Soundtrack Saturdays: Metal Gear Solid V – Love Deterrence (Acoustic)

I haven’t had much free time to play video games lately, but I’m finally starting to dig into the backlog I’ve accumulated. The first title on my list was Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes. You might recall that I’m a huge Metal Gear fan, and for good reason; the series has some of the best cinematic storytelling and cleverly designed gameplay mechanics in the industry. Ground Zeroes wasn’t a full game; it was essentially an early-release prologue for The Phantom Pain, which came out months later. It’s set in 1975, and you’re tasked with infiltrating an American black site in Cuba – a not-so-subtle commentary on Guantanamo Bay – and rescuing two of your allies imprisoned inside. Despite being a playable preview for the bigger game, Ground Zeroes more than proves its concept; you’re allowed to freely explore this massive map, discover its layout, and evade dozens of guards the entire time. The interactivity with objects and vehicles, the use of lighting and perspective, and the acoustics of the rain and voices are amazing.

What I enjoyed most, however, was the music. The series has always been known for its killer soundtracks, but only a handful of the games let you change the background music during gameplay. This time, you can listen to different cassette tapes – again, this is 1975 – thus giving your spy mission a little more flavor. One of the unlockable songs is this acoustic version of Paz’s character theme, “Love Deterrence.” She’s one of the prisoners you have to save, and the somber, romantic guitar melody sums up her relationship with Big Boss perfectly. Explaining the details would spoil the story of Peace Walker, but let’s just say there’s a good reason why a young woman like Paz would be locked up in a military prison…

If you want something a little more lighthearted, you can hear the original J-Pop version of “Love Deterrence” from Peace Walker here. If you want more Metal Gear Solid V, you can find the full OST here.

Good gaming, good music.

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Soundtrack Saturdays: Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike – Jazzy NYC ’99

Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike is a serious contender for my favorite game of all time. I could spend hours waxing poetic about its incredible design. How fun it was despite the relatively small roster. How unappreciated it was in its time, simply because of its ridiculously steep learning curve. How its intricate and technical combat mechanics set new standards for the fighting genre. How its complex parrying and combo systems unapologetically demanded memorization down to individual animation frames. How the graphics were some of the finest 2D sprites in the 90s. How high-level play is insanely difficult but extremely entertaining, even almost two decades later. How it’s one of the few games that I’m still willing to play anywhere, anytime.

Yeah, I love 3rd Strike.

What many folks remember it for most, however, is the soundtrack. The playlist borrowed from and blended several genres, most notably jazz, rap, techno, and instrumentals. It was a risky departure from the simpler, traditional game music themes (which Street Fighter II helped establish), but the decision paid off in spades. Jazzy NYC ’99 is arguably the most famous track, for obvious reasons. Its catchy beat goes perfectly with the bustling, gritty city subway in which its stage is located. Even after all these years, any old school fighting game fan will recognize it instantly. That’s a testament to this game’s quality.

If you want more 3rd Strike, you can find the full OST here.

Good gaming, good music.

Soundtrack Saturdays: Persona 4 Arena Ultimax – Break Out Of…

If you’ve been following the blog for a while, you know I’m a huge fan of Persona series, particularly Persona 4. Great writing, well-rounded characters, interesting themes, superb localization, fun gameplay, and an absolutely killer soundtrack. The game has spawned numerous spinoffs, including Ultimax, a fighting game sequel which was released earlier this month. I wrote a lengthy review for it last week. It’s a serious contender for my game of the year, though I’m probably in the minority in that regard. The high standards set by its predecessor were definitely met; until the inevitable release of a new Blaz Blue or Guilty Gear, Ultimax is one of the slickest and most technical 2D fighters out there. This is thanks in part to the soundtrack; this particular song is the main title theme. It matches the game’s fast pacing and tone, and encourages players to “break out” and become who they were meant to be.

If you want more Ultimax…well, you’re going to have to wait. The game is so new, no one has compiled a full OST playlist yet! In the meantime, give soundtrack to the previous game a listen 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.

Soundtrack Saturdays: LittleBigPlanet – Jim Noir: My Patch

Pretty sure I’ve mentioned how the LittleBigPlanet series has one of the most eclectic music libraries in gaming. This is especially evident in the first game, which introduces this awesome little number in one of the earliest levels. Newcomers might think the playlist would be nothing but upbeat rock music, only to discover that vocals and guitars go surprisingly well with platforming gameplay. The song only shows up in a couple of areas, but somehow manages to get you humming along hours after you’ve stopped playing.

If you want more LittleBigPlanet, you can find the full OST here.

Good gaming, good music.

Soundtrack Saturdays: Katamari Forever – Sayonara Rolling Star (Yuri’s Mix)

I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned Katamari Damacy’s eclectic soundtrack before. In a game series where you roll up everything into a giant sticky ball, you’d think the music would be overshadowed the bizarreness. But with each successive title, the remixes and sampling became longer and more complex. This is especially evident in this song; in the original game, it was a mellow electronic tune called Lonely Rolling Star. In Beautiful Katamari, it was revamped as a pop song called Sayonara Rolling Star. In Katamari Forever, it was finally remixed from pop into disco. And it sounds awesome. Fun fact: the song is about lovers parting ways. Seriously.

If you want more Katamari Forever, you can find part of the OST here.

Good gaming, good music.

Soundtrack Saturdays: Ultra Street Fighter IV – Elena’s Theme: Beats In My Head

Video

Last week, I chose the Street Fighter theme of my favorite character, Chun-Li. Earlier this week, however, Capcom released the latest entry in the franchise: Ultra Street Fighter IV. It brings five more fights into the mix, making a total roster of 44 playable characters. Some of them are from Third Strike, my favorite game in the franchise. One of whom is Elena, who was originally designed to showcase the graphical capabilities of 2D sprites. In 1997, she one of the most detailed video game characters ever. Since she specialized in capoeira, she was constantly moving and dancing. Even when you weren’t pressing any buttons! While she’s rendered in 3D now in 2014, her slick fighting style and positive personality haven’t changed a bit. What has changed, however, is her theme, Beats In My Head. The vocals didn’t translate well in the original, but the song was too awesome to forget. Capcom remixed it for Ultra, giving old-time fans like me something to enjoy.

If you want more Street Fighter IV, you can find (most of) the OST here.

Good gaming, good music.