Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Xenoblade Chronicles

It’s taken a while, about 95 hours on the games clock, but I’ve finally managed to beat Xenoblade Chronicles for the Wii and can safely say that other than Dark Souls it is far and away the best RPG of this console generation for me. Created by Monolith Soft and directed by Tetsuya Takahashi I was initially apprehensive about this game. Monolith Soft’s and Tetsuya Takahashi’s previous games included Xenogears and the Xenosaga series, games that I have a love/hate relationship with. I admired their ambition but some of the existential meandering and lack of clear focus in the gameplay or story meant that I never really enjoyed playing them all that much. Xenoblade dials things back to be a much more focused game and is all the better for it.

Xenoblade has one of the most original settings in any game. In the past two gigantic titans fought each other, the Bionis and the Mechonis. This fight ended as both Titans struck simultaneous death blows against each other and have remained locked in position since. The game takes place on the corpses of these Titans. Exploring Xenoblade's world is one of the most intriguing aspects of the game. Each area represents a part of the Bionis and each one is absolutely immense. The sheer scale of the environments is as breathtaking as the vistas you will stumble across. This game is absolutely gorgeous and I’m amazed that these environments are rendered with only very minimal pop up. Although there are some issues with textures looking very low res up close the art design more than makes up for it. It’s one of the best looking games this generation, going to show just far good art direction can go.

Stepping on to the Bionis knee and seeing the Mechonis in the distance is just one of the games 'Wow' moments

The story I found engaging. While starting off as simply a tale of revenge it quickly develops into something a lot more complex. It’s not totally devoid of the existential pondering of previous ‘Xeno’ games but what is there is told in moderation and never strays into the completely ridiculous, which was my problem with the ‘Xeno’ games. The cast of characters that journey with Shulk are excellent, all are memorable and likeable. It completely avoids the traditional cliché JRPG archetypes. For example the main character Shulk can see glimpses of the future due to his sword the Monado, a major plot point in the game. He can see the deaths of others but can’t always prevent these deaths occurring. In a lesser JRPG this would lead to some sort of over the top character breakdown. Shulk however is quite mature and accepts this, never spending overly long contemplating it. It’s refreshing to have a cast react in such a believable manner since it makes them a lot more relatable. A special mention should also go to the brilliant bunch of bad guys who are always entertaining when they showed up. These excellent characters are complimented by a wonderful British cast that provides some excellent voice acting work.

The battle system is probably the best I’ve played since Persona 4. Battles take place in real time and are heavily influenced by MMO games. Your characters will attack automatically when engaged with an enemy. It all seems very like FFXII which I found boring but there’s one big difference. While I found FFXII played itself once gambits were set up (I literally beat the game one handed since it was the only game I could play with a broken wrist at the time) there’s an awful lot of strategy involved in Xenoblade. Positioning and status effects play a big role. Shulk’s visions of the future also play a big role, allowing you to see upcoming enemy attacks and allowing you to interrupt or counter them. There’s a whole heap of other subsystems at play that I don’t want to bore you with but suffice to say that the battle system is complex but always enjoyable.

Xenoblade is a huge game and the 95 hours I spent on it were really only scratching the surface. There’s a massive amount of sidequests to complete, a little too much if you ask me. If you are playing the game just to see the story like I was you can just take as many of the sidequests as you can. You’ll end up completing most of them just wandering about exploring the gorgeous landscapes and will allow you to level quicker. I heard some people complaining about having to grind for some bosses in the game but I never had a problem and as long as you take your time exploring you shouldn’t either. It’s a long game but the ending is hugely satisfying. The soundtrack as well is probably the best videogame soundtrack since Nier. Coming out at the tail end of the Wii’s life when the system is all but dead means that Xenoblade probably won’t get the sales it deserves. If you own a Wii and like RPGs you really have to experience this wonderful game.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Phantasy Star 2

 Phantasy Star 2 takes place 1000 years after the events of the first game. You play as Rolf who has been having a recurring dream about a girl, who resembles Alis from the first game, fighting a demon.  Rolf is a member of the security forces of the planet Mota. What fans of the first game will immediately notice is that the lush greenery and biodomes are a far cry from the desert planet Motavia of the first game. The environment and every facet of life of the three planets in the Algol system are now controlled and regulated by a computer known as Mother Brain. Nobody knows who created Mother Brain or even where it’s located but they are happy to let it control life in the Algol system as long as they can live a care free life without having to worry about trivial matters like having a job. However the paradise created by Mother Brain has started to unravel. A ban has been placed on interplanetary travel. Also the climate control and bio factories of Mota are malfunctioning causing a drought and leading to the creation of dangerous bio monsters. It is Rolf’s job to investigate what is causing these problems. He is joined by his companion Nei, a half human, half biomonster female that he befriended.

Phantasy Star 2 debuted on the Megadrive in 1989 in Japan and during 1990 in the West, making it probably the first RPG on a 16-bit system. In fact it was released a few months before the original Final Fantasy in the US. While now it might seem a bit archaic, at the time it was quite far ahead of its time in many regards. In terms of narrative it was far ahead of anything else at the time to my knowledge. The story seems quite simplistic but holds some hidden depths. The people of Algol relying so heavily on Mother Brain have become quite weak, one NPC even asks ‘why should I work?’. The game also features what is probably the first death of a playable character in a RPG, almost a decade before FFVII’s more famous example. What most impressed me however was the superb twist and ending.  It was quite unexpected and for a game of its era and very brave of the developers. I won’t spoil it but will say it was definitely worth playing through to experience it.

The use of static anime cutscenes was another innovation

If you do want to experience that ending though be warned; Phantasy Star 2 is a frighteningly tough game, possibly the toughest RPG to ever come out of Japan. Just like its predecessor, right from the start of the game you are in danger of being overcome by even the simplest random encounter. You have to grind like crazy to gain enough experience and money to equip yourself and be at a level where you can tackle each dungeon. The amount of grinding required can be painful but it was expected from RPGs at the time. The game is more influenced by western RPGs like Wizardry than the more accessible Dragon Quest type RPG.

The battle system is quite simple but elegantly designed. There’s not much to it other than attacking and healing. Spells are a valuable commodity and are usually saved for deadlier encounters. Most of the challenge comes from the resource management required to survive a trek into the games huge and confusing dungeons. The game operates on an auto battle system whereby your characters will keep attacking unless you choose to interrupt and give the characters an alternative strategy. This makes for an extremely quick battle system that gives the player plenty of control while making fights with less challenging enemies relatively painless.

One thing I really love about this game is how you acquire new allies. While other games have you seeking out new allies on your travels, in Phantasy Star 2 your allies will seek you out. Every so often when you come to a new town or dungeon if you return to your starting home you will meet a new ally that has heard of your exploits and has come seeking you out. There are eight characters to choose from, each with different skills, strengths and weaknesses. There’s a doctor who is good at healing, two characters that are good at either killing robots or bio monster enemies, a thief who can steal items from shops and a hunter who can attack multiple enemies at once. Some characters are more useful than others at different points of the game, for instance there are times when the bio monster specialist becomes useless when killer robots are sent after you, so careful choice of what characters you use is very important. Having characters with different specialities might sound standard for an RPG but at the time it was pretty revolutionary. Even having a choice of which characters to take in your party was unusual at the time. Most other RPGS of the era let you create your own characters or allowed very limited or even no specialisation after the characters role was chosen. Phantasy Star 2 had a lot more depth to the battle system than any RPG at the time despite seeming quite simplistic today.

The party lost in another confusing dungeon

Now for the bad stuff unfortunately and this game has quite a few issues other than being so grind heavy. In ways I feel that the game is actually worse looking than its predecessor on the lowly master system. While the enemies and attack animations during battles are fantastically animated and look much better than the static enemies of even the later SNES Final Fantasy the same background is used during each battle as opposed to the backgrounds changing depending on your location in the original Phantasy Star. Also the gorgeous first person dungeons of the original are replaced by dungeons with a top down view exactly like the world map and are much less visually appealing. I’m not finished with the dungeons however because whoever designed them is an absolute sadist. Each one is a huge sprawling mess of multiple floors and elevators. You can quickly become disorientated in them and it’s not helped by the use of a limited set of tiles in each dungeon making different areas seem very similar. The layouts are so confusing that the game came packaged with a players guide featuring maps of all the dungeons in the game and if you plan on finishing this game I suggest you use them or a walkthrough. Google the maps if you are interested in seeing just how convoluted they are. The original Phantasy Star had some complex dungeons but at least you could map them out using graph paper due to the first person view it used.

One last thing is the ‘bunny’ enemies you encounter later on. They sound cute but are in fact zombie bunnies that have animations of their intestines falling out and them putting them back in their stomachs. Even more terrifying is that they attack with their intestines. Bunnies should be cute Sega!

These guys are just... horrible!

 Phantasy Star 2 was a very interesting experience. It was equal parts fascinating to see just how far ahead of its time it was. However it was also equal parts infuriating when the game reminded you of its archaic ways when you got lost in yet another confusing dungeon or realised you have an hour of thankless grinding ahead of you just so you could afford the latest equipment needed to stand a chance in the next dungeon. I do believe it was a worthwhile experience and the cracking ending was reward enough. I do however plan on not playing this game ever again! One final tip for anyone wanting to take the plunge; once you get the thief character find out how to steal the viziphone item.  It allows you to save anywhere, and trust me, you will need it.

Later Aces!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Retro Game Challenge

I’m a huge fan of GameCenter CX. Fuji Television’s show about one middle aged comedian trying to beat old videogames is far and away the best TV show ever made about videogames and if you haven’t discovered it yet then I suggest you search for the fan translated episodes on Youtube. Retro Game Challenge is the first of two games based on the TV show and localised for the US by XSeed games. It also happens to be one of the best DS games available.

GameCenter CX, the TV show, celebrates the old 8, 16 and 32-bit glory days of gaming and revels in nostalgia. It’s fitting then that Retro Game Challenge is a love letter to the Famicom era of videogames in Japan. The story is that you have been sent back in time and turned into a child by Arino, the presenter of GameCenter CX, and must complete retro game challenges before you can return. A great excuse then to play through some excellent 8-bit styled games.

Ninja Haggleman in action with the bottom screen to show how the game is presented

Presentation is top-notch in this game. The bottom screen is taken up by two children, one represents you and the other representing Arino as a child, sitting in front of the TV and games console. The console is never named as a Famicom but it’s pretty obvious what it represents. From here you can talk to Arino or select games and read their manuals. Every game has a stylised pixelated retro look to make it seem like it was originally released on the 8-bit Famicom. Sprites only have 3 colours and the colour palette is limited. One of the most impressive features is the magazine collection you acquire throughout the game. These feature tips, videogame charts and previews of upcoming games. They are written with a very amateurish and enthusiastic way that is perfectly fitting for a newsletter or magazine from that era.

If you like your Hudson Soft shooters, you'll love Star Prince

New games are released to the player once challenges in the previous game are completed. One of my favourite little details about the game is how each game represents a different era of the NES/Famicom. The games become more complex and elaborate as the months and years role on.  The first game ‘Cosmic Gate’ is a fantastic galaga clone, while later ‘Haggleman’ represents the platformers heyday after the release of Super Mario Brothers. The last two games are Guadia Quest, an RPG very much in the 8-bit Dragon Quest/Final Fantasy mould and Haggleman 3, which feels like the exploration focused  platform games from the end of the Famicoms life such as Adventure Island 4, Bionic Commando or Clash at Demonhead.

The highlight of the package is definitely Guadia Quest, an excellent and sizable RPG

There are 8 games in total although two of them are rehashes of other games, namely Haggleman 2 and Rally King SP. What is remarkable is that each game would have been considered a minor or major classic if released in the 1980’s on the Famicom. Cosmic gate is a superior Galaga clone. Haggleman and its sequel are fun if simplistic plaformers. Rally King is the weakest game in the bunch but still a great game that reminds me of Neo Driftout on the Neo Geo. Star Prince is a superb vertical shmup that plays very like the classic Hudson Soft games on the Famicom and PC Engine. Guadia Quest is the highlight of the package and is a brilliant 15-20 hour 8-bit RPG. Last is Haggleman 3 and my only complaint about this game is that it’s only 4 stages long. It’s a great mix of Ninja Gaiden with light exploration elements.

Ninja Haggleman 3 is exellent if a little short

There’s so much game packed into this cartridge that it’s an absolute bargain. Even outside of the games there’s a whole heap of charm and humour. The magazines and manuals are fun to read and if you don’t like or have trouble with some games there’s cheats to be found in these magazines that can help you complete any of them. If you are a fan of GameCenter CX there are some very humourous lines from the young Arino especially when he comments about his gaming prowess when he gets older. The only disappointment is that there was a second GameCenter CX game that isn’t getting localised so I have to wait for a fan translation before I can enjoy it.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Arcade and Retro Podcast Episode 10 : Tomb Raiding

Myself, Gavin and Sarah this time sit down to discuss the Tomb Raider series of games and have an argument about which game featured Lara's mansion first, after which I had to eat some humble pie :)


Thursday, May 3, 2012

Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon

So I’ve taken a break from Xenoblade and decided to give Fragile Dreams a go since it has really interested me for a long time.  And while not without its flaws, I found Fragile Dreams to be a worthwhile and quite moving experience.

Fragile Dreams takes place in a post apocalyptic Japan. You play as a young boy named Seto who has lived in an abandoned observatory with an old man who has cared for him. It’s all he has ever known.  However when the old man dies Seto sets off into the world to try and find any survivors, the only clue he has is a note the old man left mentioning a red tower in the distance where survivors might be.

Fragile Dreams is a game about loneliness and how we all need and strive for human contact. The game absolutely nails this. The run down and empty environments you explore with only a flashlight to light the way are beautiful in their own decayed and lonely way. From abandoned subways to rundown fairgrounds, they all feel lived in and it’s unsettling now that they are all empty.  These areas are adorned with graffiti, each a unique piece of art and I found myself stopping to take in these remnants of people long dead. All that is left are the ghosts and memories of the people that once lived here and these provide some of the games strongest narrative. You will pick up items along the way that held significance to someone long departed and when you rest at a fire you can hear the story of these people, mostly about how they spent their final hours knowing that an event was coming that would wipe out the human population. It’s similar to how the short stories in Lost Odyssey are told and although not as well written they are still very moving. It’s quite a depressing game but Seto’s hope and optimism keep the game from becoming too bleak.

Sai is a ghost you meet later on and is definitely the standout. I really love her art design.
As an experience Fragile Dreams excels but as a game it falls short. In ways I feel that just like with Rule of Rose, Fragile Dreams would have been a better game if it dropped the combat. The enemies, or malicious spirits, aren’t that troublesome to fight but neither does the combat offer anything interesting. It gets a bit repetitive and downright frustrating against some flying enemies. The game also features weapon degradation so after a fight your weapon can randomly break, leaving you vulnerable until you get to the next bonfire. You would think that you could carry multiple weapons to counter this but inventory space is so limited that you can usually only afford to carry a single weapon. Remember, a lack of inventory space may lead to having to leave behind an item that gives you one of the games short stories, something you really don’t want to miss out on.  These don’t kill the game but are minor annoyances.

 If you think you can look past this games minor flaws then I highly recommend anyone with a Wii to experience this game, there really is nothing else like it. The art design throughout is fantastic, you can really get lost in the world the game creates and the attention to detail the artists have paid it. I never even mentioned the soundtrack which is outstanding throughout. It's one of the few games that really plays to the Wii's strengths with some well thought out use of the Wiimote speaker and a lack of waggle controls. You might be disappointed with the slightly cliché motivations of an antagonist introduced later on but I’m sure that equally you’ll still fell on the whole that the game was a more than worthy experience. Here's a trailer with some of the games beautiful soundtrack to lead out on: