2010 Jul 30 tifa

Guy Blade Guy Blade---02:35:00

Title Drop 4: The Prequel
Last night, I finished up Star Ocean: The Last Hope. It is the fourth in a long spanning series of actiony RPGs going back to the SNES era. The series tends to focus on spacefaring humans who end up trying to save the universe/galaxy/world but inexplicably end up on planents with medieval fantasy levels of development.

The Last Hope is actually the chronologically first game in the series, taking place right as humanity is beginning to seriously begin extrasolar exploration. Later games take place once humanity is already an established power in the galaxy. The story here follows Edge Maverick, a bridge officer in the new Space Reconnaissance Force, who quickly ends up the captain of his ship due to field promotion. You're then tasked with searching out new worlds fit for human colonization due to the Earth being in something of a bad way after all the wars and such. Of course, you quickly become aware of threats to the galaxy and are off to save it as in the other games.

The game uses the rather standard JRPG division of overworld and battle modes. The overworld contains visible enemies who you can encounter to enter battle and all of the other trappings of a JRPG--scattered treasure chests, sidequests, item creation, etc. The battle system is highly similar to the previous games and is nearly identical to Star Ocean 3's system in terms of control and flow. Luckily, they've done away with the idea of being able to either "MP kill" or "HP kill" characters and use the more familiar HP is for damage and MP is for casting. Otherwise, you are simply able to move around the map, carry out special attacks or magic, and otherwise fight. The game up battle slightly by incorporating the "battle gauge". This guage allows you to gain special benefits by completing certain conditions. The guage contains 14 slots which get filled as these conditions are met: killing an enemy with a critical hit gives an experience bonus slot, killing multiple enemies at once gives a money bonus slot, getting ambushed (being in two consecutive fights) gives a skill point bonus, and killing an enemy using only skill results in an HP/MP regen bonus.

This is where the first noticable bad design decision appears. For the battle gauge bonuses, the level of utility varries massively: for XP and Money, each slot gives a 10% bonus. This means that maxing the guage with one of them would results in getting as much as 240% of base XP or money for a fight. For SP, which is relatively common, but vital to both character advancement and item creation, each slot gives one additional skill point per battle. In the early game, this allows for very fast advancement and access to special abilities. For HP/MP regen, however, you get 1% per battle per slot. This last bonus is completely worthless for the cost of carrying it out. Given the choice of getting to recover 14% of your health and MP after every fight without expending items or getting a 140% bonus to XP, the answer is completely obvious. Furthermore, given how common healing items are in general, this shouldn't even be an issue. That isn't the only problem with the battle gauge though. The gauge is not retained when you save and load. This led me (and I suspect others) to simply leaving their system on when they had acquired a relatively large bonus. Since it can take a fair amount of time to aquire certain bonuses (SP especially), this is the only pragmatic solution offered.

Of course, this wouldn't be such an issue if the game were more stable. At this moment, I'll say that I played the game on the 360 and that I have not played the PS3 (International) version. I had at least a dozen hard locks of my console while playing this game. Every single one happened during a battle and every single one was frustrating. Worst of all, I had one hard lock occur during my first attempt at the final boss resulting in me having to go back and beat its first form again. Luckily, I was able to skip the pile of cutscenes ahead of it.

Less annoyingly, but still evidence of poor thinking, is the late game transit system. Once you are able to access the final area, you can return to most of the areas previously available. In total, this consists of 5 worlds. Going to the first three worlds requires you have the game using disc 2 and going to the last two requires you to use disc 3. This is completely unacceptable. I shouldn't have to wander around my apartment playing disc caddy in the late game.

As much as these technical issues grated on me, by far my biggest complaint against the game is from a particular section of the plot. At one point, you end up in a situation with a person who is so obviously evil that from the first word the character spoke, I knew they were out to betray the party. I was then forced to watch as my characters happily hand over the giant world-ending bomb to the obviously evil character who proceeds to blow up the planet. Worse, I then got to listen to the character who did it angst about it for the next fifth or so of the game. I understand that the characters should get tricked sometimes and that the narrative may drive things, but at least write a plot where I can maybe see myself getting tricked in their place. Genre saviness isn't even required!

Overall, between the grating technical issues and the (mostly) lackluster plot, I can't recommend the game. I've played all of the Star Ocean games at this point and this is the least compelling of them. Also, since it is a prequel, that means that it ultimately has no actually effect on the ongoing progress of the game's story (aside from providing more backstory for established elements), so it can be skipped without too much trouble.

Star Ocean: The Last Hope: 0

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2010 Jul 13 aya

Guy Blade Guy Blade---21:24:00

What does "moe" mean?
Over the weekend, I played all the way through No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle. For a very long time, I considered the first No More Heroes game to be the best game available on the Wii console. It was and continues to be certainly the best Mature title for the device that I'd played.

No More Heroes was the story of Travis Touchdown--wrestling and anime otaku, probable NEET, and general loser--who won a lightsaber off of eBay and decided to become an assassin for the chicks. This set up alone was enough to sell the game to me. The first No More Heroes catalogs his ascension by murder to the top of the world-wide assassin's organization--the United Assassins Association.

This game picks up three years after the first with Travis back to mostly being a poor, unemployed user. The difference now is that he is famous for his exploits of the first game and has been targetted by enemies that he made back during the first game. So, we end up climbing the ranks of the UAA again.

Gameplay wise, not much has changed. The game alternates between the assassination areas and the between mission upgrade/minigame section. In the assassination areas, Travis still wades through hordes of enemies with his beam saber before eventually arriving at his designated target. The assassination fights themselves are still the core of the gameplay and remain quite strong in this second iteration. The between mission areas have been altered somewhat in that Santa Destroy is no longer an open, explorable world.

The loss of the explorable world is not really that big of an issue. In the first game, the primary purpose of the explorable world was to obtain money with which to buy weapon upgrades. In this one, there are no weapon upgrades per se. Instead, each weapon offers a different style of combat. Additionally, only two weapons are available directly for sale and the time to get the money to buy both is rather small (assuming you get good at the minigames). Unfortunately, the game unlocks the second purchasable weapon--the Peony--very early in the game. This particular weapon makes the game far easier due to its huge damage and equally huge hit areas. In fact, it was so imbalancing, it gave me flashbacks of using Hymir's Finger in Drakengard.

They have mixed things up a few things this time. A couple of the boss fights are different than the usual beam saber flair. Travis gets a motorcycle shoving match and a giant mecha fight, for instance. There are also a couple of levels in which you play as alternate characters with slightly different movesets.

Unfortunately, the things that I liked most about the first game were the interplay between characters, the bizarre and off the wall way the characters behave, and the plot which was full of random and mostly arbitrary plot twists complete with characters ignoring the fourth wall. Although there are still some good moments between the characters, there is still some craziness from the characters, and the characters still occasionally ignore the fourth wall, none of it seems as solid this time around.

Furthermore, it seems like the assassination targets themselves have less "life" than they had previously. Although a few of them are interesting and have colorful backstories, there just aren't any that can live up to "Bad Girl" or "Holly Summers" from the first game.

So is the game worth it? Well, much like what I said in the Diabolic Box review, this is a game targeted at fans of the first. If you liked the first, you will at least enjoy this one, even if it isn't quite as good as the previous. If you didn't like the first one, there's probably nothing here for you. In all honesty, I was disappointed with it given how amazing the first one was. My hope is that the inevitable No More Heroes 3 makes up for this one.

No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle: 0

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Guy Blade Guy Blade---05:21:00

Professor Layton and the Meaningless MacGuffin
Last week, I finished playing through Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box. If you missed the first one, the Professor Layton games are puzzle games for the Nintendo DS. Diabolical Box is the second one released in the US with a third one coming to the US later this year.

Once again, the Professor has gotten himself stuck in a closed circle with mysteries all around him. The game begins with one of the Professor's old friends finally obtaining a box which said friend had been researching and searching for. The box has a reputation for killing anyone who opens it, so said friend thought it would be a good idea to open it. Needless to say, the expected happens and the Professor and Luke go off in search of the secret behind the (now lost again) box and the death of the Professor's friend.

The gameplay is almost identical to the first iteration of the series. You wander around a world, adventure game sytle, and periodically encountering people with puzzles for you to solve. This one includes about as many sidequests as the former did, but they are at least different this time around. Rather than assembling a robotic dog, you get to train a gerbil so that it loses weight, for instance. The other two sidequests involve a set of spot-the-differences puzzles and a tea brewing/serving quest.

Unfortunately, the game suffers somewhat due to the fact that I had played the former so recently. Although none of the puzzles in the first game were repeated verbatim, many of them were using similar gimicks just repeated with slightly different constraints or with a different framing device. As an example, the first game had a number of variations of the eight queens puzzle on progressively larger boards. The second game replaces this with the knight's tour at various board sizes. This is actually one of the better examples as it is a relatively distinct (if somewhat related) puzzle. Others are "yet another logic puzzle" or "yet another sliding block puzzle".

Given that the plot of any Layton game is mostly just a framing device for a large pile of puzzles, this one continues the tradition of crazy plot twists. I might even argue that the plot twists here are even crazier.

Ultimately, Diabolical Box is mostly a carbon copy of Curious Village. If you enjoyed the first, you'll probably enjoy the second. Similarly, if you didn't like the first, you won't find anything here to encourage a second look at the series. If you aren't sure about the series, I would suggest starting with Curious Villiage as there are numerous references to the first game in the second that are spoilers for the first.

It is difficult for me to come to a numeric value to represent this game. On the one hand, there is nothing bad or wrong with the game itself compared to its predecessor. On the other hand, the game takes no risks and introduces next to nothing in terms of new gameplay. It is the very definition of a "safe play". I think ultimately, I wouldn't recommend the Diabolical Box outright. The former is just as good and a fan of it would likely pursue this one regardless.

Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box: 0

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2010 Jul 08 aeris

Guy Blade Guy Blade---21:06:00

They call it Psychonauts because they only go into crazy minds.
Last night, I finished Psychonauts. I know this review may not be timely, but I'd never played it until Steam had it for $2 a while back. For those left unaware, Psychonauts is a platformer released in 2005 for the PC, XBox and PS2. It was a critical success, but didn't have a great deal of commercial success.

The game itself centers around Razputin--usually shortened to just Raz--a young psychic adept who runs away from his life in the circus to go to a summer camp where other young psychics are trained in how to use their powers. Most of the game takes on a similar quirky sort of humor.

Gameplay itself comes in two forms: the real world and the various mental worlds of camp residents. For the most part the two sections play identicaly. The main difference is that the real world has far fewer enemies and a large abundance of collectables (like most modern platfomers) whereas the mental worlds tend to be more enemy infested and have a completely different set of collectables. All of these collectables are used ultimately to raise your character's level and thereby upgrade your abilities. The abilities themselves come in the sort of standard psychic toolbox: pyrokinesis, telekinesis, mind bullets, levitation, etc.

Surprisingly, the game actually holds up rather well given its age. Since most of the characters in the game are deliberately rendered highly stylistically, there is less of a realization that you're playing a game that is as old as it is. A sort of "cartoony" vibe is everywhere and helps to gloss over what would otherwise be outdated graphics. The voice acting is also very solid (Raz is voiced by Invader Zim's voice actor) which helps. Also, the plot manages to hold together despite its silliness to create a believable world--something that games which go toward off-beat routes have the risk of losing.

My main complaints about the game are, unfortunately, the last two areas. At the end of the game, there is a final "real" world and a final "mental" world. Both of these are far less polished than the rest of the game. Rough jumping puzzles abound in these areas. To make matters worse, in the earlier levels, the game always was kind to leave you with something like "recovery points". If you managed to get high up in one of the jumping puzzles, the game would periodically add things that would let you skip the rest of the puzzle to get back to your starting location if you fell. In the last two areas, the game--for whatever reason--refuses to provide any. Several times, I fell down through minutes worth of puzzle only to have to climb the entire thing again. I'm not sure if they were aiming for an increase in (fake) difficulty or what. Of course, these were also the areas where all of the foibles of the control system became obvious. As an example, I beat all of the final bosses without losing more than 2 lives between them. On the other hand, I went through two complete stacks of lives (10 lives per stack) in the final platforming areas.

Despite the end game being a bit less satisfying, I think this game is still worth the time I spent playing it. It is rare to find a game with such a bizarre sense of humor that still manages to mostly be fun.

Psychonauts: 1

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2010 Jul 06 terra

Guy Blade Guy Blade---23:36:00

Anime Expo 2010
This last weekend, I went to Anime Expo. I discovered last year that Anime Expo was somewhat less fan-driven than Anime Central in Chicago was. That impression mostly followed this year. I believe that during the entire course of the convention, I never went to any panel which wasn't industry driven. That isn't to say that the industry panels weren't interesting--they tended to be so in fact. Nevertheless, the industry centric approach leads to a different feel to the convention overall.

I mostly organized my weekend by going from industry announcement/status panel to industry announcement/status panel.

Highlights (in no particular order):

Bandai licenses K-On!
FUNimation licenses Trigun: Badlands Rumble (and had a screening on Saturday).
Nozomi/Right Stuf is rereleasing Revolutionary Girl Utena with remastered video.
Bandai/Aniplex are releasing both Gurren Lagann movies this month in the US. The collector's/premium editions contain the Parallel Works.
Bandai will be releasing Haruhi Season 2 in a single box set sometime this year.
No release timeline for The Disappearance of Suzumiya Haruhi (the movie) from Bandai/Aniplex.


I didn't actually pick up much stuff this year at the convention. I grabbed a couple of items that were on sale at the Bandai booth: Rocket Girls (the story of how not to run a human spaceflight program), and a movie that was on sale rather cheap. I picked up the first Toradora! box set from NIS America's booth. I picked up the one DVD of Project Blue Earth SOS that I was missing.

Most of the money that I spent at the convention was actually in Artist's Alley. I picked up about a dozen prints that I'm going to (somehow) put up in my apartment. I picked up a handful at last year's con, but there were quite a few that sparked my interest this year. Once I get frames, I'll take some pictures.

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