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  1. barrel

    Review: Tokyo Xanadu EX+

    Developer: Falcom Publisher: Aksys Games Platform: PS4 Release Date: December 8, 2017 ESRB: T for Teen It has not been that long since the Vita release of the action-RPG Tokyo Xanadu -- a slick-looking game for Sony's portable system that tried to serve as a departure from Falcom’s signature series like The Legend of Heroes and Ys titles. If anything, Tokyo Xanadu felt like a confluence of both of Falcom’s key franchises with a modern day setting and more distinctly “anime” take. The enhanced version on PS4 named Tokyo Xanadu EX+ boasts much in the way of newly added content and enhanced visuals but is it really worth the envy of impulsive players of the original? In terms of fundamentals, Tokyo Xanadu EX+ is largely familiar to its handheld predecessor. From the episodic style of anime storytelling to the dungeon crawling and occasional social aspects both in and out of school, the heart of Tokyo Xanadu EX+ remains the same. How it wears its recent Persona game influence (4 especially) on its sleeve remains quite prevalent as well. Frankly, my recommendation remains steadfast that one should just play something like Persona 3-5 before getting to something so clearly derivative of that series yet not nearly as good. Heck, the title is not even Falcom's A-game either when recent Ys games have better combat systems and The Legend of Heroes has much stronger characters and storytelling. For those curious as to what Tokyo Xanadu EX+ has to offer, there's a surprising amount compared to what its predecessor offered and it's safe to say that it's the definitive version of the game. What is actually new seems to stem out from various attempts at re-balancing and dispersing new content here and there between the main story. Enemies and bosses are noticeably more aggressive to counter the player’s newly added combat tools, enhanced 60 fps fidelity, and more responsive controls. For example, the mechanic "X-Drive", which used to be a temporary stat/regen buff on Vita, does that as well as summon another ally to join mid-battle and spam special moves alongside the player character in EX+. The game was not particularly challenging on the standard difficulty and remains so on PS4, but it feels that much honest on PS4 because the technical side is not a point of contention anymore and the enemy AI nowhere near as sleepy. While the action-RPG gameplay itself remains fairly average with repetitive dungeon crawling and so-so storytelling, the PS4 port itself is excellent. The art direction holds up and the generally silky smooth frame rate makes it pleasing to look in motion despite more than a few bland environments/enemy models. This stood out to me all that much more after playing Xenoblade Chronicles 2 alongside with it which is far less cohesive aesthetically, and technically, in comparison. Perhaps the most likely cause of envy for those saddled with the Vita release is the many new story scenes. After every chapter, there is a new narrative interlude generally focused on a specific character and ends with a short dungeon trek. Unfortunately, most extra chapters are barely worth mentioning except for the ones centered on the most intriguing character of the main narrative named "White Shroud" which gives players a neat taste of endgame combat early in. Speaking of which, if there is one aspect truly worth the spite of Vita-only owners, it is the endgame "After Story" chapter. Taking place following the main story, the After Story starts rather cute with a Halloween theme and heartwarming interpersonal sidequests. Though, that goodwill is later ruined by the lengthy grind of extra dungeons that introduce next to nothing new along a sequel tease to top it all off. Tokyo Xanadu EX+ straddles the line of being a wonderful port but also begs the question as to why did they put such effort into a game that hardly stands out as is. The PS4 version cleans up and refines the title in many subtle ways -- from extra story chapters, tightened up battle mechanics, and an enhanced presentation -- yet it still doesn't shake the overbearing feeling of Tokyo Xanadu being so thoroughly average among much better role-playing games in 2017 (even from Falcom itself.). It may be the most complete version the game has to offer though I can certainly think of more than a few PS4 RPGs more worth one's time before even giving Tokyo Xanadu EX+ a passing glance. Pros + Great port to PS4 from enhanced visuals to tighter combat mechanics + The "After Story" chapter is a neat addition Cons - Most extra chapters barely add anything story or gameplay-wise and feel like bloat for a game that already had way too much - Still has the fundamental problems of the original game from throwaway storytelling/characters and tedious dungeon crawling Overall Score: 5.5 (out of 10) Average Tokyo Xanadu EX+ is essentially what the original release should've been with its neat additions but still struggles to really stand out among many better role-playing game options from 2017 Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS4 code provided by the publisher.
  2. barrel

    Review: Collar X Malice

    Developer: Idea Factory Publisher: Aksys Games Platform: PS Vita Release Date: July 28, 2017 ESRB: M for Mature With the likes of distorted camera footage showcasing ruthless murders in the name of "justice," the PS Vita's newest visual novel Collar x Malice quickly sets the tone of its tense setting. One would be hard-pressed to find any trace of Idea Factory's romantic otome underpinnings until at least an hour in, if that. At least until a group of pretty males that were former officers join the fray to help you solve various murder mysteries. But even that does not bring much comfort considering just how cold they all are at the outset. At the start of the game, it's bad news all around. An extremist terrorist group named Adonis has been publicly announcing systemic "X-Day" killings to judge various "sinners" that the law has apparently failed to reach. After months of failing to apprehend these suspects, the Japanese government has grown so desperate that they decide to quarantine Shinjuku entirely to help contain the terrorists' influence. Trust in law enforcement is at an all-time low and public unrest at an all-time high. Just when things could not seem to get any worse, Ichika Hoshino -- the main heroine, and a fresh and upcoming officer -- gets kidnapped. The next moment she wakes up, she learns she is saddled with a deadly collar around her neck. Though she is temporarily saved by a group of mysterious former police officers rather quickly, she is told by the leader of Adonis, via her collar, that she needs to uncover the truth behind the "X-Day incidents" alongside these men or she will be poisoned to death at the end of the year. And so, that becomes the player's primary objective Collar X Malice is a visual novel structured around five different character routes (the last of which is locked until one completes the four others) with each tale standing well enough on their own. What is intriguing in how it is told is each story route has an entirely different focus and the many pieces to the overarching storytelling only really make sense upon finishing all of them due to their complex subplots. Though, one will have to be able to overlook a hokey story element or two to see it through (like how the Japanese government apparently thought it was a good idea to issue guns to all citizens during the Shinjuku quarantine?). Collar X Malice is largely about investigating murder mysteries and conspiracies with a dash of romance interspaced between it all. Flowery otome fanservice is present, but generally speaking, it is the furthest thought from the primary cast early in. Each of the male leads has rather distinct personal objectives that give them plenty of reason to act cold to the main heroine (the same also applies in inverse). Because of this pretense, the trust that is gained between what is initially a business-only relationship feels much more organic than one would expect. My favorite of these character developments is the incredibly brash former officer of the cyber crimes division, Takeru. Though he is more than a bit haughty (aggressively so usually), his route is far more personal focused than most others in the entire game (except for maybe the eyepatch-wearing Mineo perhaps). For as prideful as Takeru may be, his side of the storytelling does a wonderful job of making him feel down to earth during the course of it. Also, he has some hilariously sassy quips at times, so that's a plus for me too. Some routes are certainly better than others, however. The one that personally took me the longest to shoulder on through, purely for thematic reasoning, was that of the Special Protections officer, Kei. Now, I like Kei enough as a character but I found his character route to be rather obnoxious. It encroached upon a trope that I dislike in otome games especially, which is the fixation of protecting the main heroine. Admittedly, the context behind Okazaki's seemingly selfless motivations unravels to have much darker implications over time. Still, one will hear some variation of the phrase "I will protect you" a nauseating amount of times. Of course, reminiscent of Code Realize: Guardians of Rebirth in this small regard, both characters and their narrative arc focus are extremely subject to taste and, occasional narrative grips aside, are told well overall in spite of excessively long banter at times. That said, there is actually more that goes on in Collar X Malice than thumbing through walls of story text and earning the hearts and minds of one's eventual male suitors as a game. Without a doubt, most of the progression stems from picking correct dialogue choices to properly reach a tale's conclusion and hoping they don't die in doing so. There are also instances of basic point & click-styled detective work and, surprisingly, an occasional gun-based quick-time-event to shoot down a prospective criminal. Speaking of which, there is an alarming amount of bad endings. Most bad endings usually not-so-subtlety apply the expression "curiosity killed the cat", but there are a few bad ends that are surprisingly meaningful to the overarching story despite not technically being required to see. For as much as the player is likely to stumble to their doom before reaching their desired conclusion(s), Collar X Malice is usually quite slick in how it is presented. The beautifully drawn character art is but one clear perk of it (unless one is uncomfortable with the occasional otome-styled fanservice scene. I'm not). The Japanese-only voice-acting is also really impressive, making each main character have a distinct presence throughout, though the main heroine herself is unfortunately unvoiced. Idea Factory proves yet again they have the visual novel interface thing down pat, for the most part. Godsends to the subgenre like fast-forwarding until reaching unread text, instant story scene rewinding, and various save options are all there and then some. However, the biggest replay tool of all, that being the chapter select, is not available until reaching a character's "true end". This is very important to keep in mind as I personally almost locked myself into a bad ending right before the finale of the last character route and was really close to a redundant VN fast-forwarding nightmare to fix it. While Collar x Malice is pretty good at implying that you are on the right path "for the most part" I'd recommend other's veer on the side of safety and follow a dialogue choice guide when they can just to get those true ends out of the way first. This is especially true since character routes themselves are only triggered through rigid and specific dialogue choices early in. Of Idea Factory's many otome visual novel offerings, Collar x Malice comes across as their most well-rounded. A fascinating, crime-based storytelling setup and a nuanced lead cast of characters make it easy to be drawn into its world, though various pacing mishaps and an inconsistent overarching storytelling emphasis placed upon certain leads do hold the game back from its full potential. But, all in all, Collar x Malice stands tall on its own and has the heart of a genuinely good visual novel, and it becomes quite rewarding to uncover the larger truth buried beneath its lengthy adventure. Pros + Intriguing storytelling with a heavy emphasis on murder mystery and crime-solving + Gorgeous character art and often slick visual novel interface + Healthy mix of very serious storytelling and lighthearted moments throughout + Takeru is the best boy Cons - Triggering specific story routes or right dialogue choices can feel redundant at times - Varying significance of overarching storytelling between routes can make some character's tales feel longer than others - Localization hiccups Overall Score: 7.5 (out of 10) Good A gripping premise and cast of characters make it quite easy to forget Collar x Malice's occasional foibles in how it is told as a visual novel. Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS Vita code provided by the publisher.
  3. barrel

    Review: Bad Apple Wars

    Developer: Otomate Publisher: Aksys Games Platform: PS Vita Release Date: October 10, 2017 ESRB: T for Teen 2017 has been a rather generous year for visual novels. More importantly, if you are a fan of otomes in particular, they have not been in short supply. The otome-churning machine that is developer "Otomate" has released the likes of Collar X Malice, the (partial) enhanced port of Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds, and Period Cube: Shackle of Amadeus just this year. The newest addition, and what seems to be last on the English roll call list from Otomate this year, is the recent visual novel: Bad Apple Wars. Is the stylish Bad Apple Wars a visual novel worth biting into or should it be left to rot? The setup for Bad Apple Wars is pretty well-worn territory for both anime and visual novels. Taking place in yet another example of a high school-themed approach to the purgatory concept, various young adults are whisked away just after their untimely death and are given the second opportunity at life in the bizarre "Nevaeh Academy." Or so, that's the belief. Nevaeh Academy rules are anything but clearly defined except for the ones in which students are expressly forbidden to break. This is where the clear divide between students arises where the "Bad Apples" are all too eager to break the rules in an attempt to live on and retain their identities, while "Good Apples" conform to the bizarre school life and try to properly graduate from the afterlife. It sounds all good and well until you learn that there is actually not much variation between the two apple types from a story perspective in more ways than one. Early on there is the narrative conceit of choice when choosing to become either a "Good Apple" or a "Bad Apple" which dictates which of the five character routes and "husbandos" to eventually woo. Except, spoilers (but not really): they almost all more or less tell the same story and eventually converge towards the Bad Apple side for one reason or another. It is honestly alarming just how many redundant scenes there are between every character's story because of the tunnel vision focus on breaking the seven main rules and how they need to try and justify how each male lead falls into it. Because of this, the title honestly has a tough time making any route, or its main characters, really stand out because of it. Bad Apple Wars has a lot of flaws in how its narrative is told. It is not only very derivative, bordering on plagiarism territory with its similarities to the many story devices and themes from the iconic anime Angel Beats, but it is also not that great at presenting what it attempts to do differently either. One of the strangest aspects of Bad Apple Wars is that, despite the whole romance angle, the main heroine (Rinka) does not spend that much time with her romantic candidates. You can chalk some of that up due to how Bad Apple Wars is not that long of a game for visual novel standards per story route. But I think the more apparent reasoning is how she generally spends an equal, if not greater amount, of time with supporting characters, which ironically feel more fleshed out than most of the would-be romantic candidates.This is both good and bad. On one hand, certain supporting characters are treated with far more respect than you'd expect (such as Sanzu or Naraka). On the other hand, it is an otome game that fails to earnestly flesh out their romances. The most problematic portion of the whole game is its "Soul Touch system" and the narrative context behind it. As a story device, Rinka is able to see glimpses of the past of those she physically touches. So, the more she touches them the more bits and pieces see into their past, however dark of a note they tend to end on (they all died after all). As brief as the almost text-only flashbacks are, they are generally effective at presenting their often heartbreaking past (which often come across as more grounded than you would expect.) and why they act the way they do at Nevaeh Academy. Unfortunately, prior to the flashback scenes themselves, the Vita continues to retain its unfortunate reputation of awkward touch-screen mini-games: complete with forced ecstasy moans, random disappearing clothing, and not-so-subtle visual implications (....despite them not actually doing it. It's soul touching after all!). Worst of all is that these touch-screen only portions are literally the difference between a good ending and a bad one. While it's generally pretty easy to get the good ending for most characters I did stumble upon a bad ending accidentally (for "White Mask" in particular) and was totally baffled what I did wrong at the time because I apparently did not touch the right spots enough. Awkward mini-games and questionable visual implications aside, my biggest problem with the whole Soul Touch System is that it comes across as a really cheap escape from having proper character and romantic development. The main heroine spends a whole lot of time complaining about how empty or boring she is then and then, oops, upon often accidental physical contact with [character route of choice] she discovers she has sympathy towards their various tragic backstories prior to their death. They don't tell her about their past directly, or really open up as characters, the romances just kind of happen because she learns their past. Rinse and repeat this process multiple times per character and it all feels like the least sincere approach they could have taken with their would-be romances possible. I do not want to sound totally down on the game. There are certain aspects it handles well. The Japanese voice-acting, in particular, is top-notch and has some rather prolific vocal talents. I was quite impressed by Akira Ishida's dynamic performance when playing the seemingly calm and collected male lead (and my own personal favorite route), Shikishima, as well as Tomokazu Sugita voicing the eccentric side character teacher "Mr.Rabbit" that makes about as many hare-themed puns as Zero for Virtue Last Reward. Also, something that grew on me over time is the art style as well. As much as I may like the overly detailed art style of games like Collar X Malice I came to appreciate Bad Apple Wars' very colorful art style and its water-color approach to the background environment. Though it is unfortunate that the bizarre text font choice that makes the moment to moment reading awkward, which was also seemingly made with style over practical substance. For as unique and stylish as Bad Apple Wars appears on the surface it only serves to prove that it is much more shallow and derivative experience over time. And frankly, for how much repetition there is between each story route, one needs not justify spending that much time with the main cast while playing it, just like the game does. Bad Apple Wars is neither a bad visual novel nor a good one, but rather a thoroughly unremarkable one. However, in a year with no shortage of worthwhile visual novel offerings, otome or otherwise, Bad Apple Wars does not succeed in graduating alongside with them. Pros + Strong voice acting for the main cast + Very colorful presentation with plenty of style Cons - Lots of redundant scenes between routes regardless of being a "Good Apple" or "Bad Apple" - Many story themes are shamelessly derivative of the anime Angel Beats - Really awkward touchscreen portions, with very poor narrative context behind them, that for some reason decide actual endings - What is with the in-game font? Overall Score: 5 (out of 10) Average Bad Apples Wars is a disappointing visual novel offering from Otomate that really seems to emphasize style over substance and is only really worth passing glance if one has somehow exhausted their visual novel options on Sony's gaming handheld. Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS Vita code provided by the publisher.
  4. barrel

    Review: Tokyo Xanadu

    Developer: Falcom Publisher: Aksys Games Platform: PS Vita Release Date: June 30, 2017 ESRB: T for Teen Note: This review is based on the PS Vita version of the game Falcom has gradually been winning over the hearts and minds of Japanese role-playing game fans overseas these past several years. With the Ys series, they have hit a sweet spot with action-RPG fans due to the purity of their fast-paced and fun combat design (their sweet soundtracks helped too). On the other end there are The Legend of Heroes titles where, despite having quite the troubled localization history, they have enticed fans with their incredibly meticulous world-building and character development with such releases as the fashionably late Trails in the Sky: The Third earlier this year. Now arrives a rather loose spiritual successor to one of Falcom's oldest dungeon crawler series, Xanadu, under the newest entry called Tokyo Xanadu. With a far more modern setting and gaming influences does Falcom continue to hit their stride or does Tokyo Xanadu just feel out of touch at what they do best? Right out of the gate Tokyo Xanadu feels dense with anime tropes and a modern Tokyo flair. So you'll see no shortage of anime cliches like idols, a super hacker, a bancho-esque delinquent, and plenty of high school life. This can totally be fine if well-written enough, or they subvert such tropes in clever ways, as titles like Persona 3 and 4 have certainly proven. And, well, Tokyo Xanadu kind of does that and... kind of does not; it's weird. It also wears the influence of recent Persona games on its sleeve too, which is all the more strange after having played Persona 5 released just this year. The basic premise is something along the lines that the lead character, Kou, stumbles upon a rather odd scene returning home after working late at his part-time job. Just before he attempts to play the hero in order to stop thugs from harassing a female classmate of his, a dangerous portal to another world randomly opens up and sucks everyone into it. Turns out, "Eclipse" portals are a common occurrence outside of the public eye that an underground organization, known as "Nemesis" (that his female classmate, Hiragi, happens to be a part of too) has to deal with to protect normal people from otherworldly monsters. So, after the Eclipse phenomenon impedes upon Kou's personal life a few too many times, he decides to help Hiragi with dealing with the eclipse to protect his friends and family. Oh, and Kou can manifest a magical weapon in the other realm too, because anime. As a game, Tokyo Xanadu is a hodgepodge of a lot of ideas, but most of all it is a dungeon-crawler action-RPG with social elements. It's like a mix of both Falcom's recent Ys and The Legend of Heroes releases but in a lite sort of way. It doesn't exactly satisfy when it comes to either their strengths, but it does evoke the feeling of both. Throughout the story, as well as optionally, players will come across different Eclipse dungeons. In these moments one will gain control of three different party members to play as and can switch between them on the fly in an action-RPG fashion. Tokyo Xanadu attempts to justify this through the use of strengths/weaknesses affinities, very much like recent Ys, but the normal difficulty is not skewed in a way that makes it feel all that necessary. I only really tried to exploit enemy weaknesses to get higher completion ratings and what I believe to be increased drop rates on items, but the practicality of it rarely surfaces for anything other than a player-imposed sense of changing it up. Which, well, the game doesn't do all that well to justify. The dungeon and enemy design are not particularly varied outside of bosses, but combat is entertaining enough despite not quite getting as frantic as Ys does. The rest of the experience feels more closely linked to like Trails of Cold Steel, which, by further extension, were influenced by Persona 3 & 4. So plenty of optional friendship events to uncover both in and out of school, sidequests and side activities to undertake from skateboarding to arcade games, and main character traits to increase based on specific actions (though, the stats feel pretty superfluous in this title beyond fairly minor bonuses). These tried and true systems work fine, and in pure presentation improves upon Trails of Cold Steel a noticeable amount, but the underlying story and cast of characters it's centered around makes these systems come off more like fluff as neither are all that compelling. As stated before, the anime influence is incredibly strong in Tokyo Xanadu (outside of obvious character art). And not exactly in a good way. It feels very much like a weekly show with the opening song to start it off, and a new companion by the end to conclude most chapter arcs. Plus, it is pretty aggressive with anime tropes like going pro hacker to a "bancho" like figure so shortly after. While none of the characters are particularly obnoxious (except maybe the "pro hacker" guy.), they are also not all that interesting either and barely subvert the apparent anime character trope they are based on, if at all. This stands out even more because there are fairly long stretches of storytelling where you will do little more than move to different parts of town to trigger new cutscenes. It's weird because Tokyo Xanadu is quite well made from a production standpoint. They clearly made it with the Vita hardware in mind and it plays and runs smooth both in and out of combat for the most part. The soundtrack is fairly catchy, and it is respectable how much (and how well) Japanese-only voice acting is prevalent throughout. Little details like how it is presented fairly stylishly as well are cool too (not Persona 5 stylish, but no other game really is). Facets like the NiAR phone interface make it easy to keep track of storytelling to sidequests to in-game UI and conveys a lot of information quite well. Despite all of this, however, Tokyo Xanadu feels somewhat hollow and it hugely boils down to its storytelling and cast it revolves around. The strangest part of Tokyo Xanadu is that it is a fairly well-made game but rarely excels at any one thing (except maybe music). Its storytelling straddles the line of inoffensive and also dense with anime tropes. Combat is entertaining but is not varied or challenging enough because of the dungeons and enemies themselves. I find myself thinking that I would sooner recommend the likes Falcom's other properties that one can also play on the Vita instead. Like, if one wanted a fun action-RPG I would suggest Ys Seven on PSP. If one wanted to see very intricate world-building, smart writing, and good character development I would suggest Trails in the Sky on PSP or Trails of Cold Steel on Vita. Tokyo Xanadu is a solid title but it feels like a half step in both gameplay and storytelling when Falcom has clearly proven better when they are focused on either one. Pros + Has several cool gameplay ideas, if shamelessly similar to Persona, that mixes school sim and dungeon crawling + Catchy soundtrack + Slick presentation and gameplay interface Cons - Neither the storytelling or characters are compelling enough for how much of a focus is placed upon them - A few too many anime tropes with the inherent setting can get annoying (idols, super hackers, and banchos-- oh my) - Dungeon design gets repetitive Overall Score: 6 (out of 10) Decent Tokyo Xanadu is Falcom's attempt of blending two of their best franchises (Ys and The Legend of Heroes), but rather than feeling like a perfect combination of both it comes off as a half-hearted attempt at their individual strengths Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS Vita code provided by the publisher.
  5. Developer: Arc System Works Publisher: Aksys Games Platform: PS3 and PS4 Release Date: November 1, 2016 ESRB: T for Teen Note: This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game All things considered, 2016 was actually a solid year for fighting games. Sure, Street Fighter V is facing the consequences of its less than stellar approach to content at launch, but remains as a well-crafted fighter none the less. More or less the same is true for less popular, yet generally reputable, fighting game titles such as the surprisingly good King of Fighters XIV or Pokken Tournament to more safe yet solid iterations such as Guilty Gear Xrd: Revelator or Killer Instinct Season 3. To top the year's end off was the most recent release of my own personal favorite fighting game series: Blazblue. Promising new characters, gameplay mechanics, as well as be the final narrative installment of the confusing tetralogy, Blazblue: Central Fiction will feel complete on its own. People tend to approach Blazblue for either the deep fighting gameplay or its robust visual novel story mode. As much as I love the series, Blazblue's storytelling borders on the level of Kingdom Hearts with its often convoluted approach by casually tossing out phrases like "Seithr", "Phenomenon Intervention", "Nox Nyctores", "The Boundary" and many more during the telling of it. With three previous games that had roughly twenty hour visual novel story modes each, it has become important for many series' fans and also likely indecipherable at this point for those that aren't by now. However, as someone who was expecting a narrative train wreck for the final installment, I was actually rather pleasantly surprised by how much is resolved in the main story in Central Fiction. It closes the book on most story threads and is paced noticeable better than previous games by pushing much of the excessive idle banter into optional chapters. I may have a qualm or two with cringe-worthy anime trope moments, and occasionally its pacing, but most fans should be pleased with much of the conclusion. Where Central Fiction gets most of its longevity is undoubtedly through its rich 2D fighting gameplay. The total character roster has jumped thirty-five total and most of which play vastly different from one another because of their unique character-specific "drive" mechanic (with the sole exceptions of probably Lambda and Nu-13). New additions to the playable list include light-novel spin-off protagonist Naoto, the powerful magician Nine: The Phantom, the ninja-like assassin Hibiki, Goddess of death Izanami, as well as a few others locked behind either DLC or the story mode. As strange of a composition as the new characters are, they are quite fun overall, like Nine whom crafts different spells mid-fight based on using different elemental attack combinations; Naoto, who uses powerful charge attacks that can break guards; and Susano, who unlocks skill seals to gain access to powered up abilities, and so on. Even if that sounded complicated (their story relevance even more so), Central Fiction does rather well with its gameplay tutorials. The tutorials are not quite as fun and free-flowing as Guilty Gear Xrd: Revelator was, but there is a lot of positive reinforcement through them and they are willing to explain the most basic of the aspects of game or fighters in general, to far more complicated character-specific mechanics, which is welcome. This certainly helps as Central Fiction adds some new system mechanics like "Active Flow", which powers up "Distortion Drives" based on meeting certain battle conditions or the new meter-less special attack, Exceed Accel, that all characters can use during their Overdrive mode. Again, mechanics like these and plenty more you can learn through the many helpful tutorials if you care to do so. Which, for a very dense fighter that is more than four iterations in, can be invaluable for newcomers or those who want to brush up their understanding. Now -- other than those aspects -- not a whole lot new has been brought to the table specifically for Central Fiction. It has modes one would expect like arcade, an unlock based gallery mode, and online multiplayer. The least traditional mode it even has, but not actually new to Blazblue, is the RPG-like mode renamed "Grim of Abyss", which has seen a bit of an overhaul with its design and remains rather addictive despite being an occasional interface nightmare of menus. An incredibly crucial component for many fighters nowadays is, of course, the online multiplayer. The cute 2D sprites and arcade-like lobbies from Blazblue: Chrono Phantasma make a return and there are custom player and ranked matches for those who don't want to face just anymore for online multiplayer. The only aspect that is really new at all is basically the ability to create your own online room and add random furniture to it, which I honestly fail to see much of a point to, but whatever. More importantly than any of that is the quality of the netcode, however, which... is kind of iffy. Frankly, it does not seem quite as good as Arc System Work's own Guilty Gear Xrd: Revelator (which is excellent) when I directly compared it side by side. I am not sure if this is something that will be patched down the line, and while the netcode is not bad by any means, I just wish it ran as well as Revelator's when my connection claims to be at its peak. It is hard to believe that Blazblue as a series is more than eight years old at this point. And, for a series that is more than four iterations in it manages to mostly reaffirm those who already love it as a complex and rewarding fighter by adding more to it in addition to satisfying those who are into its storytelling with the surprisingly conclusive finale. Still, for those hoping to see a huge leap in gameplay changes, Central Fiction simply is not that. It is the most approachable and content-filled the series has ever been, thanks to many helpful tutorials, but is unlikely to change minds one way or another for those who have been already been exposed to its more recent releases. Pros + Huge and highly diverse playable character roster + Surprisingly conclusive main narrative + Tutorials are helpful and provide a lot of positive reinforcement for a very mechanically dense fighter + Fun online lobbies and many gameplay unlockables Cons - Netcode does not seem as good as Arc System Work's own Guilty Gear Xrd: Revelator - No English dub whatsoever can be disappointing - Central Fiction's narrative is not approachable in the slightest for newcomers to the series Overall Score: 8.5 (out of 10) Great Even if it does not bring huge gameplay changes for the series at large, Blazblue: Central Fiction is without a doubt the best iteration of the series to date with the smart additions to its rewarding gameplay that also provides a solid narrative resolution for fans as well Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS4 code provided by the publisher.
  6. Developer: Spike Chunsoft/Tri-Ace Publisher: Aksys Games Platform: PS Vita and PS4 Release Date: October 18, 2016 ESRB: T for Teen Tri-Ace has quickly gone from one of my favorite video game developers ever to one I could not be more divided on within a span of a few years. For nearly an entire decade I thought they could no wrong because they struck a good balance between feeling very progressive with their Japanese role-playing games such as the complex Norse-themed classic Valkyrie Profile, to developing more traditional, yet fun, titles like Star Ocean: The Second Story on PS1 -- and this continued with their PS2 output as well. However, when they transitioned to high-definition consoles by making a couple of mediocre-at-best Star Ocean sequels, as well as lending a helping hand to two generally unwanted Final Fantasy XIII sequels, they have fallen much more out of favor with many individuals -- including myself (with the exception of perhaps the enigmatic gun-toting RPG Resonance of Fate). Still, after a new partnership with Spike Chunsoft, and the proclamation of making a modern spiritual successor to Valkyrie Profile, I could not abandon my naive hope to love Tri-Ace once more with the announcement of PS4/Vita RPG Exist Archive: The Other Side of the Sky. Much like I Am Setsuna was to Chrono Trigger earlier this year, Exist Archive has no shame in hearkening back to its key influence of Valkyrie Profile. It reprises a similar semi-active and combo-focused battle system, platforming gameplay elements, and even shares exact same music composer Motoi Sakuraba. But, rather than feeling like appreciated fanfare, Exist Archive frankly comes off as a pale imitation of an ultimately better series. Probably the most distinct difference that Exist Archive has from its spiritual predecessor is the setting. Valkyrie Profile, the original in particular, is an incredibly somber title in regards to storytelling as it frequently dealt with tragic deaths and the impending end of the world via Ragnarok. While Exist Archive does approach the topic of death like Valkyrie Profile, there is noticeably more levity with how it is handled as the main cast are essentially whisked from modern day earth and are granted immortality on an entirely different planet by a being named Yamatoga. Granted, immortality is hardly a blessing as Yamatoga is most certainly one who does not have good intentions, and the main characters yearn to return to their home on earth. Regardless of the setup, however, it is hard to care all that much since the cast of characters and narrative itself are rather dull throughout and you spend so much more time grinding in repeated dungeons than seeing any meaningful story development. I would describe playing Exist Archive as asking for someone to scratch a specific (Valkyrie Profile) itch, only for them to tickle that spot instead; leaving one unsatisfied for many reasons. For example, Exist Archive is not a varied title at all. There is no real world map with towns to visit or any sense of agency when exploring, like the game it apparently wishes to be. You basically just pick a dungeon to go into, and it may have minor exposition, or it may not. Problem is, there aren't actually that many different dungeons, let alone enemy variety, making it feel basically the same from start of finish as you move from one level to another. It also does not help that certain skills you would have right at the start of a Valkyrie Profile title, like the ability to slide or freeze enemies with a projectile skill, you basically don't get for more than ten hours. The most mixed aspect about Exist Archive is likely its combat system, however. There is a great deal of party customization, from attacks to slot in for each character, and a real emphasis on party synergy as you string together lengthy combos with flashy finishing attacks (or Demon's Greed), which is neat. Except, there is one thing that is likely to drive players up the wall with it, which is the strange and lengthy sort of input lag for like every attack. Not only does it really make timing combos with allies in semi-active turn-based combat system awkward, it just does not feel good in general. This certainly does not bode well for a release that really does not have any aspect to fall back on except its gameplay. There are parts to Exist Archive that I like, amidst the myriads of disappointment with its game design -- namely the customization. It does take a while to show its true colors, but the game absolutely feeds on its robust party customization. Aside from mix and matching character skills to your preference, characters can gain access to new jobs, passive abilities, or mid-combat skills. Even cooler than this is a mechanic where, based on the affinity between characters (gained through many battles with the same party members), the party gets access to a thing called "learning" in which they will randomly get another passive abilities from another party member. Meaning, if you are willing have members stick together, you can save a significant amount of level grinding as well have party members play totally different from their initial character class, which is rather cool. At the end of the day, all Exist Archive: The Other Side of the Sky really does is remind me of games I would rather play (or sequels I'll never get). It is not nearly as compelling in regards to storytelling as Valkyrie Profile, and its glaring flaws with repetition and the disjointed combat/exploration make it that much harder to stick with it. Sure, the party customization is rather neat, and the "learning" mechanic I would like to see in other games, but for most people I would simply say check out its key gaming influence instead if they have not already. Pros + Deep combat system with very robust party customization + "Learning" mechanic is a creative way to circumvent the standard level grind + Pleasant looking environmental backdrops + Reminds me how much I like Valkyrie Profile Cons - Extremely sparse in variety for dungeon layouts and enemy encounters, making the whole experience feel very repetitive - Progression is quite slow and basically takes dozens of hours for skills you should have right away - Neither the characters or storytelling are particularly compelling - Button inputs in combat feel excessively delayed and have it feel needlessly clunky and awkward to string combos together - Noticeable load times and visual hitches during gameplay on Vita - Reminds me how much better Valkyrie Profile is Overall Score: 5.5 (out of 10) Average By constantly living in the shadow of a ultimately significantly better games, all Exist Archive really does is feel that much more forgettable when most would be better served simply playing (or re-playing) its spiritual predecessor Valkyrie Profile Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable Vita code provided by the publisher.
  7. Developer: Spike Chunsoft Publisher: Aksys Games Platform: PS Vita Release Date: July 26, 2016 ESRB: E for Everyone Shiren the Wanderer is sort of like the great granddaddy of roguelike dungeon crawlers that only a select few actually remember by name. I imagine people are likely aware of its many "Mystery Dungeon" offshoots, such as Pokemon: Super Mystery Dungeon, or maybe even the Final Fantasy-themed Chocobo's Mysterious Dungeon, but not poor ol' Shiren himself. I can't really blame people either as actual localized Shiren titles have been far and few between over the years. Either way, out of seemingly sheer randomness, we are blessed by Aksys with Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate on Vita. Though originally a former (and Japan-only) Nintendo DS title, the enhanced Vita release of the fifth main entry proves that the time-worn adventurer still has more than a few worthwhile tricks to survive even now. The pretense in this title is rather brief, but to the point -- refreshingly so. Veteran wanderer, Shiren, and his talking ferret companion wind up in a foreign land with whole new problems. In his newest adventure, Shiren finds himself wanting to help a local townsfolk, Jirokichi, who is adamant on changing the cruel fate of his dying friend. In order to do so, however, Shiren and Jirokichi have to literally challenge the god of destiny by climbing the Tower of Fortune and collecting the dice of fate. Hence the wordy, but surprisingly accurate, game title. Right at the start, Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate comes off immediately as charming. It pulls off an old-school RPG charm and feels completely earnest about it. Everything from the simple, but well-realized, 2D aesthetic to the brief, but cute, main story just feels right at home with releases many console generations past. This certainly helps as Tower of Fortune has no problem being quite mean and "old school" in regards to challenging gameplay as well. As the case goes for Mystery Dungeon releases, specifically Shiren, combat is turn-based and dungeons are random. Basically every action, or step, Shiren takes constitutes as a turn making the entire roguelike flow feel very methodical. Also part of the signature roguelike formula is a rule where when Shiren dies, all of the money and held items he had are lost. It is a very harsh consequence, and honestly, you will die more than you succeed, especially early in. That said, Shiren does quite a few things to help you mitigate it. Roguelike shenanigans will occasionally deal an unfair hand (...or many consecutively), but most of it can actually be offset by preparation or coming to understand the many small nuances within its gameplay. And I do truly mean many. Thankfully, most key gameplay naunces are explained rather well through the many optional, but insightful, tutorials. Aspects like knowing matching gear sets give you buffs, how to synthesize gear to carry over valuable skills from various items, learning how to deal with many tricky enemy types, or that you can't read helpful ability scrolls at night time without proper lighting seem small but can make all the difference when trying survive. And, contrary to the series' standard rules, you can even prevent the loss of gear if you cough up some cash "plate" them in advance, which will have them appear in a Lost and Found after death. Tower of Fortune is also one of those games that starts out very basic, yet continues and continues to open up as you uncover its many layers. Beyond standard dungeon exploration, just taking a stroll around the various towns throughout will lead to unraveling the surprisingly breadth to the game: such as a point based shop that rewards players for stepping on switches mid-dungeon, finding companions to fight at your side, the ability craft/name entirely new items, heck, there are even several minigames -- one of which is essentially Minesweeper. Players can also dabble with online functionality as well, like requesting revives from other players or being one to help those in need. Though, I think it is an absolute crime that co-op multiplayer is delegated to local ad-hoc only. Still, the gameplay is just dense in ways one would not expect. This applies the most in the post-main story content. I personally beat the main story in about twenty hours (I feel like it would have been a fair bit less if it were not for some harsh lessons...), and the post game is more than likely to double that for more hardcore adventurers. There are so many optional sidequests and dungeons that unlock after the main story that it is honestly absurd in both the amount of time you can throw at it and difficulty in trying to surpass them. Granted, for as much fun as I have had with the main story, I did get discouraged considering how strict certain optional dungeons were, such as increased hunger rates and lack of recruitable companions, and how much more reliant the were on luck they felt like. But I'm sure more seasoned adventures can prove me wrong with the right setup. So, what is one to make of a of Mystery Dungeon series? Let alone the fifth entry? Well, if anything, Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate absolutely relishes in series' pedigree. It embraces the harsher, yet addictive, qualities of roguelikes and goes above and beyond.with its surprisingly charm and gameplay nuance. All in all, while it does not deviate from too far from an established formula, it makes a fine example of why it does not need to. Pros + Genuine old school RPG charm from the ground up + Simple, yet quite addictive, dungeon-crawling formula with a very deceptive amount of depth underneath + Rewarding structure that allows players to mitagate most of the harsher gameplay aspects with smart preparation + Absurdly huge amount of post game content that can keep players occupied for quite a while Cons - Roguelike shenanigans is certainly in place and skill can not always compensate for really bad luck - The consequence of dying is still quite harsh and can be rather off putting for those not used to the "Mystery Dungeon" formula Overall Score: 8 (out of 10) Great Rich with charm and surprising depth Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate is likely to captivate many fans of roguelike dungeon crawlers Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable Vita code provided by the publisher.
  8. Developer: Arc System Works Publisher: Aksys Games Platform: PS4 and PS3 Release Date: June 7, 2016 ESRB: T for Teen This review is based on the PS4 version of the game For almost an entire console generation the classic 2D fighting game series, Guilty Gear, was nowhere to be seen. Basically, after a merge between Sega and Sammy Corporation, the developer Arc System Works lost the rights to Guilty Gear entirely. To fill in the generational gap, Arc System Works even went so far as to create a spiritual successor to the series called Blazblue, which saw many iterations and spin-offs. Then, out of basically nowhere, Arc System Works managed to reclaim the rights to Guilty Gear and revitalized the series in a spectacular fashion with Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN- in 2014. With a master craft approach to gorgeous 3D cel-shading, and many familiar gameplay systems, it was basically the perfect storm of feeling fresh and familiar at the same time. Of course, even with a rocking debut, the reinvigorated series continues with fighting game tradition and finds itself with an enhanced release by the name of Guilty Gear Xrd- Revelator-. As impressive as Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN- was at reviving the series, and even as a fighter, it was also noticeably bare bones in most ways. Xrd basically debuted with only fifteen characters, used a rather standard fare approach to most modes, and had a mess of an online interface. Though I enjoyed my time with the original release, it was almost in spite of itself in some regards. The first significant improvement is boosting the -SIGN-'s default character roster of 15 to a current total of 22 in Revelator. Like -SIGN- before it, the entirely new playable characters are all welcome additions. New character Raven is one such example, who is an incredibly agile fighter that gets a masochistic burst of strength with the less health he has. Then there is the martial-artist Kum Haehyun where, as bizarre as a mechanical old man controlled by a young girl is, she has a more straightforward fighting style that relies on more traditional fighting game "link" inputs rather than "gatlings" like the rest of the cast. Most unique of all, however, and without a doubt my current favorite to play, is the tricky Jack-O. Jack-O“s core concept is built around Real Time Strategy gameplay mechanics in which she puts down miniature fortresses, which get stronger and also spawn mnay minions over time to overwhelm foes. The other added characters are certainly very enjoyable as well but not quite entirely new for different reasons. For instance, former DLC only members in -SIGN- (like the literal walking Guns N' Roses reference that was Elphelt Valentine to the overly-confident 2nd king Leo Whitefang) are still entertaining and no longer have the overpriced DLC stigma attached to them. However, the cooler additions are the returning, and formally 2D, fan-favorites Guilty Gear characters like the sky-pirate Johnny and Ki master/ greedy waitress Jam. The two not only look fantastic in Revelator's captivating aesthetic, but even retain their signature mechanics from their 2D days like Johnny's technical "glitter is gold" system (yes, a Led Zeplin reference) to Jam's charge based Ki-style. Shockingly enough, Revelator is also a direct narrative sequel to -SIGN-. Now, I won't dance around how I found -SIGN-'s storytelling to be a rather dull tease of things to come. And frankly, I would've said the exact same for Revelator, which "ended" on an even more insulting cliffhanger... until the day 1 patch. Yes, it is hard to believe, but they literally added the 2nd half of the storytelling via a free day one patch, and it's far and away the best half. It is jarring how much better the 2nd part of the storytelling is in comparison (even the production values) actually, as it is thoroughly entertaining, bombastic, and surprisingly fulfilling throughout. Frankly, if the first half of the story mode was as consistent as the second half of Revelator's narrative, it could've easily become my go-to example for a fighting game story mode done right. Other than that, Revelator feels like an appreciated checklist of refinements and, weird fishing minigame aside, without so much as any real new modes. Character re-balancing is there as one would expect as well as a few mechanical and presentation tweaks. Such mechanical changes include being able to break from throws, the new Blitz attack, an added homing dash to dust moves, and the ability to power up special moves at the cost of a Burst. Better yet, If none of that previous sentence made any sense to you, well, don't worry, as the tutorials are quite helpful in Revelator and may very well be the most entertaining in a fighting game outright. First off, the standard tutorial is, dare I say it, actually kind of fun. The tutorial for Revelator is basically an obstacle course created by none other than Jack-O. To intentionally spice things up from normally regimented instructions in most fighters, Jack-O has the player do things like pop balloons to practice movement and also navigate around the terrain, as well as her minions, while hopefully teaching the player many fundamentals like attack links and blocking. There are even many helpful FAQs at the pause menu to also clarify many basics. Granted, while Guilty Gear Xrd-Revelator- is still a rather technical and hyper aggressive fighter at the end of the day, it's still great to see that it is willing to teach its' basic concepts in a fun fashion without being too daunting. Last, but certainly not least, for players who intend to play the title more actively (myself), will be happy to hear of the vast improvements added to the online multiplayer. Xrd arguably had some of the most poorly presented menus for online multiplayer, where basically setting up matches or picking your character was more cumbersome than not. Revelator, however, basically steals Persona 4 Arena Ultimax's arcade-like lobby system and feels far more inviting because of it. Players can seamlessly use any of the game's modes while being in the many regional lobbies to. And, just like in -SIGN-, the netcode is excellent and seems to be even better with Revelator. Perhaps the most unfortunate consequence that Guilty Gear Xrd- REVELATOR- has going against is that it feels like what Guilty Gear Gear Xrd Sign- should have been right out of the gate. On one hand, Revelator truly makes a lot of smart improvements and is still a great fighter. The new characters are a blast to play, the online multiplayer and accessibility options are fantastic, various mechanical changes are appreciated, and even the story mode (...2nd half) ends up being actually worthwhile. On the other hand, it is a harder sell at the full retail price because of the strong sense of familiarity without any real added modes and most other enhanced aspects being harder to appreciate through less trained fighting game fans eyes outside of the fun tutorial. At the end of the day, Guilty Gear Xrd -Revelator- makes much headway for both serious and completely new players, but those straddling the line will may find it to be too little and too soon. Pros + New characters are a lot of fun to play, Jack-0 in particular being incredibly unique + Great, and surprisingly approachable; tutorials with many useful tips + Excellent online netcode and lobby interface + Story mode becomes surprisingly entertaining Cons - Very little that is new in terms of modes -First half of the story mode is a real slog - Does not quite shake off the feeling of it basically being what Guilty Gear Xrd-SIGN- should have been Overall Score: 8 (out of 10) Great Guilty Gear Xrd: Revelator much improves the nitty gritty details of its predecessor, from quite welcome additions to the playable cast, great online multiplayer and tutorials, and even storytelling. But, for those who were not already looking forward to its release, it will be harder to appreciate its existence with a less apparent sum total of enhancements that likely should have been part of its first debut Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS4 code provided by the publisher.
  9. Jonathan Higgins

    Review: Chronicles of Teddy: Harmony of Exidus

    Developer: LookAtMyGame Publisher: Aksys Games Platform: PlayStation 4, Wii U Release Date: March 29th, 2016 (March 31st for Wii U) ESRB: E for Everyone This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game Trying to critically analyze something you play puts you in a different frame of mind, sometimes. Have you ever read a review that comes off more like a reflection of an entire genre, or even the specific themes present within the text? Some reviews of an HD remake or remaster often ponder if the original game should have existed in the first place. A review of a retro-inspired indie game can sometimes spend more time knocking the things it alludes to, instead of offering an analysis of the text itself. Before I get into Chronicles of Teddy: Harmony of Exidus, I“ve got to admit something. I am not the biggest fan of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link -- a clear source of inspiration for the people behind this game. Despite my distaste for Zelda II, however, I finished this adventure with a smile on my face. Instead of spending time picking apart an old NES sequel, let me instead say that developer LookAtMyGame's efforts have given me new perspective. The opening scene of this game describe a king who learned to respect his people, an evil wizard who usurped him, and a teddy bear. As the text scrolls down, emulating the opening of The Legend of Zelda on NES almost to the letter, it sets up how the land of Exidus fell, and how a king“s soul came to rest in an auburn-haired girl“s stuffed animal friend. It“s up to you to take up arms and venture to Exidus, to reclaim four jewels from bosses six times your size, and lay waste to the wizard Angius“s evil ambitions once and for all. Beyond the opening sequence, and a few words exchanged between Teddy and the girl, the player is rarely addressed. As a matter of fact, due to things I“ll elaborate on a little later, I can say there are around a hundred words spoken in the entire game. Since words in the game are few, beyond the opening sequence, the importance of how the world of Exidus is presented to you is a little weightier than usual. Thankfully, the choice to limit words spoken doesn“t work to the detriment of the world itself. Visuals don“t feel like they “belong on the NES” -- the pixel art and character designs don“t make you think “this should be a Zelda game instead”. There“s something to be said when the overall visual cohesiveness of a place pushes me to explore it anyway, despite having initial qualms with how a game works mechanically, as I“ve alluded to earlier. Exidus is a really cool, challenging place to explore, with plenty of attention to detail. And hey, noticing tiny details plays an important role in how you approach puzzle-solving. More on that momentarily. You“ll strike down foes that will remind you of palace guards from The Adventure of Link, with shields to block your attacks from eye-level until you crouch down to knife them instead. And there are slime enemies that call back to that game too, but their evolutions often defy player expectations as a result. Other than those two examples I can name off-hand, many of the enemy designs are inventive and original. There“s a spider-like enemy with a bomb on its back, a strange spiked plant that relentlessly volleys projectiles forward -- I could go on, because types of enemies are numerous. I genuinely enjoyed every single dungeon in Chronicles of Teddy. It may be due to every boss providing a unique challenge that properly demonstrated the powers you gained and things you“ve learned by exploring the place. But really, their proper balance of combat situations, puzzle-platforming, and... music-based mechanics... are certainly a thing to behold. Music is what makes Chronicles of Teddy unique, and helps to make a game with about a hundred words spoken feel more alive than even its loftiest contemporaries. Not far into your journey, you“ll find both a Musicon and Lexicon. Both will help you to communicate with the villagers and guardians in the many lands of Exidus. The Musicon has twelve unique Runes to find, often in dungeons, sometimes outside of them... and these Runes make up an entire language spoken everywhere in the world. You“re encouraged to speak to every single villager you find, so they can talk to you and help you fill your Lexicon. But you can only talk back to them if you“ve found the corresponding Runes. Look at the screenshot above. To you, that looks like gibberish. But at the end of my fifteen hour journey, I can tell you that means “SING EARTH TO SKY FOR SECRET.” While exploring dungeons, you won“t just find locked doors to be opened with keys. The “locked doors” are often only opened by playing a certain tune on the Musicon in front of them. Clues regarding what song should be played are cleverly hidden on hieroglyphs and other relevant things you“ll see -- and maybe miss--as you explore. A good example in the first dungeon is how you“ll see a giant mermaid statue with letters written underneath it -- clearly the mermaid“s name -- only to pass by a door with the words “TELL MY NAME” written in that same language above it. Playing the mermaid“s name on the Musicon is what opens the door to the boss! Without properly engaging the villagers, and learning words -- you“d never be able to figure out the whole “TELL MY NAME” sentence on your own. If you“re the kind of person that likes making notes as you play, Chronicles of Teddy is an experience you will surely enjoy. And that“s where I start to disagree with some of the choices made and philosophies expressed, here. The problems I had with my journey don“t have to do with the world of Exidus itself, or even the gameplay. For all the signposting the game is good at when it comes to presenting hieroglyphs that show what certain melodies on the Musicon are capable of... I struggled valiantly trying to figure out how to use the final Dungeon Weapon Thing I discovered in the game. Throughout Exidus, you“ll see these clods of earth that you clearly need to grind through from above to gain access to what“s below. While the other items were self-explanatory (hey, after finding the cute little duck inner-tube, you can swim!), the Magic Scroll that lets you conquer this obstacle left me stumped. Turns out, you need to mash the down-directional button twice while in the air, to suddenly and powerfully come crashing down to the ground below. But -- when I obtained the Magic Scroll -- nothing told me how to use it. I fumbled around with buttons until I figured it out. That“s just it! There are no explanations here. If you backtrack (and there is backtracking -- but it“s not excessive, and it“s often fun to go back to an area to play with the new toys and Runes you“ve found in dungeons) and find a peculiar item before you should, nothing tells you what to do with it, or who it belongs to. Chronicles of Teddy has a sub-menu when paused (seen above), but there are no means to scroll to each item and find out what they do or help accomplish. Every single aspect of how this game works, mechanically, is more or less saying “You“re on your own.” Rather than having a complex map that shows where chests are and features a detailed layout of rooms you“ve explored and rooms you haven“t -- Exidus is presented to you in a series of squares, like Fez, I suppose. Have you missed a treasure chest or otherwise noteworthy object? The box will be a solid blue color, indicating you should go back to it. Particularly vital objects will have a yellow color to their square on the map. Even the game“s “guide” of sorts to show the little lady where to go next... are often thinly veiled portions of maps or important rooms, again with no words spoken to the player. This sentiment of “You“re on your own” is a choice -- not something done due to technology limitations of the time, or something like that. The fact that I strongly disagree with this choice doesn“t affect my overall opinion of the game too much, but -- considering I was stuck in the final dungeon of the game for a smidge because no one told me how to use what I“d just found -- I think that says something. As I wrap things up, though -- I truly did enjoy my time with Chronicles of Teddy. I began my journey with a disposition towards the games that helped inspire it -- and I left with a greater respect for them. I“d gladly recommend this experience to fans of Zelda in general, and definitely to fans of Zelda II in particular. That recommendation comes with the caveat of “get ready to take a lot of notes, and maybe you“ll get a little lost along the way,” though. The game is chocked full of things to find and replay value (there are optional dungeons, a New Game+, and everything in the modern era that helps give a game like this extended life). If the game“s title is truly indicative that there“s more to tell of this girl, Teddy, and Exidus -- at the end of the day, I genuinely look forward to what“s next. Pros: + When the game is combat-focused, it's a genuine treat. These kinds of mechanics are all the best parts of Zelda II and its contemporaries. + The Musicon fleshes out an entirely new language, based on song, that's incorporated into puzzle-solving and exploration. + Backtracking is never cumbersome. When you know what you're doing, Exidus is a fun place to explore. Every level in the game hides secrets and collectibles, 'til the very end. Cons: - You know how, in Zelda, you open a chest and get a description about how to use the spoils you've found? ...That's not a thing in Chronicles of Teddy. It purposefully restricts itself by letting the player figure out what they've found and how to use it. - A map exists, but a game as heavily rooted in exploration as this needs a map with finer details. There are a million different collectibles to find, and no real way to distinguish what things are where on the map. Overall Score: 7.5 (out of 10) Good Chronicles of Teddy: Harmony of Exidus refreshes old school Zelda mechanics, and has plenty of great ideas all its own. But its choice to limit communication to the player may turn some away, in the end. Disclosure: This game was reviewed using a downloadable code provided by the publisher. The game is available on PC as Finding Teddy 2.
  10. In today's GP Daily, an old classic returns, yet another Kickstarter game is put on hold, a beloved outlet dissolves, and new games come to the PlayStation Store. Check out the headlines below: Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate is coming to Vita this Summer These days it seems like the only time you see a Mystery Dungeon game in the West is when a new Pokemon Mystery Dungeon releases, but the roguelike series seems to be having somewhat of a revival thanks to last year's Etrian Mystery Dungeon from Atlus and Pokemon Super Mystery Dungeon from Nintendo. Aksys must have taken notice of this because they recently announced that they'll bringing Shiren the Wanderer: The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate to the PlayStation Vita in North America this Summer. The game is set to feature loads of items, monsters, epic quests, and Vita-exclusive dungeons, so if you're a Mystery Dungeon fan, keep an eye out for more info on this as Summer nears. Source: Press Release Final Fantasy Tactics Director's Unsung Story on Hold Remember Unsung Story? It was set to be Final Fantasy Tactics director Yasumi Matsuno's next big game, and it even had a successful Kickstarter. Alas, it appears that the game's developer Playdek has been having issues with development in the last few months, which has caused the company to have to put the game on hold to focus on more profitable ventures. This likely won't go over well with Kickstarter backers but Playdek cites the loss of several key personnel as one of the major reasons for this. Perhaps the game got too ambitious for its own good? In any case, Playdek isn't giving up on the game altogether, but there's no word on when they'll return to development on it either. Unfortunately, backers will have to wait and see what happens. Source: Kickstarter GameTrailers closes its doors In news that's a bit more sad, GameTrailers was suddenly shuttered yesterday. Even the staff apparently only found out hours before the announcement was official, which is pretty shocking to hear. The outlet has been one of the biggest resources for trailers and clips of video games in the last 15 years, and its staff and work is well-beloved, so it's a shame to see them go. Source: Twitter PlayStation Store Update 2/9/16 Like last week, there are some fairly big games debuting on the PlayStation Store today, not the least of which are Firewatch and Unravel. Check out the full list below: PS4 Arsland: The Warriors of Legend Assassin's Creed Chronicles: Russia Dying Light: The Following (Enhanced Edition) Firewatch Level 22 (out 2/11) Lovers In A Dangerous Spacetime Mop: Operation Cleanup Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 4 Rugby Challenge 3 (out 2/10) Siralim Unravel PS3 Arsland: The Warriors of Legend Level 22 (out 2/11) PS Vita Breath of Fire III Level 22 (out 2/11) Siralim We Are Doomed For a list of all the games on sale, check out the source link below. Source: PlayStation Blog Are you excited for a new Shiren the Wanderer? What are your thoughts on Unsung Story and GameTrailers? And will you buy anything new on PSN this week? Let us know below!
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    Review: Norn9: Var Commons

    Developer: Otomate/Idea Factory Publisher: Aksys Games Platform: Vita Release Date: November 3, 2015 ESRB: T for Teen I have become increasingly fascinated with playing otome visual novels as of late. A lot of the blame for that is due to the game Code: Realize:Guardians of Rebirth, which I found to be a pretty pleasant surprise. So, upon seeing that new otome Norn9: Var Commons was made by the same developer (and on the Vita handheld) as Code: Realize so shortly after piqued my curiosity. But, surpassing that, otomes can be a pretty refreshing contrast to most standard visual novels. If oddly sincere pigeon dating sims or romances at a themepark made by Keiji Infafune are any indicator, they are also willing to take risks with how their stories are told as well. Fortunately, Norn9 seems to be trying out some unique ideas too even if, well, you'll ultimately be seeing a lot of effeminate anime men, like most otomes. Still, Norn9 starts in a pretty unconventional way. Opposed to focusing on the main cast of heroines and their would-be love interests right away, it actually starts from the perspective of a young boy named Sorata. Sorata himself being what he assumed to be a normal boy from the modern era who unwittingly time-travels back to the 1920's Taisho Era of Japan. Utterly baffled by his current predicament, with likely no way to get home anytime soon, Sorata decides to eventually accompany a kindly "weird girl" (which is revealed somewhat early as Koharu) on a ship, or rather an airship, that may very well be the key to get him back home. The story sort of clumsily stumbles about until it ultimately decides to focus on the daily lives of the inhabitants on the airship. Both the airship and most of the inhabitants themselves, of course, being far from normal... probably because most of them are espers. Also not normal is how the main story is actually told through the perspective of three completely different heroines, each with their unique narrative routes, leading to nine in total. Because the prospect of nine different story routes sounded sort of daunting to me, I decided to follow the game's "recommended" route order. There are three locked routes but the first character paths the title recommends are to play the pink-haired heroine "Koharu" and pursue either the sadist Kakeru or the hermit Senri. After completing both story routes I was quickly led to wonder if I would like the game at all after completing them, because of how little I cared for either of them. Now, I don“t mind either Kakeru or Koharu separately as characters (Senri perhaps less so...), but their story route teetered on badly written fanfiction territory. The character relationships and eventual character "development" within them felt very unearned and clearly important narrative devices were brushed aside for a cavity-inducing romance. Honestly, I was close to wrapping up the review right there after being burned by two of the stories (Kind of ironic considering Koharu's esper ability is actually fire...). But, despite my weary first impressions, I decided to give the title one more chance -- and I'm glad I did. You see, there is a huge disparity in terms of quality between different narrative routes in Norn9 as I eventually learned. I don't even mean in just tone or a general taste thing, like the radically different character routes in Code: Realize had presented. I honestly think there is a big qualitative gap between many of the nine stories in Norn9 and it is clear to me that the lead women Mikoto and Nanami had the the better stories of the bunch. The one to open my eyes to this realization the most is the tale between Mikoto and her childhood friend Sakuya. Now, let's be real -- childhood friend romances are far from original in Japanese anime storytelling. That said, what made Mikoto's route more interesting to me is that Mikoto herself is not only much smarter (and more capable) than -- let's say -- Koharu, but her relationship between her childhood friend actually starts pretty distant. They aren't on bad terms per say, far from it, however the talk between them is far more business than not. Intentionally so. As the story reveals more of itself it presents some pretty interesting moral conundrums and earns its romance over time. Though, it doesn't entirely fix its abrupt broader narrative issues (and some overly preachy themes) as with most routes, unfortunately. The stories that create the biggest narrative conundrums are generally tied to blue-haired heroine Nanami's. The main reason for this is because of her inherent power is, well, erasing people's memories. This alone allows the story to have some rather twisted narrative implications depending on the route. That, and well, Nanami herself did not have the most pleasant upbringing, let's say. Without going into spoiler territory, Nanami definitely had my favorite stories of the bunch and I frankly wish more of Norn9 reflected it. Walls of text and hit & miss romances aside, Norn9 is a pleasant-looking visual novel overall. The character art is quite well-drawn and has clean gameplay interface tools as well for possible thorough playthroughs. The script, and occasionally iffy localization, are noticeably less consistent (as well as the soundtrack), but the Japanese only voice delivery is very solid in spite of it. With the division of its nine different character routes, Norn9: Var Commons has a pretty apparent divide in its overall visual novel quality. It can feel like a dice roll between getting a story route that feels genuinely worthwhile and heartwarming to significant shift in others paths that border on cringe-worthy fan-fiction level romances. Despite their many differences, I can not help but feel like most would be better served playing Otomate's own recent Code: Realize for a possible otome visual novel fix before considering Norn9. There is good in Norn9 but it is more difficult to uncover than it should be. Pros: + 3 different heroine perspectives bring a pretty distinct take on how the storytelling is told + Well-drawn character art + Endearing character development moments depending on the story route Cons: - Huge disparity in the quality of narrative routes, some of which are outright bad (most of Koharu“s in particular) - Broader overarching story does often get tossed aside Overall Score: 6 (out of 10) Decent Some moments Norn9 has the makings a genuinely good visual novel but its wildly inconsistent quality between stories can easily wear out many but fairly tolerant otome fans with its nine different character routes. Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable Vita code provided by the publisher.
  12. Developer: Otomate/Idea Factory Publisher: Aksys Games Platform: Vita Release Date: October 20, 2015 ESRB: T for Teen Otome-styled visual novels and myself have somewhat of a checkered history. I am not opposed to visual novels centered around romance but I simply have had difficulty finding ones that click with me. In the matter of fairness, it is seldom that we even see them localized in the first place beyond multiple ports of Hakuoki or the far more eccentric Hatoful Boyfriend. But, something about the exclusive English release of visual novel Code: Realize - Guardians of Rebirth caught my eye. Maybe it was because I could hook up with an effeminate version of Victor Frankenstein, or its odd take on Steampunk piqued my curiosity. Regardless of my off-kilter reasoning to play it, I had a feeling that my toxic outlook on many otome visual novels could be changed -- and I was correct. Code: Realize has a pretty bizarre premise. The main heroine, named Cardia by default, lives in isolation while awaiting the return of her father in an abandoned mansion. The most apparent factor for her isolation is the deadly poison that courses through her body and quickly destroys most things by a mere touch from her. For this reason, and several more ambiguous ones, she is most explicitly told by her "loving" father that she can never be loved because she is a monster. Rather than allowing her to rest in isolation, however, the royal knights of Queen Victoria invade her home under orders to capture her. After some rough treatment, and them learning a quick lesson about her deadly poison, Cardia ends up with little choice in the matter but to go with the soldiers. Well, that is until the notorious thief, Lupin Arsene, gets in the way. Though deviating from his original objective, the thief with a seeming heart of gold decides to steal her away from her would-be captors, and, less originally, with the mindset of taking her heart as well (though, he claims it to be literal). The setting itself poses lot of questions. Cardia's poison, for example, bears many stipulations to have it make any sort of internal logic work for it. To Code: Realize's credit, its world is actually pretty fleshed out and explains most of its distinct lore, even if you have to stick to it to see it happen. Though, unfortunately, certain story elements are essentially hand waved by means of "magic" despite its steampunk mentality. As an Otome, however, most of the storytelling emphasis comes across through its characters... as effeminate and pretty as its main cast may be. No point in dancing around it, as an otome the basic mindset that comes with most of these games is that the main heroine will likely hook up with one of the male protagonists through each of their story routes. What is interesting about the unusually attractive men of Code: Realize is that they are all pretty much based off of classic novel or literary characters: such as Victor Frankenstein, Lupin Arsene, Saint Germain, Impey Barbicane, and even Van Helsing help round out the main male leads. They may not be terribly faithful to their literary works but as a character template they help make the story go through some wildly different directions and it can be fun to see their certain novel parallels, tons of creative liberties aside. Admittedly, in the early goings it does not feel like Code: Realize really knows what it wants to be. The pacing is all over the place with a plodding slice of life feel, even with the alluded darker undertones. The game really hits its stride when you are locked into character routes, however. Character motivations differ wildly per route as well as the sequence of events that follow them. With maybe the exception of the locked Lupin routes (which unlocks after you complete the other four story paths), that feels like a "true end" of sorts, there is next to no similarities in their stories even in tone. Which, for how lengthy each story path is, it is quite intriguing how much it justifies multiple playthroughs because of the likely case by case nature with which story will resonate with someone the most. Honestly, probably my favorite narrative route of the game plays around expectations the most -- this being Saint-German's narrative branch. Throughout the storytelling you know the least about him than any other character (and they make that very clear). It is upon this precept that the storytelling plays with a much more shocking, and decidedly more antagonistic, relationship with the heroine right from the start. Without going into explicit spoiler territory, let's just say that Saint Germain willing to get his hands dirty (and push the T rating along with it), regardless of who it is. And, for how dark the pervading tone is, I found the narrative payout for it to be quite gripping. Heck, most character stories are handled pretty well, some pacing issues and occasionally hokey melodrama aside. For example, a character that I found incredibly unlikable at first, Impey, managed to win me over time with his surprisingly endearing story. That said, I do chalk a lot of that up to Cardia for setting him straight and not leaving Impey to be irredeemably obnoxious. Speaking of that, the most pleasant surprise of the storytelling is not the distinguished men around her, but how surprisingly capable Cardia herself ends up being. It is very easy for most otome stories to fall under the trope of having the male leads resolve all conflict and the heroine herself be a blank, damsel-like figure. But, an understated strength is how Cardia herself does not take most situations lying down. Though her initial characterization is rather tepid, primarily because of narrative circumstance, she ends up showing that she has a lot of spunk as the story progresses. Many of the narrative choices, for instance, are focused around her having a cool head or taking initiative in a bad scenario (and knocking some fools out), which is honestly quite refreshing. Another easily overlooked strength is how it is all presented. No, I don't need to tell you the character portraits are really well-drawn (which they are) or Japanese dub has some noteworthy voices. What I actually want to talk about is how Code: Realize honestly has the best, and most convenient, approach to subsequent playthroughs that I have seen in any visual novel. After beating the game once you can literally pick the character route and chapter you want -- which both in tandem is pretty much unheard of in visual novels. To emphasize, most visual novels generally become fast-forwarding/guide-following tedium on extra playthroughs and that does not really exist in Code: Realize at all. Not just that though, you can even rewind the story scenes without messing with quick saves, and I can not stress how seemingly minor features like this should become the norm in visual novels with distinct story variations. . Few games this year have made my opinion fluctuate as dramatically as Code: Realize - Guardians Of Rebirth. The early goings are an unattractive beast mainly due to its pacing issues and indecisive nature. But, when it reveals more of itself in the distinct (and lengthy) character routes, it goes from plodding to gripping with its macabre in one moment to heartwarming another world and characters. Code: Realize may not be free from some narrative baggage but keen fans of otome visual novels will be able to see the beauty that lies beneath it with some patience. Pros: + Great character art + Highly involved storytelling with wildly differing narrative routes + Incredibly useful interface options making subsequent playthroughs rather painless + Surprisingly capable main heroine Cons: - Pacing is quite plodding at times - Some forced narrative contrivances diminish storytelling - Impey is usually quite obnoxious Overall Score: 8 (out of 10) Great Code: Realize - Guardians Of Rebirth is a messy beast in the early goings but those who are patient enough to see past it will notice beauty that lies beneath its fleshed out world and characters. Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable Vita code provided by the publisher.