Wednesday, December 20, 2017

New Review; South Park: Fractured but Whole outdoes its predecessor in numerous ways to deliver (almost) the perfect South Park gaming experience

One thing that remains so great about South Park, which has been on the air since 1997, is how much of the original team remains in charge of the show. Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who created the series, along with many of the original staff of producers, animators, and writers, are still involved with and running South Park to this day. It’s a different scenario than what animation typically sees, where the creators often leave after a period of time and hand the reins off to someone else, but it has resulted in South Park still feeling authentically like itself after all these years. It may no longer deliver as consistently as it once did, but it continues to be smart, funny, and relevant 20 years later.

Between 2014’s Stick of Truth and now its sequel, The Fractured but Whole, the two games have represented some of the greatest aspects of the modern South Park universe. The visual style provides a seamless transition from story sequences to gameplay, making it feel from the first minute to the last that you’re playing an episode of the show. If you were to put the game and the show side by side, you wouldn’t notice a difference in presentation, whether during gameplay or a cutscene, and that’s something that’s nearly unheard of for a licensed video game based on a TV series.

It’s from this perfect visual template that you get to create your main character, known only as New Kid, a silent protagonist who arrived in town during the previous game and had to work his way up among the ranks of the South Park kids. A fun plot mechanic allows this same New Kid character to continue his journey, while once again giving you the freedom to custom design him, even allowing you to make him a female this time out. As with its predecessor, the events of Fractured but Whole take place in a fictional game that the kids are playing; last time it was a medieval RPG, this time they’re playing Super Heroes, making this an original story that doesn’t require knowledge of the Stick of Truth in order to follow it. Basic knowledge of the show, however, is probably recommended to get the most out of all the jokes, with the tone and setting being most similar to that of the series’ three recent seasons (19, 20, and 21).

Aside from the hilarious storytelling, voice acting, and music, which mirror the quality of what you’d see on the show, the biggest star of Fractured but Whole is the world that you have available to explore. As someone who has been watching South Park since I was a kid, it’s surreal to get to control a character in an open world version of the town, wandering into City Wok and seeing Officer Barbrady hanging out eating Chinese food, available to talk to. A cool gameplay feature involves you taking Selfies with various characters; take enough and you’ll level up in that category (which grants you EXP, as does leveling up in every category) which not only compels you to look for characters, but also to get the “status” that then allows several of them to agree to Selfie with you. You’ll encounter battles (such as 6th graders, crab people, among others) as you wander around, but they’re easy enough to avoid that it doesn’t become a big problem. The town that you have to explore features numerous quests to take on, buildings to enter, and items to find. There’s a ton to explore, which is both a blessing and a slight curse, as going from A to B can occasionally seem like a hassle, with a Fast Travel system that (like many things) feels somehow dated in our post-Breath of the Wild existence.

The town of South Park really does feel like a living, breathing world; exploring locations like Stark’s Pond is incredibly atmospheric, with the nightlife accompanying the Historic Shi Tpa Town and the slums of SoDoSoPa serving as solid new additions to Fractured but Whole’s version of the town. Canada also seems to be available, though apparently only for future DLC. For the earlier parts of the game, Fractured but Whole feels like a host of never-ending missions to complete, characters to meet, and items to find. It’s too bad that this scales back considerably as the game goes on, giving off the impression that with more development time, this often-delayed project could have better filled itself out with missions to partake in. What’s here is good, just very much centered around the first half of the game.

Thankfully though, the main quest is ultimately compelling throughout. Starting again at the bottom of the totem pole and tasked this time with working your way up within the ranks of Cartman’s Coon and Friends band of super heroes, your journey takes you all over town, including into the headquarters of rival super hero group Freedom Pals. The story never fails to entertain. Fractured but Whole sticks with turn-based combat mechanics, but this time brings them into a decidedly more SRPG style, where you control your characters’ positions across a grid and take turns attacking or moving or defending. Though I’d fully expected to prefer the more basic turn-based battle mechanics of Stick of Truth, Fractured but Whole’s combat quickly grew on me, to the point where I may even be compelled to check out other SRPGs down the road. You get to pick a character class, but the game’s flexible about letting you change it and develop your character in a variety of different ways as the adventure goes on. Everything you do grants you points that level various stats up, (Toilets properly used, characters Selfie’d with,  items found, items created, fast travel locations unlocked, etc) and once you level up a stat, that EXP is then sent to your character, allowing him or her to equip new artifacts that increase the stats for all on your combat team.

The mechanics are simple enough that people, including those not familiar with SRPGs, can easily get the hang of them, but I found Fractured but Whole to occasionally present a fairly solid challenge, requiring me to rethink my strategy or my characters used in various situations in order to take down a strong boss. The moves during battle often require time-based input from the player, always keeping things interesting and allowing you to knock enemies into others or into your own characters for extra damage. It’s all surprisingly satisfying stuff. Other characters are used well as you explore, with numerous locked areas and puzzles requiring you to use another characters’ Fart Powers (such as Kyle’s Fartkour, which lets you leap across large chasms) to get through them. Fart-based powers also play a role in battle, keeping things interesting and often helping to provide you with the upper hand.

It’s a game that, in equal measure, encourages exploring but also doesn’t demand it. Fractured but Whole is much more quickly-paced than its predecessor; that game’s more aimless moments, like a sequence in space that felt like it went on forever, don’t take place in the sequel, leading to an experience that feels more focused but at the same time less adventurous. The storyline plays it fairly close to your typical Marvel origin story, focusing on your character developing as a Super Hero while not really venturing into surprising territory until towards the very end. It’s only in this area that Fractured but Whole disappoints when compared to its predecessor, as you have a cast of great super heroes and excellent writing, but by the end feels like it should have built to more than we ended up getting. There are great moments, many of them, and hilarious situations, but compared to its predecessor, Fractured but Whole ultimately feels less exciting and rewarding in the plot department once the credits begin to roll.

As mentioned earlier, the quests available to you similarly thin out as the game goes on, which not only reduces your need to explore the town, but also makes your character much slower to develop, with my team hardly evolving at all in the final 5-8 hours of this 30 hour or so adventure. These flaws don’t by any means ruin the experience, but they do prevent it from feeling like all of the potential from this great concept was realized, especially when you’re informed that you that you’re below the recommend level for a quest, yet other quests to advance your level seem to be non-existent. There are other nitpicks here and there; the real time elements to the combat system, where bosses will occasionally invoke real time aspects, shake things up but often feel more tedious than fun. The small text in the menus isn’t especially well-suited to this type of real time combat, forcing you to tear through them hoping to select an item before the boss takes his next devastating turn.

But these are fairly minor flaws in what is otherwise a great experience. South Park: Fractured but Whole presents a more focused, if a little bit less crazy, way to experience the show compared to Stick of Truth. The world of South Park has never been more fun to explore, and the SRPG battle system is accessible enough for beginners but at times challenging enough for everyone else, serving as a major improvement. The amount of side content available seems conspicuously absent in the final third of the game, and the occasional real time elements of the combat system could have been less frustratingly implemented, always seeming to surprise you on boss battles where dying forces you to fast forward through tons of barely-skippable cutscenes.

But in terms of playing through an episode of the show, complete with all the great characters, crazy writing, fun settings, and solid music, while at the same time delivering a legitimate open world SRPG, Fractured but Whole completely delivers. The story is the one area that doesn’t hit the absolute heights of Stick of Truth, but otherwise this is the better game and wholeheartedly recommended to fans of the show.

Long live South Park.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

New Review: Feeling rushed and offering very little that's new, Sonic Forces sadly proves to be another disappointment in Sonic's 3D journey

2016 originally looked like it would be the Year of Sonic. After his years on the Wii U yielded results ranging from tepidly-received to outright despised, 2016 promised to deliver us a brand new 2D Sonic game created by a small studio who clearly loved the series, along with what was to be a new 3D game from SonicTeam meant to take the series back to its Generations roots.

With the great 2D Sonic Mania released just a couple months ago, we finally saw, in many ways, a true successor to the Genesis Sonic titles, and the first Sonic game in many years that seemed to excite a large number of fans, both past and present, while reaching outside the Sonic bubble to invite those who hadn’t played a new Sonic game in years back into the fold. Sonic Forces, SonicTeam’s 3D effort, is unfortunately not likely to do the same.

It’s necessary I feel to start this off by saying that Sonic Forces is not a terrible game; there are 3D Sonic games that have been far worse, and Sonic Forces, though it refuses to allow itself to stand out in any way, is at least not the outright disaster that I’d begun to fear that it would be. At a fairly modest $40 price point, diehard Sonic fans who feel compelled to try it can’t really go too wrong, and may find some enjoyment from what’s here, which turns out to be not all that much. It’s difficult to recommend this game to anyone else, however, and all others would be far better off diving into Sonic Mania or some of the better 3D Sonic games instead.

Sonic Forces is not a memorable game. It’s a game so forgettable that each level fades from memory the moment they’re completed. As I type this, I can’t remember a single song from the soundtrack, I hardly remember what took place in the story, and can only vaguely recall the smallest bits and pieces of any given level.  This is a game where immediately upon seeing its credits roll, I returned to the “world map” to replay one of the fun stages, only to realize that I couldn’t think of a single one.

From the moment it starts to the moment it ends, Forces feels like it’s on fast forward, and ironically not in a good way despite it being a Sonic title. Cutscenes end at odd moments and with no sense of narrative structure, while the levels themselves are almost all completed in under 3 minutes, with little time to even register your surroundings before your character flies across the finish line. The main story puts you in control of 3 characters; Modern Sonic, Classic Sonic, and an Avatar character you create. Each has their own style of gameplay, but each style requires very little thought or input beyond holding the analog stick right (or up) and occasionally jumping or boosting through brain dead enemies who simply stand there like statues awaiting their deaths. It barely mattered to me which character I controlled, as they all blur together into a series of automated loops and on-rails set pieces through levels that have very little context or purpose within the story. There have been some incredibly bad Sonic games, but rarely has one felt so haphazardly pieced together as Sonic Forces does across the 4-5 hours (if that) it takes to clear the main story.

After a tutorial level that feels short and straightforward but winds up being indicative of what you’ll experience from start to finish, Sonic Forces begins with Sonic being defeated by a new villain named Infinite. Despite several Sonic games and an entire cartoon series devoted to portraying Eggman as a goofy and ridiculously incompetent villain barely in control of his cohorts, in Forces he somehow manages to take control of the entire planet and is written as a fearsome and devious villain meant to be taken completely seriously. (Yes he still looks like a giant egg.) Classic Sonic, along with your Avatar who the developers almost seem to be trying to turn into Forces’ main character, teams up with the rest of Sonic’s crew to rescue the present day Sonic and save the world from Eggman’s grasp.

The story is all over the place; the jokes are halfhearted, while we’re given no opportunity to feel invested in any of the characters or a world that we barely get to know. Cutscenes are well animated but are over too quickly, instead becoming, in a depressing first for the series, radio conversations across a boring, static world map. Characters in these radio chats discuss a war we never get to see, with solders who we never get to meet. Classic Sonic and your Avatar character therefore vanish almost entirely from much of the story, as radio cutsenes don’t really work well with silent protagonists. Much of the cutscenes that do exist focus on Modern Sonic’s friendship with your Avatar character, who, as animated by SonicTeam, comes across as a blank slate with very little personality despite him being your own creation. The heavy-handed but underdeveloped themes of friendship and teamwork are clearly intended for a younger audience and will likely embarrass anyone over the age of 12. It wants so much to be taken seriously, but the story’s over far too suddenly to leave much of an impact.

Oddly enough, this same flaw defines the levels in Sonic Forces themselves. Modern Sonic, whose gameplay is essentially the boost-driven style seen in Sonic Unleashed, Generations, and Colors, is generally the most exciting visually, but the level design barely seems to exist. Large portions of the 2-3 minute levels are devoted to holding down the boost button as Sonic blasts through hordes of enemies who provide no resistance whatsoever. Periodically the camera will swing to the 2D perspective for some small bits of platforming, but for the most part you force your way through the levels with little resistance or finesse. Many of the set pieces look cool but are heavily automated and borrowed from previous entries in the series.

The Avatar character plays similarly to Modern Sonic, except instead of the boost feature you’re given some Wisp powerups which you can set in the main menu while on the worldmap. You can choose from a few, but I saw no reason to do so, as his Fire move is so incredibly overpowered that it decimates any enemy in your path with no exceptions, so why anyone would opt for another is beyond me. An aspect of Sonic Forces that will appeal to some is your ability to fully customize and deck out your Avatar. I found it fun for a few minutes, but there’s no effect on the gameplay beyond your initially chosen species, and I quickly became tired of hammering the X-button to skip through what feels like 500 notifications about each piece of new clothing you unlock every single time you complete a level.

Classic Sonic is fully 2D and is intended to play like the Genesis games. For whatever reason though, SonicTeam did not use the fantastic controls/physics from Sonic Mania, even though they borrow that game’s Drop Dash, a move I don’t remember feeling the need to use once in Forces. Classic Sonic’s handful of levels provide the game with some much-needed platforming, and as the only part of the game that you can’t simply boost your way through, they probably stood out the most for me. Still, they don’t hold a candle to the 2D platforming and ingenious level design featured in Sonic Mania, and as with the other characters’ stages, are over just as they seem to be starting to hit their stride.

Boss battles are another area in which Sonic Forces underwhelms. The 1st boss is unique, if not especially great, but all the others follow either 1 of 2 templates; chasing the thing down in 3D or ricocheting rocks back at it in 2D. Every boss essentially fights the same way with minor variations, and they stick so rigidly to their pattern that there are almost no surprises to be found.

None of this is horrible from a gameplay perspective, and that’s what’s in part so frustrating about Sonic Forces. Had SonicTeam felt compelled to design an actual game around these characters’ playstyles, had they put even the slightest effort into challenging or surprising the player, had the levels not ended barely a second after SonicTeam met the bare minimum requirements for designing a “Sonic level,” had the Avatar’s powerups actually mattered, had the game managed to justify any of the characters’ existences…..then Sonic Forces could have gotten past its awful storyline and been something special. Minute for minute, the Sonic core gameplay, which has existed for over 25 years, remains fun, even in a game as determinedly short and unremarkable as this one. For those truly wanting to play this, which I’d imagine are the series’ most diehard fans, $40 isn’t unreasonable for what’s on offer, though if you can wait, I’d hold off until Forces hits the $20 mark.

For everyone else, though, it’s incredibly difficult to find much to recommend Forces for, as it’s all been done better elsewhere. Give Sonic Mania a shot instead, and hopefully one day SonicTeam once again finds themselves inspired to truly deliver the platforming excellence that they were once known for. Unfortunately, that day clearly isn't yet here. And after playing Sonic Forces, I have real doubts that it ever again will be.


Note; This review is based on the PS4 version

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

New Review: The greatest finale the Wii U could have asked for; Breath of the Wild transcends and redefines open world gaming for a new era

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a game that reminds me of why I fell in love with video games in the first place. It’s a game that transported me to a world so seamless and so fully explorable that I hadn’t thought it was possible. It not only re-defines my idea of an “open world” but my view of what video games can be. It’s a game where, by its end, the idea of leaving its gorgeous and vibrant world behind was nearly heartbreaking for me, and that’s something I haven’t felt from a video game in a long time.

It isn’t often that a game like this one comes along. This is a world that, nearly from the start, you’re fully capable of exploring, or attempting to explore. It’s a game that allows you to climb any wall or cliffside you see, reaching the top and jumping off, soaring perhaps for miles, with the ability to land anywhere you want, including seamlessly into bustling villages or into the depths of a dangerous forest. Not only does Breath of the Wild’s brilliant game design truly allow you to explore and interact with anything the eye can see, but it encourages it at every turn.

Watch towers dot the horizon; climbing them and activating the terminals at the top will fill in that portion of your map; from up there, you can take a look in every direction; those other towers in the distance? You can mark those on your map. Spot the red glow of a yet-to-be-discovered shrine below? You can mark it for later or even glide right down to it. As you approach the landscape below you’ll see no shortage of varied environments to explore and get to know. From the start the main quest location is always illuminated on your radar; but what makes Breath of the Wild such an incredible experience is the world in between, and how the game beckons you and then makes it so easy to explore it at every single turn.

The adventure begins with Link waking up in some sort of chamber. Futuristic tech dots his surroundings, as it does throughout Breath of the Wild. The first image you see upon exiting the chamber however is an untamed wilderness; a Hyrule completely taken over by nature and its often dangerous inhabitants, both the mechanical and the living.  

It took me some time to come to grips with such a melancholy setting. The bustling towns and villages where humans and familiar Hyrule creatures gather are warm and filled with life, making the descent back into the wilderness upon leaving them seem incredibly lonely. The music is beautiful but sparse, leaving instead the ambient sounds of the wild to take center stage. The charming and funny Zelda dialogue is present throughout, including for the first time voice acted sequences, some of them incredibly well-presented. But this is among the loneliest of Link’s adventures, and at first I wasn’t sure what to make of such a bleak setting. But as I progressed through Breath of the Wild, something else started to happen; I began to make this world my own.

Your impact on Hyrule is visible to you at all times; shrines that you complete (little puzzle rooms which give you the shrine orbs necessary to increase either Link’s heart or his stamina gauge) change their glow from Red to Blue, as do the towers you’ve activated. With each activated tower, more of your map fills in. As you explore on the ground, locations you discover are immediately labeled on your map as well. Once you free each of the four Divine Beasts, they point their weapons of light visibly at Hyrule Castle; the final dungeon and one accessible from almost the beginning of the game. You can see all of this, both explored and unexplored, off in the distance at all times. It’s theoretically possible to turn off your radar and the HUD entirely and simply play through the game without them, using clues from NPCs and the glowing lights on the horizon as your guide.

At first, the huge amount of freedom given, including the ability to enter some incredibly tough areas, can be a little overwhelming. Before you can purchase the adequate clothing, certain regions of Hyrule (such as the peaks of the coldest mountains or the depths of the hottest deserts) damage Link second-by-second. Various campfires scattered throughout the landscape can be used to prepare food; a source of nutrients such as health recovery and cold and heat resistance, for example, to help you on your journey. For the first time in this series, your weapons and shields are expendable; though almost every enemy drops a new one, it’s at first a challenge to get used to the idea that your weapons and shields will last for only a few enemy encounters before breaking.

Breath of the Wild is incredibly refreshing not only for the way it trusts you to get the hang of surviving its world and the freedom it gives you to form your own strategy, but also in the way that it doesn’t bog you down in tutorials or go easy on you in the slightest; something unusual for most Nintendo games and a huge break from the increasing linearity and hand-holding of some of the more recent Zelda installments. The auto-save feature is just frequent enough that it will usually help you out of a jam, but not forgiving enough where saving often from the start menu doesn’t come completely recommended as well.

The game’s main 4 dungeons can be tackled in any order. The shrines, of course, can be completed in any possible order as well; you’re given all of Link’s powers in the first hour of the game, afterall. Shrines serve as a source of many of the game’s puzzles. Once they’re visited, they’re added to your map and serve as warp points even if not successfully completed, further adding to your feeling of “discovering” the world. These shrines are generally short enough that they don’t feel like interruptions when you step off the path (so to speak) to take them on; the game audibly alerts you to their presence, and while there isn’t an infinite number of them, (apparently around 120) there never seems to be any shortage of them. With each completed shrine, you obtain a shrine orb, four of which can be redeemed at various goddess statues throughout Hyrule for an additional heart or an increase in your stamina; both are essential in different ways, and it’s ultimately up to the gamer how they power Link up, further adding to the sense that how you play through Breath of the Wild is entirely up to you.

Traditional Zelda dungeons exist, to an extent, in the form of the Divine Beasts which progress you through the main story; it’s here and almost only here where Breath of the Wild slightly stumbles. Boarding the Beasts, done with a partner character whom you meet over the course of the story, is almost always a thrilling and intense experience. The dungeons themselves, however, lack the sense of clockwork progression that Zelda dungeons typically are all about. Their respective bosses, despite slight differences, all follow the same basic blueprint, which feels like a missed opportunity given how well known this series has been for both its varied dungeons and boss encounters.

Similarly, the lack of handholding and the game’s freedom hurts Breath of the Wild in only one way; it’s far too easy to miss talking to a certain Korok character early on in the game, which means it’s far too easy to miss out on the chance to expand your character’s weapon, bow, and shield inventory as the game progresses. I found out about this much later in Breath of the Wild than I was intended to, and as a result, I had to manage my inventory more aggressively than I actually needed to as I played through much of the game. This Korok quest also helps point you in the direction of the famous Master Sword, something I would have also missed out on had I not taken time before the final boss to go back and seek it out once it became clear that the story wouldn’t bring me there on its own.

There are other little quirks here and there; though still a gorgeous game, the 720p native resolution of the Wii U version (Switch version outputs at a better 900p) and the at times incredibly erratic 30 FPS framerate are a step down from the 1080p presentation and smoother framerates we’ve become used to with the Wind Waker and Twilight Princess HD Remasters, though Breath of the Wild's technical achievements otherwise dwarf those games in every aspect. Similarly, the more minimalist approach to the storytelling means that Zelda herself, though memorable, remains a mystery in many ways should you not choose to seek out the optional Memory sequences, which go a long way in helping flesh the character out. Though many of these Memories are fairly inconsequential, it’d have been nice to have seen a couple of the more important ones within the main story itself. In typical Legend of Zelda fashion, the game’s ending also disappoints slightly, never quite managing to feel as epic or complete as the adventure that lead up to it.

But those are just nitpicks; it may be true that no game can be perfect, but Breath of the Wild comes incredibly close. There are so many ways that Nintendo could have faltered; shrines could have taken too long or been too hard to find. It could have been far too difficult to escape a tough situation, which would have discouraged going after the game’s toughest monsters (You can warp from an area at any time, even in the middle of battle). You could have had to complete the shrine to gain access to it as a warp point (thankfully not the case.) It’s in this sense that while Breath of the Wild is often a challenging game, it knows to be forgiving in all the right places, and it’s an incredibly rare experience where almost all the pieces fall perfectly into one, where nearly every decision made in its development feels like the best decision. I didn’t think that Nintendo had it in them to produce a game of this magnitude and of this quality, one which puts even many seasoned “open world” developers to shame.

But a quick anecdote on Breath of the Wild’s world, as I near the review’s end. At one point I exited a shrine, its now-blue glow illuminating the walls of the nearby cliffisde. I’d stepped into a rainstorm, lightning threatening to strike my equipment and deal me heavy damage. Though I could have simply chosen to warp to a different location, I was aching to instead explore my nearby surroundings. There was a way; I could have chosen to replace my metal sword and shield before setting out into the storm, but instead I chose to stay under the shrine’s protective covering, watching as the fierce downpour eventually abated, the setting sun emerging and drenching the vast landscape. Up on a nearby hill, I could see smoke billowing from distant huts as night set in, the light wind gusting as the sound of the crickets began to take shape.

It’s been years since I remember playing a game like this one, a game whose world seems so incredibly filled with life, where the possibilities for exploring and evolving your character feel so simple and almost endless.

Breath of the Wild rightfully deserves to be called one of the greatest games ever made, and one of the greatest achievements ever in open world gameplay and storytelling. Much like Ocarina of Time back on the N64, I have little doubt that developers will be learning from Breath of the Wild for years to come. Whether playing this as the finale to the Wii U or as a first experience on the Nintendo Switch, it’s a beautiful, incredible game and one that arguably redefines open world gaming for a new era.


Note; this review is based on the Wii U version

Sunday, March 12, 2017

New Review: Many will consider Yakuza 0 to be the best one yet. For me, the static gameplay outside of combat may have finally taken its toll

It pains me to say that franchise fatigue may be finally setting in for Sega’s long-running Yakuza series, which originated on the PS2 and which has seen an almost nonstop tradition of annual releases since.

The first Yakuza (known as Ryu ga Gotoku in Japan) was a breath of fresh air when it landed on Western shores in 2006; the game’s strong storytelling, fun combat system, and vibrant Japanese open world city took inspiration from everything from Grand Theft Auto to the Shenmue series. And though aspects of its game design were dated even then, the Yakuza series managed to strike a chord with a huge fanbase in Japan, and developed a cult following in the West, and I was eager to devour every non-spinoff entry Sega opted to localize.

Yakuza 0’s a strange one to review, because on the surface and viewed apart from the context of how many similar games to this I’ve played by now, I’m sure it can arguably be called the best one yet. It scales back a ton on the filler gameplay and characters which have permeated the series from parts 3 on, and being the first on the PS4, its graphics are a fairly noticeable step above past entries despite its obvious PS3 origins. It also features the battle system that Yakuza arguably should have had from the start, and fan favorites Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima serve as the sole playable characters.

It finds itself in the unique place where it can actually be a strong jumping in point narratively for newcomers, as it starts all the way back at the beginning, telling the origins of both characters and their battles from within the Japanese underbelly, offering something for both old and new fans alike.

And yet, somehow I found myself enjoying it far less than any installment to date. This is the 6th game, everybody, (the actual numbered Yakuza 6 will be out in the West next year) not including a host of spinoffs. So whatever improvements Yakuza 0 manages to make, it can’t escape the fact that we’ve done this all before. Sega’s been throwing more and more onto an old, rickety framework for years with this series to further and further diminishing returns, and with 0 I think I might have finally had it.

But let me step back a bit. Serving as a prequel, Yakuza 0 is a solid place to step in for newcomers, though many will be surprised by how dated it is, and it *is* dated. Newcomers may or may not be bothered by Yakuza 0’s various 6th gen quirks, including its use of the save point/item box system despite it adding nothing to the game, or the fact that accessing your Inventory in the heat of battle is still done by hitting the Start Button (far out of reach on the PS4 controller) and then scrolling through an Options menu, or that you still can’t do something as simple as placing a mark on your map, or of course that hours upon hours of Yakuza 0 are spent reading lifeless text boxes and the “not quite, but almost” random battles that take place frequently as you try to explore the town.

As someone who has been with the series since day 1, and someone who has seen its gameplay in between battles undergo very little evolution game after game, I find myself finally on the verge of losing interest.

But to some, these remnants of decade-old game design are part of the Yakuza series’ charm, and this is a series that has always had charm to spare. From the comically over-the-top violence in its beat-em-up combat system, to its hilariously-written sidequests and “more badass than badass” main characters, not to mention two at times truly immersive cities to explore, (both of course returning from past games) what makes a Yakuza game a Yakuza game is certainly still here and on full display, so fans who aren’t bothered by these frustratingly outdated aspects will likely have a blast. And I did too, up until a point.

One source of my enjoyment is that Yakuza 0 features a much-improved combat system involving the ability to switch battle styles on the fly, each feeling incredibly different from one another. Both Kazuma and Majima have their own variations on these styles, which adds a whole new level of strategy to the proceedings. The upgrade system’s fairly simple as well, with money serving as both the in-game currency and as the way to level up your characters, and it works fairly well for the most part. The difficulty has also been slightly increased from the too-easy Yakuza 5, which is a good thing and kept me on the edge of my seat throughout.

It’s a shame then that much of the combat is centered around nameless punks who show up to block your path as you wander through the streets, making battles feel more like an interruption than something to look forward to. It’s possible, but often difficult, to run away from these mundane pursuers, but in an industry where combat's increasingly being woven far more organically into the proceedings, Yakuza’s continuing effort to treat it like an interruption makes the minute-to-minute experience of going from Point A to Point B feel like a drag.

The frustrating thing for me is that these issues are not stemming from any sort of technical constraints; that’s something I’d at least be understanding of. Instead, they seem to stem more from a developer strategy to reuse much of the framework from game to game, even aspects of it that don’t make sense anymore. And aspects that did (such as Yakuza 5’s sidejobs or Yakuza 3’s photography mechanic) are inexplicably absent from 0.

Certainly the load times that the series once had when going into battle are basically gone, and the neverending stream of text boxes that convey much of the game’s narrative are, as in Yakuza 5, thankfully voice acted, albeit in Japanese, so eye strain when reading them is still very much a factor. That Yakuza 0’s well-directed, thrilling, and cinematic cutscenes have to often transition into text boxes is likely budgetary, but the game does additionally feature a few cool comic book-style cutscenes which could have easily been the solution to this, though it sadly only makes use of these once in a blue moon.

In the end, Yakuza 0, like its predecessors, offers improvements to its battle system, while the gameplay outside of it remains disappointingly stagnant. It still has the goons randomly appearing in the city streets to get in your way, it still sends you on uninspired shopping trips, it still forces you to wander aimlessly looking for …something to happen when the game occasionally opts not to provide you with a Radar Blip. The two cities you explore are almost identical to their appearances in other Yakuza games; Kamurocho is even missing its rooftop and underground areas. The phrase “more of the same” has never felt so appropriate, and after 5 games of this, that just isn’t enough to grab me anymore.

The story at least benefits greatly from an improved focus over the sprawling, multi-character storylines of Yakuza’s 4 and 5. Yakuza 0 provides helpful catchup videos when switching back and forth between Kazuma and Majima’s storylines, and there’s a part of me that will always find myself compelled by the intense, clockwork narrative this series presents. Here too though Yakuza 0 falls into some of the same traps of its predecessors; dialogue (in the non-cinematic cutscenes) circles the point again and again; nothing’s said without being said twice. Characters are written to be so “badass” that their deaths almost always feel like their own fault. In addition to Yakuza 0’s surprisingly light use of strong supporting NPC characters, we’re again treading down the same well-worn paths: those being of course the path of revenge, and that of fragile female characters always in distress. Any time the game seems to be edging into exciting new territory, it falls right back in line behind its tired ideas and narrative shortcomings; characters who waste their last breath telling others to RUN only to have the others stand there in total shock nevertheless, villains who are smug and slimy and not especially compelling, people standing around taunting and lecturing those who they intend to kill, and did I mention the most inconsistent kidney injury in the history of anything?

It’s sad because it leads to a truly beautiful ending, and a great closing point to both where the series has been and where it will go; a very impressive feat for a prequel and something that, as a longtime fan, was nice to see. In fact the finale itself is awesome and beats Yakuza 5’s pop concert by a mile. Reviewing this has been a challenge because I know that on paper, this is a Yakuza game, and it does that, well, the way it always has. People looking for this, or people new to the series, may find themselves enjoying this game, just like I did with Yakuza 1 back on the PS2, and several of them since.

All these games in, I guess it’s just no longer enough to do it for me.

3.0/5= Fair

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

New Review: Despite a terrible final act, FF15 proves to be a great open world game, if not quite a true Final Fantasy one.

Final Fantasy 15’s opening moments had caught me completely by surprise. 

All throughout the game’s massive time in development I’d cringed every time I’d seen footage, every time I’d heard details, every time I’d witnessed another shift in direction towards road movie territory and CGI films. 

But once I’d booted the game up on the brand new PS4 that I’d (doubts aside) purchased to play it, I was stunned to realize how much Final Fantasy XV’s opening moments grabbed me. It wasn’t the bland action scene that actually opens the adventure before flashing back, but the scene that followed it. My main characters found themselves in the middle of a vast open world, complaining about their predicament while pushing their car along the road, a very cool theme song from Florence and the Machine playing over the soundtrack. 

Shortly afterwards, they arrive at what resembles a rest stop, and immediately you’re free to wander around listening to NPCs, to progress the storyline, and even to take on Hunts and venture out into the world, and what a world it is. Final Fantasy XV instantly proves itself as something truly different for this series, and I fell in love with its atmosphere and characters almost from the get-go. By the end, it doesn’t quite live up to its promise, partially due to its lacking storytelling and a complete pivot towards blandness in its final third. But for much of the experience I was thinking of it as among my top “open world” RPGs ever, and while it never really felt right to me as a Numbered Final Fantasy game, I thoroughly enjoyed my journey through Final Fantasy XV. 

What gets my full praise is the vast, fully explorable world. Having begun the series with Final Fantasy X before working backwards, I never got to experience what it was like for PS1 owners back in the day to be blown away by the worldmaps in VII-IX, but when I managed to unlock the Chocobo-riding feature in XV and got to ride across the plains, I caught a glimpse of what that must have felt like. XV’s world isn’t an especially populated one; outposts, (which usually consist of resting quarters, a diner, a couple shops, and that’s about it) dungeons, and campsites dot the otherwise empty world. You only visit two actual cities over the course of the adventure, and even there many of the NPCs your characters meet serve very little narrative purpose and get nothing resembling development. 

Instead, Final Fantasy XV presents itself as a road trip; many of the events in the actual story, regarding warring kingdoms and empires, are mostly only glimpsed by listening to the radio. The journey is instead about Prince Noctis, Gladiolus, Ignis, and Prompto (names I had to Wikipedia the spellings of to write this review, a first for FF for me) as they travel the kingdom in a car, taking photographs of each other, listening to music, and stopping at camp spots along the way. Make no mistake, this is a full-on open world game; most people you meet outside this main group of four characters serve almost no purpose except to sell you items, give you quests, or provide small banter in towns. Though there are cutscenes throughout, much of the story and character interaction takes place as you play. It’s similar in that regard to games like Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption. 

What helps Final Fantasy XV to stand out is how wonderfully Japanese it is. Its Japanese roots shine through, in everything from the character designs to the art direction (which is most like Final Fantasy VIII) and the combat system, which, while action-driven, thankfully never enters button-mashing territory. The dynamic among the cast of characters is surprisingly lighthearted, at times feeling almost more like a Tales game than what one might expect from Final Fantasy. The dialogue is very well-acted and it, along with the writing, gives the game a natural feel. 

Exploring the vast world is pretty painless, though I wish the characters ran a little faster. The car can almost always be set to auto drive, allowing you to sit back and enjoy the gorgeous 8th gen scenery. (This can be skipped for 10 gil.) Letting the car drive itself is recommended, as it can only move along paved roads anyway and its controls aren’t the best. Other means of travel include of course Chocobos, which you can rent and take pretty much anywhere, and yes, on foot as well, though it isn’t recommended for long journeys. The world’s seamless, with no load times separating the field from towns or outposts, and combat’s much the same way. 

A big issue I tend to have with action RPGs is that they become far too grind-heavy and button-mashey. Final Fantasy XV avoids this in two different ways; its combat system is more about holding buttons rather than pressing them, and its difficulty is kept fairly moderate throughout, which will likely be appreciated by turn-based fans but may bum out those who are well versed in action RPGs. Fans may also be upset that Noctis is the only controllable character, and that you can’t even issue commands to the others, though thankfully it didn’t prove to be a huge problem for me. 

Hunts, which can be taken on at diners and other eating establishments, are fully encouraged, not only as a primary source for gil (which does not come from winning battles) but also for EXP points. Interestingly, Final Fantasy XV doesn’t allow your characters to make use of those EXP points to level up except at campsites, inns, or other save points. AP, which allows you a ton of character customization across an upgrade grid, can be used anywhere. It’s a clever idea that further enforces the “road trip” theme, and I ended up appreciating it. The game features a very clear quest menu, both for main story quests and sidequests, and allows you to set blips on your radar accordingly, making stepping off to do side missions something that’s fun and rewarding, not something that feels like an interruption. Doing these is a major part of the Final Fantasy XV experience, and just breezing through for the story might not prove nearly as satisfying. 

It's good that exploring the world itself winds up being such a treat. I’d have loved for the locations you visited to have more of a narrative purpose, but the graphics, which are gorgeous, and the music, which is good if not exactly Final Fantasy caliber, helps bring a lot of personality to the adventure and its world, and it was a world that minute-for-minute I had a blast exploring. 

What goes wrong with Final Fantasy XV isn’t enough to break the game, or to make the game un-recommendable. But these are issues that oddly enough give a game that spent over 10 years in development the feeling of being rushed. Everything plot-wise in the first 2/3 of the game left me wanting more; the characters are so likable (Prompto though feels like a next gen version of Zell, which gets old fast) and the cutscenes so well directed and acted, that I was dying to see more of them than what the game shows you. Snapshots that Prompto takes can be viewed at the end of chapters and at save points, and they show the characters laughing and having a great time at the locations you’ve visited. Why not show some of this to us in cutscenes? Why do characters mention things in passing, (“hey, I noticed in that town you were talking to this person….”) that the game never shows you? Why are almost all the characters outside your main party forgettable RPG templates with no motivation or development? Why is a character’s fate revealed but given not even a second of explanation?

As much as I loved much of my time spent in the game’s first 2/3s, its shortcomings in story and character development, while nothing new for the open world genre, feel bizarre in a Final Fantasy game, especially one given the Numbered treatment. The characters interact very frequently as they traverse the world, and the little plot that’s here moves at a decent enough pace and is well-presented, so it isn’t a silent slog across barren plains like Final Fantasy XII was, which was also sparsely-plotted. But there’s no denying that if you buy FFXV entirely for the main storyline, there’s no way that you won’t come off at least slightly disappointed. 

The developers’ answer to this comes in the game's final third, where a series of events abruptly plunge the narrative into full gear. Though at first I was excited by this more story-driven direction, it turns out that finding yourself suddenly on rails after a whole adventure of freedom just doesn’t work. Granted, you can return to the open world if you choose thanks to a time travel mechanic at save points, but it no longer takes place in the context of the story, which instead forces you through drearily industrial-looking environments and a narrative that somehow feels so simple and yet so ridiculously hard to follow. The sudden melodrama might have meant more if we’d gotten a basis for how these characters became friends and how much they truly mean to each other, but in the far more easygoing first 2/3s, there just wasn’t enough of this to allow me to really care about the events which unfold in the game’s final hours. 

The penultimate Chapter 13 proves to be the biggest offender, where your weapons and party members are removed from you for an unbearable amount of time as you’re dropped into a set piece right out of Resident Evil 6, wandering through sprawling corridors looking for security access card keys as the villain cackles at you over the loudspeakers. Beginning with Final Fantasy XII and continuing with Final Fantasy XIII, this series has developed the unfortunate habit of forcing you into one giant, long dungeon as you near the end of the game, and with Chapter 13, Final Fantasy XV again falls victim to it, dragging what little goodwill still exists in the game’s final third down with it.

In the end, it’s the narrative elements that wind up being Final Fantasy XV’s biggest roadblock to true greatness. There are other issues here and there; the camera can be all over the place during battle, magic is ridiculously hard to use, summons show up seemingly at random, load times after loading up a save file or dying are incredibly long, and the jump button serves little purpose except to make your character jump when you’re trying to talk to other characters. But by far the biggest issue with Final Fantasy XV is that as enjoyable as its first 2/3s are, I just wished that we’d had a beautiful, character-driven storyline running through them. The attempt to provide one towards the end backfires completely and hurts the game more than it helps it. There was a time where Squaresoft was able to release games with central exploration elements, while still managing to tell truly memorable, character-driven storylines. Final Fantasy’s VII-IX are really all that Square-Enix has to look at to see that. 

Final Fantasy XV though proves to be a mostly awesome experience. Despite its lacking narrative aspects, I loved the little road trip through Eos that serves as the basis for this adventure. It’s something XV almost manages to fully pull off, and though its linear and melodramatic final act holds it back from greatness, in the end it doesn’t stop me from recommending Final Fantasy XV. 

I just hope that Square-Enix realizes at some point that you can still tell a great story in a game with open world elements; and that doing so doesn’t require throwing their characters into endless dark corridors. 

3.5/5= Good

Thursday, April 14, 2016

(New Review) An HD Remaster that led me to rediscover and enjoy what had once been one of my least favorite Zelda adventures

Hard to believe it’s actually been 10 years…

Twilight Princess was a game that I’d found tough to enjoy when I first played through it. I’d been new to the Zelda series at that point, having only had real experience with Wind Waker and really liking it. But though I’d been looking forward to Twilight Princess up until its release, the game’s strong emphasis on dungeon crawling prevented me from really having fun with it.

Since Twilight Princess, I’d gotten to experience Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask on the 3DS, along with Skyward Sword, which I thoroughly enjoyed, on the Wii. My love for the Zelda series and appreciation for its dungeons developed as I became more familiar with it. Going back to Twilight Princess now, I’ve discovered a game that, while I can completely see where I was coming from 10 years ago, I’ve grown a new appreciation for and one that I’ve had a ton of fun with this time around.

It’s still important to note however that Twilight Princess follows Ocarina of Time’s more dungeon-driven direction, with the game’s long, sprawling dungeons making up by far the bulk of your playtime. It’s something that likely appealed majorly to fans of the dungeon crawling aspects of this series, while those of us who were just as much into exploring the world, interacting with other characters, and appreciating the narrative aspects of the series maybe felt let down by Twilight Princess as a result.

In that sense it’s hard to go back to my original review of Twilight Princess and say that I was wrong, because I still agree that this game features (at least) one or two dungeons too many, and that its story and cast of characters seems to disappear for hours on end at various points throughout this adventure.

But having developed a familiarity and fondness for the Zelda series’ dungeons over the years, I found Twilight Princess HD 10 years later to be an incredibly fun, surprisingly lengthy action/adventure game with some of the series’ best boss fights, atmosphere, and combat. Some of its dungeons, such as the Fire Temple, have become favorites of mine, but even the aspects of Twilight Princess that don’t stack up to other entries in this series don’t change the fact that this is another Zelda adventure, and it comes with a lot of the charm and the fun that Zelda games almost always come with.

The HD upgrade has served Twilight Princess incredibly well. It’s true that its graphics style may not be as timeless as that of Wind Waker’s, and every once in a while it becomes apparent that this was originally a Gamecube game. But for the majority of the adventure, I’d forgotten that this was an old game and enjoyed seeing its beautiful art direction, once hindered by aging Gamecube/Wii hardware, given the chance to really shine.

This is an interesting world; mellow in tone and a good deal less cartoony than we’ve come to expect from this series, Twilight Princess exists in a fantasy setting that you view in both light and dark capacities; a curse which turns Link into a wolf, along with the will of his traveling companion Midna, brings him back and forth between the two worlds. Earlier in the game, which version of Link you control is dictated by the story, but as the adventure goes on you are given the ability and the need to change between them on the fly.

It’s a gameplay mechanic that helps Twilight Princess stand out from its fellow Zelda titles. Inevitably the time spent as the wolf (where you have far fewer moves and items) is less fun than the time spent controlling Link, but this HD version helps remedy the problem by reducing the Tears of Light that you’re required to collect as Wolf Link early on in the game, which kicks up the pacing of Twilight Princess’ earlier hours just enough to make a difference.

The various dungeons you’ll encounter are exactly what Zelda fans have come to expect; the formula of picking up one key to unlock a nearby door, before reaching a dead end/mini boss and earning a power that helps you to access a new area, ultimately leading to another key or two until you unlock the Boss Key and retrace your steps to use it and fight the dungeon’s baddie….are all in full effect here. There are one or two situations where this is switched up (Temple of Time) but for the most part the formula is followed to varying degrees throughout. The dungeons were designed to be incredibly epic in scale, and though many are well-paced and fun to explore, and though they usually use the unlocked powers in clever ways, they’re all quite expansive. It’s a real show of their great design that only in the last several hours of the game (on this playthrough, not on my first) did I really begin to face dungeon fatigue and want it to end.

The world above features many nooks and crannies to explore; ranging from forest to desert, from lakebed to sky, this is a large world with much to see and unlock. This version of Hyrule Field sadly isn’t one of the series’ better worldmaps, and with its iffy horse controls and both natural and unnatural barriers preventing you from going from Point A to Point B on foot, most gamers will likely be making heavy use of the available warp feature to get from one place to another. It always bums me out a little to use this type of feature, knowing how long it took the developers to create this world and knowing how many secrets there are to stumble across along the way. Twilight Princess however seems to have been designed with this warp feature in mind, and eventually I stopped fighting it and warped to my next location most of the time. Not doing so would have added many hours to what’s already a pretty lengthy adventure.

The locations you explore once you pass the empty fields are a sight to behold, especially in HD. The opening Ordon Village and the deep, windswept forests surrounding it are ridiculously atmospheric, while Castle Town feels appropriately bustling. The swordsmanship in Twilight Princess may actually be the series’ best yet, as the system in which you unlock new powers and abilities is a fun one and continues to evolve throughout much of the game.

The music of course retained the mostly MIDI format of the series’ past, (something thankfully finally updated in Skyward Sword, its successor) but it bothered me a lot less here than it did 10 years ago, along with the lack of voice acting; these are the quirks of the Zelda series, and at this point I think I’ve simply accepted and gotten used to them. The interactions you have with other characters, whether in town or in the cutscenes, have that perfect Zelda charm that’s so hard to explain but so easy to like.

It’s all this that makes me wish even more that Twilight Princess didn’t have what I see as its big weakness: you don’t get enough time with this world or its characters. The game early on relies heavily on the capture of the village kids, who remain in captivity for what basically amounts to about 1/3 of the adventure, yet you hardly get to experience a resolution to this story before you’re whisked off to the next plot point, usually involving dungeons to complete and objects to collect. Twilight Princess has a tendency towards this sort of storytelling; big events do happen, though they’re hardly talked about again. Zelda is given such little screen time (about 3 scenes) that she hardly registers, and the less said the rarely-present villain Zant, the better. Castle Town’s a bustling hub, but it serves very little narrative purpose and it too fades into the background. Twilight Princess is a Zelda game where Link barely feels like he’s a part of the world or its events, and it builds to what’s meant as an epic series of battles. It’s just hard to feel that much of anything is at stake.

I’d have gladly sacrificed a dungeon or two for some more character-driven content, or for a couple more story scenes or adventures in Castle Town. I felt the same way about Ocarina of Time, though Ocarina definitely featured a stronger story and characters. All in all, Twilight Princess HD falls just short of what it could be: something that a stronger narrative and a couple less dungeons would have helped make reachable.

But Twilight Princess HD is still a lot of fun. It’s an HD Remaster that I’m glad I played, one that allowed me to go back and re-discover a game that in the past I’d never really understood. It’s a shame that a weaker than expected plot, an abundance of dungeons, and a heavily used warp mechanic bury the game’s world so far in the background, as it’s one brimming with the same charm, sense of adventure, and discoverable secrets that make The Legend of Zelda such a great series. With its strong boss battles, fun (for the most part) dungeons, great art direction and atmosphere further enhanced by this HD upgrade, Twilight Princess HD remains a worthy installment to the Zelda series, and one that I’m glad I took the time to rediscover.

Gorgeous HD graphics and atmosphere
Some cool use of a light/dark mechanic
A vast array of fun dungeons and bosses

Never really makes the most of its interesting world
Amount of time spent in “dungeon gameplay” becomes excessive
One of the modern series’ weaker storylines