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.

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Xenoblade Chronicles 3D Review

Oh, I want to get away…

Once upon a time, two titans clashed in the middle of an ocean. The Bionis and the Mechonis – the deities of natural and mechanical life respectively – fought until they were locked in an eternal stalemate. Both figuratively and literally; both beings died before they could win the battle, and their enormous corpses petrified together. Rather than crumbling under the ravages of time, their bodies formed a new world. Whole civilizations grew and flourished on these fallen gods, but the modern world hasn’t forgotten the ancient conflict. The human race is fighting a losing war against the Mechon, a seemingly unstoppable horde of killing machines. With death already on their doorstep, the ever-dwindling colonies of survivors desperately need a savior.

They’ll have to settle with Shulk.

He’s not a hero. He lacks both the physical capabilities of a soldier and wisdom of his elders. He’d rather spend his days doing research than going on adventures. That’s what makes him more believable than most game characters; he’s a naive bystander that gets swept up in a war, suffers, survives, and gradually becomes a hero. He’s far more interesting a protagonist than his friend Reyn, who acts like a stereotypical thickheaded, temperamental warrior. What starts as a fairly creative story is dragged down by the cliches typical of the RPG genre. Shulk is somehow chosen to wield the Monado, a legendary sword capable of slaying Mechon. His background is hazy at best, which leads to a few predictable plot twists. He’s trying to avenge the destruction of his home town, but eventually gets drawn into something much bigger. Revenge is hardly an original motive, but the game does well in getting you emotionally involved; the heroes seem real and sympathetic, and the villains are sadistic and powerful. While the story is long – even the most straightforward playthroughs take dozens of hours to finish – the decent pacing and character development keep things interesting.

Shulk’s inexperience isn’t just for narrative purposes. He embarks on his quest woefully unskilled, armed with only a handful of awkward slashes and stabs. Finesse and variety are sacrificed for practicality; the combat mechanics focus on teamwork, positioning, and ability buffs. Some attacks deal more damage when he approaches from behind his opponent, while some enemies can’t even be hurt unless they’ve been inflicted with status effects. Battles take place in real-time, and attacks need to be recharged after each use. It’s not so bad early on, but many of the later fights require you to constantly manage your party’s tactics. The controls lend themselves well to the New 3DS’s button mapping, but surprisingly lack touch screen menus; the top screen is needlessly cluttered with information that could’ve been displayed  in other ways. It’s tempting to blindly mash your way through and pray your random commands work, but you’ll just get everyone slaughtered. As you rack up critical hits, you’ll build up a gauge that can be used to either trigger high-damage chain attacks or revive fallen party members. Shulk can occasionally see oncoming attacks and let his friends decide on moves, but it’s inconsistent at best. Since the AI is rarely reliable in terms of advanced strategies, you’ll have to divide your time between keeping everyone alive and dishing out damage. While it seems overwhelmingly complex at first glance, the essentials are easy to learn.

It’s not all about fighting, though. Xenoblade Chronicles was designed around exploration, and it shows. Shulk’s quest spans two continents, taking on over 400 optional side-quests and killing creatures along the way. There are no random battles; just several areas teeming with monsters that don’t necessarily have to be attacked. The game tells you how strong they are, so you can go in or back off accordingly. While most RPGs favor linear designs, this world practically begs you to go off the beaten path. Not only are there tons of nooks and crannies hidden everywhere, but the game rewards you with experience points and other bonuses for your curiosity. There’s almost no downside to getting hurt in battle; health is plentiful, and you’ll re-spawn close by if you die. There’s even an ability to warp to any landmark you’ve previously visited, which eliminates countless hours of backtracking. It’s especially handy if you’ve accidentally passed an area or need a certain item for a side-quest. These tasks are usually menial, but are essential for developing the huge assortment of skill trees, equipment, character affinities, and everything else that factors into combat system. Fair warning, though: You need to find a balance between storyline progression and going off on your own. If you focus too much on exploring, the pacing will slow to a crawl, the characters will be over-leveled, and you’ll likely burn yourself out.

Xenoblade 3D is indeed a massive game, both in terms of gameplay content and sheer scale. You won’t understand just how big and open-ended it is until you see Gaur Plain for the first time. The green fields and hills seem to go forever, and the silhouettes of the Bionis and Mechonis loom distantly in the drifting clouds. It gives you a sense of how utterly small you are, and how much there is left to see. Since there are so many creatures with widely varying strengths roaming around, the world feels more like a cohesive, living whole instead of a pre-structured journey. It’s no wonder the game can only be played on the New 3DS; it would’ve been impossible for the older handhelds to process these kinds of visuals consistently. That doesn’t mean they’re perfect, though. The Wii version of Xenoblade was absolutely gorgeous at a distance, but suffered from poor texturing and bland facial designs up close. These issues are more prominent on a handheld; even with its impressive frame rate and 3D effects, the New 3DS can’t match the splendor of a console and television screen. Everything just seems a little fuzzier and faded, which lessen the overall experience. That being said, this is still one of the best-looking games on the system. Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate might be more colorful and look smoother, but Xenoblade 3D trumps it in terms of draw distance and size.

The downgrade wasn’t limited to graphics, either. The Japanese voice acting was removed entirely, but the localized cast does an admirable job at bringing the characters to life. Phrases like, “Now it’s Reyn time!” or “I’m really feeling it!” are grating in their repetition, but the thick English accents are endearing and memorable. That goes double for the hammy villains; their “MUH-NA-DO BOY” nickname for Shulk is both sinister and unintentionally hilarious. The soundtrack is back in all its glory, too; if the visuals don’t stun you, the superb audio certainly will. You Will Know Our Names, Mechanical Rhythm, the Gaur Plain theme, and other instrumental tracks add so much emotion and atmosphere. It’s tempting to wander into an area, put your system down, and just listen to the music. If you want to enjoy the songs without the adventure, you’ll have to unlock them in the newly-added Jukebox. It’s pretty gimmicky – you have to either rack up tokens via StreetPass or buy a Shulk amiibo – but it’s well worth the effort. Combined with some good headphones, you’re in for one of the greatest soundtracks in recent memory.

That can be said for the game as a whole. It’s a testament to the quality of the original Xenoblade Chronicles that a technically inferior port is arguably the best RPG on the 3DS. Its visuals aren’t perfect, but they’re still impressive. The game’s design was ahead of time; no other handheld title gives you the kind of freedom and sense of exploration seen here. The sheer scope, scale, and complexity of this adventure might be intimidating, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Rather than limiting you to a strict path, it encourages you to find your own pace and rewards curiosity. With hundreds of side-quests, it’s so easy to ditch the lengthy story and go hiking for a few hours. Shulk’s cliched revenge isn’t nearly as important or compelling as the journey he undertakes to achieve it. Thanks to the New 3DS, you’ll be able to experience each amazing moment at a time, all in the palm of your hand.

When was the last time you got lost?

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D Review

I’m holding out for a hero ’til the end of the night

Termina is on the brink of annihilation. Armed with the dark power of Majora’s Mask, the Skull Kid wanders the land and corrupts everything in its path. Nothing can escape it. The Southern Swamp has been poisoned, and its holy temple is now in ruins. In the north, Snowhead’s idyllic springtime countryside has been ravaged by an endless winter storm, and its inhabitants are dying in the frozen wasteland. In the west, a family grieves for those lost in the Great Bay’s monster-infested waters. In the east, the ancient Ikana Kingdom is being slowly overrun by its undead subjects and rotting from the inside out. In the middle of it all, the residents of Clock Town go about their daily lives. They’re pretending that everything is still normal, that the sense of foreboding and desperation is just their imagination. But they know better. The moon is falling, and it’s going crash soon. When it does, all the suffering and loss will be forgotten in the apocalypse.

You have three days to save the world. Go.

It’s not going to be easy. If the hero was anyone than Link, it’d be impossible. Thanks to the Ocarina of Time he acquired in the previous game, he can travel back in time whenever he needs to…and he will. A lot. Termina is a massive place; fully exploring even one section requires you to relive same days several times. The basic game structure is standard Zelda series fare; you complete a dungeon, load up on items, find hidden areas, collect heart pieces, etc. But what makes Majora’s Mask 3D different is that you’re operating under a time limit. Termina will die in three days, but each in-game hour equates to 45 seconds in real life. Even if you use an ocarina melody to slow things down, you’ve got a maximum of three hours to get your business done and escape back to Day 1. It’s pretty tense at first – you’re under enough pressure as it is – but this new version makes the process far easier to get into. There are more save points, which are ideal for portable gaming sessions; unless you have to stop while deep in a dungeon, there’s little risk of losing much progress. It’s perfect for newcomers, though veterans of the original might be disappointed by the lack of difficulty. The clock display is simpler to read, and even displays the progressing minutes. The game also introduces a revamped Song of Double Time, which lets you fast forward to specific hours of the day. This is a huge improvement over the original N64 game, which only let you skip between day and night. With this new song, you have much greater control over how you plan and progress through each loop.

There’s good reason to have it, too. At first glance, it’s easy to assume that you’re supposed to cram as much adventure into each three-day session as possible. That’s not always the case, though; some of the most important moments in the game happen at various – but specific – hours of the game. While you’re gallivanting all over Termina, its inhabitants have their own plans. Sakon always tries to steal from the old lady on the first night. There’s a mystery afoot at the Romani Ranch, and its horrific extent isn’t revealed until the third day. Reuniting Anju and Kafei is one of the most intricate (and tragic) side-quests in the Zelda series, and it requires you to be at <i>exactly</i> the right places and times. You won’t figure most of these things out unless you stand back and observe where and when people go. This Groundhog Day-style method of getting to know the NPCs is mitigated with the Bomber’s Notebook. The N64 version of this daily side-quest planner was functional, but a vague; rather than using its cues, you were far better served by reading a guide to complete it. Majora’s Mask 3DS improves upon it with entries for all the pertinent characters, their locations, and active objectives. It’s more organized and takes a lot of the time-wasting guesswork out of the equation. It’s a double-edged sword, though; discovering stuff through your own observations and effort felt more rewarding. Having everything spelled out for you lessens Termina’s mystique. Regardless, you’ll be surprised at the tapestry of bizarre and twisted stories interconnected throughout the game.

You’ll be rewarded for your efforts with a collection of masks. There are over twenty, each with different effects on either Link or the surrounding environment. Some are used to progress certain side-quests or acquring heart pieces, but others are more practical. For example, wearing the Captain’s Hat or Gibdo Mask in front of ReDeads – those nightmare-inducing enemies from Ocarina of Time – they’ll perform a harmless interpretive dance. The Stone Mask makes you invisible to minor enemies, and the Bunny Hood lets you move faster. You’ll spend most of your time using the three main transformation masks, though. These are obtained during key moments in the game, and allow Link to physically transform into a Deku, Goron, or Zora. Each of these has their own playing style and drawbacks; the Deku is tiny and slow, but can temporarily fly and hop across water. The Zora swims quickly and has boomerang fins, but weak against elemental attacks. The Goron fares better against heat and cold, but sinks like a stone. However, it lets you curl up into a ball and roll around at high speeds. Zooming around Termina Katamari-style is ridiculously fun. When you’ve acquired a few masks, take the time to explore and experiment with them; you might be surprised at the results.

The process of equipping masks – and any item, for that matter – is streamlined thanks to the 3DS’s touch screen. The menus are well organized and responsive, allowing you to choose and button map the inventory quickly and efficiently. This is especially rewarding in later dungeons like the Stone Tower Temple (arguably the most tedious part of the original game), which require you to use several items to solve puzzles and get past obstacles. The biggest improvement, however, is the revamped camera controls on the New 3DS. The older games relied on Z-Targeting to keep the camera focused on enemies and important items. For its time, it was a revolutionary new method of maintaining perspective 3D environment. Outside of combat was another story; you’d have to constantly re-center the camera behind Link, or enter first-person view to look around. If you’re playing Majora’s Mask 3D on a regular 3DS, you’ll have to contend with those limitations as well. Unless you’re a masochist, there’s no way you’d suffer the alternate gyroscope aiming mechanics. The Circle Pad Pro gives you more control a la Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate, but it’s rather cumbersome. If you can, play this on a New 3DS; the C-Stick gives you free reign over the camera, allowing you to explore areas without having to deal with awkward and rigid angles. It takes some getting used to – it’s a pity Nintendo couldn’t incorporate a second control stick instead of a relatively tiny nub – but it’s responsive and definitely worth using. It’s a great example of how updated technology can make old games feel new again.

That goes double for the overall presentation. The original Majora’s Mask reused just about every asset from Ocarina of Time. Thanks to the N64’s Expansion Pak, it managed to hide its creative, but undeniably aged appearance. Its transition onto the 3DS is nothing short of stunning; textures and colors have been redone in gorgeous detail. Unlike most games, it makes you actually want to use the 3D effects. You can waste a whole time loop just wandering around Clock Town and seeing how alive it is. Look at all the mosaics and posters on the walls, or how the lighting and shadowing change over the day. The Great Fairy Fountains are incredibly shiny, and the sunset view at the Great Bay is amazing. Even Tatl seems more energetic than before. The sheer scale of the buildings and the draw distance are really impressive; Termina Field and Ikana Canyon feel much larger than they used to. It feels like Link is merely a tiny part of a much larger, vibrant world. More importantly, it retains the sinister tone of the original game. The moon is not only falling, but it has a monstrous, leering face that gets ever closer to devouring everything. Listen to how the music subtly shifts as the days pass; the cheery Clock Town theme becomes increasingly frantic and deranged, eventually giving way to a somber, tragic theme in the final ten hours. The lack of an orchestrated soundtrack is such a shame, especially given the 3DS’s audio quality. No matter where you are, the sudden clanging bells are always an ominous reminder that time’s running out. Not to mention some of the NPCs; the Happy Mask Salesman is somehow even creepier now that his smile is more fleshed out. The phrase, “You’ve met with a terrible fate, haven’t you?” is still strangely chilling.

Looking back, the original Majora’s Mask deserved so much more attention than it received. Ocarina of Time was a hard act to follow, and the time-based mechanics seemed strange and unfitting for the series. It’s great to see it finally take center stage; it’s a wonderfully nostalgic trip for old gamers, and newcomers will find unique and engaging experience. Termina is one of the most lively – and often terrifying – places in the Zelda series, and you’ll want to explore every last inch of it. Some of the new features, such as the upgraded Bomber’s Notebook and the Song of Double Time go a long way in making things more accessible. However, they also make the game incredibly easy; some of the mystery and intrigue was lost in the translation. Uncovering the windy, twisted story felt like an accomplishment when done alone. However, the touch screen menus and updated camera controls are inarguable improvements; once you’ve gotten used to these, going back to the N64 version will be difficult. The visuals are among the best on the 3DS; Nintendo took an already beautiful game and made it absolutely stunning. There are only three days to save the world, but you’ll enjoy every second of them.

*Also posted here.

Kirby Triple Deluxe Review

So eat it, just eat it…

They thought it was over. After years of saving their homeland from evil, Kirby and King Dedede thought they were safe. But this morning, their worst fears were realized: Dreamland was invaded by Queen Sectonia and her army. Someone unleashed a giant beanstalk, utterly wrecking the idyllic kingdom and thrusting whole chunks of countryside into the clouds. The queen’s second in command personally handled the attack on the remains of Dedede’s castle. Despite mounting a valiant and desperate defense, the king was kidnapped Princess Peach-style and carried off into skies unknown. With no remaining allies and the fate of Dreamland literally on the edge of destruction, Kirby must ascend the beanstalk and wipe out the new threat.

Kirby’s latest crusade spans six sections of the remnants of Dreamland, each broken down into six or seven levels each. Progression involves the simplistic platforming that has become a staple of the Kirby series. Unless you’re completely inept, the risk of falling into a bottomless pit is practically nonexistent. Oh sure, there are some lava pits and collapsing walls of instant death, but those are exceedingly few and far between. Well-placed collectibles and unlockable hidden stages keep things from being a complete cakewalk. Rather than focusing on difficulty, the game uses its backgrounds to introduce hazards or obstacles. You might have to wait for a train to pass through the foreground before crossing the tracks, dodge falling columns, or navigate through layers of boxes in order to reach a door. Some of the more creative puzzles involve outrunning an enemy running parallel through the background, and defeating them when they jump over to Kirby’s side. It’s a clever use of 3D models and camera perspective; you have to focus on what’s happening in the distance while dealing with the layout in front of you. There are also a handful of obstacles that use the 3DS’s gyroscope, mainly to control the direction of a gondola or aim missiles at unwary baddies. They aren’t bad – few games utilize the motion features at all – but they feel tacked on at best. Considering how much more Kirby Tilt ‘n’ Tumble accomplished with similar technology on the Game Boy Color in 2001, this latest implementation reeks of wasted potential.

The game tries to make up for it with a surprisingly complex combat system. Kirby retains his iconic (and slightly terrifying) power of eating his enemies whole and copying their abilities. Kirby Triple Deluxe boasts 26 different techniques, most of which are from older games. While the swords and beams are always good standbys, they’re completely trumped by some of the newer attacks. The deadliest weapon is the Beetle ability, which can pull off several devastating close-range attacks. Depending on the control inputs, it lets you charge into and skewer targets, carry and throw your victims, or even drill them into the ground. Kirby’s archery skills not only let him snipe foes quickly and efficiently, but give him temporarily invincible camouflage as well. While not game-breaking, these powers render Kirby’s defensive options – a block and dodge mechanic akin to the Smash Bros. series – almost pointless. The biggest addition, however, is the Hypernova ability. It basically supercharges Kirby’s inhaling and swallowing capacity, resulting in him chowing down on everything from vehicles to mini-bosses. Unfortunately, it isn’t used creatively enough; in most levels, the Hypernova is just used to pull blocks or destroy certain obstacles. It’d have been much more interesting to beat levels that are designed around this power. You’re capable of devouring backgrounds, so why not have more interactive and complex stage elements?

Things don’t get interesting until after Kirby’s adventure ends. Finishing the main game unlocks a slew of additional gameplay modes. This includes Dedede Tour, which lets you replay an abridged version of the story as the king himself. His raw power and flaming hammer attacks are balanced out with larger and more aggressive enemies, as well as revamped bosses. It’s not challenging in the slightest – you might be able to breeze through it in a single sitting – but at least your exploits are timed and ranked. Dedede’s Drum Dash is far more engaging; it’s a challenging rhythm mini-game disguised as a platformer. Not only do you have to jump along a row of drums, collect items, and avoid hazards, but you have to press the buttons in sync with the beats as well. Getting perfect scores and unlocking the final level is arguably the toughest part of Kirby Triple Deluxe. The other contender is the True Arena, which pits Kirby against a gauntlet of super-powered versions all the bosses. Considering the ridiculous damage output and attack patterns involved, this brutal test of endurance and gaming skill isn’t for the faint of heart. It does give you access to all of the copy abilities, though; even if you fail miserably, you’ll at least get to practice and hone your strategies against some vicious opponents. The Kirby Fighters multiplayer mode really demonstrates how intense and competitive Kirby combat can be. Unfortunately, it’s limited to only CPU or local matches. Having all of these crazy powers and slugging it out Smash Bros.-style online would’ve done wonders for the game’s longevity. Kirby Fighters Deluxe was later released as a standalone title, but its absence here was a huge oversight.

It’s mostly drowned out by the nostalgia, though. Nintendo wanted to celebrate the Kirby franchise’s debut on the 3DS, and it shows. There are tons of shout-outs to the previous titles, like the reappearance of certain characters from The Amazing Mirror, a boss reminiscent of Canvas Curse’s antagonist, and a wall scrolls depicting Kirby’s old adventures and graphical evolution over time. There are also over 250 collectible key chains strewn throughout the levels, each depicting different Kirby sprites from all the games. Seeing classics like Meta Knight and Dyna Blade redone with a shiny metallic sheen is pretty awesome. While it would’ve been better to have descriptions for each item, they provide a good incentive for replaying stages multiple times. You’ll probably spend more time tinkering with the Jukebox; there are over 100 songs available, all with the superb quality expected from Kirby soundtracks. Special mention goes to the amazing violin and guitar instrumental of Green Greens, which is hidden near the end of the playlist. The piano and xylophone remix from the Old Odyssey stages is pretty catchy as well. Kirby Triple Deluxe might not be the most engaging 3DS game out there, but its soundtrack has some of the best music on the system.

It’s sad. This game tries so hard to make you like it. Using both the back and foreground in tandem is a clever way to approach a platformer, but there could’ve been so much more in terms of creativity and complexity. It looks interesting in terms of 3D graphics and camera perspective, but little else. The combat system is surprisingly deep and rewarding, even though quite a few offensive and defensive techniques are overshadowed by the new ridiculously overpowered abilities. The whole Hypernova concept seems amazing at first, but it could’ve been implemented in better ways. That goes double for gyroscope controls, which are treated more like an afterthought than a gameplay feature. The post-game content is what’ll keep you coming back. Between ridiculously tough mini-games and the sheer amount of collectibles, it’ll take a while to get a 100% completion…assuming you don’t get bored first. Kirby Triple Deluxe is a decent franchise debut on the 3DS, but it hardly lives up to its name.

*Also posted here.

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.

Guilty Gear Xrd Review

She’s A Killer Queen…

It began with a declaration of war. Ramlethal, a mysterious young woman from another dimension, proclaimed that all who were unworthy would be destroyed. Genocide isn’t a new concept in the Guilty Gear universe – it’s only been a year since the showdown in Overture – but there’s good reason to take her seriously. She backed up her boast by summoning The Cradle, a magical structure the size of a mountain. Within seconds, an entire city full of people was wiped off the face of the planet. The Cradle vanished as quickly as it appeared, with the unspoken threat of a future attack. It’s up to Sol Badguy and Ky Kiske, the two most powerful and iconic fighters in the franchise, to join forces and save what remains of human civilization.
Guulty Gear Xrd Pic 1

It’s not the most ideal partnership, of course. As any Guilty Gear veteran knows, the rivalry between Sol and Ky is the stuff of legend. As a direct sequel, Xrd examines how they and the returning cast are dealing with the fallout of the previous game. Ky has matured into a competent king, though political realities and responsibilities have forced him to rethink his morality. Sol is still a gruff and bitter bounty hunter, though he’s kept his word and raised Ky’s son as his own. Sin doesn’t have his father’s brilliant mind, but he certainly has his idealism. May is similarly positive, but vague hints at her backstory (and foreshadowing of events in the next game) imply that all is not well with her and the Jellyfish Pirates. Faust is still crazy, though he’s embarked on a long, wacky road to redemption. The Assassin’s Guild is still operating under Venom’s leadership, and he’s even managed to end the longstanding feud between himself and Millia. More importantly, Zato – long dead and possessed since XX – has been magically resurrected. His surprise reappearance is a herald of something far more sinister.

Guilty Gear Xrd Review Pic 2

Not everyone is back, unfortunately. The Guilty Gear series is known for its bizarre and unique designs, but some of the biggest fan favorites didn’t make the cut. Baiken is arguably the most missed; her incredible swordplay was among the best in any fighting game. The same can be said for Johnny, who gets nothing but a few scenes in Story Mode. Dizzy gets a similar treatment, though she’s out of action for plot purposes. The newcomers have enough personality to distract you from such shortcomings, though. Ramlethal pretends to lack emotion, but she enjoys summoning giant swords and viciously slashing you to pieces. Elphelt is far more cheerful and ditzy, but she’s a bride that takes the term “shotgun wedding” literally; she tosses grenades instead of garters, and pumps any runaway spouses with lead. Bedman looks like a harmless coma patient in a silly-looking hospital bed…until he starts summoning spiky wheels of death with his mind. Sin isn’t as terrifying, though his long-range spear combos are powerful. He’s balanced by a stamina gimmick akin to the Monster Hunter games (he has to eat steak to prevent exhaustion), but he’s lethal in the right hands. That goes double for Leo Whitefang, the exclusive DLC character. Imagine a hulking man/lion hybrid who dual-wields greatswords, can change stances to attack you backwards, and whose every word is dripping with deliciously hammy voice acting. Yes, Leo is hilarious, awesome, and a perfect fit for the game’s setting.

Guilty Gear Xrd Review Pic 3

Speaking of which, Xrd’s story is surprisingly easy to get into. Guilty Gear’s lore is notoriously convoluted, but this game alleviates much of the problem. While the new Story Mode has the underlying assumption that you know what happened in Overture, it occasionally retouches some of the major points – such the importance of Justice and That Man – to keep new players from getting lost. If you’ve endured the stories of Persona 4: Arena or any of the BlazBlue games, don’t worry; Arc System Works forgoes its usually sprawling narrative in favor of focused storytelling. It takes only a few hours to finish, with plenty of cameos and no repeated scenes. As usual, the majority of it is told through voiced dialogue. Instead of simply plastering the characters’ avatars on the screen, however, it uses drawn scenes. They aren’t fully animated – there’s a lot of standing and talking – but it gives players something interesting to look at. Considering the costs for such a production, having a relatively brief story makes sense. If you miss anything, there’s an entire in-game library to keep you informed.

However, you’ll probably skip over all of that and dive right into Arcade Mode. If you’ve played any of the XX games, it’s like returning to a childhood home: familiar and nostalgic. It utilizes most of same move setups as before; there’s the usual array of punches, kicks, slashes, and heavy slashes that create a wide variety of combos. Every character comes with their unique special attacks, like Sol’s iconic Dragon Install or Venom’s billiard-style ranged tactics. That’s on top of the guard crushing, air dashing, Overdrives, Psych Bursts, Faultless Defense, Instant Kills, and the other returning features. At first glance, it’s easy to assume that Xrd is a hyper-aggressive button mash-fest. Blindly running into battle, however, will get you slaughtered. While not as intensive as BlazBlue’s commands, the inputs in this game require a good sense of timing and attention to frame animation. Unlike the Persona 4 fighting games, Arc System Works didn’t implement any kind of auto-combo control scheme. If you take the time to learn the fundamentals, you’ll be surprised at how far they carry you.

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For more experienced players, there are several new advanced mechanics to master. Guilty Gear’s Roman Canceling system is back again, but it’s been expanded into three types. They still allow you to cancel attacks into other moves, but their effects are more situational. RCs depend on things like opponents’ hitstun status, timing with animation frames, using projectiles, character momentum, etc. It’s technically demanding, but mastering it pays off in spades. Elphelt, for example, has some ridiculously good unblockable setups with her grenades. The classic Dust Attack has been modified as well. The traditional homing jump version lets you launch foes skyward and follow it up with mid-air combos. The homing dash, however, forces your opponent into the wall and leaves them wide open for cornering tactics. For more defensive players, the newly-implemented Blitz Shield lets you repel oncoming attacks while sacrificing a quarter of the energy otherwise saved for Overdrive moves. It doesn’t seem like much in the midst of all the offensive capabilities, but using it well can completely turn a fight on its head. So can Danger Time, which randomly triggers whenever attacks clash. It basically boosts your attack power, countering, and canceling capabilities for ten seconds. Unlike the other features, this one feels tacked on; the randomness completely throws off the match’s pace and doesn’t fit well with high-end competitive gameplay. If Danger Time had to be included, it would’ve made more sense to make it a limited optional command, like Instant Kill Mode. It detracts from what is an otherwise solid and engaging experience.

Regardless, there’s a lot to learn. If you’re feeling intimidated, there’s a robust Tutorial Mode that covers every aspect of the game. It’s even structured as a series of lessons taught by Sol to Sin, which is amusing in itself. There’s also a Challenge Mode that focuses on increasingly demanding character-specific combos. However, the Mission Mode is more practical. It assumes that you already know the basics, and focuses on situational tactics instead. How do you block attacks while dashing? How do you perform air-to-air combos? How do you combo into an Instant Kill? You need to know if you’re playing competitively. Having a feature that focuses on advanced tactics is immensely useful, and it’s something that more fighting games should include. It could never replace Practice Mode, of course. It lets you customize everything from the health and special bars to computer competency and blocking techniques. The recording function is as useful as ever, but it’s the Input Delay – essentially a lag simulator – that’s the most important. When the crux of your strategy depends on how well you can handle the animation frames, mastering the inputs is a must.
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Speaking of lag, the online multiplayer isn’t quite up to par yet. By no means is it unplayable, but it’s inconsistent. The majority of the matches played thus far have been incredibly slick and responsive – as expected for an Arc System Works title – and making the transition from offline has been easy. However, a few of the fights have slowed to a crawl or randomly disconnected. It’ll likely warrant another patch in the near future, but it’s questionable right now. Ranked matches are few and far between, though there are dozens of player matches going on at any given hour. The lobby system takes the next logical step from BlazBlue: Chrono Phantasma’s design. The rooms are separated by continental regions, and then further divided by geographic location. Each place on the map has 32 rooms, which can accommodate up to 64 players each. Not surprisingly, most of the rooms are completely empty. If you find a busy location, you can set up lobbies with certain skill level requirements, connection speeds, voice chat, and even differentiate between casual and serious matches. Inside, you have the choice of pairing off with someone for a quick match, switching opponents, or waiting on the sidelines and spectating someone else’s fight. Despite the lack of a YouTube uploading feature for replays, there are a lot of options packed into such a simple design.

If you want something not so competitive, the offline M.O.M. Mode will keep you busy. It’s basically a huge, customizable survival mode. You begin at the center of a massive map of panels, and must fight across other panels to progress. The more you win, the more cash you’ll earn towards stat boosters, items, and equipment. For example, my Slayer can’t move quickly, but he hits like a truck and his health bar is three layers thick. You can spend time building up resistances to status ailments, reduce chip damage, etc. You’re not the only one with upgrades, either; at higher levels, you’ll run into enemies with increasingly broken movesets. You think Axl is bad at long range? Try dealing with a version of him that doesn’t flinch and can summon May’s whale. Only patient and masochistic completionists need apply. It’s worth the effort, though; everything you do in any of the modes will net you bonus points that go towards unlocking stuff in the gallery. It’s a little sparse compared to BlazBlue’s offerings, but it’s definitely a case of quality over quantity. Character avatars, cutscenes, voice acting, music…It’s all there, practically begging to be unlocked.

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You’ll want every last bit of it, too. In an unusual move, the designers chose to use Unreal Engine 3 for Xrd’s graphics. Rather than attempting to make traditional hand-drawn character sprites, they decided to go with 3D cel-shading. It works beautifully with Guilty Gear’s anime-influenced style; just look at the way Ky’s hair moves when his ponytail becomes undone, or the way Ramlethal’s cloak flaps in the breeze, or how Slayer seems to slide across the screen in one fluid motion. Sol’s detailed Dragon Install animation – and the epic music track that activates with it – is the stuff other 2D fighters could only dream of achieving. Not to mention all of the fully-animated and voiced Instant Kills. The backgrounds are detailed as well. May’s airship drifts above the clouds before diving low enough to skim the ocean, and the bridge in the Japan colony gives a good sense of depth and perspective. There accompanying soundtrack is, as usual for Guilty Gear, a stellar blend of rock and metal. Tracks like “Storyteller” and “Holy Order III” steal the show with their awesome instrumentals, and “Lily” sounds like a long-lost Queen song. Considering who designed the game, there’s nothing more fitting.
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It’s been a long time. After so many years, it’s great to have Guilty Gear retake center stage of the 2D fighting genre. Arc System Works has learned from their experiences with BlazBlue and Persona games, and it shows. It’s a reminder of what makes these games great: a small but unique cast of quirky and awesome characters, highly technical gameplay, and a style second to none. It’s not the easiest game to get into, but the streamlined story and in-depth tutorials are enough to keep newcomers hooked. The drastic changes to the old combat mechanics are interesting, though not everything is perfect. The online multiplayer still needs some reworking, though most of the matches work flawlessly. This game sets a new standard for the inevitable future titles. Judging by what Xrd has accomplished, Guilty Gear is back and here to stay.

*Originally posted here.