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Everything posted by barrel

  1. barrel

    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.
  2. 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.
  3. barrel

    Nier Automata pic

    From the album: Barrel's storage of pics

  4. barrel

    Yakuza 0 pic

    From the album: Barrel's storage of pics

  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. barrel

    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. barrel

    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. barrel

    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. barrel

    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. 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.
  14. barrel

    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?!
  15. So, there is a lot to unpack through V3. As another Danganronpa it's fun. But yeah, the pacing is all over the place and as an ending... hmm. It is the longest game in the series and doesn't really earn it with how much fluff in it (as I vaguely ranted about in a review. Writing about a game that is all spoilers after case 1 is surprisingly difficult to talk around...).
  16. barrel

    Review: Culdcept Revolt

    Developer: Omiya Soft Publisher: NIS America Platform: 3DS Release Date: October 3, 2017 ESRB: T for Teen If there is one thing that I have learned from various traditional card and board games, it's that they fail to hold my attention every single time. I have had Magic: The Gathering and Yu-Gi-Oh decks given to me by friends hoping that I share their costly paper cards addiction as well as after playing with them multiple times, but to no success on their end. I have also spent many rainy days playing Monopoly with family and... well, never want to play that game ever again. Strangely enough, what is basically Magic-meets-Monopoly: The Video Game Series, AKA Culdcept, has captivated me in each incarnation. Though, admittedly, the strategic card game series has not been released nearly as frequent as I would like considering the last title we even got from the series in English was Culdcept Saga back in 2008 on the Xbox 360. Nearly a decade later, publisher NIS America has decided to give the previously thought-to-be-dead franchise overseas another shot by localizing Culdcept Revolt on the Nintendo 3DS. With welcome portability and various refinements to the addictive core gameplay Culdcept Revolt makes for a worthy gem amongst the 3DS's library. For something that is clearly its own breed of card game, Culdcept Revolt eases the player into its systems quite nicely. Tutorials are plentiful as each new card mechanic and stage gimmick is introduced. To break it down into more layman terms, the basic ebb and flow is that players roll dice on a looping game board and try to collect tolls until reaching certain total of points (and then reaching specific goal posts). Sounds a whole lot like Monopoly, right? You would be right in assuming the similarities to the iconic board game, but the part which actually makes Culdcept Revolt fun is the card game component that bears many similarities to Magic: The Gathering. Throughout the match, players will put down different creatures to guard certain spots. If an enemy player lands on the square with a creature, they can either attempt to defeat it with one of their own or be forced to pay the toll. There are a lot of tricks to employ from smartly seizing territory, utilizing spell/item cards in and out of battle, or finding that right sense of creature card synergy too. And that is just the surface of it. Deck building in of itself is one big learning experience in Culdcept Revolt. Players will be getting plenty of random new card packs via the in-game shop and will face enough devious AI throughout the main story whom are not sympathetic toward those who don't change things up. To give one an idea of how much fine tuning I did, I started the game with the basic Air- and Water-themed deck that is strongly reliant on overwhelming the board with many monsters and gathering chain bonuses. By the end, however, my main deck primarily composed of only a handful of fire/earth monsters and whole lot of spell cards to quickly shuffle, gain extra money, and insanely buff those handful of creatures in the process. As with pretty much any game around dice rolls and shuffled cards, there is a fine line between it feeling fun and fair or cheap and annoying. Unfortunately for the player, the default AI difficulty in Culdcept Revolt is skewed towards getting more lucky dice rolls than they deserve. I will be honest and say that my loss ratio is easily higher than my win ratio, and a lot of it was oppressively bad luck and dice rolls early in (ok, the latter never got better for me). Still, there is no penalty for losing (aside from time) as you can not only forfeit mid-match at any time if it feels like a lost cause, but also still get points to purchase more cards via win or loss to encourage that much more player card experimentation. Win or lose, however, I was utterly absorbed in learning/employing the different strategies in matches and stealing many clever tricks that the AI used against me for myself. There is more than enough depth to the gameplay, and deck composition in general, to compensate for bad luck as I gleaned from overhauling my card decks more than a few times. It is genuinely rewarding to formulate a smarter overall play style, and I eventually got to the point where my current card deck pretty much never lost at all in the story mode at all because of how far removed from luck it became. Though, I certainly had to learn to understand the means in which I accomplished it. Believe it or not, there actually is a story in Culdcept Revolt. Not a good one, mind you, as it features the whole amnesiac lead trope and throwaway supporting characters, but it is there in some capacity. The storytelling is thankfully inoffensive and provides just enough context as well as excuses to see different creative applications of decks and the various game modes. It is also worth noting that the player can not even touch or see most modes and features until getting to a certain point within the campaign -- including online/offline multiplayer (which makes sense since you can only really get points to buy card packs early in by playing story mode matches). When you do unlock them, the player can create lobbies with specific rule types like team matches, card types limitations, or even turn animation speed, to cater to a more competitive spirit if one is so inclined. 2017 has been a curious year for the 3DS library. Nintendo has gone out of its way to bring many old-school Metroid and Fire Emblem fans exactly what they want. But if the player decides to stray off the beaten path of first-party titles, they will find gems like Culdcept Revolt this year as well that are more than worth keeping an eye on for existing 3DS owners. While its inherent focus is not likely to change the mind of those that detest card games in general, Culdcept Revolt should please those with an open mind towards strategic card/board games and is more than rewarding on that front. For a series that has a surprisingly long history, Culdcept Revolt manages to be a fun and fresh new addition to the 3DS's library. Pros + Addictive, strategic gameplay that somehow makes what is essentially Monopoly mixed with Magic: The Gathering much more fun than it should be + Many cards and types that allow players a lot of freedom in deck composition + With the addition a decently sized single player campaign, as local/online multiplayer mode options, gives players plenty of excuses to be occupied with the game Cons - Default AI difficulty seems to get a few too many lucky dice rolls, which can be rather frustrating at times -Inconsequential storytelling Overall Score: 8 (out of 10) Great If you're looking for a satisfying way to pass the time Culdcept Revolt is a rewarding, addictive take on card/board games that pleasantly surprise those willing to give it a shot Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable 3DS code provided by the publisher.
  17. Developer: Spike Chunsoft Publisher: NIS America Platform: PS4, PS Vita, and PC Release Date: September 26, 2017 ESRB: M for Mature Note: This review is based on the PS Vita version of the game Through its hyperactive blend of eccentric 'ultimate' high schoolers, murder mysteries, courtroom confrontations, and narrative mayhem the Danganronpa series has established a dominant visual novel presence. Densely pack all of that to the brim with personality and it is perhaps less surprising that many passionate fans have latched onto Spike Chunsoft's iconic property. Still, it is crazy to think that Danganronpa's perpetual battle of hope vs despair has not only raged across multiple games, spin-offs, and on different gaming hardware since its original PSP debut back in 2010 but even entirely different mediums such as anime and light novels. With so much material riding on what is believed to be the final installment, does Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony satisfy hope, despair, or really neither in between for its perceived audience? No matter what one's stance actually is, Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony ultimately aim towards final truths that are likely to shock all those involved. As par for the series' course, the infamous Killing Game has returned once again. Sixteen students are trapped within the confines of a mysterious school and have very little recollection of their pasts. All they really know is that they each have the title of an "Ultimate Delinquent"('Ultimates' generally being individuals with exception talent towards a specific skill) and are quickly get thrown into battle royale-themed Killing Game via the monochromatic robotic bear named Monokuma if they want to escape. Well... somewhat quickly, in principle. Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony has rather inconsistent pacing as an actual visual novel to the point where the game itself self-deprecatingly points out just how slow the intro portions are, and it does not absolve it of such crimes. It is the longest game in the entire series and the narrative's pacing does not necessarily justify it at times with the agonizing drip feed of important plot details. It certainly picks up later on, especially in the last couple of chapters, but -- in an incredibly morbid way -- players will find themselves looking forward to the next murder setup more frequently than anything else. Thankfully, Killing Harmony more than delivers on that front. As Danganronpa fans know, the rules are that one cannot simply kill someone else to win the Killing Game. To win, Ultimates need to kill someone else without being caught. And so, this is where the class trials come into play. After a murder occurs, it is up to the would-be survivors to conduct an investigation of the crime scene, and after gathering what evidence they can (...in a limited amount of time), they are then thrown into an Ace Attorney-styled courtroom case to try and pin down the culprit. The reason being that if they don't reach a correct majority vote by the end of the class trial they will all die while the killer gets to return home free (though, in the inverse, if they do nail down the correct culprit then only the killer is punished while everyone survives to see another day.) The murder mysteries themselves in Killing Harmony are easily the best of the entire series, with perhaps some one or two noteworthy arguments from Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair. As a whole, murder cases feel far more nefarious, calculated, as well as just plain crazy in execution than that of the prior two main games, and it become that much more fascinating to uncover the underlying truth of all of them. This is absolutely vital since class trials themselves consistently last more than a couple hours, so they certainly need to be engaging. Unfortunately, as with previous titles, the mini games within these segments are more or less the worst aspect of the entire series. Some of the new mini games are neat conceptually, like being able to utilize perjury instead of just firing "truth bullets" to prove counterpoints, but most mini games are not that fun despite the context around them. Audible sighs were made every time I had to do a certain mini game that involved slowly 'driving' to the correct answers of different questions... There is more than just the despair of suspecting one's friends of murder in various class trials, however minor these extra features are to grander scope of the adventure. Similar to the likes of various point & click/adventure game titles, and the original Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc too, players can roam around the campus in a first person perspective to reach different locations for one reason or another or talk to the different students. Like prior entries, there are also intentional lulls in the storytelling, so it is fitting that players spend their free time attempting to build friendships... to, well, make it all the more cruel in their probable eventual death, or betrayal, after you attempt to do so. Which bears mentioning that although the overall cast does have some standouts (Danganronpa 2's Nagito still remains as my uncontested favorite), they don't feel quite as charismatic as they should be since the localization as well the general writing quality comes across as noticeably less sharp than that of earlier games. Much of the game waits excruciating long to talk about main plot details, so it feels fitting to deliberately wait on discussing Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony's actual narrative instead of just pacing as well. It's easily the biggest expectation fans will have going in and what I will say to them (without direct spoilers, of course) is that the overall story -- especially with how it ties into prior titles -- is likely to be extremely divisive. There is no real middle ground in reaction towards the conclusion and is very much a love it or hate it bargain in the truest sense. Even now I am left sorting through a whole lot of mixed thoughts, regardless of how exciting and extravagantly presented the many twists and turns are throughout V3, including the end. But I suppose for as familiar as much of the gameplay remains in the third entry, for better and for worse the long-awaited conclusion absolutely delivers on some insane narrative twists that many fans should not expect. With one foot firmly planted towards feeling familiar and the other towards completely shattering expectations Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony truly relishes in its chaotic order. It reprises its strengths in delivering exciting murder mysteries, an off-the-rails narrative with many crazy twists, and a completely strange cast of characters while also retaining old issues like awkward pacing and obnoxious mini games. As a finale, however, it spares no expense towards a resolution that will likely to be incredibly divisive regardless of whatever expectations one had going into it. Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony deliberately aims to leave fans brimming with either hope or despair, and I find myself conflicted by both opposing forces in ultimately feeling just as appreciative in its intent as I do betrayed now that it is all over. Pros + Narrative goes through some truly insane narrative twists and turns + Incredibly nefarious murder mysteries that are often fascinating to uncover the truth of + Neat post-game modes unlocked after beating the game + 'Love it' or 'hate it' conclusion Cons - Noticeably weaker overall writing and localization compared to the previous titles - Glacial narrative pacing at times - Most minigames during class trials are still quite the chore to partake in - Hate it or love it conclusion Overall Score: 7.5 (out of 10) Good Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony presents a stark contrast in showcasing more of the same, but often better, with its gameplay while the narrative conclusion itself firmly dividing what fans think they know and love. It is a bold conclusion that is extremely surprising in its execution and unsurprising in how likely divided it is to leave already existing fans of prior entries Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS Vita code provided by the publisher.
  18. barrel

    PS Plus October 2017 Games: Metal Gear Solid V??

    METAL GEAR SOLID V IS A GAME ABOUT BECOMING A DEMON. SO IT'S A PERFECT FIT FOR OCTOBER! (No, but seriously. There are so many obvious horror game choices you could pick for October. MGSV isn't really one of them unless you play just the intro removed from any other context, I guess.) Other than that, I dunno. I'd probably be curious enough to mess with Machine for Pigs but I am letting my sub lapse for a bit and have already played MGSV.
  19. Developer: Spike Chunsoft Publisher: NIS America Platform: Vita Release Date: September 1, 2015 ESRB: M for Mature Even with the Vita's ever-dwindling library of exclusive games, the Danganronpa series managed to catch many Vita owners by surprise last year. We not only got its first visual novel/adventure entry with Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc but also its sequel Danganronpa: Goodbye Despair in that same year. Eccentric characters, bizarre murder mysteries, a mix of both very dark and hilarious writing, and an intriguing narrative underpinning kept many fans gripped through both releases despite their quick successions. The newest entry, Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls, remains faithful to the series's spirit regardless of its spin-off label and different gameplay formula and hopes to make that loud and clear. Talking about Danganronpa: Ultra Despair Girls at all is a touchy subject for anyone who had not played the previous to visual novels to completion. It is a wholesale spoiler on Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc with its premise alone and can ruin several story revelations in its sequel as well. Still, I'll try to not cause despair and hope to avoid many easy spoiler trappings, even if some may not be possible to avoid as it is a title that directly takes place between both games. Another Episode starts off with the girl named Komaru being imprisoned for reasons that even she doesn't know. After almost being acclimated to her imprisoned life she finally gets a chance escape but... it comes at the cost of a Monokuma trying to lacerate her to death in the process. A chance encounter with a mysterious organization on her way out does grant her a hacking gun/megaphone to fight Monokumas but otherwise she is told to fend for herself in the meantime. But, even with a means to protect herself, she is captured by masterminds behind the Monokumas. These masterminds, or rather children that call themselves "The Warriors of Hope," force her to participate in a "Demon Hunt" game. This "Demon hunt," however, means the genocidal extermination of all who classify as adults, or "Demons," by the Warriors of Hope whom intend to create a paradise solely for children. At first glance the title gives off the feeling of a survival horror game — limited ammunition, shambling enemies, and features a very dark introduction sequence. But, despite its consistently grim tone, it starts to show off more and more of the series' signature personality and feels more like an action game that happens to have suspense elements as well. Maybe not too unlike recent Resident Evil games in that regard... Regardless, the series' weakest point has pretty much always been the disjointed gameplay, so to see a radical shift in styles actually works to Another Episode's benefit. Komaru's megaphone-like weapon has a variety of uses that are progressively unlocked over time. Some of the uses have rather typical gun-like implementations but the more creative ammunition brings a puzzle-like mindset to encounters and, well, actual puzzles. For instance, she can use dancing bullets on alarm-like foes to cause other enemies to literally follow their beat or using knockback shots to send Ball-Monokuma rolling into their friends. Battles are quite bizarre but can be fun as well. The game's biggest problem mainly has to do with balance. It is an incredibly easy game to the point that it honestly ruins some of its atmosphere in the process. Komaru's playable friend trivializes battles even more by outright by being invincible for a short period of time and can be activated instantly, like before you anticipate taking damage. The camera is an issue too by being too zoomed in, but ironically, the lack of difficulty makes it less prevalent. This carries over to pacing too like with some backtracking. Not only that but the puzzle rooms, which generally encourage the use of abilities in different ways, wear out their welcome by simply having too many of them, especially by the end which breaks up the narrative's pace unnecessarily. Still, the main draw of Another Episode is its narrative. Pacing issues aside, it is very engaging for fans of the series. The storytelling is unapologetic with callbacks to the visual novels, many of which are quite spoilery, and does seem to lay a fair amount of groundwork for a would-be Danganronpa 3 despite being a spin-off. There are not quite as many twists or humorous asides as those games, but Another Episode does savor its twisted atmosphere much more and it works. It's deceptively darker than even the visual novels with the many gruesome situations and implications that occur throughout the narrative, making the latter half in particular quite intriguing. The title oozes with style as well. It somehow blends the 2D Danganronpa's signature colorful quirkiness with its oppressive, dreary 3D setting. The 3D animations may not be consistent, like certain pre-rendered cutscenes, but the art direction masks many of production shortcomings and the animated cutscenes are well-done too. Certain visual flourishes like Komaru's friend's killing spree animations or... the vivid dreams she has are amusing too. The soundtrack meshes well with its presentation even more going from jazzy tunes to unsettling jubilant jingles. Though, like Danganronpa: Goodbye Despair there is a fair amount of recycled music tracks from the first game, unfortunately. In a lot of ways Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls is a spin-off title that many fans probably did not know they wanted. Despite however much it does different gameplay-wise from its predecessors, it ends up being a worthwhile diversion, especially with its narrative implications for a would-be Danganronpa 3. It is not without its share of gameplay quirks, but it is ultimately carried by its intriguing, dark storytelling and rich amount of personality. Pros + Very dark but fascinating storytelling + Creative implementations of its gameplay mechanics + Dense with both audio/visual personality Cons - Awkward camera that is too zoomed in - Some pacing issues with backtracking and a few too many puzzle rooms - Complete cakewalk difficulty Overall Score: 7.5 (out of 10) Good With an intriguing narrative and distinct gameplay style Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls ends up being a success even with its many blemishes. Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable Vita code provided by the publisher.
  20. Developer: Compile Heart Publisher: Idea Factory International Platform: PS Vita Release Date: September 19, 2017 ESRB: M for Mature I have come to realize that there is a small subset of Compile Heart titles that I actually don't mind. While I have grown more than weary of a certain flagship franchise of theirs' around gaming-themed goddesses that use referential humor as subtlety as a punch to the face, last year's Trillion: God of Destruction proved to me that there is an earnest part of Compile Heart that is also willing to boldly try out new ideas as well in an intriguing RPG framework. Following suit towards this philosophy is their newest dungeon role-playing game release named Mary Skelter: Nightmares on Sony's PlayStation Vita. Should one boldly climb through its bizarre depths or immediately point their feet towards the exit? Mary Skelker. Nightmares starts off in an deep underground crater of a once Japan city that is now bequeathed the more fitting title of something that is now a living prison/tower called 'Jail'. Day in and day out humans are tortured by demonic beings named 'Marchens' in Jail until one day the main protagonist Jack is rescued by a woman that goes by the moniker of 'Red Riding Hood.' His escape was not unconditional, however, as it was actually his close friend Alice that was scouted to become a Blood Maiden -- those with a special aptitude to fight Marchen -- for a special resistance group and he was taken along as Alice request. So after escaping the tower both Alice and Jack eventually agree to help this resistance group called the 'Blood Team', which primarily fight Marchen with Blood Maidens as well as try to explore Jail, to discover a means in which mankind can truly escape the underground hell. But it is the mechanics, not the dramatics, that mostly define the game's identity. And there are a whole lot of gameplay mechanics within Mary Skelter: Nightmares, even if the moment to moment gameplay is not all that complicated. On the most basic level it borrows a lot of elements of more recent first person dungeon crawlers on handhelds as you explore various new areas and battle foes in random turn-based combat. To make more direct comparisons, it is sort of an amalgamation of something like Persona Q and Experience Inc. dungeon crawlers like Demon Gaze -- except with a huge obsession towards blood. Lots and lots of blood. Blood is a lot more than just a theme and goes into nearly every facet of the gameplay. For example, the turn-based combat starts out straightforward enough with a heavy emphasis on exploiting enemy weaknesses. The twist is that blood will literally splatter on the heroines after exploiting an enemy's weakness, or 'overkilling' them. If enough enemy blood splatters onto them they go into a 'Massacre' form which powers-up skills, gives them access to new ones, as well as regen their HP/SP if even more blood splatters onto them during this form. It is a neat system albeit one that is heavily momentum based. Though, I do find myself wishing the UI showed what weaknesses players have already exploited, ala recent Persona games, instead of forcing players to remember every time a battle pops up. But there are drawbacks to this system as well depending on the circumstance. Basically, if heroines get KO'd too many times, or consistently takes heavy damage, they run the risk of becoming corrupted. So instead of going into the Massacre form they go into the uncontrollable 'Blood Skelter' mode instead which causes them to randomly attacks friends and foes alike. This is where the formally useless main character comes into play by... also splattering blood onto the heroines. Except his blood is good, I guess? Anyway, he eventually uses a 'Mary Gun' that shoots his own blood to gradually remove the Blood Maiden's corruption. He can occasionally shield the Blood Maidens from harm too, so I guess he can be somewhat helpful, um, every now and then. The game probably would have been okay without Jack's whole maintenance mechanic, to be honest, but it does add an extra layer of strategy especially during bosses. Speaking of which, there are creative aspects to the first person dungeon crawling too. Most dungeons have unique visual themes and occasional puzzles, and even the Blood Maidens themselves also bring a distinct flavor to the methodical dungeon crawl throughout. Alice can essentially create a portable save point/means of escape while the member 'Snow White' on the other hand can literally drop a bomb to open up new areas. To add a sense of tension during dungeons, much like that of the main narrative, there is even an invincible boss (until certain parts in the story) that can occasionally stalk the player mid-dungeon and the player is encouraged to run away or turn and fight enough to temporarily disable them. With tons to explore, player beneficial roulette triggering left and right (which would require an explanation onto itself), and occasionally a sense of dread, the standard dungeon crawl rarely feels dull in Mary Skelter (though, if you are too thorough, you may find certain dungeons to be quite long). To feed into both the dungeon crawling and combat, the central hub outside of Jail also hosts a wide range of mechanical benefits. One of the most important is that it is where the player can change jobs for the Blood Maidens, which are basically as big (if not bigger) of a deal as subclasses are to Etrian Odyssey, because you can carry over pretty much all skills of any former jobs into your new one (well, skill slots permitting; but those can be increased). Other facilities exist including shops, places to upgrade gear, the ability to de-level heroines for higher base stats like various Disgaea titles, and a place to take requests for various rewards. Players can also give gifts to the Blood Maidens to shallowly increase their affection, though it is only really noteworthy because it influences the ending sequences and the frequency of optional events that feature them. Oh yeah, there is also an awful, perverted gameplay system called 'purge' in which I try and pretend does not exist at all. Especially since Jack can essentially get mostly the same effect as the Purge mini game from his Mary Gun instantly in combat without a creepy rubbing mini game with the generally underage looking cast associated with it. But considering Compile Heart is the developer that also brought Monster Monpiece, I guess should not have been too surprised it exists, and thankfully it is not quite as bad as that (but, that's not saying much). Aside from that very unfortunate feature, no other aspect of the presentation really offends with its visual novel styled cutscenes, varied 3D dungeon motifs, and some solid whimsical musical tracks. This far into the Vita's life cycle, one is not really pressed for first-person dungeon-crawler options. In spite of this fact, Compile Heart has exceeded expectations at crafting a worthwhile and unique take among the subgenre. With plenty of variety to the moment-to-moment gameplay, and surprising depth to its systems, it is worth checking out Mary Skelter: Nightmares in spite of occasional rough edges (why does that gross 'purge' mini game exist?). Pros + Intriguing setup that creatively influences a lot of gameplay systems + Lots of variety in the dungeon themes and the means of go about them + Robust job system that is quite rewarding over time Cons - If you are thorough certain dungeons can last really long - Combat UI could have been improved, especially for a system that is all about exploiting weaknesses - Why is the 'purge' mini game even a thing? Overall Score: 7.5 (out of 10) Good Mary Skelter: Nightmares succeeds in making a fresh, fun take on first person dungeon crawler RPGs despite taking an occasional toll with its over-obsession towards blood in more ways than one Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS Vita code provided by the publisher.
  21. Developer: Aquaplus and Sting Publisher: Atlus USA Platform: PS4 and PS Vita Release Date: September 5, 2017 ESRB: M for Mature Note: This review is based on the PS Vita version of the game Atlus USA knew that with a cliffhanger as cruel as the one that Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception ended on, fans could not wait very long for the sequel. So, four months after its release countless burning questions are turned into decisive answers. Taking the form of the conclusion to the visual novel/strategy role-playing-game trilogy called Utawarerumono: Mask of Truth, it makes for an absolutely triumphant example among those willing stand alongside with it until the end. Before elaborating on its strengths Utawarerumono: Mask of Truth may very well be one of the most demanding games ever to get into from a pure storytelling context. The bare minimum to even approach it is to at least finish Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception due to huge storytelling revelations, intricate world-building, character development, as well as how Mask of Truth makes next to no real effort to catch people up to speed in regards to any of these. To go one step further, it even closes several longstanding story threads that date as far back as the original Utawarerumono on PC back in 2002 (and the only real English options for that are a less-than-legal PC fan-translation or the 2006 anime adaptation.) It is a trilogy for a reason and Utawarerumono: Mask of Truth's storytelling makes that abundantly clear as a final chapter that wraps it all up. With that disclaimer out of the way, Mask of Truth rights many of the wrongs of its predecessor. Often times, the previous title -- Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception -- was frustrating to play with how it was structured as a visual novel. The underlying storytelling was great, but the pacing was downright insulting. It felt like for every hour of serious storytelling the player would be subjugated to three or more hours of often pointless filler and anime ''fanservice' immediately after making it incredibly difficult to recommend as a whole. Oh, and for those that went into it expecting more frequent strategy-RPG gameplay would be lucky to see a battle every few hours, so that also did not help. But for a patient crowd that were able to surmount such shortcomings Mask of Truth certainly delivers and is a far more well-rounded adventure. While I would hardly say it is concise, as is the case with most visual novels with their long-winded banter (especially fifty-plus hour ones), it is very rare that the player will feel like their time is really being wasted (except maybe a few unfortunate 'fanservice' scenes, though they are significantly toned down from the previous game), despite not always placing the main conflict at the center stage. The cast of characters make doubly sure by acting much more mature, and the narrative's tone certainly reflects the change in mannerisms as a whole. Speaking of which, it is actually quite impressive how many fairly established characters of the previous release become much more earnestly developed as individuals through the course of Mask of Truth. Seemingly mundane day to day moments lead to surprisingly nuanced backstory moments, for example. Honestly, it's difficult for the player not to connect and resonate with the cast's plight, especially the lead character, knowing that they are forced to carry on in spite of some really heavy burdens and bleak circumstances. Of course, the main storytelling itself in general is an extremely touchy subject (do you know how hard it was to find screenshots without blatant spoilers?). Every other breath about it can easily be interpreted as major spoilers of the previous title at the very least. What I will say is that while I would more than argue that the Mask of Deception felt like half a game (that cliffhanger really did not help), Mask of Truth conversely feels like it could be separated into two entirely separate role-playing game narratives and each one would feel complete on their own. The reason I say that is because there are two dramatically different story arcs between its first and second half; the first being more focused on political intrigue and wartime conflict while the second arc is more about the greater existential questions of the world itself. Admittedly, it does lose some luster in the game's second story arc, with less compelling antagonistic figures primarily (kind of reminding me of Tears to Tiara II: Heir of the Overlord in this regard), but there are still pretty powerful and poignant storytelling moments throughout. I am not going to lie, I got more than a little misty eyed during several iconic scenes. Which is a tall order for me and games storytelling, and something that Mask of Truth executes brilliantly. It is easy to forget that there is an entire strategy-RPG component as well when caught in the massive visual novel story. Alright, not as easy this time around because battles are a fair bit more frequent and more involved. Like its predecessor, Mask of Truth's combat is a turn-based affair with an emphasis on chaining skills together mid-combo with real time inputs to increase their potency. With newly added co-op follow-up attacks, including tag-team special moves in 'overzeal' states, both allies and foes are noticeably more capable, making confrontations more engaging and challenging too. Mask of Truth also improves the variability of battle encounters as well. Main story confrontations are fairly good at changing up objectives and often times have multiple parts that forces players to stay on their toes. The final battle in particular plays upon a sense of combat escalation that is crazy in a way I have not seen since basically Devil Survivor 2: Record Breaker. As an aside, what is also a neat and subtle improvement is that -- outside of the main story -- there are other means to hone one's combat skills. The first of which are random skirmishes against fellow allies, which help grant points to raise certain stats, but the more intriguing are 'Munechika's Trials'. Munechika's Trials are basically really in-depth tutorials giving one instances to fully understand nitty-gritty combat mechanics and character specific nuances. While it likely would have seen far more use in the prior game (as players should have plenty of combat knowledge by now), it is a neat addition and a good way to get extra passive skills to equips. For as excellent as Utawarerumono: Mask of Truth is as a sequel, and frankly as a visual novel, it is a rather inconsistent port on Sony's PlayStation Vita. A fair bit worse than its predecessor to the point of interfering with story and combat scenes, actually. For instance, in busier cutscenes (with the underwhelming 3D engine in particular) the audio will randomly cut out which is somewhat distracting at times. But the bigger grievance is that this also can occur during combat, and I have seen a few minor instances of it throwing off my muscle memory for attack combos because of it. It is not game-breaking, but still disappointing for an otherwise perfect fit for the portable. But when faced with the stellar Japanese voice acting, impactful soundtrack, and gorgeous character art, I suppose I can forgive the occasional technical hiccups for what is primarily a visual novel. By expertly wrapping up what would have otherwise been an extremely inconsistent trilogy, Utawarerumono: Mask of Truth almost single-handedly justifies the whole journey up until this point. It is not without its caveats, however, with a mandatory to play predecessor (arguably almost two), and some nagging grievances with the occasionally spotty visual novel pacing as well as handheld port. Still, it serves as one of the absolute best visual novels out there on the market, and it just so happens to have some pretty fun strategy-RPG gameplay at times too. It is an amazing tale that makes it even more of a shame that it demands so much out of the player beforehand to fully appreciate it, but for those that do will be more than glad that they did. Pros + Intricate, and sometimes extremely poignant, visual novel storytelling that provides a really satisfying conclusion to the trilogy during the course of its lengthy adventure + Develops most of its primary cast really well + Smart adjustments to combat noticeably makes allies more capable and skirmishes more varied + Excellent localization and Japanese voice work Cons - Storytelling makes very little effort in catching up players who have not at least finished Mask of Deception prior to it - Awkward visual stuttering and audio cutoffs during random gameplay points in the Vita version - While toned significantly down from the previous game some 'fanservice' scenes and slice-of-life moments here and there do bog down the pacing Overall Score: 9 (out of 10) Fantastic Managing to weave intricate world-building and excellent storytelling Utawarerumono: Mask of Truth should more delight those that are patient enough to trek past its shortcomings towards the wonderful conclusion of the trilogy Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS Vita code provided by the publisher.