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Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Shining Force

The second entry in Sega's long-running Shining franchise and the first to use a turn-based strategy RPG style of gameplay.  But did Shining Force succeed at bringing this esoteric genre to consoles, or is this just one that shouldn't have been attempted?

While far from the first game to attempt to bring turn-based strategy action to consoles (having been predated by Fire Emblem in Japan and a number of super in-depth genre games by Koei across numerous platforms), Shining Force is one of the first I'm aware of that really picked up a significant following in the west.  It's lauded by many die-hard fans as one of the best RPGs on the system, and the Shining franchise is a successful one that continues to get entries to this day (though mostly Japanese-exclusive and, from all I've heard, not really that great).

I didn't play Shining Force back in the 90s, but even as someone who has played it relatively recently, I can see why that was the case.  Shining Force certainly pulls no punches with its presentation, with large, colorful sprites, animated portraits for nearly every character in the game, some memorable and catchy tunes to carry the feel of battle, and in-fight cutscenes that feature more of the same - you actually get to see characters clash swords or summon waves of fire to decimate their foes, and it's all animated stunningly well for the Sega Genesis.  Even the framing device is a clever one, having the whole thing be a story read to you by an elf character who only appears on the game's startup screen.

There are certainly no shortage of enemy types to battle in the game, either - from giant bats to skeletons to demons to robots to serpents to evil dolls, the game is more than a bit reminiscent of early games like Might and Magic and Ultima which melded science fiction and fantasy elements together.  Each has unique strategies to consider, too, with bats avoiding most physical attacks, mages being able to damage groups of allies (necessitating that you don't group them too closely together) and bosses generally having large area-of-effect attacks that you must evade.

Battles are generally quite large in scale too - not just limited to a single screen, you can sometimes get into fights on fields that are two or three screens tall and wide, packed with enemies almost every step of the way.  This can make it quite difficult to win through on your first attempt, even if you bring along plenty of herbs and the best equipment available; however, your protagonist has the Egress spell from the start, which will allow your army to escape battle, return to the previous town and restock, keeping all of the experience they've earned from the fight.  Basically, you can't ever really get stuck in an unwinnable state; it may take you several attempts to power up enough to clear a battle, but it's always something that can be done.

One of the game's greatest strengths, though, is its cast of playable characters.  There are a grand total of 30 in the game (33 in the GBA version), and each is pretty distinct, having unique sprites and, for the most part, very different capabilities. Some wield bows and throw spears (which have longer range but less damage than melee weapons), others cast spells, and, later in the game, you get some downright strange ones - a werewolf, a robot, a flying squid that casts ice spells, and even a dragon.  That variety, plus unique traits like being able to instantly kill enemies regardless of their HP or fly over obstacles that would impede most characters, encourages the player to experiment and find which ones work best.. Building on that, nearly all characters have the option to be promoted after reaching a certain level of experience, giving themselves a significant attack boost and a new set of sprites.  While far from the best balanced cast - some characters are virtually useless while others simply dominate everything, particularly in the late game - the amount of variety Shining Force provided was pretty staggering for 1993.

Shining Force does show its age in some ways, though.  The battle animations do get repetitive after only a short while, and there's no real way to stop or speed them up, so you'll be seeing an awful lot of the same few attacks over the course of the game.  Shining Force utilizes the same flawed experience system as a lot of early RPGs too - landing the killing blow on an enemy is by far the best way to gain points, which can be frustrating when you want to level up less combat-inclined characters (like healers and mages with a limited amount of MP and weak physical attacks).

But even with a few faults, it's not hard to see why Shining Force was such a well-received game, particularly for its time period.  Its stellar presentation and polished, relatively fast-paced gameplay made it a treat for the more actiony style of Japanese RPGs, and it provided enough depth and variety to keep things fresh for those more used to the more methodical philosophy of computer RPGs.  I wouldn't call it one of my favorites, but it's one that's certainly worth checking out if you're looking into the older classics.

Developer: Climax Entertainment, Sonic!  Software Planning
Publisher: Sega
Platform: Sega Genesis, Windows, GBA, Wii, iOS, PC
Released: 1993, 2004, 2007, 2010, 2011
Recommended Version: Most versions are simply direct emulations of the Sega Genesis original, though the GBA version is more of a remake, having redone graphics, rebalanced gameplay and some extra features, such as adding three new playable characters, an expanded storyline and a difficulty level that scales each time one completes the game, making it more challenging for the next playthrough.  That's probably the one I'd recommend overall.

Tags: Strategy RPG, Science Fantasy, Prefab Characters, Turn-Based, Visible/Scripted Encounters, Long Animations, Adjustable Difficulty (GBA only), Save Only at Checkpoints, Mid-Length Campaign, Humorous, Missables

Tuesday, October 8, 2019


A Metroidvania action-RPG with a combat system inspired by Valkyrie Profile, which endured several delays and setbacks before its eventual release.  But is this another crowdfunding success story for 2019, or does Indivisible just prove to be a long-awaited letdown?

Lab Zero, despite having only one real title to their name (Skullgirls and its later iterations, Encore and Second Encore) has become an indie darling, combining high-quality animation with surprisingly polished, innovative gameplay. For those reasons, and the clear passion of its designers and community, Skullgirls is a game that has maintained a sizable following even years after its release - a rarity for a genre that seems to get new entries on an almost monthly basis.  However, the rights to the game itself are a bit of a snafu, being held by the company they spun from (Autumn Games) and ensuring that most profits from the game don't actually go to them.  So, with the backing of 505 games, they released a playable prototype of their next project, Indivisible, with a crowdfunding goal of 1.5 million dollars to expand it into a full game.  Eventually, this goal was met and surpassed (ultimately acquiring 1.9 million) and the game underwent development, being released four years later after a number of delays and setbacks.

I was one of those backers, and after playing the prototype and the backer-exclusive preview (which showed off a few more characters and some gameplay tweaks added in the interim), I only got more excited to play the final game.  But the day has finally come, and I can safely say that it did not let me down.

As was mentioned from the start, Indivisible's gameplay is very much inspired by that of Valkyrie Profile, combining platforming elements with an action-oriented combat system that places heavy emphasis on racking up combos to maximize damage, with each of the four party characters assigned to a single button and doing differing attacks depending upon the direction pressed on the D-pad or analog stick during their attack.  This operates on a time scale somewhat similar to the Active Time Battle from the Final Fantasy series, with a character able to perform an attack at any time they have a pip, and others on their team able to attack during their "turn" to create longer combos (which applies to both the player and enemies).  Any time a turn isn't happening, pips will steadily regenerate, with the exact rate depending upon the character.

However, Indivisible takes the idea and incorporates a lot of fighting game paradigms in as well - enemy attacks can be blocked by pressing a character's button (or a left shoulder button to have the entire party block), and perfectly-timed blocks will not only significantly reduce damage taken (and prevent death even if an attack would normally deplete a character's HP) , but build special meter too.   Meter, in turn, can be used as in a fighter, letting a character perform a powerful attack (and more bars spent equalling more damage) or utilize Ajna's inherent ability to heal the party and revive fallen members.  Careful meter management quickly becomes a part of the overall strategy, especially as unblocked attacks can quickly devastate your party.

Indivisible does a great job diversifying its cast as well - there are a total of twenty-five playable characters, and each has unique mechanics and abilities to experiment with.  For example, Dhar's down-attack lets him store energy to power up his other two attacks (indicated by up to twelve rocks hovering around his person, which humorously persist even in cutscenes).  Razmi's down-attack can "Hex" enemies, slowing and causing them to take more damage for a short time, while Ginseng and Honey's main attack powers up their up-attack, which not only does damage but heals the party without having to spend meter.  A lot of the fun of the game is trying out each of the new characters you recruit, and as only a handful of them are strictly required, going searching for more is always a thrill in itself.

What sets Indivisible apart from other Metroidvania RPGs, though, is that it has some some of the most seamless gameplay I've seen in games of this type.  The shifts from platforming to combat and back again with no visible pause in most cases, and even shifting into Ajna's inner realm (where one can converse with other characters or power up) requires absolutely no loading - you just hold a button and press Up and you're there in an instant.  Health and iddhi meters are retained between battles, and traps in the environment will cause HP damage, putting the player at a disadvantage in the next fight. This even gets used to clever effect during boss encounters, with combat abruptly stopping to have the player evade projectiles and traverse obstacles on the way to the next phase of the fight, and popping the player right back into combat once they catch up.  Even viewing the map is worked into this philosophy - stop and hold Up for a moment to view your surroundings quickly. There's really never a dull moment in Indivisible's gameplay, and it almost completely avoids the stop-and-go feel most of RPGs.

The platforming element is masterfully done too.  Unlike Valkyrie Profile, where it was relatively generic (save for the need to tediously stack ice blocks to reach hidden treasures), here it feels just as dynamic and challenging as the combat.  Vanishing platforms, activating switches and utilizing one's expanding moveset - from hopping up walls with the axe to sliding through narrow gaps to breaking them down with a dash - quickly become a key part of the experience.  As in any Metroidvania style game, new abilities both grant access to new areas and let you backtrack to previous ones, clearing obstacles you couldn't get through before to find goodies.  Thankfully, Indivisible's levels are also well-designed enough that this never feels like a chore - once you have the ability you need to get every last item in an area, you're almost always afforded a very quick way back out through it too.

Another joy of the game is its overall presentation.  There is little surprise that the animation and visuals are of exceptional quality - that being Lab Zero's hallmark since the days of Skullgirls - but it really can't be understated that Indivisible is a gorgeous game.  Each area you encounter is a thrill to see, with towering mountains, statues, light rays coming through cracks in the ceiling, and detailed architecture adding tremendously to the atmosphere.  Enemy and playable characters alike sport staggeringly large numbers of animation frames, and like any good fighter, recognizing exact ones in an attack can aid tremendously with parrying attacks and blocking.  The soundtrack is incredible, adding a lot of personality to the locales, though that's not surprising considering it's provided by none other than Hiroki Kikuta, probably best known for the soundtracks to Secret of Mana and Trials of Mana on the SNES.  The voiceover in the game is a treat too, with both well-known actors (Michael Dorn, Christina Vee, Stephanie Sheh) and a number of lesser-known names providing dialog, adding much to the characters' charm and humor with their unique talents.  Seeing the inner realm grow as more characters are added - not just playable characters, but NPCs who offer services like changing your character's "costumes" (color palettes) and allowing you to practice combos with a number of non-aggressive "dummy" enemies - is fun in its own right, though it's not taken to the same level as Suikoden, for example.

All of these things make Indivisible an exceptionally fun experience, as does a relatively reasonable length by modern RPG standards (approximately 30 hours) that ensures it doesn't overstay its welcome and lends itself well to replayability and speedrunning.  However, its launch didn't go off completely without a hitch - some preorder bonus codes were faulty and had to be reissued, and two characters planned for the game were also left out of the initial launch due to difficulty implementing their mechanics (Sangmu and Antoine), but will be reintroduced in a later patch.  More characters are planned as post-launch DLC too, including numerous guests from other indie games (Shantae, Red from Transistor and Shovel Knight to name a few), which will only further add to the game's variety and replayability once they're out.

So, when all is said and done, was Indivisible worth my backing and four years of waiting?  I definitely think it was.  Its unique blend of mechanics and virtually seamless gameplay is captivating, it's a great experience for the eyes and ears, and as in any good Metroidvania, uncovering secrets and mastering the finer points of the mechanics to complete the game more and more efficiently is a constant thrill.  It stands out further with relatively unique southern Asia inspired setting, charming characters and telling a good story while maintaining a relatively jokey, irreverent mood throughout.  Its may not be the best of its kind at any one thing it does, but it's a masterful blend of a lot of solid, highly-polished elements into one cohesive and memorable experience.  Very much worth playing.

Developer: Lab Zero Games
Publisher: 505 Games
Platform: Playstation 4, XBox One, PC, MacOS, Linux, Switch
Released: 2013, 2019
Recommended Version: All versions of the game seem to be nearly identical, though with slightly different sets of "costume colors" available as unlockable bonuses.   At the time of this writing, the Switch version is still in development.

Tags: Action RPG, Fantasy, Prefab Characters, ATB-Like, Voluminous Side Content, Save Only at Checkpoints, Mid-Length Campaign, Great Music, Humorous

Monday, September 30, 2019

Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch

Ni no Kuni marked Level-5's return to the single-player console RPG experience after a long absence, and they brought Studio Ghibli along for good measure to provide plenty of charm and emotional impact.  But does Ni no Kuni stand up well as a game, or is this just one that only has an anime legend behind it but nothing else?

Level-5 made their debut with the Dark Cloud franchise and from there built a small empire, moving on to create a very successful puzzle game franchise (Professor Layton), bring the Dragon Quest games to a new generation with cel-shaded visuals, voiceover and traditional but challenging gameplay, and build a long-running tie-in franchise to the Inazuma Eleven anime series.  That was all well and good, but fans of traditional RPGs in the PS3 era were largely left out, with their only releases on the platform to that point being a lackluster online game called "White Knight Chronicles" and its sequel.  That, paired with a ton of other underwhelming RPGs in the era (Final Fantasy XIII and hordes of Idea Factory slop), left a lot of genre fans, myself included, high and dry.

Then out came Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch.  A reimagining of a Japan-only DS title called "Ni no Kuni: Dominion of the Dark Djinn", it took advantage of the more powerful hardware in every way it could to truly deliver a Ghibli-like experience.  It succeeds admirably in this regard, playing up all of Ghibli's hallmarks - with imaginative monster designs, beautifully-animated, cel-shaded characters and models, gorgeous and intricately detailed towns, numerous animated cutscenes for story scenes and the protagonist undertaking a very personal and emotional journey, the presentation of the game is fantastic and quickly draws you into its world.  Even the in-game manual ties into this quite well, showing off huge amounts of world lore, spells, a monster bestiary and even a handful of short stories, all brimming with charm.

Helping with this is its old-school design, returning some long-absent genre elements (like a world map) to the game but making efforts to make them feel fresh in their own way.  The overworld, unlike many older games, is not just a flat and dull place full of enemies and little else, but has quite a lot of gameplay in itself - items to find, quests to complete and strange sights to see.  Enemies are also visible on the map and in dungeons at all times, giving the player a chance to avoid them and conserve resources or pick their battles with a particular enemy type they would like to capture.

Combat in the game is action-driven, with the player able to select and cast spells, attack enemies or use items in real-time, with the other two playable characters being computer-controlled.  The main characters have useful spells, though their abilities are somewhat limited and their physical attacks not particularly strong.  This is in large part to encourage the use of the game's Familiar system.  Somewhat similar to the Pokemon series, enemies can occasionally be tamed and added to one's party, and each has their own distinct movesets and stats.  Most also have fixed maximum levels, however, requiring that the player constantly keep an eye out for new creatures to capture to keep pace with the game's challenge.  The combat itself is simple overall but fun enough, though the lackluster party AI (tending to blow all of their MP on spells in very short order) leaves a few things to be desired.

As is standard for Level-5 games, Ni no Kuni offers quite a lot of side-content to keep the player occupied well beyond the main story.  One story-relevant but largely optional moment is the "Pieces of Heart" mechanic; not to be confused with Zelda, these have the player capture a particular emotion from a character with some to spare and give it to someone else who is lacking in it, usually earning a reward in the process.  Completing sidequests like monster hunts or errands earn Merit Stamps, which can be spent on character upgrades.  Some more traditional ones show up too, like a casino and an arena with progressively tougher combat challenges to overcome.

Ni no Kuni, while not my favorite Level-5 game, is certainly a welcome return to form for them after a long time away from grandiose JRPG experiences.  The presentation and atmosphere is full of charm, aided in no small part by the legendary studio Ghibli, and it's certainly not lacking for content, with a 40-hour main storyline and plenty of optional quests to undertake to keep you engaged even longer.  As a gameplay experience it's good but not great, but as a charming video game fairy tale it's unforgettable.  Very much worth a look for any serious RPG fan.

Developer: Level-5
Publisher: Level-5, Namco Bandai Games
Platform: Playstation 3, PC, Switch, Playstation 4
Released: 2013, 2019
Recommended Version: The 2019 ports feature no new content, but run at a higher resolution and framerate than the original PS3 release.  The Switch version runs at 720P and 30 FPS while the PS4 and PC ports run at 1080p and 60 FPS.

Tags: Action RPG, Monster Breeder, Fantasy, Prefab Characters, Disturbing Themes, Real-time Combat, Visible/Scripted Encounters, Optional Minigames, Collection-Fest, Voluminous Side Content, Grindfest, Save Only at Checkpoints, Long Campaign, Downloadable Content (meh), Cinematic Experience, Humorous