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  1. Developer: Idea Factory, Compile Heart, Felistella Publisher: Idea Factory International Platform: PlayStation Vita Release Date: August 26, 2014 ESRB: T for Teen Some things are not meant to be taken seriously. This goes for pretty much any medium. Sure you have films like Citizen Kane, but then you also have stuff like Disney“s The Three Amigos. Then there“s basically anything with Channing Tatum in it. My point is you don“t have to be making a statement about the social or economic climate of a chippendales strip club in order to sell tickets. Sometimes a wafer thin plot and well oiled chests are enough. Not that there are any oiled chests in Hyperdimension Neptunia Re:Birth1 (though there are some close calls), a remake of the PlayStation 3 title Hyperdimension Neptunia, but the previous metaphor still applies. This isn“t the grand narrative usually synonymous with RPGs, but that doesn“t mean there isn“t something enjoyable about this hilarious take on the video game industry. So if you“re new here let me explain that last statement. The world within Neptunia is a literal representation of the world of video games. The world of Gameindustri houses four nations, each representing a heavy hitter in our own world. Leanbox (Xbox), Lastation (PlayStation), Lowee (Wii), and Planeptune (a take on a seventh generation Sega console, as if the company had survived the Dreamcast) are all locked in a struggle known to all as The Console Wars. Yep, it“s about as campy as you can imagine with references to not only each console“s individual quirks, but the world of Gameindustri seems to be populated with folk that represent a bunch of different developers. For instance, Falcom is a character in the game that sports a mop of Adol-like red hair and is obsessed with adventuring. Anyone who is invested as much in the world behind video games as much as they are in the games themselves will be chuckling ridiculously at the sight of enemies such as "Tokimeki Sister", a monster that is literally a floating screencap of a visual novel game that is an homage to Tokimeki Memorial, a Konami dating sim that came out in 1994. The references are literally everywhere, especially in Neptune's fourth-wall breaking antics. Though I absolutely adore the game's about-as-serious-as-a-hula-dancing-meerkat plot, that isn't the only thing I liked. Since the original's release, the game's combat and other in-game systems have been overhauled to resemble Hyperdimension Neptunia Victory. Basic combat takes place in a small three-dimensional space, allowing you to move your characters to meet the enemy head on, retreat to a safe distance, or anything in between. This is further enhanced by the variety of combat options such as the EXE Drive, SP attacks, Lily Partner combination attacks and shared skills, and Hard Drive Divinity, a powerful transportation move available to certain characters. Even regular attacks are broken up into several categories that you can customize, swap, and use to exploit certain advantages in battle. It's anything but simple but by spacing out the introduction of some of these mechanics (some even up to the halfway point in the game!), it keeps from being too confusing while also ensuring combat remains fresh throughout the game. MAGES., a party member you recruit about halfway into the game, even has a completely different method of attack. Outside of battle there is still plenty of additions to this game. The "Remake System" allows you to craft new experiences within the game. Anything from unlocking optional dungeons to new weapons can be created using it. The Remake system even allows you to tune the difficulty a bit, a nice addition considering there is otherwise no difficulty options. Other options include a variety of repeatable side quests that raise and lower the "shares" between Gameindustri's major players, burning "discs" that allow you to further customize characters, and even events with bit characters that will usually yield more plans for the Remake System or useful tips. Basically there is really too much to this game to talk about it all at length, which is exactly why I haven't even tried! But all is not well in the land of Gameindustri. While there are plenty of things well worth praising, there are a few hang ups that keep the game from being even better. For one, level designs tend to repeat themselves often, especially when you partake in the optional dungeons as well. I'm not just talking about textures and objects that tend to populate multiple dungeons; I'm talking even the exact layouts and item/monster spawn placement of these dungeons are complete copy and pastes from other dungeons. It doesn't happen too often, but enough that it'll make you wonder if you clicked on the wrong dungeon from the overworld map, with only the difference in enemies to tip you off otherwise. Another bummer, at least to yours truly, is the overall lack of voice over. I certainly don't expect any game to be fully voiced, but this one is odd with less than half of the game's main story featuring voice overs for the characters. You can literally move from a voiced scene to a non-voiced scene without any real transition by the player. Frankly, it's a little jarring. Now, this is really only disappointing because I think the voice cast is pretty spot on. Players will definitely recognize most of the voice actors for the English dub, and players who don't care for English dubs can switch to the Japanese language track at any time from the menu too. Also, I'm not going to speculate on your personal line of decency, but yes, there is some fan service in this game. Thankfully it isn't overwhelming and occurs half as often as you'd expect, but you were warned. Personally, also had a hard time taking full advantage of the Lily system. This mechanic allows you to pair party members up, providing passive bonuses as well as exclusive attack options, provided their affection level is high enough. Sounds great right? Well, unfortunately I couldn't seem to figure out how to raise affection levels for my characters. Keeping certain members paired should do it from what I understand, but all through my time with the game the rank never seemed to go up. Not to mention there isn't any sort of visual indicator for when they might level up their affection. It's like tying these girls up at the ankle for a three-legged race, only they are blind and in the middle of some long-forgotten African mine field. You are very welcome for that visual, by the way. So what have we got so far? Funny, never serious story? Yep. Deep and involved combat that rewards strategic use of its features? Got that too! Well, there are a few more things to add to the pile. The music is equal parts kitschy and catchy... but in the best ways possible. These aren't "Journey" level songs by any means (Austin Wintory; not the "Loving, Touching, Squeezing" guys), but I will say every song suits Hyperdimension Neptunia Re;Birth1 perfectly. The art is quite adorable too. Even without ties to real life references, each character's design stands out just like their respective personalities. There are even a few all new characters to replace those removed in this version of the game. All of Hyperdimension Neptunia's features made my time in Gameindustri an irreverent romp through a highly idealized world populated by wacky characters and campy dialogue. And honestly, I wouldn't have it any other way. The flashy designs, immersive combat and pure hilarity made this game a joy to play. Even the lack of consistent voice-acting and other flaws couldn't ruin the experience for me. Heck, there's even enough changes to make Re;Birth1 seem like more of a reboot than a remake; something I think Acquire was aiming for from the start. So if you have a Vita and love you some RPG goodness, this comes as definitely recommended. I mean, most gamers are more than willing to wage the console wars on the eternal battlefield that is the internet, so why not do it where you can actually see results?! Pros: + Vibrant graphics look great on the Vita + Hilarious dialogue and premise + Combat stays fresh and interesting + Heaps of mechanics to play with Cons: - Repetitive dungeons designs - Not as many voiced scenes as I'd like - Lily system isn't quite user friendly Overall Score: 8.5 (out of 10) Great It's far from typical, but Hyperdimension Neptunia Re;Birth1 is an energetic reboot that is sure to please with both its humor and overhauled mechanics. Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable code provided by the publisher.
  2. 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.
  3. Jason Clement

    Review: Rain

    Developer: PlayStation C.A.M.P. Acquire, SCE Japan Studio Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment Platform: PS3 (PSN only) Release Date: October 1, 2013 ESRB: E 10+ A download code was provided by the publisher for this review PlayStation C.A.M.P.'s Tokyo Jungle was one of last year's most unique and undeniably unorthodox titles, not only for its unique premise (survival of the fittest among animals in post-apocalyptic Japan) but its interesting game mechanics as well. Similarly, the developer's newest title, Rain, seeks to continue that same out-of-box thinking. Its premise is a bit similar to a Hudson Wii game from several years back called Lost In Shadow, but in this game, the protagonist is an invisible boy whose outline can only be seen in the falling rain. And, like Tokyo Jungle, it's an experience quite unlike anything else. Rain begins with a somewhat lengthy prologue detailing the events that lead up to the protagonist's current circumstance. During the night, a boy witnesses an invisible girl being chased by a similarly invisible creature outside his window; their silhouettes being the only thing visible in the damp, pouring rain. Feeling a need to help the girl, the boy jumps out into the night after them, only to find as he is caught up in the chase that he too has become invisible. The antagonistic bipedal creature is revealed to the player as The Unknown, a being whose design is almost straight out of one of Tim Burton's many works. Overall, the plot revolves around uncovering the mystery of why The Unknown is chasing the girl (and eventually the boy) and why both children are invisible. At its base, the game can be considered a puzzle platformer, but it's almost better described as a piece of interactive fiction, as the driving force behind the game is its narration and story. Right from the get-go, Rain's storybook intro (with its painterly images) segues into the endless rainy night, with words appearing on the walls and streets to narrate the events that are happening as you progress through different scenes. And like other smaller titles such as Papo & Yo and The Unfinished Swan, Rain is an extremely linear, guided experience, which means there is almost no room for exploration beyond what the game wants you to see in its story, save for some extras which I'll mention further on. The gameplay itself is relegated to running, jumping, and occasionally interacting with an object. Much of the experience revolves around stealth and sneaking around to avoid being detected by different invisible creatures that are on the prowl. Seeing as the boy is only visible in the rain, you'll use this fact to your benefit by finding roofs, awnings, and other overhead protrusions that provide a dry shelter in order to stay invisible and undetectable to enemies. You'll also use the environment and objects around you to progress as well; the nice thing is that the game continually adds new mechanics into the mix with each new chapter to keep things interesting. What starts out as a seemingly endless chase to catch up with the mysterious girl then becomes a more Ico-like experience once you do meet up at last. Together, you'll help each other overcome obstacles and challenges, and distract the invisible creatures from the other. There are some interesting visual devices that PlayStation C.A.M.P. introduces to ensure the player can always see where the boy and the girl are, from mud that sticks to their pant legs and only washes off upon stepping into a puddle of water, to smaller cues such as splashes in the water or small clouds of dust that are created when running in dry areas. Some of the most interesting aspects about Rain to me are the mood it sets with its atmosphere and the themes it draws on during the narrative. Music in particular plays a huge role in setting the atmosphere. Claire de Lune serves as the game's main theme, beautiful and haunting at the same time, and serves to inspire the rest of the game's reflective, orchestral soundtrack, which is quite good. Much of the game instills a loneliness in you due to the streets being devoid of life, other than you, the girl, and the invisible creatures. Hopelessness, uncertainty, and fear are other interesting themes that are explored, especially toward the end as the mystery begins to unravel. Not unlike Tokyo Jungle, Rain looks nice but isn't necessarily a graphical powerhouse; it doesn't push the PS3 in any noticeable way, and the invisible creatures' design (or outline, in this case) aren't all that inspired. Yet, like C.A.M.P.'s post-apocalyptic animal game, the dev team did some interesting work in researching and replicating the early 20th century look of the city's surroundings. Since the game is played with a fixed camera angle that pans slightly at certain points, there are a lot of different shots of the city; hundreds, if not thousands, and they all recreate a very authentic urban feel in the buildings, streets and cars. In this way, the art direction is supremely well done. If there's one thing that I found disconcerting about Rain, it's that the story can be a bit complicated to follow, especially toward the end. Often it will get lost in metaphors and allegories, leaving you to wonder what is meant to be taken literally and what isn't. Even still, its climax recalls some of the powerful notes that games such as Journey, Papo & Yo, and The Unfinished Swan closed on. And even after the story is over, you'll be able to replay and find hidden "memories" that expand on the characters' backstory, giving the game some replay value. For all its worth, Rain is an interesting and engaging experience. At just over 3 hours, it's a little short, and it isn't necessarily challenging either, but its premise and plot make it one of the more unique titles that manages to stand out among the rest this Fall. Pros + Narrative and plot keep you interested and hooked throughout + Interesting visuals, nice effects with the rain and invisibility + Music is well done Cons - Not particularly challenging - Short experience (3 hours or so) Overall Score: 8.5 (out of 10) Great Rain is a very different type of game, but its unique premise and narrative lend itself well to what can be considered one of the year's most intriguing artsy game experiences.
  4. Marshall Henderson

    Review: Way of the Samurai 4

    Developer: Acquire Publisher: XSeed Platform: PS3 (PSN) ESRB: M for Mature Release Date: Out Now In the world of games, there is a schism. A dividing line separates, both in style and culture, the East and the West, through differing ideologies and philosophies going into design and story. Way of the Samurai 4 embodies this; the mechanics of the East call upon the influence of the West, while its narrative shows peoples of the two cultures finding their way to deal with the coexistence. Foreign influence is creeping in, through the narrative and the design. Unfortunately, as every cracked history book on any library shelf will tell us, the confluence of cultures never comes easy. It“s a tumultuous time in Japan. Western influence descends like a mist unto Japan“s culture, and the effect is polarizing. For some, it“s an absolute adherence to the old ways, ignoring so-called Western innovation for tradition. For others, the British visitors represent the world of tomorrow. In Way of the Samurai 4, players create their own samurai to decide the fate of Amihara and its three factions: The shogunate, the anti-government rebels, or the British Navy. Given that there are ten unique endings, however, it“s not so simple as choosing one of the three. A wayward decision, whether it“s dialogue, combat, or inaction, at any of the major plot points, starting minutes in, can decide the tide of the entire story. As a staple of the series, the player“s choices have evolved a great deal. Dialogue options, historically separated into an affirmation, a negation, and information, have expanded to include more in-depth information-gathering, as well as the ability to interject into someone else“s dialogue to speak with them, other people in the room, or even oneself to decide actions or fill out a scenario more. Unfortunately, with the exception of agreeing or disagreeing to a course of action, or deciding to leave an event to maybe return later, there“s very little actual agency here. The “best” ending requires extremely precise and specific actions, but very few of the other eight endings have meaningful dialogue choices, seeming to lack any meaningful impact. Ultimately, this ends up feeling feeling more cosmetic than contributive. It“s like a layer of paint slapped onto a house already a few layers thick; the curb appeal may be significantly improved, but it doesn“t hold up under any form of scrutiny. Scrutiny is also no friend to the aesthetic of Amihara. Character models lack any sense of particular realism or even stylization, appearing to be similar to early PlayStation 3 titles. While they aren“t necessarily bad, they do have a sort of dead look that isn“t particularly endearing. Area designs are fairly true to life, with traditional Japanese architecture that looks good, but unfortunately pretty bland. When the player travels to the foreign district, the architecture becomes the much more ornate British style. Fortunately, Way of the Samurai 4 doesn“t build its narrative as its backbone. Customization, and its wacky sense of humor, are the primary mission statements in this installment. Players can initially choose between three different faces, getting saddled with the default robe and a sword. During the playthrough, players are able to buy new decorations -- aesthetic items like umbrella hats or drinking gourds -- as well as new clothes. The clothes do nothing more than add a bit of uniqueness to the player“s character, but the selection is vast, and mixing-and-matching is possible, so finding one“s own look can be very gratifying. Once the player completes a playthrough, they receive points measuring their “samurai-ness.” The player can spend these points on buying certain sorts of upgrades, increased difficulty levels, skills such as dual-wielding, as well as different appearance options, such as sex, skin-tone, and body type. Samurai often believed their weapons an extension of themselves, so it only makes sense that the sense of personalization would extend to the player“s weapon. Players can craft both swords and spears, if they have a blade, a guard, and a grip. There is a huge variety of these parts, from the bamboo shinai to things like kodachi, nodachi, normal katana, or European straight swords, all of which can be mixed and matched, so long as they are appropriate to the sword or spear category. Any time the player collects a weapon, from killing enemies or culled from when other players“ characters enter one“s own world via “Crossroads Killing,” they can break it down at the blacksmith to gain its constituent parts, then reforge those into a different weapon. The parts contain their own stats, as well as unique stats that, when combined in a specific way, can grant special bonuses to the amount of money the player finds. Outside of that, the blacksmith, like in Way of the Samurai 3, can upgrade weapons“ durability and attack. Once forged, a blade must then be tested in combat. Way of the Samurai 4 follows in the trend of the series, allowing for different stances and variety in combat, but it is, of course, expanded from the previous games. Sword, spear, gun, and hand-to-hand combat styles can be used for defeating enemies, and, with the exception of guns, each can be used in a non-lethal manner. Each weapon has a variety of styles associated, utilizing different stances, and further, different techniques within a stance. No more is it the “Chudan Style” versus “Jodan” or anything of that sort. Instead, there is a stance that uses the stances as their starting position, but each style utilizes a different array of techniques from that stance. Combat can be somewhat awkward, especially without a reliable way to switch targets, but with styles that level and grow with usage, and the sheer number of different styles, it feels versatile and compelling. If no one style is particularly satisfactory, it is, of course, possible to invent one“s own style, once certain conditions are met. This entails choosing a base stance, then selecting techniques from every technique one has mastered that uses the stance. It is possible to just blanket-copy an entire style, which is useful if one wishes to mix and match different stances to switch between in combat. When a player has forged and named their own sword, and goes into battle with their own style, there definitely is a sense of owning that character. Creating a style can be very tedious to do, unless copying another style, and, while the requirements for creating a style are explained, the methods for fulfilling them are not. The series has always encouraged multiple playthroughs, but Way of the Samurai 4 very literally molds its world around the concept. The new “Proof of Life” system causes events from one playthrough to affect each one after. If the player chooses to destroy a casino, for example, it will no longer exist next playthrough. If a mission to open an English school is successful, players can understand British citizens in the foreign district. Killing people in one playthrough may result in more security the next time around. In order to get what is supposed to be the “best” ending, players will have to play through multiple times to make sure the world is shaped in just such a way that events will roll out in a specific way. In this way, there is a definite sense of being a participant in the world. Perhaps the most egregious of all the flaws are the simple technical issues, however. Clipping is an absolute fact of life in Way of the Samurai 4. Dead enemies will stick into walls, seizing. Dropped items will fall into walls or unbreakable objects and become lost forever. Character movements in cutscenes are rigid, puppet-like movements that create a frequently jarring uncanny valley effect. Worst of all, the framerate often drops for seemingly no reason. Large-scale combat may run smoothly, then Way of the Samurai 4 will languish at the strain of rendering a person walking away from a conversation. It isn“t frequent enough to break one“s ability to play, but it can become irritating fast. Way of the Samurai 4 has short playthroughs, is thick with content, and has combat and customization that are beautifully integrated. That degree of customization of every part of the character, as well as the world-changing, but direction “choice” afforded players is very Western, and fits well with the theme of the Westerners and brokering of peace with Japan. Unfortunately, Way of the Samurai doesn“t quite hold up on this. A $40 price tag on a PlayStation Network title like this is simply asking too much. The weak narrative, circumstantial sense of player agency, and unacceptable bugs show that the peace between the two ideologies still needs some work. Maybe Way of the Samurai 4 isn“t the one to create that peace. Perhaps by trying, though, it at least opened that door. Pros: + Interesting, diverse combat + Massive amounts of customization + Western and Japanese development interesting Cons: - Player feels detached from the narrative - Technically unimpressive - Wheedling bugs Overall Score: 5.5 (Out of 10) Average Way of the Samurai 4 can be addictive and fun, but ultimately, it just isn't fulfilling.