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    Review: Omega Quintet

    Developer: Idea Factory/Compile Heart Publisher:Idea Factory International Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: April 28, 2015 ESRB: T for Teen Japan's obsession with musical idols is hardly a well-kept secret. Virtual idols from Hatsune Miku to Idolm@ster alone seem to have more influence than any of their real life counterparts in various media forms in Japan. Be that as it may, developer Compile Heart have decided to temporarily take their attention off of the Goddesses of Gameindustri, and the legion of Hyperdimension Neptunia sequels and spin-offs, with their newest idol-focused RPG called Omega Quintet. Does this new PS4 RPG sing in perfect harmony, or does it deserve to be pelted by rotten produce for its lack of talent? Unlike many anime idols where the worst that they have to worry about is school drama, idols in Omega Quintet basically have to worry about the end of the world. You see, monsters known as the "Blare" are wrecking havoc and mankind is essentially reduced to just one surviving town (apparently full of idol-obsessed idiots). The only ones that can actually fight these monsters are those with a certain innate singing ability, referred to as "Verse Maidens." So, after a former Verse Maiden is too old to continue her work, she decides to retire and recruit an entirely new ensemble to continue the fight against the Blare. Despite the oddly bleak setting, Omega Quintet straddles the line between goofy and kind of dark, like some weird middle ground between Compile Heart's Hyperdimension Neptunia and Fairy Fencer F. In one moment, a character may be fretting over the quality of their singing voice, and another moment an entirely different character will casually talk about how much they prefer fighting with guns because they don't have to worry about blood getting on them. Though occasionally humorous, the cutesy—and sometimes rather mean—dialogue does end up being rather bloated to the point where it actually feels like a whole lot of nothing is being discussed a good majority of the time. This problem is further expounded upon because of its rather weak cast of characters and a main story that is made even less satisfying for those who fail to obtain its incredibly obtuse "true ending"... which will be most people. Yet, even with so much at stake, the eventually formed idol group, the "Omega Quintet," spend a lot of their time doing rather monotonous tasks. The entire title is basically structured in a way where you either pick up main story missions from the central hub (or studio) or sidequests from faceless town denizens. And, regardless of where you obtain the quests, they are all kind of the same where you either kill specific monsters, bring specific items, or initiate a special attack in combat. It there is one thing that Omega Quintet is, it's incredibly inconsistent. There are parts to it that are actually halfway decent or are abnormally polished for something made by Compile Heart. For example, the flashy turn-based combat system seems promising with its regular introduction to new abilities/skills or the title's surprisingly in-depth side feature where you can customize music videos. Also, the game runs at what seems like a near 60 frames-per-second during combat and exploration when most previous PS3 Compile Heart RPGs would struggle to be even one-third of that, despite its fairly unimpressive visuals and extremely drab environments. But that is about all that it gets right. It's incredibly inconsistent to the point of ruining the entire experience. The main reason for this is how it handles quests which directly ties into progression and also glaringly highlights the game's worst aspect over time. It attempts a sort of Metroidvania approach to environments where you can explore more areas after you upgrade new skills, like higher jumping or interacting with the environment. Yet, new skills are acquired through quests, which—in addition to the lifeless environments that you constantly have to revisit—are incredibly bland. Some sidequests are so obnoxious that they are tied to rare enemy spawns which need to be "overkilled," meaning if you don't do enough damage to get their item drop the first time... well, have fun running through the area and hoping they will appear again. You can't ignore this either because sidequests are anything but optional as you'll learn over time. Did I mention that sidequests are not only missable per chapter but are also tied to even completing the main story? Many "sidequests" are tied to a obfuscated number value called "support" which is primary obtained through battles. So, you literally have to grind the "support" number up to make many sidequests even appear just to be able to use more field skills in environments to even progress the main story. This is made worse because of how slow and easy battles are, which makes the padding even more grading throughout. This leaves the basic loop of Omega Quintet to feeling like you do one monotonous, boring task to unlock more monotonous... boring tasks. Oh, and if you miss a single quest, which is exactly what I did, you are automatically thrown towards a bad ending that basically tells you everything you did was pointless—an apt description of the entire game. To leave an even worse taste about the whole experience are the unapologetic fanservice moments. It may be halfway amusing at first to see one of the leads get angry at you for tilting the in-game camera a bit too low for an accidental (or not?) upskirt until you realize it is basically unavoidable and it is more annoying than funny. The perverted mindset carries over to its frequent "fanservice" pictures during story scenes or disintegrating clothing in combat, making the purveying attitude feel more creepy than funny especially with its underage cast. It seems like even the characters are treated with as much respect as the player playing it, which is to say none at all. Though it seemed groomed to possibly be Compile Heart's best RPG in recent memory, Omega Quintet actively ruins any promise it has with its debut. With its incredibly obnoxious gameplay structure, poor storytelling, and wealth of design issues that creep up the further you progress, it can only be overlooked by the most forgiving of fans of Compile Heart. For everyone else, regardless of how paltry the current offering is for Japanese RPGs on PS4, you deserve far better than to waste any of your time with an admission to Omega Quintet. Pros + Goes all the way with the idol theme from story events to even being able to choreograph music videos + Interesting combat system with a really solid framerate + Some humorous character interactions Cons - Banal, obnoxious quest design - Really limiting environment exploration that constantly forces you to retread bland old environments -Battle take needlessly long considering their lack of difficulty - True end requirements (aka the non-bad ending) are needlessly obtuse and strict - Some really dumb story points -Creepy "fanservice" moments abound Overall Score: 3.5 (out of 10) Poor With little in the way of respect for its potential RPG audience, from countless frustrating gameplay design choices to its poor storytelling, Omega Quintet is not worthy to have anyone gaze upon its performance. Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS4 code provided by the publisher.
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    From the album: Omega Quintet

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    From the album: Omega Quintet

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    From the album: Omega Quintet

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    From the album: Omega Quintet

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    From the album: Omega Quintet

  7. Developer: Gust Corporation Publisher: Koei Tecmo Platform: PlayStation 3 Release Date: March 10, 2015 ESRB: T for Teen With a near-annual schedule since a 1997 debut, the Atelier series has now reached its sixteenth main entry. Though I have become something of a consistent fan of their whimsical alchemy-centric RPG nature over time, I could feel myself slowly drifting away from the series after the previous two "Dusk" entries. I could tell Atelier Ayesha and Atelier Escha & Logy were good games, and they tried some different things that I liked, but something about them just did not click with me like the prior “Arland” trilogy. Perhaps the formula was getting old for me, and maybe the new direction and characters just weren't resonating with me as much as I would like. What I actually realized is that Atelier Ayesha and Escha & Logy were simply not as enjoyable. The third and final entry to the Dusk trilogy, Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea, not only reminds me why I even got into the series but it also outclasses both of its prequels in many ways. The last entry in the trilogy continues to leave the world in a bad way. The "Dusk" is causing fresh water to drastically deplete, wildlife to starve, and desert masses to stretch far beyond the eye can see. So, the attention shifts to commerce town of Stellard, known in particular for its fresh water supply. Within Stellard are the two main "Shallie" protagonists: a brunette chieftain's daughter, Shallistera, who intends to find work to compensate for accidental collateral damage caused by her airship and also by helping her decaying village; and an eccentric green-haired girl, Shallotte, who is flat-out broke and simply looking to make a better life for her and her mother. Like the previous Atelier Escha & Logy, you have a choice between playing the two different "Shallie" protagonists. While their overall tone and cutscenes differ early in, with Shallotte generally being more happy-go-lucky, and Shalistera's side is slightly more self-serious, they both more or less converge around the halfway mark so that you don't really miss too much from either side by the end beyond unique endings, specific character events, and music. Traditional Atelier titles used to be light-hearted RPGs that blended time-management, simple yet enjoyable combat/exploration systems, many tongue-in-cheek character interactions, and a surprisingly deep crafting system that wove it all together. Pretty much all of that is still here except for the time-management part. This was a heated topic for earlier games where people either found it too limiting or—if you are like me—made it so the games were at a constant moving pace. Either way, that is completely gone now, and in its place are far more flexible "life tasks". Life tasks are a surprisingly solid alternative that should please fans of either side because of how much it allows you go at your own pace while also telling the player what they can do to progress the main story. There is a lot to do in Atelier Shallie to the point of almost feeling like an insider-only club at the offset. A lot of this is because it is front loaded with mechanics and doesn't really hold your hand regarding how to play through most of it beyond some fairly brief tutorials. It seems easy enough at first as you fulfill basic requests at the Cooperative Union Headquarters by exploring new areas, making or bringing assigned items, killing specific monsters, or as Sharlotte would say: "Picking up traaash ♪. For almost no caaash ♪," but it quickly escalates from there. The concept that I like the most about this title is that you are not really funneled into any one play style. You are sort of encouraged to mess around with every facet as they each feed into one another. Unsurprisingly, since alchemy is the series staple, it remains as a centerpiece of it all. Opposed to being a chore in most games, crafting becomes a deceptively deep and addictive puzzle-like mini-game in Atelier Shallie. Not only is it satisfying to learn its nuances to make combat/exploration easier, but you can also easily get caught up in the "One more item..." mentality, just for the sake of it. Maybe you want to make the best barrel possible? (I know I would). Or perhaps you want to have its traits carry over to something entirely different that makes the next item even better? Before you know it, it has you in its evil but cutely presented trap, and this is before you even get to the other aspects. Still, the other aspects are certainly worth talking about. When you go out adventuring, battles are quite flashy and enjoyable despite being turn-based. It isn't until you get at least a six-person party that it really shines with elaborate follow-up attacks, super moves, dual-draw alchemy skills, and the newly added burst mechanic, which honestly does not take very long considering the fast overall gameplay flow and the game itself being a bit too generous with leveling up rather quickly. Also new to the series is a revolving-camera for most dungeons/areas (as opposed to a fixed-camera angle). This is by no means anything new for RPGs in general, but for the Atelier series it does make exploring and gathering in new environments more varied, since the general scope has been increased and the conveniences designed around it. The environment themselves could benefit from more visual detail, however, because of their general stark appearance. Where Atelier Shallie actually stumbles the most is with its characterization and storytelling. Atelier has never been known for high-quality storytelling, but Dusk trilogy in particular felt like the foundation for something more substantial, with its desolate world and implications of events' past, during Atelier Ayesha in particular. Unfortunately, it ends on a rather lukewarm narrative note and abandons most prior buildup with its setting and characters. The characters that do have a presence obviously fair better, avoiding Escha & Logy's issue of a paper-thin supporting cast and having noticeable individuality. And while the humor and delivery doesn't always hit its mark, the platonic relationship between the cast generally tends to be endearing more often than not despite their lack of a purposeful narrative footing around them. Though it doesn't succeed at presenting a fleshed out narrative, it does rather well with its visual and audio design. It has been noticeable that Gust has been trying to move away from visual novel-esque character portraits... with varying degrees of success (I'm looking at you, Ar Nosurge). They have progressively gotten better at forging more anime-like 3D character models and it especially shows in Atelier Shallie from the stylish skills in battle to cutesy character tics during cutscenes to even alchemy, despite the far less impressive backgrounds behind them. What is actually more pleasant than the game's vibrant visual style is its impressive soundtrack. Atelier Ayesha was no slouch with its excellent musical score, but Atelier Shallie manages to surpass even it with the sheer breadth and variety of its score. There is just a jubilant whimsy to the soundtrack with its distinct, catchy pan-flute or accordion percussion for character themes, to battle tracks that range from rocking to raving, that even if you have no interest in the actual game, it is worth giving a listen to. With its sights focused on quality gameplay over the unrealized ambition of its setting, Atelier Shallie easily bests both of its predecessors in nearly every way. It is rich with both audio and visual personality, rewarding and addictive gameplay, and a far more lenient structure for the outside looking in. It may have lost track of its potentially interesting background and characters, but I am convinced that Gust has brought their A-game to the final entry of the Dusk trilogy where it counts—as a fun, light-hearted take on RPGs that is belittled only by the unrealized potential of its setting. Pros: + Rewarding, addictive crafting mechanics + Flashy and fun turn-based combat + Excellent soundtrack + Distinct anime-like character models with lots of personality + Time limit system has been removed and replaced by a very varied and flexible gameplay structure Cons: - Storytelling and (most) characters do not really develop in any meaningful way - Front loaded with mechanics that can be overwhelming for series newcomers - Exploration environments don't look particularly good Overall Score: 8.5 (out of 10) Great Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea proves that when the series is focused that it can more than showcase why its cunning RPG formula has not washed away over time. Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS3 code provided by the publisher.
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    From the album: Atelier Shallie

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    From the album: Atelier Shallie

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    From the album: Atelier Shallie

  11. Developer: Nippon Ichi Software Publisher: NIS America Platforms: PS3 Release Date: March 17, 2014 ESRB: T for Teen It has been two years since the release of The Guided Fate Paradox. This was Nippon Ichi's second foray into their curious spin on turn-based dungeon-crawlers and roguelikes while following the spirit of the obscure, and overwhelming titled, Z.H.P. Unlosing Ranger vs Darkdeath Evilman on PSP. While both games had a distinctively different overall style, The Guided Fate Paradox creatively expanded upon many gameplay principles introduced in Z.H.P.. Now, I am not going to dance around the fact that I liked The Guided Fate Paradox a whole lot. So much so, it may have placed abnormally high on my 2013 GOTY list. And while my opinion of the title cooled off a little bit after replaying it recently (though, I still like it a lot and my save file somehow lingers above one-hundred hours total...), I didn't expect the would-be spiritual sequel, The Awakened Fate Ultimatum, to be so disappointing. Not because it is different, but because it takes so many steps back with a similar formula. Before getting into what is the same (but not as good) as a game, the differences in story are actually one of The Awakened Fate Ultimatum's stronger points. Much like Guided Fate, the initial setup has a high school student taken from their normal mundane life and made into the "God" of Celestia. Unlike Guided Fate, which did so in a tongue-in-cheek way via a local mall lottery, the main character Shin Kamikaze becomes a "God" after being murdered by devils and is forcibly revived by angels through something called the "Fate Awakening Crystal" to participate in a war between angels and devils. One of the key narrative differences between this and earlier Nippon Ichi RPGs, aside from obvious changes in lead characters/setting, is how much deceptively darker the pervading story tone is. For example, the roguelike spiritual predecessor Z.H.P. Unlosing Ranger Vs Darkdeath Evilman had a fairly playful and over-the-top attitude like to many Disgaea entries, while The Guided Fate Paradox straddled the line between fairly serious and very unserious storytelling, like NIS's Soul Nomad & The World Eaters. Awakened Fate, however, has plenty of grim reminders about the mortality of characters and there is a real somber tone throughout—even with its occasional comic relief. For instance, many story choices seem rather ambiguous and generally call you out on the consequences of either "Ultimate Choice" decisions when there are honestly no "good" choices. Speaking of that, another primary distinction between The Awakened Fate Ultimatum and its predecessors is its variations of the narrative and gameplay in the form of its angel & devil affinities. In a story context, there are many choices that seem to align with either the angel Jupiel or the devil Ariael. As much as it pains me to even think of this comparison, it definitely seems to be marketed like Time & Eternity's shtick on paper because of the contrast between the two heroines. Now, thankfully, Awakened Fate respects its characters far more by actually having worthwhile events around them. So, it isn't exactly a "pick your waifu" affair, but rather it usually correlates with fairly serious events... while also picking favorites (Ariael ftw). That said, both the characters and the overall narrative have problems with certain rather predictable tropes, which interferes with the overarching storytelling more than it should later on despite its murky (albeit messed up) "Ultimate Choices" at times. For gameplay context, Shin actually uses both the power of angel & devil forms in the midst being "Deitized" for his randomly-generated dungeon-crawling expeditions. Story decisions also grant bonus CP (Crystal Points), which power up either of these godly forms and switching between the two basically becomes the bread & butter of the core gameplay; switch to angel form to fight devil enemies and vice versa. Angel form is more offensive focused while devil form leans more towards a defensive style in its stats and abilities. It is a simple but neat gameplay mechanic—well, for a short bit. "Simple", or rather "simplified," seems to be the purveying idea over its predecessors. There is a distinct lack of variety and depth to nearly every facet of its gameplay, especially when compared to The Guided Fate Paradox in particular. Most changes are intended for the greater accessible good. Certain gameplay structure oddities are cleared up from earlier NIS releases like a (more direct) total level count, simplifying primary stats, and (very slightly) lowering the consequence of dying in dungeons. Problem is, actually leveling up is rather slow, as the player will still find themselves clobbering most enemies in dungeons out of necessity in about the same amount of—if not more—time than previous games because of the generally slower flow. Dying is also arguably more punishing than earlier games because of the stronger reliance on stats/gear, even if the game itself is generally easier. I could go on for ages as to how The Guided Fate Paradox almost feels like the much-improved sequel that somehow got released before this title. There are simply way more engaging aspects to Guided Fate's gameplay, from actually having distinct dungeon themes, tons of equipment/skills (and the ability dual-wield weapons to get access to even more), having allies join you in combat, deep character progression, lots of cosmetic personality, to different enemy types and very unique bosses/battle scenarios. But, Awakened Fate's dungeon-crawling gameplay basically feels the same from start to finish and lacks any such variety, even with its initially cool angel and devil form mechanics. For almost literally every enemy, you simply switch between the angel and devil forms to do more damage, and there are very few actual enemy types because they need palette swaps for each of Shin's form. Just the same, bosses are also not only very sparse (and recycled!) but just as uninspired. Most bosses play out like a really slow Rock 'em Sock 'em Robot standstill until you win through attrition. Character progression is also quite lacking, as it is eerily similar to something like Final Fantasy XIII's simplistic Crystarium skill tree. The only real perk to this system is that much further in its progression Shin can essentially have access to 14 different skills at once, since abilities aren't tied to weapons and are unlocked through this leveling tree. The main grievance to me is that it is not even that the gameplay is "bad" per se (comparatively, it is), but it is remarkably... unremarkable and devoid of not only substance and change in gameplay throughout, but just plain personality too. In its transition to a 3D chibi art style, it loses a lot of the signature Nippon Ichi 2D sprite quirkiness and a cohesive visual style. Character portraits seem fairly detached from the gameplay, and while the new in-game 3D visuals may seem cute at a first glance, in motion it feels rather stilted. The cracks in what seems like the title's lowered budget become more apparent with the so few enemy types, dungeon themes, or even just forgoing animating cutscenes altogether. To add to that, more than half of the soundtrack was recycled from the The Guided Fate Paradox. Which, admittedly, I still think the music is pretty good, as well as some of the new compositions, but the tracks loop pretty frequently wear out their welcome during the fairly lengthy visual novel-esque scenes. The Awakened Fate Ultimatum is not simply disappointing because it is not as good as either of its spiritual predecessors as a game, but rather just doesn't stand out among many plain better dungeon-crawler and roguelike titles. It is a mix between the two that isn't likely to satisfy fans of either camp, much less those hoping for a faithful spiritual successor to The Guided Fate Paradox because of its drastically simplified gameplay systems, like myself. The only real impetus to wade through its so-so gameplay is to get to its surprisingly dark storytelling scenes and ambiguous "Ultimate choices." Unfortunately, even those will probably not be enough for most people because of its middling gameplay and certain, predictable narrative flaws. All that is left is a shallow husk of two outright better Nippon Ichi games, that also happens to have an interesting story around it at times. Pros: + Intriguing, dark narrative tone and ambiguous storytelling choices + Angel and devil forms allow Shin versatile abilities in combat Cons: - Real lack of variety in dungeon design and enemies - Unimpressive 3D visuals in-game and recycled music - Gameplay mechanics and skill progression have been significantly simplified from games like Guided Fate and Z.H.P. - Some rather cliche story points later on Overall Score: 5.5 (out of 10) Average Nippon Ichi makes many attempts to create a more approachable roguelike dungeon-crawler but in doing so sacrifices most aspects that would make it stand out. What is left is a narrative that, while interesting, is not enough to salvage an overall experience that has simply been outdone by both of its predecessors years ago. Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS3 code provided by the publisher.
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    Review: Bravely Default

    Developer: Silicon Studio/Square-Enix Publisher: Nintendo Platform: 3DS Release Date: February 7, 2014 ESRB: T for Teen It feels like every other year I hear about some new game being hyped up to recapture the spirit of “classic” Final Fantasy entries. We have seen games like Lost Odyssey for Xbox 360, and The Last Story for the Wii—both intending to be spiritual successor to Final Fantasy but having very different approaches to the concept. While both were generally positively regarded and had prolific figures like Hironobu Sakiguchi and Nobuo Uematsu behind them, neither game seemed to maintain too much steam beyond a passionate cult-following. Whether it be the official numbered titles that continuously cast aside their dignity or those trying to recapture the spirit under a different name, many "Final Fantasy" games seem to possibly lack or understand that proud sheen that the series once had. With that in mind, we now finally get to see Bravely Default: Where the Fairy Flies arrive on the 3DS after much delay from its 2012 Japanese launch. Originally intended to be a spiritual successor to the DS“s Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light, Bravely Default has since then shifted into a much bigger passion project in order to forge its own identity. In doing so, the game intends to blend the classic mentality of older Final Fantasy entries and have a more modern progressive design. Is Bravely Default the very thing that many RPG fans have been yearning for, or is it a airy-fairy in its pursuit of nostalgia from the past? In not-so-subtle homage style, the setting prefaces with the description of the four crystals: Water, Earth, Wind, and Fire, which dictate the balance of the world. Each crystal has become corrupted by a powerful darkness, causing the land to erode, seas to rot, skies to stand still, volcanoes to constantly erupt, and thus leading the world to decay and become increasingly less habitual. It is for this reason that a lone holy priestess (or "Vestal" in in-game terms), Agnes, seeks to purify the crystals and help save the world of Luxendarc. For anyone who has played any of the early numbered Final Fantasy entries, the setup should sound quite familiar. The setting will only increasingly sound familiar for RPG fans as it introduces the rest of the cast: Like Tiz, a lone survivor of a destroyed village, or Edea, an individual with a strong sense of justice, and lastly, the amnesiac Ringabel. If that doesn't seem hit every old-school RPG trope, I don't know what else would. That is, until you mention the gameplay as well. It is very old-school in its structure through the use of turn-based battles, random encounters, and even having an overworld-styled map for traversal. In this sense, Bravely Default goes all the way in its attempt to hit the classic notes from RPGs of yore. That said, that would simply be a surface-level view of the game—what makes Bravely Default special is actually far more so under the hood. It intentionally plays with nostalgic tropes and subtlety adds progressive elements throughout. Despite the traditional turn-based combat system, the "Brave" and "Default" mechanics add two very interesting layers to battles. "Brave" is essentially the ability to use future 'turns' in advance for combat and can be stacked up to three times, but if carelessly used the character is left in a cooldown state for as many extra turns used. On the other spectrum is "Default", which serves as passive defensive turn normally, but also gives the player one free action to use the following turn. This leads to a simple, but strategically implemented battle system that makes it sort of surprising we have not seen some variation of this concept in other turn-based RPGs. There are a lot of smart, but subtle, conveniences throughout. Random encounters—a source of grief due to their archaic design nowadays—are now completely optional. At any point point you can change the encounter rate to 2X the normal rate or even have no battles at all. One can also hasten in-game battle animations up to 4x speed, or pausing/slowing them down entirely at any time to approach battles at your pace. Borrowing just about the only good aspect from Final Fantasy III or V (yeah, I went there), the title has an absolutely dense job/class system. Ranging from over twenty classes with many interchangeable abilities, the job system lends to a ton of flexibility in a party's composition. The most unique features of Bravely Default has be with how it utilizes the streetpass and online functionality, such as "ablink", "friend summon", and the rebuilding of Norende aspects. "Friend summon" allows a player to send a skill of their choice (with a custom name and catchphrase) to another person's game, and is received online or from streetpasses. Which, I admit, there is something that is very oddly cool seeing somebody else's character randomly help you during a tough battle to deal damage or heal your party. In extension to this concept is the "ablink" functionality, where a player can borrow job skills/abilities from fellow people on their 3DS friends list, which is honestly more helpful than it should be. Also, in an effort to rebuild Tiz's hometown, Norende, there is even a Farmville-esque minigame where you get free items at regular intervals, or new and better equipment to purchase at certain shops based on real-time. This strange mini-game process only gets faster as you acquire more streetpasses or connect online daily. While it may sound shady and limiting, it leads to something that is deviously engaging when it comes to checking your 3DS regularly, like most of the streetpass/online features. Not all of the more unique elements are tied to gameplay, however, and there are even some that creatively utilize the narrative. The character Ringabel is a great example of playing with the tired amnesiac cliche in Japanese-RPGs: He's outgoing, an unapologetic womanizer (granted, really excessively so for the first half), and not actually terribly concerned with having lost his memory and is frequently shrugging it off with humor. But later on—more so than any other character in the main cast—he develops and matures, and he's not even the "main character." Even seemingly miscellaneous story aspects are handled in an interesting way. Early in, the party obtains a diary, referred to D's Journal, which is used both as an encyclopedia of information and as a narrative device for foreshadowing future narrative events to come. Looking at it, however, is completely optional, despite being used to flesh out certain character backstories or parts of the setting in some surprisingly in-depth ways. Some of the more intriguing moments of the narrative are actually built into “Sidequests." They primarily provide context toward getting new and optional character class jobs, but their narrative vignettes are often times a fair amount darker in tone comparison to the main story, and also help wrap up certain narrative loose ends. While some sidequests are handled better than others, they often times serve as the more engaging alternative to the main story that plays it far too familiar and predictable most of the time. As much as it disappoints me to say—as seemingly aware as Bravely Default appears to be about its tropes—it actually falls under the trapping of its own narrative cliches by relying on them too heavily. Even if I'd argue Ringabel is handled well, the rest of the cast fails to evolve too much beyond their character archetypes, with Tiz and Agnes easily being the biggest examples. This goes almost double for most of the bloated main storytelling that is both predictable and very, very repetitive. Following the main storytelling, one other aspect is handled really poorly, and this is the absolutely glaring padding in the second half of experience. I don“t just mean the pacing slows down later on—which is almost expected in many RPGs—but you quite literally repeat the same content multiple times (four times, specifically) with minor alterations. Not just familiar content, but exact same bosses, general story scenes, sidequests (while they may cool the first time, not so much multiple times...), and even a tedious button-mashy mini-game. It is vexing and dull not only from a gameplay perspective but also in regards to narrative. I may be exaggerating the extremity of the story repetition for the average player (although, I'm not for myself, who did every sidequest, and found it to be seriously that bad), but it also helped emphasize some of the game's other flaws in the long-term. For as nice as it is to be able to fast-forward the battle animations, battles are still rather slow overall and most bosses in particular are significant damage sponges to make them last even longer (many of which are repeated because of narrative reasons). Not just that, but the dungeon design is also very uninspired for the entire game without any particularly creative themes or puzzles to accompany them, making the core gameplay rely almost entirely on the gameplay systems surrounding it. Pushing aside some of the disappointment/complaints the game brings, Bravely Default is quite rich with style both in terms of its audio and visuals. The chibi-ish character designs may not appeal to everyone, but Akihiko Yoshida's art style generally present a charmingly nostalgic visual look and the distinct environments serve to complement. What really steals the show is the music, which is excellent. There is a lot of variety with the musical score with plenty of intense battle themes, catchy character tunes, eclectic town pieces, with some of the final tracks of the soundtrack being an amazing culmination of all of them. Bravely Default is absolutely on the cusp of greatness, or possibly beyond, but it is hindered mostly by the immensely repetitive slog that is the second half of the game and storytelling that fails to significantly evolve its scope or most of its characters much. It has the core tenants for a very well-crafted RPG experience with its great job system, progressive features, creative use of system functionality, excellent musical score, and is rich with style and charm. In some ways, it may very well be one of the most accurate examples of many Japanese-RPGs nowadays: In some instances it embodies the genre at its best, but it also plays it far too safe. Pros + Dense job/class customization and simple, but smart, turn-based combat + Very creative use of streetpass functionality and online friends list + Certain sidequest story arcs and character journal entries are engaging +Excellent music and nostalgic art direction + Random Encounter Rate Slider Cons - Main narrative and most characters are excessively “homage”/predictable - Bland overall dungeon design - Battles are still a bit too slow even after toggling with faster animation speed - Extremely tedious padding in the later half of the game that gets really repetitive both narratively and gameplay-wise Overall Score: 7 (out of 10) Good Bravely Default is endearing in the many RPG facets it excels in. However, when it falters, it unfortunately diminishes what it means to be the one of the very best RPG experiences on 3DS.
  13. Jordan Haygood

    Bravely Default

    From the album: Kaptain's Gallery

    © Square Enix

  14. Developer: AquaPlus Publisher: Atlus USA Platforms: PlayStation 3 Release Date: October 14, 2014 ESRB: T for Teen Tears to Tiara II: Heir to the Overlord does not make a good first impression. It is probably the most visually underwhelming game that I have played this year, not to mention that most of its narrative aspects came off as rather derivative at first. Yet, over time, I have learned that that preconception does quite a disservice to one of the best RPGs of this year. Though titled as a second entry, which is accurate, Tears to Tiara II: Heir of the Overlord is a mostly independent release from its unlocalized predecessor. Beyond some generally minor callbacks to the original Tears to Tiara and the same Strategy-RPG/Visual Novel gameplay hybrid, Tears to Tiara II: Heir of the Overlord succeeds on its own. The game starts off in Hispania, a small country under the dominion of the Divine Empire. Those that follow the religious beliefs of Ba'al have lived their lives as slaves under harsh tyranny of the Divine Empire for seven years. To quell the undercurrent of a possible rebellion, and to help usher a means of absolute religious centralism, the imperial army tries to convert the son of a former powerful bloodline to weed out other possible revolutionists. This son, known as Hamilcar Barca, is viewed as an incompetent, weak-willed successor who actually had no intention of supporting the conspiring revolutionists under his family's name. Still, even Hamil is pushed to the edge after witnessing certain atrocities by the Empire, in which he then calls upon the latent spirit of blood-thirsty overlord, Melqart, to gain the power to incite a rebellion against the Empire. There are two parts to Tears to Tiara II's general structure that you have to accept, and those are that it is most certainly a visual novel, but it is also very much a turn-based strategy-RPG as well. It may be a tough compromise for two genres that may not have a lot of overlap amongst fans, but I believe that both facets lend themselves to one another quite well. The most difficult aspect for me to adjust to was the storytelling. At raw face value I thought most of it came off as rather trite: from a one-dimensional evil empire to even certain important characters, like Tarte who seemed to embody the extremely overplayed tsundere character archetype at first glance (no small thanks for her popular Japanese voice actress). This, of course, is very easily the first impression of the game and it will require a fair amount of patience see past it, with visual novel exposition being upwards of 2-3 hours during certain portions. What caught me off-guard was how surprisingly well-written the storytelling actually was. For instance, many characters that I thought were shallow archetypes played on my expectations by showing a lot of genuine depth, and the world itself being quite fleshed out. I don“t draw attention to this as much as I should, but even the localization and writing also read very well. This stood out to me especially after playing Ar NoSurge recently, which had many inconsistencies in its translation and generally felt rough to read. Admittedly, the narrative is still a slow burn because of how it is more visual novel than strategy-RPG for the first half of the game in particular. Sticking with the storytelling, however, made me really surprised at how much I liked a lot of the characters which have some great moments that feel quite heartfelt. While the storytelling is generally fairly good, its pacing is sort of all over the place. Perhaps the biggest example of this is when it hits a narrative apex during the halfway point where both the storytelling and character motivations are at their best. Though there are certainly good moments that follow, like some poignant character development, the latter portion of the overarching narrative feels much more route in comparison to the build up that occurs in those particular pivotal moments. It's weird that Tears to Tiara II has a very inconsistent rhythm to its narrative flow, but pressing through made me increasingly fond of the storytelling overall the further I delved into it. Massive visual novel storytelling aside, Tears to Tiara II is also very deliberately a turn-based strategy-RPG as well. As a strategy-RPG, it is generally by the books for the genre with some more modern tweaks. That's not a particularly bad thing, but those who are expecting something entirely mechanically fresh, like Valkyria Chronicles , the core gameplay likely won't invoke that feeling. What it does it does well, however, with many varying mission objectives and challenging, strategic scenarios. As with traditional Japanese strategy RPGs, combat takes place on a grid and both the player's and enemy's turn are dictated by group phases. One of its more unique mechanics is that there is a chain gauge which increases based on various actions in combat. Chain stock can be used to power up certain skills, as follow-up hits for normal attacks, or unleash special team combination skills. There are also extra nuances like an elephant party member that serves as a spawn point for reinforcements (don't ask) and allies with powered up forms that help employ different approaches to battles. Despite not being the most original take on the genre, Tears to Tiara II does a good job at introducing new facets to the gameplay and mission objectives regularly. It also borrows many conveniences from more modern examples in the genre: such as being able to see the range of enemy movement/attacks like in Fire Emblem Awakening, able to rewind turns like Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together on PSP, altering animation/movement speed like Disgaea, and suspend saving like many handheld games. Don't be fooled, however; victories aren't free in Tears to Tiara II and are most certainly earned even on the standard difficultly. Those that still find that not challenging enough can try achieve higher missions ranks, complete hard mode (which does away with the rewind feature), or even try diving into the difficult post-game dungeon. In a weird way the above-average difficulty actually heightens the narrative satisfaction, even if battles tend to take too long in later fights. Despite both the gameplay and storytelling being handled well, undoubtedly the weakest component of the game is its visual presentation. The 3D visuals look early PS2 era at best and have many incredibly awkward animations during story scenes in particular. Not only that, it has a bit of Final Fantasy Tactics syndrome where the cutesy character models do seem out of place when conveying its fairly serious storytelling. That said, the character portraits are generally well-drawn, especially certain CG images. In contrast, the audio is solid, from music to Japanese voice acting. It may be a shame to some that there is no English dub at all, but it is not surprising considering the massive visual novel script. It seems like Atlus USA has quite the knack at cherry-picking gems among Strategy-RPGs. Much like Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time, it seems to hearken back to another era where storytelling, characters, and challenging gameplay were more respected among Japanese RPGs. It is a shame that Tears to Tiara II: Heir of the Overlord is unlikely to get the audience it deserves because of its tawdry presentation and immense visual novel component. But, for those who are willing to take notice and forgive its occasional faults with its demeanor, Tears to Tiara II: Heir of the Overlord will reward them during its conquest in the long term. Pros: + Well-written, heartfelt storytelling + Likable characters + Challenging, strategic gameplay + Extremely meaty main game Cons: - 3D visuals are incredibly dated and awkwardly presented - Later battles take too long - Uneven narrative pacing with some excessively long exposition Overall Score: 8 (out of 10) Great What it loses in occasional presentation/pacing skirmishes Tears to Tiara II: Heir of the Overlord can win the hearts with its great storytelling and strategic gameplay in the long term for those who can see through its many battles to the end Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS3 code provided by the publisher.