Soundtrack Saturdays: Guilty Gear Xrd – Icarus

Last week, I chose Guilty Gear Xrd’s ending arcade theme. Since then, I’ve been looking through the rest of the game’s excellent soundtrack. Daisuke Ishiwatari is a huge Queen fan (the main character is even named after Freddie Mercury!), so a power ballad like “Icarus” is practically expected. However, there are plenty of other songs that worth a listen. “Heavy Day” has some great vocals and riffs, “Jack-a-Dandy” has a nice jazzy sound, and even the “Menu Theme” is a fine acoustic guitar mix. Pretty sure I know what my first playlist of 2015 is going to be…

If you want more Guilty Gear Xrd, you can find the full OST here.

Good gaming, good music.

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Soundtrack Saturdays: Guilty Gear Xrd – Lily

Fun fact: Street Fighter II Turbo was the only fighting game I played as a kid. No, seriously. I didn’t know about King of Fighters, Tekken, Virtua Fighter, or any of the other iconic brawlers of the old school gaming generation. So imagine my shock when I first played Guilty Gear X2, one of the greatest fighting games on the PS2. It had incredibly detailed sprites, edgy and stylish characters, fantastic settings, stunning special effects, and an absolutely killer soundtrack. My world was rocked; for that time onward, I made a point of playing every Guilty Gear game I could get my hands on.

I wasn’t the only one, either. After years of re-releases, the fans finally got the next-gen sequel they’d demanded. Guilty Gear Xrd was recently released for the PS3 and PS4, just in time for the holiday season. And from what I’ve played so far, it’s exactly what everyone wanted: several badass characters, stellar voice acting, blisteringly fast-paced combat, incredibly technical gameplay, and graphics that utterly trounce any 2D fighter before it. Of course, it has a ridiculously awesome OST. There’s the usual blends of rock and metal, though there are a few more lighthearted tracks scattered throughout. Daisuke Ishiwatari, the legendary director, artist, writer, and composer behind the Guilty Gear series, happens to be a huge Queen fan. Tracks like “Lily” are fine examples of the work he does.

If you want more Guilty Gear Xrd, you can find the full OST here.

Good gaming, good music.

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.

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.