Let’s Talk – Blue Reflection – Heart To Heart

This is one of those games that, at a glance, attracted me. I’m not sure why. Nothing about it seemed spectacular, and after playing through it, there still isn’t much note-worthy to say about that. So why then, did I choose to play this over something a little more major such as Fire Emblem: Echoes Of Valencia, Ys VIII (which I’m still playing through at the time of this writing.) and the like?

The answer is, even I’m not sure.

Let’s get started with the surface look. Blue Reflection is a semi-Persona-esque game, but instead of a teenaged male invoking mythical demons and deities from your inner self, you’re a teenaged girl that gains mystical powers after delving into another world based on human emotions.

Persona with magical girls. That’s a sentence I’d never thought I’d say or write. But here we are.

Graphically speaking, everything looks great. Environments and characters are rendered nicely, there’s a realistic type of physics to movement (more or less. Some outliers may apply), and never once did I think that something could be better placed at one area, or that something didn’t fit.

… That’s about where that ends, though. This game had very limited production value, and it shows. While environments are nice to look, physically speaking, there isn’t much to cover or do in them. Lighting is a little weird in some instances (namely where sun is shining directly on characters in cutscenes, or when in the Fear zone in The Common), and the animations…

The animations are where it really shows. Most of the time, they come off stilted and have no fluidity or transitions. Even facial expressions on occasion, make me want to go “Damnit, FEEL!” at Hinako. This is one of the places where the game suffered the most, and it’s a shame.

The second downpoint is the overall plot. It plays completely straight with little to no mystery outside of the Citrus Sisters themslves. Even when you get your answers near the end of the game, you don’t care. Not about the grand scheme of things at any rate. This is where I think the game shows it’s Persona/Atelier side the most. You don’t care about the plot or story, you care more about the characters. You want to see these people have a happier ending and more importantly, by the end, you want everything to work out for Hinako.

Because in this game, the main story is a means to an end. It’s focused around Hinako and the friends she ends up making during the course of it and how they, ultimately, help make her a slight bit happier with her circumstances in life. Which is unfortunately where the lack of animation variation and smoothness sells it all a bit short, along with the occasional flubbing of double/triple checking on the translation. It’s not Megaman X6 levels of terrigood, but Koei Tecmo sort of dropped the ball here.

To give credit where due, this game tugged my emotions a fair bit. That’s not something games typically do to me. To also give credit, I thought the actual story was paced pretty well up until the final parts anyway. It’s structured as though I would be playing an actual episode from an anime, which I think worked in the game’s favor a bit.

The final downpoint is the gameplay:

Repititive.

That one word summed it all up.

Each mission in the game either revolves around you killing enemies or picking up items in The Common. It does not change at all throughout the entire game. On occasion, you’ll have crafting missions that have you making a couple items and showing them to a person, but that’s all the flavor you’re going to get from this gameplay: Kill, Gather, Craft, Repeat.

Which would be fine in a MMO type of setting. Not in a game revolving around magical girls and their school life.

And the other thing I should mention: Combat, unless forced, is optional.
There’s no experience or money to gain from fights. Your “growth” levels are tied solely to story progression, and hanging out with your friends.
Which is something I’d wish they add into the Persona series to make them more of a means to an end rather than mere Fusion boosting, but, well, baby steps.

However, because ultimately 90% of all fights are optional, it can make combat feel more like a chore than an experience. Not a good feeling to have in a RPG of all things, but on the flip side, there is basically no grinding for levels in the game. The other downside to that is that encounters also aren’t very interesting and devolve to the same strategies over and over again. When the most challenging thing in the game is an optional boss, mainly for reasons beyond your control, there’s something slightly wrong with your design.

Though this does let me go back into what I thought were good things about the game. The battle system is one of the best things I’ve seen. It’s an evolution from Atelier Iris 2’s system to the extreme; you have an extensive Timeline (which acts as a not-ATB gauge), your party on one side, the enemy on the other. Each attack and ability has different waits to it, and it’s your goal to figure out how to best destroy the things in front of you without letting them getting too many attacks in. There’s a lot of option available in here for something that ultimately doesn’t matter, which impresses me. If only I could do something more with it! It gets even better when the game adds in things to do between turns to minimize your actual downtime. It’s an incredible system that I certainly want to see come back in some form or another.

Finally, the music tracks in the game. Most of them are more quiet tracks, which are either peaceful or melodramtic. They are very Atelier-ish, not only in composition, but also in the fact that unless you’re specifically trying to listen to them, they are more or less just background and not overly intrusive. The title screen music is very relaxing, however, and I would recommend tracks such as At The Speed Of Calm and A Destiny Called My Own for your daily listening needs. This game loves the piano about as much as I Am Setsuna does, and I love it for it.

And then you get into a battle and the game blasts the most upbeat and energetic piece to snap you out of that lazy relaxation. OVERDOSE (literally. It’s literally named this) probably claimed a list in my “current” top battle themes by force. I may have- *cough*- overlistened to it by a fair bit.
… Listening to the title theme (simply called BLUE REFLECTION) is making me want to cry again. I better wrap this up.

Ultimately, this game gave me a similiar longing after finishing it that Fairy Fencer F did. There is good and bad, which leveled it out to be a pretty average experience, but there is so much missed potential, so much that could have been done, that it sort of hurts. And while I was a little more fulfilled with this game than with Fairy Fencer, this is also the type of game that most likely will not see a sequel of any calibur, so there’s not much chance of seeing improvements to this. But should the case ever present itself:

Add more variety to the mission structure, spruce up the animation quality a fair bit, place in a bit more to do in the gameplay fields, bring up the main plot a notch. And for fluff’s sake, invest in some English voice acting.

Blue Reflection is the case of a game where, for where it’s strong in, it shines, and for where it stumbles, it’s very noticable. I like it well enough where I would recommend that someone at least give it one playthrough, but it’s an incredibly hard sell at sixty dollars for what it ultimately a 30-40 hour experience. It doesn’t overstay it’s welcome compared to most other RPGs in recent times, but it’s also a case of where being left to want more can be considered a bad thing.

If you are so interested, you can grab the game on Playstation 4, the Vita or off Steam. Again, incredibly hard to sell this at $60 for what all it offers, so perhaps wait until around $40 or so…
But until the next time I write something, the Citrus Sisters and I wish you farewell.

BlueReflection8

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Trails of Cold Steel: An Exercise In Tedium

I began my journey into Trails of Cold Steel with high expectations. Lauded by many as one of the strongest JRPG’s on the PS3, I was expecting a grand adventure packed with exciting combat. There was no way this tale of political intrigue and self-discovery could leave me wanting, right?

Right?

The truth is, Trails of Cold Steel is all right. The game does many things that other JRPG’s would never do, like, for example, basing the entire story inside a single nation and primarily focusing on the politics of said nation, with minimal fantasy elements. It is, in many regards, what I had wished Tales of Graces was.

Unfortunately, this story is bogged down with so much backstory and unique terms that it becomes necessary to explain it all to the player for them to even start to comprehend what’s going on. Cutscenes last forever, not because something interesting is happening, but because each new locale or person of interest requires five or ten minutes of dialogue to explain why they’re relevant. And this happens multiple times a chapter, leading to long periods of just watching cutscenes. The only game I can think of that outdoes it in this regard is Xenosaga.

A large part of what slows the story down is the high school setting. The game wants to be Persona and also Tales, to have a central hub area but also feel like a grand adventure for the characters. So you spend half of your time running around Trista and Thors Academy, with the only combat area being an old schoolhouse that doesn’t begin being interesting to the story until the final chapter of the game. The rest is doing menial tasks for people around the school and town. The game would have been much better had it cut the time you spend at Thors in half.

So the game is essentially divided into two parts, a very long and tiring John Hughes film and the actual gameplay. So if most of the movie is boring (we’ll come back to this later), how is the gameplay? Well, it’s… not fun, really.

You can’t say there’s any dissonance between the story and the gameplay because they both drag on for eternity. Enemies appear on the field, and interacting with them sends you to a separate battle screen, a la Star Ocean or Tales. But once you get to that battle screen, you might notice something weird: the combat in general. It plays like a blend between a strategy and an action game, but turn-based. You move your party around the field (or you’re supposed to) and position them to deal the most damage you can to as many enemies as you can. The problems with this are abundant. First of all, there’s a bonus experience system which rewards you for murdering lots of enemies, murdering them quickly, and for murdering them more than they needed to be murdered. So what you’ll really end up doing every battle in order to maximize experience is using your strongest area attacks from the default positions of your characters (which can be arranged within a 4×4 grid within the field menu, but ultimately doesn’t change much) until everything is dead. So you’ll find yourself sticking to fast-acting characters with more brute force attacks, and just using the same one or 2 abilities each turn.

The problem with this is also tied to the story itself. Each chapter is used to send the characters on field studies, splitting the team in half and relegating character usage to only those characters in Rean’s study group. This wouldn’t be such a bad idea, if at some point you actually got to choose who Rean went on field studies with, but you don’t. Even up to Chapter 6 (which is the final field study chapter), the game is deciding who gets to join Rean for you. So sometimes you’ll have to go through entire chapters without any of the characters you actually enjoy using. The only saving grace here is that I can’t recall any chapters that forced both Elliot and Emma into your team, as having two characters designed around spellcasting would have been exhausting.

Spellcasting deserves special mention here. I honestly went through 90% of the game using it as little as possible because of how long it takes. Spells take up two turns, one to begin the casting and the other to actually cast. Now, if they were spaced out normally, this might not be so bad, but spells have “delays” on them which can make the casting time much longer, which is especially noticeable on the higher tier spells (i.e. the ones you’re actually going to care about using). It wasn’t until I got an instant-cast spell called Chrono Burst, which allows you to take two turns without any delay, that I started to use spells more actively, as it allowed instant-casting of these higher tier spells. Before then, it was more worth it to me to just have characters like Elliot use their support abilities and then do regular attacks.

These characters are, however, the main reason to play the game. As boring as the story could be, I was invested in the game because of how these characters were affected by it. It’s heartwarming to see them grow together and develop friendships in a (somewhat) realistic manner. The only one I had any real problem with was Emma, who had hardly any development and was mostly just used to tease an endgame plot twist. She’s mysterious, and the mystery will keep you intrigued… until chapter 5, when said mystery enters the limelight, but by the end is still unexplained. After that, it’s just tedious dealing with, and actively detracts from her character. I understand why they did it, but I don’t agree with that, either.

That reason is that this game is not complete. It was never intended to be a complete experience, in fact. Trails of Cold Steel exists to set up Trails of Cold Steel 2, and that’s it. The game itself is aware of this, introducing a whole new gameplay style during the final boss, of all things, as well having the last hour of the game be the climax that leads into Cold Steel 2.

Now, all of this would have made for a mediocre RPG experience. On its own, Trails of Cold Steel is nothing special. However, there are technical limitations that drag it down even further. First of all, because the game was developed simultaneously for both the Playstation 3 and Vita, corners were cut in multiple places. Voice acting will start and stop throughout cutscenes, with the main character Rean having almost no speaking lines in the high school scenes (about half of the game). About half the nation of Erebonia is never shown, including one half of the capital city you visit midway through the game, because they couldn’t fit it onto a Vita card. Roads exist that connect the various towns with each other, but you’re not allowed to use them, with the flimsy explanation being that the party’s field studies aren’t allowed to take them beyond a certain point.

Worse than this, however, is the strain Trails of Cold Steel puts on the Playstation. Crashes were so frequent and so regular that I began to think there was a problem with my Playstation 3 (after playing other games without any crashes at all, this is not the case). And ultimately, one crash in the final hour of the game forced a system format, wiping my Playstation of all saves, including the 74 hours I’d put into this draining mess of a game. It’s unlikely I’ll ever pick it up again, at least not by myself. It was a depressing end to my experience, but also, I think, a fitting one.

Ultimately, I cannot recommend Trails of Cold Steel. There is a diamond buried in here, for sure, but it’s obscured by mounds of garbage. It’s a tedious game, filled with busywork to display an illusion of activity. It’s an RPG without the sense of adventure that the genre is built upon. The development itself is shoddy. I desperately wanted to like Trails of Cold Steel, but it constantly lowered my expectations.

4/10

Format: Playstation 3

Developer: Nihon Falcom

Publisher: Xseed Games

Let’s Talk – Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist And The Mysterious Book – A Novel Experience

So as my adventures through the Atelier series continue, and while I wait for the many games that are coming out this September that I’m going to play (Help me), I turn my thoughts towards the game before Firis’ mysterious adventures in the great unknowns, and that is the story of how Sophie Neuenmuller got to be the alchemist that she is.

Though if you’re not familiar with her from either game, I should probably discuss Sophie first…Atelier Sophie ~The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book~_20170730115318

She is a lovable and adorable goof that makes me smile in almost every scene she’s in. Considering that she’s the protagonist of our little show, and thus is in every scene, that’s quite a lot of time spent enoying the various antics and dialogue. She’s also voiced by Christine Marie Cabanos, who does the English voice work for Nepgear from the Neptunia games, another series that I love to pieces. The performance doesn’t tonally change between the two characters, but it also fits both of them quite well considering their… quirks.

Positive attitude and bravado only get a girl so far though. When the game starts off, she’s barely able to make simple medicines to help her friends out. It is only by complete happenstance that she wrote down the recipe into a blank reference index, animating it into the titular “Mysterious Book”. After the initial shock of holding a conversation with a book, it introduces itself as Plachta, and agrees to instruct Sophie on how to become a better alchemist, provided that Sophie fills out the index to help restore Plachta’s memories.

Before I get into that though, I just want to talk about Kirchen Bell for a little bit. Most Atelier games typically give you one town that works as a sort of base of operations. Sophie’s hometown of Kirchen Bell fills that role for this game… and it’s such a quaint little city in the middle of nowhere (far as I can tell). There’s a lot of little dialogue events that come up throughout the game as you talk to everyone in town. Not just your party members, but even the shopkeepers, the barkeep, and the resident church nun all have a bunch of little things that come up that make me want to know “What happens next?” And I think that’s the real driving force behind why I play this particular game. Not so much for the lost alchemical secrets or fighting dangerous enemies. I just want to know these townspeople better. And for a series that typically has about as much focus on inter-character relationships as a Persona game, this is a pretty big deal. Incindental flirting notwithstanding.Atelier Sophie ~The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book~_20170730121858

Alchemy in this game is like others in the series: Take a bunch of things, mix them around a bit, and out comes something different. If you think that’s a oversimplification of the process, you’re right.

This game sets the groundwork for the Mysterious series’ alchemy, which makes it more of a puzzle than anything. Your selected materials take up spaces in the grid, which you aline (or overwrite) them to try to get the best effect results. Sophie has two advantages over Firis in this respect though.

One: As you place materials, surrounding panels light up. These will add bonus points to the effect of the material placed in them. Panels can light up a maximum of three times for the greatest power, and figuring out how to best place your materials to get the most of these bonuses adds a level of challenge that isn’t really in Firis’ system.

Two: Sophie will find various cauldrons aside from the one she starts with throughout the game. These cauldrons have various effects on the synthesis process, such as changing the colors of bonus panels to giving you a time limit while increasing your quality gains. You can even re-synthesize these cauldrons to increase your maximum grid space, increasing the starting number of bonus panels, or add in flip and rotate effects. Messing around with the various cauldrons to find what works best for you adds just a little more to the alchemy in this game.

In short, I have a bit more fun with this game’s system over Firis’. Even if the latter is a little more streamlined and easier to work with.Atelier Sophie ~The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book~_20170822111326

(My personal favorite is the Tuning Cauldron.)

One thing I can definitely say that drags down the whole experience a bit is the Recipe Book. Not that I have a problem with the concept, in that respect, it’s very Atelier-ish. However, only certain recipes are given hints at a time, and once you figure those out, surrounding recipes get hints. It starts off easy to figure out at first, but as you get into the higher tiers, you’ll have to take random guesses at figuring out a location that you’re supposed to observe, or find a particular enemy to use a particular skill and witness. One of these is basically going until your LP hits 0, but by the time you unlock that tier, running out of LP is something you have to force. Some recipes are locked behind events as well, and while those are harder to miss, it can still leave spaces in the book for a little bit. There’s no way to force inspiration on any of these either, so for the most part, you’re hoping that you strike proverbial gold on some of the harder ones.

“Alchemy” and “Danger” are pretty synonymous in this series. Gathering materials out in the fields you go to raises a meter on your minimap that goes up to five lights. The more lights that are lit up, the better quality of materials you can find, but the monsters also become stronger and harder to deal with. That’s where the battle system comes into play… and it’s a little weird to deal with at first.

Unlike 90% of other RPGs where you decide actions on a character-by-character basis, you’re deciding actions on a turn-by-turn basis, where you place your commands all at once, and the battle flow dictates when they’ll go off. It gave me Eternal Punishment vibes at first.

Everyone has an Attack, Defend, Skill, Item and Run command. Everyone in this game can equip up to five alchemy items, everyone except Sophie has a limit on what items they can equip, in terms of type and cost (An item’s cost is equal to it’s Alchemy level). Not necessarily my favorite means of handling the alchemy items, but it’s better than, say, only the alchemist can ever use these items and therefore makes them the most important person in the party ever.Atelier Sophie ~The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book~_20170816233556

On top of the basic stuff, there’s also two stances you can select for your party members, Offensive and Defensive. These tie into the Support system, which lets the characters follow-up on attacks or cover others for reduced damage. Taking actions builds up the Chain Link gauge, which determines when and how you can Support, and as you go through the game, Supports get expanded onto enable Chain Supports and even unleashing ultimate skills as you take actions in a particular stance for multiple characters in a row. Once you get that far, it’s a really powerful system on par with the actual alchemy items you can toss out, which is pretty crazy to me, but hey, it’s nice to have options.

Another oddity about this game is it has one of the lowest level caps I’ve seen since the NES/SNES days; 20. You cap out at 20.

That sounds low, but the game gives you some advantages to work with this.

First off being the Advancement system, returning from Shallie, that comes into play once you hit 20. Afterward, battles reward you Advancement Experience which will give you a point everytime you reach a threshold. Said points can be redeemed for stat upgrades, all new passives, and even skill improvements that add new effects. These can really help out in toughening up your characters at a base level for handling some of the bigger threats you can encounter throughout the game.Atelier Sophie ~The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book~_20170816220705

The second and arguably most important is Forging and especially Enhancing equipment. As you talk with the local blacksmith and tailor, they will eventually offer to both create new weapons and armor for you, and enhance existing ones on you. Forging is a pretty simple process: You bring materials, they’ll make things for you. Better stuff becomes available as you discover better materials for Forging. Forging also serves as a way to decide what traits a weapon or armor has. So if you ever wanted to half your skills’ MP costs while also increasing their power by 50% at the same time, you can do that.

What’s really going to make or break your battle experience is proper Enhancement of your already made weapons and armor. Enhancement lets you take a material (metal ingots for weapons, rolls of cloth for armor) and use it to reinforce equipment. What you get out of it is dependent on what traits are on the material. And there’s nothing quite like using a Parameter +13% and/or higher traits to just power boost all of your stats. Enhancement does suffer diminishing returns, especially if you try to use low grade stuff on already enhanced equipment, and it gets really expensive at later levels, but it will make you so much more powerful than you could ever hope for by just leveling up.Atelier Sophie ~The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book~_20170816221214

Now for the music, which by this point in time, as I’m going back and playing more of the Atelier series to date, is starting to become one of the things I look forward to the most in experiencing them. For this game, Spring Breeze Polska is probably my favorite workshop theme in the series next to Dream Weaving House (from Ayesha). It’s an incredibly bright and cheery theme that I really appreciate listening to as I attempt to figure out how exactly I went wrong in maxing out an item’s effects for the tenth time in a row. This also extends to Scenery Of The Town, which is what plays as you walk around Kirchen Bell, and the basic battle theme, Spring Wind Skylark.

The other 70% of the music is from the gathering fields, and honestly, you’re probably not really taking it as much as the town and workshop themes since you’re a little busy picking stuff off the ground and fighting off those dreaded Puni. But I recommend giving Whispers Of Trees, Sinking Into Blue, Glistening Lake and Pure Wind a couple listens. These are all calming tracks that can actually help you unwind a bit if you’ve had a stressful day.

At the end of day though, I ultimately have to compare the current two Mysterious games together, and I’d have to say that Sophie is an easier game to get into than Firis’ more open structure. A lot of things are more straight-forward to grasp, it’s a more confined game in how it works (that sounds like a downside, but it actually isn’t in this case), a really likable protagonist and cast of party members and side characters, with only a couple negatives I could really mention off the top of my head. The production value might look a little low in a few places, but this definitely made something great out of what it had, and I’d gladly chalk up as one my favorite Atelier games, possibly even PS4 games in general. If you haven’t checked this out yet, you’re really missing out. Luckily, there is a convenient digital version on Steam if you don’t have a PS4 to play it – Mysterious Deals

As a closing note, I’m looking forward to how Atelier Lidy And Soeur (The Alchemists Of The Mysterious Painting as I’ve taken to calling it.) will turn out. It’s definitely going on my list of games to buy when it comes out.

With that said, I’ll see you in the next post. In the meantime, though…Atelier Sophie ~The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book~_20170817003409

Horizon and a Short Look at DLC

With the last console generation, there were certain practices in the game industry that were introduced which never could have been conceived in a prior generation. The most prevalent of these, however, was the introduction of DLC as a way of expanding the game experience.

When it was first introduced, DLC was mostly a way to add a little more story content to a game or add in a larger variety of locales in multiplayer games, but it would eventually spiral into the mess we have today, where you have to buy costumes in a Tales game or- and this is a real thing- see through girl’s clothing in Gal Gun. Eventually, this would escalate into microtransactions, a concept from Free-To-Play games that has been blighting the AAA industry for about two years now, always in disgusting, slimy fashion.

However, there is yet hope! Certain games have taken DLC in an entirely different direction. Rather than forcing you to purchase things which should have been in the game from the beginning, or pervy gross wank-mechanics, Games like The Witcher 3 have, in the past, shown that DLC could be utilized more in the fashion of an MMO’s expansion pack, wherein you add in entirely new storylines that build on an existing, complete experience. And the latest to do so is Guerrilla Games’ Horizon: Zero Dawn.

When Horizon came out earlier this year, I was enthralled with it. The combat is tense, often chaotic fun, the story was gripping and well-told, with numerous interesting characters to meet and intriguing cultures to interact with, and the world was visually stunning. Unlike most other open-world games, Horizon didn’t feel the need to fill the world with pointless collectables, instead creating a limited number that they used to create unique gaming experiences, build further on their world, and even gave them a practical use if you know where to look. It wasn’t excessively long, clocking in at 55 hours for my first completion, and after I was done, I still wanted to keep playing.

Well, come November 7th, I might have reason to. Horizon: Zero Dawn will be getting an expansion, and this makes me so excited, not just for Horizon, but for games as a whole. The expansion is meant to include an entire new area, a host of new enemies to fight, a whole culture we have yet to interact with for any significant amount of time (the Banuk, which had one small settlement you could visit in the base game, but nothing beyond that), as well as continuing the story that ended so phenomenally, but still left room for more. Guerrila Games basically took what could have been the premise for a whole sequel, and are adding it to the existing game for a third of the price.

This excites me. This is what I have wanted DLC to be for so long, the only way I could ever truly be made to embrace the concept, even. One of the most scummy businessmen in the industry, EA’s John Riccitiello, once said this: “A few years ago, the game you bought is the game you got.” He portrayed this in a negative light, but for many, myself included, we look back on the pre-PS3 era as a time when we bought a game and played the game without the game ever trying to sell us costumes or gun packs or (god-forbid) ammo packs. We bought a game and it was complete.

I bought Horizon: Zero Dawn and it was complete. I do not have to wait 3 years and pay $60 for a sequel to this game. This is the marrying of two things which should have gotten together ages ago, but the sheer bliss I feel in seeing them now is still incomparable. This is how DLC should be done. This is how it needs to be going forward. Games industry, look to Horizon‘s example and learn from it.

Tales of Berseria: The Greatest Tales Ever Told

When Tales of Zestiria came out, I absolutely fell in love with the story and characters, even if the gameplay itself was obtuse, unnecessarily difficult, and downright frustrating. Regardless, I immediately claimed it as my favorite Tales game, even if so many others are technically superior in all aspects. Zestiria garnered a special place in my heart that cannot be taken by any other. One came close, however: it’s immediate successor, Tales of Berseria.

Being a prequel to Zestiria, the games are similar in many ways, some good and others… not so much. As a result, this review will actually feature both in about equal measure. But while on the surface level, Berseria might share many similarities with Zestiria, once you graze beneath the surface, you start to see just how much improved in Berseria.

For one, the story is immensely better. Zestiria was a classic Good Vs. Evil story, “Like a bad play where the heroes are right, and nobody thinks or expects too much.” Blues Traveler’s words are very fitting for Zestiria, and it is a damning statement. Even if I personally found the world and story of Zestiria gripping, it’s easy to spot the numerous cliches. Sorey and friends are set on a journey to “save the world” from the ruin you don’t often actually see outside of cutscenes. The beautiful world sat in stark contrast to the terrified way people spoke of it. Not so in Berseria, where many areas of the world are clearly in states of decay. The world of Berseria is teetering on a ledge between doom and salvation, and even salvation would be doom. Where in Zestiria, the villain was a stock standard Stoic Evil Behemoth of a Man who had barely any presence in the story itself and a backstory that the game literally told you in a thirty second cutscene with no dialogue (it’s built on for about 5 minutes at the VERY end of the game), in Berseria, the bad guy is a Villain With Good Publicity such as Tales is known for, who genuinely wants the best for the world but was broken by his own experiences into utilizing methods that would make his goal ultimately meaningless. He is constantly in the background of the story, even if not directly involved in whatever current situation the party is dealing with.

One of Berseria’s big selling points was the first female protagonist in franchise history (not including Milla Maxwell of Xilia, who shared the position with Jude Mathis). Velvet Crowe is arguably one of the strongest characters in the Tales series, with writing that develops her well over the course of the story and a performance by Cristina Valenzuela that sells every moment. The prologue begins with her as a happy, cheerful girl who’s friends with the whole village and cares for her family deeply. After three hours, she is a broken, vengeance-fueled demon (quite literally) with the blood of the entire village wet on her hands. She is beholden to no such lofty goals like “saving the world” or “helping my friends” when she begins her journey. She wants only to kill the man who destroyed her world. At one point, one character refers to the party as a “troupe of villains,” and this indeed holds true to the very end of the game, as even though they ultimately “saved the world,” Velvet’s legacy is as the first “Lord of Calamity,” a term players of Zestiria will recognize immediately.

All the characters in the game are actually very well-written, especially on the party’s side. Rokurou Rangetsu is a demon who joins the party early on, claiming a debt to Velvet that beholdens him to her cause. He lives for the thirst for battle and aims to kill his brother for reasons he’s not immediately willing to share. Eizen (a returning character from Zestiria) is a pirate who joins the party searching for the captain of his crew. He is cold and ruthless (or so he likes to think). Laphicet is a malakim with, initially, no personality of his own, who joins the party due to an attachment he feels for Velvet. He’s also a Zestiria returner, though you might be surprised by who he is. Magilou is a witch who doesn’t care about the party at all and only travels with them because she finds it fun. She is an entirely mysterious character you learn little about, but is an absolute delight to have on your screen. Finally, Eleanor is a praetor for the villainous Abbey, who finds herself attached to the party after they’re forced to work together to survive. Aside from Velvet, Eleanor is probably the character who grows the most over the course of the story, and I found myself just as invested in her arc as I was in Velvet’s.

The most palpable improvements to Berseria were made to the combat system, however. Gone is Zestiria’s awkward Fire Emblem-esque weapon triangle, replaced instead by… nothing. Because it was unnecessary. The equipment system is far less obtuse, as well. Instead of a confusing mess where you had to combine items with abilities in specific slots in order to transfer them or mix two abilities to create an entirely new one (seriously, 60% of my frustration in Zestiria came from that), it has a more Graces-esque style of just using items to level the gear and unlock set abilities on the gear. It’s far more stream-lined and easy to grasp and I love it.

When it came to level and monster design, however, I have to call Berseria out for it’s laziness. Several locales are just retooled Zestiria locations (one particular early meadowy area I immediately recognized as a swamp from Zestiria, for example), and many trees, buildings, and such look exactly the same. Monsters were even worse about it, with probably about 50% of the bestiary being ripped from the game’s predecessor. And yes, the dreaded Marmot made a return (incidentally, being the spark that made me realize what was happening). Although, given that the game had a production cycle of about a year, I am willing to forgive this, while still acknowledging it happened.

However, character design is extraordinarily hit and miss, as well. Characters like Eizen and Laphicet have very memorable and sensible designs that clearly define who they are, others like Velvet and Magilou are far from sensible. Magilous’ “book skirt,” in p[articular, has become an endless fount of comedy for detractors of the characters, and I have to say… the book skirt is awful. I bought some of the DLC costumes just to get rid of it. Meanwhile, Rokurou wins the award for Least Visually Interesting Design In A Tales Game Since Genis From Symphonia. He’s a samurai. He wears purple samurai clothes. How cool.

Speaking of the DLC, however, this has become a major point of contention for me when playing recent Tales games. Zestiria made a handful of costumes DLC, which worried me then, but Berseria has taken the idea and ran with it. Gone are the days of cool sidequests where you might be rewarded with a nifty bartender outfit for Guy or even an epic black and red palette swap for Sorey. If you don’t unlock a costume via the story in Berseria, it’s DLC. Period. And there is SO MUCH DLC. They clearly had a lot of interesting ideas for cool outfits for all the different characters, but having to pay for them just feels gross. It’s a business practice in games that I’m becoming more and more disgusted with, where you take things that would have otherwise been in the base game, and force people to pay for it.

Ultimately, Berseria is a great game and you can’t go wrong picking this one up. It’s easily a contender for the best game in the series, and I personally would place it at the top. However, I cannot move past the hostage-taking of costumes, and I would like if, for the next entry, they made entirely new assets. Zestiria and Berseria taking place in the same world a mere few hundred years apart allows it some leeway, but going forward I would like to see both of these practices disappear.

Developer: Bandai Namco

Console: Playstation 4

Genre: Japanese RPG

Final Score: 8

Fire Emblem Awakening’s Greatest Flaw

In the late 2000’s and early ’10’s, Intelligent Systems knew one thing for sure: Fire Emblem, their series of strategy RPG’s with a respectable twelve mainstay entries, was dying. New entries were no longer garnering the attention they once did, and remakes such as Shadow Dragon went out practically unnoticed. By 2012, Intelligent Systems was ready to call it quits.

They had spent a couple of years sure in this knowledge, in fact, and had thrown everything into one last project, a swan song for the Fire Emblem franchise they had been building on since 1990. It would be their biggest project yet, with more characters than anybody knew what to do with and nigh-unlimited supports to go with them. The game would incorporate facets from older entries as well, such as the marriage and child mechanics from Genealogy of the Holy War and the overworld map and “random” battles of Sacred Stones and Gaiden. Everything was set into place for Fire Emblem to go out with a big bang, Final Fantasy-style.

And indeed, it did go the way of Final Fantasy. Just like Square’s 1987 RPG epic, Fire Emblem Awakening blew up, gaining audiences Intelligent System had never thought they would be courting. There were a few major reasons for this. First and foremost was the introduction of a “Casual” gameplay mode. This allowed players to go through a map and make minor mistakes without any permanent character losses. This is often disavowed as making the game “too easy,” and while, yes, it does simplify the game a lot, it only really makes the game better for those who want to use it. In previous entries, if a character died, and you wanted to continue using them, you had to restart the map constantly until you ran it in a way where nobody died. You could easily spend 3-4 hours (if you’re as terrible at these games as I am) resetting a map to run it the one perfect way. In casual mode, there’s no need for that. If one character dies, sure, you no longer have access to them for this match, but they’ll rejoin you for the next, and if you’re like me and want to preserve every character, this setting can only be a boon. (I want to point out that, according to what I’ve heard, Heroes Of Light and Shadow, the game before, actually introduced the “Casual” mode concept. But as that is a Japan exclusive title, Awakening may as well have been the first -Ray)

The next major factor is how prettied up the game became. Previous Fire Emblem‘s had an art style with more realistic proportions. People were usually still pretty, but in a normal sort of way. Awakening went full anime. Every single character is gorgeous or handsome or at least good-looking. There’s no Bartre’s or Gonzalez’s in Awakening, is what I’m saying. This actually ties into the third major factor and the one I want to spend the most time discussing: supports.

Supports have been around since 1994’s Mystery of the Emblem, though they wouldn’t take the form we know until the first GameBoy Advance title, The Binding Blade. Essentially, when the characters fight near each other, they can build bonds which can, in turn, lead to skits which provide character development and will, afterwards, allow those units to fight with each other even more effectively. For the sake of game balance, previous entries relegated you to 5 supports per character per playthrough, which meant to see them all you would have to play the game multiple times, and focus on different characters every time. Awakening removed this stipulation for the sake of the marriage and children game mechanic, with… interesting results.

In Awakening, a big part of the story (even though only one character from this facet of the story is ever forced on your party) is that, in the future, the first generation characters are all killed by the Big Bad, and the second generation characters, their children, go back in time to attempt to avert that from happening. But for those characters to appear, they must first exist, which means some soldiers gotta get some bedsheets rockin’. That’s where the supports come in. All the children (save the plot relevant one and the Avatar’s, as the Avatar can be of either gender) are attached to a mother, so when a mother marries any eligible husband, their child will appear on the map. To get them married, you have to support.

Supporting can be a daunting task, however. With few exceptions, a character of one gender can support and marry with just about any character of the opposite gender, as a way to ensure that most everybody can get married and you won’t lose out on any children. They can then also support with about 4-5 characters of the same gender, building strong bonds of friendship to utilize on the battlefield. As well, every character can support with the Avatar, and the Avatar can support with every character.

The second half of that last sentence probably seems redundant, right? Well, it is, but it also isn’t. There is a separate connotation implied when I say “the Avatar can support with every character.” But what could that connotation possibly be, Wombat?! Well, I’ll tell you, because it’s what I’ve been leading up to this entire time: there are characters that ONLY the Avatar can support with.

In fact, every character who joins after Henry’s addition in Chapter 13 has no supports with any first generation character except the Avatar and, in the case of second generation characters, their parents. This includes the plot important Say’ri, Flavia, and Basilio, as well as side mission recruits Tiki (who is actually a returning character from the very first Fire Emblem) and Anna, and extends to SpotPass characters such as Walhart, Aversa, Gangrel, and Emmeryn, some of whom actually have deeply personal connections with other first generation characters, but regardless can only support with the Avatar. This is especially egregious with Say’ri (who shares a national background with Lon’qu, being the only citizens of Chon’sin), Tiki (who, as a thousand plus year old manakete, shares much in common with Nowi, the main manakete of Awakening), and Emmeryn (who is the main character Chrom’s and first cleric of the game Lissa’s sister), all of whom should reasonably support outside of the Avatar but don’t.

Now, some would say that supports are not actually that integral to the gameplay, and there is an argument to be made there, an argument which fire I would fan being on the opposing side. As previously addressed, supports give a boost in stats when two supported units fight near each other. This is actually amplified in Awakening with the major new gameplay mechanic introduced in the game, Pair Up. With Pair Up, two units can occupy one space and fight together as one. Pair Up could be the topic of an article all its own, what with its controversial nature, but there is no denying that it is THE driving force behind Awakening’s gameplay. Now, how does Pair Up tie into my complaint about the Avatar’s support exclusivity? It’s quite simple, really.

All those characters who can only support with the Avatar? You know, the ones you fought tooth and nail in some of the hardest maps in the entire game to acquire and add to your available roster? Well, at best, you might be able to utilize about three or four (I named nine earlier, and only touched on a little more than half the available exclusive units) of them on any given map, and that’s if you have them all stay right next to the Avatar. This is because if a character can not effectively Pair Up with other units, you are essentially handicapping yourself by using them, and the Avatar, like all other units, can only Pair Up with one character at a time. They can still lend out their support stat bonuses to nearby allies, but will not be able to join in for Pair Up abilities. This means that, for the most part, these late game units will be receiving very little use due to their lack of variety. If you can only keep them near the Avatar, why use them at all when their slot could be taken by another unit who can Pair Up with over half the army?

The answer is, you shouldn’t.

Fire Emblem Awakening is a great game, and is indeed the reason I started to play not only the Fire Emblem series as a whole, but also began to give the entirety of the strategy RPG genre a chance. It has numerous flaws, some of which we touched upon here, but overall, it’s a glowing masterpiece that stands as one of the best of its kind (even if hardcore Fire Emblem fans hate it, this “waifu-simulator” has more than proven itself), and it really is just this one major issue that truly bothers me whenever I discuss the game with others. The game is built around supports and its strong character interactions, but all the characters in the second half of the game lose out on those strengths and appear shallow, pointless, and misused as a result. Even worse, characters who should have become game breakers are instead bench warmers, all because they cannot make appropriate use of one of the game’s major mechanics. It’s just sad to think about what could have been. But, in the end, Fire Emblem Awakening is still a great game. Go play it so you can nitpick as much as I do.

Just don’t play Fates. At all. Go get Shadows of Valentia.

 

(Edit: Some of these have since changed and more supports are available, but it was not that way for a long time. As well, their S-rank [marriage] supports are still limited to the Avatar.)