Monday, December 26, 2016

Game of the Year 2016

This year may be a record year for me when it comes to finishing games (about 30 in total for 2016). As this is a blog devoted to tackling backlogs and exploring everything gaming has to offer, my Game of the Year consideration is based on the dates that I beat games rather than the date of release. This year's candidates had release dates ranging from 2006 - 2016. So without further adieu, on to my Top 10 Games of 2016:

 #10: Fire Emblem Fates (3DS)
This handheld strategy epic was my constant companion throughout the entire year. While at times the content of this three-game-spanning behemoth felt like it was being stretched a little thin, this title ultimately coalesced into a satisfying package.

#9: Just Cause 2 (PC)
In a year like 2016, sometimes one just feels the need to blow up some stuff, and boy, did Just Cause 2 deliver on that front. Being the star of a cheesy action movie by soaring through the air, commandeering all manner of vehicle, and causing massive collateral damage was exhilarating from start to finish.

#8: Final Fantasy XII (PS2)
Standing as the beginning of a bold new direction for the classic franchise as well as a showcase of what the PlayStation 2 can do, I'm really glad that I went back to finish Final Fantasy XII this year. Though it had a few issues that I'm hoping get ironed out in the upcoming remaster, I still had a great time playing it and would recommend that anyone who considers themselves a JRPG fan give this charming adventure a try.

#7: Freedom Planet (Wii U)
Inspired by classics like Sonic the Hedgehog and Gunstar Heroes, Freedom Planet shows that the student can surpass the master. This was a thrilling 2D action platformer with a surprisingly in-depth story.  A must-play for any fan of the 16-bit age.

#6: Xenoblade Chronicles X (Wii U)
While not quite the focused RPG masterpiece that was the original Xenoblade Chronicles, Xenoblade Chronicles X provided an astonishingly massive world to explore; a world that completely absorbed me for more hours than I care to admit among polite company. Even though this was the first game I finished this year, I often found myself thinking back on the time I spent on the alien world of Mira.

 #5: The Witcher 1 & 2 (PC)
For the purpose of this list I'm counting both games as two parts of a whole. These games were my first foray into Western RPGs since the original Diablo, and I was definitely impressed. While some of the gameplay elements could occasionally be a little shaky, the world of The Witcher is a fully realized place full of interesting characters, complex societal issues, and hard decisions; it's a grim place, but a joy to inhabit none the less.

 #4: Undertale (PC)
Many indie games  are content to either feature a novel gameplay concept, or deliver a heartfelt story: Undertale does both. I know for many people the plot and characters were what resonated the most, but for me, it was the combination of the innovative gameplay and superb music that set this game apart. It's a solid turn-based RPG with loads of creativity and personality packed into its short run time.

#3: Doom (PC)
This was easily the biggest surprise of 2016 for me (at least as far as gaming is concerned). Doom was fast and frantic in a way that was as stressful as it was thrilling, and I loved pretty much every minute of it. The mixture of the non-stop action of the combat sequences combined with intricate levels to explore cemented Doom as one of my favorite single-player FPSs of all time.

#2: Life is Strange (PC)
Of all the games I played this year, Life is Strange is the one whose story and characters stuck with me the longest. While the narrative certainly leans heavily on the melodrama, it contained some plot twists and emotional gut punches that I won't soon forget. This game is probably the best example of story-telling in a point and click adventure game I've ever seen.

#1: Tomb Raider (PC)
This game has it all: a combination of exploration, platforming, RPG mechanics, and tight 3rd person shooting that was like pure crack to me. It's rare that a game manages to pull off all these different elements well, but Tomb Raider absolutely nails it.

Honorable Mention
It pained me that there were a couple of great games that didn't quite make the cut for the Top 10 this year, so here's some quick acknowledgement for those titles:
  •  Ib & Eternal Senia: These little indie games really opened my eyes to what can be accomplished with RPG Maker.
  • Shantae & the Pirate's Curse: A beautifully crafted 2D platformer. Another gem from WayForward.
  • Runbow: A challenging platformer with great music that supports up to nine players.
  • Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE: A charming and stylish JRPG that would have benefited from some streamlining. 

2016 has been a great year for gaming, and I wanted to thank everyone who's joined me on this backlog journey! I'm curious to hear what everyone else has been playing this year, so please feel free to leave your own top 10 in the comments below. Happy Holidays and have a great New Year!

Monday, December 19, 2016

Demo Hotness: Mercenaries Saga 2

Mercenaries Saga 2 is a tactical RPG that plays somewhat like a stripped-down budget version of Fire Emblem. The game alternates between brief story scenes and turn-based tactical battles on an isometric grid battle field. While compared to Fire Emblem, the story, graphics, and music are all a pretty significant downgrade, the core game play is fun and engaging. The menus and interfaces are a little clunky, but not to the point where they significantly hamper enjoyment of the game.

The demo includes the first 5 missions of the main game, and I found myself quickly hooked by the game's quick small-scale battles. Since the full game is $5 (USD) on the eShop, I can pretty much forgive the game's shortcomings in terms of presentation and UI. With solid tactical RPG game play and such an incredibly low price, I'll probably be picking up Mercenaries Saga 2 next time I get a craving for some turn-based strategy on my 3DS.

Acknowledgement: I became aware of this game after seeing Michael Cunningham (@FinalMacstorm) singing its praises on Twitter. The man definitely knows his handheld RPGs, so when I saw him get this excited about a budget game, I knew I had to give it it a shot. You can find articles by him at RPGamer and Pocket-Console.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Demo Hotness: Kirby Planet Robobot

As a fan of the Kirby games from back in the Super NES days, I was pretty intrigued when I heard all the praise heaped on Kirby Planet Robobot earlier this year. Considering that Kirby Super Star for SNES would easily be one of my desert island games, this new Kirby would have a high bar to reach, but I decided to give the demo a spin.

The demo offered two stages a "Normal Stage" and a "Robobot Stage", and the first of the two was certainly true to its name: the most bog-standard basic Kirby stage one could imagine.  The very basic layout of the stage did give me the opportunity to admire how far Kirby games have come in terms of graphics, however. While the music was a pleasant arrangement of a classic Kirby tune, I was somewhat disappointed that I wasn't greeted with an original composition. It was pretty clear from this stage that any gameplay innovation that could be present would be entirely concentrated in the Robobot stage.

The Robobot stage definitely delivered. Once Kirby acquires his mech, the whole game really comes alive. Controlling the mech and destroying enemies and obstacles was very satisfying. In addition to the upping the intensity of the action, the mech gameplay also incorporated some light puzzle-solving elements, which was a nice touch. By selectively destroying objects and powering up the mech appropriately for the environment, Kirby is able to find secret areas and gather some extra collectables. I was also pleased to find that boarding the mech causes the background music to change from a classic Kirby piece to a catchy new jam.

After playing through both stages, I was definitely impressed with the gameplay enhancements the titular Robobot provides, but was left wondering what the ratio of normal stages to Robobot stages would be in the full game. As much as I enjoyed the cute presentation of the whole package, if the mech gameplay doesn't make up the bulk of the game, there might not be enough new stuff here to draw in a long-time Kirby player like me, especially without the co-op mode that was a key feature of the classic games.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Witcher 2 Impressions

Despite recommendations from friends that I skip it, I played The Witcher 1 earlier this year and really enjoyed it. At this point I've sunk about 15 hours into The Witcher 2 and have found that while the same great characters and world from the first game are back, there have been some significant changes that have taken me some time to get used to:
  • Compared to part 1, The Witcher 2 has a much more fast-paced combat system that heavily relies on rolling, dodging, and blocking. In the first game, the combat system was one of the weaker parts of the experience, so I'm hoping this more action-oriented style with stay fresh throughout the whole adventure. So far I've had a couple of dramatic boss battles that far surpass anything from Witcher 1, but I have been finding myself fumbling with the controls a bit during the more intense moments. I might try switching from keyboard and mouse to Xbox 360 controller to see if that helps.
  • The interface and menus have also changed dramatically, in this case for the worse. In an effort to make the second game more console-friendly (part 1 was PC exclusive), the amount of information visible on screen in any given menu has been greatly reduced. This makes for some cumbersome switching back and forth between pages.
  • I really liked Jules de Jongh's performance as Triss Merigold in The Witcher 1, so I'm disappointed that she didn't return for the sequel. The new voice actress's delivery feels flat in comparison.
In spite of some difficulties adapting to the changes, I'm finding myself just as hooked on The Witcher 2 as I was with its predecessor, so I'm looking forward to playing more.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Demo Hotness: Pokemon Sun & Moon

I haven't played a Pokemon game since Pokemon Ruby (i.e. about 13 years ago), and thought that now would be a fine time to check in with the series and see if enough has changed to pull me back in. This is another case where I'm really glad that Nintendo has started posting demos in the eShop.

Similar to the Yokai Watch 2 demo, I was immediately struck by the beautiful graphical presentation; Fire Emblem Fates, Yokai Watch, and now Pokemon Sun/Moon are real showcases of how far the visuals and audio of portable games have progressed. I'm guessing that the lack of stereoscopic 3D in this game is a result of the graphics pushing the 3DS hardware to its limits. I especially admired the use of varied camera perspectives in towns and battles that helped bring the world of Pokemon to life. The music featured in the demo sounded great and complimented the graphics and gameplay quite nicely.

Unlike the Yokai Watch 2 demo, the Pokemon Sun/Moon demo is structured in a way that guides the player through a good vertical slice of the gameplay. Over the course of an hour or two, the player can wander around through town, battle Pokemon in the field, meet some seemingly plot-essential characters, and face off against a boss trainer. While I enjoyed getting to sample these different aspects of the game and see how they've changed, I wasn't really able to get a feel for the difficulty or strategy of Pokemon Sun/Moon since the starting Pokemon in the demo is so overpowered that I was able to one-shot pretty much every enemy I encountered. Thankfully at the end of the main quest of the demo, the player is free to explore further and there are some additional trainers to battle that do manage to put up a decent fight, so there may be some potential for a challenge in the full game, though I suspect the plot-critical quests will be deliberately easy for the sake of younger players.

Overall, this demo impressed me quite a bit and piqued my interest to play the full game at some point. My favorite upgrade to the classic Pokemon formula is the ability to summon a Tauros to use as a mount as well as break through large rocks. This helper Pokemon mechanic eliminates the need for items like the bicycle and HMs like Rock Smash and Cut; this is the exact kind of streamlining Pokemon has been needing and it makes me optimistic that there will be other quality of life improvements throughout the full game. One concern I had was that I noticed that the demo seemed to rapidly deplete my 3DS's battery (after playing for 2 hours I went from fully charged to 25%). Other than this one issue and some concerns about the difficulty level, I think that I found enough to like here to consider returning to Pokemon, but I will probably wait for the rumored Nintendo Switch version, Pokemon Stars, so that I can enjoy the improved graphics and sound of this Pokemon generation on a larger screen when I'm playing at home.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Rayman Origins Review

A challenging platformer that compensates for frustration with charm

Having played so many open-world exploratory games lately, it felt really good to sink my teeth into a traditional linear 2D platformer. Hub worlds are nice every now and then if they really add something to a game, but otherwise I definitely appreciate a simple map screen or level select screen that cuts out the fluff and allows me to get straight into the action.

Rayman Origins was generally a really satisfying play-through, but was punctuated by some of the most frustrating moments I've experienced in a game in quite some time. Thus, I'll start with the negatives:
Right off the bat, I didn't like the way Rayman handles. Having grown up with the pixel-perfect precision of classic platformers like Mario and Sonic, Rayman feels floaty and clumsy to control. Everything from his momentum, to his bounce, to his attacks just felt wrong to me and took a while to get used to. Many of my deaths in the early part of the game were the result of Rayman slipping off a platform or not landing where I would expect him to after a jump. Mercifully, the game provides infinite lives and frequent check-points in order to keep any one death from being a major setback. This mercy is especially important in the later part of the game, in which the level design becomes especially brutal. The last few regular stages and most of the challenge stages are so unforgiving that they essentially come down to trial and error coupled with rote memorization. It was in these stages that I often came close to putting down the controller and walking away from the game, but I somehow always managed to pull victory from the jaws of defeat and progress forward in the end.

The negative factors of Rayman Origins are compensated for due to the abundance of two positive traits: charm and creativity.
The UbiArt Framework used in making this game's graphics really brings the colorful cartoon characters of Michel Ancel to life. The stages these characters inhabit are also works of art, both in terms of visual appeal and level design. An example of one of my favorite levels is a Mexican food inspired stage in which enemies attack by squirting napalm-like hot sauce at Rayman. I also appreciated that levels feature variety in terms of play style: traditional platformer levels, forced scrolling racing stages, and shoot-em-up aerial battles. Bringing all these elements together is a fantastic musical score that has the full range from whimsical to epic. Some of my favorite pieces sound as if they're being sung by the game world's inhabitants encouraging Rayman to press on.

Ultimately, the moments of joy I experienced playing Rayman Origins were enough to motivate me to persevere through the tough spots and come away with positive feelings about the game. Players that have a lot of patience and are looking for a platforming challenge will find a lot to like. However, platforming novices or those who get discouraged easily may find themselves over their heads with this one.

Score: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Completion Time: Approx. 18* hours (Main story plus all unlockable stages)
*Uplay doesn't have a play clock, so this is a very rough estimate

Monday, November 14, 2016

Demo Hotness: Yokai Watch 2

With the new Pokemon games due to come out soon, I decided to check out the one game that was said to give the Pokemon series a run for its money (in Japan at least): Yokai Watch.

I'll just come out and say it: This may be one of the worst demos I've ever played. While it starts out perfectly fine with a wacky cartoon theme song and some silly opening dialog that I can see appealing to children, there is nothing else here to convince someone to get the full game. After going through some brief dialog, the player is directed to walk a very short distance before immediately getting pulling into a cut scene. The cut scene then drops the player into a battle with only the most minimal explanation of the combat mechanics. I found myself just clicking around through menus aimlessly until the enemy was defeated, but I'm not even sure to what extent (if any) my input had on the outcome of the battle. With the battle completed, there's a few more lines of dialog that presumably are there to set up the core mystery of the plot, and then the demo abruptly ends. So that's it: some dialog and a single poorly-explained battle. The only thing I positive I can really say is that the demo was a nice showcase of the game's graphics, which are pretty impressive by 3DS standards. Other than that, this demo utterly failed to show me anything that would put Yokai Watch in the same league as Pokemon.

Bottom line: Don't waste your time or your memory card space on this incredibly underwhelming demo.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Fire Emblem Fates Review

Countless hours of battles and betrayals

After chipping away at it for about nine months, I've finally finished all three paths of Fire Emblem Fates. Trying to collect my thoughts on this epic strategy RPG has been a challenge since I've spent the better part of a year with it, so after a while it became more like a part of my life rather than just  an entertainment product I consumed. It almost feels like trying to critically evaluate nine months worth of drinking coffee or driving a car. In the case of Fates, I'll start off with some thoughts on the overall experience and then provide some commentary on the individual paths.

As soon as I started Fire Emblem Fates, I was immediately impressed with it from a presentation standpoint. Everything from the opening cut scene, to the music, to the character portraits is polished, stylish, and does a good job establishing the tone of the grand journey the player is about to begin. The opening missions also explain the game's mechanics including a few significant changes from Fates' predecessor, Awakening, that I found to be welcome improvements. The weapon triangle has now become conveniently color-coded and has been expanded to cover projectile weapons and magic. This makes figuring out the right weapon for a given confrontation much more straight-forward. I also appreciated the removal of weapon durability: one less thing to micro-manage. After the tutorial missions end, the player must choose between the three paths. Here's a mini-review of each individually, presented in the order that I played them:

This was the path I played first as it was said to be the best starting point in terms of difficulty and story. It starts out with a few fairly interesting missions, but unfortunately quickly runs out of momentum. It was in this path that I came to realize that "Rout the enemy" is a Fire Emblem euphemism for "Kill everybody", since that's pretty much the objective of every single mission for the bulk of the Birthright campaign. As a result, many of the mid-campaign missions are just mazes peppered with enemies that often feel like filler content. The last few chapters, however, do pick up a bit. The narrative of Birthright successfully lays down the framework necessary to provide context to the other two paths, but is not especially compelling by itself since it's a fairly simple tale of good vs evil. Among the three paths, Birthright was definitely the weakest.
Path Score: ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Path Completion Time: 60 hours, 30  minutes (main story and most paralogues)

In terms of both gameplay and story, Conquest was best of the three paths. The mission structure and map design are much more varied than in Birthright, and many of the levels have dynamic features that the player must adapt to during battle. In cases in which the basic map layouts were recycled from Birthright, enough of a new twist was placed on each to keep it feeling fresh. I also found the morally murky "ends justify the means" nature of Conquest's story to be much more interesting than the plots of the other two campaigns.
Path Score: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Path Completion Time: 50 hours, 44 minutes (main story and some paralogues)

Revelations is essentially a middle ground between the other two paths. The missions still feature a decent amount of variety, but after playing the other two paths, a certain sense of repetitiveness does start to set in since at this point the player has now seen many of the maps three times. The fact that this campaign allows the player to mix and match units and weapons from Birthright and Conquest does allow for some team structure experimentation that does help to keep things interesting, however. The main function of the Revelations narrative is to provide answers to many of the unsolved mysteries from the previous two paths, and it does this pretty well, but it doesn't do much to stray from the conventions of typical fantasy JRPG/anime stories. Finishing off Revelations' final boss and putting a neat little bow on the story of this massive game is still very satisfying, though.
Path Score: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Path Completion Time: 51 hours, 30 minutes (main story and some paralogues)

Overall, having Fire Emblem Fates on my 3DS as my companion throughout the year 2016 was a very positive experience. After playing through all three campaigns, I can definitely say that I'll be satiated on Fire Emblem for some time to come. While the quality of the game as a whole was quite high, at various points I did feel like the game's designers were stretching the content they had created a little thin in order to make three full-length campaigns. For my purposes, trimming some of the filler and creating two really tight campaigns instead would have elevated Fates to be a truly incredible Fire Emblem experience. That being said, I'd still highly recommend Fates to beginners and seasoned Fire Emblem players alike. For those shorter on money or time, I'd suggest picking up Conquest and Revelations while just reading a plot synopsis of Birthright to fill in the gaps.
Overall Score: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Total Completion Time: 162 hours, 44 minutes

Monday, October 31, 2016

Review Double-shot: Ib and The Witch's House

After Murdered Soul Suspect, my wife and I decided to dig further into the horror-adventure genre with two Japanese indie titles: Ib and The Witch's House. Both of these games were created in RPG Maker and are available for free. Since these games are short (~2 hours) and I'm a little pressed for time, these are going to be mini-reviews.

Ib is about a little girl who finds herself trapped inside a surreal haunted art gallery. To escape she must solve various puzzles to progress through the gallery while avoiding monsters born from the works of art. I was initially skeptical that an RPG Maker game could pull off a creepy atmosphere or sense of dread, but Ib manages to pull it off despite its primitive pixelated graphics. There's no combat in the game, so enemy encounters are a matter of evasion and hiding behind obstacles. These  encounters are pretty straight-forward, so that the game can focus on its strengths: atmosphere and puzzles. While there are a few moments where the game's graphical limitations can cause issues with interpreting a puzzle or finding an item, the overall package is a fun and well-crafted minimalist horror-adventure game.
Score: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Completion Time: 3 hours

The Witch's House
After enjoying Ib so much, we were pretty psyched to jump into another one of these adventures the following night.
The Witch's House is about a girl who wanders into a witch's house in the middle of the woods and has to escape from the traps and monsters inside. This game immediately stands out from Ib since it was made with a more modern version of RPG Maker, so the graphics are much cleaner and easy to interpret. From a gameplay standpoint, The Witch's House initially plays very similar to Ib, but adds a few elements that may please some hardcore horror game fans, but really turned me off: jump scares and frequent sudden deaths. Enemies often appear suddenly upon entering a new area, have very high movement speed, and cause 1-hit kills if they catch you. It also doesn't help matters that RPG Maker's controls are just not well suited to the quick maneuvers this game requires to escape enemies. As a result, deaths are extremely frequent and memorizing enemy spawn locations is a must. For me, these irritating moments quickly got in the way of my enjoyment of the puzzle-solving and exploration that I wanted from The Witch's House.
Score: ⭐️⭐️
Completion Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

If you'd like to play either of the games I reviewed in this post, links to the download pages for each are provided below:
Ib (
The Witch's House (

Acknowledgement: I initially learned about these games from the Chic Pixel blog, so be sure to check that out if you're interesting in Japanese nerd culture.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Murdered Soul Suspect Review

An inept adventure game with a few clever ideas

Murdered Soul Suspect is yet another game in the backlog from last year's Square Enix Humble Bundle. With Halloween almost upon us, my wife and I were looking for a spooky game to play through together, and since this is an adventure game about ghosts and it was already in my queue, we thought it might fit the bill.

In Murdered Soul Suspect, Detective Ronan dies while pursuing a serial killer and is left roaming the earth as a ghost who must complete his unfinished business, solving the serial killer case, so that his soul can pass on to heaven and he can be reunited with his recently deceased wife. While Ronan was apparently not a particularly good detective in life (more on that later), as a ghost he has the benefit of powers that allow him walk through walls, have psychic visions, teleport, and possess living humans (and sometimes cats). The bulk of the gameplay involves using ghost powers to traverse the environments until arriving upon investigation areas in which clues must be gathered and pieced together in order to progress the plot and get closer to solving the mystery. In addition to these adventure game elements, there are occasional stealth action sections where Ronan must evade ghost-eating demons that patrol certain areas of the map.

As promising as this premise and mixture of gameplay styles initially seemed, much of it is handled rather clumsily. Unlike a traditional point-and-click adventure game, there are no inventory items to use or mechanical contraptions to operate since ghosts pass straight through solid objects. Thus most of the puzzle-solving takes the form of an Easter egg hunt in which Ronan must search each investigation area for the indicated number of clues. Once all the clues have been found, a question appears on screen such as "How did this man die?" that must be answered by selecting the most relevant clues. This is where it becomes painfully obvious that Ronan is a terrible detective; the crime scene might contain a tree, rope, and a body with lacerations around the neck, but the player must still go through the song and dance of gathering and selecting the proper clues to spell out to the inept investigator that the victim's cause of death was not drowning or poison. Further detracting from these investigations is that clues are sometimes hard to identify among the scenery and on several occasions awkward wording of the questions can make it difficult to determine which clues the game deems most relevant, even though the player has probably already solved the mystery of the scene. However, there's no real penalty for answering a question incorrectly, so the player can just press on with trial and error until (s)he can eventually proceed. On the other hand, using the ghost powers to get around the map between these investigations feels pretty good and is generally the most most interesting part of the gameplay. The demon encounters do a good job of adding some fear/excitement, though I found that pulling off the QTE maneuvers to kill a demon was a somewhat frustrating task.

Murdered Soul Suspect's plot is a hodgepodge of film noir and ghost story cliches all rolled together, but is presented in a fashion that is enjoyable to watch, yet still pretty corny. The voice acting is also pretty decent and the story does manage to sneak in a twist here and there, even if the player is often going to be several steps ahead of Ronan in terms of solving the case. Where the game succeeds the most is establishing a spooky, though not necessarily scary, atmosphere. Each of the game's environments from grisly murder scenes to cemeteries to psychiatric hospitals are exactly as creepy and dreary as one would want in a game for Halloween.

Murdered Soul Suspect is a game for which my entire reviewing process falls apart. My wife and I liked playing this game, but also couldn't help but acknowledge that it wasn't a particularly good adventure game from an objective standpoint. Thus, my verdict comes with some serious caveats: If you're in a similar situation to mine, in which you're looking for a spooky adventure to complete with a partner and are a fairly forgiving player, you'll probably have an enjoyable experience with this game. However, for the discerning solo adventure game player looking for clever puzzles or a thought-provoking plot, definitely look elsewhere.

Score: ⭐️⭐️⭐️*
Completion Time: 12 hours, 24 minutes (Main story plus 92% of Steam achievements)
*In a different set of circumstances, I could easily see myself giving this game 2 stars instead

Note: This review is the product of discussions my wife and I had after finishing the game, so I want to acknowledge the contribution of her insight. Also, she wanted me to emphasis that by far the highlight of the game is getting the ability to possess and controls cats. I totally agree.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Just Cause 2 Review

Big, dumb, action movie fun

In my impressions post for Just Cause 2, I talked extensively about how the thrill of causing mayhem with Rico's impressive arsenal of moves appeared to be the main draw of the game while pretty much everything else took a back seat. After finishing the game I can  say that my initial impressions were spot-on, and that's totally fine; Just Cause 2 delivered a steady steam of fun even though my brain was able to nap much of the time.

The game's structure was interesting in that it deviated from its GTA inspiration by only having 7 story-essential missions. To unlock each of these story missions, Rico must earn the required amount of "Chaos" (essentially XP) by completing a handful of smaller faction missions and destroying enemy property. There's a total of 49 faction missions, but a significantly smaller number of them need to be completed to make it to the end of the game. As a result, these faction missions represent a large amount of the playtime of Just Cause 2, but vary wildly in scope from somewhat bland sub-3-minute errands (Kill X, Destroy Y), to rather involved set-piece focused adventures that rival the content of the story missions. Unfortunately, it's not clear how to tell which end of this spectrum a mission drawn from this grab-bag will be until your start it. In my case, I was having a good time and ended up completing all 49 faction missions anyway, so the unevenness of these missions didn't affect me too much, but I could see a player wanting to play the best-of-the-best on a shorter play-through getting frustrated. Ideally the faction missions should have had sub classifications so that the player could have the option of skipping some of the smaller filler ones and focusing on the more impressive ones.

From a technical standpoint, JC2 ran glitch-free, controlled tightly, and had some nice-looking vistas by 2010 standards. Most importantly, the explosion animations looked great and made destroying enemy structures and vehicles very satisfying. I did run into some issues with the game's AI that sometimes worked in my favor (a boss getting stuck in a vulnerable position) and other times did not (an ally being incapable of jumping over a 1-foot guardrail). These issues were annoying when they cropped up, but they were thankfully infrequent enough to not significantly tarnish the experience.

While the plot of Just Cause 2 was fairly minimal, I'm not quite sure what to make of presentation of the game's simple story. After seeing the Hollywood-quality cinematics of GTA 4 and Sleeping Dogs, Just Cause 2's cut scenes were very corny and unimpressively acted. I often found myself watching a scene and wondering if what I was seeing was meant to be humorous political satire or just pure camp. The fact that most of the characters were portrayed as wacky cultural stereotypes didn't help matters much on this front either, though to be fair, the game was definitely an equal-opportunity offender.

Despite a few flaws and some repetitive missions, I was still having fun throughout my 25 hours with the game and that's definitely saying something. While clearly not on the same plane as a masterpiece like GTA 4, Just Cause 2 is a classic example of how sound mechanics and a satisfying gameplay loop can trump other short-comings. If you love open-world action games or over-the-top summer blockbuster movies, Just Cause 2 is probably right up your alley.

Score: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Completion Time:  25 hours (All missions cleared on medium difficulty, 35% map completion)

Monday, October 10, 2016

Demo Hotness: ReCore

At last year's E3, ReCore was one of the few Xbox One exclusive games that really piqued my interest, so I was pretty excited when I found out that it was coming to PC as part of Microsoft's Xbox Play Anywhere initiative. After hearing some very mixed reviews for the game when it came out a few weeks ago, I was glad to hear there was a demo available so I could try it out for myself.

I should start out by saying that the demo was set up such that it starts out at the very beginning of the full game with a 30-minute countdown timer for the free trial period. As a result, I was only able to get a very small taste of the game and chose to experience as much gameplay as possible rather than devoting any time to adjusting settings or performance optimization. I found that outside of a long loading time on the title screen, the game ran very smoothly on "High" settings. However, for some reason the resolution was locked at 720p, giving everything a somewhat blurry look on my 1080p screen. I'm assuming this is something I could fix given more time if I buy the full game.

After an extremely brief opening cut scene, I was dropped right into gameplay and was immediately impressed with how solidly the game controlled. The Metroid/Nintendo lineage was apparent right off the bat; making Joule run, jump, and shoot all felt really natural with the Xbox 360 controller. There were a few minutes of light platforming before entering a cave that served as a sort of mini-dungeon and combat tutorial area. Combat consists of Zelda-style lock-on aiming with the option to use a grappling hook to rip the cores out of enemies as a finisher. Capturing these cores rather than simply destroying an enemy gives an XP boost as well as provides crafting supplies, but I didn't really get to see the implications of this in the demo. Joule is aided in combat and exploration by her robot dog companion that can attack enemies and help find hidden items. Later on it appears that she can recruit other robot animal helpers and craft various upgrades for them. This cave area didn't have much in the way of puzzles to solve, and was mostly focused on combat, platforming, and finding keys to unlock doors. Predictably, the mini-dungeon ended with the requisite giant spider boss that every video game seems to need to have. The boss wasn't very difficult but it effectively served the purpose of allowing me to master the basic battle mechanics. With the boss defeated, my demo fittingly ended soon afterward.

In addition to the more obvious Metroid and Zelda influences, this brief gameplay experience of navigating a dungeon with an AI companion gave me some Beyond Good and Evil vibes, which is definitely a plus. The environments I got to see were pretty standard desert and cave settings, so most of the ReCore's personality comes from the enemies, robot helpers, and to a lesser extent the protagonist, Joule. As Joule is the only speaking character, I couldn't help but notice that even in the span of a 30-minute demo, she spends a lot of time thinking out loud and narrating her own actions. I'm hoping this is mostly done for tutorial purposes at the beginning of the game and is not a constant throughout since I only need to hear things like "I wonder where the power source is?" and "There sure are a lot of enemies here" so many times, but maybe I would get used it.

Ultimately, thirty minutes with ReCore was just not enough time to gauge how much I would enjoy the whole game, but the little bit I got to play did seem to have potential. At this point I'm not sold enough to spend the $40 on the full game, but will definitely be keeping an eye out for a sale and may revisit the game once I've finished off my backlog.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Stealth Inc 2 Review

A victim of the Metroidvania craze

Stealth Inc 2 is a puzzle platformer that plays somewhat like a 2D version of Portal. The player character is a clone from a scientific research center that must complete a series of puzzles and avoid traps in order to escape the facility to freedom.

The game is comprised of a series of test chamber stages that are linked together by a Metroidvania-style overworld. The test chambers are by far the star of the show here. Each one features a combination of puzzle-solving and platforming combined with some light stealth elements. Every ten stages focuses on a different experimental gadget in the clone's arsenal, thus keeping any one mechanic from getting stale. While some of the challenges can get a little frustrating, the puzzles are generally pretty clever and I found myself looking forward to trying the next set of chambers and unlocking new gadgets. Unfortunately, getting from one chamber to the next requires traversing a rather bland overworld. Since all the gadgets are received automatically by progressing through the stages, there's very little to do in this overworld beyond finding the next chamber's entrance. This causes  me to question why the overworld is there at all. While it would probably reduce the total playtime (which wouldn't necessarily be a negative for me),  I think this game would be a much more enjoyable and streamlined experience if there was just a simple level-select screen rather than a shoehorned-in Metroidvania map.

The music is a mixed bag and the story is bare-bones, but in a puzzle platformer these elements are of lesser significance anyway. I did find myself appreciating the graphics, however. The character designs are simple yet cute, but the impressive part is the use of light and shadow. The dynamic shadow effects give the game a moody atmosphere and also play into the stealth aspects of the action.

While I was underwhelmed by many parts of Stealth Inc 2, the clever puzzles of the test chambers kept me engaged enough to stick with it. For those who enjoy puzzles and are absolutely smitten by the Metroidvania formula, this game should provide a pretty desirable package overall. However, for players like me who just want to get in, beat a few puzzle stages, and get out, they may find themselves wishing Stealth Inc 2 stuck to its strengths and cut the padding.

Score: ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Completion Time: 16 hours (skipping bonus stages and arbitrary collectibles)

Monday, September 26, 2016

Just Cause 2 Impressions

Like GTA, but with a grappling hook

The Square Enix Humble Bundle I purchased last year has really been a gift that keeps on giving. Just Cause 2 was one of the titles in the bundle that had piqued by my interest in the past, but I never got around to trying. I'm about eight hours in, and so far I'm really having a good time with it.

If you've never played Grand Theft Auto (GTA), bear with me, as it's hard to discuss the Just Cause without comparing it to the franchise from which is appears to have drawn a lot of inspiration. Much like GTA, Just Cause 2 is an open-world action game in which the player completes missions that involve stealing cars, flying aircraft, blowing up infrastructure, and assassinating enemy leaders. Where the game separates itself from its inspiration, is that unlike a clunky GTA protagonist, Just Cause's Rico has a wide variety of acrobatic moves such as leaping between moving vehicles, deploying a parachute at any time to suddenly become airborne, and swinging from a grappling hook like Spider-Man.

The GTA games and their various spiritual offspring (Driver, Sleeping Dogs, etc)  are some of my all-time favorite action games, so it makes sense that Just Cause 2 immediately clicked with me. What was surprising, however, was that unlike GTA, the driving and shooting mechanics aren't particularly engaging, but the pure thrill of mastering Rico's other locomotion techniques is the real star of the show. It hasn't taken long for me to get the hang of doing insane stunts such as leaping out of a moving car in order to grappling hook myself to a passing helicopter, throwing the the pilot out of the cockpit, lining up the helicopter to crash into an enemy base, and then parachuting safely out of the helicopter right before the moment of impact. It pretty much feels like being the middle of a Jason Statham movie, and it's awesome.

So far the music, cut scenes, voice acting, and overall plot have all been pretty mediocre, so whether or not this game stays exciting for the entire duration of its 30+ hour play time will entirely rest on how much variety there ends up being to the mission structure. Hopefully, Just Cause 2 will continue to keep things fresh, but there's a chance it could get repetitive before Rico's mission is complete. 

Monday, September 19, 2016

Demo Hotness: Picross 3D Round 2

After all the praise that's been heaped on the original Picross 3D over the years, and all the hype leading up to Round 2, I figured I'd take a little time to see what all the fuss is about. While I've never played a 3D Picross game, I do have some experience with traditional 2D Picross puzzles.

Here's a quick primer for those unfamiliar: a basic (2D) Picross puzzle consists of a grid empty squares with numbers marked at the ends of each column and row. These numbers provide clues as to which squares should be filled in and which should be left blank. A correctly solved puzzle will form a pixelated image once all proper squares have been filled in.

The demo of Picross 3D Round 2 largely consists of tutorials that teach puzzle-solving techniques with each of these tutorials followed by a small puzzle that allows the player to try out the recently-learned techniques. This came in handy since the 3D puzzles are much more complex than their 2D counterparts. Each puzzle takes the form of a cluster of small white cubes that can be filled in with one of two different colors. Cubes that are not to be colored in have to be eliminated from the puzzle all-together. Determining what to do with each cube can be challenging as the numerical clues must be considered in the context of three-dimensional space. The game also provides a method to view cross-sectional slices of the puzzle so that the inner cubes of the cluster can be accessed. When the puzzle is complete, the once formless cluster of cubes has been chiseled and colored to form a simplistic blocky 3D model of an animal, household appliance, or Nintendo character. After several tutorial segments, the demo leaves the player alone to solve three new puzzles without any hand-holding. With each of these three, the level of complexity increases.

This demo worked out pretty well for me as the tutorials do a good job teaching the player the type of logical thinking needed to make solving these puzzles in 3D approachable. The music in the game was pretty pleasant and definitely helped put me in the mellow puzzle-solving mood. As this game is almost entirely touch-screen based, I'm kind of surprised Nintendo didn't release this as a mobile game as it would be a great fit for a smartphone or tablet. I'm not sure if I would have the patience for all 300 puzzles included in the full game, but my brain could probably use the exercise so I may end up buying the game if it goes on sale.

I should note that while the tutorials are fairly thorough, I would recommend that those with no Picross experience start with a 2D version in order to learn the basic principles of Picross before graduating to 3D. I'd suggest checking out the free-to-play Pokemon Picross available in the eShop. Players who have already played the original Picross 3D should skip this demo entirely as it doesn't seem like the tutorial segments can be skipped.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Final Fantasy XII Review

An innovative and satisfying journey, but not without its stumbling blocks

Well, it was nearly a decade in the making, but I've finally played all the way through Final Fantasy XII. Since I've covered many of my main talking points about this game in previous blog posts, I'll keep this review somewhat more to the point: I really enjoyed this game, but a couple of grating flaws and shortcomings kept it from taking a place among my all-time favorite RPGs (or Final Fantasies for that matter).

In general I think Final Fantasy XII succeeds in updating the formula of the series to a more modern style of gameplay. As much as I love the classic games, the traditional Final Fantasy system of random encounters with invisible enemies needed a refresh and thus I found the MMO-style enemy encounters and battles to be a welcome change. I also appreciated that the rigid transitions between dungeons, overworld, towns, and battle screens of previous Final Fantasies, were scrapped in favor of a continuous presentation that does much to streamline the experience and create a more cohesive world.

These much-appreciated updates to the Final Fantasy format are unfortunately coupled with my two biggest gripes with this game: repetitive level design and a severe lack of difficulty balancing. Several of the areas to explore in Ivalice felt barren and/or repetitive in their designs. Areas such as the Yensa Sandsea, Giruvegan, and Pharos Tower are all guilty of recycling the same few landscape features over and over in a pattern that repeated entirely too many times, making each of these areas feel like a real slog to play through. This problem is further compounded by this game's lack of difficulty balance. I generally found myself having a good time traveling along the primary story path, taking on enemies and upgrading characters at what I believed to be a respectable clip, only to hit very abrupt spikes in difficulty. I imagine the game's designers intended for these spikes to serve as incentives for the player to depart from the critical path and spend time on side quests and hunts. However, I found that the rewards and XP for completing these challenges were rarely significant enough to make investing time in them worthwhile. Since grinding appeared to be the most effective means to advance, I ultimately took the cheap way out and set up my party's gambits such that my characters would grind all by themselves and left them to auto-level overnight. While this method was successful in allowing me to continue my play-through without any further frustration, the fact that I felt the need to exploit the game's systems in this way really speaks to the severity of this difficulty curve problem.

Setting these mechanics issues aside, from a creative standpoint this game is a much more well-balanced package. Playing Final Fantasy XII gives the player a distinct impression that the world of Ivalice existed far before the game takes place and will persist long after the credits roll. The game's story of warring nations is far more grand than the exploits of the playable characters themselves, which I found further enhanced the sense of the place. While the plot is fairly one-note in terms of its tone, I have to give it credit for touching on some ambitious subject matter including coping with loss, redemption, religion, and nuclear nonproliferation. It would have been nice if the coverage of all these weighty topics had been broken up with some moments of levity, but for the most part the story stayed bleak and serious the whole way through. The six members of the party each have pretty distinct personalities and have a few amusing interactions with each other over the course of the adventure. However, while each character was generally likable and unique, they were also all incredibly one-dimensional. I would have appreciated some character moments in which we would see Balthier momentarily lose his cool and show some real concern, or perhaps have Ashe briefly take a break from being crushed by the weight of her responsibilities to crack a smile, but unfortunately that kind of character development isn't something that takes place. I should also note that the musical score was very pleasant and always fitting to the game scenario, but it didn't stick with me the way some of the previous Final Fantasy soundtracks have. I will say that the game's one vocal piece, "Kiss Me Goodbye" is one of the better songs with English lyrics that I've heard in the Final Fantasy series.

It's hard to neatly wrap-up my feelings on Final Fantasy XII, as I absolutely loved the game for the first 60-75% of its playtime, only for some jarring flaws to come to the surface in the third act. I found the game's conclusion pretty satisfying and ultimately walked away feeling positive, but with the distinct impression that there were some tweaks that would need to be made for this to be a 5-star experience. I hope that the upcoming Zodiac Age remaster of Final Fantasy XII corrects enough of its issues to transform it into the fantastic RPG that it has the potential to be.

Score: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Completion Time: 89 hours, 57 minutes (Main story and a handful of side quests. Playtime somewhat inflated due to running an auto-leveling routine.)

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Demo Hotness: Style Savvy Fashion Forward

Lately I've found that playing demos is a great way to stay abreast of new releases even while buried deep in lengthy backlog titles like Final Fantasy XII. To kick-off my "Demo Hotness" series of posts, I decided to go a bit outside of my element with Style Savvy Fashion Forward.

Style Savvy is a series of simulation/role-playing games about the world of fashion. The gameplay combines some light business management and puzzle-solving with a virtual dollhouse of sorts. In this demo, the player character is a new arrival in town and immediately tasked with the bizarre first job of being a fashion consultant to a stalker. Yes, you read that right, your first client is a woman who spends her time obsessing over and spying on a local celebrity and has become fixated on transforming herself to look exactly like her idol. The player's job is to accompany this client to clothing stores, make-up boutiques, and hair salons helping her make the best fashion choices (within her budget) in order to achieve her somewhat creepy dream. This scenario functions very well as a demo/tutorial since the player always has a clear template (a photo of the celebrity) to reference when making clothing, hair, and make-up selections. It's also inferred that at some point in the full game's plot there will probably be a moral of the story about the importance of individuality and self-expression, which is a nice little message for the younger players that this game is most-likely targeting. After the first chapter of this stalker scenario, the demo wraps up by giving the player a sampling of new clients whose style and budgetary requirements need to be met.

While I'm not sure that the full game would hold my interest the whole way through, playing this demo was certainly an enlightening experience. As someone who doesn't know very much about women's fashion, there were a lot of concepts and terminology that I had to figure out as I went along. I also appreciated that while the clients' requirements were generally pretty strict, there was always a wide variety of possible solutions (i.e. outfit suggestions) that would satisfy them, thus allowing the player a considerable range of creative freedom. This demo also provided me with some new perspective regarding gender in videogames: While the player can design their own character, there is no gender selection option; the protagonist of Style Savvy must be female. Also, all NPCs, at least in the demo, are women. I've never encountered this situation before, but maybe now, I've had just the smallest taste of what female gamers saw when playing many of the male-centric games of years past.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Further Final Fantasy XII Thoughts and Impressions

I'm currently about 40 hours in and approximately 60-70% through Final Fantasy XII and have come to realize that there's a lot to unpack here. So rather than save it all for an epically long review once I complete the game, I thought I'd give some updated thoughts and impressions from what I've experienced so far:
  • I often hear FFXII referred to as a “single-player MMORPG” and I've come to realize this pretty much exactly what I want from the modern JRPG. The MMO battle mechanics are a great way to modernize and speed up traditional turn-based combat while still requiring a layer of strategy often absent from the more button-mashy battles of an action RPG. Unfortunately, unlike in a proper MMO, there's no way to edit button mapping or assign hotkeys to commonly-used abilities. Thus, every time I want to take control of a character away from the Gambit system (i.e. player-defined AI routines), there are entirely too many button presses and menus involved in order to select the spells/skills I want. However, due to the age of this game, I can be somewhat forgiving of this clunky interface.
  • I've observed that the difficulty curve of the main storyline quest seems to have a lot of spikes and steps. I often experience abrupt shifts from steamrolling enemies in one zone to getting decimated in the next even though I rarely ever avoid battles. Did the designers of the game intend for the player to take breaks to grind between every story beat? This would be a departure from the other Final Fantasy games that I've played.
  • The irregular difficulty curve coupled with this game's unique battle system makes it very easy to throw off the balance of combat. Playing straight through a story quest will cause boss battles to be like hitting a wall. However, if the party is over-leveled from taking grinding breaks, those same boss battles will essentially play themselves out without any real strategy or input from the player due to the Gambit system. Ideally I want to be a manager of my AI-controlled party, manually adjusting the strategy and putting out fires as needed while the gambits handle the rest, but this has been a difficult equilibrium to maintain.
  • While the story thus far hasn't been quite as gripping as some of the other Final Fantasies, I've really been enjoying the setting of Ivalice. It truly feels like a fully realized and cohesive world rather than a series of disparate fantasy environments linked together by story conceits. It becomes more apparent as I play that the voice acting contributes quite significantly to this sense of place. The fact that each region in the game world has its own accent (Archades – English, Dalmasca – American, Rozzaria – Eastern European, etc) is a nice little touch that allows the player to tell where a new character is from as soon as they begin speaking. I'm definitely curious to try out other Square-Enix games set in Ivalice such as Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story as a result.
Overall, I've been having a lot of fun with Final Fantasy XII and am looking forward to playing through the final third of the adventure. As tempted as I am to dig deep, I'll probably continue to stick primarily to the critical path and limit my side quests since there are still many more big RPGs and open-world games I'm planning to tackle before the end of the year. Stay tuned for my wrap-up and review of Final Fantasy XII within the next few weeks!

Friday, August 26, 2016

AM2R Review

A remake of a classic that retains some old-school frustrations

For those unfamiliar, AM2R is an unofficial fan-made PC remake of the 1991 Gameboy game Metroid II Return of Samus. This particular entry in the series is an especially dark chapter in the adventures of Samus Aran in which she is tasked with traveling to the home planet of the Metroids to slaughter every last one with the hope of rendering the parasitic species extinct.

While I haven't played the original version of Metroid II, I've spent enough time with Metroid and Super Metroid to have a pretty good feel for classic 2D Metroid gameplay. Based on gameplay footage I've seen of the original Gameboy version, this remake does a great job of updating the somewhat crude and clunky mechanics and presentation of the original to a Super Metroid-like level of quality. Not only are the graphics and music greatly improved, but there are other more significant upgrades such as the addition of an auto-map, improved UI, and a revised control scheme. The overall level of polish on this remake is so high that I had to repeatedly remind myself that I was playing a fan project rather than an official Nintendo-developed remake.

Quality of the package aside, my actual experience of playing the game was a somewhat mixed bag. For most of my play-through the basic cycle of exploring an area, eliminating the Metroids, getting a new ability, and unlocking the next area was a simple yet satisfying process. The remake's designers did a great job updating the design of each area such that what was once just a series of monochromatic hallways has become alien ruins, abandoned factories, mazes of vines, and other such varied settings. However, in each of these areas you will be doing pretty much the exact same thing. While there are over 50 Metroids to exterminate, there are only about 4 or so types of Metroid; so be prepared to fight the same handful of mini-bosses over and over again.Thankfully there are a few unique bosses spread throughout the game that do help to break up the monotony somewhat, but most of these bosses are bullet sponges so you'll be in for some long fights. Also, this game commits one of my biggest videogaming pet peeves: not having save points immediately before boss battles. Several of the late game bosses will require a 5+ minute hike from the last save point every time Samus gets killed in action. All this being said, most of these are structural issues from the original Metroid II that are preserved due to the faithfulness of the remake. While I certainly have my fair share of gripes, there was definitely some fun to be had here, so if you have fond memories of the Gameboy game, or have been craving classic 2D Metroid action, this well-made fan remake should more than fit the bill. In the event that you're not a Metroid hardliner and are just interested in this style of game in general, there are much more well-rounded "Metroidvania" games on PC that you could be playing. I would suggest giving Guacamelee or Shantae and the Pirate's Curse a look before you get around to AM2R.

Score: ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Completion Time: 7 hours, 52 minutes (finished story w/ 72% of items found)

Other Observations:
Playing AM2R got me thinking about the Metroid series overall and the fact that while I've generally enjoyed each game in the series that I've played (AM2R included), it's never quite grabbed me the way other Nintendo franchises have. I think what it comes down to is this: Without signigicant supporting characters, plot arcs, or changes in tone to keep things fresh, all that reamins is the core gameplay loop which inevitably gets repetive long before a given Metroid game is over. The world of Metroid has not really ever been fleshed out, so every game pretty much boils down to Samus alone on a desolate planet battling aliens.  As cool of a character as Samus may be, the entire weight of keeping the series going rests  soley upon her broad armor-plated shoulders, and for me, that's just not enough to keep me engaged anymore now that we have such a wealth of more colorful and varied Metroid-likes to choose from.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Recommendation: Eternal Senia

Since the games I'm currently playing are all taking a little longer than expected to finish, it'll probably be a little while before I have any new reviews or impressions to post. So, I'm going to take this time to recommend a game that that I finished a few months ago that was a pleasant little surprise: Eternal Senia. This is title is a short little indie action RPG that's currently available on Steam for free. Even though I'm usually a cheapskate, I generally avoid games that are listed as "free to play" since there's almost always a catch. For once, that's not at all the case; the game is actually just straight-up free since it was made and distributed as a labor of love by its designer. It also helped that the game came highly recommended by Syrenne McNulty from 4 Corner Games (she has yet to stear my wrong). Another bonus is that the game only takes a few hours to complete so it was easy to work into my queue. Keep in mind going into this one that it's a very low budget RPG Maker-style affair by someone whose first language is not English. That being said, see below for my brief review and a link to the Steam page for Eternal Senia:

Eternal Senia, A Sweet Indie RPG
This is a fun little RPG that was clearly made with a lot of heart. For a short game, it manages to pack in far more character development than I expected. The script does suffer slightly though from a somewhat flawed but still very readable English translation. The gameplay has a simple old-school feel (like a greatly simplified version of Illusion of Gaia) that makes for a satisfying experience, but is certainly not without its rough edges. The music is pretty nice as well. Considering that this game was made pretty much exclusively by one person as a passion project and was given out for free, it's pretty impressive. This is the first game from this developer and I'm definitely interested to see what he comes out with next.
Score: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Completion Time: 6 hours for 100% completion including seeing all 3 endings

Eternal Senia on Steam

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Returning to Final Fantasy XII

Of all the games in my backlog, Final Fantasy XII has probably been in there the longest. I played about half-way through it a little while after it was released, almost a decade ago at this point, but ended up having to put down and haven't been able to get back to it since. Dropping back into the middle of such a long and complex game and trying to find my bearings after so much time has passed seemed to be such a daunting task that I found myself repeatedly shuffling the game backward in my queue. However, a great series of posts in one of my favorite blogs inspired me to start the game fresh from the beginning and to run the game on my PC via emulation rather than dusting off my old PS2 (click here for more info). After applying some up-scaling effects and filters, the game looks absolutely amazing. If you're interested in this and other great geeky topics, I'd highly recommend checking out the A Green Mushroom blog by Void.

I'm about 15 hours into Final Fantasy XII so far, and I've really been enjoying it. I somehow did not initially pick up on all the Star Wars parallels in this game, but now that they've been pointed out to me, I can't un-see them. This is by no means a complaint, though; I've always felt that Star Wars made for a better game setting than movie setting, and a game that is essentially Final Fantasy meets Star Wars is pretty much the ultimate dream mash-up of childhood favorite franchises. In addition to the Star Wars connection, Final Fantasy XII almost seems to have biblical elements to its themes that make me think of the Roman occupation of Jerusalem, but maybe that's just me.

As for the gameplay, it's held up pretty well. However, this time around I've made an adjustment to how I play the game that's greatly enhanced my enjoyment; I assigned each character a defined role. The game's License Board system tends to cause each character to become an interchangeable jack-of-all-trades, so I decided to create some self-imposed rules to keep each character unique. While I'm aware that there's the International Zodiac edition of this game that has rigidly defined character classes as well as some self-imposed class system challenges, I decided to take a role-player's approach, basing my builds on the personality traits of each character. See below for an example character sheet I made to illustrate the idea:

I've found that using this make-shift system has added an extra strategic layer to battles, but still has enough flexibility to keep me from getting stuck and having to grind my way out of a tough situation. Unless something really jumps out at me, I'm going to hold my in-depth thoughts on the other aspects (mechanics, story, music, etc) of Final Fantasy XII until I write my review once I finish the game. It'll take me a few weeks to get to that point, so expect my next few posts to be about smaller games I play on the side.

Saturday, August 13, 2016


Welcome to Tales from the Backlog! I'm Capsulejay and this a blog in which I'll collect my thoughts and impressions as I tackle my videogame backlog while also playing some of the highlights from the current release schedule. The main focus will be on games available for Nintendo systems and PC. I've been kicking around the idea of starting a game blog for some time now, but like any self-respecting millennial, it took a hashtag and a made-up holiday (#Blaugust) to motivate me to finally get started.

The way I keep track of my gaming backlog is by using a videogame library manager called Grouvee. I could gush all day about how great Grouvee is (especially that it automatically syncs with Steam), but I'll spare you that and just say that I highly recommend it if you have a big library of games to sort through. For the past year, I've also been writing reviews for each game I beat in my backlog and posting them to my Grouvee profile. Any subsequent reviews I write will be posted here as well. See links below for my backlog and those previous reviews:

As for the hardware I'm playing on, for the past decade or so, I've primarily been a pure Nintendo guy, so I of course have a 3DS and a Wii U as well as most of the previous Nintendo systems. However, a year ago I decided to dive back into PC gaming (my wife's influence), so I also have a self-assembled gaming desktop computer. If you're interested in the specs or details of that machine, see the write-ups I did for PC Part Picker below:

Original Budget Machine:

A related topic I'll be covering in this blog are “gaming shames,” i.e. games that as a life-long gamer I'm embarrassed to say that I've never played. I'm making it a goal to finally get to some of these will post more about each one as I play them.

I'm looking forward to traveling further on this backlog journey, sharing my thoughts, and discussing games; so thanks for reading and expect my first game-specific post very soon!

PS: Feel free to hit me up on Twitter!