Monday, September 25, 2017

DragonCon 2017

This past labor day weekend, my wife and I attended DragonCon for the first time and really enjoyed it. While the Con covers a huge variety of fandom topics and doesn't really focus on gaming, when you get over 80,000 nerds together in one place, you can pretty much guarantee there will be video gaming happening somewhere. Here's a synopsis of the gaming-related things we saw at the Con:

Japanese Arcade

One of the exhibit halls was set up as an arcade stocked with imported (and mostly untranslated) Japanese arcade games. Best of all, the cabinets were all set to free play mode. I worked in Japan for several months a few years ago and found the selection at this DragonCon exhibit to be a pretty good representation of the modern Japanese arcade scene. In my experience, non-redemption Japanese arcade games generally fall into 4 categories: fighting, rhythm, mech battle, and button-mash/novelty. I’ve included some photos and brief description of the games I was able to try.

Reflec Beat – A touchscreen-based rhythm battle game. Notes are fired as projectiles downward by an enemy at the top of the screen and they must be tapped in time with the music to reflect them back.

Gundam Pod – A first person mecha battle arena with enclosed cockpits. Each cockpit features a panoramic curved screen and controls with a combination of joysticks and foot pedals. The screen between the pods allow spectators to watch the battle in 3rd person. The game is 100% in Japanese (which I can’t read a word of), so I had to make educated guesses when navigating menus and monitoring the HUD. I was most excited to be able to play this game at DragonCon. I played it briefly when I was in Tokyo, but at ~$10/play, my prior experience was fairly limited. That being said, my limited background knowledge was enough to give me an edge and wreck most of the other players during the match.

Upend The Tea Table – This is where things get weird. The player pounds on the table until a meter fills and then flips the table over (it’s attached to the cabinet with a hinge). On the screen, the table is sitting at home plate in a baseball diamond and then gets launched into the air. Players compete to see who can launch the table furthest.

The Bishibashi – A collection of competitive minigames that are all based on button-mashing. Each minigame features cute animations and objectives such as trying to hit the button exactly 100 times within a time limit.


I saw a lot of fantastic cosplay at DragonCon. The most popular game used as cosplay inspiration was definitely Overwatch. I’m generally not into competitive multi-player games, but seeing the passion people have for the characters definitely has me more interested in trying it. One of the top-ranked cosplayers in the DragonCon masquerade contest was dressed as D.Va:

Photo credit: Crescent City Cosplay
However, my personal favorite video game cosplayer, was this dedicated gentleman cosplaying as Beedle, the shopkeeper from The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. “Oh, thank you!”

Accessible Gaming Demonstration
We attended an interesting panel about the inovations and challenges involved with creating specialized gaming equipment for players with physical disabilites. We saw everything from controllers meant to be used with one hand to those that could be controlled with the tongue. This panel really gave me an appreciation for how gaming can be an important recreational and social outlet for people with disabilities. For more information about this topic, check out Able Gamers.

Hololens Demonstration
This panel was hosted by some developers that are working on software for the upcoming Microsoft Hololens augmented reality (AR) platform. While the tech definitely has some cool applications, it was very clear from the live demonstration that we're still in the very early stages of AR. I didn't get a chance to try on the headset myself, but from what I was able to observe watching the developers use it, the performance of the equipment looked rough compared to the heavily produced presentations seen at events like E3.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Demo Hotness: Octopath Traveler

 After teasing the mysterious new RPG, Octopath Traveler, over six months ago, Square Enix hasn't said a word about the game since. However, much to my surprise, not only was the game prominently featured in the September 13th Nintendo Direct, but it also had a demo released on the eShop that very same day! I immediately dove into this meaty demo, here are my thoughts on the 2-3 hours of gameplay on offer:
  • First, a warning: Octopath Traveler may feature seemingly innocent looking 16-bit graphics, but do not be mistaken; this game features very dark themes such as murder, slavery, and rape. This is NOT a family-friendly game!
  • The structure of Octopath Traveler is very similar to Saga Frontier. You start the game by picking one of eight protagonists; two are available in the demo: a knight and a dancer. Each protagonist has their own unique story and starting location, but their quest will eventually intersect those of the other characters. When you meet another one of these characters, you can add them to your party but continue along your original character's quest line.
  • Even though it's clear that this game is still unfinished, the production values are very high. The 2D/3D hybrid art style is very striking and most of the cut scenes are fully voiced. However, what grabbed me the most was the beautiful soundtrack.
  • The combination of 2D sprites and 3D background has a cool old-school look to it but also uses advanced lighting and particle effects. These effects generally look really nice but sometimes obscure certain details like character facial expressions and staircases in dungeons. It would also be nice if the character sprites had a broader range of animations to make cutscenes a bit more dynamic. There's a good chance a lot of these things will be polished up in the full version of the game.
  • Octopath's combat system features random encounters and straight-forward turn-based battles with the turn order displayed at the top of the screen (similar to Final Fantasy 10). The unique wrinkle is the boost mechanic in which boost points can be stored up to allow your character to strike multiple times per turn. Also, enemies have weaknesses to certain elements and weapons that can be exploited to stun your foes and gain additional turns.
  • The demo only featured single-character scenarios, so I wasn't able to get a feel for how the game's combat will work with a party. With only one character available at a time, combat strategies were pretty limited, but there's probably potential for interplay between characters in battle once a party has been formed. With what was shown in the demo, I'm not really able to determine exactly how deep Octopath's mechanics will be.
  • Olberic's path presents a pretty generic RPG story of a disillusioned former knight. While his plot is something I've seen in many games, his unique ability, dueling, makes for some fun possibilities: Olberic can challenge pretty much any NPC to a duel, including those that are blocking access to doors and passageways. Thus, I was able to duel a guard, win, and then step over his unconscious body to enter a restricted area.
  • I found Primrose the dancer's path to be much more compelling from a narrative standpoint. It covers the mature themes I mentioned earlier to set up a dark revenge tale. Between the two paths available, the writing and voice acting are much stronger in her story (Olberic's is still ok, though). Her special ability, alluring, allows her to recruit NPCs as temporary companions to join her in battle.
  • Each path in the demo features some lengthy opening dialog scenes, a town, a short dungeon, and a boss battle before coming to an end.
  • It was clear that a lot of features that will be available in the full game are not available in the demo. These include the world map, a quest log for managing side quests, and a character status screen. Also, the demo lacks the ability to change the text speed or skip cutscenes. Even though these basic features were all missing, I still feel like this bare-bones package was enough to give a representative taste of the game.
I finished the Octopath Traveler demo hungry to experience more of this unique Switch-exclusive RPG. As much as I enjoyed titles like Saga Frontier in the PS1 era, the lack of a cohesive narrative and quest structure often led to dead ends and reliance on guide books to make progress. Octopath seems like it will deliver on the intersecting multi-adventure premise of the Saga games but use modern story-telling techniques and structure to hold the game together in a more statisfying and complete package.