Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Fast RMX & Snake Pass Mini Reviews

I recently finished off two titles that I picked up on the Nintendo Switch eShop. Here are mini-reviews for each:

 Fast RMX
  • This futuristic racer looks absolutely gorgeous and runs silky smooth at top speed. The performance looked pretty solid even when playing 3-player split-screen (I don’t have a fourth controller yet to test 4-player).
  • The boosting and color-changing mechanics keep the races fast and fluid. The only downside is that sometimes by the time you are close enough to a boost pad to tell what color it is (blue or orange), there might not be enough time to react and change color. Thus, course memorization is sometimes required.
  • Each race track has a unique setting and set of road hazards to avoid, though the race tracks could use a little more personality rather than just having a generic “future” aesthetic. This is only a minor quibble as the courses still look great and are fun to drive.
  • The later grand prix cups become very challenging, even playing on the easy “Subsonic” setting. However, it's also possible that I'm just a lousy future space car driver.
  • Overall, playing Fast RMX just feels good. At one point I was playing with a friend and she found herself spontaneously shouting “Woohoo!” when launching her car off a big ramp. It’s just that kind of game.
  • The only thing Fast RMX is missing is a cast of muscle-bound folks in off-brand superhero costumes to drive the cars.
Score: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Completion Time: About 5 hours (All cups on easy difficulty, all cars unlocked)

 Snake Pass
  • While it looks very accessible from screenshots, Snake Pass mixes the aesthetics and sounds of a Banjo Kazooie-esque platformer but with the deliberately cumbersome controls and physics of Octodad, to make for a cute but punishing experience.
  • The game's difficulty comes from trying to do fairly simple platforming task (short jumps, climbing ladders, balancing on narrow ledges) as a character with no limbs. Wrapping your mind around how a snake should approach these obstacles and then getting your hands to sync up with the controls in order to actually pull off these maneuvers can be very tough, but is rewarding when you get it right.
  • I thanked my lucky stars every time I landed on a checkpoint. While the levels are generally fairly generous with them, there are definitely some times (especially late in the game) where I found myself having to repeat the same few obstacles over and over due missing a platform between checkpoints. There are some sections where this can become rather frustrating. The fact that the camera can take on a mind of its own at inopportune times doesn't help alleviate this frustration.
  • Every level is full of a myriad of collectibles. However, gathering these doesn't really serve a purpose so I would suggest skipping them and sticking to the main path. They're there if you're in need of an extra challenge, however.
  • The game was scored by veteran composer David Wise. So you can expect to hear catchy tunes throughout your adventure.
  • Snake Pass starts out as a laid back and fun experience that becomes nerve-racking near its end. Mercifully, the game isn't any longer than it needs to be.It has enough time to fully explore its relatively simple concept without overstaying its welcome or becoming unbearably difficult.
Score: ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Completion Time: About 5 hours (Critical path w/ 60% completion)

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Ever Oasis Impressions

In addition to Final Fantasy 5, my other game for #JRPGJuly is Ever Oasis for 3DS. During last year’s otherwise Zelda-dominated E3, the announcement of Ever Oasis on the Tree House Live stream was a pleasant surprise. Based on the gameplay demonstrated on the stream and the pedigree of the director, Koichi Ishii of Secret of Mana* fame, I knew this had the makings of a game that would have me returning to 3DS after the release of the Switch. Now that I’m about a third of the way through the game, here are some thoughts on what I’ve played so far:
  • I know it’s cliché to use the word “charming” to describe a cartoony Nintendo game, but I really can’t think of a more apt phrase to describe Ever Oasis. The character designs are very cute and the sharply written script injects them with personality. The towns and surrounding wilderness are beautiful and vibrant and look great on the screen of the 3DS XL that I borrowed from my wife.
  • The music is fantastic. The town themes are bright and cheery while the desert music has a grand orchestral sound that gets the player in the mood to explore. There’s also a great sitar piece that plays in the first main dungeon that I really appreciated. In general, it’s some very deserty desert music (you’ll understand what I mean if you listen to it) but it’s very well done. In some ways, the music reminds me of the score of Final Fantasy 12.
  • The gameplay is definitely Zelda meets Harvest Moon. The exploration and combat very much feel like N64-era Zelda, which may seem simplistic compared to Breath of the Wild, but still makes for a fun handheld experience. So far the dungeons and battles have been a little on the easy side, so I’ll have to see if the difficulty ramps up as the game progresses.
  • The Harvest Moon elements come into play when managing your town (aka the oasis). The player recruits NPCs to come to the town to open up shops and the player keeps these shops stocked by providing them with loot dropped from monsters, found in the field, or grown in the oasis garden. I was initially concerned that this aspect of what is otherwise a straightforward action RPG would bog things down with monotonous chores, but these town-building segments are fairly light and directly serve the adventure by providing you with cash, stat bonuses, and new party members. Also, as the town grows, the game introduces various mechanisms to make town upkeep more efficient.
  • I’ve been coming to realize that for some reason I just like games or game levels set in deserts. The only exception is that desert stage in Mario 3 with the angry sun. Screw that guy.
With Final Fantasy 5 currently taking up my primary gaming slot, Ever Oasis has been working out really nicely as my side game (i.e. lunch breaks and before bed). Like with many 3DS games, I’m not sure I’d want to have long gaming sessions with it, but I do find myself tempted to extend my lunch breaks and stay up a little later.

* I've never played Secret of Mana, but I know it's considered one of the all-time great action RPGs. I'm planning on getting to it as part of my "Gaming Shames" project.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Four Job Fiesta Update: Week 4

Now that I'm firmly into World 3, preparing my crew for the final push is the name of the game. Most of my characters have all mastered their original jobs and have moved on to new ones. After some experimentation, here's what I've come up with for my team:
  • 1st Faris (formerly known as Bartz): After mastering Ninja, I've switched him over to Dragoon and equipped the Ninja's Dual Wield skill. Armed with a lance in each hand, 1st Faris comes down for some serious damage after using the Jump command.
  • Lenna: She's the only one that hasn't changed and is thus still working toward earning the Red Mage Double-Magic skill. She probably won't have the necessary amount of ability points until right before the final battle. In the meantime, she'll be breaking some rods.
  • Krile: Once she mastered White Mage, the only logical choice was to switch her to Ninja. With a twin lance (which is inexplicably a ninja knife and not actually a lance) she's a capable physical attacker that serves as a backup healer with access to level 6 White Magic. The boost to her magic stat she gets from her white magic skills also means she deals extra damage when using ninja scrolls and magic shurikens.
  • 2nd Faris (aka actually Faris): As White Mage with Dragoon mastery, 2nd Faris is the most unusual mixture. While I could give them the Dragoon's Equip Lance ability, I think I would get a best, a mediocre backup physical attacker. For now, I have Faris with the Lance ability which allows them to drain HP and MP from enemies, which is useful since high-level white magic eats up MP really quickly.
In my next play session, I'll be acquiring the first few legendary weapons. While Holy Lance and Assassin's Dagger are pretty clear choices for my first two draws, for the third it's a tough call between Ninja Blade or one of the rods/staves for my mages.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Four Job Fiesta Update: Week 3

Now that I have all four of my character classes and my party structure is fully established, Week 3 was all about traversing World 2 and taking on several challenging bosses. In general, World 2 seems to represent a bit of a difficulty spike that required more strategizing, but occasionally some grinding as well. A big part of this is finding a roll for each of my classes to fill. So far I've observed the following:
  • My Ninja continues to be my highest damage-dealer, however, his weapons alone are often not enough since some boss battles require the ability to quickly do a lot of damage in only a turn or two. My solution: throw absolutely everything! Previously I had only been using the Throw ability for shurikens and elemental scrolls, however, the Ninja can also throw any spare weapons in the inventory to do an impressive amount of damage. Since I can only use a fraction of the weapons I find due to being limited to four classes, I have a supply of powerful ammo that I originally was just selling for cash.
  • In addition to healing, I've gained an increased appreciation for my White Mage's ability to buff my characters using Shell and Protect. Since the overall damage output of my party is lower than would be the case in a typical FF5 play-through, boss battles tend to last longer, so increasing my characters' ability to take hits is key to keeping everyone alive during prolonged engagements.
  • My Red Mage is the character I'm having the hardest time finding a role for as the game progresses. Her limited black magic and healing abilities have mostly become obsolete at this point, leaving me with a mediocre physical attacker that can also cast Raise. Also, rod breaking has become useful as fewer bosses have straight-forward elemental weaknesses. Thus my Red Mage is by no means worthless, but I still feel like I can find a better use for her by combining her skills with another class's. However, I haven't gotten quite that far yet. For the time being, I'm considering having her work toward the Double-Magic skill to see if that makes her more valuable, though it'll take a long time to gain the required amount of ability points.
  • The Lancer (aka Dragoon) has been the most consistent of my classes, but also the least interesting so far. Her role continues to be to just to use Jump every turn to stay out of harm's way and then come down to deal a moderate amount of damage. Of all my characters, I think she has the most untapped potential. It'll be interesting to combine her skills will other classes once she masters her last Lancer ability.
Before this week is over, I'll be working my way through World 3 and taking on some even tougher enemies. From a character building perspective, this is where things will get really interesting as each character will have mastered at least one class, so there will be a lot of potential for mixing and matching different abilities. I'm definitely looking forward to experimenting with unusual combinations that I never would of thought of outside of the Four Job Fiesta setting!

As an additional note, at the time of writing, the Fiesta has raised over $17,000 for Child's Play Charity; we're less than $1000 away from this year's goal! Thanks so much to everyone that has donated, and if you haven't donated yet, there's still plenty of time to make a contribution!

Monday, July 10, 2017

Firewatch Review

Henry went to the woods to find himself, I was just trying to find the fun 

After hearing friends and journalists alike heap praise upon Firewatch, I came to it with high expectations. My wife, on the other hand, had seen some promotional material for this game that piqued her interest, but she came to it knowing very little. In either case, we sat down to play Firewatch wanting to like it, but that unfortunately just wasn't in the cards for us.

The game starts off with a faux text-based adventure sequence that establishes the backstory of the protagonist, Henry.  While this serves an easy way to set the emotional tone for the story, it often only presents one dialog option to select to advance, and when there is some sort of actual choice (i.e two options) the decision the player makes appears to be inconsequential. We were initially intrigued by the set up this text-based portion provides but it soon seemed to drag on too long and we found ourselves eager for the game proper to start.

The basic set-up is this: After experiencing some drama in his past, Henry decided to get away from it all and clear his head by taking on a seasonal job as a park ranger in a national park. There he works with his supervisor, Delilah, who instructs him over the radio to do various tasks to keep the forest safe.

Once we got into the game, it was immediately apparent that this game does two things exceptionally well: visual style and voice acting. The forest environments of Firewatch are rendered in a beautiful hybrid of cartoony and realistic styles that are further complemented by great lighting effects for the various times of day. The walkie talkie dialog between Henry and Delilah is the other major strength of the game and probably its most defining feature. Their banter is sharply written and the voice actors' delivery is spot-on.

Unfortunately, pretty vistas and snarky radio chatter alone are not enough to keep the experience entertaining for long. Gameplay consists entirely of running back and forth between point A and point B doing various errands for Delilah. Initially, there is some thought involved with using the map and assessing the terrain to figure out how to proceed, but once you've gotten the lay of the land it quickly becomes a matter of doing chores and back-tracking. While doing all this running around in the woods, Henry and Delilah chat over the radio which slowly advances the overall plot. The problem is that since the traversal and minimal interactive tasks are all quite mundane, my wife and I couldn't escape the feeling that the main purpose the gameplay was serving was to occupy time while waiting for the characters to finish talking.

Throughout the course of this fetch questing and radio banter, Firewatch establishes a mystery that adds a certain atmosphere of foreboding to Henry's work in the forest. We had hoped that as we progressed toward unraveling this mystery, some major events would take place that would break up the monotony, but this didn't end up being the case; the game ultimately builds up to a climax that it doesn't actually deliver. As the credits rolled, my wife and I looked at each other and said "Meh."

As much as I like to envision myself as the sophisticated gamer who appreciates games for their artistic merit, Firewatch's artistic qualities alone were just not enough keep me or my wife entertained over the course of its four-hour playtime. At least for us, I think a game needs action, puzzles, strategy, or impactful decision-making to be fun and interesting.

Score: ⭐️⭐️
Completion Time: 4 hours, 34 minutes

Monday, July 3, 2017

Four Job Fiesta Update: Week 2

In the second week of the Four Job Fiesta, I managed to make it through the Earth crystal and unlock my fourth job: Dragoon! While this is one of the more generic classes that I could've unlocked, it may end up making my life my easier as I finally have access to a character that can equip heavy armor and shields. Also, the "Jump" command is useful for keeping a character out of harm's way when a boss uses an attack that targets the whole party.

Now that I know what my final party composition will be, it's just a matter of shuffling the classes around to give each character a complementary set of skills. For the time being, I'm having the two Farises (i.e. Bartz and Faris) focus on physical attacks as Ninja and Dragoon, and having Lenna and Galuf stick to magic with White Mage and Red Mage. There are some interesting possibilities going forward such as having a Dragoon who can hold a lance in each hand by using the Ninja's dual-wielding ability.

Other than unlocking my last job, the rest of Week 2 was just about tackling the succession of bosses standing in the way before entering World 2.  I made it through but found that often times my whole party was getting wiped out except for the Dragoon (thanks to having a shield and jumping). Thus I did some grinding once I entered World 2 and am now ready to press on through the tougher dungeons ahead.