Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Horror Game October Round-up

When people think about "horror" games, they immediately think of survival horror and jump scares associated with games like Resident Evil. And while that is certainly a prominent segment of horror games, "horror" is more of a theme or flavor that can be applied to a variety of game genres. In celebration of #HorrorGameOct, I decided to devote my Twitch channel to streaming and exploring horror gaming in a variety of forms.

Bloodstained Curse of the Moon 2

After absolutely loving the first Bloodstained, I came to this one with unreasonably high expectations. What I found was a game that was still really good but didn't quite recapture the magic of that first experience. That being said, the new playable characters were fun, especially the corgi in a mech. If you're a Castlevania fan, all three Bloodstained games are easily must-plays.

Score: 🎃🎃🎃🎃

Resident Evil 7

My prior experiences with Resident Evil games have been pretty mixed. While I would rank several of them among my favorite spooky games, others have been an exercise in frustration. The first impression this game gave me was not a good one, the introductory areas seemed tailored for the VR experience but felt off as a regular player and the "killer rednecks" trope this game leans into has become quite tired for me. However, after pushing through that stuff and into the meat of the game, I found that the game did a great job of taking the classic Resident Evil formula and updating it with more precise first-person controls and a great sense of atmosphere. Overall, it didn't quite eclipse my favorite game in the series, Resident Evil 2 Remake, but I would still rank it very highly among survival horror games that I've played. 

Score: 🎃🎃🎃🎃

Halloween Forever

This little retro-style indie platformer was included in the Racial Justice Bundle from earlier this year. It sported cute Halloween-themed sprite work, simple but polished mechanics, and a moderate difficulty curve. I would recommend it to anyone looking for a short spooky game that can be completed in a single evening. 

Score: 🎃🎃🎃🎃

Silent Hill 4

Until this year, my only exposure to the Silent Hill franchise was watching the Silent Hill movie back when it came out in  2005. While I wasn't a big horror game fan back in those days, the movie piqued my interest enough to put trying one of these games on my very long-term to-do list. This year, when Konami made SH4 available on PC via Gog, the opportunity to check off that box finally arrived. Though I struggled with this game's jankyness and awkward controls at first, I eventually came to appreciate this game's mysterious atmosphere and surreal take on horror. Considering that series fans often consider SH4 to be the worst game in the series and I still had fun with it, I think I'd enjoy the other Silent Hill games if Konami elects to make them available on PC.

Score: 🎃🎃🎃

Castlevania 3

As a big Castlevania fan, it's always bugged me that I was never able to finish one of the most beloved games in the series when I originally played it. This year I finally decided to see it through! This time I ended up playing the Japanese version of CV3 (via the Castlevania Anniversary Collection) in order to enjoy its enhanced soundtrack and more balanced difficulty compared to the Western release. With this game's multiple characters, branching, paths, diverse environments, and stellar score I can absolutely see why it's a fan favorite. Some of the more punishing aspects of NES game design still lead to some frustration but I managed to complete a "pure" playthrough without the use of save states or cheats!

Score: 🎃🎃🎃🎃

Clock Tower: The First Fear

Hearing that this SNES and Windows 95 point-and-click adventure was a major source of inspiration for later survival horror games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill, I was very curious to give Clock Tower a try. Early on, I was really impressed with how effectively this game conveyed the atmosphere of horror despite the limitations of its 16-bit platform. I also liked, how much detail and personality was put into the character animations, particularly for the game's primary villain, the Scissor Man. Unfortunately, the aesthetic qualities of the game were really the only thing I enjoyed. As an adventure game, I found this game to be extremely opaque, even by 1995 standards. Many times, the solution to making progress was not a function of puzzle-solving or logic, but meeting some kind of arbitrary criteria such as entering and exiting a room multiple times or repeatedly inspecting an object until your character decides that she wants to interact with it. It also didn't help matters that for a game that involves a lot of wandering around and trial-and-error, your character walks extremely slowly and running even a few yards almost immediately depletes her stamina. As a result, I found playing Clock Tower to be interesting from a historical perspective but a subpar adventure game experience.

Score: 🎃🎃

American McGee's Alice

This dark and twisted take on Alice and Wonderland is something I've been wanting to play for a really long time. At first, the controls of the game felt really off to me, but once I got my head around the fact that this was a 3rd person action game made in the Quake 3 engine, everything started clicking. While 3D graphics and game design have come a long way since this game was made, exploring the surreal worlds of Wonderland was still an experience that totally held up for me. I'm looking forward to playing the sequel next year.

Score: 🎃🎃🎃🎃


While it might be especially trendy now, indie studios cranking out Castlevania-like games is by no means a new phenomenon. Rusty is an early 1993 PC game about a whip-wielding vampire slayer on a quest to rescue damsels in distress and defeat an evil count (sounds familiar doesn't it?). Suffice to say, I didn't go into this game expecting to see anything particularly original or high quality. Much to my surprise, the game was actually pretty good! I liked the graphics and music quite a bit and I appreciated the way it deviated from Castlevania by incorporating a more maze-like level design. Unfortunately, this game's level design can also be a source of frustration as each level has a relatively short time limit and Rusty's movements are a little too stiff to pull off some of the maneuvers the game asks of you. As a result, I found Rusty to be an interesting experience that was worth playing, but it would've needed more polish to stand side by side with its source of inspiration, Castlevania.

Score: 🎃🎃🎃

 Note: This post is part of the Chic-Pixel community's #HorrorGameOct event. For more info and their full list of events, check out this page: Community Game-Along Master List 2020

Monday, September 28, 2020

Sonic Team September Round-up

During the Console Wars of the 90s, my camp was firmly established on the Nintendo side of the schoolyard (see The Sega Gap for more info). Recently, the availability of Sega's library on PC has made catching up on the games I had previously skipped due to childhood biases quite easy. With this month being #SonicTeamSept, I thought this would be a find time to tackle several Sega games in my Steam backlog in one fell swoop on my Twitch channel.

Nights Into Dreams

My first and only prior experience with Yuji Naka's Sega Saturn title, Nights into Dreams, was at a department store demo kiosk. Back then, I could not make heads or tails of how to play this bizarre fever dream of a game. Two decades and a very careful readthrough of the instruction manual later, Nights is still a really difficult game to figure out; it doesn't neatly fit into any existing game genre. 
Here's a short summary of how the gameplay works in a level of Nights Into Dreams:
  • Nights flies through fixed 2D planar routes within a larger 3D environment collecting orbs
  • By collecting at least 20 orbs within the time limit, Nights can destroy the Ideya machine
  • After destroying the Ideya and returning to the starting point, the flight path changes and a new Ideya spawns
  • Destroying 4 Ideya machines warps Nights to a separate battle area to take on the level boss
It took a while, but once I got the hang of soaring through the air, collecting orbs, and the somewhat opaque boss battles, I found that I was having a pretty good time. It also helped that the gameplay was accompanied by colorful, stylized graphics and a poppin' soundtrack. After finishing it in a single sitting (it's a pretty short game), I was struck with the feeling that the game was a bit too barebones for a major console release, yet too esoteric for the arcades. I'm really glad I got to experience it as an affordable Steam release in order to better understand its place in gaming history but I don't think I would have been satisfied if I would have bought it as a full-priced Saturn game back in 1996.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 4 hours and 20 minutes
Flying through rings and collecting orbs as Nights

Sonic Generations

Since Sonic the Hedgehog is one of the few Sega series that I have considerable experience with, I was pretty excited to play this game that serves as a celebration of the franchise's history. In Sonic Generations, you alternate between playing 2D platforming stages as retro Sonic and 3D platforming stages as modern Sonic. Each stage is based on iconic locations from previous Sonic games such as Green Hill Zone from Sonic the Hedgehog 1 and City Escape from Sonic Adventure 2. It was awesome to see high-definition reimaginings of classic areas; they also sported some interesting rearrangements of the music from these stages as well. The gameplay itself, however, was a mixed bag. In many cases, the game successfully captured the smooth and snappy gameplay of classic Sonic games, but in other cases, either the level design or controls felt janky. As a long-time Sonic fan, I had fun with Sonic Generation's retro-modern nostalgic mashup but it may lack the polish to reel in people who aren't already invested in the adventures of Sega's blue hedgehog.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 6 hours and 30 minutes

Green Hill Zone as depicted in Sonic Generations

Sonic CD

Among the classic 16-bit Sonic games, this is the only one I've never played (due to it being confined to a Sega Genesis add-on system for so many years). This game's use of CD technology provides a notable boost to the graphical detail and music quality compared to the standard Genesis titles. It was quite nice. However, I found the level layouts and time travel mechanics (a concept unique to this entry in the series) to be quite confusing. Perhaps if I had spent more time with the game, I could have come to appreciate these aspects of Sonic CD but I generally come to retro Sonic games for a straightforward pick-up-and-play experience. On the other hand, this game does some cool things with boss battles, many of them added a puzzle-like element that made them much more interesting than traditional Sonic battles. Overall, this was a solid 2D Sonic but it didn't come close to touching Sonic 2 and Sonic Mania as my favorite 16-bit Sonic games.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 2 hours and 18 minutes (Bad ending because I don't understand time travel)

I loved the rich color pallet of Sonic CD

I found playing all three of these games to be interesting and worthwhile experiences, though I don't think I would put them on the same level as some of Sega's timeless classics. That being said, seeing three very different phases within the evolution of Sega's aesthetics and gameplay design in a single month was a lot of fun.

Note: This post is part of the Chic-Pixel community's #SonicTeamSept event. For more info and their full list of events, check out this page: Community Game-Along Master List 2020

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Secret of Mana Review

There aren't a lot of good things you can say about the year 2020, but if I had to find a silver lining, it's been that I've had plenty of time to tackle my gaming shames and backlog. One of the glaring oversights in my background as a retro gamer and RPG buff was the Squaresoft classic Secret of Mana. Part of what has kept me from getting to this game was not having a convenient way to play it. Thankfully the Collection of Mana for Switch went on a steep sale earlier this year, providing a cheap and easy opportunity.

Secret of Mana is a fantasy action RPG that was originally released for the Super Nintendo in 1995. The game tells the story of a boy, a girl, and a forest sprite who are on a quest to stop an evil empire from activating an ancient weapon called the Mana Fortress. Combat in the game takes place in real-time but uses a cooldown meter for physical attacks and a ring menu system for casting magic. This review is based on the UK version of Secret of Mana which was included in the Collection of Mana for Nintendo Switch.

  • This is an especially pretty game, especially considering it came out in 1993. I loved the cute sprites, bright color pallet, and rich, varied environments.
  • As you would expect from a 16-bit Squaresoft RPG, this game features a great soundtrack. It features everything from traditional fantasy pieces to some interesting experimental tracks. A few of the tracks have loops that are a little too short for my taste, but overall, it's a great listen.
  • Some of the writing is pretty amusing. While the dialog can be a bit stilted at times (more on that later), each character has a distinct personality that shows through. I also liked the way some of the characters inverted traditional RPG tropes (e.g. NPCs being prejudicated against the legendary hero and a princess on a quest to rescue a knight).

  • For lack of a better word, the gameplay of Secret of Mana feels janky. The hit detection in combat always seems little off and the AI for your party members is wildly inconsistent. I often ran into issues with my characters getting stuck on objects in the environment or zoning out in the middle of a boss battle.
  • Combat doesn't flow smoothly due to having to wait on a cooldown meter for basic attacks and the action freezing every time you open the magic menu. This game is ambitious for attempting to do party-based action combat with a magic system in 1993, but we've come a long way in terms of action RPG battle systems since then.
  • While some parts of the dialog are entertaining, the overall story and script are very disjointed. As a result, certain lines of dialog and, even a few major plot events, feel like they are coming out of nowhere. (Upon reading about this game's development, I found out that this may be the result of some rather extreme constraints placed upon the English localization staff.)
  • The nested rings that serve as the game's menu system work ok for battle but I would have liked more organized traditional menus for use outside combat. The ring menus off so little information that it makes it necessary to use the game's manual to look up the attributes and effects of items and spells. Several of Square's RPGs that predate this one offered more informative and practical menus.
  • The world of Secret of Mana is very large and intricate, but there are no maps in the game. I'm pretty good at memorizing the layout of areas in games so I was able to work around this (I am far too stubborn to draw maps, however). I just don't understand why in-game maps were omitted when most other SNES games had them.
  • The ability to save your game is very limited in this game, which can lead to a lot of frustration and lost progress if you're not careful. Since I was playing via the Collection of Mana, I was really glad that save states were also an option.

Secret of Mana's strong presentation and personality helped a lot with this game's appeal and were just enough to balance out the gameplay issues to make it a decent experience. I can see why this game made such an impact back in the day but it doesn't hold up nearly as well as other 16-bit RPGs like Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy 5 & 6, or Terranigma.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: About 30 hours

In classic fantasy fashion, pulling the sword from the stone signifies that you are The Chosen One.

Unfortunately, being The Chosen One doesn't make you popular in this game.

The full party: Boy, Sprite, and Girl (they don't come with default names)

Every good SNES RPG needs some Mode 7 aerial travel. 

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Nier Automata Review

2017 was a huge year for games. With the release of the Switch and behemoths like Breath of the Wild and Mario Odyssey taking up so much of my time, there were a lot of other great games that piqued my interest but ended up never making it into my queue. In fact, I even made a Missed 2017 Games list to help me keep track of all the games I wanted to circle back to in later years. Among these was Square Enix and Platinum Games' award-winning sci-fi action RPG Nier Automata. Finding myself with extra time to stay home and play games lately, this year turned out to be the perfect time to finally experience this open-world post-apocalyptic epic.

Nier Automata set in the distant future thousands of years after a successful alien invasion has forced humankind into exile in space. The story follows two android soldiers, 2B and 9S, who are dispatched to Earth on a mission to reclaim the planet from machine lifeforms that have been maintaining control of the planet on behalf of the aliens. By playing through the campaign three times, players can experience this proxy war between the human and alien's respective robotic armies from the perspectives of 2B, 9S, and a third character that is encountered later.

When you think about it, Nier Automata's setting is rather bleak, but I'm ok with that. There's something about exploring a crumbling post-human world, a world torn apart by a pointless war, that's deeply compelling: it's as beautiful as it is sad. It's an experience I wasn't entirely sure I would be comfortable with given current world events, but I'm glad I did it.

Nier Automata feels "directed" in a film-like sense during gameplay in a way that 3D open-world games rarely do. In many cases, this is accomplished by taking control of the camera away from the player to force a cinematic camera perspective.  The game's ability to adapt its mechanics for behind the back, side-scrolling, and overhead perspectives on the fly makes the whole thing feel remarkably smooth while still showing off major setpiece moments from the best possible perspective. Older pre-rendered 3D games like the Resident Evil attempted to have dramatic camera angles like this, but it would often have an awkward or jarring effect on the feel of the game.

The incredible musical score sets the tone perfectly: haunting, mysterious, sad, with just a little bit of wonder mixed in. The fact that the lyrics of the music are in a made-up language gives the world a mysterious alien quality even though it takes place on our planet. This dovetails nicely with the game's themes of returning to decimated occupied earth thousands of years after humans have left it behind. The strange multicultural mishmash language gives the sense that though this world was once the domain of humans like us, the humans of Nier's world were far removed from us by the passage of time.

Every movement the characters make has a distinct style. While I expected this to be the case during battles, it's kind of the norm for games with action combat, it was the personality injected into the more minor animations that really struck me; 2B and 9S have a way of turning simple actions like climbing a ladder or sliding down a sand dune into cool and flashy maneuvers. Each type of enemy also has a unique and vividly animated form of locomotion based on the configuration of their bodies; I particularly liked the bouncy and jerky movements of the stubby robots and the skittering of the insect-like machines.

Nier Automata's character and costume designs may feature very limited color pallets, but this ties them together in a cohesive yet very stylish way. The figures of 2B and 9S clad in black and with their eyes covered by blindfolds is bold and iconic. The one downside of this is that cut of 2B's outfit combined with the game's fabric physics and camera angles can lead to some "fan service" imagery in places where it feels inappropriate (anime fans will know what I'm talking about). Having a character's underwear being prominently featured in an otherwise serious scene detracted from the dramatic weight for me. I think this could have been avoided with a few minor tweaks that wouldn't have sacrificed much from the character's style.

Combat in Nier Automata takes the form of fast-paced real-time battles that play similar to a character action game with some RPG systems layered on top to make the action a little more forgiving. The mechanics work a little differently depending on which character you're playing. As a combat specialist, 2B wields two swords, gracefully flips through the air for aerial combos, and polishes enemies off with flashy finishing moves (imagine a simplified version of Devil May Cry and you get the picture). On the other hand, 9S, as a scout, only has access to a limited set of these combat capabilities but can make up for it by being able to hack into his foes to take them down from a distance. Hacking success is contingent on winning a shoot 'em up minigame similar to Geometry Wars. As someone who enjoys both character action games and shoot 'em ups, both of these mechanics worked for me and helped keep combat feeling fresh when playing through each character's routes.

Nier Automata uses 3D action combat, top-down hack-n-slash, side-scrolling, and shoot 'em gameplay in concert with each other to keep the action as fast-paced and stylish as possible. Amazingly, it juggles all of these and makes them feel natural. As someone who plays a fair amount of shmups, I thought some of these segments were a little too easy; I could often spot ways to cheese my way to victory. However, I'm thinking it was a deliberate design decision to lower the friction when switching back and forth between gameplay styles and to ensure no one mechanic creates a stumbling block for players. On the whole, it's very impressive the way this game manages to implement so many types of mechanics so effectively. 

To truly complete Nier Automata, you have to play through the campaign three times. Each time you experience a different character's route and gain new information and perspectives that make the whole story come together. While this is an interesting concept, I had mixed feelings about the execution. The first route, in which you play as 2B, is by far the freshest and most exciting from a gameplay standpoint because every enemy you encounter and area you gain access to is a new discovery; however, her story is somewhat unsatisfying. In the second route, you play as 2B's companion, 9S. Since these two characters spend the majority of the campaign together, 9S's route is largely a retread of 2B's route, but with a few new scenes interspersed throughout that provide more context to the story. The fact that 9S's mechanics differ from 2B's helps keep things from getting stale but I still couldn't help but feel like I was repeating a lot of scenarios I had already done in order to get a small amount of new content. The third route covers entirely new ground from the first two routes and provides the story with a conclusion that brings everything together, it's just a shame that it takes so long to get to it. I think it would have benefitted this game to abridge 9S's route so that more players would have made it the far more interesting third route. Based on Steam statistics, only about half the players that finish 2B's route end up playing through the third route. (My feelings about Nier Automata's three-route structure mirror my though's in my review of the similarly-structured Ys Origin.)

Nier Automata's save system is inconsistent. In the opening mission, which takes about 45 minutes to complete, you can't save your game at all. In other parts of the campaign, you must manually save your game at marked save points on the map. In other circumstances, getting killed doesn't result in a game over but revives you in a new body; you must then go find your previous body to collect any of the stat-buffing items you had equipped when you died. There's an in-universe justification for the save system's inconsistency that works from a narrative perspective, but it still led to some frustration on my part when I would wander into a high-level area by mistake and end up losing progress. I recommend that most players temporarily drop the difficulty to Easy in the game's opening mission to get the best experience.

Like any open-world game, Nier Automat provides plenty of opportunites to engage in sidequests. Most of these were pretty bland fetch quests, though the fact that they added to the lore, supplied considerable XP and crafting supplies, and provided an excuse to explore the world more made them worthwhile. It also helped that your side quest completion carries over each time you play through the campaign, meaning you can spread the sidequests out between routes to keep them from feeling too repetitive.

By combining a rich world, a strong sense of style, and a variety of gameplay styles that feel good individually and work even better in concert, Nier Automata's strengths far outweigh any of the game's minor negative attributes. The game is both aesthetically and mechanically an artistic achievement that deserves to be experienced by anyone that enjoys action RPGs and science fiction.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 48 hours (all three routes, medium difficulty, 82% sidequests completed)

Nature taking over urban areas is a common theme
Nature taking over urban areas is a common theme.

The creepy old amusement park was one of my favorite areas

Scrolling shmup gameplay

Geometry Wars-like hacking sequence

3D flying shmup battle

Monday, July 27, 2020

Chantelise Review

It's been pretty well-established on my Twitch channel that I'm a big fan of the Ys games. Last year when I was streaming Ys 4 Memories of Celceta, a viewer said "Wow, this reminds me of Chantelise!"; of course, I was immediately intrigued. Since then, the game has sat in my Steam wishlist waiting until a Steam sale and an opportunity to fit it into my queue aligned. This #JRPGJuly ended up being just the right time.


Chantelise is an indie action RPG by EasyGameStation (best know for Recettear An Item Shop's Tale). The game tells the story of two sisters, Chante and Elise, who have been whisked off to a fantasy world. Upon their arrival, Chante is turned into a tiny fairy and Elise finds out that she has been chosen to be this land's next sword-wielding hero. The structure of the game is very simple: with the exception of a small hub town used for buying supplies, gameplay consists almost entirely of tackling several dungeons that are selected from a map screen. Each dungeon is comprised of about five monster-infested rooms followed by a boss room. To beat a dungeon, players must be able to clear all the rooms and beat the boss in a single attempt. The game makes this a little easier by allowing players to practice each room and boss battle individually to prepare for their run through the whole dungeon. 

  • The game's graphics combine large detailed 2D sprites and simple 3D environments. Imagine Street Fighter 2 sprites wandering around landscapes of Ocarina of Time's level of detail. I liked this combination of styles, but it's bound to be polarizing.
  • I really liked this game's unique magic system. Damaging or defeating enemies drops gems of various colors. Picking these up allows Chante to cast various magic spells. You can only hold six gems at a time and the quantity and combinations of colors you have completely changes the effect of the spells. This means the player must put some thought into which gems they collect and when to use them, thus providing much of the game's strategic depth. 
  • Chantelise's regular combat requires the player to stay on their toes and the boss battles present a very high level of challenge. When researching this game, I remember someone describing it as "anime Dark Souls" and thinking that they were making a joke. They weren't. Getting the hang of the combat took some practice but I found my eventual victories to be quite rewarding.
  • Considering how tough this game is, the inclusion of a practice mode was very wise on the part of the game designers. Getting to learn each room of the dungeon, and more critically, having a low-stakes way to master the boss battles, was very helpful for getting used to the combat system and being able to make progress through the story with reduced frustration.
  • While generally being combat-focused, the rooms of the dungeon contain puzzles and secret items that are mostly optional. Looking for these secrets was fun, though some of them were so obscure that I had to resort to using a guide to find them.
  • Chantelise's dialog features some great comedic writing. I laughed out loud on several occasions when reading it during my Twitch streams of this game.
  • Music in video games is very important to me. Chantelise features some good individual pieces but there is little consistency in how they are used. One issue that stuck out to me like a sore thumb was that the boss battle music continues playing after the fight is over. It's very jarring to be reading "Yay! We won!" dialog while still hearing intense battle music.
  • Between the game's simple structure and the need to practice each dungeon prior to making a final run, the game can feel repetitive after a while.
  • Moving a 2D sprite character through 3D polygonal environments can create some depth perception issues when landing jumps or trying to evade enemy attacks. After a little while, I managed to get used to it but it still felt somewhat imprecise.
Being a pretty popular game genre, I can often give blanket recommendations when I find an action RPG that I enjoy. In the case of Chantelise, it's not quite that simple. This game's narrow scope, considerable difficulty, unique mechanics, and cutesy graphics make for a highly unusual combination of characteristics that won't appeal to everyone. However, as someone that plays a lot of RPGs, I found what Chantelise had to offer was a refreshing break from the type of experiences the genre usually provides.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 17 hours, 32 minutes

Note: This post is part of the Chic-Pixel community's #JRPGJuly event. For more info and their full list of events, check out this page: Community Game-Along Master List 2020

Monday, July 20, 2020

Final Fantasy 15 Review

As I mentioned in my Final Fantasy 1 review, I've been slowly working my way through Square Enix's Final Fantasy franchise over the past 15 years. Now that I'm mostly caught up, I was pretty excited to see what Final Fantasy 15 would do with cutting edge technology and all the lessons learned over the past 14+ entires. I had initially planned on picking the game up as soon as it became available on PC. However, the more I heard about its convoluted release schedule, which included multiple expansions that were still in development at the time, I found myself repeatedly kicking the can down the road. Eventually, the complete Windows version ended up being released via Xbox Game Pass.

Final Fantasy 15 represents a considerable departure from the previous entries in the series, both in terms of gameplay and aesthetics. With real-time action combat and a setting that more closely resembles the real world than the fantasy and sci-fi locations of its predecessors, FF15 goes to considerable lengths to redefine what a Final Fantasy game can be. The story focuses on Prince Noctis and his three bodyguards who are on a road trip to retrieve a set of ancient sealed weapons that they need to liberate their kingdom from an invading empire. This review is based on the PC version of the game that was released via Xbox Game Pass. 

  • As you would expect from a game that spent 10 years in development and had a seemingly limitless budget, FF15 is a beautiful looking game. The downside of this is that it's pretty demanding on your hardware. My PC handles most games without issue on the higher graphics pre-sets, but for this one, I had to tweak the individual settings to get an ideal balance of visual quality and performance.
  • FF15's action combat is really cool. I found it was both fun to execute and looked stunning. I especially liked using Noctis's warp strike move, which reminded me of Night Crawler from X-Men. Sometimes the input response time and hit detection felt a little off, this is certainly no Devil May Cry, but I generally had a smooth experience pulling off fancy acrobatic moves.
  • Dungeons in FF15 have a nice sense of atmosphere to them; they legitimately feel like dangerous monster-infested environments rather than just mazes to get in between the player and some treasure.
  • I initially didn't like Square Enix's decision to go with an all-male party for FF15. However, the themes of brotherhood, the nature of male friendship, and family were covered on a level that proved to be far more engaging than I expected. There are also a few interesting supporting female characters as well, but I wish that they had gotten more screentime (more on this later).
  • The game's dialog features strong vocal performances in both English and Japanese.
  • Being a game about a road trip, upgrading and customizing your car is something your characters can work on between larger story beats. I'm not a car guy but still had fun playing around with different paint jobs and upholstery colors.
  • While the overall plot can be uneven, I found the lore and world-building that was woven into it to be pretty interesting.
  • When I heard that Yoko Shimomura was composing FF15, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. She is one of the all-time great composers for her work in games like Street Fighter 2, but how would she approach composing an RPG? I'll say right now that any of the doubts I had were completely unfounded. She knocked it out of the park with FF15's score which is full of varying styles and sounds that were always effective at setting the mood of each scene and locale.
  • FF15 makes a pretty bold design decision that was bound to split the fan base. The game begins with an emphasis on open-world exploration but a little more than halfway through, the structure becomes almost completely linear as the story ramps up toward the climax. For me, this design decision worked out very well. Once I had gotten my fill of exploring and sidequests, I was ready to see how the story would end and was thankful that the game provided me with a direct route to do so without inserting any unnecessary filler just to pad the game's running time (something that many RPGs seem to love to do). Considering this structure is pretty much the exact opposite of Final Fantasy 13's, I'm thinking FF15's design was the product of lessons learned from that game. 
  • The game's story, world, and music come together to create something that has a sad, yet hopeful tone. I found this very compelling.

  • It may be a road trip game, but driving the car is not very enjoyable. Instead of driving it myself, I just made one of Notis's AI-controlled companions, Ignis, do it. While Ignis drove my characters to the next waypoint on the map, I would usually divide my attention between admiring the scenery in the game and checking my email on my phone in the real world.
  • Being a mostly open-world RPG, there is no shortage of side quests to complete. However, these tasks don't feel meaningful; they're mostly just busywork. I would have preferred to see side quests categorized as major and minor, with the major ones having their own stories (similar to how side quests are handled in The Witcher or Xenoblade).
  • Final Fantasy 15 features product placement with several real-world brands (e.g Coleman, American Express, and Cup Noodle). In some cases this was supposedly done to make the game world feel "more realistic" and in other cases, it's used for humor. To me, it mostly just felt tacky. I'm hoping it's not a trend that continues into Final Fantasy 16.
  • While most of the game's female characters are unfortunately sidelined, I found the most prominently featured female character to be kind of troubling. The road trip boys' on-call mechanic, Cindy, has a design that is so blatantly pandering to teenage boys that it comes across as silly. Her mechanic's uniform looks more like something from a sexy Halloween costume catalog than anything even remotely resembling something someone would wear while fixing a car. In a game that generally strove for more grounded character designs than previous Final Fantasy entries (Notis and pals all wear simple black shirts and pants), Cindy looks completely out of place.
  • The biggest issue with FF15 is the one that made put off playing it to begin with, its disjointed delivery. In order to make a sensible story out of Final Fantasy 15, I had to watch a feature film, a series of anime shorts, and play through several DLC packs on top of the 40+ hour main game. Exacerbating this issue is the fact that events of the DLC take place during the main campaign but are not at all integrated into the game; DLC can only be accessed from a separate menu on the title screen. To get a complete experience, I had to research when in the story each DLC chapter took place so that I knew when I should pause my main campaign progress and switch over to the DLC menu. All of this content really should have been in the game from the start. The fact that it takes so much effort on the player's part to assemble all these components makes it seem like the whole FF15 project was mismanaged.

As an avid Final Fantasy fan, I was able to get a very enjoyable experience out of FF15 but it took a considerable amount of work on my part, synthesizing its disparate content and overlooking a few unfavorable parts. There is an interesting story to unravel, expansive world to explore, and fun gameplay to be had here, but you, as the player, have to be committed and receptive to it in a way that few other modern games require. For me, jumping into Final Fantasy 15 with both feet ultimately proved to be worth my time and satisfying but I couldn't help but feel like it could have been so much better with a more focused vision.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 42 hours for the main campaign + 7 hours of DLC

Note: This post is part of the Chic-Pixel community's #JRPGJuly event. For more info and their full list of events, check out this page: Community Game-Along Master List 2020

Road trip boys in the car
You take a lot of scenic car rides in this game.

Gondola rides
It's like every city in Italy all mashed together.

Cup Noodle shop
Final Fantasy 15, presented by Cup Noodle

Gladio loves Cup Noodle
Before you get uncomfortable, he's talking about his first time with Cup Noodle.

mid-battle screenshot
This is what it looks like when you get wrecked by a boss.

Campfire scene
Camping provides quality bro bonding time. (Brought to you by Coleman)

Chocobo riding
Since they all wear black outfits, I thought they should at least have colorful chocobos.

Ironically, I think the sexy Halloween costume is more practical clothing for auto repair than Cindy's outfit.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Final Fantasy 1 Review

Back in the late 90s, my lifelong love of Square Enix's iconic Final Fantasy series began when I got hooked on Final Fantasy 7. It quickly became a long term goal of mine to play every mainline entry in the franchise and I've been working my way outward through the series ever since. Having nearly completed that goal now, I find myself at the extreme ends of the franchise: FF1 and FF15. This week I'll be reviewing Final Fantasy's origin point; my next post will cover its most recent entry.

Final Fantasy is a turn-based fantasy RPG that was originally released on the NES. It tells the story of four warriors on a quest to restore balance to their world by reactivating four magic elemental crystals. Final Fantasy has been ported and remade on a variety of platforms over the past several decades.  This review is specifically based on the Android version of the game, which I received for free by using Google Play promotional credits.

  • All the core elements of Final Fantasy gameplay and themes are here. It was an interesting experience to see the genesis of concepts that Square Enix has iterated upon over 15 times now.
  • Considering this was originally an 8-bit game, it features surprisingly rich music with nice arrangements on mobile.
  • The remastered graphics look pretty good and display nicely on a cellphone or tablet screen. The style is a little different from the original 8-bit game, but the designs are still all easily recognizable. 
  • With the exception of landing the airship on small pieces of land, I found that I had no difficulties with FF1's touchscreen controls.
  • Some of the NPCs say bizarre or amusing things. This injected some humor into an otherwise pretty dry fantasy story.
  • Without spoiling anything, I'll just say that the conclusion of the story was far more interesting than I expected it to be. 

  • While there is some interesting lore at the very beginning and ending of the game, FF1's story is pretty sparse.
  • The dungeons in this game are quite long and feature very high encounter rates; at times your character can only walk about 5 steps between battles. This can make completing dungeons a test of patience.
  • FF1 could have benefitted from an auto-attack feature like the mobile version of FF4 had. A feature like this makes playing a mobile turn-based game more comfortable and convenient.
  • There is little depth to the strategy of FF1 combat; I mostly breezed through it mindlessly with the exception of the final boss difficulty spike.
  • On Android, FF1 requires a DRM check (anti-piracy measure) every single time you launch the game. This makes this version poorly suited to playing while traveling since you can't get past the DRM check if you don't have a signal (such as when on a plane). Measures like this make a worse experience for paying customers just to potentially prevent a few people from stealing an $8 game.
  • At the time I began my playthrough of this game earlier this year, the FF1 app wasn't capable of multi-tasking, meaning there was no ability to open a guide or anything else on your phone without resetting the game (and thus initiating the DRM check again). Apparently, this was fixed in a patch very recently, but the fact that this issue went unaddressed for many years doesn't reflect well on Square Enix's mobile support. In fact, even now the listing for the game in the Google Play Store includes a warning that there may be compatibility issues with the more recent versions of Android.
FF1 on Android suffers from some limitations that can make playing the game inconvenient. However, once you're actually in the game, the gameplay has been adapted well to the mobile format. As to FF1's content more generally, I think this game is worth playing for people interested in Final Fantasy or JRPG history but the gameplay and story are so basic that I would primarily only recommend it to players who are already invested in the FF series or are avid retro gamers.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 16 hours and 30 minutes

Note: This post is part of the Chic-Pixel community's #JRPGJuly event. For more info and their full list of events, check out this page: Community Game-Along Master List 2020

In context, this dialog eventually makes sense.

The battle artwork looks pretty cool and the menus work well with a touch screen.

Based on how often you're greeted by this screen, you would think the financial stability of the entire Square Enix corporation rests on the sales of this one cheap app.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Racing Game Round-up

While it's never been my number one favorite genre, I've always had a soft spot for racing games. They make great side games when playing something more involved like an RPG (in fact, one of my favorite games last year was Forza Horizon 4). Since this year's community game-along calendar happened to feature a month devoted to racing games, I decided to prepare a little sampler platter for myself and tried out 7 different titles on my Twitch channel!

Here's a quick round-up of mini-reviews:

Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing
This Mario Kart competitor from 2006 features characters and race tracks based on Sonic the Hedgehog and many other Sega franchises (e.g. Shenmue, House of the Dead, Jet Set Radio, etc).
  • The courses make good use of the themes from their respective Sega franchises (especially for a game of this age).
  • The game features an announcer that gives dynamic commentary on your race performance during each event. Some of his lines are pretty funny.
  • The game's controls feel very smooth. The very drift-focused mechanics remind me of Mario Kart Double Dash.
  • While the game offers six cups of races, many of the courses are just minor variations of the same thing.
  • The game only features local multiplayer, which is kind of a bummer.
  • Despite being over a decade old, this game did not run smoothly on my PC. The options to adjust resolutions, graphics, etc are extremely limited as well for a PC game.
Verdict: Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing is a solid Mario Kart-like but has been more than surpassed by more recent games in the genre, including its own sequel.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐

Garfield Kart
Thanks to a "generous and wholesome" donation from one of my Twitch viewers, I ended up with this racer based on the Garfield comic strip.
  • While not as good as a Mario or Sonic racing game, the controls felt surprisingly good for a cheap licensed game.
  • There are few interesting items that stray from the typical kart racer mechanics. For example, there's a magic missile that changes your position with whoever you hit. Several items can also have different effects depending on whether they're deployed forwards or backward.
  • Despite being labeled a "beta", Garfield Kart's online multiplayer works well. The downside is that you'd somehow have to convince multiple people to play Garfield Kart in order to use it.
  • The course designs are very boring and don't make much use of the Garfield license.
  • The game's content is very minimal: 4 cups comprised of very similar racecourses
  • Unlocks of new courses and characters are handled via collecting coins rather than progressing through Grand Prix. I would have had to play through each cup many times just to unlock the next one. I ended up just using cheats to spare myself from having to grind.
  • The implementation of items is very unbalanced. All it takes is to get hit by a single item to be dropped back to last place with little chance to recover before the end of the race.
  • Collision physics feel a little off. Sometimes slightly grazing an obstacle can bring your cart to a sudden dead stop.
Verdict: Garfield Kart checks off the absolute bare minimum requirements of a kart racer. There's no reason to play it with so many other better options available.
Score: ⭐⭐

Desert Child
This indie racing RPG caught my eye during an E3 presentation several years ago. In Desert Child, a hoverbike racer tries to race his way to wealth and stardom in a dystopian sci-fi world.
  • Desert Child has a very striking visual design. Both the town and racing scenes look really cool.
  • Similar to the graphics, the music in both towns and races stands out for its great style.
  • The use of RPG elements introduces some interesting mechanics, like changing out parts of your bike to modify its performance or help you earn more money.
  • The game's racing is fun, at least initially. Races take place in a side-scrolling perspective and have players using weapons and dodging obstacles while trying to stay ahead of the opponent.
  • This game is very grindy and features a very unfavorable economy. Bike repairs and food for your driver eat heavily into your race winnings and all progress in the campaign is gated by money. Similar to Garfield Kart, I used to cheats to bypass the excessive grinding.
  • The player character walks very slowly through town, which makes navigation a pain after a while.
  • Desert Child's gameplay is very repetitive; it sports minigames and jobs for your character to do between races, however, all of these are basically just races with a slightly different coat of paint.
  • The late-game races often seem to involve just as much luck as skill thanks to the procedurally generated courses.
Verdict: Desert Child's strong sense of style make it worth taking a look at either via a quick play session or checking out some YouTube videos. However, playing through the whole campaign was not a satisfying experience.
Score: ⭐⭐

What The Golf
Not quite an actual golf game, What The Golf ended up being deemed a racing game by an esteemed panel of judges from the Chic-Pixel community, so here it is. This game starts out as simple putt-putt and then rapidly heads toward a series of surreal challenges that are only loosely tied to anything resembling a real sport.
  • This game is funny. Whacking golf balls into explosive barrels, ricocheting balls off planets, and hitting random household objects with golf clubs can be pretty amusing.
  • There is a lot of creativity and variety here. Each golf course introduces a unique mechanic or idea.
  • With each course offering something different, the overall package is a bit of a mixed bag. There were some mechanics I wished the game would expand further upon and others that I felt were funny as a one-off joke but not particularly engaging from a gameplay standpoint.
Verdict: "Amusing" is definitely the best word I can think of to describe What The Golf. It's a fun game to play in short bursts, but don't come to it expecting much depth.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐

Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed
This game takes the strong foundation established in Sonic All-Stars Racing and expands upon it with the introduction of boats and aircraft. The "Transformed" in the title references the dynamic nature of the races, each lap on a course involves some sort of change in the environment that creates new routes and obstacles. 
  • Transformed doubles down on the Sega references. I was excited to see courses based on Dreamcast and Saturn games like Skies of Arcadia and Panzer Dragoon. Each course looks great and is clearly crafted with admiration for Sega's history.
  • Unlike most other kart racers, this game features a structured single-player campaign that offers various types of races.  Progressing through this mode unlocks new characters and tracks.
  • The cars, boats, and aircraft all handle differently from each other but each feels good to control.
  • The transforming racecourses provide a great visual spectacle but also make for more engaging gameplay. They serve as a good way to have a single course accommodate multiple vehicle types (for example, a section of the course may flood mid-race causing your car to transform into a boat during the next lap).
  • The online mode works well but is very limited in terms of features. You can only do one race at a time (i.e. no online multiplayer grand prix) and some modes feel half-baked (e.g. battle mode doesn't allow you to add bots, making the arenas feel very empty).
  • During single-player races, the AI racers have a knack for hitting you with weapons on the last leg of the final lap, causing you to finish in 8th place in a race that you had been leading for 90% of the time. This is true of a lot of kart racers, however.
Verdict: Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is a great kart racer that gives Mario Kart a run for its money. If you enjoy this genre of racing games or are a big Sega fan, this game comes as an easy recommendation.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Earlier this month, released the massive Racial Justice and Equality bundle; a massive bundle of over 1000 indie games with the proceeds going toward civil rights charities. From this huge collection, I picked out a couple of racing games to include in this round-up.

Daemon Detective Zero Racing
Daemon Detective Zero Racing is a low-poly sci-fi racer featuring characters from various indie games. It is very clearly heavily inspired by the F-Zero and Wipeout games on N64 and PS1. I can't really split this one into "pros and cons"; it's a very fast, barebones, and somewhat janky 3D racer that was a fun little nostalgic diversion for me.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐

Rock n Rush Battle Racing
This game plays somewhat like a hybrid of Mario Kart and Twisted Metal. It also features a great rock-n-roll soundtrack. I found the gameplay of this one to be much more polished than Daemon Detective Zero Racing; however, the game only features 4 tracks. While each of these tracks has a day and night and mirror mode version, there's still not much content here. That being said, I enjoyed my short time with it and it's definitely worth the download if you bought the bundle.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐

While the games I played for this round-up varied considerably in quality, I had a lot of fun digging into a genre that I enjoy but often tend to neglect!

Note: This post is part of the Chic-Pixel community's #RacingGameMonth event. For more info and their full list of events, check out this page: Community Game-Along Master List 2020

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Wandersong Review

While I've always enjoyed short sessions of traditional rhythm games like Dance Dance Revolution, especially in arcades, it's not a genre that I tend to engage with at home. However, games of other genres that incorporate music into their gameplay are something that I can get into in any context. That's where Wandersong comes in. This adorable-looking game came strongly recommended from IGN's Tom Marks and my streamer pal, BogusMeatFactory; with two ringing endorsements from people with such unique tastes in games, I had to give Wandersong a shot.

Wandersong is a music-themed adventure game. It tells the story of a bard on a quest to learn the scattered pieces of the Earth Song; a magical piece of music believed to be capable of staving off the apocalypse. The bard's primary ability is to sing 8 different notes based on the direction the player tilts the right thumbstick (the number pad or mouse is used if playing without a controller). This review is based on the PC version of the game, which I played via Xbox Game Pass.

  • While music is a central theme throughout the game, rhythm gameplay makes up only a minimal part of the gameplay. Instead, the gameplay takes two forms:
    • In towns, the game plays like an adventure game in which player talks to NPCs and explores the area to gather information about the location of the next part of the Earth Song. As far as adventure gaming goes, these sections are fairly rudimentary, but the game's presentation is so strong that it was enjoyable just to see the sights and meet the quirky inhabitants of the world. 
    • In Spirit Realms (i.e. dungeons), where each Earth Song piece can be found, the focus is on puzzle-platforming gameplay in which the notes that the bard single manipulates various features of the environment. I really liked the way each dungeon presented a unique puzzle platforming mechanic; this helped keep the gameplay feeling fresh.
  • Graphically, there are two especially distinct things about Wandersong:
    • Wandersong's character designs are very simple; the player character is made up of just a handful of flat geometric shapes. However, the game manages to get a lot of expression out of these designs through some very cute animations. It didn't take long for them to grow on me.
    • Something that had more immediate appeal was the game's color pallet. The use of bright contrasting colors, including lots of neons and purples, really gave the scenery a distinct and vibrant look.
  • Despite its simplistic and cute appearance, Wandersong features in-depth character development and touches upon some fairly heavy themes. Some indie games try to shoe-horn darker subject matter into otherwise cute-looking games for shock value or to give the appearance of extra depth. However, in the case of Wandesrsong, the more and less serious elements of the story play off each other very well and I found that I was invested in each of the major characters' plot arcs.
  • One of the buttons makes the bard dance at any time (including during dialog). It serves absolutely no gameplay purpose and it is highly entertaining. By finding a certain character in hidden locations in each chapter of the game, you can learn more dance moves to expand the bard's repertoire.
  • Even though this is a game about music rather than a music game, I still came into it with high expectations for the soundtrack. I'm happy to say the soundtrack is just as charming as the characters, writing, and graphics.
I often divide my observations in reviews into pros and cons, but when it comes to Wandersong, there is really nothing bad I can say about it. This game's graphics, music, writing, and gameplay all come together in a delightful package that I can comfortably recommend to just about anyone.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: About 14 hours

Note: This post is part of the Chic-Pixel community's #MusicGameMay event. For more info and their full list of events, check out this page: Community Game-Along Master List 2020