Let’s Talk – Spark The Electric Jester – Like A Bolt From The Blue

I heard about this game a couple weeks ago… no, that’s a lie. A couple months ago, more exactly. I didn’t pay much attention to it at the time, but I bought it this last Monday and played through the entire first story mode.

I’m pleasantly happy with the result.

Spark The Electric Jester is what would happen if you took a fast-paced platformer like Sonic and gave it a splash of Kirby power. It’s a concept that actually flows kinda well.

The main platforming itself is more based on Freedom Planet, a Sonic-like that was released a few years ago. You can run, jump, wall-jump, dash, and swat things with some basic attacks. Touch damage is non-existent; Enemies need to actively launch an attack to hurt you. And Spark himself has a bit of both speed and combat potential to make the gameplay a relatively painless experience.

And then you take the various powers at Sparky’s disposal.

Unlike Kirby, Spark doesn’t assimilate, inhale, or osmose powers from enemies. Said powers are found throughout the stages, in either glass boxes or lying around in hidden (or not-so-hidden) corners. They take many forms, and give Spark new powers, like air dashing, wall running, projectiles, or straight up defying the laws of physics themselves.

You can hold two powers on your jester at any time, and mixing various sets is going to make or break your time in the game. Some powers are better suited to moving through stages, and others are made for beating up the various robotic enemies you’ll be fighting (or bypassing, as the case may be).

Oh, by the way. The plot of the game is that Spark lost his job to a look-alike robot named Fark, so he sets out on a mission to punch his circuits out and get his job back. The story gets a little more involved than that, but it honestly serves as nothing more as an excuse to dash and bash all the things.

My recommendation though, is playing the game, like any platformer, with a controller. I couldn’t do that, and while using a keyboard/mouse combo isn’t the worst thing you can do, the fact that you have to constantly, and constantly, rebind the keys for a more comfortable experience because the game cannot save keyboard configurations, is honestly rather annoying. That, and the general ease in using a D-Pad for eight-directional movement (if the case calls for it), is typically smoother than using WASD or arrow keys.

By the way, I can’t take WASD as a word seriously. It sounds like someone trying too hard to be cool.

Getting down to it though, only the final stage has any sort of unfair types of platforming/hazard combinations. The other fourteen (Yes, there are fifteen stages in total, and some of them have sub-stages) stages more or less serve as a gradual increase in difficulty in platforming and enemy variety, which is appreciated in a game like this.

You know, provided that you don’t fly through the air with the greatest of ease with Gravity.

The music ranges from peppy, to rocking, to smooth as funk. I can get down with some of the more energetic tracks in this game.

Despite the seeming length of the game with it’s fifteen stages, it only took me about… four hours to beat the first story. And beating that unlocks a second story, and beating that unlocks some bonus challenges as well, so some replay for mastery is offered. The only thing it’s really missing is a boss selector/Arena mode, for practicing bosses or just messing around with various powers.

Spark The Electric Jester promises an enjoyable time with some speedy platforming hijinks with a versatile power system that you can pick from to suit your own playstyle. If you’re a fan of either Sonic or Kirby games, you’ll have a pretty good time with this one.

There’s really not a lot more I can say about the game. It’s a simple, fun, platformer you can spend an afternoon playing. And really, I think that sums it up quite tidily.

You can grab the game on Steam from here: Jester Is Number One!

(This is totally not a filler review by any means. I promise to have something more substantial next time.)

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.)

Let’s Talk – Atelier Firis: The Alchemist Of The Mysterious Journey – The Sky’s Our Destination.

Firis is a girl with a dream; to see the world outside of her little hometown. Sadly, her hometown is inside a mountain. And keeps its residents behind a heavy stone door. However, a rather explosive twist of fate helps give her to means to journey beyond the boundaries of her reality, and into the very thing she spent her life fantasizing about.

I am a rather off and on Atelier player. My first exposure to the series, as I’m sure was also many other people’s, was with Atelier Iris on the PS2. I followed up with the second game a little bit later, but never picked up the third one for some reason. Many years later, I would pick up Atelier Ayesha, and while I enjoyed my time with it, the fact that it arbitrarily ended after so long kind of depressed me. Someday, I will probably go back and experience the Atelier games I’ve missed, but today, we are here to discuss Firis’ foray into alchemical hijinks.

One of the stand out things of the Atelier series (sans Iris) is that, usually, you’re given some sort of deadline to accomplish a certain objective, otherwise, you’ll get a pretty lousy ending (the miracle never happen, if you would). Typically, the time given is more than enough, however, to complete the main quest. Fitting everything else in, is a different matter.

You’re given a full year to become a licensed alchemist in Firis, so that she is no longer confined to her small village for the rest of her days. You can reach your destination with over half that time remaining, and passing the exam (abet with a pretty lousy score all things consider) can be brute forced in a way. So the goal is not a challenge, or issue at all.

True to the subtitle, Firis is more about the journey than your overall end goal. What you see, experience, the people you meet and help, the far off edges of your little map. That is the real game behind the facade of an exam. Even after that, you get to go out again, with no time limit, to find what you missed and enjoy everything all out.

The sky, as they say, is the limit here.

The second thing to note, however, is the LP system. Firis isn’t used to travelling, so as she runs around the fields, harvests items and fights enemies, it will go down. Should it reach zero, you’re not completely screwed, as she will take a short rest to recover a small amount to continue on. Let it reach zero again after that, however, and Firis will officially pass out, forcing you back to the previous camp.

It sounds like time limits on time limits, but truthfully, LP should never be an issue.

Campfires are plentiful throughout the world, and stopping at them will let you pull out your pocket atelier (It’s bigger on the inside), to either rest up, customize the Atelier’s furniture (which adds bonuses, gather points, and things that just look nice) or perform everyone’s favorite pasttime, alchemy.

Alchemy is set up like a puzzle this time around. Materials have a set space and color to them, and you arrange them within a grid to get the best results. As you fill the grid in with a color, you’ll get bonus components from that color. In addition, there are lines that bestow various effects, such as increasing item counts, raising quality, or manipulating color levels to help you get the effects you want. It’s a somewhat involved process that I actually kind of enjoy. It looks more like what a real alchemist might do when synthesizing something as opposed to previous games in the series I’ve played where you select an item and I hope you have enough materials or elements to create it.

Atelier Firis ~The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey~_20170508001047

Results not typical

Speaking of items, the Atelier series is probably one of the few serieses that actually have effective attack items. Considering the whole concept is sort of based around that, I would hope so, but it feels refreshing compared to a whole lot of other RPGs where attack items fall flat in opposed to comparable skills or magic, and end up just becoming pocket change.

The variety is there too. You’ve got bombs, ice bombs, lightning rods, bags full of crab apples, poisons, globes, the list goes on. While skills exist in the Atelier-verse, items are your main source of everything. And typically, there’s an item loadout you can build tailor made to your playstyle… or to make your life against bosses easier (or even feasible). Not that bosses are a major focus in most of the Atelier games. Heck, this game only has one mandatory “boss fight”, and you don’t even have to win it. Everything else is optional.

Combat, however, is kind of weird to really get down in this game. You’ll either breeze through the random enemies, or the random enemies will hand your head to you. There’s rarely a middle ground, and I find that somewhat polarizing. Buffs and debuffs are also rather hit or miss… They hit, but they typically don’t offer enough of an impact to save you nine-out-of-ten times. Exceptions being anything that reduces an enemy’s stats (which may shave off a good 10-20 damage you might take, or increase your damage), statuses that lock down an enemy’s movement, or regen. Everything else either doesn’t work well, or is situational. Which makes those particular items, not worth bringing with you unless you know you’re getting good use out of it. As someone who likes playing around with this type of stuff, I’m a little disappointed.

Or maybe I haven’t played around enough with them yet. That’s also a possibility.

Travelling the areas isn’t typically too time-consuming unless you go around collecting everything (which you do the first time anything just to keep your supplies up). Firis has a few exploration based items she can synth up to help her out; like a lantern for exploring side caves you’ll find on your journey, a pickaxe for breaking down resilient gather points easier, or my personal favorite, a freaking witch’s broom that lets you glide around at high speed, and even over water. They’re not necessary, but they do contribute to saving time and LP.

Atelier Firis _The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey__20170529011208.jpg

Wheeee…!

My only complaints about the maps would be somewhat questionable hit detection while walking (how do I get stuck on absolutely nothing?), and that the frame rate drops pretty hard when you stick enough foliage on screen (but every game can be a victim of that). These are minor gripes, however, and the rest of the experience is smooth.

Character (well, party member) interaction is a slight deal here. When you first put a new member into your group (Liane being the exception), they aren’t exactly people that would keep you an address book. As time passes with them in your party, their Friendship goes up, and you’ll start getting little extra side events and quests relating to them. The party members themselves are likable enough. They have a set personality and a quirk or two to add some flavor, but I wouldn’t too expect too much depth out of them. The Friendship stat and doing requests for party members does lead into some of the endings you can get though, so it’s worth doing just to see them (or, you know, you want that sweet virtual platinum trophy).

While I have party members on the mind, I do feel like the games tries to oversell Firis on being “cute”. There are a couple legitimate times where she is, but half the time, it feels like she’s trying to fit in and is just getting made fun of for it. I’m probably reading too much into that though.

On the subject of music, my favorite themes tend to be the battle themes. Particularly the rocking ones. Ones that get me pumped to fight these enemies into the ground. Or play them in a nightclub somewhere…

Atelier as a series gets a different note from me, however. The travelling themes tend to stick out more to me. Firis has more than it’s fair share of music in this regard, each region, environment, and time of day has it’s own track and it’s quite easy to lose yourself in some of them. While I’m mostly likely not going on any grand journeys anytime soon, I’ll definitely be keeping tracks like Together With Transience,  Light Lost In The Trees and Tale Spinning Journey in mind.

Not to say Atelier has bad battle themes. For Firis, I’ve taken a liking to Flying Fast, personally.

I can say that this a solid entry into the Atelier series. I’ll have to go back and play all the other games I missed out on to reach a definitive conclusion of how this stacks up, but I enjoyed my time following the adventures of a young woman discovering the wonders of the world for herself. I feel, though, that Atelier shares a similar state as the Tales series; if you’re going to start playing it, it’s better to start as late as possible. I don’t think Atelier has it quite as bad as Tales, if this sounds like your type of series, starting with Firis is not a bad idea.

Final Fantasy 7: A Good First Try

It was okay.

It took a while for me to get around to playing Final Fantasy 7. One reason for this was the years and years of overexposure, people constantly telling me I should play it, that it’s one of the greatest games ever, and it’s a cornerstone of gaming history. Another reason was that I had played a game from the Compilation of Final Fantasy 7 (Dirge of Cerberus), and was immensely unimpressed, souring my view of what the actual game would be like. However, last year I picked up a copy, popped it into my Playstation 1, and had my 60 hour experience with Final Fantasy 7. And when it was over, I sat back in my couch and had a singular thought.

It was okay.

I didn’t hate it like I genuinely believed I would. The combat was fun, I had a team that I favored (Cloud, Yuffie, and Vincent), picking out Materia for my characters allowed for nice customization of my team, and battles never dragged for too long. However, it was also incredibly easy. I’m not usually one to knock something for being easy, but if there had been one (story!) boss that was remotely challenging, I would have been incredibly pleased. Instead, I felt like I was walking from one end of the world to the other with little dogs yapping at my feet, a nuisance as opposed to any real challenge.

What really fell flat for me, though, was the story and particularly the characters. First, the characters. The only one who spends enough time in the party to get invested in is Cloud, and early game maybe Tifa and Aerith. This is because of how the game utilizes its characters within cutscenes. With a handful of exceptions, the only characters who will appear in any given scene are the ones currently in your party, which means that if you never have Barrett in your party (largely because he’s a terrible stereotype and also a Mr. T ripoff and also he sucks in combat), then it looks like Barrett just never does anything. The characters would definitely have benefited from far more screen time, but it just never comes. As a result, the bulk of the story revolves around Cloud, as, for the most part, he is glued to your party. And anytime the story needs another character to be important, the game basically forces them into your party, which is really frustrating when you’re used to being able to choose who you take. Just let the characters exist outside of the party, game? Please?

That being said, I did enjoy them when they were on screen (except for Barrett and Cait Sith, both of whom I avoided wherever possible [I’m pretty sure Cait Sith is never actually required in your party, but he still has a couple of scenes that will make you wanna scream in hatred]). They all have distinct personalities and are really fun to watch. As I said previously, I mostly had Yuffie and Vincent in my party, which is a really interesting contrast. Vincent is largely apathetic, never getting excited about anything, speaking mostly in short, quiet sentences. Yuffie, on the other hand, will never shut up, being highly energetic and excitable and also a Valley Girl, I think? She has more of a gunner personality than Vincent, the gunner, does, while he has more of a ninja personality than Yuffie, the ninja. It’s kind of funny and I love it, so they were my party for every boss after acquiring Vincent, wherever they were both available. That includes Sephiroth, even if Yuffie did spend most of that battle dead.

(Spoilers for 20 year old game ahead! Apparently you’re supposed to tag these things, even though it’s… 20 years old…)

As for the story, it… happens? Honestly, I’d have to say that this is one of the weaker stories in the franchise. It’s a “Villain tries to destroy the world” plot with a new wardrobe. This time the protagonist is not just connected to the villain, he’s a clone of the villain!… or so we’re led to believe, until it’s revealed he actually is just connected to the villain and his mind is being tampered with. Until about 3/4’s of the way through disc 2, it’s hard to really tell what the truth about Cloud is, which I guess was the point? But it also just muddles who Cloud, as Cloud, is, to the point where I’d argue that the true Cloud has less screen time than I ever gave Barrett (is that zing worthy?). I will say that Aerith’s death at the end of disc 1 is shocking, not in that it happens because the game sets that up far in advance, but in that it is STILL rare today for a game to kill a major character off like that. Party members are expected to perform a Heroic Sacrifice, but that’s not what happens here. She just… dies. It does set up something at the end of the game, but for a character to just be dropped like that is still impressive for a game to do, and if I had to guess, it’s one of THE major contributing factors to why this game still persists in the public eye.

The other reason is Sephiroth. Oh boy, Sephiroth. He shows up about 1/4 of the way through the first disc, and suddenly everything else that was going on doesn’t matter so much. He steals the show. Where Kefka made villainy gross and disgusting and insane, something to be reviled, Sephiroth makes it look cool and elegant, and also insane, something to strive for. He’s honestly a bit too cool, because he totally overshadows the main cast. By the end of the game, I was mostly playing just to see more Sephiroth scenes. Unfortunately, though, I was disappointed in the end. Sephiroth has been cloned numerous times, so most of what we see of him is not the man himself, but rather those clones. The original Sephiroth never actually mutters a single word. If you want to see that, you’ll have to play Crisis Core.

The soundtrack, however, never disappoints. From “Opening Theme, Bombing Mission” on to “One-Winged Angel,” the music never doesn’t deliver. It’s honestly the one part of this whole experience that doesn’t feel dated, and even while playing Final Fantasy XV, I’ll pop 7‘s soundtrack into the car and just chill.

The aspect of this game that is the most dated, however, are the graphics. I’m sure a 3D Final Fantasy game looked amazing in 1997, but today this aesthetic looks like garbage. That’s really the only way I can truly describe it. It is an assault on the eyes. Even a couple years later, with Final Fantasy 8, the graphical capabilities of the Playstation would be put to far better use, especially regarding the pre-rendered cutscenes. In 8, they would look almost like early PS2 era cutscenes. In 7, they look like… uhh…

Whatever that is.

Overall, though, I had fun with Final Fantasy 7. I don’t think it holds up very well, considering what RPG’s would become even within the same console generation (I would recommend games such as Breath of Fire III/IV or Legend of Dragoon if you’re looking for a Playstation RPG that holds up), but I can see why it was such a big deal when it was released. If you’re interested in video game history, or are a fan of the Final Fantasy franchise, definitely play this if you somehow haven’t already. Just… don’t get your hopes too high.

I can’t wait for that PS4 remake, though.

Let’s Talk – Persona 5 – “Rebel With A Cause”

A few years ago, if you asked me about the Persona series, or, well, Shin Megami Tensei in general, I probably would have gone “What?”. Sure, I had heard mention of these series before, but I never had any opportunity or desire to play them. It wouldn’t be until I watched the Super Gaming Brother’s playthrough of Revelations: Persona, and hearing Matt go on about how Persona 2: Eternal Punishment was his personal favorite game that I would actually go out on give that entry of the series, in particular, a shot.

I was sold.

Since then, I’ve given the other games in the series a shot. While I wasn’t really able to get into Persona 1 the same way I got into Eternal Punishment, I did manage to complete Persona 3 Portable and Persona 4 Golden to form a more solid opinion on the series. I’ll take about these games another time, though. This was also around the time where Persona 5 would be announced, and would become the unfortunate target of delays and other mishaps that would push it back past the original Winter 2014 window it was intended for. Now it’s May 2017, and it was released stateside early April, being released in Japan back in September 2016. It’s an event nearly a decade in the making, so did it live up to everyone’s expectations?

I’d save a bit of time giving my opinion of “Yes it does!”, but hold up. Let’s wind back a little bit…

At the time of this writing, however, Atlus has a strict “anti-spoiler” thing going on in terms of videos or streams. It was pretty bad to the point that they were taking down simple videos consisting of nothing but a music track and a static generic image. So while I can’t go too in-depth into the story, I actually find that, at least for this, it makes it easier for me to write. While it’s not the most masterfully written in the thing, it’s written in such a way that makes it extremely difficult to discuss without going in depth with the twists and nuances it provides. Even though this game was spoiled Day One of it’s Japanese release, if, by some strange fortune, you still don’t know a lot about the game’s story, do yourself a favor and play the game straight with no foresight. It’s way more enjoyable to try to connect things yourself. However, despite the fact that I, in particular, knew the gist of the endgame plot, it did not detract from my enjoyment of the story. Persona is typically more about the journey than the destination, and the ride is a pretty entertaining one.

Let’s get to the main driving force here, the gameplay. I’m going to talk about the battle system first, because this is where I’m left with good impressions first. While it is the usual turn-based affair using Persona 4 as a base, it does a lot more with it. For starters, the elements. I used Persona 4 as my basis because in that game, you only had Physical, Fire, Ice, Electric, Wind, Light and Dark to work with, compared to my first experience with the series, Eternal Punishment, which had Slash, Shot, Throw, Punch, Fire, Water, Ice, Wind, Earth, Electric, Nuclear, Holy, Dark and Mind/Nerve (the status elements). Persona 5 harkens a bit back to the Shin Megami Tensei roots here. Each character has two weapons, their melee weapon, and a gun, which has limited ammo (to some dismay), but they not only pack more of a punch than your melee weapons, each member also gets a different gun type with it’s own strengths and weaknesses. Fire/Ice/Electric/Wind make a return, as expected, but Nuclear makes a return to the scene, along with the rarely seen Psychokinesis element. Seriously, watch a casting a Psiodyne, and tell me you don’t get a color-overload the likes of which can only be rivaled by Earthbound’s PSI Rockin’ Omega. Nuclear spells also get a damage bonus against enemies that have been Burned, Shocked, or Frozen, while Psychokinesis lays the smack down on enemies suffering from mental status, such as Brainjack (a renamed Charm status), Forgetfulness, and the like. Light and Dark have also been renamed to Bless and Curse, and along with a “fresh” new name (though I’m pretty sure these were used in the PSP rerelease of Persona 1), they have also gotten their damage spells back. That’s right, these are no longer relegated to mere instant death elements, but are now fully capable of laying direct damage onto enemies. All in all, this gives you ten elements to work with, which is a larger difference than you’d expect. First off, it opens a little more variety in how you deal with enemies, but more importantly, and this was a complaint I had with 3 and 4, each party member now specializes in a particular element. While not a huge issue, the lack of elemental variety didn’t really do much to promote party member diversity, as there would be no real reason to, say, use Kanji over Chie because not only did they overlap, but Kanji also overlapped too much with the protagonist, since they both started with Electric. In this game, your protagonist starts with Curse skills, and while he can use any element because he’s “the goddamn protagonist”, the other party members all specialize in one of the other elements. This means that everyone is useful in some battle or another, a change I approve, since that is one of the few things that actually stuck out to me about Final Fantasy X.

Before moving on with the battle system, let’s talk Confidants. Social Links are back with a vengeance, and renamed as such because, aside from your party members and even that’s sketchy at best, you’re not initially out to make friends with these people. You do things for them, and they will teach you specific things. These “deals” are the basis of this game’s Social Links, and they are a much bigger thing than in 3 and 4. Advancing them not only gives you experience bonuses for fusion, but special perks as well. In example, one Confidant helps you get better at gunplay, which grants such things as doubling the ammo you hold in your guns, to letting you get the drop on enemies during an Ambush to lower their health by up to 50% before you even take an action by unleashing a hail of bullets upon them. Another Confidant improves your Tactics options, letting you switch in party members mid fight (another new thing for this series), to letting you run away even when you’re surrounded. These new perks make building your Confidant ranks more rewarding than ever, and are a welcome addition to the Social Link system. And most of these perks help you in battle, one of the biggest ones being Baton Pass. Your party member Confidants learn this really early on in the ranks (typically Rank 2), and once you start using it, you’ll probably wonder how you lived without it. Hitting R2 after you knock down an enemy lets you pass your action to another party member that has also learned Baton Pass. This does two things, it spreads the amount of HP/SP required to knock down all the enemies among multiple people, and it boosts the power of both your attacks and recovery magic by a significant margin. You can Baton Pass multiple times during a single volley of knockdowns to increase the bonus even further. This flow of chaining and linking actions between party members is very satisfying and helps cement the fact that this people, regardless of differences, work as a team to accomplish their goal. These two things, Baton Pass and Confidant perks, are probably my two most additions in this series, and there’s a lot of potential in them that I would love to see them return in future installments.

As I mentioned knocking down enemies, the Once More system is back to play, with a slight twist. Once you knock down all the enemies, instead of just unleashing all your might, you move into position around the enemies and put them in a Hold Up. Once in place, you can, of course, use an All-Out Attack to blow them around (and it’s a lot better looking than 3 and 4’s dust clouds), or you can negotiate with the demon-turned-Shadows.

Now before you begin crying out in despair and fear, negotiation is handled far simpler than even it’s Persona 2 counterpart. You do not have to bargain if you just want an item or money from them (you don’t get any money from the battle if you don’t ask for it though, and you get far less experience than if you just outright killed the Shadows), but the true value to negotiation is that you can turn the Shadows into Persona masks. This is the main way you add new Personae to your Compendium for fusion. You will have to answer a couple simple questions, but even if you fail to get them as a mask, you’ll still probably walk away with an item unless you royally tick them. Adding to this, your party members, through building their Confidant ranks, can step in if you mess up and reset the conversation, giving you another chance. Joker himself can even learn the ability to fire off a warning shot to steer things back to where you want them. However, if you feel that you can’t figure out how to win over a Shadow, you can cancel the negotiation at any time with an All-Out Attack, so you shouldn’t be at a loss.

Or if you really don’t want to talk to the Shadows, you can beat them within an inch of their life and coheres them into becoming your mask that way.

The battle system is all well and good, but the Palaces are where the other half of your combat gameplay will be. While Mementos is quite literally a re-skinned Tartarus (right down to the weird as hell block names), the entirely of your side requests (required if you want to get most of your Confidants past a certain rank) take place. While they are nothing more than extra mid-boss fights, you get nice rewards out of them, as well as combat experience, sellable loot, and other things, so it’s worth going out of your way to get them since you’ll be heading into Mementos at least once a month anyway.

However, the main plot Palaces are all distinct, and incorporate some stealth into them. Since you are thieves, you can take advantage of hiding behind cover to avoid detection, allowing you to ambush patrolling enemies. Getting discovered by enemies builds up an awareness gauge that, if it fills up, leads you getting forced to leave the Palace. However, there is a reward to that risk, as a higher awareness also increases the chances of running into Treasure Demons (this game’s version of the Treasure Hands) from breaking environmental objects. You can also, before raiding a Palace, spend your nights crafting various tools to help your endeavors, from simple lockpicks to crack open locked chests, to things that reduce the awareness gauge, make it harder for enemies to detect you, and simple elemental item sets. You also have the ability to climb certain objects and shelves, ambush enemies from said high places, crawling through ventilation shafts and other tight spaces, a context-sensitive jump action for getting across pits. The Palaces are way more involved than 3 and 4’s randomly generated floors, which is a huge advantage for design. It took me about three hours just to get to the end of the first Palace, and the time will probably remain around that two-three hour mark for the rest of the plot Palaces. Because of this, you are more than likely encouraged to make multiple trips to a Palace to get through it (you’re even given an infiltration log when you leave to summarize what you’ve done in your trip.), but you can go through the whole thing in one trip, as I managed to do so. However, you are given multiple Safe Rooms throughout the Palace that you can quick travel to should you ever have to leave in the event that you run out of resources, so backtracking is not so big an issue. For plot reasons, you are required to spend at least three days to fully complete a Palace, so that’s also something you have to keep in mind when planning your free time.

One thing I also enjoy is that you’re not doing the exact same thing in each Palace. While your ultimate goal is securing a route to the Treasure at the end of the Palace, it’s typically not a straight line to get there. You may be deciphering codes in one Palace, while another Palace might throw color-coded gate puzzles at you. It’s just different enough to break up the monotony of moving down hallways and dispatching Shadows, but it’s never so outlandish to break away from the whole infiltration feel.

Graphically, the game is about what I expect. The Palaces are varied, the various districts of Shibuya are rendered nicely, and it’s overall pleasant to take in without burning your eyes. The menu, however, is really stylized, a big departure from 3 and 4. It might not be to everyone’s tastes, but I enjoyed the additional animation to what would otherwise be, yet another RPG menu system.

Let’s take a moment to discuss the Velvet Room. It’s back with a vengeance, and it’s not messing around with how you fuse new Personae to use in battle.

I’ll put it bluntly: You’re quite literally killing them off in order to meld their spirit energy into a new form.

Fusion in this game takes the form of “Execution”. You sentence two or more Personae to death via a guillotine, and the leftover power comes together into a new form. It’s definitely more intensive to watch than shuffling cards together, but part of me wonders if it was really necessary. Yes, it ties to the overall theme that the game is trying to set up (I mean, the Velvet Room takes the form of a prison), but it can also come off as trying too hard. Later on, you also unlock the ability to hang a Persona in order to build up another one’s experience, hooking them up to an electric chair and frying them to create Skill Cards and other unique items, and locking them up in solitary confinement in order to get resistance skills to counter their weaknesses. It’s really over edge, all taken into consideration, and, like everything, there is a reason behind it, but it’s one of those “They also could have done something else instead” moments. It doesn’t bother me, on a personal note, but I can imagine someone walking into this game blind may have their jaw drop a bit first witnessing it.

Music is, of course, a big factor for a compelling experience. Shoji Meguro returns to head up composing the over hundred tracks in this game. Handling the vocals this time around is a Korean singer professionally known as Lyn, and I think these are some of my favorite vocal themes in the series. Right when you start the game, and Wake Up, Get Up, Get Out There hits you in the face during the opening animation, it puts you in the right mindset to enjoy the game as it was meant to. Last Surprise is, in my opinion, probably the best composed random battle theme next to Wiping All Out, and the other vocal tracks as you’ll hear them all fit the mood quite well.

But my absolute favorite has to be Beneath The Mask.

This has both a vocal and two instrumental variants that’ll play as you wander the streets of Shibuya, and it is the most laid back, relaxing theme I’ve heard in sometime. Town themes are usually something that fly under my radar, but this one has me captivated. This has become my go-to theme heading home from work.

The other tracks are also good for the places you hear them in. I like both the clinic and the Airsoft shop themes as well.

My overall opinion is that, if you’re looking to get into the Persona experience, 5 is the place to start. It might spoil you a little on some mechanics that don’t exist in previous entries, but it is an absolute solid experience that doesn’t require any back knowledge on the series to enjoy. If you haven’t picked up any Persona game at this point, you wouldn’t be disappointed in this one.

Onyx: An Ugly, Brown Tur-Rock, Onyx Is A Rock

On a whim, I picked up this cheap Steam RPG that came out not even a week before writing this review. Now, I’m against the idea of people charging anything for the games they’ve made in RPG Maker, but they rarely charge more than $5-$7, which I suppose isn’t objectionable. What is objectionable, however, is Onyx.

Onyx is about a world where witches are a regular part of life, but are being hunted down and slaughtered like lambs by a rebel sect known as the “Nimrod Brotherhood.” Yes, that is what they’re called. No, I don’t believe they’re named after the Biblical Nimrod. I think they’re named Nimrod because it’s a JOOOOOOOOOOOOOKE.

That seems to be half the reason for the game’s existence, really. There can’t be three lines of dialogue without some character or other cracking what they must think is the wittiest jest in their lifetime, and while some will get a chuckle out of you, others fall flat on their face. Not helping matters is the lack of any editing or spellchecking going into the product before release, leaving horrendous typos everywhere and sometimes incomprehensible sentences, problems that could easily have been fixed prior to release.

That’s another problem I have with the whole RPG Maker business model. Due to the ease of cranking out games when you have very little to do yourself aside from place assets and write a story, it creates an environment where you could easily release two or three games a month, given enough free time. With that capability at your fingertips, it can become easy to give in to apathy, and start cutting back on things like QA testing or giving a shit about the products you sell your customers.

Speaking of not giving a shit, the game focuses on a character named Rowan, though you can rename all playable characters anything you see fit within the 8-or-9 character limit. Rowan is Velvet Crowe from Tales of Berseria. That’s her character. A poorly written Velvet Crowe. She’s joined by a character who is basically Komoto Raynar from this site, a mother and daughter with serious familial issues, a Mystic Knight from Final Fantasy V, and some other character I couldn’t be bothered to play long enough to meet. None of them are interesting enough to get invested in, Vel- I mean, Rowan is a selfish witch, and they are all groan-worthy at various points.

The maps you’ll be spending most of your time travelling around are some of the clunkiest and poorly designed maps I’ve ever seen. Back in my Ar tonelico review, I threw some serious shade at its maps, but I feel I now owe it an apology. At least Ar tonelico had maps with rules. Onyx has no rules. One bush might block your progress, while the very same bush in a different location you might be able to pass over. Sometimes the ground covers up half your character’s sprite, as if they are slowly sinking into the abyssal quicksand that is this game. Take two steps and they are suddenly freed, allowed to suffer the torment of fourth wall breaks and petty intra-party drama. This will occur even if you are standing on the exact same kind of floor tile after moving.

Battles are just a visual nightmare. Your party appears as RPG Maker sprites, obviously, but enemies are these weird, watercolor portraits superimposed over Earthbound‘s battle background. They look horrendous, have a tendency to blend together or hide each other, and, given enough enough enemies on the screen, can even impose themselves over your own character sprites. And once you have a fourth party member, you might not realize it, because the UI is so tall and the characters are situated in such a way that the UI will cover your fourth member. It is negative fun to get into a fight in this game. Anti-fun, if you will. It actively sucks joy from your life.

You’re allowed to save anywhere in the game, but outside a tent early in the game, there’s a save point. It has no reason for existence. I can only assume that an early version required save points, and they failed to dummy them all out. It’s extremely inconsistent.

Near the end of my play time, I also stumbled across The End of Ti- I mean, a magical museum that is not totally a ripoff of Chrono Trigger right down to name-dropping Melchior as the inspiration. It definitely also does not have the Hylian shield (which can be seen in other places within the game, as well) and Prince of Persia‘s scimitars hanging in a hallway. This game is wholly original and will not fall back on using nostalgic images in order to garner favor from its players. I hate this game and my life because of this game.

I don’t understand why this exists. I don’t understand how it has the right to charge money. But since it is charging money, it deserves to be criticized like anything else we have to crack open our wallets for, and even at a $7 price tag, this one is not worth your time or money. Even if you are an avid follower of RPG Maker enterprises, steer clear of this one.

Developer: Aldorlea Games

Released: 2017

Platform: Steam

(Hijacking the post to relay my thoughts on this whole thing, since I was watching him play that 3-4 hours before he wrote this. This game has about as much polish as I’d expect from a 90’s freeware game. I feel like the developers need a few lessons in proper design, or at least some research into how other games did it. The few maps I saw were spacious, yes, but with a lot of dead ends, and dead ends that look like they should lead somewhere but don’t. The battle system is about as simple as it gets, with ridiculously inflated damage values, and for Goddess sake, if one of your selling points is “Hilarious Touches of Humor”, at least actually let it be humor for humor’s sake. One of the NPCs in an early game town literally states how badly constructed the town is. Parody Played Straight is a horrible thing to let happen to your game, regardless of your intention. Don’t get me wrong, we had a few laughs at this game, but laughing at this game is about all we’ll be doing from now on.

I try hard to find redeeming features in games. The only redeeming feature I find for this one, is a “What Not To Do” example for game design classes. ~Ray)

The Last Story Review: End of an Era

The Last Story is one of the most unique games I have ever played. Over the years, I’ve seen it receive scorn and criticism from all angles (one of my favorite video game reviewers even called it one of the worst games of 2012), but I’d never actually played it myself. Having done so now, I […]

The Last Story is one of the most unique games I have ever played. Over the years, I’ve seen it receive scorn and criticism from all angles (one of my favorite video game reviewers even called it one of the worst games of 2012), but I’d never actually played it myself. Having done so now, I have to say that I largely disagree that any flaws it has ruins the product as a game. This romp with the adorably boring Zael and his band of mercenaries was one of the most enjoyable times I’ve had all year.

As with all JRPG’s, the first place you have to look is to the story. Being largely linear, narrative experiences, a terrible story can indeed make for a terrible game in this genre, and each new entry has a host of previous classics to contend with. Fortunately, at The Last Story’s helm is Hironobu Sakaguchi, the creator of Final Fantasy and essentially father of the genre, and he is fully aware of what he has to contend with. While the game largely confines you to a single major city, it weaves a tale on a global scale, as a threat to the entire world is defended against at this central location. And it works. Zael and his friends fight a massive war on the frontlines, and have no reason to go beyond where they are right now. Characters appear to be of moral ambiguity until their true intentions are realized. Setpieces are grand and beautiful and perfectly convey the levity of the situation bringing you to them.

That’s not to say the story isn’t riddled with cliche’s. The villains are just a little too on the nose (save one), with one in particular who could have made for a much more satisfying turn had his evil motivations not been revealed in an entirely unnecessary scene a full dozen chapters before his direct betrayal of the mercenaries. Another just looks like Ganondorf in a purple aura, and that’s about all the characterization he gets, too. The central conflict is a very generic “our world is dying” tale, as well, though the reasons for the world dying are much weirder than most.

But behind the poor villain characterization and poorly hidden plot twists lies a story with heart, as the mercenaries, initially fighting for their own gain, begin to realize that there’s more at stake, and they’ll have to learn to think beyond themselves. Each mercenary has their own reasons for fighting, interesting backstories and development, and you really do grow to care for each of them. The only major gripe I have with the main cast is how often Lowell was not in my party, because Lowell is clearly the best character in the game and should have been in my party constantly, but actually spends less time with Zael than almost any other party member.

The love story between Zael and Calisto is almost a deconstruction of generic JRPG love stories, as they spend as little time as possible after the first quarter of the game in each other’s company, with Calisto actively pushing Zael away, which only makes Zael more interested in staying close to her. Doing so only creates further problems for the both of them, where had Calisto not been so worrisome or had Zael given up on Calisto after being told to stay away, their lives would have been much simpler than the third path their contradictory actions resulted in. It’s ultimately reconstructed near the very end of the game and in an optional epilogue chapter, but it comes so late you would almost be excused for thinking this was more like Romeo and Juliet and less a RomCom.

However, I feel like the story was also more of an afterthought for the core gameplay, as if they had an idea for how the game would play and then crafted a storyline around it, because The Last Story is one of the tightest games I have ever played. Coming in from any other JRPG, you might be thrown off, because combat is less explosive action and more like a real-time tactical shooter, but with swords and magic. Imagine if Fire Emblem combined with Gears of War, and that’s similar to what you get in The Last Story. You approach enemies carefully, because being overwhelmed means death. You single out the most dangerous targets first and take them out with Zael’s crossbow, which while usually cannot kill enemies, does come equipped with bolts that can instantly kill a magic-user. Once the fight starts however, there’s no turning back, as you are often locked in the combat area until all your enemies lay defeated. At that point, you might take advantage of the ability to deal powerful blows to enemies as you exit cover. Or you might command one of your friends to use powerful magic on surrounding enemies. It’s a very intricate battle system which can be used to full effect or discarded completely in favor of a brute force approach… so long as you’re good enough.

Unfortunately, when it comes to bosses, the possibilities tend to be limited to one strategy and no other ways of coming at it. It can be very frustrating going from trying out all kinds of cool tactics against regular enemies to using the same commands over and over again in a boss fight. Of particular note is the boss that closes off the entire ship-raiding segment early on, which not only has a very specific and unreliable method of defeating, but is also the one to start the trend of terrible bosses within the game, throwing you a huge curveball. If you end up fighting this thing for an hour and a half, don’t worry. I did the same.

Sometimes, however, the game will throw a boss out that seems absolutely impenetrable. What this usually means is that Zael and co. are underleveled, which would mean lots of grinding, right? Not so! There is usually at least one place within a dungeon that you can return to, and it will have summoning circles that allow you to summon enemies. This is the only true way to grind in the game at all, as enemies do not respawn and revisiting areas does not award experience. However, I mean this as a good thing. The summon battles take little to no time, are very straightforward, and will award you tons of experience until you’re caught up to about where the game wants you to be, at which point you’ll notice that instead of gaining 2-3 levels a fight, you’re not even gaining one. It’s very easy and quick and will put you right back on the story’s path once you’re done.

Chapters in the game are more like Missions in a tactical shooter. It’s a very linear pathway where you clear out enemies until you arrive at your objective. People like to spit on the word linear, but done correctly, a good hallway can mean a lot more than a not-so-great continent. The linearity fits with the story being told, as the party has a clear objective and consistently work towards it, and it keeps the pace steady. You are always moving forward, and there are no major chapters that might count as “filler” or “padding”. Any unnecessary chapters are treated just like that; unnecessary and optional. And even doing all of those, the game clocks in at just over 20 hours. The game never outstays its welcome, tells you exactly what it needs to, and wastes no time getting there.

All in all, The Last Story is one of the best experiences I have ever had with a JRPG (which is really saying something when you consider my game library). I highly recommend picking this one up if you never have. I don’t think you’ll regret it.