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Hailinel

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  1. Developer: Gust Publisher: Koei Tecmo Games Platform: PlayStation 4, Switch, PC Release Date: October 24, 2017 ESRB: T Note: This review is based on the Nintendo Switch version of the game The original Nights of Azure, which released in the west in March of last year, marked a departure for Gust, the development studio best known for the Atelier RPG series. A hack-and-slash action RPG, it made its name on the PS4 outside of Japan. Its sequel, Nights of Azure 2: Bride of the New Moon, however, expands its reach to new hardware and is Gust’s first title to appear on the Nintendo Switch. Set decades after the first game, the set-up for the sequel requires no knowledge of the original to understand. Nights of Azure 2 is set in the same world overrun by demons infected by the Blue Blood, but the characters and circumstances are different. The protagonist 'Aluche' -- a young knight of the Curia tasked with fighting the demons -- is ordered to escort the Curia’s chosen Bride of Time to a place of sacrifice, where her death will seal away the Moon Queen. To Aluche’s dismay, the Bride of Time is her childhood friend Liliana, but she goes ahead with her mission. From that point, things quickly go sideways. On their way to the sacrifice site, Aluche is killed in a surprise premature encounter with the Moon Queen, only to be resurrected by a Curia scientist that infuses her with some of the Blue Blood of the legendary Arnice (the first game’s protagonist), turning the once human Aluche into a half-demon. Armed with new powers, Aluche makes it her mission to find the now-missing Liliana, as well as a way to stop the Moon Queen that won’t require her friend’s sacrifice. The story and characters in Nights of Azure 2 are among the game’s high points. With a cast that grows over time, Aluche meets a ragtag collection of allies along her journey, all of whom are beautiful young women like herself. The game isn’t shy about this fact at all, and in some ways, feels like a Japanese lesbian romance in the form of an action game. In fact, the game’s lighter interludes feature plenty of sexual humor, and at times it’s a little surprising that the game managed to avoid an M rating despite the lack of red blood or sexual content beyond some slinky costumes and innuendo. The core gameplay in Nights of Azure 2 is hack-and-slash action that’s simple to learn. By default, Aluche uses a sword she can swing for combos of light and heavy attacks, and she can jump, guard, and perform a quick dash as a dodge. However, she’s not alone in combat; she leads a party consisting of one CPU-controlled partner (of a number that the player can choose from), and two Servan, who act independently, or can be ordered to act with the shoulder triggers. For Aluche’s CPU partners (or “Lilies” as they’re called in-game), each partner has her own set of strengths and skills, including special attacks they can perform with Aluche once proper requirements are met, in addition to passive skills that will automatically trigger under the right conditions. On the Normal difficulty, they’re competent and aren’t a burden when acting on their own, but there are commands that let the player dictate their basic behavior. Servan, on the other hand, are little benevolent fiends Aluche can befriend after rescuing them from flower traps. There are several varieties, including those that can turn into alternative weapon types for Aluche to wield, those that protect the party, or that inflict elemental damage. A few key Servan also have the ability to clear away or surpass obstacles on maps that lead to shortcuts, treasure chests, or additional Servan. There’s no requirement that the player find them all, but each one has its own distinct personality and history, whether that be helpful, tragic, imposing, or eccentric. Collectively, they’re a delight. If there’s one big area in which Nights of Azure 2 falls short in its gameplay, it’s really in giving the Lilies and Servan enough to do. The Lilies all have side-stories with their own quest chains to accomplish, but these quests have the player visiting the same maps over and over, with little variation save for where a target enemy or objective is on a map. And while there are plenty of Servan to befriend and bring into the party, there were many that I simply never took into battle, and at least on the Normal difficulty, I never felt penalized for sticking with the same three or four for most of the game. There are also time limits to consider. Aluche’s half-demon body doesn’t have the stamina to fight forever, and each excursion, which represents one night, has a set time limit. This limit starts at a flat ten minutes, but grows gradually as she levels up, and as points are spent on skill tree nodes to give her more time. The other time limit has to do with a magical azure moon. With each passing night, the moon wanes more and more, and the player must defeat the boss at the end of each chapter before it wanes completely, or its game over. The game does offer an emergency option to restart from the beginning of the current chapter in a worst-case scenario, but I never needed to use it. In fact, the moon time limit was never an issue for me, and I never felt pressed by the threat of a new moon. The game’s boss fights are a mixed bag. Most them are well done and offer a decent challenge relative to the rest of the game’s difficulty. But then there are the outliers. One of them was comically easy in a way that, combined with his absurd presentation, I can only imagine was intentional. And one boss fight toward the end was marred by a second phase that was nothing but tedious and seemed designed only to eat away at the timer. There are some odd quirks in the Switch version that need to be noted. One is that the game is inconsistent with its use of the A and B buttons. The A button is used for environment interaction and talking to characters, while B is used as the confirmation button in the game’s menus. This leads to unintuitive moments like pressing A to open the Save menu, and once in the menu pressing B to select a file and save the game. There were many times when I accidentally backed out of menus I had just opened because the A button is also “cancel” when in a menu. On two occasions in the twenty-plus hours of playing prior to writing this review, the game crashed and returned to the Switch home menu. However, both times it occurred were just seconds after I had saved the game, and so no progress was lost. Hopefully, Koei Tecmo will release a patch to address this issue, but the crashes were, fortunately, minor inconveniences at best. Complaints about repetition, boss fights, and technical quirks aside, I feel the game is still worth playing. The characters and world of Nights of Azure 2 are consistently entertaining, and the combat is fun. While the game lacks elements of polish, the core of the experience still manages to shine. It’s recommended if you’re looking for a fun action RPG, but don’t expect the smoothest experience. Pros + Entertaining characters and story with multiple endings + Fun hack-and-slash gameplay + Full Japanese voice acting + Beautiful character designs and models Cons - Technical and design issues - Sidequests require visiting the same maps repeatedly - Inconsistent boss fight quality - The game offers no hints on how to earn the better endings Overall Score: 7 (out of 10) Good Nights of Azure 2 is recommended if you’re looking for a fun action RPG, but don’t expect the smoothest experience. Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable code provided by the publisher
  2. Review: Warriors All-Stars

    Developer: Omega Force Publisher: Koei Tecmo Games Platform: PlayStation 4, PC Release Date: August 29, 2017 ESRB: T 2017 marks the twentieth anniversary of the development studio Omega Force, as well as the studio’s first and longest-running franchise: the 'Warriors' series. A lot has happened in the two decades since the studio’s founding; larger historical highlights include its parent company Koei completed a merger with Tecmo, and the combined Koei Tecmo later took in the RPG studio 'Gust.' To mark Omega Force’s twenty years, the studio has produced Warriors All-Stars; a Warriors title that highlights not just the developer's history, but that of Koei Tecmo as a whole. People familiar with the Warriors franchise may recall the Warriors Orochi series. This trilogy began as a crossover between the Three Kingdoms-themed Dynasty Warriors and feudal Japan-themed Samurai Warriors series, but Warriors Orochi 3, through subsequent iterative releases, expanded the crossover idea by including more and more characters from outside of the Warriors franchise. By the time Warriors Orochi 3 Ultimate released on the PS4, the game included characters from Koei, Tecmo, and Gust’s combined library. Warriors All-Stars takes this idea and runs with it, focusing less on the Warriors franchise specifically and more on Koei Tecmo’s full history. The crossover is structured around a narrative involving a kingdom and world in peril. Requiring the power of heroes from other worlds to restore the power of the world’s spring before it runs completely dry, a summoning ceremony is conducted, but fails, causing those pulled across the dimensional barrier to be scattered far and wide. The heroes become divided into three factions, each allied with a different member of royalty; Tamaki, her older brother Shiki, and their cousin Setsuna, each of whom vies to bring life back to the world in the manner they deem best, even if that means fighting one another. As a narrative in a crossover, the basic storyline is simple, but paths branch based on characters the player has recruited and which battles they choose to engage. There’s a large host of endings to uncover across the three factions, which range from relatively cut-and-dried “the world is saved” to characters going rogue and turning those efforts at saving the world sideways. In that sense, the replayability of the story mode is very high. On the surface, the game’s set of features appears sparse. For example, unlike most Warriors titles, there’s no Free Mode that lets you take any character into any battle. Instead, the game’s Story Mode features an open-ended structure with its world map. Markers scattered across the map feature a variety of battle types that include the core story and character-recruitment battles, special “dramatic battles” that play upon similarities between cast members, as well as side battles that emphasize offense, defense, treasure hunting, survival, and more. The variety is good, though those that primarily play Warriors games in multiplayer will be disappointed to find no such option available here. The combat system in Warriors All-Stars plays very similarly to most entries in the franchise, with every character having light attacks, heavy, or charge attacks, and a unique special attack. Where it differentiates is in its team-based approach. In addition to a leading player-character, up to four additional characters can be assigned as teammates, each with their own assisting special abilities that can be triggered at any time, barring cooldown. Teammates can also be called in to temporarily fight side-by-side with the leader, effectively giving the player control of more than one character simultaneously. And then, in perhaps the game’s most overt nod to its own celebratory nature, there is the Musou Rush. When triggered, Musou Rush puts the player in an invincible state and fills the screen with enemies, challenging the player to take out as many as possible under a timer. As the player performs well, the other party members will appear on the edges of the screen to cheer on the player-character while confetti flies about. Limited in use (the player begins every battle with one Rush Star and only earns more with every 1000 non-Rush K.O.s), they can help turn the tide when facing powerful officers. One of the game’s best mechanics is Bravery. A replacement for the morale systems seen in other Warriors titles, Bravery is a power-scaling mechanic. Every officer in each battle has a Bravery rating, and the player always starts off with a Bravery of 1. The greater in difference between two officers, the harder it is for the officer with the lower Bravery to do damage to the opponent. Completing side-missions and other tasks will raise Bravery over time, so there’s value in attempting to complete every mission given instead of attempting to rush the stage boss ASAP. Of course, as a crossover, one of the most intriguing aspects of Warriors All-Stars is its roster. While the game does feature a few of the more popular characters from the Dynasty and Samurai Warriors series, as well as returnees from the Ninja Gaiden and Dead or Alive games that previously appeared in Warriors Orochi 3, the vast majority of the roster is new to the Warriors format, and some come from games that never received an English localization or western release. Some of the new franchises represented include the action-RPG Nights of Azure, the trap-focused action/puzzle Deception series, and the otome romance adventure series Haruka: Beyond the Stream of Time. Oh! And this dashing guy: Many games that don’t feature playable characters are referenced through material items that the player can collect during battle. Callbacks range from the relatively recent (Bladestorm), to the old school (Mighty Bomb Jack and Rygar). Though it is inevitable that what some may see as obvious candidates for any sort of inclusion, playable or otherwise, have been left out. The game isn’t quite Super Smash Warriors, but it gets close. The variety of franchise representation carries over into other aspects of the game’s presentation. Many of the game’s stages are themed after the franchises the roster members come from, whether that be Toukiden, Nioh, or the pachislot Rio series. Additionally, the soundtrack features songs from across the board, most if not all of which have been remixed with new instrumentation. And on the voice side of the audio, the game uses the original Japanese voice talent for all of the included characters with one notable exception. William, the Irish protagonist of Nioh, retains his English-language voice actor, and all of his voiced dialogue is in English. Warriors All-Stars is, above all, a very solid entry in the Warriors franchise. As something of a successor to the Warriors Orochi series, the playable roster isn’t nearly as large, but the diversity of its cast and willingness to poke fun at itself makes it feel like more of the proper celebratory title it was meant to be. If you enjoy Warriors games and you have a fondness for Koei Tecmo titles in general, Warriors All-Stars is the game for you. Pros + Includes a fun, diverse roster representing the combined history of Koei Tecmo + Smart gameplay tweaks to the Warriors formula + Branching story paths and numerous endings add a lot of incentive to replay + Numerous fun callbacks and references to characters, events, and oddities within the represented games Cons - Some well-regarded Koei Tecmo franchises are conspicuously missing - No way to replay story and dramatic battles outside of new game cycles - Optional character requests wildly fluctuate in difficulty, time commitment, and RNG chance requirements Overall Score: 9 (out of 10) Fantastic If you enjoy Warriors games and have a fondness for Koei Tecmo titles in general, Warriors All-Stars is the game for you.
  3. Review: Dark Rose Valkyrie

    Developer: Compile Heart Publisher: Idea Factory International Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: June 6, 2017 ESRB: T Basing the narrative of a story around a gimmick can be a risky proposition. In the best cases, a well-timed twist or a key plot element can lift an otherwise pedestrian story into something memorable and beloved. But in the worst cases, reliance on a gimmick can expose the plot’s lack of depth and character, leaving it as a cautionary tale. The new Compile Heart RPG Dark Rose Valkyrie strives to live off of its own memorable gimmick, but is the game strong enough to support it? Dark Rose Valkyrie is set in an alternate history version of Japan where Earth has become overrun by victims of the Chimera Virus; a mysterious disease that twists and corrupts people and animals into monsters. The lead character Asahi is an inexperienced young officer assigned to lead an experimental squadron equipped to take on the Chimera in battle, but when he and his team aren’t out in the field fighting, Asahi has to spend time with his squad members in order to build their trust in him and help them out. In terms of its basic structure, Dark Rose Valkyrie isn’t too unlike other JRPGs that have blended dungeon exploration and combat with social elements. There’s a clear divide between embarking on missions that take the player out onto the world map and in dungeons to fight Chimera, and more quiet one-on-one interactions between Asahi and the members of his team back at the Command HQ. The social aspect, in which dialogue is handled in the manner of a visual novel, is loaded with entertaining writing, though Asahi’s squad mates are very heavily defined by predictable tropes. Unfortunately, the game falters elsewhere. The combat system in Dark Rose Valkyrie attempts a degree of complexity that’s undercut by what could be best described as design bloat. The basic idea behind the combat system, which is turn-based and gives all party members various melee, ranged, and special art attacks, is interesting on paper, but for as many commands as the battle menu lists, a good chunk of them don’t feel necessary, if not useless. I stopped using the Charge command, the second command in the menu listed right under the basic “Attack”, because it did little to nothing any time I used it and the game was terrible at explaining its function. This bloat extends outside of battles, as well. The party members can all be outfitted with a wide range of equipment to boost their parameters, and unlocking new equipment in the shop requires the player retrieve items out in the field that can be used to make this new gear, in addition to spending money. But money is also required to repair and enhance the party’s outfits, which take battle damage and can be destroyed if the enemies deal enough damage. On top of this, money is also necessary to spend at the infirmary to help party members recover from fatigue that only accumulates when the Ignition command is used to enhance their power in battle. The design is certainly ambitious, and it’s not without its share of successes. But the volume of concepts that the game throws at the player, many of which I haven’t even begun to outline, make it feel as though the designers threw all of their ideas into a pot without being mindful of how well they would all mesh together. There are multiple levels of attack strength that determine how long it takes for an attack to trigger after selection, and each character has multiple basic attack combos under the Attack command to choose from with different properties. The reserve party members can jump in and deal damage as a team, or individual reserves can assist a specific character on offense or defense, but their participation is entirely random. Another point where the game falls short is in its side missions. While there is a decent variety in the types of missions available, the game does not do a good job of explaining where you need to go to complete them. A mission may require hunting a specific monster in a dungeon, but rather than mark that monster’s location on the minimap, the game’s only indication of where to find the creature is a small screenshot in the mission description. At one point, I wandered in circles for an hour trying to figure out where a particular Chimera I needed to hunt was without success, only to stumble across it when in a corner of the map. I might have given up on it had it not been one of the side missions required to progress the story. In the introduction, I alluded to the presence of a gimmick at the heart of the plot of Dark Rose Valkyrie. As the game’s marketing has made a point of this, it’s fair to at least provide this spoiler: One of Asahi’s party members will become a traitor. While such a plot twist isn’t novel in and of itself, it’s the manner in which the game handles this twist that stands out. The identity of the traitor is not a fixed point in the narrative. Different players will see a different character turn traitor, and while I’m not knowledgeable of all of the mechanisms in play that determine who, the game begins with a personality test that undoubtedly plays a role in this decision. Primary gimmick aside, the game’s presentation is kind of a mixed bag. The music is suitable, but doesn’t really stand out, and the dungeon and overworld environments feel simplistic and bland. On the other hand, the game’s character designs, created by manga illustrator and Tales of character designer Kousuke Fujishima, are excellent. And in lieu of traditional static character portraits, the game uses a technique that gives the portrait figures an eye-catching degree of animation. As much as I’d like to enjoy Dark Rose Valkyrie, it’s held back by obtuse and unnecessary mechanics and systems. My time with it has been a rollercoaster; there are high points, mostly in the social aspects, that I honestly like, but then the more frustrating aspects rear their head and the game becomes a slog. The game isn’t entirely without merit, and fans of Idea Factory games will probably get their money’s worth, but anyone looking for a more polished experience should look elsewhere. Pros + The plot is structured around an interesting premise of betrayal + Great character designs by Kousuke Fujishima + The leveling system allows for customizing party member growth + Entertaining visual novel-style interactions with party members Cons - Bloated gameplay systems make the game more convoluted than complex - Side mission objective information can be obtuse and unclear - Bland dungeon environments and enemy designs - Difficulty is strangely tuned, with the only options being Easy, Hard, and Very Hard Overall Score: 6 (out of 10) Decent Fans of Idea Factory games will probably get their money’s worth, but anyone looking for a more polished experience should look elsewhere. Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS4 code provided by the publisher
  4. Developer: Kou Shibusawa Publisher: Koei Tecmo Games Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC Release Date: April 25, 2017 ESRB: E10+ Note: This review is based on the PS4 version of the game Last year, Koei Tecmo brought Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII, the latest entry in the long-running strategy series, to the west. Though a very challenging game, it also proved to be a rewarding experience to those with a taste for the complex systems it’s built on. And now the publisher has released a proper expansion pack entitled Fame and Strategy that attempts to add more of both into the core gameplay. Unlike last year’s Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence – Ascension, a stand-alone title that was built on the mechanics of the original Sphere of Influence, Fame and Strategy is strictly an expansion pack. (You can read my thoughts on the original Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII release here.) It adds some new scenarios based on events of the source novel and ancient Chinese history, but the meat of the expansion is in how it builds upon the established gameplay. As hinted at by the title, Fame and Strategy brings new gameplay concepts to the table that focus on these aspects. In terms of “Fame,” there is now an officer prestige system. Essentially, as the player’s officer acquires fame, new prestige titles can be unlocked that grant the officer new abilities. These titles exist on what amount to skill trees and have the ability to enhance officers of any standing. Even as a free officer, or an officer that is unaligned with any established force, it’s possible to gain fame and prestige, and use that to build up an independent force. On the “Strategy” side, the expansion introduces war councils, which allow for planning special tactics to use in the coming battle. During the battles themselves, there are new tactical points present on the battlefields that, when under the player’s control, enable the use of these tactics. These new features do add twists to how battles play out, but ideally, to make the best use of them, the player should already have a good grasp on how combat worked in the original release. Fortunately, Fame and Strategy does add two new side stories to the game’s Hero Mode. Effectively the tutorial, Hero Mode introduces the expansion’s new gameplay concepts in these scenarios. It should be stressed, however, that Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII was already a challenging game, and Fame and Strategy does not ease up. In the original release, Hero Mode scenarios would often introduce new concepts, and then instruct the player to complete the scenario before throwing them to the wolves, and these new Hero Mode challenges are no different. There is a Help menu that gives guidance on the game’s many gameplay topics, but learning in Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII is generally done by doing, and most likely failing. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but Fame and Strategy in no way makes things easier for newcomers. It only serves to make an already complex game more complex. The one proper new mode outside of the core gameplay that Fame and Strategy introduces is Edit Events. As a way to create custom events to insert into scenarios, it’s both fascinating and incredibly daunting with the numerous menu options for customization. Some sample events are included so that novice event designers aren’t forced to create new events from scratch, and events can be shared online, so examples are never too far away. But in terms of creating a new event, from the various steps involved in selecting the right event triggers and describing the actual text content, building a quality custom event is not a simple task. This is an unusual review for me to write, as it’s the first time that I’ve reviewed a proper expansion pack to an existing game. In that sense, it can be difficult to separate my feelings on the original release from Fame and Strategy because so much of what the expansion offers is deeply intertwined into the original Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII. In that sense, I suppose it’s fair to consider this text an expansion of my review of the original release. If you liked Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII and wanted more, or a new reason to jump back in, then Fame and Strategy should have you covered. Pros + New gameplay features add even more depth to an already deep strategy game and are woven into the core gameplay well + All of the features of the original release are still here + Edit Event mode offers an enticing new way to customize campaigns Cons - Playing the game with a console gamepad can still be awkward at points - The expansion does nothing to make introducing the game to newcomers any easier Overall Score: 8 (out of 10) Great If you liked Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII and wanted more, or a new reason to jump back in, then Fame and Strategy should have you covered. Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS4 code from the publisher
  5. Review: Toukiden 2

    Developer: Omega Force Publisher: Koei Tecmo Games Platform: PlayStation 4, PS Vita, PC Release Date: March 21, 2017 ESRB: T for Teen Note: This review is based on the PS4 version of the game After the Monster Hunter series jumped from the PSP to the 3DS as the franchise’s platform of choice, several companies tried their hands at the format to fill in the hunting gap on the Vita. One such game was Koei Tecmo’s Toukiden: The Age of Demons -- a game that, while it held very close to the gameplay structure of Monster Hunter, distinguished itself with a creative historical setting and gameplay elements that made it more than a simple clone. After following the initial release with an enhanced PS4 version in Toukiden Kiwami, the developer Omega Force has brought about its first true sequel in Toukiden 2. Set after the events of the first game, Toukiden 2 returns to the Midlands; the last remaining region of what was once Meiji-era Japan where humans live in a world overrun with demons, or oni. As in the first game, the player takes on the role of a slayer whose name and appearance can be customized, and whose job is to leave the confines of Mahoroba Village and protect it from the relentless hordes. There are a few callbacks to the original game, as well as returning faces, but the story doesn’t require knowledge of the first Toukiden in order to follow along. The storyline is surprisingly strong, with characters that start off as one-note showing more depth over time. A stark factional split keeps the village divided politically to a seemingly irreparable degree, which at times leads to some surprising but effective moments of drama and tragedy. The conflict is exacerbated by both human faults and oni attacks, but the narrative is kept light enough with plenty of humorous moments, as well. As a hunting game, Toukiden 2 strays from the first game’s formula in a significant way with the introduction of an open world. Unlike the first game, which used Monster Hunter-style maps of segmented zones, the map in Toukiden 2 is one large landmass populated with oni, side quests, and hidden secrets. What’s more, the world can be explored freely at will without a time limit; instead, a restriction is placed on the player in the form of the miasma gauge, which measures the player’s exposure to a toxic atmosphere created by oni. In regions of the map where miasma is thicker, the gauge will fill at a faster clip, though making progress in the story and by clearing map waypoints will reduce the miasma and make it easier to explore more of the map over time. The new map indeed goes a long way in giving the game’s world a sense of place. In the original game, the player visited different maps referred to as ages, such as the Age of Grace, Age of War, or Age of Chaos. Each of these maps was thematically based on an era of Japanese history, but there wasn’t anything to link them, other than they’re all accessible by leaving the village through its lone gate. Toukiden 2 reintroduces the ages as regions of the map, interconnected with each other and the outskirts of Mahoroba. In sum, the world feels vast, with a lot to explore, and only a small portion is seen while sticking close to the main story. The combat in Toukiden 2 also receives an upgrade in the Demon Hand. This new tool, which is essentially a spectral grappling arm, lets the player grab on to oni from a distance to close the gap or trip them up. When a special gauge is filled, using the arm on a giant oni will instantly tear off one of its limbs, weakening the demon while dealing heavy damage. The Demon Hand also has its uses outside of combat, allowing for some light traversal as well as destroying barriers that blockade select routes. It’s a little unwieldy to use at first, as it takes some time to get used to aiming, and in single-player, the AI partners tend to be much faster in using their own Demon Hands, getting into the fray before the player. It doesn’t take long to get used to, however. Toukiden 2 offers multiplayer that lets four players team up on oni-slaying missions together. These missions, also available in single-player, are analogous to the missions that the first game was structured around. In general, they’re short, sweet, and quick to jump into. After accepting a mission and heading for the gate, the game will take the players straight to a portion of the world map that has been cordoned off as the mission area. And once the target oni are slain, the mission ends, and it’s easy enough to jump right into another. The Mitama system from the original game also returns with some upgrades, allowing the player to equip Mitama for offense, defense, and the Demon Hand, with effects that vary based on the type of Mitama equipped. The Mitama equipped also determine what skills can be activated during battle, which can have a major effect on your play style and your role in a group, whether that be as an offense-focused attacker or a more support-oriented slayer with team-healing abilities. The system is of limited use in single-player (I made it through the story largely with the earliest acquired Mitama), but it offers more key significance in multiplayer. The vast majority of the game’s Mitama are based on figures from Japanese history and folklore, dating from the nation’s prehistoric era through the Meiji era and early twentieth century. Collecting these Mitama is one of the game’s more prominent side-tasks, and it’s worth it, not only for the varying abilities provided by them, but in learning their historical context, as each Mitama has its own accompanying biographical text. Certain Mitama that are historically associated, such as spouses, also provide extra boosts when equipped together. In terms of presentation, Toukiden 2 is on par with Kiwami in a technical sense, and shares the same art style, but with a greater sense of cohesion to its unified map. Many of the oni are distinctive and diverse in their design as well, with the giant oni standing out in particular. On the audio side, the game features well-done Japanese voice acting, though there aren’t any subtitles for incidental flavor dialogue party members may chatter in the field. The music, largely reminiscent of the original game, is of high quality and fits the mood and setting. But beyond those presentation checkmarks, Toukiden 2 is very much a sea-change in terms of being a sequel. While the original Toukiden and similar titles have been referred to as Monster Hunter clones for their not-too-subtle attempts at mimicking that franchise’s formula, the sequel takes great strides in furthering its own identity and creating a more unique experience as a result. It’s refreshing, and it makes for an easy recommendation. Pros + Open world structure gives the sequel a fresh take over the original + An entertaining story with fun characters + A great range of weapon types, as well as tutorials for each + Gameplay styles can be customized through equipping Mitama Cons - The camera can be obstructed at times when fighting giant oni in tight spaces - The game doesn’t do a perfect job of teaching all of its mechanics up front - The number of quests available in the open world feels somewhat sparse compared to the map’s size Overall Score: 9 (out of 10) Fantastic Toukiden 2 takes great strides in furthering its own identity and creating a more unique experience as a result, making it a refreshing and easy recommendation. Disclosure: A downloadable PS4 code was provided by the publisher for this review
  6. Developer: Omega Force Publisher: Koei Tecmo Platform: PS4, PS Vita Release Date: January 31, 2017 ESRB: T Koei Tecmo’s Dynasty Warriors series, which originally began as a one-on-one fighting game on the PlayStation, has since blossomed into a long-running action game series known for pitting the player against hundreds of enemies at once. The franchise has spun off in a number of directions over the years, from similarly themed games based on various anime licenses to the Monster Hunter-inspired Dynasty Warriors: Strikeforce series, but the latest spin-off takes a sharp turn away from the frenetic action the franchise is known for. In exchanging large-scale beat’em up action for turn-based strategy, the developer Omega Force brings us Dynasty Warriors: Godseekers. Godseekers is a strategy RPG in the vein of Fire Emblem, Disgaea, and Final Fantasy Tactics. It retells the story of Romance of the Three Kingdoms as all Dynasty Warriors games before it, complete with larger-than-life interpretations of figures from the novel and Chinese history, but works in a few original twists a more overt fantasy. The main story follows Zhao Yun and his friend Lei Bin after they inadvertently awaken Lixia, a mystical woman that needs to recover scattered elemental orbs that grant her power. From there, the story darts through plot points that should be familiar to anyone that’s played a Dynasty Warriors game, from the revolt against Dong Zhuo to the fight to reclaim Xiapi from the fearsome Lu Bu, ever so slightly rewritten with Lixia’s quest in mind. The core tactical gameplay does a remarkable job of translating the Dynasty Warriors style of action into a strategy game. The player is allowed up to five characters in the active roster per battle, and every character in the game has their own unique attacks that cover varying ranges measured by the grid map. Some excel at close quarters, others do more widespread damage, and still others excel or focus on ranged attacks. Like the core action games, each character also has their own Musou attacks; special skills that deal extra-powerful damage, but can only be used when a charge on the character’s own Musou gauge is full. The most powerful technique is a special team skill called Synchro Mode. When active, it lets two or more of the player’s party to act in tandem, dealing a full turn’s worth of damage against foes before unleashing a super-powered attack that can be powered up by mashing the X button. It’s particularly useful for clearing out large swaths of enemies off of the map and a strategic necessity, particularly in more time-sensitive battles. However, it’s balanced out by the fact that it takes some set up to get more than two or three units in position to take part in the assault. Dynasty Warriors is known for battlefields full of enemies, and Godseekers does its best to live up to that concept. Maps in Godseekers routinely see the player greatly outnumbered. Though, at least on Normal Mode, the majority of the enemies don’t pose a particular threat. Standard grunts do a small fraction of the damage that officers are capable of and tend to be fodder for building up the Musou and Synchro gauges. They only become particularly vexing on maps where time is of the essence and the mission requires rescuing a stranded officer or clearing the objective within a set turn limit. That being said, the core story missions offer excellent variety in terms of their design and objectives. Even when missions with similar objectives occur back to back, the map designs, unit placement and specific requirements give them unique flavor. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the many, many, many side mission battles that become available on the world map. Though early on they’re useful for building up experience, gold, weapons, and items, the sheer number and more mundane mission designs tend to wear out their welcome. As a better aside, there’s the Path of Destiny. Functioning as the means to unlock additional characters to add to the permanent battle roster, the player can witness entertaining conversations between members of the large cast, gradually moving along tracks that unlock as various requirements are met. Occasionally, special battles open up that -- if won -- will yield a new character for the player, and on the plus side, these missions tend to be as good as the main story missions in terms of their design and variety. On the downside, there’s a lot of grinding to get through. The requirements for attaining a character’s next tier on the Path of Destiny generally need the player to progress beyond a certain point in the story, as well as additional requirements such as having a specific character fight in X battles, defeating Y, enemies, or leveling up the character to Z. At times it can be a slog, though the reward of unlocking a desired character can feel worth it. However, the five-character limit in battles is constraining, and many characters won’t see use outside of the monotonous side-battles. As for the game’s presentation, the plot offers some novel takes, particularly in how key events frequently revisited in Dynasty Warriors are altered for the sake of Lixia’s story that add some surprises to the more well-tread points, and the core cast of Zhao Yun, Lei Bin and Lixia are an interesting trio together. But even with the twists brought by Lixia, the story feels somewhat dry and predictable. That’s not to say that the story is bad; far from it, in fact. However, it is hard to escape the thought that the plot is essentially Dynasty Warriors fanfiction, which may or may not be appealing depending on what you’re looking for. But while the plot is lacking in some ways, the game does manage to retain the look and feel of a traditional Dynasty Warriors despite the dramatic shift in game genre. The map designs look like they could exist as standard Dynasty Warriors maps, and the battle camera can be set to view attacks from the perspective of an action game. It feels like a cheap shortcut to say that it looks and sounds exactly like it should, but given what the game is aiming for, it’s not an inaccurate statement. Dynasty Warriors: Godseekers is an entertaining game, and Dynasty Warriors fans looking for something outside of the norm should find a lot to like. It stumbles on some of its design choices, but it does more than enough right to be engrossing in bursts. At the very least, it’s a good distraction as we all wait for more news on Dynasty Warriors 9. Pros Matches the look and feel of a traditional Dynasty Warriors game perfectly. Robust character growth and weapon customization systems. A well-executed battle system translates the action series into tactical strategy. Lots of entertaining character dialogue. Cons Side missions become monotonous. Enemy turns can take forever to complete, though there is a fast-forward function. Path of Destiny advancement requirements are sometimes a grind. Overall Score: 7 (out of 10) Good Dynasty Warriors: Godseekers is an entertaining game, and Dynasty Warriors fans looking for something outside of the norm should find a lot to like. It stumbles on some of its design choices, but it does more than enough right to be engrossing in bursts. Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS4 code provided by the publisher
  7. Developer: Sega Publisher: Sega Platform: PS4 Release Date: January 10, 2017 ESRB: T For the past several years, the virtual idol Hatsune Miku has made huge strides in popularity outside of Japan. She and her fellow Vocaloids -- Megurine Luka, Kagamine Rin and Len, KAITO, and MEIKO -- have appeared in live concerts across North America and Asia, and Sega began localizing rhythm games featuring the characters with Hatsune Miku: Project Diva F. And now Sega has taken Miku and company once step further with a newly localized release of Hatsune Miku: Project Diva Future Tone. Future Tone is a home console adaptation of the Japan-only Hatsune Miku: Project Diva Arcade Future Tone. The game is sold digitally in two primary content packs, Future Sound and Colorful Tone, and together, the entire collection of songs dials in at a whopping 224 individual tracks. The full song library is available for play without having to unlock any tracks via gameplay progression, though a subset of songs are only playable on the game’s higher difficulty levels. The basic rhythm gameplay in Future Tone should be familiar to anyone that played previous home console or handheld Project Diva titles. As a song plays, icons denoting buttons on the controller will fly across the screen, and button presses need to be timed with when the icons line up with their markers to the rhythm and beat of the music. Twists that Future Tone adds to this formula include hold markers, where one or more buttons must be pressed and then held for a score bonus, and sliders, which are triggered either with the shoulder buttons or analogue sticks. Veterans of the series should have no trouble jumping into the gameplay, but for newcomers, there’s also a handy practice mode. Songs can be practiced from start to finish, or from a specific time of the player’s choosing, without the distractions of the animated song videos that play in the background. And as in other Project Diva titles, song videos can optionally be viewed on their own without gameplay. Comparatively, when using games like Project Diva F or Project Diva X as a reference, Future Tone is a noticeably more challenging game. This isn’t a bad thing, as the game encourages and offers the aforementioned tools to practice freely, but it should be noted that the game can pose a challenge, even on Normal. Of course, difficulty will also vary from song to song, as well, with some offering a significantly steeper challenge to earn a high accuracy percentage, much less simply clear. The rhythm game itself is solid, but the star of the show is the aforementioned track list; a massive catalogue of songs performed by Hatsune Miku and the other Crypton Future Media Vocaloids that covers a broad range of styles, genres, themes, and imagery. Any fan of Miku and company is bound to find a long list of songs they enjoy, even if some personal favorites didn’t make the cut. The game even includes some wonderful lyrical remixes of theme songs from the classic Sega arcade titles After Burner, Out Run, and Power Drift. The videos that accompany each track are of a high quality as well, with visuals that match the songs’ themes and tones. Some, like the angelic “Innocence” or the whimsical “Clover Club” take place on elaborate stages and focus on the Vocaloids as they sing and dance. Others, like the hopeful “God-Tier Tune” and the tragic “Rolling Girl” eschew the stage for using the song to tell a short story. The Vocaloids can be customized with modules, or costumes, that change their appearance, and each song has a recommended module that that was either designed for it or serves as an ideal fit, though any module can be used for any song no matter how out of place. If there are true flaws in Future Tone, they’re minor, at best. None of the songs in the game feature English subtitles, with romaji (romanized Japanese) being the only lyric display option. And song videos shared online via the PS4’s Share functionality have the music muted to avoid legal issues. Both of these points, while disappointing, are understandable, however. To its core, Hatsune Miku: Project Diva Future Tone is a game made for fans of Hatsune Miku. From the track list to the inside jokes present in everything from the videos, to the accessories, and even the trophy requirements, the game knows its audience. And while audiences unfamiliar with Miku may not understand what the songs are all about, who the Vocaloids are, or why Miku loves waving leeks around, the rhythm gameplay is addicting and could hook newcomers with an ear for J-Pop. Pros A massive song list of 224 tracks split between Future Sound and Colorful Tone. High-quality rhythm gameplay adapted from the arcade version. Fully customizable controls. Cons The localization does not include English lyric subtitles, even for songs that had them in previous releases. The PS4 Share function mutes the music in videos shared online. Overall Score: 9 (out of 10) Fantastic Hatsune Miku: Project Diva Future Tone is a game made for fans of Hatsune Miku but could hook newcomers with an ear for J-Pop.
  8. Game of the Year 2016: Justin's Picks

    2016 was an eventful year for gaming. Well, truthfully, the same could really be said for any recent year, but this was the year that: The Last Guardian finally shipped! As did Mighty No. 9! And I FINALLY got my Kickstarter-backer physical copy of Broken Age. And none of the above made my list. (Although, I doubt many people will be offended by the omission of Mighty No. 9. Hoo boy, that was awkward.) But as we get ready for 2017, which also looks ready and waiting to be an eventful year in gaming, let’s take a look back at my ten favorite games of 2016! 10. Touhou: Scarlet Curiosity The Touhou series of bullet hell shooters has long had a fanbase of creators that have spawned numerous fanworks over the years. The games and their characters have inspired fanart and doujinshi comics, music, and even entirely separate games. Scarlet Curiosity is one such title; an action RPG focused on the vampire Remilia and her devoted maid Sayaka, the game is simple, but well-made and incredibly fun. Filled with charming character aided by a great English localization, it was easily the biggest surprise of the year for me. 9. Style Savvy: Fashion Forward The third Style Savvy game took a while to make it to North America, but the wait was worth it. Backed by an unapologetically fantastical premise involving a tiny magical door, Fashion Forward puts, well, fashion forward as it charges the player with running a fashion boutique while also making time to help out at the hair stylist and beauty salon. With a long list of entertaining and eccentric clients in a fashion-obsessed city, dressing, styling, and grooming them all is addicting, and the light-hearted banter just adds to the charm. It was easy for me to get pulled in, playing the video game equivalent of dress-up for hours at a time. 8. Fire Emblem Fates As a long-time fan of the Fire Emblem series, putting Fates on my list wasn’t a difficult decision. But what was difficult was deciding where to actually rank it. Fates was a divisive game for a variety of reasons, whether it be the release of three separate versions (with one being restricted to DLC) that all tell the same story from different angles, and with different focuses on challenge, at that. And for every innovation that felt like a positive direction (changes to the weapon triangle, the removal of weapon durability), other parts didn’t receive the attention that they should have deserved. (The narrative justification for the second-generation characters being able to fight alongside their parents is the most nakedly lazy writing the series has ever endured.) Fire Emblem took steps forward and back with Fates, but at its core, it’s still Fire Emblem. While the game has a number of issues, it still manages to retain enough to be a challenging, entertaining entry. Hopefully an eventual Fire Emblem title on the Nintendo Switch is in the works. 7. Pokkén Tournament One of the unlikeliest of fighting games to see a release in recent memory, this Bandai Namco-developed Pokémon fighting game with its mix of Tekken and Mobile Suit Gundam Extreme Vs.-inspired mechanics turned out to be really darn good! While the size of the roster in the Wii U version is limited, particularly compared to the arcade version that has seen continuous updates, the variety of Pokémon on the roster is well-picked. And the fighting mechanics, which emphasize a continuous shift between open arena battling and more traditional fighting on a 2D plane is fun in both single-player and online. This is the sort of wild Pokémon spin-off that I would love to see more of! 6. Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence – Ascension Official GP Review Koei Tecmo has gotten back into a real groove with western releases of the company’s historical strategy titles, and Ascension really nailed it for me. Since its release just this past October, I’ve played through multiple campaigns, some more successful than others, and still have a desire to go back and try to conquer Japan again. It’s the sort of difficult strategy game where I constantly feel the pull of “just one more turn.” Ascension feels like a game I could easily play for years. 5. Attack on Titan Official GP Review Koei Tecmo’s Omega Force studio have become experts at the one-against-a-thousand action combat of the Musou franchise in all its forms. To see them take many aspects of that formula and apply them to a game with an entirely different focus, and do so successfully, is remarkable. Attack on Titan’s smooth, rhythmic flow of swinging through the air and cutting down Titans is a delight as it retells the story of the anime’s first season from start to finish. Hopefully we won’t have to wait for a sequel for as long as we’ve had to wait for the anime’s second season, which is due to start airing next year. 4. Samurai Warriors 4: Empires Official GP Review The third and final Koei Tecmo game on the list, Samurai Warriors 4: Empires continues the Empires spin-off tradition of taking the core hack-and-slash Musou action and giving it the backbone of a strategy game. This year’s Empires title is an excellent refinement of that formula, offering challenges not usually seen in standard Musou titles. Playing defense with an underpowered officer and managing to hold off a much larger and more powerful invasion force is always satisfying. Of all of the Musou series, Samurai Warriors has long been my favorite, and Samurai Warriors 4: Empires helps keep it on top. 3. Hatsune Miku: Project Diva X Official GP Review At first glance, Project Diva X might seem disappointing. The game has a relatively small track list, and the more cinematic music videos of past games aren’t present, as all of them are set as concert stage performances. But Project Diva X’s new story mode, which adds a thin but entertaining premise to the proceedings, is surprisingly endearing. The song selection is also top-notch, with some personal favorites of mine making the cut. And the game’s original medleys, which blend songs from past games together into themed performances like Cute, Cool, and Quirky, are some of the best and most elaborate in the game. And it’s a Hatsune Miku game. I just can’t say no to Miku! 2. Final Fantasy XV Oh, what a long and winding road it’s been this past decade. There’s a part of me that says that Final Fantasy XV has no reason to be as good as it is. Pulled out of stagnant development from its years under Tetsuya Nomura as Final Fantasy Versus XIII, Hajime Tabata and his team rebuilt Nomura’s concept into a complete game worthy of being a mainline Final Fantasy title. Though it’s rough around the edges, Noctis’s road trip tale of brotherhood and a desire to find his betrothed after his kingdom has fallen under imperial rule shines through where it counts, wearing its inspirations from past Final Fantasy games on its sleeve while standing well on its own. And the game’s ending is not only rewarding, but one of the very best that the series has delivered yet, nailing the game’s themes one after another. 1. Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE Several years ago, Nintendo surprised everyone with the announcement of Shin Megami Tensei X Fire Emblem, an Atlus-developed crossover title that would match Fire Emblem’s medieval fantasy strategy role-playing series with Shin Megami Tensei’s demon-infested, apocalypse-happy, modern Tokyo-set JRPG franchise. But there was little meat to the announcement beyond a placeholder title and some old character art from past games. Many assumed that the game would be a standard crossover of franchise casts, possibly involving fights between Marth and the Demi-Fiend before everyone comes together to fight the true, common enemy. Because that’s how these crossover games tend to go. And so it was surprising, to say the least, when Nintendo unveiled Tokyo Mirage Sessions for the first time last year. Bright colors! J-Pop! A bizarre title with a sharp symbol in it! And no sign of the Demi-Fiend! I was on board with this unabashed goofiness from day one. Of course, not everyone was. Some were annoyed, or more bizarrely felt betrayed. Where was the Shin Megami Tensei? Where was the Fire Emblem? While traditional franchise crossover games are all well and good, Atlus and Nintendo chose to take Tokyo Mirage Sessions in the more novel direction of a thematic crossover. With the gameplay design and structure of a MegaTen RPG with Fire Emblem influences, and a modern-day Tokyo set against a world of Fire Emblem characters largely reimagined in the vein of MegaTen demons, well, here we are! The entertainment industry backdrop and the game’s bright, beautiful color palette give TMS an identity all its own, with plenty of nodding references and Easter eggs related to both franchises for good measure. The professionally produced musical performances as sung by the cast are some of the many highlights in a game that isn’t afraid to be goofy with characters that range from an enka-singing elementary schooler to a pitch-perfect parody of a western otaku. And yet, it never feels too silly for its own good, easing between lighter and darker moments with ease. As a fan of both franchises, I can certainly understand the disappointment some felt when Tokyo Mirage Sessions turned out to be a game that in no way matched what they had envisioned Shin Megami Tensei X Fire Emblem would be. But the heart of both franchises shines through in ways expected and not, with a top-notch presentation and a warm heart that in my mind turned out to be the Wii U’s last and greatest hurrah.
  9. Developer: Koei Publisher: Koei Tecmo Games Platform: PlayStation 4, PC Release Date: October 25, 2016 ESRB: T The past couple of years have seen something of a rebirth of Koei Tecmo’s historical strategy titles. Though their major franchises in the genre -- Nobunaga’s Ambition and Romance of the Three Kingdoms -- have never been put aside, both franchises were absent from the west during the PS3 console era. But both series have returned in a big way, starting with Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence last year and the release of Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII just a few months ago. And now, Nobunaga’s Ambition is back once again with a stand-alone expansion to Sphere of Influence entitled 'Ascension.' Ascension, like past Nobunaga’s Ambition titles, is set during the Warring States era of Japan’s history. The ultimate goal of the game is to unite all of Japan under the flag of one daimyo through a combination of diplomacy and tactical warfare. What sets Ascension apart from the original Sphere of Influence, however, is its greater focus on individual officers. Similar in nature to Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII, the player takes the role of an individual officer and plays their part in steering their faction toward victory. Where the officer-focused gameplay of Romace of the Three Kingdoms XIII is intensely complex, Ascension is relatively simpler by comparison, but by no means is it an easy game. Also, unlike Sphere of Influence and ROT3K13, there is no dedicated tutorial. Helpful prompts appear whenever the player is introduced to a new concept or gameplay element for the first time, but it will be much easier for players to come to grips with Ascension’s mechanics if they’ve previously invested time into Sphere of Influence. As a stand-alone expansion, Ascension maintains a tight focus on its core gameplay. After selecting an officer, each of whom is tied to a specific scenario, and starting a campaign, the player is thrust into their role and free to act. Lower-ranking officers are granted a domain of land to develop as they see fit and are presented a list of objectives to pursue that are meant as progress toward a larger goal. For example, before the faction’s daimyo will order an attack on a specific castle, the faction must first deliver a certain amount of iron, lumber, money, and supplies, raise a force of a certain size, improve stretches of road, and engage in smaller battles with enemy tribes. Once all of these objectives are met by the player and/or allied AI officers, the larger objective will be presented. If that objective is met, a new larger goal will be declared, and the player will be tasked with a new list of smaller objectives. Every time objectives are met, the player earns honor, and as honor increases, so to do the opportunities for promotion. At higher ranks, the player gains more autonomy and is free to take on objectives with more freedom, or convince the daimyo to pursue new objectives. The player’s officer can also become a daimyo, granting command over their entire force. Or not, as it’s possible to turn down promotions and remain at a lower rank if so desired. Whatever path is chosen, progress is made through a combination of civic development, warfare, and diplomatic endeavors. Properly developing an officer’s domain through the construction of facilities and building strong diplomatic ties will aid the player in building a force capable of taking on enemy factions, but tactical slip-ups can (and mostly likely will) result in setbacks. Alternatively, the player can choose to betray their faction by agreeing to join a rival or by breaking away from their patron clan to become an independent force, though these actions naturally carry their own risks. Primarily driven through menus, Ascension has a clean, clear interface. It does a fairly good job at imparting the information necessary, though it at times can become dense, and the importance of some statistics isn’t immediately obvious. Curiously, the game’s UI is by default set to a very small size that’s almost unreadable on a 1080p television display; the first thing I had to do upon starting the game was find the option to enlarge the text in the main settings menu. The same issue was present in Sphere of Influence, but I have yet to understand why the default is set as it is. Aside from the primary campaign gameplay, there are two major customization features at the player’s disposal. One is a standard officer edit feature that allows the player to edit the stats of historical officers, or to create new officers from scratch. Without any forced limits, the player can create officers that are as overpowered or underpowered as desired. The other feature is an option to create custom events that will trigger if specified criteria defined by the player are met during a campaign. For example, a specific officer can be granted a specific weapon upon another specific officer’s death. While an interesting feature to tinker with in theory, the user interface is difficult to come to grips with and may scare off a lot of players after only a few minutes of struggling to understand it. Ideally, custom event creation should only be approached by veterans looking to spend a lot of time in the editor to get the most out of it, but there are no apparent rewards for these efforts beyond personal satisfaction. At its core, Ascension is a worthwhile expansion to Sphere of Influence. Though the lack of a tutorial may be off-putting, it’s more immediately approachable than Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII and still offers many hours of freeform tactical gameplay. While I would recommend players begin with the original Sphere of Influence, Ascension is still a worthwhile entry in the Nobunaga’s Ambition series. Pros + Refined, officer-focused strategy gameplay. + Numerous options are available for customizing the difficulty and elements in a new campaign. + Beautiful artwork and music, most of which is taken from Sphere of Influence. + Earning PlayStation/Steam trophies also unlocks bonus officers. Cons - No dedicated tutorial. - The custom event creation interface is obtuse and difficult to use. - Some PC mouse controls map awkwardly to a PS4 controller. Overall Score: 8 (out of 10) Great Ascension is a worthwhile entry in the Nobunaga’s Ambition series. Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable code provided by the publisher.
  10. Review: Attack On Titan

    Developer: Omega Force Publisher: Koei Tecmo Games Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC Release Date: August 30, 2016 ESRB: M for Mature This review is based on the PS4 version of the game Omega Force, Koei Tecmo’s long-time developer of their prolific Musou, or Warriors franchise in most all its incarnations, has adapted the hack-and-slash action format to suit what has become a sizeable number of anime and manga franchises. There are Musou games based on Mobile Suit Gundam, Fist of the North Star, One Piece, and most recently, The Heroic Legend of Arslan. Omega Force’s latest effort, Attack on Titan, fits right in, but for all of the Musou blood in its veins, the core game is anything but. This shift from Omega Force’s norm is born largely from the necessities of Attack on Titan’s premise. Humanity is on the verge of extinction, hunted down and eaten by Titans; feral humanoid giants with masculine features that lack genitalia. The last remaining humans live within the bounds of three concentric walls, but a century of peace is destroyed when the Colossal Titan, a unique Titan that stands taller than these walls, attacks and breaches the outermost Wall Maria. The game’s core premise of fighting back against these Titans is where it deviates the most from the core Musou template. The relatively pint-sized humans use Omni-directional Maneuver (ODM) Gear, which allows them to shoot out cables to latch onto buildings, trees, or even Titans, and swing through the air in a manner like Spider-Man. Titans can be targeted at the arms and legs, which can be severed with enough damage, but the only way to actually kill a Titan is by striking the nape of the neck. Additionally, the protagonist Eren Jaeger acquires the ability turn into a Titan himself. At key points, Titan Eren becomes playable with controls that function much more like a traditional brawler. These moments are relatively few in the story mode, but they do add extra variety to a game that is otherwise all about the flow of weakening and downing Titans while flying through the air. Aside from the story mode, the game’s other primary mode is Expedition Mode, which can be played either solo or through online multiplayer. Playing online allows for cooperating with a group, and voice chat can be used as an option, but the experience either way does not differ that much, as the focus is the same. Complete survey missions to unlock new survey missions and the more challenging expedition missions. Just like Dynasty Warriors is entirely about cutting down enemy soldiers by the thousands, Attack on Titan is focused on taking down Titans, though by a much smaller number. Outside the core concept, missions offer a fair variety of objectives, such luring Titans into traps rather than fighting them directly or defending a character from a Titan onslaught. Encounters with unique Titans like the Colossal Titan also offer breaks from the established norm, and the game eventually introduces “Dire” Titans as special objectives that are significantly tougher than the norm. Another aspect of the game’s Musou lineage shines in its character selection and progression options. Though only a select few characters are playable in the story mode, more are unlocked as progress is made and are available for play in Expedition Mode. Each character has a series of skills that unlock as they level up, and while everyone shares the same blades and ODM Gear, their skills and individual stats separate them into diverse play styles, whether they be offense-oriented or more adept at commanding a team. There’s also a Regiment Level shared by all characters that governs what equipment and forging materials are available for purchase. And just like a standard Musou, progress along these various tracks carries between modes. The game’s presentation does an excellent job of matching the look of the source material, with the major characters recreated in high detail. Standard Titans stand out with their ghoulish, vapid expressions and their often bizarre movements, while the unique Titans exude a greater malevolence and a finer sense of detail in their design. Additionally, the cast of the anime also does a worthwhile job reprising their roles for the game However, the downside to the game’s presentation is that the story is told in a decidedly CliffsNotes fashion and leaves out a large amount of characterization and background to focus on the action. This will most likely be a problem for anyone that comes into the game that hasn’t at least watched the anime, as some key points, such as how Eren has the ability to turn into a Titan, are glossed over. The in-game encyclopedia helps, but there’s only so much information that it can impart. Attack on Titan isn’t a traditional Musou game, and it has a slightly greater learning curve with the ODM-swinging and the specifics of Titan combat. Those key differences work in its favor, however, and deliver a breezy action game with an identity all its own. It’s easy to recommend to any fan of Omega Force’s style of action games, fans of the anime, and even fans starved for the web-swinging a decent modern Spider-Man video game. Pros + Faithfully recreates the look and feel of the anime. + ODM swinging and Titan combat are a lot of fun. + An in-game encyclopedia helps give background on many of the game’s characters. + For the more squeamish, there is an optional blood toggle that reduces the level of on-screen gore. Cons - The story presentation is not friendly to newcomers, and the conclusion is abrupt. - The camera can occasionally sit in unhelpful places. Overall Score: 8 (out of 10) Great Attack On Titan is different from traditional Musuo titles, but that works towards the game's strengths, making it one of the most unique entries in the genre yet. Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS4 code provided by the publisher
  11. Developer: Koei Publisher: Koei Tecmo Games Platform: PlayStation 4, PC Release Date: July 5, 2016 ESRB: E10+ This review is based on the PS4 version of the game Long before Koei was predominantly known for its Musou franchise (a longstanding series of hack-and-slash action titles that emphasize simple controls and accessible gameplay), the company was much more well-known for its lines of historical simulation strategy games. Koei’s early catalogue is rife with titles like Nobunaga’s Ambition, Genghis Khan, and Liberty or Death. Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the company’s longest running strategy series, recently celebrated its thirtieth anniversary with its latest entry: Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII. Like its predecessors, Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII is inspired by the Chinese historical novel of the same name by Lo Kuan-chung. Set in ancient China during the waning years of the Han dynasty and the decades of conflict that followed, it features officers and events of the era as the basis for its scenarios. It is also, much like its predecessors, a highly complex and very challenging game with numerous systems that interweave, and it can leave newcomers easily flummoxed by the sheer scope of it all. Fortunately, ROT3K13 does new players a favor with its Hero Mode. Hero Mode serves as the game’s tutorial of sorts, offering a series of scenarios that are small in scope and are meant to ease players in. With each scenario in sequence, more and more elements of gameplay are introduced, allowing players the opportunity to let concepts sink in a few at a time. The first scenario, for example, features no combat or city management. Instead, it’s all about interacting with fellow officers, engaging in house visits, and buying and gifting items. The second scenario introduces basic combat, the third introduces a few city building and management systems, and so on. The player’s role in ROT3K13 isn’t a faction or nation, as in most strategy games, but that of a single officer. The officer in question is chosen for you in each Hero Mode scenario, but in the main game, it’s the player’s choice. What actions the player can undertake are in part determined by the player’s rank; low ranking officers have little sway in their faction’s overarching affairs, but by completing assignments and gaining reputation, it’s possible to earn promotions and achieve titles such as minister, governor, or viceroy. Or the player can simply choose to control the leader of a faction and govern everything from the top from the very start. What’s particularly unique about this is that the game doesn’t end if the player’s faction is destroyed by its rivals. In fact, if the player’s faction collapses, it’s possible to find service in another faction and work back up from there. There are only two ways that the player can truly ‘lose’ the game, in a sense: the player’s officer dies without an heir to carry on, or the game’s calendar passes to its maximum year of 340 before any faction conquers all of China. This may sound relatively simple, but as stated before, the game has numerous systems, many of which have interplay with each other. Assignments that officers can undertake include, but are not limited to developing a city’s facilities, sending officers on patrols, training soldiers in the spear, horse, or bow, journeying to hire free officers, or engaging in subterfuge to encourage rival officers to defect. It’s also possible to enter diplomatic negotiations, form and nullify alliances, hold banquets, or just visit a friend at their home. All of the above actions are performed through the use of menus and submenus loaded with pertinent information. The game does well in keeping everything organized, but it’s still easy to see stats upon stats and wonder what every individual number means and how much of an effect they have. It may be daunting to take in if you’re not the sort that enjoys games where large swathes of time are spent engaging in smaller tasks and watching numbers increase. Combat is a much more active part of the game, and comes in several forms. Standard combat takes place in real-time and sees the player’s forces engage an enemy in an open field, during a siege, or even on the water, but can be paused at any point in order to issue new commands. Even with this in mind, however, combat can be very tense and grueling. One battle I fought went on for some time and led to both sides losing most of their forces. I had the enemy on the ropes several times as I laid siege to their gates and gave chase, only for yet more reinforcements to come, again and again, until I finally slipped up and let the enemy destroy my base camp. Ouch. And this isn’t even getting into officer duels and debates; one-on-one battles of might and wit that play out by trying to anticipate the enemy’s action and responding accordingly. The general principal is like a more complex rock-paper-scissors with more options and ways in which actions defend or nullify other actions. The situations under which these sorts of battles arise vary, but they make for an interesting break in the general flow. Encapsulating the full experience of Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII in a succinct manner for a review such as this is a daunting task. It’s a hardcore strategy game that makes no apologies for its complexities. But if deep, system-rich strategy games are of interest to you and you have the willingness to learn (and make plenty of tactical mistakes along the way), then it’s definitely recommended. Pros + Hero Mode helps ease players into the game with smaller-scale scenarios and basic gameplay explanations. + Open-ended game structure allows players to experiment and approach scenarios in vastly different ways. + Beautiful character artwork and classical soundtrack. + Voice audio is available in both Japanese and Chinese. + Officer Edit feature allows players to create custom officers to insert into campaigns. Cons - Some PS4 controls are awkwardly converted from PC mouse controls. - The high level of complexity and challenge will deter players looking for a simpler strategy experience. Overall Score: 8 (out of 10) Great If deep, system-rich strategy games are of interest to you and you have the willingness to learn (and make plenty of tactical mistakes along the way), then Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII definitely comes recommended. Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable code provided by the publisher
  12. Review: Samurai Warriors 4 Empires

    Developer: Omega Force Publisher: Koei Tecmo Games Platform: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Vita Release Date: March 15, 2016 ESRB: T for Teen Koei Tecmo’s long-standing Warriors franchise shows no signs of slowing down. With multiple releases per year across different franchises (Arslan: The Warriors of Legend released last month, and Hyrule Warriors Legends will reach the west soon), there are a lot to choose from. But in the long history of releases, the Empires spin-offs have always stood out, and Samurai Warriors 4: Empires is no exception. For the uninitiated, Empires titles are offshoots of entries in the Dynasty Warriors and Samurai Warriors series that add a heavy strategy element to the beat’em up action that the Warriors titles are known for. That in mind, there’s no true story mode in SW4E. The primary objective is kept simple; to take your chosen faction and lead them to the conquest of Warring States-era Japan. The game offers two basic modes of play, though at their core, they’re essentially the same. In Conquest Mode, you select a premade scenario that determines the clans in play and the territories they control at the start; the scenarios on offer are loosely based on how Japan was divided between warring factions at specific periods in history. The other game mode, Genesis Mode, allows you to create your own custom scenarios by using the Conquest Mode scenarios as a base. Entire clans can be customized, from their Daimyo, or clan head, to the individual officers serving under him or her. The player can also edit the clans’ ultimate scenario objectives, otherwise called ambitions. Regardless of the mode selected, the structure of the game is the same. Time in passes in turns, with each turn representing a season of the year, and individual turns are divided into two phases; Politics and Battle. The Politics Phase plays out like a simplified version of Koei Tecmo’s own Nobunaga’s Ambition strategy games. During this phase, the player can devote a set number of actions to cultivating resources and acquiring battle strategies, developing relationships between personnel, and taking political and strategic actions such as trading with allies or sabotaging defenses. The options given are generally simple to understand, but offer enough complexity that choices made have very visible ramifications in the Battle Phase. The Battle Phase, where combat takes place, plays out in standard Warriors hack-and-slash format, but with strategic twists. Battles themselves take two forms; invasion battles, where you invade an enemy’s territory in an attempt to claim it, and defensive battles where you fight off an enemy invasion. When on offense, the goal of the battle is always to take the enemy’s main camp or defeat their commanding officer, while defensive battles are won by either taking the enemy’s main camp or holding off the enemy until time expires. Battles are all relatively short; the longest they can be is fifteen minutes, and when on offense, you can adjust the length of a battle by choosing how many supplies to devote to it during battle preparations. As an additional layer of strategy, the player can set battle formations and choose from a variety of strategies to employ, with one strategy persisting throughout the battle and up to two others equipped to employ at the player’s call. Formations, meanwhile, fall into three basic categories (offense, defense, and speed), and share a rock-paper-scissors relationship. They also wear off over time, and the player can swap to new formations over the course of battle to either gain the advantage over or negate the enemy formation. When in battle, the flow is similar to that seen in other Warriors games. Control over bases is divided between you and the enemy, and as you claim bases, the defenses of other enemy bases will weaken, making them easier to capture. Capture enough bases, and you’ll be in a good position to take on the enemy’s main camp, but the enemy is also attempting the same against you. The actual combat uses the same battle system seen in Samurai Warriors 4 and 4-II, and it’s possible to play as any character in your army, whether they be one of the famous officers of the Samurai Warriors roster, a custom character created in the game’s character editor, or even one of the many standard officers that share common appearance templates and voices. Once the Battle Phase is over, the game moves on to the next season, at which point the player can begin making preparations for the next battle. This cycle makes up the meat of SW4E, with the scenario reaching its conclusion when you achieve your clan’s ambition, whether it’s claiming the capital for yourself, uniting a wider region of Japan under your clan’s banner, or destroying a rival clan outright. And once that ambition is achieved, the credits roll, and then you’re given the option to continue playing until all of Japan is yours. Outside of this, there’s little here to hold the player’s attention, but that shouldn’t come as a surprise given that SW4E is meant as a companion to SW4 and 4-II and recycles the vast majority of its visual and audio assets from these entries. As a stand-alone game, it’s light in its breadth of content, but its deeper strategic nature could still hold appeal for both series veterans and fans more interested in the Empires style of gameplay than a standard Warriors title. Pros: + Great mix of turn-based strategy and action game elements + Numerous customization options are offered when setting up a new campaign + Save import feature allows the player to easily transfer custom characters created in Samurai Warriors 4 and 4-II into Empires, and cosmetic DLC released for the previous games is also compatible + Amusing event scenes between officers help keep the pace of the game lively Cons - Some players may be turned away by the lack of an English voice audio option. - Some officer event scenes tend to repeat a lot, but can be skipped. Overall Score: 8 (out of 10) Great As a stand-alone game, it’s light in its breadth of content, but its deeper strategic nature could still hold appeal for both series veterans and fans more interested in the Empires style of gameplay than a standard Warriors title. Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable code provided by the publisher.
  13. Editor's note: This year we'll be having several guest writers contributing their Game of the Year lists. First up is Justin Graham, a former Operation Rainfall writer, fellow video game enthusiast, and mutual friend of some of us on the staff. You can follow him on Twitter @Hailinel __________________________________________________________________ Looking back, 2015 was a really solid, satisfying year for me when it came to video games. A lot of great games that suited my tastes hit throughout the year, and I never felt wanting for one that could draw me in. There were, of course, a few unfortunate games that I would have loved to have played more of to give their fair shake (Sorry, Codename: S.T.E.A.M. and Type-0 HD!), but that there were so many games that demanded my attention this year really shows how great of a year in gaming it was. 10. Until Dawn/Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water I put two games in the number ten slot because I felt that they were both really strong horror titles, so why not include them both? Until Dawn is a cinematic adventure game of the sort that David Cage might make, but with a script that’s coherent, entertaining, and revels in the fact that it is, in essence, a playable horror movie. Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water, by contrast, is a tense Wii U game that makes incredible use of the GamePad controller as the Camera Obscura. Both offer entertaining, spooky experiences backed by different themes and ideas, and both work in their own ways. 9. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain The Phantom Pain is a weird, weird game. Weird because of the usual meta reasons that Metal Gear Solid is known for. Weird for not being a traditional Metal Gear Solid game with its open world. Weird for having Kiefer Sutherland as the voice of Snake instead of David Hayter (and it works!). Weird for all of the Konami-related drama surrounding its development. Weird for the fact that it’s the last game Hideo Kojima ever made for Konami. Weird that the game’s final mission was never finished. It’s weird. And it’s flawed. But it still works, and it for all of the things that it does, it does most of them incredibly well. 8. Undertale I really debated where to put Undertale on my list. It’s well-written and, the music is superb, and when it pays other games homage, it wears it on its sleeve without being cloying. Its charming, heartwarming, dark (potentially incredibly so if you play it a certain way), and frequently ludicrous. Take EarthBound, sprinkle in a little Shin Megami Tensei, add a dash of bullet hell, and this is the game you get. All that being said, I’m not as enamored with it as many others are. It’s a fantastic, original game that feels like a very personal vision. It deserves incredible praise and I’d love to see what its creator does next. But as far as the actual act of playing Undertale goes, that’s where it fell short for me and why it’s only in eighth place. (Tumblr, please don’t kill me.) 7. Samurai Warriors 4-II Official GP Review I like me some Musou. Dynasty Warriors, Samurai Warriors, Warriors Orochi, Hyrule Warriors -- if there’s an Omega Force hack-and-slash, I will be there, cutting through thousands of dudes. Of the various branches of Musou, Samurai Warriors has always been one of my favorites, and a big reason for that is the survival modes that the series has often included. And they brought back the Survival Castle in Samurai Warriors 4-II. I could easily spend dozens of hours playing that mode alone. (Story Mode? What’s that?) 6. Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence From one style of Koei Tecmo’s historical madness to another, the latest Nobunaga’s Ambition is has a staggering level of complexity of the sort that appeals to the hardcore strategy fan in me that doesn’t emerge as much as it used to. But it’s still really satisfying to build a tiny faction up from almost nothing into a powerful force vying for control of all of Japan, with all of the resource gathering, diplomacy, and warfare that demands. 5. Super Mario Maker The early 2D Mario games were a major part of my childhood, and one of the reasons why I’ve stuck with gaming well into my thirties. I never did beat the original Super Mario Bros. (I suck, I know), but Super Mario Maker lets me live out my childhood dreams of building actual, playable Super Mario courses. While I haven’t built any stages that are full-blown Kaizo insanity (I actually have to beat the stage to upload it, after all), it’s still spurred my creativity in ways that few games have in recent memory. 4. Splatoon Leave it to Nintendo to surprise everyone with an online shooter that single-handedly revitalized online shooters. Just when everything was blending together into a gray/brown mess of indistinct iron sights and military people shooting terrorists, or possibly other military people, Splatoon came along with its incredible, colorful style, sense of humor, and systems that are inviting to anyone. I have never, ever stuck it out in an online shooter for any real length of time, mostly what they had come to represent. But Splatoon, with its “Ink everything!” approach, refusal to take itself seriously, and fresh style made me stick around and have fun for far longer than any shooter I’ve ever played outside of GoldenEye. And the lack of voice chat doesn’t hurt it at all, either. 3. Xenoblade Chronicles 3D A few years ago, it was questionable as to whether or not North America would ever see an official release of Xenoblade Chronicles on the Wii. And here we are in 2015, with not just a Wii release behind us, but a full-fledged port of the game on the New 3DS. Everything I love about the game is still present, from its wide, beautiful world and colorful characters to its engaging story and combat. And while the graphics aren’t as sharp as they are on the Wii, they really pop on the 3D display. The fact that the game is for a handheld makes it all the easier to recommend. Honestly, they took a game that was amazing on every level and managed to put it on a handheld without losing anything that mattered. That is absolutely incredible. 2. Hatsune Miku: Project Mirai DX Official GP Review Ever since its western launch in September, Project Mirai DX has rarely been removed from the game card slot in my 3DS. It’s super-cute, with dozens of catchy songs by Miku and her fellow Crypton Vocaloids, and a ton of extras on the side that make it a soothing, adorable experience. It’s very easy for me to start playing with the intent to just try a few songs for fifteen minutes, only to lose myself in it and it’s suddenly dinner time. Or bed time. Or the middle of the night. In short, it’s a fantastic little rhythm game and one of the best 3DS experiences this year. 1. Xenoblade Chronicles X Xenoblade Chronicles X is the best game I’ve played all year. Everything I like about the gameplay in the original Xenoblade Chronicles is back, but deeper and more refined, with an absolutely massive, gorgeous world to explore, and the addition of mechs to help explore it. There’s never anything not to do, and the game rewards you for just about everything you can do. And while the story isn’t as character-driven as the original’s, the game still has plenty of character in it that shines across the game’s many and numerous missions that cover everything from simply gathering materials for people in need to resolving violent racial conflicts. It’s a game teeming with life and that encourages the player’s sense of adventure and the desire to explore off the beaten path. But for as open as the game is, it’s still a Xeno-game at heart in its themes and storytelling -- one that spells a bright future for the crazy ride that producer Tetsuya Takahashi has been on since the original Xenogears. Heck, the game even has sly references to Xenogears scattered in its character creator. For me, Xenoblade Chronicles X is not just the best RPG of 2015, but the best game of 2015. And it was a very easy win.
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