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.

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.

Soundtrack Saturdays: Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons Of Liberty Theme

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When it was released, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons Of Liberty was the one of the most anticipated sequels in gaming history. What no one anticipated was how much of a mind-screw it would be. MGS2 has become a modern classic, in terms of both postmodern storytelling and gameplay mechanics. It was bigger and better than its predecessor in pretty much every way, and its soundtrack was no exception. If you’re into movies, this composition will sound familiar; most of MGS2’s music was arranged by none other than Harry Gregson-Williams, part of Hans Zimmer’s award-winning Hollywood studio. This particular version was done by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

If you want more MGS2 goodness, you can find the full soundtrack here.

Good gaming, good music.

Soundtrack Saturdays: Persona 4 – Reach Out To The Truth

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A recent Daily Prompt got me thinking about the importance of truth. It’s actually the main theme of Persona 4, arguably one of the finest video games (and adaptations of Carl Jung’s work) released in the past decade. The entire point of the story is to seek the truth, and this song hammers it in hard. It was catchy enough to spawn a few remixes, including a live version. So if you want to rock out even more, give the Persona 4 OST a listen.

Good gaming, good music.