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