Friday, March 10, 2017

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Impressions

As I alluded to in my previous post, playing with the new Nintendo Switch has dominated my free time for the past week. Ninety-nine percent of that time, as you probably would expect, has been devoted to playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. (The other one percent was the Snipper Clips demo; I haven’t even taken Bomberman out of the shrink wrap yet.) At this point, I’ve dumped about 20 hours into the game, and that’s barely scratching the surface of this epic adventure. If you've read any other coverage of this game, you already know that the mechanics, world design, etc are all incredible. I'm going to skip reiterating all those points and instead provide some of my personal spoiler-free observations of my experience thus far with Breath of the Wild.
  • Something that’s clear right off the bat: This game is hard. If you get reckless, you will die, a lot. To put it in perspective, I’ve already died more in BotW than I have in every other post-SNES Zelda game combined. Having found the last several Zelda games to be too easy, this is a welcome change for me.

  • The save system mitigates much of the frustration that could be caused by the higher difficulty level. Unlike previous Zelda games, this one offers both auto-saves as well as save states that can be used pretty much anywhere (similar to a PC game).
  •  This game has easily the most complicated control scheme of any Zelda title. I found that swapping the B and X button inputs in the settings menu made a huge difference in my ability to make sense of the controls. I don't think I'm alone on this, so I'm surprised it wasn't the default button mapping.
  • Climbing is a huge part of this game and I feel compelled to climb every tall mountain I see.  Often, little characters called Koroks (a collectible) can be found up there. I'm pretty sure the primary purpose of these little guys is to make me feel like I climbed the mountain for an actual reason.
  • The game has a main quest to follow, but I find it almost impossible not to get side-tracked. I'll be on my way to the next objective only to find myself saying, "Oh! What's that over there!?". Next thing I know several hours have gone by and I'm still no closer to progressing the plot. (I'm totally fine with this, though)
  • Breath of the Wild employs a lot of Western adventure/RPG mechanics, but aesthetically shows a lot more Japanese influence than any other game in the series. It makes for an interesting combination. 
  • Weapons have very limited durability and Link initially has relatively few inventory slots. As a result, I always want to save my most powerful rare weapons for just the right occasion and end up using my last remaining inventory slot or two on the weaker more disposable weapons that I tend to use in most battles. I'm probably making the game harder than it needs to be with this hoarder mentality.
  • At campfire sites, Link uses food items, foraged plants, and monster parts to cook meals for himself that have healing and stat-buffing qualities. This reminds me a lot of the meditation and alchemy systems from The Witcher series.
  • Unlike previous Zelda games, Breath of the Wild features very minimal music and instead focuses mostly on the sounds of nature. While this is certainly very fitting for the game's setting and themes, I can't help but find myself occasionally missing the bombastic heroic overtures I've come to expect from The Legend of Zelda series.

As a whole, I've found playing Breath of the Wild to be incredibly thrilling and hopelessly addicting. Since this is likely to be a very long game, I'll probably be writing another impressions post for the later game content before finally getting to the review. Don't worry, though, I will be sprinkling in some posts about other subjects whenever I can to keep this from becoming a Zelda blog. For now, however, I'm heading back to Hyrule! 

Rationalizing my climbing addiction
East meets West

Nintendo Switch Impressions

I picked up a Nintendo Switch, Zelda, and Bomberman at a midnight launch event last week, and playing with these new purchases has pretty much been all I’ve wanted to do with every second of my free time ever since. I did manage to pry myself kicking and screaming from the new console to type up some quick impressions of the hardware:
  • The Switch console itself definitely feels like a sleek yet sturdy premium electronic gadget which contrasts with the chunkier toy-like designs of previous generations of Nintendo hardware.
  • The Joy-Con controllers are incredibly tiny and there’s definitely an adjustment period involved with learning the button/stick layout and determining the best way of holding them. However, as my hours of playtime can attest at this point, once I got used to them, they’re pretty comfortable. The short travel on the analog sticks does somewhat lessen the precision of aiming weapons, but at least in Zelda, it hasn’t really presented an issue. For games that require a lot of quick aiming  (like first-person shooters), using a Pro Controller would probably be best.

  • Other accessories that come in the box are a mixed bag. The Joy-Con grip doesn’t instantly transform the Joy-Con into an Xbox controller-caliber device, but it definitely helps give the Joy-Con more substance for those whose hands are more used to traditional controllers. I’ve spent most of my time playing Zelda using the grip.

  • My wife and I have both found that the Joy-Con strap attachments are a largely useless addition to the package. While they do give a nice rounded edge to the rail portion of each Joy-Con, they make the SR and SL shoulder buttons feel mushy and unresponsive. They’re also a pain to attach and remove. We probably won’t bother with them in our next co-op session.

  • At first, placing the Switch in the dock and removing the Joy-Con felt a little awkward to me, such that I was wondering if I was doing it right. I’ve since gotten used to it, but it’s not quite as effortless of a process as is depicted in marketing materials for the console. The various buttons, latches, and rails may have a break-in period after which they’ll feel smoother over time, however. I should also note that I put a screen protector on the Switch day one to ensure I didn’t scratch the screen clumsily placing it in the dock (or just being clumsy in general).

  • Some people have had issues with their left Joy-Con desyncing from their Switch. While it hasn’t been a major problem for me, I have had a few isolated instances of it happening. It seems that the Joy-Con require essentially unobstructed direct line-of-sight to the console to maintain their connection. For me, the fix was as simple as using the Joy-Con grip rather than playing with my hands separated and adjusting how I was sitting on the couch. For others, this issue has been more severe, so hopefully, a proper fix will be available soon. If you’re interested in some of the technical details of this Joy-Con bug, check out this article on Motherboard.

  • The screenshot button on the controller is really useful. I like that I can edit the image and post to Twitter quickly without having to exit the game I’m playing. As an added bonus, the Switch supports USB keyboards for expedient tweeting.

  • During one late-night gaming session on the couch, I decided that I wasn’t quite ready to put the game down for the night, but should probably at least be getting in bed. Immediately after attaching the Joy-Con and lifting the system out of the dock, it transitioned to portable mode. I spent another hour or two (whoops!) continuing my Zelda quest in bed and the experience was just as good on handheld as it was on the couch. I didn’t feel like I was making much of a sacrifice switching between the two modes at all. That is the true magic of this device.

  • Bottom line: After a brief adjustment period, the Switch is simultaneously a good console and an amazing handheld. Some of the accessories could use some refinement, however.
As I spend more time with the Switch and use it in a greater variety of settings, I may be posting some updated thoughts on it, but probably won’t be writing a full review with a score. In the meantime, look forward to my upcoming impressions of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild!

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Chrono Trigger Review

Showing up 20 years late to the time travel party

People have been waxing poetic about this game on the internet since the days of dial-up, so I’ll get right to the point: Chrono Trigger is an all-around great RPG that combines the best of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest.

Most RPGs that I’ve played and loved have been a mixed bag of components (story, battle system, world design, etc) in which a few of these elements have been the amazing shining stars that make the game great, while the other parts just get the job done in the background. For example, the Witcher games have a really engaging plot and setting with fairly mediocre combat distributed throughout. What makes playing Chrono Trigger such a fascinating experience is that while no one aspect of it is mind-blowing, every component of it is high-quality and comes together to form an exceptionally well-rounded package.

From a gameplay standpoint, there are a couple of welcome upgrades compared to other SNES RPGs. First and foremost is the use of on-screen enemies rather than random encounters. It is really nice to be able to clear a room completely of enemies and then be able to explore it uninterrupted.  The fact that these battles happen on the main game screen rather than a separate battle screen helps make the transition between exploration and combat much more fluid. As for the battle system itself, I was initially somewhat underwhelmed by it, but over the course of the game it expanded in interesting ways and I ultimately came to really appreciate it. The “Tech” system makes party composition very important since each character's abilities interact with others differently. This had the effect of making a given set of three characters really feel like an interdependent team rather than just three individuals performing their own specialized jobs. The use of elemental weaknesses also had a little bit more depth than the traditional “use the water spell against the fire boss” trope, which was definitely appreciated. I was also glad to see that the difficulty curve remained fairly smooth and consistent throughout the entire game. Generally, every time I hit a wall with a boss, the solution was to revise my strategy rather than just grind: this is a sign of a well-balanced game. Outside of combat, progressing through the game is a fairly linear affair, but that’s perfectly fine as it helps maintain the pacing of the game. The only gameplay element that wasn’t particularly strong was the mini-games. The challenges that involved racing, timing, or precise character movement were often unwelcome obstacles to proceeding through the game that didn’t play all that well, especially on a touch-screen, and even with a proper controller weren’t particularly fun. Thankfully these sequences are few and far between.

In addition to the gameplay, Chrono Trigger is also well-rounded artistically. As I mentioned in my preview, the graphics and music are a great display of the SNES's technical capabilities and continued to impress for the entire duration of the game. The overall plot of Chrono Trigger is fairly straight-forward by modern game standards, but I'm sure it would have really stood out back in the 16-bit era. Narratively, where Chrono Trigger really succeeds is in the individual character moments. The combination of distinct character animations and strong writing during character interactions and backstory scenes really does a lot to give personality to each member of the party. In my experience, the best RPGs and fantasy/sci-fi stories make the party of characters feel like a quirky slightly dysfunction family, and Chrono Trigger absolutely nails that feeling. However, sometimes this presented a dilemma for me as only characters that are active party members get to speak during most cutscenes. Thus I was often torn between selecting party members based on combat strategy verse picking the characters I most wanted to contribute to the dialog. I realize that the game is probably set up this way for replay value purposes, but for my play-through, it meant that some of the less vocal characters like Ayla and Robo often ended up getting sidelined even though they were fun to use in battle.

After all these years, it feels really good to have finally experienced this classic game and to see first-hand why Chrono Trigger is so lauded by RPG fans. With this "gaming shame" crossed off my list, I'm definitely curious to look into more recent Chrono Trigger inspired games like I Am Setsuna and Cosmic Star Heroine, as well as the Chrono Trigger semi-sequel, Chrono Cross. That being said, this is a shaping up to be a busy year for games. Between new releases, my backlog, and the remaining items on the gaming shames list (which will be getting expanded soon), it's going to be tough to fit it all in.

Score: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Completion Time: 32 hours, 8 minutes (campaign and all side quests)

As I have mentioned in previous Chrono Trigger posts, I strongly discourage buying the Android version of this game. While it played fine for the first several hours, I eventually encountered unavoidable game-breaking bugs and had to switch to a different version of the game in order to continue. Thus I recommend checking out either the original SNES game (which is also available on the Wii virtual console) or the Nintendo DS version.