Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Twin Goddesses ~ Ys I & II Chronicles+

I've been meaning to start the Ys series for a really long time, and I finally did it! I enjoyed these games for the most part and I'm excited to see what else the series has to offer.

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Power of Music ~ Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE

This is my first time doing a video on a console game, and it was quite the undertaking recording over 50 hours of footage and then poring over it for relevant clips. I'm pretty proud of it, though.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Coming down with a case of despir ~ Tales of Hearts R

For reasons that have a lot to do with my obsessive need to complete entire series of games, I have played through the majority of the Tales series. I finished Tales of Xillia 2 earlier this year and played a whole pile of games in the series last year, and my opinion of them as a whole is decidedly mixed. One thing that is a constant for the series is the fun inherent to the battle system--and it's always a little different each time. Some Tales battle systems are better than others, but I'm generally a fan no matter what. It is because of the gameplay that I can so frequently resign myself to slogging through volumes upon volumes of uninteresting and uninspired dialogue delivered by unenthusiastic voice actors. Tales of Xillia 2 was particularly bad about this and it didn't help matters much that the whole game thrived on reusing content from Tales of Xillia.

In combat
Before embarking on Tales of Hearts R, I'd heard that it wasn't considered one of the strongest Tales titles. Since I personally believe the series is inconsistent at best, I was a tad hesitant to jump right into it. As such, it took me several months after purchasing it (I purchased it at the same time I purchased my Vita) before I decided to finally play it. And you know what? It's not bad--not half as bad as I was led to believe.

Tales of Hearts R is an enhanced remake of the original Tales of Hearts for Nintendo DS. It was originally one of two Nintendo DS Tales titles, the other being Tales of Innocence, which never received an American release. Both titles received enhanced remakes for Vita, but only Tales of Hearts R made it here--and even then, no English voice acting was ever recorded. It's a little jarring to hear all of the game's dialogue in Japanese, but I honestly don't mind it at all since from what I can tell the voice acting is well done. Obviously I can't discern any nuance in voice acting delivered in a foreign language, but the voices seem to fit the characters pretty well and I can easily associate the voices with each character. I can't honestly say this is a downside to the game at all since Tales frequently has mediocre voice acting anyway.

Personally, I'm craving sriracha mayo
Games in this series frequenty have ridiculously convoluted and nigh-nonsensical plots, and Tales of Hearts R is no exception. You see, characters in the the Tales of Hearts universe possess what are called Spiria, which essentially govern emotions, skills, thoughts, and whatever else the game's plot demands. Kor and his ragtag group of companions are what are called Somatics, due to the mythical Soma weapons they wield. Somatics are capable of entering an individual's Spiria Nexus to weed out creatures called Xeroms that are possessing these individuals. A strange illness called Despir has swept across the land, leaving people listless and unable to participate in daly life. It's likely that Xeroms are responsible, but before the group can do anything about that, Kor somehow manages to shatter Kohaku's Spiria Core (don't ask me) and sends shards that represent her emotions flying in all directions. So, for the first half of the game, Kor and his companions must travel with a soulless, emotionless Kohaku while they track down her emotions.

It wouldn't be a JRPG without a bath scene, right?
I feel it's no real spoiler to reveal that Tales of Hearts R eventually comes to be less about saving a girl and more about saving the world. It is inevitable, not only for the Tales series, but also for just about every JRPG in existence, that the world must come under threat and it's up to a group of spunky teenagers to save it. Of course, in Tales of Hearts, the cast is at least slightly more diverse. Gall is probably in his 40s and Ines maybe her 30s, but the rest are firmly in the teenager camp. Interestingly, Gall and Ines are probably the best of the cast, gameplay-wise, and the characters themselves are not terrible.

Tales of Hearts R features a lot of these cut-ins
Kor Meteor is the protagonist of the game and as such is the most bland and boring character of them all. He has a can-do attitude and his slogan is "Kor Meteor doesn't try, he does!" which is pretty optimistic but also painfully short-sighted. Kohaku has no personality for a good chunk of the game thanks to Kor's idiocy but later becomes a sometimes soft-spoken, sometimes upbeat teenage girl with an unhealthy preoccupation with miso. Despite the game's title bearing her name (Hearts), her personality never really crystallizes in a satisfying way. She's important to the plot but only really exists as a damsel in distress and a vessel for moving the game forward. She's useful in combat but doesn't otherwise carry her weight as a character. Hisui is Kohaku's brother and seems to exist mostly to be overprotective of Kohaku and to yell at Kor a lot.

It's always something with you, Hisui
The other characters all have their own motivations and backstories that make them interesting in some way. Gall, a character that didn't exist in the original version of the game, joins the party with little in the way of preamble. He's the oldest of the cast (although probably not beyond his 40s) and is made to never forget it. He's dedicated his life to ridding the land of Despir because of someone close to him. Ines is a successful merchant that has Kor and his compatriots on the hook for quite a lot of money and thus decides to travel with them. Beryl is a young painter (and magician) who struggles with self-esteem issues. Chalcedony is a Crystal Knight with an admittedly pretty cool Soma weapon that gifts him with angelic wings. He is introduced as a combative, egotistical jerk, but gradually softens his personality over the course of the game. Kunzite is a robot.

Beep boop
What struck me most about Tales of Hearts R is the variety in the combat system. Each of the game's eight characters features a unique play style, most of which are pretty fun. Kohaku has fire-infused aerial martial arts combos and lots of fierce kicks. Ines has a mix of hard-hitting attacks with her improbably huge blade weapon as well as a slew of icy projectiles and strikes. Gall wields a machete and axe in combat in pretty inventive ways from mid- and close-range. Kor's combat style is about as vanilla as he is as a character but it's still fun in its own way since he epitomizes the style of most standard Tales protagonists.

Tales of Hearts R also places fewer restrictions on combat than some other games in the series with the ability to freely combo between standard attacks and artes in any order you wish. The strategy involved in putting together effective combos from the massive pool of moves available is probably the most satisfying thing about the game and the primary reason I'd recommend it. The chase link mechanic adds a lot of meat to the gameplay in that it allows you to greatly extend and lengthen your combos by knocking opponents into the air and quickly teleporting after them. The gauge that typically governs the number of attacks you can perform in a row refills upon a successul chase link, which means that you can keep a combo going for as long as you can maintain the chase link--which of course is extended by landing continous attacks and performing combination moves. If not or the addictive combat sytem, I doubt I would have felt justified in soldiering on through a plot that is admittedly pretty asinine.

I mostly played Kohaku, Ines, and Gall
Tales of Hearts R is a game I can hesistantly recommend beacuse the characters aren't that bad and occasionally you'll run across some clever lines or memorable moments. Still, though, the game's primary redeeming factor is the combat system, which takes some time to really take off. It's worth it for a Tales fan, which begrudgingly, I realize, is what I am.

Okay, that's pretty good

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Ritual Overthrown ~ Momodora I, II, and III

The Momodora series is a great group of indie platformers. I'm excited to play the fourth game of the series really soon.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Chosen One ~ Dust: An Elysian Tail

Right on time, I've got another video out. It seems unlikely I'll keep doing this every week (since that's what I wanted to do originally when I started with the MMZ videos) but I'll give it a shot.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Will I See You Again? ~ Transistor

Hey, here we go again! I haven't done one of these since Mega Man Zero 4 four months ago. I originally intended to do a follow-up just the next week! Funny how time gets away from you. At least I've still been writing articles in the meantime.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Do you ever have déjà vu? ~ Bravely Default

This entry contains plot spoilers.

I originally started Bravely Default in March of 2014 after a friend of mine graciously let me borrow it once he'd run through it, having maxed out at level 99 at 80-some hours of game time. After seeing his stats, I couldn't imagine I'd be coming anywhere close to that, especially after having spent a decent chunk of time on its predecessor, Matrix Software's Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light. Despite beginning development as a direct sequel to that title, Bravely Default (with new developer Silicon Studios at the helm) is only tangentially connected to it. Its mechanics and systems are overhauled and expanded and in fact shares more in common with Final Fantasy V than The 4 Heroes of Light. This is no doubt due to the mixed reviews The 4 Heroes of Light received--which is ultimately an engaging game marred by a series of poor design choices. In fact, the two games share that trait in common.

The 4 Heroes of Light combat
After grappling with frustration and mixed feelings over The 4 Heroes of Light, I went into Bravely Default with a fresh perspective, ready to embrace the game for improving on its predecessor in every way. I could tell immediately that the presentation, music, and the graphics were all much improved. Despite retaining that same simplistic art style, Bravely Default is a very pretty game, particularly where the hand-drawn backdrops in the game's various towns are concerned. The melodramatic, often neoclassical rock soundtrack is also quite memorable, far eclipsing the monotonous bleeps and bloops of 4 Heroes. The combat system, too, seems to be a great step up. The archaic auto-targeting is gone and job classes can now be mixed and matched to your heart's content, ala Final Fantasy V.

In most ways, Bravely Default seemed like a great step forward--but for whatever reason, I wasn't latching on to the experience like I imagined I would. Maybe I was just burned out after spending so much time on the game that came before it, but as mentioned previously, the two titles are only tangentially connected. At its heart, Bravely Default is a much different experience. What really made the transition awkward was the game's early over-reliance on storytelling. Of course, I'd normally not consider this a bad thing at all, but I was not at all impressed by the game's early attempts at characterization, and the voice acting's poor quality stuck out to me like a sore thumb. Agnès's whisper-soft lines sound painfully overdone and the majority of Edea's lines are delivered as if her words are being forced out of her by a swift kick to the behind, regardless of the situation at hand. Ringabel's lines are more tolerable, but man, what a name. Of course his name is a pun because he's lost his memory--but come on. And then the name of our protagonist and fearless leader is. . .Tiz. He also sounds suspiciously like another Final Fantasy protagonist, Tidus.

Bravely Default combat
Suffice to say, it took me some time to warm to the game's characters. Bear in mind, of course, that I'd had no particular attachment to 4 Heroes' Brandt, Jusqua, Yunita, and Aire either, so in all honesty Bravely's characters are a step forward. Of course, I was still disappointed because I'd built the game up too much at this point. I let the game sit for two years, which is pretty unlike me. I generally try to play games through to completion once I've started them, even if I don't particularly like them at first. For reference, I played all the way through Final Fantasy Dimensions, another Matrix Software job-class RPG in the interim--and it's just as chock-full of flaws as 4 Heroes. It's not clear why I decided to wait so long to return to Bravely Default--but I think I know why. Because it is a game that made a big splash on release and received a lot of critical acclaim, I learned a lot about it despite playing for only 10 hours or so. I didn't know about crucial plot points, but I knew that something was coming in the latter half of the game that I wouldn't like and was almost universally reviled by the JRPG community.

I dreaded playing through the game and reaching a point at which I would be forced to grind away tediously, I moved on to many, many other titles and was forced to do just that in games like Disgaea D2, Final Fantasy Dimensions, the entire Etrian Odyssey series, and even Fire Emblem Fates. After plowing through my considerable handheld backlog (which to this day still contains another acclaimed Square-Enix JRPG, The World Ends with You), I was left with Bravely Default still sitting there, staring me in the face. Bravely Second just came out recently and I'm a sucker for sequels--and I never play sequels without finishing the game before first, so I decided to finally tackle Bravely Default for real, despite my misgivings.

Hand-drawn backdrops
I'd forgotten a lot of details about Bravely Default's plot but I didn't relish the thought of starting completely over, so I decided to just pick up precisely where I'd left off. Fortunately, it wasn't difficult to get the general idea of what was going on, thanks in no small part to the party's helpful (and painfully annoying) fairy companion, Airy, who is generally available on the 3DS touch screen to let you know what you need to do next. (There we go again with the stellar character names. There are also characters named Datz and Zatz.) What I relearned about the game is that Tiz, the bland protagonist, hails from a town called Norende, which is swallowed up at the very beginning of the game by a gaping chasm for reasons involving four elemental crystals (ala classic Final Fantasy). These crystals need to be reawakened by the Vestal of Wind, Agnès Oblige, another of the Bravely Default party members. According to spunky cryst-fairy, Airy, Agnès is now the only one who can perform the task of awakening because the other vestals have met various untimely fates. In Ancheim, the wind has stopped, the waters have turned putrid in the sea, and the city of Hartschild is choked on all sides by boiling lava. Once all the crystals have been reawakened, the world will supposedly be saved, and the Great Chasm that has swallowed up Norende will be closed off for good.

Along the way, Tiz and Agnès also recruit Edea, who hails from the snowy northern country of Eternia, and Ringabel, the dashing amnesiac womanizer who bears a mysterious journal that seems to detail events that happen in the future. As the game progresses, you learn more about the characters' pasts, although Tiz remains (perhaps purposefully) bland for the majority of the game's running time. I have reason to suspect that Tiz essentially serves as a stand-in for the player and certain events in the game's conclusion go far in reinforcing that.

The job system
What sets Bravely Default from other class-based JRPGs are its titular mechanics, Braving and Defaulting. Characters can expend Brave Points to take multiple turns at once in exchange for going into a deficit that prevents them from acting later. Similarly, Defaulting allows characters to guard and store up an additional future action, although this can only be done once per turn. Braving is generally useful to take advantage of windows of power. For instance, if you debuff a boss's physical defense for two turns, you can take one turn to cast spells increasing your party's statistics and then spend the following turn going all-out on the offensive, while perhaps leaving your healer on standby for maintenance after the fact if you don't manage to defeat the boss in that turn. The mechanics behind Braving and Defaulting become more interesting as you unlock more classes and abilities. The final Performer ability, My Hero grants 1 BP to the entire party, for instance, and the Time Mage passive, Hasten World causes all allies and enemies to gain an additional BP per turn. It is possible to spend much less time in deficit when taking advantage of these abilities.

Bravely Default's gameplay is honestly where it shines the most and where it improves most significantly on The 4 Heroes of Light. The majority of the game's classes are worthwhile in one way or the other, even if only for certain passive abilities that can be passed on to other classes. The Ranger class falls off significantly late game, but its passive abilities, Hawkeye and Precision are useful for any class that wants to attack physically. It is especially deadly when combined with Ninja's Frenetic Fighting, which raises the cap of physical attacks per combat action from 16 to 32. (Hawkeye raises accuracy by 100% and Precision increases damage by 3% for every attack that lands.) On the other hand, Valkyrie is useful in the mid-game for grinding with use of its area attack, Crescent Moon, even though it's far eclipsed by classes available later on.

Ringabel is quite the womanizer
Up until chapter 4, Bravely Default is a solid, engaging JRPG with minor flaws. In fact, if the game were structured a little differently and some sequences were extended, the game could end right at the conclusion of chapter 4 and I'd still think it was a great game, if a little short. (Although 30 hour RPGs are a breath of fresh air, if you ask me.) However, the game does not end at chapter 4 and in fact it continues on for a very long time after chapter 4. It is at this point that you reach the dreaded latter half of Bravely Default, which has received a considerable amount of criticism for very good reasons.

Have you ever felt cheated by a movie, TV show, or game that trivializes everything on which it was built by introducing a twist at the end that, surprise!--it was all a dream? Imagine that situation and the frustration and disappointment you feel, and then imagine that happening five times in a row. Then, to add further insult to injury, imagine being given the impression that everything that has led up to the conclusion has not only been a waste, but it's been the absolute opposite of what you were intending to do. This is what happens in Bravely Default. Instead of saving the world by awakening the crystals, our brave adventurers have instead been sealing its fate--and not only that, but it's required to do it over and over again to get the game's true ending, where a plot point is revealed that could be seen coming from light years away. There is no real option to outsmart the game and get ahead of it, however. If you choose to do that, you get an ending, yes, but not the real one. You don't even get to fight the true final boss. In order to reach the true ending, you're required to essentially repeat the same actions you've taken in chapter 4 an additional four times. The bosses keep getting harder and in some cases team up for challenging group encounters, but they're the same bosses over and over. It's like a nightmarish video game version of Groundhog Day, except without the invaluable Bill Murray to keep your spirits up. It's dumbfounding to me why Silicon Studios decided to take the game in this direction. It's like they just started running out of ideas after they'd gotten to chapter 4 and felt they needed to dramatically extend the length of the game without actually coming up with new content.

The ever helpful Airy
After cycling through what is essentially the same content five times in a row, there is a dramatic twist and you are finally, mercifully, pitted against the game's true final boss, hulking monstrosity that it is. It is an otherworldly field capable of destroying entire worlds with a gesture, seemingly impossible to destroy. The cast of Bravely Default must call on the assistance of everyone they have met along the journey as well as on the assistance of the player himself and tens of thousands of other worlds to finally vanquish this ultimate foe. In the tradition of classic Final Fantasy, the Big Bad's motivations are quite simple--absolute power and total domination. There is a certain charm to the villain's simple evil but after what the game put me through to reach that point, I couldn't help but feel bitter and resentful about the payoff, even despite some startling and exciting features baked into the final conflict. Even so, I felt reasonably satisfied after finally ending the battle, but full of mixed feelings. It leaves me feeling cautiously optimistic about Bravely Second because I feel reasonably sure Silicon Studios won't repeat the same mistakes they made with Bravely Default.