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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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.
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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.

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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.

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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.
Guilty Gear Xrd Review Pic 7

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.

Persona 4 Arena Ultimax Review

Break out of your shell…

It was supposed to be over. The heroes of Persona 3 and 4 banded together in Arena and uncovered yet another mystery plaguing the town of Inaba. Old friendships were tested, new connections were made, and Labrys – the unwitting catalyst of the whole ordeal – was given a second chance at life. The two groups parted ways amicably, but there was an unspoken understanding that, if anything were to happen, both groups would cross paths again. Mitsuru and the rest of her Shadow Operatives left town in search of mastermind behind the tournament. Yu and his Investigation Team settled back into their daily lives, trying to make the most of the remaining holiday before splitting up again. For that one day, it seemed like everything was finally back to normal. They failed to realize one simple, terrifying truth:

The tournament never stopped.

And this time, the stakes have been raised. The lights have gone out across Inaba, and everyone except Persona users have vanished without a trace. A thick, red fog is slowly consuming the town, warping the streets and buildings into an unrecognizable labyrinth. Yasogami High, the Investigation Team’s school, has transformed into an impossibly tall, ominous tower. If any of the Persona 3 cast were still around, they’d be able to explain how the whole thing looks like Tartarus, the otherworldly dungeon they conquered… But they’re not here. Whoever is running the tournament learned from previous mistakes; the villains’ first move was to ambush the Shadow Operatives. Now Mitsuru, Akihiko, Aigis, and Fuuka – previously established as the most powerful and well-connected heroes in Arena – are being held as hostages at the top of the tower. Their backup team is en route, but it may be too little, too late. There are new monsters lurking in the fog, and several of them are evil shadow versions of the heroes. With no other options, Yu and the rest of the crew have to step up. They better hurry, too; if they don’t finish the tournament in an hour, the world will end.

Yeah, things just got real. Ultimax fixes the poor pacing and reused conversations that plagued Arena’s narrative by presenting the story on a much grander and streamlined scale. Rather than having to dig through each character’s perspective, everything is presented on a simple, branching map. Characters meet and team up, which makes the journey progress much faster. Since the fights take place across Inaba instead of the TV World, there’s more opportunity for characters to branch out and have more realistic interactions. Aside from a couple of prompts in the endgame, it’s impossible to miss or change anything. There are no repetitive scenes or reasons to play through a second time. That being said, the story is just as long as last time; if you don’t use the dialogue skipping option, it’ll take nearly ten hours to see everything. While Arena was a deconstruction of fighting games – particularly the idea of friends fighting each other to the death – Ultimax is a much more straightforward adventure. If anything, the previous game was merely setting everything up for the main event. The bad guys drop all subtlety and actively encourage you to fight. Sho Minazuki, the new antagonist, isn’t nearly as interesting as he could have been; there’s not enough screen time to allow him the kind of character study that Labrys received. The players are only given the unspoken implications of unnatural human experiments and the rejection of the series’ concept of friendship.

On the other hand, the story acts as a much-needed follow-up to Persona 3. Yukari, Junpei, Ken, and Koromaru, the remaining members of the Shadow Operatives, finally return to the center stage. They’ve grown since their last outing (Junpei has notably become the most down-to-Earth member on the team, and Ken isn’t nearly as insufferable), and there are tons of callbacks to their previous quest. Persona 4 fans, however, will likely care more about the appearance of Adachi. It’s impossible to explain why he’s so important without getting into spoilers, but he is not just a guest fighter; his inclusion is a key part of the story, though not in ways Golden veterans will assume. Marie and Elizabeth don’t get as much screen time for narrative reasons, but Rise’s surprise addition as a playable character more than makes up for it. The designers carefully considered her abilities in the RPGs and made her even more formidable. Regardless of which characters or games you prefer, Ultimax serves as an excellent crossover.

But if you’re a newcomer to the series, don’t worry. The narrative does a decent job of summarizing everything you need to know. If you’re only interested in fighting, the Arcade and Versus Modes are easily accessible. There are over 20 available characters – Adachi, Marie, and Margaret are DLC – each with unique play styles and their signature attacks from the RPGs. Yukiko practically dances across the battlefield with her fans, gracefully roasting her victims to death. Junpei’s accumulating hit power mechanic is taken straight from Guilty Gear’s Sol Badguy. The fighters’ Personae – their inner personalities given form as deities – can be summoned to augment your tactics. For example, Mitsuru is a powerhouse up close, but Artemisia helps her punish and freeze enemies from mid to long ranges. Everyone has the usual assortment of ground and air dashes, short hops, throw techs, tactical blocking, countering, evasive rolls, and even Instant Kills. Most of the specials, status ailments, and super attacks are done via the quarter circle and charge commands you’d find in any other fighting game, though Ultimax strongly emphasizes move canceling and connecting hits. By no means is it as technically demanding as its BlazBlue sister series, but it can still be overwhelming for newcomers. If you’re having trouble, you can just mash the weak attack button to launch a brief automated combo. It’s a cheap, shallow mechanic for experienced players, but it’s the perfect crutch for the uninitiated.

While these features were established in the previous game, Ultimax adds a few new mechanics to cater to players of all skill levels. Rather than learning the proper inputs for super attacks, you can use the Skill Hold System instead. Just keep your finger firmly on the attack button, watch the onscreen meter slowly fill up, and let loose. The longer you charge, the more powerful the move will be. It’s even possible to do Instant Kills with it. Though aimed at beginners, it’s completely impractical in competitive matches; since your thumb is stuck on a single button and the meter cancels if you try to attack or get hit, you’re forced to awkwardly evade everything for several seconds. The biggest change, however, is the inclusion of Shadow characters. Like in the story, nearly every fighter has an alternate Shadow form with unique animations and hit properties. While the real characters’ attacks were completely overhauled for Ultimax, the Shadows retain the original auto-combos from Arena. They also have a special Shadow Frenzy mechanic that lets them trigger as many super moves as they want. As a tradeoff, they must fully charge their special attack meter, and can only use the Frenzy for a limited time. It also eliminates most of their defensive capabilities, and is further hindered by the Shadows’ overall reduced damage output. Aside from the obvious fanservice, the Shadows are essentially there for players who prefer high-risk offenses. Regardless of how you play, there will be plenty to learn.

That’s why you’ll need to practice. A lot. The Lesson Mode teaches all the basics, but you’ll get much more out of the Training Mode. It lets you customize everything from AI competency to individual advanced techniques and character-specific power-ups. The recording feature is immensely useful for trying out certain combos as well. Every fighter also has a set of 25 challenges, each with increasingly complex inputs. If anything, they’re good for giving you a better idea of what combos are feasible. The true test is Score Attack, to which anyone experienced with Arc System Works games can attest. Beating that mode is an act of masochism, but you’re rewarded with more in-game commentators (including the ever-popular Fuuka) for your efforts. If you want something a little less maddening, the new Golden Arena Mode is perfect. In a clever adaptation of Persona 4: Golden’s leveling mechanics, it pits you against a gauntlet of foes and rewards you with EXP with every victory. You can customize the fighters’ HP, defense, and the rest of the stats, gradually making them unstoppable. There are also spells straight from the RPG, though they’re limited to attack buffs, inflicting status ailments, etc. You can even increase the Social Link with your commentator, thus reaping even more benefits. It’s a simple twist on the typical survival mode, but it works surprisingly well.

If only that could be said for the multiplayer. It’s not bad, but it’s got some early-release jitters. The search functionality has all the necessary options, like region, rank, etc. Actually finding a ranked match is a hassle; the game will almost always kick back to the opponent list without connecting. The player rooms let you determine connection speeds, auto-skip idle players, and support voice chat. The game also takes cues BlazBlue: Chrono Phantasma’s lobby design. Instead of brackets and menus, you’re given an 8-bit avatar of your character and sent into a downsized version of the Persona universe. Familiar places like Junes, Yasogami, and Tartarus are converted into massive digital arcades, each sectioned by the respective Arcana seen in the RPGs. The rooms are visually bland and don’t do the original settings any justice, but at least they have the correct background music playing. Just walk up to an empty arcade cabinet and pray that another player wanders by. Despite its charm, the lack of voice chat and YouTube replay functionality is disappointing. The netcode runs well; aside from the rare hiccups in overseas matches, your matches will move smoothly. The controls respond just as quickly online as they do in local matches. When you finally get to fight, you won’t be disappointed.

That goes for just about everything else game. Atlus knew it had to deliver big on Ultimax, and it shows. There are dozens of new art and backgrounds strewn throughout the story. Persona 4 veterans will be shocked to see familiar haunts like the Junes Food Court twisted into demonic forms. Even the fake Yasogami High stages from Arena are touched up with new colors. The fighters are still fluid and lively, but the Shadow versions are just as creepy as their original appearances. Even when he’s smaller and fully animated, Shadow Teddie’s dead eyes and billowing inner abyss are pure nightmare fuel. There are tons of obscure character-specific dialogue and win quotes for all the hardcore fans. The animation has improved as well; there are over a dozen fully-voiced cutscenes, giving each character just a little glimpse of the limelight. The moment you watch Inaba go dark, you know something awesome is going down. The voice acting and localization is superb as always, particularly Johnny Yong Bosch’s Adachi. So is the soundtrack, which brings back old favorites like “Signs of Love” and “Mass Destruction.” The new theme, “Break Out Of…” sets the game’s faster pacing and epic tone perfectly.

It’s been a long time coming. Ever since Ultimax was unveiled, the anticipation has grown into something phenomenal. Now that it’s out, it’s exactly what you’d expect. The narrative is much better paced and streamlined; getting through all that text doesn’t seem so tedious anymore. It’s an extensive, well-done crossover between the respective Persona games, and ends Arena’s storyline with enough hints of things to come. The roster is as impressive as it is varied; between all the new fighters and Shadow characters, there’s more than enough to choose from. The core gameplay remains the same, though some of the new combat mechanics are questionable. At least they’re optional; newcomers will have an easier time getting into the game, while experienced players will have to contend with all the little tweaks to their old favorites. The additional gameplay modes are as demanding as ever, and the new Golden Arena Mode is surprisingly fun. The online multiplayer needs a few fixes, but the matches themselves run fine. You’ll be too busy enjoying superb visual and audio design to care either way. Ultimax may not be perfect, but it’s a fun and impressive sequel worthy of the Persona series. Break out, indeed.

*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.

Ultra Street Fighter IV Review

Don’t stop believin’…

It was inevitable. After a long, successful run, Capcom wanted to return to Street Fighter IV one last time. It’s understandable why they did it; with the gaming industry transitioning to a new console generation, appealing to the established audience was vital. Not everyone has switched over to the PS4 and Xbox One, and adding content to a popular game would’ve been more practical than adapting it to new hardware. Of course, they’d have it as a lower-priced DLC as a nice gesture to the fans. The trick was finding the balance between content and pricing; how much – or little – of an update could justify buying Street Fighter IV again? What could they possibly change to make such an aged game fresh and new? Capcom attempted to accomplish all of it with Ultra, but with mixed results.

Ultra Street Fighter IV Elena Arcade Ending

The most prominent changes come as five additional characters: Elena, Rolento, Hugo, Poison, and Decapre. If you’ve played Street Fighter X Tekken, four of those names should sound familiar. While it’s easy to accuse Capcom of taking the lazy way out (and it is admittedly disappointing), at least they took the time to rebalance the fighters to better fit with Street Fighter IV’s combat mechanics and slower pacing. If they were ported directly over, they would have annihilated everyone else. Elena has short range and decent speed, but her fancy high/low footwork keeps opponents guessing. Rolento is much faster and more aggressive thanks to his baton twirls and rolling evasions. Hugo’s raw power and throwing combos are offset by his ridiculously huge size and questionable hit boxes. Poison is all about punishment, in terms of personality, projectiles, and close-range set-ups. Decapre is the only true newcomer, though she has the unfortunate burden of looking like a Cammy clone. Despite her unoriginal appearance, her charge-based play style and mix-ups make her devastating in the right hands. This is all on top of the returning roster from Arcade Edition. With a total of 44 characters, you’ll be sure to find someone that fits your playing style.

The new challengers aren’t the only things being reused. There are six stages added in this update, and all of them are taken directly from Street Fighter X Tekken. Rather than giving seasoned players a new background, Capcom decided to return to Pit Stop 109, Blast Furnace, Half Pipe, Mad Gear Hideout, Cosmic Elevator, and the Jurassic Era Research Facility. They’re much more interesting than some of the older Street Fighter IV backgrounds; the Pit Stop’s intricate truck designs and lighting effects make it one of the best locations in the game. As enjoyable as it is seeing the Final Fight crew and other Capcom mainstays doing cameos in the backgrounds, it would’ve been better to have at least one unique stage. The Half Pipe features new music exclusive to Ultra, though it’s only the rap track heard in one of the game’s trailers. By no means is it the best song – they’ve still yet to top the Volcanic Rim theme – but at least it’s something different.

Rolento VS Hugo

The basic mechanics haven’t changed much, either. There’s the normal setup of light, medium, and heavy punches and kick combos. Every Hadoken, Sonic Boom, and the rest of the special moves are present and accounted for. All of the returning fighters have had their animation frames, hit boxes, health, or attack power tweaked yet again, though only the those interested in high-level competitive play will likely care. However, everyone will be affected by a handful of major additional features. As its name implies, the new Ultra Combo Double system allows the fighters to use both of their Ultra attacks instead of just one. It comes at the price of a fraction of the attacks’ original strength, but that’s a decent tradeoff for several characters. For example, Elena can balance between the offensive capabilities of her Brave Dance and the practicality of her Healing support. Or Gen, whose four Ultras makes him nigh unstoppable if played well. On the defensive side, the new Delayed Wakeup mechanic allows you to prevent your knocked-down character from standing up too quickly. Since many tactics involve timing combos to maintain offensive pressure, being able to stay down a little longer gives you a little more breathing room by keeping the opponent guessing.

The biggest change, however, is the Red Focus Attack mechanic. If you’re familiar with Street Fighter IV, you’ve probably heard of Focus Attacks. By pressing certain buttons, you can have a character charge up an attack animation, endure a single incoming hit, and counter accordingly. Depending on the inputs and the amount of energy you have in your attack meter, it even lets you cancel special moves and link them into longer combos. It encourages players to learn better spacing, timing, and keep the pressure on the opposition. Red Focus Attacks, on the other hand, take the functionality to the logical extreme. Characters still charge up, but they can soak up as many attacks as their life bars can sustain. Yeah, that includes Ultras. Even Sagat’s mighty Tiger Cannon and Decapre’s Psycho Stream can’t get through it. The tradeoff for this temporary invulnerability is two sections of your meter. This has the potential to change your entire strategy; do you use a bit of meter to launch more hard-hitting combos, or do you save up and spend double the amount for Red Focus’s defensive and countering properties? It’s reminiscent of Street Fighter III’s parrying mechanic, albeit nowhere near as technically demanding. Thanks to this new feature, Street Fighter IV’s fundamental strategies are now more varied and balanced between offensive and defensive aspects.

Decapre VS Cammy

If only the rest of the game were changed that much. All the new characters get their own Arcade Mode stories, but they’re an afterthought at best. None of the newcomers have entries in the Trial Mode, which is unfortunate for anyone trying to learn the finer points of the fighters’ movesets. Considering Capcom’s penchant for DLC, they’ll probably be added in a later update. At least the Training Mode can now simulate online matches by giving you control over the amount of input lag; even the best tactics fail when a fighter doesn’t respond quickly enough. There’s also the version select option, which lets you choose amongst the IV, Super, Arcade Edition, Arcade Edition 2012, and Ultra iterations of every character. Anyone who’s played the games knows the original Sagat’s raw power, or how Arcade Edition Yun was utterly broken. The feature isn’t new; it’s a throwback to Hyper Street Fighter II, but with on a much bigger scale. Unfortunately, this awesome option is only available in the offline Versus Mode. There’s no way to take these blasts from the past online, where such matchups would be far more interesting on a competitive level.

Speaking of which, the online multiplayer isn’t quite perfected yet. It gives you the usual choice between Ranked, Endless lobbies, and Tournaments, as well as an Online Training Mode. There’s even a new Team Battle mode, which is set up as a 3-versus-3 elimination match-up a la The King of Fighters. It’s structured well and surprisingly fun… At least, it would be if you actually find someone else to play it. Maybe it’s a lack of interest or not enough early Ultra adopters, but opponents outside of the Ranked and Endless Modes are unbelievably rare. Even in those modes, securing a matchup can be dodgy. When using the Quick Match search, you’ll be paired up immediately if you’re lucky. If not, you’ll be left staring at the screen until the search fails several seconds later. The Custom Match search is a little more promising – it lets you choose from a list of potential contenders – but you’ll occasionally be disconnected before the fights even start. That’s aside from the random sign-outs from PSN, which is another level of annoyance. It can become a huge waste of time. Your best bet is to make your own Custom Match or Endless lobby; your opponents come to you, no tedious searching required. The fights themselves are decent in terms of lag and pacing, but the display of your opponents’ connection data is often inaccurate. Some of the smoothest matchups can come from someone with a single bar. Hopefully it’ll be improved in the next update. Considering that the multiplayer also supports direct replay uploads to YouTube – something the previous games sorely lacked – it makes up for some of the minor flaws.

Poison VS Cody

That can be said for Ultra Street Fighter IV as a whole. It’s not a bad game. Far from it. The sheer amount of characters and playing styles is amazing, and all the balance tweaks give veteran players another shot at mastering the returning fighters. The new gameplay mechanics add tons of variety to the tried and true tactics of the original version. The Delayed Wakeup and Red Focus Attacks manage to add deeper layers of defensive strategies to the otherwise offensive-heavy gameplay. A few of the minor improvements, such as the lag simulator in Training Mode and the YouTube uploading capability, have been long overdue. That being said, the game leaves plenty to be desired. The lack of more character content and new stages is disappointing. Capcom took what it needed from Street Fighter X Tekken, but little else. The online multiplayer needs some serious work, especially in terms of finding player matchups and connection consistency. These are a lot of small issues that limit what is otherwise the best version of an already excellent fighting game. Street Fighter IV deserved a better send-off, but Ultra does the job well enough.

*Originally posted here.

BlazBlue: Chrono Phantasma Review

And in your darkest hour, I hold secrets flame

Doubt. It’s all Ragna the Bloodedge can think about. He’s been granted the nigh-limitless power of the magical Azure Grimoire, and he’s used it quite effectively. He’s known and feared as a one-man army, capable of bringing an entire corrupt government to its knees. After all this time, Ragna is still on the run. The Librarium and its military – along with just about everyone else – is out for his head. He knows he has to keep fighting, but why? Where is all this leading? For what and whom is he fighting? Was all this murder and mayhem necessary? Does he even comprehend the powers he possesses – or their consequences? He needs to figure this stuff out fast, because he’s unknowingly become an important part of a plan that could save or doom reality itself.

Ragna’s character arc is just one of many aspects of Chrono Phantasma’s storyline. It picks up not long after the previous BlazBlue; all sides and factions involved have put their endgames into motion, and it’s just a matter of who can outsmart the other. No longer content with scheming behind the scenes, Hazama and Relius Clover have taken center stage and are on the verge of destroying the world. Kokonoe and rest of the Sector Seven group are desperately trying to counteract them, to the point of joining an ever-growing militia of Librarium dissenters and attempting a coup d’état from within. Major Tsubaki has succumbed to the maddening influence of her weapon, and it won’t be long before she hunts down and slaughters her former allies and friends. The Six Heroes – the ones responsible for most of the game’s backstory – gear up for what will ultimately be the ending of their storyline. Within the ruins of Ikaruga, Bang Shishigami is about to discover the true nature of his powers. Hidden somewhere in the middle of all of the chaos, a young woman is being groomed to be a savior.

Needless to say, there’s a lot going on. As the third game in the series, Chrono Phantasma is burdened with continuing and resolving several dangling plot threads. For the most part, it pulls it off spectacularly. The Story Mode divides chapters amongst the main characters, the Six Heroes, and Sector Seven by way of a streamlined and branching display. It’s not nearly as tedious to finish as those of the previous games, which practically required a guide to get full completions. The hours of dialogue, twists, and joke endings are still present and accounted for. However, not everyone got the same amount of attention; Continuum Shift was mostly about Jin, Makoto, Litchi, and Hazama’s development, so they aren’t in focus as much this time. The new characters were treated even worse; Azrael, a nigh-unstoppable killing machine, serves as a dangerous but ultimately secondary threat to the heroes. Bullet, the badass mercenary with a chip on her shoulder, gets a handful of scenes before being forgotten. Amane, despite his flamboyant fighting style, has only a few vague encounters that set him up as a key figure for the next game. Only Kagura, the leader of the Librarium rebel forces, gets a decent amount of screen time. While it makes sense for the story to resolve an already massive narrative, the newcomers deserved better introductions.

They steal the show in Arcade Mode, though. BlazBlue has always enjoyed a relatively small but diverse character roster, and Chrono Phantasma adds plenty of variety. Azrael’s brutal punch and kick combos are quite satisfying to pull off. Amane looks beautiful with his kimono and flower petals, but his deadly shawl and drill powers are reminiscent of Guilty Gear’s Eddie. Kagura’s stance-based swordplay is like a 2D version of Soul Calibur’s Siegfried. Kokonoe is finally a playable character (albeit as DLC), but the inventions and gimmicks built into her attacks make her unbelievably broken. Izayoi (Tsubaki’s powered-up alternate ego) is more manageable, but can chain attacks ridiculously well. Bullet is the only uninteresting one; her speedy, grapple-based moveset doesn’t leave much of an impression. She feels more like a fighter designed solely for fan service. It would’ve made more sense to have Jubei – an important secondary character established since the first game – tossed into the fray. Everyone else from Continuum Shift is back in action, complete with the usual assortment of rebalances and tweaks to their movesets.

The fundamental gameplay mechanics haven’t changed much. Rather than using the weak, medium, and strong attacks seen in most fighting games, BlazBlue assigns the buttons as A, B, C, and D. An A attack might be a quick jab or kick, while a C move could result in a slash or stomp. Depending on the directional inputs, those basic moves could change into uppercuts, aerial slashes, dive kicks, throws, and everything in between. The D button focuses on the characters’ unique powers and techniques. For example, Amane’s shawl can chip through defenses and wreak havoc on blocking opponents. Azrael doesn’t just beat his enemies; he puts weak points on their bodies that add staggering and extra combo properties to his attacks. Such special moves are the cornerstone of each character’s playing style, so you’ll have to learn them well.

That goes double for the more complex combat mechanics. Much like its predecessors, Chrono Phantasma is an incredibly demanding game in terms of technical skill. You can mash the A-D buttons until your fingers go raw, but you won’t stand a chance against a high-leveled AI or decently-trained opponent. Aside from the plethora of super attacks, move cancels, blocks, counters, dashes, tactical rolls, wake-up recoveries, there’s more emphasis on guard breaking and energy meter management. There’s a ton of stuff to learn, and the extensive tutorial that breaks everything down step by step. The Training Mode lets you customize and record your sessions, giving you some much-needed opportunities to get the basics down. Each character also has a set of challenges, which focus on linking attacks and perfecting the timing on your inputs. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you can switch to the Stylish control option and let loose some pre-programmed combos. Once you’ve gotten a handle on everything, the gradually increasing difficulty of the Abyss and Score Attack Modes ought to give you a decent run for your money. But if you think you’ve truly mastered everything (or you’re a gaming masochist), the Unlimited Mars Mode pits you against a gauntlet of super-powered versions of each character, set to the highest difficulty level. It’s definitely for the hardcore players; if you just think you know how to play, you probably won’t survive a single round.

If you want something a little less soul-crushing, the multiplayer is a better choice. There’s the usual assortment of ranked and player matches, complete with search functions for skill level, area, connectivity, etc. You can customize your profile with character icons, messages, and decorations. If you don’t want to spend time reading through a list of potential opponents, you can submit your profile for a match, then enjoy the other game modes. When someone else wants to play, you’ll just get a pop-up message offering a fight. It’s pretty handy when you don’t want to sit around waiting for other gamers to show up. If you prefer a more direct approach, you can use the game’s online lobby. Rather than giving you a bland assortment of menus and brackets, you’re granted an 8-bit avatar and whisked away into a virtual arcade where you can text with and challenge anyone inside. It looks ridiculous and ugly, but at 64 players per room, no one’s going to care about the aesthetics. The lack of voice chat and YouTube replay connectivity are disappointing, though. The fights, however, are an entirely different matter. The BlazBlue series has always had great netcode, but Chrono Phantasma has a few kinks that need working out. The matches occasionally suffer some lag, which doesn’t bode well for the technically demanding gameplay. Choosing an opponent from the ranking list is hit or miss at best, and the profile stats don’t always update correctly. Hopefully these issues can be rectified in the coming weeks.

At least the visuals keep you distracted. The universe of BlazBlue is a gorgeous, vibrant, and often bizarre work of art. Arakune is a gigantic, disgusting blob of slime, but his fluid animations puts most 2D characters to shame. You can practically feel the weight when Noel hefts up her cannon for a super attack. Azrael’s aura not only absorbs projectiles, but gives him an intimidating, blood-red glow. That’s aside from all the character-specific intros and mid-fight banter; those little details show just how much attention and effort was put fleshing the fighters out. Since the story takes place in a different city, there’s a nice assortment of new backgrounds. There’s something strangely fitting about fighting Jin Kisaragi – the deranged master of swords and ice – in the middle of a peaceful, snow-covered village. The soundtrack is more familiar with its remixes of certain themes (Taokaka’s Catus Carnival II theme is amazing on the violin), but the blend of classical and metal may not be for everyone. Nor will the updated voice acting; the new Bang sounds great, but longtime fans will notice the difference immediately. That’s just a minor point, though. The amount of talent and effort put into making these characters come alive is far more than what most fighting games can muster.

It’s about time. The BlazBlue series started on the PS3, so it’s only appropriate it’d be one of the last fighters to send it off. As the third game in the series, Chrono Phantasma has some tough acts to follow. For the most part, it succeeds. Parts of the lengthy story finally reach their conclusion, allowing the narrative the foundation it needs for the next inevitable installment. Aside from a few missteps, the newcomers are awesome and add plenty to an already diverse cast. The basic gameplay mechanics are unchanged, but the sheer amount of techniques and skills needed to master this game are almost overwhelming. The detailed training and brutally difficult modes ought to keep seasoned players interested. The simplified control mode keeps things accessible for everyone else. Though the multiplayer still has a few things to sort ought, it’s still fun to play. Chrono Phantasma might be a fine ending to the trilogy, but BlazBlue won’t be over any time soon.

Originally posted here.