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Monday, June 5, 2023


The first (and it would seem, last) outing from Luminous Productions; a subsidiary of Square Enix comprised mostly of alumni from Final Fantasy XV's dev team.  It certainly got attention when it was announced, seemingly allowing for fluid movement over any terrain a la Saints Row IV or a much faster paced Breath of the Wild, having you battle enemies while zipping across the landscape at high speed.  It does indeed have that, but not quite to the extent you'd hope - while you can run relatively quickly over flat terrain, you can't really go up too steep of a cliff or wall without some handholds, so it's not nearly as free and exhilarating as you'd hope.  Combat in the game is downright dull too, mostly just consisting of repeatedly pressing the trigger buttons to pelt enemies with projectiles until they fall down, earning bonuses for hitting enemies from the side or behind, doing an aerial melee attack or landing finishing moves and having points deducted for taking hits.  Charged attacks and supportive spells (like restricting enemy movement in a radius) don't really add much to the experience either; the latter doesn't have any sort of homing ability unlike your basic shots and stops dead when it hits any sort of terrain, making it worthless outside of point-blank range, while supportive spells take far too long to recharge to be much use.  It's also pretty hard to get invested in the story when it has to rely constantly on such forced humor (trotting out the "peasants of this medieval world don't understand modern lingo" clichΓ© about twenty times in every cutscene), and the near-constant witty repartee with your magical cuff throughout the gameplay just gets grating after the first twenty minutes, let alone a fifteen-plus hour journey.  It's very clear that none of Final Fantasy XV's talented writing staff worked on this one, as I actually found the banter in that game quite charming and the scenes to be consistently well-staged and acted, furthering the story brilliantly.  There are some fun ideas in Forspoken, but the gameplay's lackluster execution, the cliched premise and consistently grating protagonists made it a game I quickly grew tired of.

Developer: Luminous Productions
Publisher: Square Enix
Released: 2023
Platforms: Playstation 5, PC

Friday, May 19, 2023

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom

The long-awaited followup to Breath of the Wild ultimately took six years to be released, blending in numerous new gameplay elements and vastly expanding the size of its world and the scale of its narrative over its already huge predecessor.  But was this heavily anticipated sequel worth the wait, or does it just bring a tear to the eyes of fans?

Despite being a cross-platform release, Breath of the Wild was the breakout title for the Switch, and really affirmed Nintendo's commitment to the platform after the very lackluster reception (and sales) of the Wii U.  The game ultimately sold over 25 million copies and was very strongly received by new fans, but had a more mixed reception among long-timers, who criticized its lack of traditional Zelda dungeons and boss battles, comparatively bland overworld and constantly-breaking weapons, among other things.  I had somewhat mixed feelings about it myself; while I commended Nintendo for a noble first attempt at something they'd never really attempted before - an open world RPG with a focus on emergent gameplay - the lack of tangible reward for most quests (unlike a good Elder Scrolls or Fallout) and the overworld lacking a lot of the hidden side areas and secrets of earlier Zeldas ensured that while I enjoyed the experience overall, I didn't love it.  I've compared it unfavorably to Skyrim on several occasions - another game with some very prominent shortcomings and a lot of missing elements compared to its predecessors, but having a much more well-crafted world and rewarding gameplay loop than Breath of the Wild ensured it was a game I played a fair bit more.

Tears of the Kingdom was announced not long after the original game's release, and though they were tight-lipped about it for a long time, it still generated a considerable amount of fan interest.  They seemed to have taken fan criticisms into account in a big way - in addition to heavily retooling the original overworld from BotW (now with many more caves, wells and hidden areas to discover, major changes to existing locales, as well as a whole new set of temples to earn upgrades from), there's floating ruins in the sky and even a vast, dark underground world to explore that you gradually light up by activating giant roots.  Essentially, there are now three different worlds to explore, so the game is absolutely dense with content before you even get into the quests and storyline.

The core gameplay remains essentially unchanged - weapons still break after a few good whacks, and it's easy to stumble into powerful foes who can take you out in one or two hits - but the powers you're given to improvise solutions to these problems are much different (and far more versatile) than they were before.  Right away you're given the "Ultrahand", which can be used to pick up and manipulate heavy objects, and even attach them together with supernatural "glue" to create structures.  This lends itself to a heavy focus on building things; both from pre-fab parts like gliders, planks, wheels and even weapons like flamethrowers and beam cannons - but also plays heavily into problem solving, allowing you to improvise creative means of crossing over obstacles, reaching out-of-reach objects, and so forth.  Basically Zelda now has a touch of Garry's Mod to it, which as you can imagine has already led to all sorts of bizarre and amazing player creations to deal with enemies and solve puzzles (or just getting laughs on social media).  As the game progresses you'll also unlock more battery capacity, letting you power more complex creations for a longer period of time, and even unlock the ability to save your creations and recreate them instantly later (either from raw ore or available parts).

Other powers include being able to Rewind time for specific objects, leaping upwards through ceilings to reach new areas (so long as the ceiling is fairly close and the surface relatively flat), and Fusion - the ability to combine weapons, shields and objects together into new forms.  This lends an entirely new dynamic to your arsenal and the gameplay as a whole, as for story reasons most metallic weapons in the land have decayed and become near-useless in battle. But if you take, say, a rusted Claymore and fuse it with a heavy piece of wood, or a metal spiked ball, or a Lizalfo horn, or even another claymore, you not only combine their offensive properties to make a more powerful weapon, but you get something with greater reach to boot.  Shields can also be Fused in similar fashion, allowing you to weaponize them or bolster their defense, and you can plop nearly any object on the game onto the end of an arrow - from bombs that explode on impact to flame fruits that ignite things to mushrooms that bounce whatever they hit a fair distance backwards, or even Keese eyeballs to give arrows homing properties, the possibilities are vast and great fun to experiment with.  One can also freehand throw any object, so unless you're incredibly wasteful, you're never caught without at least something to defend yourself or create a means of escape with.  Weapons also have a considerably wider variety of bonus effects now too, such as more energy-efficient usage when fused with building components or added durability or elemental effects, so while there are still essentially only a small handful of weapon types (thrusting, slashing and two-handed blades), they manage to feel distinct nonetheless.

Tears of the Kingdom also addresses my major complaints with its predecessor, giving it that heavy focus on secrets that earlier Zeldas had and making the exploration element feel much more rewarding.  As mentioned, there are effectively three different maps to explore now, all of which are ridiculously dense; packed with hidden caves, alcoves, wells and miniature dungeons, and all have a surprisingly unique feel to them and give some useful rewards for your trouble.  Whether it's a new piece of armor, a few potions and food items, some leads on a new quest or just some rare crafting materials, they all do their best to make it worth your while to explore them.  Hunting down specific crafting components is made easier with the addition of a compendium for all of Hyrule's sights, which you add to by snapping photos, and can set your radar (which normally homes in on shrines) to detect anything else you fancy as long as it's in there.  Rain is much less of a momentum-killer than it was before, as you can create potions and equip armor that makes you slip less frequently on wet surfaces in addition to the vehicle-building element.  The worlds as a whole also feel much more dynamic and alive, with nice touches like NPCs traveling between towns and even fighting monsters on occasion, talking you up and giving hints on potential item locations, and even occasionally taking part in quests with you.  Dungeons are once again distinctly themed and feel more like proper Zelda, focusing on puzzle solving, battling monsters and having large-scale, amazing boss battles.  Even the story scenes are cinematic, wonderfully acted and amazingly staged, making it feel like your (and Zelda's) actions are having a tangible impact on wresting Hyrule from the grip of a looming evil.

While the game is a massive improvement in just about every respect - music, visuals, gameplay, physics and features - it's not without some minor technical issues.  The framerate does get a bit choppy at times, particularly in some of the busier locations (like towns) and during some of the more chaotic fights.  There is also a slight delay to the controls that takes a bit of getting used to, but the game in general moves at a fairly leisurely pace, so it's not as much of a problem as it would be in something based more around intense action like Ghost of Tsushima.  Still, the fact that it's such a massive, complex game with a very robust physics engine, keeps track of dynamic events going on for miles around, yet runs as smoothly as it does on a handheld system that's over six years old at this point, is nothing short of incredible.  It also manages to do all of this without making my Switch's fan run at full blast constantly, unlike some games (*COUGHShinMegamiTenseiV*).  It also doesn't have some QoL you'd hope it would (being able to favorite items or outfits for quick access), but that's a minor concern.

In closing, Nintendo's second attempt at an immersive sim style game (with their own brand of off-beat creativity blended in) hits all the notes its predecessor missed, taking the experimental elements the series has tinkered with going all the way back to Ocarina of Time and melding them together with what works into a brilliant and cohesive whole.  The fact that it has so much content, so many added features on top of highly polished core mechanics, and such amazing worldbuilding and storytelling, all polished to virtual perfection, is nothing short of breathtaking, and that it's all happening on a six-year-old handheld system and runs as well as it does stands as proof positive that the hardware it's on ultimately has little to no bearing on a game's quality.  Tears of the Kingdom is a massively deep new well for the genre, to the point where it makes Breath of the Wild look almost like an unfinished beta in comparison.  A wonderfully addictive, ingeniously executed and highly entertaining game that deserves every bit of praise it's gotten; Nintendo once again proves they're the true kings of gaming.  

Developer: Nintendo EPD, Monolith Soft
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: 2023
Platforms: Switch
Recommended Version: N/A

Thursday, May 11, 2023

Valkyria Chronicles 4

Valkyria Chronicles was a slow-burn success for Sega on the Playstation 3 and a big hit again when it got a remastered release on Steam, but its later entries were not as well received for a variety of reasons.  Valkyria Chronicles 4 was released nearly a decade after the original game, but does it reignite the Valkyria's flame, or does this sequel also fizzle out?

Valkyria Chronicles was a definite fan favorite on the Playstation 3 and also famously became the top-selling game on Steam the week it launched there (surpassing other major IPs like Call of Duty and Assassin's Creed), leaving fans yearning for a worthy sequel for quite a long time.  It took almost a decade to happen, though, with a lackluster PSP sequel (with ill-thought-out reworked mechanics) proving a pretty big disappointment and the third game never getting localized at all.  Then came Valkyria Revolution; a spinoff title set in an alternate history which, while having an interesting premise, was too much of a jumble of gameplay elements to be much fun.

Valkyria Chronicles 4 was the first proper HD entry for the franchise, and thankfully, it also proved to be a return to form in its core gameplay.  The awkward split class system from 2, as well as the superfluous ArmoredTech class, are gone, snipers are back, and the balance overall has been significantly refined - Scouts no longer dominate 90% of the game, and obtaining A ranks on most missions requires far less painstaking perfection in movement and AP use (and generally allows you a turn or two to spare - a good thing as the maps are much larger and more complex in 4).  Your tank is also substantially more useful, only requiring 1 AP to move instead of 2.

A few new tweaks are added to the gameplay, that said.  One is the inclusion of an entirely new class called the Grenadier - they fire mortars with extremely long range (aided by allies' line-of-sight), which can deal heavy damage to soldiers and even provide interception fire over that same long distance.  However, they are hampered by having no short range attack, overall low movement range and having to stop and set up their mortar before they can fire it, which takes several seconds and leaves them open to attack while they do so; in short, you want to keep them well away from enemy fire or they'll get taken out easily.

Other balance tweaks are evident right away too.  Scouts once again have impressive move range, though their overall low durability and mediocre damage and accuracy ensures they're relegated to more of a sneak-attack and scouting role than a proper combatant (or sneaking in to capture unguarded bases).  Snipers and Lancers can actually hit things pretty consistently now without having to train them up at least a dozen levels first.  Engineers can also unlock a "Revival Ragnaid" to revive a downed ally and get them back in action right away, which is quite handy in later missions.

A major problem in the first game (again going back to Scouts being so overpowered) was that units with low move range would get left behind.  Valkyria 4 mitigates that somewhat with two new additions.  One is an APC vehicle that can load up to two infantry units and deploy them elsewhere; it's less well-armored than a tank, though, so while it can take a significant amount of small arms fire, Lancers, Grenadiers and Tanks are a major threat to it.  Another is that, once per turn, a squad leader can use the "Direct Command" ability to order up to two other infantry units to follow them; they will stay behind the leader even if they have a much shorter movement range than them normally, and can still move their full normal range afterward if they wish.  So, for example, it is possible to have a Scout lead a Lancer through a safe route to get behind a tank, at which point they can use their own move to get off a kill-shot and retreat to cover.

Another changeup is the Morale system.  When a unit's morale is high enough (usually after landing a kill), they'll get a boost to their stats that lasts for the rest of the round, or until they take another turn.  This ties into another new mechanic called the Brave System - when a unit is downed by enemy fire, there's a chance they'll get the option to take a Brave action.  They can Inspire an ally to instantly put them in high Morale status (as well as restoring 1 AP to your total), or choose to Stand Up, which restores their movement meter and makes them immune to all damage until they take their attack, at which point they will be downed as normal.  If downed on the enemy's turn they may also get off one final Counterattack before being put in downed status, potentially taking down their attacker too.  These effects have a low chance of occurring so it's not something you can rely on, but it's a nice bonus when it does happen.

As in the previous game, all of your units are relatively unique, with differing stats and Potentials (both positive and negative) that come into play on the battlefield.  Some sidequests can turn negative Potentials into powerful positive ones, though, so they're worth doing if you plan on using certain characters.  As in the first game you also have several paths for weapon upgrades to take, as well as special ones awarded for achieving certain ranks in missions or downing enemy Aces.  Grenadiers in particular benefit from this, as you can fit them with mortars better suited to taking down armored targets or infantry depending on the mission.  All units can now equip one accessory too, giving them a small bonus to their stats that can help offset some of their innate weaknesses or boost their strengths.

So, was Valkyria Chronicles 4 a successful return for the franchise?  I'd definitely say so.  It takes everything that made the original great - its storytelling, memorable cast of characters and inventive gameplay - and changes it for the better.  The gameplay is drastically rebalanced and substantially more tactical, missions are grander in scale and consistently throw new challenges your way, and the story is a gripping tale of a desperate struggle against an empire, with no shortage of tense moments and some very inspired character writing.  Not just another great wartime epic, but I dare say the best Valkyria Chronicles game to date.  Now if only we could get some Kiwami-style high quality remakes of 2 and 3...

Developer: Sega, Media.Vision
Publisher: Sega
Released: 2018, 2020, 2021
Platforms: Playstation 4, Switch, PC, XBox One, Stadia, Amazon Luna
Recommended Version: All versions are pretty much identical as far as I can tell.