Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Comet Crash

Tower defense games are everywhere. You can find one on every current generation console (including portables), on the internet, even on the iPhone (where they are quite popular). They've come and gone in multiple colorful varieties. Just when I thought I'd seen everything, Comet Crash came waltzing along.

The fundamentals of Comet Crash are still very easy to pick up by anyone who's played their fair share of tower defense games. You control a ship that you can use to move around and survey the arena, and also build and maintain your defenses. There are two cores; yours and your opponent's. Your opponent will consistently spawn enemies that will attempt to attack your core. To stop this, you'll have to build towers to destroy enemy units before they get to your core. Like in any good TD game, towers are upgradeable (range, fire speed, power), repairable, and recyclable, and come in multiple varieties, some being better against certain units than others. For example, the Pulsar fries all ground units quickly and efficiently, but ignores air units and is vulnerable to being momentarily disabled by enemy EMP units, allowing a small group to slip past. Your standard turret is dirt cheap and makes for a nice defensive option early on, but faster moving enemies will slip past them easily enough. Bomber towers are great all around units, attacking both air and ground units with splash damage, but are really expensive to upgrade. Lasers ignore ground units, but destroy passing resource meteors for you and can really cut air units down to size.

But there's one thing a little different about Comet Crash: going on the offensive. In Comet Crash the match ends when you destroy the enemy core, not after a certain number of units have been fended off, or you simply are defeated. You go about doing this by spawning units of your own! Certain special towers act as background factories, quietly building your army while you focus on defending your core. With units at your disposal, you can send out any number of them with a flick of the right stick.

Like towers, units come in many, many varieties, but can be separated into three categories; Offense, Support and Counter-Offense. Offensive units are your bread and butter, simply used to hopefully charge past your enemy's defenses and hit their core. Examples include the basic scout vehicle, which is decently fast and built very quickly, but has very little health. Tanks have more health, but move slower and take a little more time to build.

Support units are designed to help keep your offensive units alive, like the dropship, which can load a couple dozen ground units and then fly right over the enemy's defenses (unless they have anti-air towers), dropping them closer to the enemy core, and the EMP mine, which disables Pulsars for a couple seconds to allow ground units safe passage.

Counter-Offensive units are brilliant, and open up a whole new ballgame of defensive strategy. With a decent store of counter-offensive units built up, you can hold off an entire attack with just a few well placed towers. An example is the Thief, a gigantic ship that at first glance seems to function like an even slower-moving, but more heavily-armored tank. Enemy units that run into it while it's glowing, however, are instantly converted to your side, and turn right around and head back to the enemy base. Then there's the Hammer. It's an extremely slow moving unit, that leaps instead of runs. Every time it lands though, it freezes nearby enemy units in place momentarily, leaving them open to extra turret fire. Needless to say, a squad of hammers and a couple upgraded pulsars can cripple even a ground horde numbering in the several hundreds.

You can have up to 1,000 units ready to mobilize (or already mobilized) at any time. Can anyone say "Unleash the horde"? In later stages, the computer will use armies of such sizes against you, but with some nice tactics and powerful towers, you can hold off even these with relative ease. The importance of support and counter-offensive units in particular becomes surprisingly outstanding midway through the campaign. These aren't just novelties; they're a genuinely innovative way to expand the game's strategic potential. Surprisingly, battles can become really epic and engulfing with hundreds of units on screen, and lasers, bullets and bombs flying everywhere.

In the audio-visual department, Comet Crash is presented simply. The graphics are sharp, and detailed enough that I can pick out a scout making its way upstream a river of enemy units, but most object models are simple almost to the point of slight crudeness. But if this is what makes the game capable of rendering hundreds of them at a time with few signs of trouble, I see no reason to complain. Audio is largely forgettable, composed of the usual moody space themes you'd expect from a futuristic tower defense game (or not).

The campaign is separated into a couple dozen levels that, while getting progressively more difficult and offering up a variety of challenges, also gradually introduces you to each unit and tower, as well as some nice strategies. Impressively, there's also 3-player co-op and 4 player versus (no online), making this surprisingly acceptable as a party game. If you like your games with a double-helping of strategy, I don't see why you wouldn't like Comet Crash. An 8.5/10

Monday, March 22, 2010

Heavy Rain

If asked the question "What are games to you?", how would you respond?  Games can be many things.  To me they're both a form of stress release and a source of inspiration.  They pass the time.  They entertain.  Games can serve any number of purposes to any number of people.  I found it good to keep this in mind as I played through Heavy Rain, a PS3-exclusive title from Quantic Dream.

So what is Heavy Rain?  Some could argue it's not even a game.  You could call it one gigantic Quick Time Event and be correct.  Likewise, you could also call it one of the greatest thrill rides in some time, and also be correct.  Most people have chosen to dub it "Interactive Drama".  I think that works just fine.

You see, in most games, it's the gameplay that matters.  A game can still pass as "good" with a horrible plot, as long as it's got some nice gameplay to keep the player hooked.  With Heavy Rain it's the other way around.  Here it's the plot that matters.  The gameplay is there solely to give the plot a nudge here and there.  Think of it as one those "choose your own adventure" kinda games, and you'll likely have the right idea.

A bit of the magic of the game comes from going into it knowing as little about the plot and characters as possible, so I'll be brief in explaining it.  The prologue begins with Ethan Mars, a successful architect who's leading a happy life with his wife and two kids.  What begins as a happy, slice of life sort of deal quickly delves into chaos when Ethan and one of his children are hit by a car.  Ethan falls into a coma but eventually awakens, but his son isn't so lucky.  Fast forward two years, and the guy is a total mess.  His wife has divorced him, his remaining child is unhappy, and his guilt has steadily hurt his psychological condition.  Meanwhile, since the incident, a serial killer hunting boys age 9-13 has arisen in town.  Dubbed the "Origami Killer" for his/her tendency to leave an origami figure at the site of the crime, the killer eventually kidnaps Ethan's last son, completely devastating him on both a mental and emotional level.

Enter investigative journalist Madison Paige, FBI profiler Norman Jayden, and private investigator Scott Shelby.  Madison wants a scoop on the killer.  Jayden wants him behind bars.  Scott just wants to know the killer's identity, for the sake of the families who have already been hit by him/her.  Of course, you play all three, in addition to Ethan, as they attempt to track down both Ethan's son and the killer.

Generally speaking, Heavy Rain is a slow playing game.  You play primarily by performing commands when prompted.  A lot of the time this is "on rails", but other times you'll be given the chance to simply wander around a given environment, interacting and exploring.  As Madison you might do a bit of breaking and entering, investigating the residence of a suspect.  As Norman you might use advanced FBI tech to scan for clues on a crime scene, which will hopefully point you in the right direction.

The unique thing about Heavy Rain is that, while there is an overall plot that the game follows, the details can branch off every which way at multiple points in the game.  That house you were sneaking around in as Madison?  It may have suddenly become a death trap, when the suspect comes home, and likely tries to kill you.  Scanning for clues as Jayden, you might come across a bit more than you bargained for.  This is the part where someone might try to off you for knowing too much.

All cutscenes in Heavy Rain are driven by button prompts.  Whether or not Ethan survives navigating a field of live electrical conduits may be entirely dependent on your ability to hold X, L1, R2, Square, and Circle all at once.  Or whether Scott can overpower his attacker may come down to how fast you can mash the X button.

There are a few different prompts besides the standard one button press.  A pulsating button symbol represents actions requiring endurance or strength (like pushing something over), and means you have to tap it repeatedly and as quickly as possible.  An arrow indicates a direction that must be executed with the right stick.  A dotted lines means the action must be executed slowly, for actions that require precision (like treating wounds).  The game also makes use of the motion sensors.  Though awkward at first, I found soon enough that executing motion control commands are just about as easy as button commands, thanks to the use of simple movements, excellent calibration and forgiving recognition.  Often the game will also have you hold multiple buttons at once, to simulate complex body movements (like climbing and navigating small spaces).  Fortunately, the hold button sequences are rarely long or complicated, so you won't usually feel like you're playing Twister on your controller.

While normal dialogue decisions are dotted throughout, the game will frequently present you with other, much tougher ones.  Regardless of what you choose, regardless of what happens, the plot will move on, forcing you to deal with the consequences of the decisions you make (unless you play cheap and just replay the chapter).  In Heavy Rain there's little such thing as a game over.  If a character dies, the plot moves on without him or her, adapting to their absence.  If all the playable characters die, the plot simply concludes early.

Moving on to the technical side of things, Heavy Rain is a mixed bag in terms of visual fidelity.  For the most part, animation is excellent, though it shows its computer-generated weaknesses every now and then.  The commands are integrated extremely well into the game so as to not be overly distracting, but still get your attention.  Environments look swell overall, though I thought the level of detail was not the same among some objects.  Each chapter's load screen presents the moving face of the character you'll be playing as for that chapter in a ridiculously lifelike fashion, though the character models aren't quite so detailed during gameplay.  Simply put, visual quality is impressive most of the time, but somewhat inconsistent.  I do however applaud the camera work, the overall visual themes are topnotch.  Constant heavy rainfall throughout the story runs parallel to Ethan's sorrow and depression, and plenty of gray, brown and green hues are thrown in to help convey the darker tone of the story. 

The audio is another mixed bag.  Characters are voiced pretty well generally, enough that they can adequately deliver on the game's more intensely emotional scenes, but it's not perfect, which wouldn't be a big deal in most other games, but stands out here because the plot and presentation are the big hooks.  It stands to reason that voice acting should be damn near perfect, as a result.  Fortunately, the soundtrack picks up whatever slack the VOs drop.  Nearly every bit of the BGM is an aural delight, and the sound design helps to pull you further into the game than anything else I've experienced in some time.

Unfortunately, the game is one of the buggier ones I've played in recent times.  Though framerate issues are few and far between, the game has frozen on me a couple times, and I've known the audio to skip or blatantly loop.  Most of these have only minor impacts on the player however, due to the game autosaving pretty much every couple of minutes, and the ability to  jump right back to your last save point from the main menu.

Heavy Rain offers a great experience, one definitely worth having.  But perhaps more importantly, it represents a milestone in digital entertainment.  Quantic Dream took a basic plot and gave you the reigns to push it where you want.  Despite being QTEs, action cutscenes are surprisingly intense, and will no doubt have you on the edge of your seat.  Both the audio and visuals, while not perfect, both serve to pull you into the experience, and do so to remarkable effect.  One playthrough will only take several hours to beat, but most of the 60-some chapters can be replayed in multiple different ways, with different choices and actions, and of course there are many, many endings to this tale.  Seeing all there is to see in this game will take quite some time indeed.  A 9/10.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Resident Evil 5: Desperate Escape

The second of Resident Evil 5's DLC levels, Desperate Escape, has just come out. And I'm going to go ahead and conclude that it's not as good as Lost in Nightmares.

There is a distinction between the two I recall at least mentioning in my review for Lost in Nightmares. Whereas LiN had a heavier focus on exploration, horror, and puzzles, Desperate Escape is more action and explosions. Simply put, it's more of RE5.
In Desperate Escape, you play as Jill and Josh (remember that guy that Sheva's friendly with?). The game picks up right after Chris and Sheva leave to stop Wesker, leaving Jill to figure out an escape plan. Josh finds her, and together the two begin to work their way towards a comm tower, where they can catch a helicopter and go pick up Chris and Sheva. Of course, there's a horde of zombies (or "uroboros", as the game insists on calling them) standing between them and their destination.

Like LiN, Desperate Escape is split into a couple huge areas, culminating in a timed showdown on the roof of the comm tower. It's surprisingly easy to get far separated from your partner, but it's essential you stick together. As you progress, you'll encounter just about every single sub-boss and special infected in the game (and if you're playing on a higher difficulty, you'll probably encounter them multiple times). Chainsaw majini, Executioner majini, Reaper bugs, Minigun-toting majini, and even those giant cave spiders return. You even encounter enemies manning mounted grenade launchers. Obviously, the level designers didn't want you to make it out of this alive very easily, hence the "Desperate" part of the DLC name.

Jamming all those sub-bosses and special infected (alongside a horde of regular zombies) into just a couple areas makes the chapter just as hard you might think. Indeed, tight partner cooperation is once again not optional here, just for the sake of survival. Restorative herbs are rare, so playing with the computer (who burns through them) is simply not an option. I certainly can't see myself beating this on Professional.

Like Lost in Nightmares, this DLC also adds a couple characters to Mercenaries Reunion, including Josh and Jill and Rebecca Chambers. This might be a boon if you're real big on Mercenaries.

Even as a I played through Desperate Escape, I couldn't help missing the gameplay style in Lost in Nightmares, however. The intense feeling of foreboding that chapter was able to generate was quite simply brilliant, and even the adrenaline rush I felt as me and my partner fought off the zombie horde at Desperate Escape's conclusion could not match it. 7.5/10.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Star Ocean: The Last Hope International

For some time since the PS3's release, the system has been getting only a trickle of JRPGs here and there. That has changed almost immediately this year. Looking forward, we have Resonance of Fate. Just the other day Final Fantasy XIII was officially released in North America. Last month also saw the release of a couple RPGs, among them Star Ocean: The Last Hope International.

The Last Hope isn't actually a new game. It came out on Xbox 360 a year or so ago, to lukewarm attention. Apparently Square-Enix and tri-ace were only testing the waters though, because the game is back, this time on PS3, and with a couple welcome enhancements.

Though it's the latest entry in the series, The Last Hope is actually a prequel, taking place before all the games in the rest of the series; that is, a few centuries before the first Star Ocean. Like Till the End of Time, as you start the game up, you're treated to a nice CG cutscene that elaborates on the game's setting.

World War 3 has devastated Earth. The advent of powerful nuclear weaponry leads to entire cities being destroyed in the crossfire, leaving only irradiated wasteland. Realizing that the planet can't sustain such destruction for much longer, the world's leaders call a ceasefire, but the environment has already been decimated beyond repair. Thus, humans look to the stars, and thus the SRF, or Space Reconnaissance Force is born, with the sole objective of exploring the galaxy to hopefully find a new planet for humans to colonize.

Enter Edge Maverick and Reimi Saionji, two remarkable recruits who are chosen to embark on the SRF's first exploration mission, as part of the crew of the SRF-003 Calnus. Edge is a capable swordsman and martial artist with a powerful sense of responsibility. He was never the best at academics, and is rather headstrong and inexperienced, but has the determination to charge through any situation effectively, and the natural leadership skills to inspire others to charge through after him. Having been acquainted with him since childhood, Reimi is Edge's best friend. She's a sensible young woman, and highly adaptable. Whereas Edge wields a sword, Reimi prefers a bow as her weapon of choice. Having mastered both eastern and western styles of archery, Reimi is an unparalleled ranger.

An error mid-warp causes the small group of ships (including the Calnus) to crash land on the nearby planet Aeos. Things don't get much better from there however, as all the ships are scattered. The Aquila (captained by Crowe, another childhood friend of both Reimi and Edge) disappears, the crew of another ship is mysteriously slaughtered, and the Calnus' crew is attacked by gigantic insects after a crash landing severely damages the hull. Fortunately, an alien race known as the Eldarians (who had secretly been in contact with Earth over the past decade) arrive to give aid, young Faize among them. Faize is refined and can be prideful, but is quick to show humility. His skill with a rapier impresses Edge, and the two become fast friends.

With the Aquila gone and the other ship having been destroyed, The SRF envoy is rather understaffed. Despite this, the mission must go on, and thus the Calnus's captain gives Edge his rank and tasks him with proceeding to continue exploring the galaxy for a suitable planet to colonize, with Faize and Reimi as his crewmates. And thus the three embark on a mission of galactic proportions.

Alongside the plot, character development is a significant component of this game. Though you embark with only three crew members, as you progress through the story you'll of course meet several more characters, who will join you on your journey. Each one is unique, both in and out of the battlefield. There's the young symbologist Lymle, who despite being technically 15 years old, is stuck with the body and personality of a 6 year old, due to a traumatic event long ago. There's the ever-vengeful Myuria, who sticks with Edge with the hope that he'll lead her to Crowe, who she wants so dearly to slaughter. There's even the mandatory catgirl Meracle, a bouncy and somewhat mischievous girl who doesn't know where she came from.

Each crew member you meet has some sort of past (that somehow even manages to relate vaguely to the overarching plot), and naturally each have small portions of the story to themselves. But to really get to know these guys, you'll want to indulge in their private action events, which you can view while traveling from one destination to another. The galaxy is a big place, and even with the Calnus's warp capabilities, it still takes a considerable amount of time to get around. So the crew sets the ship on auto-pilot and takes this time to relax. During this time, they'll roam the ship and interact with each other, and as Edge you have several opportunities to chat it up them before you reach your destination. Most of these "events" raise the affection points Edge has with the given person(s), which will influence the ending cut scene.

But you didn't pick up a Star Ocean game for the plot! You picked it up for the battles, am I right? So let's get down to business. Contrary to what the Battle Simulator practice battle would have you believe (which to this day is still one of the tougher battles in the game), skirmishes in The Last Hope are fun, frantic, and above all, engaging. There are no random encounters; enemies show up on the overworld, and touching them will start a battle. Touching an enemy from behind will trigger a preemptive strike, where the enemies are not only fewer in number (usually), but don't even know you're there for the first few seconds. By the same token however, getting touched from behind triggers a battle with unfavorable odds, with your opponents surrounding you from all sides (usually), and starting with their Rush Gauge (more on that in a bit) at 50%.  If you start a battle with other enemies close by, it's fairly likely they'll jump in directly after you beat the first group, resulting in an ambush.  Each consecutive ambush nets you bonus XP, so several consecutive ambushes can really jack up your XP earnings.

Like in Till the End of Time, battles take place in a separate screen. You run around a moderately large battlefield (you really do move around a LOT in battle) while going toe to toe with your foes in real time (meaning no turns or action bars). Battles are extremely flexible. By tapping either L1 or R1, you can switch between any of your four battle members on the fly, any time. If you have a character set to auto, the computer will automatically take over when you switch away from a character. Pressing triangle brings up a radial pause menu, where you can change individual character tactics, cast symbols (spells), use items, remap your special techniques, and even switch out party members (you can have up to 8 people in your party, but only 4 in battle at a time).

Again, like in Till the End of Time, your computer-controlled buddies operate on a set a simplified guidelines called tactics. Though it's an extremely humble system compared to something like FF12's Gambit system or even the Tales series' strategy options, it works. Telling the computer to "Fight freestyle" simply means the computer will choose who it wants to fight, and just not get in your way. "Stay out of trouble" is for your casters, who will stay on the fringes of the battle and do their thing. "Gang up on foes" means the computer will target the same enemy as another party member. Furthermore, you can tell them to either conserve MP by not using special attacks or symbols, or go full force (only recommended for bosses, of course). Ultimately, such simplicity works because the computer is usually able to hold its own admirably well, without you looking over your comrade's shoulder. I can probably count the number of times a computer ally actually fell in battle (outside of a boss encounter) on one hand.

Level progression works just as it would in any other typical RPG. You fight enemies, you get experience. No twists there. However, there is an interesting system in place that heavily influences your stat growth, known as the BEAT system. BEATS are essentially fighting styles. There are three types of BEAT styles: BEAT.S, BEAT.N, and BEAT.B. BEAT.S and BEAT.B promote the growth of certain stats and add bonus effects to blindsides and Rush Mode, respectively. BEAT.N will earn you neither of the skill benefits, but instead you get bonuses to all the stats of B and S combined.

I'll start with BEAT.S, which is focused on Blindsides, a crucial part of the game's battle system. Simply tapping circle lets you jump, slide, or lunge (depending on the character) to whatever direction you hold the left stick in. However, holding the button for a few seconds lets you prepare a Blindside. Wait for an enemy to lock on to you at close range, then dodge after squatting for a couple seconds to initiate a Blindside, where your character sidesteps the target and quickly dashes to their backside. A properly blindsided enemy will completely lose sight of you, and for the next few seconds all attacks that connect are automatic critical hits. Thus a Blindside is an excellent way to slide into a nice juicy combo. Each character has their own unique Blindside animation (and jump/dodge type). Meracle confounds the foe with incredible speed before dashing to his/her backside. Reimi does a nice sidestep then launches into a high-flying somersault, landing behind her target. Blindsides are also a great way to counter incoming attacks. It's a pretty amazing feeling when you dodge a powerful attack literally at the last possible second and manage to Blindside the enemy, opening up many possibilities for an immediate counter-attack.  As you progress in BEAT.S, you'll gain benefits for Blindsides, like stunning nearby enemies when you perform a Blindside, or being unable to be staggered while Blindside charging (exceedingly useful, I assure you)

Alternatively there's BEAT.B, which focuses on Rush Mode. Under each character's HP and MP bars is a green bar, which is your Rush bar. You gain Rush percentage by dealing damage, receiving damage, and Blindside charging. When the gauge is full, you can activate Rush mode, which can either be a tremendous lifesaver or a gigantic window of possibilities for combos. While in Rush mode (which only lasts for 10-15 seconds, I'd say), enemy attacks don't make you flinch, meaning you can run essentially ignore everything that's hitting you and just focus on dealing damage (note that you're NOT invincible, though with enough BEAT.B experience you can get added defense during Rush Mode). Your chance of dealing a critical hit is also significantly heightened. With Rush mode you can also initiate Rush Combos, where the whole party can attack a single enemy with a sequence of special attacks.  Though neither your comrades nor your enemies use blindsides, they will use Rush mode, and to great effect. As you rank up in BEAT.B, you can add other beneficial effects to Rush Mode, like minor MP usage deduction, and a chance to endure what would otherwise have been a fatal hit.

Just hacking and slashing might not cut it for tougher enemies, though.  Which is where special arts and symbols come in.  Symbols basically the Star Ocean series' term for spells.  Attack symbols include elemental attacks like Earth Glaive (float the enemy with an eruption of earth) and Thunder Flare, whereas defensive symbols include Healing and Enhance.  Most characters also have their own set of personal special attacks, known as arts.  These attacks consume MP like symbols, but of course pack more punch.  Special attacks are mapped to the R2 and L2 buttons.  Though at first you can only chain two attacks by moving between the two buttons, you'll eventually be able to map multiple attacks to the same button, which opens up a gateway to pretty large combos.

The focus on massive combos, helped along by combo chaining, blindsides and Rush Mode make combat in Star Ocean a rather fun affair.  What makes it addicting, however is the Bonus Board.  The Bonus Board is an inconspicuous looking thing that appears on the right side of the screen during a battle.  As you complete certain actions, like defeating an enemy solely with special attacks, or defeating an enemy with a critical hit, it gradually fills up with colorful gems, that grant enticing bonuses, like a small percentage of MP/HP recovery at the end of each battle, and a fairly significant bonus to your XP yield.  Some gems are easier to acquire than others, but it takes time and effort to cultivate a nice Bonus Board.  Suffering a critical hit shatters the board though (which is easily one of the most frustrating things I've experienced in gaming), so those who pay heed to their Bonus Board will also find themselves avoiding enemies who have entered Rush Mode.  Overall though, this feature is the icing on the cake.

This wouldn't be a Star Ocean game without a ridiculously extensive crafting system, though.  Welch returns, though she looks radically different from her previous iteration.  Similar to crafting in Till the End of Time, before you can craft something, you have to think up item recipes.  To do this, you'll separate your available party members into groups of three, and set them to work.  Every party member has strengths and weaknesses in various areas, so if you really want to amass a hoard of recipes to work with, you'll need to pay attention to what each person is good at, and group together members with similar strengths.  For example, Edge is the best at Smithery, but not so hot at Artistry.  Lymle is great at Artistry, but knows nothing about Smithery.  Naturally these two aren't going to make a lot of recipes.

But knowing is only half the battle.  To craft items, you've got to gather the necessary ingredients.  Some higher tier, rarer things are of course going to require some prestige ingredients, which is going to take some hunting, probably.

I suppose it's about time I settled back and discussed the more technical aspects of the game.  Well I must say, it's a very typical game in most ways.  There's definitely a lot of elements present here that could have jumped out some wacky anime show.  The big, innocent eyes, the rainbow of hair colors, the youngster angst; it's all here and accounted for.  Like I said before, there's even a catgirl among your ranks.  

I'd say the only thing "next gen" about The Last Hope is its graphics, which are very pretty indeed.  The overworld environments are not only huge, but they look great, and most of the character models look pretty good.  This PS3 version also grants you the option of using the Japanese menu template, complete with awesome, drawn character portraits (instead of the CG ones).  There's a 2.2GB mandatory install, but throughout my play time I've encountered absolutely no technical, graphical or gameplay bugs since I started playing, save for some odd black background sometimes surrounding subtitles (if you have them on) late in the game.  The game hasn't frozen or hiccuped once though.

For the most part, audio is also another thing to look forward to.  Exclusive to the PS3 version (likely due to the extra disc space) is the ability to switch to the original Japanese voice track.  The English voices, while adequately fitting for each character, are pretty unconvincing during more emotional moments, which can hurt the game's story presentation.  So it's nice to know you can always switch back to the original actors.  The BGMs are a mix of songs that are forgettable and songs that can really get you motivated.  Each planet has its own overworld and battle themes, and so far my favorite is that of the planet Roak's, which launches into an epic orchestral score when you enter battle.

Overall, this is a very straightforward, painfully typical JRPG.  The blatantly anime-ish character designs will be grating to some, but the core gameplay formula, familiar as it is, is still quite addicting.  Hallmarks of the series like exceedingly long boss battles, an extensive craft system, and an exciting battle system all return in full force, something I can appreciate.  While it could have done with some refinement here and there, Star Ocean: The Last Hope is still a blast to play, and ultimately that's all that matters.  An 8.5/10

Trophies Rant:

...Oh and you know what else returns?  Battle trophies.  Folks, nabbing this game's Platinum trophy would be a Herculean effort.  The majority of the trophies revolve around collecting things.  Collecting battle trophies, collecting monster data, collecting item data, collecting weapon data..only a handful of the trophies are story-related and almost all of them are bronzes.  What makes this so difficult? There are 100 battle trophies per character (I think).  There are 9 characters.  That means you're looking at 900 battle trophies.  Many of these are effin ridiculous, like doing precisely 777 points of damage, or using only leg-based attacks.  And then there's the data.  Getting all the weapon data meaning talking to every person, and buying and crafting every single weapon (there's also a trophy for crafting every single freakin item possible).  There's a trophy for opening every chest, and completing every quest.  Except planets have a tendency to get HORRIBLY MASSACRED after you leave them, obliterating quest givers, and possibly treasure chests.  But I'm not done yet.  To get the platinum trophy, you will have to beat the game on Chaos mode.  Chaos mode is unlocked by beating the game on Universe mode.  Universe mode is unlocked by beating the game on Galaxy mode.  But the icing on the cake are the character ending trophies.  If my suspicions are correct, you'll have to beat the game about eight times (not including the afore mentioned difficulty modes), to try to view each character's ending sequence.  Yikes.  Trophy hunters, look elsewhere.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days

There's a lot of people, myself included, who would love to see a Kingom Hearts 3.  But while I have no doubt in my mind it will happen eventually (after FFVersus 13; you heard it here first), right now Square-Enix seems to be more focused on just expanding the plot content they've already got, with spin-offs of the two flagship PS2 games.  And so we have Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days.

In 358/2 Days, you play as Roxas, who more dedicated fans will recognize as Sora's Nobody.  The game starts right from the time Roxas is created (when Sora becomes a Heartless in KH1), runs parallel to Chain of Memories for a while, then connects right into the beginning of Kingdom Hearts 2 at the end.  Most of the story centers around Roxas's everyday life during the year Sora is asleep inbetween Chain of Memories and Kingdom Hearts 2.

Typical of a Kingdom Hearts game, 358/2 Days starts slow.  Really slow.  The plot is separated into a couple major story arcs, tied together with glimpses at the everyday life of Roxas during his time in Organization XIII.  The plot moves so slowly, in fact, that it's difficult to summarize it in an efficient manner.  Taking the Uncharted 2 approach, starting a new game gives you a look at the happy conclusion of the ~250th or so day Roxas has spent in the Organization.  Then it zips all the way back to Day 1.  One thing's for sure, however.  If you're a fan of Organization XIII, and never got to see all of its members (before now, Chain of Memories was the only game that had most or all of them), this game is a boon.  Various Organization members accompany Roxas on daily missions, allowing for lots of dialogue which gives you an extensive look into each members' personality.  Combined with Chain of Memories, it's also a veritable gold mine of backstory information, particularly that of Roxas (like where he got his second keyblade) and of course each Organization member.

While a lot of 358/2 Days is recycled content, there are some interesting new elements.  Firstly, the game, while still linear, is mission based.  You still travel to different worlds (the same ones, in fact), but instead of steadily exploring them in one sitting, you go back to them for several visits for various objectives, and their story is given to you in tidbits, as a result.  Missions come in an acceptable amount of varieties.  Unlike the rest of the members of Organization XIII (except for Xion), Roxas is able to collect hearts from defeated Heartless enemies with his Keyblade.  Thus most missions have you going out to either hunt down specific enemy types, or just collect hearts, in general.  There's also recon missions (my favorite), where you explore a certain world and try to scope out the situation by examining anything you find unusual (for example, through recon missions you slowly piece together that Beast is in fact the ruler of his castle, and that his appearance is possibly a curse).  The Organization will also regularly challenge you to complete fitness tests, which count as missions.  Only a couple of the missions handed out each day are mandatory (you can advance the plot and skip the remaining ones), but I suspect you would find yourself a little underpowered if you made a habit of only hitting up the story related missions.  You can go back and replay each completed mission with the Holo-Mission option in the pause menu.  Most missions also contain two different badges lying around.  The Ordeal badge lets you replay the mission in Challenge mode with some set restrictions (basically Hard mode) to earn Challenge Sigils, whereas the Unity badge unlocks the mission in the multiplayer mission mode.

The progression system has also undergone a drastic change.  While abilities, magic, and levels remain, they are governed by the new panel system.  Basically, you have a grid full of empty squares in which you can embed all sorts of things.  Level ups each take up one square, as does each cast of magic, each ability, and each item you bring into a mission.  Some tiles, like those that upgrade your weapon and augment basic tiles, are bigger and take up several spaces on the grid.  You start out with only a fraction of the grid open to you, but eventually you'll open the entire grid.  Even so, space is a limited commodity, so you can't just "wing it".

Conceptually speaking, the Panel system achieves a level of stat customization similar to that in Final Fantasy 12, or Custom Robo.  You can make Roxas melee focused, dedicating grid space to strength and combo enhancing tiles, as well as abilities like Block and/or Dodge Rooll.  Or, you could make him a heavy magic user, with plenty of offensive and defensive magic tiles and ethers.  Or of course, you could strike any balance between the two, with a decent combo weapon tile and a couple projectile magic tiles for versatility.  It's up to you.  You can store several custom grids, so you don't have to manually wipe the board every time you want to make a drastic role change.

But organizing your panels gets more complex than that.  As a melee attacker, will you focus on air combos?  There's a panel for that.  Attacks with a wide reach?  There's a panel for that.  Long and quick high speed ground combos? There's a panel for that.  You can only equip one weapon panel at a time, so it's important keep in mind what you're going to be up against in the next mission as you look over your panels.  If you're going to fighting enemies that are known to strike quickly, maybe you should equip the Dodge Roll ability.  If you're going to fighting a lot of airborne enemies or doing a fitness test, go for the Air Slide ability, which lets you dash in midair and cover that extra distance you may need.  Magic works the same way.  Will you equip Fire magic?  Thunder?  It should all depend on what the enemy report says as you look over an available mission

Lastly, panels' abilities can be enhanced by linking them with special tiles.  Each time you level up, you get a level up panel to throw in the grid at your leisure.  Occasionally, you'll come across a level multiplier, with which you can link several level up panels to multiply your overall stats to new heights.  The same goes for magic, ability, and weapon panels.  Certain panels linked to the Block ability tile (which let's you deflect enemy attacks), for example, can give it special qualities, like extra recoil or the ability to immediately counter-attack.  Magic tiles linked together can multiply the number of casts available to you, reducing the number of magic-restoring ethers you might need to bring.

Inbetween missions, you'll soon have access to the store, which let's you spend points earned from collecting hearts on new panels.  You can also spend sigils earned from Challenge missions for some handy freebies, and badges earned from completing Mission Mode (more on that in a bit) tasks.

Another returning features is item synthesis.  As you complete missions, you'll both collect and be rewarded with various item materials, with which you can craft panels.  It costs money (or "munny") to synthesize items, but since you don't use your cash for anything else (remember you use heart points to do real shopping), it replenishes itself quickly.  Synthesis is a way to get your hands on powerful new panels before they become available (assuming they ever will be available) in the points store.

As you complete missions, you are occasionally granted a rank promotion, which comes with lots of benefits.  Firstly, several new items become available for purchase and synthesis each time you rank up.  You can also unlock extra characters in Mission Mode with a high enough rank.

Combat in 358/2 Days is very much unchanged from most other entries in the series.  It's still very much a game about mashing the attack button to throw out attacks.  Like in the other games, there's a heavy focus on combos, especially once you get your hands on more advanced panels.  Taking out enemies in quick succession activates a Heart Chain, which multiplies the amount of heart points you get each time you take out an enemy before the chain expires. You can employ abilities like Dodge Roll, Air Slide and Block to spice things up, and more powerful weapon panels often have you press Y to extend your combo, but it's still not anything people who played KH1 or 2 haven't already seen in some variation.  The game makes minimal use of touch screen controls, only using the bottom screen to display mission information and a map.  Despite the DS having less buttons than a console controller, the game controls really well, and will be very familiar for series veterans.  You can still hold the left bumper to access custom mapped items and spells, and the X, Y, A, and B buttons do almost all the same things Triangle, Square, X, and Circle did on the Dualshock 2.

The only major addition is Limit Breaks.  About 15-20% of your life bar (just eyeballing it) is yellow.  When your HP falls into this region, you can activate your Limit Break mode for a few seconds, which lets you unleash a wild flurry of combos that do exponentially more damage per hit.  Each time you activate Limit Break, this yellow region shrinks significantly though, requiring you to take even more damage before you can activate it again.  Because of this you can typically only use Limit Break a couple times per mission (though there are panels available that increase the size of the yellow area).

Nearly all of the music, visuals, and presentation styles have been completely recycled from the console games, so there's not much innovation to be found in that department.  In fact, I suspect a lot of development time was spent finding methods to take the existing worlds and their BGMs and compress them to fit on a DS cartridge.  They obviously managed it rather well, as the game features some pretty great visuals for a DS game.  But just know that there's very little new content to be found here in terms of presentation.

358/2 Days has a very impressive amount of replay value though.  Like I said before, each and every mission can be replayed to find extra items and materials, and most of them also have a challenge counterpart that you can attempt to complete for sigils.

Speaking of replay value, let's talk about Mission Mode.  When you're not playing the main story, you can settle back for some miscellaneous missions in Mission Mode.  Missions can be completed cooperatively by up to four players via multi-cartridge multiplayer, which is an awesome bonus.  All thirteen Organization members are playable here, including Roxas, and they all have their own unique weapons, which too can be tinkered with using the panel system (though most of them still have preset base stats which make them better at some things and bad at others).  There are also a few secret characters that can be unlocked.  Completing missions earns you emblems, which you can redeem for prizes in the main story mode shop.

Overall, Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days is a great entry in the series.  While it doesn't bring much of anything new to the table, there's no denying that it gets a lot of things done right, and of course features a compelling, if poorly paced, story to keep players engaged.  The four player co-op is an excellent bonus, and one I can only hope to see in the next console entry.  An 8.5/10