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barrel

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  1. 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 by name of Under Night In-Birth Exe: Late(st). In spite of its self-inflicted 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 or how many serious fans already imported this version of the series half a year ago. Those of which who are still curious in Under Night's second console release has to offer may notice its handful of new bells and whistles as it tries and justify its additional retail price tag. I would define the original PS3 release of Under Night In-Birth as to have no unnecessary frills, yet also be quite entertaining, that 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 would 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 like simply moving around or looking at the health bar to going as deep as to explain concepts like "fuzzy guarding" in high level play. It is a rather dry text dump based approach compared let's say 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 that of Mika who is deceptively mobile fighter despite wielding two huge gauntlets or 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 and having an exhausting ten hour plus visual novel story mode could not do this game less favors. As someone who more than tolerated the extensive visual novel narratives in various Blazblue games it says a lot for 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. 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 remains 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 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: 7.0 (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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Man was Valkyria Revolution a bummer. Sega has been so tone deaf with the entire series for a long time by clearly not understanding why the 1st game was so beloved. Sega made scaled back sequels on PSP (which I secretly liked, but it basically killed the series in North America. Especially after 2's huge setting change and 3 not getting localized.), some now-defunct mobile game, and then a spin-off nobody wanted in Valkyria Revolution... which was not even a good game on its own... Valkyria or otherwise. It was easy to guess that Sega was going to simply kill the series off after not knowing what to do with it until now. But yeah, I am pretty jazzed about 4. There is a tiny part in the back of my mind wondering "Does Sega truly understand why people liked the 1st? It has been so long..." but what we've seen so far has cleared up many of the initial worries (I need to see gameplay in-motion before I get into pure unabashed excitement territory. But I'll certainly play it regardless and pray that I like 4 about as much as I do 1...'cause I like 1 A WHOLE LOT *barrel's favorite game last console gen*)
  7. Review: Demon Gaze II

    Developer: Experience Inc. Publisher: Nis America Platform: PS4 and PS Vita Release Date: November 14, 2017 ESRB: T for Teen Note: This review is based on the PS Vita version of the game Most handheld role-playing game fans are likely more than aware of the critically acclaimed Etrian Odyssey series on 3DS. What is less common knowledge is that the not-quite-as-popular PlayStation Vita handheld has also had an abundant selection of dungeon crawling RPGs as well. Granted, the gem offerings within Vita's handheld circle are far more inconsistent in comparison. One of the standouts of Vita's batch of dungeon crawlers was the original DRPG Demon Gaze. Though it was certainly not flawless, it was an incredibly colorful title that also made several strides to its game design that caused it to be easier to approach than most in the subgenre. Three years later, players are now able to play its direct sequel, which is plainly named Demon Gaze II. Does the exuberant successor have the heart that could charm a demon or should one avoid its memorizing gaze the second time around? After one quick glance, it becomes rather clear that Demon Gaze II doubles down on its anime influence. With the loose narrative setup predicated upon revolutionists trying to save the region (Asteria) through the power of music, it will likely feel like you have seen this story in some anime before. Chances are you probably have. Couple it further with the JRPG amnesiac lead trope and the main villain Magnastar, whom may-or-may-not-be misunderstood, will only solidify this strong sense of narrative Deja Vu. However predictable it may be, Demon Gaze II is presented with more than enough personality for its world and characters to have it be entertaining enough to see it through to the end (post-game aside). Well... so long as the far and away worst character from the original game (Lezerem) -- who, unfortunately, makes a return in II -- is not on-screen. In several ways, Demon Gaze II tries to be more approachable than its predecessor -- or even most DRPGs, to be honest. Most applications to this mindset tend to be more subtle instead of simply being easier/having faster turn-based battles than most in the subgenre on the default difficulty. One of the quickest changes that returning players will notice is that they will no longer bleed financially every time they return to the main inn like various Etrian Odyssey games (in which the original Demon Gaze poked fun at by having a financially shrewd innkeeper) and upon returning from a dungeon the party's full recovery is free with no real strings attached. Another welcome change, specifically for lower difficulties, is the incredibly generous option outright retry battles after a party wipe. Instead of simply restarting the battle the player returns with full health/MP, star gauge (which is needed for certain mechanics like fusion or party-wide buffs) and, most surprising of all, all inflicted damage upon foes and bosses too. Demon Gaze II certainly takes initiative to be all the more inviting to newcomers to DRPGs. For hardcore players, they should be plenty fine with the higher difficulty options available. There's also an entire extra story mode after the main campaign which dramatically raises the level cap(/challenge) and it even forces players to play on the second highest difficulty in order to see it through. Unlike the main story, which is mostly self-contained, the post-game narrative is also full of direct callbacks to the first Demon Gaze and can easily double the standard playtime too, which is a neat addition. At the same time, Demon Gaze II is willing to sever some tried and true approaches to traditional dungeon crawlers as well. Subgenre staples like being able to create customized party members are nearly entirely absent in Demon Gaze II, for example. Players are only really able to alter the look of the main male protagonist and choose between one of three "alignments" (which apparently slightly modifies the tone of inconsequential dialogue choice options in the story and learned abilities at specific leveling thresholds). Otherwise, all (demon) party members that join the player, either via the main story or optional sidequests, are preset in their appearance and abilities with the exception being to choose where to allocate stats per level up or their occasional "Liberty Skill". It may be tough for subgenre purists to adjust to but the preset allies do tend to be far more well-rounded in the vital skills that they acquire naturally than what was formerly separate classes were in the original. The one huge shame, however, is that most party members start at level 1 regardless of how late they may be unlocked (with only three exceptions). Like the original Demon Gaze, though, gear tends to matter far more than regular base stats, so someone that starts at level one is not entirely hopeless when attempting to catch up. That and some late-game party members are really strong. Speaking of which, there are some other new mechanics in Demon Gaze II, though they are hit & miss in their execution. In battle, the main character will eventually obtain the ability to fuse with another party member. While this is fairly cool conceptually, I did not once find it that practical to actually use because you essentially sacrifice the use of a party member for several turns in the exchange of quick burst damage. The other mechanic that isn't fully fleshed out is the ability to perform "maintenance" on demons... which basically involves going on dates and doing a touchscreen mini-game. Thankfully, the mini-game itself is not nearly as tasteless as some other Vita games (looking at you, Monster Monpiece), but it is clear that this mechanic is tacked on purely because most of your potential party members are cutesy anime ladies (even if it has more tangible rewards like unlocking strong passive abilities, direct stat increases, and giving some spotlight to otherwise entirely overlooked characters in the main narrative.) Aside from those new additions, Demon Gaze II should otherwise feel fairly familiar and not always for the better. Developer Experience Inc. has a bad habit of directly lifting certain dungeon themes from their prior games (including non-sequels like Stranger of Sword City) and this issue surfaces yet again in Demon Gaze II. On the positive side, players are rarely in any one dungeon for all that long so the fatigue in certain mechanics or themes does not last too long *shakes fist at the underwater dungeons that do not allow players to use magic*. The other returning mixed key feature is the loot system that is incredibly reliant on RNG. Because, like the original, pretty much all useful gear is obtained via specific summoning circles in dungeons and hoping to get what you want upon defeating the enemies that appear. Last, but certainly not least, to mention is the presentation, which remains incredibly vibrant regardless of its admittedly low production values. All the characters have really distinct 2D portraits and they have made little touches like how the enemies in combat now move so battles feel more lively. The bigger step up seems to be the soundtrack, which has more musical variety than the first title. Going from catchy swing-like themes in the main tavern to some unobtrusive vocaloid accompaniment to other tracks really works well with the game's hyper personality. That said, the clear standout of the entire soundtrack is without a doubt the piece "Starllica", which would feel right at in some sort of Ar Tonelico game (even if it lacks the made-up language of hymnos.). Demon Gaze II is ultimately a better game than its predecessor. It takes the initiative to become more approachable for newcomers, has nearly twice as much content than the original for serious players, and introduces plenty of subtle refinements and mechanics. Even the storytelling itself, while still really predictable, has seen an improvement too. What Demon Gaze II truly lacks is much to make it feel genuinely fresh and can come across as a bit too familiar at times for players of the original. If one is fine with the prospect of more of the same, but generally better, then Demon Gaze II is better viewed as an extremely solid DRPG offering on Vita (and one of the very few on PS4) instead of the revolution the narrative tries to embark on. Pros + Energetic presentation with an equally eccentric cast of characters + Makes quite a few strides to be more approachable, such as very generous retry options on lower difficulties + Addictive dungeon crawling gameplay and speedy combat + Nearly twice as much content as the original including a meaty post-game story mode Cons - Most character customization in combat has been replaced with preset party members. Which becomes a bit more glaring as almost all of them start at level one... - Experience Inc. is still recycling dungeon themes from their previous games - Incredibly reliant on RNG for good gear Overall Score: 7.5 (out of 10) Good While it is unlikely to capture the minds of those who did not enjoy its predecessor Demon Gaze II is a proud follow-up as well as a worthy DRPG performance Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS Vita code provided by the publisher.
  8. Review: Collar X Malice

    Developer: Idea Factory Publisher: Aksys Games Platform: PS Vita Release Date: July 28, 2017 ESRB: M for Mature With the likes of distorted camera footage showcasing ruthless murders in the name of "justice," the PS Vita's newest visual novel Collar x Malice quickly sets the tone of its tense setting. One would be hard-pressed to find any trace of Idea Factory's romantic otome underpinnings until at least an hour in, if that. At least until a group of pretty males that were former officers join the fray to help you solve various murder mysteries. But even that does not bring much comfort considering just how cold they all are at the outset. At the start of the game, it's bad news all around. An extremist terrorist group named Adonis has been publicly announcing systemic "X-Day" killings to judge various "sinners" that the law has apparently failed to reach. After months of failing to apprehend these suspects, the Japanese government has grown so desperate that they decide to quarantine Shinjuku entirely to help contain the terrorists' influence. Trust in law enforcement is at an all-time low and public unrest at an all-time high. Just when things could not seem to get any worse, Ichika Hoshino -- the main heroine, and a fresh and upcoming officer -- gets kidnapped. The next moment she wakes up, she learns she is saddled with a deadly collar around her neck. Though she is temporarily saved by a group of mysterious former police officers rather quickly, she is told by the leader of Adonis, via her collar, that she needs to uncover the truth behind the "X-Day incidents" alongside these men or she will be poisoned to death at the end of the year. And so, that becomes the player's primary objective Collar X Malice is a visual novel structured around five different character routes (the last of which is locked until one completes the four others) with each tale standing well enough on their own. What is intriguing in how it is told is each story route has an entirely different focus and the many pieces to the overarching storytelling only really make sense upon finishing all of them due to their complex subplots. Though, one will have to be able to overlook a hokey story element or two to see it through (like how the Japanese government apparently thought it was a good idea to issue guns to all citizens during the Shinjuku quarantine?). Collar X Malice is largely about investigating murder mysteries and conspiracies with a dash of romance interspaced between it all. Flowery otome fanservice is present, but generally speaking, it is the furthest thought from the primary cast early in. Each of the male leads has rather distinct personal objectives that give them plenty of reason to act cold to the main heroine (the same also applies in inverse). Because of this pretense, the trust that is gained between what is initially a business-only relationship feels much more organic than one would expect. My favorite of these character developments is the incredibly brash former officer of the cyber crimes division, Takeru. Though he is more than a bit haughty (aggressively so usually), his route is far more personal focused than most others in the entire game (except for maybe the eyepatch-wearing Mineo perhaps). For as prideful as Takeru may be, his side of the storytelling does a wonderful job of making him feel down to earth during the course of it. Also, he has some hilariously sassy quips at times, so that's a plus for me too. Some routes are certainly better than others, however. The one that personally took me the longest to shoulder on through, purely for thematic reasoning, was that of the Special Protections officer, Kei. Now, I like Kei enough as a character but I found his character route to be rather obnoxious. It encroached upon a trope that I dislike in otome games especially, which is the fixation of protecting the main heroine. Admittedly, the context behind Okazaki's seemingly selfless motivations unravels to have much darker implications over time. Still, one will hear some variation of the phrase "I will protect you" a nauseating amount of times. Of course, reminiscent of Code Realize: Guardians of Rebirth in this small regard, both characters and their narrative arc focus are extremely subject to taste and, occasional narrative grips aside, are told well overall in spite of excessively long banter at times. That said, there is actually more that goes on in Collar X Malice than thumbing through walls of story text and earning the hearts and minds of one's eventual male suitors as a game. Without a doubt, most of the progression stems from picking correct dialogue choices to properly reach a tale's conclusion and hoping they don't die in doing so. There are also instances of basic point & click-styled detective work and, surprisingly, an occasional gun-based quick-time-event to shoot down a prospective criminal. Speaking of which, there is an alarming amount of bad endings. Most bad endings usually not-so-subtlety apply the expression "curiosity killed the cat", but there are a few bad ends that are surprisingly meaningful to the overarching story despite not technically being required to see. For as much as the player is likely to stumble to their doom before reaching their desired conclusion(s), Collar X Malice is usually quite slick in how it is presented. The beautifully drawn character art is but one clear perk of it (unless one is uncomfortable with the occasional otome-styled fanservice scene. I'm not). The Japanese-only voice-acting is also really impressive, making each main character have a distinct presence throughout, though the main heroine herself is unfortunately unvoiced. Idea Factory proves yet again they have the visual novel interface thing down pat, for the most part. Godsends to the subgenre like fast-forwarding until reaching unread text, instant story scene rewinding, and various save options are all there and then some. However, the biggest replay tool of all, that being the chapter select, is not available until reaching a character's "true end". This is very important to keep in mind as I personally almost locked myself into a bad ending right before the finale of the last character route and was really close to a redundant VN fast-forwarding nightmare to fix it. While Collar x Malice is pretty good at implying that you are on the right path "for the most part" I'd recommend other's veer on the side of safety and follow a dialogue choice guide when they can just to get those true ends out of the way first. This is especially true since character routes themselves are only triggered through rigid and specific dialogue choices early in. Of Idea Factory's many otome visual novel offerings, Collar x Malice comes across as their most well-rounded. A fascinating, crime-based storytelling setup and a nuanced lead cast of characters make it easy to be drawn into its world, though various pacing mishaps and an inconsistent overarching storytelling emphasis placed upon certain leads do hold the game back from its full potential. But, all in all, Collar x Malice stands tall on its own and has the heart of a genuinely good visual novel, and it becomes quite rewarding to uncover the larger truth buried beneath its lengthy adventure. Pros + Intriguing storytelling with a heavy emphasis on murder mystery and crime-solving + Gorgeous character art and often slick visual novel interface + Healthy mix of very serious storytelling and lighthearted moments throughout + Takeru is the best boy Cons - Triggering specific story routes or right dialogue choices can feel redundant at times - Varying significance of overarching storytelling between routes can make some character's tales feel longer than others - Localization hiccups Overall Score: 7.5 (out of 10) Good A gripping premise and cast of characters make it quite easy to forget Collar x Malice's occasional foibles in how it is told as a visual novel. Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS Vita code provided by the publisher.
  9. Review: Bad Apple Wars

    Developer: Otomate Publisher: Aksys Games Platform: PS Vita Release Date: October 10, 2017 ESRB: T for Teen 2017 has been a rather generous year for visual novels. More importantly, if you are a fan of otomes in particular, they have not been in short supply. The otome-churning machine that is developer "Otomate" has released the likes of Collar X Malice, the (partial) enhanced port of Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds, and Period Cube: Shackle of Amadeus just this year. The newest addition, and what seems to be last on the English roll call list from Otomate this year, is the recent visual novel: Bad Apple Wars. Is the stylish Bad Apple Wars a visual novel worth biting into or should it be left to rot? The setup for Bad Apple Wars is pretty well-worn territory for both anime and visual novels. Taking place in yet another example of a high school-themed approach to the purgatory concept, various young adults are whisked away just after their untimely death and are given the second opportunity at life in the bizarre "Nevaeh Academy." Or so, that's the belief. Nevaeh Academy rules are anything but clearly defined except for the ones in which students are expressly forbidden to break. This is where the clear divide between students arises where the "Bad Apples" are all too eager to break the rules in an attempt to live on and retain their identities, while "Good Apples" conform to the bizarre school life and try to properly graduate from the afterlife. It sounds all good and well until you learn that there is actually not much variation between the two apple types from a story perspective in more ways than one. Early on there is the narrative conceit of choice when choosing to become either a "Good Apple" or a "Bad Apple" which dictates which of the five character routes and "husbandos" to eventually woo. Except, spoilers (but not really): they almost all more or less tell the same story and eventually converge towards the Bad Apple side for one reason or another. It is honestly alarming just how many redundant scenes there are between every character's story because of the tunnel vision focus on breaking the seven main rules and how they need to try and justify how each male lead falls into it. Because of this, the title honestly has a tough time making any route, or its main characters, really stand out because of it. Bad Apple Wars has a lot of flaws in how its narrative is told. It is not only very derivative, bordering on plagiarism territory with its similarities to the many story devices and themes from the iconic anime Angel Beats, but it is also not that great at presenting what it attempts to do differently either. One of the strangest aspects of Bad Apple Wars is that, despite the whole romance angle, the main heroine (Rinka) does not spend that much time with her romantic candidates. You can chalk some of that up due to how Bad Apple Wars is not that long of a game for visual novel standards per story route. But I think the more apparent reasoning is how she generally spends an equal, if not greater amount, of time with supporting characters, which ironically feel more fleshed out than most of the would-be romantic candidates.This is both good and bad. On one hand, certain supporting characters are treated with far more respect than you'd expect (such as Sanzu or Naraka). On the other hand, it is an otome game that fails to earnestly flesh out their romances. The most problematic portion of the whole game is its "Soul Touch system" and the narrative context behind it. As a story device, Rinka is able to see glimpses of the past of those she physically touches. So, the more she touches them the more bits and pieces see into their past, however dark of a note they tend to end on (they all died after all). As brief as the almost text-only flashbacks are, they are generally effective at presenting their often heartbreaking past (which often come across as more grounded than you would expect.) and why they act the way they do at Nevaeh Academy. Unfortunately, prior to the flashback scenes themselves, the Vita continues to retain its unfortunate reputation of awkward touch-screen mini-games: complete with forced ecstasy moans, random disappearing clothing, and not-so-subtle visual implications (....despite them not actually doing it. It's soul touching after all!). Worst of all is that these touch-screen only portions are literally the difference between a good ending and a bad one. While it's generally pretty easy to get the good ending for most characters I did stumble upon a bad ending accidentally (for "White Mask" in particular) and was totally baffled what I did wrong at the time because I apparently did not touch the right spots enough. Awkward mini-games and questionable visual implications aside, my biggest problem with the whole Soul Touch System is that it comes across as a really cheap escape from having proper character and romantic development. The main heroine spends a whole lot of time complaining about how empty or boring she is then and then, oops, upon often accidental physical contact with [character route of choice] she discovers she has sympathy towards their various tragic backstories prior to their death. They don't tell her about their past directly, or really open up as characters, the romances just kind of happen because she learns their past. Rinse and repeat this process multiple times per character and it all feels like the least sincere approach they could have taken with their would-be romances possible. I do not want to sound totally down on the game. There are certain aspects it handles well. The Japanese voice-acting, in particular, is top-notch and has some rather prolific vocal talents. I was quite impressed by Akira Ishida's dynamic performance when playing the seemingly calm and collected male lead (and my own personal favorite route), Shikishima, as well as Tomokazu Sugita voicing the eccentric side character teacher "Mr.Rabbit" that makes about as many hare-themed puns as Zero for Virtue Last Reward. Also, something that grew on me over time is the art style as well. As much as I may like the overly detailed art style of games like Collar X Malice I came to appreciate Bad Apple Wars' very colorful art style and its water-color approach to the background environment. Though it is unfortunate that the bizarre text font choice that makes the moment to moment reading awkward, which was also seemingly made with style over practical substance. For as unique and stylish as Bad Apple Wars appears on the surface it only serves to prove that it is much more shallow and derivative experience over time. And frankly, for how much repetition there is between each story route, one needs not justify spending that much time with the main cast while playing it, just like the game does. Bad Apple Wars is neither a bad visual novel nor a good one, but rather a thoroughly unremarkable one. However, in a year with no shortage of worthwhile visual novel offerings, otome or otherwise, Bad Apple Wars does not succeed in graduating alongside with them. Pros + Strong voice acting for the main cast + Very colorful presentation with plenty of style Cons - Lots of redundant scenes between routes regardless of being a "Good Apple" or "Bad Apple" - Many story themes are shamelessly derivative of the anime Angel Beats - Really awkward touchscreen portions, with very poor narrative context behind them, that for some reason decide actual endings - What is with the in-game font? Overall Score: 5 (out of 10) Average Bad Apples Wars is a disappointing visual novel offering from Otomate that really seems to emphasize style over substance and is only really worth passing glance if one has somehow exhausted their visual novel options on Sony's gaming handheld. Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS Vita code provided by the publisher.
  10. I, uh, only watched a handful of trailers from this event and didn't bother watching the actual conference. I avoided watching trailers for stuff I am quite likely to play already (TLOU2 and the Shadow of the Colossus remake. Probably the new God of War too) And judging purely based on trailers... yeah, I dunno, not a whole lot to work with. Like, I am looking forward to Ghost of Tsushima but I think that more has to do with the dev, and what they're capable of, than what was actually shown (which was CG world-building). Still, I am glad there are at least a few things to look forward to from Sony 1st party-wise (despite not knowing WHEN). So that's cool. Aside from that... I am curious about Concrete Genie (even if I expect more style than substance) and Guacamelee 2 looks like more polished Guacamelee so it'll probably be good (with... passable melee combat).
  11. Review: Tokyo Xanadu

    Developer: Falcom Publisher: Aksys Games Platform: PS Vita Release Date: June 30, 2017 ESRB: T for Teen Note: This review is based on the PS Vita version of the game Falcom has gradually been winning over the hearts and minds of Japanese role-playing game fans overseas these past several years. With the Ys series, they have hit a sweet spot with action-RPG fans due to the purity of their fast-paced and fun combat design (their sweet soundtracks helped too). On the other end there are The Legend of Heroes titles where, despite having quite the troubled localization history, they have enticed fans with their incredibly meticulous world-building and character development with such releases as the fashionably late Trails in the Sky: The Third earlier this year. Now arrives a rather loose spiritual successor to one of Falcom's oldest dungeon crawler series, Xanadu, under the newest entry called Tokyo Xanadu. With a far more modern setting and gaming influences does Falcom continue to hit their stride or does Tokyo Xanadu just feel out of touch at what they do best? Right out of the gate Tokyo Xanadu feels dense with anime tropes and a modern Tokyo flair. So you'll see no shortage of anime cliches like idols, a super hacker, a bancho-esque delinquent, and plenty of high school life. This can totally be fine if well-written enough, or they subvert such tropes in clever ways, as titles like Persona 3 and 4 have certainly proven. And, well, Tokyo Xanadu kind of does that and... kind of does not; it's weird. It also wears the influence of recent Persona games on its sleeve too, which is all the more strange after having played Persona 5 released just this year. The basic premise is something along the lines that the lead character, Kou, stumbles upon a rather odd scene returning home after working late at his part-time job. Just before he attempts to play the hero in order to stop thugs from harassing a female classmate of his, a dangerous portal to another world randomly opens up and sucks everyone into it. Turns out, "Eclipse" portals are a common occurrence outside of the public eye that an underground organization, known as "Nemesis" (that his female classmate, Hiragi, happens to be a part of too) has to deal with to protect normal people from otherworldly monsters. So, after the Eclipse phenomenon impedes upon Kou's personal life a few too many times, he decides to help Hiragi with dealing with the eclipse to protect his friends and family. Oh, and Kou can manifest a magical weapon in the other realm too, because anime. As a game, Tokyo Xanadu is a hodgepodge of a lot of ideas, but most of all it is a dungeon-crawler action-RPG with social elements. It's like a mix of both Falcom's recent Ys and The Legend of Heroes releases but in a lite sort of way. It doesn't exactly satisfy when it comes to either their strengths, but it does evoke the feeling of both. Throughout the story, as well as optionally, players will come across different Eclipse dungeons. In these moments one will gain control of three different party members to play as and can switch between them on the fly in an action-RPG fashion. Tokyo Xanadu attempts to justify this through the use of strengths/weaknesses affinities, very much like recent Ys, but the normal difficulty is not skewed in a way that makes it feel all that necessary. I only really tried to exploit enemy weaknesses to get higher completion ratings and what I believe to be increased drop rates on items, but the practicality of it rarely surfaces for anything other than a player-imposed sense of changing it up. Which, well, the game doesn't do all that well to justify. The dungeon and enemy design are not particularly varied outside of bosses, but combat is entertaining enough despite not quite getting as frantic as Ys does. The rest of the experience feels more closely linked to like Trails of Cold Steel, which, by further extension, were influenced by Persona 3 & 4. So plenty of optional friendship events to uncover both in and out of school, sidequests and side activities to undertake from skateboarding to arcade games, and main character traits to increase based on specific actions (though, the stats feel pretty superfluous in this title beyond fairly minor bonuses). These tried and true systems work fine, and in pure presentation improves upon Trails of Cold Steel a noticeable amount, but the underlying story and cast of characters it's centered around makes these systems come off more like fluff as neither are all that compelling. As stated before, the anime influence is incredibly strong in Tokyo Xanadu (outside of obvious character art). And not exactly in a good way. It feels very much like a weekly show with the opening song to start it off, and a new companion by the end to conclude most chapter arcs. Plus, it is pretty aggressive with anime tropes like going pro hacker to a "bancho" like figure so shortly after. While none of the characters are particularly obnoxious (except maybe the "pro hacker" guy.), they are also not all that interesting either and barely subvert the apparent anime character trope they are based on, if at all. This stands out even more because there are fairly long stretches of storytelling where you will do little more than move to different parts of town to trigger new cutscenes. It's weird because Tokyo Xanadu is quite well made from a production standpoint. They clearly made it with the Vita hardware in mind and it plays and runs smooth both in and out of combat for the most part. The soundtrack is fairly catchy, and it is respectable how much (and how well) Japanese-only voice acting is prevalent throughout. Little details like how it is presented fairly stylishly as well are cool too (not Persona 5 stylish, but no other game really is). Facets like the NiAR phone interface make it easy to keep track of storytelling to sidequests to in-game UI and conveys a lot of information quite well. Despite all of this, however, Tokyo Xanadu feels somewhat hollow and it hugely boils down to its storytelling and cast it revolves around. The strangest part of Tokyo Xanadu is that it is a fairly well-made game but rarely excels at any one thing (except maybe music). Its storytelling straddles the line of inoffensive and also dense with anime tropes. Combat is entertaining but is not varied or challenging enough because of the dungeons and enemies themselves. I find myself thinking that I would sooner recommend the likes Falcom's other properties that one can also play on the Vita instead. Like, if one wanted a fun action-RPG I would suggest Ys Seven on PSP. If one wanted to see very intricate world-building, smart writing, and good character development I would suggest Trails in the Sky on PSP or Trails of Cold Steel on Vita. Tokyo Xanadu is a solid title but it feels like a half step in both gameplay and storytelling when Falcom has clearly proven better when they are focused on either one. Pros + Has several cool gameplay ideas, if shamelessly similar to Persona, that mixes school sim and dungeon crawling + Catchy soundtrack + Slick presentation and gameplay interface Cons - Neither the storytelling or characters are compelling enough for how much of a focus is placed upon them - A few too many anime tropes with the inherent setting can get annoying (idols, super hackers, and banchos-- oh my) - Dungeon design gets repetitive Overall Score: 6 (out of 10) Decent Tokyo Xanadu is Falcom's attempt of blending two of their best franchises (Ys and The Legend of Heroes), but rather than feeling like a perfect combination of both it comes off as a half-hearted attempt at their individual strengths Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS Vita code provided by the publisher.
  12. Developer: Tamsoft Corporation Publisher: XSEED Games Platform: PS4 Release Date: September 22, 2017 ESRB: M for Mature At this point I have just as much disappointment as I do a bizarre sense of respect for the Senran Kagura series currently. Its first debut, Senran Kagura Burst, felt surprisingly earnest with its storytelling/cast of characters in spite of, well, busty ninjas, exploding clothing, and repetitive gameplay. But five years is apparently all it takes for the series to lose any and all trace of its former dignity at the cost of improved gameplay. One quick glance at the newest spin-off (or even the title) in the series -- Senran Kagura: Peach Beach Splash -- should silence delusional individuals, like myself, who expect the series to focus on anything more than flagrant fanservice. So, the morality of ladies in bikinis fighting each other with super soakers aside, is it actually any good despite all likely expectations? Let just get this out of the way, Senran Kagura: Peach Splash (which I will abbreviate as "PBS" just like the game does from here on) is actually... not a bad game. At least not mechanically. You just have to sacrifice your pride to play it, if one has not done so already. At its heart PBS is a third person shooter. You mow down the likes of girls flailing pool noodles, fellow ninjas of the different academies (also carrying water guns), and occasionally big boss robots with what should be a woefully-equipped water-fueled arsenal. It won't amaze anyone savvy about third person shooters, as you are more or less encouraged to play it with auto-aim consistently, but it has more enjoyable mechanics than you would expect. The several weapons you can choose each have different alternate fire. All characters also have the ability to jump/float high into the air, or glide across the ground (like in Vanquish), with their water-themed gear as well. Players can also apply buffs to themselves via various unlockable cards which can be used via the D-Pad mid-combat. Such bonuses also include temporary minions to add support fire or the ability to debuff enemies like (even) worse water conservation or reloading. They do appear in a random order mid-combat, however, so hopefully the player has ones they actually like (so basically not the default setup. Where the difference between a common damage increase card goes from 20% to 60% based on rarity). Players will be regularly getting new card packs, or the money to buy more (to actually get good ones), through both single player and online mutliplayer modes. I guess you could buy numerous skimpy outfits with the in-game currency too, but who really cares about that? It is just kind of a shame that Peach Beach Splash is structured in a way that feels at odds with what should be fun and fluid combat system. The most glaring of which is a flaw which existed in prior games that is only amplified in PBS, which is the grindy nature before both characters and weapons become combat-ready. For example, you need to feed duplicate cards to power up weapons, increase a character's health, or slightly less importantly for the mid-combat passive abilities. Weapons go from constantly needing to reload and also barely doing any damage to becoming infinitely more effective after several level-ups. Players will rarely find themselves jumping early on (due to poor efficiency) to constantly doing it later on, making the early game obnoxious and clunky to play. The player is also likely to be close to maxing out one weapon after going through the underwhelming story mode. I know I should not have had expectations for it before diving in, but never has Senran Kagura cared so little for its single-player than the main campaign in PBS. Cutscenes are little more than recycled jokes, and all kinds of perverted innuendo thanks to a certain announcer, though they are thankfully brief and rarely last more than a couple minutes. What is more disappointing is just how little variety there is to it too. Being little more than, extinguishing annoyingly-placed fire spots, and the occasional throwaway boss fight. Speaking of which, the final fight in particular is probably the most unapologetic riff on Splatoon's final fight ever (ironically made worse in its sequel by reappearing yet again) and may have bizarrely offended me more than than anything else in the title. No wait, I take that previous comment back. As completely optional as it may be, there are incredibly creepy literal groping or spraying discolored fluid mini games to what is basically the in-game dressing room and that is alone pretty much the most tasteless thing in the series' entire history. Like, it even makes the pervy mechanic in which the player literally sprays off an opponents clothing as a finishing move somehow feel more tasteful. Also, as disgusting as it may be for it to be in the game, I can not pretend the signs were not all there upon just booting up the game. Still, one can not pretend that PBS is an expressive game in motion either. Despite being a spin-off it is easily the best-looking game in the series with its colorful visuals and stable. Though, to contrast, the soundtrack does not stand out nearlyas much as its predecessors' catchy scores, such as Senran Kagura Burst, Shinovi Versus, or Estival Versus all proudly had. Senran Kagura: Peach Beach Splash is just as exuberant as it is somewhat disappointing that the series has become exactly what it looks: a generally shallow fanservice-y game. Mechanically, it has the heart of surprising solid third-person gameplay with very fast paced and mobile combat. But it is just as shame that its leveling progression is so restrictive (to the point where players have to reload constantly or barely do any damage) and the only real way to mitigate it is through the entirety of the boring single-player content. Oh, and the perverted mini games that veer far too close creepy than funny as well. Still, players should know exactly what they are getting into with this latest Senran Kagura spin-off. While it is comes across more earnest than it should be in some regards, despite its clear pandering setup, it's a shame that it feels like it's on the cusp of being noteworthy based on its gameplay, but it simply is not. Pros + Fast-paced and nonsensical third-person shooter gameplay + Vibrant presentation Cons - The perverted dial is cranked up all the way all the time - Can feel quite restrictive/grindy with how leveling up weapons is handled (and to be viable online. Co-op or otherwise) - Completely boring single player modes with very little variety Overall Score: 5.5 (out of 10) Average One should know exactly what they are getting into with Senran Kagura: Peach Beach Splash based on a quick glance. While there are certain facets that stand out more than they should, like surprisingly solid gameplay mechanics, it has more than enough annoyances with its progression and single player content to not catch leering eyes on it for very long Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS4 code provided by the publisher.
  13. Review: Cyberdimension Neptunia: 4 Goddesses Online

    The funny thing is that Neptunia is actually more popular overseas than it is in Japan. I remember it was pretty eye-opening for me when I went to a panel for it at AX this year (anything to avoid actual anime...) and way more people attended it than the Danganronpa ones, for example. Just like how there were many more people buying merchandise at the IF booth than most other Japanese publishers (like Aksys, NIS, and even Bandai. Not Atlus though... The P5 hype was real.). The Neptunia fanbase is pretty passionate as I have learned over time. Yeah, I mean, you can see they are low budget games, but you'd think burnout would've happened long ago. IS IT THE MUSOU COMPLEX APPLIED TO ACTION-RPGS?!
  14. Developer: Tamsoft/Compile Heart Publisher: Idea Factory International Platform: PS4 Release Date: October 10, 2017 ESRB: T for Teen For as convoluted as the Hyperdimension Neptunia series has become to follow over the years, the newest PlayStation 4 spin-off may very well be the most straightforward of them all. the The Gameindustri Goddesses have decided to take a step back from saving the world from piracy in the main entries and attempt to take a break by diving into an up-and-coming MMO. In the newest series spin-off, Cyberdimension Neptunia: 4 Goddesses Online, the iconic personified video game consoles -- in the form of cutesy anime ladies -- have been selected as MMO beta testers. Does the final gaming product end up being a success or should it go back to the drawing board? This year alone I have put an unhealthy amount of time into a certain popular MMO property. On this basis alone, along with exposure to prior Hyperdimension Neptunia titles, I was pretty sure the series' signature self-referential humor and MMO backdrop would not be lost on me, and I was more than correct. As one would expect from a Neptunia game the writing is very tongue in cheek. Neptune is constantly breaking the forth wall, Vert still proves to be a dangerously addicted MMO junkie, and plenty more established characters and quirks make their presence throughout. Though the humor rarely gets too deep into MMO jargon there are plenty enough surface level phrases and references that game and anime fans should pick up on. Couple it further with sharp localization and a cheerful script and it manages to be entertaining enough despite the totally forgettable storytelling. As for the actual story itself, it is rarely offensive as the cast seems to be in it more for fun despite the far more apparent superficial world-ending threat later on. And, unlike many prior titles, the writing personally came off as less pretentious because breaking the fourth wall feels far more appropriate in an MMO wrapping. Despite the dressing of an MMO, however, Cyberdimension Neptunia plays far more like a standard action-RPG. The actual gameplay rarely creates the strong MMO feel that various .Hack and Sword Art Online games quite faithfully evoke despite their usual single-player design (you can play missions online with friends, however), which is a bit disappointing. Also, the actual combat system isn't, uh, particularly good. Actions as well as skills control real loosely and the hit detection is at times quite unreliable (making features like the perfectly timed block counter next to useless aside from damage mitigation). Add some total damage-sponge bosses, constantly recycled enemy types, and brain-dead ally AI (regardless of the assigned "Tactics"), and the general flow of battles is very monotonous. It is a shame that Tamsoft did not even make combat look super flashy either, like they have shown with their work in various Senran Kagura titles, so it feels that much more dull despite how each of the twelve playable characters manage to play noticeably different. Still, the gameplay of Cyberdimension Neptunia manages to come across as better than the sum of its parts, although I am not sure I could tell you 100% as to exactly why. It might have to do with the central hub. Most of the features within the main town are standard fare, such as a guild in which you accept many quests, a blacksmith to strengthen gear, a tailor to get many different outfits and accessories, and even a place to practice the controls. More of the personality seems to seep into the many optional events featuring various new and old Neptunia faces within the town. As stated before, there is an oddly charming attitude to the overall writing this time around and it creates a homely feel to it all even when they are having mundane conversations like keeping in touch with MMO friends, in-world shenanigans, or even ranting to an AI nun. Speaking of which, they basically have a mini segment about how to brew many different types of tea, which is way more effective pandering to me than the occasionally tasteless random upshirt CG pictures that happen every now and then. But... maybe that is just me and not most Neptunia fans. Going back to presentation, it does sincerely feel like Cyberdimension Neptunia got the treatment of a main entry, despite its spin-off nature. The 3D character models and designs look good in-motion (questionable exaggerated 'physics'), in spite of its sloppy combat system, though it is a shame there are not more cutscenes that utilize the in-game engine. Also neat are the character design changes that totally fit the MMO theme, like tsundere Noire attempting to play as an edgy Dark Knight, or the easily-angered Blanc playing as a healer that gets displeased at reckless DPS players. Of course, those who stick to Japanese voices will find that it still remains very consistent with many familiar voice actors (...unlike the English dub over time) and most cutscenes featuring them are entirely voiced too. It is a weird feeling to approach Cyberdimesion Neptunia: 4 Goddesses Online as someone who had thought they have grown than tired of the Neptunia franchise over time. Because in simply changing the setting to an MMO, and by adding a much more charming writing tone, the series takes a refreshing new direction with its newest PS4 spin-off. And yet, it's too clumsy to stand on its own primarily because of its action-RPG gameplay, despite however much goodwill it attempts to develop in other departments. I am sure most Neptunia fans will likely embrace its energetic attitude and new setup with no hitches (while accepting the gameplay for what it is), but anyone else expecting much more than a serviceable action-RPG will be unlikely to find it no matter how far deep they dive into the newest series' spin-off. Pros + Very light-hearted writing with a pleasant MMO flair + Enhanced 3D presentation and colorful character designs breath new life even to familiar faces Cons - Monotonous action-RPG combat with as much depth as a puddle - AI is real dumb no matter what "tactics" you assign them - Can be rather tedious progressing the main story due to how thorough you need to be with quests Overall Score: 5.5 (out of 10) Average Cyberdimension Neptunia: 4 Goddesses Online takes the series in a likable new direction that is full of character but it is a shame the gameplay is nowhere near good enough to stand up on its own Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS4 code provided by the publisher.
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