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?

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

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

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

You have three days to save the world. Go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Also posted here.

Animal Crossing: New Leaf Review

You wanna go where everybody knows your name…

Moving to this town might have been a mistake. When you first arrive, it barely resembles civilization. There are only a handful of residents, a few run-down shacks selling their wares, and sparse vegetation. No pavement or lighting. The river has more garbage than fish. An old dock is rotting away on the beach. The desperation is palpable; the villagers nominate you as their new mayor almost the second your feet touch the ground. That’s a bad sign. Your predecessor must have been a horrendous leader. It’s such a shame. All the potential this town had to offer, and this is the best they could do? Your new neighbors deserve better, and you’re the only one who can make it happen.

You have to take care of yourself first, though. You don’t have a place to stay, but a generous fellow named Tom Nook offers to build a house and gives you an unlimited time to repay him. It seems fine, until you get the bill. There’s a lot of zeros involved. Thankfully, New Leaf provides several ways to make money. Much like any Animal Crossing game, it starts off small and humble, usually with seashell collecting or fruit harvesting. Take whatever you’ve scrounged up over to the nearest shop and sell it for pocket change. Meet the neighbors, do a few odd jobs. Furnish your little home one piece of furniture at a time. Get some spare clothes. Put the rest in the bank account, and watch the numbers add up. Rinse and repeat, hour after hour, day after day. It’s just like real life, except with talking animals. Eventually, you get enough cash to pay off the house, but Nook will coax you into renovating it further. Then the whole process repeats itself multiple times, culminating with you running out of floor space for your massive hoard of items. The transition from flea-ridden tent to a six-room mansion takes many hours and over 7.5 million dollars, but it is worth the effort.

While every Animal Crossing game is structured in the same way, New Leaf adds several new aspects to keep things interesting. Aside from the Happy Home Academy grading and the hidden Feng Shui decorating systems, Nook now runs a home exterior customization service. Various doors, fences, pavement, and entire architectural makeovers are available. The bland, generic houses can be tricked out with fairy tale-style spires, humongous modern windows, or even Japanese Zen Buddhist temple rooftops. The upgraded furniture list now boasts over 1,200 collectibles spanning multiple sets and motifs. If you’re a completionist, prepare to be in for a long haul; items appear randomly in the store, so getting full sets requires some patience. The process is mitigated by the new Happy Home Showcase. By utilizing the 3DS’s Streetpass system, you can view other players’ houses and order nearly everything inside. Though it’s only limited to five shipments per day, it’s immensely useful in finding obscure items and sets. However, there’s no in-game list that shows what you already own. If you’re not careful, you could waste thousands on extra furniture. Even something as simple a checkmark on an object’s description would’ve saved a lot of hassle. Once you’ve loaded up on stuff, you should indulge in the newly-implemented refurbishing service. With some expensive gemstones and patience, your furniture can be redone in more stylish colors. As nearly everything in your home can be altered, crafting your dream home is easier than ever.

That goes for the clothing options as well. There are hundreds of shirts, dresses, skirts, shorts, pants, hats, eyewear, and shoes to collect. You can be a ninja, pirate, doctor, mummy, ballerina, witch, wrestler, schoolgirl, steampunk noble…the possibilities go on and on. That’s just with the clothes you can find in the stores; thanks to the game’s impressive pattern-making menu, it’s possible to make and share complex designs. It’s a feature that debuted in Animal Crossing: City Folk, but the touch screen makes it much easier to handle. Since your work is converted into QR codes, uploading and giving out designs online is a simple process. Just a quick Google search results in intricate, stylish designs and countless cosplay outfits. It’s amazing how much can be done with such a simple editing tool. This is one of the few Nintendo games to utilize the 3DS’s camera and Internet functionality so well. The ability to wear any clothes and hairstyle regardless of gender is a neat addition as well; my avatar rocks the Street Fighter Chun-Li look.

The game isn’t just about you, though. While it’s easy to forget that you’re mayor, paying attention to the town is important. Your patronage upgrades the shop’s inventory, eventually unlocking a stylish boutique with rare furniture and clothes. Even if it’s just to access the pattern-maker, there’s something heartwarming about visiting Sable every day and getting past her shyness. You’ll eventually get the tools needed to plant trees, catch bugs, and go fishing, all of which become the cornerstone for your financial success. The whole landscape can be converted into a huge, profitable fruit orchard. Many of the collectibles can be donated to the local museum, which results in a massive aquarium, insect garden, archeological exhibit, and art gallery. Getting that last part is particularly tricky; the art have real-life counterparts, so you need to able to tell which ones being sold are fakes. It’s a clever nod to art and cultural fans, and it’s nice having works like The Great Wave off Kanagawa and the Winged Victory of Samothrace on display at home. If you’re not obsessed with collecting, you can spend more time developing the town with sidewalks, benches, fountains, and a slew of other public works projects. If you’re creative and hardworking enough, you can turn your town into anything from Hogwarts to Silent Hill.

Getting that far, however, requires more than just cash and imagination; it requires time. New Leaf’s in-game clock runs on real time, which means things change depending on what hours, days, and months you play. Depending on the time of year, the trees will change colors and different species of wild animals will appear. Most real-world holidays are celebrated, too; even if you play sporadically, you might stumble across a special event. If you play long enough during the day, you’ll notice how the game’s lighting, background music, and weather gradually change with each passing hour. If you’re up too late at night, you’ll find all the stores closed and the townsfolk already asleep. Speaking of whom, your neighbors enjoy some one-on-one interaction; be it chores, giving items, or sending letters, they appreciate the attention and will warm to you accordingly. There are over 300 different characters, but only a handful can live in town at a time. They have a small range of personality traits; some are upbeat and peppy, while others are cranky or lazy. It’s charming at first, but it won’t take long to see the extent of their quirks. Compared to Tomodachi Lifea technically inferior game in every other wayNew Leaf’s character interactions are boring and shallow. Aside from acquiring specific public works project requests and rare items, there’s no reason to interact with them. If you ignore them or alter the clock’s settings long enough, they’ll eventually leave town. Unless you’re obsessed with keeping inhabitants, losing one isn’t going to matter much.

Instead, you’ll probably spend more time with real people. You can invite other players into your town (or visit theirs) via WiFi or local wireless. It’s mainly used for item trading or auctioning off certain townsfolk, but the process is tedious. There’s no way to transfer objects or money directly from the menus. You have to dump everything out on the ground and hope the other person doesn’t steal. It’d be much easier to have a trading system in Pokemon X/Y’s style; there could be a preview image and a price attached to it, as well as a way to back out of the transaction. Also, the game only lets you communicate via the touch screen keyboard. You’re limited to short phrases at a time, which gets annoying when you’re trying to hold a conversation. The lack of microphone functionality is a huge oversight, especially considering that the last Animal Crossing featured it. After the business is handled, you can ride out to the game’s tropical island and play mini-games. Stuff like balloon popping and item collecting is fun the first couple of times, but there’s a lot of room for development. During your inevitable solo sessions, you’ll likely spend most of the time on the island’s shores, catching the rare – and valuable – insects that spawn there year-round. Doing so makes money a non-issue, allowing you to quickly amass a nearly endless fortune.

It won’t last, though. If you don’t have enough friends or interest in designing your own stuff, you’ll eventually burn out. With no ultimate objective aside from earning money and collecting items, the experience feels increasingly hollow over time. It’s easy to forget to log in for days, then weeks, then months. By the time you remember and come back, you’ll find the town covered in weeds and inhabited by complete strangers. You might catch a fish or dig up a fossil, only to realize that you’ve already found everything and have more cash than you’ll ever need. You’ll fondly remember when the game seemed fresh and new, when you felt the rush of finding some rare furniture, or the satisfaction of creating something unique. With the sheer amount of items and customization options, those moments can be plentiful and rewarding. It’s a reality brimming with potential, if slightly flawed and inherently limited. In the end, Animal Crossing: New Leaf is only as great as the effort you put into it. It truly is a simulation of life.

*Originally posted here.

Soundtrack Saturdays: Super Smash Bros. 4 – Gerudo Valley Remix

Since its release at the beginning of October, all of my gaming time has been relegated to the new Smash Bros. Having a game of this scope and scale is a double-edged sword; it’s by far the most extensive title on the 3DS, but due to hardware limitations, it’s not quite as good as its predecessor on the Wii. This is especially true when it comes to the soundtrack, which has only a fraction of Brawl’s mind-blowingly huge playlist. That doesn’t mean the music is bad, though; Rio Hamamoto shows off a new flamenco remix of the classic Gerudo Valley theme from Ocarina of Time. The original was amazing enough (seriously, give it a listen), but the instrumentals in the new version add so much energy.

If you want more Super Smash Bros. 4, you can find the full OST here.

Good gaming, good music.

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.

Tomodachi Life Review

“Ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby…”

When it was first unveiled, Tomodachi Life was considered one of the strangest things Nintendo had ever made. The idea was simple enough: create an entire community of Mii townsfolk, give them basic necessities, and let them have their own day-to-day adventures. It’s rather telling that a wacky life simulator with customizable characters is weirder than things like Fire Flowers, Metroids, or Tingle. The game’s selling point wasn’t just that you could create anyone you wanted; it was the ability to turn the mundane – eating breakfast, having dreams, going out to the park, etc. – into the bizarre. At a glance, it’s easy to believe Tomodachi Life accomplishes everything it promises. But once you get into the daily grind, you’ll realize this simulation is far more tedious and unrewarding than it looks.

Oh, it seems fine at first. You’re tasked with populating your island, either by creating new Mii avatars, importing from your 3DS system, or downloading QR codes from an online database. The initial options are taken straight out of the 3DS’s Mii Maker; you’re given several choices of head shape, facial features, eye and skin color, and hairstyles. It’s not until you access the voice programming that things get interesting. Not only can every character speak, but their voices can be tweaked for age range, speed, pitch, tone, accent, and even intonation. By no means does it perfectly mimic human speech, but it’s far better than what you’d expect from a handheld game. The designers also had the foresight to include customizable pronunciation, just in case the computer doesn’t understand your inputs. The most impressive aspect, however, is the personality builder. You’re given spectra in which to measure a character’s movement speed, politeness, expressiveness, attitude, and even quirkiness. Much like in real life, these aspects make a huge impact in how the Miis operate and interact. For example, my personal Mii is quick, direct, somewhat expressive, mostly serious, and absolutely weird. She’s designated as a Confident Adventurer. Darth Vader, on the other hand, is slow, deadpan, and takes himself way too seriously.

Yeah, you read that right. Darth Vader is my Mii’s next door neighbor. When you can program anyone into your game, such wackiness is inevitable. The majority of Tomodachi Life’s humor comes from those slice of life interactions among unlikely friends. Bowser didn’t even look at Princess Peach; he fell in love with Bayonetta and married her within a week. They even have a child now – they named him Jason – who has his mother’s hair and his father’s fangs. Captain Picard thinks I’m his BFF, and it’s only a matter of time before Batman proposes to me. Gordon Freeman occasionally goes out for coffee with Luigi and Travis Touchdown. Though managing up to 100 residents might seem daunting, the game’s info displays make it easy to keep track of friendships and romances. You’re tasked with introducing characters and manipulating the major points of their relationships, giving you ample opportunities to partake in the drama. It’s like reading bad fan fiction, only with more control over the characters’ choices.

Regardless of who you put on the island, the objective remains the same: make them happy. When you look at the apartment building, flashing icons indicate a problem needing to be resolved. It’s usually something simple, like feeding someone or giving them new clothes and advice. Sometimes they’ll ask for fancier things, like a bath set, camera, a new room background, or a specific item. You’ve got to be careful, though; if you give them stuff they hate or bad advice, they’ll end up even more miserable. If the Miis get enough of whatever they need, they’ll reward you with money, items, and expensive gifts that can be sold for more cash. The characters’ happiness ratings level up individually, allowing you to give them presents to expand on their hobbies and social lives. Most are practical, like books, laptops, and sports equipment, while things like the Wii U and the metal detector are more for laughs. Then again, watching Ganondorf practicing the Hula is pretty entertaining in itself. If you don’t want to spoil the characters too much, the leveling system can be used to teach them new phrases and songs, and change their apartment interior. The more stuff the Miis have, the more they’ll interact with each other and develop their relationships.

It’d be a great concept, if the game actually made it fun.

The whole cycle of buying supplies, leveling up happiness, and getting cash gets old within minutes. You’ll spend most of the time just staring at the apartment complex and visiting whoever needs help. There’s very little variety in terms of problems and how they’re phrased. Everyone seems to love “practicing their funny faces” and vocally impersonating their friends. Others just want the same bath time, have identical stomach problems, etc. Even special items get stale fast; I’ve used several travel tickets, but my Miis often end up on the same vacations. The game tries to hide the repetitiveness with a small selection of touch screen-based mini-games. These usually involve catching falling items, matching icons from memory, and identifying items in pixelated or silhouetted images. That last one is particularly overused; after the first dozen or so games, you’ll likely have memorized most of the answers! It’s not like any of the mini-games are particularly difficult or rewarding, either. Success merely grants you another sellable trinket, and the sheer amount of opportunities to play takes the sting out of failure. Even the interactive dreams – some of which are admittedly hilarious – lose their appeal after repeated viewings. How many times can you watch someone dream they’re a Super Sentai character, race like snails, or chase a plate of food on a string?

Things get slightly better once you leave the apartment complex. There are nearly 20 locations on your virtual island, each with their own activities and features. However, most of them are strictly for utility; you’ll only have to visit the clothing shops, apartment interiors, and grocery store once a day. Even the town hall, which could’ve been used for all kinds of social functions, serves as little more than a Mii creator and index. The rankings board and its extensive amount of information would’ve been great if you actually, you know, cared about the characters. The beach, observation tower, and amusement park are utterly disappointing. Oh sure, you can watch your Miis run along the shore or ride a roller coaster…but that’s all you can do. You can’t change the camera angle, let alone do anything beyond taking funny screenshots. There’s no exploration, no details, nothing at all to keep you interested for more than a few seconds. There’s an optional NES-style RPG with turn-based combat mechanics, but it lacks customizable stats based on Miis’ clothes, optional weapons, leveling, or anything else resembling depth. Even the cafe, in which characters indulge in Seinfeldian conversations, gets repetitive after the first few minutes. You’ll hear the same tales of someone buying a pirate ship, hair problems, their latest obsessions, and bribing professional singers with cake. Let them go long enough, and someone will point out how they always talk about the same things. When the characters notice how repetitive things have gotten, it’s a bad sign.

While nearly all the attractions on the island are one-dimensional, the concert hall is the only thing remotely interesting. Miis can learn to sing eight song styles, such as metal, pop, opera, and techno. Though every song has a default tune already programmed, you’re allowed to change the lyrics. Even if you’re not going for a parody, watching your Miis trying to reenact Broadway-style musicals is hilarious. The animations are a little jerky, but whoever programmed those vocals and dance moves did an impressive job. The same can be said for the customization in general; you might not have much interactivity with your characters, but you can certainly make them look nice. There are hundreds of potential outfits and accessories, ranging from simple t-shirts and bandanas to gothic dresses and suits of armor. The various apartment backgrounds got the most love, though. Your Miis can live in the middle of movie theaters, Japanese arcades, golden temples, ice palaces, star-studded galaxies, and dozens more. Some of them are absolutely dazzling, tempting you into believing that buying all of them is worth it. But no matter how well you dress it up, you’ll still be confronted with the same lackluster gameplay.

The shallow design becomes especially apparent once you activate StreetPass. You can send and receive Miis – but only the children of married couples – along with special items and accessories. Aside from selecting the single export for your island, the wireless functionality serves no purpose. There are no additional mini-games or activity beyond greeting your visitors. This is a gargantuan oversight in terms of the game’s design; rather than just importing and exporting an item through chance meetings, it would’ve made more sense to develop it around an online multiplayer experience. Islands could’ve been used as hubs for gamers to visit and exchange goods. There could’ve been an option to design and sell clothes, or put rarer items up for auction. How about playable volleyball at the beach? Rather than just watch characters enjoy the amusement park, there could’ve been a way for you to develop and customize the attractions to appeal to other gamers. Instead of featuring bland, repetitive chunks of fake dialogue, the cafe could’ve used the 3DS’s microphone to let gamers hold live conversations. The sheer amount of missed opportunities is mind-boggling.

I wanted to like Tomodachi Life. Really, I thought it had a lot of potential. The concept is clever. The ability to customize voices and personality is an impressive accomplishment; it’s far more extensive than what you’d find in Animal Crossing or similarly-designed games. Despite such advancements, the game loses sight of the most fundamental aspects of gameplay: making something fun, and giving players a reason to care about its characters. Rather than having a fully fleshed-out world, this is nothing but a bare-bones collection of repetitive mini-games. It doesn’t even bother trying to hide it, either. There’s no satisfaction in shoving food and trinkets into an avatar in attempt to level up their happiness; <i>true</i> gaming satisfaction should come from building a little world for yourself from scratch and enjoying the results. Tomodachi Life demonstrates the real problem with life simulators; regardless of humor and bizarre situations, they’re limited to their programming. In the end, real life will always be better.

*Originally posted here.

Contra: Evolution Review

Shot through the heart…

Once upon a time, there was a game called Contra. While it wasn’t the first run-and-gun scrolling game, it was probably the best of its kind. It featured Bill Rizer and Lance Bean, whose flagrant machismo and Rambo-esque exploits made them stand out amongst other arcade heroes. With their trusty, oversized guns at the ready, they bravely ventured forth into a futuristic wasteland and systematically slaughtered an invading alien horde. It was a grueling, harrowing task. Not only were the enemies and landscapes unforgiving, but the heroes could die with a single hit. Beating Contra quickly became the stuff of childhood legend; no one would blame a young gamer for resorting to the now-famous Konami Code and all the extra lives it offered. The game’s reputation only grew from there, spawning a long-running series that spanned decades and consoles alike. With the advent of smartphones and tablets, Contra was poised to make a triumphant return for a whole new generation…

And it failed miserably.

The problems with Contra: Evolution begin before the game even starts. Due to a programming bug, the app crashes almost every time you make it past the first menu. It looks so full of promise; a few bonus modes, a couple of unlockable characters, flashy colors…and a loading screen that takes so long that it freezes. After being kicked back out into your phone’s home screen, you summon enough patience for a second attempt. The official Konami logo pops up, almost reassuring you that no, this was all just a silly misunderstanding. The title screen appears again, giving you shadowy glimpses of the alien queen and desolate, fiery wasteland. Eagerly, you start up Arcade Mode and watch the little red loading icon spin merrily in the corner…and suddenly you’re back on the home screen, this time with a slight but ever-growing headache.

When the law of averages (or just blind luck) finally works in your favor, the game will load and you’ll be thrust into Contra’s world. If you grew up with the older game, it’s easy to be swept away by the nostalgia; the iconic levels have all been revamped with updated graphics and backgrounds. The rocky outcroppings and tree lines have better textures and scaling, and that first wall boss actually looks metallic. The characters look better proportioned and animated. Not bad, you might think. Maybe this will be worth it after all! Then you try actually getting through the first level, and you realize how horribly wrong you were. As a run-and-gun game, the original Contra required accurate directional inputs; responsive controls allowed you turn around, duck under enemy fire, aim at different angles, jump to avoid attacks, and manage the uneven terrain. In Contra: Evolution, the controls are mapped to a touch screen directional pad and a jump button. It would’ve been fine, if the buttons actually responded to your fingers. Missed landings and ducks, accidental kamikaze runs into enemy fire, and abysmally inaccurate diagonal shots are common.

The control layout makes things physically worse as well. The original Contra was built as an arcade game, with a large display and easily-accessible buttons. When you try to cram all of that into a smartphone screen, everything becomes cluttered and difficult to see. The buttons obscure huge chunks of either side of the level, which potentially leads to unnecessary deaths. Not that it’ll matter much, though; there are fewer enemies to kill, and your characters fire their weapons automatically. As you’re frantically wrangling with the controls, you might mow down a small army unintentionally. The game has the usual assortment of laser beams, spread shots, and machine gun power-ups, but you probably won’t need them. Since you spend in-game gems on extra lives, it’s possible to finish the game in a single blind run. However, using those extra collectibles can come back to haunt you; without gems, you can’t earn as much money for weapon upgrades or character levels. That’s where the game tries to trick you into using in-app purchases. You can either grind through levels with the frustrating controls, or you can spend a few more dollars to max out all of the stats. But you don’t need to; the game is beatable without additional upgrades. It’s just thinly-veiled attempt to fake longevity and get your money.

The game desperately tries to keep your attention with its extra challenges. The Mission Mode puts you back into the same levels, but with focus on high scores, completion times, and the number of deaths. Elite Mode does something similar; the weakest cannon fodder enemies take more hits, explode after dying, etc. It’s a welcome twist on the otherwise bland gameplay, but still lacks creativity. Nostalgia-prone gamers will likely dive right into Boss Rush, though the luster fades quickly. There are trophies and leaderboards to contend with, but they’re probably not worth the time. Your efforts also result in more funds for weapon upgrades, as well as medals that go towards unlocking another character. Unlike Bill and Lance, Ricci and Sally have more unique play styles; the former can dual-wield guns, and the latter a katana and shurikens. They exist for the sole purpose of adding variety and bragging rights – killing an alien queen with a shuriken is pretty cool – but offer little else. It would’ve been interesting to see a story mode, some dialogue, or anything resembling a reason to keep playing.

But there isn’t. Contra: Evolution is easily the worst version of its classic predecessor. It’s as if the designers attempted to capture everything that was awesome about the arcade experience, only to completely miss why it was great. Yes, the graphics look amazing for a cell phone game. Yes, there’s plenty of nostalgia go around. But the joy of Contra didn’t come from its graphical details; it was due to the satisfaction of surviving the brutally difficult levels and mastering the controls. There’s none of it to be found here; the touch screen buttons are clunky and unresponsive, the continue system makes it easy to blindly charge through levels, and there’s no reason to bother with any of the extra features. The hardest part of the game isn’t the bosses, but actually getting it to run in the first place. It’s so glitchy and broken that it makes you want to quit before you even begin. Ironically, Contra: Evolution is anything but.

Originally posted here.