Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Nintendo Switch Demo Roundup

Since finishing Blossom Tales, I’ve primarily been focusing on PC and mobile games for the last several weeks. However, the effects of Switch withdrawal have been setting in, so I decided to see what’s been going on lately on Nintendo’s hybrid console by rounding up some demos from recent or upcoming games.
Kirby Star Allies
My wife and I have played through several Kirby games together and they are usually wonderful co-op experiences. Thus, we went into this one with high expectations. The general look and feel of the game appealed to us in classic Kirby fashion, but the “Allies” component yielded mixed results. Kirby rolls with a squad of 3 companions that can be controlled by other players or the AI. By combining his abilities with those of his allies, Kirby can use special combo skills that are a lot of fun to experiment with. Unfortunately having a team of four characters on screen along with flashy combo moves means that there’s a lot of chaos on the screen and keeping track of the character that you’re directly in control of can become difficult. Unfortunately, all this on-screen busyness (especially with the erratic AI companions) detracted from the more subdued co-op experience that we were looking for. I think we’re going to hold off on this one until we get a better picture of what the upcoming Yoshi game will be like that promises to scratch a similar itch.

 BlazBlue Cross Tag Battle
As I had mentioned in my Skullgirls review, it's been a while since I've really sunk my teeth into a traditional fighting game. Blazblue Cross Tag Battle mashes up several franchises but caught my attention in particular due to the inclusion of characters from RWBY and Persona 4 (I'm currently watching/playing both). The game also features characters from the Japanese arcade game, Under Night In-Birth, and of course, BlazBlue. The content of this demo was extremely slim, featuring only one character from each franchise and only one stage, but it was enough for me to get a sense for Cross Tag Battle's Marvel-vs-Capcom-style combat. I also appreciated that every combination of characters features unique animations and voice work. I have heard that previous BlazBlue games have featured pretty good single-player content, so I'm tempted to bite on this one if it gets good reviews.

Sushi Striker: The Way of Sushido
Well, this was certainly the strangest of the bunch. In Nintendo's latest puzzle game, you play as a "sushi striker", a warrior who defeats their enemies by rapidly eating as much sushi as possible and then throwing the dirty plates at their foe. I was expecting a simple little puzzle game with a goofy premise as window dressing; instead, I found that Sushi Striker is a game with a fully-featured campaign featuring lengthy anime cut scenes, lots of voice acting, a sing-a-long theme song, and of course, one of the most bizarre plots I've every seen in a game. The game play consists of matching up different colors of sushi as the pass by on a series of conveyor belts and then flinging the empty plates at the rival sushi striker. The game also features some RPG-like elements with player stats and the ability to use special moves by partying up with magical creatures called "sushi sprites" (basically seafood-obsessed Pokemon). The game play and story were amusing enough to get my wife and I pretty interested in this game, but the $50-price tag gave us some pause. I'll be keeping my eye on this one.

Happy Birthdays
First up, I'll admit that the only thing I knew about this game in the beginning is that the promotional artwork featured some really cute drawings of dinosaurs. It turns out that beneath this game's cute exterior, lies a complex SimEarth-like ecosystem simulation game. In the beginning, the game features a helper character, appropriately named Navi, who prattles on tirelessly (and redundantly) about the game's mechanics. Once Navi is finally done with you, the player is turned to loose to tinker with the world's temperature, topography, moisture content, and a variety of other factors in order to get new lifeforms to spawn. For someone like me, who likes a game with structure, Happy Birthdays didn't hold my interest for long. However, for a natural born tinkerer like my wife, there is a definitely a lot of appeal to tweaking the terrain of a planet and then watching as new types of cute little critters are born; she spent several hours building mountains, rerouting streams, and collecting creatures. Thus, this a is a title whose appeal will vary greatly depending on your personality.

If you're interested in buying or pre-ordering any of the games in this post and also supporting this blog, you can use the Amazon affiliate links below:
Kirby Star Allies
BlazBlue Cross Tag Battle
Sushi Striker: The Way of Sushido
Happy Birthdays

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Final Fantasy 4 Review

    In my quest to play every Final Fantasy game, I found my myself with a weird gap; I’ve played Final Fantasy 3 and Final Fantasies 5 - 12. To remedy this, I picked up the Android version of Final Fantasy 4 which is based on the DS remake of the SNES game. While Square Enix has a questionable history with mobile ports, I was pleasantly surprised to find that this one worked out quite
    well for me.

    My observations as I completed yet another quest to gather some magic crystals and
    defeat another dark lord:
    • When going into a DS remake of a Super Nintendo game, fully-voiced cutscenes are not something I was expecting to encounter. Yet, this game makes fairly frequent use of them for major story moments and character introductions. Keeping the technical limitations of the original hardware in mind, I was impressed with how well-directed these scenes were. The voice acting was not quite as impressive, but still decent.
    • Regarding the plot itself, I liked the love triangle and the hero’s quest for redemption. While all the traditional high-fantasy elements are also there (dragons, magical artifacts, etc), FF4’s inclusion of this extra layer of character development was probably pretty revolutionary storytelling for its time. The game handles themes of loss, jealousy, and forgiveness surprisingly well for a game of its age.
    • Final Fantasy 4’s combat is a very simple turn-based system with minimal ability to customize your characters or party. This version of the game features an “Augment” system that allows the player to assign one extra skill to each character, but to me, this felt very much like an after-thought.
    • The boss battles are where this game’s combat gets to shine. Many of the bosses have some sort of puzzle-like trick to exposing their weaknesses. I really appreciated that brute force alone was often not enough to get the job done. Sometimes the boss battles would feature dialog or brief cutscenes that would advance the story amidst the action. I’m thinking was probably a novel concept back in 1992.
    • The game's plot causes your party composition to change abruptly throughout the adventure. Every time I got a well-balanced team together, something would happen that would cause me to lose my strong characters in exchange for weak ones. There is a particular focus on magic-users for much of the game that doesn't mesh well with the strategies I typically use in Final Fantasy games. On one hand, this kept me on my toes, on the other, it slowed down my ability to progress through the campaign.
    • I know some old-school Final Fantasy fans turn their noses up at it, but I liked this remake’s use of polygonal graphics. The character models do a good job of merging the designs in Yoshitaka Amano’s original concept drawings with the 3D chibi style of DS RPGs. A side effect of this is that sometimes there would be childish-looking characters (especially NPCs) in skimpy outfits. I could have done without this, but if you're into scantily clad low polygon models, this is the game for you.
    • Something I especially appreciated about the graphics in this version of FF4, was the battle animations for the bosses. Even when it's the player's turn, the enemies continue moving around and observing these animations can often provide hints about enemy weaknesses. Some of the boss character models are pretty goofy looking, however.
    • While the boss battles, character designs, and cut scenes all received an overhaul in this remake, the dungeons are decidedly still old school. Most of the dungeons are quite long and have high random encounter rates. This tried my patience at times.
    • The mobile port features some helpful quality of life (QoL) upgrades. One of these upgrades is that the menu screen shows your characters' inner thoughts; these thought bubbles provide useful hints and flavor text (this feature may have also existed in the DS version). The other upgrade is an auto-checkpoint system that kept me from losing progress when a random enemy would get a lucky critical hit. Unfortunately, the quality of life upgrades are not universally applied as there are no checkpoints between consecutive bosses and pre-boss cutscenes have to be rewatched before each attempt.
    • As far as Square Enix games go, this one has a fairly generic-sounding soundtrack. However, there are a few major themes that stand out. The vocal track at the end of the game was a nice addition as well.
    •  Overall, this was a surprisingly good mobile port and the QoL additions (auto-checkpoint, cloud saves, etc) were welcome upgrades. Some of the concessions that had to be made to adapt the DS's interface to a mobile screen were a bit clunky (e.g. transparent overlays to display the DS's second screen info) but got the job done. The Android version ran very smoothly on my device though it would occasionally freeze when minimizing the game to switch to another app. However, the auto-checkpoint system kept me from suffering setbacks when this would happen.
    I came away from Final Fantasy 4 with an appreciation for the fact that this is where the franchise found its footing. The characters, themes, systems, and melodrama that define Final Fantasy all coalesced together with this entry. As a player in 2018 who has already played most of the other installments in the series, this game's beats felt largely familiar and some of the remnants of the old school design where a bit of a drag, but the game still regularly put on a smile on my face regardless. I would recommend this version of Final Fantasy 4 to newcomers of there series and long-time fans alike.

    Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
    Completion Time: 32 hours, 18 minutes (main campaign and most side quests)

    If you'd like to pick up a copy of this game and while supporting this blog, the Android and DS versions of this game are available via the following Amazon affiliate links:
    Final Fantasy 4 - Nintendo DS
    Final Fantasy 4 - Android

    Wednesday, May 16, 2018

    Sea of Thieves Impressions

    As someone who loved Rare’s games on SNES and N64 (Donkey Kong Country, Banjo Kazooie, etc), I’ve been curious about the studio’s most recent title, the online co-op pirate game, Sea of Thieves. Taking advantage of the free trial of Xbox Game Pass (which is also available on Windows 10), I’ve been giving this game a spin over the past few days. Here are my impressions now that I’ve had a few hours to get my sea legs:
    • Even though Rare may have changed a lot over the course of the last 20 years, I was immediately struck by the way this looks and feels like a Rare game. The music, art direction, and overall quirky charm that pervades the whole game were recognizable and distinct.
    • I appreciated the fact that in this cartoon pirate world, the water physics are very realistic. My pirate ship bobbed, rocked, and tilted on the waves exactly the way I would expect an actual boat to behave. For me this, this enhanced the sense of immersion, but for players that are prone to motion sickness, this may cause an issue.
    • As you would expect from a game about pirates, the majority of one’s time playing Sea of Thieves is spent on your ship. I found that dividing up the on-ship tasks with my teammates to be the most satisfying part of the gameplay. Having to juggle steering, navigating, manning the cannons, adjusting the sales, and repairing damage ensures that all players have something to do and delegation and cooperation are the keys to success. The game offers 2-person sloops and 4-person galleons. While each of the two ship sizes have different layouts to accommodate their respective crew sizes, they offer similar capabilities.
    • The general gameplay flow goes like this: Pick up some quests in town, sail to the island marked on the quest map, find the treasure or beat a specific enemy to fulfill the quest objective, return to town to cash in the spoils. In other words, each gameplay session is a series of pirate-themed fetch quests.
    • Completing quests rewards the player with reputation points and gold. Reputation points allow you to take on more challenging quests that offer more valuable loot and gold can be spent in town to purchase clothing for your character and accessories for your ship. Characters do not have stats and all players have access to the same weapons and ships, thus anything purchased with gold is purely aesthetic in nature.
    • Since everyone starts with the same gear and all the character upgrades are cosmetic, all players are on a level playing field. This makes the player-vs-player action (especially ship vs ship combat) the most exciting part of the game since it relies entirely on skill and teamwork rather than time/money investment.
    • The downside of this balanced setup is that since the only reward for completing quests is gold, and the only thing to spend money on are cosmetic items, I felt like there was very little in-game incentive to actually doing quests. Players that come to games for a feeling of progression or accomplishment, might find themselves lacking motivation once they've gotten a feel for each type of quest.
    • The game's structure and mechanics are very simple and there is no story or progression system to hook the player. Thus, one's enjoyment of Sea of Thieves after the novelty has worn off is entirely dependent on the social experience. The game's primary purpose is to provide a novel environment in which to fool around with your friends.
    • Since Sea of Thieves is an Xbox Anywhere title, I was able to play on PC with friends who were using Xboxes. I have to give Microsoft credit for making the cross-platform experience so seamless.

    Ultimately, Sea of Thieves offers a collection of novel and amusing mechanics that when viewed strictly as a video game, don’t necessarily come together to make a compelling package. However, with some imagination and the right group of friends, there is still the potential to have a lot of fun in Rare's cartoon pirate world. As someone who prefers a more structured gaming experience, I'm not confident that there's enough here to hold my interest after my 1-month trial expires and I feel that the $60 price tag is a little steep for the content the game offers.

    However, if you decide that the pirate's life is for you, you can pick up a copy of Sea of Thieves and support this blog by using this Amazon affiliate link: Sea of Thieves - Xbox One / Windows 10

    Acknowledgment: During my time with Sea of Thieves, I had the distinct pleasure of teaming up with fellow Twitch streamer, @BogusMeatFactor. Since he's a much more experienced player, sailing the high seas with him gave me a lot of insight into what Sea of Thieves is all about. Be sure to check out his Twitch channel!

    Tuesday, May 1, 2018

    Fire Emblem Warriors Review

    Musou games, such as Dynasty Warrior, often get a lot of flak for being “simplistic” or “repetitive” but my wife and I have found that smashing through hoards of enemies in these games can be a satisfying, almost cathartic experience. For #MusouMonth, we played through most recent collaboration between Omega Force and Nintendo, Fire Emblem Warriors. We came away from our co-op playthrough of the campaign with these observations:
    • Fire Emblem Warriors tries very hard to integrate the turn-based strategy elements of Fire Emblem into the fast-paced action gameplay of a Musou game. The results of attempting to blend these two very different genres are mixed.
    • The first several missions of the campaign are primarily devoted to introducing Fire Emblem mechanics as they apply to Musou. Unfortunately, this is done with text boxes that pop up on screen and abruptly halt the gameplay. My wife and I found that every time we would get into a groove with the action, we’d suddenly be interrupted by “useful” tips like “Health potions restore your character’s health. If a character’s health reaches zero, they will die.” Thankfully after the first five or so missions of the 20-mission campaign, these tutorials drop off.
    • The use of the Fire Emblem weapons triangle encourages the player to switch between characters in order to take advantage of enemy weaknesses. This helps vary the gameplay since making the most of this mechanic will mean playing as two or three different characters during each mission. However, after characters have leveled up a bit, it’s pretty easy to brute force your way through a weapon disadvantage. Often it's more convenient just to keep wailing on an advantaged enemy than it is to switch characters and then have to run that character all the way across the map to exploit the weapons triangle. A glaring exception to this is that a flying unit’s weakness to archers is absolute; a single arrow can instantly kill a Pegasus Knight. If that Pegasus Knight is a plot-critical character; that’s an immediate game over. Thus, we often ignored the weapons triangle but quickly learned to babysit our aerial warriors.
    • A major highlight of Fire Emblem Warriors is seeing all of your favorite Fire Emblem characters rendered in HD and fully-voiced. If you’re primarily a fan of the 3DS Fire Emblem games, Warriors mostly delivers. However, while there are at least 20 different playable characters, from a gameplay standpoint, there feels like there are closer to five or six since a character’s class determines how they control and which moves they have. For example, Fire Emblem Awakening’s Cordelia and Fire Emblem Fate’s Hinoka don’t feel distinct from each other since both of them are Pegasus Knights.**
    • In addition to the playable characters, a Musou game always puts some AI-controlled companions on your team. In most games of this type, the player has to rely on these characters acting on their own. Sometimes they make reasonably intelligent decisions, but plenty of other times they just get themselves in trouble. In Fire Emblem Warriors, the AI characters have far less initiative, sometimes acting on their own but often just standing around waiting for orders. What the game wants you to do is pause the game, open the map screen, and issue them commands as if you were playing a regular Fire Emblem game. While this may add a more strategic feel to the game, it comes at the cost of making the action feel disjointed. Perhaps this works better in single-player mode, but since the co-op is split screen, both players get disrupted every time the map is opened. As a result, my wife and I ended up mostly ignoring the AI-only characters unless they were partnered with a character one of us was controlling.
    • As cool as it is to see characters from several Fire Emblem games teaming up, the story that brings them all together is very disappointing. Similar to the mobile Fire Emblem game, the two lead characters are original creations for the Warriors game and they encounter the other Fire Emblem characters through portals that start appearing throughout their kingdom. The whole thing just feels like a shallow excuse to make the characters interact; the dialog sounds like an audio production of an uncreative fanfiction.
    Overall, the thing we wanted, Musou gameplay but with Fire Emblem characters, is here but with a layer of extra stuff that doesn't blend well with this type of game. Perhaps the strategy elements will work for some solo players, but our enjoyment of the co-op experience came from finding workarounds for the Fire Emblem mechanics in order to keep the action moving. While there is still fun to be had with Fire Emblem Warriors, the game falls short of the more well-rounded Nintendo and Omega Force collaboration, Hyrule Warriors.

    Score: ⭐⭐⭐
    Completion Time: 12 hours, 55 minutes (main campaign, normal difficulty)

    If you'd like to pick up a copy of this game and support Tales from the Backlog, you can get it via this Amazon affiliate link: Fire Emblem Warriors - Nintendo Switch