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.