult if you don’t learn how to second-guess the AI, and doesn’t really add anything to the main story. Much better is the Selvaria-focused “Behind Her Blue Flame”, which shows a somewhat different side of this enemy general and includes some nice little tie-ins to the main game.

There are two other DLCs, an unlockable “Expert Mode” for the main game’s optional battles and a set of Edy Detachment-themed skirmishes, but I didn’t touch either of them. All four come with the Steam release, no extra purchases necessary, which is a nice bonus. Even without these essentially-free DLCs, Valkyria Chronicles‘ PC port is solid package that’s worth picking up, but if you’re a newcomer, be warned that the story is neither as good nor as innovative as the rest of the game.


A Pile of Braincrumbs Before I Go

Leaving on a trip tomorrow, and it’s going to be one of those rare times where I unplug for awhile. That said, I made sure that whatever I started playing in the past few weeks were things that I could beat before leaving. In the end, I played through four games and read a Let’s Play of Dare to Dream, an early effort by one Clifford Blezinski (thankfully, he’s improved since then).

That aside, here’s what I thought of those four games I played:

Time Limit Within 7 Days – Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor Overclocked

Even though my main gaming goal for the year is to beat as much of my MegaTen backlog as possible, I haven’t made much progress with that. After Persona 4, I didn’t play another SMT-related game until this one, which is a 3DS port-with-extras of the original Devil Survivor on DS. It’s also a strategy RPG, which is unusual for this franchise, but as I love the genre, I wasn’t going to complain.

During battles, the top screen features a ton of useful info.It was the SRPG elements, and the battle system in general, which proved to be the most fun part of the game. Characters move around on a grid and can attack and use special actions, but the twist here is that each of your party members can have a team of up to two demons tagging along with them, and initiating battle leads to a first-person turn-based affair that’s more typical of MegaTen. This mixing of traditional and strategy JRPG gameplay works really well, and is further augmented by robust customization options and demon recruitment and creation systems.

Despite this, the game is grindy on the normal difficulty, which wouldn’t be as bad if there were more than one or two “free battle” areas to level up in at a time. As for the story, it’s pretty good, though hardly original—much like The World Ends with You, the game takes place in Tokyo over a period of seven days, which is the time limit the main characters’ have in order to sort things out (it’s worth noting here that among Overclocked‘s new features are some unlockable “eighth day” scenarios, though I didn’t get one with the ending I chose). In other aspects, the plot is your standard boilerplate MegaTen, with a silent protagonist, characters with varied personal agendas, and multiple endings. Most of the time, it’s well-paced for a portable game, though the density of plot threads means that it can be easy to forget your place at times, which can lead to unintended (by you) consenquences.

The game is fully voiced (though the results are hit or miss), the music and graphics are decent… for the most part (I want to know what the hell is up with that strap on Haru’s dress), and the localized script is up to Atlus USA’s usual high standards. Strangely, there isn’t much use of 3D aside from the opening movie and demon fusing animations, but other than that, it looks great on my XL. As a MegaTen game, it’s a reasonably solid entry overall.

A Little Story in a Cave – Ikachan

That familiar Pixel aesthetic comes across clearly in <i>Ikachan</i>.By the time I beat Devil Survivor Overclocked, there wasn’t enough time to start something similarly lengthy, so everything I’ve played since then has been much shorter. First up was Ikachan, a 3DS port of a pre-Cave Story PC game by Studio Pixel. It takes place in an underwater cavern, and the main character is a squid. As in Cave Story, there are snaking passages, cute little regular enemies, deadly red spikes to avoid, strange beings to talk to (barnacle/anemone people, in this case), useful items to collect, and an atmosphere that ably blends the unusual with the mundane.

The story, however, is much simpler, and so is the game itself. There is only one area—the gigantic cave where the tale takes place—and very few boss battles. For Cave Story fans, Ikachan is notable for being the game that Ironhead, a large fish with an, er, iron head, came from. Ikachan is also easier; none of the enemies are as taxing as, say, Monster X in Cave Story. It’s cute, very short, and worth a look if you have a spare hour or two. The original PC game is freeware (note: some spoilers in link), though the 3DS version adds some new features, including a subtle layered 3D effect.

Blame Canada – Deadlight

I don’t normally play zombie games, but I do play platformers, and picked up Deadlight in a Steam sale awhile back. Unfortunately, my old Mac Pro couldn’t handle it, and so it was one of those games I shuttled off into my “Save for new compy” folder. As I now have said new compy, I’ve started digging into that folder. Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing was the acid test, and not long after playing through that, I found myself moving on to games like this one.

It ain't Canada, but it'll do.Deadlight takes place in early July 1986, in Seattle, in which it seems like pretty much the whole world has been overrun by zombies—sorry, “Shadows”—and what few humans are left in this one particular city try their best to survive. The main character is a scruffy middle-aged Canadian man (we know for sure he is Canadian because the game likes to remind us of this every so often, mostly through his diary entries and some comments on the items he finds during his travels) who is searching for his wife and daughter. He gets separated from his friends early on and is forced to make his way to a designated safe point on his own. This he does by running, jumping, climbing, walking, etc. all over the Seattle metro area in a linear fashion, occasionally solving puzzles and finding hidden areas. On a superficial level, at least, it’s pretty similar to Mark of the Ninja, but with much less stealth and a lot more zombies Shadows.

The game is thick with zombie genre cliches and sports at least a couple of frustrating sections in the third act, plus pausing is sometimes buggy, but otherwise it is generally well made (as unbelievable as some of it seems at times) and appropriately gritty and moody. It’s the sort of game that isn’t going to change the world, but does provide some fairly decent entertainment for a little while.

A Hungrier, Toothier Kirby – The Maw

I beat Deadlight quicker than I thought I would, and still needed something to play! To satiate this hunger, I turned to The Maw, which is, like Deadlight, a PC port of an XBLA game. This time, however, you play a small blue alien who befriends a small purple alien shortly before the ship on which you are both imprisoned crash-lands. The blue alien finds a handy laser lasso gauntlet thing, and accompanies the purple alien, a walking eyeball and mouth called Maw, on a journey to do… something. Though there are parts where they have to outwit their former captors, it’s never made very clear what the protagonists’ specific goal is.

This transformation power, which only appears once, is my favorite.The Maw is a neat little piece of platforming goodness—the kind of lower-budgeted, but still polished, work you’d commonly see released on disk form throughout the PS2 era. The lasso gauntlet is the main character’s means of interacting with Maw and the various creatures and objects within the world they’ve crashed onto. Maw itself grows as it eats and, much like a certain famous pink puffball, can gain different appearances and abilities if it consumes certain creatures; for example, a large horned beetle enables Maw to do a ramming move, which can destroy boulders and surpass certain obstacles. There are only a handful of these moves, but the small number of them makes sense given the game’s brief length.

Unlike many other, older platformers, the challenge is dialed down a bit. There are no lives, and respawning takes you back pretty much to exactly the same spot you were at when you died (for example, structures that you had destroyed before will remain destroyed). This being the case, it makes me wonder why it’s been made possible to die to begin with. Although it lessens some frustration, it’s still a very odd design choice.

The version of The Maw that I played included all of the DLC levels, which were omitted scenes interspersed throughout the campaign. While this is a nifty use of DLC, for the most part, they stuck out like a sore thumb in that they tended to be longer and more intricate than the “regular” stages.

Aside from some camera issues when Maw gets to be on the big side, a soundtrack that’s sometimes too repetitive, and the aforementioned issues regarding the difficulty and DLC, there’s really nothing bad I can say about this game. It’s just long enough that it doesn’t wear out its welcome, it controls well, it’s stable, and it’s enjoyable. For a lot of games, I couldn’t ask for much more than that.


Not Sticky Enough

One subset of games I am hopelessly devoted to are the Mario RPGs. There’s the original Super Mario RPG, of course, but my fondness is mainly for the Mario & Luigi and Paper Mario games. Both series tend to be fairly consistent, quality-wise, making it hard to pick out a single favorite. I have fave characters across them all (Goombario, Vivian, Fawful, etc.), plus the level designs, writing, graphics, and music are all great. Even the most un-RPG-like of the crop, the Wii title Super Paper Mario, is a fun and engaging game, with much to recommend it.

Unfortunately, this streak has now been broken, as I have just finished playing a Mario RPG that would definitely not be in the running for my favorite—not even close. In fact, this game, Paper Mario: Sticker Star, is unequivocally the worst Mario RPG I’ve played to date.

Sticker Star by itself is unusual: it’s a 3DS game; in other words, the first and only portable entry in the Paper Mario series. I’m not sure why it wasn’t made for the Wii U instead, as that would seem to be a more fitting home for it, though maybe it has something to do with the fact that it looks great with the 3D effect cranked up. As for the game’s structure, it goes back to the turn-based battle styles of the first two Paper Marios, but this time, there’s no additional party members.

Mario is accompanied by a helper character, though: a silver crown sticker named Kersti. She is introduced shortly after the opening, where, during a festival in which a magical sticker comet receives the wishes that the Mushroom Kingdom makes on it, Bowser disrupts the activities, causes the comet to break up and disperse, and, of course, kidnaps Princess Peach. Kersti, a steward of sorts for the now-scattered Royal Stickers contained within the comet, appears before Mario and immediately blames him for the chaos. When he sets her straight, she doesn’t believe him, but changes her tune after he offers to help her find the Royal Stickers. From the very beginning, she is an ingratiating, pushy, judgmental presence in the game, and, aside from her many neutral moments, is more annoying than any other friendly character from previous Mario RPGs.

So, right away, we have Mario and the self-appointed Nagging Sticker Mom going off on their quest. After dealing with their town’s destruction, the Toads are startlingly nonplussed about their Princess being kidnapped; she is pretty much never mentioned by any of them until near the end of the game. As for the rest of the game’s characters, Peach is mostly just a goal to reach, Luigi is reduced to a background element (literally), Yoshi appears only as a sphinx, and Bowser doesn’t even speak. Recurring flunky Kamek plays a role, as do Bowser Jr., a Wiggler, a Snifit, and a few of the Toads, but that’s about it for the cast. It’s as bare-bones an ensemble as there has ever been in these games.

<i>Paper Mario: Sticker Star</i>'s Fan sticker in action.The quest itself starts off well enough. The battle system is basically the same as in the other games, with the core attacks involving jumping or hammering, and bonus damage for getting the timing right. However, the twist this time is that all of Mario’s moves—attacking, healing, whatever—can only be pulled off by using a corresponding sticker. There are limits to the number of stickers that can be carried at any given time (these inventory limits are expanded during certain special events, such as when a Royal Sticker is collected), and some special stickers are bigger than others, which means that space management is a huge factor in getting through the game. Aside from your typical stickers which can be picked up at stores or on the field, there are also special ones made from “Things”, which are non-paper, three-dimensional objects that appear throughout the land. Once turned into stickers, these Things can carry out elaborate super moves, much like summon creatures in other JRPGs (my personal favorite is the Soda). Of course, there are limitations when it comes to these Thing Stickers—for starters, they don’t have in-menu descriptions like regular stickers—but this isn’t a problem most of the time.

However, some of the puzzles and other situations that require stickers can be surprisingly tough to figure out. This is especially true of the boss battles, where it is far too easy to lose because you used up all your stickers and the enemy is still alive. Conditional battles, such as many of those against bosses, are nothing new in JRPGs, but when one is completely reliant on items and inventory limits to fight them, that’s when problems arise. Sometimes, if you’re lucky and pace your attacks right, Kersti will appear and maybe even drop a hint.

One of the most convoluted puzzles in the game involves a giant Chain Chomp. It’s obvious that the goal is to guide the Chomp to a specific place, but every time Mario gets within range of it, a battle is triggered. Keep in mind that all Chain Chomps are invincible in Sticker Star, and thus, attack items are, for the most part, useless. The solution to this problem is a lengthy six-step process which I had amazingly somehow figured out myself over the course of much trial and error, though it was less of an “Ah-hah!” moment and more of a “Finally” one. Given how the whole scene is set up, it shouldn’t have been hard to craft a simpler puzzle that gave the same results, but instead, one has to execute a clunky solution for which only the barest hints had been given in advance.

"Paperization" in <i>Sticker Star</i>, using a Scrap.Aside from the sticker puzzles and boss battles, the levels are standard Paper Mario fare at their best—which is the majority of the time—and minor annoyances at their worst. The puzzles which require not stickers but “scraps” of the papery world tend to be both more sensible and interesting, and there’s the usual plethora of hidden areas and treasures to discover. Some levels are more entertaining than others, and most all of them encourage repeat visits. The levels are largely plot-free, but, unfortunately, the two areas that are story-heavy feature the most tedious bits of exploration in the game.

As for the more aesthetic frills, the writing (what little there is this time around) and localization is as witty as always, the music is pleasing and catchy, and the graphics look wonderful. Mario RPGs have always excelled in these categories, so these are just things to be expected.

Given my history with the previous Mario RPGs, I really wanted to love this one, but in the end, I just couldn’t. If this was another franchise, and another set of characters, Sticker Star may be seen as a great game with a few niggling issues, but this is Paper Mario, dammit, and as such, I expect a first-class experience. Part of me wonders if the reason that this installment is sub-par might be because Intelligent Systems wanted to devote more resources to Fire Emblem: Awakening and made Sticker Star less of a priority, but this is mere speculation on my part. As it stands, I know this developer can do better with this franchise, as it has in the past. Anyway, if you’re a fellow Mario RPG devotee, you might want to check this out, but keep in mind that it’s not as good as the previous games. For everyone else, I can safely say this is nonessential.

Mario & Luigi: Dream Team is now the only Mario RPG I’ve yet to play. Here’s hoping it’s better…