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: Katamari Forever – Cherry Blossom Color Season

Pretty sure I’ve expounded on the virtues of the Katamari Damacy series a few times. Katamari Forever in particular is a treasure trove of eclectic remixes of songs seen in the older titles. “Cherry Blossom Color Season” hearkens back to the original game, which featured the same tune sung by a Japanese children’s choir. This version by Yuu Miyake not only has the vocals redone, but adds some acoustic guitar and a little Burt Bacharach-style brass into the mix. The result is a strange, but oddly relaxing piece of music.

If you want more Katamari, you can find a partial series OST playlist here.

Good gaming, good music.

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.

Guilty Gear Xrd Review

She’s A Killer Queen…

It began with a declaration of war. Ramlethal, a mysterious young woman from another dimension, proclaimed that all who were unworthy would be destroyed. Genocide isn’t a new concept in the Guilty Gear universe – it’s only been a year since the showdown in Overture – but there’s good reason to take her seriously. She backed up her boast by summoning The Cradle, a magical structure the size of a mountain. Within seconds, an entire city full of people was wiped off the face of the planet. The Cradle vanished as quickly as it appeared, with the unspoken threat of a future attack. It’s up to Sol Badguy and Ky Kiske, the two most powerful and iconic fighters in the franchise, to join forces and save what remains of human civilization.
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It’s not the most ideal partnership, of course. As any Guilty Gear veteran knows, the rivalry between Sol and Ky is the stuff of legend. As a direct sequel, Xrd examines how they and the returning cast are dealing with the fallout of the previous game. Ky has matured into a competent king, though political realities and responsibilities have forced him to rethink his morality. Sol is still a gruff and bitter bounty hunter, though he’s kept his word and raised Ky’s son as his own. Sin doesn’t have his father’s brilliant mind, but he certainly has his idealism. May is similarly positive, but vague hints at her backstory (and foreshadowing of events in the next game) imply that all is not well with her and the Jellyfish Pirates. Faust is still crazy, though he’s embarked on a long, wacky road to redemption. The Assassin’s Guild is still operating under Venom’s leadership, and he’s even managed to end the longstanding feud between himself and Millia. More importantly, Zato – long dead and possessed since XX – has been magically resurrected. His surprise reappearance is a herald of something far more sinister.

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Not everyone is back, unfortunately. The Guilty Gear series is known for its bizarre and unique designs, but some of the biggest fan favorites didn’t make the cut. Baiken is arguably the most missed; her incredible swordplay was among the best in any fighting game. The same can be said for Johnny, who gets nothing but a few scenes in Story Mode. Dizzy gets a similar treatment, though she’s out of action for plot purposes. The newcomers have enough personality to distract you from such shortcomings, though. Ramlethal pretends to lack emotion, but she enjoys summoning giant swords and viciously slashing you to pieces. Elphelt is far more cheerful and ditzy, but she’s a bride that takes the term “shotgun wedding” literally; she tosses grenades instead of garters, and pumps any runaway spouses with lead. Bedman looks like a harmless coma patient in a silly-looking hospital bed…until he starts summoning spiky wheels of death with his mind. Sin isn’t as terrifying, though his long-range spear combos are powerful. He’s balanced by a stamina gimmick akin to the Monster Hunter games (he has to eat steak to prevent exhaustion), but he’s lethal in the right hands. That goes double for Leo Whitefang, the exclusive DLC character. Imagine a hulking man/lion hybrid who dual-wields greatswords, can change stances to attack you backwards, and whose every word is dripping with deliciously hammy voice acting. Yes, Leo is hilarious, awesome, and a perfect fit for the game’s setting.

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Speaking of which, Xrd’s story is surprisingly easy to get into. Guilty Gear’s lore is notoriously convoluted, but this game alleviates much of the problem. While the new Story Mode has the underlying assumption that you know what happened in Overture, it occasionally retouches some of the major points – such the importance of Justice and That Man – to keep new players from getting lost. If you’ve endured the stories of Persona 4: Arena or any of the BlazBlue games, don’t worry; Arc System Works forgoes its usually sprawling narrative in favor of focused storytelling. It takes only a few hours to finish, with plenty of cameos and no repeated scenes. As usual, the majority of it is told through voiced dialogue. Instead of simply plastering the characters’ avatars on the screen, however, it uses drawn scenes. They aren’t fully animated – there’s a lot of standing and talking – but it gives players something interesting to look at. Considering the costs for such a production, having a relatively brief story makes sense. If you miss anything, there’s an entire in-game library to keep you informed.

However, you’ll probably skip over all of that and dive right into Arcade Mode. If you’ve played any of the XX games, it’s like returning to a childhood home: familiar and nostalgic. It utilizes most of same move setups as before; there’s the usual array of punches, kicks, slashes, and heavy slashes that create a wide variety of combos. Every character comes with their unique special attacks, like Sol’s iconic Dragon Install or Venom’s billiard-style ranged tactics. That’s on top of the guard crushing, air dashing, Overdrives, Psych Bursts, Faultless Defense, Instant Kills, and the other returning features. At first glance, it’s easy to assume that Xrd is a hyper-aggressive button mash-fest. Blindly running into battle, however, will get you slaughtered. While not as intensive as BlazBlue’s commands, the inputs in this game require a good sense of timing and attention to frame animation. Unlike the Persona 4 fighting games, Arc System Works didn’t implement any kind of auto-combo control scheme. If you take the time to learn the fundamentals, you’ll be surprised at how far they carry you.

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For more experienced players, there are several new advanced mechanics to master. Guilty Gear’s Roman Canceling system is back again, but it’s been expanded into three types. They still allow you to cancel attacks into other moves, but their effects are more situational. RCs depend on things like opponents’ hitstun status, timing with animation frames, using projectiles, character momentum, etc. It’s technically demanding, but mastering it pays off in spades. Elphelt, for example, has some ridiculously good unblockable setups with her grenades. The classic Dust Attack has been modified as well. The traditional homing jump version lets you launch foes skyward and follow it up with mid-air combos. The homing dash, however, forces your opponent into the wall and leaves them wide open for cornering tactics. For more defensive players, the newly-implemented Blitz Shield lets you repel oncoming attacks while sacrificing a quarter of the energy otherwise saved for Overdrive moves. It doesn’t seem like much in the midst of all the offensive capabilities, but using it well can completely turn a fight on its head. So can Danger Time, which randomly triggers whenever attacks clash. It basically boosts your attack power, countering, and canceling capabilities for ten seconds. Unlike the other features, this one feels tacked on; the randomness completely throws off the match’s pace and doesn’t fit well with high-end competitive gameplay. If Danger Time had to be included, it would’ve made more sense to make it a limited optional command, like Instant Kill Mode. It detracts from what is an otherwise solid and engaging experience.

Regardless, there’s a lot to learn. If you’re feeling intimidated, there’s a robust Tutorial Mode that covers every aspect of the game. It’s even structured as a series of lessons taught by Sol to Sin, which is amusing in itself. There’s also a Challenge Mode that focuses on increasingly demanding character-specific combos. However, the Mission Mode is more practical. It assumes that you already know the basics, and focuses on situational tactics instead. How do you block attacks while dashing? How do you perform air-to-air combos? How do you combo into an Instant Kill? You need to know if you’re playing competitively. Having a feature that focuses on advanced tactics is immensely useful, and it’s something that more fighting games should include. It could never replace Practice Mode, of course. It lets you customize everything from the health and special bars to computer competency and blocking techniques. The recording function is as useful as ever, but it’s the Input Delay – essentially a lag simulator – that’s the most important. When the crux of your strategy depends on how well you can handle the animation frames, mastering the inputs is a must.
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Speaking of lag, the online multiplayer isn’t quite up to par yet. By no means is it unplayable, but it’s inconsistent. The majority of the matches played thus far have been incredibly slick and responsive – as expected for an Arc System Works title – and making the transition from offline has been easy. However, a few of the fights have slowed to a crawl or randomly disconnected. It’ll likely warrant another patch in the near future, but it’s questionable right now. Ranked matches are few and far between, though there are dozens of player matches going on at any given hour. The lobby system takes the next logical step from BlazBlue: Chrono Phantasma’s design. The rooms are separated by continental regions, and then further divided by geographic location. Each place on the map has 32 rooms, which can accommodate up to 64 players each. Not surprisingly, most of the rooms are completely empty. If you find a busy location, you can set up lobbies with certain skill level requirements, connection speeds, voice chat, and even differentiate between casual and serious matches. Inside, you have the choice of pairing off with someone for a quick match, switching opponents, or waiting on the sidelines and spectating someone else’s fight. Despite the lack of a YouTube uploading feature for replays, there are a lot of options packed into such a simple design.

If you want something not so competitive, the offline M.O.M. Mode will keep you busy. It’s basically a huge, customizable survival mode. You begin at the center of a massive map of panels, and must fight across other panels to progress. The more you win, the more cash you’ll earn towards stat boosters, items, and equipment. For example, my Slayer can’t move quickly, but he hits like a truck and his health bar is three layers thick. You can spend time building up resistances to status ailments, reduce chip damage, etc. You’re not the only one with upgrades, either; at higher levels, you’ll run into enemies with increasingly broken movesets. You think Axl is bad at long range? Try dealing with a version of him that doesn’t flinch and can summon May’s whale. Only patient and masochistic completionists need apply. It’s worth the effort, though; everything you do in any of the modes will net you bonus points that go towards unlocking stuff in the gallery. It’s a little sparse compared to BlazBlue’s offerings, but it’s definitely a case of quality over quantity. Character avatars, cutscenes, voice acting, music…It’s all there, practically begging to be unlocked.

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You’ll want every last bit of it, too. In an unusual move, the designers chose to use Unreal Engine 3 for Xrd’s graphics. Rather than attempting to make traditional hand-drawn character sprites, they decided to go with 3D cel-shading. It works beautifully with Guilty Gear’s anime-influenced style; just look at the way Ky’s hair moves when his ponytail becomes undone, or the way Ramlethal’s cloak flaps in the breeze, or how Slayer seems to slide across the screen in one fluid motion. Sol’s detailed Dragon Install animation – and the epic music track that activates with it – is the stuff other 2D fighters could only dream of achieving. Not to mention all of the fully-animated and voiced Instant Kills. The backgrounds are detailed as well. May’s airship drifts above the clouds before diving low enough to skim the ocean, and the bridge in the Japan colony gives a good sense of depth and perspective. There accompanying soundtrack is, as usual for Guilty Gear, a stellar blend of rock and metal. Tracks like “Storyteller” and “Holy Order III” steal the show with their awesome instrumentals, and “Lily” sounds like a long-lost Queen song. Considering who designed the game, there’s nothing more fitting.
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It’s been a long time. After so many years, it’s great to have Guilty Gear retake center stage of the 2D fighting genre. Arc System Works has learned from their experiences with BlazBlue and Persona games, and it shows. It’s a reminder of what makes these games great: a small but unique cast of quirky and awesome characters, highly technical gameplay, and a style second to none. It’s not the easiest game to get into, but the streamlined story and in-depth tutorials are enough to keep newcomers hooked. The drastic changes to the old combat mechanics are interesting, though not everything is perfect. The online multiplayer still needs some reworking, though most of the matches work flawlessly. This game sets a new standard for the inevitable future titles. Judging by what Xrd has accomplished, Guilty Gear is back and here to stay.

*Originally posted here.

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.

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.

Ultra Street Fighter IV Review

Don’t stop believin’…

It was inevitable. After a long, successful run, Capcom wanted to return to Street Fighter IV one last time. It’s understandable why they did it; with the gaming industry transitioning to a new console generation, appealing to the established audience was vital. Not everyone has switched over to the PS4 and Xbox One, and adding content to a popular game would’ve been more practical than adapting it to new hardware. Of course, they’d have it as a lower-priced DLC as a nice gesture to the fans. The trick was finding the balance between content and pricing; how much – or little – of an update could justify buying Street Fighter IV again? What could they possibly change to make such an aged game fresh and new? Capcom attempted to accomplish all of it with Ultra, but with mixed results.

Ultra Street Fighter IV Elena Arcade Ending

The most prominent changes come as five additional characters: Elena, Rolento, Hugo, Poison, and Decapre. If you’ve played Street Fighter X Tekken, four of those names should sound familiar. While it’s easy to accuse Capcom of taking the lazy way out (and it is admittedly disappointing), at least they took the time to rebalance the fighters to better fit with Street Fighter IV’s combat mechanics and slower pacing. If they were ported directly over, they would have annihilated everyone else. Elena has short range and decent speed, but her fancy high/low footwork keeps opponents guessing. Rolento is much faster and more aggressive thanks to his baton twirls and rolling evasions. Hugo’s raw power and throwing combos are offset by his ridiculously huge size and questionable hit boxes. Poison is all about punishment, in terms of personality, projectiles, and close-range set-ups. Decapre is the only true newcomer, though she has the unfortunate burden of looking like a Cammy clone. Despite her unoriginal appearance, her charge-based play style and mix-ups make her devastating in the right hands. This is all on top of the returning roster from Arcade Edition. With a total of 44 characters, you’ll be sure to find someone that fits your playing style.

The new challengers aren’t the only things being reused. There are six stages added in this update, and all of them are taken directly from Street Fighter X Tekken. Rather than giving seasoned players a new background, Capcom decided to return to Pit Stop 109, Blast Furnace, Half Pipe, Mad Gear Hideout, Cosmic Elevator, and the Jurassic Era Research Facility. They’re much more interesting than some of the older Street Fighter IV backgrounds; the Pit Stop’s intricate truck designs and lighting effects make it one of the best locations in the game. As enjoyable as it is seeing the Final Fight crew and other Capcom mainstays doing cameos in the backgrounds, it would’ve been better to have at least one unique stage. The Half Pipe features new music exclusive to Ultra, though it’s only the rap track heard in one of the game’s trailers. By no means is it the best song – they’ve still yet to top the Volcanic Rim theme – but at least it’s something different.

Rolento VS Hugo

The basic mechanics haven’t changed much, either. There’s the normal setup of light, medium, and heavy punches and kick combos. Every Hadoken, Sonic Boom, and the rest of the special moves are present and accounted for. All of the returning fighters have had their animation frames, hit boxes, health, or attack power tweaked yet again, though only the those interested in high-level competitive play will likely care. However, everyone will be affected by a handful of major additional features. As its name implies, the new Ultra Combo Double system allows the fighters to use both of their Ultra attacks instead of just one. It comes at the price of a fraction of the attacks’ original strength, but that’s a decent tradeoff for several characters. For example, Elena can balance between the offensive capabilities of her Brave Dance and the practicality of her Healing support. Or Gen, whose four Ultras makes him nigh unstoppable if played well. On the defensive side, the new Delayed Wakeup mechanic allows you to prevent your knocked-down character from standing up too quickly. Since many tactics involve timing combos to maintain offensive pressure, being able to stay down a little longer gives you a little more breathing room by keeping the opponent guessing.

The biggest change, however, is the Red Focus Attack mechanic. If you’re familiar with Street Fighter IV, you’ve probably heard of Focus Attacks. By pressing certain buttons, you can have a character charge up an attack animation, endure a single incoming hit, and counter accordingly. Depending on the inputs and the amount of energy you have in your attack meter, it even lets you cancel special moves and link them into longer combos. It encourages players to learn better spacing, timing, and keep the pressure on the opposition. Red Focus Attacks, on the other hand, take the functionality to the logical extreme. Characters still charge up, but they can soak up as many attacks as their life bars can sustain. Yeah, that includes Ultras. Even Sagat’s mighty Tiger Cannon and Decapre’s Psycho Stream can’t get through it. The tradeoff for this temporary invulnerability is two sections of your meter. This has the potential to change your entire strategy; do you use a bit of meter to launch more hard-hitting combos, or do you save up and spend double the amount for Red Focus’s defensive and countering properties? It’s reminiscent of Street Fighter III’s parrying mechanic, albeit nowhere near as technically demanding. Thanks to this new feature, Street Fighter IV’s fundamental strategies are now more varied and balanced between offensive and defensive aspects.

Decapre VS Cammy

If only the rest of the game were changed that much. All the new characters get their own Arcade Mode stories, but they’re an afterthought at best. None of the newcomers have entries in the Trial Mode, which is unfortunate for anyone trying to learn the finer points of the fighters’ movesets. Considering Capcom’s penchant for DLC, they’ll probably be added in a later update. At least the Training Mode can now simulate online matches by giving you control over the amount of input lag; even the best tactics fail when a fighter doesn’t respond quickly enough. There’s also the version select option, which lets you choose amongst the IV, Super, Arcade Edition, Arcade Edition 2012, and Ultra iterations of every character. Anyone who’s played the games knows the original Sagat’s raw power, or how Arcade Edition Yun was utterly broken. The feature isn’t new; it’s a throwback to Hyper Street Fighter II, but with on a much bigger scale. Unfortunately, this awesome option is only available in the offline Versus Mode. There’s no way to take these blasts from the past online, where such matchups would be far more interesting on a competitive level.

Speaking of which, the online multiplayer isn’t quite perfected yet. It gives you the usual choice between Ranked, Endless lobbies, and Tournaments, as well as an Online Training Mode. There’s even a new Team Battle mode, which is set up as a 3-versus-3 elimination match-up a la The King of Fighters. It’s structured well and surprisingly fun… At least, it would be if you actually find someone else to play it. Maybe it’s a lack of interest or not enough early Ultra adopters, but opponents outside of the Ranked and Endless Modes are unbelievably rare. Even in those modes, securing a matchup can be dodgy. When using the Quick Match search, you’ll be paired up immediately if you’re lucky. If not, you’ll be left staring at the screen until the search fails several seconds later. The Custom Match search is a little more promising – it lets you choose from a list of potential contenders – but you’ll occasionally be disconnected before the fights even start. That’s aside from the random sign-outs from PSN, which is another level of annoyance. It can become a huge waste of time. Your best bet is to make your own Custom Match or Endless lobby; your opponents come to you, no tedious searching required. The fights themselves are decent in terms of lag and pacing, but the display of your opponents’ connection data is often inaccurate. Some of the smoothest matchups can come from someone with a single bar. Hopefully it’ll be improved in the next update. Considering that the multiplayer also supports direct replay uploads to YouTube – something the previous games sorely lacked – it makes up for some of the minor flaws.

Poison VS Cody

That can be said for Ultra Street Fighter IV as a whole. It’s not a bad game. Far from it. The sheer amount of characters and playing styles is amazing, and all the balance tweaks give veteran players another shot at mastering the returning fighters. The new gameplay mechanics add tons of variety to the tried and true tactics of the original version. The Delayed Wakeup and Red Focus Attacks manage to add deeper layers of defensive strategies to the otherwise offensive-heavy gameplay. A few of the minor improvements, such as the lag simulator in Training Mode and the YouTube uploading capability, have been long overdue. That being said, the game leaves plenty to be desired. The lack of more character content and new stages is disappointing. Capcom took what it needed from Street Fighter X Tekken, but little else. The online multiplayer needs some serious work, especially in terms of finding player matchups and connection consistency. These are a lot of small issues that limit what is otherwise the best version of an already excellent fighting game. Street Fighter IV deserved a better send-off, but Ultra does the job well enough.

*Originally posted here.

Soundtrack Saturdays: Katamari Forever – Katamari On The Funk (Senor Coconut’s Katamambo! Remix)

If there’s any musical genre that was unexpected for the Katamari Damacy series, it was probably Mambo. But when the trailer for Katamari Forever debuted, this remix of the original Katamari On The Funk stole the show. It rounds out an already eclectic soundtrack with some powerful brass instrumentals and one of the most upbeat rhythms in the entire series. In a game that involves rolling the entire universe up into a gigantic sticky ball, you need a track like this to cheer you on.

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

Good gaming, good music.

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.