Suikoden V Review (PS2)

There was a time, not long ago in fact, that Konami was a well-known and venerated video game developer. The company was originally founded in 1969, and it was instrumental in releasing some of the most well-known games of the 80s such as Frogger, Gradius, Double Dribble, and Contra. That notoriety for creating great games, not the least of which included Castlevania, Metal Gear, and Silent Hill, continued until Konami became a holding company in 2006. Since then, their video game output has dwindled to just a handful every year, the majority of which are either remastered ports of old games or low-quality, high-return mobile games. This one, the fifth and final of the core series, released at the pinnacle of the company’s success, feels like a swansong for the once great Konami.

Suikoden was one of the company’s series that usually flew under the radar but was also top-tier in quality. While each entry’s narrative stands apart from the other, the overarching story revolves around the 27 True Runes–sources of tremendous power–and the civil wars caused by the struggle to command them. The objective in each game is to gather the 108 Stars of Destiny, forming an army lead by the silent protagonist to defeat the main antagonist in his attempt to rule over the nation. This premise is inspired by Water Margin, a classical Chinese novel attributed to Shi Nai’an. A few characters hop in and out of some of the games which helps to flesh out the world for people who follow the series.

The plot of the Suikoden V isn’t too different from what the series was already known for, but there are a few interesting twists and turns. You control the Prince of the Queendom of Falena. His mother, Queen Arshtat, rules via somewhat bipolar methods. While she is the main figurehead the nation looks up to, the Senate creates the laws of the land and is controlled by two opposing families–the Godwins and the Barowses. It becomes obvious the Queen is troubled by how the families have a stranglehold on her power, but she can rest with the knowledge that only she can wield the Sun Rune, a powerful True Rune. Soon, as she is the heir to the throne, Princess Lymsleia will have to take a husband which is chosen by the Sacred Games. This is where things start to go off the rails.

The story is definitely one of the high points of the game and is the main reason I kept playing. It usually kept me guessing at what would happen next, even though I saw one of the major plot twists from a mile away. Though I would have liked to have had more scenes and action from Lymsleia’s point of view, I found her character progression fascinating. I found it notable that, while the main character is male, this is a nation where females are typically the ones in power. In general, women are depicted as strong, caring leaders while the men who are trying to wrest power from them are arrogant and indifferent to the suffering caused. This is also the only Suikoden game in which the player never gets to control a True Rune, which adds an interesting dynamic to the series.

The game features a number of gameplay mechanics that should be familiar to people who’ve played these games before. 6-character parties make a return after their absence in Suikoden IV. The traversable-by-foot overworld map and the overhead view in towns have both been revived after their omission since Suikoden II. Skills from Suikoden III also have been added though they are less useful now than they were then. 1-on-1 duels and army battles, series mainstays, are also prevalent here. In fact, even the music, dungeon design, and enemy design all seem to be inspired by those from the first Suikoden. Voice acting returns as well from Suikoden IV and, at least during cutscenes, is still quite strong. In essence, this game looks and plays like a “best of” compilation of series gameplay mechanics. This was likely a conscious decision after the blowback from the huge departures made in the fourth entry.

One of the few new additions to the series in this entry is the style used for army battles. As far as I can remember (and correct me if I’m wrong) this is the first time real-time strategy has been implemented. I’m not going to lie; this was quite an adjustment coming from the classic turn-based style of yesteryear. At first, it seemed like these battles were out of control with soldiers everywhere. Luckily, I did eventually figure out how to fight these battles effectively and they became much easier. In fact, they were quite exhilarating. The only problem was, even with how proficient I became, sometimes I frantically had to move the cursor from one side of the map to the other because any battle would reset the camera’s position. Being able to simply switch between characters using the shoulder buttons would have solved that problem. This was a minor issue though.

My biggest problem with this game is that it is so. Fricking. Long. It’s one of the many reasons I haven’t written a game review in a long time. Just completing the main story will take the better part of 50 hours, but if you want to see the best ending, it will be around 70. A good portion of that is due to the excessive random encounter rate. Cutscenes also aren’t skippable which is odd given that this game was released in 2006 when the ability to skip was likely standard. Load times are especially outrageous and add a significant amount to playtime as you will get a load notification between almost every map, room, town, battle, etc. The cute low-res walking graphic is a very small consolation when you are frequently waiting up to 7 seconds traveling through dungeons, fighting monsters every few steps.

But enough about how long the game was (it was seriously long though). Some of the gameplay mechanics were also irritating. Whoever constructed the main menu should have been fired because it was not designed properly at all. For example, when you want to equip something, standard RPG procedures dictate that the game show you everything a particular character has equipped with empty spaces in the areas of the body where there’s nothing. You simply move the cursor to the area you want to equip something, select it, and it shows you what you have available in inventory to attach. Instead, when you select Equip in Suikoden V, it shows you all the items that are available to equip in inventory without being able to see what your characters already have on them. I could go on about these backassward designs, but be assured that this mentality carries through to many other areas such as rune placement, inventory management, and party formation.

As I pointed out above, skills made a return in this game. Unfortunately, they have very limited usage this time around as each character can only select two skills to use, and for many characters, the second skill slot is taken by an unremovable specialty skill. Stat-altering skills don’t become that useful until much later in the game when you gain access to epic skills which raise more than one stat. Even then, stats are so much higher by that point that raising them by 10 or 20 won’t have much of an effect in battle. Because SP (skill points) is so difficult to come by, you would have to grind for hours (see: long game) to make any headway toward the most useful skills for each character. Thus, skills are largely ineffective.

Another useless addition to gameplay is new to the series in this entry: formations. In the first 3 games, 6-character parties were always organized into 2 rows and 3 columns. This game says “To Hell with that noise!” and gives you the option of different formations which increase attack, defense, or some other stat. In theory, this was refreshing and led me to change my formation now and then depending on the situation…at first. In practice, I began noticing my medium-range fighters, the range that classically could attack enemies from either the front or back row, started missing all the time in these new formations. Without confusing you more than I already have, using alternate formations requires a lot more adjustment with regard to character range and placement than it should. As a result, my party spent most of the game in the classic 2×3 formation to ensure fighters could hit their marks.

There has been some speculation that Suikoden V was released before it was ready which would explain a lot of the issues I had. Perhaps the menus would have been cleaned up if development took longer. Perhaps the more cinematic cutscenes would have been replaced with FMV. It speaks to the quality of the game that I still felt drawn to finish it despite its flaws. The story is great, the graphics are adequate, the music is nostalgic and superb, and the battles are thrilling.

It’s unfortunate that we may never get closure on what Konami had in mind for the Suikoden series. Only 18 True Runes were ever revealed. Characters like Viki, Jeane, and Leknaat still remain mysterious with questionable motives. I always figured they were leading up to a final crossover game in which the bearers of the True Runes would team up and destroy some gargantuan, otherworldly power. Alas, that will probably never happen. However, the games that were released are still fun even if the full scope was never realized. If you still have a PS2 laying around (this is the only mainline Suikoden game still not released on PSN) I recommend playing Suikoden V.

Score: 3.5 out of 5

Wild Arms 4 Review (PS2)

One of the many RPG series to have been birthed on the original Playstation then subsequently die with the demise of the Playstation 2 was Wild Arms. They were some of the many RPGs published by Sony back when the genre was in its heyday. The first game in the series had the unfortunate luck of being released the same year as Final Fantasy VII which arguably doomed it to obscurity despite being a decent game. The series as a whole was known for using a Western-type motif complete with the music and a barren-looking world. The “arms” referred to in the title were usually some sort of firearm, though I think in the second entry, ARMS was an acronym for a special task force. At a time when so many RPGs were being released and most of the best were from Squaresoft, it was easy to overlook this series. However, most of them were pretty decent.

A boy named Jude acts as the main character for the fourth entry in the series. He is a completely unassuming kid, growing up in what seems to be an idyllic village. That is, until the village is attacked by a group known as Brionac who is using a girl named Yulie to control what turns out to be an Arm. Jude’s life is shattered as he comes to find out that his village was hidden away from the rest of the world which was utterly destroyed in a long civil war that was now technically over. Those people who are left to figure out how to continue living have all but lost hope. The two kids, along with their new buds Arnaud and Raquel, have taken it upon themselves to figure out what exactly Brionac hopes to accomplish and thwart their plans.

The developers of this game decided to take a different approach to the series this go-around. While every other entry has leaned hard into their fantasy aspects, this one leans decidedly science fiction. I found it interesting when at one point the characters were discussing viral evolution, a scientific theory I only just recently learned about. While this added a new dynamic to the plot, I have to say that I don’t think the story followed through very well on its premise. Though the game was very dialog-heavy, it didn’t feel like the characters said much that was worth saying. They probably could have cut half the lines out, made it more succinct, and trimmed about 10 hours from the game.

I liked that there was a good amount of voice acting in this game. Unfortunately, the acting was often awkward and wooden with a poor script to top it off. Jude’s voice was especially grating and I hope that I never have to hear that actress’s voice again. Between the voice acted scenes, the 2D portraits of characters move around the screen as they speak like a visual novel. Though the dialogue was often a bit boring, this movement made the game much more lively. It did get pretty annoying though whenever a character would start talking about “adults” or “kids” or “growing up”. Yes, I’m aware many of the characters in RPGs are young, but I’ve never seen a game beat the player over the head with it like this one does. It really takes you out of the story, what little there is.

Battles received a massive overhaul with the introduction of the HEX system in which characters and enemies can move around the battlefield. This made battles very interesting and somewhat tactical. I noticed I was using the characters’ Force moves a lot more often than I have in other entries. On the other hand, I found that the system could start to get irritating because there was no auto-fight option. Every battle had to be fought differently because some enemies aren’t affected by direct physical attacks. Sometimes, even if you have been grinding a bit, you can still find yourself in a tough battle in which you will die if you’re not careful.

Leveling up is quite interesting in this game and is tough to describe. As you gain levels through experience, you also gain points that you can allocate to learn more skills. While this seems straightforward, using those points simultaneously depletes that character’s HP and MP. Needless to say, you likely don’t want to use all your points up or you will be much easier to kill in battle. Fighting battles doesn’t typically earn a lot of experience or money, save for boss battles. It’s an interesting system that ensures that your characters will never be overpowered unless you devote hours to grinding. The skill tree is one of the best I’ve seen because the skills your characters learn are mostly useful throughout the game.

There are some other interesting bits about this game, little things that the developers just threw in but that didn’t make much sense or weren’t used much. One was Accelerator, an ability that Jude can use to slow down time and see objects he wouldn’t normally see. Using this ability enables the player to solve a few puzzles, but it is nearly useless in the second half of the game. Tools, having been a character-specific way of solving puzzles in former entries, have been relegated to objects that only show up when needed. Their use in progressing through dungeons is usually self-explanatory. Side-scrolling also made an appearance in many areas. I will admit that these areas made gameplay more interesting even though most were easy to traverse. However, all these aforementioned mechanics seemed very gimmicky since the only reason for their existence was
to liven up otherwise boring gameplay.

What gets irritating is when you start trying to do things outside of the normal flow of the game. I decided at one point that I was going to grind because I was using a guide that suggested being 10 levels above where I was. (Come to find out, that was completely unnecessary as I beat the game with all my characters below level 55 and little difficulty.) The area I was in was rife with enemies that would steal your experience, so grinding became impossible. Nonetheless, I persevered and ended up in a battle with a rare enemy that was some 45 levels higher than me. I tried to run because I knew I couldn’t beat it and, because you drop money when you run from battles, I lost like 10,000 gella which was all I had. Thankfully I had recently saved, so I just restarted my game.

To add insult to injury, toward the end of the game there is an equipment shop that sells powerful items. The catch here, besides them being expensive, is that you need many of the other weapons from the shops throughout the game to be able to fuse them together. Because enemies don’t typically drop a lot of money, this task could take days of grinding. There is an arena about half-way though that may or may not have solved my money issues, but I was so fed up with how the game actively fights you from making progress on this optional content that I just wanted to finish the game and be done with it.

Wild Arms 4 is tough to score because I could see myself liking it a lot more if I’d have played it 10 years ago. I may have even played through a lot of the optional content, fused all the weapons, and fought the hidden enemies and bosses. There is a ton of extra stuff for younger me to find, but older me just wasn’t that interested in searching for it all. Perhaps the problem with this game is that the developers threw too much into it when they should have pared it down to a more enjoyable streamlined experience. As such, the game suffers from being too long winded and trying to fight your progress. While fun to play if mainly for the exciting battles, I can only recommend this game to RPG or Wild Arms enthusiasts.

Score: 3 out of 5

Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure Review (PSX)

Rhapsody is not a particularly well-known game, but there is a small story that led to me buying it several years ago. It started with a much better known game by the name of Disgaea 2, which I will also be reviewing eventually. I missed it the first time around when it was on the PS2 because I was more preoccupied with life and Final Fantasy. So when I bought the PSP port and started downloading the additional DLC characters, I was curious where these characters came from and noticed they were mostly from prior games. Thus began my exploration into the back catalog of Nippon Ichi Software, which tangentially also led to Atlus, both of which were involved in the release of this game and went on to become RPG powerhouses.

Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure PlayStation I wonder why no fantasy temple looks like a synagogue

I know what you’re thinking. Just the title itself sounds silly and childish. And you’re right, the game definitely is both. But I found myself enjoying the plot all the same because it has a certain innocence. Cornet is a singing, magical horn-playing girl pining over the dashing Prince Ferdinand. She has the ability to talk to and control puppets, including her best friend and guardian Kururu. As a result of a series of goofy misadventures, many of which involve rival Etoile, Cornet must go on a mission to save the boy she loves. 

Battles in Rhapsody are TRPG-lite with Cornet and 3 puppets/friendly monsters lined up on one side and all the enemy monsters on the other. When each character’s turn comes up, that character is moved and/or attacks. Each puppet and monster has its own set of abilities and affinities which makes switching them around quite interesting. There’s no requirement to switch them, however; you could simply stick with the same team most of the game.

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As I alluded to, recruiting monsters is also possible, but don’t get it twisted and assume this is going to be like Pokemon–there are a few caveats to monster recruitment. The first is that Cornet has to beat the monster. The second is that recruitment is random with a small chance of actually occurring. The third is that when monsters die in battle, they’re gone for good. Therefore, it’s much easier to simply rely on puppets once you get 3 of them in your party.

While I have no problem with this game being cutesy and lighthearted, I take extreme issue with the fact that the dungeon design in this game is the worst I’ve ever seen. There are 3 or 4 basic graphical types used, and they simply change the colorway for different areas. Each one becomes a maze of what seems like randomly generated (but aren’t) rooms no bigger than the size of the screen. Some of these dungeons can take an hour or more to explore every single passageway with most ending in dead ends and no treasure. It took just a couple of them to convince me that using a guide would help keep me sane. This design reeks of laziness. 

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Speaking of laziness, while each character has its own skillset, most of the same types of spells have the exact same graphic when used. The exception is Cornet’s abilities which are cute and mostly represented by sugary desserts. New enemies will often be palette-swapped representations of old enemies, and most puppets look similar to one or two others. All of this can make battles look visually boring. Add to that the fact that halfway through the game, it gives you vague directions on how to continue the story.

The game’s saving grace is that nothing takes very long. You can usually run through dungeons pretty quickly if you know where you’re going. There is an auto-battle button (square) which the game never discusses but will move and attack for you so random battles aren’t a huge annoyance. Leveling up happens pretty quickly too, so you can usually go from being underpowered to overpowered within a half hour. The whole game takes around 10 hours to complete. There are also some late-game story developments that are kind of cute and unexpected which make the game more worthwhile.

Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure PlayStation This is the effect of a Holy spell one of your characters can cast. Pretty cheap, if you ask me

I hear the DS version received many alterations such as ditching the TRPG battles, being able to use Kururu in battle, and receiving a special move upon completing quests for similarly-designed puppets. I don’t believe the dungeon designs were changed, but I think there are maps, which helps. Overall, I have to say that the Playstation version of Rhapsody is difficult to recommend. It is cute and fun, but for all the design frustration and short runtime, it’s probably not worth tracking down a copy. However, if you are a devoted collector and want to acquire this game, you will be in for a short but sweet treat. 

Score: 3 out of 5

Vandal Hearts II Review (PSX)

After playing through and enjoying the original Vandal Hearts, I was anxious to try its sequel. In doing a little background research beforehand, I found out that Konami expanded the game to be somewhere around 30 hours for a normal playthrough, which is roughly twice that of the first game. I wasted no time getting into it, and the prologue chapter seemed to have a lot of good things going for it. It was beautiful in some areas, ugly in others. Unfortunately, I found that many things that didn’t bother me at first became extremely tedious into the 20th hour of gameplay such that I was no longer enjoying the game at all. I decided to give up and move on since my time could be better spent on other games.

Vandal Hearts II begins with a scene of four children playing together. Through the course of the story, you will come to find that all of them will play pivotal roles in future events, but right now they are just children. The main character of the game is Joshua, and he and his friends alter the course of history when they save a man who becomes extremely important. The game follows the main characters into adulthood as we see the consequences of those initial events and they try to unify a nation being divided by outside forces.

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The game is rife with social commentary on class stratification, political unrest, and civil war, clearly getting much of its inspiration from Final Fantasy Tactics. But while that game at least made attempts at keeping its story simple enough for the player to follow, this one doesn’t seem to care. I will have to give it credit, the script is much sharper than most games from the era, but the plot is so complex with its different factions and who is doing what and where that I completely lost track of what was going on past Chapter 2. It certainly doesn’t help that barely any of the characters have a discernible personality or backstory.

While the story isn’t particularly unique in the TRPG genre, the gameplay aims to make up for it. One of the issues I had with the first Vandal Hearts was that every character and enemy had a turn and the camera would focus on them, whether they moved or not, and this tended to bog down a lot of battles. It appears Konami tried to remedy that issue with the Dual Turn System, in which an enemy moves at the same time the player moves a character. The result of this is that battles actually take longer because the player has to figure out where the enemy can attack in order to figure out how to avoid them. The button sequence for figuring this out is not intuitive. Also, many times I would move a character to strike without thinking and ended up attacking an empty square, thus wasting a turn.

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Another system that I liked in the beginning was how skills, abilities, and spells were allocated to characters. Instead of assigning jobs to characters like most other TRPGs, this one simply has weapons with abilities attached to them. Basically the player can change jobs on the fly by changing weapon types. After abilities are learned from one, they can be moved onto other weapons of the same class.

This is a neat idea which is similar to the system used in Final Fantasy IX. However, what makes this system irritating is the amount of menu management that goes into moving said abilities. The prologue was okay because there are only 3 characters and a couple weapons, but upon progressing further into the game, managing 7 characters with at least 5 weapons each gets to be an arduous chore.

Besides the aforementioned issues, there are many other small gripes that just continued to annoy me while I was trying to enjoy myself. You can’t save mid-battle like you could in the first Vandal Hearts. I ended up leaving my PS3 running overnight a few times because I wanted to go to bed. Even doing something as simple as equipping new weapons on characters take more time than it should because Konami didn’t see fit to let the player switch between characters using the L and R buttons. Menus also take about 5 seconds to load, which really adds up when trying to figure out which characters will have which weapons and skills, accessed from two different menus.

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The final straw for me was with chests and buried items that are found on the battlefield. In order to access these things, you need to have the necessary skills equipped on a dagger. That is the only weapon that has those skills and you will spend the entire length of a battle trying to get to everything, which will make them last even longer. As if that wasn’t irritating enough, another weapon class has the ability to make and break blocks, which you will also always want on a character. There are a few battlefields that only come up once and if you miss a chest with a unique weapon because you didn’t have one of these skills equipped, you will ostensibly miss out on the best ending for the game.

Upon realizing I was tired of jumping through the hoops Vandal Hearts II expected of me, I gave up. I can’t play a game I’m not having fun playing (I’m not getting paid for these reviews after all). There were a lot of great ideas in this game, and the prologue definitely had me interested in seeing where the story would go. However, everything after that became so complex that I lost all interest. Maybe one day I’ll come back to beat this game, but it won’t be anytime soon.

Score: 2 out of 5

Vandal Hearts Review (PSX)

There’s no denying that RPGs flourished on the original Playstation. Contributing to this was the hardware’s mass-market appeal and Squaresoft, the developer that was once considered the king of the genre, being in its prime. In this period, several other companies tried their hand at creating new RPG IPs, some more successful than others. Sony published Arc the Lad and Wild Arms, Game Arts ported their hit Lunar series, and Konami made Suikoden and Vandal Hearts. Surprisingly, this last one managed to stay off my radar until well into the PS3 era, but I was anxious to try out a game that produced a sequel and a prequel (both of which I will also be reviewing).

The game begins with a sizable narration about what has transpired in this world leading up to the events of the game. In brief, thousands of years ago, Toroah the Messiah helped usher in an age of peace and established the Holy Ashah Empire that was then overthrown by Arris the Sage 15 years ago. Arris then disappeared without a trace as the Republic of Ishtaria replaced the former empire. Over time, the politicians of the republic have become just like the ones they overthrew, brutally destroying any resistance against them. This is when Ash Lambert and his buddies, the main characters of the game, get involved as they sense a conspiracy.

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It should be noted that there is A LOT that happens in this game, despite its short runtime. The story is deceptively complex and most of the characters are pretty well-developed, each with their own motivations. I find it interesting that while the developers adopted the typical political scenarios that most tactical RPGs use–class inequality, religious authority, conspiring to attain otherworldly absolute power–they mix in some science fiction machinations such as time travel and even real-world concepts like self esteem and betrayal. So while some specific events may feel similar to those from other games, as a whole, this one has a way of blending them together to create a story all its own.

Some people might want to compare this game to Final Fantasy Tactics, but that comparison is somewhat disingenuous to me as Vandal Hearts came out first. In fact, the gameplay more closely resembles that of a Fire Emblem or Shining series game. Each unit has its own strengths and weaknesses and job progression follows predetermined routes. As a unit gains levels, they will have the ability to grow into stronger jobs. There isn’t a ton of variety, but what is there provides a small amount of choice in how to develop your squad. Small changes in the beginning of the game may force you to rethink your strategy in battle further down the line.

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Vandal Hearts isn’t without its own set of faults. Though I found the audio to be serviceable for the most part, the narrator is extremely muffled, so you will need to turn your TV up a few notches during the segments between chapters. Also, the song that plays in the overworld irritated me to no end for musicality reasons: they added what seems to be an extra eighth note in three measures of the song which throws off the rhythm. On the gameplay side, the process for buying and equipping items can be cumbersome, and the menus overall could have been tightened up. Finally, battles could be a little irritating when there are a lot of enemies as the game will show you each one of them every turn, even if they don’t move.

Most of these are small gripes and don’t do much to detract from a quick but fun game. Though it took me a bit to get into the story because of how dense it is, once I did, I totally dug it. The script wasn’t very tight, but the personality of each character still comes through assuredly. There’s even one guy who appears to be inspired by Cid from Final Fantasy IV (oddly, he is the least developed character). I’m glad I finally played Vandal Hearts. If you like TRPGs and still have the hardware to play a physical Playstation game, I recommend you give it a try.

Score: 3.5/5

Brave Fencer Musashi Review (PSX)

My husband tells me nostalgia can be a powerful thing, but I believe that we should all evaluate artwork based on its own merits, not viewed through rose-colored glasses. With that in mind, I decided to begin my journey through the last four physical Playstation games I have left with one I’d started many years ago but never quite finished–Brave Fencer Musashi. Back when Square-Enix was just Squaresoft, I played my way through the action-RPG but stopped just short of beating the final boss, which I seemed to do quite often at that age. I remember really liking the game overall, completing each mission, fighting the challenging but not impossible bosses, finding and freeing all the missing castle dwellers. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why I never finished it, so I made out to rectify that mistake.

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The game starts out simple enough with Allucaneet Castle being attacked by the Thirstquencher Empire and Princess Fillet being led down a staircase to summon a hero, whom we come to find out is the legendary hero Musashi. Overall, the story is simple. Go solve this problem. Go get that item. Go kill the boss. Thankfully gameplay was varied enough to liven things up, but it should be noted the hero is not likable and is a jerk to everyone. I’m all for having a hero who, over the course of his adventures, learns how not to be an asshole, but Musashi is entirely focused on himself and saving people just seems to be the way he thinks he can get home. Later in the game, his rival Kojiro makes an entrance and fights him for no discernible reason. By the end, the plot twists aren’t necessarily unexpected, merely uncared for because they involve characters you never really had much interaction with, let alone an emotional connection.

Through the course of the game’s opening events, Musashi ends up with two swords: Fusion, which absorbs and assimilates abilities from enemies, and Lumina, which gains five elemental abilities as you play. These swords are how you attack your enemies and their capabilities seem like they would be fun play around with, but you really don’t need to use those capabilities often, mainly just in boss fights and unlocking doors, and when you do, the effects are typically short-lived. Even more irritating is that you have to pause the game to change Lumina’s element, which shows the developers really didn’t intend to integrate those abilities into gameplay in a major way.

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Unfortunately, I feel like this game should have just stayed in my memory because it did not age well. The graphics are fine enough for the time, so I can forgive that. The voice acting is relatively decent as well. In fact, the music is just as catchy and energetic as I remember. On the other hand, the story is so boring and didn’t make much sense. The thing I didn’t remember was how difficult this game was to play. I’m not talking “fun” difficult like Dark Souls, where you die, you learn something about beating the baddie, you come back a second time and kill him. I’m talking “unfair” difficult, where there is a delay in jumping off bouncing lily pads, so you die just trying to get across the damn river. I wish I could blame this on the PS3’s emulation, but other games seem to be perfectly responsive to controls.

It wasn’t until I got to precisely where I was when I stopped playing the first time 18 years ago that I remembered why I gave up. The final dungeon never tells you that it is the point of no return and it is so difficult to get through that even if you go in full of restorative items, you will likely use them all up by the time you get to the final boss. This happened to me back then and I didn’t feel like starting the game all over again because I’d already saved over my previous saves. I knew going in this time, but still didn’t feel like devoting more hours to ensuring I made it to the end with the ability to beat the final bosses. I just said “screw it” and watched the ending on YouTube. My time is better spent elsewhere.

I wish I could recommend this game because I used to have such fond memories of it. It is thankfully short, but because it is super frustrating to play and the story is basically rubbish, I would advise against dusting off your Playstation in order to play Brave Fencer Musashi, even if the music will get stuck in your head for weeks. It’s no surprise the game hasn’t been remastered for later consoles.

Score: 2/5

Okami HD Review (PS4)

Any gamer who has been around for a while is probably aware of this game if they haven’t played through it already, either in it’s original incarnation on the PS2 or its slightly graphically enhanced version on the Wii. This time around the block, Okami has been remastered for high definition and looks even more amazing now than it ever did. Truth be told, I owned the first version but never seemed to get around to beating it. In a way, I’m kind of glad that I didn’t because I likely wouldn’t have felt the draw to play and experience this one, and I would’ve sorely missed out.

Okami was originally developed by the now-defunct Clover Studios and published by Capcom. It was created in an attempt to have a Zelda-like experience for the PS2 at a time when the console seemed to be lacking in the adventure-ARPG arena. Initially in its development it was intended to be a more realistic-looking game, but as that put a strain on the system, the developers decided to switch to cel-shading. This combined with thick, black lines and a certain shudder in the graphics gave the game a particular artistic look inspired by traditional Japanese calligraphy. There’s even a filter you can use in the settings to make the screen look more like parchment.

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The game begins with a story taking place 100 years ago about the wolf god Shiranui helping the warrior Nagi to destroy the demon Orochi. Amaterasu is then brought into existence as the god’s reincarnation to once again fight the demon, and Issun is the plucky miniature artist that accompanies him. The plot of the game is complex, if a little convoluted, and takes you to many varied locations, all of which are teeming with artistic inspiration, and introduces you to many characters with their own personalities. 13 of those characters are other gods like Ammy who each give a brush technique to the wolf which cause events in and out of battle, such as making bombs and creating a vine that catapults you into the air. These Celestial Brush techniques become a major part of the game.

Just like the game Okami is modeled after, gameplay largely adheres to the formula of fighting your way through dungeons, beating the bosses, and completing small quests in-between as a way to get a leg up (sometimes literally) on the bad guys. However, while the typical Zelda formula involves killing lots of enemies and solving puzzles on your way to the bottom of each dungeon, Okami changes the script and makes many dungeons almost exclusively puzzle-based, utilizing the Celestial Brush techniques to access areas that would otherwise be closed off. Combining this with the sheer amount of things there are to accomplish and discover, I found the formula to be one of its most redeeming qualities, ensuring that gameplay is never boring.

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Unfortunately, the game is not without a few issues, one of them attached to the game-defining Celestial Brush. For the most part I found the game to be pretty forgiving when it came to using techniques, but it could become especially frustrating when the game expected me to use them in limited time events. It became almost impossible to do what the game wanted me to, be it to jump across banners that were made into platforms by the wind I created or attaching vines from a fast-moving log to anchors on the sides of a river. Luckily these issues were few, but there were also a few points when I wasn’t sure where I was supposed to progress the story and the prompts weren’t giving me much information.

The other major problem is the reason it took almost a month for me to finish this game: there is no instant transport function and there is A LOT of running back and forth between areas. I clocked in at around 70 hours total, though if one wanted to just play through the story, it could probably be accomplished in 40. I easily could’ve shaved 25 hours off that if there was either an ability to teleport or if there was a fast-forward function (many ports of old games have this capability now because we just don’t have the patience we once did). There are two methods of fast transportation in the game, but both of them are quite slow. As such, you will still spend much of your time in the overworld going from place to place.

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Okami HD has a lot going for it: fun gameplay, challenging battles, complex plot, endearing characters, beautiful graphics and music. It’s no wonder Capcom has held on to this gem in order to re-release it to the masses for an easy payday. Though there are some issues that should have been ironed out, none of them detracted from one of the best gaming experiences I’ve had in a long time. Even though some might complain that it is simply Zelda in a wolf skin, they would be missing all the artistry and culture this game exhumes. As such, Okami should be regarded as a classic that every gamer should play through at least once.

Score: 4.5/5

Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom Review (PS4)

Update:

After a little introspection, I’ve decided that the score I originally gave wasn’t indicative of the amount of fun I actually had playing. There are a couple qualities that Level-5 gave the game that I didn’t give it credit for. The first is the music which always seemed to fit the tone of the game perfectly and never got old. The second is that the map would almost always tell you exactly where you needed to go to complete a quest, which I have never seen in any game. Combined with the ability to fast-transport yourself to any landmark you’ve previously been, this keeps the game always moving forward, requiring little grinding and searching.

Original:

The original Ni No Kuni is something of a legend in gaming lore. Level-5 developed the game with animations and art inspiration coming from Studio Ghibli. It was a beautiful, vibrant game that combined action-RPG elements with Pokemon-esque monster catching. The story was also reminiscent of lighthearted anime movies such as Spirited Away with deeper, more mature concepts mixed in for those mature enough to understand them. Considering the PS3 was nearly devoid of quality RPGs, the game was very well-received by critics and players alike. It’s been 5 years since the first game was released in the States, so expectations were high for its sequel.

Alas, Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom does not hold up well next to its predecessor. The game begins with promise as a man who seems to be a foreign dignitary is magically transported from his world to another in order to meet the real main character of the game, Evan Pettiwhisker. We find out that Evan’s father, the king of Ding Dong Dell, has recently perished and the young prince is about to go through a ceremony to become the new king. Shortly thereafter, a coup commences and the party is forced to flee for their lives. So far, so good.

Upon escaping, the princeling vows that he will make the entire world peaceful by forming one giant kingdom. The game follows his journey in realizing that goal. That’s…basically it for the story. There is a nefarious character introduced along the way whose true intentions and backstory we don’t get until the very end of the game, but other than that, the bulk of the game revolves around building your kingdom. The main story of Revenant Kingdom reminds me of some older RPGs in which the main conflict is presented at the beginning of the game and each step along the way is to simply go to the next town and solve their problem.

If you played the first Ni No Kuni, you might remember the use of familiars to fight battles. These have been replaced by creatures called Higgledies which are a lot more random in their actions. Each one represents a specific element and having enough of the same element attached to your team can power up certain spells as well. There are a number of other additions to battle such as being able to have three melee weapons and one long range weapon, the ability to increase the power of and learn new magic spells, and even a way to adjust elemental strength and effectiveness against certain enemies. While this sounds like it might make battles fun, no real guidance is given toward using these creatures and systems effectively, so their use in making battles easier is likely negligible and a waste of time trying to use beyond just equipping the strongest.

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To make matters worse, almost every enemy and boss is a palette swap and draws from similar move pools meaning too many enemies look and perform identically to others. After defeating a major boss, the game then grinds to a halt so that the kingdom can be built up. Whenever I decided to move on and complete the main missions, only about a quarter of the dialogue had voice acting. It was such a jolt when it first happened near the beginning of the game. This day and age, when even games on the 3DS have full voice acting, not having it seem like a huge mistake. It is such a shame as many of the voices are spot on. All these factors really make for a boring experience in which it’s difficult to discern what dialogue is important to the story and what isn’t.

Having a simple premise isn’t a big deal in and of itself, but when a good plot is sacrificed in favor of dull gameplay, that is where I draw the line. Every single character you want to recruit to your kingdom (except for your main characters) becomes a major or minor fetch quest where you have to fulfill their requirement before they will agree to join. This may sound remarkably similar to another popular RPG series about building a kingdom. The difference is that the Suikoden games were smart in how they mixed storyline recruits with optional side characters in order to keep the momentum up during a playthrough.

I’ve harped on enough of the bad things about this game. The good news is that it looks great and performs spectacularly, though many dungeons have a tendency to look very similar. Overall, it can be pretty fun to play as long as you don’t devote too much time to recruiting people. There’s also a certain satisfaction that comes with building your own kingdom from the ground up, watching it prosper.

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Ni No Kuni II feels like a rushed attempt to capitalize on an IP with an empty game posing as a fully realized experience. The enemies and dungeons are recycled, the battles are chaotic yet boring, and most of the main characters are introduced then quickly sidelined. However, being that it was developed by Level-5, it is amazing to look at and can be fun to play at times. If you enjoyed the first game and were looking forward to playing the sequel, my advice is to either pass on it or wait until it is significantly discounted because it is not worth the current $60 price tag.

Score: 3.5/5

Stardew Valley Review (Vita)

Score: 4/5

It’s not outlandish to say that retro games and pixelated graphics are a huge trend in the gaming industry today. While many AAA game studios are trying to make their product look as realistic as possible in order to blur the lines between fact and fiction, many indie studios have taken the exact opposite approach to development. It could be said that, in viewing games as an art form, it doesn’t really matter how realistic the graphics are. In fact, even better if a developer can get the point across without spelling it out for the gamer. It could also be said that these developers want to create games that give the same kinds of experiences as the ones they grew up with. Who needs Call of Duty when you have Galaga?

This sort of simple gaming and non-handholding is the mentality behind Stardew Valley, which at its heart is a reskinning of Harvest Moon. In fact, your in-game character leaves his/her busy, dead-end life in the city specifically to lead a simple life without all the hustle and bustle. That’s basically where the story begins and you, as the player, are left to your own devices to figure things out as you go along. Through the first year, you will get some equipment and other abilities unlocked as you get to know the villagers. Beyond that, your path is yours to develop. This may sound daunting or intimidating for those who aren’t used to this sort of game, but there isn’t much in the way of punishment for experiments gone wrong.

Throughout your stay in Pelican Town, you will have to split your time between 5 different categories of skills: farming, mining, foraging, fishing, and combat. Skills will each gain experience as you accomplish tasks within those groups. As each of these skills are leveled up, the player will gain access to crafting recipes, increased proficiencies, even more professions to choose from based on your playing style. Most of this stuff happens in the background and, though you can check your progress in the menu, you likely won’t realize how much you’ve developed until you get the level-up message.

Time will advance through the 4 seasons with each season having 28 days. Each season has its own crops to grow, foraging items to pick, and fish to catch. Mining and combat are mostly done in the mine, which can be described as rogue lite. The layout of each floor of the mine will always be the same and specific important floors will always be the same. However, all the floors in between will have randomly generated enemies to fight and objects to mine. Through all your actions, by the end of the day you will end up acquiring a lot of items which you will need to bring back to your farm, dropping them in a bin in order to be sold overnight. Each day begins with showing you how much cash you made from your sales and an automatic game save.

There are ways to evolve your character socially as well. Many villagers inhabit Pelican Town and it is up to you to grow your relationship with each of them by performing tasks for them. Many times, this amounts to bringing them items they want. As your relationship grows, they will reveal things about themselves. Eventually you will be able to marry certain NPCs and have a child with them. One of the interesting things about this relationship system is that you have free reign to choose a male or female, regardless of your character’s gender.

There are many more activities and features in Stardew Valley, such as festivals and bundles, but listing and describing each one would make this article much longer than it really needs to be. Suffice to say, you won’t be bored often or be without some goal in mind or duty to fulfill.

Unfortunately, this game does have a few shortcomings, one of which circles back to its core premise. I can appreciate not holding a player’s hand as so many games do, but I found it very irritating how little this game explains what to do. Fishing specifically was never explained and took me a few in-game weeks to figure out on my own. Also many fish appear only at certain times of the day, in certain seasons. As these fish are needed for bundles which unlock more of the game, missing them can add on another in-game year to a playthrough. The only way to figure out when and where specific fish are is to look online. Yet another important omission is explaining the importance of grass. In the beginning of the game, you’re left to assume it is a nuisance that should be cleared from the farm. It isn’t until after you have built a silo that you find out all the grass you previously cut could have been turned to hay for your farm animals. A player should be able to relax while playing this game and not resort to studying guides. This information could easily be added in-game.

Another issue I had was how difficult it is to farm crops, which really is the bedrock of the game. I once played a Harvest Moon game (don’t remember which one) in which the directional pad moved the character a certain direction without having them face that direction while the joystick moved them normally. This helped save an enormous amount of time and frustration while watering, planting, tilling, etc. This feature is completely absent in Stardew Valley. Needless to say, I tried a number of different methods to farm crops more efficiently and almost always left frustrated. This kind of feature would also be handy when laying out hay for farm animals early on.

My final major issue (and this will hopefully be fixed with subsequent versions, but should be mentioned nonetheless) is that the game seems to crash constantly. It probably has had to reboot around 2 dozen times after normal play. This wouldn’t be quite such an annoyance if the player was allowed to save the game manually. A manual save option would at least possibly keep someone from having to do an entire day’s work over again. Once, the game literally crashed as it was saving at the beginning of a new day. And yes, I was hot. Due to the random nature of parts of the game, a crash like this can lead to losing powerful weapons or a sizable catch.

Stardew Valley, while not a new game anymore, has been worth the wait for the Vita version. The handheld seems to be a natural fit for the game and I have enjoyed taking it with me on the go. Despite its issues, it’s easy to get lost in the game’s many features, constantly evolving my character and what I’m able to do, appreciating the beautiful pixel art that wouldn’t look out of place on a Super Nintendo or Game Boy Advance. My suggestion is to sit back, relax, and let the game play itself as you move your character around. You can always start over if you want and there is no real “end” to the game. Enjoy!

Iconoclasts Review (Vita)

Score: 8

After reading numerous glowing reviews of this game, and finding out it was yet another gem I could play on my Vita, I decided it was time to venture forth and play through. Though I usually find myself playing RPGs, the Metroidvania games also hold a special place in my heart because, like the aforementioned genre, they have a method of building on themselves like the plot of a high-quality serial drama. That comparison is especially poignant in this case as, unlike most side-scrollers, there are some deep topics explored in the script. Concepts of religious zealotry, existentialism, and environmentalism, among others, are used quite liberally, to mixed effect.

Those topics don’t detract too much from the overall fun, colorful experience. All over the screen are bright, pixelated flourishes. Even though pixel art has really blown up over the last few years to point of becoming tired, the art style depicted here is very welcome. Like any form of art, it’s not the style that will draw people in but how developer uses it to construct his vision. The bouncy chiptune soundtrack fits right in with the graphics and other sound effects such as running and jumping round out the experience. While it may seem like the game is leaning too hard into the nostalgia bit, there is great care taken here to only use it at a jumping off point.

What really shines in Iconoclasts is the action and puzzle-solving. The developer continues to come up with inventive ways to get the player thinking about the environment and how to use it to their advantage, both in and out of battle. In the beginning you will be simply whacking the bad guys with a wrench, but by the end you will be bombing blocks while certain invulnerable enemies are on top of them so that the baddie will be impaled on spikes. While these sorts of mechanics can be exciting, especially if the player learns how to employ them before it’s too late, they can also be extremely frustrating. More than once I had to reset a screen or intentionally kill myself in battle because succeeding necessitated careful tactics from the very beginning. One wrong step meant failure.

This leads me to the next issue, as the point of succeeding at solving puzzles usually results in receipt of some material that the player can trade in for an upgrade. I love upgrades! Especially when I can stack all of them and create an invincible character late in the game, thus easily destroying the final boss(es). Unfortunately, in this game only three upgrades can be equipped at a time. In the beginning, I thought that later on I may get the ability to equip more as the game went on, but that never happened. There are also only so many upgrades to buy after which acquiring more materials serves no purpose. It would make the game much more fun if all the upgrades were automatically applied as they are purchased and if there were many more available.

As mentioned earlier, the script can be a little dark. As this genre is derived from two franchises that are well-known for their grim stories (hunting life-draining alien life forms and exploring castles filled with demonic hordes), this kind of tale is expected and welcome. My issue here is that, while the first 3 hours or so induced many chuckles and eye-rolls, after that the writing becomes more and more dour. This fact is exacerbated by the numerous syntactically strange sentences. It’s almost as if normal words and phrases were thrown into a blender and the result pored out onto the screen. It’s tough to sit back and enjoy a story when I have to read things more than once just to understand what’s being said. Because of the tonal shift, the feeling abated that initially grabbed my attention, leaving me to want to skip through much of the text so I could just get to the next battle.

Overall, Iconoclasts is a very capable game. Nothing seems overtly broken and most of my time spent with the title was enjoyable. However, there is a general feeling I get while I’m playing that Konjak was tired of working on this game toward the end and just sort of did what he had to do to get it out the door. That is understandable considering he worked on it mostly by himself for 8 years, but a little more buff and polish would have gone a long way here. As a game gets closer to “perfection,” its smaller flaws are much more noticeable. I can’t say the glowing praise the game gets from most reviewers is warranted, but if you are looking for a good indie game to pass the time for a week or two, I would recommend giving this one a play-through.