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  1. Developer: Arc System Works Publisher: Aksys Games Platform: Vita, PS3 Release Date: August 11, 2015 ESRB: M for Mature This review is based on the Vita version of the game Few things are more confusing than the storytelling in the Blazblue series. There is convoluted internal jargon up the wazoo and massive visual novel components to each of their fighting games that has made it quite overwhelming for even fans to keep track of it all. Adding even more to the narrative fuel of the series was the visual novel spin-off named XBlaze: Code Embryo. Devout fans of Blazblue lore were able to extrapolate some callbacks to the series in Code Embryo, but for non-fans they were likely confused by its mere existence. Now that a pseudo-sequel to Xblaze: Code Embryo by the name of XBlaze Lost: Memories has arrived, even I'm confused by its existence... but for entirely different reasons. In a lot of ways I feel like I played the original XBlaze: Code Embryo at the right place at the right time. Blazblue: Chrono Phantasma was fresh in my mind, and — for a spin-off that I expected next to nothing from — it easily exceeded my expectations. It certainly was not flawless (having several quite cliche storytelling aspects, and questionable visual novel design to boot, but its overall portrayal of its narrative was better than the sum of its parts. Despite its shortcomings, it felt like it had a sense purpose for at least being entertaining enough as a visual novel and interesting lore-wise for Blazblue fans, which I really don't think XBlaze Lost: Memories even achieves. The central story starts off with the pink-haired, and player-named, protagonist living alone with her younger sister (which Blazblue: Chrono Phantasma fans may recognize both by their actual names). Upon returning home one day the main protagonist notices that her sister has outright disappeared in what seems like out of thin air. When searching the house for her, including their absent father's basement, she accidentally stumbles upon a mysterious realm called the "Phantom Field." It's here that the lead character meets the eccentrically named and scantily clad, white-haired "Nobody," whom tells her that her lost sister is in the Phantom Field as well but in order to get to her she needs to collect crystallized memories. Explaining what XBlaze Lost: Memories even is as a game is quite the conundrum. In essence, it is supposed to tell its own story while also serving as a sequel/retelling of XBlaze: Code Embryo. The best way to describe its overall design is that there are two parts: The 1st half basically gives an excuse to collect "memories" from lead characters of the 1st game with some extremely light dungeon-esque elements in-between, while the 2nd half is a direct sequel story to Code Embryo and is a pure visual novel. To be frank, the first half of the title shouldn't really exist because of how little it adds to the story in either of its intertwining narratives. Lost Memories' biggest issues stem from how obnoxiously redundant the narrative style is by almost quite literally splicing the entirety of XBlaze: Code Embryo with extremely minor perspective variations into XBlaze Lost: Memories. If you watch the optional memories too, which I foolishly did, this issue is basically ten-fold. Problem is, even if you hadn't played the 1st game, I don't think any of the memories recaps would make much sense because you kind of need the context of the original to know when each event occurs since it jumps between chronology quite a bit and forgoes many character introductions as well. In a half-baked attempt at variety from the filler-like recaps, they try to add a dungeon-like structure as you collect each memory. It is presented in a cute, pixeled art style that is very reminiscent of Arc System Works fun puzzler called Magical Beat. Unlike Magical Beat, however, these portions are not any fun to play and they will likely spur an existential question of "Why am I doing any of this?" Ultimately, the first half in general feels like largely unnecessary padding that shouldn't be there in the first place, especially for what should be the game's intended audience. Then there is the second portion, which is certainly better but not compelling enough to balance it out the whole experience. This half is a pure visual novel that correlates after the ending of XBlaze: Code Embryo. But, rather than feeling like a complete narrative package, it feels like it just adds a bow to the original's ending. It is not terrible, and certainly shows off its anime-like production values for a visual novel, but feels unmeaningful at large. If this was an anime it would feel like one of those bonus episodes that released months later because it couldn't meet the seasonal cap (or in this case over a year.). XBlaze Lost: Memories feels more like a slight dilation of XBlaze: Code Embryo's content than any true meaningful sequel. It goes from being a woefully dragged out recap for more than half of the game to its actual new content simply not being enough to warrant a separate sequel. Ultimately, even as I look at the easily obtained Playstation platinum trophy, I am still left trying to reel in the purpose of its existence. XBlaze Lost: Memories is simply a sequel that exists and I do not know why. Pros +Solid production values for a visual novel Cons - Storytelling style is incredibly redundant for those that played the previous game - ...What new story it has isn't particularly interesting either - Lots of recycled assets from the previous release Overall Score: 4 (out of 10) Below Average Being far too poorly paced with excessively retold XBlaze: Code Embryo recaps, and what is actually new being not substantial enough to warrant a sequel story, XBlaze Lost: Memories generally fails to justify its existence as a visual novel Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable Vita code provided by the publisher.
  2. Developer: Toybox Inc. Publisher: Aksys Games Platforms: PS Vita, PS3 Release Date: March 10, 2015 ESRB: T for Teen Note: This review is based on the Vita version of the game I feel like we don“t see very many games focused around ghosts too often—especially outside of the horror genre—so I was pretty excited when I discovered Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters. And even better, it“s a visual novel (one of my favorite genres)! Basically, you“re a high school transfer student that happens to get roped into a ghost hunting organization called Gate Keepers—and that“s pretty much it. Each chapter of Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters acts as its own episode where you and Gate Keepers take on exorcism jobs, and while there is an overarching plot, it“s not very deep or fascinating. The characters don“t really bring justice to Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters either. They“re all terribly shallow and trope-y. I didn“t end up caring for anyone throughout the game, and that“s an extremely rare thing to happen for me. I“d say the only redeeming thing about the characters in Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters is the art. It“s pretty and I admire the style, but even then, it“s sort of squandered by wonky animations. One very odd design choice in the visual novel portion of Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters is this wheel that has icons to represent which action you“d like to perform at certain points. Such icons include a heart or handshake, which then leads to more icons like an eye or mouth. You are never given an explanation as to what any of these icons do (it“s not even in the manual). Thus, you are left to guess which to pick at that moment, and more often than not, you will be given a weirded-out reply by whomever you“re conversing with. I assume by magically choosing the correct actions throughout Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters, you achieve special endings with certain characters. But like I mentioned earlier, I couldn“t care less about the characters or plot. Well… Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters is only half a visual novel, anyway. Despite how much Aksys seems to be pushing it as a visual novel, Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters is actually half SRPG as well. I would even go as far to say that this game spends more time focusing on the battling portions over the visual novel ones. Usually strategy intimidates me, but I was actually eager to jump in and enjoy learning how to play such a game this time. It couldn“t possibly be too difficult or confusing, right? Maybe it“s even fun and would help save this title! Unfortunately, I was horribly wrong. Although Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters does appear to be an SRPG, battling relies more on luck than anything else. Battling takes place on a grid, with arrows representing your team members and various icons representing other elements such as traps and ghosts. Traps can be set before battle and so forth, but all that doesn“t matter too much in the long run. Most of the time, you“ll be chasing ghosts around. This is mostly due to them being able to move and attack before you“re even able to get your own hits in. The amount of randomness in play really dampens whatever strategy that Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters has to offer. Even worse, Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters pretty much requires you to grind with extra missions in order to successfully beat the main story ones. It“s incredibly frustrating to be forced to trudge through even more of these horrible battles just to be able to experience more mediocre story segments. I wanted to like Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters—I really did. I gave it a chance, but was sorely disappointed with everything about it. Much better visual novels can easily be found elsewhere—and without having to deal with poor gameplay at that. SRPG enthusiasts might find the game's battle segments somewhat intriguing, but only if you don“t mind the huge luck factor involved. Either way, it“s probably best that you don“t waste your time with Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters. Pros + Very lovely artwork Cons - Confusing battle system that relies mostly on luck/randomness - Dull story Overall Score: 3 (out of 10) Poor Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters offers something extremely promising, but squanders it in every way possible. Stay away from this ghastly mess if you can. Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS Vita code provided by the publisher.
  3. Developer: Soft-Circle French Bread/Ecole Software Publisher: Aksys Games Platforms: PS3 Release Date:February 24, 2015 ESRB: T for Teen If there is one thing that developer French Bread is pretty much unrivaled at, it is their ridiculous "Engrish" names for their video games. I thought their most recent iteration of the classic, albeit obscure, PC anime fighter with Melty Blood: Actress Again Current Code was in a class of its own. But, oh no, I think they have finally one-upped themselves with their own spiritual successor called Under Night In-Birth Exe: Late in more ways than one. Extremely unfortunate naming aside, however, French Bread is known to make a different flavor of fighting games, even among seemingly similar anime-influenced ilk, and Under Night In-Birth Exe: Late is no exception. To my surprise, Under Night In-Birth Exe: Late is one of the most approachable fighters I have played in quite some time. Not quite Divekick simple, of course, but among “anime” fighters which tend to have a few too many base level systems to really be able to do anything without learning them (I“m looking at you Guilty Gear Xrd-SIGN- ), you can have fun right from the get-go just by mashing buttons. Most moves link together fairly easily and there is also a basic auto-combo (a la Persona 4 Arena Ultimax) you can execute just by mashing the square button, or A in more general input terms, for every character. As if to not turn off hardcore fighting game fans, just because it is easy to pick up and play it most certainly doesn“t mean it is easy to master. There is plenty of depth to both the character/system mechanics that you can—and should—learn. Each of the 16 characters play very differently with plenty of subtle nuances to their playstyles. For instance, main character Hyde can modify his thrown projectiles skills into an explosive burst at any time, Vatista has many charge/held-based inputs to her attacks; and lastly, the confusing Melty Blood cameo character, Eltnum, has both a bullet meter and a Gears of War styled active-reload mechanic. Despite me being someone who plays a lot of "anime" fighting games, Under Night In-Birth Exe: Late actually has more similarities to more traditional releases in the genre than you'd expect. For example, most character don't have air-backdashes (except Seth), and can't block most attacks in the air, bringing a sort of Street Fighter IV mindset to fights with anti-airs. Also, special meter carries from round to round, similar to various King of Fighters titles. Yet, fights aren't even as defense-focused as Street Fighter IV, or as meter management strict as King of Fighters XIII, as it brings its own distinct flair to its fast & fun offensive-focused gameplay flow. Those who dig deeper into the systems will probably notice the Grind Grid gauge (shown as "GRD" in-game) specifically. Basically, how it works is that—based on how well you play (in particular, playing offensively and landing hits/combos, or blocking smartly)—the meter at the bottom center screen will shift toward one player's side or another. If the GRD meter is in your favor you can essentially cash-in by using Chain Shift to get a varying amount of extra special meter or to use it to significantly increase your combo potential to cancel move animations (kind of like Guilty Gear's Xrd -SIGN-'s Roman Cancel). It's actually a fairly cool system in practice that highly rewards offensive play and more skilled players will constantly keep an eye on it because of its tug-of-war mentality. To the game“s own detriment, however, there aren't really any tools to help people learn these specific nuances because of a complete lack of tutorials/challenge modes. While it is approachable in the sense that there is immediate accessibility to the enjoyable gameplay (and flow and button combinations are pretty easy), most players will probably not naturally understand how systems Grind Grid, Viel Off, Concentration, Chain Shift, and several others work without looking them up. Other than that, the title does have general mode staples you'd expect, such as: Arcade, VS, Network, Survival, Score/Time Attack, Training, and unlockable character outfits and gallery images. Most modes are inoffensive in their execution, even if I wish the online play had a tighter netcode and a bit more than very basic lobbies and ranked matches for something I'd like to make my next go-to fighter. With Arcade Mode in particular, there is some semblance of a story in Under-Night In-Birth despite how there isn“t too much to write home about. It mostly has short visual novel-styled scenes with a bunch technobabble like “Hollow Night”, ”In-Birth”, "Autonomic Nerve", and tons of faction names tossed about to try to disguise it from being some pretty typical anime storytelling overall. Still, I admit, I probably would not mind seeing more of it if certain parts of it were more fleshed out. Ok, to be more honest, I really just want to see the character, Eltnum, be in another story mode where she can make more hilariously blunt (and 4th wall breaking) quips about fighting games and the character designs of the primary cast. Speaking of that, to address the elephant in the room, Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late has some really generic character designs. Don't get me wrong, it is definitely a great-looking 2D fighter in motion in the technical sense, and it does hold its own with its really clean, saturated visual color palette (though, something like Skullgirls has better animations). But... it's really easy to blur your eyes and feel like you have seen pretty much every character in it elsewhere. What I actually find more impressive than the visuals is the soundtrack. I may be a sucker for strong, catchy guitar riffs (which the soundtrack is full of), but removed from that context the character theme songs are still quite memorable and varied throughout. The Japanese dub is fairly well-done too, even if, well, it's only Japanese (but after Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN-'s questionable English dub, that probably isn't the worst thing). A lot of fighting games tend to feel like they are missing something pretty substantial with their first iterations on console. Such problems can range from a really small character roster, mechanics that don't feel quite fleshed out yet, or it just lacking in general content. Yet, the first console release for Under Night In-Birth Exe: Late doesn't really feel like it has any of those huge shortcomings. Sure, the netcode could be a bit better. Sure, I wish there were tutorial/challenge modes. But, aside from that, it gets pretty much everything else right with its very polished, deep, and surprisingly approachable gameplay that is just a lot of fun to play. Generic anime character designs aside, I think developer French Bread has proven that there is truly another 2D "anime" fighter on the block that is very much worth the attention of fighting game fans, and surprisingly, it is not made by Arc System Works. Pros: + Very easy to learn gameplay and really responsive controls + Surprising amount of depth to both the hugely different characters and the overall system mechanics + Vibrant 2D art style + Really catchy soundtrack Cons: - No tutorial or challenge modes whatsoever to learn specific combos or system mechanics - Netcode could be a bit better Overall Score: 8.0 (out of 10) Great Under Night In-Birth Exe: Late makes for a strong first console debut. With its surprisingly approachable, deep, and outright enjoyable gameplay mechanics, it may be just enough to have most people forget how silly the actual title to the game is. Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS3 code provided by the publisher.
  4. barrel

    Review: Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN-

    Developer: Arc System Works Publisher: Aksys Games Platforms: PlayStation 4/PlayStation 3 Release Date: December 16, 2014 ESRB: T for Teen This review is based on the PS3 version of the game The Guilty Gear series has always had a weirdly strong place in my heart. Guilty Gear X2 was the very first Playstation 2 game that I had ever played and it always stuck with me because of how cool I thought it was at the time thanks to its crazy character designs, awesome music, and frenetic gameplay. Still, fast-forward twelve years later and, pushing all nostalgia aside, I was not quite sure what to make of Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN-, which looks dramatically different from previous 2D iterations. I think my biggest concern before playing Xrd -SIGN- was whether or not it would feel like Guilty Gear at all. I may have enjoyed recent Arc System Works fighters a lot regardless of their variance (Battle Fantasia not included), but Guilty Gear is a different beast from Blazblue and Persona 4 Arena in particular. While both series pay homage to it in various ways, Blazblue with certain character designs and mechanics, and Persona 4 Arena with its extremely fast and rush-down focused gameplay, at the end of the day they play and feel quite different from their forefather that started it all. I am pleased to say that, despite how many changes it has seen (especially visually), Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN- does right by its classic lineage. What should immediately stand out to anyone is its gorgeous and completely overhauled visual style. A casual glance at it could mislead one into thinking it is still in 2D, but the character models and environments are actually entirely in 3D. Far stranger is that this new visual look somehow comes from Unreal Engine 3, which is an entirely separate set of surprises. Either way, the end result is that Xrd is downright eye-catching. The animations are extremely smooth, attacks are both flashy and oddly nostalgic for fans, and it is rich with personality frame by frame. This is only escalated further by the great soundtrack that blends entirely new songs as well as a few arrangements of classic tracks. Keep in mind that the PS4 version is most certainly the preferred release because of its higher visual resolution and better audio quality. Still, what gives Guilty Gear its own identity is its fast gameplay, deep fighting mechanics, and crazy characters. You have your shameless rock-band-themed character names like Sol Badguy, Slayer, and Axl Low returning as well as those with even stranger fighting styles: like Venom, who fights using a pool cue; May, who bludgeons people with an anchor; or I-NO, who literally shreds opponents with an electric guitar. Adding some fresh faces to the mix are newcomers Ramelthal, Sin Kiske, DLC characters Elphelt and Leo Whitefang, and lastly, the questionably named Bedman, each with their own refreshingly unique mechanics. Regardless of the insanity that each character presents, both the old and new cast are generally rather fun to play with their nuanced fighting abilities, even if the total number of returning characters is far shorter than I would have liked. Guilty Gear enthusiasts who have stuck with the series are probably wondering if the nitty gritty of its mechanics are intact. If that is the case, don't be; everything from Jump Installs, Roman Cancels, Dash Brake, and Faultless Defense are all there along with some entirely new mechanics like Blitz Shield and Danger Time. If that sentence made no sense to you at all, don't worry—Guilty Gear Xrd is far less intimidating than it used to be with its simplified inputs/mechanics and generally comprehensive tutorial modes to teach people what those even are and the general basics. I say that, but... Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN-, at its heart, is still most certainly not an easy fighter to get into. If you aren't already a fan of the series or fighters in general, chances are it'll be difficult for most to stick with it to learn its very technical and relatively high-level execution gameplay, despite Arc System Works intentions to reach for a broader audience. To help with the standard fighting game grind towards improvement are the typical tutorial, challenge, mission, arcade, versus, and training modes. If you are hoping for more modes beyond that, however, that's where Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN- is less consistent. Having said that, the most distinctive features to play through are its online play, story, and, the extremely odd acronym—"M.O.M." mode—which is actually the most pleasant surprise of the bunch. M.O.M mode is basically what I wanted Golden Arena from Persona 4 Arena Ultimax to be. It is an RPG-like mode with a battle progression of your choosing. You can customize your characters in several ways from raw stats, equipment, and even usable skills, as you pick the foes you want to square against while also trying to get new more money and loot treasure chests. It sort of broke my brain knowing that, while I was playing the character Millia Rage, I could also use Sol Badguy's gunflame skill or Faust's explosive bombs in this mode. Nevertheless, this new mode was a fair bit more addictive than I anticipated it would be. Much more disappointing is how online play is handled. The cross-platform PS3/PS4 netcode itself runs solid, even telling you how many frames of lag you have mid-match, but the interface is actually rather clunky. Basically, it tries to make the 64-person lobbies the default hub upon starting it up and then you have to navigate several separate menus within it to initiate ranked versus, player/friend matches, or to even change your character, which almost made me not want to use it altogether at times. That, and certain glitches/errors that I also encountered in lobbies. This shift is even stranger to me since Blazblue: Chrono Phantasma had next to no problems with the online interface and was pretty seamless when doing what you wanted to. The story mode in Xrd is also not very good. Despite being considerably shorter than most recent Arc System Works story modes, it somehow feels way longer than it should due to its awkward internal jargon and corny script. That said, it is more interesting in how it is presented than anything it attempts to convey. Opposed to still-frame character portraits, like a typical visual novel, it actually uses the beautiful in-game engine to present the story. Because of this, it does a decent job at creating an anime-like depiction of story scenes with varied cinematography (despite animations being more stiff than they are in-game). Like I said, though, it is rather poorly told and somehow rubs salt on the wound with not only an anticlimactic "To be Continued" screen but also very clearly showing two characters that old fans would love to see return to being playable in Xrd -SIGN-. Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN-'s biggest problem is that it mainly feels like a taste of better things to come. It is a really good taste, and I highly enjoy playing it, but the product that it currently is is hard to recommend on its own beyond hardcore fans of the series or the genre in general. As a fighting game, it is great with its excellent visual style, sweet soundtrack, varied characters, and deep mechanics. Yet, in both its relatively small character roster (even with DLC) and how certain modes are handled, it feels somewhat lacking currently. I have more than a lingering suspicion that most improvements will appear soon enough in an enhanced release, like Arc System Works is more than prone to do. That aside, it is more than commendable in itself that Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN- manages to revitalize a classic fighting-game series quite successfully; it just needs a bit more fine-tuning to truly "Keep on Rockin." Pros: + Downright gorgeous stylized 3D visuals + Deep gameplay mechanics that feel both faithful and fresh compared to previous iterations + Great soundtrack + Questionable naming aside, "M.O.M." mode is a decent time sink Cons: - Why aren“t [insert list of older Guilty Gear characters] here? - Clunky online mode interface - Weak, unsatisfying story mode Overall Score: 7.5 (out of 10) Good Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN- more than faithfully revitalizes a classic fighter, but it just needs to few more additions to its total character roster, and improvements to certain modes, to give the experience that everyone wants this return to form to be Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS3 code provided by the publisher.
  5. Curious as to what Aksys Games' first major release in 2015 will be? Look no further than Under Night In-Birth Exe: Late, a new anime-style 2D fighting game being developed by French Bread in collaboration with Arc System Works. That name might be a bit of a mouthful to say, but it looks to follow in the same story-driven format of French Bread's previous games (most notably the Melty Blood games). The game will also feature 16 different playable characters that each have their own fighting style, a network mode (developed by Arc System Works) that will allow you to fight others online, as well as a number of other modes, including Arcade Mode, Training Mode, Time Attack, Score Attack, and Survival. For more on the game and its story, be sure to check out its official site. Under Night In-Birth Exe: Late is slated for release on PS3 on February 24, 2015. Source: Press Release Are you interested in playing this?
  6. WildCardCorsair

    Review: Mind Zero

    Developer: Acquire, ZeroDiv Publisher: Aksys Games Platform: PlayStation Vita Release Date: May 27, 2014 ESRB: T for Teen Ever wonder what happens when demon-like creatures begin to break into our world, and a handful of people who bond with them are the only ones that can prevent our world from being overrun? If I said “Stop me if you heard this one before…” you might have stopped me already but you“d be wrong. Obvious comparisons to Persona aside, Mind Zero is a first-person dungeon-crawler RPG with a lot of personality of it“s own if you can get past a few of its initial similarities to other games. I have to admit my very first impression wasn“t really a good one. The characters seemed typical. Same goes for the combat too. I really didn“t know what to think at first, but thankfully it started to get better. Characters started to become more interesting. Events started to stand out. Combat became more involved. I started to like the game. Unfortunately it did take a while to get there, an initial investment that might turn off many players. Broody hero, check. Supernatural powers manifested through an otherworldly counterpart, check. Lovable female you feel compelled to protect, check. So yeah, with the way Mind Zero begins I wouldn“t expect many to be impressed. The constant that kept me interested were the designs. They“re dark, but not too dark. The characters themselves are drawn beautifully in the 2D character portraits that appear during dialogue scenes and various menus and input screens. They really stand out as one of the best aspects of the game, with a level of production value that simply doesn't prove consistent with the other visual elements of the game. The 3D models that are shown for the characters are poor representations of their 2D counterparts. This disconnect between the quality is not only noticeable, at times it's pretty staggering. The same character from the level up screen, dialogue scenes and 3D in-battle models look almost like completely different characters at times with the latter being downright sad in comparison. This lack of consistency carries over into most of the in-battle graphics as well, with roughly aliased 3D models for the same 10 or so palette-swapped enemies making up the entirety of non-boss type enemies throughout the game. So aside from dialogue and menu designs, the part of the game you'll be spending most of your time with, dungeons and battles, simply don't live up to what the Vita is capable of. Ultimately, the dungeon and battle graphics are the games largest hurdle, but it's hardly the only one. While the story comes into its own, it definitely takes its time. The first three chapters create hardly any motivation to move forward other than for the sake of simply moving forward. The next few chapters begin adding some intrigue, but it really isn't until about halfway through that the game“s plot hits its stride. Even so, the game is filled with great character interaction that only gets better as time goes on. If the 3D models and graphics in Mind Zero is the worst part of the game, the characters and their journey are definitely the best. The American voice actors definitely do their part in bringing these characters to life too, most of which will definitely sound familiar to fans of similar games. Though I've managed to figure out a few of the voice actors, it's a shame the cast isn't billed in the credits. And while the voice acting is pretty good (the game even features the original Japanese voice track) the rest of the game's audio leaves something to be desired. Sound effects and music during battles are downright offensive to the ears; they're unbalanced, screaming through the speakers and drowning out the occasional voice clip from the characters. Thankfully you can adjust the volume levels from the options menu, which I definitely suggest. Outside of battles though, the music at least is a huge improvement. There's a lot of variety to the tracks and most are good enough to listen to outside of the game. We've covered pretty much everything else, so how's the combat? Well in a word, just a smidge above simple. Each character can attack or use items on their own. When a character has their MIND summoned, the battle changes a bit. Each character has access to a number of customizable skill cards to use in battle. Anything from typical physical and elemental based attacks, to passive bonuses to status resistances or stats. As your character levels up, more skill cards can be equipped to their MIND making each character a nearly blank slate (with only their stat progression giving them predisposed proficiency in certain aspects) allowing players to use the characters they like most throughout the game with little consequence. While a character's MIND is summoned it also takes damage in place of that character, with "MIND points" being their health. There's also a cost associated with keeping your MIND out each turn but that's minor. Unfortunately, if an enemy attack brings your MP down to zero your MIND "breaks" which causes your character to be stunned next turn and unable to resummon your MIND for two turns. Because of this, watching your MP is definitely as important as watching your LP (Life Points), and unsummoning your MIND and "charging" (a defensive action that allows you to recover MP faster) becomes pretty important regularly in battles. The enemy types are also often mixed up, with plenty of monsters of varying elements and those resistant to MIND attacks being thrown together, causing players to adjust their strategy from battle to battle. On the hardest difficulty, Mind Zero gives you nearly no margin for error, but lesser difficulties (which can be selected from the menu at any time) can provide a more user friendly experience with no grinding required if that's more to your thing. But really the best part about the combat is that it isn't overly complicated or filled with mechanics that promise infinite cosmic power but instead provide an itty bitty living space. Other little nagging details exist, sure. Stuff like the lack of comprehensive tutorials about enhancing and upgrading skill cards was certainly noticeable (with some reviewers even being downright wrong about how these systems work, but it's hard to blame them for the misunderstanding) but overall I had fun with Mind Zero. To be honest, if I had not been assigned this review I might not have made it past the first few chapters, but I'm very glad I did. The jarring visual gap between the impressive 2D art and 3D models became much less of an issue to me as time went on. I became more attached to the characters, each one blossoming into a stereotype-defying character as time went on. Even combat, though not the best and brightest RPGs currently have to offer, became more impressive with access to new and better skill and EX cards, and the balance of offense and defensive actions. Mind Zero may not be an outright Cave of Wonders, but if good characters and a good story can help you past the game's flaws, you might just find yourself a diamond in the rough with this title. At the very least, paying less than the $40 MSRP should really help with the polishing! Pros: + Great character designs + Great character interactions & story + Simple yet rewarding combat Cons: - Slow start may bore players - Game's 3D models look cheap - Terrible sound quality when in battles Overall Score: 7.0 (out of 10) Good Mind Zero has plenty to offer players interested in a good story with solid gameplay, but the poor graphics and sound quality might prevent them from ever seeing it. Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable code provided by the publisher.
  7. Developer: Idea Factory Publisher: Aksys Games Platform: PlayStation 3 Release Date: May 6 ESRB: M (for Mature) Visual novels have certainly hit their stride in the Western world lately. More publishers are willing to bring the genre that used to be seen as uncouth and shallow dating sims over to a small, but steadily growing fanbase. As exciting adventures like Steins;Gate thrill players and hybrid experiences like Virtue's Last Reward give players a bit of gameplay with their text dumps, more gamers come to learn the value of visual novels amongst the many other games and genres available. Even so, while visual novels are in more of a demand, the otome game--essentially a visual novel where you play as the girl as you build relationships with boys--is widely ignored. While Sweet Fuse seemed to make some waves amongst the fanbase, there are very few otome choices out there... and though the Hakuoki series has actually seen a few titles released Stateside, Hakuoki: Stories of the Shinsengumi hopes to win a new audience by being on the PlayStation 3. Will this enhanced port of the PSP and 3DS title Demon of the Fleeting Blossom hold a bright torch for the console visual novel and otome game, or will that torch fizzle out? In Stories of the Shinsengumi, you are Chizuru (whose name can be changed), a young girl who came to Kyoto to look for for her father, who had gone missing a few months before. Upon reaching Kyoto, though, she is accosted by rogue ronin (despite being disguised as a boy to deter that very thing). One thing quickly leads to another, and the girl stumbles upon a dark secret of the Shinsengumi, a group responsible for upholding the peace in Kyoto. After learning of Chizuru's search for her father, who happened to also work with the Shinsengumi, they decide not to kill her to keep their secrets, and instead take her under their (mostly begrudging) care to help find the doctor. Stories of the Shinsengumi follows the path of the force through the entirety of its historical life, from 1864 to 1869. As you might expect, the characters you meet and can eventually build relationships with are actual Japanese historical figures; of course, they have been prettied up a bit to appeal to audience. However, the game isn't purely historical; fantastical sub-plots involving demons and "furies" (which are best described as a form of vampires) add an extra layer of tension to the wars and battles and more weight to the protagonist herself. Granted, these sub-plots are better written into some character paths than others, but for the most part they're a decent, though not particularly great, part of the story. As for the title's overall writing, it usually stays on a pretty high mark. All of the eligible relationship interests and even some of supporting cast get a fair amount of depth to them, mostly avoiding the typical tropes of the genre and giving an interesting plot to work through. Since the men are all loyal members of the Shinsengumi as well, it adds the perspective loyalty, and what everyone does when things take a turn for the worse. The more interesting conversations of the game are between the different captains themselves rather than their relationship with Chizuru, and while it can be questionable why the members of the Shinsengumi would allow a random girl to be privy to all their private conversations, it's an excusable offense to really get a glimpse at the depth these characters have to offer. Due to the fact that this 8- to 10-hour visual novel covers a fiveyear span, the action moves by at a pretty brisk pace. Stories of the Shinsengumi will skip months at the time, and mostly only focus on the major battles of the group, and their eventual downfall. As such, while you get an interesting amount of growth and changes amongst the characters, there isn't too much time for romance. Thankfully, the Hakouki Stories help a little with that, with the Memories of Love offering more tender moments with the eligible bachelors, and the Shinsengumi Adventures are more comical, light-hearted affairs. It's a bit of a shame that these stories aren't integrated into the game proper, but it also makes sense as the small stories would have probably interrupted the flow of the overall story. As you play through these extra Stories, you can bloom your cherry blossom in the Eupherma mode; and as you do so, you'll unlock even more little pieces of content, which is new to the PS3 version from the portable releases. These little bits include random conversations in the Hakuoki world, as well as stints where the the characters are cast into a modern school setting. Honestly, these bits are mostly throwaway, but as you'll likely want to play through the Stories for the extra characterization anyway, it's a nice, but ultimately unneeded, little bonus. Whether or not you'll enjoy Stories of the Shinsengumi depends more on your interest of Japanese culture; obviously, a title involving a historical police force is going to be steeped in Japanese lore. For those not heavily educated on the subject, the game's Encyclopedia helps to explain some of the less known terms, but if you have no interest in Japanese lore, historically accurate or otherwise, it will seem plodding and boring even if it is well-written. Hakuoki: Stories of the Shinsengumi is a good otome game, but it will not be everyone's cup of tea. Those that are willing the take the plunge into a game steeped in Japanese history and sometimes strange demon plots will find deep and multifaceted characters and stories that are worth experiencing. Pros: + The potential relationship paths go beyond simple tropes, giving characters with depth + The graphics are surprisingly nice looking on the big screen Cons: - Some character paths have awkward writing or poorly implemented plot threads - The title's setting isn't for everyone Overall Score: 7 (out of 10) Good Stories of the Shinsengumi provides a good story for those that bring an interest in Japanese history and just a bit of tolerance for demons and vampires. Disclosure: A download code was provided by the publisher for this review.
  8. Aksys Games has announced that they will be localizing and publishing dungeon crawler RPG Mind Zero in North America this Spring. Mind Zero follows the exploits of a high school student named Kei who ends up forming a contract with a "Mind," which is a weapon/being with deadly powers. With the government and other forces soon after him, Kei will need to uncover the secret behind "Mind" and discover whether the powers will ultimately help or harm him. The gameplay focuses on taking advantage of different "Minds," using them to attack and defend during battles and mastering their skills. No specific release date has been announced for Mind Zero just yet, but it will be releasing on the PS Vita for $39.99 (via retail and digital download) sometime this Spring.
  9. Marcus Estrada

    Review: A.R.E.S. Extinction Agenda EX

    Developer: Extend Studio Publisher: Aksys Games Platform: Xbox 360 (XBLA) Release Date: September 4, 2013 ESRB: E 10+ A download code was provided by the publisher for this review In 2010, developer Extend Studio created a loving homage to the Mega Man series via their own game. Titled A.R.E.S. Extinction Agenda, it featured a robot who platformed in a 2D-sidescrolling world and fought against renegade robots. It“s been a few years but the PC game has been revamped and brought to consoles via a new Xbox 360 release. So, how does the game stand up, and are the additions enough to warrant old fans to purchase another copy? First, let“s focus on the game from the standpoint of new players. A.R.E.S. Extinction Agenda EX is a game with very little pretense. After starting it up for the first time you“re informed to the simple story that“s meant to keep you going. Basically, a space station has found itself the victim of a catastrophe. Strange space gasses have entered the station and caused all the robots within to rebel against humans. Thankfully, the lead character, Ares, is a robot who is immune to the gas and sets forth to save the humans from otherwise certain robot-inflicted demise. From there, players are tasked with navigating levels and shooting copious amounts of robots to see their mission through to the end. Shooting here is handled in either a twin-stick fashion or via pressing the X button. Most players will probably stick with using both analog sticks because this is easiest. You control the robot“s movements with the left stick and can aim his weapon via positioning of the right stick. When using the button instead, you can only fire in the direction you are facing, which is hardly ideal. Each level basically unfolds in the same way, although the platforming can be quite distinct between them. There is usually a miniboss in the middle and then a big boss at the end. Depending on which difficulty you choose from, these encounters can be monotonously easy or enough to make you want to toss the controller aside in frustration. Bosses routinely look cool and offer a host of special attacks ready to be unleashed upon the player. Thanks to the addition of skills such as an instant heal though, it usually never feels like an encounter is totally impossible. With a game like A.R.E.S. that relies heavily on platforming alongside shooting, you would hope that the controls handle perfectly. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Primarily the issue lies with jumping controls, which feel finicky. For example, if you are too close to the edge of a platform and jump, it will act as if you already performed a jump. This cuts off possible height from performing double jumps and doesn“t really make sense. Other times, you may need to quickly jump from platform to platform and find that your character simply won“t jump at all. It seems that jumping too quickly can confuse things, which is horrible since there are moments in the game where precise and fast jumping is required. It“s issues like these which really pull down A.R.E.S. since it manages to have attractive visuals and a great soundtrack to go along with it. Artistically, the game always looked great, but has definitely been enhanced for a large TV display. The original“s soundtrack is still included, which is as excellent as ever, as well as a whole new soundtrack for the second character. But even the best aesthetic and musical choices can“t fix problematic play. Then there is the matter of new Xbox 360 content which is, for the most part, also lacking. The control scheme has been tweaked some for its XBLA release, but players could already use the Xbox 360 controller via PC release if desired. Higher resolution textures and a leaderboard have also been implemented but neither is a particularly noteworthy selling point. Mainly, the allure for old fans to try this version is because of a new character and some new skills. The new character is stronger, but otherwise not too different from Ares. Perhaps the biggest question surrounding the release of A.R.E.S. is why it exists in the first place. The PC version did garner a crowd, but not a massive one thanks to its mostly average gameplay. Mega Man madness is certainly alive and well today but this has been the case for a while now. What took this upgraded version three years to come out? Rather, why have Extend Studios seemingly given up their plan of A.R.E.S. being an episodic series? If A.R.E.S. Extinction Agenda EX sees great success then maybe they“ll return to those plans. For now though, Xbox 360 owners can finally get a taste of a decidedly average experience. Pros: + Two campaigns to play through + Great visual design + Excellent soundtrack to keep players hyped Cons: - Jumping needs to be precise and simply isn“t - Game is fairly short (presumably to have led into currently non-existent episodic sequels) Overall Score: 5.5 (out of 10) Average A.R.E.S. Extinction Agenda EX is the kind of game that plays to a niche user base but otherwise does little to excite the rest of the gaming audience.
  10. Marcus Estrada

    Review: Sweet Fuse: At Your Side

    Developer: Otomate Publisher: Aksys Games Platform: PSP (PSN) Release Date: August 27, 2013 ESRB: T for Teen A download code was provided by the publisher for this review Chances are, even if you“re reading this review, you“ve never played an otome game before (or only one). Otome games are most generally equivalent to dating sims. Except instead of focusing on a cast of datable girls, you play as a young woman who is surrounding by a bunch of guys. Dating sims themselves are quite the niche, so this genre is a niche of a niche. So far, it seems Aksys Games is the most willing to venture into otome territory. Their most recent otome release is Sweet Fuse: At Your Side by developer Otomate. It“s far from the cute and cuddly title you might be expecting, though. As the story begins, it all seems goofy enough. Your lead character, Sake Inafune, is actually the niece of real life game developer Keiji Inafune. He has just opened up a theme park based around video games and of course you“re excited to check it out during an exclusive opening event. Alongside other curious parties, you arrive, only to see Keiji kidnapped by a strange pig-looking monster. From there, things get weird. This pig guy, named Count Hogstein, is an apparently insane creature who has decided to turn the entire theme park into a massive diabolical game. He requires a cast of seven people to engage in his game and Saki jumps right into the mess. Alongside six men, she learns that the Count is forcing them to solve puzzles as a group. If they fail in their attraction-themed puzzles then they“ll all be caught in explosions rigged to each attraction. The cast of men is pretty varied, even if their presentation harps a bit too much on stereotypical types. There is a musclebound man calling everyone his “bro”, a shut-in gamer with greasy hair, a boy band idol, and a few others. With the vast differences between each character it“s likely that everyone will find one they like more than the rest and wish to focus on. Even if they don“t, the game will eventually push them down the path of whoever they are closest to. Those without interest in the romantic components still have the rest of the game to enjoy, which focuses primarily on the drama of making it through each puzzle alive. One of the most interesting facets about Sweet Fuse is the gameplay. The way Aksys marketed the game made it almost sound like an otome version of 999: Nine Persons, Nine Hours, Nine Doors. However, there is never a point in this game where you are actually solving puzzles on your own. Instead, it plays purely as a visual novel. Characters will slowly come to conclusions about the solutions to puzzles, and likely you“ll come up with them beforehand, but there“s no way to act on them yourself. That doesn“t mean all you do is read, read, and read some more. As with other visual novels, your interactivity is based on making choices at specified times. These choices tend to be focused on what you“ll say to characters next. You might make someone happy, sad, or start yelling at them. Some of these choices affect very little, but others will put you on the path toward romancing one character over the other. There are also special times in puzzles where you must choose the proper hint to move on. Failure to guess the right hint will lead to everyone“s doom - and a game-over screen. But, for the most part, you“ll be doing a ton of reading. It takes five to eight hours to get through Sweet Fuse on a first playthrough depending on your reading speed. Of course, if you like the game enough to get through it once you“ll probably be excited to go through again. There is a lot of replay value simply for the fact of being able to romance a variety of men. A second playthrough in particular even yields an entirely new romance option. Since there“s not too much gameplay to handle, the main point of interest is the characters and their interplay. Thankfully, the translation is engrossing, even if not completely accurate to the original Japanese. Saki herself is an incredibly strong-willed character who serves as a stable base to the more fiery attitudes of some of her team members. It“s fun to see them play around and all that, although it does come across as a bit odd they would be capable of being silly in such a dire situation. Also, one unfortunate aspect is the amount of typographical errors to come across. It seems likely the game just wasn“t enough of a priority or something as it“s rare to see this much wrong in a published title. With that said, the game and its characters are primarily enjoyable. The puzzles are also pretty neat even if you never get to actually “solve” any yourself. With so few otome games out in the West it would even still be worth supporting if the game were not so great. Thankfully, Sweet Fuse is fun and offers a great deal of replay value. Definitely grab it on UMD or as a PSN download and then get to work with Saki and her crew on PSP or Vita. Pros: + Interesting cast of dateable characters + Multiple characters allow for a bevy of playthroughs Cons: - Fair bit of typos to be found - Puzzle interactivity severely limited Overall Score: 8.5 (out of 10) Great With such a small amount of otome games easily available to the American audience, Sweet Fuse shoots up to the top of the top of the list.
  11. Marcus Estrada

    Sweet Fuse Screenshot 3

    From the album: Review Images

  12. Marcus Estrada

    Sweet Fuse Screenshot 2

    From the album: Review Images

  13. Marcus Estrada

    Sweet Fuse Screenshot 1

    From the album: Review Images

  14. Developer: Otomate Publisher: Aksys Games Platform: PSP (PSN) Release Date: February 19, 2013 ESRB: M Last year Aksys brought Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom to a shocked US audience. Visual novels are a pretty big niche, but even more so are otome visual novels. This variety is known for having a focus on romancing male leads. More recently, Aksys let it be known they were bringing over another Hakuoki game. Fans were rightly excited to see another game in the franchise soon being made available to North American gamers. But is this the game that fans were really hoping for? First, we must get something out of the way. When announced, it was made known that the upcoming Hakuoki game was not another visual novel. Instead, it is a hack ”n slash full of characters from the series. In the two main modes of play, you can choose to either go through the story of Demon of the Fleeting Blossom via its multitude of battles or try a new story created for the game. Overall though, the focus is not on either story but the fighting. It“s because of this that the game fails so entirely. What initially lured many players into the original game was a long, exciting, and sometimes romantic tale. As a visual novel, it was obviously the main element of the game and was done quite well. Even those with no prior knowledge of ancient Japanese wars could find themselves wrapped up in the enthralling narrative. Sure, this game includes landmark parts of the story but in a way that feels entirely insignificant. When playing through the main story mode, I recalled the scenes they mentioned, but they were barely given time in the spotlight. There is very little storytelling to be found throughout the entire package at all, with the most being shown through animated cutscenes. These would be more impressive if they weren“t just scenes from the anime series being repurposed for the game. If you have never played the first Hakuoki and jump into this, you probably won“t have a clue as to the story or even who the lead character Chizuru is. The same is true for each warrior who never gets to display their own unique personalities. Of course, dating also plays no part in the game. Considering how tacked on it would have felt otherwise, this is one positive of the game. So, let“s stop the comparison of the two games and instead view the game on its own merits as someone would who has never touched the visual novel. Does it perform any better as a pure hack n“ slash title? Unfortunately it cannot even succeed purely off its gameplay. When it comes right down to it, the play it presents is downright boring. At least it includes features that should be expected of the genre. You can choose between one of six warriors (one unlockable) and play through the two story modes. In battles, there are just two main attack buttons as well as a handful of combos to pull off. There are also items to discover across the battlefield or pick off enemies which can be used later to craft new accessories. Accessories are used to boost various facets of your character such as health, speed, or power. In fact, elements like these in the game make it appear that there is some meat to it. Each warrior levels independently and carries their skills over to the next story mode. That, as well as a great deal of craftable items, makes it seem as though the game is set to be a fairly interesting experience. Instead, the entire game is far too brief for players to even get into the modification aspects. Well, unless you“re so in love with the game that you find yourself playing modes through a great deal of times. In-game play offers very little to make things interesting. In either story mode, you are stuck facing off against hordes of respawning enemies that all look the same. Half the time, the game will ask you to kill X amount of enemies while other times it will just require you to find a boss character who is almost always near the end of the stage. Those stages are the most ridiculous, though, as you can simply run from point A to B to accomplish the goal with no grinding required. As for other enemies, they aren“t one to put up much of a fight until you jump to a higher of the three difficulties. Since there's no need to grind, accomplishing the exact goals of each level is quick work. Both story modes can be completed in half hour to an hour each. Of course, if you factor in each playable character, that could mean you are putting in around ten hours with the game. Still, when each mission plays out basically the same, most are probably going to pass on playing all the characters. It just doesn“t feel like there“s a point when missions are always one of the two or three boring varieties. At the very least, each of the five men have their own swordplay style. Beyond the entirely uninspired play, the game leaves very little else to enjoy. Visually, the game is passable, although it is humorous to see that most enemies look exactly the same. They even only manage to pop into view when you are a few feet away from them too. Screenshots in the retelling of the original Hakuoki are an especially strange spot. It seems they were also sourced from the anime, which means that a few appear to even have JPEG artifacting. This is a far cry from the gorgeous art of Demon of the Fleeting Blossom. The other mode appears to have new art at least, although why the other mode couldn“t have some as well seems odd. Hakuoki: Warriors of the Shinsengumi appears to have been nothing other than a cheap spin-off game in Japan. Of course, many games are of that quality, but why was it then selected to be released for American fans as well? As far as fans should be concerned, there is little reason to play this. It has the same hunky samurai as before now rendered in 3D but that“s all that remains of Hakuoki in this package. Battles which once seemed intense and magnificent before now all play out as dull hack ”n slash levels that take little effort to complete. If you“re a fan of hack ”n slash then there are a wide variety of games to play over this one. If you“re a fan of Hakuoki, then unfortunately there are less ways to get an otome gaming fix. Still, this is not the way to do it at all. There may be some worth to the game for the biggest Hakuoki lovers out there, but otherwise steer clear. Hakuoki: Warriors of the Shinsengumi is nothing more than a cheap excuse to get gamers' money based off an existing franchise. Pros: + Five playable characters + Many items to be crafted and equipped Cons: - Completely dull play with little variation - Game could barely be fussed to add in new artwork - Story aspect is almost entirely meaningless - Very short story modes Overall Score: 3 (out of 10) Poor Few will find themselves delighted when they realized Hakuoki: Warriors the Shinsengumi abandons its visual novel roots for horribly realized hack ”n slash gameplay.