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