Friday, November 30, 2012

Final Fantasy VII journal - entry one

I’ve known the general story of Final Fantasy VII for years now. Even the most basic search results have a tendency to spoil the game’s “huge plot twist”. And knowing how kids from my generation who grew up with anime like the original Transformers and Gundam Wing can sometimes forget how things actually were and simply look back on entertainment from their childhoods through rose-colored glasses, I was skeptical (to say the least) of Final Fantasy VII’s ability to hold up some fifteen years after its initial release. At the same time, this is one video game that I had previously never experienced – heck, the closest I’d come to indulging in the Playstation One classic was watching the Advent Children film (which left something to be desired, I might add). So while I felt it was a necessary and logical course of action to fill this void in my gaming experience, my expectations were not set particularly high.

For some inexplicable reason, I was under the impression that Cloud would be a rather quiet protagonist, allowing the other party members to convey the story (not unlike Link from Ocarina of Time, released the following year). However, Cloud is a rather talkative fellow – perhaps even more so than Lighting in FFXIII or Cecil in FFIV (the other two core Final Fantasy titles I have played that are driven by a predetermined cast of characters). And this probably has a lot to do with the fact that FFVII is, at its core, a story about Cloud. Yes, Tifa, Barret, Aeris, and company are important, but every cutscene or flashback concerning another character ends up coming back around to reveal more about Cloud.

The battle system is fantastic – considering how akin to FFIV’s it is, it may end up among my favorite battle systems in the series. The Limit Breaker ability is a nifty addition, and while Cloud, Barret, and Red XIII’s powerful attacks are nice, I find Aeris’ Healing Wind the most convenient of them all. The boss encounters thus far have not been overly imaginative, but there has been decent variation, at least. The top-down perspective with Cloud traversing pre-rendered surfaces can be a bit confusing at times, as it is not always clear whether a doorway or a ramp leads from one surface or another. There have also been a few instances where I came across spots that looked like they would lead to new areas, but found they were simply empty spaces.

Now that I have some context for characters and plot points, I have a greater appreciation for the soundtrack. Yes, it’s MIDI, but I can appreciate it – Majora’s Mask is host to one of my favorite soundtracks in any video game, and it uses the same format. The graphics look pretty good for their day, though the cutscenes are far more visually appealing than the greyscale streets of Midgar. And though I’ve only scratched the surface on the relationship shared by Cloud and Sephiroth, the development of events has been rather believable and well-paced. I actually feel a little bad for Sephiroth now that I’ve seen the first flashback detailing his mission to Nibelheim.

Both the sometimes-vulgar language used by characters and the recurring theme of death in FFVII make it pretty clear to me why this game earned a ‘T’ rating. Barret’s mannerisms are a bit excessive and his depiction is somewhat racist, to be frank. Many of the artistic and style choices, along with subplots and minor events, are typical of 1990s Japanese entertainment. Final Fantasy VII would seem overly cliché if it weren’t for the fact that it does a really good job at combining the industrial futurist city of Midgar with old world weapons and modern modes of transportation. It’s a curious approach, but also thoroughly interesting for its day. Though I can’t say it has surpassed Final Fantasy IV for me in terms of its overall quality, Final Fantasy VII is certainly playing out far better than I had anticipated.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Wii review: Kirby’s Return to Dream Land

From an artistic standpoint, Kirby’s Return to Dream Land is largely a throwback to the Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards. The worlds are all rendered in 3D with 2D backdrops, and the brief cutscenes adopt a storybook frame and filter. The gameplay, on the other hand, is largely a throwback to the SNES era, with emphasis on utilizing copy abilities one at a time. While plenty of familiar copy abilities including Cutter, Beam, and Spark make their return, there are a few new ones like Leaf, Whip, and Water – all of which feel right at home alongside their long-established counterparts.

The story of Return to Dream Land is relatively simple in scope – Magolor, an individual from another part of the galaxy, crashes his starship, the Lor Starcutter, onto Kirby’s home world of Pop Star. As most of the ship’s major pieces have been scattered across the planet, he asks Kirby and friends to track them down while he tends to his ship. Collecting main pieces like the mast and oars are required to progress the game and unlock new levels. Each region that Kirby visits – from Cookie Country to Nutty Noon – is new to Return to Dream Land, but features design elements used in previous Kirby games. There are the traditional island stages, snowy stages, and underwater stages.

The game’s best moments of creativity shine through in levels that incorporate puzzles that require Kirby to use his new super copy abilities, as well as the intense gauntlet that precede each boss fight with one of the new Sphere Doomer enemies. Upon defeating each Sphere Doomer, Kirby is rewarded with two Energy Spheres, though others can be found in the various stages he visits. Collecting enough Energy Spheres unlocks minigames and copy abilities for Kirby to grab at any given time from inside the Lor Starcutter. As with most Kirby titles that preceded it, the minigames in Return to Dream Land provide brief distraction from the main game, but are largely unrelated to it.

Though Kirby is the only playable character capable of using the copy abilities, friends can drop in or out of the game at any given time, allowing up to four players on the screen at any given time. The other playable characters include King Dedede, Meta Knight, and Waddle Dee, each of whom is granted decent range and attack via their respective hammer, sword, and spear. While the early stages are largely a cake walk, the game progressively amps up the challenge factor. Later bosses can take as much of a beating as they are capable of dishing out, and collecting each and every Energy Sphere requires quick thinking on the fly and well as precise timing.

Upon completing the main game, a bonus mode is unlocked that challenges players to revisit levels now stacked with greater trials. In this, Return to Dream Land does well to present a decent amount of replay value and substance for completionists. The main game is not terribly difficult, but later levels will quickly deplete your extra lives should you rush in without caution. There isn’t a whole lot new with regards to the gameplay, but at the same time the core Kirby games hold strong to a formula that has worked well since the series’ earliest releases. Return to Dream Land is sure to delight, whether you are a hardcore Kirby fan intent on exploring every nook and cranny of Pop Star’s latest levels, or you are simply looking to enjoy an afternoon playing cooperatively with your friends.

My rating: 9 (out of 10)

Sunday, November 25, 2012

3DS eShop review: Liberation Maiden

One hundred years in the future, the entirety of mainland Japan has been transformed into a mechanical dystopia. The humans who resist the antagonistic Dominion forces have set up an aerial base from which they plan to launch the Liberator Kamui - their flying mech suit - and take the fight to the Dominion in order to restore Japan's natural plant life. However, they need a pilot, and so they vote to determine the next president of New Japan. After all the votes have been tallied, the responsibility of being Japan's savior falls upon the shoulders of Shoko Ozora, a young woman who perfectly fits the bill of the heavily anime-inspired plot and artistic direction realized in Liberation Maiden.

The gameplay requires you to stay alert and mobile at all times. There are many enemies scattered about any given level, and they increase in both numbers and strength as the game progresses. The touch screen is used to move the lock-on cursor about the top screen, and releasing it fires missiles from the Kamui. Chaining more attacks in a single strike grants you a higher score. Should you wish to zero in on a specific area or a handful of targets, you can enter a strafing mode by simply holding down the left trigger button. Boss encounters against giant pillars take on a similar format, with Shoko and the Kamui moving left, right, up and down, but not having the ability to free-roam as in the majority of the levels leading up to these.

Enemies are nicely varied, with some tank-like vehicles having very limited range, ships having the capability to launch long-range lock-on missiles, and tall dish-shaped towers that can fire lasers. Attacking multiple targets is simple, though some are capable of taking a much greater beating than others. Should you wish to quickly dispatch all the enemies in the immediate vicinity, chaining enough kills will allot you momentary use of a projectile sword, which will impact with the ground and send out a powerful shockwave. However, when it comes to boss fights, the best strategy is still learning their behavioral patterns/weaknesses before proceeding to spam them with the Kamui's arsenal.

The soundtrack is comprised of a few techno and rock tracks that range from a grungy industrial style to exciting, upbeat, and borderline-J-pop. Graphically, the game might not be the prettiest that the 3DS has to offer, but it certainly looks the part of a traditional mecha title. Exaggerated lighting effects, weather, and environment designs do well to cultivate an atmosphere that combines traditional representation of Japan with hyper-futuristic elements. Shoko's Kamui is sleek, whereas the Dominion forces are blocky and explicitly mechanical in design. Character models are wonderfully drawn for the few brief anime cutscenes they appear in. Completing any stage unlocks it for a challenge mode, and satisfying specific requirements in-game unlocks artwork, cutscenes, and an expanded backstory to the events of Liberation Maiden. The game is short but sweet, requiring only a few hours to complete the story mode. That said, Liberation Maiden is easily one of the most original titles on the 3DS eShop to date.

My rating: 8 (out of 10)

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Top 5 No More Heroes Boss Fights

The No More Heroes series is full of phenomenal boss fights. Really, that is a large part of why the series has such an established cult-following. I love both of the games and the assassins Travis faces throughout them, but as this is a top five list, I can only include my very favorites from the lot. Let the bloodshed begin!

#5 - Margaret Moonlight: The fight against Margaret is largely a test of your ability to adjust your strategy on-the-fly. When she's at a distance, she'll hit you hard with shells from her guns. Blocking these will quickly deplete the charge of Travis' beam katana, and he will have to find some cover in order to recharge. The catch is that the surrounding environment is destructible, and Margaret will continue moving about. When Travis does manage to get close enough to land some direct hits with his beam katana, Margaret goes on the defensive, blocking strikes and then performing flips to not only dish some damage Travis' way but also to knock him back a fair distance, which will allow her to once again fire upon him.

#4 - Jeane: Though not officially ranked with the UAA, Jeane puts up one of the best fights of anyone between the two No More Heroes titles. Because a fight is exclusively what the boss encounter with Jeane is all about - she uses her endurance to kick, punch, and dodge Travis' beam katana. The fight can last a decent amount of time, due simply to the fact that her later attacks are carried out in rapid succession. Jeane knows exactly what she is getting herself into the moment she interrupts Travis' exchange with Dark Star, and is prepared to go all-out, giving Travis the fight of his life.

#3 - Holly Summers: A lethal beauty, Holly relies on explosives and the art of deception to try and best Travis. Approaching her will lead Travis to fall into a pit... time and time again. If he does not climb out quickly enough, he will get an up-close-and-personal visit from a hand grenade. When Holly loses this advantage, she launches a barrage of missiles Travis' way, forcing him to duck and roll one way or the other, and subsequently providing Holly time to either move or draw forth her shovel for close-quarters combat.

#2 - Harvey Moiseiwitsch Volodarrskii: Flashy, flamboyant - some might even say fabulous - Harvey uses his mastery of theatrics and magic to mess with both Travis and the player. He regularly performs disappearing acts, inverts both the stage and Wiimote controls, and deals some damage to Travis by trapping him inside a box. The encounter is very much unorthodox, but the quirky theatrical immersion it presents proves far more entertaining than frustrating.

#1 - Alice Twilight: There are a few fights, like those against Skelter Helter and Ryuji, that pit Travis against another beam katana-wielding foe. But both of those assassins rely rather heavily on ranged attacks - the former with his gun and the latter with his summoned dragon. Alice Twilight provides the closest thing Travis gets to a real one-on-one battle between two masters of the beam katana. Yes, there was that battle with Henry at the end of the original No More Heroes, but considering it is a post-game treat and insanely difficult, I don't feel it has the same qualifications as most other boss fights. Kimmy Howell used a dual-bladed beam katana, but she was a silly schoolgirl who thought she was stronger than she truly was.

Alice Twilight, on the other hand, knows exactly what she is getting herself into the moment Travis arrives to challenge her. She knows her strengths and weaknesses, and though she can launch her blades a short distance, she plays a mostly defensive game, hoping to lure Travis in and then dropping down to strike at him. Her arsenal is simple, but effective, and looks radical to boot.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

DS review: Pokémon Black 2 and White 2

Two years after Team Plasma was defeated and N disappeared, a new trainer sets out on his/her journey across the Unova region. Much has changed during the two year gap, as many Pokémon not native to Unova can now be found in the wild. While many of the same areas are still part of the overworld map, each includes new buildings and areas to explore, from the sewers below Castelia City to the Pokémon World Tournament in Driftveil City. A few new towns have sprung up, and are host to a couple of new gyms. At its core, Pokémon Black 2 and White 2 remain largely the same as their predecessors, but throw a few new elements into the mix that make for an experience that is overall smoother and more streamlined.

Bianca, rival and friend of the protagonist in Black/White, is now an assistant to Professor Juniper, and provides you with your starter Pokémon - Oshawott, Tepig, or Snivy. From there, the game makes the tutorial process largely optional for those already familiar with the generation five games. You can explore the immediate area around your hometown, catch a few Pokémon from past generations to round out your team, and then proceed to take on Cheren in the first gym. While the first couple of hours do run through preparatory measures, it's less that the game is hand-holding and more that it is covering all the bases for new content that has been added to these direct sequel titles.

With regards to the additional Pokémon, Game Freak and Nintendo have carefully chosen Pokémon that will further enhance the challenge while simultaneously maintaining balance. Because many of the Pokémon from generations four and prior are single-element types, battles take on a whole new dynamic from what was programmed into Black/White. The teams used by the different gym leaders are comprised primarily of generation five types, but each has at least one Pokémon from a previous generation. The gyms are more interesting, thanks to new layouts, and progressively gain more and more challengers that you must take on prior to facing the respective gym leaders. Though the challenge factor is still somewhat dependent on your choice of starter Pokémon and other team members, the gym leaders serve up better fights than in Black/White.

The Elite Four remains entirely unchanged, which is just as well, considering they are arguably one of the best incarnations of the series' signature final boss gauntlet run. The league champion battle is challenging, but is also plain fun, a welcome departure from overly tense encounters like the battle against Lance in Heart Gold/Soul Silver. Team Plasma still relies on relatively weak Pokémon to carry out their plans, but they have a greater variety at their disposal, making encounters with grunts marginally more interesting. Double battles, triple battles, and rotation battles are far more frequent than in the previous entries, and are not version-specific. A few areas require use of HMs like surf and strength, though these are only at a few key junctures and do little to interrupt the process of traveling from one locale to the next.

While Team Plasma makes a few brief encounters early on, their true plans for Unova are not revealed until after the midway point of the game. Though the protagonist does not come face to face with N until very late in the game, his presence is felt throughout as the people of Unova recall the day that Team Plasma called upon the legendary dragon Pokémon (Reshiram or Zekrom, depending on which version you are playing) as well as the hero that foiled Ghetsis' plans (the protagonist from Black/White). Though your new rival and childhood friend was never present in Black/White, his life was impacted by Team Plasma two years prior when they stole his younger sister’s Purrloin. While Black 2/White 2 break some traditional storytelling methods found in many direct sequels by putting you in control of a brand new character, the games feel very much the part of true sequels to Black/White.

There is plenty to do outside of the main game. While the light and fluffy entertainment found through dressing up your Pokémon and watching them perform in a musical has been retained and even further developed into a similar time-waster of filming movies, fans of the Battle Subway will be glad to know that too is accessible in Nimbasa City. Expanding further upon this idea is the Pokémon World Tournament, where trainers can compete in a bracket tournament against fellow trainers, gym leaders, and league champions from every region from the five generations of handheld Pokémon games. With only three Pokémon allowed at a time, planning a strategy is key, though completing the various tournaments unlocks new methods of approaching challengers – for example, a tournament against only the water-type gym leaders or only ghost-type gym leaders.

The legendary Pokémon Cobalion, Virizon, and Terrakion will challenge you directly over the course of the main game, while Zekrom/Reshiram and Kyurem are reserved for later on. Past the main game, you can also catch a shiny Haxorus and be rewarded with a shiny Dratini or Gible, depending on which version you are playing. Legendaries from the Hoenn and Sinnoh regions also make appearances, and both the reworked Black City and White Forest add to the adventure for completionists.

Nintendo and Game Freak have stuck to a strong plan with Black 2 and White 2 – if it isn’t broken, don’t try to fix it. That said, there is plenty of new content to merit full-blown sequels for the generation five games, and streamlining the process of catching Pokémon and progressing the story nixes any real need for grinding. Nearly all of the Pokémon from Black/White had practical uses, and the inclusion of Pokémon from past generations makes strategizing all the more interesting.

My rating: 8.75 (out of 10)

Friday, November 9, 2012

Xbox 360 review: Halo 4

Four years after the end of the Human-Covenant War, Cortana reawakens Master Chief on board the wreckage of the Forward Unto Dawn. A small group of former Covenant forces have boarded the ship, and as he fights his way toward the exterior hull, Master Chief discovers that the Forward Unto Dawn has been pulled into the gravitational pull of a Forerunner shield world known as Requiem. At the same time, a state-of-the-art UNSC ship name Infinity is inbound to Requiem, having picked up Cortana's distress beacon. As Master Chief races to find a way to communicate with the crew of Infinity and warn them not to land on the artificial planet, he discovers Promethean Knights, ancient soldiers used by the Forerunners, and a plot that could threaten the future of humanity.

While Master Chief encounters familiar enemies like Elites, Hunters, Jackals, and Grunts, they are largely pushovers when compared to the automated armies the Forerunners left behind. The Promethean Knights prove admirable foes when Master Chief faces them one-on-one, while Watchers provide support and Crawlers swarm and lay down repeating fire. A significant number of weapons have been removed in order to make space for the new Forerunner weapons. Each of these new weapons looks alien and controls just different enough from their UNSC and Covenant counterparts to make their inclusion worthwhile. Familiar firearms such as the Assault Rifle, Covenant Carbine, and Needler behave much like they have in recent Halo titles, while the Storm Rifle and Pulse Grenade don't have much practical use.

In keeping with the art style of Halo: Reach, Halo 4 sees inclusions of very industrialized vehicle and armor designs. Master Chief's upgraded suit retains its old sensibilities, but has a ton of new details worked into it. Character models, on the other hand, are a bit more stylized, falling closer to the realm of Halo 3 (though without the borderline-claymation textures, thanks to the Xbox 360's capabilities to run such improved graphics). There are a few pre-rendered cutscenes that look so incredibly realistic, you may have to do a double-take to confirm they aren't using live action actors ala the Forward Unto Dawn tie-in series. The design of the Forerunner world retains its roots from yesteryear, combining rich and colorful landscapes with silvery-gray geometric structures. Though it is a distinctly different style than Marty O'Donnell's work, Neil Davidge's soundtrack is at times tense, at others sweeping and mysterious, and as a whole provides a fitting follow-up to the familiar tunes of days gone by.

With regards to the online multiplayer, Halo 4 has traveled down a path similar to the Call of Duty franchise. Loadouts determine the weapons in use, with a very limited number of weapons that can be picked up on any given map. The medals earned for multi-kills and sprees in previous Halo games have been swapped out in favor of a point system that rewards in multiples of fives and tens based on kills, assists, and so on. Each level you rank up rewards you with a single Spartan Point, which can be saved up and spent on unlocking other weapons and abilities for your loadouts. Forge mode remains largely unchanged, though it is not on as grand a scale as it was in Halo: Reach. There is a decent number of maps included from the outset, with a relatively even balance of small, medium, and large spaces for appropriate playlists.

Gone is the wave escalation mode of Firefight, replaced with Spartan Ops, a series of short missions that allow a small team or a single player to fight a set number of enemies of the different difficulty settings. While 343 Industries plans to add new chapters over time, the default missions are rather small in scope. Each has you tracking down some Forerunner artifact or source of intel and fighting both Covenant and Forerunner enemies along the way. The environments are directly inspired by some of the campaign missions, and as a whole feel quite uninspired.

Though the campaign lasts only a few hours - short, even by Halo standards - the storytelling is consistently great throughout. With the threat of an ancient evil lying wait deep inside Requiem and Cortana's descent into Rampancy, Master Chief finds his hands full. This aids in bringing out some of his personality - an element that has been almost entirely untouched during his previous in-game missions against the Covenant and the Flood. Yet, for every two steps the campaign takes forward into bold new territory, the other game modes insist on stepping back one, offering up stale and uninteresting takes on a formula that did not require fixing.

My rating: 7.5 (out of 10)

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Anime review: Casshern Sins

It is common knowledge that Casshern, the strongest being in the world, killed Luna and in turn brought about a decay known as the Ruin. A world once full of life is slowly dying - humans are few and far between, while robots rust and gradually fall apart. Yet the only individual who does not seem to recall the events that led to the spread of the Ruin is Casshern himself. Confused about who he really is and whether he did what everyone claims, Casshern sets out to find Luna and set the record straight.

Along his journey, Casshern takes on a few companions. The first he encounters is Ringo, a young child whose curiosity and bright nature act as the initial spark that leads Casshern to ultimately question what it is that divides humans and robots, as well as just what he himself is. Ringo's happy attitude is a rare find in a world counting down to extinction, and her positivity stems from her relationship with Ohji, her adoptive father figure. The two intend to make their own journey, but have numerous run-ins with Casshern that become increasingly frequent as the story progresses. Also of significance is Lyuze, a robot who lost her sister to the Ruin. When she discovered Casshern was responsible for killing Luna, she set out to seek revenge. But she grows frustrated when Casshern does not respond with the violence she expects, and begins to contemplate the possibility that maybe Casshern is not as horrible as she made him out to be in her own mind.

With regards to the antagonists, Casshern faces many rogue robots that want to devour him, under the impression that doing so will grant them immortality. While Casshern is able to easily dispatch these lesser foes, two of his kin named Dio and Leda prove much more intimidating. Leda's dream is to gather all the robots she can and make an army that will bow before Dio. It is clear from the earliest of Leda's appearances that she would much rather play puppet master, leaving Dio to be the face of a new robotic empire. Dio, however, wants little more than to fight Casshern and prove he is stronger in battle.

Each of the minor characters that Casshern meets has their own individual story to tell. Sword-wielding Sophita loves to fight, and believes that combat brings out the true inner beauty of others. An artist sheds light on the history of war and conquest that built a majestic city, but now that it is abandoned, all he wishes to do is paint it over in one final and definitive color. While such characters see inclusion for a single episode each, their impact on Casshern is noticeable, and their stories play out well. What proves perhaps most interesting through their exchanges is the way in which robots behave very human in nature - or at the very least, behave in a manner aligned with their understanding of what it is to be human.

The world that Casshern and company travel across is equal parts haunting and beautiful. Watercolors decorate key locations in an otherwise grey and desolate realm, while environments are host to empty towering structures and natural formations that are borderline-alien in appearance. Character designs appear as a sort of combination between comic book styling and tick traditional Japanese brush strokes. The soundtrack follows a similar formula, with soft vocals accompanying string pieces. All of this makes for one of the most strikingly original - as well as one of the most gorgeous - visions of a post-apocalyptic world realized in contemporary media.

Casshern Sins is a rare gem among reboots and reimaginings. Casshern's constant internal struggle is fueled by each and every interaction he makes, and though there is a constantly looming cloud of uncertainty regarding the future, the writers make the endgame clear from the outset of Casshern's journey. The storytelling is gritty at times, while it also teeters into the realms of existentialism and philosophy. Casshern Sins constructs a world through a magnificent blend of fantasy and science fiction, and manages to throw a few plot twists along the way that flow very well with the overall direction and pacing of the series.

My rating: 9.25 (out of 10)
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