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barrel

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  1. Developer: Sega Publisher: Sega Platform: PS4 Release Date: October 2, 2018 ESRB: M for Mature For as immensely influential as Fist of the North Star is in the manga/anime space it is kind of surprising that it has so few remarkable video games. Sure, one can point to a certain Arc System Works fighter or various Musou titles under the Fist of the North Star name, but for pretty much all the wrong reasons. This is why is why a new Fist of the North Star title made by Sega's Yakuza development is an exciting prospect. The Yakuza series has hit an impressive stride the last couple years on PS4 and throwing such an iconic manga license into an already solid gameplay mold seems like a recipe for success. Much like any licensed game property, however, there is reason to have reservations before going into the PS4 exclusive Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise, even if its head is in the right place. Where the least amount of concern is needed is wondering whether or not Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise is approachable for those not already well-versed in the series lore (like me). The central plot of Lost Paradise is generally easy to grasp and is rarely more complicated than the main character Kenshiro trying to find his fiancee within an isolated city called Eden. Everything else is simply a matter of adjusting to the absurdity of its heavily-influenced-by Mad Max setting and accepting that disproportionate macho men are able to use over-the-top martial arts that can make peoples' heads literally explode. Those that do know a thing or two about the series will recognize its alternate narrative canon from the source material despite featuring plenty of familiar faces. Beyond that, it is very easy to treat Lost Paradise as if it was just another PS4 Yakuza game. Sega makes little attempt to hide its development pedigree from a shared emphasis on 3D beat 'em up gameplay, tons of playable sidequests/mini-games within a central town, to even going as far as to have many shared voice Japanese talents for the main cast (although, an English voice acting option is available for those that want it, unlike recent Yakuza games). It is honestly uncanny the many unapologetic nods that the game has to Yakuza games, but on the flip side, the distinctly different post-apocalyptic setting can make it a fresh contrast to those who have seen the bustling Japanese streets a few too many times lately. Still, because it so easily evokes the many similarities to recent Yakuza games it also begs the quality comparison between the two, and on that front Lost Paradise is far less consistent. It is a weird thing to say considering how crazy powerful the player often feels while controlling Kenshiro as he recites the iconic "You are already dead" line as enemies turn into gory mush in the background, but the combat does not flow well for the most of the game. There are a lot of minor annoyances with it, everything from Kenshiro's overall lack of AOE attacks (despite constantly throwing huge enemy mobs at him) to some overly long skill animations early in, and most of it stems from how slowly the game doles out new skills & level-ups to eventually remedy them. It is a real shame because there are some clever boss moments and very stylish ways to dispatch foes in context-sensitive QTEs and is hindered by the slow progression. This is the main recurring theme of Lost Paradise in that just about all progress is buried beneath a fair amount of unnecessary grind and padding. Want to progress the main story? Well, at a certain point you need to upgrade your buggy vehicle to explore new zones. Want to upgrade your buggy? Then you need to grind for resources/unlock treasure maps that appear randomly outside of town. Want to not have to rely on RNG for materials? You should do the bartending mini-game which requires a Mario Party level of controller mashing (despite being very amusing visually) but makes Eden merchants sell more materials. It is an obtuse process of Do A, but to do A you need to do B, and to do B you need to do C, etc. This design philosophy is very counterintuitive to the ways Yakuza styled games tend to be enjoyed where the side content can be engaged as much, or as little, as the player wants to and Lost Paradise does not offer that sort intrinsic gameplay flexibility. The weirdest part of all, however, is that there are genuinely cool moments when the gameplay all comes together. For example, there is a surprising amount of Sega fanfare throughout. This includes full-fledged arcade ports like Space Harrier, unlockable musical tracks that play while driving from Binary Domain to Phantasy Star Online 2, to the Sega Master version of Fist of the North Star (...which is not a good game, but it is the thought that counts). Even the sidequests have their neat moments like surprising earnest little substories to utterly bizarre objectives like playing "baseball" against oncoming motorcyclists. But because the game paces its many gameplay and campaign components so poorly it becomes difficult to appreciate the title as a whole when it is so eager to overstay its welcome. Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise is title frequently torn between two identities despite having good intentions with both. As a licensed game, the Yakuza-gameplay-meets-Fist of the North Star-setting is so close to a working peanut butter & jelly combo, but does not quite take the best lessons from either franchise. Still, those willing to try out a new "Yakuza" game at the risk of a noticeable step back in overall gameplay quality (compared to recent entries; mostly pacing and production values) may be pleasantly surprised by the novel approach to the Fist of the North Star license, even if it may not necessarily make your head explode for the better in the long term. Pros + Hyperactive violence that makes Kenshiro feel genuinely powerful (flashy boss fights in particular) + Neat fanservice nods to various Sega properties such as unlockable arcade games + The absurd over-the-top setting can be a fresh contrast to who have gotten a little too used to familiar Yakuza series locales Cons - Combat and character progression are rather disjointed - The frequently slow (and grindy) gameplay pacing does not really fit the high octane world itself - Main story high points are few are far between Overall Score: 6 (out of 10) Decent Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise is better treated as a licensed novelty rather than be held to the current standards of the Yakuza series gameplay it does not hesitate to borrow from. But, because the many gameplay components are eager to overstay their welcome it can be difficult to truly appreciate either the lessened Yakuza formula or alternate take on Fist of the North Star's world in the long run Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS4 code provided by the publisher.
  2. Developer: Age Publisher: PQube Platform: PS Vita and PC Release Date: June 12, 2018 ESRB: M for Mature It is hardly an overstatement to say that the incredibly successful Muv-Luv kickstarter owed it entirely on just how much people adore Muv-Luv Alternative. Being the final act of a visual novel trilogy Muv-Luv Alternative firmly plays upon the expectations of its once lighthearted roots in the original Muv-Luv to present a far more mature tale in which the stakes have never been higher. Does it provide an exciting, satisfying conclusion or will it leave the player traumatized by the end of the whole ordeal? ...That was a trick question, actually, because Muv-Luv Alternative has no shortage of excitement and trauma. As the the trilogy finale Muv-Luv Alternative expects a strong familiarity of the original Muv-Luv because it takes nearly every route, character, and story element from them into account. Because of this, some amount of narrative spoilers of the previous titles are pretty much unavoidable when talking about Alternative to any serious degree even though there will be an effort to minimize them. With that disclaimer out of the way, Muv-Luv Alternative brings players back in the past, quite literally, as the lead character Shirogane Takeru's consciousness returns to an all too familiar date yet again in a Groundhog Day fashion. After witnessing the end of mankind during its last ditch effort of "Alternative V" within Muv-Luv Unlimited's finale Takeru is now driven to do whatever it takes to steer mankind's chance at survival back on it course and prevent it from happening once again. With this pretense Alternative has the really intriguing setup of both the player and lead character being on the page regarding events of games past. As such, most of the in-game dialogue choices have the player/Takeru armed with the knowledge they should not have at this point, yet also the anxiety of the consequences when attempting to change too much to the point where he can not predict events going forward. The early drawback of this scenario, unfortunately, is that a lot of the exposition can feel rather redundant regarding frequent flashbacks to the previous game. While there is the relief that Takeru can more than relate to this storytelling fatigue it does not stop the early portions from feeling quite plodding in its massive adventure. It is by playing upon this expectation, however, that the writing also cleverly teaches the player that change may not necessarily be for the better. The previous title, Muv-Luv Unlimited, frequently tip-toed around its darker story elements yet rarely committed to anything. Muv-Luv Alternative, however, has an immense sense of foreboding throughout and yet is also very much commits to its bleak story elements. One can not really overstate just how grim the narrative swings can shift at any time during the story's course. There was gut punch sequence in particular that left me so disheartened that I literally could not the game the following day. Not because I was not engaged i while playing it, but because of how effective the game was at delivering its narrative cruelty. Little did I know that I was not even halfway through the game yet and had so much more tragedy in store. To say that Muv-Luv Alternative is an emotional roller-coaster is putting it lightly. The most expertly handled is actually its lead protagonist Shirogane Takeru. frankly lead protagonist Goes through is groundhog-day esque. Full of aspires, and honestly with a bit of a god complex, Because some degree of spoilers are pretty much unavoidable (like looking at the boxart) I had a lot of complaints about Muv-Luv Unlimited and how. There is With one narrative gut punch being so devastating for me that I literally could not play the game the following day because of how devastated of was. ...... ...... ..... ...... ..... ..... ...... ..... ..... Pros + Stellar character development + Immensely grim, but very compelling storytelling + Cons - A few too many flashback moments can lead to some rather redundant exposition, especially early in - Context from the previous two Muv-Luv games is basically required Overall Score: 6.5 (out of 10) Decent Muv-Luv gives players a taste of why the visual novel series is so iconic but without the resolution of Muv-Luv Alternative to wrap the experience up makes the original release feel more disjointed than it should be Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS4 code provided by the publisher.
  3. barrel

    Review: Muv-Luv

    Developer: Age Publisher: PQube Platform: PS Vita and PC Release Date: June 12, 2018 ESRB: M for Mature The Muv-Luv series may be one of the more surprising success stories on Kickstarter. Gathering over one million dollars in Kickstarter donations for an official localization is more than enough proof that the two decade old visual novel series certainly has a passionate fandom behind it. Yet for those that did already have a preexisting attachment to Muv-Luv had to wait until 2016 for the official PQube PC release. This year Sony's Playstation Vita has seemingly been resuscitated to do the same, but before getting to the highly acclaimed finale that is Muv-Luv Alternative (which will be reviewed separately) series newcomers are best served by playing the original and separate retail release that is simply called Muv-Luv for reasoning may not pop into one's brain right away. The first game, commonly referred to as "Muv-Luv Extra", has a setup that frankly feels like it was ripped out of a time capsule contributed by nearly every early 2000's era romantic comedy anime. You have your high school setting backdrop full of romantic interests like the childhood friend, Sumika, to the incredibly rich yet socially awkward, Meiya, that attempt to vie for the affection of the completely oblivious main guy. Muv-Luv Extra absolutely thrives on its often lighthearted enthusiasm above all else. The humor is frequently slapstick that is complemented by very expressive anime character portraits that are honestly much more lively than most visual novels nowadays, which is impressive. It will easily go from the typical mouth flaps and blinking eyes of many visual novels, exaggerated camera panning, to random chibi expressions at the drop of a hat to emphasize the punchline to nearly every joke. Even when not all of the jokes hit their mark (some, uh... out of touch heteronormative perspectives/perverted gags from the obnoxious main dude included), there is a genuine energy to it that makes it entertaining to go through it regardless. That said, Muv-Luv Extra is pretty simple for visual novel standards. Narrative choices are rarely more complex than picking whose bento you want to eat for lunch and staying committed to one of the five wooable heroines to reach their potential ending. Even then, though, there is a clear discrepancy in importance (and likability) with Meiya and Sumika versus nearly everyone else, despite me being a fan of Kei's deadpan humor. Most characters also do not necessarily have much depth to them beyond their apparent anime character tropes making it difficult to justify going beyond seeing the ends of the primary two heroines. It is almost hard to believe that one can really do much with this simple cast of characters for more than one game despite them being likable enough in Muv-Luv Extra. Well, as it turns out, all you need to freshen up the experience is a dramatically different setting in which mankind is on the brink of extinction due to an alien race called the "BETA" in an alternate sci-fi Japan. This is where Muv-Luv Unlimited comes into play which is a separate game despite featuring many familiar faces. And, believe it or not, it is actually a direct sequel to Muv-Luv Extra as well. The reasoning to this, of course, is a spoiler but is partially made clear to the player immediately upon starting up Muv-Luv Unlimited's tale. Muv-Luv Unlimited is the starting point of why the Muv-Luv series was so subversive back in 2003 and gives people a taste of why the series is so beloved. Players immediately question everything they thought they knew in Muv-Luv Extra from the entirely new world to characters. It is compelling to see much more in-depth world-building like the eerie alternate timeline of World War II, the inner-workings of its many sci-fi elements, to higher-brow story concepts for a cast that once cared about little more than high school romance. The biggest problem, however, is that the storytelling itself is very incomplete. There is a lot meandering day to day (under the guise of team building) which was fine in Muv-Luv Extra but feels tonally dissonant with the apocalyptic pretense of Muv-Luv Unlimited. In addition to this are many clearly important story devices that are kept an incredibly tight lip on and frankly will not be answered for players until Muv-Luv Alternative. To rub the most salt on the wound in regards to pacing are, undoubtedly, the many fanservice scenes that stem from its original erotic game roots despite being the "All-Ages" version. Maybe it is just me but when five billion humans have been killed by the BETA I have a difficult time finding an anime beach scene appropriate in the slightest for these lead military cadets training to combat them. The original Muv-Luv is a tricky visual novel to judge. By themselves, both Muv-Luv Extra and Muv-Luv Unlimited are decent enough visual novels, but neither are nuanced enough to be all that remarkable. Muv-Luv Extra being a perky romantic comedy full of charm while Muv-Luv Unlimited is a subversive take on the once familiar cast of characters and sets the stage for a far more intriguing sci-fi setup. Unfortunately, both titles are rife with rough edges regarding pacing, anime tropes, and lack of story resolution. As parts of a grander tale, however, both games do just enough to trigger one's curiosity and hopefully such patience is rewarded whenever one gets around to playing the highly regarded trilogy finale of Muv-Luv Alternative. Pros + Very expressive character portraits that feel more active than a lot of modern visual novels + Intriguing setting shift between the two games that presents familiar faces in a dramatically different context + A bizarre, antiquated anime charm with memorable characters Cons -Many rather cliche story beats throughout - Recycled music between both games is disappointing - Really out of place fanservice scenes with Muv-Luv Unlimited in particular despite attempting to be much more serious - A lot of storytelling is clearly left open for the would-be finale Muv-Luv Alternative Overall Score: 6.5 (out of 10) Decent Muv-Luv gives players a taste of why the visual novel series is so iconic but without the resolution of Muv-Luv Alternative to wrap the experience up makes the original release feel more disjointed than it should be Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS4 code provided by the publisher.
  4. barrel

    Review: Valkyria Chronicles 4

    Developer: Sega Publisher: Sega Platform: PS4, Switch, and PC Release Date: September 25, 2018 ESRB: T for Teen As beloved as the original PS3 title Valkyria Chronicles has been, the series has since struggled to recapture the base of its former appeal. From smaller-scale PSP sequels, one of which remains unlocalized, to a spin-off that probably should not have existed in the first place, it was easy to draw the conclusion that the series was going to go out with an immensely disappointing whimper rather than a satisfying bang. Yet, Sega decided to bring out the big guns by recently announcing Valkyria Chronicles 4 on consoles as if the series' missteps had never happened. Revitalizing not only the captivating sketch-like art direction, the series also brings back its unique take on the part turn-based/part real-time militaristic action at a large scope without the limitations of underpowered Sony handhelds. If that was not enough to bolster the fandom morale once more, Sega has beaten the nearly impossible odds by leading Valkyria Chronicles 4 towards a victory so grand that it surpasses even the original. That may have sounded like a bold claim (because it is), but Valkyria Chronicles 4 takes an active command to prove its remarkable capability on a gameplay front. It is much more willing to treat players old and new like a skillful commander rather than an untrained cadet early on without being too daunting or heavy-handed. From a gameplay perspective, it only takes a couple missions before it reestablishes most returning mechanics and classes from the original before moving onto entirely new ones. One new addition is the incredibly welcome unit grenadier. Essentially, grenadiers are extremely powerful long-range units that can easily knock foes out of cover or destroy turrets/pillboxes at a safe range. However, to function properly they require more nimble units like scouts to serve as spotters so they can pick off problem targets without their severe lack of mobility holding them back. Even old units bring a freshened up mix to encounters, such as Engineers now being able to revive units mid-battle or assemble makeshift ladders to gain a different means of approach to a particular stage. There is a ton of care placed into just about every tweaked gameplay mechanic or distinct level. It is clear that Sega learned a lot while remastering the original game on PS4 a couple years ago. A lot of the old AI exploits or dirty tricks (like scout rushing) are mostly gone and the tactical options are greatly increased as it progresses. One mission will have the player take out descending paratroopers/buying time to protect an out of commission vehicle at the same time while another totally different stage is about helping a friend cheat on a target practice test behind the scenes. Admittedly, though, there are a few missions that seem to be made with enjoyable gameplay variety in mind first (rather than actually being logically plausible), like firing sniper bullets at wooden signs to wordlessly (and perfectly) coordinate an ally mortar strike, so some suspension of disbelief is required. Let there be no doubt, however, that there is a serious emphasis on storytelling in Valkyria Chronicles 4. Previous titles in the series would delve into uncomfortable subject matter with surprising tact (namely the original), like the racism allegories involving "Darcsens", but rarely dipped above a PG-rating vibe regarding the overall storytelling or particularly nuanced characters. In sharp contrast, the fourth main entry is much more willing to challenge both its characters and storytelling. The most impressive narrative feat of Valkyria Chronicles 4 is how it develops its characters. As likable of a goofball as Welkin Gunther was, he and most other older characters rarely changed beyond their initial first impressions. That is very much not the case with the characters of 4 to the point where it is quite possible to dislike a certain character early in (Raz) & totally feel the complete opposite way about them by the end because of how much they change and mature (also Raz). A similar level of respect towards development was even placed upon the many non-main story playable units. It is not simply encouraged to keep them alive to prevent a Fire Emblem-ish permadeath, but also because there are some really endearing optional "Squad Stories" chapters that unlock if certain allies fight alongside each other long enough and is a smart incentive to change things up. But perhaps the biggest means of change comes from the huge shifts regarding the main story's narrative tone. Early on, it has a lighthearted pace that is generally in line with Valkyria of the past, if not a little more juvenile due to a "friendly butt-tap between dudes!" scene, yet the latter half has story elements that are grim in a way that is almost unprecedented for the series. Despite not always being elegant in its execution it is as a whole much more grounded than earlier games when it comes to the storytelling. There is a greater emphasis on the mortality of its cast and the horrors/moral ambiguity during wartime that works much more often than it does not (complemented by some excellent English voice work)... even if aspects like main character Claude's ability to predict changes in weather veer into supernatural territory with their unbelievable accuracy. Outside of storytelling, Valkyria Chronicles 4 is very much an iterative game, which is perhaps its biggest detriment for those expecting more sweeping changes. Sure, the clever mission variety is really impressive, or how it smartly cherry picks features from Valkyria Chronicles 2 & 3 (that are barely referenced otherwise) like the ability to move multiple units at once, and it is even paced more briskly than prior games. Ultimately, though, it still operates within a very familiar overall framework in terms of leveling up units/tanks, gaining new weapons/skills, to how it utilizes the presentation (it is the same decade-old engine, after all) and the many re-used orchestral pieces. All things considered, though, these are minor nitpicks to an experience that otherwise more than satisfies what fans adore from the series, especially regarding the much more finely tuned and already excellent gameplay has become. After many pleadings for a proper, fully-fledged Valkyria Chronicles sequel went ignored for years, it is hard to believe that the series would ever regain proper footing. But, here we are, a decade later, and Sega yet again took a nearly Sonic Mania-styled approach by being keenly aware of what fans wanted through stylish visuals and extremely satisfying/varied tactical gameplay, yet also reminding many fans why they loved the franchise in the first place in terms of spirit. Valkyria Chronicles 4 is a series return to form in the truest sense. Even with certain creaks in age -- mostly due to playing it a little too faithful to the first incarnation -- Valkyria Chronicles 4 is mitigated by not only meeting the lofty expectations from veterans but even going as far as to exceed their prior accomplishments in the series as the potential best entry as a whole. Pros + Completely nails what made people love the original Valkyria Chronicles so much from strategic, varied level design to the likable cast of characters + Paced more briskly than earlier iterations from storytelling to requiring next to no actual grinding + The Grenadier class is a great new addition to battle and the title also sports many welcome mechanical changes + Strong English localization that breaths nuance even characters that may not seem to have much of it initially (including the surprisingly charming optional "Squad Stories") Cons - The visuals/music are a little too faithful to the original Valkyria Chronicles, as it is very clearly using the same engine/most of the soundtrack from nearly ten years ago, making it feel somewhat antiquated - Some huge narrative tonal shifts in the storytelling that can be rather odd at times, especially in its darker moments Overall Score: 9 (out of 10) Excellent Valkyria Chronicles 4 successfully reignites not just the endearing spirit and thoroughly engaging tactical gameplay the series is known for but excels in such a way that surpasses even the most beloved of its predecessors as a game Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS4 code provided by the publisher.
  5. barrel

    Review: Yakuza Kiwami 2

    Developer: Sega Publisher: Sega Platform: PS4 Release Date: August 28, 2018 ESRB: M for Mature Even though Yakuza 6: The Song of Life felt like an intended sendoff towards the series' beloved protagonist Kiryu earlier this year, the Yakuza series itself is showing no real intentions of slowing down. To continue the trend of putting basically every main entry Yakuza title on the PS4 in some form Sega has most recently shifted their sights onto revisiting yet another former PS2 relic by remaking Yakuza 2 from the ground up in Sega's "Dragon Engine" (introduced in Yakuza 6: The Song of Life) and slapping the word Kiwami on it. Considered by many fans to be the best entry in the series Yakuza Kiwami 2 has some rather lofty expectations to meet as a remake while also trying to be appetizing to series newcomers as well. Similar to the game's (literal) bombastic introduction, there is no denying that Yakuza Kiwami 2 is firing on all cylinders on a presentational front. By utilizing the familiar "Dragon Engine," Yakuza Kiwami 2's world often looks stunning in motion. From the bustling city streets, over-the-top special attacks in combat, to the facial details on the most menacing of yakuza scowls it does a ton to draw the player in its adventure. Which is good, because, like most Yakuza games, it is filled to the brim with stuff to do during the main story or absurdly robust side content. That said, Yakuza Kiwami 2 does more than just borrow pretty visuals from Yakuza 6 as a lot of the gameplay systems are directly carried over into this remake, and not necessarily for the better. For example, nearly all of Kiryu's bread & butter attack combos are the exact same as they were in The Song of Life just like the general level/stat progression too leading to an odd sense gameplay deja vu. Although, in the matter of fairness, the familiar combat engine is thankfully more enjoyable in Kiwami 2 than it was previously largely due to cleaned up hit detection, more responsive controls, and some really stylish context-specific moves (like during key boss fights). Even the returning RTS-esque "Clan Creator" mini-game from Yakuza 6 is fleshed out for the better by making it more strategic and tower-defense focused in Kiwami 2. Of course, at the end of the day, Kiwami 2 takes precedent as a remake and the story it tells is certainly among the most compelling parts of the overall package. Just like the original PS2 release, the crime-based storyline that delves into one of the most ruthless series antagonists, the Jingweon mafia, remains quite gripping, especially in its latter half. Even if, as a whole, 2's tale does not confidently take the top storytelling billing for the series like it once did (that mantle now belongs to Yakuza 0) and does have some hammy moments, like a forced love interest for Kiryu. Still, for those familiar with 2's tale should find the main story to be a treat even now, especially in how it is presented from much more dynamic combat encounters to revisiting cutscenes in much more impressive visual fidelity. As in-depth as the main story may be, one can easily double their total playtime if they dive into the game's copious amount of side content. Kiwami 2 introduces a lot of new sidequests, playable mini-games like karaoke or the goofy bathroom based "Toylet", full-fledged arcade ports of classic Sega games like Virtual-On, and even a brief campaign that focuses on the fan-favorite Majima. As usual with the series' current standard there are many easy rabbit holes for Kiryu to fall into especially with the often incredibly sharp, hilarious writing that accompanies them. In contrast, however, Majima's brief campaign very much feels like an afterthought in design. Although Majima is still fun to play for the couple hours it goes on for, it mostly comes across as shallow fanservice for Yakuza 0 fans than anything else (and I ADORE Yakuza 0, but still felt underwhelmed). For as deep of an experience Yakuza Kiwami 2 is as a whole, it actually makes some strange compromises over the original PS2 release. Some are negligible, like hit & miss mini-games (mostly miss) that don't make a return as well as certain sidequests. But perhaps the most controversial change of all is the removal of an entire explorable zone in the story (albeit a rather small one overall) where Kiwami 2 essentially re-purposes the story context associated with into the all too familiar in-game region of Sotenbori. While it is easy to guess it may have been done for budgeting reasons, it still is rather odd considering how faithful first Kiwami release was to the original PS2 title to an almost slavish degree. Odder still, the soundtrack of Yakuza Kiwami 2 is a noticeable step back from the original PS2 title and has very few returning musical pieces from it. Yakuza Kiwami 2 hits pretty much all the checkboxes that make for an engaging title in the series, from a thrilling story to an absurdly wide array of side content. As a remake, however, it does bring up some points of contention with a couple of odd compromises and some inherent gameplay flaws that are caused by reusing the engine from Yakuza 6. But, assuming one is not the too concerned about the sanctity of the original PS2 release, there is plenty of enjoyment to be had in revisiting one of the best games to series, especially for would-be newcomers. Pros + By refining the engine originally implemented in sixth main entry Kiwami 2 heavily benefits from tightened up gameplay & slick visuals as a remake + Sharp, witty localization that makes the already compelling main story and copious sidequest banter that much more entertaining + Tons of side content to delve into that can keep one occupied for quite a while Cons - Can create a bit too much gameplay Deja Vu because the combat, stat progression, and most minigames are directly lifted from Yakuza 6 - Some bizarre compromises over the original PS2 release, such as some removed content and the hugely altered soundtrack, and not exactly for the better Overall Score: 8 (out of 10) Great Yakuza Kiwami 2 is a sleek remake that manages to capture much of the spirit of its original PS2 release that should give fans both old and new plenty to chew on Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS4 code provided by the publisher.
  6. barrel

    Review: Dead Cells

    Developer: Motion Twin Publisher: Motion Twin Platform: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, and PC Release Date: August 7, 2018 ESRB: T for Teen Note: This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game By being clearly inspired by numerous rogue-lite and Metroidvania titles, or to use its own preferred nomenclature of 'RogueVania', it can certainly be tempting to write Dead Cells off as just another one of those. However, Dead Cells is not content with simply paying tribute to iconic titles. There is an impressive sheen to nearly every facet of its gameplay that not only separates itself from its various contemporaries but also makes it so easy to get lost in the experience, even when it was in an Early Access state last year. After being constantly iterated upon, such as adding new levels, weapons, abilities, and plenty more, Dead Cells is now confident enough to consider itself a full product while also finally letting console owners in on the action as well -- and for great reason. The game quickly drops the player right in, quite literally, as an amorphous green sludge falls from the ceiling and reanimates a fallen humanoid vessel. This eerie landscape becomes one of the closest things to a home, especially after a failed run. Players will soon enough find themselves scrounging whatever tools they can to hopefully overcome their fierce enemy and environmental opposition as they uncover the mysterious depths of Dead Cells' world. Regardless of its moody world-building and sparse bits of lore (like a certain From Software series), however, Dead Cells absolutely thrives on its stellar combat-focused 2D gameplay above all else. Whether one is swinging a bulky axe, firing a crossbow, setting up a bear trap, or using hardly subtle nods to other gaming properties (like "Valmont's" whip), the underlying theme is that its huge offensive toolkit has a satisfying power behind it in the right hands. Little details like being able to roll-cancel or shield parry (if it's equipped) out of nearly every animation makes combat feel rather fair too, even though a specific run may not be generous in yielding one's favorite weapons or skills of choice and thus forces them to try out different ones. To help makes its multitude of weaponry and skills more digestible, Dead Cells divides them into the three in-game stat categories of Brutality, Tactics, and Survival, each of which can be strengthened by obtaining scrolls that are scattered across different levels. Despite the categorization simplification, there is a surprising nuance to each style like when picking 'mutation' passive abilities after completing each level. For example, Brutality can take the most advantage of a mutation that increases damage against an enemy suffering from a status ailment while someone specializing in Survival can regain more life per enemy kill. It is very enjoyable to watch once terrifying bosses/enemies quickly melt due to utilizing a smart synergy of mutations/weapons in addition to getting better and better at the game. For as thoroughly entertaining as Dead Cells is with its raw combat, the main reason why its addictive gameplay pull is so strong is because of how it wisely borrows and improves upon Rogue Legacy's overall structure. Rogue Legacy's most welcome contribution to "RogueVanias" was rewarding a player gradually in the form of unlocked blueprints for new abilities or various other conveniences after a failed run. Dead Cells technically does the same thing (while adding many new weapons too), yet the feedback loop is far more consistent by doing so after each completed level. This constant dopamine fix, in spite of the harsh difficulty at many times, also extends to its many branching level paths where thorough exploration can unveil some invaluable permanent upgrades like a quick wall run or a destructive ground pound that opens up the experience that much more. Amidst such incredibly tight gameplay and level design, Dead Cells' greatest blemish actually resides in its technical performance, which still often holds up rather well. Generally speaking, Dead Cells evokes a 2D sprite art feel with chunky pixels (mainly regarding enemy dismemberment) and smooth animations despite technically being rendered with 3D assets. Unfortunately, its key technical slight on PS4 happens mid-level where there is a brief stutter that seems to outright skip frames of animations before going back to the normally buttery smooth gameplay performance and this happens every few minutes. While I never encountered this problem during the mean boss fights, even after a successful hard mode run, I could see the visual hiccups being distracting enough to cause an untimely demise in more chaotic combat moments, so hopefully it can be cleaned up via patch soon. Dead Cells has the uncanny ability of being able to cherry-pick aspects from so many other games and have one be totally fine with it. Because, instead of instilling fatigue, Dead Cells far more often impresses the player by how masterfully realized just about every facet of its core design ends up being. Everything from the skill-based combat that is a total bliss to control, a highly-rewarding structure that accommodates a wealth of different player styles, and plenty of secrets to uncover creates a fiendishly addictive game experience that players will more than struggle to break from the "...just one more run" mentality it so actively encourages. Pros + Fiendishly addictive structure that encapsulates the 'just one more run' mindset + Incredibly tight, responsive combat that accommodates a huge wealth of different playstyles + Branching paths, many unlockables, and the improvisational nature easily makes no one playthrough the same + Stylish aesthetic with moody environmental backdrops Cons - Weird occasional visual stutters mid-level can be distracting Overall Score: 9 (out of 10) Fantastic Dead Cells does not shy away from a familiar "RogueVania" template, but rather chooses to do it so well that players will be hard-pressed to justify dividing their time when Dead Cells is that much more satisfying and rewarding to actually play Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS4 code provided by the publisher.
  7. barrel

    Review: Shining Resonance Refrain

    PLEASE DON'T BRING YOUR THIRSTY MINDSET INTO MY WHOLESOME RPG WHERE THE MOST RISQUE THING THEY DO IS HAND HOLDING. (and thanks for reading, dawg)
  8. Developer: Sega/Media Vision Publisher: Sega Platform: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, and PC Release Date: July 10, 2018 ESRB: T for Teen Note: This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game The phrase "Shining" holds a very different connotation in the gaming space depending on who you ask. Ask an old school RPG fan what it means to them and they would likely mention its previous, tactical role-playing game form of the beloved Shining Force titles. If you were to ask developer Sega themselves, they would likely phrase it in a way that could be just about anything resembling an RPG, especially given the many games they have churned out under its banner. That said, the Shining series has most often shifted toward a more typical action-RPG template in Japan these past couple decades. Though it may be an enhanced release of a formerly Japanese-exclusive PlayStation 3 title, Shining Resonance Refrain should radiate as a curious new direction for the series after a long absence from English speakers specifically. Above nearly all else, Shining Resonance Refrain takes a keen interest in both dragons and music while very rarely separating either element. Everything from the usage of musical armaments (...called "Armonics") to the main character, Yuma, who bears the latent power of a powerful dragon, play pivotal roles in the overarching narrative. That said, ultimately, the story itself rarely boils down to being more than a handful of good guys fighting against an evil empire despite however much jargon it tries to throw at the player like "Diva Magica" or many phrases straight out of Norse mythology. The main story remains predictable to a fault and can be rather hokey in more than a few instances because of it. Gameplay-wise, Shining Resonance: Refrain takes more than a few notes from its action-RPG contemporaries (such as Namco's Tales of- series) but with a couple of minor twists. You have your real-time combat system in which normal attacks use a stamina gauge and it quickly becomes encouraged to use special MP skills right before one runs out of stamina to maintain a constant offense. To not so subtlety chime a reminder of the musical setup, there is also a BPM gauge that steadily builds up mid-battle which will provide a variety of buffs upon use depending on the song. Admittedly, battles are rather button-mashy, and quickly become routine, but are also easy to get into. The game also does a decent job at making each party member feel unique, such as the ranged grenadier, Marion, who can use support spells, and even the main character, Yuma, who quickly goes from using a standard longsword to transforming into the Shining Dragon mid-battle. There are more than a few battle system foibles than the simplicity of it, however. Some are amusing like the main character becoming overpowered to the point of trivializing most other attackers by literally only needing to mash the circle button from the halfway point and on. Less amusing, however, are the frequent slowdown for flashier spells and, what can be even more annoying, the sleepy ally AI especially in regards to healing/suicidal positioning. Unlike the frequent slowdown hiccups, thankfully some of the AI problems can get straightened out over time if one messes with 'traits' within the Bond Diagram mechanic, which affects AI tendencies like their increased inclination towards using healing or buffs/debuffs mid-fight. In sharp contrast to their unreliable combat usage, one of the surprising strengths of Shining Resonance Refrain's main playable cast is their likability in a story context. One the most obvious ways to see this is within the primary town, which features numerous interpersonal scenes as well as the opportunity to go on dates with party members (yes, guys included). It is clear that these affinity systems were mostly developed with the pretty lady characters in mind but the actual implementation comes across as far more wholesome than one would expect. In addition, there is a pretty earnest friendship that develops between everyone, and not just Yuma despite, well, the story having more than a few over-the-top anime antics moments in-between. Perhaps the biggest problem with the entire game (yes, even more than the very cliched main story) are the huge discrepancies caused by the level-up progression. Main story bosses spike in level at an absurd rate each chapter, and the means of gaining the experience to close the gap in a reasonable amount of time is quite limited. I had to go out of my way to look into items that made it so inactive party members would gain experience, and to increase the rate of seeing the in-game equivalent to Dragon Quest's Metal Slimes (called eggs) in specific, randomly generated Grimoire dungeons, because the experience obtained from normal enemies in regular environments was way too low (... just like in Dragon Quest). In spite of such glaring gameplay flaws, Shining Resonance Refrain still somehow manages to be better than the sum of its parts in charm alone. One of the key ways it does is in the sharp localization which makes an often predictable script somehow still entertaining to read, especially regarding character specific scenes in the central town. The underlying care also transfers to the audio, like how the instrumentation of BPM songs will change based on which character performs it; a nice touch to an already good soundtrack. Heck, even the English dub is solid as well, though I admit I gravitated towards the Japanese voices due to some top-notch talent and it having a more natural transition towards the Japanese-only vocal songs. Shining Resonance Resonance is one of those strange titles that is significantly flawed in both its gameplay progression and main storytelling yet manages to stumble onto the path of being enjoyable regardless. Its key flaws are quite difficult to ignore, especially if one has a low tolerance towards cliche storytelling (which it is dense with), and it requires a willingness to accept the genre stereotypes it so frequently leans on to see a more sincere, lighthearted underside. If one wants an easy to approach action-RPG that is as charming as it is predictable, Shining Resonance Refrain is a solid option. But those expecting anything deeper in their RPG experience would be much better served looking elsewhere than it. Pros + Easy to approach combat system that manages to make each playable character feel distinct + Likable main cast of characters with surprisingly wholesome vibe between them + Pleasant aesthetic from the sharp soundtrack to well-realized character models Cons - Very predictable storytelling that can be quite hokey with its anime tropes - Balancing party experience becomes cumbersome due to huge enemy level spikes between each main story chapter -Occasional slowdown and dumb ally AI unfortunately bog down combat - A bit too much backtracking between zones Overall Score: 7 (out of 10) Good Shining Resonance Refrain does very little to veer from the course of many Japanese RPG stereotypes but for those willing to accept its often predictable nature can still find an earnest hidden charm underneath it all Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS4 code provided by the publisher.
  9. barrel

    Review: Reverie

    Developer: Rainbite Limited Publisher: EastAsiaSoft Platform: PS4 and PS Vita Release Date: May 10, 2018 ESRB: E for Everyone Note: This review is based on the PS Vita version of the game There is a fine line between taking inspiration from iconic games and simply being derivative of them, with the latter being far more difficult to escape from. That does not stop many from attempting the inspiration balancing act, such as Rainbite Limited's newest adventure game Reverie. By basking within a familiar framework of two beloved Nintendo series (such as Earthbound's style and The Legend of Zelda's gameplay structure), one can only hope it stands out enough on its own without using 2D nostalgia as a crutch. Despite a bizarrely eerie intro involving treacherous brothers throwing one of their own overboard and then being cursed for an eternity as wrathful spirits, Reverie is nearly devoid of storytelling otherwise. The player is more or less told to spend their vacation on Toromi Island, which apparently means going on a The Legend of Zelda-styled adventure and putting vengeful spirits to rest, I guess. The character's impetus to go from one place to another is not exactly the most cohesive in Reverie. If there is one facet in Reverie that does flow together rather well at times, it's the 2D Earthbound-inspired presentation. There are a lot of neat little flourishes, such as the rustling of foliage, denizens that fidget around as well as turn to face you, and characters leaving imprints in the sand. It creates a homely feel to the starting town of Harikoa in particular, especially when using spare change to play a surprisingly solid shoot 'em up mini-game, or when encountering a nest of kiwi birds in its faux New Zealand. Honestly, if more of Reverie reflected this sort of localized quirk it would likely have been a better game, so it's a real shame that it accounts for so little of the overall experience. The fact of the matter is that Reverie eventually boils down into a wholly forgettable and derivative Zelda-like adventure. Most of your time will be spent in dungeons, which are -- ironically -- the least appealing part of the game, both from an aesthetic and gameplay perspective. If you have played just about any Zelda game, you already know the routine of gathering small/boss room keys in various rooms; which wouldn't be such a bad thing if the dungeons themselves weren't so bland and lifeless. Unfortunately, the frequent combat encounters -- easily the weakest aspect of the gameplay -- only adds insult to injury. Most of the key skills that are usually acquired through dungeons are just renamed Zelda abilities as well, further compounding its derivative nature. For example, instead of using a bow you will instead use a dart gun to hit targets on the wall, just like in a million Zelda games. Instead of Zora-themed swimming gear, you use a snorkel; and so on and so forth. Despite their predictable usage, most key items are thankfully quite responsive in their puzzle and combat implementation, like the cricket bat feeling nearly one to one with 2D Link's sword swing in its immediate timing. Well, pretty much everything except for the final key item ability, at least. What happens to be the most creative ability in the entire game turns out to have poorly implemented physics. This is especially a shame since it also adds much-needed level design variety to the last main dungeon. Basically, the last story item is positional-based and if it drifts a tiny bit off it can leave several puzzle rooms in an unwinnable state. I found myself resetting it by killing the main character and... returning to the start of the dungeon. I originally thought it was poor execution on my end until I saw a couple walkthroughs online that had the same exact issue regarding necessary teleporting in what is otherwise a fairly easy game overall. And with nearly a quarter of my entire playtime spent in that dungeon around that mechanic made it have a significantly longer and more negative impact than it really should have. There are kernels of a much better game in Reverie that the pleasant visuals occasionally remind the player of that are, unfortunately, lost in such a shallow overall Zelda-like adventure. Sure, there are side activities outside of the main campaign's dungeon slog like collecting feather based unlockables but only a small handful of them are rewarding enough to even bother with like a couple off-the-beaten-path mini-games. But even then there is so little driving force to completion beyond the game just being short overall where even the dungeon unlocked after beating the main game is nothing but monster rooms for a game that already has so few enemy variety. There are plenty of games out there that take inspiration from older ones but very few of them that go beyond poorly shadowing significantly better games. Unfortunately, Reverie serves as yet another example as this longstanding trend torn between its clear influences of Earthbound and, even more so, The Legend of Zelda, without a firm grasp on their actual strengths beyond a clean well-realized aesthetic. Reverie does little to offend but even less to really stimulate the player's memory of it because of its lackluster series of dungeons despite hints of a sweeter kiwi spirit. Pros + Clean 2D aesthetic with a welcome New Zealand vibe in spite of its very clear visual inspiration + Bite-sized adventure that is not too demanding of the player Cons - Most of the time is spent in dungeons which are rarely all that clever in their design - Barely anything resembling storytelling or characters makes it quite forgettable overall alongside its derivative gameplay - While the game generally controls well the last usable key item, which is vital in the final dungeon, has very unreliable physics Overall Score: 5.5 (out of 10) Average Reverie may be pleasant to look in terms of aesthetic at but as an actual game it has so little to offer than being a totally forgettable, yet generally inoffensive, Zelda-like that simply exists Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS4/PS Vita code provided by the publisher.
  10. Developer: Arc System Works Publisher: Arc System Works Platform: PS4, Nintendo Switch, and PC Release Date: May 31, 2018 ESRB: T for Teen Arc System Works has been quick to fill in the crossover team fighter void left by Capcom's extremely disappointing Ultimate Marvel Vs Capcom. By seemingly invoking the power of Shenron (through Dragon Ball FighterZ) Arc System Works has rapidly jumped in power level in both sales and status among hyperactive team-based fighters. This year, Arc System Works has decided to follow up with another team-based fighter, Blazblue Cross Tag Battle, but this time it leans far more heavily into its crossover nature. Featuring characters from Blazblue, Persona 4, Under Night In-Birth, and the most surprising addition of all -- Rooster Teeth Production's popular action web series RWBY -- one can only hope Blazblue: Cross Tag Battle is as satisfying to actually play as it is inherently bizarre as a crossover game. With such a broad selection of characters, the immediate concern is how daunting it is mechanically. Weirdly enough, Blazblue Cross Tag Battle may be Arc System Works' most approachable fighter to date, even with the strides in accessibility that Dragon Ball FighterZ made earlier this year and Persona 4 Arena before it. Everything from button mash-friendly auto-combos to extremely simple button inputs being no more complex than a quarter circle motion, as well as two button reversals like in P4A more than considerably help lower the execution barrier. Blazblue Cross Tag Battle goes a few steps further than that, however, including little details such as your character automatically trying to close the distance themselves when you input a grab command, leading to far less missed throws. If anything, anyone who has played Blazblue, Persona 4 Arena, or Under Night In-Birth may feel like they have a larger learning curve here than those who have not. The reasoning for this is that most of the characters in this game originally come from four-button fighters while Blazblue Cross Tag Battle primarily relies on two for most attack strings (before getting into tag commands and the "Clash" button, at least). So, in addition to potentially unlearning years of muscle memory, it can lead to many characters feeling quite foreign due to their much more limited movesets. Personally speaking, I found myself gravitating towards characters I had very little experience with before, or outright new ones like members of RWBY, because of how odd it felt playing once familiar 2D spites. Of course, at the end of the day, Blazblue Cross Tag Battle is a team-based fighter and the synergy between character pairs is arguably more important than being decent with any one fighter. A good assist, for instance, can give slow/short-ranged characters like Azrael the opportunity to easily close the distance. To put this into practice even more, Blazblue Cross Tag Battle clearly borrows many mechanics from Marvel vs Capcom like its own version of push blocking, DHC cancels (changing characters mid-super), and its equivalent of X-Factor to dramatically power up a character when their own ally is knocked out. However, there are a few extra tools in Cross Tag Battle that allow much more combo creativity due to its distinct tagging options. Players can switch characters during normal ally assists or the craziest tag feature of all which involves the "Cross Combo" mechanic that has one's second character on-screen at the same time and perpetually attacking, allowing for some truly devious pressure and combo potential for a brief moment. It is truly impressive just how much free reign players are given with the tag mechanics, both offensively and defensively, making the initially easy-to-approach mechanics for newcomers also appetizing for far more seasoned players with its potential depth and enjoyable yet frenetic combat. Those that do not necessarily want to overload their brains with systems can veer into a much more straightforward environment, like the game's visual novel-style story mode. The story by itself is hardly special as it basically revolves around the many characters being taken from their world and the mastermind behind it forcing them to battle others in hopes to return to their own. In spite of this simple setup, Cross Tag Battle does a great job at being fully aware that it is a crossover game and never takes itself too seriously. There is a lot of fun, self-referential writing regarding each respective franchise and it is entertaining to see unlikely character interactions with one another, such as Ruby fangirling over the bizarre weapons of much of the cast, for example. From an English localization perspective, they go the extra mile for quality, such as having nearly every Persona 4 and Blazblue voice actor reprise their former roles, which is a nice nostalgic touch. Unfortunately, the story mode does frequently serve as an unpleasant reminder about the game's tacky approach to DLC as well. Many characters that appear in the story are outright unplayable in the base game, and with nearly half of the roster locked behind a paid DLC pass, it makes what is supposed to be a discounted fifty dollar game on paper closer to seventy dollars in actual practice. And frankly, it is especially hard to ignore when Persona 4, Under Night In-Birth, and RWBY characters have four characters or less to play as in the initial twenty roster. Though, in fairness, Arc System Works has made an effort to make sure at least the two extra RWBY characters Yang and Blake are free, and I'd be lying if I did not say that Blake Belladonna is probably my current favorite character to play in the entire game... despite me knowing next to nothing about RWBY as a series. The rest of the gameplay feature set is quite standard when compared to Arc System Work's most recent titles. There is the typical training, VS mode, survival, as well as a fairly insightful tutorial that teaches the gameplay systems in addition to character specific nuances, which are incredibly welcome. The same applies to the online lobbies that allow players to roam around in cutesy character avatars and challenge other in sixty-four player rooms, and it is still as endearing as ever. Plus, a fairly solid netcode (without the obnoxious rollback in various Capcom titles) helps its case too. Blazblue Cross Tag Battle successfully delivers in crossover fanservice and as a hyperactive tag team fighter. A very low execution barrier, incredibly fast-paced action, and surprising depth to its many gameplay systems makes this truly bizarre mashup an entertaining time, regardless of one's inherent fighting game skill level. Yet, for everything it does right as a game, it becomes that much harder to shake the feeling of Blazblue Cross Tag Battle coming off as an incomplete package, especially regarding its character roster with so many playable characters clearly locked behind DLC. If one can accept the distinct fine print required for the full package then Blazblue Cross Tag Battle should make for an enjoyable fighter despite how it "Can't Escape From Crossing Fate" with its intended audience through its questionable DLC business practices. Pros + Very low execution barrier for basic controls makes both high and low level play frantic and enjoyable + Lighthearted story mode that is fully aware it is a crossover game and never takes itself too seriously + Immense potential for combo creativity thanks to really flexible tag mechanics Cons - Most of the cast play extremely different than they do in their original games which can be rather off-putting initially - Nearly half the potential playable cast are paid DLC and having them frequently teased in the story mode makes them feel less than optional for the full package - Clearly recycled assets from entirely separate games lead to the visuals not being exactly cohesive Overall Score: 7.5 (out of 10) Good Blazblue Cross Tag Battle does quite a bit to provide a very accessible, yet deep fighter that is chock full of crossover fanservice but the stigma of its poorly handled playable character DLC unfortunately severely hampers it as a complete package. Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS4 code provided by the publisher.
  11. barrel

    Review: Forgotton Anne

    Developer: Throughline Games Publisher: Square Enix Co. Platform: PS4, Xbox One, and PC Release Date: May 15, 2018 ESRB: T for Teen It has been a few years since the launch of the unconventional publishing platform, Square Enix Collective. Though it initially seemed like an excuse to see whether or not someone was crazy enough to make a pitch about resurrecting Gex, it has actually opened the gates for many smaller indie studios to potentially realize their own unique games with the helping hand of Square. The most recent fruition of their efforts is Throughline Games' gorgeous cinematic adventure game, Forgotton Anne [Editor's note: No, that's not a mispelling; it's really spelled that way]. Does this new indie title paint a brilliant landscape for the initiative, or does it distill only emptiness in its unrealized potential? The pretense of Forgotton Anne initially feels like that of some old children's fable. Inanimate objects forgotten in the modern human world, anything from a bookcase to someone's lost left sock, are whisked away to another world and gain both life and a conscious of their own. Yet, the children's story friendly tone quickly dissipates when those same inanimate objects (called Forgotlings) are immediately assigned labor jobs based on their perceived capabilities. Those that do not comply are quickly regarded as rebels that can have their life force forcefully removed and used as the energy source called Anima. To maintain the questionably strict forgotling status quo created by the mysterious human 'Bonku,' the player takes the mantle of his main 'Enforcer,' or rather the lead heroine 'Anne,' who is often dispatched to take care of such rebels with her life-stealing arca bracelet. From its intriguing setup to its much more enchanting anime-inspired art direction, Forgotten Anne does well to quickly draw the players in. Almost just as fast, Forgotton Anne plays with the moral implications of its lead heroine and her ability to 'distill' these now sentient forgotlings into becoming lifeless objects once more. While the choices themselves are often rather binary, like Mass Effect's paragon or renegade choices, the difference between showing empathy towards a forgotling or maintaining her reputation as a strict enforcer gets far more creative with its direct story usage from its halfway point and on through frequent callbacks to your former actions. However, for as much of a focal point is placed upon its cinematic choice-based narrative perhaps an equal amount if not more of its time is used to its puzzle-platformer adventure elements. The most common puzzle mechanic involves transferring anima (energy) from one object to another, usually machinery, and working around the limitations of it to help get to one's next destination. It's a shame that this puzzle mechanic never really hits either a cerebral or an intrinsic gameplay satisfaction. Players should be able to guess what the puzzle situation wants from the player right away and it will just be a matter of having Anne slowing move levers or change the course of electrical panels before reaching the next story beat. The only real exceptions to this anima mechanic usage are more due to their story implications in its latter half than really changing the actual gameplay design itself. Even though the underutilized anima mechanic or its weirdly stiff platforming elements are disappointing from a gameplay standpoint, Forgotton Anne's main appeal lies in seeing how the story will eventually pan it. Despite its vivid art direction and intriguing setup, the early story goings are unfortunately somewhat rather slow because of its larger emphasis on the puzzle adventure elements, which, as stated before, are not as good as they could be. Yet, there is a very clear narrative turning point when a certain forgotling character named "Fig" comes into play who really helps contextualize not only the world itself but even Anne as an actual character. It becomes difficult to empathize with Anne's father figure Bonku because of how much more charismatic Fig is in comparison despite the narrative's attempts at making Anne choose between them. Of course, the most charismatic aspect of all lies within its aesthetic. The environmental backdrops, in particular, are a real treat and it says a lot for its stellar art direction when I can be fresh off of Dragon's Crown Pro, one of the easiest examples of excellent 2D styled animation in gaming, and still be impressed by the visuals of Forgotton Anne. It is genuinely exciting to progress the story, even when it is not hitting on all cylinders with its pacing/shortcomings, because of its imaginatively realized world and eclectic forgotling characters that ooze personality with every animation. The soundtrack itself also has an impressive breadth to its score with some fine orchestral pieces that nicely accompany the visuals as well. However, if there is one strong blight upon Forgotton Anne's presentation, it is the English voice acting itself. While the script is generally fine, despite some really on-the-nose attempts at philosophical contemplation in latter story instances that act deeper than they actually are, a strong majority of the characters have a really stilted voice delivery which can be quite distracting at times. It's not anywhere near Chaos Wars bad or anything, certainly, but for a game with such heavy voice acting usage it takes away the excitement of seeing an interesting new character only to be underwhelmed by them as soon as they start talking, especially when nearly every other facet of the presentation is so alluring. Forgotton Anne is a solid, creative title that is teeming with good intentions. From its memorizing visuals to an intriguing world setup, it goes a long way to pique the player's curiosity throughout its brief story even though it is occasionally obfuscated by its own shortcomings such as so-so gameplay pacing and amateur voice acting performances. Yet, it is hard to hold that much of a grudge against Forgotton Anne's occasional mishaps in character for too long when its heart is clearly in the right place during its imaginatively realized adventure that somehow successfully breaths so much life into what should be listless inanimate objects. Pros + Captivating artstyle with some truly awe-striking environmental backdrops + Intriguing setup and characters that are most strongly illustrated in its later half + Choice mechanics that come back to haunt the player at surprising points Cons - Neither the puzzle nor platforming elements really hit a satisfying gameplay stride - Certain philosophical narrative aspects do get a bit too on the nose at times - Some stilted, amateur voice acting does frequently detract from story scenes when most other aspects of the presentation are so top-notch Overall Score: 7 (out of 10) Good Forgotton Anne does a lot with very little and while it is not entirely successful in its gameplay nor its delivery of it it does manage to craft a gorgeous, intriguing adventure that is certainly worthy of one's attention shortcomings and all Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS4 code provided by the publisher.
  12. barrel

    Review: Megadimension Neptunia VIIR

    I think I'm one of the harsher critics of this game (but I kinda imagine those that are still reviewing Nep Nep, aside from myself, already know they like Nep Nep). But yeah, this is still one of those games with the same gameplay problems. The upcoming spin-off "Super Neptunia" might be interesting just because it looks Valkyrie Profile-ish.
  13. Developer: Compile Heart Publisher: Idea Factory International Platform: PS4 (PS VR enabled) Release Date: May 8, 2018 ESRB: T for Teen Developer Compile Heart is seemingly never fully satisfied with any of their mainline Neptunia games. While there is certainly precedent for it regarding the technical and gameplay mess that was the original PS3 Hyperdimension Neptunia title and its significantly improved (and formerly exclusive) Vita remake Hyperdimension Neptunia Re;birth several years after, the necessity of all the remakes afterward becomes murky at best. Contrary to its confusing original name, and even more misleading VR pun, Megadimension Neptunia: VIIR is neither exclusively a VR game nor magically the seventh main entry with a roman numeral styled naming convention (despite how it may feel like so at this point) but rather a remake of Neptunia's fourth mainline entry that debuted on PS4 back in 2016. Promising dramatically overhauled gameplay systems, improved visuals, and other fine-tuning, does Megadimension Neptunia VIIR provide a happy ending to one of the series' more divisive entries or should one simply give up daydreaming on the prospect? Weirdly enough, the very first thing one views in the game is actually a VR headset-intended-- but still fully playable without--- series of cutscenes which are completely new to this remake. Through this it essentially establishes, in an unapologetic shattering of the fourth wall, that the "player" themselves is able to choose between going through the main role-playing game itself or the much more mundane VR-encouraged features in which you can optionally subjugate yourself to listen to the ramblings of CPU goddesses Neptune, Noire, Blanc, or Vert with the occasional "yes" or "no" affirmations from the player. You can probably guess how much time I spent with the latter... (very little). As for the main RPG itself, it is obviously the most substantial portion of the experience that even breathes a somewhat intriguing change in context with the VR features as the main story progresses. Admittedly, I never played the original version of Megadimension Neptunia VII but reportedly its biggest annoyances were that the gameplay systems were not very intuitive; like an overly complicated combo system in battle or other grating annoyances over time like constant random encounters on the world map. Anyone that played it in its original incarnation may be pleased to hear that neither of these features is a factor this time around in Megadimension Neptunia VIIR. That said, for better or worse, the series is seemingly back to being quite mindless with its more menu-driven battle system, which is also very easy to exploit. I found a very quick routine in abusing the newly added counter abilities (which basically wastes an enemy's entire turn) or spamming strong special moves rather than doing anything particularly strategic or creative regarding its combo mechanics. This is only emphasized further by the main story's cakewalk difficulty and how little effort it requires to be overleveled throughout since normal equipment can have generous experience multipliers applied to them. It is honestly a good thing the difficulty is so breezy (yet for the wrong reasons) considering the aggressive amount of gameplay monotony it has throughout. Everything from bosses to dungeon layouts are recycled constantly throughout and this pretense, unfortunately, goes into hyperdrive during the game's true end in particular. For reference, the final boss is reused twice... and it's basically a palette swap of a boss enemy that is regurgitated nearly five times earlier in the story. Don't get me started on the dungeon recycling that somehow sets a much worse reuse precedent. The series has always had glaring repetition issues but, for some reason, it becomes even more insulting when the main characters themselves point out how tired they become of it. Here's a pro tip about self-aware gameplay humor -- It doesn't work when you handle your own gameplay recycling worse than the games you attempt to poke fun at. Megadimension Neptunia VIIR unsuccessfully tries to disguise this blatant padding in the form of three bizarre, disjointed story arcs. The first story arc is easy enough to follow with a (deserved) emphasis on the newcomer Uzume, however, the storytelling takes an especially weird turn in its second act, which re-contextualizes the world itself. Basically, the player switches between the CPU Goddess leads of Neptune, Noire, Blanc, & Vert; all of whom have self-contained story arcs that focus on eventually confronting the parody characters that represent Square-Enix, Capcom, Bandai, and Konami. While this leads to some occasionally humorous quips in the script, in a gameplay context, however, this means that the goddesses pretty much never have more than one to two party members with them at any one time. As an extension to this problem, the bland reused dungeon treks become much more obvious and the combat system itself comes across as very limited until very late in the third and final story act that finally gives access to its huge playable cast. Even though I would certainly struggle to say the storytelling approaches being anywhere near cohesive, or particularly decent for that matter-- Megadimension Neptunia VIIR's storytelling does manage to be a fair amount more endearing than the sum of its many rough, plodding parts. It mostly achieves this, despite all odds, narrative feat through its approach to characters. Because the storytelling so frequently splits up the party it actually gives individuals who barely justified their existences in prior games, like the CPU Candidates in particular (or little sisters of Neptune, Noire, & Blanc), the surprise opportunity to become much more likable. The several new VR segments also give a formally underutilized character, who is somewhat of an early spoiler, in original VII a more prominent role (despite how vapid many of the early scenes are), which is a nice touch as well. Yet, far and away the biggest character standout is certainly Uzume, who almost feels out of place because of it. In a series where most of its heroines are defined by their tropes like Neptune and her fourth wall breaking jokes or Noire and her tsundere attitude, Uzume is far more thoughtfully handled as a character who sees a lot of genuine development. Of course, it can be more than difficult to recognize this considering how Megadimension Neptunia VIIR not only has several shallow "fanservice" bathing scenes but an incredibly obnoxious amount of breast size jokes throughout which makes it more than safe to say the writing frequently misses its mark for humor in spite of some earnest attempts at character development it sneaks in every now and then. Megadimension Neptunia VIIR seems to struggle giving much incentive to long-standing fans or even newcomers to really try it out. It is an enhanced release that had the misplaced focus of streamlining certain gameplay and cosmetic rough edges rather than taking a stern look at fundamentally fixes the core game itself, especially story-wise. Though there are glimpses of fairly earnest character moments sprinkled about, the majority of the time the player is left with an incredibly subpar RPG that tries to poke fun at its genre contemporaries without either the wit or the understanding as to what makes them actually good to earn it. Frankly, with so many better Japanese RPGs that have appeared since 2016, Megadimension Neptunia VIIR feels that much more stuck in the past and tough to justify paying attention to it at all, no matter one how many dimensions it claims to have warped between. Pros + Does a decent job at giving its huge cast of playable characters a proper individual spotlight, even if Uzume easily has the biggest role (as she should because she is far and away the best character) + Big combat gameplay changes and generous auto-saving make it more approachable than its former incantation Cons - Why are there so many re-skinned enemies/bosses and recycled dungeon motifs throughout?! - Cakewalk difficulty and frequently limited character parties make already extremely repetitive gameplay that much more mindnumbing - Lots of jokes miss their mark because of the often trite (and repeated!) fanservice jokes and poor game design decisions they attempt to poke fun at while doing it even worse themselves - Outside of some late main story events, the VR-intended features add very little to the overall package Overall Score: 4.5 (out of 10) Below Average Megadimension Neptunia VIIR proves that even with many gameplay adjustments that players both new and old will struggle to justify giving it any time at all among many better recent RPG options on the PS4 alone Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS4 code provided by the publisher.
  14. barrel

    Review: Dragon's Crown Pro

    Developer: Vanillaware Publisher: Atlus USA/Sega Platform: PS4 Release Date: May 15, 2018 ESRB: T for Teen With 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim being just beyond the horizon for a little while longer, Japanese developer Vanillaware seems content with putting out enhanced versions of their older projects these past few years. The first of these was the stellar 2016 remake Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir which was so impressively realized that it turned a severely flawed gem into the makings of a genuine gaming classic. In contrast, Dragon's Crown Pro will take a much higher level of scrutiny to notice its minimal changes on the newer PlayStation 4 hardware. For better or worse, it is still the same game it was five years ago. For those unaware, Dragon's Crown was a title that made its way onto the PlayStation 3 and PS Vita back in 2013. In spite of a lengthy and expensive development cycle, it ended up being a much-needed success for Vanilliaware, likely because of its rock-solid beat 'em up gameplay and distinct female character designs. Those with a more seasoned background in the subgenre were able to glean Dragon's Crown reverent (and hardly subtle) callbacks to classic titles such as Capcom's Dungeon & Dragons arcade games in particular. Considering how the game's art director, George Kamitani, had a hand in those D&D arcade games makes it all that much more clear he wanted Dragon's Crown to hearken back to beloved old school beat 'em ups, yet embrace it in a much more modern gameplay context. Being about four years removed since my last playthrough of the game I am surprised to have grown a stronger appreciation of it upon playing Dragon's Crown Pro. Just as it did five years ago, Dragon's Crown's near-timeless 2D art direction is immediately captivating and is dense with an absurd attention to detail, especially now that it has the benefit of a 4K resolution option as well. This is only complemented further by the fun, enthusiastic dungeon master-styled narration throughout (which can be changed to any of the playable character voices that also generally do a great job) which thankfully much more strongly resonates than the forgettable main plot itself involving -- surprise surprise -- dragons and a special crown of some sort. More important than the many striking presentational flourishes is, of course, the actual gameplay. Those comfortable with 2D fighting games, in particular, will likely find the controls of each of the six playable characters to feel like a dream. Layered on top of RPG-styled level progression and an addictive loot grind, this only makes finer character gameplay nuances that much more satisfying to uncover. As much as I enjoyed lifting enemies and tossing barrels as the Dwarf, or teleporting around and casting support spells as Sorceress, I decided to mess with around with the rest of the cast upon this revisit and found myself pleasantly surprised by all of their capability and multiplayer utility as well. But, admittedly, new players will likely still have to acclimate to control quirks like narrow foreground and background beat 'em up hitboxes or certain, clearly touchscreen-intended mechanics like opening treasure chests or using runes abilities (easily most intuitive on PS Vita, though the PS4 touchpad does work fine), if they are not already familiar with them. The issues that Dragon's Crown Pro unfortunately retains are more structural than anything else. The most common early complaint is that newcomers will still have to play a couple hours by themselves (potentially with AI companions) before they can even so much as touch the online multiplayer options. Ironically, after getting over that early slump, those same players will likely feel like they have "beaten" the game by themselves. To the game's credit, in spite of the poor story context of gathering nine talismans, they do a better job in a gameplay context to justify revisiting the familiar nine locations for "Path B" routes that provide distinctively more challenging and varied setpiece moments as well as entirely new bosses. Yet, even with the Path B routes, the repetition is likely to set in much more quickly without the help of other online/local players or the earned convenience of a save file that already played past the first nine bosses and allows them to play a level 15 character right away. The repetition problems are only exacerbated by rather dull quests that seem to conveniently pop immediately after the player likely completed their objectives mid-dungeon trek already. Though these quests are certainly optional (I never touched them until this release) they can be a good way to earn experience points, the occasional questionably lewd pictures, and, much more importantly, skill points which are vital for min/max reasoning to those who want to mess with the game's hardest content on higher difficulties or the randomly generated gauntlet Labyrinth of Chaos/Tower of Mirages modes. It really feels like a huge missed opportunity in general for Vanillaware to not add potentially new playable characters, stages, or modes regardless of how surprisingly well the game has aged. However, it says a lot about just how entertaining the core game is, glaring flaws and all, when I easily doubled my original thirty-hour playtime by trying out other characters or higher difficulties this time around. Even if it definitely missed its chance with sweeping changes, there are some small details that do help Dragon's Crown Pro to barely eke out its position as the best version of the title. Though it took me more time to notice than I care to admit, the entirely redone live orchestra soundtrack by Hitoshi Sakamoto is one such benefit, with richer vocals and instrumentation of the entire soundtrack. Much more granular details are appreciated too, like improved inventory interface, painless direct save transfer options from PS3 and PS Vita, or secretly most important of all, a much more stable PS4 online netcode, especially when playing with individuals overseas. Of course, I am reaching for straws because -- for as positive of a time I have had with the whole experience -- it is tough to make the argument for this re-release for those who did not already enjoy the game. After being spoiled by the excellent enhanced release of Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir not too long ago, it is more than a little disappointing at how little has been added to the PS4 release of Dragon's Crown Pro. Despite the passing of five years time, however, Dragon's Crown has aged remarkably well. It may retain its structural mishaps as well as repetition problems, but its stronger overall components also maintain its addictive moment-to-moment gameplay and superb visual and aural presentation. For those that did not exhaust themselves on the game the first time around, there is still good fun to be had with Dragon's Crown Pro in what is easily among one of the finest beat 'em ups available. It also serves as a good reminder as to why one should be excited for the upcoming next title Vanillaware has in store. Pros + Stunning visuals and incredibly tight beat 'em up gameplay that more than stand the test of a five years time + Charming choose-your-own-adventure styled narration and classic subgenre throwbacks that permeate throughout the experience + Great, addictive fun with fellow human players complemented by a smoother PS4 netcode Cons - Fairly repetitive design loop with no new gameplay additions in Dragon's Crown Pro can make it a tough sell for those that have already played the game on other consoles - Certain clearly touchscreen-focused mechanics like opening treasure chests or using runes are still most intuitive on the Vita hardware - Feels like a huge missed opportunity to not add new content such as extra levels or playable characters Overall Score: 7.5 (out of 10) Good Vanillaware may have squandered its chance to significantly add upon and fine-tune Dragon's Crown Pro but, for an already high-quality beat 'em up, it does leave room for forgiveness for this minimal PS4 port, especially because of how enjoyable it is to play with others even now. Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS4 code provided by the publisher.
  15. Developer: Soft Circle French Bread Publisher: Aksys Games Platform: PS4, PS3, and PS Vita Release Date: February 8, 2018 ESRB: T for Teen Clearly, the Japanese developer French Bread has given up any attempt at a coherent title with their newest fighting game rerelease, Under Night In-Birth Exe: Late(st). In spite of its self-inflicted and unfortunate naming choice, the newest Under Night In-Birth iteration remains steadfast as a fighting game gem amongst some pretty fierce competition. It is just a shame that it is highly likely to be buried by the recent Dragon Ball FighterZ (for a multitude of reasons) and possibly even redundant due to many serious fans having already imported this version of the series half a year ago. Those who are still curious as to what Under Night's second console release has to offer may notice its handful of new bells and whistles as it tries to justify its additional retail price tag. I would define the original PS3 release of Under Night In-Birth as having no unnecessary frills, yet also quite entertaining, and that it was only really held back by simply not explaining its nuanced fighting game system mechanics (such as "Chain Shift", "Veil off", and the likes). The lack of tutorials would essentially force one who wanted to give the prior game a fair shot to dig into online guides or wikis to understand the gameplay systems. This is no longer the case with Exe: Late(st) with many, many tutorials that are willing to teach in a very beginner-friendly manner, which range from simply moving around or looking at the health bar to going as deep as explaining concepts like "fuzzy guarding" in high-level play. It is a rather dry text dump based approach compared to Guilty Gear Xrd: Revelator's tutorial but the in-game insight is more than welcome nonetheless. It is all well and good that they added tutorials; however, features beyond that should be more enticing for returning players, such as new playable characters and modes. In addition to adding much-needed re-balancing from the prior game (Seth and Chaos are finally viable competitively!), the four new playable characters themselves are all quite enjoyable and generally easy to pick up & play like the rest of the roster. Some are straightforward enough, like Enkidu, who is a close ranged fighter with various parrying skills to Phonon who keeps foes at bay with long-range whipping abilities. The more intriguing newcomers design-wise, however, are Mika -- who is a deceptively mobile fighter despite wielding two huge gauntlets -- and the lady Wagner, who has a fiery and hyper aggressive playstyle that is similar to her presence in the main story. Speaking of which, the newly added story mode may just be the worst part of the whole game. One could tell that the storytelling was not particularly noteworthy in the arcade mode of the earlier release; having an exhausting ten hour-plus visual novel story mode could not do this game fewer favors. As someone who tolerated the extensive visual novel narratives in various Blazblue games, it says a lot about just how dull and uneventful the Chronicles story mode in EXE Late(st) ends up being. At best, players will see some halfway interesting backstory regarding the playable cast. Yet, the far more prevalent theme is that it'll likely bore them out of their mind with incredibly mundane and redundant exposition that can stretch the course of five minutes into feeling like several hours. The worst part about the storytelling is that there is very little resembling a central narrative as whole making it feel that much more pointless to endure. The rest of the gameplay mode feature set is a matter of taking the good with the bad. For example, the "Mission" mode is neat in that it has players be able to learn actual viable bread & butter combos to more advanced techniques. Then there is the training mode which, despite being a total user interface nightmare, allows somewhat granular options in finding out which actions can easily be countered. The Network features remain to be much more mixed, however. In addition to being close to dead in terms of online presence (one of many reasons why the release date timing was unfortunate...), the online netcode itself is kind of dodgy and bare bones. There are the standard lobbies and ranked matchmaking, sure, but good luck finding fellow opponents or matches without noticeable lag. Under Night In-Birth EXE: Late(st) makes for a tricky recommendation in the modern fighting game climate. It's a criminally overlooked, and surprisingly approachable fighting game series though I find myself quite conflicted in how underwhelming Exe: Late(st) is as a re-release. The story mode is downright awful and whatever potential for longevity it has is sapped away by a weak online interface and an even worse release date timing thanks to the recent Dragon Ball FighterZ. What is left are a few neat additions such as the four entertaining new characters and the smart training mode options, as well as the solace in that would-be fans no longer have to go out of their to import the title, but little else. Pros + Rock solid fighting game fundamentals that is surprisingly approachable in terms of controls + The four new playable characters are diverse and entertaining + Nice tutorials and training mode options Cons - Utterly boring visual novel story mode - Wonky versus netcode with the online presence of a ghost town -Interface and UI is clumsy Overall Score: 7 (out of 10) Good Under Night In-Birth EXE: Late(st) is stuck in the unfortunate position of being a really good fighter that is held back by an underwhelming overall re-release and terrible release date timing. But for those willing to accept Under Night In-Birth EXE: Late(st) as the diamond in the rough that it is should still have fun playing it. Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS4 code provided by the publisher.
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