Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Battle Chef Brigade

I was craving something a little different right around the time Battle Chef Brigade was offered as a free game via Twitch Prime. I streamed my entire playthrough and found that this game’s bizarre combination of RPG, brawler, and puzzle gameplay was a delight.

Battle Chef Brigade takes place in a fantasy world overrun with monsters. The people of this world decide that the only solution to this monster infestation is to amass a legion of Battle Chefs to slay these monsters and then cook them into fine cuisine in Iron Chef-like tournaments. Mina, the game’s protagonist, is an aspiring Battle Chef who must complete a series of challenges and competitions in order to be inducted into the Brigade. The main focus of the gameplay is the culinary tournaments in which players must juggle their time between gather ingredients by slaying monsters and cooking these ingredients into dishes to submit to the judges. Combat with monsters is in the style of a 2D side-scrolling brawler, while cooking takes the form of a match-3 puzzle game in which each color of blocks represents a different flavor.

  • My description may have not done it justice, but Battle Chef Brigade has one of the most original premises and gameplay loops I’ve seen in a game in many years. This game’s fantasy-meets-Food-Network world and brawler/RPG/puzzle mechanics all work really well together.
  • The gameplay is complemented by a story with quirky characters and strong writing. I found myself far more invested in the characters and story of this game than I expected.
  • I really like the voice acting in this game. Each character has a unique voice that conveys their personality even though the animation during dialog is often minimal. The standout performance for me was tournament chairman. His actor absolutely nails the corny and self-serious tone of an Iron Chef host. It brought a smile to my face during every bout.
  • The character designs are quite striking. Even minor NPCs have a distinct look. In crowd shots during story sequences, I’d often pick out a few individuals and find myself saying “I wanna know more about that person!”
  • Being a hybrid game, Battle Chef Brigade keeps each of its mechanics relatively simple. The combat only offers a handful of techniques, but they’re fun to pull off. Similarly, the puzzles build in their level of challenge throughout the game but the core is not complex.
  • I didn’t go into this game knowing what music would best go along with baking a dragon heart, but somehow Battle Chef Brigade figured it out.

  • Once you’ve gotten far enough to get the hang of all the mechanics, meet all the characters and figure out where the story is ultimately going to go, the gameplay begins to feel a little repetitive toward the end. Thankfully, this isn’t a game that outstays its welcome.
  • In one chapter you play as one of the side characters instead of the protagonist, Mina. This chapter offers some somewhat interesting one-time mechanics but otherwise feels like filler. I would’ve rather kept the main story moving.
  • The judges of the Battle Chef tournament judges use an inconsistent scoring system that takes getting used to. For example, dishes containing poison are penalized less than foods that contain the wrong balance of flavors.
Battle Chef’s interesting combination of mechanics and fun cast of characters make it a joy to play. While so many indie games are content to stick to formulas established in classic games, Battle Chef Brigade offers something new. I highly recommend it to any open-minded gamer looking for a truly original indie game.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 13 hours, 30 minutes

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Octopath Traveler Preliminary Review

 After writing two different sets of impressions (1, 2) and racking up over 60 hours of playtime, I’ve put a lot of time into SquareEnix’s Switch-exclusive RPG, Octopath Traveler. After all that, there’s still a lot left to do in the game, but having finished the campaign for my main character, Cyrus, I’ve seen the credits roll and feel comfortable writing a preliminary review. Similarly, to what I did with Ys Origin, if I return to Octopath and find the additional content changes my opinion of the game, I’ll be sure to update the review or write a follow-up.

Octopath’s art style and music continued to delight for the entire game. While the combat and story maintained their level of quality, it became clear to me as the adventure went on that what worked for the classic RPGs that inspired this game, doesn’t necessarily work for a modern game, especially considering that modern RPGs tend to have nearly twice the running time of their 16 and 32-bit forefathers.

The battle system of Octopath Traveler is built upon a strong foundation. Exploiting enemy weaknesses and figuring out the ideal combination of characters/classes to have in your party is a mechanic that I always find enjoyable. Octopath pulls this off well and builds upon its systems for the first half of the game. Characters gain the ability to equip secondary jobs and bosses pick up new mechanics such as increasing their shield point through the battle and changing weaknesses dynamically. Unfortunately, at about the 30-hour mark, I had seen every theme and variation that the game had to offer and had developed a playbook to handle any situation the game would throw at me. Thus, the second half of the game consisted of executing on the same handful of strategies as the game increased in scale with longer dungeons and bosses with even higher HP and shield points. All the classic RPGs (including my favorite, Final Fantasy 5) eventually get to this point, but usually that point is when 10 hours of gameplay remain rather than 30. That places a lot of extra burden on Octopath’s story to carry the player through the rest of the game. In my case, I finished Cryus’s fourth and final chapter, but set the game aside when I had the discouraging realization that I had seven more 30-45 minute long “final” boss battles ahead of me if I wanted to finish the remaining character’s quests.

Much like one of its predecessors, Saga Frontier, each of Octopath’s character’s stories vary in their tone and scope. Generally, the stakes are far lower in these tales than the world-ending crises that Final Fantasy heroes face. I think that smaller-scale stories can work well with the right characters and writing. However, halfway through the game, I knew which character’s stories I cared about and which ones I didn’t. Unfortunately, unlike a Saga game, it wouldn’t make sense to only play the Octopath characters that I was interested in because of the big jumps in recommended levels between chapters in each characters’ campaign. This made it such that playing all 8 chapter 3 stories was necessary to gain enough XP to be able to handle the chapter 4 enemies. Having to play through a few mediocre stories in order to continue playing the ones I was interested in robbed the best campaigns of their momentum. If I were to put on my armchair game designer’s hat, I would have made this game Quadpath Traveler or Hexapath Traveler and given each of the cream-of-the-crop stories an extra chapter to develop their characters.

This is probably sounding like a pretty negative review. The thing is, every positive thing I had to say about the game in my impressions (1, 2) is still absolutely true. Octopath Traveler is a great RPG at its core that, for me, began to feel like it was overstaying its welcome. If I were in a different stage of life, this game would probably be a strong Game of the Year contender for me, but in a time when I have to be so judicious with how I spend my free time and the shear volume of other games I want to play, Octopath needed to do more to justify spending the time that finishing all eight quests (and the option bonus dungeons) would require. All that being said, I’m glad that I played this game, enjoyed most of the time I spent with it, and am hoping that it gets a sequel with a little more focus.

Completion Time: About 61 Hours (Chapters 1-3 for 7 characters, and through Chapter 4 for Cyrus)

Note: There is a strong chance I’ll return to this game at some point in the future to finish off the chapter 4 quests for the other few characters that I liked. If that experience changes my perspective on this game, I’ll be sure to add an update to this review for write a follow-up post.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Rise of the Tomb Raider Review

 After crowning Tomb Raider my Game of the Year when I played it in 2016, I’ve been meaning to return to the series for a while. Playing through the sequel, Rise of the Tomb Raider, recently, I found that this installment was iterative of its predecessor, with a few tweaks that made the gameplay experience smoother and addressed the gripes I had (the main one being the heavily scripted events). Some thoughts from my time with the second installment of the Tomb Raider reboot trilogy:
  • The structure is nearly identical to the previous game. That’s not a bad thing when the core design is good! It took me no time at all to get hooked by the combination of exploration, puzzle-solving, and third-person shooting that the Tomb Raider series is known for.
  • Crafting is a much bigger component of Rise of the Tomb Raider than it is in Tomb Raider. I was initially concerned that I would have to devote a lot of time to farming for wood, feathers, animal pelts, and other crafting supplies but found that the game provided very frequent opportunities to gather these items while accomplishing other tasks, so I pretty much always had all the necessary ingredients for healing items and special ammo whenever I needed them. My favorite part of the expanded crafting system was the ability to create improvised explosives and Molotov cocktails in the heat of battle by picking up bottles and other debris on the battle field.
  • The game’s story was entertaining but not particularly deep. It was about on par with what you’d see in an Indiana Jones movie which is perfectly appropriate for this kind of game. Just don’t go into this one expecting to be hanging off every word in the cutscenes.
  • I was happy to see that Rise of the Tomb Raider largely cuts back on the quick-time events (QTEs) that were used in the previous game to make scripted scenes feel more interactive. This style of “immersive gameplay” may have been a novel concept in 1999’s Shenmue (a game I love, by the way), but now it feels dated and incongruent with a game like Tomb Raider. Fewer QTEs make Rise a smoother Tomb Raider experience.
  • Since Rise of the Tomb Raider takes place in Siberia, most of the environments are snow-covered mountains, glaciers, and tundras. The first few areas of the game had me concerned that each area would just be a frozen wasteland, but as the game went on, there were some truly beautiful vistas (even as rendered on the Low settings by my aging graphics card).
  • As you would expect, there are tombs to be raised in this game (I found 9, not sure if that are more). Some of the puzzles were pretty challenging. I enjoyed these and wish there was a few more on the game.
  • Each area of the game seemed to feature even more types of collectibles than the previous game. I found that this lessened my desire to get 100% completion on any given map, but I was still easily able to acquire enough stuff to upgrade my character and weapons to make the endgame combat manageable.
Overall, Rise of the Tomb Raider took the core game that I loved a few years ago and removed most of the sticking points. This makes it a comfortable 5-star game in my book. I thought I would be done with the Tomb Raider formula after this game but instead ended up putting the next game in my Steam wishlist as soon as the credits were rolling on this one.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 27 hours, 89% map completion