Hyrule Warriors Legends Review

Hyrule is on the brink of annihilation. A seemingly endless horde of evil monsters is invading the kingdom. The castle’s walls are littered with the bodies of its defenders. Eldin Caves have been completely overrun, and something sinister lurks in its fiery depths. The trees in Faron Woods are burning down, and what’s left has turned poisonous. Princess Zelda is missing in action – again – leaving Impa and Link to lead what remains of the army to certain death.  Whoever is commanding the enemy forces is actively hunting the legendary hero. Is it a personal vendetta? A morbid obsession? No one knows. Regardless, the war won’t stop at just the borders of this Hyrule; its counterpart realms from Ocarina of Time, Twilight Princess, Skyward Sword, and The Wind Waker have all been dragged into the mess.

Even Link is going to need some help with this one.

At first glance, the story seems like a Zelda fan’s dream come true. After 30 years of games, worldbuilding, and diverging timelines, everything comes back together in the ultimate crisis crossover. In order to save his Hyrule, Link has to travel to the other versions and team up with the finest (and in some cases, most popular) warriors in the series. For those who grew up with the Nintendo 64 games, seeing Sheik, Darunia, Ruto, Young Link, and Skull Kid in action will be like a tidal wave of nostalgia. There are several nods to the mythology of respective games; Midna’s true form seen in Twilight Princess returns as a plot point, and Fi explicitly mentions that the current Link is not the same as his Skyward Sword iteration. Sheik’s true identity and Ganondorf’s involvement are foregone conclusions; the narrative indulges in those twists solely for the sake of newcomers to the series. It’s just enough fanservice to keep longtime players nodding along to an otherwise brisk pace and somewhat shallow story.

A narrative with such a grand scale is a double-edged sword. As awesome as it sounds, there’s no way to give every single character the same amount of focus and keep the story moving steadily. It only takes a few battles to liberate each of the respective Hyrules; there’s just enough time for character introductions, some banter, and a brief glimpses of the games by way of the battle maps. Beyond that, the majority of the warriors receive no development after they’ve joined the team. Despite being heavily promoted in the previews, Linkle has almost no impact on the story whatsoever. Link gets his usual arc of starting as a nobody and eventually earning the Master Sword, but now with a “power of friendship” moral tacked on. Even if it is cheesy, it makes sense; this game is all about banding together and making a combined effort to thwart a much larger force. Ganondorf is in an amalgam of the best aspects of his previous incarnations; he is intelligent, ruthless, overwhelmingly powerful, and seems like an unstoppable force of evil. His attempt to conquer Hyrule is one of the most entertaining parts of the game. The same cannot be said for Lana and Cia, the newcomers who drive the plot in their own ways. Their arcs are all about the dangers of obsession, and the emotional turmoil and unspeakable lengths that come with it. The big plot twist would’ve been more interesting had it not been so blatantly obvious, or at least had a slower build-up. Other games have handled similar subject matter, but with far better storytelling.

You’ll probably be too busy killing things to care, though. Rather than typical adventuring and puzzle solving of the Zelda series, Hyrule Warriors Legends is a straightforward musou-style action game. The overall goal is simple: conquer the battlefield and defeat the invading army. This is made slightly more complicated because, you know, you’re usually outnumbered a thousand to one. It’s easy to mow through dozens of minor enemies per second, but you’ll get trouble once you run into things like Icy Big Poes, Moblins, ReDeads, and other recurring enemies strong enough to block and take few hits. It’s even tougher when you’re facing off against a main character armed with a slew of signature moves and impressive durability. As a battle wears on, managing your army takes higher priority over your kill count. In order to stem the flow of enemy forces, you have to conquer their bases and outposts one at a time; doing so lets you control where and how powerful their presence will be. This typically involves running into an enclosed area and slaughtering everything until the game proclaims your success. You can try running blindly across the map and attempt to kill the opposing commander immediately, but you’ll probably get stopped by a locked door, thus leaving your bases unguarded, and your allies without backup. You’re left wide open for counterattacks and surprisingly fast losses. Side missions and objectives pop up frequently, forcing you to improvise your way to victory. The trick is learning to strike a balance between offensive and defensive tactics; steadily crush your enemies, but pay attention to your friends’ needs. Once you’ve gotten everything else out of the way, go for the final kill…

Oh, if only it all worked that well.

In certain respects, Hyrule Warriors Legends is technological marvel.  Taking such a huge Wii U game, adding even more content, and then cramming it onto a 3DS cart is nothing short of astounding. It’s far from perfect, though. There are still plenty of glitches to be fixed; I’ve had every enemy randomly freeze after using an Owl Statue warp, but then prevent me from conquering any bases. Some of the auto-saved checkpoints can re-spawn objectives you’ve already completed, refuse to unlock doors, or mess up your weapon’s hit detection. Your AI-controlled allies are borderline useless; the Hylian Captains fail miserably so often, they’re probably all secretly traitors. No matter how much you level up and develop the playable characters’ abilities, they will become utterly inept the moment you switch to another warrior mid-battle. The sub-weapon system, which includes arrows, bombs, and other Zelda staples, has awkward, lethargic controls and is poorly utilized. It’s used to defeat major bosses like King Dodongo, Gohma, and Manhandla, but little else aside from simple puzzles tacked on for the sake of battlefield progression or bonus items. The AI for those monsters are especially abysmal; it’s common for them to constantly recycle their animations instead of set attack patterns, which turns their fights into annoying, time-consuming games of chance.

The camera, which utilizes the C-Stick a la Monster Hunter 4 and Majora’s Mask 3D incredibly well, is barely responsive in certain directions. You’ll spend more time struggling with it than against any enemy in the game. It’s not uncommon for your view to get stuck in a corner or behind a wall, which is absolutely lethal in more difficult battles. That’s a huge problem when you have to rely on it to switch between targeted foes. Speaking of which, seeing all those dozens of classic Zelda monsters moving onscreen at the same time is amazing…Assuming you’re playing on a New 3DS, of course. The game runs decently on it, but you’ll still encounter foes that are invisible unless you’re standing right next to them. Some of the maps – Death Mountain and Valley of Seers come to mind – have intricate, cleverly-designed structures, but the draw distance is lacking, and the colors and textures are far below the 3DS’s usual standards. Even if you don’t care about the graphics and have are using an older version of the system, the poor camera controls, the sheer amount of processing, and their impact on the gameplay deserve some consideration.

The game tries to distract you from its shortcomings by focusing on its most important aspect: the combat mechanics. There are over 20 playable characters, each with unique movesets and abilities. While it’s easy to mash the X button and unleash a barrage of weak attacks, you can mix them up with stronger moves, and build up an energy meter for powerful specials. There’s no real challenge in terms of timing or technique; unless you’re trying to stun and kill a boss in a single combo, it all boils down to preference. The controls are wonderfully responsive and the attacks are flashy, and that’ll hopefully be enough to get you through the most tedious fights. There’s nothing quite as awesome as annihilating a small army by summoning Ganondorf’s giant demonic arm, or having Zant twirl and flail around like a maniacal blender. Stylishly juggling enemies with Linkle’s dual crossbows defies common sense, but it looks cool. Everyone gets unlockable alternate weapons, but the main characters get far more attention; aside from the Master Sword, Link can wield the Magic Rod, the Twilight Princess Spinner, and a few others, all with different uses and animations. Everyone can be further developed via the simple upgrade system, which allows you to improve combos, chip damage, item usage, and other stats. Combined with the character models, music (the Hyrule Field, Gerudo Desert, and Eldin Cave rock remixes are amazing), achievements, and Puzzle Swap-style artwork, there’s a ton of content waiting to be unlocked. No matter how bad the rest of the game seems, there effort involved in designing the moves and additional content is undeniable.

Since getting all of that extra stuff requires item drops, you’re going to be replaying. A lot. It’s easy to plow through the main story in a single weekend, but unlocking everything is a slow, arduous burn. You’ll spend the majority of your time on Adventure Mode, which has you tackle battles with specific win conditions and a grading system. You might have to kill a certain number of enemies with limited time, all while being chased around by a boss. Or you could slog through the laughably easy quiz missions, which give you a gauntlet of specific enemies to slay for your answers. Others, such as boss rushes and Cucco turf wars, can be surprisingly challenging. That’s especially true with the grading system; your score determines what mission you unlock next, so you’ll have to play exceptionally well if you want to get anywhere. Progression in Adventure Mode is further complicated by its layout; it’s a set of grids that resemble maps from other Zelda games. You’ll earn candles, whistles, and other old-school items that help you unlock new areas, characters, and equipment. It’s all about knowing when and where to use those items, just like the original game. Even if it is challenging and frustrating, it’s a clever, creative way to celebrate the franchise.

That can be said for the game as a whole. Hyrule Warriors Legends is an impressive feat that ultimately falters under its creator’s ambitions. Porting one of the biggest Wii U games to a handheld console was never going to be perfect, and it shows. Even if you’re playing this on a New 3DS, be prepared for glitches and questionable camera controls. The developers rightfully focused on making sure the characters played smoothly and stylishly amidst a ridiculously huge amount of enemies onscreen, and sacrificed the rest of the visuals in the process. The AI leaves much to be desired, though slaying hordes of video game monsters with iconic heroes is quite fun. If there was any Nintendo game that would benefit from patches and DLC, it’s this. There’s plenty of room for improvement in many areas, and time will tell if and how it’ll happen. Much like the overall Zelda franchise, Hyrule Warriors Legends has had a rough start, but could be potentially brilliant. Despite having so many heroes, it still needs a savior.

Originally posted here.

Weekly Photo Challenge: To Build Or Not To Build

To Build Or, Not To Build

That’s not a hard question at all. I’ve mentioned my love of LEGOs before, but I haven’t really taken any photos of them. Considering this week’s challenge calls for something awesome among the mundane, these little bricks were perfect. Yes, that’s a Hamlet-themed figure, my favorite of the bunch (except maybe the Goth Girl. She’s adorable). Yes, that is also the LEGO Leaning Tower of Pisa in the background; I get one of the Architecture sets every year for Christmas. It’s a fun, geeky way to inspire more traveling and building.

Happy Free Comic Book Day 2015!

Hey, folks. May 2nd was the annual Free Comic Book Day. Basically, you go to a participating shop and get a bag of free samplers (and buy anything else that looks interesting), all while enjoying whatever other promotions are going on. Fantastic Comics is only a short BART ride away, but I was kind of on the fence about attending. Then I found out Gail Simone was going to be there, which was an insta-YES condition. I I left early, assuming I’d be able to beat the line. Turns out everyone else had the same idea.

Yeah, I should’ve left earlier. It took an hour and fifteen minutes to get inside, but it went by fast. Everyone was in high spirits, particularly those who’d just seen Avengers: Age of Ultron. The kids ahead of me were debating who’d win in a fight between Goku and Superman (Seriously?! I remember high school lunch hours focused about that exact topic over a decade ago.), while some guys nearby were getting their Xenoblade Chronicles 3D on. The couple standing behind me even offered to share some pizza, but I declined. Between my DSLR, backpack, and Italian phrasebook (yes, I’m still working on that), I don’t think I could’ve juggled a freshly-baked slice.

I took the opportunity to take photos of the few – but quite awesome – cosplayers in attendance. I feel uncomfortable taking photos of people, though. I’m awkward enough around others as it is; How do you just walk up to someone as say, “Hey, you look awesome, may I take your picture?” without sounding like some kind of creepy stalker? Seriously, that’s the last thing I want; even when I’m doing beach photography, I wait until everyone is out of the frame. After taking these photos, I made sure to promise that I’d send copies to them just as a record of the event. Not sure if they believed me, but they were good sports. Check these out:

Things stayed upbeat and organized inside the store as well. The flow and layout was simple: the line was kept off to the side as much as possible, then directed to the shelves of comics towards the back. That way, customers could look at/consider purchasing interesting comics while waiting to reach the free stuff at the table in the corner. I was pleasantly surprised by the variety; I’m not a hardcore comic book fan by any means – I’m far more into literature and games – but the selection was impressive. I ended up buying a copy of Secret Six #1 and an exclusive Swords of Sorrow print by Kate Leth, then getting into another line that was reserved for meeting Gail Simone.

It was totally worth the wait. She – and her husband – were incredibly nice and gracious. A lot of folks could’ve just autographed stuff and called it a day, but they actually spoke with fans  – someone in front of me took the time to show off all of his superhero-related tattoos – the entire time. I wonder how many of these signings/conventions/etc. they attend every year. I promised myself that I wouldn’t geek out too much, but I ended up babbling a little bit anyway. I’m awkward enough when it comes to regular conversation; what was I going to one of the most famous comic book writers in existence? I settled on a handshake, and thanking her for awesome writing, and how inspirational she is. I even managed to get a photo:

After that, I’m pretty sure I’d been standing there too long. I’m just one random guy, after all. There were plenty of other fans waiting. I collected everything she autographed, gave both Gail and her husband a final thank you, and left. I felt relieved to be out of there – crowded places are not my thing – but sad that I couldn’t stay longer. I nursed my regrets by going next door to Half Price Books and stocking up on a few things. I also walked to University Press Books by the campus (yesterday was also Independent Bookstore Day) and spent an hour looking over old texts. By the time I got home, my Free Comic Book Day haul included:

Autographed by Gail Simone:

Comic Book Samplers:

  • Attack On Titan by Kodansha Comics
  • Street Fighter: Super Combo Special by UDON
  • Mega Man & Sonic the Hedgehog: Worlds Unite Prelude by Archie Action
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender/Plants vs Zombies/Bandette by Dark Horse Comics
  • Secret Wars #0 by Marvel
  • Pokemon X/Y by Perfect Square
  • Teen Titans Go/Scooby Doo & Super Friends Team-Up by DC
  • Cleopatra In Space by Scholastic
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles by IDW
  • Ten Year Celebration by Boom Studios
  • Simpsons Free-For-All by Bongo Comics.

Note: Photos of the above can be seen here.

Books:

Man, I’ve got a lot to read…

 

Do The Robot!

A little something I came across during Pi Day. One of the optical effects exhibits at the Exploratorium features toy robots, mirrors, and a spinning table. You wish your old flip books were this cool.

San Francisco Exploratorium Pi Progression 2015

I spent Pi Day 2015 at the Exploratorium, which is pretty much the place to celebrate. The Exploratorium is always awesome, but there’s something special about seeing all these people turn out for the occasion. The line to get in was ridiculous (I’m used to just walking inside) but it was far less tedious thanks to the Pi Progression. Each person was given a yardstick with a number; then put in the order of pi’s never-ending digits. It’s impossible to have a full progression – there aren’t enough people on Earth – but these folks made a valiant effort. I wanted take part as well, but they were out of yardsticks by the time I got there. At least I got to record it all. Guess I’ll have to wait for next year…

Animal Crossing: New Leaf Review

You wanna go where everybody knows your name…

Moving to this town might have been a mistake. When you first arrive, it barely resembles civilization. There are only a handful of residents, a few run-down shacks selling their wares, and sparse vegetation. No pavement or lighting. The river has more garbage than fish. An old dock is rotting away on the beach. The desperation is palpable; the villagers nominate you as their new mayor almost the second your feet touch the ground. That’s a bad sign. Your predecessor must have been a horrendous leader. It’s such a shame. All the potential this town had to offer, and this is the best they could do? Your new neighbors deserve better, and you’re the only one who can make it happen.

You have to take care of yourself first, though. You don’t have a place to stay, but a generous fellow named Tom Nook offers to build a house and gives you an unlimited time to repay him. It seems fine, until you get the bill. There’s a lot of zeros involved. Thankfully, New Leaf provides several ways to make money. Much like any Animal Crossing game, it starts off small and humble, usually with seashell collecting or fruit harvesting. Take whatever you’ve scrounged up over to the nearest shop and sell it for pocket change. Meet the neighbors, do a few odd jobs. Furnish your little home one piece of furniture at a time. Get some spare clothes. Put the rest in the bank account, and watch the numbers add up. Rinse and repeat, hour after hour, day after day. It’s just like real life, except with talking animals. Eventually, you get enough cash to pay off the house, but Nook will coax you into renovating it further. Then the whole process repeats itself multiple times, culminating with you running out of floor space for your massive hoard of items. The transition from flea-ridden tent to a six-room mansion takes many hours and over 7.5 million dollars, but it is worth the effort.

While every Animal Crossing game is structured in the same way, New Leaf adds several new aspects to keep things interesting. Aside from the Happy Home Academy grading and the hidden Feng Shui decorating systems, Nook now runs a home exterior customization service. Various doors, fences, pavement, and entire architectural makeovers are available. The bland, generic houses can be tricked out with fairy tale-style spires, humongous modern windows, or even Japanese Zen Buddhist temple rooftops. The upgraded furniture list now boasts over 1,200 collectibles spanning multiple sets and motifs. If you’re a completionist, prepare to be in for a long haul; items appear randomly in the store, so getting full sets requires some patience. The process is mitigated by the new Happy Home Showcase. By utilizing the 3DS’s Streetpass system, you can view other players’ houses and order nearly everything inside. Though it’s only limited to five shipments per day, it’s immensely useful in finding obscure items and sets. However, there’s no in-game list that shows what you already own. If you’re not careful, you could waste thousands on extra furniture. Even something as simple a checkmark on an object’s description would’ve saved a lot of hassle. Once you’ve loaded up on stuff, you should indulge in the newly-implemented refurbishing service. With some expensive gemstones and patience, your furniture can be redone in more stylish colors. As nearly everything in your home can be altered, crafting your dream home is easier than ever.

That goes for the clothing options as well. There are hundreds of shirts, dresses, skirts, shorts, pants, hats, eyewear, and shoes to collect. You can be a ninja, pirate, doctor, mummy, ballerina, witch, wrestler, schoolgirl, steampunk noble…the possibilities go on and on. That’s just with the clothes you can find in the stores; thanks to the game’s impressive pattern-making menu, it’s possible to make and share complex designs. It’s a feature that debuted in Animal Crossing: City Folk, but the touch screen makes it much easier to handle. Since your work is converted into QR codes, uploading and giving out designs online is a simple process. Just a quick Google search results in intricate, stylish designs and countless cosplay outfits. It’s amazing how much can be done with such a simple editing tool. This is one of the few Nintendo games to utilize the 3DS’s camera and Internet functionality so well. The ability to wear any clothes and hairstyle regardless of gender is a neat addition as well; my avatar rocks the Street Fighter Chun-Li look.

The game isn’t just about you, though. While it’s easy to forget that you’re mayor, paying attention to the town is important. Your patronage upgrades the shop’s inventory, eventually unlocking a stylish boutique with rare furniture and clothes. Even if it’s just to access the pattern-maker, there’s something heartwarming about visiting Sable every day and getting past her shyness. You’ll eventually get the tools needed to plant trees, catch bugs, and go fishing, all of which become the cornerstone for your financial success. The whole landscape can be converted into a huge, profitable fruit orchard. Many of the collectibles can be donated to the local museum, which results in a massive aquarium, insect garden, archeological exhibit, and art gallery. Getting that last part is particularly tricky; the art have real-life counterparts, so you need to able to tell which ones being sold are fakes. It’s a clever nod to art and cultural fans, and it’s nice having works like The Great Wave off Kanagawa and the Winged Victory of Samothrace on display at home. If you’re not obsessed with collecting, you can spend more time developing the town with sidewalks, benches, fountains, and a slew of other public works projects. If you’re creative and hardworking enough, you can turn your town into anything from Hogwarts to Silent Hill.

Getting that far, however, requires more than just cash and imagination; it requires time. New Leaf’s in-game clock runs on real time, which means things change depending on what hours, days, and months you play. Depending on the time of year, the trees will change colors and different species of wild animals will appear. Most real-world holidays are celebrated, too; even if you play sporadically, you might stumble across a special event. If you play long enough during the day, you’ll notice how the game’s lighting, background music, and weather gradually change with each passing hour. If you’re up too late at night, you’ll find all the stores closed and the townsfolk already asleep. Speaking of whom, your neighbors enjoy some one-on-one interaction; be it chores, giving items, or sending letters, they appreciate the attention and will warm to you accordingly. There are over 300 different characters, but only a handful can live in town at a time. They have a small range of personality traits; some are upbeat and peppy, while others are cranky or lazy. It’s charming at first, but it won’t take long to see the extent of their quirks. Compared to Tomodachi Lifea technically inferior game in every other wayNew Leaf’s character interactions are boring and shallow. Aside from acquiring specific public works project requests and rare items, there’s no reason to interact with them. If you ignore them or alter the clock’s settings long enough, they’ll eventually leave town. Unless you’re obsessed with keeping inhabitants, losing one isn’t going to matter much.

Instead, you’ll probably spend more time with real people. You can invite other players into your town (or visit theirs) via WiFi or local wireless. It’s mainly used for item trading or auctioning off certain townsfolk, but the process is tedious. There’s no way to transfer objects or money directly from the menus. You have to dump everything out on the ground and hope the other person doesn’t steal. It’d be much easier to have a trading system in Pokemon X/Y’s style; there could be a preview image and a price attached to it, as well as a way to back out of the transaction. Also, the game only lets you communicate via the touch screen keyboard. You’re limited to short phrases at a time, which gets annoying when you’re trying to hold a conversation. The lack of microphone functionality is a huge oversight, especially considering that the last Animal Crossing featured it. After the business is handled, you can ride out to the game’s tropical island and play mini-games. Stuff like balloon popping and item collecting is fun the first couple of times, but there’s a lot of room for development. During your inevitable solo sessions, you’ll likely spend most of the time on the island’s shores, catching the rare – and valuable – insects that spawn there year-round. Doing so makes money a non-issue, allowing you to quickly amass a nearly endless fortune.

It won’t last, though. If you don’t have enough friends or interest in designing your own stuff, you’ll eventually burn out. With no ultimate objective aside from earning money and collecting items, the experience feels increasingly hollow over time. It’s easy to forget to log in for days, then weeks, then months. By the time you remember and come back, you’ll find the town covered in weeds and inhabited by complete strangers. You might catch a fish or dig up a fossil, only to realize that you’ve already found everything and have more cash than you’ll ever need. You’ll fondly remember when the game seemed fresh and new, when you felt the rush of finding some rare furniture, or the satisfaction of creating something unique. With the sheer amount of items and customization options, those moments can be plentiful and rewarding. It’s a reality brimming with potential, if slightly flawed and inherently limited. In the end, Animal Crossing: New Leaf is only as great as the effort you put into it. It truly is a simulation of life.

*Originally posted here.

Super Smash Bros. 4 (3DS) Review

He’s got the whole world in his hands…

Designing the new Smash Bros. must have been hard. It’s understandable why Nintendo did it; adapting a famous franchise for their currently most popular system was the obvious, practical, and lucrative option. Actually producing the work, on the other hand, must have been Herculean undertaking. It’s one thing to make a follow-up to Brawl, which was by far the most content-extensive title on the Wii. But how do you take something so over-the-top epic and cram it into a 3DS card? Not only did it have function with the limitations inherent to a handheld format, but had to meet the ridiculously high standards set by the previous game as well. The results aren’t perfect, but it’s a valiant effort nonetheless.

It looks promising at first glance. Iconic fighters like Mario, Link, Kirby, Fox, and a slew of others make their triumphant return. Zelda and Samus now have separate entries for their alter egos, resulting in some much-needed move set revisions. The Pokemon Trainer from Brawl has retired and left only Charizard to do the heavy lifting. The Ice Climbers were completely cut due to the technical limitations of the system. Metal Gear’s Solid Snake is also missing, though it’s likely due to licensing issues. Once they get over the loss of some of their favorite characters, longtime fans will find several new characters to master. Pac-Man’s appearance is practically a given considering the growing ties between Nintendo and Namco, but it’s a pleasant surprise to see the original Mega Man – complete with a range of signature attacks from the NES games – back in action. Others, such as the Wii Fit Trainer and the dog from Duck Hunt, are completely unexpected. Some of the returning franchises boast even more characters, like Lucina and Robin from Fire Emblem: Awakening, Rosalina from Super Mario Galaxy, and Palutena from Kid Icarus: Uprising. Aside from a few wasted slots (Did we really need Dark Pit?), the nearly 50-strong roster is varied and impressive.

Despite all the new faces, the basics remain the same. The goal is simple: knock your opponent off the stage. The more damage they rack up, the further they’ll go flying. If they manage to make it back on solid ground, you’ll have to keep fighting. Aside from an assortment of punches, kicks, slashes, and throws, each character has a set of special moves taken from their respective games. Link’s Spin Attack isn’t just for cutting grass, Mega Man’s Buster even has the classic power-up sound effect, and Kirby’s copying ability remains as versatile and somewhat unnerving as always. Hidden tactics, like Ganondorf’s Reverse Warlock Punch and Samus’s Grapple Beam ledge tether, have returned as well. That’s on top of the usual blend of dodging, tactical rolls, shielding, shield breaking, and wall jumping. The old ledge-grabbing tactics have been completely revamped; if your character grabs a ledge while someone is already on it, you’ll automatically latch on and send your opponent scrambling. The most important revision, however, is the removal of random tripping. It allows players to focus more on competitive strategies instead of luck. The overall gameplay pacing falls somewhere between Melee and Brawl; it’s slow enough to keep new players from being overwhelmed, but fast enough to keep veterans satisfied.

That’s assuming you can even keep track of what’s going on. While the gameplay is solidly built, how it is presented and played certainly isn’t. The Smash Bros. series was originally designed with televisions and consoles in mind; the scale of the stages, the number of items, camera perspective, and everything else were built for a larger screen. To make that work on a handheld, a few sacrifices had to be made. Longtime fans might have trouble getting used to the button layout, especially on the original 3DS model. Playing on relatively large stages like Corneria or Boxing Ring becomes a hassle because the camera has to zoom out to maintain view of all the characters. At least it spares you from seeing the limited texturing. Even with the optional highlighting reticule, it’s still easy to get characters mixed up or overlook smaller items. That’s really troublesome when you have to contend with motion-sensing bombs, banana peels, smoke balls, bee hives, and the slew of other weapons that randomly spawn. Using such items also demonstrate the 3DS’s technical limits. The game runs at a surprisingly smooth 60 FPS most of the time. However, Assist Trophies are animated at 30 FPS, and Pokeballs only appear one at a time. It’s telling that, unlike previous Smash titles, there’s no way to adjust the frequency of item appearances. If there were, it’d be too easy to crash the game completely.

These problems are even worse in online matches. Smash 4 is much faster than Brawl’s infamously laggy multiplayer…some of the time. As there’s no way to see your opponents’ connection speeds before you commit to a match, you’ll often be flung blindly into an unplayable fight. Sometimes the game completely freezes before kicking you back into the menu. Even decently-running matches are slightly slower. It’s doesn’t completely break the game, but it messes up more advanced tactics and input timing. When you manage to get a great connection, the fights are smooth and responsive. You’re allowed to manage lobbies with people on your friends list, but there’s no way to narrow down based on location, voice or text chat, and other features common to fighting games. The ability to play one-on-one matches with strangers via For Glory mode is a great feature for more competitive players, yet it lacks a ranking board. Though it’s possible to view other people’s matches via either live spectating or replays, you can’t look up specific playbacks. Speaking of which, there aren’t any options for the replays you save on the system; there’s no way to share them with friends, upload them to YouTube, etc. While the online multiplayer functions on the most basic level, it could’ve been so much more.

The designers tried to make up for such shortcomings by giving you more gameplay options. One of Smash 4’s most touted features is its customization menu. All of the fighters have unlockable variations on their special moves. Most have practical effects, like adjusting jump trajectories or attack range. For example, Ganondorf’s Warlock Blade not only lets him wield a sword, but it extends his punch as well. The game also lets you equip items that boost the characters’ attack, defense, and speed capabilities. In an attempt to keep things balanced, you can only equip three things at a time. Tired of Bowser being so slow? A little tinkering with his speed stat – at the expense of his raw power – can make him far more dangerous. Some equipment has secondary effects, like auto-healing, stronger smashes, etc. While this adds some much-needed variety, its implementation is lacking. Aside from a brief description and stat chart, the equipment is utterly forgettable. That’s a step back from the image stickers in Brawl, which served the same function while delving into Nintendo’s back catalog.

The customization is taken even further with Smash Run, a gameplay mode exclusive to the 3DS. Taking cues from Melee’s Adventure Mode and Brawl’s Subspace Emissary, Smash Run drops four fighters in a labyrinth crammed with platforms and enemies from various Nintendo franchises. The goal is simple: Explore under a time limit, slaughter tons of foes, and pick up whatever items they drop. Every last Kremling, ReDead, Goomba, and wild Pokemon leave stat boosts, allowing you to build up your attack, speed, defense, etc. There are also treasure chests containing unlockable character moves, extra equipment, and additional power-ups. Doing a Metroid-esque Shinespark and summoning laser beams is quite awesome. Actually playing Smash Run is another story. The platforming is straightforward, but it becomes a hassle when you’re completely surrounded by enemies. Depending on your stats, it’s easy to get thrown around and killed without any chance of recovery. It’s annoying when you’re just out of reach of a valuable item, only to get denied at the last second. All of your efforts culminate with a brief battle with the other contenders. Most of these fights are based on the old Special Melee rules; giant characters, set stamina, and enemy teams are common. Others are designed as contests, like the traditional Race to the Finish mode. The problem is that rule types are randomly chosen; there’s no way tell if you’ll have the necessary stats built up until the fight starts. It would’ve been far less frustrating had these matches been selectable separately.

Once Smash Run inevitably goes stale, you can fall back on more conventional single player features. Classic Mode returns with its usual assortment of giant and metal opponents, but it’s been expanded with branching paths, random rewards, and varying difficulty settings. Since you bet more of your in-game currency the higher the difficulty, there are much bigger risks and rewards involved with a playthrough. All-Star Mode is still a gauntlet of opponents set in chronological order, but little has changed about it. The same goes for the Multi-Man Smash modes; aside from recording matches and high score bragging rights for Cruel or Rival Smash, there are few incentives to play them more than once. At least Melee’s iconic Home Run Mode is back and tough as ever. That can’t be said for Break the Targets, though. The formerly grueling test of your ability to handle characters’ moves has devolved into a simple Angry Birds knockoff. You merely launch a time bomb at a huge wood and block structure from different angles. In their attempt to make things more appealing to new players, the designers completely missed what made the target challenges fun and interesting. It’s overshadowed by the new Trophy Rush, in which you fight through an onslaught of falling boxes and explosions to nab dozens of collectibles. It’s entertaining, but it doesn’t make up for the game’s lesser offerings.

The same can be said for the stage selection. As this is a 3DS game, there was an effort to design levels based on Nintendo’s handheld titles. Some, like the Magicant, 3D Land, and Paper Mario stages, are fun in their variety and colorful visuals. Gaur Plain inverts the usual layout by having all the platforms on the sides and a huge hole in the middle. The old Gameboy-styled version of Dream Land was a nice touch. Others fall flat, though. Of all the places in the Zelda franchise, the decided to go with a collapsible Gerudo bridge fraught with fire and ice attacks. The Unova Pokemon League has the same basic stage hazards, yet is even less interesting to look at. Not all of Tomodachi Life took place in the apartment complex; as funny as it is seeing your Mii cowering in the background, it would’ve made more sense to tour the entire island and vary the platforming. At least returning fan favorites like Jungle Japes and Brinstar keep things from getting too bland. It’s disheartening when to play in the Living Room or the Trophy Rush mini-game, because they’re so reminiscent of Brawl’s level editor. It’s a shame that feature didn’t make it into this version. Even with the optional flat levels for competitive players, it feels like something’s missing.

The music fares better, though. There’s no way Smash 4 (or any game, really) could top Brawl’s gargantuan playlist. Instead, the soundtrack uses a couple of optional tracks per stage. Though lacking anything as grandiose as MGS4’s “Theme of Love” or Wind Waker’s sailing theme, this OST focuses more on the essentials. The Corneria and Fire Emblem themes from Melee are obvious choices. Tracks like “Ocarina of Time Medley” and the orchestrated “Tetris Type A” were far too good to pass up. Several familiar tunes are back, but as arrangements. The “Gerudo Valley” guitar instrumental and Donkey Kong Country 2’s “Stickerbrush Symphony” are some of the best versions out there. The Gaur Plain theme and the Mega Man 2 remixes are more than enough incentive to play their stages. Combined with a little voice acting – the Kid Icarus and Fire Emblem casts especially – Smash 4’s sound menu exemplifies quality over quantity.

It’s been a long time. The build-up to this Smash Bros. was unlike anything else in gaming. No title could have lived up to the expectations, but this one tries so hard. The results are far from perfect; most the single player modes are flawed, the online multiplayer needs an overhaul, and every technical aspect of the gameplay limited by the 3DS’s capabilities. Despite such glaring issues, the game has a huge roster, hundreds of collectibles, tons of stages, a deep (albeit bland) customization system, improved combat mechanics, faster pacing, and a great soundtrack. To take all of that and make it work on a handheld system is an impressive feat. Is this the best Smash Bros. ever? No. Is it one of the best 3DS games? Absolutely. Nintendo’s greatest fights are finally in the palm of your hand.

*Originally posted here.

Azure Striker Gunvolt Review

Ride the lightning…

It was supposed to be an easy job. The Sumeragi Group – the corrupt worldwide conglomerate responsible for rounding up anyone with superpowers – had its hands on something that could amplify psychic abilities. As a member of the underground resistance, all Gunvolt had to do was infiltrate the building, track down the target, and destroy it with his unique electrical powers. Nothing more, nothing less. It should’ve taken him only a night, if that. It was anything but simple, though; his target wasn’t an object, but Joule, a young girl whose singing was literally magical. Refusing to kill an innocent for the sake of his mission, Gunvolt opted to rescue her instead. With the world’s largest corporation and several of its most dangerous warriors gunning for them, this pair of unlikely heroes has to survive long enough to bring down Sumeragi and bring freedom back to their world.

At a glance, Azure Striker Gunvolt’s story has a lot going for it. It’s set in a future dystopia, and its hero is surprisingly downbeat and world-weary. There’s a lot of potential to be had in a main character who is both a fugitive and freelance gun-for-hire; he’s not a savior, but an irritable young man trying to do the right thing. Unfortunately, the game can’t decide on its tone or character development. Aside from a few lines of pre-mission conversation, Gunvolt never grows as a person. Despite being the unwitting lynchpin in everyone’s plans, Joule has very little personality beyond acting in the typical distressed damsel/magical support role. For a game that tries to take itself seriously, most of the cast seems silly and out of place. For example, Elise is a boss with dual bodies and personalities. The split between her shy and aggressive personae is briefly played for drama and horror, but quickly devolves into cliched banter. Zonda – an explicitly bigender character who uses gender-neutral pronouns (an admittedly bold and welcome move on the writers’ part) – is nothing more than a lustful, innuendo-spouting caricature of a villain. Copen, the rogue gunman stealing everyone else’s powers, is the only one to get any semblance of depth, dignity, and proper motivation. The sheer amount of missed narrative opportunities is staggering.

Once you get into battle, you’ll probably stop caring. Azure Striker Gunvolt is a spiritual successor to the Mega Man X series, and it shows. The dashing, wall kicking, and general stage layouts are taken straight from the game’s SNES predecessors. After the intro, you’ll be given a choice of six missions (eventually unlocking four more stages and a series of gauntlets) that can be completed in any order, each with their own theme and boss battle. None of them are particularly difficult; the stages are linear, checkpoints are frequent, and the platforming is decent at best. Gunvolt focuses more on action, not jumping or exploration. Since he has the power to generate electricity, his effectiveness as a fighter depends on how much energy he puts out. He can pull up a circular forcefield to gradually damage everything nearby and temporarily alter his jump physics, or he can tag enemies with magnetized bullets and use them as makeshift lightning rods. Either method will drain his energy, forcing you to either wait for the onscreen meter to recharge, or automatically replenish it with a quick double-tap on the directional pad. Depending on what gear you have equipped, any damage you take will also take a chunk out of Gunvolt’s power supply instead of his life bar. The built-in limitation keeps an otherwise cheap gameplay mechanic in balance, and encourages players to get better at evasion instead of spamming attacks. Screw up too much, however, and Joule can step in to sing an infinite energy song and bail you out. Rinse and repeat enough times, and you’ll destroy Sumeragi in no time.

Going by just the default settings, it’s easy to believe that Azure Striker Gunvolt is shallow and repetitive. And honestly, it is. Missions take only a few minutes to complete, it’s difficult to actually die on even the hardest stages, and tagging and zapping everything gets old fast. The real meat of the game takes a little more effort to uncover. If you take a peek at the in-game menu before going on a mission, you’ll uncover a wide variety of optional objectives for each level. That one stage you’ve practically memorized? Try beating it in under four minutes, without taking damage, destroying a set number of enemies, or doing it with certain weapons. There’s also an arcade-style score multiplier that resets whenever you’re injured or activate a checkpoint, so you’ll have to do a perfect run to maximize your score. Joule will even start singing different songs if you manage to get the multiplier high enough. Since your performance is graded and ranked all the way up to S+, knowledge of every gameplay mechanic is vital. Beating the game is easy, but fully mastering it is something else entirely.

The payoff for the extra effort is an assortment of customizable techniques. With the spare parts you earn from beating missions, it’s possible to craft gear to boost Gunvolt’s energy output, perform aerial jumps and dashes, prevent knockback from incoming attacks, and reduce damage. Depending on how you design his equipment, Gunvolt will move completely different from his original loadout, thus allowing you to tackle old stages in new ways. Unfortunately, his tag-and-zap combat mechanics remain constant. There are six guns that can tag different amounts of enemies or have altered bullet trajectories, but little else. Only one unlockable pistol trades off electrical attacks for heavy-damage bullets, but there’s still nowhere near enough variety. You can learn a handful of super-powered attacks or support abilities via leveling up, but they usually boil down to screen-filling projectiles and health/energy replenishments. Since they’re limited to a few uses per level, they’re really only helpful during boss fights. Aside from that, there isn’t really anything else Gunvolt can do as a fighter. Consider Mega Man X and Mega Man Zero, the series that directly influenced this game. Players were given access to several secondary attacks and a much wider variety of weapons. Gunvolt’s relatively limited gunplay is a disappointing reminder of what could’ve been.

The game tries to distract you from such shortcomings by making everything as loud and flashy as possible. Gunvolt’s purple forcefields and multicolored lightning bolts are bright and well-animated; even his idle animation includes electrical currents coming out of his shoes. There’s something strangely satisfying about tagging a whole roomful of enemies and zapping until they all explode in tandem. Joule’s fully-voiced support songs give the stages some much-needed intensity. Some of her unlockable anthems, like “Rouge Shimmer” and “Beyond the Blue,” would fit well in a techno or j-pop concert. Your foes are bland in comparison, but they’re designed and positioned well enough. You’d be surprised how annoying an automated laser turret or generic, flame-throwing soldiers can be when they’re next to a platform or surrounded by spikes. The levels are more impressive in terms of setting and design. Most of them manage to make sense within the story while adding some variety. For example, one mission involves climbing and shutting down Sumeragi’s media tower. Not only does it destroy Sumeragi’s broadcasting, but it also turns the entire level into a sheer vertical ascent through numerous obstacles. You don’t just destroy a company train shipment, but fight off the gigantic spider tank guarding the convoy as well. Though the bosses have one-dimensional personalities, their combat abilities are impressive. Viper is more than a temperamental, fireball-spewing warrior; he can turn the entire battlefield into a miniature shoot’em-up challenge. Elise’s dual bodies and personalities have to be killed in sync, forcing you to tag and time your attacks accordingly. These clever ideas demonstrate how much thought was put into their design, and how far things have come from the Mega Man games of old.

It’s still got a ways to go, though. Azure Striker Gunvolt has some interesting concepts, but doesn’t fully utilize them. The dystopian setting has tons of potential in terms of the cast and overall narrative, but the inconsistent tone and the characters’ shallow personalities make the story utterly forgettable. The lack of weapon variety is disappointing as well. Gunvolt can control electricity; you’d think there’d be something more creative to do with his powers than just tagging and zapping. The quick levels, repetitive battles, and easy default settings are hardly satisfying. But if you take the time to delve deeper into what the game offers, you’ll be rewarded for the effort. The wide variety of customizable gear lets you tackle levels in different ways. The optional secondary objectives are often grueling, and maxing out your high scores practically requires perfection. All while dazzling you with flashy attacks, creative bosses, and a pulse-pounding soundtrack. Azure Striker Gunvolt is by no means a perfect game, but it’s a great reminder of why the best gameplay designs are timeless. This lighting is worth the ride.

*Header image taken from NintendoLife.com.