Sunday, May 15, 2016

Not just Pokemon through a new lens ~ Yo-Kai Watch

Yo-Kai Watch is a quirky RPG developed by Level-5, known previously for Dragon Quest VIII, Ni No Kuni, and the Professor Layton series. Its similarities with Pokemon cannot be dismissed, but clone it is most certainly not. It has more than enough content that sets it apart from its more established cousin, although these differences are of course both good and bad.

Yo-Kai Watch was originally released in Japan in 2013 and it performed really well, winning a score of 36/40 from Famitsu and outpacing any of Level-5's sales expectations by selling over seven million units in Japan alone. Of course, in its initial year of release, it was heavily outpaced by Pokemon X and Y which came out that same year. Since then, however, Yo-Kai Watch has steadily gained in sales figures (thanks in no small part to the Yo-Kai Watch anime which proved popular with Japanese children) until the release of Yo-Kai Watch 2 (in two versions this time, Ganso and Honke), which actually eclipsed the sales figures of Game Freak's Pokemon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire. It's worth noting that Yo-Kai Watch 2 is a new game in that franchise whereas ORAS was a remake, but the numbers are impressive all the same.

So far, there's little evidence to suggest that Yo-Kai Watch has sold well in North America. The nonexistence of sales figures for it speaks volumes. As such, its future as a franchise in English is unclear. It is perhaps not surprising that a game so steeped in Japanese lore and mythology may not be as runaway a hit in North America as it proved to be in Japan--but that is not to say that it's a poorly designed game or even that it fails to live up to Pokemon's legacy. Although its inspiration is obvious, it differentiates itself from Pokemon in a lot of important ways.

Whisper the Yo-kai
Players assume the role of an elementary school-age boy or girl (whose names are Nate and Katie according to the anime, but can be given a name of your choosing) and stumble across their first mythical Yo-Kai in the woods north of Springdale. It is the Yo-kai Whisper who calls to mind images of Casper the friendly ghost mixed with a pompous British butler. He is your guide in the early stages of the game and explains to you the game's various mechanics, including how to befriend other Yo-kai, like the enigmatic Cadin, the cicada swordsman or Jibanyan, the ghostly cat with a vendetta against oncoming traffic.

Whisper explains that Yo-kai are all around us and are secretly responsible for many daily inconveniences, such as the amorphous blob-like Dismarelda provoking arguments about nothing and the creepy floating hat-creature Wazzat causing others to spontaneously forget what they were doing. It is up to the player to seek out and befriend these Yo-kai, not just for the purpose of battling other Yo-kai, but to help out the citizens of Springdale, as well. Of course, the citizens themselves can't see the Yo-kai are there because they are not in possession of the titular Yo-Kai Watch, which reveals these spirits through the use of its glowing lens. As the game progresses, you're afforded with the opportunity to further upgrade the watch's capabilities at Blossom Heights' Timers & More--although not before performing various tasks for its proprietor, Mortimer Goodsight.

The wheel
Players will find themselves performing a lot of mundane tasks for residents of the city of Springdale. It is a surprisingly sprawling city in which the entirety of the game takes place. Unlike Pokemon, in which players travel from town to town across a larger region, Yo-Kai Watch has you traversing a single city dotted with hidden passageways and back alleys, as well as an underground waterway. It's an interesting and fresh perspective on this genre of game but I'll admit to finding myself hopelessly lost on more than one occasion. Many side quests in the game require you to travel from one end of Springdale to another in an effort to find a particular Yo-kai, item, or character--and there are a huge amount of side quests to undertake, many of which are just too mundane for their own good. The ability to teleport to various regions of the city is unlocked later in the game, but there's no hint that it's coming and when it's available you've already been subjected to a lot of traveling to reach the game's various quest objectives.

I found myself enjoying the game a lot more when I stuck to the main line of quests, because they are consistently charming and memorable--and perhaps more importantly, feature combat against boss characters. The combat system in Yo-Kai Watch is very interesting and is perhaps what most differentiates it from Pokemon. Although I was initially turned off by not being able to assign orders to my Yo-kai directly, I quickly became enamored with the strategy involved in boss battles. You're required to target specific locations on bosses to succeed--and frequent switching in and out of various members of your party is required in order to purify the various status ailments these bosses inflict. Each of your six Yo-kai are positioned on a wheel, although only three are in combat at any given time. However, rotating the wheel will bring up the next Yo-kai in line, effectively switching out the Yo-kai at the end of the list. Rotating the wheel can be done at any time and is essential in combat strategy. It can be helpful to rotate the wheel in encounters when a particular Yo-kai is in danger and needs to be healed, but it can also be done just to invoke a certain bonus (such as having several of the same Tribe in combat at once, which imparts bonuses to speed, strength, etc) or to use a Soultimate special move when a benched Yo-kai's soul gauge has filled. Purifying ailments is done in a similar way to how you'll unleash Yo-kai Soultimate special moves--by inputting various commands on the touch screen, such as rubbing, tabbing, and tracing patterns.
Paws of Fury!!
Although Yo-Kai Watch is steeped in Japanese mythology, it is also much more whimsical in tone than Pokemon. There were several times the game made me laugh out loud, but just as many times where it made me groan, especially when it comes to such charming Yo-kai as Snotsolong and Cheeksqueak, which legitimately has a butt for a face. Alternatively, many Yo-kai have cute and memorable designs, and even the more bizarre ones like the human-faced dog Manjimutt have quirky origin stories that make them more interesting than they might first appear. 

Yo-Kai Watch is a game that borrows elements from Pokemon but shares traits with the Shin Megami Tensei series as well. It has more than enough features to differentiate itself from either and stands on its own as a unique and worthwhile experience. I'd be eager to see how Level-5 evolves the format in Yo-Kai Watch 2, but of course there's no guarantee that they'll decide to localize it for a North American release, considering their silence on their debut title's reception here. I'd be disappointed if it never received an English language release, but with Pokemon Sun and Moon releasing later this year, I'm sure I'll find some way to get over it.

Yeah, Manjimutt creeps me out.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The time has come, Awakener - Trails of Cold Steel

When I heard The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel was coming out shortly after the long-awaited Trails in the Sky: Second Chapter, I was eager to jump on it right away. Unlike Second Chapter, Trails of Cold Steel came out relatively recently in Japan and as such is much more modern in terms of graphics and presentation. This is not to say that I'm averse to a more classic style of presentation--far from it--but the prospect of seeing the Trails gameplay I'd come to love translated into a new style was exciting, all the same.

Now in 3D!
The Trails in the Sky trilogy (the third of which has no confirmed release date here so far...) takes place in the country of Liberl. Although characters from other locales make appearances, at no point in these games do you set foot on another country's soil. For this reason, it was exciting to me that Trails of Cold Steel takes place entirely in the northern country of Erebonia, from which the Trails in the Sky character Olivier hails. Of course, the premise for Cold Steel is a little different because the do-good mercenary group known as the Bracer Guild is nowhere to be seen in Erebonia--or at least, not anymore. Instead, young protagonist Rean is a newly enrolled member of a military academy called Thors, and part of the recently established Class VII--which, as it turns out, regularly embarks on "field studies" that strongly resemble the work Liberlian bracers might perform... Of course, that is not to say that the premise is the same. In addition to these field studies, Rean and his classmates go about performing tasks associated with their day-to-day life in the military academy.

The initial roster
Thors is a renowned military academy in Erebonia, although its faculty is far from the dour, taciturn lot you'd expect from the description. In fact, the colorful cast of characters inhabiting Thors are more akin to what you'd expect from a Persona game--and the influence from that series is pretty obvious here. There's even a system in place in which you spend time with your fellow classmates and grow closer to them, strengthening your bonds both in terms of the plot and in combat as well. As you grow closer, you'll unlock new abilities that allow your characters to participate more effectively in battle, much like a similar mechanic from Persona 4. The similarities don't end there, though, because the game is structured in days and months and as such begins to fall into a predictable rhythm. There are field studies in which the students embark on trips to various cities every month, but before they do, they'll typically end up with a few free days in Thors and the surrounding town of Trista where Rean has the opportunity to spend time with classmates and perform duties for the student council. These quests flesh out the game's characters and reveal more information about the game's world and about Thors itself.

The principal character development in the game actually takes place on the field studies. Every month of game time has a field study in which the entire Class VII roster is dispatched to two different cities. The city to which Rean is dispatched is what the game follows. For this reason, the party members at the player's control are constantly changing, which gives you the opportunity to familiarize yourself with characters you might otherwise overlook. These field studies also serve as an opportunity to see different characters interact with each other. The Class VII instructor Sara appears to relish pairing students who are currently at odds with each other.

Trails of Cold Steel boasts an impressive 11-character roster of playable characters as well as a couple of temporary guest characters. Each of the game's characters has a set of unique skills (called Crafts just like in previous Trails titles) and different stat distributions. Elliot and Emma are excellent support characters for instance, while Rean and Laura pack much more of an offensive physical punch. S-Crafts return from previous games in the series and serve as super-powerful moves that can interrupt the turn order to unleash massive damage, provided they've built up at least 100 CP. These attacks feature flashy animations that are seldom boring to watch even over the course of such a long game duration--although Falcom wisely chose to include an option to skip them if you've lost patience.
In combat
What I really enjoy about Cold Steel's battle system is that each character carves out their own strategic niche. Emma has an ability that allows the party to reflect a magical attack. Rean has abilities that interrupt spellcasts or delay an enemy's action. Alisa can buff the party with increased accuracy and CP regeneration, whereas Machias can debuff the enemy's defense and restore the party's EP (which essentially serves as a resource to cast spells). Of course, these traits are not dissimilar to what Trails in the Sky already had to offer. What Cold Steel introduces is the linking system, which I've discussed a little already. Every enemy has susceptibility to different types of attack, whether they fall under the category of slashing, thrusting, piercing, or blunt damage. This susceptibility determines how likely that enemy is to be Unbalanced, which allows linked party members to perform a follow-up attack at the press of a button. New layers of the linking system are unlocked at various points of the game, including the ability to attack all enemies on screen after a successful Unbalance, much like the All-Out-Attacks from the Persona series.

Many of the game's bosses are actually quite challenging, requiring ample preparation and strategy. For those who have lose patience after repeated defeats, there's an option (just like in Trails in the Sky) to retry at a lower difficulty. Of course, I never resorted to that, but it was because I always felt there was a way to better my strategy to make a fight go more smoothly. The game is balanced in such a way that the difficulty never feels unfair--except for maybe one particular 1-on-1 fight later on in the game, anyway. It's important that such a lengthy, dialogue-heavy game has involving gameplay to counterbalance all the time you'll spend reading text scrolling on screen and Cold Steel certainly delivers on that front.
Laura unleashing her S-Craft
The vast majority of the game's running time is spent on character building, whether it be through field studies, exploring the mysterious Old Schoolhouse on the campus grounds, or performing day-to-day class duties. Unlike Liberl, Erebonia is a country with a firmly entrenched class system. Traditionally, Thors segregates commoners and nobles from each other in different classrooms, but the newly established Class VII eschews this idea completely. Therefore, the noble-hating Machias is forced to cooperate with nobles like Laura and Jusis and of course both sides must confront preconceived notions about their disparate classes in order to relate to each other. However, the first hints of plot begin to appear on field studies and it eventually becomes a foregone conclusion that the Big Bad is going to make an appearance at each field study Class VII undertakes. For this reason one could dismiss Trails of Cold Steel as an unfocused game because the primary conflict only really becomes clear in the game's final moments--and when it does, there's little to no resolution, which left me feeling pretty disgruntled considering the 70-some hours of play time I'd spent on the game. Trails of Cold Steel II comes out in about five months and hopefully should serve to resolve a lot of the loose ends from this game, but I'm still more than willing to condemn the first entry into this new trilogy for lacking resolution. After all, Trails in the Sky (the first chapter) ended on a cliffhanger as well but still had a satisfying enough conclusion to stand on its own. I can't say the same for Trails of Cold Steel.

Oh, Laura
Although the ending left me feeling unfulfilled, I can still firmly recommend Trails of Cold Steel. It doesn't stand up to Trails in the Sky as of yet but I could see my opinion changing once I have a better feel for the whole experience. After all, it feels a little incomplete without Trails of Cold Steel II as a companion piece. This was something that was true of the first chapter of Trails of Sky as well, but to a much lesser extent. Cold Steel II has a lot on which to follow up and I'll be anxiously awaiting it over the next few months.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Silent Dragon ~ Fire Emblem Fates: Revelation

After playing all three components of Fire Emblem Fates back to back, I'm more than a little weary of the game, but I'm still glad that I had the chance to take in the whole experience. Birthright and Conquest are of course the principal halves of Fire Emblem Fates but in Revelation, available as DLC, the two warring countries of Hoshido and Nohr are forced to band together to confront an even greater threat lurking beneath them. As with the previous iterations of Fates, the first 5 chapters are identical and serve as an introduction to the opposing sides and their motivations, to the fearsome Disney villain King Garon, and the noble samurai warrior of Hoshido, Prince Ryoma. In both Conquest and Birthright, the protagonist is given a choice during chapter 6 on whether to support his or her biological family in Hoshido or to side with the family he or she grew up with. If Revelation is present on the Nintendo 3DS system, a third option is available, which allows the player to choose to decline to side with either faction. If this had been an option initially, I feel pretty certain that's the choice I would instinctively pick!

King Garon of Nohr
Still, Revelation serves as context for those who have already played both sides of the conflict and essentially becomes the true storyline of Fire Emblem Fates. The endings for both Birthright and Conquest are bittersweet because it's clear that the choice the player makes directly results in a lot of loss and bloodshed. In Revelation, the protagonist seeks to convince Nohr and Hoshido to work together against a common enemy. Interestingly, this enemy is very seldom alluded to in the main game, although it's clear a lot is uncertain about the motivations of certain characters, particularly Garon and Azura. As a result, both Birthright and Conquest are lacking in closure. Revelation goes a long way toward expanding on this, but I feel conflicted on how the whole package was presented.
Prince Ryoma of Hoshido
For a game with such an ambitious and intricate setup for its plot and characterization, Fire Emblem Fates is certainly disappointingly lacking in its writing. Many plot points are depressingly shallow and characters one-note, especially when it comes to villains. The principle villains in Revelation are alarmingly evil with no sympathetic or human qualities whatsoever. I found myself missing the moral conflict of the previous iterations of the game where I was forced to fight against family simply because I'd had to make an impossible choice in an effort to end the war. There is conflict in the early stages of Revelation when the protagonist must convince the warring factions to cooperate but these characters who have been at odds with each other for their entire lives fall into rhythm laughably quickly. I'm willing to suspend my disbelief a bit and praise the Fates protagonist for his or her outstanding mediation skills--to a certain point--but it would have made a lot more sense to put more emphasis on the struggle for these disparate characters to not only get along but to communicate at all without open hostility. The plot of Revelation is as feasible and as simplistic as fanfiction.

Hoshido and Nohr stand together.
Where Fates continues to succeed is of course in its gameplay. My fear before starting Revelation is that it would recycle a lot of content from Birthright and Conquest, that it would feel like a depresing cashgrab from one of my favorite developers. Although the storyline takes a step down from what was already subpar, the gameplay is as tight and solid as ever--and although there are a number of maps reused from the other two campaigns strictly for the sake of continuity, there are still plenty of inventive maps on display. Honestly, I'd say it finds a happy medium between the two campaigns in terms of overall fun level and design. There is no map in Revelation as annoying as Conquest's Chapter 12: Bitter Intrigue with its breakable poison pots, but still doesn't put too much reliance on vanilla "rout the enemy" objectives like in Birthright. There are maps that make use of fog of war, trick doors, movable platforms, and several maps that require you to divide your forces to tackle different objectives simultaneously. I never found myself bored with the variety of missions Revelation has to offer, except perhaps for the optional child-recruitment missions, which all return. And yes, I did all of them.

Because Revelation allows you to field every playable character of Fire Emblem Fates, regardless of faction, there are dozens of new character interactions available in support conversations. I made a point of pairing Hoshido and Nohr characters together if I could because I thought that might lead to some interesting conflict. Of course, since Revelation places so little emphasis on the fact that these countries hated each other for years and years until the Fates protagonist told them to maybe not do that, these interactions are less interesting than I might have imagined. As usual, I was not impressed overall at the writing in these support conversations--but that's not to say that there aren't a few gems scattered around. Several of the quirky/humorous conversations are fun to read, but none of the more serious ones are particularly interesting or have any real depth. It's possible I harp on this kind of thing too much, but it's particularly jarring when so much emphasis is put on these conversations for gameplay purposes. When they're not well written, it does detract from the experience!

Kaden the Kitsune and Keaton the Wolfskin
I've expressed many times on this blog that I'm a huge fan of crossovers and the kinds of games that emulate the feel of crossovers. Revelation seems that way to me because it combines the disparate characters from both Birthright and Conquest--but as is so often the case in crossovers, a lot of the potential inherent to the concept is wasted. This is partially because the material Intelligent Systems was working with was substandard in the first place, of course, but it's still pretty clear to me that the game could have been implemented better. Fortunately, the gameplay itself is still highly addictive and well designed, with few truly negative qualities. As I've discussed before, the systems in place in Fates are mostly a step forward for the series, particularly when it comes to the removal of weapon durability and the balance of stats and characteristics between classes. Balance gets a little wacky when you throw in an online market for skills (which of course is already replete with hackers), but I tend not to judge games on the availability of optional online content if I can avoid it. Fire Emblem Fates is flawed, but still a very good, enjoyable game. Even so, it's probably unnecessary for the average player to play all three parts of the saga like I did.

Monday, April 18, 2016

An Island of Dogs

Since acquiring full time employment recently, I've had a bit less time for games, but I'm still plodding away doggedly at the final path of Fire Emblem Fates. I'll have plenty to say about Revelation once I've finally finished it, despite the considerable Fire Emblem fatigue I feel has overcome me. I'm perhaps more excited about returning to a slew of games I abandoned before embarking on a journey to play all three chapters of Fates, including Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel, Yokai Watch, and Transistor. I'll be getting back to those soon, but in the meantime my girlfriend and I have managed to complete a quirky little Wii game by the name of The Dog Island in three different sessions over the course of a few weeks.

"The Dog" is a line of artwork and merchandise initially popular in the mid 2000s featuring dogs photographed with a fisheye lens, lending them cartoonish proportions. These adorable puppies were featured in calendars, on folders, and notebooks. Of course, this franchise came straight from Japan--and for whatever reason the brand's popularity led to the creation of a couple of video games, one of which is The Dog Island for the Nintendo Wii. It's easy to dismiss the game out of hand as "shovelware" created in an effort to market a line of doggie plushes--and admittedly this might be a large part of why the game was created. Even so, Japanese developer Yuke's put a lot of care into a game about a bunch of cutesy big-headed dogs.

The Dog Island could best be described as an adventure game with RPG elements not entirely unlike The Legend of Zelda. Unlike more traditional offerings of the genre, it has very little emphasis on action or combat. Although your dog protagonist (one of many different breeds, chosen by the player at the beginning) will find him or herself beset by poisonous cobras, buffalo, and bears, you won't be tasked with defeating them. It is frequently necessary to run from or to avoid these foes, but in some cases you can simply sneak up on them and bark at them to stun them for a time. You might even receive a special item from some enemies.

The majority of the game's thrust comes from its many quests, in which the Dog will solve the many and varied troubles of the canine inhabitants of the Dog Island town of Pupsville, Gigili Village, and others. Although his initial goal is to cure his ailing sister, the game's scope gradually broadens beyond that as he discovers that he'll have to become a Sniff Master by uncovering the game's dozens and dozens of unique scents. The majority of quests in the game will involve the Dog sniffing out particular items that must be returned to an NPC or used in other ways to solve problems. In some areas, it is necessary to bait elephants or alligators into spots so they may be used as stepping stones to reach previously inaccessible locations.

The breadth of exploration in The Dog Island surprised me. I was expecting it to keep us occupied for just a few hours, but we found ourselves trying to beat the heat in the desert, braving the cold in an icy tundra, exploring a deep ruin and sniffing for clues, putting together a circus troupe, bribing giraffes into carrying us onto high ledges, and running countless errands for a particularly pushy pooch named Henry. It's a surprising gem not only because of the subject matter but because the developer is primarily known for wrestling games.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Destined to Seek Life Beyond the Shore - Fire Emblem Fates

I have to emphasize that I really enjoy what Intelligent Systems have done with Fire Emblem Fates. Splitting the game into different titles depending on which side of the war you're on is clever--and I can't levy any accusations that either side relies too heavily on reused content. The two games share a handful of characters and of course are two sides of the same coin as far as plot is concerned, but post-Chapter 6 (where a crucial decision point takes place), their actual content is quite different. One might assume that the two could have easily been combined into one game and this is probably true, but very few JRPGs out there boast a runtime comparable to the combined span of Birthright and Conquest, which ran me a combined time of about 120 hours (not including restarts, of which there were many). Granted, I definitely took my time, but I also feel I definitely got my money's worth.

It is very inventive how the two Fire Emblem titles differentiate themselves from each other. Their gameplay is not only different in terms of content, but thematically as well. Birthright of course takes place from the perspective of the Eastern-themed kingdom of Hoshido, with such characters as the mighty samurai Ryoma, the timid priestess Sakura, and the brash young prince, Takumi. Characters wield weapons like yumi (bows), naginata (spears), and clubs, which in this case sub in for axes. Axes are nowhere to be seen in Birthright unless acquired from the opposing kingdom of Nohr. There are diviners that conjure animal spirits to harry foes, ninja that hurl shurikens to disable opponents, and majestic sky knights that ride pegasi into combat. In many ways, Birthright eschews Fire Emblem convention by including very few traditional classes--although of course there are obvious analogues. Samurai are essentially myrmidons and of course promote into swordmasters as usual, but there are just enough wrinkles in the format to make the Birthright side of the equation feel very fresh.

Conquest feels more familiar at first blush, steeped as it is in Western tradition with its armored knights and mounted cavaliers. The kingdom of Nohr also boasts access to fearsome wyvern riders and dark mages--but they're definitely not the bad guy or anything! Bear in mind that the Japanese titles for Birthright and Conquest are White Knight Kingdom and Dark Knight Kingdom respectively, so the games aren't necessarily subtle about setting up for the player which side is in the wrong. Of course, things are a little more complicated underneath the surface, but... not very. The foul Nohrian king Garon is characterized as despicably evil regardless of which perspective the player chooses and of course his character arc possesses all the subtlety of a comic book supervillain. I've always enjoyed media that explore the shades of gray of morality and Fates touches on that a little, but for the most part the plot stretches your suspension of disbelief to the snapping point, especially when playing from Conquest side. Why you would voluntarily side with Garon is anyone's guess, especially as he continually sends the avatar off to one hilariously evil task after another. It's not about playing the bad guy in Conquest, though. It's still about trying to resolve the conflict underlying the war, just in perhaps the most misguided way possible.

The general premise of Fates is sound. The avatar has grown up around his siblings in Nohr for the majority of his life, but his true family hail from Hoshido--and they want him back. Meanwhile, King Garon has no other desire than the complete eradication of all who would oppose him, and there's no room for even an ounce of mercy in his heart. There are no shades of gray for Garon, whose fanatical devotion to violence leaves his reasonably normal children (and main characters of Conquest) surprisingly unfazed. It takes a shocking number of atrocities committed by Garon and in the name of Garon before the avatar finally convinces his foster siblings that maybe something is up. Alternatively, if the avatar elects to side with Hoshido, where his true family resides, he's more or less disowned and attacked on sight. Granted, neither side is very reasonable about this, but it was pretty clear to me from the outset that Garon was as megalomaniacal a villain as they come. Hoshido boasts no character as fearsome as that so it's hard not to view them as anything but the "good guys," even if the games are structured in such a way that you're led to believe that neither side is in the right.

Although Fates is plagued by a more hackneyed plot than is typical of the series, this can be somewhat forgiven so long as the character development is sound. Plot has never been exactly the strong point of Fire Emblem, even if it has frequently been solid (as in Path of Radiance and Radiant Dawn in particular), but the main non-gameplay draw for me has always been the way the characters interact with each other. Fates certainly has a lot of that and in some cases the conversations these characters can have with each other between battles is interesting and serves to flesh out their backstories. Unfortunately, in many cases it's very close to irrelevant and poorly written. Such a fate (heh) seems  inevitable when the marriage system from Awakening is shoehorned into a game that doesn't feel conceived from the ground up with it in mind. On the surface, it's really cool that just about any character can pair up with a character from the opposite gender, get married, and have a child--but because of the staggering number of possible combinations, the writing starts to run a little thin. There are some genuinely cute and clever moments buried in the mountains of text in these support conversations, but many are disappointing and shallow.

Despite all the criticism I can levy at Fire Emblem Fates, I can't help but wholeheartedly recommend the game for its addictive gameplay and the steps its taken forward for the series. It certainly hasn't supplanted the last two console games from my series favorites, but the updates Intelligent Systems have made to the core gameplay are generally very good. Weapon durability, once central to the series, is almost completely gone, only remaining on healing staffs. Weapons have been rebalanced to offer tradeoffs for their power. More powerful weapons are heavier and more difficult to wield, or temporarily penalize stats after use--but they can be used as many times as you like. No longer will I come across a legendary weapon and never use it because it only has 25 durability.

Additionally, the counterplay between the support and pair-up mechanics (also known as attack and guard stances respectively) is brilliant. Characters positioned adjacent to each other can follow each other up in combat. Alternatively, they can pair up together defensively, lending a statistical bonus to the character in front, and protecting the character in the back from harm. After landing and/or receiving a number of attacks, the paired-up characters fill the Dual Guard gauge, which guarantees the next attack received will be nullified. It is essential to make use of both mechanics to conquer hard mode on either version of the game.

Speaking of difficulty, Conquest is certainly the harder of the two games. It also features by far the most variety in map design, with a slew of different objectives to complete across the course of the campaign. Birthright features missions that generally amount to defeating all enemies on the map, but Conquest has more missions in which only a boss must be defeated, a location seized, or even missions where you are tasked with defending an area or escaping. Map design is not always intrinsically better in Conquest, however, and in fact at least two of the missions are impossibly annoying. It is overall a more stressful game, but perhaps a more rewarding one. Speaking personally, I did enjoy Birthright because of how foreign and unfamiliar it felt, even if the missions themselves lacked variety. In the end, I really enjoyed both sides of the coin and I can't wait to see what the final DLC path has to offer.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Fractured Dimensions ~ Tales of Retread

I finished Tales of Xillia in May of last year and although it carried with it a lot of flaws typical to the Tales series, I felt I could pretty safely say I enjoyed it. At the very least, the series is always worth it for its combat system. Although some of these games do tend to devolve into button-mashing, there is enough to play and experiment with during combat that the trope-laden plots and sometimes irritating characters are made bearable over 40-50 hours of gameplay. Tales of Xillia 2 is no different in that regard, with a combat system that is virtually identical to that of its predecessor--with a few key differences.

The main quirk to the format that Xillia introduced was the "linked artes" mechanic. Two characters could link together and fight in formation, unleashing deadly combination artes when the Overlimit gauge reached a certain threshold. There was a decent variety of these artes, some of which were very clever and nice to look at. Xillia 2 expands on this pretty considerably not only by adding three new playable characters (increasing the roster to 9 from Xillia's 6) but by including a series of generic linked artes for combinations of skills that wouldn't otherwise yield a result. Therefore, it is possible to unleash a linked arte when the gauge reaches certain thresholds regardless of which skill is being used, even if the generic linked artes are rarely as powerful or flashy as the unique ones. There are dozens and dozens of unique linked artes to use with every possible combination of two linked characters. The new protagonist, Ludger, appropriately boasts the highest number of these unique linked artes.

Xillia 2 also completely reworks the way in which new artes and skills are learned. The game's predecessor featured a system called the Lillium Orb (which is explained in the plot in as incomprehensible way as Tales fans are now accustomed) that is very similar to systems like Final Fantasy X's Sphere Grid or Final Fantasy XIII's Crystarium. Skills are acquired by spending points on a network of connected nodes. It's very simple, but it worked. The Allium Orb of Xillia 2 is actually a little more interesting, but more difficult to understand at first glance. Characters must equip elemental Extractors that translate elemental ore acquired from completed combat encounters into five disparate elements. The Lightning Bolt extractor, for instance, transforms this ore into the fire and earth elements. Skills and artes are acquired by reaching certain amounts of these elements. Some require a certain amount of two different elements. To learn all of a specific character's abilities, it is required to switch out extractors on a regular basis. As one advances further into the game, extractors with higher growth rates (ore is transformed into more of a certain element) are unlocked and abilities are learned more quickly.

The biggest change in Xillia 2 (and in fact, the biggest break from tradition in the Tales series) is the inclusion of the silent protagonist, Ludger. That's right--Ludger seldom says a single word over the course of the entire game, and it frequently makes the pacing of the game feel very awkward and uncomfortable. Aside from a few muttered lines and non-committal replies, all of Ludger's dialogue is determined by the player. Of course, these choices are not voiced whatsoever, which I imagine is part of the reason why it feels so strange. The other reason is that the Tales series has never had a silent protagonist, and judging from Xillia 2, it's not something it ever needed either. It's just such a hamfisted inclusion that serves no real purpose for the majority of the game's runtime, save for a few climactic moments at the very end of the game. It's clear that Namco Bandai wanted Xillia 2 to be a game about making choices, but they forgot to make those choices actually mean anything. I would have enjoyed the game a lot more if Ludger was a character with a real personality and actual dialogue--even if he was as unlikable as Luke from Abyss or Emil from Dawn of the New World. I'm all for change and evolution, but this was not a change for the better.

On the other hand, Ludger's combat style is fantastic and adds a whole new dimension to the battle system from the first game. Ludger is capable of switching between three different weapons and as a result has access to a whole slew of artes, dwarfing all of his party members in comparison with his utility. His dual swords, pistols, and hammer all boast significantly different play styles and serve different purposes in fights depending on whether he needs speed, range, or power. If that's not enough, he also unlocks the ability to transform into a Scary Demon Form later on in the game that again features an entirely different gameplay style that is unique to him.

As far as mechanics go, Xillia 2 is honestly a step up from its predecessor, but the good news ends there. Xillia was not exactly a powerhouse in the plot/character development department (then again, Tales games rarely are), but the sequel fails to live up to even those standards. The plot is as usual completely incomprehensible, featuring a serpentine plot concerning such things as fractured dimensions (essentially Bizarro Worlds), divergence catalysts, and of course some light time travel. These are all par for the course for Tales and that might be fine, but the entire structure of the game is different than usual. From the very outset, the premise is set up as an adventure in which our hero Ludger must pay off a 20,000,000 gald debt. And yes, you've gotta make regular installment payments to progress in the plot. You acquire funds by taking on quests and defeating epic monsters and as you pay off more and more of the debt, you'll unlock more of Elympios and Rieze Maxia to explore, which of course is comprised almost entirely of content most have already seen from the first game. In fact, 95% of locations visited in Tales of Xillia 2 are completely identical to areas from the first game. This left me with a bad taste in my mouth not unlike what I experienced when I played Final Fantasy IV: The After Years.

Honestly, the main things that kept me playing Xillia 2 were the combat system (which I'll maintain is quite good, despite frame rate slowdowns that still unfortunately exist) and the inane minigame which has you scouring the globe for hidden kitty cats. There are 100 of them in all. Some are hidden in holes in the wall, some in inns or deep in dungeons. I'm not sure what I found so addictive about tracking down all those stupid little cats. It's not like I got anything great from it, and it exists almost solely as an excuse for you to revisit areas which most players are going to be quite familiar with already from the previous game. Still, it was a feature I couldn't help but find hopelessly addicting and I'll proudly declare that I located each and every one of those little furballs.

Tales of Xillia 2 is a game I doubt I stubbornly finished (with help from my girlfriend, no less) but could not in good conscience recommend to others. It features a fantastic battle system but loads of reused content, asinine characters (Muz├ęt is particularly awful), hours of boring dialogue and equally boring character-centric sidequests, and a circuitous and virtually nonsensical plot. But hey, at least I don't feel guilty at the prospect of starting Tales of Zestiria now.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

An informal Fire Emblem retrospective

I've been a Fire Emblem fan for something like 12 or 13 years. Like a lot of folks, I started with Fire Emblem on the Game Boy Advance--otherwise known as Fire Emblem: Rekka no Ken (or Blazing Sword). It was the first Fire Emblem game to be released in English despite being the seventh numbered entry in the series. I fell in love with its simple but satisfying strategic gameplay, emphasis on character development through support conversations, and challenging difficulty bolstered by a mechanic in which characters that are defeated in combat die--permanently. This adds an extra layer of tension to the series that is integral to its identity--and despite more recent entries offering the option to disable the feature, I never do. Not once. It's too important to the format.

After playing and replaying Rekka no Ken, I played Fire Emblem: Sacred Stones, last in a trilogy of games released for the Game Boy Advance--although it shares no storyline with the other two games. After that, I backtracked and played Fire Emblem: Fuuin no Tsurugi (Sealed Sword) which currently only exists as a fan translation. It is the sixth entry in the series but takes place chronologically after Rekka no Ken so playing it was an interesting experience. It felt like a sequel that took a lot of steps back. The gameplay itself was still satisfying, but the cast of characters was enormous and generally weak. Of course, it was a lot of fun to get more context on the storyline and to take the reins of Roy, whose appearance in Super Smash Bros. Melee puzzled a lot of gamers in America at the time.

After playing and replaying those three games, Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance came out (while I was still in high school!) and I pounced on it and devoured it. It was the first Fire Emblem title released for a console since Thracia 776 for the Super Famicom in 1999 (well into the N64's era). Although I missed the stylish 2D combat animations from the Game Boy Advance titles, I loved everything else about the game. The art style was polished, the music was effective, the support conversations were mostly well-written, and the tried-and-true gameplay was as addictive as ever. Radiance also brought back the skill mechanic from the SFC titles, adding another layer to the gameplay's complexity. It was my favorite of the series to that point.

Only two years later, a direct sequel to Path of Radiance called Radiant Dawn emerged--and it was an epic undertaking indeed. Not only did it feature every single playable character from Path of Radiance, but it also introduced a whole game's worth of brand new characters and weaved them into the storyline. Players alternately assumed control of Micaiah and her ragtag band of followers and Ike's mercenary group until the two become one. I've mentioned previously on this blog that I very much enjoy games in which a group of characters adventure separately until meeting up closer to the end, citing examples like Live A Live or Dragon Quest IV. Radiant Dawn is another really good example of this. Unlike Fuuin no Tsurugi's bloated roster of forgettable characters, Radiant Dawn delivers a gigantic cast of mostly solid personalities, some of which were previously established in Path of Radiance. Of course, Radiant Dawn isn't perfect and suffers from one critical flaw. Support conversations, critical to the series formula since Rekka no Ken--are with few exceptions very shallow and forgettable. It seems inevitable with such a large cast that such a thing would happen, but it's still a mechanic that I found myself missing a lot. Despite this issue, it's probably still my favorite game of the series.

Only a year later, an enhanced remake of the very first game of the series was released called Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon. Although many features were added in an effort to update the gameplay, it still came across as fairly dated, with vanilla gameplay in comparison to Radiant Dawn that was absolutely bursting with features. It was an enjoyable playthrough just for the sake of context, but it wasn't what I was waiting for. Of course, an interminable five years later, Fire Emblem: Awakening came out and it shattered all of Intelligent Systems' expectations and became the best selling entry of the series by far.

Awakening could have been the series' swansong. Intelligent Systems execs at the time admitted that if the game didn't meet their sales expectations, they'd conclude the series. As a rabid fan, this was definitely an upsetting prospect for me, so I awaited the game's release anxiously. I knew I'd enjoy it, but I wasn't sure Fire Emblem had the kind of broad appeal it would need to be successful. Boy, was I ever wrong, since Awakening went on to become the best-selling strategy RPG of all time (as far as I know). Of course, a lot of that had to do with Awakening morphing into a game with more broad appeal, which comes with both positive and negative qualities. The most welcome inclusion for me was the marriage system, in which characters with particularly close bonds can marry and produce children--which, through some bizarre and contrived time travel plot device, grow to adults instantly and can be recruited into your army.Of course, the game is also rife with online connectivity with loads of paid DLC, some of which is pretty low-effort. Additionally, the writing for support conversations is sometimes subpar, particularly in comparison to Path of Radiance. I still thought it was a great game, but couldn't bring myself to sing its praises (like the rest of the internet and all critics) since I could name at least two other titles in the series I felt were superior to it already, neither of which got the sales they deserved.

Of course, that brings us to Fire Emblem Fates, an ambitious new title released just last month. For the first time in the series, it is split into two different paths: Birthright, focusing on the Eastern-themed kingdom of Hoshido; and Conquest, centered around the Western-themed Nohr. Both paths share a handful of characters and the first six chapters, but for the most part, the storyline and characters available are entirely different. The Special Edition of the game comes with a third path called Revelations, which evidently unites the two armies. I've only so far completed Birthright so I can't speak too much on the whole experience--but I can say that I enjoyed the game a lot, even though I'm still disappointed by a number of things. The gameplay is as usual really solid, and the skill system is as robust as ever--but the writing itself is underwhelming, and not a lot of the support conversations jump out at me as having a lot of depth. Additionally, while the marriage system returns from Awakening, it has even less of a satisfying explanation. In Awakening, the system was at least loosely tied to the plot, but the explanation provided for children growing up instantly in Fates is hilariously contrived.

Still, the idea of assuming control of a character who must make a choice between two warring armies is at its heart a good one, and Birthright did a great job at delivering on that fantasy. I don't want to say a lot about my overall thoughts on the game yet, because I feel like I won't have a clear enough picture until I can compare and contrast it to Conquest and eventually Revelations. Considering Birthright took me some 60 hours to complete (on hard mode), I imagine I won't have the full picture for some time. Fortunately, I'm invested enough in Fates that I don't dread the opportunity to explore it further.