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barrel

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  1. 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.
  2. 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)
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. Developer: Sega Publisher: Sega Platform: PS4 Release Date: April 17, 2018 ESRB: M for Mature Over a decade after the series took Japan by storm, the West seems to have finally taken notice of Sega's intended spiritual child of Shenmue. Thanks to some highly memorable PS4 entries featuring the ex-yakuza with a heart of gold, Kiryu has suddenly become a recognizable gaming face alongside the Yakuza series itself. That's why it's more than a bit odd that we must bid Kiryu farewell just as the series is gaining momentum in 2018. Yet, with more than a half-dozen of his crime-centric stories etched upon the backs of various Sony console generations (including the highly recommended prequel: Yakuza 0) it does certainly have justification behind it. With the hopes telling one final tale deep into Kiryu's adulthood age does Yakuza 6: The Song of Life provide a worthy finale to the series' beloved main protagonist? Yakuza 6: The Song of Life is a confusing beast much like the lead protagonist it is focused upon. For veterans of the series the gameplay framework will be more than recognizable, from punching in the faces of countless thugs to playing Puyo Puyo at a random Sega arcade cabinet but thematically it will likely feel quite foreign. This is most true when Kiryu bounces from the all too familiar bustling starting town of Kumurocho (which has been a staple for every single main entry game) to the entirely new and much more rural location of Onomichi for more than half the main game. To avoid being too specific for spoiler-ish reasoning, the very loose pretense being that Kiryu gets saddled with taking care of a child in a quest of finding the would-be father. Of course, like any Yakuza storyline it never ends up being quite that simple for the "Dragon of Dojima" Kiryu and his unlucky interwoven fate with the criminal underground. To strongly punctuate the distinctly new Onomichi backdrop is in no small part because of the series' entirely different gameplay engine as well as the surprising focal point on new characters. The advanced gameplay engine often makes Yakuza 6 gorgeous both visually and aurally. It is also the first time in a long while the series hasn't felt shackled by dated PS3 hardware. Through the smart use of furrowed brows, eye contact, and other nonverbal tics it goes a long way in making the fresh setting and cast captivating aesthetically, alongside some strong musical accompaniment, even when story scenes get a little too self-indulgent in terms of running time and occasionally eye roll worthy story twists. Perhaps the strangest aspect about Yakuza 6 is that the story it tries to tell often feels quite removed from almost every prior title. Many fan-favorite characters are barely anywhere to be seen, for example, despite doing an admirable job at making one warm up to the new cast like the hotheaded thug Nagumo or his nonchalant patriarch Hirose. The only real exceptions to this independent storytelling philosophy being the intro that immediately follows up Yakuza 5's conclusion and the emotionally charged and satisfying finale for returning fans. While I grew to appreciate the refreshing (and generally more focused theme around family) change in storytelling dynamic, especially since Yakuza 4 and 5 had plenty of narrative throwback fanfare, I can definitely see a knee-jerk reaction from other longstanding Yakuza players expecting much more familiar territory for Kiryu's final adventure. I may have grown to appreciate the differences in Yakuza 6's approach towards narrative the gameplay is not quite as consistently well-realized within the snazzy new engine. Like most Yakuza titles there is a strong focus on soaking in the sights of Japan to just as quickly settling fights--and there's plenty reasoning to do both. The combat, in particular, is where Yakuza 6 comes across almost like a groundwork for future games than what it should be as a culmination of the series. There are some smart changes like much smoother transitions both in and out of battle, whereas the previous titles often felt like random encounters in role-playing games you couldn't really run away from. But Kiryu's overall moveset is more simplified this time around with the lack of Yakuza 0's combat stances or the character variety in games like Yakuza 4 & 5. It also doesn't help combat itself is made less responsive than it should be with some really wonky hit detection and bizarre usable item physics-- like some faceless thug casually able to kick a bicycle as if it were a soccer ball across the street. Sure, battles are still fun in a mindless beat 'em up way with a whole lot of visual flair, scripted story battles especially, but a handful of welcome tweaks does not save it from coming off as an arguably more clumsy battle system overall. Yet, Yakuza is one of those series that can often get past the more hit & aspects with its core systems due to the sheer breadth of optional side activities. As per the series' standard, there are a whole lot of distractions from the main story and the game is better for it since it helps distract from some occasional main story pacing flaws. Kiryu can go around doing all sorts of stuff like working out at a gym, sing karaoke, feeding stray cats to have them become part of a cat cafe, gamble, go to hostess bars, and more. There are some obvious winners like excellent ports of Sega games via in-game arcade cabinets like Fantasy Zone or Outrun to straight-up most recent editions of Virtua Fighter 5 and Puyo Puyo. The biggest loser, unfortunately, in terms of being just plain annoying despite the clever name involves "Troublr", which are time-sensitive missions that love to pop up at the most inconvenient times and try and guilt trip you for not helping right away. Some sidequests in particular, however, run surprisingly deep. Easily the most in-depth mode of all involves an overhead real-time strategy game in which Kiryu commands and recruits various warriors in an attempt to stop the iconic Japanese wrestler Rainmaker and his clan called "Justis" from terrorizing the city. There is a surprising amount of nuance to it like connecting online to battle other clans or learning the synergy between certain recruits so they get better stats, even though you can easily over-level your way through it with exp bonuses. Aside from that there are also much more bite-sized side stories which are usually when the localization is at its sharpest because of their either heartwarming or totally bizarre scenarios, all of which are fully-voiced now. As entertaining as much of the side content is, it is disappointing that Yakuza 6 is scaled back in several regards. Quite literally, The main town of Kumurocho has several familiar locations straight up closed off because of in-game construction that never goes away making the adventure feel more claustrophobic than several games before it. Onomichi being even smaller with even less to do (aside from the main story) does not help its case. It is among one of the shortest adventures in the series, and while the game benefits from it story-wise, there is only about half as much to do compared to earlier releases outside of it. Much like Kiryu does as a person throughout his life, Yakuza 6: The Song of Life ends up stumbling in a lot of places despite having its heart in the right place. Everything from its remarkably different and self-contained main narrative structuring to the completely overhauled combat system will almost guarantee that it will rub returning series' fans the wrong way for one reason or another. But what Yakuza 6 does showcase is plenty of passion, like the surprisingly likable new cast to the entertaining (but somewhat more limited) side activities, which permeates throughout the experience and helps the game stand tall. Even though Yakuza 6: The Song of Life may not present the series at its peak performance (that'd be Yakuza 0), it is still a more than worthwhile adventure that does not simply rest on its former achievements to earn one's respect over time. Pros +Visually and aurally captivating presentation + Develops the entirely new cast of characters well like turning obnoxious goons into likable companions + Enticing side stories and mini games + Good quality of life additions like the series finally discovering auto-saving Cons - Some underwhelming reveals and the very self-contained main story arc can be disappointing for longstanding series fans - Despite being completely overworked the combat system actually controls less responsively due to some iffy hit detection - Closed off city spaces and less overall side activities than one has come to expect from the series Overall Score: 7.5 (out of 10) Good Yakuza 6: The Song of Life strides to go in a remarkably different direction with its themes without abandoning much of the inherent charm the games have become known for showcasing. But at the cost of shedding some of its gameplay strengths in particular in the brand new engine leads to it not quite standing toe to toe with series' best entries. Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS4 code provided by the publisher.
  12. Review: Tokyo Xanadu EX+

    Developer: Falcom Publisher: Aksys Games Platform: PS4 Release Date: December 8, 2017 ESRB: T for Teen It has not been that long since the Vita release of the action-RPG Tokyo Xanadu -- a slick-looking game for Sony's portable system that tried to serve as a departure from Falcom’s signature series like The Legend of Heroes and Ys titles. If anything, Tokyo Xanadu felt like a confluence of both of Falcom’s key franchises with a modern day setting and more distinctly “anime” take. The enhanced version on PS4 named Tokyo Xanadu EX+ boasts much in the way of newly added content and enhanced visuals but is it really worth the envy of impulsive players of the original? In terms of fundamentals, Tokyo Xanadu EX+ is largely familiar to its handheld predecessor. From the episodic style of anime storytelling to the dungeon crawling and occasional social aspects both in and out of school, the heart of Tokyo Xanadu EX+ remains the same. How it wears its recent Persona game influence (4 especially) on its sleeve remains quite prevalent as well. Frankly, my recommendation remains steadfast that one should just play something like Persona 3-5 before getting to something so clearly derivative of that series yet not nearly as good. Heck, the title is not even Falcom's A-game either when recent Ys games have better combat systems and The Legend of Heroes has much stronger characters and storytelling. For those curious as to what Tokyo Xanadu EX+ has to offer, there's a surprising amount compared to what its predecessor offered and it's safe to say that it's the definitive version of the game. What is actually new seems to stem out from various attempts at re-balancing and dispersing new content here and there between the main story. Enemies and bosses are noticeably more aggressive to counter the player’s newly added combat tools, enhanced 60 fps fidelity, and more responsive controls. For example, the mechanic "X-Drive", which used to be a temporary stat/regen buff on Vita, does that as well as summon another ally to join mid-battle and spam special moves alongside the player character in EX+. The game was not particularly challenging on the standard difficulty and remains so on PS4, but it feels that much honest on PS4 because the technical side is not a point of contention anymore and the enemy AI nowhere near as sleepy. While the action-RPG gameplay itself remains fairly average with repetitive dungeon crawling and so-so storytelling, the PS4 port itself is excellent. The art direction holds up and the generally silky smooth frame rate makes it pleasing to look in motion despite more than a few bland environments/enemy models. This stood out to me all that much more after playing Xenoblade Chronicles 2 alongside with it which is far less cohesive aesthetically, and technically, in comparison. Perhaps the most likely cause of envy for those saddled with the Vita release is the many new story scenes. After every chapter, there is a new narrative interlude generally focused on a specific character and ends with a short dungeon trek. Unfortunately, most extra chapters are barely worth mentioning except for the ones centered on the most intriguing character of the main narrative named "White Shroud" which gives players a neat taste of endgame combat early in. Speaking of which, if there is one aspect truly worth the spite of Vita-only owners, it is the endgame "After Story" chapter. Taking place following the main story, the After Story starts rather cute with a Halloween theme and heartwarming interpersonal sidequests. Though, that goodwill is later ruined by the lengthy grind of extra dungeons that introduce next to nothing new along a sequel tease to top it all off. Tokyo Xanadu EX+ straddles the line of being a wonderful port but also begs the question as to why did they put such effort into a game that hardly stands out as is. The PS4 version cleans up and refines the title in many subtle ways -- from extra story chapters, tightened up battle mechanics, and an enhanced presentation -- yet it still doesn't shake the overbearing feeling of Tokyo Xanadu being so thoroughly average among much better role-playing games in 2017 (even from Falcom itself.). It may be the most complete version the game has to offer though I can certainly think of more than a few PS4 RPGs more worth one's time before even giving Tokyo Xanadu EX+ a passing glance. Pros + Great port to PS4 from enhanced visuals to tighter combat mechanics + The "After Story" chapter is a neat addition Cons - Most extra chapters barely add anything story or gameplay-wise and feel like bloat for a game that already had way too much - Still has the fundamental problems of the original game from throwaway storytelling/characters and tedious dungeon crawling Overall Score: 5.5 (out of 10) Average Tokyo Xanadu EX+ is essentially what the original release should've been with its neat additions but still struggles to really stand out among many better role-playing game options from 2017 Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS4 code provided by the publisher.
  13. This past year was easily one of the worst in my entire life. Without even going into the hellscape that is the current political climate I was also forced to deal with many far more personal concerns that made sure my mental fortitude was being only kept intact by the narrowest string at times. Irrespective of the time or seasons that the hardships of life decided to unfurl before me, 2017 in gaming brightly illuminated even amongst the darkest moments of my life. If anything, it's one of the very few things that kept me sane with reasoning to look forward to each new day. Maybe that intro was a bit too much of a downer, but what I am trying to say is that if 2017 was not such a strong year for gaming I would very likely still be in a terrible mental state. People have been arguing that 2017 is on the level of being on the caliber of 1998 in gaming -- and I'd be inclined to agree with them for the most part. You may notice a recurring theme as my 2017 list goes on where I'm actually putting a bigger emphasis on storytelling than gameplay like I would normally in previous years. Because there is no shortage of excellent games with great gameplay in 2017, the ones that also hit an emotional focal point through either their storytelling or writing were more likely to click with me. Without further ado, here are my personal favorite games of 2017. 10) Super Mario Odyssey Super Mario Odyssey is probably the closest thing in my mind to 3D platforming perfection. Masterful controls, top-notch level design, a constant satisfying loop with collectibles, a dapper-looking Bowser, and even the catchy "Jump Up, Super Star!" theme is sung by none other than the seemingly long-forgotten Pauline. Perhaps the biggest criticism I could truly level against Mario Odyssey is that it simply did not stick in my memory quite as much as other games this year after the initial credits rolled despite how much I enjoyed playing it in the heat of the moment. 9) Nier Automata Like most Yoko Taro games I find myself strongly respecting but am also equally frustrated at what Nier Automata attempts to achieve. Part of that was the unfair expectation was thinking it'd be a Platinum game with a Nier touch. And let me tell ya, I LOVE Platinum character-action games (Bayonetta 2 <3). What I got, however, was a Nier game with a Platinum touch, which conceives of all of the bizarre, yet fascinating quirks of a Yoko Taro game without the shoe-string budget and generally terrible gameplay he was known to be saddled with back at Square-Enix (*cough* the entire Drakengard series *cough*). Because of this, I was fighting between conflicting emotions of it not quite grabbing me as the storytelling/cast of characters in the original Nier did, nor the gameplay of Platinum in their prime. But like any game by the eccentric director, it likes to play upon expectations over time. Everything from a Metal Gear Solid 2-styled mantle pass, phenomenal dynamic soundtrack, twisted storytelling, and a highly evocative ending sequence that could only be executed within the medium of video games made the whole experience better than the sum of its clunky parts for myself. 8) Final Fantasy XIV: Stormblood Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn continues to be far and away the best thing bearing the Final Fantasy name in nearly a decade. Unlike the prior expansion that is more noteworthy for its storytelling, Stormblood is generally more impressive for its dramatic gameplay overhaul (not to say the story isn't compelling in Stormblood, though). Apparently, all it took was the noble sacrifice of the PS3 version. In which case I'll just say: why didn't they just throw the PS3 version into the sun earlier? [says this as someone who played FFXIV on PS3 for nearly 2 years] While I hardly consider myself a hardcore player I was more than swept into the fires of war that is Stormblood for months. With a campaign that is better than most RPGs this year (I've played a lot of RPGs this year), it features exciting bosses, creative dungeons, an English story localization that nearly rivals the quality of FFXII, two incredibly fun new classes, and entirely revamped gameplay mechanics that also happened to give my precious Astrologian class lovely buffs to help bring the Ala Mhigan war effort that much closer to home. To justify my occasionally dangerous addiction that much further I even made some new friends in real life during the course of playing it as well. All of this was almost enough to make people like myself forget the nightmare that was the early access launch. Almost... 7) The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky The 3rd I would've been perfectly okay if Trails in the Sky simply ended with the second entry. I mean, the extremely endearing Estelle Bright had her story arc pretty thoroughly resolved by the end of the Trails in the Sky SC after all. Still, despite initially coming off as a somewhat unnecessary fanservice game, Trails in the Sky: The 3rd tugged at my heartstrings in many surprising ways. I grew to greatly appreciate the distinctly different yet engrossing new lead cast members (Kevin especially) and radically changed-up gameplay structure present in The 3rd. It played the gamut of emotions from giving beloved supporting characters a stronger foundation/resolution, to also revealing deeply unsettling parts of ones you didn't know quite as well as you thought you did, all up until its tear-worthy conclusion that eventually wormed its way overall into being my favorite game in the would-be trilogy. 6) The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild It's tempting to make the obvious play on the title like: "The newest Legend of Zelda was a breath of fresh air!" or something like that. But... that's just it. Breath of the Wild truly was a fresh contrast for not only the series becoming notoriously stagnant with its formulaic design but open world games at large. In a year where I dipped my toes into games such as Horizon: Zero Dawn or Assassin's Creed: Origins, I learned that I wasn't actually totally done with the entire open world subgenre, but rather ones that refused to challenge their gameplay norm. So, apparently, I was just bored of open world games not made by Nintendo, I guess. Breath of the Wild brought back a sense of genuine wonderment to not only the once decaying series but its homogenized modern open world contemporaries. It successfully evoked the sense of mystique during exploration and respected the player's own ability at discovering unorthodox solutions at nearly every turn we haven't seen since basically the very first Zelda game. I may not adore every facet of its design, such as weapon degradation, but I could not be more pleased with how Nintendo (of all companies) deliberately chose to be so fascinatingly different in a time where every other company tried to stay the course with open world games. 5) Night in the Woods It seems to me that Night in the Woods is highly likely to resonate with a very specific age demographic than others. As it turns out, I happen to be one of them within that age group. So I saw more than a bit of myself in Mae and her group of friends with their day to day troubles even if they were all animal... people... that stood on two feet. Shelving the existential animal question for now, both the writing and characters really struck a chord with me. The fact that I also happened to unintentionally play the game mostly concurrent with the late October themed narrative helped it be that much more immersive. Admittedly there are some elements that don't entirely ring with me in the game; predominately the weird psychedelic/supernatural elements that seep their way into what should've otherwise felt like a surprisingly grounded main narrative. But the moments where it felt so very human made me forgive such shortcomings the game had... even though they were technically animals. 4) Yakuza 0 Click here to read GP's official review The Yakuza series has always been one I liked much more conceptually than actually playing. Well, until Yakuza 0 that is. Turns out all they needed was a playable Majima!.. in a game that wasn't Yakuza Dead Souls. But seriously, I extolled the many virtues of Yakuza 0 through the course of my review. But the cliff notes version of my fondness for it had a lot to do with how expertly it balanced very serious, engaging storytelling and hilarious (though, occasionally heartwarming), as well as insanely abundant, side content complemented by the expert localization. Most impressive of all is that it is a prequel that retroactively makes all of its predecessors better by the reverence it pays to them as well as being the best game in the series. 3) Xenoblade Chronicles 2 There have been a lot of knee-jerk reactions towards Xenoblade Chronicles 2 in it simply existing. Some justified, some not. What I will say is that even though Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is likely the least cohesive game in the entire series, it is also far and away the one that I had the most fun actually playing. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 may not be the game that I myself and many others expected, but it was also one I did not know I wanted as much as I did. For as many technical rough spots and unnecessary anime fanservice/trope moments it presents at the forefront, I was also blown by just how much heart and depth it had buried beneath for both its gameplay systems and storytelling. It has been a while since I felt like a game so regularly went "And here's one more cool new thing!" via some gameplay mechanic or an exciting story beat. Couple it further with a masterful soundtrack, an impeccable world design, very rewarding battle system, and a surprisingly endearing main cast made my expansive journey and my absurd current playtime within more than worth it (...100+ hours). I am certainly looking forward to the additions to it via various updates in 2018, such as the added story content too. 2) Persona 5 As someone who would easily put Persona 3 & 4 high in the bracket of my all-time favorite video games, to say that I was hungry for Persona 5's eventual release would be a major understatement. Turns out that "Winter 2014" was much further away than anyone had imagined. So impatient was I to finally play it that I literally bought the game two times just because I could not wait an extra day for my limited edition to arrive via mail. Even though I was frothing at the mouth to finally play it I would say my expectations were actually pretty reasonable for what P5 actually ended up being. I wanted a game to NOT just feel like Persona 4 all over again by assuming a strong identity of its own and, of course, improve upon many enjoyable gameplay systems of prior entries. And it did just that. Actually, it did MUCH more than that. Persona 5 challenges much of the fundamental ideology of its two predecessors from the relationship dynamic between characters to the dark underpinnings of its storytelling, causing it to be rather divisive amongst fans on that front alone. It is also the most Shin Megami Tensei-y the series has felt since the original two Persona games (...technically, three.) with the return of demons, negotiation mechanics, and an oddly high default difficulty. On that pretense, I had a blast playing Persona 5. Its countless quality of life improvements to an already addictive RPG/school life formula, some insane late game narrative twists, jazzy soundtrack, and basically being the most stylish video game in existence (with people still swooning over its UI) more than solidified its place in my mind. It may not be my favorite Persona game (that honor goes to Persona 4 Golden), and I certainly have a criticism or two against specific story elements, but it didn't need to be for me to consider it an amazing RPG experience. 1) Utawarerumono: Mask of Truth Click here to read GP's official review Ever have that one game in which you adore but also can't really recommend it to anyone? Yet, at the same time, you also desperately want to talk to someone about how amazing it was? Yeah, that's kind of how it was for me while playing Utawarerumono: Mask of Truth. Unfortunately, most people will be unable to get past either its' odd gameplay hybrid of both visual novel/strategy-RPG OR the basically required-to-enjoy predecessor called Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception (released just four months prior), which is not nearly as good as Mask of Truth, and I can't really blame them. Much like Xenoblade Chronicles 2, there are also more than a few problematic "anime" fanservice elements that become a really tough aspect to ask most people to overlook. Again, can't easily recommend it to anyone... But, in a year where everyone is rooting for incredibly depressed robots trying to act like humans (Nier Automata) -- I and maybe like two other people were tested by the plight of the equally, if not possibly more so, emotionally scarred protagonists in the brilliant narrative conclusion to the Utawarerumono trilogy in Mask of Truth. Wrapping up so many story threads through amazing character development and riveting wartime storytelling, a deeply fascinating world/lore with a shockingly stellar localization to punctuate the experience, and perhaps an instance or two of salt flying into my eyes to trigger the waterworks did more than a number on me story-wise alone. Add all of this to my favorite subgenre of role-playing game (good ol' turn-based SRPGs!) and it somehow it snuck its way into my favorite of the year in such fierce competition. It is definitely a game most are unlikely to get around to appreciating, and again, I don't blame them in the slightest, though I know that I could not have been gladder to have played it as my Game of 2017.
  14. I... don't know if I care about this game. On one hand, the final entry in the previous Atelier trilogies tend to be their best games (at least gameplay-wise. It was true for Meruru and Shallie). On the other hand, well.... the last two games have kind of been ok-at-best? (I found Sophie super disappointing in particular) I honestly sort of see myself simply falling off the series entirely if I don't end up caring for this game when I get my hands on it. Gust games have generally gotten worse after they have been acquired by Tecmo-Koei...so, I dunno anymore... even if I really want to be optimistic.
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