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  1. Developer: Falcom Publisher: XSEED Games Platform: PC Release Date: May 3, 2017 ESRB: T for Teen The wait to finally see Falcom's The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky trilogy in English feels as emotionally charged as the storytelling within them for just about everyone involved. Publisher XSEED took it upon themselves to localize the nightmare level of difficulty role-playing game series despite their beyond massive in-game word counts, and underwhelming overseas sales, out what seems like an intense labor of love for the source material and their fan base. Fans themselves were left with nearly a half decade of indecisiveness about simply getting the second title alone after a rather cruel cliffhanger in the first Trails in the Sky. So, following-up the localization miracle that was the second entry in 2015, and even the time passing between console generations, it is beyond surreal to see Trails in the Sky: The Third exist in any English form from its ten year old Japanese counterpart. To add just one more blessing to the whole ordeal, which I will attribute to the Goddess Aidios, I am surprised to count it among one of my favorite RPGs this year which already has such fierce competition. Now, I would not be surprised if Trails in the Sky: The Third is viewed as a sort of black sheep for the franchise. It is quite odd for a game I originally thought would simply be more of the same -- and it's really not... well, mostly. It is complicated. Recent The Legend of Heroes releases absolutely thrived upon their world-building and character development to the point where they felt like visual novels in how verbose they were about at times. It was not uncommon to go over an hour without facing so much as a single combat encounter; The Third being no exception. They earned it, however, despite it being quite traditional at times, as the interpersonal moments in particular were far and away the best aspects of the whole experience. It was wonderful to see the energetic tomboy lead, Estelle Bright, eventually evolve into easily one of my favorite gaming heroines outright with her powerful development as a character (as well as those around her) through the course of two games. Except, oddly enough, Trails in the Sky: The Third is not really about Estelle at all. Her narrative arc was actually pretty thoroughly resolved in Trails in the Sky: Second Chapter. Instead the main character mantle has shifted to the green-haired, holy man of the church Kevin Graham, whom had a brief presence in the previous game, and his newcomer assistant Sister Ries that has a bit of history with the questionable 'Father' as well. Beyond the big shift in main protagonists, Trails in the Sky: The Third is structured quite differently as a game as well. Whereas previous Trails in the Sky titles had an on-the-road sense of adventure, as you traveled pretty much an entire continent on-foot, The Third is technically isolated inside a single massive dungeon known as the Phantasma. There are not really towns, NPCs to prod for new lines of text each story beat, and barely any sidequests. On paper this probably sounds quite off-putting to returning fans in nearly way possible. By the end of it, however, I think it actually makes a strong case when it comes to improving the gameplay of its predecessors while somehow managing to retain the best aspects of them, that being the storytelling, by simply presenting them differently. Admittedly, Trails in the Sky: The Third can certainly feel like an the entire game built upon fanservice. Many familiar faces are conveniently whisked in Phantasma only to join your party immediately right after (with a few that would be somewhat unconscionable through the course of the main narrative in the prior two games). Of course, I'll take any excuse to see the goofy bard, Olivier, attempt to spout sweet nothings to any lady or gentlemen of the cast he finds attractive once more. It also conveniently gives the developers quite a few liberties in how to structure the game as well. Phantasma allows players the means to purchase goods/gear, forge Quartz and strengthen Orbament slots (the series' means of magic-like skills) all at various recovery points placed mid-dungeon without much narrative conceit behind it. Most importantly of all, there is an honest-to-goodness fast-travel to warp both in and out dungeon. This is a total game changer as backtracking was far and away my biggest annoyance with earlier releases. It is also structured more linearly because players are constantly moving up in Phantasma at a pretty steady clip, which I think is to it's benefit compared to the stopgap pacing of previous releases. Alongside the list of conveniences are plenty of recycled assets, however. Most of the in-game mechanics are the exact same as its predecessors: such as the exact same combat and same skill progression. They're fine, but I admit I found myself flipping the switch to easy mode to save time. That said, for me personally, the presentation did feel like a leap forward simply because I moved from playing previous entries on PSP to the PC just for The Third. So the cleaned up HD assets, higher framerate, faster load times, and the likes specific to the PC release did make it feel like a bigger jump than it actually was. Also, I was able to play with an Xbox 360 controller (or rather, a PS2 controller converter) without any hitches either. I would guess that if one were to focus purely on the main story it is entirely plausible to see Kevin's journey through Phantasma to its conclusion in less than twenty hours. Heck, one may even arguably not need to play previous two games to appreciate it either (although, one really shouldn't.). It takes a while to uncover but Kevin himself serves an intriguing contrast to light-hearted Estelle as he is far more morally ambiguous in nature despite coming off as a friendly enough guy. Turns out, Kevin's been through a lot and his backstory really does not hesitate to delve into some incredibly dark subject matter that is downright fascinating. I adored learning more about his past, as well as seeing both his and sister Reis's development as characters. Despite all of that, though, one would still be missing out on essentially half the game if they did only that for one key reason: Doors. Throughout Phantasma there are various suspicious doors mid-dungeon with either a Moon, Star, or Sun symbol on them. Each one, most often enough, will only open based on members in your current party composition. If one meets the requirements to open it they are rewarded with either a mini game to play or a lengthy narrative flashback. For fans of the previous two games the latter, that being narrative flashbacks, are an incredibly big deal despite being entirely optional to uncover. Both Moon and Star doors are basically the main means of extra narrative closure for the huge cast of characters that aren't Kevin or Reis. There are plenty of details about the aftermath of the previous games like the plans for many characters going forward (one of which hugely sets up Trails of Cold Steel), or certain events to predate even the original Trails in the Sky, so having exposure to the previous titles is basically mandatory to get much enjoyment out of them. As much as I liked Kevin's story, I'd say I probably got the most satisfaction in uncovering the various optional narrative scenes. Oh, and I should mention that some of these flashbacks are quite long, with the bigger ones taking nearly two hours to complete. That's why it's quite possible to double a normal playtime in simply trying to see them all -- and they're totally worth it. Certain events behind these doors are among the absolute best interpersonal moments in the entire series. As usual, of course, XSEED's top-notch localization really makes it so these numerous event are all the more satisfying to discover. I did not know I wanted Trails in the Sky: The Third as much I did prior to playing it. A cursory impression can make it feel like an unnecessary follow-up to the previous title that did not seem to need it at all, and it cutting quite a few corners with recycled assets does not help its initial case either. However, it somehow manages to feel fresh with its entirely revised gameplay structure and distinctly wonderful new lead characters. The excellent overall storytelling, writing, and incredibly meticulous world-building alone does more than right with the best the series has to offer. Falcom and XSEED clearly put plenty love in Trails in the Sky: The Third to make sure the final chapter in the Liberl arc was a delightful one. Pros + Wonderful character development with "Father Kevin" being the key standout + Entirely revised gameplay structure eliminates most backtracking that plagued the previous two entries and feels more focused because of it + Optional Moon/Sun events have excellent interpersonal events that both add much closure, as well as clever setup for would-be sequel, for the series in general Cons - Thoroughly underwhelming presentation that directly lifts a lot of visual and gameplay assets from the previous game - One should really have a frame of reference of the previous two games before even considering touching Trails in the Sky: The Third Overall Score: 8.5 (out of 10) Great There is no doubt in my mind that Trails in the Sky: The Third is a must-play for series veterans and a satisfying conclusion to such a lovingly-crafted trilogy Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PC code provided by the publisher.
  2. Developer: 5pb Games/Team GrisGris Publisher: XSEED Games Platform: Vita Release Date: October 13, 2015 ESRB: M for Mature Corpse Party: Blood Covered caught many curious English horror fans by surprise in 2011 on Sony's PSP. For something presented with a not incidental 2D RPG Maker-esque pixel art style (considering its 1996 original conception in Japan) it was incredibly dark and far more unsettling than it had any right being. Afterwards the series got multiple spin-offs and fan-discs, generally exclusive to Japan, though most were inconsequential to the current overarching story. Fortunately, the most narratively relevant fan-disc, Corpse Party: Book of Shadows, saw an English release back in 2013. Following right after the epilogue of Corpse Party: Book of Shadows comes the would-be canonical conclusion to the previous two games with Corpse Party: Blood Drive which shambles onto Sony's Vita--was it worth the wait? Each of the localized Corpse Party releases tried something different with how it depicted its abject horror in the "Heavenly Host High School." Corpse Party: Blood Covered got away with rather basic 2D pixel art due to its immensely sadistic writing and tense gameplay situations that allowed your mind to fill in for many of its perceived 2D visual gaps. Then there was Corpse Party: Book of Shadows, which was far more divisive for fans, that felt more like a visual novel with questionable first-person point & click elements and a story that toyed with "What-if?" scenarios much more than following up with a continued narrative. So, attempting to try to do something different, while also being more akin to what fans liked in Blood Covered the series now goes true 3D in Corpse Party: Blood Drive and... well, it doesn't really work out, unfortunately. Before going full into its mess of game design and presentation issues, the storytelling will undoubtedly be the lure of Blood Drive purely with its finale nature. The narrative carries immediately after the fairly brutal cliffhanger of Book of Shadows (for more reasons than one). New faces are also introduced in Blood Drive, most clearly dubious in nature, and the survivors of the first draconian ordeal of Heavenly Host are shaken to their core with memories of their dead friends and the reality they now live in feeling quite foreign. But, what's interesting in how Blood Drive is told is that there is much more buildup before going back to the expected hellhole of Heavenly Host once more (well, for everyone except Ayumi that is). There is a neat sharp contrast, both visually and conceptually, between the real world and Heavenly Host so the sequence of events don't feel unnecessarily rushed. Overall, the storytelling has more than its share of intrigue for series fans. Though it is most certainly flawed, and basically ditches horror elements altogether with a sharp tone shift in the second arc of the story, it more than resolves the events of Heavenly Host. That said, more than anything else the entertaining, and fiercely morbid, writing carries most of it like the previous games. Surprising no one, however, when you are actually back to Heavenly Host, it is downright awful. Sadly, it is not just because of context, the gameplay is absolutely cringe-worthy, and not in a good horror game kind of way. On paper, most aspects seem appealing as a series successor from revamping familiar 2D environments in more atmospheric 3D and stronger survival-horror elements. How it actually works out is quite different. The most obvious change is how oppressively dark everything is in Heavenly Host. The highest brightness setting on the Vita will not save you from this. By doing this, and attempting to make everything scarier, you are given a flashlight with limited battery life. This would be less of a problem if the flashlight was not as necessary as it is. For one reason, the flashlight is basically required for highlighting intractable objects, which can be the difference between aimlessly wandering for a long time and not... which even then it can be real easy to get lost due to some obtuse event triggers. Thankfully, Japanese players apparently complained about the flashlight mechanic long before I did, so there is an infinite light toggle option by default for those who don't want to deal with it. Even with the toggle on, however, the gameplay is quite annoying throughout. For instance, Blood Drive is hellbent with putting far too numerous environmental traps every step of the way that makes basic navigation obnoxious. To make the pain even worse are the frequency of enemies that will attempt to chase you in such claustrophobic environments that are more much more tedious than anything else (since it isn't hard). Without the incentive of a narrative finale I really don“t think I would have been able to press through Corpse Party: Blood Drive's frustrating gameplay, predominately because of its just plain unfun mechanics compounded by the backtrack heavy level design. With the new visual transition, Team Grisgris also really shows their inexperience with 3D visuals. On one hand, the environments are generally fine. In fact, I actually like how they recreate familiar terrain for Corpse Party fans and playing upon such knowledge. On the other hand, its character models and many visual effects look just plain bad in motion. For as gruesome as many scenes are supposed be a lot of the tension is killed by many unintentionally comical looking animations. Let“s just say that pretty much any scene that involves fire becomes a slideshow, text included. A much more glaring technical grievance is that most load times easily last more than 10 seconds. Awful load time issues include moving from one room to another to stuff as bad as to when you open up the menu -- yes, it actually takes around 10 seconds to open the menu. Still, not all aspects of the presentation are bad (just... most), as the audio design is abnormally strong. Like the previous entries Corpse Party: Blood Drive uses binaural audio. For those that don“t know what that is it is audio that presented based on how the human ear perceives audio in a 3D space and is quite rare in video games. Everything from whispered voices that ring eerily clear in one ear, rattling sounds in the background, or the real guttural voice acting makes wearing a good pair of headphones very clearly the way to play. The soundtrack is also quite good as well with two fairly impressive opening songs and also good melodic songs to accompany both the gameplay and story scenes. Team Grisgris clearly shows their inexperience with 3D gameplay and visuals which hurts Corpse Party: Blood Drive as a whole far more than it should. From annoying basic gameplay mechanics, clunky exploration, and comically poor visuals in most instances, it becomes an outright chore to press through Heavenly Host High School once more. Which is a shame because buried beneath it all is an intriguing narrative (though most certainly flawed) and entertaining audio design/writing to accompany it. Unfortunately, for all intents and purposes, Corpse Party: Blood Drive is purely for the most patient of series fans who are willing to painfully grit their teeth through its many mundane flaws as game to hopefully reach the title's decisive narrative conclusion. Pros: + Binaural audio is fantastic and the soundtrack solid + Interesting to see familiar 2D environments from the first game rendered in more atmospheric 3D + Some narrative intrigue and fun, twisted writing Cons: - Awful load times and technical issues - Annoying mechanics that makes you want to engage with gameplay as little as possible - Poor in-game visual presentation kills a lot of narrative and gameplay tension - Bad endings are nowhere near as engaging as previous games - Odd tonal shift in the 2nd half of the story Overall Score: 4.5 (out of 10) Below Average With so many glaring technical and gameplay flaws Corpse Party: Blood Drive gives little incentive for anybody but forgiving, and patient, series fans to justify wading through it Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable Vita code provided by the publisher.
  3. Developer: Marvelous Publisher: XSEED Games Platform: 3DS Release Date: June 2, 2015 ESRB: T for Teen To see Lord of Magna: Maiden Heaven exist here and now is a bit surprising. No, not exactly for its localization, but because its development should've technically grounded to a halt after former Rune Factory developer Neverland shut down. After Marvelous Entertainment absorbed much of the old studio, however, they also managed to round up something strongly resembling Neverland's former development team to eventually bring Lord of Magna: Maiden Heaven to fruition. With so much flux through the course of its development one can only pray that the final product was a success. Yet, having played Neverland's last game, the charming Rune Factory 4, I can't help but feel like Lord of Magna: Maiden Heaven has fallen from grace in comparison. It starts off from humble beginnings with the main character, named 'Luchs' by default, who runs an inn. After a crystal collecting expedition to meet ends is nearly met with his death, Luchs is luckily saved from monsters by a pink-haired swordswoman. As it would turn out, she ends up being an amnesiac with little recollection beyond her name, Charlotte, and the inclination to address Luchs as "Master." So, out of thanks, and by following his father's ambiguous advice to treat any future inn guests as "family" (which may or may not foreshadow future party members to come), Luchs decides to let Charlotte stay until she recovers her memories. Now, let's get this out of the way first: Lord of Magna: Maiden Heaven is not a spiritual successor to Rune Factory by any means. With the exception of its quite negligible "farming" aspect in the form streetpass functionality, you'd be hard-pressed to find many strong similarities. Instead Lord of Magna is essentially a hybrid between turn-based strategy-RPGs with some rather light dating elements in-between. But, a casual glance at its presentation can certainly evoke the feeling of Neverland's previous works. More than anything else, Lord of Magna: Maiden Heaven is most certainly a cute game. From the colorful character portraits, chibi in-game models, and XSEED's signature tongue-in-cheek localization style it feels like something you should like from the offset. I wish that alone was enough reason for me to like the title, but it simply isn't. The best way to describe Lord of Magna: Maiden Heaven is that it is... plodding. It doesn't pertain to just one aspect, but rather it encompasses the whole experience from the narrative, gameplay, and even general animations. Everything simply moves at a snail's pace making whatever adorable charm it has at a first glance sadly short-lived. This issue is most noticeable through its combat system. It's novel at first, blending turn-based strategy-RPG gameplay with free grid movement, akin to something like Skulls of the Shogun or Makai Kingdom, while also having a domino-like mechanic for enemies. Yet, the initial novelty of toppling reinforcements like bowling ball pins is quickly lost due to their damage sponge leader enemies that summon them. Battles eventually boil down to whittling down on a single target, them summoning reinforcements, and repeating the cycle ad nauseam. It is not even that the game is hard at all but it somehow finds a way to easily take a half-hour or more even if there are very few enemies. This is made even worse by the very slow, unskippable attack animations. And frankly, this saps out any fun out of the combat because there really is no real depth or variety to compensate it. I wish I could say there is more to the storytelling and character interactions to make one able to overlook it, but that is also not the case. The main narrative meanders a lot, which does not speak well for something that is actually rather short for RPG standards, and only abruptly decides to take itself seriously after 80% or so through. The storytelling is also written in a way the expects you to have developed a relationship with the various heroines when it doesn't really flesh any of them out, considering how late some of them appear. I feel like XSEED tried to inject far more personality into the characters through their humorous writing than the template they were given to work with. Heroines have a total of four optional romantic-ish events to individualize them, and ironically, despite their lack of depth, they are very missable because the title actually limits how many you can see total in a half-hearted attempt to add replay value in other playthroughs. Even on a technical level, Lord of Magna: Maiden Heaven feels unfinished. General in-game animations are quite choppy with their transitions and there is some heavy slowdown in combat when multiple enemies are felled or spawned at once. Audio is also unimpressive with the generally mediocre dub where, despite not fully voicing the script, finds a way to make players quite weary of the phrase "Do you have the power? Are you the one?" in particular which repeats every chapter. The soundtrack does fare better but like a lot of the game it is quite forgettable. No one part of Lord of Magna: Maiden Heaven truly stands out. It feels like a mishmash of unrealized concepts, and with its troubled development it is perhaps less surprising that it seems like that. But, more disappointing than it not realizing its potential as a game, or the development team's former standards, is that it is just not very enjoyable to play. It is cute to look at, and is generally inoffensive in its mannerisms, but the title has very little else to it to justify your time. Pros + Lots of personality in the localization + Cute overall aesthetic Cons - Incredibly plodding pace to both the storytelling and gameplay - Dull, monotonous combat system with way too many damage sponge enemies - Jerky animations and awkward visual transitions Overall Score: 4.5 (out of 10) Below Average Beyond its cute exterior Lord of Magna: Maiden Heaven really does not offer much for those who see past its initial facade. Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable 3DS code provided by the publisher.
  4. Developer: Falcom Publisher: XSEED Games Platforms: PSP, PS Vita, PS TV Release Date: January 13, 2014 ESRB: T for Teen I thought we had seen the last of localized PSP games years ago. After playing Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time back in 2012, which I found to be the RPG swan song of the system, I had firmly resigned any hope of seeing anything beyond that (even if we have technically seen Sting“s Generation of Chaos and Imageepoch“s Black Rock Shooter: The Game since then, but shh!). But, both Japanese developer Nihon Falcom and publisher XSEED Games attempt to prove otherwise. Pretty much unthinkable in today“s market, not only do we get to see yet another RPG on the randomly resuscitated PSP hardware with Brandish: The Dark Revenant, but surprisingly, one that is also actually pretty good. Admittedly, I have no real history with the obscure, mostly Japan-only (with the exception of a localized SNES port) PC-98 Brandish series, so Brandish: The Dark Revenant is my first real exposure to the name. This is fine, however, especially considering it is a completely overhauled remake of the first entry in the series. As a game, Brandish: The Dark Revenant is interesting in that it evokes the feeling of a dungeon-crawling roguelike (though, it isn't procedurally generated, nor is as punishing), but it also has loose similarities to older 2D Legend of Zelda games with its real-time action elements. Yet, it doesn't fall too heavily in either of those camps because of its more distinct nuances to its action-RPG gameplay and setting. The player takes control of a mysterious swordsman named Ares. Both Ares and a scantily-clad sorceress out for his blood (by the name of Dela Delon) are sent plummeting underground after a duel between the two goes wrong and breaks the ground underneath them. With little hope for an easy way out, Ares has to navigate a cursed kingdom of legend, Vittoria, while also having the spiteful sorceress after his head as well. Like a lot of dungeon-crawlers, Brandish: The Dark Revenant is most certainly not an easy game. I do not want to build up the expectation that it is old-school hard, since it isn't, but it is a title where you have to learn how to play by its rules or you will be punished for it. There is a wide-array of devious traps, tough enemies, surprisingly intense bosses, or the occasionally tricky labyrinth design/puzzles that the player has to overcome, all in the hopes of escaping the ruins. Initially, the title will probably seem clunky because of its strange control scheme, like a camera that also turns the player character, or a limited inventory in which management occurs in real-time. In all honesty, though, it is clear that this is more of a deliberate design choice and it is easy enough to adjust to in no time. Despite this, it fully expects you to learns its various gameplay nuances the further you delve into the dungeons: everything from being aware that (most) weapons will break in a Fire Emblem-ish fashion, knowing when to prop your shield up to block oncoming attacks/projectiles, jumping for your life when being chased by a boulder when accidentally triggering a trap, and many more situations that the player will have to smartly learn how to deal with over time. What I like the most about Brandish: The Dark Revenant's structure is that it gives you all of the tools to succeed, yet isn“t heavy-handed about it. Pretty much every death is the player“s own careless mistake with its generally fair challenge. Whether one learns this from carefully analyzing their environment for traps/obstacles and maybe taking their time to trying to thoroughly explore, it is very methodical in that once you learn the inner-workings pretty much everything else falls into place, one cautious step—or learned mistake—at a time. The dungeon-crawling gameplay lends itself to being quite addictive because of how rewarding it is to play. Thorough exploration can not only yield very significant rewards with the game“s many secrets, but also because you simply get stronger in the process, both figuratively and literally. The primary aspect that I find particularly questionable about the design is how oddly it handles certain stats. Most of it makes sense; the more you swing your sword, the higher your physical strength; the more you use magic, the higher your magic power; and generally the more enemies you kill, the higher your HP/MP are when you level-up. My main nitpick is that magic resistance is increased with how much you get hit by magic, which I find counter-intuitive to the game“s inherent design. That, and the hidden luck stat that occasionally dictates your damage output or damage taken, which is also strange. Still, the least impressive aspect overall is its presentation. In the matter of fairness, part of the reason for that is because I have no nostalgia for the source material, so the completely redesigned visuals and rearranged soundtrack are lost on me. That said, aside from a decent sense of atmosphere, like with retro-styled character portraits, the in-game 3D visuals are not likely to impress even among the PSP library. It's a similar deal with the soundtrack; while it is by no means bad, the overall soundtrack is nowhere near as varied, or as memorable, as I've come to expect from the excellent Falcom JDK Band, like with recent Ys and Legend of Heroes entries. Minor nitpicks aside, completing the main campaign for Ares is not particularly long for RPG standards since you can finish it in under 20 hours. That may seem relatively short, but those who pride themselves in taking on more challenging ordeals and increased playtime can easily get that with unlockable Dela Delon “expert” mode. Dela“s added mode is quite enjoyable because it fully expects you to employ all of the skills you have obtained from Ares“s scenario right from the get-go with its unapologetically high difficultly level and a totally remapped, and more complex, dungeon design. Despite being considerably shorter than Ares's scenario, I found it be a very neat addition because of how much it plays on the player's expectations. Perhaps in some overly-complicated analogy, XSEED Games was trying to teach of us all that, much like Ares“s taxing ordeal through the forgotten kingdom, there is still hope for good RPG games to be localized even now on the PSP. Okay, probably not, but my fingers are still crossed for Trails in the Sky: Second Chapter. That said, however unexpected the arrival of Brandish: The Dark Revenant was for the seemingly-deceased PSP system, it serves as a pleasant addition to its library with its challenging, rewarding, and deceptively intricate dungeon-crawling, action-RPG design. As long as you tread carefully and give it a fair chance, there is plenty of addictive dungeon-crawling fun to be had with this decidedly old-school remake gem. Pros: + Elaborate dungeon design with many varying traps, enemies, and scenarios that provide a satisfying challenge + Rewards smart, thorough, and methodical play + Dela Delon's campaign is a neat unlockable that is also unapologetically difficult right from the get-go Cons: - Bland 3D visuals and the soundtrack pales in comparison to Falcom's (very high) recent standards - Some oddly handled mechanics Overall Score: 7.5 (out of 10) Good While it is certainly an enigma that we get to see any sort of localized PSP RPG in 2015, Brandish: The Dark Revenant proves itself, even beyond that initial novelty, as an action-RPG with its challenging and rewarding dungeon-crawling structure that is quite good on its own merits. Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PSP code provided by the publisher.