12/31/2008

Kingdom Hearts Re: Chain of Memories is a fully 3D and somewhat voice-acted remake of the GBA game, released on the PS2 console. A lot of the significant cut-scenes have been given voice acting, but a large majority of the game is still text only. You might be inclined to think that the change between 2D and 3D would be a big one with a large impact to game play, but here, it really isn't. For the most part, the game plays almost identically to its GBA counterpart. If the only thing that kept you from getting into the original Chain of Memories were the 2D visuals and handheld aspects of it, then this will finally be your chance to experience that lost chapter between the two Kingdom Hearts games. If, however, what kept you from the original weren't the 2D visuals or handheld nature... you probably won't find much to enjoy here.

I may have already spoken of this before, but I will take some time to reiterate it briefly. Chain of Memories used a card-based battle system; at first sight, it seems to play identically to the real-time action of the true Kingdom Hearts games, but then you'll come to realize that every action is limited to cards in your deck. To swing the hero's weapon of choice, the keyblade, you must use keyblade cards from your deck. Moving about is done with the left stick (or d-pad in the GBA's case) while card selection is handled via the shoulder buttons or triggers. You'll notice that every card has a small single-digit number at the bottom edge of it, these numbers are very important. Whenever you perform an action, you're placing a card of your deck on "play"; the enemies will do the same. You can effectively cancel an enemy's action by "playing" a card with a higher numerical value, and they can do the same to you.

At first, you'll find that you can simply button-mash your way through fights if you have a bunch of high-numbered cards in your deck, but this strategy quickly falls apart later in the game and during boss fights. A single card is limited to a single-digit number, to play a larger number; you need to "stock" cards. Card stocking allows you to select three cards and play them all at once rather than individually. Their numerical values add up to form a sometimes two-digit number, which is a necessary maneuver for boss fights, as bosses will frequently use that very strategy against you. There are, however, the cards with a value of zero. These are special cards with the ability to break any card or card combination regardless of its value, provided you play this card AFTER the enemy already played theirs. If you play a card with a zero value first, then it can be broken by a card of any value. This can make it the most useless or most useful card in the entire game, depending on the situation.

Some cards have really long attack times, while others are very brief. Normal attack cards, which entail in the hero swinging his weapon around, have the shortest times of all. These times are very important, because they determine how long that card remains in the playing field. If a card remains in "play" for a very long time, then it has more chances of being cancelled out by an enemy's card, you see. This is why you should only play such cards in stocks with a really high value, to make certain that nothing can cancel it during that time. Of course, no value is absolutely safe and can always be cancelled by the right card or card combination; this is when you gauge your enemy's strength. Bosses near the end of the game will have some of the highest value cards and frequently cancel you out, whereas normal enemies at the beginning of the game will never even use stocks against you.

As much as a lot of people will hate the battle system, I personally think that it is quite brilliant. The main problem I have with the game is how it is essentially a really lazy rehash of all the areas and characters you met in the first Kingdom Hearts, minus the intrigue. The only interest you'll garner from the plot is given to you in droplets, and at the end of it all, the game really doesn't add much to the entire Kingdom Hearts mythos. Players were only made to believe that it did during the opening sequence in Kingdom Hearts 2, so that they'd feel like they really missed out. The real reason most people didn't play the original Chain of Memories most likely had more to do with that fact than anything else, I'd say. It's for that reason that I don't find this remake to be much of an improvement.

In fact, I found myself having a bit of a tussle with the camera system. The original, being 2D and sporting an isometric view, made it fairly easy to see everything in your surroundings, especially during battle. Here, the game is 3D and has a lazy implementation of a camera system that spends most of its time focused on the protagonist than anything else. My foes spend most of the battle off-screen, typically firing projectile attacks toward me or suddenly charging me from where I can't see them. You'd think this wouldn't be a problem during boss fights, where you have only a single target and a lock-on capability. Unfortunately, almost every boss in the entire game will have an attack or teleportation skill that resets your lock-on, so you'll have to lock onto them again, and again, and again... eventually, you'll just decide to forego the whole locking-on thing altogether, because they break out of it so fast that it defeats the purpose. All of this could have been easily solved if they merely panned the camera out more, allowing you to see the entire field of battle. The battlefields are all very small, so that isn't a tall order.

The final word here is... this is a lazy remake of an even lazier rehash that probably only existed because Square Enix was contracted into making a game for Nintendo's popular handheld unit. If all it takes to make you like a game are 3D graphics and a bad camera system, then I think you should reevaluate yourself.

12/25/2008

Today, I will be covering Persona 4. You could take this as covering Persona 3, too, as they're both so similar. Persona 4 is a subset of the Shin Megami Tensei series of games. They're like a Satanist's take on Pokemon; you summon terrifying demons instead of cute little pocket monsters. Many of them have highly philosophical, dark plots that almost always take place in an apocalyptic world of some kind. Persona, on the other hand, almost always takes place in an average Japanese high school.

You take control of a Japanese high school student and quickly discover your "Persona," your other self, who always looks like one of the many demons in other Shin Megami Tensei games. Other students join you on a quest to discover the truth behind these mysterious murders that have been occurring in and around your school. Naturally, you'll find yourself knee-deep in a bizarre, philosophical, dark tale that probably won't make any sense for most of the game. That is, of course, part of the appeal; stories that remain shrouded in mystery until a startling conclusion. There's a lot of voice acting to guide you through the intrigue, most of which will be anywhere from average to quite good. Actually, I'm usually impressed by the quality of voice acting in most of Atlus' games. They don't seem like a very big-budget company, yet they manage to have voice actors that often surpass that of bigger budget games. What's their secret?

Combat is very similar to any Shin Megami Tensei game, but with a few differences. You face your foes in a very traditional menu-based manner, taking turns (based on your agility statistic) to wallop each other. The major draw here is exploiting an enemy's weakness; in most RPGs, exploiting a weakness would merely grant you extra damage. In the Shin Megami Tensei games, hitting an enemy with what they're weak to will give the player extra turns, and you can continue to get extra turns so long as you exploit the weakness of a different enemy each time. There are other ways of obtaining this effect, such as doing a critical hit or attacking an enemy that is asleep (which counts as an automatic critical). Of course, your foes can use this against you as well, so you really need to watch out for that. Additionally, if an enemy misses your character, you'll get an extra turn, and vice versa. Such a simple modification to your average RPG battle system really goes a long way, adding an immeasurable amount of depth. It really gives you an incentive to pay attention to weaknesses and resistances.

As mentioned before, you're high school students that fight with the aid of their respective Persona beings. The main character, being such a gloriously heroic figure, is the only one in your party that can change his Persona for another. You can "carry" a certain amount of Personas with you and switch between them at any time during or out of battle. New Personas are occasionally obtained after a victorious fight, but you'll typically get all your best ones through fusion. Two or three Personas can be "fused" together to form a more competent Persona, sometimes inheriting moves of the fused Persona. This is where you'll start to really see the Pokemon similarities. However, things are a bit more convenient than Pokemon, due to the "Persona Compendium." It's like the Pokedex in that it keeps track of every Persona you ever had, but unlike the Pokedex, you can purchase Persona here. Only the ones you've had before but lost can be purchased here.

Now, the very unique thing about Persona is the "Social Link" system. I mentioned that you play as a not-so-average high school student. Well, like most high school students, you can form social bonds with people. In lamer terms, you can make friends. Fostering your friendships with various characters in and out of school will strengthen your "Social Link" with them, and in doing so, you will gain benefits when fusing Personas. Every Persona has a "type" or "class" that they fall into and every Social Link applies to one of these Persona classes. The higher rank your Social Link of a particular class, the more bonus experience a Persona of that class will gain upon being fused. In short, you get higher level Personas, and higher levels in an RPG are a good thing.

Time is spent in units at various activities you can attend, much like a currency. Activities will boost your Social Links or up your social statistics (which help you out in social situations). Sometimes a social "event" occurs whenever you attend an activity. The event is usually just a small conversation between you and this other person where you get to pick a response or two. Depending on your responses, you might strengthen or weaken your social bond, so you need to be cautious during these segments. It's all quite boring at first, but the subplots that develop as a result of your social bonding can be entertaining to see.

What would an RPG be without dungeon crawling? Unfortunately, this is where you'll realize that the game is an acquired taste; you'll be doing a LOT of grinding. If dedicating hours to gaining levels in an RPG isn't your idea of a good time, then you should probably look the other way. This is essentially the bread and butter of the experience. Much like Persona 3, all the time you don't spend in the high school simulation part will be inside of randomly generated dungeons. There are multiple dungeons this time around, but the random nature makes them all seem the same. In fact, even if you're the odd sort that enjoys level grinding, you might still find yourself having a problem with this game, because they make the task somewhat difficult. You always seem short on supplies and the only other way to recover is to return home for a snooze. Thing is, this wastes those "time units" I spoke of earlier, and there are some dire consequences for doing that.

This is another area of the game that I wasn't too fond of; you need to balance the amount of time units you spend between social activities and dungeon crawling. Social stuff will inevitably aid you in dungeon crawling, but it'll also hurt you, as you'll have less time to grind before you reach the... appointed time. If you reach this time and still haven't finished the current dungeon, you lose. It isn't a permanent lost, thankfully, as they kick you back a few days or weeks, but it still limits the player's freedom. In my opinion, there's no reason for the game designers to be such jerks.

It really all comes down to how much grinding you can bear to withstand. There's a really fun, stylish game to be had for anyone who is able to handle it, but I doubt many can. I certainly couldn't.

12/21/2008

Remember when I said that Sonic Unleashed is almost like an entirely different game on the Wii and PS2 versions? Well, I'm going to into greater detail on that. The reasoning behind some differences are obvious, the PS2 and Wii clearly don't sport the same level of hardware that the 360 and PS3 do. Some changes, however, totally baffle me. It is these changes that make the two versions feel so different.

First off, there are no Adventure Fields or Entrance Stages; town "exploration" is done entirely through the use of boring menu screens, a change likely done due to hardware limitations. You no longer need to rummage through Action Stages (the main levels) to earn medals, because you earn them depending on what rank you get at a stage's completion (3 medals for S rank, 2 medals for A rank, etc), and on top of that, medals are no longer a requirement to enter Action Stages. Now, see, this is where things get weird. That change there had little to do with hardware limitations, I'd imagine. I also think that this particular change makes the game progression a whole lot better. The 360/PS3 version look as if it's meant to be the "ideal" version of the game, but all those small game play improvements made to the Wii/PS2 one just makes the whole ordeal really confusing. I've heard of some review sites giving the Wii one a higher score, and now I'm starting to realize why.

I said in my last post that the level design of all the Action Stages in this version differ completely. I personally feel that day time levels (normal Sonic's levels) are vastly superior to the ones on the 360/PS3 game. That sounds odd, I know, but hear me out. These levels have a lot more 2.5D sections in them and they generally seem better designed. Sonic moves at a somewhat slower pace as well, which means you probably won't need clairvoyance to win the stages on your first go. The levels happen to be shorter, too. I realize the last two sentences may come off as negative points, but please think back to the Genesis and Mega Drive eras. Sonic didn't move anywhere near as fast as he does today, and his levels only lasted around 3-5 minutes, sometimes even less if you were good and used shortcuts. These weren't blemishes, they were qualities. When it comes to trying to think up of an explanation of why these levels are better designed here, I can only think of something I heard from the far reaches of the Internet; that they were designed by the team behind Sonic Rush and Sonic Rush Adventure for the DS. It is not uncommon for different teams to handle different sections of a game, or different versions of it. Perhaps the reason I just didn't "feel it" from the 360/PS3's 2.5D levels is because they weren't designed by this team of magnificent magistrates. Don't take this as solid fact, though. I am merely proposing a theory.

So it probably sounds that the Wii/PS2 version is the better pick right about now. I wouldn't be so quick to make that assumption, though. They removed all the Action Stages in the African area and completely did away with the American level (fittingly titled Empire City, the capital of an imperialistic nation). The graphics are worse, that is a given. What's not a given, though, is how they added a LOT more were-hog levels to the game, far outnumbering the total were-hog play time in the 360/PS3 version. Not only that, but I can't help but feel that the Wii/PS2 version's were-hog levels are less enjoyable to play. The were-hog has a completely different move set with far less moves, you can't pick which attributes you want to level up (but you do level up far quicker), and doing even a basic combo on virtually all of the control schemes (the Wii has no less than three) is a major pain in the pancreas. On the controllers, you alternate between the L and R buttons for a basic combo. On the Wii remote, you alternate between swinging the remote and nunchuck. It might not be so bad with the Classic Controller or PS2 Controller, but it is atrocious on the GameCube controller or Wii remote. All you're really doing is mindlessly executing that same basic combo over and over, so they may as well make things easier on the player by assigning it to a single button like they did on the 360/PS3 version. On the flip side, the were-hog levels are easier. I normally wouldn't label that as a good thing, but trust me, you want to spend as little time on these levels as possible.

I suppose what I'm trying to say here is: if you take the 2.5D sections of the Wii/PS2 version of Sonic Unleashed and made an entire game out of them, you'd have the best Sonic since the Genesis/Mega Drive games. I will cut Sega some slack, though. Sonic Unleashed isn't too bad, were-hog levels and all. I still can't recommend it to anyone but a die-hard Sonic fan, but then again, those are the only ones keeping the Sonic franchise afloat in these dark times.

12/19/2008

I'd like to talk about Sonic Unleashed today. I'll be going over the 360 and PS3 versions of the game, specifically. Before I get to that, though, it should be noted that the PS2 and Wii versions are completely different, except for a few basic things, such as the story. I don't just mean in graphical quality; it's almost like playing a different game altogether. I won't be covering those versions of the game here, but I wanted to throw that out for any of you who were unaware. I may write a separate news post covering the differences between them, if I'm in the mood.

On with the show, as they say. These days, most people have lost all faith in Sega to put out a decent Sonic game. It's no wonder, with all the terrible iterations the poor hedgehog has been put through over the years. When screenshots of the game began to surface, the rabid Sonic fan base began to wet themselves with anticipation. Then pictures showing the horrible "were-hog" surfaced. Only denial could make the fans overlook the obvious downfalls to that revelation. What's with this feral obsession, anyway? It started with Link and now Sonic is in on it, too. Of course, similar to how my attitude was to Twilight Princess, I was willing to ignore the stupidity of this wolf fetish phenomenon and sample the game accordingly.

Here's the problem with that: unlike in Zelda, you're going to be playing the wolf form for most of the game. The levels are divided into day and night portions. You play as regular ol' Sonic during the day and the wolf at night. Game play between the two is very different, as expected. With Sonic, you've got schizophrenia, because they can't make a solid decision between the Sonic and the Secret Rings style or a 2.5D style reminiscent of the Klonoa games. If you don't know, Sonic and the Secret Rings (for the Wii) is an on-rails affair, where you're constantly moving forward and can't ever go back. Thankfully, you CAN go back in these portions of Sonic Unleashed, so it isn't as bad. In any case, the game switches between these two modes constantly and with very little warning. I'm not opposed to them using these modes, but they really need some sort of transition between the two, perhaps dividing each level into parts that play entirely in one or the other. Personally, though, I would have liked to have seen an entire Sonic game use the 2.5D approach.

Either way, the Sonic half of Sonic Unleashed has other faults, one that you'd encounter frequently in Sonic Advance 2 for the Game Boy Advance. If you lack abilities in clairvoyance, then the entire affair will be nothing more than an exhilarating memory game. Sonic runs so fast that you won't be able to see any incoming pits or obstacles unless you were already anticipating them. There are easy ways for the developers to overcome this, like, I don't know, making Sonic slower or panning out the camera so you can see a greater distance. I'm not sure if Sega realizes this, but at some point, your game may be too fast. Everyone can agree that the Genesis/Mega Drive games were the best of the bunch, and they didn't need this level of speed to achieve their success. However, despite its faults, I'd still say this was the better half of the game.

As previously stated, you play as the were-hog at night, and you're going to be doing that for most of the game's length. They fool you into thinking that you purchased a Sonic game, only to have you play a platform brawler that is a little too reminiscent of Prince of Persia and God of War. You fend off wave after wave of foes with your stretchy arms that try to mimic Kratos' blades in function but not form, and you'll be swinging on poles and sidling ledges like you were some Persian prince. While neither of these were done as well as they were in their respective games, they weren't as bad as I was expecting them to be. There are also some RPG elements thrown in, just for good measure. Just the usual; defeating foes earns you experience points and you can use said points to raise certain attributes of your choosing, such as your attack power or health meter. In the end, these portions of the game tend to amount to nothing more than boring button mashing fests sprinkled with some precarious jumping. You'll find that they last way too long, far longer than any of the Sonic levels, and are great in number. It's safe to say that, if you can't handle these sections of the game, then you shouldn't play the game at all. At least, that's the not-so-subtle message I get.

The game world is divided into "Adventure Fields," "Entrance Stages," and "Action Stages." Adventure fields are towns or cities with lots of useless NPCs to talk to (reminiscent of Sonic Adventure) and action stages are pretty self-explanatory; they're the main levels of the game. What might need some explaining are these "Entrance Stages." These connect you to the action stages and are semi-action themselves in that they allow you to use your entire move set and sometimes contain enemies to defeat. They're also really confusing to explore with their obtuse design. I find the inclusion of such areas baffling; why not just make the adventure fields connect directly into the action stages?

I found most of the action stages to be overly long. Sonic stages can last anywhere from 5 to 7 minutes, whereas the average were-hog level can be 15 minutes or more. The final level in particular was absolutely brutal, taking me over 30 minutes to get through. It was also unusually difficult when compared to the rest of the game. I know it's the last level, but most games usually have a little something called a "difficulty curve." I do commend it for the challenge, but the development team really needs to learn that long levels aren't automatically good. The average level in the older Sonic games only lasted a few minutes, after all.

You'll find these "Sun" and "Moon" medals inside and outside of various action stages. It'll seem like an innocent enough objective until you realize that you don't have enough to enter the next level to advance the game. These aren't like the Stars in Mario games; they are very subtly hidden throughout the painfully linear levels of Sonic Unleashed. You're going to have to repeat levels over, just like in Sonic Rush Adventure. Because I couldn't bear to repeat a lot of these levels, I went around the adventure fields and entrance stages to collect enough stray medals to pay my debts. It did take me a good few hours of random running about and talking to stupid town folk to gather the necessary amount, though. During that time, I felt pretty disconnected with the main game. If you're going to play this game, I'd advise you to get as many medals as you can your first time through the action stages, so that you can hopefully avoid my fate.

Outside of the strange wolf fetish, this game seems to have a fetish with quick-time events, as well. You know, quick-time events, those times when you're tasked with carefully pressing buttons shown onscreen in a timely fashion. In the were-hog sections, you can freely initiate one of these with foes that have been beaten up a bit, for a chance to down them completely and net yourself extra experience. However, during boss fights, they're a requirement to win. There's also a mini-game you're required to win twice that involves shooting enemies down on Tails' Tornado airplane; that entire part is like a really long quick-time event. Obviously, if you aren't a fan of quick-time events, then you're going to have some problems. I personally don't detest these things, but I do think they're really uncreative forms of game design.

It's not all bad, though. Sonic Unleashed sports some really great visuals and nicely done cut-scenes with surprisingly good voice work. It's probably the best 3D Sonic since the Sonic Adventure series, although that may have more to do with the fact that every Sonic game since the Adventure series was an absolute train-wreck.

12/14/2008

A review of Chrono Trigger is now up for your viewing pleasure.

This is the result of me playing the recent Chrono Trigger port on DS (a fine port, unlike the PS1 version). Aside from a slightly retranslated script and some bonus content, it's the closest you'll get to the original. However, the new side quests and dungeons stink, completely overshadowed by the original game's side quests. They're nothing but retreads of previous areas and pointless fetch quests, something the original game kept to a minimum. This level of laziness is contagious, as I'm now too lazy to finish any of these new quests. Of course, this won't hurt your enjoyment of the game, since you can easily ignore all of this stuff. I am a little worried that a few of the newer players will think these quests were part of the original game, though. Then again, the enormous drop in quality will hopefully clue them in.

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