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  1. Let's be honest: things weren't looking good for the Valkyria Chronicles series after the latest entry, Valkyria Chronicles Revolution, came out in June this year and underwhelmed, both critically and sales-wise (Barrel called it a "husk of a spin-off that is unlikely to really satisfy existing Valkyria fans" in his review). Luckily for us, SEGA isn't that quick to give up on the series. In fact, they've just announced a proper fourth game in the series, Valkyria Chronicles 4, and it's coming out sometime in 2018 in North America and Europe. This game will see the top-down, third-person strategy elements mixed with RPG and 3rd-person shooter elements make a return, along with larger scale maps with more units, a new class called the "Grenadier", numerous defensive and offensive battleship support options, units being able to make a "last stand" action before death, and more. Also making his return as composer is Hitoshi Sakimoto (Final Fantasy XII, Final Fantasy Tactics), who is sure to provide more of his sweeping, epic tracks to accompany the World War II-inspired story. Most surprising of all? Not only is Valkyria Chronicles 4 coming to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One; it's also coming to Nintendo Switch -- a pretty big show of faith for the new console/handheld hybrid on SEGA's part. For now, check out the game's trailer below as we await more info in the coming months and year ahead. Source: Press Release Are you excited that Valkyria Chronicles is making a return with a brand new installment? And how about that Switch release?
  2. Jason Clement

    Review: SteamWorld Heist

    Developer: Image & Form Publisher: Image & Form Platform: 3DS eShop Release Date: December 10, 2015 ESRB: E 10+ Two summers ago, nobody knew who developer Image & Form was. And almost overnight, they became an indie sensation. SteamWorld Dig put the Dutch team in the spotlight big time, winning huge acclaim from critics and fans everywhere for its unique, cartoon-like spin on the Steampunk genre and addictive gameplay. Subsequently, any other developer probably would've followed up such a hit game with an obvious sequel, but Image & Form boldly went in a different direction this time around. Enter SteamWorld Heist, a strategy action game based on boarding spaceships, shooting up rascally scoundrel Scrappers, and plundering all of the resources on board. But hold on just a second -- how did we get from digging down into the Earth all the way to plundering spaceships? Well, that's a tale for another time, according to Image & Form. What you will find out is that some pretty severe things have happened to SteamWorld since we last left Rusty. A catastrophe of sorts destroyed the planet, forcing the Steambots into outer space to live amongst the stars. At the outset, we learn that there are three distinct factions of Steambots now: The Cowbots, who mine for ore and water; Scrappers, who are pirates and thieves that scavenge and pillage other ships; and Royalists, an oppressive regime that rules the sector and enforces strict taxes on the Steambots. You play as Captain Piper Faraday, a headstrong female Steambot who runs a crew of smugglers that steal and plunder from Scrappers in order to help the Cowbots. When the game starts, you discover that Faraday had lost most of her former crew in a raid, and thus must rebuild it with new recruits over the course of the game. You'll encounter more Steambots throughout the course of the game and will be able to recruit them into your party by either paying their asking price (which is paid in water), having enough reputation points (which you get by completing missions), or a combination of the two. Each Steambot also has their own class and skills -- one might be able to use general handguns and pistols while another may act as a sniper, and yet another will be skilled at using heavy weaponry. As mentioned earlier, the core gameplay revolves around raiding ships, taking out enemy Scrappers and Royalists aboard, and grabbing any loot you come across. You'll make use of a branching space map in order to guide Piper's ship to different locations. Once you've boarded a ship, each level generally has a certain goal you must reach before you can hightail it out of there, whether it be grabbing a certain amount of loot, destroying x amount of Scrappers, or something else. The loot you acquire at the end of each mission can then be used to fortify your crew with new weapons and other equipment. In fact, the game has an amazing system of progression. Every Steambot that survives through the mission will gain experience, which in turn will lead them to level up and acquire new skills that will enhance their adeptness during battle. While you can't personalize each member of your crew's skills, it still is a lot of fun and exciting to unlock new ones, and you really get the sense that each crewmember is becoming better and more useful for every mission. There are a wide variety of weapons to acquire and buy as well, which help keep things diverse and interesting. Each mission will have Faraday and one or more of her crew infiltrating another ship, and the layout is all in 2D, similar to how SteamWorld Dig looked. However, being a strategy game and not a platformer, each of your crewmembers will have their own turn to move a limited amount of spaces and perform an action, whether it's taking a shot at enemies or using an assist item like a health pack to restore HP. Every ship will generally have a different layout of rooms and such, but the way each room is laid out in function will be the same. You'll have multiple levels of platforms to work with, ladders, and barrels and other objects to use as cover. It's simple in concept, but there's a world of depth to it when you really dig into the meat of the game. What really makes Heist's gameplay tick is its great use of gunplay. It doesn't just boil down to aiming your gun at an enemy and firing. Thank goodness too, because that would get old real fast. No, you'll be making use of angled shots to help hit certain foes. For example, your character and an enemy might both be using an object as cover, but -- given the right circumstances and position -- you can angle a shot so that it ricochets off the ceiling, then the wall behind the enemy before finally hitting them. Combined with the different ship layouts and enemy types, this mechanic gives the game a ton of flair and depth. However, It isn't just the gameplay that makes SteamWorld Heist special. Everything about the game shows that Image & Form put in a ton of effort to make this a truly quality game. The visuals show off a level of detail and polish that is rare to see outside of AAA games, and all of the animations are smooth as butter. Seriously, this is easily one of the best looking 2D 3DS games ever made. One can only imagine what it'll look like in HD when brought to PC, Vita, and other consoles. Even the music and soundtrack are extremely well done. The main theme that plays when you're raiding ships once again has a catchy old-western ambience to it (like in SteamWorld Dig), and I was blown away to find out that Image & Form produced entire songs with actual sung lyrics that play in the bars that you'll occasionally stop at. And if you listen in the back of Piper's ship, you can hear the sound of a large steam engine roaring to keep the ship running. Simply incredible. All I can say is Image & Form has done it again. SteamWorld Heist is a near-masterpiece of an experience and proves that SteamWorld Dig was clearly not a fluke. Even though the game is a complete 180 from Dig in terms of gameplay, it's a gamble that paid off in the end because it's a ton of fun and has loads of depth for players of all types. I can't say it enough -- SteamWorld Heist is fantastic, and it's the one 3DS game I would recommend above all others this year. Pros + Fantastic 2D visuals + Deep strategic gameplay + Multiple difficulties that are changeable at any time + Charming writing and cast of characters Cons - Customizable skillsets would be nice (I'm really reaching to nitpick here) Overall Score: 9.5 (out of 10) Fantastic SteamWorld Heist is an incredibly thrilling strategy game, and Image & Form's best title to date. The amount of polish is unbelievable for a 3DS game and the depth of its gameplay will have you playing over and over again. Disclosure: This game was reviewed using a downloadable code provided by the publisher
  3. Developer: Koei Publisher: Koei Tecmo Games Platform: PlayStation 4, PC Release Date: October 25, 2016 ESRB: T The past couple of years have seen something of a rebirth of Koei Tecmo“s historical strategy titles. Though their major franchises in the genre -- Nobunaga“s Ambition and Romance of the Three Kingdoms -- have never been put aside, both franchises were absent from the west during the PS3 console era. But both series have returned in a big way, starting with Nobunaga“s Ambition: Sphere of Influence last year and the release of Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII just a few months ago. And now, Nobunaga“s Ambition is back once again with a stand-alone expansion to Sphere of Influence entitled 'Ascension.' Ascension, like past Nobunaga“s Ambition titles, is set during the Warring States era of Japan“s history. The ultimate goal of the game is to unite all of Japan under the flag of one daimyo through a combination of diplomacy and tactical warfare. What sets Ascension apart from the original Sphere of Influence, however, is its greater focus on individual officers. Similar in nature to Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII, the player takes the role of an individual officer and plays their part in steering their faction toward victory. Where the officer-focused gameplay of Romace of the Three Kingdoms XIII is intensely complex, Ascension is relatively simpler by comparison, but by no means is it an easy game. Also, unlike Sphere of Influence and ROT3K13, there is no dedicated tutorial. Helpful prompts appear whenever the player is introduced to a new concept or gameplay element for the first time, but it will be much easier for players to come to grips with Ascension“s mechanics if they“ve previously invested time into Sphere of Influence. As a stand-alone expansion, Ascension maintains a tight focus on its core gameplay. After selecting an officer, each of whom is tied to a specific scenario, and starting a campaign, the player is thrust into their role and free to act. Lower-ranking officers are granted a domain of land to develop as they see fit and are presented a list of objectives to pursue that are meant as progress toward a larger goal. For example, before the faction“s daimyo will order an attack on a specific castle, the faction must first deliver a certain amount of iron, lumber, money, and supplies, raise a force of a certain size, improve stretches of road, and engage in smaller battles with enemy tribes. Once all of these objectives are met by the player and/or allied AI officers, the larger objective will be presented. If that objective is met, a new larger goal will be declared, and the player will be tasked with a new list of smaller objectives. Every time objectives are met, the player earns honor, and as honor increases, so to do the opportunities for promotion. At higher ranks, the player gains more autonomy and is free to take on objectives with more freedom, or convince the daimyo to pursue new objectives. The player“s officer can also become a daimyo, granting command over their entire force. Or not, as it“s possible to turn down promotions and remain at a lower rank if so desired. Whatever path is chosen, progress is made through a combination of civic development, warfare, and diplomatic endeavors. Properly developing an officer“s domain through the construction of facilities and building strong diplomatic ties will aid the player in building a force capable of taking on enemy factions, but tactical slip-ups can (and mostly likely will) result in setbacks. Alternatively, the player can choose to betray their faction by agreeing to join a rival or by breaking away from their patron clan to become an independent force, though these actions naturally carry their own risks. Primarily driven through menus, Ascension has a clean, clear interface. It does a fairly good job at imparting the information necessary, though it at times can become dense, and the importance of some statistics isn“t immediately obvious. Curiously, the game“s UI is by default set to a very small size that“s almost unreadable on a 1080p television display; the first thing I had to do upon starting the game was find the option to enlarge the text in the main settings menu. The same issue was present in Sphere of Influence, but I have yet to understand why the default is set as it is. Aside from the primary campaign gameplay, there are two major customization features at the player“s disposal. One is a standard officer edit feature that allows the player to edit the stats of historical officers, or to create new officers from scratch. Without any forced limits, the player can create officers that are as overpowered or underpowered as desired. The other feature is an option to create custom events that will trigger if specified criteria defined by the player are met during a campaign. For example, a specific officer can be granted a specific weapon upon another specific officer“s death. While an interesting feature to tinker with in theory, the user interface is difficult to come to grips with and may scare off a lot of players after only a few minutes of struggling to understand it. Ideally, custom event creation should only be approached by veterans looking to spend a lot of time in the editor to get the most out of it, but there are no apparent rewards for these efforts beyond personal satisfaction. At its core, Ascension is a worthwhile expansion to Sphere of Influence. Though the lack of a tutorial may be off-putting, it“s more immediately approachable than Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII and still offers many hours of freeform tactical gameplay. While I would recommend players begin with the original Sphere of Influence, Ascension is still a worthwhile entry in the Nobunaga“s Ambition series. Pros + Refined, officer-focused strategy gameplay. + Numerous options are available for customizing the difficulty and elements in a new campaign. + Beautiful artwork and music, most of which is taken from Sphere of Influence. + Earning PlayStation/Steam trophies also unlocks bonus officers. Cons - No dedicated tutorial. - The custom event creation interface is obtuse and difficult to use. - Some PC mouse controls map awkwardly to a PS4 controller. Overall Score: 8 (out of 10) Great Ascension is a worthwhile entry in the Nobunaga“s Ambition series. Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable code provided by the publisher.
  4. Developer: Koei Publisher: Koei Tecmo Games Platform: PlayStation 4, PC Release Date: July 5, 2016 ESRB: E10+ This review is based on the PS4 version of the game Long before Koei was predominantly known for its Musou franchise (a longstanding series of hack-and-slash action titles that emphasize simple controls and accessible gameplay), the company was much more well-known for its lines of historical simulation strategy games. Koei“s early catalogue is rife with titles like Nobunaga“s Ambition, Genghis Khan, and Liberty or Death. Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the company“s longest running strategy series, recently celebrated its thirtieth anniversary with its latest entry: Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII. Like its predecessors, Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII is inspired by the Chinese historical novel of the same name by Lo Kuan-chung. Set in ancient China during the waning years of the Han dynasty and the decades of conflict that followed, it features officers and events of the era as the basis for its scenarios. It is also, much like its predecessors, a highly complex and very challenging game with numerous systems that interweave, and it can leave newcomers easily flummoxed by the sheer scope of it all. Fortunately, ROT3K13 does new players a favor with its Hero Mode. Hero Mode serves as the game“s tutorial of sorts, offering a series of scenarios that are small in scope and are meant to ease players in. With each scenario in sequence, more and more elements of gameplay are introduced, allowing players the opportunity to let concepts sink in a few at a time. The first scenario, for example, features no combat or city management. Instead, it“s all about interacting with fellow officers, engaging in house visits, and buying and gifting items. The second scenario introduces basic combat, the third introduces a few city building and management systems, and so on. The player“s role in ROT3K13 isn“t a faction or nation, as in most strategy games, but that of a single officer. The officer in question is chosen for you in each Hero Mode scenario, but in the main game, it“s the player“s choice. What actions the player can undertake are in part determined by the player“s rank; low ranking officers have little sway in their faction“s overarching affairs, but by completing assignments and gaining reputation, it“s possible to earn promotions and achieve titles such as minister, governor, or viceroy. Or the player can simply choose to control the leader of a faction and govern everything from the top from the very start. What“s particularly unique about this is that the game doesn“t end if the player“s faction is destroyed by its rivals. In fact, if the player“s faction collapses, it“s possible to find service in another faction and work back up from there. There are only two ways that the player can truly ”lose“ the game, in a sense: the player“s officer dies without an heir to carry on, or the game“s calendar passes to its maximum year of 340 before any faction conquers all of China. This may sound relatively simple, but as stated before, the game has numerous systems, many of which have interplay with each other. Assignments that officers can undertake include, but are not limited to developing a city“s facilities, sending officers on patrols, training soldiers in the spear, horse, or bow, journeying to hire free officers, or engaging in subterfuge to encourage rival officers to defect. It“s also possible to enter diplomatic negotiations, form and nullify alliances, hold banquets, or just visit a friend at their home. All of the above actions are performed through the use of menus and submenus loaded with pertinent information. The game does well in keeping everything organized, but it“s still easy to see stats upon stats and wonder what every individual number means and how much of an effect they have. It may be daunting to take in if you“re not the sort that enjoys games where large swathes of time are spent engaging in smaller tasks and watching numbers increase. Combat is a much more active part of the game, and comes in several forms. Standard combat takes place in real-time and sees the player“s forces engage an enemy in an open field, during a siege, or even on the water, but can be paused at any point in order to issue new commands. Even with this in mind, however, combat can be very tense and grueling. One battle I fought went on for some time and led to both sides losing most of their forces. I had the enemy on the ropes several times as I laid siege to their gates and gave chase, only for yet more reinforcements to come, again and again, until I finally slipped up and let the enemy destroy my base camp. Ouch. And this isn“t even getting into officer duels and debates; one-on-one battles of might and wit that play out by trying to anticipate the enemy“s action and responding accordingly. The general principal is like a more complex rock-paper-scissors with more options and ways in which actions defend or nullify other actions. The situations under which these sorts of battles arise vary, but they make for an interesting break in the general flow. Encapsulating the full experience of Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII in a succinct manner for a review such as this is a daunting task. It“s a hardcore strategy game that makes no apologies for its complexities. But if deep, system-rich strategy games are of interest to you and you have the willingness to learn (and make plenty of tactical mistakes along the way), then it“s definitely recommended. Pros + Hero Mode helps ease players into the game with smaller-scale scenarios and basic gameplay explanations. + Open-ended game structure allows players to experiment and approach scenarios in vastly different ways. + Beautiful character artwork and classical soundtrack. + Voice audio is available in both Japanese and Chinese. + Officer Edit feature allows players to create custom officers to insert into campaigns. Cons - Some PS4 controls are awkwardly converted from PC mouse controls. - The high level of complexity and challenge will deter players looking for a simpler strategy experience. Overall Score: 8 (out of 10) Great If deep, system-rich strategy games are of interest to you and you have the willingness to learn (and make plenty of tactical mistakes along the way), then Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII definitely comes recommended. Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable code provided by the publisher
  5. barrel

    Review: Stella Glow

    Developer: Imageepoch/Sega Publisher: Atlus USA Platform: 3DS Release Date: November 17, 2015 ESRB: T for Teen Seeing the developer name Imageepoch does not automatically inspire confidence within me. It could be because of the very unfortunate RPG mess that was Time & Eternity or my various loose recollections of the wholly forgettable Black Rock Shooter: The Game. Regardless, my recent memory of Imageepoch titles is not exactly glowing. However, rewinding my memories further back, I actually recall liking the strategy-RPG Luminous Arc 2 on the original Nintendo DS. It was hardly the first title you would recommend on the system but there was a certain charm to it that is difficult for me to articulate now. That said, as of this year Imageepoch filed for bankruptcy. As a possible last hurrah, Imageepoch conducted a spiritual successor to their very first developed game, Luminous Arc, with new turn-based strategy-RPG Stella Glow on the 3DS. One can only hope that Stella Glow leaves their name on a good note. Unfortunately, the early goings of Stella Glow do not make a strong first impression. The storytelling in particular is derivative to a noticeable fault. Lead character whom may-or-may-not be an amnesiac? Check. Romantic interests for the lead fulfilling pretty apparent anime archetypes? Check. A possibly misunderstood villain figure out to destroy the world? Check. Pretty much every aspect of it feels like a checklist of Japanese-RPG cliches. It also didn't help that the intentionally nostalgic character designs of the lead character Alto and the witch Hilda made them blur together with previous Luminous Arc leads for me longer than they should have. That said, I warmed up to Stella Glow far quicker than I would have expected. For as stereotypical as the storytelling is, it somehow feels much more charming and cute than cringe-worthy. The cast of characters end up being generally likable (more so through the "free time" events) and Atlus USA“s clever localization knows when to sneak in plenty of tongue-in-cheek quips to give everything a more entertaining flair than it has any right being. What caught me off-guard more than anything else is how surprisingly polished Stella Glow is as an actual game. Imageepoch has come a long way from the many clunky, mediocre-at-best RPGs that plagued of their entire existence, and it really shows in Stella Glow. The basic turn-based strategy-RPG gameplay actually reminds me a fair bit level-5's PSP title Jeanne D'Arc, but as a game it is structured a lot better. It does nothing new for the subgenre with its grid-based gameplay at large but it borrows pretty much all of the right things.The main story regularly introduces new battle scenarios that play upon different terrain, varying objectives, orbs skills to personalize characters, and tossing new playable fresh faces in addition. More distinctly, each character has at least a few unique mechanics to differentiate themselves: The witch Sakuya goes between different attack stances that change both her movement and attack skills, the ninja Nonoka can conceal herself from enemies, the merchant Ewan has an infinite supply of healing items (but... you'll have to pay him upfront mid-battle to use them), and so on. It's fun to go into battle to employ different strategies with the varied cast and the skill animations in particular have quite a lot of personality to complement them (though, the overhead visuals are admittedly far more basic). Additionally, the witch characters can use song magic to quickly turn the tides of battle, adding an extra layer to the combat. After building up the song gauge by characters dealing and/or taking damage mid-battle, Alto can "conduct" the witch heroines (which... looks like him stabbing them in the heart with knife) to unleash powerful song magic to debilitate foes or buff allies as long as it is active, and varies from witch to witch. The songs themselves are usually of the J-pop variety but end up being catchy regardless. Actually, the soundtrack in general is shockingly good, but maybe less so when legendary video game composer Yasunori Mitsuda is the one behind it (with RPG fame that extends to Chrono Trigger/Cross, Xenosaga, and even Soul Sacrifice). It certainly is not Mitsuda's best work but there is quite a lot of variety in the score with battle themes in particular. Going back to combat, though, there are a few issues. For one, it can be annoying to balance the levels of party members because inactive party members gain no experience whatsoever. This may not sound like a big deal at first until you realize how many scripted story battles there are that require certain characters to be in the group and how you generally can only sortie 6 characters per battle (when there are about 15 playable characters by the end of the game). Another qualm is that gameplay will be on the easier side for many strategy-RPG veterans without any option to change. Outside of combat, Stella Glow also apologetically borrows a Persona 3/4's social link mechanic in the form of "Free time" between the main missions. Alto can take jobs from the Red Bear Tavern for easy cash, explore outside of town on his own to get free items, but the most substantial is without a doubt spending time with fellow party members. In addition to fleshing out most characters, even those not immediately likable in the main story, you get very tangible gameplay benefits in combat as you build up their friendship. Again, very much like Persona 3 and 4. An extension to the Free Time concept for character relationships is "tuning", which is kind of reminiscent of Ar Tonelico/Ar NoSurge's diving mechanic. Basically, Alto can go into the psyche of the various witch heroines for both character development reasons and to enhance their song magic. It is not as in-depth as something like Ar NoSurge, with literal hours of exposition, but it's a cool addition regardless like most of Free Time events. There are also a multitude of character endings caused by these character events so Stella Glow very much rewards picking favorites, from romances to bromances, the first time through in its lengthy 40+ hour adventure. Even if players happen to miss out on most of them the first time the New Game+ is fairly thoughtful in dramatically extending the amount of Free Time and combat experience rate for would-be thorough players to see all of the endings. It is unlikely that Stella Glow will outshine the likes of Fire Emblem: Awakening or Devil Survivor 2: Record Breaker in most 3DS owner's eyes. Just the same, however, Stella Glow unassumingly earns its place as one of the best RPGs on 3DS and is pretty much without a doubt the best title from Imageepoch outright. Stella Glow does not attempt to reinvent the wheel amongst strategy-RPGs but, narrative cliches aside, it will likely remind fans why they like the subgenre in the first place because of the deceptive amount of charm and great gameplay fundamentals it has hidden underneath. Pros: + Generally charming characters and writing + Combat animations have quite a bit of personality + Fun, if hardly original, turn-based SRPG gameplay with varied characters + "Free Time" events are a cool break from combat + Great soundtrack Cons: - Main story is nothing to write home about and is incredibly predictable - Balancing party levels can be needlessly annoying due to no shared EXP between inactive members - Easier than many SRPGs Overall Score: 8 (out of 10) Great Stella Glow does not reinvent the wheel for turn-based strategy-RPGs, nor does it attempt to, but it can easily remind fans why they like it in the first place with its deceptive amount of charm and polish. Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable 3DS code provided by the publisher.
  6. Developer: AquaPlus Publisher: Atlus USA Platforms: PlayStation 3 Release Date: October 14, 2014 ESRB: T for Teen Tears to Tiara II: Heir to the Overlord does not make a good first impression. It is probably the most visually underwhelming game that I have played this year, not to mention that most of its narrative aspects came off as rather derivative at first. Yet, over time, I have learned that that preconception does quite a disservice to one of the best RPGs of this year. Though titled as a second entry, which is accurate, Tears to Tiara II: Heir of the Overlord is a mostly independent release from its unlocalized predecessor. Beyond some generally minor callbacks to the original Tears to Tiara and the same Strategy-RPG/Visual Novel gameplay hybrid, Tears to Tiara II: Heir of the Overlord succeeds on its own. The game starts off in Hispania, a small country under the dominion of the Divine Empire. Those that follow the religious beliefs of Ba'al have lived their lives as slaves under harsh tyranny of the Divine Empire for seven years. To quell the undercurrent of a possible rebellion, and to help usher a means of absolute religious centralism, the imperial army tries to convert the son of a former powerful bloodline to weed out other possible revolutionists. This son, known as Hamilcar Barca, is viewed as an incompetent, weak-willed successor who actually had no intention of supporting the conspiring revolutionists under his family's name. Still, even Hamil is pushed to the edge after witnessing certain atrocities by the Empire, in which he then calls upon the latent spirit of blood-thirsty overlord, Melqart, to gain the power to incite a rebellion against the Empire. There are two parts to Tears to Tiara II's general structure that you have to accept, and those are that it is most certainly a visual novel, but it is also very much a turn-based strategy-RPG as well. It may be a tough compromise for two genres that may not have a lot of overlap amongst fans, but I believe that both facets lend themselves to one another quite well. The most difficult aspect for me to adjust to was the storytelling. At raw face value I thought most of it came off as rather trite: from a one-dimensional evil empire to even certain important characters, like Tarte who seemed to embody the extremely overplayed tsundere character archetype at first glance (no small thanks for her popular Japanese voice actress). This, of course, is very easily the first impression of the game and it will require a fair amount of patience see past it, with visual novel exposition being upwards of 2-3 hours during certain portions. What caught me off-guard was how surprisingly well-written the storytelling actually was. For instance, many characters that I thought were shallow archetypes played on my expectations by showing a lot of genuine depth, and the world itself being quite fleshed out. I don“t draw attention to this as much as I should, but even the localization and writing also read very well. This stood out to me especially after playing Ar NoSurge recently, which had many inconsistencies in its translation and generally felt rough to read. Admittedly, the narrative is still a slow burn because of how it is more visual novel than strategy-RPG for the first half of the game in particular. Sticking with the storytelling, however, made me really surprised at how much I liked a lot of the characters which have some great moments that feel quite heartfelt. While the storytelling is generally fairly good, its pacing is sort of all over the place. Perhaps the biggest example of this is when it hits a narrative apex during the halfway point where both the storytelling and character motivations are at their best. Though there are certainly good moments that follow, like some poignant character development, the latter portion of the overarching narrative feels much more route in comparison to the build up that occurs in those particular pivotal moments. It's weird that Tears to Tiara II has a very inconsistent rhythm to its narrative flow, but pressing through made me increasingly fond of the storytelling overall the further I delved into it. Massive visual novel storytelling aside, Tears to Tiara II is also very deliberately a turn-based strategy-RPG as well. As a strategy-RPG, it is generally by the books for the genre with some more modern tweaks. That's not a particularly bad thing, but those who are expecting something entirely mechanically fresh, like Valkyria Chronicles , the core gameplay likely won't invoke that feeling. What it does it does well, however, with many varying mission objectives and challenging, strategic scenarios. As with traditional Japanese strategy RPGs, combat takes place on a grid and both the player's and enemy's turn are dictated by group phases. One of its more unique mechanics is that there is a chain gauge which increases based on various actions in combat. Chain stock can be used to power up certain skills, as follow-up hits for normal attacks, or unleash special team combination skills. There are also extra nuances like an elephant party member that serves as a spawn point for reinforcements (don't ask) and allies with powered up forms that help employ different approaches to battles. Despite not being the most original take on the genre, Tears to Tiara II does a good job at introducing new facets to the gameplay and mission objectives regularly. It also borrows many conveniences from more modern examples in the genre: such as being able to see the range of enemy movement/attacks like in Fire Emblem Awakening, able to rewind turns like Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together on PSP, altering animation/movement speed like Disgaea, and suspend saving like many handheld games. Don't be fooled, however; victories aren't free in Tears to Tiara II and are most certainly earned even on the standard difficultly. Those that still find that not challenging enough can try achieve higher missions ranks, complete hard mode (which does away with the rewind feature), or even try diving into the difficult post-game dungeon. In a weird way the above-average difficulty actually heightens the narrative satisfaction, even if battles tend to take too long in later fights. Despite both the gameplay and storytelling being handled well, undoubtedly the weakest component of the game is its visual presentation. The 3D visuals look early PS2 era at best and have many incredibly awkward animations during story scenes in particular. Not only that, it has a bit of Final Fantasy Tactics syndrome where the cutesy character models do seem out of place when conveying its fairly serious storytelling. That said, the character portraits are generally well-drawn, especially certain CG images. In contrast, the audio is solid, from music to Japanese voice acting. It may be a shame to some that there is no English dub at all, but it is not surprising considering the massive visual novel script. It seems like Atlus USA has quite the knack at cherry-picking gems among Strategy-RPGs. Much like Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time, it seems to hearken back to another era where storytelling, characters, and challenging gameplay were more respected among Japanese RPGs. It is a shame that Tears to Tiara II: Heir of the Overlord is unlikely to get the audience it deserves because of its tawdry presentation and immense visual novel component. But, for those who are willing to take notice and forgive its occasional faults with its demeanor, Tears to Tiara II: Heir of the Overlord will reward them during its conquest in the long term. Pros: + Well-written, heartfelt storytelling + Likable characters + Challenging, strategic gameplay + Extremely meaty main game Cons: - 3D visuals are incredibly dated and awkwardly presented - Later battles take too long - Uneven narrative pacing with some excessively long exposition Overall Score: 8 (out of 10) Great What it loses in occasional presentation/pacing skirmishes Tears to Tiara II: Heir of the Overlord can win the hearts with its great storytelling and strategic gameplay in the long term for those who can see through its many battles to the end Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS3 code provided by the publisher.
  7. Marcus Estrada

    Indie Strategy Bundle Goes Live from Bundle in a Box

    Bundle in a Box is a lovely bundle initiative that always has a theme. Last time, it was all about indie RPGs. This time, the genre has shifted to strategy titles. If that's your thing then this is definitely a new bundle worth checking out. There are eleven games available in all via the Indie Strategy Bundle. By paying $1.99 or more you get the following games: Age of Conquest III (Windows/Mac/Linux, Desura) AI War: Fleet Command (Windows/Mac, Desura, Steam) Creeper World (Windows/Mac) Storm Over the Pacific (Windows, Desura) Strategic War in Europe (Windows, Desura) The Trouble with Robots (Windows) US & Them - Cold War (Windows) As usual, beating the average purchase price unlocks a handful of other titles: Creeper World 2 (Windows/Mac) Fall Weiss (Windows) Mayhem Intergalactic (Windows, Desura, Steam) Project Aftermath (Windows, Steam) There are also unlockable extras which include game soundtracks and art. The more people buy the bundle, the more likely each item will unlock. In order to get these goods you just have to have bought the bundle (not necessarily beat the average). The Indie Strategy Bundle will be live for 14 more days.
  8. Developer: Q-Games Publisher: Double Eleven Platform: PC (reviewed), PS Vita Release Date: August 26th, 2013 (PC) EDIT: Hey, there's a 50% off sale as of right now for a week! So....hey, if you're interested now is a great time to buy! Sometimes, you just want to have a relaxing experience. Pixeljunk Monsters can bring that, or it can deliver the PAIN, straight to your doorstep....or desktop, rather, I suppose. Whatever your preference for difficulty in games, Pixeljunk Monsters, and with its new iteration of sorts being the "Ultimate" edition, may just be the perfect game for you if you enjoy a good tower defense title. Turning trees into equal-sized structures that fire various projectiles may not sound like exactly the most eco-friendly action to take to defend against hordes of monsters, but whatever, it works! This is a silly game about silly things, and thus you can play however you like. If you want to be the most hardcore defensive expert, you can feel free to do that and ace (or get a "rainbow") every level! Personally I struggled a lot on the base difficulty and considered dropping down to casual.....but I prevailed and got halfway through the second island! If I had to give any complaints, I would justify that the price (at least, on Steam) is a little too much. $20 for a game that was originally $10 years ago seems a bit odd. The game is fantastic though, and the added content is.....well, decent. You get a new randomized level generator and online co-op which is not too shabby. I had trouble getting into a game but I didn't see very many people playing either, so I'd assume this game is best to play with a friend, either online or sitting next to each other. The amount of content in the game itself is pretty massive too I might add! With only three islands to play, you may be concerned, but let me rest those concerns aside because this game rips apart your pathetic hope and tosses the remains to the curb. As I said, even on normal difficulty I was being challenged quite a bit to get rainbows, which are needed to progress. The game does let you pick and choose which levels you want to try and tackle, so if you get stuck on a certain few you can just try and do the other available levels. I would estimate that there's easily a good 30+ levels in the game, and with each taking 20-40 minutes to finish the length of one playthrough is fairly long. The medal challenges, which require the player to complete specific levels while clearing certain conditions also help to add a lot to the potential amount of time you may spend on Pixeljunk Monsters Ultimate. These are fun and unique, and really require you to wrack your brain for different ways of clearing an otherwise easy level. All in all, Pixeljunk Monsters Ultimate is never unfair to the player, and thus in my opinion and thus it's definitely worth a potential buy, for anyone really. Being a fan of tower defense type games helps a bit in me enjoying it, but this isn't hardcore in the slightest unless you make it be, and nor is it easy by any means unless you choose for it to be so. As the game has been out on PSN for years already at a cheaper price, I would say wait until a 50% or more sale to nab this. Even then, if you know you'd love it, this is not a bad choice to pick up at its usual price. Stop those evil monsters from kidnapping your pixel people, and contribute to global warming today! I give this game a: 9/10 Wait, what's that about a giveaway? That's right, you can win a copy right here! To be in for a chance to win, tell me what other Pixeljunk game(s) you'd like to see on Steam (hint: Eden is already on it!)! You can enter once per person until this Friday, October 5th when I'll end it sometime in the evening (PST). Good luck!
  9. Marcus Estrada

    Review: 7 Grand Steps

    Developer: Mousechief Publisher: Mousechief Platform: PC (Steam, Web) Release Date: June 7, 2013 ESRB: N/A (T suggested) A download code was provided by the publisher for this review Humans are innately obsessed with their own existence. When it comes right down to it, we all wonder why we exist, and why we take the form we do. What has led up to this very moment? What were your ancestors like and what was their place in the world? These questions and many more swarm within our heads and unfortunately there is only so much information we can gleam. Although it cannot give a true depiction of our own histories, 7 Grand Steps is an incredible exercise in charting human existence as a whole. Developer Mousechief has made something very special. Despite the video game format, 7 Grand Steps takes on much more of a board game feel. Somehow, it manages to overcome its status and feel quite grand in scale. Players who enter into the game may be expecting a casual, or even dull, experience but those preconceptions couldn“t be farther from the truth. The basic gameplay is comprised traveling around a circular board which has four layers. At the start, you can only access the lowest rung of the circle. As more levels open up, you can shift between them at will. Movement is controlled by tokens which are generated in multiple ways. Each space on the board has an icon and in order to land there you must have a token with the same icon on it. Coins also scatter the board which you collect in order to pursue goals such as invention, social climbing, or heroic deeds. Players control an adult woman or man and, if married, both. Beginning on the lowest ring for the game board is purposeful. It represents social class - your story begins at the very bottom. One of the other goals of the game is to climb the social ladder to noble or leader. Of course, even these dreams belie the truth. It may seem entirely beneficial to become a king or political figurehead, but once there, harsh reality sinks in. You“ll never be able to make it if you can“t keep the family name going, through. You begin the game as a human in the distant past. The main goal of the game is simply to survive throughout the ages and maybe even flourish generations down the road. As was true of our ancestors, one of the most important aspects of existence was to have as many children as possible. As you progress through the Bronze Age to others, players are imbued with the responsibility to keep the family line growing. This is not the only goal, of course, but is requisite to continue along the generational journey. Children are not simply created and then perfectly ready to inherit their parents roles. No, they must study and learn a variety of tasks if they want to be successful in the future. In early stages, my children were trained to excel in pottery. While this seemed a lovely profession, it was rejected by the majority of eligible bachelorettes that wanted stability in their lives. 7 Grand Steps feels very close to reality, even when this supposed reality was many years ago. Each child can have their skills improved once per turn and in whatever ways you feel best. Teach them about farming, government, or hard work and they“ll grow in that image. As adults, you must then again seek out a mate, and hopefully have at least one child. If you can manage to fulfill the goals of living, marrying, and procreating, then you“ll eventually get a shot at the ruling class. Once here, a sort of meta game opens up. You must not only manage the game board well, but also keep control of your reign. Each turn you are given the option to alter your ruling style. Players can edit whether or not they wish to turn a blind eye to corruption, increase farm production or road construction, and a handful of other tasks. Treat your duties well and the people will accept you as a ruler. If you are cruel and unwilling to listen to the people then they may take you down. It“s a delicate balancing act which is all too easy to lose. Accompanying you always are small story interludes that help to furnish the goings on in your family tree. Although they are not a constant presence, they give you enough to fill in the blanks of this newly generated family history. It“s with this that the 7 Grand Steps reveals its greatest strength. It provides a compelling reason to play - keeping your history alive. This causes the gameplay, which is easy to understand once you“ve experienced it, to become quite addictive. From the tidbits of story, players are welcome to imagine a much richer story. Without any prompting from the game, I became incredibly invested in the family line that I was working through. Interesting, and sometimes sad, events occurred. For example, one son grew and found himself interested in no women at all. Although the game never specified, I took this to mean he was gay. As his story ended because he was not able to produce children, his presence was felt from his sister“s future as he provided tokens to the family. Although it was not really “my” family, I became incredibly invested in seeing them succeed and took failures personally. Video games tend to be fun. After all, this is the main reason why they were created. 7 Grand Steps is certainly a fun diversion, but it also manages to be much more than that. It provides an interesting historical adventure where you control the fate of a family line. This is an incredibly powerful and intimate role because you see everything. This is why the game has affected me so much and why I believe it will for other players willing to give it a chance. If you“ve been intrigued by any of what you“ve read, then definitely try 7 Grand Steps. Pros: + Offers hours of play for one family history + High replay value with new family lines and decisions + Excellent writing that captures a player“s imagination + Easy to understand but still offers difficulty Cons: - Visuals will not inspire gamers obsessed with such things - Despite in-game help menu, there are still elements left unexplained Overall Score: 9.0 (out of 10) Fantastic 7 Grand Steps is an incredibly affecting, yet simple, strategy game that stands as undoubtedly special and worth playing.
  10. Marcus Estrada

    Review: Reus

    Developer: Abbey Games Publisher: Abbey Games Platform: PC (Desura, GamersGate, GreenManGaming, GOG, Steam, Web)Release Date: May 16, 2013 ESRB: N/A (E suggested) A download code was provided by the publisher for this review What is the greatest appeal of a god game? It“s quite simple - to exercise incredible power on the world. We can“t make everything go our way in reality but god games offer us an avenue to make a wealth of decisions that will affect a virtual population. Reus shows itself off as the latest god game, but it seems to be a bit different from what we“ve come to expect. The question is, is that a good or bad thing? It all depends on the kind of gameplay style you have. The genre most befitting to Reus seems to be puzzle. You see, when you begin the game you are greeted with four powerful gods to control, but they aren“t really in control. Each god controls a specific biome (swamp, ocean, forest, desert) and these are used to generate the environment for your new world. Once you“ve set up a habitable space on the planet, a nomad will arrive and start up a village. This is the point that you“ll realize how little control you have despite being a hulking god. Each and every new civilization will have a great deal of needs and your role is god is to be entirely subservient to them. Sure, you can switch between who you help, or choose the way in which the goal is achieved - but you are still working toward their aims. In fact, even getting more features to unlock requires completing various in-game achievements which revolve around doing good by a society. How do players serve their people? Each god has access to their own abilities, such as changing land, planting fruits, plants, animals, and more. However, they are not corralled into these few choices. When gods interact with each other“s items, or place specific goods next to others, synergies form. This is when everything jumps into puzzle hyperdrive. Because everything the citizens want requires resources, you must simply give them enough of each. But doing so requires understanding how to place goods efficiently, as well as how to set off the best synergies. It“s all fairly complex stuff even after playing for hours so it would make even less sense to explain in further detail here. Suffice it to say that there is an official wiki available for Reus and you will need it if you intend to become skilled. If not, it“s possible to squeak by for a while, but not to accomplish much down the road. Puzzle/strategy play overwhelms the god aspects entirely and that will be appreciated by the kind of player who loves unraveling complex systems. Someone who wants to simply wreak havoc can do so, but won“t find much excitement in the game for long. Being a god in Reus is all about serving the people, after all, not about goofing off. With studied determination, those invested in the game will be able to appreciate how much time Abbey games must have invested in its creation. It was not necessary for the game to have so many varied aspects or synergies, but everything works together wonderfully just as long as the player understands. Reus also happens to be an entirely gorgeous title. The gods are giant and colorful and when they pound at the earth you can feel their power. One especially lovely aspect about the game is how the look changes as you zoom in and out. From far away, the world seems quiet aside from gods perched on its surface. Once zooming in though, everything springs to life as people mill about their cities and animals bound across fields. If anything, the bright visuals seem at odds with the serious complexity going on underneath. Reus is the kind of game that will either turn you away or get you incredibly involved in its processes. Players need to know that before buying because it could turn out to be either a bad or excellent purchase. For those that will be into it, the game is a well-crafted experience that will take hours to master. Along the way, you“ll be enchanted by the visuals and discoveries of your people thanks to your aid. Playing god is a lot of work, but it“s beautiful when it all comes together. Pros: + Great deal of content to unlock and discover + Tinkering is recommended and can yield positive results + Lovely visuals Cons: - Understanding the game“s complexity is outsourced to a wiki - Complexity will be off putting to those expecting something else from Reus Overall Score: 8.0 (out of 10) Great Reus is not the game for everyone but it does provide a complex god game in an attractive package.
  11. Another Kickstarter project from Double Fine? Yes, it's true, and the game is called Massive Chalice. Massive Chalice is a tactical strategy game for PC with feudal fantasy elements. Double Fine says themselves that Massive Chalice is inspired by popular strategy games such as X-COM, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Fire Emblem, so fans of those might be interested in this game. In the strategy half of the game, "you oversee your kingdom, arrange royal marriages, conduct research, and make the far-reaching decisions that will determine the fate of your legacy." The tactics half is where all the turn-based battles come in. Like Fire Emblem, permadeath of your characters is also a feature. Rewards for pledging to the Massive Chalice Kickstarter project include: $20: Digital download of Massive Chalice, exclusive badge on official Double Fine forums, name listed in "Backers" section of game credits $50: Early access to Massive Chalice, HD versions of the public 2PP Behind-The-Scenes videos, hi-res digital art package, digital copy of Massive Chalice soundtrack $100: Your name and House preferences included as one of the Bloodlines in Massive Chalice, name listed in "Bloodline Backers" section of game credits $150: T-shirt, poster, name listed in "Collector Backers" section of game credits $250: Poster signed by Brad Muir, Tim Schafer, and other Double Fine members; name in "Signature Backers" section of game credits And more! Will you be pledging to the Massive Chalice Kickstarter project?
  12. Marcus Estrada

    7 Grand Steps Screenshot 4

    From the album: Review Images