Hyrule Warriors Legends Review

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, if only it all worked that well.

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

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

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

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

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

Originally posted here.

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Xenoblade Chronicles 3D Review

Oh, I want to get away…

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

They’ll have to settle with Shulk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

When was the last time you got lost?

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.

Bravely Default Review

Communication Breakdown…

The realm of Luxendarc is on the brink of destruction. The oceans have gone stagnant, trapping travelers on land. The winds have dropped to a standstill, and the heat has become unbearable. A volcano in the southwest has erupted, reducing the surrounding countryside a fiery, smoky wasteland. But for Tiz Arrior, the impending apocalypse just became personal. His idyllic hometown of Norende was devoured by a gigantic chasm, and he was the sole survivor. In his throes of sadness and guilt, Tiz wants to salvage what little of his life remains. He’s teamed up with Agnes Oblige, an aloof young maiden with mysterious powers. She thinks restoring four corrupted elemental crystals will fix everything, but she’s too busy being hunted down by the authorities. They’re joined by Ringabel, an amnesiac Casanova wannabe, and Edea Lee, the antagonist’s daughter gone rogue. The fate of the world depends on these four unlikely heroes. They just have to survive long enough to save it.

Sound familiar? A group of heroes traveling around the world in order to prevent an apocalypse is one of the most common plots in the RPG genre. It’s a reliable way to structure an adventure; the player is immersed in a fantasy world, and hopefully the characters develop along the way. It can be brilliant or bland, depending on how it’s written. Wary of making another stale RPG, Square Enix designed Bravely Default as a deconstruction of the cliches expected of such a game. It’s difficult to explain without getting into spoilers, but there’s something off about this world-saving journey. If an entire army is mobilized to stop you, there might be a good reason for it. Though enemies can be cruel and outright homicidal, not everyone against you is automatically evil. Nor are allies saints, for that matter. Before gallivanting off on your quest and killing monsters, maybe you should actually think things through and find better solutions. The wisest character in the story even explains the meaning of the “Bravely Default” phrase: you need to be brave enough to decide and act on your own accord, and not blindly follow someone else.

It’s an interesting take on old school RPG conventions. It could’ve been amazing, had the story not shot itself in the foot around the halfway point. The narrative leaves little room for subtlety; a character directly stating the core theme of the game is just the tip of the iceberg. Much of our heroes’ hardships could’ve been avoided had everyone just stopped and talked things out. The antagonists don’t want anyone touching those magical crystals, but won’t say why. The few people helping you aren’t doing so just out of the goodness of their hearts, so you should listen closer to what they say. The problem is that no one – on either side – is willing to communicate. Edea is the biggest offender; her rampant idealism (hence the pun) prevents her from taking more objective and practical actions. She suffers the consequences of it multiple times. It’d be easier to feel sorry for her, had her character development not been so predictable. Agnes is even worse; her narrow-mindedness makes her seem stubborn and naive. Tiz has no personality beyond survivor guilt and a desire to rebuild his town. Once those problems are resolved, his relevance quickly fades. Ringabel is the only one pragmatic enough to figure things out, but his amnesia lingers for the sake of drama.

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Not that it really matters, though. If you pay attention during the side-quests, the game tells you the big twist several hours before it comes up normally. There are lengthy explanations that couldn’t possibly be misinterpreted. If you act on this information, you can cut the game’s length in half and call it a day…but you won’t get the true ending or any of its bonus content. This completely undermines the point of the story; you’re given an opportunity to act independently and end the game on your terms, but you’re only rewarded if you keep blindly following the original plan. If you choose the latter option, most of the objectives and dialogue remain unchanged despite the huge revelations. As a result, the characters look ridiculously stupid and gullible. The adventure becomes less and less interesting with each passing hour; you stop caring about the story and wish it’ll end sooner. Reaching the true ending becomes a tedious, repetitive exercise. If just a couple of chapters were cut, the pacing could’ve been salvaged. When the characters start complaining in-game about how pointless and nonsensical things have gotten, you know something’s wrong.

It’s especially frustrating because, aside from flawed narrative and pacing issues, Bravely Default does everything else so well. Unlike most recent fantasy games, its gameplay is designed as a throwback to the turn-based combat mechanics of old console RPGs. Instead of racking up hits one at a time, you get to choose between the Brave and Default commands. The Brave option lets your character attack and use items up to four times per turn, but leaves you wide open for a counter move. Defaulting lets you guard against attacks, take less damage, and save up Brave Points for more powerful moves on the next turn. If you’ve got a foolproof plan and don’t want the hassle of pressing buttons, you can set the battle on automatic mode and turn up the animation speed. It’s fast-paced, easy to use, and much more strategic than it first appears. Since your opponents use the same system, winning major battles requires extensive multitasking. Spamming attacks only gets you so far. Not only do you have to deal damage, but keep the party covered against status ailments and debuffs, maintain enough magic to perform healing and offensive spells, and defend against everything else as well. Bosses are more akin to puzzles than fights. You have to figure out what abilities and weaknesses they have, and how to get around them. It’s not just about having the strongest equipment stats or leveling up; if you go in unprepared, you will get slaughtered.

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You’re given plenty of options, though. Bravely Default boasts 24 character classes, each with unique stats and techniques. As you win battles, you’ll level up in class and acquire new attacks and spells. Most of them are straightforward, like the White Mage’s healing, the Performer’s stat buffs, and the Thief’s speed and stealing. Others, such as the Merchant and Salve-Maker, are more specialized in terms of the party’s funds and item usage. Since each character can have a primary and secondary class at a time, you have to figure out which combinations offer the best balance. The key to mastering the game isn’t about specializing in one class, but in all of them. As you unlock more support abilities, you’ll be able to choose and equip them individually. The Ninja is great by itself, but its Transience and Dual Wield abilities can make you unstoppable when combined with the Red Mage’s Turn Tables technique and the Swordmaster’s Katana Lore. If you’re getting killed multiple times in battle, a pair of Vampire and Dark Knight abilities let you deal tons of damage per KO, and a fifty percent chance on auto-reviving on the next turn. A little experimentation can work wonders. While unlocking all these powers requires tons of level grinding, the tactical options they provide are worth the effort…

Unless you want to do it the easy way. Square Enix must have been aware how painfully tedious all those hours could’ve been, because they designed the multiplayer to help you as much as possible. If you’ve got other Bravely Default players on your 3DS friend list, you can sync them into your game. There’s no competitive battling – that would’ve been amazing – but you can browse each other’s classes. If their characters have higher levels, you can link them to your party and use their techniques. If utilized well, you’ll gain access end-game abilities long before you’d be able to alone. You can send and receive customized attacks as well. If you’re having trouble with a boss, check your friends list; if you summon someone with high damage stats, your fearsome opponent might crumble in a single hit. It’s a cheap tactic, but it’s completely optional. So is the Bravely Second DLC, which lets you freeze time to do more damage. If you don’t want to pay, you have to accumulate points by putting the 3DS in sleep mode. While not necessary, it provides an incentive to use StreetPass. The more players you connect with, the faster you’ll be able to complete the game’s Norende restoration mini-game. It’s bland and simplistic, but finishing it unlocks several powerful weapons, armor, and an endless supply of items. It also lets you tackle the game’s bonus bosses, which are far more challenging than anything you’ll find in the story.

Or more interesting, for that matter. The game’s bestiary has nearly 200 entries, but they’re mostly variations on orcs, bats, zombies, and other generic RPG enemies. The bosses are designed with more creativity and personality. Some, like the swordsmen Khint and Kamiizumi, are soft-spoken and intimidating. Barbarossa is just as boisterous as his pirate costume and oversized axe imply. Praline is ridiculous, though; her peppy music and Japanese pop star-style costume are completely out of place in the grim, war-torn Luxendarc. While such designs are meant to make the bosses more appealing to the player, their presentations are flawed. Rather than interacting with the party for the sake of character development, the majority of their information comes from Ringabel’s journal. There are hundreds of pages that cover every aspect of the game. Since you probably won’t bother reading the records, you’ll miss the depth and motivations driving your antagonists. Instead, you’ll just track them down, enjoy some voiced dialogue, and stop caring once you’ve won. Only a few characters get the attention they deserve. The game tries to distract you from such shortcomings by showing off some absolutely gorgeous settings. Visiting a town is like looking at a piece of art; the first time you see Caldisla, it’ll be hard not to stop staring at moving clouds, the shadows, or the beautiful vistas in the distance. Ancheim isn’t just a bustling merchant haven, but a massive, intricate clock as well. These places feel alive, making you want to save them even more.

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It’s sad. Few games manage to be both awesome and terrible, but Bravely Default pulls it off. The turn-based combat mechanics are fun to use and test your strategic and multitasking abilities. The wide variety of unlockable classes and techniques give you plenty of opportunities to build the perfect party. This is one of the few 3DS titles to implement online connectivity in productive and interesting ways. Not only does it let you interact with other gamers, but enriches the single player experience as well. There are great design ideas, and hopefully other developers will take note. Despite all these amazing features, however, the immensely flawed and repetitive nature of adventure can’t be ignored. RPGs need a decent story to succeed; they need to engage the player and keep them interested for the dozens of hours required for completion. It should feel satisfying, not like a chore. While Bravely Default deconstructs some elements of its genre well, it falls apart in its latter half. If a game spells out its own themes and has predictable twists, it’s hard to stay emotionally invested. After a while, you stop caring about the characters and what they’re trying to accomplish. Maybe Luxendarc just needs to be saved from its saviors.

Originally posted here: http://www.gamefaqs.com/3DS/729328-bravely-default/reviews/review-157818

All image source credits go to The Gamer Nerd, Pocket Gamer UK, Senpai Gamer, and the original artists of the works respectively.