Hyrule Warriors Legends Review

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, if only it all worked that well.

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

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

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

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

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

Originally posted here.

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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.

Bravely Default Review

Communication Breakdown…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BlazBlue: Chrono Phantasma Review

And in your darkest hour, I hold secrets flame

Doubt. It’s all Ragna the Bloodedge can think about. He’s been granted the nigh-limitless power of the magical Azure Grimoire, and he’s used it quite effectively. He’s known and feared as a one-man army, capable of bringing an entire corrupt government to its knees. After all this time, Ragna is still on the run. The Librarium and its military – along with just about everyone else – is out for his head. He knows he has to keep fighting, but why? Where is all this leading? For what and whom is he fighting? Was all this murder and mayhem necessary? Does he even comprehend the powers he possesses – or their consequences? He needs to figure this stuff out fast, because he’s unknowingly become an important part of a plan that could save or doom reality itself.

Ragna’s character arc is just one of many aspects of Chrono Phantasma’s storyline. It picks up not long after the previous BlazBlue; all sides and factions involved have put their endgames into motion, and it’s just a matter of who can outsmart the other. No longer content with scheming behind the scenes, Hazama and Relius Clover have taken center stage and are on the verge of destroying the world. Kokonoe and rest of the Sector Seven group are desperately trying to counteract them, to the point of joining an ever-growing militia of Librarium dissenters and attempting a coup d’état from within. Major Tsubaki has succumbed to the maddening influence of her weapon, and it won’t be long before she hunts down and slaughters her former allies and friends. The Six Heroes – the ones responsible for most of the game’s backstory – gear up for what will ultimately be the ending of their storyline. Within the ruins of Ikaruga, Bang Shishigami is about to discover the true nature of his powers. Hidden somewhere in the middle of all of the chaos, a young woman is being groomed to be a savior.

Needless to say, there’s a lot going on. As the third game in the series, Chrono Phantasma is burdened with continuing and resolving several dangling plot threads. For the most part, it pulls it off spectacularly. The Story Mode divides chapters amongst the main characters, the Six Heroes, and Sector Seven by way of a streamlined and branching display. It’s not nearly as tedious to finish as those of the previous games, which practically required a guide to get full completions. The hours of dialogue, twists, and joke endings are still present and accounted for. However, not everyone got the same amount of attention; Continuum Shift was mostly about Jin, Makoto, Litchi, and Hazama’s development, so they aren’t in focus as much this time. The new characters were treated even worse; Azrael, a nigh-unstoppable killing machine, serves as a dangerous but ultimately secondary threat to the heroes. Bullet, the badass mercenary with a chip on her shoulder, gets a handful of scenes before being forgotten. Amane, despite his flamboyant fighting style, has only a few vague encounters that set him up as a key figure for the next game. Only Kagura, the leader of the Librarium rebel forces, gets a decent amount of screen time. While it makes sense for the story to resolve an already massive narrative, the newcomers deserved better introductions.

They steal the show in Arcade Mode, though. BlazBlue has always enjoyed a relatively small but diverse character roster, and Chrono Phantasma adds plenty of variety. Azrael’s brutal punch and kick combos are quite satisfying to pull off. Amane looks beautiful with his kimono and flower petals, but his deadly shawl and drill powers are reminiscent of Guilty Gear’s Eddie. Kagura’s stance-based swordplay is like a 2D version of Soul Calibur’s Siegfried. Kokonoe is finally a playable character (albeit as DLC), but the inventions and gimmicks built into her attacks make her unbelievably broken. Izayoi (Tsubaki’s powered-up alternate ego) is more manageable, but can chain attacks ridiculously well. Bullet is the only uninteresting one; her speedy, grapple-based moveset doesn’t leave much of an impression. She feels more like a fighter designed solely for fan service. It would’ve made more sense to have Jubei – an important secondary character established since the first game – tossed into the fray. Everyone else from Continuum Shift is back in action, complete with the usual assortment of rebalances and tweaks to their movesets.

The fundamental gameplay mechanics haven’t changed much. Rather than using the weak, medium, and strong attacks seen in most fighting games, BlazBlue assigns the buttons as A, B, C, and D. An A attack might be a quick jab or kick, while a C move could result in a slash or stomp. Depending on the directional inputs, those basic moves could change into uppercuts, aerial slashes, dive kicks, throws, and everything in between. The D button focuses on the characters’ unique powers and techniques. For example, Amane’s shawl can chip through defenses and wreak havoc on blocking opponents. Azrael doesn’t just beat his enemies; he puts weak points on their bodies that add staggering and extra combo properties to his attacks. Such special moves are the cornerstone of each character’s playing style, so you’ll have to learn them well.

That goes double for the more complex combat mechanics. Much like its predecessors, Chrono Phantasma is an incredibly demanding game in terms of technical skill. You can mash the A-D buttons until your fingers go raw, but you won’t stand a chance against a high-leveled AI or decently-trained opponent. Aside from the plethora of super attacks, move cancels, blocks, counters, dashes, tactical rolls, wake-up recoveries, there’s more emphasis on guard breaking and energy meter management. There’s a ton of stuff to learn, and the extensive tutorial that breaks everything down step by step. The Training Mode lets you customize and record your sessions, giving you some much-needed opportunities to get the basics down. Each character also has a set of challenges, which focus on linking attacks and perfecting the timing on your inputs. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you can switch to the Stylish control option and let loose some pre-programmed combos. Once you’ve gotten a handle on everything, the gradually increasing difficulty of the Abyss and Score Attack Modes ought to give you a decent run for your money. But if you think you’ve truly mastered everything (or you’re a gaming masochist), the Unlimited Mars Mode pits you against a gauntlet of super-powered versions of each character, set to the highest difficulty level. It’s definitely for the hardcore players; if you just think you know how to play, you probably won’t survive a single round.

If you want something a little less soul-crushing, the multiplayer is a better choice. There’s the usual assortment of ranked and player matches, complete with search functions for skill level, area, connectivity, etc. You can customize your profile with character icons, messages, and decorations. If you don’t want to spend time reading through a list of potential opponents, you can submit your profile for a match, then enjoy the other game modes. When someone else wants to play, you’ll just get a pop-up message offering a fight. It’s pretty handy when you don’t want to sit around waiting for other gamers to show up. If you prefer a more direct approach, you can use the game’s online lobby. Rather than giving you a bland assortment of menus and brackets, you’re granted an 8-bit avatar and whisked away into a virtual arcade where you can text with and challenge anyone inside. It looks ridiculous and ugly, but at 64 players per room, no one’s going to care about the aesthetics. The lack of voice chat and YouTube replay connectivity are disappointing, though. The fights, however, are an entirely different matter. The BlazBlue series has always had great netcode, but Chrono Phantasma has a few kinks that need working out. The matches occasionally suffer some lag, which doesn’t bode well for the technically demanding gameplay. Choosing an opponent from the ranking list is hit or miss at best, and the profile stats don’t always update correctly. Hopefully these issues can be rectified in the coming weeks.

At least the visuals keep you distracted. The universe of BlazBlue is a gorgeous, vibrant, and often bizarre work of art. Arakune is a gigantic, disgusting blob of slime, but his fluid animations puts most 2D characters to shame. You can practically feel the weight when Noel hefts up her cannon for a super attack. Azrael’s aura not only absorbs projectiles, but gives him an intimidating, blood-red glow. That’s aside from all the character-specific intros and mid-fight banter; those little details show just how much attention and effort was put fleshing the fighters out. Since the story takes place in a different city, there’s a nice assortment of new backgrounds. There’s something strangely fitting about fighting Jin Kisaragi – the deranged master of swords and ice – in the middle of a peaceful, snow-covered village. The soundtrack is more familiar with its remixes of certain themes (Taokaka’s Catus Carnival II theme is amazing on the violin), but the blend of classical and metal may not be for everyone. Nor will the updated voice acting; the new Bang sounds great, but longtime fans will notice the difference immediately. That’s just a minor point, though. The amount of talent and effort put into making these characters come alive is far more than what most fighting games can muster.

It’s about time. The BlazBlue series started on the PS3, so it’s only appropriate it’d be one of the last fighters to send it off. As the third game in the series, Chrono Phantasma has some tough acts to follow. For the most part, it succeeds. Parts of the lengthy story finally reach their conclusion, allowing the narrative the foundation it needs for the next inevitable installment. Aside from a few missteps, the newcomers are awesome and add plenty to an already diverse cast. The basic gameplay mechanics are unchanged, but the sheer amount of techniques and skills needed to master this game are almost overwhelming. The detailed training and brutally difficult modes ought to keep seasoned players interested. The simplified control mode keeps things accessible for everyone else. Though the multiplayer still has a few things to sort ought, it’s still fun to play. Chrono Phantasma might be a fine ending to the trilogy, but BlazBlue won’t be over any time soon.

Originally posted here.