Monday, February 26, 2018

Celeste Review

Celeste is a challenging indie 2D platformer in which the protagonist, Madeline, must make her way up an impossibly tall mountain while also coming to terms with some unpleasant truths about herself. This game has been getting exceptionally high praise and even though it was released in January, it's already said to be in Game of the Year contention at many gaming outlets. With a 2D platformer on Switch getting this much attention, I naturally had to see what all the hype was about. These were my take-aways upon finishing the campaign:
  • Like any good platformer, Celeste's controls feel good and are extremely simple but difficult to master. Madeline can jump, climb, and air dash - that's it. While in the air, she only gets one dash before she touches the ground again and when climbing she has finite stamina that's represented by her animations rather than a meter. Once I got the hang of these moves, comboing them up to navigate mazes of spikes and moving platforms was very satisfying.
  • In addition to the basic move set, each of the game's seven main levels introduces a new mechanic that adds a wrinkle to the platforming action and helps keep the gameplay fresh. These level-specific mechanics come in forms such as special moving platforms, launch pads, and weather effects.
  • Celeste's collectibles and bonus stages (strawberries and b-sides respectively) allow for opportunities for extra challenge for those who want it. Players with a penchant for completionism may find themselves beating their heads against the wall to get every strawberry. However, the game makes a point of discouraging this play style by repeatedly reminding you that collecting strawberries offers no reward other than satisfaction and bragging rights.
  • I died a lot (1665 times in the main campaign to be precise) but never got discouraged. The fact that reviving after a death is immediate and frictionless made it very easy to say "One more try and I'll get it!" rather than just putting the game down.
  • There were a few frustrating parts in the later part of the game: a boss battle that went on a little too long and some particularly lengthy platform sequences. These tricky platforming sequences would involve making blind leaps and then having to quickly react in mid-air. I mostly got through these parts via trial, error, and memorization. There are probably players out there skilled enough to tackle some of these obstacles on the fly; I'm just definitely not one of those players.
  • I played the game entirely in handheld mode using the Joy-con's analog stick for movement. This worked but having a real D-pad, like on the Pro Controller, would be preferable.
  • Coping with mental illness has become a trendy theme in indie game stories lately but this one handles it well. Despite the game's simple presentation, I found myself far more invested in the story than I expected. It also helped that the heavier themes were occasionally broken up with lighter moments that featured some witty dialog.
  • This game's music is low-key but really suits the tone of each stage. The composer did a fantastic job  with the mix of synth and piano tracks that transition smoothly between sad, hopefully, mysterious, and triumphant moods.
I wasn't sure if a high-difficulty platformer would be my thing, but Celeste really worked for me. Every time it began to feel like a struggle, I'd manage to make it through; the feeling of accomplishment as I finished each stage was great. On top of the challenge and tight mechanics. Celeste's story, characters, and writing were a pleasant surprise. The campaign wasn't especially long but there's plenty of extra content there (collectible, B-sides, and C-sides) for those who crave more; for me, however, the critical path was just enough to satisfy without outstaying its welcome. Celeste comes with my highest possible recommendation for 2D platformer fans.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 10 hours, 25 minutes (main campaign, 93/175 strawberries)

Sunday, February 18, 2018

UtaPri Impressions

Lately I've been feeling like a lot of the games I've reviewed have come with the caveat that they feature heavy use of "fan service" particularly focused on female characters. In the spirit of fairness, I decided to pick something a little different for #DatingSiMonth and go with one the Chic-Pixel blog's recommendations: Uta no Prince-sama Shining Live (aka UtaPri).

UtaPri Shining Live is a free-to-play rhythm game that features relationship-building mechanics that focus on a band of fictional male pop stars from the larger UtaPri media franchise. The majority of the gameplay is pretty typical touchscreen rhythm game fair similar to games like Voez and various Japanese arcade games. Between the musical performances, UtaPri's campaign features visual novel style cutscenes that advance the story of the band's off-stage activities. In addition to this, there's the "dating sim" part where the player can interact with their favorite of these bishonen (pretty boy) anime pop idols, give them gifts, and dress them up in different outfits. Before I get into my observations from my time with the game, I should mention that I am well outside the target audience for this game but I think that one of the great things about themed gaming events like #DatingSiMonth is that they encourage players to take a step outside of their usual domains. I'm all for giving a game like this a fair shake and getting a little context on parts of the gaming world that I don't normally see. Anyway, on to the impressions:
  • I've never really been into pop music or boy bands, so I didn't expect to get much out of this game's music. I was pleasantly surprised to find that in addition to the typical pop ballads, there were a considerable number of tracks that had a rock or electronic flair that made them fun to play and listen to. This game's soundtrack also showcases a feature of J-pop music that I really appreciate: the use of classical elements like string sections.
  • As I had mentioned previously, the rhythm game sections play very similarly to other touchscreen rhythm games. I'm not musically talented enough to know how well the in-game prompts coincide with the music itself, but the combination of taps, holds, and slides certainly works from a mechanical standpoint and is fun to execute. One of my favorite parts of the rhythm game is that certain notes, when timed appropriately, cause pyrotechnics to launch from the stage. I may be a grown man hunched over his phone playing a cutesy anime pop idol game, but I feel like a total badass every time I nail a set of these notes and shoot off some fireworks.
  • Aside from the music, the production values of UtaPri are quite high. There is a considerable amount of voice work (in Japanese) for each character and the visual novel sections feature a lot more animation and changes of facial expressions than I'm used to seeing. From a visual standpoint, I'm reminded of the character interaction sessions in Fire Emblem Fates.
  • Compared to other mobile games I've played, I've found that my play sessions of UtaPri can't be quite as spontaneous. Since the gameplay hinges on being able to hear the music, I pretty much have to save playing it for situations where I can hook up headphones or play the music on my speakers without disturbing people around me.
  • While the story sections look and sound great, so far their content has not really appealed to me. I've never really been interested in what celebrities do when they're not performing and most of the story sections of the game are about the band members hanging out between shows or doing appearances on talk shows. Essentially, these scenes are just idle banter between the characters and thus are not my cup of tea. Though they are probably interesting to players who have a connection to these characters from other parts of the UtaPri franchise.
  • UtaPri wouldn't be a proper Japanese mobile game without a gachapon component, and this game's definitely got that for those who want it. One of the game's currencies, Prisms, can be spent on doing photo shoots with the band members that yield trading cards of the idols that come in common, rare, super rare, and ultra rare varieties. These serve two purposes. The first is that the cards allow you to swap out your band members for upgraded versions of themselves. Having band member with better stats make it easier to attain high scores when playing the rhythm game. The second purpose of these cards is to admire/collect the character artwork. While this part won't be every player's thing, I can definitely see how some players would get hooked on collecting cards of their favorite characters in different poses and outfits (including swimsuit shots).
  • Occasionally, the game does special events with themed photo shoots for holidays. However, the start and stop times of these events are based on the Japanese timezone regardless of the player's location. This meant that for me Valentines Day in UtaPri ended early in the morning on February 14th.
  • There isn't much substance to the "dating sim" portion of the game. You can tap on your favorite idol to make him say things to you, give him gifts, and change his clothes to build your "bond level" with him. As far as I can tell, there isn't much more to it than that and there aren't any decision trees or plot branches like those that would present in a proper dating sim.
  • Between its various character stats, multiple currencies, leveling up mechanics, and social elements, there is a lot more depth to UtaPri than initially meets the eye. While I've put several hours into the game at this point, there are still some aspects of it that I haven't firmly grasped yet.
Uta no Prince-sama Shining Live presents a compelling package for fans of rhythm games who also enjoy boy bands and bishonen anime. As someone whose affinity for UtaPri's themes is limited, I still found my time with the game to be both fun and interesting. It probably won't make my list of all time favorite mobile games but I'm still planning on keeping it on my phone and checking in  periodically. If anything I've described in this post sounds intriguing to you, the game is free on iOS and Android, so definitely give it a go.

Note: If you find yourself overwhelmed by this game's systems, check out this starter guide.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Xenoblade Chronicles 2 Review

A fantasy epic that won't be everyone's cup of tea

It may have taken me almost 100 hours, but I've finally reached the end of the Nintendo Switch's newest massive JRPG, Xenoblade Chronicles 2. For the most part, the points I noted in my impressions post were applicable to the game as a whole, so this review is going to primarily focus on observations I had once I was fairly deep into the game.
  • More than almost any other RPG I've every played, every facet of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 revolves around its combat system. The concept of Drivers and Blades (i.e. human warriors and their immortal combat partners) is not only the focus of the action, but the plot and the entire game world. Every cutscene and benign conversation with NPCs is ultimately about the Driver/Blade system. The integration of the game's main mechanic into the entire game world reminds me in some ways of Pokemon; nothing exists in the world of Alrest that isn't in someway about Drivers and Blades.
  • For the first quarter of the game, I found the combat system to be interesting but also overwhelming and chaotic. However, once it clicked with me, it was really fun to set up complicated combos of special moves and watch the massive damage numbers pop up on the screen. The five different playable Drivers and hundreds of Blade options allow for a lot of experimentation (something I love to see in a JRPG). This complex battle system does come with a downside; since the game's designer's clearly wanted to push the player to master the ins and outs of the combat mechanics, enemies have a lot of HP and battles can last a long time. For boss battles, this isn't a problem. If anything it makes the big climactic confrontations more challenging and strategic. However, even standard enemies tend to be bullet sponges and this can slow down the game considerably.
  • The lengthy battles had a secondary effect: they discouraged exploration. There is also no on-screen indicator to tell the player which enemies are hostile and which are passive, which caused me to keep my distance from enemies. As a result, I often took fairly direct paths between story-critical locations in order to avoid unnecessary encounters and played some sections of the game more like a stealth game than an RPG. Thankfully, once your characters are about 10 levels above that of the enemies in an area, the enemies will no longer target your party. Thus, returning to previously visited regions after leveling up was the best way to explore the map uninterrupted.
  • As I had noted in my impressions, the game's story leans pretty heavily into some anime tropes, even more so than previous games in the series. Even though I enjoy anime, I found this to be a little off-putting at first. Though, as the game went on, the characters began to grow on me and there were enough interesting developments in the plot to keep me interested. Not every plot arc landed with me, however. To showcase all its characters and themes, Xenoblade 2 makes extensive use of cutscenes, especially in the second half of the game. Playing through the campaign involves watching about 14 hours of cutscenes overall with many of the individual cutscenes being over 30 minutes in length. If I could tell I was about to enter a cutscene-heavy area, I would often get a snack and pour myself a drink and just treat it as if I was sitting down to watch some anime. I found most of these cutscenes to be pretty entertaining but there were definitely some that seemed to drag. Either way, this style of story presentation probably won't appeal to everyone. 
  • Like most RPGs, a lot of time spent with Xenoblade 2 is in its menu screen. The game has systems on top of systems and the menus do their best to provide all the relevant info but ultimately are just not up to the task. By the end of the game, equipping the right gear or choosing the proper Blade for the job can be very time consuming since there isn't an efficient way to search your party's massive lists of belongings. This is a particularly glaring issue when using Field Skills, which are a class of non-combat Blade abilities that gate access to certain areas of the game map. If your party comes up to a locked door that requires Lock Picking, Keen Observation, and Electrical Mastery to open, you will be spending the next few minutes scrolling around through menus to make sure you put the right combination of Blades with the necessary skills in your party. The game's designers could have easily solved this by allowing a Blade's Field Skill to trigger from your inventory, rather than just from your active party. Fortunately, most of the Field Skill checks are confined to sidequests but there are a few on the main story path that could pose a road block to a player who hasn't amassed a diverse arsenal of Blades.
  • So how does one get these all-important Blades? The answer: gachapon. Throughout the game, the player finds Core Crystals in treasure chests and enemy loot drops. Using these consumable items adds a new randomly selected Blade to your collection. The majority of the time, a crystal will summon a generic common Blade that are mostly only useful for their Field Skills, but if you're lucky, you'll draw a rare Blade that will be a unique and powerful character that you'll actually want to use in combat. Since the game is very generous with Core Crystals (don't worry, there's no micro-transactions), there are many opportunities to get new Blades but you'll be spending a lot of time on the crystal activation screen if you want to get most of the rare ones. Depending on my mood at the time, I sometimes found this gambling-like activity to be fun and other times found it to be irritating. It didn't help that the summoning animation that plays every time you activate a crystal can't be skipped. Supposedly an upcoming patch to the game will address that.
  • Despite the various things that slow it down, I got hooked on Xenoblade 2 and it's time-sink nature meant that handheld play was a must in order to fit playing it into my life. The game controls well with attached Joycon and the interface is still easily readable on the small screen. However, the performance in terms of resolution and frame rate can be erratic. Since this isn't a reflex-based game, the performance issues don't effect gameplay significantly but are a little distracting and take away from some of the majesty of the fantasy vistas.
What Xenoblade Chronicles 2 ultimately offers is a fun but not necessarily deep story, a complex and satisfying combat system, and an interesting world to explore but it puts a lot of obstacles in your way to enjoying these things. I came away feeling positive about Xenoblade Chronicles 2 even though I think the game would have benefited from more development time to smooth things out. RPG fans with patience (or lots of free time) who also love anime will find themselves hooked by this game. Everybody else might find it just a little too daunting, clunky, and time consuming to see all the way through.

Score: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Completion Time: 94 hours (Main story and about half of the side quests)

Note: My feelings about Xenoblade Chronicles 2 very closely mirror how I felt about Tokyo Mirage Sessions. If you're a fan of TMS, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 might be right up your alley. I wrote a review of Tokyo Mirage Sessions on Grouvee back in 2016.