Jul 182016
 

Status: Completed, true ending

Most Intriguing Idea: All the world’s a stage

Best Design Decision: Sessions

Worst Design Decision: Sessions

Summary:

The first read on the concept for Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE sounds simultaneously intriguing and absurd. The notoriously difficult Shin Megami Tensei approach to turn-based RPGs will combine with Fire Emblem, a classically tough strategy game with permadeath that has also recently become the newest iteration of making dolls kiss, as a turn-based RPG about #teens becoming pop idols in the Tokyo showbiz scene. One suspects that the whole thing was created on a napkin during the consumption of a hundred liters of sake, yet it turns out surprisingly well.

That’s not to say that I loved the story. The protagonist is overwhelmingly bland to the point that the other characters’ insistence that he’s important to their success feels like mockery. Localization aged up the characters, thankfully, but it also excised a plot point concerning gravure photography in a way that made a core character seem extremely stupid. The increased character ages were inadequate to disguise the fact that the sole white character is a fat jackass pedophile, but I can’t complain too much about this because I can find a positive white male character almost anywhere else I look. Even the coolest characters in this game are consistently dumb (the coolest, most standoffish character doesn’t know to eat, he faints because he forgets to eat, I can’t even). The story built around these characters mostly resonates, however, and if they seem to take the performing arts way too seriously, at least this makes sense in the context of the game.

The Fire Emblem contribution to the game mostly comes in terms of characters and lore: “mirages” that give the main characters their battle powers are characters drawn from the series and the backstory involves even more of the series’ history. The MegaTen influence is obvious in the names of most spells and yet another take on the Press Turn concept, the Session. Attacking an enemy’s elemental or weapon vulnerability allows other characters to jump in and add a free attack. Each character has certain kinds of attacks they can link to, and while this initially maxes out at two or three hits in a series, as the game goes on special attacks and the ability of the backup roster to join in mean that strings of 12 total hits or more are quite possible.

This is really cool but it also makes battles tend towards the boring. Most of the time, the player has nothing to do during a Session, and increasingly elaborate animations for these attacks can give late-game sessions a real “go make yourself a sandwich” feeling. Each character has a single weapon style, but up to three elemental attacks, and TMS allows the backups to swap into the on-field team cost free like in Final Fantasy X. This means that unless an enemy has no vulnerabilities or ones that are very hard to figure out, a Session is imminent on every turn. This leads to a lot of butt-kicking but very little tactical challenge. I got a game over exactly twice, once against the game’s only really tricky boss and once against a pack of “savage enemies” that were 10 levels above most of my party. This is pretty low for MegaTen. Slow battles that didn’t pose any risk turned combat into an irritant obstructing progress through the game’s tricksy dungeons, and it forced bosses towards “huge life bars and adds” rather than “strategically interesting”.

That said, I mostly enjoyed my time with this game and if you’ve got a WiiU you’re not going to see anything better this year.

Verdict: Recommended

Jul 112016
 

Status: Completed, including secret ending

Most Intriguing Idea: Controlling characters is creepy

Best Design Decision: The workers throwing the boy.

Worst Design Decision: A main character without any clear desires or internality.

Summary:

Inside is, I think, a lesser work than Playdead’s first game Limbo. Both games feature a child protagonist with limited powers who has to traverse a hostile world rendered as a two-dimensional space, and both do a very good job of cultivating a particular atmosphere. Limbo creates a world of constant, unexpected threat. Inside, for the most part, makes its dangers more obvious, instead developing a sense of foreboding by confronting its child character with organizations and structures of control that can be grasped at their edges but have fundamentally inexplicable intentions and mechanisms. If Limbo reflects the world as seen by a very young child who understands almost nothing, Inside may reflect the world as seen by a child who is old enough to recognize social architecture but too young to comprehend its purposes.

Accordingly, I think Inside is generally at its weakest when it’s openly game-like and declarative. The worst offender here is the “20 person” puzzle, because it’s very expansive and elaborate while simultaneously being obvious and gamey. Surprise, surprise, 20 people are needed to open a gate and precisely 20 are available! Some of the later bits featuring the blob also suffer from this sense of game-ness and a failure to decide or communicate whether the surrounding humans want the blob to succeed or to fail. In contrast, the segment where the boy has to copy the workers’ actions is openly gamey, but the purpose behind the demonstration and the reason the ruse fails remain mysterious enough that the sequence succeeds.

inside_box

Like Limbo, Inside fails to come to a really satisfactory conclusion, even accepting that both of the possible endings are downers. The main ending comes very abruptly and feels more like a game running out of ideas than a proper denouement. Perhaps if I had any idea at all what the child wanted I would feel differently, but Inside gives its main character even less motivation than the ambiguous desires of Limbo’s protagonist. The secret ending has two problems. The first is that in this, the year of our Levine two thousand and sixteen it is not even slightly interesting for a game to crawl up its own navel about the philosophical implications of being a game protagonist. The second is that the game made this same point, in a much more succinct and creepy way, moments after the scene shown above, so the secret ending feels superfluous.

Inside is very tightly made, but it’s too often obvious where it should be mysterious and vice versa. Its endings make it simultaneously weightless and depressing. In a technical sense it is a stronger work than Limbo; but as an expressive work I feel it’s inferior.

Verdict: Cautiously recommended

Jun 302016
 

Status: Platinum trophy

Most Intriguing Idea: You are what you eat

Best Design Decision: Maury’s touring restaurant

Worst Design Decision: New game+ mode

Summary:

I loved many things about the original Odin Sphere, and also disliked a few things about it. The remake, Odin Sphere Leifthrasir, largely preserves the things I liked and gets rid of the things I didn’t (primarily framerate crashes and absurdly long loads), and on that basis I can certainly recommend it. This is one of the greatest 2D JRPGs ever made, its story is strong, and its art and music are incredible. Everything about it holds up 8 years later.

Of the many new accommodations, the best is Maury’s restaurant, a way to avoid having to visit the Pooka Village to eat advanced dishes. The simpler inventory management runs a close second. I also felt it was a lot easier to cancel out of combos and special attacks in the update, which I certainly appreciated. The wizard enemies are also less annoying in this iteration than I remember in the original, where I often had to run through levels repeatedly to hunt them down. The choice to allow a player to make alchemy mixes before the recipes have been found is also a great change.

I don’t love everything that was changed. The addition of rectangular zones to the game’s levels doesn’t, I think, add any particular cohesiveness to the level architecture. All things being equal, I preferred the symbolism of a world made of rings even if the level arrangements were slightly awkward as a result. I also don’t care for the New Game + option here (I can’t remember if it existed in the original game), if only because it doesn’t quite adjust to the need for better ingredients in order to allow any kind of realistic leveling in early chapters. It’s kind of neat to get a chance to max out skills, but otherwise the NG+ doesn’t add enough to really justify itself.

However, the fact remains that Odin Sphere is one of the best, most beautiful action RPGs ever made, and the reissue is almost entirely an improvement on the original.

Verdict: Strongly Recommended

Jun 072016
 

Status: Completed. Unlike Billy Joel, I lit the fire.

Most Intriguing Idea: Armor doesn’t really work anymore.

Best Design Decision: Really, just the main idea of the way souls still work

Worst Design Decision: Armor doesn’t really work anymore.

Summary:

As I mentioned in the previous post, Bloodborne fosters an aggressive, hit-and-run combat style by a push-pull approach. The push is that there’s no real way to block attacks and almost any enemy can stunlock the player. The pull is that the player has considerable capacity to interrupt enemy attacks, can dodge at low stamina cost, and can regain lost health by aggressively attacking after sustaining injury. Dark Souls 3 tries to push its players into a similar style of combat but fails to pull, and feels much like a lesser game as a result.

The key here is the behavior of “Poise”, a stat that is built by wearing heavy armor. Heavier armor makes dodging (the keystone of Bloodborne‘s combat) considerably slower, and in past Souls games this was compensated by improved damage absorption and Poise, which prevented enemy attacks from interrupting player actions. This is essentially gone in DS3—the developers have argued that poise is now “contextual” but there is no context in which it stops even pathetically weak enemies from interrupting me. Even if Poise really does somehow prevent staggering during attacks, that’s still useless because >90% of what happens in boss fights (and 50% of other encounters) is just ordinary movement. If Poise doesn’t even partially protect the player from stagger while walking around, that significantly disadvantages heavy armor builds that can’t effectively dodge-roll out of danger.

That’s not great, because it sacrifices a lot of the flexibility of builds that makes tinkering around with Souls games fun, but it’s not a disaster. Adapting to the game’s preferences, however, makes it a bit too easy overall. I found several of the bosses to be a challenge in DS3, but I never felt any doubt as to whether I could eventually take down a boss or finish a level that was on the main path. I just grabbed my uchigatana (I cheesed an NPC and got this right at the start) and longbow and dodged or shot my way out of trouble.

I also couldn’t avoid the feeling that this series has worn itself out creatively. So many of the levels felt like callbacks to ones I’d played in Dark Souls / Demon’s Souls that the whole game felt familiar almost to the point of being comforting. None of the NPCs have a really interesting arc and most of them are nothing but vendors. The atmosphere still works and the carefully-written flavor text legitimately adds a lot to the experience but I never escaped the feeling I had seen it all before. Dark Souls 3 is a perfectly good game but it feels like the magic, and to a large degree the series’ admirable flexibility, is gone.

Verdict: Cautiously recommended