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.
It’s time once again for my top ten games played this past year. Included with each selection is the developer/author, the platform it was played on, the year of release, and a bit about why I liked the game enough for it to make it on the list. I’ve also brought back the Honorable Mentions to highlight five games that didn’t quite make it, but are still noteworthy. So, without further ado…
• Glittermitten Grove – For its complex and quite funny journey through the land of More Than Just Fairies, despite an annoyance or two.
• Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon – For doing the 80s homage thing right, and a structure that doesn’t overstay its welcome.
• Pokemon Sun – For having a great story and some wonderful characters in a franchise not typically known for either.
• Space Invaders Extreme 2 – For being a worthy sequel to a fantastic game.
• Mountain – For its whimsy and frequent moments of beauty and joy.
Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree’s Woe and the Blight Below Omega Force | Windows | 2015
This Dynasty Warriors crossover/spinoff started off as a guilty pleasure, but ended up being a genuinely good game, especially if you love the Dragon Quest series as much as I do. Aside from the tons of DQ fanservice present in everything from the playable characters to the numbers that pop out of attacked monsters’ heads, there’s a lot of fun to be had in running around grassy fields and dark dungeons swinging a sword at dozens of enemies. The gameplay isn’t very complex, nor is the story, but both are peppered with enough DQ staples to keep things interesting, and the latter in particular works well enough to be satisfying.
Persona 5 Atlus | PlayStation 3 | 2017
Despite its issues—the predictability of much of the story, the hypocritical treatment of Ann, the tired and offensive stereotypes, certain bits of repetition, the odd pacing problem—Persona 5 may be the slickest game Atlus has made to date. Sure, the Phantom Thieves’ tale wasn’t perfect, but it did feature some great arcs (such as nearly everything involving Sae or Sojiro) and fantastic dungeon crawling, plus a superb final act which manages to contain some genuine surprises. On the aesthetic side, the distinctive character models, eye-popping user interfaces, and Shibuya-worthy score lend the game an irresistible stylishness.
Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords Infinite Interactive | Windows | 2007
This match-three puzzle and fantasy RPG crossover was the most addictive game I played all year. The story is nothing special, but the RPG mechanics are made to fit into its puzzle trappings in inventive ways, the main one being the different types of mana that can be stockpiled via color matching and used for special moves. There’s an impressive amount of customization, a massive map, and tons to do and see. By the time I had finished, I’d hit the level cap and had exhausted all of my companions’ stores of sidequests.
Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call indieszero | 3DS | 2014
The first Theatrhythm was already a burst of Final Fantasy musical goodness, but this follow-up manages to improve on that even further, with an expanded selection of music (including tracks from spinoff titles like Tactics and Crystal Chronicles), new gameplay modes—most notably a quest system that strings together sequences of tunes—and many more characters. Perhaps the best part is that the core gameplay is as tight as ever, though Hitoshi Sakimoto’s Final Fantasy XII compositions aren’t as well-suited to a rhythm game as most of the rest. Either way, it was difficult not to wear a smile on my face while playing this.
NotGTAV NotGames | Windows | 2015
The first thing you should know about this game is that it is not Grand Theft Auto V, a fact that to this day confuses many, many people who post in its official Steam forums. The second is that NotGTAV is a Snake variant that is filled to the brim with British humour. Playing in turn as Welshman Daffyd, chav Darren, and (now-former) Prime Minister David, missions run the gamut, from running over campers with a lawnmower to steering your motorcade past protesters. It’s a simple, short game with a satirical heart, and as an added bonus, all profits from its sale goes to charity.
SteamWorld Dig Image & Form | Windows | 2013
Above all else, I found SteamWorld Dig to be relaxing. In between purchasing upgrades and solving puzzles, digging up ores, new paths, and other interesting things was a routine that proved to be as soothing as maintaining a farm in Harvest Moon. All of this takes place within a charming steampunk western world that’s quite pleasing to the eye. My one major complaint about this game is that it was over all too quickly, but fortunately, it seems like SteamWorld Dig 2 addresses this issue and then some. I can’t wait to delve into that one.
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe Nintendo | Switch | 2017
This welcome port of the WiiU’s Mario Kart 8 and all of its DLC (even those weird Mercedes tie-in karts) is also one of the best in the series. In addition to great new tracks like Electrodrome, Cloudtop Cruise, and a few homages to Excitebike and F-Zero, the selection of classics is tough to beat, with the highlight being a steampunky take on Mario Kart 64‘s Rainbow Road. Speaking of which, the newest Rainbow Road is a rare disappointment, plus there’s always the one classic course you wish was there but isn’t (Coconut Mall in my case), but these aren’t deal-breakers. Finally, I must note that the 200cc difficulty mode is absolutely bonkers.
Third Place Picross 3D Round 2 HAL Laboratory | 3DS | 2016
The original Picross 3D was my introduction to the Picross franchise; it was an sometimes tricky puzzle game that I played the hell out of. Picross 3D Round 2 goes beyond just being a fresh offering of puzzles and works in a new twist: two different types of blocks (resulting in either cubes or non-cube shapes) that not only enable more interesting, aesthetically pleasing forms, but a whole new way to unveil them, with color coded clues and markers. This was intimidating at first, but the learning curve is as smooth as it’s ever been in this series; once I got the hang of things, all I needed to concern myself with was the puzzles themselves. A wonderful travel game, and just plain great in general.
Second Place Road Not Taken Spry Fox | Windows | 2014
An unlikely pairing of two of my favorite genres—roguelikes and tile-matching puzzle games—should not work as well as it does in this game. The premise is fairy tale-esque: the player character is a ranger who, every winter, is called upon to save children who get lost in a haunted forest while picking berries. The game ends when fifteen years have passed and the ranger dies. It is a much darker tale than it appears on the surface, and has some cynical things to say about children and their relationships to adults and the world around them. The game part is smartly designed, even with over a hundred items and many more matching combinations in its randomly-generated rooms, and can get quite challenging. There’s also a simple relationship system and special difficulty tweaks to round things out.
First Place: Game of the Year NieR cavia | Xbox 360 | 2010
The future world of NieR (or Nier, or NIER, or NieR Gestalt) is grey, brown, depressing (especially in the endgame and everything that follows afterward), hopeful, funny, annoying, charming, weird, heartwarming, and very difficult to leave behind for good. This action JRPG—with touches of bullet hell—has so many markers of imperfection and second-tier craftsmanship, particularly when it comes to the combat, and yet it is also filled with so much love. Homages to other franchises and even entire genres are largely enacted through mere changes in perspective, and the music and voice acting are top-notch.
None of those aesthetic touches would work without NieR‘s world-building and characters. The post-magic post-apocalypse setting is barely explained within the game, yet the details—such as old railroad bridges, tiny canister houses mounted on the walls of a canyon, and the black and gold word clouds that are the Shades—are so distinctive that it’s largely forgivable. Then there’s the cast: affable warrior dad Nier, the uppity and proud Weiss, thorny loner Kainé, and kindhearted, ingenuous Emil, plus a handful of others. Seeing them bicker, cry, and support each other in unexpected ways made some of the more unbelievable parts a bit more forgivable, and helped lessen the sting of the game’s obtuseness and other smaller frustrations.
“Labor of love” is a term that is bandied around a lot for certain games, but cavia’s swan song NieR is absolutely deserving of the phrase. It’s not too surprising that NieR became enough of a cult hit that not only it, but even its indirect predecessor Drakengard have continued on with sequels after cavia’s death. Speaking of which, NieR: Automata is on my shortlist for games I absolutely must play in 2018, and it’s an experience I’m really looking forward to.
There were two unusual things I noticed about Persona 5 during the first hour or so of playing.
The first was that it started a little ways into the future, with a botched heist at a casino. The protagonist, who the player names when the police force him to sign a confession, is told that he was ratted out by one of his teammates and is later interrogated by a hard-nosed prosecutor while under the influence of a truth serum. It is this conversation which becomes the game proper, starting in early April of “20XX”. While betrayal isn’t unheard of in this series, it was a little jarring to be told straight off that one of my future party members isn’t to be trusted, and it led me to spending a bit of time winnowing down my personal list of suspects. Certain other aspects of the story proved to be predictable as well, though for different reasons; it wasn’t until some time after the tale caught up with “the present” of the interrogation that the game’s biggest surprises came to light.
The second was the Velvet Room, the metaphysical place “between dream and reality” where series protagonists craft new Personas from old ones. In Persona 3, the Velvet Room was a spacious, elegant elevator, constantly climbing upward. In Persona 4, it was the back seat of a stretch limousine, which drove forward on an etherial road. On the other hand, Persona 5‘s Velvet Room is static, a circular prison occupied by overseer Igor and this installment’s blue-clad attendants, the twin wardens Justine and Caroline. Igor doubled-down on the metaphysical metaphors by noting the protagonist’s mental imprisonment, and implying that he could be freed through “rehabilitation”. I found this situation—the Velvet Room’s traditional motion replaced by stasis—to be unusual at first, but it ended up feeling appropriate.
This rehab takes the form of fighting Shadows—manifestations of human personality and cognition—in a parallel world. This time around, it is called the Metaverse, which is filled with “Palaces” and is accessible to a chosen few via a mysterious smartphone app. Most of the Palaces are ruled over by a Shadow whose real-world counterpart has desires distorted enough to negatively affect the people around them, often in abusive ways. The protagonist and his fellow Phantom Thieves change not just their outfits while in the Metaverse (a nice touch that, for one, avoids the awkwardness of characters wearing winter school uniforms during summer vacation while exploring dungeons, as in the previous two games). They also change things for the better by stealing special Treasures—symbolic items representing hearts—from these Palaces, which collapse as a result and permanently alter their owners’ perceptions in the real world.
There’s much more to the rules and such governing the Metaverse, but those are the basics. The plot is dense, especially early on when the protagonist and schoolmate Ryuji meet Morgana, an amnesiac who is nevertheless intimately familiar with the Metaverse, for the first time. Morgana is this installment’s requisite Pinocchio figure; like Aigis and Teddie before him, he has a somewhat mysterious past and a deep-seated yearning for humanity. However, even though he’s a fun and interesting character, he is also the most unlikeable of the three. Perhaps because he takes the form of a cat, Morgana is a conceited, and sometimes childish, jerk at times.
The rest of the Phantom Thieves crew is made up of a bunch of outcasts, which includes the protagonist. All formerly conformist misfits who don’t quite fit in because of who they are, and victims of selfish, powerful adults, the Phantom Thieves earn their Personas by embracing rebellion, which fit this theme through their appearances as inspired by fictional outlaws (Arsene [based on Arsene Lupin], Zorro) and larger-than-life historical figures (Captain Kidd, Johanna [based on Pope Joan]). The implementation of this theme, as well as the inconsistent seven deadly sins one which is prevalent throughout the game, is kind of goofy, but I mostly got used to it. Like its predecessor, Persona 5 has a lot to say about the role of the media in society and how the seemingly innocuous, everyday views of the general public can further shape which direction it takes. However, it is a much darker tale, with highly-motivated villains and several instances of Very Bad Things, some potentially triggering, happening to the main cast and/or their associates. There’s also the usual range of MegaTen demons for the protagonist, who bears the “wild card”, to collect and use. This time around, Shin Megami Tensei’s oft-dreaded demon conversation system is how one obtains new Personas. I had mixed feelings about this design choice going in, but certain abilities that can be obtained throughout the game ended up making this process a bit less painful than it has generally been in the past.
Speaking of those abilities, I got them and others by nurturing relationships with Confidants, Persona 5‘s version of Social Links. Each Confidant has a distinct set of abilities that can be obtained, along with the usual Persona Fusion stat bonuses and unlocks, depending on who they are. For example, spending time with a politician named Yoshida leads to special conversational abilities which make negotiating with Shadows easier and/or more profitable. Even some social stats, like Kindness and Proficiency, can be improved through certain interactions, which is a welcome addition. There’s a more unusual and diverse range of Confidants in this installment, including shopkeepers and even residents of the Velvet Room. However, there is also a certain Confidant whose story can’t be advanced until after a certain point in the main tale—and the game doesn’t warn you about this. Aside from this problematic design flaw, plus a certain basic sameness between many Confidants that becomes apparent as the game wears on, the overall relationship system is as polished as it has ever been in a Persona game.
The other core component of Persona 5 is, of course, the dungeon-crawling and Shadow-battling. The Palaces where the Phantom Thieves do their work are wonderfully designed—easily amongst the best levels Atlus has ever made, in any of their RPGs. While there are some repetitive elements—particularly in the randomly-generated “Palace of the Public” Mementos—there are also many unique spaces, both large and small, and a wide range of thematic differences between each dungeon. The battling is the same reliable system from Persona 4, complete with All-Out Attacks, but there are a few new tweaks, among my favorites being Bless and Curse spells that don’t instantly kill and are almost always guaranteed to work. Different this time around is an overwhelming number of types of items, particularly for healing HP, and many of which will go unused.
That leads me to the main menu, which any player will undoubtedly spend a lot of time in. Like much of the rest of the game’s trimmings, the menus are in stark black, white, and red, with manga-esque character art and typography inspired by cut-and-paste ransom notes. They are gorgeous to look at, with slick little animations between the main menu and its subsections, and neatly organized, too. There’s also a separate (and just as stylized) menu for text messages, which the protagonist receives on an daily basis and are helpful for both plot-related reasons and for keeping up with Confidants; a robust fast-travel system; and the ability to save just about anywhere while out and about in everyday life.
As for the previously-mentioned amount of items, a large part of that is thanks to a crafting system to make tools such as lockpicks, as well as another one to duplicate cards which can be used to teach skills to Personas. There’s also treasure items which can be sold for cash, key items such as Palace maps, books, gifts, and as mentioned before, a lot of HP healers. Many of the HP, SP, and status effect curatives can be bought at a variety of shops, including a supermarket, a pharmacy, a discount store, a convenience store, a train station kiosk, and several vending machines, and some are only available for a limited time.
If this sounds overwhelming, it is (and you will want to ignore the vast majority of those items), but it is also reflective of its setting: Tokyo, including the real-life districts of Aoyama-Ichome, Shibuya, and many others which become available later on. Persona 5 is overwhelming in both its shopping choices and activities for beefing up social stats, but this is because Tokyo is overwhelming. Notably, some of the shops present in the game are parodies of real-life chains such as Don Quijote, 7-Eleven, and Tsutaya, while the odd bits of actual product placement by the likes of HMV and Calbee blend into the setting fairly well. In these aspects, Persona 5 has captured the consumerist chaos of the Tokyo metro area perfectly, and feels even truer to life than it would have otherwise.
All this is presented with crisp and colorful graphics which straddle the lines between painterly, typical of a modern-day “anime” game, and the MegaTen series’ traditional flat style. As mentioned before, the dungeons have been handled with care, and the same is true of the named characters, Shadows, and Personas. Some character models, like the sparkly and snowy Jack Frost, even have an extra bit of textural oomph to them. Design-wise it’s excellent, with the notable exception of Ann; given that her story arc focused on sexual harassment, and her dislike of being put into perverse situations in general, her skin-tight and boob-windowed Phantom Thief outfit is in questionable taste. A few scenes appeared to push my PS3 to its limit, which resulted in some audio hiccups. While I’m on that topic, the voice acting was average—not amazing, but generally not bad, either. This is especially true of the handful of traditionally animated cutscenes, where the dub cast clearly tries to match lip flaps as closely as possible. As for the localized script, it has a handful of corny and awkwardly-written moments, but is otherwise very good.
Finally, I must mention the wonderful, wonderful music. Fellow fans of composer Shoji Meguro will recognize his signature style all over the soundtrack, especially his love of electric organ and sometimes distracting English-language vocals. However, the soundtrack is particularly lovely in that it captures some of the essence of Shibuya-kei, the diverse musical movement which originated in the real-life version of one of Persona 5‘s most important locations. I already own the soundtrack and it’s currently living with my other game music, but perhaps I should place it next to my Pizzicato 5 and Fantastic Plastic Machine albums instead.
The long wait for this game’s release has been worth it. Despite its flaws—including others I’ve not mentioned here, such as Atlus’ continued use of gross gay stereotypes; more to do with less time, thanks to frequent story events; and a certain rushed-feeling story arc and new character introduction—Persona 5 makes for an outstanding addition to any JRPG fan’s library. It has a darker story than its predecessors, a fascinating and well-realized cast of characters, and the most stylish visual and aural trappings you’ll see and hear in any game this year. If you somehow haven’t played this yet, it is not to be missed.
Special Stage: Back in May, Anime News Network posted an interesting feature article titled “The Real Japan Behind Persona 5” which discusses the likely inspirations behind certain story events. Note that it contains spoilers for the whole game, and especially the first and fifth major story arcs.
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.
I beat Frog Fractions 2 this afternoon (or is that Frog Fractions 3?), a game that’s much longer, more incoherent, and harder than its predecessor. It’s also the first game I’ve Kickstarted which has since come out, which is funny since it’s the only one whose release was obfuscated on purpose, rather than openly falling into some form of Development Hell. There is one part I must spoil, since it involves hardware: at some point, there’s a section which, out of the blue, requires a microphone or similar audio input. However, this section is optional, but the game doesn’t tell you that it is. I don’t use a microphone when PC gaming, and anyway, my offbeat setup makes hooking one up uniquely frustrating. Also, there were no alternative control schemes offered within the game for this part. To me, this particular section wasn’t very well thought out, but Frog Fractions 2 is, in many ways, not a friendly or approachable game. Though it is never unfair (aside from the microphone thing), it does demand a decent amount of imagination and cleverness from its players.
Finding it within Glittermitten Grove is easy enough—I just used the same basic approach as one does with Frog Fractions—but once I got there, what confronted me was a place which got more and more difficult to deal with the further I dove in. Without giving away too much, Frog Fractions 2 is full of funny and weird moments, but in other aspects, it’s a different beast.
On another end of the humor spectrum, I went through all three of the playable Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney: Spirit of Justice DLC episodes. The first, a full-length case titled “Turnabout Time Traveler”, was not nearly as good as its equivalent from the previous game. Instead of an orca at a musically-inclined aquarium, the client is a bride who claims to have relived her wedding reception thanks to a time machine. Oh, and of course, there’s been a murder, and she’s the main suspect. A few of the arguments made in court are sloppy and poorly worded in a way that typically happens in the worst Ace Attorney cases. On the other hand, a major highlight of this episode is the return of Larry Butz, a regular from the first Ace Attorney trilogy who has a tendency for getting into trouble. Phoenix, Maya, and Edgeworth are all present as well; just add Gumshoe and this would’ve been a full-on nostalgic reunion. However, perhaps it is for the best that Gummy didn’t appear, as I would’ve preferred a better case to accompany all the fanservice.
The other two DLCs, brief alternate universe stories called “Phoenix Wright: Asinine Attorney” and “Apollo Justice: Asinine Attorney”, are much fluffier trifles. Phoenix’s tale centers around Pearl and her visit to Kuhra’in, and on the flip-side, Apollo’s features that kingdom’s Princess Rayfa visiting the United States. They are both very short and lighthearted, with Apollo’s episode being both slightly longer and generally better. Both also come with pixel-art 3DS themes, adding some more value to what would otherwise be a pair of overpriced tales.
Before playing through all of that, however, I beat a couple of much longer games. First was Picross 3D Round 2, which is sort of misleading since, after the credits rolled, many more new puzzles unlocked. Round 2 is just as good as the original Picross 3D, which is to say that it’s one of the best picture puzzle video games one could ask for. The puzzles are plentiful and brilliantly conceived, and although there’s an additional level of complexity now, with specially shaped pieces, the game does a great job of easing you into things, as expected from this series.
The other game was Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree’s Woe and the Blight Below, a crossover between Dragon Quest, a JRPG series with a solid reputation, and Dynasty Warriors, which is looked upon… a bit less fondly. Although the basic flavor of the latter is definitely present—in the forms of simple combat controls and massive swarms of enemies—this is also very much a Dragon Quest game in terms of aesthetics, polish, and, on the more negative side, some old-school JRPG menu clunkiness. Still, it was great fun carving through dozens of slimes and the like alongside Alena, Yangus, and other beloved characters from mainline Dragon Quest games, and it’s not like I mind a bit of mostly simple hacky-slashy fun every now and again.
I also replayed the first Frog Fractions (it’s always a good time on Bug Mars) and continued on with Pokemon Sun, which, if anything, recalls the tedium of Pokemon Platinum. However, I hope that unlike with Platinum, I don’t end up taking nine months to beat it. Right now, I would guess that if I’m not at the halfway mark, then I’m very close to it. Also, this isn’t exactly a video game, but a few days ago, I dug out my old Tamagochi and started messing around with it, an experience I may or may not write more about later. The most amazing thing about it so far is that the batteries, which I believe are the original ones from the late 1990s, still work.
As for what I’ll start next, I’m really not sure right now. With Persona 5‘s release date coming up, I’ve been eyeing the two Persona spinoffs I have left in my backlog, Persona 4 Arena Ultimax and Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth. There’s also my dwindling pile of Xbox 360 games, Tales of Vesperia arguably being the longest amongst them. However, for the time being, I might be best off plugging away at Pokemon Sun, since I’ve been neglecting it lately. We’ll see how it goes.
Bravely Default has taken me a long time to get through. Not only is it the longest RPG I have ever played on the 3DS—I did the vast majority of the sidequests and ended up clocking just over 140 hours—but I took more than a few breaks from it as I played, some of which lasted a week or longer. However, this past Thursday, I finally beat the last boss and saw the credits roll. It was one a hell of a journey, to say the least, with some intriguing twists on old formulae and a problematic ending. Here’s how it all went.
The setting is Luxendarc, a world like one might find in many other JRPGs, and Final Fantasies in particular (it’s worth noting here that Square Enix is the publisher, and much of the team previously worked on Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light and the DS remakes of FFIII and FFIV). There are four elemental crystals whose health is maintained by priestesses called Vestals. When the village of Norende is instantly destroyed one day, the sole survivor, a shepherd named Tiz, teams up with Agnès, the Vestal of Wind, and her cryst-fairy companion Airy in order to set things right and possibly bring his town back. Their team soon expands by two more members: Ringabel, an amnesiac with a mysterious journal that seems to tell of future events, and Edea, who sees injustice in the actions of her father, the anti-Crystalist leader of the Duchy of Eternia. With Airy and “D’s Journal” as their guides, the ordinary boy, devout priestess, mysterious stranger, and rebellious princess traverse the world, awakening the crystals and fighting Eternia’s forces along the way.
These forces are the primary source of “asterisks”, items which bestow new jobs to the party. Yes, in addition to the four crystals, another trait Bravely Default has inherited from the Final Fantasy series is the Job System. As it turns out, this game’s take on it is one of the best and most well-balanced ever conceived. Including the basic Freelancer, there are 24 jobs total, and although some are less useful than others, not a single one feels truly superfluous. Part of this is helped along by the fact that, in addition to the option of having a secondary set of unlocked job-specific skills equipped on a character (much like in FFV), there are many passive abilities that can be slotted in. These include basic attack and defense buffs, weapon affinities, status effect immunities, and automated actions like counterattacking. This dense variety of customization options can accommodate just about any sort of play style one can imagine.
The battle system itself has a fair amount of flexibility. Bravely Default is a traditional turn-based affair, one in which all the party members’ commands for a single turn are dictated at once, then played out, Dragon Quest-style. Everything about the battles is quick and snappy—even summoning sequences are reasonably short—and later on, regular lower-level enemies can be dispatched instantly with a certain passive skill. As for the bosses, they are a decent enough challenge on normal difficulty and require a bit more strategizing than the random enemies, especially later on. At the heart of all this is the “Brave” and “Default” system. The former adds turns for any given character, and the latter stores them up. This system is useful both for stacking standard attacks and spells, as well as job-specific abilities which require multiple turns. On top of all this, there are special limit break-style attacks which are dependent on various factors, plus two additional options I completely ignored: summoned “friend” abilities and the time-freezing “Bravely Second”. If anything, this game proves that there is still room to innovate in the turn-based JRPG space, and does so with aplomb.
Those two unused battle options I mentioned above are reliant on DS hardware-specific features: friend lists and sleep mode. A third uses StreetPass to repopulate and speed the rebuilding of Norende in an ongoing minigame. Although this town-building mode adds both regular and exclusive items to special stores run by the wandering adventurers who serve as save points, this is another feature which can be safely ignored without greatly affecting the meat of the game.
Outside of battles, the task of getting around from place to place is fairly painless. There are at least two areas which have a lot of ground to cover between save points, plus there’s no quick and easy way to fully heal at said points (for example, the “tent” item present in many Final Fantasies), but otherwise, things are manageable. The dungeon layouts are simple enough to navigate, thanks in large part to automapping, as are the towns and other story-specific areas.
Speaking of the game’s non-dungeon locations, they are absolutely gorgeous, with a hand-crafted look reminiscent of illustrations from fantasy books; the intricately detailed towns of Caldisla and Ancheim are two notable highlights. The overall color scheme of the game is suitably modest, even in colorful places like Florem. This palette helps bright flashy effects, when they appear during certain events, really pop. Likewise, the character art, music, sound effects, and voice acting only stand out in the sense that they’re high quality, and blend in nicely with the overall feel of the game. The localization is generally outstanding, although I do believe that the (understandable) changes made to the “Bravo Bikini” outfit could’ve been better handled, mainly by tailoring certain bits of dialogue to make it sound less scandalous than it ended up being.
Then there’s the deceptively minor features which enhance the whole experience. Chief amongst these is the Event Viewer, which allows the player to rewatch most any previously viewed scene. Neatly organized and easy to use, I relied heavily on the Event Viewer to get up to speed after most all of my longer breaks between play sessions. Another handy feature is Airy’s appearance on the bottom screen in the main and save menus, reminding you of where you are in the story and hinting at what mandatory event you should be doing next. There’s several other such niceties, including a handful of language options and an autosave feature that can be toggled at one’s leisure.
You may have noticed that so far, I have avoided discussing the finer details of the story. Unfortunately, I can’t properly do so without spoiling the first truly major plot twist, as well as events toward the end. The spoiler-free version is that Bravely Default‘s story takes a turn which is highly unusual for a JRPG, and one that has done it no favors in the eyes of many players. The ending also adds a couple of new plot details that, while cute, are unnecessary and/or contradict what has come before it. In short, Bravely Default is much like Valkyria Chronicles in its marriage of a damn near perfect aesthetic and play experience with a flawed story.